This month, my debut novel Hate is such a Strong Word turns 2. When I first published the book, I was inundated with messages from people who wanted to know what happened at the formal. The gap in that part of Sophie’s story wasn’t intentional: the original manuscript did contain a chapter set at the formal, but it was scrapped in consultation with my copy editor during the structural edit. In the months following the book’s release, I remember promising one person in particular that I’d send the chapter over, but I never got around to it. This year, I sat down, and decided that as a little gift to the readers who wanted more, I would finally share that chapter. In the end, I re-worked it a little, and for something a little different, decided to re-write it from Shehadie’s perspective. It doesn’t alter the ending in any way, but at least it gives those people who’ve been asking me to write another book on Soph & Shehadie (no) another glimpse into their world. They would be 19 and 20 right now, so I think it’s time I left them alone. After all, Sophie doesn’t need yet another Lebanese person (even me) butting into her life…

So to all of my wonderful, beautiful readers – the cheerleaders that keep me going – this is for you. I am so very thankful for your support. And to Bianca Fazzalaro especially, who gave me this idea to begin with. I hope you enjoy it.


 

Dance with me, Soph.

‘This place should be sued for destroying the environment,’ Jenn says next to me, scowling.

‘Hold that face right there so I can capture your expression,’ I say, reaching for my phone. ‘It can be your 21st photo invite.’

She swats my arm away and I chuckle, glad that even in her mood we can still joke around together.

We’re sitting in the car outside the CSC Formal Venue – a South-Western Sydney restaurant that has transformed the former Flower Power next door into a little garden oasis for outdoor functions. She’s already sighed more than she’s needed to, whinged in that awful sing-song voice she uses and asked me how long she thinks the night will take before she can leave. I take it as an obvious sign: for a pretty-laid back guy, I definitely attract the company of those best described as melodramatic.

‘Seriously though, they went overboard with the fairy lights,’ she says, shaking me out of my thoughts. ‘I guess that’s what you’d expect from Lebs.’

‘What, atmosphere?’ I ask, smirking.

She shrugs and shakes her head. ‘Atmosphere, drama…whatever you want to call it,’ she mumbles.

‘Don’t be a snob,’ I say, elbowing her. ‘You’re not impressed with their fairy lights; they’d laugh at a surf club.’

‘Here we go again with Shehadie’s lessons on life in the hood,’ she says, elbowing me back.

I scoff at her, amused, and she reaches over and adjusts my bow tie.

‘There,’ she says, fingering the edges. ‘Much better.’

I wink at her and she smiles, then turns away to stare at the CSC students arriving in their finery.

I glance down at my bow tie and make a face. I don’t have the heart to tell her I prefer my tie kind of crooked, just like my personality. Or my life right now. The fact that I am sitting here at my year 12 formal with the gorgeous girl who has seen me at my worst and still calls me her best friend should fill me with all sorts of happiness. The fact that this has happened after the worst two years of my life should make it even better – but something is missing.

Well, someone.

I look down at my watch and wonder why she isn’t here yet. The corsage will wilt in this summer heat and more time in this car will give Jenn another reason to complain. I look across the lot and see Zayden arrive in one of those done-up race cars and I shake my head. At least he’s not in my face any more. I crane my neck to see who he’s bought as his date, and when Vanessa emerges in a low cut, backless red dress, I can’t say I am surprised.

I play with the box some more until Jenn gives me a death stare and sigh.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say, making a face. ‘She’s not the type of person who rocks up late.’

‘What?’ she asks. ‘You think she’s not coming?’

‘Having a date to this thing kind of meant a lot to her,’ I explain. ‘She’s not…like us.’

She looks at me, amused. ‘And what?,’ she asked. ‘You think because you said you were promised to someone else that she got all depressed and decided to miss her formal and stay home? You wouldn’t fall for someone that pathetic.’

You wouldn’t fall for someone that pathetic.’

I laugh to myself. ‘Yeah, you’re right.’

‘Look,’ she says, a minute later. ‘A few more cars are arriving.’

I get out of the car and open her door. But we don’t move. We stay where we are, leaning against her car, watching like the outsiders we feel like we are. Even after a year in their presence, it’s still something I’m slightly aware of. Like I am not completely one of them.

Seconds later, I see her. She’s in a strapless cocktail dress that is puffy and pastel. No glasses, eye make-up, and hair in this loose-up style, away from her face. She looks radiant, confident, sure of herself. So unlike the girl I met 11 months ago.

I find myself staring at her legs again and shake my head. No point worrying about that, I think. But she’s worth it.

I nudge Jenn and gesture towards them.

‘That’s her’, I say, not tearing my eyes away from her. The restaurant has erected a little arch just inside their side garden. It’s a white wire one and they’ve woven flowers – and yet even more fairy lights – around it. Admittedly, even to a guy who wouldn’t notice such things, it makes for a good background for photos.

‘So she’s the game changer,’ Jenn says, staring. ‘Wow, you didn’t say she was this gorgeous.’

‘Correction,’ I say, shaking my head. ‘I said there are no words. Because there aren’t.’

She smiles and checks her lips in the camera on her phone for the billionth time, then looks up again. My eyes haven’t moved. It’s like they’re fixated on her, even when she moves between her friends, taking photos.

‘Who’s the guy?’ Jenn asks, gesturing to the bloke in the quirky suit accompanying her.

‘Jacob,’ I say. ‘One of her mates.’

She smiles. ‘He could be fun.’

‘He is,’ I assure her, thankful that she’s doing this.

‘Thanks again,’ I say, grabbing her hand. ‘You are amazing for doing this.’

She looks at me awkwardly then shakes her head. ‘So you’re ready then?’ she asks.

I nod, ignoring the heart beating furiously inside my chest. I wasn’t going to come tonight. I’d only been here for a year – it made more sense to just go to Jenn’s formal. At my old school, in a place I belonged, with people like me.
But she wanted this, and lately, I felt like my sense of belonging in this world was so intimately wrapped up in her, and what she wanted. Sophie, the girl who changed how I felt about life when I was just about ready to give up on it.

‘Well?’ Jenn asks, taking my arm. We cross the road and are just about to walk into the garden when she turns. And then she’s the one who looks nervous.

‘You came,’ she says, quietly.

I nod. ‘I had to.’

She looks from me to Jenn, then smiles, extending her hand.

‘I’m Sophie,’ she says, smiling.

Jenn nods in recognition, giving a half-smile. Protective, as always.

‘I’ve heard a lot about you,’ she says finally. ‘Too much, even.’

Sophie blushes again then turns back to Jacob.

‘Wait,’ I say, grabbing her arm. She looks at me quizzically. ‘Don’t go. Not yet.’

‘Shehadie, I’m not standing around outside tonight. I waited 13 years to be done with school and I want to celebrate it right. On the dance floor. I want to be able to smile at people when I think about how I will never see them again.’

I laugh and shake my head.

‘So dramatic,’ I say.

She smiles. ‘Might as well own it.’

I shake my head, then gesture to the garden.

‘Is it what you imagined?’ I ask, trying to make conversation. There’s still too many people around for my liking.

She scoffs. ‘You know that my imagination tends to get the better of me,’ she says, looking at me with a bemused smile. ‘Living in books and all that.’

I shrug. ‘Some might say that’s an endearing quality,’ I point out. ‘Happy endings aren’t so bad.’

She looks at me intently. ‘Yeah but they’re so unrealistic,’ she counters. ‘So no point dwelling on them.’

Things go quiet and I am aware of the crowd starting to make their way inside.

‘So how do you think you went?’ she asks. ‘In the HSC I mean.’

‘You’re asking me about exams now?’ I ask. ‘Really?’

She shrugs. ‘What, you prefer I ask about your trip?’

‘When did you get so cocky?’ I ask. ‘What happened to the girl with the journal who thought things instead of said them?’

She smiles, catching me off guard. ‘Someone helped her see the light,’ she says, looking around.

I bite my lip and look at her intently.

‘Can I tell you something?’ I ask.

She shrugs. ‘It’s a free country.’

‘You’re beautiful.’

‘I bet you say that to all the girls.’

‘You’re beautiful.’

‘I bet you say that to all the girls.’

I chuckle and she looks away. I follow her eyes, Jenn is standing by the door, staring.

‘Speaking of all the girls, I don’t want to keep you,’ Sophie says, clearing her throat. ‘Or her.’

She steps away and I am in front of her a second later, blocking her path. I turn and motion to Jenn, standing next to Jacob, who takes her cue.

I look back to Sophie who looks perplexed.

‘Um, Shehadie?’ she asks. ‘My formal is in there and I’ve kind of been looking forward to it.’

‘I know,’ I say, giving her my arm. ‘Shall we?’ I ask.

She looks at me again, puzzled.

She gestures at the corsage. ‘Shouldn’t you wait for your date?’

‘I’m looking at her,’ I say earnestly.

Her face reddens again and she looks around, scanning the path for Jacob.

‘He’s upstairs,’ I tell her. ‘With Jenn. His new date.’

She looks at me again, pained. She thinks I’m messing with her.

‘Wait – what? What are you doing?’

I take her hand and lead her to a little garden seat by the fairy-light-laden arch way, and pull the corsage out of the box. ‘Something I should have done a while ago,’ I admit, grabbing her hand again.

‘Sophie,’ I ask, taking a deep breath. ‘Will you go to the formal with me?’

She looks at me for a moment then breaks into laughter.

‘What, in this old thing?’ she asks, motioning at her outfit. ‘How lucky am I that I just happened to be dressed like this?’

‘Answer my question, Soph.’

She leans up and adjusts my tie. ‘Crooked suits you better,’ she says, smiling at me.

I take it as a yes.

***

Inside, it looks like five different types of decorative themes have thrown up on the dance floor. It’s a mess, but no one notices, because if the Lebs can do anything right, it’s a party. Even Jenn – who resisted this part of my plan for so much – looks like she’s having a good time. I make a mental note to thank Jacob for giving up one hot date for another one.

We dance alone and in groups and alone again, and remarkably, Sophie doesn’t complain about her shoes once. But back at the table, she doesn’t stop talking. She talks about how her steak is overcooked and how the lady that did her make-up went too over the top and how she’s obsessed with Sue’s hair now that it’s short.

Jenn catches my eye and I sense judgement in the look that she gives me. I shrug. She’ll get it someday. Maybe not now, but she will.

Sophie goes quiet for a moment so I instinctively reach under the table and grab her hand. It’s a little sweaty, which says my instinct was right.

‘Don’t be nervous,’ I whisper, leaning in to her shoulder. ‘We’re all your friends.’

‘I can’t help it,’ she whispers back. ‘She intimidates me. And I ruined her night…the big plan…what your mum wanted.’

‘My mum would have wanted me to be happy,’ I say, brushing the fringe from her face. ‘I don’t have to live in the past to honour her memory.’

‘She likes you,’ she whispers. ‘She thinks I am not good enough.’

I turn my chair and then turn her to me, grabbing her shoulders.

‘What do you think?’ I ask, pressing her. ‘Forget everyone else in this room and tell me that you’re not good enough.’

She looks down into her lap then looks up at me and smiles.

‘I’m the best thing to happen to you,’ she says, smirking.

I smile, wondering how I took all the wrong steps but found myself in the right place. Next to her.

***

I head outside with the boys while she stays at the table. I naively assume that Jenn will warm up and talk to her while I am gone, but when I come back, I can tell she hasn’t moved. She’s been my best friend for ages, but she has the thickness of a brick wall.

‘I might go home,’ she says, standing up and grabbing her keys. Sophie looks up from the apple crumble and cream she’s been quietly demolishing and looks at me.

‘I’ll walk you out,’ I say, rising from my seat again. No point arguing with her now. I’ll hear it all tomorrow. I give Sophie an apologetic look and she shrugs – right now, I could be Prince Charming and still not any more appealing than her plate.

When I return, the 80s funk has started and I am desperate to get back on to the dance floor.

I slip into the chair next to her.
‘Dance?’ I ask.
She gives me a funny look.

‘Shehadie,’ she says sternly. ‘There are desserts present.’

I laugh and shake my head, looking around. ‘Wait, did you eat mine?’ I ask.

She bites her lip and has the decency to look embarrassed. ‘Sorry,’ she says, apologetic.

I shake my head.

‘Told you not to trust her,’ Sue calls from across the table. The two girls make a face at each other and I run my fingers through my hair.

‘I’ll make a mental note,’ I say. Sophie looks at me again, eyes sparkling.

‘So Soph, can we dance now?’

She gives me her arm just as Jermaine Stewart’s We don’t have to take our clothes off comes on.

‘Hey,’ I say, twirling her around. ‘This should be our song.’

She laughs and shakes her head.

‘Stop for a second,’ she says, grabbing my arms. ‘Let me say this while I am in a good mood. Thanks for what you did for me today.’

‘I know how much it meant to you,’ I tell her.

‘I mean it,’ she says, looking up at me. ‘I hate the way it happened, but…’

‘Shh,’ I say, cutting her off. ‘You’ve spent the last few years hating. Don’t you think it’s time to start learning how to love?’

‘You’ve spent the last few years hating. Don’t you think it’s time to start learning how to love?’

She laughs.
‘What, and you’re going to teach me?’ she taunts, mocking me.

‘No,’ I say, lifting her up into the air. ‘I’m going to show you.’

* The end *