Fifteen

☼►nine◄☼

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Fffthump, fffthump, fffthump. Page after page, Anthony frowned down at the CD binder, and I rolled my eyes at the exaggerated pout on his face. Suddenly, he gasped and slipped a CD out of its sleeve, passing it over to Della. She set the disc in the stereo, and a soft crackling noise filled the room before I’m a Slave 4 U started playing.

Liza laughed. “Of course you’d choose this.”

“It’s Britney, bitch!”

I shook my head and went back to twisting Liza’s wet hair into thin braids. She’d wanted wavy hair the next day and figured going to sleep with dozens of plaits was easier than waking early to curl her hair. I hadn’t argued that it was only less work on her - I was roped into it under the argument that I was doing little else anyway.

As Britney Spears continued singing, I stared down at my hands, made sure the braids were even and no flyaway hairs lingered outside of their confines. Della cleared her throat from where she sat by the window; I looked up in time to see her blowing on her freshly-painted nails, staring at me with something in her eyes that I wasn’t sure I wanted to figure out.

“Think I have a chance with Harry?” she asked after a long minute, kicking at Anthony when he snorted derisively. “Shut up.”

Her eyes found mine again, and I shrugged helplessly. “I have no idea. We don’t really talk about stuff like that.”

Her brown eyes narrowed, and I swallowed thickly. All I could hope was that she couldn’t see the sudden storm inside my chest. Recognising what I felt was hard enough without anyone else knowing, and I’d done my best to ignore the weird twisting in my gut whenever I was with Harry. He was nothing more than a friend, my first in this new country. Thankfully, Della let the subject drop, and Anthony changed the topic to their plans for the weekend.

Mister Howard poked his head into the room ten minutes later, flashed us all a pleasant smile. “Liza, say goodbye. It’s time for dinner.”

She pouted but did as directed. Della was the first to sweep from the room, calling out a See you on her way down the stairs. Anthony waited for me to finish tying off the last braid, then we walked out together. Liza’s father followed us to the foyer, and I’d just stepped outside when the door closed behind me with a sharp snap. Anthony grimaced in sympathy.

“He doesn’t hate you, I promise.”

I wrapped my arms around my midsection, irrationally hurt by the fact that Mister Howard still hadn’t warmed up to me in the months I’d known his daughter. He was a nice enough man on the surface, but I had a feeling that he didn’t trust me, the American outsider. Sighing, I shook away the thoughts and focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

At the end of the pavement, I waved at my friends and turned left while they went right. Evening had fallen already, the stretch of navy-black overhead interrupted by the street-lamps that illuminated the way. I breathed in deeply, relished the smell of fresh air and rain on the cool breeze - the same scents I knew from home, just four thousand miles away.

I shivered slightly, humming quietly to distract myself from the darkness around, and counted my steps until I reached the house. It wasn’t a particularly long walk; the shadows and eerie quiet made it seem worse than it was. Hazy lamp-light seeped through gauzy curtains, barely displaced the inky black, on either side of the road, families preparing for bed with their evening shows or time spent together.

Something I hadn’t known in years before I arrived in Holmes Chapel.

Locking the door behind me, I toed off my boots and set them aside. My coat was next, joining the others on the hooks. It amazed me how much a piece of fabric could look like it didn’t belong. Anne looked up from the book she was reading when I stepped into the family room.

“Hey. Enjoy your visit?”

“Yeah, it was fun, I guess.”

“I’m glad to hear that. There’s a plate for you if you’re hungry.”

My throat tightened at the consideration. I’d grown accustomed to having to make my own dinners over the last few years. I was considered old enough, and my parents both had jobs that required hours that ended long past dinnertime. Sophie used to do the cooking, and I would clean up. It was our routine.

I nodded shakily and headed to the kitchen. The television played quietly in the background as I slowly ate. There was no taste to the food - not on Anne’s part; I was certain that the meal was actually delicious - but because everything inside of me was at such odds with the rest.

It was awkward to eat alone again, considering Anne made it a point of the four of us being at the table together for meals, but I couldn’t let myself think about how similar this moment was to being home again. I swallowed down a sob with the last bite of chicken then hurried to wash the dishes I’d used.

“Della is gonna ask you out,” I announced, flopping to lie down on Harry’s bed, and he cracked open one eye to stare at me. I almost felt bad for waking him, but I could hardly stand the thought of being alone.

“What?”

“She likes you. She’s gonna ask you out.”

“D’she tell you this?”

“Not in so many words, but ‘Think I have a chance with Harry’ is pretty obvious.” I shrugged and scratched at my eyebrow. “Figured I’d let you know so you aren’t blindsided.”

He let out a soft humming noise that was barely heard over the music playing quietly, his eyes falling closed again. I stayed where I was even as his breathing evened out, grew deeper, and my heart began racing. Would he tell her yes? Something in my stomach dropped, swooped wildly, and my skin prickled. Heat flared to life in my nerves. I swallowed past the lump in my throat and closed my eyes.

I just needed a moment, only one, to soak up as much of his presence while I could. I had no idea what the future held, but if I could have this, I’d take it.

My fears were unfounded.

Della caught me nearing the group after lunch two days later and said a quick goodbye before walking away. I could only assume that meant she had asked Harry and been rejected. Knowing him, I was sure he had let her down easy, but I imagined it wasn’t a pleasant feeling.

I knew if I’d gotten the courage to tell him my feelings only for him to inform me that he didn’t feel the same, I’d most likely avoid anyone with connections to him, too. I stared after Della as she disappeared into the crowds, making a mental note to avoid talking about him at all until she recovered from it.

{~:~}


“Are you busy?”

I yelped, dropping Lullaby to the carpet, when Harry’s voice suddenly sounded in the otherwise silent room. My heart pounded beneath my ribs, and my breath came in shallow gasps. Covering my face with my hands, I forced myself to inhale as steadily as possible until I was calmed down, then I looked over at him. He was staring at me, wide-eyed and startled just as much as I was. Eventually, I ducked down to scoop up the novel and settled back against the pillows.

“Er, sorry.”

I shook my head and fidgeted with the tattered cover of my book. I hadn’t been alone with him for the last couple of days. The night I had told him about Della’s plans, I’d woken up around midnight in his bed, the room dark and warmth along my side.

Everything in me had screamed to just stay there, to sleep the night away with him, but the logical part of my brain had convinced me to scurry away to my own bed. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable or peaceful as it had been in his.

“What’s up?” I asked in lieu of saying anything that could make things even more awkward.

“Er, Gemma wants to know if you’d like to help us build a fort, make loads of popcorn, and watch horror films all night.”

“A fort? What are we, eight?”

I stared down at the book, tracing a finger lightly over Palahniuk’s name printed on the cover; I’d been looking forward to rereading Lullaby since I even got on the plane to leave home, but spending time with Harry and Gemma was equally enticing. Heaving out a sigh, I set the book aside and smiled at Harry.

“Only if you don’t judge me too harshly for me getting scared.”

“I still haven’t judged you for crying over a fictional character, so…”

“You have a point. Jerk. Did you ever finish that book, by the way?”

“I’ll do it tomorrow. Now c’mon, before Gemma decides to eat all the popcorn.”

I rolled my eyes and pushed myself to my feet. His arm hooked around my neck as we made our way down the hall to the family room. My chest clenched with something identifiable, heat washing over my skin at the touch, and I tried to put a name to the feeling.

After a second, I gave up. It wasn’t worth it, not if it meant things would be weird between him and me. I chose, instead, to focus on the bright grin that Gemma sent our way when appeared in the archway.

The family room was an utter mess, to put it simply. Pillows and blankets were spread haphazardly around, and Gemma had more in her arms. She immediately began tossing them to us, telling us where to place them. Harry protested weakly, saying he didn’t need to be ordered around. Judging by his sister’s face, she didn’t believe him. We all knew it.

“Gem, we’ve done this enough that I’m quite certain I know how to build a pillow fort!”

“Only because I tell you what to do every time,” she responded breezily as she pinned the hem of a blanket up.

I bit back a smile as the pair squabbled with each other, but I didn’t interfere. I merely did what Gemma ordered me to do. It was nice, entertaining, to listen to them.

The amusement faded quickly, drowned out by the hurt that reminded me I hadn’t had these kind of sibling arguments in years. Swallowing hard, I stepped out of the way so Harry could lob a couple pillows into the fort we’d built.

Once we were situated inside with enormous bowls of popcorn and dozens of bags of various candies, Gemma announced the start to our horror film marathon. My warning to Harry came true within minutes of the first film starting: I kept having to hide my face in a pillow or Harry’s arm, squeaking whenever Michael Myers suddenly appeared to kill another victim. Harry, darling boy that he was, didn’t seem to mind, nor did he laugh at me. He continuously whispered that I was okay and told me whenever it was safe to look again.

Gemma had no such compunctions, her giggles interrupting the screaming on the television. It wasn’t unkind laughter, so I couldn’t be upset or feel wounded. Besides, I was too distracted by yet another senseless murder to pay much attention to her.

Squeezing my eyes closed, I shoved my face against Harry and whimpered. His hand was gentle, soft and reassuring, as it ran over my hair. It would have sent my heart racing if my heart wasn’t already pounding with fear from the violence on-screen.

Gemma dropped off first after three and a half films. Her hand rested limply in the nearly-empty popcorn bowl, head falling onto the pillow she’d been using to prop herself up. Harry reached across me to carefully move his sister’s hand, and my breath caught in my throat at how close he was.

The light from the television cast him into the perfect silhouette; I scarcely dared to breathe as he dragged the bowl closer to us and gave me a cheeky grin before focusing on the movie - yet another Halloween instalment. I let my attention wander as people dropped like flies. Unfortunately, it landed on the boy next to me.

Confiding in him the secret of Sophie had allowed us to get closer. Trusting him was easier than breathing - I trusted him more than I thought I would. He had yet to hesitate to comfort me or make me laugh. He listened when I needed to talk, and he would babble on about nothing if I couldn’t find my words. It was the best friendship I could have asked for.

And I wasn’t going to do anything to ruin it.

No matter how badly I wanted to kiss him, or how I went a little weak in the knees when he smiled so hard, his dimples showed. How my heart raced or my palms got clammy. How I couldn’t breathe without drowning in the scent of him…

I had to ignore it, all of it. It would be too awkward, I thought, considering we were living in the same house and I was going home at the end of the school-year. Leaving would hurt me enough as it was, so what was the point in making it harder on myself?

I sighed, crunched down on a piece of popcorn, and glanced at Harry only to find him asleep next to me. His face was lax, smoothed out as he slept, and he looked so at peace. Lashes fanned across his cheekbones, long and dark spider-legs that danced with each minute twitch of his eyelids.

I exhaled slowly, and something in my heart told me that going home would mean I’d be losing one of the greatest people to ever come into my life. And that loss was going to hurt.

Footsteps sounded in the hallway, loud now that the credit music had finished playing. I instantly laid down and closed my eyes, pretending to sleep.

“Oh, so precious,” Anne murmured at the opening of the fort, then there came the sound of a camera shutter, a bright flash.

While waiting for her to go back to bed, I fell asleep for real.