His fingers tightened on the small of my back, my dress lifting a little in his closed fist, then he pressed my spine, sweeping me onto my toes until our faces aligned—lips finally touching. He kissed me deeply, drawing a breath so full it stole mine. I felt the wet soil and grass beneath my toes, the sweat trickling down my back, soaking into my dress, felt everything as if this one moment brought me to life, lit everything in stark contrast—making it real, me real, him real, the world, somehow, a place I never thought existed.

He broke away for a single moment and slipped both hands along the sides of my face, pressing our lips together again after, hungrily catching my bottom lip against his, drawing it in, breaking only to release and drink it in again.

I had to open my eyes—to savour this moment forever—but while the kiss felt like a reality so stark it couldn’t possibly become just a memory, when I looked up and the golden beams of sunlight shone through the cloud of butterflies, it felt more like a dream. This had to be a dream.

With his hands pressed firmly to my cheeks, he gently drew my face away, smoothing his thumb over the moisture of his kiss. “Are you happy here?” he whispered.

“Yes, but it’s only for the moment.” I closed my eyes, resting both hands on his shoulders. “You’ll be gone soon. And I won’t be happy anymore.”

“You will forget about me one day,” he said in his soft, deep voice. “I promise you that.”

I shook my head. “No, David, I’ll never forget you. I’ll love you for the rest of my life.”

One corner of his mouth quirked up. “That, my love, is what I’m afraid of. Because I…will love you…until the end of time.” He wrapped his fingers around my wrist, drawing my hand down until it rested over his heart, then, with his other hand, pressed my face into his chest again.

We stood together in our timeless embrace and watched the miracle of life swarm around us for a while. But all it did to feel him so close was make me fall so much deeper in love with him—so much that I was sure I’d die when he went away.

My fork scraped the plate where the absence of a potato mound left the ceramic bare. Even though I’d managed to create something worthy of special mention in Art Weekly Magazine, I couldn’t lift the heavy weight I’d carried to the dinner table with me. I was losing David. He’d be gone by winter and there was nothing I could do about it; not even a magical first kiss could save our happily ever after.

Our dreamy afternoon was followed by an intensely silent drive home, with me trying so hard not to burst into a snivelling, needy teenage girl, and when I walked through the front door, slammed it and readied myself to run upstairs and sob my heart out, Vicki called on me to help with dinner, forcing me to swallow my grief like a hard wedge of cheese.

I looked up from my plate. “Hm?”

“You mean going to, not gonna,” Dad added sternly.

“And you have your friends coming over this weekend, don’t you? Emily and Alana?” Vicki asked, taking the salt from Dad.

“Good.” But it wasn’t good, though—I hadn’t even started it.

They all sat silently then, the feel of their stares burning into my face until Sam started laughing.

Dad looked at him with a raised brow. “Something funny, son?”

I sat up straight, scowling at him. “I am not.”

“Yes, you are. You wanna marry David.” He laughed, poking his fingers in the air at me.

My cheeks went really hot. Dad looked at Vicki and a smile crept up under her lips. “I think you’re right, Sam.” She pointed to my face. “I’ve seen that look before.”

Okay, Dad, time to step in—stand up for your only daughter. But Dad broke into laughter, too.

“I’m sorry, honey.” He wiped his napkin across his mouth. “But I think your brother may be right.”

“I wondered why you were suddenly so eager to go to school.” Vicki covered her smile with her hand.

“Well, I guess we’d better have young David over for dinner—discuss the dowry,” Dad joked.

“Dad?” I whined, hiding my face in my hands.

“So, he’s taking you to the Fall Masquerade, then?” Dad asked.

“Oh, yeah.” Vicki heaped a spoonful of potato salad onto her plate. “Ara’s never been to a masquerade, has she?”

Dad’s eyes lit up. “No, she hasn’t. Well, this’ll be exciting then.”

“Every year, during fall, the town holds a masquerade for seniors—like a school ball, but for the whole town,” Sam said. “You have to wear a mask and a giant dress—totally lame.”

“And you know what that means?” Vicki squeaked. “We get to go shopping.”

“Well, David hasn’t asked me yet.” And likely wouldn’t be here. “When is it?”

“They’ll put posters up soon. It’s usually held in early autumn,” Dad added.

I smiled, thinking about the last ball I went to, which wasn't really a ball at all; it was an end of year formal, and my ‘date’ was my best friend, whom my mum actually had to pay to take me, because he thought wearing a penguin suit was an indication that you wanted to mate with an arctic bird. And since he didn’t want to mate with me, he’d told my mum, it was going to cost her. We had fun, though, Mike and I, but the formal was no masquerade.

Then, almost as if Dad read my mind, he asked, “When’s Mike coming?”

“Oh, um, his interview is next Monday, so he’ll be here on the Tuesday some time.”

“How does David feel about that?” Vicki asked in an evocative, feather-ruffling tone.

My shoulders dropped. “David? Why would he care about my best friend coming to stay?”

Vicki’s expression suggested the obvious; she didn’t even have to speak.

My lip curled. “David doesn’t see it like that. He knows Mike’s my friend.”

“Well, we’ll just see, won’t we?” She rolled her head to the side. “Ara, sometimes a girl as young as you can misinterpret things, see them as more innocent than they really are. Mike’s a fully-grown man—” She placed the salad back on the table, “—maybe he feels differently about you than you do about him.”

Dad just sat there, saying nothing. My mouth hung open a little; I couldn’t believe he didn’t correct her. Betrayal. Again.

I threw my napkin down and stood up. “Mike and I are friends. That’s all it’s ever been!”

“Ara, sit back down. Vicki knows that,” Dad said.

“No, Dad! I’m tired of it. Just because Mike’s a boy and I’m a girl?” I pointed to my chest. “Don’t you guys get it? Don’t you understand what David means to me?”

“Honey, you’ve known him for a week,” Dad reminded me.

“Yeah, and that was enough to make me fall in love with him,” I retorted. “But seventeen years didn’t work for Mike? So what’s gonna change now?”

I looked at Dad and he looked at Vicki. “Ara, you’re so young. This thing with David—it’s just an infatuation. You can’t know what love is yet,” she said.

“How can you say that?” I leaned forward slightly. “You don’t know what I feel. None of you do.”

“Honey, you can’t feel that kind of love at your age.”

“How would you know? I’m sorry, are you the all experienced love gurus because you’ve both had a failed marriage?” I waved my hands around at the word gurus, then dropped them to my hips. “So, just because I’m under eighteen, means I don’t know how to feel?”

“We’re just saying that love is complicated,” Dad said and held his hand up to Vicki, quietening her. “It takes a long time to figure it—”

“Don’t tell me I don’t know my own heart. ’Cause I can tell you, I do—and it hurts.” My voice broke under the strain of tears. “It hurts all the time, Dad. It hurts for Mum and Harry and Mike. And I loved them. And I love you—” the tears burst past the strain, “—so, you can’t tell me I don’t know what love is, because I think, of all the people in this room, I’m the most qualified to say what my heart is capable of.”

Dad’s jaw fell open and Vicki looked at her salad. Sam hovered between standing and sitting.

“Well, Ara—” Vicki placed her fork on her plate and folded her fingers in front of her chin, “—do you feel better now you’ve effectively displayed your maturity in front of your fourteen-year-old brother?”

My arms fell to my sides. I just couldn’t believe it. I’d had enough—just about all a girl could take. I watched them all—waiting for me to respond. But I had no response. Of course I didn’t feel better. What a stupid question to ask. “How you think I feel, Vicki?” My chair fell over and hit the wall as I pushed it out with the backs of my legs and ran from the room.

“Let her go,” Dad said calmly as I thudded up the stairs, holding my forearm across the ache in my gut. I couldn’t stop it; it all wanted to come out—all the fear, the heartbreak, the grief. I knew too well what I felt for David; knew no one could understand it; knew it was crazy. And I knew, if losing everyone I loved so far hadn’t killed me, loving David would.

I slammed my bedroom door unintentionally hard, sending vibrations through the house, making my open window rattle. Then, with a wailing breath, slid down the door and sat on the ground, hugging my knees to my chest—making myself as small as possible. I couldn’t breathe—couldn’t even find a good enough reason to breathe. I wanted to go home. Just wanted to go back and make it all okay again. But I couldn’t, and I was so tired of losing people—so tired of hurting to the point where crying just seemed pointless. It never helped. Tears or none, nothing ever changed. I just wished I could figure out what horrid crime I committed in a past life and atone for it, so maybe this life wouldn’t suck so much.

Outside, the sunlight turned orange and the soft yellow glow that filled my room earlier slipped away with an empty blackness. My nose went cold and my cheeks numb and, after a while, an eerie rumble of thunder growled as a flash of white scorched the sky for a split second, then disappeared.

I stayed motionless in my nightmare life, listening to the quiet patter of rainfall that crept into my world under the cover of night—afraid to move, afraid to cry anymore in case the brooding storm should find me here.

The familiar sound of doors being locked into place and lights flicked off around the house filled the wordless evening with noise. My parents’ footsteps thudded up the stairs and, while the lighter ones continued down the hall, the heavy ones stopped by my door. I sunk my face into crossed arms, holding my breath. Please don’t come in, Dad.

The footsteps faded to the other end of the house and silence swept over the night once more as Dad’s bedroom door closed. My real mum would’ve told him to check on me—to open the door anyway and make sure I was all right. She would’ve followed him in, warming the sudden unwelcome chill in here, and she would’ve told me not to be silly. Told me to get up off the floor and get into bed; that when I woke in the morning, everything would seem clear again. And a part of me knew that, but not having her here to say it made the pain, made missing her, so much worse.

As I lifted my head and considered climbing into bed, a low rumble rolled across the roof, like a hundred horses running past on hard ground, the noise electrifying the skies with silver forks. It was almost as if the storm had lain dormant, building, waiting for my family to go to bed. I covered my head, crying into my knees. I had nowhere to hide—no one to cuddle up safely beside. I was too old to climb into bed with Dad and Vicki now, and too far away from the phone on the other side of the room, in front of my open window, to call Mike.

I counted the seconds between the thunder, sliding my hands up the wood of the door, edging stiffly to my feet. Then, as soon as it struck and grew silent again, I ran, wedged my fingers onto the top of the wooden frame and slammed my window shut—drawing the curtains together before the next strike of lightning. It hit as I turned away, making me squeal and trip all over myself to get away from the window; I fell into my stool, climbing onto it, and leaned my head on my hands against the dresser.

With the curtains closed, the darkness of my room swallowed up my reflection—mirroring back only the outline of my head, shoulders and, as the lightning flashed again, the image of my mother—smiling down at the tiny baby in her arms. I lifted the photo frame from the dresser and kissed them both, then wiped away the smudge my lips left on the glass. This was my favourite photo. My only photo. I so clearly remembered the day I took it; Harry, who was about two months old, had just been bathed, and my mum—I ran my fingers over her face—wrapped him safely in a towel. Then, when she looked down at him again, I took the shot, capturing the exact moment she saw her baby’s first real smile. This was how I wanted to remember them, but at night, when I closed my eyes, it was the last seconds I ever saw them that flashed into my dreams—making the smiles and the sunlight fade from nearly every memory.