I shouldn’t have waited outside Bree’s school, I shouldn’t have. Courtney never messaged me back to tell me that she’d spoken to Bree, so really I had no cause to be here because Bree obviously wasn’t. So what was I doing here?
You are trying to catch Bree in the act of hiding things from you, Min, admit it, a voice answered me. Which is not fair, because Bree doesn’t have to tell you everything she does.
“Yeah, but it would be nice if she’d tell me anything she does,” I said aloud, and then realised I was talking to myself with my window down, parked outside a high school, and then felt really self-conscious.
People were already glancing nervously towards me anyway, because apparently young Asian guys didn’t park their scary black Lexuses outside Cloverfield very often. It was going to look even worse when she didn’t come, too, like I was some perv who was just here salivating over the hot high school girls in their short little skirts. I put my hands up on the steering wheel so people could see them, but it didn’t stop all the Landrover-driving white soccer mums from frowning at me like I had my tongue hanging out of my mouth over their daughters.
It serves you right for trying to trap Bree, I told myself.
I mean, what did I really think I was going to do when Bree didn’t show up? Did I really think I was going to go home and confront her over it? I couldn’t see myself doing that, because not only was it an enormous dick move, at some point Courtney would tell Bree I’d spoken to her. Then, it would be clear that I’d come here knowing there was the potential Bree wouldn’t arrive for the sole purpose of trying to force a confrontation with her later.
And, Min, that’s fucked, I realised. I couldn’t force Bree to tell me anything, no matter how much I worried about her. And yet, here I was, in the middle of trying to convince myself that I wasn’t an asshole prick, sitting outside her school when I knew she wouldn’t be—
“Oh my god, hi!” The passenger side door opened abruptly and gave me the fright of my life: I’d been looking out towards the gate.
Bree swung into my car with a giant grin on her face, and I must have jumped a mile because she laughed at me as she stuffed her schoolbag under her feet. “Sorry to burst in like that, but this is awesome! I didn’t know you were going to pick me up, too! Is this, like, payback for throwing you a surprise party yesterday? You’re picking me up from school by surprise?”
I gaped at her for a second. How was she….? “You’re here?”
She looked amused. “Um, yeah? Remember how it’s a school day you and dropped me off here this morning…?”
I was still trying to figure out how she got here if she wasn’t at school all day. Did she come back to school for some reason?
Bree reached across and gently closed my jaw. “Um, you do realise that when you do something for someone by surprise, you don’t actually need to also be surprised, yeah…?”
I gave her a look. She was clearly waiting for an explanation and if I told her anything other than the truth, I was going to look pretty fucking hypocritical, wasn’t l? “Courtney mentioned you weren’t at school, so I wasn’t sure you were going to get the message that I’m picking you up.”
Something passed over her face. In a second, it was gone. “Well, I’m here, aren’t I? I had some other stuff to finish so I had to miss a few classes, but I’m definitely here! See?” She didn’t let me ask what the ‘other stuff’ was, because she immediately donned that coy smile and gave me some serious bedroom eyes. “That is,” she said, pretending to be about to undo her shirt buttons, “unless you’re just imagining me…”
Yeah, I’m fantasising you tell me what’s going on, I thought, but just sighed at her and turned on the engine. She didn’t want to tell me, that much was clear. Maybe it was something embarrassing, then? To say Bree didn’t do that well at school was a serious understatement, so maybe she was taking remedial classes or something. I didn’t want to prompt her to tell me anything that might ruin her good mood. It was nice to see her happy.
“You look worried,” Bree observed, watching me from the passenger seat as we left the school. “Are you still worried about the messages? Were they all from your mum, or…?” She was trying her very best to look innocent.
She was the opposite of innocent, and I gave her a sideways glance. “I think you know the answer to that.”
She giggled. “Oh my god, I wondered if you’d actually listened to them or just deleted them!” she told me. “Yeah! I was going to wait until the party to sing to you but I decided it would actually be pretty awesome if you got off the plane and the first thing you heard was—”
“—someone shouting at me from across Arrivals?”
She made a face. “Well, you were supposed to listen to it before we met up. But, yeah, anyway. Who were the rest from? Were they from your mum after all, or, like, did Henry or someone leave some as well?”
I sighed. “No, they were from Mum.”
“Oh,” she said diplomatically. “Well, what’s she up to at the moment? Busy with your Grandma?”
“Calling Henry repeatedly when I don’t answer.”
“Oh,” she repeated, this time scrunching up her face.
“I know,” I sighed, and then reflexively checked my phone despite the fact I was driving and it was all sorts of illegal. “I called her this morning and left a message, but she hasn’t called me back yet, so that’s something to look forward to…”
“It will be fine,” Bree told me, patting the hand that was resting on the gear stick. “It’s just your mum. She’ll just want to wish you happy birthday and nag you a bit, it’ll be okay. So, anyway!” She said, changing the subject. “It’s Friday, and you know what that means?”
“That I’m stuck with you all weekend?”
She shoved me. “No,” she said. “We can go out somewhere because we don’t have to get up really early!”
“Don’t you have homework?” I asked, wondering if it would lead into a discussion about what she’d been up to all day.
It didn’t. “Uh, nothing I can’t leave until 9pm on Sunday night,” she told me. “Come on, look! The city is right there.” She pointed at an exit that was coming up on the M1 and started reeling off a long list of stuff we could do, but I didn’t change lanes until she got to, “And think about it, if your mum calls you back, it will be really loud and you will be out in public so it’s not like you can have a super long conversation with her, yeah?”
Good point. “Sold,” I said, and took the exit. “I was actually thinking we could do something else tonight, because we always go to the city.”
“You always go to the city,” Bree corrected me. “I hardly ever go, at least not until I met you. Anyway, I love the city, and not just because it’s where I met you, but also because it’s so full of people, you know? And half the people there are tourists and they’re always excited and happy, and that makes for a really great atmosphere.”
After we’d driven around and found a park, I had to agree with Bree’s assessment about the ‘great atmosphere’. While I was working at Frost, I could count the times I’d left before five on a single hand, which meant I’d never experienced a Friday afternoon in Sydney central. People were leaving work early and piling into bars and cafes for late afternoon drinks, and it was clear from the spring in everyone’s step and the laughter from outdoor dining areas that they were all relaxed and looking forward to the weekend.
It was weird not to be part of that crowd anymore – not that I ever had been, really. My weekends had always involved work, but that was because I had work. I wasn’t part of all these people who were going home or going out to relax and unwind, but their mood was contagious anyway. It was nice strolling hand-in-hand with Bree through it, not wearing heels, not wearing a dress and just generally enjoying the buzz.
“I always thought it was a really pretty logo,” Bree said thoughtfully, looking up at Frost HQ’s snowflake on the skyline. “Even before I found out you worked at Frost.”
I snorted. “Pity about the people who run it.”
“I know,” she said as we wandered past some shop windows. “I just think it’s pretty, and it would be cool to have a name that means something, too, and not just one no one can spell. ‘Lee’ must be great for that.”
“Sure. Everyone takes one look at my face and spells it L-I.”
“Still,” she said, swinging our arms. “It’s easier than ‘Dejanovic’. ‘Bree Lee’ sounds weird, though, doesn’t it? I’ll have to go by my full name after we get married, Briana Lee. That sounds way more balanced.”
After we get… I stopped in place in the middle of the footpath. “Bree, we’ve been going out for a month, don’t you think it’s a little early to start planning marriage?”
She rolled her eyes at me. “Don’t most serious relationships start with the kind of, like, unspoken expectation that you’re looking for someone to grow old with?”
“Yes. The unspoken expectation.”
“Yeah, well, I’m ‘spoking’ it,” she told me, not paying any attention to the people walking around us and eavesdropping, “because it’s silly pretending that’s not what we’re looking for, isn’t it? So, yeah, of course I expect we’ll eventually get married, and when we do, I’ll be Briana Lee.”
I don’t know why I was surprised Bree would openly talk about it; on what I’d come to recognise as our first date in that enormous and expensive restaurant in Darling Harbour, Bree had already asked me how many children I wanted, and then told me she wanted ‘heaps’. Still, with all the stuff that was going on with Mum and with Henry, I couldn’t even fathom marrying a girl. I couldn’t fathom marrying at all, not yet. I was only just recently free from a future where I was Henry’s wife and mother to Henry’s children.
It was a moot point right now, anyway. “Two females can’t get married in Australia,” I pointed out as we started walking again. “So no one’s officially taking anyone’s name just yet.”
Bree shrugged. “Well, that’ll change eventually,” she said. “And if it doesn’t, you lean towards ‘M’ rather than ‘F’, don’t you? So if you decide to go through the whole thing of getting your documents changed to that, we can.”
That was something I hadn’t even really considered so when Bree stopped again to admire some clothes in a shop window, I just looked at my reflection. I looked pretty ‘M’, didn’t I? Even if ‘man’ felt a bit… well, not exactly right? It was an interesting thought.
Bree got sick of the clothes and tugged me along the footpath again. I drew alongside her while she chatted about her school friends as if everything was fine and she wasn’t hiding something from me. When there was a break in the conversation, I commented, “You know, it’s pretty interesting what you choose to ‘spoke’ about and what you choose not to.”
“At least I’m not boring,” she said sagely. That made me laugh.
When we passed a mobile phone store, I stopped and Bree kept walking. I whistled at her to get her attention, and when she turned around, I nodded my head inside the shop. Her face lit up when she saw what it was, and she practically skipped over to me. “Really?” she said, “Really?”
She wrapped her arms around me and squeezed, gushed a big torrent of thank yous and then grabbed my arm to drag me in.
The sales clerk had watched that whole scene and was smiling to himself as Bree galloped up to him and said, “I need something, like, really cheap or really old!”
The clerk gave me a really baffled look. “Well, that’s a first,” he said to me. I chuckled along with him as he showed Bree a selection of handsets. In the end, she didn’t choose a really old phone, she just chose a Chinese brand I’d never heard of which did fortunately fit the criteria of ‘really cheap’. She made the clerk promise several times that no pawn store in Sydney would ever buy it. “We don’t even do warrantees for those here,” he told her. “We have to send them overseas to be fixed.”
It didn’t matter to Bree that she’d gotten some shit knock-off phone, though, she couldn’t wait to tear into the package almost the second we were out of the store. “Oh my god, I’m coming back to the twenty-first century!” She pulled the phone out of its package and smiled down at it. “And it feels so totally flimsy and light, too. Andrej won’t bother stealing it, I’m sure: it’d cost more to get a train to the pawn store than what he’d get for it.” She hugged me again. “Why are you so awesome?”
I shook my head. “Don’t thank me too much, it’s mostly self-interest,” I told her. “I just want you to always be able to tell me where you are if plans change.” I looked directly at her and there was supposed to be an implied so tell me where you were today, but either Bree didn’t notice it, or she just very skilfully ignored it.
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t have to buy me one in the first place if Andrej would stay out of the fucking casino,” she said, and sighed as we wandered into Hyde Park and settled down on the grass so she could play with her new toy. “It sucks that you have to spend so much money on me because of him.”
“So much?” I asked her. “Please, that was barely a hundred bucks. Just wait until you see what I got you from Broome.”
She looked up from her phone, a delighted smile growing on her face. “You bought me a present?”
“Nope.” As her face fell, I elaborated. “I did not buy you a present. I bought you several presents.”
She made a growling noise and smacked me gently with the box. “Oh my god, I hate it when you do that,” and when I went to be smart about the fact it sounded like she was telling me not to buy her presents, she just threw the whole packaging at me. “And I hate it when you do that! You know what I mean! Stop making fun of me when I say things wrong!”
I dodged the box, retrieved it and then lay back down on the grass while she read all about the features of her new phone in the booklet it came with, fingers laced with mine.
It was a really beautiful early winter evening; the grass was warm because the sun had been out all day, and as it set – a beautiful orange and pink behind the skyscrapers— people were milling around the fountain, taking pictures of each other in the fading light, and wandering arm-in-arm through the park. I watched traffic on Elizabeth Street start to turn on all their headlights, and shopfront signage begin to stand out against the darkening buildings. And I wasn’t at work, I wasn’t stuck in an apartment doing work, I was lying out in a park watching the sunset with someone who was… humming really out of tune. I chuckled to myself at that.
I was about to gently tease her about it, but my phone buzzed in my pocket. I guessed that Bree was pranking me so I could save her number, so I fished my phone out, glanced at it and started to say, “You know, if you want me to save your number, you’re going to have to turn on caller ID so I can—”
Bree was staring blankly at me. The words died on my lips when I looked down at her phone: the screen was blank, she hadn’t turned it on.
Fuck. I looked down at my own phone. “It’s Mum.”
Bree actually smiled at my reaction, the traitor. “It’ll be fine, I promise.”
I doubted that. “Sure it will,” I said dryly. “Well, it’s been nice knowing you.” She giggled as I took a deep breath and answered it.
“Min! Min, you actually answered for once! What a nice surprise!” My mother, the master of backhanded compliments. “You know, I keep forgetting that you’re unemployed now, it’s been so many years that you told me to wait until you’re home in the evening to call you…”
Of course, me being at work hadn’t actually stopped her calling me at all times of the day anyway. I didn’t point that out, though. It wasn’t worth correcting Mum, it upset her and in five years down the track she’d still be reminding me of that one time when I talked back to her as evidence that I was a bad daughter…
The depth of surrender must have shown on my face, because Bree giggled and rubbed my arm.
“Who’s that? Are you with someone? Where are you, is that traffic?”
I replied in English. “I’m in Hyde Park with a friend,” I told her. “We’re about to have dinner,” and to pre-empt her twenty questions, I added, “Her name’s Bree, yes, she’s white, but she’s baptised…” I looked at Bree for the answer.
“Serbian Orthodox,” she primly recited.
“…Orthodox,” I told Mum, conveniently leaving out that Bree was an atheist who never went to Church, as well as that she was 18, still at school, and that she had great breasts.
Mum made a non-committal noise. “Does Henry like her?”
What a question. I avoided it. “He cooked us both japchae a month or two ago and she loved it. Listen, it’s very loud here and I won’t be able to talk to you for very long. I wanted to know how Grandma is,” I lied, “is she doing better on her new medication?”
Predictably, Mum launched into the latest news about Grandma, and while my eyes were rolling in my skull and I was making encouraging sounds so she stayed on the subject, Bree sat up and gave me an appraising look. That concerned me.
“So, Min, why won’t Henry answer his phone?” At the mention of Henry, I snapped back to paying attention to Mum. “I called him and called him, is his phone broken? Thank goodness for your message this morning, I was so worried something had happened to you both, and on your birthday, too.”
While I was quickly trying to figure out how to answer that, Bree threw a leg across my lap and straddled me with a cheeky grin. When I faux-glared at her, she smirked and sat heavily on me. Then, she looked surprised. “Oh! You’re wearing the…” she whispered, looking down between us at my crotch.
“Min? Min? Are you there?”
I winced. “Um, yes, sorry Mum, it’s a bit loud here,” I apologised, directing a stern glare at Bree. “Henry’s really busy on some big projects and he’s trying not to be distracted. Sorry if he’s not answering his phone. He’s too polite to tell you he’s busy.”
Mum bought it. “Oh, of course he is. I’m sorry for distracting him, could you tell him sorry from me? I just read about a horrible car accident in Sydney and when you didn’t answer your phone I thought maybe you and Henry were in it…”
While she was telling me about this supposed accident, Bree settled back across my lap and then pretended to rock back and forth and toss her hair like we were openly having sex in the park.
I made a strangled noise and looked around us – it was probably getting a bit dark for anyone to see exactly what we were doing – but I grabbed a hold of her to stop her anyway. When I pointed a stern finger at her, she looked at it and then at me. I took it away from her before she could put it in her mouth.
“Listen, Min,” there was something about Mum’s tone of voice that was sobering, “you’re 26 now, you’re not a child anymore, and I won’t be around forever. I don’t want to always have to worry about what’s going to happen to you. I know Henry’s been thinking of proposing, and you need to find a way to convince him to do it, especially before you get pregnant. He’s very patient with you; too patient, I think. Most men would have left you a long time ago. You don’t treat him well and he deserves better.”
Ouch. “I know.” I closed my eyes for a second, and motioned for Bree to get off me. When she saw my expression, she did.
“Did you open the present I sent you in front of him? I was hoping you’d open it in front of him. Perhaps you could leave it somewhere when you visit him, to let him know that you’re ready and he can ask? He’d be so happy, I think. I think he really wants to marry you. You’ve got to stop wasting that, Min.”
He did really want to marry me, I thought, remembering that beautiful ring and the heartbreaking inscription on the inside of the box. And then I’d broken his heart.
I switched to Korean. Bree didn’t need to hear this. “Thank you for the present,” I told her. “But I don’t know if he’s as ready as you think to marry me. In Australia, lots of people date for a very long time, and some of them never actually—”
“—I know, Min, I used to live there, I know what it’s like. Look how many white people actually stay married, though; you shouldn’t take marriage lessons from them. I hope your Orthodox friends with their ‘You can get divorced any time you like’ Church aren’t giving you bad advice and that’s why you’re waiting too long.”
“No, Mum. They’re not. It’s my fault.”
She sighed. A silence stretched between us; all I could hear was the hum of traffic nearby. “Maybe I should come over there for a bit,” she said eventually. “Grandma would be sad, of course, but maybe you need a guiding hand about how to—”
All the colour drained from my face. With every fibre of my being: no! Mum could not see me like this! “Mum, no, please, it’s okay,” I told her, forgetting to speak Korean. “Don’t leave Grandma when she’s so sick, I won’t make you do that. I’ll work something out.”
“You’re my only daughter, Min. Your future is so important, and if it takes someone with wisdom and—”
“—Mum, please don’t leave Grandma. I would feel so guilty. Please, I’ll do it by myself, I promise.”
She made a disapproving noise and was silent for another few moments. Despite the fact I wasn’t the slightest bit religious, I felt like I wanted to pray she didn’t insist on coming. Please, I begged, please, please, please…
“Well, alright,” she said after several agonising seconds of deliberation. “But if he hasn’t proposed before his birthday, I think I really need to come and help.”
“I’m sure it will work out,” I told her, without the faintest fucking idea how it was possibly going to work out. “I’d better go to dinner. It’s lovely to talk to you.”
“Don’t eat too much,” she told me. “Henry says nice things about not caring if you get fat, but you can’t take any chances. Goodbye, Min.” She hung up.
I stared at my phone as the screen went dark.
Fuck. What was I going to do? What the hell was I going to do?
Bree cuddled up against my side and we lay there for a few minutes while I tried to figure out how on earth I was going to try and get out of this.
“Is she coming?” she asked quietly when I didn’t say anything.
I shook my head. “Not yet,” I said. “But if Henry doesn’t propose by July…”
Bree thought about that. “Telling her about you is, like, totally out of the question, isn’t it?”
I nodded slowly. “She wants to come and stay with me just to make sure Henry marries me. I don’t even know what she’d be like if I went, ‘Mum, I’m transgender, I’ve dumped Henry, and I’m dating a girl’.” I closed my eyes again. “Let’s just run away.”
Bree laughed. It was an empty sound. “I am so there right now,” she told me. “Home’s, like, a tiny bit better at the moment because Andrej is working and so far he’s been giving his wages to Dad. But, like, it’s like the universe has gone, ‘Hey, Bree, things are way too easy for you right now! We’re going to fuck shit up!’, because school is just…” I felt warm breath through my hoodie as she exhaled. “Yeah.”
I turned my head towards her. This was finally the right moment, wasn’t it? “Is that why you weren’t in class?”
She exhaled, and then looked up at me. The answer was clear. “Are you angry I didn’t just tell you?”
God, no. It was such a relief to be talking about it. “Not angry…”
“Just worried?” When I smiled wryly at her, she giggled a couple of times. “Of course you were.” Then, she lay her head back in the crook of my arm. “Sorry. I’m not doing it because I’m, like, I don’t know, lazy or—”
“Bree. I know.”
Her eyes were veiled as she gazed across my torso, tracing the print on my hoodie with a finger. “Like, on Monday we were supposed to do this stuff with Excel in maths, and Mr. Preston was like, ‘Everyone take out your laptops or your tablets!’ and I don’t have my laptop anymore, do I? So when he was like, ‘Bree, where’s your device?’ I couldn’t just go, ‘Sorry, my brother pawned it and gambled the money’, so I just was like, ‘Hee hee, I guess I forgot to put it in my bag this morning, silly me!’ and then he wanted to see me after class.”
I did not like where this was going, but I didn’t interrupt her.
“Anyway, so I stayed back and he’s all like, ‘Bree, tell me about why you’re at this school’, and what do you even say to that? So I just say some polite crap and then he’s like, ‘I know there are some financial issues, and you never pay attention in class, and you hardly do the homework, so, Bree, why are you here?’ And then he went on this long rant about the reputation of the school and how all the other students are dedicated and hardworking, blah blah, and he’s like, ‘I don’t understand why you’re wasting this opportunity and not even trying, Bree.’ And, seriously, I couldn’t say anything, because where do I even start? Like, how the fuck am I supposed to try and learn Excel when I don’t even have a fucking computer? I can’t even do research assignments and type my essays and stuff because I don’t have one, and even if someone did let me borrow one, I don’t have the Internet at home. I can’t fucking concentrate with my parents stomping around the house, and there’s no food there, and the phone’s always ringing because of debt collectors, and it’s like… how do you even explain all that to someone who just looks at you and sees a dumb blonde schoolgirl who’s lazy and gets bad marks?” She paused for a moment and let that hang in the air, before she continued. “And when I didn’t say anything, he’s like, ‘Or perhaps you should consider dropping down to vocational studies that are better suited to your abilities,’ which is basically like, ‘you’re too dumb to be here’. And so I was like, fuck this. Fuck everything. I’m not going to class, I’ll just go to the library and read stuff that’s actually relevant to my life in there, I don’t care. It’s not like I’m ever going to go to uni, anyway. None of it matters anyway because they’ll probably kick me out soon for not paying my fees, and I’ll never even finish my HSC.”
My lips were pressed in a tight line for most of the time she’d been speaking. What a fucking bastard. How could he teach Bree for years and know there were ‘financial issues’ and not be more sensitive to the fact there was obviously more going on for her? “That was the man by the gate this morning, wasn’t it?” I may have sounded a little bit angry.
Bree picked up on it. “Yeah, but don’t do anything, okay? Like, I mean it would be awesome if you could just totally punch him, but don’t.”
The sentiment was certainly there, but I had a better idea. Fuck him, and fuck anyone who thought she was stupid. “Come on,” I said as I stood, shelving the unsolvable crap with Mum for now in favour of a problem I could actually do something about. I let her collect her phone, and then pulled her up and began to drag her out of Hyde Park.
“Where are we going?” Bree asked, eyes wide.
“To give you a fighting fucking chance of proving that prick wrong and getting your HSC after all,” I said, fluttering the button at the pedestrian crossing, and then towing Bree across it.
“Okay…” she said, letting me. It wasn’t until we were standing outside the yellow windows of JB Hi-Fi that she stopped in place and shook her head at me. “No, Min…” she said, trying to stop me from pulling her toward the sea of laptops on display. “No, you don’t work for Frost anymore, you don’t have much money, you can’t!”
“I have nearly four grand,” I told her. “And Frost owes me something like seven or eight, maybe more, and that’ll come through soon. That’s plenty.”
“Yeah, but you shouldn’t spend it on me!” she said, “Especially not because of stupid Andrej stealing everything, that’s so fucked. There’s no point anyway, he’ll just steal it and sell it and you’ll have wasted all that money!”
“You can leave it at Sarah’s and just study there,” I told her. “Come on, it’s okay.”
She actually looked really upset. “It’s not okay, Min!” she told me. People were starting to watch us. “It’s not okay, I’m going to fail anyway! You’re going to totally waste all this money and I’m going to be kicked out and fail anyway!”
I took her face in my hands for a second. “Spending money on you is not a waste, Bree,” I told her firmly. “And you were right before. How are you supposed to try at school when you can’t even do the homework? Well, soon you’ll be able to.”
She didn’t say anything to that – I think she was trying not to cry – and she let me take her into the store. The clerk asked her some questions to try and figure out what she needed, and she answered them mechanically, looking completely spun.
In the end, we left the store with a convertible tablet that had a solid and colourful keyboard you could attach to it. Bree chose a pastel purple one that sparkled in the light, and she cradled the box all the way to the car.
We didn’t end up staying in the city for dinner, we got drive-thru on the way home instead. Bree ate it quietly in the passenger seat, hugging her two packages to her chest.
When we got back, poor Sarah hadn’t made it home yet, but Rob was watching footy and hollered a hello to us from the living room as we walked down the hall. I called back to him as I let Bree into my bedroom. She sat down on the bed with her two boxes, looking down at them.
Trying not to smile too much, I went over to my suitcase and took out a couple more boxes. “I think I mentioned presents…”
Her face crumpled. “No!” she said, but laughed miserably as she set aside the tablet and her phone to see what I had for her.
Honestly, when I was up in Broome, I had thought I’d secretly enjoy the opportunity to have some time to myself, and I did at first. After a few days, though, I started finding myself in gift shops holding plush pink dugongs, named shot glasses, and other cute things and thinking to myself, ‘Bree would love this!’, and since I didn’t have a reason not to buy her things, out came my credit card…
The plush pink dugong was a little over the top, and she laughed at it, hugged it, and put it with the laptop and the phone. The other bits and pieces, she liked, too.
It was when she got to the final present which was in a small oblong gift box that she paused. It was clearly jewellery. “I hope it’s not expensive,” she told me, sounding stern.
I didn’t say anything, I just grinned and motioned for her to open it. She did, looking really worried about what was inside. As she lifted it out of the box I watched her face closely, trying to determine if she loved it or hated it, because it wasn’t very colourful like the stuff she normally liked.
It was a sand-coloured pearl on a thin gold chain, simple and long enough for her to hide inside her school shirt, if she kept the buttons done up.
“There are pearls everywhere in Broome so I went on this pearl tour,” I said, explaining as I helped her put it on. “And after I’d learnt all about pearls, I had a really pathetically corny reason for getting this for you. On reflection it seems a bit stupid, so…” I held the pearl up beside her hair; it was the same colour. “Let’s just pretend that’s why I bought it for you.”
When I dropped it back against her skin, she looked up at me. “Tell me the corny reason,” she said quietly. “I don’t care if it’s really stupid.”
“It’s pretty damn corny,” I warned her, showing her how she could hide the pearl with her buttons closed. She opened them again so she could admire it nested in her cleavage. “The guide was saying that there are millions of pearls farmed every year, millions, and that no two pearls are the same. They’re all asymmetrical, and imperfect, and not quite circular,” I told her. “And despite these imperfections, every single one of those millions of pearls is valuable and beautiful because it’s unique. And some lucky person is going to pick up that imperfect pearl and hold it in their palm and realise it’s the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen, and then they’re going to love it, and treasure it, and proudly wear it so that everyone can see just how beautiful it is.”
Her eyes filled with tears as I spoke and she pulled me into a desperate hug. I let her put her arms around me as she mumbled thanks into my hoodie and didn’t emerge for a few minutes. I could feel the material was wet.
When she finally pulled back, her eyes were red but she was smiling. “You make me feel so good about myself,” she told me, looking down at the pearl. “Like, everything’s shit right now, but you always make me feel like it might end up being okay, after all.”
I smoothed the chain down on her neck. It really suited her. “Everything will be okay,” I said, returning her smile. “I know that because you keep telling me.”
She laughed soundlessly. “It’s not going to be okay, though, I’m not going to finish my HSC,” she said, sounding defeated. “You know that, don’t you? Even despite all of this? I’m doing really badly on all my assessments and it’s nearly the middle of the year. If my fees aren’t paid, the only reason to keep me in the school is if I do well and raise the average marks for the school ranking. That is, like, so far from ever happening it’s not even funny, which means I’m only still there because the school is waiting to get paid and they think Mum and Dad have heaps of money.”
“So we have to get your grades up,” I realised, remembering that 52% she’d showed me in April. Shit. I had to think. “Okay. Okay. Your exams aren’t until late October, right? That’s… five months. And if you’re not failing your assessments, you can still do moderately well from now, right?”
“Yeah, if I get, like, 100% on everything. Which is totally not going to happen, by the way. I am so behind.”
“Well, I was dux of my school, and Sarah is smart and has some pretty smart friends, I’m sure we can get you over the line in five months.”
Bree didn’t look convinced. “That’s if Cloverfield doesn’t kick me out after I hand in all the major assessment tasks at the end of semester and they’re all shit.”
I gave her a look. “Hey, if I can figure out how to convince my Mum everything’s fine between me and Henry before July, you can write some amazing assignments before then. But,” I said, standing up.
Bree looked up at me from the bed with those big blue eyes. “But?”
I put the box with the tablet in it on her lap. “But it means you’re not leaving stuff until 9pm on Sunday night. Come on, plug that thing in. Let’s see what we’ve got to work with.”