Chapter One
Souring

(this chapter's song is Chemical Heart - Grinspoon)

Two years down the track

I snivelled a bit. He buttoned up his pajama pants, smiled at me, his garish breath still lingering, the smell of his body on mine still fresh. My hair was tousled. He kissed the side of my cheek, whispered, "Don't cry, Anna baby."

I shot back, "Shut up, Dad."

He recoiled from me. He hated it when I called him Dad, when I reminded him so clearly what he was doing was beyond wrong. Technically, not incest, considering he was my stepdad. But still just so wrong, so disgusting that he was fucking his sixteen year old whilst his wife slept in the bedroom next door, sprawled out over the space he should have occupied.

I cannot explain how it got to there, how my life travelled down that road exactly. At fourteen, my mother got married, at fourteen and three months, I wasn't a virgin anymore.

He half-stumbled out of the room. It wasn't fair that he had never seemed like the evil he was. He didn't look like evil with a slightly-chubby frame and kind eyes. Deceptively kind eyes, merely a mask for his true self that came out of him when he crawled into my room like a cretin of the night, and said quietly, softly, knowing I wasn't asleep, "Anna?"

I sighed and rummaged around for my diary, ready to add another extensive journal entry saying just exactly what I found wrong with my life and how terribly annoying it was to be a teenager and be forced to undergo the regular trials and tribulations, agonies and angst of being an adolescent on top of my home life. I always wrote in red pen, it pressing sometimes a bit too hard against the paper and leaving little, pin prick marks all over the crisp white. Kind of like very small bullet wounds.

A stray branch scratched my window, something that used to start me at night. But I had bigger problems than childhood monsters seeping into my bedroom. I had a live one living next door, eating with me at night, driving me to school and social functions, breath dank against my cheek, my neck, leaving me a cringing ball or in a foetal positon, leaving me wanting nothing more than to fade, to fade so far away he would never reach me with his thick fingers every again.

I didn't see that much of Ashley anymore. We drifted apart. It seemed unfair, unjust that we two would ever be torn apart when we had been just such best friends, planning our lives to correspond with eachothers. We were going to London. We would share a flat. Ashley would a model, I would write, and when Ashley was away on photoshoots, I would look after the house.

We drifted away about the time of the beginning of the abuse. I became different. A twisted, sour little bitch with enough acid on my tongue to burn away tears and enough sarcasm under my belt to make even the most well adjusted person wince. I became, short and simple, that bitch you hear about who rests neatly on her throne, crown and jewels sparkling in the limelight, spectre rested on her bony little knees. I attained venom friends who didn't ask and didn't care, who had bigger brothers than Ashley's, brothers that had connections to weed and coke that we'd snort, trying to fight back the tears in our eyes.

It was like my stepfather had shifted the light when his body pressed against mine. Before I had been cast in soft light, serene. The lighting changed to harsh fluroscence, though, and suddenly every pimple, every blemish, every pore and every unevenness was suddenly thrown into the spot light. In short, I became beautiful on the outside, starving out of guilt and the feel of phantom grit against my skin, and absoultely hideous on the inside. Ugly, like a deceptively perfect apple that, when bitten, is nothing but rotten.

My grades took such a nose dive I was called to my form teacher after class, then the year coordinator, then the leader of middle school, and then, finally, sitting slouched in the red arm chair in the presence of none other than our principle, who leaned forward, having already deduced my "problem". Plain and simple teenaged girl neuroses. He assured me it would clear up, my hormones would not be out of whack for much longer, and I'd be writing those glorious tibits of prose he had heard just so much about in no time.

I smiled and said I'd get better.

Like hell.

I started pushing boundaries. I came to school wearing ridiculously short tartan skirts, little minidresses, tight sweaters that veered dangerously over my cleavage. The boys didn't mind. Neither did the (male) teachers. I'd accquired such acclaim for my ridiculous stories, that were nothing but regurgitated ideas from other writer's stories, people didn't really care what I did, as long as I was still at Remington Prep. They were happy to put up with my insolence as long as my reputation didn't wear out before this ridiculous "phase".

I started fucking, too. Any boy, any man, I was easy, I was sleazy, and I was a beautiful girl falling down into a pit of self-destruction.

Julian had approached me, early on in the phase, geeky as ever, extremely uncomfortable as he averted his eyes from mine, trying to take back the fact he had glanced at my chest. He clutched his books in one hand and was slightly hunched over. He was wearing a pressed white shirt, like normal, his hair spiked up. He was slouching, as usual.

"Are you okay, Annie?" he asked, licking his lips anxiously and looking into my eyes, genuine concern laced in his.

He never called me Annie. Or, he did, but very rarely. I could only remember one other time he had used it, when I had broken my arm and was crying as the ambulance took their sweet time arriving. He had my head propped up on his knees back then, stroking my hair, letting me squeeze the hell out of his other hand, saying over and over, "It's okay, Annie."

But, don't forget, I was now evil. Poison. Or, that's what I truly believed. I was digsusting and wrong and twisted, just too wrong for this situation, this conversation, to be even be in contact or interaction with someone as sweet and beautiful as Julian.

I sighed, smiled patronizingly, "Of course I am, Julian."

"You're acting differently and Ashley said-"

"Ashley and I aren't friends. Whatever she said was probably just bitterness," I said in a rush, trying to maintain my aloof air with difficulty.

"We're worried," Julian pressed, doing something so uncharecteristic of himself.

He reached out and touched my shoulder. I looked down at his hand, confused. Julian hated touching or being touched. I almost cried. Almost. I brushed out of his grip, smiled at him thinly. I nodded my head, not trusting myself to talk, trying to contain within me the thirteen year old girl who was light and innocence and who was just simply crying out for Julian to save the two of us from my noxious self.

I gritted my teeth.

Julian hesitated, looked like he was going to say something, but instead turned and walked off.

I wish, now, I had just let that thirteen year old out. Instead of holding her prisoner, within the iron bars of my mind, letting her starve, wither within me. Her last gasping breaths being exstinguished as my Stepdaddy touched my soft thigh with his unbearably rough hand.

-

My hands were shaking. I was slumped against the wall of my toilet cubicle in the girl's bathroom, my hair sweaty and sticking to my face. I was choking on my sobs, my ribs clawing, rasping, my fingers itching, my skin quaking.

Yes, I was having a breakdown.

I can't explain what sparked it. I had walked into the bathrooms, spotting someone from my group and smiling at them. I'd checked my hair in the mirror, smoothing out a few strands that were sticking up at the back. I'd walked into the toilet cubicle, sat down, pulling up my skirt. I'd seen a bruise on my pale thigh, remembered exactly how it happened, and started to gag. I'd thrown up, thrown up until my heart palpitated so fast I could feel my pulse chorusing through my head.

I'd wiped my grubby hands on the toilet paper. My eyes were unable to focus, bulging.

I'd started crying.

I kicked over the sanitary bin, I leaned against the wall, my shoulderblades hurting as I pushed harder and harder against it. My legs trembled. I bit my lip so hard a trickle of blood snaked down my chin. If someone had looked in right about then, I would have had a lot of explaining to do. A lot.

I finally calmed down after shouting the lyrics to a song I'd heard in the morning over and over again in my head (IF THERE'S ANYTHING TO SAY, IF THERE'S ANYTHING TO DO, IF THERE'S ANYOTHER WAY, I'LL DO ANYTHING FOR YOU), I stepped outside. I wiped away the trickle of blood. I washed my face under the hissing water tap. I dried my wet, sweaty hair under the hand dryer. I washed out my mouth. Smoothed my hair again. Smiled into the mirror, said quietly, "It's ok."

A girl walked in, a nerdy girl who didn't like me because of the crowd I hung out with. Fair enough. I didn't like her because of the clique she was in. She looked at me, looked at my eyes (still puffy and still red), and smiled. And not viciously, either. She smiled sympathetically. I smiled back. She washed her hands under the tap. I looked at her watch. 1:39, realized I was late for a class. I decided to just, simply, stroll in, look at the clock and act completely, insanely suprised.

We had Miss Keneally. To this day I hate her for knowing I was full of bullshit. She called my bluff so many times that year it made me want to kick her, or maybe myself for being so obvious. Anyway, I ran into the room, gasping, hand flying to my chest in faux exertion. I did my whole little routine, as she pursed her lips and the other people in the class snickered or scowled. I scratched the back of my head, raised my eyebrows, "Christ, time flies," I said. She looked at me, back at her book, then back up at me, a thin, I'm-gunna-get-you-and-I-know-the-perfect-way smile creeping into her old fat face.

I think we've all seen that look on a teacher's face at one point or another. Admit it, there's a lot of mind play that goes on between you and your least favourite teacher. She or he, of course, wields more power than you, so you can't - usually - openly oppose them. She or he can't say what they really think of you (although, towards the end of the year, Miss Keneally did give me quite the ear full), so they do things that make you uncomfortable and snicker.

She paired me with Ashley because she knew I had issues with that girl. She knew from the fierce, fight-to-the-death, gladiator-style discussion Ashley and I would have in front of the whole classroom, spitting out examples at eachother and yelling out quotes and theories as to why Elizabeth from Pride and Predjudice was/was not a heroine. When Miss Keneally would finally stop it, smiling, we'd throw ourselves back into our respective seats, quiet in the knowledge that we had won.

It wasn't as if I was just working with Ashley for the lesson, either. This was a full term's worth of assignment, of curriculm and grade weaved together. I couldn't get out of it unless I wanted to flat out fail English, which was the subject that was keeping me going, really. The only thing that was making these people put up with my stupid bullshit. I felt like kicking something.

I slunked over to Ashley's table, scowling. She scowled in retaliation, crossing her hands over her chest as I flung myself into the seat next to her.

"Hi," I bit out.

She stared at me.

My scowl deepened.

There was an uncomfortable pause.

"Let's just get over this bullshit right now," said Ashley, "If we get it over with now, it'll leave us the next eleven weeks to work effectively on our analysis and essay, and leave room so that we can do work."

"Fine," I said.

"I hate you, Anna," she said, "I hate that you abadoned me for no reason and joined the popular group and stopped hanging out with Julian - which, by the way, almost broke him-"

I bristled. Something stirred within me. The thirteen year old. Had I really hurt Julian?

"-and had a private breakdown with out letting anyone help, including me-"

"Fuck off," I said, rubbing my hand against my collarbone as if it was a comfort blanket. I'd never had any teddies or anything, but I'd always had my bones, and I always would.

Ashley rolled her eyes, "Oh, and also, you think you're so cool now just because you're rail thin."

I rested my head against a chilled, cupped hand, sighed, "Okay, one, I have my reasons for abadoning you and Julian; two, the group I hang out with is not popular, just feared; and, three, What the fuck? As if I can help being thin."

Ashley does this wierd face when she's thinking over something really hard. She bites both of her cheeks, effectively sucking them in. She looked like a fish when she did, and she was doing it right now.

She finally said, "Look, I really don't like this, but I'm going to put it all aside. We're going to have to work on this assignment later, I'm so tired right now... Say, like, my house, four? Can you still remember where it is?"

I bit my tongue for a moment, took a deep breath, "Yes, Ashley, you live about ten blocks away from me."

She nodded, turned to the window and sighed, "Look, I'm going to have to go to the nurse's office. I seriously haven't slept in like, two days."

I took another deep breath, sighed, and rested my head on the table. Miss Keneally didn't bother me and I think it might of had something to do with how pathetic I looked.

-

I can remember exactly what I used to think Ashley and Julian's place as. A white castle, towers and turrets supposedly rising from it. Now, now that the effect and haze of being thirteen and naive had worn off, I could look at it with sober eyes and still saw the same white palace. There seemd to be no other way to describe it.

You see, back then I lived in the shit end of town, where the houses peeled their paint off, as if not even the timber could stand the colours. People took two jobs and worked their asses off for their children's future, brows furrowed and teeth gritted, trying to make it work for the ones they loved. We lived in a part of Anikee called Mason. Now, if you walked over ten blocks or so, you'd find yourself in Milton Hieghts territory, where the houses were all perfectly aligned and beautiful. Where the lawns were immaculate and the houses had security coming out of their eyeballs.

Now, I know this wasn't just me who got this feeling when they stepped into Milton, but it didn't make it any more less mortifying. I felt about three inches tall whenever I stepped into the perfect lanes, fingers clasping the top of my backpack's straps self-consciously. This afternoon in question, I was extremely nevous, though. This was because I was veering into dangerous territory, a now-foreign land where my thirteen year old self had laughed, ate, frolicked, been happy. A place I had spent a lot of time at before him. Before my stepfather.

Before I rang the doorbell, I did a quick re-evaluation, as I always did when extremely nervous: I was 93 pounds, thin with elbow length blonde hair. I sighed, considering not even rining the doorbell at all, just say I forgot before my pride piped up, yelling that I was not going to be intimidated by people from my past. I thought, well, fuck it, I'm going in.

I rang the doorbell with one shaking hand. My hands shake when I'm nervous. I bit my lip, chewing on it. I ran a hand through my hair as time ticked away and I wondered why it was taking such a long time for someone to answer the door. I rang the doorbell again.

Julian's voice, from the other end, sounding agitated, yelled out, "I'm COMING!"

I jolted a bit at the sound of his voice. It had been so long since I had heard it.

Julian swung the door open violently, looking pretty angry. His features slackened when he saw who was at the door. Me. He seemed to instantly change, and when he talked again, his voice was considerably softer, "Hey, Anna, what are you doing here?"

He was looking at me in this way, this terrible way. His eyes were laced with concern and hurt, and I knew, I just knew I must have broken him when I stopped talking to him and acknowledging him, just like Ashley had said. I felt a lump in the back of my throat swell, throb. I desperately quelled it, shouted down the thirteen year old in me. I smiled plastically.

"Oh, hey!" I said, pretending I was meeting an old friend, "I'm here to do my English Assignment. With Ashley."

Julian scratched the back of his head, making the back of his hair stand up. I felt the need to reach out and slap his hand away from the back of his head. I didn't, of course.

"Well... She won't be home until five. The nurses are making her stay another hour until Mum can come pick her up. 'Cause, you know, apparently she's sleep deprived and shouldn't be walking anywhere."

Huh.

"Oh," I said, slouching.

Julian opened the front door a little further, "You can, uh, you can hang out with me until she comes."

I bit my lip, needing to say no, to deny myself of the thirteen year old within me. But I wanted, I so badly wanted to taste happiness again, to be near Julian again. Impulsively, I slipped past Julian, my side brushing against him, walking into his prestinely white, marble-floored house. I took my shoes off and rested my bag against their Ivory tusks. It was like an old habit, and I only, really, half realized I was doing it. I stretched, arching my back and rolling my head to get out the cricks in my neck. When I stopped, I saw Julian was looking at me wierdly, and felt myself go oddly stiff.

"What?" I asked quickly.

"Nothing," he said, just as quickly, "Listen, I was just playing video games-"

I scoffed lightly to myself. Little had changed.

"Do you do anything else?"

"Well, yeah," Julian said.

"It was rhetorical," I replied.

"Really? God, I'm sorry, to me it sounded like you were asking a question."

I sighed and threw my hands up in defeat. Julian smiled his stupid crooked smile and for some wierd reason, I couldn't help but smile back. It didn'y feel wierd when I trailed behind him, to his room, where under any other circumstance with any other boy, it would have implied something a little more tawdry than an X-Box, and an alien trying to destroy the world. Julian's room hadn't changed much since the last time I'd been in it. The 50 cent posters had been taken down and replaced with Eminem. His plaid cover was still the same, resting on the end of the bed.

I remembered, trying very hard not to, times when I was ten and he was twelve, lying on it in the back yard, spotting clouds and saying they looked like anything rude we could think of (butts, middle fingers, turds). How, one night, he had given it to me when I was complaining about it being cold and Ashley wouldn't share the blankets with me.

I gulped.

I sat down beside him, and inadverntantly took in his smell. There was something so comforting about it, something that reminded me of lulled nights in which Ashley had fallen asleep and I was falling asleep against him as we watched some stupid, pure gore movie like Freddy vs. Jason or Candy Stripers or Hell House. I could remember with perfect lucidity as my eyelids, so heavy, fell with a crash and I breathed in Julian and his it'll-be-okay smell.

The Alien on screen screamed out in agony as it got captured by humans and tortured.

Julian sighed, "God, I suck."

I let a pause go by before saying, mock-gushing, "Oh, Julian, how could you say that? You're ever so talented you can... you can... read and write and eat."

Julian scoffed, "Atleast I can eat. Look at you."

I draped my arms over my stomach, although I was secretly pleased, "What the hell are you implying?"

Julian sighed loudly, took hold of my wrist. I felt elecrticy but ignored it, chalked it up to my stupid hormones. He put his fore finger and thumb over my wrist, and they touched eachother as he linked them. He raised his eyebrows.

"Okay, you caught me," I deadpanned, "I got lipo."

Julian smiled at me, again, and it showed dimples and I loved his geekiness and he had eyes like old blue rivers. And I knew, just out of basic instinct, out of a need for self-preservation, I had to get out of that room before I did something stupid like kiss him when I didn't even think I actually liked him. I was pretty sure I was just finding a new way to be self-destructive.

Before he could smile at me again, I was running out of the room and down to their kitchen whilst he sat there, bemused, unsure whether to follow in case I was just, you know, going to their toilet. I opened their two door fridge, took out a green apple, washed it under the stainless steel sink through the filtered tap. Peeled off the sticker. Took a bite, sat down at their breakfast counter. Watched the clock tick tock.

Five o'clock came and went and, feeling agitated, on edge, thinking that Julian would come down any moment and make my legs quiver like he had, I left.

I stomped, home, threw down my bag and barfed up the apple because I could. And, I suppose, because I thought it was too good for my insides.

From that day on I was very cautious whenever I went to Ashley's house. I took precautions. I wore clothes, baggy T-shirts that made me feel like a slob, and slacks. I wore my hair in scraggily ponytails. I made sure I looked unappealing, knowing I wouldn't even try anything if I knew I was most certainly going to be knocked down.

I eased into a strange friendship with Julian and Ashley once again, where we held eachother at arms length, Julian and Ashley nodding at me in the hall and me, if no one was looking, smiling at them.

---
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