A tear rolled down past the tip of my nose and fell onto my thigh, trickling down into a salty pool on the windowsill.

It was the dream. It had to be. But that dream didn’t mean anything, and he didn’t even give me a chance to explain.

The gentle sobs of my heart breaking stopped abruptly when the door handle twisted and light spilled into my room, creeping in a yellow line along my floor, up my desk and over my toes. I rubbed my nose and eyes into my knees to dry the tears, feigning sleep.

The deep, husky voice of my best friend reached me with a breath of concern. “Baby girl, what’re you doing asleep here?” he whispered to no one in particular.

His wide, broad arms fixed a hold under my knees and around my back, then swept me off the windowsill, over the desk and into his body like he was some kind of ultra hot fireman rescuing me. I stayed floppy in his arms, breathing long and deep as if I were asleep, and the softness of my bed—much warmer than the cold glass my elbow was leaning on—cocooned my body safely, Mike tucking my feet under my quilt, bringing it up around my shoulders as I rolled away.

“Night, baby.” He pressed a quick kiss to my temple and left the room, closing the door behind him.

“Thanks, Mike,” I whispered quietly, allowing a smile to appear for one second before it melted away in the darkness.

“It’s alive!” Mike waved his hands dramatically as I zombie-walked into the kitchen and sat on the stool.

“Barely.” I laid my head on my hands, watching Mike by the stove.

“Not for plastic kitchen implements, if that’s what you’re offering.”

“Oh, a comedian today, huh?” He turned back to the stove, grinning. “So, are you hungry or not?”

“A little.” I grabbed an apple and took a bite. “Where is everybody?”

“Sam’s at school, Vicki’s gone to the movies with her friend, and your dad’s at work.” Mike turned back and winked at me. “It’s just us.”

“Okay, so, is that why you think it’s acceptable to wear a pink apron?”

He laughed, untying it. “Thought that might cheer you up a little.”

“What makes you think I need cheering up?” I turned my wrist over in question—the apple still in hand.

“Ara, I know you better than you know yourself. You need cheer. So—” he grabbed the fry pan and tipped the contents onto two plates in front of me, “—I made your favourite. Pancakes!”

I glared at him sceptically. “Is there maple syrup?”

Mike grinned, placing his hand on a bottle of brown liquid right by my elbow, and slid it slowly over. “Would I forget the syrup?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.” I snickered and snatched the bottle.

He walked around the counter and slid onto the stool next to me, dumping a fork by my plate. My attempt at moodiness slipped away completely, though, when the first bite of his light, fluffy pancakes touched my tongue. Like sugar-coated puffs of heaven, the golden exterior of the pan-fried breakfast melted with the syrup at the perfect ratio of sweet and savoury—sending trickles of warm delight down my spine.

I stopped eating and studied him—the chef, the wonder-cook, the man who knew no failure.

Yeah, you’re making it really hard not to love you. “I uh—I just remembered I have rehearsals today.”

“Mm. For a benefit concert we’re doing to raise money for this kid who died.”

“Oh. Okay. What time?” he asked.

Mike sat taller, eagerness replacing his grin. “Wanna go for a run with me instead?”

“Great. Maybe we can make a picnic out of it. What’d ya think?”

I nodded and filled my gob again. “Yeah. I’d like that.”

“So, do you wanna talk about it?” Mike dropped to the grass by our picnic blanket and gulped a few swigs of water.

“Talk…about…what?” I huffed, letting my hands catch me on the ground, then rolled onto my back to watch the midday sun overhead.

Mike screwed the cap on his water bottle, swiped the sweat from his brow and leaned forward with his elbows draped over his hairy knees. “The reason I came in to find you asleep on your windowsill last night.”

As if controlled by a body-stiffening remote, my limbs went long. I laid very still, suddenly no longer aware of my exhaustion. “No.”

“You know that won’t gel with me, baby.” A bottle of water appeared over my face; I sat up on my elbows and took hold of it. “You need to talk, and whatever it is, you kn—”

“It’s none of your business, Mike.” I sat all the way up, unscrewed the lid and rolled the bottle to my lips, letting the cool liquid melt the heat in my throat. “Just stay out of my room if you don’t like it.”

He let out a short sigh, not an agitated or a hurt one, just more…frustrated. “Here. Eat.”

I studied the sandwich for a long breath, then snatched it with just a little too much hostility. “That won’t work on me anymore, Mike!”

“Ara? Where are you going?” Mike jumped up and ran after me as I headed toward the swing set across the park.

I dumped the sandwich on the ground—with a pang of regret—and said, “Because I’m not going to let you talk me into opening up to you.”

“By giving you a sandwich?” He stopped, making a point of laughing at me.

“Yes.” I looked at the discarded lunch. “Whenever you want me to open up, you feed me. And it always works, but this is none of your business.”

“Okay. Fine.” He held his arms out to the sides, still laughing. “I won’t ask. We’ll just hang. ‘Kay?”

The sandwich stared up at me; I really wished I hadn’t thrown it away. I wondered if maybe I could dust it off and eat it still. I knew I hadn’t been eating enough the last few days because my arms and elbows looked so bony and pale that the scab David left from drinking my blood looked red and malicious.

“Baby?” Mike went to touch my arm; I dropped it to my side, not having realised I was picking at the scab.

“Push me on the swing?” I said playfully.

The mask of concern dropped from his lips, but stayed in his eyes even as they lit with a smile. “Sure, baby.”

And that was that. He didn’t even mention my weird sleeping habits again—or my mum, or David—only Vicki and my relationship with her. But I assured him things were getting better, and he said they must be since I willingly called her “Mom” the other day.

When the park emptied and a strong breeze swept half of our picnic away, we packed up and jumped in Dad’s car, then headed home.

“Are you okay?” Mike asked, looking at my knees; I looked too. My legs were so stiff and rigid that my knees turned completely white.

“Yeah. I just—I never really feel quite safe in cars, now. It’s like, before, I knew they could crash and that they were dangerous, but now I know what that feels like, I don’t feel so invincible.”

“Yeah. But you still have it.” I nodded to the road. “You don’t feel the fear of these deathly metal machines.”

“I know. I’m just one of the lucky ones, Ara, but the same could be said about you.”

“You have a real sense of what danger is now. I know that’s a pitiful consolation, but at the same time, you’re seventeen and you have an understanding about life that no other kids your age could. Cars are dangerous and people are blasé about that power. I’ve seen enough accidents in my time on the Force to know how little people value the power of these metal machines.”

The car slowed as Mike flicked on the indicator and changed gears; muscle by muscle, my legs unclenched, and as we rolled at less than half the recommended speed limit, Mike turned his head and smiled at me warmly—ignoring the honking horns from behind us.

When we pulled up in the driveway at home, the engine going quiet, a finger appeared in my peripheral. “Might wanna tie that up so you don’t trip,” Mike said.

“Uh, crud.” I bent over my legs and twisted my lace into a bow, then looked up as the door popped open.

“Thanks,” I said, unbuckling my seatbelt and jumping out. As the door closed after me, the look on Mike’s face became apparent. “What?”

“You didn’t yell at me for opening the door.”

“Oh.” I looked at the car, then shrugged. “Guess I didn’t.”

“I like this new, grown-up you.”

Deliberately scanning his broad shoulders, his proud, tall stance and school-boy grin, I said, “And I like this new, hot-guy you.”

He faked a pout and we walked up the fixed previously-broken porch step.

“After you, my lady.” He bowed, opening the door for me.

“You are more than welcome, my pretty friend.”

“Hey there,” Dad said as he came down the stairs.

I looked at Mike, then back at Dad. “Actually, yeah.”

“Well, I’m going to unpack the car. I’ll see you upstairs for a movie?” Mike looked at me.

“Yeah, sure.” He walked away, and Dad’s gaze seeped into my skin. “What, Dad?” I asked with a smile.

He leaned in, kissed my cheek and said, “I’m just happy to see you happy again.” Then, he followed Mike into the kitchen, leaving me alone in the wake of his odd suggestion.

I was glad he’d fallen for the illusion that I was happy; he needed it—needed to relax a little and not worry so much that I was suicidal. And even though, right now, I could feel a small sliver of happiness, as I looked up to the coming night through the small window above the front door, I knew that feeling was fleeting.

It might’ve been a dream, but it was as close as I’d been to him in two days; I rolled over in bed and flipped my pillow to the dry side, wiping the moist layer of ageing tears from my cheeks.

Outside, the thunder rolled again; it’d been that way all night. Bad weather was brewing, but it hadn’t the strength to burst out and become a storm. I didn’t mind the thunder tonight, though, because I understood its pain—how it felt as though it just couldn’t get free—to be where it was supposed to be. It was trapped, caged in by the wrong conditions.

I rolled over and watched the numbers change on my alarm clock, the gentle green glow reminding me of David’s eyes. But each time I’d fallen asleep tonight and opened my eyes after twenty minutes to see that glow, it only made me feel hollowed out, reminding me how his eyes looked in the dream I just woke from; he was scared, running—trying to get away from something. Maybe from me. Maybe from the Set. I didn’t know. All I knew was that he wasn’t here and he never said goodbye. What if he’d been arrested for hanging out with a human? What if they’d read my History paper and were torturing him right now?

I sat up, clutching my pillow, my heart racing.

“I know.” He grinned, opening my door fully. “I planned to wake you—figured I’d save my ears from all the whining last night about getting up early.”

“What makes you think I’d have whined?”

Mike just raised his brows, rolling his head down a little.

“Oh, fine.” I jumped out of bed. “I’ll get my bag.”

“Might wanna put some clothes on, too.” He nodded to my pyjamas and closed the door.

I threw on my bikini, shorts and a shirt, then slipped into my flip-flops and met Mike at the car—dragging my feet the whole way.

We stopped off to grab an egg muffin from Macca’s, then took to the highway, leaving this sleepy little town behind for the day. As the sun peeked out from the eastern hills, I rested my head on the window and tried not to fall asleep. “So, why are we going to a beach four hours away?”

“Because.” Mike shrugged, tossing his coffee cup into the brown paper bag our food came in. “I liked the pictures.”

“Fair enough, I suppose,” I said, then reached for the dial on the stereo. “I wanna play that one again.”

“You liked that?” Mike put his window up as he spoke, and my cheeks tingled where my hair had been whipping my face.

“Yeah. I mean, it’s a little morbid—for my tastes, but—”

“There is about that one.”

“It’s one song out of how many?”

I stared up at him, not one ounce of care showing in my expression.