Chapter Eleven

 

I woke up to the sound of someone opening and closing the cupboards in my kitchen. Yawning, I felt around my bedside table for my phone and held in front of my face, half-blinding myself. 6:02AM. Bree was very awake for six o’clock in the morning. Weren’t teenagers supposed to be impossible to get up before midday?

Just as I was trying to decide if it was too early to get out of bed or not, my bedroom door swung open and a silhouette with very fluffy hair appeared. “You have no food,” she announced, not telling me anything I didn’t know. “I had this really nice idea where I was going to make you breakfast and have it ready for you when you woke up but the only thing you have in your pantry is this one single pickle and the most plastic-looking two minute noodles in the world. The cake is the only thing in your fridge. You don’t even have milk anywhere, just, like, four hundred thousand bottles of red wine.”

Good morning, Bree,” I said pointedly in my croaky morning voice. “How did you sleep?”

Okay,” she said, still lecturing me, “and you sound like a guy, now, too. I’ve discovered the reason you look like some skinny teenage guy when you don’t try not to is because you hardly ever eat. If you didn’t have your hair, like, down around your face like that no one would think you weren’t one.” She paused, touching her own messy hair. “Also, can I have a shower? I look like a pom-pom.”

It was too early to deal with her, so I washed my face quickly and then got dressed while she was having that shower. Since I couldn’t wear my tailored pants two days in a row, I ended up needing to brave a skirt with stockings. Thirty-four years, three-hundred and sixty-four days to retirement, I thought, sighing heavily. I toyed with the idea of putting my hair back – especially after what Bree had said – but ‘guy’ really wasn’t the impression I was trying to give people at work. 

When Bree finally emerged from the bathroom, she’d done a pretty good job of fixing her hair and smoothing her uniform and it wasn’t at all obvious she’d crashed on someone’s couch overnight. “Can I just leave my undies in your washing?” she asked. “It’s a bit weird to carry them around.”

Was she serious? Her skirt barely made it halfway down her thighs. “Bree, you can’t go out like that without any!”

She looked at me for a second and then laughed. “I have spares,” she said. “But oh my god!”

She continued to laugh about that while she was watching me do my makeup, and then all the way downstairs. I had automatically started walking to work when I realised I couldn’t send Bree to school without having eaten. It was really too late to sit down anywhere, though.

Would a muffin and a coffee be okay for breakfast?” I asked her as we passed a café.

Sure!” she said, and ended up talking the barista into making her a ham-and-cheese jaffle, instead. She ate it with an expression of total contentment as I walked her to Circular Quay to catch a train out. We’d just missed one, so we sat and watched the ferries dump hordes of business people in suits onto the Quay.

You should wear a suit to work,” Bree said, offering a wedge of her jaffle to me. “That would be so awesome.”

Yeah, in my dreams. “Hah,” I said as I had a small bite and then gave it back to her. “World peace would be awesome, too.” I half-heard an announcement over the speaker system. “Hey, isn’t that your train?”

She nodded, dusting her hands as she stood up. “Thanks.”

Her hair was a bit damp, and if I ruffled it I’d probably make it frizzy for the rest of the day, so I didn’t. “You’re welcome,” I said. “Come on, you’ve only got a couple of minutes, you’d better go up.”

I walked her up to the barriers and she just stood there, glancing up at me and looking uneasy.

You’ve got to go to school,” I told her. When she didn’t say anything to that, something occurred to me as I watched people hold their Opal cards next to the readers. “You do have enough money on your card, right?”

She didn’t say anything, so the answer was obviously no. And she wasn’t going to tell me, I thought, looking around us at all the ticket inspectors making sure everyone was tapping on. How the hell was she planning on getting to school?

I leafed through my purse for my Opal card which I hardly ever used, took her hand, and placed it in her palm. “Here. It’s full-fare, but I don’t think anyone will notice.” As I was closing my purse, I caught sight of the blue-green of a couple of ten dollar notes, as well. “Do you have lunch?” Again, no answer. I made a short noise and put one of the tens in her palm with the card.

She was being uncharacteristically quiet again, and I led her aside from the barriers so we wouldn’t get any anyone’s way. “Bree, is everything okay?”

She nodded, looking down at the note and the card in her palm.

What was going on for her? It couldn’t be that her parents had no money, because Cloverfield was a pretty expensive school and Bree, while being very sweet, did not seem like the type of person who’d be there on a scholarship. I wanted to ask her, and I suppose I probably would have been entitled to because I was spending heaps of money on her, but I also kind of wanted her to want to tell me on her own terms.

It’s not fair,” she said quietly.

I frowned a little. “What isn’t?” Putting a hand underneath hers, I closed her fingers around the card and the ten. “If you’re worried about the money, don’t be. It’s not a problem.”

Yet,” she said. “It will be.”

It was on the tip of my tongue: ‘what’s going on, Bree?’ I couldn’t say it, though. What if it was something awful and really private I was forcing her to tell me in public? I just put a gentle hand on her back and lead her up to the barricade. She tapped my card and went through.

I raised my hand a bit hesitantly and waved at her, and she smiled for a second and waved back. There was something haunted about it, though. It seemed forced, but she’d turned and gone to climbing stairs before I was sure. I watched until she’d reached the the platform, trying to imagine what the problem could possibly be.

When people started to give me frustrated looks and push past me, I realised I couldn’t just stand there against the barriers because I was half-blocking one of them. I stepped aside, looking one last time up the stairs just to make absolutely certain Bree wasn’t coming back down them before heading off to work.

Something is seriously up with that girl, I thought, focusing on the pavement in front of me to avoid catching sight of my reflection in shop windows as I passed them.

The beautiful cake was evidence Bree hadn’t been kicked out of home and that her parents still obviously loved her. She didn’t have bruises or anything on her and she didn’t seem to have any hangups about her body at all so it couldn’t be… anything more serious than that, could it? I didn’t feel like that made sense, but maybe I should ask Henry about it. Yes, I thought as I walked into the lobby of Frost and pressed the lift button, I’d have to ask Henry what he thought. He always knew this stuff.

I was the first one in the office, again. Sitting down at my laptop, I fished around in my handbag for the USB and then flipped it between my fingers while I was waiting for my system to boot up. Bree had dragged me to that expensive restaurant and made me pay, and she hadn’t seemed to have any issues with that. I supposed she had been getting progressively more uncomfortable with the money I was spending since then, but I thought I had been making it perfectly clear it was fine? Actually, to be perfectly honest, part of me kind of enjoyed it. Spending money was a complete non-event to me, and I’d never had anyone to spend money on before. I liked that something so simple meant so much to her. It felt like I was cheating at friendship, somehow. Seeing that gratitude on her face when I’d bought her the bracelet was a great feeling.

Why wasn’t it fair then? Goddamnit, what was going on with her?

This was driving me nuts. Was I overreacting? I had to text her. I took my phone out of my bag and spend at least five minutes trying to figure out what to say, in the end settling on, “Are you going to be okay? I’m worried.

She took longer to reply than usual. “thats because ur a stressball lol btw i hardly have any credit left”

I groaned. “Avoid the fucking question, why don’t you, Bree!” I said at the phone, and then put it away. She clearly didn’t want to talk about it, and while I was dying to know, it wasn’t my place. Unfortunately, the fact she hadn’t answered whether she was going to be okay or not seemed very important and I ended up staring at Michelangelo underneath my monitor rather than the timeline on it.

Predictably, Sarah was next through the door. She stopped in the doorway and looked at me. We watched each other for a few seconds, and then she burst out laughing and went and put her bag in her drawer.

Bree, I thought, remembering when I’d said goodbye to Sarah yesterday. “Sorry about last night,” I said mildly. “Bree is…” I searched for a good adjective, but I didn’t find one. “Well, you saw what she’s like.”

Sarah was still laughing away. “I actually have a confession,” she told me, turning her laptop on and spending ten seconds trying to get her USB into one of the slots. She printed something out and then walked over and dumped it on my keyboard. “I’m a bad person.”

I picked it up; it was a marketing analytics report from social media. Facebook, this time. Only instead of analysing a demographic, it was just analysing a single person. “’Briana Dejanovic’,” I read, pretty sure I was pronouncing it wrong. Was this… I looked up at Sarah. “Bree?”

Sarah looked very guilty. “I shouldn’t have, I know. Her profile’s public, though, and I have all those really powerful search and analytic tools…”

I probably would have been a whole lot angrier if I wasn’t really, really interested in what was on the report. It might help me figure out what was up for Bree and if everything was okay.

I pretended to glare at her. “Using your powers for evil?” She nodded meekly, and that made me laugh. “How the hell did you find her, though? I wouldn’t have told you her surname, because I didn’t even know it.”

Sarah looked like she couldn’t believe that. “She was all over you and you don’t even know her surname?” At my expression she held up her hands, bracelets jingling. “I didn’t mean anything by that, by the way. You two just seem too close to not know those kind of details.”

There were a lot of details I didn’t know about Bree, but I still enjoyed her company. I shrugged at Sarah. “I met her online and it didn’t seem important. So how did you find her profile?”

Sarah leaned over and flipped to a print-out of her ‘about’ page. It was pretty bare, but did have her school listed. “It was actually a no-brainer, I didn’t even have to filter by themes until I got her. I just tabbed through photos of kids in her school and stopped when I saw curls.” She stood up, taking a couple of pages with her. Then, clearing her throat dramatically, she spoke in the same voice she’d use to deliver a series of analytics in a project meeting.

Briana Dejanovic, 411 friends, 86% of them further than 25km from her hometown and current location which are both listed as Sydney. Her follows are unremarkable, really, nothing we wouldn’t expect from the demographic. Her friends-of-friends is in the tens of thousands so she has excellent reach with her posts, and there are some,” Sarah glanced up at me, “very interesting topics on her recently liked list. Overall an interesting analytical exercise but unfortunately through examining her status updates, clicks and click-throughs the likelihood of her being interested in purchasing a pink diamond or any other Frost merchandise is very low.”

I was too worried about this ‘recently liked’ list and what I’d seen on Bree’s phone last night to laugh very hard at Sarah pretending to do a consumer analysis for Bree. Fuck, I hoped Bree hadn’t liked any of those gender-related blogs she’d been reading, because together with the things Bree had said last night, I wouldn’t have put it past Sarah to guess. I didn’t want to rouse her suspicion, though, so I just asked innocently, “’Recently liked’?”

Sarah showed me the list. There were a couple of pop stars, Girls’ Generation again, and, unfortunately, some sort of queer blog with a big rainbow flag as its display picture. It was buried in amongst her other likes, though, so I just pretended not to notice it. “She likes Korean pop music?” I asked dryly. “That is concerning.”

Sarah looked wholly unconvinced, but didn’t say anything. “Move over,” she said, glancing nervously over at the door. “I have to show you this girl’s Facebook page.”

She reached across me and opened up Facebook in my browser, logging in as one of Frost’s analytics usernames and then going to Bree’s page.

Bree’s display picture was a pretty unremarkable selfie, but as soon as Sarah clicked on the ‘Photos of Briana’ header, fuck, I had to look over myself to check the door was shut. Bree had probably… dozens of photos of herself there, and while none of them were actively pornographic or showing anything beyond a lot of thigh or a lot of cleavage, the positions she was in and the expressions she had on her face… Jesus.

Sarah and I scrolled through them with our jaws open.

Yup,” Sarah told me as we reached the end, her eyes as wide as saucers, “it’s still just as shocking the second time around.”

The last one was Bree with the two top buttons of her school uniform undone so you could see deep into her cleavage. She’d angled the camera accordingly and was pretending to bite her lip, like she was inviting the person behind the camera to reach out and touch her. Fortunately it was a selfie so there was no one behind the camera, but it was so sexual that I found it incredibly fucking uncomfortable to look at and had to click ‘back’.

Oh, my god,” I breathed, putting my face in my hands for a second. Even with my eyes closed I could see the echo of that cleavage on my retinas. “Why would anyone put photos like that on the internet? Is she trying to get stalked?” That seemed a pretty ironic question to be asking about Bree, Stalker Extraordinaire.

Sarah shrugged, leaning back in her chair, clearly finding my reaction very entertaining. “Well, I suppose she has got a great rack so she probably just wants to boast about it.” When I looked at her, she shrugged. “What? Objectively speaking, she has. I can say that, can’t I?”

I groaned and put my face back in my hands again. “Oh my god…”

Also, and I’m not drawing any conclusions, really,” Sarah said, giving me adequate time to prepare for more Bree, “but this,” she flipped through the pages and showed me a status update. “I found it on her friends-of-friends.”

I read through it. Someone had replied to a status last night with ‘GAY‘, and then Bree had gone to town on him about how offensive that was, complete with all caps and zero punctuation. My first thought was she’d probably just been reading a whole lot of those queer blogs I’d found on her phone and was just playing white knight, but then I remembered that whole ‘straighter’ thing in the shopping centre yesterday. Could she be…

I didn’t even finish that thought because I was already panicking that maybe she was into me. Then I was telling myself off, because it was stupidly narcissistic to think that just because a girl was gay and I was also currently a girl that she’d be into me. Especially because I kind of wasn’t a proper girl, and especially given that Bree’s assessment when I was dressed like a girl was ‘weird’. Bree probably didn’t even really think of me as a peer, so that would mean we were safe, wouldn’t it? Although, going over everything that had happened in the last few weeks didn’t provide me with much comfort. Especially with what Sarah was implying.

Sarah patted me on the back, a mischievous glint in her eye. “Happy reading,” she said. “I’m going to get us some caffeine.”

While she was doing that, I flipped through some of the other pages looking to see if I could find actual confirmation that Bree was gay. In the process I found out a series of things I’d never ask Bree directly: that her parents were still married and appeared to still live together because there were a number of recent photos of them together in the same house. Her brother’s name was Andrej and he and Courtney had posted about the same number of suggestive photos Bree had except with each other. That was almost as bad. There was one photo where they almost looked like they were fucking and I got to the stage where I was actually asking existential questions to the universe about why anyone would ever voluntarily show that to people. There were no photos of Bree in any sort of suggestive fashion with other girls, but there weren’t any with any boys, either. And in all the photos of her and her family, everyone was smiling. Even Bree. Despite all of that, there was nothing else gay or queer or anything on her Facebook.

I was probably making a big deal out of nothing. She was probably just being a nice person and standing up for that section of the community.

I paused. ‘That section of the community’, I thought, remembering my body issues. I was potentially secretly in that section of the community, wasn’t I? ‘LBG’…’LBT’… Whatever it was. I couldn’t remember the acronym, but I was certain there was a ‘T’ for ‘trans’ in there, somewhere. So maybe Bree was just standing up for me in the event that I did turn out to be? But then, Bree had specifically been defending the term ‘gay’, and I wasn’t gay. Although… if I was supposed to be a guy, and I was with Henry, did that mean I was secretly gay?

I sat back and just stared out the window towards the Western Suburbs, completely spun out. I felt like I’d just been told I was adopted or something, and everything I’d thought I knew about myself was bullshit. Fuck, this was a headache, what the hell did anything mean anymore? I didn’t even know where to start on this one. Bree’s suggestion of running away to Canada was sounding great right now.

I think I may have torn out half my hair by the time Sarah came back with my Red Bull. She laughed at my expression as I accepted it from her and opened it.

I think I hate you a little bit,” I told her as I took a sip. She had no idea about the can of worms she’d just opened. “Did you do this to my Facebook, too?”

She grinned. “There’s nothing interesting on yours.”

I sighed heavily and took one last cursory look at Bree’s profile before I closed the page. I had the print-outs, I could pour over them later for evidence about what was going on with her. “I’m beginning to understand why you hate social media.”

Facebook’s evil, I told you,” she said, which was very interesting to hear out of the mouth of a social media marketing specialist. “I’d delete my account but then I’d never get invited out. Speaking of which,” she said, “the girls are all going for drinks at that pub in The Rocks on Friday. Should I send you and your exhibitionist friend an invite?”

Probably not worth it,” I said, closing the browser. “I’m going to go home and delete my account tonight.”

I’d swivelled back to face my monitor and I could feel her staring at the side of my head. When I glanced at her, she asked, “Okay, so you didn’t know her surname, which kind of means you don’t really know her that well, but she gets to take you out just like that? She doesn’t even have to sic Henry on you?” She was smiling, but I could tell she wasn’t just teasing me. I started to worry I was hurting her feelings, but then she added. “Like, is it a great rack you look for in a friend? Because, hello.”

She stuck her chest out, and I nearly spat Red Bull all over my monitor. While I was reaching for a tissue and my eyes were watering, she added, “Not that I want to nag you. I’m just wondering.”

I winced, blotting my nose. “I know how it looks, but it’s not personal.” When she kept listening, I sighed. “Sarah, seriously, though, you keep trying to get me out of here. Why? What makes you so sure that I’m the type of fun you expect me to be?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “Looking at you, you’re this serious workaholic. But I know you play video games, prank your poor unsuspecting co-workers, you have this killer sense of humour and you hang out with wild schoolgirls.” She crossed her arms as she considered me. “All is not what it seems. So I compiled the evidence, analysed it, and all signs point to you being stacks of fun.”

All isn’t what it seems, Sarah, I thought, but I disagreed that it meant I was ‘stacks of fun’. I probably would enjoy myself, though. Particularly if alcohol was involved. “Well, then, prepare for the incredible excitement of watching me sit and silently drink wine,” I told her. “I’ll definitely go drinking with you on the day we close this. Mainly to shut you up, though.” I winked at her.

Sarah nodded once and looked victorious. “Good,” she said. “Just out of curiosity, though, how did that girl do it so easily?”

I exhaled audibly. That was a good question. “She’d have physically carried me out of here if she was strong enough, and I’m not exaggerating. ‘No’ wasn’t an answer she was going to accept.”

Sarah nodded slowly. “I can’t wait to get you really drunk,” she said cryptically, and then turned back to her spreadsheet, ending the conversation by doing some actual work. I followed her example.

As soon as the rest of my team got in, I needed to have a quiet word with John about him sending me unencrypted emails. The discomfort of telling someone off – especially watching the humiliation on his bright red face – was enough to distract me from Bree and the vortex of chaos surrounding her. Furthermore, Jason stuck his head in before lunch and told me that Diane wanted to speak briefly with me and him tomorrow morning before work.

While I was screaming internally and absolutely certain it was to do with that unencrypted email, Sarah gave me a look that basically said, ‘You’re our next CEO, right?’. I scoffed at her.

Jason had also approved my emails to the contacts he’d recommended, and so I spent an hour or two making sure I was completely happy with the vague wording and sent them off. Vladivostok got back to me quickly and teed up a teleconference for later in the week, but I’d have to wait overnight for Moscow.

It was productive day, but Sarah had been in and out of consumer profiling meetings for her other team which meant I had no one to bring me lunch and I hadn’t eaten all day.

I was starving by dinner. Like, to the point where I was considering drinking milk and/or eating sugar directly out of the kitchenette. When I was finally done with the requirements doc and Henry sent me an SMS, I was about ready to start going on the half-dead plant on my table.

Want company tonight?” he’d texted. “I thought maybe we could go out for dinner, somewhere quiet and low key. What do you say?”

I was waiting for my laptop to shut down as I texted him back. It would actually be a great opportunity to pick his brains about Bree, and I was so hungry I would have said yes to just about any suggestion as long as it involved food. “I am DYING of hunger. I will literally eat ANYTHING as long as you can give it to me quickly.”

Of course, I shouldn’t have left an opening for him. “I’m assuming that doesn’t mean what I hope it does…?”

I groaned. I caught myself thinking ‘Men!’, but then had a sudden thought about how I felt about myself. Was I differentiating myself from them after all? It was such a strange, disorienting feeling. I just seriously had no idea what I was supposed to be. I was much too hungry to think further on it now, though. “Nope, it doesn’t mean you can give that to me,” I texted back. “Not unless you can serve it sliced in a baguette with mayonnaise and chips on the side, that is.”

…Ouch. I’ll be downstairs in five.”

I stuffed all of Bree’s Facebook analytics into my handbag, and headed downstairs to meet him.

Henry had picked a boutique Japanese restaurant in The Rocks; it was a tiny little place I had no idea about despite living about three streets away. There were only a couple of people already seated when we walked in, and so the waitress was able to show us to a table straight away. She put the menus in front of us as we sat down. “Drinks?”

A glass each of house white and red,” Henry said, and then added, “if you want to hang around for a couple of seconds, I’m pretty sure my girlfriend wants to order straight away.” He grinned at me.

I literally picked the first thing on the menu, and as soon as the waitress was gone I started to undo my handbag. “Not that you’re not wonderful anyway, but I actually have an ulterior motive for going to dinner with you,” I said, heaping together all the Facebook analytics print-outs.

I should have known being wonderful wasn’t enough for you,” he told me with a completely straight face.

Yeah, some shrink you are,” I said and then showed him all the Facebook analytics, explaining everything I was worried about with Bree. The waitress came back with our wine halfway through it and gave me a really strange look about all the paper I’d spread everywhere.

When I was finished, Henry sat back with the wine in one hand – there was nowhere on the table to put it – and squinted at me. “So what are you actually asking me?” he said, “Because I’m getting a lot more about you than I am about Bree just at this moment.”

I wasn’t interested in hearing about how crazy he thought I was. “I really don’t know what to think,” I said. “But I’m kind of worried something terrible is happening. You don’t think anything… really bad is happening to her?” When he waited for me to elaborate, I added, “You know, do you think anyone’s abusing her?”

Henry’s eyebrows went right up, and he took a big mouthful of wine. “Wow,” he said, and then had another one. “Wow, that’s a heavy topic for a light dinner.” He spent a few seconds thinking over his answer. “To be honest, Min, unless you’re going to show me photos of bruises, I’m not going to be able to tell you anything without speaking with her one-on-one in a therapeutic setting.” I leaned back in my chair and made a face. He winced. “I’m sorry, I know that’s not the answer you’re looking for.”

It really wasn’t. “You don’t have any idea at all? Not even a, ‘Well, that’s unlikely’?”

He shook his head. “If I knew the answer I’d just tell you.”

I frowned back down at the print-outs, and then gathered them all up and shoved them back into my handbag. While I was doing that, he commented, “But you’ve gone to a lot of effort to not just ask her what’s happening in her life. Why is that? What are you afraid of?”

Wow, he always cut straight through things. I put my bag under the table, thinking. “What I’m going to do if she says yes,” I said, and then made a face. “And that I’m going to feel like absolute shit for spending two weeks trying to avoid her.”

He chuckled. “I’m not going to remind you what my initial advice about Bree was.”

Good. Because then I’d have to punch you.”

The chuckle turned into an outright laugh for a second or two. “Anyway, you shouldn’t feel that bad if it does turn out to be something serious, because since those initial meetings you’ve been a good friend to her.”

That’s true,” I said, remembering the last few days. “And I’ve spent a tonne of money on her, too, I don’t think I’ve got anything to feel bad about.”

That caught his attention, but he was careful to be mild about it. “Just out of curiosity, how much have you spent on her?”

I immediately felt self-conscious. It didn’t look that great, did it, buying a gold bracelet for someone I’d met three weeks ago? I glossed over that part. “Oh, you know. Money for food, taxis to get back to her friend’s…”

He nodded, accepting that. I felt awful about not telling him about the bracelet, but I didn’t want him to think Bree was just using me for my money. She wasn’t like that.

He put his wine glass on the table. “Well, it just sounds like you’re being a good friend,” he said, “whatever’s going on for her. And judging by what happened over the weekend, she’s being a good friend to you, too.”

I really wanted to keep discussing Bree to try and figure everything out, but shortly after that, the waitress brought our dinner. I stopped talking to inhale mine in under three minutes, but Henry dawdled over his as usual, chatting about his sister who was pregnant again. She was younger than him and already had three children.

I guess I’m lucky she went and married a Chinese guy,” Henry said. “Or I’d probably lose my place as star child of the family.” He remembered something and laughed. “You should have seen Mum’s face when Alice was first pregnant. She didn’t know whether to be overjoyed she was going to be a grandma, or horrified that the child was going to be half-Chinese.”

I rolled my eyes. “You think your mum’s traditional? When I first moved to Sydney, on every single phone call, Mum would always say, ‘Don’t date white men, and don’t date Chinese men, and make sure he’s Christian. Not Anglican, though’.” I paused, looking around us. “Actually, she’d probably be horrified we’re eating in a Japanese restaurant, too.”

Henry nodded once. “Note to self: next time I visit your mother, pretend I’ve converted to Christianity and don’t mention how much I like sushi. Got it.”

I was laughing with him, but in the back of my mind I was still acutely aware of what I was saying. My mum was traditional. If she knew what I was thinking about my body these days and how I wished I could change myself… fuck. At least she was thousands of kilometres away and had to look after grandma so she couldn’t suddenly show up at my home and accidentally catch me trying to look like I wanted to.

It was dark when we’d finished our dinner and went to leave the restaurant. “Mind if I stay over?” Henry asked me. “I’m probably over the limit to drive back to the bay tonight.”

I pressed my lips together. “I need to do some more work on the project,” I said, remembering Diane’s insistence Henry not be exposed to it. “Which means I’m probably going to need to lock you in the bedroom or something.”

He grinned sideways at me. “That’d be okay…”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Alone.”

He tilted his head. “Knew there was a catch. That’s fine. I need to finish the book I’m reading, anyway.”

We walked back to my building through a road in The Rocks, and it bordered a park lined with palm trees. The street lights were a gentle orange, and they cast a sort of tropical light on the gardens of the townhouses on the other side of the road. We could have been walking up a street in any nice part of Sydney, except here every single car parked along the road was gold-plate prestige. Behind us, the Sydney Harbour Bridge loomed over the houses.

Henry had his hands in his pockets as we walked, smiling at the streetscape. “This is a nice area, isn’t it? Very cosmopolitan, but there’s something quiet and suburban about it, too.”

My favourite thing about it was its complete lack of reflective surfaces, but I didn’t say as much.

When we got back to my building and stepped into the lift, Henry’s hand was idly stroking my lower back. He didn’t usually inadvertently touch me, and he was generally pretty upfront about just asking for it if he wanted sex. I wondered about that hand.

I didn’t wonder very long about it, though, because when the doors slid open on my floor and Henry stepped out of the lift, he stopped suddenly and I nearly walked straight into him. Over his shoulder, I could see a familiar shape seated against my door. She didn’t see us straight away, though, because she had her eyes closed and headphones in her ears.

That’s Bree, isn’t it?” Henry asked in a really philosophical tone.

I groaned audibly as I walked out of the lift behind him. “That’s her.”

I wanted to be annoyed at her for again showing up whenever she felt like it, but I was too relieved that she wasn’t at home with whatever was going on there. Especially after all the possibilities I’d been discussing with Henry.

Then, she opened her eyes and looked up at us. I had expected her face to light up like it always did when she saw me, but she didn’t. Instead, her eyes were swimming and she looked really upset. My stomach dropped. What had happened?

Wow, okay,” Henry said quickly. “I think that might be my cue to leave.” He kissed my cheek.

Fuck,” I said, closing my eyes for a second. “Fuck. I’m sorry, Henry.”

He nodded. “It’s okay. I’ll take a taxi home, we can talk tomorrow.” He then glanced back at Bree and said quietly to me as he stepped back into the lift, “Good luck.”

Bree hauled herself off the floor, but she didn’t come running up to me like she usually did. Instead, she waited for me to walk up to her. When I got to her, she just swallowed and looked up at me. “I’m sorry,” she said in a tiny little voice. “I ruined your evening with Henry.”

I sighed; Bree. “Not really,” I said. “I was just going to come home and do work. Come on. Come in and tell me what happened.”

I let us both in, and literally as soon as I’d closed the door, she had her arms around me. I braced myself against the wall so I didn’t fall over. I was still wearing my heels, and I tried to awkwardly kick them off while she hugged me.

I’m sorry,” she said again into my blouse. “I’m sorry…”

I put a hand behind her head. It was so, so strange to think that this was the same girl posting all those awfully sexual photos of herself on the internet. Fuck. What could turn that giggling, energetic, frighteningly extroverted girl into this? It must be something awful. God, I felt sick about that. I felt sick. I was scared about what she was going to tell me.

Bree, what happened?” She shook her head. I wasn’t sure if that meant ‘no’ as in I’m not telling you, or ‘no’ as in nothing. “Seriously, you look really upset.”

She pulled away from me for a moment, and she was a mess. “Can I have a tissue?”

Yeah,” I said, and led her into the bedroom, grabbing one from the bedside table and handing it to her.

She sat down on my mattress, blowing her nose and then staring at the scrunched tissue in her palm. She looked absolutely miserable. It actually hurt to look at her like this. “Can I do anything to help?” I asked. “Anything?”

You should change,” she said, as if I’d never asked her anything.

I did feel uncomfortable like this, but honestly, it could wait. Everything could wait. I sat there silently beside her for a little while, hoping she would spontaneously tell me. She didn’t. Maybe Henry was right when he’d said, ‘You’re doing a lot to avoid asking her’. Maybe I should just do it. Not knowing and having to imagine all the awful things that might be happening to her would be far more fucking agonising than whatever she could say. It took me a minute or so to work myself up to it.

I took a breath. “Is someone hurting you?” I wasn’t even sure how to ask it. “Or, is someone, like…”

No,” she said almost angrily, jamming her eyes shut and spilling fresh tears down her cheeks. “No, no one’s beating me up,” she said. “Or doing anything like that. But it would be fucking easier if someone was, because as soon as I say ‘no, I’m not being abused’ people are like, ‘oh, well, it can’t be that bad, then’ and they treat me like I’m overreacting.”

It would be easier if she were being abused? Did she really mean that? “Overreacting to what?”

She closed up again, and shook her head. “It’s fucking stupid. You’ll be angry, it’s so stupid. You can’t do anything about it anyway, no one can. I should just be happy I’m not living in some terrorist war-zone or something.”

Well, clearly it isn’t stupid, I thought, because you’re here bawling your eyes out on my bed. “Bree,” I said. “I’ve been worrying about you all day. Seriously, all day. I was sitting at my desk this morning trying to figure out what the hell is going on with you. I know it’s your business and you don’t have to tell me, but it’s driving me fucking nuts not knowing,” I said. “Especially when you show up here, like, distraught and then expect me to be content just watching you cry and not being able to help.”

She took a deep breath, gently scrunching the tissue in her hands. She’s going to tell me finally, I thought.

I was wrong. “I’m sorry,” she repeated again, and then came more tears. “I shouldn’t have come here, I just,” she took a ragged breath, “I just—you always make me feel better. But now you feel worse.”

Watching you cry and not knowing why…” I shook my head and put a hand on her back. “It sucks, Bree.”

She leant into my hand. “Did you really worry about me all day?” she asked. I nodded at her and her face crumpled up. “I told myself, ‘when you meet her, be really nice, because she has this really hardcore job and she works like a million hours…’” She swallowed. “And now I’m just making it worse.”

Bree…”

There was something in her eyes as she looked up at me. “Okay,” she forced out of her mouth, but her jaw was so tight she could hardly move it. “Okay, but it’s a long story, so you should have your shower and get changed first.”

And then you’ll tell me?”

She could barely speak, so she just nodded.

I touched her cheek and sighed. “Okay,” I said, releasing a long, measured breath. “Okay. Go grab yourself a slice of cake or something while you’re waiting. Carbs are supposed to cheer people up. I’ll be really quick.”

I was as fast as I could be in the shower; I didn’t need to wash my hair tonight anyway, so I just got rid of all of my makeup. At least I couldn’t focus too much on how jarring it was to see myself topless, because I was too worried about what Bree was going to say. What if it was something really, really awful that was happening to her, even though she said it wasn’t? She’d lied to me before, maybe she was lying to me now. Fuck, I hoped it wasn’t that, I did. But what if it was?

I threw on the hoodie and jeans, and then walked out into the living room, expecting to see Bree on the couch, maybe eating her cake.

She wasn’t there, though.

“Bree?” I called, checking the kitchen, the balcony – I even ducked back into my bedroom and made sure she wasn’t curled up in the doona somewhere.

Walking back into the living room, I realised how silent it was. It was at that point that I saw she’d left my Opal card and some small change on the kitchen bench.

She’d left. Fuck, she’d left. And she had no money, no means of getting home and it was fucking dark outside. I took a breath. Shit. Shit! Why the hell would she do this?

I rushed over to my handbag and picked up my phone, hurriedly fumbling around with it and calling her number. She rejected the call, and when I tried against she rejected that one, too. Fuck! Now, on top of what was going on at home, she was wandering around the laneways in Sydney at night in that tiny skirt with no way of getting anywhere safe.

I leaned against the kitchen counter for a second. I’d only been five, maybe ten minutes in the shower. She can’t have gotten that far, and she was probably going towards the train station. I’d stepped into my old sneakers and rushed out the door before I’d even thought about it, and only realised when I saw myself in the mirrors in the lift that I was still dressed like a guy.

I stared at my reflection. I wasn’t just dressed like a guy, I was dressed up as a guy. I didn’t have time to go back home and change, though. If she was close by the hotel I could still catch her.

I put the hood over my head and belted through the lobby as fast as I could, hoping none of the staff would recognise me.

It was dark outside, and the laneways that lead towards the station weren’t actually that well-lit. I half-walked, half-jogged along them, looking for her. Aside from the odd person walking back home from work and one very concerning group of suspicious-looking teenagers, there was hardly anyone out. It was the perfect environment for someone to pull over in their car next to a sweet little blond girl and pretend to offer her a ride home.

While I was imagining all manner of fucked-up scenarios, I recognised her silhouette down the end of one of the lanes. God, the relief. She was in one piece and thank god she hadn’t done something stupid like trying to hitch-hike home. “Bree!”

She stopped walking and turned back towards me as I jogged up to her. I hugged her briefly, and then stood back, holding her shoulders. “Bree, what the fuck? Just – what the fuck?” I hugged her again, and she let me, just standing passively in place. “Why did you do that? Are you trying to get yourself mugged or killed?”

She shook her head slowly. It was like all the energy I usually expected of her had been sucked out and she was just this shell of herself. “I didn’t want to make everything worse for you and just be another thing you have to stress about,” she said. “So I left.”

…thereby causing me to fucking stress about you!” I pointed out. “It’s too late to just disappear, Bree, I’m already stressing. If you wanted me not to, you never should have dragged me to dinner.” I stood up, and went to run my hand through my hair, again forgetting it was long. Thank god she was okay, but how the fuck was I this tied up in what was going on for her? I may have been casually messaging her on Deviant Art for ages, but I’d only met her three weeks ago, and seriously, I’d only really been close to her this week. One week!

Why?” I kind of asked the universe.

She thought I was talking to her. “I’m sorry.”

I took her by the shoulders for second. “You drive me fucking crazy,” I said. “You are fucking crazy. But, please, please, don’t ever do anything like this again. You’ll kill me.”

I released her and stood back, taking a deep breath. I didn’t know what else to say, either about her running out like that or whatever was going on at her home. If she wasn’t going to tell me, she wasn’t going to tell me. And it was driving me fucking crazy with worry but I guessed I’d just have to deal with it.

Come on,” I said, giving up. I took her arm the same way she’d taken mine dozens of times when we’d been walking around Sydney. “Come back to my place. You can’t go anywhere at this time of night. Maybe you can call Courtney or something and talk to her instead, if you don’t want to tell me.”

She sucked air through her teeth. “Yeah, right. She’s fucking in love with him,” she said quietly.

I stopped in my tracks and looked down at her, my jaw open. Her brother?

Bree didn’t look up at me. I didn’t want to push her, and it took her some time to be able to say anything else. “It’s really complicated,” she said. “Like, really. When I start thinking about how I would explain it to you, everything’s just so fucking unfair and I can’t even breathe. It’s just so fucked up. I don’t want to tell you because it sounds like it’s nothing, but it’s not. It’s really not. I don’t even want to think about it.”

I wished I had Henry’s ability to cut through everything and just ask the right questions, but I didn’t. I just wanted to know if she was safe. “Is he… doing anything to you?”

She deflated. “Not in the ways people actually care about.”

I watched her for a moment, and then exhaled. I just couldn’t imagine what sort of person could want to hurt Bree— other than nameless, faceless kidnappers, that is. But her own brother? Henry was so fiercely protective of his sister. I wondered what sort of person wasn’t. Who would hurt someone like Bree?

At least now I had some idea why talking about it was difficult for her. “Come on,” I said, starting to walk. “You’re eighteen now. Let me show you why ‘four hundred thousand bottles of red wine’ in the cupboard is better than having milk in the fridge.”

She took my arm, and I think she might even have smiled a little when I quoted her. I flashed her a lopsided one of my own, and lead her home.

 

15 thoughts on “Chapter Eleven

  1. Oh dear. Poor Bree. I’m not sure whether I’m looking forward to finding out what’s bothering the poor kid or not. But, as they say, en vino veritas.

    • ‘En vino veritas’ should be the working title of this novel! There’s a lot of stuff that happens under the influence of alcohol that would probably not otherwise have happened, so…

  2. You know you’ve got me stumped for once. It is very rare that I read a story with a lot of hints yet I have almost no clue what is going to happen (Though I do have a guess but only based off some of the hints. Her brother is verbally harassing her for being gay, but I’m not sure that is right.). This isn’t a bad thing! No I love it when this happens! I hate reading too many cliche ultra predictable stories! A very good chapter and I can’t wait for next week!

    One question though. Are you writing this every week or is it pre-written?

    • I write a chapter a week from scratch. I DO have a plot file which contains plot points and all the narrative progression that needs to take place in the chapter, though. I’m working from a framework, but, yeah: I open a blank document on Wednesdays 🙂

      And my lips are completely, completely sealed on what’s going on with Bree and her brother. 😉

  3. The plot thickens on Bree’s end, it seems. I quite like Sarah and hope she will remain a friend until the end, although she did not appear the Tomb Raider stories. Are those sequels, by the way, or more like AU crossovers with a book that simply hadn’t been written at the time of their creation?

    Poor Sarah, by the way, she just can’t compare to the force of nature that is Bree when it comes to forcing herself into other peoples lives.

    Had the same thoughts as kingsmexy on the verbal abuse she would suffer at the hand of her brother. Maybe it is more like him not actively insulting her, but rather being insulting towards LGBT people in general, which Bree, being in the closet, takes to heart and can’t speak out on. She is silent and her family is passively judging her and people like her without realizing and she just doesn’t feel safe and at home with her family.

    Would be my thoughts, at least.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    • Interesting hearing people’s thoughts about Bree and her family. Naturally I’m saying absolutely nothing 🙂

      My initial plan was that The Dreaming would remain canon for the characters… but professional advice I’ve been given since then has warned me against it. Maybe AU? Not sure what I’m going to do. I haven’t made a decision. I’m deferring making that until I finish Under My Skin.

      • Yeah, it does seem a bit south of the acceptable grey if it is canon. Not sure on the legality but to have fanfiction count as canon to your story seems a bit …. iffy xD

        AU seems to be the best solution to this. No lawyer or anything though.

  4. I’m a regular comic book reader, which means that every week I look forward to Wednesdays to get updates on all my stories. I mention this because the weekly chapter of UMS has become JUST as precious to me as any of my beloved comics! I love having yet another thing to look forward to one day a week!! (I love it so much I fear I will be inconsolable once UMS is done and there are no more weekly fixes!) So deepest thanks from someone who loves serialized story telling.

    Anyway, about the chapter….Oooooo, nothing is quite as heartbreaking as a Bree who is sad and tragic. 😦 It’s just *such* a sharp contrast to Bree’s normal operating mode. Min is not the only one worried about her, so for all our sakes I hope some answers will be revealed soon! (As long as we’re all making wild predictions about the source of Bree’s woes, I’ll take my own shot in the dark and say that Bree is in love with Courtney and her angst stems from the fact that Courtney is with her brother…although that wouldn’t explain all of Bree’s weirdness, IMO, so I expect I’m either completely off base or there’s more to the story).

    And how telling is it that Min has come to care for/worry about Bree so quickly? Min has a good heart. (Although I doubt it is *just* Min’s heart that is directing her thoughts & actions, no matter how much she may be in denial about it 😉

    And I’m so excited that Min accepted Sarah’s invitation for drinks! Because in an utterly predictable (make that basically inevitable) turn of events, I’ve totally started shipping them. 🙂 So I’m super excited to see all the ways in which you YET AGAIN refuse to bend to my will by having the characters hook up with all the wrong people. (Said as the hardest of hard-core Lara/Min shippers, lol)

    • “Min has a good heart. (Although I doubt it is *just* Min’s heart that is directing her thoughts & actions, no matter how much she may be in denial about it ;-)”

      Hah. I love how you phrased that 😉

      I think you might be a kind of masochist who is subconsciously drawn to shipping doomed ships. We all know from the Dreaming who ends up with who, so why are you doing this to yourself? Because you know they’re about to get drunk together ;D

      It’s interesting to hear everyone’s take on what’s going on for Bree. I don’t really like cliches that much (although I use them on occasion anyway), so I’ll be interested to hear what people think about what’s going on for Bree once it’s revealed.

      • Haha, masochism does seem like a logical conclusion to draw from my fondness for doomed-before-they-even-start ships. 🙂 Although I don’t actually want any of these (non-existent) “couples” together in a real/lasting relationship…I just want them to make waves in the sea of true love for the OTPs. So perhaps that puts me more on the sadism side of the spectrum? 😉

        I’m looking forward to further exploring the mystery of Bree! (My delicate feels, however, are a little more wary…)

  5. So I have theory. Bree is in love with Courtney, but Courtney is in love with her brother. Bree’s brother isn’t directly hurting Bree, but he is indirectly doing it by dating Courtney.

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