Excerpt from “All About Sage” Chapter Two:
(Publication date: when it’s finished….)
Ethan stared out through the gap in the curtains towards Sage’s house and felt like a stalker.
He didn’t get it. He’d risked his life in hellholes he’d never forget. Had endured a childhood that had been a different kind of hell.
So what he thought he was doing, staring out through a gap in curtains at the house of a woman who undoubtedly rescued sparrows in her spare time, he had no idea? “Pa-bloody-thetic,” he muttered.
“I hear you.” Jack came over, stood next to him. He was silent a moment. “So, ah, what exactly are we looking at?”
“I thought you were giving that job to Robyn. She’s the designer. Remember?”
“Yeah. I remember.” Ethan turned away from the window, away from the sliver of view he had of Sage’s house.
He shoved his hands in his jeans pockets. “I’ll leave it all up to your wife.”
“A wise decision.” Jack sighed, a smile on his face. It was sickening, but then he was still in the honeymoon phase. Ethan had the feeling he always would be. If ever a couple were meant for each other, it was Jack and Robyn. If he believed in serendipity or divine plan, then they were evidence of it.
“Listen, Ethan.” Jack turned to him. “Robyn mentioned that Sage isn’t all that…” Jack waggled his hand.
Ethan’s back prickled. “Isn’t all that what?”
“Altogether happy with you moving in here.”
Ethan snorted. “Of course she’s not. The woman would be happy if I knocked down this place and planted a kauri forest.”
“You planted trees out on your piece of land.”
“She doesn’t know that.” He jerked his thumb in her direction, through the gap in the curtains and noticed movement.
He leant closer, discreetly enlarged the gap.
A guy was climbing off his bike. He leant it against the house, and undid his helmet.
“What’s that?” Jack said, shoving the curtain aside.
“Shit, she’ll – he’ll – see you,” Ethan mumbled.
He felt Jack give him a sideways glance before focusing back out the window. “Ah,” Jack said. “That must be the famous Barry.”
Barry? He looked like a Barry. His legs were long and skinny in drainpipe jeans.
Even from here, Ethan could see he sported a pathetic amount of dark growth on his gaunt face. Ethan rubbed his hand over his own chin. He hadn’t shaved in a couple of his days.
Barry took a backpack off, reached in and pulled out an eco-bag.
He took off his raincoat.
He looked like he hadn’t eaten in a week.
“So, ah.” The curiosity was killing him. “So who’s this Barry?”
“Her ex. Well, they’re on again, off again. Must be on again.”
Barry suddenly looked up at the sky. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths before he raised his arms straight up. His lips began to move. He bent his knees.
Everything about this guy was sickening.
Everything about the situation was wrong.
Ethan glowered. “I think I better go and say Hello to this guy.”
“I’m the new neighbour. And if he’s currently on with that barracuda, then that makes him my neighbour. Especially,” he ground out, “if he sleeps over.”
Ethan went to the front door, pulled it open, and stepped outside.
At the movement, Barry opened his eyes. His eyebrows arched as he looked Ethan up and down.
Ethan went down the steps. “Hey,” he called out.
“Yeah. Hey.” Barry hesitated.
Ethan strode over to the low fence. Barry brushed his hair back. It was in a ponytail.
Ethan said, “Thought I’d better do the neighbourly thing and introduce myself. I’m Ethan McGraw.” He held out his hand. Barry took it and Ethan almost puked. It was the most effeminate handshake he had ever encountered in a man and he’d encountered a few. He dropped the flaccid palm, resisted the urge to rub his hand on his jeans to get rid of the feel.
He said, “I just bought Robyn’s old place. I’ll be living here the next few months.”
“So. You’re the guy, huh?” Understanding flashed across Barry’s face. “Sage mentioned something about it.”
She’d been talking about him? No doubt with vitriol.
Ethan scrutinized Barry discreetly. Close up he was younger than Sage. The guy looked 25 if he was a day and who the hell named a kid Barry, and what did a woman like Sage see in him?
“Yeah, I’m the guy.” Ethan glanced at Sage’s house, wondered what she was doing. “I plan to be around a few months.” Music came from the house, he noticed now. Probably Harriet’s, judging from the beat. Or rather, the complete lack of discernible melody.
“So you’re fixing up the house.” Barry squinted curiously at him. “Are you something to do with Jack Fletcher’s business? A builder?”
There was the sound of movement from Sage’s, and Ethan focused on the door as he said to Barry, “Not a builder. Just a jack-of-all-trades willing to try anything.”
Barry nodded. “I hear you. I’m working down at Wise Weta. Been hanging out for a job there ever since I graduated.”
“In Mt Eden. The vegan cafe? We do a mean soy latte.”
“You’re a barista?”
Ethan wanted to ask, why, Sage? Why? She was too much for this kid. Unless there was some weird, perverted, sexual thing going on.
There was a thump from Sage’s house and they simultaneously turned as the door opened.
Sage walked out and stood on the porch.
She stared, confused, at them both. Her hair was tied up on her head with strands hanging down. She had beautiful hair. Ethan knew. He’d run his hands through it one time. Had never felt the urge with anyone else to just stay there and never, ever go.
Sage glanced from Barry to Ethan and back to Barry and back to Ethan.
“Hey, Sage.” Barry held up the bag. “I got you those organic feijoas.”
Ethan arched his eyebrows. “Aren’t all feijoas organic? Who would spray a feijoa tree? They grow like a weed.”
Barry looked at him suspiciously.
Sage came down the steps of her porch. Her skirt flowed around her bare ankles. She wore a tie-died top and cardigan. Ear rings dangled as she took the bag and reached up to kiss Barry on the cheek.
She said, “Thanks, babe.”
He leant forward, kissed her on the mouth.
She put her arm around his neck, leaned closer.
Ethan wanted to vomit.
He cleared his throat. “Yeah, well, I’ll just leave you lovebirds to it.”
They pulled apart. Barry continued to look adoringly at Sage.
Sage looked straight at Ethan.
There was defiance in her look.
Jealousy ripped through him.
Get a grip, man. Get a freaking grip.
“So. You’re moving in already?” Sage slung her arm around Barry’s waist.
Ethan turned to look back at Robyn’s house. Focused intently on it.
“I am. I’m ready to get stuck in. Seven o’clock tomorrow morning.” He turned back. Barry’s hand was resting low on Sage’s hip now.
Ethan looked away. “I’ll try not to make too much noise.”
She lifted her chin. In the light he noticed more lines around her eyes and mouth. It only enhanced the absurd attraction he felt towards her. Totally absurd. He said, “I’ll let you go.”
Sage suddenly took a step towards him, towards the fence separating them, and he held his breath.
Barry’s hand was left dangling.
“Um. Great. That’s good I…” She swallowed, and didn’t move. For the life of him, he couldn’t move either.
Finally, she gestured to Robyn’s house. “Good luck with the reno’s. I, um, I look forward to seeing it. When it’s finished.”
“You can see it before then,” he said impulsively.
She stared at him.
“Any time,” he said. “You can come over. It’s a work in progress. Maybe you’ve got good ideas.”
“I thought Robyn and Jack were your ideas people?”
“They are.” Her eyes were green. Green with grey.
Harriet suddenly appeared out the door and both he and Sage took a step back from the fence.
“Hi, Barry,” Harriet greeted, then her eyes brightened as she saw Ethan.
“Hey, Mr McGraw, how’s it going?”
“It’s Ethan, remember,” he grinned, “And it’s going good.”
“Ethan. Like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible That’s so cool.” She leant on the fence. “So you’re moving in now?”
“Ready to roll first thing in the morning.”
“I hope it’s not too early. Mum’s shocking in the morning. Puffy face, bags under her eyes, wrinkles you wouldn’t believe. It’s unpretty.” She shuddered. “It’s disgusting, She looks a hundred.”
“I do not,” Sage protested.
“You’re always telling me you do,” Harriet rolled her eyes. “And I never disagree. You said you looked worse than your passport photo the other day, remember?”
A blush covered Sage’s face. It was strangely charming.
“Well, as long as she stays inside until she looks presentable, I’m sure we can handle that,” Ethan said.
Sage glowered. “You sexist creep.”
“Harriet’s right,” Barry commented. “You don’t look good in the morning.”
Sage turned on a flounce, went back inside, and slammed the door shut behind her.
“What did I say?” Barry stared after her. “She looks amazing the rest of the time. Who looks good in the morning?”
Ethan grinned. “Agreed. You’re just telling it like it is.” He avoided thinking how often young Barry may have seen Sage first thing in the morning. Barry gave a confused wave, and followed Sage inside.
The door shut and Ethan stared moodily at it. What was he doing in there? Apologising? Telling her she looked amazing and then she’d show him just how amazing she really was…
“Is Jack with you?” Harriet asked suddenly.
Ethan dragged his gaze away from the door. “He is. Do you want to come over and say Hi?”
“Yeah. Mum’s missing Robyn so bad. She was always popping over to her place. She’s got no one now. Except me.”
“She can “pop over” anytime. And you, too, Harriet.”
He glanced back. Was Barry doing something with organic feijoas for himself and Sage?
Ethan shuddered. Get a grip, he ordered himself as he waited for Harriet to come over. Get a freaking grip.
* * *
An hour later, Jack had gone but Harriet was still on the couch, with her headphones on, listening to music.
She’d spent a lot of time on that couch, she’d informed Ethan. Looking after the twins while Robyn worked late, it had become as comfortable as her bed.
Ethan sprawled in a chair and observed her. It hadn’t occurred to him that she was going to miss Robyn as much as Sage did.
He pulled the tab on a beer and wondered what her upbringing was like. Harriet was a great kid. He liked her. She was conservative to Sage’s zany. She was studious. Sage had named her some weird hippy name but Harriet had rebelled and went by Harriet. More importantly, she eat meat.
There was a sudden knock on the door and he called out, “It’s open.”
The door opened and Sage stepped inside.
His gaze quickly skipped over her, noticed she’d changed into baggy jeans and a loose t-shirt.
She’d changed her clothes? Why had she taken the other ones off?
“Just checking up on my girl,” she said. She glanced over at Harriet, comatose on the couch. “The conversation must be scintillating,” she said drily.
Harriet opened one eye. “I can hear you, Mother.” She straightened, and took off her headphones. Sighing, she looked around. “I’m so going to miss this place.”
“You can come over as often as you like. As long as it’s okay with your mother,” Ethan added.
Sage nodded, but there was a tinge of concern across her face. “As long as you don’t mind her being here.”
“Course I don’t mind. Harriet’s a great kid.”
“Kid?” Harriet glared at him.
Ethan grinned back. “Yeah. A kid.”
“Does a kid think about setting up a profile for on-line dating?”
Ethan felt his face drop. “Are you insane? You’re too young.” He glanced at Sage. “Isn’t she?”
“Yes.” Sage cleared her throat. “Um, yes, she is. Most definitely. That’s… very astute of you.”
She added, “It’s way too young. Is this something to do with the bouquet at the wedding?”
“Of course. It’s a sign.” Harriet began to wind up her headphones and said to Ethan. “Have you been married?”
Ethan went still as he felt Sage watching him.
“Once,” he said finally. Reluctantly. “Years ago.”
“Do you still see her?” Harriet pressed.
Sage now looked away.
He hesitated. “No. There’s no bad blood but it was a long time ago. Only lasted a couple of years.”
“And you haven’t met anyone else?” Harriet said.
Ethan detected genuine curiosity in her voice.
The kid really was a romantic.
“Not enough to want to marry,” he admitted, still reluctantly. Anyone else he’d have told them to mind their own business. Harriet was different.
“I think.” Sage cleared her throat. “I think that is personal information, sweetheart, and men just don’t like discussing these kind of emotional issues.”
“Really,” Ethan remarked.
Sage looked him squarely in the eye. “It’s a known fact. You prefer to bury your emotions. You throw yourself into your work or drown yourself in booze to block out the pain.” She pointed to the beer in his hand.
He took a long gulp, then another for the hell of it. “You’ve got me sorted then. Care for one?”
She gestured to Harriet. “No.”
“Jeez, Mum, I had champagne at Robyn’s wedding. But I shouldn’t get drunk.” Harriet stretched. “I’ve got an assignment due. Is Barry still at home?”
Sage looked uncomfortable. “No. He’s had to leave.”
“Saving something from extinction?” Ethan said.
“No, and not that it’s any of your business, but he’s gone to yoga class.”
“Yoga class?” Ethan couldn’t help from rolling his eyes “That boy is a total cliche.”
Sage narrowed her eyes at him. “Barry is not a boy. He is a 25 year old man, thank you, and how on earth is taking a yoga class a cliche?”
Ethan put down his beer carefully, and rose to his feet.
He turned to face Sage. Her face had pinkened and he’d seen this look once before. Rage.
“You were talking about a cliche,” she pressed “What cliche is that exactly? The caring man who feels deeply for humanity and the planet? Is that the cliche?”
“You think the fact he rides around on a bike is going to save the planet?”
“It’s a start.”
“It’ll require a hell of a lot more than that.”
She blinked. “So you think the planet needs saving? I thought you were a climate change denier?”
“I’m a sceptic. I read both sides of the story. Unlike you and the likes of Barry who blindly follow a party line.”
Sage began to turn a different shade of pink which was oddly enchanting. “Just because I have the intelligence to sort out the crap from the truth and choose to believe the truth when it’s staring me in the face does not mean I am blindly following a party line.”
“Mum,” Harriet said, shaking her head, “you said you couldn’t bear to read the lies put out by the climate change deniers–”
“Shut up,” Sage yelled.
Ethan went still as he stared at Sage, then Harriet.
Harriet frowned. “You alright, mum?”
“Yes.” She buried her head in her hands. “No.”
Harriet’s phone vibrated and she checked it.
Ethan looked from one to the other. “Who are you people?” he began.
They both looked at him. “Seriously. You tell your daughter to shut up and then she asks you if you’re alright? I mean…” He ran his hand through his hair. Briefly he wondered if he should grow it like Barry’s.
He shook the thought. Before it dug into his brain and stayed there.
“Mum’s just under stress,” Harriet said as her fingers texted, her gaze never leaving the screen. “And she’s started smoking. Again.”
Sage turned to her daughter, her eyes wide with shock. “How the hell do you know that?”
“I found mouthwash, handwipes, gloves, a jacket that stunk of smoke and an empty match box in the shed. And,” she added, “you’ve been drinking that foul lapsang tea, that has that smoky flavour. At first I thought the smoke was the tea. Now I know different. Nothing gets by me, mother.”
Harriet was glaring at her, accusing her. Sage stared back at her, speechless. Her face had gone from pink to embarrassed red.
Harriet said casually, glancing at Ethan, “The last time that happened was when she broke up with my dad. I remember it.”
Ethan felt like his head was about to explode.
Sage muttered, “Oh, shit. Oh, shit.”
Ethan just stared at them. “So the daughter finds the mother smoking?” The urge to howl with laughter was tempting. “Since when did that switch happen? Since when did the kids call out the parents?”
Sage glared again at him.
Ethan felt for a moment he was in the twilight zone. There was something decidedly whack going on here.
“Listen, I need to…” He was going to say ‘get out of here’ but realised he was in his own place.
He glanced around. His own house. What had he been thinking moving in next to Sage?
Sage straightened. “We’ve taken up enough of your time already. Come on, Harry. Let’s go and get some lunch.”
“Maybe Ethan could join us.”
Ethan felt his stomach rumble, but he’d promised his friend Emily he’d head out to see her and her baby.
He said, “Sounds great but I’ve got plans. Got to visit an old friend. Sorry, Harriet.”
She nodded. “That’s okay. I’ve got schoolwork to do and Mum promised she’d look over it to double check it.”
“I forgot I’d promised that,” Sage admitted.
“What subject?” Ethan asked.
Harriet shuddered. “Physics.”
Ethan glanced with admiration at Sage. “That’s kind of you.” He felt a new respect for her. He’d never had parents that gave a damn about anything he did.
“In what way is me being interested in my daughter’s homework kind?” Sage asked.
“It’s physics. Not a lot of parents would do that.”
Harriet frowned. “But Mum’s the best person to do it.”
Ethan arched his eyebrows. “How so?”
Harriet shut down her phone. “Because she’s an expert.” She slotted her phone in her jacket pocket . “You know she’s got a PhD in the stuff, right?”