Fifteen

☼►five◄☼

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The morning came only a few hours later. I hadn’t fallen asleep until the digital alarm clock on the nightstand said it was half-three, so it took a long minute before I realised the knocking sound wasn’t part of my dream. I groaned, tugging the comforter over my head, and rolled more tightly into a ball. Maybe if I ignored the knocking, the person would leave me alone and I would be able to get some more sleep.

Unfortunately, Harry didn’t get the memo that I would rather stay in bed all day instead of getting ready for school.

“Come on, Sara, we’ll be late if you don’t get up.”

“I’m up, I’m up,” I finally grumbled and pushed myself to sit up. When he continued rapping on the door, I groaned, throwing the pillow at the door; it wasn’t as satisfying as I hoped. “I said I’m up!”

“Just making sure!”

I rolled my eyes and debated whether to ignore the reality that I needed to go to school. With a heavy sigh, I decided it wasn’t the best choice - it could potentially get me thrown from the program. I shoved back the blankets and stumbled to my feet. The uniform was just as uncomfortable as the day before when I finished getting dressed, but I swallowed down my irritation and gathered up my dirty laundry.

Harry stopped me at the front door, rolling his eyes goodnaturedly, and I stood still as he adjusted my tie - again. I squeaked out a thanks though the mortification that coursed through me made it difficult. He shrugged off my gratitude, but I couldn’t believe I was still struggling with a damn tie. I’d tried my best to make the knot perfect, but I had failed.

I double-checked that I had everything before I followed Harry out the door.

The next couple of days went by slowly. I grew accustomed to the quiet walks to and from school, so they were no longer as uncomfortable as that first morning. By Wednesday, Harry and I were doing our homework together at the dining table. We even managed to get through a couple of stilted conversations, halting and awkward though they were.

Oddly enough, I found that the thing I appreciated most about him was that he never broached the topic of family. Hell, he steered clear of any questions about my life in general. He talked instead about how his group of friends came about, random bits of information about himself, and facts about his parents and sister that could help make my time in Holmes Chapel easier.

“My name is actually Seren.”

My announcement was abrupt, effectively cutting off whatever Harry was in the middle of saying, and his mouth closed with a clack. His eyes widened, just a bit, as he stared at me. I shrugged and turned back to the maths problem I’d been solving.

“It’s Seren. Not Sara.”

“Then why have you been letting us call you Sara?” he asked, disbelief painting his words.

Tapping my pencil against the tabletop, I kept my gaze on the workbook. “Sara is easier for people to hear and remember, I guess. Even if I actually come out and tell them my name isn’t Sara, they… call me Sara anyway. Seren’s too different.”

“Well, now I feel awful!” Harry shook his head. “We’ve been calling you the wrong name for a week. How did it not bother you?”

“Like I said, I’m used to it. It’s fine.”

“Well, I’ll do my best to remember it’s Seren. What does it even mean?”

“Thanks. And, uh, my parents told me it means ‘star’.”

He nodded slowly, turned his attention back to his schoolwork. The ticking of the clock on the wall filled the room, just barely masking the distant chirping of birds from outside. Jiggling my knee to the beat of the song playing in my head, I focused on my own assignment. I’d just finished the page when Harry cleared his throat quietly.

“I think Seren is a prettier name than Sara, anyway.”

I froze, jaw dropped, but he didn’t look away from the book in front of him. Heat flooded my face as his words repeated in my mind, and my chest felt tight and hot at the compliment. He was the first person outside of my parents and sister who ever accepted my name for what it was, not what they thought it should be. I coughed and struggled to find my voice, but no words came.

His eyes met mine, just for a split second. His lips quirked upwards, then he was back to his studies. I understood it as the sign it was, that no thanks were necessary.

The pleasure that his words brought stuck with me through the rest of the day. Dinner was a lot easier to get through, though I still didn’t talk about home very much. Instead, I told Anne and Robin about the tentative acquaintanceships I’d struck up with some of my classmates. The other students weren’t quite warmed up to me yet, but I made sure to imply that I thought it was merely a matter of time.

They were, after all, more receptive to allowing me into their social circles, but we knew it was a trial period only. If I passed muster, I could be considered an actual friend. If I didn’t… well, I certainly wouldn’t be worse off than I currently was. I still stayed with Harry most of the time, though. It was less stressful to be at his side than it was to put myself out there, to start conversations with people I didn’t know at all.

Anne smiled in pleasant surprise when Harry and I gathered up the dirty dishes, but she didn’t say more than a grateful “thank you” before disappearing into the other room with Robin. Harry handed me a dishtowel then stood in front of the sink; I leaned against the counter and watched his hands as he washed and rinsed the dinnerware.

We worked in silence until everything was sparkling and put away in its place. He’d had to walk me through where everything went, but he didn’t appear angry about it. Or even bored. He just spoke in that even tone of his, soft and pleasant as he guided me around the kitchen.

Once our task was completed, he disappeared down the hall to his bedroom while I curled up in the armchair in the family room. The television played quietly in the background, which gave me ample opportunity to open the novel I’d been reading. I found my page quickly and settled in to read as the adults watched their show.

I’d read The Outsiders when I was younger - before Sophie - and loved it then, but the emotions were hitting me harder now that I was roughly the same age as Ponyboy and Johnny. The pain that drowned the words, the realistic portrayal of stereotypes and growing up and never getting further in life… I hadn’t understood it at twelve, but I was beginning to.

My attention was so focused on the book that I didn’t realise I was chewing on the edge of my thumbnail, a habit I developed in the upheaval of my sister’s disappearing act - or hear someone speaking to me until fingers snapped in front of my face. I jolted in surprise, staring up with wide eyes at a grinning Harry, and scowled at his obvious amusement.

“Sorry, Seren, but I had to get your attention somehow.”

“Seren?” Anne questioned before clapping a hand over her mouth. “Have we been calling you the wrong name this entire time?”

I swallowed down a sigh and shrugged; my fingers picked at the edges of the page. “It’s okay.”

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. You were just introduced to us as Sara, and we didn’t think to question it.”

“Honestly, Anne, it’s okay. Like I explained to Harry, I’m used to being called Sara. The joys of having an unusual name. It doesn’t bother me any more. Sara is fine, if you’d rather.”

“She’s gonna make it a point to call you Seren from now on,” Harry muttered in an undertone, then he gestured toward the bedrooms. “I actually came out here if you wanted to listen to music, but you seem to be busy reading, so I’ll leave you alone.”

“I can read and listen to music at the same time, Harry. I am capable of multitasking.”

Anne chewed on her lower lip then gave me a sheepish smile when my gaze landed on her; her hands twisted together in her lap. I smiled as reassuringly as I could and unfolded my legs from beneath me. Harry and I were quiet as we made our way down the short hallway.

For some reason, I wasn’t surprised or bothered by how unkempt he kept his bedroom. I’d never been incredibly zealous about organisation, myself - as long as I could find whatever I was looking for within a few minutes, I figured it was clean enough.

My parents disagreed. They did, anyway. Now, they didn’t care a lot. We’d come to an compromise that they wouldn’t pester me about picking up as long as I kept the chaos contained to my ‘disaster zone’, as they called it.

I sat gingerly on the end of his bed, pushing away a stray sock, and watched him move about. It wasn’t long before the stereo began playing an unfamiliar song, the beat slow yet driving. He grinned and fell backwards onto the mattress, closed his eyes. I watched his hands as they tapped on his belly then shook my head. Opening my book again, I fell back into the story that S.E. Hinton weaved.

Exactly when it happened, I wouldn’t remember, but I found myself stretched out on my stomach, side-by-side with him. His crooked smile sent something fluttering in my chest, something I never thought was real. I ignored it, rested my chin in my palm, and focused on the novel.

I knew it was coming. I did, but still, Johnny’s death shattered my heart. It had the last time I read it, too. This time, though, it was a more visceral pain. I couldn’t explain the difference. All I knew was that I ached fiercer than I had before. Tears burned in my eyes, and I let the book flip closed.

Harry’s eyes opened, narrowed, and his hand hovered in the air above my shoulder before coming to rest against my upper back. The warmth of the contact seeped through the cotton of my shirt, and I suppressed a shiver.

“Are you okay?”

“Johnny died,” I whispered tremulously, and his gaze darted from my face to the novel. I pushed myself to sit up, scrubbed at my cheeks. “Don’t you dare laugh at me.”

“Why would I laugh just because you’re crying over a fictional character?”

“Have you ever even read this book, Curly Sue?”

He frowned, green eyes flashing under furrowed brows, and I recognised the instant the name irritated him. It was in the way his lips thinned, his expression darkened. Deciding not to stick around in case he chose to yell at me, I took my book and what remained of my dignity back to the room I was sleeping in.

His door slammed shut down the hall, the sound echoing, and I winced. Maybe calling him names was the wrong thing to do, especially considering what he’d said hadn’t been all that mean. I just couldn’t find the courage to go back to his room and apologise. Not when he was upset.

I sighed, tossing The Outsiders onto the nightstand, and changed into a pair of cotton shorts and a T-shirt. The only thing I could do right now is go to bed and hope that Harry didn’t hate me by morning.