When we got back to Sarah’s, Bree was in the kitchen with a sleeping baby strapped to her front, two pots bubbling on the stove, and her tablet propped upright on the kitchen bench. She was absently stirring one of the pots as she stared at the screen; Netflix was open on it.
I kissed Bree’s temple and whispered so as not to wake Charlie, “New series?”
She shook her head. “It’s about climate change.”
I gave her an odd look. She’d never said much about it before. “Climate change?”
She was deathly serious. “It’s really important. Did you know Miami beach is probably going to be underwater by 2050?”
It was hard not to smile. “I did not.”
“Yeah,” she said emphatically, like she’d just delivered some catastrophic news that was going to ruin our big plans of buying a house in Florida. “Anyway, I couldn’t get the normal cheese for the pasta, so I hope you guys still like it.”
I was glad she didn’t want to tell me more about her show, because I had enough immediate problems in my own life without worrying about the future of the entire planet tonight. Before I could compliment her for how great her white sauce already smelt despite the substitute cheese, Sarah wandered into the doorway, shirt half-unbuttoned, and took a long, indulgent breath. Then, she opened her mouth to speak. Bree waved her hands frantically and pointed to sleeping Charlie.
Sarah made an ‘oh’ shape with her mouth and said quietly, “I’m going to need to wake her anyway. It’s dinner time for both of us.”
Bree dropped her arms. “Okay, but at least let Rob sleep a little longer.”
Sarah frowned. “Rob?” Bree pointed towards the living room. Sarah then leant backwards into the hallway and peered down it. Whatever she saw gave her rosy cheeks. “Be right back. I see today’s Instagram story asleep on the couch,” she whispered, and then disappeared.
Bree chuckled and gave the pasta one last stir. “It was like 30 degrees or whatever and he was gardening all day so I figured I’d leave him,” she explained, and then very gently tapped the spoon on the side of the pot to shake off the water and turned towards me. “So, what did Natalie say?”
I grimaced, remembering, and explained it all to her. “So,” I said after I’d gone over the important bits, “basically Sarah can be fired at any moment anyway, and the only thing I can do to save her is sue Frost.”
“You should sue Frost,” Bree told me immediately. “What they did to you was awful and they should pay for everything that you went through.” She paused. “Also if you sue them for, like, a really huge amount of money maybe they’ll stop emitting so much carbon, too.”
“I think I’d need to sue them for billions of dollars to stop them from emitting carbon,” I pointed out. “But, anyway, I think the designs I just finished will have to be the last campaign I do with them. It’s just too dangerous for Sarah.”
Bree looked less concerned than I’d expected her to be. “Good. Fuck them. You stress too much when you’re working for them, anyway.”
I frowned. She was missing my point. “You know that means we’ll be poor again, right?”
She shrugged. “Thanks to my fucking brother, I’m used to it,” she reminded me. “At least you’ll be poor because you left a toxic workplace and not because you stole your parents’ money and ran it through Sportsbet.”
I grimaced. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring that up.”
“You didn’t. I did. And it’s fine.” She put the spoon down and took my hands. “Like, it’s totally fine. I know it’s hard for you to find work because of what happened at Frost and because of the whole trans thing, but it won’t be hard for me. I mean, look at me.” She made an exaggeratedly cheerful face and said in a generic customer service voice, “Would you like fries with that?” moving her head in a way that made her blond curls bounce. When Charlie stirred, she hurriedly dropped the act, quietening down again. “You shouldn’t get work anyway. You need to start your Masters this year or you’ll lose your place in it.”
I frowned. “You mean you’ll work and I’ll study?”
She nodded. She was serious.
My face scrunched further. “What about your studies?”
She shrugged. “I don’t even know what I want to study, and I don’t want an enormous HELP debt for a degree I don’t even want. How long does a Masters of Fine Art take, anyway? Maybe I’ll have figured out what I want to do with my life by the time you’ve finished it.”
I wasn’t even tempted for a second, not after the way Mum worked to support me while I was studying. There was no way I’d let Bree go through the same thing, no way in hell. Besides, Bree wasn’t even 20 yet; she’d hardly make anything. A full-time job on a 20-year-old’s pay wouldn’t be enough to support us in Sydney, and pretty soon Sarah would need us to move out. I shook my head. “Noble suggestion, but it wouldn’t be enough.”
She made a face and went back to stirring the pasta. “I mean, nothing’s enough for Sydney. You’d need to rob a bank just to put down bond and first month’s rent here.”
Sarah appeared back at the door. “Good, don’t move out, then,” she said like it wasn’t inevitable. “I love Rob, but his cooking would legitimately kill me. Not that he’s not killing me in every other way, already. Check this out.” She held her phone at us to show us a video of him sprawled across the couch, fast asleep in an extremely unflattering position and snoring. “I can’t believe I bred with this great big oaf,” she said with a giant smile, and then tucked her phone away. “Okay, time for Baby Oaf’s dinner.” She made a ‘gimme’ motion towards Charlie.
Bree unclipped the harness and handed her over with practised ease. Already unbuttoning the rest of her shirt, Sarah accepted Charlie from her and then went to go feed her in the living room.
I turned back to continue trying to nut out how on earth Bree and I were going to survive the next year, when the back door slid open and a cheerful voice sang into the house, “Hi, guys!” The greeting was cut short by, “O-Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry, Rob! I didn’t think that you’d be—no! No, go back to sleep! Sorry! I didn’t mean to—oh, crap.”
Bree and I looked at each other and snorted. Gemma.
Figuring I’d better go be social, I gave Bree another peck on the forehead and let her finish dinner while I went to go say hi to Gemma.
Rob was rubbing his eyes and yawning as I got to the living room. “Hey, Gemma!”
Sarah’s voice was much drier. “Hey, Gem,” she said as Gemma stood in the middle of the room, looking mortified as usual. “Weird to see you on a training night. Where’s Soccer Girl?”
At the mention of her brand new girlfriend (yes, girlfriend), Gemma’s horror melted away immediately into a delighted smile. “Oh! Mikey has a dinner-thing tonight,” she said, already getting her phone out and walking over to where Sarah was feeding Charlie. “You want to see what she’s wearing? She looks super hot…”
Sarah looked genuinely interested at first—I even leant over to take a peek, myself—but then Gemma kept scrolling, and scrolling, with commentary like, “That’s what she was going to wear, that’s another thing she was going to wear… Oh my gosh, look at this awful shirt!” She pinch-zoomed on the tie. “Isn’t it awful? I mean, I know it’s like, cool to wear terrible 70s prints right now, but this shirt takes ‘awful’ to a whole other level, right?”
To all appearances, Sarah was smiling and nodding along to Gemma, but while Gemma was showing us a better photo of Mikey’s terrible shirt, she glanced up at me with an expression that said ‘Save me! Change the subject!’
I tried not to laugh. The shirt wasn’t even that bad, but teasing Sarah was always high up on my to-do list. “That is, without a doubt, a truly awful shirt, Gemma,” I said, looking directly into Sarah’s eyes. “Have you got any more photos of it to show us?”
Sarah gave me the look of ultimate betrayal.
Rob, oblivious as always, made everything worse for Sarah by wandering over and missing the point. “I think that’s an okay shirt?” he said. “I mean, yeah, it’s a bit loud, but she looks great in it!”
When the back door slid open, I was honestly expecting it to be Mikey in the offending shirt. It wasn’t. Standing at the back door with a very forced warm smile was Henry, wearing a very appropriate shirt. “Hello, everyone.”
I couldn’t resist taking a dig at him, anyway. “We’ve summoned Henry by talking about awful shirts.”
“If I’m wearing one, it’s your fault for picking it,” he told me, immediately loosening his tie and unbuttoning his collar because of Sarah’s lack of aircon. “Gemma lured me here with the promise of Bree’s cooking.” He’d said that loud enough for Bree to hear in the kitchen. Her face was probably cracking from the compliment, because Henry was an excellent cook himself. “If there’s enough, that is.”
Since this was Bree we were talking about, there definitely was enough. Bree catered like she was feeding a village, which meant there was always pressure to eat seconds. Tonight was no exception either, which meant after she’d stuffed us full of her personal mac ‘n cheese recipe, the next thing on the menu was a food coma. At least we all got a brief reprieve from hearing about how great Mikey was for the 400th time; not that it wasn’t a bit sweet to see Gemma forget how shy she normally was to openly gush about her new girlfriend.
I was trying to decide if I should stay at Sarah’s tonight despite the lack of aircon for Bree’s sake, when Gemma, who was slouched comfortably back on the sofa with her fingers laced across her stomach, asked, “So I assume, like, Natalie said everything would be okay, yeah? Otherwise you guys would have said something.”
Sarah and I glanced at each other. Her peaceful expression faded. “Not exactly.”
Gemma sat up. “Seriously? And you didn’t say anything?”
A tiny grin crept onto Sarah’s face. “Well, there wasn’t a break in the conversation for me to say anything.” She winked at Gemma, who looked immediately horrified and went bright red. Sarah didn’t let her flounder for long. “Kidding, Gem. I think I was still processing it, to be honest? I don’t really know what to say. I mean it wasn’t terrible news,” she said, and then told the others the abbreviated version of what happened with Natalie. “So, I guess I need to lick Frost boots so no one has any reason to fire me.”
“And I need a non-Frost job,” I added.
Gemma looked amused. “You’ve been saying that for an entire year.”
“And now I mean it, because I don’t want them to find out I’m the graphic artist Sarah’s been apparently sleeping with.”
“Or just be super careful and keep contracting,” Gemma countered, “and if they find out and try to fire Sare, you can sue them like Natalie said, and then Sare won’t get fired and you’ll also get loads of money.”
“If Natalie wins the court action.”
Gemma scoffed. “Pretty sure when she wants something, she gets it.”
I had a feeling Gemma might be a little biased on that front. “I’m really not willing to risk Sarah’s career in order to find out if you’re right.”
Sarah had been listening to our exchange. “I mean we got away with it for a year already,” she pointed out. “And I don’t know why they would find out? We just have to be a bit more careful about communicating.”
No. I was not going to have this anvil hanging over my head. I was sick of living under constant pressure. “This is the last project. Once it’s over, that’s it. I’m not going to be the reason you lose your job.”
Sarah made a face. “I mean, I guess it’s your call?” Thinking about it further, though, she made a noise. “Ugh. That means I’ll need to find another graphics contractor. You’d better at least help me choose one for the next project, assuming I get Lead again and they won’t just demote me because I had one of these.” She gestured at Charlie who was sleeping soundly against her chest.
Henry shifted uncomfortably at that, and stood. “Plates?” he said, and then made a show of collecting everyone’s dishes and transporting them to the kitchen. I helped, because the thought of doing nothing while Henry washed up after a dinner Bree had cooked in Sarah’s house made me feel guilty.
“Thanks,” Henry said as we rinsed off the dishes and stacked them in Sarah’s new dishwasher. Then, while I was inspecting the contents of the fridge to see what extremely cold drinks I could find in there (and, to be honest, finding any excuse to spend ages standing in front of an open fridge in this heat), he spent a moment sort of awkwardly watching me.
I grinned over my shoulder. “Want to join me in Antarctica while no one’s looking?”
“Sure, why not?” he fired right back, but didn’t actually move closer to the fridge. “It’s big, cold and deserted. It’ll be just like home.”
My eyebrows shot up. That was unexpected.
I rushed to try and think of something to lighten that blow, but before I could, he made a face and put up a hand. “Sorry. Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, that was unfair of me. It’s just been a long week.” He gave me a very strained and very staged smile. “Yes, I’ll join you in the cool for a moment.” He walked right up next to me to stand in front of the open fridge and consider the drinks inside it.
Stiff as a board, I watched him out of the corner of my eye. It must have been a very long week for him to come right out and say something like that. I didn’t think I’d noticed him being more stressed out than usual, but then again, I’d been obsessed with my own bullshit like I always bloody was. Had something happened?
I took a breath. “Do you want to head back to your place?” I offered. “Bree won’t mind, and we can chill together and play some—”
“Bree will mind if I steal you every night,” he said, taking a diet coke out of the fridge door and giving me a pleasant smile I could see right through. “It’s fine, you don’t need to worry about me. I’m just tired.” He went to walk out of the kitchen.
I stopped him, because I didn’t believe him for a moment. “Did something happen today?”
He gave me his patented look. “Min.”
I tried to think what it could have been. “Was it something Natalie said?” She’d been pretty cutting to him.
He actually laughed a bit at that. “Believe me, Natalie’s always like that. I’m used to her,” he told me, and then put his free hand reassuringly on my arm. It was sweaty, but that could easily have been the heat. “It’s fine, Min, my joke was just a little harsher than I had originally—”
I eyed his hand. He only did that when he wanted to end a conversation. “It is Natalie.”
He sighed. “No, it’s not Natalie.”
His sweaty hand said otherwise. “Did she say something to you in the car on the way back to her office, or…?”
“Apart from her endless nagging about getting you to sue Frost, no,” he said, patting me. “She actually offered to lend me a book she’s been enjoying, and she wanted to discuss it.”
I squinted at him. Even though he loved reading he hardly ever had time to read anymore, and when he had the time, he didn’t have the energy. Given the amount of time Natalie and Henry spent together, I could reasonably assume Natalie knew that. The whole thing seemed very fishy.
Before I could point that out and ask him what was really going on, Bree came bustling into the kitchen, leading with, “Hey guys! You want to see the ice cream I picked up at the—” She stopped in her tracks, noting our expressions. “Wait. Did I just interrupt something?”
Henry shook his head dismissively, giving Bree a pleasant smile. “Just rehashing some things Natalie said today. Nothing private.”
Bree’s expression relaxed. “Oh, right. Good.” She put her hands on my hips, gently moving me away from the fridge so she could open it and take the ice cream out of the freezer. “Want some?” she asked us, nodding at it as she popped it on the counter and pulled out a spoon.
My stomach turned. The combination of the extreme heat and the fact I’d just eaten four times my daily calorie intake in cheesy pasta form was a lethal combination. “You know that scene in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life where the guy’s eaten so much that he has one single thin mint and he just explodes everywhere?”
Bree looked blankly at me. “No.”
Well, then. I felt a hundred years old. Across from me, Henry laughed. “I know the scene, and that’s exactly how I feel, too,” he said, giving Bree a warm smile. “The problem with your pasta is that it’s so good that I eat too much of it. I’m going to need to go jogging in the morning again.”
Bree preened at that. “Just wait until you see what flavour I got before you say ‘no’, though: chocolate mud cake!” She ceremoniously opened it clearly hoping to entice us, but just the smell alone was enough to make me feel ill. “I bet you can find room for it now!”
Only if Sarah could find room in her house for my bloated corpse. Henry also looked queasy. “Tempting,” he said, deadpanning, “but it turns out at this exact minute I’m actually leaving.”
Bree rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said. “But once Rob knows it’s here it won’t be here for long.”
I hoped it wouldn’t be. That smell was going to feature in my nightmares. “I’m going to show Henry out,” I said to escape, and followed him out to his car after he’d thanked Bree for the dinner and Sarah for having him.
It actually wasn’t too hot outside tonight; the air was still a little warm but the fact the air was moving made it less suffocating. My shirt and binder were a little damp from earlier, and the breeze cooled them.
I opened the car door for Henry while he felt around in his suit jacket for his phone. I was wrestling with the urge to needle him further about what was bothering him, but he’d been so intent on claiming everything was fine earlier I eventually decided there probably wasn’t much point. Henry was a fucking vault when he didn’t want to discuss things. I wasn’t going to change that by nagging him, I’d just end up annoying us both. Maybe he’d tell me later. Exhaling at length, I somehow managed to not bring it up again. “Thanks again for getting Natalie to consult with us.”
He smiled briefly. “You’re most welcome. Sorry it wasn’t exactly what you wanted to hear.”
“I still prefer knowing to not knowing,” I told him, giving him a brief, sweaty hug. “Thank Natalie for me?”
He snorted. “She’ll say you can thank her by suing Frost.” He shut the door, turned on the engine and wound down the window a little. “If you get sick of no aircon, you know where to find me,” he said mildly. “You have a key. You don’t need to call ahead.”
That made me feel guilty. I knew I probably should stay with Bree tonight, but I felt awful about letting him drive off alone after his earlier comment. I saluted him, anyway. “And if you get sick of peaceful and calm surroundings where no one is having an anxious meltdown, you know where to find me.”
He laughed again, gave me a mock-tired look, and then wound up the window, driving back home to his big, cold, deserted home.