Dad, with a humoured grunt, stacked a pile of plates in the sink and leaned against the counter. “Well, I happen to know that this particular senior is an A grade student because she doesn’t play video games.” He motioned a hand to Emily, who sat taller—bristling with pride.

“Dad.” Sam smirked. “Emily’s only an A grade student because she has a cru—”

“Good work ethic,” I cut in, sure Sam was about to say “crush on her teacher.”

Sam bit his lip, offering Emily an apologetic look; she just shook her head, picking the pineapple off her pizza.

“If only a good work ethic was addictive—like those video games you play, Samuel.” Dad sat back down at the table. “The fact is, my boy, you have an example to set for the other students, being that you’re a—”

“Teacher’s kid. I know, I know.” Sam rolled his eyes. “We’ve all heard the speech, Dad. But, you can’t debate my argument with any profitable reasoning. I learned more about physics by playing Halo than I did from Mr Ester.”

Dad let out a long breath, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“It’s okay, Mr Thompson,” Emily said in an encouraging tone. “Alana and I still believe in the importance of homework, isn’t that right, Lani?”

Alana looked up from her plate and nodded.

“I’m sorry.” I folded my arms. “I’m with Sam on this one. Burnout taught me the logistics of driving a car.”

“I mean—” he sat back, folding his arms, “—that there’s a reason you don’t have your licence yet.”

“You don’t have your licence?” Emily practically spat the words out.

“I uh, I’m not very good at driving,” I lied. Truthfully, I just didn’t see the need to be behind the wheel.

“I think we’ll leave the driving lessons to the experts,” Dad chimed in.

“But, if your methods aren’t working, Mr Thompson, maybe she could learn from those of us closer to her age,” Emily said.

Sam stifled a giggle; Dad raised a brow at him. “When did I become the old guy?”

“Hm. Should’ve seen it coming. So—” he said with a change in tone, “what are you girls up to tonight?”

“Yeah? Which one?” Sam sat up, suddenly more eager to be a part of the conversation again.

“Life’s not fair, son. Get used to it,” Dad said distractedly—the common disease of resorting to philosophical one-liners taking the intelligence out of any point he may have been trying to make.

“Well, Sam, if you want to paint your nails and look at pictures of Ara’s hunky BFF, then you can have a girl’s night with us,” Emily said.

“Yeah, I’ll pass.” He slumped back in his chair.

“All right, well—” Dad stood up and took the last of the plates, “—Sam and I will get the dishes, and you girls can go talk about boys.”

Awkward. “Yeah, um, that’s our cue to go.” I stood and motioned the girls to follow.

Three pairs of feet dangled off one side of the bed, three heads off the other, while the sun slipped behind the house, bringing darkness down the walls, and the dancing rainbows around my room faded, but Emily and Alana’s stories distracted me from the dying colours in my life, reminding me of a time when I once thought the world was normal.

“So, whose idea was it to hang the crystals over the window?” Alana asked. “It was so magic in here with all those rainbows.”

“Pollyanna?” She rolled onto her belly.

“Yeah. It’s from an old movie my mom used to love.”

“Hm. Never seen it.” Alana looked at Emily, who shrugged, shaking her head.

“So, Ara, are you gonna show us these pics of Mike, or what?”

“Sure, Em, but, you’re with Spence now, do you really need to be checking out other guys?”

“Who says I’m checking him out?” She sat up beside Alana. “I’m just curious as to why your eyes light up when you mention him.”

“They so do not light up,” I demanded.

“Um, actually, Ara, they kind of do,” Alana said carefully.

“Yeah, you sparkle.” Emily waved her fingers around. “So—” she shuffled to the edge of the bed, “—let’s see them.”

“Fine.” I rolled up with a huff and wandered over to my desk. “I don’t have many, though. I only grabbed one box when I moved—and it was the wrong one.”

“Which box did you mean to grab?” Em asked.

“Just some old family ones.” I shrugged as if it didn’t matter. “I’d switched the boxes about a week before and just didn’t realise until I was already here.”

“Why not ask your mom to send them over for you?” Alana said.

“Yeah. Guess I could.” I bumped the drawer closed with my hip and plonked down on the ground with the box in front of me. Alana sat beside me, waiting anxiously while I fingered the lid, trying not to peel back the carefully placed rainbow and kitten stickers Mike randomly stuck on there when he was bored one day.

“Oh, my God!” Alana reached past my wrist and grabbed the first picture the light touched, then jumped up and handed it to Emily, who smiled instantly.

Emily laid back on my pillow, her silky blonde hair spilling out around her like liquid. “Hell yeah. He’s kinda rustic, isn’t he?”

Alana, with another picture in hand, nodded. “Is he a surfer?” She flipped the image around for me to see; Mike, in his board shorts, on the beach—golden and tanned, with yellow hair falling scruffily over his eyes.

“I can’t believe how cute he is.”

“In a way? Ara, he’s actually really cute,” Alana said. “Even by my standards.”

“And you two never uh—” Emily let the suggestion in her tone lead that question.

I shook my head. “It’s really not like that.”

“Never?” She grinned, and the pathetic liar in me showed herself on my face. “Oh, my God. You so had a fling!”

“Drat.” My shoulders sunk. “Okay, maybe I did, kind of, throw myself at him. Once.”

“Really?” Emily sat up and crossed her legs under her. “Well? Come on, girl, fill us in!”

My head dropped to one side with a groan. “Okay. Um, so, it was my friend’s eighteenth…”

“Ooh, wait, wait, wait.” Em waved her hands about, coming to sit down in our little circle around my box of Mike. “Okay. Go.”

“Um.” I laughed at her, half frowning. “So…I had a drink at her party. Well, okay, maybe three.” I laughed. “Or more.”

“I know, I know. It’s not one of my proudest moments. But, the legal age for drinking in Australia is eighteen,” I added. “So, I’m not that far off—not like here.”

“So, anyway. I walked to Mike’s house to stay the night so my mom wouldn’t find out—”

“Did his mom know you were drunk?” Emily sat forward.

“Let me finish.” I held a hand up; Alana laughed. “It was actually Mike who picked up on it, like, before I even got in the door.”

Emily and Alana exchanged glances. “How did he know you’d been drinking?” Alana asked.

“He’s been a cop since he was eighteen,” I said. “He knows the signs, and he knows me—and I don’t act like that.”

“Wait. I thought he was just getting into the Force,” Alana asked.

My head moved in a ‘no’ as I popped a candy in my mouth. “He’s just getting in to the Tactical Response Group. That’s where he really wanted to be. But he’s been a beat cop for forever.”

“Um, well, so, he took me upstairs to his room and sat me down for a severe talking to. But, I just thought he was hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing at him.”

“How did he take that?”

“He was trying not to laugh, too, but…then I kind of went and threw my arms around him and kissed him—told him I’d always loved him.”

“Did he kiss you back?” Alana asked, completely arrested by my tale.

“Yeah—” I lowered my head, “—for a moment. But then he stopped—pushed me away.”

“Not really. I mean, I felt rejected and all, but it was…he yelled at me. He had never yelled at me before—for anything.” I laughed it off, but I’d pushed that memory so far down that remembering it came as a shock. I’d almost convinced myself the kiss never happened.

“Was it because you kissed him?”

“It was because…he said he was just really disappointed in me—for drinking. He was worried, I guess.”

“That sucks. So he didn’t like you the way you liked him?” Emily asked.

“No.” I shrugged casually. “But it was a mistake. I don’t really feel that way about him. It was just the alcohol.”

“Or did you just tell him it was liquor-lust to save face?” Emily smirked.

“I didn’t tell him anything.” I shook my head. “I kind of ran home after that—never talked about it again.”

“Oh. So...how will things be when you see him on Tuesday, then?” I could see the word awkward appear in bold all over Emily’s face.

“It’ll be fine.” I hoped. “So, have you guys got a dress for the Masquerade yet?”

Alana, detecting my need to divert, knelt up and placed the picture she was holding into the box. “I’m wearing the same dress my mother wore, and her mother, and so on.”

“Wow, that’s so cool.” I started gathering the pictures into a pile.

“Mm-hm. It was actually first worn by my great-great-grandmother at the very first town Masquerade.”

“That is totally cool.” Emily handed me a stack of pictures. “I haven’t found one yet. I’m still looking. Just…nothing seems to suit me.”

“I find that really hard to believe, Em.” I rolled my eyes.

“Well, what about you, Ara? Have you got a dress yet?” Alana asked.

I grinned, placing the lid on the box. “I thought you’d never ask.”

“Ooh, you do.” Emily squeaked. “Let’s see it, let’s see it!”

“Okay.” I bounced to my feet. “I’ll just be a sec.”

They both positioned themselves on my bed, anticipation alight in their eyes, and I bounded into my wardrobe, stopping dead as I closed the door behind me and saw a giant white bag hanging on the hook.

My breath quickened, my throat constricting to the size of a straw when I slowly tugged the zipper down the length of the bag and saw blue. “Damn vampires!”

“Oh, ah, nothing. Just got bitten by a mozzie.” I sucked my finger, drawing away the mock-irritation of a mosquito bite.

Alana and Emily laughed. “You sound so Aussie when you say that.”

“Well, they say practice makes perfect.” I looked back at the blue dress inside the bag, wondering where those conspiring renegades had stuffed my pretty green dress. And when my eyes brushed past my old purple sweater and faded blue jeans, I saw it there—shoved away like some ratty old coat. “Hu!” I scoffed, reaching for it.

Well, there was no way I’d wear his superficial affection, in any form.

I hung my green dress on the other hook, then zipped up the white bag and wedged it into a tight space near the wall, dusting my hands off after. “There.”

But, before I even stepped away, the sudden weight of guilt nearly forced my shoulders to the ground.

Would it be so bad—wearing the dress? my inner princess reasoned. I mean, what could it hurt? After all, David’s already paid for it.

The dress and I stared at each other across the silent battleground of conscience.