I nodded. “They found his seat on the side of the road. Harry wasn’t in it.”
“They wouldn’t tell me. But I heard a nurse say the cop was having counselling—the one that found him.”
He clicked his tongue and squeezed me tighter. “You shouldn’t have had to hear that.”
“I know. And it made me so mad. I mean, I was over sixteen; legally old enough to make my own medical decisions. Legally old enough to be told what was going on. But they stuck me in that bed, drugged up on who knows what—left alone until my dad arrived—from America. They let him tell me my mom was dead. They let him tell me I’d been horrifically scarred. And he didn’t even say it. It was the way he looked at me, David. He hadn’t seen me in nearly a year, and the first time he laid eyes on me was when my face had been ripped apart. What do you think I saw in him that morning?”
“I don’t want to be safe, though. I feel like I owe a debt.”
He tilted my face upward with both hands. “A debt?”
“I’m not stupid. Like I said, I know it’s not my fault. I know it was an accident. But I feel like they’re coming for me. Like I gave my family to them, and now they want me.”
“I don’t know. The other side—death. Karma, maybe. I don’t know.”
David’s teeth slid slowly over each other as his jaw came forward and his eyes flicked to the place of deep thoughts. “Do you—do you ever think of taking those matters into your own hands?”
“Mm-hm. Like, maybe I could trade places. You know—offer myself in exchange. If I could go back, maybe I could—”
“Ara, my love, there is no going back.” His hands tightened on my face. “We make mistakes, we have regrets, but, sweetheart—” He opened and closed his mouth a few times, his eyes searching my face for any words he could say to make it all okay. “It was selfish of you to make her come out and get you in the middle of the night, and it if it weren’t for that, she would never have been there when that truck tire blew out. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t her time to go. You can’t control everything, Ara, and what matters is that, if you were to go back, you’d do it differently.”
“How is that possibly any good to me—to know that?”
“Because you learned something. And if that’s all you can take from this, then it’s better than walking away with only grief.”
I shook my head. “Don’t give me that rubbish, David. They spoon-fed me that crap in the hospital until I nearly choked on it. There is no lesson to be learned. There is no goddamn bright side. There are two facts here; they are dead, and if I hadn’t called Mom, they wouldn’t be.”
I could tell David was frustrated. I could tell he wanted to shake me. I wanted to shake me. I didn’t want to feel this way, and couldn’t expect anyone else to understand, which is precisely why I hadn’t said it to anyone.
“Why are you shaking your head?” I asked him.
“I just…I’m angry. Not at you, but…at everything. What…who was looking after you? Who’s been talking to you about this, who have you had to comfort you?”
I brushed my hair from my face. “My dad.”
“Does he know you blame yourself?”
I swallowed, unable to see my shoes through the blur of tears. “No.”
“What kind of closure have you had, girl? Did he even let you farewell them in their graves before he dragged you away from the only home you’ve ever known?” David sounded almost as angry as me.
“We went to the funeral. But a storm hit. It rained so hard I could only see a grey blur in front of me where their coffins should be. And most people left.”
I nodded. “At first, I refused. I knelt on the ground, in the mud, letting it soak through my clothes. I just wanted to touch them—to feel them again.”
I nodded again. “I sat there, with my hand on Harry’s coffin, just watching the rain drip over my skin and into the ground where he was headed. I didn’t want him to go in there. I didn’t want that to be it for him. And my dad…he sat down next to me.” I smiled. “He got covered in mud. He just took my hand and moved it down a little, told me it was over Harry’s heart—that he had his teddy and his little blanket in there to keep him warm and that, tucked up right beside his face was a picture of me and Mom. And I got up, and as soon as Dad got to his feet too, I shoved him, and I yelled at him.”
“A teddy?” I wiped my nose on the back of my wrist. “He put a teddy in there with Harry. What teddy? Why didn’t he come to me? Ask me? Harry would’ve wanted his monkey—Pappy. He wouldn’t want some stupid teddy. But it was too late. It was sealed up—locked up. I couldn't change it. I couldn’t change any of it.”
“Goddamn it.” He rested his chin on my head, shaking his. “Ara, I just—I just wish I’d known you then. I just wish I’d met you sooner. I had no idea you were carrying this much grief. I mean, I knew you were sad, I knew you were grieving, but this…” He kissed my hair. “I didn’t know it went this deep.”
“No one does. And I won’t tell them. And neither will you.” It came out as a demand, but deep down, it was a question. He held all the cards right now. If he told my dad I called my mum that night, I’m not sure Dad would ever forgive me.
David’s soothing touch wordlessly tried to wash the pain of my scars away. He just sat there, shaking his head, making line after line over my jaw. “When did this happen? You arrived here a month ago, but your scars—they’re healed too much to have such little time pass.”
“It was June. My dad and I stayed at a motel until my face healed enough for me to go out in public again.”
“A motel? Didn’t you have any family to stay with?”
“Only Mike—my best friend. But I didn’t want to see him, and we couldn’t go back to the house. Dad said it would be too painful.”
“It would’ve. But you still should have gone back once before leaving.”
“I did. I made him take me back there before we got on the plane, and…”
As I craned my neck to look at David, he gazed down at me, the feel of his breath on my nose and lips calming me with the reality of his existence.
I pictured the grey day, the cold wind and the rain making waterfalls over the windscreen as we pulled up outside my house. The lights were all out and the remainder of the daylight fought against thunderclouds for right of existence in my world. I took each shaky step up to the porch with a kind of stillness that had my dad lingering closely behind me. “It hadn’t really hit me that they were gone,” I said. “Not until I pushed the door open and looked down the hall. And…for a second, I waited, expecting, truly believing I’d see Harry crawl up to me at full speed with his little train in his hand.
“Everything looked the same and it smelled like home, but it was empty—and so very quiet—like they weren’t there anymore. I couldn’t feel them there anymore.” I tapped my chest with an open palm, trying to push the pain back in. “The dishes were still in the sink, and the clock on the wall was still ticking—that much stayed the same. It felt strange, how, even though we weren’t there, time just kept moving without us.” I shook my head slowly, seeing that ticking hand. “It should’ve stopped, but it didn’t. That’s when I fell down. It hit me so hard. I just broke apart and cried in the doorway.
“Dad didn’t know what to do. He ran next door to get Mrs Baker; she made me get up. She told me I had to be strong now; that childhood passes with tragedy, and the sooner I came to accept that, the easier my life would be.”
David groaned, folding my face into his chest. “What did your dad say to that?”
“Nothing. He just led me to my room and shut the door.” I closed my eyes and saw the dark shadows in the hallway near my room, how the absence of that warm summer sun meant the death of everything I loved. “I packed a few things, and…as I was leaving, I went to Harry’s room—to get Pappy, his monkey toy, but Dad blocked the door; he wouldn’t let me go in there.” I broke to tears so deep the words came out in hiccups.
“He said it would hurt more. He said I needed to make Harry a memory—something that didn’t feel real anymore.”
“He was just doing what he thought was best, Ara.” David choked back tears.
“I know.” I nodded. “But he was wrong. They all think they know what I need—but they don’t.”
“What do you need, sweetheart?” he asked. “Tell me, and I’ll make it happen.”
“I need to go back, David—to that night. I need to put down that goddamn phone, and if I can’t do that, I just need to die.”
“Ara.” David grabbed both my cheeks, thrusting my face up until I looked into his eyes. “What do you think your mother would feel to hear you say that?”
“That’s just it.” I pushed his hands away. “She wouldn’t feel anything, because she’s dead, and it’s my fault. No matter what you try to say, it’s my fault.”
“It was no one’s fault. Get it through your head.” He grabbed me more firmly, not letting me break away this time. “You wanna blame someone, blame the truck driver, blame the tire shop who fitted used tires, but don’t blame yourself because it won’t bring them back.”
My brow creased tightly in the middle. I grabbed his hand slowly. “Wait, I never said there was a truck.”
David stiffened, staring ahead, his mouth hanging open a little, like he was about to say something. I retraced my story in my head.
“David?” I sat back so I could look right into his eyes. “Tell me how you knew that?”
“I—” He winced, scratching the back of his neck. “I kind of already knew.”
“Not everything.” He wiped his thumb over a line of tears on my cheek. “But he told me why you were here.”
“Ara, calm down, it’s okay.” He went to pull me closer, but I pushed away as hard as I could.
“You’re traitors—both of you.” I jumped to my feet to get as much distance from him as possible.
“No. All this time. All this time, you knew. You knew and you made me talk about it. Why?”
“Because I knew it wasn’t just their death bothering you. I knew it went deeper.” He stood up too. “Turns out I was right.”
“So…” My eyes went wide, realisation sinking in like nausea. “So, you were spying, for my dad?”
“What would possibly make you want to do that, David?”
“Ara, it wasn’t like that.” He edged closer, both hands out now.
“When did he tell you—how long have you known?”
“When!” My scream echoed off the rocks and came back to haunt me with its severity.
“When you first came here.” He walked slowly toward me, as if I were a mental patient he was going to grab at first opportunity. “He caught me during football practice, watching you on the swing, and—”
“You were…watching me?” An eerie sensation travelled over my neck and spine, like a hand just touched my shoulder in a room that was supposed to be empty.
I backed away one step at a time in unison with his. “You’re a creep.”
He stopped walking, lowering his arms as his green eyes flooded. “I know how this sounds, Ara-Rose. But it wasn’t like that. I swear. Just, please. Listen to me.”
I laughed, though it wasn’t out of amusement. “All this time—you’ve known about me. Even when we talked in the library?”
“Well—” I shook my head, “—I guess it makes sense now why you were so…” Friendly? Eager? Was that it? What was it with him? Did he enjoy the company of messed-up young girls? Perhaps it was a complex of his: Knight Syndrome. I felt like such an idiot. I turned and marched off to vent my anger away from anyone that could get hurt.
“David, just leave me alone. Don’t follow me!”
I didn’t look back; I didn’t want to know if he followed or if he turned and went back home. As far as I was concerned, hiding a secret from someone, hiding that you were playing a game with them—that you were probing to get info out of them—was a friendship-ending offense. If I never saw him again, that would even be too soon.
The forest showed me down an alternative path to the one we came in on. Billowing grass grew up between old tire tracks, and I followed them, hoping they’d lead me into town. But my trek of rage drove me forward quickly, submerging me into an eerie surrounding, with the trail fading to thick shrubs, and at the end of it, only ugly, tangled trees and thorn-laced vines. I stopped walking. The once background sound of birds singing and leaves rustling in the wind was now unnervingly loud.