“Somewhere quiet, where no one can hear us.”
He laughed too. “Sorry. I realised that just as I said it.”
I sat taller to take a good look at the deserted forest road. “Why should we be where no one can hear us?”
“Because, you need to talk. And you won’t talk if you think someone might hear you.”
I looked away, pinching the base of my thumb with my fingertips. He was right; I did need to talk, but I didn’t want to talk to him. He had this delusion that I was some nice, sweet girl. He didn’t know the real me—the one that I was trying not to be anymore.
“Let me guess—” He smiled, watching the road carefully, taking the curves with a kind of precision that put my dad’s driving to shame. “You don’t wanna talk to me about it. Am I right?”
“I’m sorry.” I looked out the window. “It was nice of you to bring me out here, but I don’t—”
“I’m not going to let you go until you talk to me.”
“And what are you going to do? Torture a confession out of me?”
He tilted his head a little, keeping his eyes on the road. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Well, it won’t work. I have my reasons for not wanting to talk, David.”
“And they mean nothing to me. You’re talking. Period.”
“You can’t make me.” I folded my arms and stared ahead, biting my teeth together.
The car slowed dramatically, gravel crunching under the tires as we pulled onto the side of the desolate road. “Ara?”
Begrudgingly, I twisted my neck to look at him. I felt kind of like a spoilt kid throwing a tantrum.
“I’m sorry,” he said, turning his whole body to face me. “Sweetheart, you’re taking things a little too seriously. I meant no harm. Really. And the more I think about it—” he rolled back in his seat and faced the front, a cheeky grin stretching the corners of his mouth, “—the more I think I might just have to kidnap you until you do talk to me.”
A small smile crept onto my lips. I pressed them together firmly to keep it hidden.
“Ara, please don’t be so moody. It’s okay to smile.”
I let my arms fall away from my chest with the release of a long breath. The ogre was obviously dominating my mood right now. I should’ve eaten more at lunch. “I know you have the best of intentions here, David. But this is really nothing to do with you.” I tried to sound polite, but the words came out sounding so mean.
“I can help you,” he said after a second. “I want to help you. All the bad things, Ara, all the pain you feel—” he reached for my hand; I let him take it, “—I can make it all hurt less. But you have to let me in.”
“I can’t,” I said in a breaking whisper and turned away.
He smiled and opened his door, allowing the clammy air to mingle with the pleasant, artificial cool. “Somewhere better.”
“I hope you don’t think I’m getting out in the hea—”
“Let’s go.” David appeared on my right, opening my door.
“How did you get there so fast?”
“Come on.” He grabbed my hand, leaning in to unbuckle me. “I wanna show you something.”
The trees opened out to a forest trail before us, and the sun streaked through gaps in the tightly laced canopy, splashing long, dust-filled beams across the path. Above us, the summer heat looked on, forbidden to taint the cool, kind of clay-scented air.
“Watch your step here.” David steered me around a small cluster of rocks hidden beneath a pile of leaves.
He gave a soft nod, sliding his hand off my lower back. “I know.”
“So, where are we going exactly?”
“Hm. Helpful.” I looked to the path ahead, then up at the ball-shaped glare of the sun through the trees, using my hand as a visor. “But actually, we’re going slightly more south.”
“True.” David nodded. “The path we’re on heads south, but turns to the west up ahead.” He stopped walking and looked at me. “Wait, how did you know that?”
“I’m Aussie.” I used my best homeland-sounding accent. “My friend Mike taught me how to roughly guess my direction by looking at the sun—said it would come in handy if I ever found myself in the bush…with a strange guy…who might not turn out to be so nice.”
“Right.” David wiped a hand across his grin as he started walking again. “Sounds like Mike’s a smart man.”
“Yeah.” I followed after him, making no real effort to catch up. “Taught me some defensive moves, too.”
“Is that so?” He sprung up right in front of me, catching me as my face hit his chest. “You weren’t hinting at me about anything, were you?”
“How did you get there so fast?”
“I was standing right here, waiting for you. You really should watch where you’re going.”
I glared up at him quizzically.
“Ara? I asked you a question. Were you suggesting I’d be capable of hurting you?”
“How would I know? I don’t really know you.”
His eyes left my face before he turned and trudged off. “Ouch.”
“Well, you don’t really give me much to go on.” I chased after him. “I mean, you’re so secretive all the time.”
“About what, specifically?” He stopped again, wearing a defensive smile.
“So…you want me to be less secretive about nothing specifically?” He nodded once and started walking again.
“How do you do that?” My footfalls came down hard on the muddy leaves, slipping a little with the weight of irritation.
“Take my well-thought-out point and turn it into nothing.”
The smile sparkled in his eyes as I caught up to him. “It’s a talent of mine.”
“It’s annoying. I really hate you for it,” I said in a light-hearted tone.
He stopped again, almost as if he’d been sprung back by an elastic hinge. “Hate is a very powerful word, mon amour. Do not use it unless you truly understand its value.”
David smiled to himself. “I can live with that—for now.”
We walked in silence for a bit then; me, trying to control my breath so I didn’t sound puffed out, beside him, who walked so straight and tall I wondered if he really felt the ground beneath his feet at all.
“But it’s true, you know,” I said after a while.
“Your inability to elaborate. I’ve asked you heaps of questions about yourself and, somehow, you’ve managed not to tell me anything. And I didn’t even realise how little I actually knew until Emily started telling me all about Spencer, you know, what brands he likes, what colour his bike is. And she hadn’t actually even spoken to him yet.” I shook my head. “I don’t even know if you like cats or dogs.”
He laughed to himself, his boots crunching dry leaves beneath his steps. “Cats, if I’m sitting at home on a cold night; dogs, if I’m going for a run.”
He nodded. “I like to keep fit.”
I let that simmer for a while, thinking about everything.
After a minute of silent companionship, David stretched out his arm and pointed ahead of us. “See that slight thinning of the trees up ahead?”
Everything with you is.
We walked toward a newly decaying cedar tree, laying sidelong, slanted a little down the slope of the trail, making a wooden partition between us and the sudden openness of whatever was beyond. As we came nearer to the opening, the muddy clay smell disappeared under a damp, kind of mossy scent, spiked with the lemony fragrance of tree sap.
David stepped up quickly and took my hand, guiding me around the tree. “Welcome to the lake.”
The leaves stole my gaze upward before casting it out to the unspoiled, reflective body of water in front of me. A grand pathway of clover blanketed the trail toward the edge of the lake, and tiny hovering bugs danced above the star-shaped foliage left abandoned by maple trees. Though the sky dominated the space, it still felt cool and shadowed and kind of…private. A place not so very different from the mountain-surrounded picnic spots my dad used to take me to, but with an element of magic to it, like, somehow, I could believe we were the only two souls left in the world.
“David, this is beautiful.” I searched the vacant place beside me where David no longer stood, finding him leaning on a bulky, waist-height rock, right by the water’s edge. “How did you find this place?”
“It’s not something you’d find on a hike.” He unhitched himself from the black rock and walked behind it, then squatted down. “No one comes out to this trail anymore.”
He stood up, smiling, and presented a pillow-sized black bag. “This land is owned by my family. We closed the hiking trails to outsiders about a hundred years ago.”
“You say that like you were a part of the decision.”
“Well—” he reached into the plastic bag and pulled out a picnic rug, “—it’s up to each generation to decide. I chose to keep the land private.”
“I like knowing I can come here to think. That when I do, I’ll be completely alone.”
“Alone is right.” I looked around again. A few metres out, in the middle of the lake, a family of trees gathered on a small island, surrounded by a moat of algae. And the only other signs of life here, aside from David and I, were a couple of ugly brown ducks. “It’s very…private here.”
“It originated as hunting land.” He tucked his hands into his pockets, taking a long breath, squinting as he observed the landscape.
“Yeah. You said it was hunting land.”
“It was…” He ran a hand through his hair. “Foxes.”
“And…what about now? Do you still hunt here?”
“Only if the foxes stray onto the land—disregarding the warnings around the border.”
“Well, then they die,” he stated, then plonked down on the blue-and-red chequered blanket, with his back against the rock. “Don’t be shy.” He patted the spot next to him. “I won’t bite.”
I folded my arms, remembering suddenly why he brought me out here.
“Come on, Ara. You know you wanna talk to me.” The arrogant smile on his lips filtered through his voice. “You also know I’m not going to let you go until you do—and no kitten-force Kung-fu is going to help you. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, ma petite, but I’m a lot bigger than you.”
“What does ma petite mean?” I twisted at the shoulders to face him.
He smiled to himself, looking down at his outstretched legs. “Roughly? Little girl.”
I huffed. “I am not a little girl!”
“Good. Then stop acting like one. Sit down.”
I wanted to sit there, so badly, but letting him in to my world meant opening it, and I wasn’t sure I even could anymore.
David shrugged, then rested his hands behind his head—keeping his smiling eyes on me. “I’ve got all day.”
Slowly, with his conceited stare melting my icy exterior, my frown dropped, my arms following, until, with a low sigh, I wandered over and sat down about a metre across from him. And he waited, saying nothing. I was happy to let time just pass around us—happy to be this nice, sweet girl he thought I was, for just a little longer. But I knew it would come to an end. It had to eventually. He had to know the truth about me—about what I’d done. “I’m sorry, David.”
“Why would you need to be sorry?”
“I think I might’ve given you the wrong impression about myself.” I lowered my gaze. I didn’t want to see his face as I said this—the way any compassion would dissolve from his eyes, and that look, the smile that seemed to be reserved only for me, would vanish into disrespect. “Actually, I deliberately gave you the wrong impression.”
“Is that all you see in me?”
He shook his head when I looked at him. “You know what I see in you.”
I nodded. “And that’s exactly what I wanted you to see—everyone to see. But I’m not nice. I’m not sweet and I’m not this golden child that organises benefits and listens to people talk about their day. I—” I laughed a little. “Half the time I really don’t care what Emily thinks about the latest books she’s reading and, most of the time, I cut her off—talk about things I want to talk about.”