Ever since I can remember I hadn’t been one to skip school. That came partially from my father’s saying when I used to ask to stay home, feigning sleep deprivation or illness.
“Are you dead or dying?” He would ask, sitting on the end of my bed with calculating eyes and a hidden smile.
I would slowly shake my head and he would say, “I didn’t think so. You have to remember there are always people who are physically unable to go to school. Always make the most of what you have.” Then he would leave for work and my mother would come in, asking why I wasn’t out of bed.
“I don’t want to go to school,” I would sometimes say, forcing myself to look paler than I already was.
She would ask “Why?” and I would tell her, “I’m not feeling up to it.”
“You need what I call a ‘mental health day’. That’s when you’re not ill, you don’t have any broken bones, but your mind needs a rest.” Then she would tell me to go back to sleep and have a cup of tea on my bedside table when I woke up. It was always still hot when I got to drinking it. I thought it was magic, but looking back on it I figured she would have been monitoring me.
Most of the time when she came in after my father had left, I would grumble “nothing” under my breath and go to school. This year was especially bad to skip school because the work was harder to catch up on. There were no such things as free time in year twelve classes, no such thing as little work.
But by the time consciousness came around on Thursday morning I felt horrid. My head was pounding against my temples, a consistent drumming that could be the bass line of most of the pop songs you heard on the radio these days. My whole body felt heavy as lead and all I wanted to do was curl further into my blankets and not move for a week. Or a month. Or a year.
Dead or dying was the chant going on in my head, repeating itself until the words had lost their meaning. I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t dying. I would go.
I rolled over to face my alarm clock, minutes before the saccade of beeps would begin. I shut it off and fell back into bed, stretching my arms up into the air.
I took my time getting out of bed so as not to anger my throbbing headache. I managed to make it to the full length mirror sitting in the corner and stared. My dark hair was a frizzy, knotted and messed up. My cotton pajama bottoms were rolled up to my knees and band t-shirt was falling off me.
I had managed to make it to school yesterday after my meltdown but had been out of it all day. When I got home I had to re-learn everything I had done in my classes because I struggled to stay awake, but at least I had the notes.
I padded bare foot down the staircase and to the kitchen, where Atlas sat with his glasses pushed up on top of his head. Upon my arrival he pulled them back down and set them on his nose, setting his phone aside.
“Go back to bed, Kaia.”
“No, I’m okay,” I protested, grabbing the painkillers off the top of the fridge. I filled up a plastic cup with water from the tap and swallowed the two tablets at once. “I’ve just got a bit of a headache.”
“It’s okay not to be okay, sis. You just need a mental health day. Besides, you look like hell and I don’t think you’ll shape up too well for dinner tonight if you go. Is that a fair enough assumption?”
I had completely forgotten about the family dinner with Nanna tonight, which made me more reluctant to stay home. “You know what’ll happen if Nanna finds out I didn’t go to school today.”
“And you know she’ll say that anyway.”
“Let me go, Atlas. I’ll get behind and then I’ll fail year twelve and won’t have a job and then I’ll be forced into prostitution for money and live with twenty nine cats and have no family and no quality of life. Do you really want that for me?”
He shrugged, a ghost of a smile on his lips. “I like cats.”
This brought a smile to my face, but it was quickly replaced by a frown. “You can’t leave me here alone. Look what happened on Tuesday.”
“You won’t be alone, you nugget. I’ll be here. Just get your butt back to your room and sleep, will you?”
“Fine.” I groaned, not bothering to argue anymore. He was a strong debater, someone I’d never want to go up against but found myself in that position almost daily.
“Jesus. I never thought I’d have trouble convincing a teenager to go back to sleep before noon.”
“And I never thought I’d have trouble convincing my guardian to let me go to school.”
I got back to my clean room and shut my door, crawling back under the covers with sleep evading me. I grabbed my laptop off my desk and put my folder of movies on a loop, starting with Disney. I cuddled into my blankets and fell asleep some of the way through the second movie, waking up to a hot cup of tea, two more tablets and a bottle of water on my bedside table.
People could say what they wanted about boys in their early twenties, but my brother defied all the stereotypes there were. He was the reason I wasn’t a train wreck.
My headache had subsided to a dull ache in the back of my head but I took the painkillers regardless, seeing as they must have worked the first time. I chased them down with water from the bottle and then took my tea downstairs.
I ended up in the music room, which was a large room with a simple black grand piano centered in it. I set my tea on a chest of drawers – the only other piece of furniture in here – and sat on the stool, lifting the lid to reveal the keys. I touched one and winced at how out of tune it was, but played none the less. It made everything I attempted sound haunted, like a weird romantic soundtrack to a horror film. I moved on to play the last song I’d learnt when I heard a knock on the door, followed by a creak and a smile. The woman looking through the door was almost fifty years old, with more crinkles than she should have had. Her gray hair was always pulled back into a tight ballerina bun, making her look ten years younger. I think that’s what she liked about it.
“That is beautiful,” she complimented me, her voice thick and britishly accented.
“Thanks Louise,” I said to our cook, standing up and closing the lid to the piano.
“Don't stop on my account. I just heard you play and came to ask if you needed anything.”
“I’m about to make myself a cup of tea but I’d like to come keep you company, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all, sweetie. Come come. I’ll show you how to make roast.”
I slid into my seat in psychology just before the bell and was immediately knew something was wrong. Ms. Patterson started the class, writing notes up on the whiteboard for us to copy down, but I was too busy trying to figure out what was wrong. I was in my usual seat, with my usual teacher in my usual classroom, so what was different?
I turned back to the board and found the answer, sitting in the empty chair in front of me. Kaia wasn’t here. There was all this empty space in front of me causing the odd feeling.
Kaia. I scrunched my face up at the thought of her. The only memories I had of when we were younger were happy, always laughing or smiling and having a good time. I would never have guessed that high school could change someone so lovely to someone I’d go to hell and back just to avoid. She was rude, nasty and just plain awful; I couldn’t understand how everyone saw her in a different light. I didn’t care anymore.
Knowing that made me feel a whole lot more relaxed to go to History, putting me in a great mood. That was until lunch rolled around and I was stopped in the hallway. This wasn’t the first time it had happened since Monday, but I knew it was going to be my least favourite before she even opened her mouth.
“Jacob! You’re back!” It was confirmed. This was the worst conversation I’d had. Her voice was so high pitched that it hurt my ears, making me wince. “Did you miss me?” She squealed, hugging me. Or at least she tried to hug me. She wrapped her arms around me but pinned my arms to the side, so I just stood there feeling like a penguin.
Audrey West. Also known as my one and only ex girlfriend.
To describe Audrey in a way that a) doesn’t make me sound like an asshole and b) doesn’t make her sound like a bitch is impossible. Mostly because, she was a bitch and there was no kind way to say it. She was what normal people would call popular, although no one truly liked her or her little posse of friends so I didn’t believe the title to be fitting.
What had pushed me towards her all those years ago was not my personal preference, but rather Kaia’s influence. I remember sitting on the steps of our English classroom in year seven eating our lunch and sheltering from the rain where she informed me that Audrey liked me.
“You know Audrey West has a major crush on you, right?”
Those words had caused a frown upon my little thirteen year old face. I’d never been someone’s crush before and I wasn’t sure I liked it. It didn’t feel right, although maybe it was because Audrey was the one with the feelings.
“Okay…?” I had trailed off, wondering why she was bringing it up. It’s not like she was ever interested in crushes or even boys for that matter. She always rathered to be friends, regardless of how many brought her chewing gum or flowers, freshly picked on the way to school. They liked her because she was pretty, with her dark hair always in two braids, her interesting grey blue eyes always shining. Little did they know she was so much cooler on the inside.
She flicked one of those braids over her shoulder and crossed her legs, leaning in to the conversation and quickly scanning the surroundings before she spoke. “I think you should ask her out.”
I was shocked at how she could even suggest it. “Why would I do that?”
“Because she’s pretty and all the boys like her. I’m sure you do too.”
I didn’t, but I didn’t want to argue with her either. After a couple of minutes, I reluctantly agreed to ask Audrey out. I figured it might not be so bad. Kaia was right, she was pretty and the rest of the boys liked her. So if they did, I’m sure I would start to as well.
That didn’t happen, but I didn’t tell anyone that. I pretended as if we were the happiest couple there was in year seven, even though as the days went on I began to develop feelings heading in the other direction. I realised how much like a fairy tale princess she was, constantly needing to look good and feel admired.
By the end of the year I’d had enough and broke it off. A week later, the news came out that I was moving overseas, so the whole year level including Audrey figured I’d ended things with her because of that.
“Hello? Jacob?” I blinked, snapping out of my reverie, the eighteen year old version of the girl in my mind standing a few feet away from me.
“Sorry. I zoned out.” I wasn’t sorry, but I did need to stop zoning out.
“I’ve missed you. It’s been so lonely here without you.” She giggled, playfully hitting my arm and batting her eyelashes. I was concerned for a moment that she was having a seizure, but then I realised she was trying to look appealing.
“Uh, sure,” I replied, unsure of what to say. I looked around for a way out but the hallway was full of people I couldn’t recognise.
“Was it a long four years without me?” She asked, flicking her blonde hair over her shoulder. I tried to contain my laugh. It was a long six years and it was great because she wasn’t a part of it.
“It was a long time,” I tried to answer diplomatically but my smirk wasn’t helping my case. As much as I didn’t like the girl, I didn’t want to be rude.
Kaia was different. She was rude first.
“I bet,” she grinned, seeming pleased with my answer. “Are you free tonight?”
I was taken aback by her forwardness. Even if I didn’t have the family dinner tonight I would have responded the same.
“Sorry. I’m busy.”
“How about tomorrow?”
“Surely you’re not doing anything Saturday.”
She was either persistent or desperate but I was stuck wanting to ignore her and walk away, going against everything my mother and father had taught me.
“For fuck’s sake, Audrey,” a voice came from beside me, one I thanked God I was hearing. “He’s politely telling you to fuck off. He doesn’t want to see you.”
She gasped, looking as offended as can be assumed. I laughed, adding salt to the wound of a shitty situation.
“That’s not true,” she shook her head, as if trying to convince herself more than us. “He still likes me and we’re going to get back together. Wait and see.” Then she stormed off.
“Wow,” Hayden clucked his tongue, staring after her. “She’s a piece of work.”
I was standing in the middle of the hallway dumbfounded. How could she think we were going to get back together? Our relationship was hardly real in the first place and it had been so long.
“She is crazy.”
“A total lunatic,” he confirmed, managing to get me to the cafeteria for lunch. We bought our food and sat down with the other two boys. Zavier had his eyes on his phone and Landon was poking at his food with his fork, evidently not in good company.
“Speaking of ex girlfriends,” Hayden started, taking a seat and getting the other two boy’s attentions. “Did you end up speaking to the lovely Miss Sawyer?”
I cringed at the thought of Tuesday’s conversation. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
“It didn’t go well?” Landon asked, his eyebrows knitted together. “You two used to be so close.”
“Things change over time, including her.”
“Huh?” Zavier questioned, looking at me as if I’d gone nuts. “What do you mean, bro? She’s like, the same person as she was in year seven.”
“Except she’s hot,” Hayden added.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, guys. She was rude as hell, bitching at me because I hadn’t spoken to her in six years.”
“Well…” Landon trailed, scratching the back of her neck. “You didn’t.”
“I thought you were going to apologise for that?” Hayden asked, throwing a grape into the air and attempting to catch it in his mouth. It rolled under the table onto the tiles, disappearing under his foot.
“I was. But then I got mad and she was mad and I came to the conclusion that she didn’t deserve one.”
“You’re an idiot,” Zavier said, throwing a French fry in my face. “All of this could have been avoided and you could have still been friends.”
The other two boys agreed.
“Yeah,” Hayden said. “You should have got her number.”