Brax woke up alone in his bed. He hadn't wanted Natalie here today.
He looked at the clock on his bedside table, the neon green light making a small puddle on the scarred and chipped wood.
He'd slept for three hours.
He laid there for another hour, just staring at the ceiling. His mind made patterns in the darkness. Imagined faces stared back at him. It was still dark when he pulled himself out of bed, and threw on the first pair of boardies he saw.
The beach was grey and empty as he headed towards the water, surf board tucked beneath his arm. The water was cold as he paddled out. It lapped up at him, splashing him in the face. He let wave after wave go and just sat there, watching as the sun began to rise. A soft orange glow had settled over the beach as other surfers began to arrive. He waved them on, letting them catch the first surf of the day. He knew a couple of them but they knew him well enough to stay away. The sun began to prickle at his back, warming his chilled skin. He looked back at the town, Summer Bay, as it awoke. People were milling along the beach on early morning walks, the Surf Club lit up the shoreline, the life guards scanned the surf, deciding what precautions they would need for the day. Everything was normal.
The water lapped up against his waist, and his arms skulled the water keeping him in place. He could feel his feet and hands were soft and wrinkled from the water. He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, before letting himself fall off the side of the board and welcoming the muted sounds of the water.
He opened his eyes and looked up at the sky. His eyes stung with salt but he kept them open, staring at the sun creeping higher and higher on the horizon. His lungs began to burn and just for a second he considered letting himself sink to the bottom of the ocean. He pushed off the soft sand bed with force, and he broke the surface with a gasping breath.
"Happy birthday, Charlie," he muttered, before lying flat on his board and paddling back to shore.
It was mid-afternoon before he saw anyone anyone of consequence. The patrons at Angelo's didn't count. They had come in, eaten their fill and now he was just waiting for the last of the stragglers to finish their coffees so he could close up for the afternoon. But then, she walked in. She was the last person that he wanted to see. It just brought everything back up and forced him to think about Charlie and all the things they didn't get to do together. It wasn't her fault, not really, but that didn't change the fact that he felt like ducking behind bar and pretending that he hadn't seen her.
"Hi," Natalie chirped. It made him cringe. "I know that technically lunch has finished but I was hoping that you could make an exception for me and we could have lunch together." She smiled at him and reached across the bar to hold his hand.
Her fingers brushed his and he recoiled, taking a quick step back from the bar.
"Nup," he answered shortly. "Kitchen's closed."
Natalie sat back, dropping her hands to her lap. She looked at him strangely, trying to read him. His face was closed and he crossed his arms across his chest under her scrutiny. He could see her switch into counsellor mode and try to figure out the inner workings of his mind. He broke eye contact, turning around to put bottles of alcohol back on their rightful shelf.
"Oookay," she said slowly. It wasn't like Brax to shut her down like that. It wasn't the first time he had, but she thought they'd moved past that now. After everything that had happened with his dad and everything that had happened between them, she had thought they were in a good place. "Then how about a coffee?"
"You want a coffee? Go see Leah."
Natalie sat there lost for words as she watched him disappear through the kitchen door. She slid off the stool with a shake of her head. She made to follow him, but then sighed angrily and stalked out the restaurant.
"Flat white please, Leah," Natalie said briskly, slapping a five dollar note onto the counter.
Leah raised her eyebrows and grabbed a brown take away cup. "Bad day?" she questioned.
Natalie sighed and shook her head slightly. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "It's just I went to see Brax before," she continued, launching into her story with a deep breath, "and everything has been going so well between us and suddenly were back to square one. He's shutting me out and shutting me down and acting like I'm his worst enemy and I have no idea why," she threw her hands up in exasperation and then rubbed her brow. "We've been together six months and I still don't know why he just turns himself off like that!"
Leah handed her the coffee with a sad, knowing expression. She leaned forward slightly, unconsciously drawing Natalie into her. "It's nothing you did," Leah assured her.
"Yeah, well, I wish I could believe you, but I'm the common denominator here."
"No, really," Leah tried again, "Today just isn't a good day for Brax. " Leah hesitated slightly before continuing, "It's Charlie's birthday."
"Oh my God," Natalie cried, "how could I not have known that?" She buried her face in her hands.
"Well Braxtons aren't exactly know for their communication skills," Leah laughed. "Just give him a bit of space and he'll come round. It's just hard for him."
Natalie nodded. "I just wish he would talk to me," she said sadly. "Maybe I could help."
"I think this is something you have to let him work through by himself," Leah advised.
Two tables away, Ruby sat unnoticed, listening to the conversation. As the two women continued talking about the eldest Braxton, Ruby grasped her necklace briefly, stood up and walked purposefully out of the Diner.
Brax was sitting alone at Angelo's counting the till when he heard someone making their way up the stairs.
"We're closed,' he grunted as the footsteps drew nearer. "Come back at six."
"It's just me."
Brax dropped the wad of twenties in his hand and relaxed back into his chair. He smiled slightly as his visitor took a seat beside him. "Rubes."
"I hadn't seen you today so I thought I'd drop by."
"Well here I am."
They sat in silence for a few more moments both unsure of what to say next.
"You know," Ruby said suddenly. "It's okay to move on. It doesn't mean you love her any less."
Brax shifted forward in his seat, his hand swiping imaginary fluff off the table. "Who said I was moving on."
"I overheard Natalie at the Diner earlier today."
"Did ya?" Brax said, "And what did she have to say?"
Ruby looked down at her hands. She picked at her pale pink nail polish as she spoke. "You know, I thought you are Charlie were going to get married," Brax let out a heavy sigh and slapped his hands to his thighs.
"No, Brax, wait. I thought-" Ruby swallowed, pushing her tears down. "I thought you and Charlie were going to move to the city, get married, have kids and live happily ever after, but... she's gone." Ruby's voice broke as she continued, a few tears escaping down her cheeks. Brax looked to the ceiling, exhaling heavily and blinking back his own tears.
"You were the only person she ever wanted that with - and she loved you so much - but she's gone and you're allowed to want those things with someone else. Charlie would want you to be happy. "
Brax finally looked at Ruby. He rubbed at his face, pushing away the wetness that had gathered there.
"But that doesn't mean I'm going to be nice to Natalie," she said with a small, watery smile. Brax let out a involuntary laugh and returned her smile.
"That's Charlie's necklace, aye," he said pointing to the silver chain that rested around her neck.
Ruby reached up, wrapping her fingers around the silver crescent moon shaped detail protectively. "Yeah," she answered with a smile. "It feels almost harder than last year and I just felt like having something of hers close by today."
" I don't even know where she got this but she was such a pain when I borrowed it once." Brax couldn't help but smile as Ruby continued, "She totally freaked out. She gave me the longest lecture about not losing it." Ruby rolled her eyes.
"I gave it to her," Brax supplied. Ruby looked up at him surprised. "For her birthday."
They stood in silence for a moment, both captivated by the small silver necklace that glittered in the low afternoon light.
"It's beautiful," Ruby offered finally.
Thousands of kilometres away, on a humid Queensland evening, Sophie Maxwell stood in her underwear in front of her bedroom mirror. Blue eyes tinged with green bored into her, looking over her body critically. Her skin was tanned and her golden brown hair sat just below her shoulders with barley a wave to it. She ran her hands down her side, following the soft curve of her small breasts, waist and to her hips. Her hands stopped at her hips, and moved inwards, hovering over her stomach.
Her fingertips fluttered over her stomach, delicately tracing the still raw and purple scars that marred her skin. But those scars, that intersected and pulled her skin taunt. Scars that told a harrowing tale. Scars that stood in stark contrast to her sun-kissed skin, demanding attention from all those who saw them, wasn't what captivated Sophie. It was another scar that she couldn't tear her eyes from.
Sophie turned down the black material of her knickers, just enough to reveal the faded line, almost identical to her natural skin tone now. She tilted her head slowly and followed the scar across her body. It ran from hip to hip along her bikini line.
Sophie jumped slightly as strong arms encircled her. A familiar nose nuzzled at her neck and a tattooed hand latched onto hers. He covered her stomach with his hands, pulling her hands away from her scars in the process and hiding the worst of them from view. She could still see the jagged edge of one though, peeking out from behind their fingers. He hid them from her though, as he always did, and kissed her neck softly.
"You've gotta stop this, Soph," he sighed, staring at her reflection. She refused to meet his eyes, instead looking straight down, imagining what the long, pale scar looked like. She had spent weeks staring at it now. She knew it even if the act of encasing her in his arms had locked her scar back behind fabric and foreign flesh.
"It's a caesarean scar, Phillip," she whispered. "I know it is."
Phillip dropped her hands and took a step back in frustration. He ran his hand through his curly brown hair and then stood with his hands on his hips. They'd had this conversation countless times now and he was losing patience. "The doctor has told you over and over again that it's not. It's from having cysts removed when you were a teenager. That's it. You have to stop doing this to yourself," he implored.
Sophie walked slowly to the door and pulled down her fluffy blue dressing gown. She struggled to tie the chord round her waist, her fingers fumbling with the soft fabric as she turned her back to Philip.
"I got a second opinion," she said casually. "And a third, and a fourth. They all say the same thing. Caesarean."
Phillip exhaled through his nose harshly. He tried to keep his frustration at bay. He raised his hands in front of him in a placating gesture.
"Charlie," she interrupted, turning sharply to face him.
"What?" Phillip asked, annoyed.
Sophie looked him straight in the eye. She stood tall and strong and spoke with a conviction he had never heard from her before.
"My name is Charlie."
So that's chapter one! Please review and let me know what you think!