“Ara, I know you don't want to hear this, but I'm gonna say it anyway, okay?” He touched my shoulder.

“I have to, baby. You—you’re not okay. You need a hand to guide you right now, and I—I know you better than anyone. This isn’t normal—the way you feel. This is grossly magnified by grief. This love you feel for David—it isn't real.”

I looked up at him quickly. “You’re wrong, Mike.” The beast inside me grew—rising up from the ashes of disaster as I clambered to my feet. “It’s you I don't feel for.”

He stood too. “Ara, that’s not true and you know it.”

“It is true,” I screamed. “I stopped feeling for you the day my family died. And I don’t care if that hurts you, because you need to know.”

“I’m sorry, but...I want you to go home, Mike. We’re never gonna be what we were. It’s all just too broken now. I just can’t forgive you for pushing me away.” Then, hurriedly, before guilt could set in, I turned and headed for the door. But the light barely even touched my face before I realised what that would have done to him. I couldn’t see him, but I could feel the cold in the room from the detachment of his soul.

The thing was, if he couldn't understand what I felt for David, then he couldn't understand how to love me. We’d never be right for each other.

Holding my head high, with pride moving my feet, I kept walking, even though I knew, deep down inside, beneath the ogre, beneath the pain I always felt, I loved him, and I wanted him to take me home.

“Say it again!” Mike ordered, grabbing my wrist, whirling me into the cage of his arms. “Say it like you mean it and I’ll go. But you don’t, Ara.” He studied me carefully, his eyes darting over every inch of my face. “You don’t mean it. Say it!” He shook me.

My lip quivered and a cold tear rolled over my cheek. It was suddenly very clear that he wasn’t as sure I loved him as he said he was. He believed me when I said I didn’t care for him—just as I’d wanted him to.

“That’s it, is it? Nothing? You have nothing to say to me?” His voice cracked above the controlled hysterics. “After all these years, after…after all the…” He let go of my arms, backing away as his hand covered his mouth. “Oh, God. I did this. I did this.”

Even though my face crumpled with the saturation of regret, I refused to let myself hide in my hands. He needed to see I was hurting, too. He needed to know how I felt. If I couldn’t tell him now, I’d lose him forever. But I couldn’t speak. My chest felt so tight the words wouldn’t come. If only he was like David, I could say in my mind, I’m so sorry, Mike. I love you. I love you! And I want you to know that. I just…I’ll always love David, though. Always.

Above the silence, a mighty growl suddenly broke through.

Mike looked up at me, his eyes then falling to my belly as the ogre made a last demand for nourishment.

“When did you last eat?” He looked back at my face, and in the pale light from outside, I noticed the hint of a smile around the corners of his eyes.

A loud huff of air burst out through his wide grin. “I shoulda known.” His arms flew up and wrapped around me, pulling me into his chest with a jolt. “I shoulda known you could never say things like that.”

As my breath struggled through his strangle hold and into my lungs, I tried to push away from him, to protest against his sudden change in direction. But he squeezed me tighter and shook his head.

“No way, baby girl. I am not letting you go.”

So, with a sigh, my shoulders dropped and I gave in, let him hold me—let his warm, strong embrace make me feel safe and loved again. The way he always made me feel.

“Just say it though, please?” He held my shoulders, looking down into my face. “Just so my heart will believe my ears. Please just tell me you didn’t mean any of it?”

“You know I didn’t, Mike,” I said very softly.

His chest shuddered. “I’m so sorry I yelled at you, baby.” He gathered me up; I folded into him willingly, letting him make an apology for something he need not apologise for. “I was just so worried. If I’d lost you—if you were gone, I…I just don’t know what I would’ve done.”

Even though I knew he was referring to the fact that I ran away this morning, a small part of me wondered if what he really meant was, if I didn’t love him, or if I truly wanted him to go back home.

And that made me feel happy, in a silly kind of way, that he could love me so much, to be so devastated if I would not love him in return.

When we walked through the front door back home, Dad didn’t even bother grilling me. I half expected to become the steak to his side of fries with way too much salt. But he just hugged me—held me tight, like I mattered more to him than anything in the world—then handed me back to Mike before walking away, without saying a word.

“Food?” he said with a gentle smile.

The last chimes of the principal’s speech resonated in my thoughts. Even with my eyes closed, I could feel the pale glow of the spotlight over me as my fingers scaled across the keys, breaking the hearts of those in the crowd tonight.

Of all the worlds my mind created, this, where I lived each day, was the most painful one; the world that hovered on the wrong side of truth—the one I could not escape from, even if I closed my eyes or woke myself up. In this world, everyone I loved was gone, and the boy the crowd mourned, Nathan, was gone too. No matter how much we played for him, he would never hear our songs, but I would play for them anyway—for all those who lived only in my memories. Including David.

I truly believed he’d come tonight, but mine was the last performance, and so far, he hadn’t showed. So, I sang the words of the song from memory, not from my heart. All the joy, all the passion I once felt when singing was non-existent—dead, weighted like heavy rain. But my music teachers taught me well how to perform when everything around me was falling away. No one in the crowd would have known how much I was suffering for the painful realisation that all this was real. That David really was gone.

We finished the song to a standing ovation. Mike wiped a mock tear from his cheek; I smiled at him, then took a bow and sat back down at the piano for my solo.

After a deep breath, I closed my eyes, and in the moment it took to open them again, the room went dark and ultimately quiet. A wispy cool encircled me; the absence of life filtering emptiness into my world. I sat taller and looked around the vacant auditorium.

I was alone; everyone was gone.

How long had I been sitting here?

A whisper of a memory salted my thoughts, making me look down at my bone-white, numb fingers. I remembered playing. I remembered the faces of the audience—how, afterward, they greeted me and shook my hand. I had smiled and nodded, while inside, I was dying. I could see it all as it happened, but couldn’t remember living it. I wondered if Dad or Mike were looking for me—worried about me.

My posture sunk a little as I made myself smaller and took a few shallow breaths. Truth was, I really didn’t care if they were worried. I just wanted to play, rain my heart into a song until it no longer felt like it was bleeding.

Ignoring the tension of the impending grilling, I placed my fingers to the keys again. Each note poured through them like rainbow-coloured grief—strings of light that, with every pull on my heart, tore away another part of my soul; brought to the surface another emotion, another painful memory I thought I’d locked away for good.

Through all of this that I’d suffered, I knew that, inside, I was destroyed. I would never be the same again. I tried once, to move on, to be normal, but with the loss of David, of my one true love, I knew that moving on was never in the cards for me. Whatever my existence here was fated to be, happiness was not it. David was not it.

Like a strong link to a powerful memory, the faint hint of a familiar scent touched my lungs. I drew a deep breath of orange-chocolate, and my body rejoiced the sensation of oxygen, as if I’d not taken a breath since I last held David.

My head whipped up; I looked back to the chairs that only hours ago had been filled with friends and family, and all of a sudden, in the middle seat, softly lit by the light from the corridor outside, I saw a face.

He stood up slowly, like a ghost weighed down by the anguish in the world.

How long had he been there? What had he heard in my thoughts while he was watching me?

“I know this is hard.” He appeared behind me, his smooth, ethereal voice shattering my heart. “But you knew this. Breaking up was never going to be easy.”

“So, that’s what this is?” I asked in a quiet voice, looking down. “We’re broken up, now?”

“But...maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to—” I spun around on the seat and stopped dead when I looked at him; it ached inside to see his face after I was sure I’d never lay eyes on him again.

He shook his head. “You can’t be like me. I’ve spent so much time thinking about it—desperate to find some way this could work. But, Ara? There’s no saying you even carry the gene. What if we tried and you—” He shook his head again. “No. You have to take a chance at life. You have to live it to its fullest before I could even dream of changing you.”

“No.” He placed his thumb to my lips. “If you die, Ara, without ever knowing life, motherhood, I could not live with myself. It is better to have lived your life in heartache, than never to have lived at all.”

“I know. I do know that. And—” I pictured my future, my children, my wrinkled skin. “And I want a life, but…but the heartache is worse than I thought.”

David looked at my hand, over my heart, and nodded. “I know.”

We held our gaze for a long moment, leaving our future resting on the pause of a few simple words. After a while, I sighed, turning my face away when the words refused to come.

“He’s right for you, you know.” David broke the silence, though the tension stayed as thick as blood.

“I want you to be with him. I want you to go back to Perth with him.”

“I see in his thoughts, Ara. I watch him with you. He loves you—deeply.” He lost his voice on the last word, closing his eyes as he said it.

“I know, David. I know he loves me, and—I love him too.” I had to whisper, afraid my words would wound him forever; like somehow, making my voice low might take away some of the sting. “But I can’t go with him. I can’t. I just can’t leave you here al—”

“Ara. Be smart.” David dropped to his knees in front of me. “I can’t have you here, lingering in a place I may one day return. That’s not living. You have to go—you have to be far away so I can never find you.”

“No. I won’t do it. I won’t return and ruin your life and, knowing how close you are—that I could just drive to you—would be more agony than I could bear.”

The tears in my eyes turned to thick droplets as they spilled onto my cheeks and over my lips. He was right. It would be selfish of me to wait around here for him—to hope he might change his mind and become a fake human. If he left his Set, he’d have nothing, and one day, I’d be gone anyway. At least, for now, we suffered the absence in union—desolate union.

“Please, just don't make me say goodbye, David. Go, leave me, but don't make me say it.”

He smiled and sat beside me on the piano stool. I tried to steady my pulse, pushing away the memory of the first time I saw that dimple; how I wanted nothing in the world except him—just him. Life or death or murder meant nothing—I just wanted him. “This is not goodbye, Ara. Not yet. I still have a few more days.”

“I know.” I cleared my throat. “Until the last red leaf falls, right?”

“Until the last red leaf falls,” he said with a grin.

I touched my fingertips to David’s face, and he held my hand to his cheek, closing his eyes. My heart picked up with the desire to lay against him—safe in his strong, loving arms—held tight, like nothing could ever bring me harm.

If only we could run away—run from everything. Run from reality and the supernatural, run from fate and tragedy. But we couldn’t.

“Where will you go—what will you do when I’m gone?” I asked.

He looked down and then smiled as our eyes met again. “See the pyramids.” He shrugged. “Always wanted to fly a silver plane, too.”

“Don’t you ever forget, Ara, how much I love you.” He placed both hands on my face, then turned my head slowly. “And you still, and always will, belong to me.”

I nodded, rolling my cheek into his thumb as he wiped a tear away. Then, he slowly lowered his lips to mine, and like so many times before, they fit to perfection, as if we were made for each other—but so cruelly unsuited to each other. We’d kissed for love, kissed for lust, for happiness and thankfulness, but this was a kiss of sorrow, of loss and despair, yet so full of love—so soft and so gentle. Like a beast handling priceless porcelain.