Real smart, Ara. Go off the beaten track.
I wandered over and slumped heavily onto a nearby log, hugging my arms across my body. I wasn’t sure what to be worried about out here; back home I knew there could be kangaroos around, but also knew they very rarely attacked. Here, there could be any manner of man-eating creature, and that’s without even thinking about the foxes. I really hoped they could read David’s signs on the border.
I checked my phone; no service, and it was getting late. The gentle breeze stopped then and a cunning silence looped around me, stealing the tranquillity of the woods. Even the midges dancing in beams of light disappeared with the warmth, leaving a cold kind of concern creeping under my skin.
I kicked a ladybug off my shoe and looked back up the slope I just walked down. There was no denying it. I was stupid to walk off like that. And I shouldn’t have yelled at David.
I took a really long breath, lifting my shoulders all the way up, and let it out slowly, then stood up, dumping my phone in the pocket of my dress. Maybe he was waiting for me back by the lake—maybe it wasn’t too late to apologise.
I steeled myself for a round of grovelling, but after only one step back up the hill, crashed right into the warm embrace of strong, firm arms. “Ara!”
“You silly girl!” He wrapped me up almost restrictively, his fingertips pressing against my ribs. “Don’t ever run off like that again. I couldn’t find you. I was worried sick.”
“Ara? You. Have. Nothing to be sorry for.”
“No.” He shook his head against the top of mine. “I won’t let you say that word anymore; not for anything.”
I tugged a little to make him loosen his grip, then looked up at him. “Why didn’t you just tell me you knew about my mom?”
He smiled, breathing out through his nose. “Would you have wanted me to know? Would you still have been my friend?” It was a rhetorical question; we both knew the answer.
“So, what am I to you now? I mean, why would you still be friends with me now that you know all of this? Am I some damsel project to you or something? Do you think you can save me?”
David shook his head. “No, Ara. It was never about that.”
“Okay, so, what do you want from me; if my dad hasn’t sent you in as his informant, then what do you want with me?”
“Informant?” He looked down at me. “Is that what you thought?”
“It makes sense. From the first moment we met, you acted like we knew each other—like we were already friends. I just…I wondered why you were so interested, when, you know, I’m no super model. I don’t really have anything to offer you.”
“You have more than you think, Ara.” He exhaled, rocking his jaw. “Okay, at the risk of sounding creepy, I’m going to tell you why I was so…overeager when you first came to school.”
“Creepy? You weren’t stalking me, were you?”
“Ha! No, I wasn’t. But I had seen you several times.”
“The first time was about a month ago—guess it was the day you arrived. I was on the football field doing laps for practice and I passed your house—saw this sweet little thing in a yellow dress, just standing there looking up at the blue sky. And I stopped running.”
I pictured it for a second; David on the field, me by the car, watching Dad get the suitcases from the trunk, and Vicki standing on the porch steps, covering her mouth, trying not to cry, and so badly, I knew, wanting to run out and hug me. But she didn’t. And I was glad for that, because I’d have pushed her away.
“My first thought was how unusual it was to see a girl in a dress like that. And I just thought you looked so pretty, so innocent and…when I looked a bit closer, I realised that you looked sad. And something in me felt tight.” He touched his chest, rubbing it. “I hadn’t really felt that before.” He laughed a little; I smiled. “I just wanted to make you okay. And I hoped I’d get a chance to meet you. I knew that was Mr Thompson’s house, so I figured you were his daughter.”
“So you asked him about me?”
He smiled, his lips spreading wide over his teeth. “Uh, no. I didn’t have the guts. I uh—I actually set it up. I guess I set him up to have to tell me about you.”
“He was running football practice one afternoon, and you were out in the backyard. I asked your dad if that girl on the swing at his house was related to him. And he told me you were his daughter. And I told him you were beautiful.”
He laughed. “I waited so long for you to come to school, Ara. When you finally did, and I finally saw you up close, I’m sorry—” he touched his chest, grinning, “—but, I actually couldn’t believe how beautiful you were and I—” He stopped, closing his eyes.
My heart stopped beating, slipping through each of my internal organs until it hit my feet.
David laughed lightly, tucking my hair behind my ear. “You’re going to be okay, you know. We’ll get through this. Together.”
I snuggled into his chest, wrapping my arms all the way around him. “I like the way that sounds.”
“Me too,” he said, and in his arms I stood, with my eyes closed and the tranquillity of love keeping my heart beating, while each breath I took unlinked my soul from the binds of my shadowed past. I never wanted to go back to before. I wanted this embrace to last forever—to stay here in his arms where all of my troubles didn’t seem so absolute and the world didn’t seem so cruel. There was something about the way he held me that made me feel safe—made me realise, as wholly as I knew myself, that the empty feeling I’d suffered so long could only have been cured by this moment—by David, who came into my life as just a boy, and turned out to be a knight.
David closed the front door and we both looked up the dark staircase to the sound of a piano.
“That’s weird,” I said. “We don’t even have a piano.”
His smile softened. “Something tells me you might need a minute.”
“Ara?” Dad called down from his room. “Is that you?”
“Uh, yeah. I just came back to get changed.”
“Come in here first, please.”
I looked at David, who took a step back, offering the stairway. “I’ll just be a sec.”
Each step I took felt like my last; I was sure Dad had a massive lecture waiting behind his bedroom door on why we don’t sneak out of school with strange boys, but as I pushed his door open and saw him sitting on the end of his bed, my heart felt heavy. “Dad?”
He turned his face from the cradle of his hands. “Come in. Close the door.”
“It’s fine, honey.” He patted the bed; I sat down next to him.
He gave me a look that suggested the obvious. “My daughter ran away from school today—crying. I wanted to be here when you got home.”
“I’m sorry about that, Dad.” I twiddled my thumbs.
“Ara-Rose, you don’t need to be sorry.” He rubbed my back. “I’m just glad someone was there for you.”
“Yeah.” Dad’s soft smile infected my heart, making me grin, too. “David kind of forced a deep and meaningful confession out of me.”
Dad laughed. “So, you told him—about why you came to live here?”
No, you did. “Yeah. We’re—he’s helping me through it.”
Dad sighed massively and wrapped his arm all the way around my shoulder, pulling me into him for a bear-tight hug. “I’m so relived to hear that. And you’re all going out to Betty’s tonight, right?”
“Of course it is, honey.” He pressed a big sloppy Dad kiss on my brow. “More than okay. I’ll even give you a later curfew. How’s that sound?”
“Yes!” I hugged him, wrapping my skinny arms all the way around his neck. “Thank you, Dad.”
“Just happy to make you happy.” He rubbed my back, and as I pulled away, sitting beside him again, my butt landed on the remote, starting up the film he’d been watching. I went to apologise, but my eyes strayed from his smile to the TV set, stopping on the tiny dancer, gracefully billowing across the screen.
“I’m sorry, honey.” Dad grabbed the remote and went to turn it off; I placed my hand over his.
He lowered the remote and I rose to my feet, walking slowly over to watch the only piece of my mother I had left.
“Did she ever tell you about this concert?” Dad asked.
“It was the year before she quit ballet.”
“Yes.” He stood beside me. “It was Swan Lake.”
“I know.” I smiled, watching my mother dance. “I did this one last year for our ballet recital.”
His arm wrapped my shoulders. “I remember. You were such a beautiful dancer.”
“I think I inherited that from Mom.”
“Yes.” He looked at the screen. “Among other things.”
I looked up at his watering eyes. “You miss her, too?”
He pressed stop on the remote and the screen went black. “I always will.”
A moment of silence passed between us. “I’m sorry, Dad.”
He looked down at me, his eyes narrowing tightly on the inner corners. “You know, honey, if there’s something you need to tell me—”
“Thanks, Dad.” I hugged him softly, squeezing once before backing up. “I do know that.”
“Okay.” His concerned smile dropped for the warm one I always loved. “Well, you go on now and have a good night. Promise?”
As I closed his door, the gentle hum of piano followed me out into the hall again.
“Are you okay, Ara?” David called from downstairs.
“Uh, yeah,” I called back. “Just gotta throw on some jeans. Won’t be long.” I slipped into the cleanest-smelling pair of jeans I could find on my floor and grabbed the blue zip-up sweater from my dresser, then scrunched my hair up a few times and grabbed my purse as I stumbled out the door.
“You won’t be needing this.” David took my purse, appearing out of nowhere, and ditched it back into my room. I heard it hit my bed with a dull, leather-sounding thud.
“Why won’t I need that? Don’t they sell food there? I’m starving.”
He shook his head, unamused. “You know I won’t let you pay for your own food.”
“Why? Is my money dirty?” I followed him down the stairs, my careless feet thumping loudly behind his barely audible footfalls.
“No.” He opened the front door. “But when a guy takes a girl on a date, he should pay. It’s the way I was raised.”
“Well—” I sauntered past him; he closed the front door behind us, “—it’s weird.”
“Don’t pretend you object to me treating you as a lady.”
Despite that, he still opened the car door for me. “Why do girls always do that?”
“Spill that equal rights nonsense—argue that we’re taking their independence by opening a door for them. That’s just not the case.”
“Well, what is the case?” I sat down on the front seat, leaving my feet on the driveway.
“Simply that we’re demonstrating good breeding; showing the girl we’re worthy and capable of taking care of her—that we’re polite, considerate, nurturing.”
I folded my arms. “Women don’t need nurturing—or to be taken care of. We can fend for ourselves. We’re equal to men, you know.”
“Ara.” He stared down at me, the skin under his eyes tight. “I’m not disregarding equality by being a gentleman; I’m exercising chivalry.”
“Never,” he said in a high tone. “Why should courtesy be outdated—or offensive? Is it not polite to offer a pregnant woman your seat on a bus?”
“Then, if you want equal rights for all, it would only be polite for me to also offer this to a woman who is not pregnant. Or to the man playing Angry Birds on his iPhone.”
“This is getting off topic.” I swung my legs into the car. “The point is—” Argh! What was my point? ...Oh yeah. “The point is that I should be able to pay for my own food if I want.”