“Oh, baby girl. You’re gonna be so happy. I promise. I’ll buy you a house and give you everything you want.” He squeezed me way too tight, forcing me to hold my breath against the base of his jaw. “I love you so much.”

And that was the truth. It felt good. Normal.

I knew I should be with Mike, should go home to Perth—and everything would be right again in the world.

The quiet whispers of my family lilted up the stairs, carrying my mind back from the hold of a masked stranger’s gaze. Her blue eyes stared out at me from a place and time I no longer belonged. She was the lie after the truth, hiding behind this beauty in a blue dress. And I couldn’t stand the sight of her.

Somewhere, at some point, I’d split in two. The innocent, dream-believing girl that tragedy left behind disappeared when David ran away with my heart. I was his picture of beauty, created by him, for him, but I’d never feel his cool fingers under the ribbon of my corset, holding me close as we twirled in our graceful, eternal dance. All that was left was the other half of me—the shell. And I’d dusted enough shimmer powder over my skin that I could almost disguise myself as a sparkly vampire. No one could see the depths of my darkness underneath. Except Mike. He knew there was something different—that something had changed. But I bet he never even conceived of the idea that my depression went so deep the fear they all had that I’d top myself was slowly creeping into possibility. I’d overheard him tell my dad he was worried—that I might be depressed. My dad just said it wasn’t a possibility; it was a fact, and all we could do was just be here for me. But the ever-watchful eye of my fiancé was getting overbearing. When he came to my room earlier, I called him to enter, completely ignorant to the fact that, while I was standing by my mirror, trying to re-pierce my ear, I was only wearing my underwear and bra.

“Hey, kid.” He grinned, his eyes falling over my bare curves.

“Mike!” I scrambled for something to cover myself with. “Shut the door! My dad might walk past.”

“Relax, baby.” He looked behind him, closing the door, then sauntered across the room. “You look gorgeous.”

“I look like a girl in her underwear.” I leaned in front of the mirror again, forcing the silver stud against the unyielding hole in my earlobe. “I’m just trying to get this damn thing to go in.”

“Nah, I’m fine.” I glanced away from the mirror long enough to see his smiling eyes trace my shoulders and ribs, fixing on my blue lace undies.

“Yeah, I bought them to match my dress.” I slapped his hand off my hip.

“What about this? Have you always had a strapless bra, or is that new too?”

“Well, you look very sexy—” his voice dragged, “—a little too sexy for an unmarried girl.”

“Stop it.” I slapped his hand away again. “I can’t concentrate while you keep doing that.”

“Okay, but, good luck.” I placed the earring in his waiting hand. “I haven’t been able to get one in that hole for over a week.”

The warmth of his breath touched my neck as he leaned close, stud in fingertips, and fumbled against my earlobe until I heard a small ‘pop’. “All done.”

“Thanks.” I rubbed my ear. It burned a little.

“Is the other one okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just this one—it keeps closing. I don’t know why.”

“Start wearing your earrings and it won’t happen.”

“I can’t. I hate sleeping in them. So?” I leaned my butt on the dresser, rolling my hand in the air. “Did you want something?”

“Oh, um—” He unfolded his arms. “I came to see if you were hungry. I uh, I haven’t seen you eat anything today.”

“Because, maybe if I don’t eat, I’ll die.” I flopped backward on my bed with a huff.

“Ara, grow up, you don’t mean that.” He stood above me, his arms folded.

“Well—” he grabbed my hand and pulled me to sit, “—then you need to get some help, baby. That’s not normal.”

I forced a smile, tilting my head. “Mike. You worry too much. I’m fine. Really.”

“Ara? Sane girls don’t say they’re trying to starve themselves to death.”

“I didn’t really mean it—not literally.” I stood up. “Now go, let me get dressed or I’ll be going to the ball in my underwear.” I waved my hands down my body.

“Huh,” he scoffed, “you should. You’d be the belle of the ball, Ara.”

“Suck up.” I opened my door for him.

“Oh, in case I didn’t mention it,” he said, pecking me on the cheek as he passed, “you look hot like that.”

“You might have.” I rolled my eyes and shut the door.

The black and white image fused with colour as my mind came back to the present. All around me, night had fallen into complete silence; the crickets hushed, even the voices downstairs—leaving a kind of stillness that left me breathless, listening carefully for any signs of life. When I looked back at the girl in the mirror, my eyes flashed from her pale face to the wiry shadows behind her, the resonance of a familiar gaze lingering in my immediate memory—a reflection from the world I lived in. My head whipped up. I spun around and ran to grasp my windowsill, hope filling my heart as I held back the call of his name on my lips, leaning out into the dusk air.

But below, the quiet street was empty; the streetlamp, spilling circles of white light onto the pavement, flickered a few times, and that same silence I’d come to hate greeted hope and I with a wall of emptiness.

I backed away from the window—away from the absence of anything that resembled life, then turned to my mirror and waited for the girl in the blue dress to look at me again. The face we thought we saw was not David—merely physically manifested wishful thinking; the only thing outside my window was the beginning of another night. And for the rest of my life now, that’s all there’d ever be.

I closed my bedroom door and headed down the stairs, seeing my dad’s eyes tear up like sudden rain.

“You look so pretty, honey. Just like your first ballet concert.”

“Uh, yeah, well, just don’t lift me onto your shoulders this time.”

“Why, not? You’re still my little girl.” He looked up at me where I stopped on the last step.

“Honey, you’ll always be my little girl.”

“I wonder what’s taking Ara so lo—” Mike stopped dead as he walked in; his arms dropped, his lips split into a pearly smile, and his eyes, from behind a small black mask, glistened. “Ara.”

He leaped up onto the step. “Aw, baby, look at you.”

“You like it?” I brushed my hands down my hips.

He shook his head slowly, considering my dress. “More than the outfit I saw you in when I re-pierced your ear.”

“Come on then.” Vicki held a camera up and waved us off the stairs. “Time for pictures.”

“Ara, this might be the last ball you ever go to,” Vicki reasoned. “I want memories.”

“Oh, fine.” I huffed, and Mike grinned at me with a kind of enthusiasm that wasn’t there when he was forced to escort me to the last ball we went to.

Vicki posed us in awkward and weird places to snap her memories, but the world slowed down around me, and I stood in the warm embrace of my fiancé, smiling for reasons I could only pretend I felt, watching everything move as if it were on screen—a film with no volume. The voices, the wind, the laughter, all gone—everything in my world was silent, empty—wrong. This should have been David; it was always supposed to be David, but once upon a time, I’d have said the same about Mike.

Everything was back where it was before—before the universe flipped the hourglass, before I lost everything in my world that grounded my soul, and before I ever knew anything about David Knight.

Now, I was in the arms of the one I was destined to be with all along.

It was an odd learning curve, and a painful one, but I just had to accept it. When I got home, when I landed in Perth and went home to Mike’s house, she wouldn’t be there—around the corner. Mum was gone. Harry was gone. And I had to move on.

This was moving on.

I closed my eyes and let the world pass by for a moment, spinning, like the snow in a musical, glass dome. When I opened them again, fairy lights twinkled from the tall white trunks of leafless trees, and soft music filled my ears as sound suddenly enhanced my world again.

An almost magical glow seemed to surround everything. The majestic old council chamber sat tall as the backdrop to the dim, candle-lit space, and masked dancers twirled around the floor with hypnotic cadence—sweeping and bowing to the harmony of a string quartet.

Mike and I stood at the cusp of the wooden dance floor, surrounded by the beauties, but my eyes delighted only in the canopy of stars, observing the Masquerade from the kingdom above.

“No.” I felt kind of lost, like I was alone in the crowded space. The dance floor, the stairs, and even the balcony off the council chamber were filled with people—masked strangers, just like me—but for all I felt in my soul, the court could’ve been completely empty.

“Would you like some refreshments before we dance?” Mike gestured toward the balcony.

“I’m fine.” I tucked my arms into my chest, wondering if David was here—watching.

“Would you like to dance?” Mike bowed, offering his hand.

“Aw, come on, Ara. First rule of a dance is never to refuse a dance,” he said with a grin, stealing my hand.

Rolling my eyes, I sunk into a curtsy, obliging Mike, and with one step over the threshold of the dance floor, he swept me into his safe, strong arms, and we joined the flow of dancers like a rose petal on the breeze; never missing a beat. I followed each step of Mike’s wide stride, closing the movement with a short, gliding turn, making patterns like circles around the room. “When did you learn to dance like this?” I asked, very impressed.

“Well, a guy’s gotta know a few tricks if he’s gonna get the girl.” He flashed his cheeky grin, and a small flutter started my heart.

“I like this new you,” I said, turning my head in the direction our hands led us.

“Good, because this is the me you’ll be marrying.”

The music faded out then, and the room came to a standstill; Mike kissed my hand and bowed, while the rest of the crowd softly applauded the musicians.

“Can we go find Em and the others now?” I asked.

“Of course, Ara. This is your night. We can do whatever you want.” He looked over his shoulder. “Come on, we’ll go to the balcony—it’ll be easier to see from up there.”

As we passed through the crowd, they parted for us, turning their heads; I leaned closer to Mike and whispered, “What are they staring at?”

“Why? Is my bra showing?” I quickly tucked my thumb around the rim of my dress.

“No, baby.” He laughed, pushing my hand down. “It’s just because, of all the beauty here tonight, you’re the brightest thing in the room.”

Shrinking into myself, I glanced at the other costumes; pale grey, coffee, burgundy, black—no blue. I was the only girl in a colour this bright. “Great. I feel like a wasp at a bumblebee convention.”

Mike laughed. “Well, you look like the flower.”

We stopped by the balcony railing and looked down onto the room of dancers, swirling under a blanket of stars. I felt like a god between worlds.

“Wow, it’s so much prettier from up here.”

“Yeah. These Yanks really know how to throw a shindig.”

He just grinned, inching away from the slap he expected. But as he turned back to lean on the railing again, he stopped, watching a young couple giggle their way into the darkness on the other side of the chamber court. “What’s down there?”

I looked too. The gardens were dark, the lights, usually lining the paths that wound through the endless trees and wide planes of grass, were switched off—an obvious attempt to deter hot-blooded teens. Little did the planning committee realise, that dark spaces made it so much easier to be…’romantic’.

“Do you think your friends might be down there?”

“Don't think so,” I said with a sigh. Above, the clock on the tower chimed nine; its hollow, long tolls haunting and dreary, like warning bells down the streets of death and plague.

He nodded a few times, his eyes narrowing. “You’re missing him…aren’t you?”

“I—” I drew a breath and looked away; there was no point in lying.