This story takes place after the books Under My Skin, Flesh & Blood, and Solve for i. You can read about how to buy or obtain these books here.
Time of Death: 5:14pm, January 19. That was when Henry’s aircon spluttered, groaned, and finally lost its gallant fight against the Sydney heatwave. On a day like this, it was only a matter of time before I followed it to the grave.
Sweating like crazy, hunched over my tablet at the palatial island bench between Henry’s kitchen and living room, I could actually see steam rising off the swimming pool in the backyard and distorting the air above it. My laptop was struggling, my thighs kept getting stuck to the leather stool, and every time I went to get a glass of water from the tap, the water got progressively warmer. It was like the whole world was on fire. The end was nigh. My last wish was that I finish this Frost project before I keeled over and got Sarah into trouble for presenting half-finished graphics to her team.
Henry had it easy: he got to work twelve-hour days in Frost International HQ’s beautifully climate-controlled office which he drove to in his luxury climate-controlled car. Meanwhile, I was stuck at his house feeling guilty about his skyrocketing power bills and trying to avoid using the aircon as much as possible.
At the beginning of the heatwave, I did make a reasonable attempt to give Henry’s bills a break and sleep at Sarah’s. However, since Sarah had finally had Charlotte, it meant that I not only had to contend with how social and chatty my girlfriend Bree and Sarah’s boyfriend Rob were, but also with a baby that had inherited Sarah’s lungs and joy of loudly using them. I got no work done in that place, and with Sarah’s shitty evaporative cooler, it was way hotter inside than Henry’s was.
Now that Henry’s aircon had passed, though, giving Sarah’s another shot was becoming more and more attractive, even with this pile of unfinished work that was due in—I glanced at the time on my screen—60 hours.
At hour 57, Henry arrived home to his new house-sized sauna. I heard him open the door, but he didn’t even make it through declaring, “It’s just me!” before he stopped, was silent for a moment, and then followed up with his signature, “Hmm.”
“Told you,” I called back, in the middle of resizing some text on my tablet. “It’s completely dead. It won’t even turn on.”
In my peripheral vision, I could see him wander into the living room, suit jacket off and fanning himself with a newspaper. “I gather you tried to get a technician?”
“No one available until Tuesday.”
He made a face. “Perhaps I should take a look at it. Maybe there’s something I can do.”
I snorted. I very much doubted his particular set of skills was going to be useful. “Sure,” I said. “You could ask it about its childhood.”
Henry rolled his eyes at me. “I’m not that useless with appliances.” He went out back to make an attempt at fixing it, but returned with his shirt plastered to him and looking more confused than he had before he left. He stopped in the doorway. “Gentle encouragement didn’t work.”
I snorted. “Tuesday it is, then.”
Henry didn’t look very happy with that answer, but he didn’t say anything about it. Thoughtful, he just walked over to the table to collect his briefcase. “Speaking of things that are going to be my cause of death, I’ve got something you’re going to love.” The way he said ‘love’ suggested I was going to do the opposite, so when he dumped the newspaper he’d been fanning himself with on my tablet, I was already suspicious.
I had good reason to be. Staring back at me from the page was the smiling face of Sean Frost, sitting forward on a park bench with his fingers laced, wearing a combination of jeans and a nice-but-casual shirt that 20 PR reps probably spent a week researching for maximum impact. The headline was, “CEO Sean Frost: I quit for my kids.”
For one beautiful, magical second, I thought it meant he’d quit working at Frost International. Sean spent so long masquerading as a thoughtful boss while quietly undermining Henry behind the scenes that hearing he’d quit Frost would have been something worth celebrating, even without aircon. However, I quickly realised that if it were such a joyous occasion, Henry would have arrived home with a multi-tiered cake, half of Dan Murphy’s, and handful of party streamers rather than just a briefcase. “I gather it doesn’t mean ‘quit Frost’?”
Henry shook his head, nodding at the paper for me to keep reading it.
When I gave it a second look, I noticed the ‘Quit’ anti-smoking campaign logo, and more about Sean’s ‘healthy choice’. The piece was all about how Sean had really loved smoking and how he’d associated it with spending time with his father, blah blah, but now that he had four children, he realised his health was too important. There were photos of them on the opposite page—four tiny blonde versions of him—and a picture of him with an arm around his ex-supermodel wife. They were all so picture-perfect that it looked like a stock photo; I almost expected to lean in and be able to see a watermark.
I had two thoughts about the article. Firstly, it was so clearly Frost propaganda I felt dirty being within 10 metres of it. Secondly, it was such a work of PR art that it managed to make the CEO of a company who everyone knew was about to offshore hundreds of jobs seem kind and sympathetic. Any marketing team would have been very proud of it. So, from a marketing point of view it was spectacular; it was just that looking at that asshole’s smiling fucking face made me want to gag. Aside from his role in forcing me out of Frost, he’d been trying to push Henry out of his position as HR Manager for years.
Yuck. “Well that’s dinner ruined,” I said, and passed the paper back to him. I could imagine my expression. “And if you’re wondering, Marketing had nothing to do with this. If that photo came across my desk with an instruction to airbrush it, he’d look very different.”
He grinned. “Well, naturally I know nothing about you doing sneaky contract work for Frost Marketing,” he reminded me, “but after listening to everyone gush about him all day at work, I was looking forward to sharing this with someone who actually knows what he’s like.”
“And now that you’ve shared it, let’s donate it to Gemma for her cat’s litterbox.”
That made him laugh. He gave the article another disgusted once-over, threw it on the table, and went to have a quick shower.
I didn’t get very far on the graphics while Henry was gone; aside from the fact Henry’s living room was only two or three degrees shy of slow roasting me to perfection, Sean’s big PR push was worrying. As a marketing clerk, I recognised a campaign launch when I saw one. Henry returned while I was trying to figure out what that campaign could be, and he pulled out the stool beside me at the kitchen bench, and flopped into it. Despite the fact he’d only come out of the shower, there were already beads of sweat on his lip. He wiped them off with a frown. “I don’t think we’ll make it until Tuesday without aircon.”
I agreed, but I didn’t really know what we could do about it. “I literally phoned every accredited tech above 3 stars on Google. Half of them had full voicemail boxes.”
Henry looked like he was ready to try the two- and one-star guys. Suddenly, his brow lifted. “Let’s ask Rob.”
Rob? I sat back to consider that. It wasn’t a terrible idea; tradies always had tradie friends—perhaps he could pull a favour and get someone to come around earlier? “It’s worth a shot, I guess.”
I’d only ever called Rob direct a few times, though, so I called Sarah instead. Her phone rang to voicemail. While I was staring at my phone and wondering if I had the guts to ring Rob directly, a text message from Sarah came through. ‘Guess who’s still at work and stuck in meetings?’ It read. ‘It’s some loser doesn’t know how to say ‘no’ apparently. RIP. If it’s about the graphics I can call you in sec when everyone’s back at their desks’.
I grinned and tapped ‘reply’. ‘No, it’s fine, I was going to ask to speak to Rob if you were home.’
‘You know he has his own phone, right? ;)’
I groaned. I could actually hear the tone of voice she’d say that in. ‘My god, you bought him a phone? Next he’ll be wanting his own bank account and the right to vote. Then, there’ll be no one at home to cook and look after Charlotte’. Over my shoulder, Henry snickered.
‘I’m telling Bree you called her ‘no one’ 😉 PS something NUTS happened at work today, I’ll tell you everything when I get home.’ I raised my eyebrows at that: ‘nuts’?
When it was clear the conversation was over, Henry leant back from me. “I can call Rob if you like. We don’t know each other that well but—”
“No, it’s fine, I’ll do it,” I promised. My finger hovered over Rob’s name in my phonebook for a second before I realised Bree would be with him. I called her instead.
She answered after half a ring. “Min,” sounding like I felt, “we’re dying here. Sarah’s aircon does nothing. There’s only one fan and we put it on Charlie while she’s asleep so she doesn’t overheat but now we’re dying. Can you ask Henry if we can come over and sleep there? Tell him we’ll bring food if he says yes!”
Even though he wasn’t leaning over me anymore, Henry heard her. Chuckling, he nodded at me.
Like there was any chance of him saying they couldn’t come; Henry was another one of those people who struggled with ‘no’. “I mean you can come over if you want,” I told her, “but we don’t have aircon either and it’s not much better. We were actually hoping if you could ask Rob if he knows anyone who can fix it?”
Henry’s eyes twinkled. “Oh, he’ll know someone.”
While I was squinting suspiciously at him, Bree said, “Yeah, I’ll ask him,” and I could hear her talking to him in the background.
Rob was probably quite far away from the phone, but his booming voice carried easily through the receiver. “I mean it’s been a decade or something but I can have a go? I wasn’t licenced or anything when I did it, though. Make sure Henry knows that.”
There was a pause, and Bree came back to the phone. “Um, he says he can do it himself.”
So that’s what Henry meant. “Okay,” I told Bree, “come over and bring Rob then.” We said goodbye and hung up.
Henry was giving me that sweet butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth smile again. I didn’t buy it for a second—he’d known that would be the answer. I didn’t think this technically constituted ‘using his HR Manager Powers for Evil’, but it did make me wonder other details he remembered about all of us. “Are you serious?” I asked him as soon as I put the phone down. “Did you literally memorise all of our resumes?”
He laughed. “When the Frost Energy mine closed last year I double-checked Rob’s resume to see if we could redeploy him somewhere else. I don’t normally remember everyone’s entire work history, I promise.”
I scoffed. “No wonder Sean hates you,” I told him. “You know too much.”
He laughed again. “That’s not why he hates me,” he said mysteriously, but didn’t elaborate as he stood up and headed for the back door. “I’m going to give the plants a drink and get the pool ready before the others arrive.”
I had opened my mouth to tell him I was happy to do all that for him since he’d just worked all day, but he was already outside. There was no point in going out there and helping him, either, because he’d just give me one of his knowing looks and be like, ‘I’m happy to do this, Min. You don’t need to feel guilty,’ and shoo me away.
So, instead of going out there and feeling guilty while helping him, I sat in here and stared at my tablet and felt guilty while not helping him, and also didn’t make any progress on my Frost consulting work because of the guilt. To make myself feel better, I tidied my crap out of the living room and emptied the dishwasher.
Bree and Rob must have just about been ready to leave when I called, because they arrived on the dot of thirty minutes later. Rob’s horrible old ute rattled into Henry’s driveway, and two seconds later I could hear a baby crying and two people good-naturedly arguing about that. The doorbell rang.
I opened it to having a bunch of bags immediately dropped in my arms. “Hey Min!” Bree told me as I struggled with them, yanking me down with her free hand to plant a quick kiss on my lips. Then, she bustled past me with Charlotte in her other arm, expertly ditching her pink Havaianas for the guest slippers.
At a less whirlwind pace, Rob appeared at the door. “Thank heaps for having us!” he told me, like it was my house and not Henry’s. “It’s a nightmare at Sare’s at the moment, a real nightmare.”
“Ugh, it’s kind of a nightmare here too,” Bree realised, turning around to give me this scandalised expression like I hadn’t warned her. “Does Henry have a fan somewhere?” she asked, and then disappeared off into the bedroom part of Henry’s house to search for it before I told her where to look.
Rob stood at the door. “So what’s wrong with the beast?” he asked me, presumably meaning the aircon. “Is it the compressor, or?”
I looked blankly at him. ‘Compressor’?
He gave me a hearty laugh and clapped me affectionately on the shoulder so hard that I nearly dropped the bags. “Never mind! Is it out back?” I nodded, and he went out the front door, grabbed a jangling toolbox that was caked with tradie-related filth from out of his truck, and went right through the side gate and out to the back where Henry was. I heard them greet each other as Henry presumably showed him ‘the beast’.
After I’d carried Rob and Bree’s bags to the guest rooms and the takeaway to the kitchen, Bree returned with a fan in one arm and Charlotte in the other, and then dumped Charlotte in my arms while she fixed the fan up across from me at the bench.
Charlotte took one look at me and started crying. I looked to Bree in panic.
Being the traitor she was, she laughed. “She’ll be fine,” she said, finishing with the fan. I tried to give Charlotte back to her as she came back to the kitchen, but she neatly avoided me. “You’ll be fine, too,” she said with a wink, and then started unpacking some of the bags and putting stuff away in the fridge. “Just, like, distract her or something.”
Distract her? I looked into the wide open, toothless mouth in front of me. I had no idea what constituted a distraction for a one-month old, so I just jogged her up and down a little bit the way I’d seen Henry do with his sister’s kids a hundred times. It did nothing to calm her down.
I watched Bree taking her sweet time in the kitchen. “Are you doing this to torture me?”
She gave me an impish grin. “Look. I’d be lying if I said it’s not hilarious,” she told me. “But mostly, I’m doing it because it’s good for you. You’ll be doing a lot more of that in the future.”
I made a face at her. I didn’t really like thinking about having kids—which she knew—because that anvil had been hanging over me the whole time I’d been with Henry and it was nice to be free of it. Besides, I sort of figured that if Bree and I ever had kids, she’d carry them and be the mum, and I’d just work 100 hours a day or however many hours you needed to work to afford a rental house in Sydney.
I mean, we were poor as hell right now: since I left Frost, I couldn’t even afford to rent my own place. Even the consulting work I was doing on the side wasn’t enough of an income to move out of my friend’s houses. Kids were the very last thing I wanted to be preparing for; I hadn’t even started the art course I’d been desperate to do at uni yet. I couldn’t afford to. I still felt a bit like a kid myself.
Kids were something Bree wanted, though, which is why she was happy to help Rob learn how to look after his daughter now that he was a house husband—or house boyfriend, or whatever. There was apparently a lot to learn, because Charlotte was still wailing.
As I was trying to figure out if her nappy was full or something, there was a loud metallic clunk from outside, and then a hum above us as the aircon slowly powered on. From outside, I heard Rob and Henry cheer.
“Oh, thank fucking god,” Bree said as the vents began to blow air. “I swear I was ready to just camp in front of the fridge all night. I’m so done with summer already.”
Seeing me smile at Bree, Charlotte quietened down for a moment and stared at me. Then, she started crying again.
She was still crying with Henry and Rob jubilantly returned to the living room. I must have looked stricken, because Henry laughed and finally relieved me of her. The moment he did, she had the audacity to immediately settle.
Even if I was slightly insulted by it, it was still a relief. “Maybe it’s a good idea we didn’t have kids,” I told him.
Henry laughed. “It’s not personal,” he promised me. “Babies can smell fear.”
Bree piped up from the kitchen where I could hear the clink of crockery. “Plus you haven’t been around that much since she was born so she doesn’t know you yet.” She emerged with four plates of food, two of them expertly balanced on each of her arms in a way I’m sure she’d learned from YouTube. “I hope Thai is okay? I’m a bit over Maccas.”
Any food that was delivered directly to the bench in front of me was fine by me, so we got stuck into it while Charlotte, who obviously was completely at home on Henry’s shoulder, decided a nap was the go.
I’d just finished messaging Sarah about dinner at Henry’s when Bree, who’d been monologuing about her day between mouthfuls, made a startled noise. Her eyes were on the newspaper in the centre of the Island bench. Hastily swallowing, she reached over and pulled it towards her to read. “What?” she said, eyebrows rising. “Did he finally decide to quit being such a piece of fucking—oh.”
I laughed once. “Unfortunately, no. The opposite: he quit smoking which means we’ll probably have to put up with him being like that for even longer.”
Bree scrunched up her face. “Rats,” she said, and began to read it aloud in a somewhat mocking tone. “’I’ve been tossing up making the call for ages, but that blood pressure reading was the clincher for me. I knew it was time to put my family’s future first.” She made a disgusted noise. “I love how this article is trying to make us believe Sean Frost cares about anyone except himself.”
Henry’s expression was unreadable. “Well he certainly talks a lot about loving his wife and kids.”
Bree considered that for a moment, tapping a fork against her mouth as she scrutinised the photos. Eventually, she wrinkled her nose. “I mean, I hate to say it, but he also kind of looks like he loves them?” She held up the paper to show us. “His kids seem pretty happy to be all over him, and he looks pretty comfortable, so maybe it’s not all talk?” She turned the paper back around towards herself. “Okay, so he’s a total fucking snake at work but sometimes people are different at home. My friend Priya’s dad is like that. Like you’d never know he’s a parking inspector if you met him at the dinner table. He seems really nice.”
I looked at the photo of Sean cradling his youngest, the 9-month old: she wasn’t crying like Charlotte had been with me. She looked completely comfortable with him, which suggested he probably held her reasonably often, right? I made the same face Bree had. As much as I didn’t want to consider it, I supposed it was possible that he had his family fooled the way he’d had me fooled for years: believing that he really was just a lovely generous man.
I wondered what his sister and co-CEO Diane Frost made of all of this. She’d certainly alluded a few times to what a terrible husband and father Sean was; although that might have been because they bitterly hated each other.
“Could I have a squiz?” Rob held his hand out for the paper, and Bree passed it to him. He spent a moment glancing through it. “This guy’s the one who Sares thinks is sleeping with the asshole Marketing manager right? The one who practically got you fired, Min?”
I nearly choked on my food; of course that’s what Sarah and Rob had discussed about him. ‘Asshole marketing manager’? “Jason? Yeah, that’s him.”
Rob considered the photos of Sean and ‘model-go-mum Belinda O’Dougherty’ for a few seconds. From his expression, it was very clear what his assessment of Sean was. “With four young kids too,” he said, shaking his head. “What a time to do the dirty on your wife.”
Henry and I glanced at each other. Henry, ever the professional, gave me a stiff head-shake; I supposed discussing his boss’s sex life around him crossed a line. Bree noticed Henry’s headshake too and dropped the subject. Accepting the paper back from Rob, she finished her dinner while considering the photo of Sean and Belinda.
When her plate was clean, she chucked the paper back in the centre of the bench. “I can’t believe a fuckhead like Sean gets to have such a nice family,” was her conclusion. “There’s no justice in the universe.”
I looked over at Henry with Charlotte fast asleep on his shoulder. She was right. If there was any justice, Henry wouldn’t be living in a big family home with three empty bedrooms while Sean-fucking-Frost had all of his filled. Everything in Henry’s place was child-friendly and spill-safe, all the power-points had safety covers and all the furniture had round edges. He said that was because his sister brought her kids over all the time, which was also true—but one of the things I’d been aware of back when I was dating him and assuming I was a woman was how much he wanted kids.
Sean knew it, too. It was probably why he made a point of mentioning his ‘beautiful children’ around Henry all the time.
My lips were pressed in a tight, thin line when a felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up the arm; it was Henry’s. He gave me a reassuring smile. “I’m putting Charlie down to sleep,” he said gently enough to not wake her, and had only just stood up when the sound of another really ancient car rattled into the driveway. Two seconds later, the sound of Jimmy Choos came clacking across Henry’s porch, the door burst open, and the sound of guest slippers came swishing down Henry’s polished hallway.
Sarah erupted through the mouth of the open living room, dumping her Chanel handbag on the island bench in front of us with uncharacteristic urgency. It was odd: she was normally exhausted after work, not jogging down other people’s hallways.
Before greeting us, she held out her arms. “Okay, yes, yes, hi everyone,” she said very dismissively. “You won’t guess what happened at work today,” she announced, looking right at me. “Jason quit.”