Prologue – Grace

Seeing a movement by one of the entrances, I watched Alex slip out hand in hand with Grace and I smiled slightly. So Much to Learn, Chapter 31.

Saturday 8 October, 2005

I felt a giggle bubbling up inside me as Alex tugged me away from all the people in the tent and out into the cool night air. It felt so exhilarating to just leave, to escape. I wouldn't have dared do it without Alex, but with him I felt like I had the courage to do anything.

I clutched his hand tightly as he led me past all the torches and fairy lights twinkling through the Davenports' garden, and out into the darkness beyond. With his long legs, Alex was easily able to jump the paddock fence before reaching back to hold two strands of wire apart so I could climb through after him.

Straightening, I looked at him, his pale face just about the only thing visible in the darkness, and then, by unspoken agreement, we ran. Our momentum propelled us over the uneven ground, and we leapt across the larger holes with smothered whoops. The cool air and the light wind, made stronger by our speed, made my eyes water and my lungs expand until I felt almost light-headed.

Gasping for air, we finally threw ourselves down under the solitary tree in the flat expanse of scraggly grass and lay flat on our backs, our chests heaving.

The ground was hard under my back and lumpy with what I hoped was rocks rather than sheep poo. It felt a bit damp, too, with early dew, and I knew my white dress was being ruined as I lay there. I didn't care. In fact, I took a sort of rebellious pleasure out of it. I hadn't picked the stupid dress, my mum had.

"Mum would hate this," I muttered my thoughts out loud and heard Alex sigh next to me.

"Your mum hates everything."

"True," I conceded with a smile. "But she would especially hate this."

"Kind of the point, isn't it?" I turned my head and saw that he was looking at me.

"Not the point," I said slowly, "but definitely an added bonus." He smiled then too and I felt my stomach give a familiar little swoop.

No-one else could get him to smile. He barely spoke at school and most people were scared of him, but even if it was my only talent, I was happy that getting Alex Coogan to smile was something I was capable of.

"I'm leaving."

The swoop in my stomach turned abruptly into a nosedive and I sat bolt upright in shock and alarm.

"You're what?" I demanded as a little voice inside my head started to chant no, no, no, no.

"Leaving. Tonight, when that thing's over." He gestured back towards the large marquee where most of our small town was packed celebrating the wedding anniversary of the local principal and his art teacher wife.

"I can't wait to get out of here." He was smiling again, but I got none of the warm and fuzzies I'd felt last time his lips had turned upwards.

"Thanks a lot!" I snapped, wrapping my arms around my legs, suddenly feeling the cold of the spring night where before it had been balmy.

"What?" He sat up as well, cottoning on to my horror at what he was saying. "You knew I'd have to leave sooner or later. And, anyway, you hate it here as well."

"No I don't," I countered, my reply a gut instinct coming from some latent loyalty I hadn't even known I'd had to my hometown. "I mean," I tried to explain as he looked at me like I'd just grown another head, "Bridunna's not that bad."

"Not that bad?" He repeated incredulously. "G, it's a hole, we've always said that."

I looked around at the dry, cracked ground and familiar stark horizon, and then closed my eyes and breathed in the dusty, sweet scent that I could only ever associate with home.

"It's different for you, though." I opened my eyes again quickly as Alex spoke. He was watching me closely and I hoped the dark would hide my blush. "It doesn't matter how bad it is here, you still kind of belong. I never have."

"You never wanted to. You never tried," I pointed out quietly.

"I guess." He scuffed his feet into the dirt, releasing little dry clumps of earth and we sat there in silence for a few tense seconds.

"You're my best friend, G," he said suddenly, looking up, not at me, but at the vacant nothingness in front of him. "Not that that means jack because you're my only friend. But, you know, for what it is worth…"

"It's worth heaps." I felt tears spike my eyelashes and, instantly forgiving him for his declaration that he was leaving, grabbed at his hand, my cold fingers closing tightly around his.

"Yeah." He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "But I'm not coming back here. Not ever." He gripped my hand back. "So you're going to need to move to the city, yeah?"

"As soon as I finish school," I promised, wishing as I had for weeks now, that I was the kind of girl with the guts to abandon everything she knew and run away.

I wasn't, though, we both knew that. It'd taken every last scrap of my courage to follow him to the city a month ago, but then I'd really had no other choice. As he'd always defended me, that time it had been my turn to step up and put things right for him.

Remembering how that bus ride to the city had felt, though, and then, worse, the walking through the streets trying to find Alex's sister's place, made me feel physically sick. There'd been so many people and it'd felt like they'd all been staring at me.

"Grace?" As if to reinforce how impossible escape was, my mum's crisp, authoritative voice suddenly carried out across the paddock. "Where are you?"

In response to her call, Alex and I both scrambled to our feet and looked at each other with mirroring expressions of frustration.

"It's like she has a homing device planted on you," Alex muttered, and I nodded.

"So, I guess the speech must be over," I said, hesitantly.

"I'll be heading off soon, then," Alex echoed my thoughts.

We stared at each other through the darkness and it was as if I could feel some of the courage and strength I'd built up over the past year from knowing him splinter away; like it belonged to him and he was taking it back.

A tiny, gasping sob slipped through my lips at that thought and, with a soft curse, he stepped forward and awkwardly wrapped his arms around me.

"It's not that bad," he tried to reassure me as I started to cry for real. "Come on, G, it's going to come out good, I promise."

I shook my head against his shoulder, desperately wanting to be brave for him, but failing miserably. I'd obviously taken one step too far towards the pathetic for him, though, as he suddenly grabbed my shoulders and gave me a shake.

"Pull it together," he said firmly. "You're going to have to deal with that lot," he gestured contemptuously towards the tent and the direction my mother's voice had come from, "on your own now, so you're going to have to toughen up."

In response to his words, I swallowed the next lump of tears swelling in my throat and nodded wretchedly.

"I've made you something." I looked up to see him fumbling in his pocket and the next second he pulled out a medallion about the size of a 50 cent coin made of polished, honey coloured wood. It had a hole at the top through which was threaded a length of black leather, and carved deeply into the centre were three small letters. AtW.

"Against the world," I said, my voice hoarse from my little crying jag, but also filled with the little smile that was pushing at the corners of my mouth.

"Yeah." He leant forward and slipped his hands up round the back of my neck to tie the ends of the leather. I closed my eyes and savoured the feeling of his body heat and the faint citrus, boy smell that was Alex. "There."

He stepped back and I felt the token fall heavily against my skin where it sat just above the hollow between my breasts.

I reached up and ran my fingers over the smooth wood, tracing the grooves of the letters and feeling it already beginning to take on the heat of my body, as if it was a part of me.

"I love it," I told him honestly. "I'm never taking it off."

He shrugged self-consciously and shoved his hands into his pockets awkwardly as he always did when I complimented the stuff he made. "It's nothing."

"No, it's definitely something." I let my hand drop away from the necklace and, finding myself suddenly filled with the confidence he'd wanted for me, moved boldly towards him. When we were standing chest to chest, I reached up onto my tiptoes, holding onto his shoulders for balance, and pressed my lips against his in the way I'd been longing to for months.

I'd meant it to be a light, 'goodbye and thank you' kiss, but he surprised me by responded hungrily, pushing back against me and taking his hands out of his pockets to grab me by the waist. Stunned, but thrilled by his response, I moved my hands from his shoulders to twine around his neck and tilted my head to take the kiss deeper.

This was what I'd wanted for so long, but Alex had shown no signs of feeling the same way. We were best friends, but friends didn't kiss like this, they didn't press themselves against each other and hold on as if they never wanted to let go. So what did that make us?

"Grace Andrews!"

We sprung apart so fast I felt dizzy from the speed - or was that from something else? - and stared at my mother, standing there in her fancy cream pant suit, her face twisted into a grimace.

My hand shot up to my mouth, as if by hiding my red and swollen lips I could conceal what we'd been doing.

"Mum!" I squeaked, my eyes darting between her and Alex in horror.

"It's time to go." She held an imperious hand out towards me, but I hesitated. If this was my goodbye to Alex, I didn't want it to end like this.

He must have felt the same because, with a long, deliberate look at my mother, he reached for me again and I stepped willingly into his embrace.

"Bye, then," he muttered against my hair.

"Bye," I replied, hugging him close for a couple of seconds and then reluctantly letting him go.

"Come on, Grace." My mum's hand clamped down upon my arm and started to drag me away.

I kept my face turned back towards Alex even as my feet stumbled in the other direction, and I was alarmed by how quickly he seemed to be fading into the darkness.

As if sensing that I needed this one last piece of reassurance, his voice came floating after me, "Against the world, G."

I laughed then and rested my fingers against the wooden disc on my chest.

My mum could drag me away from him all she liked whilst I was 15 and living under her roof, but as soon as I was finished with high school, there was nothing in the world that would stop Alex and me being together.