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

It’s a really big day today, and I’m a bit on edge. Erin puts her hand on my thigh to stop it from jittering and I smile at her, forcing my leg to hold still.

“Why are we here again,” I ask.

“Because food is supposed to help with motion sickness,” she says off-handedly, her eyes still scanning the menu.

I look at her, puzzled. “What?”

She looks me in the eyes. “You’re giving me vertigo with all of your bouncing. I need to eat something.”

“I think you’re just as stoked as I am.”

“Nervous, yes,” she says. “Stoked, not so much.”

“Awww, you’re nervous? I’m not nervous…”

Her dry expression exhibits her disbelief.

“Really, I’m not…”

She puts her hand on my thigh to again stall the rampent shaking and I can feel a blush creeping up my neck.

“Okay,” I admit. “There’s a little bit of nervousness, but I’m more anxious or excited than anything else.”

I glance down at my phone to see that it’s only seven a.m. and sigh. She removes the phone from my field of access.

“Hey,” I say indignantly.

“Ash, just calm down, will you? You’re making me feel more nervous too, and I’m the one who’s afraid of heights.”

I take a few deep breathes and lean back in the booth to try and relax, but it’s a conscious effort.

“Okay, I’m sorry.”

She smiles at me. “It’s okay, and thank you.”

“It’s just… Brand New, Erin… Brand spanking New…”

“That’s why you’re nervous?”

“Well, yeah…”

“So you’re completely unaffected by the fact that in less than five hours, we’re going to be jumping head first off a bridge?”

“Well, no, not completely unaffected… but you might want to rethink the pancakes.”

I grin maliciously at her and that earns me a groan before she puts the menu down in frustration. She’s so trapped, and by her own unwillingness to back down from a challenge. I can’t help but tease her.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s okay. If you get up there and chicken out, that title will only follow you for the rest of your life.”

That earns me a vicioius glare and I gulp because Erin doesn’t pinch or slap and call it even like Spencer does. She’ll consider her strategy and take me down like a bird of prey over a bunny nest.

She sets her jaw and I watch the fire ignite in her eyes as the worst kind of punishment is discovered.

“I’m going to order a breakfast fit for a champion, and when I get up there and go through with this, which you can bet your sweet ass I will, I hope I puke it up all over you.”

“Well, that’s settled,” I say. “I’m going solo.”

“Oh no you’re not…”

We stare each other down for a moment before the server comes to the booth.

“You ready to order?”

We still don’t break eye contact as Erin begins to respond. “I’ll have two eggs over easy, biscuits and sausage gravy, hashbrowns, panca-“

“Um, no,” I tell the server, my eyes unwavering. “We’ll both have a blueberry muffin and orange juice to go.”

“You think you get to order for me now,” she says unblinking.

“You bet your sweet ass,” I parrot at her, my eyes starting to burn.

The staring continues for a moment longer and just when I’m certain that she’s going to cave, she tickles my knee cap and sends me nearly jumping out of the booth.

Three blueberry muffins and two orange juice to go,” she tells the waitress. “You’re not getting off that easily, Slick.”

“Hey, that’s cheating,” I say.

She grins. “I may play dirty, but I always win.”

Play dirty is right, but I kind of liked it. She leans in and gives me a gentle kiss.

“You’re a cheat,” I say, pulling back after just a moment.

She grins wider and I glare because she really did win. The door to the breakfast hole-in-the-wall opens and I spot Kate, Jon, and Jac. Kate gives me this look that says, ‘Help me,’ and I roll my eyes. This is a day of amazingness, and I really just can’t stand Jac and Jon’s drama anymore. They won’t talk to each other except out of absolute necessity, but at least they pulled it together well enough that the music has come back up to par. And just in time too. Opening for Brand New means our sound can’t be anything less than absolutely stellar.

Kate slides into the booth across from us next to Kyla, who’s been as quiet as a church mouse as she’s scrutinized me and Erin and stuffed her face with waffles. I told Erin to just ignore her, but she’s actually been really sweet to Kyla, almost too sweet, despite Kyla’s strange behavior. Kyla has been in a sort of dissapproving, brooding mood, but mostly awkward. I can’t tell if it’s because she’s never seen me with anyone but Spencer, or if she just doesn’t want to see me with anyone but Spencer. And, of course, as per usual, I could be completely wrong on both accounts and there’s some other Kyla logic at play. Either way, I’m grateful that she’s not talking, even if it is only because her cheeks are so loaded down with food.

“Can I use my phone for a minute,” I ask Erin. “I promise not to check the time.”

She gives me a shrewd look before handing it over and I text Spencer.

The Dealing Process 1

I watch as Jac and Jon debate on what to do with the seating arrangements. The booths are only big enough for four. This means they’re in a separate booth together or both in separate booths completely alone. They quietly opt to stand on opposite sides of the group. Pretty much everyone just rolls their eyes, except Erin. She doesn’t know any better yet.

“Hey, guys,” she says to them brightly.

“Hi,” they both say in a short manner, forestalling any further discussion.

She looks to me, indignation on her face.

“Don’t mind them,” I say.

The Dealing Process 2

I get Spencer’s reply just in time to see her open the door.

“Spencer,” Kyla squeals. “Over here!”

“Hey, Kyla,” she says a little weirded out at the enthusiastic welcome, especially when Kyla scrambles over Kate to give her a huge hug.

And this is the moment that I’ve been apprehensively expecting: when Spencer would meet Erin and everything would… well, as I could only speculate, go one of two ways: they’re mature about the situation or they’re immature about the situation. I know how I handled it with Carmen so it would be unfair of me to expect maturity on either side.

I’m not really so sure on Erin’s part, but given the relaxed nature of our relationship and how little history she knows, I figure she’ll be fine. As to Spencer, I’m confident in her maturity. My only concern is that this will hurt her in some way. Ever since I gave her the journal we’ve been meeting a couple of times a week at a dog park. She’s been completely normal, maybe too normal. So she seems to be in a good mood, even when she notices Erin. And true to her form, despite all of the high emotions, Spencer doesn’t disappoint.

“You must be Erin,” she says, holding a hand out.

Erin takes it and smiles warmly. “Yes, and you must be Spencer.”

The server shows up with a brown bag and two Simply Orange bottles and I hand over my debit card.

“Anyone else want anything,” she asks the new arrivals.

“I’ll take a blueberry scone and a grande latte,” Spencer says, taking a seat in the next booth. Jac and Jon scramble to claim ownership, but Jac was closer and none too smug about her tiny victory.

The server nods. “Anyone else?”

“No,” Jon murmurs quietly.

“I’m good,” Jac smiles.

Kyla has already demolished some waffles and if I hadn’t seen it for myself, I wouldn’t believe that someone so small could hold so much. This doesn’t stop her from ordering a vegetarian breakfast burrito and a large smoothie to go. She was out all night again. I can only assume it was with Aiden, and that leads me to believe that she just has a bad case of the muchies. I really need to talk to her about that.

Kate looks up at the waitress. “A lobotomy?”

The server is young, probably still in high school, and the joke goes right over her head. “I don’t think we have those…”

“Nevermind,” Kate says defeatedly and I kick her under the table.

She yelps and gives me a scathing look, but I give as well as I get, and the message to chill the fuck out seems to be received loud and clear. However, it goes completely unheeded.

“You try being trapped in a car with the asshole twins for forty minutes…,” she whispers hotly.

The server, confused, walks away and I decide that I’ll tip her well. I also decide that I’ll help Kate out.

“Okay,” I start loudly, making sure that everyone is listening. “My car only holds five people comfortably. I’ll take Spencer, Erin, Kyla, and Kate.”

“Wait just a minute…,” Jon says.

“No way,” Jac echoes.

“I’m riding with Ashley,” Kyla says. “It’s a big day for her and I want to spend every second of it with my sister.”

“Well, I think it’s obvious that Spencer and Erin are riding with me,” I say.

No one disagrees so that only leaves the one spot.

“I need Kate in the car so we can go over the… uh, some of the new merch designs,” Erin tries to help.

She doesn’t want to be around them anymore than anyone else does and this is only her second meeting.

“I should be there for that too,” Jon says.

“Me too,” Jac echoes.

“No, we’ll do that as a band,” I agree, and Erin glares at me.

“No one wants to ride with you guys,” Kyla says to Jac and Jon, a blank, almost psociopathic expression on her face. “You argue when you talk and when you’re not talking, you suck every ounce of fun out of the air.”

Erin puts a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing, looking at Kyla like what she just said is… sweet… in some way.

“Is that really how you guys feel,” Jac asks defensively.

Kate gives her an annoyed expression. “You seriously have to be told?”

Jac’s eyes tear up. “Well, if you guys don’t want me around, then I just won’t go.”

“Oh, Jesus H. fucking Christ on a fucking crutch…,” Kate sighs out and begins to rub her temples. “Here we go…”

“I think that’s a good idea,” Jon says maliciously.

“Fuck you, Jon,” Jac bites out.

Jon just snorts. “You wish.”

“You know what,” Spencer says. “Today isn’t about either of you. It may have escaped your attention, but we’re all here to do something pretty incredible with Ashley. You know, your friend who has a bucket list?”

I have to admit that Spencer’s little rant was subtle. She basically told them that I could die and that pretty much trumps all of their petty bullshit without actually saying it that way – the way that Kyla had. It shuts everyone up without further inflaming them.

“So, yeah,” she continues after the silence. “No one wants you to, but you can leave now if you can’t be supportive. Either way, the rest of us are going to have a good day. If you can’t be part of that, it’s better you leave now.”

“She’s not riding with me,” Jon says stubbornly.

I give Jon a cold stare. “You really hate Jac that much?”

She frowns. “I don’t hate her…”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“She can’t just let it go!”

“Let what go,” Jac asks in exasperation.

“Me!”

Jac chuckles humorlessly. “I’m not holding on to you, Jon! Go! Do what you want!”

“Oh sure,” Jon says. “But everytime I do you’re all pathetic and whiny. I’m trapped!”

“Bullshit,” Kate says. “You love her, Jon, so you feel guilty.”

“She’s my best friend,” Jon says. “Of course I love her. I just don’t want to settle down and have babies and shit…”

“Then just be nice to her and be friends, for fuck’s sake,” Kyla adds.

“She won’t let me!”

Everyone looks to Jac who’s mutely crying.

“See,” Jon says in exasperation. “She can’t let it go…”

“I can’t help it,” Jac laments, looking to Spencer. “How do you just decide not to be hurt when someone you love is such a dumbass?”

Everyone’s taken off guard with this plea that’s completely pointed at Spencer, and me…

“Jac, don’t go there,” I warn.

“Why,” she looks to me. “You’re still in love with Spencer and she’s still in love with you.” She looks back at Spencer. “Tell me that this…” Jac gestures to me and Erin. “Doesn’t hurt.”

Spencer doesn’t know what to say. No one does.

“It can’t hurt anymore than what she went through with me and Carmen,” Spencer finally says.

“But you ended it because of that,” Jac says. “Ashley knows that she doesn’t love Erin.”

“Hey,” I say. “My relationships aren’t your problem, Jac.”

“And mine isn’t yours,” she replies angrily.

“Um, yeah, it is,” I disagree. “Spencer and I can be in the same room and get along. We aren’t dragging all of you through the mud with us, or the band.”

Everyone snorts at that, even Spencer.

“Maybe now,” Jon says. “But it took a long time.”

“Sorry, dude,” Kate says. “But you really don’t have an argument there. I mean, I was with you through the whole thing, just like I am with these two.”

“Did you really feel that frustrated by it?”

“Oh yeah, probably more…” Kate says before turning to Jac. “There is a difference though, Jac. Spencer and Ashley listened and figured their shit out. And even when they didn’t, they didn’t treat each other like you two do. They just left each other alone.” She looks to Jon. “You’re seriously a total bitch to Jac all of the time.”

Jon points to the pathetic mess that Jac’s becoming. “Look at her! I can’t just avoid her like they did. We live together and we’re in a band…”

Kate shrugs. “She’s hurting. You’re hurting her. Maybe be nice and help her get over it instead of making it worse. Spencer and Ashley had that much sense.”

“It’s not that fucking simple,” Jon groans.

“No, it really is,” Kate disagrees.

And I’ve had enough. I get out of the stall and take Erin’s hand. “We’re leaving.”

“Sounds about right,” Jon says. “Just run away. At least I face it.”

I turn to her. “You call this facing it? You love Jac but you’re scared, so it’s somehow my fault?”

“Fine words, coming from you,” Jon replies. “You’re still running from Spencer. Hell, you’re trying to replace her.”

“Just, shut up, all of you,” Erin shouts.

We all stop and stare at her and I’m grateful for the early hour and obscurity of this place. It’s empty, except for the server who’s hightailing it back to the counter with Spencer and Kyla’s undelivered orders. I guess Erin’s obliviousness to the situation has officially come to an end.

“Jesus,” Erin says in frustration. “So this is what happened to Fleetwood Mac…”

I smile at Erin and despite the fucked up way this day is going, I appreciate that she gets the musical analogies. She’s not smiling back at me though.

“Erin-,” I start, but she stops me.

“Can we just go and try to salvage the rest of this day,” she asks.

“Sounds good to me,” I say pulling her away from the group to retrieve my debit card, sign off on a massive tip, and make a break for the door.

“Ash,” Kyla calls out. “What about the seating arrangements?”

I ignore her. Erin and I jog to the hummer, or maybe I jog and drag her with me, and once inside I imeediately turn the engine over, sitting there for a moment gripping the steering wheel in silence.

After a long moment, I say, “Erin, I’m so sorry.”

She exhales heavily and looks over to me. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m not so sure I like your friends.”

Okay, I can’t fault her given that she’s only been with them twice and they’ve been nothing but an almighty fist full of twats, but they’re the most important people in my life. How can I even respond to that?

“I’m not trying to make you choose or talk them down to you or anything, but I’d rather be honest. Kate seems to be the only sane one in that crowd, except for your sister. I mean, she’s different, but that’s not her fault.”

I puzzle over that for a moment and feel my face flush. I can’t tell if I’m angry or stunned, or maybe both.

“They’re my family,” is all I can think to say.

She blows out a breath and nods her head. “I’m sorry. I’ll keep trying. It’s not your fault either.”

“So you’re okay,” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says, but I’m not entirely sold. “Are you?”

“I’m not sure.”

There’s a tap at the window and I look over to see Kyla standing there. I roll the window down, but only a crack.

“We thought you’d left,” she says.

“We’re about to,” I say. “You coming?”

“Hell yes,” she smiles.

“What about the rest of them,” I ask.

“Jac and Jon are still arguing, but Kate and Spencer have been refereeing. It actually seems to be helping. Let me go check with them to see if they’re still going.”

She jogs off towards Spencer’s car and has to wait for a break in the aruguing to speak. And when one doesn’t present itself, she just butts in anyway. Jac and Jon continue, their hand gestures excentuating their shouts while Kyla asks Spencer if they’re coming. Spencer talks to Kate for a second before looking over at me and I can see something sad in her eyes even at this distance. But then she nods her head once and says something to Kyla.

“I know they’re crazy,” I say to Erin, “but this isn’t normal. If you’d have met them a few months ago, you’d love them as much as I do.”

She gives me a sardonic expression. “If you say so.”

“I do,” I say resolutely.

“Okay, I shouldn’t be so quick to judge, I guess.”

That makes me feel a little better. “So you still up for it?”

“I’m going to try,” she replies, taking my hand.

I link our fingers and Kyla hops into the back of the hummer. “Spencer’s going to drive Kate and the asshole twins. She says she’ll follow you but we need to listen for a honk. She might have to pull over and kick them out.”

“And abandon them on a desert highway,” Erin asks.

“Yeah,” Kyla grins.

“Fine by me,” I say, backing the hummer out of its parking space and pulling up to the street.

Erin gives me a strange look, like she doesn’t quite understand how I can say I love them and then leave them stranded in the desert.

I shrug. “You said so yourself, they suck.”

I watch and wait for spencer to roll up behind me before merging onto the street and making my way towards the San Gabriel mountains.


“Tell me again why we’re doing this,” Erin huffs out.

I smile at her. “Oh, come on, fresh air, beautiful scenary, birds chirping…”

“Seven miles of rocky mountains, valleys, and blistering sun…,” she laments.

I laugh, feeling pretty good, which is surprising. I don’t exercise all that much, but maybe all of that walking abroad helped, and being the lead singer in an indie band is no small workout. We’re about five miles in and my only complaint is that I’m hot.

But I, Ashley Davies, am not sweating.

I swipe at my brow and figure a rest would be nice. “Do you need to rest,” I ask. “It is pretty warm.”

“Yeah,” she says. “I think I’d like to.”

We walk over to a large rock on the side of the stream and she slumps down onto it, taking a bottle of water out of her backpack and chugging at it.

“Easy, Erin, too much at once might make you queasy.”

“I’m already queasy,” she says. “You should have just helicoptered us in.”

“And miss out on all of this,” I ask, gesturing to the deer drinking from the stream about half a mile down.

“I’m not one for the great outdoors,” she gives me a thin-lipped smile. “I’m a city girl.”

“Ah,” I say. “Me too, but ever since my trip… I don’t know, I have a better appreciation for being outside. Besides, I don’t think a helicopter ride would have helped since heights wig you out.”

She swallows some water harshly before putting it away. “Well, if you’re happy, I’m happy. It’s your day.”

Something in the way she said that niggles at the back of my mind, but I decide to take it at face value.

“I’m glad you’re here, Erin.”

“Thanks,” she says with a tired smile.

I sigh. We’d been having so much fun together. I don’t understand why this is so terrible for her. I mean, sure, everyone’s fighting, and our relationship has been insulted multiple times without thought or even the pretense of a filter, but it’s a good day, at least in my opinion.

She gives me a kiss and we both turn as we hear footsteps approaching. Spencer, Kyla, and Kate come up and take a seat near us.

“Think we’ll have time for a nap before the show,” Kate asks. “I’m already exhausted.”

“I don’t see why not,” I say. “We don’t have to be there until about nine. We go on at ten.”

Brand New,” Kate breathes out. “And we have merch too. How much longer before we’re famous and I can quit one of my jobs?”

Erin chuckles. “Have you guys even started recording yet?”

“Yeah,” I say.

Kate snorts. “We’ve been recording for years…”

“How many songs?”

“Ten…”

“Eleven, if I get my way,” Kate says, referring to Cellar Door.

“Kate,” I groan.

“Come on, Ash, that song is amazeballs.”

“Which song,” Erin asks.

“It’s an acoustic song. I’ve only played it once, at a smaller venue to calm the crowd.”

“Oh,” she furrows her brow. “How come I haven’t heard it?”

“I don’t know. It’s too slow and sappy,” I say with a shrug.

The truth is that it’s super personal, and all about Spencer.

“It really is a beautiful song, Ash,” Spencer chimes in seriously. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song I like as much, even though it’s sad.”

She’s looking at me, telling me something with her eyes, and I think I get the message loud and clear. Spencer isn’t affected by music in the extreme, not like movies. She must really like that song.

“Well, okay,” I say. “If you think it’s that good…”

Kate snorts again. “If I’d have known that all we needed to do was have Spencer ask you, I’d have arranged that months ago.”

“Keep it up, Kate, and I’ll use digital drums for the whole album.”

She gasps. “You wouldn’t…”

“Watch me,” I narrow my eyes at her.

“That’s cold, Ash…”

It’s quiet for a moment before Erin clears her throat and asks, “So are the songs mastered and ready?”

“No,” I say.

“Yes,” Kate says at the same time.

“It’s ready,” Spencer says dryly. “You’re just a perfectionist, Ash. You’ll never think they’re ready, even when they are.”

Jac takes a seat next to Kate. “Spencer’s right. It’s ready.”

“Since when do you guys side with Ethan,” I ask.

“Jac’s right,” Jon says, sitting on the other side of Spencer. “So is Ethan, for once…”

We all look at both of them a little shocked. They’re contributing to the conversation and Jon even agreed with Jac.

“Band stuff,” Jon explains, and I just nod.

“Well, I guess I’m outvoted.”

“Do you think we could have some burned and ready for tonight,” Jac asks excitedly.

I look to Kate, the artist among us. “Are you good with the insert art?”

“I don’t know…”

I roll my eyes. “Now who’s being a perfectionist?”

“You’re just as bad as Ashley, Kate,” Jon pipes up.

“It’s great,” Erin says. “She’s just more protective of her art than she is her music.”

“I haven’t even seen it yet,” Jac says.

“Me neither,” agrees Jon.

“I’d like to see it too,” I say.

Erin digs in her backpack and brings out her phone, pulling up a picture for us to look at. She passes it to me and I can’t help but grin, especially when I see Kate blush.

“Swipe left and you can see the CD art too,” Erin says.

Both are simple but raw, professional but not so polished that they feel corporate. And neither image gives a false impression of the music. They feel like a good representation.

“This is awesome, Kate,” I say, passing the phone to Jon nearest me.

She agrees and passes it to Jac, and it’s unanimous.

“Could we have some printed by tonight,” Jon asks.

I take the phone from Jac and check the cell service. Three bars say that a quick phone call is all that’s needed. Ethan will do the rest. I know his number by heart, so I dial and tell him what he needs to do for tonight. The studio has a Titan Burner that can make up to one thousand discs at a time, burning both an image right onto the top of the disc and then the audio beneath. It’ll only take about three hours to run through a full diskette of one-thousand. Once I hang up, I send him the song list, CD graphic, and the insert art that he’ll have to take to a print shop while the CDs are burning. Then, he just has to insert them all into a case and they’re ready to go.

He’s not pleased to be called so early on a Saturday and put to work, but double the pay has him agreeing pretty quickly.

“It’s set,” I say when I hang up and start texting the images. “He’ll bring them with him to the show tonight.”

There’s a collective joy in the air and I look to Erin. “Kyla will be running our booth tonight. Make sure she doesn’t screw it up.”

Kyla squawks and Erin leans forward to see her over me. “It’s easy, Kyla. All you really have to know how to do is count change. I can show you.”

Kyla’s offense is palpable. “I know how to count change, Erin…”

Erin frowns and looks at me for clarification, but I don’t understand why she’s confused.

“Okay,” she says with a smile. “I didn’t mean any offense. I just wasn’t sure. I mean, some people with intellectual disabilities are more highly functioning than others.”

I choke out a laugh and stare at her, despite the looks that the others are giving me. “What…?”

She frowns and leans in. “You told me that she’s mentally retarded…”

At this I start to crack up, full guffaw’s ringing out into the wilderness and scaring the deer in the distance. Kate and Spencer start to laugh as well having been close enough to hear.

“Oh, come on now,” Jon says. “What’s so funny?”

I can’t breathe and I can’t stop laughing. Once I’ve had a moment to collect myself I lean in and whisper, “I didn’t mean that literally,” to Erin.

She turns bright red and stands before walking off, and all of my joy drains away as I start to feel really bad.

I get to my feet, Kate still laughing and Spencer trying valiantly to rein hers in. “Erin, I’m sorry.”

“Shut up, Ash,” she says, walking away with renewed energy.

“Aw, fuck,” I say.

“What the fuck just happened,” Jon asks.

“You’re fucked,” Kate says through a chuckle. “But thanks for that. I needed a good laugh.”

“Shut up, Kate.”

“What happened,” Jac asks this time.

“So, numb nuts here-“ Kate starts but Spencer interrupts.

“Kate, come on, don’t be mean.”

“Told Erin that Kyla was mentally retarded,” Kate continues, ignoring Spencer’s interruption. “She took it literally.”

“Wow,” Kyla says, getting to her feet. “No wonder she’s been treating me like a five year-old. Thanks a lot, Ash.”

She walks off after Erin and I give Kate my most menacingly look.

“Why couldn’t you keep your mouth shut,” I ask.

Kate holds her hands up. “Oh no, don’t look at me. I’m not doing the whole suffer in silence thing anymore. If everyone’s going to have drama around me, I’m not going to hold it in. I’m going to start calling it like I see it. And that, my friend, was too good to hold on to anyway.”

Jac and Jon start into a fit of giggles, Kate joining in, and I shove Kate off of her rock. It was more playful than hard and she lands on her ass. Of course, she’s wholly unaffected.

“You’re a bitch,” I tell her.

This only makes her laugh harder. “Yeah, yeah, but I’m a good friend and you know it.”

And I can’t argue with that, even though I’m genuinely pissed at her. Spencer stands, takes my arm, and we leave the three of them to laugh it all out.

“Should I go after Erin,” I ask once we’re further away.

“Nah,” she says. “Give her some time to cool off. She’s just embarrassed.”

“I didn’t know she’d take me literally…”

Spencer laughs. “Ash, the way you say things sometimes can make it really hard to know what’s real and what’s not. Now she knows; it was just a shitty way to find out.”

“What the fuck is wrong with Kate?”

She shrugs. “She’s frustrated, I think, and you can’t really blame her. She takes care of everyone. She’s tired of it.”

“Yeah but that’s not Kyla or Erin’s fault.”

“Ash, she’s loyal. Like, too loyal. It gets her used a lot. She can’t abandon the people she cares about, even then they deserve it. She’s been dealing with everyone’s drama for months and working three jobs. She’s exhausted, and she just doesn’t care about niceties anymore.”

“Yeah, well, she’s still a bitch.”

“We all are,” she says with a pointed smile.

“I guess I shouldn’t have said that about Kyla to begin with.”

“Probably not,” she agrees.

We both start to chuckle at the situation, and once we get it all out, we fall into a steady walking rhythm, letting our surroundings grow quiet for a long while.

“It’s really beautiful out here,” Spencer says.

“Yeah, it is,” I agree.

“We should do this more.”

“I’m down,” I smile at her.

“Maybe we could start doing it once a week with the dogs instead of meeting at a park.”

“I’d like that,” I say. “And I think they would too.”

“It’s settled then,” she says with a smile.

About this time, Jac comes screaming past us at a full run, her clothes and hair soaked. Jon is quick to follow, her predicament even more dire, and Kate is right on their heels, slinging water on them from a bottle as she goes.

Spencer grabs me and pulls me out of the way, and my foot catches on something causing me to topple over. Of course, this also makes me grab a hold of Spencer and pull her down with me. We land hard but the blanket of leaves on the edge of the trail cushioned most of the fall. She lifts off of me a little bit and looks down at me.

“Jesus,” I say. “They’re like animals.”

“Or kids, depending on how you look at it,” Spencer agrees.

“Same difference,” I smile up at her.

My breath catches in my throat and my tongue goes dry as I realize that she’s on top of me. Her hair is falling down around us like a shimmering, golden net, the sunlight slipping through in slender, blinding beams that make the little cocoon glow. She’s breathing heavily, her lips parted, and the warmth and solid feel of her on top of me is decidedly familiar.

This is the stuff that her movies are made of, the very reason that we keep finding ourselves awkwardly trying to put the pieces of our friendship back together. We can’t do this, even if I didn’t have Erin. Alarms and bells start going off in my head as I realize that I do have Erin, but oddly enough, none of the warnings are centered on this fact. This time, they’re centered on me.

Erin and I have not even determined that we’re dating, let alone exclusive, but this can’t happen anyway. And for the first time, I’m able to recognize it as it’s happening, to heed the call in time to stop it. I’m able to say no, even when this is all that I’ve wanted for so long that I’m not sure what to do with myself now that I have the restraint not to take it.

I lift my legs at the knees to give myself some room to lift up and brace against my elbows, trying to tell Spencer that we need to increase the space between us. But she doesn’t move, either ignoring or missing the signals I’m relaying to her. The move only settles her hips firmly between my legs and brings my face so close to hers that a hair could hardly fit between us. I hear and feel her breathe in, sharp and rasping, and I close my eyes as my head spins with warning and wanting.

“Spence,” I say weakly.

She shifts her knees and I bite my lip as this only succeeds in bringing her closer. I’m not sure what to do or how to do it. I feel like the roots of the trees around us have sprung up and wrapped around my wrists to hold me in place. It’s like nature itself is trying to tell me something that I can’t hear so it’s decided to stop me, to slow me down because the message is just that important.

“Oh… sorry,” Spencer says, her eyes widening.

She pulls off of me so hard and so fast that she lands on her ass. It’s as if someone yanked her by her tank collar. I still can’t really move yet, and my heart is thundering in my throat as I listen intently to what I’m missing only to relate it to war drums.

“It’s okay,” I say, though I’m unsure.

She blows out a breath, tucks her hair behind her ear, and looks at me with naked pleading. And I see it for what it is. She needs to pretend that it didn’t happen, and while I’m okay with that, I’m really not. I hate feeling oblivious, knowing that there’s something that I should know but don’t.

“Are you, uh… is your camera okay,” I ask, trying to find a middle ground.

A new worry fills her mind and I watch as she scrambles for the bag and unzips it to check everything inside.

“Looks like it,” she exhales with relief.

“I still don’t know how you can lug that thing.”

I can see her gratitude at this turn in the conversation. This is the same old song and dance. Nothing is complicated or weird as I help her up and we continue walking. She shakes the moment off, even playfully flexing her arm and waggling her eyebrows.

“Strong like bull,” she says.

I shake my head. “You’re full of bull, alright, but you’re mostly a nut.”

“At least I’m not cracked, like you.”

“That can easily be remedied at any time.”

“Is that a threat, Davies?”

“Just a promise.”

It’s about this time that we see a break in the trees, revealing a large concrete bridge on the side of a cliff-face connecting it to its partner across a chasm.

Spencer stops and looks at me, gesturing to the bridge and the people grouped under the awnings at its side. “Care to put your money where your mouth is?”

I look to the bridge and back to Spencer and scoff at her. “Please, it would hardly be fair if you weren’t carrying a small toddler,” I indicate the camera in her hands.

She laughs. “Sounds to me like you’re scared.”

She starts to walk backwards towards the bridge, her eyes holding mine in challenge, and it takes a good ten feet of a head start for me to realize that the race has already begun.

“Hey,” I say. “You’re cheating!”

I break into a run and she squeals before turning and launching into a full sprint.

“You’re dead, Carlin,” I shout out, chasing her but only just able to catch up to her.

Every time I start to get ahead, she puts on the steam and stays right with me.

“Give it up, Davies,” she shouts back, but I don’t give it up.

We arrive at the same time and we both slump against the rail of the bridge as we try to catch our breath. I look at her in wonder. That camera has to weigh at least forty pounds.

“I’ll get you next time,” I say.

“Sure. Next time I’ll bring two cameras and still kick your ass.”

She smiles at me and I wipe the not sweat from my brow before asking Kyla for a couple of waters from her pack. She pretends she can’t hear me and I sigh. She’s still mad. Kate takes it upon herself to retrieve them roughly from Kyla’s back, yanking her around like a little rag doll and letting the insults Kyla spews at her roll off of her back. I decide that Spencer was right. Kate’s too used to the drama at this point.

She hands us the waters and we gulp at it, some of it spilling down my chin when a loud scream pierces the air. We all turn to watch a girl in a batman costume go plummeting over the edge of the bridge. I look around and see that there are several people here. Some are obviously regular adrenaline junkies and I smile over at Spencer who’s already got her camera out.

“You ready for this,” I ask.

She grins back from behind the lens. “I’ve actually always wanted to try it, so yeah.”

“First things first,” I say as I start towards Erin at the other end of the relatively short bridge.

“I’d definitely rather jump off of the bridge,” Spencer calls out sardonically.

“Me too,” I reply wryly.

I approach Erin casually, trying to be neither intrusive nor timid. She’s by herself, sitting against the railing. I know she’s heard me and she hasn’t told me to go away, so I take that as acceptance.

“Hey,” I say as I sit next to her.

“Hey.”

She doesn’t say anything more and I try to gauge how upset she really is. To be honest, I can’t really tell.

I’m quiet for a few minutes before I start with neutral ground. “Look, Erin, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

She sighs and looks over at me. “I wasn’t just embarrassed. I was mad at you for being an asshole.”

I frown because I don’t get how mildly picking on my intrusive little sister is that catastrophic. She seems to pick up on this.

“Why did you tell me that Kyla was mentally retarded?”

I smirk. “Because she makes me crazy. I mean, you can’t tell me that you haven’t noticed how she is. She’s like that all the time. It was just a joke.”

She smiles sadly. “My younger brother is mentally retarded, Ashley. To me, that’s not a joke.”

Oh shit…

I feel my face fall. I really stuck my foot in it this time.

“He’s seventeen but his mind won’t ever get further than eight. He’ll never be able to live alone or fall in love or start a family of his own. He’s forever just a child. It’s hard. My family doesn’t have a lot of money and someone has to be with him all the time. We love him, but it’s sad to think of what he’ll never have and it’s all because of the luck of the draw. It’s just not funny to me at all. I actually find it kind of cruel. I didn’t think you were like that, but then….” She seems at a loss for words. “Well, all of you are kind of mean.”

I’m quiet while I let that sink in. I hadn’t even thought about it like that.

“You know how people say, “gay,” when they think something’s stupid,” she continues.

“Yeah…”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

I think about that for a minute and decide to be honest. “I mean, not really. People are fucking stupid.”

“It’s not just people being stupid. They’re taking something normal and making it seem bad, like telling a boy not to act like a girl. What’s so bad about being a girl?”

I shrug. “Like I said, people are assholes. Why expect anything else?”

She gets really agitated, so I try to defuse her.

“I get what you’re saying, truly. I wasn’t trying to be an asshole. I’m sorry.”

“Your sister must think I’m the asshole. I’ve been treating her like I would Connor.”

“No, I hold that honored place in her heart pretty firmly.” I bump her shoulder with mine. “I’ll try to be less of an asshole.”

She smiles at that, though it’s not its normal quality. Erin’s different than anyone I’ve ever known. She’s a lot more sensitive than I had originally anticipated, and something feels, just… off about her. It’s like the person I’ve been seeing and the person who showed up today are two different people. She was fine at breakfast, if not a little bossy, but she’s just… she’s not been normal since then, or at least what I know to be normal?

“So, you gonna come jump off a bridge with me?”

“I have to.”

She starts to stand and I stop her. “Erin, you really don’t.”

“I won’t be able to live with myself if I pansy out, Slick.”

I smile at her nickname for me. “Well, I have to live with being an asshole, so…”

“What a pair we make,” she says.

“We should start a side project band,” I say. “We can call it the asshole pansies.”

“The pansy holes,” she plays along.

“Or the pansy asses.”

We both laugh and she brightens considerably.

“Come on,” I say. “You don’t have to do it but we can still have fun.”

She gives me a tight-lipped smile and I sigh. I hate that she’s not having fun, but what can I do? I don’t understand what’s going on with her right now. Is it really my friends that made her act this way, or her nervousness, or what happened with Kyla? None of those things seem to answer the question that’s starting to build in my mind, though I’m not certain that it’s a question. Whatever it is, it’s really bothering me, and that’s all the more bothersome because I can’t put my finger on it.

“Who’s next,” one of the hulking bungee boys asks, flashing a white, playboy smile that accentuates his tanned face and breaks me from my thoughts.

We each look to the other before scanning those around us. No one is forthcoming.

“She is,” Kyla says, coming up behind me and shoving me hard.

I nearly slam into him and try to convey my sheer hate to my baby sister with my eyes. Of course, she gives not a single fuck.

“Alright,” he grins brightly, picking up a yellow, nylon harness and starting to adjust the straps.

I swallow thickly as I watch him deftly maneuver the strips. I mean, I’m here because I want to do this, but wanting to do it and actually doing it are two very separate things.

“I’m Zach,” the other bungee boy starts. “What’s your name?”

“Ashley,” I say, starting to feel a little panicked.

He’s staring at me like I’m stupid, and honestly I feel stupid.

“What’s your last name?”

“Davies,” Kyla supplies quickly.

“Gotcha right here,” he says, flipping the page on his clipboard and passing it to me. “Just sign here and you’re good to go.”

With a shaky hand I scrawl my name on the paper in the way that a child would. I turn to look at Erin, the question in my eyes. She seems really frustrated and torn, so I just wait. After a long moment, she pathetically shakes her head in the negative before mouthing the word ‘pansy.’ I smile as reassuringly as I can and turn back to the man, my nervousness peaking.

I hadn’t expected to do this alone. And I’m not afraid of heights, but the falling?

He takes the clipboard from me and sets it down. “Did you have any questions?”

I shake my head at him. I’d read up on it when I’d booked it. Of course there’s risk, but if these frat boys do their job right, it’s minimal. Either way, everyone has to sign a release of liability, and I watch closely as he checks the connections on the rope and runs through every strap looking for a weakness. Finding none, he starts to help me put it on.

“I hope you had a light breakfast,” one of them teases.

“The scared ones always puke,” his strap adjusting friend agrees with a chuckle.

Well, I’d thought he was teasing…

That muffin I’d had on the trip up suddenly seems like liver and onions as my stomach fills with acid.

“Ash, are you okay,” Spencer asks as she comes up to me and places a comforting hand on the small of my back.

I look over at her unsure of the answer and slightly self-conscious. And of course, Kyla chooses now to get intrusive with Spencer’s camera lens.

Spencer positions herself between me and Kyla, blocking the shot.

“You don’t have to do this,” she says sweetly, her eyes conveying warmth and comfort.

But… “It’s on my list…”

“So,” she says with a shrug. “You said you wrote that right after you started treatment. That’s been four years – more than that. Things change…”

I think about it for a minute and I know that she’s right. That list wasn’t a contract and I’m under no obligation to anyone but myself. But shouldn’t that be enough?

“I just… I have really shitty luck, Spence. What if something happens?”

She seems a little confused, taken aback even. “You’re worried that something might go wrong?”

“Well, a little…”

But that’s not it. I look back to Erin, wishing that she’d do this with me, and I realize that I really just don’t want to do this alone. Not only would having someone else with me who’s not cannon fodder for back luck increase my odds for survival, but I could use the extra boost in bravery. I’m not afraid to face it; I just want someone to face it with me.

Erin isn’t looking up. She’s playing with her fingers, her shoulders hunched, so I look to Spencer. She’s positively beaming, and I watch in confusion as her eyes gloss over.

“Would it help if I went with you?”

I can’t help the melted feeling that spreads throughout my chest. It’s relief and joy and it banishes my worries. Well, all but one. I look to Erin again, but she still isn’t interested. If anything she seems angry. What happened to her fear of becoming a pansy? What happened to being here for me?

“That would be amazing,” I say, my voice more serious than I’d intended it to be.

“Okay, then.” She turns to the men. “We’re going together.”

He goes through the paperwork, finds her name, and makes her sign as well before picking up another set of straps and checking them over. Spencer doesn’t have any questions either, and before I know it, we’re both wearing the skimpiest g-strings of our lives and standing on a small, three-step platform. There’s no conscious thought to the act of slipping my arm around her waist or the sense of safety I feel when her arm engulfs my shoulders.

“Okay,” one of the frat boys says. “Try not to tense up. Keep your bodies loose and you’ll be fine.”

“Got it,” Spencer says brightly before leading me up to the edge.

I feel like a pirate walking a plank as I look down from an immense height. The wide stream from earlier now looks like a thin line in the crack at the bottom of the valley, but it might as well be a swirling maelstrom full of hungry sharks.

“Oh, yeah,” one of the bungee boys says. “And don’t look down.”

“Thanks,” I say to him over my shoulder, wanting to wrap the bungee cable around his neck and watch him turn red.

My eyes catch Spencer’s on their way back forward. She’s beautiful and bright, her face a mask of hope, and I can’t help but smile at her.

“You ready,” she asks.

And after a moment of watching her hair wisp thinly around her face, something in me innately knows the answer and pushes it out of my mouth.

“Yes,” I say.

And then, Spencer’s grip gets tighter and the ground beneath my feet becomes softer and softer, as if it’s made of clouds that are dissipating. My stomach flops, the blood rushes to my head, and I find myself completely uninhibited, defying gravity even as it sucks me down.

I scream, not in fear, but in a rush of freedom, and Spencer joins me, our whoops and hollers muffled by the gale of wind that we’re riding. It feels endless, though I know it’s only for a few seconds. But this tiny speck of time is all that’s needed to see everything fully, to appreciate it completely. And oddly enough, it has nothing to do with the gorgeous landscape or the innate human appreciation of defying the laws of physics, though those are a precious part of why I felt the need to do this.

It’s because for the first time since the worst of times, I’m present. I’m not surrounded by people and utterly alone. I’m not running like I always have, but somehow I feel like I’m me, a better me. Even when the line pulls taught over and over again and tries to pull my insides from my body, I’m still me, all of me. Spencer and I are in a tight embrace now as truly happy tears roll up my forehead. I weep, not because the attic is oozing out like a long overdue infection, but because I can’t find the infection anywhere inside of me. Everywhere I look I find room and space to hold something else, something more, something better.

Her embrace gets tighter and I just let the goodness, the rightness of it all in. I let those things refill those spaces to bursting and that’s why I’m crying. It’s quiet as we sway from side to side, nothing but the soft whistle of the wind to tickle through our hair as it all seeps in and glows with warmth.

“Ash… are you okay?”

I lean back and look at her, my cheeks hurting and wet.

“Yes,” I say simply.

Her worried brow smooths and I notice that she’s crying too.

“Are you?”

“Yes,” she says with a breathless chuckle, reaching up and swiping at my cheeks with her thumbs.

“I’m so glad to be here… with you,” I say to her.

“I just want you to be happy, Ash.”

“I am happy, Spence,” I smile. I can’t help it. “I haven’t been this happy in a long time. I feel… hopeful.”

She closes her eyes as if I’ve just sung the sweetest sonnet to her, as if she’s been waiting for those words though I can’t imagine why. And even though I can tell that I’ve done or said something right for once, I still can’t shake the feeling that she’s sad.

“Are you happy, Spence?”

She exhales heavily. “I will be.”

Nothing more is said as she just hugs me, no longer holding me together but cradling me like a cherished piece of pottery that’s discovered that it can hold water again since it’s been put back together. And I return the tight embrace as we start to be hoisted back up.

Being upright makes us both a little dizzy, but once she releases me, I can’t wipe the grin off of my face. Everyone congratulates us, even Kyla, and I shove her up to the frat boys to go next. After we immortalize her panic on film, I look for Erin but I can’t find her.

“Kate, have you seen Erin?”

She looks around and points to edge of the bridge a few yards away from the commotion. “She was just there…”

But she’s not there. Kate helps me check around but we can’t find her.

“Did she say anything,” I ask.

Kate shakes her head. “No, but she didn’t seem all that happy.”

I sigh and dig my phone out of Kyla’s backpack to text her.

The Dealing Process 3

She doesn’t reply immediately so I wait and tap the phone against my palm, unable to keep from laughing as a supremely dazed Kyla stumbles back up onto the bridge, her hair all mussed and face beet red. She takes her congratulations with a bow like the attention whore that she is.

“Ash,” Kate says. “Can I tell you something without offending you?”

I assume crash positions. “What…?”

“We don’t really like Erin.”

I look to the sky for answers to questions but nothing and no one can explain to me why people are so fucking irritating.

“I’m sorry,” she continues. “It’s just… she’s kind of a downer.”

“She’s just not having a good day today. And you guys haven’t been the most welcoming. Jac and Jon are at each other’s throats, you’re ready to kill both of them, everyone keeps bringing up my ex-girlfriend and how much I love her, and you just had to embarrass her by the river…”

“Oh come on,” she smirks. “I can’t account for Jac and Jon, I won’t apologize for being honest, and that shit was funny. She took it too seriously. Besides, I was making fun of you and Kyla, not her.”

“Her brother is mentally retarded, Kate, literally.”

She bares her teeth in an over-exaggerated frown. “Oh…”

“Yeah, ‘Oh…,’ I mimic how stupid she sounds.

“Well, my bad.”

“Yeah,” I sigh out. “Mine too.”

Another person in the crowd takes the plunge and I wait for the screaming to stop before continuing.

“Just try to be nice to her, would you?”

She shrugs. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Kate…”

“Fine,” she says defensively. “I’ll tone it down.”

“Thank you,” I say but only slightly mollified.

“But you know that Jac and Jon won’t. And neither will Kyla.”

I scrub at my face in frustration because she’s right.

“And, you know, we all love Spencer.”

“Kate, just… shut up with that already. Spencer and I aren’t going to happen. I’ve accepted it. She’s accepted it. Hell, even Kyla’s sort of accepted it. Why can’t you?”

She crosses her arms over her chest. “Ash, I would give just about anything to have that kind of love. Do you have any idea how much it fucking burns to see someone else have it and throw it away?”

I can’t help but look at her a little stunned. She’s my best friend, not counting Spencer, and it’s been that way since we met more than two years prior, but never in that time has she ever once talked about dating someone or her experience with love. I’ve never even seen her make out with someone let alone date, though the offers have been there time and again.

“And not only do I have to see you do it, but those asshats over there are doing the exact same thing. It’s fucking disgusting.”

She isn’t looking at me while she says any of this and part of me believes that it’s because she can’t bring herself to. She’s trusting me right now, implicitly, but to look me in the eye while she does it might just make it impossible. This is the first time that I’ve seen just how much she’s been hurting. Something in me clicks and I can see the raw, naked pain of experience weighing on her. She’s letting me see it.

How could I have missed it all this time? But then I know the answer to that, even before I finish asking it. It’s because it’s always been about me. I didn’t care enough to see her pain because it wasn’t important enough in the face of my own.

Just as I recognize what’s happening she clams back up, shutting me out and returning to normal.

“But even if that weren’t true, there’s still a moral dilemma: you shouldn’t accept something that’s a lie. It’s just like being gay. You can pretend and live in misery your whole life, or you can just accept that you’re gay and be happy about it, despite what other people think. If you told me right now that you’re straight, I’d laugh in your fucking face. I’m not going to placate your fantasies. You’re a fucking dyke. There’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t ask me to buy what you’re selling just because you can’t face it. You love Spencer and she loves you. Why should I accept that it’s over?”

“Because love isn’t enough,” I repeat what Spencer’s told me time and again.

“No, maybe it’s not, but everything else can be changed until it is enough.”

“Not everything, Kate. I can’t change what I did or why I did it.”

“You’re right. You can’t. But you can stop doing it, and I don’t think Spencer’s holding the past against you, or the future.”

I shake my head. “Kate, Spencer made it clear in New Orleans that she can’t be with me because any future with me is too uncertain.”

“She told you that,” she asks disbelievingly.

“Well… not in those words.”

“What words did she use?”

I think back to that horrible night, which is difficult because I was pretty tipsy before we left Billy Reid, but I wasn’t blackout drunk.

“She told me that she’s in love with me and that being friends wasn’t working because of it. She said that she wanted to be with me, but that she couldn’t, not like I am… or something like that.”

“Okay…,” she says in a way that indicates that she needs more.

“I used to be healthy, but now I’m not.”

She makes a face at me that leads me to believe that she thinks I’m a fucking idiot.

“So she said that she can’t be with you like you are and that couldn’t mean anything other than diseased?”

Now I do feel like an idiot, because I hadn’t considered any other possibilities and now I see that it was a hell of an assumption to make. The possibilities are myriad. I didn’t used to be so depressed. I didn’t used to be so guarded. I didn’t used to be so directionless. In fact, I was the antithesis to those things.

“Well, no, I guess it could mean something else…”

“You think? Maybe she just needed you to stop hiding for weeks at a time, or shutting her out, or focusing on an all-encompassing doom. Were you like that before?”

“No.”

“Then it seems to me that you can change the ‘not enough’ part of that ‘love isn’t enough’ bullshit. Instead, you’re trying to change who you’re in love with, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think that’s working out for you so well.”

We watch as Jac pushes Jon off the bridge and start to laugh uncontrollably. I’m thankful for this reprieve from the conversation. I hadn’t intended for this day to be so… heavy. But heavy seems to be lurking in every slight shadow.

I check my phone. Still no answer from Erin. I start to get a little worried.

Jac gets a high-five from all of us to celebrate her victory.

“Look, Ash. Do what you want to do, but don’t ask me to accept that it’s the right thing when I disagree. I’ll still be there when you figure out that I was right from the start.” She gives me a smug smile. “And just as something else to think about, because I know I haven’t given you enough already, all of those things that I pointed out that you could change… I think you’ve already started to.”

Jon comes over the edge of the bridge fuming, but for once, she seems to hold her ire and not say or do anything. In fact, I’d say she’s plotting by the look on her face. Paybacks are indeed a bitch, and Jac’s going to get a big, fat check sometime soon.

No one else is ready to jump so I look over at Kate.

“You gonna do it?”

She thinks about it and then nods. “Well, if my friends are jumping off a bridge, I guess I’m supposed to…”

I chuckle at her stupid joke.

“You’re a good friend, Kate.”

“I know,” she says before going to sign her life away and get a wedgie from the ninth circle of hell.

It’s at this time that I get a text and look down at my phone.

The Dealing Process 4

Why is all I can think to ask.

The Dealing Process 5

What more can I say? I walk up to the bridge and watch as Kate goes over and starts to fall, nothing but a rallying whoop coming out of her as she spreads her arms and embraces what’s coming. And it’s in this moment that I realize that she’s probably one of the bravest people on earth. I’m certain that if she had been in my shoes, sitting in that doctor’s office and receiving that devastating news, she wouldn’t have run. She’d have faced it head on, kicking and screaming and living life to its fullest. In an odd way, it probably would have only served to make her stronger.

“You okay,” Spencer asks, joining me at the bridge and leaning her arms on it like I am.

“Yeah, I think.”

“I noticed Erin leaving as we came back up and I thought about stopping her, but then felt like it wasn’t my place.”

“Yeah, it’s probably good that you didn’t.”

“Is she okay?”

“I really don’t know. She didn’t seem in the mood to talk about it, but I know that she’s not very happy with me.”

“I can relate,” she says as she bumps me with her shoulder.

We’re quiet for several minutes as we watch Kate slowly start to ascend.

“Spence… in New Orleans, when you said that you couldn’t be with me because I’m different than I used to be, did you mean the cancer?”

She frowns and answers immediately, almost affronted. “What? No…!”

It’s my turn to frown. “So it’s not because there’s the possibility that there’s no future with me?”

“Jesus, Ashley, I hadn’t even considered that…”

“Then what did you mean?”

“I meant that you didn’t used to be so…,” she gestures at the air as if she can’t find the word, or maybe there are too many words to roll into one. “Impossible.”

“I still don’t know what that means.”

“It means that… that we can’t… carry each other. We have to be independent and healthy on our own before we can be any good together.”

Well that actually makes sense.

“Why didn’t you say it like that before?”

“I thought I did.”

“Well, that’s not how I took it.”

“Well I don’t really remember everything that was said that night, but I know for a fact that I didn’t tell you that it’s because you might… have health problems.”

“Well, I’m sorry I took that way.”

“It’s okay, I guess. I mean, it’s not, but at least you’re asking me and making sure, which now that I think about it, is kind of strange.”

“Should I not have asked?”

“No,” she almost shouts, causing people to look at us briefly. “No,” she repeats quietly, almost reverently. “That’s exactly what you should have done.”

Kate doesn’t even sway as she gets to her feet, and wastes no time hauling Jac to the podium. Jac’s an absolute mess as she gets strapped up, not because she’s about to jump off a bridge, but because she’s afraid to turn her back on Jon. Kate stands guard though and with a shrill, “FUCK,” the word spanning into at least six syllables, she falls towards the river, her breakfast quickly coming out of her like a uncontrolled fireman’s hose as she sways back and forth.

Everyone in the crowd makes a sound that expresses their sympathy at her misfortune. Well, except for Jon. Jon is about to asphyxiate she’s laughing so hard.

“Please tell me you got that on tape,” she begs of Kyla, her words broken up with gasping breathes.

Spencer just shakes her head and I rub at my stomach in sympathy, my mind still turning over what Spencer just said. The heaviness of the conversation has been broken up, so I don’t have to go there again. For once, I’m off the hook. But of course, it’s the one time that I don’t want to be.

“Spence, if you want me to talk about this stuff, then why is it strange when I do?”

“Because normally you wouldn’t. I guess it just took me by surprise.” She puts her hand on my arm. “And it’s a really good surprise.”

I smile at her, though I’m not sure why. Jac is starting to be reeled in and I pull the crumpled list from my pocket. “Spence, you have a pen?”

She walks to her camera bag and rummages through it before finding one and bringing it back to me.

I hand her the paper and say, “You do the honors.”

Her eyes get big as she looks at me, her expression open and her voice heartfelt. “Are you sure?”

I nod and she opens it up, glancing at it briefly before putting a strike through the appropriate item on the list. She holds it pensively for a second or two longer before refolding it and handing it back to me. I can tell that she’s thinking about something, something that’s hurting her. But for once, I feel like I can face whatever it is. Maybe I could even help with it somehow.

I decide to ask as I tuck the list back into my pocket. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah…,” she says unconvincingly. “I just… I’m so thankful for everything that you’re doing. But I also hate that you have to do it, if that makes any sense.”

Yeah, it really does.

“I know exactly what you mean.”

It’s quiet for a few minutes as Jac oozes over the edge of the railing, falling to her ass and starting to cry uncontrollably.

Oddly enough, Jon’s the one that rushes to her side.

“Fucking idiots,” Kate says as she pulls up beside me.

“I need food, and a nap,” Kyla adds out of nowhere, handing Spencer her camera.

“I wouldn’t say no to either,” I agree, feeling exceedingly tired given today’s events.

“It’s settled then,” Spencer says.

“My place,” I ask.

“Yes,” they agree.

We all grab our packs, collect Jac and Jon, and start making our way back down the mountain.


The door shuts and I pull some paper towels from the wall dispenser. I’m so angry that I’m shaking as I wad them up in my hands and sling them at the offending opening that Ethan just disappeared through. They don’t even fly that far let alone hit anything in a way that’s satisfying, and this just pisses me off all the more. I want to scream. I want to break shit, but if I trash this bathroom, there’s really no bouncing back from what just happened. And while I already know deep down that it’s too late, I can’t seem to accept it just yet.

“Ash, it’s okay,” Erin says and I laugh humorlessly. “I’m serious,” she tries again. “You don’t need them.”

“Erin, you don’t understand.”

And she doesn’t. For all that she knows about music, she doesn’t know what it’s like to play it, write it, and perform it. And she clearly has no fucking clue what it means to have a family.

“I know it sucks, but… well, honestly, they’re holding you back. You could easily go solo.”

That is probably the last thing that I needed to hear. I never wanted to be solo. Your band is the dysfunctional family that you choose, but it is your family. No one is replaceable. Sure, I could hire musicians to fill in the sound or just replace Jon. And it would probably be more polished than it is now, but that’s too cold, too soulless for me. Even Hayley Williams, a girl who was offered a multi-million dollar solo career, said, ‘No, I want a band.’ When everyone is just as invested in the music as you are, as only starving artists can be, there’s more purity, more energy to it, and I’m not here to make money.

Besides… “They’re my family, Erin.”

She sighs. “I know you love them, Ash, but that doesn’t change the facts. They just got you booed off stage and you probably broke your hand, just as you were about to open for Brand New. Are they really worth your music career? Would family really do that to you?”

I ignore her rant. It’s just making me angrier. All I really know is that I want to take back the last half hour and make Jon sit this one out, but I can’t. All I know to do is run from the situation, but that’s not good enough either because this is the only thing that’s left in my life. If I lose music, there’s nothing left but me. And while I guess I could live with that, I’m just so tired of loss.

“Has anything like this happened here before?”

Erin smirks. “Once or twice a year.”

“And what happens to those bands?”

“I’m not really sure, Ash. But they don’t come back here.”

I can hear the lead singer of Brand New start talking on stage and it makes me feel sick.

“Look, Ash, I have to go work, but I’ll check on you after, okay?”

Erin touches my arm and it makes me flinch, though I’m not really sure why. It was her way of trying to comfort me, but I don’t think I can be comforted just now. I just know that the feeling that I got earlier, the one where something is undefinably wrong, is back now that she’s touched me. I still force myself to face her and receive an awkward hug.

“It’ll be okay,” she says reassuringly, but that only serves to again make it worse.

And then she’s gone and I’m left in the quiet of the bathroom as one of my favorite bands cracks jokes about me from the stage. And for once, I’m happy to be alone. The door cracks open and I glance over to see Spencer’s head pop in. She’s wary, and rightly so. She just watched me deck my bassist on stage. I turn on the water and splash some of it on my face in a fragile attempt to calm down. This isn’t Spencer’s fault and I don’t want to take it out on her.

“Ash-“

“Please don’t tell me it’ll be okay, Spence,” I cut her off hoarsely, bracing my hands against the edges of the sink.

I just can’t hear that again, especially not from her.

I turn the water off and can’t help but kick the concrete wall. “FUCK!”

Fortunately, I’m wearing my boots so outside of a good scuff, no damage is done. I hit it pretty hard, but the pang of the impact up my leg doesn’t make me feel any better. Water is dripping off of my face as I violently tear back into the towels, but I’m barely able to get a fist full of pulp for my trouble. And then Spencer is there, next to me, some whole towels in her hands as she starts to gingerly swipe at my face.

“I was going to ask how I can help,” she says.

I want to feel bad for snapping at her but I’m too pissed to let myself. So I settle for keeping my fucking mouth shut as she cleans me up. Once she’s done drying me, she wets the towel with some cold water, pulls the hair up off of my neck, and lays the wet cloth at the nape. This has the desired effect and I feel some of my ire dissipate as I close my eyes.

“I don’t think you can, Spence.”

Though she is.

She nods. “I know. But I have to try.”

Yep, fixer Spencer.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Don’t be. It’s okay.”

It’s not but now’s not the time to argue. She leaves the cool cloth on my neck and takes my right hand, holding it in both of her own and examining the puffy, bloodied knuckles. I hit Jon hard, very hard. I can barely bend my fucking fingers they’re so swollen. She turns the tap back on and starts to run the cool water over the abused skin. I sigh. It feels good.

“Better,” she asks.

I just nod. But then I realize that it’s not better, none of it, not really.

“It’s over, Spence…”

She exhales heavily, still working my hand under the water to gently wipe away the crusty blood as she thinks about what she can say to that, because the immediate answer of, ‘no it’s not,’ that I so desperately want to hear isn’t true, and even she knows it.

“Can you bend it?” I grimace as I try to flex my fingers, and with a sigh of relief, they obey. “I don’t think it’s broken.”

We’re quiet for a moment as she takes some more towels and wets them, laying them over my knuckles to act as a cold compress. She turns the water off and I just stand there, feeling extremely drained.

“It needs ice,” she says, and I just shrug.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

I lean against the sink. “What’s there to talk about? It’s over. Cyn isn’t ever going to let us play here again.”

She takes the towel from my neck and mirrors my pose. “Are you sure?”

I snort. “I don’t see how else it can go down, Spence. I mean, Jon got loaded, went up there and started fucking up the songs, calling Jac a whore and a tease right into the mic… she threw two beer bottles into the crowd and swung her guitar at a kid in front. The venue will be lucky if they don’t get sued, and even then, people left, Spence. Why on earth would Cyn let us play here again?”

“Well,” she says. “When you decked Jon, the crowd cheered.” I can’t help but chuckle. “You’re a hero now, protecting the indie masses.”

I get a few seconds more reprieve thanks to her humor before my mind settles solidly on the problem at hand. “How can I possibly fix this, Spencer?”

She’s looks at me surprised. “You want to fix it?”

I give her a look that I’m not accustomed to giving her. “Of course I do…”

I mean, duh, Spence…

“Okay,” she says with a smirk. “Then go fix it.”

“How,” I almost shout. “Kick Jon out of the band?”

“No,” she says slowly. “What Jon did was fucked up, but everyone fucks up once in a while. And I mean, they’re your family. They’re dysfunctional, but you can’t abandon your family. You taught me that.”

I try to smile at her but it feels like a grimace.

“Has she done this before?”

“No.”

“And you know why she did it, right?”

“Yeah, Spence, I’m not dense. I saw that girl hanging all over Jac before the show.”

“Wow,” she says. “You’re really perceptive tonight.”

“Spence…,” I groan out.

“Okay,” she laughs. “Sorry. It’s just normally I have to explain the obvious to you, Ash. You’re not always very intuitive.”

“Spence, can you at least try to stay on topic?” She’s grinning at me, and I start to feel a little angry with her for it. “And wipe that smile off your face.”

“Sorry,” she says again, clearing her throat and making a valiant attempt, though failing miserably. I can tell that she’s really thinking about what I can do to fix it though, so it’s not as irritating as it might be.

“If I were you, I think I’d talk to Cyn. And once you get done groveling, I’d suggest you take care of Jon.”

“What, like off her?”

She laughs, full and delightful, and even in my state I feel a surge of that delight inside of me.

“No, smart ass, like take care of her”

“Take care of her,” I repeat nonplussed.

She nods. “Yes. Take care of her. Be nice to her. Show her that you’re there for her and that you’re sorry you messed up her face. Be her friend first, Ash. The issues with Jac and the band will follow.”

Well, it’s a plan at least. I mean, who am I disagree? She’s the fixer, not me.

“Okay…”

“Okay,” she says, that grin coming on again. “Want me to come with you?”

I nod. “After I talk to Cyn, I might need you to keep me in check with Jon.”

She grabs my good hand and leads me to the bar to get some ice in a towel. Brand New is playing one of my favorites from Deja Entendu, and I spot Erin dancing with some girls on the edge of the crowd. Spencer notices what I’m looking at and gives me a look that makes me feel pathetic.

Honestly though, I don’t really care what Erin’s doing.

“Have you seen Cyn,” she asks the bartender.

He looks me over before apprehensively pointing a finger towards her office. Spencer pulls me towards the door and puts my good hand over the ice to hold it in place.

“I’ll go find Kate. Text me when you’re done.”

I blow out a breath and Spencer knocks on the door for me before saying, “Good luck.”

And with that she leaves me standing at the door which doesn’t take long to open. In fact, it nearly flies open and I see Tiny the bouncer standing there.

“What,” he asks sharply.

“I need to talk to Cyn,” I say.

He gives me the same once over that the bartender did before shutting the door. My anger starts to resurface as I prepare to kick the door down but then it opens and he’s back, leaving just enough room for me to enter Cyn’s office.

This place is a musical hall of fame. The paneled walls are lined with picture after picture of great musicians from all eras, all personally signed and lovingly addressed to Cyn. And like a timeline in Cyn’s life, I can see her go from a young roadie to manager of the most notorious music venue in Los Angeles.

“Give us a minute, Tiny.”

The bald man huffs a little like a mastiff before exiting the office. Something tells me he’s not far if this goes south. I turn back to Cyn and my tongue goes dry and starts to swell, filling up my mouth and leaving no room for words or even thoughts.

“Look, Ash, I like you, really I do. And I get it. It’s not your fault. People go off the rails and shit happens, but I have a reputation to protect if I want to keep this place alive. And that means when people come here and pay to see a show, it’s a good show.”

I hold up my injured hand. “I think they got a really good show.”

She smirks and walks around to the front of her desk. “Something tells me that you understand what I’m saying.”

“So that’s it,” I blurt out, my own tongue surprising me. “We play, for free, and give you that good show every time, only to be tossed out the first time that something goes wrong?”

She sits on the front of her desk and gestures to the walls. “I think we both know that when you play here, you’re not really playing for free. The exposure alone is worth more than any cut at the door.”

“Yeah, see, that’s the thing: I never played here for exposure or money. I couldn’t care less about making it big. I played here because I love music, and I love this place and what it stands for. You’re one of the few remaining venues that hasn’t gone corporate. I belong here, and you know it.”

She nods and puts her hands together in front of her. “You’re right, kid. You belong here, but like you said, this is one of the few remaining places that hasn’t gone corporate, and if I want to keep it that way, if you want to keep it that way, what else can I do? That stunt your bassist pulled on stage lost me thousands in revenue tonight, our insurance premiums will probably double, and we made a bad impression on the headliner.”

“I’ll pay you twice what you lost.”

“Kid, you don’t have that kind of money.”

“Try me.”

She looks me over and I find that I’m getting frustrated with the critical eyes in this place.

“Five hundred thousand.”

That’s got to be triple the cost, but whatever. “Done.”

“Just like that?”

“Yeah, just like that. I’ll call my investor and have the bank cut you a cashier’s check.”

“Kid, look-”

“And I’ll personally guarantee that nothing like this will happen with my band ever again.”

“How can you possibly guarantee that when you couldn’t stop it from happening tonight?”

“Well… if it does, I’ll personally write you, not the Troubadour, a check for a million dollars.”

She laughs. “You’ve got moxy, kid, but this place is my home. Memories can’t be bought. I’ve been saving to buy this place for years, and I don’t want to retire. I’m also not too keen on rich girls throwing money at me. I earn what I have.”

My mind starts to reel. I’ve just played the biggest card I have and she practically spat in my face. Unless, of course… “What if I were to buy this place?”

This makes her get to her feet, and from the look on her face, I get the impression that I just slapped her. She’s practically foaming at the mouth.

“I’ll be fucking damned if some little twit is going to waltz in here and threaten to take what I’ve earned. I’ve put my blood, sweat, and tears into this place. Just who the fuck do you think you are?”

I’m practically shaking in my boots, but I can’t tell if it’s because I’m going to die or because I’m just so angry. My band made one fucking mistake. She can get the fuck over it.

“Hey, I’ve put my blood, sweat, and tears into my music. It seems to me that some old broad is trying to destroy what I’ve worked for over something that’s not too unusual in musical history. And if you think I’m going to go down without a fight, you’re wrong.”

We just stand here, staring at each other, weighing each other up and down. And I’m fairly certain that I could at least hold my own with her, but not with that meathead waiting outside.

“Fair enough,” she finally says. “Have that cashier’s check ready no later than noon tomorrow.”

She goes back around her desk and sits before opening a drawer and pulling out a bottle of liquor and two shot glasses.

“Just like that,” I repeat her from earlier, completely stunned by this turn of events.

“Just like that,” she says, pouring the shots and scooting one towards me.

I approach the desk carefully and try not to collapse into the worn out leather seat. We each pick up the shot and when she raises it in salute, I do the same before knocking it back. It burns and makes my throat close up which causes her to laugh. She leans back in her chair, her posture softening.

“You can go now,” she says.

I get up to leave and just as I get to the door she calls out, “Ashley, if anything like that happens again, or if you threaten me again, you won’t just be blacklisted from playing here, you won’t play anywhere in Cali… ever.”

I nod once and carefully close the door behind me before making a run for the backdoor. I’m not sure why, but I feel the need to get the fuck out of here as soon as possible. It’s not until I’m in the Humvee, cold air blasting from the vents, that I realize that there’s a fucking grin on my face.

I hurry to text Spencer but it’s a study in motor control and takes a few seconds to get to the bottom of the message and tell her to meet me at the hummer.

The Dealing Process 7


Kate and Spencer flop Jon onto the bed in my guest room. She’s out cold, but we cleaned up her face and Spencer doesn’t think that I broke anything, just caused one hell of a nose bleed. The areas just under her eyes near her nose are purple and puffy, and there is a small cut on the bridge of her nose. She’s going to be pissed when she wakes up – if she wakes up. She’s snoring like a wood chipper. I could literally jump a car battery to her nipples and she wouldn’t even flinch.

“Help me get this off of her,” Spencer says to Kate.

They start to take her shirt off of her, but it’s a struggle. Not only is she dead weight, but they’re trying not to transfer any of the vomit on her clothes to theirs. I feel useless, but I’m okay with having an excuse not to help in this specific scenario.

“Ash, we need something to clean her up with.”

“Yeah, maybe some baby wipes,” Kate jokes.

“That’s a big a baby,” Spencer remarks.

I just chuckle and go rummaging in my bathroom, producing a clean wash cloth and some Lysol wipes. I hold them out to Spencer and she looks at me like I’ve lost my mind. And, well, I probably have so I’m not offended.

“The rag, Ash. Get it wet.”

“I’ll take those,” Kate says taking the wipes.

I head back to the bathroom and wet the rag, and just when I turn off the tap, I hear some hideous noises – nauseating, crude belching noises.

“BRING A BUCKET,” Kate shouts.

I panic, looking everywhere for a bucket only to find that I don’t have one.

“I DON’T HAVE A BUCKET,” I shout.

“The trash can, Ash! For fuck’s sake, you two are hopeless…”

I grab the can and charge back into the room only to wish I hadn’t. My stomach churns at the permeating smell of the putrid foam leaking from Jon. It takes everything I have not to ralph. I seriously have to put a hand to my mouth.

Spencer just shakes her head at me and says, “We’re going to need some clean sheets and blankets.”

Kate takes to cursing Jon’s name under her breath but Spencer gets right to work when I hand over the rag. I set the bucket down and again go to retrieve yet something else that’s needed. I come back with the worst set of sheets I have, though they’re still 1000 count Egyptian cotton, and an equally expensive comforter.

Again I can’t help, so I just watch, and again I’m thankful to be able to stand in the hallway while they do all the heavy lifting. That is until Spencer brings me the offensive bedding and plops it in my arms like it’s not covered in vile shit.

I hold them as far away from my body as I can but Spencer doesn’t seem to care. She just goes back to helping Kate while I stand here regretting that shot of whatever Cyn gave me.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with these?”

“Don’t you have a washing machine,” Spencer asks.

“Burn them,” Kate says. “That smell isn’t coming out.”

I hold my breath and make a hasty retreat to the kitchen, fumbling with my bad hand to get them stuffed into a garbage bag. Somehow I manage to get it closed, cinched, and in the outside can, but that smell is forever engrained on my psyche. I wash up in the kitchen sink, just in case something did manage to get on me, and head back to the guest room.

Jon’s naked as the day she was born, except for a pair of socks, her head hanging over the edge of the bed where the trash can has been placed just so to catch what’s coming out.

“Why’d you take all of her underwear off?”

“We didn’t,” Kate says. “Jon goes commando.”

“Do you have a loose tee-shirt, Ash,” Spencer asks.

I sigh and head back out on another quest for something that Jon can make a mess in. I wind up with one of Kyla’s sleep shirts, a smile on my face as I hand this particular item over. Spencer cleans Jon’s mouth and together, she and Kate manage to wrangle Jon into the shirt. It’s just in time too, because Jon’s yacking again almost immediately once they get her arms through the holes. Somehow, Spencer manages to get her over the trash can without making a mess and I watch as she runs small, comforting circles over Jon’s back.

And for a moment I’m struck by just how well Spencer takes care of people. This is the girl that used to take care of me when I was sick, and she always just innately knew how to make me feel better. I find myself again asking the question: if I had stayed, is this what her life would have been like? Would she have collected the hair falling out on my pillow, tried to feed me when I just couldn’t stomach the very idea of food, and stroked circles on my back while I vomited up absolutely nothing?

I know, without a doubt, that Spencer would have been with me through it all, all sunshine and warmth and optimism and hope. That’s just who she is. But I still wouldn’t want her to live like that. She deserves so much more. Part of me suddenly feels that maybe my running away did account for something. She missed the worst of it, that is to say that it doesn’t happen again.

Is this what’s in her future because I am, even as a friend?

It’s the age old question that no matter how I slice it, I always come back to the same answer. I still can’t reconcile the unknown with the probable. For some unfathomable reason, Spencer would rather have this kind of mess made of her life than a fulfilling one without me in it, no matter how much I don’t want to do that to her.

Why?

Would I want to be with someone that I have to take care of to that extreme? I’m standing here in the doorway to avoid the smell because the answer is no. It’s not because I don’t care, but because it’s uncomfortable and gross. No one likes uncomfortable and gross.

But what if it were Spencer?

What would I do if Spencer fell terminally ill? What if her hair fell out, she vomited constantly, couldn’t feed herself, and couldn’t clean herself? What if the illness ravaged her body and she lost so much weight that her skin just sagged on her bones? Would I abandon her?

And right now, I decide that I’m pissed at Kate. I wouldn’t be standing here thinking and asking these things if she hadn’t planted hope in my head. And so now I’m left to deal with that hope and all of these things that interfere with it. There’s nowhere to hide this kind of stuff in the attic anymore.

Spencer looks over at me and tilts her head towards Jon, telling me to come over there and take care of my friend. I sigh, thankful for the distraction. I can focus on Jon instead. I crawl up on the bed next to her as Spencer helps her settle back on the pillows. She’s out of it, half-asleep but awake enough to moan. So I just take her hand in my good one, and lean against the headboard next to her, prepared to wait out the night with her.


Something blunt bangs into my legs and I pull them up as I roll over. The piercing light of day streaking in through the window captures my awareness and illuminates my field of vision in a vibrant red. I try to roll back the other way to block it out and go back to sleep, but something solid and warm now occupies that space. Whatever it is really doesn’t matter because my bladder has decided that it’s awake.

I yawn and stretch, and just as my arms go up, I feel something heavy slide over my ribs and settle just under my breasts, pulling me tight against the warmth behind me. I glance down and recognize it immediately. It’s Spencer’s arm. My head can’t go very far in this position because I’m not Linda Blair, but I twist as far as I can. All I can see is the abstract shapes of her hair splayed out over a shoulder that’s gently rising and falling with each soft snore.

Deciding that my bladder can wait, I snuggle back into her and lay my arm over hers, taking the top of her hand in mine and enjoying the feel of her skin. My own hand is sore and bruised, but the swelling has gone down and the irritation is manageable as I stroke along the strong, feminine length of her fingers.

I’m not trying to be creepy or take advantage of her in any way. It’s not about sex or even attraction, at least not right now. I feel… glad, just glad to have this ungarded moment with her so that my mind can process everything that Kate has planted inside of me with just a few select words. I’m glad that I can do this in the quiet without the burden of loneliness. But if I’m honest, it wasn’t just Kate. It’s my own fault for entertaining the ideas that she put there. My mind was a fertile ground for her to so purposefully plant hope. This is something that I’m not used to, but I am actually trying to find a way to water it as opposed to stomp it out.

But is that really in my control?

This hope is tied up in a future where the biological laws of life and death can stomp it out, no matter how much I water it or will it to grow. And I’ve reconciled that fact. That’s probably the only thing in my life that I have truly reconciled. And while I can now see the present for its possibilities, I’m still unable to accept just how selfish I am to allow the present.

I would never abandon Spencer if she were sick. She’d still be Spencer, and no amount of uncomfortable or gross could make me stop loving her. I’d give up anything to make her happy or even to just make her less sad.

I’d move out of the state so she could keep to herself and I’d be out of her way. I’d take my pictures down, and every picture she painted, I’d paint myself out. I’d die by her hand. I’d do all of that for her and more, but I somehow failed to understand that none of these things are what she wants from me, what she needs.

I’d failed to even just listen to her, to see her heart, to see her as she really is. What she wants is for me to start talking again. She wants me to grow old and start acting my age. She wants to forgive and hope that as time goes, she could forget that there may not be a future. She wants the now, and she wants it for all that it’s worth, even if that’s not much. I know this somewhere deep, somewhere primal, and I now accept it. Spencer is a safe bet, but I’m still betting that I’m not, so how can I give her what she wants and still claim to love her?

I gently push my fingers between hers, and she responds innately, immediately, locking us together as if the universe is trying to find physical ways to tell me that I’m right without a mouth to actually speak the words.

It’s all entirely out of my control. But what I can do is listen to Spencer. I can start talking again. I can grow old enough to start acting my age. I can let her forgive and I can help her forget. These are entirely within my control, and I find myself wanting to give her those things as that hope sprouts up and, like a double-edge sword, rewards me with its devastating warmth.

I’m just that selfish.

“It’s okay, Ash,” she whispers, startling me.

I try to release her hand but she doesn’t let me. In fact, I feel her other arm snake under my neck and the two come together in front of me. I’m completely engulfed in her, and it’s here in this perfect bubble of safety and unconditional love, that I realize that I’m crying. The quiet sobs overtake me, and I don’t know why. It’s frustrating but it’s happening, so I grip her arms and decide not to fight it. Instead I cling to her and sacrifice those barriers meant to save her on the alter of my own salvation.

She shifts slightly and I feel myself being turned. And I don’t want her to see me. I don’t want her to know how ugly I am as this dark, hopeful beauty overtakes my heart, but instead I press my face into her neck and ruin her shirt. Somehow, by the way she breathes me in, by the way that she cradles me, I know that she loves me all the more for it.

“I’m sorry,” I say softly when I’m able to.

“Please don’t be,” she says just as softly. “It’s okay to cry.”

And I know that. I know that better than anyone because I can’t deny the results. Aside from my selfishness, I can’t find any grief inside of me powerful enough to own me anymore, and it’s all because I’m now able to let it out. It’s still scary, because it’s still not familiar.

I’m not sure how long we lie this way, but I’m calm now, my face almost dry, and my bladder is going to explode if I don’t finally let biology have its way.

“I have to pee,” I say.

She laughs and I love the way it feels and sounds.

“Shhhh,” something at the foot of the bed blusters out.

We both lift our heads to see Kate awkwardly angled on the foot of the bed, her feet dangling off the edge. I shift to reluctantly pull away from Spencer and get to my feet.

I make my way to the bathroom across the hall and plop down onto the toilet, feeling exhausted despite the fact that I slept so soundly. I wash my hands and brush my teeth before heading back into the room. Kate gets up and heads to the bathroom and Spencer is nowhere to be seen. I’m almost thankful for that, but only almost.

That leaves Jon, lying on her stomach with a pillow over her head. I can tell that she’s awake though, so in the spirit of listening to Spencer, I try to think about what I’d want if I were in her situation. Immediately, I have to dismiss the quick answer of a bullet to the head, and opt instead to find her some water, Tylenol, and a banana. The water and banana are easy enough to find, but the Tylenol takes a few minutes of rummaging through the house. I find it next to Kyla’s still made bed and roll my eyes. I really need to talk to her about Aiden and the pot she left in my car.

I take my items back to Jon and set them on the end table before taking a seat on the bed next to her. She groans at the movement and shouts at me when I take her pillow. But the shouting only hurts her and I wait patiently for her to quit cursing.

“Here,” I say, handing her two Tylenol and a bottle of water.

She eyes both items suspiciously before accepting them and drinking almost all of the water.

“Easy, Jon,” I say.

She sets the water down and settles back into the bed, closing her eyes tightly. I head over to the window and shut the curtains. They’re blackout so they plunge the room into darkness, the light from the open door giving enough to efficiently navigate.

“Thank you,” she says.

“You’re welcome.”

I sit down on the bed and pick up the banana, pealing and handing it to her.

“Ugh,” she says. “No thanks.”

“Trust me, Jon. Dehydration and low potassium are why you have a hangover. This will help. Besides, you just took two pills on an empty stomach.”

She sits up gingerly, as if even the soft, plush fabric of the blankets hurts like a branding iron against her skin, and takes the banana. I laugh when she makes a face at it before taking a tiny bite. She chews slowly and for a minute I’m worried she’s going to puke, but she doesn’t. I can tell that it’s taking everything she has to swallow. Her face is hideous and I feel a stab of guilt.

“I’m sorry I hit you,” I say.

She takes another small bite, anger flashing across her face and then softening when she swallows.

“I deserved it.”

I nod once.

“You took care of me.”

It’s not a question or an explanation, but somewhere in between.

“Kate and Spencer did most of the work,” I say, lifting my hand.

She groans and jolts forward, her head finding the area just above the trash can so the she can heave. I want to leave, but instead I take a page from Spencer’s book and start stroking circles on her back until it’s over. It feels awkward – this contact, but thankfully, nothing really comes out.

She hands me the banana, having eaten all that she can, and I fold it back together before setting it on the nightstand. She settles back and curls in on herself.

“Am I out of the band,” she asks in a small voice.

“No.”

She looks at me, a mixture of surprise and pleading washing to her eyes.

“Really?”

“Yeah, Jon, really.”

“But the Troubadour and Brand New…,” she says, letting the sentence go unfinished.

“I took care of it.”

“How?”

“Well,” I start. “I have to stop at the bank today and get a cashier’s check for five-hundred thousand dollars-“

She snorts and I stop talking.

“It’s always money,” she says.

I eye her quizzically. “What does that mean?”

“It means it must be nice to be able to buy your way out of every mess.”

I can feel the heat rise to my face. “First of all, I never asked for that money-“

She interrupts again. “No, but you didn’t turn it down either.”

“Nope. I needed it. How else was I going to pay all of those medical bills, or buy my mom off for a life-saving marrow donation…?”

That shuts her up.

“Regardless of that,” I continue. “This time, I’m buying us out of your mess.”

“Well, sure,” she says. “Wouldn’t want anything to ruin your music career.”

“Wow, Jon… When did you get to be this bitter? What have I done to you to make you so angry at me?”

I watch her jaw work at grinding her teeth, but she doesn’t say anything.

“Go ahead,” I say, frustrated. “Don’t hold it in for my benefit.”

“You have… everything. You get the money, the music… even the girl…”

This surprises me. I had no idea that she was jealous and I’ve known her for years. She never used to act like this before.

“After everything you’ve done,” she continues, picking up steam. “After you treat everyone and everything like worthless fucking shit, you get everything you want.” She laughs humorlessly. “It’s fucking bullshit. And to be honest, it pisses me off.”

“Ah,” I say, enlightened. “So let me get this straight: I got the money that I had to almost die for. I got the music, but you don’t get that too or anything. And I got the girl, even though I don’t actually have the girl and if I did have the girl, I could, you know, die and devastate the girl. But hey! No big deal! The universe just loves the fuck out of me and hates poor, little ole’ Jon.”

“See what I mean? I don’t get to treat people like shit and walk away scot free.”

“And you think I do? Do you have any idea how hard it is to even be friends with Spencer, how much guilt and regret I carry with me? Do you have any idea how much I’ve had to apologize and try to make it right when I’m not even sure it’s the right thing to do?”

“Spencer’s right fucking there! Where’s Jac, Ashley?! Huh? Where is she?!”

And now it makes more sense. She’s not just mad at me for having a better lot in life, though I never in my wildest dreams thought anyone could be dense enough to feel that way. It all comes down to Spencer versus Jac. Spencer stuck it out. But Jac…

I close my eyes and release a breath through my nose to calm myself.

“Jon-“

“Just leave me alone.”

She pulls the pillow over her head and I yank it from her hands. She gives me a look that would kill if such a thing were possible.

“Do you want Jac?”

She doesn’t say anything, just grabs the pillow next to her, but I wrestle it from her too.

“You’re a cunt, you know that?”

“Yes, I’m a cunt, so quit acting like me.”

For some reason, this makes her laugh, and I can’t help but follow suit.

“Just leave me alone,” she pleads pathetically. “Please…”

“No,” I say resolutely. “Now answer the question: do you want to be with Jac?”

I see tears start to run down the sides of her face as she stares at the ceiling. This is the first time that I’ve ever seen her cry.

“Yes,” she says.

“Then why are you pushing her away?”

“Because…”

Nothing more is forthcoming so I repeat her. “Because…?”

She blows out a breath and I become acutely aware of just how much she needs to rinse out her mouth.

“If I get with Jac, I’ll just fuck it up, and when I do that, I’ll hurt her more than if I just don’t go there to begin with.”

I snort. “Jesus, you really are like me.”

“Just… fuck you,” she says in defeat.

“Jon, just try to listen to me, okay? Leaving people to spare them doesn’t work. Trust me.”

“Do I really need to point out all the ways that it’s worked for you just fine again?”

“Jon, it didn’t work just fine. You may not know it, but when I went backpacking, I had planned to kill myself if I couldn’t live with myself.”

At this she gives me her full attention. “What?”

I nod. “If I couldn’t get my shit together, I wasn’t coming back. I even gave my lawyer instructions on what to do with my stuff once I was gone. You got the studio, by the way.”

She sits up and clears her eyes. “Are you a fucking moron?”

“Yes,” I say, a little too quickly.

“Jesus, Ashley…”

I nod again. “Yup. I was miserable, Jon. Why do you think I was such a shitty friend, shitty person? You can’t remove all of the things in your life that make you happy and still expect to be happy. It’s fucking pointless. At least you haven’t completely fucked it up like I did with Spencer, and you can give Jac a good, long life. I don’t know if that’s in the cards for me.”

She’s pensive for a moment, but I can tell that she’s struggling. “So, what made you change your mind?”

“I honestly have no idea. I guess I just decided to try and somewhere along the way, it got easier to actually want to…”

“I’ll hurt her, Ash.”

I shrug. “You already are. Is one hurt really better than the other when the heart’s involved? Besides, you don’t have to hurt her.”

She snorts. “I know me.”

“Then… be a different you.”

“Oh, sure…” She snaps her fingers. “Poof…”

“Why not? I did. I mean, I am. I’m still figuring it out. You don’t have to figure it out alone like I do, and you don’t have to live with that kind of regret.”

“Will you help me… not fuck it up?”

I think about that for a second. “Jon, I’ll help you any way I can, but I don’t think I can take on that kind of… responsibility. I’m just now starting to figure me out. Besides, even if I could, at the end of the day, your desire not to hurt Jac has to be bigger than your desire to diddle whatever floozy crosses your path. I sort of only figured that out for myself this morning.”

“This morning…”

“Yes.”

“You randomly had a revelatory epiphany when you woke up?”

I tilt my head. “Yeah, I guess…”

She scrubs at her eyes. “The world is a dumpster fire. Nothing makes any fucking sense.”

I can’t help but chuckle. “Trust.”

“Where do I even start,” she asks.

I swat her on the leg. “Well, a toothbrush and a shower would do wonders.”

“Ash, I mean with Jac.”

“I know, and you aren’t going to like it.”

“Groveling?”

“Oh, yeah. Lay it on thick. Apologize profusely; get her flowers, and then do the worst thing imaginable…”

“There’s worse than that?”

I nod sagely. “Yep. Talk to her; pour your heart out. Be honest and open and vulnerable, all of the things that you never wanted to be.”

She’s quiet again, mulling it over, and I know that this is the part of intimacy that’s going to be the struggle for her, not the floozies. She has to pull her insides out and hand them to someone who could reject them once they see the ugly parts, or worse: grind them up in a blender and laugh while they do it.

“What if I can’t?”

“Then you don’t want Jac like you say you do. Her happiness has to be more important than your safety.”

“What about you and Spencer?”

“What about us?”

“You know you’re still in love with her, right?”

I pick at some imaginary lint on the comforter, not feeling very comforted. False advertising’s a bitch.

“Yeah, I know,” I admit. “I don’t think’ll ever go away.”

“Do you want it to?”

“No.”

“So are you going to take your own advice?”

I blow out a breath. “Honestly, I don’t know. I mean, I know I’m going to keep trying to get better, but I really can’t focus on anything else. Expectations would just make it worse.”

“Ash, can I be honest with you?”

Ugh, this is already surreal and awkward in the extreme, but, “I guess…”

“This new you, I like her and all, but it’s fucking weird.”

“On this, we agree.”

“Can we not do the heart to hearts anymore.”

I smile at her. “Deal.”

“Okay, now can I sleep some more before I have to go grovel?”

“Yeah.”

I get up and go to the door, stopping as I hear Jon say, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I tease, mocking her serious voice.

A pillow flies at me but I’m able to close the door in time, and smile when I hear the dull thud from the other side.

“BREAKFAST,” Spencer screeches from somewhere towards the kitchen, and I wear my smile all the way to the origin of the wonderful smells filling up my home.


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Continued in Chapter 11 – Religion, Politics, and a Fetus Walk Into a Starbucks…