Fifteen

☼►twenty-six◄☼

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“Honey, you gotta stop checking up on him.”

I looked up from my phone to see Trix giving me a sympathetic smile. Shaking my head, I locked the screen as she perched on the desk next to me. She was right - of course she was - but it wasn’t quite that easy for me. She sighed and reached over to squeeze my hand gently.

“I get it. You wanna make sure he’s okay. But I doubt anything has changed since yesterday or the day before or the day before. You’re spending so much energy on keeping tabs on this boy, but could you honestly say he’s doing the same about you?”

Her words cut deeply, even if she hadn’t meant to hurt me. I swallowed down my knee-jerk reaction of defending Harry and nodded; she was right. I couldn’t claim he was as interested in checking in one me, not without lying.

If he really was, he would have done so by now. I wouldn’t be forced to get updates in his life via the internet or his family. Sniffling, I turned to the computer and pretended to be focused on the schedule for the day.

Trix sighed. “Just promise me that you’ll get outta your head, ‘kay?”

I nodded, but I knew I wouldn’t stop doing what I’d done every day since the band blew up the charts. Admitting it to her, though, would make it all seem that much more pathetic.

Everyone in the shop knew about my connection with Harry. Bev had caught me looking through the photo album one afternoon, and the next thing I knew, the others were asking to see it, too. They gushed about how adorable fifteen-year-old me was, inkless and small and without wild hair.

Dray had recognised Harry first, and I’d been forced to explain how I knew him. Thankfully, none of them made a big deal about it. They didn’t care that the boy who was my best friend was now in a massively-successful boyband.

Trix would tease me about the photograph of me sleeping in the fort with Gemma and Harry, and Malcolm liked to randomly switch the iPod to One Direction’s discography every so often. But no one mentioned his notoriety - or the fact that I was completely in love with him still.

Drawing in a steadying breath, I waited until Trix disappeared into the back then ran a finger lightly over the ducky on my wrist. A memory, hazy with time, wiggled to the forefront of my mind: Two fifteen-year-olds sat on a bed, knees pressed together, as she admitted her love of ducks.

The warmth of his attention, the steadiness of the friendship, all culminating in a love that had yet to fade after four years.

The bell over the door tinkled merrily, the sound sharp over the Iron Maiden that played on the stereo, and I exhaled heavily. As much as I wanted to ignore it, it was literally my job to greet newcomers. I reluctantly turned my attention from the colour-coded schedule on the screen, readying myself to pretend I have a damn about professionalism.

Marley grinned at me over the counter, her hair hanging around her shoulders in turquoise curls. I didn’t even blink at the new shade of her hair: Since I’d met her seven months ago, she constantly had changed her hair colour.

Just a week after our first encounter, she went from yellow to silver with green tips - “Gotta rep my house, duh” had been her response when I asked. Then she’d made me take a quiz to determine my Hogwarts house. I was a Hufflepuff, whatever that was.

“Hey, babe. What’cha doing this weekend?”

I shrugged and frowned. “Same as usual. Calling my parents then probably going to the beach, why?”

“Well... Trav and I had something we wanted to talk to you about.”

“I’m not having a threesome with you,” I quipped immediately, and a choking noise came from behind me; I glanced over my shoulder and gave my aunt a smile full of exaggerated innocence. “I said I wasn’t going to, sheesh.”

Marley giggled, shaking her head. “Nah, not that. You know Travis ain’t about that life. He believes monogamy is a sacred thing, remember? Anyway, see you Saturday night?”

“Why don’t you go now, Seren? Don’t look at me like that. Lucien’s finishing up the last client now, and we can handle closing up on our own.”

I didn’t even bother questioning it. Getting away from the computer, having something to focus on other than my admittedly-obsessive Googling, was the best idea for the moment. So I gathered up my phone and purse, pressed a kiss to Bev’s cheek, and hurried around the counter. Marley looped here arm through mine, and I called out a goodbye as we headed toward the door.

My friend let out a soft sigh, tossing her head back, and started singing Dead! by My Chemical Romance at the top of her lungs. It was a testament to how easily people could ignore annoyances that nobody even looked at her, just pushed past us while we ambled down the pavement. I could only shake my head at her before joining in.

Travis was already in the usual corner booth by the time Marley and I entered our favourite diner. Marley grabbed a menu on our way to the table, though neither of us would need it. We always ordered the same thing every time.

I slid onto the bench next to Travis, leaning over to hug him tightly. It had been a week since I last saw him; he worked overnights as a hotel manager, so most of his daytime hours was spent sleeping, not keeping up with friendships.

“So to what do I owe the pleasure of seeing your beautiful faces?” I questioned as the waitress slid a mug of coffee in front of me. “Oh, thanks, Opal.”

“Be right back with your food.”

As soon as Opal moved away, Travis nudged me with his shoulder. “We can’t just wanna see you?”

“You can,” I bobbed my head as if acquiescing, “you just never do.”

“Stop being a prat,” demanded Marley, kicking my shin under the table.

“Seriously, you two, what’s going on?”

They held a miniature conversation with their eyes, and I pouted but didn’t interrupt. I’d learnt long ago that they did this quite often. Evidently, living with each other for nearly three years meant that people grew psychic powers.

Opal dropped off two plates of piled high with French fries, so I focused on grabbing a few while my friends conferred with each other. Finally, Travis cleared his throat.

“Bethany is moving out.”

“Okay?”

“Move in with us.”

My jaw dropped, and I stared between the two of them. I couldn’t have heard them properly. Neither Marley nor Travis looked like they were pulling some elaborate prank, getting my hopes up only to dash them with vigour. In fact, the longer I was silent, the more Marley squirmed in her seat, her face falling more.

“You’re serious,” I breathed out, my mind seemingly having drifted out of my skull at some point in the last ten minutes.

She nodded and finished chewing the fry in her mouth. “Yup. We’ve been friends for, what almost eight months, and we even went on that road trip to see My Chem in Seattle, remember? We didn’t kill each other. And what’s more, we still like each other.”

Travis shrugged to my left, swiping a fry off my plate. Though my shock had eclipsed any of my desire for a snack, neither of them had seemed to lose their appetite. Licking salt off his fingers, he reached for a napkin.

“We need a roommate, and we want you to be that roommate.”

“I… holy shit, guys. I’m in!”

The fact that we were in a public arena didn’t stop them from cheering or Marley from launching herself across the table to hug me. When she pulled back, I stared down at the table, the plate in front of me. My face was flushed, I could feel the heat in my cheeks, but I couldn’t bite back a smile, I hadn’t expected this conversation, this wonderful offer, when Marley had stopped by the shop.

It certainly was an enticing offer—one I had no doubts about. Quite the opposite, really. I was excited for it.

Bev was unsurprised that my friends asked me to move in with them. She refused to give her opinion on my acceptance, but she smiled softly at me after draining the pasta, her eyes filled with a light I hadn’t seen in a parental figure’s eyes in a while. I shifted my weight awkwardly as she told me how proud she was that I’d allowed myself to trust Travis and Marley, that I had given myself permission to grow close to another human being that wasn’t biologically related to me.

Our conversation ceased long enough for us to eat dinner. Once the dishes were in the machine and leftovers put away for tomorrow, my aunt sat on the couch to watch her usual evening shows. I hesitated then joined her. Without looking away from where Dr Reid was playing piano with Sammy on the television, she reached down for the basket that sat at her feet, passing it over to me.

I huffed out a laugh at the fact that she knew me so well. She knew that I’d overthink things, and that my knitting would be what helped clear my mind enough for me to speak without hesitation. It kept me from focusing too much on my thoughts instead of letting them out.

“Are you okay with this?” I asked quietly as I unravelled yarn, readying my needles. “I mean, I’ve lived with you for over a year, and now…”

Bev muted the television, setting the remote on the cushion next to her, and turned to face me. “True. But guess what, Sare? You’re a grown-ass adult. You can live wherever you want. If you wanna stay here, you know your room is always gonna be yours. If you wanna live with your friends, do it. If you wanna live in the bottom of the ocean and be the mermaid queen, well, you might have to wait for that particular genetic mutation to come about first.”

“Well, damn, there goes my nineteenth birthday plans,” I laughed, but her words reassured me more than I could ever say.

“Just keep doing your job, come by for dinner every so often, but most of all, do what makes you happy.”

Over the next few weeks, my personal time diminished. I didn’t even have time to write letters to Anne or send quick texts to Gemma; my phone’s Notes app filled rapidly with voice memos over things I wanted to tell them. Between long days at the shop and more belongings than when I first arrived, I just barely finished taping up the last box by the time I was meant to be moving into the flat with Marley and Travis.

The flat took me by surprise when I first walked in. In all the months I had known them, I’d never actually gone inside. Bethany was uncomfortable with the idea of someone she didn’t know being in her home, no matter that she always had her boyfriend and friends over. But I hadn’t argued, and nor had my friends. We always just met up elsewhere - usually at Bev’s.

Travis was the only one home when I showed up with the first load of boxes. He grumbled the entire time but still helped me haul them into the flat, to the room that was to be mine. I had no chance to take in my new surroundings before he was dragging me back out into the communal areas.

He pointed across the flat to the only door there, telling me it was his bedroom and entrance was done upon threat of death. I blinked owlishly at him, unable to even nod in my shock. He grinned crookedly.

“I really like my sleep. Anyway. That’s obviously the kitchen and dining area. We aren’t super picky about who eats what, but put it on the shopping list if you finish something off. If there’s a name, don’t touch. It doesn’t happen often, so you’ll get your ass kicked if it does.”

The balcony overlooked the pool, five floors down, and two lounge chairs were already placed there on either side of a circular patio table. Travis gave me exactly five seconds to look around at the surrounding buildings before he was dragging me back inside. The tour concluded with the bathroom I would be sharing with Marley, then he left me to get unpacked.

After three boxes, I sat back on my heels and stared at the silver-blue paint on the walls. I wondered what it meant that I still had yet to live alone; I’d gone from my parents’ to Bev’s, and now I was living with Marley and Travis. I didn’t care too much, I couldn’t, not with pride blossoming in my chest. Sure, I had roommates, but at least they were mine. My aunt wouldn’t be paying the rent, I would. That self-satisfaction was tinged with sadness, however.

This was an enormous thing that I had done. My connections with my aunt had allowed me work a steady job, and the friendship Marley had forced me into gave me a new home. And I couldn’t even tell the one person I wanted to tell the most.

So I did the next best thing.

I dug my phone from my pocket, opening the camera, and lined up a shot of my face; the mess in the background added to the frame, radiated the “in the middle of doing something major but thought of you” vibe that I was aiming for. Making a peace sign with my left hand, I snapped the selfie and sent it off to Gemma.

Look, I did a grownup thing and stopped living off my aunt!

The tick under the message doubled but stayed grey. Sighing, I pushed the boxes away from me and sprawled out on the floor. Bethany hadn’t removed all of the stars from the ceiling; three remained, in a somewhat crooked line, and my mind overlaid the constellation I was certain had been there before—Orion’s Belt, the same three dots that marred my upper left thigh in the form of freckles.

The longer I laid there on the floor, the more it dawned on me that my happiness was being tainted by anger - anger I hadn’t known I was still carrying with me. My hands clenched into fists at my side, my nails digging into my palms, and my heart pounded painfully beneath my ribs.

It wasn’t fair that I’d lost my sister then had to say goodbye and let go of one of the greatest friends I’d ever had, the boy I loved more fiercely than any fifteen-year-old should have been able to, the young man who still had my heart two years later.

It wasn’t fair at all.