The tall building of Carlton’s High stretches into the blue sky. Dad drives on to park his car, a smile on his lips as he tells me to have a good day. I walk up the stairs but the door opens before I reach it.
Rose steps out first. Taylor is right on her heels. They flank me on each side, linking their hands through mine as we fall into step.
“Amelia called us, she’s not coming today,” Rose says with a pout. “Who drove you?”
“My dad.” They snicker. I elbow Rose in the rib but Taylor jumps out of my reach. I might have complained once or twice about my dad’s long talks during the rides to school. “It was not that bad.”
As a matter of fact, it was going well until he-who-shall-not-be-mentioned showed up. Just the thought of him and the teasing kiss make my cheeks warm. What if Dani had stumbled in?
“Next time, call me,” Rose says. I pout and she pinches my cheeks. “I’ll come pick you up, alright?”
The three of them might dare me to do the most ludicrous things but they are the best friends a girl could ever have. And I should tell them about him.
“My stepbrother came in today,” I say as we cut into the hallway bursting with students. “This morning.”
We stop at Taylor’s locker for her to get her books. Both of us have first period together. Then Rose and I have choir practise later. Rose leans on the other locker while Taylor retrieves her books.
“Is he hot?” Rose asks.
“Shut up,” I mumble. That’s not the reply I was expecting.
They exchange a glance and grin. “Yeah, he’s hot,” Taylor comments. “Is he hot, hot or just hot?”
“I’m leaving you two,” I reply, feet rooted to the ground. Rose slings an arm over my shoulder. I stare at her red toenails and sigh. “Yeah, he’s hot.”
“Hot enough for a fling?”
“How old is he?” Taylor asks instead. She’s more logical than the two wild urchins I have as my best friends. I shrug. “Is he hot enough for a fling?”
There goes the logic. We resume the walk to my class. “I’m not having a fling with my brother.”
“Stepbrother,” Rose corrects.
“Yeah,” Taylor adds. “You can have a fling with your stepbrother since you’re basically not related. Think of it as two familiar strangers having fun.”
Familiar strangers is a good way to describe what we are. “Let’s just talk about something else,” I say. We stop at the front of my class. Rose opens the door and I give her the look. She’s not getting another word about him from me. The class is not empty. Taylor and I settle into the backseat. Rose plops into a seat ahead of us. “Go away, Rosie.”
The window rattles against its hinges, earning a look from three of us. The wind settles and the rattling stops. I take out my physics textbook.
“But you haven’t answered us,” Rose says.
They think because I have not had a boyfriend since my mother died that something must be wrong with me for my lack of a love life. As if.
What’s the fun of dating anyone when they are going to die anyway? They should be more like me. Kiss, fuck, go to the pub and have fun. No commitments. Because life will be meaningless for a long time after their partners leave or die.
“Yes, he is,” I murmur. I flip to the next page of my textbook without reading it. He’s hot and should be shown off to the world. “But I’m not having a fling with him. End of discussion.”
Rose’s eyes narrow and I imagine the wheels turning in her head. She twirls her hair around an index finger. “You should totally do him. He might turn out to be better than you think,” she says. I used to think Amelia was the worst of our girl group but Rose is just as dogged. Stubbornly cute. “You are not going to find anyone in this town.”
Our town is a small but very peaceful one. Almost everyone in this part knows everyone and we are always in each other’s business. If a boy from this town could have gotten me out of this funk, it would have happened a while ago. Rose pinches me and I shake my head. Her idea is appealing and I don’t want it to be. He makes me feel, even if it’s just a rush of short-term excitement.
“It’s not fair on my dad,” I finally say. Making a disgusted face, I add, “Dad sees him as his son.”
Both of them agree with a nod. “Yeah,” Rose says. “We will have to find you another boyfriend. Wait, there’s Jackson. You have good chemistry, Cathy.”
The door opens, saving me from her question. Mrs Preston, our physics teacher walks in. I shoo Rose off and she stops in front of the class to blow us a kiss. The whole class laughs. Even Mrs Preston.
Taylor taps me when Mrs Preston isn’t looking. Her thick-rimmed glasses are back. She pushes it up the bridge of her nose and I glimpse her brown eyes laced with worry for me. “Are you alright?”
For the rest of the class, we don’t talk again. When it’s time for lunch, Rose joins us. She taps rapidly on her phone and Taylor has to keep calling out warnings to her so she doesn’t hit the wall. She finally looks up when we are in the cafeteria.
We join the queue and pick up our trays. Taylor doesn’t. She always brings lunch from home.
“Someone posted on our page this morning,” Rose says. “Waow. Her post is getting lots of attention.”
We run a website. Girls Code. All four of us. It was my idea and Taylor brought it to life. Rose and Amelia shared it on their Instaagram pages and we got our first subscribers after their advertisement. Girls Code has been up and running ever since. It’s like a gossip and rant site for girls. They post all types of stories. Boyfriends tales. Family stories.
Rose passes us her phone to take a peek at the post by Nikki Stan. My pulse races and I hold my breath. I eye both of them to know if they can tell it’s me since I support Nikki more than anyone they know. Taylor is too engrossed reading the comments under the post to notice me staring at her. I can’t be the only one among us four who has an anonymous account to post stuff we can’t ask each other. Girls Code is like my online adviser.
She drops the phone on Rose’s hand. “I don’t know what I’ll do. Act like it never happened, I guess. Or jump off a cliff or pack out of the house,” Taylor murmurs. Rose snorts. The last and first option are more like her, not me. I didn’t do anything wrong but lie about my age. Girls here do it all the time. “What will you do if you find out the guy you kissed at a bar last night is your stepbrother?
That was the question I asked. But I edited a few details about the date so they wouldn’t connect it to me. I peek at Rose’s screen. There are more users commenting on the post and the majority of them are giving awful ideas like: Kiss him again.
Why would I do that?
But I can’t say the thought isn’t pleasing.
“I think Krystal is right. It’s what I’ll probably do,” Rose says. She shows us Krystal’s comment. The only reasonable comment so far. “I’ll talk to him about it to avoid any awkwardness, then move on.”
Talking about it doesn’t seem like a bad idea. I try to picture a scene with us talking about that night but all scenes end with him walking out on me.
He didn’t look so happy to know my real age.
The line cuts to our turn and we make our orders. Rose is still talking about the post when we get to our table. I’m ready to move on from it so I start a conversation about the national open singing competition that will be starting next month.
“We are going to win it this year,” Rose says. She holds her fist to her chest. “I can feel it.”
Rose and I are both in the school’s choir. Taylor has a sweet talking voice but her singing voice is horrible. She sounds like a dying cat dragged through a dark alley. And that’s me being nice.
I’m not as enthusiastic as I was last year about the competition. But I don’t show it. “Yes. We will win,” I say more to myself. “We have to.”
A warning bell rings to remind us of the next class and all three of us shuffle out for lecture. When the last bell goes off, I am ready to see the face of Mr Prescott’s, our music teacher and choir director.
Taylor doesn’t wait for us. Rose and I head inside the music hall, where students are camped on the stage according to their capabilities. We are a bit late, maybe more than a bit late but it’s the first week of practice so Mr Prescott won’t scold us.
Opening the door, we are greeted by the angelic voices singing the first stanza of a familiar song. A smile forms on my lips and my worries melt away.
Music is life. My life.
We cover the rest of the distance and stop behind Mr Prescott. He is unusually tall and lean today. Why is he wearing a face cap? He lifts his wand and the voices lower to a whisper. Rose taps me. She points to our music teacher. I see it too. He is dressed differently than his usual conservative self.
The singing stops and Mr Prescott turns to us.
It’s not Mr Prescott. It’s him.
“You’re late. Both of you,” Calum murmurs. His expression doesn’t crack as his gaze rakes over us. I’m newly reminded of his handsomeness and a blush rises to my cheeks. It’s unfair to be tortured this way. What’s he doing here? Rose grabs my hand. Calum’s head jerks up. “Excuse me?”Did I say that out loud?“Yes, you did,” Rose whispers. Her cheeks redden with second-hand embarrassment. Body flush against mine, she asks, “Do you have a death wish?”Calum watches our interaction for a bit. Feeling the annoyance rolling off him, I lace my fingers behind my back. “Are you done, both of you?”He keeps saying both of you but I think he means only me. “Yes, sir.” Sir feels so wrong coming from me but I’m not sure how to address him. And the main question still remains, what’s he doing here? Rose pokes me. “We&rsq
Never ever get your choir director upset if you already lied to him once. I’m learning that the hard way. And Dad can’t help me in this case. Dinner is a tense affair. Calum is seated beside me. Dad and Dani are on the other side of the table. I roll the spaghetti around my fork, half-waiting for Dad to say something in my defence or use his position as principal so Calum rethinks my punishment. “Calum,” Dad finally says. I try not to get too excited but a grin spreads to my lips. Dani catches my eyes and looks away but I see her smile before it disappears. “Don’t you think Cathy’s punishment is too harsh? Maybe reduce it to a week or two?” My stepbrother takes a bite from his dinner, then drops his fork on the plate. He clasps his hands on the table and levels Dad with a look that might have gotten me into trouble if I did the same. “Would you appreciate it if someone told you how to do your job?” Too low. Too fucking low. Dad raises his hands in surrender and my heart dips to
CALUMHow do you punish a liar? By ignoring her or taking away her most valuable items. In this case, it’s the choir. With her dad on my side, there’s no pressure to put that miscreant back on the team. In her absence, today’s practice goes by without any hiccups. The students are already warming up to me. I didn’t think that would happen so fast. But everything has been moving so fast since I agreed to come here. All Pete wanted to know after Mum told him about letting me handle the singing was if I had any music experience. I had ton shit of that. And it almost ruined me. Didn’t it? This is my first real gig since Mending Hearts crashed. The choir wasn’t part of my plan. My plan was to be low-key until I sort my shit out and decide my next move. But Mum hopes it will get me to sing and play again. So far, it’s working. Being a choir director involves showing off what you’ve got so the choristers can believe in themselves. I haven’t played the gui
One week later and I’m still not allowed to join the choir. This was not how I envisioned my last year in high school turning out. Rose claims practice is going on fine without me. How’s that possible when their lead solo singer is missing?Calum is a meanie. My stomach tightens at the thought of him. He has been ignoring me. He’s gone before I wake and only returns late in the evening to smoke. I should have reported him to Dad but I haven’t. He wanted to kiss me again that day. As much as I strongly dislike him, I like his lips. So, I wouldn’t have minded another kiss.I force one foot in front of the other till I’m at the door of my chemistry class. Mr Andy is at his desk waiting for the rest of the students. I am too early for the class and as I watch the bald man through the narrow pane of the door, I seriously consider running out of the school.Chemistry is too complicated. Maybe if Calum taught chemistry, I
Shock stops Amelia from acting fast. She shifts gears but it’s too late to do anything, so we are forced to stay put. I try to play it off with a smile but my heart is in my throat. Sweat breaks out on my forehead as Calum’s car slows to a stop directly beside ours. I look away. We are in big trouble. “Are you stalking me?” he asks, still in his car. This is our chance to race out of here. Calum slams his door shut and storms towards my side. No. I’m not the one driving. He should face Amelia. He wrenches the passenger door open. “Get out of the car.” I plant my foot firmly on the car floor. “No.” “Well, I asked nicely.” A scream escapes me as he drags me out of the car like I’m a ragged doll. I swallow my fears and force my face into a neutral mask when our eyes meet. His eyes are wide with anger and I know I have something to do with his temper. “I’ll ask again, were you stalking me?” “No. We came here for Rose.” “Rose, huh?” I nod again because it’s all I can do with
I’m not dumb, just different. Sitting in front of the mirror in my bathroom, that’s what I tell myself as I apply a new batch of pink dye to my hair. Is different good? Is it bad? I don’t know but I like the way Calum said it. I finish up soon and the dark roots of my hair are completely pink by the time I wash off the dye my hair. “Cathy. Calum. Lunch is ready,” Dani screams from downstairs. “Be down immediately.” I step out of my room and wait by the door for Calum to show up so we can go together. He doesn’t. If he had gone downstairs, I would have known or heard him, all thanks to the not-so-thin walls. He has to pass by my room since it’s closer to the staircase. I start towards Calum’s room. I’ll only tell him lunch is ready and leave. Easy to do. His door is slightly ajar. I slip in and stand still, trying to adjust my eyes to the darkness. The curtains are drawn, the lights are switched off. I know he’s in the room. Calum doesn’t go out on Saturdays. A phone vibrates
A comfortable silence reigns over us. I push the tray under the table and hand him his guitar.Calum laughs. “You’re not giving up on this.”“Nope. I really want to hear you play.” His face softens. He fingers a chord and stops. I try not to say anything but my mouth sometimes works faster than my brain. “What is it? I liked it.”“Oh, please. I didn’t do anything.” I make a zipping motion across my lips and toss the keys out the window. “Fine. I haven’t played since…”His lingering statement piques my curiosity. I forget everything about keeping quiet. “Since when?”“Since the band broke up. Don’t expect much.” When the music is in you, it doesn’t matter how long you stay away from it, you’ll feel it when you return to it. Calum leans forward, cradling the guitar in his hand as he readies himse
Today, I’m more covered as I bridge the distance to my sexy stepbrother’s room. Grey sweatshirt, and tracksuit. No chance in hell of yesterday happening again. Heart thumping harder than before, I stop in front of Calum’s room. He has not stepped out since lunch. I can’t help trying to convince myself that this is a horrible idea. But my fist meets his door twice. If I come in on his invitation, he’ll see I have good intentions. I knock again, then try the knob when there’s no response from inside. The door is unlocked and the room is empty. I take another tentative step inside. The glow from the tip of Calum’s blunt is what guides me to the balcony. He doesn’t get a chance to process my appearance. I snatch the blunt from his hand and stomp on it. His gaze flickers to mine.“You shouldn’t be smoking here. Or at all.” “I wasn’t smoking,” he answers. I rest my hands on my waist, my eyes flying up and down his body. “Yeah. Pigs can also fly.” Calum is also covered in a polo shirt