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

“Would you two just calm the fuck down already?”

I pull hard on both leashes to regain control of my dexterity, but Flot and Jet don’t seem to care. It only serves to make them both let out hoarse choking sounds as they continue to drag me behind them. So I decide to just go with it and start jogging. This was a stupid idea because I’m quickly sprinting and it’s still not fast enough. Normally, they are perfect gentlemen on the leash, but Spencer has just pulled up, and they can’t contain their enthusiasm.

A beaming grin splits her face when she finally gets out of the Toyota and sees us barreling towards her.

“My babies,” she exclaims, making all kinds of ridiculously cute noises at them, getting down to their level so that she can be mauled.

The dogs whine out their appreciation too. It’s getting harder and harder on everyone to keep this odd little family apart. They finally start to calm down and Spencer turns her attention to me as she stands upright again. I decide to act like the dogs, coming up and playfully lolling my tongue, wagging my ass, and just generally acting obnoxious.

She laughs, and well, that was the point.

“Hey to you too,” she says once I’ve dropped the nonsense.

“What, no petting, cooing, and kisses for the humanimal?”

She ruffles my hair and gives me a kiss on the cheek. I make like I’m going to lick her face and she fights me off with a disgusted squeal.

“It’s no wonder they love you so much. You’re one of them.”

“That’s right,” I say in my cockiest voice. “I’m an animal, baby.”

She lets out a, “Pfft,” sound and I hand over Flot’s leash.

She can walk her baby and I’ll walk mine, as is per usual.

We set off down the Runyon Canyon trailhead and immediately settle into a familiar rhythm.

“How’s your hand,” she asks.

“It’s good. I can play guitar again.”

“Oh, well, that’s all that matters then.”

I nod, because she’s right. I look down at it. Outside of some small splotches of almost completely faded bruises that I can’t really feel anymore, two weeks has been kind.

“How’s Erin?”

I reach up and scrub at the back of my neck, and she chuckles.

“Are you still avoiding her?”

“No,” I say. “She’s fine… I think.”

Spencer gives me a look and I sigh. “We’ve met up a couple of times, but everything feels different now.” I shrug. “I think she’s mad at me, though she says she’s not. It’s exhausting.”

“Oh, I’m sorry…”

“It’s not your fault, Spence. I’m just giving us both some space. Right now, I don’t expect to see her again until San Francisco Pride.”

“Oh, so you’re going?”

“Yeah.”

Her brows touch in the middle. “Kyla said you weren’t.”

“It’s on the list,” I say. She looks over at me and her face drips with guilt. “Spence, it’s okay that you guys aren’t going.”

“Ash, we are going… and I don’t understand why Kyla said we weren’t…”

So Kyla didn’t want to go with me. That stings. “Oh…”

“Ash, I’m sorry. I didn’t know…”

“It’s no big deal,” I try to lie.

“Well, I’ll go with you and she can go with Ai-”

Spencer starts to sound like she just ran over a puppy, and I sort of feel that way too as I realize why Kyla lied.

“No, you keep your plans with them, Spence. I’m going either way.”

“Well, are you driving?”

“No, it’ll be quicker to fly.”

“Is Erin going with you?”

“No, I’m flying alone, but she’ll meet me there.”

It’s quiet for a moment. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?”

“The flight is seriously only an hour, Spence. It’s no big deal.”

“Well, I’d still rather go with you. Those two are sort of…” she wrinkles her nose like she’s just smelled something bad. “Disgusting.”

I look over at her and can’t help but smile. I’d rather she come with me too.

“Well, it’s up to you, just let me know.”

“Okay,” she nods. “I’ll talk to Kyla.”

I nod as well.

“Why isn’t Erin flying with you?”

“She has a family tradition to uphold, and apparently the trip up there is part of it.”

“Why don’t you ride with her, or is that against the tradition rules?”

“No, she offered, but I don’t really relish the idea of being trapped in a car with her for five hours.”

“Ash, have you apologized for what happened and asked her what’s wrong?”

“Yes, many times. That’s what makes it so exhausting.”

“What did she say?”

“She says I’m an asshole. That I’m insensitive. That the word disabled is insensitive.”

Spencer frowns over at me. “What’s wrong with the word disabled?”

I let out a long breath of frustration. “She says that it implies negativity, like it says that there’s something wrong with that person. She says the correct phrase is intellectual or cognitive disabilities.”

“But it’s all the same thing…”

“I know,” I nearly shout, finally relieved that someone gets it. “But you should see her, Spence. She was really upset that I’d used the word retarded at all, let alone on Kyla. And that’s sparked her into looking for something negative in what feels like every word I use. Now she’s swung from being mad at me to trying to… I don’t know… educate me?”

“Well, you realize that Erin’s a political activist, right?”

I look over at her. “No… what are you talking about?”

She pauses in her stride to stare at me like I’m stupid, and I’m getting really sick of that lately.

“Ash, her car is covered in political bumper stickers. You’ve seen her car, right? I mean, you’ve been seeing her for months…”

She starts walking again and I fall in line beside her, puzzling over what she’s just said. “Of course I’ve seen her car, Spencer.” And I had seen the stickers; they just never stood out to me. Some of them are bands, but come to think of it, I distinctly remember one of them saying, ‘Punch a Nazi.’ But then who doesn’t want to punch a Nazi? “A lot of people cover their cars in bumper stickers. That doesn’t make them an activist. I mean, she’s not rioting in the streets…”

Spencer raises a shoulder. “That’s not the point. The point is that she feels the need to preach to people. She’s opinionated, and I doubt that she has a lot of tolerance for those who disagree with her.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, she has some stickers that promote love and tolerance, and then some that talk about shooting cops and killing oppressors. If that’s her philosophy, then yeah, she’s probably going to get really upset when you say something she disagrees with.” She laughs. “And we both know that you’re not the most agreeable person.”

“Thanks, Spence.”

“Anytime.”

“So what am I supposed to do? I hate worrying about what I’m going to say that might upset her and she won’t talk to me about it unless it’s just to correct me. Like I said, it’s exhausting.”

“Yeah, I know the feeling…” She smiles at me and I give her my best bored glare to let her know that her insinuation wasn’t lost on me. “But there’s really nothing else you can do.”

We’re quiet for a while as I mull this over in my head. Maybe Spencer’s right. Maybe Erin is just very politically charged. That’s not a deal breaker. We don’t have to vote for the same person to have fun together. Hell, I don’t vote at all. But I really don’t like not being able to speak without fear that something’s going to upset her somehow. It’s like now that she thinks that I’m an asshole, there’s no going back. I’m irredeemable.

“Maybe I need to talk to her about how I feel instead of expecting her to open up to me,” I say quietly.

I can feel Spencer looking at me so I glance over at her. She has a wistful expression on her face and she loops her arm through mine, saying, “I think that’s a really good idea, Ash.”

I find myself feeling better about the situation. “Thanks, Spence.”

“Anytime,” she repeats before swallowing hard and changing the subject. “So, I think it’s safe to assume that you haven’t talked to Kyla about Aiden yet.” I groan and she laughs. “Ash…, why are you putting it off?”

“I don’t know,” I lament. “I guess I’m still not sure how I feel about it yet, especially with her most recent lie.”

“Are you mad?”

I consider that for a minute, and decide that I’m not. “I’m more frustrated with her than anything.”

“Well, if you’re not mad I don’t think it matters at this point. I mean, you two are good, right?”

“Yeah, Kyla and I are fine. Same old nosy, pushy, bossy kid sister and sibling hijinks at the Davies homestead.”

“So it can’t be that bad. If you were mad at her, it would have come out by now.”

I think about that for a second and determine that she’s right. “Okay, but that’s all the more reason not to say anything. What if she gets pissed at me?”

“Ash,” she says in a sardonic tone. “When is she not pissed at you?”

I think about that for a second too. “Yeah, I can’t argue with that. I guess I’ll try to pin her down today, if she decides to come home, that is.”

“Let me know how it goes.”

“I will,” I say, and then deftly attempt to change the subject. “So anything new with you?”

She gets immediately animated. “Yeah, actually! I’ve been on a waiting list for a couple of months for an apartment that’s within my budget and not a complete dump. I’d totally forgotten about it but then I got a call this morning. They have a vacancy and it’s all mine!”

She does a little skipping, happy dance and I can’t help but laugh at her.

“Wow, Spence, that’s amazing.”

“I know,” she breathes out in an adorable way. “My first apartment!”

I frown a little bit at that. “You haven’t had an apartment before?”

“Well sure, but not alone. This will be just me. I’m so excited, and I get to decorate anyway I want!” I roll my eyes at her. “I’m going to need your help, of course. Lots of shopping.”

“Sounds like fun, Spence,” I say dryly.

She leans in close and jostles my arm. “Oh, come on. You like to spend money as much as anyone else.”

“You’re just full of wisdom today.”

That earns me a pinch and I get a bit serious. “Spence, not to burst your little rainbow bubble, but living alone can get lonely. You know that, right?”

She sighs. “Yeah, I mean, I know that it can, but I won’t know if I like it until I try it.”

“I think you’ll do fine,” I say. “But we definitely need to make a stop at Sports Time while we’re out shopping.” She gives me a stupid expression and I smile at how adorably she wears confusion. “Personally, my home defense weapon of choice is a baseball bat. But you… you seem like more of a taser kind of girl.”

“You want me to buy a taser?”

I nod. “Or a bat.”

“Ash, is that really necessary?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, pretending to think about it. “A beautiful, bubbly blonde, all alone, in a semi-dump, in the middle of L.A., in a society where six in ten women are sexually assaulted…”

She chuckles. “Okay, I see what you mean.”

“Besides, if you get a taser, you can carry it with you.”

“That doesn’t sound like an accident waiting to happen.”

“Nah, they have safety buttons just like anything else.”

“What about pepper spray instead?”

I chuckle. “Now that’s an accident waiting to happen: volatile chemicals getting jostled around in your camera bag in an extremely warm climate…”

“You mean my purse.”

“No, I mean your camera bag.”

“Why would I put a taser in my camera bag?”

“Because the camera bag is with you more than your purse. In fact, I think I’ve seen you with a purse a total of three times.”

“That’s not true…”

“Spence, what’s in your car right now, the camera or the purse?”

“Shut up.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Well, what about you? You have a guitar case more often than not, and a backpack today. Since when do you carry a backpack?”

I grin at her. “It’s a surprise for today.”

“Oh, I love surprises.”

“I know.”

“I never could understand why you don’t.”

“I just don’t.” I shrug.

“I know,” she repeats.

We get quiet but it’s a perfect kind of quiet, and that’s probably one of my most favorite things about Spencer. We don’t have to fill every moment with noise to be comfortable. We don’t have to do anything spectacular to be having fun. These walks are the highlight of my week, and from the happy smile on her face I think that she enjoys them as much as I do.

It’s getting warmer the deeper that we get into June but it’s not unbearably hot yet and there’s a nice breeze swirling through the Canyon to help keep us cool. We continue for another half-hour or so, time immaterial as I’m enjoying myself so much. But then the dogs start to pant and I spot a bench up at the nearest slight summit.

“You hungry,” I ask.

“Starved,” she says dramatically. “I skipped lunch today and was late getting out of work, so I didn’t get to stop and grab something before coming here.”

“You realize that you tell that same story every time we meet, right?”

She frowns cutely. “Well, no… but I guess you’re right. So that’s what’s in the backpack?”

I nod and point to the bench. “You game?”

“Definitely.”

I lead her over and we sit down on the bench, the dogs immediately plopping down at our feet. I pull out two water bottles and pass her one. She holds it out and looks at it curiously, causing me to laugh.

“It’s for the dogs,” I explain, pulling the top on mine and squeezing so that water bubbles up into the little funnel attached to the top. I then hold it down for Jet and he starts to lap at it greedily. “See.”

She repeats my actions on her own bottle and gives it to Flotsam, and we both let them drink their fill.

“You’ve been watching late-night QVC programming again, haven’t you?”

“I will neither confirm nor deny that,” I say, feeling a blush creep up my neck.

“You’re so bad, Ash.”

“Oh, come on, don’t tell me that this invention isn’t brilliant.”

“No, you actually got a good one this time, but the gangnam style toothbrush…?”

“That find was pure gold, Spence. Kyla thanks me for hers everyday…”

She laughs full and throaty. “You’re positively evil, you know that?”

We put the bottles down and I start to pull out the food: two deli sandwiches, two human bottles of water, and a couple of bones for the dogs.

“Hey, you should see the gift I got you for your birthday next month,” I tease.

“Oh God, please tell me it’s not… Shittens… or something equally as repulsive.”

“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”

She tilts her head at me. “Wait, you already got my birthday gift?”

“Yeah, months ago.”

“Since when are your gifts on time, let alone early?”

“Well, in my defense, I didn’t really have the option to wait with this one. It’s not something I could get just anywhere.”

“Ugh,” she laments and then pokes me in the ribs.

“Ow,” I yelp because it actually hurts.

“Ash, are you okay?”

I rub at my side curiously and then something pangs in my memory. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Spencer. This happened when we first started hanging out, but in time I didn’t even notice it. I feel a smile light my face. But Spencer, she’s actually batting my hand away and lifting my shirt to check the spot, worry creasing her normally smooth face.

“Ash, you have bruises…,” she says seriously. “What happened?”

“Spence,” I chuckle. “It’s okay.”

“What happened? Did you fall or something? Are you feeling okay?”

She drops my shirt and literally puts her hand to my forehead. I put my sandwich down and take both of her wrists in my hands to pull them away, but it’s a bit of a fight to get her to stop. Once I do, I study her face intently, trying to figure out why she’s freaking out. I mean, it’s just a few innocent bruises…

“Spence, nothing’s wrong,” I try to reassure her. “I feel better than I’ve felt in years. I’m not… I’m not sick… not right now.”

She closes her eyes in a desperate way and I watch as she takes deep breathes in what appears to be an attempt to slow her heart. I let go of one of her hands and scoot in a little closer to put my arm around her. She rests her head on my shoulder and I lay my cheek against her hair. And part of me wants to hate the universe and curse at the clear, blue sky just like always, but the better part of me, the part that I’ve been watering and growing into hope, tells me that it won’t do any good.

I give her some time before I speak. “Spence, look, I-“

“I know,” she says quietly. “I know. I just…” She lifts her head and looks at me. “I didn’t mean to overreact. It just took me by surprise. I felt… panicked. That hasn’t happened to me in a long time.”

“I know,” I say. “It’ll get better the more time goes on though. Until then, you just have to remind yourself that not every cough, sneeze, sniffle, bump, or headache means more than it is.”

She pulls back again, her eyes clear and close and utterly heartbreaking.

“Until it does,” she says.

I look away from her and focus on the rolling dips of the canyon vista in front of me, unable to really feel its mundane beauty even as I’m still aware of it. But I can’t look at her as everything yet again comes back to this and forces me to ask the question yet again.

“Can you live with it,” I ask. “Because, you know you don’t have to.”

I feel impossibly small, impossibly delicate and fragile. The gentlest of hands touches my check and pulls my face back to hers. There’s something incredibly willful in her demeanor. It’s in her posture, voice, and eyes, and it’s so very different from just seconds ago. It’s so different than what I saw when I first rediscovered her. She’s strong and commanding, the Spencer that I remember, like a flame that warms instead of consumes. It’s in everything about her, like she’s become an immense gravitational force that won’t be denied.

“Any life I had without you in it, wouldn’t be a life at all.”

Her words linger on the air and I feel paralyzed, like to look away from her would end my life, or even worse, hers. It takes some time, though I have no idea how long, for me to find my thoughts, to find my tongue, to get my heart to start beating again.

I know, without a doubt, that she means what she says. The intensity of her conviction has enough palpable force to break my ribs. But while I can’t deny the raw, naked honesty in her words, I can deny that she fully understands the immensity of the consequences.

I try to wear the strength that she’s wearing. I try to put just as much honesty and conviction into my words as she’s put into hers. I want… no, I need for her to truly understand just how terrible a life with me in it could become. I have to know that she’s fully aware of what she’s signing up for.

“Spencer, have you really thought that through? You have to be sure. Because that could happen anyway…”

None of her stalwart surety is lost as she says, “I know the consequences of the choice I’m making.”

“No, Spence, you don’t.”

“Ash-“

“Listen to me, okay? Listen carefully.”

I take a pause, not only to make sure that she’s listening but because I hate what I’m about to say to her. She has no idea what it’s like, what I’m like, when I’m sick. I don’t want to get graphic with her, but she has to understand.

“Spence, if I ever relapse, that means I’ll be back on a really terrible regiment of chemo. It means that I will lose all of my hair. It means that I will be in a constant state of pain and vomiting. It means no sleep and weight loss to the point that you can see my skeleton. It means being weak and frail and unable to even get to my feet to wash myself or use the restroom. It means I’ll be a living husk, a shell of myself. And it could mean that I will die like that, hooked up to tubes, miserable, and probably angrier than I was the first time. I know that you could handle losing me. But I left before you saw any of that. You don’t know how terrible it really is.”

She’s quiet, a slight tremor to her hands as she considers what I’m saying, but it doesn’t seem like grief so much as anger. Her voice is too quiet, too calm, too gentle if it is.

“Okay, Ash. You’re right. I don’t know what that’s like. But I do know that there’s no consequence I wouldn’t pay to have you in my life. I love you, Ashley…”

Her words drift off as if there’s something more to say, or maybe because the words available don’t fully convey the honesty of it. She already knows what it’s like to live without me. She’s already paid that price. I’m still not sure she can fully understand until it happens, and I hope beyond all reason that it never does.

“I love you too, Spencer.”

“I know you do,” she says simply.

And with that, she leans in and angles my face down, leaving a soft kiss on the crown of my head. Nothing more is said for several long minutes. And despite just how deeply painful this entire conversation was, it doesn’t feel as terrible as it should. In fact, I’m able to take a deep breath and not be left wanting. The sword is still hanging above my head, but somehow its edges are duller and less threatening. It hasn’t lost its power over my life, but it’s lost its power over the quality of my life.

“Spence,” I say softly.

“Yeah.”

“Don’t you dare stop poking me in the ribs over this.”

She chuckles nervously. “I didn’t realize that I was that rough with you.”

I shrug. “You’re just you, Spence. I can take it.”

“I’m sorry I hurt you though.”

“I’m not.”

“Ash, your ribs are covered in them, like little, purple polka dots.”

“I tell you what, when I decide that I can’t handle being jabbed in the ribs, I’ll stop teasing you.”

“Ash, you can’t help being a total smartass.”

“Sure I can.”

“You’re just you,” she repeats me. “Besides, I can handle it.”

I smile at her because I know what she’s telling me, and it has nothing to do with my smartass mouth. She’s telling me that she can handle having me in her life. And while I’m not really sure yet if that’s true, I know that she’ll find a way to make it true. If Spencer wants something, she’ll work as hard as possible to get it.

“Everyone can change, Spence.”

She smiles, and it actually reaches her eyes. “Yeah, they really can.”

“So it’s a deal,” I ask.

“Deal,” she says, taking a huge bite of her sandwich.

I take a bite from mine too, knowing with complete certainty that I’ll still tease her and she’ll still poke me. This part of our relationship will never change, even as everything else is completely unsure. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


I unlock the door and let the dogs into the house before me. They’re keyed up from seeing their mom and head straight for the kitchen where I hear Kyla shout at them.

“Stop it, you fucking maniacs!”

I can’t help the grin that stretches my face as I lock the door behind me and head to the kitchen. Kyla is holding Sheezus up on her shoulder. The rodent has burrowed into her hair, her beady eyes trained on the dogs in panic as Kyla tries to soothe her with a calming voice. It’s an impossible task as the dogs are whimpering, their nubby tails going ninety a minute as they gaze up at their favorite squeaky toy.

Kyla looks over at me. “Make them go away,” she pleads.

I pretend to think about her request and that just pisses her off more, but that was the point. I revel in her discomfort as long as I can, but I can tell that I’m getting close to going too far, so I order Flot and Jet to go lay down. They hesitate, looking back at Sheezus once more before reluctantly complying. Kyla relaxes immediately.

“I wish they listened to me like that, the bastards.”

I take a seat on one of the stools around the island and chuckle out, “Strong words for an animal lover.”

“They’re mean to Sheezus,” she says hotly.

“They’re dogs,” I say. “And that’s a rodent. What did you expect?”

“There are plenty of dogs who are kind to smaller animals. Those two are just assholes.”

I laugh harder and she gives me a glare before haughtily holding a piece of cheese up to Sheezus.

“You know that ferrets are only supposed to eat meat, right,” I can’t help but poke at her.

“Sheezus is a vegetarian like me.”

“You know that ferret food has meat in it, right?”

“Ash, it’s dry.”

I laugh again. “Whatever you say, Kyla. But you’ll kill her if you don’t let her eat meat.”

“Squishy Cat had a longer life than most ferrets, and he didn’t eat meat.”

“Okay, well, when you get a sec’, have a look at the ingredients on the ferret food bag.”

“Did you come in here to gross me out and terrorize my baby, or was there some other purpose?”

“No, I wanted to talk to you now that you’re actually here.”

“Oh…?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay… about what?”

“Well, I guess I just wanted to tell you that I know that Aiden’s in town, that he’s your boyfriend, and that’s where you’ve been most nights.”

Her mouth falls open just a little bit, but she’s forced to close it quickly when Sheezus perceives this as an invitation.

“Have you been following me,” she accuses, blowing the ferret hair from her mouth and making a disgusted face.

“What, no,” I say offended, and then move to blasé. “I hired a five-man private investigative team to do that for me. And I must say, Kyla, you hid it really well. They had a hard time spotting you… on the street… kissing him… in broad daylight.”

She deflates a little bit and takes a seat in one of the other stools adjacent to me.

“Are you mad,” she asks.

“No, I don’t think so. I’ve known for a while now. It does bother me that you don’t let me have a private life but then shut me out of yours. Of course, I might not be bothered by that if it weren’t Aiden, because I’m willing to respect your private life regardless of how little you respect mine. But he’s not just any guy and you know it.”

“I wanted to tell you, Ash, but Aiden-”

“I know,” I interrupt.

“You know?”

“Yes, I asked Spencer about it first. She told me that he doesn’t want anything to do with me.”

“Well, she’s wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s pissed at you, Ash. So, yeah, he says he wants nothing to do with you, but I know that he does. That’s why he’s so pissed.”

“Well, it’s seems really pointless to me that you’d date someone who couldn’t be around me, Kyla. Unless you plan to cut me out of your life for him…”

“What?! Of course not!”

“Then how do you expect this to work? I mean, you’re serious, right, with him? You certainly looked serious.”

“Yes, we’re serious. I’m… in love with him.”

That takes me a little off guard. Hell, it even takes Kyla off guard. We just stare at each other before a smile breaks out on her face, nearly splitting it in half.

“So what’s the plan,” I ask, looking down at the countertop for something to fidget with and coming up short.

“The plan was to buy enough time to talk him into getting over it. I was hoping I could convince him to come out, so to speak…”

“And what if you can’t?”

“Then… well… force a confrontation…?”

I roll my eyes. “Of course you would.”

“Well, what else can I do, leave him?”

The pain that flashes across her face has me putting that idea in the garbage. So I focus on an actual solution.

“Has he loosened up even a little bit?”

“No,” she says in frustration.

“So what if he won’t,” I say, only I’m gentler about it this time.

“I shouldn’t have to give up either of you.”

“No, you shouldn’t. If he’s willing to work it out, I am.”

“You are,” she asks, her face melting into puzzlement.

I shrug. “Yeah, I mean, he was one of my best friends. I didn’t realize until I saw you with him how much I’ve missed him. I’d have already talked to him if Spencer hadn’t told me that he didn’t want to talk to me.”

“Well talk to him anyway! If Spencer and I can’t convince him, which we’ve tried, maybe you can.”

“You really think that would help? It might make it worse, Kyla. You could lose him if it doesn’t go well.”

Tears well up in her eyes. “I’m going to lose him no matter what if he doesn’t figure this out. I’m so tired of hiding and getting my head bit off every time I bring you up. I’d do anything for him, but I won’t shut you out of my life. You’re my sister, for fuck’s sake! Gah, he makes me crazy!”

It’s surreal to hear her talk about someone this way, especially such a ghost from my past. And the feeling is only compounded by the fact that he makes her crazy, if her demolishing the piece of cheese in her hands is any indication. Kyla is implacable, unless she loves you. Despite all of that, I feel happy for her, even if I’m inadvertently in the way of that happiness. She pulls some pickles over and starts to munch on one between bites of cheese. I can’t help but make a face.

“Kyla, if he’s good to you and you could be happy with him I wouldn’t want you to choose me.”

“Just… shut up. I’m not choosing, so both of you can kiss my ass.”

She crosses her arms over her chest in that obstinate way that reminds me that she’ll forever be a five-year-old, at least to me. But I don’t get what it is that she’s expecting me to say as she stares me down. I’m not going to try and change her mind. I actually feel like it would be wrong for her to cut me out of her life, not just because of my principles on family, but because she shares those principles just as strongly. She wouldn’t be happy if she caved in on her own core values.

I snatch a fresh piece of cheese from the carving block on the island and find that her eyes are tracking my every move. It lasts for a long minute and I finally blurt out, “What?”

“You,” she says. “You’re… freaking me out.”

“Oh, well, that narrows it down.”

“You walk in here with the intent of talking to me without being prodded; I don’t have to ask for any of the details because you just spill them; you say you’ll talk to Aiden and try to fix it without coercion; you gave me personal details, emotional ones, like the fact that you miss him; and to top it all off, you tell me that you want me to be happy, no matter what that means to our relationship.”

“Yes, well, I hope it was everything you thought it would be. You’ve certainly been trying to ‘house train’ me since you got here.”

“Yeah, I don’t know. This might be a sign of the end times.”

“Well, if the world’s going to end, why don’t we scour the Porsche for your hidden stash and get high together?”

By the stunned look on her face, I’d say I’m finally winning a conversation with her. This is a really good day.

“I… wh- I, uh… don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I snort. “Secrets and lies? Seriously, Kyla?”

She doesn’t say anything so I decide to go right to the crux of the issue.

“Are you smoking pot because of Aiden?”

She rolls her eyes. “No, I’m not smoking pot. It was Aiden’s. He does it, not me.”

That makes me feel better, if it’s true. She takes another huge bite of pickles and cheese.

“Yes, well, he got me arrested.”

“I know,” she groans, slumping her forehead to the countertop. The following, “I’m sorry,” muffled by the granite and lump of food in her mouth.

“Is that all he does?”

Her head snaps up and her voice takes on an irritated timbre. “Yes, I’m not stupid. If he had a substantial drug habit, I wouldn’t be with him.”

That makes me feel all the way better.

“Just keep it out of my car, okay, at least until it’s legal.”

She turns her head against the countertop so that she’s looking at me and nods once. I get up to leave and reach over and ruffle her hair. In a happy surprise, this just irritates her more.

“Hey, when are you going to talk to Aiden?”

I stop at the entrance to the hallway and shrug. “I don’t know. I know where he lives, but I don’t want to just show up on his doorstep.”

She gets up and grabs a spoon before raiding the freezer for ice cream.

“He’d just slam it in your face,” she says, punctuating the ‘slam’ with the freezer door.

I watch as she takes a huge bite of ice cream, followed by more pickle and cheese.

“Okay, so it would be better if he met me somewhere willingly,” I say, feeling more and more disgusted as I watch her.

“I can arrange that.”

“Then you pick when and where, and just let me know.”

She smiles, licking her spoon. “How about gay pride?”

It’s my turn to roll my eyes. “Why would you want to ruin gay pride, Kyla?”

“I don’t, but it’s perfect. He already plans to go with me and Spencer.”

“And he won’t suspect that you, a straight girl, are going to gay pride with your gay sister?”

“Nope,” she says, the master manipulator sparkle alighting in her eyes. “All he knows is that Spencer and I are going. In fact, I sort of already told him that you aren’t going.”

I feel my brows knit together. “Why did you do that?”

“Remember that whole ‘force a confrontation’ thing?”

It dawns on me that this is why she told Spencer I wasn’t going. It’s not because she didn’t want me there. It’s because she didn’t want either of us to know that the other was going to be there. Jesus, my sister is a fucking snake in the grass.

“Were you planning to tell me about this before the fact?”

I’ve seen the look on her face before. It’s the face that dogs wear when their humans come home and find the trash strewn everywhere.

“Of course,” she says.

“Uh huh,” I reply in monotone.

“Fine,” she yells, throwing her hands in the air and letting the spoon thud back into the container. “I wasn’t going to tell you because you wouldn’t have done it.”

“Clearly,” I say. “Since, you know, you had to work so hard to get me to agree.”

“Well, it’s not my fault that you’re all weird now.”

“Right, because you haven’t pushed and shoved and prodded me for almost a year now.”

“How was I supposed to know it worked,” she asks in exasperation.

“Well, the benefit of the doubt can go a long way, even if it doesn’t work.”

“Fine, I’m sorry. I should have asked.”

“Yes, you should have.”

“Okay…,” she whines and it grates on my nerves. I turn to go to my studio and I hear her call out, “So you’ll talk to him at Pride?”

“Yeah, yeah…,” I shout back. “You’re welcome, by the way!”

“Yeah, yeah…,” she mocks.


“Hey, Ash.”

I turn around and see Erin approaching with a group of people.

“Hey,” I say. “I was beginning to wonder if you were gonna make it.”

“We never miss it,” she says with a smile.

She seems better, more normal than any of our other encounters since the bungee jump, so I take that as a good sign and hold the flowers I brought out to her.

“These are for you.”

It’s corny and cheesy and some other food group that people scoff at, but I really want to start this encounter off right. I’m tired of the awkwardness.

“Oh, wow,” she says a little surprised, but she takes them and smells them nonetheless. “That’s very sweet. Thanks.”

I smile back at her and she turns to her group and points to each one in turn. “Ash, you’ve met Gavin, but this is my big brother, Column; my little brother, Connor; my little sister, Shannon; and this is my best friend, Janet.”

Gavin snickers and Erin chuckles.

“Correction: my other best friend, Janet. Everyone, this is Ashley and Spencer.”

I smile at them and say, “Hello.”

Spencer does the same, and at this moment, I’m really glad that she chose to come with me. This crew is a little intimidating. Column looks like a reject from the village people, his long hair going to his mid-bicep and crowned by a leather hat. The rest of him is only covered by a thin matching leather thong and assless chaps. He has to be the biggest man I’ve ever seen in person, more than six feet tall and buffed out like Schwarzenegger on steroids. He’s clearly the eldest, easily in his mid-thirties, bare-chested and covered in tattoos and piercings. He’d be fairly scary looking if his beard wasn’t painted in the colors of the rainbow, every portion of exposed skin shimmering with glitter, and he hadn’t said, “Haaaay,” in an extremely effeminate manner.

Connor is tall, but his frame is lanky and wiry beneath what appears to be an unknown queer super hero outfit. He takes one look at me and Spencer, and hides behind Column’s oversized arm.

Shannon looks like a carbon copy of Erin, and she clearly has her big sister’s attitude. She bats Erin’s hands away for ruffling her hair and says, “Hi” to me and Spencer in this way that feels more like a bored ‘whatever.’

They all have the same dark features as Erin, and it’s not hard to tell that they’re related. Janet though, is stunningly gorgeous, like an African supermodel with a tall, slender frame, unnaturally clear, dark skin, and exotic features. All of this is offset by her artfully shredded The Clash tee-shirt, holey jeans, and flip flops. She smiles genuinely at us and reaches for each of our hands in turn, taking them delicately and saying, “Nice to meet you,” in a really gorgeous lilt that I’ve never heard before.

“You too,” Spencer and I chorus.

Gavin looks just like he did the day I met him, like a trendy lumberjack with a man-bun.

“So, is it just you two today,” Erin asks hopefully.

“Well, for the parade, yes.” I say. “But then we’re meeting up with Kyla and her boyfriend at the Starbucks down Market to check out the after-party. After that, I’m not sure.”

“Ah,” she says uninterestedly. “Why aren’t they with you for the parade?”

“Well, the band isn’t here. Kate couldn’t get off of work, and Jac and Jon needed some… alone time.” I look to Spencer and we both snicker. “Besides, I figured you might like to have a little break from the group.”

This makes her smile, and inside I just want to sigh. I knew that answer would placate her, though it’s not the real reason they didn’t come at all. However, I can’t very well explain what’s going to happen with Aiden. Either way, she takes my hand and says, “That was really thoughtful, Ash,” before giving me a kiss.

This is definitely a vast improvement since the jump, but it still feels off and I can’t help but wonder if it’s me, not her. It’s about this time that all of the people milling about start to move in closer behind us and cheer raucously. We look down Market to see the beginning of the parade marching forward and focus our attention on it.

There’s a strange energy in the air. Everyone’s smiling and dancing, decked out in the colorful, crazy, and utterly mundane. There are people from all walks of life, all races and nationalities, and all orientations. There are families with small children and people on bikes and motorcycles, and it all feels normal, innocent. But something about it that feels skewed. It’s the same feeling I’ve been having with Erin. I can’t pinpoint it but it pangs in my guts all the same. All I can really tell is that this is not how I remember Pride, and definitely not what I thought it would be when I put it on my list.

At first, I think it’s just me. I mean, I’m the only common variable in both equations. But then, about halfway through the parade, I’m able to pinpoint the problem. And it just so happens to coincide with a Clinton button being hurled at me, and it’s not even remotely the first one. Political propaganda is everywhere. And more than a few congressmen have rolled by in their overpriced Chrysler convertibles.

When did Pride become a political lobby? When did a community become a legislative platform? When did lives become fodder? I don’t really expect any less from greedy politicians, but I can expect more of this community that I supposedly belong to, can’t I? The fact that everyone around me seems to buy into it actually starts to piss me off a little bit.

I’ve never been a politically inclined person. I think it’s all bullshit. I think the government is bullshit. I believe that people can govern themselves if they’ll quit looking for civil distractions, buying into lies, and focusing on personal bias and religion. So mostly, I have always just done my own thing and expected others to leave me alone as I leave them alone.

But everyone, even Erin, they’re all totally into it, buying what feels to me like a gut-wrenching lie and an absolute waste of time. The political buttons and stickers and flare are everywhere. Of course there are beads, candy, and other items that indicate a celebration of life and love, but they’re always interspersed with propaganda. There’s even a moment when a flash mob of marchers falls down, holding up pictures of the Orlando shooting victims and chanting, ‘Silence is Violence’ as others outline their bodies in chalk.

Erin, her family, and the entirety of the crowd take up the chant, even punching their fists into the air. And to me, it feels like I’m suddenly not at Pride, but at a queer supremacy rally. I look over a Spencer and sigh with relief to see that she’s not doing it. In fact, she looks just as uncomfortable with it as I am. When did Pride start to feel so… dirty?

I don’t want to be a part of this. I don’t want to push a political agenda, especially not on the corpses of innocent people.

In all honesty, I just want to leave, but as I look around me, I know that this is a pipe dream. The crowd around us is at least twenty thick, and it stretches for miles down Market Street. I watch Erin happily pin her fifth Clinton button to her shirt before smiling at me, and I feel myself return it, though it’s only by rote. With a sigh, I settle in to wait out the remainder of this parade.

When the procession finally comes to an end, it’s with relief that I nod to Erin’s question of, “Starbucks?”

She offers me her hand so we don’t lose each other and leads us through the crowd. Oddly enough, it’s for this same reason that I take Spencer’s hand and the awkwardness of this day almost doubles. I begin to believe that I should have just stayed home, inside, and away from people. It’s not Friday the 13th and then I wonder if there’s just a full moon or something. But I can’t find any reason to explain my discontent away.

We make a slow, crawling trek down Market, doing our best to stay on the outskirts of the thickest parts of the crowds. Erin’s clearly a pro at this, but there’s only so much she can do to avoid the obstacles that keep popping up. Distant music starts to vibrate from different locations, melding into a confusing background of competing rhythmic noise, and our progress is stop-and-go as random people group up around various vendor booths that line the street. Despite it all, as we draw close enough that the Starbucks logo is in sight, we can hear shouting, and it’s not the fun-loving joyful kind. It’s clearly a fight.

“NO FUCKING TERFs,” a deep voice shouts.

We pull up on the edges of a semi-angry crowd, several of them adding to the fray with a chorus of, “Trans women are women!”

Some of the crowd is holding signs that say things like “TERF is a Slur” and “Transmisogyny.” And others are wearing pastel flag shirts with the words, “Suck My Girlstick” on them. I look to Spencer, who’s clearly looking for a way around or through, but the on-lookers have gathered too thick and there’s no way out in sight.

“MEN AREN’T WOMEN,” a woman shouts her reply from somewhere deep in the crowd.

I feel a tug on my arm and look back over at Spencer. She nods her head towards a side street on the other side of Market, a clear indication that we should just go down a block and double back to Starbucks. I start to follow but my other hand is still locked with Erin’s and she pulls me to a stop. I look back at her but she doesn’t seem to realize I’m even here.

She drops my hand, throws her flowers on the ground, and starts to shout, “TRANSWOMEN ARE WOMEN,” in a shrill voice that sets my teeth on edge.

Of course, her family takes up the chant as well, except for her younger sister who just rolls her eyes and crosses her arms over her chest, as if she’s seen this enough times to be utterly bored to tears by it. Even Connor doesn’t seem that concerned as he stays attached to his younger sister’s side.

“TRANS MISOGYNY,” is the rebuttal chant, and this continues to go on for several minutes, voices increasing and more people taking up differing arguments and slurs and slinging them out into the already volatile atmosphere. But then something in the crowd shifts. Like race horses waiting for a gunshot, the crowd starts to collapse in on itself and the chanting turns into panicked cries. Erin, Column, and Janet are swallowed up in it and my pulse starts to race.

“ERIN,” I shout.

Shannon comes over to us and pulls us all back out of the way.

“Don’t worry,” she says loudly once we’re clear of the commotion. “She’ll be fine. This has been happening for a couple of years now.”

My stomach feels sick as I watch people try to mediate and control the more militant at the heart of the crowd, but it’s no use. Arms and various barbs are flying fast and furious.

“What is this,” I ask. “Why is this happening?”

Gavin looks at me as though I’ve grown a second head.

“TERFs,” he says with a pinched face. “Duh…”

“TERFs,” I repeat stupidly.

“Well, yeah. They keep showing up, like herpes. They just won’t go away.”

“What’s a TERF?”

Gavin pats me on the shoulder in a condescending manner. “It means trans exclusionary radical feminist,” he explains. “They hate trans people. Well, specifically transwomen.”

“Why,” I ask.

“Because they think transwomen are men.”

I feel my brows draw tight over my eyes. “Wait, they’re not?”

He eyes me curiously. “No…”

He doesn’t have to say it this time, but I can still hear the implied, ‘Duh…’ on the end of that sentence. And now I’m confused more than ever.

“Wait, so transwomen are women,” I ask.

“Well, yeah…”

I look to Spencer to see if she understands, but she seems just as perplexed by this as I am.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t get it,” I say. “I thought transwomen were men who wish to become women…”

Gavin squints his eyes at me and Shannon giggles.

“That’s what a transwoman is,” she says.

Gavin turns his attention on her. “Shannon, don’t be a cunt.”

“Ashley, a transwoman is a woman, regardless of her body,” he clarifies for me. “TERFs think women are just vaginas with no emotions or character.”

A dull ache starts to pang behind my eyes. “So a TERF is a feminist that claims that transwomen are men, and they hate them for it…”

“Yes,” he says, clearly pleased.

“No,” Shannon says. “A TERF is a feminist who recognizes that the only difference between men and women is biological sex. They believe that gender is a role, something that someone does or wears, and that there is no role or outfit that should be limited to a specific sex because that’s confining and oppressive.”

“Okay,” I say. “What’s wrong with that?”

The look that Gavin gives me would vaporize me if that were possible.

“What’s wrong is that is it dehumanizes and invalidates transwomen, who are women because a woman is more than just a vagina.”

I think about that for a moment. “Well, yeah, women also have a uterus, XX chromosomes, and significantly different hormone production. But men are humans too, so how does being called a man dehumanize someone?”

“Not all women have those things, Ashley, and what you’re saying right now is not only consistent with TERF hate-speech, it’s violence. What you’re saying gets transwomen killed.”

I feel my stomach flop. “How could biological differences get someone killed? It’s just science…”

Shannon interrupts again. “This is exactly the problem that TERFs have with trans people: they promote gender stereotypes, literally claiming that wearing a skirt and heels, getting implants, and growing their hair and nails is what makes a woman a woman. When TERFs explain this to trans people, they try to guilt TERFs with suicide and death threats.”

“Do you have any idea how many transwomen kill themselves because of their body dysphoria, Shannon?”

“Yes…,” she says. “More than forty percent.”

I’m taken aback by that. Suicides weren’t even that high during the Great Depression. The only thing in history that comes close is the Jews in Nazi Germany. But both of those are at least understandable circumstances.

“Why are they doing that over science…? I mean, that sounds… crazy.”

“They’re not crazy, Ashley, and that’s a super insensitive thing to say. I mean, Erin told me what happened when you went bungee jumping, but I thought she was just over-reacting. I’m not so sure now.”

“Ashley’s the kindest person you’ll meet,” Spencer says hotly.

“Gavin, I’m not trying to be mean. I really just don’t understand what you’re saying. Why would science make someone kill themselves?”

He sighs. “Because biology isn’t everything. Women aren’t vaginas and men aren’t penises. There’s more to it.”

“Okay, even if that’s true, why would someone kill themselves if I explained… oh, I don’t know, gravity to them. I mean, it’s just science…”

“This particular science excludes the lived experiences of trans people. Clearly trans people exist, so the science isn’t one-hundred percent true.”

I find myself gaping at him incredulously. “So you believe that the biological conclusions behind human reproduction are wrong?”

“Some of it, yes.”

Okay… “Which part?”

“The part that says that only women have vaginas and only men have penises. Some women have penises and some men have vaginas.”

I literally feel like my IQ is dropping, but I try to wrap my head around this and reconcile it with science. Science has determined that there are two sexes, but that there are also people who have a mutation or defect that causes them to exhibit some of the reproductive characteristics of both sexes. If I remember correctly, they’re called intersex, and if they’re not barren because of it, they generally have only one functioning reproductive role even if their external organs are ambiguous. So, the assessment that a man can have a vagina and vis versa is scientifically sound if that’s how he’s looking at it. But if that’s what he’s saying, I’m still very confused because that’s not what I thought trans people were.

“Okay, so trans people are intersex people who look like the opposing sex but have the reproductive organs of the sex they identify with?”

Shannon laughs. “No. Trans people are literally males who feel female and females who feel male. They aren’t intersex.”

“So a transwoman is a man and a transman is a woman, like I initially thought.”

“Yes,” Shannon says.

And we’re back to square one where nothing he says makes any fucking sense.

“No,” Gavin says. “Gender identity makes you what you are, not biology. And when you tell someone who identifies as a woman that they are a man, you’re completely invalidating their life and humanity. You’re harming them, deeply. It’s bullying, it’s wrong, and it gets trans people killed. Do you really want to do that to someone?”

“Of course not…”

He nods.

“But I’m not going to lie to someone just because they’re suicidal either.” He sighs and it sounds angry. “Gavin, you’re telling me that if I recognize biology as the distinguishing factor between the human sexes, and that upsets a transwoman to the point that he does something terrible, it’s my fault because I made him feel subhuman for calling him a man. That’s… insane.”

Shannon laughs but I don’t find it all that funny.

“You’re pushing someone to harm themselves by being extremely cruel to them.”

“What’s cruel about being a man?” He throws his hands up. “I’m sorry. I still don’t get it. I mean, gay and lesbian couples can’t have biological children together. That’s a scientific fact and a cruel reality, but you don’t see gay and lesbians couples killing themselves when a fertility doctor explains it to them. They just adopt, inseminate, or use a surrogate. And I would hope that if I thought that I could knock a girl up, someone would tell me the facts.”

He shakes his head. “It’s not the same!”

“She’s right, Gavin, and you know it,” Shannon smiles at him.

It’s about this time that Erin and her crew come jogging over to us, out of breathe and with huge smiles on their faces.

“Are you okay,” I ask, taking in her disheveled hair and the beginnings of a shiner on her left eye.

She laughs. “Oh, I’m great. One of the TERFs hit me so Column knocked her out.”

She turns and gives him a high-five, and I swallow the lump in my throat.

“Someone hit you,” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says smiling.

“Why,” I ask.

“Because I spit in her face.”

I glance over at Spencer and feel an extreme desire to take her hand and flee.

“Look, we need to go,” Column says. “The pony po-pos are almost here and I don’t want to spend the night in jail for hitting a woman.”

Gavin snorts. “TERFs aren’t women.”

Erin laughs with him and Column at their joke.

I glance over to the other side of the crowd to see policemen trying to push through on their horses. This time, I don’t let anything stop me as Spencer pulls me through to the side street so that we can go around. It doesn’t take long to get far enough away from the cacophony that I start to feel a little more at ease, at least until Shannon starts to speak.

“You missed it, Erin,” Shannon pipes up happily. “Ashley and Gavin have been talking about identity politics and she’s already at peak trans.”

Erin looks at me curiously and pulls us both to a stop, and Column asks, “You’re a TERF?”

I gulp and Gavin answers, “Yeah, she is, but it’s genuine ignorance, not blind hate.”

“Wow,” Spencer says to him. “You remind me of my brother.”

“Handsome guy, hey?”

She snorts. “I was mostly referring to the fact that he’s an asshole.”

I glance over at Spencer, slightly taken aback. She’s pissed, and that’s extremely unusual. She’s usually very… mature. She gives me a defiant look, like she wishes that she were sorry, but she’s really just not.

Gavin crosses his arms over his chest. “Oh look, Erin. Ashley has a dyke in shining armor.”

“Gavin, what’s your problem,” I ask, starting to feel offended.

“Your gross politics,” he replies.

Erin just frowns, her eyes scanning my face as she ignores everyone else. “You’re seriously a TERF?”

I feel a frown forming also. I can lie to her, just like I have been for weeks. I can tell her that I recognized that she hates my friends by calling it a need for a break; I can tell her that I’ll try to be less of an asshole when I didn’t even feel like one to begin with. I can tell her that science is wrong and she’s right, but it won’t be true. None of it’s true, and the reason behind the awkwardness slaps me in the face. It’s all because I’m pretending with her now. I’m trying not to be myself with her because I don’t want to hurt her or scare her off.

And I make the decision right now to stop it, not because I want to hurt her, but because I respect her too much to lie to her.

“If you’re asking me if I believe that men and women are biologically different, then yes. I’m sorry, but science is pretty clear on this one.”

Her frown gets deeper and she seems almost sad, especially when her friends and family tell her that they’ll catch up to her later and start to leave. I can tell that she wants to go with them, and to be honest, I sort of want her to go as well. Watching her jump into a fight over politics, become militant and accusatory over an ideology… well, I’m not really sure how I feel about it. I only know that I don’t want to confront this here and now, in a strange city surrounded by her family and with Spencer standing next to me practically seething. And then I have Kyla and Aiden to attend to in the coffee shop…

It’s just too much.

“Look, Erin, why don’t you go with your friends and family. We can talk about this later.”

She seems really confused and torn, but not for the right reasons.

“Are you sure,” she asks.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. “You don’t want to be around when I get to Starbucks anyway.”

That’s probably the first honest thing I’ve said to her since the bungee jump.

“Okay,” she says. “I-I’ll call you later.”

I nod and she jogs to catch up to her friends. I stand here with Spencer until I can’t see them anymore, trying to understand how everything went so wrong when it was going so right, but no answer is forthcoming. So I turn to Spencer but only find air. I scan my immediate area and see her sitting on a bench across the street and staring into her lap. She seems defeated so I sit down next to her.

“Hey, you okay?”

She huffs. “No, Ash, I’m really not.”

I want to tug at the hair at my temples. This day has been nothing but drama.

“What’s wrong, Spencer?”

“The way that idiot was talking to you made me want to slap the shit out of him, that’s what.” I feel myself blink a few times as I try to process what she just said. “Ugh, he was so smug and… just an asshole!” I start to laugh and that causes her to shove me on my arm kind of hard. “I’m not kidding, Ashley. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to hit someone so much in my life!”

“Not even Glenn,” I chuckle out.

“No! Not even Glenn! But then Gavin…” She says the name with increasing venom. “…is just like Glenn, only on steroids or maybe an opiate like PCP or Bathsalts.” I laugh harder and she starts to as well, only she’s fighting it. “I’m serious, Ash. Where did he get off talking to you like that?”

I shrug. “I don’t really care, Spence.”

“Well, I do.”

“And I appreciate it, but seriously, he’s not worth it.”

She takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Yeah…”

We’re quiet for a moment, and despite the way this day has been shaping up, I still seem to find myself smiling about it. I mean, it’s all just so ridiculous. I check my watch and see that I’m running late to my next encounter with Kyla’s fresh hell and glance over at Spencer.

“We’re late,” I say.

“This day just keeps getting better and better,” she laments.

“Truth.”

“Want to skip out on them, maybe go to the beach or hit the bay area?”

It’s tempting, truly, but I shake my head. “As much as I’d like to, Spence, I think it’s time to get this over with.”

She nods in understanding and takes to staring into her lap again. And I can feel something pang in my viscera, as if some part of me innately knows that some part of her is hurting beyond the frustration of a warring crowd and belligerent gay boy.

“Spence, you don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to.”

She sighs and looks up at me. “No, I want to be there.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” she says. “I was just really upset by how Gavin was treating you.”

I take her hand and she squeezes my fingers in return. Nothing, not her words nor the comfort of her warm hand, settle that uneasy feeling in my guts, but I give her a small smile nonetheless and she returns it.

This time I lead the way and we progress down through the milling people until we can cut back up to Market and double back on the other side of the area where the fight occurred. The chaos in that area is somehow more subdued, even as more people have crowded in to take a side in the argument or just spectate like we did.

The spectacle I witnessed today leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I still can’t seem to get my head around denying science or threating to commit suicide over it, but if that’s what our community has come to, then I guess I’m not part of the LGBTQwerty+, or whatever the fuck, community. I’m just me. I’m a lesbian and a woman. My community is my friends and family. And I’m perfectly okay with that.

But there are some things that the community as a whole needs – some things that are necessary to see from a grander perspective, things like Shirley and Sam’s crisis center. I’d have died if not for that place and I’m sure the same is true for many others. I wonder if they have this problem…

I snap out of my thoughts long enough to see Spencer holding the door to Starbucks open for me and I step inside. There’s a faint undercurrent of trepidation in my nerves, especially when I lay eyes on the two of them talking in a booth by the far window. But really, I’m just ready to face this and move on.

Truth be known, if Aiden spits in my face and never wants me to darken his doorstep again, I can live with that. I miss him, but I don’t need him to survive. I would like to get to know him again, but it won’t kill me if I don’t. It’s really all up to him. I’m more concerned for Kyla than anything else. The look on her face when she spoke about him, the easy way she declared her love, I know that any failure to reconcile puts her in a precarious position at best. Losing him or me would be catastrophic for her. But part of me believes that it would be worse for her to lose him.

I know what it is to lose that one person, the lightning strike – if that’s what he is for her, and I don’t want to put my baby sister through that kind of heartache, not if I can help it. And as I approach their table, as Kyla sees me first, I also realize that any attempt to reconcile without complete honesty would be an injustice. So I make an unconscious decision to do this the right way, even if it’s much like a moose in a china closet.

I grab one of the floating chairs from a table in the middle of the room on my way over and I place it right at the edge of the booth where Aiden is sitting. It’s this that alerts him to my presence. I’ve blocked him in and I take a seat in the chair to make sure that I have bought enough time to at least have him hear me out.

He’s looking at Kyla, the expression on his face one of questioning fury. I decide again to just be honest.

“That’s right, Aiden. She set you up.”

“Ash,” Kyla squawks, but we both ignore her.

I have his attention, his blue eyes boring into mine but I don’t cower or shrink or try to make excuses.

“Hey, Aiden?”

“I don’t want to talk to you, Ashley.”

He’s not mean, not even biting, just straight-forward and I can respect that.

“Okay, then let me talk and once I’m done, I’ll leave you alone.”

“I really don’t want to hear anything either.”

“Well, the way I see it, this is a compromise. If you had it your way, I wouldn’t be here. If I had it my way, you’d not only listen, but respond. Since neither of us is going to gift the other everything they want, I’m not moving anytime soon. And yes, you could attempt to climb out of the table, but we both know you’d fall all over yourself and the random strangers behind you because you’re huge. So, I guess you’re going to have to work with me here. So, you listen and I talk. And if you don’t want to respond when I’m done, then I leave you alone. We both give a little to get a little. Deal?”

I watch his jaw work at grinding his teeth for a moment before he nods in the affirmative.

“Okay,” I start, not wanting to waste any time. “I’m going to make this blunt and quick.”

“I’d like this over as soon as possible.”

I nod. “I got sick at prom and it never went away. It turned out to be cancer, a problem with my blood, and I had about six months to live.”

He clearly didn’t know this because the way he’s looking at me is sort of heartbreakingly beautiful.

“I tried to tell you,” Kyla says, but again, we both ignore her.

“I was stupid and thought that if I ran off to die and no one knew, no one would be hurt. I wasn’t supposed to live, but I met a woman at the LGBT crisis center and she took me in. Long story short, I purchased a bone marrow transplant from my birth giver and it saved my life, at least for the time being. I’m in remission. Kyla found me and forced me to reconnect with everyone, just like she’s doing to you right now. It’s pleasant, isn’t it?”

At this he glares at Kyla and she glares at me, but I’m not fazed in the least.

“But while I hate to admit this, Aiden, she was right. What I did was stupid, and I not only owed the explanations and apologies to the people I hurt, I needed them, and I wanted them in my life. She just forced me to do what I already wanted to do.”

His eyes soften a little and he looks down into his coffee.

“So this is the part where I give you an apology. It’s completely useless and it changes nothing. It’s not good enough for what I did and it makes up for nothing, but it’s all I have. I’m sorry, Aiden. I didn’t leave any of you because I didn’t care. I didn’t fail to say goodbye because you didn’t mean anything to me. I was trying to do the right thing and I fucked it up. Can you at least accept the apology for what it’s worth?”

“What’s it worth,” he asks in a bored tone.

“If nothing else, see it as an expression of my remorse and regret for what I put everyone through, because that’s all I have.”

He glances over at me and I can tell that he’s angry.

“I’m sorry, Aiden.”

“You said you want me to talk, to respond.” I nod. “Well, let me talk then. Do you have any idea what I did for you? Let’s see, uh… I stuck around through your endless dramas. I defended you when people talked about you behind your back. I let you use my house whenever you wanted. I loaned you my car and lied to Spencer’s dad for weeks. And every time I did these things I got in trouble. I got into fights. I got the shit beat out of me by my dad…”

He moves to get up and I instinctively get out of his way. The anger is pouring off of him like steam.

“I was getting the shit kicked out of me and you didn’t notice or care. It was always about you and Spencer. But at least Spencer checked on me and took my calls. At least she didn’t use me and helped me when my situation got so bad that I was…”

He’s not shouting. He’s not even drawing attention to us. He’s just calmly relating all of these things as if he’s reading it from a carefully scripted paper that tells him what to say and what faces to make at the appropriate times. I can see the anger and the hurt in his eyes, in the severe angles of his face and the small lines around his brows.

“Aiden, I didn’t know that your dad was doing that to you. Your parents were never home, and you always seemed so happy, so cocky, always cracking jokes…”

“Yeah, well, I guess that proves that you never really knew me.”

“Aiden, I’m sorry. I wish you’d told me.”

He laughs, quiet and sarcastic. “Like you’d have cared. You walked away from it and none of it even touched you.”

“That’s not fair, Aiden. You were one of my best friends.” He snorts this time. “I’ll admit that I was completely wrapped up in myself while I was getting ready to leave, but you can’t really hold that against me. I thought I was dying. What eighteen year-old handles that well? But before that-“

“It was all about Spencer,” he says. “I was just an after-thought or a convenience to you.”

“That’s not true.”

“Well, that’s not how I see it. You didn’t leave a note, you didn’t call, not even a text. You couldn’t stick around long enough to even just say goodbye.”

“I couldn’t.”

“Yes, you could have, at least with me. I always kept your secrets. I was there for you time and time again. You could have told me.

He points to himself, staring down on me with an expression of betrayal, and I don’t really understand why.

“I know, I’m sorry. I suck. I’m a terrible person. What more do you want me to say?”

“Well sorry isn’t good enough. You see, that’s the whole point, Ashley. I used to want things from you.” He turns to Kyla. “But not anymore.”

“She’s my sister, Aiden…,” Kyla tries, tears forming in her eyes.

“That’s fine,” he says. “But she’s not my sister.”

“So what, I’m supposed to pretend like she doesn’t exist so long as I’m with you? I can’t do that, Aiden.”

“Then I don’t know what to do, Kyla, but I don’t need any more shitty friends in my life.” He looks back to me. “I mean, look at you. You’re the same person you were before any of this happened, and I’m done with that.”

And with that he walks away, leaving me stunned and Kyla crying. I look to Spencer and she indicates that she’s going to follow him. I just nod my head and slump down in the seat that he vacated feeling utterly spent.

I still find it within myself to say, “I’m sorry, Kyla.”

She sniffs. “Don’t. This isn’t your fault. He’s just so… stubborn.”

“Are you okay?”

“I don’t know. I’m worried that he’s going to try and make me choose, and I don’t know what I’ll do if he does because I can’t…”

She starts to cry harder and I switch to her side, putting an arm around her and absorbing it into my shirt. It takes some time, but she finally leans back and uses a napkin to clean up her face and blow her nose.

Her eyes are big and clear from the crying as she turns to me and says, “Ash, I think… I’m pregnant.”

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


To Be Continued…

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, puzzeled. “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, Jack.”

“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.


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


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

Chapter 9 – The Dealing Process

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

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

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

“Kyla, what do you want to know?”

“How long have you been dating her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrug.

“You like each other?”

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

“How long?”

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

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

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

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

“Much better. Now how did you meet?”

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

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

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

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

“Whatever, but you like her.”

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

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

“Do you like her, like her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you do today?”

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

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

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

“I guess, yeah.”

“Does she know about the list?”

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

“I told her today.”

“How did she take it?”

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

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

“Hmmm,” she hums pensively.

I almost shudder to ask, “What?”

“She wasn’t upset?”

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

“Does she know about Spencer?”

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

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

“Yes.”

“And she was okay with that?”

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

“Ah,” she says satisfied with something.

“What?”

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

“What…? Kyla, wait…”

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

“Wh- I mean, that’s it? You’re done?”

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

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

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

“What just happened?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

I just miss her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does Spencer know you’re here?”

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

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

“Hello,” she says in a groggy voice.

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

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

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

“Good…,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay…,”

Again there’s awkward silence.

“Ash?”

“Yeah?”

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

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

“Yeah, I think I will. Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow. Night, Spence.”

“Goodnight.”

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

“You did real good, Jets.”

His tail wags.

“You hungry?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And he’s apparently dating my sister.

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

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

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

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

Did I hurt him too?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, we’re not together…”

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

“Six,” Sam corrects.

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

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

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

This is an interesting development…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Indeed,” Sam agrees.

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

“I feel like a whole new person.”

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

I nod. “Very much so.”

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

I nod again.

“Spencer,” Sam asks.

I shake my head. “No, not this time.”

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

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

I feel a frown form as I think about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know. I don’t think so…”

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

It’s quiet while I think about that.

“Can you let it go,” Shirley asks.

“Yeah, I guess…”

“So what’s the problem,” Sam asks.

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

Ouch, Sam…

“Okay, I get it. I suck.”

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

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

Can’t they see that, “I’m trying…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” I say dryly.

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

Sam smiles. “You’re definitely different.”

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

“Am I really that bad?”

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

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

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

“Yup,” Shirley again agrees.

“Okay,” I say. “This shit is hard…”

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

“Thanks, you guys.”

“Anytime. We love you, Ashley.”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry it took so long.”

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

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

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

“Listen, this place is going to hell…”

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

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

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

“Who owns this building?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heyas, Spence!”

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

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

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

“Oh… okay. Sounds like fun…”

I laugh again. “Yeah, it’s alright.”

“Where’s my rebellious hell hound?”

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

“Really? He hates other people…”

I chuckle at my private joke.

“What,” she asks.

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

“Exhausting, but uneventful.”

“What are you doing now?”

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

“Still shooting everything you see?”

“You know it.”

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

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

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

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

Well, that was abrupt if not honest.

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you have them chipped?”

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

I chuckle.

“Shut up,” she says.

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

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

“He is a beautiful dog.”

“They both are.”

“So what are you going to do?”

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

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

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

“Spence, I can’t take him from you…”

“Ash, you love him and he loves you.”

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

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

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

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

And she’s right again.

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

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

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

“What,” I ask self-consciously.

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

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

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

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

“But you’re willing to tell me…?”

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Right now,” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay then.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No problem,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll think about it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, yeah… of course.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“What’s funny?”

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

“Yeah, I guess I’m just… confused.”

“By what?”

“You.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I’m still me, Spence.”

“What’s going on, Ash?”

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

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

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

“I slapped her.”

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

“Really?”

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

“Why did she laugh?”

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

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

“No,” I agree.

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

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

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

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

“He planted pot in your hummer?”

“No, the Porsche.”

She frowns. “When was this?”

“A couple weeks after you left. Why?”

“Well, that might have been Kyla’s…”

“The pot?”

“Yes.”

“Kyla is smoking pot?”

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

“Yes, and Aiden.”

This seems to surprise her.

“You know about Aiden?”

“Yes.”

“Did Kyla tell you?”

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

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

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

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

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

“So that’s where she got the habit?”

She nods. “I’m pretty sure.”

“Wonderful,” I say.

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

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

“Really…?”

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

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

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

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

I frown, and then shrug.

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

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

“Just like that?”

I nod. “Just like that.”

“Money really does help with the law then.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow, that’s great!”

I nod. “It is.”

“So what happened next?”

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

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

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

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

“You can ask anything you want, Spencer.”

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

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

“Do you love her?”

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

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

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

“What happened after the arrest that went nowhere?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why alone?”

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

“I don’t get it,” she says.

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

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

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

“So you really went alone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were going to kill yourself…”

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

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

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

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

“Me too.”

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

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

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

“You want me to read your journal?”

I shrug. “Why not?”

“Well, isn’t it private?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh… okay…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want you in my life, Spence.”

“I want you in my life too.”

“Do you think we can have that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I say. “We have a deal?”

“I’ll try, I guess.”

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

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

“Are you sure you have to go?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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


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

Chapter 8 – Up, Up, and the Rain

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

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

“It’s seven a.m. on a Saturday…”

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

“Ashley,” she says almost disbelievingly.

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

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

“Is it really you?”

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

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

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

“Wh- I- Just- oh my God!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not just alive, I’m healthy.

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

“You look amazing, Ash…,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

What if something happens or I lose myself again?

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

What if-

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

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

“What if it’s not,” I ask.

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

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

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

I shrug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were just a kid.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not a kid anymore.”

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

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

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

So that’s what I’m going to do.

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


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

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

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

“You look different,” she says.

I smile to myself.

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

“Thanks, I think.”

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

“Oh, it’s a compliment.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I really am.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve never been on an airplane?”

“Nope. Never.”

“You’re kidding…”

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

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

“I like it here, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no reason. Just curious.”

“Yeah, somehow I don’t believe that…”

“What’s wrong? You nervous?”

“What? No…”

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

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

I shrug. “Maybe.”

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

“Nope.”

“Please…”

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

“Are we going on an airplane?”

I chuckle.

“We’re not skydiving, are we?”

“We could…”

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

“You’ll live,” I say. “Maybe…”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep.”

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

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

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

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

“Hot air balloons?”

I grin at her.

“How high do they go?”

I grin a little harder, maybe even menacingly.

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

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

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

“You ready,” I ask.

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

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

I nod. “Ashley. And this is Erin.”

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

“You okay,” I ask.

“Perfect,” she says.

“You can back out, if you want.”

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

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

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

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

“False bravado,” I offer.

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

“So, you gonna do it?”

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

“You have to?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What comes in the lunch basket?”

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

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

“Can you do me a favor,” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ashley,” I say. “And this is Erin.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we ready,” he asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re really surprising, Slick.”

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

“Yeah?”

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

“Why is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Marry Spencer and start a family…”

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

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

“Sort of,” she asks.

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

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

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

“Why?”

“Just keep reading.”

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

I nod. “They’re one in the same.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why,” she breathes out. “How…?”

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

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

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

“Are you upset that I told you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand what you mean.”

“I know you do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, yeah, I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kyla, I have to practice now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming.”

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


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Continued in Chapter 9 – The Dealing Process

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

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

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

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

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

“Two weeks,” Abby says.

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

“You’ve robbed me of three weeks…”

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

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

“Yes,” Abby says matter-of-factly.

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

“Clarke, it’s just water.”

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

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

“Then don’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What it was, was murder.”

“No, it was love.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She was willing to let us govern ourselves.”

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

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

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

“I don’t want anyone to die, mom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t do that, Clarke.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Clarke whispers back just fiercely.

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

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


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To Be Continued…

Chapter 7 – Steady Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s strange…

“I want to apologize,” I say.

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

“You’re not kidding…,”

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

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

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

“You’re apologizing?”

“Yes.”

“For what?”

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

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

I nod. “Yeah, I do…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ash, I’m sorry, I can’t help it!”

“Why?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was empowering.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I agree. “You really were.”

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

“So, you were apologizing…”

I sigh.

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

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

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

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

“It hurt me.”

“I know, and I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too.”

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

When we both calm down, she says, “So, now that that’s out of the way, I’m moving back in.”

I roll my eyes at her, but inside, my heart’s singing just a little.

“Oh, c’mon,” she says through a playful smile. “You know you’ve missed me.”

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

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

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” I say.

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

I frown. “I don’t know if I’m going.”

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

“No I don’t…”

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

She leans back as if the last of her points is reason enough.

“Seriously, Ash, Europe…

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus, Kyla, give you an inch…”

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

“Pretty much,” I lament.

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

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

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

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

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

I scowl. “Okay…”

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

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

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

“Oh yeah, that sounds like a blast. I’ll go to strange places where no one speaks English alone,” I reply sarcastically. It’s a weak argument, but there’s no way I can voice my real thoughts.

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

“Kyla, alone is empty. Trust…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ever seen Taken,” I ask.

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“It’s a movie, Ash. Not real life.”

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

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

“Thanks,” I say wryly.

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

She has a point there.

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

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

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

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

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

She beams. “Damn right you are!”

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

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

“Oh, you know, around.”

“Around…,” I repeat stupidly.

“Mm hmm.”

“Is it a state secret or something?”

“No, not state. It’s local.”

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

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

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

She looks at her watch and stands up.

“Where are you going,” I ask in perplexity.

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

“Well, you don’t have to go now…”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Why?”

“Because.”

“Because why…?”

“Because… it’s… getting late.”

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

“It is for me.”

“Kyla, what’s going on?”

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

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

“No.”

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

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

I can’t help but snort. “Since when?”

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

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

“No,” she says a little too loudly.

“Why?”

“Because…”

“Kyla, what’s going on?”

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

Ouch. “Okay…”

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

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

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

“At the late hour of four o’clock?”

“Mm-hmm…”

“On a Thursday?”

“Mm-hmm…”

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

“Yes.”

“That makes zero sense.”

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

“Ash, this is all you’re getting.”

“What?”

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

“What? Why?”

“Trust me, you don’t want to know.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t.”

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

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

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

“Then what’s the problem?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Yes, I do!”

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

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

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

“And you are so not prettier than me.”

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

“Kyla, wait…”

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

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


 

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Chapter 8 – Up, Up, and the Rain

Chapter 6 – Knowledge is not Understanding

Clarke’s eyelids scrape against her eyes like sandpaper when she tries to open them. They’re crusted and so heavy that it’s as if anvils have been tied to her lashes. Her whole body feels heavy like that, and reluctant to come out of the utter bliss of unconsciousness. But her arms lift her hands to her sockets to clean them, further pulling her up from the dark depths of sleep and into the waking light. And she regrets it, because that first real glimpse of light brings a throbbing headache into awareness.

And that’s all it takes for her brain to start taking a painful inventory. Her head feels like it’s been packed with cotton and razor blades, her blood replaced with a thick sludge. The landscape of her skin stings with random lacerations that have scabbed over and are pulling taut, but these small cuts are the least of her aches. Her leg… she almost can’t find words. It feels like someone took a sledgehammer to the meat, turning it into a bloody pulp of singing nerves. And the bone inside feels like someone is grinding a saw against it with every pump of her heart.

Her heart… it may be the very worst of her aches. It feels hollow, but it’s the kind of emptiness that pangs and makes itself known. It’s as if the wounds dotting the muscled flesh aren’t bleeding outwards, but inwards, touching the vacant spaces inside and filling them with a unique agony.

Everything hurts, and just like before she feels the need to move, to try and get away from herself, to try and get out of herself. This is the same desire that sent her seeking solace in the woods the night that the Mountain fell. But it did no good then, and it would do no good now, especially when the thought of moving is almost as anguished as a physical attempt.

She just can’t. She’s helpless, exposed, and trapped like a turtle on its back. So she lies still and lets her mind find its pace, to catch up with itself and all of the negative stimuli engulfing her.

“I was beginning to think that you weren’t going to wake up.”

The voice is low, gravelly, that of an enemy that became a friend, and she finds the strength to turn her head and blink the bleariness from her eyes until his dark shape comes into view.

“Be-,” she tries but her voice cracks and fades.

She clears her throat but it’s no use. It’s too dry. She licks at her lips and grimaces at the cloying taste of dry copper in the corners of her mouth. Her lips are chapped and her tongue and teeth feel like they’re made of gravel.

“Here,” that same voice says and she feels something cool and wet against her lips.

Without thinking she opens her mouth and begins to gulp at the water. It rushes in torrents down her parched esophagus with a strange relief that quickly turns sour when it hits her stomach. She turns away and coughs, laying her head back on the pillow to let a spell of dizziness pass.

“Bellamy,” she says, her voice still rough but now audible.

“Heya, Princess,” he says. “I’d ask how you feel, but…” Clarke watches as he gives her the once over. “If how you look is any indication…,” he finishes with a smirk.

Clarke smiles, a choking laugh bubbling for just an instant before she regrets it.

“Don’t make me laugh,” she says.

“Sorry… not sorry,” he replies.

The levity lasts another moment before his dirt smudged face becomes serious again.

“How are you really,” he asks.

Clarke has to wonder for a moment why every question is so loaded. Why can’t it ever be easy or, at the very least, straight forward? She wishes that someone would just once ask her what color the sky is or what year it is, just something that has an answer that she doesn’t have to struggle with.

This question isn’t a simple one, of course. Her body is a heinous ball of pain, but she knows that this isn’t what he’s asking. He wants to talk about that empty, squeezing, torn lump of muscle hiding behind her ribs. And honestly, she has no problem telling him that she’s not okay. Bellamy is the sort of person that, once you get passed all of the bravado and posturing, can be truly decent. He just needs a push in the right direction. Left to his own devices though… Well, if nothing else, he can keep a secret. Besides, he already knows that she’s not okay. He knew the night that she left, and he was the only one that she told.

She’s not sure why she chose him. Maybe it’s because he was just there, or maybe it’s because she has grown to depend on him so much, or maybe it’s because she cares for him deeply. Or, maybe, it’s because he’s the only one on earth who knows the darkness that she carries in her heart. He shares it. He was there, his hand holding hers as she did something monstrous. Whatever the reason, the willingness to share is there, she just doesn’t know what to say.

She doesn’t know how she feels. Maybe she feels nothing or maybe she feels so much that she can’t figure it out, but either way, it’s all convoluted and confusing. Somehow though, seeing him there, above her, a smirk on his mouth and the tell-tale warmth in his eyes, she feels better. It’s as if that familiarity is healing a little of her hopelessness, and she has to wonder why she was running from it.

She can’t help but wonder if it was really bad enough to leave the people she’s come to love, her family, the one hundred. She searches his eyes and easily finds that brokenness that only the two of them share because only they understand what it means to commit genocide. He tries to hide it, but it’s only thinly concealed behind the veil of this dark lashes. And he can see it in her too. Maybe others wouldn’t pick up on it, but she has to turn away from him because of it.

She can’t look at him, and that’s why she had to leave. It’s not because of him or the others, though they’re part of it. She had to leave because she can’t handle the shame that she feels within herself. No matter what’s true, every look, every murmur about a person no longer here, she is reminded of what she’s done and who she’s become.

She lifts her heavy head and tries to focus on her leg, to make sure that it’s still there, and it’s with relief that she finds it intact. It looks normal for the most part, if not for the splint and bandages that have added bulk and the deep purplish bruising that makes it looks almost surreal.

Unfortunately, shame or not, there will be no running this time.

She lays her head back down, immediately tired even after so little effort.

She still doesn’t know what to say to him, but she can feel him staring at her, expecting something from her. She doesn’t understand how he can stand to look at her, but she knows that she has to say something to appease him.

“I’ll be okay, one way or another,” she says.

He nods and sits back down in the chair that he was in before she awoke and she closes her eyes, wishing that she were still asleep.

“What happened to you,” he asks. “Lexa said that you fell, but no one believes her. Did the Grounders do this to you?”

She frowns and shakes her head no, but then she’s not so sure. She tries to remember what happened and how she got back to the Ark. There are large chunks of time missing in her memory, vague images of the forest and then voices and then the healer’s hut at TonDC. And of course she remembers her talk with Lexa. It would seem that the Commander stands out even when under the effects of duress and delirium.

Lexa’s always had that effect on Clarke. She’s stiff in posture and harsh in her demeanor, but there is an undercurrent to it all, as if Clarke can tell that she wishes to be gentle but truly believes that she can’t and shouldn’t. It’s almost as if she’s an innocent – someone trapped – a slave under the whip of her own command. If ever there were a physical representation of the caged bird cliché, Lexa would be it, only it’s worse than that because not only has she bound herself up, she’s bound herself in a cage far too small.

Whatever Lexa’s reasons are for doing that to herself, it draws Clarke in and makes her want to help. But every time that she tries, she’s attacked and forced to retreat and leave Lexa helpless in her suffering. But more than that, every time she tries, not only does she lose someone she cares about, she loses an important part of herself. It’s as if to know Lexa is to be shaped, and molded, and ultimately, destroyed by her.

Honestly, it infuriates Clarke. She knows that should hate Lexa, and she really wants to, but for all that she says and does to placate that desire, the truth of the matter is that she doesn’t, she can’t, not even when she should. It was the same story with Wells, with Bellamy, with Finn, with Murphy, and even with her mother. She gets angry. She refuses to allow the object of that anger the peace of knowing that she’s forgiven them, but she’s forgiven them all the same.

“I-I fell,” she says. “I think… it’s all so blurry.”

Bellamy looks down at the dirty hands in his lap and fidgets with his fingers. The curls of his long hair hide the majority of his face in shadow as he nods his head.

“Are you okay,” she asks of him.

He looks back up at her but she doesn’t return his gaze, choosing instead to pick herself up just a little and focus on the cuts and scrapes that line her skin. They’re mostly healed, pink and thin, the scabs flaking away. Most of them were merely scrapes where the brambles caught her on her way down and ultimately saved her life by breaking the majority of her fall. Some of them needed stitches though. She can tell by the zipper like scar of a straight line with small dots along the sides. But the stitches are long gone and the cuts almost closed.

She can’t remember why she’d fallen, but something niggles at the back of her mind.

“A lot’s changed since you left, Clarke.”

Clarke finally looks over at him. He’s staring at the floor now as if it will open and swallow him whole.

“Like what,” she asks.

He doesn’t speak and some dark emotion flits over his semi-hidden features. She finds it to be a little frightening. As if he’s okay with being swallowed up.

“Bellamy,” she asks again, snapping him out of it.

He runs his hands through his hair and gets to his feet.

“Bellamy, what’s going on?”

“Things just aren’t like they used to be.”

“What does that mean,” she asks again, trying to sit up to talk to him.

“Come on, Clarke,” he exclaims. “Everything- every-one is… different.”

Clarke’s mind whirrs as she watches her friend struggle with some manic, unreadable emotion. And for all that she doesn’t understand of what he’s saying, she really does get it. Understanding isn’t always the predecessor to knowledge. Sometimes, we learn about things before we understand them. And usually when that happens, we’re learning about things that we shouldn’t know about at all, at least not if the one hundred year-old fairytales of suburban life are in any way true.

She should know how to clean a home and cook a meal, not how to fire a gun and kill a person. She should know how to raise children, not torture the Red from a Reaper. She should be there when her parents are old and help them that last peaceful step into mortality, not what it’s like to watch her father sucked into a vacuous void to boil to death in an oxygen free atmosphere.

But that’s not the world she lives in. She knows what she knows and she understands little. Some things just are, like the air and the water and the earth.

Like her.

Clarke hates it, but she’s grown to accept it. That was something else that she and Bellamy had in common. But right here, right now, he’s not coping with that knowledge. Something’s different – off. It’s like she’s missed something and he’s trying to say it without actually saying it. It’s making her uncomfortable, making her feel shameful. Again, she can’t look at him so she focuses on her leg this time. The color of the bruises would suggest time and healing beyond that of a good night’s sleep.

“Bellamy, how long have I been asleep?”

He doesn’t speak and again she can feel the weight of his stare.

“Bellamy,” Clarke tries again, this time braving to look at his face.

And she can see that something’s poised on the tip of his tongue but he’s not saying it. He’s trying to swallow it and it’s choking him. Frustrated, she scans the room for something that will give her a firm grip on what’s going on, but this new information only compounds problems in Clarke’s mind. She was at the Ark when she passed out. But the stark, white, sterile walls of the Mountain facility stare back at her and make her feel sick.

“Bellamy, how long have I been asleep,” she tries a little louder.

He diverts his eyes and clears his throat. “Uh, about a week.”

“What,” Clarke asks as she sits up straighter and tries to swing her legs to the side of the bed. “A week…?”

Bellamy steps in front of her and places a gentle hand to her shoulder to stop her.

“Come on, Clarke. Just relax. You’re going to make yourself worse.”

“Why have I been down a week?”

The look that Bellamy gives Clarke tells her that he knows the answers to her questions but he won’t say a word if she doesn’t sit back. With a sigh, she reluctantly nods her head in agreement to his unspoken request but she doesn’t move back any, even when he eases his grip on her. And he doesn’t move away any either, and there’s this moment where he’s close to her, where he’s almost holding her, and he finds that he doesn’t want to let her go. Even when she looks like a broken doll that’s been glued back together, he finds her to be beautiful. But more than that, he knows how exceptionally strong she is. Truth be known, he’s missed her fiercely.

He berates himself for feeling that way about Clarke. There’s no way that she would ever consider him, and for good reason. He’s the boy that made her life hell when they landed, the one who wouldn’t listen and worshiped anarchy. He’s the boy that, when he’s honest with himself, once tried to drop her to a messy death but, at the last minute, decided not to. He’s betrayed her again, and just like then, he has no idea how to tell her.

How do you tell someone that you love that you’ve wronged them on purpose? Is it really valid when you believe that you did the right thing for them even when you know that they don’t agree? He knows that Clarke won’t see it any other way. Even he has trouble reconciling it. What’s worse is that he owes her. It was her kindness that helped him get past most of his anger when they first landed.

He’s selfish and he knows it, but he wants her, even when he doesn’t deserve her. He’s not a good person. He’s nothing like Finn. For all of her trouble, his anger is still there. He knows that he’s still capable of terrible things because he does them daily, not just to others but to her. He keeps convincing himself that these terrible things aren’t so bad, or that they’re unfortunate but necessary.

But the truth is that he’s wrong. He just can’t admit it because he needs something to be simple, and as such, he knows that everything about him is steeped in perfidy. Even he doesn’t trust himself, so why should anyone else, let alone Clarke?

Clarke looks up at him, an inscrutable look on her face because neither of them can tell what she wants in this moment. She’s bruised and scraped and smudged with dirt and he just wants to kiss her. He can’t help but wonder what it could hurt if she decided that she didn’t like it. She couldn’t possibly think any worse of him than he thinks of himself. Besides, it’s not like she’d have the strength to hurt him even if she did try to slap him.

And she’d try to slap him. Both of them are sure of that…

A scream pierces through the wall to their left and both of them jump. Bellamy releases Clarke and together they stare at the wall in awkward silence. There’s no window to the other room. They can’t see anything except for the tasteful Monet that’s seems exquisitely out of place with its riot of color against the sterility of the wall. While the sound worries and frightens Clarke, Bellamy is unfazed by it and that’s all the more unsettling for her.

“What the hell’s going on, Bellamy?”

He looks at her again as the screams become tortured whimpers.

“The Reapers,” he says.

This makes sense to Clarke so she relaxes just a little. “The rehabilitation’s working?”

“For the most part,” Bellamy says. “But we only caught a handful of them. The minute they saw us, they ran into the tunnels and collapsed the roof. They were ready for us. We only found a little of the Red on the ones that we caught, so we assume they stowed the whole cache down there.”

“They knew you were coming,” I ask.

He nods. “They may be feral, but they’re smart, and when it comes to their drugs and their food…” Both of them grimace. “They’re organized.”

Clarke is almost surprised by this news, but after thinking about it, it seems realistic to her. The Reapers don’t fight each other, only outsiders. They were docile with the Mountain men while getting their injections, and they worked the tunnels as a crew despite the monstrous effects of the drug. It’s reasonable that they’re sentient enough to find a way to keep their supply and freedom.

Clarke’s definitely regretting waking up now. It’s as if everything is getting worse by the minute. The agreement with the Grounders was contingent on this one thing, and that one thing isn’t as easy as it should be.

“Does the treaty still stand?”

Bellamy’s face falls.

“Bellamy…”

“Clarke, there’s been a slight… change of plan.”

“What happened,” she asks urgently.

“We didn’t take the treaty.”

“What,” Clarke almost shouts. “Why?!”

A glint of anger sharpens Bellamy’s eyes. His posture becomes more rigid and he sets his jaw.

“Lexa wanted to rule us, to become some sort of… Queen,” he says the last word with no small amount of venom. “Did you really think that we would agree to that, Clarke?” He looks at her with utter incredulity. “Were you really willing to agree to that?”

Angry tears well in Clarke’s eyes. “Of course I didn’t want to do that, but there’s no other way to stop all of this nonsense. So yes, I thought that you, the others, and the rest of our people would put peace before pride.”

“Pride,” he repeats with offense. “It has nothing to do with pride.” He assumes an angry stance, looking right into her eyes and pointing at the ground with each of his arguments to emphasize them. “She’s been trying to kill us since we landed, she’s killed countless numbers of us, and she betrayed us and left us to die, Clarke! And now she wants to rule us?!”

He shakes his head and breaks his posture. “No, this isn’t about pride. It’s about survival. And she will have us all in chains or dead before she’s satisfied. And you…” He gestures to her in a defeated way. “You’ll let her.”

The anger coursing through Clarke’s veins isn’t all for Bellamy. Part of her is angry at Lexa because part of her feels the same way that he does. And it would be so easy to give in to his logic. It would allow her to draw a line in the sand and pick a side. She wouldn’t have to feel guilty or worried about what happens to the Grounders, to Lexa. She could just hate and act on that hate, and oddly enough, they’d probably win. It would be easy. So, so easy…

But Clarke can’t do it. She can’t stop caring. She keeps making these mistakes, letting people die for no reason, and they’re innocent people. She has to stop it; she needs to stop it, if not for peace’s sake, then for her own conscience. She straightens up and sets the line of her own jaw. “So what, Bellamy? They hurt us so we hurt them until one or all of us are dead? Is that how it’s going to be?”

He takes a deep breath and softens a little, though he’s still intensely serious.

“No, Clarke. We’re going to end this.”

Clarke feels shaky as she asks, “What does that mean?”

Bellamy takes a seat and looks down at the floor, his voice taking on a clinical detachment as he explains.

“The council wasn’t going to submit to Lexa, so Abby pushed back. She told Lexa that we would be moving into the Mountain and remain free of the Grounders. We’d still take care of the Reapers, but that was more for our benefit than theirs.”

Clarke scoffs. “There’s no way that Lexa would allow that…”

Bellamy agrees, looking up at Clarke from under his lashes. “No, she wasn’t going to.” His eyes harden. “She threatened to kill Abby and Kane where they stood for suggesting it, but Abby was prepared. She told Lexa that they’d already sent a party to the Mountain to clear it and if the Grounders didn’t let us relocate peacefully, we’d kill the Reapers and blow them to hell with another missile.”

Clarke’s heart nearly stops beating as it takes up residence in her throat. With every word out of Bellamy’s mouth, her people are more and more damned, and all because of their own hubris.

“It was a lie, but Lexa let us go,” he says with a shrug. “She didn’t have a choice.”

“Lexa won’t stand for that,” Clarke replies angrily. “We’ve signed our own death warrant.”

And with those words, Clarke leans back heavily against the headboard of her bed, finding no way to get her people out of the twisted mess they’ve created. She was asleep for an entire week and helpless to stop it. It’s as if she’d been taken out of the picture by fate.

“Yes,” Bellamy agrees again. “But fortunately for us, we don’t need them to leave us in peace. We’re here. We have the missiles. And as soon as we’re done salvaging the Ark for scrap and relocating everything, we’re going to release a planned strike against all of their territories.”

This is the Bellamy that Clarke remembers: petulant and selfish, willing to sacrifice any and every one for his own agenda, even when he knows that he’s wrong. And by the way that it’s his turn divert his eyes in shame, he must know that he’s wrong.

“My mother won’t let that happen…”

His expression becomes pity. “Clarke, she’s the Chancellor…”

Clarke almost feels numb with that declaration. Apparently her people, her mother, they all feel the same way.

“Even Kane,” she asks absently.

“No,” Bellamy says. “He still wants to become the 13th tribe.”

That’s a small comfort to her. At least one person has kept their mind in this mess, though it’s obviously been for nothing.

“Why didn’t he stop this? Mom would listen to him.”

Bellamy sighs. “Kane was outvoted. He tried to commit treason and he’s being held for his crimes and awaiting trial. Abby’s not sure how to deal with him yet.”

All of that comfort that she was just feeling is gone. That leaves only her, and with a busted leg what can she possibly do? She has no way to get word to Lexa. Her frustration is so great that she wants to hit something. She could have stopped it if she’d had a chance, if she’d been awake. Why wasn’t she awake?

Something cold and sick coils in the pit of her stomach as she realizes that Bellamy and her mother would have known that she’d stand in the way just like Kane. And while Abby would do what she needed to do, even float her own husband, she would do everything she could to stop Clarke from getting in the way in the first place.

“Why did I sleep for a week,” Clarke asks.

“Clarke…”

“Why did I sleep that long? I had already slept and woken up, so it wasn’t the concussion. I should have woken up…”

“Clarke…”

“What did you do, Bellamy?”

He sighs, knowing that he can’t lie to her successfully. “What we had to, Clarke…”

Suddenly she feels very alone, and honestly, very scared. She can’t trust anyone – not Bellamy, Jasper, Monty, not even her mother…

“What did you do to me,” she asks in a small but angry voice.

He exhales. “Indra gave O some mossy stuff that the Grounders use as a sedative.”

“Octavia is helping you,” she asks surprised.

“No,” he says. “I swiped it from her before she escaped.”

“Escaped…?”

Bellamy nods, his eyes refusing to meet Clarke’s.

“You locked up your own sister, and Kane, and you drugged me…” He nods again, still diverting his eyes. “Is there anything else I need to know about? I mean, you’re about to murder an entire continent full of people for no reason. You’re clearly capable of anything…”

At this he finally looks at her. His eyes are sad, almost black they’re so deep and almost glinting they’re so sharp. It hurts Clarke to think that she trusted him. And it hurts him to know that he’s killing what little of her trust there was in the first place. It would seem to her that no one cares anymore but he does. He hates it just as much as she does.

Unlike her, he could do something about it.

It would seem to Clarke that the radiation made monsters of what was left after the world’s destruction. Clarke wants to reach over and rip the IV from her arm and run as fast and far away from him, from Lexa, from her mother, from the Mountain, from this whole situation, as possible. But she can’t. And she knows that any sudden movement, word, even the faintest of suggestions of leaving will get her locked up too.

Or maybe worse…

But she still needs to try.

She glances around at the white walls and has to release a humorless laugh at the irony of her situation. Her people belong in this place. They’re just like the Mountain men: cruel and foolish. And just like them, she’s just as trapped in this bunker. She can do nothing. All she has left is words.

“This is wrong, Bellamy, and you know it.”

“No, Clarke, it’s not wrong to survive.”

“We don’t need to do this to survive!”

“You said it yourself, Lexa won’t let it go. There’s no other way.”

She stares him down, willing herself to see the good in him again, to find it and tap into it. That’s how she’s always done it before. Reason and logic don’t work so well with Bellamy because compassion has no reason or logic. It’s senseless to do good. It’s thankless and there are no real rewards. Mostly though, it’s dangerous. When you love someone, when you help them and try for them and sacrifice for them, you open yourself to be irrevocably damaged, you open yourself to uncertainty.

Surely some piece of that is still alive in him?

“Bellamy, listen to me. You don’t have to do this. Help me get out of here. Help me get to Lexa. I can fix this.”

“Clarke, don’t talk like that. It’s treason.”

“It’s reason, Bellamy, and you know it. No one has to die!”

For a moment she believes that she’s reached him because he lowers his head and takes a few long minutes to do what she can only assume is consider what she’s said. But when he faces her again, she knows by the sickly sad look in his eyes that his need for safety has come first. And he knows that he’s just a coward who wants an easy way out for the people he loves. And both of them know that knowledge isn’t always understanding.

Neither of them understand why this particular issue is the way that it is, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

“Where’s Abby,” Clarke asks, choosing to stare into her lap. Only this time she looks away not in her own shame, but because she can’t bear to look at his.

“She’s next door with that Reaper. She’ll be here to see you as soon as she’s done.”

“Good. You can leave then.”

“Clarke, you know as well as I do that sometimes you have to kill to survive.“

He puts his hand on top of hers just like he did in the control room when they opened the doors, and just like that, his shame is hers too and she can’t help but consider those words to be a calculated move on his part. She closes her eyes, yanks her hand away, and chokes on the lump in her throat, for the loss of her friend, of her family, of any semblance of a peaceful life.

“I said you can leave,” she says quietly.

“Clarke, please…”

“I said go!”

With that, she looks over and stares hard at him. And for that instant that he looks back, she can see this twisted sense of remorse in his eyes. It’s just not enough for her, and it won’t be until he stops this. He has a choice, right then and there. She gives him a chance to redeem himself in that instant. But he looks away ashamed, gets slowly to his feet, and quietly exits the room, the door snapping shut behind him.


Don’t forget to rate and review before moving on!


Continued in Chapter 7 – Right and Wrong are More than a Breath Apart

Chapter 6 – Tooty Frooty In My Booty

This is a lot harder than I thought that it would be. Maybe it’s like one of those things that you see coming and brace for, but no matter how much you prepare for the impact, it still blows you over.

Yes, it must be, because that is how I feel right now – now of all times – when I wouldn’t and shouldn’t be feeling anything. I should be numb and unaffected, because that’s the girl that life has taught me to be. That girl always keeps me out of the deep water. She keeps me alive and intact, or at least provides the illusion of those things. But then I went and killed her, drowned her in tears and tossed her into the muddy waters of the Mississippi, leaving this broken, fragile, weak bitch behind.

And so I swipe at my nose in frustration, tears and snot now an everyday occurrence in this new life as a… mushy husk. Oh, how I despise this new me. Spencer is cool as ice as she gives me a chilly glance and tightened jaw, the last of her boxes now stacked into her borrowed truck, and all I can do is stand here devastated and crying like a whimpering child. I miss that coolness that I used to possess and for a moment I’m envious of her.

But then Jetsam nuzzles my hand, those big, brown eyes looking up at me and mirroring my sadness, and I just can’t find that part of myself. He’s no help at all. If anything, he makes me feel more upset. He’s losing me as much as I’m losing him.

I have no idea where Spencer’s going, but that doesn’t really matter. She knows how to take care of herself, so I know she’ll be okay wherever it is. She was supposed to be here though, with me, and she’s leaving. That’s all I can see and hear and understand, and it’s reduced me to a quivering, distraught mess.

Spencer’s leaving.

It hurts; it hurts more than I can comprehend. And I’m doing this to myself, forcing myself to just feel it as it comes, but I’m already regretting that decision. Everything sets me off, from the death of an animal in a movie to the doe-eyed look of a random baby at a restaurant.

It’s disturbing.

And what’s worse, if you can even imagine, is that if I could hide, it wouldn’t matter. There is truly nothing to hide anymore. Spencer knows that I’m a fumbling wreck inside. She knows that I’m in love with her. She knows everything that no one was ever supposed to see.

And I know that she’s not a wreck inside, despite what I did. I know that she’s strong and forgiving and courageous, because I know that she wants to be with me. She always has.

Yet, she goes.

The problem is at my feet. It’s part of me, inside of me. There’s something terribly wrong with me and I don’t know how to fix it.

“Ash, are you okay,” Spencer asks with no small amount of trepidation as she puts the tailgate up, the latch resounding with a metal thwang.

She knows what’s coming probably better than I do. We’ve only been home a couple of days, but I haven’t been able to stop it. Now that I’ve opened the doors to the attic, it just keeps coming, and when it’s not wet with tears, it’s unreasonably angry.

“Do I look alright to you, Spence,” I almost shout.

She winces, but takes it gracefully and shakes her head in the negative.

She looks like she wants to say more, or maybe ask something. Her face is contorted in a grimace that I can’t really understand and I know that whatever it is, it’s not good, but she stops herself and I’m grateful. As much as I want to hear what the hell is going on in her head, I don’t want to have a reason to say anything more.

“Ashley, let’s just go inside…,” Kyla says.

I turn my blazing anger on her but she’s unaffected. I know that she pities me, and that’s worse than her insistently trying to be my mother.

“Ash, please. Try to relax,” she tries again.

Somewhere inside of me, beneath that deep murky river water of the Mississippi, that strong girl that died there tries to revive and take control. She tries to latch on to Kyla’s words and spit up the mud and moss to stop this insanity, but I’m too angry; too- just too much of everything.

And Kyla seems to recognize it.

“Spencer, you should go,” she says.

Spencer nods and gives me a long, anguished look as Kyla grabs my arms and tries to pull me inside, but I stop, unwilling to move. My limbs fill with led where my blood used to be as my anger deflates entirely, and I’m left with swimming vision and a pounding headache as the same old fear comes back to the forefront.

She’s leaving.

I can only just make out the shape of her as she runs to the driver’s side of the truck and turns over the engine, its loud rumble shaking even more of my insides loose so that it can come clattering out of my eyes as saline.

And then she calls out for the dogs.

“Don’t go,” I try to beg of her but my throat is so hoarse from crying that it’s barely a choked whisper.

“Ash, it’s going to be okay,” Kyla tries while Jetsam licks the tears from my face.

She can’t possibly know that because it can’t possibly be true. The safety net, the whole world, has just been pulled out from under my feet. I sink to my knees and buckle over, the sobs wracking me so hard that I’m reminded that I haven’t had anything substantial to eat in the last two days.

“Jetsam,” Spencer shouts, her voice biting, and while the animal jumps a bit and looks at her, the fact that he’s torn is written all over his demeanor. He still doesn’t move to obey her because he’s mine now. It takes both Spencer and Kyla to drag him to the truck and shut him in. I can still hear his whining.

“Don’t go,” I try again, better this time, and it stops Spencer in her tracks.

Her head is down, her back is to me, and everything about the rigid set in her shoulders says that she’s on a mission and she won’t be deterred, despite the fact that she openly doesn’t want to. She doesn’t have to, if she’d just realize that.

“I have to,” she says, as if she’s arguing with my internal diatribe.

And all I can do is watch as she gets in the truck and it putters away, the sound of its engine getting softer and softer as it fades out of sight.

“Ash, it’s okay,” Kyla soothes.

I feel her small arms wind and pull tight around me, holding me together like rope as I fall utterly apart. I have no idea how long we’ve sat this way but the lack of blood flow in my legs is making itself known. I try to say something, but it won’t come out.

“It’s okay,” Kyla says. “Don’t talk right now. I understand.”

Does she really? Because I don’t understand. But she must because she helps me stagger to my feet and leads me inside. She heads straight for my shower, turns on the water, and tests the temperature with her wrist before helping me out of my clothes. Once I’m over the side of the tub, I sit and hug my knees in the hot spray, feeling no better than before but somehow more subdued.

She drops the lid on the toilet and sits down with a low, weary sigh.

“Will you tell me what happened in New Orleans?”

Normally I’d give some smartass remark and play it off as none of her business. And all the while, I’d find ways to throw her shortcomings in her face because it would deflect her curiosity. That’s what the dead girl would do, but she is in fact dead, at least for the time being.

So, I don’t fight. I don’t lie. I don’t use sarcasm or biting words to protect myself. I recount what happened down to every last gory detail, including my mental state, what almost happened in the hotel, and what happened by the river. And I do it showing all of the emotions that are tied to the events. I’m not holding anything back.

Kyla doesn’t say anything right away, which is surprising, surprising enough that I snap out of it, or more like I snap into myself, and glance over at her. My muscles don’t feel so tight and the spray masks some of my tears so that I don’t feel so wretched about myself. She’s looking at me curiously, her brows furrowed and lips in a tight line as she seems to study me.

“So you’ve snapped,” she somehow says and asks at the same time.

Normally I’d be offended, but all I can do is nod and return to looking at the water swirling around the drain.

Kyla chuckles and I look back over at her incredulously.

“I’m sorry,” she says through a chortle. “But you should see your face.” She laughs again and leans in close, getting a better look at my face. “God, Ash, you really did hit rock bottom.”

I feel the anger in me flare again so I stand, and it couples with a sudden self-awareness of my nudity. But before I can give her a piece of my mind she stops me.

“This is a good thing,” she says with a smile. “I’m glad, and I’m proud of you.”

I’m shaking but the water isn’t cold and I can’t tell if it’s because I’m angry at her for being so arrogant or for finding joy in my sorrow.

So I hold my arms out at my sides for a moment and shout, “Look at me! I’m a fucking mess! And this makes you glad? It makes you proud? I just told you that I almost killed myself!”

She gets to her feet, her face much more serious now. It’s almost as if I’ve misunderstood something that she was trying to say, but that information is too late. I’ve already swung out and my palm has connected solidly with her cheek in a loud, wet clap. The force of it sends her face to the side where I can see blood rushing to the surface to create a dark blush.

Her hand reaches up and covers the spot on instinct and her mouth falls open as she gapes me. I turn off the water and step out of the tub, grabbing a towel and hooking it around myself. I feel like I can’t look at her, not only because everything that troubles me is on such vivid display, but because some part of me knows that I’ve gone too far. And also because I just can’t find it within myself to feel bad about it, even if she never speaks to me again.

She deserved that, for all of her meddling and bullying. I was being open with her and she just… couldn’t get over herself long enough to really help me with it. She doesn’t say anything, though there are a couple of times that I believe that she’s going to. But her mouth opens and then shuts, no sounds but the click and grind of her teeth and sizzle of her anger filling the room.

And then she leaves, not just the bathroom, but after a quick stop in her room for a bag of clothes and a ferret, the front door clicks shut and leaves me dripping, naked, and alone in this house that seems impossibly bigger than it ever used to be before any of these people reinvaded my life.

And I’m left to wonder how I ever survived without them.

And how I’m going to survive now.


I think Trent Reznor put it best when he said, “Every day is exactly the same,” because it is. I’ve made it that way. I didn’t really have a choice. Routine has been my salvation for more than a week now. My life pretty much goes like this:

I toss and turn all night, getting no rest.

The alarm goes off.

I consider whether I should heed its call or bury my head in the blankets and sleep for the remainder of my pathetic life.

The alarm wins because I can’t sleep anyway.

I slog to my feet and force myself through the motions of a shower and brushed teeth.

I spend a couple of hours writing and practicing on my guitar.

I go to band practice, which is sometimes alone because everyone else has a life outside of the band where I don’t.

I come home to an empty house.

I stare at my phone, willing it to ring for a couple of hours but it never happens.

I go to bed.

Rinse and repeat.

The only differences are the occasional few hours hanging with the band and Kate reminding me that I need to eat. It’s hard for me to remember to do that. This new life has left me feeling empty no matter my situation, so it just doesn’t register.  I wish that it did. I miss feeling full, feeling alive. I miss a lot of things, like sleep. I miss a noisy, messy house. I miss the rumpled glance of a blonde as she pads to the bathroom first thing in the morning. I miss a cold doggy nose goosing me in the back and making me scream at the sudden chill. I miss Kyla’s subsequent laughter. I miss everything that really doesn’t matter at all because somehow those are the things that came to matter most.

But they’re gone, and in an odd twist of fate, I’m still here. I could laugh if it wasn’t so fucking irritating. And it’s in moments like this, every evening, when I find myself standing alone in my living room, and I’ve done everything that there is to do, that I start to… itch. I don’t know how else to put it. My skin crawls and I have to distract myself through it because if I don’t, I’ll start to think of ways to make it end and none of those ways will leave me breathing. I need out… of this house, of my own skin, but there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nowhere to find comfort. That’s the problem: I’m the problem. I carry it with me, in my bones, in my organs like a cancer.

And that’s what it is when I get down to it, isn’t it? Cancer did all of this. It ruined everything. It takes everything and gives nothing like a parasite. And so I start to cry, sinking to the floor and hugging my knees. This happens a lot too, so it’s nothing new. But tonight something’s different. As it happens, as I fall apart and the attic throbs somewhere in the fucked up bits of my brain, I can’t seem to sit still and just let it happen.

I find myself in my car, the Porsche, and somewhere on Santa Monica Boulevard feeling better the faster that the street life outside of the windows streaks by. I start to laugh when red and blue lights swirl in my rearview. In a last minute decision, I make a screeching turn at the nearest street and consider flooring it to try and lose him. Not because I want to escape him, but because I just need to go faster – go anywhere.

I speed up for a minute considering throwing caution to the wind but think better of it and come to a hard stop in the street bus parking behind the Troubadour. The cop is obviously ruffled by my intense stop and go, and nearly rams into my back bumper in his effort to keep up with me. I laugh again, enjoying the feel of it even if it’s for the wrong reasons. I feel like I’ve lost my fucking mind but at least it’s a happy place.

The cop comes to the window and waits a moment, but I don’t roll it down. For some reason, I want to make this as hard as possible on him. After a long minute, he shines his light into the window tint but that does not good for him and I still don’t roll it down. Unable to see anything, he raps on the window with the flashlight handle a few frustrated times.

I finally roll it down, coming face-to-face with a shiny, golden nametag.

“Yes, officer… Doug?”

He seems to study me for a moment, a hint of surprise appearing in his ruddy features at what I can only assume is the fact that I’m a small woman. I chuckle again and that seems to annoy him more than the fact that I’m a female.

“License and registration.”

“I’m sorry, Deputy Doug, but why did you pull me over?”

He reddens a little and points at the speedometer. “You see that little needle there? That’s what tells you how fast you’re going, and you were going fifty-five in a thirty-five while weaving through traffic. Now license and registration.”

“Oh, is that what that’s for,” I say in my girliest voice as I get the documents out. “I had no idea. My vagina prohibits me from having silly things like ideas.”

I drop them just outside of the window as he’s about to take them and watch in amusement as he clenches his jaw a few angry times while scrambling to pick them up. On his way up, he makes a point of sniffing the air.

“Do you smell that,” he asks. “Smells like marijuana to me.”

I roll my eyes at him and chortle. “Maybe you shouldn’t smoke before your shift then.”

I look him up and down, my merriment dying down a little as he presumes to open my door.

“Step out of the car. The smell gives me cause to search it.”

I look him up and down. He’s huge, buzzed clean, ugly as fuck, and has that air of superiority that only a male overcompensating for his manhood can have. He also has the indignation to go right along with it. I consider fighting him on it, and actually like the prospect, but I really don’t want to draw this out.

“Whatever,” I say, shrugging my shoulder a little for emphasis as I get out of the car. I cross my arms and lean on the side of the car as he flashes his light into the cabin and starts poking his hands in hidden places. The car is pristine. I rarely drive it and I don’t smoke weed. In fact, now that I think about it, maybe I should start.

As for the car, there’s just nothing in there, kind of like me.

“Where did you get this car,” he asks, continuing his fruitless rummaging.

I snort at this question, ready to tell him that I bought it, like most people, but again my mouth runs away with me.

“One of my regular Johns gave it to me. I’m just that good.”

He pulls his huge frame out of the car and gives me another indignant look, this time shining the light in my eyes to the point of blinding me.

“I said you could search the car, not my face, asshole.”

“What did you call me?”

I rub at my eyes and sigh. “Asshole. You know, an irritating or contemptible person. Unless you want to go with the more literal definition of anus…”

I start to laugh again when his ears fume, and even harder when he says that he’s going to impound my car.

“You can’t do that,” I say through a laugh, finally getting something sensible to come out of my mouth.

He holds up a joint like a carrot. “Yes, I can.”

He straightens and reaches for his handcuffs, and I start to get really pissed, but then someone calls out on my left.

“Ashley…?”

We both look over to see Erin approaching with a worried look on her face.

“Ashley, are you okay? What’s going on,” she asks.

“The LAPD was just about to get itself sued,” I say, earning a smug look from the cop.

“Right,” he drawls, “No one’s ever threatened that before.”

He grabs my arm to turn me but I pull myself free.

“Don’t touch me,” I warn him.

“Keep it up and I’ll happily add resisting arrest to the list.”

“That’s not mine and you know it, asshole,” I seethe.

“Yeah, everyone’s innocent,” he says sarcastically. “Now turn around and put your hands behind your back.” I try to step away from him but my back hits the Porsche. “I mean it, little girl.”

“Little girl,” Erin asks incredulously, situating herself between me and the cop. “You can’t talk to her like that.” The cop manhandles her out of the way and she skids a few steps back, her voice panicked now. “Hey, stop! Ashley, what’s going on?”

“Deputy Doug here just planted a joint in my car so he could arrest me.”

The cop turns me and pushes me roughly against the car, quickly linking my wrists together with practiced ease.

“Hey,” Erin shouts. “Get your hands off of her!”

I don’t see what happens next because I’m facing the wrong way and it’s over before I can even turn around, but after a few choice curse words from Erin and monosyllabic grunts from Deputy Doug, Erin and I find ourselves in the back of his cruiser.

I look over at her. “Sorry…”

“Not your fault.”

“Why did you get involved,” I ask.

She looks back at me with a dumbfounded expression on her face. “He was hurting you,” she says as if my question was preposterous. She takes a high-legged kick at the grate separating us from him and says a little louder, “And he’s a misogynist asshole!”

Deputy Doug just grunts.

I look her over and laugh a little. She’s my size and that’s not saying much. What did she really think she could do to help me?

“And what are you, my dyke in shining armor?”

She smiles and shrugs her shoulders as best she can with her hands trapped between her back and the plastic seat. “If a friend’s going down, you go down with them.”

“Sounds like you need better friends,” I say and she looks affronted.

“I like my friends just fine, thanks. Besides, you’re the only one who’s ever gotten me arrested. You really know how to show a girl a good time. So thanks for that.”

“Anytime,” I say.

We look at each other for a moment, both of us smiling. It feels real and satisfying, and I find that the emptiness inside of me seems a little smaller, like this laughter isn’t so hollow, like this is my first taste of air after having been completely submerged under water for so long.

She lowers her eyes and takes on that bashful demeanor that I remember finding so charming.

“Anytime,” she asks, glancing up at me. “You never did call…”

My smile fades as I look back at her hopeful, expectant eyes. I’m not ready for anything but friends. Hell, I’m not sure I’m ready for that. I’m not a good enough person to be any good to anyone else. I’m a mess, and right now I have no filter. I can’t hold it in. When the feelings happen, the aftermath is random and unavoidable. That’s all there is to it, just like that slap with Kyla. That’s the kind of thing that’s expected of children, not grown adults. Who would want to put up with that?

But I need someone, even if it’s temporary, and even if it gets them hurt. I’m not ashamed to admit It now, and I’ve always known that I’m selfish. I just don’t really have a choice. I’ve pushed everyone away on my fall to the bottom, and now I truly understand just how much I depended on those people, and just how much they put up with. I also understand why I can’t depend on them now, but that doesn’t change the fact that if I stay isolated, I’m not going to make it through this, whatever it is.

“How about I bail us out and I’ll buy you that coffee?”

The cruiser comes to a halting stop and she smiles at me. It’s so warm that I’m certain the metal around my wrists is melting.

I can’t help but smile back, especially when she says, “I’d really like that.”

The doors open on both sides and two different officers escort us into the building. We’re still smiling at each other when they take our mug shots and book us, even though Deputy Doug won’t let us talk. It’s not until her officer is about to drag her out of sight that my smile fades and I realize that I have no way of getting in contact with her again. Her number washed off of my arm ages ago and I only know her first name.

“Erin, what’s your last name,” I shout.

“Carter,” she replies, her disembodied voice bouncing off of the sterile walls.

I smile again and that earns me a disgusted snort from Deputy Doug as he walks me into a holding area and shuts the steel bars behind me.

“I want my phone call,” I say.

“Daddy can’t get you out of this one, little girl.”

“Maybe not,” I reply with an inordinate amount of confidence. “But the best legal team in Southern California can.”


I glance nervously around the coffee shop. I’ve been here for a couple of hours already and I feel more and more impatient with each passing minute. All of the coffee I’ve had isn’t helping either. The litter of empty cups on the table and the nagging call of my full bladder attest to just how wired I am at the moment.

I get up from the table and head to the bathroom to relieve the ache and stop at the sink to wash up. The person in the mirror is a little scary. Her eyes are too wide and bloodshot, her cheeks hollow from all of the weight loss, and her clothes hang on her a little loosely. She sort of reminds me of those first few weeks after I got the bone marrow transplant – somewhere on the line between healthy and collapse.

I have to stop and ask myself how long it’s been since Spencer and Kyla left and I started this spiral. Two weeks? A month? I’m not even sure. I know that it’s only been about twenty-four hours since I put up bail and my lawyer had the charges dropped like a hot potato. Either way, the stress in my life is taking its toll. I need to get a manageable hold on myself, but it’s hard to fully care.

I finish up and head back to my table, only to see a smiling face sitting there and waiting for me. I can’t help but smile back at her, and oddly enough, some of my jitters fade. I feel fairly at ease when I retake my seat.

“Hey,” I say. “How did you know which table was mine?”

“I saw you get up when I came in,” she says.

I’d been watching the door like a hawk. No one had entered. I find myself pondering whether or not my short-term memory is just completely wrecked, and Erin must notice because she chuckles a little.

“I came in through the back,” she explains. “I’m a bit of a regular here.”

“Erin, it’s about time you showed up,” a thin man in his early thirties exclaims in a low baratone. He has a small bun on the back of his head, a full, thick beard on his face, and a serving tray in his hands. “You’re a little late, though.”

He sets the three tiny cups on the table in front of Erin and leans in to give her a hug.

“I know, Gavin. I’m sorry I missed it.”

“Where were you,” he asks seriously.

Erin picks up one of the tiny cups and gestures to me before knocking it back like a shot.

“Oh,” he says with a lascivious smile, as if that explained everything. “I see… Well, you missed one hell of a party.”

Erin snorts and wryly says, “I bet.”

“Now what is that supposed to mean,” he says, hooking his hand on his hip like a flaming queen.

I have to do a double take because nothing about this man says gay at all, except for that.

“Gav, every year for the last four years I’ve been coming to your birthday parties.”

“Yeah,” he says defensively. “And you always have fun.”

She laughs. “Please. My idea of fun isn’t babysitting a bunch of drunk fags and holding their hair while they puke.”

“So you ditched me,” he asks hotly.

“No,” she says patiently. “Ashley got me arrested.”

Erin gives me a charming smile before knocking back another shot of what I’m guessing is espresso.

“What,” Gavin almost shouts, shoving his way in next to her. “What did you do to my girl,” he asks me accusingly, a protective arm curling around Erin’s shoulders.

I give Erin a glare but the smug look on her face says that she doesn’t care.

“I, uh…,” I clear my throat. “I-“

“Wait, aren’t you that lead singer of that band, The Moore, The Moores of After, or something?”

The Mourning After,” Erin says, and after a moment of some sort of dawning awareness, he leans over the table to take my hands.

“Girl, nevermind. You can do whatever you want with old Erin here.”

He pats my hand and gets to his feet, and Erin ducks her head to unsuccessfully hide her blush.

“I’ll leave you two alone then,” Gavin says striding away, and I can’t help but stare at his back.

He was like a whirlwind of confusion.

“Friend of yours,” I ask when he disappears behind the coffee bar.

“Yeah. Gavin’s a great guy once you get to know him.”

I lean in a little. “Is he gay?”

She laughs. “Yeah. It’s hard to tell, isn’t it?”

I nod my agreement. “I wouldn’t have had any idea if I hadn’t seen him over-react to something.”

She nods. “That’s how it goes with him. One minute he’s your typical man’s man, and the next he’s a raging queen. There really isn’t an in-between with him. He both defies and lives the stereotype.”

I nod and a moment of silence passes. “Thanks for throwing me under the bus, by the way.”

She grins. “You’re welcome.”

“You know, it’s not my fault you bit off more than you could chew and got arrested.”

She leans over and pats my hand. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, sweetie.”

“I’m serious,” I say laughing. “You tried to go all Hee-Man on the cop. You’re like a Chihuahua with a Pit Bull complex.”

She laughs and leans back in her booth, and I get the impression that if I could see under the table, she’d be crossing her legs in that Sharon Stone kind of way, the one that says, ‘danger.’

“I’m no Chihuahua.”

I grin and mirror her pose. “I don’t know about that, but you’re definitely no Pit Bull.”

“Care to make a wager on that?”

I can think of a million replies to that question, but I’m not comfortable with any of them.

“How much,” I ask cautiously.

She laughs a little too heartily. “Oh, not money. That’s dull.”

I can’t help but grin at that. I’ve met gold diggers before. “What did you have in mind, then?”

“A ride.”

“A ride?”

“Yes.”

“That’s what got us in this mess to begin with.”

“Are you nervous, little girl.

Hell yes I’m nervous but she’s not going to get that out of me, so I scoff and she laughs and then I laugh louder because my bravado was utterly unsuccessful.

“That’s a low blow.”

“I’ve always been partial to the lower regions,” she says, her eyes drifting down my body before coming  back up to my eyes.

Holy shit… the bashful act is really just that: an act.

“Um,” I say in that way that only a prepubescent boy can. “Okay. A ride.”

She grins like the Cheshire cat, and I can only wonder what the fuck I just got myself into. I don’t have to wonder long though, because within minutes she’s pulled me outside, loaded me into her vintage purple bug, turned up some Schoolyard Heroes, and we’re both screaming the lyrics to Attack of the Puppet People all the way to a hole-in-the-wall dive bar.

The inside is loud, smoky, and oddly bright for a night spot. The cracked, brown pleather stools, bench seats, and the fake wood paneling along on the walls give credence to the age of the place. The décor isn’t really décor so much as the skulls of dead things nailed to various surfaces and a few simple paintings of the idealized electric cowboy of the seventies. The music is hideous, all whining and twang. Fortunately though, I can barely hear the music over the shouting.

I glance at Erin in confusion as the giant Hawaiian man at the door happily hugs her and stamps our hands with a palm tree. Her smile is disconcerting more than reassuring as she leads me into what I assume would be an open area, but there are so many bodies crammed into the space that there’s barely air to breathe. All of them are shouting in another language at something at the center of their mass that I can’t see, and waving their arms in the air, money of differing denominations clenched tight in their fists.

Erin somehow glides through them like a salmon in a stream and I do my best to keep up with her. I catch up to her just in time to see her hugging the… well, I guess that she’s a DJ, but the age of her attire, the equipment around her, and the music would suggest that she basically just changes the 8-track when necessary. She has a warm smile that’s very inviting though. Maybe it’s because of all of the feathered hair framing her face or the lipstick stains on her teeth. Either way, she has soft features for someone clearly in her fifties, and she tips her cowboy hat to me in greeting because there’s no way we can hear to speak.

She seems to know what Erin wants without speaking and they both give me a grin that makes me feel like meat for the slaughter. After a few minutes the shouts die down with an almost sad, “Aww,” and I watch as the woman pulls the bulbous, silver snake mic on the paneled podium towards her mouth.

“Aw, that’s too bad. But you held on tight and gave it your all, darlin’. Let’s give her a round of applause, y’all.”

Some people clap but mostly the crowd is shifting to exchange money with someone in the corner and to let a girl suspended between two guys come shuffling through wearily.

“We have a special treat for you tonight,” Erin’s friend continues into the loud speakers, taking a long pause as if to build suspense. And it works, my nervousness shoots up a notch and the crowd waits quietly with baited breath until the woman says, “Showdown.”

Everyone starts to whistle and holler, and the guy in the corner taking the money gets bum rushed. I have to wipe my palms on the thighs of my jeans. This isn’t good.

“In this corner,” she continues. “We have the Irish lass who’ll will kick your ass, the one, the only, Erin Carter!”

The crowd cheers and I swear that she knows most of these people. I’m a little taken aback. Erin really gets around. I look over at her and watch as she says something to the woman, giving me a pointed look when she’s done. Actually, I can’t tell if that’s a pointed look, or a heated one, or maybe both.

I’m in over my head with this girl.

“And in this corner we have the guitar girl who’ll make your toes curl, the lead singer of The Mourning After, Ashley Davies!”

This time, the cheer isn’t nearly to the volume it was for Erin, but a few of the lifers show their support for me in that way that speaks of just how badly I’m going to get my ass kicked. I still don’t know what’s about to happen, and I’m not certain that I want to find out.

“Okay, y’all, finish placing your bets and we’ll get this dog and pony show on the road!”

I step forward and try to get Erin’s attention, but she intercepts me, knowing exactly what I want, and pulls me up onto a platform. It gives me the height that I need to see over the crowd and easily identify the fake bull at its center. And suddenly, taking ‘a ride’ makes sense.

Just fuck…

Erin laughs and steps up behind me, putting her arms around my middle and leaning in close to my ear.

“What’s the matter, Ashley? Are you scared?”

I swallow a little, but I’m not sure if it’s because of what I’m about to do or because she’s breathing gently on my ear.

“No,” I say confidently, though it’s a giant lie.

I can feel her smile more than see it. “Good. I wouldn’t want you to chicken out.”

It’s about this time, as Erin steps away from me, that the DJ brings me a piece of paper that basically tells me that if I die or almost die, the venue isn’t responsible. And I’m supposed to sign it. I really don’t want to. If I die here, I want someone to be held responsible. More poignantly, I don’t want to die. Can I at least get a helmet, or a breast plate, or maybe some wrist guards?

I mean, my hands are my trade…

Erin grins at me and I know that she knows just how nervous I am and I really, really hate that she knows that. So, I go to put my name on the paper but freeze as I realize what just happened. I mean, I never really wanted to die, but I didn’t have a choice and so I became pretty flippant with my safety. I don’t even look both ways crossing the street because, oh well, it just ends the inevitable sooner.

But right here, right now, I’m looking at something that has minimal odds of killing me and wanting to take precautions to ensure my safety. What does that mean? Isn’t death still the inevitable for me?

I put my name on the line, my nervousness turning to disorientation as my mind tries to catch up with itself, but I really don’t have time to ponder the nonsense that is my jumbled thoughts.

Erin is speaking to me again, low and breathy in my ear. “I’ll go first.”

She brushes past me and I watch her climb into the ring of soft mats and mount the mechanical beast like a pro. This clearly isn’t her first time and that seems a little unfair to me, but then when has anything ever really been fair? The crowd is going crazy. The smoke seems to have intensified in direct proportion to the volume.

“Alright, alright, alright, folks. Bettin’s closed.” A few gentleman that came in late rush the man in the corner but they’re turned away. “And away we go.”

The DJ puts a vinyl on the turntable and I’m surprised to hear Lana Del Rey’s Blue Jeans start over the loud speaker. She smiles at me, some of her lipstick clinging to the yellow surface of her teeth in clods, and standing this close to her, I can’t help but smell the strength of her perfume meant to mask the musk of her sweat, though it’s unsuccessful. Her clearly dyed hair and the fringe on her white country and western button up combined with those things make her rather repulsive, but somehow, I still can’t help but like her. There’s something kind, unassuming, and genuine about her.

It definitely earns her points when she leans in and starts to give me pointers.

“Listen, youngin’, don’t let that girl scare ya or she’ll run roughshod right over ya.” She smiles again and focuses my attention on Erin. “See how she’s arching her back and then leaning forward?”

Hell yes I see these things. Erin’s gracefully undulating on top of the beast, one hand in the air as she bends and flexes in time with the motion. Her skin is a little shiny with a light sheen of sweat, her stomach is revealed above her cutoff jean shorts on each stretching pose, and her chest is thrust out.

I’m rather hypnotized until the DJ’s voice breaks back in. “It’s all about balance. You lean forward when it pushes up and lean back when it pushes down. The hard part is keepin’ up with it. It can go pretty damn fast.”

As if to emphasize her words, the bull starts to pick up speed and the muscles in Erin’s exposed legs get tenser as she hooks her heels over the front flanks of the bull. We watch her fold and stretch faster and faster until she’s finally chucked onto the thick mats. The crowd is going nuts and Erin has a rather self-satisfied smile on her face as she pulls up out of the ring and stands next to me out of breath.

“Whoooie,” the DJ says in the mic after she’s cut off the song. “That was some fancy ridin’, Erin. Three minutes and fifty-eight seconds. That’s a new record!”

I feel the adrenaline soak my veins as the DJ confirms that it’s my turn.

“Okay, y’all, final bets.”

The crowd cheers again and the DJ shows me a modest collection of more modern vinyls so that I can pick my song while the spectators place their bets. “Make it quick, darlin’.”

Somehow, maybe because of who I am, choosing my song seems like the most important part of this endeavor. It’s really the only thing I can do well before I go down in a burning ring of…

And I’ve found my song.

The DJ smiles her lipstick smile and loads up the record. “Okay, folks, bettin’s officially closed. Let’s hear it for Ashley!”

Johnny Cash blares in the loudspeaker as I’m escorted to the top of the steps. I know that I’m supposed to go down there, but I just don’t want to. I must be the biggest pussy on the face of the earth. I mean, it’s thickly padded. If… I mean when, I get thrown, I’ll land on pillows. It can’t be all that bad, right?

“Don’t keep the crowd waiting, Slick,” Erin says in my ear, and that just makes me more nervous.

But then she gives me a little shove and I hug the rail as I work my way down the stairs. I’m grateful for my combat boots, but I’m worried about how much I’ll feel with the tight jeans. I mean, thighs are tender. But Erin seems okay, and she was wearing a skirt.

I wrinkle up my nose as I consider that she did this with nothing but underwear between her and the bull? That’s kind of gross…

“COME ON ALREADY,” someone shouts in a thick Hispanic accent. “LOSE SO I CAN GET MY MONEY!”

I can’t see the asshole that screamed at me over the din, but I throw my middle finger in his general direction, feeling my determination bolster, not just because I’d like to beat Erin, which I would, but because the last thing I want is for the asshat in the crowd to win.

I start to feel hot, so I pull my jacket off but it does little to help, even in a thin, black tank top. The heat from all of the bodies has left a cloud of smoky fog lingering over the room like a wet blanket. I chuck the jacket at Erin who catches it with a smile and pull my hair up off of my neck.

The crowd cheers a little, though I’m not sure why, and one of the guys closest to me whistles and cat calls. I absorb the good cheer because, well, I’m me, and walk over to him, stealing the wicker cowboy hat off of his head and settling it on my own, and nabbing a shot from a fresh round that was just delivered to the bookey. He doesn’t look amused, but I just don’t care as the tequila burns a path down my throat.

I scream out a, “Whoo,” because it feels good, not just the shot but all of it.

I feel a little liberated right now. I know what it means to have fun. The feeling I get when I play in front of a receptive crowd is… well, nothing even slightly compares. But right now, somehow this feels better than that. It’s like everything good that I’ve ever felt was never as good as it could be, as if I’d spent my life squinting at a photo and only now just put on corrective lenses.

Maybe feeling all of the bad means I’ll truly feel all of the good. If so, if this stupid thing I’m about to do can make me feel this good, I can’t even imagine what my next concert will be like, or my next kiss, or my next sunrise. No wonder everyone says it’s worth it.

I just wish I wasn’t experiencing the whole spectrum of human emotion with whiplash inducing momentum.

I stick my arms in the air victoriously, because even if I fall right off this stupid bull immediately, I’ve decided that I’ve already won. I shout a little with everyone else and it feels even better. I’m not even slightly intimidated when I get on the bull and grip the handle with my left hand as tight as I can.

“Counterbalance,” I say to myself. “It’s up, I’m down and vis versa.”

There’s nowhere to hook my feet, so I settle them over what would be the front legs of the beast and let my heart pound out of my chest as it starts to rock beneath me. I can feel every muscle in me tense as I try to match the stride of its motion, but it’s a lot more difficult than it looks and the spinning motion is entirely disorienting on its own, without all of the shouting and smoke.

I don’t know how long I manage to pull it off before I go tumbling to the mats, but it couldn’t be long. I mean, Johnny’s only just finished the first ring of fire chorus. The crowd is cheering pretty heartily as I stare up at the ceiling and let the spinning stop.

“Oh,” the DJ says. “Four seconds. That’s a new record on its own.”

I see Erin appear above me and extend a hand, and I take it, letting her pull me to my feet. We’re both smiling and I feel a little rush roll through me. She picks up the lost hat and I take it, putting it on my head and walking a circle around the bull with a single finger raised in the air.

I’ll give you two guesses which one it is…

There are equal amounts of cheering and booing as the bookey gets rushed and I pull myself back onto the bull. I want another go at this beast and the DJ obliges.

“Look at her spirit, y’all! Let’s give her another go! Bets are double or nothin’, what d’ya say?”

The booing disappears and the ruckus kicks up a notch, if that’s even possible. I have to wonder with all this noise how this place hasn’t been busted for illegal gambling yet, but then the bull starts to move and all non-survival thoughts are lost.

I hook my heels into the sides of the metal beast, bending and extending to keep myself seated, but it’s still awkward. I’m fairly certain that I’m not going to last long. A particularly harsh move nearly sends me to the floor but I hold on, my ass sliding forward. And then, everything clicks. I find the center of gravity, shove my right hand into the air to keep balance, and hold on for dear life, feeling the motion and strain in my muscles. And, to my everlasting surprise, I find myself loving it.

The crowd goes crazy and it’s over before I know it, the bull only kicking me off when it’s going so fast that my eyes can’t discern anything but smearing shapes. I land face first but it doesn’t matter because I’m laughing as I roll over and wait for the spins to subside.

But then Erin is there again pulling me to my feet, only this time she’s shaking her head in what I discern is mock disappointment.

“You got lucky, Slick…”

I grin and she leans in closer.

“Keep this up, and you’ll get luckier.”

And that’s a proposition if I’ve ever heard one. I gulp a little at the smoky air and the few seconds that it takes for my brain to process this information and think of something to say, something to do, a way to run for my life, Erin starts to laugh.

“Calm down, Slick. I’m not a first date kind of girl.”

Oh thank sweet, baby Jesus. My relief escapes me in an awkward giggle and Erin takes my hand, her predatory aura fading and her eyes gentling. She looks at me intently and despite the intensity of it, somehow, I feel at ease again. It’s like everything will be okay. It’s as if in this three second, silent exchange she’s telling me that she understands even if she doesn’t know – that she’s a safe place, a friend, and a lover – that for all of her bravado, she’s just a girl like me, with her own story, her own trials, and her own heartache to overcome.

I can’t help but link my fingers with hers in an automatic way. It feels… different, weird even, but it still works. The moment’s gone, the noise of the crowd around us intrudes and she yanks on me.

“Come on, Slick,” she shouts with a smile. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Where are we going now,” I ask with non-too-little trepidation, though I’m hoping the chaos masks some of it.

“Anywhere,” she says with a smile.

For a second I hear Spencer’s voice and see her broken face in the seat next to me as I take her away from her bigoted mother. Erin’s hand is starting to scald me and there’s this sense of choking betrayal rising up in my throat as thoughts of a different girl and a different time come to the forefront and I hear my teenage voice reply, ‘I love anywhere…’

“Ashley, you okay,” Erin asks and I have to think about that for a moment.

I really don’t know. When all of those initial feelings of that moment are swallowed and start to dissipate, I’m left with that dull ache that comes with the passage of time. It’s like it will never really be okay. Nothing can be the way that it was, least of all me or Spencer. But time has passed and wounds stop bleeding when you stop picking at them. And right now, I don’t want to pick at it. I’m not ignoring it like I used to, but I’m going to leave it alone, let it be a scab, let it fall off in its own time. Erin poked it, and it panged, but the wound is closed and I’m surviving.

I don’t need to run away.

I smile at Erin, albeit a little sadly, and say, “I will be.”

And for the first time in my life, I actually believe it.


Continued in Chapter 7 – Steady Steps


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Chapter 5 – Kings or Pawns, Emperors or Fools

“Heda, the Skai-”

“Bring them in,” Lexa cuts Indra off, refusing to look up or show her surprise. Instead, she keeps her eyes on the tip of her blade, turning it against the pad of her finger just as she’s done for the majority of the night, further wearing down the almost raw skin.

She’s been waiting – quietly, patiently, and though no one would know it, nervously. She did not think that the Sky People would come to their senses. From the moment that she excused herself from the conference the evening prior, she’s done nothing but prepare and wait. Two riders had been sent immediately, one East and one West. Both had returned roughly half an hour ago with the news that the nearby clans had traveled through the night and were in position on all sides of the Ark.

To anyone aware of warfare or strategy, it would appear that she intends to kill a fly with a hatchet, but she will not underestimate these people again. She will try a different tactic this time. Before, on the bridge, her warriors had made a spectacle of themselves. This made them easy targets, which is not their usual custom. Normally, their way is to usurp victory from the cover of the forest. But the spectacle at the bridge had been part of Lexa’s strategy when she’d made the call. It had also been part of her hubris. While she had sent her warriors to kill those that had fallen from the sky, she had not intended for it to actually need to happen. She had believed that just the appearance of her war party would send the invaders scattering. She had wished to intimidate them away.

It had failed, and it had cost her people dearly. Tris, and later Anya, had not been the only casualties of that mistake, but she had learned a valuable lesson in the loss. This time, she would actually make war not shout out her intentions and assume that it would be enough. Those in the Ark would have no warning, no sight, no smell, no sound of what was happening until the Trikru were upon them. Death would come swiftly. They were surrounded and they didn’t even know it. And most importantly, they wouldn’t stand a chance, despite their technology and ingenuity.

As sunrise drew closer with no word from the Skaikru, she wanted to feel remorse for what was about to happen. Truly, the feeling was there, but she would not give it attention or even acknowledge it. There was no time, and remorse would serve no purpose. Too much was hanging in the balance. She had taken due diligence to provide this enemy with an alternative, more than what was expected of her by her people. In fact, she risked public scrutiny for doing so. But she knew that Clarke would appreciate the effort, however minute in light of other recent transgressions. She also knew that Clarke had been the only reason that she was even trying. But, just like Clarke, the council wouldn’t listen to her. They listened to no one. At least this way, their blood was on their own hands.

Surely Clarke would have no other way to see it.

Surely Clarke would see that she’d tried.

But as the tent flaps are thrown back and Abby and Kane are ushered into the small space, she finds again that she had been wrong, only this time she is thankful for it. They have shown, just in the nick of time.

She looks at them, her eyes never wavering as she takes in their appearance. They’re alone, which is surprisingly confident or utterly stupid. They seem haggard, tired, and thin, but strong. They’ve proven that strength, or at least Clarke and the original invaders have. But this is not Clarke. This is the council, and as such, Lexa is stronger, and she wishes to make that known.

“You agree to the terms,” she asks coolly, still turning the blade against her pad.

“No,” Abby answers, her posture rigid and defiant despite her small stature.

The blade stops. “Then you intend to leave?”

“No,” Abby says again.

Lexa swallows her consternation and raises her chin. “Then why have you come?”

“Heda, it’s a trap,” Indra snaps out in their native tongue.

Lexa raises a hand to silence the warrior, but while Indra’s tongue stays, her hand doesn’t leave the hilt of the sword around her waist, and Lexa knows that she will lash out if this situation is not treated carefully.

“We came to offer you a treaty,” Kane says, lifting his hand to show the rolled parchment in it. “One that we feel is fair.”

“For both sides,” Abby adds pointedly.

Lexa cocks her head for a moment, debating within herself. The sheer insolence of these people to come to her and not only refuse her offer of benevolence, but to undermine her in front of her people would have seen any other person on the spot. She does not wish to do that, not at all. She does not wish to hurt Clarke any further, but it would seem that the Skaikru are determined to die. There is only so much that Lexa can allow to happen without retribution, at least publicly.

But any such debate is halted as Indra steps forward and backhands Abby so hard across the face that the doctor stumbles and twists back into Kane.

“You dare to insult the commander,” she shouts, drawing on her sword as she moves in for Abby again.

Kane grabs Abby and backs away from the impending attack, and though Lexa is quick to speak, she’s unshaken. She merely orders the other guards to remove Indra and hold her for her disobedience. Lexa’s orders are carried out swiftly and without question, bringing the scuffle to a stop just as quickly as it escalated. In all reality, she’s grateful to Indra for what she has just done. Abby little more than secured her own execution with her behavior. She could insult Lexa on the Ark because there, she is the leader. But here, in front of Lexa’s people, where Lexa’s word was law, it could not and would not be tolerated. Indra may have given Lexa an opportunity to avoid killing Abby, but it comes with a price, one that Lexa will have to visit upon the warrior later.

Lexa wonders idly why doing what is right never falls into line with what is needed or expected. She laments it, but she is not naïve enough to dismiss the truth of these matters. She will do what is needed, what is expected, regardless of whether or not it feels right.

“So this is how you treat your allies,” Abby fires at her angrily as she smears some of the blood that’s beaded on her lip with an angry swipe of her hand.

Lexa stands and sheathes her dagger at her waist before stepping closer. “You should learn to show respect, Abby.”

“Respect,” Abby repeats incredulously, but Kane puts a hand to her arm to stop any further outbursts.

“Abby,” he says quietly, and there is a sense of urgency in his tone and pleading in his eyes, though neither woman looks at him.

It takes a moment for Abby to reign in her temper, to swallow her tongue, but once Lexa’s sure that she’s calm, she merely holds out her hand. Kane places the treaty in her palm a little hesitantly and Lexa unrolls it. It’s the same treaty that she had drawn up, but there are some major amendments. She scans the changes and glances up at the two in front of her, her mind whirring with this information and making her exceedingly uncomfortable. She has to think quickly, to speak decisively, but she has absolutely no idea how this can be handled without war. So, she decides to bide herself some time to think things through by asking questions.

“You wish to move into the mountain?”

“Yes,” Abby says, her tone less than pleasant.

“You also wish to remain completely independent of my people and my command?”

“Absolutely.”

“And as a…,” Lexa looks down at the treaty to get the correct terminology. “Gesture of goodwill, you will cure the Reapers inside when you retake it?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a fair trade,” Kane says. “We take territories that we’ve already conquered that are separate from your own, we remove ourselves from your lands so you’ll have no reason to attack, we are able to remain autonomous, and we help your people in the process.”

Lexa nods. It’s a sound plan, a fair one, but there is one major problem that cannot be ignored. “You will also take control of the acid fog and missile systems,” she points out. “And you’re clearly still hostile towards me and my people.”

“The acid baths were destroyed,” Kane says, purposefully ignoring the missile systems.

“Beyond repair,” Lexa asks.

“Well, I-I don’t know,” Kane says.

“And the missiles?”

Kane knew it was coming and merely sighs.

“Our defense systems are none of your concern,” Abby says. “Unless, of course, you plan to attack us… again.”

Lexa turns and picks up a pitcher of water, calmly pouring some into a cup to again bide her some time to think, though her thoughts are a war all on their own. Really though, she knows the answer.

“Giving an enemy more strategic leverage is my concern,” she rejoins.

“We’re not your enemy,” Kane interjects.

“Commander, I think you misunderstand,” Abby says, stepping forward and taking the full glass from Lexa’s hand. “We aren’t asking you to give us anything. The Mountain is already ours.”

She drains the cup, a smug expression on her face as she scrutinizes Lexa’s demeanor. Truth be known, she’s beyond nervous; she’s terrified. This girl could and would have her killed on the spot with little more than a passing glance. But she also knows that Lexa respects power, or at the very least, aggression. So, she’s putting on the bravest face that she has, doing her best to intimidate and appear unaffected, even though it’s taking a supreme effort not to tremble. She doesn’t wish to be like Lexa, but if this is all that Lexa can understand, then so be it.

Ultimately, Abby just needs to find the chink in Lexa’s armor. She believes that there must be one somewhere, some flaw that she can exploit. She keeps looking, but even now the girl is just as implacable as ever, absolutely refusing to rise to the bait. The only soft spot that she can find is Clarke, her own daughter, and she can’t conceive of going there. She recognized the affection in Lexa’s actions of the previous night. She knows what she saw and what she saw is incomprehensible. But more than that, it’s disturbing. Lexa is a monster, and Clarke may have her flaws, but she deserves so much more than an angry, cold-hearted murderer. If anything, Abby truly believes that Lexa’s affection will kill her daughter one way or another. She knows that it already has in so many ways. She won’t allow it. She’ll die first. And by the cold look in Lexa’s eyes, she believes her death may come at any minute.

“You may have killed the Mountain Men,” Lexa replies unshaken as she turns to pour another cup. “But you have yet to actually claim the mountain territories. It is within my ability to stop you.”

Abby sets her cup on the table a little loudly. “We’ve already taken the Mountain.”

Lexa sets the pitcher down and smiles almost gently at Abby. “I thought we agreed not to insult one another.”

Abby smiles back. “Sometimes the truth is insulting.”

Lexa’s eyes harden even more, if that were possible, and it’s Kane who explains. “We sent some people last night armed with make-shift signal generators to subdue the Reapers. They haven-”

“The Reapers are currently being detained, and the mountain is already ours,” Abby cuts Kane off.

“I could have you killed right now,” Lexa says lowly.

Kane and Abby share a curious look before the silence that’s now dominated the tent is destroyed. “Abby…? Come in, Abby.”

Lexa’s eyes shift to the small radio on Abby’s waist and she watches as Abby lifts it to her mouth. “Go ahead, Raven.”

“Just checking in.”

“We’re fine, so far. Check back in another five minutes.”

“Copy that.”

The disembodied voice dissipates and the radio stays firmly clutched in Abby’s hand. “You could do that,” Abby says, lifting the radio to dangle it like a carrot in front of Lexa’s face. “But if I don’t check in every five minutes, you die anyway, all of you.”

Lexa feels a jolt of anger slither up her spine and her fingers twitch for the weight of her sword.

“The way I see it, Commander, you don’t really have a choice here. You accept the terms and let us walk out of here, or not only do we kill the Reapers we’re holding, but we mark the territories you so generously mapped out for us and start launching missiles.”

Lexa gazes deeply into Abby’s eyes, disturbed by how much like Clarke’s they are because for all of the ways that they are similar, Abby’s are far more treacherous than her daughter’s. Clarke wouldn’t hold people hostage. Clarke wouldn’t be so careless, so callous. That is why she respects Clarke, why she trusts her, why she loves her. But she doesn’t feel love at this moment; she feels anger, incredible anger.

All other thoughts leave Lexa as she focuses in on Abby and Kane, trying to discern if they are telling the truth. Kane seems grieved, but that doesn’t speak of a lie. His desire to stop the fighting has been evident since the beginning. But all that Lexa can see of Abby is a desire to win, no matter how ruthless she has to become to do so. Lexa respects her more in this moment, but it changes nothing really.

Lexa sips on her water as she reels with this information. What can she do to shut this down without giving in to these demands? If what they say is true and they have already taken the mountain, it is too late to stop it. But a small party of survivors in the mountain cannot be their biggest concern. Those still sitting in the Ark are still vulnerable.

“How many people did you send to the mountain,” she asks calmly.

“That’s none of your concern,” Abby says quickly, knowing that if given enough time, Lexa will find a way to stop their momentum. “You should consider the lives here, of your own people.”

“And you should consider yours,” Lexa says. “You aren’t leaving me many options here, Abby. If what you say is true, then you will strike out at us no matter the outcome here. My only real option is to take as many of you with us as I can. And I assure you, those left on the Ark will go with us. I’m asking you if those who will survive in the mountain are enough.”

“Those on the Ark are more prepared than you might think,” Abby says.

“Perhaps that’s true, but my answer is no. I cannot allow you that kind of power.”

“What if we were to agree to dismantle the missiles,” Kane interjects, both women turning to him with murder in their eyes.

“No,” Abby says.

Lexa gestures to Abby and says, “You have your answer,” before turning and retaking her seat. Her heart is beating wildly in her chest as Kane and Abby proceed argue quietly, but she stills herself and focuses on the best way to protect the majority of her people. The warriors from the Trigeda, TonDC, and the KruWoda are in the forest, but those still in the territories won’t stand a chance. Even her fastest riders could not make it in time to get word to them before the missiles struck, especially not with the Ice Nation deep in the northern mountains, at least two day’s ride.

Truth be known, she would not mourn the loss of the Ice Nation. Andrea would surely not survive an attack of that magnitude without warning. With the Ice Nation gone and the three local nations surviving almost completely intact, perhaps the Sky People lashing out would not be such a bad thing, especially if she could take them down after the fact. So she considers if there is a way to use this to her advantage.

She breaks it down into pros and cons, mentally assuming the best and worst case scenarios based on the action and reaction of those involved. The worst case scenario is that the Skaikru attack now and several clans are all but annihilated, including the Reapers and the Ice Nation. She would then take down those in the Ark and make her way for the Mountain. Her two biggest enemies would fall, and while her numbers would be nearly decimated, her people would still survive. Blame would be placed on the Sky People and scrutiny removed from her. But it’s still not good enough. Does she have to sacrifice the Reapers, the Western nation, Southern nation, or the old and young that still remain in the TonDC, the Trigeda, and the KruWoda?

The best case scenario is that she buys some time with the Skaikru. If she could get word to the clans, they could all be evacuated. She could send word to the Ice Nation, but only someone trusted, someone who wants to take down the Sky People and can keep a secret. That warning wouldn’t make it in time by design and Lexa would still lose her two biggest foes, but retain most of her people. Polis wasn’t laid out on the map, so they would survive as well, and the Reapers would be rehabilitated.

No, she doesn’t have to sacrifice many at all if she can play this right.

She would have to sacrifice Clarke though.

But the Sky People refused her offer of inclusion. By agreeing to this treaty, she is under no obligation not to attack later by their own design. She can placate the Skaikru and use that time to learn the mountain. The acid fog is gone. She already knows this. She was with Clarke when Bellamy destroyed it. She read the desperation in Cage’s eyes when he came to her. If the Sky People do not attack now, they lose all of their leverage and they will learn that threatening her and her people is folly. She just needs to ensure that they don’t until it’s too late for them.

And when it’s too late, like a snake in waiting, she will lash out and destroy them.

But Clarke…

Another betrayal would mean the end, but is this not a betrayal of Clarke’s people? Is this not asking too much, demanding too much? Could Clarke understand? Would she even survive?

Lexa’s stomach swirls as her heart rages against her mind. Again she wonders why what needs to happen can’t be the right thing, the easy thing. Again she wonders how much loss and suffering she will have to bring on these people, on herself, on Clarke, before something feels right. She knows that there’s no going back from this. If she follows through with this plan, Clarke is truly lost to her, and that’s assuming that Clarke’s not already.

She looks at Abby and Kane, studying them, looking for another choice but finding none. These people are the enemy, no matter how much she cares for the loss of life or Clarke. No attachment will ever be enough to stop what’s already been set in motion. And she hates it. She hates how it feels and what it makes her do. She hates herself, and in doing so, she knows that there are no options anymore.

It’s win or lose.

She remembers the words that her mother used to say when she was very young, “In life we are all either kings or pawns, emperors or fools.”

Just remembering her mother, being with her, especially at such a young age, is enough to remind Lexa of who she is, where she comes from, and what she was born and raised to do. But the words, though she never really understood them before, now make a lasting impression. The strong build their lives on the weak. The strong live because the weak die. And that’s how it has to be. That’s how Lexa has to be if she intends to be one of the strong ones, one of the survivors.

She motions to one of her warriors to come close, hating her heart for its incessant bleeding and throbbing, and shuts it away as she speaks in their native tongue. “Send our fastest riders to the Northern, Southern, and Eastern clans and order them to abandon their territories. They can take to the edges of the wastes and wait. They will need to do so quietly. They cannot be seen or heard. I will speak with their heads in a week’s time in Polis to give further instruction.”

“And the Northern clans,” he asks in a whisper.

“Bring me Indra.”

“Yes, Heda.”

The man leaves and Abby’s radio crackles as she checks in yet again. Once the conversation stills, Lexa takes this opportunity to put her plans into motion.

“I want to make sure that I understand the terms of your treaty,” she says, standing. They both give her their attention and she chooses her words carefully. “You are choosing to deny our offer of inclusion and protection. You wish to remain separate from us, completely. As such, you may or may not attack at will at a later time should you decide, but you will attack now if I don’t agree.”

“Yes,” Abby says resolutely, shutting off any additional outbursts from Kane.

“You’re certain that you wish to do this?”

“Yes,” Abby says again.

“Commander, Abby, this is-,” Kane tries again.

“Enough, Marcus,” Abby cuts him off yet again.

“You’re going to get us all killed, Abby,” he finishes.

“We have the mountain. We’ll be fine.” And as these words leave Abby’s mouth, she looks pointedly at Lexa, driving her threat home.

Lexa gives a slight, crooked smile, letting her heart shrivel and die just a little more in the face of what she plans to do, even as she lets her prey turn and walk away with their lives intact. She’s okay with it for now, because she’s patient, because she’s smart, because she’s neither a fool nor a pawn, no matter how Clarke would see her soft.

“Okay,” Lexa says. “The Mountain is yours and you’re free to go.”

Abby is a little taken aback, and she knows that Lexa has something up her sleeve, but what could she possibly do that wouldn’t see her people destroyed?

“You- you agree,” Kane asks.

“Yes,” Lexa says.

Silence falls but Lexa wishes this to be over so that she can be alone to harden herself against what she knows is coming. It’s done. It’s over. Like Costia, she will sacrifice Clarke, and by extension, herself.

The tent flaps are thrown back and Indra is led inside, a baleful expression on her severe face.

“Please escort our guests back to the Ark,” Lexa orders her warriors.

They do as bid but Kane stops at the opening to the tent. “You won’t regret this,” he says before following after Abby.

Lexa can’t help but think that he will, but she focuses her attention on Indra who is seething at the ground at her feet, her hands tied behind her. Lexa pulls her dagger from her waist and releases the warrior.

“Relax, Indra,” she says. “You’re going to get your war.”


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Continued in Chapter 6 – Knowledge is not Understanding

Chapter 5 – Fat Fucking Tuesday

Spencer puts the gear shift in park ever so gingerly before shutting off the engine with a reluctant sigh. Her hands map across the steering-wheel in a caress like a lover as she again marvels at the ostentatious homage to Italian craftsmanship that we’re sitting in. I find it kind of funny, and a little weird, but mostly adorable. But then that’s Spencer in three adjectives.

She’s calmed down since we got on the road, though it took forty-five minutes for us to get here from the airport when it should have only taken about twenty-five. But she was enjoying herself and I was in no hurry.

I can’t help but wonder if she was scared of wrecking the car given how nervous she was at first, or if she just wanted to give herself more time to drive the car given how happy its very existence made her. I also can’t help but grin at her, and it’s the kind of grin that makes my eyes squint. She’s all kinds of cute when she’s wide-eyed with wonder.

While planning this trip, we looked for car rentals online. Of course there were the regular cars offered through the typical locations, but New Orleans is, well, New Orleans. Everything about it seems over-the-top and larger than life. So, amongst our searches was a novelty place called Auto Exotic. It just so happened that they specialized in more exotic fare.

Imagine that…

At first glance, it seemed to be solely dedicated to machismo, offering the kind of new-age sports cars that old men drive to regain their virility and young men drive to compensate for their sizable lack in manhood. Spencer never really cared about cars except to be safe and comfortable, and while I have always been able to appreciate a certain level of sexiness that some cars exude, I’m not a collector or connoisseur by any means. So, while it was fun to see what was out there, we’d decided on something ‘small, economical, and utilitarian,’ as Spencer had put it.

That really just meant a Fiat.

But then, just as we went to close the window and reserve said Fiat, Spencer squealed so loudly that I thought that she may have ruptured something. As it turns out, it was simply a 1961 convertible Ferrari in a glossy, cherry-red. And it was very pretty. Anyone could see that, but it was still just a car.

So after determining that she wasn’t injured, I learned that it wasn’t so much the car that had made her so demented, as what the car represented for her. As I’m sure the whole world is aware by now, Spencer is a movie freak, especially the cheesy 80s genre. And it just so happens that one of her favorite movies is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She liked to watch it when she was sick, which wasn’t often, but mostly she liked it because in the movie, a boy with an overbearing father shows his rebellion by fucking up dear old dad’s prized car. It doesn’t take a genius to understand why Spencer could relate to that, but anyway…

The movie holds a certain amount of sentimental value to her. And it does for me as well, because in those last few months between prom and graduation, when I was sick and mentally preparing myself to leave, she’d come over, pop the movie in, and play with my hair until I fell asleep. Sleep was elusive at that time, so was hope, and the simple comfort that she offered meant the world to me.

This car happens to be an exact replica of the one from that movie, and it’s pretty much set the mood for this adventure. We sort of threw economy and utilitarianism out of the window, agreeing that we would adopt the New Orleans way of life. We’re going to go big, shoot for the moon, and embrace all things wild.

So here we are, sitting out front of the Place D’Armes Hotel in the French Quarter, sticking out like the tourist blight that we are. But that’s okay because the awed delight on Spencer’s face is precious enough to endure a few awkward glances, and there have only been a few really. As much as we stand out, we’re still just a tiny spec in the crowds.

The city is in a tizzy, people everywhere, every lamp post and business covered in bright and festive decorations. But then this is to be expected given that it’s Friday the thirteenth. And while that’s something that makes me unreasonably happy – the horror buff that I am – there’s something even better to make this day so special: today is the Friday before Fat Tuesday, and it marks the beginning of another line crossed off of my list, something known as Mardi Gras.

It’s something that I’ve always wanted to experience. I’d only ever heard about it on the web or television, and all of those sources usually fell into one of two camps: it’s a week-long party that you’ll never forget, or, it’s a week-long practice in debauchery, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, and just generally doing all of those things that make Jesus puke.

So no matter which tack is taken, it’s obvious why I’ve always wanted to be here. I determine immediately that I like it, at least in the French Quarter. Every square inch has an other-worldly charm. Businesses are so tightly packed together that I can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, yet each has its own character that somehow morphs into its neighbor. Thin arches line each porch; every visible splinter of wood appears to have been painstakingly whittled by hand into ornate and interesting shapes, and wrought-iron balconies adorn every Victorian window where long strings of ivy and other leafy vegetation thrive a lush green. The streets are black as pitch, some of them still brick, and glossy from a fresh fall of rain.

Many of the structures are brick and stucco, and I almost feel as if I’ve been transported back in time, as if this is what colonial Boston or New York might have looked like after their inception. But even that would be too mundane, too singular. New Orleans is a melting pot, rich in multicultural elements that pop out and make every stretch unique but somehow blended. The very air feels and smells thicker with history, as if long-passed spirits and their stories comprise every atom. There’s a magical quality that I can’t quite place my finger on, and while I’ve not even scratched the surface, I can still feel it, like a charge that prickles my skin and gives me goosebumps. Everything feels alive, breathing, pulsing with character, even the streets, even the buildings that seem to live on top of one another as they call out with the provocative lilt of jazz.

Spencer nearly tackles me in the tiny space that is the front seat and I feel my eyes bulge with her grip. Seriously, she’s stronger than she looks.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she chants into my shoulder.

After the startle wears off and I’m able to draw breath again, I wrap an arm around her and squeeze her back.

“You’re welcome, Spence.”

She leans back and again fondles the steering wheel, and I almost feel a little jealous. “Are you ready to check in, or do you just want to sleep in the car?”

She grins over at me. “Is that really an option?”

I roll my eyes and open my door. “Come on, dork.”

She sighs overdramatically. “If I must…”

I shut the door and lean against it. “Keep this up, and I know what you’re getting for your birthday.”

Her eyes get huge and I laugh.

“That’s not funny,” she says, finally releasing her hold on the wheel and getting out.

I shrug and reach for the biggest of my bags, grateful for the convertible top. There’s no way that my luggage would have fit into this roller skate without it.

“If you like it, I don’t see why it matters.”

Spencer pulls her travel bag out easily, setting it on the sidewalk and pulling a hidden handle up where it locks into place. I have to wonder why mine couldn’t be that simple, or at least why they haven’t invented luggage that has, like, a black-hole inside of it or something.

J.K. Rowling so had the right idea…

“This thing probably costs as much as my college tuition.”

“So? I can afford it.”

I pull and groan with the effort to liberate my behemoth, and it’s her turn to roll her eyes before coming to help me.

“That’s not the point,” she grunts out.

Together we get the great beast to the asphalt.

“No, the point is to give you something amazing, Spence, because I can and because I want to.”

“Well in that case, you’re paid up through, like, forever.”

“Huh?”

She takes my hands, her voice sweet as she says, “You’re the most amazing gift I could ever receive,” before giving me another bruising hug.

God, that was some kind of cheesy, but there’s been enough eye-rolling for one day. And while I won’t admit it out loud, I kind of liked it. What does that say about me? Am I getting sappy in my old age?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I release her from the hug. “I might still get you the car.”

She tries to warn me with a look, but I’ve got nothing to lose so she’s going to have to try harder than that.

“Don’t you dare, Ash. I mean it.”

I choose not to say anything else, but I find myself whistling a delightfully jaunty tune as I make easier work of my remaining two bags.

“Ash, I said no.”

“Come on, we need to put the top up,” I smile as I change the subject. “It’s already rained once and it looks like it might again.”

And it does. The sky is overcast and grey.

“I still said no, Al Roker,” she replies, going to turn the key in the ignition and pressing the button to raise the soft top before we each crank up the windows.

With a reverent press of the old fashioned door locks and a determination that we need help with the luggage, well, my luggage, we make our way to the door. This place is so centrally located in the heart of the French Quarter that I never would have known that it was a hotel. In fact, if it weren’t for the wooden sign hanging from the roof of the porch, There would be no way to distinguish this place from a small, Victorian home.

I’m a little disappointed at first. We wanted to go big, but this doesn’t look so big, despite the reviews online. However, I quickly learn that looks can be deceiving. Spencer stays with our stuff as I head inside. It’s oddly spacious, the cream colored walls a study in the art of wainscoting with ornate brass fixtures that fill the space with soft light. Small, colorful paintings and rugs are carefully situated throughout, their frames and designs just as intricate as everything else.

I’ve never really cared for polished brass or busy patterns. It’s gaudy. My tastes always ran the way of modern colonial with a touch of fem-rock. But somehow, for how busy everything is, it still works. I approach the alcove where a well-dressed, ebony man awaits with an overly white smile, his hair perfectly cropped short against his crown and his suit neatly starched.

“Welcomb to Place D’Ames,” he says with a strange baroque that is noticeably French but… broken, maybe? “I um Rene. Ow may I be of ser’vice?”

It takes a minute for the words to actually make sense in my brain. “Oh, yeah, I have a reservation under Ashley Davies.”

“Wonderfuel,” he says in this way that seems pleasant enough, but somehow I feel like I’ve just been slapped in the face.

He types into the small computer in front of him. “Ah, jes, there ou arr.” He places a heavy, golden pen on a giant book that’s sitting on the counter. “Please sign ze registrar ere, an I will need to see identificacione.”

I lay my license out and take the pen to sign and the date his book as he lays the hotel’s contract on the counter next to it. I only skim over it. It’s a standard liability of stay and disclaimer of cost, so I sign it as well. He takes the paper and then gives me a look as if he’s waiting for something, maybe a much needed enema to commence. After a moment with no such help with the wedge up his ass, he glances at the pen in my hand.

“Oh, sorry,” I say before handing it over.

He says nothing else, just continues typing into his computer before retrieving a couple of keys and setting them on the counter.

“Ju arr on ze verd flur, womb tree gee.”

I stare at him for a moment. I get that tree is three, but I just can’t figure out what “gee” is, and honestly, my brain is still hung up on “womb.”

I try not to laugh. “I’m sorry, which room?”

With a long-suffering sigh that’s twinged with a high-pitched tone, he clasps his hands in front of himself and tries again.

“Tree gee.”

I’m at a loss and he can tell. In fact, I’m fairly certain that he thinks that I’m mentally challenged.

“Tree gee,” he says slower, as if his gross pronunciation can be fixed by speed or cadence.

I still can’t puzzle it out, but I know that I’m on the third floor. I could try every lock up there until the key works, but that might not go over so well with the occupants. In a last ditch effort, I look at the keys and find a keychain on each that reads, “3G.”

“Three ‘G,’ thank you,” I try to smooth it over, but he’s very bored with me at this point.

I kind of want to slap him and then run away, but then I still need help with the luggage. I debate the merits of a hernia against further dealing with this snot, and determine that I’m paying, so he’s going to help or get someone who will.

“Oh, uh, I need someone to help with our luggage.”

“Oh, but of curse,” he says very, very brightly before demurely lifting his hands to one side of his face and clapping twice.

He assumes his usual demeanor, which I’m prone to believe it normally tightly wound and nothing to do with me, as we just stare at each other in silence. Just a moment later a young man appears dressed like a performing monkey. This boy is, quite literally. wearing a maroon, double-breasted jacket with brass buttons, white cloth gloves, and a hat that looks like it once belonged to Abu from Aladdin, tassel and all.

He also looks scared to death as he addresses Rene. “Can I assist you, sir?”

“Oui, Jean,” Rene says. “Please halp our guest with her baggoge. Zey arr in womb tree gee.”

“Uh, yes, sir. Right away, sir.”

Jean looks to me expectantly, and I can tell that he’s just as ready as I am to get away from Rene, so I don’t waste another moment before heading back outside, Abu in tow. Spencer smiles at us as the boy quickly and quietly retrieves our bags. Well, he retrieves the biggest two, mine and Spencer’s, and it’s nearly painful to watch him try to walk. Mine is so much heavier than hers that he’s skewed to a forty-five degree angle and looks like one of those people from that old V-8 commercial.

Spencer and I both grab the remaining bags and follow him up the stairs. He’s struggling, his face red and slightly sweaty as we reach the second floor landing where he looks up at the last flight of stairs with a hopeless expression on his face.

Spencer gestures to him when he reluctantly starts to move again. “What are you going to do when we go backpacking through Europe next month, hire someone to carry your luggage around after you?”

“Hey, it works for golfers and I’ll tip him well. Besides, you’re one to talk. Your camera weighs as much a small child. I still don’t see how you lug that thing around so easily.”

She grins rakishly and raises her free arm to kiss her bicep before situating it in a pointing flex pose. “The gym is that way.”

I chuckle at her. “You’re so full of shit.”

But in all honesty, her confidence is sexy.

After a few more grunts from Jean, we arrive at the door. I unlock it and the bags nearly shake the whole building when he drops them with a thud. A little bit of debris may have fallen from the ceiling. I set mine down and give him a tip that makes him run from the room as if he’s afraid that I’ll change my mind, or maybe send him back downstairs for Spencer’s camera.

“Do you think your camera’s safe in the trunk?”

“No. I’ll go down and get it in a sec.”

“You want me call the bellboy back,” I ask, hesitating to shut and lock the door.

“No, I can handle it, and I wouldn’t trust anyone else to carry it anyway,” she mumbles, her attention focused out of the arched windows framing the corner of the room. “Wow, Ash, this is great. We have an awesome view of the Quarter from up here.”

I peek out of the window adjacent to her and have to agree. We can either go down into the party on the street or just hang out on the balcony to watch. We’ll probably do a little of both. The room itself is really interesting too. It’s not nearly as lavish as the Blueberry Hill House, or even my house, but it’s comfortable and cozy. The carpet is strange, and it makes me a little dizzy. It’s crimson with little cream polka dots that kind of give the illusion that I’m always moving. The walls are cream as well, all but one. The accent wall behind the beds is the iconic brick present everywhere else throughout New Orleans architecture. It adds a touch of rustic industrial to the almost clashing Victorian décor.

The two queens beds look entirely too inviting, with gleaming white sheets, loads of fluffed white pillows, an embroidered comforter folded up on each end, and black, wrought-iron headboards that match the balcony perfectly. Red curtains frame the windows just right, allowing in the natural light while offering some privacy.

My glance around the room ends when I find my eyes on Spencer, and she smiles at me, telling me that she’s just as happy as I am to be here. She’s been a little off the last five days, since she saw Carmen at the show, but she’s still trudging along like a trooper. I’ve found myself wondering if Carmen’s ploy would work, is working. I mean, Spencer said that it had worked once before, but she’s made no move to leave, or even speak of it. Maybe she’s just waiting for our excursions to be over? I don’t know, but I’m fairly certain that she’s thinking about it.

I’ve been too afraid to ask, or more afraid of what it means that I want to know. It’s forcing me to confront and prepare myself for the fact that Spencer will leave. It’ll happen eventually, whether it’s because of Carmen, someone else, or because she doesn’t feel right about living for free. It’s inevitable. And I need to be okay with that. It’s sort of the last piece of the puzzle. We’ve come so far, and yet there is so much further to go. It’s scary. I know that I’ve already lost the biggest part of her, the part that still stings if I even slightly look at it, let alone touch it. It’s that part of me that keeps blood circulating in my veins. It’s been on bypass, on life-support. Having her with me has filled my heart with a false sense of security, and once she’s gone, it’ll have no choice but to function on its own or fail completely.

Which will it be?

Fuck if I know, but I know that asking and getting answers won’t help. She’s my best friend, only a friend, and that’s going to become real at some point. It’s the last step, maybe even a fatal one. And as the quiet in the room gets a little weird, as Spencer starts to fidget with her fingers, I realize that it might be so much easier if it weren’t just the two of us here. But every single person that I had invited declined.

Kyla’s reasons were obvious. We still aren’t talking and going on a trip didn’t seem like a good idea. She didn’t even come to the Manchester show last Sunday. So, she was out and I was okay with that.

Kate had to work, and I know it’s true. When she’s not with the band, she works three different jobs, all of them far beneath her intellectually. I don’t even know what they are right now. They change often, but she does what she can to pay the bills, no matter how degrading the job. I respect her for that. She’ll come when she can and when it’s shorter excursions that are closer to home and don’t require her to ask for time off.

Jac and Jon, well, again the reasons are obvious. Although, both wanted to come when they learned that the other wasn’t. I didn’t want to say no, but I did. I have enough of my own issues to work through without adding their problems, which have escalated. Before, they could at least be in the same room. Now, it’s next to impossible. And that’s whatever. I get it. Kyla and I have a similar relationship at the moment, but she’s not in the band. So, I told them to figure their shit out before the middle of next month or there’s no way that they’ll be backpacking with us.

Shirley and Sam have an open invitation, but they only wanted to come with us to Canada. They feel that soul-searching is for the young. But they had been due for a vacation, and one of the sweetest ski resorts on the planet was just too good to pass up.

So that just leaves me and Spencer, here, alone, seeing and feeling things that we don’t talk about because what more is there to say when the one person you want is the one that you can’t have? There is nothing that either of us can say, so we continue to dance around sensitive subjects.

She breaks the silence. “Alright, well, I’m gonna run down and get the camera. What do you want to do when I get back?”

“Um, I thought, since it’s late, we’d just walk around a little and grab something to eat nearby. That cool with you?”

“Very cool,” she says brightly, making her way towards the door. “I’ll be right back.”

I nod and she leaves, and I find myself slumping onto the end of the nearest bed and scrubbing at my face. I know that I’m supposed to ignore it and I know that it’s supposed to hurt, but I also know that I’m supposed to get through it. And it would be lie to say that I don’t want to run away from it, but I know that the desire to run has nothing to do with being gone, not this time. I also know that it wouldn’t help. Like a devil, hot on your heels, pain simply follows. I just don’t know how to be calm through the hurt yet.

So I swallow it down, force these things into the background. They’re always there, like white noise, but if there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that keeping busy helps. Distractions are great, and I plan to distract the shit out of myself this week.


The next morning finds me sleeping in until ten, despite the fact that Spencer was up, ready, and nagging me by eight. I’m not an early riser by nature, and I played it off as jetlag, but the honest truth is that it’s emotional exhaustion.

My thoughts from the night before weighed heavily on me for the rest of the evening, and being with her so… intimately, only made it worse. I mean, we didn’t share a bed or anything, but it was just the two of us: laughing, being close, touching, imbibing in spirits and enjoying the magical quality that seemed to lace the air like a drug.

It felt perfect, too perfect.

It was terrible.

And it made me sad. I found that I was having a hard time focusing on the fun that I was having because I couldn’t quit watching for that proverbial other shoe. It was exhausting, and I could have easily slept the day away, but Spencer doesn’t allow me to do that since we got back from Canada. Depression hasn’t been ruling since a gorgeous blonde took the throne.

This is yet another reason that I don’t want her to leave. She makes me do things, face things, in a way that doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out, at least not all of the time. And knowing that only makes the depression worse.

I honestly can’t win.

So she finally dragged my ass out of bed, and after a shower and authentic, French Continental breakfast of fresh croissants, fruit, and yogurt, we hopped in the car and set my GPS for Uptown. We’re going shopping, which is nothing special really, but I have plans tonight, extremely stupid and out of character plans that fit perfectly into our agreement to go big.

I want tonight to feel exciting, fun, and fresh. That’s the whole point of this year, to feel reinvented and alive, to sample the extraordinary that life has to offer before life is gone altogether. But I know that in order to do that, I really need to stop living in my head.

So tonight is about Spencer, about enjoying her very existence. This is for her, though I’m sure I’ll have nothing to complain about. So, I’m trying to look past my insecurities, or more succinctly, ignore them altogether.

It’s about an hour’s drive to the Garden District, and putting music on was nearly impossible. Very little about this car is updated. It’s a classic after all. It has power for the soft-top, but everything else is manual, including the windows and locks, and this radio is plain fm. It doesn’t even have air conditioning, which is fine for early spring, especially during the rainy season.

But no music?

That meant sitting in silence and trying to find things to talk about that were superficial enough to keep it copasetic.

Not an easy task.

So, I found a local station that plays jazz. There are only a million of them, but this one seems to play stuff that isn’t so chaotic. I pretty much like all music for one reason or another, from technicality to just because I can relate to it personally. And while I can appreciate the artistry and talent that it takes to create jazz – I mean it’s astounding – it’s not something that I’d listen to given another option.

But anything is better than emotional pitfalls and awkward silence, so it’s on. Now it’s just awkward pensiveness with jazz floating from the speakers of a space so tiny that it’s almost claustrophobic. It’s sunny today, but the top is up because we learned quickly that seventy miles-per-hour with it down was a bit like standing next to a jet engine.

“Ash, are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“You sure?”

“Something on your mind, Spence,” I ask dryly.

“You just seemed kind of… down last night, and this morning you wanted to sleep.”

“I was just jetlagged. I told you that.”

“Yeah, but it’s only two hour’s difference…”

I shrug. “I have a very delicate system.”

She snorts, but she lets it go and I start to relax. Of course, I shouldn’t have.

“You’re sure you don’t want to talk about anything? You’re all… jittery.”

Yes, well, the thought of her leaving makes me nervous, but I can’t exactly say that. And the plan for tonight is making me nervous, though I can’t exactly say that either. And she makes me nervous, but I can’t exactly say that any more than I can say anything else.

I, in a nutshell, can’t say anything.

So I say, “I’m sure.”

I glance over at her. Her brows are furrowed as if she’s thinking way too hard, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe she’s the one who needs to talk.

“Do you want to talk about something?”

“Oh, uh… no, no, I’m good.”

I don’t believe that for an instant. Something has her in knots, and by the look on her face I’m fairly certain that I don’t wish to unravel them. My mind is far too capable at coming up with worst case scenarios. I really don’t want to bring them to life. So the ride continues on in jazz filled silence, but at least it’s not as heavy anymore. It’s almost as if now that we’ve pointed out the ginormous, multi-faceted elephant in the backseat, it’s easier to abide its presence. I chuckle. The mental image of an elephant in this tiny car is fairly comical.

“What’s so funny,” Spencer asks with a hint of a smile in her voice.

“Oh, um, elephants.”

“Elephants,” she asks slowly, as if she thinks that she didn’t quite hear me right.

I nod, because she did.

“You are, by far, the most random person I know.”

“But you love me,” I give her a smug smile.

“Yeah, I really do,” she says seriously, almost solemnly.

And now she’s thinking again, and whatever the topic is, it’s hurting her. And that just makes me crazy, but not crazy enough to actually try to find out why. Fortunately, she doesn’t say anything more.

We find ourselves on Magazine Street, the place that google gave me several weeks ago, and I direct Spencer to specifically park in front of a pretentious and overpriced store called Billy Reid. The valet tries to secure the car for us, but I brush him off. He then tries to get us to move it and I resist the urge to slap him, but only barely. Spencer, however, agrees to move the car, to which I have to protest. This earns me a strange round of questions and odd expressions, but I brush them off as well. I’m not giving away my plans for the evening until I’m under duress.

Instead, I give the valet my name and a tip to placate him, and then redirect Spencer’s focus to the plethora of shopping at her fingertips, though she has to realize that something’s up now thanks to the car driving, boy wonder.

But, look, shopping!

It’s my only hope of keeping her in the dark, and it works to at least keep her from asking anymore questions, though her speculation is evident.

This area is just as busy as the French Quarter, but it has more of a fair-like atmosphere. Vendors are everywhere along the street, whether indoors or in large open zones filled with booths; everything is lively and crammed together, which makes it nice as we start to walk because it’s fairly easy to tell from the street if we actually want to venture inside, though as we work our way through it, every single place seems to have something that catches our attention.

Spencer is in her element, even if she can’t buy anything. Her love for shopping is one of the more girly things about her, and I sort of adore her for it. She gets excited and it lights up her face.

What’s not to love about that?

We find ourselves looking at the more bohemian fare: homemade jewelry, art, and multicultural antiques, which are in abundant supply. Spencer scores a few vintage movie posters and I find some rare vinyls.

There’s one item that Spencer has yet another hemorrhaging fit over. I have no idea what’s so special about a 1938 Bolex, pre-war crank camera, especially a working one, which I’m not so sure that I believe by the look of the thing. But whatever her reasons, I’m almost convinced that she likes it more than the car. It isn’t all that expensive, but of course she refuses my offer. However, I figure that if I can’t get her the car, it wouldn’t hurt to purchase this much less expensive hunk of junk on the sly and have it mailed home without her knowledge. Her birthday’s not for another five months, and I’m not in the habit of being on time with gifts, but it feels good to be ahead of the game for once and not wonder if the gift will be well received.

It’s early evening by the time that we find ourselves winding down and in desperate need of sustenance. I convince Spencer to have a coffee and pastry from a nearby café, well, mostly. I just sort of jump in and order for her, which earns me an incredulous look. I don’t want her to spoil her appetite but I can’t very well just say that. Fortunately, she doesn’t comment this time, even as her brows furrow and her brain starts to smoke. I’m not sure if it’s because of what’s been on her mind or if she’s wracking her brain to figure out the reason for my strange behavior, but again, I’m not going to prod.

And she doesn’t either.

It’s our agreement.

The party on the street has started to pick up, people crowding in to get drunk and revel in the live music that’s begun to assault the air from nearly every open bar now that the sun has gone down. We finish loading our bags in the car and I start to twitch. I need to keep her distracted for just a little bit longer before the evening festivities begin. And that’s when I notice a street vendor still shutting down. Her booth is rather elaborate and eye-catching, though it’s definitely hodge-podge. The masks hanging on each available inch of space are rather beautiful as she starts to carefully put each piece into bins. Honestly though, this is good. I can use this to buy another half-an-hour without outright taking the car keys.

“Hey, Spence?”

“Hm.”

“Let’s check that one out real quick.”

I gesture to the woman and Spencer glances over at her. I can tell that Spencer’s ready to head back to the hotel, but shopping is something that she just can’t resist.

“Sure,” she says with a shrug. “I can handle one more quick perusal.”

I smile at her easy agreement and bounce around to her side of the car to take her hand as we both cross the street. Spencer pulls me to a stop to look both ways first, and her caution just makes me laugh, at least, until I realize that while I have nothing lose, she, in fact, does.

“Do you mind if we look while you’re breaking down,” Spencer asks as we approach.

The woman smiles up at us, her eyes kind and deeply set in her dark, withered face. “Y’all go’wan ahead. Lemme know iffen ya have any questions.”

I chuckle and Spencer squeezes my hand almost painfully hard. It’s been happening a lot today. For some reason, I find the southern drawl funny and have a difficult time not laughing at people when they talk to me. If it weren’t for Spencer smoothing things over and keeping me in check, I’m certain that I’d have been slapped several times by now. Either way, the Southern drawl is a million times better than Rene’s garbled French and some of the broken English that I’ve encountered.

The old woman takes my uncontrollable idiocy in stride, and we start to look at the masks. Some are huge, probably three feet high with plumes of purple, green, and gold feathers. I imagine that it would be like wearing a peacock on my head; they’re that crazy. Others look more like what you’d expect from a European masquerade ball, almost Phantom of the Opera-ish. We’ve seen plenty of them today, but these just seem different, better somehow. Every single one of them is ornate and bejeweled and unique despite their similarities.

They sort of remind me of New Orleans as a whole.

“It’s like Phantom of the Opera,” Spencer says wistfully.

I snort. She’s in my head, I swear. Also, I hated that movie, but then I don’t like Opera or creepy guys.

Spencer says, “It’s just so romantic…,” but I really don’t get romance from a disfigured stalker turned kidnapper.

Oh well, I like how different we are in some aspects.

“If you say so, Spence.”

“I do,” she replies resolutely.

I shake my head and focus on the mask in front of me. I like it. It’s loud, but it’s not the three foot wonder that some of these are. I touch the feathers and marvel at how soft they are, how delicate, how they seem to defy gravity. The expression on the sculpted part of the face is actually kind of terrifying, but also strangely beautiful. All of them are like that. To my surprise, I find myself thinking that they epitomize romance: scary and beautiful.

Maybe that’s why Spencer likes them too.

“Ma’am, can you tell us the history behind the masks,” Spencer asks the old woman.

She looks up, her wizened face cracking a smile, and I can see the delight in her eyes as she speaks. “It’s been ‘round hundreds a years, from my great, great grandpappy’s day, when bein’ noble birth made a diff’rence. Mardi Gras was the only time a year when none o’ that nonsense made a lick of difference. For a few nights, you’s could be a whole ‘nother person, talk ta anybody, class be damned. It dun matter so much no more, but it’s a favorite tradition.”

Spencer grins at the old woman, and I can tell that she’s really getting into it. I am a little too, but time is passing quickly and we need to get back across the street to Billy Reid. In fact, I can see the troop preparing for us through the floor to ceiling windows that line the street. They’re closed, but they’re expecting. Money buys any and everything, except for happiness, or so I’ve been told.

Well, I’m still going to try to buy happiness, for a few hours at least.

“We should get one, Spence.”

She seems to think about it for a minute, picking up the one that she’s most taken with, but one quick look at the price tag has her quickly squashing that idea.

Her eyes get round and she mouths the words, “Two-hundred dollars,” when the old woman isn’t looking.

“It’s tradition,” I whisper. “Besides,” I gesture to the hag, her clothes little better than rags. “She can probably use the money.”

She considers the woman, her age, her appearance, and nods her head, though I can tell that her next words are a little painful. “I’m buying.”

I roll my eyes. “Come on, Spence. Don’t be like that. I thought we agreed that since this was all my idea, I’d pay.”

She pulls me away to give us the appearance of privacy, but people are shuffling past us on the street in droves.

“You’ve bought everything,” she says. “I don’t feel right about it.”

“Yeah, well, what am I going to do with all my money if not spend it?”

“Invest in a worthy cause; give to charities. I don’t need your money, Ash. If anything, it makes me a little uncomfortable.”

“What? Why?”

“It’s just… a lot. I don’t want people to think that I only like you for what you can give me.”

“Spencer, you loved me when I was penniless and homeless…”

“I know…”

So what’s the problem here? And why would she care about how it looks? “You never cared about what people thought before. Why now?”

“It’s not others so much. I just feel… like I’ve been taking advantage of you, living with you and traveling with you, having you pay for everything. It would be different if we were together and I was contributing, but that’s not how it is. It’s not a good feeling. I like to earn what I have.”

“Spencer, you’re doing me a favor. You quit your job and left the person you love for me.”

“No,” she says vehemently. “I did those things for me, not you. I wasn’t happy, or at least, not as happy as I want to be. None of what happened is your fault. It was time for a change, but I need to do that myself. I need to rely on me… alone.”

I get all of what she’s saying. The truth is that I expect no less of her, but there’s something that I’m coming to learn because of her.

“Sometimes, doing it alone isn’t the best way, Spence. Sometimes you need to lean on others.”

“You’re practically carrying me, Ash.”

I scoff at her. “Please, Spence. We both know that you’ve helped me way more than I’ve helped you.”

She frowns and I know that she’s thinking again, and for a moment, given this turn in the conversation, I’m willing to brave those answers. I’m willing to ask and listen, despite my fear, but then she continues and I don’t get the chance.

“That’s not true. I haven’t done anything for you at all, except maybe hurt and confuse you. And I’m sorry, because I don’t know how to fix it.”

“Maybe there is no easy fix, Spence. Maybe we just need to keep moving along until the right answers present themselves.” I tuck a lock of hair behind her ear. “Besides, it feels good to know that you need me.”

She smiles, though it’s sad. “I do, Ash, so much, but I also need to stand on my own two feet, and so do you.”

Okay, I’m almost a little offended. “What does that mean?”

She starts to fidget uncomfortably. “I don’t mean that in a bad way. I just meant… that… some things we can’t avoid or lean on each other for. Sometimes, we have to help ourselves. I- I don’t know. I’m just confused and I’m sorry.”

She sighs in exasperation and I can’t help but smile at her because confused and bumbling Spencer is pretty damn cute. But some of what she’s just said is sticking to places in my brain that I myself am still very confused about. It’s that attic, that place where things are starting to bounce around and force me to acknowledge them. But not yet and not now. I’d rather be confused and blissfully ignorant than aware and miserable.

I grab the two masks that we’re both taken with. “Will you just let me buy the masks already?”

She sighs but nods and with a smile, I overpay the old woman.

“My goodness, child, thank ya, thank ya fer yer generosity,” the old woman says.

“No worries,” I say, and just as I’m about to leave with Spencer, she stops me and puts a wrinkled hand to my cheek, her eyes old but bright with a wisdom that I don’t possess.

“It’s comin’, honey. An it’s gonna hurt somethin’ fierce, but it’ll work out in the end; you’ll see.”

She smiles and pats my face before going back to her work, and Spencer and I just look at each other. Neither of us have any idea what that meant, or why she felt compelled to say that to me, but that painfully thoughtful expression reappears on Spencer’s face, and while I can’t see my own, I’m fairly certain that I’m wearing something similar.

I’m almost a little frightened by her words, as if they’re somehow prophetic.

But I just don’t want to think about this shit. Why does everything and everyone seem hell bent on forcing me to? I look across the street to the well-dressed man at the door of Billy Reid checking his watch, and it gives me something easy to focus on.

I grab Spencer’s hand and stay right with her as we put our masks in the car so that I can stop her from getting in. Instead, I take the keys, lock the driver’s door, and shut it. She gives me a curious look, and it only gets worse when I take her hands again and start walking backwards toward the store.

“What’s going on,” she asks.

“We’re not done yet,” I answer as cryptically as possible.

“Ash, you know I love shopping, and I never thought I’d say this, but I think I’ve had my fill for the day.”

I smile at her and shake my head. “Nah, you can do it, Spence. I believe in you.”

We’re almost to the door when she pulls us to a stop and scrutinizes the situation inside. It’s fairly obvious what’s going on here.

“This is what you’ve been weird about all day, why I couldn’t actually eat anything, why you’ve been jittery?”

I nod and look at the manager, holding up a finger to ask him for a minute. He acquiesces, and he should; he’s been paid for the whole evening regardless of the outcome. I look back to Spencer. This is the ritziest place in town. Truth be known, I hate places like this and Spencer knows that. But there weren’t any other options for what I have planned tonight, though given the look on her face I’m starting to think that I should have scrapped the whole thing. I just wanted to give her the full royal treatment, from a make-over to a first class meal. I wanted her to feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, because she loves that movie and because she deserves it. And this place is going to give that to her.

“It’s a clothing store,” she says.

“Yes, but tonight, it’s more than that.”

“I don’t understand.”

I shrug and start to pull her to the door. “Indulge me.”

The man opens the door and greets us. “Ms. Davies and Ms. Carlin?”

Finally, someone I can completely understand.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Welcome to Billy Reid. I am Alexandre Thibodeaux, the manager.” We step inside where he locks the door behind us before introducing us to the perfectly coifed, brightly smiling ladies waiting in a line. “This is Paulette and Ines, they will help you find appropriate attire for the evening.”

They’re the older of the women lined in front of us, and they step forward to greet us cordially before going back to their places.

“Next we have Desi and Mona,” Alexandre continues. “They will attend to your beautification needs.”

These two are quite a bit younger and much less formal as they step forward to greet us.

“And last, we have Marguerite and Sophie, they are here to see to your every whim.”

The youngest ones step forward to greet us, and I can’t help but see the social stigmas of class perfectly on display in these six individuals.

Alexandre holds out his hand and I place the car keys there. “If you don’t require anything else of me,” he continues. “I will retire to my office upstairs. Do not hesitate to send someone up should you find that you need my assistance.”

He takes each of our hands and bows before leaving, and the six women practically swarm us in two groups of three, one from each line of work becoming our own. Before I know it, Spencer and I both have a flute of extremely delicious champagne and a ripe, red strawberry in our hands and we’re standing on a dais next to each other in front of a wall of mirrors in one of the bridal rooms in the store. The older women are undressing us with critical eyes while the youngest two walk around with trays of more strawberries and champagne. The ‘beautification’ attendants are nowhere to be seen.

I snag another strawberry and stuff it in my mouth, and Spencer does the same before getting my attention during this lull in the storm.

“Ash, this is… what is this?”

I glance over at her, concerned that this truly was a bad idea. “It’s supposed to be fun.”

“Well, it is,” she says vehemently. “I mean, I feel like a princess right now.” I grin at that. That was the whole point. “It just seems a little… extravagant.”

My grin fades and I shrug. “I wanted to do something special for you, something you’d really enjoy. But if you’re not, we can-”

“No, no, this is… awesome! Of course I like it! It’s like a dream…”

I hear what she’s saying but that pensive look is back, and this time, the question tumbles out without my denial filter stopping it.

“So what’s wrong?”

“It’s just, all of this is so- I mean…,” she pauses, like she doesn’t know how to articulate the remainder of that sentence, as if saying it bluntly is just too scary for her.

She fumbles with her words for nearly two minutes before blurting, “You’re spending ungodly amounts of money, aren’t you?”

Oh for fuck’s sake…

My voice is teasing. “I really don’t see how my finances are any of your business, Spence.”

“But you’re spending it on me.”

“Just- shut up. It’s just money, my money, and I’ll do what I want with it.”

She sighs and shakes her head. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

And I can see that it’s not just as simple as money. Something more is bothering her, but I can’t bring myself to go there again, to prod again, to ask questions that I’m certain that I won’t like the answers to. But I can’t just leave it like this.

I hate it.

I hate how it feels and how it’s making her feel.

“Look, Spencer, I wanted to do something incredible and fun while we’re here. We’ve been doing really well, and I just wanted to thank you for everything, for being back in my life, for taking care of me-”

For loving me at all, even when I’ve never treated it like enough…

She smiles at me, and her eyes are glassy, and I feel like a shit because she’s going to cry. How many times do I have to hate making her cry before I stop doing it?

“Ash, you don’t owe me anything. I’m the one who’s grateful, more grateful than I’ve ever been in my life.” She seems to get frustrated with me, or herself, I can’t tell. “Can’t you see just how special you are, especially to me? You know me better than anyone ever has. You treat me better than anyone ever has. You’re…, you’re my best friend. I-”

I can’t hear this right now. I don’t need to hear her say these things. I crave them, but the context of the real situation just isn’t something that I want to deal with.

I know that we’re best friends.

I know that it can’t be more than that, even when it’s the only thing that I’ve ever really wanted.

I know that it’s selfish and that it can’t happen. I just don’t want to hear it. I just don’t want to see our agreement to stay out of this turbulent water go up in flames. I need her to know that I understand and that it’s okay to keep things superficial because I don’t know how I’ll make it if we don’t.

So I cut her off. “Spencer, it’s okay. I understand, truly.”

And she gets even more frustrated, but it just makes her sad. “I don’t think you do, Ash. It’s like sometimes you do and then it’s just gone, and it’s been that way since the night you showed up on my doorstep. And I keep trying to fix it, with boundaries, with throwing those boundaries out the window, with- just, I can’t make you see it.”

I want to ask what it is that I don’t see, but then it’s the same story from that day at the diner, the day that I kissed her and convinced her that I did understand. But I’m not so sure about that anymore. I understood something, but I don’t think it’s the same thing or things. I just don’t know what it is that she wants from me, but whatever it is, I seem to be incapable of giving it to her. All I can give her is what’s standing in front of her right now, which amounts to little. It’s just people paid to lick our boots and me. That’s all I have: some money and a broken soul.

I’d give anything to give her something more, something worthwhile, the same that she’s given me.

And it’s about this time that I give up on my brain and gulp down my champagne and another strawberry. Spencer has stopped talking, that irritating facial expression of deep thought, worry, and pain somehow normal on her now.

I can’t look it.

I can’t look at her.

So I look around for something else to focus on, but the older women are nowhere to be seen so I have yet another strawberry and try to slow down a bit on the champagne. Spencer has no such compunction. There are three empty glasses resting on her server’s tray where a packet of Kleenex has magically appeared.

Spencer cleans her face and I finish off my third glass only to retrieve another, slowing down be damned. I’m not trying to get loaded, but a good buzz would be nice, and quickly, if at all possible, especially if Spencer can’t object. Besides, I have one hell of a constitution. I’ve often wondered if I have Irish heritage.

The older women choose this moment to return with grinning faces and two rolling racks of dresses. They each pull their prime picks from the racks and present them to us.

“If you’re comfortable, you can change here, or we can show you to separate fitting rooms,” my attendant says to me.

I glance over at Spencer, who’s already pulling her clothes off, and now, not only can’t I bear to look at her for the right reasons, but I can’t seem to tear my eyes away for the wrong ones. It takes everything that I have to divert my attention elsewhere, but then we’re mostly surrounded with mirrors. I chug down a fresh glass, and swipe at my mouth, my mind starting to feel delightfully fuzzy amidst all the jumble.

“Alright then,” the woman says with a wry grin at Spencer. “Here works just fine.”

I hand my server my glass and stare at my feet as I start to undress. My attendant unzips the bag on her choice and shows it to me, giving me a litany of information on how this will accentuate my this and my that, but my eye catches Spencer removing her bra in the mirror and I no longer hear a word that the woman’s saying.

Breasts – two, beautiful, sloping, creamy breasts. That’s all I can see and hear and think about: Spencer’s breasts. I’ve seen them many times, and they were awesome then, pert and young, but now… well, four years has made them rounder, softer, fuller…

For fuck’s sake, I’m a pervert, a prepubescent boy without any sense or decorum. If I had a penis, I’d have made a mess of myself…

“Miss…?”

My eyes start to harden in their sockets but I can’t blink until Spencer’s covered. The sigh that escapes me is one of both disappointment and relief.

“Miss?”

I look to the woman in front of me to find her staring at me expectantly. “Do you like it,” she asks as if it’s not the first time.

I blink a few times and wonder why she’d ask me that. But then I glance at the garments in her hands and realize that she’s not referring to Spencer or her breasts. I look at it and try to pretend but I just can’t muster the will to care at this point. I’m on my fifth glass of champagne and my brain is still seeing breasts, but I have to tell her something.

“Um, yeah,” I say.

And as I actually look at it, I decide that I do like it. It’s black and has three pieces. The top is a bustier, little more than a lacy bra. Lingerie is probably one of the frilliest things about me. I love to wear it and I love to see it.  The vest that layers over it is just as risqué, with a mostly exposed stomach and ample amounts of cleavage.

But what I really notice about it is that it’s not the norm and not what I’d expect from this stuffy store or this stuffy woman. It’s almost like a tuxedo jacket without sleeves. The accompanying skirt is short, but long enough that I should be able to get in and out of vehicles without exposing myself, but only just barely. Rounded out with a pair of black suede heels and I have to admit that this woman’s hit the mark.

I start to put everything on, and I can tell by the woman’s self-satisfied smile that she knows that she’s good at her job. Once I’m done, I look in the mirror and have to admit that it’s most definitely me.

“I like it,” a lot, but I don’t want to feed her ego. “What else do you have in your bag of tricks?”

She goes back to the rack and selects another bag, unzipping it for me to see. “Most everything else is your more typical late-night attire. This is the quintessential little black cocktail dress. There are also several similar items in white. I felt that what you’re wearing now is more unique, like it fits your personal style a little more.”

I look at the cocktail dress and have to agree; there’s really nothing interesting about it. It’s very nice, but very safe, and a quick perusal of her other items shows them to be mostly the same. I have several dresses at home just like these, but nothing quite like what I’m currently wearing.

“So we have a winner,” she asks.

I grin at her. “Yeah, I think we do.”

I glance over at Spencer a little reluctantly. I’ve only just regained the use of my mind and I don’t want to lose it again. Fortunately, and unfortunately, she’s covered, and I see that her process of selection hasn’t been as easy. Her attendant must not have that sixth sense that mine does. Mine notices this as well, so she goes over and finds something on the rack and presents it to Spencer to try on. I divert my eyes and stare into my champagne, and only once this dress is found to be favorable and firmly in place, do I allow myself to look up again.

Spencer is gorgeous nude. There’s no denying it, but somehow, seeing her in this eggshell, mid-calf slip is almost better. It’s one piece and hugs her figure so perfectly that it’s almost as if she’s been sculpted from the material. The neck plunges to hint at the uninhibited beauties beneath and the back is mostly missing, showcasing her golden shoulders.

I know that I’ve had plenty to drink, but I feel suddenly dry. The fifth glass of champagne in my hands is gone quickly and I find myself asking for directions to the bathroom just to find a moment alone. Once inside, I turn the water on and carefully wet my face to cool off. This entire trip has become an exercise in the uncomfortable, and while I’m enjoying my time with Spencer in this unique and strange culture, it’s exhausting.

My mind and emotions are in a state of flux, rapidly swinging from happy to sad, from superficial to bone deep, and I can’t keep up with it. Am I bipolar? I really don’t know and with the champagne muddling my brain, I really don’t care.

I dry myself with a few paper towels, and stop to do my business before washing my hands and heading back out, determined to stop trying to keep up with it. If the pendulum is going to swing, let it swing. If I get sliced in half, well, at least I’ll be mostly drunk when it happens. I’m met at the bathroom door by a different woman, and I don’t remember her name either, but then she seems to understand that because she reminds me.

“I’m Desi,” she says. “If you’ll follow me, we have an area set up.”

I follow her into a small warehouse in the back that appears to be storage, and see that a portion has been cleared and set up to operate as two salon booths. Spencer is already seated in one of them, her hands and feet soaking in tubs of some sort of aromatic solution. Her eyes are closed, her head tilted back, and there’s a definite look of contentment on her face as her attendant fixes her make-up. I settle myself into the adjoining leather monstrosity that looks a lot like a dentist’s chair without the head rest, and proceed to assume a similar position to Spencer.

“Ash, this is awesome…”

I groan out my agreement, closing my eyes as the bath soaking my feet bubbles slightly and a brush starts to whisper over my face. Everything smells good and feels good, and I begin to melt into a puddle. I think we’re both a little drunk, so it helps us to be quiet and comfortable together, the earlier conversation evaporating away, that is until my attendant gets to the mascara and eyeliner portion. Spencer chuckles at me for commandeering the utensils and applying them for myself, and I just glare at her in response, though she doesn’t see it because she still has her eyes closed.

Still, how dare she laugh?

“It’s your fault,” I vocalize my thoughts.

“I know,” she sighs out happily. “But I just can’t feel bad about it.” She glances over at me with a smile. “You were always beautiful, but you looked so gorgeous after I was done.”

Am I blushing?

She laughs because I must be and my cheeks certainly feel hot, so I ignore her and finish my make-up as I consider ways to get back at her for emotionally scarring me, though after that statement, my heart’s just not in it. Besides, when my attendant starts doing a full mani-pedi, I really can’t find anything wrong with the world. My feet and hands both get treated to a massage, all of my nails get professionally clipped and glossed, and my skin gets thoroughly moisturized. I’m in heaven and it’s all done too soon. But then, I can’t really complain because she starts doing my hair.

God, the way that it tingles across my scalp when someone touches me this way… it’s almost better than an orgasm, though it’s been so long since I’ve had one with another person in the room that I may not even know if that’s true. I’m fairly certain that I’ve lost consciousness by the time that she’s telling me that she’s finished, because Spencer’s not next to me when I open my eyes again.

“She went to the ladies room,” Desi tells me with a smile as she starts to put things away.

She turns and hands me a mirror and the results of my inspection are favorable, very favorable. I look hot. I feel hot. And I realize that I haven’t really felt this way in a long time. It’s nice, very nice, to feel, not just human, but beautiful and sexy. While Spencer’s missing, I settle the tip with all of the girls and steal another strawberry and glass of champagne.

“Is our ride here,” I ask one of the servers as I take a bite and chase it with the bubbly.

I’m starving now, and I know that Spencer has to be as well.

“Yes, it’s out front. The valet arrived back about five minutes ago. Everything’s settled.”

I give her a couple more bills for the valet tip as well and she grins a little maniacally at me as she does the math in her head.

People love money…

“Ash?”

And I love that sound, it’s soft and raspy and resonates brightly inside of me like the thrum of a newly stringed guitar. I turn in the direction of Spencer’s voice and almost choke on the champagne. For such an effervescent beverage, I find it difficult to swallow at this moment in time. Her hair is tied into a bun at the base of her skull. It’s a simple look, but it’s just so… her. I’ve seen her pull her hair back this way many times, usually with whatever she could find: pencils, chopsticks, sometimes even real hair ties. It was always a little messy when she did it, but now, she looks so elegant, so warm and inviting. I know that a bun sounds so plain, but on Spencer, it just elongates the slender column of her neck. The eggshell of the slip-like satin offsets the tanned glory of her skin, and the honey-hues of her hair make the ocean of her eyes that much more vibrant.

I just want to touch her, hug her, breathe her in. But I can’t, and I have to learn not to want to. Why do these depressing things keep popping up? It’s like it never ends, not really, no matter what decisions are made or how determined I am at keeping them. When will I look at her and just see a friend, or a beautiful woman, and not yearn and ache?

I can hear that annoying little voice in the back of mind give me the answer.

“Never,” it says.

And even as it echoes through the hollow places that still long for her, I push it away, force it into the background, tune it out and focus on the last of my champagne. But then it’s gone too quickly and she’s still standing there like a star about to go supernova and reduce me to ash. If I could choose how I’d die, that is how I’d want it: consumed with heat while standing in front of her, looking at her, loving her beyond the hope of such a thing as I burn, reduced to ash, always ash.

“You’re beautiful, Ash,” she says as she steps forward, her smile wide and white, almost sheepish.

And she means it. I can see it in her eyes, those expressive orbs that always pull me in and smother me in an ocean of weightless comfort and affection. I want to mistake the look that she’s giving me, to believe that what I’m seeing is romantic love and maybe even some lust. But she does love me. I know that it’s true; it’s just not the way that I want it. We’ve been through this. We’ve brought all of this to a close. There’s no reason for me to think on this anymore because it will never be. I had my chance and I let it slip through my fingers. I was so foolish, so fucking stupid, so childishly afraid.

I open my mouth to tell her that she’s beautiful as well, but I feel unbalanced and maybe too buzzed to think straight, and then that word seems so plain when held up to her. There isn’t a good enough word in the English language. And I just feel sad, hopelessly so, but mostly I’m angry with myself. Fortunately, all that comes out of my mouth is a sigh and words that hint at my inability to say the things that she doesn’t want to hear anymore.

“Are you ready?”

Her brows furrow and she chuckles a little. “Well, I certainly hope so. I’m about as dolled up as I’m going to get.”

Just fuck…

“You look… unbelievable, Spence.”

I exhale in relief when she brightens and the crisis of my mind and inarticulate tongue are adverted, if only mildly so. I manage to hold my arm out to her and she loops hers through it, resting it comfortably between the crux of my elbow and slope of my hip. And this would be enough to send a thrill skittering up my spine, but it’s the delicate rest of her fingers on my arm that make each step a little difficult. I somehow manage to lead her to the front of the store and she shakes her head when she sees the limo parked out front, but she doesn’t say anything. Perhaps she’s just resigned herself to enjoying my unnecessary expenditures. Either way, it’s with good humor that she opens the back door in place of the driver and smiles at me.

“After you,” she says with mock chivalry.

I smile back at her and climb in, settling myself near the opposite end of the longer seat so that she has plenty of room. To my everlasting discomfort, she sits right next to me in the large cabin, hiking her skirt just a little to sling one smooth thigh over the other. The limo starts to roll and I search the romantically lit interior with frantic eyes for anything but her and find champagne chilling near the wet bar. I’m all over the place, and I need to get this shit in check. I know that alcohol won’t help, but it’s the illusion that I’m fighting for at this point. Snatching up the bottle, I pull off the wrapper and twist at the wires around the neck. Once free, I start to twist and pull at it almost desperately.

“Ash, no, be careful,” Spencer says loudly as she shoves my hands away from both of us, but her warning was too late.

The top has exploded off and pinged loudly against the roof of the limo where it narrowly avoids my head on its descent, and a geyser of white foam is shooting from the tip of the bottle with surprising strength. Thanks to Spencer, the explosion was far enough away from me that my clothes didn’t get soaked, but my hands are sticky by the time that it fizzles to a stop.

I hear Spencer laughing and turn glaring eyes on her only to add insult to injury when I find that she’s all the way on the other side of the seat. Not only does she find this funny, but she abandoned me in my time of need. Self-preservation shows the true color of loyalty.

“A little help, please,” I say humorlessly.

She starts to calm down and grabs the towel next to the bucket that I’d pulled the bottle from, dabbing the corner of it in the icy water before taking the bottle from my hands and putting it back in. She then starts to tenderly clean me, a smile firmly etched on her face as she shakes her head.

“It wasn’t that funny,” I say, the water extremely cold.

“No,” she agrees. “But the look on your face was pretty adorable.” She glances up at me. “Kind of like the pout you’re wearing now.”

“Yeah, well…”

What can I even say to that?

“And this is why I’m gay,” she off-handedly observes of the mess as she continues to clean me up.

I find myself smiling with her. It’s an absolutely repugnant thought, but it’s pretty accurate. There’s a puddle on the floor, the explosion nearly took my head off, it all happened so fast, I didn’t enjoy it, and I’m covered in sticky stuff. But I might willingly go through it all again to have Spencer so close, holding my hands so tenderly and smiling so sweetly. Hell, if Spencer were a man, I’d be straight.

I’m so thankful that she’s not.

Once she’s done, she retrieves a tiny bottle of moisturizing hand-sanitizer from her purse and passes it to me. I can’t help but shake my head as I take some in my hands and smear it around. It’s just so like her to carry this.

“Shut up,” she says and that just makes me smile harder.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t have to.”

I shrug. “It’s cute that you carry this kind of stuff, if not a touch neurotic.”

“It came in handy, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” I nod, handing it back to her. “You’ll make a great mom someday, prepared for any of life’s little mishaps.”

The words were out before I could consider their impact, but the impact is decidedly sad. Not only will I not be with her to parent those children, but I may not even be around to see it happen, to share in her joy, the only thing that I’ve ever wanted for her.

“That’s… that’s a compliment. Thank you,” she says.

“Just the truth,” I murmur.

“You always did want a family,” she says lowly.

I nod, unable to say anything more. That boat sailed years ago and left me standing at the dock.

“You’ll have that, Ash.”

I look over at her, wanting to say something biting, wanting desperately to remind her that life doesn’t work that way, at least not for me. But I can’t seem to say those things, not when I’m looking into those gorgeous, warm, compassionate eyes. It’s not her fault that dreams are made of smoke and mirrors for me. It’s not her fault that she’s an optimist, even when there’s no good reason to be. Some things just are: like my surviving, like her zest for life.

And they’re without blame.

“I hope you’re right.”

And I do hope that, more than I thought that I could. I want it all. I want to dream even if I have to live in the waking. I almost want it simply because part of me knows that I can’t have it, but for some reason, the rest of me just doesn’t care what the realist in me thinks.

She can go to hell.

I close my eyes and I can see it, taste it, and touch it. I can believe for just a moment that someday I’m going to have a family, children of my own, and I’m going to have it all with Spencer. Like a black and white movie roll flickering behind my eyelids, it becomes tangible, it becomes achingly sweet, and it ends all too soon with the two of us, old and grey, and loving each other until the very end as our children and grandchildren take our places. Of all of the things on my list, this one dream is the pinnacle: a simple, loving lifetime with Spencer and our children.

What a legacy…

What a dream…

But it’s just a dream, and when I open my eyes, it’s gone and I’m left utterly empty. The realist, no matter how much I silence her or avoid her, always wins. It’s not like what I have right here in front of me is so bad. Maybe it’s just selfish of me to want more, to want it all. I’ve had more than most in my circumstances – so much more.

I shouldn’t be here, but I am.

Spencer shouldn’t be here, but she is.

This has to be enough. It should be enough.

“Thanks,” I say.

Spencer knows what I’m feeling and not saying, because, well, she’s her. But also because I’m me, and she knows me better than I even know myself. So she takes my hand in hers and we finish the car ride in silence, letting that pendulum catch the upswing and leave us each in one piece, though for me only barely.

It’s not long before we’re pulling to a stop next to a restaurant. The driver opens the door for us this time and Spencer helps me out, not releasing my hand even once we’re through the door. And I appreciate it. It’s comforting amidst so much emotional chaos.

This place is huge, situated right on the corner of two major intersecting thoroughfares, it’s bright, bird’s egg blue making it stand out, even as everything else about it is what I’ve come to expect of typical New Orleans fare. The inside isn’t nearly as garish, the color palette far more neutral and elegant. It’s very… cozy, warm, and dare I say romantic?

The hostess is on us immediately, quickly locating my name and escorting us to a table in the upper area that’s situated near some windows. From my understanding, this is the chef’s table. It comes with the chef’s selections for the night, so we don’t even need menus. Ice water and a chilling bottle of wine are waiting, and the hostess tells us it will be about ten minutes before we’re served the first course. Normally they don’t allow less than four people, but I agreed to pay for the additional entrees in our bill. I’m glad that I did. The restaurant is packed to the gills, and while it’s not deafeningly loud inside, this area is private and quiet.

We’re seated and the chairs are plush and comfortable despite their straight-backed design. But Spencer is forced to release my hand, and we’re back to that pensive place, sitting together quietly while our minds whir with unspeakable thoughts. At least this time, it’s not because I’m scared to think it or say it. Now, I just don’t have words. And if Spencer does, she’s letting them evaporate just like I am; we just have different ways of showing it. She’s fidgeting with her fingers and I’m staring out of the window, watching life light up the city with noise and merriment that I can’t seem to connect with no matter how hard I try.

“I’ve thought about it too, Ash, what it would be like,” she says out of nowhere.

I look over at her and she raises her eyes to mine for only a moment before lowering them again, as if she can’t look at me while she speaks. “It may mean little, but I always wanted all of those things, at least with you.”

It doesn’t mean little, not at all. It means everything to know that she wanted those things too, that she wanted me and feels slighted by fate almost as much as I do.

And I want to tell her that but she’s already continuing. “I wanted them so much that when you left, I was destroyed. It was like everything that ever mattered to me just ceased to exist, as if I woke up from a dream and had to live a life that I didn’t understand. I felt like I was crazy, like I’d imagined it all.”

My guts wrench and I feel the biting sting of tears that I won’t let fall. I can’t. To let it out might just leave me empty, void, all of these things that I’m trying to move away from because where they exist, life cannot, and I just want to live.

Why is that such an extraordinary request?

“But there were pictures,” she says with a sad smile that breaks my heart completely in two. “And music, and movies, and memories, and God, even your smell. They were blurry but they lingered, and they made it real, reminded me that for a few years of my life I had everything: unconditional love, romance, comfort, and more importantly, potential.”

As much as I long to hear these things, to listen to her tell me just how much she loved me, I can’t handle that it’s the past. We have an agreement. What she’s described has been my life since I left as well. But it is the past.

All I can do is remind her of the fact that, at least for her, it’s not over. “You’ll have that again, Spence.”

She shakes her head. “I keep trying to move on, to let it all go, but it doesn’t work.”

“It will,” I argue, treading lightly to hopefully shut this down, but she keeps going, shaking her head more vehemently.

“It doesn’t work that way, Ash.”

And just when I think I’m figuring things out, I find that I truly don’t understand anything. I just wish that she’d speak plainly. No, I wish that we weren’t talking about this at all, but I can’t help myself. I really do want to understand.

“What doesn’t work that way?”

And she finally looks up at me, those earnest eyes holding mine in a grip that nearly stills my heart even as it makes it thump harder.

“I can’t have those things with someone else when I already have them with you.”

All thoughts have left me. The very air has left me.

“It’s all still there. It never really stopped: all the feelings, all the potential, it’s still there and I don’t know how to get rid of it, to be okay with just being friends.”

My voice is so breathless that I can barely even hear myself. “Why do you want to get rid of it?”

“Because I can’t be with you, Ash.” Her eyes glassy with tears. “Not like this.”

She gestures to the room around us, and this much of what she’s intimating I can grasp. There is a romantic quality to this evening, as if I’ve organized an elaborate date. And in all fairness, I have. But she’s referring to more than that and she reminds me as she leans forward over the small, round table and links two of our hands in the middle, delicately brushing her thumb over my knuckles.

“And not like this,” she says. “I can’t move on when this keeps happening.”

Everything that we do has a closeness, an intimacy, from holding hands to shopping to a knowing look across the crowded backstage of a noisy rock show. We’re like magnets, polar opposites crushed and straining against the world between us but never actually connecting because to do so would destroy the world entirely. This is why she’s with me here, has been staying in my home with me, has been quieting her emotions as much as I have: because she’s just as torn as I am with the idea of moving on. She’s just as scared as I am at removing the safety net.

But I don’t understand why we have to. That is the only difference here. “Why fight it, Spence?”

She swipes at her eyes with her free hand and I give the approaching wait staff a look to back them away, despite their food-laden arms.

“Because you’re not ready,” she chokes out.

I take her hand more firmly before reaching for the other and meeting her head on. “I love you, Spencer.” She cries harder. “I love you,” I repeat, ducking my head to try and regain her gaze but to no avail. “More than anything.”

“I love you, too,” she says, nearly choking on the words.

“What more do we need,” I ask almost desperately.

“You’re still broken, Ash, and I can’t fix you, no matter how much I want to. You hide, and run, and avoid how you’re feeling. And I understand that, really I do. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, but I can’t love half a person, even when it seems that I can’t stop either.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, hating myself for not being enough. “I know that I’m not an easy person.”

“God, no,” she says. “See, this is what I’m talking about.” She pulls her hands away and seems to get flustered, as if she’s trying to find words that don’t exist before saying, “It’s okay to be broken, Ash. It’s just not okay to stay broken.”

What can I even say to that? I can’t help who I am or what I’ve been through, what I’ll always be going through until I die.

“I’m just… me, Spencer.”

Is that not enough?

“No, you’re not,” she says with no small amount of fire. “You used to care about yourself and fight. You used to beat the odds at everything.”

Um… “What?”

“When I met you, you were homeless, filthy, an orphan with no education or support system, but you overcame it all, becoming the smartest, most loyal, most capable person I’ve ever met. You defied everything that was stacked against you and came out the victor. Nothing could shake you or bring you down, because you were so strong, stronger than anything.”

I’m beginning to wonder if she loved me or someone else entirely. I don’t quite see it that way. I don’t remember being that way. I don’t remember being that person.

“That’s not how I remember it, Spence…”

“No? Well, I don’t remember being strong and proud either, but you saw that in me when we were younger and you saw that it was dying almost immediately when we found each other again. You had no qualms about pointing it out either, and you know what, you were right. I didn’t stand up for myself at all with Carmen or even my family. I was in a dead-end job that I hated. I had allowed myself to be a doormat, to exchange my dreams, my potential, for something so much less. I’m just not going to do that anymore.”

“Good,” I say. “But I’m not you, Spencer.”

“No, you have all of these qualities about you that are so fucking incredible that it’s hard to even fathom how someone like you could love someone like me. Even your quirks are endearing. But you’ve given up, and that’s not like you.”

“I was supposed to die.”

“But you didn’t.”

“I still could.”

She nods. “Yep, any one of us could die at any minute. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not over until it’s over, and until that time comes, I want to live and be happy.” She shakes her head. “No, not even happy, I want to be over-the-moon. And you should too.”

“So, your love for me has conditions. If I’m not crazy happy all the time, it’s not enough for you.”

And I know that what I just said isn’t fair by any estimation, but I feel attacked, put on the defensive. Her eyes darken with those words and I gulp.

“I lost my best friend, my lover, and my confidant when you left,” she says. “When you came back into my life, I thought that you were a different person. I recognized almost immediately that the person I knew had died and you were walking around in her skin. I decided that I’d grieve her and let her go, get to know this new you and see if we could be friends. That would have been okay, not good, but I’d have survived it. But it’s not that simple with you. Sometimes, the real you is right here, where I can touch her and see her and laugh with her. And when that happens, I get this adrenaline rush, like the impossible has happened, like she’s alive and it was all a bad dream, like the grieving is over and didn’t have to happen. But then you push her down, bury her in-,” she gestures to me emphatically. “Whatever it is that you’re holding onto, and I have to grieve her all over again. I can’t do that for the rest of my life, even when part of me wants to, because to sit back and watch it happen over and over and over makes it just as much my fault as it is yours.”

“Things have happened that are beyond my control, Spencer. I’m not eighteen anymore. We’re both different than we used to be.”

She nods. “Yes, things have happened and we’ve changed, but that’s not what I’m talking about, Ashley. Change can be good. I don’t expect you to be exactly the same.”

I feel slightly sick and I think a headache is coming on. I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Spence, I’m sorry, but I’m not that person. This is who I am and if you don’t like it, I get it. Trust me.”

“Ash,” I can hear the tears in her voice, the desperation, the longing. “I love you, all of you, even the broken parts. But I hate to see you like this, to see you hurting, to see that potential squandered over something that you’ve already defeated if you’d just let yourself believe it. And mostly, I hate that you won’t let me help you. I’m asking you to let someone help you… anyone.”

“What, like therapy?”

“If that will help, then yes. Anything.”

“And what if what I need is to be left alone to work this out on my own?”

Her voice gets sad and slightly defeated. “Then nothing’s going to change, because that hasn’t been working for you for the last four years. Besides, didn’t you just tell me that somethings can’t be done alone?”

“What do you want from me, Spencer?”

“I don’t want anything from you, Ash! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! I’m asking you to let me give, not take!”

“Give what, Spencer? You say you love me. That’s all I’ve ever wanted from you.”

“I need to give more, Ash.”

“What?”

“Comfort, a shoulder, anything that might lighten your load in a real way. I want you to be free, to be you again, even if that you is different.”

I don’t even know what she could possibly do to help me with something that I don’t even see, at least not in the same light. Ultimately, she’s asking me to change for her, and I know enough about psychology to know that any relationship built on those terms is doomed. I’m just not what she wants. She loves me, but that’s not enough.

“Spence, can we talk about something else, please?”

“Fine,” she says, but I know that nothing is fine.

It’s quiet for a long time and I can’t bring myself to look at her. But I know that she’s silently agreeing to leave it hanging there over a cliff, just like we have been for weeks now, only now that these things have been said, the cliff is crumbling. I hear the waiter approach and Spencer tells him to pack the food to go. We don’t say a word while I settle the bill and the limo is laden down with bags of food that will never be touched. This time, when we get inside, we’re sitting as far away as possible; the leather between us may as well be a chasm.

The driver asks where to go and Spencer answers him. “The Place D’Armes in the French Quarter.”

Not another word is spoken on the way back to the hotel, where we each get ready for bed and fall asleep with our backs turned to each other.


This morning, when I sleep in, Spencer doesn’t disturb me. I know that the air has shifted, that the unspoken agreement between us is tenuous at best because I know that if I wanted to, I could sleep the rest of this trip away and she wouldn’t say anything. She’s not fighting me anymore and as a result, she’s backing further and further away from me and I feel helpless, like my legs are mired in mud as I try and fail to keep up with her.

She’s undeterred though. She will move forward because that’s what healthy people do.

By the time that I unwillingly drag myself from bed, it’s roughly four in the afternoon, I’ve missed the parade, and Spencer’s nowhere to be found. Her camera bag is no longer on the windowsill, but there’s a note in its place that reads, “Went to enjoy the city and catch some footage. Text me if you want.”

I look back at the bed and it’s a struggle, a real internal war, not to crawl back into it and shut the world out, but a quick glance out of the window shows that Mardi Gras is in full swing. I’m missing it, and for what, sleep that’s become quiet hours of staring at the ceiling? I have a year of opportunities laid out in front of me and I’m just sitting on my hands, just like Spencer said.

I’ve done nothing but think about our talk from that evening between bouts of fitful sleep all the while avoiding her as much as she avoids me. And I know that she’s right, that I’m broken and it’s not getting better. And she’s right that I’ve been riding a fence, wanting to live but not actually doing it. I don’t know why I can’t seem to get there, or even how to get there, but it doesn’t help to know these things. It just makes me angry at myself, and if I’m honest, angry with Spencer for pointing it out. I want to go back to that night and stop myself from bringing up the future. I want to go back to that place of denial and distraction. I want to procrastinate, because I don’t know any other way to cope, except for one.

There was a time during chemo, when my hair fell out, my muscles shriveled against my protruding bones, and I didn’t even recognize myself in a mirror. I considered just ending my life. I didn’t, but I’m back in that place where it seems like the only alternative is to just speed the process along. In so many ways, not knowing if I’m going to die is worse than accepting that I will.

So why not just end it all?

Because I want to live.

I know that.

I don’t know why; I just know that I do. But I don’t want to live like this. I can’t. I know that something in me has to change, but I just don’t know how to make it happen. Mr. C always used to say that a watched pot never boils. And while, at the strange age of twelve, I figured that he was just weird, I realize now that he was right. Staring at what I want won’t will it into reality. What’s going to come is going to come on its own time.

So, I have two options: keep doing circles while I wait or end it.

The problem is that there are two ways to end it: kill myself or change for the better.

But I don’t know how to change it. I do, however, know several ways to die. So, I run a bath and sink down into the almost scalding water, holding my breath and staring up at nothing through the blurry, weightless blanket above me. It’s uncomfortable, the thought of physical pain. If I had it my way, my heart would just quietly stutter to a halt. But life isn’t gentle, neither in the giving nor the taking of it. No matter what I do, it’s going to hurt, but who knows what happens after?

If I kill myself, does it end there? Does the pain and confusion really stop or are all the gay haters right? Am I going to hell? Is there a God and does He hate me enough to eternally torment me?

If I find a way to change, to be better, will I feel it, or will it still somehow be a lie that I’ve fabricated for myself because life will continue to be life: painful, scarring, jolting and everything in between?

I think that’s the worst part with choices such as these: the not knowing.

And even as another hour of trying to drown my thoughts and emotions has passed, I can’t bring myself to make a decision, to get off that fence and stop being a coward. And knowing that only makes me hate myself more. So I get out and text Spencer because honestly, I don’t know what else to do and being alone feels suffocating.

It’s terrifying.

Everything is terrifying.

Thankfully, she responds immediately. She’s at Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon Street which isn’t far from here on foot. I don’t bother with make-up or anything other than drying my hair and pulling some of it up. I can’t seem to find it in myself to care at this moment.

I just need… something, something that I know I’m not going to find.

The atmosphere outside is so starkly contrasting to how I feel that I almost don’t believe that this place actually exists. It’s giddy, bright, and alive. I sink into the never-ending flow of vibrant revelers, the smell of alcohol thick but somehow not off-putting as I make my way to a New Orleans staple. This was on the list of places that the internet said that we’d have to visit. Apparently, they have a famous drink called the Hurricane, and it’s somewhat of a legend at Mardi Gras.

During the walk, it hits me that Spencer, despite all that’s been said and not said, is still moving forward. She’ll live, she’ll experience, whether I can meet her there or not. Part of me wants to be envious of her, almost angry that she isn’t as fucked up as I am, but the honest truth is that I want to be like that. I wish, with everything that I am, that I could be that strong.

I want to bounce back from things. I want to see possibility and potential in life. And as I cram my way through the people lingering in the door and unerringly find her face even in this thick mass of bodies, I want to ask her how.

This is the one face that brings me to the deepest levels of passion and domesticity, love and loss, exultant joy and deep depression. It makes my knees go weak to see her eyes meet mine despite the noise and endless obstruction of bodies, as if she not only knew with a preternatural understanding that I was in this crowd but then she sought me out. The desire to understand her power makes my skin tingle and the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I want to know her secrets and share my own. I don’t want there to be anymore boundaries or awkward silences and misunderstandings. I just want to see what she says is right in front of me.

But all I can see is her.

She smiles and it’s a little sad, as if the shifting and rumbling of the cliff threatening to sweep me away has intensified, because somehow I know that it’s about to do just that. And I know that, like her, I have to find my own way. I have to be able to support myself, to stay above the tide on my own volition. But I’m just so scared to look away from her because I also know that the minute that I do, I’m going to lose her somewhere in the freefall.

“Hey,” she mouths as she approaches.

“Hey,” I mouth back over the cacophony.

Even if I could force my tongue to speak the words and ask the questions so that my mind can finally find that firm hold, this isn’t the place and now is not the time. It’s not just the noise, though that’s deafening, but I know that she’s been trying to tell me the answers for too long now and I’m not going to just magically understand her all of a sudden. Whatever it is that’s missing, I still haven’t found it and I can’t force it out of me or into me anymore than she can.

But I know that we both wish that we could, and sometimes hoping is all that anyone can do.

Spencer, the incredible soul that she is, takes me in her arms and says, “I’m glad you decided to come,” in my ear.

I want to weep. And some part of me innately knows that she does as well, but I don’t, and neither does she. Somehow, the need doesn’t pang as deeply as it used to.

“Me too,” I say, and I almost mean it.

I want to mean it.

So I let the noise, jazz, merriment, and solid arms around me drown my thoughts out as I hold her and sway with her, feeling out of sorts in this exceedingly usual brand of comfort. But this is as close to peace as I can manufacture, and while it’s nowhere near enough, it will have to do, and I’m thankful for something, anything, at this point.

When she pulls back, she gives me a lingering kiss on my cheek and I close my eyes, some part of me believing, oddly enough, that this is the last kiss that we’ll ever share. The sad smile on her face is mirrored in my heart as she backs away and takes my hands to lead me to the bar. She orders two Hurricanes and we quietly people watch, a normal distance between us that is markedly friendly by my interpretation. Part of me wants to grieve. Hell, I am grieving – in a bar, in the middle of the biggest party on the planet no less. I can’t even discern how I got to this place, not on the globe, but in my life. But I suppose that it makes sense considering that I wasn’t supposed to have a life at all, not past the age of eighteen. It isn’t just unexpected, it’s that terrifying feeling popping up yet again as the rumbling beneath my fingers intensifies just a little more.

Spencer hands me my drink and it looks like it will be sweet, so I take a confident sip. It’s awful and even over the noise in the room I can hear Spencer’s distinctive, quiet laugh. It’s genuine and I can’t help but feel one of my own break through, especially when she takes sip and her face scrunches up.

I don’t have to rub her nose in the instant karma; she already knows if her playful glare is any indication.

It gets awkward and jilted after that, but that’s not unusual anymore. I find myself loosening up the more that I drink, the worries worsening as my ability to hold them under wavers, but I find it in myself to ignore it and try to enjoy some of the fun happening around me. If I can’t really partake in it, at least I can absorb a small portion. Despite the emotions, it’s impossible not to feel something uplifting in this mob of excitement.

I’m not sure how much time has passed since I finished my third Hurricane, but by the time that there’s a break in the music the slush of my fourth is melted and untouched, a thick layer of water gathered on the surface as I play with the straw. I can’t even taste the alcohol anymore and that first sip indicated that it might be made entirely of tequila. I look up to see that people are gathering at windows and doors before looking over at Spencer. She grins, her cheeks flushed from a few empty glasses in front of her, and she again turns to the bartender where she retrieves the masks that we purchased. I’d totally forgotten about them, but it’s so like Spencer not to.

She was going to find the fun in this trip with or without me, but her hope of the former is evident.

What would I do without her?

I set my drink down on the bar and situate my mask over my face, and we laugh at each other because we look absurd, but somehow the mask feels liberating. I feel like I can hide just a little, even if I can’t hide from her. She retrieves her camera from behind the bar, stopping to give the tender a smile of thanks, and we push our way through the crowd and onto the street where absolute pandemonium has broken out. Bodies fill almost every available inch of space, tightly packed and now mostly exposed. There are, quite literally, breasts everywhere. I find a slightly elevated spot in one of the corners to watch or gawk, I’m not sure which. Maybe it’s because I’ve been so deprived or because of the spectacle of it all or because I’m drunk, but who gives a shit at this point?

All breasts are beautiful in their own way, but I’m not usually so disgusting. I mean, I can excuse wanting to see Spencer. She’s so much more than sexy to me. But these strangers… I don’t know what it is but it’s like there’s a sexual energy in the air that makes me a little light-headed. And yet again, I feel like such a guy, but I mean, they’re everywhere and beads are raining down to sing their praises. I hear Spencer make a strange noise and look up at her curiously. She has a distasteful look on her face and she purposefully points her camera elsewhere. I track my eyes to what she saw and find a dick, wagging proudly at full mast in the throng of people.

“Thanks a lot for pointing it out,” I shout at her.

This just makes her laugh as she resumes recording.

“How, in all of…,” I gesture to the breasts. “That… did you manage to find one of those?”

She waves a hand dismissively. “You’ve seen one set, you’ve seen them all. Those…,” she points at the man who has thankfully turned away. “I rarely see… thank, God.”

I chuckle and cock my head as her comment about breasts registers. “They’re all the same to you?”

“Yeah,” she says the word as if it’s two syllables. “Why?”

“Really,” I confirm.

“Well, not exactly the same, but they’re just breasts. It’s not like I’ve never seen them before.”

I nod, a grin tightening my face because I’m a sadist. “So do you have the guts to put your money where your mouth is and flash the crowd for some beads?”

“What?” Her eyes get round. “No-”

“Why not?”

“Because that’s gross!”

“You think they’re gross?”

“Well, no, but it’s just…,” she screws up her face and I find it adorable. “Distasteful… to walk around naked.”

“Says who?”

“I don’t know.” I can tell by her tone of voice that she’s getting frustrated. “I just don’t want to do it. If they do, that’s fine.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes,” she says resolutely.

“Good to know,” I say before leaning over the rail and lifting my shirt and bra to give a good wiggle.

I don’t have much, but they’re perky as fuck.

Several of the people in the crowd hoot and holler and I find that I have to shield my face against the barrage of beads before I can resituate my clothes and collect them. The man nearest to me gives me a creepy grin that makes me gulp a little, especially when the woman with him seems just as happy about my moment of impromptu freedom.

But Spencer, the look on her face when I hand her a string of bright beads with a giant smile is pretty priceless.

“I can’t believe you did that,” she says dragging her eyes from my chest to look at the beads in her hand a little stunned. “And I can’t believe I got it on film.”

She looks at the camera and so do I, but I’m too slow at making a grab for it. Spencer, however, has the reflexes of a cat, even drunk, and appears to be utterly indignant. I really have to get my hands on that memory card.

After a few more silent moments amidst the chaos, she finally asks, “Why did you do that?”

“To get that memory card.”

Duh…

“Why?”

“I wanted to have a little fun, not memorialize it for the folks back home, Spence,” I reply dryly.

“You think I’d do that, show them?”

“Well, maybe… Does that mean you won’t?”

“Oh, no, you’re so dead.”

The way she said it leaves me flapping in the wind. I can’t tell whether or not she’s serious. “You wouldn’t.”

She seems to deliberate for a moment. “Nah, you’re right. I’m not the type.”

I blow out a relieved breath, but I don’t really trust her. I search my mind for ways that I can get the card, remove the incriminating evidence, and have it back in the toddler-sized mechanical device before she notices, but nothing helpful is coming to mind. She never leaves it unattended, especially not in chaotic social settings.

Ever.

“Maybe just Christmas cards,” she says.

“Spencer…”

She smiles cutely and pats me on the cheek before pretending that she doesn’t hold some serious ammunition in her hands. Scratch that. She’s not pretending at all. She knows that I’m at her mercy. This is worse than that pole dancing debacle…

I really should learn to avoid alcohol.

I decide to play it cool, and resume crowd watching next to her before saying, “Good thing I’m wearing a mask. No one will believe it’s me.”

She grins but doesn’t take her eyes off of the LCD screen in front of her. I feel a lot better, like I’ve won, that is until she speaks again.

“You know that tattoo on your lower back…?”

I groan and she chuckles.

“When did you get that, by the way?”

“A couple of years ago,” I say defeated.

“It’s nice,” she says.

“Thanks.”

A few more tense minutes pass.

“Ash?”

“Yeah?”

“I would never violate you like that.” She looks over at me and I can’t doubt the sincerity in her eyes, especially when she asks. “Why would you even think I’d do that? Don’t you trust me at all?”

I have to stop and think about that for a minute, despite the fact that I know that I’ve hurt her. Of course I trust her. She’s probably the only person I’ve ever really trusted. But now that I think about it, I haven’t been showing a tremendous amount of it. In fact, I’ve shut her down every time that she’s tried to get close to the attic door. I don’t talk to her, even when she tries. I don’t let her in, not really. I’ve been keeping her at arm’s length. When did that change? Why did it change? She hasn’t done anything to violate my trust, though I’ve violated hers many times over.

“I guess I did. I-I’m sorry…”

There are just so many things in here, ugly, hideous things. She doesn’t understand. She’ll run screaming, and I can’t lose her again.

She takes a deep breath and refocuses her attention on the crowd on her screen. “Have I done something to make you not trust me?”

“No,” I say quickly. “No, Spence. I don’t know why I was worried.”

She just nods, and I swear that I can physically see the walls erecting over her countenance. It’s in the way that her shoulders get a little tenser, her expression a little more sad even as it appears impassive, but I know the difference, the subtleties of her, just as well now as I used to. I’m killing this relationship and there’s just not enough of it left to lose any more. I have to find a way to stop if it’s not already too late, but I know that each passing second gets closer and closer to total meltdown.

“I’m sorry,” I say again but she just shakes her head.

“Ash, don’t apologize. I’m not blaming you.”

“I didn’t mean to offend you, though…”

“I know you didn’t.”

After a moment, she closes the camera and retreats back inside, and I see it for what it is. This time, she doesn’t want to talk about it. And when she’s the only one talking at all, this is bad, very bad. I silently follow her back to the bar where we order a few more drinks, somehow finding a way to drink alone though we’re right next to each other.


The next morning finds me hung-over and wanting to sleep in again. I can’t tell if it’s because I’m depressed or just headachy and queasy, but oddly enough, I’m incapable of sleep. Spencer doesn’t badger me, but then she doesn’t have to. I’m doing a good enough job all on my own. Everything about me, from my toenails to the center of my chest, feels battered, aching, and bruised, as if I fell from a skyscraper and survived the impact in pieces.

So, I get up incredibly early with Spencer, shower, and skip the usual routine. My heart’s just not in it. Not a word is spoken, the gap between us widening with each tick of the clock. I pass on breakfast, downing a couple of bottles of water instead before we wordlessly partake in another time-honored tradition: scouring the treetops for leftover beads. There are some really neat ones in our collective take after a couple of hours, but I can’t help but be sad about this entire trip. I missed the parade, don’t remember last night, and everything is falling the fuck apart. I’ve ruined it, not just for me, but for her. And all I know to do about it is hate myself in silence.

We’re about forty minutes into the drive back to the Garden District to visit the Auduban zoon, when Spencer dares to speak. “Are you ever going to talk to me?”

“About what?”

I glance over at her, pleading her with my eyes. I’m too vulnerable today. I don’t know how much of my sanity still remains, but it’s not enough to talk about these things. Our agreement isn’t completely null and void yet, not if we don’t want it to be, and I don’t. So, I beg her, unabashedly, without even saying a word. She sighs and I want to sigh too because that crumpled, torn agreement is about to be lit on fire and dropped into a waste basket. She doesn’t say anything for a moment and in that moment I think that maybe she’s reconsidering. I mean, the lighter’s flaming, she’s holding it right at the corner of the paperwork, but she’s hesitated.

If I blow enough hot air, maybe I can salvage the situation…

But then she glances over at me, those expressive eyes almost sadistic as she touches the paper to the flame. I slouch in my seat and wait, berating myself for having said too much, especially at that dinner. That’s what started this mess and it just keeps compounding from there.

3, 2, 1…

“I haven’t had to drag you out of bed at ho- at your house in a while. But when we got here, something happened. You just want to sleep…”

I don’t say anything for a moment, choosing instead to consider my options. I won’t lie to her, but I’m just not ready for this, and she can’t honestly want that either. My best bet is to play dumb and hope that she’s feeling kind enough to follow my lead.

“You know I’m not a morning person.”

“That’s true, but you’ve been up by eight almost every day since we got back from Canada. Well, except for that first day where I had to drag you out kicking and screaming.”

And it’s true. I’d have holed up for weeks if Spencer had let me, but she didn’t. Kyla had a key to my bedroom made while I wasn’t looking after that first showdown. This time, by four in the afternoon, I had a crazy blonde jumping on my bed and singing, rather poorly, her rendition of Pocket Full of Sunshine.

So maybe my best bet is to appeal to reason.

“Come on, Spence. Let’s just try to have fun today. That’s why we’re here, right?”

She nods slowly but keeps her eyes on the road. “Exactly, and when we got here, things were good, but something happened later that day and then the dinner…”

And this pisses me off a little. She wants me to talk. I get that. I wanted her to talk at the concert, but she wouldn’t. I wanted to know what she’s thinking about Carmen, about leaving, but I didn’t pry. I respected her right to privacy.

Why can’t she do the same for me?

Why should I have to be the only one to spill?

“Sometimes I just want to sleep. I’m sorry.”

“That’s not what I’m asking you, Ash.”

“No, but what you are asking is too much right now, Spence.”

“I know we put boundaries on our relationship, but I didn’t know that we were lying to each other.”

I snort. Now who’s playing at denial? “Spencer…”

“Fine, maybe I just don’t want to do that anymore.”

“Then by all means, start talking.”

“About what?”

“About what’s been bothering you.”

This seems to catch her off guard and it makes her a little defensive.

“I’ve laid everything out to you, Ash. I’m hurting too and I told you what’s wrong, but I’m not curled up in a ball and sleeping whole days away, especially not on a trip that’s supposed to make things better.”

“Everyone handles things differently.”

“That’s true, but you’re not handling it at all. You won’t tell me how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking. You’re trying to sleep through it.”

“You can’t tell me that you’ve been facing things head-on, Spencer. You tip-toe around me as much as I do with you.”

I feel hopeful that she might shut this down before it goes too far because she nods her agreement.

“You’re right.” But then she does what I asked and starts talking. “I’ve been avoiding a lot of subjects because I’m confused and not sure how to explain myself. I also don’t want to hurt you. You’ve been doing really well, and I don’t want to mess with that.”

“So why are you,” I grumble.

“Anyway,” she gives me a sideways glance. “That’s wrong of me, because it enables you to avoid things too. And that’s not healthy for either of us.”

“This is all well and good, Spence, but you’re not telling me anything I don’t already know.”

She ignores me and continues, though she’s getting pretty worked up. “When I saw Carmen at the show, it hurt. I know why she was there. I know that she’d been waiting for one of your shows so that she could bait me. And it hurt, just like it did the first time, but not for the reasons that it should have.”

She starts to tap her fingers nervously on the wheel and I stare at her, waiting. I can tell that she’s struggling with herself, but I can’t be patient.

“Then why?”

Her voice gets passionate, almost desperate. “Because it didn’t really matter to me that she was moving on. I was mad at myself for not being baited. I should have been livid! It should have made me crazy with jealousy, but I just didn’t feel that way! And I realized that I should want to be with her, but I just… don’t!”

The cliff that I’m clinging to rumbles so violently that it starts to crack, and I scramble, looking for anywhere solid and safe to cling but every square inch is dwindling away. And then it happens, my fingers slip and I’m freefalling, knowing that there’s a bottom down there somewhere just waiting to shatter me against it.

“I think… no, I’m certain that I’ve let her go. And I told you why at that dinner, but you still just don’t see it.”

It’s my turn to get frustrated.

“What?! What don’t I see, damn it?! I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me. Can’t you just tell me what it is that you want?!”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she spits out as she violently pulls the car to the side of the road, screeching to a halt, and slamming it in park. “You piss me off, you know that?!”

Okay… so that came out of nowhere. Well, maybe not the feelings, but just, there was no gentle lead up to that at all. And, hey, I didn’t do anything to her!

“Well, you piss me off too!”

She’s breathing heavily and so am I. I feel almost light-headed because of it. And then her expression becomes pained, so much in fact that it’s almost contorted as quiet tears start to leak from her eyes.

And it’s terrifying, but then it’s only worse when her voice cracks out, “I didn’t want to get into this on a trip. I don’t even want to do this at all, but I think I need to… move out.”

And there’s that bottom that I’ve been waiting to crash into, that I couldn’t see but innately knew was there, waiting to break me. And oddly enough, even as I know that I’m a contorted mess of what might have once resembled a human, I can’t even feel any of it.

Yet somehow, desperation finds its way into my voice. “Then don’t.”

“I have to, Ash,” she says, sniffling.

Does she?

Yes.

I knew that.

I knew it so well that I’d unknowingly prepared myself for it, and at the last minute no less. It’s as if I knew that this was coming all along, but I’d put it off as I’m prone to do, so my internal clock pounced just in the nick of time to give me a warning and that’s why this trip has been so hard. I’ve been fighting it because I don’t want to face it. There’s just no more time to push it away and no amount of fighting was enough to stop it. Spencer won’t let it be. She loves me too much for that, and oddly enough, I want to hate her for it.

My voice takes on a detached quality, so different to my own ears that I’d swear that there’s a stranger in the car. I’m not desperate. I’m not anything. I’m just here, no longer trapped in what’s happening any more than I’m running away from it.

“Do what you have to do, Spencer.”

And it’s in this moment of bone-deep numbness that I’m able to almost step outside of my body, get out of my brain and remove myself form my heart. And being separated from feeling helps me to find an answer, an answer that is both logical but also one that I can live with: this wasn’t going to hurt just because I don’t know how I’m going to go back to pretending to function without her. The usual excuses just sound trite. It’s not because she doesn’t love me. It’s not because of Carmen. It’s not because we both need to work on ourselves, though that’s undoubtedly true. No, the real reason that she has to let me go is because she can’t deal with what’s going to happen.

She’s not rejecting me, she’s rejecting the disease that owns me.

She can’t live with it because I can’t either.

She loves me, but it’s not enough. Shirley and Sam had been wrong. She’d regret it, and she knows it. I’m not a risk that she’s willing to take. Love does not conquer all, whether it’s as strong as lightning or not.

“I’m so sorry, Ash. I didn’t want to ruin the trip. I like it at your place, too much. It’s just… it’s a safety net.”

I still can’t find it within myself to feel the fact that I care. And it’s kind of nice. It almost makes it easier. No, it really, really does. In fact, I feel almost invincible.

“Do you want me just go h-,” she sighs. “Do you want me to leave, give you some time alone?”

“Whatever you want to do is fine.”

She’s studying me; she’s worried, but she doesn’t need to be. Ultimately, if she’s not going to care enough, she might as well not care at all.

“What do you want, Ash?”

What do I want? That’s a loaded question, or it used to be, but right now, it feels easy to find an answer.

“I want to forget this conversation.”

“Ash,” she says, closing her eyes, the tears still flowing openly. “Please don’t be- just please talk to me.”

“What would you like me to say?”

“Tell me what your feeling, what you want.”

“What I want is to pretend this conversation didn’t happen so we can enjoy the rest of this day. What I want is to go back to that dinner and not talk about this stuff.”

“That can’t happen, Ash.”

“Okay. Then, when we get back home, you can move out. I’ll even help you.”

She swipes at her cheeks. “Is that what you want?”

“Does it matter?”

“YES!”

“Are you sure, because it seems like you want me to want something specific, but I don’t know what that is. So what is it? What do you want me to want? Do you want me to beg you to stay or cry or what?”

“I want you to want to live, to try, to love me enough to let me in… maybe scream, or shout, or anything but- this!”

“I have given you all that I have, Spencer, but you said that it’s not enough. You said that you need to move out. I accept that. I don’t know what more I’m supposed to say or do, but I don’t have anything else left.”

She seems utterly defeated, but it’s hard to care when it’s her own damn fault.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“Why?”

We, need to do this, Ash. It has to happen.”

“And it will, so there’s no reason to be sorry.”

“I didn’t mean to do this now,” she gestures to the stretch of highway. “Here… of all places.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Yes, okay. You don’t owe me anything.”

The quiet that falls after that lasts for an inordinate amount of time, and mostly, I find myself just anxious to be out of it, to find a place that’s clear of this conversation, maybe even clear of her.

She’s still crying. “I don’t know what to do.”

“What do you mean?”

Hasn’t enough been done?

“I understand if you don’t want me here, not now.”

“Is that what you want me to want? Because I don’t feel that way, but if you want to leave, I won’t stop you or try to make you feel bad about it. I’ll even buy your ticket home.”

“Ash, please…”

“Do you want to leave or stay,” I ask directly.

“I don’t want to leave you,” she mumbles quietly.

“Then can we please just go somewhere,” I ask in exasperation.

She stares at me and I just stare back. I know that something inside of me, some innate part that was attached to her, has finally snapped. And yes, it’s odd to be okay with it. More than that, it’s unexpected, but I’m thankful. My heart’s still beating, and there are no more wires or hat tricks keeping it going. It’s on its own. I’m on my own. It’s not the first time, and knowing me, I’ll survive if for no other reason than life is just that cruel. But mostly, at least now things are settled. I have answers.

She seems to know that she’s not going to get anything else out of me, so with another sigh, she carefully pulls the car back into traffic. It’s a long twenty minutes before we reach the zoo, and it’s a huge relief to be liberated from that stifling car. I’m fully aware that there’s no way to pretend, at least not for Spencer. She’s still crying from her seat as I stretch out the kinks. And I know that I still care, but when I open her door and crouch to take her in my arms and reassure her, it doesn’t at all feel the same.

“I’m so sorry,” she says again.

“I know.”

And I do. She didn’t want to do this here. She didn’t want to hurt me. She didn’t want me to get sick. Neither of us asked for any of this. And it’s okay that she can’t be with me. I get it. If I wasn’t trapped with me, if I had a choice, I sure as fuck wouldn’t stick around. She’ll always be my best friend, at least until she decides that she doesn’t want that either. So I let her cry it out a little while longer before leaning back and looking into her eyes. They’re as expressive as always, but I feel utterly calm in that particular storm.

“Look, Spence, it’s going to be okay.”

She shakes her head.

“No, it is,” I say.

“It doesn’t feel okay. You don’t feel okay.”

She felt the snap too, only her reaction to it is far more desperate than mine. She seems utterly destroyed by it. So why’d she do it? She needed to? Who could possibly need this?

“Spence, if you want to leave, you can. I just don’t want to try and have some fun.”

And that’s a little bit of a lie. I’m not so sure that I could feel fun just now. Nothing’s really sticking inside. It’s like my heart has a force-field around it, not only keeping things out, but straight up repelling them.

I’m good with that.

“Do you hate me?”

“No, I don’t hate you.”

“I still love you, Ash. So much…”

I can’t really offer her the same sentiment. I know that it’s still true because somewhere in the base of my skull it niggles and tingles, but I just don’t feel it. And I’m okay with that right now as well.

She nods but even after she’s calmed down, the zoo holds little appeal and nothing feels at all normal. It’s all so surreal. Yes, the babies and fuzzy wuzzies everywhere are adorable, but just, who the fuck cares?

No one over thirteen, especially not me, and not even Spencer who usually loves this kind of thing.

So we’re quiet, the chasm between us now sound proof booths, and I’m okay with that too. She’s oozing with sadness, and I’m just… indifferent to it. I want to feel bad, but it just isn’t happening. So we amble around, looking in on caged animals and saying nothing, even as the irony of the situation isn’t lost on me.

Lunch isn’t especially fun either. The food is bland and tasteless, and I don’t feel all that hungry, so we pick at our purchases before throwing them away, but the visit to Tulane University is kind of nice. Unlike the cheerful atmosphere of the zoo, the history here doesn’t make me feel so out of place with the somber clouds following us around.

We take one of their tours and it helps to have others around and someone talking. We split up, though still within earshot, but we can take some time to ourselves, and that helps tremendously. It gives me a chance to breathe through it. We finish the tour and take another quiet, stifling, awkward trip back to the hotel, and when we arrive, I excuse myself, deciding to take to the crowds on the street and get lost in them for a little while. My head is all jumbled up and I honestly just need to think in a safe space.

And for once, I’m able to ask the right questions and face the answers.

First, what does all of this mean for us? Well, I already know that. It’s over between us. It has been for more than four years, but we’ve only just confronted it. She pulled out the safety net and the worst is over, so that counts for something, right?

Next, what does all of this mean for Spencer? Well, I can’t know what she’s thinking or feeling, especially not right now. But I do know what I’ve seen. She’ll move on and she’ll be fine. It’s within her to do such.

Next, what does all of this mean for me? Well, I sort of already know that too. It means that the life-support is gone but I’m okay. In fact, I’m better than okay. I’m completely indifferent to it. I don’t even feel like running or sleeping. Both of those sound like they’d take too much energy over something that I can’t find the will to care about anymore. It’s almost as if the depression has become so deep and so dark that I’ve grown used to it. It’s been a part of my life for such long time that it’s almost an old friend. I don’t think that I need a light anymore. I don’t even want one. I’m comfortable in the familiarity of gracious shadows.

Lastly, what do I do now? Well, I’m not going to do anything really. I’m going to mark Mardi Gras off of my list. I’m going to go home. I’m going to help her leave. I’ll play music. I’ll play shows. I’ll get the merch set up. I’ll get through as much of my list as I can, and then… Well, eleven months or eleven lifetimes, all I can do is exist until I don’t anymore.

The city is absolutely alive tonight. The sun is going down, there’s the strange and almost macabre everywhere that I look, from some of the vendor wares to the overly joyous atmosphere. People are having a good time, or at least they appear to be. But then as I really look around, it doesn’t appear to be that great after all, and I feel it inside of me, how numbness isn’t actually helping.

The smell of alcohol and something distinguishably sour is so thick that it actually burns my nostrils. The laughing and talking and stumbling around me almost feels disorienting and simulated. It’s like the smiling faces are morphing into something darker and sinister.

I find myself starting to notice things, like the groups that are hanging and groping on each other lewdly, or other groups on the corners all huddled together over small silver bullets that they hold to their noses for a quick snort. I see how people are settling into small alcoves with newspapers and cardboard to cover themselves while they attempt to fall asleep. And I notice how some of those vendors aren’t peddling masks or brilliant art, but a false sense of happiness that will rocket you to great heights only to send you crashing back down to the ground.

And as one such peddler grabs my attention, open smile gleaming white against the darkness of the shadows that he’s standing in, I find myself stopping. It’s something I’ve never done before. He appears to be a part of the shadows that surround him as he offers me the comfort of his product. I consider him and I consider what he’s offering me, something else that I’ve never done before. I’ve never tried it, but part of me wants to. Part of me wants to feel something that doesn’t hurt. He’s offering me that, promising me that. And it’s free, a gift to me, because he knows that once I try it, I’ll come back for more.

It’s just that good, or so he says.

So I take it and I put it in my pocket, and I don’t say anything to him as I find myself looking for a place to be safe, to feel secure, to try something that means more than lovers or children or even life for some because I want something to mean that much to me too. Spencer did, but that is utterly gone now. I have nothing and no one to hold me up but myself, and I just can’t do it. This must be what scratch, what rock bottom, feels like. So I find my way towards the riverbank of the Mississippi and look for that place where I might find it, spotting a gravel laden patch of darkness along its muddy waters to shelter in. I pull the promise of something to help from my pocket and run a thumb over its smooth, plastic surface, the loose crystals inside like sand.

And I want it. I want it to mean something. Maybe this could mean something…

I open the bag and even while the smell is so faint, so nearly indiscernible, it may as well be a brick to my face because it’s one that I’ll never forget. It’s the very thing that both made and destroyed my life and as it leaks into the open air, I feel my throat close up. I remember what it means. I remember her and what she taught me. I remember that this small, inconsequential thing in my hand destroyed my life before I ever thought about touching it.

It’s already taken so much from me, and now, now it wants to own me completely with false promises of hope and comfort and something to live for even as it intends to kill me. This bag in my hand is a leech, a life-sucking murderer, and I hate it. My vision swims, my stomach feels sick, and with an angry sob I chuck the bag into the murky lap of the water unable to even fathom what I was thinking. I can’t become like her. I don’t want to become like her.

But that’s the sickest part: I already have.

I always wanted to live my life on my own terms, and I’d managed to convince myself that I had, but the truth is that I keep handing it over to one thing or another, whether it be loneliness, love, fear, or depression. I’ve never actually taken what life handed me and tried to make it any better. I’ve always just allowed it to fester and rot and devour me with its infection.

She did the same thing, it was just with drugs.

I’ve always known that I have to fight for what I want, but first I have to want something. I’m only now realizing that I can’t wrap that up in anything or anyone else. The truth is that Spencer leaving shouldn’t make me shut down. I shouldn’t be afraid to feel even when it hurts. I shouldn’t sleep and run to avoid. I should be able to not only survive like I have my entire life, but really live.

I’m going to have to try. I’m going to have to fight myself if I want to do that. And I decide right here, right now, as an immense amount of anger and grief overtakes me, as that attic door bursts and sweeps me away soul first, that I will fight. I will fight everything in my life that tries to control me, no matter how comforting it may seem. But first, I have to take a deep breath and turn into the tide.

And I do, or at least I try, falling to my knees to grieve my guts out onto the gravel so violently that I fear that I’ll black out. And it just keeps coming, just like I knew it would, just like it has to because I created this mess. I locked it away and tried to pretend that it wasn’t there. If I’d have dealt with it as it had happened, then here and now might not be so hard, so gut-wrenching, so crushing.

But it is, so I hold my lungs to bursting as I’m buffeted in the current, the flood from the attic so murky that I can’t tell up from down or left from right. But I’m not fighting it. I’m not seeking a way out of it. That’s all I know to do. I can’t clean up the mess until I let it have its way. And as it keeps coming, as I go slack, as my lungs find no air, I spin and roil along, waiting to finally drown. But just like I should have died before and didn’t, I’m still not that lucky. Somehow, it starts to calm. Somehow it all starts to feel peaceful. Somehow, I float to the surface and find air.

The sun is coming up by the time that I’m able to scrape myself off of the ground and clean my face on the hem of my shirt. And I’m weak, and I’m broken – so irrevocably broken – but the warmth of the sun on my face, the air in my lungs, they revitalize me just enough so that I can pick up the pieces and start crawling towards another day.


Continued in Chapter 6 – Tooty Frooty In My Booty


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