Too quickly, however, evening was approaching, and the girls had to find their way back home. Eliza stuffed her new shirt in her school bag, and they hopped a tram through downtown, back over the bridge just after dark, and on into South Yarra and Toorak, where they parted.
Eliza found herself alone on the tram for the last few stops. As she looked at the people walking along Toorak Road, heading into restaurants for dinner, she thought back on what a great day she had had. It hadn't taken long for her to make great friends, she loved Melbourne already, and she didn't miss suffocating D.C. one bit.
The following week passed quickly for Eliza. After spending a day of her internship up to her thighs in the muck of the bay collecting enough specimen jars to start her own museum, she had caught a pretty good head cold.
But she'd recovered quickly and now was looking forward to spending a Saturday afternoon with her new friends.
She met Jess at the tram stop, and the two rode all the way down to the beach at St. Kilda. There, they walked to the Espyâthe famous Esplanade Hotelâto listen to some bands. It was a gray afternoon, and there was a strong wind blowing from the sea. As they strolled easily along the boardwalk, Eliza noted the palm trees she had complained about to Estelle. They waved soâ¦
â¦ mocking her. The imposters.
“Stupid palm trees.”
“What's that?” Jess asked.
“Nothingâ¦” Eliza shivered, but she tried not to let it show. “I'm just glad I'm by the bay this Saturday and not in it.”
They crossed the street and hopped up the steps of a big, old Victorian building. They opened the front door to a blast of music and voices from the inside. It was warm and inviting, the music sounded rocking, and in they went.
The place was crowded. Jess led the way toward a back room with a small stage and some old velvet couches lining the walls. The music from the band in the front room faded, and they found an empty couch with a couple chairs across from it and sat down. Jess pulled out her cell phone and rang Nomes.
“We're in the back room. It's crowded as all get out, but we'll save some seats for you. When are you getting here?” She paused and then rolled her eyes and made a hand-puppet yapping symbol with her free hand, smiling to Eliza.
“Right, see you in a few.” She snapped the phone shut.
“Oi, the girl can yammer on something fierce. So, you stay put, and I'll get us some drinks.” Jess tucked her cell phone back into her handbag.
At the mention of “drinks,” Eliza suddenly realized that there was one small problem with Jess's plan: she didn't think her friend was talking about lemonade or iced tea. The drinking age in Australia was eighteen, and though Eliza had tried on various occasions to procure ID, she'd never been able to get her hands on one. Thus, drinking was, regrettably, off the table for her this evening. She sadly shared that fact with Jess, who promptly threw back her head and laughed.
“That won't be a problem, mate. Nobody has fake ID here. We don't need it. You Americans are so prudish about some things. Just sit tight and guard our seats, okay?” She grinned.
Eliza nodded and spread out their coats to cover as much of the empty seating as possible. She sat back and picked an invisible piece of lint off of her jeans. This afternoon's wardrobe had required careful consideration. She had told the Echolses that she was spending the day with the girls, but she hadn't said they were going to a club; thus, she had needed something that could be covered up when she left the house, so as not to arouse suspicion, but would be suitably flattering should they encounter any members of the male of the species. She wasn't sure that they would be mad, necessarily, but she felt like perhaps a sin of omission was the best policy. In the end, she'd settled on jeans, which looked nondescript enough underneath her jacket, and a fitted black sweater, which, once her jacket was removed, made the outfit a bit sexier.
Frankly, she realized that it was pretty similar to what she would have picked had they just been going shopping, but maybe with a little extra dollop of “oomph.”
“Oomph” turned out to be a good thing. It wasn't long before someone approached.
“Are these seats taken?”
Eliza had been lost in thought. She jumped a little, startled, and recomposed herself, slightly embarrassed. She looked up to see the very vision of an Australian guyâwhich was to say, a mess of rumpled, dirty-blond curls, his eyes a sparkling shade of deep brown.
“Um, yes, I'm sorry, but I think they are,” Eliza said, really meaning it. At that moment she would have gladly sacrificed her friendship with Jess for a chance to sit next to Mr. Aussie-bloke.
they are?” He seemed amused by her uncertainty.
“No, well, yes, they are taken. My friends and I are sitting here.”
He looked to her left, and then her right, raising a quizzical eyebrow. Clearly he thought her friends were of the imaginary variety. “It looks like it's just you sitting here.”
Eliza blushed. “Well, they're coming. One's at the bar and the other will be here any minute.”
She was flattered by the attention, and a little flustered as well, which didn't happen often. She didn't want to chase him off, and thankfully was saved the decision as Jess returned.
“Hamish Bloody MacGreggor! Get your good-fornuthin' mitts off my mate there!”
He's Jess's friend? And alsoâhis name's
“Hey, Jess. I didn't know you guys were together. She kept saying that she had all of these mates, but I thought she was just playing hard to get.”
“Yes, we are, she was, and keep your paws off.” Jess smiled.
He held his arms up in a “Who, me?” pose. “I was just looking for an empty seat,” he protested. “No paws, I swear,” and he winked at Eliza. She had to hide a smile.
“Hamish, meet Eliza. She's from America on exchange.” Jess gestured from Hamish to Eliza by way of introduction.
He stuck his hand out. “I'm Hamish, but everyone calls me Macca.”
It was almost as bad as Hamish. He was lucky he was such a hottie.
“Macca? Like McDonald's?” Eliza tried not to giggle as their palms made contact and they shook hands. Jeez, one cute guy and she was totally dorking out.
Macca tilted his head back and drained the rest of his beer. “No, ma'am. It's Macca as in MacGreggorâand no self-respecting MacGreggor would be caught dead near a louse like a McDonald. You got that?”
“Okay, Braveheart.” Eliza gave her most winning sunny grin and folded her arms across her chest.
Check and mate.
“Fair enough, but this William Wallace is out of grog and is heading to the bar.” He smiled right back at her and gave a wink.
And that's the game.
She'd never met a guy like this back home. Of course, most of that was because Hamish was clearly so Ã¼ber-Australian, in addition to being a hugely cocky flirt. But it was more than that. He was rugged and outgoing in a way that the boys back at Fairlawn weren't. In a way that Parker wasn't, for sure. Most of the Fairlawnians thought black was the new black and listened only to Emo bands with male lead singers in eyeliner. And even though Parker was more like Eliza and her groupâin other words, practically a walking Gap adâthat only made the contrast between him and Macca all the sharper.
And Parker was on hold for now, anyway.
Upon mutual agreement, they squished their seats together and dragged some more chairs over so there'd be room for them all. Macca and a couple of his friends sat with them while they waited for Nomes to show up. Jess gave Eliza a little wink as Macca slid in next to her.
They tried to keep up the conversation despite the music blaring in the background. It turned out that Macca was a senior at Geelong Grammar, a school in a city a little south of Melbourne, but his parents lived in Toorak, pretty near the Echolses. In fact, he even knew Billieâthey'd surfed together as kids, he said.
Oh man, he's a surfer.
Eliza thought back to a brief obsession with surfers based on the TV show
Now there was absolutely zero chance that she'd escape a big-time crush. She was a total goner.
The musicians had, by now, taken the stage and were starting their set. As the band launched into its first song, Eliza sat back, happy to be holed up in the Espy next to an Australian surfer demi god. She smiled to herself.
This semester is getting better by the minute
Although many of the clichÃ©s about America were obviously true, Billie had found that at least oneâthat all Americans were completely high-strung and neuroticâdidn't seem to be. The Americans whom Billie encountered at Fairlawn that first morning were decidedly
-neurotic. In fact, they were so thoroughly chilled out that she thought some of them might even be asleep. It almost made her chuckle; Australians were always known for their “no worries” attitude, but this school was so hippie-dippie that the mood in the air went way beyond “no worries.” This was more like “no pulse.”
She found her way to her “homeroom” without any trouble. Homeroom was apparently what Americans called the first class of the day. You didn't learn anything in homeroom, thoughâit was just the place where teachers took attendance and made any sort of school-wide announcements. Billie decided that she would remember the meaning of homeroom by thinking of it more as “home base.” To her, that made much more sense.
Billie was the only S.A.S.S. student at Fairlawn, which might have made her feel self-conscious, but even though she was an introvert by nature, she actually wasn't shy in the least (awkward conversations with Mrs. Ritter notwithstanding). As if to prove her point, she smiled at the girl who slid into the seat beside her.
“G'day,” she said, grinning. “I'm Billie Echols.”
“You must be our exchange student,” the girl replied. “Whose house are you staying at?”
“I'm with the Ritters,” Billie said proudly. She still couldn't quite believe that she'd been assigned to work for the number one eco-warrior in the world. Or, at the very least, in the American government.
“Nice,” the girl said to her, nodding approvingly. “Although I think Mrs. Ritter is sort of like the diet police.”
Billie shrugged, thinking back to the brown rice and bland fish. “I can be sneaky. Especially when it comes to something as urgent as biscuits.” At the girl's blank look, she explained, “You know, bickies. Biscuitsâ¦cookies!”
“Right.” The girl smiled. “Your accent's awesome.”
What is it with Americans and accents?
“I'm Heather, by the way,” the girl continued. “Heather Small. I'm going to intern next semester. But I don't know where yet.”
“Gotcha,” Billie said. “So everyone at this school has to intern?”
“For at least one semester of high school,” Heather confirmed. “It's sorta one of the only real rules this place has.”
“It does seem veryâ¦touchy-feely.” Billie laughed, hoping that she wasn't offending her maybe, sort-of new friend. But Heather just grinned in agreement. Billie felt even warmer toward her.
“What can you tell me about Eliza?” she asked boldly. “The only things I've been able to suss, based on her bedroom, are that she likes purple, and that she likes cable TV. Oh!” Her eyes widened as she remembered one other juicy detail. “And there was a bloke in one of her pictures. Someone she was pashing with?”
“If âpashing' is Australian for âsmooching,' then yes, the
was probably her boyfriend, Parker,” Heather explained. “Parker Green. He's greatâreally a friendly, nice guy. Everyone here at school likes him.”
“Sounds perfect,” Billie mused. Her experience with boys thus far had been minimal. She had lots of guy friends, and even a few crushes here or there, but nothing major. Nothing official. In fact, maybe that should have been one of her goals for her time in the United States: to pine after a boy (and vice versa)? “Pining” sounded incredibly romantic.
“Yeah, I guess. Though I'm not sure how thrilled he is that Eliza suggested they take a break while she's away. I mean, he still puts on his merry sunshine front. But it's, like, I think he doth protest too much. And, he'd never admit it, but he has been a little bit cranky about newspaper deadlines since Eliza left.” Heather rolled her eyes to show what she thought of this sort of behavior. “We're on the paper together,” she explained. “So I try to keep him in check. Boys can be so dramatic, you know?”