Chapter 7 -Right and Wrong are More than a Breath Apart

This time, when Clarke wakes up, it’s abrupt and alarming. She jerks up, her nose twitching with the smell of something sour and sulfuric tingling in her nasal cavity. It slowly burns a path to her brain. Her head, already pounding, causes her vision to swim and her stomach revolts. She’s only barely able to throw her head to the side to release the runny, meager contents of her stomach onto the hard, white concrete of the floor, a small, chalk green tube coming up with it.

Once her stomach calms, maybe a minute or so later, she chokes down big gulps of air as her last memory catches up to her present awareness. It’s almost as if no time has passed since the last moment that Clarke was awake. Abby’s still standing in much the same place that she was when she stole Clarke’s consciousness the last time, looking exactly the same with her uncompromising posture and severe face.

Clarke wants to hate her, especially when Abby puts an arm out and offers a cup of what might be water. Her throat aches and she wants to gulp it down, but she knows better. Last time she took a cup from her mother she passed out, and all of it happened before she’d even had a chance to say a word. Bellamy must have clued Abby in.

“How long was I out this time,” she asks Abby with obvious anger, her throat scratchy.

“Two weeks,” Abby says.

Clarke closes her eyes and clenches her jaw, unsure if it’s to keep herself from snapping out and striking the woman that gave her life, or to stop the flood of tears that wish to dribble out of her eyes.

“You’ve robbed me of three weeks…”

“I did what I had to do to keep you safe.”

“Safe,” Clarke says sharply. “You drug me for three weeks, knowing that I can’t run even if I want to, all to keep me safe?”

“Yes,” Abby says matter-of-factly.

Clarke’s mouth falls open as she tries to comprehend the madness that has become humanity, if she can even call her people humans anymore, and Abby takes a seat on the edge of the bed, softening a little as her shoulders slump and she releases a sigh. There’s a gentleness in her eyes that belies her obvious anger, and Clarke grudgingly accepts the cup, inspecting it closely.

“Clarke, it’s just water.”

“This time,” Clarke replies bitterly, taking a hesitant sip.

Abby speaks while Clarke drinks. “Clarke, you have to understand, it’s treason to warn our enemies, to even just to talk about it. If the others on the council knew, they’d want you imprisoned, publicly whipped, and at this point, maybe even executed. I’ve had a hard enough time trying to convince them to spare Kane’s life. I can’t go through that with you, not again.”

“Then don’t.”

Abby looks directly at Clarke, her eyes always capable of piercing her daughter to the core with their earnest conviction. And it’s this conviction that Clarke finds in them now, telling her that what Abby says in this moment is neither negotiable nor false.

“I don’t plan to, Clarke. You’re my daughter. I love you. I’d do anything for you, including drug you. And if you don’t stop all of this talk about leaving to warn the Grounders, I’ll drug you again, and again if I have to. I woke you up to see if you could get yourself under control. If you can’t, well, I’ll just wait until after… it’s all done… to wake you up again.”

“After you’ve murdered thousands of innocent peop-“

“As it stands,” Abby interrupts as if Clarke’s said nothing. “We’re roughly a week away from finishing the salvage of the Ark. I can keep you asleep until it’s over, and then it won’t matter either way.”

“No, by then you’ll have killed an entire race of people. The blood of thousands of people will be on your hands, and trust me, that’s not something you want to live with.”

“Clarke, you did what you had to do to protect your people, to protect me. I didn’t fully understand that before, but I do now. I judged you then, and it was wrong of me. I’m sorry for that. I should have seen it for what it was and thanked you…”

“What it was, was murder.”

“No, it was love.”

Clarke snorts. “You want thank me,” Clarke nearly shouts. “For killing people? With Love?”

“Yes, for killing people who were killing us.”

“Mom, that’s just… I was wrong. Don’t you get it? I can barely look at myself in the mirror anymore. Do you really want to follow my example?”

And as the words leave Clarke’s mouth, she realizes that they’re true, that her mother is doing no more or less than what she did. She is forced to ask herself if she would drug her mother to keep her safe from her own actions, and without a doubt, just a few months ago, it would be true. She would do whatever it took to keep her mother safe, just like it was with her father. That’s how this whole mess started. She was trying to protect her father. Abby was trying to protect Clarke by telling Jaha about what her father was planning, and all it did was get her father floated and Clarke imprisoned and exiled.

And then the Mountain Men… Clarke’s need to protect those that she loves drove her to unspeakable lengths. There was little recourse for this action because it was so extreme that it annihilated her enemy, an enemy trying to protect its own people. They were no worse for what they were doing, not really. When she cuts to the truth of the matter, everyone is just trying to protect the ones that they love. And the end result is always the same: some live, some die, but no one escapes.

All of these strategic moves never do any good. It’s always bloody and futile because all of that work to save someone who doesn’t wish to be saved is pointless. People have a will of their own. If, by some small chance, you do get lucky and you do manage to protect the one you love, there is always someone hurt by that salvation, hurt to the point of hurting you back in the extreme until no one’s left. It’s a cycle, and it never ends until someone is smart enough to stop seeking revenge. And sometimes, they even have to forego justice. Someone has to be willing to take the hit and do nothing, to turn the other cheek and let it sting, possibly forever.

Someone has to let what they love go, and do nothing to stop it.

Clarke wasn’t willing to do that before what happened on Mount Weather. But she’s learned a thing or two since then, about people and about herself. Now, she’s willing to do that, because she understands that there’s no other reasonable way to do what’s right. And what’s right never, under any circumstances, feels good.

But Abby can’t know that. She can’t understand her daughter any more than she can understand the cool indifference of Lexa’s command because she’s never been in the position of having to take one poison or another. She can’t know that saving Clarke and their people is poison. It seems like the best choice, the most logical, but both are just as destructive, just as hideous and choking. Clarke knows that both options are bitter, but only one can leave you crippled with guilt. It means a loss of conscience, a loss of innocence, and a loss of one’s own soul to do what Abby is planning to do, what Clarke has already done. And she doesn’t want her mother to know that grief.

This is what Clarke is trying to explain to her, what Clarke fully understands, and what Abby rejects in the face of her emotions for Clarke because without good reason, Clarke is just more important than anyone else in the eyes of her mother. And while that fills her with love and appreciation for her parent, she knows, unequivocally, that neither of them would be able to reconcile it after it was done. Nothing would be preserved but breath itself, and for humans, that’s just not enough. Breathing is not enough, when right and wrong are more than a breath apart.

“Mom, just stop! Don’t you see that if we keep ‘protecting’ ourselves the way the Grounders do, we’re just going in circles? They hurt us; we hurt them, and no one survives, not really. This can’t end until we stop playing these games with each other.”

“You know as well as I do, Clarke, that the Grounders, that Lexa, is not willing to do that. And if we do, they’ll kill us all. Is that really what you want?”

“She offered to make us the 13th tribe. What more of a guarantee do you want?”

“Right, she’ll put us under her thumb. Our values are different, Clarke, and there is no trust between us. We don’t want to live like them, and even if we did, they’ve made it clear that we’re expendable.”

“She was willing to let us govern ourselves.”

“Until she decides to turn us over to some gruesome fate, just like she’s already done.”

Clarke thinks about that for a moment and she recognizes the truth in her mother’s words. Lexa and her people are too proud to step down to even a minimum of insult, and they’d sacrifice their own, let alone the newcomers, if they deemed it necessary. She’s seen Lexa strike a man down for even speaking to her without permission, and Lexa drug her out of TonDC, knowingly leaving the whole of that tribe to die in fire. And yes, the reasons were sound. It’s better to kill some than it is to kill more, but in the grand scheme, no one had to die, not even the Mountain Men. They just wouldn’t stop… none of them. And it’s infuriating to be the only one willing to lift her eyes to see that the sky is falling.

Clarke is forced to wonder how they can turn a cheek and survive it with people so dedicated to this particularly vicious cycle.

“I don’t want anyone to die, mom.”

“Then give me a better option. Tell me that Lexa and the Grounders will leave us in peace, because unless I know that for certain, I don’t see another way. We strike, or they strike, and whoever does it first, survives.”

Clarke knows that her mother is right, but she can’t live with it. She can’t survive for the sake of it. She just can’t. Survival means nothing when it’s poised on a precarious cliff of self-loathing and doubt. What’s it worth to live if there’s no life in it? With options like that, there’s no point to anything. If nothing else, she has to try to stop it, to find a way that is better, to find a life worth living. And if she dies doing that, at least maybe she can die feeling like her life was worth something, like all of her wrong-doing had a purpose. To do anything less is vain and empty.

“Then give me rights as an emissary. Let me go to Lexa. Let me try to reason with her. At least try…”

Abby shakes her head and gets to her feet. “Absolutely not, Clarke. If I let you go to them, not only does that remove the element of surprise, but how could I possibly strike against them when it means your life too? How could I refuse them anything they ask when they threaten you? That’s insane, Clarke, and you know it.”

“Mom, this is my choice. If they try to use me against you, then you have to do what you have to do, and it would be my fault, my choice, not yours.”

Abby sits again, pinning her daughter to the bed with her eyes and taking Clarke’s hand in both of her own.

“Clarke, could you sacrifice me, especially when you don’t have to?”

Clarke has sacrificed herself on many occasions, but that’s easy. Self-sacrifice is a small price to pay when faced with the loss of someone you love. It is a gift gladly given. But the honest truth is that it’s a selfish gift, because at the end of the day, it’s easier to lose your life than it is to lose the people that you love. It’s easier to lose the nameless thousands of Grounders than it is to lose a mother or a friend, at least until you actually have to carry that burden.

And that’s what she’s asking of her mother. The chances of Clarke successfully backing the Grounders down is one in a million. If the situation was reversed, could she honor her mother’s wish to be a martyr?

The answer, immediately, is no, but Clarke also knows that she couldn’t look at her mother after that. Some part of her would blame her mother for the burden of her choices. Her love for her mother would be tainted. That love would then be no less intense, but it would be forever, irrevocably, changed, morphed into something almost repugnant. At least if she let her mother go and try, and she lost her mother because of it, the mother that she loves would still be a woman worth loving.

How can she possibly tell Abby that she would let her die to do the right thing without sounding cold and cruel and uncaring?

“I’d lose you one way or another, mom. Either I let you go and risk your life to your convictions and lose you, or I keep you safe and wipe out an entire race of people, and lose you anyway. No matter what I do, I’m going to lose you one way or another.”

“So that’s it, then,” Abby says. “Either I let you go and lose you or I keep you here and lose you anyway?”

It’s a slow answer, thick and sad, but full of conviction. “Yes.”

“Why,” Abby says pleadingly, drawing the word out as if it has three syllables.

“Because I can’t live with it, mom, especially when it’s just for me. My life isn’t worth all of that pain and suffering.”

“It is to me.”

“I know, and I feel the same way for you, but I’d still let you go, because I’d rather you die being who you are than know that you’re a coward and a murderer. I wouldn’t ask you to live with that. I wouldn’t want you to live with that. And I can’t, mom… I can’t live with anymore death on my conscience…”

It’s quiet in the room and Clarke can see the sheen of tears in her mother’s eyes as Abby realizes that she’s already lost her daughter. Clarke has taken the burden too much and too often to ever be that little girl that she raised again. She’s seen too much of a hard life, lost too much to be whole. She hates this whole situation. And after a few long, tense moments this awareness has a chance to settle into Abby’s shoulders and the thin lines of her face, making her appear infinitely older and desperate, before she finally speaks in a soft, defeated voice.

“I can’t, Clarke. It’s different when you have children. You can’t decide not to protect them.”

Abby can’t look at her daughter in this moment but it’s her own shame and shortcomings that hinder that connection. She loves her daughter more than anything in this world. She would do anything for her. But she can’t stop being her mother. She is trapped, but there is a swell of pride in her for having raised her daughter with compassion and bravery. If anything, while it scares her to no end, she loves Clarke all the more for being so stalwart, for taking a stand, for trying to do the right thing, even when she truly believes that it will cost her daughter her life.

“At least now, maybe, you can understand how I was able to let your father be who he was to the point that it cost him his life, even while I had to be who I was and do what I felt was right. But I can’t do that with you, Clarke. I just can’t…”

Clarke hadn’t pieced that one together until her mother had said it, but now, it hits her so hard in her chest that she loses her air for a moment. She does understand, and like the pain of getting her leg pieced back together without anesthetic, some of that hurt towards her mother knits together. She loses some of that anguish and hate for her mother. She understands her mother now, because she realizes that she’d have done the same thing, the only thing, and that would have been what she felt was right, even if someone she loved was on the other side of that equation. Everything that happens can be endured if it’s for the right reasons. She would sacrifice her mother, just like her mother sacrificed her father, if she felt it was the right thing to do. And somehow, the two of them have met in the middle.

But Abby isn’t willing to do that with Clarke.

“Then don’t let me, mom. Just don’t stand in my way either. Do what you think is right, but give me that same courtesy.”

“If I do that, I have to lock you up right now for treason and inform the council.”

Clarke nods and stares down at her lap. “Then I need to be gone before they come for me.”

“I can’t do that, Clarke.”

“I’m not asking you to. I am only asking you to release me from this room. I’ll leave a note when I go, and you can inform the council then. They won’t suspect that you knew prior, and I’ll assume the consequences of my actions.”

She squeezes her mother’s hands. “It’s not your fault, mom. It’s my choice. You can’t make it for me. You can’t stop me from making it. But more importantly, you shouldn’t.”

Abby squeezes Clarke’s hand in return and stands, walking to the end of the bed to retrieve a large boot. She fits it gently to Clarke’s leg with sure, practiced hands as she speaks.

“I had Raven put this together for you. The break to your leg was bad. I wasn’t sure if you would ever be able to walk right again, but the medical facilities here were fully stocked when we arrived. While you were down, I took the liberty of reinforcing the break with plates. It was a small, relatively easy surgery. I just didn’t have the facilities on what was left of the Ark. That’s what this scar is…”

She fingers along the thick, pink line gingerly, the love in her voice making Clarke’s eyes water.

“You can’t run, Clarke, not yet, but with this…,” she tightens the boot into place with the thick straps, thick reinforcements running along the sides and back, all the way over her heel. “It can bare weight now. You should regain full use without the boot in about four weeks.”

Once Abby’s finished putting the boot on, Clarke stands up slowly and carefully, putting her weight on the leg. It’s stiff and sore, her first tentative step wobbly and awkward, but the boot is designed to keep her bones firmly in place, so with a straight-legged limp, she is able to walk rather comfortably.

Abby stands and takes Clarke in a tight embrace. “You’re not allowed to die, do you understand me,” she whispers in her daughter’s ear.

“Yes,” Clarke whispers back just fiercely.

Abby stands back and wipes at her eyes. “Go get something to eat,” she says. “The stuff in those tubes,” she gestures to the area where Clarke was sick, “is designed to keep you alive, but you need a good meal.”

And with that, Abby leaves the room, leaving the door open in a purposeful way as she exits, and Clarke feels a sense of hopeful dread at the tasks to come.

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To Be Continued…

Chapter 7 – Steady Steps

I hear the ding of the tiny bell above the café door and look up to see Kyla come through. She scans the small, dimly lit room until her eyes light on me. All of my apprehensions flare to full force when I see the guarded look on her face.

She looks older somehow, though it’s only been a few weeks since I last saw her and slapped the smile clean off of her face. She wears her tension like armor as she quickly makes her way to my table and slides into the booth on the other side.

As if we’re business partners meeting to discuss the details of a laundering scheme, she gets right down to it and asks, “What do you want?”

I exhale a bit, forcing myself not to cry or let the attic rule this encounter. Getting control of my emotions hasn’t been an easy task by any means. But the last two weeks of near constant alone time, not counting Erin and the band, and an awareness of that solitude, has taught me a thing or two about myself.

I now know that I can’t stop feeling. There’s no way to do that anymore. Nothing works like it used to. I can’t sleep. I can’t pretend. I can’t coast through it like it’s all just some elaborate ploy at being chivalrous. Part of me wishes that I could, but I can’t force it. I’m stuck with myself, in all of my hideous glory. There are only two ways out that I can see: get through it, or let it kill me.

But I’ve been avoiding picking one of those. And more importantly, I know that I shouldn’t stop myself from feeling. Now that I don’t have any tools of the denial trade and nothing distracting enough to compete with the core of me that I’ve uncovered, I’m forced to acknowledge it as it comes. And I’m finding that as I do that, in turn, my emotions are starting to flare less often. Less is still at least once a day, but as to choosing a path, well, I’m not there yet, and Kyla reminds me of why.

The last time I saw her, I hadn’t figured my options out yet. Or maybe I had and I was just forcing myself to overlook them because, in all honesty, I don’t like either of them. Death… well, I don’t think I need to explain how that’s not a great option. As to getting through it, well, it’s easier to buy a new pair of shoes than it is to scrape the shit off of the bottom of the old ones. And let’s face it, I have the means to replace my shoes as needed. I almost resent that I have money. It made building my fantasy easier.

Either way, it took me years to get into a headspace where I was even willing to accept that I have an emotional problem. Oddly enough, now that I know and allow myself to come to terms with everything, the process of cleaning house – while immensely difficult – hasn’t been all that time consuming. This is largely due to the fact that I’m not trying to clean everything up right away. I mean, what’s the point when I’m not sure what my long-term plans are? As to what little cleaning I have done while I wait for that decision to be made, well I’m just taking it a day at a time – a bite at a time, because that’s how you eat an elephant.

If I’m honest with myself, and I don’t really have a choice anymore, this is the happiest that I’ve been since that long ago conversation with a doctor that collapsed my entire world, even while I’m not actually happy at all.

It’s strange…

“I want to apologize,” I say.

She snorts, as if I just made a joke. But then she looks at me and something softens in her eyes.

“You’re not kidding…,”

It wasn’t a question, just a realization, and I confirm it with a quick jerk of my head from side-to-side.

“No,” I say when she still doesn’t quite seem to believe it. “I’m sorry.”

She clearly doesn’t trust me if her gesture of leaning back and crossing her arms is any indication.

“You’re apologizing?”


“For what?”

“Well, for hitting you, obviously, but also for leaving without a word when you were younger; and for treating you like a nuisance since you found me. I’ve been an asshole, and I’m sorry, for all of it…”

Her arms drop to the table and she seems a little stunned, but that quickly turns to anger. “You’re insufferable, you know that?”

I nod. “Yeah, I do…”

And I do know that, more than she can even comprehend.

“Damnit, Ash, I really want to be mad at you and now you’re robbing me of that.”

Part of me wants to be indignant at her words. It’s not like she made it easy to love her. She was a nuisance, meddling and intrusive, and kicking me while I was down. And every attempt at explaining to her that I needed her to stop was thwarted by her tenacity. I want to be angry and lash out at her for it, but I didn’t call her here with expectations, at least not on her part. I called her here to let her know that I see what I did and have been doing, and that I recognize that it was wrong of me. I also want to be sure that we’re on good terms before I choose my path. How many times has Shirley told me not to let the sun set on my anger?

The silence is killer and leaving me to wonder if this wasn’t a terrible idea. She’s just looking at me in wonder and… bemusement?

“Kyla, please don’t laugh. Do anything – throw a drink in my face, get up and walk out, hate me, but don’t laugh at me right now. Please…”

What does she do? She laughs and I can feel tears welling in my eyes as I choke on my anger.

“This was a stupid idea,” I say as I stand to leave, but she puts a hand on my arm and stops me.

“Ash, I’m sorry, I can’t help it!”


“Because that’s how I handle tension, I guess…,” she exclaims in frustration. “When I feel awkward or uncomfortable, I giggle. I can’t help it.”

I think about that for a minute, and realize that it’s true. Even as a child she’d laugh at inappropriate things. There was this one time when mom and Kyle – her boyfriend of the moment – were throwing things at each other and freaking out about something that had happened out back in the meth shed. He hit mom hard, knocking her to the floor, and Kyla tried to get between them to protect the woman for some unknown reason. Call it instinct or sheer stupidity, but she was only four, and after all the woman had put her through… Well, I guess what they say is true: mom is God in the eyes of a child.

Anyway, Kyle kicked Kyla out of the way, hard, hard enough for her head to make a dent in the thin trailer wall where she landed. She was dazed for a minute, a bruise immediately blushing to life on her too large, child forehead, and he laughed. No, he guffawed, hearty and genuine. That snapped Kyla back into reality. She got up to charge him but I caught her and yanked her back. He laughed even harder, and so she thrashed harder, and when she realized that I wasn’t going to let her go, she started to use her words instead. She called him a plethora of slurs that no one her age should know, but oddly enough, it was the, ‘You kick like a girl,’ that had struck a chord in the washed-out junky.

He enraged and I barely managed to drag her out of there before he reached us, hauling her into the woods to hide. I knew the woods like the back of my hand and he didn’t follow if the sounds of his abuse to our mother were any indication. Once we were deep enough not to hear her screams and his shouts, I started to check Kyla’s injuries. She was shaking, but most of her anger had dissipated. I thought that she was going to cry. Hell, I was, but she didn’t. Instead, she started to laugh, even though her little lip was bloodied and a goose egg was growing at the edge of her hairline.

I remember thinking at the time that her ability to find humor when there was nothing to be happy about made me love her all the more, even while it made me hate her a little bit. Her childish laugh was strange and infectious, and I couldn’t help but laugh with her, even though I resented her innate ability to retain some of her innocence with natural born coping skills. Either way, if it hadn’t been for her ability to do that, I don’t think I’d have ever laughed before the age of eleven. There was just nothing to laugh about.

That’s how she got her name, Kyla. It was the female version of his name, Kyle, and he was the first person in this world that she had stood up to. It taught us both a valuable lesson: we could fight back. We could stand up and stop taking the abuse, at least to some extent, and it didn’t matter if our lips were bloodied in the process.

It was empowering.

Mom took a beating for Kyla’s insolence, and I took a beating from mom in turn, but that last physical encounter with my mother is actually one of the best moments in my young life. It was in the middle of this altercation that I stood up and struck back, and I was never touched by mommy dearest again. For the two of us, using Kyla’s name was a reminder that even when we were helpless, we could take a stand. For mom, the name only made her hate Kyla more, but we were okay with that. We hated her just as much.

I smile to myself at the memory and Kyla points at me accusingly.

“So you can smile at inappropriate moments, but I can’t?”

I look up at her. “No, I was just remembering the day that we named you Kyla.”

She sighs wistfully. “Yeah, I was a pretty badass kid.”

“Yeah,” I agree. “You really were.”

There’s a moment of silence, but it’s not uncomfortable. At least, not until she starts talking again.

“So, you were apologizing…”

I sigh.

“I laid everything out to you, and trusted you, and you laughed,” I say.

“I know, and I’m sorry,” she says. “I only laughed because it was a good thing, and I couldn’t believe it! You finally said something real, and to me. I was shocked.”

“And happy,” I repeat her words from that day.

“Hell yes,” she says. “You let me in and it was a huge step in the right direction, and I’d been pushing you in that direction for a long time.”

“It hurt me.”

“I know, and I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too.”

We let both omissions hover in the air for a little bit, and, of course, she starts to giggle. Only this time, I giggle with her and before either of us knows it, we’re laughing so hard that we’re clutching at our stomachs and the rest of the café is giving us strange looks.

When we both calm down, she says, “So, now that that’s out of the way, I’m moving back in.” I roll my eyes at her, but inside, my heart’s singing just a little. “Oh, c’mon,” she says through a playful smile. “You know you’ve missed me.”

I grunt and take a sip of my now tepid coffee to hide my own smirk, but I know it’s not working.

“You mi-ssed me,” she sing-songs. “You l-ove me.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” I say.

“So…,” she smoothly changes the subject. “What’s new with you? The trip to Europe is coming up.”

I frown. “I don’t know if I’m going.”

“What,” she nearly shouts. “You have to…”

“No I don’t…”

“Ash, it’s part of your list, and it’s not like you don’t have the money, and it’s Europe…”

She leans back as if the last of her points is reason enough. “Seriously, Ash, Europe…

“I know, I just, I’m not sure it’ll be all that fun now.”

“Ugh, you make me crazy,” she huffs out.

I glance up at her in confusion. Everything I do is the wrong thing with her.

“Why does it matter to you so much? I can go anytime. I just don’t feel like it right now.”

“Because now is the time, Ash. You’re healthy, you’ve moved past some of your bullshit, and maybe seeing how big the world is will give you some perspective.”

“Jesus, Kyla, give you an inch…”

“And I’ll take the whole rope and hang you with it,” she finishes for me sarcastically.

“Pretty much,” I lament.

“Ash, you’ve made progress. Don’t stop the momentum now or you’ll get stuck in another rut.”

I know she’s right about that, because I know where this newfound ability to let the emotions have me has come from. And where it’s come from is dark, so dark that it inspires hope of a completely different nature.

“I don’t want to go alone,” I say, but what I’m really thinking is if I’m alone, I might not come back.

She leans back and seems to chew on that for a minute before getting frustrated again. So I mirror her posture and wait for her to tell me how I’ve said something else wrong. It doesn’t take long.

“Ash, believe me when I say that telling you this kills me…”

I scowl. “Okay…”

“I’ve never been anywhere but Ohio and here. And LA is great and everything, but I would kill to travel the world. I could easily just say that I’ll go with you, but I’m not going to, and honestly, it’s your fault. I’m missing out on something I’ve always wanted to do because I love you.”

“What are you talking about? If you want to go-”

“Did you ever think that maybe you should do this alone?”

“Oh yeah, that sounds like a blast. I’ll go to strange places where no one speaks English alone,” I reply sarcastically. 

It’s a weak argument, but there’s no way I can voice my real thoughts.

“Hell yes,” she says. “You’ll go and see other people, rely on yourself, maybe even find yourself, and you’ll do it alone.”

“Kyla, alone is empty. Trust…”

“Well, until you figure out how to live happily alone, you’ll be alone even when you’re surrounded by people.”

I can’t really argue with that. Even when I had her and she-who-will-not-be-named living with me, I holed myself up in my room and complained about it.

All I can retort with is, “Get that off of a high school counselor’s wall, did you?”

“No,” she replies smoothly. “But I’ll embroider it on a throw pillow for you if you want.”

I can’t fucking win with her. So maybe I should stop trying? Kyla knows that I’m chewing on her words and reaches a hand across the table to take mine.

“Ash, think about it. What’s the worst that could happen? If you get there, stay a few days and hate it, then you can just come home. But you might really help yourself if you do it. It can’t hurt to try it.”

The meddling and pushing isn’t going to stop, not with Kyla. I realize now that she loves me too much to ever stop trying to help me, even when that help is painful and irritating and unwanted and poorly executed. But it is still help. It’s still love, and whether I agree with it or like it, I’m not going to continue to push it away. This whole time I’ve been fighting her and it’s done nothing but make things harder. Maybe I should just listen to her. Like she said, what’s the worst that could happen?

“Ever seen Taken,” I ask.

She gives me a cock-eyed look. “The movie?”


“Jesus, Ash, there’s something seriously wrong with you.”

“There’s something seriously wrong with human trafficking.”

“It’s a movie, Ash. Not real life.”

“It’s a movie based off of real-life events,” I counter.

“Well, if someone was stupid enough to kidnap you and try to sell you, with your attitude, they’d return you to where they got you within 24 hours.”

“Thanks,” I say wryly.

“Just be safe, Ash. Don’t talk to strange guys. That should be easy given that you’re Kinsey 6 gay…”

She has a point there.

“I’m the valedictorian here,” I say to her. “I’m supposed to be the smart one, or some shit. You barely passed with Cs.”

She snorts. “You were never the smart one.”

“Well, then… I was always the prettier one.”

She glares at me and I can’t help but grin. I didn’t win this fight, even though I am way prettier. She’s right. I wrote a multi-million dollar program before I even graduated high school, and yet, she’s smarter about the things that really matter. I can’t deny it. This is why I can’t talk to her about why I really don’t want to go alone, what I’m really thinking. And like a circle, that’s the only thing that will make her back off and quit pushing me. So, I can’t put it off any longer. She won’t let me, and I’m not going to tell her why she should let me.

“Well, I guess I’m going backpacking alone,” I say.

She beams. “Damn right you are!”

It’s quiet for a bit, but I don’t like where it allows my thoughts to meander, so I break it as awkwardly as possible.

“So what’s new with you,” I ask. “Where have you been?”

“Oh, you know, around.”

“Around…,” I repeat stupidly.

“Mm hmm.”

“Is it a state secret or something?”

“No, not state. It’s local.”

“Okay… so where have you been? What have you been doing?”

“I’ve been somewhere doing something. That’s all there is to it.”

“Kyla, I spilled the most private details of my life, apologized, and let you talk me into a hazardous spree of international travel. Give me something here…”

She looks at her watch and stands up.

“Where are you going,” I ask.

“Don’t worry. I’m just going to get my stuff, so I’ll see you at home later.”

“Well, you don’t have to go now…”

“Yeah, I do.”



“Because why…?”

“Because… it’s… getting late.”

“Late?” I look at my phone to see that it’s only four o’clock. “It’s not late…”

“It is for me.”

“Kyla, what’s going on?”

“Nothing, I just have to go. I’ll see you at home later.”

“And then you’ll tell me where you’ve been?”


I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Kyla…”

“Look, I just don’t want to talk about myself right now, Ash. Not for a while.”

I can’t help but snort. “Since when?”

“Since now,” she says with a level glare. “Look, I’ll get my stuff and see you in a few hours.”

I stand up to come with her. “I’ll help you move your stuff.”

“No,” she says a little too loudly.



“Kyla, what’s going on?”

“Nothing, I just don’t need your help.”

Ouch. “Okay…”

She gentles a little. “Look, I just, I can take care of it.”

“Kyla, why are you leaving right now? Did I do something wrong?”

“No, I just… I really have something I need to do.”

“At the late hour of four o’clock?”


“On a Thursday?”


“And you can’t talk about it because it’s just moving your stuff?”


“That makes zero sense.”

She seems to think about something and then crosses her arms again in an ‘I mean it’ stance.

“Ash, this is all you’re getting.”


“Where I’m going you can’t follow. That’s all you get to know.”

“What? Why?”

“Trust me, you don’t want to know.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Why can’t I see where you’ve been? Is it that bad?”

The thought that she might have been in a really terrible situation because of me makes my heart race a little.

“No, it’s not bad at all. I was very well treated.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Yes, I do!”

“Fine!” She throws her arms up in frustration and then lets a smirk settle on her face. “You can’t know because where I’m going, Spencer is.”

That hits like a brick to the face. “What…?”

I slump into the booth as if my bones have been replaced with Jello. She puts a hand on my shoulder and pats me in a condescending gesture before lowering her voice and leaning in.

“And you are so not prettier than me.”

And with that she struts off, leaving me with all of my questions about where she-who-will-not-be-named is and how she is and what she looks like and just… everything that I’ve missed, like a recovering addict dreaming of just one more fix.

“Kyla, wait…”

“Huh uh,” she says over her shoulder. “I’m not going to talk about it or her, so don’t ask.”

And with that she’s gone and I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that no amount of badgering her on the subject will do me any good. That doesn’t mean I won’t bang my head against a wall trying.




























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Chapter 8 – Up, Up, and the Rain