“Yeah. Just go now,” I said, and despite the invisible strings tying my heart—trying to make me move toward him—I forced myself to turn away, leaving everything behind.

When I took one last glance backward, David was gone.

“Ara!” Ryan called, running toward me at full speed.

“Hi.” He stopped running and looked at my cheeks. “You okay?”

I nodded, sniffling. “What’s up? You look—” I looked at his eyes, how red they were. “Have you been crying?”

He put his hands on his hips, panting, folding over a little. “Yeah.”

“Nathan Rossi.” He caught his breath. “He passed away early this morning.”

Ryan shrugged. “Don’t know. That’s just it—he was closer to Nathan than any of us. We’re worried ‘cause no one’s seen him today.”

“I have,” I said. I just broke his heart.

“I never gave him the chance.”

He nodded to himself, his hands still on his hips. “Did you have a fight?”

“Come on.” The stench of his sweat wafted up when he put his arm around me. “I’ll take you to the office—get you a tardy slip.”

Emily sat with her hands wedged under her knees, her legs swinging over the edge of the stage, trying to talk through the sobs. I wandered down the aisle silently, hugging my sheet music, trying not to disturb her quiet speech.

“If he was here right now, he’d probably slap us on the shoulder and tell us to get up—that the show must go on.” She sniffed, wiping her face softly with a tissue. “I know it’s been a hard day, and—” she motioned around the room, “—most of us have gone home. But, Nathan’s gone, and…I know this whole thing started out as a way to help his mom with the hospital bills, but now she’s got a funeral bill on top…of…that.” Her voice broke. Ryan leaped up and sat on the stage, wrapping his arm over her shoulder. “So—” she composed herself, “—having said that, rehearsals will continue and so will the show, as a memorial concert.”

“But we’re not doing it this week, right?” someone in the front row asked.

Emily shook her head. “We don’t have to. Any votes on when we should hold it?”

“Yeah,” a boy said. “Weekend after next. The funeral’s this Thursday, so…” he let his voice trail off.

Emily looked around the rest of the group. “Everyone agree with that?”

People shrugged or nodded. Emily looked at me, and I smiled, bringing one shoulder up to my ear.

“Okay, so, two weekends from now. And we’ll need to draw up new ticket sale signs—if you guys can take care of that?” She nodded toward the art students; they nodded back. “Okay. So, thanks for coming, everybody, and—” she stood up, “—let’s get this show on the road.”

The small group disbursed, murmuring between themselves, while Ryan walked Emily off stage and talked to her quietly at the base for a second. She nodded, wiped her face, then hugged him tightly and walked away.

“Hey, Em,” I said, deliberately avoiding how are you or I’m sorry.

“Didn’t Ryan tell you?” We slid into the end seats on the front row.

“Mm. No. What happened?” Her eyes narrowed.

I just shattered him to pieces. “He uh—he left school for the day.”

“Really?” She slid down in her seat, folding her fingertips over her eyes. “I feel like such an idiot for crying at school. I wish I’d left, too.”

“Oh, Em—don’t. It’s not silly at all. Hell, even I’ve done it.”

“Really?” She sat up a little.

“Well, why? Was someone mean to you?”

“Remember the theatrical kiss thing—with David, the toilets, my first day?”

“Oh, yeah—Summer and that short girl she hangs around?”

“Summer was telling us the whole story, you know, that afternoon.” Emily leaned back in her chair. “No one believed her, though—about David kissing you. I wouldn’t have if you hadn’t told me about it in History class.”

“Why? Is it so hard to believe David would kiss me?”

She laughed once. “That wasn’t what we didn’t believe; it was how Summer said he was doing it to stand up for you. David doesn’t stand up for anybody,” she added with a hint of spite.

“He stood up for the Apple King, at lunch that day.”

“Yeah, it seems you’ve unearthed a new David.” She looked down at her hands, flipping her silver padlock bracelet. “So—he went home, huh?”

I shrugged. “Do you think he’ll come back?”

“He does this, you know?” She smiled sympathetically. “If things get too…emotional, he takes off for a few days. But, he’ll be at the funeral on Thursday. I’m sure you can speak to him then.”

“But, what if it wasn’t because of Nathan that he left? What if it was for some other reason? Would he still come back for the funeral?”

“What other reason would he have?” she asked, smiling at Spencer as he walked past; he didn’t smile back.

“What’s the deal with Spence?” I asked. “Was he close to Nathan?”

“No. You saw that, huh? The quick-look-away thing he does.”

“Yeah. Does he do that a lot?”

“And you think it’s ‘cause he doesn’t like you?” I tried to stifle a giggle.

“It must be. Why would he do it if he liked me?”

“Because, Emily—” I shoved my notes on the chair and stood up, “—he’s a guy. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”

“Ara!” she squeaked. “What are you doing?”

I ignored her, walking over to Ryan, Alana and Spencer. My brilliant idea of setting Emily up with Mike was about to go out the window…

“Hey, Ara.” Alana leaned a little closer. “I was thinking…about the sleepover this weekend?”

“Um, could we…maybe move it to next weekend?”

“Yeah. With the funeral this week…” She nodded at Emily, sitting low in her chair, staring at her feet. “Might be a bit much.”

“So, Ara?” Ryan asked. “Are you coming to the wake at Betty’s on Thursday night?”

“I um—I didn’t know about it. Why is Mrs Rossi doing it there?”

“She’s not,” Ryan said, placing his arm around Alana. “It’s just a bunch of us kids fare-welling Nathan in our own way. Betty’s was his favourite burger joint—we figure it’s appropriate.”

“Oh, okay. Well, that sounds cool. I guess I’ll try, but I may have to go to Mrs Rossi’s with my dad, you know—pay my respects as a family.” I shrugged.

“I get it. Totally cool. If we see you there, we see you there,” Ryan said.

“Hey, so, you two are going together, right?” I asked Alana and Ryan.

“So, why don’t you take Emily, Spence? I know she needs a ride,” I lied, hoping he wouldn’t pick up on the fact that I couldn’t know that, since I didn’t even know about the wake before now.

Spencer smiled over at Emily—looking away before she looked up.

Hopefully, this was one match that’d work out well.

Grief struck the school like a tidal wave; the teachers cancelled homework for the week, and even my dad, when I woke up this morning and begged him not to make me go to school, just sighed and said, “Fine, stay home—but just for today.”

I froze on the spot, watching him walk away, half expecting him to turn back and say he was joking. But Dad wasn’t his usual self; I think the grief of losing his ex-wife and a student in the same year was taking its toll.

There was no point in going to school, anyway. David wouldn’t be there, and I couldn’t bear the emptiness surrounding that place without him. I only stayed at school yesterday for the small glimmer of hope that he might decide to come back. He didn’t. Instead, he had inflicted on me a foul taste of what life without him would be like, and already I couldn’t take it.

Sam stacked the last of the dinner plates on the counter beside the sink, and I flicked on the faucet to help wash the scraps down the ancient garbage disposal. There were an awful lot of leftovers tonight.

When the clock in the front entrance chimed seven, I sighed. The anticipation to possibly see David tomorrow—possibly tell him I was sorry, and maybe even tell him I’d take that last few months with him—made the day drag. I spent the better part of it out on my swing, just wishing he’d come by; even contemplated throwing the cat up in the tree just to entice him. And if I knew where he lived, I’d have gone over—without invitation.

My ears pricked to the sound of Dad and Vicki’s footsteps overhead. It was unusually empty in this house tonight; no TV buzzing from the lounge room, no laughter from Dad as he told Vicki about his day, and Sam, who normally tossed the forks in the air and caught them behind his back, dried them slowly and placed them quietly in the drawer. All the silence gave me too much time alone with my thoughts—never a good thing.

“Are you okay, Ara?” Sam said.

I jumped back from the sink, flicking the faucet off as water spilled over the edge, soaking my tank top. “Damn it.”

“Might wanna clean that up before Dad sees,” Sam said, drying a plate.

“Yeah, but…you don’t want him asking how it happened, right?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, mopping it up with the floor mat.

“You were…pretty spaced out there for a bit.”

“I’m not going to flip, Sam.” I rolled my eyes. “I know everyone’s waiting for it, but I’m okay, really. Really!”

He took a long step sideways—away from the crazy person—and continued drying the dishes, wearing the same smug grin he always wore when he thought he had the upper hand.

That’s it! I dipped my fingertips into the sink then flicked dishwater all over his head.

“Argh, Ara!” He blinked, wiping his face, and when he looked up at me, revenge burning in his gaze, that little prank suddenly seemed like a better idea in theory. “Oh, you’re gonna pay for that.” He held the tea towel an arms length away, spinning it in circles to make a long, twisted snake.

“Oh, no. No. Don’t you dare!” I warned, with the pointed finger of authority.

“And who’s gonna stop me?” He flicked the back of my leg with the towel.

“Ouch.” I squealed, running around the island counter to out-manoeuvre him. No good—he took a head shot. “Hey, no fair, keep it below the knees,” I yelled, running toward the front entrance, then bolted up the stairs.

“Come back and I’ll make it quick.” He thudded up behind me.

As the towel came at me again, I slammed my bedroom door—catching the end of it in the doorframe. Sam laughed boisterously, trying to pull it out.

“Told you I’m faster, Samuel,” I called through the door. “And don’t even—”

“That’s enough, you two,” Dad said in his booming voice.

“I said enough! Now get back down and finish your chores.”

In the hall, Sam sighed loudly. The tea towel made a grating sound before releasing from the door with a short, dull thud. “Why does the princess always get her own way? It’s not fair.”

I tensed, waiting for him to yell at me—to force me downstairs where I’d get my butt whopped as soon as he walked away, but he didn’t. Instead, he walked down the stairs and closed the front door, obviously having gone out it. I opened my door to check, hearing the car start up, and felt suddenly really bad for mucking about with Sam.

“Did Dad just go out?” Vicki asked, coming out from the spare room.

She looked at the front door. “I doubt that, Ara-Rose. He’s just…He’ll be okay. It’s just been a big year.”

“Yeah. I guess.” I closed my door before I could see the tears I heard in her voice, and wandered over to sit at my desk. Under the charcoal sky of the coming night outside, the oak tree rustled lightly in the breeze, and the swing, hovering low over the soft grass, swayed gently—almost as if a small, invisible child were rocking back and forth on it. Along the sidewalk, a group of kids ran noisily past our block, dragging a red wagon behind them. Their laughter filled the night until they disappeared down the street, leaving an eerie stillness behind them.