This is it; the last chapter. Hope you enjoyed it. I enjoyed writing this one:) Thanks for all the reviews.
'Open it,' Shay demanded, nudging me.
My present lay before me on the bed, neatly gift wrapped with a big white bow and a card. He'd written my name on the card. It was spelled correctly, but written in unevenly sized letters that looked as though they might have been crafted by a six year old child.
'Now,' he added. 'You're making me nervous.'
'Why are you nervous? You didn't have to buy me anything in the first place.'
Shay pushed my hair off my face and kissed my temple. 'Stop procrastinating.'
I stopped teasing him and ripped off the paper. I stared at the box in surprise. I'd been expecting something sweet and romantic, but he'd bought me a digital camera, and a good one at that. Damn, no wonder he'd been nervous. He must have known how I'd react.
'I can't accept this,' I stated uncomfortably. 'No, no, no, no, no, Shay. It's way too much.'
'It's not,' he argued, turning a deep shade of red. 'I had all of my commission cheques, remember? I wouldn't have had any of that money if hadn't shown me how to bank them.'
'That's not a good enough reason.'
Shay grabbed the torn wrapping paper and took it to the caravan kitchen. He looked pissed off, like my refusal of his gift was something to get angry about. I wanted to throw something at him. What didn't he understand when I said it was too much?
'Carmine, you have to take it,' he demanded, pulling on his clothes. We'd showered together after sex, but hadn't bothered to put on anything more than our underwear. 'What else am I going to do with it?'
'Use it? Return it?' I suggested. 'Give it to someone who deserves it?'
'You deserve it. Don't be fucking stupid. You're the best thing that ever happened to me and I don't, I don't want to fight with you.'
'I'm not fighting,' I replied miserably. 'Shay… God, you can't buy people this sort of stuff. Look, I'll take it. I really like it. It's an awesome gift. I haven't had a birthday present in, like, ten years, so it's extra special. Next time, though, try and get me something more reasonable. A CD or something.'
Shay flopped onto the bed. 'I'm an idiot, aren't I?'
'No, just unused to the free world,' I gently corrected him. 'To be honest, if you'd bought me this for a one year anniversary or something, that would have been great. Now is a little too soon. Never mind, you can buy me something crappy next time, to make up for it.'
He tugged on my arm, indicating he wanted a hug. I carefully put my new camera down and lay on top of him.
'I'm sorry,' he apologized gruffly, stroking my back. 'I was only trying to make you happy. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me. I want you to know that.'
'Shay, Shay, Shay.' I kissed his nose. 'In jail, I never would have guessed you were such a wussy boy on the inside.'
I smiled at him, and he smiled back. He knew I was only taking the shit out of him to show him that I'd forgiven him for buying an expensive gift.
'I'm going to take a photo of us,' I announced, inspiration hitting me. I sat up and reached for the camera box.
It took Shay and I a few minutes to work it out, but eventually we had the batteries in, and the camera switched on. We took photos of ourselves; stupid photos, funny photos, over and over until the memory card was full.
I decided I was going to ignore how much it cost and enjoy my camera. It took super-good photos that made us look halfway decent, and I promised myself that I would buy a decent printer so I could print them out at home.
'Have you forgiven me for getting you the camera?' Shay asked.
'Yep.' I deleted a photo where both of us had our eyes shut, and replaced it with one of my new boyfriend. I checked the picture and grinned; it was a good shot. 'It's hard to stay mad at you.'
Shay pulled me in for a hug. 'Good.'
'God,' Darcy remarked. 'I never thought it'd happen.'
She was talking about my relationship with Shay, of course. We'd been together for two weeks by this stage, and our friends and family and workmates were starting to really believe that Shay and I would stick it out this time.
There was something different about our relationship second time around; something more comfortable and less showy and in-your-face. Shay wasn't bouncing off the walls, screaming to the world that we were a couple, and I wasn't shying away, embarrassed and wondering how to get out an awkward, unwanted, relationship. It was better this time, much better. It was something I wanted to hold onto for years to come.
I stirred a teaspoon of sugar into my coffee and took a sip. 'You and me both.'
'You're not regretting this already are you?' she asked, suddenly doubtful.
'Oh no,' I reassured her. 'I'm quite happy about the whole thing. He's a nice guy.'
She reached over and touched my hand. 'You love him.'
I snorted. 'That's pushing it.'
Maybe I did love him, a little bit, but it was far too early for me to go announcing it to the world. Besides, what was this, Oprah? And in front of Rob, who was sitting on his veranda alongside us, looking rather interested in the conversation?
'Men,' Darcy sighed.
'You can't help but love us.' I agreed.
Rob and I laughed. Darcy rolled her eyes and lit a cigarette.
It annoyed me that she was still smoking, but I held my tongue. Rob had learned the difficult way that Darcy wasn't going to accept criticism about her pregnancy-related decisions, and I, in turn, had heeded his advice that it was best not to comment on her smoking.
Sometimes I found myself wondering whether Rob regretted inviting her into his house. My initial assumptions that the two would eventually become a couple had been proven incorrect, and I increasingly got the impression that he resented the way she took advantage of his good nature. I hated to say it, but Darcy has a habit of assuming that anyone who is financially stable owes her something.
Darcy had shown me appreciation and respect me because I was poor and alone in the world. Rob, who seemed to be fairly well off, in a middle income kind of way, helped her far more than I ever did, but wasn't given half the thanks that I had been. For someone like him, who believed in hard work and personal responsibility, that had to bite.
We drank coffee and chatted for an hour or so, before I made my excuses and left. Shay would be coming over tonight, for dinner and movies and sex. I needed to get home before him and clean. He'd remarked, once or twice, that he found my lack of cleanliness to be off-putting, and I wanted to tidy up before he arrived.
Back at my studio apartment, I found I had an unexpected visitor. It was Jackie, looking altogether too bright and confident for my liking. He's one of those guys who always gets back up when he's knocked down, who – as it had been pointed out by several of my workmates – never really seems to learn.
'What are you doing here?' I asked, shocked. I hadn't expected to lay eyes on Jackie again; not after Shay had beaten him up.
He shrugged and looked up from his phone, on which he'd been playing a game. 'Visiting.'
'Oh. I hadn't seen you at work or anything.'
'You won't be seeing me there again. I quit. I've got a new job now; bartending at a pub.' He leered. 'You should come and see me sometime.'
See him again, was he kidding? I couldn't think of anything I least wanted to do, especially not after the photos he'd taken of me. I hadn't forgotten about that, and I definitely wasn't going to forgive him for it. Why had he dared do that to me, anyway? Shay wouldn't take naked photos of me without my permission. Shit, Shay had asked if I minded if he showed some friends of his a picture of me, a photo that was taken with my express permission and while I was fully clothed.
'Yeah, I'll do that,' I lied, brushing past him and opening my door. 'I'll see you around.'
'Aren't you going to invite me in?'
I turned and stared at him. He stared back, his bright, dark blue eyes gazing directly into mine.
I could have told him, 'go away, Shay will be here soon and he's already beaten you up once'. I could have lied to him and told him I needed to go out. There were a million things I could have told him, both threats and mistruths, that would have gotten him to piss off. But that would have been too comfortable, too easy, and would have let the things that needed to be said gone unspoken.
Instead, I took my keys out of the lock and walked inside, knowing all the while that Jackie was following me. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew that I soon would. There was an odd feeling in my stomach that this would soon reach its conclusion.
'So, I heard you and Shay had hooked up again,' he remarked.
He walked over to my fridge and removed a photo that I'd blu-tacked onto the front. It was a picture of Shay and I, taken with my new camera. I'd followed through with my plan, and bought a decent printer and photo paper, and I now had a stack of photos beside my bed, and several stuck to my fridge. I liked them. I enjoyed flicking through when I was bored and alone, and wanted to remind myself that I had a boyfriend who cared for me.
'Yeah,' I replied, carefully watching him.
He stuck the photo back on the fridge. 'What do you see in him? He can't read, he can't write, and he's stupid as shit.'
'He also doesn't take photos of me when I'm sleeping,' I argued. 'That's a pretty big distinction, wouldn't you say?'
Jackie stepped back. He hesitated briefly, before launching into a line of pure bullshit.
'I took the photos accidentally. I was messing around on my phone.' He smiled. 'You believe me, don't you?'
'Fuck no. Even if you did take them accidentally, you had no right to try and threaten Shay with them.'
'I didn't threaten him.'
I walked over to the door. 'Like fuck you didn't. Get the hell out, you goddamn arsehole. And do you know what? If you want to try and screw with me, then go ahead and show those photos to everyone at T.J.'s. Why the fuck would I care?'
Jackie's face darkened. He was prepared to get nasty. He walked up to me and glared, trying to tell me that he was in charge, but unfortunately for him, I didn't buy it any more than I'd bought his tale about how he'd 'accidentally' taken the photos. Everyone had been right; Jackie was a sleaze. They had been correct to warn me. My only regret was that I hadn't listened to them.
'Fuck your workmates,' he swore. 'I'll put them all over the fucking internet.'
'Where they'll join all the other pornographic photos of me,' I replied honestly. 'At least this time I'm legal, and I'm not wearing mascara. Sure beats the photos of my dick that I posted when I was a fifteen year old wanker.'
I shut the door, blocking him out of my apartment and out of my life. I was shaking. The exchange had cost me a lot more than I let on. I reached into my pocket for my tobacco and rolled myself a cigarette. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck Jackie. Fuck him for trying that bullshit with him, and fuck him for ruining what had previously been a good day. Goddamnit, fuck him.
When I'd smoked my first cigarette, I grabbed a Coke from the fridge and went out on the back stoop of my apartment where I rolled myself another cigarette. It wasn't really a great place to sit; it was dirty and overgrown with weeds and it faced the parking bays, but I didn't want the air inside my apartment to be too stale when Shay arrived.
I was still sitting outside when I saw Shay's yellow Holden pull up and park. My boyfriend got out, unaware that he was being observed, and locked the doors. My hair and my apartment were a mess, and I was still a bit ropey after my confrontation with Jackie but still, I knew I had to call out and let him know I was here.
He turned around, a quizzical expression on his face. He caught sight of me and smiled. 'Hey Carmine.'
He came over and sat beside me, took a swig of my Coke and asked, confused, if anything was the matter.
'Jackie came over,' I muttered. 'I told him I knew about the photos.'
I told Shay the story, waiting for him to tell me that I was an idiot. I expected it, really I did. Anyone else would have told me I was a moron for letting Jackie into my home.
Shay just laughed. 'Did you really put dirty photos of yourself on the web?'
I pulled a face. 'Yes. I scanned Polaroid photos. It was all very old school, but they're out there. Somewhere. How humiliating. I was trying to show how cool I was.'
He snickered. 'You should show me sometime.'
'I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen at the time,' I replied, wincing. 'I wore make-up. I took a lot of drugs. I smoked crack. You may think you want to see, but you don't.'
We laughed at my general, adolescent, stupidity and Shay asked me questions; what my family was like, what I'd done after I left home, whether I missed my parents. Some questions I answered, others I ignored. There were some topics, some experiences, that were little touchy.
'You can stop laughing at me now,' I added a few minutes later. The conversation was too much for me. As much as I pretended I bore no scars, that wasn't really the truth. It was time to change the subject. 'I rang up that dyslexia organization. They gave me the number of someone who can help. She'll be able to test you, and tell you what the problem is. She can refer you onto someone who can help you learn to read.'
Shay wasn't particularly optimistic. 'Don't get your hopes up,' he requested gruffly. 'I've tried this before.'
'I'm doing it for you,' I replied. 'If you want me to back off, I will.'
He hugged me. 'I appreciate it, Carmine. You always do nice shit for me.' He kissed me. 'I love you.'
I pushed him away. I was still a few weeks from telling him that I loved him, too. I'd let him know, of course, but I hadn't vocalized it. 'Yeah, I know. Let's go inside. I need to clean and brush my teeth. You don't want a stinky boyfriend with a filthy house, do you?'
Shay grinned. 'I'm getting used to your stench.'
I hit him. 'Smartarse.'