“Put your coat on,” Aaron said, low and urgent. “We’re going to Germany.”
Liv sat up and rubbed her eyes. “What?”
“Shhh,” Aaron said. “You'll wake the whole house.”
She said, “Germany?”
“My- a friend is there. He’ll look after us. I just can't be here right now, Liv, I'm sorry. You can stay if -” He had that hunted animal look, the kind he got when he was about to lie on a bed of nails for her.
“No,” she said, furious and immediate. “Of course I'll come.”
Most of her things were still in a big bag, where Mum had packed them. He only had one bag, and he scribbled a quick note that he left on the kitchen table. She squinted but couldn't make out any words.
She yawned. “Why now?” she asked. “Some people drive in the morning, you know.”
He made his mouth a thin line. “They’d talk me out of it,” he said. “I don't want to be talked out of this.”
“Okay,” she said. She slipped into the passenger seat of his car and threw her bag into the back next to his. It was chilly out but not too bad, and in the sky the little dots of stars were very bright. “What about-” She meant Robert, not - Gordon. She was trying not to think of him as Dad and even more to not think of him as dead. Robert was easier material. For her, at least.
“I don't want to talk about him,” Aaron said tightly, and then relented. “Not yet.”
“Okay,” she repeated.
He put the car in gear and started driving. She had done this before with Mum a half dozen times. It was all sort of the same; it all blurred together.
Gabby had texted her a picture of a horse. Gabby was shit at cheering people up but she did try and that was something.
Liv wondered if they would come back. Mum had never come back, but Aaron wasn't Liv's mum. She thought she would miss it, if they didn't. But she would have Aaron, so it would be all right.
Aaron put on some punk he had rattling round on his phone. It slammed through the car, furious, as they pulled away from Emmerdale.
“At least it's not One Direction,” she said. The clock on the dashboard said 1:11.
“This is the Misfits,” Aaron said. “They're good, all right.”
“Whatever,” she said. Like she would take music recommendations from someone who thought periods summoned sharks.
Aaron's phone rang. Robert flashed across the screen.
“Do you want me to answer it?”
“No,” he said. There was a brittleness about him that made him look fragile, washed out, like if she touched him wrong he would shatter and she would get a splinter in her eye.
She reached out and swiped the call away. “Okay,” she said.
They pulled over for petrol and he bought them both a coffee.
“I could have wanted to sleep,” she said. “Inconsiderate.”
He looked stricken. “Sorry,” he said, “I should have thought-”
But of course she could read that he did not want to be alone, and she didn't want to be alone either, even asleep. Before he had woken her she had been dreaming of - her sixth birthday party, she thought, cake and balloons and a dad who wasn't - She didn't want to go back there.
“You're all right,” she said, taking the little styrofoam cup. “Wouldn't let you drive alone, you need someone to navigate.”
“Might as well call you googlemaps,” he said, resting his hand on her shoulder.
She tucked herself against him, feeling very small and very tired. She liked the warmth of him, the way he felt like shelter.
He hugged her, one armed. That felt good.
She thought about how he had changed his name that day - well, yesterday, now. How he had been so happy. How she had never seen him like that and she had been jealous, because she'd never belonged anywhere like he did drinking out of that boot.
Now they were in a petrol station on their way to Germany and he had left a note on the kitchen table and she knew the look on his face because it was the look on Mum's, all the time. And Liv’s face was still tight from crying.
She said, like she always said to Mum when Mum got like this, “You know I love you.”
He paused. “Liv-” he said. “Liv, we don't have to do this.”
He wasn't Mum. Liv's mum would never have asked.
“I know,” she said. “But you want to, so, I want to. I've never been to Germany, you know.”
“It’s nice,” he said. “I went when I was younger and I liked it. I think you might, too.” He blinked, as if he had startled himself, realizing it. “I think it could be all right.”
They pulled over at 3:17, and compared passport photos while Aaron drank a bottle of water and then went to piss on the side of the road.
“Convenient,” she said, when he got back in. “That's well useful.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, wiping his hands on a tissue from the box in the back. “Look how sweet you look in this photo.”
Liv actually looked like she was about to die of like, dysentery, but it was all right. She looked really blonde and very young but it wasn't the worst one she'd ever seen.
“Not like you,” she said, pointing at Aaron's. “Look at your terrible hair!”
Aaron’s passport still said Livesy . She paused with her finger over the name.
Aaron sighed and shook his head and snapped the passport shut, but it was too late: she was crying, and he was crying.
“I'm sorry,” she said.
He reached across the divider to get his arms round her. “I love you,” he said. “I love you so much, all right?”
She thought about the way - the way that Gordon had said it. He hadn't sounded much like Aaron, or really at all. But he had meant it. And she had meant it when she'd said it back.
And now he was dead and she would never be able to figure out what that meant.
“I'm so sorry about everything,” she said, sobbing, all the way through his t-shirt. “I wish I didn’t feel like this.”
“I know,” he said, softly, into her hair. “It’s okay. Me too.”
They had been on the A1 for what felt like forever when the sun finally came up.
Liv yawned at the first brush of pink over the horizon. It was starting to come up over the city.
She didn't really miss the hills and dales, but it was strange to be in such built up area after so long not.
Aaron said, “You can sleep if you like.”
She shrugged. “You gave me caffeine like three hours ago, I'm hopping.” Then she tucked her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. “So who are we going to see in Germany?”
She hoped it wasn't a boyfriend. Or, ex boyfriend, rather; she assumed Robert didn't share well.
She had done a lot of that with her mum, and it was always awkward, being extra. She loved that about Aaron, that he didn’t make her feel like that, not even when she was.
“Paddy,” Aaron said, as though that ought to explain it. “We’re going to see Paddy.”
She yawned again. “Rhona’s cheating ex?” Gabby was great, but the way that she described people in the village was not subtle.
Aaron's mouth twisted down at the edges and she regretted saying it, but it was too late to take back. “Yeah,” he said. “Rhona’s cheating ex. But he was good to me, took me in when I was a kid, even after he and me mam split and she was off living with some other bloke.”
“Chas let him?” Chas was the sort of person who glared if she thought you were looking at Aaron funny; it was strange to think about her letting him be looked after by someone else.
“Things were different,” Aaron said, in the sort of voice that meant he would not be elaborating. “Paddy's great, though. Paddy's the best. He's more of a dad than-” and then he stalled out and shook his head. “I'm sorry.”
Liv said, “It's okay.” She felt tears pricking at the back of her eyes. She felt like she had never cried this much, ever. She felt like a sponge that had been wrung out too far.
She swallowed. “You know you can say stuff,” she said. “Even if you don't think I want to hear it.”
“You’re my little sister,” he said. “It’s my job to look after you.”
She chewed her lower lip. She didn't want to explain that Mum was her mum but it had been Liv's job to look after her anyway; whenever she talked like that Aaron got a funny look on his face and it was weird for both of them. But it wasn't like that; it was about love.
“Well,” she said, “you're my big brother. So it's my job to look after you, too.” And then she sighed. “You can trust me, you know. I promise.”
He laughed, a weak little thing. “All right,” he said. “I'll keep that in mind.”
Robert called again when they passed Cambridge, and then Chas did.
Aaron ignored both, and reached over and hit Paddy on the little screen of his phone.
“Aaron? Is everything all right?”
“Hiya,” Aaron said, rubbing one hand over his beard. “Can you give me your address again? I need it for the GPS.”
There was a brief pause. “Aaron?”
“Paddy!” Aaron said.
“Okay, okay.” Paddy reeled off an address and Liv keyed it into her own phone, Aaron nodding at her in quick approval. “Aaron, if I ring your mum-”
“You won't, though,” Aaron said firmly. “Just - I'll see you in a bit, okay? We’ll talk then.”
“All right,” Paddy said. And then, “Aaron, I love you.”
“Love you too,” Aaron said. He made a little face, just a little twist at the corner of his mouth, but she knew him by now; she knew that meant it was true.
London was a big blur of smog and congestion. Liv yawned and Gabby texted her a string of nonsense about some pony she'd seen on telly and then she said, I can't cover for u if u don't give me a heads up.
Inanely, Liv thought: now I'm in the dead dads club. Liv's dad had even won the race. Maybe he could give Gabby and Jacob’s dads bits of advice. But Gabby's dad and Jacob’s dad were nice, and Liv's dad - Gordon, she told herself - deserved worse than death.
“What do you want me to tell Gabby?” she asked.
“It's all right,” Aaron said, “I don't want you to lie for me. You can tell her where we are.”
“She doesn't have to tell your mum,” Liv said.
Aaron shrugged. “I told them, in the note,” he said. “I'm not going to make a fourteen year old lie for me.”
They both winced, because she had. A lie by omission was a lie; she had covered up Ryan for him. It had been the right thing. She would do it again.
And a lie told like that was nothing like the way she had lied - before that. To him. To his face.
For a dead man. For a dead monster. A dead monster she had loved, and now hated so much it hurt her teeth, but it was all tangled up inside her, tangled up and hurting.
“Okay,” she said. “I'll tell Gabby she's gonna get a bunch of pictures of German sausages.”
“Oi, you,” Aaron said.
“You love me,” she said, and he went all soft in the eyes and said, “yeah okay,” and she felt herself getting teary and said, “me too.”
They got stuck at Dover for what felt like ages. Liv took a bunch of snaps for Gabby, who was not at all impressed because her stepdad was like, made of money, or whatever.
“Robert lied to me,” Aaron said abruptly, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. The rhythm tapped into her head, into her pulse. “I just couldn't be there. Everyone wanted to tell me what to feel. Everyone lied to me.”
“Oh,” he said. “No, not you. Never you.”
“Aaron,” she said.
He sighed. “Not you this time,” he said. “And you're different, you know that.”
She did. It was scary, having Aaron, because he would do anything for her. Mum would do anything for her too, but in a different way.
(She had called her mum before she went to sleep, just to hear the sound of her voice. She had offered for Liv to come to Dublin on the next flight but Liv had said, I want to be with Aaron, and she didn't regret it.
Nobody else could understand like Aaron. Nobody else could understand Aaron, but Liv thought, she probably came closest.)
“I really thought he'd be different this time,” Aaron said, looking down at his hands. “I really thought everything would be different.”
“It is,” Liv said, fiercely. “You've got me.”
He looked over at her. “I know,” he said. “God, Liv. I’m glad I do.”
Aaron called Debbie on the way through France. (“Another Dingle?” “You'll like this one.”)
“Dad reckons you've done a runner.”
“Never shuts up, your dad.”
“Listen, do you need anything? If you want to come by-”
“It's all right,” Aaron said. “I just wanted to say hello.”
She hummed. “You know,” she said. “It's all right, getting out. You think it's going to be the end of the world but it isn't.”
“It was the first time,” Aaron said, twisting his mouth to one side.
“The first time you were on the run,” Debbie said, wryly.
Liv blinked. “You were on the run?”
“Long story,” Aaron said.
“Hey,” Debbie said, “is that Liv with you? Hey, Liv, I'm Debbie. Welcome to the family. Sorry about the family.”
“Hi,” Liv said. “Nice to meet you.”
“They’re all shit,” Debbie said. “They love you, but they're shit.”
Aaron laughed, faintly teary. “Got it in one.”
He sent Liv into the petrol station for coffee and when she came back she could hear Debbie’s voice through Aaron's open window, saying, “of course they jumped to murder,” and they were both laughing, with a bitter edge. “Fucking Robert.”
Liv stood by her side of the car until Aaron looked over and saw her and impatiently opened the door so she could get in.
“You'll like Paddy,” Debbie said, smoothly changing the subject. “Everyone likes Paddy. But he likes Aaron most. Did Aaron ever tell you about the time with the cats?”
“D’you want a go?” he asked, after they'd stopped for lunch just over the border into Belgium. He swung the car keys around his finger. “You've got to learn some time.”
“Uh,” she said, “is that-”
He shrugged. “Not a lot of people out here, are there? You're sensible, it'll be fine.” He tossed her the keys. He was smiling. He hadn't smiled in what felt like forever.
She wasn't exactly going to say no, was she?
It was not fine.
Aaron yanked the wheel over and they pulled over by the side of the road in a stretch of farmland and then they were screaming at each other, shaking, Liv yelling at the top of her lungs, something incoherent about how he didn't know anything, and he was yelling back at her and then it was just - all too much, and she yanked the door open, hurtling out onto the field, just running. Her legs hurt. Her lungs hurt.
He ran after her.
Her heart was aching. She felt like it would swallow her, the pain of it.
“Liv,” he said, and caught her, and she was sobbing, all of a sudden, and thumping her fists against his back but he was holding on and she was crying and she said, “don't let go,” and he said, “I won't, I won't, I won't.”
Eventually she was ready to pull back, and he eased away.
“What just happened?” she asked, leaning her back against a tree.
He put his shoulder against hers. “Dunno,” he said. “You’re not a ratbag, though.”
“You’re not a pillock,” she allowed.
They sat there for a bit, with the sun bright in their eyes. She thought they both smelled a bit, and she was so tired now that the adrenaline had crashed.
She picked a blade of grass apart, watching it unspool.
Aaron sighed. “I loved him,” he said. “Even after all of it. Even though I hated him. I just wanted - he said he loved me, all the time.”
She didn't know what to say, so she just sat. Her heart was hammering. She thought she might be crying.
“You were saying that he was a good dad,” Aaron said. “He was. Except for when he wasn't.” He shook his head. “He used to say like, him and me. I believed him.”
He paused. He was crying, but only a little. Just water in the corners of his eyes that she could see, welling up.
“I didn't think he could die. I really didn't.”
She reached out and put her hand on his hand. He tangled their fingers together and held on, very tight.
“He deserved it,” Aaron said. “He did.” A tear ran down the side of his face and dripped down, onto his jumper, leaving a tiny dark stain.
She breathed out, hard. “You didn’t, though. You deserved more.” She said it with as much certainty as she could muster, because it was true.
They sat there, in the silence, in the golden fields. She sneezed a few times. He held her hand, very, very tight.
Then they got up and got back in the car.
It was late afternoon by the time they reached Frankfurt. The streets were different, foreign.
“Everything smells different,” Liv said, rolling the window down to peer out.
Aaron said, “Don't stare. It's rude.” He was frowning at the directions on the screen of his phone. “Okay, make a left, and then a right, and -”
He pulled into the driveway of a little house set in the middle of a great garden.
“Now, listen,” he said to Liv. “Paddy's not like you and me, he's soft. You've got to be careful with him.”
Liv raised both eyebrows. “Okay,” she said.
“No back talk,” he said. “Just - he is that nice, all right?”
“Nice enough to cheat on his wife?”
“That is exactly what you're not going to say,” Aaron said, doing his dad voice.
“I love you,” she said. She didn't mean to be nervous but she was. What if Paddy didn't like her? What if Aaron realized - she knew that he loved her but she was still scared. What if he got Paddy and didn't need her anymore?
“Oh, Liv,” he said. “I love you, yeah? More than anyone. I brought you here because - well. Paddy’s like my dad, isn't he? Like a good one. And I want you to have him, too.”
It felt funny, but she nodded, and got out of the car, and followed him to the door.
Paddy was a big man with a shiny bald head and little wire-framed glasses. He beamed at Aaron and he beamed at Liv and she thought he was going to hug Aaron but he didn't, he hugged her. She was startled at first, stiff.
“Oh!” Paddy said, stepping back. “Sorry, should have asked.”
Aaron looked at Liv and Liv looked back at Aaron. “It’s okay,” she said. But she liked that he would wait.
Aaron smiled and put his arm around her shoulders.
A big dog lolloped around the side of the house and came to stare at them. It had a cast on one paw, and big eyes, and brown fur.
“It's great to finally meet you,” Paddy said, with such warmth in his voice that she couldn't help but believe him. “I've heard so much about you. You know, I've never heard Aaron talk about someone like he talks about you. Like you hung the moon.”
Liv ducked her head. “He's all right,” she said, extending her fingers for the big dog to sniff.
Aaron said, “Paddy,” in a way that Liv thought was intended to be chiding, but came out less in control and more shattered. She saw, now, how much he had been holding himself together in the car, and in Emmerdale before that.
Now it was all coming apart.
“Oh,” said Paddy, looking at him, and then he reached out and drew Aaron into a big, warm hug, and whispered something Liv couldn't hear.
Aaron was crying again. “I missed you so much,” he said, putting his face against Paddy’s shoulder.
“You're here now,” Paddy said, and he pulled back and reached out for Liv, too. “Why don't the both of you come inside, and I'll put the kettle on.”