Heartweed: Chapter 19

This is the beta version of my novel. If you are a new reader – welcome. You can read from the start here.

New sections are released every Tuesday and Friday. Please let me know your opinion in the comments section. Thank you for reading.

Chapter 19

The windows of Sam’s house were all open. Music thumped out carrying with it waves of laughter and conversation – the advantage of living in the middle of nowhere. Sam had only one neighbour and their house stood dark and empty.
Artie hesitated at the foot of the path. Just like the pub after Alex’s funeral. Part of her wanted to be in there, in the warmth; part of her wanted to run far away.
She recognised the voice, one that usually sent shivers through her.
“Hi Rob.” Artie turned. The slight breeze brushed his fine hair across her forehead. He slouched, hands in pockets. His eyes were watchful.
“You going in?”
“In a second.” The words came out slowly, but easily. She was always so tongue-tied in front of Rob, but today she couldn’t muster enough of herself to care what he thought of her. “I just need a minute.”
“OK. Do you want me to wait for you?”
If he went in alone now, she could bet he would tell Sam that she was lurking out here, that she needed looking after.
“Yes. Please.”She flashed an automatic smile up at him. It drained from her face as soon as she looked away. Rob scuffed his feet. He cleared his throat.
“So how are things with your family? How are you all coping?”
Artie lips twisted again, this time into something that was nothing like a smile.
“Badly. And one day at a time.”
“Mmm.” Rob put his hands in his pockets and glanced around. The awkwardness of the moment was palpable, and strangely restful. Artie took a deep breath.
“Shall we go in?”
“You ready?”
As I’ll ever be, Artie thought. “Yeah. I need to drink and to dance and to just forget about things for a while.”
She started down the path. Rob’s crunching footsteps followed her. At the door he overtook her and reached for the handle.
“If you think that’s a good idea, then let me buy you a drink.”
He gave her his best smile, the one that crinkled the corners of his eyes and introduced the suggestion of wickedness into his expression. Artie found herself smiling back a real smile. Rob swept the door open for her and she walked past him into the party.

The kitchen table couldn’t be seen under the forest of bottles. Alcopops of all colours and types were crammed tightly together. The garish colours in teh bright halogen spotlights made them look like witches’ brews.
Potions to dull grief. Potions of forgetting. Artie smirked. There was no need for Gorth’s faerie magic for that.
“What can I get you?” Rob gestured at the table.
“I think I’ll start at red.” Artie pointed, then meandered her finger around the table. “And work my way through the rainbow to purple.”
Rob grabbed two bottles of postbox red booze. He knocked the caps off on the table edge and handed on to Artie. She raised it to her lips and swallowed. Too sweet. She swallowed again, a bigger gulp this time, then backed off coughing.
“Steady,” Rob said. His own drink was untouched. He held the bottle neck out and an angle towards Artie.
“Here’s to Alex.”
Artie clinked necks with him. Yeah, here’s to my fool of a brother, getting himself killed for a pretty face, she thought. Getting killed and abandoning me. Artie drained the bottle in a serious of messy gulps that left a trail of the sticky drink down the side of her chin. Rob reached up and wiped it off. She moved a backwards, only a centimetre or so.
“Orange now,” she said, in an effort to cover the prickling confusion that the simple touch had raised in her. Rob hesitated before handing her the next bottle. She couldn’t read what was in his eyes.
“Rob. Artemisia.”
Artie turned to see Chloe Smith. Hanging just behind Chloe’s shoulder was a bottle-blonde girl whose name Artie didn’t know. She’d seen them both at Alex’s funeral. They both hung out with the football team. Artie thought she remembered Chloe and Alex hooking up at one of these parties, unless it had been one of her almost identically styled friends. None of them ever had any time for Artie. So she had to fight to keep her lip from curling when Chloe gushed at her: “Artie. I’m so, so sorry about Alex. He was just wonderful.”
“Um. Thanks.”
“It’s so sad.” Chloe turned from Artie to Rob. “It’s just so sad, isn’t it.” Her shoulder neatly cut in between Artie and Rob. The nameless friend circled Artie to cut in at the other side.
The movements seemed perfectly choreographed and, with the benefit of a bottle and a half of alcohol in her, hilarious to Artie. Clever girls, she thought and felt the urge to giggle. Bottle-blonde turned her black-ringed, mock-soulful eyes on Artie.
“It really is a tragedy. Alex was so handsome and popular.”
So it would have been OK if he was ugly and unpopular? Artie hid her sneer behind another swig of the neon orange drink. I bet if it had been me, you lot wouldn’t be calling it a tragedy, just talking about how I was a bit weird and probably threw myself in front of the car.
“Excuse me,” Artie said to the girl, who simpered and whipped around to talk to Rob so quickly that Artie barely saw her move.
She banged her second empty bottle down on the table and reached for a yellow one. Rob caught her eye around Chloe and frowned. She waved vaguely at him and gestured that she was leaving.
Artie drifted on the eddies of the party until she found herself in the lounge. Sam was there, sat on Aaron Burke’s knee, her face and his so shoved together that they might have been one piece of flesh. James sat at ease on a sofa. He was devoting his energies to making a slight, curly-haired lad laugh. Artie caught his eye and waved her bottle at him. He bent forward, interrupting the boy next to him to beckon Artie over. The curly-haired boy shot Artie a cold look.
Artie paused near them, but didn’t sit.
“Hey. Good to see you…” James waved a tipsy hand around the room.
“Out and about?” Artie finished.
“Glad to be of service,” Artie muttered.
James turned to the guy sitting next to him. “This is Alex’s sister. Artie, this is Eric.”
Alex’s sister. She was still defined by him, even though he was dead. She took a mouthful from the bottle.
The coldness on Eric’s face had been replaced by that uncomfortable sympathetic look that Artie was becoming familiar with seeing.
“Sorry for you loss,” Eric said.
“Did you know my brother?”
Eric shrugged. “I saw him around.”
Artie nodded. “Well thank you for your condolences.”
Another awkward silence. Artie felt like she was becoming a connoisseur of them. She filled the silence with the rest of the yellow bottle.
“I’m empty. Do you guys want me to fetch you another drink?”
They shook their heads and Artie left them to whatever she had interrupted. That was the cliche, wasn’t it, she thought as she passed the still entangled Sam and Aaron: death made everyone want to get laid.

Green. Poison green. Artie leaned against the wall in the hallway. She stared at the photograph on the opposite wall. A photo of Sam all dressed up for the end of high school ball. Alex was behind her his arms around he waist. He would have looked suave if not for his enormous grin. Instead he just looked happy. His life ahead of him. So much for that. The photo was not yet a year old.
Alex looked so grownup and handsome in his ball picture. In hers she had just looked gawky. Big eyes, long hair. A little kid in her big sister’s clothes. She was alone in her photo. She and James had come stag together.
The day after she saw her photo she had cut her waist length brown waves back to the last two inches. Her mum had gone spare.
Artie drifted into the bottleneck. Her face felt numb.
“Saw you take the green. Thought I’d better get your next lined up before they’re all gone.”
A blurry Rob, two bottles of glacier blue alcohol in hand, stood beside her. Artie blinked him into focus. She lifted the bottle of green in front of her, considered the remaining third – necked it.
“Thanks.” She reached for the offered bottle.
“He was a good bloke.” Rob gestured at the picture.
“Despite the fact he punched you in the face?”
“You heard about that.” Rob leaned against the wall beside her. “Yeah, well I deserved it.” Artie could hear the slight slurring in his words. He lowered his voice. “Did he tell you why he hit me?”
Artie rolled her head to the side to look up into Rob’s eyes. She nodded.
“Oh.” He caught his lip for a second between his teeth. “Well I’m sorry, it was a stupid thing to say. I didn’t mean it.”
His breath felt warm on her face. She said, “Which part?”
His forehead puckered in slow confusion. Artie pushed herself in closer to him. Now she could feel the warmth coming off his whole body. It wouldn’t be a cliche if it wasn’t true. She pushed herself onto her tiptoes and put her lips to his briefly. They were sticky and sweet.
“Do you want to go upstairs with me?”
Something sparked in his eyes: eagerness coloured around the edges with apprehension. Artie turned and swayed towards the stairs. She was halfway up them when she heard him follow.

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