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Annie McCoy read a quote once, in a nameless text book, a hundred years ago, when her hair had been braided and her socks had been knee high. It was by Ralph Waldo Emerson. ‘A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver for five minutes longer.’ She remembers thinking it was a stupid thing to say, in all her twelve year old, hair braided glory. A hero is braver than anyone. It’s what makes them special, what makes them worthy of the name. Annie was never brave. She never climbed too high, or ran too fast or jumped too far. She was a cautious child, a ‘worrier’ her mother called it. Her little sister, in her blaze of dyed hair and seventeen year old angst finds no qualms in calling it a ‘sissy’. She was guarded. Never cried, never screamed: never let anyone know that she wanted to do either. It took a while before Annie learned that there was nothing brave about that. “You know by laws of nature, they’re supposed to be grinding against each other?” There were a lot of things one could say about David Hanger, but his ability to turn any given sentence into a sexual innuendo was arguably one of his most gifted talents. Annie didn’t lift her chin from where it rested on her upturned palm on the kitchen counter. Her eyes still tracked the stretch of stark whiteness laid out near her elbow, tauntingly. Sissy Davey stopped in front of the counter to idly pluck up the HB pencil that she’d been unconsciously twirling through her fingers and ground it lightly into the top right hand corner of the pad. Annie raised her eyebrows at him silently when he stopped making crude facial expressions to accompany the stationary sex. The pencil dropped back to the counter and rolled twice. “Isn’t that supposed to be filled with reams of literary genius by now, McCoy?”
Annie lifted her eyes lazily to watch him pull two glasses from the top cupboard and go for the juice, “You’ve been sitting there since seven.” She grunted uselessly in reply. “And what’s with the pad of paper? You do realize we have these things called computers now? I know you writing types have tendency to be pretentious but the scroll and quill is taking it little too far, don’t you think?” “Mmm.” Annie returned her attention to the paper and didn’t tell him she preferred the stark white presence of the paper. Void of creativity, lacking productiveness. Just incase she accidently managed to accomplish something. Davey continued to mumble in the background as she pondered actually picking the pencil back up or just calling it a morning and drowning herself in the shower. “…so if you want to avoid the fire and brimstone, I suggest you stay gone till after seven.” Her attention snapped back into focus and her hand fell away, “Eh?” Davey paused in his juice pouring to look back pointedly. His dark hair was shower damp and matted to his forehead the way it did when it wasn’t gelled to artistic perfection. “My parents, remember?” He capped the juice and slid one of the glasses to rest in front of her, “The six month home visit to make sure I’m not burning in hell or running an S and M centre from my lounge?” He turned back to the fridge with a nonchalant wave of his hand as Annie nodded and made a mental note to keep busy past eight. “Eight. Got it.” She stifled a yawn and stretched her arms above her head to try and work out the kink she’d had in her shoulder for the past half hour, “Although if I still haven’t written anything by then, I might have tried to stab myself to death with this pencil by eight ‘o’ clock”
His dark eyes gave a perfect roll, “Jesus, turn those dramatics into a novel and we can retire to Miami.” He leaned onto the counter so their faces were inches apart. “You can do this. stories.” This time Annie rolled her eyes. “This time’s no different.” He promised simply, pushing himself back up and downing his juice, “You just need to stop telling yourself you can’t.” “Well I need to do all that by next Thursday or else I miss the deadline and my editor will skin me.” Annie replied just as simply, sliding out of her stool and heading for the shower. There are a lot of things that should terrify a barely employed, heavily in debt, freelance writer. A blank sheet of paper shouldn’t be one of them. Her baby sister’s snickering voice chased her all the way to the bathroom. Sissy You’ve written a hundred articles…a thousand
It seems inevitable that there are certain stereotypes that are attached to every career choice. Doctors are supposed to stay calm in a crisis, school teachers are supposed to have the patience of a saint, and apparently writers are supposed to know the exact right thing to say at any given moment. Considering the two pairs of expectant stares focused solely on Annie, they were expecting something decidedly more eloquent than, “Uh?” The fact only supporting the politically correct standpoint that stereotyping can be both misleading and ambiguous. “I said…” The hand was once again thrust into Annie’s direct line of vision, “I’m getting married!”
“Uh…” As the articulacy excellence continued to flow smoothly, she dared a quick, almost panicked glance towards Kate. equally as ill-equipped for this kind of emotional ambush. “He finally asked me!” Mel cried, as Annie fought the urge to slap the dancing hand out of her personal space, “What do you think?” Annie reached out to steady the limb and peered at the diamond, if only to buy another thirty seconds to re group and try to find some words of wisdom. She had never claimed to be Oscar Wilde, but when one of your best friends of ten years announces her engagement, Annie strongly suspected you were supposed to say something more profound than “Uh?” and suppress the urge to vomit. “It’s nice, Mel.” She told her truthfully. It wasn’t a lie. It was a lovely ring. Exactly how an engagement ring should be. It just shouldn’t be on Annie’s twenty one year old friend’s engagement finger. “I didn’t mean the ring, Annie!” Melanie turned the hand in on itself to admire the glistening diamond up close. Apparently, triage nurses never seemed to have a problem with expressing their inner thoughts and voices. Although Annie strongly suspected that had less to do with nursing and more to do with just being Melanie. Melanie who never cared much for books or studies but had her kid’s names picked out since she was fifteen years old. Opposite Annie, Kate cleared her throat and kept her gaze on her semi skimmed latte like it held the answers to the universe. Unfortunately, their mutual friend wasn’t looking for anything as profound. “Isn’t it a little fast?” Kate tried, as Melanie snapped her gaze up and Annie aimed a swift kick to Kate’s shin under the table. “What I think she means is…” Once again the writer in her failed as she tried to desperately grasp onto something in sentence form that could be taken as supportive. “Well…isn’t it? A little fast?” Luckily the wide eyed stare Annie got in return proved that lab technicians were
She failed miserably. “Fast?” Melanie’s tone indicated that no, it was not a little fast, “We’ve been together for almost four years. I’ve been waiting for him to ask for the past six months! How is that fast?” It was true. Annie was surprised they even had the nerve to act surprised. The Banks-Whitmore engagement was inevitable: like the hands of time or global warming. “You’re twenty one.” Kate supplied helpfully, having discarded the coffee to glare across bewildered to where Melanie was already scrolling through her phone contacts. “We’re having an engagement party tomorrow night.” She said offhandedly, jotting down a ream of numbers out of her phone onto a clean napkin with the pen she always kept in her front bag pocket. That was a nurse thing, the way there seemed to be an endless stream of pens, plasters and Savlon wipes coming from every pocket she possessed. “Tomorrow night?” Annie stuttered, watching as the list grew in numbers and the napkin was flipped onto its back. “To officially announce it: I need you to help me organise and call people with details.” Annie fought the urge to snatch the pen from her hand. “Isn’t one day a little tight to plan an engagement party?” Kate snorted into her latte, “Keeping in theme to the marriage, at least.” Melanie paused, mid digit and glared. Annie thought it wise to intervene before the playful banter started to involve the cutlery. “Okay, enough.” Annie placed her palms flat on the table and offered what she hoped was a supporting smile, “We’ll be there.” Out the corner of her eye, she watched Kate mirroring her fake grin. “I’m glad you think so, Annabel,” The napkin was neatly folded and passed across the table to where Kate was trying to hold her composure, “Because as honorary best friend slash creative writer, you get to give the first speech.”
Out the corner of her eye, she saw Kate’s grin turn sincere.
Annie re-entered the apartment at seven minutes past eight, just to be cautious. She tip toed inside and held the door open with her foot, sniffing the air for the distinct aroma of lavender hand lotion and haughty disapproval. Coming up empty, she reasoned that the coast was officially clear for another six months and shrugged off her jacket, letting the door click shut. “Davey?” He was propped up against the foot of the coach when she stepped into the living room. The fact that he was sitting on the floor in his new Armani jeans set off the first alarm bells in her head. The four empty beers bottles already strewn across the coffee table (without coasters) raised the alarm to code red. Usually, it only took around five hours and a bottle of good vodka for him to overcome a parental visit. Annie suspected from his vacant gaze and slumped posture that she might need to pull out the big guns this time. He didn’t look up when she cautiously lowered herself to lean beside him, trying to remember where they’d stashed the bottle of tequila Kate got her for her birthday last year. He finally tipped his bottle in greeting and Annie subtlety followed his gaze to the tiny black folder resting in amongst the bottles. “I take dinner didn’t go smoothly?” She ventured, not waiting for his response as she pushed a Corona bottle to one side and picked up the file. She flipped it open to reveal an array of strategically glued photos. “You could say that.” He snorted. Annie recognised the parents immediately. Teresa Hanger, designer dress suit pressed to perfection, set hair and manicured
nails faultlessly glowing. Rodger Hanger, grey both in his suit and his receding hairline. The man they were flanking was familiar, but only in his resemblance to his brother. Nickolas Hanger, the infamous army brother. Annie had met him in person only once: one Christmas back when they were still in college and she’d agreed to drop into the annual Hanger post season party on their way back to school. He seemed nice. Tall, blue eyes: pleasant in a way that made Annie throw all her support behind the ‘nature’ part of the nature-nurture debate in terms of chid rearing. “He was awarded the purple heart last week.” Annie’s eyes tracked across the medal proudly held by all three pairs of hands infront of his camouflaged chest. “Of course he was.” She responded simply, flicking the album closed and reaching for an unopened beer sitting under the coffee table infront of them. Piercing blue eyes swung her way, duller than she’d probably ever seen them: certainly in a long time. “Big party” He said simply, the hand that wasn’t supporting the beer flicking out widely to presumably emphasise just how big this party had been. Annie unscrewed the beer and took a hearty sip. “They thought it best I not attend.” His words were slurred, but the effect gave a surprisingly accurate impression of his mother. Annie almost applauded. “I mean…” His head swung on his shoulder to eye her seriously, “You know how these things are.” Annie did, as it happened. She had been there when Nick had been accepted into the military academy. She had been there when Davey had been uninvited to his brother’s impromptu birthday party that year and when he’d been relieved from attending his parent’s anniversary dinner last September.
“So what’s with the album?” Annie took another gulp and ran her finger across the black leather cover, “They want you to Photoshop yourself in?” His smirk was evident as he reached for a fresh bottle. wanted me to have it.” Annie lent back against the couch and watched him silently uncap and swig. She believed it. Nick wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t bone deep ashamed of his brother the way his parents were. He always called: more than a foreign army base should probably allow, actually. He was always perky and kind and intent on knowing Annie’s well being and if she was taking care of his little brother’s. He didn’t see his brother as some shameful secret. He just didn’t want to give anyone else a chance too, Annie suspected, but it was still absurd to her that a man who runs head first at death for a living could ever be scared of introducing his gay brother to his army friends. Next to her, Davey gave out a deep sigh and reached for the photos in Annie’s lap. “Jesus.” He murmured, flicking it open to a random page where his family were stage laughing over a table full of wine and champagne. It looked more like an advert for family health insurance to Annie, but she had little doubt it would be framed in gold and hung in the den back at Château Hanger. “A Purple Heart. Can you believe it?” Annie flicked her eyebrows and took another swig of luke-warm beer. “Sure.” She replied dryly, because she could. Nick was a brave guy. Enrolled at eighteen, shipped out within the month. Annie had heard second hand stories of all kinds of horrors from Davey and seen enough CNN coverage to work it out for herself. She’d seen the absolute sheer panic on his little brothers face when he’d got the call last month about a land mine accident 12 miles from base camp. She’d sat with him for the eight hours it “Nick
had taken to get word back that there had been six fatalities, but that none of them had been named Hanger. Afterwards, they’d gone out and celebrated with four rounds of vodka shots. It was how he functioned. He told Annie once he craved “proof of life in the face of mortality”. Back then, she had just thought it was an excuse for him to drink until he passed out. She had realised exactly what he meant that day. Davey Hanger lived life: no excuses, no regrets. He always had, for as long as Annie had known him. Never held a secret, never told a lie and loved with his whole heart. No matter if it was his absentee parents or his MIA brother or some guy he’s known for five minutes. He’d throw himself into it head first, heart on his sleeve; damn the consequences and she’d always admired him for that. Back against the couch, Annie titled her head towards him and picked at the label on her bottle. “Can I ask you something?” He tilted his head to mirror hers in response, so they were almost nose to nose. “You see them, what?” She did a generous calculation in her increasingly beer laden mind, “Three, four times a year? Maybe one of their pretentious dinner parties every other Christmas?” He nodded absently in agreement against the paisley couch cushion. “Why did you tell them? Why not just let them believe whatever it is they want to believe? Why not just let them tell their friends whatever they want and play along for three days out of the year?” Annie watched as his eyes knitted together across the cushion folds between their faces. “Because…” He shrugged a shoulder awkwardly and she waited a beat to see if he was going to elaborate. He did. “Because even if I never told them. Even if I played along and took you to their parties and called you my girlfriend and made up stories about grandkids and white weddings…they still wouldn’t be proud of me. Because that’s not me. I’m me.” Annie watched his blue eyes blink slowly,
his voice gradually dropped to no more than a hoarse whisper, like they were sharing some childish secret. She supposed they were. “I can’t change who I am. I’d never want to. Not even for them.” The secret that Nick Hanger wasn’t the only family member with a Purple Heart: his brother had one too. Purple and black and blue with bruises, from ignorant jibes and scorned lovers and too proud parents: worn on his sleeve, for anyone to see, for anyone to bruise again. Annie tipped her head and smiled, “You know what Davey Hanger?” His eyebrows rose silently in reply. “I think you’re the bravest person without a heart shaped medal I’ve ever met.” Nick’s trauma that day had been three skin graphs and two broken legs that eventually healed to fight another day. doubt that Nick Hanger was a hero. Across the cushions, Davey laughed wide and loud. But so was his little brother. There was no
The next morning brought sunny temperatures in the high twenties, an early morning phone call reminder from Melanie and the distinct feeling that letting Davey talk her into those last two shots of tequila had been a very bad idea. Annie had been immersed in place settings and fabric drapings of all varieties for the better part of an hour and a half, and had mastered the art of one handed flower arranging while keeping a continuous stream of steaming coffee firmly in the other at all times. She had not yet mastered the art of public speaking. “All you have to do is write some dribble about true love concurring all and marriage being the ultimate act of commitment.” Annie turned a sour eye to where Kate was trying to fit twenty people in pin formation onto three tables made for four.
“I’m writing an engagement speech, not a Shakespearean sonnet.” Annie barked back, watching her stab a pin haphazardly into the seating chart and snort. “Same thing.” Annie rolled her eyes and went back to wondering how she managed to find herself staring at another stretch of taunting white paper. Across from her, Kate didn’t seem to be having much more creative success. “This is impossible!” The box of pins was thrown to one side in surrender, “She needs more tables or fewer people.” Annie grinned around the pencil she was chewing on as Melanie shot them a stink eye from across the room where she and her mother were trying to drape cream taffeta across the windows. “I thought you’d be a seating expert” Annie mumbled, trying to hold the grin until Melanie turned away, to convey some sense of false proof that everything was right on schedule. Kate didn’t even attempt the façade. “I’ll have you know, I was employee of the month two months running at that dump.” Annie resisted the urge to roll her eyes at the mention of her friend’s brief but productive encounter as Starlight Cinema’s chief usher last summer. Annie and Mel had laughed for two days when she’d told them, but the free after hour showings and free stale popcorn had been worth it in the long run. “You’ve probably been employee of the month at every establishment in a ten mile radius.” Annie dead panned, doodling a smiling ladybug into the corner of her blank paper. Kate and her state of employment were past being a long running joke. Since leaving college, she’d moved jobs no less than every two months. Melanie and Davey found it hilarious; her mother was probably two more job interviews away from a stomach ulcer. Currently she was gracing St Luke’s Hospital in their experimental lab trails in bone marrow transplants. Her mother had been so
happy that her daughter had been in a job for more than three months she almost called for national news coverage. “Speaking of…” Annie’s pencil paused mid-bug as she looked up to where Kate was staring brazenly over a mountain of upturned pins and paper, “I handed in my notice at the labs.” Annie tried to act surprised but just couldn’t fake another emotion until she’d inhaled another cup of coffee, “I thought you liked it there?” Kate flicked at a pin that went whizzing past Annie’s left arm and bounced off the wall behind them. “I’m starting to get claustrophobic.” Annie went back to shading antennas, and mumbled towards the paper, “Your mother’s going to have a fit.” Kate shrugged a shoulder and slumped back in her chair, “My mother’s just going to have to cope.” Annie had seen Kate’s mother beg her daughter, almost on her knees, to take an opening in her father’s company. Stability and pension plans, her mother had sing-songed, dangling the phone number infront of their faces as they ate dinner. She’d never take it. Annie knew it, Kate knew it, and her mother did too. It didn’t stop her mother begging, or her father worrying, or her bank account shrinking. She hadn’t wanted to follow Annie into a master’s degree; she hadn’t wanted to settle into a job from school like Melanie. “I’ll know when it’s right.” She’d said once, after quitting another internship in an advertising company that printed health posers for hospital waiting rooms: fresh from another screaming match with her mother, “I’m not gonna settle for something for the rest of my life. I can wait.” Annie had resisted the urge to tell her that she might be waiting forever. That sometimes you have to settle, and tell yourself that
it’s maybe what you wanted all along. Kate would never have agreed though. It’s always scarier finding your own way than doing what’s easy, what’s expected. Going against your parents, or your friends or your own common sense, but Kate would do it. She’d wait forever, and if she still didn’t get her way, she’d die with no regrets. It was Kate’s way. Kate who’d never settle for a job, or a boyfriend or an engagement until it was exactly how she wanted it. “Can I ask you something?” Kate glanced up at Annie’s voice, from where she was making one of the plans into a paper plane. “What?” “Are you scared of heights?” Kate’s forehead wrinkled in confusion as she turned her attention back to the paper folds. “No. Not really.” She shrugged, turning to fly table number three towards Melanie and taffeta, “Why?” Annie shrugged a shoulder and tore the bug clean off the paper, “No reason.”
As it turned out, twenty people managed to fit quite snugly around three tables made for four. Maybe Kate’s usher expertise had paid off. The finger buffet had done nothing to quell Annie’s still queasy stomach and the second glass of champagne had done nothing for her mounting nerves. The announcement itself had gone smoothly. Mostly, she assumed, because it came as a shock to no one considering they were all assembled for a self confessed engagement party. Trevor had given his speech first, overflowing with soppy endearments and not showing one bit of trepidation of a man soon to be tied down for life. He had talked about their first date and their dream house and their future kids, as Annie tried to desperately soak in some of his
radiating romanticism while Kate mock gagged into her champagne flute beside her. “And I want nothing more than to show the world what we have.” Trevor was saying, as Melanie gazed teary eyed up at him and half the wedding party blew into their napkins. Annie couldn’t see a difference. Not now, in this day and age, when it appears that people are statistically more likely to contract some form of cancer than avoid a divorce. If you love each other, if you trust each other, then why should you need a piece of paper and an overpriced party to prove it? To cement what’s already there. Why set yourself up for such a huge fall? ‘The higher you climb, the longer you fall’ Annie’s grandmother used to say, and the cautious child in her was always scared of heights. Of course, she couldn’t come out and say that. romantic genius. “God, can you believe it?” Mel had whispered, grasping Annie’s hand tight in excitement as they’d passed by to take their seats earlier, and for the first time since she’d shown Annie the ring, she was genuinely happy for her. How could she not be? With her grinning and glowing right infront of her, just wanting Annie to smile back and tell her it was okay. It was okay to be happy; it was okay to do this. “No, I can’t” Annie had replied honestly, squeezing her hand back, “But you deserve it.” And she did, if only because this was all she’d ever wanted. “You ready?” Kate whispered, as the room exploded in applause and tears. “Of course,” Annie scoffed, her non existent speech still sitting with the mounting collection of blank sheets on her kitchen counter. Best laid plans aside, she decided to lie. Not with twenty starry eyed, love struck party guests staring at her, expecting
“Uh…” Annie pushed up from the table and looked out to address the party. From one of the side tables she saw Davey shoot her a hesitant thumbs up. It didn’t help. “I’ve known Melanie a long time…and, uh…” Suddenly every coherent sentence she’d ever learned filtered from her mind and she flailed for something profound. Beside her, she felt Kate snicker and fought the urge to vomit over the silverware. Annie took a hasty glance sideways at where Melanie and Trevor were still huddled side by side, grinning adorably. absolute Gods honest truth. Clearing her throat, Annie took a breath. “And I think that in all those years, I’ve never seen her happier than she is right now.” Beside me Melanie beamed and Annie smiled. “She’s always been sure of herself: she’s always known just what it would take to make her happy, no matter what anyone else thought. And in this new world of equal rights and girl power and quick fix divorces, it must be hard to say that a house and a husband and a car full of screaming kids is your dream. But Melanie did. She always has.” Annie suddenly raised hr glass for the mandatory toast and listened to twenty people do the same. “And you know what I think Melanie Banks?” Beside her Melanie was welling up characteristically into her fiancé’s shoulder. “I think you deserve everything you’ve always been brave enough to want.” The truth was, Annie could never stand infront of everyone she loved and make promises that she knew could break at any second. She could never trust her whole life to someone else. never give my whole heart like her. She supposed that was the difference. She could Then she did something that she had never ever planned on doing. She told the
The paper still sat on the counter for a week after the party. It was still white when Annie slid into the kitchen stool to stare it down, pencil heavy in her hand. Davey left with his beau of the moment an hour ago, shooting a pointed glare towards the pad on his way out. Somewhere downtown, Kate would be closing the latest cafe she took the night shift in. Melanie will be hustled in one of the booths until closing, thrusting bridal magazines and flower samples at her under the guise of keeping her company. Annie thinks of writing a love story, with sacrifice and tears and heartfelt monologues. She thinks of writing a story about adventure: with baddies and damsels and superheroes. Instead, she thinks of a quote she read when she was twelve years old. Back when she didn’t really know any better. Back when she thought a hero was supposed to be some martyr: some larger than life, indestructible immortal. The thing you eventually learn about heroes is that sooner or later, they always have to fall. The mask comes off and the cape falls away and they’re just a man: a human being with wants and needs and weaknesses, just like anyone else. They’re maybe not as interesting to read about, maybe not as exciting, but they’re real. Sometimes they’re even right infront of us. Sometimes it’s nothing more than having the guts to shake off who you thought you were, or how others see you. Sometimes it means letting people you love down: or living up to the people who love you most. It’s not always easy and it’s not always noble, but it’s always brave: especially to a girl who never even had the guts to climb a tree. There’s nothing brave about filling a blank sheet of paper. It’s not saving a life, it’s not righting a wrong and it won’t change the world.
It’s just the words of a girl who never claimed to be brave and never claimed to be special, but who knows plenty of people who are. People who deserve to be recognised for not just being brave for five minutes, but for being brave all their lives: for making one cautious, worried girl braver by just knowing them. The first stroke of pencil to paper doesn’t make Annie feel like a superhero. But then again, she always was afraid of heights.
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