Part 3. Read the two chapters before this one if you haven't already!
He watched as her eyes sculpted the excited waves below. They were rippling, peeling, falling over one another beneath them, the sun casting its glance over the lake as it spurred. He saw her eyes flickering, dancing, rising and falling in her emotions, with her mind, and wanted for a moment to touch those thoughts. He wanted to be linked to her, in tune with the lyrics only she could hear. A part of her.
So he called to her, said her name, and the girl turned, her eyes constructing a bridge between them. But though her stare was wild with feeling, bright and full, he felt nothing. No stirring in his heart, no trill falling down his spine. Of course he didn't. He knew that not every look, every feeling, was allowed to surface in those eyes. And he knew that the ones he wanted to see, needed to lay his own gaze upon, were hidden deep inside of her, barred and neglected. Unacknowledged by her, undesired by her conscience.
Who had he been to expect so much from just a glance? Who was he to expect a connection with a simple word? He had done all he could think of to make something happen, and all had failed; a look could do nothing to help him now.
Courtney, oblivious to his thoughts, retreated from the lip of the cliff in several steps. Her eyes narrowed with determination as she turned to face it again, and then she was running, she was jumping, and finally, falling.
Duncan hadn't doubted that she would do it, hadn't thought twice about his confidence in her, but seeing the dive, seeing the lack of hesitation in her features— it had sent a renewed sense of exhilaration through him. And then he too was starting off with a run, his feet slapping against the rock, his arms pumping. And when he leapt off of the cliff, the air blasting past him eagerly, whooshing by his ears, he heard the distant sound of water splashing and cracking below him as Courtney broke through it.
And he was right behind.
"That was… incredible."
Courtney was breathing deeply, a smile warming the edges of her lips. They had just climbed onto the dock, having swam a good distance from where they had jumped. Duncan had been the one to spot the cliff, a short trek from the house, and had also been the one to challenge Courtney to dive off of it. She, incapable of refusing any challenge, had done so without a single flash of fear in her eyes— hence the triumphant stance she had taken on as she dripped over the wood.
"I told you I could do it! And you hadn't believed me. But I suppose that just goes to show how much you underestimate me, right, Duncan?" The girl fitted her hand on her hip, raising an eyebrow smugly.
Duncan just smirked at her, saying nothing. Though it might have been a victory for her, his winnings had been greater. Because she was standing before him, grinning and energized, speaking without contempt. And that, if nothing else, was a rare enough circumstance.
He had figured that ignorance would be her strategy from that very first night. He knew that she would shield herself, push him as far away as she could. But he hadn't let her. With every distancing step she took, he countered with an intimate leap. He would jump on any chance to tease her, to grow closer, to stir the feelings that she had let become numb.
It wasn't as hard to go from hating the thought of her to awaiting the very sight of her every morning as Duncan had anticipated. A little strange at first, sure, but what he'd realized the first day sent a renewed vigour through him. He did have a chance, he did have a shot. She wouldn't become the one that got away. She would become the one that he'd worked so, so hard to get. The one he never truly gave up on. The one that was worth it, would always be worth it. She would be the one.
Whatever shock that had struck her when she'd first discovered Duncan to be her housemate for the next month had taken its time wearing off of Courtney, though. She was reluctant: the first morning, her eyes had flickered over him for a long moment before she finally acknowledged that his appearance hadn't been a dream, hadn't been something she could wake up from. And slowly, as the week had passed by, her looks became less angry, less disbelieving. At times, they were even tired as they fell upon him, dull in their understanding, lifeless as the reality soaked into her. And Duncan would fret, for just a moment, and rack his brain for an idea to change her perspective. He wouldn't be a deadweight to her, something she had to endure. He couldn't be.
So he kept things interesting, kept things changing and evolving with the little things that he did. He would startle her, creeping up behind and whispering something in her ear softly. She was always quick to snap around and tell him off, to leave her alone, but once, just once, she had hesitated. With the right words, the most tender of tones, he had caught her, trapped her in the moment. And her lips had trembled, so slightly, and in her hands she had wrung a dishtowel until her knuckles flashed white. He had been whispering the lyrics to a song, and in an utter fluke, it had been her favourite.
Duncan's words weren't always so sweetly put, though: he took a liking to pestering her, often at the worst of times. Once, when she had just barely crawled out of bed, he had taken a long look at her messy hair and slow eyes and given a loud, blunt shot of laughter. "Not a morning person, huh, sweetheart?"
She'd responded with a sharp punch to his stomach. If nothing else, it'd only proven his point further.
But even with all of the jokes he might have cracked, he was still glad to see this side of her. He was happy to know that she could be herself, even if not by choice, around him. She wasn't ashamed of the person she was, even if that girl was crabby when she first woke up, even if that girl became upset when things didn't work out exactly how she'd planned. Even if that girl was crazy, and quick-tempered, and uptight— He would like her all the more.
Duncan watched as Courtney grabbed her towel from where it sat in a pile on the edge of the dock and wrapped it around herself, offering a teasing, "It wasn't even that high of a fall."
Sensing another challenge, Courtney brought her eyes back to Duncan and snapped excitedly: "Yes, it was. It had to have been easily over forty feet."
"Go ahead and tell yourself that, but I'm just not so sure about it." The boy shrugged. And though he expected Courtney to retort, he found himself abandoned as she padded down the dock towards the house, meeting her family where they lounged on the deck. Duncan rolled his eyes and followed.
The sight of his brother's blond hair caught his eye as the little boy scrambled up to Courtney's side eagerly. "That was awesome! You dropped like fourteen million thousand billion trillion feet!" He turned to his and Duncan's mother, eyes wide. "Can I jump off the cliff too? Please?"
Carol smiled, but shook her head. "No, honey, you can't."
His lower lip slid out. "Why not? Duncan got to!"
"That," Duncan's father started, his eyes unimpressed, "is because your brother is a reckless teenager with no regard for consequences."
"Ouch." The teen snickered as he approached, drawing the attention to himself. One of the aunts spoke up in his defence.
"Relax, Arthur, they were careful. Besides, we all did stupid things in our teens. That's what makes being a kid so much fun!"
The word relax made the man flinch, but the look was so subtle that his son was sure that no one but he and his mother had caught it. Because he was a guest in their house, Duncan knew that his father would ignore the comment. But had it been him saying something of a similar nature under his own roof, he was certain that he would have been corrected sharply.
Courtney spoke then, her voice carrying clear. And though her words were for all the adults, her eyes settled on Arthur pointedly. "We were careful. And I wouldn't say that it was stupid or reckless— it was really just a matter of proper technique, don't you think?" She tilted her head to the side, allowing the man to study her features for any sign of rebellion or intended contradiction to set him off. When he didn't, she smiled and broke her gaze from him. "Well, I'm going inside to dry off."
Duncan, who had been watching her intently, was turning to follow the girl as she slipped into the house when a voice drew him back:
"Oh, Duncan— stay out a minute longer, would you?"
Ignoring the pang of annoyance at having to let Courtney slip away from him while she was in a good mood, the boy glanced at the source of the request, and found his eyes landing on the aunt who had stuck up for him. She smiled widely, and invited him to sit in the empty Adirondack chair to her right. Once he had—somewhat reluctantly—settled into it, the aunt pressed her hand on his where it rested on the arm of the chair affectionately, saying, "I'm Courtney's aunt Elena, by the way. You must be so confused with all of these names to learn."
"Uh, kind of." Duncan glanced at the hand, then up at the relatives sitting around, whose smiling eyes were on him. "Hi."
"So," she raised both her eyebrows in the way people do when they're interested, "you and Courtney know one another from school?"
The boy nodded slowly, unsure of where Elena was going with this. "Yeah."
"And," she continued, "you two are friends, right?"
Anticipation hung mildly in the air as Duncan thought over his answer. It seemed best to answer with an expected, "Sure. We're friends."
At once he was aware of the adults turning to one another with knowing smirks, and suddenly Duncan felt his mind prick with suspicion. "Why do you want to know?"
Elena, without the warm smile on her lips faltering, slid her hand from Duncan's and folded it with her other, leaning into her chair. "Oh, you know, just curiosity."
There were several snippets of laughter, but they were suppressed as soon as they arose. Finally, Duncan's attention was directed towards a loud scoff from just outside the adults' circle.
A girl came sauntering up, having abandoned her magazine on the deck chair where she'd been lounging a moment before. She looked to be about a year or two younger than Duncan, and was wearing a hot pink bikini, oversized sunglasses perched on top of her head. Her hazel eyes landed on Duncan's, and with a raised eyebrow that somehow suited her features perfectly, she stopped at the side of his chair.
"They think that you guys are secretly hooking up or something." She sniffed, her eyes grazing over Duncan with interest. "I told them that that would be impossible, because you wouldn't go out with someone like Courtney, but they refused to believe me."
Elena leaned over and gave the girl a playful slap, punishment for both giving away their motive and the insult. "It's none of our business whether or not there's something between Duncan and Courtney." She said simply, though the slight smile twitching at the corners of her lips gave her away.
An uncle sitting across from them was much less polite. "Oh yes, it is!" He claimed loudly, his eyes squinting as he gave a hearty laugh. The woman to his left nudged him, smiling too.
"There's really nothing between Courtney and me." Duncan shrugged, and he saw the girl's eyes spark.
"I told you," she boasted to her relatives, her chin lifting slightly. "I told you. But you didn't listen to me." She smirked proudly, her eyes daring anyone to say otherwise.
With a chuckle, Elena leaned over to the girl. "He's too old for you, Kayla, sweetheart."
The girl flushed, both from anger and embarrassment, and took a moment to struggle between arguing her age and arguing her intentions. In the end, though, she merely huffed and sat on the edge of her aunt's chair, tossing a growled "whatever" over her shoulder as she did.
Feeling as though he'd answered enough, Duncan stood and retreated inside the house. On the way upstairs, he passed Courtney, and stopped. She paused mid-step as well, her stare fixing on him, and, having read his expression, saw the situation fit for a sigh.
"What did they say?" She asked with a voice that suggested a worn-out fear for the worst. Duncan raised a brow, playing dumb.
"What did who say?"
Her expression fell to a glare, and she crossed her arms. "My family. Did they interrogate you? What did they ask?"
Hesitation caught Duncan as he sought an answer, and he decided that it was better if she didn't know. "Nothing."
But Courtney wasn't easily fooled. "Tell me, Duncan."
He shook his head, but just as he was about to slip upstairs and away from the girl's questions, he noticed something. "What's up with the sheet?"
Courtney's eyes dropped to take in the airy curves of her dress, flitting by the heels strapped to her feet. She glanced back up quickly. "We're going out to dinner."
Duncan's eyes, however, didn't stray. It was different to see her in a dress. It fit her well, and a smile fell atop his lips. "What kind of restaurant calls for that?"
Taking his interest as an insult, Courtney rolled her eyes, starting down the stairs again. Duncan caught her by the arm as she passed, ignoring her startled expression at the touch. "Relax, alright? I didn't mean it like that, don't freak." Courtney's patience still appeared short, but Duncan decided to ask his question again anyway. "So where are we going?"
"I am going to a nice restaurant in the next town over. You are staying here."
"Oh?" Duncan tilted his head to the side. "Says who?"
Courtney smirked. "The restaurant. They aren't exactly child-friendly."
"Ha. Funny." Duncan sneered in response. "Well, you can tell them to set an extra place at the table. I'm coming."
At this, the girl's lips parted. She gripped onto the railing, stepping up towards him. "No, you can't. I already made the reservations for a certain number and—"
"So? I can squeeze in."
Frustration reined in Courtney's eyes. "No! We aren't going to Denny's, you can't just squeeze in. Wait, Duncan—"
But he was hopping up the final steps, away from Courtney, a smile lingering on his lips. He shouted over his shoulder.
"By the way— you look good."
He didn't have to turn around to know that she was flushing.
When they had first met, Duncan had assumed several things about Courtney's family, the very first of which being that they were all rich and successful. That had proved true enough: they were doctors, lawyers, scientists. Their BMWs and Bentleys hid in the garage, Rolex and Tiffany glinted on their wrists— it was a clear enough fact.
But where his assumptions fallen short was with their personalities. Had he been aware of who he was staying with before he'd arrived, Duncan would have anticipated icy sneers, blunt criticism, and rigid schedules. But that wasn't what had greeted him. In fact, Courtney's family was made up of some of the friendliest, most accepting people he'd ever met. They hadn't dismissed him with cold judgement or shown any sort of biased disapproval. In fact, they seemed to genuinely like him.
That was certainly something Duncan—even before he knew that these people were relatives of Courtney's—hadn't expected. The way they were comfortable around him, the way they teased and joked and laughed with him just as they did with one another, was a surprise. It was something about their general nature that made Duncan feel at ease, finding a comfortable spot with them and forgetting any reputation he might have had to uphold. For the most part, at least.
Of course, that didn't mean that Courtney felt the same. She was still as snappish and energetic as ever, buzzing around the house with one responsibility or another. Her family kept trying to coax her into relaxing with them, to take a break, to socialize, but she often brushed them off and hurried on with whatever urgent chore taxed her at the moment, letting her relatives heave sighs and exchange knowing glances.
But there were times, brief moments where Duncan witnessed reluctance spring upon her. It was the way her body slowed when a family member called out to her, the way her limbs seemed to crave a moment with the relative. Or when someone would stop by as she finished laundry or set the dinner table, when her smiles were quick and lit up into her cheeks, when her eyes were glittering profoundly. But there was one force that could stop her in her tracks, still as the dead, and end whatever she was doing. And that force was Nan.
Duncan had heard little of the woman from his own grandmother, who had met her on some seniors' cruise several months ago, but he hadn't actually been able to understand who she was. Nan was a little woman, not even reaching Duncan's shoulder, but had enough spunk for the entire household two times over. And there was just something about the way she spoke, something in every word that passed from her lips that made Duncan's eyes slip to her and pause, if for just a moment, to hear the words. As comfortable as he was with the rest of the family, it was with Courtney's grandmother that he felt the truest respect for. She was honest, she was fair, and most importantly, there was not a single thing about himself that he thought could surprise her or make her think less of him. It was like she had read his core, skipped all of the labels and assumptions and seen the real person inside of him, the hidden side of him, the boy that had fallen for her granddaughter.
So it wasn't ever a surprise when Courtney stopped what she was doing for her Nan: the woman almost cast a spell over her. Duncan had never seen the girl look up to anyone before, never seen her care so much about a person, and it made his heart twitch, and the urge to be with her pulsed even stronger.
One could, then, imagine his excitement as he readied to join the others outside later that evening. The relatives would be dressed in their best: it wasn't just Courtney; this was going to be a swanky restaurant.
Which hadn't boded well for Duncan, at first. He hadn't thought to bring anything fancy, hadn't really cared that he might've needed to. But these were nice people, and now he was looking to impress the family of his (future) girlfriend. He had just been considering borrowing something of his father's when his mother had entered his room, a small bundle of material in her hands.
"Here." She handed it to him, and when Duncan unfolded the shirt, he raised an eyebrow to his mother.
"You went into my closet?"
Her smile was soft. "I didn't see anything, I promise. Besides, shouldn't you be thanking me?"
His eyes dropped to the material distastefully. "Uh, no. I had a black dress shirt, couldn't you have grabbed that one instead?"
Carol shook her head. "What's wrong with this one? I gave you it last Christmas."
"It's… blue." Not even navy. Full-on periwinkle.
"Oh, shush. You like blue. It looks good on you. It brings out your eyes."
Duncan fixed his mother with a dark look, but she just smiled and slapped his arm teasingly. "Just wear it. Besides," her eyes twinkled, "I'm sure Courtney will like it."
Before her son had a chance to respond, the woman turned on her heel and slipped out of the room. And even though he did so grudgingly, Duncan found himself meeting the others outside in that dreaded shirt. Kayla had a spiked brow for him.
"Nice shirt." She said, a warm smirk in the corner of her lips and a gleam in her eyes. "Where'd you get it?"
"I didn't." He shrugged. "And it wasn't my first choice."
The girl stepped closer, her smile amused. "Well, it looks—"
There was a snicker, and Duncan saw Kayla's expression darken as Courtney stepped around the boy.
"Oh, wow." The girl brought a hand to her lips, hiding the smile that had surfaced there as she studied the article of clothing. "Wow, Duncan."
Duncan was just parting his curving lips to respond when Kayla cut in sharply, her arms fixing across her chest. "I think it looks hot."
But as Courtney glanced over the entire ensemble, it appeared that her opinion would not be swayed. "Think what you want, I just find it bizarre to see Duncan in something so…" She let a snicker escape. "Conventional."
Duncan shifted closer to the girl, leaning towards her in confidence with a grin slicing across his face. Flushing, Kayla also moved nearer to catch his words. "Not as conventional as you think." And reaching up to the top button on the shirt, he undid it and the next four down, watching as the girls' eyes dropped to take in a black skull as it bled obscenely across the shirt he wore underneath.
Kayla giggled. Courtney scowled. A shout of laughter echoed ahead of them, and Duncan glanced up as a young man approached.
"Nice." He nodded towards the shirt. He looked to be a little older than Courtney, maybe nearing twenty, and Duncan had to rack his brain for a moment to recall his name. Andrew. He'd been introduced the first night. "So," Andrew continued, clapping his hands together and glancing at his cousins. "Are the four of us going to take my car?"
Duncan slid his eyes to Courtney, giving her a slight nudge. "What do you say, babe? Want to carpool?"
Courtney slipped her hands into fists, ignoring him as best she could, and started towards the garage.
They arrived at the restaurant fifteen minutes late, and by that time, Courtney was looking incredibly panicky. Her foot tapped anxiously aginst the floor of the car until Andrew finally found a parking space in the crowded lot, at which point she jumped up and immediately started for the building. She called behind her. "Well? What are you guys waiting for?"
Duncan smirked at her impatience, stepping out himself. But his attention was diverted from the girl as Kayla climbed out of the car and stepped up to his side, words ready. "We're already late, I don't know why she's bitching."
With a shrug, Duncan started for the restaurant too. The girl matched his pace. "This place is totally swanky, by the way." She continued. "They'll kick you out if you don't act like a complete snob."
She nodded, glancing up to meet his eyes. "Oh, yeah. This one time, when I was just a baby, my mom got kicked out because I wouldn't stop crying. Like, what the hell?"
The boy frowned slightly. "Wait— You guys have been here before?"
"Just about a million times. But not in the past few years, obviously. So anyway," she changed the subject back quickly, paying no mind to the look of confusion on Duncan's face. "That's why my younger cousins are staying back at the house. I was this close to having to babysit, but I was like, no way. I wanted to break in my new dress." Kayla tugged at the hem of it, trying to draw Duncan's attention to the black fabric. He glanced the article over, suddenly distracted from his previous thoughts.
"Well, it looks hot on you."
The corners of her lips curled into a little smile. "I thought you'd say that."
Here, she met Duncan's eyes with a flickering look, as if her words were a secret between them. He met her gaze with playful curiosity, and couldn't help but notice the bright enticement storming her expression.
Duncan inclined his head towards Kayla softly. "And what made you think that?"
The girl shifted her warm eyes up to him, an eyebrow raising gently. She held them there for a moment, letting the boy read her expression, before her lips drew back and she laughed.
As they approached the entrance where Courtney was holding open the door and fuming, Kayla gave Duncan a soft slap on his arm. "Because," she said, answering slyly, a grin in her cheeks, "you have great taste."
There was a snort of disgust, and Duncan turned to glance at Courtney. She appeared to be biting her tongue, glaring in an entirely different direction. Kayla was quick to respond. "I'm sorry, did you want to say something?"
Courtney's gaze shifted to her cousin's, and though she looked ready to snap in return, she said nothing. Instead, the girl merely slipped inside, letting the door fall against Duncan's shoulder as she did.
A hostess was waiting to greet the teens, and she promptly brought them to a large round table where Courtney's family was awaiting them. The adults were conversing pleasantly as they approached, but soon began to tease. "What happened?" asked a smiling uncle over his glass of wine. "Did you get lost?"
Huffing, Courtney crossed her arms and gave an irritated shake of her head. "No. But Andrew's idea of a shortcut is awfully distorted."
"I took a couple of wrong turns." Andrew admitted with a shrug as he stepped over to an empty high-backed chair. Duncan thought that he was about to take it for himself, but was proved wrong as the boy instead pulled out the chair and took a step to the side. Andrew glanced at Courtney, who was presently looking rather disdainful with him, and nodded his head towards the seat. The girl stood angrily for a moment, reluctant, before she softened and took the chair with a slight smile touching her lips.
"Thank you," was her simple response, and Andrew took the spot beside her.
Duncan twisted his mouth to the side. Should he have thought of that?
A small sound reached his ears, and he turned to Kayla, who cleared her throat again and jutted out her chin in the direction of another empty chair. Her lips were smirking, and her eyes looked as though she detected the irony.
Feeling it too, Duncan snapped his hands against the sides of the chair and drew it out, bowing his head in obedience as he did. "Milady," he said with a grand wave of his hand. It was an exaggerated action, mocking the restaurant blatantly, and attracted a few glances from other diners as a burst of laughter escaped Kayla's lips. She slipped into the seat and reached back to grab Duncan's wrist.
"You're so bad." She snickered, letting the tips of her fingers run down the back of his hand as she slid hers away. He raised an eyebrow at her, and noted her wink.
He'd figured that she'd taken an interest in him— it was obvious enough. And while she was the exact type of girl he would have been flirting with at school, Duncan knew better than to think that she held any sincere feelings. He knew this girl; this girl was everywhere. She liked his lack of discretion, his rebellious nature, his disregard of rules and boundaries. She didn't like him— she liked the thrill of him.
Duncan shifted his glance over to Courtney as he settled into the last chair. She was rolling her eyes, clearly peeved, and had her hand clenched into a fist. Apparently, she didn't approve of his charade.
Looking around, though, Duncan could understand why. There was a bright bouquet of freshly cut flowers (over which his mother and Courtney's aunt Elena were gushing) sitting elegantly in the centre of their table, a glittering miniature chandelier suspended above their heads, and the distant sound of a piano being played wafting about them. It was all very proper, very dignified, very…
Not like Duncan.
He squirmed in his seat, annoyed with how plush the velvet was, and gripped at his napkin, wishing it was somehow rougher, or stained, or that it didn't match the draperies hanging across the windows so precisely— That it didn't make him feel soout of place. It wasn't that Duncan cared what these people thought of him—he didn't give a shit about what anyone thought (excluding, possibly, Courtney)—he just didn't enjoy being out of his so element. He felt anxious, like he would jump up and start sprinting at any moment. Anything to get out of here.
It wasn't any better when he began glancing over the menu. The prices were through the roof, there were twelve different kinds of water, the picture on the cover of the menu looked more like modern art than food, and what the hell was escolar? Was it a vegetable? A sauce? A kind of steak?
He started drumming his fingers on the table. His foot twitched back and forth rapidly. He leaned his elbow on one armrest, then shifted to the other, then back to the other. He wasn't even reading what dishes there were anymore; he was just staring mindlessly at the words, as if they were written in an entirely different language that he couldn't decipher.
After fifteen minutes and a remarkably snooty waiter later, he'd had enough. Duncan stood from his seat, and, without a single glance towards his father's immediate disapproving glare, stalked out of the restaurant.
The muggy air coated his skin as he made his way around to the back of the building, away from the expectations of the diners and towards something that he could sink into easily. Several of the busboys were smoking a distance from the back exit, crowded around a bench against the wall, and it was there that Duncan stopped.
He nodded towards them when they glanced up. "Hey."
One young man, close to Duncan's age, raised an eyebrow and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. "You want one?"
The offer bounced back and forth in Duncan's mind for a moment before he finally accepted. It wasn't what he'd left for, but at that moment, it was inviting nonetheless. "Sure."
As he was about to light it, though, something cut him off.
Courtney stood at the very corner of the building, her hands fixed on her hips. She stomped over and plucked the cigarette right from Duncan's lips, tossing it on the ground and kicking it away with the toe of her shoe. Her eyes latched onto his.
"Since when have you smoked?"
He shrugged indifferently. "I don't."
"That certainly isn't what this looks like."
"Then you clearly haven't looked closely enough, haveyou?"
She was about to fire something else at him, but stopped herself as she glanced towards the group of boys, who had been listening intently. Courtney made a face at their grins before she pulled Duncan around the corner and back towards the entrance. Out of earshot, she crossed her arms over her chest and demanded, "Correct me, then: do you smoke or not?"
Being given the chance to correct Courtney was something Duncan was usually eager to jump on, but right then, it brought him little satisfaction. "When I feel like it, yeah."
"But not all the time?"
Duncan clicked his tongue, looking away. "No. Only sometimes."
"Is that why you always carry that lighter with you?"
She'd noticed. "It's just handy."
Courtney nodded, looking a little more at ease. "Social smoking is still bad, though. You can become addicted after just a few even still, you know."
He sneered. "Thanks for the lecture, Mom."
The girl looked slightly taken aback at his sharp tone. She leaned away, the corners of her lips flexing downward. Her forehead creased. "What's the matter with you? Why are you acting like a moody little child?"
Duncan sucked in his cheeks. "I just don't need you riding my ass about everything, alright? Just back off."
Courtney stared at him, her eyes so unwavering that Duncan started to become uncomfortable. The gaze remained unbroken for what felt like an eternity until finally, she blinked, and whatever concern she'd worked up disappeared. "Fine. I won't bother you, then." She turned on her heel and started towards the door.
With a wince at his mistake, Duncan reached out to catch her by the arm. "Wait, Courtney—"
"Look," she hissed, whipping around and glaring, "I really don't need this. I'm here to spend time with my family, not to argue with you. So spare me the drama, alright?"
She made to tear her arm away, but Duncan held on tight. And then, he said the one thing he knew she wanted to hear. "Yeah, okay—I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get pissed."
Surprise sparked in Courtney's eyes, and she halted to study him. She nodded slowly, pressing her lips together and glancing away. "Well…. apology accepted." She slipped away from his grip, rubbing the tender red area on her skin where his fingers had been pressing as she'd wretched away. "Are we going back in, then?"
By 'we', she meant him. But Duncan didn't answer, didn't move, and his eyes dropped to her forearm. He reached out towards her, and, ignoring her immediate flinch, began to run his thumb over the mark gently as the red slowly receded. "You alright?"
He hadn't meant for the words to sound so soft, yet they had taken on a tender tone anyway. Courtney didn't let it go unnoticed: her eyes flicked up, her lips parted ever so slightly. And for a moment, neither of them looked away.
"Yeah," she replied, her voice vague. "Yeah, I'm… I'm fine."
With the sound of her own voice, Courtney snapped out of whatever trance she had been struck into. She shook her head, breaking the contact, and started for the door once again.
She stopped mid-step. Her voice was tentative. "Yes?"
A breath caught in Duncan's throat. What did he want to know? What did he want to tell her?
At the very thought, his stomach turned over.
The feeling fell.
Courtney glanced over her shoulder at him, her brows falling into a line as she frowned slightly. She might have been confused by the question, but Duncan found himself wondering, later on, if maybe she'd been disappointed."It's a kind of fish… I think they serve it raw here. Why?"
Duncan made a face, following after her.
"Ugh. No reason."
Though what had happened outside remained between Courtney and Duncan, the group knew something was up the moment they approached. Raised eyebrows and secretive smiles were sent their way as they took their seats, and Kayla was at once questioning.
"What was that?" She asked, trying to sound indifferent but falling short. Her fingers were hovering by the stem of her mocktail like they were prepared to pounce.
"Nothing." Duncan said, brushing off the question with ease. But the answer clearly failed to satisfy, and she prompted again:
"Seriously. You can tell me."
Glancing up, Duncan noted that the adults were also leaned forward in their chair, looking expectant.
He was just parting his lips to answer when a sleek explanation met his ears.
"Duncan thought that we'd accidently left the car lights on, so we went to check."
Courtney said it without hesitation, without insecurity, and it surprised him that she could lie so well.
Whether or not they bought it, Duncan wasn't sure— But either way, they were off the hook: the adults resumed talking, turning to one another and letting their voices rise and fall with their words. Except for Nan.
The woman's eyes were set on him firmly, and when Duncan glanced over to meet them, the gaze did not waver. She watched him, watched him looking back at her, for a long moment before her lips slid into her cheeks: a smile. Nan's eyes slipped to Courtney, slowly, and then refocused on Duncan. And even if she did not know all of the details, even if Duncan did not know how, he knew that she understood. In that moment, he was sure of it.
Dinner, like everything else, turned out better than Duncan had initially expected. The escolar, once he got past the raw factor, wasn't all too bad. And the restaurant, after he took a closer look at it, wasn't as snobby as he'd first thought— he'd seen more than one wince crossing a diner's face when presented with the bill. But above that, it was Courtney's family that made him feel comfortable.
It was the way they tried (and failed) to pronounce the exotic names of their dishes, the way they sniggered at the waiter's arrogant saunter when his back was turned. It was the way Andrew had spoken when he'd leaned over and said, under his breath, "Our family only come here for the food. If they served this stuff in a dumpster out back, we'd still be making reservations."
Which was why Duncan was enthusiastic enough when Andrew suggested that they go see a late movie at the local theatre.
"Do you honestly think we'll be able to agree on something?" Courtney pointed out with an eyebrow raised as they pulled out of the restaurant parking lot. She had been the only downfall of Duncan's evening: after what had happened outside, she'd distanced herself from him, refusing eye contact and biting the inside of her cheek every time he spoke. Courtney had called Duncan moody, but her attitude towards him seemed to change every minute.
Andrew reasoned with her. "It doesn't matter what we see, it's just going out and doing something that's the fun part."
"Still, I don't want to see something I won't like." She bit her lip slightly, then, thinking. "There is that new drama that looks good…"
"Nuh-uh." Kayla waved the idea away with her hand. "No drama. Scary movies are more exciting, and I've been dying to see that new slasherflick for weeks."
Andrew turned to glance at his cousin. "You mean the one with the psycho killer that goes around murdering teens on prom night?"
Courtney rolled her eyes. "Oh, right, that scary movie. I was confusing it with every other slasher film ever made. Those movies are so predictable."
"Ugh, you're so stupid." Kayla snapped. "They're not all the same, and you would know that if you actually watched one once in a while."
Duncan held up his hands to reinforce the peace. "Hey, look, it's no big deal— Courtney doesn't want to see a scary movie, so we'll just pick something else."
And maybe he should have left it at that, for the girl had taken on a small, appreciative smile at his words, but Duncan continued. "You know how easily she scares."
The smile flickered off.
Courtney reached a hand back to smack Duncan's arm—which he swiftly avoided—and snapped, "Don't try reverse psychology on me. It won't work."
He smirked, thinking back to earlier in the day. "You think so?"
"I know what you thought you were doing," she narrowed her eyes, craning her head around the side of her seat, "when you bet me that I couldn't jump off of the cliff. I did it because I wanted to, not because I wanted to prove you wrong. Don't look at me like I'm simple."
She swivelled back around, facing the dashboard. Kayla scoffed.
"What's with her?" Her lips curved and her eyes landed on Duncan playfully, but Duncan wasn't in the mood to flirt. He slumped in his seat, eyeing the loose strands of Courtney's hair ahead of him.
So she had known. When she had been falling, when the air had been blasting past her, when the water engulfing her angrily, she had known.
What else did she know?
"What's it going to be, then?" Andrew asked. "Slasher or drama?"
For a moment, no one answered. The only sound was of the hum of road beneath them and the whistling of wind from a window that was left open a crack. It was Duncan who answered finally, breaking the tense silence between them.
"Neither. I have a better idea."
"Duncan! This is not what I thought you meant!"
She shrieked it, the words tangling in the wind that blasted around them. Kayla screeched with delight from the backseat.
"I mean it! Seriously, Duncan, this is dangerous— slow down now!"
She was right and he knew it. This wasn'tat all what she'd had in mind when he had suggested a drive, and it was dangerous. But Duncan had never been in such an expensive car before, such a fast car before, and there was no way he would slow down.
And as much as it seemed like Courtney's fierce disapproval would have been a buzz kill, in reality it only added more fuel to his flame. Every angry outcry from her made Duncan's need for power and excitement burn brighter, and his foot would slam harder on the gas pedal.
He wound around dark trees, clouds of dust exploding behind as he pressed on, on, on— as he tore down the empty dirt road like he owned it. Without wavering, without questioning, without thinking. Every part of his boy felt alive, exhilarated. Unstoppable.
Duncan liked that feeling. He liked it a lot.
The stars, little punctures in the expanse of the sky, seemed to be his destination. It didn't matter how fast they went, he craved more. More speed, more distance. He couldn't stop moving, he couldn't stop. Couldn't touch that brake. Wouldn't dare.
Until something caught his eye.
It was just a smudge on the horizon at first, something unrecognizable at the end of the long stretch of gravel road they had turned onto. Duncan squinted at it as it rushed nearer, and then he was easing up on the gas, and his sense of adrenaline was fading.
"What is that?" Kayla murmured from behind, her fingers curling around the side of Duncan's seat and nudging his shoulder slightly. "It looks like a weird old tower or something."
Courtney's eyes were fixating themselves on the structure slowly, and the shake of her head was soft. Her anger with Duncan fell into fascination. "No. It's a windmill."
A moment later they were slipping away from the trees and spilling out into a clear area, old farmland as it looked like. Duncan pulled onto the side of the road when they reached the windmill, slowing down and finally stopping. He turned the key in the ignition.
No one moved at first, but after a moment Duncan clicked off his seatbelt and turned to his passengers. "Let's go check it out." He said, an excited smirk filling the corners of his lips. Kayla unbuckled and leaned towards him eagerly.
"We should." She grinned. "Who knows what's in there?"
But Courtney shook her head. "This screams bad idea. That building must be at least a hundred years old— what if it collapses beneath us? No. There's no way I'm taking that chance."
Duncan glanced at the building, then at her. They locked eyes.
He pushed open the car door, stepping out and starting towards the windmill. He recognized the sounds of Kayla and Andrew following close behind and Courtney's reluctant, protesting steps as his finger found the rusted latch of the door. The wood was soft where it brushed his knuckles, and a musty smell flourished around him as he lifted the metal and swung open the door.
Scratching sounded before them, and though Duncan couldn't be sure be sure, he suspected that the culprit of the sound had been rats. He mentioned this to no one, though, and continued through the doorway. A plank of wood creaked beneath the heel of his right Chuck, and Duncan made sure his steps were feathery as he slipped inside.
"It's dark in here." Kayla whispered, as if to not disturb something sleeping in the shadows.
The sunlight was waning: the dull orange just barely managed to seep through the spaces between the planks of the wall. Slipping a hand into his pocket, the boy pulled out his Zippo and snapped it open. The flame was small, but Duncan's hands and forearms were illuminated nonetheless.
He glanced at Courtney, who hovered disapprovingly just outside of the doorway. "I told you it came in handy."
She simply rolled her eyes.
The room was small, cramped with barrels and sacks of what Duncan could only assume was grain. It was dingy, muggy, and had a distinct sense of abandonment. The building seemed unused to activity—it whined in its own way with every step the teens took. Yet there was something soft about it, something comfortable that made Duncan feel as though he could have easily known the place his whole life.
"Check this out—" Andrew shuffled to the other side of the circular room, his hands finding something to grip. "It's a ladder."
Courtney crossed the threshold now, starting over to her cousin. As she passed the base of the mill, her fingers brushed across the old metal grinder, and she paused, eyes fastening themselves to the old machine. It was a moment before she finally shook her head, snapping out of her transfixion and remembering her cousin. "Don't even think about climbing up. That wood must be so rotten it'll snap like a twig if you try to put your weight on it."
"It doesn't look that bad." Andrew reasoned, tilting his head back to see what the stairs led to. "I'll be careful."
With a reassuring smile, he lifted a foot and set it firmly on the first step of the ladder. As Courtney winced, his swung his other foot to the second, and stopped for a moment.
The ladder groaned softly with the weight, but stayed intact, and with a grin Andrew continued to climb. A moment later he had reached the second floor and was calling down to them.
Kayla bent down and tugged off her heels. With the shoes hanging by their straps on her index finger, she made her way up the ladder, her bare feet curving around the wood. When she too had met the top of it and pulled through, she turned around and called through the opening of the wall to Duncan. "Well? Don't tell me you're too chicken!"
He was about to start up too, but then turned to Courtney. "Ladies first," he smiled.
Sneering at the sarcasm in his voice, she pointed upward. "Just climb, Duncan."
"Are you going?"
She crossed her arms. "Well, it looks like I'm going to have to. I'm the only one that has the first aid training necessary for when one of us gets hurt."
"And how are you so sure that someone's going to get hurt?"
Courtney pursed her lips. "Intuition. Now," she dropped her arms and nodded towards the ladder. "Climb."
"Now," he stepped to the side, "after you."
He was being polite, wasn't he? Maybe not as genuinely so as she might've liked, but she still had to appreciate the attempt, right?
Duncan squinted at her, ignoring the beckoning sounds of Kayla above, and crossed his arms as well. "Oh, so what, now I'm a perv? The one time I try to be nice to you?"
"Nice?" She spiked a brow. "Trying to look up my dress is considered nice?"
His eyes dropped to what she was wearing and studied it. He glanced at her with a cheeky grin.
"I'm surprised that I forgot."
She punched his arm and snapped, "Shut up, Duncan! Just climb." The girl exhaled heavily. "Please."
Grasping the side of the ladder, Duncan hoisted himself onto the first step. "Well, if you put it that way…"
Climbing up was easy, and when he reached the top, Duncan noticed Kayla's eyes sliding over his arms warmly. He couldn't help but flash her a smile— he appreciated the female attention. It was becoming more and more difficult to come by.
"It's crazy dusty up here." Kayla commented offhandedly, running a hand through her hair and dropping to slip her shoes back on.
Andrew shifted across the floor, the wood creaking noisily beneath his feet. "Yeah… How long do you think it's been since someone has been up here?"
"Judging by how run-down it is," Courtney said as she pulled herself through the hole in the floor, "and the development of the surrounding area, I'd have to say—"
"A long time." Kayla cut in, standing up. "We don't need the details, thanks."
Courtney glared sharply at her cousin, who returned it with a sneer. Duncan couldn't resist the urge to jump between them, raising an eyebrow at Courtney.
"Is this what you meant by 'intuition'?"
The girl scoffed without removing her eyes from the younger of the two. "Believe me, if I could get away with it, she'd be at the bottom of that ladder right now."
Kayla narrowed her eyes and stepped up to her cousin. She cocked her head to one side. "You're just jealous because D—"
"Alright, alright, we get the point." Andrew stepped between the girls, grasping both their shoulders and pushing them apart. "You hate each other, you'd kill each other, you don't want anything to do with one another. We get it. But let's keep moving, okay? There's nothing on this floor besides dust, but I think I see a set of stairs in the corner. We can check it out."
Andrew started for the staircase, inclining his head in that direction as he did, as if his cousins might just unfreeze from their spots. But a moment passed, and after neither had, he paused. Andrew shifted his eyes to Duncan, who did nothing but shrug.
"You guys go ahead," Courtney finally volunteered, her eyes still not straying. "I want to talk to Kayla for a minute."
The boys exchanged glances, but proceeded to follow her suggestion and shifted through shadowy room. They met the short flight of stairs Andrew had described and started up them, only for Duncan to stop before they met the top. The older boy shot him a confused look in the flicker of Duncan's lighter, creases forming in his forehead. But Duncan's only answer was to lean back and crane his head in the direction of Courtney and Kayla's whispering. He caught only snippets at first, but then their voices rose just enough for him to make out clear words.
"You have got to stop doing this."
"Why do you have to be such a freak about everything? You aren't my mom."
"Would people stop saying that already— Look, you just don't want to get into this. Believe me, you don't."
"Oh yeah? Give me one good reason why I shouldn't."
"Well, for starters, he went to juvenile detention hall!"
They were talking about him.
Duncan shifted closer.
"Oh, is that where you two met?"
A scoff. "Of course not! We met at school—"
"And did you guys date?"
He sucked in a breath.
"No! No, why would you even—"
"But you wanted to. Is that right? And now you're just spiteful because he rejected you? Look, I don't care what happened between you. I seriously couldn't care less. But don't let it get in the way, alright? God—it's just for the rest of the summer. You act like I want to marry him."
The sound of a heel scuffing wood reached Duncan's ears then, and he gave Andrew a sharp nudge. They shuffled up the final steps as quietly as they could, scrambling for a faster retreat.
It proved unnecessary, though, as Courtney clearly had more to say. But what, exactly, she told her cousin, Duncan was unsure. Their voices were muffled by the floorboards, and he was unable to catch the thread of conversation before their footsteps reached the stairs and their voices fell to silence.
Kayla stepped out of the shadowy staircase first, acting as if nothing had occurred just a moment before. She let her eyes take in the room around her, and her eyebrows rose slightly. "This is kind of cool," was her mild remark.
Realizing that he hadn't looked around himself, Duncan tore his gaze from the brunette and let it brush against his surroundings.
This was kind of cool.
Considering how creepy the two lower floors of the windmill had been, this level was a bit of a surprise. For starters, they could see it better than the last. Broken patches in the cone-shaped ceiling above let the last flicker of sunlight stream in, casting itself across the floor warmly. A crooked window sat in one wall, half of its panes shattered on the floor. The glass shimmered in the light.
But it was the two metal posts as they met in a jumble of gears in the centre of the room that really caught Duncan's eye. One protruded from the wall, one sprung vertically from the floor; both were covered in a mess of grime and rust. And even with how still they were now, the boy could still manage to hear the creaking of the gears churning around one another, see the machine, the building, buzzing with activity. Smell fresh flour as it was being ground two stories lower. He could see the windmill when it hadn't been so empty, when it had been something of importance.
He glanced at the others to see if they were thinking the same. Andrew had dropped to pick up a shard of glass from the window, examining it closely and muttering something about stupid kids. Kayla's arms were crossed as she bit the inside of her cheek, feigning interest in the room when her mind was clearly still set on the subject of the argument moments ago.
Courtney was staring at the gears. The expression she wore betrayed her thoughts easily.
Her eyes jumped from part to part, from one section of the machine to another. Duncan knew that she was trying to make sense of it, trying to determine exactly how it all had functioned. With an arm hugging her waist, the girl stepped closer to it and slowly lifted her hand. She let the tips of her fingers press against the worn metal and a smile inch its way across her lips.
Mirroring her step, Duncan too brought a hand to the gear. His eyes flickered from Courtney to their hands and back again, but she didn't let hers stray as she spoke.
"I can only imagine was it would have been like to be here when it was in use."
Duncan nodded. "Yeah. Things must've been so different then."
"Yeah…" her voice was vague. "Completely different. I can't believe we never knew about this place before."
The boy's eyebrows drew together with a lack of understanding. "Before?"
She ignored him. Her mind was entirely focused on what was before her, so mesmerized. It was incredible to see her this way.
She was incredible.
And then, without entirely understanding what he was doing, Duncan shifted his fingers over, brushing Courtney's. She blinked, but didn't move. He slipped his hand over hers, slowly, softly, feeling electricity vibrate through him as he touched her.
He was about to say her name, the C already forming on his tongue, when the girl pulled away abruptly, her face flushing brightly. She glanced at her cousins, announcing in a voice too loud for how quiet she'd been a moment ago. "I'm done. We should go."
Without another glance at any of them, Courtney turned in the dust and started for the stairs. Kayla was next to follow.
Duncan rested his head against the window frame, watching the sun as it peeked out from over the trees before him and ambled slowly into the sky. The boy blinked several times, trying to shake the sleep off of him, and rubbed the back of his neck. He exhaled.
A knock came from the other side of the room, and Duncan glanced over curiously. "Yeah?"
The door inched open, and it was Nan who poked her head inside. Their eyes met, and she stepped through.
"You are up." She gave an affirming nod. "I thought so."
The woman pushed the door to a close behind her as she walked towards Duncan. Her eyes flicked over the dozing form of Thomas in the bed beside Duncan's, and she smiled.
"He is a sweet boy." She noted. "Very mischievous. Like his brother, no?"
Her eyes twinkled as they reattached to Duncan's. She joined him at the window, regarding the view of the lake as it rippled over itself in the early wind. "So," Nan started, "you would like to date my granddaughter?"
Duncan flinched, startled at the directness of her words. He did his best to feign disinterest, though, and turned his eyes to the world on the other side of the window. "Kayla, you mean? She's okay, but I don't think I'd date her."
The smile on her lips didn't waver. "No, maybe not. Your eyes are too set on Courtney to see anything else, are they not?"
"Courtney?" He said her name as if it was new to him, like it had never crossed his mind before. "Nah, she's not really my type."
"Bah!" The woman slapped his arm, chuckling. "Stop this. You think you can lie to Nan? I have been around many years, many more than you— there is little that I do not see. You are like a book with her, so easy to read… Of course," she paused, letting her eyes peruse the lakeside view for a moment before she turned them back on Duncan with meaning. "Not for all."
Raising an eyebrow, the boy crossed his arms and glanced over the little woman. "What're you talking about?"
She shrugged mildly, obviously pleased with his sudden uncertainty. "Oh, what does this old bat know, anyway? I am sure you have the perfect plan to, ah, get the girl. Do you not?"
He shrugged. "I know what I'm doing."
"Mm, that is good." Nan waved her hand, her tone becoming conversational as she said her next words. "I was afraid that you would be like all of those other boys, those stupid, teasing boys. How can they think that they have a chance with my Maria? She does not give them the time of the day."
A crease formed in Duncan's forehead. "She doesn't?"
"Oh, no—she does not look twice." The woman shook her head. "With their laughing and their goofing, why should she? They cannot be taken seriously, so she does not consider them seriously."
Duncan fingers drummed on his forearm, troubled by the insecurity she had created in him. He wasn't used to the feeling. "But, I mean, she knows the difference between just some stupid guy and a guy that actually…" he sucked in his cheeks, doing his best to avoid the woman's eyes. "Actually likes her?"
The smile on her face twitched. "She knows when she chooses to know."
What was that supposed to mean?
"But you do not have to worry about this, right?" Nan continued. "You have a plan."
Her accent rolled around the last word, like it was a joke on her tongue. Duncan bit the inside of his cheek.
"Yeah." the word sounded cocky in his ear. "Yeah, I don't have to worry."
Nan smacked his arm for a second time. "I told you not to lie!" She sighed, but the smile didn't leave her eyes. "But maybe it is better this way. She needs someone as stubborn as she is." The woman took a moment to reflect, bringing a hand to her mouth and pressing it there. When she looked back up at Duncan, her voice was softer. "I must ask you to promise this old lady something, Duncan, and I will trust that you can keep it."
Confused, the boy gave a faint nod. "Well… alright. Shoot."
Courtney's grandmother stepped closer, reaching up to hold either side of Duncan's face. She barely reached. "No matter what that girl puts you through, I want you to promise Nan that you will keep trying. No matter how difficult she is, do not give up on her." Her eyebrows rose. "Will you promise me this?"
Catching himself before he agreed too quickly, Duncan took a moment to think about it. He knew that Nan would know if he had given up on Courtney. She would know it before anyone else, even the boy himself.
Still, there was some appeal in knowing that Nan had so much faith in Duncan, so much in her granddaughter's returned feelings. If someone like her believed that it would happen, how could it not? Then again, she also felt it necessary for Duncan to pledge his commitment to the task of bringing them together.
How difficult would this become?
Regardless, Duncan agreed. When he did, Nan grinned fully.
"Good!" She patted his cheek and dropped her hands. "My Maria is a tough nut to crack, but do not let that discourage you. She will come around. Now," Nan started towards the door, having done what, as Duncan suddenly realized, she had set out to do even before she had entered his room. "I am going to start making our breakfast in an hour, when these late birds begin to rise. But for now, I think I will sit outside. This house is too big! It is lucky my son has the family to fill it."
Just before she slipped away, Duncan called after her.
She stopped. Looked at him carefully. "You are not taking back your promise, are you?"
"No," he assured her. "It's not that. I just wanted to know— why do you call her Maria?"
Nan seemed to soften. She did not respond right away, pursing her lips and thinking for a moment. Finally, she gave a slow, sad shake of her head. Her voice was different when she spoke.
"That is not for me to be saying."
Duncan tried to persist, but the woman slipped away then, easing the door shut behind her.
Every morning since the first, Duncan had seen a pair of teeny-tiny shorts sitting on Kayla's hips as she sauntered down the main hallway and into the living room. A patterned pair of blue and purple clouds, a Barbie-pink pair with bright white polka-dots, a plaid pair with thin silver stripes and a soft satin bow. All very cute, all very little. And he knew that she was aware of their length: she flaunted it. Her feet would prop themselves on the edge of the coffee table, letting the material hike up a bit higher and her legs curve in a way that Duncan was supposed to notice. In a way he did notice. Nan did too, often raising an eyebrow and teasing, "Do not tell me that you have been shopping in the children's section! You are too old for that." And they would laugh, and the girl would let her lips mimic the contours of her legs as she smiled, her eyes falling on Duncan with a look that was meant only for him.
That morning, she wore sweatpants.
"Hurry up, Kayla. You said you wanted to go, so let's go!"
A huff reached Duncan's ears, and then Kayla was shouting down to her cousin.
"Yell all you want, it won't make me get ready any faster!"
Courtney growled low, and stormed up the stairs. Her footsteps were loud above Duncan's head as she made her way to Kayla's room, and he heard a cry as she opened the girl's door.
"We're going hiking, how dressed up do you need to be?"
"Well excuse me for trying to be hygienic."
"Applying mascara doesn't count as practising good hygiene!"
Duncan glanced at Andrew, whose lips quirked in a smile. Duncan returned it, asking, "Are they always like this?"
The older teen nodded. "Always have been, even when they were little. But they have their good days, too."
Good days? "Really?"
Andrew shrugged. "They don't always get along, sure, but they don't hate each other. They have their differences just like any—"
Another exclamation from upstairs interrupted him: "Just put on a pair of running shoes and let's go. No one cares what you look like!"
Duncan and Andrew exchanged smirks.
"So," Andrew slipped his hands into his pockets, rocking slightly on his heels. "You and Courtney go to school together?"
The younger man's eyes didn't stray from the staircase as he answered. "Yeah."
"And you… like her?"
Now he turned his head, caught off guard by the sudden question. "What?"
Andrew half-smiled. "Sorry. Just by the way you were acting, I figured…"
"Oh," the corners of Duncan's lips turned down. Had he been obvious, or was Andrew just good at reading people? For his own sake, his figured the latter. "Well— yeah. I do— but I liked her months ago, too."
"Yeah. And she knew it, but then she started going out with some jerk, and, you know…"
Why Duncan was spilling his secrets to someone he barely knew, he wasn't sure. But something about Andrew made him feel secure, reinforced the thoughts in his mind.
Andrew sighed in understanding. "Aw, man, that sucks. They must not have been really serious, though. I never heard about her dating anyone."
Duncan shrugged, refocusing his eyes back on the stairs. "I guess that's just it, she wasn't serious about him. She was just dating him because she—" He stopped.
Courtney's family was an inquisitive bunch. "I don't know," Duncan admitted truthfully, "not really. I guess she was just scared about how I felt—or how she felt, I'm not really sure—and used some guy as an excuse not to feel anything at all."
It took a moment of thought, but finally, Andrew nodded. "Yeah, okay, I understand that. She's never been the best with feelings. Leave her to plan a vacation and she'll have everything figured out perfectly, down to the very last detail. But make her sort out the way she feels and she's hopeless."
This was actually something Duncan hadn't realized before— For as well put-together as she seemed, her thoughts and feelings must have been a mess in her mind. He supposed that they were things that she hadn't deemed important enough to set aside time to organize. Or, maybe, she'd been too scared to.
The bedroom door slammed shut, and Courtney was stomping down the staircase, a cloud of anger swarming around her. She stopped before the boys at the foot of the stairs and glowered, her arms crossing.
"I'm not waiting for her."
She slipped past them and made her way to the foyer, letting the boys trail behind.
"We can't just let her hike to the clearing by herself," Andrew pointed out, "she'll probably get lost."
"She remembers how to get there."
"I don't know," he rubbed the back of his neck. "She was pretty young when we last went up… I'm pretty sure she'd stray from the trail."
Courtney crouched down to pull on her running shoes. "Or eaten by wolves, if we're lucky."
Duncan snickered, but Andrew sighed. "We can't leave her."
The girl shrugged, standing up. "Alright, well, if you two want to wait for her, that's fine. But either way, I'm going." And without waiting for a response, she grabbed the doorknob and stepped outside. Duncan glanced at the young man beside him, and gave an apologetic smile.
"Sorry, man, I've got to take this."
Slipping on his shoes, Duncan pushed through the door and hurried after Courtney. She turned, raised an eyebrow, and proceeded to say nothing for the whole hike.
Which, in its way, was better than any response she could have given.
"We used to come up here a lot when we were younger, before most of my younger cousins were born. We would have races and climb on the rocks and try to catch minnows with our bare hands." She paused, pressing her lips together as her eyes grazed over the view before them. "You know, kid stuff."
"Yeah," Duncan nodded, his voice sounding vague in his own ears. "Kid stuff."
It really was a beautiful view, a beautiful area. It was a clearing near the lake, hidden from the house by a ten-minute hike through the woods. The spot was large enough, and grassy, with a long, worn picnic table that sat near the path back to the house.
Something occurred to Duncan then, though, and his mind sparked with a mix of curiosity and confusion. "Hey, Courtney?"
"I thought you said that this was your first year here. That this was all new."
The girl turned to him, a shrug on her shoulder. "It is. Kind of— I meant the house. We used to have a little cabin a ten minutes up the road, but a few years ago my dad decided to build a new house closer to the lake. My family used to have to sleep in tents when we all came down for the summer, our cabin was so small. We had some fun times there, though."
Duncan nodded, but he knew that this wasn't all there was to it. She was keeping something from him. They were all keeping something from him. "But that was a few years ago. Haven't you been up since?"
Courtney didn't answer, staring out on the lake. Duncan was just about to ask again when suddenly he felt her hand snatch around his, and the jolt of energy in his stomach silenced the words on his tongue.
"Come. I want to show you something."
Lips melting into a smile, Duncan willing followed the girl as she led him to the far side of the site. There was a short drop at the edge of the clearing where the water nipped at a small beach, and the two stepped down it easily. Letting go of her grip, Courtney shed her running shoes and socks and waded through the water, down the edge of the beach. Feeling compelled to do as she had, Duncan kicked off his shoes and trailed behind, his feet curling over rocks as they slipped past the border of the clearing. Trees sprung up beside them instead of the grassy site, and they walked for only moment before Courtney halted. She pointed to the trunk of a tree beside them, drawing the boy's attention to a small etching high in the bark. With closer inspection, he realized that it was a jagged heart.
"My mom did that." Courtney explained, her voice growing smaller. "She brought my dad and his family to camp here back when they were dating. They rented the little cabin up the road for the first time, and have come up every year since." She traced the outline of the heart with the tip of her finger. "I found it when I was a kid. She'd forgotten about it until I showed it to her."
Duncan wasn't sure what to make of her words, yet couldn't help but realize something. "But not this year. She didn't come up this year."
Her eyes didn't lift from the heart. "My mom loved being here, she loved my dad's family. Everyone got along when she was around, everything seemed so… alive. And when she died, no one mentioned coming back. I honestly thought we never would. I pictured the cabin rotting away, uninhabited. But it didn't. A few years later, my dad tore it down, and built the new house. We tried coming up the first summer, but it just didn't feel right. And the next few years it didn't either. It was almost… wrong. Like we were trying to replace all of those memories. But this year— it was different. I mean, I'll be starting university next year, and Andrew's moving across the country in the fall, and… it was just time, you know? You can't stay in the past forever. You miss out on everything around you."
She seemed to say the last few lines to herself, her voice withering. And it was probably better that way, because Duncan had no idea how to respond.
He thought it was going to be about him. Relate to him. He thought she was going to say something that he could understand, talk about, argue over. He hadn't been prepared for this, for all she had pressed down on him. He hadn't been ready to see this side of her, this vulnerable side, this hidden side. What was he to say to it?
Still, something was better than nothing, so he offered: "I'm sorry about your mom, Courtney." It felt weird on his tongue, but he meant it.
Courtney turned to him, her brow heavy against her eyes. "Don't be sorry. Sorry doesn't do anything. Sorry is just a word, a useless word, and I really don't need pity from you. I don't." She shook her head, annoyance buzzing around her. "That's not why I told you everything. It was years ago, I'm fine. I told you because I wanted you to know, so you'd stop asking everyone stupid questions."
Duncan raised his palms in defence, leaning away from the girl. "Alright, alright. I wasn't trying to pity you. I wasn't. What else am I supposed to say?"
"It'd probably be better if you didn't say anything, Duncan." She exhaled, biting the inside of her cheek for a moment. "Look, I just… I didn't bring you here so we could have some weird sentimental moment, and I don't want you to think that I did."
But they had. They had shared a moment. And maybe she was being defensive and embarrassed about it now, but Duncan knew that it'd happened. Just like everything else had happened, all the other things that she had pushed aside. How she had dismissed how well he was growing to know her, her habits, her opinions— He didn't know everything, of course he didn't, but he was as close as anyone had ever been, nearly as close as he could get.
"Then why did you bring me here?" he asked, the words sitting between them, soft but harsh in its knowledge. In what he knew, but she didn't.
Courtney lips curved down. "I already said. Because I wanted to tell you, so you wouldn't ask about it anymore."
He studied her. And studied her. He'd spent so much time studying her, and watching her, and thinking about her. But how much good had it done him? Where had it gotten him? How much had it helped him when he was sitting in Geography class, hoping their paths would intertwine? How much had ill-wishing her and Tyler helped him get closer to her?
But he was getting closer. One step, two. And her eyes were frantic, expression startled. And everything slipped from Duncan then; his words falling softly against her.
"Really? You think? You really, really think that? You think that all you've ever done with me has been because you had to?"
She flinched. "Well, I guess, yeah… I mean, it— what are you implying?"
But he wasn't implying. He just knew. He knew. And somewhere inside of her, she knew too. She wanted him to get closer, so subconsciously, the feeling buried deep within her. She'd always been so scared of him getting close— but that was fading. Sometime, somewhere along the way, it had started to. Duncan had seen a glimpse of it in her eyes months and months before, but he hadn't understood. He hadn't known her then. But he did now.
So he pressed. A gasp flitted over her mouth, but he quickly covered it, feeling only the burning heat of her lips. Because he knew that her lashes were fluttering against his cheeks, that the hand he had grasped was stiff and unbending, that her whole body was rigid with surprise, but he couldn't feel it. He could only feel the warmth of her, the warmth she had feigned as ice, the warmth she had kept from him. He felt it, so strong a connection that everything else in him failed, and it was only her.
But not for very long.
"Oh my God— you slut!"
Courtney flew from him abruptly, her eyes wild as she whipped around. Duncan's eyes followed hers, colliding with Kayla.
The girl's lips were parted, her eyebrows raised, her eyes amused. She had a hand snapped on to her hip, and was staring intensely at her cousin.
"Oh, yeah," she scoffed vividly, "you have no interest in Duncan. It was all one-sided. I knew it was bullshit! Seriously, how long have you guys been sneaking around? The whole time? I can't believe I didn't see this before— it's so obvious!"
"Kayla," Courtney's voice was low.
"I mean, c'mon— you're little miss goody-two-shoes, I never thought you'd be hooking up with anyone, never mind Duncan!" She laughed loudly. "But no, Courtney has to have everything—"
"—not one thing can slip by her, oh no. God forbid she not bag the delinquent, because oh yes, she's a can-do kind of—"
The name echoed sharply, piercing through any sound by them. Kayla stopped mid-word, her eyes blinking and widening. Courtney's next words were steady, slow, forceful.
"Go back to the house. Take Andrew. Go now."
The younger girl drew her eyebrows together. "But, I—"
"I said now."
Her voice broke with the last word.
For a long moment, Kayla was silent. She stared at her cousin, mouth slightly agape, her forehead crinkling and smoothing and crinkling again as she studied Courtney's expression. But then, as she saw that the girl's look was unwavering, something seemed to give way in her. She nodded, slowly, and let her eyes soften. Her lips pursed, looking caught between two things, before she finally turned and retreated the way she had come.
Courtney didn't move for a while, so long that Duncan finally felt compelled to step up and touch her arm, bring her back. But she jumped, writhing away from him and whipping around.
"Don't." She snapped, her eyes flaming. He could see her composure unravelling furiously before him. "Don't even."
Duncan stepped back, pausing, and then his eyes narrowed against her. "Why?" he demanded, feeling his jaw clench unsteadily. "Give me one good reason why."
"Because!" She snapped, her chest heaving with breaths. "You can't just go and kiss me, and hold me, and do whatever the hell you want with me. How many times do I have to say it? How many times do I have to tell you before it breaks through your skull? I don't like you, I don't need you. I didn't then, I don't now. I don't want you!"
The last sentence was shouted, filling Courtney's cheeks with colour and bringing a rush of renewed vigour into Duncan.
"You don't mean that." He said, low. "I felt it. I felt it, Courtney. We both know that you did too, so why don't you save us both the trouble and admit it already?"
"Ugh!" she curled her hands into fists. "You're so full of yourself! Not every girl is falling over themselves to get to you, not everyone wants you. Especially me."
She was lying. Duncan could feel it in every part of his body, and it pained and tortured him to the furthest extent. But what was worse was that she knew it too: he could read it in her eyes, in the eagerness of her defence. And it infuriated him.
"You know that's not true. You knowit! And you still won't say it, you still won't say it." The words reached out to her, stretching and grasping for her. See it, they cried, see me.
But she was too blind to see, her entire body unwilling. "Even if I did like you, why would I say it? I'm not an idiot, Duncan— I know what you want. I know that you don't really care. You just like the chase, and I'm won't have it."
The chase? The chase? "You think that?" he asked, brows screwing together fixedly on his forehead. "After all of this time, after everything, you really believe that?" There was no way. He'd been forward. He'd been honest about everything. "Bullshit."
"What else am I supposed to believe, then? That all of the games you play are because you're serious about anything? That you act the way you do because you see something real with me? Is that it? Because all I see is a stupid boy that didn't get what he wanted when he wanted it, and now he won't stop until he has it."
And there it was. There was the piece if the puzzle that he'd been missing and was now found, the layer that had been obstructing his sight now peeled off. And he knew that this time, she wasn't lying about anything.
Because he could see something hurt in her eyes, something wilting. This was really what she thought of him, the link that had been absent. Before the summer, before Tyler, it was a link newly constructed. She had seen something real in him, for just a moment, and had fled, scared. But Duncan hadn't followed, hadn't waited. Hadn't needed her.
Had that been why she'd done it all along? In her subconscious way? Had she dated someone else to see if those affections, the feelings that had sprung into Duncan's eyes had been real? And when he hadn't looked for her, hadn't sought her, hadn't seemed to want her anymore, had that concluded something for her? That his only ambition had ever been for her to fall for him, to need him, to love him, and be conquered?
And now she thought that he was trying to get closer, trying to reach out to her—just to break her.
But that wasn't true. That was nowhere near the truth. Of course he'd cared, of course he'd needed her. And he hadn't forgotten, never had he forgotten. She had made her mark on him, and he could never be without the thought of her.
Stupid boy. Stupid boy. Her last words rang in Duncan's ears. He was a stupid boy. He thought she'd known, he thought that he'd be unbelievably clear about how he'd felt, thought that everything had been blunt and honest. But she didn't know—
Because she didn't want to. It was easier not to.
The easier route had done nothing for Duncan, and it would never make Courtney happy. Duncan was done with the easier route. He was done hoping things would just work themselves out. He was done.
And he would show her.
"Fine. You know what? You're right."
Courtney's brow furrowed.
"You're completely, absolutely right." Duncan continued. "And I didn't know that until now. Games are stupid. They don't work. But I thought they did."
She attempted a sneer but didn't seem to be in control of her features. "Good for you, Duncan, but I honestly don't care what you thought."
"But," he started, and the girl looked fretful at the word, "you were wrong when you said that I just want the chase, that I just want what I couldn't have before. I didn't know that you thought that."
Courtney exhaled, crossing her arms. She glanced around for a moment, before breathing back in and looking at Duncan again. "Really? And what— am I supposed to believe you?"
The girl stared at him, trying to decipher his calm demeanour. "Well, I don't. So just drop the act and—"
"Because I love you."
He hadn't actually meant to say it. He hadn't even thought of the words before they slipped. But they were there, and then she knew.
Courtney drew back, blinking. She shook her head. "No, Duncan, don't—"
"I love you." He said it again, because the words were strange on his tongue. He really did, though— it was incredible, like something had flourished inside of him suddenly. Like everything that had been a mystery was suddenly bright before him. And after those words, he couldn't stop.
"I do. I do. And I'm tired of pretending like I don't, and playing games, and not being with you. I like the chase because it leads to you. I played games because I thought they'd lead to you. And I don't care if you don't want to hear it, because you have to: I love you."
Duncan's mind whirled.
The girl didn't move. She looked thunderstruck there, standing motionless, the only indication of life inside of her being the hurried blinking of her eyes. And then, suddenly, she stumbled back, arms uncrossing. She looked slack as she backed away, like a marionette with cut stings, and then she was shaking her head. Slowly at first, then a flurry of trembles.
"No. You're just— no, no, that's not— I mean, you couldn't possibly, actually…"
Her words, like her feet, were tripping over one another. She was moving away, away from him, away from what he'd said. And then she was leaving, running, snatching her shoes off of the ground and tumbling away. And Duncan didn't follow.
Because he didn't need to.
Because this time, she couldn't get away.
It was up to her.
There was truly nothing that Duncan could do. He'd done it all. And maybe he should have felt powerless with this, but he didn't think he could.
He'd said it. He'd actually said it. And maybe she would think that he was crazy for it, but Duncan didn't regret it. Because now he didn't have anything to hide, didn't have to feel constricted by the feeling. And so what if it had made her uncomfortable? It was inside of her too: maybe not quite as strongly, but Duncan knew that she felt it too. And that knowledge was enough to keep him in somewhat high spirits.
She, however, did not partake in his cheerfulness. It was the first time Duncan had ever seen her looking awkward: she reddened when he entered a room, torn between the anger she supposed she should have felt and the embarrassment she actually was feeling. She did her best to avoid speaking to him directly, but when the moment came when she was forced to address him, her words were simple and hurried. Duncan, for his part, always answered simply, making a point to graze her fingertips with his when he passed her a bowl at the dinner table or bump knees with her as he made his way past. And she would toss him a glare, a low growl, and would bite the insides of her cheeks when he asked if, oh, she had something more she wanted to say, possibly?
But as much fun as Duncan was having, he couldn't say that she was reaching out at all. A week had passed since he'd told her, and she was still avoiding him as much as possible.
For his part, Andrew hadn't been much help. He'd merely raised his eyebrows when Duncan had explained the situation, offering a shrug and a wince. "Well, Courtney's a little… unpredictable, so who knows what she'll do. Maybe everything will click for her and she'll come around."
"Or she'll never speak to you again."
Lying in bed later, the words tossed unnervingly inside of Duncan. Over and over they turned, twisting and churning his stomach, his mind unsettled. What if she really did never speak to him again? He could handle her anger—he liked her anger—but the thought of her absence made him nervous. The thought of her being gone dug a hole into his chest, cold and empty, needing her. Because she had become a part of him, and there was no chance for her to be removed painlessly.
A whisper of a breath echoed nearby, and Duncan turned his head to glance at the sleeping silhouette hidden beneath sheets in the bed across from his. Thomas then mumbled something unintelligible, his brow flexing in a dream.
Duncan glanced back at the ceiling, his hands fixing behind his head. Tomorrow was their last day, and with the end of it and the early of the next morning, he would lose all ties to Courtney. She was obligated to put up with his presence while they stayed in the same house, but once they were back in school, under those fluorescent lights, she wasn't bound to him in any way. He could go weeks without seeing her, maybe not speak to her for months— and it was likely. Theirs was a large school; she could slip away without a single person knowing. Including Duncan.
Which placed a significant amount of anxious pressure on the boy— they were set to leave in a mere (he sat and craned his neck for a glance at the alarm clock) ten hours. Ten. And most of those would be spent sleeping.
So he cast his eyes on the door, a glare, and waited. He stared at it and waited, just as he had done all week. He knew that he wasn't alone in letting his thoughts run loose in the night; she would be thinking of him too. And it had occurred to him that if she was to make a revelation, the present was as good a time as any.
Still, he jumped with alarm as the door swung open.
It was her. It was her. His heart slammed wildly in his chest as she sauntered across the room quickly. But Courtney didn't saunter. At least, she wouldn't have been doing it now: she would have paused by the door, of course.
Kayla tiptoed to him quickly, her face becoming clearer in the dark as she approached. Since what had passed between her and Courtney, since the moment they'd had, she hadn't thrown so much as a single coy smile in his direction. It was like the flirt in her had been turned off, and the cousin restored.
But now her words were urgent, direct. "Okay, you're up— good. Come with me."
"What for?" Duncan asked, in no hurry for whatever she had in mind. The disappointment of seeing her instead of Courtney still lingered.
The girl pressed her lips together for a moment, the edges forming an excited smile. With her hushed words, Duncan knew that she was in tune to the first thought on his mind. "Andrew's bringing her, I swear. But you've got to be quiet, or else you'll mess everything up."
Narrowing his eyes against her and sitting up, Duncan studied Kayla. The thought rolled around in his mind for a moment, before he decided to take her demand seriously. "What are you talking about?"
Kayla's eyes slipped to his torso. As Duncan glanced at her, the girl gave a small smirk and shrugged, not even trying to hide the fact that had been staring "Andrew's going to bring Courtney to the dock, and I'm supposed to bring you. She doesn't know, though, so don't spoil everything by making noise."
It took a moment to register. Was this a chance? An opportunity? Something leapt in Duncan, and he jumped out of bed eagerly, tearing across the room to find something to wear. He was just scrambling to pull on his jeans when Kayla spoke again.
"You really like her, don't you?"
Duncan slowed, glancing over at the girl. He bit his lip sheepishly. "Yeah… Yeah, I do."
She nodded slowly, and it suddenly occurred to Duncan that he hadn't ever really considered her feelings. He'd always thought them so shallow, so temporary— nothing to become upset over. Nothing to worry about. And because of that, he'd flirted back, had a bit of fun with the girl. Led her on. Duncan felt the need to say something about it now. "Hey, look, Kayla—"
"Don't." She held up a hand to stop him from continuing. "It's okay. You like Courtney. I have no idea why, but nothing I can do will change that. Just don't break her heart, alright? Because then you'll have to deal with me, and your ass will be kicked."
A small smile etched on Duncan's lips. "You're cool, you know that?"
"I do." She agreed, abandoning all modesty. "But moving on… get dressed! Do you want to miss her?"
When he had finally dressed, they made their way through the house to the living room downstairs. The screen door was slick as it opened, just a hum of noise, and didn't catch Courtney's attention from where she stood on the end of the dock. As Duncan and Kayla grew nearer, he was able to make out the words that she was saying to Andrew.
"I don't see it. Where did you say it was again?"
Andrew was tapping his foot anxiously. But when he glanced over his shoulder and caught sight of the two of them padding softly across the grass, relief flooded his features, and his answer was casual: "Oh, you know, off to the side there, near those tall trees. It had great big antlers— you can't miss it."
As Kayla's foot tapped on the wood of the dock, Courtney finally turned around. She looked mildly surprised, and frowned at her approaching cousin. "Did we wake you or something?"
Kayla giggled. She stepped up to the girl, wrapping her arms around Courtney's shoulders and saying, "You're going to hate us for this."
Leaning away, Courtney brought her eyes to Andrew for an explanation. He only shrugged, a half-smile alighting his lips.
And then Courtney's gaze landed on Duncan, and she blinked. Then her lips parted, and she was shaking her head as her cousins began to retreat to the house. "What— no. What are you guys doing? If I wanted to talk to Duncan, I would have. Why are you—" She glared now, clenching her teeth and curling her hands into fists with one finger loose, which she used to point at Duncan. "What is your problem?"
"This wasn't my idea. They didn't tell me anything."
Huffing, Courtney pushed past him and started after Andrew and Kayla. But they had already slipped inside, and when she tried to open the screen door, it wouldn't budge. Her fist smacked against the glass.
"This is ridiculous. Unlock the door!"
When they didn't respond, she pivoted on her heel and stormed back to Duncan. Her eyes were furious.
"Get them to open the door."
The demand was sharp. Duncan eyed her simply.
Her breath was rigid. She ground her teeth harder. "Duncan."
He remained unfazed. "Courtney."
They stared at one another. The girl's chest heaved up and down, her eyes searching his face excitedly. She was looking for a breaking point, a crack in his structure. But he was smooth.
Then she turned, stomping off to try another door. Duncan exhaled, and, stuffing his hands in his pockets, shifting over to sit on the end of the dock, allowing his legs to dangle. He could hear Courtney's angry grunts in the distance, but he did not glance back once.
It was a nice night. The sky was clear of clouds, the stars shimmering starkly above him. Beneath his hovering feet, the lake was black, a glowing disk balancing in the centre of it. He touched the tip of his foot to it, and the water rippled out placidly.
When Courtney did find her way back, Duncan had become comfortable in his spot, and was not unnerved by the loud thumps of her steps. She heaved a sigh from behind, and snapped at him.
"What am I supposed to do now?"
Duncan didn't respond. He leaned back on his palms, staring out over the night calmly. At this, Courtney seemed to falter in her anger.
"Well?" she prompted, annoyed. When he still didn't answer, the girl muttered several words under her breath and stalked over to stand at his back, the side of her shoe brushing his thumb. "Duncan?"
He glanced up, slowly meeting her eyes. She looked expectant; of what, he was not sure. Courtney held the expression for a long moment, waiting, before her features finally softened into faint confusion. Duncan's eyes must have been deadpan, for she said, "Stop looking at me like that."
With a mild shrug, Duncan returned his stare to the water before him. It was a minute before Courtney moved, but finally she crouched down to sit beside him, a good foot or two away. She took in a breath, and did not speak.
Silence swelled between them; whether it was awkward or patient, he did not pause to notice. He only knew the sound of waves falling over themselves, over and over, rhythmic. He marvelled at the simplicity of it: it was odd to think that anything was that easy, that plain. Just one motion, repeating itself again and again until the sound seemed to echo inside of him.
Duncan thought back to their moment in the windmill. He thought about the way his hand had fit over hers, the way they had seemed joined for a moment. The way sparks had flown between them, how flawless and pure the sensation had been. And how amazing and real the touch of her lips on his for the very first time had been, how he could remember the intense jolt beneath his skin so clearly, so perfectly. How he could never lose those feelings, how they were imprinted within him.
But she wouldn't see it, feel it, remember it. She could only push him away farther and farther, act like he didn't even exist. Because she didn't want to be with him, not on the surface, and he could do nothing to change that.
He'd tried to. He'd tried so, so hard. He'd done everything he could think of, used every trick he knew to make her see how good they'd be together. And he had nothing. Nothing.
And it made Duncan feel broken to know that he had nothing. That in the end, he came out a loser. That the one thing he'd really wanted, the one thing he would have done anything for wouldn't be his. That everything was lost, and everything sucked.
It wasn't anger that he felt. He'd felt anger, frustration, disappointment with this girl, but this feeling wasn't like any of those. It was different. He was just…
Duncan knew how to act on anger, how to solve frustration, hide disappointment, but he didn't know how to handle sadness. Didn't know if he could. It was foreign to him, something he couldn't quite wrap his mind around but still felt unconditionally. And the more he thought of it, the more the feeling overwhelmed him. It was slipping further and further into his consciousness, revealing more of itself with every passing second and scaring Duncan more and more. He didn't like this feeling. He didn't like it at all.
His breaths became quicker, his head started to spin. The words sounded again and again in his mind: You're losing her, Duncan. You're losing her for good this time.
He wanted to scream, to thrash, to hit something and make it hurt. He wanted the mess he'd gotten himself into to go away, the mistakes he'd made to reverse themselves. He wished he'd never met her. Wished her hair hadn't been so liquid in the fluorescent light when she stood, wished her eyes hadn't been so bright and her features so clear. He could hear her voice from that day, the one they'd first spoken:
"Can I help you?"
He hadn't known that things would be like this. He hadn't known that he wouldn't be getting this girl, that nothing would ever work. Had he known, he wouldn't have spoken to her. Approached her. Let himself even think of her.
Or would he?
No, no. No. Not with what he would go through. If he had known, he wouldn't have cared about her. Wouldn't have fallen in love with her…
He would have. Even now, when everything was shit, he still would have done it. He would do it over again and he would do it four more times after that. He loved falling in love with her. He loved that he loved her. Loved someone.
Maybe that was all he was ever meant to have, all he was ever meant to get from her. Maybe he was only meant to love her, and not be loved back, and feel like an idiot and be an idiot, and get what he deserved. He'd done things he shouldn't have done, so maybe this was his karma. Juvie hadn't made him care, hadn't made him even want to care. But she had. Without trying to or wanting to, she had made him care. And he loved her for that.
For someone, somewhere, that might have been enough. That might have been the conclusion of their story, the destination for their journey. For someone, it might have ended there. But for Duncan, it brought him nothing. No closure, no finality; just more sadness. And it read on his face.
He hated the way she said his name; she would never say it like that again: so softly.
Her brows were drawn down, looking frantic. He didn't even try to say something to excuse the speed of his rising and falling chest; there was no point. She knew everything. And whether it bothered her or not to see it, he didn't care. He couldn't have cared. Because either way, she still barely knew the half of it.
But he couldn't stay there. He couldn't stay sitting next to her, stay that close to her. He needed to move, to run; to get away from this and everything else he couldn't take. Duncan stood and retreated from the spot.
It would have surprised him how quickly Courtney moved to follow him had he paid any attention. She was right behind, but as soon as Duncan was aware of it, he started to pick up the pace. He needed the feel of his legs working, his muscles working. He needed to move.
So he started to run.
Duncan wasn't sure how long he ran for; time didn't exist. He just ran, finding a trail in the woods and taking off. He didn't know if Courtney was following and didn't glance back to check, just kept pushing past the mess of the forest until he finally broke through it. He'd reached the clearly. The one where he'd kissed Courtney.
He stumbled over to the water. His shoes were on, but Duncan didn't care. He waded down the shore and let them fill with lake water and sand until he reached the spot. It took a moment to find the tree, but he did, and he let his fingers run over the etched heart as Courtney had.
Nan had made him promise not to give up on her. And when he had said that he wouldn't, he meant it. He thought he would never have to, thought that the promise was pointless. He thought that he'd never be there again, never feel like he'd have to give up. He'd been overconfident, and just a short time later, here he was.
Had she been mistaken? Duncan had figured that if Nan had believed that he and Courtney were meant to be, then that was the truth. But how could it be? When everything was so broken? How could she ever let herself feel the same?
"You really want this, don't you?"
Duncan turned his eyes from the tree and let them fall on Courtney. He didn't answer; the look resting there must have been enough.
Courtney turned the flashlight in her hand around nervously. "I understand, Duncan, but I just…" Her voice faltered, and she cleared her throat before starting again. "I don't think we should do this."
The way she said it, it sounded like she was speaking only logic. Like it was all so simple, so perfect, so straightforward. But it wasn't that simple, and Duncan wanted to shut her out again.
So he looked away, but found his eyes falling on the heart again. And he remembered when he'd first laid eyes on it, and remember the thought that had sprung to his mind.
"I wanted to carve out a heart for us below it. On the day that we… got together. I was going to sneak up here in the middle of the night and carve it out, then go back and bring you to see it."
It was lame. He knew it was lame. He knew it at the time the idea had occurred to him and he knew it now. It was embarrassingly cliché and everything he hated about chick flicks and romance novels and stupid couples that hold hands in the hallway and talk about how much they love each other even though no one else cares or wants to see. It was so against him, so absolutely contrary to his very being and everything he stood for that it made him sick. And he loved it.
Courtney stared at the tree, her eyes maybe grazing over the very space Duncan had picked out for their heart. And then she frowned, and she bit her lip, and she shook her head.
"You wouldn't do that. You're Duncan—You wouldn't do something like that."
He countered. "And I wouldn't like you. And I wouldn't do everything to make you like me back. And I'm not actually here right now." He shook his head, sighing. "Why is this just so hard for you to accept?"
"It's not." She blinked quickly, shaking her head. "It's not that. I just don't—"
"Want to." He finished for her. It was easy to. The words just slipped from his lips, barely grazing the air around them. "You just don't want to see it. You don't want it to exist."
She didn't object. Not right away. Duncan didn't stop.
"Because you're scared. It doesn't make sense to you, it isn't normal to you. It makes you feel weird, I make you feel weird. And that freaks you out."
He didn't try to keep it in: he would have burst.
"And you don't want me to be close." That was it, that was everything. She didn't want him close. She didn't want to be linked. "You don't want anyone to be close."
Courtney still didn't answer. She just stared at him, her lips barely agape, her eyes trying to understand something other than the obvious truth. Trying to see a different explanation, something that would prove everything Duncan said wrong and everything she thought right.
But she didn't.
It hit her visibly: her eyelashes fluttered, her brow creased. She turned her head a little bit, as if she was trying to see the situation in a different light, but it didn't help. And then he could see it sinking into her, and his heart revved.
"I don't want to like you, though…" She was talking to herself. "And I can handle the fact that you like me, but love…?"
Courtney glanced at the heart suddenly, stared, then suddenly snapped her eyes back to Duncan. And then she did the weirdest thing.
She took a quick lunge forward and thrust her hand into the front pocket of his jeans. Duncan jumped, startled, but Courtney took no notice as she pulled that hand out and dug it into his second pocket. This time, she found what she was looking for: his knife.
Slipping open the blade, she stepped past the boy and leaned toward the tree. With unsteady strokes, she started to carve something.
The girl stepped back after a moment to glance over her work. She pushed the knife towards Duncan, ignoring his flinch at the blade.
"Carve our initials."
He stared at her, but she only met his gaze with a look of impatience. "What, did you suddenly forget how to use this thing? I can't do it as well, so start."
It was better not to try to make sense of it. Duncan took the knife from her and began to carve. When he'd picture this in his mind, things were different.
A minute later, he was finished, and moved aside so Courtney could see.
It was so simple, but it had the girl as transfixed as she had been at the windmill. Her eyes were steady on the carving, barely shifting as she took it in.
And then Duncan realized what she was doing.
She was giving them a chance.
Courtney was trying to see how the thought of them would feel. Trying to register the idea of them, together, in her mind. Trying to figure out how it would settle inside of her, the knowledge, the weight, the sensation of the entire relationship.
It was there, carved permanently in the bark. Right beneath her parents'. But she wasn't freaking out, wasn't scared. She seemed to soften, and she looked down at her feet, and then looked at Duncan.
"It's…" she bit her lip, trying to find a way to describe what was inside of her. "It's weird. But—"
Her eyes landed on the heart again.
She looked to Duncan. She squinted at him, she tugged at the pyjama shirt clinging at her torso, she pressed her lips together and tried to make sense of what she had to do.
"Duncan…" She closed her eyes tightly, breathed in, breathed out. "What if this doesn't work?"
What if it didn't work?
He didn't know how to respond. He didn't know anything in that moment: his mind was in a fog. But words found their way, and he felt air slip from his lips in the form of words.
"Who says it won't?"
Her eyes opened.
"I just don't know."
Duncan stared at her. He stared until all he could see was her.
"How will you ever know unless you try?"
Courtney's features flickered. Her lips frowned, relaxed, frowned again—
And then she stepped closer. Her arms slipped around Duncan's neck and she pulled him down slightly. Her lips hovered near, so near he could feel her breath tickling his skin. Their noses brushed, and everything inside of the boy trembled hungrily.
He was drawn to her.
And now she was drawing closer.
Finally finished packing, Duncan's father slammed the trunk door closed and turned to the group of relatives behind him. He pressed a tight smile on his lips.
"It was very nice of you to have us. We had a wonderful time."
Courtney's father took the man's hand and gave it a shake. "Of course. It was our pleasure."
Nan shifted over to Duncan's grandmother and took the woman's hands. "We must do this again. Next summer we will all come down, yes?"
Denise smiled and nodded eagerly. "Oh, yes! This was so much fun, I had a great time."
After they had exchanged their goodbyes, Nan moved over to Duncan's side. She grinned, and when she'd pulled him down and given him a kiss on the cheek, she whispered by his ear. "You are a good boy, I know you will take care of her." She pulled away, beamed, and left to embrace one of her daughters. Duncan wasn't sure how the little woman had known, but he had an idea that it had something to do with the expression he'd been wearing all morning.
Which, as it turned out, was nothing compared to the smile that erupted when Courtney finally (finally!) pushed through the side door.
Their eyes locked instantly.
She moved through her relatives, stopping politely at each one to say goodbye and promise to call before she finally reached Duncan and stopped before him. For a moment, they did nothing but look at one another.
"So," she started, acting casual.
"So," he repeated in the same tone, but couldn't suppress his grin. Duncan reached to take her hands in his, leaning close to place his lips on her forehead, the tip of her nose, her mouth. He knew the looks he was getting even with his eyes closed— gawks, smirks, an 'I-told-you so!' or two. But it didn't matter. It was only a taste of what they'd receive at school in a couple of weeks.
Courtney pulled back for a moment to look up at Duncan. Her eyes flickered.
"Maria." She smiled softly at him, and then leaned closer, letting her forehead rest against his chin. "It was my mom's name."
He realized right then what she was giving him. It was the final piece to the connection, what she had kept hidden from him. It was the secret she hadn't been able to share with him, the one that she had used as a wall between them. And now it lay bare before Duncan, bright and honest and raw.
The boy seized it. He seized it and he seized her and knew that this time, he would never let go.
Just about a million things to say… I'll start with the story.
Together the three-shot is called 'Spiralling', an awesome suggestion from strayphoenix (thank you again!). I'm actually quite happy with the way this turned out. I liked being able to play around with Kayla and Nan and let them play their own little roles in the story. I haven't really experimented with new characters since… gosh, since Never Again. Anyway, I hoped you liked it!
Okay, so, I know how late this is: crazy late. I don't think I've ever had anything up this late, and I really do apologize for it. To be honest, I was having a lot of trouble finding inspiration for this chapter. A lot of trouble. I think everyone knows what that's like, and how much it sucks. I must have tried to write this about four times over. I would have something written, something I could've posted, but it wouldn't feel right. And of course, you can edit all you want, but a bad idea will just never work. In the end, I deleted it all, took a breather, and started from scratch. I wrote whatever came to mind, and that's what finally brought my love for this back.
And I've barely been on FanFiction. That sucked. I've more or less been back on over the past month or so, but I know that I'm not going to really get back into it until I have this chapter up and I start on Gone. Things have been a bit messed up lately, but things are settling again, so things should start working out better.
Right, so, moving on…
The next chapter will be up MUCH sooner, I can guarantee you that. I've written it already. Yeah. Thanks to those who have been patient with me, I really appreciate it :)
On another note: This chapter is dedicated to Cereal-Killa! You have been a great friend, even when I've been the worst PM-er in history. You are an exceptional author, you always make me laugh, and I can talk to you about almost anything. Thank you so much for being there for me, you're awesome :D!
Alright, well, to end this author's note: Thank-you, and have a safe and happy holiday season everyone!