Chapter 6 – Knowledge is not Understanding

Clarke’s eyelids scrape against her eyes like sandpaper when she tries to open them. They’re crusted and so heavy that it’s as if anvils have been tied to her lashes. Her whole body feels heavy like that, and reluctant to come out of the utter bliss of unconsciousness. But her arms lift her hands to her sockets to clean them, further pulling her up from the dark depths of sleep and into the waking light. And she regrets it, because that first real glimpse of light brings a throbbing headache into awareness.

And that’s all it takes for her brain to start taking a painful inventory. Her head feels like it’s been packed with cotton and razor blades, her blood replaced with a thick sludge. The landscape of her skin stings with random lacerations that have scabbed over and are pulling taut, but these small cuts are the least of her aches. Her leg… she almost can’t find words. It feels like someone took a sledgehammer to the meat, turning it into a bloody pulp of singing nerves. And the bone inside feels like someone is grinding a saw against it with every pump of her heart.

Her heart… it may be the very worst of her aches. It feels hollow, but it’s the kind of emptiness that pangs and makes itself known. It’s as if the wounds dotting the muscled flesh aren’t bleeding outwards, but inwards, touching the vacant spaces inside and filling them with a unique agony.

Everything hurts, and just like before she feels the need to move, to try and get away from herself, to try and get out of herself. This is the same desire that sent her seeking solace in the woods the night that the Mountain fell. But it did no good then, and it would do no good now, especially when the thought of moving is almost as anguished as a physical attempt.

She just can’t. She’s helpless, exposed, and trapped like a turtle on its back. So she lies still and lets her mind find its pace, to catch up with itself and all of the negative stimuli engulfing her.

“I was beginning to think that you weren’t going to wake up.”

The voice is low, gravelly, that of an enemy that became a friend, and she finds the strength to turn her head and blink the bleariness from her eyes until his dark shape comes into view.

“Be-,” she tries but her voice cracks and fades.

She clears her throat but it’s no use. It’s too dry. She licks at her lips and grimaces at the cloying taste of dry copper in the corners of her mouth. Her lips are chapped and her tongue and teeth feel like they’re made of gravel.

“Here,” that same voice says and she feels something cool and wet against her lips.

Without thinking she opens her mouth and begins to gulp at the water. It rushes in torrents down her parched esophagus with a strange relief that quickly turns sour when it hits her stomach. She turns away and coughs, laying her head back on the pillow to let a spell of dizziness pass.

“Bellamy,” she says, her voice still rough but now audible.

“Heya, Princess,” he says. “I’d ask how you feel, but…” Clarke watches as he gives her the once over. “If how you look is any indication…,” he finishes with a smirk.

Clarke smiles, a choking laugh bubbling for just an instant before she regrets it.

“Don’t make me laugh,” she says.

“Sorry… not sorry,” he replies.

The levity lasts another moment before his dirt smudged face becomes serious again.

“How are you really,” he asks.

Clarke has to wonder for a moment why every question is so loaded. Why can’t it ever be easy or, at the very least, straight forward? She wishes that someone would just once ask her what color the sky is or what year it is, just something that has an answer that she doesn’t have to struggle with.

This question isn’t a simple one, of course. Her body is a heinous ball of pain, but she knows that this isn’t what he’s asking. He wants to talk about that empty, squeezing, torn lump of muscle hiding behind her ribs. And honestly, she has no problem telling him that she’s not okay. Bellamy is the sort of person that, once you get passed all of the bravado and posturing, can be truly decent. He just needs a push in the right direction. Left to his own devices though… Well, if nothing else, he can keep a secret. Besides, he already knows that she’s not okay. He knew the night that she left, and he was the only one that she told.

She’s not sure why she chose him. Maybe it’s because he was just there, or maybe it’s because she has grown to depend on him so much, or maybe it’s because she cares for him deeply. Or, maybe, it’s because he’s the only one on earth who knows the darkness that she carries in her heart. He shares it. He was there, his hand holding hers as she did something monstrous. Whatever the reason, the willingness to share is there, she just doesn’t know what to say.

She doesn’t know how she feels. Maybe she feels nothing or maybe she feels so much that she can’t figure it out, but either way, it’s all convoluted and confusing. Somehow though, seeing him there, above her, a smirk on his mouth and the tell-tale warmth in his eyes, she feels better. It’s as if that familiarity is healing a little of her hopelessness, and she has to wonder why she was running from it.

She can’t help but wonder if it was really bad enough to leave the people she’s come to love, her family, the one hundred. She searches his eyes and easily finds that brokenness that only the two of them share because only they understand what it means to commit genocide. He tries to hide it, but it’s only thinly concealed behind the veil of this dark lashes. And he can see it in her too. Maybe others wouldn’t pick up on it, but she has to turn away from him because of it.

She can’t look at him, and that’s why she had to leave. It’s not because of him or the others, though they’re part of it. She had to leave because she can’t handle the shame that she feels within herself. No matter what’s true, every look, every murmur about a person no longer here, she is reminded of what she’s done and who she’s become.

She lifts her heavy head and tries to focus on her leg, to make sure that it’s still there, and it’s with relief that she finds it intact. It looks normal for the most part, if not for the splint and bandages that have added bulk and the deep purplish bruising that makes it looks almost surreal.

Unfortunately, shame or not, there will be no running this time.

She lays her head back down, immediately tired even after so little effort.

She still doesn’t know what to say to him, but she can feel him staring at her, expecting something from her. She doesn’t understand how he can stand to look at her, but she knows that she has to say something to appease him.

“I’ll be okay, one way or another,” she says.

He nods and sits back down in the chair that he was in before she awoke and she closes her eyes, wishing that she were still asleep.

“What happened to you,” he asks. “Lexa said that you fell, but no one believes her. Did the Grounders do this to you?”

She frowns and shakes her head no, but then she’s not so sure. She tries to remember what happened and how she got back to the Ark. There are large chunks of time missing in her memory, vague images of the forest and then voices and then the healer’s hut at TonDC. And of course she remembers her talk with Lexa. It would seem that the Commander stands out even when under the effects of duress and delirium.

Lexa’s always had that effect on Clarke. She’s stiff in posture and harsh in her demeanor, but there is an undercurrent to it all, as if Clarke can tell that she wishes to be gentle but truly believes that she can’t and shouldn’t. It’s almost as if she’s an innocent – someone trapped – a slave under the whip of her own command. If ever there were a physical representation of the caged bird cliché, Lexa would be it, only it’s worse than that because not only has she bound herself up, she’s bound herself in a cage far too small.

Whatever Lexa’s reasons are for doing that to herself, it draws Clarke in and makes her want to help. But every time that she tries, she’s attacked and forced to retreat and leave Lexa helpless in her suffering. But more than that, every time she tries, not only does she lose someone she cares about, she loses an important part of herself. It’s as if to know Lexa is to be shaped, and molded, and ultimately, destroyed by her.

Honestly, it infuriates Clarke. She knows that should hate Lexa, and she really wants to, but for all that she says and does to placate that desire, the truth of the matter is that she doesn’t, she can’t, not even when she should. It was the same story with Wells, with Bellamy, with Finn, with Murphy, and even with her mother. She gets angry. She refuses to allow the object of that anger the peace of knowing that she’s forgiven them, but she’s forgiven them all the same.

“I-I fell,” she says. “I think… it’s all so blurry.”

Bellamy looks down at the dirty hands in his lap and fidgets with his fingers. The curls of his long hair hide the majority of his face in shadow as he nods his head.

“Are you okay,” she asks of him.

He looks back up at her but she doesn’t return his gaze, choosing instead to pick herself up just a little and focus on the cuts and scrapes that line her skin. They’re mostly healed, pink and thin, the scabs flaking away. Most of them were merely scrapes where the brambles caught her on her way down and ultimately saved her life by breaking the majority of her fall. Some of them needed stitches though. She can tell by the zipper like scar of a straight line with small dots along the sides. But the stitches are long gone and the cuts almost closed.

She can’t remember why she’d fallen, but something niggles at the back of her mind.

“A lot’s changed since you left, Clarke.”

Clarke finally looks over at him. He’s staring at the floor now as if it will open and swallow him whole.

“Like what,” she asks.

He doesn’t speak and some dark emotion flits over his semi-hidden features. She finds it to be a little frightening. As if he’s okay with being swallowed up.

“Bellamy,” she asks again, snapping him out of it.

He runs his hands through his hair and gets to his feet.

“Bellamy, what’s going on?”

“Things just aren’t like they used to be.”

“What does that mean,” she asks again, trying to sit up to talk to him.

“Come on, Clarke,” he exclaims. “Everything- every-one is… different.”

Clarke’s mind whirrs as she watches her friend struggle with some manic, unreadable emotion. And for all that she doesn’t understand of what he’s saying, she really does get it. Understanding isn’t always the predecessor to knowledge. Sometimes, we learn about things before we understand them. And usually when that happens, we’re learning about things that we shouldn’t know about at all, at least not if the one hundred year-old fairytales of suburban life are in any way true.

She should know how to clean a home and cook a meal, not how to fire a gun and kill a person. She should know how to raise children, not torture the Red from a Reaper. She should be there when her parents are old and help them that last peaceful step into mortality, not what it’s like to watch her father sucked into a vacuous void to boil to death in an oxygen free atmosphere.

But that’s not the world she lives in. She knows what she knows and she understands little. Some things just are, like the air and the water and the earth.

Like her.

Clarke hates it, but she’s grown to accept it. That was something else that she and Bellamy had in common. But right here, right now, he’s not coping with that knowledge. Something’s different – off. It’s like she’s missed something and he’s trying to say it without actually saying it. It’s making her uncomfortable, making her feel shameful. Again, she can’t look at him so she focuses on her leg this time. The color of the bruises would suggest time and healing beyond that of a good night’s sleep.

“Bellamy, how long have I been asleep?”

He doesn’t speak and again she can feel the weight of his stare.

“Bellamy,” Clarke tries again, this time braving to look at his face.

And she can see that something’s poised on the tip of his tongue but he’s not saying it. He’s trying to swallow it and it’s choking him. Frustrated, she scans the room for something that will give her a firm grip on what’s going on, but this new information only compounds problems in Clarke’s mind. She was at the Ark when she passed out. But the stark, white, sterile walls of the Mountain facility stare back at her and make her feel sick.

“Bellamy, how long have I been asleep,” she tries a little louder.

He diverts his eyes and clears his throat. “Uh, about a week.”

“What,” Clarke asks as she sits up straighter and tries to swing her legs to the side of the bed. “A week…?”

Bellamy steps in front of her and places a gentle hand to her shoulder to stop her.

“Come on, Clarke. Just relax. You’re going to make yourself worse.”

“Why have I been down a week?”

The look that Bellamy gives Clarke tells her that he knows the answers to her questions but he won’t say a word if she doesn’t sit back. With a sigh, she reluctantly nods her head in agreement to his unspoken request but she doesn’t move back any, even when he eases his grip on her. And he doesn’t move away any either, and there’s this moment where he’s close to her, where he’s almost holding her, and he finds that he doesn’t want to let her go. Even when she looks like a broken doll that’s been glued back together, he finds her to be beautiful. But more than that, he knows how exceptionally strong she is. Truth be known, he’s missed her fiercely.

He berates himself for feeling that way about Clarke. There’s no way that she would ever consider him, and for good reason. He’s the boy that made her life hell when they landed, the one who wouldn’t listen and worshiped anarchy. He’s the boy that, when he’s honest with himself, once tried to drop her to a messy death but, at the last minute, decided not to. He’s betrayed her again, and just like then, he has no idea how to tell her.

How do you tell someone that you love that you’ve wronged them on purpose? Is it really valid when you believe that you did the right thing for them even when you know that they don’t agree? He knows that Clarke won’t see it any other way. Even he has trouble reconciling it. What’s worse is that he owes her. It was her kindness that helped him get past most of his anger when they first landed.

He’s selfish and he knows it, but he wants her, even when he doesn’t deserve her. He’s not a good person. He’s nothing like Finn. For all of her trouble, his anger is still there. He knows that he’s still capable of terrible things because he does them daily, not just to others but to her. He keeps convincing himself that these terrible things aren’t so bad, or that they’re unfortunate but necessary.

But the truth is that he’s wrong. He just can’t admit it because he needs something to be simple, and as such, he knows that everything about him is steeped in perfidy. Even he doesn’t trust himself, so why should anyone else, let alone Clarke?

Clarke looks up at him, an inscrutable look on her face because neither of them can tell what she wants in this moment. She’s bruised and scraped and smudged with dirt and he just wants to kiss her. He can’t help but wonder what it could hurt if she decided that she didn’t like it. She couldn’t possibly think any worse of him than he thinks of himself. Besides, it’s not like she’d have the strength to hurt him even if she did try to slap him.

And she’d try to slap him. Both of them are sure of that…

A scream pierces through the wall to their left and both of them jump. Bellamy releases Clarke and together they stare at the wall in awkward silence. There’s no window to the other room. They can’t see anything except for the tasteful Monet that’s seems exquisitely out of place with its riot of color against the sterility of the wall. While the sound worries and frightens Clarke, Bellamy is unfazed by it and that’s all the more unsettling for her.

“What the hell’s going on, Bellamy?”

He looks at her again as the screams become tortured whimpers.

“The Reapers,” he says.

This makes sense to Clarke so she relaxes just a little. “The rehabilitation’s working?”

“For the most part,” Bellamy says. “But we only caught a handful of them. The minute they saw us, they ran into the tunnels and collapsed the roof. They were ready for us. We only found a little of the Red on the ones that we caught, so we assume they stowed the whole cache down there.”

“They knew you were coming,” I ask.

He nods. “They may be feral, but they’re smart, and when it comes to their drugs and their food…” Both of them grimace. “They’re organized.”

Clarke is almost surprised by this news, but after thinking about it, it seems realistic to her. The Reapers don’t fight each other, only outsiders. They were docile with the Mountain men while getting their injections, and they worked the tunnels as a crew despite the monstrous effects of the drug. It’s reasonable that they’re sentient enough to find a way to keep their supply and freedom.

Clarke’s definitely regretting waking up now. It’s as if everything is getting worse by the minute. The agreement with the Grounders was contingent on this one thing, and that one thing isn’t as easy as it should be.

“Does the treaty still stand?”

Bellamy’s face falls.

“Bellamy…”

“Clarke, there’s been a slight… change of plan.”

“What happened,” she asks urgently.

“We didn’t take the treaty.”

“What,” Clarke almost shouts. “Why?!”

A glint of anger sharpens Bellamy’s eyes. His posture becomes more rigid and he sets his jaw.

“Lexa wanted to rule us, to become some sort of… Queen,” he says the last word with no small amount of venom. “Did you really think that we would agree to that, Clarke?” He looks at her with utter incredulity. “Were you really willing to agree to that?”

Angry tears well in Clarke’s eyes. “Of course I didn’t want to do that, but there’s no other way to stop all of this nonsense. So yes, I thought that you, the others, and the rest of our people would put peace before pride.”

“Pride,” he repeats with offense. “It has nothing to do with pride.” He assumes an angry stance, looking right into her eyes and pointing at the ground with each of his arguments to emphasize them. “She’s been trying to kill us since we landed, she’s killed countless numbers of us, and she betrayed us and left us to die, Clarke! And now she wants to rule us?!”

He shakes his head and breaks his posture. “No, this isn’t about pride. It’s about survival. And she will have us all in chains or dead before she’s satisfied. And you…” He gestures to her in a defeated way. “You’ll let her.”

The anger coursing through Clarke’s veins isn’t all for Bellamy. Part of her is angry at Lexa because part of her feels the same way that he does. And it would be so easy to give in to his logic. It would allow her to draw a line in the sand and pick a side. She wouldn’t have to feel guilty or worried about what happens to the Grounders, to Lexa. She could just hate and act on that hate, and oddly enough, they’d probably win. It would be easy. So, so easy…

But Clarke can’t do it. She can’t stop caring. She keeps making these mistakes, letting people die for no reason, and they’re innocent people. She has to stop it; she needs to stop it, if not for peace’s sake, then for her own conscience. She straightens up and sets the line of her own jaw. “So what, Bellamy? They hurt us so we hurt them until one or all of us are dead? Is that how it’s going to be?”

He takes a deep breath and softens a little, though he’s still intensely serious.

“No, Clarke. We’re going to end this.”

Clarke feels shaky as she asks, “What does that mean?”

Bellamy takes a seat and looks down at the floor, his voice taking on a clinical detachment as he explains.

“The council wasn’t going to submit to Lexa, so Abby pushed back. She told Lexa that we would be moving into the Mountain and remain free of the Grounders. We’d still take care of the Reapers, but that was more for our benefit than theirs.”

Clarke scoffs. “There’s no way that Lexa would allow that…”

Bellamy agrees, looking up at Clarke from under his lashes. “No, she wasn’t going to.” His eyes harden. “She threatened to kill Abby and Kane where they stood for suggesting it, but Abby was prepared. She told Lexa that they’d already sent a party to the Mountain to clear it and if the Grounders didn’t let us relocate peacefully, we’d kill the Reapers and blow them to hell with another missile.”

Clarke’s heart nearly stops beating as it takes up residence in her throat. With every word out of Bellamy’s mouth, her people are more and more damned, and all because of their own hubris.

“It was a lie, but Lexa let us go,” he says with a shrug. “She didn’t have a choice.”

“Lexa won’t stand for that,” Clarke replies angrily. “We’ve signed our own death warrant.”

And with those words, Clarke leans back heavily against the headboard of her bed, finding no way to get her people out of the twisted mess they’ve created. She was asleep for an entire week and helpless to stop it. It’s as if she’d been taken out of the picture by fate.

“Yes,” Bellamy agrees again. “But fortunately for us, we don’t need them to leave us in peace. We’re here. We have the missiles. And as soon as we’re done salvaging the Ark for scrap and relocating everything, we’re going to release a planned strike against all of their territories.”

This is the Bellamy that Clarke remembers: petulant and selfish, willing to sacrifice any and every one for his own agenda, even when he knows that he’s wrong. And by the way that it’s his turn divert his eyes in shame, he must know that he’s wrong.

“My mother won’t let that happen…”

His expression becomes pity. “Clarke, she’s the Chancellor…”

Clarke almost feels numb with that declaration. Apparently her people, her mother, they all feel the same way.

“Even Kane,” she asks absently.

“No,” Bellamy says. “He still wants to become the 13th tribe.”

That’s a small comfort to her. At least one person has kept their mind in this mess, though it’s obviously been for nothing.

“Why didn’t he stop this? Mom would listen to him.”

Bellamy sighs. “Kane was outvoted. He tried to commit treason and he’s being held for his crimes and awaiting trial. Abby’s not sure how to deal with him yet.”

All of that comfort that she was just feeling is gone. That leaves only her, and with a busted leg what can she possibly do? She has no way to get word to Lexa. Her frustration is so great that she wants to hit something. She could have stopped it if she’d had a chance, if she’d been awake. Why wasn’t she awake?

Something cold and sick coils in the pit of her stomach as she realizes that Bellamy and her mother would have known that she’d stand in the way just like Kane. And while Abby would do what she needed to do, even float her own husband, she would do everything she could to stop Clarke from getting in the way in the first place.

“Why did I sleep for a week,” Clarke asks.

“Clarke…”

“Why did I sleep that long? I had already slept and woken up, so it wasn’t the concussion. I should have woken up…”

“Clarke…”

“What did you do, Bellamy?”

He sighs, knowing that he can’t lie to her successfully. “What we had to, Clarke…”

Suddenly she feels very alone, and honestly, very scared. She can’t trust anyone – not Bellamy, Jasper, Monty, not even her mother…

“What did you do to me,” she asks in a small but angry voice.

He exhales. “Indra gave O some mossy stuff that the Grounders use as a sedative.”

“Octavia is helping you,” she asks surprised.

“No,” he says. “I swiped it from her before she escaped.”

“Escaped…?”

Bellamy nods, his eyes refusing to meet Clarke’s.

“You locked up your own sister, and Kane, and you drugged me…” He nods again, still diverting his eyes. “Is there anything else I need to know about? I mean, you’re about to murder an entire continent full of people for no reason. You’re clearly capable of anything…”

At this he finally looks at her. His eyes are sad, almost black they’re so deep and almost glinting they’re so sharp. It hurts Clarke to think that she trusted him. And it hurts him to know that he’s killing what little of her trust there was in the first place. It would seem to her that no one cares anymore but he does. He hates it just as much as she does.

Unlike her, he could do something about it.

It would seem to Clarke that the radiation made monsters of what was left after the world’s destruction. Clarke wants to reach over and rip the IV from her arm and run as fast and far away from him, from Lexa, from her mother, from the Mountain, from this whole situation, as possible. But she can’t. And she knows that any sudden movement, word, even the faintest of suggestions of leaving will get her locked up too.

Or maybe worse…

But she still needs to try.

She glances around at the white walls and has to release a humorless laugh at the irony of her situation. Her people belong in this place. They’re just like the Mountain men: cruel and foolish. And just like them, she’s just as trapped in this bunker. She can do nothing. All she has left is words.

“This is wrong, Bellamy, and you know it.”

“No, Clarke, it’s not wrong to survive.”

“We don’t need to do this to survive!”

“You said it yourself, Lexa won’t let it go. There’s no other way.”

She stares him down, willing herself to see the good in him again, to find it and tap into it. That’s how she’s always done it before. Reason and logic don’t work so well with Bellamy because compassion has no reason or logic. It’s senseless to do good. It’s thankless and there are no real rewards. Mostly though, it’s dangerous. When you love someone, when you help them and try for them and sacrifice for them, you open yourself to be irrevocably damaged, you open yourself to uncertainty.

Surely some piece of that is still alive in him?

“Bellamy, listen to me. You don’t have to do this. Help me get out of here. Help me get to Lexa. I can fix this.”

“Clarke, don’t talk like that. It’s treason.”

“It’s reason, Bellamy, and you know it. No one has to die!”

For a moment she believes that she’s reached him because he lowers his head and takes a few long minutes to do what she can only assume is consider what she’s said. But when he faces her again, she knows by the sickly sad look in his eyes that his need for safety has come first. And he knows that he’s just a coward who wants an easy way out for the people he loves. And both of them know that knowledge isn’t always understanding.

Neither of them understand why this particular issue is the way that it is, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

“Where’s Abby,” Clarke asks, choosing to stare into her lap. Only this time she looks away not in her own shame, but because she can’t bear to look at his.

“She’s next door with that Reaper. She’ll be here to see you as soon as she’s done.”

“Good. You can leave then.”

“Clarke, you know as well as I do that sometimes you have to kill to survive.“

He puts his hand on top of hers just like he did in the control room when they opened the doors, and just like that, his shame is hers too and she can’t help but consider those words to be a calculated move on his part. She closes her eyes, yanks her hand away, and chokes on the lump in her throat, for the loss of her friend, of her family, of any semblance of a peaceful life.

“I said you can leave,” she says quietly.

“Clarke, please…”

“I said go!”

With that, she looks over and stares hard at him. And for that instant that he looks back, she can see this twisted sense of remorse in his eyes. It’s just not enough for her, and it won’t be until he stops this. He has a choice, right then and there. She gives him a chance to redeem himself in that instant. But he looks away ashamed, gets slowly to his feet, and quietly exits the room, the door snapping shut behind him.


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Continued in Chapter 7 – Right and Wrong are More than a Breath Apart

Chapter 6 – Tooty Frooty In My Booty

This is a lot harder than I thought that it would be. Maybe it’s like one of those things that you see coming and brace for, but no matter how much you prepare for the impact, it still blows you over.

Yes, it must be, because that is how I feel right now – now of all times – when I wouldn’t and shouldn’t be feeling anything. I should be numb and unaffected, because that’s the girl that life has taught me to be. That girl always keeps me out of the deep water. She keeps me alive and intact, or at least provides the illusion of those things. But then I went and killed her, drowned her in tears and tossed her into the muddy waters of the Mississippi, leaving this broken, fragile, weak bitch behind.

And so I swipe at my nose in frustration, tears and snot now an everyday occurrence in this new life as a… mushy husk. Oh, how I despise this new me. Spencer is cool as ice as she gives me a chilly glance and tightened jaw, the last of her boxes now stacked into her borrowed truck, and all I can do is stand here devastated and crying like a whimpering child. I miss that coolness that I used to possess and for a moment I’m envious of her.

But then Jetsam nuzzles my hand, those big, brown eyes looking up at me and mirroring my sadness, and I just can’t find that part of myself. He’s no help at all. If anything, he makes me feel more upset. He’s losing me as much as I’m losing him.

I have no idea where Spencer’s going, but that doesn’t really matter. She knows how to take care of herself, so I know she’ll be okay wherever it is. She was supposed to be here though, with me, and she’s leaving. That’s all I can see and hear and understand, and it’s reduced me to a quivering, distraught mess.

Spencer’s leaving.

It hurts; it hurts more than I can comprehend. And I’m doing this to myself, forcing myself to just feel it as it comes, but I’m already regretting that decision. Everything sets me off, from the death of an animal in a movie to the doe-eyed look of a random baby at a restaurant.

It’s disturbing.

And what’s worse, if you can even imagine, is that if I could hide, it wouldn’t matter. There is truly nothing to hide anymore. Spencer knows that I’m a fumbling wreck inside. She knows that I’m in love with her. She knows everything that no one was ever supposed to see.

And I know that she’s not a wreck inside, despite what I did. I know that she’s strong and forgiving and courageous, because I know that she wants to be with me. She always has.

Yet, she goes.

The problem is at my feet. It’s part of me, inside of me. There’s something terribly wrong with me and I don’t know how to fix it.

“Ash, are you okay,” Spencer asks with no small amount of trepidation as she puts the tailgate up, the latch resounding with a metal thwang.

She knows what’s coming probably better than I do. We’ve only been home a couple of days, but I haven’t been able to stop it. Now that I’ve opened the doors to the attic, it just keeps coming, and when it’s not wet with tears, it’s unreasonably angry.

“Do I look alright to you, Spence,” I almost shout.

She winces, but takes it gracefully and shakes her head in the negative.

She looks like she wants to say more, or maybe ask something. Her face is contorted in a grimace that I can’t really understand and I know that whatever it is, it’s not good, but she stops herself and I’m grateful. As much as I want to hear what the hell is going on in her head, I don’t want to have a reason to say anything more.

“Ashley, let’s just go inside…,” Kyla says.

I turn my blazing anger on her but she’s unaffected. I know that she pities me, and that’s worse than her insistently trying to be my mother.

“Ash, please. Try to relax,” she tries again.

Somewhere inside of me, beneath that deep murky river water of the Mississippi, that strong girl that died there tries to revive and take control. She tries to latch on to Kyla’s words and spit up the mud and moss to stop this insanity, but I’m too angry; too- just too much of everything.

And Kyla seems to recognize it.

“Spencer, you should go,” she says.

Spencer nods and gives me a long, anguished look as Kyla grabs my arms and tries to pull me inside, but I stop, unwilling to move. My limbs fill with led where my blood used to be as my anger deflates entirely, and I’m left with swimming vision and a pounding headache as the same old fear comes back to the forefront.

She’s leaving.

I can only just make out the shape of her as she runs to the driver’s side of the truck and turns over the engine, its loud rumble shaking even more of my insides loose so that it can come clattering out of my eyes as saline.

And then she calls out for the dogs.

“Don’t go,” I try to beg of her but my throat is so hoarse from crying that it’s barely a choked whisper.

“Ash, it’s going to be okay,” Kyla tries while Jetsam licks the tears from my face.

She can’t possibly know that because it can’t possibly be true. The safety net, the whole world, has just been pulled out from under my feet. I sink to my knees and buckle over, the sobs wracking me so hard that I’m reminded that I haven’t had anything substantial to eat in the last two days.

“Jetsam,” Spencer shouts, her voice biting, and while the animal jumps a bit and looks at her, the fact that he’s torn is written all over his demeanor. He still doesn’t move to obey her because he’s mine now. It takes both Spencer and Kyla to drag him to the truck and shut him in. I can still hear his whining.

“Don’t go,” I try again, better this time, and it stops Spencer in her tracks.

Her head is down, her back is to me, and everything about the rigid set in her shoulders says that she’s on a mission and she won’t be deterred, despite the fact that she openly doesn’t want to. She doesn’t have to, if she’d just realize that.

“I have to,” she says, as if she’s arguing with my internal diatribe.

And all I can do is watch as she gets in the truck and it putters away, the sound of its engine getting softer and softer as it fades out of sight.

“Ash, it’s okay,” Kyla soothes.

I feel her small arms wind and pull tight around me, holding me together like rope as I fall utterly apart. I have no idea how long we’ve sat this way but the lack of blood flow in my legs is making itself known. I try to say something, but it won’t come out.

“It’s okay,” Kyla says. “Don’t talk right now. I understand.”

Does she really? Because I don’t understand. But she must because she helps me stagger to my feet and leads me inside. She heads straight for my shower, turns on the water, and tests the temperature with her wrist before helping me out of my clothes. Once I’m over the side of the tub, I sit and hug my knees in the hot spray, feeling no better than before but somehow more subdued.

She drops the lid on the toilet and sits down with a low, weary sigh.

“Will you tell me what happened in New Orleans?”

Normally I’d give some smartass remark and play it off as none of her business. And all the while, I’d find ways to throw her shortcomings in her face because it would deflect her curiosity. That’s what the dead girl would do, but she is in fact dead, at least for the time being.

So, I don’t fight. I don’t lie. I don’t use sarcasm or biting words to protect myself. I recount what happened down to every last gory detail, including my mental state, what almost happened in the hotel, and what happened by the river. And I do it showing all of the emotions that are tied to the events. I’m not holding anything back.

Kyla doesn’t say anything right away, which is surprising, surprising enough that I snap out of it, or more like I snap into myself, and glance over at her. My muscles don’t feel so tight and the spray masks some of my tears so that I don’t feel so wretched about myself. She’s looking at me curiously, her brows furrowed and lips in a tight line as she seems to study me.

“So you’ve snapped,” she somehow says and asks at the same time.

Normally I’d be offended, but all I can do is nod and return to looking at the water swirling around the drain.

Kyla chuckles and I look back over at her incredulously.

“I’m sorry,” she says through a chortle. “But you should see your face.” She laughs again and leans in close, getting a better look at my face. “God, Ash, you really did hit rock bottom.”

I feel the anger in me flare again so I stand, and it couples with a sudden self-awareness of my nudity. But before I can give her a piece of my mind she stops me.

“This is a good thing,” she says with a smile. “I’m glad, and I’m proud of you.”

I’m shaking but the water isn’t cold and I can’t tell if it’s because I’m angry at her for being so arrogant or for finding joy in my sorrow.

So I hold my arms out at my sides for a moment and shout, “Look at me! I’m a fucking mess! And this makes you glad? It makes you proud? I just told you that I almost killed myself!”

She gets to her feet, her face much more serious now. It’s almost as if I’ve misunderstood something that she was trying to say, but that information is too late. I’ve already swung out and my palm has connected solidly with her cheek in a loud, wet clap. The force of it sends her face to the side where I can see blood rushing to the surface to create a dark blush.

Her hand reaches up and covers the spot on instinct and her mouth falls open as she gapes me. I turn off the water and step out of the tub, grabbing a towel and hooking it around myself. I feel like I can’t look at her, not only because everything that troubles me is on such vivid display, but because some part of me knows that I’ve gone too far. And also because I just can’t find it within myself to feel bad about it, even if she never speaks to me again.

She deserved that, for all of her meddling and bullying. I was being open with her and she just… couldn’t get over herself long enough to really help me with it. She doesn’t say anything, though there are a couple of times that I believe that she’s going to. But her mouth opens and then shuts, no sounds but the click and grind of her teeth and sizzle of her anger filling the room.

And then she leaves, not just the bathroom, but after a quick stop in her room for a bag of clothes and a ferret, the front door clicks shut and leaves me dripping, naked, and alone in this house that seems impossibly bigger than it ever used to be before any of these people reinvaded my life.

And I’m left to wonder how I ever survived without them.

And how I’m going to survive now.


I think Trent Reznor put it best when he said, “Every day is exactly the same,” because it is. I’ve made it that way. I didn’t really have a choice. Routine has been my salvation for more than a week now. My life pretty much goes like this:

I toss and turn all night, getting no rest.

The alarm goes off.

I consider whether I should heed its call or bury my head in the blankets and sleep for the remainder of my pathetic life.

The alarm wins because I can’t sleep anyway.

I slog to my feet and force myself through the motions of a shower and brushed teeth.

I spend a couple of hours writing and practicing on my guitar.

I go to band practice, which is sometimes alone because everyone else has a life outside of the band where I don’t.

I come home to an empty house.

I stare at my phone, willing it to ring for a couple of hours but it never happens.

I go to bed.

Rinse and repeat.

The only differences are the occasional few hours hanging with the band and Kate reminding me that I need to eat. It’s hard for me to remember to do that. This new life has left me feeling empty no matter my situation, so it just doesn’t register.  I wish that it did. I miss feeling full, feeling alive. I miss a lot of things, like sleep. I miss a noisy, messy house. I miss the rumpled glance of a blonde as she pads to the bathroom first thing in the morning. I miss a cold doggy nose goosing me in the back and making me scream at the sudden chill. I miss Kyla’s subsequent laughter. I miss everything that really doesn’t matter at all because somehow those are the things that came to matter most.

But they’re gone, and in an odd twist of fate, I’m still here. I could laugh if it wasn’t so fucking irritating. And it’s in moments like this, every evening, when I find myself standing alone in my living room, and I’ve done everything that there is to do, that I start to… itch. I don’t know how else to put it. My skin crawls and I have to distract myself through it because if I don’t, I’ll start to think of ways to make it end and none of those ways will leave me breathing. I need out… of this house, of my own skin, but there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nowhere to find comfort. That’s the problem: I’m the problem. I carry it with me, in my bones, in my organs like a cancer.

And that’s what it is when I get down to it, isn’t it? Cancer did all of this. It ruined everything. It takes everything and gives nothing like a parasite. And so I start to cry, sinking to the floor and hugging my knees. This happens a lot too, so it’s nothing new. But tonight something’s different. As it happens, as I fall apart and the attic throbs somewhere in the fucked up bits of my brain, I can’t seem to sit still and just let it happen.

I find myself in my car, the Porsche, and somewhere on Santa Monica Boulevard feeling better the faster that the street life outside of the windows streaks by. I start to laugh when red and blue lights swirl in my rearview. In a last minute decision, I make a screeching turn at the nearest street and consider flooring it to try and lose him. Not because I want to escape him, but because I just need to go faster – go anywhere.

I speed up for a minute considering throwing caution to the wind but think better of it and come to a hard stop in the street bus parking behind the Troubadour. The cop is obviously ruffled by my intense stop and go, and nearly rams into my back bumper in his effort to keep up with me. I laugh again, enjoying the feel of it even if it’s for the wrong reasons. I feel like I’ve lost my fucking mind but at least it’s a happy place.

The cop comes to the window and waits a moment, but I don’t roll it down. For some reason, I want to make this as hard as possible on him. After a long minute, he shines his light into the window tint but that does not good for him and I still don’t roll it down. Unable to see anything, he raps on the window with the flashlight handle a few frustrated times.

I finally roll it down, coming face-to-face with a shiny, golden nametag.

“Yes, officer… Doug?”

He seems to study me for a moment, a hint of surprise appearing in his ruddy features at what I can only assume is the fact that I’m a small woman. I chuckle again and that seems to annoy him more than the fact that I’m a female.

“License and registration.”

“I’m sorry, Deputy Doug, but why did you pull me over?”

He reddens a little and points at the speedometer. “You see that little needle there? That’s what tells you how fast you’re going, and you were going fifty-five in a thirty-five while weaving through traffic. Now license and registration.”

“Oh, is that what that’s for,” I say in my girliest voice as I get the documents out. “I had no idea. My vagina prohibits me from having silly things like ideas.”

I drop them just outside of the window as he’s about to take them and watch in amusement as he clenches his jaw a few angry times while scrambling to pick them up. On his way up, he makes a point of sniffing the air.

“Do you smell that,” he asks. “Smells like marijuana to me.”

I roll my eyes at him and chortle. “Maybe you shouldn’t smoke before your shift then.”

I look him up and down, my merriment dying down a little as he presumes to open my door.

“Step out of the car. The smell gives me cause to search it.”

I look him up and down. He’s huge, buzzed clean, ugly as fuck, and has that air of superiority that only a male overcompensating for his manhood can have. He also has the indignation to go right along with it. I consider fighting him on it, and actually like the prospect, but I really don’t want to draw this out.

“Whatever,” I say, shrugging my shoulder a little for emphasis as I get out of the car. I cross my arms and lean on the side of the car as he flashes his light into the cabin and starts poking his hands in hidden places. The car is pristine. I rarely drive it and I don’t smoke weed. In fact, now that I think about it, maybe I should start.

As for the car, there’s just nothing in there, kind of like me.

“Where did you get this car,” he asks, continuing his fruitless rummaging.

I snort at this question, ready to tell him that I bought it, like most people, but again my mouth runs away with me.

“One of my regular Johns gave it to me. I’m just that good.”

He pulls his huge frame out of the car and gives me another indignant look, this time shining the light in my eyes to the point of blinding me.

“I said you could search the car, not my face, asshole.”

“What did you call me?”

I rub at my eyes and sigh. “Asshole. You know, an irritating or contemptible person. Unless you want to go with the more literal definition of anus…”

I start to laugh again when his ears fume, and even harder when he says that he’s going to impound my car.

“You can’t do that,” I say through a laugh, finally getting something sensible to come out of my mouth.

He holds up a joint like a carrot. “Yes, I can.”

He straightens and reaches for his handcuffs, and I start to get really pissed, but then someone calls out on my left.

“Ashley…?”

We both look over to see Erin approaching with a worried look on her face.

“Ashley, are you okay? What’s going on,” she asks.

“The LAPD was just about to get itself sued,” I say, earning a smug look from the cop.

“Right,” he drawls, “No one’s ever threatened that before.”

He grabs my arm to turn me but I pull myself free.

“Don’t touch me,” I warn him.

“Keep it up and I’ll happily add resisting arrest to the list.”

“That’s not mine and you know it, asshole,” I seethe.

“Yeah, everyone’s innocent,” he says sarcastically. “Now turn around and put your hands behind your back.” I try to step away from him but my back hits the Porsche. “I mean it, little girl.”

“Little girl,” Erin asks incredulously, situating herself between me and the cop. “You can’t talk to her like that.” The cop manhandles her out of the way and she skids a few steps back, her voice panicked now. “Hey, stop! Ashley, what’s going on?”

“Deputy Doug here just planted a joint in my car so he could arrest me.”

The cop turns me and pushes me roughly against the car, quickly linking my wrists together with practiced ease.

“Hey,” Erin shouts. “Get your hands off of her!”

I don’t see what happens next because I’m facing the wrong way and it’s over before I can even turn around, but after a few choice curse words from Erin and monosyllabic grunts from Deputy Doug, Erin and I find ourselves in the back of his cruiser.

I look over at her. “Sorry…”

“Not your fault.”

“Why did you get involved,” I ask.

She looks back at me with a dumbfounded expression on her face. “He was hurting you,” she says as if my question was preposterous. She takes a high-legged kick at the grate separating us from him and says a little louder, “And he’s a misogynist asshole!”

Deputy Doug just grunts.

I look her over and laugh a little. She’s my size and that’s not saying much. What did she really think she could do to help me?

“And what are you, my dyke in shining armor?”

She smiles and shrugs her shoulders as best she can with her hands trapped between her back and the plastic seat. “If a friend’s going down, you go down with them.”

“Sounds like you need better friends,” I say and she looks affronted.

“I like my friends just fine, thanks. Besides, you’re the only one who’s ever gotten me arrested. You really know how to show a girl a good time. So thanks for that.”

“Anytime,” I say.

We look at each other for a moment, both of us smiling. It feels real and satisfying, and I find that the emptiness inside of me seems a little smaller, like this laughter isn’t so hollow, like this is my first taste of air after having been completely submerged under water for so long.

She lowers her eyes and takes on that bashful demeanor that I remember finding so charming.

“Anytime,” she asks, glancing up at me. “You never did call…”

My smile fades as I look back at her hopeful, expectant eyes. I’m not ready for anything but friends. Hell, I’m not sure I’m ready for that. I’m not a good enough person to be any good to anyone else. I’m a mess, and right now I have no filter. I can’t hold it in. When the feelings happen, the aftermath is random and unavoidable. That’s all there is to it, just like that slap with Kyla. That’s the kind of thing that’s expected of children, not grown adults. Who would want to put up with that?

But I need someone, even if it’s temporary, and even if it gets them hurt. I’m not ashamed to admit It now, and I’ve always known that I’m selfish. I just don’t really have a choice. I’ve pushed everyone away on my fall to the bottom, and now I truly understand just how much I depended on those people, and just how much they put up with. I also understand why I can’t depend on them now, but that doesn’t change the fact that if I stay isolated, I’m not going to make it through this, whatever it is.

“How about I bail us out and I’ll buy you that coffee?”

The cruiser comes to a halting stop and she smiles at me. It’s so warm that I’m certain the metal around my wrists is melting.

I can’t help but smile back, especially when she says, “I’d really like that.”

The doors open on both sides and two different officers escort us into the building. We’re still smiling at each other when they take our mug shots and book us, even though Deputy Doug won’t let us talk. It’s not until her officer is about to drag her out of sight that my smile fades and I realize that I have no way of getting in contact with her again. Her number washed off of my arm ages ago and I only know her first name.

“Erin, what’s your last name,” I shout.

“Carter,” she replies, her disembodied voice bouncing off of the sterile walls.

I smile again and that earns me a disgusted snort from Deputy Doug as he walks me into a holding area and shuts the steel bars behind me.

“I want my phone call,” I say.

“Daddy can’t get you out of this one, little girl.”

“Maybe not,” I reply with an inordinate amount of confidence. “But the best legal team in Southern California can.”


I glance nervously around the coffee shop. I’ve been here for a couple of hours already and I feel more and more impatient with each passing minute. All of the coffee I’ve had isn’t helping either. The litter of empty cups on the table and the nagging call of my full bladder attest to just how wired I am at the moment.

I get up from the table and head to the bathroom to relieve the ache and stop at the sink to wash up. The person in the mirror is a little scary. Her eyes are too wide and bloodshot, her cheeks hollow from all of the weight loss, and her clothes hang on her a little loosely. She sort of reminds me of those first few weeks after I got the bone marrow transplant – somewhere on the line between healthy and collapse.

I have to stop and ask myself how long it’s been since Spencer and Kyla left and I started this spiral. Two weeks? A month? I’m not even sure. I know that it’s only been about twenty-four hours since I put up bail and my lawyer had the charges dropped like a hot potato. Either way, the stress in my life is taking its toll. I need to get a manageable hold on myself, but it’s hard to fully care.

I finish up and head back to my table, only to see a smiling face sitting there and waiting for me. I can’t help but smile back at her, and oddly enough, some of my jitters fade. I feel fairly at ease when I retake my seat.

“Hey,” I say. “How did you know which table was mine?”

“I saw you get up when I came in,” she says.

I’d been watching the door like a hawk. No one had entered. I find myself pondering whether or not my short-term memory is just completely wrecked, and Erin must notice because she chuckles a little.

“I came in through the back,” she explains. “I’m a bit of a regular here.”

“Erin, it’s about time you showed up,” a thin man in his early thirties exclaims in a low baratone. He has a small bun on the back of his head, a full, thick beard on his face, and a serving tray in his hands. “You’re a little late, though.”

He sets the three tiny cups on the table in front of Erin and leans in to give her a hug.

“I know, Gavin. I’m sorry I missed it.”

“Where were you,” he asks seriously.

Erin picks up one of the tiny cups and gestures to me before knocking it back like a shot.

“Oh,” he says with a lascivious smile, as if that explained everything. “I see… Well, you missed one hell of a party.”

Erin snorts and wryly says, “I bet.”

“Now what is that supposed to mean,” he says, hooking his hand on his hip like a flaming queen.

I have to do a double take because nothing about this man says gay at all, except for that.

“Gav, every year for the last four years I’ve been coming to your birthday parties.”

“Yeah,” he says defensively. “And you always have fun.”

She laughs. “Please. My idea of fun isn’t babysitting a bunch of drunk fags and holding their hair while they puke.”

“So you ditched me,” he asks hotly.

“No,” she says patiently. “Ashley got me arrested.”

Erin gives me a charming smile before knocking back another shot of what I’m guessing is espresso.

“What,” Gavin almost shouts, shoving his way in next to her. “What did you do to my girl,” he asks me accusingly, a protective arm curling around Erin’s shoulders.

I give Erin a glare but the smug look on her face says that she doesn’t care.

“I, uh…,” I clear my throat. “I-“

“Wait, aren’t you that lead singer of that band, The Moore, The Moores of After, or something?”

The Mourning After,” Erin says, and after a moment of some sort of dawning awareness, he leans over the table to take my hands.

“Girl, nevermind. You can do whatever you want with old Erin here.”

He pats my hand and gets to his feet, and Erin ducks her head to unsuccessfully hide her blush.

“I’ll leave you two alone then,” Gavin says striding away, and I can’t help but stare at his back.

He was like a whirlwind of confusion.

“Friend of yours,” I ask when he disappears behind the coffee bar.

“Yeah. Gavin’s a great guy once you get to know him.”

I lean in a little. “Is he gay?”

She laughs. “Yeah. It’s hard to tell, isn’t it?”

I nod my agreement. “I wouldn’t have had any idea if I hadn’t seen him over-react to something.”

She nods. “That’s how it goes with him. One minute he’s your typical man’s man, and the next he’s a raging queen. There really isn’t an in-between with him. He both defies and lives the stereotype.”

I nod and a moment of silence passes. “Thanks for throwing me under the bus, by the way.”

She grins. “You’re welcome.”

“You know, it’s not my fault you bit off more than you could chew and got arrested.”

She leans over and pats my hand. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, sweetie.”

“I’m serious,” I say laughing. “You tried to go all Hee-Man on the cop. You’re like a Chihuahua with a Pit Bull complex.”

She laughs and leans back in her booth, and I get the impression that if I could see under the table, she’d be crossing her legs in that Sharon Stone kind of way, the one that says, ‘danger.’

“I’m no Chihuahua.”

I grin and mirror her pose. “I don’t know about that, but you’re definitely no Pit Bull.”

“Care to make a wager on that?”

I can think of a million replies to that question, but I’m not comfortable with any of them.

“How much,” I ask cautiously.

She laughs a little too heartily. “Oh, not money. That’s dull.”

I can’t help but grin at that. I’ve met gold diggers before. “What did you have in mind, then?”

“A ride.”

“A ride?”

“Yes.”

“That’s what got us in this mess to begin with.”

“Are you nervous, little girl.

Hell yes I’m nervous but she’s not going to get that out of me, so I scoff and she laughs and then I laugh louder because my bravado was utterly unsuccessful.

“That’s a low blow.”

“I’ve always been partial to the lower regions,” she says, her eyes drifting down my body before coming  back up to my eyes.

Holy shit… the bashful act is really just that: an act.

“Um,” I say in that way that only a prepubescent boy can. “Okay. A ride.”

She grins like the Cheshire cat, and I can only wonder what the fuck I just got myself into. I don’t have to wonder long though, because within minutes she’s pulled me outside, loaded me into her vintage purple bug, turned up some Schoolyard Heroes, and we’re both screaming the lyrics to Attack of the Puppet People all the way to a hole-in-the-wall dive bar.

The inside is loud, smoky, and oddly bright for a night spot. The cracked, brown pleather stools, bench seats, and the fake wood paneling along on the walls give credence to the age of the place. The décor isn’t really décor so much as the skulls of dead things nailed to various surfaces and a few simple paintings of the idealized electric cowboy of the seventies. The music is hideous, all whining and twang. Fortunately though, I can barely hear the music over the shouting.

I glance at Erin in confusion as the giant Hawaiian man at the door happily hugs her and stamps our hands with a palm tree. Her smile is disconcerting more than reassuring as she leads me into what I assume would be an open area, but there are so many bodies crammed into the space that there’s barely air to breathe. All of them are shouting in another language at something at the center of their mass that I can’t see, and waving their arms in the air, money of differing denominations clenched tight in their fists.

Erin somehow glides through them like a salmon in a stream and I do my best to keep up with her. I catch up to her just in time to see her hugging the… well, I guess that she’s a DJ, but the age of her attire, the equipment around her, and the music would suggest that she basically just changes the 8-track when necessary. She has a warm smile that’s very inviting though. Maybe it’s because of all of the feathered hair framing her face or the lipstick stains on her teeth. Either way, she has soft features for someone clearly in her fifties, and she tips her cowboy hat to me in greeting because there’s no way we can hear to speak.

She seems to know what Erin wants without speaking and they both give me a grin that makes me feel like meat for the slaughter. After a few minutes the shouts die down with an almost sad, “Aww,” and I watch as the woman pulls the bulbous, silver snake mic on the paneled podium towards her mouth.

“Aw, that’s too bad. But you held on tight and gave it your all, darlin’. Let’s give her a round of applause, y’all.”

Some people clap but mostly the crowd is shifting to exchange money with someone in the corner and to let a girl suspended between two guys come shuffling through wearily.

“We have a special treat for you tonight,” Erin’s friend continues into the loud speakers, taking a long pause as if to build suspense. And it works, my nervousness shoots up a notch and the crowd waits quietly with baited breath until the woman says, “Showdown.”

Everyone starts to whistle and holler, and the guy in the corner taking the money gets bum rushed. I have to wipe my palms on the thighs of my jeans. This isn’t good.

“In this corner,” she continues. “We have the Irish lass who’ll will kick your ass, the one, the only, Erin Carter!”

The crowd cheers and I swear that she knows most of these people. I’m a little taken aback. Erin really gets around. I look over at her and watch as she says something to the woman, giving me a pointed look when she’s done. Actually, I can’t tell if that’s a pointed look, or a heated one, or maybe both.

I’m in over my head with this girl.

“And in this corner we have the guitar girl who’ll make your toes curl, the lead singer of The Mourning After, Ashley Davies!”

This time, the cheer isn’t nearly to the volume it was for Erin, but a few of the lifers show their support for me in that way that speaks of just how badly I’m going to get my ass kicked. I still don’t know what’s about to happen, and I’m not certain that I want to find out.

“Okay, y’all, finish placing your bets and we’ll get this dog and pony show on the road!”

I step forward and try to get Erin’s attention, but she intercepts me, knowing exactly what I want, and pulls me up onto a platform. It gives me the height that I need to see over the crowd and easily identify the fake bull at its center. And suddenly, taking ‘a ride’ makes sense.

Just fuck…

Erin laughs and steps up behind me, putting her arms around my middle and leaning in close to my ear.

“What’s the matter, Ashley? Are you scared?”

I swallow a little, but I’m not sure if it’s because of what I’m about to do or because she’s breathing gently on my ear.

“No,” I say confidently, though it’s a giant lie.

I can feel her smile more than see it. “Good. I wouldn’t want you to chicken out.”

It’s about this time, as Erin steps away from me, that the DJ brings me a piece of paper that basically tells me that if I die or almost die, the venue isn’t responsible. And I’m supposed to sign it. I really don’t want to. If I die here, I want someone to be held responsible. More poignantly, I don’t want to die. Can I at least get a helmet, or a breast plate, or maybe some wrist guards?

I mean, my hands are my trade…

Erin grins at me and I know that she knows just how nervous I am and I really, really hate that she knows that. So, I go to put my name on the paper but freeze as I realize what just happened. I mean, I never really wanted to die, but I didn’t have a choice and so I became pretty flippant with my safety. I don’t even look both ways crossing the street because, oh well, it just ends the inevitable sooner.

But right here, right now, I’m looking at something that has minimal odds of killing me and wanting to take precautions to ensure my safety. What does that mean? Isn’t death still the inevitable for me?

I put my name on the line, my nervousness turning to disorientation as my mind tries to catch up with itself, but I really don’t have time to ponder the nonsense that is my jumbled thoughts.

Erin is speaking to me again, low and breathy in my ear. “I’ll go first.”

She brushes past me and I watch her climb into the ring of soft mats and mount the mechanical beast like a pro. This clearly isn’t her first time and that seems a little unfair to me, but then when has anything ever really been fair? The crowd is going crazy. The smoke seems to have intensified in direct proportion to the volume.

“Alright, alright, alright, folks. Bettin’s closed.” A few gentleman that came in late rush the man in the corner but they’re turned away. “And away we go.”

The DJ puts a vinyl on the turntable and I’m surprised to hear Lana Del Rey’s Blue Jeans start over the loud speaker. She smiles at me, some of her lipstick clinging to the yellow surface of her teeth in clods, and standing this close to her, I can’t help but smell the strength of her perfume meant to mask the musk of her sweat, though it’s unsuccessful. Her clearly dyed hair and the fringe on her white country and western button up combined with those things make her rather repulsive, but somehow, I still can’t help but like her. There’s something kind, unassuming, and genuine about her.

It definitely earns her points when she leans in and starts to give me pointers.

“Listen, youngin’, don’t let that girl scare ya or she’ll run roughshod right over ya.” She smiles again and focuses my attention on Erin. “See how she’s arching her back and then leaning forward?”

Hell yes I see these things. Erin’s gracefully undulating on top of the beast, one hand in the air as she bends and flexes in time with the motion. Her skin is a little shiny with a light sheen of sweat, her stomach is revealed above her cutoff jean shorts on each stretching pose, and her chest is thrust out.

I’m rather hypnotized until the DJ’s voice breaks back in. “It’s all about balance. You lean forward when it pushes up and lean back when it pushes down. The hard part is keepin’ up with it. It can go pretty damn fast.”

As if to emphasize her words, the bull starts to pick up speed and the muscles in Erin’s exposed legs get tenser as she hooks her heels over the front flanks of the bull. We watch her fold and stretch faster and faster until she’s finally chucked onto the thick mats. The crowd is going nuts and Erin has a rather self-satisfied smile on her face as she pulls up out of the ring and stands next to me out of breath.

“Whoooie,” the DJ says in the mic after she’s cut off the song. “That was some fancy ridin’, Erin. Three minutes and fifty-eight seconds. That’s a new record!”

I feel the adrenaline soak my veins as the DJ confirms that it’s my turn.

“Okay, y’all, final bets.”

The crowd cheers again and the DJ shows me a modest collection of more modern vinyls so that I can pick my song while the spectators place their bets. “Make it quick, darlin’.”

Somehow, maybe because of who I am, choosing my song seems like the most important part of this endeavor. It’s really the only thing I can do well before I go down in a burning ring of…

And I’ve found my song.

The DJ smiles her lipstick smile and loads up the record. “Okay, folks, bettin’s officially closed. Let’s hear it for Ashley!”

Johnny Cash blares in the loudspeaker as I’m escorted to the top of the steps. I know that I’m supposed to go down there, but I just don’t want to. I must be the biggest pussy on the face of the earth. I mean, it’s thickly padded. If… I mean when, I get thrown, I’ll land on pillows. It can’t be all that bad, right?

“Don’t keep the crowd waiting, Slick,” Erin says in my ear, and that just makes me more nervous.

But then she gives me a little shove and I hug the rail as I work my way down the stairs. I’m grateful for my combat boots, but I’m worried about how much I’ll feel with the tight jeans. I mean, thighs are tender. But Erin seems okay, and she was wearing a skirt.

I wrinkle up my nose as I consider that she did this with nothing but underwear between her and the bull? That’s kind of gross…

“COME ON ALREADY,” someone shouts in a thick Hispanic accent. “LOSE SO I CAN GET MY MONEY!”

I can’t see the asshole that screamed at me over the din, but I throw my middle finger in his general direction, feeling my determination bolster, not just because I’d like to beat Erin, which I would, but because the last thing I want is for the asshat in the crowd to win.

I start to feel hot, so I pull my jacket off but it does little to help, even in a thin, black tank top. The heat from all of the bodies has left a cloud of smoky fog lingering over the room like a wet blanket. I chuck the jacket at Erin who catches it with a smile and pull my hair up off of my neck.

The crowd cheers a little, though I’m not sure why, and one of the guys closest to me whistles and cat calls. I absorb the good cheer because, well, I’m me, and walk over to him, stealing the wicker cowboy hat off of his head and settling it on my own, and nabbing a shot from a fresh round that was just delivered to the bookey. He doesn’t look amused, but I just don’t care as the tequila burns a path down my throat.

I scream out a, “Whoo,” because it feels good, not just the shot but all of it.

I feel a little liberated right now. I know what it means to have fun. The feeling I get when I play in front of a receptive crowd is… well, nothing even slightly compares. But right now, somehow this feels better than that. It’s like everything good that I’ve ever felt was never as good as it could be, as if I’d spent my life squinting at a photo and only now just put on corrective lenses.

Maybe feeling all of the bad means I’ll truly feel all of the good. If so, if this stupid thing I’m about to do can make me feel this good, I can’t even imagine what my next concert will be like, or my next kiss, or my next sunrise. No wonder everyone says it’s worth it.

I just wish I wasn’t experiencing the whole spectrum of human emotion with whiplash inducing momentum.

I stick my arms in the air victoriously, because even if I fall right off this stupid bull immediately, I’ve decided that I’ve already won. I shout a little with everyone else and it feels even better. I’m not even slightly intimidated when I get on the bull and grip the handle with my left hand as tight as I can.

“Counterbalance,” I say to myself. “It’s up, I’m down and vis versa.”

There’s nowhere to hook my feet, so I settle them over what would be the front legs of the beast and let my heart pound out of my chest as it starts to rock beneath me. I can feel every muscle in me tense as I try to match the stride of its motion, but it’s a lot more difficult than it looks and the spinning motion is entirely disorienting on its own, without all of the shouting and smoke.

I don’t know how long I manage to pull it off before I go tumbling to the mats, but it couldn’t be long. I mean, Johnny’s only just finished the first ring of fire chorus. The crowd is cheering pretty heartily as I stare up at the ceiling and let the spinning stop.

“Oh,” the DJ says. “Four seconds. That’s a new record on its own.”

I see Erin appear above me and extend a hand, and I take it, letting her pull me to my feet. We’re both smiling and I feel a little rush roll through me. She picks up the lost hat and I take it, putting it on my head and walking a circle around the bull with a single finger raised in the air.

I’ll give you two guesses which one it is…

There are equal amounts of cheering and booing as the bookey gets rushed and I pull myself back onto the bull. I want another go at this beast and the DJ obliges.

“Look at her spirit, y’all! Let’s give her another go! Bets are double or nothin’, what d’ya say?”

The booing disappears and the ruckus kicks up a notch, if that’s even possible. I have to wonder with all this noise how this place hasn’t been busted for illegal gambling yet, but then the bull starts to move and all non-survival thoughts are lost.

I hook my heels into the sides of the metal beast, bending and extending to keep myself seated, but it’s still awkward. I’m fairly certain that I’m not going to last long. A particularly harsh move nearly sends me to the floor but I hold on, my ass sliding forward. And then, everything clicks. I find the center of gravity, shove my right hand into the air to keep balance, and hold on for dear life, feeling the motion and strain in my muscles. And, to my everlasting surprise, I find myself loving it.

The crowd goes crazy and it’s over before I know it, the bull only kicking me off when it’s going so fast that my eyes can’t discern anything but smearing shapes. I land face first but it doesn’t matter because I’m laughing as I roll over and wait for the spins to subside.

But then Erin is there again pulling me to my feet, only this time she’s shaking her head in what I discern is mock disappointment.

“You got lucky, Slick…”

I grin and she leans in closer.

“Keep this up, and you’ll get luckier.”

And that’s a proposition if I’ve ever heard one. I gulp a little at the smoky air and the few seconds that it takes for my brain to process this information and think of something to say, something to do, a way to run for my life, Erin starts to laugh.

“Calm down, Slick. I’m not a first date kind of girl.”

Oh thank sweet, baby Jesus. My relief escapes me in an awkward giggle and Erin takes my hand, her predatory aura fading and her eyes gentling. She looks at me intently and despite the intensity of it, somehow, I feel at ease again. It’s like everything will be okay. It’s as if in this three second, silent exchange she’s telling me that she understands even if she doesn’t know – that she’s a safe place, a friend, and a lover – that for all of her bravado, she’s just a girl like me, with her own story, her own trials, and her own heartache to overcome.

I can’t help but link my fingers with hers in an automatic way. It feels… different, weird even, but it still works. The moment’s gone, the noise of the crowd around us intrudes and she yanks on me.

“Come on, Slick,” she shouts with a smile. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Where are we going now,” I ask with non-too-little trepidation, though I’m hoping the chaos masks some of it.

“Anywhere,” she says with a smile.

For a second I hear Spencer’s voice and see her broken face in the seat next to me as I take her away from her bigoted mother. Erin’s hand is starting to scald me and there’s this sense of choking betrayal rising up in my throat as thoughts of a different girl and a different time come to the forefront and I hear my teenage voice reply, ‘I love anywhere…’

“Ashley, you okay,” Erin asks and I have to think about that for a moment.

I really don’t know. When all of those initial feelings of that moment are swallowed and start to dissipate, I’m left with that dull ache that comes with the passage of time. It’s like it will never really be okay. Nothing can be the way that it was, least of all me or Spencer. But time has passed and wounds stop bleeding when you stop picking at them. And right now, I don’t want to pick at it. I’m not ignoring it like I used to, but I’m going to leave it alone, let it be a scab, let it fall off in its own time. Erin poked it, and it panged, but the wound is closed and I’m surviving.

I don’t need to run away.

I smile at Erin, albeit a little sadly, and say, “I will be.”

And for the first time in my life, I actually believe it.


Continued in Chapter 7 – Steady Steps


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