“Mike, good to finally meet you.” Vicki left her practically permanent kitchen position to hug him. “How have you been?”
“Good, Vicki. Really good,” Mike said softly. “It’s nice to finally put a face to the voice.”
Great, so Vicki had been talking to him on the phone, too. Just bury me now.
Vicki smiled. “I’ve made you some breakfast—figured you’d be hungry after all that travelling.”
“Yeah, great,” Mike said and sat at the table next to me. “The airport food was pretty average.”
“So, Ara tells us you’ve been accepted into the ah—what was that called again?” Vicki asked, fussing over the plates.
“Vicki,” I moaned. “Dad’s already interrogated him. Do you have to do it too?”
“I don’t mind an interrogation, Ara.” Mike elbowed me gently. “It’s uh—it’s called the Tactical Response Group. We get to use cool guns, basically.” He grinned at Sam as he sat down.
“Do you get to shoot people?” Sam asked, leaning right across the table to be in Mike’s bubble.
“Well,” Mike’s voice softened, “the only place I like to shoot people is on Halo. Other than that, we try to avoid it as much as possible. But I have a Taser?” he offered.
“Awesome. Hey, do you play on Live—” Sam’s voice became background noise while the boys talked video games and Vicki served breakfast around all the commotion, sitting quietly down after. Without touching my food, I leaned on my hand and listened to the sound of normal; how the laughter, forks clinking on plates, and cups resting with a clunk on wood could echo familiarity and content. Once upon a time, being normal meant having a life with two parents, no grief, and no scars. Now, normal meant I could sit in my kitchen, eat food with my family, and at the end of my life—die.
A few months ago, I didn’t know how much I had to be grateful for, but the hourglass of Fate could rock and tip everything out of balance at any time. I knew now that I had to take each breath of normal with a kind of appreciation I never understood before, because imagining, with David’s interpretation of eternity, if I didn’t have any of this—I looked at Dad and Vicki, leaning closer to each other as they laughed—I would miss it all terribly.
“Well, Vicki—” Mike wiped his mouth with a napkin and rested his arm on the table, “—that was the most amazing breakfast I’ve had in a long time. Ara’s right, you are a good cook.”
“Ara said that?” Vicki’s wide eyes landed on me. I wanted to brush them off. “Well, thank you, Ara, and thank you, Mike. I really enjoy cooking—especially for people who eat it without salt.” She glared at Dad.
Mike laughed and placed his napkin on the table. “Well, my mother raised me with the strong belief that it’s considered an insult to the chef when one puts salt on his food.”
Vicki’s smile pushed her brows up. “See, Greg? You could stand to learn a few table manners, yourself.”
“Hm, Ara?” Dad cleared his throat, ignoring Vicki and Sam. “Why don’t you give Mike the grand tour?”
“I’m sure he’s seen a house before, Dad.”
“Not yours, though,” Mike said, seeming to offer me the position of Tour Guide.
“Okay. Come on.” I stood up, but when I reached for his hand, he quickly drew it away. Even Dad and Vicki saw it, disguising their shock with a swift glance at their plates, while I ate the swell of mortification.
“Thanks again, Vicki.” Mike grabbed his plate and mine.
I walked off in a huff, looking back at Mike. “Are you coming or not?”
“Coming.” He dumped the plates in the sink as we passed the kitchen and headed through the arch to the forbidden formal room.
“So, this is the dining room…”
“Yeah, for all those dinner guests Vicki entertains.” I laughed.
“Right.” Mike nodded, crossing his arms. I don’t think he realised I was joking.
“And out there is the backyard.” I pointed beyond the windows.
“Is that the swing? Where you sit when you’re sad?”
“Ha-ha.” He flicked his hand out and knocked my ponytail.
“Uh!” I held up a finger. “No mucking about in here. You’ll hit the chandelier.”
Mike looked up. “Hm. Look at that. A real chandelier.”
“It’s plastic,” I remarked and walked on, leading him to the TV room that met back up with the front entrance. “We watch TV in here.”
Mike stood by the suede sofa and considered the giant LCD sitting neatly on the white cabinet. “No drinks in the lounge,” he read the ‘house rules’ painted on the wooden wall-plaque. “No name-calling. No…”
“Okay.” I grabbed his shoulders and spun him toward the door. “We all know the rules.”
“I don’t.” He tried to walk back to the TV room. “I wasn’t done.”
“You can read them later. I wanna show you your room.”
“Okay. But only because I stink.” He lifted his arm and sniffed his own odour. “I need a change of shirt.”
“Why does she get to stay home?” Sam said, and I imagined him pointing off in some random direction as if pointing at me—the ‘she’.
“Because she has a friend who just arrived.”
“There’s always some excuse. It’s like she never goes to school.”
Mike rested his forearm on the balustrade, half laughing, and looked at me. “You never go to school, huh?”
“Not a lot.” I kicked up the carpet at the base of the stair.
“How’s it been—” he nodded toward the dining room, “—having a little brother?”
“Not much different to putting up with you.”
He laughed and looked around, his eyes taking in the stairs, then the window above the front door, and landing back on me. “I like this. It’s a nice house, Ara. It’s good to see the places you’ve been talking about all your life.”
“Well, later I’ll show you where I landed when I broke my arm that time.”
“Sounds good.” He tugged on a strand of my hair, making me lower my foot from the first step to look up at him. “I really missed ya, girl.”
“I know,” I said, and my eyes moved slowly from his camel-skin boots, over the light denim jeans and traced swerves over the ripples under his shirt, stopping in a hold on his warm eyes. The caramel colour had always reminded me of autumn—once my favourite season—but there would have to be a different comparison for his eyes now that my autumn would forever be a reminder of losing David. Maybe…
“Hm?” His face blurred and sharpened into focus.
“Did you hear anything I just said?”
Mike’s shoulders dropped and he nodded to himself. “Come on, why don’t you just show me upstairs?”
I knew he was upset. I didn’t want him to be upset. “No,” I said, flashing him a cheeky grin.
“Ara. Come on. I’m tired. I’m not in the mood for games.”
And the mask cracked, bringing warmth back to his eyes. “Ah, forget that,” he said, taking a quick step toward me. “This is more fun.”
“No!” I squealed, rapping my fists on his leg as he swept me up like a football, legs kicking behind us, and bolted up the stairs. “Put me down!”
“Make me.” He laughed over my protest, so I angled my head just so, and bit his thigh. “Ow!”
I landed on the carpet on my hands and knees.
“I can’t believe you just bit me.”
“I can’t believe you just dropped me.”
I stood up, dusting myself off and we both held eye contact for only a second before laughing. “Truce?” I held up my pinkie.
“Truce.” He linked his with mine, then pulled it close to his body, wrapping his other hand behind my head to bury my face in his chest. “Come here, you.”
“Yeah. I missed you, too.” I patted his back a few times then stepped away.
“So—” He looked from one door to another. “Which one’s my room?”
I nodded to the one behind him; he took a look, then hobbled over to his door, his hand firmly on his thigh.
“How do you know?” He stood tall, dropping the act. “I might need a tetanus shot.”
I wanted to whack him, but knew it would start the war all over again. So I took the moral high road instead and opened his door for him, ruffling his hair as the light from his room swept the carpet by my feet. “Does poor baby need a cuddle?”
“Quiet, you,” he said playfully and his eyes widened as he looked into his room. “Ooh. Nice.”
“Yep. And you can thank David for putting the bed up,” I said, and crossed the room to close the window. “Dad was trying to put the foot at the head and the same on the end.”
“Yes.” I pushed the curtains further apart to allow for more light, then turned around and opened the door adjacent to the window. “So, there’s a bathroom here.”
“Wow, my own bathroom. Nice.” Mike leaned his head around the bathroom door, then smiled back at me.
“And you have a TV.” I walked to the wardrobe—the door on the left of his bed—and rolled out one corner of the LCD. “We usually roll it away to make more space.”
“Great.” He grinned. “I’ve got a stack of our favourite movies on my hard drive.”
Mike stared down at me with a half-lit smile, his hands on his hips like he was questioning a suspect, and a narrowed look in his eyes that made me clear my throat.
“Why do you keep staring at me like that, Mike?”
“I’m sorry. There’s just—” He went to walk away, but stopped and gave that same look again. “Did you dye your hair or something?”
“Why?” I toyed with the ends. “Does it look different?”
“Sorry.” He shook his head and hooked his fingers under the handle of his suitcase. “I just haven’t seen you in so long. I think I forgot how you looked.”
“Oh. Well, didn’t you have a picture?”
He shrugged dismissively, placing his suitcase on the end of the bed. “Probably somewhere. Why?”
“I ‘spose I could. Guess I just didn’t think of it.”
“What?” he said, looking up from the padlock on his bag. “What’s with the long face?”
“Um...well, it’s just David,” I said, instead of blubbering that he clearly didn’t miss me like I missed him. “I told you—he has to go away for a few weeks before he leaves indefinitely, and—”
Mike softened then and grabbed my wrist, pulling me into his chest for another way-too-tight hug. “It’s all right, kid, you got me. I’ll keep ya company.”
“I know.” I pushed out from his arms. “But, I’ve relied on him so much to get me through. I just don’t know how I’ll—”
“Well, what was I, if not the one who helped you get through things, before you came here?” he said. “You’ll be fine, Ara. It’s not the end of the world. And he’ll be back to say goodbye, right?”
I nodded. It was all I could do for fear of crying hysterically.
“Okay.” He patted my arm. “So just…cheer up and enjoy this time with me. Okay?”
“And sit down. You’re making me feel edgy just standing there, hovering by the door.” He motioned to his bed.
I looked at it for a long moment. It didn’t seem right to sit on his bed now—now that I had a boyfriend.
Mike looked at the bed too, then smiled. “What? Did you booby-trap it—like last winter when you and your friends thought it’d be funny to—”
“No,” I said swiftly, then wandered over and slumped down in the centre, with my feet dangling off the side. “I just—I don’t know if I’m comfortable being in your room now, is all.”
“Right.” Mike nodded, letting his gaze slip past me to the window.
I rolled onto my side and propped my head up with the ball of my palm. “So, what’s the plan today?”
“Well, a change of shirt’s first on the list.” He unzipped his suitcase. “Then, I wanna hear all about this boyfriend of yours.”
I grinned at the sound of his accent, how, alone, in a quiet space, the Aussie in him became more prominent, more noticeable—not a strong accent, just enough to surprise me.