Fifteen

☼►ten◄☼

Image


The sound of voices in the kitchen slowly registered in my mind, and I shifted to get more comfortable amid the sea of blankets. I wasn’t quite ready to wake up, to leave the fort and move from the warmth that enveloped me. No nightmares plagued my sleep, and I had an inkling as to why that was. Unfortunately, there was no hope of me falling back asleep - someone poked the tip of my nose, and I scrunched up my face.

“I know you’re awake,” Harry whispered, pressing his index finger against my nose again.

“So? I don’t wanna be.”

“C’mon, you can’t smell breakfast?”

“I don’t want breakfast.”

“Too bad,” muttered Gemma from behind me. “Mum will drag you from the fort kicking and screaming if you don’t go willingly.”

I pouted but conceded that maybe they were right. Pushing myself to sit up, I scrubbed my hand over my eyes and stifled a yawn. Something soft and fluffy hit me in the face; I spluttered for a moment before turning narrowed eyes on Harry. He flashed me a cheeky smirks then scrambled out of the fort, seconds before Anne’s voice came from the kitchen, calling us to breakfast.

Gemma rolled her eyes at her brother’s antics and followed after him, though much less crazed in her movements. I stayed behind, tossing pillows into a pile on the far side of the fort. The empty candy bags went into the popcorn bowls, ready for disposal, and I stacked them carefully on the coffee-table.

Laughter echoed from the other room, and I smiled to myself at the sound. Cheery mornings hadn’t been part of my routine in a long time, and it bloomed a warmth in my chest to hear it. It also served to remind me that I was still just an outsider, that it would never matter how long I was here.

I didn’t belong to this family, and they would never be mine.

The rest of the day went by in a blur. After I finally joined the others at the table and ate my fill, Gemma had invited me on a walk around the town. I took her up on it simply to be away from Harry. It was pleasant, to spend some time with her, considering we hadn’t had much of a chance since I arrived. We exchanged the occasional email, but that was all. She told me about her classes and asked how I was handling being so far from home.

“It’s… different,” I managed, and she laughed not unkindly. “I mean, I expected it to be, but things are better, even though it’s all so unfamiliar.”

“Well, we’re so glad to have you here. Mum is absolutely ecstatic to have a girl in the house while I’m gone.”

“She’s great. You and Harry are really lucky to have her as a mother.”

“What’s yours like?”

Gemma’s question brought me up short. What could I say about my mother that didn’t paint her in an awful light? It wasn’t her fault that she’d been devastated by Sophie’s disappearance.

However, I had to admit that she was to blame for the fact that she refused to move past it. Hell, we still lived in the same house in case my sister ever decided to come back. It was a long shot, a desperate hope, but I had no say in it. I did what my parents chose, and that was that.

Instead of admitting any of that, I just sighed. “She’s incredible.”

It wasn’t an outright lie - my mother had been incredible. She’d been an emergency operator since I was too young to remember much, but she never brought home the horrors. Our house was a bright spot whenever she was home; she taught us to play piano, paint and draw, how to bake. With all the activities she planned, our days were filled with ways to round out our personalities.

“She always said that she wanted us to see the beauty in life, because she heard the worst at work. She made holidays these huge, extravagant things. I don’t think there’s a time I went to bed without knowing she loves me.”

“She sounds amazing.” Gemma frowned and linked her arm with mine, forcing me to cross the street as a group of boys neared. “So, I have to ask, and you can tell me to bugger off if you want. But what’s going on with you and my brother?”

What?”

She giggled and poked my arm with a finger. “That tells me all I want to know.”

“There’s nothing to tell, Gemma.” I blew out a breath, glancing back over my shoulder when someone shouted. “Are you kidding me?”

Gemma followed my gaze, and her face darkened. Her hold on me tightened, fingers digging into my arm. We stayed silent as we walked at the same pace we had been, but I knew she was just as affected by the situation as I was.

My heart pounded painfully in my chest, adrenalin coursing through my veins. Half of me wanted to run, run back to the house and get away as quickly as possible, but the other half of me knew to cede to Gemma’s guidance. As the older one, she had more experience. More wisdom.

She caught my eye as we rounded the corner, and that was it. Her hand wrapped around mine, then we were off, sprinting down the pavement. Cool air bit my cheeks, my eyes watering, but I couldn’t stop. I just followed Gemma through the streets even after I became desperately lost - I couldn’t recognise where we were after the second turn, but neither of us slowed until we were certain we were no longer being followed.

Gasping, I leaned against the wall of a nearby garden and clutched at a stitch in my side. Gemma was breathing just as hard as I was, and she repeatedly looked around to make sure we were alone. I managed to catch my breath after a minute, standing upright, and stared around.

We were in a part of town that I wasn’t familiar with. None of my walks with Harry had ever brought me this far. She blew out a breath then pulled her phone from her pocket.

“Damn,” she muttered as she checked the time. “Mum is going to be worried.”

“You, you know how to get back, right?”

She snorted, nodding, and I let her link our arms together. Gemma turned us in what I could only hope was the right direction. Off we went, but I kept an eye out for the boys who had attempted to follow us.

Thankfully, Anne didn’t question our dishevelled appearances or how long we’d been gone by the time Gemma and I returned to the house. She merely smiled and asked if we’d enjoyed our walk.

It took all my willpower not to look at Gemma as I lied, said it was peaceful, before I decided to head down the hall. It might have been a dumb idea, one that begged to be tortured more, but I needed something safe at that moment.

And no matter how jumbled up I felt around him, Harry was the one who made me feel safest.

I knocked on his bedroom door but didn’t give him any time to reply before I pushed it open. My words vanished in a vacuum at the sight in front of me. His eyes slowly closed as I stared.

In his hands were a pair of wooden knitting needles, next to him a ball of yarn the same shade of freshly-fallen snow. Whatever he was making was nearly a foot long; the ends were neat and tidy, evidence of the love and care that had gone into the work.

Leaning against the doorframe, I crossed my arms over my chest and smiled, though my heart had inexplicably begun racing again. “I didn’t peg you for the knitting type.”

“It’s relaxing,” he bit out, words sharp with defence, and I sighed.

“Wasn’t trying to make fun of you, sheesh. I’m just... surprised, is all.”

“Sorry.”

“So when did you learn to knit?”

“Can you please come in and close the door? I don’t want the whole house knowing what I’m doing.”

“Your parents don’t know you knit?” I questioned even as I did what he asked. “Seems like it’d be a hard secret to keep, since you live in the same house and all.”

“No, they know. Mum is the one who taught me. I’m just - okay, if I tell you, you have to swear not to say a word to anyone.”

“Of course. I promise, cross my heart and hope to die and all that,” I added when he raised a brow.

His gaze never wavered, not for a long moment, but then he exhaled. “This is Gemma’s Christmas present. She’s always complaining that she can’t feel her face whenever she goes outside, so... this is my solution.”

“Oh, Harry, that’s really sweet. I’m sure she’ll love it.”

“I hope so, or I’ll have wasted loads of time.”

“Can, can you teach me?”

My voice trembled, meek and nearly inaudible, and he glanced at me from the corner of his eye. Nodding, he set his knitting aside and crossed the room to rummage through a drawer in the bottom of his bureau.

When he sat back down, it was beside me, and he passed over another pair of needles and a small skein of yellow yarn. I grimaced at the colour; yellow reminded me too much of Sophie, the sunshine she stole from us.

“It’s just to learn on,” he said quietly, his eyes soft. As if he knew what I was thinking.

Knitting turned out to be harder than it looked, and it looked plenty difficult to begin with. Harry was a patient teacher, though, not judging me whenever I messed up. He just gave advice and adjusted my grip on the needles. The mixture of emotions that usually plagued me faded the longer I sat there, though his warm fingers on mine made the rush come back.

I came dangerously close to bursting into tears when I finished two whole rows without dropping any stitches. The stitches might have been sloppy, uneven, but they were all there in a wonky line along the needle.

Disappointment reared its ugly head when I looked at Harry’s scarf, though I was quick to tamp it down. I’d done my best, and I had learnt a new skill. Besides, how could I let myself feel so horribly with Harry grinning brightly at me? My cheeks ached with my answering smile, but the warm blaze drowned out the discomfort.

“Wanna show you something.”

A soft clicking noise sounded as I set the needles down on his mattress, and I followed him across the room. He pulled open his cupboard with all the enthusiasm of a game-show host unveiling prizes, and his eyes never left my face.

My jaw dropped at the rows of bins there, stacked neatly and filled to the brim with skeins of yarn. Each bin was organised by colour, shades melting into the next. Turning away from the wall of rainbow in front of me, I gaped at Harry.

"Holy shit, H. There's so much!"

"Who are you making yours for?"

I looked back at the skeins, idly noting that none of the greens came close to the green of his eyes. "Uh, your - your mom."

"Then I say go with... this one." He slid a bin off its shelf, digging carefully through the various yarns until he emerged with one of the warmest pale blue I'd ever seen. "It's one of her favourite colours, and it's the softest one I've got."

I sat on the bed, ran my fingers over the yarn. Plush and soft, a cloud under my touch. I was almost envious that it was being used for Anne's scarf instead of something for myself. Once Harry picked up his needles again, I gathered up my own and got to work. The quiet between us was comfortable, the voice in the back of my mind no longer reminding me that I was still no closer to discerning what I felt for him.

All I knew was that no matter what, I loved this family. They'd welcomed me into the fold and treated me with such kindness. I would never deserve them. I would never be good enough, kind enough, selfless enough. Worthy enough. And I wasn't sure I could ever be selfish enough to try.

Yet here I was, knitting a scarf for the woman who had opened her arms and home to a strange kid from the United States. All because Anne was such a wonderful, generous woman. If she hadn't done so much to make me comfortable, I doubted I'd feel as welcome - or at home in a place I didn't really belong - as I did now. Undoubtedly, I'd still be struggling with missing my parents, my home.

Harry’s voice broke through my thoughts, warning me gently that my tension was fluctuating. I grumbled but relaxed my grip, and he huffed out a laugh next to me. My cheeks warmed as I nudged him with my shoulder; the contact sent something unidentifiable spiralling through me, and I chewed on my lower lip to focus on the pain instead of the feelings I’d developed for him.

Instead of the unsettling sensation that spread through me.

Instead of the way I knew it would hurt to leave this lovely family behind.