Come on, oh my star is fading
And I see no chance of release
And I know I'm dead on the surface
But I am screaming underneath
The stars were bright out here. In the city, the pollution clouded the sky and only the brightest of stars shone through the murk. Here, though, it was astonishing and humbling. It took Mikayla's mind away from the persistent ache in her heart; that black hole of emptiness inside that yawned open whenever she thought too much about it. She couldn't think about the future, what the rest of her life would be like, without taking a step close to the edge.
She'd learnt to live in the now. Take everything as it came and not think too much. One foot in front of the other, and she'd be okay. One step at a time. Don't think about it.
Besides, the stars were beautiful at this time of night, where everyone else was asleep and all the lights were off. It felt like she was the only one in the world.
Of course, that was an illusion and illusions never last. She should know.
The roof of the cabin shuddered as someone climbed up on top and padded over to her. She knew who it was before he slid down next to her, legs hanging over the side of the cabin next to hers.
"Aren't you meant to be asleep?" she asked, swinging her legs back and forth gently. She glanced away from the stars to him. His hair was tousled from sleep and he only wore a pair of boxer shorts and one of the Camp t-shirts they gave out to all volunteers. Even though it was the early hours of the morning, it was such a clear night that the moon's light made it easy to see his expression as he watched her. As per usual, she couldn't decipher the look he was giving her. She'd noticed him looking at her over the past few days, always with that same indecipherable gaze that she didn't know what to do with. It freaked her out. He looked at her as if he were looking into her; as if he could see her postulating and lies and mask for what it truly was.
"Aren't you?" he retorted back. "Big day tomorrow and all that."
Mikayla rolled her eyes, shoving her miserable thoughts away and falling back into her usual attitude. Tomorrow, they all had to lead the kids on a hike into the hills behind them. She didn't mind it – she liked the solitude and peacefulness, and loved working with children. They were refreshing. Adults hid their emotions behind masks and thought too much about what they were going to say. Kids were genuine. They didn't have a filter between their minds and their mouths yet. And they didn't give her that look when she told them her mummy was in Heaven – that look that was half pity and half awkwardness, the one that said the person wasn't sure how to act and now viewed everything you did as a meltdown waiting to happen. She sounded bitter, but she understood. She'd just learnt that it was better not to tell anyone.
"It'll be fine, I've done the hike hundreds of times," she said. She couldn't take him looking at her anymore so she transferred her gaze back to the stars. She was annoyed that he'd butted into her alone time, but didn't show it.
"So you've worked up here before, hey?"
She shrugged. "Yeah, it's a good way to fill up my time in university holidays."
Hopefully if she didn't say much, he'd go away.
"It's my first time."
"It's pretty fun so far, you know? The kids are fun and not so bratty, mostly. I'm pretty good at getting kids to stop crying now."
She hadn't asked.
That didn't stop him, though.
"I've worked out that distraction is key. I've gotta keep them occupied at all times, especially the young ones. A few seconds by themselves, their chins start trembling and bam, waterworks and non-stop 'I want mummy' cries."
She made a sound that could be construed as interest.
"But apart from a few mishaps, I love it. Although I am getting pretty sick of little kiddie food. Sometimes I just want a hunk of steak, you know? Instead I'm getting chicken fingers and maybe one soggy bit of broccoli."
She had been on edge all night. She hadn't been able to sleep; had felt strangled in her tiny room. Alone, with nothing to distract her from the thoughts that were never far from her mind. She'd come up here to distract herself until she was so exhausted she could sleep peacefully without her mind getting in the way. But he had to ruin it.
"I don't know, okay?" she snapped. "I'm a vegetarian; the thought of a hunk of steak makes me want to vomit all over you. Why the hell are you stalking me up here, anyway? I've obviously come up here to be alone. It's not exactly easy climbing up."
He smiled and she felt like she'd been punched in the gut. This one was different from the others. This one was genuine, kind, eyes crinkling at the corners and a dimple in one cheek. And he shouldn't be smiling. She'd basically just told him to fuck off.
"That is the first genuine thing I've heard you say since you've been here."
Her eyes widened and she tensed up, fingers clenching into her palms.
"It's been killing me that you prance around, joking and laughing all day and no one can see that it's just a mask. You're bottling something up inside of you and it's not healthy. You need to talk about it, so talk to me."
And just like that, she felt torn open, insides laid bare before his eyes.
She drew up her knees and rested her heels on the edge of the roof, arms wrapped around her legs.
"You don't know anything about me," she finally said, voice surprisingly steady.
"Now you sound like a walking cliché, or maybe someone off Jerry Springer. 'You don't know me! You don't know what I been through!'" he said, doing his best ghetto impression with a few finger snaps in there.
Unexpectedly, she laughed. She buried her head in her knees as her shoulders shook at the image of the skinny guy next to her pushing out his chest, snapping his fingers and acting fierce.
"Now, tell me what has you sitting out on this roof at three in the morning."
She sighed, lying back so her vision was filled with the sky once more. She was quiet for a moment, letting the quiet night wash over her as she tried to craft her thoughts into words.
"How long do you think the grace period is when someone you loved has died?" she said, keeping her eyes steadfast on the stars and her mind away from what she was doing. "I've always wondered how much leeway you get. How far I can stretch it. Saying that I watched my mum slowly die always seems to make the uni professors back off about due dates. But I'm getting to the six month date now and everyone acts like I should be over it by now."
"Well, that's a bunch of bull. You don't just get over someone you loved dying," he said. "The pain doesn't ever just go away."
She stilled. His tone hadn't changed one bit. He sounded just as normal as before, no judgement or caution in his tone at all. She rolled her head to the side so she could gaze up at him.
"You would know?" It was a gentle enquiry, said without anger or aggression.
He tilted his head down to her and smiled sadly.
"My sister. She drowned in our dam when she was only five. That was four years ago so yeah, I can tell you that the pain doesn't go away. But I learnt that you have to find how to live with it. And I can tell you talking helps once hundred percent. I'm lucky to have a really close friend who I tell everything to and it helps. But you can't just be expected to 'get over it'. Every type of healing takes time."
She let out a breath of air in a low rush. The tension that had been building up was slowly trickling from her body.
"I don't want it to take time," she admitted. "I want it gone now."
"Sadly, it doesn't work like that. I wish it did though. The pain will always be there and you learn to live with it. Honestly, It'll never go away. You just have to find a way to not let it consume you. I suggest talking."
"Yes, you seem to like talking," she said.
"Unlike you," he replied. "But I'll make a chatterbox out of you yet."
They were silent for a time and he tipped his head back to look up at the sky, leaning back on his hands. She wished she knew more about stars, but her knowledge was limited to the Southern Cross.
"If you ever need to talk, I'm here," he finally said. She turned to look at him again. He was looking up at the stars still and the moonlight was caught in his brown eyes. "And you should. Talk, I mean. It doesn't have to be to me, but you should talk to someone."
"I'm not going to go see a bloody shrink."
"You don't have to. Just find someone." He stood up, balancing on the side of the roof as he stretched. The Camp T-shirt rose to reveal the hard planes of his stomach. She averted her eyes. "Anyway, it's way past my bed time and with these kids, I need to have all the sleep I can get. See ya later."
And with that, he went to the edge of the roof and hopped down. She watched after him, frowning. This night hadn't gone at all like she'd thought it would and she didn't know what to make of that.
The hike the next morning gave Mikayla a lot of time to think. At the beginning, the kids were bursting with questions, but eventually they grew too puffed to ask much. She really didn't want to think because her mind kept going back to that conversation.
Last night was hazy in her mind, with a surreal, cloudy quality. She couldn't believe she'd actually told someone. She hadn't spoken about it to anyone, not even her own family or friends back home. She'd told a few friends, sure, but none had ever taken it like him. None of them had brought it up again and everything to do with mothers had become a taboo subject.
Yet she'd spilled it all to a virtual stranger. It baffled her.
She'd avoided him all morning. He'd been in the canteen for breakfast, but she'd surrounded herself with people and he hadn't been able to get her alone. She had felt his eyes on her and hadn't been able to relax until she'd left to get ready in her cabin.
The hike would have been nice if her mind wasn't so full. The sun was shining enough that she'd made all her kids line up and put sunscreen on while she supervised. The forest was quiet and calm, with the twitters from birds and the occasional rustling as some animal scurried away from them. They'd passed across a creek earlier and the kids had had a great time, squealing as they jumped from rock to rock and splashed water at their friends.
"Will we see any dingos out here?"
That was Lila. Mikalya kept calling her Lila, but the little girl wanted it pronounced Lyla. She was incredibly curious to the point of annoying, and always had questions about everything.
"No honey, we don't get dingos out here. I think the only place where you'll see any is Fraser Island."
"What kind of animals are here then? Kangaroos? Koalas? Emus? Dogs?"
"Birds, insects, snakes… you might see a few kangaroos hopping around but I've never seen a koala or an emu. I have seen some wild goats, though."
"Oh, can we pat them!" she squealed.
"Unfortunately they're wild, honey, so we're not gonna get close to them."
Lila pouted then drifted away from her, back to her group of friends. Mikayla was at the front, so she turned around and did a head count. They were all here.
They had lunch atop the hill in a tree-less area that was covered in rocks. One of the other volunteers had driven up everyone's packed lunches and Mikayla made them all sit in a circle and eat it, as well as having a drink, before she sat on a rock and let them play. Supervising gave her even more time to think so she ended up joining in on a game of Simon Says.
Eventually, though, it was time to go back. After tramping down the hill with no casualties or lost children, and avoiding many of Lila's questions, they arrived back in the base camp. She sent her little team to go wash up and have some free time before dinner. She walked into the staff room to grab a bottle of water and saw him sitting and talking to some other volunteers in a circle. He sat up when he saw her, but she beat a hasty retreat.
Cowardly, maybe, but she just couldn't do it. That one look he'd sent her confirmed that last night did happen and she hadn't just made it up in her mind. Unfortunately. She shivered and power-walked back to her cabin.
She spent the next two days avoiding him. On the third night, however, her mind was a hive of activity once again. She'd managed to exhaust herself the other nights by taking on extra jobs and reading a book in bed, but her tiny room was suddenly claustrophobic. She was feeling pressure from all angles and she just wanted to scream. Her fingers wouldn't stop twitching and she shot out of bed, growling in frustration. She didn't even bother shoving on shoes – she threw herself outside and climbed up the side of the cabin, rolling onto the roof with a sigh.
He was there. Again.
And by the look on his handsome face as he turned to her, he'd been waiting for a while. His face lit up and a smile danced at the edges of his mouth.
"Someone's been avoiding me," he sing-songed. "But I knew you'd eventually cave."
Mikayla hesitated for just a second before she walked over there and sat at the edge next to him, dangling her feet off the edge. She would've run, but she'd been rude enough to him.
She kept her eyes steadfast on her toenails that were covered in pink nail polish.
"I thought you would've given up by now," she muttered.
"Of course I haven't. You still need someone to talk to and I haven't seen you speaking to anyone else around here. Honestly, I mean. So, here I am. Bugging you until you talk to me."
She sighed, finally looking away from my grass-scuffed toes.
"Why?" she asked, an edge to her words. "Why do you bother? We're not friends. I don't even know you. Or your name!"
His eyebrows rose but he didn't look offended – the small smile still lighting up his face.
"My name is Jude and why not help someone else?"
"Sorry if I don't believe you're doing this out of the kindness of your heart," she said, sighing as she lay back down on her back. She wasn't angry – just tired, exhausted, and confused. "What do you stand to gain from this?"
"Maybe I just want the knowledge that I've looked outside my own little bubble to help someone else for a moment or two – isn't that why rich people hold those galas and donate money?" he said. She turned to him and gave him a sceptical look. He grinned. "Not really. I was in your shoes once and I had someone there to help me. I understand it and don't want you doing it on your own, which you seem stubborn enough to do. As ridiculous and unbelievable to you as it sounds, I just want to help."
Mikayla stared at him and he looked back, blue eyes catching the moonlight and shining. He was so calm and so at peace with himself – it was so at odds with the turmoil raging inside her, dragging her down a hole she didn't know how to get out of.
Did she even want to get out of it?
She loved her mother more than anything else. She grieved her like a part of her was missing because it was. The stupidest things reminded Mikayla of her: the brand on the staff fridge that she used to love, the rose bushes growing up the side of their cabins, even plain walking. Her mother had been told ages ago that she shouldn't be doing so much walking and bike riding, that she couldn't, but she'd stayed with it right until she'd been put in a wheelchair. Even then she was doing laps around the living room until she was confined to bed as the disease ate away at her body and mind.
Getting over this grief and pain bottled up inside of her meant she was okay with losing her mother, and she sure as hell was not.
"Plus, there's the added bonus that I don't give that bullshit 'she is looking down on you' stuff."
She snorted. "You could've really offended me if I believed in that."
"But I know you don't. You don't seem to be very religious at all. Everyone has their own interpretation on religion, life and faith, but I think that the dead aren't here anymore. They're gone and you need to come to terms with it before it eats you alive. That's my opinion, at least."
The tears were rising in her throat and she swallowed them down harshly. She refused to say anything, scared all that would come out would be a broken sob.
He sat there for a moment and she felt no pressure to fill the silence in with words like she had with everyone else. Around others, she'd always felt the need to be chatting, to never have a dull moment and always be on the move. It felt strange to slow down; to find time to breath and relax. Her shoulders held a tension built up on days of stress and she could feel the muscles unwinding, tranquillity running through her like a drug.
He finally lay down next to her, firm shoulder just grazing hers. His hand came down and fingers interlocked with hers.
"You can speak to me," he said softly, head tilted so his breath touched her hair. "Or not speak at all. I don't mind."
The sigh she let out was unintentional and seemed to take all the tension from her body with it.
She squeezed his hand and looked up at the stars.
She saw him the next day, sitting down by the lake on the small wooden pier. There was a group already out on the lake, paddling their canoes around in groups of two and three and splashing each other as they passed. Their giggles and squeals travelled across the water, as well as the booming voice of the instructor.
She took a deep breath and strode across the grass to him.
"It looks like you're breaking a few rules here, buddy," she said, forcing a smile onto her face. He looked up at her from the paper in his hands and grinned. Her smile became more genuine.
"What're you on about?" he asked.
Mikayla hesitated a moment then threw caution to the wind. She ignored the butterflies buzzing around in her stomach and sat at the edge of the pier with him, legs crossed beneath her.
"Well for one, you're not in uniform. And where are your kids?"
"Where are your kids?" he retorted, smirking.
"They're meeting me here in ten. Now answer me."
"First question: I am in uniform." He twisted so she could see he was wearing the camp t-shirt beneath the light cotton button-down. "I just wanted a bit of sun protection and Marjorie said it was okay. 'Nothing healthy about a tan' and all that. And secondly, my kids are just there, joined in with Tiarne's for the moment. We did scissors paper rock and she has to get in one of those boats with the instructor while I supervise from the shore. Is that a good enough explanation, officer?"
Sbe ignored his sarcasm and leaned over, looking at the crumbled piece of paper in his hands. It was a drawing in pencil of two stick figures, one girl and one boy. 'JUDE' was labelled above one in messy script, the 'E' the wrong way around. Above the girl was 'INA'. The figures were holding hands and there were a few brown cabins in the background, green grass with flowers, and a big lake in the middle of the air. Plus, Ina was apparently the same size as Jude.
"That's cute," she said, smiling wider. She already had a collection of kids' drawings in her cabins. They got angry if she threw them out and were constantly demanding to see them, after she'd accidentally thrown one out in front of them. The child's reaction had been explosive.
Jude laughed and rubbed his neck in a rare show of embarrassment.
"Yeah, this is the fifth one I've gotten today. She has a bit of a crush on me."
"Aw, that's so cute!" she exclaimed. "She's aggressive; I like her already. You should send her one back. She'd love you forever."
"That's not exactly what I want," he said, laughing. "And where are your kids again?"
She smirked at him before turning around to look up towards the cabins. Her group of eight and nine year olds were beginning to trickle down the hill in their distinctive, light blue shirts.
Lila and her friend waved and ran over.
"Mikayla, is that your boyfriend?" she asked, jumping into her lap. Mikayla made a pained sound and went bright red. Jude started laughing.
"Ah, no he's not, Lila. That's another leader."
"He's cute," she told Mikayla in a whisper, than turned and strained closer to Jude. "You're cute. Do you have a girlfriend?"
"Not at the moment, no," he said, icy blue eyes dancing. His gaze shifted to Mikayla's and she couldn't meet it. Instead, she hugged Lila and brought her back fully into her lap. The girl was slight for her age, but still too old to be sitting in laps.
"I have a boyfriend," she told everyone. "So does Casey, don'tcha?"
Her friend she'd arrived with, Casey, grinned. "Yep! His name is Jacob and he said he loves me."
"My boyfriend told me he loves me too!" Lila said, bouncing, not one to be outdone. "And we've even kissed."
Mikayla snorted. "Okay, how about we—"
"I want to be in love like Romeo and Juliet!" Lila declared, throwing her arms up. "Mummy said Romeo and Juliet have the best love story ever. Even better than hers and daddy's."
Jude snorted in laughter as Mikayla's eyes widened. "Ah, I don't think you want that."
"Why not!" Lila said. "My teacher said they were young too. Only a few years older than me!"
"Okay!" Mikayla said, standing up and dumping Lila back onto her feet. "Looks like everyone else is coming down now. Let's go to our meeting spot, yeah?"
Lila pouted but lost interest in her in a second, grabbing Casey's hand and pulling her over to a group of boys. Mikayla shot a look at Jude who was still laughing. Her insides went warm but she ignored the feeling and ignored him, turning her back without a word and going to meet her blue team that were bouncing around.
Things changed after that.
Mikayla didn't know what she'd done to deserve someone like Jude. He could see right through her, which wasn't fun when she was trying to hide something from him – she quickly learnt she couldn't hide much. He sat there when the words spilled over and came pouring out. He didn't judge. He didn't try and 'fix' her. He just offered an understanding ear. Mikayla didn't know why, but she'd learnt not to question it.
The nights were always the worst and Jude seemed to know this. At all other times of the day, she was constantly on the move: organising a group of excitable kids, trading jokes with the other leaders, supervising the activities. At night, however, everything slowed down and Mikayla would feel herself flailing uselessly.
That was where Jude came in to catch her.
At one point though, things became very different.
The day had been going fine. Mikayla had done her usual thing of throwing herself wholeheartedly into her work and shoving the rest of that shit into a box in the very back of her mind. Completely against her will, however, it all came tumbling out at dinner that night.
All the leaders were sat around the one table, chatting and laughing over the standard meat-and-veg dinner. Jude was down the table, since he'd had problems with his kids until he'd gotten them settled, so Mikayla was alone. It had been going fine until a woman had walked through the doors, head scanning the room and a box tucked under her arm. Her gaze stopped on their table and her face lit up, smiling and waving.
Puzzled, Mikayla turned to her side and saw the girl next to her, Tiarne, grin but quickly cover it with an exasperated face.
"Mama, what're you doing here?" she asked as the woman hurried over, dodging errant kids easily.
"I was close by and I was going to mail you this anyway, even though chocolate and lollies aren't very good for you, you know."
Mikayla's heart stilled. She watched as Tiarne hugged her mum, even though her cheeks tinged pink at everyone looking at them curiously.
Tiarne's mum had 'dropped by' at eight at night, in the middle of nowhere, to hand deliver food to her daughter. It was exactly the kind of thing that Mikayla's mum would do. Had actually done, and they'd both pretended that she really had been in the area. Exactly as Tiarne and her mum was doing now.
But there'd be no more spontaneous visits like this.
Mikayla couldn't get enough air into her lungs.
She could feel the tears rising up, clogging her throat and making her breath stutter. She looked up, eyes glued to the roof and blinking. She couldn't break down at the dinner table; she wouldn't. She refused to let herself leave, either. She wasn't going to be a dramatic little brat and draw attention to herself like that. It had been months – she could handle something completely stupid like this.
She couldn't get control of herself until she clenched her fists so tightly her nails dug into her palms. The pain cut through the roaring in her head and brought clarity with it. The detail on the roof sharpened and this time when she blinked, the water began to recede from her eyes. She kept her nails digging into her palms as she gathered herself and slowly joined in on the conversation happening next to her. She couldn't, for the life of her, remember what she'd even said. The most important part was that none of them realised the turmoil going on inside.
Everyone but Jude, that is.
Even from a few seats down, his gaze pierced her and she could feel it like a living heat at her side. She didn't meet his eyes.
The time dragged at her mind but suddenly she was outside, free, striding towards her cabin. Her nails sunk in harder as her breath came in pants. She burst into the cabin and threw the door closed behind her.
She lost all strength in her legs then, sinking to the ground in a graceless heap and finally unclenching her sore fingers to clutch at her hair.
The sobs ripped through her, shaking her entire body. She couldn't hold it in anymore. It poured out, jagged and sharp against her throat and clawing at her mind.
If she distracted herself well enough, she could pretend that her mother was still alive. That she was just away and not here. She wasn't, though. She was gone forever. Mikayla would never see her mother again. Only through her memories did she seem to live on, immortalised, engraved into her consciousness.
Delusion was a powerful thing, stronger than she'd ever thought. She'd seen the signs, when the cancer had come creeping back in. The constant tiredness, exhaustion, weight loss, weakness. She'd disregarded it. When her father had dropped hints, she'd disregarded that too. She'd come home one day and been told flat out that her mother only had a few weeks left to live. Yet still, her delusion lived on. Her mother couldn't die, she'd thought – she was such a lively, bubbly spirit. Mikayla hadn't been able to imagine getting through anything without her calm presence at her back. But she was gone and Mikayla was still here and life hadn't ended when her mother's had. It had felt like it, it still felt like it, but Mikayla was here and breathing.
She'd been angry, once. It felt like her mother was leaving her, but it seemed that she'd been delusional right up until the end as well – stark in her memories was the day her mum realised that this was it. Ten years she'd battled, but now she was going to become a statistic. One of many fallen to cancer. She'd been bed-bound by then, and Mikayla had taken to making her smoothies and fruit salads with ice-cream – food that was easy for her to eat. Mikayla knew the exact point her mother realised that this was it; she wouldn't be making it through this battle.
Mikayla had spent hours wrapped in her mother's embrace on the bed, head against her chest and taking comfort in the rise and fall of her bony chest. The room had gotten so hot, despite the blinds being pulled shut, and sweat had run in trickles down her back. She hadn't moved, though. Her mother didn't say a word but Mikayla had blabbered on about everything and nothing. What had she even said? It didn't matter. It hadn't even mattered at the time and it didn't matter now. All that mattered was that she kept talking, kept her mind away from the truth that was looming.
Of course, it hadn't truly sunk in until she'd gotten home after venturing out of the house for the first time in weeks, and seeing everyone turn to face her with that look. She hadn't needed any words. She'd dropped the bags and run upstairs to see her mother, favourite scarf covering her hairless head and lips painted the shade she'd worn for as long as Mikayla could remember.
Her chest was still. Mikayla could tell because she'd spent hours at her mother's side over the past few days as her mind had deteriorated and her breath had rattled in and out of her dry chest, uneven and stilted. Mikayla's heart had stopped every time her mother's breath had caught, but she'd always draw in another breath.
But not anymore.
She was gone and it was final and Mikayla couldn't even begin to grasp the strength of her delusion.
Her fists pressed tightly against her mouth now, trying to muffle the wracking sobs that burst up from deep within. Her teeth bit down but the emptiness was yawning open inside and she couldn't see a way out. How could so much emptiness hold so much pain?
And suddenly Jude was there, crouching down on the floor next to her and gathering her into his warm arms. The door that Mikayla hadn't even noticed was open slammed shut. Jude's fingers curled around her fists and brought her arms down. She couldn't stand the look she was getting from him, the one full of such warm understanding, when all she could feel was pain and drowning. She lunged at him, wrapping her arms around him and burying her face in his neck. Without hesitation, his arms came up and cradled around her, bands of strength. One hand brushed down her hair and he was making soft noises, but the words wouldn't sink through her mind.
She cried into his neck until it was wet and her sobs had died down, leaving her trembling. The first time she tried to talk, nothing would come out. She cleared her throat and tried again.
Words began pouring out, everything she'd been thinking, feeling.
He didn't say anything. His presence was strong, comforting, and he soothed her like nothing else could. Finally, like all things, her words stopped and she felt empty. It was a different empty from before. This was a hollow empty, the kind that made her feel emotionless and dead. She was breathing evenly now, only a faint hitch now and then. Jude gathered her up and stood, carrying her like a ragdoll to her bed.
It was silent outside. Mikayla didn't know how long she'd been on the floor for, but the rest of the camp was asleep.
Jude pulled off her shoes gently then tucked her in, turning to go. Mikayla's limbs felt heavy as lead, her eyes weighted down, but she snatched a hand out and grabbed onto his wrist.
"Please, stay," she whispered.
He turned, his blue eyes catching the little light in the room. They searched hers and finally he smiled softly.
"Okay," he whispered back. He toed off his shoes; climbed into the bed next to her. It wasn't very big, only a single, but Mikayla didn't mind being pressed against him. She turned over so her head still rested on the pillow but her arm reached across him, pulling him in closer. She could feel the moment when the tension drained from his body and he shifted slightly, drawing an arm around her in return. Tremulously, she managed a small smile, only a flicker, before falling into an exhausted sleep.
She woke when the bed shifted beneath her. She frowned, but it cleared when the memories of last night washed over her. The hot warmth of a blush heated her cheeks and she peeked her eyes open. Jude was leaning over in front of her, pulling on his shoes carefully.
"I feel like you're trying to get away from me after a one night stand?"
She said it lightly, but it was forced. And when Jude looked over at her, she could tell he knew that as well. She was covering for the mess of her emotions inside. This wasn't the first time something like that had happened, but she'd always made sure to be alone. Having Jude's strength next to her had felt amazing, revealing to her how lonely she'd truly felt. But now, in the light of day, with Jude trying to sneak out, shame was boiling up.
Jude smiled, but it had a nervous flicker around the edges.
"I wasn't sure if you'd want me here, so…"
"Because slipping out when I'm asleep would make me feel so much better?"
Jude paused, then let out a breath, smiling.
"You're right and I'm an idiot. And also sorry. I… I didn't think of it that way."
She beckoned to him, scooting over lethargically and making room for him. He hesitated then slipped back in, kicking his shoes off.
"If you thought I just wanted to use you as a living teddy bear then you're an idiot. An idiot twice over. I want you, not just your bloody shoulder."
"You seem to like it well enough right now," he said in amusement. She frowned when she realised that she'd curled up on him again, this time with her cheek resting against his warm shoulder. It was nicely firm too—but it was too early to be thinking thoughts like that.
"Shut up and go back to sleep," she mumbled, hiding her smile in his shirt.
After that, they set up another routine. Instead of meeting him up on the roof of her cabin, which was decidedly dangerous for both of them, he crept into her cabin and slept in her tiny bed with her. Of course, the first few times she'd had to drag him and he still managed to sleep against the other wall on the floor. She eventually wore him down, however, so she could curl up against him like that first night and they could talk. She avoided talking about her mum again – not because she was ashamed of breaking down again, but because she felt she'd said it all before – and instead asked him about his life. He even opened up about his sister, and brushed over the best friend waiting for him at home who'd helped him through it. Apparently she was a firecracker and would love Mikayla.
She wasn't so sure.
It was nice, having someone she didn't need to put up a façade for. She'd begun spending so much time with him that the other volunteers had started noticing. She'd gotten quite a few winks and waggled eyebrows, but it wasn't like that. Not for lack of feelings on her part, but Jude was becoming one of the only people in the world she felt safe with. She was incredibly lucky to be his friend, let alone expect anything more. She'd kind of forced him into being friends with her, so she wasn't going to push her luck trying for more. No, she was fine with friends.
He was always there to listen and never tried to tell her anything until one night, when they lay on her bed with their shoulders pressed together.
"I think you should talk to your father about this when you get home," he said. The silence that had previously been comfortable suddenly became tense. Thoughts raced through her head, but all she could really concentrate on was the sinking feel of betrayal in her stomach.
"I told you before," she said, carefully enunciating each word. "My dad and I haven't really talked about it and I don't want to bring it up."
"You need your family there to support you," he said quietly. "Your father's probably taking it just as hard and if he isn't going to take that first step, you need to. I know it's hard and you don't want to hear it, but I think it could really help. You have to learn to rely on someone."
She pressed her lips together tightly and stared up at the roof.
"Yeah," she finally said, "I think I'm going to go to sleep."
Except she didn't even bother to close her eyes, knowing that she wouldn't be getting to sleep any time soon. She had no idea what time it was when she finally fell into unconsciousness. When she woke up, however, Jude was gone. It wasn't unusual, but it took her a while to gather herself together before she could leave the cabin.
She didn't see him at all during the day, not that she particularly wanted to. She was stuck between needing to see him and wanting to stay away until she could process what he'd said last night. He knew that she'd prefer not to talk to her dad about it, ever. They'd just never had that kind of relationship. But even worse was the assumption that she needed someone to rely on because he wasn't going to be there. She hadn't thought much about what would happen once this last week of the camp was done, but she'd assumed they'd keep in touch. Stupidly, maybe, but it wasn't like they lived far away from each other. In fact, they lived in the same city, even if hundreds of thousands of people also lived there too.
That night, though, she was alone and tied in a tangle within her own head. Her mind went round and round in circles until she woke up early the next day to sit outside the canteen and wait for him to come in to breakfast.
He never came.
She frowned, then went and hunted down the lady that ran the camp, Marjorie.
"He had to leave for a family emergency," she said when Mikayla had asked. She'd caught the woman just as she was scraping her plate and putting it in the pile to be washed.
"What do you mean? Is he okay? Is his family okay?"
Marjorie, ever busy, strode to the door as Mikayla tried to keep up.
"Oh, he's fine," she said, waving her hand. "I think it was something about his friend? So a friend emergency, rather. He got a call from the hospital. He's just taking a day and a bit off to go home and sort it out. Okay?"
Marjorie left her standing by the door as she sped off to her offices, fielding questions from other volunteers and kids alike as she went.
The rest of the day Mikayla was still distracted. She couldn't get her mind to focus – it kept straying to Jude. Today they were going up the mountain again and they were halfway up when Mikayla turned, did a head count, and discovered one kid was missing.
Her stomach dropped and she stopped. She scanned the children and did another count, but the results were the same.
"Guys!" she called, keeping the edge of panic out of her tone. "Where's Lila?"
They all shrugged, glancing around to see if they could find her.
Casey, the girl that Lila was usually attached at the hip with, pointed back down the path and said, "She said she was going to get a flower for John."
"Her boyfriend!" Casey said with a giggle, and the other kids joined in. "My dad says you get flowers for people you love and she found these really pretty ones back there. She said she'd be back really soon though."
Heart in her throat, Mikayla called out, "Okay everyone, we're gonna go back down the path and see if we can find Lila. So just follow me, okay?"
The kids bounced around, completely uncaring as they chattered away between themselves. Finally, she caught a glimpse of Lila's blonde hair through the underbrush. She was off the path and picking flowers behind a fallen tree. Mikayla's breath came out in a rush and she told the rest of the children to stay on the path, then stepped off, calling out, "Lila! What're you doing, hun?"
Lila glanced up, flowers in a small bouquet in her hand, and smiled at her guiltily.
"They were just so pretty, Miki!"
"What have I said about staying with the group, huh? Did you forget?"
Mikayla stepped around the log and felt something sting her legs. Frowning, she looked down and froze. Two tiny puncture marks were on her leg, just above her ankle, and she caught the flick of a scaly brown tail disappearing into the log.
As she watched, the two tiny pinpricks swelled up with blood and it began to trickle down her leg. Her eyes went fuzzy around the edges and her breathing became short.
"Miki! What're you doing?"
She glanced up and saw that Lila was now standing with the rest of her group, hands on hips. Mikayla blink and shook her head – they'd been briefed on what to do hundreds of times and she'd undergone first aid training. Standing around in shock wasn't going to do shit.
Moving slowly and carefully, she made her way back to the path and gently lowered herself down.
"Are you okay, Miki?" one of the boys asked. "You look super pale. Like you're gonna vomit everywhere."
She probably was.
She took a deep breath and said, "Okay kids, remember what I told you about being bitten by a snake?"
They nodded and one said, "Lie down, don't panic, wrap it up, get help!"
"Exactly. So since I was just bitten by a snake, I want you all to help me, okay?"
Their eyes all went wide but none of them looked too afraid. They were typical kids – of course they didn't really find it too scary yet. Mikayla was grateful for that at least.
She took off her backpack and said to Lila, "Do you want to get out the compression bandage for me? Do you remember which one that is?"
She felt like she was talking through a haze, but Lila knew what she was referring to. She nodded and quickly found it.
"Do you remember how to wrap it?"
The short first aid class had proven handy after all.
"Yep, I have to wrap as much as possible and make it go away from the heart, and then back towards it."
"But not too tight!" her friend Casey chimed in, and Lila frowned at her.
"I was going to say that," she said crossly, kneeling down and beginning. Mikayla lay back, trying to keep her breathing as steady as possible and not panic. That'd just help spread the venom quicker.
She fished the UHF out of her pocket and called down to Marjorie in her office.
"Yes I can hear you, Mikayla?" Marjorie said, tone brisk.
"I'm up on the mountain trail and I've just been bitten by a snake. I think it could be a Brown Snake."
"Are you lying down? Have you bandaged yourself up?" Marjorie said immediately. Her voice went fainter as she leaned away from the microphone. "Abby, called triple 0, Mikayla's been bitten."
"Yeah, one of the kids is helping."
"Good, good. Try and stay calm, and don't move. I'm fairly sure Bradley is close by so I'll get him to carry you down. I don't want you walking, okay? I'll be back in a second."
The speaker's crackling cut out and it was silent again. Lila had finished wrapping her leg and she'd done a surprisingly good job.
"I can't wait to tell mum and dad that I helped save someone from a snake!" Lila said. "And Max and Jacob and Andrew and Ava and everyone else at school! And Mrs Warden!"
Mikayla snorted – she was glad this was going to turn into one of Lila's many stories.
The bite was beginning to throb and she was feeling faint, though she wasn't sure if it was in her head or if it was from the wound. If she were incredibly lucky, it would be a venomless bite. If it wasn't… well, at least she had seen it and felt the bite straight away. She'd heard of many horror stories of people not even realising they'd been bitten until it was almost too late.
Bradley came along with his group a few minutes later – Mikayla could hear them coming from the sounds of their atrocious singing.
"How are we doing, Mikayla's group?" he said, grinning as he came down the path. "I heard someone got a bit of a bite?"
"That'd be me," Mikayla said from the ground.
Bradley was a bear of a man, in his late 40s, and absolutely fantastic with kids. They all loved him too, and he could generally be seen with three or four hanging off his limbs.
"I think this means Mikayla gets a piggyback ride. Whaddaya think of that?"
His children all jumped up and down as he transferred his backpack to his front and knelt in front of Mikayla.
Mikayla's head was beginning to spin but she did as she was told, scrambling onto him. Luckily he was over twice her size and he easily hoisted her up, holding onto her legs so she wouldn't have to grip very hard.
"I want to get bitten by a snake and get a piggyback!" Lila cried.
Mikayla snorted, even as her head thunked down against Bradley's shoulder.
"I don't think you want that, little miss. Wanna take Mikayla's backpack for her?"
"Fine," Lila said with a put-upon sigh.
It took about fifteen minutes to get back to camp, Bradley entertaining the kids the entire way. By the time Mikayla slid off Bradley's back and onto one of the beds in the first aid centre, she was definitely beginning to feel the effects of the bite. Her head wouldn't stop spinning and she was beginning to feel sick.
Marjorie was there a second later, holding her hand and looking at her with concern.
"How are you feeling?" she asked anxiously. "The chopper should be here in a few minutes."
She groaned. "I'm being airlifted out? Oh god."
"You were bitten by a bloody Brown Snake and the hospital is over an hour away, of course you're being flown out! Don't be ridiculous."
Just as she said, the helicopter came not soon after. She could remember that the helicopter was a cheery yellow colour and the man and woman strapping her in were equally as cheerful, but not too much after that. Her mind wouldn't focus, though she tried to answer their questions as best as she could and then again when they suddenly reached the hospital and the doctors went about confirming that it was actually a Brown Snake.
Hours and hours later, with many painful needles filled with antivenin, she sat up in the hospital bed as her dad came in and fussed over her. She laughed it off, but she could tell he'd been truly scared – his face was the colour of her white sheets and his hair resembled a bird's nest. He stayed with her as she was given more injections. She kept expecting to see Jude walk through the door, usual dimpled smile on his face, but he never did. Why would he, anyway? He had no idea she'd even been bitten by a snake.
Mikayla spent the night at the hospital, feeling like crap, but apparently she was very lucky. The venom had done minimal damage, only making her dizzy and nauseous, and turning the bite into an ugly, swollen bruise. She'd been lucky to have been flown to the hospital so quickly, the doctor had told her. He'd also been impressed that a nine-year-old had wrapped her leg in a compression bandage so well.
Lila would be beside herself.
Except… Mikayla was done with the camp now. Marjorie had called to check up on her and say that there was no use in coming back, since there were only a few days left. Her dad was planning on picking up her stuff tomorrow after work. So that meant no more camp, no more Lila.
And no more Jude.
Mikayla was let out of the hospital the next day, but it took her two days to finally get up the courage to approach her dad. She'd spent the interim time doing way too much thinking, since she had to 'take it easy' on doctor's orders. Plus, she wasn't feeling that great anyway. But she would've liked to have been up and about and not having her mind bounce between Jude and the topic of their last conversation.
How had it taken her this long to realise that they'd never exchanged any contact information? She didn't even know his last name, so there was no chance she'd be able to find him over Facebook. She was stuck where she began: alone.
Her father was sitting at the table, eating the same breakfast he'd had for the past 20 years and reading the newspaper. Mikayla clenched her fists together and with Jude's words echoing in her ears, she took a seat across from him
He looked up and smiled at her, eyes still tired.
"Dad… I want to—to talk about mum," she said, eyes steadfast on her twisting hands. "I'm not okay with it. I'm really, really not."
"Oh, Mikayla," he breathed, standing up. She rose to meet him, trying not to fidget. He came forward and wrapped his arms around her tightly and her arms did the same. "Me neither, sweetie. Oh god, not at all."
Feeling him shudder slightly against her made the words flow out. She told him about how she struggled to tell anyone, bottling it up inside until it all came pouring out to Jude.
Afterwards, her father had to leave for work and she lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling. She felt like everything she'd been bottling up inside had flowed out, leaving her empty. Not in a bad way, though. She felt the unfamiliar feeling of being at peace. And for the first time in way too long, she drifted off to sleep with a mind completely empty.
By the time her dad had brought all her things back from the camp, it began to feel like a bit of a dream. Surely she'd never opened up that much to anyone, let alone a random guy who saw right through her. As the days went by, she scoured her memories, trying to think of any clue Jude had given to get back into contact with him. The only thing she could think of was stalking out where he studied, but that was a tad creepy. After all, he hadn't said anything to her about leaving, so she'd obviously misunderstood their relationship.
She was fine.
She'd begun taking long drives at night, sneaking out after her father had gone to sleep. They'd talked a few times since but she still hated that space between awake and asleep, where thoughts crowded her mind and spun it in circles. It was on one of these nights that she'd opened the door and frowned at the figure coming up the driveway. The figure looked up and suddenly she was looking into Jude's ice blue eyes.
She wanted to run and fling herself at him, but restrained herself with a twitch. She forced herself to walk at a slow pace, keeping herself guarded.
"Ah, Jude, what're… what're you doing here?" she asked. She linked her hands together so she wouldn't reach out and pull him into a hug. She wouldn't be doing anything like that until she'd sorted out the emotions spinning around her mind.
"Hey, Mikayla!" He grinned, but there was a nervous edge to it. "I wasn't sure if you'd be up, but I thought I'd drop around anyway while I was in the area. I didn't know your number but Marjorie gave me your address so… you left this at the lockers at camp, and your dad forgot to get it."
He finally shut up and thrust the plastic bag at her. Frowning, she looked inside and saw it was the few things she'd left in her locker: a spare camp t-shirt, sunscreen, first aid kit and spare shoes. She hadn't even noticed they weren't in her bag.
"Thanks, I guess," she said. She stared at him, heart in her shoes – surely he hadn't come just to give her back this stuff?
"So camp's over now," he said.
"Yeah, I know. I got bitten by a snake, not had my memory wiped."
He smiled at that.
"True. How are you after that? Are you, ah, feeling okay?"
She just looked at him a moment, taking in his tapping fingers and overall nervous demeanour.
"Look, if that's all, I have stuff I need to do," she said, suddenly fed up with it all. She stalked past him, unlocking the car with the remote.
"No, wait." He snagged her arm as she passed and swung her back around. She wrenched her arm out of his grip but stayed where she was, fuming.
"What?" she snapped.
"That wasn't all. I wanted… I wanted to see how you are. How you're doing."
She rolled her eyes.
"Well, now you've seen me and I'm fine. Thanks for your concern, etcetra, but I really have to go—"
"Mikayla, just wait, please—"
"Actually you know what, I do want to know some things. Like why would you leave and not say anything to me?"
"It was Lotti, my best friend, she had a scare with the baby—"
"Wait, no, not with my baby," he said quickly, eyes wide. "Oh god no. Definitely not. I do not have a baby. It is 100 per cent not mine—"
"How about you slow down, take a breath, and try to tell me properly?" she interjected.
He let out a whoosh of breath and his shoulders relaxed.
"I told you a little bit about Lotti, I think, but I didn't say she was pregnant. Her old asshole of a boyfriend left her when she found out. She was in hospital after the scare and called me, so I got there as soon as I could. It turned out to be nothing, but… I'm sorry I left without saying anything. I didn't mean to; I was just a bit out of my mind."
"Oh." Mikayla deflated, all her earlier self-righteous anger flowing out of her. "Well, that's a damn good excuse then."
"Yeah, that's what I thought."
"Oh for god's sake, I can't stand this awkwardness anymore," Mikayla snapped after he'd lapsed back into quiet. "One of two things is going to happen right now. One, you disappear back to where you came from. Two, you stay and I am going to kiss you and you will like it. Either way, we get rid of whatever the hell tension is in the air right now."
His eyes widened so she could see the whites all around his eyes. He looked almost comical as his mouth dropped open and all that came out was, "Uh… wha—"
She took her determination by the balls and strode up to him, wrapping her arms around his neck and tilting her head up to plant a firm kiss on his lips. It wasn't by any means romantic, but she didn't want to do much else while he looked like a statue.
He stared down at her and she began to grow nervous, biting slightly on her lip.
"I did give you a choice," she whispered.
"Ah, god," he finally groaned, then took her face gently in his hands and kissed her back properly. Mikayla was stiff with surprise for a moment before she sank into him.
When they broke apart, Mikayla said, "So I guess this means I didn't completely force it on you."
He laughed, teeth shining in the glow of the moon. "I've been wanting to do that since I first saw you."
"So, what, the whole listening thing was just a way to get into my pants?" She was smiling though, revelling in the feel of his body against hers and her slightly swollen lips.
"Oh yeah, definitely," he said. "You getting bitten by a snake was also part of that plan, though I'm fairly sure I was meant to rescue the damsel in distress, not Bradley."
Mikayla snorted with laughter, ducking her head to muffle it against his t-shirt covered chest.
"Bradley made a pretty fantastic knight in shining armour," she said. "He even gave me a piggyback ride."
Jude groaned, making her laugh even more. Eventually, though, the laughter died off and the only sounds were the surrounding insects again.
"So what does this mean for us now?" she asked quietly.
"Well, we're more than friends-who-sleep-in-the-same-bed-but-don't-have-sex, for starters."
"Yeah, there wasn't going to be anymore of that anyway, now that I'm at home under the same roof as my father."
"Damn. Maybe we can try this 'going out' business?"
"We could give it a go, I guess," Mikayla said, smiling up at him. "As long as neither of us pulls anymore disappearing acts. And I get some bloody way to contact you."
"I think I can live with that," he said, ducking his head down to brush another soft kiss across her lips.
Her insides warmed, so much so that her toes curled in her shoes and her entire being felt lighter. She was still grieving for her mother, but she'd taken a step away from the black hole of despair and let herself open to Jude's light. And she'd taken a step towards being happy.
It was a start.
A/N: Now this is pretty different from anything I've ever written. It meanders all over the place and I'm not very convinced about it… Anyway. I really tried focusing on showing and not telling, so hopefully I succeeded? Maybe.
This is for A Drop of Romeo's Star-Cross'd competition, where it has to have a Romeo and Juliet reference and be to do with one of the photos. I chose 'The Guy'.
I got the inspiration for this from Coldplay's 'Amsterdam' – the lyrics at the top are from them too.