except for mia
late one night when she woke from dreams into darkness.
ethan was asleep beside her, and em was a forest away. outside it was night and dark and alaska. the sky was upside down.
mia lifted the heavy blankets so she could free herself from the bed. ethan did not stir. he was lying face towards the wall. she went to his wardrobe and dressed herself in a jumper, a jacket and her jeans. she pulled the fur-lined boots em had given her onto her feet and she felt her way down the stairs, through ethan’s house, to the front door.
it was winter now and there was snow everywhere. it hadn’t been like this when she had first arrived three months earlier. then it was summer and endless light. she couldn’t sleep in the little room her sister em had made up for her without a blanket over the window to keep out the sun. now she stepped into stillness.
something had woken her and she could not go back to sleep.
alaska was an anonymous somewhere else. an escape from school in melbourne and from the mother mia was ashamed of. when em had phoned to say the ticket was finalised mia had felt instant relief. now she could tell the year twelve coordinator she was leaving to be with her sister in fairbanks, alaska. it wasn’t that mia hated school and it wasn’t that she loved it. she just wasn’t sure where any of it might lead her and, above all, she wasn’t sure how any of it might lead her back to em.
‘you can leave school for now,’ em had said, ‘as long as you go back and finish year twelve.’ ‘yes,’ mia had replied, but she was actually more interested in what em said next.
‘you needn’t bother packing many clothes, mia. it will soon be winter here and nothing you can bring will protect you. you can borrow some of my clothes. after all, we’re the same size.’
actually, they were different sizes and always had been. mia sensed it from the beginning, but she never said anything. when em still lived at home, mia would sneak across the gap between their beds at night. there she’d lie with her chest gently against em’s back, legs exposed to the cold, blanketless air. there was never enough room for both of them, but mia didn’t let em know. instead she stayed stiff and awkward all through the night, uncomfortable, but close to em, just as she wanted.
the clothes, though, would be a blessing – she hadn’t walked in em’s clothes since her sister had left for alaska five years before. of course they would be too tight, too restrictive, but mia would somehow get around that. she could leave a zip undone, a button unbuttoned. after all, she was not unfamiliar with pretending.
and it was that pretending that might explain how she could smile so brightly while her mind felt nothing – as if, at these times, there existed a disconnection between outer and inner, a shutting off, and the key to her happiness lay in warding off pain, or dodging it, or pushing it into the shape of something else – like shame or anger or even hope.
hope – yes, that’s what she felt when she met ethan, surely it was. there was mia, newly arrived in alaska, and already lost inside the forest between em’s house and the patch of blueberries em had directed her to, a thorn inside her hair. ethan stepped into the green that surrounded her, so thick she could barely see the sky.
she should have been surprised but she wasn’t – a stranger emerging out of the leaves and branches and moss. he held a metal bucket with two rainbowcoloured fish inside. they had just enough water to keep them alive.
‘i didn’t expect to find anyone here,’ he said calmly, as if he might be talking to a friend or a sudden stray deer. ‘i’m em’s sister,’ mia said. em was everything mia knew of alaska. surely everyone must know of em.
‘i don’t know em,’ he said.
and there, what should have been a moment of disconnection became one of attraction. mia bent her head to see inside the bucket although she already knew the fish were straining to remain submerged. she’d heard them, faint but distinct, thrashing against the metal.
‘i caught them in the forest,’ he said. she laughed. ‘fish that swim through forest?’ ‘yes, why not?’ ‘why not?’ she echoed.
she’d heard stranger things, like her mother’s version of love. love explains all things, her mother said. but so much remained inexplicable – and unforgivable – like her mother’s illness, although illness was not the
right term since people didn’t choose to be ill and undeniably her mother’s condition was something of her own choosing.
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