‘Lucinda,’ Oliver corrected him.
‘She was the best,’ Ethan told me. ‘Pretty, smart, the sweetest girl, totally in love with him. And he turns around and dumps her in, like, five minutes flat.’
‘What was wrong with her?’ I watched Oliver, his unruffled confidence as he reached to help himself to more garlic bread.
‘I got bored.’ Oliver sounded unconcerned. ‘Most people bore me. Haven’t you noticed, the world is made up of spectacularly uninteresting people.’
‘I don’t know about that,’ I laughed, still playing casual, but he fixed me with a penetrating stare.
‘No? You don’t think so too?’ he challenged, ‘You don’t spend your life, day in and day out, dealing with tedious small-talk and mindless bullshit, about last night’s reality TV, or what that slut of a pop star wore this time around. Mediocre people leading mediocre lives, acting like it’s the only option until you’d rather just blow your brains out than pretend it matters any more?’
There was silence. Ethan gave an awkward laugh. ‘Way to be creepy, bro.’
I laughed along, but inside, I felt a chill. Of course I’d thought that, it rattled in my head louder every day. Even with Ethan, I found myself biting my tongue, having the same conversations about nothing, or worse still, not wanting to talk at all.
‘Why settle?’ Oliver asked, as if hearing the truth behind my silence. ‘Why waste my time on someone who doesn’t intrigue me, or challenge me? People are so . . . limited. What’s wrong with wanting more than that?’
I blinked. ‘I don’t know,’ I said quietly, looking down. ‘Maybe more doesn’t exist.’
‘You really think that?’ Oliver pressed. ‘Or is that just what you tell yourself, as an excuse for putting up with so much less? Playing it safe,’ he added, his voice mocking. ‘Following the rules like a good little girl.’
‘Hey, dude.’ Ethan spoke up, but I didn’t want him defending me, not this time.
‘Don’t,’ I told him, before turning back to Oliver. I drew myself up, glaring at him. ‘Where do you get off, acting like everyone is beneath you?’ I demanded, ‘Just because you don’t want something, doesn’t mean that it’s “less”. Maybe they’re not the boring ones, maybe you’re the one with the problem instead. You’re the one who can’t keep up a real relationship, after all.’
‘Chloe!’ This time it was Ethan objecting to me. He frowned at me. ‘You don’t have to get personal.’
‘It’s OK.’ Oliver smiled, and I realized with a sinking heart that I’d done it again: let him wind me up, press all my buttons so I couldn’t help but lash out. ‘Maybe she’s right,’ he added, ‘Maybe I should just try and find a nice girl like Chloe. You seem happy together, after all.’ He looked at me, taunting. ‘The perfect match.’
‘Yes, we are,’ I said firmly, reaching for Ethan across the table. ‘Very happy.’ I brought his hand to my lips and kissed his knuckles, my gaze never leaving Oliver’s.
Don’t mess with me, I tried to tell him silently. I wouldn’t be dancing at the end of his strings any more, I wasn’t so weak as that.
Oliver just smiled knowingly. ‘You’re right, there’s nobody quite like her. What do you say, baby brother?’ he said lightly. ‘I could fight you for her.’
Ethan laughed. ‘Over my dead body.’
I watch, still paralysed, as the boys grapple on the bare concrete ground. The empty house around us makes it feel staged, like scenery waiting for the cameras to start rolling, but this isn’t pretend, playful wrestling, it’s elbows and teeth and vicious angry hands, choking for air. Pure fury. Murder in their eyes.
‘Stop it!’ I cry. But they don’t even pause for breath. It’s like I’m not even here. ‘Stop it, both of you, please!’
I finally break out of my shock and grip the knife tighter. The handle fits in my palm so smoothly, it could have been made for me: a steady weight, the sharp edge of the blade. I scramble to my feet and stand there, shaking, as they grab and hit. Oliver’s face is bloodied, Ethan lets out a low grunt as he slams his elbow into Oliver’s ribs.
‘Stop!’ I scream at the top of my lungs. There’s nothing I can do, no way to break their fury. Except . . .
I hold one arm out, pull the shirt-sleeve back, hold the blade to my skin. ‘Stop, or I’ll hurt myself!’
Ethan surfaces from his violent haze. He sees me and his face goes slack. ‘Chloe! What are you doing?’
‘Let him go.’ My voice shakes, but my hand is steady. I press down, feeling the sharp bite of metal. A thin thread of blood appears, trailing down my wrist. I press harder. ‘I mean it, let him go. Both of you, get back.’
Ethan scrambles up right away, his hands out, his face a mask of fear. ‘Be careful,’ he begs me, ‘you don’t know what you’re doing.’
‘Oh, she does.’ Oliver rolls over and spits a mouthful of blood on the ground. He takes a breath, laboured, then heaves himself to his feet. ‘Bravo.’ He grins at me through the red, a gruesome smile. ‘Well played.’
‘This isn’t a game!’ I yell, fear mingling with anger, hot in my veins.
Oliver looks at me curiously. ‘Of course it is, sweetheart. And you’ve got the trump card. So, what are you going to do now?’
I swallow. ‘We’re leaving,’ I say, gripping on to the hope with everything I have. ‘You and me, Ethan,’ I say, fixing my gaze on him. I lower my voice, soothing, pleading. ‘We just walk out of here and it’s over. Nobody has to get hurt.’
‘You and me?’ Ethan blinks, looking desperate. He has hope too, I realize. He just wants this to be over as well.
‘Yes, of course. You and me,’ I promise him, managing a smile. ‘Everything will be OK.’
I lower the knife, trembling, and start to edge across the room. Ethan takes a breath and then his body relaxes. I reach him and take his hand. ‘We’ll be OK,’ I promise him again. ‘Everything will be OK.’
I send a look back to Oliver, warning him. Let this go. Ethan is calming now, but his temper is still a hair-trigger, we’re not out of danger yet.
I gently tug on Ethan’s hand. ‘Let’s go home,’ I tell him softly. ‘It’s late. We can just crash out and sleep tonight.’