Chapter 5 – Kings or Pawns, Emperors or Fools

“Heda, the Skai-”

“Bring them in,” Lexa cuts Indra off, refusing to look up or show her surprise. Instead, she keeps her eyes on the tip of her blade, turning it against the pad of her finger just as she’s done for the majority of the night, further wearing down the almost raw skin.

She’s been waiting – quietly, patiently, and though no one would know it, nervously. She did not think that the Sky People would come to their senses. From the moment that she excused herself from the conference the evening prior, she’s done nothing but prepare and wait. Two riders had been sent immediately, one East and one West. Both had returned roughly half an hour ago with the news that the nearby clans had traveled through the night and were in position on all sides of the Ark.

To anyone aware of warfare or strategy, it would appear that she intends to kill a fly with a hatchet, but she will not underestimate these people again. She will try a different tactic this time. Before, on the bridge, her warriors had made a spectacle of themselves. This made them easy targets, which is not their usual custom. Normally, their way is to usurp victory from the cover of the forest. But the spectacle at the bridge had been part of Lexa’s strategy when she’d made the call. It had also been part of her hubris. While she had sent her warriors to kill those that had fallen from the sky, she had not intended for it to actually need to happen. She had believed that just the appearance of her war party would send the invaders scattering. She had wished to intimidate them away.

It had failed, and it had cost her people dearly. Tris, and later Anya, had not been the only casualties of that mistake, but she had learned a valuable lesson in the loss. This time, she would actually make war not shout out her intentions and assume that it would be enough. Those in the Ark would have no warning, no sight, no smell, no sound of what was happening until the Trikru were upon them. Death would come swiftly. They were surrounded and they didn’t even know it. And most importantly, they wouldn’t stand a chance, despite their technology and ingenuity.

As sunrise drew closer with no word from the Skaikru, she wanted to feel remorse for what was about to happen. Truly, the feeling was there, but she would not give it attention or even acknowledge it. There was no time, and remorse would serve no purpose. Too much was hanging in the balance. She had taken due diligence to provide this enemy with an alternative, more than what was expected of her by her people. In fact, she risked public scrutiny for doing so. But she knew that Clarke would appreciate the effort, however minute in light of other recent transgressions. She also knew that Clarke had been the only reason that she was even trying. But, just like Clarke, the council wouldn’t listen to her. They listened to no one. At least this way, their blood was on their own hands.

Surely Clarke would have no other way to see it.

Surely Clarke would see that she’d tried.

But as the tent flaps are thrown back and Abby and Kane are ushered into the small space, she finds again that she had been wrong, only this time she is thankful for it. They have shown, just in the nick of time.

She looks at them, her eyes never wavering as she takes in their appearance. They’re alone, which is surprisingly confident or utterly stupid. They seem haggard, tired, and thin, but strong. They’ve proven that strength, or at least Clarke and the original invaders have. But this is not Clarke. This is the council, and as such, Lexa is stronger, and she wishes to make that known.

“You agree to the terms,” she asks coolly, still turning the blade against her pad.

“No,” Abby answers, her posture rigid and defiant despite her small stature.

The blade stops. “Then you intend to leave?”

“No,” Abby says again.

Lexa swallows her consternation and raises her chin. “Then why have you come?”

“Heda, it’s a trap,” Indra snaps out in their native tongue.

Lexa raises a hand to silence the warrior, but while Indra’s tongue stays, her hand doesn’t leave the hilt of the sword around her waist, and Lexa knows that she will lash out if this situation is not treated carefully.

“We came to offer you a treaty,” Kane says, lifting his hand to show the rolled parchment in it. “One that we feel is fair.”

“For both sides,” Abby adds pointedly.

Lexa cocks her head for a moment, debating within herself. The sheer insolence of these people to come to her and not only refuse her offer of benevolence, but to undermine her in front of her people would have seen any other person on the spot. She does not wish to do that, not at all. She does not wish to hurt Clarke any further, but it would seem that the Skaikru are determined to die. There is only so much that Lexa can allow to happen without retribution, at least publicly.

But any such debate is halted as Indra steps forward and backhands Abby so hard across the face that the doctor stumbles and twists back into Kane.

“You dare to insult the commander,” she shouts, drawing on her sword as she moves in for Abby again.

Kane grabs Abby and backs away from the impending attack, and though Lexa is quick to speak, she’s unshaken. She merely orders the other guards to remove Indra and hold her for her disobedience. Lexa’s orders are carried out swiftly and without question, bringing the scuffle to a stop just as quickly as it escalated. In all reality, she’s grateful to Indra for what she has just done. Abby little more than secured her own execution with her behavior. She could insult Lexa on the Ark because there, she is the leader. But here, in front of Lexa’s people, where Lexa’s word was law, it could not and would not be tolerated. Indra may have given Lexa an opportunity to avoid killing Abby, but it comes with a price, one that Lexa will have to visit upon the warrior later.

Lexa wonders idly why doing what is right never falls into line with what is needed or expected. She laments it, but she is not naïve enough to dismiss the truth of these matters. She will do what is needed, what is expected, regardless of whether or not it feels right.

“So this is how you treat your allies,” Abby fires at her angrily as she smears some of the blood that’s beaded on her lip with an angry swipe of her hand.

Lexa stands and sheathes her dagger at her waist before stepping closer. “You should learn to show respect, Abby.”

“Respect,” Abby repeats incredulously, but Kane puts a hand to her arm to stop any further outbursts.

“Abby,” he says quietly, and there is a sense of urgency in his tone and pleading in his eyes, though neither woman looks at him.

It takes a moment for Abby to reign in her temper, to swallow her tongue, but once Lexa’s sure that she’s calm, she merely holds out her hand. Kane places the treaty in her palm a little hesitantly and Lexa unrolls it. It’s the same treaty that she had drawn up, but there are some major amendments. She scans the changes and glances up at the two in front of her, her mind whirring with this information and making her exceedingly uncomfortable. She has to think quickly, to speak decisively, but she has absolutely no idea how this can be handled without war. So, she decides to bide herself some time to think things through by asking questions.

“You wish to move into the mountain?”

“Yes,” Abby says, her tone less than pleasant.

“You also wish to remain completely independent of my people and my command?”

“Absolutely.”

“And as a…,” Lexa looks down at the treaty to get the correct terminology. “Gesture of goodwill, you will cure the Reapers inside when you retake it?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a fair trade,” Kane says. “We take territories that we’ve already conquered that are separate from your own, we remove ourselves from your lands so you’ll have no reason to attack, we are able to remain autonomous, and we help your people in the process.”

Lexa nods. It’s a sound plan, a fair one, but there is one major problem that cannot be ignored. “You will also take control of the acid fog and missile systems,” she points out. “And you’re clearly still hostile towards me and my people.”

“The acid baths were destroyed,” Kane says, purposefully ignoring the missile systems.

“Beyond repair,” Lexa asks.

“Well, I-I don’t know,” Kane says.

“And the missiles?”

Kane knew it was coming and merely sighs.

“Our defense systems are none of your concern,” Abby says. “Unless, of course, you plan to attack us… again.”

Lexa turns and picks up a pitcher of water, calmly pouring some into a cup to again bide her some time to think, though her thoughts are a war all on their own. Really though, she knows the answer.

“Giving an enemy more strategic leverage is my concern,” she rejoins.

“We’re not your enemy,” Kane interjects.

“Commander, I think you misunderstand,” Abby says, stepping forward and taking the full glass from Lexa’s hand. “We aren’t asking you to give us anything. The Mountain is already ours.”

She drains the cup, a smug expression on her face as she scrutinizes Lexa’s demeanor. Truth be known, she’s beyond nervous; she’s terrified. This girl could and would have her killed on the spot with little more than a passing glance. But she also knows that Lexa respects power, or at the very least, aggression. So, she’s putting on the bravest face that she has, doing her best to intimidate and appear unaffected, even though it’s taking a supreme effort not to tremble. She doesn’t wish to be like Lexa, but if this is all that Lexa can understand, then so be it.

Ultimately, Abby just needs to find the chink in Lexa’s armor. She believes that there must be one somewhere, some flaw that she can exploit. She keeps looking, but even now the girl is just as implacable as ever, absolutely refusing to rise to the bait. The only soft spot that she can find is Clarke, her own daughter, and she can’t conceive of going there. She recognized the affection in Lexa’s actions of the previous night. She knows what she saw and what she saw is incomprehensible. But more than that, it’s disturbing. Lexa is a monster, and Clarke may have her flaws, but she deserves so much more than an angry, cold-hearted murderer. If anything, Abby truly believes that Lexa’s affection will kill her daughter one way or another. She knows that it already has in so many ways. She won’t allow it. She’ll die first. And by the cold look in Lexa’s eyes, she believes her death may come at any minute.

“You may have killed the Mountain Men,” Lexa replies unshaken as she turns to pour another cup. “But you have yet to actually claim the mountain territories. It is within my ability to stop you.”

Abby sets her cup on the table a little loudly. “We’ve already taken the Mountain.”

Lexa sets the pitcher down and smiles almost gently at Abby. “I thought we agreed not to insult one another.”

Abby smiles back. “Sometimes the truth is insulting.”

Lexa’s eyes harden even more, if that were possible, and it’s Kane who explains. “We sent some people last night armed with make-shift signal generators to subdue the Reapers. They haven-”

“The Reapers are currently being detained, and the mountain is already ours,” Abby cuts Kane off.

“I could have you killed right now,” Lexa says lowly.

Kane and Abby share a curious look before the silence that’s now dominated the tent is destroyed. “Abby…? Come in, Abby.”

Lexa’s eyes shift to the small radio on Abby’s waist and she watches as Abby lifts it to her mouth. “Go ahead, Raven.”

“Just checking in.”

“We’re fine, so far. Check back in another five minutes.”

“Copy that.”

The disembodied voice dissipates and the radio stays firmly clutched in Abby’s hand. “You could do that,” Abby says, lifting the radio to dangle it like a carrot in front of Lexa’s face. “But if I don’t check in every five minutes, you die anyway, all of you.”

Lexa feels a jolt of anger slither up her spine and her fingers twitch for the weight of her sword.

“The way I see it, Commander, you don’t really have a choice here. You accept the terms and let us walk out of here, or not only do we kill the Reapers we’re holding, but we mark the territories you so generously mapped out for us and start launching missiles.”

Lexa gazes deeply into Abby’s eyes, disturbed by how much like Clarke’s they are because for all of the ways that they are similar, Abby’s are far more treacherous than her daughter’s. Clarke wouldn’t hold people hostage. Clarke wouldn’t be so careless, so callous. That is why she respects Clarke, why she trusts her, why she loves her. But she doesn’t feel love at this moment; she feels anger, incredible anger.

All other thoughts leave Lexa as she focuses in on Abby and Kane, trying to discern if they are telling the truth. Kane seems grieved, but that doesn’t speak of a lie. His desire to stop the fighting has been evident since the beginning. But all that Lexa can see of Abby is a desire to win, no matter how ruthless she has to become to do so. Lexa respects her more in this moment, but it changes nothing really.

Lexa sips on her water as she reels with this information. What can she do to shut this down without giving in to these demands? If what they say is true and they have already taken the mountain, it is too late to stop it. But a small party of survivors in the mountain cannot be their biggest concern. Those still sitting in the Ark are still vulnerable.

“How many people did you send to the mountain,” she asks calmly.

“That’s none of your concern,” Abby says quickly, knowing that if given enough time, Lexa will find a way to stop their momentum. “You should consider the lives here, of your own people.”

“And you should consider yours,” Lexa says. “You aren’t leaving me many options here, Abby. If what you say is true, then you will strike out at us no matter the outcome here. My only real option is to take as many of you with us as I can. And I assure you, those left on the Ark will go with us. I’m asking you if those who will survive in the mountain are enough.”

“Those on the Ark are more prepared than you might think,” Abby says.

“Perhaps that’s true, but my answer is no. I cannot allow you that kind of power.”

“What if we were to agree to dismantle the missiles,” Kane interjects, both women turning to him with murder in their eyes.

“No,” Abby says.

Lexa gestures to Abby and says, “You have your answer,” before turning and retaking her seat. Her heart is beating wildly in her chest as Kane and Abby proceed argue quietly, but she stills herself and focuses on the best way to protect the majority of her people. The warriors from the Trigeda, TonDC, and the KruWoda are in the forest, but those still in the territories won’t stand a chance. Even her fastest riders could not make it in time to get word to them before the missiles struck, especially not with the Ice Nation deep in the northern mountains, at least two day’s ride.

Truth be known, she would not mourn the loss of the Ice Nation. Andrea would surely not survive an attack of that magnitude without warning. With the Ice Nation gone and the three local nations surviving almost completely intact, perhaps the Sky People lashing out would not be such a bad thing, especially if she could take them down after the fact. So she considers if there is a way to use this to her advantage.

She breaks it down into pros and cons, mentally assuming the best and worst case scenarios based on the action and reaction of those involved. The worst case scenario is that the Skaikru attack now and several clans are all but annihilated, including the Reapers and the Ice Nation. She would then take down those in the Ark and make her way for the Mountain. Her two biggest enemies would fall, and while her numbers would be nearly decimated, her people would still survive. Blame would be placed on the Sky People and scrutiny removed from her. But it’s still not good enough. Does she have to sacrifice the Reapers, the Western nation, Southern nation, or the old and young that still remain in the TonDC, the Trigeda, and the KruWoda?

The best case scenario is that she buys some time with the Skaikru. If she could get word to the clans, they could all be evacuated. She could send word to the Ice Nation, but only someone trusted, someone who wants to take down the Sky People and can keep a secret. That warning wouldn’t make it in time by design and Lexa would still lose her two biggest foes, but retain most of her people. Polis wasn’t laid out on the map, so they would survive as well, and the Reapers would be rehabilitated.

No, she doesn’t have to sacrifice many at all if she can play this right.

She would have to sacrifice Clarke though.

But the Sky People refused her offer of inclusion. By agreeing to this treaty, she is under no obligation not to attack later by their own design. She can placate the Skaikru and use that time to learn the mountain. The acid fog is gone. She already knows this. She was with Clarke when Bellamy destroyed it. She read the desperation in Cage’s eyes when he came to her. If the Sky People do not attack now, they lose all of their leverage and they will learn that threatening her and her people is folly. She just needs to ensure that they don’t until it’s too late for them.

And when it’s too late, like a snake in waiting, she will lash out and destroy them.

But Clarke…

Another betrayal would mean the end, but is this not a betrayal of Clarke’s people? Is this not asking too much, demanding too much? Could Clarke understand? Would she even survive?

Lexa’s stomach swirls as her heart rages against her mind. Again she wonders why what needs to happen can’t be the right thing, the easy thing. Again she wonders how much loss and suffering she will have to bring on these people, on herself, on Clarke, before something feels right. She knows that there’s no going back from this. If she follows through with this plan, Clarke is truly lost to her, and that’s assuming that Clarke’s not already.

She looks at Abby and Kane, studying them, looking for another choice but finding none. These people are the enemy, no matter how much she cares for the loss of life or Clarke. No attachment will ever be enough to stop what’s already been set in motion. And she hates it. She hates how it feels and what it makes her do. She hates herself, and in doing so, she knows that there are no options anymore.

It’s win or lose.

She remembers the words that her mother used to say when she was very young, “In life we are all either kings or pawns, emperors or fools.”

Just remembering her mother, being with her, especially at such a young age, is enough to remind Lexa of who she is, where she comes from, and what she was born and raised to do. But the words, though she never really understood them before, now make a lasting impression. The strong build their lives on the weak. The strong live because the weak die. And that’s how it has to be. That’s how Lexa has to be if she intends to be one of the strong ones, one of the survivors.

She motions to one of her warriors to come close, hating her heart for its incessant bleeding and throbbing, and shuts it away as she speaks in their native tongue. “Send our fastest riders to the Northern, Southern, and Eastern clans and order them to abandon their territories. They can take to the edges of the wastes and wait. They will need to do so quietly. They cannot be seen or heard. I will speak with their heads in a week’s time in Polis to give further instruction.”

“And the Northern clans,” he asks in a whisper.

“Bring me Indra.”

“Yes, Heda.”

The man leaves and Abby’s radio crackles as she checks in yet again. Once the conversation stills, Lexa takes this opportunity to put her plans into motion.

“I want to make sure that I understand the terms of your treaty,” she says, standing. They both give her their attention and she chooses her words carefully. “You are choosing to deny our offer of inclusion and protection. You wish to remain separate from us, completely. As such, you may or may not attack at will at a later time should you decide, but you will attack now if I don’t agree.”

“Yes,” Abby says resolutely, shutting off any additional outbursts from Kane.

“You’re certain that you wish to do this?”

“Yes,” Abby says again.

“Commander, Abby, this is-,” Kane tries again.

“Enough, Marcus,” Abby cuts him off yet again.

“You’re going to get us all killed, Abby,” he finishes.

“We have the mountain. We’ll be fine.” And as these words leave Abby’s mouth, she looks pointedly at Lexa, driving her threat home.

Lexa gives a slight, crooked smile, letting her heart shrivel and die just a little more in the face of what she plans to do, even as she lets her prey turn and walk away with their lives intact. She’s okay with it for now, because she’s patient, because she’s smart, because she’s neither a fool nor a pawn, no matter how Clarke would see her soft.

“Okay,” Lexa says. “The Mountain is yours and you’re free to go.”

Abby is a little taken aback, and she knows that Lexa has something up her sleeve, but what could she possibly do that wouldn’t see her people destroyed?

“You- you agree,” Kane asks.

“Yes,” Lexa says.

Silence falls but Lexa wishes this to be over so that she can be alone to harden herself against what she knows is coming. It’s done. It’s over. Like Costia, she will sacrifice Clarke, and by extension, herself.

The tent flaps are thrown back and Indra is led inside, a baleful expression on her severe face.

“Please escort our guests back to the Ark,” Lexa orders her warriors.

They do as bid but Kane stops at the opening to the tent. “You won’t regret this,” he says before following after Abby.

Lexa can’t help but think that he will, but she focuses her attention on Indra who is seething at the ground at her feet, her hands tied behind her. Lexa pulls her dagger from her waist and releases the warrior.

“Relax, Indra,” she says. “You’re going to get your war.”


Don’t forget to rate and review before moving on!


Continued in Chapter 6 – Knowledge is not Understanding

Chapter 5 – Fat Fucking Tuesday

Spencer puts the gear shift in park ever so gingerly before shutting off the engine with a reluctant sigh. Her hands map across the steering-wheel in a caress like a lover as she again marvels at the ostentatious homage to Italian craftsmanship that we’re sitting in. I find it kind of funny, and a little weird, but mostly adorable. But then that’s Spencer in three adjectives.

She’s calmed down since we got on the road, though it took forty-five minutes for us to get here from the airport when it should have only taken about twenty-five. But she was enjoying herself and I was in no hurry.

I can’t help but wonder if she was scared of wrecking the car given how nervous she was at first, or if she just wanted to give herself more time to drive the car given how happy its very existence made her. I also can’t help but grin at her, and it’s the kind of grin that makes my eyes squint. She’s all kinds of cute when she’s wide-eyed with wonder.

While planning this trip, we looked for car rentals online. Of course there were the regular cars offered through the typical locations, but New Orleans is, well, New Orleans. Everything about it seems over-the-top and larger than life. So, amongst our searches was a novelty place called Auto Exotic. It just so happened that they specialized in more exotic fare.

Imagine that…

At first glance, it seemed to be solely dedicated to machismo, offering the kind of new-age sports cars that old men drive to regain their virility and young men drive to compensate for their sizable lack in manhood. Spencer never really cared about cars except to be safe and comfortable, and while I have always been able to appreciate a certain level of sexiness that some cars exude, I’m not a collector or connoisseur by any means. So, while it was fun to see what was out there, we’d decided on something ‘small, economical, and utilitarian,’ as Spencer had put it.

That really just meant a Fiat.

But then, just as we went to close the window and reserve said Fiat, Spencer squealed so loudly that I thought that she may have ruptured something. As it turns out, it was simply a 1961 convertible Ferrari in a glossy, cherry-red. And it was very pretty. Anyone could see that, but it was still just a car.

So after determining that she wasn’t injured, I learned that it wasn’t so much the car that had made her so demented, as what the car represented for her. As I’m sure the whole world is aware by now, Spencer is a movie freak, especially the cheesy 80s genre. And it just so happens that one of her favorite movies is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She liked to watch it when she was sick, which wasn’t often, but mostly she liked it because in the movie, a boy with an overbearing father shows his rebellion by fucking up dear old dad’s prized car. It doesn’t take a genius to understand why Spencer could relate to that, but anyway…

The movie holds a certain amount of sentimental value to her. And it does for me as well, because in those last few months between prom and graduation, when I was sick and mentally preparing myself to leave, she’d come over, pop the movie in, and play with my hair until I fell asleep. Sleep was elusive at that time, so was hope, and the simple comfort that she offered meant the world to me.

This car happens to be an exact replica of the one from that movie, and it’s pretty much set the mood for this adventure. We sort of threw economy and utilitarianism out of the window, agreeing that we would adopt the New Orleans way of life. We’re going to go big, shoot for the moon, and embrace all things wild.

So here we are, sitting out front of the Place D’Armes Hotel in the French Quarter, sticking out like the tourist blight that we are. But that’s okay because the awed delight on Spencer’s face is precious enough to endure a few awkward glances, and there have only been a few really. As much as we stand out, we’re still just a tiny spec in the crowds.

The city is in a tizzy, people everywhere, every lamp post and business covered in bright and festive decorations. But then this is to be expected given that it’s Friday the thirteenth. And while that’s something that makes me unreasonably happy – the horror buff that I am – there’s something even better to make this day so special: today is the Friday before Fat Tuesday, and it marks the beginning of another line crossed off of my list, something known as Mardi Gras.

It’s something that I’ve always wanted to experience. I’d only ever heard about it on the web or television, and all of those sources usually fell into one of two camps: it’s a week-long party that you’ll never forget, or, it’s a week-long practice in debauchery, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, and just generally doing all of those things that make Jesus puke.

So no matter which tack is taken, it’s obvious why I’ve always wanted to be here. I determine immediately that I like it, at least in the French Quarter. Every square inch has an other-worldly charm. Businesses are so tightly packed together that I can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, yet each has its own character that somehow morphs into its neighbor. Thin arches line each porch; every visible splinter of wood appears to have been painstakingly whittled by hand into ornate and interesting shapes, and wrought-iron balconies adorn every Victorian window where long strings of ivy and other leafy vegetation thrive a lush green. The streets are black as pitch, some of them still brick, and glossy from a fresh fall of rain.

Many of the structures are brick and stucco, and I almost feel as if I’ve been transported back in time, as if this is what colonial Boston or New York might have looked like after their inception. But even that would be too mundane, too singular. New Orleans is a melting pot, rich in multicultural elements that pop out and make every stretch unique but somehow blended. The very air feels and smells thicker with history, as if long-passed spirits and their stories comprise every atom. There’s a magical quality that I can’t quite place my finger on, and while I’ve not even scratched the surface, I can still feel it, like a charge that prickles my skin and gives me goosebumps. Everything feels alive, breathing, pulsing with character, even the streets, even the buildings that seem to live on top of one another as they call out with the provocative lilt of jazz.

Spencer nearly tackles me in the tiny space that is the front seat and I feel my eyes bulge with her grip. Seriously, she’s stronger than she looks.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she chants into my shoulder.

After the startle wears off and I’m able to draw breath again, I wrap an arm around her and squeeze her back.

“You’re welcome, Spence.”

She leans back and again fondles the steering wheel, and I almost feel a little jealous. “Are you ready to check in, or do you just want to sleep in the car?”

She grins over at me. “Is that really an option?”

I roll my eyes and open my door. “Come on, dork.”

She sighs overdramatically. “If I must…”

I shut the door and lean against it. “Keep this up, and I know what you’re getting for your birthday.”

Her eyes get huge and I laugh.

“That’s not funny,” she says, finally releasing her hold on the wheel and getting out.

I shrug and reach for the biggest of my bags, grateful for the convertible top. There’s no way that my luggage would have fit into this roller skate without it.

“If you like it, I don’t see why it matters.”

Spencer pulls her travel bag out easily, setting it on the sidewalk and pulling a hidden handle up where it locks into place. I have to wonder why mine couldn’t be that simple, or at least why they haven’t invented luggage that has, like, a black-hole inside of it or something.

“This thing probably costs as much as my college tuition.”

“So? I can afford it.”

I pull and groan with the effort to liberate my behemoth, and it’s her turn to roll her eyes before coming to help me.

“That’s not the point,” she grunts out.

Together we get the great beast to the asphalt.

“No, the point is to give you something amazing, Spence, because I can and because I want to.”

“Well in that case, you’re paid up through, like, forever.”

“Huh?”

She takes my hands, her voice sweet as she says, “You’re the most amazing gift I could ever receive,” before giving me another bruising hug.

God, that was some kind of cheesy, but there’s been enough eye-rolling for one day. And while I won’t admit it out loud, I kind of like it. What does that say about me? Am I getting sappy in my old age?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I release her from the hug. “I might still get you the car.”

She tries to warn me with a look, but I’ve got nothing to lose so she’s going to have to try harder than that.

“Don’t you dare, Ash. I mean it.”

I choose not to say anything else, but I find myself whistling a delightfully jaunty tune as I make easier work of my remaining two bags.

“Ash, I said no.”

“Come on, we need to put the top up,” I smile as I change the subject. “It’s already rained once and it looks like it might again.”

And it does. The sky is overcast and grey.

“I still said no, Al Roker,” she replies, going to turn the key in the ignition and pressing the button to raise the soft top before we each crank up the windows.

With a reverent press of the old fashioned door locks and a determination that we need help with the luggage, well, my luggage, we make our way to the door. This place is so centrally located in the heart of the French Quarter that I never would have known that it was a hotel. In fact, if it weren’t for the wooden sign hanging from the roof of the porch, There would be no way to distinguish this place from a small, Victorian home.

I’m a little disappointed at first. We wanted to go big, but this doesn’t look so big, despite the reviews online. However, I quickly learn that looks can be deceiving. Spencer stays with our stuff as I head inside. It’s oddly spacious, the cream colored walls a study in the art of wainscoting with ornate brass fixtures that fill the space with soft light. Small, colorful paintings and rugs are carefully situated throughout, their frames and designs just as intricate as everything else.

I’ve never really cared for polished brass or busy patterns. It’s gaudy. My tastes always ran the way of modern colonial with a touch of fem-rock. But somehow, for how busy everything is, it still works. I approach the alcove where a well-dressed, ebony man awaits with an overly white smile, his hair perfectly cropped short against his crown and his suit neatly starched.

“Welcomb to Place D’Ames,” he says with a strange baroque that is noticeably French but… broken, maybe? “I um Rene. Ow may I be of ser’vice?”

It takes a minute for the words to actually make sense in my brain. “Oh, yeah, I have a reservation under Ashley Davies.”

“Wonderfuel,” he says in this way that seems pleasant enough, but somehow I feel like I’ve just been slapped in the face.

He types into the small computer in front of him. “Ah, jes, there ou arr.” He places a heavy, golden pen on a giant book that’s sitting on the counter. “Please sign ze registrar ere, an I will need to see identificacione.”

I lay my license out and take the pen to sign and the date his book as he lays the hotel’s contract on the counter next to it. I only skim over it. It’s a standard liability of stay and disclaimer of cost, so I sign it as well. He takes the paper and then gives me a look as if he’s waiting for something, maybe a much needed enema to commence. After a moment with no such help with the wedge up his ass, he glances at the pen in my hand.

“Oh, sorry,” I say before handing it over.

He says nothing else, just continues typing into his computer before retrieving a couple of keys and setting them on the counter.

“Ju arr on ze verd flur, womb tree gee.”

I stare at him for a moment. I get that tree is three, but I just can’t figure out what “gee” is, and honestly, my brain is still hung up on “womb.”

I try not to laugh. “I’m sorry, which room?”

With a long-suffering sigh that’s twinged with a high-pitched tone, he clasps his hands in front of himself and tries again.

“Tree gee.”

I’m at a loss and he can tell. In fact, I’m fairly certain that he thinks that I’m mentally challenged.

“Tree gee,” he says slower, as if his gross pronunciation can be fixed by speed or cadence.

I still can’t puzzle it out, but I know that I’m on the third floor. I could try every lock up there until the key works, but that might not go over so well with the occupants. In a last ditch effort, I look at the keys and find a keychain on each that reads, “3G.”

“Three ‘G,’ thank you,” I try to smooth it over, but he’s very bored with me at this point.

I kind of want to slap him and then run away, but then I still need help with the luggage. I debate the merits of a hernia against further dealing with this snot, and determine that I’m paying, so he’s going to help or get someone who will.

“Oh, uh, I need someone to help with our luggage.”

“Oh, but of curse,” he says very, very brightly before demurely lifting his hands to one side of his face and clapping twice.

He assumes his usual demeanor, which I’m prone to believe it normally tightly wound and nothing to do with me, as we just stare at each other in silence. Just a moment later a young man appears dressed like a performing monkey. This boy is, quite literally. wearing a maroon, double-breasted jacket with brass buttons, white cloth gloves, and a hat that looks like it once belonged to Abu from Aladdin, tassel and all.

He also looks scared to death as he addresses Rene. “Can I assist you, sir?”

“Oui, Jean,” Rene says. “Please halp our guest with her baggoge. Zey arr in womb tree gee.”

“Uh, yes, sir. Right away, sir.”

Jean looks to me expectantly, and I can tell that he’s just as ready as I am to get away from Rene, so I don’t waste another moment before heading back outside, Abu in tow. Spencer smiles at us as the boy quickly and quietly retrieves our bags. Well, he retrieves the biggest two, mine and Spencer’s, and it’s nearly painful to watch him try to walk. Mine is so much heavier than hers that he’s skewed to a forty-five degree angle and looks like one of those people from that old V-8 commercial.

Spencer and I both grab the remaining bags and follow him up the stairs. He’s struggling, his face red and slightly sweaty as we reach the second floor landing where he looks up at the last flight of stairs with a hopeless expression on his face.

Spencer gestures to him when he reluctantly starts to move again. “What are you going to do when we go backpacking through Europe next month, hire someone to carry your luggage around after you?”

“Hey, it works for golfers and I’ll tip him well. Besides, you’re one to talk. Your camera weighs as much a small child. I still don’t see how you lug that thing around so easily.”

She grins rakishly and raises her free arm to kiss her bicep before situating it in a pointing flex pose. “The gym is that way.”

I chuckle at her. “You’re so full of shit.”

But in all honesty, her confidence is sexy.

After a few more grunts from Jean, we arrive at the door. I unlock it and the bags nearly shake the whole building when he drops them with a thud. A little bit of debris may have fallen from the ceiling. I set mine down and give him a tip that makes him run from the room as if he’s afraid that I’ll change my mind, or maybe send him back downstairs for Spencer’s camera.

“Do you think your camera’s safe in the trunk?”

“No. I’ll go down and get it in a sec.”

“You want me call the bellboy back,” I ask, hesitating to shut and lock the door.

“No, I can handle it, and I wouldn’t trust anyone else to carry it anyway,” she mumbles, her attention focused out of the arched windows framing the corner of the room. “Wow, Ash, this is great. We have an awesome view of the Quarter from up here.”

I peek out of the window adjacent to her and have to agree. We can either go down into the party on the street or just hang out on the balcony to watch. We’ll probably do a little of both. The room itself is really interesting too. It’s not nearly as lavish as the Blueberry Hill House, or even my house, but it’s comfortable and cozy. The carpet is strange, and it makes me a little dizzy. It’s crimson with little cream polka dots that kind of give the illusion that I’m always moving. The walls are cream as well, all but one. The accent wall behind the beds is the iconic brick present everywhere else throughout New Orleans architecture. It adds a touch of rustic industrial to the almost clashing Victorian décor.

The two queen beds look entirely too inviting, with gleaming white sheets, loads of fluffed white pillows, an embroidered comforter folded up on each end, and black, wrought-iron headboards that match the balcony perfectly. Red curtains frame the windows just right, allowing in the natural light while offering some privacy.

My glance around the room ends when I find my eyes on Spencer, and she smiles at me, telling me that she’s just as happy as I am to be here. She’s been a little off the last five days, since she saw Carmen at the show, but she’s still trudging along like a trooper. I’ve found myself wondering if Carmen’s ploy would work, is working. I mean, Spencer said that it had worked once before, but she’s made no move to leave, or even speak of it. Maybe she’s just waiting for our excursions to be over? I don’t know, but I’m fairly certain that she’s thinking about it.

I’ve been too afraid to ask, or more afraid of what it means that I want to know. It’s forcing me to confront and prepare myself for the fact that Spencer will leave. It’ll happen eventually, whether it’s because of Carmen, someone else, or because she doesn’t feel right about living for free. It’s inevitable. And I need to be okay with that. It’s sort of the last piece of the puzzle. We’ve come so far, and yet there is so much further to go. It’s scary. I know that I’ve already lost the biggest part of her, the part that still stings if I even slightly look at it, let alone touch it. It’s that part of me that keeps blood circulating in my veins. It’s been on bypass, on life-support. Having her with me has filled my heart with a false sense of security, and once she’s gone, it’ll have no choice but to function on its own or fail completely.

Which will it be?

Fuck if I know, but I know that asking and getting answers won’t help. She’s my best friend, only a friend, and that’s going to become real at some point. It’s the last step, maybe even a fatal one. And as the quiet in the room gets a little weird, as Spencer starts to fidget with her fingers, I realize that it might be so much easier if it weren’t just the two of us here. But every single person that I had invited declined.

Kyla’s reasons were obvious. We still aren’t talking and going on a trip didn’t seem like a good idea. She didn’t even come to the Manchester show last Sunday. So, she was out and I was okay with that.

Kate had to work, and I know it’s true. When she’s not with the band, she works three different jobs, all of them far beneath her intellectually. I don’t even know what they are right now. They change often, but she does what she can to pay the bills, no matter how degrading the job. I respect her for that. She’ll come when she can and when it’s shorter excursions that are closer to home and don’t require her to ask for time off.

Jac and Jon, well, again the reasons are obvious. Although, both wanted to come when they learned that the other wasn’t. I didn’t want to say no, but I did. I have enough of my own issues to work through without adding their problems, which have escalated. Before, they could at least be in the same room. Now, it’s next to impossible. And that’s whatever. I get it. Kyla and I have a similar relationship at the moment, but she’s not in the band. So, I told them to figure their shit out before the middle of next month or there’s no way that they’ll be backpacking with us.

Shirley and Sam have an open invitation, but they only wanted to come with us to Canada. They feel that soul-searching is for the young. But they had been due for a vacation, and one of the sweetest ski resorts on the planet was just too good to pass up.

So that just leaves me and Spencer, here, alone, seeing and feeling things that we don’t talk about because what more is there to say when the one person you want is the one that you can’t have? There is nothing that either of us can say, so we continue to dance around sensitive subjects.

She breaks the silence. “Alright, well, I’m gonna run down and get the camera. What do you want to do when I get back?”

“Um, I thought, since it’s late, we’d just walk around a little and grab something to eat nearby. That cool with you?”

“Very cool,” she says brightly, making her way towards the door. “I’ll be right back.”

I nod and she leaves, and I find myself slumping onto the end of the nearest bed and scrubbing at my face. I know that I’m supposed to ignore it and I know that it’s supposed to hurt, but I also know that I’m supposed to get through it. And it would be lie to say that I don’t want to run away from it, but I know that the desire to run has nothing to do with being gone, not this time. I also know that it wouldn’t help. Like a devil, hot on your heels, pain simply follows. I just don’t know how to be calm through the hurt yet.

So I swallow it down, force these things into the background. They’re always there, like white noise, but if there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that keeping busy helps. Distractions are great, and I plan to distract the shit out of myself this week.


The next morning finds me sleeping in until ten, despite the fact that Spencer was up, ready, and nagging me by eight. I’m not an early riser by nature, and I played it off as jetlag, but the honest truth is that it’s emotional exhaustion. My thoughts from the night before weighed heavily on me for the rest of the evening, and being with her so… intimately, only made it worse. I mean, we didn’t share a bed or anything, but it was just the two of us: laughing, being close, touching, imbibing in spirits and enjoying the magical quality that seemed to lace the air like a drug.

It felt perfect, too perfect.

It was terrible.

And it made me sad. I found that I was having a hard time focusing on the fun that I was having because I couldn’t quit watching for that proverbial other shoe. It was exhausting, and I could have easily slept the day away, but Spencer doesn’t allow me to do that since we got back from Canada. Depression hasn’t been ruling since a gorgeous blonde took the throne.

This is yet another reason that I don’t want her to leave. She makes me do things, face things, in a way that doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out, at least not all of the time. And knowing that only makes the depression worse.

I honestly can’t win.

So she finally dragged my ass out of bed, and after a shower and authentic, French Continental breakfast of fresh croissants, fruit, and yogurt, we hopped in the car and set my GPS for Uptown. We’re going shopping, which is nothing special really, but I have plans tonight, extremely stupid and out of character plans that fit perfectly into our agreement to go big.

I want tonight to feel exciting, fun, and fresh. That’s the whole point of this year, to feel reinvented and alive, to sample the extraordinary that life has to offer before life is gone altogether. But I know that in order to do that, I really need to stop living in my head.

So tonight is about Spencer, about enjoying her very existence. This is for her, though I’m sure I’ll have nothing to complain about. So, I’m trying to look past my insecurities, or more succinctly, ignore them altogether.

It’s about an hour’s drive to the Garden District, and putting music on was nearly impossible. Very little about this car is updated. It’s a classic after all. It has power for the soft-top, but everything else is manual, including the windows and locks, and this radio is plain fm. It doesn’t even have air conditioning, which is fine for early spring, especially during the rainy season.

But no music?

That meant sitting in silence and trying to find things to talk about that were superficial enough to keep it copasetic.

Not an easy task.

So, I found a local station that plays jazz. There are only a million of them, but this one seems to play stuff that isn’t so chaotic. I pretty much like all music for one reason or another, from technicality to just because I can relate to it personally. And while I can appreciate the artistry and talent that it takes to create jazz – I mean it’s astounding – it’s not something that I’d listen to given another option.

But anything is better than emotional pitfalls and awkward silence, so it’s on. Now it’s just awkward pensiveness with jazz floating from the speakers of a space so tiny that it’s claustrophobic. It’s sunny today, but the top is up because we learned quickly that seventy miles-per-hour with it down was a bit like standing next to a jet engine.

“Ash, are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“You sure?”

“Something on your mind, Spence,” I ask dryly.

“You just seemed kind of… down last night, and this morning you wanted to sleep.”

“I was just jetlagged. I told you that.”

“Yeah, but it’s only two hour’s difference…”

I shrug. “I have a very delicate system.”

She snorts, but she lets it go and I start to relax. Of course, I shouldn’t have.

“You’re sure you don’t want to talk about anything? You’re all… jittery.”

Yes, well, the thought of her leaving makes me nervous, but I can’t exactly say that. And the plan for tonight is making me nervous, though I can’t exactly say that either. And she makes me nervous, but I can’t exactly say that any more than I can say anything else.

I, in a nutshell, can’t say anything.

So I say, “I’m sure.”

I glance over at her. Her brows are furrowed as if she’s thinking way too hard, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe she’s the one who needs to talk.

“Do you want to talk about something?”

“Oh, uh… no, no, I’m good.”

I don’t believe that for an instant. Something has her in knots, and by the look on her face I’m fairly certain that I don’t wish to unravel them. My mind is far too capable at coming up with worst case scenarios. I really don’t want to bring them to life. So the ride continues on in jazz filled silence, but at least it’s not as heavy anymore. It’s almost as if now that we’ve pointed out the ginormous, multi-faceted elephant in the backseat, it’s easier to abide its presence. I chuckle. The mental image of an elephant in this tiny car is fairly comical.

“What’s so funny,” Spencer asks with a hint of a smile in her voice.

“Oh, um, elephants.”

“Elephants,” she asks slowly, as if she thinks that she didn’t quite hear me right.

I nod, because she did.

“You are, by far, the most random person I know.”

“But you love me,” I give her a smug smile.

“Yeah, I really do,” she says seriously, almost solemnly.

And now she’s thinking again, and whatever the topic is, it’s hurting her. And that just makes me crazy, but not crazy enough to actually try to find out why. Fortunately, she doesn’t say anything more.

We find ourselves on Magazine Street, the place that google gave me several weeks ago, and I direct Spencer to specifically park in front of a pretentious and overpriced store called Billy Reid. The valet tries to secure the car for us, but I brush him off. He then tries to get us to move it and I resist the urge to slap him, but only barely. Spencer, however, agrees to move the car, to which I have to protest. This earns me a strange round of questions and odd expressions, but I brush them off as well. I’m not giving away my plans for the evening until I’m under duress.

Instead, I give the valet my name and a tip to placate him, and then redirect Spencer’s focus to the plethora of shopping at her fingertips, though she has to realize that something’s up now thanks to the car driving, boy wonder.

But, look, shopping!

It’s my only hope of keeping her in the dark, and it works to at least keep her from asking anymore questions, though her speculation is evident.

This area is just as busy as the French Quarter, but it has more of a fair-like atmosphere. Vendors are everywhere along the street, whether indoors or in large open zones filled with booths; everything is lively and crammed together, which makes it nice as we start to walk because it’s fairly easy to tell from the street if we actually want to venture inside, though as we work our way through it, every single place seems to have something that catches our attention.

Spencer is in her element, even if she can’t buy anything. Her love for shopping is one of the more girly things about her, and I sort of adore her for it. She gets excited and it lights up her face.

What’s not to love about that?

We find ourselves looking at the more bohemian fare: homemade jewelry, art, and multicultural antiques, which are in abundant supply. Spencer scores a few vintage movie posters and I find some rare vinyls.

There’s one item that Spencer has yet another hemorrhaging fit over. I have no idea what’s so special about a 1938 Bolex, pre-war crank camera, especially a working one, which I’m not so sure that I believe by the look of the thing. But whatever her reasons, I’m almost convinced that she likes it more than the car. It isn’t all that expensive, but of course she refuses my offer. However, I figure that if I can’t get her the car, it wouldn’t hurt to purchase this much less expensive hunk of junk on the sly and have it mailed home without her knowledge. Her birthday’s not for another five months, and I’m not in the habit of being on time with gifts, but it feels good to be ahead of the game for once and not wonder if the gift will be well received.

It’s early evening by the time that we find ourselves winding down and in desperate need of sustenance. I convince Spencer to have a coffee and pastry from a nearby café, well, mostly. I just sort of jump in and order for her, which earns me an incredulous look. I don’t want her to spoil her appetite but I can’t very well just say that. Fortunately, she doesn’t comment this time, even as her brows furrow and her brain starts to smoke. I’m not sure if it’s because of what’s been on her mind or if she’s wracking her brain to figure out the reason for my strange behavior, but again, I’m not going to prod.

And she doesn’t either.

It’s our agreement.

The party on the street has started to pick up, people crowding in to get drunk and revel in the live music that’s begun to assault the air from nearly every open bar now that the sun has gone down. We finish loading our bags in the car and I start to twitch. I need to keep her distracted for just a little bit longer before the evening festivities begin. And that’s when I notice a street vendor still shutting down. Her booth is rather elaborate and eye-catching, though it’s definitely hodge-podge. The masks hanging on each available inch of space are rather beautiful as she starts to carefully put each piece into bins. Honestly though, this is good. I can use this to buy another half-an-hour without outright taking the car keys.

“Hey, Spence?”

“Hm.”

“Let’s check that one out real quick.”

I gesture to the woman and Spencer glances over at her. I can tell that Spencer’s ready to head back to the hotel, but shopping is something that she just can’t resist.

“Sure,” she says with a shrug. “I can handle one more quick perusal.”

I smile at her easy agreement and bounce around to her side of the car to take her hand as we both cross the street. Spencer pulls me to a stop to look both ways first, and her caution just makes me laugh, at least, until I realize that while I have nothing lose, she, in fact, does.

“Do you mind if we look while you’re breaking down,” Spencer asks as we approach.

The woman smiles up at us, her eyes kind and deeply set in her dark, withered face. “Y’all go’wan ahead. Lemme know iffen ya have any questions.”

I chuckle and Spencer squeezes my hand almost painfully hard. It’s been happening a lot today. For some reason, I find the southern drawl funny and have a difficult time not laughing at people when they talk to me. If it weren’t for Spencer smoothing things over and keeping me in check, I’m certain that I’d have been slapped several times by now. Either way, the Southern drawl is a million times better than Rene’s garbled French and some of the broken English that I’ve encountered.

The old woman takes my uncontrollable idiocy in stride, and we start to look at the masks. Some are huge, probably three feet high with plumes of purple, green, and gold feathers. I imagine that it would be like wearing a peacock on my head; they’re that crazy. Others look more like what you’d expect from a European masquerade ball, almost Phantom of the Opera-ish. We’ve seen plenty of them today, but these just seem different, better somehow. Every single one of them is ornate and bejeweled and unique despite their similarities.

They sort of remind me of New Orleans as a whole.

“It’s like Phantom of the Opera,” Spencer says wistfully.

I snort. She’s in my head, I swear. Also, I hated that movie, but then I don’t like Opera or creepy guys.

Spencer says, “It’s just so romantic…,” but I really don’t get romance from a disfigured stalker turned kidnapper.

Oh well, I like how different we are in some aspects.

“If you say so, Spence.”

“I do,” she replies resolutely.

I shake my head and focus on the mask in front of me. I like it. It’s loud, but it’s not the three foot wonder that some of these are. I touch the feathers and marvel at how soft they are, how delicate, how they seem to defy gravity. The expression on the sculpted part of the face is actually kind of terrifying, but also strangely beautiful. All of them are like that. To my surprise, I find myself thinking that they epitomize romance: scary and beautiful.

Maybe that’s why Spencer likes them too.

“Ma’am, can you tell us the history behind the masks,” Spencer asks the old woman.

She looks up, her wizened face cracking a smile, and I can see the delight in her eyes as she speaks. “It’s been ‘round hundreds a years, from my great, great grandpappy’s day, when bein’ noble birth made a diff’rence. Mardi Gras was the only time a year when none o’ that nonsense made a lick of difference. For a few nights, you’s could be a whole ‘nother person, talk ta anybody, class be damned. It dun matter so much no more, but it’s a favorite tradition.”

Spencer grins at the old woman, and I can tell that she’s really getting into it. I am a little too, but time is passing quickly and we need to get back across the street to Billy Reid. In fact, I can see the troop preparing for us through the floor to ceiling windows that line the street. They’re closed, but they’re expecting. Money buys any and everything, except for happiness, or so I’ve been told.

Well, I’m still going to try to buy happiness, for a few hours at least.

“We should get one, Spence.”

She seems to think about it for a minute, picking up the one that she’s most taken with, but one quick look at the price tag has her quickly squashing that idea.

Her eyes get round and she mouths the words, “Two-hundred dollars,” when the old woman isn’t looking.

“It’s tradition,” I whisper. “Besides,” I gesture to the hag, her clothes little better than rags. “She can probably use the money.”

She considers the woman, her age, her appearance, and nods her head, though I can tell that her next words are a little painful. “I’m buying.”

I roll my eyes. “Come on, Spence. Don’t be like that. I thought we agreed that since this was all my idea, I’d pay.”

She pulls me away to give us the appearance of privacy, but people are shuffling past us on the street in droves.

“You’ve bought everything,” she says. “I don’t feel right about it.”

“Yeah, well, what am I going to do with all my money if not spend it?”

“Invest in a worthy cause; give to charities. I don’t need your money, Ash. If anything, it makes me a little uncomfortable.”

“What? Why?”

“It’s just… a lot. I don’t want people to think that I only like you for what you can give me.”

“Spencer, you loved me when I was penniless and homeless…”

“I know…”

So what’s the problem here? And why would she care about how it looks? “You never cared about what people thought before. Why now?”

“It’s not others so much. I just feel… like I’ve been taking advantage of you, living with you and traveling with you, having you pay for everything. It would be different if we were together and I was contributing, but that’s not how it is. It’s not a good feeling. I like to earn what I have.”

“Spencer, you’re doing me a favor. You quit your job and left the person you love for me.”

“No,” she says vehemently. “I did those things for me, not you. I wasn’t happy, or at least, not as happy as I want to be. None of what happened is your fault. It was time for a change, but I need to do that myself. I need to rely on me… alone.”

I get all of what she’s saying. The truth is that I expect no less of her, but there’s something that I’m coming to learn because of her.

“Sometimes, doing it alone isn’t the best way, Spence. Sometimes you need to lean on others.”

“You’re practically carrying me, Ash.”

I scoff at her. “Please, Spence. We both know that you’ve helped me way more than I’ve helped you.”

She frowns and I know that she’s thinking again, and for a moment, given this turn in the conversation, I’m willing to brave those answers. I’m willing to ask and listen, despite my fear, but then she continues and I don’t get the chance.

“That’s not true. I haven’t done anything for you at all, except maybe hurt and confuse you. And I’m sorry, because I don’t know how to fix it.”

“Maybe there is no easy fix, Spence. Maybe we just need to keep moving along until the right answers present themselves.” I tuck a lock of hair behind her ear. “Besides, it feels good to know that you need me.”

She smiles, though it’s sad. “I do, Ash, so much, but I also need to stand on my own two feet, and so do you.”

Okay, I’m almost a little offended. “What does that mean?”

She starts to fidget uncomfortably. “I don’t mean that in a bad way. I just meant… that… some things we can’t avoid or lean on each other for. Sometimes, we have to help ourselves. I- I don’t know. I’m just confused and I’m sorry.”

She sighs in exasperation and I can’t help but smile at her because confused and bumbling Spencer is pretty damn cute. But some of what she’s just said is sticking to places in my brain that I myself am still very confused about. It’s that attic, that place where things are starting to bounce around and force me to acknowledge them. But not yet and not now. I’d rather be confused and blissfully ignorant than aware and miserable.

I grab the two masks that we’re both taken with. “Will you just let me buy the masks already?”

She sighs but nods and with a smile, I overpay the old woman.

“My goodness, child, thank ya, thank ya fer yer generosity,” the old woman says.

“No worries,” I say, and just as I’m about to leave with Spencer, she stops me and puts a wrinkled hand to my cheek, her eyes old but bright with a wisdom that I don’t possess.

“It’s comin’, honey. An it’s gonna hurt somethin’ fierce, but it’ll work out in the end; you’ll see.”

She smiles and pats my face before going back to her work, and Spencer and I just look at each other. Neither of us have any idea what that meant, or why she felt compelled to say that to me, but that painfully thoughtful expression reappears on Spencer’s face, and while I can’t see my own, I’m fairly certain that I’m wearing something similar.

I’m almost a little frightened by her words, as if they’re somehow prophetic.

But I just don’t want to think about this shit. Why does everything and everyone seem hell bent on forcing me to? I look across the street to the well-dressed man at the door of Billy Reid checking his watch, and it gives me something easy to focus on.

I grab Spencer’s hand and stay right with her as we put our masks in the car so that I can stop her from getting in. Instead, I take the keys, lock the driver’s door, and shut it. She gives me a curious look, and it only gets worse when I take her hands again and start walking backwards toward the store.

“What’s going on,” she asks.

“We’re not done yet,” I answer as cryptically as possible.

“Ash, you know I love shopping, and I never thought I’d say this, but I think I’ve had my fill for the day.”

I smile at her and shake my head. “Nah, you can do it, Spence. I believe in you.”

We’re almost to the door when she pulls us to a stop and scrutinizes the situation inside. It’s fairly obvious what’s going on here.

“This is what you’ve been weird about all day, why I couldn’t actually eat anything, why you’ve been jittery?”

I nod and look at the manager, holding up a finger to ask him for a minute. He acquiesces, and he should; he’s been paid for the whole evening regardless of the outcome. I look back to Spencer. This is the ritziest place in town. Truth be known, I hate places like this and Spencer knows that. But there weren’t any other options for what I have planned tonight, though given the look on her face I’m starting to think that I should have scrapped the whole thing. I just wanted to give her the full royal treatment, from a make-over to a first class meal. I wanted her to feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, because she loves that movie and because she deserves it. And this place is going to give that to her.

“It’s a clothing store,” she says.

“Yes, but tonight, it’s more than that.”

“I don’t understand.”

I shrug and start to pull her to the door. “Indulge me.”

The man opens the door and greets us. “Ms. Davies and Ms. Carlin?”

Finally, someone I can completely understand.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Welcome to Billy Reid. I am Alexandre Thibodeaux, the manager.” We step inside where he locks the door behind us before introducing us to the perfectly coifed, brightly smiling ladies waiting in a line. “This is Paulette and Ines, they will help you find appropriate attire for the evening.”

They’re the older of the women lined in front of us, and they step forward to greet us cordially before going back to their places.

“Next we have Desi and Mona,” Alexandre continues. “They will attend to your beautification needs.”

These two are quite a bit younger and much less formal as they step forward to greet us.

“And last, we have Marguerite and Sophie, they are here to see to your every whim.”

The youngest ones step forward to greet us, and I can’t help but see the social stigmas of class perfectly on display in these six individuals.

Alexandre holds out his hand and I place the car keys there. “If you don’t require anything else of me,” he continues. “I will retire to my office upstairs. Do not hesitate to send someone up should you find that you need my assistance.”

He takes each of our hands and bows before leaving, and the six women practically swarm us in two groups of three, one from each line of work becoming our own. Before I know it, Spencer and I both have a flute of extremely delicious champagne and a ripe, red strawberry in our hands and we’re standing on a dais next to each other in front of a wall of mirrors in one of the bridal rooms in the store. The older women are undressing us with critical eyes while the youngest two walk around with trays of more strawberries and champagne. The ‘beautification’ attendants are nowhere to be seen.

I snag another strawberry and stuff it in my mouth, and Spencer does the same before getting my attention during this lull in the storm.

“Ash, this is… what is this?”

I glance over at her, concerned that this truly was a bad idea. “It’s supposed to be fun.”

“Well, it is,” she says vehemently. “I mean, I feel like a princess right now.” I grin at that. That was the whole point. “It just seems a little… extravagant.”

My grin fades and I shrug. “I wanted to do something special for you, something you’d really enjoy. But if you’re not, we can-”

“No, no, this is… awesome! Of course I like it! It’s like a dream…”

I hear what she’s saying but that pensive look is back, and this time, the question tumbles out without my denial filter stopping it.

“So what’s wrong?”

“It’s just, all of this is so- I mean…,” she pauses, like she doesn’t know how to articulate the remainder of that sentence, as if saying it bluntly is just too scary for her.

She fumbles with her words for nearly two minutes before blurting, “You’re spending ungodly amounts of money, aren’t you?”

Oh for fuck’s sake…

My voice is teasing. “I really don’t see how my finances are any of your business, Spence.”

“But you’re spending it on me.”

“Just- shut up. It’s just money, my money, and I’ll do what I want with it.”

She sighs and shakes her head. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

And I can see that it’s not just as simple as money. Something more is bothering her, but I can’t bring myself to go there again, to prod again, to ask questions that I’m certain that I won’t like the answers to. But I can’t just leave it like this.

I hate it.

I hate how it feels and how it’s making her feel.

“Look, Spencer, I wanted to do something incredible and fun while we’re here. We’ve been doing really well, and I just wanted to thank you for everything, for being back in my life, for taking care of me-”

For loving me at all, even when I’ve never treated it like enough…

She smiles at me, and her eyes are glassy, and I feel like a shit because she’s going to cry. How many times do I have to hate making her cry before I stop doing it?

“Ash, you don’t owe me anything. I’m the one who’s grateful, more grateful than I’ve ever been in my life.” She seems to get frustrated with me, or herself, I can’t tell. “Can’t you see just how special you are, especially to me? You know me better than anyone ever has. You treat me better than anyone ever has. You’re…, you’re my best friend. I-”

I can’t hear this right now. I don’t need to hear her say these things. I crave them, but the context of the real situation just isn’t something that I want to deal with.

I know that we’re best friends.

I know that it can’t be more than that, even when it’s the only thing that I’ve ever really wanted.

I know that it’s selfish and that it can’t happen. I just don’t want to hear it. I just don’t want to see our agreement to stay out of this turbulent water go up in flames. I need her to know that I understand and that it’s okay to keep things superficial because I don’t know how I’ll make it if we don’t.

So I cut her off. “Spencer, it’s okay. I understand, truly.”

And she gets even more frustrated, but it just makes her sad. “I don’t think you do, Ash. It’s like sometimes you do and then it’s just gone, and it’s been that way since the night you showed up on my doorstep. And I keep trying to fix it, with boundaries, with throwing those boundaries out the window, with- just, I can’t make you see it.”

I want to ask what it is that I don’t see, but then it’s the same story from that day at the diner, the day that I kissed her and convinced her that I did understand. But I’m not so sure about that anymore. I understood something, but I don’t think it’s the same thing or things. I just don’t know what it is that she wants from me, but whatever it is, I seem to be incapable of giving it to her. All I can give her is what’s standing in front of her right now, which amounts to little. It’s just people paid to lick our boots and me. That’s all I have: some money and a broken soul.

I’d give anything to give her something more, something worthwhile, the same that she’s given me.

And it’s about this time that I give up on my brain and gulp down my champagne and another strawberry. Spencer has stopped talking, that irritating facial expression of deep thought, worry, and pain somehow normal on her now.

I can’t look it.

I can’t look at her.

So I look around for something else to focus on, but the older women are nowhere to be seen so I have yet another strawberry and try to slow down a bit on the champagne. Spencer has no such compunction. There are three empty glasses resting on her server’s tray where a packet of Kleenex has magically appeared.

Spencer cleans her face and I finish off my third glass only to retrieve another, slowing down be damned. I’m not trying to get loaded, but a good buzz would be nice, and quickly, if at all possible, especially if Spencer can’t object. Besides, I have one hell of a constitution. I’ve often wondered if I have Irish heritage.

The older women choose this moment to return with grinning faces and two rolling racks of dresses. They each pull their prime picks from the racks and present them to us.

“If you’re comfortable, you can change here, or we can show you to separate fitting rooms,” my attendant says to me.

I glance over at Spencer, who’s already pulling her clothes off, and now, not only can’t I bear to look at her for the right reasons, but I can’t seem to tear my eyes away for the wrong ones. It takes everything that I have to divert my attention elsewhere, but then we’re mostly surrounded with mirrors. I chug down a fresh glass, and swipe at my mouth, my mind starting to feel delightfully fuzzy amidst all the jumble.

“Alright then,” the woman says with a wry grin at Spencer. “Here works just fine.”

I hand my server my glass and stare at my feet as I start to undress. My attendant unzips the bag on her choice and shows it to me, giving me a litany of information on how this will accentuate my this and my that, but my eye catches Spencer removing her bra in the mirror and I no longer hear a word that the woman’s saying.

Breasts – two, beautiful, sloping, creamy breasts. That’s all I can see and hear and think about: Spencer’s breasts. I’ve seen them many times, and they were awesome then, pert and young, but now… well, four years has made them rounder, softer, fuller…

For fuck’s sake, I’m a pervert, a prepubescent boy without any sense or decorum. If I had a penis, I’d have made a mess of myself…

“Miss…?”

My eyes start to harden in their sockets but I can’t blink until Spencer’s covered. The sigh that escapes me is one of both disappointment and relief.

“Miss?”

I look to the woman in front of me to find her staring at me expectantly. “Do you like it,” she asks as if it’s not the first time.

I blink a few times and wonder why she’d ask me that. But then I glance at the garments in her hands and realize that she’s not referring to Spencer or her breasts. I look at it and try to pretend but I just can’t muster the will to care at this point. I’m on my fifth glass of champagne and my brain is still seeing breasts, but I have to tell her something.

“Um, yeah,” I say.

And as I actually look at it, I decide that I do like it. It’s black and has three pieces. The top is a bustier, little more than a lacy bra. Lingerie is probably one of the frilliest things about me. I love to wear it and I love to see it.  The vest that layers over it is just as risqué, with a mostly exposed stomach and ample amounts of cleavage.

But what I really notice about it is that it’s not the norm and not what I’d expect from this stuffy store or this stuffy woman. It’s almost like a tuxedo jacket without sleeves. The accompanying skirt is short, but long enough that I should be able to get in and out of vehicles without exposing myself, but only just barely. Rounded out with a pair of black suede heels and I have to admit that this woman’s hit the mark.

I start to put everything on, and I can tell by the woman’s self-satisfied smile that she knows that she’s good at her job. Once I’m done, I look in the mirror and have to admit that it’s most definitely me.

“I like it,” a lot, but I don’t want to feed her ego. “What else do you have in your bag of tricks?”

She goes back to the rack and selects another bag, unzipping it for me to see. “Most everything else is your more typical late-night attire. This is the quintessential little black cocktail dress. There are also several similar items in white. I felt that what you’re wearing now is more unique, like it fits your personal style a little more.”

I look at the cocktail dress and have to agree; there’s really nothing interesting about it. It’s very nice, but very safe, and a quick perusal of her other items shows them to be mostly the same. I have several dresses at home just like these, but nothing quite like what I’m currently wearing.

“So we have a winner,” she asks.

I grin at her. “Yeah, I think we do.”

I glance over at Spencer a little reluctantly. I’ve only just regained the use of my mind and I don’t want to lose it again. Fortunately, and unfortunately, she’s covered, and I see that her process of selection hasn’t been as easy. Her attendant must not have that sixth sense that mine does. Mine notices this as well, so she goes over and finds something on the rack and presents it to Spencer to try on. I divert my eyes and stare into my champagne, and only once this dress is found to be favorable and firmly in place, do I allow myself to look up again.

Spencer is gorgeous nude. There’s no denying it, but somehow, seeing her in this eggshell, mid-calf slip is almost better. It’s one piece and hugs her figure so perfectly that it’s almost as if she’s been sculpted from the material. The neck plunges to hint at the uninhibited beauties beneath and the back is mostly missing, showcasing her golden shoulders.

I know that I’ve had plenty to drink, but I feel suddenly dry. The fifth glass of champagne in my hands is gone quickly and I find myself asking for directions to the bathroom just to find a moment alone. Once inside, I turn the water on and carefully wet my face to cool off. This entire trip has become an exercise in the uncomfortable, and while I’m enjoying my time with Spencer in this unique and strange culture, it’s exhausting.

My mind and emotions are in a state of flux, rapidly swinging from happy to sad, from superficial to bone deep, and I can’t keep up with it. Am I bipolar? I really don’t know and with the champagne muddling my brain, I really don’t care.

I dry myself with a few paper towels, and stop to do my business before washing my hands and heading back out, determined to stop trying to keep up with it. If the pendulum is going to swing, let it swing. If I get sliced in half, well, at least I’ll be mostly drunk when it happens. I’m met at the bathroom door by a different woman, and I don’t remember her name either, but then she seems to understand that because she reminds me.

“I’m Desi,” she says. “If you’ll follow me, we have an area set up.”

I follow her into a small warehouse in the back that appears to be storage, and see that a portion has been cleared and set up to operate as two salon booths. Spencer is already seated in one of them, her hands and feet soaking in tubs of some sort of aromatic solution. Her eyes are closed, her head tilted back, and there’s a definite look of contentment on her face as her attendant fixes her make-up. I settle myself into the adjoining leather monstrosity that looks a lot like a dentist’s chair without the head rest, and proceed to assume a similar position to Spencer.

“Ash, this is awesome…”

I groan out my agreement, closing my eyes as the bath soaking my feet bubbles slightly and a brush starts to whisper over my face. Everything smells good and feels good, and I begin to melt into a puddle. I think we’re both a little drunk, so it helps us to be quiet and comfortable together, the earlier conversation evaporating away, that is until my attendant gets to the mascara and eyeliner portion. Spencer chuckles at me for commandeering the utensils and applying them for myself, and I just glare at her in response, though she doesn’t see it because she still has her eyes closed.

Still, how dare she laugh?

“It’s your fault,” I vocalize my thoughts.

“I know,” she sighs out happily. “But I just can’t feel bad about it.” She glances over at me with a smile. “You were always beautiful, but you looked so gorgeous after I was done.”

Am I blushing?

She laughs because I must be and my cheeks certainly feel hot, so I ignore her and finish my make-up as I consider ways to get back at her for emotionally scarring me, though after that statement, my heart’s just not in it. Besides, when my attendant starts doing a full mani-pedi, I really can’t find anything wrong with the world. My feet and hands both get treated to a massage, all of my nails get professionally clipped and glossed, and my skin gets thoroughly moisturized. I’m in heaven and it’s all done too soon. But then, I can’t really complain because she starts doing my hair.

God, the way that it tingles across my scalp when someone touches me this way… it’s almost better than an orgasm, though it’s been so long since I’ve had one with another person in the room that I may not even know if that’s true. I’m fairly certain that I’ve lost consciousness by the time that she’s telling me that she’s finished, because Spencer’s not next to me when I open my eyes again.

“She went to the ladies room,” Desi tells me with a smile as she starts to put things away.

She turns and hands me a mirror and the results of my inspection are favorable, very favorable. I look hot. I feel hot. And I realize that I haven’t really felt this way in a long time. It’s nice, very nice, to feel, not just human, but beautiful and sexy. While Spencer’s missing, I settle the tip with all of the girls and steal another strawberry and glass of champagne.

“Is our ride here,” I ask one of the servers as I take a bite and chase it with the bubbly.

I’m starving now, and I know that Spencer has to be as well.

“Yes, it’s out front. The valet arrived back about five minutes ago. Everything’s settled.”

I give her a couple more bills for the valet tip as well and she grins a little maniacally at me as she does the math in her head.

People love money…

“Ash?”

And I love that sound, it’s soft and raspy and resonates brightly inside of me like the thrum of a newly stringed guitar. I turn in the direction of Spencer’s voice and almost choke on the champagne. For such an effervescent beverage, I find it difficult to swallow at this moment in time. Her hair is tied into a bun at the base of her skull. It’s a simple look, but it’s just so… her. I’ve seen her pull her hair back this way many times, usually with whatever she could find: pencils, chopsticks, sometimes even real hair ties. It was always a little messy when she did it, but now, she looks so elegant, so warm and inviting. I know that a bun sounds so plain, but on Spencer, it just elongates the slender column of her neck. The eggshell of the slip-like satin offsets the tanned glory of her skin, and the honey-hues of her hair make the ocean of her eyes that much more vibrant.

I just want to touch her, hug her, breathe her in. But I can’t, and I have to learn not to want to. Why do these depressing things keep popping up? It’s like it never ends, not really, no matter what decisions are made or how determined I am at keeping them. When will I look at her and just see a friend, or a beautiful woman, and not yearn and ache?

I can hear that annoying little voice in the back of mind give me the answer.

“Never,” it says.

And even as it echoes through the hollow places that still long for her, I push it away, force it into the background, tune it out and focus on the last of my champagne. But then it’s gone too quickly and she’s still standing there like a star about to go supernova and reduce me to ash. If I could choose how I’d die, that is how I’d want it: consumed with heat while standing in front of her, looking at her, loving her beyond the hope of such a thing as I burn, reduced to ash, always ash.

“You’re beautiful, Ash,” she says as she steps forward, her smile wide and white, almost sheepish.

And she means it. I can see it in her eyes, those expressive orbs that always pull me in and smother me in an ocean of weightless comfort and affection. I want to mistake the look that she’s giving me, to believe that what I’m seeing is romantic love and maybe even some lust. But she does love me. I know that it’s true; it’s just not the way that I want it. We’ve been through this. We’ve brought all of this to a close. There’s no reason for me to think on this anymore because it will never be. I had my chance and I let it slip through my fingers. I was so foolish, so fucking stupid, so childishly afraid.

I open my mouth to tell her that she’s beautiful as well, but I feel unbalanced and maybe too buzzed to think straight, and then that word seems so plain when held up to her. There isn’t a good enough word in the English language. And I just feel sad, hopelessly so, but mostly I’m angry with myself. Fortunately, all that comes out of my mouth is a sigh and words that hint at my inability to say the things that she doesn’t want to hear anymore.

“Are you ready?”

Her brows furrow and she chuckles a little. “Well, I certainly hope so. I’m about as dolled up as I’m going to get.”

Just fuck…

“You look… unbelievable, Spence.”

I exhale in relief when she brightens and the crisis of my mind and inarticulate tongue are adverted, if only mildly so. I manage to hold my arm out to her and she loops hers through it, resting it comfortably between the crux of my elbow and slope of my hip. And this would be enough to send a thrill skittering up my spine, but it’s the delicate rest of her fingers on my arm that make each step a little difficult. I somehow manage to lead her to the front of the store and she shakes her head when she sees the limo parked out front, but she doesn’t say anything. Perhaps she’s just resigned herself to enjoying my unnecessary expenditures. Either way, it’s with good humor that she opens the back door in place of the driver and smiles at me.

“After you,” she says with mock chivalry.

I smile back at her and climb in, settling myself near the opposite end of the longer seat so that she has plenty of room. To my everlasting discomfort, she sits right next to me in the large cabin, hiking her skirt just a little to sling one smooth thigh over the other. The limo starts to roll and I search the romantically lit interior with frantic eyes for anything but her and find champagne chilling near the wet bar. I’m all over the place, and I need to get this shit in check. I know that alcohol won’t help, but it’s the illusion that I’m fighting for at this point. Snatching up the bottle, I pull off the wrapper and twist at the wires around the neck. Once free, I start to twist and pull at it almost desperately.

“Ash, no, be careful,” Spencer says loudly as she shoves my hands away from both of us, but her warning was too late.

The top has exploded off and pinged loudly against the roof of the limo where it narrowly avoids my head on its descent, and a geyser of white foam is shooting from the tip of the bottle with surprising strength. Thanks to Spencer, the explosion was far enough away from me that my clothes didn’t get soaked, but my hands are sticky by the time that it fizzles to a stop.

I hear Spencer laughing and turn glaring eyes on her only to add insult to injury when I find that she’s all the way on the other side of the seat. Not only does she find this funny, but she abandoned me in my time of need. Self-preservation shows the true color of loyalty.

“A little help, please,” I say humorlessly.

She starts to calm down and grabs the towel next to the bucket that I’d pulled the bottle from, dabbing the corner of it in the icy water before taking the bottle from my hands and putting it back in. She then starts to tenderly clean me, a smile firmly etched on her face as she shakes her head.

“It wasn’t that funny,” I say, the water extremely cold.

“No,” she agrees. “But the look on your face was pretty adorable.” She glances up at me. “Kind of like the pout you’re wearing now.”

“Yeah, well…”

What can I even say to that?

“And this is why I’m gay,” she off-handedly observes of the mess as she continues to clean me up.

I find myself smiling with her. It’s an absolutely repugnant thought, but it’s pretty accurate. There’s a puddle on the floor, the explosion nearly took my head off, it all happened so fast, I didn’t enjoy it, and I’m covered in sticky stuff. But I might willingly go through it all again to have Spencer so close, holding my hands so tenderly and smiling so sweetly. Hell, if Spencer were a man, I’d be straight.

I’m so thankful that she’s not.

Once she’s done, she retrieves a tiny bottle of moisturizing hand-sanitizer from her purse and passes it to me. I can’t help but shake my head as I take some in my hands and smear it around. It’s just so like her to carry this.

“Shut up,” she says and that just makes me smile harder.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t have to.”

I shrug. “It’s cute that you carry this kind of stuff, if not a touch neurotic.”

“It came in handy, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” I nod, handing it back to her. “You’ll make a great mom someday, prepared for any of life’s little mishaps.”

The words were out before I could consider their impact, but the impact is decidedly sad. Not only will I not be with her to parent those children, but I may not even be around to see it happen, to share in her joy, the only thing that I’ve ever wanted for her.

“That’s… that’s a compliment. Thank you,” she says.

“Just the truth,” I murmur.

“You always did want a family,” she says lowly.

I nod, unable to say anything more. That boat sailed years ago and left me standing at the dock.

“You’ll have that, Ash.”

I look over at her, wanting to say something biting, wanting desperately to remind her that life doesn’t work that way, at least not for me. But I can’t seem to say those things, not when I’m looking into those gorgeous, warm, compassionate eyes. It’s not her fault that dreams are made of smoke and mirrors for me. It’s not her fault that she’s an optimist, even when there’s no good reason to be. Some things just are: like my surviving, like her zest for life.

And they’re without blame.

“I hope you’re right.”

And I do hope that, more than I thought that I could. I want it all. I want to dream even if I have to live in the waking. I almost want it simply because part of me knows that I can’t have it, but for some reason, the rest of me just doesn’t care what the realist in me thinks.

She can go to hell.

I close my eyes and I can see it, taste it, and touch it. I can believe for just a moment that someday I’m going to have a family, children of my own, and I’m going to have it all with Spencer. Like a black and white movie roll flickering behind my eyelids, it becomes tangible, it becomes achingly sweet, and it ends all too soon with the two of us, old and grey, and loving each other until the very end as our children and grandchildren take our places. Of all of the things on my list, this one dream is the pinnacle: a simple, loving lifetime with Spencer and our children.

What a legacy…

What a dream…

But it’s just a dream, and when I open my eyes, it’s gone and I’m left utterly empty. The realist, no matter how much I silence her or avoid her, always wins. It’s not like what I have right here in front of me is so bad. Maybe it’s just selfish of me to want more, to want it all. I’ve had more than most in my circumstances – so much more.

I shouldn’t be here, but I am.

Spencer shouldn’t be here, but she is.

This has to be enough. It should be enough.

“Thanks,” I say.

Spencer knows what I’m feeling and not saying, because, well, she’s her. But also because I’m me, and she knows me better than I even know myself. So she takes my hand in hers and we finish the car ride in silence, letting that pendulum catch the upswing and leave us each in one piece, though for me only barely.

It’s not long before we’re pulling to a stop next to a restaurant. The driver opens the door for us this time and Spencer helps me out, not releasing my hand even once we’re through the door. And I appreciate it. It’s comforting amidst so much emotional chaos.

This place is huge, situated right on the corner of two major intersecting thoroughfares, it’s bright, bird’s egg blue making it stand out, even as everything else about it is what I’ve come to expect of typical New Orleans fare. The inside isn’t nearly as garish, the color palette far more neutral and elegant. It’s very… cozy, warm, and dare I say romantic?

The hostess is on us immediately, quickly locating my name and escorting us to a table in the upper area that’s situated near some windows. From my understanding, this is the chef’s table. It comes with the chef’s selections for the night, so we don’t even need menus. Ice water and a chilling bottle of wine are waiting, and the hostess tells us it will be about ten minutes before we’re served the first course. Normally they don’t allow less than four people, but I agreed to pay for the additional entrees in our bill. I’m glad that I did. The restaurant is packed to the gills, and while it’s not deafeningly loud inside, this area is private and quiet.

We’re seated and the chairs are plush and comfortable despite their straight-backed design. But Spencer is forced to release my hand, and we’re back to that pensive place, sitting together quietly while our minds whir with unspeakable thoughts. At least this time, it’s not because I’m scared to think it or say it. Now, I just don’t have words. And if Spencer does, she’s letting them evaporate just like I am; we just have different ways of showing it. She’s fidgeting with her fingers and I’m staring out of the window, watching life light up the city with noise and merriment that I can’t seem to connect with no matter how hard I try.

“I’ve thought about it too, Ash, what it would be like,” she says out of nowhere.

I look over at her and she raises her eyes to mine for only a moment before lowering them again, as if she can’t look at me while she speaks. “It may mean little, but I always wanted all of those things, at least with you.”

It doesn’t mean little, not at all. It means everything to know that she wanted those things too, that she wanted me and feels slighted by fate almost as much as I do.

And I want to tell her that but she’s already continuing. “I wanted them so much that when you left, I was destroyed. It was like everything that ever mattered to me just ceased to exist, as if I woke up from a dream and had to live a life that I didn’t understand. I felt like I was crazy, like I’d imagined it all.”

My guts wrench and I feel the biting sting of tears that I won’t let fall. I can’t. To let it out might just leave me empty, void, all of these things that I’m trying to move away from because where they exist, life cannot, and I just want to live.

Why is that such an extraordinary request?

“But there were pictures,” she says with a sad smile that breaks my heart completely in two. “And music, and movies, and memories, and God, even your smell. They were blurry but they lingered, and they made it real, reminded me that for a few years of my life I had everything: unconditional love, romance, comfort, and more importantly, potential.”

As much as I long to hear these things, to listen to her tell me just how much she loved me, I can’t handle that it’s the past. We have an agreement. What she’s described has been my life since I left as well. But it is the past.

All I can do is remind her of the fact that, at least for her, it’s not over. “You’ll have that again, Spence.”

She shakes her head. “I keep trying to move on, to let it all go, but it doesn’t work.”

“It will,” I argue, treading lightly to hopefully shut this down, but she keeps going, shaking her head more vehemently.

“It doesn’t work that way, Ash.”

And just when I think I’m figuring things out, I find that I truly don’t understand anything. I just wish that she’d speak plainly. No, I wish that we weren’t talking about this at all, but I can’t help myself. I really do want to understand.

“What doesn’t work that way?”

And she finally looks up at me, those earnest eyes holding mine in a grip that nearly stills my heart even as it makes it thump harder.

“I can’t have those things with someone else when I already have them with you.”

All thoughts have left me. The very air has left me.

“It’s all still there. It never really stopped: all the feelings, all the potential, it’s still there and I don’t know how to get rid of it, to be okay with just being friends.”

My voice is so breathless that I can barely even hear myself. “Why do you want to get rid of it?”

“Because I can’t be with you, Ash.” Her eyes glassy with tears. “Not like this.”

She gestures to the room around us, and this much of what she’s intimating I can grasp. There is a romantic quality to this evening, as if I’ve organized an elaborate date. And in all fairness, I have. But she’s referring to more than that and she reminds me as she leans forward over the small, round table and links two of our hands in the middle, delicately brushing her thumb over my knuckles.

“And not like this,” she says. “I can’t move on when this keeps happening.”

Everything that we do has a closeness, an intimacy, from holding hands to shopping to a knowing look across the crowded backstage of a noisy rock show. We’re like magnets, polar opposites crushed and straining against the world between us but never actually connecting because to do so would destroy the world entirely. This is why she’s with me here, has been staying in my home with me, has been quieting her emotions as much as I have: because she’s just as torn as I am with the idea of moving on. She’s just as scared as I am at removing the safety net.

But I don’t understand why we have to. That is the only difference here. “Why fight it, Spence?”

She swipes at her eyes with her free hand and I give the approaching wait staff a look to back them away, despite their food-laden arms.

“Because you’re not ready,” she chokes out.

I take her hand more firmly before reaching for the other and meeting her head on. “I love you, Spencer.” She cries harder. “I love you,” I repeat, ducking my head to try and regain her gaze but to no avail. “More than anything.”

“I love you, too,” she says, nearly choking on the words.

“What more do we need,” I ask almost desperately.

“You’re still broken, Ash, and I can’t fix you, no matter how much I want to. You hide, and run, and avoid how you’re feeling. And I understand that, really I do. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, but I can’t love half a person, even when it seems that I can’t stop either.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, hating myself for not being enough. “I know that I’m not an easy person.”

“God, no,” she says. “See, this is what I’m talking about.” She pulls her hands away and seems to get flustered, as if she’s trying to find words that don’t exist before saying, “It’s okay to be broken, Ash. It’s just not okay to stay broken.”

What can I even say to that? I can’t help who I am or what I’ve been through, what I’ll always be going through until I die.

“I’m just… me, Spencer.”

Is that not enough?

“No, you’re not,” she says with no small amount of fire. “You used to care about yourself and fight. You used to beat the odds at everything.”

Um… “What?”

“When I met you, you were homeless, filthy, an orphan with no education or support system, but you overcame it all, becoming the smartest, most loyal, most capable person I’ve ever met. You defied everything that was stacked against you and came out the victor. Nothing could shake you or bring you down, because you were so strong, stronger than anything.”

I’m beginning to wonder if she loved me or someone else entirely. I don’t quite see it that way. I don’t remember being that way. I don’t remember being that person.

“That’s not how I remember it, Spence…”

“No? Well, I don’t remember being strong and proud either, but you saw that in me when we were younger and you saw that it was dying almost immediately when we found each other again. You had no qualms about pointing it out either, and you know what, you were right. I didn’t stand up for myself at all with Carmen or even my family. I was in a dead-end job that I hated. I had allowed myself to be a doormat, to exchange my dreams, my potential, for something so much less. I’m just not going to do that anymore.”

“Good,” I say. “But I’m not you, Spencer.”

“No, you have all of these qualities about you that are so fucking incredible that it’s hard to even fathom how someone like you could love someone like me. Even your quirks are endearing. But you’ve given up, and that’s not like you.”

“I was supposed to die.”

“But you didn’t.”

“I still could.”

She nods. “Yep, any one of us could die at any minute. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not over until it’s over, and until that time comes, I want to live and be happy.” She shakes her head. “No, not even happy, I want to be over-the-moon. And you should too.”

“So, your love for me has conditions. If I’m not crazy happy all the time, it’s not enough for you.”

And I know that what I just said isn’t fair by any estimation, but I feel attacked, put on the defensive. Her eyes darken with those words and I gulp.

“I lost my best friend, my lover, and my confidant when you left,” she says. “When you came back into my life, I thought that you were a different person. I recognized almost immediately that the person I knew had died and you were walking around in her skin. I decided that I’d grieve her and let her go, get to know this new you and see if we could be friends. That would have been okay, not good, but I’d have survived it. But it’s not that simple with you. Sometimes, the real you is right here, where I can touch her and see her and laugh with her. And when that happens, I get this adrenaline rush, like the impossible has happened, like she’s alive and it was all a bad dream, like the grieving is over and didn’t have to happen. But then you push her down, bury her in-,” she gestures to me emphatically. “Whatever it is that you’re holding onto, and I have to grieve her all over again. I can’t do that for the rest of my life, even when part of me wants to, because to sit back and watch it happen over and over and over makes it just as much my fault as it is yours.”

“Things have happened that are beyond my control, Spencer. I’m not eighteen anymore. We’re both different than we used to be.”

She nods. “Yes, things have happened and we’ve changed, but that’s not what I’m talking about, Ashley. Change can be good. I don’t expect you to be exactly the same.”

I feel slightly sick and I think a headache is coming on. I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Spence, I’m sorry, but I’m not that person. This is who I am and if you don’t like it, I get it. Trust me.”

“Ash,” I can hear the tears in her voice, the desperation, the longing. “I love you, all of you, even the broken parts. But I hate to see you like this, to see you hurting, to see that potential squandered over something that you’ve already defeated if you’d just let yourself believe it. And mostly, I hate that you won’t let me help you. I’m asking you to let someone help you… anyone.”

“What, like therapy?”

“If that will help, then yes. Anything.”

“And what if what I need is to be left alone to work this out on my own?”

Her voice gets sad and slightly defeated. “Then nothing’s going to change, because that hasn’t been working for you for the last four years. Besides, didn’t you just tell me that somethings can’t be done alone?”

“What do you want from me, Spencer?”

“I don’t want anything from you, Ash! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! I’m asking you to let me give, not take!”

“Give what, Spencer? You say you love me. That’s all I’ve ever wanted from you.”

“I need to give more, Ash.”

“What?”

“Comfort, a shoulder, anything that might lighten your load in a real way. I want you to be free, to be you again, even if that you is different.”

I don’t even know what she could possibly do to help me with something that I don’t even see, at least not in the same light. Ultimately, she’s asking me to change for her, and I know enough about psychology to know that any relationship built on those terms is doomed. I’m just not what she wants. She loves me, but that’s not enough.

“Spence, can we talk about something else, please?”

“Fine,” she says, but I know that nothing is fine.

It’s quiet for a long time and I can’t bring myself to look at her. But I know that she’s silently agreeing to leave it hanging there over a cliff, just like we have been for weeks now, only now that these things have been said, the cliff is crumbling. I hear the waiter approach and Spencer tells him to pack the food to go. We don’t say a word while I settle the bill and the limo is laden down with bags of food that will never be touched. This time, when we get inside, we’re sitting as far away as possible; the leather between us may as well be a chasm.

The driver asks where to go and Spencer answers him. “The Place D’Armes in the French Quarter.”

Not another word is spoken on the way back to the hotel, where we each get ready for bed and fall asleep with our backs turned to each other.


This morning, when I sleep in, Spencer doesn’t disturb me. I know that the air has shifted, that the unspoken agreement between us is tenuous at best because I know that if I wanted to, I could sleep the rest of this trip away and she wouldn’t say anything. She’s not fighting me anymore and as a result, she’s backing further and further away from me and I feel helpless, like my legs are mired in mud as I try and fail to keep up with her.

She’s undeterred though. She will move forward because that’s what healthy people do.

By the time that I unwillingly drag myself from bed, it’s roughly four in the afternoon, I’ve missed the parade, and Spencer’s nowhere to be found. Her camera bag is no longer on the windowsill, but there’s a note in its place that reads, “Went to enjoy the city and catch some footage. Text me if you want.”

I look back at the bed and it’s a struggle, a real internal war, not to crawl back into it and shut the world out, but a quick glance out of the window shows that Mardi Gras is in full swing. I’m missing it, and for what, sleep that’s become quiet hours of staring at the ceiling? I have a year of opportunities laid out in front of me and I’m just sitting on my hands, just like Spencer said.

I’ve done nothing but think about our talk from that evening between bouts of fitful sleep all the while avoiding her as much as she avoids me. And I know that she’s right, that I’m broken and it’s not getting better. And she’s right that I’ve been riding a fence, wanting to live but not actually doing it. I don’t know why I can’t seem to get there, or even how to get there, but it doesn’t help to know these things. It just makes me angry at myself, and if I’m honest, angry with Spencer for pointing it out. I want to go back to that night and stop myself from bringing up the future. I want to go back to that place of denial and distraction. I want to procrastinate, because I don’t know any other way to cope, except for one.

There was a time during chemo, when my hair fell out, my muscles shriveled against my protruding bones, and I didn’t even recognize myself in a mirror. I considered just ending my life. I didn’t, but I’m back in that place where it seems like the only alternative is to just speed the process along. In so many ways, not knowing if I’m going to die is worse than accepting that I will.

So why not just end it all?

Because I want to live.

I know that.

I don’t know why; I just know that I do. But I don’t want to live like this. I can’t. I know that something in me has to change, but I just don’t know how to make it happen. Mr. C always used to say that a watched pot never boils. And while, at the strange age of twelve, I figured that he was just weird, I realize now that he was right. Staring at what I want won’t will it into reality. What’s going to come is going to come on its own time.

So, I have two options: keep doing circles while I wait or end it.

The problem is that there are two ways to end it: kill myself or change for the better.

But I don’t know how to change it. I do, however, know several ways to die. So, I run a bath and sink down into the almost scalding water, holding my breath and staring up at nothing through the blurry, weightless blanket above me. It’s uncomfortable, the thought of physical pain. If I had it my way, my heart would just quietly stutter to a halt. But life isn’t gentle, neither in the giving nor the taking of it. No matter what I do, it’s going to hurt, but who knows what happens after?

If I kill myself, does it end there? Does the pain and confusion really stop or are all the gay haters right? Am I going to hell? Is there a God and does He hate me enough to eternally torment me?

If I find a way to change, to be better, will I feel it, or will it still somehow be a lie that I’ve fabricated for myself because life will continue to be life: painful, scarring, jolting and everything in between?

I think that’s the worst part with choices such as these: the not knowing.

And even as another hour of trying to drown my thoughts and emotions has passed, I can’t bring myself to make a decision, to get off that fence and stop being a coward. And knowing that only makes me hate myself more. So I get out and text Spencer because honestly, I don’t know what else to do and being alone feels suffocating.

It’s terrifying.

Everything is terrifying.

Thankfully, she responds immediately. She’s at Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon Street which isn’t far from here on foot. I don’t bother with make-up or anything other than drying my hair and pulling some of it up. I can’t seem to find it in myself to care at this moment.

I just need… something, something that I know I’m not going to find.

The atmosphere outside is so starkly contrasting to how I feel that I almost don’t believe that this place actually exists. It’s giddy, bright, and alive. I sink into the never-ending flow of vibrant revelers, the smell of alcohol thick but somehow not off-putting as I make my way to a New Orleans staple. This was on the list of places that the internet said that we’d have to visit. Apparently, they have a famous drink called the Hurricane, and it’s somewhat of a legend at Mardi Gras.

During the walk, it hits me that Spencer, despite all that’s been said and not said, is still moving forward. She’ll live, she’ll experience, whether I can meet her there or not. Part of me wants to be envious of her, almost angry that she isn’t as fucked up as I am, but the honest truth is that I want to be like that. I wish, with everything that I am, that I could be that strong.

I want to bounce back from things. I want to see possibility and potential in life. And as I cram my way through the people lingering in the door and unerringly find her face even in this thick mass of bodies, I want to ask her how.

This is the one face that brings me to the deepest levels of passion and domesticity, love and loss, exultant joy and deep depression. It makes my knees go weak to see her eyes meet mine despite the noise and endless obstruction of bodies, as if she not only knew with a preternatural understanding that I was in this crowd but then she sought me out. The desire to understand her power makes my skin tingle and the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I want to know her secrets and share my own. I don’t want there to be anymore boundaries or awkward silences and misunderstandings. I just want to see what she says is right in front of me.

But all I can see is her.

She smiles and it’s a little sad, as if the shifting and rumbling of the cliff threatening to sweep me away has intensified, because somehow I know that it’s about to do just that. And I know that, like her, I have to find my own way. I have to be able to support myself, to stay above the tide on my own volition. But I’m just so scared to look away from her because I also know that the minute that I do, I’m going to lose her somewhere in the freefall.

“Hey,” she mouths as she approaches.

“Hey,” I mouth back over the cacophony.

Even if I could force my tongue to speak the words and ask the questions so that my mind can finally find that firm hold, this isn’t the place and now is not the time. It’s not just the noise, though that’s deafening, but I know that she’s been trying to tell me the answers for too long now and I’m not going to just magically understand her all of a sudden. Whatever it is that’s missing, I still haven’t found it and I can’t force it out of me or into me anymore than she can.

But I know that we both wish that we could, and sometimes hoping is all that anyone can do.

Spencer, the incredible soul that she is, takes me in her arms and says, “I’m glad you decided to come,” in my ear.

I want to weep. And some part of me innately knows that she does as well, but I don’t, and neither does she. Somehow, the need doesn’t pang as deeply as it used to.

“Me too,” I say, and I almost mean it.

I want to mean it.

So I let the noise, jazz, merriment, and solid arms around me drown my thoughts out as I hold her and sway with her, feeling out of sorts in this exceedingly usual brand of comfort. But this is as close to peace as I can manufacture, and while it’s nowhere near enough, it will have to do, and I’m thankful for something, anything, at this point.

When she pulls back, she gives me a lingering kiss on my cheek and I close my eyes, some part of me believing, oddly enough, that this is the last kiss that we’ll ever share. The sad smile on her face is mirrored in my heart as she backs away and takes my hands to lead me to the bar. She orders two Hurricanes and we quietly people watch, a normal distance between us that is markedly friendly by my interpretation. Part of me wants to grieve. Hell, I am grieving – in a bar, in the middle of the biggest party on the planet no less. I can’t even discern how I got to this place, not on the globe, but in my life. But I suppose that it makes sense considering that I wasn’t supposed to have a life at all, not past the age of eighteen. It isn’t just unexpected, it’s that terrifying feeling popping up yet again as the rumbling beneath my fingers intensifies just a little more.

Spencer hands me my drink and it looks like it will be sweet, so I take a confident sip. It’s awful and even over the noise in the room I can hear Spencer’s distinctive, quiet laugh. It’s genuine and I can’t help but feel one of my own break through, especially when she takes sip and her face scrunches up.

I don’t have to rub her nose in the instant karma; she already knows if her playful glare is any indication.

It gets awkward and jilted after that, but that’s not unusual anymore. I find myself loosening up the more that I drink, the worries worsening as my ability to hold them under wavers, but I find it in myself to ignore it and try to enjoy some of the fun happening around me. If I can’t really partake in it, at least I can absorb a small portion. Despite the emotions, it’s impossible not to feel something uplifting in this mob of excitement.

I’m not sure how much time has passed since I finished my third Hurricane, but by the time that there’s a break in the music the slush of my fourth is melted and untouched, a thick layer of water gathered on the surface as I play with the straw. I can’t even taste the alcohol anymore and that first sip indicated that it might be made entirely of tequila. I look up to see that people are gathering at windows and doors before looking over at Spencer. She grins, her cheeks flushed from a few empty glasses in front of her, and she again turns to the bartender where she retrieves the masks that we purchased. I’d totally forgotten about them, but it’s so like Spencer not to.

She was going to find the fun in this trip with or without me, but her hope of the former is evident.

What would I do without her?

I set my drink down on the bar and situate my mask over my face, and we laugh at each other because we look absurd, but somehow the mask feels liberating. I feel like I can hide just a little, even if I can’t hide from her. She retrieves her camera from behind the bar, stopping to give the tender a smile of thanks, and we push our way through the crowd and onto the street where absolute pandemonium has broken out. Bodies fill almost every available inch of space, tightly packed and now mostly exposed. There are, quite literally, breasts everywhere. I find a slightly elevated spot in one of the corners to watch or gawk, I’m not sure which. Maybe it’s because I’ve been so deprived or because of the spectacle of it all or because I’m drunk, but who gives a shit at this point?

All breasts are beautiful in their own way, but I’m not usually so disgusting. I mean, I can excuse wanting to see Spencer. She’s so much more than sexy to me. But these strangers… I don’t know what it is but it’s like there’s a sexual energy in the air that makes me a little light-headed. And yet again, I feel like such a guy, but I mean, they’re everywhere and beads are raining down to sing their praises. I hear Spencer make a strange noise and look up at her curiously. She has a distasteful look on her face and she purposefully points her camera elsewhere. I track my eyes to what she saw and find a dick, wagging proudly at full mast in the throng of people.

“Thanks a lot for pointing it out,” I shout at her.

This just makes her laugh as she resumes recording.

“How, in all of…,” I gesture to the breasts. “That… did you manage to find one of those?”

She waves a hand dismissively. “You’ve seen one set, you’ve seen them all. Those…,” she points at the man who has thankfully turned away. “I rarely see… thank, God.”

I chuckle and cock my head as her comment about breasts registers. “They’re all the same to you?”

“Yeah,” she says the word as if it’s two syllables. “Why?”

“Really,” I confirm.

“Well, not exactly the same, but they’re just breasts. It’s not like I’ve never seen them before.”

I nod, a grin tightening my face because I’m a sadist. “So do you have the guts to put your money where your mouth is and flash the crowd for some beads?”

“What?” Her eyes get round. “No-”

“Why not?”

“Because that’s gross!”

“You think they’re gross?”

“Well, no, but it’s just…,” she screws up her face and I find it adorable. “Distasteful… to walk around naked.”

“Says who?”

“I don’t know.” I can tell by her tone of voice that she’s getting frustrated. “I just don’t want to do it. If they do, that’s fine.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes,” she says resolutely.

“Good to know,” I say before leaning over the rail and lifting my shirt and bra to give a good wiggle.

I don’t have much, but they’re perky as fuck.

Several of the people in the crowd hoot and holler and I find that I have to shield my face against the barrage of beads before I can resituate my clothes and collect them. The man nearest to me gives me a creepy grin that makes me gulp a little, especially when the woman with him seems just as happy about my moment of impromptu freedom.

But Spencer, the look on her face when I hand her a string of bright beads with a giant smile is pretty priceless.

“I can’t believe you did that,” she says dragging her eyes from my chest to look at the beads in her hand a little stunned. “And I can’t believe I got it on film.”

She looks at the camera and so do I, but I’m too slow at making a grab for it. Spencer, however, has the reflexes of a cat, even drunk, and appears to be utterly indignant. I really have to get my hands on that memory card.

After a few more silent moments amidst the chaos, she finally asks, “Why did you do that?”

“To get that memory card.”

Duh…

“Why?”

“I wanted to have a little fun, not memorialize it for the folks back home, Spence,” I reply dryly.

“You think I’d do that, show them?”

“Well, maybe… Does that mean you won’t?”

“Oh, no, you’re so dead.”

The way she said it leaves me flapping in the wind. I can’t tell whether or not she’s serious. “You wouldn’t.”

She seems to deliberate for a moment. “Nah, you’re right. I’m not the type.”

I blow out a relieved breath, but I don’t really trust her. I search my mind for ways that I can get the card, remove the incriminating evidence, and have it back in the toddler-sized mechanical device before she notices, but nothing helpful is coming to mind. She never leaves it unattended, especially not in chaotic social settings.

Ever.

“Maybe just Christmas cards,” she says.

“Spencer…”

She smiles cutely and pats me on the cheek before pretending that she doesn’t hold some serious ammunition in her hands. Scratch that. She’s not pretending at all. She knows that I’m at her mercy. This is worse than that pole dancing debacle…

I really should learn to avoid alcohol.

I decide to play it cool, and resume crowd watching next to her before saying, “Good thing I’m wearing a mask. No one will believe it’s me.”

She grins but doesn’t take her eyes off of the LCD screen in front of her. I feel a lot better, like I’ve won, that is until she speaks again.

“You know that tattoo on your lower back…?”

I groan and she chuckles.

“When did you get that, by the way?”

“A couple of years ago,” I say defeated.

“It’s nice,” she says.

“Thanks.”

A few more tense minutes pass.

“Ash?”

“Yeah?”

“I would never violate you like that.” She looks over at me and I can’t doubt the sincerity in her eyes, especially when she asks. “Why would you even think I’d do that? Don’t you trust me at all?”

I have to stop and think about that for a minute, despite the fact that I know that I’ve hurt her. Of course I trust her. She’s probably the only person I’ve ever really trusted. But now that I think about it, I haven’t been showing a tremendous amount of it. In fact, I’ve shut her down every time that she’s tried to get close to the attic door. I don’t talk to her, even when she tries. I don’t let her in, not really. I’ve been keeping her at arm’s length. When did that change? Why did it change? She hasn’t done anything to violate my trust, though I’ve violated hers many times over.

“I guess I did. I-I’m sorry…”

There are just so many things in here, ugly, hideous things. She doesn’t understand. She’ll run screaming, and I can’t lose her again.

She takes a deep breath and refocuses her attention on the crowd on her screen. “Have I done something to make you not trust me?”

“No,” I say quickly. “No, Spence. I don’t know why I was worried.”

She just nods, and I swear that I can physically see the walls erecting over her countenance. It’s in the way that her shoulders get a little tenser, her expression a little more sad even as it appears impassive, but I know the difference, the subtleties of her, just as well now as I used to. I’m killing this relationship and there’s just not enough of it left to lose any more. I have to find a way to stop if it’s not already too late, but I know that each passing second gets closer and closer to total meltdown.

“I’m sorry,” I say again but she just shakes her head.

“Ash, don’t apologize. I’m not blaming you.”

“I didn’t mean to offend you, though…”

“I know you didn’t.”

After a moment, she closes the camera and retreats back inside, and I see it for what it is. This time, she doesn’t want to talk about it. And when she’s the only one talking at all, this is bad, very bad. I silently follow her back to the bar where we order a few more drinks, somehow finding a way to drink alone though we’re right next to each other.


The next morning finds me hung-over and wanting to sleep in again. I can’t tell if it’s because I’m depressed or just headachy and queasy, but oddly enough, I’m incapable of sleep. Spencer doesn’t badger me, but then she doesn’t have to. I’m doing a good enough job all on my own. Everything about me, from my toenails to the center of my chest, feels battered, aching, and bruised, as if I fell from a skyscraper and survived the impact in pieces.

So, I get up incredibly early with Spencer, shower, and skip the usual routine. My heart’s just not in it. Not a word is spoken, the gap between us widening with each tick of the clock. I pass on breakfast, downing a couple of bottles of water instead before we wordlessly partake in another time-honored tradition: scouring the treetops for leftover beads. There are some really neat ones in our collective take after a couple of hours, but I can’t help but be sad about this entire trip. I missed the parade, don’t remember last night, and everything is falling the fuck apart. I’ve ruined it, not just for me, but for her. And all I know to do about it is hate myself in silence.

We’re about forty minutes into the drive back to the Garden District to visit the Auduban zoon, when Spencer dares to speak. “Are you ever going to talk to me?”

“About what?”

I glance over at her, pleading her with my eyes. I’m too vulnerable today. I don’t know how much of my sanity still remains, but it’s not enough to talk about these things. Our agreement isn’t completely null and void yet, not if we don’t want it to be, and I don’t. So, I beg her, unabashedly, without even saying a word. She sighs and I want to sigh too because that crumpled, torn agreement is about to be lit on fire and dropped into a waste basket. She doesn’t say anything for a moment and in that moment I think that maybe she’s reconsidering. I mean, the lighter’s flaming, she’s holding it right at the corner of the paperwork, but she’s hesitated.

If I blow enough hot air, maybe I can salvage the situation…

But then she glances over at me, those expressive eyes almost sadistic as she touches the paper to the flame. I slouch in my seat and wait, berating myself for having said too much, especially at that dinner. That’s what started this mess and it just keeps compounding from there.

3, 2, 1…

“I haven’t had to drag you out of bed at ho- at your house in a while. But when we got here, something happened. You just want to sleep…”

I don’t say anything for a moment, choosing instead to consider my options. I won’t lie to her, but I’m just not ready for this, and she can’t honestly want that either. My best bet is to play dumb and hope that she’s feeling kind enough to follow my lead.

“You know I’m not a morning person.”

“That’s true, but you’ve been up by eight almost every day since we got back from Canada. Well, except for that first day where I had to drag you out kicking and screaming.”

And it’s true. I’d have holed up for weeks if Spencer had let me, but she didn’t. Kyla had a key to my bedroom made while I wasn’t looking after that first showdown. This time, by four in the afternoon, I had a crazy blonde jumping on my bed and singing, rather poorly, her rendition of Pocket Full of Sunshine.

So maybe my best bet is to appeal to reason.

“Come on, Spence. Let’s just try to have fun today. That’s why we’re here, right?”

She nods slowly but keeps her eyes on the road. “Exactly, and when we got here, things were good, but something happened later that day and then the dinner…”

And this pisses me off a little. She wants me to talk. I get that. I wanted her to talk at the concert, but she wouldn’t. I wanted to know what she’s thinking about Carmen, about leaving, but I didn’t pry. I respected her right to privacy.

Why can’t she do the same for me?

Why should I have to be the only one to spill?

“Sometimes I just want to sleep. I’m sorry.”

“That’s not what I’m asking you, Ash.”

“No, but what you are asking is too much right now, Spence.”

“I know we put boundaries on our relationship, but I didn’t know that we were lying to each other.”

I snort. Now who’s playing at denial? “Spencer…”

“Fine, maybe I just don’t want to do that anymore.”

“Then by all means, start talking.”

“About what?”

“About what’s been bothering you.”

This seems to catch her off guard and it makes her a little defensive.

“I’ve laid everything out to you, Ash. I’m hurting too and I told you what’s wrong, but I’m not curled up in a ball and sleeping whole days away, especially not on a trip that’s supposed to make things better.”

“Everyone handles things differently.”

“That’s true, but you’re not handling it at all. You won’t tell me how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking. You’re trying to sleep through it.”

“You can’t tell me that you’ve been facing things head-on, Spencer. You tip-toe around me as much as I do with you.”

I feel hopeful that she might shut this down before it goes too far because she nods her agreement.

“You’re right.” But then she does what I asked and starts talking. “I’ve been avoiding a lot of subjects because I’m confused and not sure how to explain myself. I also don’t want to hurt you. You’ve been doing really well, and I don’t want to mess with that.”

“So why are you,” I grumble.

“Anyway,” she gives me a sideways glance. “That’s wrong of me, because it enables you to avoid things too. And that’s not healthy for either of us.”

“This is all well and good, Spence, but you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know.”

She ignores me and continues, though she’s getting pretty worked up. “When I saw Carmen at the show, it hurt. I know why she was there. I know that she’d been waiting for one of your shows so that she could bait me. And it hurt, just like it did the first time, but not for the reasons that it should have.”

She starts to tap her fingers nervously on the wheel and I stare at her, waiting. I can tell that she’s struggling with herself, but I can’t be patient.

“Then why?”

Her voice gets passionate, almost desperate. “Because it didn’t really matter to me that she was moving on. I was mad at myself for not being baited. I should have been livid! It should have made me crazy with jealousy, but I just didn’t feel that way! And I realized that I should want to be with her, but I just… don’t!”

The cliff that I’m clinging to rumbles so violently that it starts to crack, and I scramble, looking for anywhere solid and safe to cling but every square inch is dwindling away. And then it happens, my fingers slip and I’m freefalling, knowing that there’s a bottom down there somewhere just waiting to shatter me against it.

“I think… no, I’m certain that I’ve let her go. And I told you why at that dinner, but you still just don’t see it.”

It’s my turn to get frustrated.

“What?! What don’t I see, damn it?! I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me. Can’t you just tell me what it is that you want?!”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she spits out as she violently pulls the car to the side of the road, screeching to a halt, and slamming it in park. “You piss me off, you know that?!”

Okay… so that came out of nowhere. Well, maybe not the feelings, but just, there was no gentle lead up to that at all. And, hey, I didn’t do anything to her!

“Well, you piss me off too!”

She’s breathing heavily and so am I. I feel almost light-headed because of it. And then her expression becomes pained, so much in fact that it’s almost contorted as quiet tears start to leak from her eyes.

And it’s terrifying, but then it’s only worse when her voice cracks out, “I didn’t want to get into this on a trip. I don’t even want to do this at all, but I think I need to… move out.”

And there’s that bottom that I’ve been waiting to crash into, that I couldn’t see but innately knew was there, waiting to break me. And oddly enough, even as I know that I’m a contorted mess of what might have once resembled a human, I can’t even feel any of it.

Yet somehow, desperation finds its way into my voice. “Then don’t.”

“I have to, Ash,” she says, sniffling.

Does she?

Yes.

I knew that.

I knew it so well that I’d unknowingly prepared myself for it, and at the last minute no less. It’s as if I knew that this was coming all along, but I’d put it off as I’m prone to do, so my internal clock pounced just in the nick of time to give me a warning and that’s why this trip has been so hard. I’ve been fighting it because I don’t want to face it. There’s just no more time to push it away and no amount of fighting was enough to stop it. Spencer won’t let it be. She loves me too much for that, and oddly enough, I want to hate her for it.

My voice takes on a detached quality, so different to my own ears that I’d swear that there’s a stranger in the car. I’m not desperate. I’m not anything. I’m just here, no longer trapped in what’s happening any more than I’m running away from it.

“Do what you have to do, Spencer.”

And it’s in this moment of bone-deep numbness that I’m able to almost step outside of my body, get out of my brain and remove myself form my heart. And being separated from feeling helps me to find an answer, an answer that is both logical but also one that I can live with: this wasn’t going to hurt just because I don’t know how I’m going to go back to pretending to function without her. The usual excuses just sound trite. It’s not because she doesn’t love me. It’s not because of Carmen. It’s not because we both need to work on ourselves, though that’s undoubtedly true. No, the real reason that she has to let me go is because she can’t deal with what’s going to happen.

She’s not rejecting me, she’s rejecting the disease that owns me.

She can’t live with it because I can’t either.

She loves me, but it’s not enough. Shirley and Sam had been wrong. She’d regret it, and she knows it. I’m not a risk that she’s willing to take. Love does not conquer all, whether it’s as strong as lightning or not.

“I’m so sorry, Ash. I didn’t want to ruin the trip. I like it at your place, too much. It’s just… it’s a safety net.”

I still can’t find it within myself to feel the fact that I care. And it’s kind of nice. It almost makes it easier. No, it really, really does. In fact, I feel almost invincible.

“Do you want me just go h-,” she sighs. “Do you want me to leave, give you some time alone?”

“Whatever you want to do is fine.”

She’s studying me; she’s worried, but she doesn’t need to be. Ultimately, if she’s not going to care enough, she might as well not care at all.

“What do you want, Ash?”

What do I want? That’s a loaded question, or it used to be, but right now, it feels easy to find an answer.

“I want to forget this conversation.”

“Ash,” she says, closing her eyes, the tears still flowing openly. “Please don’t be- just please talk to me.”

“What would you like me to say?”

“Tell me what your feeling, what you want.”

“What I want is to pretend this conversation didn’t happen so we can enjoy the rest of this day. What I want is to go back to that dinner and not talk about this stuff.”

“That can’t happen, Ash.”

“Okay. Then, when we get back home, you can move out. I’ll even help you.”

She swipes at her cheeks. “Is that what you want?”

“Does it matter?”

“YES!”

“Are you sure, because it seems like you want me to want something specific, but I don’t know what that is. So what is it? What do you want me to want? Do you want me to beg you to stay or cry or what?”

“I want you to want to live, to try, to love me enough to let me in… maybe scream, or shout, or anything but- this!”

“I have given you all that I have, Spencer, but you said that it’s not enough. You said that you need to move out. I accept that. I don’t know what more I’m supposed to say or do, but I don’t have anything else left.”

She seems utterly defeated, but it’s hard to care when it’s her own damn fault.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“Why?”

We, need to do this, Ash. It has to happen.”

“And it will, so there’s no reason to be sorry.”

“I didn’t mean to do this now,” she gestures to the stretch of highway. “Here… of all places.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yes, okay. You don’t owe me anything.”

The quiet that falls after that lasts for an inordinate amount of time, and mostly, I find myself just anxious to be out of it, to find a place that’s clear of this conversation, maybe even clear of her.

She’s still crying. “I don’t know what to do.”

“What do you mean?”

Hasn’t enough been done?

“I understand if you don’t want me here, not now.”

“Is that what you want me to want? Because I don’t feel that way, but if you want to leave, I won’t stop you or try to make you feel bad about it. I’ll even buy your ticket home.”

“Ash, please…”

“Do you want to leave or stay,” I ask directly.

“I don’t want to leave you,” she mumbles quietly.

“Then can we please just go somewhere,” I ask in exasperation.

She stares at me and I just stare back. I know that something inside of me, some innate part that was attached to her, has finally snapped. And yes, it’s odd to be okay with it. More than that, it’s unexpected, but I’m thankful. My heart’s still beating, and there are no more wires or hat tricks keeping it going. It’s on its own. I’m on my own. It’s not the first time, and knowing me, I’ll survive if for no other reason than life is just that cruel. But mostly, at least now things are settled. I have answers.

She seems to know that she’s not going to get anything else out of me, so with another sigh, she carefully pulls the car back into traffic. It’s a long twenty minutes before we reach the zoo, and it’s a huge relief to be liberated from that stifling car. I’m fully aware that there’s no way to pretend, at least not for Spencer. She’s still crying from her seat as I stretch out the kinks. And I know that I still care, but when I open her door and crouch to take her in my arms and reassure her, it doesn’t at all feel the same.

“I’m so sorry,” she says again.

“I know.”

And I do. She didn’t want to do this here. She didn’t want to hurt me. She didn’t want me to get sick. Neither of us asked for any of this. And it’s okay that she can’t be with me. I get it. If I wasn’t trapped with me, if I had a choice, I sure as fuck wouldn’t stick around. She’ll always be my best friend, at least until she decides that she doesn’t want that either. So I let her cry it out a little while longer before leaning back and looking into her eyes. They’re as expressive as always, but I feel utterly calm in that particular storm.

“Look, Spence, it’s going to be okay.”

She shakes her head.

“No, it is,” I say.

“It doesn’t feel okay. You don’t feel okay.”

She felt the snap too, only her reaction to it is far more desperate than mine. She seems utterly destroyed by it. So why’d she do it? She needed to? Who could possibly need this?

“Spence, if you want to leave, you can. I just don’t want to try and have some fun.”

And that’s a little bit of a lie. I’m not so sure that I could feel fun just now. Nothing’s really sticking inside. It’s like my heart has a force-field around it, not only keeping things out, but straight up repelling them.

I’m good with that.

“Do you hate me?”

“No, I don’t hate you.”

“I still love you, Ash. So much…”

I can’t really offer her the same sentiment. I know that it’s still true because somewhere in the base of my skull it niggles and tingles, but I just don’t feel it. And I’m okay with that right now as well.

She nods but even after she’s calmed down, the zoo holds little appeal and nothing feels at all normal. It’s all so surreal. Yes, the babies and fuzzy wuzzies everywhere are adorable, but just, who the fuck cares?

No one over thirteen, especially not me, and not even Spencer who usually loves this kind of thing.

So we’re quiet, the chasm between us now sound proof booths, and I’m okay with that too. She’s oozing with sadness, and I’m just… indifferent to it. I want to feel bad, but it just isn’t happening. So we amble around, looking in on caged animals and saying nothing, even as the irony of the situation isn’t lost on me.

Lunch isn’t especially fun either. The food is bland and tasteless, and I don’t feel all that hungry, so we pick at our purchases before throwing them away, but the visit to Tulane University is kind of nice. Unlike the cheerful atmosphere of the zoo, the history here doesn’t make me feel so out of place with the somber clouds following us around.

We take one of their tours and it helps to have others around and someone talking. We split up, though still within earshot, but we can take some time to ourselves, and that helps tremendously. It gives me a chance to breathe through it. We finish the tour and take another quiet, stifling, awkward trip back to the hotel, and when we arrive, I excuse myself, deciding to take to the crowds on the street and get lost in them for a little while. My head is all jumbled up and I honestly just need to think in a safe space.

And for once, I’m able to ask the right questions and face the answers.

First, what does all of this mean for us? Well, I already know that. It’s over between us. It has been for more than four years, but we’ve only just confronted it. She pulled out the safety net and the worst is over, so that counts for something, right?

Next, what does all of this mean for Spencer? Well, I can’t know what she’s thinking or feeling, especially not right now. But I do know what I’ve seen. She’ll move on and she’ll be fine. It’s within her to do such.

Next, what does all of this mean for me? Well, I sort of already know that too. It means that the life-support is gone but I’m okay. In fact, I’m better than okay. I’m completely indifferent to it. I don’t even feel like running or sleeping. Both of those sound like they’d take too much energy over something that I can’t find the will to care about anymore. It’s almost as if the depression has become so deep and so dark that I’ve grown used to it. It’s been a part of my life for such long time that it’s almost an old friend. I don’t think that I need a light anymore. I don’t even want one. I’m comfortable in the familiarity of gracious shadows.

Lastly, what do I do now? Well, I’m not going to do anything really. I’m going to mark Mardi Gras off of my list. I’m going to go home. I’m going to help her leave. I’ll play music. I’ll play shows. I’ll get the merch set up. I’ll get through as much of my list as I can, and then… Well, eleven months or eleven lifetimes, all I can do is exist until I don’t anymore.

The city is absolutely alive tonight. The sun is going down, there’s the strange and almost macabre everywhere that I look, from some of the vendor wares to the overly joyous atmosphere. People are having a good time, or at least they appear to be. But then as I really look around, it doesn’t appear to be that great after all, and I feel it inside of me, how numbness isn’t actually helping.

The smell of alcohol and something distinguishably sour is so thick that it actually burns my nostrils. The laughing and talking and stumbling around me almost feels disorienting and simulated. It’s like the smiling faces are morphing into something darker and sinister.

I find myself starting to notice things, like the groups that are hanging and groping on each other lewdly, or other groups on the corners all huddled together over small silver bullets that they hold to their noses for a quick snort. I see how people are settling into small alcoves with newspapers and cardboard to cover themselves while they attempt to fall asleep. And I notice how some of those vendors aren’t peddling masks or brilliant art, but a false sense of happiness that will rocket you to great heights only to send you crashing back down to the ground.

And as one such peddler grabs my attention, open smile gleaming white against the darkness of the shadows that he’s standing in, I find myself stopping. It’s something I’ve never done before. He appears to be a part of the shadows that surround him as he offers me the comfort of his product. I consider him and I consider what he’s offering me, something else that I’ve never done before. I’ve never tried it, but part of me wants to. Part of me wants to feel something that doesn’t hurt. He’s offering me that, promising me that. And it’s free, a gift to me, because he knows that once I try it, I’ll come back for more.

It’s just that good, or so he says.

So I take it and I put it in my pocket, and I don’t say anything to him as I find myself looking for a place to be safe, to feel secure, to try something that means more than lovers or children or even life for some because I want something to mean that much to me too. Spencer did, but that is utterly gone now. I have nothing and no one to hold me up but myself, and I just can’t do it. This must be what scratch, what rock bottom, feels like. So I find my way towards the riverbank of the Mississippi and look for that place where I might find it, spotting a gravel laden patch of darkness along its muddy waters to shelter in. I pull the promise of something to help from my pocket and run a thumb over its smooth, plastic surface, the loose crystals inside like sand.

And I want it. I want it to mean something. Maybe this could mean something…

I open the bag and even while the smell is so faint, so nearly indiscernible, it may as well be a brick to my face because it’s one that I’ll never forget. It’s the very thing that both made and destroyed my life and as it leaks into the open air, I feel my throat close up. I remember what it means. I remember her and what she taught me. I remember that this small, inconsequential thing in my hand destroyed my life before I ever thought about touching it.

It’s already taken so much from me, and now, now it wants to own me completely with false promises of hope and comfort and something to live for even as it intends to kill me. This bag in my hand is a leech, a life-sucking murderer, and I hate it. My vision swims, my stomach feels sick, and with an angry sob I chuck the bag into the murky lap of the water unable to even fathom what I was thinking. I can’t become like her. I don’t want to become like her.

But that’s the sickest part: I already have.

I always wanted to live my life on my own terms, and I’d managed to convince myself that I had, but the truth is that I keep handing it over to one thing or another, whether it be loneliness, love, fear, or depression. I’ve never actually taken what life handed me and tried to make it any better. I’ve always just allowed it to fester and rot and devour me with its infection.

She did the same thing, it was just with drugs.

I’ve always known that I have to fight for what I want, but first I have to want something. I’m only now realizing that I can’t wrap that up in anything or anyone else. The truth is that Spencer leaving shouldn’t make me shut down. I shouldn’t be afraid to feel even when it hurts. I shouldn’t sleep and run to avoid. I should be able to not only survive like I have my entire life, but really live.

I’m going to have to try. I’m going to have to fight myself if I want to do that. And I decide right here, right now, as an immense amount of anger and grief overtakes me, as that attic door bursts and sweeps me away soul first, that I will fight. I will fight everything in my life that tries to control me, no matter how comforting it may seem. But first, I have to take a deep breath and turn into the tide.

And I do, or at least I try, falling to my knees to grieve my guts out onto the gravel so violently that I fear that I’ll black out. And it just keeps coming, just like I knew it would, just like it has to because I created this mess. I locked it away and tried to pretend that it wasn’t there. If I’d have dealt with it as it had happened, then here and now might not be so hard, so gut-wrenching, so crushing.

But it is, so I hold my lungs to bursting as I’m buffeted in the current, the flood from the attic so murky that I can’t tell up from down or left from right. But I’m not fighting it. I’m not seeking a way out of it. That’s all I know to do. I can’t clean up the mess until I let it have its way. And as it keeps coming, as I go slack, as my lungs find no air, I spin and roil along, waiting to finally drown. But just like I should have died before and didn’t, I’m still not that lucky. Somehow, it starts to calm. Somehow it all starts to feel peaceful. Somehow, I float to the surface and find air.

The sun is coming up by the time that I’m able to scrape myself off of the ground and clean my face on the hem of my shirt. And I’m weak, and I’m broken – so irrevocably broken – but the warmth of the sun on my face, the air in my lungs, they revitalize me just enough so that I can pick up the pieces and start crawling towards another day.


Continued in Chapter 6 – Tooty Frooty In My Booty


Please rate and review before moving on!