I kicked the door ajar a little, placed the doorstop in the crack and hugged myself as I headed down the aisle, walking the path of the thin blue line of light from outside. The warmth of the day remained behind, making me shiver as I reached the stage. I looked back for a moment, seeing only a faint outline of the seats along the aisle, then felt my way up the stairs, keeping my hands out in front of me in case I tripped.

“H-hello?” I waited in the middle of the stage, hearing nothing. No one whispered back. “Hello? Is anyone there?” My voice stayed low, almost as if I didn’t want an answer.

All around me, the shadows carried eerie secrets, like a person may be lingering within—waiting for me—while the strong feel of being watched crawled over my skin, tightening my pores. I knew I shouldn’t be in here. Knew I should be at lunch, be attending school today like everyone else. I hesitated a moment longer. If I was caught in here, I’d be in trouble.

But, like a beacon of salvation, the piano greeted me with all its glory, sitting majestically centre stage. I took a seat and looked down at my hands on the keys. Here, in front of the piano, I felt narrowed in—safe inside some magical, invisible orb, where no one could see me. For one moment I just needed to sit; just to exist in the space where music was the centre of my world; where the only thing that mattered was the notes, the keys, and me.

My heart was trying to make sense of things—of the fact that David left me because I had that stupid dream, even though I had no control over it. And I guess, in a way, that was the problem; what we dream does have meaning. What we think, feel, desire—it matters. And it hurts.

But life taught me that searching for reasons why it sucks is as futile as screaming out to the heavens “Why, God, why?”

No one will ever answer, because there is no answer. No one is watching from above; no angels are standing by to answer our prayers. We are the authors of our own lives, and what we suffer is due to our own error. How we endure is determined by our will to survive.

I would survive this. I had to stop asking, had to stop wondering if there was some point to all this—some lesson to be learned—because, in doing that, I was holding myself back from moving on.

David told me to move on—told me to love another, but contradicted that by being hurt at the possibility.

My heart was Mike’s before I came here—before it all happened. And, sometimes, I wished I’d never met David at all—wished I didn’t know what it felt like to love someone that way.

My thoughts came back to the auditorium while I took a deep breath.

Though I sat motionless, aside from my hands scaling across the keys, the room seemed to be spinning slowly around me. I wasn’t sure if I was dizzy or just lost in some ultra-realism with slow-motion camera panning, but nothing felt right—or looked right.

I played the scales slowly back and forth a few times, listening carefully, seeing my future in the physical form of the notes; Mike, our children—their little round faces smiling out at me from the space between thought and reality. I saw our lives—long and happy. And he would love me, and I would love him just as much.

But I still just didn’t know if it was enough.

Confusion consumed my emotions and took control of my hands; I played harder, slamming the notes. All of the anguish, the loss—I wanted it to go away. I wanted David to stay, to marry me, to have babies with me and grow old together.

The notes became slow and high once again. It’d never happen. I had a choice to make. To choose life or eternal love—if David would still even have me. He probably didn’t even want my answer anymore. And I didn’t expect to see him at the Masquerade next Sunday.

I wanted to hope he was happy somewhere out there, that he’d moved on—but it hurt when I tried.

I closed my eyes tight and let my heart die a little more, as it had been, slowly and surely, every day since my first kiss.

David, if you’re out there, somewhere, please know how much I miss you. Please know how sorry I—

“Ara!” Mike’s angry voice broke through my thoughts. “Where have you been?”

The room fell silent instantly as I pulled my hands from the keys and placed them in my lap, lowering my head.

“Do you have any idea what I’ve gone through this morning?” The stage thudded under his feet. “I was about to call the police.”

“Don’t give me that rubbish. I knew you didn’t attend school today because your dad’s been out there searching for you since we realised you weren’t in roll call!”

There was nothing for me to say. I kind of knew he’d be worried. “Well.” I shrugged. “Guess you found me, so—”

“No. I didn’t. Your dad did. And he was so mad he couldn’t even come in here to talk to you, Ara. He called me.” He pointed to his chest. “How could you just run off like that? Not tell anyone where you were going. Jesus, girl.” The fabric on the stool dipped as he sat beside me, shaking his head.

“I don’t need your permission to go for a run.”

“That’s what you were doing?”

“Yes. Is that okay with you?”

“Ara, stop being a child. You know damn well you should’ve told someone where you were. Don’t try to make me out to be the bad guy. I’ve been driving all over town looking for you. We had no idea what time you left or how long you’d been gone.” He looked at his watch. “It’s twelve-thirty, for God’s sake, girl.”

I looked down at my lap, running my thumb over my locket. “Stop yelling at me.”

“No. I’m mad. I was so worried about you I nearly shook Emily when I asked her if she’d seen you.”

“What! You talked to my friends?” I smacked the stool with both hands. “Mike, how could you—now you’ve gone and made a huge drama out of thi—”

“No. Ara. You made the drama. You took off without leaving a note to say you hadn’t gone to school. You’ve been gone all bloody day!”

“Yeah, well, no one asked you to come looking for me.” I folded my arms. “I’m fine. I just lost track of time.”

“Well, that may be the case, but you’ve caused a lot of worry. People care about you, Ara—” He reached for me; I jerked away. “I care about you.”

“You? You don’t care about me. You just feel sorry for me. You just feel responsible for me, like you always have—”

“I didn’t say it!” I shot up off the stool and fled to the heavy curtains near the wall. “You did!”

“What? When?” He sat taller. “Ara, I would never say something like tha—”

“You did. The day I arrived here, when my dad made me speak to you on the phone. You said you were tired of being responsible for me, that I had to grow up, and if I wasn’t such a baby then none of this would’ve happened!”

Mike stood up, reaching for me. “Ara, that was not what I said and you know it. You’re adding words to what I—”

“Am I? Or is that what you wanted to say? Is that what you really meant, only you didn’t have the guts to say it?” I yelled across the stage, feeling rather well-placed for such a theatrical display of emotion.

“My exact words to you that day, and my exact meaning were, I feel responsible for what happened to your mum and Harry. And you said it was your fault, that if you hadn’t run away it wouldn’t’ve happened. That’s when I said that running away was a childish thing to do. And that was all I said, Ara. The fact is, I was responsible for you. I let you down. I did not say you caused this. I never said, felt, or meant that. You know that.”

“No. I don’t. I know the way you looked at me. I saw you look away when you first saw me after the accident; I remember how disgusted you were in me that night for daring to feel what I felt for you—”

“That’s what you think?” He briskly stepped forward and grabbed my arms. “That I was disgusted? In you? Ara, I was disgusted in myself for—”

“For telling me how you truly felt?” I shrugged out of his hands. “You shouldn’t be. Because that should be allowed. If you don’t love someone, you have a right to tell them.”

“But I do love you. You know that.” He swooped into me again.

“Don’t touch me!” I ducked out from under his arms and ran to the edge of the stage. “I don’t want you to touch me.”

I took a glance over my shoulder to see his bulky silhouette by the piano, reaching out to me, then jumped off the edge, bent my knees as I landed on the ground, and walked away with my arms folded.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

At a run, Mike’s footfalls fell down on the hollow-sounding floor, then stopped as a soft tap of shoes on carpet came up behind me. “Baby, talk to me. Please don’t be like this. I just want you to be happy.”

“Happy!” I spun around. “If you wanted me to be happy, then you’d never have told me you love me, Mike. Now I’m just confused and empty.”

Mike doubled back, dropping his hand to his side as the blade of my words hit his heart. “You don’t mean that,” he whispered.

“What would you know? You don’t know anything about me, Mike. Maybe you used to—in fact, no—scratch that. If you did, you’d never have rejected me like that.”

“Ara, I didn’t reject you. I just asked you to wait a second while I processed what was happening between us. You shook me up, girl. I wasn’t expecting you to throw your arms around my neck and kiss me.”

“Yeah, well—” I looked up at him, keeping my arms folded, “—it was a mistake. You and I. All of it. Nothing but a big, fat mistake. Now, it’s time I fix things—put them all back in the right place.”

“What are you saying?” He grabbed my wrist; I yanked it back.

“I’m saying, I. Love. David, Mike. Not you.” The lie came out through my lips like a hot breath; I couldn’t even gasp the words back in—they just fell out.

When Mike dropped his head, even the shadowed darkness did nothing to hide his pain. “So that’s it then?” His voice quaked. “You’re just going to throw it all away because of some boy you just met?”

“He’s not just some boy, Mike. He’s my one true love.”

Mike nodded, clenching his fists beside him. “You’re not a child anymore, Ara. It’s time you grew up. All this true love and fairy-tale bullshit!” His angered voice touched my nerves. “It’s not real. He is not your true love. He’s a random stepping stone, a fall back guy—a—a bloody infatuation.”

“Don't say that word!” I screamed at him, clenching my fists. “I never want to hear that word. You don't know. None of you know. You don't have a clue what I feel—what I've gone through.”

“Tell me then, Ara—” He stepped closer. “Tell me, so I understand.”

I looked at him for a moment longer, swiping my shaking hand across my nose before I sunk to the ground, curling into a ball. “I can't do it. I can't do it anymore, Mike.”

He fell to his knees and wrapped me up in his arms. “What, baby?”

“I'm so tired. I'm so goddamn tired. I just can't do it anymore.” It was all too much. I missed David like I needed air, like I couldn’t breathe anymore. Mike made it all feel better, made the air thinner, easier to take, but I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t fix how hurt I was that he pushed me away in the first place. I just couldn’t fix it.

“Ara. Baby, talk to me. Why are you shaking?”

“It’s all gone.” I closed my eyes tight. “It’s all—all of it. I don't wanna do this anymore, Mike. I don’t wanna do this anymore.”

Mike took a deep breath, letting it out with a loud groan. “Look—I hurt you. I’m sorry for that, okay? But you don’t love him. Not like you love me.”

“Ara,” Mike said softly, “I’m not giving up yet. I know you better than you know yourself.”

“Then tell me what to do,” I sobbed, pressing my fists into my eyes. “Just tell me what to do.”

“Come home with me. Let me love you.”

“It won't make it okay. It’ll never be okay.”

“I know. Ara, we can't take back what happened. We can only try to move forward. But if you let me, I’ll take care of you. I’ll hold you until all the hurt just hurts less. Please—let me do that.”

I took a deep, jagged breath. “I can't. I can't, because when I do—when I decide to, I die inside.”

“Why, Ara? Why do you feel that way? I—I don't understand.”

“You can’t, Mike. You can’t, because you don't understand love.”

He drew back a little. “This isn't just about losing your mum and Harry, is it?”

“You’re serious? All this is about David?” He motioned to my ruined self on the floor of the school auditorium.

I nodded again, my chest quivering, my snotty nose snivelling.