Chapter 9 – The Dealing Process

“Spill,” Kyla demands, not even waiting for the door to shut behind us.

I roll my eyes, take a deep breath, and proceed to the couch with her right on my heels. I sit with a tired, “Oof,” and remove my shoes, trying to understand what it is exactly that she wants from me. She knows everything about my life, and I mean everything. Why is a new friend so amazing?

She’s still standing, almost towering over me. She’s really good at that despite her miniscule size.

“Kyla, what do you want to know?”

“How long have you been dating her?”

“Seriously, we just hang out. I wouldn’t even call it dating.”

“But you hold hands, kiss, and ‘hang out’ alone?”

“We’ve only kissed once, today in fact, and I’ve made out with other girls a million times. This wasn’t even close to that kind of a kiss.” I snort. “I’ve kissed you harder.”

“O-kay…, how long have you been seeing each other?”

“Jesus, Kyla, you make it sound like she’s my girlfriend.”

“Is she,” she asks, taking the seat next to me and pulling her own shoes off.

“Um, no,” I say resolutely. “We just hang out. We like each other. And we… I don’t know, connect.”

I shrug.

“You like each other?”

“Well, yes.” I give her a bored look. “That’s why we hang out.”

“How long?”

“About four months. We met up maybe three or four times before you moved out, and I haven’t even spoken to her since before I left for Europe.”

“You know, you keep saying Europe, but that’s a little weird. It was more of a world trip.”

I think about that for a minute, slightly put off by her abrupt change of subject and realize that she’s right. I started in South America, and spent time in Asia too, neither of which are part of the European package.

“Okay, my world trip,” I say, giving her an annoyed look. I mean, why does it matter?

“Much better. Now how did you meet?”

I sigh. “She works at the Troubadour and came up to me after the show to offer her services.”

She snorts out a chuckle. “I bet she did…”

I glare at her and she grins. “So she made the first move.”

“Kyla, no one made any moves. She was trying to help me with merch. I needed the help and we met up for coffee. We’ll have t-shirts, buttons, stickers… the whole shebang by next week. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. You’re our new merch girl.”

“Whatever, but you like her.”

I groan in frustration. “Yes! We’ve already established this…”

She tucks her legs up under her and turns towards me on the couch, settling in. And I can tell that she’s only just getting started.

“Do you like her, like her?”

I think about that for a moment and come up blank. “I enjoy spending time with her. She keeps me on my toes and I trust her. It’s just easy and fun.”

I shrug again, still not sure what it is she wants from me. And then I wonder…

“I’m not in love with her and I’m not looking for her to have my babies, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“Okay,” she says slowly. “And awwww!” She ruffles my hair like I’m the kid sister. “Little baby Ashleys!”

I roll my eyes. “We’re girls, Kyla. It doesn’t quite work like that…”

She stops squealing. “That’s why you have to have at least one.” That declaration hangs in the air a minute, but before I can comment, she continues. “Ash, seriously, is there potential?” I shrug again and she swats at me. “Quit doing that and answer my questions.”

“I don’t know, Kyla,” my voice rises as I get annoyed. “I’m not looking for anything, least of all that. I don’t know if I’ll ever love anyone as much as I love Spencer. I don’t really care if I do. Erin and I hang out. We have fun. She’s fun to be around and I don’t feel like I’m fucking up every five minutes with her. She accepts me and I accept her and we have a good time. That’s really all there is to it. I’m not writing our names combined and putting little tiny hearts around it in a journal.”

It’s quiet and the look on her face tells me that she’s thinking about what I’ve said really hard. I blink at her a few times, just waiting, but it seems like forever before she finally continues, and I knew that she would. She’s never mollified.

“What did you do today?”

“I took her to Temecula for a hot air balloon ride.”

Something more than what I’ve just said is received by her over-analytical mind.

“So you took her with you on one of your list items, something personal.”

“I guess, yeah.”

“Does she know about the list?”

I pinch the bridge of my nose to ward off the Kyla-sized headache that’s forming.

“I told her today.”

“How did she take it?”

I want to shrug, but I stop myself, rubbing my bruised arm in reflex.

“She took it fine. Actually, she took it better than fine. She just accepted it and let it go.”

“Hmmm,” she hums pensively.

I almost shudder to ask, “What?”

“She wasn’t upset?”

I frown. “I mean, she didn’t like it, but she didn’t cry or freak out.”

“Does she know about Spencer?”

“I let her read the list, so she knows all of the highlights.”

“Does she know that you’re still in love with Spencer?”

“Yes.”

“And she was okay with that?”

“Yes. In fact, she’s still in love with her ex whom she can never be with either, so she completely understands.”

“Ah,” she says satisfied with something.

“What?”

“Don’t worry about it. You’ll figure it out.” She pats me on the leg and stands. “I’m going to take a shower, feed Sheezus, and fall asleep watching a movie.”

“What…? Kyla, wait…”

She stoops to pick up her shoes and then gives me her attention. It’s at this point that I don’t understand why I’ve stopped her. I mean, she has to know something that I don’t from all of her questions or she wouldn’t be done with her interrogation so quickly. I should just thankful that she’s done, but I’m not. For once I want to know…

“Wh- I mean, that’s it? You’re done?”

“Yup,” she says with a smile. “I’ve got all I need. But you better tell me sooner next time.”

She starts to walk towards her room and I call to her. “Well…?”

“Well, what,” she asks over her shoulder, not stopping, so I get up to follow her.

“What just happened?”

“What do you mean? I asked, you answered, and now we’re good. Wanna watch a movie with me? I’m in the mood for a cheesy horror.”

I follow her all the way to her bathroom, and linger in silence while she strips, completely perplexed.

“Why don’t you pop some corn and pick something out? I won’t be long.”

And with that she closes the shower door and I stagger to the kitchen having no idea what it is that I’m missing, but certain that she knows more than she’s saying. And I’m also certain that no amount of asking will pry it from her until she’s ready. I also know that she expects me to figure it out on my own. And when I don’t, as will inevitably be the case, she’ll be supremely frustrated with me.


The next few weeks go by in a blur of routine as spring starts to morph into summer. I write, I play, I hang out with Erin, Kyla, and the band, and we land the slot opening for Brand New next week. Everything’s really great. I feel great, and I’m satisfied with my lot in life, especially Erin.

I’ve come to realize that what I like about her is that I can do all of the romantic things that I’ve been missing without all of the bullshit that comes with commitment. We’re both perfectly content to just hang out, or make out, or hold hands, or stay in watching Netflix. We’re not together, but we are, and it makes everything that much easier because there’s no pressure or blinding need, there’s no racing hearts or sweaty palms, and the best part is that there’s no unrealistic expectations of grandeur. It’s utterly simple and truly fantastic. I don’t know if it could be any better at this point, with my attic becoming more and more organized, and my possible lack of a future somehow becoming lost to my will to make one anyway.

There is only one dark stain in the fabric of this life that I’m weaving, and it’s decidedly Spencer-shaped. I’m not quite sure how to fill it. I’m fairly certain that it can’t be filled by anything but her. My only consolation is that it’s not like it was before.

Before, I needed her like air. Hell, I needed her like a crutch. I was crippled and leaning on her to make it through each day. Even when I was without her it was the thought of what I had with her that kept me going at all. Now, it’s as if I’ve endured a rigorous round of physical therapy and I can walk upright and completely unaided again. I’ve even made plans to enroll in college in the winter, to pursue the future that I thought I’d lost in my youth. My need for her isn’t one of survival anymore.

I just miss her.

It’s strange because I know, somehow, within myself, that if I never see her again, I’ll be just fine. I’ll live and I’ll be happy and that’s the end of it. But I want her in my life. My life will be better with her in it. The problem is that my need before made such a spectacular mess of our relationship that I don’t want to push her into anything. It’s not about being stubborn, but I feel like it’s on her to make that first step, to get ahold of me and make it clear that she wants me in her life as well. She’s the one who walked away this time.

And I get it. I don’t hold anything against her for that. She did what she had to do for her own happiness. She couldn’t support me, not the way that I was. I guess I just don’t want to intrude on her life. I already know that we can’t be more than friends, but what if she can’t be just friends? She has every right to decide that for herself. All I can do is be here if and when she actually wants to try. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Every attempt at friendship was thwarted by my need for her. How can she possibly know that now it might actually work, especially when I’m not so sure myself?

Sure, I know how I feel now, but what if I see her and it’s too soon and it all comes rushing back like it always does and I’m throwing myself at her feet? She’s made it clear that it can’t be that way. Am I really ready to test all of this perceived progress?

I can’t know for certain until I try it, but a failure at this point might destroy what little is left of our relationship. I don’t want to rush it or take chances. I don’t need her to declare her love for me and pretend like everything’s okay. I just need to ask her how her day was. I need to be frustrated by her sarcasm and wit. I need to have her punch me in the arm and call me on my bullshit. I need to know that she’s happy and healthy. Even a phone call once a month would do the trick.

I truly believe that we can both move on now, loving each other in a healthy way – a platonic way. There’s just no certainty in testing it out. It’s a risk. And in order for the test to have any chance of success, she’s going to have to make it clear that this effort is not only welcome, but reciprocated.

So, you can guess my surprise when I’m home alone one night, watching a horror movie and eating far too much popcorn, and something happens that sort of throws her back into my world. There’s a snuffling, scratching, growling noise at my door. I’ll be honest, The Evil Dead always freaks me out, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. I figure that my mind is playing tricks on me because of the movie, and I try to ignore it, but it keeps happening. So I pause the movie, and ever-so-carefully make my way towards the sound.

This is a huge no-no as far as horror is concerned. You never investigate. You just high-tail it out of there. Yet, I find myself exhibiting behavior of the individual in any horror movie that is most likely to die first.

“Sheezus,” I say under my breath. “If that’s you, I’m feeding you to the neighbor’s cat…”

It gets louder as I say this and my heart starts to race.

“H-hello…,” I call to the door. “Is someone there?”

At this point I’m really showing my true colors in a crisis, and the scratching becomes frantic. But despite my in-depth knowledge of what I should do, with a shaky hand I flip on the porch light and peer out through the long window at the side of the door. The glass is frosted, so all I can make out is a huge, dark mass writhing and banging against the frame. It sounds like a beast is trying to claw the door down.

My mind feels paralyzed and though I know what I’m supposed to do, I can’t find that knowledge anywhere in the mush between my ears. I’m home alone. I’m freaked out. And nothing normal comes to mind to explain what I’m seeing through the window. And then, abruptly, the beast stops. There’s this moment of silence and stillness, and the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. This is so not good, and I know it somewhere in my guts, but here I am, being spectacularly stupid.

The mass appears to back away and I believe that maybe I’ve just lost my mind and none of what I heard has actually happened. But then it lunges at the window, banging against the glass and startling me so fiercely that I jump back, fall, and land hard on my ass. It starts to whine and moan at the window, snuffling and leaving hot breath trails on the glass before going back to attack the door.

My heart is in my throat at this point but the embarrassment of what’s happening turns my fear into anger. I get to my feet, power-stride into my home studio, and come back brandishing my home-defense weapon of choice: a baseball bat.

I unlock the bolt, put my hand on the knob, and once I’ve gathered my courage, I jolt the door open and prepare to swing. Instantly, the beast tackles me to the floor, knocking the wind out of me and the bat away from my hands as it begins to furiously lick my face.

I scream like a little bitch, but as the attack gets more and more friendly, I open my eyes to see an extremely happy Jetsam. I fight him off of me long enough to sit up, and once I realize that it’s really him, joy shoots through me. I’ve missed this dog. I find myself crying and hugging his neck while he continues to lick my face. His tail is wagging so hard that it makes him vibrate, but he stays relatively still while I hold onto him.

“What are you doing here,” I finally ask.

Of course, he has nothing to say, but his intelligent eyes convey that he’s missed me too.

“Does Spencer know you’re here?”

I look at the open door, wondering if she’ll appear there, but there’s nothing and no one, just my front porch and a quiet, well-manicured lawn. I get to my feet and shut and lock the door, debating within myself what to do. Obviously, I’m supposed to call Spencer, but honestly, I don’t want to. It’s not so much because I’m nervous to talk to her, but because she’ll come get him and I don’t want him to leave again, at least not yet.

But then I consider that if he’s out and she doesn’t know where he is, she’s probably in a motherly panic. I know I would be. I was devastated when he was taken away first time. So, with a sigh, I pick up my cell, scroll to her name, and press the call button. It takes a few rings, but she finally answers.

“Hello,” she says in a groggy voice.

“Um, hey, Spence. I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”

“Yeah, hi,” she says quietly, clearing her throat. “I was asleep but that’s okay. H-how are you?”

“I’m good,” I say. “Really good, actually. How have you been?”

“Good…,”

There’s a long moment of silence that seems to stretch out forever. When I go to break it, she does too, and we both wind up laughing. It’s here that I decide to just talk to her. This person is Spencer, the love of my life, my first love. But right now, all she has to be is the best friend that I’ve ever had.

“So,” I say, dragging the word into three syllables. “I had a tall, dark visitor show up at my door tonight. Wanna guess who he is?”

“What,” she asks nonplussed, her brain clearly still fuzzy with sleep.

“Okay, I’ll give you a hint: he has four legs, pointy ears, brown eyes, and says hello by sniffing in places that aren’t suitable in polite circles.”

“Oh my God,” she breathes out. “You have Jetsam?”

“Mm-hmm,” I say. “He just broke into my house uninvited and assaulted me. I’m thinking of pressing charges.”

“Oh, thank God! I’ve been looking everywhere for him! He must have jumped the fence the other day and I haven’t been able to find him for almost a week now…”

I can hear that she’s crying and I know now that I did the right thing in calling her.

“Hey,” I try to soothe. “He’s fine. He needs a bath, but he’s safe.”

“Thank you,” she says with relief. “Give me about thirty minutes and I’ll come get him.”

I look down at my phone and see that it’s after midnight, on a weekday.

“Well, hey, it’s late and you were sleeping. Why don’t you let me keep him for the night and you can text me tomorrow to arrange a pickup?”

“Oh, well, yeah. Thank you. I mean, if you want to. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“It’s no problem. I love Jetsam. It’ll be fun.”

“Well, thank you. I have to be at work at seven am.”

“It’s cool. Just text me tomorrow when you’re ready. I can meet you whenever.”

“Okay…,”

Again there’s awkward silence.

“Ash?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m glad you called. Even if you hadn’t found my unruly heathen of a dog, well, I’ve been thinking about you a lot. It’s good to hear your voice.”

This brings a smile to my face. So she has missed me. “It’s good to talk to you too, Spence. Now go back to sleep.”

“Yeah, I think I will. Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow. Night, Spence.”

“Goodnight.”

And with that, I disconnect the call, excitement bursting from my every pore. Jetsam looks up at me with those big puppy eyes.

“You did real good, Jets.”

His tail wags.

“You hungry?”

The tail wags harder and his jaw falls open, a tongue lolling out in what I can only assume is an emphatic, ‘Yes.’

“Well, let’s find you a treat in the fridge and get you cleaned up.”


The following morning finds me sharing my bed with a dog, and I have to say that it’s delightful. Before, I thought the idea was pretty gross, but now… there’s something comforting about his warm body and earthy smell, which is slightly offset by the cranberry shampoo that I used on him last night. He gets me up early, clearly ready to use the lawn facilities, and I let him out into the large, fenced backyard. I don’t take an eye off of him though. If I lose him, Spencer will kill me.

He’s quick, only taking about five minutes to sniff out all of the new smells that have attached themselves to the grass since his last stint here. He happily follows me into the kitchen and I pull out some eggs to scramble them. It’s a breakfast we can share and we do. From there, after a quick shower, I find myself loading him into the Hummer and taking him to Petsmart for some treats, actual dog food, and toys, including a self-operated, battery optional fetch machine that’s pretty ingenious. I get him a new leash as well, and once he’s perfectly happy with his selections, we make our way to the Art’s District dog park. I can enjoy the murals and pluck at Mona, and there are plenty of grassy areas and hind-quarters for him to sniff.

We both settle in and start to enjoy the morning. It’s only been about an hour, and I’m completely stuck on the bridge of a new song that I’m working on, when I hear a very familiar voice, two of them actually, one male and one female. The female is definitely Kyla, but the male, while familiar, I can’t seem to place. I put Mona in her case, glance over at Jet to see him drop the tennis ball into the machine and start hopping with excitement as he waits for the ball to snap out into the air. He’s clearly not going anywhere, so I go looking for the voices.

The area that I’m in is pretty close to one of the sides of the park by the fence, and as I walk towards the voices, I can hear that they’re on the sidewalk and moving towards me. I’m not really sure why, but I hide myself against the corner of a concrete wall mural so that she won’t see me, and wait. When she does come into view, she’s cuddled up next to the male, strolling slowly, and casually smiling and talking with him.

They’re clearly a couple, and in shock, I stare at them. I’m unable to see his face because he has his head bent down towards her, but his voice is extremely familiar. So is his build. He’s tall and muscular, and dark hair is peeking out from under the rim of his beanie. Something niggles in the back of my mind but I can’t place it, at least not until he finally leans his head back to laugh at something Kyla’s just said and I catch a glimpse of his still boyish, but older face.

It’s Aiden, Aiden Dennison, one of my best friends in high school. This is the same boy that loaned me his car so that I could get Spencer away from her bigoted mother. He’s the same boy that scared Patrick away when Spencer needed help the most. This is the same boy that would give you the shirt off of his back if and when you needed it. This is the same boy that I loved like a brother but didn’t say a word to when I left and never looked back.

And he’s apparently dating my sister.

As he leans down and they kiss almost sweetly, I realize that this has been going on for a while and she hasn’t said a word to me, though she’s demanded that I tell her everything in my life as it happens. I get a little angry, and I want to burst out from behind the wall and say something, but then I can’t because I’ll have to face him and apologize and then try to kill him. I mean, he went for my kid sister. I don’t know how I feel about that.

So, I let them pass, none-the-wiser of my existence, and without thinking about it, I follow them. Well, skulk or stalk is more like it. Sparing another glance at Jet to be sure he’s still mindlessly fetching his new ball, I find that some of the other dogs have been enjoying his fetch machine too, and I move along the fence behind the oblivious couple. Maybe I follow because I still don’t believe my eyes, or maybe I just want to look at him because I didn’t realize how much I missed him until I saw him. Either way, I’m a peeping Tom.

This dog park is surrounded by the city, and I watch as they go up a set of stairs into a small apartment building across the street, the same blue truck that Spencer used to move out parked on the curb, my borrowed Porsche right behind it. And it hits me that this is where Spencer’s been staying, and this is also where Kyla has been staying. They’ve been with Aiden this whole time, and they didn’t even tell me that they were in contact with him.

I’m stunned and I just stand here, trying to absorb this information, and at a loss for how to feel about any of it. Surely he knows that I live in L.A., since two of my favorite people have been staying with him, two people whom I’ve hurt over and over again.

Did I hurt him too?

I want to cry or run or do something, but I don’t know what the right thing to do is. I only know that I shouldn’t do anything until I’m certain of how I feel. So I pack up Mona and Jetsam in the Hummer, and take off to the only place I know to go to find help.


Shirley and Sam are hard at work when I arrive at the non-profit LGBT shelter that they run. I spent a lot of time here while surviving for no other reason than Shirley wanted me to. Walking into this place now, I feel an odd sort of satisfaction seeing it as someone who’s overcome so many of the problems that these kids currently face. My situation didn’t really revolve around my sexuality, but I know what it is to come from truly terrible stock and not have a home. The place is crowded and mildly rowdy, but the atmosphere is one of safety and that reflects through the teens currently taking shelter here.

Despite the noise and bustling around me, I spot Shirley and Sam immediately. Sam can be seen through the large window of the office. From the look on her face and the way she’s talking, she must be handing out a pretty heated lesson to the girl in the chair across from her. It can’t be good for the girl. She has her head down in contrition and she only moves to bob it yes in random intervals that seem to coincide with Sam’s annoyed hand gestures.

I smile to myself, having received many such lectures. That’s what I always appreciated about Sam and Shirley. They were firm and no-nonsense, but they were kind and loving. Sam smiles brightly when she notices me and waves briefly before giving me a single finger to tell me that she’ll be done soon. And then she goes right back to her task, the girl not moving an inch.

Shirley is at the back of the big common room beyond the office, unsuccessfully fidgeting with the wires of an extremely old and tiny television with no luck. The screen is still just a snowy mess and I consider just how old this CRT television is. In fact, a look around the place shows that it’s falling into serious disrepair. It’s clean, and I can see where they’ve really tried to keep it up, but some things require money, and this place just doesn’t have much. It never has.

I walk up to Shirley just in time to hear her curse softly and watch as she chucks the wires she’s holding down in frustration.

“Sorry, guys,” she bellows to the kids that are starting to hone in on Jetsam. “This thing is toast!”

I let go of Jetsam’s leash to let him greet the teens and turn back in time to see Shirley smiling at me.

“Ashley,” she beams out in surprise, coming out from behind the electronic atrocity that she just pronounced dead. She gives me a huge hug, and I return it, unable to stop the smile that painfully stretches my face.

She holds me at arm’s length. “Kid, you look fantastic!” She hugs me again. “It’s been too long. You need to visit more,” she chastises as she releases me.

The shelter kids are now enthralled with Jetsam, the attention whore, and this gives Shirley a much needed break. She pulls me toward the office to find Sam. The girl is no longer in here and I accept the hugs, kisses, and compliments from her too before having a seat.

“Is that dog okay out there without you,” Shirley asks as she shuts the door.

“Yeah,” I say. “He looks ferocious but he’s a teddy bear. He’s Spencer’s.”

They both look at each other when I say this and I roll my eyes.

“No, we’re not together…”

“Still have a couple of months,” Shirley says.

“Six,” Sam corrects.

“We’ll just see,” Shirley counters and they smile lovingly at each other.

“Anyway,” I say slightly annoyed but not really. “Spencer says that he doesn’t like people, but I’m pretty sure that he just didn’t like Carmen.”

I peer out the window to see that he’s on his back, getting all kinds of belly love, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. And normally I’d laugh at the fact that he didn’t like Carmen, but I don’t really care about that anymore. In fact, when I dig a little deeper, I feel like my hatred of her to the point of calling her names in my mind was really very childish.

This is an interesting development…

“So, what brings you to us,” Sam asks, breaking me from my thoughts.

“I missed you guys,” I say, which isn’t dishonest, though not the entire truth.

The look that they each give me makes it clear that they know there’s more and I sigh.

“Fine, I wanted to talk to you guys, but I really was missing you too.”

Shirley situates herself on the edge of the desk by Sam and they patiently wait for me to spill it out.

“A lot has changed in the last few months…”

“I’ll say,” Shirley chimes in. “You look like a whole new person.”

“Indeed,” Sam agrees.

I feel a little self-conscious at this, especially when they smile at me, but I can’t help but smile back.

“I feel like a whole new person.”

“All of these changes are for the better,” Sam asks.

I nod. “Very much so.”

“But there’s a problem,” Shirley interjects.

I nod again.

“Spencer,” Sam asks.

I shake my head. “No, not this time.”

“Spill,” Shirley demands, and I do, explaining what’s happened in the last few months, including the trip, Erin, Spencer, and how Kyla reacted. I also add in some old history with Aiden, so that they will understand when I get to what I saw at the dog park.

“So you feel a little betrayed,” Sam observes after the pensive silence that follows.

I feel a frown form as I think about that.

“I guess,” I say. “It just seems really unfair. I mean, he was one of my best friends, and not only does she hide the fact that she’s friendly with him, she hides that he’s here and that she and Spencer have been staying with him, all the while berating me for not telling her about Erin, which isn’t nearly as serious by the looks of it.”

“We all hide things, Ashley. Sometimes it’s for a good reason, and sometimes it’s not. And then sometimes, it’s a little of both, like the way you hid from all of them when you became ill.”

“Sam, what good reason could she have to hide this? It’s not like it would have upset me that she was hanging out with Aiden. It was different for me. I only hid to spare people the pain of my death…”

“Well, you’re upset by this, Ashley,” Shirley replies. “Focus on why the truth bothers you, and that’s usually directly tied to the reason that it was kept from you.”

“Or,” Sam interjects. “You could, you know, just talk to Kyla instead of speculating.”

“I will talk to Kyla, but this just feels different, worse…”

Sam leans forward over her desk. “She’s hiding him from you like you hid Erin from her?”

“But I didn’t hide Erin. There just wasn’t anything big to talk about and we weren’t even speaking when I started seeing Erin.”

“Maybe that’s how she feels with Aiden.”

I shake my head. “No, she knows our history, and again, they look more serious than me and Erin.”

“Regardless of how you see it, that may not be how she sees it,” Shirley says. “My guess is that she’s worried about your reaction, the same one you’re having now, and that’s why she hasn’t said anything. But again, you won’t know for sure until you talk to her.”

“Ashley,” Sam says. “If you talk to Kyla and find out why she hid it, will that help?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so…”

“Okay, all you can do is tell her that she hurt you and let it go, just like she did with Erin.”

It’s quiet while I think about that.

“Can you let it go,” Shirley asks.

“Yeah, I guess…”

“So what’s the problem,” Sam asks.

“I don’t know,” I say in frustration. “That’s why I came here.”

“Okay, so knowing the why doesn’t help,” Shirley interjects. “And talking to Kyla and letting it go won’t help either. So what will help?”

“I will talk to her,” I say. “And I will let it go. But still, I don’t understand why they kept him, specifically, from me. I don’t think she would have if it were any other guy, and that’s what hurts.”

“Ah,” Sam says. “You miss him. They kept him from you, and that’s what hurts.”

“Have you tried to contact Aiden since you left without a word,” Shirley asks.

“No.”

“Well,” Sam says gently. “Why should he want to let you into his life now, Ashley? You left and you haven’t said a word to him. Maybe he’s the one that doesn’t want you to know about him given your history.”

That hits hard. “So he’s… getting back at me… all of them are?”

Sam relaxes in her chair and shrugs. “It’s possible. That would be a bad reason, though somewhat justified in this case.”

Ouch, Sam…

“Okay, I get it. I suck.”

Shirley sticks a foot out and nudges my calf with it. “C’mon, kid. It’s okay. None of this is beyond repair.”

Sam sighs. “You don’t suck. You’re learning and growing and you’re making amends. That’s all you can do. Your behavior has sucked. Just stop acting that way and do the best you can with the fallout. But you can’t really get mad at people who treat you the way you’ve treated them, can you?”

Can’t they see that, “I’m trying…”

“Listen,” Shirley says. “You’ve made mistakes and you’re going to pay for them.”

“I’m trying,” I say again, a little louder.

“I know you are,” Sam says. “I really do.”

“Ashley,” Shirley says gently. “Talk to Kyla. That’s the only way to know the what’s and the why’s. Just forgive her before she even asks, even if she doesn’t ask. If you don’t like her response, then you can decide what that means for your relationship with her and do what works for you; just don’t do it out of anger or spite. And hopefully, her response will be a good one and you won’t feel upset by it anymore.”

“Right,” Sam agrees. “And if you feel bad about what happened with Aiden, reach out to him. Apologize. You can’t control anyone else, but you can control you, and if someone from your past can’t see what you’ve been through and that you’re trying, then that’s on them. It has nothing to do with you at that point.”

“That’s the crux of everything, kid. Take things as they come, be open and honest, and you’ll see it’s a lot better than hiding and running. It’s definitely a lot happier of an existence,” Shirley finishes.

“What if he doesn’t accept my apology.”

“And that’s what’s really bothering you,” Sam says.

Shirley crouches down in front of me and puts her hands on my knees. “Kid, if he can’t show you some compassion for what you’ve been through and the fact that you’ve apologized, then he’s a dolt. It will still hurt, sure, but you can only do what you can do. And you can’t make him see what’s right in front of him.”

I start to cry and Shirley gives me some tissues while rubbing soothing circles on my back.

“God,” Sam says once I’ve cried it out. “You’re like a wounded puppy.”

“Thanks,” I say dryly.

“No,” Shirley explains. “It’s just, normally you get angry at this kind of stuff or make excuses, but now, you’re just… well, it seems like you’re actually coping.”

Sam smiles. “You’re definitely different.”

“Oh yeah,” Shirley agrees. “I guess we’ll see if you actually take our advice this time instead of making a bigger mess of the situation.”

“Am I really that bad?”

“Of course not,” Sam says. “This is what I’m talking about. You’re just learning as you go. You’re twenty-three and you’ve been through more than most people even have nightmares about. Cut yourself some slack.”

“Just don’t expect everyone else to,” Shirley adds. “If they do, then they’re doing it right too. And if they can’t, then the problem is with them, not you.”

“We, though,” Sam adds. “Are always on your side, ready to cut slack at a moment’s notice.”

“Yup,” Shirley again agrees.

“Okay,” I say. “This shit is hard…”

They laugh. “Life is not for the faint of heart.”

“Thanks, you guys.”

“Anytime. We love you, Ashley.”

“I know you do. And I love you. You know that, right?”

They look at each other, only this time they don’t say anything. They just get up and make me the middle of a bruising hug sandwich.

“That’s the first time you’ve told us that,” Sam says tearfully.

“I’m sorry it took so long.”

I groan at my mushiness as I pull myself from the hug.

Normally at this point, I’d play it off or tell them not to get used to it, but I don’t want to downplay it this time. They’ve essentially been my parents, Christine not with-standing. And maybe a little gratitude wouldn’t kill me.

It’s quiet and I feel all cried out, but I’m a little uncomfortable with the way they’re looking at me, so I decide to change the subject, giving voice to my earlier thoughts.

“Listen, this place is going to hell…”

“Don’t I know it,” Shirley grumbles. “Donations are hard to secure for a shelter when it’s only LGBT youth. We just don’t get the exposure that other places do because a lot of donors aren’t LGBT friendly. And the state doesn’t help at all. We’re too small.”

I smile at them, grateful to be able to make them this offer. “Well, let’s do something about that.”

They look at each other yet again, shock evident on their faces. “Well, w- um, what did you have in mind?”

“Who owns this building?”

“We do,” Shirley says. “Well, the organization. It’s paid for, so we don’t have rent or a mortgage anymore, but it’s only been about a year since we paid it off, the property taxes are killer, and we have more kids now than we did back then.”

“It’s hard to turn someone away from a meal so you can fix a wall,” Sam agrees. “The money goes to them.” We all look out the window to see the kids playing with Jetsam. “We’ve done what we can for the place out of our own pockets, but it’s just not enough.”

“Is this place worth a remodel? Or would it be cheaper to start over?”

“No way,” Shirley says. “This place is sturdy and you can’t beat the location. We don’t have mold or rodents, and the foundation is solid. A remodel would be much cheaper than starting from scratch. It’s just too small.”

“Okay, how much do you think you need to make this place what you need it to be?”

“Ashley,” Sam takes my hand. “That’s a lot of money. I know you have a lot, but this place would quickly soak it all up. Don’t be hasty here…”

My eyes bulge a little. “This place needs thirty point eight million…?”

Her eyes bulge in response. “Well, no… I thought you had twelve point five, and you’d spent quite a bit of it on your home, cars, two recording studios, trips, and the like…”

“Well, yeah. Back then I had twelve and a half. But I also had Shirley’s help. We put half of that in savings, which accrues about two million a year, and about four million was invested by one of the top firms in the country, leaving me with plenty of spending money. He was Shirley’s contact. They make me about three million a year after their fee. I could give you half of that a year and still come out with a huge profit.”

Sam slumps back against her desk and sits with an awed look on her face and I again look to Shirley.

“I thought you knew. I mean, he was your friend…”

“No,” she says breathless. “I had no idea. Bob’s just a friend who helps out once in a while with a donation. I didn’t know either of you were that successful.”

“Well, you helped me a lot, Shirley. Let me help you now. How much do you need to remodel?”

“I’m not sure, but I can get a friend of mine out here to run an estim-“ I start to laugh and she stops talking. “What?”

“You and your friends,” I say. “You know someone who does everything.” I start to mock her voice. “Need someone who will pay millions of dollars for a program; here’s a card! Need someone to invest that money wisely; here’s a card! Need someone to remodel your building; here’s a card!”

“Well,” she says defensively. “The only way to get donations is to ask the right people! So I hit up the successful gays in the gay yellow pages. I get around…”

For the first time in my life, I’ve flustered the woman and for the right reasons. It actually feels really good. A quick check through the window shows that Jetsam won’t want to leave anytime soon, so I settle back in the chair.

“Call your guy, Shirley. I have all day.”

She doesn’t hesitate to bruise me in a hug and kiss me hard on the forehead before jumping on the phone, and Sam and I start to talk about what they’d like to do. I can tell right away that she’s put years of thought into this, just never had the capital, and I start to feel some of her excitement. The three of us spend the next couple of hours talking about it, dealing with the kids, and I order take-out for everyone, kids included.

The contractor shows up and I let Shirley handle him, playing some music on the rundown keyboard in the corner of the great room and getting everyone dancing and just generally having fun. Some of these kids are quiet and shy, while others are almost terrifying in their need for attention. Some have never even had take-out, and the veritable Chinese buffet I ordered sends them into overload. But all in all, the atmosphere is decidedly happier, even for those who stick to the corners and don’t say a word.

It’s been almost three hours before my phone rings and distracts me from this impromptu party. My heart does a double tap when I see Spencer’s name, but it doesn’t fall into my toes or make my palms sweat. It actually just makes me feel happy. So I’m decidedly chipper when I abandon the keyboard and answer.

“Heyas, Spence!”

Another kid jumps right onto the noise machine behind me and I have to cover one ear to hear.

“Well… hi,” she says a little taken aback. “Are you at a party?”

I chuckle and head out the door to find some quiet. “Well, I guess you could kind of say that. I’m actually at the LGBT shelter.”

“Oh… okay. Sounds like fun…”

I laugh again. “Yeah, it’s alright.”

“Where’s my rebellious hell hound?”

“Oh, he’s here. The kids here are having a ball with him.”

“Really? He hates other people…”

I chuckle at my private joke.

“What,” she asks.

“Nothing,” I say. “So how was your day?”

“Exhausting, but uneventful.”

“What are you doing now?”

“Grunt work. It doesn’t pay much because it’s an indie company, mainly documentaries and the sort, but I actually enjoy the work and I have more time to play with my own projects.”

“Still shooting everything you see?”

“You know it.”

It’s quiet for a moment before another idea comes to me. “Hey, are you busy right now?”

“No,” she says slowly. “I was just going to come get Jet, go home, and tinker with some recent footage. Why?”

“Why don’t you come down here and bring your camera?”

“Ash, I’m not sure it’s a good idea yet…”

Well, that was abrupt if not honest.

“Yeah, I was wondering if we could manage it too, but then I realized that we won’t know if we never try.”

I can tell she’s thinking about it and I can even picture the cute little look of concentration on her face.

“Listen, Spence, get your camera and come down here. If you don’t have fun or things get heavy or weird, you can take Jets and run.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” I think I hear, but her voice was so low that I can’t be certain and I don’t see any relevance to those words either way.

“What?”

“Sorry, I was just thinking out loud. I guess we can give it a try.”

My cheeks hurt I smile so big. “Excellent. Come to this address…”

I give her the address and we say goodbye, and I grab Mona and head inside. The kid on the piano is terrible, but I figure I might be able to teach him a thing a two while I wait.


It truly is horrible, the music we’re all making together, if you can even call it that. It’s disorganized, off key, loud, and bracing. But somehow, we’re still having fun. Even some of the loners have come out of the rooms and off the walls to just sit and watch. It’s not long before I spot another Doberman jumping into the fray to sniff out his missing brother. This sends the kids into an absolute frenzy. They now have two dogs to torment. I look around and see Spencer, camera in hand, videotaping the happenings around us.

Her camera isn’t pointed on me so I sneak around and come up beside her.

“When did you get here,” I ask loudly.

She jumps and gives me scathing look that quickly turns into a smile.

“A little while ago,” she shouts. “You jerk.”

I laugh and she asks, “Is this normal?”

“I doubt it,” I say, lowering my guitar and turning to the other make-shift musicians. “Let’s take a break, guys.”

There are few groans but they quickly entertain themselves with the dogs and each other.

“It just sort of happened,” I turn back to Spencer. “I’m trying to keep all the kids engaged so that Shirley and Sam can handle some business.”

I tilt my head towards Shirley, Sam, and a man named Chris sitting in the office and talking.

“He’s an architect and he’s going to help remodel this place.”

“That’s awesome,” Spencer says, panning her camera to the kids chasing Jetsam, who’s clearly no longer enthused.

I chuckle. “I think they wore him out but he can’t get away from them to rest.”

“Good,” she says. “Little asshole needs a lesson.”

“He really put you through the ringer, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” she says. “I don’t understand it. He’s never done anything like that before, but ever since we left your place, he hasn’t been happy. Since then, he’s tried to escape twice.”

She doesn’t say this in a harsh way, or even a pointed way, but I still feel terrible at her words.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. Flotsam has always been the needier of the two, at least where I’m concerned. Jetsam took to you immediately though, in a way he just never did with me.” She glances over at me. “You’re his person, Ash.”

Why does that make me unusually happy when it’s clearly so sad for Spencer?

“I didn’t mean to steal your dog, Spence.”

“It’s really not your fault. They connect with a person and it doesn’t make any sense. You can’t force it or change it. I just don’t know how I’m supposed to live without him. They’re both my babies.”

“Well,” I say a little confused. “You don’t have to. You’re taking him home…”

“I want to,” she says, lowering her camera. “But I’m worried he’ll run away again. And if he does, he might not make it to your place this time.”

“Don’t you have them chipped?”

“No,” she says shocked. “Have you seen those needles? They’re as big as a harpoon. I couldn’t do it…”

I chuckle.

“Shut up,” she says.

“You know, Spence, I’d be happy to make it so that he can’t get out of your yard. It’s not that expensive.”

She shakes her head. “No, I don’t have a yard for him right now and I won’t for a while. I think that’s part of the problem. He’s cooped up in an apartment all day while I’m at work. He jumped the fence at the dog park across the street while I was reading and I just didn’t notice. By the time I did, I couldn’t find him anywhere. I was beginning to think someone might have taken him.”

“He is a beautiful dog.”

“They both are.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I don’t want to rehome him, but I don’t see another way.”

“Spence, you can’t do that,” I say shocked. “I’ll take him before you do that.”

“Well, that’s sort of what I had in mind.”

“Spence, I can’t take him from you…”

“Ash, you love him and he loves you.”

And she’s right. “But I know how much you love him.”

She nods. “Yes, I do, but I’d rather you had him and him be happy and healthy, than find him dead in the street one day. Besides, at least if he’s with you, I could come see him and I wouldn’t have to fully split him up from Flotsam. Flotsam won’t leave me, but he’s been really sad without Jet.”

“Why don’t you just let me keep him until you have a yard that you can secure?”

“I don’t want to do that to you, Ash. You love him as much as I do.”

And she’s right again.

“Well, let him stay with me for the time being, okay? We’ll work the rest out as the time comes.”

She looks at me a little nonplussed. “Okay…”

And it’s at this moment that she gives me the once over. Of all of the scrutiny that I’ve received in the last few weeks, this time makes me the most uncomfortable.

“What,” I ask self-consciously.

“It’s just, you seem different,” she says.

“Well, a lot has changed since you left, Spence.”

“You want to tell me about it,” she asks as if she’s joking.

I shrug. “Sure, if you’ve got the time. It’s a lot, and you might not like some of it.”

“But you’re willing to tell me…?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I don’t have anything to hide anymore.”

“Like, everything, everything, no matter what it is?”

“Yeah.”

“Seriously, if I ask you extremely personal questions, you’ll answer them honestly?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, let’s talk,” she says nonchalantly.

“Right now,” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says in a manner that tells me she thinks that I’m just setting her up. “You say you’re willing, so let’s do it.”

“Um…,” I say, concerned that something really terrible is happening right here. “Are you sure, Spence? You’re being strange…”

She deflates a little. “Ash, just please don’t offer things you’re not prepared to follow through on.”

I shake my head and look around me. It’s loud, the kids are all wired for sound and it’s pretty much my fault, but Sam and Shirley are standing in the office shaking hands with Chris, and it looks like they might be drawing their meeting to a close.

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll tell Sam and Shirley that we’re leaving.”

“Wait,” she says grabbing my arm. “You’re not joking?”

“I mean, I didn’t envision us having a huge, in-depth talk our first time trying to actually be friends, but if you want to delve, I’m willing to let you…”

“O-kay…,” she says, her eyes huge. “Are you sure?”

“Spencer, if you want to talk, we can, now or later. It’s up to you. I won’t change my mind.”

“Then yeah, I’d like to know what’s going on with you because you’re actually starting to freak me out a little.”

“Okay then.”

Without another word, I walk to the office, feeling Spencer’s eyes on me the whole time and doing my best to ignore it. I poke my head inside. “Sorry to interrupt, but Spencer and I were going to take off. Everything good here?”

“It’s amazing,” Shirley smiles at me. “We just finished up here.”

“Yes,” Chris says. “I should have the plans drawn up and an estimate ready for you by this time next week. I’ll be in touch.”

Shirley shakes his hand, her happiness over-exaggerating the maneuver to the point that I’m a little worried that she’s going to shake his arm right off.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Ashley,” he says, shaking my hand this time and then excusing himself. “And thank you for the wonderful meal.”

“No problem,” I say.

Shirley and Sam both hug me again and I swear I feel a few bones snap.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Sam chants.

“It’s fine, you guys. Just let me know what he needs and I’ll have my bank write a cashier’s check.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” they chant together this time.

“Okay,” I chuckle. “We’re going to leave now but I’ll be back.”

“Come by soon, really soon,” Sam says. “I think you’ve got some fans here now.”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s amazing what Chinese food and a dog can do.”

“It was more than that,” Shirley says. “You really lifted the spirits here, Ash. You need to hang out more.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“You do that,” Sam says, kissing me on the cheek and returning to her desk.

Shirley throws an arm over my shoulders and escorts me through the door before leaning in close to my ear and saying, “Try to seal the deal in two months, would you? It’d really help me out with the missus.”

Before I can say anything, she slaps me hard on the back and whistles a tune as she walks away. I see her wink at Spencer before clapping her hands and bringing order back to the teens.

Spencer has put her camera away and wrangled up the dogs, so she’s ready to go. “What was that about?”

“Shirley being Shirley,” I say, choosing to ignore the request.

I’m not pinning any hopes on Spencer because to do so is unfair to both of us. I choose instead to just go with the flow, wherever that may lead. And right now, that leads me to…

“Where do you want to go so we can talk?”

She thinks about that for a second. “I guess, let’s go to your place.” I’m a little surprised by this, and she can tell. “Is that okay with you?”

“Well, yeah… of course.”

“If you’re going to answer questions openly, I want quiet and no interruptions,” she explains. “I’m taking you for all your worth.”

Normally I’d gulp, but the truth is, I’m not nervous about this at all. In fact, I kind of look forward to it.

“You lead the way,” I say, opening the door and letting her pass through first.


When we get to the house, we unleash the dogs into the backyard and let them run free together. Jetsam doesn’t have much steam, but after a gallon of gulped water, both seem content to nap in the shade. It’s pretty late in the day and getting warmer, but there’s a nice breeze, so we decide to grab a couple bottles of Fiji and sit out back with the snoozing canines.

After a few quiet moments of easy atmosphere, Spencer speaks. “So…”

With nothing else forthcoming, I repeat her. “So…”

She still doesn’t speak and it makes me laugh.

“What’s funny?”

“Well, you were in such a hurry to get all of these answers and now that we’re here, you’re mute.”

“Yeah, I guess I’m just… confused.”

“By what?”

“You.”

“Why?”

She sets her bottle down and starts to count on her fingers. “You love a dog. You’re not just willing to take Jetsam, but I can tell that you want to, when you’re a notorious hater of animals.” She lifts a second finger. “You didn’t need for us to decide anything about him right away, when normally you’ll take the most immediate option, even if it’s not a preferred one.” She lifts another finger. “You’re practically glowing, physically anyway. I mean, I’ve seriously never seen you look so healthy.” She lifts a fourth finger. “You aren’t being all weird and touchy about everything I say.” She lifts yet another finger. “When asked if you want to talk about the stuff that’s been going on with you, not only did you not change the subject and crack jokes, you didn’t hide but readily agreed.”

“Wow,” I say. “You got all of that from maybe an hour together?”

“Yes, and if you actually follow through on this talk, I might kill over in shock.”

“Please don’t do that, Spence. Blood is really difficult to get out.”

She lifts her hands in frustration. “And see, right there, you’re still you… somehow.”

“Yeah, I’m still me, Spence.”

“What’s going on, Ash?”

I take in a deep breath and start at the beginning.

“You left,” I say. “And things got pretty bad, because right after you left, Kyla and I got in a fight, and she left too.”

She nods. But of course she knows, Kyla was staying with her… and Aiden.

“I slapped her.”

This seems to surprise her, so at least Kyla didn’t give all the details.

“Really?”

“Yes. I was hurting and she laughed and I hauled off and slapped her.”

“Why did she laugh?”

“She says she can’t help it when she’s nervous or anxious.”

She thinks about that for a second and nods. “I guess I can see that. Kyla’s not one for tact.”

“No,” I agree.

“Okay, so when you say things got bad, what does that mean?”

“Well, after she left, I kept going, as far as getting up and doing stuff, but I was sort of going off the deep end. I even got arrested.”

“What,” she nearly shrieks. “For what?”

“I was speeding; a cop pulled me over and planted pot in my car because he didn’t like my belligerence.”

“He planted pot in your hummer?”

“No, the Porsche.”

She frowns. “When was this?”

“A couple weeks after you left. Why?”

“Well, that might have been Kyla’s…”

“The pot?”

“Yes.”

“Kyla is smoking pot?”

She nods. “You know she’s been staying with me, right?”

“Yes, and Aiden.”

This seems to surprise her.

“You know about Aiden?”

“Yes.”

“Did Kyla tell you?”

“Nope. I found out this morning when I took Jetsam to the Art’s District dog park. I saw them walking and kissing before going into an apartment building. And then I saw the blue truck you used to move, the Porsche behind it, and put it all together.”

“Wow,” she says. “I’m sorry, Ash. I wanted to tell you, but Aiden didn’t want to. It’s his place, and I didn’t want to break his confidence.”

That actually makes me a feel a little better, but then… “Does he hate me?”

She frowns. “No, I don’t think he does. But he is pretty pissed. A lot happened in his life after you left, and he had no one. I went to college, you were gone, and his application to UCLA was rejected. And his family life got worse… much, much worse. A little pot here and there isn’t so bad considering what he’s been through.”

It really hurts to know that this person who was always there for me was abandoned when he needed someone most. I was just too wrapped up in my own drama to help him, and it would appear that Spencer was too.

“So that’s where she got the habit?”

She nods. “I’m pretty sure.”

“Wonderful,” I say.

“Have you even told Kyla that you know yet?”

“No, and I want to be sure that I’m not mad at her before I do, but this little tid-bit is going to make that even more difficult.”

“Really…?”

“Yeah,” I say slowly. “It’s one thing to casually get high. It’s another to take up a drug habit because your boyfriend has one.”

“No, I mean you’re going to wait and cool off before talking to her?”

“Yeah… I don’t want to blow up at her.”

“Wow, okay, that’s… very mature of you.”

I frown, and then shrug.

She clears her throat. “So what happened after you got arrested.”

“I called my lawyer and the whole thing was settled.”

“Just like that?”

I nod. “Just like that.”

“Money really does help with the law then.”

I shrug. “It was a first offense, it was only a single joint, my urine test came back negative, and the cop had belittled and manhandled us as evidenced by his dash cam. My attorney threatened to sue and bring in the media, and when the best defense attorney in the state threatens, you listen. At that point, they were just as agreeable to forgetting the whole thing as I was.”

“Wow, okay, so you said ‘us.’ Who was with you, Kyla?”

“No. I was alone when I got pulled over by the Troubadour, but Erin, the merch girl there who’s also a really good friend of mine now, involved herself when she saw what was happening. He arrested her too.”

“Erin…,” she says pensively. “Oh, is she the one with the dark hair that walks around trying to sell buttons and stickers and stuff?”

“That would be the one. She’s actually setting the band up with a whole line of merch. We’ll have t-shirts, buttons, stickers, bumper stickers, you name it, next week.”

“Wow, that’s great!”

I nod. “It is.”

“So what happened next?”

“Well,” I say, this next part making me apprehensive. “Erin and I sort of hit it off that night.”

She’s quiet but calm when she asks. “So you’re dating?”

I sigh. “I’m not sure I’d call it that. We have fun together, no strings or expectations.”

I can tell she wants to ask more so I open the door for her. That was the whole point of this conversation.

“You can ask anything you want, Spencer.”

She shakes her head. “That’s not fair to you. Your romantic life is your own.”

“Well, the offer still stands. Ask and I’ll answer.”

“Do you love her?”

I smile at her. “As a person, yes. But I’m not in love with her. It’s only been a few months.”

“That’s all I want to know… about that, anyway.”

“Okay, what else do you want to know about?”

“What happened after the arrest that went nowhere?”

“I was alone, a lot, and very depressed, so for the most part, I avoided Erin. Kate took care of me, making sure I ate and showered, and all of the things that I just didn’t seem to care about at that point. I was a mess. I hated everything and everyone, most of all myself. I don’t know how else to say it other than I hit rock bottom.

“Why were things so bad when you were alone?”

“Because I hated myself, a lot. I hated everything about me. I felt worthless, not just to me but to everyone else. And I think what made it worse is that I made it impossible for others to love me, but I blamed them for leaving me even when I knew that they just didn’t want to put up with the abuse. I just didn’t know how to stop pushing people away. And when you hate yourself that much, Spence, being alone with this person you hate feels like torture.”

Spencer’s eyes are glassy. “Do you still feel that way?”

“No. I mean, I’m not fully out of it, and to be honest, I’m not sure that I’ll ever really love myself like a healthy person might. But at least now I’m aware of it, or maybe I’m just willing to be aware of it. And I can mitigate those feelings better because of it. I can catch myself thinking something really terrible, and force myself to tell it to shut up. And then go do something with someone to prove myself wrong. I think that’s what I like most about Erin, she helps to facilitate that.”

“Ash, this may sound petty, but why Erin? Why couldn’t it have been me…?”

Her voice breaks on the last word and I feel my own eyes glassing over.

“Oh, Spence, I wish it could have been you. You’re still my best friend and the only person I’ve ever really loved. I just… I think it had to be someone separate from all the hurt and pain I caused. Erin wasn’t hurt by what I did. There wasn’t any baggage hanging over our heads. And I think it also had to be someone who didn’t love me, at least not so deeply. She doesn’t expect anything from me anymore than I expect anything from her. If I hurt her, which hasn’t happened yet – even though I didn’t even talk to her for three months – it doesn’t hurt as deeply, if that makes any sense…”

“Yeah, I think it does. But I still don’t understand why you hated yourself so much… I just don’t get it.”

I sigh. “Well, I think part of it was physical. I hated my body because of what it had done to my mind and to those around me. I mean, I physically blamed myself for all of the damage that had been caused emotionally. And over time, that hatred just sort of takes over in everything. Then Kyla shows up, telling me how much I hurt everyone, and that only made it worse, because not only did I already hate myself, but now I realized that I’d hated myself for no fucking good reason. Nothing was better because of it. So, then that hate starts to share space with this… bitterness, so, so bitter that I can’t even describe it. You guys kept trying to pull me out of it, but you couldn’t because I couldn’t let you. It was just this overwhelming weight crushing everything and making it impossible to even want to try. It felt like there was no point. It was all ruined anyway, for nothing. I think I reached out to Kyla in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. So I arranged to meet her and apologized. She moved back in and convinced me to go on my backpacking trip alone, and that’s when everything started to shift.”

“Why alone?”

“Well, Kyla wanted to go, and was actually pissed at me for making it so she couldn’t.”

“I don’t get it,” she says.

“I don’t either,” I agree. “She said that I needed to do it alone, which was part of the reason I was so messed up at that point to begin with, so it made no sense to me. But I was grasping, literally, at any reason to do anything at that point, so I tried it.”

“I’m sorry you were so depressed. I felt awful when I left…”

I shrug. “I made it through and I’m okay now. None of it was your fault, Spence.”

“So you really went alone?”

I can tell that what I’m saying is truly affecting her, so I try to make it sound encouraging.

“I did, alone, and it was the best thing that I could have done. I spent about two months travelling around. I went to Argentina, Nepal, Russia, Rome, Japan, Australia, and several little stops in between.”

She smiles playfully at me. “That must have been difficult with all of your luggage.”

I smile back at her. “Actually, I dumped my room and luggage on a homeless woman in Australia, bought a backpack, and lived by the ocean as often as one was available. I also spent time in hostels or random little inns.”

She leans back and her mouth opens. “You’re kidding…”

“Nope. I even gave her my plane tickets and opted to use trains and boats when possible. A lot of the time I just walked and stayed in small places along the way. It was a true backpacking trip.”

“Ash, that’s really incredible. And it explains your new look.”

I shrug. “I guess. I hadn’t even realized that I looked different until Kyla didn’t recognize me at the door.”

“So what changed on the trip. You don’t look depressed anymore. And the way you’re talking about it is so… calm…”

I think about how I could possibly explain everything that was going through my head at that time and all the emotional changes that were taking place, and I don’t know how to really put it into words. It was like a progression, a small chain of different happenstances that I tried to just go with, and once I did, they completely altered my state of mind. But somehow, I don’t think telling Spencer that it just happened will help her to understand.

“Spence, I don’t know how to explain it to you. It was a lot of things and most of them were small. I went over there thinking that I would find something worth living for or I would just end it, and somehow, along the way, I began to connect with the world around me in a way that I just couldn’t seem to do here. I think maybe it’s because, like Erin, I was so far removed from the past that I could actually see the future. I’m not really sure, but for whatever reason, it worked. And that connection helped me heal a lot. I think the solitude did too. I was forced to live with myself and either stop hating my only companion or…”

“You were going to kill yourself…”

“Uh, yeah,” I say, kicking myself. “I mean, I wasn’t sure, but I was in a really dark place and I wasn’t going to continue that way. I made a decision to end it, one way or another. If I couldn’t learn to live with myself, then I wasn’t going to anymore.”

It’s quiet, this moment of absorption quickly turning to pain for Spencer and regret for me.

“I’m sorry, Spence, I didn’t mean to just say it like that… I didn’t mean to say it at all. It just came out…”

“No,” she says tearfully. “No, I’m glad you did. I just hate that you felt that way.”

“Me too.”

My inability to explain is making this worse and I can’t do anything as she cries. I can’t hold her. I can’t even apologize because she asked to know. So I decide to go get her a tissue but can’t find any in the living room. I know I have some by my bed because I cry often these days, so I go to get those and see the journal laying there on the end table. On impulse, I grab it and bring both back out onto the patio. She seems better now and offers a small, “Thanks,” as I hand over the box.

I sit down on the end of the lawn chair beside her and hold the journal out to her.

“I wrote quite a bit while I was traveling, and I think it would explain things better. There’s more of a story to it as opposed as me just dumping the dark and twisted parts at your feet.”

“You want me to read your journal?”

I shrug. “Why not?”

“Well, isn’t it private?”

I think about that for a moment, and yes, she’s right. There are things in here that I wouldn’t want just anyone to know, but Spencer isn’t just anyone, so I say as much.

“I don’t have anything to hide from you, Spence. If there’s anyone I trust, it’s you. I don’t know why I couldn’t see that before, and I’m sorry for that, but I do now. I know you won’t judge me or hate me or bring it up to throw it in my face. This is really the only way I know how to explain to you what happened to me. If you don’t want to read it, that’s okay. But if you do, it’s yours.”

“Ash, I- I’m sorry, but I think I need to go…”

She gets to her feet, and I can tell that she’s fighting some sort of desperation of her own.

“Oh… okay…”

I’m not sure what to say or do. It seems like if I withhold she leaves, and if I give her what she wants, she leaves anyway. I can’t stop her from leaving, any more than she could ever stop me. All I can do is let her go with as much grace as I have.

“Look, Spence, I’m sorry that I upset you. If it’s any consolation, I don’t want to die anymore.”

“It’s not that. I just- I guess maybe I just wasn’t ready for this yet. I didn’t think you’d actually share all of this with me, and now that you have, I don’t know how to reconcile it. I feel like I’ve messed up, like I pushed you too hard.”

I stand up and touch her arm. “Hey, no, none of this is your fault. You did what you had to do, and you shouldn’t feel bad about that.”

“If you’d have killed yourself, Ashley… I can’t even think about it…”

“Spence, look, just…” I pick up the journal and put it in her hands. “Just read it, okay? It’s not your fault, and maybe you can understand me a little better after you do.”

She holds the journal, the tears full force again, and she leans in and hugs me. I feel a little stiff at first because I’m so surprised, but then I hold her and breathe in the comforting smell of her, and for a moment all of it wants to come rushing back. I want to hold onto her and never let her go, to cleave to her like a parched man in the desert, but I can’t do that. I won’t do that, not this time. This time, I have to do the right thing, and the right thing is leave the wounds alone until they’ve healed.

“I want you in my life, Spence.”

“I want you in my life too.”

“Do you think we can have that?”

She leans back and swipes at her tears with her tissue. “I’m so sorry that I’m such a mess. I’m not mad at you, Ash. Please believe that.”

“I’m more worried that you’re blaming yourself.”

“Well…,” she shakes her head. “I can’t help but feel some responsibility.”

“But you know that you’re not? I need for you to believe that,” I say, mirroring her words.

She smiles a little. “So you’ll believe that I’m not mad at you if I believe that it’s not my fault that you wanted to kill yourself?”

“Yes,” I say. “We have a deal?”

“I’ll try, I guess.”

I smile at her. “That’s all we can do.”

Her eyes are watery and deep and they rip at my guts, but not because I want to cling to her. I hurt because she’s hurting, pure and simple.

“Are you sure you have to go?”

“Yeah, I need to clear my head. It’s a lot, but thank you for talking to me.”

“Anytime,” I say. “Really, call me, text me, any time.”

She reaches a hand up and strokes my cheek tenderly. And I feel that pull, but it’s different this time. I’m not being sucked in, Spencer is, and this is when it finally dawns on me that she’s not leaving because she can’t handle what I’m telling her, she’s leaving because if she doesn’t distance herself from me, she’s the one who’s going to drown. Everything she’s ever wanted from me, I’ve just given her. And now she doesn’t know what to do with it.

I pull away from her gently, trying to let her know that I’m not afraid, but consciously choosing to take the hard road. And she smiles at me, that sad smile that I hate and love in equal measure.

“Can you keep Flotsam tonight, too? I don’t want to separate them again so soon.”

“Of course.”

“Thank you,” she says, unsure of what to do, but turning to leave all the same.

I let her go; and while it hurts somewhere deep and fathomless, I’m not incapacitated. I’m okay. I just hope beyond all hope that she is as well.


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Continued in Chapter 10 – Call Me a Safe Bet, I’m Betting I’m Not

Chapter 8 – Up, Up, and the Rain

“Yeah,” Kyla says groggily, rubbing one of her eyes with the heel of her hand as she yanks the door open.

Her hair is mussed and the oversized shirt she’s wearing almost goes to her knees. It’s so big on her that it makes her arms, legs, and neck look like toothpicks, her head like a giant orange resting precariously atop. I can’t help but grin. It might be because she looks like that little girl that I practically raised or it might be because I’ve just missed her so much. Or, it might be because I feel so much lighter as a person. Maybe it’s all three of these things.

“It’s seven a.m. on a Saturday…”

I don’t much care which reason makes me happy to see her, or the fact that she’s belligerent when sleep deprived. I like the way that it feels to smile at her and mean it. I set Mona’s case on the stoop of the doorstep as she eyes me critically, wakefulness finally taking hold of her mind.

“Ashley,” she says almost disbelievingly.

“I know it’s been a couple of months, Kyla, but I didn’t think you’d forget me that quickly.”

Her jaw drops and she stares at me as if I’ve grown a second head, and I frown a little.

“Is it really you?”

I roll my eyes. She’s such a drama queen.

“C’mon, Kyla. I wasn’t gone that long…”

She makes a few indistinguishable sounds before she’s finally able to spit actual words out.

“Wh- I- Just- oh my God!”

She gives me a huge hug and squeezes my neck so tight that I have pull on her arms to return airflow to my lungs.

“It’s good to see you too,” I say in a choked voice that, quite possibly, has nothing to do with her grip.

She pulls back after a moment, tears in her eyes, and slugs me hard on the shoulder. “Why’d you ring the doorbell, you dumbass?”

I rub at my now sore arm. “I wanted to surprise you.”

She holds me at arm’s length, again looking at me like I’m a medical marvel of unexplained genetic deformity.

“Well, you did, you do, oh my God,” she says again.

I give her a wary stare. “You keep saying that. Are you hungover, or high, or something?”

“What,” she barks out, smacking me again. And again, I rub at the spot. “No, I just… I’m shocked!”

I roll my eyes again and pick up Mona, pushing past her into the house.

“I was only gone a couple of months, Kyla.”

She shuts the door and follows me as I go to my room to put my backpack and guitar down, a sigh of contentment escaping me as I realize I’m home.

“I know,” she says, following me. “But you look so different…”

With this I stop and look at her. “What are you talking about?”

“You,” she exclaims, extending her hand towards me as if this explains her reaction.

I look down at my torn jeans, dusty flip-flops, and tank top, all recently purchased at a second-hand store because I didn’t really have a choice. I’d started gaining weight in Nepal and I didn’t want to bother with department stores.

“So I’ve put on a few pounds…,” I shrug self-consciously.

“No,” she says, taking my arm and pulling me to the mirror on the door of my bathroom suite. “Look at yourself.”

I haven’t really looked into a mirror for more than a month now. I gave up make-up so there really wasn’t a need. How I look hasn’t much mattered to me. I haven’t even cared about the fact that I was gaining weight. I felt better and that’s all that mattered.

But as I take my first real look at myself, I realize why it took her a minute to process who was standing at the door. My skin is tanned, stained by the endless hours in the sun and surf, giving me a healthy glow and pallor. My body has filled out, giving me some nice curves and sturdiness. My hair is a wild array of windblown auburn curls pulled up in a loose, wavy pony-tail, lightened and highlighted by my time spent in the sun. But most noticeably, my eyes are different.

I had never noticed before just how dead and lifeless they were because that’s how I lived for so long that it had become normal. But now there’s a glow to them, a light in them, a life that’s beyond the fact that I’m breathing. I hardly recognize myself because, for the first time since high school, I look healthy.

I’m not just alive, I’m healthy.

That thought hits me in the guts, pangs in my chest, and brings tears to my eyes. I see Kyla in the mirror behind me, and notice that she’s crying too, a huge grin lighting up her face.

“You look amazing, Ash…,” she says.

For a minute, I want to be alone, as if I’m embarrassed by what’s happened to me, as if I should be ashamed for something that I can’t even pinpoint. The feeling reminds me of going through puberty, when things were happening to me beyond my control and I felt embarrassed about them because other people were noticing them too. At some point, the shift completed and I became comfortable in my new body, even proud of it. Spencer certainly seemed to like it. But while the transition was taking place, everything was awkward and hard to cope with.

But now, I realize that I have already become comfortable in this new me during my time of transition. It was quick, as if some switch had been flipped that I was unaware of. I just hadn’t realized that I was new to the level that others can see it too. I thought that it was all internal. But it’s not. It would seem that what happens inside has a way of manifesting itself externally.

I turn and hug Kyla tightly, overwhelmed by my thoughts and emotions and letting the tears flow freely.

“Thank you,” I say after a long minute.

She hugs me back just as fiercely, and I can tell that she’s crying too. For her this new me is exactly whom she’s been fighting for all along. This is just as much her win. When we pull apart, I find myself scared and sit on the edge of the bed as the weight of doubt settles over me.

What if something happens or I lose myself again?

What if I’m not healthy and now that I’ve found life again, I die?

What if-

“Stop it,” Kyla says firmly, sitting next to me, responding to me as if she can read my very thoughts. “It’s okay.”

I look up at her, my heart thumping hard on my sleeve.

“What if it’s not,” I ask.

She thinks about that for a moment, that same doubt and worry creeping into her features too. We still don’t know if I’m truly okay. We will never have that guarantee. I’m in remission, but that doesn’t mean I’m cured. It only means that I have the moment, and that moment can be gone in an instant.

“We should go get a check-up,” she says.

I sigh and shake my head. “It won’t help, Kyla. I’m in remission right now, so the transplant was as successful as it can be, but it hasn’t been long enough. It takes time for the cancer to come back. They’ll know more around Christmas when I go in for my year check-up, but even if they clear me at that time, it could come back anytime – years from now, tomorrow, or not at all.”

I shrug.

“But it could give you peace of mind,” she argues.

I think about that and shake my head again. It wouldn’t give me peace of mind, but that’s not why she wants to do it. It’s her own peace in the situation she’s searching for. And while I love her for her concern, she has to know that she can never have that peace so long as she loves me. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how I look at it, my plan didn’t work. It couldn’t. She already loved me and there was no going back.

“No, not really. There is no peace of mind in this situation. I have to live with not knowing and find a way to be happy despite that, and so do you. Wondering every day and going to the doctor because I’m paranoid isn’t going to change it. If anything, that will just make me depressed again.” She sighs. “This is why I left, Kyla, and it’s also why I can never be with anyone or have a family, least of all Spencer. How can I say that I love someone and put them through that? How can you want to go through that?”

I can’t help but wonder if the depression will ever really be gone. I had to go thousands of miles away to take my mind off of it. I had to create an alternate reality to escape the pain of it. But this… these relationships – Kyla, Spencer, the band, Erin – they’re real and I could really hurt them if the cancer comes back.

Kyla’s hand takes mine and I find myself trapped in her tear-soaked gaze. “I’d rather know you and love you and lose you to something beyond anyone’s control, then not have you in my life. And I know, for a fact, that everyone else who loves you feels the same way, especially Spencer.”

I nod, because I know that too. But knowing that doesn’t really soothe the sting of what can happen.

“And that’s all well and good for friendships, Kyla. But to have a family, children, and leave them… Why would anyone choose a life of uncertainty with me over the security of a truly healthy relationship? Relationships are hard enough without a sword dangling over our head’s every second of every day.”

“Ash,” she says patiently. “The heart wants what the heart wants. Who can meet their soulmate and choose something less because it’s safer and live with that? There’s no winning in this scenario. One way or another, it’s going to hurt. At least if you’re with the ones you love, you stand a chance at real happiness while it lasts and so do they. And in this case, you still have a chance that it won’t come back at all. What if everyone leaves you and you live to be one hundred? Everyone would regret it then. And I’m telling you right now, if it does come back, you have a family donor right here. We’ll fight. I don’t know why you didn’t come to me in the first place.”

“You were just a kid.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not a kid anymore.”

I laugh a little, considering that she looks just like my kid sister. But then, I have the sneaking suspicion that she will always look like my kid sister to me, even when she’s old, wrinkled, and gray-haired.

She stands up and pulls me with her. “So, enough of this. We take it a day at a time and we make it count. But we do it together.”

I nod, coming up with her easily and releasing my sadness with a sigh. It’s not totally gone, and it may never truly leave. It might be part of me now, this new me, but maybe that’s not so bad. I can see past it. I’m learning how to deal with it. And, for the most part, how I deal with it is to tell it to shut the fuck up and move on with my life.

So that’s what I’m going to do.

“Okay, so, let’s get breakfast,” Kyla says excitedly. “You have to tell me everything…


“Heya, Slick,” Erin says as she slides into the passenger seat of the Porsche. I quickly pocket the crumpled bucket list just in time for her not to notice. “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about me.”

“You never forget your first cellmate,” I say playfully, shifting the car into drive and pulling away from the curb of her duplex.

She laughs, but after a moment I can feel her eyes on me. She’s far too quiet for someone of her energy level. I give her a sidelong glance and ask, “What?”

“You look different,” she says.

I smile to myself.

“I like it,” she says after a moment of scrutiny.

“Thanks, I think.”

She grins back, brushing a loose lock of curls away from my face so that she can see it better.

“Oh, it’s a compliment.”

The touch sends little goose bumps creeping down my neck and I clear my throat.

“You look about the same,” I say, earning me a smack on the thigh. “But that’s always a good thing,” I recover.

“Mm hmm,” she says satisfied. “You’re lucky I agreed to meet with you after almost three months of no returned calls.”

My smile falters a little. “Sorry,” I say. “I was going through… some stuff.”

“I can see that,” she says as she gestures to me. “But you’re good now?”

“Yeah, I really am.”

“Good, but you’re still not forgiven.”

“What’s it going to take,” I ask with as much mock seriousness as I can muster.

“Hmmm… I don’t know. We’ll see where you stand after this surprise you keep talking about.”

I smirk at that. “Are you afraid of heights?”

Erin’s bravado falters a little. “Um, I’m not really sure. Why?”

“You’ve never been on an airplane?”

“Nope. Never.”

“You’re kidding…”

“Nope, I’ve never been out of California.”

“Wow, well we need to remedy that soon.”

“I like it here, thank you.”

“Well so do I, but traveling can really change your life. Don’t you want to see what’s out there?”

She thinks about that for a moment and then shakes her head. “I mean, I know what’s out there. I can see anything thanks to this nifty invention called the internet. I guess I just never really felt the need to go there and see it for myself.” She shrugs. “Besides, my entire family’s here. Why would I need to go anywhere else?”

This is a little surprising. Erin seems so wild and untamable. I can’t imagine her feeling comfortable in a box, even one as big as California. She seems like the kind of person who needs to roam, to explore. It never occurred to me that she might be content in her little corner of the world because that’s unusual.

“But you’re changing the subject, Slick. Don’t think I didn’t notice. Why did you ask if I’m afraid of heights?”

“Oh, no reason. Just curious.”

“Yeah, somehow I don’t believe that…”

“What’s wrong? You nervous?”

“What? No…”

I glance over at her and laugh because her bravado is failing her and I can see it. She smacks me again but laughs along good-naturedly.

“I’ll find out today though, won’t I?”

I shrug. “Maybe.”

“Ugh, c’mon, Slick. Tell me what we’re up to.”

“Nope.”

“Please…”

She attempts to pout and bat her eyelashes at me, and I have to admit that it’s an attractive look for her, but it’s not enough to make me budge.

“Are we going on an airplane?”

I chuckle.

“We’re not skydiving, are we?”

“We could…”

“Gah, you’re killing me here…,” she exclaims.

“You’ll live,” I say. “Maybe…”

I laugh again as I see her nervousness war with her will not to show it. And I can literally see the moment where she decides that she’ll go through with what I’ve planned whether she’s scared or not. I have to admire her stubbornness.

“Fine. Can you at least tell me what you’ve been up to for the last three months that made it impossible to return a phone call?”

I settle in for the hour drive on the freeway and share with her some of the highlights of my lone trip through Europe, not going into any depth on why I went or what I went through while there. I try to focus on the highlights, those things that made me truly happy. And while she listens, nodding and smiling appropriately, I can tell that this isn’t a particular subject that we share a passion for, so we quickly revert to talking about music. This subject sets us both on fire and we talk about upcoming shows, agreeing to see Dance Gavin Dance together if they roll into town. The tour hasn’t been finalized yet.

She also mentions that Brand New will be playing at the Troubadour next month and one of the opening bands fell off of the ticket because the lead singer was caught holding marijuana at the California-Mexico border. I immediately call my agent and ask him to get ahold of Cyn to book us. Brand New has been a personal favorite of mine since I can remember, and the chance to see them, let alone open for them, would be a dream come true. So, we spend the rest of the ride listening to Deja Entendu and belting the lyrics at the top of our lungs.

By the time we arrive in Temecula Valley we’re both hoarse but happy. Erin gives me a strange look and says, “Wine Country?”

“Yep.”

“You plan to get me drunk and take me skydiving… in wine country? Because I have to say, I’m more of a down-to-earth, whiskey kind of girl.”

I laugh. “You don’t have to drink if you don’t want to. Although, I’m pretty sure what I have planned includes spirits of some kind.”

I can tell that she’s frustrated by my vague responses and that what little I’ve given doesn’t make any sense to her. I take a no small amount of petulant satisfaction in this frustration. But then I wonder if what I have planned isn’t a little much for her. She’s not a high-class kind of girl. She’s rough and tumble, and the idea of roaming a winery just isn’t her idea of fun. I assume that this, coupled somehow with heights, is what’s running through her mind, and the two together just don’t make any sense. I sort of like that she’s underestimated me, or at least my understanding of her. But then I don’t want her to be put off by our excursion.

I take a turn onto a dirt road between a couple of vineyards and we see a sign that says, ‘Temecula Valley Wine Country Balloon Adventure,’ with a big picture of a rainbow colored hot air balloon on it, and she glances over at me. It’s too late to figure something else out now…

“Hot air balloons?”

I grin at her.

“How high do they go?”

I grin a little harder, maybe even menacingly.

“Oh, maybe three-thousand feet.” That’s probably the max but I want to keep her on her toes. “That’s about three times as high as the Wilshire Grand Center Skyscraper in L.A. You ever been in there?”

“No,” she says apprehensively. “But that’s the tallest one in the city, isn’t it?”

I nod, pulling into a gravel drive outside of a classic, Italian winery and putting the car in park.

“You ready,” I ask.

I can tell that she’s nervous, but she can’t admit defeat so she sets her jaw, nods, and steps out of the car. I follow and we meet an older woman who’s waiting on the steps.

“Welcome,” she says in a thick accent. “Are you miss Davies?”

I nod. “Ashley. And this is Erin.”

She smiles at us and gestures for us to follow her. “I’m Rosa. We’re just about ready to depart. It should only be about five minutes or so. Would you like to sample one of our finer vintages while you wait?”

“No, thank you,” I say. “But we could use some water and a restroom.”

She nods. “The restrooms are just down that hall on the left,” she points. “I’ll have water waiting for you when you’re done.”

“Thank you.”

I take Erin’s hand and pull her to the restroom. She’s starting to turn a little green, so we both use the facilities and I check on her as we’re washing our hands.

“You okay,” I ask.

“Perfect,” she says.

“You can back out, if you want.”

I’m a little nonplussed at this situation. Erin comes off as the type of person who jumps from airplanes so often that it doesn’t even give her a thrill anymore. It never occurred to me that she might be genuinely uncomfortable with heights. Hell, even I’m nervous, but it’s on my list, whether I have something to lose or not anymore.

“No, I’ve just never been up in the air.” She dries her hands and looks at me speculatively. “You’re more of a thrill junky than you make yourself out to be.”

I laugh at that. “And you’re more domesticated than you make yourself out to be.”

“I’m not domesticated,” she says with offense. “But there is a certain amount of…”

“False bravado,” I offer.

She grins, some of her fear shrugging off. “Maybe.”

“So, you gonna do it?”

She thinks about it for a minute and nods. “Yeah, I think I have to.”

“You have to?”

“Well, yeah. I can’t let you show me up. I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Okay, then,” I say, extending an elbow. “Let’s do it.”

She takes my arm and we meet Rosa at the reception area. I sip at my water while Erin gulps.

“Take it easy, Erin,” I chuckle out. “We won’t have access to a bathroom for about three hours.”

She gives me a murderous glare and sets the water down before heading back to the bathroom, alone this time. I take this opportunity to talk to the older woman.

“What comes in the lunch basket?”

She smiles, “Today we have a beautiful tray of prosciutto and grissini, with fresh motzarella balls, artichokes hearts, olives, cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, grapes, and berries. For desert, there are succulent chocolate truffles that go perfectly with one of our finer red wines.”

This sounds amazing to me, maybe even better when it’s said in the woman’s lilting Italian accent, but I frown as I consider if Erin will like any of it. I’m really not so sure.

“Can you do me a favor,” I ask.

“Well, of course,” she replies, giving me a strange look.

“Can you pack a couple of beers and some water? I’ll pay extra, of course.”

She immediately agrees and snaps her fingers at a younger man in the bustling dining room behind her, telling him something in Italian which I assume he scurries off to take care of. About this time Erin comes back and the older woman asks if we’re ready. I look to Erin for confirmation and she nods, though she takes my arm in a death grip.

“Yup,” I say, and we’re led along the edges of the dining area with people eating what appears to be an exceptional breakfast, to a long row of patio doors that lead to a deck facing a spectacular view of the vineyard stretching in the distance. Normally, breakfast is how this tour starts, but I didn’t want to do this on a full stomach, so I opted for a picnic lunch of finger foods instead.

I look out the doors to see the rolling rows of grapes disappearing into horizon, an almost stark line between heaven and earth that’s only broken by the large light-bulb shapes of a dozen or so colorful balloons reaching up towards the blue of the sky. We follow to one of those balloons and I start to feel excited when we reach the basket. A young man inside smiles brightly, his well-manicured hand reaching out to greet us with a limp, almost effeminate grip. He’s very clearly gay, and that helps to put some of my mounting anxiousness at ease, though I’m not sure why.

“Welcome to my family home,” he says. “My name is Fabritzio. I’ll be your pilot today.”

“Ashley,” I say. “And this is Erin.”

I pat her hand on my arm and she relaxes a little.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” he chimes brightly. “We’re happy to have you.”

He helps us both up a small set of drop down steps and into the basket, pulling the steps up by a rope and securing them to close the basket around us. About this time, the man who scurried off to fulfill my request comes bounding over with a large wicker basket in one hand and a bucket of ice in the other. Both are secured to the inside of our balloon basket, and two beers, a bottle of wine, and couple of bottles of water are placed in the ice to continue chilling.

The two men have a short conversation in Italian before our pilot turns to us and claps his hands.

“Well then, do either of you have any questions before we depart?”

“I don’t,” I say.

“Have you done this before,” Erin asks, eyeing the young man speculatively.

He smiles warmly at her. “All my life,” he says. “Since I was just a boy.” He holds his hand to his waist as if to indicate how short he was when he started his career. “I fell in love with the balloons when I was just a child. Rest assured that I am a very skilled pilot.”

She nods. “And, what happens if it starts to rain?”

I listen for the answer to this question as well. It can rain at the drop of a hat at this time of year, even though there is no indication at this moment. The skies are clear and the breeze is soft.

“We very carefully monitor the weather. If we are surprised by the unexpected, which rarely happens, then there are several ways that I can safely land the balloon. It’s all a matter of adding heat to the balloon to offset the cooling effects of the rain. All of the spectacular views you are about to see are part of my family’s vineyard. If it looks like it will rain or begins to, we can safely land anywhere between here and our final destination and someone will come to collect us in a vehicle.”

This seems to mollify Erin and she nods, but she’s still a little green around the gills. I chuckle at her and she pinches me where she’s holding my arm.

“Are we ready,” he asks.

I look at her and she nods again, gulping a little.

With that, he smiles and Erin jumps as the he pulls the chord above his head and a fire rips to life in a burner with a loud scalding sound. As we start to pick up off the ground, the man who brought the basket walks around the edges, untying ropes from small eyelets that are holding it to the ground. It’s then that we begin to drift higher and the people and landmarks around us begins to shrink even as our view of the rolling countryside begins to expand.

I can feel the air start to thin and the pressure makes my ears pop, but the view turns breathtaking and I find myself staring out at it with a sense of awe and delight. Erin’s grip is strong, but it starts to relent a little once we settle onto the easy motion of the breeze and the burner is finally silenced. The ride is much less turbulent and more peaceful than that of an airplane. There are no metal walls to groan and rock against the incredible air resistance. There are no engines to roar and rumble. It’s a gentle, smooth feeling, like gliding on a cloud.

I glance over at Erin and smile, and while I can tell that she’s still nervous, she smiles back. After a time we find ourselves settled on our elbows looking out over the vistas of vines, rivers, and trees, and enjoying a comfortable silence.

The view is… well, fantastic, but the honest truth is that it pales in comparison to how I feel in this moment. The trip to Europe made me feel alive. It helped me to realize that I want to live. That was as huge step for me, a leap really. Actually, when I really think about it, it was a sprinting pal vault that sent me sailing forward at an alarming pace. But I landed safely; it was hard and bruising, and left me sore, but I had made it through.

The problem is that once I landed, I could look forward and see that I still have a tremendous length to traverse. Just like the undulating hills around us in panorama that seem to go on forever, as if the city or the world that I know is there doesn’t exist, I have to trek to what seems to be an infinitely vanishing horizon. It’s like chasing the sun. I’ll never really catch it or reach the end of it, and I know that. And knowing that is daunting and overwhelming, what feels like a futile task.

But up here, on this next leg of the journey, with someone truly fantastic beside me who isn’t Spencer, with the endless what if’s stretched out in front of me, I can stop and realize just this moment. I can see the now and how that’s really all that matters. Sure, I need to continue forward, but instead of seeing endlessness and futility, I find that I can just take a step and enjoy where I’m already standing. It’s not what I thought it would be by any means, but maybe that’s okay. Hell, maybe that’s just what it should be.

“You’re really surprising, Slick.”

I glance over at Erin. Somehow her soft words aren’t an intrusion on the quiet.

“Yeah?”

She nods and releases a pensive sigh. “Yep.”

“Why is that?”

She thinks for a moment and then gestures to the view. “I just didn’t see this. At all.”

I look at her, waiting for more, and she chuckles. “Okay, it’s hard to explain, but I guess what I’m saying is that when I met you, my impression was one of… well, a frightened animal.”

I snort out an incredulous, “Well, thanks…”

She nudges me with her elbow. “I don’t mean it like that. I just mean that you seemed really, I don’t know, resistant? Not to me or anything specific, just in general, like you were waiting for something really terrible to happen.”

I think about that for a minute and I know that she’s right. I just didn’t realize that I was so easy for her to read. I can’t tell if it’s just because I’m so clueless or because she has a heightened awareness of character. Who am I kidding? I know that I’m clueless, so it has to be that or some combination of the two.

“It’s like that night with the mechanical bull,” she continues. “You seemed scared to do it, not the bull itself, but something had you worried to the point where you didn’t think you could do it. But when you did it, you let loose, and once you did, you were all about it. And then that night we got arrested. It’s like you’d snapped and were looking to force whatever it was you were waiting for to happen.”

And again she’s right. “I mean, I liked you, I like you…” She smiles almost shyly at me and I grin back. “But now, with this, I don’t know, it’s just different. This doesn’t seem like you’ve snapped or forced yourself. It seems like you’re just here, doing what you want to do and being happy with it.”

And with this, I debate within myself whether I should tell her what it’s all about, how she’s right about everything she saw and felt, then and now. Would she think less of me? Would she think more of me? Would she treat me different or give me pity, or any of a million different responses that I don’t want?

But more importantly, is it fair to keep it from her any longer?

I can only come to one conclusion. And while I’m an extremely private person, as evidenced by the fact that I told no one I was sick when it happened and that no one knows about Erin – not Kyla, the band, Shirley and Sam, and most definitely not Spencer – it’s not fair to keep things from her when she’s clearly so open with me. I can’t find a single lying bone in Erin’s body. She’s completely open. What you see is what you get, even with her false bravado. She doesn’t hide that it’s fake. And I know that I should give her the same courtesy, because if I know anything at all about people in general, it’s that they tend to expect a return on what they give. I also know that it’s a fair expectation.

So, I pull the crumpled piece of paper from my pocket and hand it to her. She looks at me strangely before opening it and starting to read it out loud. The first line stops her in her tracks.

“Marry Spencer and start a family…”

I know that I’m going to have to explain this list, so I don’t hesitate.

“Spencer is my first love. And it wasn’t until recently that I sort of found closure with that.”

“Sort of,” she asks.

I sigh. “I don’t know if I’ll ever not love her.”

I want to kick myself as I tell her the truth, but then I just spill it all out because that was the whole point of telling her this: honesty.

“And she’s still in love with me. But she can’t be with me.”

“Why?”

“Just keep reading.”

So she continues out loud, not stopping again until she gets to, “Backpack through Europe. Is this in relation to your recent trip?”

I nod. “They’re one in the same.”

“Okay,” she says, clearly confused, but willing to keep digging.

She keeps reading and stops again when she gets to, “Take a hot air balloon ride?”

I smile at her and she smiles back, and to my relief, she just keeps reading, not asking any more questions until she’s done.

“So,” she says, holding the paper up curiously. “You have a life to-do list. I think it’s kind of awesome. I mean, you know exactly what you want to do with your life. You’ve set goals and you’re accomplishing them now.”

She hands the paper back to me and sighs. “Maybe I should do something like that. I tend to get really distracted or put things off.” She smiles ruefully at me. “I have the attention span of a spinal tap drummer.”

We both laugh at her joke. “I still don’t see how this is stopping you from being with Spencer though…”

I think about the best way to approach this without just blurting it out, but come up short. There’s no easy way of saying it, and honestly, I just don’t want to say it. I’ve been telling myself that I’m dying over and over again since I knew it and I just can’t. I want to live. I plan to live. I’m not going to look at it any other way anymore. So, instead of thinking about it, I just start talking.

“Well, have you ever met anyone who’s made a list like that?”

“Um,” she thinks, making her forehead crinkle. “No, I haven’t. I did see a movie once though. It was called The Bucket List. But that was about people who were going to d-“

And with this she looks at me, shock expressing itself rather cutely on her face.

“You’re okay, right…? I mean, you’re not… dying…”

I shrug. “I don’t know. I mean, I may never know until it just happens.”

“Why,” she breathes out. “How…?”

I don’t go into graphic detail on my childhood, but I tell her enough to know what caused it and why I’m in the situation I’m in, both emotionally and with Spencer, my friends, and my family. I also explain how there’s no real certainty in one day to the next, how something as simple as a cold could show that I’m no longer in remission and, in essence, could kill me. I also explain how I pushed everyone away when I found out, and continued to do so up until just a few months ago, giving her just enough of the Spencer situation to understand.

She absorbs the information quietly. She doesn’t cry or apologize, and I’m thankful. She does, however, open one of the beer bottles and take a few swigs. I chuckle and join her, imbibing in the cold spirit and letting its sweetly bitter brew give me a slight buzz. Fabritzio’s offer of lunch is turned down, and we settle back into the quiet of the ride, sipping our beers whilst lost in our own thoughts, the view totally forgotten until Fabritzio mentions that it looks like it might rain and that he’s going to cut the trip short just to be safe.

We both scan the sky to see that dark clouds are forming in the distance and I release a heavy sigh. I’m not sure if anything’s been ruined, but we’ve both been very quiet, and the clouds seem almost like an omen as we start a steady but careful descent back to the ground. Erin gets a little nervous and takes my arm in hers again. It’s at this point, that I break the silence.

“Are you upset that I told you?”

“No,” she replies quickly. “I just hate that you’ve been going through that and you always will. And I hate not being able to do anything about it.”

I clink my bottle to hers in a gesture of solidarity and we both swig.

“Since you’ve opened up so much, I feel like I should tell you that I understand what you mean when you say that you’ll probably always love Spencer but can’t be together.”

I glance over at her but she doesn’t look at me. Instead she stares at her beer and she continues. “My first love committed suicide.”

My heart drops into my toes and part of me wants to cry while the other part of me wants to hold her and still another part of me wants to ask a ton of questions. But knowing what I know about broaching difficult topics, I just stay still and quiet and let her talk it out.

“No one knows why, and no one knew that he felt that way, least of all me, but he shot himself one day while I was at work. His brother found him.”

She takes another sip and we get closer to the ground as a few drops start to fall from the sky. Our pilot ignites the burners to be sure we don’t plummet and I’m grateful for the noise because it gives us both a reprieve from the conversation. It’s short, but that’s all that’s needed before she continues.

“I was going to marry him and start a family. You know, the same things you wanted with Spencer. I wanted them with him. He’s the only person I’ve ever wanted that with. Ever since then, that part of me has felt broken, like I’ll never actually love someone like that ever again. So, I date and live, and I’m pretty happy, but it still feels like that part of my future is lost and I’ll never get it back.”

“I understand what you mean.”

“I know you do.”

And with that I release my arm from her hold and put it around her shoulders, holding her against me. She tightens her grip around my waist and we both hold on as more and more rain starts to fall and soak us. The noise of the burner makes conversation impossible, so we just stand like this in silence, finishing our beers as we draw to a landing.

“I’m sorry for the weather, ladies, but I’ve made the call and a shuttle is in route. Until it gets here, we’ll just have to wait it out. It should be here in about twenty minutes.”

Glad to be on the ground, Erin pulls away. “Well,” she says. “This has been an eventful day.”

I smile at her, hoping to bring back some of the light, easiness of our relationship.

“Yes it has, but it’s also been a good day.”

She smiles back at me and while I’m not sure either of us really believes that, I decide that I’m going to believe it regardless, and Erin meets me in this place of easy delusion.

“Didn’t your list say that you wanted to dance barefoot and kiss in the rain?”

I give her a strange look but nod in the affirmative.

“Well,” she says, gesturing to the open country we’re stranded in. “What better place can you think of to cross that off, unless you already have?”

I shake my head, and wipe the wet curls out of my eyes. “Nope, I haven’t done that yet.”

“Okay then,” she says authoritatively, taking my hand, opening the entry to the basket, and pulling me down after her.

She takes her shoes and socks off and rolls up her tight jeans, which is a feat all on its own. I do the same, and without another word, she takes off, pulling me after her to frolic in the downpour like two extremely bored children unwilling to let the rain coup them up inside. We chase each other and splash where we can, the mud cold and thick under our feet, causing us to slip, fall, and laugh.

Once we’re thoroughly filthy and winded, she pulls me close and wraps her arms around my neck, rocking us into the motion of a slow dance where only we can hear the music. We’re quiet and cold and caked in mud, but happiness radiates from both of us somehow.

We continue this way until we both hear the roar of an engine and turn to see the headlights of a van drawing close to our location. She looks me right in the eyes. Hers are soulful and deep, and I can’t help but feel the absolute heartfelt plea in them when she says, “Thank you, Ashley.”

And with that, she swipes at the mud near my mouth with her thumb to clean it away and leans up to give me a warm, chaste, and lingering kiss. When she pulls away, I open my eyes to find her beaming at me.

She laughs and runs over to our discarded clothing, scoops them up in her arms, and says with satisfaction, “I need a shower.”

The trip back to the vineyard is a comfortable one, with the heater turned on full and a couple of blankets wrapped around us. Erin is her usual self, all bubbly and fun. It’s as if the seriousness of this excursion hasn’t touched her, and I’m grateful for that.

When we get back to the vineyard, we’re offered a room where we can clean up and we purchase some of the more tasteless commemorative clothing from the gift shop. Erin’s shirt is bright blue and has the head of a cat in place of the balloon as it flies over the city beneath. Red sweat pants, calf-length heeled boots, and a draw-string wicker hat round out her look. My shirt is simple and white, a red balloon rising up with the words, ‘Full of Hot Air,’ at the top. My sweat pants are checkered and my hat is a snapback with the vineyard’s logo on it, all finished off with my combat boots. We look ridiculous, but we’re warm and clean, and we decide to picnic by the fire place in the great room and enjoy each other’s company.

A phone call from Kate interrupts us and I realize that we’ve spent most of the day just being together. I’m late for band practice and, for the first time, I decide that Erin shouldn’t be a secret anymore, so I invite her along. She agrees immediately, but only on the stipulation that neither of us get to change our clothes.

I quickly agree and we take off back towards the city, this time singing Paramore all the way. When we get there, Kyla immediately starts to take pictures of me with her phone, only stopping when she realizes that I have a girl with me, a girl who casually takes my hand as if she’s done that a few hundred times. Kyla rudely yanks me out of the practice room into the recording area attached, and I give Erin an apologetic look over my shoulder but she just smiles at my sister’s insanity good-naturedly.

As soon as the door shuts, Kyla begins. “Ashley, are you dating her?”

I turn my attention to Kyla and frown at her… disapproval?

“Um, I’m not sure. We just sort of… hang out.”

“Is this the kind of ‘hanging out’ that has you holding hands, touching, kissing… you know, more than friends stuff?”

“Well, yeah, I guess.”

Her jaw slacks open and she shoves me on one of my shoulders.

“Why didn’t you tell me,” she nearly screeches.

“It’s new, Kyla. Why are you so mad about it?”

“Mad…? I’m not mad! This is fucking great! You just didn’t tell me!”

I shrug. “I guess, I’m telling you now.”

“Huh uh,” she says. “You’re not off of the hook at all.”

“Kyla, I have to practice now.”

“When we get home, I expect a full rundown on everything.”

I throw my hands up in submission. “Okay…”

She nods once, smiles, and smacks me on the way out of the room. I follow her back to Erin who leans in and asks, “Is everything alright?”

I roll my eyes and whisper back, “It’s fine. My sister is just… mentally retarded.”

“Oh,” she says with a slight frown. “Okay.”

“Ash, let’s get going, huh? I have to work tonight,” Kate says from behind her drumset, clearly annoyed at my tardiness.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.”

And with that, I pick up my guitar, check the tuning, crank the knobs, and start out the set. Jon and Jack don’t look at each other, so that tension is still there; Kyla’s still annoyed; Spencer is nowhere to be seen; a day of light-hearted fun turned serious; I didn’t get to finish the hot air balloon ride. Nothing is right, but all in all, nothing is wrong. And as the first few notes chime of one of our more energetic songs, I catch Erin’s eyes and she winks at me. I can’t help but smile at her and somehow, despite how everything in the world is completely off balance and lacking any happy certainty, I feel good.


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Continued in Chapter 9 – The Dealing Process