The sun completely disappeared then, leaving the heat behind, and when the soft breeze picked up outside, I closed my eyes and imagined it was the sound of the ocean. When I opened them again, Mike smiled down at me from the photo I’d tacked on my bedside wall. I yanked it downward and touched my fingers to his bright, cheeky smile. In so many ways, every guy I met, every smile that made my heart flutter, had been measured up to Mike’s; it was always the first thing I noticed about a guy, always the deal breaker. The only place I got to see Mike’s smile now, though, was in my dreams or in a picture taken long ago.
I kissed the photo and pressed my thumb to it against the wall. “G’night, Mike.”
I didn’t even have a photo of David to sit and fantasise over. All I had were a few faded images in my mind. But it was better than nothing, and more than enough to cast him in my fantasies each night. I closed my eyes and wandered away to my happy place, seeing David by the lake, strumming my guitar. He smiled back at me, then looked away again.
“The words have changed.” I sat on the ground beside him, my legs crossed.
“They have. That song was about love before.”
“And what is it about now?” he asked.
“I think…” I frowned, listening to him sing the words. “Death?”
His lips tugged on the corners, showing his dimples. “That’s what it was always about.”
“I did. You just couldn’t hear it,” he said and leaned closer, plucking the same string over and over again, the horrid repetition of a single note making my ears ring. “Listen now.”
“Then you’re not listening.” He played louder; I covered my ears.
“David. I don’t get it. I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”
“Death, Ara. It’s about death.” He appeared in front of my face, his nose touching mine. “Can you handle death?”
“Answer me.” He grabbed my arms, the high note he was playing before ringing as the shadows closed in around us, making the ledge of his brow dark, menacing. “Answer me!”
“No!” I sat bolt upright, still feeling his hands on my arms, while the screeching of that single note, which suddenly gained a tone, became the ring of the phone. I jumped out of bed and grabbed it. “Hello?”
“Mike? Um—I uh, no, I was just daydreaming. What’re you doing up?” I looked at my clock. “Isn’t it, like, before six in the morning over there?”
“Yeah, I was in bed, but I was just layin’ here, thinkin’ ‘bout ya.” I could hear the grin behind his tone.
“Interview’s booked now—for next Monday. Thought I might start planning my trip.”
“When do you think you’ll be coming?”
He took a long breath. “I was thinking I should fly out that night?”
“Really?” Elation made my voice high. “That’s fine with me. I’d be happy if you came now.” I flipped open my laptop, clicked on my calendar, then iTunes.
“You miss me that much, huh?” He sounded surprised.
“Mike, I’ve never, ever had to live without you before. You’re like my security blanket. I miss hanging out, you know, just being—normal.”
“Great. I’m a blanky.” He laughed. “What about David? He still in the picture?” His light tone concealed a spearhead—something only I would notice.
“Argh. I just. Don’t. Know, Mike. You know, he told me he loves me?” I whined. “But—”
“Yes. Well, it’s not a week for him, remember? He’s had around a month to think about it. But, you know, it’s funny ‘cause I kinda fell in love with him, too, like, the day I saw him.” It was hard to admit that—especially to Mike. I knew he couldn’t comprehend love, and I never wanted to hear the word infatuation.
“So what’s the problem, then? Are you being a commitment-phobe again?” He sighed, sounding bored.
“No, it’s the opposite, actually. He hasn’t kissed me yet.”
Mike laughed. I could almost see him tilting his head forward, scratching his brow. “How long have you been official?”
“Well, how long were you and Bec official before you guys did more than just kiss?”
“That’s different. I’m an adult and you’re a kid. Did you ever think that that might be his problem? You being under eighteen?” Mike concluded. “How old is this guy, anyway?”
“He’s a little older.” I brushed over that one. “And yes, I did consider the fact that we’re not technically adults.” Well I wasn’t, but David was. “But we are at the legal age of consent here, and he’s a hot-blooded male—and there have been opportunities. I just don’t get it. A kiss can’t hurt, right?”
“Unless you’re a hot-blooded male, Ara,” he said dryly. “A kiss can make you want a lot more, and maybe he just has—” he paused for a second, “—self-knowledge? He might think he won’t wanna stop if you were to ask him to go further. And maybe he’s afraid if he did have the willpower to stop, it might hurt your feelings.” His voice dropped on the end.
“That could have something to do with it. But it makes me feel—” I knew the word, but didn’t want to admit it.
The tightness in my stomach spread to my teeth. “Mike. Stop it. Don’t laugh at me, you know I hate that!”
He stopped instantly. “I’m sorry, Ara, it’s just that…I’ve always thought you were cute. I’m not stupid, I have eyes, and I promise, you are not undesirable.”
“Mike, you can’t say that. You’re my friend.”
“Yes, I’m your friend, which means I can say that.”
I typed pick up Mike on Tuesday in my desktop calendar then went back to iTunes.
“A legal download, I hope,” he muttered in his stern ‘cop’ voice.
“It’s by this band called Live. You know them, right?”
“Yeah,” Mike scoffed. “Why would you be listening to them, though? It’s a little old for you, isn’t it?”
“Mike, I’m three years your junior. If it’s old for me, it’s old for you.”
Overcome started downloading so I looked up the song David said reminds him of me—the one by Muse. I just had to hear it again. My playlist of David was getting very long.
“David likes it. He played it today on his iPhone. Why?”
“You know me, baby; I judge how you’re feeling by your playlist. Don’t you think that song’s a little…?”
“Mike. Are you worried that I’m suici—”
“No. Ara. Please don’t think that. I just—you normally listen to such happy music. I just thought—”
“Really, I’m fine.” Just tired of people thinking I’m depressed. “I know Vicki and Dad think I’m suicidal and, to be honest, if you all don’t leave me alone, I might have to do something rash just to get you off my back. So, shut it! Okay? I’m fine.”
The line went dead silent. He should’ve been used to my outbursts, but I guess, with all the miles between us, it was harder to just brush it off like normal. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Good. ‘Cause I’m okay. I have David. My life is about him now. Look—” I exhaled and softened my tone. “I love you, Mike. I know you’re just worried. But it’s really an insult to my character that everyone keeps watching me all the time for the wrong move. I live with a former psychiatrist, for God’s sake. I’ll go crazy soon.” I took a breath and the smell of Vicki’s cooking filled my nostrils. “I need to feel free to make mistakes or listen to depressing music, and I need you to be with me on that.” It was supposed to be an attempt at reason, but unfortunately for Mike, he’d just become victim to two months’ worth of saved-up ranting. “Mike?” His quiet breath revealed his presence. “Mike?”
“You’re not a little girl anymore, Ara,” he concluded softly. “What’s happened these last few months has…well, it’s changed you. A lot. You’ve really had to grow up and…I’m sorry for that.” I rested my hand over my belly button to quiet the flutters his words formed there. “But I’m also really proud of you. I just need to see you again—make sure you’re still my girl.”
“I’ll always be your girl, Mike. You’re my best friend.”
“But you have David now. You won’t be needing me for much longer.”
“Don’t say things like that, Mike.”
“Why? You know it’s true. But it’s okay,” he assured himself. “It’ll just be an adjustment, that’s all—not having you all to myself whenever I wanna talk to you.”
“It was the same for me when you were dating Lyndall. It’s just the way things are. But I’m sure we’ll always be friends.”
“Yeah, I’m sure we will.” After a second, he laughed softly. “I’m really looking forward to seeing you. I can’t wait to pick you up and squeeze you until you can’t breathe.”
“Ha! No way. I’ll totally squeeze you harder.”
“Sure, those skinny spider arms’ll do so much damage.”
“Shut up, Hercules!” I chuckled the words out.
The morning greeted me with a light, airy feeling, and the awakening floral scent of frangipanis sent shivers of normality through my chest. I snuck down the stairs and quietly opened the front door, hoping Vicki wouldn’t realise how late I was today. But it wasn’t my fault; ever since I met David, the world was just too good to leave behind for the sake of sleep. So, technically, it was his fault I slept through my alarm this morning.
The last of the minivan parade sped past my dad’s house as I reached the edge of the driveway, and the glowing heat of the sun warmed my skin while the sight of David warmed my whole day. Completely distracted, as usual, he didn’t even see me walk out.
As I cleared the windbreak of the house, the morning breeze blew in from the east, sweeping the dewy scent of roses in on its back. Strands of my hair caught the gust and wisped pleasantly along my shoulders like tickly feathers. I closed my eyes and lost myself in the sensation.
My eyes shot open. The windshear of a speeding car nearly sucked me onto the road, but a hand gripped my arm and yanked me from the edge. “Jeeze, Ara!” Sam dropped my arm. “What the hell were you thinking?”
I swallowed hard and blinked. One more step and I would’ve been under that car. “Sorry, Sam. It wasn’t there when I started crossing.”
“I know.” He watched the beaten-up old bomb scream around the corner—smoke billowing out from its exhaust. “He came out of nowhere.”
“Sam.” A smile spread over my shock. “You just saved my life.”
“David. How come you didn’t see that?” He looked over my shoulder just as warm hands clasped my waist; David spun me into him, ignoring Sam. “Man, you were looking right at her.”
“Are you okay?” David asked in a soft whisper, cupping my cheek.
“I—” He shook his head and looked at Sam. “I was looking this way, but I was…I just didn’t see it.”
I touched my collarbone; it felt like my heart was trying to break through the skin. David placed his hand over mine.
“Well, I gotta get to school,” Sam said, nodding toward the building as the last bell rang. “You need me to hold your hand across the road, sis?”
“Take care, Ara. Okay?” Sam started walking backward. “Dad only just got you back. It’ll kill him if you…do something stupid.”
My mouth fell open. “It was an accident,” I called out, standing on my toes to make my voice seem bigger.
He shrugged and kept walking.
“I’m sorry, Ara.” David’s eyes, still lost along the outline of my face, narrowed when I looked back at him. “I really—” his brow tightened, “—should have seen that.”
“It’s not your fault, David. I was totally in my own world.” I laughed, but David just shook his head.
“Your heart. It’s beating so fast.” He wrapped one arm, then the other around my shoulders and squeezed me tight enough to trap my hands against my chest.