Pieces of You

Pieces of You

By  Eileen Merriman

Chapter 1:
Rebecca

*Please note* that this extract contains adult themes and is suitable for readers aged 16+.

The first time I tried to cut myself, I thought I’d use one of my father’s razor blades. I remembered how he often cut himself shaving, because he liked to use a blade razor. He said it gave a closer shave, like anyone gives a crap how a forty-six-year-old accountant looks. He would stick a piece of tissue over the cuts, and the blood would soak into them like acid into litmus paper. That was really stupid, because of course the razor used safety blades. I quickly realised there was no way I was going to cause more than a nick with one of those.

Then I found the refills for his Stanley knife on a shelf in the garage. I wrapped one of the blades in tinfoil and kept it in my underwear drawer. It felt like insurance. Every time I felt bad, I would think of the blade and my heart would start beating harder and faster, as if it knew I wanted to release some of the blood it was pumping around my body.

I didn’t try again for a few weeks. We’d only just moved from Dunedin to Auckland and I thought things were going to get better. But they didn’t.

The first time I cut myself with the blade was after Liam Olsen’s Christmas Eve party. I knew I shouldn’t have gone. I didn’t know anyone except Melanie, and really, I barely knew her. We’d met a week earlier, only because our mothers worked together at the hospital. Melanie seemed to spend most of her time either on Facebook or painting elaborate designs on her fingernails — she was nice enough, but hardly someone I’d have chosen to be friends with normally.

We arrived at Liam’s house just before nine. He lived in a two-storey villa just a couple of streets away from my new house. The house must have been sucking up half the electricity on the North Shore with all the Christmas lights that had been strung all over it. The giant king palm on the front lawn had been turned into a huge Christmas tree and was flashing red and blue and green.

I wasn’t sure if Liam’s parents were home. If they were, then I guess they weren’t too bothered by the fifty-odd mostly drunk teenagers spilling in and out of their house. The music was so loud I could feel it reverberating in the centre of my chest. A bunch of teenagers, mostly girls, were dancing on the lawn.  I caught a faint whiff of something sickly, like vomit, when we walked past a potted bonsai tree, and tried not to inhale.

‘Hey, there’s Kate and Rachel.’ Melanie gave me a quick smile and waved at a pair of girls standing on the front doorstep. The shorter girl, who had shoulder-length brown hair and heavily made-up eyes, beckoned her over.

‘Hey, Mel — looking for these?’ She took a green can out of the canvas bag at her feet and passed it to Melanie. ‘Lemon and lime, you can hardly taste the vodka.’

‘Perfect, thanks.’ Melanie took the RTD and put her hand on my shoulder. ‘Rebecca, this is Kate.’ She inclined her head towards me. ‘Rebecca’s from Dunedin.’

‘Hi,’ Kate said, her mascara-laden eyes skidding past me as though I wasn’t even there. Flushing, I turned my head, as if something had just caught my attention. I was starting to wish I’d stayed home. I hated being the new girl. If we hadn’t moved to stupid Auckland then I would have been hanging out with my own best friends, Emma and Alice.
Emma and I had been friends since primary school. We finished each other’s sentences. She’d thrown a leaving party for me, and given me her favourite black hoodie. The day before I left for Auckland we’d promised each other we’d text or call each other every day. So far we’d kept to that promise, but it wasn’t the same. There were so many things we did together that didn’t require words, like drifting around the mall trying on clothes we knew our mums would disapprove of, or eating junk food while we veged out in front of Netflix.

She was the one person I felt most in tune with. But that was the thing about letting someone get that close to you. When you lost them, it left a gaping wound inside, a black hole that got bigger with every day that went by. I was starting to think it was better not to let anyone in, ever again.

‘Want one?’ Melanie passed me her drink, and accepted another one from Kate. She gestured at Kate’s friend, a slender Asian girl who would have been really pretty if it wasn’t for her very bad case of pimples. ‘This is Rachel. Rebecca moved here a couple of weeks ago. Our mums work together.’

‘Is your mum a doctor, too?’ Rachel asked. The evening light was fading fast, but I could still see the pimples marching up her neck and onto her cheeks. I wondered if that was worse than being a ginga, like me, then decided at least she’d grow out of her acne.

I shook my head. ‘She’s a physiotherapist.’ I flipped the tab on the green can and raised it to my lips. I’d never had an RTD before, and wasn’t sure if I wanted one then either. But I was worried I’d look like a loser if I didn’t at least pretend to drink it.

It didn’t taste as bad as I thought it would. After a few mouthfuls my head started to feel a bit floaty. The conversation of the others washed over me as the night sky faded from pink to grey. Then the distant shattering of glass cut through the music. I turned my head and saw a lowered Holden screeching off down the street.

‘Some party,’ Kate said, and wandered away to join the dancing on the lawn.

‘Hey, guys.’ A gangly guy with black-rimmed glasses appeared at my elbow.

‘Liam!’ Melanie beamed at him, and draped an arm around his shoulders. She was onto her third RTD already, and was hugging pretty much everyone who walked past. ‘Liam, meet Rebecca from Dunedin.’

I wished Melanie would stop telling everyone I was from Dunedin. This is Rebecca, and she’s from Hicksville.
Welcome, Rebecca from Dunedin,’ Liam said, his voice solemn. His cheeks were flushed and his breath smelt as if it had been distilled.

‘Nice to meet you,’ I replied automatically. I wondered if I should go and join Kate on the lawn, but felt self-conscious about dancing with a bunch of kids I didn’t even know.

I glanced back at Liam and Melanie. Their faces were so close to each other that they were practically touching. Maybe Melanie was wishing she’d never invited me in the first place. Maybe her mother had made her invite me. My stomach shrivelled at that thought. I looked down at my empty RTD can, and crushed it between my fingers.

Rachel plucked another can out of the canvas bag. ‘Have another one.’

‘Thanks.’ When I looked up, Melanie and Liam were disappearing down the side of the house.

Rachel caught my eye, and shrugged.

‘He’s been coming onto her for ages.’

‘Oh,’ I said. Then Rachel and I stood there, neither of us saying anything. It was one of the longest minutes of my life.

I pulled my phone out of my bag and made a show of checking my text messages. There weren’t any. I wished Emma and Alice were with me. We’d be dancing like idiots, or choosing the saddest-looking person at the party and trying to make them laugh. But Emma and Alice were fifteen hundred kilometres away, and Rachel didn’t seem to want me there.

‘Um, I’ve got to—’ I gestured towards the inside of the house.

Rachel slumped back against the verandah post. ‘End of the hallway.’

After walking past the line for the downstairs toilet, I wandered upstairs, hoping I’d find another bathroom up there. It seemed like everyone I walked past was paired up, like animals from Noah’s ark. I passed a dimly lit room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a desk, and spotted Kate sitting on some guy’s lap, their mouths and hands all over each other. I felt a pang of something then — jealousy? Loneliness? Both, I guess.

After I’d finished peeing, I sat on the toilet for a long time, wondering what to do. All I wanted was to go home. I flushed and then scowled at myself in the mirror. Ginger hair, corkscrew curls, freckles — what guy would want to get with me anyway?

It wasn’t as if I’d never kissed a boy. I learned from my cousin James, when I was fourteen and he was fifteen. We were staying at my uncle and aunt’s in Hastings. He kissed me in the garden shed, then he tried to put his hand up my top. I didn’t let him, but we kissed every day after that.

Sighing, I took my RTD off the vanity cabinet. It was nearly full. I met my reflection’s gaze in the mirror, then drained half the can. It made me feel better, sort of.

When I arrived back downstairs, Rachel was sitting by the stereo in the lounge, flicking through a pile of DVDs.

‘I’m going home,’ I said.

Rachel looked up, her eyes barely focusing on me.

‘Sure, well, nice to meet you,’ she said, then looked back at the DVDs in her hand. She didn’t even ask how I was getting home. My friends back in Dunedin would never have let me walk home by myself.

I drained the rest of my RTD, then walked past a mating couple on the hallway stairs and out into the night. The sky was asphalt. The humid air stuck to my skin like cling film. My eyes started blurring, the way they always did when I was about to cry.

I stumbled down the street, my breath catching on all the jagged edges that had appeared in the back of my throat. I felt like the most unattractive person on the planet. I didn’t think Liam was very good-looking, but if he had chosen me instead of Melanie then I probably would have hooked up with him just so I could feel like I belonged.

I hated myself for thinking that.

But I was thinking that. I should have gone straight home, but I knew my parents would still be up and I didn’t want to talk to them. If they asked me how the party was, I’d probably burst into tears and then they’d try to comfort me and I’d feel even worse.

I turned right instead of left at the street corner and headed straight for the beach. Outside the supermarket, I wrestled my ballet flats off my aching feet and walked the rest of the way in my bare feet.

The tide was out so far I couldn’t see where the sand ended and the sea began. I was wandering past the surf club when I heard laughter and clinking bottles. I looked up. A group of guys, maybe a year or so older than me, was sitting in front of the surf club.

One of them, a solidly built guy with white-blond hair, waved and said, ‘Hey.’

‘Hey,’ I mumbled, then lowered my head and started walking down the concrete steps to the beach.

‘Are you looking for someone?
I slowed, and turned.

‘Um, no. Just going for a walk.’ I shrugged, attempted a smile.

‘You shouldn’t walk on the beach by yourself at this time of night.’ He stepped closer, pushing his hands into the pockets of his jeans. ‘It’s dangerous, you know.’

I wrapped my hands around my arms and looked down at the sand. There were three other people on the beach, a couple walking hand in hand and a dog-walker. It didn’t look very dangerous to me.

One of his friends, a tall guy with a large head of curly hair, piped up.

‘Do you want a beer?’

I shrugged again. ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’

‘Go on, we won’t bite.’ The blond guy plucked a beer out of the box by his feet and used the railing to flip the cap off. ‘Hope you like Steinlager.’

I sat on the sea wall, my legs dangling over the edge. The blond guy sat beside me and clinked his bottle against mine.

‘So, what’s your name?’ He had a nice smile. He wasn’t bad-looking either.

‘Rebecca,’ I said, giving him a genuine smile this time.
‘Cute name,’ he said. ‘It suits you.’ Then he shifted a little, so his thigh came to rest against mine. My heart sped up. Maybe it was an accident — or maybe not, because he didn’t move away.

Neither did I.

I was feeling a bit nervous, so I drank the first beer pretty fast. Then the blond guy offered me another one, so I drank that one, too. That, combined with the RTDs I’d had at the party, meant I was suddenly feeling pretty trashed — all within the space of half an hour. At least, I thought it was half an hour, but time seemed all stretched.

The guys continued bantering amongst themselves, making me laugh. The blond guy kept giving me little smiles and nudging me in the side. At one stage he said I had a cute laugh. He reminded me of Niall from One Direction. It set my head awhirl, a good-looking guy coming on to me like that. It made me feel as if I could be attractive after all.

After the second drink he asked if I still wanted to go for a walk on the beach. I said yes, and stood up. My legs didn’t feel as if they were attached to my body anymore. I started walking down the steps and nearly fell flat on my face.

He laughed. ‘Easy, tiger.’ Then he took my hand, and didn’t let go.
The night was shaping up better than I thought. I asked how old he was, and he said seventeen. He told me he went to a private boys’ school in the city.

We walked to where the sand ended and the rocks began. He leaned against the rocks and pulled me towards him. Then he kissed me.

I kissed him back. I don’t know what I was thinking. No, I do. I thought I’d just kiss him for a bit and then we’d walk back to the surf club. Maybe he’d walk me home and kiss me again, then ask for my phone number.

His breath smelt like beer, and he was a bit of a sloppy kisser. He seemed pretty drunk, too. Then he slipped his hand up my top and cupped one of my breasts in his hand. I pulled away.

‘Sorry,’ he said. He didn’t sound sorry.

I tugged my shirt back down and ran my hand over my lips.

‘It’s OK. I’d better go. It’s getting kind of late.’

‘Stay for a while, huh?’ He pulled me towards him and pivoted me so my back was against the rock.

‘I want to go home,’ I said. My breath was coming fast now. In the distance, I heard laughter, and glass shattering.

‘Relax,’ he said, dropping his hands to my hips. ‘I’m not going to hurt you.’
‘And, like a kid, I believed him.

 

A couple of weeks later I tried again. It was late, and the rest of my family had gone to sleep. My family isn’t very big. Just me and my parents, Will and Janet. Our last name is McQuilten, which is just a pain, because everyone is always getting it wrong.

I was lying in bed, trying to read a book that Emma lent me before I left Dunedin. Before my parents left Dunedin, anyway, and dragged me with them. Emma and I had been talking on the phone or texting every day before the party, but lately I hadn’t been so good at returning her calls or messages. I’d been avoiding her, because she knew me better than anyone, and I didn’t want her to guess something was wrong.

Really, really wrong.

The book was part of a trilogy about werewolves. The more I read it, the more it pissed me off. The guy werewolf kept rescuing the girl werewolf, and I thought that was really weak.

No one came to rescue me. And I sure as hell couldn’t rescue myself.
I thought about going to the police, afterwards. But then I remembered a girl from my school in Dunedin who’d fallen pregnant halfway through her last year of school. She said it was because a boy had date-raped her. No one believed her. They just called her a slut, and worse. Nothing ever happened to the boy, because the police said there wasn’t enough evidence.

No, no, I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened. Especially since I was the new girl in town. Who would want to believe me? I’d be labelled a slut and a liar, just like the pregnant girl, and then I’d never make any friends.

The more I thought about it, the more wound-up I got. My thoughts grew blacker and blacker, until I felt as if I was going to cry, or scream, or both.

I rolled on my back, staring up at the Nirvana poster on my ceiling. It was the cover from their album Nevermind, which showed a naked baby swimming towards a dollar note on a fishhook.

‘Kurt Cobain used to throw up before every show,’ I whispered, digging my fingernails into my thighs until my eyes starting watering. ‘He worked as a janitor after he dropped out of high school.’

Then I stuffed my earphones into my ears and listened to the whole of Nevermind, beginning with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and finishing with ‘Something in the Way’. One hour and eight minutes of sublime music, but when it finished I felt less than sublime.

I felt like I was drowning.

The silence settled around me like a blanket, thick in my ears and my lungs. I looked at the time on my alarm clock. It was 11.03. The cicadas had slowed down. I sat up and turned on my bedside light. Then I took the blade out of my underwear drawer and peeled off the tinfoil.

I turned it around in my fingers, watching the light reflect off the blade. A girl in my class last year used to cut herself. I used to think she was crazy. But now I thought I understood.

I took a breath in and ran the blade along the top of my thigh.

It was so easy, like slicing into an avocado. It didn’t even hurt at first. Then the blood welled up and it started stinging like crazy. The pain was so intense I thought I was going to faint. I I pressed a wad of tissues over the top and concentrated on my breathing, in-out, in-out.

After a while, I realised my heart wasn’t going fast anymore. It was going slower than it had all day, just like the cicadas. As if a sedative had been released the moment I made the cut.

 

Chapter 2:
The Outsiders

I thought things might get better over the next month, but they didn’t. It was two months since we’d moved to Auckland, and if anything I felt like more of an alien than I did when we’d first arrived.

I was lying on my old trampoline in the back garden, reading a book and trying to distract myself from thoughts of being the new kid at school next week. Mum and Dad had wanted to leave the trampoline in Dunedin, but I wouldn’t let them. It was the perfect place to read a book, or star-gaze, or lie on my stomach with my earphones in when I was trying to escape the world. Lately I’d been doing a lot of the latter.

My nose was itching, because Dad had been mowing the lawns and that always gave me hayfever. I kept thinking about moving inside, away from the grass clippings and the diamond glare of the sun, but the book was holding me fast.

‘Where’ve you been?’ Mum’s voice startled me and I looked up. Dad sat down next to Mum and waved his hand towards the fence.

‘I was having a chat to our neighbours.’ He took off his cap and ran his hand over his forehead, leaving a trail of grass clippings behind. ‘They’ve just got back from a holiday up north.’

‘What are their names?’ Mum peeled the wrapping off a triangle of Brie and tipped it onto a plate.

Dad nodded. ‘Last name’s Marshall. Nick’s a rep for some company that sells anti-cancer drugs. His wife’s a teacher — Amanda, I think her name was.’

‘Sounds interesting.’ Mum draped a slice of cheese over a cracker. She glanced up. ‘Do you want some, Rebecca?’

‘No.’ I inched my finger into the gap between my thigh and the sun-hot surface of the trampoline, prodding the week-old scab on my leg. I wondered what she would think if she saw me slide a blade through my skin, as easily as she had just cut through the rind of the Brie.

‘Any kids?’ Mum placed the cracker in her mouth and tucked a corkscrew of ash-blonde hair behind her ear.
‘Three boys,’ Dad said. I rested my head in my arms and closed my eyes. ‘I invited them over for a barbecue tonight.’

My head shot up. ‘You what?’

‘I thought we should get to know them,’ Dad said, raising his bushy eyebrows at me. ‘The eldest is about your age — sixteen. I’m sure you’ll have plenty in common.’

I sat up, clutching my book to my chest.

‘I’m sure we won’t.’ I’d seen the oldest one around a few times, a tall teenager with wavy brown hair and a deep tan. There was no way a hot guy like that was going to want to talk to a ginga girl from Dunedin.

Mum sighed. ‘Rebecca, we don’t need to ask your permission every time we have someone over, do we?’

‘You can have whoever you want over,’ I said, my voice rising. ‘Just don’t expect me to be there.’

‘That’s quite enough from you, young lady,’ Mum called after me as I stalked off into the house.

I hated it when she called me that.

 

Of course I was still at home that evening, because I had nowhere else to go. I couldn’t wait until I turned sixteen, so I could get my driver’s licence and escape whenever I wanted to.

The Marshall family were due at 5.30. At 5.27 I lay on the couch in our lounge, listening to one of the boys arguing with his mother. The Marshalls lived in a two-storey house like ours, with a balcony running around the second level. It was this balcony the boy and the mother were standing on, their voices drifting through my window.

‘Change your t-shirt, would you?’

‘I don’t need to change it.’

‘There’s a rip in it.’

‘No, there’s not. You’re imagining it.’ The owner of the voice sounded amused, like he was about to burst out laughing.

‘Cory Marshall, change that t-shirt right now.’

‘It’s my favourite t-shirt. Look, Mum, we’re going to be late. You know how you hate being late.’

I smiled. Cory Marshall sounded like a funny guy. But then I stopped smiling, because I knew how it would go. We’d be introduced to each other, and we’d make awkward conversation, and then our mothers would embarrass us. Then Cory would leave early to go to a party, because it was Saturday night, and he looked and sounded like the kind of guy who’d have an amazing social life.

‘Rebecca,’ my mother called out a minute later. ‘The neighbours are here.’

I sighed and sat up. As I walked past the bathroom, I glanced in the mirror and saw that my hair had gone all frizzy with the humidity. Even worse, the tip of my nose was red because I’d forgotten to use sunblock.

When I walked outside, my parents were standing in the courtyard, yakking away as if they’d known the Marshalls for two years rather than two minutes. House prices and school zones and the best camping spots, blah blah blah.

Two boys, both with shaggy hair, were jumping on the trampoline. They kept slamming into each other and then laughing as if it was the funniest thing ever. They were obviously twins. Their voices kept sliding up and down, as if they hadn’t finished breaking yet. They looked a lot like both their parents, with their freckly skin and sandy hair.

The older boy was leaning against the barbecue table, his hands in the pockets of his shorts. He didn’t look anything like the rest of his family. His skin was a lot darker, as if he had Maori or Indian blood in him. I wished I had skin like that, smooth and warm, like caramel.

‘There’s Rebecca.’ My father raised his voice and beckoned me over. I walked across the grass in my bare feet, trying very hard not to look at the guy I figured must be Cory. I could feel his eyes on me, though. My already sunburned face must have been as red as a pohutukawa blossom.

‘Rebecca, meet Nick and Amanda,’ Dad said. I looked up and gave the Marshall parents a quick smile. Nick was tall and totally bald. Amanda had a metallic blonde bob with pointy edges that swung past her jaw when she moved her head.

‘And this is Cory,’ Nick said, raising an eyebrow at his eldest, who was now studying his phone as if it was much more interesting than me.

Cory glanced up and gave me a small wave.

‘Hey,’ he said, then glanced back down at his beeping phone.

‘And those two trying to kill each other over there are Ben and Adam,’ Amanda said as one twin launched himself at the other.

‘I want to suck your blood!’ Ben — or Adam — yelled, driving his twin into the trampoline net and collapsing on top of him.

‘Adam!’ Nick roared in my ear. I jumped. He laughed. ‘Sorry about that. Adam broke Ben’s arm last summer. They just don’t know their own strength sometimes.’

‘Huh.’ I didn’t know what else to say. I was too busy wondering how long I was going to have to put up with the new neighbours before I got to escape to my room — away from the noise and the effort of trying to make small talk, which I was no good at. Away from the gorgeous boy, who obviously wasn’t the least bit interested in me, and never would be.

 

An hour and a half. I sat at the far end of the table from the three boys, all talking and laughing so loud it made my ears hurt. Dad got into a conversation with them about tennis, then they moved on to rugby. So boring.

Mum and Amanda were discussing schools. I learned that Amanda was a teacher, and that Cory would be in the year above me at my new school. That made me feel even more nervous.

I swallowed the rest of my bread roll so fast it lodged in my chest like a rock, and offered to do the dishes.

‘I’ll come help you,’ Amanda offered.

‘No need.’ I started gathering plates as fast as I could. All except for Cory’s, because he had spent most of the meal talking and waving his fork around, rather than eating. He looked up, though, and smiled.

‘Sorry, I’m a slow eater.’ His smile was slightly crooked, maybe because of the small scar running up into his bottom lip.

‘It’s OK,’ I said. ‘I’ll come back for yours.’

‘I’ll bring it in,’ he said, scratching his shoulder through the hole in his t-shirt. ‘Soon.’

‘It’s an imaginary hole,’ I said, then flushed, wishing I’d kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want him to know I’d been eavesdropping on him and his mum.

Cory frowned. ‘Imaginary?’ Then his face cleared, and he laughed. ‘Oh, you heard that? My mum gets stressed out over the weirdest things.’

I smiled and shrugged.

‘It’s a cool t-shirt.’ It was red, with a series of seven shadowy figures in stages of evolution, starting with an ape and ending with Darth Vader holding a light sabre.

‘I’ll tell her you said that,’ Cory said, his smile so big I could see dimples and a small gap between his teeth. I didn’t remember ever noticing anyone’s smile that much before.

I had just finished loading up the dishwasher when I heard the thwack of a tennis ball against wood. When I looked out of the window, I saw that everyone else was playing cricket on the lawn. They had balanced beer cans on top of a backwards-facing barbecue chair to use as bails.

Mum beckoned at me to come out. Pretending I hadn’t seen her, I moved away from the window and then wandered down the stairs to my bedroom. Escape at last.

I flopped onto my bed and opened my book. That morning I’d found it at the library in the ‘damaged items for sale’ pile. It was pretty old, but I hadn’t been able to find anything better. All the good books were always out.

I didn’t mean to read for long, but it was one of those books where you had to read one more chapter, then one more. The light in my room turned from lemon to mandarin. The chatter and laughter of the others drifted through my open window. It sounded far away, like a television left on low.

Then I heard feet scuffing over floorboards. They stopped outside my room. When I looked up, Cory was leaning against the door-frame, tossing a tennis ball in the air. He had grass stains on his knees and semi-circles of sweat under his arms.

I sat up, panic strafing through my belly.

‘If you’re looking for the bathroom, then it’s the last door on your left.’ Voices and laughter drifted through my open window.
I could hear them — but would they hear me?

Cory rolled the ball around his long fingers.

‘What are you reading?’

The Outsiders.’ More laughter. I shuffled back against the wall.

Cory’s face brightened. ‘That’s a good book.’ I hadn’t expected him to have heard of it, let alone read it. My heart began to slow. I held the book up.

‘It’s really old.’ The spine was falling apart, and some of the pages had been stuck in with Sellotape.

Cory took a step towards me. ‘S. E. Hinton started writing that when she was only fifteen.’

‘Did she?’ I looked back down at the book. ‘No wonder.’

‘It’s like she can see inside your head, right?’ I felt the bed sink beside me, and my heart sped up again. ‘Mum’s an English teacher. She’s got, like, a million books.’

I raised an eyebrow, trying to look casual.

‘A million?’ Cory was close enough that I could smell the fresh tang of his sweat, mixed with the musky scent of deodorant and sun-sweetened grass. It was giving me the strangest feeling in the pit of my stomach.

‘More like a couple of hundred, I s’pose.’ Cory flopped back on the bed, so his head was touching the wall and his legs were dangling over the edge of the mattress.

I looked towards the door, which was wide open, and then back at Cory.

‘Have you read 1984?’ Cory asked, obviously totally oblivious to my discomfort.

‘No.’ I drew my knees up to my chest. ‘I’ve heard of it, though.’

‘It’s one of the best books ever. And The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, have you read that?’ He was talking really fast, the words spilling out of his mouth like he couldn’t keep them all inside his head.

‘I have,’ I said, and all of a sudden it was like a phosphorus flare went off inside me. ‘It was amazing. Do you think the person who wrote it had Asperger’s too?’

‘I dunno. Maybe.’ Cory’s eyes were closed, his hands behind his head. I kept sneaking looks at him. I wanted to ask him why his skin was so beautifully brown when the rest of his family was pale, like me. ‘And The Catcher in the Rye, have you read that?’

‘No. Is it good?’

Cory sat up, a dark lock of hair flopping over his eyes.

‘Oh my God.’ He took his smartphone out of his pocket and brought up the Safari icon. ‘Here. This is the book. It sells two hundred and fifty thousand copies a year. No. Wait.’ He held up a hand. ‘Wait here.’

‘I wasn’t going anywhere,’ I muttered, but he was already jogging down the hall. I wondered where he was going, or if he’d come back. Maybe he’d forget all about me as soon as he got back outside.

I tried to read my book again, but all of a sudden I couldn’t concentrate. What if he got home and forgot about me?

I wondered if the guy with the white-blond hair had forgotten about me yet. If only I could forget about him.

‘Here.’ Cory reappeared in the doorway, a stack of books under his arm. He sat on the end of my bed and passed them to me, one by one.

The Catcher in the Rye — read that one first, you’ll love it. And here’s 1984. And F. Scott Fitzgerald — have you heard of him?’

I shook my head.

Cory crossed his ankle over his knee. The soles of his feet were thickened, like leather, and very dirty.

‘He wrote The Great Gatsby. But he also wrote Tender is the Night, which I liked even better.’ He handed me a chunky hardback book with a red cover. ‘He used to hang out with Ernest Hemingway. Have you heard of him?
‘Of course.’ The words came out sharper than I intended. Perhaps because I didn’t want to admit that maybe I wasn’t as well read as I’d thought. I’d never met anyone who read more than I did before, especially a boy. It was kind of overwhelming. Cory was kind of overwhelming. ‘The Old Man and the Sea, right?’

‘Yeah, and For Whom the Bell Tolls.’ Cory put his hand to his head. ‘And A Farewell to Arms — God, that’s one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. Do you want that one, too?’

I smiled. ‘No, I think I’ve got enough to start with. Thanks.’

‘So, you found something to talk about after all,’ said a voice from the doorway.

My father’s cheeks were ruddy with sun and alcohol. I wanted to glare at him, but I didn’t want Cory to see me glaring at him, so I shrugged and looked back down at the books.

‘Thanks,’ I repeated. ‘These look really good.’

‘You don’t have to read them all,’ Cory said, and when I looked back at him, his skin was flushed, too. He stood up. ‘Thanks for inviting us over, Will. See you later, Becs.’

‘See you,’ I said, not even bothering to try to correct him. No one ever called me Becs. But somehow, with Cory, it was OK. It made me feel as if he’d noticed me, in a good way. Maybe he even liked me. But then, maybe I was wrong, just as I had been a month ago.

Cute name. It suits you.

I ran my finger up the inside of my shorts and pressed on the scab on my thigh. I pressed on it until my eyes started to water, but it wasn’t enough.

Just a little tease.

I snatched my MP3 player off my desk, then shoved my earphones in and pressed play. I listened to Kurt Cobain sing ‘About a Girl’ and ‘Lithium’, but it didn’t work. The guy with the white-blond hair was still stuck in my head.

After shutting my door, I opened my underwear drawer and slid my hand underneath my bras, until my fingers touched tinfoil. I undid the top button on my shorts and let them slide to the floor. Then I sat back on my bed and ran the blade along the inside of my thigh.

The pain was glassy, pure, exquisite.

For a moment, just one moment, I was in control.