Carolyn only shrugged. “Exactly the same you did for her mother, I’d imagine,” she replied coolly. “Book a nice hotel, pay her for her trouble and send her on her way. I would have thought you’d have got a handle on that pattern by now.” After a minute under Gordon’s heavy gaze, she sighed. “Why would I willingly want your bastard under my roof?”
She knew they were the wrong words, even as she said them. When Carolyn stuck her fingers in a wound, she did it purposefully.
The effect was immediate. Gordon’s spine snapped straight and his fingers knotted into fists. “My roof,” he growled. “My money, my kid, and I’ll put her wherever I damn well please.”
“Yes, of course, because if she has your name that automatically equates her to property.”
Another moment of frosty silence and Gordon changed tactics. “Soon as this is all sorted,” he said levelly, “we’ll ship her out and that will be that, okay?”
Carolyn didn’t bother to keep the sneer from her voice. “So good to know you’ve thought this through.”
Slowly, Gordon rounded his desk and crossed the carpet to her. “You said it yourself, sweetheart. She’s a bastard. A mistake I told you about years ago.” He stooped to catch her eyes, and when he spoke again his voice was sweetly soft. “I’m not going to let her get in the way of us, all right? Just you, me, and Arthur. Just like always. She’s not going to change that. You won’t even know she’s here.”
Haley Shappey was caught in limbo. She was more alone in the world now than she had ever been. Worse than dead, she was unwanted and she knew it.
She didn’t try to fit into the house, didn’t carve out a space for her own. The bedroom was the least Gordon could do, so that’s exactly what he did. She didn’t go and explore what was technically her home now. She didn’t even unpack. This wasn’t permanent. She wasn’t here because she was loved. She was here because Gordon had to clean up his mess and she had nowhere else to go. She couldn’t even call herself a proper orphan, but she didn’t have a family.
She didn’t leave her room any more than she absolutely had to and wondered that night just before bed if living was even worth it.
Two days later, she nicked a knife from the butcher’s block in the kitchen and hid it under her mattress. Behind the locked door of her bedroom that night in the quiet and the lamplight, she cut carefully into the soft flesh of her forearm and drained the pain from her veins so she could breathe. She didn’t get a drop of blood on the sheets. After, she wrapped her arm in gauze and pulled her sleeves down. Sleep came, dark and deep. It was enough.
Haley only explored the house when it was absolutely empty. Carolyn had gone out and Gordon had never come back… gallivanting off to Moscow she’d overheard. She didn’t keep track. He hadn’t been around for fifteen years. She didn’t miss him.
In the sitting room, she ran her fingers over the grand piano, caressing the keys. In an attempt to clear the air and open the lines of communication, Carolyn had offered to find a tutor for Haley the first time she had discovered that the piano was of interest. She had asked Haley every day for a week, and every day Haley never said a word, just left and holed herself up in her room behind the safety of her locked door and fingered an imaginary keyboard across her knees.
This was the only luxury Haley allowed herself, the only respite. She slipped onto the bench and reverently stroked the keys. She could hear her mother murmuring out instructions and her fingers obeyed. The notes rang out hollowly, echoed through the empty room, and it felt almost as good as the knife on her skin. Memory recalled movement and her limbs arranged themselves into their proper positions, feet on the pedals, arms loose at the elbows, fingers arched and splayed. There was comfort in the routine, comfort in the music. The pain flowed down through her fingertips. There should have been blood on the keys, slick and cold under her hands because there were no more tears left in her, even when there should have been.
I shouldn’t be here. I should be stronger.
Mozart’s Lacrimosa swallowed the silence.
I don’t think I can do this anymore, Mum…
“You’re really good,” a cheery voice said. “Brilliant.”
Haley started and the music faltered with a discordant clang. The pain rushed back, filling her veins with guilty ice.
The boy just smiled at her—and he was a boy, only a handful of years older than her, with bright eyes and an easy smile. He looked just like Gordon.
“Sorry,” he said, a tad sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to scare you. But you are. Brilliant, I mean. Even though the song was really sad. It was a really good, sad song.”
Haley scrambled up from the bench and backed away, eyes locked on the hall beyond him. If she wanted to disappear back into her room, she had to go by him, had to brush passed him. He dominated the small space and for a bitter, panicky second, Haley wished she were small and invisible.
He tilted his head to one side, brows furrowing. “You okay?”
No! she wanted to scream. I am never going to be okay! It hurt too much for it to ever be okay.
Her silence wasn’t a deterrent. “I’m Arthur,” he told her brightly and flopped himself down on the sofa. “Did Mum and Dad tell you about me?” He toed off his trainers and didn’t wait for an answer. “Mum said you’re going to spend the summer with us. That’s brilliant!”
All the vitriol seething in Haley’s head clamored to a halt and the world lurched on its axis. This was so very far from brilliant. Her life was in tatters and all he did was sit there and smile at her like she had agreed to throw a party for him. He might have looked like Gordon, but it was quite plainly clear he was nowhere near as shrewd. What sort of idiot was he?
He simply stared at her for a long, drawn-out moment, then scooped up his shoes and hopped up to retrieve his bag from the doorway. “I’m going to go unpack,” he said. He paused and ducked back round the doorframe. “Did Mum say when she’d be back? No? Oh well, we’ll fend for ourselves.” And just like that he left and trudged upstairs.
There was someone in the house now who noticed her. Someone who didn’t balk at her silence and continued as though everything was normal. He smiled at her and called her brilliant, even when all signs pointed to the contrary. She was a ghost. She was unwanted and he didn’t seem to know that.
Haley stood in the middle of the sitting room long after Arthur had gone, feeling completely unmoored.
Arthur was a whirlwind of energy and ceaseless chatter. Haley wondered how he remembered to breathe. But he never expected an answer out of her, never turned and waited impatiently for words she just didn’t have. He just talked and if he asked a question he would glance at her for a second, then move on to something else. Haley never said a word. She didn’t have to. Arthur talked enough for both of them.
Arthur never sat near her, never made a move to touch her, just smiled and talked and laughed like she was a perfect conversationalist. Arthur never stayed in one place either. If he was in the same room with her, he would happily chatter away, but when he was done he would leave with a chipper goodbye and that was that.
Once, on a whim, she followed him when he left. Not closely, but she tracked the sound of his stocking feet round the house until eventually she stood in front of his open bedroom door. She didn’t expect him to say anything—but then she was also quickly learning that Arthur rarely did the expected.
“You can come in, you know,” he said, riffling through his desk. He grabbed an overlarge sketchpad, a handful of pencils, and jumped onto his bed, settling himself against the headboard. The silence quickly filled with the long, arching scratches of graphite on paper.
Haley waited two minutes before she crossed the threshold. Instinct shrieked that she was trespassing and begged her to retreat to the safety of her own room, where there was no openness to swallow her whole.
Arthur didn’t look up.
Haley took another step.
In slow and steady increments, she made a circuit around Arthur’s room, eyes roving over all the little details—model planes, figurines, endless piles of CDs—her fingers itching to touch. Instead, she concentrated on the feel of plush carpet under her bare feet. She curled and uncurled her toes until she didn’t feel like reaching out anymore. She pulled her sleeves down over her hands and kept a careful distance.
She paused at Arthur’s bookshelf and scanned what was there. One shelf was entirely devoted to a set of heavily embellished encyclopedias; the others housed a dictionary, a handful of paperback thrillers… and flight manuals. A lot of flight manuals, actually. He wanted to be a pilot? Like Gordon? Arthur might have been Gordon’s spitting image, but Haley had come to the conclusion that Arthur was nothing like Gordon.
“You can take whatever you want,” Arthur said.
She glanced over at him. He just gave her a soft smile and waved at the bookshelf.
“I’ve only got a few regular books, but you can borrow them. You can borrow the manuals, too, but they’re pretty boring.”
No, nothing like Gordon, at all. Haley lifted a tentative hand, skimmed her fingertips across the edge of the shelf, then let her hand fall back to her side.
Arthur went back to his sketching.
The quiet scritch scritch of pencil on paper was strangely calming. Haley stood at the end of Arthur’s bed, almost close enough that her knees brushed the duvet and watched him. His hand swooped rhythmically across the page, pausing occasionally to erase or smudge something with his thumb. Every so often, he would stop—brows furrowed and the tip of his tongue caught between his teeth—and hold the sketchpad out in front of him, searching. Then he would nod, settled back, and start all over again. Scritch scritch, smudge, pause, repeat.
“Do you want to see?” he asked.
Again, he didn’t wait for an answer. He tipped his sketchpad her way and stretched it out to her so she didn’t have to move closer. She recognized the tree from the front garden and the carefully tended flower beds, rendered like a black-and-white photo. It was impressive.
After a minute, Arthur took the sketchpad back… but he budged up to the opposite side of his bed. Haley stared at the empty space for a moment, confusedly tracing the wrinkles in the duvet with her eyes, before she spared Arthur a glance. His lips were quirked and he went back to shading tree limbs dark with the side of his thumb.
Haley fixed her gaze back on the duvet and wondered if she could smile anymore.
When Carolyn came home that night, to her utter bewilderment, she found Arthur and Haley sitting together on his bed. He was rattling on and on about interviews to the aviation academy. Haley watched and listened in silence, his sketchpad cradled reverently in her lap.
Carolyn crept back downstairs, feeling inordinately proud of her son. If anyone could mend a broken heart it was her Arthur.
There wasn’t anywhere Arthur didn’t let Haley follow, and he never once told her to bugger off and let him be. In fact, more often than not, Arthur was the one who called Haley after him. (“I’m just going to watch a bit of telly, want to come down?”, “I’m going for a walk, want to join me?”, “Mum wants me to pop out to the shops, want to come?”) There was never any expectation for her to accept any of his invitations, so she always did.
Standing in the middle of an aisle in Sainsbury’s, Haley was beginning to wish she hadn’t. The florescent lights hurt her eyes, the chemical smell of floor cleaner burned her nostrils… Why was everyone so bloody loud? She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, trying to ease the pressure building at her temples.
Why couldn’t everyone just shut up, just for a minute? Or stop shouting, at the very least. It felt like her brain was going to explode.
Arthur’s voice cut through the din in her head and the pressure eased a little. When she dropped her hands from her face and opened her eyes, Arthur was leaning down, gaze carefully searching her face.
“You okay?” he asked quietly. He straightened after a few seconds and said, “Come on, let’s go.”
She watched him go, baffled. He turned back when he realized she wasn’t following and she spared a look at their abandoned shopping trolley.
“Don’t worry about it,” he told her.
She took a step back towards the trolley.
After a moment, Arthur came back and they continued down the aisle just as they had been. The glare off the tiles from the overhead lights was too much. She narrowed her eyes to slits and followed after. When Arthur stopped to inspect the wall of tinned vegetables, she stepped into his shadow. She was closer than she normally stood and Arthur’s shadow wasn’t quite dark enough, but it helped.
While Haley’s eyes adjusted, Arthur read the labels of the tins quietly to himself, consulting the shopping list he had in one hand. It was still too loud and her stomach was beginning to roil. A headache was steadily blooming behind her eyes. She eased further into Arthur’s shadow and wished it were deeper, darker…
Arthur's free hand was closest to her, fingers broad and loose and welcoming at his side.
She just wanted to stop hurting.
She brushed her fingers against his palm and shut her eyes tight.
Just like always, Arthur did the exact opposite of what she expected. Instead of recoiling, he curled his hand around hers and gave her fingers a reassuring squeeze. He held her hand through the rest of the shop—even when she crowded up behind him to avoid other customers and twisted his arm behind his back.
He didn't complain once.
During the day Haley would spend her time with Arthur, watching and listening. Once, in a very great while, she would stretch out a hand and lay her fingers on his arm, his knee, his shoulder, whatever was closest… He would pause for a second, just long enough to read her face, then continue on with whatever he was doing.
At night, she would sit at the dinner table with him and Carolyn as he recounted the entirety of their day. Carolyn would humor him and listen attentively, even as she reminded him over little things like not talking with his mouth full or not to gesture with the silverware. After when they had finished, Arthur would raid the fridge for desert, Haley would collect their dirty dishes and Carolyn would do the washing up. It was almost… normal.
One night, as Arthur was pawing through the freezer in search of ice cream that absolutely wasn’t there, Haley carried over the dishes. She had spent the better part of a week studiously avoiding Carolyn’s gaze, but that night something made her look up.
Carolyn took the stack of dinnerware from her with a murmured, “Thank you,” and a soft smile. Haley’s skin prickled not uncomfortably. Something hard and sharp gave in her chest, giving way to cottony warmth that seeped all the way down to her fingertips.
A dull tumbling crash sounded from the freezer. Arthur yelped, dodging boxes of frozen food.
Carolyn rolled her eyes. “Arthur, you can dismantle the entire thing, there still won’t be any ice cream.”
“Sorry, Mum,” he answered sheepishly, stooping to gather up the scattered boxes.
Haley knelt to help him, hands tingling and insides fuzzy. Arthur caught her eyes and flashed her a guilty smile. The cotton wool unfurled in her chest, spreading out as a gentle glow under her skin, like the quiet steadiness of dawn.
The ice in her bones yielded under the warmth’s insistent weight, something starburst-bright blooming under her breastbone. For the first time since she had stepped foot under Gordon Shappey’s roof, she thought that, maybe, all the cold and sharp and heavy pain might just be bearable.
Arthur’s face lit up when she returned his smile, hesitant and tenuous, and she thought finally she might have done something right.
The spark in Haley chest flickered despondently when Gordon returned the next day. He wasn’t staying—just a simple stopover to shake a few local hands, grease some palms, and pack some clean clothes before he jetted off again—but even so, he sapped all the air from the house, leaving everything oppressive and dulled, an eclipse blotting out the sun, transient and impenetrably dark.
And just like an eclipse Haley knew better than to directly observe Gordon’s presence. She made herself scarce (unsurprisingly, so did Arthur), but when she did see Gordon in passing, she kept her head down and willed herself still and unassuming. Gordon didn’t bother to hide his contempt, but in her stillness, Haley contented herself with the fact that he was too blind to see the disdain riding deep in her bones, curling her fingers tight. She took pride—excessive and gleefully spiteful—in being the better deceiver.
She took comfort—intrinsic and ardently steadfast—in finally knowing she wasn’t the intruder in the Shappey household. He was.
The hush of voices from the study stopped Haley ghosting through the hall. She paused and stepped closer, carefully avoiding the strip of light spilling beyond the barely-opened door.
“Right,” Gordon was saying. She heard the clink of glass, an unstopped decanter of gin, the slosh of alcohol as he poured himself a drink. “She gets shipped out at the end of the week and that’ll be that. Cheers.”
The hall was suddenly entirely too cold. The spark in Haley’s chest guttered.
Carolyn’s reply was guarded. “I don’t think that’s for the best.”
“The weekend is as soon as I can make it on short notice,” Gordon told her, passionlessly. “Some place farther is going to take longer to arrange.”
“I meant that we shouldn’t send her away.”
A pause. Then another rattle of glass, another drink. Haley’s breath stuttered in her lungs.
“What’s with the change of heart, Caro?” Gordon asked, slow and careful. “I thought you didn’t want my bastard under your roof. She grow on you?”
Carolyn scowled. “She’s a child, and a broken one at that. She doesn’t have anyone else. I’m not going to toss her out on her ear.”
Gordon made an understanding sound and Haley heard his footsteps on the carpet. When he spoke his voice was repulsively disarming. “Now, sweetheart, no one’s tossing anyone out, all right? But she doesn’t belong here, you know that. Believe me, come Friday morning when she’s slung her hook, you won’t even miss her.”
Some miniscule part of Haley had hoped for some sort of vehement refusal, but Carolyn’s silence was all she needed. Numbness, dense and leaden, smothered the flame flickering under her breastbone and the dark and the ice and the pain came rushing back.
Arthur didn’t like to admit it, but the house was much quieter when Dad wasn’t around. It was a lot… He was sure nicer wasn’t the right word, but Mum smiled more when Dad wasn’t around. No one shouted at anyone else and the invisible weights that dragged at his wrists and ankles disappeared. So not nicer—that was, well, mean—but it was… lighter. Yeah, lighter was a good word.
Dad hadn’t stayed for long this time, didn’t even say goodbye. Arthur heard the front door slam shut and watched from his bedroom window as Dad flung a suitcase into his car and drove away. Arthur wasn’t really bothered by it. Whenever Dad left on his trips Mum always made really nice dinners and they sat cuddled together on the sofa and watched silly films.
When Arthur went down to the kitchen, Mum was already busy cooking. He helped some, washing and peeling vegetables, but mostly he just sat and kept Mum company. He stole snap peas from the bowl between them and grinned when Mum shooed his hands away, but she let him eat them anyway.
Haley should be down with them, he thought after a while. Cooking with Mum was fun and Haley liked to help. He understood that staying in her bedroom made her feel safe, understood that it kept out all the loud, bright things that made it hard to concentrate. He understood it kept out all the shouting. But Mum didn’t shout (she talked really, really loud sometimes, but she always had a reason) and he didn’t shout (because he was inside and when you were inside you used your inside voice, because inside was less noisy than outside and you didn’t need to shout, and it was the polite thing to do), so there wasn’t any reason for Haley to stay cooped up in her room all alone.
Arthur grabbed another snap pea, despite Mum’s mild protests, and went to tell Haley everything was okay.
Haley knew it would never be okay.
Once Gordon shipped her off to God only knew where, she would be alone and adrift and the darkling pain would carve her out and swallow her until there wasn’t anything left.
She tucked herself into a corner of her room, hunkered down between the wall and her bed, behind the door. She cradled the knife in her palms and ran her fingers along the blade.
She was tired of being tossed aside, tired of being tired. She was unwanted beyond all shadow of a doubt, she knew that now.
There was no reason to try anymore.
The knife on her skin was a blessing and she didn’t fight the hazy dark that followed.
Arthur knocked on Haley’s door, just like he always did, and shuffled from foot to foot. Haley didn’t always answer right away, but that was all right because he didn’t really mind waiting. He ground his heels into the carpet, rocking, and wriggled his toes in his socks. After a minute, he spared a glance at the door and knocked again. Haley probably hadn’t heard him.
“Hales?” he called quietly. When Haley shut her door it meant everything was too loud and he didn’t want to make her headache worse. “Mum and I are making dinner—well, really just Mum is making dinner, I’m just sort of sitting and watching and well, eating things, but it’s still really fun and… And well, it’d be nice if you came down, because I think you might like it, and I’d like it and so would Mum, so…” He shifted on his feet again and scratched at his neck. Haley wasn’t usually so… quiet. Well, no, she was quiet, but this… this was something different. Generally, if Haley didn’t want to do something with him or Mum, she would, at least, open the door and shake her head.
“Haley?” he called again, this time a little louder. Maybe she was sleeping…
A peek inside wouldn’t hurt. He tried the doorknob and it turned easily under his hand. If she hadn’t wanted anyone to bother her, she would have locked the door—she always did that. She was probably playing the paper keyboard he had drawn for her for days when playing the piano downstairs was too much. When she played she lost track of time and sometimes she forgot all about not smiling.
Only when he opened the door and poked his head inside, Haley’s room was empty. Her bed was all mussed, her paper keyboard was on top of the sheets and her trainers were still shoved under the window beside her bedside table, but Haley wasn’t there.
That was… odd. He could have sworn he had heard her come upstairs before Dad had left. Maybe she had snuck back downstairs when he hadn’t been looking. He turned to leave… and that’s when he saw a flicker movement out of the corner of his eye.
His stomach hollowed out and the air went out of him.
Haley was slumped against the footboard of her bed, folded up like a lonely rag doll no one played with anymore. There was blood everywhere, all down her arm, soaking through the hem of her shirt and into the thighs of her jeans. Her hands were painted sticky-red.
Arthur didn’t remember moving because all his brain kept telling him was Blood blood oh god there’s so much blood don’t be dead don’t be dead please don’t be dead… When he touched her his hands came away warm and slick and coloured like a toffee apple. He felt sick.
He knew he should be doing something but he didn’t know what. He couldn’t think. Instead his hands fumbled aimlessly at her arm like they didn’t belong to him anymore. His fingers closed over the barely-clotted line sliced into her skin, closed over the lines of older scars, soft and only just healed.
Close it up, a tiny, frantic voice told him. Close it up close it up there’s so much blood how can she have any left?
His vision blurred and his breath seized in his chest, constricting his throat.
Haley let out a breathy moan, a broken, trembling little sound and she shifted slightly under his hands. The fingers of her good hand brushed against his knee, nails catching on his jeans…
Arthur didn’t remember screaming for Mum. He didn’t remember how he had got into the car, didn’t remember getting bundled into the backseat with Haley cradled against his chest, or even the rush to the hospital.
The only thing he did remember was whispering over and over into Haley’s hair, “You’re okay. Everything’s going to be okay, I promise. It’s going to be okay…”
Once, while she drifted in the dark, Haley thought she heard Arthur calling, faint and soothing. She thought she heard him tell her it was going to be okay. She sank into the warm blackness and wished she could believe him.
When they rushed into the A&E and the nurses took Haley from Arthur, he reacted suddenly and violently and it took an orderly and Carolyn to hold him back.
“Arthur,” Carolyn said, in the sternest voice she could manage. “Arthur Shappey, enough! They are going to help her so let them do their jobs!” All at once he stopped straining against her arms. The orderly stepped cautiously back. Like a puppet with its strings cut, Arthur collapsed against Carolyn and sobbed.
She gathered him into her arms and wondered bleakly how she was ever going to manage the long, arduous recovery of two broken children.
Carolyn and Arthur sat together in the waiting room huddled on uncomfortable plastic chairs and endured the bright lights and the cacophonous alarms, the shouted orders and the barely stifled outbursts of pain. For hours, they sat, one of Arthur’s hands folded protectively between Carolyn's own.
“Why did she do it, Mum?” he asked after a long while, voice whisper-small and aching. “Why would she…?” He broke off with a shuddering breath and pressed his face against her shoulder.
She shifted to pull him closer, laid her cheek against the top of his head, and kissed his hair. If she only knew… She had known things were nowhere near normal, had known Haley was a fragile girl, but Haley had been making progress, opening up and letting them in. Carolyn had thought, slowly but surely, Haley had been getting better. This wasn’t the proof she wanted to show her she was wrong.
“I don’t know,” Carolyn answered softly. “But she was hurting. She lost the only family she ever had. She doesn’t have anyone now.”
Arthur straightened abruptly and fixed her with hard, red-rimmed eyes. “That’s not true!” he told her adamantly. “She has us!”
Carolyn pulled him into another hug before the tears could start again. “Of course she does, dear heart,” she whispered. “Of course she does.”
Time bled away hourglass-slow after that, until it simply ground to a halt and lost its meaning. Exhaustion lingered at the edges of Carolyn’s consciousness, sharp and insistent, sinking in bone-deep, but sleep never came. The thorny anxiety curled tightly in her chest wouldn’t allow it. The struggle between the hollowed-out fear of loss and her own vehement denial made even contemplating rest inconceivable. How could she rest when no one would tell her anything?
How could she rest when she didn’t even know if Haley was still alive?
Awful, choking dread worked its way up her throat and pulsed hotly behind her eyes. She viciously stuffed it back down where it belonged, intransigent numbness following in its wake. If she was going to crack that was all well and good, but she was going to do it behind a closed door, alone, where no one could see. Breakdowns were for those who had the luxury of not being depended upon.
She breathed deep and squeezed Arthur’s hand (whether to reassure him or the resolve herself, she didn’t know).
Arthur squeezed back and buried himself closer.
Carolyn didn’t know how long they waited for the doctor to appear, but when he finally did, he was heralded by her worst fear. She braced herself for it, braced herself for Arthur because keeping it together for his sake was what was keeping her together at all.
The worst didn’t come.
The doctor talked and talked, but the only words Carolyn heard were “stable condition.”
The unrelenting panic eased in her chest and she could breathe again.
Arthur slipped into Haley’s room while Mum stood out in the hall and spoke with the doctor in that quiet, empty voice that meant bad news. He couldn’t imagine how there could be any more bad news. What could be worse than dying?
What could be worse than wanting to die?
Haley’s room was dark, all grey light and shadows, and the stillness made him hunch and step carefully. Even stepping as lightly as he could, he was too noisy, the barely-there squeak of his trainers on the tiles, the rustle of his clothes when he moved… Even his breathing was too loud.
Mum had told him the doctors were going to help Haley, but he didn’t understand how they could help anyone when everything about the room made him want to run away and he wasn’t even sick. Staying in these stuffy, murky, sterile rooms had to make people feel horrible.
His insides knotted up. He didn’t want Haley to feel horrible anymore.
He held his breath before he stepped round the dividing curtain, but he didn’t know why because the moment he did all the air rushed out of him as soon as he saw Haley lying on the bed, pale and bandaged and covered in wires which were bound carefully out of reach.
Quietly as he could he went round to the chair at her bedside and froze when he found Haley tracking his movements with heavy-lidded eyes.
“Hi,” he whispered breathlessly. He didn’t know what else to say.
Haley just blinked lethargically.
He sat down, tented his fingers, and alternated between staring at Haley’s bed linens and his at his own hands. He wanted to hug her, wanted to cry and shout, wanted to help, but he didn’t know how.
So, he did the only thing he could think of. He reached out and curled his fingers round her hand.
After a long moment, Haley turned her hand beneath his palm and folded her fingers over his. Her touch wasn’t what startled him though; it was her voice, low and scratchy from disuse.
“I’m not okay,” she breathed.
He blinked the sudden tears away, swallowed them down, and smiled for her. “You don’t have to be right now,” he told her softly.
Haley held his gaze for a while then tiredly shut her eyes, but she tightened her grip.
Arthur squeezed back and refused to let go even when he knew Haley was well and truly asleep.
Haley didn’t protest when the doctors transferred her to the mental health ward, didn’t protest when they placed her on suicide watch and attended to her with hawk-like scrutiny. Gordon wouldn’t keep her now. If anything he would be even more anxious to send her away. It was bad enough he had a son who was terminally stupid (Gordon’s words, not hers), having a mentally-unstable bastard under his roof would be more stigma than he could handle.
She wondered if she would become a Barnardo’s girl. No, she was probably too old. She would just be homeless because she was old enough, healthy enough… She could take care of herself.
She wondered if she did everything the nurses and the doctors told her if they would let her stay.
She spent visiting hours in her room, folded up on her bed with the door wide open so the nurses could make sure she didn’t try to throw herself out of the window, through thick double panes of reinforced glass.
Her room was austere, sterile whites, soothing blues, and docile greens, colours to keep the patients tame. Haley thought they just drained the life out of the whole ward. Maybe that was the whole point though. After all, she had wanted to die anyway. Maybe this was just the doctors' slow and subtle way of helping her along.
She sat in the middle of her white sheets and waited for the emptiness to swallow her up. It was a way to pass the time until the nurses made their rounds with the medication.
She wasn’t at all prepared to see Arthur poke his head round the corner of her door.
“Hi,” he smiled, voice light but subdued. “Um, Mum and I are here—well, obviously, I am, you can see me. So, um, the nurse said for me to tell you that if you wanted to have a visit, you would have to come to the visitor’s room. If you don’t, that’s fine too. We’ll be here ‘til hours are over.” He waggled his fingers at her and disappeared.
Haley stared out at the hall and at the nurse’s station, feeling the emptiness lapping at her crossed legs. When she slid out of bed and wandered down the hall ten minutes later, Arthur and Carolyn were waiting in the lounge just like he had said they would be. When she dropped into the chair beside him and wrapped her arms around him, he didn’t pull away, even when the emptiness bled away and left her sobbing into his shirt. He tucked her head under his chin and held her until the tears stopped.
Neither he nor Carolyn told her it was all right, even as small comfort.
When she spoke, sometime later, it wasn’t to make sure they understood, it was because she knew they already did.
There was nothing to keep track of the days—no paper, no pens, nothing anyone in the ward could even remotely hurt themselves with.
Haley didn’t have to keep track, though.
Every day like clockwork, Arthur and Carolyn were in the lounge when visitor’s hours began and they never left before hours ended. When the staff allowed, they brought her lunch, and the three of them sat together at one of the tables and spent their time telling each other all about their days.
At the end of hours, Arthur would hug her, hard and just a long as she liked—sometimes tipping her sideways until she giggled herself breathless. Carolyn would hug her too (just like that first day in the ward, when Haley had cried and talked and grieved and Carolyn had leant close and told her fiercely that Gordon wasn’t sending her anywhere), securely and gently, and kiss her forehead when she murmured goodbye.
Every night before bed Haley used the phone call she was allowed to tell them each good night.
Carolyn was true to her word and when the hospital finally released Haley—with the number of a good therapist and a filled prescription of her medication—Gordon didn’t send her anywhere. In fact, in some sort of gleeful rage, Carolyn announced they were redecorating her room. The same morning Haley was released Carolyn took them to the shops and instructed Haley to pick out whatever she liked.
It started small at first—clothes, shoes, little things she needed that her sparsely packed suitcase had exhausted—and quickly escalated from there. Bed linens and drapery, paint swatches and table lamps. When Carolyn sent Haley and Arthur off to pick out a new bed, headboard and all, Haley thought she must have been joking. Arthur just laughed and coaxed her away so they could find the most comfortable mattress with the springiest give.
When they packed the day’s shopping into the car there was barely any room left for them to sit. Carolyn off-handedly assured Haley the rest of her things would be delivered to the house within the week.
As soon as they wrestled all of the shopping into the house and got everything sorted, under Carolyn’s careful direction, Arthur and Haley stripped her room to bare bones and covered the floor with dust sheets.
“Hop to it,” Carolyn told them, handing the paint off to Arthur and dropping the rest of supplies into Haley’s arms. “And remember to open the windows. The last thing I need is either of you choking on paint fumes.”
They didn’t finish Haley’s room for two days, but every paint-splattered moment she spent laughing.
Gordon was a peripheral constant in all their lives, made present by hastily scratched dates on the calendar and infrequent phone calls. He would demand and rage, Carolyn would snipe and ignore. Arthur and Haley would retreat upstairs and take comfort in one another’s presence and the abiding knowledge that neither of them was alone.
It only happened once, but once was all it took.
It wasn’t the first time Gordon had come home drunk and seething, slurring and spitting his words, clamoring and weaving through the house in the middle of the night because he couldn’t walk straight.
It wasn’t the first time Carolyn had ignored his tirades with open derision and ushered Arthur back upstairs with assurances that everything was fine.
It was the first time, however, Haley stood her ground. It was a stupid act of defiance, a knee-jerk reaction bred out of simmering anger and resentment that had been left festering too long. But he was destroying the carefully maintained normality that they all worked so hard to preserve. His presence was a poison and she was sick of suffering through its taint.
Carolyn might have been able to weather Gordon's attacks in silence, but Haley couldn’t.
“Don’t talk to her that way.” The words weren’t loud, but they were stony, resolute and more than enough to get Gordon’s attention.
“What d’you say?” he slurred, voice pitched low and rough, and unsteadily drew himself up to his full height. An imitation tactic, and a poor one at that. Intimidation only worked when someone was afraid of what you would do to them.
Haley wasn’t afraid of Gordon. He couldn’t do any worse than she had already done to herself. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Carolyn and Arthur go stock-still in the doorway. Haley kept her gaze pinned on Gordon and lifted her chin.
She raised her voice, enunciated each word slowly and carefully, and didn’t bother to hide her contempt. “I said, don’t talk to her that way.”
She hadn’t thought with the way he stumbled he could move so fast. The slap was open-handed and meant to send her reeling, but it wasn’t the pain the staggered her, it was the fact that she hadn’t been quick enough to avoid it.
“You watch your mouth with me, girl,” he growled.
She straightened, met his eyes… and smiled.
He couldn’t break her, not like this. This wasn’t the dark and the cold and the aching, solitary bleakness. As long as the anger kept fire in her veins, she could survive anything. She had something worth defending and she wasn’t going to let Gordon destroy it just because he fancied getting himself bladdered and having a shout.
She braced herself for the blow this time, watched his hand to gauge the force of it…
But it never came.
Arthur put himself between them and shoved Gordon back, hard enough to upend him onto the sofa. Haley couldn’t see Arthur’s face but she could read the anger in the set of his shoulders, in the stiffened line of his spine and in the trembling of his fists at his sides.
“You don’t touch her,” Arthur said, softly and with more steel in his voice than Haley had ever heard. “You don’t touch Mum or shout or do… anything.” He swallowed and straightened, unconsciously clenching and unclenching his hands.
When Gordon stumbled cautiously to his feet, Haley took grim satisfaction in noting that Arthur was significantly taller than his father. Weightier, stronger, and had the benefit of being completely sober.
Even drunk, Gordon recognized a threat when he saw one.
“In fact,” Arthur continued, in that same quiet, steady voice. “I think you should leave, Dad. Now.”
For a long, tense moment Arthur stared Gordon down, a whisper of imminent violence hanging, insidious and stifling, in the air between them. Then, like a cut wire, the tension snapped all at once. Gordon snarled and with faltering steps swept balefully passed all of them. The front door slammed hard enough to rattle the photos hanging in the hall. Haley didn’t feel at all remorseful for hoping Gordon and his BMW would find themselves wrapped around a lamp post come morning.
She curled her fingers round Arthur’s fist and leant into his side. He put his arm around her and let out a shaky breath. When Carolyn embraced them both a moment later no one said a word.
Haley wasn’t surprised when Carolyn filed for divorce. It had been a long time coming.
Carolyn had no rights to Haley as a guardian and Gordon could afford the best legal counsel in the country, so the fight for custody was pointless. The only reason Gordon made a show of taking guardianship of Haley was because there was no way to take Arthur from Carolyn without killing her first. Gordon didn’t want Haley. He wanted to hurt Carolyn.
So he did.
The only reason Carolyn made a show of taking ownership of Gordon’s precious jet was because it was the most important thing to him. Carolyn didn’t want GERTI. She wanted to hurt Gordon.
So she did.
Haley managed to see Arthur and Carolyn one last time before Gordon shipped her off to a boarding school in Sydney. She had long since resigned herself to her maliciously imposed exile. After all, Gordon wasn’t doing it to spite her. The slight was all for Carolyn.
So Haley took the fight out of it. She was going to travel and receive an education her mother could never have possibly afforded to give her. She was going to be happy and lead a good life because that was exactly what Gordon didn’t want her to do.
Carolyn was stoically reserved about the whole affair, implacable and dry-eyed. “Whatever you need,” was all she said when she pulled Haley into a hug.
Haley returned her embrace and promised to call when she landed.
Arthur, however, wasn’t as accepting. His eyes were wet and he was sniffling, doing his best to hide it all behind a cheery smile. When Haley wrapped her arms around him, he hiccupped and held her as tight as he could.
“I’m okay,” she told him.
When he murmured a tearful “I love you, Hales,” into her shoulder, it was all she needed. Even 10,000 miles away she wouldn’t truly be alone.
She was wanted and she knew that.
Across the portacabin, Arthur was enthusiastically introducing Martin to a sweet, mousy woman who he repeatedly insisited on calling his “sister.”
“I was under the impression Arthur was your only child.” Douglas said, with a fair amount of skepticism.
Carolyn didn’t bother looking up from her paperwork. “He is.”
“Then may I ask why he is under the delusion he has a sibling?”
“Because he does.”
“Ah,” Douglas said, after a moment. “So, not really family then.”
Carolyn placed her pen carefully on her desk and regarded him coolly. “Not my blood, certainly. But God help you if Arthur hears you say that.”
Douglas’s brows rose in blatant disbelief.
“And God help you,” Carolyn continued as she rounded her desk, “if I find out you treat her as anything less.”
“And risk facing the wrath of an over-protective, belligerent mother, who also happens to sign my paychecks?” Douglas called after her. “Perish the thought.”
Carolyn ignored him as she swept out of her office.