Chapter 2 – Aftermath

“Ashley…”

I shrink under Shirley’s disbelieving expression.

“You just left her with your rental car in a prison parking lot to go get drunk…? Seriously…?”

She really doesn’t believe it? I mean, it’s my modus operandi. But then she shakes her head and I know that this isn’t the case, and that’s exactly why she’s so disappointed in me.

It does seem a little unfair now that I think about it, if I were a reasonable person. But I wasn’t reasonable at that moment. I was falling the fuck apart. And I sure as fuck didn’t ask Spencer to be there.

“It was a bad day,” I say.

“Then why not let Spencer help you instead of getting loaded and getting on a plane?”

“Well…,” I search my brain for anything that might excuse my behavior, knowing that there really isn’t an excuse.

She’s right.

I panicked and hurt Spencer and just left her there to deal with my fallout. And walking away knowing that I’d done that to her only made me angrier, so I wound up grabbing a taxi, going back to the hotel, stuffing my bag, downing that bottle of patron, and heading straight for the airport.

I don’t remember much after boarding…

Shirley’s smug because she knows that I have no response, so I pull one out of my ass.

“At least I had the wherewithal to come here. That should make you happy.”

“You also puked on the carpet last night.”

I cringe. I can still smell it and it’s only worse when she points it out. It makes my stomach roil and I’m forced to swallow thickly.

“God, don’t remind me.”

“You also woke up at some point during the night and wrecked our kitchen making mac n’ cheese.”

My stomach flips and my mouth waters in gross anticipation.

“Please stop…”

“I’m glad you feel sick. It serves you right.”

Shirley’s voice is semi-teasing and I know that she’s not really mad or malicious, but I do feel bad about wrecking the kitchen and then regurgitating patron soaked mac n’ cheese on the carpet.

I close my eyes and rub at my tender temples looking for a relief that I’m not so sure exists. My head feels like there’s castanet dancer squawking and twirling around up there in her Tuti Fruiti hat, and my mouth feels like it’s stuffed with cotton that’s been soaked in rubbing alcohol and sour cream.

Ultimately, I feel like utter shit, both inside and out, and I know that I was a superb bitch to Spencer yesterday, but…

But nothing, really.

I’m not even sure what happened with her. I was just so out of my comfort zone.

And my emotions…

I don’t really have words for it all. I only know that haven’t hurt that badly since the day that CPS carted Kyla off and I had no idea if I’d ever see her again.

God, Spencer…

I glance down at my phone. It’s almost dead and I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but I doubt that it will magically glow back at me from a touchscreen. And yet I keep looking every few seconds. It’s kind of like visiting the fridge at night over and over again but always walking away empty-handed.

And the screen is sticky. I really don’t want to know why…

“Still clutching that thing for dear life, I see,” Sam says as she sits on the couch with Shirley and hands her a mug of coffee.

Normally, I’d kill for a cup, but not today. Even the smell is nauseating.

“What,” I ask.

“When you got here last night, I kept trying to get you to just lie down and sleep it off, but you were texting someone and nearly gave me a black eye when I tried to take it from you,” Sam clarifies.

“Who?”

She shrugs and takes a sip of her coffee.

I frown at the screen. I don’t have a voicemail, email, or text notification. I definitely don’t remember talking to anyone.

Maybe Kyla?

I click the messages icon.

“I didn’t ask.” Sam continues. “I managed to get some water in you, and then went back to bed. And not only did I step in your mess this morning, I was late to work because I had to clean it up.”

I look up and give her my most pathetic expression. “I’m so sorry, Sam.”

She smirks over the rim of her mug.

“I don’t think that color or smell is ever coming out,” Shirley adds tossing her arm over Sam’s shoulders.

I slouch further into the sofa. “I’ll pay to have the whole place re-carpeted.”

Shirley sighs, finally taking pity on me. “Oh, come on. You know we feel compelled to give you a hard time.”

I nod. Everyone has their hobbies, I suppose.

“And you know that we only care about you. What you did was cruel and reckless, Ash.”

I nod again. I agree, really I do, but I know I’ll do it again. I always do. I suppose it’s one of my hobbies.

I notice that the screen’s about to go dark and click open the first name on the messages list to keep the phone awake. I don’t recognize a single bubble of this ever lengthening conversation.

And of course, it was a conversation with Spencer.

Just fuck…

I sit up sharply, every inch of my body protesting the movement but I don’t care as I continue to scroll up to the last normal message that I remember.

Aftermath 1

I run a hand over my face and feel my stomach grow even more sour. God, not only did I treat her like shit, but I scared her. Given the timestamps, these started right after I left her in the parking lot. I remember it buzzing but I ignored it.

Aftermath 2

I have no idea when I started answering, but it must have been right after I boarded the plane because I’m noticeably soused in my response.

For fuck’s sake, her name’s at the top of the screen…

Aftermath 3

Aftermath 4

Seawitch? Seriously? I mean, I use that word a lot now that Spencer’s back in my life, but never with Spencer herself. Did my phone really have to give me away?

I sigh. I guess I can’t be too indignant. I don’t even know what I was trying to say so I can’t expect the phone to.

At least I’m so incoherent that Spencer won’t get the reference.

Aftermath 5

Aftermath 6

Damn you auto correct…

Aftermath 7

Damn my tequila soaked brain…

Aftermath 8

Oh, God…

Aftermath 9

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck…

Aftermath 10

Aftermath 12

I frown at the next timestamp. Did I black out? I wrack my brain and try to remember something, but it’s all a blur of shapes and shadows.

Aftermath 13

 

Aftermath 14

Aftermath 15

Aftermath 16

Aftermath 17

Aftermath 18

Aftermath 19

I’m actually not so sure about that. I mean, this is a disaster, but it almost feels good to know that I was honest for once, even if it was in the worst of ways.

Aftermath 20

Just fuck my fucking life up its fucked, fucking ass…

Aftermath 21
And I don’t want to read on. That is probably the most honest thing that I’ve said in years. Part of me needs to hear her say it, to make it real so that I can accept it. But the other part of me knows that I’m not going to like the answer, and no amount of knowing will lessen the sting or make it okay.

This is so bad. I’ve laid it all out there, finally, and there’s no way that I have a chance with her now. How am I going to fix this? I pinch the bridge of my nose and determine that I need to read to the end, as painful as it may be, and see how we left things before I can even attempt a salvage mission.

Aftermath 22

Aftermath 23

And at this point, I might tear the hair from my very temples because: 1 – Spencer admitted that she still has feelings for me that will never go anywhere, and 2 – any doubt that she misunderstood my use of Seawitch earlier just flew the fuck out of the window.

I’m never drinking again…

Never fucking again.

Though I may need one now.

Aftermath 24

That’s it. She hasn’t responded since. I feel a little dumbstruck. And it must show on my face because Shirley and Sam are looking at me as if they expect me to sprout a third head.

I mean second head…

Fuck, just one head doesn’t seem to work right. I couldn’t imagine having more than one, especially with the double time tempo Tuti Fruiti’s adopted up there.

The fruit wearing cunt…

“Ash, who was it,” Shirley asks.

I scroll back to the top of this catastrophic conversation and toss the phone to her before putting my pounding head between my knees. I really just want to curl up and die right now…

It’s moments or years later when I finally look back up at them to see them both in states of uncomfortable merriment. Shirley’s looking away with a smirk on her face and Sam’s got a hand to her mouth to hold it in.

A surge of righteous anger sparks through me.

“You think this is funny?”

They look at each other for support but it’s nearly their undoing. It’s Shirley who’s able to speak.

“No, no, not funny, persay. Just…”

And here she has no words that aren’t lies so Sam steps in after clearing her throat.

“What my lovely wife is trying to say is that it’s not funny, it’s hilarious.”

I gape at them as they finally start to laugh.

“It’s so doomed, isn’t it,” Shirley asks Sam.

Sam nods enthusiastically.

“It’s cute though, don’t you think,” she asks.

Shirley pulls her wallet from her back pocket and starts to riffle through the bills inside.

“My money’s on six months.”

She gives me a shrewd glance.

“Actually, make that eight. She’s the most stubborn person I’ve ever met.”

“One year, even,” Sam says as she takes the twenty that Shirley offered her before pulling another bill from the same wallet to cover her half of what appears to be some sort of bet.

Shirley looks at her nonplussed and she shrugs her shoulders.

“We have joint checking,” Sam reasons.

Shirley glares at her for a second before taking the money back.

“Okay, then let’s raise the stakes.”

Sam smiles almost erotically. “My, my, aren’t you confident?”

Shirley puffs out her chest a bit and Sam leans in to nuzzle her cheek.

“It’s sexy,” Sam murmurs.

Shirley blushes and clears her throat as Sam starts to toy with the buttons of her blue oxford collar.

“Laundry,” she nearly squeaks.

Sam shakes her head.

All the housework,” she purrs back.

Shirley scoffs nervously at her. “You’re on.”

“For a month,” Sam adds, undoing the top button.

Shirley stares at her for a moment before a grin so roguish it nearly gleams overtakes her face.

“Done.”

They kiss each other and I have to look away because, well, gross. I mean, I’m not fazed by it. I’ve seen them be affectionate more times than I can count. They’ve never been shy. But they’re like parents.

Besides, I’m having a crisis and their response was what, some sort of elaborate mating dance or high stakes poker? And if so, how did it involve me?

More importantly, why did it involve me?

After several disgusting moments of forced blindness and no way to make the sounds stop, I glance back but they’re still kissing so I try to get their attention.

“Ahem…”

Nothing.

“Come on, you guys…”

Nothing. Well, Shirley moans a little and Sam giggles.

Ugh…

“HEY!”

That did it, although reluctantly. They pull apart with a loud smack and cuddle up together to sip their coffees and smile at me.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” I gesture at the wallet. “What just happened?”

Sam’s eyes twinkle and Shirley’s grin is shit eating.

“Eight months,” Shirley says.

“Twelve months,” Sam corrects.

And in unison, “You and Spencer will get back together.”

And now it’s my turn to laugh, although it doesn’t last long. It quickly becomes a wince of pain, but it’s worth it. It’s rare that I get to make fun of these two. And this is the dumbest thing that I’ve ever heard escape their mouths.

And that’s saying something.

“You have no idea how wrong you both are.”

They’re still smug as they just silently watch me like two overly patient parents with a misbehaving child.

“I’m serious.”

“So are we,” Sam says.

They’re supremely confident, so I decide to entertain them.

“Okay, Spencer said that she still has feelings for me.”

They nod.

“She also said that she’s in love with the Seawitch.”

Shirley chuckles. “So that’s what that meant…”

Sam shoots Shirley an expression that chokes her.

“Stay on topic, please,” Sam says a little too nicely.

Shirley straightens up, all business apparently.

“We’ve both moved on,” I say with finality.

And do I ever feel that finality. It’s like a spear through my ribs.

“Ash, in all of the time I’ve known you, you’ve never even dated,” Shirley says.

I squint my eyes at her. “I was dying. Forgive me for not feeling all that sexy.”

“That was only the first couple of years. What excuse do you have for the last two,” Sam asks.

I blow out a breath and even I can smell how putrid it is. In fact, I’m certain that it came out green. God, I need a shower, a toothbrush, a bed, and maybe a teddy bear or a binky.

I rub at my temples. “That has nothing to do with Spencer. I just haven’t… found… anyone… interesting.”

And I don’t even know what I’m saying. Interest doesn’t take much when you’re horny as fuck. Women are attracted to me, and it’s nearly killed me to walk away from some of those exceedingly hot and easy offers.

Hell, I got very close once to giving in, but couldn’t follow through, no matter how much I wanted to.

Oh God, how I wanted to…

“Girls throw themselves at you all the time, Ash,” Sam mocks, knowing everything I just thought as if I’d said it out loud.

“No they don’t,” I defend weakly.

We all know that’s a lie. Kate, Shirley, and Sam are the only ones who know that I haven’t been able to seal the deal since Spencer. Jac and Jon think that I’m some modern day lesbian lothario. They act as if I wear a rainbow cape.

The look Shirley gives me over the glasses perched on her nose makes me feel like I’m made of two-way glass.

“You know that we’ve been to a couple of your shows, right?”

Yeah.”

“I once saw two girls…” Shirley holds up two fingers. “Count them, two gorgeous, young blondes…”

Sam elbows her in the ribs and she immediately tucks her tail like a scolded puppy.

“Anyway, two blondes asked you to sign their bare breasts, Ashley.”

I shrug. “Yeah, so?”

She rolls her eyes and slumps back on the sofa as if affronted by my sheer stupidity.

“They invited you to their hotel room,” she continues in a bored tone.

I shrug again. “I didn’t want to.”

That’s another lie. I really, really, really wanted to.

She shakes her head and laughs. “That’s a load of malarkey and you know it. You made out with both of them, did body shots with them, and just when they wanted to get serious, you petered out. I know for a fact that you wanted to.”

Okay, now I feel a little offended.

“So I’ve had opportunity and I’ve turned it down. Do I have to sleep with every skank that’s willing?”

“Of course not,” she says in exasperation. “Ash, you aren’t asking the important question here.”

I look to Sam, silently pleading for her to just get to the fucking point since Shirley’s too frustrated.

“The question is why,” she says with a kind smile.

Oh, well that’s easy: it just felt wrong. It felt like a betrayal, not just of Spencer, but my feelings for her. Besides, even if I could get past those feelings, the most that I could have would be casual encounters.

No way would I let someone fall in love with me.

That’d be too cruel.

So I just gave up on love and sex altogether, choosing instead to fap myself nearly blind.

Don’t judge.

Ugh…

Why are we talking about this, especially with all that’s already happened, and when I feel like I just went twenty rounds with Ronda Rousey?

Oh, right, they think that we’re going to get back together. And they think it’s funny that Spencer and I don’t see that. And maybe the situation is funny, but not because we’re clueless. It’s the very notion of a reconciliation that’s a joke.

I’m the joke, because even if it were possible, I couldn’t do that to her. I have a year. She deserves a long, full life.

They’re still watching me, waiting for that answer that I don’t want to give. But it’s futile. They know. For some fucking reason I’m an open book to those who can see past my bravado.

“Ash,” Sam says gently. “If you love her, and she loves you, nothing, not even death, can stop it.”

What can I even possibly say to refute that?

I can think of only one thing: “She’s in love with someone else.”

Shirley shakes her head and Sam leans forward to put a hand on my knee.

“You can love more than one person in a lifetime. But the honest truth is that the lightening kind of love only strikes once.”

She squeezes my knee and leans back into Shirley, and I see it, that lightening kind of love. I know that it’s real because it’s right in front of my face. It’s in a gentle but complicated gaze shared between two people who aren’t two people at all. They’re just pieces of a greater whole.

“We don’t doubt that she loves the Seawitch,” Shirley continues and Sam gives her a warning glare. “We just know that what you two have is stronger. Unfortunately for Sea- men, uh, Carmen, it’s only a matter of time.”

They have no idea how much I want to believe them, but I can’t. They just don’t know what I know.

“How can you know that’s true for us? You’ve never even met Spencer.”

Sam links her fingers with Shirley’s.

“Well, first, you’ve been celibate for four years, despite the fact that women are all over you like kittens to cream,” Shirley says.

“Celibacy is for the devout, sweetie, and somehow I doubt you’re religious,” Sam adds.

“And, you made her admit her feelings,” Shirley continues.

“And just like you, she ran,” Sam says.

“You scared her,” Shirley adds with a knowing nod.

“And I don’t think that it’s because you’re just all that intimidating,” Sam mocks gently.

God, these two… they’re like my fairy gay godmothers, from hell. First they convince me to live and now they’re trying to convince me that there’s hope. I want to believe it, so much that my eyes are starting to water.

Fuck me…

“I can’t do that to Spencer,” I murmur, tasting tequilla soaked defeat on my tongue.

“You can’t what, love her,” Shirley asks.

I roll my eyes at her and she chortles.

“Honey,” Sam says. “If she chooses to deny the truth, she’ll regret it for the rest of her life. Being truly happy with you, even if it’s only for a short time, she’ll never regret that.”

“It’s kind of like being gay,” Shirley adds with a shrug. “Eventually, you just can’t deny it any longer.”

“Ash, what have you got to lose if you at least try?”

She’s got me there. Whether they’re right or wrong, there’s nothing to lose at this point except Spencer’s friendship. But then, that’s just not working anyway.

“I keep running.”

They both nod.

“So how do I fix that?” I point to the phone. “How do I fix any of this?”

“Well, first,” Shirley says, disentangling herself from Sam to get to her feet. “You smell like Runyon Canyon after a light rain.”

She grabs my hands and yanks me to my feet, and I can’t help but groan. With an over-zealous shove, I nearly trip over the chair as I stumble towards the hallway.

“Go get a shower. You know where a fresh toothbrush is, and then get some sleep. You’ve got eight months to straighten your act up.”

“Twelve,” Sam corrects.

I give them both my most hateful expression to which they just chuckle. I start my walk of shame to do as I’m told, but Shirley’s voice stops me.

“Ash?”

I turn back to her and she walks up to me, putting her hands on my shoulders.

“You need to decide if Spencer’s worth it.”

And with a pat, she goes back to her wife on the couch and leaves me with no idea what I even believe anymore. Everything’s just up in the air. My very heart’s up in the air, and I know that it’s going to come crash landing to the ground.

But no matter how far I might manage to get away from it, it’s still going to hurt. I have to find a way to stop running, because for all that I don’t know, I’m absolutely certain of one thing: Spencer’s worth anything.


I’m not sure why I chose this coffeehouse again. Spencer isn’t working anymore, so there’s no reason to be on this side of town with all of the pretentious movie snobs. I guess it just seemed familiar.

I still can’t believe that Universal threatened to fire her when she requested time off, dying friend or not. But then, I guess I really can believe it. This town is full of assholes on a timetable and life is cheap in the face of convenience.

Why Spencer wants to be in this industry is beyond me. She’s too good for them. But, it’s what she wants. So what did she do? She put in her notice and finished her two weeks, giving up what she wants for me.

That’s how much she loves me.

And I don’t deserve it.

I keep hurting her, but I just can’t stay away from her. She’s like the air or the sunshine. And then I catch myself thinking things like that and feel like an even bigger idiot. I’m beginning to believe that love is irrational. It’s like the minute that it happens, all sense of reason is flushed, and what’s worse is that your heart toggles the handle happily.

Whoosh – and life becomes one giant shit storm.

I take a sip of my coffee and try to calm myself, though I know that it’s impossible. I have no idea how to face her. It’s been a few days since I left her standing in the carnage of my great escape, and getting ahold of her proved to be challenging.

She only answered back today. Now I just need to figure out what to say to her. Shirley and Sam were useless on this front. They want me to lay it all on the line, but I can’t do that. She’s not available.

It would be wrong.

It would be disrespectful.

So I’m left with groveling.

Do I apologize for being honest?

Do I apologize for forcing her to be honest?

Am I even sorry for that conversation?

I know that those texts were sophomoric, but alcohol knows no pride. What it does know is how to drop the barriers in a piss poor manner. It’s a little ironic how I tried to bury all of my feelings in Patron when true to its nature all it did was raise my freak flag to full mast.

And there she is, wafting through the door like some hauntingly beautiful apparition that makes my heart flutter. Her eyes find mine almost unerringly and there’s this moment where I can tell that she’s debating the merits of this meeting as much as I am.

And as she gets closer, as her eyes get bluer, the edges puffier, her hair sloppily pulled back, I realize that she sees me, really sees me, and it makes me uncomfortable. It’s not because I want to hide from her. I’m irrationally in love, not stupid. I’m fully aware that there’s no hiding it from her anymore.

No, I’m uncomfortable because something’s off, something’s different, and something inside of me knows that I’m not going to like it.

She sits quietly and it’s awkward. And for once I’m thankful for the interruption of a the waitress because it gives me just a few more seconds to decide whether or not to play that entire conversation off as drunken idiocy or refuse to deny the truth of it.

She orders a plain, black coffee and I feel a little perplexed. She hates plain coffee. The waitress leaves, plunging us back into that fragile stillness that neither of us seems willing to break as if by some unspoken agreement.

Her hands rest daintily on the tiny café table and she’s so close that I can almost feel her warmth, yet everything about her feels so far away.

Even when Carmen’s around, she’s never this far away.

Her fingers start to fidget and I find myself staring at them, trying to figure out what it is that has me so unsettled. But all I can think about is how I’ve always liked her hands. They’re feminine but they’re still strong. They were always such a comfort. And I remember how perfectly my smaller one fit into them.

I remember because I don’t have a choice, especially not now when I know that she remembers it too.

The waitress delivers the coffee and Spencer takes a short sip, making an adorable face at the bitter taste.

“Carmen saw the texts,” she blurts quietly.

The very air shatters with her raspy voice, and I close my eyes to swallow hard. This changes everything. For one, I know that I’m going to lose her. There’s no way that Carmen will let us be friends now. And second, maybe she didn’t run away scared from that conversation like Shirley and Sam said. Maybe she just got caught.

What do I say, sorry? I say it so much that it seems cliche.

“I’d say I’m sorry, Spence, but I always am and it never seems to help.”

She doesn’t say anything, choosing instead to stare into the murky water in her mug.

“But mostly, it would be a lie.”

Well, I guess the decision is made. I’m not going to deny it, even though it means losing her. Because, let’s be honest, I’ve already lost her.

She looks up at me and for once I don’t care if I drown.

So be it.

“I’m sorry for leaving you like I did the other day, and I’m sorry that I had to get drunk to say what I couldn’t face sober, but I’m not sorry that I said it. It was honest. And that’s why I couldn’t stay there, with you.”

She takes a sip of her coffee and the stillness around us tightens in. I suppose that it’s only fair for me to be the one to break it this time.

“Are you sorry for what was said?”

She leans back in her chair and plays with a sugar packet on the table. And I feel something solidify in my stomach as several minutes pass without an answer. Or maybe her refusal to speak is the answer.

“It’s okay, Spence.”

She drops the sugar a little too roughly.

“Carmen forbade me to see you.”

I stare at the table and nod.

“And I can’t blame her.”

I nod again, only this time my throat feels tight. It’s coming – that riptide that will pull me completely under and leave me with no sense of which way is up. But at least this will be an honest break, a clean one, if there is such a thing.

“I decided to just stay away from you, but after a couple of days, I realized that I can’t be with her.”

I look up at her, concerned that I’m hearing things. But her gaze is steady.

“I also decided that I can’t be with you either. I need to take some time and figure myself out before I can be any good to anyone. And even if that weren’t the case, Ash, it still couldn’t be you.”

I can’t help but agree that I’m a fucking wreck, even as I feel like the very sky is falling in on me. But why couldn’t it be with me if she loves me?

“But you said that you-”

“You run when things get hard, and I can’t be with someone like that anymore than I can be with someone who controls things like her.”

I blink a few times and stare at my cup, trying to process what I don’t want to hear.

“I also can’t do this push me, pull me thing with you anymore. You ask me to come with you, to suspend my life for a full year just for you, and when I do, you start pushing me away.”

I don’t look at her because I can’t face the fact that I’ve made her cry yet again.

“I’ve decided that this year isn’t just about you. It’s about me too.”

She stops to swipe at her face.

“The truth is that I love Carmen, but it’s never been enough. I never got over you, even when I’d convinced myself that I had. It hasn’t been fair for either of us, least of all her. And I just can’t grieve over you anymore. I just have to figure out how to stop, to let you go…”

Wait, let me go…?

“I thought-“

“I guess I should at least thank you for forcing me to come to terms with everything that was staring me in the face.”

I really want to leave right now, leave and go somewhere safe to try and hold my very guts inside because she’s just eviscerated me so thoroughly. But for some reason my feet feel nailed to the floor, my arms roped to the table.

Maybe I know that if I run, I prove her right. Or maybe I know that she deserves to finish what I started and I love her enough to endure it for her, even if it’s only once. Either way, I just want it to go faster, because she’s twisting this knife far too slowly.

But then I want time to pause, to slow down, because I know for sure that once we say goodbye, I won’t see her ever again.

“I-I understand.”

Or at least I want to understand.

“Do you?”

I frown at her and she shakes her head a little angrily.

“I don’t think you understand at all, and that’s the worst part of all of this. You just don’t see what’s right in front of you.”

What’s right in front of me? Her, I see her. I’ve made that clear, right?

I guess not.

Fight or flight…?

“Spence, if this is about you coming with me this year…”

She laughs humorlessly. “See what I mean? You just don’t get it.”

“Get what? I didn’t ask you to break up with Carmen. Is that what you’re talking about? I’m sorry that our conversation upset her-”

She runs her hands through her hair stopping to grip it at the temples.

“This has nothing to do with Carmen.”

“Okay…”

“Look I know you don’t understand. I know it. It just pisses me off, to be honest.”

“Why don’t you just tell me?”

She laughs through her tears.

“If I could just tell you it would make things so much easier. But you’ve already been told. You already know, you just haven’t figured it out yet. And I can’t help you with this, Ash. I wish I could, but I can’t.”

And now I’m frustrated.

“How can I fix something when I don’t even know what’s broken?”

“Just look around you, Ash. Everything’s broken. You can literally take your pick.”

I really want to run right now, but I’ve shifted from being nailed down to gripping the table as if it will keep her here with me.

“I-I’m sorry. I don’t know what you want me to do.”

She shakes her head and stands, and the room loses all oxygen, as if a black hole has opened up behind me.

She’s leaving…?

“I don’t want you to do anything.”

She riffles through her purse for some change and tosses it on the table with a hollow noise that reverberates in my chest.

“Spencer…?”

“You asked me to let you go, Ash. So, I’m going to give you what you want.”

She turns and she weaves her way to the door, and I feel frozen. I did ask her to let me go. I just hadn’t considered that by doing so, I’d have to let her go too.

I-I can’t do that.

I asked for this, and she’s giving it to me.

But I don’t want it anymore.

I’m shaking as I shoot up from the table and toss some bills. My limbs feel stiff but I race out the door and nearly plow down some yuppie idiot yelling into his Bluetooth. Movement catches in the corner of my eye as he berates me, and I just barely catch a glimpse of Spencer rounding the corner to my right.

“Spencer!”

My lungs can’t find the air, so my shout goes unnoticed.

Or maybe she’s ignoring me.

“Spencer, wait!”

I sprint around the corner and see her opening her car door.

“Spence, please wait!”

She throws her purse into the passenger seat and I grab her arm to stop and turn her. And for once, I can see just what she meant when she said that it’s all so broken. It’s in everything: the corner of where her lips meet, the tangle of fissures in the ocean of her eyes, the hollow feeling in my chest that’s leftover from the first time that I lost her.

I want to erase it all, smooth it out and make it whole. And something in me knows that she’s just given me the keys to that kingdom, the push that I need to finally choose a door and walk through it.

Maybe she’s challenging me.

Am I ready to meet that challenge?

What will it take?

What do I even have left to give?

There has to be a reason for all of this, right? It can’t all have meant nothing. It can’t all be beyond reproach.

I tug her to me and my hands find the warmth of her neck and the small of her back, my thumb finds the soft skin of a cheek and the gentle slope of an ear. And her mouth, God, it’s just like I remember it: sweet, warm, and velvety soft.

She tastes like peppermint and passion, and promises and secrets. And for a moment, I’m fumbling through this heady haze that she’s weaved around us with a gasp that pulls me into her deeper.

And she kisses me back, fervently, feverishly, and I remember only the good. I remember the sweetest of touches, the most delicate of scents, the most intricate of tastes – the most tender, the most simple yet profound of joys.

I remember what it was like to love her and to be loved by her, to stay in one place and let it all in.

But then she’s pulling away, and she’s gazing at me with watery eyes, and I remember what it is to run and keep it all out.

“It’s not enough,” she says and her voice breaks.

I want to shout that she’s wrong, that love is everything, but if I truly believed that none of this would be happening. She’s hurrying to get into the car, but mostly she’s just running away from me.

And it terrifies me, because this isn’t her. This is her pain, her heartache, finally reaching that point where it’s pushing her into the same sad state that I’ve trapped myself in. And maybe this is why she’s rejecting me: she doesn’t want to end up like me.

But she’s not like me. She doesn’t give up. She bends; she doesn’t break. God, please, don’t let me have broken her completely.

Somehow, despite what I now know, I feel lighter, freer, even as I realize that I’ve ruined her trust, that I’ve pushed her away. I’ve pushed too much, too far, and now it’s all falling over an edge.

It’s like everything’s changing so damn fast that I can’t even remotely keep up with it.

And it’s all me.

How can I not keep up with myself, understand myself?

If I can’t, no one can…

But I have to try, even when I’m not sure what I’m trying for. And I’m only just able to grab the door before she shuts herself into the car that’s she started.

“I get it, Spence.”

“No you don’t.”

“Yes, I do.”

“You think a kiss fixes anything?”

“No, not at all, but it gives me something to run towards instead of always running away.”

She shakes her head and I can’t tell what she’s thinking because I can’t see her face. She’s hiding, but I do finally get it. I got it the minute that she left the table. This is what I’ve been doing to her. This is how it feels to put everything that’s sacred out there on the ocean only to be left wanting on the shore.

She needs me to break open, to swell and burst. She needs me to let her in. She needs me to show her my insides.

“Come with me this year, Spence.”

She shakes her head harder.

“I can’t, Ash.”

“All that I have, all that I am, is yours, Spence.”

God, that broken voice is so unlike her, but then, the girl that I used to know is deeply buried by the person that I became.

She needs this year too, to get her fire back.

“I wish that were true.”

“Let me try, Spence. I’d give anything to fix this.”

She’s still crying, but she seems to have calmed some. Several minutes pass before she finally speaks again.

“I need to move forward, Ash.”

And then she’s looking at me, stabbing me, penetrating everything soft inside of me to leave me bleeding with her words.

“What if I need to do that without you?”

The knife in my gut digs a little deeper, and my voice gets a little rougher, but I mean it when I say, “The only thing I’ve ever wanted in this world is for you to be happy, Spencer.”

And there, I see something alight inside of her, and I know that if she believes nothing else that comes out of my mouth, she believes this one thing because she knows that I love her. She can’t deny it any more than I can.

“I wanted to come with you, Ash…”

“Then come.”

“But it’s your turn to let go of me.”

Those words, my words, they’re like a wall that appears out of nowhere while running. It hurts, it hurts more than I ever thought possible. I did this. Why did I do this?

“What does that mean, Spence?”

“It means that we both need to focus on ourselves. What I do right now has to be about me, and the same goes for you.”

“Okay.”

“It means that we have to be friends or nothing at all.”

Nothing?

No… no, no, no…

“I want to be your friend, Spencer. I’ve been trying. I just don’t know how to…”

She laughs wryly. “I get it. Believe me.”

Tears sting my own eyes, but I’m not going to let them fall. I would have if this had gone differently. I was finally ready, but now… now I don’t think that she wants to know what’s in there anymore.

“I can’t not love you, Spencer.”

She swipes at her eyes and sniffles.

“Just… boundaries, Ash. I get that you feel how you feel. No one can help that. But you can’t act on those feelings, not with me.”

I understand that she wants to put herself together after all that I’ve done to fuck up her life, but I have a feeling that if her answer had been different during that conversation, Carmen wouldn’t have given her the ultimatum.

None of this would be happening.

The fact is that she loves me too.

And maybe that’s enough.

“Okay…,” I say.

“You definitely can’t kiss me like that again, Ash. If I’m going to get through this, I need you to promise.”

She turns her head and looks up at me. “I need you to promise.”

I’d do anything for her, or at least I want to say that. But I can’t even stay put long enough to let her in. I’m not sure what to do about it, how to stop myself, how to control my impulses. And I’m definitely lost when it comes to rules. I’ve always lived under the belief that rules were made to be broken. In fact, knowing that I can’t do something makes me want to do it all the more.

But this is Spencer. I have to find a way to keep her and stop hurting her. And if these rules will help me accomplish that, then I’ll do everything that I can to walk within the lines.

“Okay, Spence. I promise you that I won’t kiss you again…”

The words leave my mouth and I know that it’s an empty promise. That will never work for me.

All I want to do is kiss her.

All of the time.

Someday I will kiss her again. Whether it’s the end of all of this mess or the beginning of something better, I don’t know, but it’s going to happen, because she’s her and I’m me and there’s no way to escape that.

“I promise that I won’t kiss you again, at least… not until you ask me to.”

For all that I do to fuck things up, I never make promises that I can’t keep. And she knows this. In fact, she’s relieved by it, so relieved that she closes her eyes.

“Thank you,” she murmurs.

And at this point, I feel like something in me just died. Maybe it’s hope, or just the hope of her. But oddly enough, I feel like I can finally breathe. Each intake hurts, but my broken lungs are at least working again.

Something in me starts to panic and as I scan her, looking for the cause, I realize that her car is packed to the gills.

“Spence, where are you going?”

She sits back in the seat and stares out of the window, her expression so emotionless and void that it serves to intensify my panic.

“I don’t know yet. I’ve been staying in a hotel.”

I swallow hard. “Not The Tarte again?”

“The Starlite.”

“Spence, I-“

“Don’t, Ash. You know I can’t.”

I crouch down and turn her face to look at me, hating myself for how dull her eyes are.

“I know that it would look bad, but you’re in this situation because of me.”

She shakes her head and I take one of her hands.

“Spence, you don’t even have a job because of me.”

“I made my own choices, Ashley.”

“Because you love me.”

She blows out a breath and I plead a case for reason.

“I’ll abide by any boundary you set, but don’t ask me to leave you with no money and nowhere to go.”

She’s quiet for a long time.

“And what about the dogs,” I ask.

Sobs overtake her and I’m not sure if this is a no-no, but I lean in and hold her, and she doesn’t fight me.

“I don’t know what to do about them. Carmen told me they have to be out of there by tomorrow. I can’t take them to the hotel…”

“Please let me help you, at least until you figure out what you want to do.”

It takes a few minutes and a few pathetic sighs, but I eventually feel her nod against my shoulder.

“But just for a night or two.”

I can’t help but smile at her.

“Look, you’re in no shape to drive. Why don’t I call Kyla and she can drive your car home while you and I go get your dogs?”

She leans back and pats my hand in a very platonic fashion, making it clear that she needs some distance. It’s with a heavy heart that I oblige.

“Thank you,” she says.

Reaching into the car, I pull the keys from the ignition and get to my feet to hold a hand out to her. She takes it and once she’s on her feet, I hug her again. She’s a little stiff, but I need to make another promise that I’ve never made to anyone before.

I turn my face into her neck and whisper, “I’m not going anywhere anymore. I promise.”

She starts to sob again, but relaxes into the embrace, allowing me to just hold onto her. I have to hold onto her if I’m going to keep this promise, but maybe just making it will be enough to keep me honest.

So much is happening, and for once I’m looking for an anchor, not a sail. I want her to be that anchor. I need her to be, even if she can only ever be my friend.

I’ll find a way to live with that.

I’ll find a way to stop hurting her.

I’ll find a way to slow down, to stay still in the storm.

I know that it will take time, but this weekend is a fresh start. I have no idea how this weekend will play out with all that’s happened this week, but maybe the snowy Canadian scenery will clear our heads and our hearts so that we can have an actual shot at figuring ourselves out.


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Continued in Chapter 3 – Is Canada a real country anyway?

Chapter 1 – Bury the Hatchet

This place is cold.

I wish that I could say that it’s the wintry mix still coating the streets or the murky sky with its pasty gray tones that seems to eat up all of the color in the world, but those aren’t it.

It’s cold because this building is monstrous and looming, its edges sharp and withered, its fences lined with razors, and everything about it makes me feel like there’s no cheer left in the world. It’s like at any moment the shadows will start to writhe and hell itself will come pouring forth.

Somewhere inside of there are murderers and thieves, pedophiles and rapists.

Somewhere in there are drug dealers.

Somewhere inside of there is a woman that I never wanted to see again, a woman who in one way or another belongs with those kinds of people, those kinds of demons, because that’s who she is on a fundamental level.

Somewhere inside of there is the woman who unfortunately gave birth to me.

I pull into one of the empty spaces and put the car in park, the windshield wipers squeaking against the glass in quick succession. I could have turned them off over a mile ago when the sleet stopped, but something about the repetition is almost soothing, almost as if I keep hoping that each pass over the surface will clear away some of the frigid tendrils curling up my spine in anticipation.

But they are powerless against the truth.

And the truth is that this place, this situation, isn’t supposed to be hopeful. This place and this situation aren’t supposed to be vibrant and inviting. No one is supposed to want to come here or deal with this. And I sure as fuck don’t.

I glance down at the stick shift and know that I could easily slide it into drive and just pull away. But I also know that if I do that, this year will mean nothing.

I chose to face her first because I want it over with. I want to be done with her once and for all. And I keep trying to convince myself that I don’t need to do this. That she’s been up in that attic for years, forgotten and untouched, but I know the truth.

I know because I can’t lie to myself.

This woman is where it all started. This woman who brought me into the world still holds power over my future, because she may yet take me out of it.

The truth is that she is the crux of everything that I’ve ever hated about my life.

She taught me to hate life.

She taught me to hate myself.

She taught me to steal.

She taught me to run away.

And mostly, she taught me what it’s like to fear death.

She taught me all of these things before I was ten years old, and all because they are all that she knew.

To ignore her is impossible while I draw breath. And to face her is to confront some demons that will never really be banished. Her mark on my life is deep, the wound festering, and if I don’t go through this, if I don’t cut it open and clean the infection out, I will lose any reason to live if such a thing is even an option for me.

I pull the crumpled list from my inside jacket pocket and look at the weary scrawl on its crinkled surface. A year of tick marks is what my future has been reduced to. What I hope to achieve or find at the end of this journey, I’m not even sure. I guess, I’m just desperate to hope at all.

And this is what my eighteen-year-old mind called burying the hatchet. I just hadn’t realized that I would be burying it in my own heart.

It’s going to hurt.

And I don’t want to hurt.

But then what I want doesn’t matter. I hurt anyway. I always do. I always have. I guess it’s more poignant to say that I don’t want others to see that hurt. I want to keep it hidden. My pain is for my eyes only. But I don’t have a choice but to do this in a public place.

Can I hold it together long enough to get it over with and get out of there?

I don’t know.

I turn the engine off and glance at the empty seat next to me and wish that Spencer were sitting there. Both she and Kyla had offered to be here with me, to help me take this first step – this most important step.

But I had said that I wanted to do this alone, that I had to face this myself. And they bought that pretty, prepackaged lie easily. Why wouldn’t they? How could they have known that I just didn’t want them to see me crumble, to be here when I fell apart and lost it?

And I knew that I was going to lose it. I wasn’t even inside of the building yet and something beneath my skin is already crawling as if it’s trying to get out.

I know that I’m going to go in there, and I’m going to lay it all at her feet, and when I walk away, if I’m not alone, the minute that I look into a pair of sympathetic eyes, I’ll break down. And I don’t want to break down. I sure as fuck don’t want pity.

What I want is to go to my hotel room and inhale that bottle of patron that I bought earlier until I’m so sloppy that I don’t remember the entire evening.

It’ll be over.

I just want it to be over.

And now, the more that I think about these things, the angrier that I become.

It shouldn’t be this way…

Is it weak or selfish to think why me?

Maybe, but that’s how I feel. I don’t understand what I did to deserve this in my life. I don’t understand why I have to go through any of this.

It’s not fucking fair…

And that does it; now I feel like an idiot because I’m slamming my fists against a steering wheel that can’t feel any of these things. It’s just there, and I need something to hurt the way that I do.

I don’t want to hurt anymore…

I pull my keys from the ignition and crumple the list, chucking it into the depths of the rental as I nearly hurl myself through the door and slam it shut. I feel like there’s fire under the soles of my feet and they eat up the ground quickly with my short stride.

I’m so over this shit, and if I can hold on to this anger, I know that I can do this.

It’s almost like a safety net.

And before I know it, I’m at the reception area and I’m scribbling my name on the sign-in sheet. The African American woman behind the counter is wholly unaffected by my mood. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that she’s bored.

“Sit and wait. We’ll call you in a while,” she says in a monosyllabic tone, and I find a good corner to seethe in as I take in my surroundings.

The nondescript, muted interior is little better than the outside. It reminds me of an early 80s train station bathroom with its rubber coated floors and the hard, plastic yellow chairs that line the walls.

Everything is stained with age and the smell is revolting. I know it well. It smells like a hospital – a pungent tincture of urine mixed with Lysol.

Some of the other waiters are obviously tweaked out. I can tell by the way that they claw at themselves, how they’re frighteningly thin, their skin wrinkled and scarred, and how they sniffle and swipe at their noses.

Some are just obviously unwashed and emotionally vacant as they stare placidly at the floor and some appear to be appalled to be here. They must be newcomers like me. Either way, there is a mix of every ethnicity.

A woman is sitting in the corner holding three young children as she clutches at her pregnant stomach, and I wonder why she’d spend her Saturday crying in a cold foyer for someone who obviously didn’t care about her enough to just make better choices.

Why does she choose to forgive, to be here for some lout?

Is it strange of me to say that I almost envy her? I mean, her situation is obviously pretty terrible, but somehow, she’s retained her compassion.

How?

I watch as she stands and wipes at her eyes, and her kids seem to perk up as well, as if they’ve done this enough times to know the drill. The oldest girl, maybe eight, looks me in the eyes and I see in her so much of myself.

There’s this imperceptible moment of understanding that passes between us. This thing that dwells behind her brown orbs is easy to recognize when you’ve lived it, even as it’s impossible to give a name to.

She’s shut in, the eldest, the one helping her mother raise a family that she has absolutely no control over or say in. She has that look of knowing too much and being destroyed by that very knowledge. She tends to her siblings, and as a dysfunctional family, they all shuffle to the guard at the now open door next to the receptionist.

She’s a severe looking woman with a thick waist and arms. Her hair looks odd with its curls pulled into a feminine coif against her hardened face, and the starched lines of her masculine uniform bend oddly around her curves.

“Single file,” she booms out as the anticipatory queue forms in front of her.

And I have to fight to hold onto my anger because something else is flushing my system as I realize that it’s time. It’s confusing me, and I grasp at my ire, trying desperately to hold onto it because without it, I won’t be able to do this.

I glance over at the door that leads away from this place and I really want to run. In fact, I need to.

I just, I can’t do this…

I shouldn’t have to do this.

I make my way back to the door and grip the handle but something inside of me stops me. I feel like I’m pushing on the door but it’s unresponsive.

My own limbs are unresponsive. I can feel my lungs struggle to keep up with my ever growing need for air. I feel like I might suffocate and I’m helpless as I stand here paralyzed. And then it’s back, that anger that I so desperately need, because I’m so tired of feeling so helpless, so hopeless.

I glance back at the guard and she looks to me with what must be a patently bored expression for all who work in this place of despair.

“Are you comin’ or not,” she asks.

There’s a moment where my tongue joins the rest of my body in its inability to function. And it’s long enough that she shrugs and moves to shut the door. But I find myself squeezing inside at the last minute, looking down the white tunnel beyond where bars mark the next gate and having what I can only describe as a panic attack.

I’m really doing this.

The door clangs shut behind me and, with a jump, I realize that there’s no turning back now.

The thick waist guard moves past her new charges and unlocks the bars at the other end, sliding them back with a shriek of metal on metal that makes my very bones rattle. Each step I determine to take feels like I’m stepping in super glue. Each one is a struggle and my heart races, this undefinable feeling mixing with that desperate anger and leaving me with sheer confusion.

But I’m moving, forward, deeper into the bowels of hell to face it, to face her – the keeper of my destruction.

The room beyond is just as cold, that sickly sweet smell even more intense, and the charged quiet filling every corner with dread. The room is split down its length with a long sheet of plexi-glass segmented into bays where what appear to be payphones hang on the walls.

People in orange jumpsuits are filed in on the other side through another set of bars, their hands cuffed at their waists and their ankles chained together causing them to waddle. The clatter of their chains resonates inside of me, strangling at the freedom that I’ve never really had, even as I can’t actually hear it through the glass.

And then, there, I see her, ushered up to a bay and gazing back at me with those eyes that I startlingly realize look so much like my own. And this wouldn’t be such a bad thing if not for the fact that they’re so emotionless.

I would say that she looks the same as I remember her, but that would be a lie as much as it’s the very truth. The woman that I remember was hard, wrinkled from drugs and alcohol but still attractive in a skanky sort of way.

But now…

Now, somehow, she looks so much worse. She’s in her forties but she looks as though she’s in her eighties. Her hair is clean, which is the only improvement, but it’s no longer the blonde with dark roots that I remember. The natural color matches my own, but it’s nearly lost to the gray that’s overtaken her head and washed out her nearly translucent skin.

She sits at the booth and rolls her eyes before picking up the phone and waving it at me, and I feel like my heart is about to leap through my breast as I nearly slump into the plastic seat on this side of the glass.

I’m on the right side of the glass, right?

I glance back at the barred door that I came through and feel trapped. She taps on the window with the receiver and puts it to her face, again prompting me to follow. And as if by rote, I do.

“Did Keith send you,” she asks.

I swallow and feel my brows touch.

“Who?”

“Keith,” she repeats in this way that indicates that she believes that I’m just slow.

“Um, I don’t know a Keith.”

“Oh,” she says and then slumps back in her chair. “Then who are you and what do you want?”

I feel my stomach fall into my toes as the realization that she doesn’t even know who I am hits me. I suppose that it makes sense. She didn’t notice me when she had me and I haven’t seen her for more than a decade.

Why would she notice me now?

“Hello,” she asks, clearly annoyed.

“Uh, um-,” I strangle the metal phone wire with my other hand.

“My name is Ashley.”

She cocks her head and stares at me long and hard, and for a moment I believe that she’s puzzled it out.

“Do I know you?”

I feel like I’m about to hurl on the window in front of me as I consider her question, but then, the answer is there quickly.

“No, you don’t know me.”

Again, she’s very annoyed.

“Then why are you here?”

“I wanted to meet you,” I say, trying to remember why, hoping that what I just said isn’t a lie.

But then, I’m not sure.

Why am I here?

Why does this woman matter at all?

She’s so thin that she’s little more than a skeleton, and she looks frail, like her muscle is made of wet tissue. And for a moment I have to consider how she has so much power over me. How is it that this wholly powerless person has the power to ruin my life?

But then, maybe that’s why I’m here. I want the answers. I want to know why… in so, so, so many ways.

Just… “Why?”

“Why what?”

“You seriously don’t know who I am?”

“Honey, I don’t know you from a hole in the wall.”

I can’t help the derisive laugh that escapes me as my anger starts to win the battle with the confusion in my bloodstream.

“Well, let me tell you a little bit about me then. I was born to a crack whore who didn’t give a shit about me. I had to raise myself and my little sister because my mom was too busy getting drunk and high and fucked by random assholes to do anything but tell me how worthless I was…”

And at this point, I’m nearly shouting at her into the receiver.

“She was too busy telling me how she wished that she could have aborted me! Well, mom, you may win yet, because you might get your wish! I’m dying because of you!”

I stand up so forcefully that the plastic chair topples and I stare down on her, hating myself for letting her make me feel this way.

I hate myself for feeling anything at all.

And for once, it’s not because there are people staring at me, it’s because I’m the one who has to feel, who has to deal, and she gets to walk away scot free. For all that I feel, she feels equal amounts of nothing.

This was a waste of time. This will fix nothing. What was I looking for here?

My anger simmers and I’m able to lower my voice.

“What you did was inexcusable. You’re a piece of shit, and I hope you rot in this place a good long time before you die here – alone, unloved, and worthless.”

I look into her dull eyes, my eyes, and I know that she doesn’t care. She never cared. Nothing I say means anything to her because I don’t mean anything to her.

Maybe some things are best left in the attic. Maybe none of my plans for this year will mean anything at all because in the end I can’t win. Even if she does rot and die in here, she still wins because she’ll take me with her.

The lady guard grips my arm to escort me away and I pull myself from her roughly.

“I’m leaving,” I seethe at her before dropping the phone receiver and turning away.

Her hand is on my arm again as she escorts me out and as soon as the cold air fills my lungs, my legs start pressing me towards my car as fast as possible.

It’s coming – fast and heavy and hard and immense, and I’m going to break.

But then, there, leaning on the driver’s side door is Spencer, those kind eyes telling me that they know all. And I choke as I swallow a sob because there’s just no way for me to hold it together. Something’s going to give, and I just don’t want to.

Not now; not with her here.

I want to beg and plead with her to stop looking at me that way. I want to shout at her to leave, that she shouldn’t have come, that she wasn’t supposed to be here for this very reason.

And for a moment I can’t remember why, but then she takes me in her arms – those strong, warm, caring arms – and I remember all too well. She’s not supposed to be here because I can’t need her. She’s not supposed to see this because it’s not her problem. But my walls are crumbling so fast and so violently that I just can’t swallow it anymore.

And I refuse; I just refuse to let it come, not with her. Not with anyone. So, I push her away and fall to my knees to dry heave onto the asphalt.

“Ash,” she says and it’s the worst sound in the world.

I don’t want to hear my name. I hate my name. I hate what it means and I hate that bitch who gave it to me. I hate that Spencer’s mouth made the word and that her mind was tainted with the knowledge of its existence.

And most of all, I hate that she’s here and she gets to see even this much. She wasn’t supposed to see any of this.

“Ash, it’s okay…”

I’d laugh at that if I could, but my stomach is tensing, pushing it all out even as there’s nothing in me anymore.

I feel the warmth coming off of her body as she crouches next to me and runs a soothing hand over my back, but the trail that it leaves just burns me.

She wasn’t supposed to be here.

No one was.

Something inside of me snaps and shuts down and I’m so thankful for it because I can finally relax for even just a moment, finally get to my feet, finally put some distance between me and her, me and this situation.

She hands me a tissue and I wipe at my mouth even though nothing came out.

“Spence, what are you doing here,” I ask, trying with great difficulty to keep the accusation out of my voice.

I don’t want to hurt her. I know that she’s just trying to be here for me. And I love her for it even as much as I hate her for it because I’m not supposed to love her anymore.

Why does she have to make it so hard?

And I hurt her with my words, just like I always do. I can see it in her tearful eyes. It’s so prevalent that I can’t even look at them.

I need to get out of here.

I need to be alone…

“I-I’m sorry,” she says, and then I feel even worse because she should never feel sorry for having a heart.

“No, Spence, I’m sorry,” I say. “I just-I’m not good company right now.”

Her brows furrow.

“You don’t have to be…”

“No, I didn’t mean it like that. I just mean-“

“I know what you meant,” she cuts me off and steps ever closer and I find myself stepping away. And again, the look on her face tells me that I’ve hurt her even more.

But then she takes yet another step and I have to wonder why she keeps trying. Doesn’t she see that it’s a lost cause?

“It’s okay to need someone, Ash.”

I can feel myself start to shake because my moment of reprieve is coming to an end, and I need to get the fuck away from this place. I need to get the fuck away from kind eyes. I need to drown it all out, and I need to do that alone.

I shake my head, and keep my eyes on the pavement in front of me.

“I think I just need to be alone, Spencer.”

And then she sighs and lowers her head and I exhale because she’s finally released me from that connection to her that I’m not supposed to feel.

“You’ve been alone too long,” she murmurs.

“I think it’s just better that way.”

“For whom?”

She looks up and I’m not quick enough in turning away. And I find myself meeting her gaze, trapped in it. And she’s forcing me to look, to see, to confront. Yes, there’s a possibility that she’s giving me an opportunity to let it happen, to let it out, but I know that if I do, there’s no coming back from that.

Once she takes that last step, once she’s let in I won’t have the heart to let her leave.

“For everyone,” I reply.

“For no one, least of all you.”

The conviction in her voice is nearly my undoing and I have to turn my back and scrub at my face, hoping against hope that I can buy myself a little more time to get away from her.

“Ash, if you can’t let me be there for you, then at least let someone.”

“Spence, I just need to go, okay?”

“Okay,” she says before she snatches the keys from my jacket pocket and unlocks the rental. “Let’s go.”

I turn and stare at her for moment, getting more and more agitated.

“Spence, that’s not what I meant and you know it.”

She nods. “Yep, I know exactly what you meant, but it’s not going to happen. I’m with you, whether you want me or not.”

If she only knew…

“Spencer, please just cut me a break here.”

She seems to think about my request before staunchly denying it.

“Nope.”

And thankfully, that anger is back.

“Give me my keys.”

“No.”

I step closer and hold out my hand.

“Please,” I force out.

“No.”

“Spencer, I’m serious.”

“So am I.”

“Give me my keys,” I demand.

“No,” she replies flippantly.

“Now,” I say seriously.

“No,” she says just as seriously.

I stare at her for a moment, and I want to hate her, really I do, but I can’t. It’s like this fundamental flaw in me. She’s a fundamental flaw in me.

We stare at each other for a long moment and I move to grab the keys but she was ready for it, turning and ducking away. I move to try again but she’s put them behind her back. I tussle with her trying to get to them but she’s bigger than me and she’s positioned her back against the car.

I can’t help but groan in my frustration and I’m worried that I might actually say something hateful to her if she doesn’t stop. I don’t want to play right now. I really need to get out of here and I really need to just be the fuck alone.

Can’t she understand that?

One more fumbling attempt and I nearly get the keys from her hand but then she goes and does something that makes everything, even breathing, impossible: she hugs me again. This hug is full bodied, where every inch of her is leaning into me. This is the hug that I thought I’d never get again.

She lays her head in the crook of my shoulder and just holds on and I feel my knees start to buckle because it’s coming and I can’t escape her.

“Please,” I croak.

“No,” she breathes against my neck.

If I don’t get out of this soon, I’m not going to make it and if I don’t make it, the results will be catastrophic. My muddled brain searches frantically, grasping for an out that won’t hurt her and it comes up with only one thing.

I return the embrace, letting my hands slowly map the dip of her tapered waist and find open purchase on her lower back.

“Spence, if you don’t let me go…” I lower my voice and turn into her ear, brushing my lips gently against the crest of a delicate lobe and making my intentions very clear.

“I might do something that you’ll regret.”

I turn my face slowly, breathing against that wondrously soft skin just beneath her ear and marking a path to the juncture of her throat. And I have no doubt that she understands me because she releases me.

Or at least she tries to.

But she’s only able to lean back enough to look at me because I’m keeping her close. Her eyes are questioning, laced with regret and compassion, the vibrant color darker like a stormy, fall ocean that threatens to swallow the very shore completely.

And again, it’s just too much. She’s bigger, she’s stronger – both inside and out – but I’m more desperate in this game that we’re playing because I’m the one that stands to lose if I don’t fight dirty.

But if I’m honest with myself, I’ve lost either way, and her eyes only remind me of this.

The distraction works and I’m able to take the keys from her hand easily before letting her go. My emotions have ebbed and I know that I have her to thank for it. But while I may not combust just now, I still need to be away from her. I’m finding that those angry, hurt, and confused emotions may be better than the intense feeling of loss and melancholy that being around her in my vulnerable state inspires.

“I’ll talk to you later,” I say, opening the driver’s door and getting in.

The engine is turned over immediately, but I wasn’t fast enough because she’s now sitting in the passenger’s seat.

And I lose it, slamming my fists into the wheel again and shouting, “FUCK!”

That’s it. I’ve had enough. I get out of the car and start walking, calculating that if I move quickly, I’ll be tongue deep in that bottle of patron in about two hours.

“Ashley,” Spencer calls out but I just keep walking.

“ASHLEY,” she tries again, and I know that I have to stop because I owe her no less.

I owe her so much more, but I just have nothing left to give right now.

So I stop and I turn, and I meet her eyes as my vision swims with things that won’t be contained any longer, and I give her the very most that I have left.

“You have to let me go, Spencer.”

And while the words themselves don’t sound like much, and they wouldn’t even look like much on paper, it’s the desperate, pleading way that they’re said; it’s all of the hidden meanings that exist in the ether between those emotions that relay the real message to her.

And that message is that she needs to move on with her life and stop worrying about me. She needs to set boundaries because once she crosses into this territory, it’s her who stands to get irrevocably hurt. She needs to go home to Carmen and let me hurt without her because she can’t fix me. She needs to focus on her future because I’m not part of it.

And even as I know that she understands, that she hears what’s not spoken in those words, she’s not ready to do that. She may never be ready to do that.

But today is a day where things are happening that there is no real preparation for. No one gets a choice today, not even her, not even when she deserves it.

She gives me one last painful expression before I turn and start to walk again. And just as the tears start to fall over my lashes, just as my ribs constrict and grind against my bursting heart, just as I’m out of earshot and away from those kind eyes, that’s when she relents and has no choice but to just stand there as I disappear into this city.


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Continued in Chapter 2 – Aftermath

Chapter 10 – Auld Lang Syne

It’s an unbelievably breathtaking night. The air is laced with frost and the sky is deep and dark. But who needs the stars when they have the twinkle of grand cityscapes scaled in infinite pin-dots of light? Who needs the moon when they have the globe of time honored tradition hanging overhead?

New York…

I always wanted this singular experience where the old year dies and gives way to the new. And some might find it to be too cliché or conventional, but I wanted that feeling, that rush, that fragile hope that maybe the slate could be wiped clean – that maybe for just one night I could forget the past and the dangers looming in the future.

I know that it’s just a ball of lights in the grand scheme of things, but sentient beings find sentimentality in even the most trivial of things, things like a hoodie or a glance or a touch or a photo. And time, the passage of it, the fact that my eyes still have sight and my heart still beats, well, it’s obvious why it’s so much more than just a ball to me.

Right now, in this moment, I’m surrounded by flamboyant celebrants, everyone dressed to the nines and packed together like sardines in a sprawling metropolis of skyscrapers and merriment. And I realize that, for whatever reason, for whatever purpose, I’m still alive.

I don’t know how I really feel about that fact, but only if for the night I refuse to overanalyze it. I’m just going to let it be. I’m here; I’m healthy, flushed from the crisp champagne and lower winter temperatures, but I’m utterly well.

So completely well…

And it’s all because for the first time in a very long time, I don’t feel alone.

I spent the last few days in Ohio with Kyla and Christine getting reacquainted. And I found that once the elephant in the room had been addressed, things became so much easier.

I was finally able to just relax, to allow myself to be part of the family. And that’s when it became clear to me that all of the suffering that I’d endured over those two months had been my own doing. If I could have just spoken with Christine, made an effort to explain, things would have been so much better.

But I couldn’t. I was too afraid, afraid that I was beyond reproach. I didn’t believe that she could or should forgive me because, in so many ways, I still can’t even forgive myself.

And so to compensate, I was keeping her at a distance, forcing her into a corner, demanding that she be the first one to risk her heart even when I’d made it perfectly clear on numerous occasions that I didn’t want to be there.

But that wasn’t the truth. I did want to be there. I did want to make it right; I just didn’t know how to let that happen. Spencer had been right: I needed a safety net, and without one, I just couldn’t risk it.

But then I found myself at my breaking point, frustrated and hopeless and trying to walk away but unable to do so. How ironic that for once walking away was the right thing to do and I just couldn’t do it. I’m thankful though, because if I had, I wouldn’t have found a way to repair that bridge to my past.

But it’s on the mend, and I’m not alone.

Who could have guessed that a terrible Christmas from hell could give me so much to look forward to?

I’m no longer alone…

I realize that maybe it’s not entirely fair to have felt alone. I’ve had Shirley and Sam nearly from the start, and then Kate, and Jac and Jon for over a year now, but each person that comes into my life has their own place, their own meaning, their own space to fill in the puzzle.

The missing pieces from my past were deeply steeped in history; those connections were specific. The memories and inside jokes had been inked onto my heart, and nothing short of the real thing could ever fill those gaps, no matter how much I appreciated the new additions.

But now, now I have both.

I’m not alone…

Perhaps alone is the wrong word. Perhaps I’m no longer so segmented, so perforated, so fragmented. Maybe I just feel their presence more because they had been so achingly missing.

They’re not missing anymore…

I like the sound of that.

If I look to my right, there’s Kyla, my sister, a sister that I’m still very angry with. I still feel like she coerced me into going to Ohio just to throw me to the wolves, or wolf, as it were. We had a descent few days before leaving for New York, but since I shut her down on Christmas, it’s been jilted.

I just can’t understand why she didn’t stand up for me more. Why didn’t she try to include me? Why did she shut me out knowing that it was hurting me?

I don’t have any of the answers to those questions yet, but as she looks over at me and smiles so fully that it lights up her chocolate eyes, I can’t help but grin back at her. All of that is on hold for tonight, a night where it’s all about the celebration of longevity.

I’m alive, and they’re not missing anymore.

The atmosphere, the energy of this place at this moment is magnificent, even as I can’t hear over the incredible roar of the overanxious crowd. I’ve always adored city life, and while LA is my home, my lover…

New York…

New York may turn out to be my mistress.

Just beyond Kyla is Kate, easy and relaxed as she just takes it all in. I think that’s one of the things that makes our friendship so easy: her ability to just let things roll off of her back. She doesn’t stress, aside from her stage fright. She doesn’t yell or get overly emotional. She’s quiet and shy and a touch naïve, but she’s impossibly patient and unfailingly kind.

In fact, she optimizes the cliché surfer persona. It’s everything about her, from her golden tan to her white, easy smile – from the straight, sun-bleached hair that falls into her eyes to her nonchalant agreeability. If she weren’t so smart, she’d easily double as Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

If I look to my left, I see Spencer, her expression relaxed and open, her eyes hooded, her smile bright like a beacon, and her hair tumbling past her shoulders in gentle waves as she happily sways her streamer stick.

She’s nothing like Kate. She’s bubbly, girly, slightly obsessive compulsive, and fairly demanding. But still, somehow, the two of us just click. If she were anyone else, I’m not so sure that we would mesh so seamlessly. But as I look at her, really look at her, as my heart thumps harder, I can’t help but wonder if the reason that it worked was because she is everything that I’m not.

And she’s beautiful…

In fact, there is nothing in this world that can rival just how gorgeous she is both inside and out: no city, no natural vista, no starlit sky or maudlin memory. If I went blind right now and her face in this moment was the last that I would ever see, I could go happily.

It’s so obvious that she’s in her element here, and that may just make her even more beautiful if such a thing were possible. New York was her home for four years, her college experience, the haven that gave her the safety to lick her wounds in peace, the very place that she met Carmen and found the will to move on with her life.

God, she awes and inspires me. She doesn’t give up, even when she should. No, she bends when she should break. I envy that about her. I wish that I could be more like her, or at the very least, borrow some of her strength.

It’s a strength that I need desperately, and there are immediately apparent reasons for that need. One of them is Carmen standing next to her, just as relaxed and comfortable in this environment. In fact, I’d say that she’s bored and unimpressed.

I know that this is nothing new for her either, but I can’t help but feel that part of her disinterest is due to the fact that we’re here because of me. I don’t know how many of our trips she plans to tag along on, but does she have to do it so grudgingly?

She glances over at me and gives me a tight smile, pulling Spencer snugly against her side with a possessive grip.

I get it; I really do, and I know that I’d also be nervous and jealous of sharing Spencer with someone that I perceive as a threat. But Spencer isn’t someone that deserves distrust. She’s the most honest person that I’ve ever known, and also the most loyal.

Spencer loves me. She will always love me. There is a place in Spencer’s heart that no one will ever be able to occupy but me. There’s no way around it. I was there first.

No one else will ever know what it means to run away with her and shout injustice to the sky.

No one else will ever know what it meant to me to be there for her when she was first discovering herself.

No one will ever know what it was like to touch her for the first time, to give her that first unquenchable taste of passion.

No one will ever know what it was like to be there for her when her world was falling apart.

Those pieces of her are mine and mine alone.

They always will be.

And in that same way, no one will ever know those same parts of me.

No one else will know these lonely dreams that haunt me.

No one else will ever know my regrets.

But I robbed Spencer of the chance to be there for me when my world was crumbling down. I pushed her away and killed the one thing I was even living for.

There aren’t words for that regret. And this is why I don’t understand how Carmen can’t see that she has a place that I will never know. She was the first to be open and honest, to give Spencer all of herself with abandon.

She was the first person to be patient and diligent.

And as much as I hate it, these are things I can never get back; these are pieces of Spencer that weren’t stolen, but carelessly thrown away.

They, Spencer, are Carmen’s.

She’s won the war, no matter how many battles I own.

And these thoughts want to depress me. They want to own me and destroy me like they’ve already destroyed so much, but not tonight. I can’t go there tonight.

Why?

Because when Spencer smiles at me something warm tingles in my very viscera. Somehow, despite it all, I’m here with my closest friends, some pieces lost while others are restored. And even some are a new shape entirely, but they still fit together.

And I don’t want to ruin it like I do everything else. I just want to pretend tonight.

“Holy shit,” Jon screams over the noise of the crowd in front of us as she bursts through them excitedly, Jac hot on her heels.

These two – I want to shake my head at how utterly absurd they are, even as much as it’s the very reason that I keep them around. Jon is wearing a tall, felt, red-and-white top hat with huge golden glasses that exclaim the new year.

Jac is sporting similar glasses, a fluffy, rainbow colored fur coat, and she has a black and white horn that, despite its small size, makes a god-awful amount of noise. And she’s blowing it like a sack full of queers.

Elton John would be so proud of them…

“Taylor Swift is up there,” Jac exclaims excitedly as she jumps up and down.

“So fucking hot,” Jon says in that cocky, overly certain way of hers.

My face screws up at the thought. I’ve never been a Swift fan, but I definitely dig blondes. I don’t mean to, but I glance over at Spencer before tucking my hands in my pockets and scolding myself. I have to stop that. I can’t keep thinking those things about her.

Even over the excited cacophony, Jac startles the shit out of me when she throws her arms in the air and screams, “Riley!”

I glance over and see two girls making their way through the bodies towards us, and find myself doing a double-take. The one called Riley has those boyish, baby-faced good looks just like Jon. Her hair is short and sort of shaggy, and it falls in her eyes when she gives a nod of her head as if she’s king shit of fuck mountain.

“Sup,” she says, giving me the once over as she throws an arm over Jac’s shoulders.

I glance at Spencer out of the corner of my eye to see her trying unsuccessfully to swallow her laughter at how I was just blatantly eye fucked like a piece of meat.

I spurn the open appraisal and ignore Riley, but I also determine to keep an eye on her. I hope that Jac is just looking for a fling. The arrogance nearly oozes out of Riley’s confident posture. And yet again, I’m reminded of Jon.

Speaking of Jon, Riley’s friend has introduced herself as Sarah and she’s hanging all over Jon like a limpet. And fuck help me, she reminds me of Jac.

She’s smaller, more petite, and more feminine as she leans up on her tip-toes to say something obviously naughty in Jon’s ear. Everything about her appearance screams shy and reserved, just like Jac. But everything else, from the way that she smiles slowly, to the way that she plays her fingers in the hollow of Jon’s throat, gives me the impression that once she’s done copulating, she eats her lover’s head.

And honestly, that’s just how Jac comes across. She does it on purpose, even when it couldn’t be further from the truth.

I find myself kind of staring at the two couples in wonder, though I’m not even sure why.

About this time the energy in the crowd kicks up a notch, and we find ourselves gazing up at the giant screen at the corner of Broadway and Seventh to see that thirty seconds has begun to count down.

Shouts and bells and whistles fill the already pregnant air to bursting as the numbers on the screen descend, the ball starting its slow trek downward. And as we draw closer to those last ten seconds, it feels like the very atmosphere will explode.

I can’t help but shout along and watch as the excitement builds until that last second, but then time suddenly slows down, the noise falling into the background until I can only hear my own breathing.

It’s as if I’m waiting for something, or maybe having a panic attack, because just like that, it’s over. It’s another breath, a heartbeat, a blink, and it’s over.

I’m one step closer to a grave.

Suddenly that crisp air feels colder, almost biting, despite the collective heat of gyrating bodies en masse. And for a moment, I almost can’t realize where I am. It’s like nothing happening makes sense. I feel like I might implode but I’m obviously the only one.

Jon and Jac are each engaged in a torrid lip-lock with their respective strangers, and Kyla is giving Kate a kiss on the cheek that makes her blush.

And I know – I know that if I look the other way that I’m going to see things that I don’t want to see. But then I’m one step closer and Spencer has much further to go than I do. And somehow, I know that if I face it, this strange moment of stillness that I’ve found myself in will end.

So I force myself. I force myself to look her way and watch as her heart moves on, moves further and further away from me. It’s a sweet kiss, the kind that’s unhurried and practiced. And it would be a lie to say that there is not love in that kiss, even if it’s not so intense or passionate.

But maybe that’s the way that it’s supposed to be.

I used to believe that love has to burn out of control for it to be real. But the older that I become, the more that I’m beginning to believe that heated, desperate, intense love that lasts is rare. Most who experience that kind of love tend to find themselves consumed by its intensity.

But there are those lucky few who find that kind of love and not only survive the flames, but enjoy the heat.

People like me.

I had that once.

And I believe that Spencer did as well.

And yet there she is giving herself to someone else. There she is being wiser, being smarter, choosing the more temperate path because that’s the only way to survive when the fire dies and leaves you alive, scarred but still inconceivably breathing.

And it’s for this reason that all that I can believe at this point is that lasting love isn’t as enflamed as it is calm. Lasting love is the one that’s milder, easier, safer.

I look at them for only a moment, but that image will forever be engrained in my mind, a constant reminder of the fact that for all of the ways that my runaway plan didn’t work, it actually did.

Spencer is happy.

Without me.

My eyes find my feet as the popping sound in my ears rushes the noise back in, and as my breath hitches in my chest with a wheezing inhale, I realize that while New York may be my mistress, my time with her could never last. I long to be back home, in my own bed, away from the commotion of it all.

Out of the fire…

But then soft lips find my cheek and warm breath skitters across the blushed surface of my skin. And I shut my eyes, feeling burned, feeling consumed, even by so little.

Yes, I had that once.

And I think, no, I know, that Spencer did as well.

I look over at her as she pulls away and she meets my gaze, smiling as she reaches up to rub the gloss from that part of my face that I may never wash again. I almost want to tell her to leave it, but then I love the warmth of her hand far too much as it strokes my cheek to be indignant.

She’s smiling the kind of smile that crinkles the skin at the corners of her eyes ever-so-slightly, and I know that I’m meeting that smile with one of my own, despite the fact that I just want to fall into her arms and cry.

And I don’t even know why.

I guess, with her, I’ll never have reasons. She defies reason.

And there, for a moment, she knows it. Her face falls a little, and my sadness is mirrored in her. But I can’t take it. I hate doing that to her. She deserves to be happy.

And she knows, because she always knows, and she’s so easy in that knowledge that she just lets it go, lets me slide, leaves the attic door precariously shut.

“Happy New Year,” she says, or mouths, I can’t tell over the chorus of Auld Lang Syne thundering around us.

“Happy New Year,” I reply just as inaudibly.

And it’s hard to watch her pull away and go back to Carmen, but it’s necessary. I know it. I feel it. I just can’t face it. Besides, the worst is yet to come. Soon, I’ll have to face it all.

One year.

And in just a couple of days, I’ll be back in Ohio, taking the first step towards fully recovering my life.

I’ll be making a stop at the Federal Correctional Facility in Elkton, Ohio to lay the hardest piece to rest. And if it doesn’t work, then I’ll die trying.


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Continued in Still Into You Too