Standing in front of my full-length mirror in my bedroom in Willow Street, I tried to pull my dress down. It came to just above my knees but I wasn’t comfortable with the free way it swished around. I sighed and hunted in the wardrobe for a pair of black leggings. With them on, I felt so much better.
The skater dress was teal, lacy, and my favourite. Otter would no doubt complain that I always wore it but I didn’t care. I was going to have to make myself as comfortable as possible tonight what with all the people she’d invited. I turned to make sure I hadn’t tucked the dress into my leggings, not needing people looking at me tonight, let alone laughing. Satisfied, I sat cross-legged on the floor and waited for my curling iron to heat up, content with listening to the beat of music in the background.
This week had gone better than the last. I’d done what Nathan had said and ignored the flowers. With his help of course. He was waiting by my locker on Wednesday after my final exam, saying that the best thing to do before his second philosophy and ethics paper was not to think about anything. So he’d come back with me and we’d played video games all night.
Yesterday, with nothing else to do, I'd spent the day with Otter on her birthday, who was at long last, seventeen. It was weird to think that Otter and I spent most of the year being different ages, my birthday being at the end of September, a full eight months before. We celebrated with Hadley and Asa who’d both come down from university to wish their baby sister a happy birthday, even though Hadley had already come home two weeks before for a visit.
Hadley and Asa, yet again, made me question my quality as an older sibling and I’d spent the evening listening to Grace babble about fairies and magic and other nonsense. Lucky for me, there was no more talk of something big or something bad. I was crossing my fingers that this destructive Winnie was fading into the back of Grace’s overactive imagination.
There was a knock at the door as I was searching through my hair accessories for a clip with an acceptable coloured bow attached. I’d already wrestled with too many hair pins to push the curls off my face.
“Come in!” I called as I tipped the container onto the floor.
Grace crept in and looked me up and down. “You look beautiful.”
I smiled, heart lifting. “Thanks, Gracie, you’re so sweet. Do you want to come and help me pick a bow? I don’t have one the right colour.”
“Okay.” She was on her hands and knees at once, searching through the many colours I seemed to have picked up over the years. “Mum asked if you wanted any dinner by the way.”
“No thanks. I’m eating at Otter’s.”
“That’s what I told her.” She sat up and considered my pile of clips. “I think I have one that colour.” She pointed to my dress. “I’ll be right back.”
I put an aqua one to the side in case Grace couldn’t find hers – which was always a possibility with her – and put the rest away, grabbing my makeup bag and getting comfy on the floor again. By the time Grace returned, I’d swapped my glasses for contact lenses. I didn’t like wearing them but Otter always made such a fuss about how much she liked me without glasses on.
“Here!” Grace appeared, grinning, holding a clip with a teal flower on it.
I swallowed. “Why would they make a flower that colour? Flowers don’t come in that colour.” I looked away from it and back into the mirror. A flower in my hair was the last thing I needed.
“Don’t you want it?” Grace frowned and sat next to me.
“No thanks. I’m going for contrast now.” I held up the aqua bow for her to see.
“You’ll look pretty whatever you do.”
I felt blush crawling up my cheeks. “Thanks.”
“Do you not like flowers?” she asked.
“No.” I chuckled. “I most certainly don’t.”
We sat in silence as I did my makeup. It was harder to concentrate with Grace examining my every move than I’d thought. I knew she was eyeing my makeup but there was no way I was going to keep it on a low shelf. Angela had learnt that lesson the hard way. More than once Grace had entered the room wearing thick blue eye shadow and ruby red lipstick, beaming like a baby show girl.
Grace remained where she was as I put on my favourite perfume and jewellery, all silver and pale green. I started playing with my grandmother’s silver bangle as soon as I put it on, its familiarity on my wrist calming. I liked carrying a little piece of her with me wherever I went. When she died, almost three years ago now, I thought I’d wear it only on special occasions. But after wearing it to her funeral, I couldn’t bring myself to take it off and had worn it every day since.
“All you need now is a tiara.” Grace smiled as I began packing my bag. By the birthday girl’s orders I was to sleep over. She said it was so I could drink. She didn’t know that after last summer I was never going to touch a drink again.
“I’ve got one of those.” I rooted about in my wardrobe until I found it. “Here.” I handed it to her. “It was from Dad’s wedding. You can have it if you like. I don’t need it.”
She looked like I’d just handed her the key to being a real princess and all her dreams were about to come true. “Wow,” she breathed. “This is the best thing ever!” Her arms were around my middle, squeezing me tight. “You’re the best.”
“Far from it, Gracie.” I took the tiara back and placed it in her hair.
She was still wearing it when I called goodbye to the household and got in the car. She stood waving me off from the door frame, her mouth stretched as far as it could into her plump cheeks. Maybe I wasn’t the terrible sister I’d always imagined myself to be after all.
I pulled up outside Auntie Kate’s and Edward opened the door. He had a huge smirk on his face which alerted me to whatever was about to come waltzing out of his mouth. “Did it hurt?”
I burst out with a loud hard laugh and patted his shoulder. “When I fell from heaven? No, Ed. And don’t use that pick up line on any living human being ever again. Especially if their surname happens to be Angel.”
“Oh come on!” His smile fell as he let me in. “What are the chances of that ever happening?”
“Practice your flirting on someone else. Is your brother ready?”
I found Nathan wearing tight dark blue jeans and a chequered shirt with a dark grey blazer over the top. He had some sort of wax on his hand and was playing with his hair.
He spun round as he noticed me. “Help me!”
“I don’t know what I’m doing!”
He had short back and sides but the waves that fell on top were always brushed back in a care free manner. Whatever he’d done up to this point was brush it back as normal, but with wax in his hand.
“It looks fine.” I sat down on his beanbag. “What’re you worried about?”
“I can’t make it look any different to normal.” He turned back to the mirror.
“So? The radiant Melissa Greene is coming! I want to look my best.”
“Nay, Melissa has a boyfriend and she’s never spoken to you before. What is your problem?”
“She’s pretty. What’s not to like?”
I stuck out my tongue. “Never say anything like that ever again. Not to break your fantasy or anything but she’s . . . nothing special.”
“She must be, she’s with hunky dream boat Kyle.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Do you want Melissa or is Kyle the secret object of your affections?”
“Please,” he snorted. “Kyle’s an arse.”
“You don’t have to tell me that.”
“You remember his party last year? He didn’t even say hi to me! Did he say hi to you? Because if he did that’s even worse because he didn’t even invite you. I dragged you.”
“Yes, I vaguely remember the worst night of my life when you disappeared after Melissa and left me to fend for myself.” I crossed my arms. “I don’t remember if he said hi to me. I drank too much to remember if anyone said hi to me.” That was mostly the truth.
“Well it was pretty good for me. I almost talked to her.”
I rolled my eyes. “If you’re lucky maybe you can almost talk to her again.”
He left his hair alone with it looking just the same as always except it was obvious he’d put product in it. “You could distract Kyle for me. Maybe then I could actually speak to her.”
“Not on your life. I hate Kyle, he’s a twat.”
“Fine.” He held his hands up. “Don’t help out a friend in need.”
“I’m not helping you to perv on Melissa.”
“Perv’s a bit of a strong word.”
“It is, but in this case I think it’s the right one.”
Nathan wandered about a bit more, looking in the mirror, putting on a spicy aftershave that was pleasant until he sprayed too much of it. I’d been in his beanbag thirty minutes by the time he fiddled with his posh brown watch.
“Okay.” He checked himself in the mirror one last time before turning to me. “How do I look?”
“Fine. Can we go now?”
“Fine? Come on, Abz, I was looking for something more encouraging than fine. I’m hoping to woo the love of my life tonight.”
“Love of your life? You don’t have high hopes for your future if you think Melissa Greene is the love of your life.”
He huffed. “Thanks for the dating advice, Abz, forgive me if I don’t jump right on that. Do I look good or not?”
I pulled myself out of the beanbag. “Yes, you look very handsome. She’ll be stupid to say no to you.”
He grinned. “That’s all I wanted to hear.”
After pushing the passenger seat all the way back, we were off for Cullham. Nathan was jabbering on about this and that and as we turned onto the road out of Suddich, he poked me on the arm.
I looked at him for a second. “What?”
“You poked me.”
“I’m sorry. I forgot what I was going to say.”
“Since when does that ever happen to you?”
“Sometimes it does.”
I carried on until he did it again.
“Are you developing tourettes? What is it this time?”
“I was just wondering how you were feeling. You don’t like stuff like this.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Nathan, what the hell are you really thinking about? You’re freaking me out.”
He took a deep breath and held it for about twenty seconds. “Nothing. I was just annoying you.”
As we pulled up to the roundabout I groaned. “You were distracting me, weren’t you?”
“Maybe. It worked though didn’t it?”
“Nay, I’m fine. I mean it. I’m fine. It’s all going away, I swear.”
“Good. I told you to just ignore it.”
“And I have. Everything’s okay.”
“Thank Christ for that.”
“You’re telling me.”
I pulled onto Otter’s drive behind her mum’s car. Her dad’s car was missing which must’ve meant they’d gone out already. Hadley and Asa’s cars were missing too so it was just us.
My heart began pulsing extra hard as I turned the car off and I felt a little bit sick. I knew people weren’t going to turn up for at least another hour but the waiting was enough to get my heart racing. I couldn’t understand why Nathan and I weren’t enough.
Otter opened the door jumping up and down, grinning. She was wearing a pale pink dress to just above her knees and unlike me, had gone without leggings. She was fully kitted out with her owl jewellery: necklace, earrings, and ring. Her usual uniform bob had been tightly curled and fastened back with an owl pin.
“I am so excited,” she said as we made our way inside.
“You don’t say?” Nathan chuckled. “You smell awesome.”
“Okay . . .” Otter shut the door behind us. “Thanks, I guess you do too. But can we not start sniffing each other? It’s weird.”
She gave me a squeeze. “You look gorgeous. Love it. Even if it is that same dress.”
After running upstairs to throw my bag on her bed, she led us into the living room. We stacked our presents on the coffee table before flopping onto her cream sofas. Simba, Otter’s ginger tabby cat, jumped onto her lap at once and began to purr as she stroked him. Nathan budged up to the furthest side of the sofa, not taking his eyes off Simba.
“It’s just a cat, you freak,” Otter said.
“He doesn’t like me and I don’t like him.”
“Fair deal. You’re the one who wants to shove him in a box.”
“Can we stop Schrödinger’s cat now? I’m totally done with it.”
She ignored him, turning to me. “I’m more nervous than I thought I’d be. Is this how you feel?”
“Yes.” I gave a quick nod. “This is what it feels like to be socially retarded. I’m bloody petrified. Why did you have to invite so many people?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t mean to. I guess I know more people than I realise. It’ll be okay.” She grabbed my hand and gave it a quick pulse.
“If you two swan off I won’t have anyone to talk to.”
“Abz,” Nathan said. “You see these people every day, chill out. It’s not like you’re not going to know anybody.”
I shook my head, my palms getting clammy. “Let’s not talk about it.”
Nathan and I followed Otter into the kitchen to get a drink. As we passed the dining table, I noticed it was pushed against the wall and filled with snacks of all sorts. The kitchen had lines of various types of fizzy and soft drinks and of course, alcohol.
“Otter, how much did this all cost?” I felt my eyes widen as I tried to take it all in.
“I don’t know.” She grimaced. “Quite a lot I imagine. I’m hoping people will bring more alcohol. This won’t last all night.”
And that sentence alone terrified me. Lined up along Otter’s kitchen counter was every type of alcohol I could think of. There were wines, beers, vodka, rum, whiskey, and even brandy. I didn’t know whether she wanted to get everyone wankered or whether she really had invited so many people that it wasn’t enough. Either way, I was horrified by the amount of shot glasses stacked on the corner.
“Drinks for my first and favourite party goers?”
I shook my head. “I’m fine thanks.”
“Come on, Abz.” Nathan budged his shoulder against mine. “We promise we won’t get you shitfaced.”
“How pleasant an expression. Still no.”
“Well, unlike my perfect angel cousin, I’ll have whiskey and coke please, Otter.”
Otter poured herself and Nathan a drink before turning to me, biting her lip. “I wanted you to stay over so you didn’t have an excuse. What’s stopping you?”
Nathan cut in before I could open my mouth. “I took her to Kyle’s Sutherland’s party while you were away last summer. She got absolutely twatted and threw up. A lot.”
“Thank you so much for bringing that up,” I forced through gritted teeth. “I don’t like losing my inhibitions and I have no intention of making myself stupid. I happen to like my brain.”
I could almost see Nathan bite back a comment about the flowers. Instead he said, “It might make it easier to talk to people.”
“I’ll take my chances. I’ve done okay so far.”
“You’ll be the odd one out.”
“Please.” I held up my hand. “Quit it with the peer pressure, you’re supposed to be my favourite relative.”
“Also know that you get super annoying when you drink so you might not want to have too many before you run after Melissa.”
“Really?” His eyebrows came together and he looked to Otter. “I get annoying?”
She nodded. “Even more than usual, though I know that’s hard to believe.”
We sat in the living room and waited for guests to arrive, Otter jumping up to the window at any noise whatsoever. Nathan was the only one who seemed calm and unfazed by the situation. Five minutes before the time Otter had told everyone to arrive, she turned on the stereo and some popular song blasted out as the three of us sat in silence, Otter and Nathan sipping their drinks. I tapped my fingers on the arm of the sofa, finding it strange that Otter was playing music she didn’t like at her own party.
Vicky and her boyfriend Will were the first to show up and Otter was all over them like they were royalty. Nathan chuckled and winked at me. I tried to smile and let out a shuddery breath, fiddling with my bangle again. This was going to be one of the longer nights of my life, and it hadn’t even started yet.