Mike and Ara as Teens
This is the prologue to Echoes, but you can read it even if you've never read any of the books. There are no spoilers, but it gives you great insight into how Mike and Ara's relationship developed as children.
Mike’s parents never planned to have kids, so when little baby Michael came along, their two-bedroom loft house that overlooked the bush land had to become a family home. As he grew up and needed more space, they converted the patio into a bedroom, so Mike’s bed sat along a floor-to-wall window that was once an open balcony, giving him a panoramic view of the national park. The room was quite small, really, just enough space for a double bed that his feet hung off at the end, a small TV cabinet, two giant red beanbags for us to sit in when we played Xbox, and a few shelves and a set of drawers. It was cluttered but homey, and just about the best place in the world.
I sat on the beanbag in front of the TV with a book in my hand, occasionally moving my head in front of the screen to distract Mike and help the online players get a few kills in. When I did that, he’d flip my book with his foot so it flew out of my hands and I’d lose my page. Which was annoying. But not as annoying as trying to read at home. Mum’s newest boyfriend said books were for the mindless, and told me the only book I should be reading is the bible. Safe to say I’d been spending a lot more time at Mike’s lately.
After dinner, we went back to our respective perches. I wriggled down and let the beans collect comfortably under my back, put my feet up on Mike’s legs, and watched out the window as the trees turned black against the blood-orange sky.
The spicy taste of charcoal steaks and buttered potatoes lingered on my breath, and the sweet smell of eucalyptus breezed in with the evening air, enriching the woodsy smell of Mike’s floors and shelves. I could still hear his mum and dad talking in the kitchen while they tidied up, and by the time the sun left the sky black above a scarlet horizon, all had gone quiet in the house, except for the random scream or shout as Mike killed some innocent kid on the other side of the world.
As I watched him, his mind completely distracted, the changes from boyhood to teen became more apparent: his face, his personality, his… body. The green screen lit up his eye sockets and his shiny chin, making the small pimples there a little more obvious. Over school break, he’d grown in his ‘fluff’ to cover them, but all that did was make them worse so, come school time, he had a chin full of red bubble wrap. I teased him, but only until I noticed an ugly white pimple on my nose. Then I avoided coming here for three days. He still doesn’t know I had it.
I could tell from looking at him that he was getting tired. He kicked off his thongs and crossed one hairy ankle over his hairy knee, pulling his board shorts down a little where they rode up. I’d wanted to tell him all day that I loved that white Audioslave T-shirt on him—that I’d started listening to them as well and thought they were really cool. But I didn’t want him to think I had a crush on him. He’d accused girls of that before when they made him playlists or started reading the same books he read.
“I can’t see,” Mike said, rubbing his eyes.
“I’m not surprised.” I toed his knee with a playful shove. “You’ve been playing all day.”
“Well”—he jumped up with a grunt and flicked off the Xbox—“time for a break.”
“A break?” I looked at the wall clock, shook my head, and then looked at his bedside clock. “It’s pretty much time for bed.”
I shrugged. “A little.”
“Come on then.” He offered his hand. “We’ll set your bed up.”
With a bit of a struggle, I won the battle against the beans and managed to haul myself up and onto my feet. “Just don’t put me in your old room tonight, okay. It’s spooky.”
He laughed. “Ara, there are no ghosts in this house.”
“There is. I told you, I saw a man in the corner. He was, like, as real as you are now.”
Mike just laughed it off again, like always. “All right. You can sleep in here.”
I tossed my book onto his cluttered shelf. “I planned to anyway.”
“Figured as much.” He turned around and grabbed a pillow off his bed then threw it to me with enough force to knock me back down onto the beanbag.
“Aw, does baby need to cry?”
I hugged the pillow tight, my face burning with fury, and jammed my foot hard into the back of his knee, breaking to hysterics as he tumbled forward like a sack of potatoes.
“Oh, you are going to pay for that.” His lanky teen body rose slowly but bent quickly after like an ape chasing its young, and he landed on top of me, his legs either side of my hips, his bony fingertips digging in to my ribs.[A1]
“Stop it!” I squealed. “Mike. Stop!”
He laughed harder, weaving and dodging my flailing hands to get to my ribs. “No way. I’m gonna tickle you until you pass out this time, Ara.”
“No. No!” I wriggled around, sinking deeper and deeper into the beans, and the weight of us both stretched the fabric so tight I thought the seams might pop. “Mike, please. I give in. I give in.”
“I’m not stopping.”
“I can't breathe,” I screamed at the top of my lungs, but I was laughing still, so he kept going. “I’m gonna wet myself, Mike. Please!”
“Mike. Stop!” I squealed again, then I froze—my legs stopped kicking, my torso stopped jerking about and I looked up at Mike with an awkward pout and said, “Uh-oh.”
He backed off like a kid from a spider. “What’s uh-oh?”
“I think I just peed a little.” I couldn’t keep a straight face as I said it, and as soon as it registered in Mike’s ears, neither could he. He folded over, his cheeks and forehead going bright red with laughter, and collapsed onto the ground.
I struggled up from the grip of the beans and checked the damage. “I told you, Mike. Why didn't you listen?”
“I… I…” he tried, but he couldn’t compose himself. “I didn't think you’d… actually…”
“Argh! I hate you!” I leaned down and punched him in the arm, then stormed past, grabbing my bag as I went.
His mum stopped me on the way to the bathroom and asked if everything was okay, and the heat of embarrassment in my face spread to my ears. “Um, yeah, I’m just going to get my jammies on.”
“Okay, sweetheart. Be careful not to slam the door next time.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sorry Mrs W.”
“Don’t sweat it, luv. Oh—” she said, turning back. “Did you call your mum and ask about coming to Mike’s party next week?”
“Yeah, she said it’s okay. As long as you or Mr White will be here.”
“Okay, dear.” She winked at me, then glided back into the kitchen.
I changed quickly and headed into Mike’s room again, mentally preparing myself to face the humiliation. He was still on the floor, in exactly the same spot, curled up into a shaking, hiccupping ball of hysterics.
My eyes shrunk like an aggravated kitty’s. “Stop laughing. It’s not funny.”
He slapped the floor a few times, trying to stop.
“Mike! Stop laughing at me.”
“I…” He gasped in some new air. “I can’t. You should. Have seen. The look. On. Your face!”
I bent one knee and jammed the opposite foot down into his hip. Lightly. “You did it to me. It’s your fault. Not mine.”
He sobered a little, rolling over with his hands across his stomach, and looked up backward at me. “You okay? You get cleaned up?”
“Yes.” I dumped my bag down and stepped over him to grab the spare mattress from his closet. “And if you ever tell anyone, I will kill you!”
He got up and gave me the Scout’s salute. “I won’t. I swear.”
“Good.” I pointed in his face, then threw the mattress down and landed on it hard with my legs crossed, my messy hair bouncing back down around my shoulders. “And if you ever bring it up, I’ll tell everyone you like Ainsley Rodcliff.”
He wiped his cringe away with a grin and flopped back on his bed. And every few minutes, as I put a sheet on my bed and arranged the pillows the way I liked them, he’d have another little laugh to himself.
“I hate you, you know,” I said, jumping into bed.
He exhaled loudly. “I know.”
“I’m going to sleep.” I rolled away from him and flipped the covers over my head.
“Fine. And no peeking, okay?” he said, rustling about, the springs of his mattress squeaking under him. “I’m just getting changed.”
“What’s gross?” he asked defensively.
“Shut up. You’ve never even seen boy parts.”
I shrugged to myself. I didn’t want to see boy parts. “Mum says they’re diseased.”
Mike laughed loudly. Just once. And I could hear the insult it carried. “Don’t even get me started on how gross girl parts are.”
“You’ve never even seen girl parts.”
“Wouldn’t be so sure about that,” he said, and my head popped out from the covers as he shot his dirty shirt like a basketball toward his laundry basket. “Why do you think I got over Ainsley so quick?”
My curled lip dropped in disgust. “Ew!”
He winked at me and jumped down backward onto his bed, the weight of him producing a gust of air.
“God,” I said, flopping onto my back. “You’re so big and awkward. You keep jumping on the bed like that and you’ll break it.”
“Gee. Sorry, Mum.” He leaned over and touched the lamp switch. “You gonna cry if I turn out the light, baby?”
I showed him my middle finger.
He flicked out the light. Total darkness consumed the room and all the corners where my monsters might be hiding. I clutched my covers tightly, watching the silhouette of Mike against the backdrop of his open blinds. The moon was in hiding tonight, so I couldn't even see the faint outline of the treetops outside, but I could hear the familiar scurrying and bustling of busy nocturnal creatures. Which was somewhat comforting. Even in the dark. Like maybe if there were possums going about their day on the rooftops, ghosts might not enter here.
“Mike?” I said quietly.
He lay down and slid his big feet under his covers. “Yeah?”
“You shouldn't be so mean to me when I stay over.”
“You shouldn't stay over so often.”
“You never used to mind.”
“Yeah, but I’m nearly sixteen now, Ar. I got other things on my mind than hanging out with my kid best friend.”
A wave of hurt thickened my throat. “But… if I can’t come here, where will I go?” I said in a small voice. “Chad hates me, Mike. He’s always yelling at me and—”
“I know,” he said with a sigh. “I’m sorry, okay. It’s just…” He rolled onto his side, the reflection of his clock radio catching his eyes. “You can be sort of annoying sometimes. And I just need some space now. I mean, what if I wanted to spank the monkey tonight?”
I laughed once.
“I can’t do that with you in my room,” he added.
“Mi-i-ike.” I threw a pillow at him. He caught it and laid it gently back down beside me.
“I do love you, Ara. You know that. But I’m growing up now. And people… well, they tend to grow apart when they get older.”
The thickening in my throat tightened until my lip quivered. “Okay, Mike,” I said in a controlled tone. “I’ll go home tomorrow.”
“Just for a few days, okay? Just give me some space.”
I nodded, even though he wouldn't see it in the dark. “Night.”
The clock on his wall, which hadn’t told the right time since last year, ticked quietly, keeping a pace for me to breathe at as I quietly sobbed into the pillow. He hardly ever changed the pillowcase, so it smelled just like him—like his soap and the aftershave he’d started using, and a slight faded scent of sweat from the hot nights. And the idea of growing apart—of never sleeping on his pillow again, never waking up after a stormy night to find him at my house, in my bed, or of becoming the kind of friends that just said an awkward hello as they passed in the street, hurt so much more while my face was buried in something that smelled so wonderfully of him. But he was right. He’d be sixteen soon, and I would always be a little girl to him.
When the hurt died down, I dried my face and came up out of my covers. Outside, the stars had appeared from behind the cloud that smothered them. I thought about tomorrow—about calling my mum and asking her to come get me. I’d call early. Maybe really early just so I didn't have to annoy Mike while he was eating breakfast. Mum wouldn't mind. She’d be up at six anyway. And I’d be up hours before Mike, because he had this insane ability to sleep while the sun blasted its shiny autumn rays through his window. Boys. Ergh!
“Mm,” he said, half asleep.
“Can you close the blinds so I don’t get woken up at five?”
He looked at the window. “No.”
“But the sun blinds me in the morning.”
He crossed his arms behind his head. “Too bad. Sleep in the spare room then.”
“Fine.” I got up and headed for the door, but he didn't stop me. So I stopped myself. “You’re just going to let me go?”
“Don’t you care if I’m scared in there?”
“Ara. Grow up. There’re no ghosts in there. Or monsters. Or vampires, or any other creature your imagination cooked up.” He rolled up onto his elbow. “And I'm not closing my blinds. So if you want to sleep in here, you’ll just have to put up with it.”
I stomped back over to my bed and slid in under my blankets. “Jerk.”
“Go to sleep.”
Mike rolled away from me and started snoring before my mind had even drifted, and in the shadows around his room my eyes made monsters out of things that were furniture by day. “Get it together, Ara-Rose,” I whispered to myself. “You’re thirteen years old. Too old to believe in ghosts.”
But real or not, the ghosts followed me as I fell asleep, walking a few steps behind me in a world I knew was just a dream. A kind of scary dream—one I couldn’t wake up from.
The bushland looked different here: the trees were taller and smelled of pine and wet bark, and the sky was a deep dark blue in the distance. It wasn't dark enough that I couldn't see, but it was desolate enough to make me feel very alone, and at the same time feel like I was being watched.
The further in I walked, the clearer things became. And the clearer things became, the less they seemed to make sense.
I couldn't remember kneeling in the dirt, or taking off my clothes, but my legs were bare and my fingers closed around a dagger. I dragged the sharp point down the length of my palm, closing my fist as thick red blood coloured my skin. It didn’t hurt or, if it did, I couldn’t feel it—as if this wasn’t my body. Yet.
I held on to the blood, careful not to lose even one drop. She wanted it all. Not one drop should be wasted.
As I stood, the dagger landed in the dirt at my feet with a gentle ‘tink’ like a shovel making a hole. I walked slowly, one foot over the other toward the Stone, my hair falling in thick, tickly waves over my bare breasts and swaying gently against my full, round belly. My palm stung where the cut tried to heal, using all the force of my natural powers, but the spirit realm forbade it. This blood was intended for a higher purpose.
I knelt by the Stone and closed my eyes, and as I laid the bloodied hand flat to its surface, a pink glow coloured the backs of my eyelids.
“You’re not ready to ask this of the Stone,” a pleading tone warned. “You must wait.”
“No more waiting,” I whispered, my voice echoing. I looked up quickly and cast my eyes out to the trees guarding the crossways where the four paths met. The forest was as deep and wide in the night as it was at dawn, but I felt closed in. Surrounded. I spread my fingers against the Stone and closed my eyes again, feeling myself slip through slightly—a physical and spiritual connection.
“Auress,” a deeper voice said, a welcoming voice. I looked around for the face of a man I recognised but did not know. But all I could see was the foggy white smoke of a world I was not ready for yet. And in this world, when I heard that one single word, I understood finally what it meant—all the responsibilities and gifts that came with it: Auress.
“Tell me how to set it free,” I said.
“Go back,” the voice replied. “Go back and the answer will come to you.”
I opened my eyes slowly and tried to draw away from the Stone, but my hand caught against it by the pull of a wet greenish vine snaking through the Stone from the world beyond, completely embedded in my skin.
“What is this?” I asked.
“It won’t break free,” I said, but as I moved my hand the vine shifted and came loose, grains of dirt falling from the Stone where it disconnected. My fingers instinctively closed around the full feeling in my hand. When I got the courage up to peek inside my fist, I saw only a handful of wet brown twigs.
“Why are you doing this?” I screamed out to the forest, but nothing, not even the call of a bird answered back. I sat there on my knees by a rock with no warmth, and cried for a moment, letting the tears fall down between my tightly closed fingertips. Until they pulsed—the twigs in my palm. They pulsed and thickened, and as I unfolded my fingertips, the twigs sunk into my skin and a swirling, twisting brown trunk rose up from within, stretching and flourishing, reaching until its wide branches opened like the wings of a small bird.
“Wow,” I whispered.
As the tiny tree extended its limbs to their full length, a purposeful breeze brushed the fine hairs on my wrist, sending swirls of glowing blue flecks slowly up the trunk and around its branches, leaving them covered in a handful of golden and green leaves. I held it up to the rising sun and angled my palm to better look at it.
“Release it,” said the deep voice again.
I shielded my eyes as the bright orange orb blinded me, forcing away everything my mind thought it knew, until who I was or what I thought I knew no longer made sense. I touched my rounded belly with my free hand, feeling life within. Life I knew was connected to me, inside me, but I couldn't remember how it got there. “Where am I?” I called. “Where’s my mum?”
“Release it. Now,” the voice yelled.
“Not until you tell me where I am,” I screamed.
My eyes flew open and Mike’s face appeared above me. I tried to roll over, but he slid his hands under my legs and waist and scooped me up.
“Wake up. You’re having a nightmare.”
As I blinked and tried to focus in the sudden darkness, Mike slid us both into the comfort and safety of his bed, drawing the covers over us like a fortress of warmth. I wriggled down and snuggled as close to him as I could get, for once not so bothered by the newly growing hair on his chest. “A nightmare?”
“Yes, just another nightmare, baby.” He kissed my head. “You’re okay.”
“I don’t feel right, Mike.”
“What do you mean?”
“I feel like someone emptied me out,” I cried.
“Shh.” He swept my hair back, kissing my head again. “It’s okay.”
“What was the dream about?” he asked, reaching back with one arm to close his blinds.
“I can’t remember it all. I just remember being… I was older. And I was having a baby.”
“Yikes.” He winced. “That is scary.”
I laughed. “I just remember feeling like… I knew why I was there. And then I just forgot.”
“Just don’t think about it, baby.” He dropped his arm heavily around me and squeezed my shoulders. “You can sleep up here with me, okay.”
“You sure? Will your mum be mad again?”
He laughed. “I think she’s getting used to it.”
“You told her though, right? That we’re not… you know…”
“Ara,” he said in short. “You’re thirteen. She knows I’m not going out with you.”
I nodded to hide the slight insult at the way he said that, as though dating me would be the most repulsive thing in the world.
He kissed my head then, invalidating that theory, and whispered goodnight.
After a few moments of heavy breathing, where I thought he was asleep, he turned my face up to his and smiled. “Hey, Ar?”
“No wetting the bed, okay?”
“Hey.” I slapped him. “Jerk!”