include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for The Arrangement by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.



THE ARRANGEMENT


Sasha McCallum


Copyright 2018 Sasha McCallum

Smashwords Edition


Smashwords Licence Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. The book remains copyrighted property of the author and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favourite authorized dealer. Thank you for your support.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

About the Author

Connect with Sasha McCallum




1


On Monday night I got a call from my mother. It was after ten, which in my book was an unreasonable time to phone. But I'd always imposed restrictions on other people's interference with my life, restrictions they often didn't understand and considered stupid. I rarely slept before midnight but did not like to remain open for contact after ten, it was my code and screw whoever didn't like it.

I was therefore pissed off when my mother's number started flashing at close to eleven while I was watching The Mick with a mudpack on my face. I ignored the first call but my hopes were dashed when she called a second time and I answered.

"Hi, Mum," I said, both irritated and glum.

"Elise, I have a favour to ask." The good thing about my mother was that she didn't beat around the bush, but this was a new one, a late night phone call to ask for a favour? Troubling thoughts tripped around my imagination.

"Is something wrong? What do you need?"

"Yes, something is most definitely wrong." The thoughts multiplied and dispersed.

"Is it Dad?" I asked her tensely. "Is he...?"

She grunted with scorn. "Don't be ridiculous. Your father will outlive us all."

"What is it, Mum?" I asked, losing patience.

"You've seen all these sob stories on the news showing families living in their cars, on the streets?"

"Yes, it's largely due to the h..." I began but she cut me off promptly.

"My cousin Mary's daughter needs a place to stay for a while. You've got that big flat all to yourself, she'll take your spare room." She said it as if it was set in stone already and I almost laughed.

"You can't be serious," I said, never having had a demand like this before and doubting its legitimacy.

"She's at AU, so you're perfect," she said and her voice was firm, slicing.

"What?" I began to panic. "No. Mum, this is bang out of order. I can't do it. I'm shocked that you would even ask."

"You can do it and you will. I don't ask much from you, the family doesn't ask much from you. And considering what you've put us through over the years it's about time you stepped up."

"But I..." I stuttered. "I need my space. I like living alone."

"I know you do," her voice softened substantially, "but just this once, I'm asking you to put your own feelings aside. It's important, you'd agree if you could see what I could; Micah needs help."

"This is emotional blackmail," I said, feeling a great well of despair rise in my chest. She would get her way, when she turned soft on me like that it was not a subject she would back down on. I was in for it.

"It is nothing of the sort," her voice became clipped again. "It is simple coercion."

"Jesus Chr..."

"Don't blaspheme!" she yelled and I winced. "Look, she's smart like you, you'll get along fine."

"I can hear in your voice even you don't believe that."

"Regardless, you'll make do. If you can manage not to kill each other."

"Micah?" I asked, frowning into the phone. "Have I ever even met her?"

"I don't know. Maybe when you were younger, at one of the weddings or funerals."

"How old is she?"

"19, 20. You can ask her all that yourself. Right now she's living in a motel, that's why this whole thing is urgent. I'll text you the details and you'll go meet her tomorrow. If you don't, she'll be homeless."

I shut my eyes and rubbed at the spot between my eyebrows, ignoring the muck on my fingers.

"Why do you care what happens to this girl? Isn't Mary the one you hate?"

"Call it guilt."

"Guilt for what?"

"That's not your concern. You have indiscretions of your own you need to make up for. Your concern is to do what I say and allow Micah to stay with you. She's not doing so well at the moment and her problems are right up your alley."

"I don't know what that means," I said cautiously. Was the girl dangerous?

"You cracked up when you were a teenager, I had to live through it - we all did. For years, I might add. I honestly never thought you were going to get past it, I thought you would be dead by now."

"Gee, thanks, mother."

"My point is, you've hit rock bottom and clawed your way out of it. Maybe you'll be able to understand Micah, maybe you'll be able to get through to her. Pay it forward."

"I'm not a fucking psychologist!"

"Language! She doesn't need a psychologist, she needs a place to stay and maybe a kick in the ass every now and then."

"Why does it have to be me?" I asked miserably.

"You're close to where she studies and her parents have kicked her out. She can't afford any accommodations nearby. It's a matter of convenience as much as anything."

"Why did her parents kick her out?"

"They're not as resilient as your family was."

"Mum just spit it out. If she's going to stay here then I need to know what I'm dealing with."

"Bruce and Mary are not the most supportive people. They believe that her presence in the house is adversely affecting their own relationship. They say she treats them like aliens not parents."

"It sounds like they're the ones with the problem, not her."

"Good, so she'll stay with you. It's settled."

"No. No, it's not. You haven't told me anything!"

"You can handle it, she's a nice girl."

"A nice girl?" Incredulous, I couldn't believe my mother's gall.

"Compared to what you used to be, she's an angel. She needs some stability, that's all."

*

I was told to be at the Inn early Tuesday evening so I went straight after work, keen to get it out of the way. I arrived just before seven; it had been a long, hot day, the tarmac burned and getting out of the air-conditioned car was an unattractive prospect even for a few minutes. I needed to be inside, or swimming - anything but this.

It was a cheap, ugly motel on the A6 just outside Brooklyn Park. I tried not to think about what I might find when I knocked on the door to number 13 and what would happen when I got the cousin home. I felt honest hatred for my mother; how could she have pushed this on me? Approaching the reception, I studied the map of rooms on the wall outside. It was big for a motel, they must get a lot of business, especially in summer, being so close to both the airport and the beach.

"Hello," a curious and sultry voice said to my right and I turned to see a very pretty, dark-haired girl leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette and staring at me sideways. "You don't look like you belong here," she said then let out of peel of sublimely evil laughter.

"That is funny?" I asked, trying not to betray my interest, and she shrugged. "Do you work here?"

"Nope," she said slowly with great emphasis on the P. "I'm just waiting."

"Waiting for what?"

"The world to catch up with me." Her smile was tempting and her words both captivated and worried me at once.

"Are you Micah?" I asked, thinking - please no.

As soon as the question was out of my mouth her entire demeanour changed. She began to curve in on herself, her otherwise haughty posture slackened and her expression blackened. There would be no more laughs now; this saddened me in a way I didn't expect.

"Elise?" she said, her voice transformed - tense and guarded.

I approached her and pulled my sunglasses onto the top of my head. I wanted the girl from before back, but that would not happen, so I tried to move forward with what we had.

"I suppose I am the world catching up to you," I said with a wan smile. I held out my hand to her and after several awkward beats of hesitation, she shook it limply. "Mum said we might have met when we were children, but I don't remember you at all."

She gestured despondently and pushed her own sunglasses back down in front of her chocolate brown eyes, she peered around the buildings and the car park as if they were of greater interest than me. Defensive, I thought, and more scared of me than I am of her.

"I wasn't really expecting you to show up," she drawled and lifted her back off the wall reluctantly. "Come on."

I followed her down aisles of prefabricated rooms interwoven with car parks and grassy pathways. The walk was tense and silent but I was glad; she was being neither overly friendly nor unnecessarily hostile. As soon as she unlocked the door and I stepped behind her into the sun-baked, un-air-conditioned room I was assaulted with the sound of a bed banging on the wall next door and aggressively faked sex sounds. I cringed and looked to Micah in exasperation.

"Why do you think I hang around outside?" she said and I saw the suggestion of a smile play at her mouth again. It would become my mission in the coming months to learn what caused these and get as many as I could. I smashed a fisted hand on the wall in disgust but there was no pause in the repetitive noise.

"I think she might be a prostitute," Micah said, bored. I looked around the room; it was a sorry state of affairs but it was tidy, bed made with little indication of being lived in. She was not messy, that was good.

"How long have you been here?"

"Six weeks."

"Couldn’t your parents cough up for something a bit nicer?" I asked foolishly and she narrowed her eyes at me and snorted.

"I've been paying for it," she said. "That is, up until a week ago, then your mother helped me."

"You?! But…" I wasn't sure where to start with all the things I found wrong with this information.

"I had a part time job for a while," she explained, "but I couldn't keep up with it and ran out of money fast."

"Alright. Grab your stuff, we're leaving." I stepped over to where two large gym bags sat and picked one up. It was heavy. "What do you have in here?"

"Textbooks mostly." She looked undecided. "Um… Shouldn't we get to know each other a bit?"

"I'm not picking you up for a date. You're going to be living with me for a while, it's non-negotiable. No cousin of mine is staying here with that..." I waved at the offending wall.

She mumbled something under her breath; probably to do with me being a stuck-up bitch so I did not ask her to repeat it. I had no illusions about this being easy, I only questioned whether it was going to be possible and if so, for how long. My mother had played it perfectly. As much as I liked my space, I could not deal with the idea of Micah staying in this sleaze-hole a second longer, let alone being homeless altogether. I would make it work, at least until other arrangements could be made.

"What I mean is," I said, softening my tone when I saw the look on her face. "Do you want to come stay with me for a while? I live close to AU city campus."

"What street?"

"Pharasyn."

"That's a pretty built-up area. Apartment?"

"Twelfth floor."

She nodded slowly and picked up her other bag, she didn't speak but I took it as a sign of agreement. She dropped her key into the reception and followed me to my car.

She relaxed once we were on the road, her head back and eyes closed, obviously relishing the cool air blowing from the vents. It was a quiet journey and I wasn't going to break it, I believed in being honest from the get go, establishing that I wasn't interested in putting on an act for her or anyone. To my enormous relief, she didn't seem to be either.

I quickly showed her around the apartment when I got her home then brought her bag into the spare bedroom and dropped it on the floor. She stared and looked dumbfounded.

"What is it? It's not okay?"

"Are you kidding?" She looked around the room again. "I figured I'd be crashing on your couch. I didn't expect to have my own room. It's nice, thank you."

I leaned against the doorframe and folded my arms, afraid of leaving her to her own devices.

"You're welcome," I said to fill the silence.

"I know you were guilt tripped into letting me stay. I know how the family operates."

"Ah, there it is, the attitude I was told about." It helped to see some evidence she wasn't all pretence. "You're stuck with me as much as I'm stuck with you. We should try to make it work."

"I will. I don't want to cause trouble."

"I'm not great with people outside of work, you should know that. I'm used to living on my own so this is going to be weird for me."

"I won't be here long, I'll do what I can to get a job and find my own place."

I looked at her, she was not what I had expected. Soft-spoken and clearly ashamed of her situation, she provoked a sense of pathos in me.

"You're at University full time," I said by way of apology for my bluntness. "There's no need to push yourself. As long you respect my privacy you're welcome to stay." I wasn't used to being so polite to family members.

"Is that all you want? For me to respect your privacy?"

"What else would I want?"

"Haven't you been instructed to spy on me? To keep me in line?"

"I've barely been told anything about you and I don't follow orders."

"Then why am I here?"

"Because you're my cousin. As long as you allow me my space, I'll give you yours." I didn't want to have an argument this early. "Just to get a few things out of the way though, I'd like to ask you some questions."

"Okay..." she said suspiciously.

"Are you a thief?"

"No."

"Are you addicted to any drugs?"

"No."

"Do you have a habit of bringing visitors home?"

"No. I hate people."

"Oh..." I studied her, narrow-eyed. "No boyfriend?"

"I'm asexual and I spend all my time studying," she said blandly.

It was enough for now, I would soon find out if she was lying about any of these things. I knew liars and Micah didn't strike me as one. Depressed, lonely, dark, difficult, yes, but not intentionally deceitful or cruel.

"I'd rather you didn't smoke inside. The balcony is comfortable but remember to lock the door every time you come back in. It might seem stupid, us being so high but..."

"It's not stupid. I'm glad you're concerned about safety."

"Okay. Key's," I said, handing her a chain. "The card's for the front of the building."

"That's it?"

"That's it. Unless you have any questions for me."

"Do you have a printer I can use?" she asked and I almost laughed. I began to like her simplicity.

"In the study. The broadband details are on the desk, it's unlimited. You can use anything that's not in my bedroom, which I don't want you going into at all."

"Is that where you hide the bodies?"

"Yes. And they are perfectly preserved, they don't need interference."

"I'm not going to touch your bodies."

"Alright then," I hesitated and poked an index finger flaccidly toward her. "Just... Be careful." I had no idea what I meant and was embarrassed by the looseness of the warning; it was a good time to excuse myself. I turned and shut the door behind me. It was imperative that we learn to cohabit with the right balance of distance and communication - a daunting prospect for someone who had lived alone for three years and liked it that way.

The next two days were relatively uneventful. We circled around each other, speaking little and I found myself peculiarly frustrated by this. While I might normally have been happier with the least possible communication, I was curious about Micah and felt inclined to interact more not less.

Her habits were likable; she was quiet, spent long hours at university and when she was home, studied silently in her room for the most part. She had a class at eight while I generally started work at nine; she was out of the bathroom by the time I needed it and she left few signs of having been there - no wet towels on the floor, no toothpaste smeared in the sink, all things I had been unhappily expecting. She left an ashtray on the balcony but disposed of her butts. I checked the door compulsively and it was always securely locked. She seemed not to use the kitchen at all except to make tea, which she drank a lot of. She made pots of it, extremely strong English Breakfast, which I discovered in the morning after she'd left. Still fresh and hot, there was always at least one serving in the pot, as if she left it as an offering to me. An offering I accepted; it was stronger than what I'd ever drunk before but I fast discovered I preferred it to any alternative. She always rinsed her cup.

Had a treated her too harshly? Perhaps I should have been gentler when she arrived, but I had not anticipated that she would be so easy, so compliant. I was aware of her presence, but she was a very absentee flatmate; in more ways than the physical - her immersion in her textbooks when she was home removed her psychically from our situation together and although this was reassuring it also served to increase my desire to get to know her better. I was driven to bring her back to the real world, to talk to her. This was the selfish, controlling side of me and I was making a fair attempt not to yield to it.


2

I was home early on Friday night after work drinks. I had considered taking up an offer to carry the night on at Thera but declined. It had been a long week and I knew I would wake up with a hangover if I went. I preferred the idea of a free day spent not draped over the toilet bowl.

The flat was mercifully dark and quiet when I got in at 11.30. Micah's door was shut and I thought maybe she had stayed out for the night. She didn't strike me as the type to have a raging social life but at 19 it was something you couldn't successfully avoid all the time. I showered and lay in bed checking Facebook and Twitter feeds and by the time I turned out the light it was after one. Happy to have disengaged from a drunken all-nighter I lay drifting, thinking about how I could spend my day tomorrow.

I was pulled back into the darkness of the room by a sound coming from the lounge. It roused but didn't panic me at first. I lay listening, sure I had mistaken it for something elsewhere in the building. But the apartment was well sound-proofed and I often didn't hear anything for days at a time from upstairs or through the walls. The noise kept on though, a sort of jiggling, scratching sound I couldn't place, repetitive -neither gaining nor losing momentum. Like a giant rat making a nest in the ceiling, I thought, eyes widening at the image.

I padded cautiously down the hallway toward the noise without noticing that Micah's bedroom door now lay open in the darkness. When I saw the dark figure standing at the door to the balcony I felt a deluge of dread inside my chest - an intruder, I thought, how the fuck had they managed to get up here? It took only a few seconds for me to rationalise that the figure was Micah, in her t-shirt and shorts and she was inside the room, not outside trying to get in.

Confusion spilled out to replace fear as I walked over to her; she was jiggling the doorknob over and over, obviously trying to get out - but not trying hard since it was clearly still locked.

"What are you doing?" I asked and weirdly she didn't respond, she didn't even stop the jiggling. "Micah?" I said, more decisively this time. Still nothing. Some of the panic seeped back around the edges of uncertainty and I was reminded of an old horror movie I'd seen once; that's what she seemed like, a zombie. I couldn't see her face, her dark hair was falling over it. I flicked the light switch on and she still didn't respond. A little freaked, I reached out and put my hand on her shoulder, I gripped it firmly and shook it, tried to get her to turn around.

She did, her head jerked up quickly and, letting go of the door handle, she finally spun around; I almost had a heart attack when she let out the most piercing scream I've ever heard. My blood curdled - it took a few seconds for me to register that it was real and that I had to shut her up. I slapped her; it might have shocked me more than it shocked her, I had never in my life slapped anyone. But she did stop screaming. The strength went out of her knees, they buckled beneath her and she sank onto the carpet. I crouched down next to her, ready to apologise profusely for the slap.

"I didn't mean to do that, Micah. I'm so sorry, it's just that this is a..." I stopped when I saw the expression on her face. She wasn't looking at me, her eyes were screwed shut and she was shaking so badly it was not surprising she couldn't stand up. I was alarmed by her state and had little clue how to deal with it. Instinct took over and I sat down next to her on the carpet and cradled her loosely in my arms. She responded, she gripped me like I was a lifeline and I said a silent prayer. I rocked her a bit the way my mother used to do and stroked her head.

She didn't speak, I didn't try to get her to speak. I waited for her trembling to calm down, we must have stayed like that for at least 20 minutes. What does this to a person, I asked myself. What messed up shit does this girl dream about? It was apparent that she was not quite as stable as she had previously presented to be. We couldn't stay like this for much longer, it was neither warm nor comfortable sitting on the floor. Eventually I managed to coax her to her feet and into her room. I sat her down on her bed but she was still shaking and clinging to me. The idea of pushing her away and leaving her alone did not resonate as a viable option right then. She wasn't calm; what if the same thing happened again? So I did what felt right, I settled her under her blankets and sat next to her, upright against the soft bedhead. She lay with her head against me and her arm around my waist, her eyes shut. Finally her breathing slowed down and her tremor stopped. She was asleep; relieved, I was still unsure whether I should extricate myself and leave her. I was wide awake, I kept the night lamp on and observed the room in its stillness.

Textbooks, folders and stapled papers were scattered around the room. Cell & Developmental Biology, S1 Chemical Data, Genes & Genomes. Not what I would call messy but busy, functional. On the sideboard beside me a hardcover journal lay open beside trays of pills labelled Mirtazepine - which were a mystery to me at that point but I investigated later. Without thinking I picked up the journal and read the tiny handwritten print inside the left hand page.

Like a candle flickering in the shadows I'm vulnerable to any whisper of wind.

It will turn my mind to nothingness, broken pieces hanging, lost memories

There's too much fear inside, I can feel myself shattering.

In the daytime it turns into anger.

Building, flaring, flames rising higher

Until they catch on to my protective walls burning whatever lies within reach

So when night returns I'm vulnerable again, an eternal cycle of despair

Everyone, everything is gone and I lie hurt and alone

Smouldering in the darkness.

Death and decay. I can see them, and they can see me.

There are too many tomorrows that go on forever, too many yesterdays to think about today.

And I'm too tired to search for the dreams that hold time together.

Sometimes I feel like the stars are getting closer, closing in on me...

I stopped abruptly and stared into the room. I shut the journal and placed it back on the nightstand feeling horribly guilty for reading my young cousins private stream of consciousness. It was then that I looked at her wrist draped over me and noticed for the first time the neat row of tiny scars lining the outside of her left arm. My reaction was one of sympathy and shock; the darkness inside Micah ran deep, she may even be disturbed. It was of small comfort that none of the marks looked fresh - perhaps she had started on a different area of her body. What would I do? I would stay with her tonight. My eyes went misty as I lay there, overwhelmed by the almost nonsensical bleakness of her words, watching her breathing - her eyes not moving under their lids. She was so lovely, so peaceful now; her hold over me found its grip that night, tightened like the way she had gripped me on the floor. I knew that from then on I would offer this girl everything I could. I was strong enough to absorb what I could of her pain.

I was up early the next morning, having slept in Micah's bed without lying down properly. My neck and back were stiff and I was keen to put the previous night behind me. I showered and made tea the way Micah liked it. I expected her to sleep late after the night she'd had and since it was the weekend but she came into the kitchen not long after I did. I hesitated; I didn't know how to do this, was scared of overstepping any marks by asking her to talk about personal issues. She spoke first.

"Are you going to kick me out?" Her voice was reserved as she poured her tea.

"Why would I do that?" I asked, surprised by her apparent fear.

"Last night... The noise, the fuss..."

"It's not a big deal, you scared the shit out of me that's all. You should have told me you sleepwalk."

"Thank you for helping me. I'm really sorry." She looked so downcast and my empathy sharpened.

"Hey," I tempered my voice. "Everyone has nightmares, I'd never kick you out for that. We'll deal with it." She did not look convinced but I was, I would just have to be careful of the noise disturbing any neighbours.

"I don't have them often, it must be the new environment," she said awkwardly.

"What were you dreaming about?"

"I don't know." She was embarrassed.

"You shook for like two hours afterward, you must know what you were afraid of."

"Things feel wrong after I wake up. Everything is just wrong and I don't know why. I really am sorry."

"It's okay." I badly needed to reassure her. "It's not your fault."

"Sometimes I know when they're going to happen. Things feel wrong before I even fall asleep."

"That's useful actually," I nodded, "maybe you could tell me next time? I can help."

"I'll try," she said, drained her tea and went into the shower without speaking again. Did she ever eat? She was so terribly thin. Maybe I should take her out for breakfast. Would she even accept breakfast from me? My cell rang.

"Hey, Nat."

"That was quick, I was ringing to wake you." We met at the gym every Saturday.

"I'm up, I'm up."

"Another early night? You bore."

"I'll meet you outside at ten, yeah?"

"Uh huh."

Nat's voice reminded me of something while I sat finishing my toast, deep in thought.

Despite my comment to Micah, I didn't really have nightmares myself, not anymore. My worst dreams were centred at work. I was very good at my job but deep down I knew it was all an act and if people could see what went on in my mind underneath the professionalism I would likely end up jobless. My big fear was that one day I would no longer be able to keep up the charade. So I had dreams occasionally in which I was meeting an important client and I was unable to smile or to say what they wanted to hear; no matter how hard I tried, what came naturally while I was awake was impossible. I had no control. The dreams may have been rooted in anxiety but they were what I labelled 'shame' dreams. The basic embarrassment I felt in them would sometimes blossom into full-fledged anxiety because it would result in me losing my reputation, my livelihood, my job.

I'd had bad dreams when I was a child, but it was like looking at them through a screen or from a great distance, they weren't real, I couldn't feel them.

I knew other people suffered nightmares. Nat, who was probably the closest thing I had to a best friend, had told me about a recurring dream she had in which she was standing on the edge of a sky scraper that was about to topple over. It was strange for me to hear about this kind of thing, to see the look in people's eyes when they described these experiences, but before that first night with Micah I had no proper sense of the fear involved and the impact it had. I resolved to do some research on nightmares and sleepwalking. Things had begun to change now, an irreversible chain of events had been set in motion which, like my shame dreams, I had little control over.

*

I made some lazy visits after the gym and did not speak to anyone about Micah but she was on my mind. I had an idea; I would get a recipe off my mother and cook something that night. Mum had been trying to convince me to learn my way around a kitchen for years but I had never been inspired enough. I knew I could do it - what could possibly be difficult about following written instructions? And the idea of feeding Micah without making her feel guilty about me paying at a restaurant appealed to me. She'd left the flat fairly early in the morning, heading to the library to do some assignment or another and I considered the possibility she wouldn't be home. I would make a lot and complain about having too many leftovers.

What would I make? For the first time in my life I began to look forward to doing something with food in my kitchen. It was one of the more conclusive signs that I was wrapping myself willingly around Micah's finger, though I didn't recognise it as such yet.

I took some recipes from my mother but refused to discuss it with her when I saw the smug look on her face. My confidence in myself was pretty high as I looked over the instructions, made a decision and went to various stores buying components. My only real concern was that Micah may have allergies or that she was an overly fussy eater. Since I had yet to witness her eat at all I was stuck in this regard and just had to wing it. At least I would learn something about her if she couldn't eat my offering.

Things went south quickly when I got into the kitchen. The ingredients and utensils were not bending to my will as expected. I realised I had grossly underestimated the skill required for food preparation. My issue was, the more difficult a task presented itself to be the more tenacious I became; it was war and by God I was going to win if it took me all night. Calling my mother for advice was out of the question. My sights fixated, I forgot about Micah and my initial goal, I forgot about everything. I wrestled with pots and pans and flung parsley and flour over the floor and counters. I burned myself four times and cut myself twice. I ruined seven ling fillets and congratulated myself on having the wisdom to buy far too many. I was in the process of wrecking my third batch of parsley sauce when I heard someone giggling at me.

"Wow, you really suck at the stove," Micah said and I turned to her, both furious at the insult and pleased to hear her laugh.

"I'd like to see you do much better, it's really hard," I barked. She had distracted me from the sauce and I was shocked when she stalked toward me, took the wooden spoon from my motionless hand and assumed stirring it.

"Um..."

"You have to stir continually or it won't thicken consistently. Haven't you ever made this before?"

"No. How do you know what it is?" She looked at me like I was a mad woman. "I'm new to food," I said defensively.

"Maybe you should start with basics, like boiling an egg," she taunted.

"Vicious little... I can handle it, it's a process."

"Hmm." She sneered accusingly at my plastered fingers and dropped the spoon. "I'll leave you to it then."

"Wait! If you're so smart maybe you can help me?" I swallowed my pride and remembered my original plan which was to get Micah to eat. "Do you know how to do this stuff?"

She smiled and took over with the sauce again. She did know how to do 'this stuff' and I felt like a fool for challenging her. She demonstrated things to me and with patience and skill we (mostly her) finished the meal. While she cooked she scooted about the kitchen cleaning things up as she went and ordering me to do this and that, like a professional; it was impressive and quite entertaining to watch. She was in her element.

"Why do you keep so many bottles of tap water?" she asked, peering into one of the lower cupboards.

"I don't know if you've noticed but there have been a lot of cases of water contamination around the country lately. It will happen here, it's only a question of when."

"Very shrewd. Are you having people over?"

"No. Why?"

"You've made enough for four people."

"Er ...yes. Like I said, I'm new at this. You will help me eat it of course." I took it for granted and didn't give her the opportunity to decline. If she had a problem with any of the foods involved I would soon find out. She appeared not to, she helped me put the meal together on plates and sat down to eat with me.

She accepted a glass of wine and I felt a mixture of delight and disgust at the way she shovelled food into her mouth. Was she in a hurry?

"It is tasty, but you eat like a pig, Micah."

"Sorry, I just haven't had food like this in a really long time."

"Food like this?"

"Real food. Fresh stuff cooked from scratch, food with nutritional value. I don't think I've eaten meat in months. I'm a poor student."

"Hmm," I nodded studying her thin frame. "You haven't touched any of the food in the fridge or cupboards."

"It's not mine," she said and I was appalled.

"I thought you had an eating disorder or something. Don't your parents give you money to eat at least?"

"They've effectively cut me off." She paused looking uncomfortable. "I need to ask a favour."

"Yes?"

"Don't tell any family about the nightmares."

"It's none of their business but is there a particular reason you need to keep it hushed?"

"I don't want to draw their attention. Mary looks for any excuse to jump down my throat."

"Could the sleepwalking be caused by the pills you take?"

"No. I've done it since I was little. It used to be much worse."

"How did your parents deal with it?"

"They had me committed."

"For sleepwalking?" I shook my head. "Jerks. Why did they kick you out?"

"They believe I'm sick and didn't want to see me self-destruct."

Unthinking, I glanced down at her arms and she pulled her sleeve self-consciously further down on her wrist.

"Are you sick?"

"We're all a little sick," she said.

"So fucking true," I nodded. "But you don't want to talk to a psychologist?"

"I was deconstructed enough when I was an inpatient. I'm better off without them. They don't know how to cope with me being so different."

"Different?"

"The depression," she shrugged, "the nightmares, the way I talk. They hate that I called myself asexual, that I don't have friends; that I don't fit into social norms. It sounds ridiculous when I say it like that but it all just built up over the years to the point where we can't stand each other anymore."

I was happy she was talking. It wasn't the wine, she'd only taken three sips.

"And their solution was to throw you to the streets?"

"They believe in tough love."

"Do they believe in no love?"

"They expected me to come crawling back and submit to their wishes. Your mother took pity on me. I don't know why, I heard she's normally pretty cold as well."

"I think there might be some history between her and Mary, I have no idea what it is but with my mother there is usually an ulterior motive. What exactly do you mean by asexual? You self-fertilize?"

She laughed suddenly and unexpectedly; it was delightful.

"You know something about biology," she said then sobered. "It means I'm not a sexual person."

"Have you ever had sex?"

"Getting a bit personal, aren't you?" she asked but she looked amused not uncomfortable. "No one would want sex from me," she muttered under her breath.

"What?" Had I misheard her?

"I've never wanted to before," she said, raising her voice.

"No sex drive at all, huh. That's a new one," I noted. "Why do you wear so much make-up if you're not trying to impress anyone?"

"I don't want to scare people into an early heart attack. I'm not a killer."

I studied her. Did she really have such low self-esteem or was it an act?

"You could go a bit lighter on the eye-liner. You look better without make-up, I've seen you."

"I thought you were supposed to be respecting my privacy."

"You really don't see it?"

"See what?"

"You are so pretty, Micah."

She burped shamelessly and shoved another forkful of fillet into her already full mouth - it wasn't an act. She couldn't care less about what impression she made.

"How did you turn into someone with such a distorted self-image? Where did you learn it from?"

"I was born with it," she said loftily.

So she was willing to admit her self-image was distorted. Curious. I decided I'd grilled her enough about her private matters, from the way it was going it looked like I'd end up embarrassing myself before figuring her out in any way.

"Anyway, I'm glad Mum did it, convinced me to take you," I said.

"Why?" Her expression showed real confusion.

"You're interesting. A fucking train-wreck but interesting. Besides, you can cook. Where did you learn how to cook like this anyway?"

"Masterchef."

"You can't learn that from television."

"I did. And experimenting in the kitchen. Mary hated it, I'd make a shocking mess and she'd nut out at me."

"It must piss her off that you don't call her Mum."

"Not really," she shrugged. "She's not my mother. Like you're not my cousin."

"That's a bit harsh, don't you think?"

"It's true. Bruce and Mary can't have children. They adopted me."

"It's the first I've heard of it."

"You don't get involved in things, you mind your own business."

"I still think of you as family though." It was partially true.

"Whatever," she shrugged again. "What do you live on if you're such a hopeless cook?"

"Son of a… You've got a mean streak." It added a provocative element to her bizarre combination of characteristics. "Cheese, crackers, toast, fruit, yogurt. I get take-out or make an excuse to visit someone when I want a proper meal."

"Helen tells me you work in a bank?"

"AMP financial advisor. It pays well but it's dull as dish water."

"What did you study to get a job like that so young?"

"I'm 25," I said, shocked that a teenager had the audacity to call me young.

"Yeah, young," she repeated without hesitation.

"Hmm... Commerce. I majored in Accounting. I got the job easy because I happen to be very good at smiling and giving people what they want. A talent I generally reserve for work."

"You haven't had any visitors since I've been here. Are you avoiding having people around because of me?"

"No," I said and she gave me a critical look.

"Don't get me wrong, I appreciate it. I just don't want you disrupting your life, you're doing enough already. Guests won't bother me."

"You always think the world revolves around you like this?" I asked with a smile.

"No…" She blushed deeply. Living with Bruce and Mary really had fucked her up.

"I don't have many close friends and I like my space," I explained.

"Okay. But don't you even have a boyfriend?"

"I don't sleep with men," I said plainly.

"Oh..." She looked startled by this which amused me. "Girlfriend then?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Contrary to popular belief, we sexual people can be choosy."

"Does your mother know? That you're gay?"

"I'm not sure. I don't make a talk show out of it. It's never really come up."

She nodded and I studied her as we ate.

"I want you to help yourself from the cupboards and fridge from now on. Half of the food I buy ends up expiring and getting thrown out anyway. If there's anything wrong with you it's that you're underweight. You can't live on tea and processed snacks."

"Yes, Mum," She said it lightly but I knew it would take more than that. She would have to be lulled into feeling comfortable and confident about taking food. I would demand cooking lessons from her - that would contribute to her feeling like she deserved it.

"I might try lobster rolls tomorrow night, I looked at the recipe."

"Lobster rolls?" She raised her eyebrows. "You sure you don't want to do an egg?"

"I assume it's easier to walk once you know how to run. But… Will you help me? If you're home."

"I don't know." She was suspicious, she wasn't stupid.

I stayed silent, chewing. She was too smart to manipulate and I found myself not wanting to anyway. I didn't like the idea of tricking her, nor the idea that she could be tricked.

But it didn't take much, all I had to do was bide my time till the following evening, bang some pots again angrily and she emerged, hungry and eager to teach me what she knew.

She was proficient in the kitchen, with flavour, with texture and I found myself gazing at her as she tried to demonstrate things to me in such a methodical, scientific manner. I imagined her being the same during her laboratory classes, prim and practical in her coat and trying to make everyone understand things she found so easy, with them gazing at her like I did. Was I becoming infatuated? No doubt I found her adorable in her own efficient and clueless way. She was the epitome of unrefined charm - utterly oblivious to her own charisma. I found expectation off-putting in people, did not want to meet it, and Micah expected nothing - less than nothing. She was impoverished, body and soul. Call it sick, but I wanted to fill all those non-existent expectations.

Would my attraction disappear if she reciprocated it? At that point I thought - probably, it usually did.

*

We got closer over the next two weeks. She helped me with dinner when I was home in time; I got better quickly under her tutelage and I was happy to see her eating well. She looked less like a ghost, her smiles occurred more frequently. She stayed out sitting in the lounge or dining room at night, sometimes with her textbooks and notes, sometimes not. I began to look forward to the end of my work day more. One Wednesday night she seemed particularly reluctant to go to bed. I sensed the shadows looming in her. I stayed up with her until after one and tried to turn her mind to happier things but decided to change tactic eventually.

I repositioned myself on the sofa wrong way up, head hanging over the edge and legs propped up against the wall.

"What the hell are you doing?" she asked me as I observed her upside down face.

"Spending a few minutes like this helps alleviate back pain," I informed her. "For someone who spends all day sitting in an office chair, however 'ergonomic' it's supposed to be, this can make a big difference."

"I think you just like showing off your legs," she said with the slight smile I had been going for.

"Made an impression, have they? Excellent. Now that we are both comfortable and relaxed, do you want to tell me why you seem intent on staying up all night tonight?"

It was rather difficult to judge her expression from this position but she was definitely not smiling anymore.

"You know you can trust me," I pressed. "Are you going to have a nightmare?"

"I don't want the same thing to happen as last time," she said awkwardly. "It's better if I just don't sleep. I'll probably be okay tomorrow night."

"You shouldn't deprive yourself of sleep like that," I said, the blood was starting to rush to my head. "It's not as if you can help it."

"Sometimes when I walk, I'm aware that I'm doing it. But I can't stop it because I'm not in a normal state. Normal," she snorted bitterly. "What does that even mean? I don't know which state is real, the fear or the non-fear. The fear is definitely more powerful."

"Have you heard of hypnagogia?" I asked and she looked at me sharply.

"Threshold consciousness. Yeah, the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep."

"They say a person can get caught in it and a lot of weird phenomena can happen there."

"I've read a bit about it," she said thoughtfully. "Thought processes can differ radically during a half-dream state. But I don't remember having thoughts at all, just feelings. An overwhelming sense of danger and fear, not logical."

"What did you used to do when you were in this altered state?"

"I ran. I'd run around the property in my bare feet at night. I remember sometimes telling our cat or dog to run too, that something was coming. But if I heard Bruce or Mary get up, saw any evidence that I'd woken them, I would hide - I'd creep back to bed and lie trembling under the covers, pretending to be asleep. I was aware enough to know I didn't want them to find out I'd been walking."

"Did you talk to the psychologist on the ward about these terrors?"

"A little. I didn't try very hard because I can't explain it. No one who hasn't experienced it could possibly understand and there might have been a bit of denial happening… I didn't want to think about it unless I had to. I wanted to put it out of my head when it wasn't there, do you see?"

"Yes, I do. Why would you want something like that to have any more of an impact on your life than it already has?" I swung my legs back onto the floor and straightened up before I passed out. I studied her, she was still so thin. "I won't ask you to talk about it again. You say you need to run and when I found you that first night you were trying to get out onto the balcony, I don't know what might have happened if you'd actually got the door open. I don't want you hurt, I want to help. Will you promise to tell me if you get scared?"

She nodded but looked reticent.

"I need to go to sleep," I said. "You should take the left side of my bed. Even if you don't sleep you'll be a lot more comfortable in there and you won't be alone."

"What about your bodies?" she asked and I smiled. Better already.

"I rented a storage facility and had them moved so you're in the clear."

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely. You can put the TV on, I have no problem sleeping with background noise, don't worry. And I fucking hate the idea of ghosts or aliens or anything so if something is coming to get us I'd prefer to be woken and warned as well. Deal?"

I wasn't sure it would work at first, but it seemed preferable to having the neighbours calling the police from her screams or finding her dead below the balcony and the arrangement turned out well. It became an unspoken agreement when she was scared - she was mostly fine to sleep in her own room and only twice had I woken to find her shaking beside me. I did my best to comfort her and she relaxed faster now she knew I wasn't going to judge.

I understood what she meant by keeping the nightmares as confined as necessary. I reckoned it was likely people had concentrated too much on Micah's darkness and, as such, inadvertently fortified it. She could be so happy and bright during daylight hours and on the nights when she was calm; my inclination was to encourage this, to inject normalcy into as much of her life as possible without criticising her. She deserved love and laughter not obscurity and fear.


3


I had another call from my mother on the Tuesday three weeks after she moved in. I was at work but was just about to break for lunch so took the call. I was relieved that she had only felt the need to exchange a couple of brief text messages up until now, I'd been expecting a long conversation in which I'd have to be sketchy with detail.

"Mum, hi," I answered.

"Hi, darling. Are you free to talk for a minute?"

"I wouldn't have answered if I wasn't."

"How is everything with Micah?"

"Of course you wouldn't be calling to ask how I am."

"Don't be petulant, I know you're okay... Alright, how are things with you?"

"Things are going good with Micah, she's fine. And you were right, she's a nice girl."

"Oh?" She sounded doubtful. "You're not covering anything up, are you?"

"No. If you don't believe me, ask her yourself."

"Actually, that's the reason I'm calling. Would you be able to bring her to dinner on Thursday night?"

"Is that necessary? Why don't you just call her?"

"It's not about me. Her parents want to see her, they'll be there. They won't be satisfied with a simple phone call, they were quite insistent. Mary wanted to do it at her house but it's too far out of town and I doubt Micah would agree to that so I offered to do it here. What do you think?"

I shrugged then remembered I was on the phone. "What do I think about what?"

"Will you be able to get her to come?" she said impatiently. "At least here she won't be alone with them, everyone will be here."

"Why didn't you tell me she was adopted?"

"What difference does that make?"

"How old was she when she was adopted?" I asked, trying my hardest to sound casual.

"They got her when she was two or three I think. Why does it matter? She's still family."

"Of course she is, I was curious that's all and it took me by surprise. Do you know anything about the parents?"

"Of course not, as far as I'm concerned Mary and Bruce are her parents. Really, Elise, I would have expected you to show more compassion."

Typical of my mother to assume I meant it as an insult. I couldn't disclose the real reason I was happy to find out she wasn't blood; as if it would make it any more acceptable in their eyes that I found her cute anyway. Nor could I reveal any suspicions I had about a traumatic past.

I saw Jeffrey signalling to me from the door of his office.

"I have to go, Mum."

"One second, you haven't given me an answer..."

"Oh, right. Yes, I'll mention it to her. I'm sure it will be okay, she likes her food."

"Good, do your best to swing it, she's going to have to see them eventually. Have a good day, love."

I arrived home just after six that night. We'd talked about a braised pork dish - Micah liked to challenge herself I discovered, and so I bought some things.

I found her lying on the sofa on her back, hands linked over her chest. Her eyes were closed and I could hear music blasting through the speaker phones but couldn't tell what it was. I pulled them from her head and saw her eyes open and widen at me before I closed them over my ears.

"Metallica?" I said in amusement. "Really?"

"It's mathematically flawless," she informed me, slightly miffed and took her headphones back.

"I wasn't criticising, I just thought you would be too young."

"I'm young, not stupid."

"Sorry, soldier."

"The best music transcends every generation. Anyway, there's not much difference between us, how do you know their stuff so easily?"

"No Leaf Clover's the shit. But I like Chief Keef as well and I know nothing about the math, I just like how it sounds."

"You're a financer, I expect you know a few things about math."

"Hm. I don't have a musical bone in my body."

"Chief Keef? Little Aussie white girl has seriously fucked up taste in sounds."

"Speak for yourself. Anyway, from what I understand, we're amongst the toughest little white bitches on earth."

"From what I understand adding 'amongst the' or 'one of the' to the beginning of a stat turns all of them into absolute bullshit."

"Ah," I laughed. "Can't fool you, can we?" I collapsed on the sofa next to her as she straightened up. "What's all this?" I asked, picking up her notebook and staring at the intricate, annotated diagrams drawn there.

"Notes for a lab write-up. We're looking at normal and mutant conditions to study the relationship between genes, enzymes, biochemical pathways and phenotypes ...that is characteristics."

"Wiseass. And what are you experimenting with?"

"Drosophila flies, yeast, corn and phage lambda, a bacterial virus."

"You don't mess around with notes, do you? I remember taking as few as possible when I was at Uni. Mind you, I never took summer semester courses like you are either."

"The more notes I take the easier it is to do the write-up, it's practically all done and just needs to be set out correctly."

I dug around in my bag and pulled out my own notebook, opened it and held it out for Micah to see.

"This is one of the clients I met with today." It was a caricature of a stocky, full-bosomed woman with a severe grey bun and an exaggerated wart above her left temple. She had a speech bubble coming from her puckered lips and overbite saying 'The partial package will satisfy me'. Micah's face broke into a wide grin.

"What the fuck?" She flicked back through some of the earlier pages and multitudes of cartoon effigies. "These are good. You drew them?"

"I have to keep the book well hidden at work, if anyone saw them I'd never be thought of as professional again."

"This almost makes banking work look appealing."

"It isn't," I laughed.

"Why do you do it? If you hate your job so much?"

"I don't," I said, shocked at the directness of the question. "I don't hate it per se, I just feel the need to supplement it to entertain myself. It makes my days worthwhile, I enjoy meeting new customers so I can analyse them, criticise them and plan for a cartoon later as I'm explaining interest rates and fixed term loan requirements. I don't have to pretend to be interested, I actually am. My job is easy if I have this."

She giggled and I drank it in, stored it up.

"Shouldn't you try to do something with your creativity?"

"Oh please, I hold out a small hope of buying my own house one day. If I did something with my creativity that would spontaneously abort in situ. Therein lies the dilemma." I paused. "I took art when I was 15, my teacher told me I was terrible, she wanted us to draw flowers."

"You don't strike me as the type to allow that to put you off."

"I was a different person back then."


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-32 show above.)