The following morning went on much the same way. In the short period of an hour, since going down to the kitchen until finally getting to my classroom, I managed to panic twice, get angry at every word he said, stammer every now and then, think I'd end up throwing up and curse his existence all the way to the school gates. By the time Joanne greeted me cheerfully I was already feeling exhausted and my morning had barely begun.
The high point of the day was, as to be expected, lunchtime.
As agreed Gabriel and I joined Michael and his friends outside, and we were happily greeted. After all, they belonged to the same world of famous beautiful people. Only I stood out of place.
To my misery, I found out that those short moments were the only thing that made facing the torture my everyday routine had become worthwhile. And when Michael reached into his bag and pulled out a book and handed it to me, I wanted to die right there and then.
I hugged the book he'd lent me the rest of the afternoon, smelling its white pages like an obsessive mad woman. I could still feel his perfume, and imagining him touching those pages, reading them, made me float above any dark cloud. By reading that book I felt I could reach some occult part of him; reading the same story he'd read and, who knows, sharing the same emotions. To me that bounded pile of paper was like a sacred key to a little bit of his secret world.
I went back home as soon as classes were over, completely forgetting the possibility of having to share my house with him. Had I remembered it I'd probably stayed in the library like the previous day. But he wasn't home.
I smiled in pure bliss as I lay down on my bed opening Michael's book on the first page. The story was basically a romance and, even before reaching the end, I'd already guessed that everything would end well, like in a fairy tale.
The sound of the front door closing made me put down the book and go downstairs to greet my mom. I stopped before reaching the bottom of the stairs and she smiled up at me.
"Hi, Mari. How was your day?" she asked in an obvious good mood.
"Gabriel came to pick me up again," she explained, noticing my distrustful expression. "Even though I'd already told you there was no need for that!" she added looking back at him.
"Because it's not safe for a lady to be walking around at night all by herself," he stated and Rachel shrugged, as if she'd given up arguing with him. Once more anger burned inside me. How could he say something like that with that serious expression? The only dangerous monster I knew was him!
"But come! Let's get something to eat. I'm famished and have good news to tell you," she announced reaching out her hand and I took it.
Sitting at the table, our plates filled with tuna salad, Rachel took her time asking us about school, if everything was all right, if anything special had happened. I just answered with a short 'yes' or 'no', while he went about describing in detail things that had never even happened.
I was about to stand up to clear the plates and exchange our salad bowls for some fruit when Rachel's hand held mine, surprising me and captivating my attention. I eased back into my chair, growing more apprehensive by the minute, and recalled the last time I'd seen that expression on her face — when she'd informed me that she and my dad had decided to get a divorce. For a moment I thought she was about to tell me that she was getting married, or that someone was having a baby, or something like that, and I readied myself for the shock, trying not to react too poorly to whatever came my way. On the other side of the table Gabriel remained calm, his expression empty of any emotions, once more the perfect statue, making me believe he already knew what she was about to tell me.
"Mari, you know yesterday I had a dinner meeting, right?" she asked me in a careful tone that only made me even more restless. "So ... the gentlemen present were all very important people. They saw my new project and were quite well impressed. I think I've never been so praised in my entire life!" she added, laughing lightly, her eyes filled with pride. "They made me a work proposition," she reveled and I empathized with her obvious happiness.
"But that's great, mom!" She nodded and squeezed my hand.
"Yeah! It's an once in a lifetime chance and something that will promote my career beyond measure!" Only then did I notice that something was still amiss.
"And? Did you take it?" I asked. The light that had filled her eyes became dimmer.
"No. Not yet. I wanted to talk with you first," she replied and I frowned, trying to understand what was going on, more and more certain that things weren't as easy as they sounded.
"They want me to go to Paris for six months." It felt as if someone had just fired a gun at me. "They'll pay for everything — travel expenses, place to stay, food, car. I'll be able to attend any workshops I want free of charge, and I'll be participating in one of the biggest projects in Europe," she went on excitedly, but I could hardly hear her.
Paris! And leave everything behind? The school that I'd finally managed to get used to; Stephanie, Joanne and the others ... worst of all, Michael! Just thinking about it, the pain was unbearable. And how could I move to Paris? What about my studies? I'd never been that strong at French. Above all, I did not want to leave London!
"And so I've been thinking," she added in a more serious tone. "If you're against it, I won't go. You're my daughter and, as much as I like my work, or as much as our life may improve if I take this job, there's nothing more important than you."
"But you jut said it was an once in a life chance," I muttered and she smiled kindly.
"Still, you're more important than any of that," she reaffirmed and I couldn't help blushing. "But then I thought of another solution. Something that a few days ago would never have even crossed my mind. But now everything's different." I listened eagerly. "Most parents with kids your age think teenagers of seventeen, eighteen years old are basically adults. In my opinion they're not adults enough to be left home alone for six months, while their mom is working on the other side of the ocean. However, as things stand, should you stay, you wouldn't be staying on your own. You'd have Gabriel to keep you company and lend you a hand, if needed. And that is something I'd be willing to compromise with."
I opened my mouth, wordless, and forgot to breathe. My mind fought desperately not to drown and I looked at him, trying to make sense of what my mother had just said. His statue-like expression opened into a cold cynic smile, and I clearly saw the dark corner he'd, once more, pulled me into.
"You don't have to answer right away. Just think about it and we can talk again tomorrow," she said, all understanding. And, as I sat there, unable to utter a single word, she got up and cleared the dishes. "Anyway, it's as I've told you. Sure it would be a wonderful experience, but it's not something I can't live without. And to tell you the truth, even knowing you wouldn't be alone, leaving you here it's still not something I'm completely comfortable with."
I stared blankly at the red and white checks of the tablecloth. Her words, just now, had nothing to do with the enthusiasm that had burned in her eyes just a few moments ago ... and I was the only one to blame. I bit my lower lip making my stunned mind consider what she'd just suggested. Anyway, what difference would it make? That thing could appear and disappear at will, not to mention that I didn't even know what other powers he might have. My mother's presence in that house wouldn't change anything. She'd never be able to protect me, I concluded bitterly. Quite the opposite! At least in Paris, away from all that mess, she'd be safe. And, with some luck, for better or for worse, everything would be over in six months' time. Besides it was obvious she really wanted to accept the offer. And I recalled how she'd always tried her best to be a good mother, without having to give up her professional dreams. Unlike my father, who had fully devoted himself to work, Rachel had never missed a school festival or parents' day. Her schedules were tight, making her relinquish luxuries like personal time, but she always managed to wake up earlier than me, just to make me breakfast. I could hardly be childish and selfish now that she needed my support. After all, it was only for six months.
I took a deep breath as I found my answer and smiled as honestly as I could when I looked up at her.
"There's no need to think, mom," I told her and she turned to face me, looking surprised to hear me speak in such a clear tone. "You can go to Paris. Sure, I'll miss you lots, since we've never been apart before and everything. But it's only for six months. And, like you said, I won't be alone." I was fully aware of Gabriel's persistent smile, and Rachel looked like she couldn't believe what she'd just heard.
"You sure? I mean, you don't have to force yourself to accept it, or anything," she stammered and I smiled again.
"Of course I'm sure. It's something you really want to do, right? I'm very happy to know how important I am to you, but I don't want to feel like I've completely taken over your life! It is your life, after all."
She threw her arms around me, crushing my head against her chest, and laughed happily.
"Do you have any idea of just how much I love you, Mari?" she said in between laughs and turned to look at Gabriel. "Ain't I the luckiest to have a daughter like her?" she asked him but he didn't answer and simply kept smiling.