I keep singing, watching Selena as she melts into the song and the tension leaves her body. My notes float in the air, and I watch as they capture Dudon and Faegan. For once, Dudon’s eyes are clear of their adoration for me, and are instead clouded with the beauty of he music. He turns his head and the light catches his eyes, the blue colour shining out to me and catching my breath in my throat so that I have to tear my gaze away before I continue singing. I peek back shyly and see that the two boys have joined Selena and I on the ground, sitting in a rough quadrilateral as my voice echoes in the cave.
I watch Selena as she smiles at Faegan, seeing the blush creep up her cheeks and finally notice the budding attraction between them. Where did that come from? I wonder while I keep singing. It’s something I’ve always been able to do, and something that I’m incredibly proud of. My eyes drift from Faegan to Dudon and I notice his closed eyes, his body swaying rhythmically with the music. He taps his hand on his knees in an interesting rhythm, and I find myself wondering how he would be with a set of drums. I can definitely envision him behind a drum kit, moving with the beat and tapping out soft rhythms that could enhance my melodies, as opposed to most of the drummers nowadays who have overgrown hair and merely play ear-bursting rhythms that drown out any hint of music that could exist in rock and roll.
I shake my head, trying to remove these budding thoughts and keep the positive vibes ringing through my music. I smile as I watch the effect I have on the people around me, enjoying how something that I get so much out of can have such a profound effect on others. Suddenly, I feel like a layer covering the room is being peeled back. I watch the others intently, wondering if they can sense it too, but they remain unawares. I glance around, trying to find the source of the feeling, and see the silhouette of two figures standing just beyond our quaint quadrilateral. I squint to see them clearer, and suddenly the music stops flowing from my mouth as I gasp, staring blankly at Melayna and a man I’ve never seen before.
Selena opens her eyes wide at my gasp and immediately spots the pair. “Lay!” The word seems to be torn from her throat as she lunges at them. Her outburst brings Dudon and Faegan out of their reveries too, and they turn towards the couple. They show slightly more restraint than Selena, only standing up and taking a single step towards Melayna rather than full on rushing her.
“Oh, Lay! Lay!” I hear from the form that is Selena wrapped around Melayna. I hear Melayna comforting her, but my eyes are locked on the man that appeared with Melayna. He eyes Faegan and Dudon, and they watch him back. He seems to give them a silent signal of some kind because they approach him and start a silent conversation with their eyes as hugs and smiles are passed around. I stare in confusion, switching between the heap that is my best friends, and the private circle compromised of our new acquaintances.
“Hold up.” I say, my voice soft but carrying authority like it hasn’t before. “You all know each other?” I watch Selena slowly detach herself from Melayna, and the private circle disbands to face me. They all nod slowly, unsure of where I’m going with this. I slowly look at each of them, starting with Selena and ending with Dudon, before returning to the new comer. “So, who’s that?” I point at him, and watch their eyes all follow the direction I’m pointing in.
“Em!” Melayna gasps, approaching me and pushing my hand back to the ground. “That’s so rude! You can’t just say that.” She looks mortified, and over her shoulder I see the new comer attempting to suppress a grin, his green eyes twinkling with mirth.
“I don’t care if it’s rude!” I say, offended, as I fold my arms defensively across my chest. “I want to know who he is, why he’s here, and how you all know each other!” I hear the slight hysteria creeping into my voice and try to push it down. Being left out is nothing new, I remind myself. You know they tell you in time, they always have, and we haven’t had much time. I take a deep breath and listen to my rational voice, pushing down the hurt, but I feel it springing back up. I never thought being friends with half-sisters would always leave me feeling so alone.
“Well, there are nicer ways to say it.” She huffs, and I watch green-eyes approach her from behind, wrapping his arms around her waist. I continue to watch as she leans her head back into his chest, smiling as she touches his hands that are joined around her waist. She sighs, opening her eyes and pulling slightly away, lacing her hands with is. “Sorry I didn’t tell you, Em, but we haven’t exactly had tons of time to talk.” She watches me, waiting for a reaction, but I keep my face neutral.
“Malachi, or Mal, is friends with those guys –“ She points to Faegan and Dudon and I fill in their names for her. She waves at them, smiling as they wave back, but makes no move to touch them in any way, like you normally would when you greet someone. “Yeah, so he’s friends with Faegan and Dudon – is it okay if I call you Fae and Du?” They nod and I stare at her, struck by her casual attitude, “and he helped me when I was lost. We’ve gotten kind of…close, in the past hours.” She trails off, as if unsure what to say. I sigh, letting go of my grudge and growing anger – I’ve never been one to hold a grudge anyway.
“I’m sorry.” I embrace her lightly, smiling once we break apart. “I just…I lost you for a bit there. Sel came back saying you were dying and I hadn’t seen you, and I had no idea where you’d gone and…and…” I stop talking, taking a deep breath to compose myself. “I’m sorry.” I finish simply.
She smiles kindly at me, compassion clear in her gaze. “It’s okay.” She murmurs, patting me on the back. I feel something stirring within my belly, and yeah, I know how cliché that sounds. I close my eyes, feeling out this thing and trying to discover the cause – it’s nothing like the blinding pain from this morning, but it’s unfamiliar nonetheless. In my minds eye I picture it as a ball of light, glowing in my stomach. I shrug inwardly, instead deciding it’s about time I took charge and got this show on the road.
“Alright!” I address the room, calling all eyes to me and watching as they respond. “Now that the introductions are done,” I glance at everyone and see their nods of agreement, or at least their lack of blank stares, “we need to work out what to do. Does anyone have the time?”
Melayna approaches me, showing me her watch. I gasp in shock, calming myself quickly before continuing. “Alright, we need to get out of here. I suggest we just go home and reconvene tomorrow. Yes, Saturday. That sounds good.”
I look around, expecting nods of acceptance and Melayna to lead us out. Instead, I see how weary Faegan and Dudon look. Selena looks marginally upset, but I’m pretty sure she’s just wanting to prolong this ‘adventure’ we’re on. My gaze trails to Melayna, noticing her look of worry, and my eyes follow the shape of her body, seeing her hand attached to Malachi’s.
“Uhmm…” Melayna starts.
“What?” As I reply, some of the brightness leaks from the feeling I had gained as I took control of the situation.
“Well, Mal, Fae and Du don’t have to go. So…I suggest we split up. Sel and I will take Mal and Fae home, and can you take Du home? Tell your parents he’s a friend from school and his car broke down and he cant get home – it worked last time you took someone home, just make something up.” The authority in her voice rings clear, and re-sparks that light in my belly.
“Last time I took a girl home, and she actually was a girl from school – I hate to break it to you, but we’ve known these guys for less than a day, I don’t really want to just casually invite them to my house to stay. And how the hell do you even know they don’t have anywhere to go?” Even I can hear the animosity in my tone, much as I try to suppress it.
“It’s obvious they have nowhere to go!” She throws her hands up in the air, dropping Malachi’s hand as she paces towards me. “Just look at their faces, look at them!” She points a hand and I follow where she’s pointing, seeing their weary and slightly worried looks. I’ve no idea how she knew, certainly, that they didn’t have anywhere to go, but she’s always been more perceptive than me. I deflate a little, my back hunching as the light starts to leave me. She continues to walk towards me, gaining momentum with each step. “And as much as you might try to deny it, I know you feel a connection with them.” She stops, mere inches away from me.
“I know you, Em.” Her voice is softer, her eyes pleading and scared rather than aggressive and mad. “I know you can feel it.” Her voice drops to almost a whisper, and her gaze falls to the floor. I reach out a hand, grabbing onto her pinky finger and giving a gentle squeeze. I don’t exactly know what’s going on here, but I know that my friend needs my support, and I’m here to give it.
“Okay.” My voice is soft and unsure, but if this is what she needs then I’ll try my best.
“Great.” She smiles at me before turning around and walking towards Malachi, grabbing his hand and starting down the hallway. Selena follows behind them with Faegan, who glances at me once in acquiescence before following. Once they’re out of view I crumple, feeling as small as an ant.
“Hey…” Dudon starts, and I recompose myself quickly, wiping away a few tears.
“I’m sorry; let’s go.” I step forward, wiping off my saturated dress, and follow behind where Melayna and Selena went, quickly catching up and walking right behind them, lost in thought.
I walk into the house in front of Selena, gripping Malachi’s hand tightly. It was a bit tense when we split up with Emily, but I know that she’ll get over it. My brain is more focused on trying to work out how much trouble we’ll be in – and how to explain Faegan and Malachi.
“Mum, Dad! We’re home!” Selena’s voice echoes in the foyer as I drop my keys on the table next to the door, smiling at Malachi and starting to lead him into the sitting room.
“Sorry we’re home late; we went to the park after school and-“ I’m cut off by my mother’s body, which wraps itself around mine as she sobs and squeezes the life out of me. I pat my mother awkwardly, sharing a confused look with Selena, who is in a similar position with my father. My gaze trails to Malachi and I look at him in confusion, but he just shrugs and I pull out of my mother’s embrace.
Our parents switch children, my father’s strong arms pulling me into a bone-crushing embrace as my mother squeezes the life out of Selena. “Guys, what’s wrong?” I grunt through the embrace, extremely concerned.
“Oh, my baby! My babies! You’re back!” My mother sobs, pulling back from Selena and coming to grip my hand, looking at me as if it’s the last time she’ll ever see me. I pull out of her grasp, walking to clasp Selena’s hand tightly in my mine, unsure as to what on earth is going on. Malachi and Faegan stand on the edges of the foyer, currently unnoticed by our fawning parents.
“Yeah, Mum, we were only gone for, like, ten hours or something!” Selena says, looking at me for reassurance.
“Ten hours? Honey –“ I tune her out as I see a shadow lurking in the entrance to the sitting room. No, not a shadow – a silhouette. I tilt my head, trying to make out the silhouetted figure.
“Who’s that?” I gesture to the sitting room, cutting her off as she turns to look in confusion. Selena squeezes my hand, whether in comfort or confusion I’m not sure, and we present a united front to our parents.
“Who’s who, honey?” My mother can’t hide her frantic and guilty look, although she does try before turning back to me. “Are you two alright? Do you want to lie down?”
I walk past her, releasing Selena’s hand as I head towards the room to discover who’s there. “Sweetie, wait!” She calls from behind, grabbing my arm to try and stop me, but it’s too late. A gasp tears itself from my throat, and I reach back blindly until I grab Selena’s hand. Her warm grip is comforting, even if she probably has no idea what’s going on. I quickly turn towards my parents, not sparing him more than a glance. My gaze focuses in on my mother, even as my father silently steps to her side to support her. I feel Malachi hovering behind me to my other side, and I’m sure Faegan is there, too. My father’s eyes dart between the two boys, but my entire being is focused on my mother and that beast behind me in the sitting room.
“How could you?” The indignation is ripe in my tone as I stare at my mother. She looks lost, and Malachi’s palm comes to rest heavily on my shoulder, as if to ground me. “After everything he’s done to us, how could you let him back in the neighborhood, let alone invite him into the house! God, are we now running –“
“You were gone for a month and he heard, what was I supposed to do?” Her tears stop me, and it takes a few moments for the words to register in my brain.
“We were…we were what?” Selena’s hysterical voice rises beside me, and I lean my weight into her side as she leans hers into mine, reaffirming that this is real, and that whatever is happening, we’re still together. I feel eyes on the back of my neck, but try and ignore his gaze, focusing instead on our parents.
I take a closer look, noticing the bags and red-rimmed eyes on the faces of both of our parents. A closer inspection of my father reveals patches of stubble he obviously forgot to shave, let alone the fact that they both look like they’ve lost a bit of weight. What happened?
“A month. You left a month ago.” My attention is drawn to my father’s words as they spill out of his throat, his voice on the verge of breaking. “The police were everywhere, especially since you and your friend disappeared at the same time. The school said we’d called in that you were sick, but we didn’t know anything. It was on the news, ‘Missing people: three teenage girls. If found please call…’” He trails off as he takes a deep breath, and by now I’m no longer sure where I end and Selena begins – we’ve become entwined through the raw emotion our father is expressing. I give a little shudder, unable to imagine the loss.
“Lay, it was about a week ago. Axel called me up, asking if any trace of you had been found. I…I couldn’t just turn him down; you don’t understand what it was like!” She looks at me, her tearful eyes penetrating my soul, and I nod in understanding as I sink to the floor, dragging my sister with me. “He came, and he’s been a great help. He…he really has changed.” She looks over at him, the man that I loathe to acknowledge as my birth father, and then turns pleading eyes back to me.
I turn my gaze away from hers, knowing I cant agree to be nice to this man, as she walks into the kitchen, sniffling and murmuring about calling the police. I watch wearily as he approaches, walking right up next to me with my father, the two men crouching down in front of my sister and me so that they’re at eye level.
“I’m so happy to have my girls back.” My real father, the man who’s taken care of me for the last ten or so years, leans down to us, wrapping his arms around our necks. He pulls away and settles on the ground opposite us, looking at Malachi and Faegan. He raises an eyebrow and turns back towards us. “Care to explain the visitors you brought, though?” His face seems casual enough, but the hard look in his eye says otherwise. I can see the hesitation and suspicion, the look that says that he doubts that he can trust them, and I quickly reach out, grabbing his hand weakly in mine. If he sends Malachi away, I don’t know what I’ll do – I need him, and I need to work out why and how everything happened, let alone the fact that I crave his touch, even now as my life seems to have fallen apart around me.
“Please, please don’t make them go.” My gaze is pleading, and all I can think to do is stare up at him and hope he sees sincerity in my gaze. I ignore Axel’s figure behind him, only looking at my father. Axel has no right to be here, let alone to have any say in my life.
“Dad, please. We can explain, but just let us settle in – it’s been a long day.” Selena’s voice echoes from next to me as I grip her hand in a death grip, knowing that if anyone can convince him to let the boys stay, it’s hers. She’s definitely daddy’s girl, which makes sense since he is her actual father.
He lets out a huge sigh and pulls us into another hug before getting up and walking into the kitchen, mumbling unintelligibly under his breath. I know we’re going to need to think up a good excuse soon enough, but at the moment I just want to collapse and process – it’s been one hell of a day.
“God, Lay, I was so worried about you.” Axel’s voice is soft and quiet and my head flips towards him violently, having forgotten he was there. He tries to put a hand on my knee, but I move out of his reach and stand up abruptly with Malachi’s help, dragging Selena up as well.
“Only my friends call me Lay. No, only people I like can call me Lay, and you lost that privilege when you knocked up my mother and then refused to claim responsibility. And, oh you know what, you also lost it when you came to our house in a drunken stupor and decided to ransack our home and destroy our life’s work an savings. Come to think of it, I really don’t know why I don’t like you.” At that moment, I had total tunnel vision. A low, simmering ache was building in my stomach and I had dropped Malachi and Selena’s hands – my whole being is focused on the man in front of me. I glare at him as he remained in a crouched position, looking up at me in shock. I turn on my heel and run up the staircase and straight into my room, slamming the door behind me and sitting on my bed with a huff, the ache growing steadily.
My door opens and I flip my body, throwing myself on my bed and burying my head in my pillow as the ache disappears. “Go away,” I mumble into the pillow, assuming it’s my mother coming in because she heard what I said to Axel. She would’ve appreciated it before, I wonder about the change and if my disappearance really caused it. How does that even work?! In that moment, it hits me that somewhere between entering the caves and now, a month had passed.
“Hey, Lay. Selena sent me up while she talks to your parents,” Malachi puts his hand on my back, rubbing small circles on top of my soiled dress. “How are you doing?” His tone is absentminded, and I glance back to see him looking around my room with wonder on his face.
“I’m…okay.” I sit up, grabbing his hand and seeing his thoughts traipse across my mind. Wow, I never thought she’d be into that. I love that colour. Oh my, is that her? I smile at his thoughts, closing my eyes in contentment.
“Who’s this?” He stands up and walks towards a photo on my dresser, picking it up and studying it. I walk up behind him and smile as I see the photo of me, Selena and Emily.
“That’s me and the girls – we took that photo on our tenth birthday, it was the first year that all three of us were friends.” I laugh, remembering taking that photo. “We’d just had the biggest cake ever, and it was a really warm day. Sel decided she wanted to jump in the pool, so we ended up downstairs outside the pool. Em and I kind of figured that she’d get changed into her costume and we’d sit out and watch her. Instead, she grabbed us and jumped into the pool, dragging us with her.” Malachi laughs heartily, and I smile at the sound. “We took that photo when we got out. You can see, Sel is smiling like she just got given an iPhone or something, and I look slightly amused, while Em looks slightly resigned.” I sigh, “I love that photo.”
Looking at the photo, I suddenly remember Emily and the air rushes out of my lungs as I stand stock-still. In merely a moment I am rushing out the door, running down the hall and the staircase until I bump into Selena.
“Woah, Lay, where are you off to?” I smiles at Lay as she runs into me, although I’m sure it doesn’t reach my eyes. I bump my hip into hers in order to break the tension I can literally feel in the air. She runs by me without comment, reaching for her bag sitting in the living room. I take a deep breath and follow behind her, listening as she says Emily’s name.
I stare at my sister’s back as she grips her phone, wondering what she hasn’t told me. Her words continue to echo through my mind, words about Axel coming into her house drunk and ransacking her house, taking her family’s life savings…Situations never mentioned before flit through my brain as I try and puzzle together when on earth these events could have occurred. I was sure Axel had never been to my house before, and certainly he had never gone through all of my belongings. And Melayna…she had told me everything about her past, including her absent father and the hard life she and her mother had lived. No, there must be something I’m forgetting…
A knock at the door pulls me out of my reverie as we all swing to face the hallway leading to the front door. Axel’s deep voice echoes through the corridor, welcoming someone into the house. Melayna stiffens beside me and I take a step closer to her, ready to comfort and support her if things turn sour which, lets face it, is looking likelier and likelier as the minutes go by.
“Hello, Axel.” Another male voice echoes through to our little group in the living room where we still remain out of view.
“Hey, Barry. How’s it going?” Axel replies. His tone is respectful and casual, as if this person is a friend or frequent visitor. Melayna visibly tenses even more as their conversation continues and I place a hand heavily on her shoulder. She turns back towards me, her hard gaze softening as her eyes meet mine and her body visibly relaxes beneath my touch. I’m sure the questions I was just pondering are written in my eyes but as much as I long to ask them, I know now is not the time.
“They should be this way.” The footsteps get louder, and our group shuffles closer towards the entranceway.
“You must be glad to have her back.” Barry’s tone is polite and distracted as he makes his way through my house.
“Very.” There is very real relief in Axel’s tone, and I wonder whom they’re talking about. “What about the other one?”
“George and Sally are over there now. They called in, too.” The footsteps stop outside the kitchen, just opposite the living room and Melayna steps into the hallway, clearing her throat loudly and drawing their attention. I step into the hallway behind her, lending her my strength as my gaze peruses the two men in front of me.
I take the time to have a good look at Axel, not having seen him before. He is a relatively large man with a commanding presence, filling out a simple black t-shirt and jeans with the kind of presence that demands attention. His chiseled jaw and high cheek bones construct a charismatic face, matched by the half-smile which seems to be permanently etched onto his face. His green eyes appear as an echo of those that live on my best friends face, but with a harder edge to them. When he catches me looking, I quickly shift my gaze onto Barry.
Before me is a short, plump man, garbed in an official-looking mixture of navy blue and stained-white. His shirt is tucked messily into his trousers, and his whole being exudes a lack of effort and care. His face is pudgy and red, the hint of at least a day’s growth still sitting on his curved jaw that looks like it regained any possible baby fat that it could have lost.
“What are you doing here?” Melayna’s voice is extremely hostile, surprising even me as her body once again tenses. Barry’s face slackens in shock for a moment, but Melayna’s gaze is fixed firmly on Axel. Barry’s face lifts as he attempts to regain his composure. Taking a step towards us and holding out his hand.
“Ah, Melayna! Just the person I was looking to see.” His gaze travels past Melayna and fixes on me instead. “And Selena – perfect! I’m Officer Caulfield and I just need to ask you two a few questions. It’ll only take a moment.”
I watch his plastic smile, taking the time to slowly look him over once again. His belly tells of more than one burger a day, and the stubble on his face does not help with his overall appearance of grime and disinterest. His smile drops off his gritty face when we don’t reply, and his patience wears out.
The door to the kitchen bangs open as my parents walk out, joining everyone else in the hallway. The silence is powerful, so much so that not even my mother can do more than open and close her mouth once again, instead looking at Melayna imploringly. I once again place my hand on her shoulder and grip tighter as she continues to hold Barry’s gaze, making no move to shake his hand.
“Lay.” Malachi’s voice is soft, but seems to drag Melayna’s attention away from the men in front of us as he grabs her arm, dragging her in the direction of the kitchen – Faegan and I trailing behind them. “We will be right there, Officer. Why don’t you get settled in the sitting room and we’ll grab some drinks and snacks to bring in there.” He yells this over his shoulder as the door slams shut, allowing us some privacy. Malachi and Faegan walk over to the sink and start filling up some glasses of water as Melayna and I collapse on stools next to each other. After a few moments of silence I start to talk to her quietly, not turning to face her.
“Lay, you need to get over this.” My voice is quiet and if not for the slight tensing of her body I wouldn’t know she had heard me. Melayna shakes her head vigorously, her whole being exuding reluctance. I place my hand on her arm, squeezing gently and forcing her eyes to meet my gaze. “Well, then you at least need to be polite.”
She pulls her arm from my grip, folding them childishly across her chest. Her eyes are harder than I’ve ever seen them before, and colder than I ever could have imagined they would be.
“Melayna, you need to do this. If you make a fuss, this will be a bigger deal than it needs to be. Grow up.”
“But why is he here?” Her voice is a whine as she looks pleadingly into my eyes.
“I don’t know, Lay. I really don’t. But I do know that you reacting like this gives him all the power. Be the strong you that I know you are – pull yourself together.” With those words echoing behind me, I turn and walk to the sink, grabbing glasses of water that Malachi and Faegan had been filling up while we talked. With a single look at Faegan, I head towards the living room as he trails behind me.