It’s not the big things you miss when someone you love dies. It’s not the days out at the theme park or the holidays to the beach. It’s the mundane: safe cuddles, shared giggles, television shows you’d watch together. Like when I was nine, I went on a week’s horse-riding trip in Wales. I was the youngest girl there. A few thirteen-year-olds took me in as their project. They were so grown up, so pretty, so knowing in a way that eluded me even as I reached and passed thirteen myself. They were generous with their advice, their Charlie perfume, and their mascara, and when I wasn’t riding, I was in their bunk, cross-legged on the bean bag, studying their otherness. One morning there in the Brecon Beacons, I was struck by an image of my mum, sitting, as she likely was at that very moment, with a cup of tea, legs tucked beneath her on a pine chair, marking papers at the dining room table. I say struck because it was an invisible blow beneath my rib cage and it knocked the air from my lungs. I was homesick. And was it elicited by the thought of my mum enjoying some big wonderful day of adventure without me? No. It was from imagining a small moment, and wishing I could crawl in and be a part of it.
That’s exactly what I was wishing as I lay tucked into my Aunt Liv’s guest room bed six years later, in the middle of the French countryside, the darkness so deep black, so pure, that it seemed I could be anywhere, and with my mum is where I would always choose.
I wasn’t excited about coming to France, but I hadn’t resisted. There really wasn’t anywhere else to go. It was early June, term time, but I had been expelled from Gallagher House, the ivy-covered redbrick boarding school my father enrolled me in when he found himself taking custody of a fifteen-year-old girl he barely knew. My dad was a quiet man, and although not tall, he had a commanding presence. His greying hair and clipped beard were immaculate, his pinstriped suits custom-made, his stride purposeful. Mum once told me that Dad’s parents had been tough on him, and that he found comfort in his work.
The day after Mum’s funeral, Dad had called me to his study, where he sat behind his wide, leather-topped desk.
“Abigail, I think boarding school’s the optimal solution, given the extensive travel I undertake,” he’d said, as if presenting to the board of whatever multinational he was working for.
“Got it,” I had replied.
My expulsion a few months later had thrown him. Of course, Mr. Lamb had kept the police out of it, and in return I would leave quietly. My dad said that was good of him, given that I could have caused a huge tragedy, and I didn’t say anything at all.
Aunt Liv, my dad’s sister, wasn’t a total stranger to me; she had come from France to stay with Dad and me right after Mum died. I had liked her enough; she was softly spoken, honey brown hair pulled into a loose knot, dressed in pastel greys and lavender, and large, chunky colourful necklaces. She hadn’t tried to make me talk. She took me to choose what I wanted from Mum’s apartment, and when I only took a few things: Mum’s diary, her grandfather’s pocket watch, her jade stone from Asia, and a shoe box of photos, she didn’t say anything, but I later heard her talking to Dad.
“Geoff, she hasn’t only lost her mother, as if that weren’t bad enough. She has to move to a new house, a new school, even a new parent. Let’s put all the stuff from the apartment in storage in case she wants it one day.” I had swallowed down the urge to cry and retreated out of range of her kindness.
My stay in France started slowly. “While I’m at work, Abby, make yourself at home and enjoy the sunshine. There’s ginger cake in the fridge, and money on the table for bread at the boulangerie down in the village,” Aunt Liv said.
“Maybe take a book from the living room? Sit in the sun?” Aunt Liv knew that part of my punishment from Dad for the school episode was cutting off my phone. It didn’t matter to me. I had no one to text. My friends from my old school near Mum’s had stopped messaging when I stopped replying. I definitely didn’t want contact with anyone from Gallagher House.
That first morning, I sat on the terrace, overlooking the quiet lane, and tried to immerse myself in a book, The Yearling. I kept rereading the same paragraph, but it didn’t catch my interest and carry me away. I tossed the book to the floor and stood up. I knew Mum would have loved it here. I didn’t want to think about that. I couldn’t. In search of a distraction, I went down the spiral staircase to the driveway, and walked aimlessly, past one picture-perfect old beige stone farmhouse after another picture-perfect old beige stone farmhouse. I saw a sign pointing me to the centre of Vallons, one kilometre, so I kept walking. I noticed how different the sounds were here: chatting birds, church bells, fat bluebottles buzzing. The sky was an uninterrupted bright blue and the sun was already strong.
I found my distraction at Marcel’s Bistro. It wasn’t yet open, but a dog and her pup were outside, black and white and fluffy, the puppy prancing and toppling, playing with some tall grasses by the side of the road. I sat on the lawn and the puppy bounded over to me, tongue hanging from one side of his open mouth. He pushed his chubby body onto my legs and rolled on his back. I rubbed his tummy and let him chew my hand. The dog, mainly black with a grey muzzle, walked over and stood beside us, trusting and calm. The door to Marcel’s opened and the dog grew alert. A young man walked out, probably in his mid-twenties, dark hair, wearing an apron. He carried a plate of meat chunks.
“Bonjour,” he said to me.
“Hi,” I replied.
“Aah, English?” He came over and, as the dog sat perfectly still, bolt upright, he began to give her bits of meat one by one.
“Yes.” He looked at me, waiting for more. “I’m staying with my aunt up the road for a while,” I said. Now he was closer, I could see he hadn’t shaved today. Under the white apron with its traces of old stains across the front, he wore an old red T-shirt and black jeans.
“There’s not much to do here, I’m afraid,” he said, his accent light. “You already found the best entertainment here,” he smiled, gesturing at the puppy. “I call him Fitz.”
“What about the mum dog?” I said, “What’s her name?”
“Lola. They belong to the farmer, but they know to come to me for scraps.”
He told me his name was Rafael, or Raf, and that he grew up outside Paris. He had moved here to learn to be a chef a few months ago and lived twenty minutes away in a house with an older couple, family friends. He told me he’d always loved to speak English, that he grew up reading books in English and watching American films. I told him my name, Abigail, or Abby for short.
When he finished feeding the dog and had given the smallest shreds of meat to the puppy, he walked over to the side of the restaurant, where a motorbike was propped up, in front of a beaten-up lilac Renault, wheel-less on bricks. The motorbike was bug-like: black wheels and mirrors on stalks, matte black wide exhaust pipe on the side, a semicircle of bright yellow above the front wheel and gas tank. It had a soft, worn black leather seat that Raf lifted up, revealing a storage space.
“Is that yours?”
He nodded. “You like bikes?”
I looked at the ground. “I’ve never been on one, but they look fun.”
“I finish for three hours at 2.30. If you haven’t found anything to do, come back and I can take you for a ride.”
I didn’t feel uneasy, wrapping my arms around a guy I didn’t really know, letting him drive me on a motorbike, no helmets, in a place unfamiliar to me. I enjoyed the necessary closeness, actually, smelling faintly on his skin cigarette smoke, the dryness of flour, the warmth of herbs and spices I couldn’t identify. We rode through the countryside, through little villages, past stone houses, tall yellow blooms and creeping purple flowers spilling into grassy fields, lazy cats, and all the while the sun shone on my bare arms and legs and I held Raf around his waist. I rested my cheek on the dip between his neck and his shoulder and hugged him tightly. Slowing for a bend, he yelled back, “You okay?” and I replied yes and gave his stomach a squeeze for emphasis. I should have said, “I love it,” because I did.
That evening, after dinner with Aunt Liv, pasta and fresh bread with tomatoes from her terrace, I lay on my bed and I replayed the day. Lola and Fitz, Raf, the motorbike ride, when we stopped and smoked cigarettes, sitting on top of the sun-warmed grey wooden gate. We had talked a little then, Raf said it was good to have a reason to go for a long bike ride. He loved his job, but the life here could get boring, his days all felt the same. I had looked at him and let my thoughts out as words, “But you have your job, and your motorbike and all this countryside, how could you be bored?”
Raf had leaned back and breathed in, considering what I had said. He looked at me, and smiled. “I like you, English Abigail. You have a good view on life. And I think you’ll keep me from being bored.” He had hopped down from the gate and held out his hand for me to do the same. “Ready for the ride back?”
The next morning, I took some creamy, runny cheese from Aunt Liv’s fridge for Lola and Fitz, and was feeding them outside the bistro when Raf came out with the kitchen scraps for them. The puppy was jumping on and off my lap as I kneeled in the grass. We fed them, and Raf crouched with his arm around Lola. “So, I am wondering if you’d come with me to the lake a few kilometres away this afternoon? It’s my favourite siesta place, it’s really pretty.”
He wasn’t wrong. The lake was bigger than I had expected, and the sunlight hit it in a million places, sparkling and shimmering through the still, thick, hot air. Raf had packed a bag under the seat of his bike, and in it he had a bottle of red wine. We sat by the edge of the water, and drank from the bottle, the warm gulps of sour wine tasting heavy. “Why do you have no school this week?” he asked.
I looked at the lake, the tree branches, laden with bright green leaves, hung heavy and close to the water’s surface. Emboldened by the wine, I replied, “Maybe I’m trouble,” with a grin, and reached for the bottle from him, touching his fingers as I took it.
“Oh boy, I had a feeling you might be…” He stood up, kicked off his flip-flops and took off his jeans and shirt. “Come, let’s swim.” He ran down and into the lake in his boxer shorts, diving under the surface. The displaced water quickly smoothed behind him, and when he emerged, flicking his head to the side to whip his hair from his eyes, I could see the water beading on his shoulders and it made me want to be close to him. Sluggish from the wine, I took off my shorts a little awkwardly, leaving my tank top and underwear on. The water was crisp and cooled my hot skin instantly. I swam over to Raf, who had made his way to the side of the lake that was met not by a shoreline, but a rocky edge. He climbed out and offered his hand to pull me up. We sat on a flat rock, our legs dangling. I was moving my feet in the water and knocked his accidentally. He knocked mine back, a little harder and I laughed. I kicked my foot hard, splashing water over him, and he pushed my back to try and send me down back into the lake. I grabbed his arms, and we both half-slipped, half-jumped and were underwater. The wine and the sun, and Raf and me in this beautiful lake combined to a feeling of something close to wonderful.
“Raf?” I asked, as we waded over to where we came from.
“Oui?” We were walking slowly, I was dipping down every few steps to keep refreshing myself.
“Are you going to kiss me?” He stopped moving forward and turned to face me. I turned my attention to my fingers, dancing on the skin of the water, not quite pushing through.
“No, Abigail, Abby for short. I’m not.” I focused my effort on maintaining my expression, light and as sunny as the weather, trying to squash down the rejection’s burn. “You’re beautiful and…” I forced myself to look at him: his olive skin unshaven, his dark eyes, the few freckles on his nose I hadn’t noticed before now. “But I’m not going to. You’re what, sixteen?”
“Aah, fifteen! I’m nine years older than you. You’re too young, Miss Trouble.” I smiled, splashed him, and told myself this was the second-best answer.
Back on the shore, Raf talked and I listened. He told me he went to university for English Literature but ended up dropping out, deciding he wanted to be a chef instead. We lay back on the grass, and he closed his eyes. “Siesta time,” he said quietly.
I was enjoying the sun on my skin through my cool damp tank top. It felt good to be this close to Raf. I must have been somewhere in that half-world, suspended just before real sleep, images of Raf in the water, his shoulders decorated with water drops shining, his face, his smile. I startled, my head jolted up. I wanted my mum. Raf stirred beside me. “You okay?” he said, looking up at me, shielding his eyes from the glaring sun. I lay back down on my side facing away from him and nodded, not trusting my voice. I listened to his breath as it slipped into a slow rhythm of sleep. I wished I could wrap his arm across me; no one had held me while they slept since my mum died. I moved back to be as close to him as possible, and closed my eyes.
Raf didn’t have a siesta break the next day as he had the evening off instead. We fed Lola and Fitz in the morning, and then while he worked, I walked around the village, with Fitz following me for a while, under Lola’s distant but watchful eye. I went back to Aunt Liv’s and tried to read some of The Stranger. Raf had told me it was one of his favourite books, and I found a copy on the overstuffed bookshelf in the living room. I scanned the first page, but didn’t find it interesting. I went to the fridge and started to prepare the salad Aunt Liv had said we would have that night. I wanted her to know I was thankful she didn’t question me, that I appreciated her having me and making the salad seemed like a good way to do that. I washed and chopped tomatoes, celery, red peppers, lettuce and cucumbers, and mixed up a vinaigrette with garlic and herbs the way my mum had taught me.
That evening, after Aunt Liv and I cleared up from dinner, I told her I was going out to walk around and clear my head. She said that was fine. “Abby,” she said as I was leaving, “I’m happy you’re here.” I knew she was glad I made the salad.
I was meeting Raf at the farm so we could see Fitz. He was there already, blue jeans, white T-shirt and black boots. “The farmer was here,” he said. I walked over to him. “You’re not going to like this.” I tilted my head, not understanding. “The puppy’s gone. A woman bought him.”
I ran to where Lola lay, dropped to my knees, and touched her face. She raised her head momentarily and lay back down. Raf joined me and I stood back up. “No, Raf, no, he can’t take the puppy away,” I said, my voice loud and urgent.
“He already did. The two older pups already went to a different farm.”
“No, no, no,” I said, shaking my head. “Fitz needs his mum. He needs her.”
Raf smiled gently at me. “You’re hurting in the dog,” he said.
“What?” I looked back at the dog and all I could see was the absence of her puppy. “You make no sense. Fitz has to have his mum!”
“Hurting in the dog, it means you love a dog so—”
“That’s not English!” I interrupted. “That makes no sense! I’m saying this is wrong, Fitz needs to be with his mother! How can you not see?!”
“Abby, I know…hurting in the dog is from a book.” My vision was clouding from the sides. I was narrowing in on the mother dog. “It means once you love a dog then you can hurt in a new way, hurting in the dog,” he continued.
“He’s too young, he needs his mum,” I said quietly, and I felt anger searing my insides, red-hot. I glared at Raf. “I don’t care about some stupid book, it doesn’t make sense.” I backed away. He stepped towards me.
“It’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, from an essay—”
“I don’t give a shit! The puppy needs her mum! What’s wrong with you? How can you be okay with this cruelty?”
My breathing was fast, and I was holding on tightly to myself inside, tensing my stomach, trying not to lose control. Raf and I locked eyes. “You’re sensitive to the puppy.”
“You should be too. You don’t care at all.” I spat my words at him.
Raf reached his hand to mine, my fists clenched, nails finding their home in my palms. As his hands touched mine, I shoved them away from me.
I left him there, with confusion spread thick across his face. I ran all the way back to Aunt Liv’s, stopping only when I burst through the front door. “Aunt Liv! Aunt Liv!” I called, and she came from the kitchen to me. She saw me red-faced and out of breath, and rushed to me. She reached to put her arms around me, but stopped short when she noticed me stiffen.
“Abby, are you okay?”
“The puppy…it’s so cruel here…the farmer took the puppy away from his mum.”
“Oh sweetheart…” Aunt Liv clutched her hand to her chest.
“He should be with his mother. They can’t split them up, it’s not right.” I flicked off my sandals and walked to my room. As I got to my door, Aunt Liv spoke.
“Do you want to talk? Or hang out with me for a bit?” My hand was on the door knob and I didn’t turn back towards her. “No,” I said. “Thanks.”
“I know you’re strong, Abby, but I’m always here for you.”
I didn’t answer her. Instead, I went into my room and took my mum’s jade stone from my wallet, turning it in my hand over and over. I fell asleep holding it.
I didn’t go to Marcel’s in the morning. Raf. I felt the stinging of guilt as I remembered the look on his face as I yelled at him, and that I ran away. I went at 2.30 instead, and he soon stepped outside.
“Hi Abby,” he said, tentatively.
“Hi,” I said. He looked at me, and I saw kindness.
“Let’s walk today?”
“Yes,” I said. We set off down the hill and I ran through in my mind what I needed to say.
“Raf,” I said, my eyes on the gravel at the side of the road. “I want to tell you my mum died, a few months ago.” It wasn’t even close to everything I had practiced.
Raf didn’t know the way I am. He knew by now I don’t like to talk much about myself, but he didn’t know there is a lot I don’t like about the world. Like adults who don’t keep their promises, or knowing I have no anchor, or my realization that I need closeness for comfort, but distance for safety. Because he didn’t know this, it was probably natural to him, when I told him my mum died, to stop walking, to turn me to face him, to put his fingers under my chin to pull my face up so I looked him in the eyes and to say, “Abby, I am so, so sorry that happened to your mum,” and then to wrap his arms around me and hug me tightly. That seemed like it was natural to him and he didn’t know I wouldn’t have wanted to be held, and I didn’t know I did want to be held until he was holding me. And the feeling of his caring was too much for me, but it felt like my body craved it. I sunk my face into his T-shirt, and he stroked my hair with his hand and whispered, “It’s okay,” over and over.
I found out a lot about Raf that day. He dropped out of university because he couldn’t keep his grades up. He couldn’t keep his grades up because he was partying way too hard. He lost a couple of years to mistakes he made; he didn’t say what and I didn’t ask, but his plan to work his way up in a Parisian restaurant owned by an associate of his father’s did not come to fruition. He ended up hungry, jobless, and sleeping on the couches of friends. Finally, he met with his older brother, who asked him if he were ready for help. Raf said yes, and his brother put him in touch with Marcel, and organized him a place to stay.
“I have a feeling my brother knew I needed to get away from city life.”
“That’s so nice of your brother,” I said.
“He really got me out of a mess.”
“How lucky to have a big brother, someone to help you when you need it.”
“You feel like you don’t have someone like that?”
My throat tightened. I looked around, at the smattering of bright red poppies among the yellow-green of the tall grass. Raf stayed quiet and his question evaporated in the hot air.
In Aunt Liv’s living room, I sat at the desk in front of her computer. I typed in the password she had given me on an index card and pulled up my email account. There is something about being labeled. Sometimes I thought when classmates at my school would label a girl as mean, she would descend to meet the description. Similarly, once a girl was labeled pretty, so she was, and everyone accepted she was the pretty one. Aunt Liv had called me strong. I liked how that felt. I had gone to make things right with Raf this morning because that’s what a strong person would do. I Googled the police station covering Gallagher House and found the email address I wanted. I began writing.
Dear Superintendent Berkley,
I am the girl who started the fire in the dormitory at Gallagher House two weeks ago. I know no charges were filed against me, but I wanted you to know why I did it.
I had started at Gallagher House three weeks to the day from my mum’s death, and I believed I could fade into anonymity at a boarding school where I would be one of hundreds of other girls. I was in a dorm with five others, and as they had known each other for years, I was not included in the easy camaraderie that shared history tends to create. I didn’t care. I was happy to do my work in one of the study labs and limit my interactions with everyone. Until I met Mr. Lamb.
Mr. Lamb is the teacher who recommended no charges. There is a reason he did that.
Even knowing all I do now, I still can’t help the way I feel when I remember those early days, the things he whispered, the letters he wrote, the way he looked at me. I felt I was living in a different, more real world the other girls could only dream about. I had the attention of a man, and he was so sure of everything, so knowing. He was tall, his dark hair would flop into his eyes and he’d swipe it back, smiling at me. His arms were strong and when he wrapped them around me, he said he never wanted to let me go. The first time we had sex, we were in his car, parked away from the school. It was getting dark, and in the shadows I moved closer to him. He cast my black knit top to the footwell, unhooked my lace bra, lifted up my skirt. “You’re killing me, Abby,” he said as he kissed my neck, his hand moving up my thigh.
“Oh Abby.” He pulled back and looked at me, my hand in his. “I’ll make it really special, if you’ll let me.”
I felt power I had never experienced, and I shifted in my seat, opening my legs.
“Abby,” he said, his mouth against my ear. “You want to move to the back seat?”
We met as often as we could, a few times a week. And when we weren’t together, we were texting, and writing long letters. He signed his as Miles, his father’s name, and we had codes for different meeting places. It seemed the cavity left by comfort’s departure when my mum died might begin to refill from this relationship, this love.
For eleven weeks, Mr. Lamb and I had a sexual relationship. I was fifteen and he was thirty-two. The relationship ended suddenly, and I set fire to letters he sent me in the rubbish bin. As soon as I realized I couldn’t put it out, I smashed the fire alarm.
I looked at the keys on Aunt Liv’s computer. I knew I didn’t want to tell the whole story. I didn’t feel that any more of it was mine to tell. I closed my eyes and forced myself to remember that day at Gallagher House. One of the more popular girls, Sara, had woken me up in the early hours by whispering to Caitlin in the bunk next to me.
“Cait, wake up, Cait,” she was saying, and I could make out her shape moving in the near darkness. Caitlin murmured and Sara continued, “Jess is bad, she’s fucking devastated because this dickhead is ignoring her, she’s cramping badly. I need more pads for her.” I watched through almost-closed eyes as Caitlin sat up. I knew who she was talking about. Jess was in my French class. A quiet girl, petite and pretty with blue rimmed glasses. We had spoken a couple of times.
“I have some in my drawer,” Caitlin whispered. “Who the fuck is this guy? I stalked and Jess isn’t friends with anyone on Facebook or Insta called Miles.” Miles. Miles? My throat tightened.
“Yeah, she’s lying. I think it’s a teacher, either way he’s a total shit.”
“She thinks he loves her. I don’t want to be mean but—” Caitlin giggled.
“What, you don’t think love is sending your teenaged girlfriend in a fucking Uber to get an abortion pill?” Caitlin shushed Sara through their stifled laughs, and I lay still, covered in sweat, my thoughts wading through the fog that was filling my head.
I left my first morning class ten minutes in to go to the bathroom. Instead I ran across the courtyard, slick from rain, and to the dorm building opposite mine. Jess was in her bed, framed by the window above it. On her bedside table, a Snickers bar, her phone, Teen Vogue magazine and a copy of Catcher in the Rye. She opened her eyes as I approached.
“I know what you’ve been doing,” I said. She looked at me, unsure. “With Mr. Lamb, I know everything.” Her lip trembled, her eyes darted from me, and I felt like I needed to throw up. “I saw you,” I lied. She didn’t deny it. I stood over her. “Through the window on the classroom door, kissing.” I still hoped she might tell me it wasn’t true, show me pictures of a boyfriend, explain it all away.
“Abigail, you can’t tell anyone.” She grabbed my arm, gripping me tightly. Her hair hung limply by her pale face.
“He arranged for you to go to a doctor?”
Her face was white. The lack of makeup, and her obvious distress, had wiped away all I knew of the girl from French class. “He’s not a good man, Jess,” I said, biting down on my words.
“He’s scared at the moment, because of all this,” she gestured to her stomach, “but it’ll be fine in a while. I’m begging you, don’t say anything.”
“He doesn’t give a shit about you, you’re nothing to him. I can’t believe you fell for that fuckwit.” I shrugged myself out of her grip and stepped backwards.
“You don’t understand,” she said, shaking her head.
“You’re a fucking cliché, Jess. That’s all. He used you, and you let him.”
I left her and walked over to my dorm building, and up the stairs to my room. I pulled out my bottom drawer, all the way, and reached under it to the letters on the carpet below that I stored from Mr. Lamb. I had promised him that I didn’t keep them, but I clearly wasn’t the only one lying. I put them in the metal bin next to Ella’s bed. Ella. Smoker. I crouched down, fumbled under the bed until my fingers found the pouch she’d tacked to the underside of the bed frame. I ripped it off and took out the lighter. I lit the edge of one of the letters, upside-down so I didn’t have to read his words, the descriptions of my body, of how we would make love, of his plans to take me away when I got a little older. I dropped the page into the bin and there was an audible whoosh as the fire grabbed onto my letters and the rubbish already in the bin. The flame climbed too high, too close to me, reaching out towards Ella’s bed. I jumped to the fire alarm by the door and smashed it, its piercing scream shooting through the room. As the edge of Ella’s bed was smoking, the sprinklers turned on and the drizzle outside was matched by the drizzle in the building, and that is how the affair died for me. In a sad display, the loud potential of a massive, stunning fire, in the end was a futile flame in a bin, wiped out by a slow stream of water from an institutional safety device.
Of course the police came and the mention of ‘aggravated arson’ and ‘prison sentence’ hung in the air around me. My father wrote a large cheque for the water damage, and Mr. Lamb stepped forward to head up an enquiry, swiftly recommending that no police charges be filed and that the matter should be resolved by my being excluded from the school. He found that my actions, while regrettable, were likely a cry for help, given my mother’s recent passing.
I wouldn’t tell Jess’s story. That would be up to her.
I am attaching emails of text conversations we had of a sexual nature and several intimate photographs. I am willing to help you however I can to avoid this happening to another girl.
“I’m going back to England,” I said as we sat on a stone wall near my Aunt Liv’s side of the village. “My dad’s coming tonight and we’re heading home tomorrow.” Raf took a long drag on his cigarette.
“That’s a change in plans?”
“Yes, things changed.” My dad had received a call in Hong Kong from the police in England a few hours after I hit ‘send’ on the email. He called Aunt Liv’s and we spoke briefly. His voice was strained, and he said he had failed me. I told him that wasn’t true. He said he wants to find a way for him to work less, and have me at home, in a local school.
“Mysterious…” Raf grinned.
“I got expelled from my school.”
“Ah, I see.”
“You aren’t going to ask why?”
“I think you’ll tell me when you want to.” I took his cigarette from him and put it to my lips, sucking enough nicotine to make my head swim.
“Yep. I will,” I said, exhaling.
I am a collector at heart. I collect those small moments that make me feel safe, those memories I long to relive. My dad gave me a box from Hong Kong, wooden, carved, with a key and soft green fabric lining the inside. I put my mum’s jade stone in it, her grandfather’s pocket watch, a few of the photos I have of her and me, her diary, a bookmark onto which Mr. Lamb had scribbled a note to me, “You’re the best secret ever.” Each item that makes it into that box is meaningful to me. I know Mr. Lamb wasn’t who I thought he was, but I’m happy that from the unraveled mess, a new order emerged, a feeling of understanding from my dad, steady reassurance from Aunt Liv. And Raf, and the moments he gave me for my collection. He offered me that feeling of comfort I longed for and I hungrily took it. The feeling of freedom on the back of his bike, my body pressed into his as we tore through the countryside, the feeling of closeness from lying with him as he snoozed in the sunshine, listening to the birds, the bullfrogs and his breath, in and out. And the book.
When we met to say goodbye, Raf gave me a gift: his worn, creased copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Short Autobiography. “Read it all, and you’ll see what hurting in the dog is. Then you won’t have to run away when I mention it again.”
I smiled. “I’m sorry.”
Raf put his finger to my lips. “Shhh, no need. As you grow up, there are so many ways to hurt.” I took his hand and squeezed it as he continued, “You have to keep company with people who would never do you harm.”
That was a lesson I added to my collection, as important as the book he gave me.
“So Miss Abigail, Abby for short, you’ll be back here, one day?” I nodded. He pulled me in for a huge hug, his bare arms warm on my back.
Originally from England, Jo Varnish now lives outside New York City. She is the assistant editor at X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. Her short stories and creative nonfiction have recently appeared, or are forthcoming, in Okay Donkey, Ellipsis Zine, the Brevity blog, The Coachella Review and others. Jo has been a writer in residence at L’ATELIER Writers for two years, and is studying for her MFA. She can be found on Twitter: @jovarnish1.