Fifteen

☼►nineteen◄☼

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Hazy moonlight poured through the window, stretched milky fingers through the room. The angle of the beams told me it was far too late for me to be awake, but awake I was. I couldn’t stop thinking about what Harry might have been doing, and those thoughts were making it impossible for me to sleep. Sighing, I flipped my pillow over, punched it into shape, and flopped back down.

Still, my brain wouldn’t shut off. Images of Harry dancing with Megan, laughing and holding her close, flooded behind my eyelids. My stomach threatened to expel everything I’d eaten at dinner, which hadn’t been much, the longer I laid there.

No matter how many times I scolded myself, there was no way of putting an end to my jealousy-induced thoughts.

“Are you still awake?”

Barley managing to control my twitching, I sighed and rolled over to face the door. Harry stood in the doorway, his bow-tie undone and hanging loose around his throat, a dark snake against crisp white. The dim moonlight couldn’t hide the slight smile on his face, as if he knew he’d startled me.

As if it was a consolation prize that I failed to win his affection.

That I was never even in the running. I hesitated. I sat up anyway. A hot twist of pain lanced through my chest as he pushed the door closed behind him, and he sat on the end of my bed, seemingly oblivious to the storm inside of me.

“How was the dance?” I asked quietly, pulling my legs up so that my thighs pressed against my chest, and rested my chin on my knees.

“It was fun. I wish you would have gone.”

I completely sidestepped the last part of his statement. “I’m glad you had a good time.”

“Liza was upset you never showed.”

I scoffed. “I told her I wouldn’t.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Didn’t want to.”

If my response was shorter than anything I’d said since I arrived in Holmes Chapel, Harry didn’t mention it. He just stared at me through the distance between us. Silence grew, stretched out to an awkward length, but neither of us rushed to break it. Though I was exhausted, I didn’t want to close my eyes, to say goodnight and sleep with only imagined scenarios to taunt me through the night. To lose this bit of closeness.

Did you kiss her? The words nearly slipped free, cutting my tongue open as I bit them back. The truth would hurt, but him figuring out how I felt and then lying to make me feel better would devastate me. As far as I knew, he’d not lied to me once since I got here, and I couldn’t bear him starting now. Exhaling slowly, I buried my face into the comforter and wiped away the dampness in my eyes.

The world grew fuzzy around the edges, vision swimming no matter how hard I blinked. My eyes burned, opened and closed, opened and closed, then stayed closed. The weight shifted, disappeared from down by my feet, and warm hands eased me to lie down. A thumb across my cheek, fingers through my hair, then the door creaked open.

“Goodnight, Star.”

I mumbled something - even I couldn’t figure out what I was trying to say - but he was gone, leaving behind the echoes of his voice in my mind and the gentleness of his hands on my skin.

Time continued to pass. My departure loomed ever closer on the horizon, and the seconds and hours dragged on, each day seemingly longer than the last. It was only when I was lying in bed at night that I realised that yet another day was gone.

I was twenty-four hours nearer to leaving this wonderful family and the friends I’d made, and all I could do was make the most of the time I had left.

My sixteenth birthday arrived with little fanfare. Celebrating it wasn’t high in my list of desires; all the day did was emphasise the gaping void left, another year without waking to the smoke detector screaming, the smell of burnt pancakes trailing up the stairs, and Sophie shouting apologies. The hurt was just as agonising as it had been the day I turned fourteen, fifteen...

I woke to a silent house, not a voice or strain of music to be heard. Lying in bed, I’d wondered if the others would mind if I went back to sleep. I didn’t even know if anybody was home. Did they even know today was the fifth of June, and what that meant?

If it was in my file, maybe they’d read seen it before I arrived, but expecting them to have remembered was an astounding feat. And I certainly hadn’t made any attempts to tell them. Least of all Harry.

After the bracelet he gave me, I couldn’t handle the thought of him going out of his way to give me another wonderful gift. Honestly, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of any of them spending their hard-earned money on me. They were the family. I was just the outsider.

Sighing, I pushed back my blankets and padded toward the door. If I was here alone, I might as well eat a breakfast I didn’t have to fight Harry for,

Brightly-coloured streamers dangled from the ceiling, twirling and dancing in the cool breeze from the open windows. Paper cut-outs littered the table, shaped like stars of varying sizes, and a small pile of gifts had been piled neatly on the counter. A stack of plates sat next to a purple-frosted cake, and the flames from the candles flickered merrily.

Harry pushed me gently into a chair in front of the cake, and Anne grinned down at me before leading the other three in a rendition of the birthday song. My face grew hot, eyes burning with tears, and I ducked my head as they sang. Her hand rested, firm and comforting, on my shoulder; I leaned into the touch, chewing on my lower lip even as my smile broke free.

“Happy birthday, love,” Anne murmured, kissing my forehead.

“Thanks.” I paused and stared down at the candles. “I guess this is the part where I make a wish?”

“Of course. Haven’t you had a birthday cake before?”

Harry raised his hands in surrender when I glared half-heartedly at him, but then I focused on the task at hand. What could I wish for?

For Sophie to come back? I’d wished for that for the last two years, and it hadn’t happened yet.

To stay here and never have to leave? Then I’d be no better than Sophie, running away from our home and family for my own selfish gain.

For Harry to love me as I loved him? That would be selfish - and cruel. Not to mention unsatisfying, knowing that he only loved me because of some stupid teenage wish that came true.

I wished for some happiness. There. Selfish but not at the expense of anyone else.

Blowing out the candles felt more final than it should have, and I sat back in my seat once the flames were replaced with wisps of smoke. Something stirred to life in my chest, a small fragment of hope that maybe this time, my wish would come true.

<~;~>


Liza pouted and reached for my hand, clutching it tightly in hers. “I’m going to miss you so much.”

“I’ll miss you, too.” Swallowing thickly, I pushed my shoes against the dirt, let the swing move backwards underneath me. “Thank you for letting me crash into the friend group.”

“Oh, you hush now. It’s been so great to consider you a friend. I’m sure Della would say the same if she was, y’know, prone to showing any emotions, and we all know Anthony loves you.”

“Anthony also tries to compare ABBA to Carly Simon, so his opinion can’t be trusted.”

In all the months I’d known her, I had never noticed just how carefree and musical Liza’s laugh was, but I heard it now. The barrette in her dark hair caught the sunlight above, fake diamonds glinting brightly. She shifted on her swing, scuffing her shoes against the dirt, and stared out over the playground. When she looked back at me, her grey eyes glimmered with unshed tears.

“I really hate that you have to go home.”

“I do, too. God, Liza, I, I love it here.”

“You should try to stay!”

I snorted derisively and wiped at my cheeks with a shaking hand. “I can’t do that to my parents. Besides, isn’t getting a visa, like, really hard, even as an adult? How easy do you think it’d be to do as a minor?”

“You’re right,” she sighed. “It was worth a thought, I suppose.”

“Yeah. Thanks for wanting me to stay. So, uh, you coming next Saturday?”

She frowned, cocking her head, then her face brightened. She nodded excitedly. “Absolutely! I wouldn’t miss your ‘bon voyage’ party for the world.”

“Good. I’d hate to have to hunt you down just so I can beat you up for not showing.”

She giggled and pushed to her feet. “Sorry, but I have to go home. My nan is coming for the weekend, and while I would much rather eat a flaming sword, I promised Mum I wouldn’t leave her alone.”

Liza left me with a final tight embrace, and I watched her go, wishing that time could just stop. The past nine months had been some of the best times I could remember having in my entire life, and I was already aching at having to say goodbye. Sunshine best down on the earth, though I couldn’t feel the heat through the cold in my heart. It wasn’t fair.

I’d found a home and a family, and I had to leave.

With a sigh, I stood and walked away from the swingset. Without Liza here, it wasn’t exactly the epitome of peaceful any more. It was lonely, and I was so tired of being alone. Besides, it was best I went back to the house, anyway.

Being out without Anne knowing where I was was a bad idea. I could only hope that she trusted me enough to not report it. It was awkward enough that I’d had to deal with the program’s scheduled events twice a month since I arrived. To be kicked from the program with less than a month to go would be utterly humiliating.

A football flew past my face, bringing me to an abrupt stop, and a child no older than ten ran by. He shouted a quick “Sorry!” over his shoulder but otherwise didn’t stop. Shaking my head with a quiet laugh, I double-checked that it was safe to cross the street before doing so.

A mother called after her kids as they tumbled out of their front door and into the sunny outdoors. A dog barked from someone’s garden, birds twittered in the trees. Peace surrounded me as I walked through the town, and I breathed in deeply, memorising every detail that I could. Anything to take home with me.