Gazing at his reflection, Dylan carefully experimented. It was just such a difficult decision to make… He had to look perfect, simply perfect. So why was it so hard to decide?
‘One button done up… Two buttons done up… All the buttons… No buttons…’ he muttered under his breath as he methodically buttoned up his shirt. He had to make a good impression. He wasn’t going to get another chance!
‘Honestly Dylan, I think you put less effort in for your prom!’ Robyn laughed as she poked her head around his bedroom door. ‘You’re only going out for a drink at the karaoke bar!’
‘Oh my goodness, Dylan!’ Louise’s face broke out into a huge smile as she stepped forward, pulling her old friend into a hug.
‘I never thought I’d see you here! What’s brought you to Appaloosa Plains, hey?’
Blinking, Dylan tried to find some words in his suddenly speechless brain. ‘You wouldn’t believe me, Lou, even if I did tell you! I can hardly believe it myself.’
‘Gnomes, Dylan, are you okay?’ Dylan’s heart skipped a beat as Louise reached out and squeezed his hand gently, her eyes full of genuine concern. ‘What’s happened?’
‘For gnomes sake, Dylan, you’re going out with an old school friend for a catch up! It’s not the be all and end all of the style stakes.’
Jumping, Dylan found himself back in the present. Running his hand one last time through his hair, he turned to face his sister. ‘Oh, whatever Robbie. You wouldn’t understand.’
‘What’s to understand?’
‘I’m… Louise is… Oh, never mind!’
Laughing, Robyn reached out straightened Dylan’s collar. ‘Well I never am going to understand if you can’t find the words to tell me, am I? Now, please Dylan… Don’t be late home. I know you’re feeling a lot stronger nowadays, but…’
‘But I’ve still got a lot of recovery to go, yes I know Robyn,’ Dylan sighed, parroting off the now familiar lines. ‘I’m going out for a drink, not rock climbing!’
‘Yes, but you know what you’re like Dyl. You’ll get carried away and end up passing out somewhere at three o’clock in the morning, and I’d really appreciate not receiving another call from the hospital saying that my brother’s been admitted. Okay?’ Robyn tried to keep her smile natural, her tone light.
‘For gnomes’ sake Robyn, would you get off my back for just one night? I’m fine!’ Dylan snapped, rolling his eyes. ‘I don’t need babysitting any more! What are you still doing here, anyway? You said you’d be staying a week, I’m pretty sure that week’s been and gone! I don’t need looking after, I’m a big boy!’
Robyn gritted her teeth. ‘Sorry, Dylan.’
Glancing over at his sister, a wave of guilt washed through Dylan. ‘Sorry, Robbie. I just… I feel fine, you know?’
‘I know you feel fine, Dylan, but you what you went through… Just, please. I’ll stay out of your hair if you just promise me that you won’t be late? Please, Dylan.’
Softening a little, Dylan smiled at his worried sister. ‘Okay, fine. It’s a deal. I’ll be home by eight, okay?’
* * *
‘So let me get this straight… You’re in Appaloosa Plains because you nearly died?!’
‘Yup,’ Dylan replied, concentrating on potting the yellow. Louise stood leaning on her snooker cue, a little unsure of how to take the news.
‘You nearly died.’
‘That’s what I said!’
‘You were fighting a fire and you nearly burned to death.’
‘No, not burned. Smoke inhalation. That’s the real killer, though thankfully not in my case!’ Dylan laughed a little half-heartedly at his lame joke, taking his eye off the ball and totally screwing up his shot. ‘Damn!’
‘I can’t believe it, Dylan. I’m… I’m really pleased you’re okay. But for gnomes sake! That’s some pretty heavy news!’ Looking up from his failed shot, Dylan met Louise’s eyes. To his surprise, they were full of tears.
‘Lou? What’s wrong?’
‘I… It’s just a bit of a shock, that’s all. You… Well, you were a pretty big part of my high school experience, whether you realise it or not. Just the thought of you… Well, you know, and me not having any idea… It’s just…’ Wiping her eyes on the back of her hand, Louise forced a smile. ‘Look, never mind.’
‘No, Lou -‘
‘It’s fine! I’m sure you’ve had enough of reactions like these from your family,’ Louise nodded, putting on a brave face. Dylan’s news had genuinely shocked her.
Just as Louise’s reaction had genuinely shocked Dylan. She cared about him, she still cared about him!
‘Yeah, you’ve got a point there,’ he chuckled. ‘I’ve got Robyn living with me at the moment, you remember her? I get that she means well, but bloody hell she runs a tight ship! I can’t even cough without her noting it down for my doctors!’
‘Bit of a sergeant, is she?’ Louise laughed, going to take her turn at the pool table.
‘Too right! Thought I’d left all that behind when I left military school, but no such luck! She should really think of a career in the army once she’s finished playing carer, she’d rise straight to the top!’ Dylan watched as Louise skillfully potted a ball, a little in awe. ‘Wow, that was good! You’re not bad at this, hey?’
‘There’s a lot I’ve learned in the past three years, Dylly-boy,’ Louise replied coyly, grinning up at him as she went to set up her next move. ‘You have no idea!’
Dylan felt the heat rising in his neck. ‘So, er, what have you been up to since high school? You’ve not really said, it’s just been me talking really…’
‘Well to be fair Dylan, you did have some pretty huge news! I’m going to have to think hard to top that,’ Louise joked as she potted a second ball in a row. ‘What have I been up to? Well -‘
Both Dylan and Louise jumped out of their skin as the bar’s relaxed atmosphere was suddenly pierced with what could only be described as the screeching of cats. Recovering from the fright first, Louise poked her head over the balcony to look down into the main room of the bar. She immediately spotted the culprits…
‘Lost in an ebony maze,
I found you, you found me,
You brought me home, you gave me life,
With you is where I need to be…’
Dylan winced as the two women butchered the familiar song, each note terribly off key. Louise turned to Dylan with a sly smile.
‘Not a patch on your Dad, are they?’
‘Not at all! For gnomes sake, that’s horrendous!’
Slinging down her snooker cue on the table, Louise pointed to the door. ‘Let’s leave before we’re deafened and/or scarred for like, please?’
Dylan gladly propped his up against the wall and the old friends sprinted down the wooden stairs and out the door, trying not to burst into laughter as they passed the hapless women crucifying El Tigre on the way. Coming to a breathless halt at the end of the street, Dylan turned to Louise.
‘You know I’m quite surprised you decided to throw the game. Clearly you were intimidated by my superior skills…’
‘Superior skills? Oh, whatever Dylan Rivers! I had that game in the palm of my hand and you know it!’ she replied, punching him gently on the bicep before casually linking her arm through his. ‘Let’s go for a walk?’
‘…Yeah, yeah sure,’ Dylan said, a goofy grin creeping onto his lips. He hoped Louise wouldn’t notice the goosebumps that had just shot straight up his bare forearms at her touch. ‘I think you were about to tell me what you’ve been up to these last few years?’
‘I was, wasn’t I! Wow, where to begin. When did we last see each other?’
‘Properly? I think it was at the prom. You know, when you rejected my heart and stomped on it in your stilettos on your way down the steps,’ Dylan half-joked, trying to make light of what had happened between them whilst keeping his gaze firmly locked on to the pavement. He could feel Louise’s eyes on him.
‘Right, you. Come this way!’ Dragging him into the park they were walking by, Louise firmly sat down on the cool grass and pulled Dylan down with her. ‘We need to talk about this. You know full well I didn’t reject you because I didn’t like you!’
‘Then why did you reject me at all!?’
‘Dylan! You’d literally just broken up with Melody! Whether I like it or not, she was my best friend at the time… Well, maybe not at that exact moment, but she had been. You’d barely looked in my direction at all, in any way, shape or form, all the way through high school! What was I supposed to say? “Gee thanks for noticing me Dylan, of course I’ll go out with you!”?’
‘I hadn’t never noticed you!’ Dylan replied hotly, glaring at Louise.
‘No, really! Okay fine, maybe it took me a while. But after you came back to Bridgeport from visiting here, and we were doing our project… And at Robbie’s party, and, yes, at the Prom… I dunno, I just…’
‘Well it was still really bad timing, you’ve got to admit that!’ Louise nudged Dylan in the side, determined to win this one.
‘Okay, okay! I’ll give you that one.’
‘Besides, I was leaving Bridgeport anyway. You weren’t going to be there.’
‘I’m here now.’ Leaning back a little, Dylan looked up at the stars. ‘How about that, then?’
‘Yeah, you’re right. You are here now…’ Butterflies fluttering gently in her stomach, Louise couldn’t keep the soft smile from creeping onto her face. The shy, teenage girl who still lived deep inside her was leaping for joy. Taking her eyes off Dylan, she too gazed up at the stars.
‘It’s strange to think that those stars are the same ones that shone down on us on prom night, isn’t it?’ Dylan said conversationally. ‘The same ones that shone down on our parents, and grandparents.’
‘Where the hell did that come from?!’
‘I don’t know! Just making conversation. If you’re thinking about the stars, you’re not thinking about leaving me again!’ Giving Louise a sideways look, Dylan creased up laughing; Lou giggled along with him.
‘You sly dog, you! I wasn’t thinking about leaving, anyway. This has been a really great night, burst ear drums aside! If I was going to ditch you I wouldn’t have waited so long to do it!’
Louise’s words struck a chord with Dylan, and he looked at his watch. ‘Oh, gnomes! Think I’m actually going to have to head home, it’s nearly midnight! Robbie won’t be best pleased with me.’
Sighing, Dylan sat up straight and looked at Louise, wishing he didn’t have to go. Biting his lip, he leaned over to her and brushed her hair from the side of her face. ‘I had a really great night too,’ he whispered gently.
‘What sort of bloody time do you call this, Dylan!?’
Dylan had barely taken three steps into the house before he was hit by the angry volcano spewing hot lava that was his little sister. Her eyes were thunderous, and for a few nervous seconds Dylan actually thought she was going to punch him.
‘Robyn, chill out! Let me expl-‘
‘No, Dylan! You promised! You promised me! I’ve been calling and calling you, I was so worried!’
‘My phone was -‘
‘I don’t care, Dylan! Spare me the pathetic excuses!’ Robyn’s voice was screeching louder and louder.
Entirely taken aback by his sister’s rage, Dylan spluttered as he tried lamely to defend himself. ‘Robyn, will you get off my back? So I stayed out a bit later than I said I would! That’s hardly a crime, it’s not like I’ve got a curfew!’
‘Dylan, you promised me that you wouldn’t be late. I believe you said you’d be home by eight! It’s gone midnight!’
Snapping, Dylan let rip at his sister. ‘Robyn, when exactly are you going to get off my back and let me get on with my life? You’re my little sister, not my carer; I’m an adult, not a child! Stop trying to control my life! When are you going to quit giving me so much bloody grief!’
‘When you realise that you almost died, Dylan! When you realise that I’ve spent the last two and a half years being absolutely petrified that my big brother was going to die! When you realise that I’m only trying to BLOODY HELP YOU!’