“Hey, that’s really awesome, man. Congrats.” Ryan reached out and they shook hands, bumping knuckles after.
“I knew it,” Emily practically squealed. “I just knew she’d be your type, David.”
“I don’t think I have a type, Emily,” he said, and wrapped his arm around me. “But Ara’s pretty much everything I ever wanted in a girl.”
Everyone made a cheering-yet-that’s-totally-lame noise at David’s mushy statement, but my whole body flooded with warmth, making me feel almost dizzy.
“Way to make me look bad, man,” Ryan said, laughing once. “If I even tried to say something like that I’d be accused of reading poetry from the Lame Book of Things Guys Shouldn’t Say.”
We all laughed, and David pulled me closer until my head rested between his jaw and shoulder, our thighs touching, the warmth from under his arm making the sharp, sweet smell of his cologne so much stronger; a spicy scent, like Brut, not the orangey-chocolate one he usually wore.
“Guess that just leaves me now,” Emily said, leaning on her hand.
“Well, if you’re not with Spencer soon, maybe you should meet my best friend—he’s coming to visit in a few weeks.” I leaned around David to look at her.
“Is he from Australia?” she asked.
“Mm-hm.” I put my drink down on the table. “And he’s really cute.”
“What does he look like?” Emily leaned further around, forcing David to sit back a little.
“Well, why don’t you come have a sleepover at mine next Saturday and I’ll show you some pics.”
“Yeah? I’d actually really like that.”
“Cool. Alana, you wanna come, too?” I asked, allowing myself to feel the excitement of a normal teenager for a moment.
She looked at Ryan and smiled, shrinking into herself a little more. “Um, yeah, if Emily doesn’t mind?”
“Mind? Of course you should come. Hey, I’ll bring a movie, yeah?”
“Better make that two,” Ryan said. “Otherwise the girls’ll go hungry.”
“Great. It’s settled then.” And I was actually excited. Mike would be, too, when I told him. In fact, this had been a great day. The best ever. In a way, I was kinda glad my dad so cruelly forced me back to school this week, because I had new friends now and my horrible past was no longer a burden I solely owned. But best of all, David liked me enough to want me as his girlfriend. In fact…love. Love is what he’d said.
I looked sideways at David, flouncing his hand around in the air as he explained the size of the pizza he ate last night. He didn’t know it yet, and I wasn’t ready to tell him, but I loved him, too. Not in the way he loved me—like the way you love your guitar or your best friend—but real love. The kind of love you hold for someone you want to marry one day.
The phone rang twice. I waited impatiently, tapping my fingers on the desk.
“He’s playing a death-match, online, with me,” another voice said very clearly into the receiver.
“Oh, hey, Josh.” I laughed, wincing. Lucky I didn’t just blurt out my news the second Mike picked up.
“Hey, Ara. How’s things, what you been up to?” Josh asked, half distracted.
“Well, actually. A lot. That’s why I called,” I said in an eager, soprano voice.
“Hang on,” Mike said. “I’ll just de-link the phone line from the headsets.” I heard a noise, like someone tapping a fingertip on the lid of an empty tin, and a bleep followed, making the slight static in the phone line recede, leaving a clear, quiet hum. “Okay, I’m alone now. How you doin’, kid?” Mike’s deep, sexy voice made my blood warmer.
“Well, actually, I’ve been waiting up all night for you to get home so I could call you. I’ve got good news.”
I paused for dramatic effect. “I’m having a sleepover next weekend.”
“Really?” he dragged the word out.
“Well, that’s great. Are you gonna talk to the girls about what happened—with your mum?”
I shook my head, watching my reflection in the window. “Nope. Don’t need to.”
“Who?” he asked. “Was it your dad?”
“Well, come on, fill me in, then?” His voice glided in that husky smoothness that could only be Mike’s.
“Well, it turns out he already knew.” I sighed, rubbing my forehead. “He spoke to my dad before he even met me.”
“Well, that’s cool. And he still made friends with you?”
“Yes,” I said in a flat tone. “I know, I know—you told me it’d be fine.”
“Did you tell him about…you know, the other part of it—your inner guilt?”
“And he still wants to be your friend?” he asked, unperturbed.
“Actually, that’s why I’m calling. We made our relationship official tonight,” I beamed.
Mike went quiet. “Ara, what did you do?”
“What? Oh, no, not like that, Mike.” I laughed, waving my hands about.
He exhaled. “So, like what, then?”
“As in he said the word girlfriend.” I couldn’t help but grin.
“Well, that’s really cool. I’m glad there’s someone lookin’ out for ya.”
“You could make even half an effort to sound happy for me, Mike.”
“I am happy for you, baby. I just—”
“I know, but I’m not there, Ara. And I’m worried. I know you too well, and I know that tone. You’re pretty serious about this guy, aren’t you?”
“Maybe.” I grinned, glad he couldn’t see it.
“Baby, you gotta be careful. Grief can magnify emotions. You know that. What you’re feeling, it may just be—”
“Don’t say it, okay?” I said, holding the phone away from my ear in case he did. “I don’t need you telling me what to feel.”
“Thank you.” I sat quiet for a second, considering just hanging up. “Hey, guess what?”
“I have a girl I want you to meet when you come over.”
“Ara, don’t play matchmaker. I’m coming to see you, not go on dates.”
“She’s blonde. And cute,” I offered, my voice rising in question. “She’s the one I’m having over next weekend for a sleepover. I’m gonna show her some pictures of you.”
“Well—” his voice dragged, “—I do like blondes, but not dumb ones.”
“Oh, no, don’t worry, she’s definitely not stupid. But don’t get ahead of yourself, Romeo. She might not even like you. You’re not that good looking.”
I smiled. “Yeah, I’d pay that. But it takes more than just good looks to get the girl.”
“Well, how ‘bout my charming personality and witty sense of humour?”
“Sorry. I take it back. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Whatever. Anyway. You don’t need to worry about me now, okay. I’m doing well. I’m still not fine. But I’m okay. Today.”
“I’m glad, kid. You could use a bit of okay. But—” a long, stretching groan sounded down the phone line; I pictured him rolling his spine, straightening his arms behind his head, “—I’ll be there soon, and then you’ll be all better.”
He laughed for a second, then became all stern; “But, seriously, Ara? Please don’t set me up with this friend of yours. I’m in a difficult place right now with matters of the heart. I’d rather not drag anyone else into that. Okay?”
“Sure thing.” But I knew he’d change his mind when he saw her.
The fresh scent of Mr Warner’s cut grass next door mixed with the lemony fragrance of Vicki’s bathroom cleaner, and the sound of the vacuum cleaner down the hall sent a warm pang of calm through me. I smoothed my hands over the unruffled bedcovers on top of me, remembering my irrational but normal dreams. I wondered how today could seem so perfectly sunny and bright when yesterday, despite the weather being the same, my whole life had felt grey and stormy.
With a hint of a skip in my step, I leaped out of bed and stood right in front of my open window, drawing a breath of the fresh, cool morning air. It wasn’t even nine o’clock yet, but I wanted nothing more than to be up and a part of the day.
When my crappy old phone bleeped, I dove onto my bed and opened my messages; Can I come see you today? It’s David, by the way.
An invisible paintbrush swerved across my lips, bringing them up on both corners. I texted back: Are you kidding? Of course you can.
Didn’t want to seem overeager.
Be there in five, he texted back.
My eyes went wider, taking in my ultra messy room. I scooped my clothes off my floor in one big pile and threw them in the laundry basket, then shook my quilt over my bed and sprayed deodorant all around my room, waving a hand through the scented cloud to rid the stench of depression from within the walls.
“Vicki?” I called, grabbing my doorframe to lean out into the hall.
“Okay.” I heard the vacuum cleaner start up again, relieved she didn’t ask if it was a boy friend or a girl friend. I wasn’t ready to tell her I had a boyfriend yet.
I shut my bedroom door to get changed, but as I lifted my shirt, heard a high-pitched yowling echo in the street below. Hanging from the old oak tree in the backyard, a fat grey body swung from side to side, flailing around in an attempt to free its paw from a branch.
“Stupid cat.” I laughed, pulling my top back on as I burst through my door.
“Hey, princess.” Dad passed me on the stairs. “Where’re you running off to in such a hurry?”
“Vicki’s dumb cat’s got itself stuck in the tree.”
“Again.” I passed through the forbidden formal room, pushed the back door open and leaped off the porch, landing on the dewy grass. But instead of climbing up a tree, stopped dead at the sight of every sunrise that ever brought day, standing in my backyard, holding a very sorry-looking grey fluffball.
“He’s fine,” he said, tucking Skittles’ lashing tail into the hold as we met under the tree.
“Oh, my knight in shining armour. You saved my baby.” I took the cat from him, then squeezed the tip of its paw to inspect the claws.
“He should be.” I cradled the cat close to my face; he was still growling in the back of his throat, not at all amused to be held like a baby. “Silly kitty.”
When I released my hold on the cat, he bolted over the hedge fence—into the front yard.
“How did you sleep last night?” David asked, running a finger down my arm.
“Laying down,” I said, and David laughed. “No, in all seriousness, I actually did sleep. No joke. And I had normal dreams.”
“Then my work here is done.” He took a step away, then turned back, wedging his hands in his pockets. “Kidding.”
“Not funny.” I slapped his chest, noting that small indent between his pecs. I just wanted to keep my hand there, against his plain white T-shirt.
He grabbed it as I pulled away, and brushed his lips across my knuckles. “You don’t have to be afraid to touch me, Ara.”
Oh, my heart. Will it ever beat again? I smiled and slowly reached up to his face; it felt silky, warm under my fingertips, with just a tiny hint of regrowth breaking the skin around his chin and upper lip. “It looks good.”
He gave a short, breathy laugh, and placed his hands on my hipbones. “So, how are you feeling today? After everything we talked about yesterday.”
“I’m really good. I mean, I still hurt inside, all the time, and I never stop thinking about them, but—” I shrugged.
“It will get easier.” David ducked his head a little so our eyes met in perfect alignment. “You will always think about them, but I can promise you that missing them will get easier.”
“How do you know so much about this stuff?”
“I’ve suffered a lot of loss in my life.” He nodded smoothly and looked away. “But, I find more people to love and make my life about them.”
As our eyes met again, his warmed with a soft, simple smile.