Floating to the ceiling of Mia’s bedroom, its dangling belly swollen after a feast of rage and fear, the Gossip enjoyed a dessert of contempt and defiance. Through bulging, yellow eyes the creature watched Mia uncurl from the ball she habitually formed whenever her mother’s fists began flying. The girl turned her ear to the door she was forbidden to shut and stilled her ragged breathing, listening for her mother’s movements in the tiny flat.
The Gossip had been bound to Mia since the girl was three years old and, after fourteen years, it knew as well as she did that the danger wasn’t over. Mia would have to return to the kitchen to clean up the food she had overcooked and her mother had cast to the floor. The timing had to be just right: too soon and the very sight of the girl would have her mother spitting insults as Mia cleaned; too late and the rage would flare all over again.
Ordinarily, the Gossip would hunger for the latter because it would provide the larger meal, but its belly was almost full and the need to report what it had witnessed was already painful. An insult or two would be enough.
Green. Mia had worn a lot of school uniforms but she’d never had to wear green before. It didn’t suit her, it brought out all the red in her complexion. It wasn’t even a nice green. There were so many they could have chosen – an elegant bottle or a happy leaf green – but no, someone had chosen the mud green of bruised avocado flesh. Which, now she thought about it, was appropriate, considering the state of her back this morning.
"Mia!" Her mother’s voice from down the hall. "Where are my glasses?"
Mia rolled her eyes but made sure to put a smile in her voice. "Are they beside your bed?"
"Don’t you think I’ve already-" Silence as she no doubt looked beside her bed. "Found them. Are you going to come and wish me good luck before I go?"
Mia corrected her expression in the mirror then met her mother at the front door.
"Good luck with your presentation."
Her mother beamed. "You did remember!" She pulled Mia into a hug, stretching the bruised skin across her shoulder blades. "Mia. Mia. Mia. Light of my life. See you tonight!"
Mia smiled until the door closed, then let herself shudder. She’d resisted hugging her mother once. Just once. Now she put up with it, like the ranting and the hitting and then the pretense that none of it happened.
"Six more months," she muttered, making her way into the kitchen to clean up the breakfast dishes and make herself a salad sandwich for lunch. Four months to exams. Then two months waiting for Uni offers. Everything depended on getting that offer in January. The moment it arrived she could apply for Youth Allowance, find some student housing and be free to start her own life. Six more months and it would all be worth it.
Starting a new school four months before final exams wasn’t ideal, but it was done now and she’d be damned if she was going to let her mother’s chaos ruin her plan. The only real difference she had to get her head around were the novels St. Kilda High was studying for English. Biology, Japanese and French didn’t change from school to school. Still, she wasn’t going to even try to make new friends this time. For four months they could think what they wanted to, call her whatever names they liked. She had no time for anything but study.
At the front door she slipped her lunch into the new green backpack on top of the stack of books destined for her new locker and hoisted it on to her right shoulder. "Ow!"
She let the bag thud to the floor and closed her eyes until the pain dissipated. She’d have to lug it in her hand. Probably dislocate her shoulder before she got to school. With a sigh, she reached for the door and startled as the bell shrieked beside her ear.
Raising herself on the balls of her feet she looked through the peephole. A bruised-avocado-green shirt collar and a protruding Adam’s apple filled her view until the stranger stepped back. Mia’s breath caught. Except for the tragic uniform he could have been right out of one of the TV dramas the Japanese teacher at her second-to-last school had got her addicted to. His thick, black hair was short but casually shaggy and framed a face that was all angles, dark arched brows and eyelashes so thick Mia probably couldn’t emulate them with layers of mascara, even if she had been allowed to wear it. Mia took a deep breath and opened the door. He smiled and a pair of dimples set Mia’s pulse pounding.
"Hi. I’m Takeshi – Tak. I live across the driveway in 212." The words came out in a gentle baritone and a Melbourne accent that she blushed to realise she’d expected to be Japanese.
"Hi. Mia. I’m Mia."
He nodded and gave her an awkward smile. "I told Mum this would be stalker-ish but she saw you hanging your uniforms on the line yesterday and she’s wondering if you want a lift to school."
He stepped to one side, looked over the balcony railing and nodded toward the ground floor of the U-shaped building. Mia followed his gaze to a small Japanese woman waiting by the door of one of the garages. Tak’s mother smiled and waved. Mia waved back.
"I should probably also say that I’ll be driving," Tak said. "For practice. I’ve got my test in a few weeks."
Mia’s mother would not approve of her being driven by a Learner Driver, especially a male one ... but her mother wasn’t there to ask and the bruises making it so hard to carry her bag were her mother’s fault. "Thank you. That’d be great."
Tak waited while Mia disappeared behind the door. A moment later he heard the clunk of a deadlock and she appeared again, lugging a bulging, official school backpack in one hand.
"That looks heavy," he said. "I’ll take it."
He reached down to grasp the straps and found himself looking into eyes exactly the colour of his mother’s expensive cognac. How had he never noticed her at school? She wasn’t wearing any make-up so maybe she was younger than she looked.
"Thanks," she said, letting go.
The full weight of the bag fell into his hand. "Whoa! What is in this?"
"Sorry. It’s all my books."
He nodded toward the staircase and followed as she headed along the balcony. "Why did you take all your books home the weekend you were moving house?"
"I didn’t," she said, turning into the stairwell. "I’m just starting at St. Kilda High today."
"That would explain why I haven’t seen you before. What grade?"
"Twelve," she said.
Shocked, Tak stopped on the last step, watching Mia continue toward his mother. "We’ve got final exams in four months."
She turned back briefly, shrugging. "I’m well aware of that."
Moving house and changing schools so late in the school year was bad enough, but in year twelve? Tak caught up with her as she reached his mother. "Mum, this is Mia."
"This is very kind of you, Mrs ... Sorry, Tak didn’t say your last name."
"No need to be so formal. Just call me Hiroko."
Mia seemed taken aback, but she gave his mother a nervous smile and a nod. "Thank you, Hiroko."
She was so polite. Was she sucking up or was it real?
Tak opened the door behind the driver’s and slid her bag across the back seat, next to his own. When he climbed out, Mia was waiting to get in, so he held the door for her. Again she smiled politely and uttered another "Thank you". As she slipped into the passenger seat he noticed her school skirt was much longer than most of the girls wore them. He pulled his gaze away and closed her door. Long skirt, no make-up... Strict mother? As he settled into the driver’s seat he recalled hearing her mother snapping at her several times as they unloaded the removal van on Saturday. Maybe the manners were real. If they were, she was going to get eaten alive at St. Kilda High.