I clicked my tongue. “I wish I could fix this, Em. I really do.”

She shook her head, looking out the window. “There is no fixing it. There's not even any point. They're gone and we just have to move on.”

“Exactly,” I said, waving my ring hand in front of her.

She smiled. “I guess I see your point now. But…David still wants you, Ara. I’m sure of it. If I had that choice—with Jason—I would’ve taken it. No matter what.”

“I know.” I rubbed her back gently. “Do you think he still thinks about you—Jason?”

Emily stood quietly with her arms folded, her eyes on the dreary day. “I hope so. I think about him from time to time. You never genuinely get over your first love, Ara. This—” She lifted my ring hand. “This will be a long journey for you.”

“Just…” she took a breath, “—if Mike steals you away, takes you back to Oz, will we still be friends?”

“Of course,” I said, dragging the word out. “I think we’ll always be friends.”

“I hope so.” She hugged me. “I’ve never met anyone like you. You’re so real, you know, you just, you’re honest with who you are.”

“Yeah. I mean, you have this weird bad joke thing, you dress how you wanna dress, and you tell it to me straight—you aren’t even pretending not to be in love with David, even though you’re marrying another man. I think that’s really cool.”

“So, what does Mike think—about David? Does he know how you feel?”

Emily sighed and looked out the window again. “I really don’t like him.”

“You don’t have to like him, Em. I do.”

“I know, but, I think that—” she hesitated, “—if he weren’t here, you would’ve gone with David.”

She suppressed a conceited smile and shrugged one shoulder. “I think you would.”

As I waved goodbye to Emily, Mike stood behind me with one hand in the small of my back and the other waving. “She hates me,” he said as her car disappeared down the street.

“No. She just doesn’t understand.” I turned and closed the front door. “She thought David and I were a sure thing. And so, all of this—” I held up my ring hand, “—is a little sudden for her.”

“I get it. No offence taken. So?” He stood taller and grinned. “Terminator or The Mummy?”

Mike walked up the stairs and when the door to his room closed, I headed into the kitchen.

“Hey, honey.” He looked up from his newspaper for a second.

“No news is the only good news,” he scoffed.

I shook my head. “You know, Mum still said that all the time.”

“Did she?” he said absently, staring up blankly at the wall.

Poor Dad. With a soft sigh, I walked over to sit on the chair beside him. “How long, Dad? Before you stopped missing her when she left?”

He sniffed once and folded his paper, smoothing it out on the table. “Never.”

He looked into my eyes then. “I never stopped missing your mother. Sure, after about ten years or so it got easier to bear, but I still miss her, even now.”

“I did wrong by her, Ara. I made one stupid mistake and I lost her. But when you love someone, like I loved her, you will always miss them. I try not to think of her if I can.”

“But, you love Vicki, right? Doesn’t that make it easier?”

He nodded thoughtfully. “That’s the only reason I didn’t go back and beg your mom to forgive me. I did love Vicki—do love Vicki, I mean,” he said with a laugh. “But, I loved your mom, too.”

It hurt to hear him speak of her in the past tense like that.

“I don’t think you ever truly get over losing someone you love. But, it gets easier after time passes, and you can get through the days without missing them so much,” he added, probably in response to my horrified expression. He couldn’t know how much I was relating his story to my own experiences with boys. He was the only person I could think of that suffered a loss as great as mine. I needed to know if there was a life after love—after true love. “Is this about David?” he asked.

“Ara, Mike loves you. He’s been trying to ask you to marry him for the last year.” Dad cupped his hand over mine. “He was so worried you’d turn him down that he almost asked me to ask you for him.”

“Yes, honey. Look, I know you love David, but you loved Mike first—and if you thought you could move on from love once, then there’s a good chance you can do it again, right?” He patted my hand.

He was right. It was just going to take some time. But, of course I’d move on—eventually. Nothing ever lasted forever, right? “See? That’s why you’re a teacher, Dad. The all-knowing.” I waved my hands around in the air, then stood up and kissed him on the cheek. “Love you, Dad.”

“I uh…I need to talk to you.”

“Dad!” I slammed my palms on the table and stood up.

“Ara. Sit back down. We need to discuss this.”

“Why now?” I felt the blanket of fury wrap my shoulders. “Mike’s waiting for me to watch a mo—”

“And he’ll wait. You can’t keep avoiding this. The insurance policy has cleared the account. I need to know what you want me to do with the money.”

My lip quivered as I looked down at my feet. Blood money. The money a company paid out because my mother no longer existed. A consolation. Condolences in the form of green notes. “Keep it. Give it to Sam.”

“Ara. Your mother took that policy out so that you could take care of yourself if she were no longer around.”

“I can do that without money, Dad!”

“No, you can’t,” his voice grumbled, peaking above anger. “She’s gone, Ara-Rose. She’s not coming back, no matter what tortures you inflict on yourself. No amount of your own suffering will change what happened.” He reached for my hand; I kept it tight in the fold of my arms, biting my lip. “Honey, just take the money. Use it to start your life. Use it to—”

“You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

“I’m sorry. I haven’t wanted to bring it up again. I know it’s hard for you, but—”

“Just put it in a trust fund,” I said finally. “Put it in a high interest account until I turn eighteen or something.”

“I hope you’re happy.” I spun on my heel and stormed away.

Something about the lazy tone of the day made me edgy. Dad and Mike played chess in the formal dining room, Vicki hung laundry on the clothesline, and Sam stood talking to Mr Warner over the fence. My old companion, the swing, rocked gently under me while I strummed my way through months of painful memories, trying to find some sense in it all.

My life had changed so quickly; from being a normal teenager, going to school, practicing for my big ballet recital, to losing my family, then my first true love, all while discovering the existence of monsters.

Perhaps that was it. Perhaps it wasn’t the calm quiet that had my gut churning. Perhaps it was the monster called truth—the knowing in my heart that tonight, on the last stroke of midnight, the part of me that wouldn’t believe David was gone would turn, look up at the clock tower on the chamber building and hope he’d tap me on the shoulder and ask me to dance. But it was only a hope. Both me and myself knew he wouldn't show.

Vicki looked over, shaking her head. “Ara, dear, you should be inside doing your makeup.”

I sighed, tuning my guitar. “I don’t need makeup under a mask, Vicki.”

“Of course you do. It’ll—”

But I fazed her out, strumming random chords while the representation of my confused brain paced around in my head, calling himself Holmes. Nothing really made sense anymore. When things happen in life, after time passes, I could usually always see some reason, some lesson I needed to learn from it. But losing my mum, moving here to meet my first true love, then losing him, too, made no sense at all. It all just seemed pointless.

I dropped my fingers from their position on the strings, letting the song die without a name. The whole world seemed pointless. But I couldn’t let my mind wander that path; the trying-to-find-meanings-or-reasons-for-life path. Every time I walked that road, I came to the same conclusions, leaving that train of thought with nothing more than a large suitcase of frustration. Perhaps we were here to love, or to experience many trials—or maybe even to feel. I didn’t know. Pain was the only one that even touched the reality of living. So, maybe the meaning of life was to cram as much pain and heartache as we could into the puny timeline of our miserable existence.

Satisfied with that dismal conclusion, I started playing again, watching through the window as Dad and Mike played chess. It was like looking across the waters of reflection, reading the story of my life; two elements of my past—from different worlds—coming together in battle. They moved in slow motion; Mike rolling his head back, laughing at Dad’s witty move; Dad coughing into his hand at Mike’s reaction. And it occurred to me then, as I watched their hands meet in the offer of peace, that this was it. That was my Dad and my fiancé. There would be no more boys for me. Mike would be my first—and my last. A chapter of my life had ended before it even began.

Perhaps that’s why my dad liked Mike so much; he’d never have to worry about me ending up with a loser—or alone. But that didn’t save me from eternal loneliness.

Losing my soul to the calm whisper of the breeze and the warm September sun, I hummed softly, singing a few of the words to a song—one that made my soul ache to hear, but to play, only seemed to bring clarity. “I wish I could see you, but you went away; you left me defenceless, in the cold and the rain. I found my way home, and the world was all right, ‘til the darkness came, and took my knight.

“When I look in the mirror, the face that I see, wears the scars of her past well, but she isn’t me. I lost myself somewhere, when I walked to the light. For the darkness came and took my knight.”

The melody rang in my ears, forcing a tiny, stinging tear to the corner of my eye. I never cared much for the words before, but today, it seemed they were written just for me.

By my foot, a grey fluff-ball meowed, forcing his spine against my ankle. “Feel like flying up into a tree, Skitz?” I joked with a weak smile as I placed the guitar on the ground and let my heart sink down with it.

The cat looked up at me, his big, yellow eyes soft and round.

“I should hope you like me a lot—since you’re marrying me.”

“Nah.” He placed his hand down on the grass, the rest of his body sinking into it. Skittles leaped onto his front paws, ready to run if Mike was a threat, but then just closed his eyes, without re-adjusting his position, and started purring. Mike laughed at him. “Your dad’s too quick. He beat me twice.”

“He never beat my mum, you know? Not once,” I said.

“You’re not upstairs putting on your war paint?”

His soft tone provoked my tears; I forced them back with a shrug. “It won’t take long once I start.”

“Hm.” He picked a strand of grass and curled it around his finger.

“Are you sure you want to do this, baby? It’s not too late to change your mind.”

Mike pushed up off the ground, shuffling over to kneel in front of me. “You don’t have to marry me. I’ll be okay if you say no.”

“Why would you think I don't want to marry you?”

A watery glaze glimmered under the light of the sun in his eyes. “Since I asked you, you haven’t been happy. Not really.”

“I know. But is trying enough, Ara? Am I enough?” The pain in his words came through with the firm clasp of his fingers around my hips. Mike was scared—I could feel it. He had as much to lose here as I did. I mean, was love enough for this relationship to work, when it wasn’t enough for David and I?

“I just need to get away from here, I think, Mike.” My voice trembled. “I wanna go home.”

“Ara. Baby.” He pulled the swing into him, wrapping me up in his arms. “That’s fine. We’ll go. We’ll leave tomorrow, if you like?”

“I would—but, I think we better plan it properly first.” I flashed him a grin, which he returned.