AN- I would like to thanks everyone who has reviewed and put on alerts/favourites. It means so much. Thanks :') Last chapter is here.
We sit quietly, eating the dinner she prepared. We make idle chatter about work and she tells me excitedly about the never ending line of customers at the shop. I smile. She has come so far from when I first met her, timid and shy. She waves her fork in the air while describing the turnout.
'It's been weeks since the grand opening, and it's still just as busy!'
'I'm really happy for you, Stephanie.'
Her face softens. 'Thank you.'
We clean up together, me washing and her drying, and occasionally I splash her with the soapy water. She smirks and splashes me back. I raise my eyebrow in question, before she splashes me again and runs off into the lounge room, laughing. I don't waste time drying my hands. I chase after her, circling the dining table we bought together before chasing her down the hallway and into the bedroom. I tackle her to the ground, her giggling, before crushing my lips to hers. She responds by kissing me back just as enthusiastically, running her hands through my hair and hooking her arms around my neck. I smile as I pull away.
Then her face clouds over and she looks up at me, worried. 'What's the date today?'
'The 30th of August. Why?'
Her face contorts into a mask of pain as she pushes me off her and grabs a coat, sniffing.
'Stephanie, what's wrong?' She runs to the door. 'Stephanie!'
She runs from the house, down the stairs and out the door. I pull on a jacket and shoes before following her. She hails a taxi, and I get into my car, following her.
At least half an hour later, after her ignoring my calls, the taxi turns into a cemetery, and realisation dawns on me.
I find a parking space, but I have lost her. I search her family's name in the directory, and the grounds keeper helps me find the right grave.
I see her kneeling in front of the grave. I thank the grounds keeper, who grunts, and I walk to her slowly. I hear her sobbing, and I drop to my knees as well. She sniffs, and I hold her close.
'I can't believe I forgot.'
'You didn't forget.'
'But if you didn't tell me, I would have. I'm a bad daughter.'
'No, you're not. Don't say that.'
There is a long pause before she speaks again. '11 years ago, I went to Amelia's bookshop and stayed there for at least 4 hours. It was getting real dark when Amelia offered to drive me home. I had been there before, so I let her. When I saw the lights off, I didn't think much of it, but when the doorhandle was hanging loosely, I knew something was up. Mum and Dad were lying on the ground, blood was everywhere. Mark and Jackson were upstairs. They-they-they were under my parent's bed.' She chokes on her sobs and I hold her close, tears threatening to spill over.
'Amelia had already gone home, and all I can remember is me screaming for at least half an hour before anyone paid me any attention. It wasn't even that late, Callum! It was only 8 o'clock! I should have been there! I should have died too!' She goes into hysterics and I pull her closer towards me, her basically sitting in my lap. Her head nestled in the crook of my neck; I feel my neck become damp with her tears.
'I was sent to live in a foster home. I didn't really like it there. You hear the stories of foster homes in movies and books and they weren't a nice place. My home was different. There were 5 kids at the time I was settled, including me, all foster kids. I spent 6 years of my life there, and I was the only one that didn't get to see my parents at least once. The kids would come and go, but not me, because I was- am- an orphan. The foster parents were nice enough, firm but kind, but they knew I could never like it there, because home is where the heart is, and my heart was with my family.'
She takes a deep breath and sits back a bit. She looks at me with those sad eyes, and then I see her, all of her, with her happy childhood destroyed, her depressing and incredibly gut-wrenching teenage years without her true family, and now to her adulthood, where she sits in my lap in a cemetery late at night, freezing in the crisp winter air in nothing but her pyjamas. I realise that she has just completely opened up to me, and from the look on her face, I am the first person. My heart aches for this small girl, because she really is only a girl, trapped and unable to move on because of her pain and loss.
'Stephanie,' I whisper, and she tucks her head back into my neck, her body shaking. 'Lets get you home, okay?' I feel her nod, and I stand up with her still in my arms. She wraps her legs around my hips as she continues to cry, and I walk to the car and place her gently in the passenger seat.
When we get home, I pick her up out of the car again and carry her into the lounge room. I grab our doona cover and drape it over her, then make her some hot chocolate and put it in her hands, smiling at her. She doesn't smile back, though her tears have stopped, she just sits there, staring at the TV.
I return with my hot chocolate and sit next to her, making sure she is warm. She drinks the hot chocolate without a word, not even watching the TV, just staring. A little while later, her head rests against my shoulder, and I wrap my arm around her waist and pull her closer, pulling the blanket around us to keep our warmth in.
I'm falling asleep when I feel her talk beside me. 'Callum?'
'Do you wish you could ever remove your past?'
'All the time,' I say without thinking, though lately I haven't even thought about my life without Stephanie.
'What do you wish you could remove?'
'That's not a part of your life.'
'It became what drove my life though. Stephanie, I was such a stupid person before I met you. Phil was always the smart one, and I guess I was the one that got the women, the clients, same thing. My arrogance and attitude made it easy for me to snap up women and devour them like a lion eating its prey. Nanna always said I would become unhappy, and I didn't become unhappy, it's just, when I was around you, I found that I was happier. It wasn't until after the incident at the park though, until I realised that you were different, you had history and was an actual human, unlike so many other women I have caught. And Christmas time, seeing you around my family, hugging Harvey and talking to Mum, and you and Rebecca talking like you had known each other for years, did I realise that the chase isn't the fun part, it's the catch.'
I wasn't done talking, but she was crying silently again, her body shuddering. I stroke her jaw line with my thumb in an attempt to calm her down.
After a while, she speaks again. 'Cal?'
'You can call me Steph if you want.'
A memory washes into my head at her words.
'She has a hard shell,' Jo says.
'I know,' I say.
'And she has a big heart.'
'Do you?' she asks. 'You have known her for what, 2 weeks? I have known her for about 5 years, and I still haven't broken that shell. Hell, she won't let me call her a nickname yet!'
I chuckle. 'She doesn't seem like the type to want a nickname.'
'That's not the point. You need to help her break out of that shell.'
And now I think about how I have just broken that shell, and how she's so much different from that person I met months ago.
'Yeah, I would love that,' I whisper.
I feel her breathe a sigh of relief from next to me.
'Steph?' I ask, the nickname feeling strange but welcoming on my tongue.
'I love you.'
She doesn't hesitate in replying with 'I love you too.'
Yes, the catch is definitely the fun part, and I think I may have found mine.