“Hey now,” Dax says. “You’re going to hurt my ego if you keep going on like that.” He tries to frown and fails.

Fresh peals of laughter flow out of me. Damn, if I’m not careful I’m going to pee my pants. But it’s been a long time since I laughed like this. Real laughter, not some fake act I put on because I know it’s expected.

“OK, OK,” he shrugs, placing a hand gently on my back. “You can keep laughing, but pay attention here.”

I nod, still laughing, as I glance both directions, before we cross the street. It isn’t until we reach the other side that it registers that Dax has touched me. The laughing ceases.

Dax drops his hand, face full of concern. “You OK? You were laughing and then…”

“No, no, all’s good.”

“OK, but I’m not sure I believe you.”

I force a grin and wave him off. No way am I telling him the truth. He’ll misinterpret it to mean – well, I don’t know what – but nothing good and I wouldn’t mean it like that. It isn’t like we’ve never touched. During training, people’s bodies come in contact. It’s the nature of the sport. Sure, girls tend to stick with girls for groundwork, the grappling and wrestling moves. But the rest of it – men and women, we’re all training together, bodies colliding. But this is the first time he’s touched me off the mats. Like a friend might.

In fact, I don’t think any of them have. Everyone keeps themselves to themselves around me. Even Anna, come to think of it, who goes around hugging anything alive, even that random dog that wandered off the street the other day. It’s as if they’ve all been told to be careful, to watch it around me. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

“You sure you’re OK?” Dax says, slowing down as we approach the bar.

“I won’t be much longer if you keep asking me that!” I snap.

He flinches, and I inwardly wince. I didn’t mean to say it like that. I meant the words to come out playful, light, but they bolted out of my mouth and cracked like a whip.

I stop in front of the pub and look up at him. I try really hard to put that easy smile on my face, the one I used to have before daddy died. The one that is all laid-back and relaxed. Not sure if it works. I kind of feel like a crazy person, stretching her face out too wide and tight. But his eyes haven’t changed nor has he taken any steps back. And, laying my hand on his arm, cool and gentle, I say, “Thanks for walking me here. Mean it.”

He smiles back. “Not a problem.”

I slip inside before my stupid mouth gets me into any more trouble. Like saying, Your arm felt really good. Which only an idiot would say. Yet those dumb words had been sitting on the tip of my tongue.

Get it together, Justine.


Tell us: Why do you think the people at the dojo are being careful not to touch Justine, unless it is during training?