Chapter 19 – You’ve Got to Go There to Come Back

Spencer’s Toyota putters through the sprawling UCLA campus. Students are milling around, making the traffic more stop than go, but that’s okay. It gives me a chance to take it all in. Spencer insisted that I let her drop me off, and I couldn’t really deny her. She was just too cute, all protective, wanting to be sure that my first day jitters were nowhere to be seen. But as I look around me, I get the feeling that her help isn’t all that cute so much as necessary. It would have been a twenty minute hike from my car to the Herb Alpert School of Music alone, and that’s assuming that I could have found a space in the student lot and not in one of the paid parking garages almost a mile back.

I’m majoring in Computer Science, with a Music Industry minor. I’m not sure why I actually want to learn programming. I mean, I’ve already made a fortune at it. But I haven’t tinkered with it in so long that I probably couldn’t even use one of the current languages. I guess I’ve just kind of missed it. I could have majored in music, but I figured I already know how to write it and play it. Recording is another thing entirely though. I’m self-taught and I’m decent, but it still lacks that industry grade polish. I’d have probably taken music engineering as my major, but all UCLA offered was a minor, and the result will be the same.

Spencer helped me put my schedule together. I’m going full-time throughout, which is normally twelve credits, but with my minor, I’ll be doing about sixteen credits each semester. We figured that I should start my days with music so that I’ll be in a good mood before I go and get my nerd on. I’m so excited that I’m almost bouncing in the seat. There’s only one dark spot on my horizon, and I sigh as I glance over at her.

I’m going to miss her.

“You think you’ll be able to come meet me for lunch today,” I ask.

“I should. I’m meeting the contractor at the office, but it shouldn’t take long.” She pulls the car to a stop against the curb. “Until they’re finished, I’ll be working from home.”

The way she said all of that was detached, like she’s distracted.

I frown.

“How long will it take?”

Her eyes are scanning the crowds of people as if she’s looking for someone, and I find myself doing the same.

“Oh, um, only about three weeks. It’s just offices and equipment. The studio itself is little less than an interview room since I’ll be documentary driven.”

“Spence, is everything okay?”

I can’t help but wonder if she’s regretting her decision, but then a huge smile breaks out on her face and she looks over at me apologetically.

“Spenc-”

There’s a bang against my window that nearly sends me into Spencer’s lap. I turn towards the sound and see Kate’s face pressed against the glass, her cheeks blown out and her eyes crossed.

“Kate,” I ask stupidly.

She opens the car door for me. “What’s up, numb nuts?”

I hate it when she calls me that, but I still hug her when I get out of the car.

“What are you doing here,” I ask in shock.

Kate scrubs at the back of her neck and defers to Spencer who’s making her way towards us on the sidewalk, her hands tucked into her pockets and her head bent in contrition.

“What did you do,” I ask her.

“I know you hate surprises, but… I’m hoping you’ll forgive me for this one.”

I feel my eyebrows pull together.

“Most of it’s financial aid,” Kate hastens to explain. “But I didn’t qualify for many grants, so I’m still sucking from your teat for things like books and supplies, and a little of the tuition.”

Spencer shrugs. “Kate wanted to go, and I thought you might need a best friend…”

A grin splits my face as I crush her in a hug that nearly lifts her off of her feet. She squeaks with surprise and then starts to giggle when I kiss her face over and over again.

“You used our money,” I say breathlessly. “And it was your idea!”

She cocks her head at me. “I broke the surprise rule and made sure you had your best friend, and all you can think about is that I used the money?”

I nod, still smiling and she shakes her head adoringly.

“I hate to break you two love-birds up, but both of us are going to be late for class.”

I tap my lips with my finger and Spencer quickly kisses the spot. Once I have my backpack, I watch her pull away before turning to Kate and shoving her shoulder.

She just laughs.

“So do we have the same schedule,” I ask.

Kate snorts. “Hell no. I’m not a geek. We’ll have the engineering classes together, but then I’ll be loser adjacent, drawing, painting, and sculpting.”

“Not a geek, but a tree-hugging hippie,” I grin at her.

“Yeah, well…, thank you, Ash.”

I can tell by the look on her face and her tone of voice that she’s being serious.

“Don’t thank me,” I say. “Spencer did it.”

“Just take the fucking thank you, okay?”

I mock the seriousness in her voice. “Fine, you’re welcome.” We make our way towards the entrance. “So what about your jobs?”

“I still have to work, but I’ve cut it back to two part-time. I should be okay, but I might eat at your place more.”

I smile at her. That’s perfectly fine with me.


I’ve never done this. I’ve never had to. I guess that’s one of the perks of growing up with a social worker for a father. Anytime I needed to sort through what I was feeling, I could always just go to him. He always knew what to say and how to make everything feel better. He was the best dad in the world. And he still is. He’s trying, so hard, but there isn’t anything he can do about this, about Ashley, so there’s nothing he can do for me.

This journal is so… just an Ashley thing to do. She’s always lived in her head, and it always made me crazy. Even when we were younger and I’d ask her some stupid question, she’d just shrug at me, or make a joke of it, or even say nothing at all.

It was infuriating!

I wanted her to open up to me, to let me see her, because I knew that if she did all of my suspicions would be confirmed. From the first moment that I met her, I knew that she was… special. And that’s what I’m talking about when I say that she’d make every attempt to get to know her so difficult. One time I actually told her that she was special. And all she did was jokingly accuse of me calling her stupid, and then laugh when I tried to explain that’s not what I meant.

Not only was she physically incapable of taking a compliment, but she had to put herself down in the process and make a joke out of it, all the while somehow still full of herself. It just wasn’t all that funny to me. When I told her that she was special, what I was trying to tell her is that I could see her potential, that I could see just how bright and amazing she was. I wanted her to know… that to me, she was a star, brilliant and bright and central.

She had no idea, despite all of her posturing, but maybe that’s what made her so charming. She never seemed to know just how other people saw her. Both Aiden and Glen had crushes on her when we were younger. I think Glen honestly mistook torture for love, so he grew out of it rather quickly. But Aiden, like her, was so much deeper than he appeared on the surface. Sure, he was a typical guy, but he was one of the good ones: caring, intuitive, warm, and protective. And he loved her. I think that’s why it hurt him just as much when she left.

He’s never said it out loud, not to anyone as far as I know, even to this day, but then he was keeping a lot of things from everyone. His parents were never home, and when they were, his father was abusive. I understand now why he never told me. He knew I’d tell my father, and while that might have been the best thing for him, no child can see being away from their parents as a positive thing. With Ashley though, I think he kept his feelings to himself for me. He was the first person to know that I was gay. He was the first person to know that I was in love with Ashley. He knew before I even did and he kept those secrets without even being asked.

Ashley is the reason that he and I grew so close. Suddenly she was gone and there were no stars anymore. Nothing was special anymore, for either of us. Something inside of me died the day that she left. No, it didn’t die; she took it, like a thief in the night, as the parish priest used to say. And, well, I understood her, or so I thought. She taught me a lesson that I never wanted to learn, but I’d never make that mistake again.

I thought I’d moved past that, but I guess I haven’t. Even now just thinking about it gives me ulcers. She left and took my heart with her. God, it took ages for me to believe that she wasn’t coming back. I couldn’t believe it; I wouldn’t, because I believed in her. I believed in her more than I believed in anything else: not God, not my family, not even me.

But she didn’t come back.

I got used to being that way. But I was happy, wasn’t I? I still don’t even know. I focused on school and spoke to Aiden often. We were both doing well; he was traveling around, living out of his truck and seeing the states. I was pursuing my dreams. I laughed and learned and discovered new facets to the world; we both did. It all seemed rather romantic. That last year of college he showed up. For the first few weeks, I’d sneak him in for a shower, a good night’s sleep, or a meal. He finally found work and started to live on his own, but by then we had grown to rely on each other. It was like we both came to finally understand why Ashley was selfish enough, disconnected enough, to leave us like that, because we both became like her, at least with everyone else. Eventually I stopped fighting Carmen’s attentions, he was happily living the bachelor life. We had fun and everything seemed right in the world, especially when I took both of them and moved to California after graduation.

But then she showed up, and… it was like the sky lit up again, only I didn’t know that the light was missing in the first place. I saw her up on that stage and she was so… just so unbelievably radiant. My memory of her was so murky. I’d forgotten her raw talent, her depth, her brilliance. She turned everything upside down with those umber eyes, that clear voice, and her impossible ability to be vulnerable without actually giving anything away.

Just looking at her always made me feel exhausted. When she told me what had happened, that she’d loved me and left me, I wanted to kill her myself. Not only did she destroy the lies that I’d built around her abrupt departure, but she destroyed my perfectly erected life. I’d worked so hard to build something normal, something clean and fluid, only to find that all of my hard work was for nothing.

Everything had always had a plan before. I’d marry this kind of person. I’d settle into that kind of life. We’d have this kind of house, and these kinds of dogs. We’d drive these kinds of cars and we’d do this respectable thing or that respectable thing.

One second, I’m living this perfect life by the book, and then it was just… pointless, lonely, empty.

It was like I was looking at the palm of my hand and there was a pearl resting there. And then I looked up and saw her, but when I looked back down, there was a lump of coal where the pearl should be. There she was, making so many things thrilling and bright and wonderful, even as she made others seem dull and messy and ugly. And it filled me with inspiration. My world became beautiful, but then she’d be gone again, shutting me out, shrugging at me, or doing nothing at all.

God, I felt so stupid. I knew better. She’d already taught me this lesson, so why was I playing with fire? Well, it was warm, that’s why. I know it now. I knew it then, but no amount of warmth was worth being burned like that again. I decided that dim wasn’t so bad. It was calm; it was safe; it was better than bright because I didn’t feel the incessant need to shield my eyes. I decided to just let her be on the outskirts of my world where the light could be controlled and contained. I would focus on me and on Carmen and the plan. And I had Aiden. He was there with me through it all. He was so much stronger than I was, especially with her. He knew how to stay away, to keep from being burned, at least until he met up with Kyla.

Neither of them would allow us any peace. Kyla lit up his world and Ashley lit up mine, but for all of the ways that Kyla and Ashley are so much alike, they are entirely different. Kyla could be trusted. She was consistent. But Ashley… she kept coming around, and everything would reignite for a moment, but it was just a glimmer. Then she’d fade, and I realized that while I couldn’t survive her, I couldn’t stand to live in that dim world either. So I let her come and go and come and go, trying to be satisfied with this semi-happy existence in purgatory.

Nothing could shut her out but nothing could make her stay. It was like I was dealing with a ghost and I needed an exorcism, but that ghost was the best part of my day. I was terrified and confused, angry and hurting, but no matter what I did I couldn’t walk away because every flash of her in my life was brighter than the last and I craved her; I needed her. So she became the crux of everything, just like before, my plan of no plan.

And as strange as it is, this is the plan that worked, at least for her. She made sense of her head and opened her heart and gave it to me. I’m holding much of it in my hands right now. She finally gave me everything I wanted, only for me to find that it was not how I wanted it. I couldn’t stand to know what she thought and how she felt because it made it impossible not to forgive her. It made it impossible to let the world be dim. It made it impossible to believe that I understood anything, not until I read this.

I finally grasped just how much she was protecting me from. I finally understood why she couldn’t take a compliment, why she put herself down, why she kept me at a distance as often as she could, why she’d reel me in and throw me back. I finally understood that she’s not selfish, that she’s not disconnected, but human and terrified and trying. I didn’t realize that a star has to die to be reborn. I didn’t know it, so I couldn’t plan for it. It was like I wasn’t allowed to have a plan, even if that plan was no plan, so I had no idea what to do. I became still, and when that happened she was moving on without me.

It was like one minute I was looking at the palm of my hand and there was another pearl resting there. And then I looked up but she wasn’t there. And when I looked back down again there was nothing, just my empty hands. And that’s why I’m doing this, doing what she’s asked of me, because I don’t know what else to do. I’m just sitting here with empty hands, no heart, and no plan, writing in this journal while she moves on, shining so brightly that all other things are black by comparison.

I live in the dim again, but this time I know it. And I don’t know how to live with it, even as I don’t have a choice.

———————–

I got a text from her today. It’s a picture of the beach at the end of the Goonies movie. I recognized it immediately because of the iconic rock resting in the water, and with it came a flood of memories and aching and hurt. I thought that maybe it was stupid of me to have stayed back, to have forced myself to miss her this much. I regretted my decision not to go the minute that I’d made it, but I just couldn’t stand to be around her anymore, especially not with Erin.

God, help me, I’m not even capable of actually hating her new girlfriend. She’s far too much like Ashley for that. She’s attractive, smart, gutsy, and charismatic. She understands music. She’s everything that I’m not. I always wondered what Ashley saw in me. I’m not ugly and I’m intelligent, but I’ve always been pretty basic. It’s the side-effect of living by the book.

You become predictable, boring.

Erin isn’t like that though. I get the impression that she’s just as wild as Ashley is. I’d never jump into a fist fight, but I’ve seen both of them do it. The honest truth is I do hate Erin, but not because of who she is. I hate her because Ashley loves her. I hate her because Ashley chooses her. Erin got to be the one to help her through the hardest moments of her life. Erin gets to be the one to touch her, to kiss her, to love her back. And it pisses me off that she doesn’t seem to… care. She has everything I’ve ever wanted, she has Ashley, the real Ashley, one that’s present and consistent, and she treats that unbelievable gift like some second-hand pair of jeans.

Letting Ashley talk about her, giving her objective advice, is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I know that if I say what I want to say, if I throw myself at Ashley like I want to, I’ll just make more of a fool of myself than I already feel. Ashley has moved on and I’ve taken a seat. I hate this inert feeling, like the world is passing me by, but I can’t make a new plan until I can see something other than her. Right now, it’s all still her. That’s what planets do, right, they revolve the sun, the star? But that’s over. She’s gone supernova and thrown me to the outskirts of her orbit.

As much as that hurts, it still brings a smile to my face. At least she’s burning again. At least she’s happy. I can’t think of anything I’ve ever wanted more for her. I just wish she wouldn’t tell me that she misses me. I wish she wouldn’t hug me so much or so tightly. I wish she wouldn’t tell me that she loves me, and I wish more than anything that I could stop wanting her to. I want to say no when she asks me to do something with her. I want to ignore the personal wake-up calls that she inspires in me, the way she makes me think about things in new ways. I want to create enough distance to start to rebuild, but I have no will left when it comes to her.

It’s like nothing matters.

So I’m not going to reply. I’m doing nothing. Maybe staying back, taking this week, will give me the time that I need to finally walk in a different direction instead of stare after her.

But, Ashley, wherever you are, I miss you too.

—————–

Dad’s been taking care of me today. I can’t seem to quit crying. We’ve been talking, a lot, about Ashley of course. He’s been trying to tell me that it’s not over, that now’s the time to get off of my ass and fight like hell, but he just can’t understand. I’m not… normal, or at least my version of it. He doesn’t know what I know, but I don’t know how to explain it to him.

When I say that I’m not ready, it means that I don’t have a plan. But those are thoughts and feelings and contexts that he can’t possibly be privy to. It also means that even if I did have a plan, it couldn’t involve Ashley. She’s moved on. Now this, he can understand, and I’ve told him.

He just doesn’t believe me.

He believes that Ashley doesn’t realize what she’s doing. He says it’s common for people to project their feelings onto another person, a safer person, until they’re able to heal. He says that it happens to therapists all of the time, and that this is the reason that the law is so clear about doctor/patient fraternization. But even if that’s true, Ashley is still making a choice, and I’m not what she chose.

Why?

If he’s right, why was Erin the ‘safe’ choice? Ashley has to know that I love her. She has to know that I’d do anything for her, that I’d bleed myself dry. I’ve turned my life upside down for her because what makes her happy makes me happy. Is she really blind enough not to see that?

Well, I know that she is fairly thick-headed. She’s oblivious half of the time, but then sometimes she says and does things that are so profound with deep understanding that I don’t know what to believe. Even that night at the Troubadour, with the black-headed slut, she thought that I just misheard the name of the drink. And, she thought that I was upset about seeing Carmen, but honestly, I was just upset that she’d gotten Erin’s number, right there, in front of me no less. And then she had the audacity to hold me, to dance with me, to capture my attention so effortlessly and do nothing with it.

And Mardi Gras… I tried to tell her, to help her understand that who she is can’t be empty or dim or dull, even as she kept trying to show me that she was. That’s why I left, because if that’s who she is, I couldn’t stand it. I know who she could be, who she used to be, and I couldn’t live with that precious person’s murderer. It was like she didn’t care about herself at all, but then now I know that’s the truth. And anyone who doesn’t care about Ashley is no one I want to know.

But I know how much she cares now, about herself and about me. The ghost of her materialized, and this time, she stayed. She was warm and colorful and whole and brighter than I’d ever seen her. I could touch her, but only as a friend. And I just don’t know how to live with that. I tore my own heart out so that she could be free, and then she toddled off with that… trollip. Every time she tells me that she loves me, I believe it, but then she’s still walking off with someone else.

Why?

Because I’m not good enough? She’s told me that I’ve lost my ‘fire.’ Maybe she never loved me, but some aspect of me that never actually existed. I don’t even think I ever had this ‘fire’ she talks about. Maybe the person I was and the person she thought I was were two different things.

I don’t know… I don’t know anything, it seems. I’m just here, and I need a plan, because right now, Kate, Jon, and Jac’s suggestion to put out a contract on Erin’s life is sounding better and better. But that just makes me feel worse, to think that way, to feel that way.

It’s not a game.

Maybe I could go back to Ohio? That would put some distance between us. That would give me a chance to figure things out.

That sounds like the best plan I’ve had in a while.

——————–

I have a flight out tomorrow afternoon. Dad has been upset with me all day, even as he’s helped me pack. He hates it, and he disagrees with it, but he’s still helping me, supporting me.

This is why he’s always been my favorite.

Aside from Ashley, he’s the worst part of this. He just got here. We’ve just begun to get close again, and I’m leaving him again. He’ll never know just how sorry I am to have lost those two years with him, and to leave him now. But it’s not forever and I’m not going to disappear from his life. I’ll call him every day. I just hope that he can forgive me, but then I know that he will. If I know nothing else, I know that he loves me.

I can’t take anything with me that won’t fit in a carry-on. I’ll have to send for my things, and I’ll have to come back to get Flot, but Jet’s officially lost to me. He loves her as much as I do. And she loves him. I could never break the two of them up. I think I understand Ashley even better now. Now I know why she runs.

At this point, I just hope that she’s happy, that she’s healthy, that whatever happens, she realizes that I forgive her, that I love her, and that I’ll be okay. And who knows, maybe the next time I’m looking at the stars and I think of her, it’ll be true.

God, I hope so.

——————-

My world is burning with apocalyptic fervor. Bright isn’t the right word anymore. Every single wonderful experience in my life has completely obliterated, outdone, outshone. And all of it happened in a single week.

It was… crazy, to say the least. I wasn’t sleeping, but I was trying, and then the door buzzer went off. At first, I thought it was because of the electrical system. It wasn’t uncommon for a surge to make the lights brighter for a split second, or make the ancient smoke detector beep for a few minutes. Sometimes, all of the numbers on the kitchen appliances would be flashing zeros when I got up in the morning. So the random sound of the buzzer in the middle of the night seemed like just another quirk to my new home.

But then it just wouldn’t shut up. I thought that maybe the homeless man that sometimes sleeps near our steps was drunk or desperate or just… something. So I decided to answer it, but there was nothing and no one on the other end. I was about to go back to bed when someone starting pounding on my door. Dad came barreling out of his room holding a bat and we just stared at it, half-asleep and terrified, and hoping that it would hold. I was about to call the police but then I heard her voice.

To me, that sound was more terrifying than the prospect of an insane intruder, but I still found my way over and let her in. She was a wreck, sweaty, breathless, speaking nonsense, and being far too beautiful. Whatever rash reason brought her to my door this time, I was determined to be strong. I put my walls up immediately. They couldn’t block her out, but they could hold her off. I only had to make it a few more hours. And I was determined to do that, but I needed coffee. I needed to be alert.

I sat her down and went to fix some but then she grabbed me, took my face, and pulled my forehead to hers. She started saying things to me, sweet things, dream-like things, things I’d always wanted to hear but never thought I would. She was warm and blinding and relentless. I’d never seen her so… determined before. But then she started reminding me of the hell that she’d put me through. She was trying to piss me off. I knew it, but my walls still crumbled.

I had no idea just how… cruel I could be, how purposefully hurtful. For the first time in my life, I wished that I’d never known her, that I’d never met her. I wanted nothing more than be rid of her. And as much as it hurt, I was thankful for it. She was helping me, making my plan to run so much easier to carry out.

I hated that I loved her so much, because it never mattered. No matter what I did, it would never be enough. I had to hate something, and I couldn’t hate her. But I couldn’t love her either. Everything hurt and she was pouring salt in every wound she’d ever created. I just wanted it all to stop, and then I hated myself for feeling that way too. I was shut down and there was a certain amount of peace in that, but I even hated her for that. I couldn’t fight and I couldn’t sit still, and it felt like it was entirely her fault. Couldn’t she just leave me to what little peace I’d found?

Of course not.

She gave me a choice, but more than that, she shoved me, hard. I spewed every single terrible thought I’d ever had about her right in her face. It was worse than if I’d just slapped her. And when that happened, I felt… paralyzed and ashamed. Here she was, offering me everything I’d ever wanted from her, but how could I possibly trust her? I couldn’t, and I still don’t. At some point she’s going to do what she always does and change her mind. But when she tried to leave, I just couldn’t allow it. It was like I was reliving the first time, but then I’d had no choice. How many times had I wished to know before hand, to be able to stop her?

So many times that I don’t think a single day went by without that wish. In my mind, I’d stopped her a thousand different times in a thousand different ways. And all of them revolved around knowing that it was going to happen. This time, when she’d showed up at my door and bombed every carefully constructed barrier to rubble, when she went to abandon me with it again, I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t let it happen.

This time I had a choice.

There was just nothing left to worry about anymore, so I let it go. I gave in and spent a glorious week with her. I figure that even if it is all a lie, that even if it is only temporary, at least I’ve had a taste of the life that I want. It would be easy to compare this last week to a sugar high, that first taste of chocolate or the first heady rush after too much alcohol. But as crazy as it sounds, this week was my first taste of pure, life-imbuing water. It wasn’t sweet so much as sustaining. It wasn’t dizzying so much as revitalizing. And I had no idea just how dry and lifeless I’d been before now.

That first morning, I thought that maybe it wasn’t real. And it still doesn’t feel real. Every day I have to wrestle with my insecurities, force them to let me have this while it lasts. I know they’re just trying to protect me, but Tennyson was right when he said that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. They get their voice, every day, multiple times a day, but I don’t let them deter me. I have chosen to take each day as it comes, to enjoy her while she’s here. And I’m determined to be grateful, even when she’s gone.

As much as I regret that it will most likely end, that my world has to burn for me to be happy, I will never regret asking her to kiss me.

——————–

It’s strange how weeks easily become months. It’s strange to be waiting for something that should have already come but I never wanted it to. It’s strange to see her, and I don’t mean to be near her. I mean that I see her. I’m beginning to believe that I never knew her at all. The more of herself that she gives, the more that I am forced to recognize that I have always been wrong.

I always knew she had potential, but I had no idea just how far reaching that potential was. Every day she surprises me with her words. The way she speaks to me, even when we disagree. I never feel… disrespected or depreciated. It’s like all I have to do is ask and she’ll not only say what’s on her mind, but give me the context that makes it personal. It’s been so long since I could stand up to someone and not feel rebuked, where I can be honest, brutally so, and know that I won’t be bullied into silence or submission. I feel… emboldened, set free to be me. But more than that, no matter which part of me is present, it’s accepted.

I always knew that she was special, but she’s so much more than that to me now. It’s like once the fires stopped burning around me I found this incredible oasis in the middle of the resulting wasteland. Every day she sweeps me off of my feet with what she does. I have never felt so cared for, so precious, so treasured. It’s like all I have to do is look at her, and her arms are there, her hand is there, her love and support are there. She meets me wherever I am, even if it’s in a thicket of thorns. And every day, I find myself wanting to do the same. She makes me want to be a better person, to show her the love that she shows me.

I hate that I’m scared, but I’m more than scared; I’m terrified. I have never wanted someone so much in life. I’ve never wanted to be so honest or open before. And I am opening up more and more, but I’m still not there. I hate this feeling, like the other shoe is going to drop. It’s not fair to her. I see just how hard she tries, even as I can see how natural it is for her. That’s what makes her so special: she cares and loves and shares and gives of herself so completely and so effortlessly.

I’m not sure that she even knows just how much it means to me, how much strength she gives me. She gives me a reason to fight, and I am, but I want to fight harder. I have to fight harder. I want to give her a reason to never change her mind.

—————-

Today was a struggle, probably the biggest one I’ve had thus far. I try so hard not to let those things that I feel out, to keep them from taking these perfect moments and tarnishing them. But they’re like rust, eating away at anything beautiful.

I’ve been anxious for months, since that first headache appeared on the ski trip. I think that’s the first time that what she’s up against became real to me. I can’t stand to see her hurt. I never could. But this is a whole new level, a deeper, sinister level of Dantean proportions. It’s the ninth circle of hell, living with this fear that I can’t squash, but she doesn’t just live with it, she thrives with it. I don’t think I’ve ever met a stronger person.

The test results came back negative. There are not words for just how much weight that took off of me. But then I ruined it, just like I did when we talked about moving in together. We can have a family. We can start now. She was so excited, and I wanted to fall apart at the seams.

wanted to tell her to drop out of school.

I want to start now, just like she does.

And that wasn’t just unexpected, it was petrifying.

She has always wanted a family. I could say that it’s because she lacked one for the first decade of her life, or because she’s a natural mother. She knows the love and sacrifice involved in raising children. And she did a beautiful job with Kyla by any standard, but to do that at such a young age… it’s an intrinsic part of her, a talent.

I never really wanted a family before. I thought I might have a child or two, but all of my plans were so cold by comparison. My life was just a carefully manufactured schematic. All of the components were there, but it lacked heart and depth. Her heart was always in it, and I wanted it because she did. Today, that wasn’t true. Today I wanted to make a family, to build a family, to throw the schematic out and not just give her what she wants, but be part of that wanting.

The thought of carrying her child… it seems so personal, so indescribably beautiful. Why couldn’t I just say that, let the desire out, throw caution to the wind? All of that worry over what, finances? It all seems so silly, so petty, but my mind just won’t let it go. I couldn’t even tell her that yellow is my favorite color because it reminds me of her, how she’s my true north, my star.

Why? Why couldn’t I just give her that piece of my heart when she already owns it so completely?

It doesn’t make sense.

I don’t make sense.

I want her to know it all. I want to be just as bright for her as she is for me. I want to stop holding back. She deserves so much more. She gives me everything she has. I truly believe, at this point, that there is literally nothing that she would hold back from me. So why is it still there? What is it going to take?

I can’t imagine my life without her.

I am desperate to give myself to her and I hope that she believes it until I can give her the reasons to know it.

—————–

Ash,

I’m going to start by saying that I’m sorry for what you’re going to find here. I was angry and hurting, and none of it was actually your fault. I had spent so much time focused on trying to figure out your thoughts and feelings that I neglected my own. It was an injustice to both of us, and for that, I’m sorry.

I’m not giving this to you to hurt you or to make you feel bad, but because the more that we grow together, the more that I know that my fears and doubts are hurting you. And that is the very last thing I ever want to do.

Please just know that I’m giving you what you gave to me: the raw, unblemished, and honest truth. And even as I know that it will hurt you, I hope you can see that I’m working on it. I’m trying. And I promise you that I will get through it. I love you so much, and I am fighting with every ounce of strength I have because you are worth it. Please just be patient with me and take this for what it’s worth. I believe in you, Ash, in us, more than I believe in anything else: not God, not family, not me, and definitely not my insecurities.

Thank you for showing up that night, for giving all of yourself, and for stopping me from running. Thank you for loving me and trusting me. Thank you for finding yourself and putting me on that same path. Thank you for choosing me. I promise that this is something you won’t regret.

Merry Christmas,

Spence


Mr. C pulls himself up off of the low wall of the water fountain. “Hey, Ash.”

“Hey, thanks for meeting me.”

“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it.” He studies the area around me. “Where’s Kyla?”

“Uh, I was hoping that you and I could keep this just between us.”

He whistles lowly. “She’ll kill you when she finds out.”

“She’ll definitely try, but she’s due in April. I plan to pop the question in March. She won’t physically be able to catch me.”

He laughs and slings an arm around my shoulders before turning us towards the rather severe looking doors of Tiffany and Co. He was adamant that this would be the right place to come, but I’m not so sure. Rodeo drive oozes with money and uppity snobs. The stores are even worse. Spencer is plenty elegant enough to be accepted by this crowd, but she’s too nice, too genuine for all of the pretentious glitz and glam.

“Are you sure this is the right place to find Spencer’s ring?”

He steps forward and holds the door open for me. “Trust me, Ash. You want a place that can give you a wide selection, or you’ll never find what you’re looking for. This place has it all.”

I do trust him, so we head inside. It’s clean and polished, and looks a lot like a museum with the thick, clear cases of gems and precious metals. I glance into the one closest to me and stop when I see a diamond so big and so perfectly mesmerizing that it almost doesn’t seem real, even when I know that it most certainly is. Everyone knows about Tiffany’s. That’s part of my apprehension. I don’t want to do basic, but I definitely don’t want something this garish.

My eyes keep finding giant hunks of hypnotizing gems. All of them are too… much of everything. In fact, I notice that this area is a perfect grid of case after case of rings, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and everything in between. There’s even an escalator to another level and I start to feel intimidated.

A salesman approaches us in a finely tailored Armani suit and addresses Mr. C. “Welcome to Tiffany’s. My name is Brian. Were you looking for something specific or just perusing today?”

Mr. C shakes his hand. “Arthur, and the perfect engagement ring, preferably an antique.”

“Ah, your chosen is a very lucky woman.”

He leads us toward a partitioned area where two security guards are standing rigidly.

“Yes, she is,” Mr. C responds.

Brian’s resulting chortle is plastic and I just shake my head at Mr. C’s compliment. The guards fill in behind us and, while they aren’t at all obtrusive, I have to admit that it makes me feel a little claustrophobic. But that dissipates when I notice that there are only about five cases in this room. Our salesman leads us to the booth immediately to our left where he starts to chat with Mr. C. I glance at the treasures inside the case. These are definitely better than what I encountered in the lobby. The designs are simpler, more tasteful. Many of them are solitary diamonds, the bread and butter of engagement rings. But most are jewel encrusted behemoths, and nothing immediately calls out to me. I’m not sure what I’m looking for. I figured that the right one would just jump into my hand and give me a regal bow. Instead, I’m left with the conclusion that this might be much like finding a needle in several rooms full of haystacks.

“So did you have anything specific in mind? Narrowing in on an era can help. Most of our antique selections are Edwardian and Victorian.”

Mr. C looks to me and I shrug. “I’ll know it when I see it.”

I hope.

Brian looks at me curiously and then clears his throat. “My apologies. I didn’t know that you’d brought the lucky lady with you.”

He now seems to notice that I exist and turns his bright, even smile on me. It takes a moment for his conclusion to spark the hilarity in me, but Mr. C doesn’t find it funny at all. He stumbles over his words as he tries to correct the salesman.

“Oh, no…, no, no, Ashley and I aren’t-”

I loop my arm through Mr. C’s, smiling up at him. “Don’t be bashful, sweetheart,” I say, running a finger suggestively up his arm.

He turns bright red, and Brian clears his throat before pulling out what has to be the biggest diamond he has, in this room at least. I ignore him. I knew that this kind of place was exactly the wrong kind, and Mr. C seems to be learning this as well. But, it’s whatever. I’ll look at what’s here and maybe I’ll at least gain some sort of an idea of what I should get.

Thing is, I already know what I want, but I can’t have it. I’d considered getting a Claddagh ring, but it didn’t seem appropriate, and Mr. C agreed. There really is no replacement for that particular item. So, if I can’t have it, the alternative needs to be special and unique in its own right.

“I want something simple,” I finally interrupt the salesman’s endless prattle when we’ve looked through two different cases with no luck. “Simple but…”

“Timeless,” Mr. C finishes.

Brian flashes a grin and leads us to the case on the other side of the room, picking up another solitary diamond, but this one is much more understated than some of the others, even as it’s still big. And it’s beautiful, but it’s still so… plain, if that can be said about a five carat diamond. There’s just no character to it, but it’s the best he’s presented thus far.

“This is Edwardian, from 1910. It’s the quintessential engagement ring, but this one has history.”

I try to imagine it on Spencer’s finger, but it just doesn’t seem right. And that’s okay. This is only our first attempt. I’m certain that it’s going to take time over the next couple of months to find the one, even if it’s only second best.

Brian seems to know that he’s losing us, so he puts the ring away and leads us over to the middle counter. “How about something like this,” he says, pulling out a square cut diamond set into a thicker band with etchings around the setting.

“It’s beautiful,” Mr. C says, picking it up and holding it out to me.

“It’s better,” I say. “But…”

“Yeah,” he agrees. “This isn’t it.” He hands it back to Brian before turning to me. “Ash, try to keep in mind that we can’t have the ring we actually want.”

“I know,” I say. “I don’t mean to be so picky.”

“No, it’s okay to be picky. You should be picky. Just try to keep that in mind.”

I nod and start to peruse the other rings in the case, pointing to one. “That one is… better.”

Brian is quick to retrieve it, much like an over-excited Labrador, and it does seem closer to what Spencer might like, but it’s still not good enough. I have to wonder if any ring is going to be good enough. I have no idea what Spencer would want. Her jewelry spans the gamut, everything from big and dangly to small, simple studs.

She’s eclectic.

“Well,” Brian says. “I do have something that we only just put on the floor yesterday, but it’s not very old. It’s from the 1960’s.” He leads us over to the first booth and fishes a ring from the very bottom and the very back. It’s so out of the way that I wouldn’t have seen it had he not pulled it out. “We just procured this from an estate sale in Beverly Hills. It’s a vintage solitaire, pear-shaped diamond. But it’s only about one-and-a-half carat.”

This one makes something tingle in the pit of my stomach. It’s simple, elegant, beautiful but understated, and the cut of the gem makes it look like a teardrop. What throws me over the edge is the way that it catches the light. No matter which way I rotate it, the inside glows yellow.

It screams Spencer.

“The band is platinum,” the salesman continues. “It’s beautiful, but we definitely have much better selections in the same style.”

I smile up at Mr. C and he grins back. “Is that it?”

I nod slowly. “I think so.” I hand it back to Brian. “I’ll take it.”

He seems to sigh with relief or maybe disappointment; I can’t really be sure.

He’s still agreeable as he says, “Excellent. Let’s get you fitted. This is a seven, which is average, but at a glance, I think you’ll probably need to come down a size.”

He’s right, I’m a six, but Spencer is a seven. “Seven is fine.”

He scowls. “Ma’am, not to be contradictory, but I’d hate for the ring to be too loose on you. It could easily slip off and be lost.”

“I appreciate that,” I say. “But seven is what I want.”

He doesn’t argue, though I can tell that it bothers him, and we follow him to the counter back out in the lobby. Brian retrieves a small metal box that’s just a beautiful as the ring itself and sets it into the velvet slit. He clicks around on the computer in front of him and I’m surprised to learn that the ring is only about eight grand. His brows furrow when it’s my credit card that’s passed to him, but he seems to have learned his lesson with assumptions, choosing instead to just keep his mouth shut and take the money.

Before I know it, we’re standing on the sidewalk and I’m holding a tiny blue bag in my hand that feels like a live grenade.

I grin because I’m so fucking ready to pull that pin.

“I think it’s perfect, Ash.”

“Me too,” I say. “Or as perfect as it can get.”

He puts a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t doubt what you already know. I know my daughter, and so do you. She isn’t going to be worried about that when you show her this ring, and you shouldn’t either.”

“I still wish it could be different.”

“Me too,” he says. “Me too. So, can I treat you to lunch?”

“No,” I say. “I think I owe you lunch after what I did to you in there.”

He laughs and shakes his head, his face reddening again. “I won’t argue.”

And with that he follows me to my Humvee.


“Ashley Davies?”

I stand up from the cafe table and face the attractive Asian woman.

“Lily Zee, I presume. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

We shake hands.

“Are you kidding me,” she says as we sit. “I feel like I know you. Spencer talks about little else.” It’s my turn to smile, and damn if I don’t feel a blush creep up my neck. “It’s all good, I assure you.”

“Then she’s lying,” I retort.

She laughs.

“Well, I think I get why Spencer left,” she says. “You’re very charming.”

“I’d say I’m sorry, Lily, but I’m just… not.”

“Well, we certainly miss her and her talent.”

I smile. “If you had the opportunity to open your own studio, wouldn’t you,” I ask.

She snorts. “Are you kidding me? I probably wouldn’t even put in notice.” I chuckle. “So I’m curious, why me and why the secrecy?”

“Well…,” I clear my throat and pull the backpack from under the table so that I can access its contents. The first thing I pull out is Spencer’s engagement ring and open the box. “I need your help.”

Lily’s eyes get huge. “May I,” she asks and I nod. She takes the ring out and gazes into the diamond while shifting it in different directions. “This is absolutely gorgeous. It’s vintage, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

She puts it back and I put it away. “When do you plan to pop the question?”

“March. I have a few things planned for how I want to do it, and that’s where you come in.”

I pull out a binder filled with everything from photos to some horribly sketched ideas. There are also a couple of burned CDs. “I need all of that to make sense visually.”

“I see.” She starts to rifle through the photos, a wistful expression lighting her features. “You two really do have history.”

“We really do. She’s my first love.”

My only.

She glances at me before reassembling everything back into the binder. “Well, I’m happy to help in whatever way I can.” She picks up one of the CDs and reads the title before rolling her eyes. “I swear she spent her last two weeks listening to this song on repeat.”

“It’s the same at home,” I commiserate.

Apparently Spencer isn’t as unaffected by music as I’d originally thought. She just needed one song that could do it for her. This song makes me want to vomit at this point, but she loves it, and I can’t bring myself to hate it for that very reason. Besides, it is a great song, when I don’t have to hear it on continuous loop…

“What’s on the other disc?”

“Family videos, some old, some new.”

Those videos were the most difficult part of the preparation process. Of course, with Spencer moved in, I was able to riffle through hers for some choice pieces without issue. And Mr. C is in the know, so videos from our earlier era were no problem. But some required lies built on more lies, especially with Kyla and Aiden. I’m glad I did it though. Some of the content I didn’t even know existed.

“So I have a little over two months?”

“No, we have a little over two months. I want to make this for her myself, but even if I rented a space to work in, I wouldn’t have the first clue of how to use the software. I could probably manage a simple collage with low production value, but movies are Spencer’s world. I want it to dazzle her. I need your knowledge, skill, and talent, but it still has to come from me. And, of course, I’ll pay you well for your time.”

“Actually, I have a better idea.” She grins. “How about I help you with this, and you put in a good word for me when Spencer starts hiring?”

I lean back in my chair. Spencer already planned to try and steal Lily away, but she doesn’t know that.

“How about I do both?”


Two months flew by in a blur. Schoolwork ate up more time than I’d anticipated, despite the fact that I’m taking courses on subjects that I’m already familiar with. The most time-consuming part is the reading, but I’ve been learning, and I’ve always loved to learn. My first semester is coming to a close, but the entire world has opened up to me.

Once I started college and Spencer put in her notice, she and I almost immediately fell into a routine. It was beautiful. We’d have breakfast together; we’d talk on the way to the campus or sometimes just enjoy each other quietly. And then she’d meet me with lunch before picking me up on her way home. And that’s when the best part of the day would start. Most nights would find us in her office. I’d be on my laptop or with one of my books while she’d tool around with footage at her desk, the dogs resting at our feet.

She successfully recruited Lily, not just as an employee, but as a partner. In order to get True North Filmworks off of the ground, they decided to operate seven days a week. They split the weekends, Spencer taking Saturdays and Lily taking Sundays. This way they could avoid any further overhead. Their focus was building their brand, so cost management was priority as the first year would primarily be preparation. And while we have a lot of money, a studio would quickly suck it up. So this set a budget that included heavy advertising, marketing, and then, in January of next year, they’ll submit two projects to the Sundance Film Festival. This will hopefully open doors for commissioned projects, and essentially be ground zero for the company.

As much as I hated to lose time with her on Saturdays, I was grateful. This gave me a day with Lily each week to finish the proposal project without having to fabricate a lie. And it’s done, or at least as done as it can be at this point in time.

That’s actually what I’m doing now.

It was Lily who suggested the El Matador Beach House. Not only do we get a spectacular ocean-side house, but we get our own little stretch of private beach. It’s not as beautiful as the beaches in Oregon, but it’s nothing to scoff at, and it’s perfect for what I have in mind.

Starting at the steps at the back of the house, I’ve set up two perfect lines of wind-resistant white candles to create a glowing pathway that goes all the way down to the water. At the end of this path is a stool set directly center of a projection screen and speakers. Behind it is the pre-dawn ocean in all of its glory. This was no easy feat considering that electricity, water, and sand don’t quite get along, but Lily is making one last sweep of the waterproof cables to ensure that everything’s safely connected, functioning properly, and hidden. The weathered rock formations scattered throughout that area are a tremendous help as well, since they hide the various members of the professional camera crew that I hired to unobtrusively capture the moment.

The breeze is cool and salty, and the sun will be coming up soon. I look down at my watch. Mr. C had better not be late. But who am I kidding? He’s more dependable than Spencer’s cycle.

Everyone else is still asleep, and they have no idea what’s happening right under their noses. Kyla’s impending pregnancy gave me the perfect cover for this little coup. We rented the house for her baby shower the night before, or that’s what everyone thinks, and Spencer fell into bed with me completely unaware. In fact, no one knows except for me, Lily, and Mr. C. I don’t think I got a wink of sleep. I was far too excited, and anxious, and nervous, and…

I’m really doing this.

What if she says no?

Jesus, I might puke.

“Ash,” Lily whispers, startling me. “They’re coming.”

“Go,” I hiss.

If she gives my location away, I’ll kill her. She sprints away towards the laptop hidden at the back edge of the house, and I risk a peek from my prone position behind the corner of the raised porch. I can’t help but smile when I see Spencer’s stupefied face. She’s at the bottom of the back porch steps facing Mr. C. Her hair is loose and straight, the strands dancing in the wind. She’s hugging a frumpy, gray sweater tightly against her chest, and she looks utterly disheveled and utterly lovely, even in her pajamas. Despite the semi-darkness, I can still see the adorably grumpy crease to her brow as Mr. C turns her by her shoulders and whispers something in her ear before releasing her.

She’s reluctant but moves out into the sand, walking down the center of the path, and I watch as she makes her way to the stool. I have to duck again as she glances back to her father about halfway to the goal. I can’t see her now, but I do see him wave her on. When I check again, she’s seated, her back to me, and her shape silhouetted in the light of the projector as her new favorite song washes out into the air.

I stand, readjust Al over my shoulders, and gulp as I quietly pad my way down the stairs and towards her, Mr. C squeezing my shoulder as I pass. I have to get close enough so that I can actually propose, but then be quiet about it so she won’t know that I’m here until the time is right. But then as I get closer, I realize that this isn’t going to be a problem. Her attention is enraptured to the screen that’s set against the pressing tide. And I have to admit, so is mine.

As many times as I’ve seen this video, I can’t seem to get enough of it.

The movie starts in a plain white room, the back wall covered in dozens of framed photos as the camera slowly zooms in. It’s timed so that just as the song reaches the first verse, the first framed image fills the screen before it jumps to life. It’s the two of us, ten years old, our first Christmas together. We’re cuddled up on the Carlin’s oversized arm chair. Spencer is drinking some cocoa as she watches me clumsily mess around with my new electric guitar. There’s a beatific smile on her face and one of utter concentration on mine. There’s nothing remarkable about it to someone who didn’t live it, but this is where our lives together started, so to me, it’s indescribably precious.

Then the scene shifts, the camera pulling back to reveal that the frame is actually a star hanging in a twilight sky by a string. The string is cut and the camera follows the picture on its way down before bumping into the next frame where it wobbles for a moment.

All of this happens within about fifteen seconds, even as time seems to slow down. I get closer to where Spencer is, and I can tell that her arms have moved from hugging herself against the breeze to covering her mouth. And while I wish that I could see her face, I’m not worried. The sunrise is right on time, lightening the sky so that the cameramen can properly capture every expression from every angle. There’s even one behind me, watching me watch her.

My eyes flicker back to the screen as the star settles and the still it holds fills the screen and starts to move. It’s summer and we’re playing by the pool at Aiden’s house. I shove Glen into the water and the two of us fall onto a lawn chair to laugh raucously. Glen then proceeds to climb out and shake over us like a shaggy, wet dog, dousing us in cold water. The two of us chase him out of the shot, and the camera pans back out, another star is cut, and we’re onto the next memory as the first chorus of the song begins and the sky loses a little more of its gray tones.

This video is from prom, and it showcases just how rhythmically challenged we are as we dance together. But then the crowd around us shifts, she hooks her arms on my shoulders, and we start to sway. I watch as young Spencer tucks a stray lock of hair behind my ear and leans in to kiss me. Tears blur my vision because that’s how it was supposed to stay. But my sadness can’t last long because Aiden’s goofy face appears close to the camera, putting all three of us in the shot. He grins, waggles his eyebrows, and gives a thumbs-up.

I laugh and look back down to present Spencer. I can tell at this point that she’s crying. Her shoulders are shaking and her hands haven’t moved away from her face. I can’t wait for her to see me. I miss her eyes. The prom star on the screen is cut and it pulls my attention back up to my life, my history, with her.

Yet another image takes its place. This is where I showcase our fight forward. It shows the two of us acting crazy on Whistler Mountain as we sing that stupid ass song from our youth. I can hear Spencer’s laughter, even over the music and crashing surf, and I see her throw her head back.

I laugh with her, though she doesn’t even know it.

The video then cuts to me flying through the air. Spencer braces against the stool as I impact on the screen, my lack of dexterity forever immortalized. But then the last verse of the song starts, this star string is cut, and it shifts yet again as the sun peaks up over the line of the ocean.

The next image to appear is one that I grappled with, but I’m out there in all of my glory as I raise my shirt and get showered in beads. Of course, Lily and I put a black bar over my breasts that reads: SPENSORED, and I’m glad to hear Spencer’s resulting guffaw. It’s a bittersweet memory, but she’s taking the good with the bad and finding the joy in both, and this is why I love her so much, why I’m here. Even if she says no, even if she’s not ready, she needs to know my intentions.

Another memory falls and I realize that the video is going to end soon. This is the second to last star, and it’s the beginning of our current story. All of the other content documents our time together, our journey, and it was one hell of an incredible ride. But this where I begin to show how far we’ve come and where we’re headed should she choose to say yes.

It’s from this last Thanksgiving. I had no idea that anyone had been watching us as I’d taken Spencer into the backyard, plucked her a flower, sang to her, and held her. And while I wanted to be frustrated with Kyla for the intrusion, I just couldn’t. I was glad that it had been captured, because while I remember it differently from a first-person perspective, I’m so thankful to see it from this one. There is so much love, so much tenderness. None of that uneasy need to fix shows through. It’s just a perfectly imperfect moment between two perfectly imperfect people.

But then it’s over, that last star string cut, and it’s moving onto the last memory as the horizon becomes a study in pinks and blues. And I saved the best memory for last. It’s just a random video of the day that we first started moving Spencer into the house. It shows me find the video games as I’m unpacking and relentlessly question the camera about them. Of course, she refuses to answer, so I walk up behind her, rest my head on her shoulder, and force her to turn the camera so that we can both be in the shot. I don’t even remember what I’m saying, but it’s all attitude, playfulness, and profound happiness. It’s the perfect finish for the video, not because anything’s over. It’s not nearly over. But because it shows that wherever we’re going from here, every day is only the beginning.

Just as that infernal song comes to an end, Spencer’s face on the screen turns to me and she smiles. We look at each other, kiss, and then a hand envelops the lens, blotting out the screen. It gets quiet, nothing but the crash of the tide and Spencer’s sniffling, and I realize that it’s time. My heart is pounding in my chest as I clean my face, swipe my hands on the thighs of my jeans, and start to play Al.

“I want to make you smile when you’re feeling sad…,” She’s startled, turning quickly on the stool to look at me. And when her eyes find mine, my heart stutters faster even as my nervousness disappears. “Carry you around when you’re arthritis is bad. All I wanna’ do, is grow old with you.”

She starts to cry harder, her hands returning to her mouth, and I smile, taking a step closer to her.

“I’ll make you medicine when your tummy aches, build you a fire if the furnace breaks. Oh, it could be so nice, growing old with you.” One of her hands slips down to cover her heart and I get a little closer. “I’ll miss you, kiss you, give you my coat when you are cold. I’ll need you, feed you, even let you hold the remote control.”

I strum out the instrumental part of the bridge, using it to close the remaining distance between us and get to my knees in front of her. I look up at her, offering all of me as I sing the last lines of the song.

“So let me do the dishes in our kitchen sink, put you to bed when you’ve had too much to drink. Oh, I could be the-”

I stop, as is tradition.

“Girl,” she chokes out, as is tradition.

“That grows old with you. I wanna’ grow old with you.”

I pull Al up over my head and lay him down in the dry sand before reaching into my pocket and retrieving the little box. My hands are shaking as I clumsily open and present it to her. I have to swipe at my face and try to remember what I’m supposed to say. It’s hard enough to just breathe right now. But I know that if I say the right things, if I lay myself at her feet, regardless of her answer, I will have done the right thing for both of us because it’s honest.

I have to go there to come back, and I want her to come back with me.

“Spencer Carlin, I’ve got a confession to make.” She laughs and my vision swims at the sound of it. “That song was about you.”

“Good,” she says.

“I’m in love with you.”

“I’m so in love with you.”

“So will you grow old with me, Spence?”

She drops to her knees in front of me, takes my face in her hands, and kisses me so softly that I’m not even sure that it actually happened.

“Yes,” she breathes out.

I want to weep with relief, excitement, and so much joy that I’m not sure that’s the right word for it. But I take the ring from the box and watch her carefully as I slip it onto her finger. It seems that Mr. C was right. None of the disappointment that I feared is present as she looks at the ring, fresh tears fall over her lashes, and she hugs my neck so tightly that what little breath I had left is stolen.

But who cares?

She always has been, always will be, and most certainly still is better than air.


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


To Be Continued…

Chapter 18 – Crystal Cosmo Ballgazine

I’ll always hate doctors’ offices, but I’m oddly calm as I sit here and read this outdated issue of Cosmo magazine. In all fairness, I’m not actually reading so much as skimming while I keep an eye on Spencer. Her hands are twisting in her lap and she’s staring at them. She readjusts every minute or so, like she’s forcing herself to sit instead of pace like she wants to.

They took my marrow two weeks ago. This is the appointment where we discuss the lab results. We didn’t have to do a marrow test. Blood would have sufficed, but I wanted the most conclusive results that I could get for everyone, but mostly for Spencer. Kyla and Christine wanted to be here, but Spencer and I needed to do this alone. Everyone will be affected should the results be unfavorable, but at the end of the day, this is mine and Spencer’s future on the line. We need to be able to talk and grieve in private, to make a plan before we involve anyone else. For once, Kyla seemed to understand this, and I didn’t even have to ask it of Christine.

It feels honest to say that Spencer’s more nervous than I am. The last two weeks have been hard on her. It’s the waiting and wondering and hoping for good news. It’s really not helping anything, especially her sleep, but no amount of love and reassurance has reached her.

As for me, I guess I’m used to it. If we don’t get that coveted good news…

Well, I’m not going to worry about that until it happens. I guess just refuse to. Or maybe I’ve even made peace with it. I just hope that Spencer will be able to at some point as well. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a full year. So much has changed, but it’s still early in the grand scheme of things, the bare minimum for testing or reassurance. The thing is, the sooner that I discover a relapse, the better my treatment options will be. I’m taking my health very seriously these days. And why shouldn’t I?

I have a lot to live for.

Spencer and I have been slowly but surely bringing her boxes to the house, though she officially moved in immediately after Thanksgiving. It was easier than trying to move everything all at once. Mr. C quickly agreed to take over the lease and the new furniture has been gifted to him, so most of her things easily fit in my Humvee or the backseat of her Toyota. Most of it was in storage to begin with: old photos, books, personal mementos, and much of her camera equipment. Her apartment would have been big enough if not for Mr. C, but he was more important.

That’s all changed now though.

Of course Mr. C is still just as important, but they both have their own space, and there isn’t all that much left to relocate for either of them. Kyla’s room has been converted into Spencer’s office, and there’s plenty of room for the totality of her. Her photos and mementos have their own places throughout our home. She’s also made some changes to the décor, adding her personality to mine, and I’m all too glad to give up ground. She can throw everything away and completely start over as far as I’m concerned. It’s wonderful to walk through the house and see the evidence of her, to see the space belong to her as much as it does to me.

Everything is moving forward.

I see Riley often and he’s definitely more relaxed around me now, though it’s still new and awkward. He’s actually hilarious when he’s on the up-swing of one of his moods. I have to admit that the more that I get to know him, the more that I’m endeared towards him. I think the same is true for Kyla. She’s huge and more emotional than ever, but she’s been coming around a lot more, especially since Christine’s here and the loss of her room drove home the fact that she no longer lives with me. Aside from the usual Paula and Glen drama, and Spencer’s trust issues, forward is looking better and better.

The next year will see me in this office at least three more times, even with the best case scenario, and it’ll probably be like that for the rest of my life, but who fucking cares?

I actually have a life…

Spencer sighs and I rest the magazine on my folded legs to reach over and take one of her hands. It doesn’t have an immediately calming effect but she lays her head on my shoulder nonetheless. That’s not nearly good enough though. I think a distraction is in order. Fortunately, this magazine is full of all sorts of mindless bullshit.

“Spencer, is your favorite color still yellow?”

“Yeah,” she says, but then I already knew the answer.

Many of her changes throughout the house involve the color one way or another.

“Give me three deep reasons why,” I say.

She leans up and looks over at me. “What?”

“Give me three deep reasons why yellow is your favorite color.”

“Um,” she says with confusion. “Okay…, it’s… pretty…”

Deep reasons, Spence. Pretty isn’t deep. You can do better.”

“Ash, why are you asking me this?”

I shrug. “It’s a Cosmo quiz from two years ago.”

She tries to look at the magazine but I don’t let her. “Nope, that’s cheating. Now what are your reasons?”

Her confusion shifts into awareness, and I can literally see the moment when she makes the choice to indulge me. In fact, I think she’s desperate for it. She tucks her head back onto my shoulder, hugs my arm, and takes a moment to think.

“Okay, well, no matter what I’m doing, yellow makes me feel cheerful, and … happy.”

“Much better,” I encourage. “One more.”

“It reminds me of the sun and the stars, and how they shine.” Jesus, she’s so adorable sometimes that I can’t even stand it. An indulgent chortle escapes me. “What,” she asks. “It’s true.”

Her responses remind me of an old song. I can’t help but wonder if she used it to fabricate her answers since I put her on the spot.

“Look how they shine for you,” I say, but she doesn’t seem to get it.

“What?”

“Spence, come on, Yellow… by Coldplay…”

“Isn’t that a band?”

How can she possibly not have heard that song? But then the way that she answering is far too genuine for it to be a lie.

“Is that song about the color yellow?”

“Sort of,” I chuckle, knowing that I can’t actually be all that surprised. Music just isn’t her thing. If I don’t show it to her, she won’t notice it on her own, sort of like me and movies. “I’ll educate you on the way home.”

“Okay…”

“Okay,” I agree. “Now what is your favorite-”

“No way,” she interrupts. “You have to answer too. Is your favorite color still green?”

I bury my nose in her hair. “No.”

“It’s blue,” she says confidently.

“No,” I smile.

“Oh, so what is it?”

I breathe in her smell. “It’s Spencer’s eyes.”

She snorts before leaning up to look at me.

“So, blue…”

“No. My favorite color is Spencer’s eyes. That’s actually what it’s called.”

She smirks. “Boy, you’re laying it on thick today.”

I shrug. “I’m serious, Spence.” She doesn’t believe me, so I explain. “I kept buying blue things for the house. I even wrote that song. And then I realized that it’s because blue reminds me of your eyes. But your eyes are so much better than just blue.”

She melts into a puddle, leaning in to kiss me. “And you accuse me of being a hopeless romantic…”

“Only for you, Spence.”

“I’m perfectly fine with that.”

“Me too.”

“So, what are your reasons,” she grins at me.

I roll my eyes. Now she’s blatantly fishing for compliments, but oh well. I’m happy to give them.

“Well, they’re expressive and genuine, they remind me of the ocean, and I love to get lost in them.”

“You’re getting really good at this girlfriend thing.”

I chuckle. “If you’re happy, I’m happy.”

“Oh, I’m very happy.”

She punctuates this by raising my hand and kissing my fingers, and it’s truly good to hear.

“Okay, so next question: what’s your favorite animal?”

She gives me a bored look and I laugh. I mean, duh.

“Flot,” she says.

“So dog,” I correct. “Me too. Your reasons first.”

“He’s loyal, trustworthy, loving, kind, honest… and just so adorable.”

“That’s more than three. Which are the top three?

“Trustworthy, honest, and loving.”

“I have to agree.”

I glance at the magazine to read the next question, only barely dodging her playful attempt to snag it from me. This brings about a rather rousing game of keep-away.

“What’s your favorite body of water,” I read out just fast enough to win the battle.

She relents and cocks her head at me, and I have to admit that I’m a little confused by this one too. I lean as far away from her as I can and read the details.

“Okay, so body of water means the ocean, a river, a lake, a waterfall, etcetera…”

That’s still a really strange question, but I guess I know what mine is.

“I’d have to say river,” she says. “But not a gentle one. More like a rapid.”

“Mine’s the ocean, but a stormy one.”

“My reasons are…” Her fingers worry along the bottom of her lip. “I like how wild it is, and how the water’s always clean, pure, you can see right to the bottom. And they remind me of an adventure, like you could wind up anywhere.” She seems to be really getting into this, turning to me in her chair. “Now you.”

“I guess I like the ocean best because it’s so… mysterious. We’ve only explored about five percent of it. And you can’t control it. It’s… untamable. It’s also vast. You can stand in front of it and feel insignificant.”

“You like feeling insignificant,” she asks.

I think about that for a moment. “I don’t necessarily like feeling insignificant, but I like the idea that it could sweep me away, like to survive it is a challenge.”

She smiles at me, and uses this unguarded moment to snatch the magazine out of my hands.

“Spencer, you’re such a cheat! Besides, that was the last question.”

She grins cutely and proceeds to seek out the answers on the bottom of the page, flipping the magazine over to read them.

“Wow,” she says. “That’s… weird.”

“What is?”

“It says the color represents your personality, the animal your ideal partner, and the body of water your sexual appetite.”

I snort out a laugh. This is worse than reading a horoscope, but I have to admit that it’s entertaining.

“Let me get this straight,” I say. “You have a dreamy, bright, and happy disposition, you want someone trustworthy, honest, and loving, and you like wild, pure, adventurous sex.”

Okay, so, that might just be spot on.

“Yeah, I guess so. That’s actually a little…”

“Creepy.” I suggest.

“Pretty much,” she agrees. “And you have an expressive, genuine disposition, though you easily lose yourself; you want the same type of person that I do, and you like mysterious, untamable sex where you’re swept away and… challenged.”

Okay, so this just went from creepy to fucking terrifying.

“Jesus,” I say, taking the magazine back. “Who knew a two-year-old Cosmo magazine was a fucking crystal ball?” I close my eyes. “How many kids will Kyla have?” I vigorously shake the magazine before thrusting my finger onto a random spot of a page. “Fourteen things you didn’t know about oral sex,” I read out and glance at Spencer with a grin. “I guess Kyla’s learned her lesson.”

She laughs, full and throaty, and my nose crinkles at the sound.

“Ashley Davies?”

We both look up and see a nurse waiting by a door, a file clutched in her arms as she scans the faces in the room. I stand and help Spencer to her feet, the magazine cast aside. All of the levity that we just managed to create is gone, and I link my fingers with hers as we follow the nurse straight to a room. She doesn’t bother with weights, temps, or vitals, choosing instead to just excuse herself, and I’m thankful. While I appreciate all of the life-saving attention, I hate being poked, stabbed, and squeezed. A few torturous minutes pass and we sit, though it feels forced. But then there’s a knock at the door and Doctor Snyder admits herself, and we find ourselves standing again.

“Hi, Ashley,” she says brightly, shutting the door behind her. “And Spencer. Good to see you again.”

“Hey, Doc,” I say, but Spencer’s positively mute.

“Alright,” she says without preamble, facing us both. “So, the marrow test came back negative.” Spencer literally sags with relief and takes my hand in a tight grip. “You’re not only in remission, but you’re in complete remission. This means that I can’t find any indication that the disease ever existed in the first place. Your platelet counts are great, your white blood cells are within perfectly normal parameters, and there are no indications of abnormalities.”

Spencer slams into me, throwing her arms around my neck to laugh and cry, and I join her. A profound feeling of relief floods through me and she starts to pepper my face with quick kisses. Normally, I’d push this happiness aside because the fear of later disappointment is just too great, but not now. Now, I grab that metaphorical sword that’s been dangling over my head and yank it down before throwing into a fire.

I’m so very done with it.

“Now, this is fantastic news,” the doctor continues once we’ve calmed. “And I don’t want to diminish that in the slightest, but I do need you to understand that this doesn’t mean that it won’t reappear. That’s always a possibility. But we’ll monitor you closely and catch it early if it does. At this time though, I can’t find any indication that you’re anything but healthy.”

“Thank you,” Spencer nearly squeals, stepping forward to startle the doctor with a bruising hug. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she chants, and Doctor Snyder just pats her back.

“You’re very welcome,” she replies, and Spencer finally stops embarrassing herself.

We each take a seat and Spencer smiles over at me, prompting me to move on to our next talking point. “Um, doc,” I start. “So I was wondering what this means as far as starting a family. Can I… have children?”

Doctor Snyder smiles, but it’s not as bright. “Well, pregnancy is most definitely possible, but it carries some significant risks for both you and the baby. There isn’t a lot of data on the topic, as this specific condition is so rare, but a study from 2002 showed that there’s roughly a nineteen percent chance that you could relapse during pregnancy. Nothing has changed in the last decade. It would be considered high-risk.”

I close my eyes for a moment. There’s no way that we could do that. We already agreed that any risk to me or the child wouldn’t be worth it. I glance at Spencer and it hurts for both of us. It’s a loss. But of all of the possibilities that could have come with this encounter, this is, by far, the better of the scenarios. I can’t have children of my own, but I’m healthy.

“It’s okay, Ash,” Spencer says. “We can still have a family.”

“Yeah,” I say, my eyes stinging.

“She’s right,” the doctor says. “Surrogacy is always an option.”

I frown at her. “What do you mean?”

“Your ova are healthy. Remissive women who become pregnant don’t pass it on to the child. The risk is due to the strain that the pregnancy puts on both bodies. The children themselves are as healthy as any other.”

I don’t fully understand what she’s saying and it must show on my face because she tries to put it in layman’s terms.

“Think of it this way: you didn’t inherit this disease. It’s not genetic. This means that should you two be open to it, a surrogate could safely carry your child. If the child did still manage to contract the disease, that child would be the very first in medical history, and an extremely rare anomaly. These things can happen, because anything is possible, but at this time, the only known danger is the strain that the pregnancy would put on your body. That strain could cause you to relapse and put both you and the baby in danger.”

My heart wants to fall into my toes. I’m still not sure that I understand her correctly. “So, I can have healthy children, I just can’t carry them myself?”

“Yes,” she says smiling.

“And the surrogate wouldn’t be at risk?”

“Me,” Spencer corrects. “Would I be at risk?”

I find myself just staring at her dumbfounded.

She’d do that?

“I don’t want to startle you,” the doctor starts. “But all pregnancies come with various risks: autism, underdeveloped organs, miscarriage, pre-existing medical conditions from either parent’s side, etcetera. These are the everyday concerns that all pregnant women face. What I’m saying is that with this specific issue, with the anemia itself, you have better odds of being struck by lightning three times in a single day than either you or the child developing the condition, and that’s never happened.”

Spencer takes me in another hug, and I can’t imagine that this day, this news, could be any better. The only possible loss here is that I won’t get to experience carrying a child, but who even gives a fuck?

I lean back and address the love of my life. “So when can we get started?”

She laughs. It reaches her eyes and warms every inch of my insides.

“As far as I’m concerned,” the doctor interrupts. “You can start as soon as you’d like. The eggs would be harvested through in vitro egg aspiration, fertilized, and implanted into the surrogate. I can refer you to an extremely talented fertilization specialist to get the process started.”

“More needles,” I lament and both of them smirk.

“Unfortunately, yes,” the doctor says.

“Totally worth it,” Spencer says seriously, retaking my hand.

And I have to agree.

The doctor stands and squeezes my shoulder. “I’ll have the nurse bring you some informational pamphlets when she delivers your discharge paperwork. I’ll also have her set your check-up appointment for four months out. Same day, sam time?”

“That’s fine,” I reply.

“Then, if you don’t have any other questions, I’ll give you two a few minutes alone.”

“Thank you,” Spencer says again, and with that, Doctor Snyder leaves.

Spencer takes me in her arms and we hold each other for a time. I hate to break the moment, but I can’t help it.

“Spence, you’d really do that for me?”

She pulls back and swipes some of the moisture from my face. “Are you kidding? I think it would be… absolutely amazing to carry a little you. It almost seems better than carrying my own child somehow.” My smile is so sincere that my cheeks hurt. “And there’s no way in hell I’d want another woman to do it. This is our family. We do this together.”

You… are absolutely amazing…” I kiss her. It’s not so gentle. “I was serious before; when do you want to start?”

She releases a breathless laugh. “Well, I know it’s silly, but I most definitely want to be married before we start a family.”

“That’s not silly,” I say. “At all.”

I already knew that this is one of her core values, or at least I thought I did, but it’s good to hear her confirm it.

“Thank you,” she says, her expression becoming apologetic. “We have to do this responsibly, Ash. You’re starting school and I’m already strapped for time. We have… things to figure out first.”

“I can always drop out. I’d rather start a fam-”

“No, Ash,” she interrupts. “We’re young and we have a lifetime. There’s no rush.”

I’m still smiling at her, but it doesn’t feel as honest. “Spence, you did hear the part where she said that I could still relapse, right?”

“Yes,” she says. “I know, but I still think that we should take the time to do this right. This is a huge step. Kids take a lot of time and attention. And…” Her eyes are sharp and her voice emphatic. “It’s a lifelong commitment, Ash. We need to be… prepared for that.”

I take a deep breath. I am prepared, but she’s not, and that’s what she’s trying to say. And either way, she’s right. We shouldn’t rush this. We shouldn’t rush anything. We should live normally, make decisions as if the disease weren’t a factor. In fact, when I think of it in those terms, it simplifies things in a way that I hadn’t really considered before. But then how could I have? I literally only just destroyed the fucking sword.

“Huh,” I say. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m just…”

“I know,” she says, smoothing the hair away from my face. “Trust me. I’m right there with you. It’s exciting. We have options, but we can’t sprint through it, even if we want to.”

“I don’t want to sprint, Spence,” I reassure her. “The journey’s the best part.”

She leans in and kisses me. “When did you get to be so wise?”

“Not wise,” I say. “Just happy.”

“Me too.”

I rest my forehead to hers. “So I guess you have four years to figure your stuff out.”

She doesn’t respond and I can feel the doubt oozing off her of her. She wants this. I still believe that, but she’s still holding back, her mind refusing to let her heart win because the mind is so much smarter than the heart, so much more protective. I consider that maybe a little perspective is all she needs too.

“Spence, what would you do if the disease hadn’t existed and made a mess of things for us?”

She leans back and gazes at me. “What?”

“If I’d never gotten sick and ran away, if I hadn’t hurt you like that, what would our lives look like right now? How would your choices be different?”

“I… Well… I hadn’t really looked at it… like that.”

She gets quiet, too quiet, and I sit here with her, watching her. When she finally looks at me, her expression is startled, as if she’s just come to a conclusion that’s painfully obvious, but painful all the same. She still doesn’t speak, and I start to worry, but then I brace because she opens her mouth.

“Is that how you’re looking at things,” she asks. “Like none of that ever happened?”

“I wasn’t before,” I confirm. “But when you said that we have a lifetime just now, something sort of… clicked. When I think about it like that, I figure that I’d have probably toured with the old band for a while first, but I would have gone to college. I’d have still wanted to be with you and start a family, but I think we would have waited until we’d both graduated, don’t you?” She nods. “Of course, I’d have been done with all of that by now if I had stayed…”

She’s thinking again, or warring with herself, and again, I just watch and wait. The nurse comes in and hands us our paperwork. There are a million pamphlets on in vitro and surrogacy amongst my discharge papers, as well as an appointment card and the name of a fertility specialist. She leaves as quickly as she came.

I stand and hold my hand out to Spencer, and she takes it, though she’s in a space of deep thought as we make our way back to the reception area.

“I still wouldn’t like using yo-,” she says quietly, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. “I still wouldn’t like using our money, but I’d open the studio.”

My heart wants to burst as we stop at the reception desk to pay. Once we’re done, I pull her into an out of the way corner.

“Spencer, talk to me.”

“Ash, I think… you’re right. I think that’s how we should be treating… well, everything, like the disease isn’t a factor.”

“So what does that mean, Spence?”

“I guess it means that I’m going to take you up on your offer.”

“On the studio or dropping out?”

“The studio.” She pokes me in the ribs. “You’re going to college.”

I reach up to cup her face, searching her eyes. “Spence, are you sure? And I mean, really, really sure.”

She wears frustration adorably. “Well, I’m committed to starting a family with you. It seems a little pointless to worry about financial ties at this point, don’t you think?”

I smirk and lean in to kiss her. “You won’t regret trusting me. I promise.”

She’s looking at me lovingly, and she knows that I keep my promises.

“I still hate using that money. I didn’t earn it,” she finishes with a sour expression on her face.

I suck in a deep breath, deciding to face the music early. I was going to wait, give her more time, but then she went and figured things out.

“So, Spence, I guess I should probably apologize.”

She cocks her head at me. “For what?”

“I… sort of… had the house put in your name.”

She stares at me for a long minute. “You did what?”

“I had the house put in your name. I’m not the legal owner anymore.”

Her eyebrows are so bunched up that Frida Kahlo would be proud.

“Why on earth would you do that…? And… how? I didn’t sign any papers.”

I bite my lip. “After our last conversation on the topic, I figured you might be less worried about finances if I couldn’t pull any rugs out from under you. So I gifted it to you. You don’t have to sign for that. I also, uh… I sort of had you added to all of my accounts too…”

I pull my wallet out and hand her a little black piece of plastic with her name on it. “This is the only one you’ll need to make purchases. Everything else is in savings or tied up in investments.”

She looks down at the card and blinks a few times. “I’m sorry, Spence. I knew you’d hate it, but I’m glad you decided to trust me without the incentive. I guess I should have had more faith in you…”

“Ashley, you’re… insane.” I shrug and with a sigh, she snatches the card and tucks roughly into her purse. “And in so much trouble.”

I laugh. We each have our own reasons for the bitter portions of this bittersweet conversation, but it is still sweet. I’m hesitant as I lean in to kiss her again, but she reassures me by returning it. In fact, it turns desperate and we have to pull away when we hear someone clear their throat. Even still, she doesn’t release her hold around my neck.

“Take me home and make love to me,” she breathes out.

“I should get in trouble more often,” I say, and she pokes me in the ribs as we show ourselves out of the office. I steal that magazine on the way.


I use my hip to nudge the door open and hand a mug of cocoa to Spencer before pulling a computer chair up next to hers.

“Thank you,” she groans out after she’s taken a long sip.

I take one too and she giggles before reaching up to swipe her thumb over my top lip. “I’d teach you how to eat and drink without making a mess of yourself, but I’d miss it too much.”

She sucks the melted marshmallow from her thumb and I find myself just staring at her. Her hair is pulled up messily, her eyes are red with exhaustion, and she’s swimming in a terry cloth robe, but I feel overwhelmed with affection for her. I lean in for a kiss. She returns it.

It’s been a good day, a wonderful day, a day full of family, food, celebration, and love. And there were gifts too. Most of them were thoughtful or sentimental, but I couldn’t help but to spend some money this year.

Kate nearly died when I gave her keys to a 2018 Mazda 3 hatchback. And, of course, I couldn’t give her a car and not Jac and Jon, so they all got matching cars in different colors. Mr. C got a new flat-screen for his apartment, Christine a three day spa getaway with me and Kyla for a date to be determined, and my sister now has enough baby items to open a maternity store. Shirley and Sam couldn’t make it, but they still got refundable plane tickets to a destination of their choice and enough spending money to book a resort for a solid month. With Aiden, well, I wasn’t sure what to do, but he seemed pleased with the table saw for his workshop. Riley was the most difficult. Money means just as little to him as it does to me, but the framed photo that Spencer took of the three of us at Thanksgiving seemed to go over well.

Spencer ordered me not to get her anything because ‘the studio is plenty enough.’ We found a small rental space in a shopping center near Universal and renovations will start after the new year, but I still got her an XBOX One that Aiden and Riley spent most of the day playing together. It was supposed to be a gag gift, a not so subtle attempt at learning the significance of the games that she got for her birthday, but no dice. No one would say a word, not even my bandmates, not even after brand new fucking cars.

I think their loyalties have shifted.

I got plenty of great stuff too, even from Aiden and Riley. Spencer though… not only did I get a backpack fully stocked with everything that I’d need to start classes next week just like my first day of public school, but she returned my journal to me with several entries of her own. I’ve only had time to read the first paragraph of what she’s written, but the content appears to be personal and revealing, and there’s a lot of it. She’s trusting me, giving me her thoughts, hopes, and fears, and I couldn’t ask for anything better or more.

She breaks the kiss and snuggles into my arms where she starts to cry piteously. I’ve been waiting for this to happen, so I’m ready and I hold her tightly. She’s tried today, just as hard as she tries every day, but it’s Christmas, and not only is she on her period, but she just can’t seem to shake the despondency that she feels over Paula and Glen’s absence. But then I know that it’s more than that. It’s not just absence; it’s blatant rejection. I think that’s why she’s spent the last few hours in her office fiddling with some footage. She’s trying to take her mind off of it, but I’d swear the image on the screen is the same one from when I checked in on her an hour ago, and her now favorite song is still playing low on repeat.

“Spence,” I say once she’s calmed. “Was it this bad for you during those two years with Carmen?”

“Yes,” she breathes out against my collarbones. “But I never let her see me like this.”

I take a deep breath. That must have been miserable, to feel this way alone.

“Thank you for letting me be here for you.”

“Thank you for being here.”

“Have you spoken to her,” I ask. “At all?”

She knows just who I mean.

“Not since we reconciled.”

I find this strange. Paula has taken my calls. Well, she didn’t know it was me either time, so I guess that’s not true. She didn’t answer today, even when I used *67.

“How about your dad?”

“She can’t just ignore him so yeah, he’s talked to her. But he can’t get her talk about me.”

“And Clay?”

“She talks to him all the time, but every time he brings me up, she just shuts him down or ignores it, just like with dad.”

We’re quiet for a long while before she leans up and retrieves her cocoa.

“I’m sorry, Spence.”

“Ash, this isn’t your fault.”

She stares into her cup for several minutes and I feel like it is. I know it is. Paula hadn’t shut Spencer out when I wasn’t in the picture. Spencer must sense my guilt, because sets the mug down again and smooths a hand across my cheek.

“It’s not your fault. When I left Carmen, I was hurting, and she kept telling me to get back into church. She was… happy, like this was the time she’d been waiting for, when I’d come to my senses, stop being a lesbian, and settle down with a man. I didn’t shut her down then, like I should have. I waited until we got back together. It was my mistake.”

“Spence, she was fine before I came around again…”

“Ash, that’s just not true. Nothing has been ‘fine’ since I came out, even if it did get better. When I told her we’d gotten back together, she got desperate. She was calling me all of the time, begging me, and I, sort of lost it on her.”

“What did you say?”

Her face flushes with chagrin. “I told her that I like vaginas, and kept repeating it when she’d try to talk me out of it. At one point I even shouted it at her.”

I can’t help the incredulous laugh that bubbles up in my throat as I just stare at her, but she doesn’t find it funny.

“Hey, I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s not funny that you guys fought, but the thought of you saying that, shouting it, especially to her…”

She sighs dejectedly. “She hasn’t talked to me since, Ash.”

“Aw, come on, Spence. You had every right to be angry at her. I mean, you tried to explain it to her in every other way possible, right?”

“Yeah, for years.”

“Well, I mean, what more could you do to get her to listen? I assume, since she’s cut you off, that she finally heard you?”

She nods. “Yeah, but I don’t think she got the right message. When I shouted that at her, she stopped, and maybe if I’d have stopped there, that would have been the end of it. But I wanted to finally kill any hope she had of my… heterosexual redemption, or whatever she called it. So I told her that I was in love with you and that I’d never want anyone else. Dad and I have talked about this at length, and we think that when I killed her hope, instead of helping her to see that she shouldn’t have been hoping for that in the first place, she decided that you, specifically, were the problem.”

“Spence, even with Carmen, she didn’t avoid you, and that was before we got back together…”

“It’s my fault,” she says. “And I’m sorry for bringing it up. This is exactly the reason I wouldn’t let Carmen see me this way or force her to deal with them. Maybe we should just…”

“No, Spence. Not a chance.” I set my mug down and grab the arms of her chair to roll her closer. “Your family is part of you. I won’t be party to anything that causes you to repress how you feel or what you want. Ever. We’re in this together. I’m just sorry that I caused this…”

She kisses me. “Ash, it’s not your fault. I should have done a better job of explaining it to her. I was just too frustrated. This is my fault. What I don’t understand is why she’s not tolerating it, me, like she used to.”

Yeah, about that…

“Spence, if she stopped talking to you once we reconciled, and if Paula really thinks that I’m the roadblock, well, what better way to have me ousted than to force you to choose between us?”

Understanding lights in her eyes and I watch the flame glow brighter and brighter. “Of course,” she finally says, standing and starting to pace. “I can’t even believe her sometimes. She’s so…”

“Manipulative,” I say.

That only seems to make Spencer angrier, so I stand and try to slow her down. She leans into the hug for moment, but only a moment. I watch helplessly as she snatches her cell off the desk and hits the appropriate buttons with increasing enthusiasm.

“Spence, you shouldn’t do this angry,” I warn.

“Then it will never happen,” she says. “Because I don’t think I’m ever going to stop being pissed at her.”

But then Paula never picks up. It just rings and rings and goes to voicemail. Spencer tries again with the same result, and then again, and I finally put my hand over hers to stop her fourth attempt. She’s just going to drive herself insane. Paula’s far too stubborn.

“Why do you want to talk to her right now?”

Her words are bitingly. “If she wants me to choose, then she needs to understand what that means.”

I feel a frown form. “What does it mean?”

She throws a hand in the air. “Right now, the way she sees it, she has all of the cards. She knows that she’s hurting me, but more than that, she’s hurting dad and Clay, and even Glen and his family, and she’s using that to put more pressure on me. She’s tearing the entire family apart to get to me, and I’m going to put an end to it.”

“Spence,” I say. “If you choose me, you’ll never forgive yourself, or me…”

That seems to soften her. She wraps her arms around me and buries her face in my neck, though I can tell that it’s with a concerted effort.

“No,” she mumbles. “There is no choice. That’s what she doesn’t understand.”

“I’m afraid I don’t either.”

“Ash, you’re not a choice.” She leans back and touches my face. “You’re a foregone conclusion. She needs to know that.”

“Do you really think that will help? She’s never going to give up on trying to save your soul, Spencer.”

“Maybe not, but it will force her to drop the game.”

“And what if she cuts you out of her life completely?”

“Then at least I’ll know where we stand, and I won’t feel the constant need to try to fix it.”

I take her face in both of my hands. “Spencer, you can’t fix her.”

I search her eyes as she considers my words. “Ash, right now, she’s left me holding the ball, and it’s eating away at me. I have to put it back in her court. It might not fix her, but it would take the responsibility off of me.”

I sigh and tuck her hair behind her ear.

“So what do you want to do,” I ask. “She’s not going to answer.”

“Hey, Siri,” she says holding my eyes. The phone beeps. “Call LAX International Airport.”


We’ve been standing here in front of Paula’s door for at least five minutes. Spencer’s clutching my hand tightly and she hasn’t made a move to knock or ring the doorbell. It’s only about five thirty in the morning, the red-eye flight that we managed to snag gave us zero time to do anything but rush out the door. We didn’t even tell Christine we were leaving or pack an overnight bag. Spencer just couldn’t wait. The cold is starting to make my face numb and I watch the frost escape past her lips.

“Spence, are you sure you want to do this? We can get a room somewhere and sleep on it first.”

She looks over at me, but she doesn’t say anything. The ocean of her eyes is swirling and I’m actually terrified that this is the very worst thing for her to do, but I couldn’t stop her any more than I could abandon her. Another long minute passes and she still hasn’t said or done anything, but then, with a deep breath, she finally reaches up and pushes the little button. I hear the muted music on the other side and it sounds like a death knell.

Nothing happens and I begin to wonder if Paula’s not here, or maybe we have the wrong place. Spencer presses it again. The sun isn’t fully up yet. It’s still dark enough out that the resulting porch light is blinding. The door finally cracks open and Paula’s sharp eyes land on us before tracking to our joined hands. I consider releasing Spencer, but then I’m not ashamed to love her. So instead, I squeeze her fingers to let her know that I’m with her, though they’re so numb that I can’t tell how hard I’m doing it.

“Mom,” Spencer says. “We need to talk.”

“Then you should have come alone.”

“I shouldn’t have had to come at all, but I’m here, and I’m not alone. So what’s it going to be? Are you going to slam your door in my face or are you going to let us in?” Paula doesn’t say or do anything. “Mom, what you do right now matters. Please don’t do something we’ll both regret.”

It’s a long, tense moment, but Paula finally opens the door. We follow her inside and I shut it. The warmth in her duplex is a welcome relief. It’s a modest home, but not nearly as claustrophobic or rundown as Mr. C’s apartment. It’s strange to see the same things I grew up around in a different setting, familiar things arranged in unfamiliar ways. It only adds to the discombobulated feeling of this entire situation.

“So,” Paula says, standing near the entrance to the hallway with her arms crossed. “What did you want to talk about?”

We’re still by the door, and the distance between us might as well be an abyss, even as it’s only about fifteen feet.

“I want to know why you haven’t returned any of my phone calls. Why you wouldn’t even look at me Clay’s wedding. Why you’re avoiding holidays. Why you’re tearing our family apart. Why-”

“I’m not tearing our family apart, Spencer.”

“So you deny what you’re doing and the affect it’s having on everyone?”

“Spencer, I’m your mother.” Spencer snorts and Paula’s eyes get sharper. “And maybe one day, when all of this foolishness is over with, you’ll understand what it means to have a child, to love someone the way I love you. But until then, I don’t think you can understand. This is a consequence of the choices you’re making.”

Paula gestures to our joined hands and I can literally feel the anger pouring off of Spencer like steam. I squeeze her hand again and look over at her, pleading with her to keep her cool. She meets my eyes, but I have no idea if it worked.

“Mom,” Spencer says as nicely as possible. “I don’t get to choose who I am.”

“I disagree, Spencer.”

“Do you really think that I chose to be something I know you hate? Do you really think that I would choose anything that hurts the people I care about? You think I wanted this?”

Paula’s arms loosen. “No, Spencer, I don’t think you’d choose to do those things if you understood that you don’t have to. You’re just confused. You actually believe that you don’t have a choice, but you do. And I’m sorry, but I’m not going to stand idly by while you throw your life away.”

I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I’m still angry with Paula, but at this point, I can’t help but pity her. She truly believes that she’s a good mother standing in the path of her daughter’s destruction, that she’s taking a stand for good, that she’s doing the right thing for the right reasons. And I don’t think that anything Spencer says or does is going to change her mind. I don’t think anyone can. In fact, I think what little hope I had for Paula to change her mind just died.

“Okay, mom. I’m willing to meet you halfway here. You change your orientation and I’ll change mine.”

I glance over at Spencer, taken aback. I hadn’t actually seen that coming, and I’m not even really sure where she’s going with this. Although, the idea of a lesbian Paula is quite comical. I do not, however, laugh. I value my life too much at this point.

“What,” Paula asks.

She’s just as confused as I am.

Spencer releases my hand and steps closer to her mother. “Show me, mom. Choose, right now, to be a lesbian.”

Paula’s face slackens in shock, her mouth working to make words but nothing’s coming out. Her reaction to the idea is almost funnier than the idea itself.

“Spencer…,” she finally says in a tone that indicates the sheer ridiculousness of the request.

“What’s the matter, mom? It’s easy, right? It’s just a choice, the flip of a switch. I’m telling you that if you choose to be a lesbian, right here and now, then I’ll choose to be straight and everything will be fine again. Show me how to do it, and I promise you, I will.”

Paula raises and arm in frustration. “That’s not-”

It’s quiet for a moment, Paula’s thought left hanging in the air, but Spencer finishes it. “Possible?”

Paula closes her mouth so tightly that I can literally hear the click of her teeth.

“Spencer,” she says soothingly. “Being straight is natural. That’s the way God made us. I can’t change nature, but you can choose to stop fighting it.”

I raise my hand and tentatively step forward to gain their attention. I’ve been doing a little light reading and fact checking.

“Um, sorry to interrupt, but there are more than fifteen hundred species of animals that demonstrate homosexual behavior in nature: everything from lions, monkeys, several species of birds, and most noticeably, penguins.” They’re both quietly staring at me so I continue. “What’s noticeable about penguins is that they’re monogamous and they mate for life, even the homosexual couples. They also serve an important role to survival because they often adopt young that have been abandoned by heterosexual couples, either by choice or circumstance.”

“Ashley,” Paula bites out. “No one asked for your input.”

“No,” I agree. “But if what you say is true, if God made heterosexuality the only natural outcome, then why are so many of his creations homosexual? And, if it’s a mortal sin against God, are his other creations damned as well?”

Spencer smiles and shakes her head in that adoringly way of hers before reaching out to me. I come to her and she links our fingers.

“Humans are different,” Paula blurts.

I sigh. She really won’t hear anything that defies her doctrine, even if it’s provable fact that blatantly contradicts it.

“Mom,” she says. “I spent years praying that God would fix me. I almost gave my virginity to Patrick just to please you. You even put me through conversion therapy. Don’t you remember?” Paula closes her eyes and slumps onto a stool. “If I could have changed it, I would have. I tried. And if you can’t change your orientation, then how can you expect me to?”

“Can’t you just… not do it then,” she finally asks.

Spencer sighs. “No, mom. You see, the thing is, before I was scared, but now I’m not. Even if I could change it now, I wouldn’t want to. I’m happy… with my life, with who I am, and with Ashley.”

Paula’s voice turns pleading. “If you would just let Ashley go-”

“No, mom. Even if I could do that, I’m still a lesbian. Besides, I don’t want to do that, and I’m not going to.”

“Then what do you expect me to do, Spencer, because I can’t condone this. Don’t you see that my hands are tied here?”

“All I want from you is for you to love me, to come around, especially during holidays, to take a phone call, to stop hurting everyone, to care…”

“I do care, Spencer. I love you more than anything…”

“It doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t even look like it. Because if you did, you wouldn’t keep trying to change me. If you love me, then you love me, all of me, as I am. Anything less than that is… bullshit.”

“So you just want me to go back to tolerating it. Well I tried that Spencer, for you, but it didn’t work…”

“No, mom. I really don’t want to be tolerated, by anyone, but least of all you, and that’s why it didn’t work. You can’t tolerate someone you claim to love.”

“I didn’t mean tolerating you, but your… choices.”

“Mom, it’s not a choice,” Spencer sighs out.

“Fine,” she says irritably. “Your… actions.”

Spencer shakes her head and everything grows quiet. I’m fairly certain that this is the point in the conversation where it becomes circular. I look over at Spencer to see tears quietly leaking from her eyes.

“Mom, the only choice here lies with you. You either love me as I am or you don’t. I’m not going to be straight and I’m not going to choose between my mother and my own happiness.”

“Spencer…”

“No, mom. It’s your choice. You love me whether I’m gay or straight, whether I’m with Ashley or not, or you don’t.”

“Spencer, you’re not gay!”

Spencer stares at her mother for a moment before turning, taking my face in her hands, and laying a searing kiss on my lips. Somewhere in my addled mind I hear Paula gasp, even over the alarm bells that are ringing. Even when Paula was tolerating us, we never touched in front of her, and this kiss isn’t chaste at all. This is bordering on foreplay.

She pulls away and I blink stupidly.

“Mom, trust me on this, I’m gay. I always have been and I always will be. And if you can’t accept that part of me, then you don’t love me. So what’s it going to be?”

Paula doesn’t say anything. Long, anguished minutes pass and she looks like she’s going to be sick. My heart sinks.

“Let’s go,” Spencer says before walking out.

I have no idea why I don’t go with her, but I don’t. I stare after her for a moment before looking at Paula. She’s crying now too.

“I bet you feel pretty happy right about now,” Paula says tiredly.

“Why would I be happy? Spencer’s hurting, and so are you.”

She laughs humorlessly, swiping at her face and refusing to look at me. “She’s gone. You don’t have to pretend with me. We both know that you hate me.”

I sigh. “Paula, I don’t hate you.” She laughs again and I step closer to her. “Paula…” She still won’t look at me. “Mrs. C…?” That did it, and I almost regret it. “I don’t hate you. I hate what you’re doing, and I hate the reasons you feel you need to do it, but I don’t hate you.”

“I don’t hate you either, Ashley.”

“You don’t hate me, but you hate that I’m in love with your daughter, and I get it.”

“Do you really?”

“Yeah, I do, really. Spencer has always deserved so much better than me, so we really don’t disagree in a lot of ways. Thing is though, I don’t believe that my biological sex has anything to do with it.”

“Then why can’t you just let her go?”

“Paula, you know why. You just won’t believe it.”

“You love her,” she says quietly, and with the way she says it, I get the feeling that she’s saying it to herself.

“I wish you could believe that,” is all I say.

“No,” she says. “No, I think I do.”

That nearly knocks me on my ass. “What?”

“I saw it, at Clay’s wedding… the way you two were with each other. It was… terrifying.”

“What are you so afraid of?”

Her eyes hit me like a laser. “That I’m right.”

I study her for moment and decide to take one last stab at this critical reasoning thing. “Well, if you’re right, then everyone’s doomed, Paula. The bible condemns people who wear poly blend clothing, eat shellfish, people who are wealthy, fat people, lazy people, and even those who have a random bad thought. If what you believe is true, then no one’s safe; and if that’s true, then what’s the point in worrying about it?”

“But if you repent and try not to do those things, you don’t have to worry about it.”

I gesture to our surroundings. “Well, I don’t see you doing anything about all of this wealth. I don’t see you burning half your wardrobe. And we both know how much you love shrimp cocktails.”

She scoffs because she doesn’t take what I’m saying seriously, and that’s the real problem here.

“And don’t tell me that you haven’t wished that I had died after I left.”

Well, that was taken seriously enough, especially as I find that she’s not even trying to deny it.

“Look, I know you won’t abandon your faith. But here’s the thing: if you really believe that the bible is literal, then why aren’t you taking all of it seriously? And if you don’t believe that the bible is literal, then why are you taking this one thing so seriously?”

She looks at me and I don’t think I’ve seen her eyes soften that much since I was sixteen, at least not towards me.

“Paula, regardless of what you believe, you can’t force me and Spencer apart any more than we can force you and your faith apart. So why can’t we agree to just accept each other, flaws and all?”

She’s still mute and I’m all out of words, but even if I weren’t, my place is with Spencer and she needs me right now. I walk over to the door, but stop when she finally speaks.

“I just… can’t.”

I step out into the cold and shut the door behind me. Somehow, it’s warmer out here than it was in there. My eyes find Spencer waiting in the passenger seat of the rental, her eyes trained on Paula’s door and an utterly defeated expression on her face. The heater’s running when I get in next to her, and for a moment I stare at the door too, willing it to open and for Paula to take even a small step towards correcting this. But it doesn’t happen. Instead the porch light is extinguished, Spencer’s hope is extinguished, and I start the car, putting my hand on Spencer’s thigh in silent solidarity.

It takes a few minutes, but she eventually links our fingers.

“I’m sorry I did that to you. It was wrong of me.”

I nod. “It did feel… wrong.” She swipes at her eyes but doesn’t look at me. “I understand why you did it, Spence. She had to see it, to see you. If she still doesn’t believe that you’re gay, then I don’t think anything will work.”

She squeezes my fingers and it grows quiet for a while. I drive. I don’t even know where I’m going. I just feel the need to move.

“What did you say to her,” she asks, her eyes still fixed out through her window.

How can I even explain that conversation? I didn’t say much, but it was a lot. And none of it was received.

“Nothing that helped,” is all I can say.

She finally turns her head towards me. “But you tried.”

I nod and swallow thickly, keeping my eyes on the road. Aside from the fact that Paula hurting Spencer so deeply, I know that she loves her daughter. I wasn’t sure before, but I am now. I don’t know what’s worse: loving someone the wrong way, or not loving them at all. But then, as I think about my own mother, I have to consider that I’d still trade with Spencer.

I’d still rather have a Paula.

“She loves you, Spence.”

“How can you be sure,” she asks. “Especially after all of that?”

I try to think of a way to explain my reasoning, but I don’t think Spencer has ever even met a person like my mother. She has no point of reference. How can I possibly explain what that’s like?

“My mother… she… well, it’s hard to explain. But I know the difference. Paula’s doing it all wrong, but she does love you.”

“She doesn’t accept me, and that’s not love, Ash.”

I nod. “You’re right, but there are things that aren’t as black and white, like suicide. No one can accept the person they love committing suicide. This is really no different in her mind.”

She blows out a breath. “I guess that makes sense.”

She’s staring at me now, in that same tired and adoring way she often does when I’m driving.

“Why didn’t you mark that line off of the list,” she asks after a time.

“Bury the Hatchet?”

She nods.

“Because I can’t.”

“Why not?”

I release a breath and I don’t have an answer for that. It could be avoidance, because it does still hurt, but it’s so small, so inconsequential, that I just can’t tell if it matters. But then, the reality of the situation is much like Spencer’s. I can’t fix my mother any more than she can fix hers. In fact, I have so much less of a chance. Paula is leagues better than Aileen.

“It’s really hard to explain, Spence.”

She’d have to know someone like that to understand it, and maybe, if nothing else, she needs to see it just like Paula did. I find myself merging onto the freeway and Spencer doesn’t say anything, but we both know where we’re going.


This place isn’t as cold as I remember it.

There’s still a wintry mix coating the streets and the sky is just as murky with its pasty gray tones, but they no longer seem to eat up all of the color in the world. The building is still monstrous and looming, its edges sharp and withered, its fences lined with razors. It’s still utterly cheerless, but the shadows don’t writhe. It’s as if hell has put up a ‘no vacancy’ sign on the gate.

It’s as if my very heart has a ‘no vacancy’ sign hanging on it.

It’s strange to feel that way, because I know what’s in there.

Somewhere inside of that building are murderers and thieves, pedophiles and rapists.

Somewhere in there are drug dealers.

Somewhere inside of there is a woman that I never wanted to see again, a woman who in one way or another belongs with those kinds of people, those kinds of demons, because that’s who I thought she was on a fundamental level. But I know that’s not true anymore. For all of the terrible things that she’s done, she’s not a demon, none of them are.

She is just a woman.

She’s just a person.

They’re all only human.

I pull into one of the empty spaces and put the car in park, the windshield wipers squeaking against the glass in quick succession to fight off the ceaseless mist of frozen water attempting to gather there, but I turn them off. I don’t need them to distract or soothe this time.

They are powerless against the truth.

And the truth is that this place, this situation, isn’t supposed to be hopeful. This place and this situation aren’t supposed to be vibrant and inviting. No one is supposed to want to come here or deal with this. Yet here I am, ready and willing, even though I don’t have to be. It’s a choice. I’m calm. I’m world I’ve built inside of me is vibrant and inviting, and all of those things have manifested externally, even here.

I glance down at the stick shift and know that I could easily slide it into drive and just pull away. But I also know that I don’t need to. Instead my eyes find a warm hand wrapped around my own and focus on that. Last year, I chose to face this first because I wanted it over with. I wanted to be done with this once and for all. I kept trying to convince myself that I didn’t need to do it, that she’d been up in that attic for years, forgotten and untouched, but I knew the truth.

I couldn’t lie to myself.

This is why the honesty line on my list has been marked off almost since the start. Even then, I was completely honest with myself.

This woman is where it all started. This woman, who brought me into the world, held power over my future because she had given the universe the will to take me out of it. She was the crux of everything that I’ve ever hated about my life.

She taught me to hate life.

She taught me to hate myself.

She taught me to steal.

She taught me to run away.

But mostly, she taught me what it’s like to fear death.

She taught me all of these things before I was ten years old, and all because they are all that she knew.

But now, I find that she’s powerless. If that will still exists in the universe then so be it, but not even the universe owns me anymore. I own me, and in doing so, I give of myself freely. With all of those lessons she’d unwittingly taught me the opposite.

By hating life, I learned to love life.

By hating myself, I learned to love myself.

By stealing, I learned to give.

By running, I learned to put down roots.

And mostly, by fearing death, I conquered it completely.

It’s still true that to ignore her is impossible while I draw breath. Facing her then meant confronting some demons that I never thought could be banished. Her mark on my life was deep, the wound festering, and even then I knew that I had to cut it open and clean the infection out or lose any reason to live, though I didn’t think such a thing was an option for me. A year of tick marks was what my future had been reduced to. I wasn’t sure what I hoped to achieve or find at the end of the journey. I was just desperate to hope at all. That is what my eighteen-year-old mind called burying the hatchet. I just hadn’t realized that I would be burying it in my own heart.

But the hatchet has been removed. Those demons weren’t demons at all; they were just other aspects of me, and they were just as worthy of attention and acceptance and love. There’s no longer a wound. I’ve performed surgery. I’ve done the impossible. I’ve healed. All that’s left is a thin scar, a reminder of just how far I’ve come. The pain was intense, and sure, there’s a twinge even now when I think about it, but it’s so utterly powerless in the face of my happiness, that I don’t feel the need to hide. My pain, my joy, both of them, they just are, and anyone who cares to see them can.

I’m not ashamed anymore.

I turn the engine off and glance over to find Spencer sitting there.

It’s possible that I could lose it in there again. Healing doesn’t remove memory, and memory always stores the most difficult pieces because those are the pieces that can be used to grow; they are the building blocks of joy. No matter what happens when I get in there, whether I lay anything at all at her feet, when I walk away, the minute that I look into a pair of sympathetic eyes, break down or not, I’ll be loved and accepted wholly, unconditionally, and irrevocably. The love of my life will be here, holding me down in sorrow or tethering me while I soar with joy. It’s all the same really, and I relish the very thought of it.

This is what I want. I want to experience everything, and I want to do with Spencer.

It’ll never be over. There is no end. The bucket list doesn’t finish, because every day with Spencer is some new joy to savor, some new pain to be grateful for. And right now, the more that I think about these things, the more grateful that I become.

This is exactly how it should be… sitting in the parking lot of a prison, contemplating an encounter with one of the worst individuals I’ve ever met, and it’s perfect. Even moments of weakness or selfishness belong to a perfect outcome, because any outcome where Spencer is next to me is my dream of perfection, my personal brand of happiness. I still don’t understand what I did to deserve this in my life, but I’m so fucking thankful for whatever it is.

But more than that, I’m lucky.

Spencer and I exit the car, and she meets me at the front, again taking my hand. But I do one better and put my arm around her waist. Hers finds my shoulders, and like two pieces of the same whole, we make our way towards the entrance.

I no longer need a safety net, but I am indeed safe.

And before I know it, we’re in the reception area and I’m scribbling my name on the sign-in sheet. The African American woman behind the counter is wholly unaffected, even when I smile at her in greeting. She’s still bored, but this time, somehow I find it endearing.

“Sit and wait. We’ll call you in a while,” she says in that patented monosyllabic tone.

Spencer and I find a couple of chairs to rest in and I put my arm along the back of hers. Her head finds my shoulder and my cheek her hair. We’re both exhausted, but that’s okay. We’re together. This place still reminds me of an early 80s train station bathroom, with its rubber coated floors and the hard, plastic yellow chairs that line the walls. The age stains are a little deeper and the smell is just as revolting, but I feel good nonetheless.

The other visitors haven’t changed. There are still sniffling tweakers, unwashed street urchins, and the first-timers affronted by this predicament. They’re all still a mix of different ethnicities, all different but tied together in the single commonality of the flawed beauty that is humanity. One of them looks familiar though, and I find myself again looking at the woman sitting in the corner corralling her three children, an infant in her arms, and I no longer have to wonder why she’d spend her Saturday crying in a cold foyer for someone who obviously didn’t care about her enough to just make better choices.

She chooses to forgive, to be here for someone who’s just as human as she is, and therefore just as prone to mistakes.

She’s retained her compassion, but I no longer envy her for it.

I know how she does it now.

I watch as she stands and wipes at her eyes, and her kids seem to perk up as well. They’ve done this enough times to know the drill. The oldest girl, a little bigger than before, looks me in the eyes and that same recognition ignites. There’s that imperceptible moment of understanding that passes between us. The thing that dwells behind her brown orbs is easy to recognize when you’ve lived it, even as it’s impossible to give a name to.

She’s shut in, the eldest, the one helping her mother raise a family that she has absolutely no control over or say in. She has that look of knowing too much too soon and being destroyed by that very knowledge. And it’s grown with her, taken more of her like an unrelenting parasite. But she still tends to her siblings, and as a dysfunctional family they all shuffle to the guard at the now open door next to the receptionist.

If I could, I’d tell her that she can and will get through it. I’d tell her that she can’t be destroyed by anything in this life unless she offers her consent. I’d tell her that one day, she’ll conquer it, and when she looks back on it, it will be with strength and gratitude. But I can’t tell her these things, and even if I could, these are things that can’t be believed. They can only be discovered.

Knowledge is earned.

Understanding is a choice.

That choice leads to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is victory.

And victory is only as precious as the experience that made it inevitable.

The severe guard with her thick waist and arms is still here, the feminine coif and masculine uniform still at odds with her hardened face and womanly curves.

“Single file,” she booms out as the anticipatory queue forms in front of her.

Spencer takes my hand and we make our way into the line. The door clangs shut behind us, but the hollow sound it makes can’t touch me. The walk to the other end of the hall and through the other door is easy, leisurely, as if I’m strolling through a sunlit park. But then I carry the sun with me now. I glance over at her. She’s leaning in close to my side, our fingers still linked. Her free hand comes up to absently rub my forearm and that simple action brings a smile to my face. She doesn’t even know what she’s doing, but maybe that’s what makes it so remarkable.

The room beyond is just… sad, that sickly sweet smell even more intense. It’s split down its length with a long sheet of plexi-glass that’s segmented into bays where phones hang on the walls. People in orange jumpsuits are filed in on the other side through another set of bars, their hands cuffed at their waists and their ankles chained together causing them to waddle.

And then, there, I see her, ushered up to a bay and gazing back at me with those eyes that I startlingly realize look nothing like my own. And this wouldn’t be such a bad thing if not for the fact that hers are so emotionless and I don’t wish that on anyone, not even her. I would say that she looks the same as I remember her, but that would be a lie as much as it’s the very truth. Somehow, she’s aging a year to the day. Her hair isn’t even clean. It’s long, stringy, and silver. Her skeleton is so prominent that she looks anorexic, her eye sockets sunken and drying skin sallow.

She sits at the booth and just like last time, rolls her eyes. Only this time, I don’t think it’s for the same reasons. She doesn’t even touch the receiver. She knows who I am, and she just doesn’t care. Spencer and I take a seat, and I pull our receiver off the wall, showing it to the woman across the glass, asking her if she’ll do it, and finding that I can live with any answer. She eventually takes hers and we both put it to an ear.

“Come to yell at me some more,” she asks.

Spencer leans in close to me so she can hear, her hand resting on my back.

“No,” I say.

“So what do you want?”

“I… I guess, I just wanted to check on you, to see how you’re doing.”

She snorts. “Everything’s just hunky dory. Is that all?”

I exhale heavily, still unsure of what I’m actually doing here. I know that I’m no longer looking for anything from her, but maybe that’s the point. Just like with any relationship: it’s about what you give, not what you get.

“You look thinner since the last time,” I say.

She scowls. “Yeah, well, I don’t get my monthly commissary checks no more, and they don’t exactly give us the royal treatment in here.”

I puzzle over that. I hadn’t considered that someone was sending her money in here. I mean, who would? I don’t know this woman or who she actually has in her life, if that’s what this is.

What was his name…?

“Keith?”

Her eyes harden. “That bastard never had two dimes to rub together. He stopped coming as soon as the checks did.” She leans forward, her eyes scrutinizing me. “Is that what this is, did he send you to try and weasel more out of me? Because I don’t have shit! And even if I did, you can tell that fucking asshole that I hope he chokes on his own vomit!”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I still don’t know any Keith, and he didn’t send me.”

“Oh…,” she says, and then something shifts. “Listen, it’s hard in here and you look like you’re doing pretty good. Could you help me out?”

“What happened to your checks,” I ask.

“Your good for nothing father stopped sending ’em!”

Well that’s an interesting development. Not only does it confirm what Riley told me, but I don’t understand why he’d stop now.

“Do you know why,” I ask.

“My money’s on that boy,” she says bitingly. “That Riley. They stopped coming right after he showed up here and yelled at me like you did! Ungrateful, the lot of you!” As if she’s just flipped a switch, her belligerence turns to pleading. “Look, I need help, and you seem like a nice girl. I took care of you, didn’t I, for all those years? Can’t you help me out? I can’t even get toilet paper or deodorant no more.”

I debate the merits of setting her straight on just how well she took care of me, but I don’t see a point.

“Yeah,” I say. “I’ll make sure you get what you need.”

Spencer’s looking with surprise, and honestly, I’m surprised at myself. I know I don’t owe her anything, and I know that I can’t buy the affection that I used to need from her so desperately. Now, not only don’t I need it; I don’t want it. But I know the power of being cared for, even when I didn’t deserve it. I hold no hope that she could ever be better than she is, or that helping her will mean anything to her. It’s never too late, but if she hasn’t by now, well, the odds just aren’t in her favor, regardless of what I do for her.

“You always were smart,” she beams, but it doesn’t reach her eyes.

I know that I’m being used, that’s she’s trying to play me, but she doesn’t seem to realize just how sloppy she is about it. She probably even believes that she’s manipulating me, that I’m not only stupid, but ignorant. But I see right through her. How could I not? There’s no depth to her. She’s a puddle. But that’s okay. I’m not like that. I never was and I never will be. What this is for me, at its core, is compassion. I feel that for her, and to try and ignore that feeling is to violate myself.

“I’m probably going to need about a thousand a month,” she says.

I sigh. “I’ll be sure that you get what you need.

“What does that mean,” she asks worriedly. “How much?”

“I’ll make sure it’s enough,” I say, trying to avoid having to explain that I’m not going to give her money to burn on whatever illegal activity I’m sure she was engaged in with Keith.

She scoffs. “You ungrateful little brat! After everything I’ve done for you, you-”

She starts to berate me and I tune her out. Her words don’t matter. I just glance over at Spencer to see tears running down her face. I hate to show this to her, to let her see just how low humans can become, but she had to see it to understand it. And if I know nothing else, I know that she wants to understand me.

“I love you,” she whispers, looking right at me.

“I love you too, Spence.”

“Are you listening to me?!”

We look back to the woman on the other side of the glass. I don’t feel the need to run, but I also don’t feel a need to stay.

“Listen, Aileen, I’ll make sure you get the things you need. And I won’t bother you anymore. I just wanted you to know that… well, I guess, I forgive you.”

She’s shouting again, but I quietly hang up the phone. Spencer takes my hand and the guards let us out. I take a deep breath of the crisp air to clear the smell from my nose and Spencer pulls me to a stop, turning me and linking her hands at my neck. Her cheeks are still wet and a rosy flush is blossoming against the increasing wind. Her hair is wisping around her shoulders, and her eyes are deep, penetrating as she looks right through me.

“I am so… proud of you,” she says seriously. “I’m so proud to be with you.” She dips her head and kisses me tenderly. “Thank you,” she says, burying her face in my neck and wrapping me in a tight hug.

Tears sting behind my eyes as I try to fathom why she’d be thanking me. “For what?”

She leans back but keeps me close. “However misguided, I believe that my mother loves me, and that wasn’t true even a couple of hours ago. You gave me that.” She reaches up and strokes my cheek. “I’m just so sorry that you had to go through that with her, that she can’t see how… incredible you are.”

“I’m sorry that Paula doesn’t see that with you either, Spence.”

She rests her forehead to mine. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” she says. “You gave me something else today.” I pull back so I can see her. “In there, I saw the strongest, most loving, most compassionate person I’ll ever know forgive someone who in no way deserves it. Even if she never comes around, I choose to forgive my mom, because you inspire me. Just… thank you, Ash.”

There are no words left. She gives me one last painfully sweet kiss before we turn and start to walk again. And just as the tears start to dry on my lashes, just as my ribs constrict and grind against my swelling heart, that’s when I have no choice but smile as the two of us head home.


“What’s up, bruh?”

I can hear the smile in his voice. “Word, sis.”

The line gets quiet for several long moments. “So,” I say. “As interesting as this conversation is…”

“Sorry, I was, uh… I’m calling to invite you to the annual New Year’s blowout bash.”

Panic seizes in my chest and I glance at Spencer, but she can’t see me. She’s lying on her stomach facing the end of our bed and watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve while her feet kick against the air. I need her to look at me, to help me, because I have no idea what to say to him.

I mean, we’re home, being boring, on New Year’s.

Well, it only got boring after the clean-up shower.

But still…

If this were any other event, I’d happily say yes, but it’s not. And I can’t very well tell him that I’m not going anywhere near his dad. His anger with the man didn’t last past Thanksgiving. Not only would it throw him into asshole mode, but it would hurt him.

“You’re asking now,” I deflect. “It’s after eleven…”

“Yeah, sorry,” he says. “You know I’m punctually challenged.”

I shake my head. I know just how he feels.

“Riley, I’m sorry, but we already have plans,” I lie.

That sparks Kyla’s attention from the other side of the bed. Both she and Aiden look over at me and I sigh.

“What could possibly be better than one of the most exclusive parties in L.A.? David Coverdale is here, Bono, LA Reid, and not to mention slew of playboy bunnies, though poor, old Hugh kicked the bucket this year…”

Okay, so David Coverdale is just as washed up as dear, old dad. Bono might be cool. Most up-and-coming musicians would trade their left tit to meet LA Reid, and Hugh Hefner died? Well…

“You know I have my own playmate, right?”

“No kidding,” he chuckles. “No disrespect to you or your lady, but she’s smokin’ hot.”

“Sorry, Riley, but I’m just as pretty and rich as you are and you’ve got all the wrong plumbing.”

And finally I’ve caught Spencer’s attention.

He laughs. “So come on, what do you say?”

It could be fun, especially meeting LA Reid, but he forgot to drop a name, the name: Raife Woods. And I just don’t want to meet him. Or more succinctly, he doesn’t want to meet me.

“I’d like to, Riley, truly, but we’re pretty settled in already. Maybe next year?”

“Give me the phone,” Kyla demands, holding out her hand.

I wave my hand at her dismissively.

“What are your plans,” he asks.

I watch as Kyla tries to scoot closer but she’s like a beached whale.

“Uh, I mean… we’re… at a club downtown.”

“Which one,” he challenges.

I watch dejectedly as Kyla uses Aiden’s phone to call Riley.

“Oh, just a sec, Ash.”

The line clicks over and I dart across the bed to snatch the phone from her but it’s too late.

“Hey, Kyla,” I hear his voice on speaker phone.

“Hey, Riley. What are you talking to Ashley about,” she asks all too sweetly.

“What’s going on,” Spencer whispers.

“I was trying to invite her to the New Year’s Party. I was going to call you next. You’re with her?”

Spencer’s eyes meet mine in silent understanding and she crawls up to me, resting her arm on my folded legs to run a thumb over my knee.

“Oh, well that sounds like fun,” Kyla replies brightly.

“She said you were already at a club downtown,” he replies.

I stare at my sister, begging her not to do it.

“Yeah, we’re at Ego,” she lies smoothly. I close my eyes in relief. “But it’s lame. Text me the address and we’ll head that way.”

That panic sets in again.

“Sweet! Oh, and you can bring anyone else you want.”

“Okay, thanks,” she says. “See you soon.”

She hangs up and I stare at her in utter disbelief, but I don’t know why I can’t believe it. My sister’s never been one to care about throwing me into the deep end.

“Ashley…?”

I glance down at the phone in my hand, having forgotten about it, and lift it to my face.

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“That was Kyla. She says you’re coming. Just be sure to text me when you get here so I can let you in.”

“Yeah, Riley, about that, I think I’m just going to go home.” A pillow whirls past my head and I glare at Kyla. “But Kyla’s still coming.”

He’s quiet for a moment. “Oh… Well, have a good night then.”

“Thanks for the in-”

I hear him hang up and my head falls back against my shoulders. I take three deep breathes and count to ten. I need to calm down. Killing Kyla would be bad enough, but my nephew can’t help the fact that she’s his mother. I have to wait until he’s born.

“Get dressed, Ashley,” Kyla orders.

I look at her and take one more deep breath. “I’m not going.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Because?”

“I don’t want to.”

“Bullshit.”

“Back off, Kyla.” We both look to Spencer. “She doesn’t have to go if she doesn’t want to. And you know exactly why she doesn’t want to.”

“Oh come off it, Spencer. You know she wants to meet him just as much as I do. And you know she won’t unless someone pushes her.”

Spencer nods. “That doesn’t change the fact that he hasn’t made a single attempt to reach out to her.”

“Yeah, well, you didn’t want to see Ashley when I forced you together. Neither did Aiden. Yet, here we are. And you’re all welcome, by the way.”

“That’s different,” Spencer says.

Kyla snorts. “How?”

“You know us, and you knew the situation. We know nothing about him or how he feels. He could be a complete asshole to her, and I don’t see the point in forcing her to deal with that, especially if he’s anything like your mother.”

“What does that mean? You’ve never even met our mother…”

“Actually,” I interject. “She has.” Kyla just stares at us. “The day after Christmas.” She doesn’t say anything. “Look, Kyla, if you want to meet him, go. It won’t bother me.”

“Ash,” she says. “What if he’s a really great guy?”

I shrug. “Then that’s great. It doesn’t really mean anything to me. If he wants to meet, he knows how to get ahold of me. But I’m not going to show up at his house uninvited.”

“You were literally just invited…”

“Not by him.”

She’s about to argue some more but Spencer has a talent for shutting her down with nothing more than a look.

“Fine,” she huffs.

And with that, she has Aiden help her up and they leave.

I look over at Spencer. “You know she’s going to talk to him, right?”

She crawls up on top of me, laying me back against the pillows, and I’m thankful for the weight of her.

“As long as she leaves you alone, I don’t care.”

“Thank you,” I say.

She dips down to kiss me and the sounds of another new year ring out from the television, but they’re utterly ignored.


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


Continued in Chapter 19 – You’ve Got to Go There to Come Back

Chapter 17 – The Right Reasons

Our first show back at the Troubadour didn’t just go off without a hitch, it went off with a bang. It took a minute for the crowd to trust us, the memory of Jon’s wrath still fresh in their minds. But after the first song exploded off of the stage, they were bouncing and clamoring like usual. I’m actually beginning to believe that our slightly tarnished reputation did some good for us in the scene, because we sold out of merch at the end of the set. Erin will place replenishment orders after the holidays so we’ll be prepared for our next show, and Ethan was certainly pleased with the thick wad of cash Kyla delivered in the lockbox.

For once, the band is actually earning money.

I’m still a little high on the energy of it all, even though we were the first opening band for an all local artist show….

On a Wednesday night…

Where we were home by eleven…

It was nowhere near the caliber that we’re used to, but getting home early was a good thing; there’s a lot to do today, so an early start was in order. It’s Thanksgiving. I most definitely have a lot to be thankful for this year, and I’m experiencing my usual excitement at the prospect of turkey.

I have, however, taken precautions.

Control scenario one: we’re at my house. I have secured the dogs. Control scenario two: there’s no alcohol or Carmen, so the previous risks don’t apply. Control scenario three: I have emergency exit plans already laid out. Should I find myself in need of a place to hide from drama, I know exactly where to go from any given room and all areas are securable. Control scenario four: there are three fucking turkeys. This triples Mr. C’s workload, but he’s a good sport, dressing them all with the same loving care. And the last control scenario: I have Bouchon’s catering at the Crisis Center for the kids. So, should we still somehow find ourselves without a golden, delicious bird, we can just go there.

All of the bases have been covered.

I offered to get Kyla a tofurkey, but she had to reluctantly admit that she’s a carnivore right now, even if it is only for the next five months or so. She’s been eating dead animals like a savage, and it’s kind of hilarious to watch.

Everyone’s here: Mr. C, Spencer, Christine, Kyla, Aiden, Jac, Jon, Kate, Chelsea, Clay, Shirley, and Sam. And even a few we hadn’t anticipated, like Janice, Madison, and baby Mac, whom seems to have taken a liking to me. Madison was the most surprising of all given the circumstances, but she actually isn’t all that bad when Glen isn’t around. What this really means is that she hasn’t actually said anything to me, and I’m okay with that.

Which brings me to who’s missing: Paula and Glen. But there’s nothing that anyone could do about that, especially me. I tried both of them by phone, but Paula wouldn’t even pick up and Glen, once hearing my voice, promptly hung up on me. He and Aiden are still friends, I’ve come to learn, but if Madison and Mac couldn’t sway the gay hating man-child, then Aiden definitely couldn’t, though everyone fucking tried anyway.

Either way, we’re all determined to have a good day, which is harder for some than others. For me, I’m perfectly happy with my lot, even if the idea of other family members is still banging around in my head. I’m not really interested in dwelling on it. I can’t even make sense of it, so it’s not all that hard to just move past it. I’m sitting at my now usual spot at the island watching Spencer, Mr. C, Christine, and Aiden prepare the food. The band has been fucking around in the studio most of the day, but I tapped out after a couple of hours, right around the time that all of the wonderful smells started to fill the house and my eyes grew sore for a specific blonde visage. Kyla’s snoozing on the couch, loudly, and all-in-all, it’s been perfectly mundane, but perfectly everything I’ve always wanted.

I even have a dining table. It’s brand new, and it’s kind of amazeballs. Spencer had offered to bring hers over, but it’s a four-seater, and that’s not nearly big enough for this crew or even the space, though we did bring it in for dinner as more and more decided that my house was holiday central. My new table seats twelve comfortably – five rounded, light-gray tripod chairs on each side and one at each end. The lines are comfortable and straight, vintage but modern, and the perfectly smooth matte finish makes the wood a textural experience for the eye. The color is called weathered oak; it’s somewhere between gray and light tan, and it stands out against the mahogany floors, making it seem colorful even though it’s neutral.

The best thing about it is that if you lift the top off, there’s an honest-to-goodness, full-sized pool table underneath. That’s what Shirley, Sam, Chelsea, and Clay are doing right now. I have no idea what the stakes are, but they’re clearly playing for keeps. It’s entertaining. Aiden was beyond jealous, stating that he was going to make one, and I can’t imagine that he won’t be able to outdo even this one. I have no idea where he learned carpentry. I assume it’s because he works in construction, but I’ve since seen a few of his other creations. In fact, I now own a two-seater porch swing that’s as comfortable as it is sturdy and beautiful. His best pieces aren’t finished yet: a bassinet, crib, and high-chair meant to be gifts for Kyla once the baby is born.

Other items have been added as well as the dining table, helping the house to feel full, not only in love and cherished people, but in personality and life. I have end tables and lamps, the new chairs I ordered, more rugs, and there’s even art on the walls. The book shelves are full. Kate’s painting proudly hangs in the dining room. Family pictures line the hallway, and I had some hanging ball lights installed just above the new table. The best set of pictures is in my room though. It’s the three pictures from prom night that Mr. C took. They hang over the bed in a three partition frame.

Spencer glances over at me and smiles, but it’s too bright, too cheery. She’s doing her level best to make sure that her pain doesn’t seep out and infect anyone else, but it’s pointless. Most all of my Ohio fam are sad when a quiet moment presents itself, and even the LA fam, though I don’t know their family hang-ups as intimately. Not like Spencer though, and the fact that she tries so hard to hide it just makes it all the more noticeable, at least for me. I can tell just how raw she is, how personally responsible she feels, and as such, I’m just as raw. I’m sure Mr. C feels it too, for both of his present children, so he probably has it the worst, but he’s so much better at hiding it. It’s at these times that I miss alcohol, though I know that it wouldn’t actually help anything.

Holidays have a way of bringing out both the best and the worst in people, sometimes all at once. It’s the family aspect, and I know that for all of the people that they have with them, for all of the love and fulfillment that surrounds them, there are holes, unfillable ones. Unlike me, their graves are still freshly dug. I’ve had many, many years to fill mine in. But damn if the holidays don’t try to paint them in neon lights.

It makes me angry, to be honest, for all of us. It’s so senseless. But then, if we all had the families we were born to, we might not have each other. It’s strange how even negative things can have positive results. I still can’t help but wonder if it’s my fault in Spencer’s regard, not that Paula and Glen have created this righteous rift, but that they couldn’t at least get through it like they did last year. I mean, none of their feelings have changed since the last round of holidays but they still at least showed up.

Why is this time so different?

Well, me…

What else could it be?

Mr. C suggested that it might just be the location. We considered going to Ohio, especially as we have to be over there next week anyway, but that seemed pointless. Everyone’s already out here, except for Paula, Chelsea, and Clay. The latter two were all too happy to head this way before the ceremony, but Paula, like a door stopper, just holed up by herself. Another thing is: who wants to sit in that mostly empty house that used to be a home, with all those ghosts and memories, and feel the loss of its history?

Paula, of course, but then apparently Glen also. From what I understand, it’s just the two of them over there. I’m still angry, and it’s justified, but that image pangs somewhere in my chest. It loosens my indignation and makes my throat constrict. For all of their shortcomings, I don’t wish that kind of loneliness and ostracization on anyone.

Why do people choose misery? I think I know. I did the same thing, and it’s a hole so deep that crawling out is little less scary than scaling Everest. I just wish there was a way for them to know what I know now, to see the view from the summit that makes the fight up so worth it.

Spencer finishes the huge pan of stuffing and puts it in one of the stacked ovens before washing her hands. On impulse, I meet her at the sink with a hand-towel. She takes it gratefully and dries while I cradle her in my arms to loosen the knot at her back. She gives me a curious expression when I pull the apron over her head and take a hand, leading her past the trash-talking billiard championship and into the backyard. I have no idea where I’m taking her or what to do when I get there, but I’m hoping the fresh air and companionship will help to lessen the pressure of her emotions.

I know that nothing can fill those holes that she feels so acutely today, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t try. We wind up at the dog run playing with the babies as I try to think of something, anything, that might help her, and that’s when I remember that there’s a huge tree with an orchid garden towards the back of the yard. They just so happen to be her favorite flower, and they may have been my only request of the gardener when I moved in, so after we’ve had our fill of the dogs, I lead her in that direction.

I want to find something perfectly happy for her, something that will capture her full attention and hold it away from those chasms inside of her. I know that it will take more than an orchid, but our gait is synchronized, almost leisurely, and I let my thoughts wander through this still new and aching need to just… fix. It’s a desperate feeling, and it makes my mind grasp.

Of all of the most ludicrous things to come to mind when I’m trying too hard, the lyrics of a little folk song that I used to sing to baby Kyla has got to take the cake. Even still, I smile in remembrance. Those words perfectly describe what I want to do for Spencer right now. I don’t remember where I learned it, but I’m pretty sure it was in my tiny getaway town in Ohio, from a movie I believe. I used to watch them in the shop windows of the little electronics store. Something about the words was comforting. Either way, I dismiss it and try to find something in my empty head that’s actually useful.

When we arrive at the tree, I pluck one of the orchids and offer it to Spencer. Her face becomes a study in pathetic sweetness and I can almost hear the thought of ‘Aww’ that she doesn’t say. I feel foolish, but then I know her. She adores romance. There’s literally nothing corny or cheesy enough to push her over the edge. She has a sweet tooth a mile wide.

So I go for broke, using the only thing my mind could come up with, and I sing to her. “If I had words to sing a day for you, I’d sing you a morning golden and true. I’d make this day last for all time, and fill the night deep in moonshine.”

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. It definitely qualifies as corny and cheesy, but I mean it when I say that I’d brighten her life and make it last forever if such a thing were possible. She takes the flower, her eyes misting over as she wraps her arms around my waist and lays her face into the crook of my neck. I wind up holding her for a long while and playing with the ends of her hair where it touches her back. For how sad she is, I can’t help but enjoy the solid feel of her in my arms, the quiet rustle of the breeze through the leaves overhead, and the delicate birdsong.

There are no words or advice that I can give, not for this. But I can give me, all of me, and I try my best to just be here with her. She doesn’t sob, and I’m thankful, not because crying is a bad thing. In fact, I now believe the exact opposite. It’s because I don’t want to be the catalyst for it. That’s the last thing that I want to do to her right now, especially when we’re only an hour or so from dinner.

“You always just know,” Spencer says after a time.

“Know what?”

“What to do.”

I scoff. “Please, I’m so lost. I seriously don’t even know what I’m doing half the time.”

“Well it works.”

“Does it though?”

I lean her back and gather the long, silky strands away from her face. And I have to disagree. I don’t appear to have lightened her load at all.

“There’s only so much you can do, Ash.”

“But it’s not enough.”

“No,” she admits. “Nothing short of them showing up, or even just returning a call, is going to fix it, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t make things so much easier.” She smiles and this time it’s more genuine, though still utterly heartbreaking. She raises the flower to her nose and breathes it in before taking my hand. “Come on. I’m not done in the kitchen.”

I let her lead me back to the house and retreat to my master bathroom as she puts her apron back on. I don’t know why, but I just need a moment to myself. Once the lid is down on the toilet, I gracelessly take a seat and Spencer’s words rattle around in my head for a good long while.

‘Fix it.’

I was never the fixer. I was the avoider. I know that’s not true anymore, but it’s still a foreign feeling – this insatiable, aching need to make the broken thing whole. And my practice in this arena is limited at best. I’m just not all that imaginative when it comes to matters of the heart. And there’s always the risk that I’ll just ruin it even more. Good intentions only go so far. But I can’t walk away from it. I can’t throw it away and buy a new one. It’s not a mug. It’s a life, people, emotions, all of the things that are priceless and irreplaceable. If anything, being aware only makes the process all the more frustrating. My mind is like a hamster spinning in a wheel with no end in sight.

I take my phone from my back pocket and dial the now familiar number, only I add *67 to the front of it. This time, she answers in two rings.

“Hello?”

“Paula, your entire family is here.” I skip right past the pleasantries. If she hangs up, I want to have at least said something more than this is Ashley. “They miss you and they don’t deserve this.”

“You need to quit calling me, Ashley.”

“Nah,” I say in a dismissive manner. “I don’t give up people, especially when they’re hurting those I love.”

“Right,” she says. “You disappeared for four years to fight the good fight.”

“You know, you’re right. It’s completely true, and I hurt the best people in my life because of it. But that’s not who I am anymore. People can change, Paula, even you. And I’m telling you that if you turn around right now, they’ll forgive you. Besides, do you really want to be like me?”

She laughs, a real one. “Oh, you’re enlightened now? I’m sorry, but that’s just… absurd.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

I can’t help the smile that spreads across my face, not to be malicious, but because I’m so thoroughly happy with my life and she’s just reminded me of that. “Paula, I don’t even know if my life can get any better. I have love all around me. I get to spend this day with my family, and every day after that too. Maybe it is absurd, but it’s absurdly happy.” She’s quiet, so I continue before she can hang up. “You’re with Glen, in what’s left of your empty home, alone. And let’s face it, you’re miserable, but it just doesn’t have to be that way. What’s absurd is that you choose to be miserable when your family is right here, willing and ready. They love you and you’re turning your back on that.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t I? I used to be just as miserable as you are. The only difference between us is that I didn’t choose the circumstances of my misery. I was completely helpless to it, but you’re not. You have complete control over the outcome here. What is it, pride? Why isn’t their love good enough?”

“They’re asking me to participate in something that is morally wrong, to stand by and do nothing while Spencer essentially kills herself. I won’t do that, because that is love.”

“No,” I interrupt. “No, no, they’re really not. No one is asking you to accept it or agree with it, and the sheer idea of you participating makes me want to puke. You could show up and be just as surly, rude, and disapproving as you always are, and while no one would be happy with that, it would at least show that you’re willing to put aside your biases long enough to share some pie. All anyone is asking is that you leave the door open instead of completely slamming it in their face. You don’t have to condone what someone does or agree with them to love them, but you really can’t say you love them when you shut them out, even if you feel like it’s for the right reasons.”

“I love them more than you could ever begin to comprehend. And maybe if you’d finally just go away, things between us could be different.”

I roll my eyes. It’s like potty-training a child, only that child is twice my age. “So, it’s me? Everything was just hunky dory when I was gone?”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Ashley. It’s not just you, but you are definitely the worst of those that Spencer could have chosen.”

Wow, I’m worse than Carmen? I mean, at least I’m willing to put up with Paula for Spencer…

“Then why does my presence, or any of Spencer’s girlfriends, matter? I’m just some nameless woman who’s all wrong for your daughter. Does your hate for gays outweigh your love for Spencer, for Mr. C? Or is all of this just a passive aggressive ultimatum where you think you can force them to choose between us?”

Her silence is probably more violent than any hateful thing she could say to me. And it affirms what I’ve just realized, what I’ve just called her out on.

She’s drawing a line in the sand.

“Do you have any idea how manipulative that is? Or just how… stupid? I mean, they won’t do it, Paula. You can’t force either of them to choose. They’re better than that. Don’t you know them at all?”

“I have no interest in being insulted, especially by the likes of you. Stop calling me.”

She hangs up on me and I have to wonder at myself. Even now, I just want to call her back, and I don’t even know why. She’s made it clear that she isn’t going to listen, even as I know that she’s actually hearing what I’m saying. It’s like I know that somewhere deep down inside of her, she wants to believe what I’m saying, but she’s perhaps too stubborn, too brainwashed, or too proud to let herself. At the end of the day, it’s all fear. She’s too scared of the light to step out of the dark.

I can’t help but wonder what her bible actually says about this kind of stuff. Maybe some light reading is in order…

With a sigh, I decide to use the facilities and head back to the kitchen. It’s an alcohol free day, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t find something cold, crisp, and refreshing in the fridge. I head in that direction and stop at the end of the hallway when I notice that there’s a new person in the room…

A tall one…

That just so happens to look exactly like me…

And Kyla’s speaking animatedly with him on my couch.

She didn’t. She just didn’t. That’s all my mind can chant.

Spencer intercepts me and leads me into the bedroom to shut the door behind us.

“Did you know,” I ask.

“No,” she says, and I believe her, but that doesn’t make it feel any better.

“Ash,” she murmurs after a time.

I just look at her, having no idea what to say. I thought I was done with this. I had determined that I didn’t want to pursue it, but I hadn’t considered that Kyla might. We haven’t really talked about him. Well, haven’t. She’s brought him up a couple of times, but I didn’t have a clue that she was interested in more. I thought she didn’t really care about that part of our… family.

Spencer hugs me and I release a huge breath. I guess I can’t really be mad at Kyla for wanting that, but couldn’t she have done that on her own time?

“Do you hate him,” she finally asks.

“What,” I ask, caught off-guard. “No. I mean, I don’t even know him…”

She leans back and looks me in the eye. “Do you want to?”

I raise a hand and let it fall in frustration before plopping onto the edge of the bed. “He took off. I thought it was over.”

She sits next to me, a coy smile curling her lips. “You know as well as I do that running away doesn’t always mean it’s over.”

I give her a bored look and she chuckles, and dammit, so do I.

“He’s an asshole, Spence.”

She takes my hand and kisses my fingers, that same expression still on her face, and I groan, flopping back on the bed.

“Well, there’s only room for one asshole,” I say.

She lies on her side next to me, propping her head on her bent arm. “Well, that’s good, because you’re not an asshole anymore.”

I just look at her. She’s not teasing this time, and I hear the innuendo, just like I did at the café. Maybe someone truly great is lingering beneath all of his pomp and bravado.

“Why do you want me to get to know him?”

It’s her turn to sigh. “Well, I’d give anything for my asshole family members to be here, despite the stink that follows them.”

“I’m not you, Spence,” I chuckle out.

“No, you’re not, but I believe that you want to know him.”

“You do?”

She nods. “Yeah, I do.”

“Why do you think that when I’m not even sure?”

“It took a long time for me to be able to read your moods. You’re really confusing. The point is, I saw you that night you found out and I was there when you met him. And that kind of pain just isn’t possible if you don’t care.” She rubs her hand over my heart tenderly. “You care, Ash, and I figure if you care, then you should follow this out and see where it leads. Give him a chance, and if you hate his guts, you don’t have to keep him around. But why not at least see?”

I blink at her stupidly, not just because it’s kind of scary how well she understands me, but because I realize that I’ve been trying to fix things with her family, an exercise in futility, and completely ignoring the mess of my own. I can’t fix anything for her, but that’s still been my focus. I may not even be able to fix my own family issues, but the odds are definitely better. For fuck’s sake, I feel stupid. I know all of this. It’s the very reason fixer Spencer had given up. She couldn’t leave me alone long enough to focus on her own needs. How easy it is to forget what I worked so hard to learn.

As much as I’m confused and disconnected from him, Riley is family. And he is exactly like me, or how I was. And how much more of a hypocrite can I be if I expect everyone to give up on him when they wouldn’t do that to me? Jesus, self-revelation is exhausting.

“I want a nap,” I say. She chuckles. “Does it have to be today,” I ask. “Can’t we have one drama free holiday?”

“There’s always Christmas,” she smiles cutely at me.

I chortle sardonically. “Yeah, I’m sure next month is going to be a blast.”

She laughs with me, resting her head on my shoulder and looping an arm around my middle.

“I think the most important stuff has been resolved, don’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you have any idea how much I love you,” she says.

“Do you really want to play the who-loves-whom more game? You always lose.”

I love you toast doesn’t even make sense,” she says indignantly.

“Well, what else am I supposed to say to I love you most? I love you infinity? That’s so… juvenile…”

We’re quiet for a moment and then we both laugh. The whole thing is juvenile in the extreme, but oh well. I’d rather be a naïve, star-crossed lover than a joyless pragmatist any day. She gets to her feet holding her hands out to me. When I’m standing again she hooks her arms over my shoulders.

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you more,” I say.

“I love you most,” she says expectantly.

“I love you toast.”

She smiles, gives me a kiss, and leads me back to the living room. I hold her hand as long as I can as she heads back towards the kitchen. With a deep breath, I make my way to the couch.

“Hi, Riley,” I say, trying to be polite.

“Oh, um, hi, Ashley,” he says, getting to his feet.

It’s awkward, especially when he holds a hand out for me to shake. I mean, is that necessary at this point? But I do it anyway and then regret it. His palm was clammy and I see him try to wipe it on his thigh inconspicuously.

I do the same.

“Do you want something to drink,” I ask.

“Oh, um, sure.”

“I’ve got homemade spiced cider, hot chocolate, and Raspberry Frost punch. And then the usual stuff like Coke, Dr. Pepper, and Sprite. I also have filtered water and Perrier.”

“Hot Chocolate, please,” he says.

I nod and turn.

“I’ll have some cocoa too,” Kyla demands.

“Yeah, yeah,” I say.

I have to lay my body almost entirely against Spencer’s in order to move past her. The kitchen is big but it’s utterly discombobulated, and I linger for a moment, kissing her on the neck as I reach over her to snag a baby carrot from the finger foods tray. She turns her head as I take a crunching bite and I feed her the other half.

“You want something to drink,” I ask.

“Punch, please.”

“Anyone else want a drink,” I ask loudly pulling away from her.

Six cups of punch, a Dr. Pepper, a sippy-cup of Sprite, and a Coke delivery later, I have three cups of cocoa and head back to the couch. The band must still be going at it in the studio, so I decide to just deliver these remaining drinks and excuse myself.

Music sounds therapeutic just now.

“Where you going,” Kyla asks.

I throw a thumb towards the studio. “Music calls,” I say.

She rocks a few times, finally building enough momentum to slowly tip forward off the couch. Riley has to steady her cocoa so it doesn’t spill. The last month has treated her like a balloon.

“Come on,” she says to him. “I know your dad is all famous, but Ashley will put him to shame.”

“You play,” he asks, looking to me.

“Yeah,” I say, wishing for the millionth time in my life that Kyla had been born mute.

They follow me to the studio. The recording space is silent, but a look through the window beyond shows that the band’s still going at it pretty hard. I smack the mouse to wake the computer up and crank up the live mic knobs on the mixer. Music fills the space, and I recognize that it’s the new song, the one about sex. We still haven’t played it live. Something about it just feels… unpolished, though they seem to have made some serious progress on it today.

I leave Kyla and Riley in the booth and head inside. It’s loud, but I’m used to it, and it grinds to a stop when they see me.

“About time you came to your senses,” Jon says, noticing the mug in my hand. “Ooh, is that cocoa?”

She takes it from me and returns a nearly empty mug before swiping her arm over her mouth. I roll my eyes and set it down on her half-stack, which sends her into a heart-attack before relocating it to the table that was actually closer to me. That’s right, I did it on purpose. I raid the mini-fridge for a few bottles of water, and Kate almost worships me when I hand her one. She’s drenched in sweat, even with the tiny, soundless fan blowing directly into her face and the temperature control of the house. Janice politely thanks me, but Jac and Jon act like it’s expected.

I take a few swigs and sling my new telecaster over my shoulders, still marveling at how smooth the wood is to the touch. It’s tuned to perfection, the volume all the way up, and we’re ready to go. I take my hero ear plugs and sling them over my neck before fitting them in ears.

“Let’s try that song again,” I say.

“It needs a name,” Jac pipes in.

“Yeah,” I frown. “I still don’t know what to call it. It’s just…”

“Sex,” Jac says with a grin.

“Just name it Spencer,” Jon adds and I glare at her. “Come on, we all know why you wrote it.”

I shrug. “So what? At least I can write songs for my girlfriend.”

It’s her turn to glare.

“Yeah, Jon, where’s my song,” Jac asks.

“Well, where’s mine,” she throws back. “I’m just a bassist…”

“Both of you shut up,” Kate says. “There’s a reason why Ashley writes all of the songs, and it’s because none of us can.”

They all just stare at me and I clear my throat. “Okay, from the top.”

Kate clicks off four beats with her drumsticks and the two of us start in together. It’s just power chords. There’s nothing simpler in the guitar world, but the slides between the five notes give it a melodic feel, even as the strumming pattern is choppy and palm-muted. Kate does a fun little beat with it, just bass and snare until the riff repeats.

I channel Karen O and start to sing. “A little somethin’ we needed. So far from completed. Just started; don’t finish. Come on, just enjoy this. All night now, you tell me, how nothin’ comes easy, but that’s not why I brought you home.”

There’s a driving build-up to the chorus that’s so fast that it’s almost too much. This is why the chorus only consists of all of us shouting out, “YEAH…, YEAH…, YEAH, YEAH, YEAH…,” three times before going right back into the verse.

“Bite harder. Push through me. Your hands, how they grab me. I push you; I pull you. Come on, I’ll consume you. All night now, you tell me, how nothin’ comes easy. But that’s not why I brought you home.”

We enter the chorus again before we slow into the breakdown where I essentially play a dissonant scale and mewl breathy, growling whimpers into the mic. It makes my face flush with embarrassment, but the song is as vapid as they come. There’s really nothing more to be said here. The embarrassing sounds build right back up into the chorus until we’re again shouting, “YEAH!”

I’m glad that I didn’t drink the cocoa before. Growling is difficult to achieve without causing damage to the vocal chords, and cocoa is so thick it might have made it too hard not to choke on the grit pouring out of my mouth. But I don’t, and we find ourselves laughing as the song finishes with three abrupt crashes.

It’s a stupid song, definitely not my best, but it’s fun, and I certainly hope that Karen O would be proud.

“That was way better than the last time,” I hear Kyla’s disembodied voice call out, and look to the recording booth. “Now run through your regular set.”

“Why,” I ask. “Those songs are as good as they’re going to get.”

“Ash, just shut up and do it,” she demands.

I can tell immediately that she just wants me to show off for Riley, and while I want to get frustrated with her for it, I decide that I kind of want to do that too. It feels silly and immature, maybe even petty, but it’s there all the same. I glance at him, but he’s not looking at me. He’s looking down at the controls. With a shrug, I turn to my bandmates, and like the well-oiled machine that we are, we kick off, one song after another, until we’re all about ready to die, especially Kate. She’s been playing all day, and she definitely needs a shower.

I feel that familiar sense of satisfaction as I hang my guitar back on the wall. It’s like an afterglow, all sticky and content. We’re all exhausted and smiling like idiots. Kate doesn’t even ask for a shower, she just heads straight for my room, taking Janice with her. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s needed one after practice, so she has a cache of clean clothes here. I just hope she rinses the tub out after they’re done. Jac and Jon look like they’re about to fuck each other they’re so keyed up, so they break away for Jon’s car, and that leaves me in the recording booth with Kyla and Riley.

I remember that I need to burn some more CDs in preparation for the next show, so I start to load up the Titan Burner.

“You guys are pretty good,” Riley says.

Kyla snorts and looks at him like he’s crazy. “Pretty good,” she asks. “Are you deaf? They’re fucking awesome!”

“Uh, I mean…,” Riley stumbles out, and I find myself smiling.

He’s not used to her yet. How could he be? I decide to show him how to manage her.

“To each their own, Kyla,” I say, loading another spool of CDs into the tower.

“Whatever,” she says. “I’m gonna go see if the food’s ready.”

She leaves and I look to Riley, which makes me laugh. He looks like he’s just been slapped in the face. And that’s precisely what it’s like to know Kyla. I wonder if that’s how I look half the time that I’m around her.

“You’ll get used to her,” I say. “She’s blunt, and woe to you if you don’t share her perspective. She’ll force you to.”

“I didn’t mean any offense,” he says.

“I know. It’s okay if you don’t like our music. It doesn’t bother me.”

He relaxes a little and I sit next to him so I can start the software.

“I don’t dislike it. I like all music really. I’ve been around professional musicians all my life. I’m just not easily impressed.” I nod. That makes sense. “I will say that you guys are as good as any professional band I’ve seen. And you… you’re better than dad.”

I can’t help but gape at him with that, even though it’s absolutely true. I mean, I’ve listened to all of dad’s music in the last few weeks. I couldn’t help myself. I checked him out a little, or a lot, maybe thoroughly if I’m being honest. I might now know all of the personal details of his life, but that’s beside the point. I didn’t expect Riley to admit it. His head is firmly planted up the man’s ass, at least as far as I could tell. He’s looking down at the mixer again and for the first time, I feel like I can actually put a finger on his mood. He’s not posturing, and he is most definitely sad.

“How come you’re not with him today,” I ask.

The corner of his mouth quirks a little bit, but he still doesn’t look at me. “I usually only see him for the annual New Year’s party at his house.”

I feel my eyebrows scrunch as I try to discern what he’s telling me, but I’m not sure that I’m getting the right message here. Or at least, I’m not sure that I believe it.

“You only see him once a year,” I clarify.

“Yep,” he says.

“Not even for holidays?”

“Nope.”

I click around in the software and try to make sense of this. “Well, I mean, you’re grown and have your own place, your own life, right?”

He releases a humorless chuckle. “Yeah, but it’s been that way for as long as I can remember,” he says. “It’s nothing new.”

I find myself getting very quiet as I absorb this new information, and he still won’t look at me. “You only see him once a year… Even when you were a child?”

He doesn’t say anything, but he finally glances my way, and I still don’t know if I can get used to the fact that he looks so much like me, and especially acts so much like me. How do other twins do it? I have to consider that they usually get a lifetime to adjust. I’ve had a month. And I realize now that even while I would still trade my childhood for his, he didn’t have it as good as he let on. But then, why is he being so honest about it now? Why isn’t he as protective of his dad today? Is he extra mad at him right now?

“So what do you normally do for holidays?”

He smiles, too brightly, too cheerfully, just like Spencer was doing earlier. “I usually have a giant party and invite friends over. It’s actually a lot of fun.”

“When did you start doing that,” I ask, hoping to validate what I already believe to be true.

“Oh…,” he deflates a little. “About two years ago, when I moved into my loft.”

A loft…

I want to laugh, even as much as I want to palm my face. Just… what the fuck?

“And before that?”

“Oh, uh, nothing much. Dinner and hanging out. The usual.”

“With whom?”

He sighs with exasperation and gets to his feet. “It was just me, okay? Is that what you want to hear, that I spent holidays alone? Well, there you go. I spent every day alone, okay?”

He starts to storm out of the studio but I find myself standing and clutching his arm, sharp words leaving my throat. “Stop running.”

He scowls at me. “What?”

I release him like I’ve been burned and shake my head a little. This particular mind fuck is especially… well, fucked.

“I said, stop running.”

“Running? What does that even mean?”

“I’ve seen you two times, Riley. And every time I say something you don’t like, you get mad and storm off. Now, I get it. I used to do the same thing, but I don’t even let myself do that anymore, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to put up with it from anyone else. Sit your ass down and I’ll leave, go in there and play the drums or guitar, or go to the backyard for a while, or get something else to drink. Just take a beat and cool the fuck off. You don’t have to leave. You don’t have to run away from me.”

“What’s the point,” he asks.

“Well, the way you tell it, Kyla and I are the only family you really have. Would you really rather go spend another holiday alone when you don’t have to?”

“It’s not like you want me here. Kyla invited me, not you. And I don’t want your pity.”

I shrug, even though I really want to laugh. “I don’t know you well enough to want you here, but if you could stop rubbing how much of an asshole I used to be in my face, we might be able to get to know each other.”

“What does that even mean? I’m not rubbing anything in your face…”

My head falls back on my shoulders and I release a breath. “It’s hard to explain. The point is that if you want to get to know me, you’re going to have to stick around long enough for that to happen, instead of taking off every time the conversation gets real.”

“Is that what you want,” he asks. “Do you want to get to know me?”

I raise my arms in surrender to frustration. “I’m standing here talking to you, aren’t I?”

I guess I now have an answer to that question, even as I already knew it. I didn’t just look up dad or his music on the internet. His jaw gets tight and I swear that I can hear his teeth grinding as he stares at me.

“I’ll be in the backyard,” he finally says before hightailing out of the room.

I follow his retreat to the end of the hall to see him shut the back door behind him. The pool game has been cleaned up and the table expertly set with all of the festive trimmings one might expect from Martha Stewart, so I have a clear view of him. I lean against the wall to marvel at the absurdity of it all. It’s… comical. He couldn’t stop himself from running, but at least he didn’t run away.

Jesus Christ, life is strange.

My eyes catch Spencer’s and I see the inaudible question in them from across the kitchen. I shrug in response. She smiles and goes back to her work, pulling something from the oven, and I watch Riley find the dog run in the backyard and enter it. Flot sniffs him apprehensively but Jet acts like Riley is me, all two-legged dances, lolling tongue, and wagging tail. He doesn’t even do that for Spencer, and I swear to fucking Christ if mega-me steals my dog, I’m going to be so pissed at both of them.

“Time to eat,” Mr. C announces, laying the last of the carved turkey on a platter.

Kate comes out of my room with a towel around her shoulders. Janice, thankfully, isn’t wet. Everyone else starts to form a queue at the island.

“Where’s Jac and Jon,” Kate asks, running the edge of the towel through her hair again.

I give Kate a bored look in answer. She laughs, takes Janice’s hand, and the two of them head towards the door. They’re brave. Nothing could make me approach that car right now. Spencer beckons me to the island and I come willingly. She hands me a plate and I don’t waste a moment heading straight for the turkey. Kyla’s already here and from the looks of her plate, three might not have been enough. She yells to Riley on her way back to the table, and Kate leads the others in as well. Of course, I send Jac and Jon to the sink to wash up, and with shameless smiles, they comply.

I’m the last one to tear myself away from the glorious spread of food, and I see that the only chair left is the one at the head of my new table. We have enough to seat sixteen, but there are seventeen of us since Riley showed. Fortunately, Mac still uses a high chair, so she’s squeezed in next to Madison at the smaller table.

I feel a little uncomfortable in this position, but seat myself all the same. It’s strange to be able to see everyone without craning my neck one way or the other. I also like the fact that I’m just as close to Spencer as always, but I can actually see her face. She puts her hand on my thigh and I give her fingers a squeeze.

Mr. C stands and lifts his cider. “In my home, we upheld the tradition of giving thanks before digging in. And while this isn’t my home, I hope Ashley will indulge me.” He smiles at me and I can’t help but love him. He’s so ceremonious and cheesy, just like his daughter. “I just want to say that I’m thankful for all of the new beginnings that have taken place this year. I have seen so much healing in my family. Each and every one of you has made a tremendous impact on my life, and so I thank you.” He raises his cup and we all do the same. “To family,” he finishes.

“To family,” we all repeat and take a sip.

Cider just doesn’t have the same kick, but it’s delicious. This time, dinner isn’t all that quiet. Soft conversations and laughter fill the room as everyone casually fills their bellies. The food is remarkable and I realize that some of this isn’t what I was expecting. It’s still traditional Thanksgiving fare, but the recipes have changed. It’s more elegant, more modern. The only thing that is exactly like I remember it is the turkey, and it’s everything I thought it would be.

Kyla’s already had seconds by the time that I finish my first plate, and I find that I’m too stuffed to have anything more, especially if I plan to have pie later, and I most certainly do. Mr. C leans back in his chair, quite pleased with himself.

“Mr. C, I don’t know what you did to those potatoes, but they were better than se-” Spencer’s squeeze to my thigh is a little rough. “Uh, any other potato I’ve ever had…”

He laughs. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

He gets to his feet and takes his plate to the sink to rinse it and start cleaning up. A glance at Spencer tells me that I may never enjoy sex again.

“It’s just an expression, Spence,” I lean in to whisper.

“I certainly hope I’m better than potatoes,” she whispers back.

I let my lips tickle against her ear and purr, “So much better.”

She shivers a little and I leave her to stew while I go help Mr. C. I may not be trusted with food, but I can certainly help with clean-up. Others join in as they finish and before we know it, everything but the sweets are put away and the dishwasher is running.

“You still want that nap,” Spencer asks.

I take her hand and pull her towards the bedroom, informing the room that we are to have at least two solid hours uninterrupted. This elicits giggles from those assembled and Spencer blushes.

“It’s just a nap,” she says, but no one believes her, except Mr. C and Christine, though I’m betting that’s a conscious decision on their parts.

The door is firmly shut and locked, and we both jump onto the bed and fall on our sides facing each other. She scoots in close and kisses my nose before shutting her eyes. She has to be tired. She worked on that meal all day. She works hard every day, it seems. I reach up and tuck the hair behind her ear and my eyes close too.

I have no idea how much time has passed when I crack my eyes open again, but the sun has noticeably shifted into the setting position and Spencer is spooned up behind me.

“Ash,” Spencer murmurs. “Are you awake?”

“Yeah,” I say.

“Can we… talk?”

I roll over and snuggle into her. “Of course,” I yawn out. “What’s up?”

“I’m tired,” she says. “All the time.”

“Yeah, I know.”

I’m actually glad that she’s finally brought it up. I’ve been waiting for her to decide which item she wants to shift or shorten, and hoping that it won’t be me. But even if it is, I’ll live with it.

“I know that I have to move some things around, but there are a few problems,” she continues. “I’m not comfortable with just quitting my job and I don’t get to set my hours. And even if I did ask to move to part time, I’d still be throwing my career away if they agreed. And then I refuse to dip into my time with you or change how we spend it.” She exhales heavily. “And then there’s dad. I can’t abandon him, especially right now. I don’t know what to do…”

I’ve been thinking long and hard about this, preparing. I have to make sure that I don’t lead her one direction or another. Whatever she does, she has to decide for herself. Mr. C told me that the best way to do that is something called open-ended questions. These questions can be difficult to devise, but will make it so that the person asking comes to their own conclusions. I’m as ready for this as I can be.

“Spence, any change you make to your schedule, what is the desired outcome?”

“To free up more time for frivolous things like sleep.”

I laugh. “Okay, so you have three things all competing for your time, and you say that you can’t change two of them, so…”

“The job…”

“Right. So what’s your goal there?”

“To direct.”

“Anything or something specific?”

“You know, it was always movies, and I’d still love that, but I kind of like how much… smaller documentaries are.”

“So either one, but preferably documentaries?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, so this job you have now, does it align with your objectives?”

She seems to think about this for a moment. “More than any I’ve had. I mean, I’m not directing, but I am editing, which is a vast improvement from checking batteries and getting coffee. But it’s a smaller studio and they’re not really growing. There isn’t a lot of room for promotion, but it will happen eventually.”

“How long is eventually?”

She sighs. “Someone is probably going to have to die.”

I laugh. “Jesus, Spence, that’s dark.”

She smiles at me. “It’s still true.”

“Are you suggesting that we put out a hit on one of the directors?” She swats me on my ass and I grin at her because I like it. “Thank you, ma’am. May I have another?”

She laughs and swats me again. “Come on, Ash, be serious.”

“Okay, so it’s going to be awhile before one of the director slots open up, and then, will you have a lot of competition?”

“Oh yeah. There are at least five of us waiting for the same thing, and many of them have been there a decade or more. They also have a ton more experience.”

I don’t like where that response leads me, but I go there anyway. “So, if anything, you need to increase the time you spend there to give yourself an edge.”

She stares at my fingers while she plays with them and nods. “Probably, yeah, but I did that at Universal and I hated it. Sometimes I’d put in twenty-four hour shifts, and I never got a weekend off.”

So that response leads me to a place I like very much, but I’m not sure I should throw it out there. I have to scrutinize my motivation. But, if I’m going to be honest about the thoughts I don’t like, I should probably be honest about all of them. So now I have to think about how to do this so that it’s just a thought, not a suggestion.

“What if there was another option,” I start apprehensively.

She frowns at me. “What do you mean?”

“Well, Spence, I know you hate it, but I have all the start-up capital you’d need to…”

“Ash, no.”

I sigh. “Spence, it’s just an option.”

“I don’t want your money.”

“I know you don’t, and I’m not telling you that this is what you should do. I’m giving you another option you haven’t considered.” She’s quiet but I can see frustration darken her eyes. “Spencer, this is no different than what I do with the band, or even my donation to the Crisis Center. I consider them to be investments.”

“And what if my little start-up isn’t successful?”

“What if the band isn’t successful? And the Crisis Center will never be profitable. Some investments have different returns.”

“So what’s the return on this one?”

“Happiness, just like the others. I get to help those kids. I get to write and play music, and so do my bandmates. This would make you happier, and that’s the best thing I can imagine. All of those are worth more to me than money.”

“Ash,” she looks at me curiously. “I mean, I know that you have a lot of money, but how haven’t you run out by now?”

I laugh again. “Oh, Spence, I have other investments too.”

I pull my phone from my pocket and pull up the website for Ameritrade. I log in and bring up my portfolio before handing it to her. She takes it with a sigh, and as she starts to read, her eyes widen with each swipe until to go any further would pop them from their sockets. She doesn’t even finish before handing it back to me and rolling onto her back to stare up at the ceiling.

I don’t say anything. I almost wish I didn’t have the money. It’s just not worth the rift between us. Nothing is. But if it weren’t for that money, I wouldn’t even be here, so there has to be a way to help her come to grips with it.

“I had no idea,” she finally says.

“I’d have talked with you about it sooner, but it’s always such a sore subject. And I thought you said you were going to let me buy you stuff and stop fighting it.”

She rolls her head towards me. “We agreed that you could help with needs, but that didn’t include things like little red sports cars. Compared to a studio, the sports car is looking better and better.”

I chuckle and snuggle into her again, laying my head on her shoulder. “Spence, this is a need. What affects you affects me too. We’re in this together, right?”

She wraps her arms around me and we’re quiet for a while. The more I think about it the more I resent that this is an issue. I just want it gone.

“Spence, if you really hate the money that much, I’ll sign it over to a charity right now.”

“Are you crazy?”

I nod. “Yep, I’m crazy… about you. And I can’t stand that this is a problem between us. It’s not worth it to me.”

She shifts us so that she can see my face. “You’d really do that,” she asks.

“In a heartbeat,” I say. “We can take Al and your toddler and go live out of our backpacks by the ocean somewhere.”

She gives me one of those adoring smiles where she closes her eyes and slowly shakes her head, but I notice a single tear run down and over her nose. I swipe it away. Her body gets even closer and her knee hooks over my hip. We find ourselves tangled together in one of our favorite positions.

“Spencer, if the money was yours, would you open your own studio?”

“Probably, yeah.”

My voice turns serious. “Regardless of the studio or the sports car or whatever, what can I do to help you reconcile that this is just as much your money as it is mine? Because I’m telling you right now that I will give it away if you can’t. I refuse to have this problem between us when I can do something about it. In fact…”

I grab the phone again and go to the website for the Crisis Center. Spencer watches as I hit the donate button and start to enter the account information from my biggest account, which is roughly twenty-five million dollars.

“Ash…” She takes the phone from me before I can finish keying in the amount. “You’ve proven your point. I get it.”

“Then why stop me? We can end this right now.”

“You earned that money, and we might… need it, one day…”

Oddly enough, for the first time, the whole you could die issue doesn’t seem to hold the same power as it used to. It almost feels… normal, as if imminent death could ever feel normal. I’m glad that she seems to be able to talk about it now, for both of us, especially since medical bills are such a bitch. But then her verbiage catches me.

“We, as in, both of us might need that terrible money?”

She chuckles, but it’s short-lived. She releases a breath, and, as if she’s made some sort of decision, she strokes my cheek. “Ash, promise you won’t get angry with me for what I’m about to say.”

I put my hand over hers. “You can tell me anything, Spence.”

“Promise.”

“Okay, I promise not to get mad at you.”

Fat tears well in her eyes and my heart breaks, even as I don’t understand. “My biggest fear is losing you, and not to illness, but because one day you’re going to wake up and decide that you just don’t want to be with me anymore.” I feel heat flush to my face as I just look at her, but I reign my emotions in. I promised not to get mad at her. “Ash, if I let you do this, I’m putting my livelihood in your hands, not just my heart. And while I don’t have a choice but to be in love with you, I do have a choice in this. And I’m sorry, more sorry than I can even explain, but I’m scared… and it just won’t go away.”

I never, not once, considered that her problem with this is tied to her fear that I’m going to abandon her again. I want to slap myself. I hate that I put these doubts in her heart, that I hurt her this irrevocably. I hate to know that every day she wonders if I’m going to be gone without a word when she wakes up.

“You promised you wouldn’t get mad,” she chokes out.

“I’m not mad at you,” I say breathlessly, trying to sit up, to pull away. “I’m mad at me.”

She doesn’t let me move. “Don’t,” she says. “We’re not allowed to do that anymore, and you know it.”

Those words, the same words that I said to her the night that I showed up at her apartment and laid it all at her feet, they knot in my stomach. Every inch of me feels… repellent. But she’s right, and to push her away physically right now could just make her fears all the worse.

I force myself to press into her instead of pull away, even as I feel wretched and undeserving of being this close to her. I bury my face in her neck and grip her as tight as I can without crushing her. I want to tell her that it’s never going to happen, but she’s already heard all of the reassurances that I have to give, and they’ve clearly done nothing to alleviate her doubts.

“Thank you,” she whispers.

I release a mirthless laugh. “You’re thanking me? I should be thanking you.” I lean up to look at her. “Is there nothing at all that I can do to help you understand that I’m never going to disappear on you again?”

“Just kiss me,” she asks simply.

And so I do, as gently and reverently as I can. I would give anything for her to be able to read my mind and see my heart, to know just how stalwart and dedicated I am to her. I have nothing left of myself to give, but now I realize just how much she’s been withholding. And I can’t even blame her for it. I pour every ounce of devotion that I have into this simple meeting of lips, but it still feels lacking.

I feel lacking…

I pull away and give her a tight-lipped smile. “Spencer, I keep telling you that I want you, but you don’t believe me, so, well, I guess I’ll just keep reminding you until you do.”

“Ash, I do believe you.”

“Then why are you scared?”

“Because things change; people change. What you want now may not be what you want for a lifetime.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s a load of shit, at least when it comes to us, and you know it. I want you, and that’s never going to change.” She sighs. “I need you, Spencer, but you’re not willing to give yourself to me.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Then how is it?” Her eyes sharpen with that challenge, but I don’t let up. I want to challenge her. “What do you want, Spencer?”

“I’m telling you that it’s not that simple.”

“Goddammit, what do you want?”

“I want you!”

She’s raised her voice, but I’m not going to. “For how long, another month or so, a year?” Her eyes soften and I can tell that she’s finally starting to understand. “Seriously, Spencer, for how long?”

“As long as you’ll have me,” she says.

“So you want me, for the rest of your life?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?” She reaches up to touch my face but I intercept her hand. “How do you know, Spencer?”

“Okay,” she says in defeat. “I get it.”

“So what do you want?”

“Ash, I already told. I want you.”

“Well, you’ve got me, all of me. I’m right fucking here. You’re the one who’s holding back, not me.”

“I don’t mean to do that…”

“I know, Spencer. I do, but it’s not going to happen again, and if you just can’t believe that, then I’ll prove it to you, but even then you have to give me half a fucking chance.”

She’s quiet, her eyes searching and wet. “And the studio is me giving you a chance,” she asks after a time.

“No, Spencer. I don’t care if you want that studio or not. But the fact that you’re worried to become financially involved is a big problem. You’re scared that I’m going to pull the rug out from under you, and I get that. I hate it, but I get it. Thing is, it seems like you’re not hearing me, or not listening to me, or maybe even just not paying attention.”

“Ash, of course I listen to you…”

“Okay, well, I keep trying to tell you, to show you, that there is no rug without you. I literally have nothing without you in my life. So what part of that isn’t sticking?”

“Ash, that’s just not true. You told me before the trip that you’d be happy with or without me.”

“Jesus, Spencer, that’s not what I said at all. I told you that my happiness was contingent upon me and no one else, and that’s still true. The point is, losing you means losing a huge piece of myself, because you are part of me. That’s just the way it is. It’s always been that way and it always will be. And if I lose that, well, it would probably look a lot like Erin now. But we’re talking about over the moon, insanely happy versus I don’t hate my life happy. It’s a huge difference.”

“I know what you mean…”

Goddammit… she really does. That’s the problem.

“Then why are you still afraid of me? Don’t you know why I left, how desperate I was to protect you?”

“Yes, I do understand that…”

“Well, that hasn’t changed, Spencer. I’m still just as desperate to protect you as I ever was. Thing is, now I know that the best way to protect you is to be with you. I just need you to let me.”

She takes a deep breath and I reach over for the Kleenex box. She sits up to clean her face and I settle in front of her, unhooking her legs and situating her so that she’s still sitting, but we’re sort of straddling each other at the same time. I rest my arms on her legs and she leans her head against my collarbone.

“Look, Spence, I know that it’s all easier said than done, that rebuilding trust is going to take a lot longer than four months. The thing is, I know what I want and I’m ready to move forward. But if you’re not, I need to know that. I’m really not trying to push you into anything you don’t want, but I’m struggling to figure out what that is exactly. I thought I did, but now I’m not so sure…”

“What do you think I want?”

“Huh uh, nope, no way. I’m not going to tell you what you want.”

She leans back. “I want you, Ash.”

“Okay, well, if you’re not willing to use our money, then I don’t really see how you can do anything about your job, and you can’t abandon your dad, Spence, so that just leaves us.”

“No,” she says vehemently. “That would be a huge mistake.”

“I agree,” I say. “But you can’t keep this up. You’re running yourself ragged.”

We’re both quiet and we both know that I’m right.

“What if I move in with you,” she finally says.

Despite my frustration, I can’t help the smile that forms on my face or the glee I feel. I contort myself over the edge of the bed to reach for the bottom drawer on the nightstand without pulling us apart. My fingers finally find the little box and I sit back up to open it for her. She’s adorably confused as she takes the keychain from inside. It’s a little tube of glitter and she looks at it curiously.

“Spashley,” she reads the stenciling on the side with a quiet chuckle.

I grin at her. “Okay, wait. Hold on. I know it’s really cheesy, but you know how the tabloids like to pair famous couples, like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt became Brangelina?”

She throws her head back and laughs when she understands. “Oh my God, that’s so adorable…” Then she notices the key and all of her laughter dies away. She looks at me. “How long have you had this?”

“So, you remember that day… in your apartment… when we had banana pancakes with your dad… and he wanted us to make babies while he met with his sponsor?”

She shoves me playfully on the shoulder. “You didn’t leave my sight for that whole week.”

“It was the Monday after, when you went back to work. So, yeah, Spence, I want you to move in. However…” That gets her attention back on me. “I don’t see how that will help.”

“Why not?”

“You already practically live here. The only difference is all of your stuff will be here. You’ll still be spending just as much time with me, your dad, and at work.”

She sighs in exasperation.

“Okay, but even if I open a movie studio with your money-”

Our money,” I correct.

“Our muh… Gah, I can’t even say it…”

I roll my eyes, and over-exaggerate my words. “Repeat after me: Ower…”

“Our.”

“Mon-nee.”

“Money.”

“Our money.”

Our… money.”

I lean in and take her face in both of my hands. “You’ll get used to it,” I reassure before kissing her. “Even if it takes a lifetime.”

She rests her forehead to mine. “Ash, even if I did open a studio of my own, that would probably at least double my time at work.”

I shake my head at her. “You’ll be the boss. You’ll pick your staff and set your own hours. And we can build you a mini-studio right here at the house for editing. You’ll only have to go in to actually shoot, and I assume you’ll start small, with documentaries?”

“Yeah, but shooting is time-consuming…”

I shrug. “The point isn’t that you stop doing what you want to do, Spence. This just gives you the freedom to do everything you want to do, including sleep.”

I can tell she’s still not comfortable with it, and to be honest, I’m not certain she ever really will be. But, I’ve already broken my rule not to push her. I need to stop.

“Spence, just think about it. Whatever you decide, I’ll support you.”

“Thank you,” she says, hugging me. We stay this way for a time. “So,” she leans back, holding up the key. “We’re moving in together, officially.”

“Yeah,” I smile. “I think we are.”

She grins back and then something occurs to her and she cocks her head. “What am I going to do about my lease?”

“Well,” I start. “If I had it my way, we’d try to find a tenant or buy out the lease and get your dad set up in a super nice place, but something tells me he won’t let me do that.” She shakes her head. “So, he takes it over and we will continue to pay your share of the bills.”

“I’ll do that,” she breathes out. “It’s not like I can help out around here anyway.”

“Okay, how about this: we move into your apartment and your dad sets up here? Then we can split the bills fifty-fifty.”

“Ash,” she groans out. “I’m sorry…”

“Or we can just sell the house and do something else entire-”

She puts her hand over my mouth. “I said I’m sorry.”

I pull her hand away and link our fingers. “Me too, Spence… So, which is it going to be?”

“I’ll move in here.”

I shake my head. “Not if you’re going to hate it or resent me, you’re not.”

“I love it here, Ash. I just feel…”

“Like a leech…, or scared you’ll be homeless when I sell the house and move to Kathmandu without a word?”

She just looks at me dejectedly.

“Jesus, Spencer, this should be something to celebrate, not… argue and worry about.” Maybe I was wrong about this. Maybe this isn’t what she really wants. I take the keychain and put it back in the box. Closing the lid feels far too final. “Spence, I don’t want you here if it’s going to be a problem. It all kind of feels…”

“Ruined,” she says quietly.

I just nod.

“I’m an idiot,” she says.

“You’re not an idiot, Spencer. But you are a stubborn worry-wart.”

“I don’t know how to fix it.”

“Me neither.”

I put the box in her hands and close her fingers around it. “I’m here, our life together is here, when you want it.”

She starts to quietly leak tears again, and I can’t help but join her.

Please don’t think I don’t want this, Ash.”

“Please don’t think I don’t want you, Spence,” I counter.

We just stare at each other from two different sides of a crossroads. I’d follow her in any direction, but I swear she just won’t let me. This conversation has officially become circular, utterly unproductive, hurtful, frustrating, and worst of all – I’m helpless to fix it. She’s not, and I’m fairly pissed at her for picking this one thing, the most important thing, to be inactive about. But then she went through this with me and my issues. I have to be patient with her. She has every reason not to trust me. And it’s here that I finally understand why she eventually gave up. I kind of want to do the same. It would be so easy to just throw my hands in the air and leave things as they are, with nothing actually resolved. But that’s the very reason that I can’t stop calling Paula, that I can’t stop telling her how much I want her, that I can’t stop putting the issues in her hands until she actually starts to tinker with them.

She fought when I wouldn’t, and now it’s my turn. A random idea strikes me but I’m not going to voice it. She’ll kill me if I do it, but I think I’m going to anyway. In fact, that gives me all the more incentive.

“Maybe…,” she starts and then stops, looking at me again. “Ash, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to trust this. It feels too…”

“Right,” I ask hopefully.

She shakes her head. “No, more than that. I want to say perfect, but that’s not it either. It’s too… good to be true?”

“But it is true, Spence, and it is good, at least for me…”

“Ash,” she breathes out, leaning her forehead to mine. “You’re the best part of my life.”

“What does that mean, Spence? I’m the best part of your life, but then you just can’t trust me. What do I do with that?”

“I guess… I’ll just have to, I don’t know…, fake it until I make it?”

“That doesn’t make any more sense.”

She looks down at the box in her hands. “It means, that I’m moving in,” she says determinedly, almost threateningly.

“You better be sure,” I warn. “I will not allow anything to threaten our relationship, Spencer, not money, not family, not illness, not bigotry, not religion, not emotional hang-ups, not me, and not even you.”

She meets my eyes again and I swear it feels like she’s trying to light me on fire.

“I’m moving in,” she says again.

I swallow and nod. “That means this is your house. Do you understand that?”

“Yes,” she smiles. “I understand.” She reaches up and smooths her hand across my cheek. “You’re very sexy when you’re all… take-charge.”

I chuckle and her thumb swipes some of the moisture off of my face. For fuck’s sake, I love her. I love her so much that I’m not certain whether to be thankful or resentful of it. My life would have probably been easier if I had found someone to love just enough, instead of like this. But easy was just never in the cards for me, and I’m definitely grateful to have found her.

“So now what,” I ask.

“Pie,” she says with a smile. “And then a wedding.”

I laugh and she leans in to kiss me one last time before excitedly pulling me from the bed.


We find ourselves back in Ohio for the wedding, and I have to say, that I was nervous when we first pulled up in front of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Chapel. It’s definitely not the location that I would have chosen for the ceremony, but the Carlin’s spent every Sunday in this place, back when they were a functioning, happy family, so there’s a certain amount of sentimentality on this hallowed ground.

Despite the beauty of the building, I wasn’t sure if I might burst into flames when I first stepped beyond the doors, but I didn’t. For all of the problems that I have with organized religion, I have to admit that there is something to be said for the resulting architecture. The smooth arches and colorful windows provide a soothing, peaceful feeling, even if the artistic subject matter is a little terrifying. Fortunately, it’s easy to tune out.

We were led into a small space by a soft-spoken youth in white robes. Seating is a free-for-all, given that there are only about twenty people here. An equally pliant older man stands at the front where golden candelabras flank him on either side. They add a soft glow to the stone of the space, making it feel warm, inviting, and elegant.

I had already met Chelsea’s parents years before, but it was good to see them again. They seem to be doing well. The only people who aren’t immediate or extended family are a few of the happy couple’s mutual friends from college. Other than that, it’s the same people as always. Even Paula and Glen showed.

Mr. C and Clay are waiting at the front next to the priest, looking rather dashing in their black tuxedos, and Spencer looked gorgeous in her simple slip of a dress, one I’ve seen her wear before. But she’s with Chelsea now, though both should be making an appearance very soon. This isn’t a wedding you’d see in bridal magazine. Neither Chelsea nor Clay wanted anything elaborate or intimidating. They just want to be together, and this is another step in that direction.

They plan to live in Ohio, to defy the call to go West that the rest of us succumbed to. When I learned this little tid-bit, I didn’t hesitate to look up the Carlin house listing and make an offer. Of course, mine was the best offer. The expressions on their faces were hilarious when I gave them the deed to their new home after dinner the night before. And while Spencer knew nothing of this before the big reveal, I could tell that she was relieved to know her childhood home would remain in her family.

The simple instrumental music that’s been playing switches over into something sweeter, all violins and cellos, and everyone stands and sets their eyes to the back of the room. Madison and Baby Mac are at the back entrance. The four-year-old is just too cute in her little white dress, and Madison helps her scatter the pedals from her basket as they make their way to the front. Spencer follows behind them, her red-rimmed eyes making me smile. She’s been a wreck all day, but it’s from happiness, so I can’t help but love her for it. Fresh tears shine in her eyes as she casually touches my hand in passing, and I hold onto her fingers as long as I can.

The music shifts into the bridal march, and Chelsea looks magnificent in white, a gleaming smile on her face as she and her father saunter towards the slightly raised pulpit. Given how tight her grip is on her father’s arm, I get the impression that she’d run up the aisle if she could. But then she’s there, and her father’s letting her go. Clay’s nervous face finally relents into a matching grin when he takes her hand and brings them together in front of the priest. The two of them share a laugh at some unspoken joke that only they know.

The ceremony itself is by the book, all ‘dearly beloved’ this and ‘with this ring, I thee wed’ that. I’m happy for them, truly, but I can’t really seem to pay attention to what’s being said. My eyes find Spencer and I just look at her. I can’t help but feel a deep sense of longing, which is nothing new, but in this environment it’s tenfold. It has nothing to do with the church, obviously, or even the ceremony itself, but with the fact that I want Spencer in this way. I want to publically announce my love for her, my dedication to her. I want to look into her eyes and make promises before any who care to listen. I want to lay myself on an alter before her and find salvation in her acceptance.

It’s the thing I’ve always wanted, and I only ever wanted it with her. I’m not even sure why. I never really saw marriage itself as anything too important. At the end of the day, it’s just a piece of paper and a bunch of state-certified contracts. I suppose that most girls fantasize about their weddings, but I think it’s for all of the wrong reasons. It’s something we’re taught to want, inundated with, but I never had that. My young life was anything but typical. I suppose I’m grateful for this fact, because to want it for the sheer wanting of it seems rather empty to me. I guess that’s why I appreciate the simplicity of this particular ceremony. These two people, my family, want this for the right reasons.

Spencer’s the same way, and if anyone should have wanted it for the wrong reasons, it would be her. Her mother did plant those ideas in her head. She was inundated with God and the sanctity of marriage just like most women across the world. She was supposed to find a decent, god-fearing man and settle into a life full of babies and dinners, and probably even some semblance of happiness. I’m sure she thought about it, especially when she was younger, but she didn’t build her life around it like Paula wanted her to. Marriage itself was never her goal. A love like ours most definitely was though.

She chose me, knowing that I wasn’t what she was supposed to choose. I most definitely didn’t fit any of those carefully laid molds that her nuclear life laid the foundation for. I was never decent or god-fearing, and I’m most certainly not a man. I was homeless. I was penniless. I was cynical and jaded, and by some amazing miracle, she loved me despite it all.

Clay kisses Chelsea and everyone claps, and I hasten to join in. Spencer chooses this moment to look over at me, and by the look in her eyes, I get the feeling that she does want this with me. But then I can’t be certain. Our last big conversation planted doubt in me, and I don’t know what to do with it. She swipes at her eyes as everyone closes in on the newly-weds to congratulate them. And I see her happiness dim when Paula doesn’t even acknowledge her on the way to hug the next generation of Carlins. I see just how much Spencer is giving up by being with me. She’ll never have that. Paula won’t show if such a ceremony between us does manage to occur. She won’t hug Spencer and partake in that joy. But then Mr. C takes her in his arms and holds her fiercely, and my love for him completely bottoms out, because I know that he is filling the gap that Paula is so skillful at broadening.

I just wish I knew if this is what she wants, at least with me, because I’m ready. I’m beyond ready. I want to shout my love for her from the rooftops. Joy is so hard to find in this world and any manifestation of it should be celebrated, especially when I know that this particular brand is pure. And that single thought pulls me back from my doubt. My love for Spencer is utterly pure. It’s immaculate. To ask her with that doubt lingering, to lay myself at her feet, it wouldn’t be to hear her answer. It would simply be honesty. It’s not about what I can get from her, but what I can give of me. I can’t help but wonder what it is that I’m waiting for.

A ring?

Paula’s acceptance?

A magical cure to Spencer’s doubts?

A magical cure to my own?

All of them seem so trivial in the face of what I’ve known all along and only just now realized. Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by good, old Billy Shakes, but I believe that’s how he said it, and I can’t help but believe him.

The two of them retrieve me as everyone follows the couple out to their waiting limo. There is no reception or cake or any of the other trimmings one might expect. They simply plan to go, to start their lives together, and I envy them, even as I can’t fathom begrudging them. Bird seed is provided by the ushers as we all gather on the stoop of the little, white church and hurl it at them. They run, laughing and happy, only stopping long enough to hug and say their goodbyes. Chelsea throws her bouquet from the sunroof as the limo pulls away from the curb. And I swear she threw it at Spencer on purpose. Both of us just look at the slightly dented flowers in Spencer’s hands, and Chelsea’s resulting laughter doesn’t die out until the car is a good one hundred feet away.

My eyes meet Spencer’s and we smile at Chelsea’s not-so-subtle demand. But then she leans in and gives me the sweetest kiss that I think I’ve ever experienced, and that’s saying something. It’s brief, bright, virtuous in its sentiment of honest love. It’s the kind of kiss where you close your eyes, not by rote, but because something about it is so sacred that to be anything but reverent is to do an unspeakable injustice, to commit blasphemy. She rests her forehead to mine as it ends, and I leave my eyes closed as I bow my head to her in silent communion.

But then I hear a grunt and turn to see Glen stalking off, a flask appearing in his hand. And Paula… she’s staring at us. I’m quick to believe that there’s blind hatred in that expression, but to be perfectly honest, I’m just not sure. I can’t tell what’s going on in her mind. I know that she disapproves, vehemently so. But I can’t be sure if that’s what she’s trying to convey just now. If I had to give her expression a name, I’d call it… shock, or scrutiny, or maybe confusion?

It’s extremely disconcerting to see eyes so like Spencer’s look so sharp, so unforgiving. I promise here and now to never let Spencer become that way, to do everything in my power to ensure that hers remain soft, open, and lit with her distinct preternatural fire. Paula turns to leave but she pauses. And I think for a moment that she might come back, but then she follows after Glen and I’m left feeling utterly confused.

Spencer takes my hand, gives me a sad smile, and we follow Mr. C to the rental car. It’s going to be a pensive flight home, I’m sure.


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Continued in Chapter 18 – Crystal Cosmo Ballgazine

Chapter 16 – The Rabbit Hole

The door opens just in time for me to glimpse Kyla unhooking her heels from the stirrups. She lays back, the paper beneath her crunching, and the nurse smiles at me before shutting the door. There’s an antiseptic smell left in the wake of its closing, and despite the happy occasion for this visit, I feel my face scrunch up in distaste. I hate that smell, and I hate doctors’ offices, however necessary they are.

Kyla notices me and beams, motioning me forward. Aiden’s at her head, one of her hands held in both of his. The doctor’s gloves snap as she pulls them off to throw them away. Clearly she’s done with the messy bits. She washes at the small sink and I step up to Kyla, keeping more distance than I’d like because of Aiden. But then I can’t blame him for being the primary support. His entire life is lying on a table being poked and prodded.

We have that much in common at least.

“You ready,” the doctor asks brightly.

Kyla looks to me and I fumble for my phone, hitting the facetime button before it can even finish connecting.

“Hi, Ashley.” I can tell that Christine’s anxious. “You with Kyla?”

“Hey, mom,” Kyla says, and I point the camera towards her.

“Hey, honey,” Christine’s tone softens. “How are both my babies holding up?”

I stiffen slightly. I’ve never heard Christine this way, not even when we were younger, let alone now. Or maybe I hadn’t noticed? I try to recall recent interactions, and while there was definite love and affection towards Kyla, I don’t remember anything quite this… intimate. My memory fails me and I can’t determine if this is new or if I’m just now realizing it, which happens to me a lot now in all kinds of situations. I’m prone to believe that I was just oblivious. But I didn’t think Christine capable of that kind of mushiness, and maybe she’s not, at least with me. Either way, I can’t help but feel like I’m intruding.

Kyla looks to the doctor expectantly, and with a pat to Kyla’s knee, she speaks to the phone. “They’re both healthy and right on track. We’re about to get some pictures.”

“I’m so glad to hear that,” Christine says, in obvious relief.

“I really wish you were here, mom.”

“Me too, honey.”

My tongue feels thick and I swallow reflexively. Unbidden emotions are par the course now too. But even if this is new, why does it bother me so much? Aiden’s eyes meet mine for a moment, and there’s a strange light in them. He’s a little green around the gills, which is understandable, but there’s something there, a scrutiny, and while that’s nothing new either, this time it feels less judgmental, and maybe more… understanding? I can’t really tell, but for the first time since he was thrust unwillingly into my life, I swear I see him lower his guard a little bit.

I break the eye contact. It’s making me uncomfortable. Fortunately the doctor is tucking the sheet down to expose Kyla’s baby bump and that gives me something else to focus on. It’s definitely not entirely vegan burgers. She’s not huge, at least not yet. It’s only been about four-and-a-half months, so this is only the beginning, but I get the first glimpse of my niece or nephew… finally.

It’s an odd feeling to miss someone you’ve never met.

“I’m sorry, I know this is a little cold,” the doctor says as she squeezes a thick, clear jelly onto Kyla’s stomach. “But it’ll make finding the baby easier.”

Kyla hisses and I smirk because I’m a sadistic bastard. The doctor picks up a little plastic triangle that looks a lot like a tiny vacuum extension and moves it around in the jelly. My sister seems to relax as the petroleum warms. But Aiden and I both jump when we hear a frantic, static beat fill the room.

It’s Kyla’s turn to smirk because we’re a pair of sadistic bastards.

“It’s okay,” the doctor says. “That’s the baby’s heartbeat.”

“I can hear it,” Christine says.

Kyla and Aiden share an exultant smile, and each of us focuses on the screen next to the doctor, even the camera. I can’t see anything but a grainy, black blob that wobbles as the doctor moves the wand. And then I see a little gray spot appear in the black space, the small shape getting bigger and more defined until I can actually start to make out human-like shapes, most noticeably the spine, the head, and two big, round eye sockets.

The baby would inherit Kyla’s giant head. Poor thing…

“Is that the baby,” Aiden asks in bewilderment.

“Yep,” the doctor confirms, her eyes intent on the screen as she adjusts the wand with one hand and starts to point things out with a pen in the other. “There’s the head, an arm…” She adjusts again. “The other arm, two legs, toes, fingers, and…” She hones in on another spot and I start to count everything but it doesn’t add up. I count again and I swear to Christ that baby has a tail. “The doctor grins at Aiden and Kyla. “Do you want to know the sex?”

They look to each other for a moment before Kyla blurts, “Yes!”

I immediately know the answer.

That’s not a tail.

“It’s a boy,” the doctor confirms, pointing at the tail.

“That’s my boy,” Aiden says in disbelief, and I can see the tension in him release when Kyla puts her other hand over his.

“We’re having a boy,” she says in a thick voice.

He brushes the hair from her forehead and leans in to kiss the spot before they both start to giggle. Never in my life have I heard Aiden giggle.

“Did you hear that, mom? We’re having a boy!”

“That’s wonderful, baby,” she says, and I can hear the longing in her voice. “Get lots of pictures for me.”

“We will,” the doctor reassures.

It grows quiet for a long time as the doctor starts to highlight specific areas on the screen and click around in the software with practiced hands. And Aiden and Kyla seem to be in their own little bubble.

“Ashley,” Christine’s voice calls to me. “Can we speak privately?”

“Um, sure…,” I say, turning the phone towards me again.

“I’ll call you later, mom,” Kyla calls out.

“Okay, honey. Love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Kyla smiles at me. “I love you too, Ash.”

Christ, I feel like a Jello mold. “I love you too, Kyla.”

It’s a strange relief when I exit the room, taking the phone off of facetime and putting it to my ear.

“We’re alone,” I say.

“Thank you for doing that.”

“Of course.”

It was just a phone call…

“I wanted to talk with you about Kyla.”

“Okay.” Apprehension twists in my gut. “What about her?”

“Well, I want to be with her, at least until the baby’s born, and maybe a little while after. I wanted to invite her and Aiden to come stay with me here, but I know that she’ll have difficulty with that if you aren’t on board. Of course, both of you should come, but I wasn’t sure you’d be interested. So… I’m asking.”

I slump against the wall. I know that she doesn’t hate me and if she is still angry at me, it’s not nearly as volatile as it was. But I get the feeling that she’s only inviting me because she knows that Kyla won’t do it without me, or at least my blessing, and I believe that’s what she wants me to give.

She wants me to cut Kyla loose to come home to her.

Even if I did decide to take her up on her offer, genuine or not, she’s right in the fact that I can’t leave, not now. Spencer’s here, and there’s definitely no way that Spencer can go with me. Mr. C has started helping Shirley and Sam at the center to put the finishing touches on the remodel. He’s in therapy and he’s almost three months sober. Spencer also has her job, and while she doesn’t actually need the money, she loves it and working is part of her ethic. The band also has a couple of shows at the Troubadour coming up, and I cannot, by any means, fuck those up.

“Christine,” I say, hating the sound of my voice. “I’ll tell her to go.” I hate that idea more. “I’m sure she’d rather be there with you anyway.”

That’s an even worse thought.

“Ashley,” she sighs out. “I don’t think you understand. Kyla won’t come if you don’t. You could set her on your curb and throw rocks at her. She’s still not going to leave you.”

I shrug. “Maybe not before, but she might now that-”

Oh shit. I forgot to call Christine and tell her…

“Now that what,” she asks.

“Um, well, some things have happened.”

“Is everything okay?”

She sounds worried and I want to slap myself. So much had been happening. I was in a stupor. But then I could have told her when she called to wish me a happy birthday. But I just couldn’t bring myself to talk to her much, at least not about personal things. Honestly, I know that I’ve been avoiding her because it freaked me out when I accidently called her mom.

“Christine, I’m fine. Actually, I’m so much better than fine. Um, Spencer and I, sort of, reconciled.”

“Ashley, that’s… well, I’m happy for you, both of you.”

“Thank you.”

“How long?”

“A little over two months,” I say.

“I… see.”

“Christine, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I was sort of… out of it. Everything was happening so fast, and-”

“Ashley, it’s fine. You don’t have to explain. I’m just glad you’re happy.” God, I feel like an asshole. “So I guess that answers my question.”

“I’d really like to, Christine, but I have a couple of shows booked that I can’t miss, Spencer has a job and her dad’s here, and sober. And as much as I’d like to come there, I don’t want to be away from Spencer for five months, at least not right now, when it’s all still new.”

“I understand.”

“Christine, listen, if I tell Kyla she’ll come.”

“No,” she says. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Why? If you want Kyla, I’m pretty sure I can get her to you without much hassle.”

This sucks. I don’t want Kyla to leave, especially now. But I also don’t want Christine left out.

“Really, Ashley, it’s not a big deal. It would have been nice, with both of you. It was just a thought. Thank you for considering it.”

So what, we’re a packaged deal? Yeah, I guess we are. We certainly always were. I know that Christine deserves to be part of this, probably even more than I do. I pinch the bridge of my nose, my frustration getting the better of me.

“Christine, will you please stop treating me so… professionally,” I snap. “You’re my parent, not a goddamn customer service rep.”

The line goes quiet and I bang my head against the wall behind me, causing a nurse and a heavily pregnant patient to give me a wide berth as they pass.

“How else am I supposed to treat you,” she finally asks. “We hardly know each other, and it’s not like you keep me in the loop.”

I deserved that.

“Well, it needs to stop, not just for you, but for me too.”

“I agree,” she says quietly. “I want to be with both of you, Ashley. Is that personal enough for you?”

Be careful what you ask for…

But then I didn’t ask for that, did I? I guess I kind of did. And damn if I don’t feel a smile form on my face, though I’m not even sure why. All I know is that I’d like to be with both of them throughout this ordeal too. That doesn’t change the circumstances though.

I can’t leave.

“So listen, is there anything tying you to Ohio?”

“No…,” she says.

“Then why don’t you just come and stay here with us? You can stay indefinitely, as far as I’m concerned.”

“I don’t want to intrude…”

“Christine,” I groan out.

It’s a quiet laugh, but it’s a laugh all the same. “Okay. Thank you.”


“Honey, I’m home.” I look up from the course catalog to see Mr. C grinning at me from the now open door. “What, not whom you were expecting?”

Spencer squeezes past him shaking her head, and he winks before heading to the kitchen with the take-out bags.

“You’re here,” I say. “Finally.”

I let the course catalog drop to my stomach and throw my arms out to dramatically demand attention. She approaches the chaise portion of my sectional where I’ve been stretched out for the better part of two hours, and braces her arms on either side of me to lean in and give me a warm, gentle kiss.

My hands find her elbows and slide up to her shoulders before eventually linking behind her neck.

“Hi,” she says against my mouth.

“Hi yourself.”

She leans into my ear. “Do you have any idea how totally hot you look in those glasses?”

I snort. They’re simple, black Ray Ban reading glasses, not a single embellishment unless you count the little silver studs where the lens frames meet the ear pieces. If anything, they make me look like a nerd. I’m fairly certain my hair is a mess too. I don’t even remember brushing it today.

But if that turns her on, who am I to protest?

“No. But you’ll show your totally hot girlfriend just how much later, right?” She kisses me again, deeper this time, and I’m a little dazed when she pulls back. “Or now…”

It’s her turn to grin.

“Come on, love birds. Before it gets co-… room temperature.”

I may have forgotten that Mr. C was here.

Spencer pulls me up and leads me to the kitchen island where I make sure my stool is so close to hers that I’m nearly sitting in her lap. We dig into the sushi, and I’m forced to consider that I really need to get a dining table. We agreed to do this weekly, but we tend to eat together almost every night unless one of us has another commitment, which is conspicuously Mr. C more often than not. I enjoy it, immensely, and it would be nice to have chairs with things like backrests and cushions.

I only wish that Kyla were around more. She’s essentially moved out. Even Sheezus has been relocated. Maybe comfort and food, or comfort food, would entice her more?

“So,” Mr. C says, as per usual. “How was everyone’s day?”

“Same as always,” Spencer starts first. “Lily said that she really liked my editing choices for that little niche documentary. I might be a contender for one of their feature length indie films. They’re in preproduction now.”

“Spence, that’s amazing,” Mr. C says. I rub my hand on her thigh, my mouth too full to convey my congratulations audibly. “When will you know?”

“Probably next week,” she says.

She looks over at me and laughs, extending her thumb and swiping it at the corner of my mouth before licking the finger clean. I swallow hard, both because it’s my turn to update everyone and because that simple, innocent action didn’t strike me as simple or innocent.

I realize they’re both looking at me, waiting, and so I clear my throat. “Oh, uh, I woke up, played some guitar, worked with Shirley and Sam on the Halloween party, and then sat on my ass looking at that course catalog.” I throw a thumb in the direction of the couch. “Same as always.”

They both chuckle.

“Oh to be independently wealthy,” Mr. C says.

I roll my eyes. “Oh, please. Both of you are exactly as wealthy as I am. You just can’t seem to deal with it.”

The two of them look at each other, sharing a knowing smile. I’m right. They know it. And not a soul among us would have it any other way, except me, of course.

“Have you decided,” he asks me.

“Not yet. The best Computer Science program in California is through Stanford, but that’s five hours away. So I’m leaning towards UCLA. It’s not the best, but it’s definitely decent.”

“That’s a big decision, and Stanford would be worth the move in my opinion, especially since it would only be a few years. What’s your deadline on a decision?”

“December first,” I say.

He smiles. “You still have a little time to figure it out then.”

I nod. Spencer’s expression is pensive and I get the feeling that we’ll be talking about this later.

“So,” Mr. C says, picking up a California Roll and changing the subject. “I got a job.”

We both stare at him for a moment.

“Dad, that’s great,” Spencer says, reaching across the island to touch his hand.

Of course, my mouth is yet again full of food, so I just nod my agreement.

Sushi has the worst timing…

“What is it,” Spencer asks.

“Well, you know I’ve been helping out at the Crisis Center?” We both nod. “Shirley and Sam offered me a job today. It pays next to nothing, but I’ll be doing what I love again.” His eyes gleam. “It was a little out of the blue. I’m only a couple of months into recovery, and they’re taking a risk on me…”

They both look at me, and for once, the scrutiny makes me blush.

“Don’t look at me,” I say around a mouthful of tuna as I lift my hands. “I didn’t say a word to Shirley or Sam.”

It’s not a lie. I didn’t say anything. They may have received Mr. C’s resume anonymously through the mail though…

“Huh,” he says, and I can tell he doesn’t quite believe me. “Well still, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have met them.”

Spencer rests a hand on the small of my back and leans in to kiss me, my cheeks still loaded like a panicked squirrel that procrastinated right up until the first day of winter. It has to be the least sexy kiss of all time, but damn if it doesn’t still curl my toes.

“We need to get them something, though I have no idea what,” Spencer says, taking the last piece of sashimi. My eyes narrow at her. “But what exactly do you get the people who gave you everything?”

She plunks that last morsel of deliciousness in her mouth, adoring me with her eyes to get her point across. And goddammit, I have no choice but to let it go when she looks at me like that and says things like that.

“A fruit basket does seem a little paltry,” Mr. C jokes. “We’ll think of something, Spence.”

I go to snag another sushi roll but everything’s gone except the pineapple. I sigh. I’m not even hungry anymore, but I just love sushi so much. Nothing compares to the real stuff, of course, but then Japan is a bit far to go for takeout.

And then I remember, excitement flooding my system. “I almost forgot,” I blurt out. “The Valkyrie came today!”

Both of them cock their heads at me in an identical way.

“A mythological, Norse amazon on a flying horse,” Spencer says in monotone.

I chuckle. “No, Spence. Remember? The journal?”

Understanding lights in her eyes and I see her gulp. “The motorcycle?”

I grin. “Hell yes! It took forever, but it’s finally here.” I wag my eyebrows at her. “Want to go for a ride tonight?”

“You got a motorcycle,” Mr. C says, and I turn my grin on him. “You’ve taken the test and passed,” he asks, the dad in him coming out.

My grin falls. “I mean, not here, but in Japan, there was a tutorial…”

“A tutorial…” Spencer’s voice is disapproving. “Like what, you watched a YouTube video before you got on a two-wheeled death machine?”

“Well, there’s that…, but then they show you how to ride it. It takes about a day. It’s easy, Spence, and unbelievably fun.”

Yet another look indicates that we’ll be talking about this later as well.

“So…,” Mr. C starts, again changing the subject, and I realize just how grateful I am that he’s here during these moments where I unwittingly stumble into a Spencer trap. “Right now isn’t the best timing, but I have something important to talk with you about, Ash, and I assume you’ll want to know right away. And… well, I don’t think there’s ever going to be an easy way to tell you.” This has both mine and Spencer’s attention. “It has to do with your adoption,” he explains.

My mouth falls open a little as my mind tries to catch up. That was an unexpected turn in the conversation. It’s been over a decade. What could there possibly be to talk about at this point?

“Is it something… bad,” I ask tentatively.

Did Christine try to give me back?

He sighs, and I don’t see that as a good sign. “That would be determined by how you feel about it, I suppose, but before we go into detail, I need to know if you’re okay with Spencer being here. I’m no longer your case worker, but by law, I still can’t disclose details to a third party without legal consent.”

He gives Spencer a regretful look, but her attention is entirely focused me, a worried expression on her face.

“Oh, yeah, of course I’m okay with that. I’d just tell her anyway…”

Spencer takes my hand and entwines our fingers.

Mr. C nods. “I thought so, but I had to ask. Okay,” he starts, drawing the word out. “Well, one of my old colleagues at the office called me a couple of months ago. They know that you and I are close.” He stalls, or maybe he can’t seem to find the words, so he gets to his feet and pulls a stool up to my free side to take my other hand. “Ash, one of your family members has reached out.”

I feel a flood of shock and panic race through me.

“They didn’t give him any information, of course,” he hastens to explain. “That would be illegal, but they are allowed to inform the legal guardian, or in this case you, since you’re of age.”

‘Him…’

That word rattles around in my head, forcing all of the other thoughts into the background like they’re white noise instead of roaring lions. I was ten years old before I gave up on the prospect of a loving father. I was twenty-two years old when I discovered that I’d always had one. And now… I’m twenty-three and it would appear that there’s never going to be an answer to this question, never mind the fact that I was perfectly happy with the twenty-two year old conclusion.

Why would I even want to tamper with that, to go there?

Do I?

“Who was it,” I croak out and Spencer squeezes my fingers.

“Ash, there’s no easy way to tell you this, but you have a brother.”

Brother…?

“A twin brother…”

twin… brother?

“What…?”

“Hey,” he says. “Take a deep breath. He doesn’t know anything about you other than your first name and that you exist. And he won’t, unless you want him to, okay? This is just information you didn’t have before. You don’t have to do anything with it. Nothing’s actually changed.”

I do as he says, closing my eyes and breathing deep. It helps to shake off some of the paralysis, even as it turns the sushi in my stomach into a sour lump. So it wasn’t my father. I still don’t have one. No, no, I do. He’s sitting right next to me.

“That’s better,” he says.

“What… does he want,” I ask. “And how can you be sure that he’s really my brother?”

He squeezes my hand. “When they told me, I didn’t believe it either. I thought he might be a con artist who found your name somewhere and was trying to lean on you because you’re wealthy. But then they sent me a picture of him, Ashley, and… well, he looks identical to you.”

A brother. An identical twin brother. This has got to be a joke.

“I contacted your… biological mother. After some convincing, she confirmed that she gave birth to twins, but the male went with the father and she took you. I still didn’t believe it, so I called your brother and spoke with him myself. He agreed to a DNA test. I paid for it and I got the results this afternoon. It’s ninety-nine point eight percent conclusive. Ash, he’s your brother, and his name is Riley Woods.”

There are too many feelings and questions banging around inside of me to even know where to begin to ask, let alone cope. This all feels so surreal.

“Can I see it,” I ask, though I don’t have any recollection of the thought forming and I almost wish that it hadn’t.

Mr. C walks to his satchel on the counter and pulls out a manila envelope. Inside are the DNA results. And he’s right, they are conclusive, but this isn’t what I needed to see, even as it’s the most important thing.

“No, I meant his picture. Can I see it?”

He sits down next to me again and pulls his phone from his pocket. A few swipes of a finger and he’s handing it to me. At first I think that I’m looking into a mirror. His face, his coloring, his eyes, even his lips, they’re exactly like mine. Only his hair is short and there’s a little bit on his jaw. By the looks of his clothing and the car he’s standing in front of, I’d say he’s not exactly hurting for cash either, so there goes the extortion excuse.

“My God,” Spencer breathes, looking over my shoulder.

I hand the phone back, unable or unwilling to look at it anymore; I’m not sure. I just know that my mind can’t seem to absorb what it’s being told, what it’s seeing, like it’s fighting it or refusing it, even as it’s clawing to know more.

“So… my father…”

Is sitting right next to me…

“Is alive and well,” he says.

And sitting right next to me.

“And as it turns out, he’s… famous. Or he used to be. Have you ever heard of Purple Venom?”

“The cheesy 80’s hair band,” I ask incredulously.

He nods. “The lead singer: Raife Woods.”

I search my mind and come up with a vague image of an older guy with tons of eyeliner and stark white, shaggy hair, a prepubescent blonde on each arm. I’ve seen him a time or two at the Troubadour. He’s ridiculous. All of this is ridiculous. I snort, which becomes a hesitant chuckle, and then a full blown guffaw. I’m laughing alone. The expressions being thrown my way epitomize abject confusion but that only seems to make it all the more hilarious. It’s like there are only two options: laugh or cry, and something in me chooses the former, especially as I consider that he’s been living in the same fucking city this entire fucking time. Hell, he might be a neighbor.

“Ash,” Spencer says, but I can’t hear her. It’s like she’s underwater. Or maybe I am.

The laughing won’t stop. I have tears streaming down my face, my stomach is in a vice-like grip, and I can barely breathe. And then it shifts, becoming worse. I find myself doubled over as I’m left helpless to a sob that steals what little is left of my sanity. I have no idea why I’m reacting this way. I can’t pick out any emotions to reason with or soothe. My mind is a convoluted mess so I turn myself into the tide and just let it happen.

It owns me, completely.

I have no idea how long it lasts, but when hiccups set in, I start to calm down. I’m somehow in my bed cradled against Spencer’s chest, the house dark and unusually quiet as I start to become aware again.

“Did I… black out,” I ask.

The hand running through my hair pauses and then continues. “I don’t think so,” Spencer says lovingly. “But you were… inconsolable. We had to carry you to the bed.”

I release a shaky breath. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t you dare be sorry. None of this is your fault.”

“Did your dad leave?”

A tender kiss finds the crown of my head. “No, he’s in the spare room. He wanted to stay close in case you needed him.”

“What time is it?”

I feel her crane her neck towards the nightstand. “A little after midnight.”

Silence descends and Spencer’s hold on me gets a little tighter, her hand continuing in my hair. I’ve lost about three hours to this nonsense. I consider everything that I now know: my father knew and never cared, at least about me. But he did care about my brother, and tears start to well in my eyes again. At least I can breathe through it this time even if I can’t yet stop it, especially when I consider what this means for Kyla.

“How am I going to tell Kyla,” I whisper.

“We’ll do it together,” she says.

“She’s pregnant. What if she reacts like I did? It could hurt the baby.”

“Do you want to keep it from her,” she asks.

There’s no judgment in her voice, but I get the feeling that she already knows the answer.

“No,” I say. “She’d kill me if I did.”

She squeezes me again. “I think she’ll be okay, Ash. Knowing her, she probably won’t care. Kyla either knows and loves you, or… doesn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

Her sigh tickles across my scalp. “I mean that she values who’s in her life. Other people just don’t matter to her, at least as far as them impacting her life. She doesn’t have the same attachments to her biological family that you do. She was just a baby. You and Christine were her world. Your world was these people, and because of that, your world was so much worse.”

I think about that and I believe that she’s right. Kyla only remembers little snippets of our life before the adoption, like blurry snapshots, and most of them center on me. But I can still remember that cloying smell, feel each snapping strike, hear each harsh word. I can still remember the sheer struggle to eat, to feel safe, and the utter indifference to that struggle as I took care of another child. The disease of those formative years still clings to my very bones and will forever try to kill me.

I used to fantasize about my father riding in to save me, loving me and looking for me, like I’d been stolen away against his will, or some other trope that would make my situation even marginally more bearable. The idea of him gave me the hope of escape, an escape that never came. But Kyla did escape, and at an age where she wasn’t ruined.

But I was too old, irrevocably ruined…

“What do I do with this, Spencer?”

“Whatever you need to do,” she says. “I’m with you either way.”

“I don’t know what I need.”

“That’s okay, Ash. You don’t have to figure it out right now.”

My mind works hard to come up with something useful, searching for what it needs in this very moment because to look any further is far too overwhelming. The first thing that emerges is the unrelenting comfort and love of the woman holding me. This thought slows some of those fresh tears. The greatest of all needs has been met, and I’m so beyond grateful for it. But then I realize that I really need to use the restroom, and this is also comforting, because while it’s small, it’s something easy to focus on, something I have control over.

I hate to do it, but I shift to pull away from Spencer only to find that my body is utterly lethargic. I feel like I’ve been hit by an eighteen-wheeler. Moving a leg is like dragging a two ton anvil. Spencer shifts with me, standing and helping me to my feet. She doesn’t leave my side as I enter the en suite, drop my drawers, and gracelessly plop down on the toilet to relieve myself.

Spencer’s fingers comb through my hair and I rest my cheek to her stomach, lingering this way longer than needed. Eventually I pull away and finish up, stopping to wash my hands and brush some of the sour taste out of my mouth. Spencer uses the facilities and the other sink. Once we’re done, she leads me back to the bed and sits me down on the edge, getting to her knees and looking me in the eyes.

Even in the dark, I can see their warmth.

She pulls my shirt up and I lift my arms in compliant reflex. My bra comes next, and then my jeans and underwear. Once she’s done with me, she strips down and settles us both in a tight embrace under the covers. I lay my head on her chest again, letting the heat of her skin against mine seep into me as I listen to her wonderful heartbeat. My emotions loosen and I breathe into the relief, closing my eyes and finding an exhausted sleep.


My eyes blink open. They feel crusted and swollen, but eventually they budge far enough so that I can see my room. I’m lying on my stomach, the pillow abandoned somewhere behind me. The drapes are open, letting in the sun. We never really close them these days. Fortunately, my bed is situated next to them in such a way that the sun doesn’t reach my face, and I find myself reaching out a hand to play in the little motes that dance in the beams.

I’m where Spencer was when we fell asleep. I can’t tell if the warmth here is mine or what was left of hers as I innately gravitated towards it, but I’m fairly certain it’s the latter. I always wake up where she was. And it never gets easier to find her gone, even when I know that she only went to work and will be back. But today, today I feel her loss. I need her, but she’s not here.

It’s not fair of me to put my emotional baggage on her, or to expect that she’d have just magically known to stay, or for her to abandon her other responsibilities in trade for my own. But in an unmitigated moment of absolute selfishness, I wish that she had known, that she’d made that choice for me without being told.

The bed shifts next to me, startling me. I look back and see Spencer. She reaches a hand forward and hooks it on my hip, rolling me into her arms. And I find myself overcome with gratitude and shame.

“Thank you,” is all I can say as I bury my face under her jaw.

“For what,” she asks, her fingers skimming light trails down my arm.

“Being here.”

“I couldn’t leave you,” she breathes out. “It’s never easy, but today… I just couldn’t.”

I press my nose into her neck until her head is resting almost entirely on mine, and scoot my body in until I can feel the full length of her against me. She parts her legs and my knee gravitates to the warmth there before it can cool. Her leg bends and rests on my hip, the weight of it solid but somehow not nearly crushing me enough. I feel like I need the weight of her to hold me down. My hand runs up her chest, lazily enjoying the texture of her skin, and I feel a kiss to my shoulder.

“Are you okay,” she whispers, her breath skittering across my flesh.

I don’t say anything because I don’t know. She shifts until she can look me in the eyes, her hand brushing my hair out of the way.

“I’m here,” she says.

Her nose skims mine before she kisses me. It’s fleeting, but everything inside of me feels bolstered by this simple declaration and touch.

“Does this hurt your chances for the indie film,” I ask, worried that she sacrificed more than time to take care of me.

It takes a moment for her to answer, and I can tell that the question caught her off-guard.

“I’m not sure,” she finally says. “And I don’t care.”

More shame and gratitude add to what’s already there, because there’s no regret in her eyes or her tone, just worry.

“But you do care, Spence.”

She thinks about that for a moment and nods. “But I care about you more.”

We kiss again and I let my shame go, trading it for guilt. I was selfish. I put that at her feet, but I’m only human. And she still came through.

“Do you need to go,” I ask, unwilling to let her stay if she can salvage an abandoned opportunity.

Her fingers start their delicate patterns on me again and she watches her hand as she thinks. I hate to do it, but I can’t help it. My eyes close.

“I know that I can’t abandon my passions,” she says after several minutes have passed. My eyes flicker open just in time to see a wicked smile grace her lovely face. “My other passions…, or at least I shouldn’t, but the truth is, I want to.” All movement stops and her eyes turn serious. “I just want to be with you.”

Right here, right now, I have an opportunity to encourage her. The problem is, what should I encourage her to do? Should I encourage her to drop everything else? I know it’s what I want. The very thought makes my stomach tighten in anticipation. I can convince myself that it’s not selfish, that she wants this as much as I do, that she’s all too willing.

And it would be amazing for a time, but I know somewhere deep that this would plant the seed of resentment. At some point, the newness would wear off. All of that time together would be too much. Other aspects of her would suffer; that suffering would bleed into this aspect, and it would be my fault.

She’s a creator. She can no more abandon her camera than I can my guitar.

“Do you think Lily would give me a job too?”

She smiles sardonically. “I don’t think either of us would get much work done if she did. Besides, you’re starting university soon.”

My fingers find hers and begin a lazy play.

“Ash,” she says after a time. “If you want to go to Stanford, you should. It’s only five hours. We could see each other on the weekends.”

It’s my turn to sigh. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t want to go to Stanford. I want to go to MIT.” Her eyes widen. “But even Pennsylvania is only my second choice.”

She wears confusion so adorably. “So… where do you actually want to go then?”

“Nowhere, or just south of it.” I feel my nose crinkle. “I want to stay right here. My first choice is to stay with you.”

She closes her eyes and her hand drops back to my hip. “Ash, if you’re going to get a formal education, and put all of that effort into it, you need to go where you want. It’s just a few years.”

I crawl up on top of her and brush the hair away from her face. “Spencer, all I’ve ever wanted is to be with you and start a family. Anything else is just icing. Going to college is more of a hobby.”

She snorts. “That’s an extremely difficult and expensive hobby, Ash.”

I shrug. “I like a challenge and if you haven’t noticed, I’m loaded.”

Her head shakes in that adoring way of hers, and I continue. “Spencer, being with you is at the top of the list for a reason, and it’s a good one. It’s my one and only true desire in this world. I’m not going to stop pursuing my other goals and you shouldn’t either, but at the end of the day, if I can only ever achieve one thing in my time on this planet, this is the one I want. You’re the one I want. You come first, and I’ll fit the other stuff in around that.”

Her eyes are glassy and I lean in to skim my cheek against hers, closing my eyes. “Don’t you feel that?” I lead her hand to the area above my heart and my nose finds the skin beneath her ear. “Don’t you feel how important this is, how special, how… sustaining?”

“Yes,” she breathes. “More than you know…”

I lean back to look at her, to plead with her. “Tell me.”

She sighs, the heat in her touch almost scalding as her eyes storm with emotion. “You have had my heart since the minute I met you.” She smiles as she says this and I almost need to close my eyes against it. But I can’t bear to lose that connection. “I gave it to you and I didn’t look back. I was naïve, and trusting, and maybe a little stupid…” We both smile this time. “But I didn’t know any better. My life had never hurt like that. I’d never needed for anything or even wanted for anything. And when you left… all I had was the other stuff. I put too much stock in it, made it matter more than it does. I tried to fill that hole. But, I guess, I’m sort of grateful for that now.”

I scowl at her and she touches my cheek. “If I hadn’t ever known what that feels like, I wouldn’t see just how important, and special, and sustaining this is. When you tell me that I’m at the top of the list, I know what that means and how that feels. I don’t have a list of my own, not like yours, but you didn’t just take my heart, and I didn’t just give it to you, Ash. You are my heart.” She swipes some of my tears away. “You’re my home. You’re all I’ve ever wanted. It’s just hard to break these habits, these fears, to let myself be that naïve, trusting, and stupid again. And I regret it. That’s my only regret.”

Her words bruise my insides. She says she’s grateful for that pain, and while I can feel an immense and beaming pride at just how strong she is, I still need her to understand how this is my one and only regret.

“Spence, I know I’m not a perfect person. There are so many things I wish I hadn’t done. But I continue learning, and I swear I never meant to do those things to you.” She tries to interrupt me but I don’t let her. “I have to say this, Spence. I just… I need you to hear this. I want you to know.” She relents and I continue. “I’m sorry that I hurt you. It’s something I have to live with every day. And all the pain I put you through, I wish that I could take it all away, but I can’t. What I can do is make sure that I never take anything else from you ever again.”

“Ash,” she forces out. “Don’t you see? I get it now, what you were saying that night in my apartment. I understand that perfect is only as much as what we decide it is. But mostly, I understand what love really is now. And while I loved you deeply before, now, it’s so much… more. I’ve found a reason to change who I used to be, a reason to start over new, and the reason is you.” She kisses me. “Please don’t regret something that brightened my life.”

Something inside of my chest just broke free and soared away.

“But it darkened your life.”

She shrugs. “At least now I know what I want.”

“And what’s that?”

Her nose skims mine again. “You.”

“Even though I come with a life-time supply of drama and a two-wheeled death machine?”

She groans and her head flops back onto the pillow. “Ash, you know you have shitty luck. Why would you tempt fate like that?”

“Fate’s a bitch,” I say, repeating my line from the journal. “Fuck her.”

She pouts. “Must you ride that thing?”

“Must I? No. Do I love it? Yes. And I can’t imagine anything more amazing than having your arms around me while we drive up the coast, wild and free, the wind in our hair-”

“You mean with helmets on.”

I chuckle. “That’s a sexy image.”

“Safety is sexy.”

I sigh.

“A compromise,” she suggests and I nod. “We take classes, real ones. We don’t take it on the interstate. And we wear everything we need to survive a wreck.”

“You’re no fun.”

“But you accept that about me?”

Well that was a challenge if I ever heard one.

“No, Spence.” She narrows her eyes at me. “I adore you for it.”

She grins. “So we have a deal?”

I lean in and kiss her, just to seal the deal really, but then time starts to melt away and it deepens and lengthens. Our hands search and roam until they find aching nerves and massage them into release. I keep my eyes on hers, watching and listening, even as she returns the touch. We cling instead of grasp. It’s a gentle lovemaking, the kind that comes easy when you know your lover like they’re a second skin.

And this is the first of its kind since we reconciled, like a recreation of the innocence we first shared together. The passion hasn’t tempered like I feared it would, not in the least. But the desperation and gnawing hunger have. I realize that it’s because I now fully believe that I’ll never have to go without her again. As much as we’ll grow and change and learn even from here, I know that she’ll be there with me willing to move forward. She truly is my partner in life.

And I don’t just have hope anymore.

I have faith.

We lie here, tangled and floating in the calm of mutual afterglow. The sunlight has shifted, but somehow it seems softer, more yellow. I find my hand playing in its warmth again, Spencer’s head resting low on my stomach. The events from last night play out in my head unbidden and I let them, not only because I won’t find an answer until I do, but because right now, I have the support I need to endure it. These thoughts, painful as they are, don’t even come close to my joy. It’s like I’ve found a light that even the heavens could never fathom, and hell couldn’t shadow with a thousand trees.

“Spence,” I say and she hums contentedly. “I think I want to meet him.”

If nothing else, I know that none of this was his fault any more than it was mine. It’s not fair to deny him the opportunity, or me for that matter. Her hand reaches out and captures mine, our fingers locking into a gentle squeeze, and I realize that this is her answer: unconditional love, support, and solidarity.


Kyla has started waddling when she walks. I notice this as she makes her way to the couch and plops down with a grunt. A laugh escapes both me and Spencer, but her resulting glare has us attempting to swallow it, however unsuccessfully.

“You just wait for your turn,” she warns, propping her legs up on Aiden’s lap. “I hope pregnancy makes both of you puke your guts out, swell up like a rotting fruit, and cry when you see a goddamn butterfly.”

She puts her hand to her mouth, her eyes filling with the memory of the winged beast, and I can’t help it – the laugh comes out and even Aiden joins me, though he’s more resigned about it. I mean, I get it. At the end of the day, he’s the one making late-night runs to M Café, rubbing her feet, and having to sleep next to her.

“Rotting fruit,” I ask. “That’s such a lovely image, Kyla.”

“That’s how it feels,” she moans.

“I’d say that you’re more like a penguin, all waddles and grunts,” I observe.

“I know where you sleep,” she threatens.

I shrug. “You’d have to get through Spencer first, and then there’s the fact that, in your condition, one good push and you’d be trapped flat on your back like a turtle.”

“Ashley,” Aiden interjects tiredly. “Please don’t piss her off…”

There is real pleading in his voice, and I smirk at him.

“Alright, alright, enough teasing.” I sit up on the chaise, tucking my legs under and me and taking Spencer’s hand once she’s resettled next to me. “So, I have good news and maybe bad news. That’s why I called you here immediately. Which one do you want first?”

“Um,” she says apprehensively. “I guess the bad first.”

“Okay… I’m not sure how to tell you this, so I’m just going to come out and say it.” That has her attention and Spencer starts rubbing my back. “I found out last night that my biological father is alive. And, well… I wasn’t the only child he had with our mother. We have a brother, and I have a twin.”

“Jesus, Ash…,” she gapes. It gets quiet and I just wait. I know how hard that information is to process. “Seriously,” she says. I just nod. “Well…,” she starts after a time. “Why is that a bad thing? I mean, other than the fact that there are two of you?”

“Thanks, Kyla,” I say in monotone.

Aiden and Spencer chuckle.

“Seriously though,” Kyla continues. “We have a brother. I always wondered what that would be like.”

That sets me back a bit. I hadn’t even considered that this could be, well, awesome. But then, I can’t really. I need to keep it cool. If I walk into this with high expectations, then that’s a one-way ticket to heartache if he falls short. I mean, for all I know he might just want to tell me off.

“It’s not all that it’s cracked up to be,” Spencer says, voicing my concerns.

It’s my turn to rub her back and she puts her hand on my thigh, tucking it into the crux of my knee.

“Yeah,” Kyla replies. “Unless he’s like Clay.”

Spencer smiles, and I can tell that she misses him. “Yeah, he’s pretty great.”

“So, now what,” Kyla asks. “Are you going to meet them?”

“Just our brother,” I say, and that word feels strikingly foreign. “I guess, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know about you. As far as I know, he never met mom and I know for a fact that dad never came around.”

She nods. “Well, I’m going with you,” she says resolutely. “You and I are a packaged deal.”

I smile at that. “And that brings me to my good news. Christine is flying down this weekend to stay until you have the baby.”

“You’re kidding,” she squeals, doing her level best to get to her feet and come crush me but unable to do so. With a long-suffering sigh, I go to her instead, sitting on the edge of the couch and letting her bruise me in the same hug that I would normally fight my way out of. But not this time. This time I just try not to bruise the baby back.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she chants in my neck.

“Don’t thank me. It was Christine’s idea.”

She finally releases me, the glint in her eyes more than tears. “So what’s his name?”

“Riley Woods,” I say.

“And what about your dad,” she asks tentatively.

“He lives here in LA, a washed up 80’s rock star. And as far as I know, he’s never wanted anything to do with me and still doesn’t.”

She pulls me in again, gentler this time. “I’m sorry, Ash.”

“It’s fine.”

“Yeah, we both made peace with that kind of bullshit years ago, right?”

I lean back and smile at her with more confidence than I feel. Of course Spencer was right.

“We have a family, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” I say. “There’s plenty of love to go around already. No long lost father can really improve on that.”

She starts to sob, squeezing me to her, and I glance at Aiden over her shoulder. He lifts his hands in surrender and I just hold her, patting her back in an awkward attempt to soothe.

“Kyla, are you sure you want to meet Riley while you’re all…” Insane. “Emotional…”

“I’m not emotional,” she sniffs on my shirt.

I laugh and she pokes me in my ribs, but that does little good anymore. I’m fairly certain that my callouses have returned.

“Um, if it’s okay with both of you, I’d like to be there,” Aiden says.

I glance at him again, Kyla finally releasing me, and I get the feeling he can’t stand the idea of being away from Kyla, especially not with a potentially volatile situation.

“I don’t see why not,” I say. “I’m bringing Spencer.”

“So when are we doing this,” Kyla asks, and I face her again.

“Well, I have his number. All we have to do is text him and find out.”

“Do it,” she says.

I pull my phone from the new coffee table and pull up his name in the message app, but then I just stare at the screen, uncertain of what to type. Hey? Hi? This is Ashley? With a roll of her eyes, Kyla takes the phone and has it sent within seconds. I look back at the screen and read it, not sure why I’d expected delicacy from her.

“Seriously, Kyla,” I ask.

She grins, very pleased with herself.

I can feel Aiden and Spencer’s eyes on me, so I read it out loud: “This is Ashley. So are we going to meet up or what?”

Aiden and Spencer laugh, and the ding of phone brings my attention back to the screen.

“When and where,” I repeat.

I consider handing it back to Kyla, but then think better of it. That doesn’t stop her from taking the phone from my hands and punching in a reply. I’m almost terrified when she hands it back.

I groan as I read, “M Café on Melrose, noon tomorrow.”

Aiden and Spencer echo me. Everyone is so fucking sick of that place.

“I’m pregnant,” Kyla says. “Get over it.”

“And milking it for all it’s worth,” I say under my breath.

“Damn right,” she says, her hearing like that of a dog’s.

I get up and head back to Spencer. “Can you make that with work?”

She puts her arm around me as I resettle next to her. “Yeah, I can take a long lunch.”

The phone dings and I glance back down at it.

“I’ll be there,” I say to the group.


We got to the café about an hour early at the incessant pleading of Kyla’s stomach. She ordered a vegan burger and gobo fries, but that’s about half as much as usual. She’s been picking at everything on her plate, seemingly dissatisfied with the food, and it’s put her in a foul fucking mood. It’s almost painful to see her lose this one singular happiness. Could it be that she’s finally had her fill of M Café fare? I’m not certain but she and Aiden are whispering back and forth, and it seems heated.

My fingers fidget with the empty coffee cup in my hands while my leg shakes out a rapid staccato. It’s with relief that I see Spencer walk into the café. I can tell that she’s tired, and this sends a pang of guilt through me. We’re both spreading her too thin, and we know it. The conversation we had yesterday was everything I wanted to hear. And while she said all of the right words and I’m certain that she meant them, we didn’t really address the fact that something has to give. As it stands, she’s still trying to juggle it all, and with me as the primary priority I know she can’t keep this up much longer.

I’m a lot to handle.

“Hey,” she says, taking the chair next to mine.

We share a kiss and she smooths her hand across my cheek. All of my anxiety bleeds away and my lungs suck in a huge gulp of air that they then release easily. I hadn’t realized until now just how hard it’s been to breathe. The cup is forgotten and my leg grinds to a halt. I feel grounded, especially when I throw my arm over her shoulders and she leans into me.

“Are you hungry,” I ask.

“Famished,” she says.

I pull the menu from Kyla and place it in front of Spencer. Kyla glares at me and Spencer grimaces.

“I think I know it by heart,” she says.

I feel my nose crinkle, and brush the hair over her shoulder while she peruses for anything that will fill the void if she can keep it down. I signal to our waitress and she comes over, order book at the ready because she’s now accustomed to her most difficult customers. I’m fairly certain she knows our first names.

“Don’t you guys have any other off-menu items,” Kyla asks testily.

“Like a real cheeseburger,” Aiden suggests.

Kyla turns her glare on him. “Absolutely not.”

“With bacon,” Aiden continues, and Kyla only seethes.

The waitress seems confused. “We don’t really have cheeseburgers. We specialize in vegan options and health food.”

“But you have fish,” he asks.

“Yes,” she sighs out. “And bacon. You could go for the California Club or the Grilled Tuna burger.”

“Bring us one of each.”

Kyla folds her arms and she and Aiden continue their quiet hissing like two angry eels.

The waitress turns to Spencer. “And you?”

“The Little Gem Grilled Salmon Cesar and a tea.”

She pens everything on her pad and steps away, and I can see the frustration in her step. I also know that I tip better than anyone else on Melrose, which isn’t an easy feat, so I’ll make all of the hassle worth it for her.

I lean into Spencer. “You seem tired,” I say.

She rests her head on my shoulder and sighs. “Yeah, I am.”

“Are you getting enough sleep,” I ask quietly.

She giggles at the absurdity of the question, and it’s infectious. We’re in bed by seven most nights, but it’s not to sleep. The difference between us is that she’s up by five, works her ass off all day, and I generally sleep in until around ten before paling around with the band, playing guitar, or some other innocuous activity.

“Okay, that was a stupid question. Outside of cutting back on the extracurriculars-”

“Um, hi…”

We all look to the edge of the table to see me standing there. Only this me is male and tall, taller than Aiden. I have to crane my neck up at him. I feel my mouth fall open as I just stare at his face. It’s fucking creepy. His hair is buzzed on the sides of his head, but it’s the exact same color, natural highlights and all. At least what’s left on top is different than mine. It’s stick-straight, swept to the side where it somehow defies gravity. His jaw is broader than mine, clean shaven, but the pallor of his skin, my skin, shows the faint shadow. He seems skinny, lanky, and wiry, his muscles like corded ropes as opposed to the thick knots I’m accustomed to in Aiden’s physique. And his eyes are mirrors.

The same color.

The same shape.

“Uh, hey,” Aiden is the first to speak.

He gets to his feet and they shake hands.

I feel Spencer nudge me and finally regain myself, standing to do the same.

His grip is solid.

“I’m Ashley,” I say, but then he’d have to be blind if he couldn’t tell.

“Riley,” he says with a heartbreakingly handsome smile.

Do I smile like that?

“This is my girlfriend, Spencer.”

“Nice to meet you,” he says.

“Am I chopped liver,” Kyla asks and I sigh.

“And that’s Kyla…, our sister.”

He gives me a wide-eyed expression before regaining himself and leaning over to take her hand since she can’t stand very easily. He sits down neatly, with perfect posture, and there’s an air of entitlement about him.

“Wow, you two are dopplegangers,” Kyla says and I try to light her on fire with my mind but even that probably wouldn’t make her shut up. “What, it’s true.”

I find myself looking at Riley again. In fact, everyone’s staring at him. I can’t tell if it makes him uncomfortable but he looks right back at me for a time. I don’t know how to feel about this, about him. I mean, I knew we were twins, but now that he’s here in front of me, I feel… weird… violated, maybe?

“So,” he says. “I have a billion questions, and I guess you probably do too.”

I don’t even try to respond. I just wait for Kyla, knowing that she can’t contain herself.

“How did you find out about Ashley?”

“Um…” The waitress approaches with our orders. “My dad. I mean, our dad? He talked about her all the time.”

What?

The waitress looks to Riley and perks up immediately.

“Hi,” she says brightly. “What can I get you?”

Jesus, she might as well fuck him right on the table, the way she’s looking at him. She’s like a bee to honey… And him, he obviously knows it.

“Just a water, thanks,” he grins at her, his teeth white and even.

I swear I can hear the Windows shutdown theme coming out of the waitress’s head.

“Okay. Be right back,” she says, her hand touching his shoulder as she walks away.

Spencer snorts and I glance at her. She says nothing, but there is definite mischief in her eyes, like she’s comparing the two of us. I feel my brows furrow.

People don’t treat me like that… do they?

“Wow,” Kyla adds, catching Spencer’s attention, and the two of them share a chuckle.

Riley’s frowning too, so I force my face into an implacable mask just to make sure we’re different.

“Did I do something wrong,” he asks a touch haughtily.

“No, I’m sorry,” Spencer says. “That was rude. I’m just a little… floored.”

She gestures to the two of us, indicating the apparent similarities. But, I mean, we are fraternal twins…

“Oh,” he says, his voice condescending. “Well, we’re twins.” Okay, so this whole thing is really starting to freak me out. “I’m curious though, dad never spoke about any other children.”

He says this addressing Kyla, and the two of us share a look, but she’s already begun to stuff her face with the club sandwich, with real bacon, and I can actually see some of the gray clouds around her start to clear. This explains her bad temperament. She’s been craving meat and the vegan burgers just aren’t satisfying anymore.

And she hates it.

I suppose it’s my job to explain then. “Mom had Kyla when I was five.” Riley seems to perk up at the mention of the word mom. “Different dad.”

“Ah,” he says, looking at the table as he addresses me. “Can I ask… what she’s like?”

“Who, mom?”

The waitress brings his water and once he’s bedazzled her with another smile, he sets his attention to me and nods. I sigh. It’s hard enough to know what I know, let alone explain it to a complete not stranger.

“I’m sorry I don’t have something better to say, but she wasn’t a very good person. She was an addict and a dealer, and she’s in jail. I’ve only spoken to her once since I was ten.”

“I see…”

He sips on his water and I can’t tell what he’s thinking. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he’s… sad, but I don’t know better. Everything about his demeanor seems nonchalant, unaffected. An awkward quiet falls over us and I’m not even sure what to do at this point. I don’t really have a lot of questions for him. I thought I did, but now that I sit here across from him, none of this feels like it matters. Even talking about mom felt more like an objective observation than a personal memory.

“Don’t you want to know about dad,” he asks.

I shrug. “I mean, I know who he is now, but it’s… whatever. He’s never reached out and he abandoned me with mom, so-”

“Abandoned you,” he says in a steely voice. “He didn’t abandon you.”

I’m taken aback by that. Clearly he’s very attached to dad. How nice for him.

“Well, yeah.”

“How can you say that?”

“Well,” I say, drawing the word out this time. “It’s true.”

“I know he wasn’t around a lot growing up, but he never abandoned anyone.”

I can’t help the humorless laugh that escapes me. “Look, Riley, if he was good to you, I’m glad for you. But I’ve never even met him.”

“He still took care of you.”

“What,” I chuckle out.

Spencer puts her fork down and takes my hand under the table, and it’s only now that I realize how white my knuckles are. I force my fists to open.

“Who else do you think supported you growing up?”

“Um…, that would be me.”

His own laugh is derisive and he gestures to me. “Come on, you’re obviously well-off. Where do you think that money comes from?”

I don’t know where he’s been getting his information, but he’s been seriously misinformed.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I earned what I have.”

It’s his turn to laugh out, “What? You’re twenty-three…”

“It’s really none of your business where I got my money, but I can guarantee you that it didn’t come from him.”

“Wow, I didn’t expect you to be so… ungrateful.”

And that did it. I snap. The kind of snapped where my voice is low and calm, but only because Spencer is squeezing my hand.

“I don’t know what it is you think happened, but I grew up in a condemned trailer with no food or electricity. Our mother was a drugged out, meth-dealing whore. I had to raise myself and Kyla. Your dad wasn’t there, and neither was his money. We got adopted when I was ten, when mom went to jail, and I made my own money when I was eighteen. So yeah, I’m grateful, just not to him.”

“You’re lying,” he says petulantly.

“Watch yourself,” Kyla warns, her cheeks blown out to the point where the threat was almost unintelligible.

He scoffs at her and I feel my eyes harden on him as Aiden leans over the table. The way he folds his arms together showcases the muscles beneath his skin-tight shirt. This causes Riley to take a deep breath and shake his head. After a moment, he leans back in his chair in a cocky, utterly devoid manner and casually sips his water, like he’s flipped some sort of switch.

Something about his demeanor seems… familiar.

“He was shelling out about ten thousand dollars a month in child support,” he replies coolly.

I mirror his pose and study him for a moment. I can’t find any indication that he’s lying. But mom… lying was a hobby for her, and she’s probably one of the greediest people on earth. Ten thousand a month and we lived in abject poverty and squalor. What in the holy fuck could she have spent that kind of money on?

The answer is there, clinging to my bones, my very blood.

Drugs…

A ten thousand dollar a month drug habit…

I can’t even fathom it. She didn’t just do meth, she also liked coke, but she’d do any and everything really. I’d seen it many times. It was a struggle to keep a two-year-old Kyla away from used needles and powdered mirrors. I never really thought about how mom got it. I always just assumed it was her boyfriends, but then this explains them too. They weren’t just addicts, they were leeches.

Kyla and I share a knowing look as the rabbit hole gets deeper and deeper.

“You really never saw a dime of it,” he asks incredulously.

I shake my head, and he lets out a breath. “Well, he still tried.”

The way he says it indicates that he doesn’t really believe it himself. Kyla and I both snort, and this time Riley doesn’t throw a fit. He knows. Trying is so much more than a check, and his dad had to have known what kind of woman our mother was.

“How did they even meet,” I ask.

This seems to catch him off guard and I see his cheeks turn pink. “She was a roadie. You know, the kind of girls who follow bands around and…?” This makes perfect sense. “He said he loved her…, that she was beautiful and sweet, but…”

“He loved himself more?”

The petulance returns. “He was a musician. It was his life.”

I shake my head. I’m a musician, and it’s an integral part of my life, like my heartbeat or breathing. But my life is sitting right next to me. It’s my turn to squeeze her hand.

“He loved himself more,” I reiterate, because that’s the truth of it. I can tell he hates the idea of admitting it, so he just stays quiet. “You seem to have had it pretty good with him, though.” I can’t keep the resentment out of my voice. “You’re certainly protective of him.”

He frowns and I can tell that there’s something more, but he only says, “I had a pretty good life, yeah. And he’s a good dad.”

Quiet descends again, and for the first time in a long time, I find that I really just want to exit this situation. I’m not even sure what I was thinking. I glance over at Kyla to see that she’s demolished both sandwiches, specifically the meaty parts. Spencer’s salad is left half-untouched on the plate, and I sigh. My attention should be on the people who are already my family. I don’t need it to grow any more than it has. He may look like me, but he’s a brat, spoiled, and selfish.

I still don’t have a brother.

And I’m okay with that.

He shifts and it breaks me from my thoughts. A picture materializes from his wallet and he sets it on the table closer to me. I pick it up and look at the two faces. One is most definitely mom, but then she was never my mom. My mom will be here this weekend, and if nothing else comes out of this conversation, this surreal as fuck meeting, at least I recognize that now. I’ve let go of my attachment to this woman and as a result, I no longer feel guilty for loving the woman who was actually there for me. It’s still strange to see her this way. She used to be young, vibrant, beautiful, and healthy. And I can see just how much all three of us look like her.

The man with her, my sperm donor, is handsome, beaming with character and personality, and with a pang of shame, I see how similar I am to him too. It would seem that I inherited the best of both of them, though it never mattered. Just like with her, he’s been replaced, and the replacements are leagues better. At least with him, I feel no guilt for having set him aside in my heart.

“You can keep it, if you want,” Riley says, and I pass it to Kyla. “It’s the only one dad had, but I have copies.”

And here I find that for all of the ways that I just don’t like this person, in all of the ways that he had it so much better than I did, he was still hurt by these people too.

“Why did you want to meet me,” I ask.

“I…,” he starts, but then he can’t seem to finish. “I don’t… know.”

There’s more, or he’s lying. I can see it screwing up his mouth, but if he doesn’t want to tell, I’m not going to beg him. He quickly gets to his feet, startling everyone.

“I’m sorry for wasting your time,” he says.

He throws a hundred dollar bill on the table and leaves like the devil is on his heels.

“Wow,” Kyla breathes. “He is just fucking like you, Ash.”

“Oh, come on,” I say. “I’m not that much of an asshole.”

Every single person at the table snorts, maybe even my unborn nephew.

“No, you’re not an asshole,” Spencer says, lifting my hand and kissing my fingers. “It takes some work, but once you get passed all of the walls, you’re the most kind and loving person I’ve ever met. He’s just like you were a year ago though…”

Her words linger in my skull, and I can’t really argue. I also don’t miss the insinuation that there’s more to him than what he’s putting out, but I don’t know how to feel about that. I’m not at a point in my life where I want to dig. I only just got out of that hole myself. Kyla passes the picture back and Spencer takes it, touching the face of my mother for a moment before handing it to me. I look down at it and sigh before glancing to the door where Riley just left. I spare just one more minute of my life for these people before deciding to completely let them go.

I stand and throw some bills on the table, leaving the picture there as well. I don’t want it.

“You guys ready,” I ask.

Everyone gets to their feet and Spencer takes me in her arms. “I should probably get back to work. Are you going to be okay?”

I breathe in the clean scent of her hair. “Yeah, Spence.” I pull back. “I’m okay.”

She releases a weary smile and kisses me, and I find I’m more worried about her.

“Listen,” I say. “Tonight… no family dinner, long talks, or lovemaking. Go home and get some sleep.”

“I don’t know if I can sleep without you,” she says, and I smile at her.

“Okay, then the babies and I will meet you there. But you’re still going to sleep.”

“I’ll come to your place and you’ll still have to feed me, but sleep sounds amazing.”

One last kiss is shared and I hold onto her hand as long as I can before we head in separate directions.


It’s that time of year again, the best time of year, where the air is filled with the scents of fresh blood and rotting corpses, the screams of giddy maniacs and their hauntingly tragic victims. It seemed only fitting that a Halloween Party would set the stage for the mega party line on my list, which is actually one of the few remaining items on there. In fact, there are only four left after tonight: Marry Spencer and start a family, bury the hatchet, record a platinum album, and conquer my greatest fear.

Of course, they’re also the most difficult, but I’ll get to them eventually, I hope. I can’t really rush these things, even as I’d like to rush one of them. Anyway, combining the party with Halloween seemed like kismet, but that would mean that I couldn’t go for the ‘mega’ stipulation.

For starters, Spencer’s feelings on the macabre and scary haven’t changed one iota. She still wants to revel in the romantic and saccharine, and I still want to revel in the bloody and twisted. Technically, it’s my call since the last Halloween we spent together was her choice, and we’ve agreed that the original compromise still stands. But I just don’t want to put her through any more stress right now. And lastly, how could I have a mega party at the very same time that the Crisis Center would be finished and not invite the kids? Many of them have missed out on holidays for the whole of their lives.

With those two glaring problems, what was a horror loving millionaire to do?

I was caught between Freddy and Jason. But the solution came to me one night, in one of my many random moments of brilliance. I was hanging out with Kyla, Christine, and Spencer. It was just the four of us, or five if you count my still brewing nephew, and we’d decided on a movie marathon. There was only one rule: the franchise had to have at least three movies to its name. The movie choice had been awarded to Spencer after a rousing game of rock, paper, scissors. And Spencer, being the beautiful woman-child and cinephile that she is, took this challenge very seriously.

She chose Harry Potter.

Now, I hadn’t actually watched them or read the books, but I have to say, I’m a convert. It could have something to do with the fact that I now have a monstrous crush on Emma Watson, but Spencer wasn’t too upset with this little revelation. She shares my Hollywood crush. And we now have an agreement that a casual encounter with the talented actress would not be considered cheating.

But I digress.

The point is that we had a giant, newly remodeled building to play with, a theme satisfactory for all ages, and unlimited resources to make this the most enviable Halloween party of all fucking time. So, I made a call to Bob Gail Special Events, and with their help, the Crisis Center is nothing short of Hogwarts grandeur.

The roof has been retrofitted with tall spires, the walls, inside and out, covered in ornate architectural overlays, and the hallways made into labyrinthine mazes with bending arches and paths that lead nowhere. The stairs don’t move, obviously, and only a few of the gilded portraits are LCDs that can talk and move, but each room looks like an iconic classroom and the gymnasium has been turned into the Great Hall, replete with seemingly floating candles and a sparkling night sky. All of the ornate finishing touches are here, bringing the season and the story to life.

Actors in ghostly make-up traipse around us playfully pranking any who cross their path and cracking jokes to keep everyone entertained. Then there’s Voldemort, of course, with an entourage of Death eaters, and even The Weird Sisters have a stage in the back where they play iconic Harry Potter music mixed in with some muggle favorites. None other than Mr. C is Dumbledore, his fake beard making me laugh every time he scratches at his face and reveals the elastic string, or he gets his hands tangled in the straggly hair. Shirley is Professor Trelawney, bumbling into the children with her thick glasses and making them laugh. Sam is doing a fairly decent job of Professor Umbridge demanding order, and we convinced Christine to play the part of Professor McGonagall, which is fitting since all she has to do is be quietly severe.

All of the kids are dressed as first-year students, many of them still swarming the Ollivander booth where the actors help them choose a wand. Soon they’ll be settling in for the sorting ceremony in the Great Hall, followed by a great feast, and then a plethora of fun and spooky games with prizes. Shirley even put her feelers out and invited older kids in the community that are still displaced, potential donors, and families, many of which don’t appear to have children of their own. The place is packed to the gills.

Aiden is a reluctant Professor Snape. He actually plays the part well with his dark features and innate stoicism that borders on hostility. Kyla opted to be a pregnant Lily Potter, altering the storyline a little as she hangs on Snape’s arm. But then I altered the storyline myself. I am Bellatrix Lestrange, because I had to be a serial killer, and I have Spencer, or Luna Lovegood, on my arm.

That’s a pairing no one would have considered…

Jon is Harry Potter, because, well, she’s really a boy on the inside. Jac makes a slutty Hermione, but no one could convince her to tone it down on the hair, make-up, and cleavage. And poor Kate got stuck as a Weasley, but we all felt that Jenny was the better of the two options, so a little red hair dye later and I think it works on her.

Erin and crew have shown up as well, decked out in Slytherin glory. Gavin is a little too convincing as Draco Malfoy, Erin is an adorably grumpy Pansy Parkinson, Janice looks gorgeous as a female Blaise in cornrows, and Column is a perfect Hagrid. Erin brought a really cute date, a guy this time, dressed as Neville Longbottom. Even Collin is here, somewhere having fun with the other kids. So aside from the odd pairings, I’m fairly certain that JK Rowling would be proud.

Shirley, Sam, and Mr. C call the kids to attention once the last one gets a life-like wand, and everyone is ushered into the great hall for the sorting ceremony. This is my cue to lead everyone up the stairs and to the room at the end of the hall that’s been turned into the Gryffindor common room. There’s music, alcohol, low lighting, and comfortable seating, all in perfect theme.

“This is it,” Spencer asks, her expression incredulous. “Where are the dead bodies, the blood?”

I smile at her. “Not this year, Spence.”

“Seriously,” Spencer says. “No maniacs paid to chase us around?”

“Nope.”

“I’m a little disappointed, Slick. I’ve heard stories about your Halloween shenanigans. This all seems pretty tame to me.”

I shrug. “I just wanted to relax tonight. We can always go downstairs later. There’s even a quidditch field set up on the playground outside. I figure I’ve still lived up to my reputation.”

And it’s true. Even if this isn’t as dark and ghoulish as my preceding reputation, it’s still pretty spectacular. Everyone starts to swarm in on the food and beverage tables, getting a mug of butterbeer and raiding the candy cart. Spencer stays with me though, sitting close to me on the green love-seat towards the middle of the room.

“This is, by far, the best Halloween you’ve ever organized.”

I laugh. Of course it is for her.

“It’s definitely better than getting socked in the face,” I say.

She narrows her eyes at me. “I’m never going to live that down, am I?”

“Probably not.”

She puts her arm around my shoulders. “Seriously though, why’d you go so soft?”

When I considered what to do up here, the sky was indeed the limit. I considered everything from turning the upstairs into an insanely terrifying haunted house to a Harry Potter, adult themed murder mystery. But nothing in that vein felt right. I just didn’t really want anything grandiose or over-the-top. I didn’t need a good scare or thrill. I wanted a space where we could relax, play games, dance, and talk. I just wanted to be with my family, as motley crew as we are. The mega party is still living up to its name, but even if it’s not, I’m okay with that. This is what I wanted now, even if it isn’t what I’d imagined then.

“I still love horror, but maybe… death just doesn’t hold all that much appeal anymore.”

I hadn’t intended for that to be so serious, so heavy. And by the look on Spencer’s face, I can tell that this omission pierced deep, but I find myself smiling at her anyway because it’s true. We share a gentle kiss and she leans her forehead to mine.

“I love you,” she says.

“I love you too, Spence.”


 

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Continued in Chapter 17 – The Right Reasons

Chapter 15 – I Love Playin’ With Fire

“Hey, Slick.”

“Hey,” I say back, glad to hear that she’s still using my nickname.

Erin sits across from me in the same booth of the same coffee house where we first met up. I wouldn’t have chosen such a familiar location, but after I reached out to her, I decided to let her set the terms of… well, everything really.

“Wow,” she says, looking at me. “You look… amazing. Happy.”

I feel chagrin flush my system. “Thanks.”

I take a moment to look her over, to try and gauge how she’s doing, and find with a certain sense of relief that she looks exactly the same.

“I was a little surprised when you texted me,” she says.

“Yeah, I…” Felt like a selfish asshole? Wanted to say I’m sorry? Needed to make sure you’re okay with the half-life you’re stuck with while I follow my heart into the sunset?

A hand finds my forearm across the table. There’s a gentle squeeze and I look back up at her. She knows all the questions just as well as she knows that the answer is all of the above. Her hand retreats, and I find that unless it’s a political or civil topic of discussion, I can’t really tell how she feels.

“I’m fine, Ash, truly.”

I sigh and lean back against the booth. As much as I know she may genuinely be fine with the fact that we’re no longer romantically entangled, I know that she’s not fine at all. Only a sociopath could be fine with a loss like hers. She’s a little crazy, but she’s also a genuinely kind and compassionate person. It has to hurt.  And this presents an additional dilemma. I can say that to her, and I would only do it because I care enough to try and help her. But it would throw her into those memories, make her grieve Josh even more, and that’s the last thing I want to do to her, especially as I’ve already done enough to remind her.

Now I feel like an even bigger asshole, because she’s the one who was wronged and yet she’s also the one sitting here consoling me.

“Erin, I sincerely hope that’s true, but I’m still an asshole. You were right all along.”

She smiles at me. “You really are.”

We share a laugh and once it dissipates, I lean forward over the table.

“Listen, Erin. I’m not going to try and make you talk about things or even say I’m sorry, because I really don’t want to make this about me. I just want to make myself available to you, in whatever way you need. I may be an asshole and I fuck things up, but I’m loyal and I care. So if you just need a friend, or you want me to stay away, or you know, you need someone to come bail you out of jail after each Pride…”

Her mouth quirks into a crooked smile. “I never knew the inside of a jail cell until you.”

“Yep, I’m an asshole,” I nod. “But I also got you off, so like I was saying, I tend to balance the scales.”

“That was you,” she asks surprised.

“Do you really think Deputy Doug was going to give up his pound of flesh without a fight?”

“His massive waistline would suggest otherwise,” she agrees.

We share a laugh and she sighs. “Ash, you’re not the first person I’ve dated only to find it wasn’t a good fit. I really will be okay. You don’t owe me anything and you don’t have to feel bad.”

I lay one arm on the back of the booth and shrug. “Okay.”

Her eyes narrow at me for a moment. “What are you playing at, Slick?”

“I’m not playing at anything,” I say through a chuckle. “I don’t have to feel bad and I don’t owe you anything. But you didn’t say I couldn’t do what I want, so I still feel like a free agent.”

“And what do you want?”

“Well, I figure we’ll get some coffee, hang out some more, maybe even talk some politics, and then… do it again sometime in the not too distant future.” She leans back, her eyes still trained on me as she mirrors my pose. “Don’t worry, Erin. You’ll only marginally hate it.”

“Only marginally,” she asks, and we both grin.


“Mr. C?!”

“Hey, Ash! I’m in the restroom! Be out in a bit!”

“Kay,” I shout back, waddling around the door to kick it shut.

Another groan of effort and I’m finally in the kitchen where I can gracelessly plop the increasingly heavy bags down on the linoleum. My hands find the nearby kitchen stool and I sag onto it with relief. I have to remind myself that Spencer’s worth the trouble of lugging all of this stuff up five flights of stairs, the elevator in the apartment building broken yet again. Though I’ve not seen it work even once.

“Sorry about that,” Mr. C says, stepping out of the bathroom behind the kitchen and drying his hands with a towel.

I shrug. “We all do it.”

He lets out a breathy chuckle, giving me a look that lets me know that I’m embarrassing, but he loves me anyway.

“Anyway,” he says, desperate to change the subject.

“Thank you for doing this,” I oblige.

The way he scoffs makes me wonder if he’s not actually a diva. “Please. I can’t think of a better cause to serve. It’s all so very romantic.”

I just smile at him, the one that’s normally reserved for Spencer, but then they’re two peas in a fucking pod, so it’s the same difference. He’s been gung-ho ever since we reconciled. Granted, it’s only been about a month, but he hasn’t let up even a little. And neither have Spencer or I. That first week was incredible, but as the dust has settled, as reality has started to set in, for all the ways that it’s become harder, it’s also become even more fulfilling.

For starters, our sexual appetites haven’t diminished. Not in the slightest. However, with other obligations demanding our time and Spencer returning to work, our intimate opportunities have, which brings me to the next struggle. It’s almost impossible for me to refrain from asking her to just quit her job and move in with me, but there are several realities putting the kibosh on those thoughts.

The first is that Spencer needs to work, not just for money, but because she loves what she does. Then there’s the fact that Spencer needs to feel like she’s contributing to the relationship. This includes finances, which we clearly don’t need. But for all of my insistence that my money is our money, she just doesn’t see it that way, and she won’t until our lives are entwined on paper. It’s one of her core values, and because I love her, I have to work within those boundaries instead of violate them.

That’s actually why I’m here with Mr. C. Not only is he preparing the meal I need to make tonight special, I need his help with that little piece of paper. He’s also the last reason that Spencer won’t abandon her bachelorette life and run away with me.

Right now, she’s his rock, his cornerstone, as much as she’s mine. She won’t abandon him, and I would never ask her to. This is why I figure he’s the best place to start. I need his help if I’m going to solve these issues and start the rest of my life.

“So,” he says, picking up one of the bags and starting to unload it at the counter. “I assume you want to talk about Spencer in private and the food is just a lubricant.” He lifts a bag of what look like tiny corncobs. “I’m all ears.”

I can’t help but snort out a laugh at the goofy grin on his face and his stupid joke. “Yeah, it is.”

“Out with it,” he demands, turning to start rinsing the vegetables in the sink as I finish unloading what’s left for him.

“Well, I…”

I put the jar of water chestnuts down and find myself at a loss for words. He’ll think it’s too soon. Hell, it is too soon. Part of me already knows this. The other part of me, the bigger part, knows that every minute I spend away from her is wasted. If all I have is now, I want all of the now that I can get.

“Ash,” he says in a gentle voice, touching my shoulder. I turn to him and he hugs me. It’s only now that I realize I’m crying. “What’s wrong?”

I laugh because nothing’s wrong and return the hug for a moment before squeezing and pulling away. He’s quick to find me a paper towel and I swipe at my tears while he puts his hands on my shoulders.

“Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s… so amazing.”

His smile is warm. “So why are you tied in knots?”

I start to lock and unlock my fingers together, flexing them nervously, trying to find a way to talk to him about this that won’t result in him telling me what I already know everyone will think. But they don’t know Spencer or our relationship like I do. They don’t love her like I do. I’ve wanted this since the night that I kissed her for the first time. And I believe that Spencer wants this as well.

Isn’t six years long enough to wait?

I finally slump against the counter. I can’t look him in the eyes, but I accept my fate.

“Mr. C, I want to marry your daughter.”

“Ash…,” he starts after a moment, and I brace, closing my eyes so hard against what I know is coming that it makes my head ache. “Not to sound like Kyla, but duh?”

I feel my forehead wrinkle up and peek an eye open to train it on him. I can’t see him perfectly from this angle, but I can see enough to know that he’s not at all put off at the idea. My arms cross over my chest and I find myself standing and staring at him. He sure smiles at me a lot. With a pat to my shoulder, he goes back to rinsing at the sink.

“So what do you need from me,” he asks.

“Well…,” I fumble out. “I’d start with your blessing but I guess that’s a given.”

He turns the water off and faces me again, a serious expression on his face. “Why wouldn’t I give you my blessing? All I’ve ever wanted for my children is to be fiercely loved, and wildly happy. I couldn’t even begin to imagine that someone could love Spencer more or make her happier.”

I find myself in his arms again, the deep rumble of his next words stirring something inside of me I’ve never realized before.

“That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you, too, Ashley. I love you like you’re my own. You’re every bit as much my daughter.”

If someone had told me just ten minutes ago that I had a father who loved me, I would have laughed in their face. I would have told them that I never knew one, never needed one, and was definitely never loved by one. But here in his arms, I realize that this was never true. He’s been my father from the moment he took me to group home. I just never put two and two together.

“I love you, too, Mr. C.”

“I know you do.” He releases me, that wonderful gleam in his eyes as he turns to finish his work. “So when do we go ring shopping?” He glances at me. “I get to go with you, right?”

A nervous laugh escapes me and I swallow harshly. “I couldn’t do it without you.” I take a deep breath. “Literally.”

The innuendo makes him pause again, but it doesn’t last long. He’s done washing so he brings the veggies to the cutting board next to me. There’s a long few minutes where he chops, a pensive look on his face.

“Spencer told you about her ring,” he finally says.

It’s a statement, not a question, and I take a seat at the counter. He’s quiet again as I watch him. I can’t tell if he’s angry or frustrated or what. Years of therapeutic practice have made him rather implacable when it comes to negative reactions. The broccoli is chopped and, with a long exhale of breath, he sets the knife down and gives me his attention.

“I’m not going to lie to you, Ashley, but I need to be clear that what I’m about to tell you cannot ever be repeated, especially to Spencer.”

I feel a frown forming. “You want me to lie to her?”

That seems rather counter-intuitive.

“No, absolutely not. I just don’t want to hurt her.”

“By keeping things from her,” I say, unable to fully rid my tone of the accusation.

His eyes shine with genuine remorse. “Do you want to be the one to explain to her that she’s unworthy of her inheritance because she’s a lesbian, that her own family refuses her because she’s just… her?”

A surge of unmitigated fury floods through me. Firstly, who on this fucking planet would think that Spencer is unworthy of anything? She’s kind, gentle, forgiving, honest, loving, loyal, long-suffering, trustworthy, beautiful, strong… I take a deep breathe to stop my rambling thoughts and come to a point. And the point is that Spencer’s everything this fucked up planet needs. Secondly, how could her own mother, her own family, refuse her anything, let alone love, especially just for being who she is?

“Paula hates her that much,” I seethe.

He pulls a stool up next to me and puts his hands on mine to help relax me. I didn’t realize just how tightly I was squeezing the jar in front of me until now.

“I wish it were that simple, but it’s not. Paula is a devout Catholic.”

That doesn’t make it even slightly better in my opinion. Religion, the Catholic religion specifically, has destroyed countless numbers of lives for hundreds of fucking years and in every sadistic way imaginable. Just google the Crusades…

“Her particular Catholic roots hold the belief that homosexuals are sick in the mind, that it’s a perversion, witchcraft, and that they’re doomed to all eternity in a lake of fire.”

I know all about the magic sky daddy of doom and his eternal wrath. This is why I’ve not only stayed as far away from religion on the whole as possible, but I’ve run from it screaming. It would all be hilarious if it weren’t so fucking tragic and cruel.

“She hates Spencer,” I say again.

“Like I said, it’s not that simple.” He dips his head so he can see my eyes. “Imagine, just for a moment, that you believed what Paula believes.” I snort out a laugh but he’s serious. “Ash, I need you to really try for me here, for Spencer.”

That sobers me up fast. I release a breath and nod, trying as much as I can to do as he’s asked. I try to imagine that I believe that being gay is a one-way ticket to eternal torment. It’s hard to get passed the insane logic of it, but once I push that aside, it makes something truly disgusting slither in the pit of my stomach.

“I’m as close as I’m going to get,” I say.

“Now imagine that you had a baby, and you loved her more than anything, more than your own life. Imagine carrying and growing that child in your body for nine months, feeling her move, going through the pain of birth, breast-feeding, singing to her, rocking her in your arms, kissing scraped knees and wiping away tears. Imagine devoting your life to teaching her everything you know and sacrificing your own needs to be sure that hers are met. And then one day, years after all of that love and care and attention, she tells you that she can’t be happy unless she turns her soul over to an eternity in hell. What would you do?”

That slithering feeling in my stomach solidifies into something hard, sour, and cold. I honestly just feel like I want to heave. I’ve never really looked at this particular issue the way he’s just shown it to me, but for all of the ways that I can now understand why Paula is so terrified of her daughter being gay, I still can’t reconcile her behavior.

If what he says is true, if her behavior towards Spencer is actually just an attempt to save Spencer from eternal torment, then what she does isn’t rooted in a deep and abiding love as it should be, but a deep and abiding fear. And what’s worse is that she chooses, of her own freewill, not only to be afraid, but to allow that fear to deeply and irrevocably harm her daughter.

Beliefs are hard to change. I know this first-hand.

But it’s possible to change them. I know this first-hand too.

“Okay, Mr. C., I get it now, but how does being hateful to Spencer help to save her?”

He leans back and raises his hands before letting them fall back to the counter. “This is what I’ve been trying to explain to Paula since I told her about the two of you. I’m still a Catholic.” This surprises me, and it must show on my face. “It’s true. I believe in God, but the God I believe in is one of absolute love, grace, and forgiveness. If Spencer is going to hell for loving you, and I do not, for one minute, believe that, then the God that I know doesn’t exist.”

I want to tell him that he’s right, that God doesn’t exist, but even if I am right, something tells me that I won’t be able to convince him. But then, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if he believes in something that I find to be a story of strange fantasy and fairytale, because he’s still him, even with those beliefs.

And I wouldn’t want him to be any different. The same is not true of Paula though.

“So, there’s nothing we can do to get that ring for Spencer?”

He pats my hands. “There are two ways,” he says. “Either you find a way to convince Paula where I never could, or we plan the heist of the century.”

I grin at him, not just because he’s so corny and sweet, which are both true, but because I realize in this moment just how much I love and appreciate him. I can’t help but allow a fleeting thought to form of what it would have been like had I stayed and had his support instead of running away. Without a doubt it would have saved everyone a lot of pain. But for all of my regrets, I cannot and will not regret the life that I’m living right now.

“Could we wear ski masks,” I ask.

A deep, rumbling laugh escapes him. “Ash, I think you know as well as I do that Spencer doesn’t want that ring. You could give her a giant hunk of metal with black snakes crawling through the eyes of a skull and she’d wear that thing all the way down the aisle and beyond.” I can’t help but snicker at his imagery. “She wants what that ring represents.”

I exhale heavily in understanding, two words coming to my mind: unconditional acceptance. And when I put them together, I get only one.

“Love,” I say.

He pats my hands again before returning to the chopping board. A long while passes as I watch him throw everything into a large, rounded skillet and fill the air with some truly mouth-watering aromas.

“Mr. C,” I say and he hums in reply. “Can I get Paula’s number?” He glances over at me, a loving but resigned expression on his face, and I shrug. “I have to try.”

He nods, and that inexhaustible smile returns. “And this is why I can’t wait for you to marry my daughter.”


Spencer drags herself up into the passenger side of the Humvee and shuts the door with a huff. She immediately flops back against the seat and sluggishly turns her head to me, the adoring weariness in her eyes turning me into a puddle.

“You are a sight for sore eyes,” she says sweetly.

“Aww,” I coo, putting a hand on her thigh to rub it soothingly. “Is my sweetheart tired?”

“Yes,” she says resolutely, her bottom lip puffing out.

“Spence,” I say reaching across the console to tuck her hair behind her ear. “I can take you home. We don’t have to do anything tonight.”

She takes my hand, kisses the palm, and looks me over.

“But you look so beautiful,” she says.

I stare at her because she’s endearingly crazy. I’m wearing a plain black tank top with a loose-fitting, semi-sheer over sweater that falls off of my shoulders. The arms are pushed up to my elbows as if I’m about to do the dishes and the light-peach color is utterly boring. Torn, skinny crop-jeans, and low-top Chucks round out this utterly mundane outfit. I’m not even wearing socks, or makeup, unless you count eyeliner.

“Now I know you’re tired,” I chuckle out.

“Ash,” her voice is pathetic. “Just… shut up and look beautiful.”

I shake my head at her, making up my mind. “I’m taking you home and you’re going to sleep.”

“It’s Friday,” she protests. “I can sleep in. Besides, I can smell the food and I’m starving.”

My eyes study her for a moment. She’s wearing much the same: tight-fitting blue jeans, a thin, scoop-neck sweater where the sleeves go down to the tips of her thumbs, and a cute pair of rocket dogs. I realize that I can’t really argue with her. She looks entirely lovely to me too.

I glance into the backseat at the basket of food Mr. C prepared and consider that I’m not planning anything extravagant. Hell, once I feed her, she can just fall asleep in my arms. That definitely wouldn’t ruin the night. My hand settles back onto her thigh and I pull back into traffic. Spencer puts her hand over mine and I don’t think she takes her adoring eyes off of me for the whole fifteen minutes it takes to get to the Crisis Center.

When I pull into the disheveled parking lot, she rouses, looking at the plastic wrapped building and back to me. “A construction site,” she asks.

I just grin at her and exit the vehicle, retrieving the basket before opening her door to tug her out. She follows me placidly as we enter the behemoth bones of the building. The place is empty, and by empty I mean that it’s been completely gutted. Most of the walls are little more than strategically set lines of timber. The concrete floor is dusty and work materials are stacked and piled in random, out-of-the-way places. It smells like plaster and paint, but I’m both proud and humbled to be a part of this place and what it’s becoming.

She follows me into the room where a round table is covered in a clean cloth and a bowl of water is situated in the middle, tea candles and pink lotus flowers floating on the surface. The walls in here are semi-finished, the joints easily discernable in the freshly laid sheetrock.

“Where did you guys put the kids,” she asks.

“They’re buried in the foundation.”

She frowns at me. “You’re a strange and terrifying person.”

I chuckle. “Maybe, but no. All of the kids have been temporarily relocated to a property I rented.”

It’s little less than a resort compared to what they’re used to, but even the bones of this place indicate that this will be a spectacular way-home in the very near future.

“I’m so glad you’re helping them,” she says.

I shrug. “This place saved my life.”

“And mine too,” she says quietly.

I set the basket on the table, set Spencer in one of the chairs, and take the seat right next to her so I can light the tea candles. I feel her hand playing in my hair at the base of my neck and a shiver rattles through me.

“I love your hair,” she says.

I recently got it cut. It only just touches my shoulders and the simple style follows the curving angle of my jaw, the left side a touch longer than the right. It also forces the naturally wavy texture to separate into messily attractive tufts. It feels good to have a full head of hair again, especially if it gives Spencer a reason to play with it.

Spencer continues with her fingers while I unpack the basket and set the little Chinese boxes out.

“Ooh, Din Tai Fang,” Spencer brightens.

I start pulling the boxes apart into plates. Din Tai Fang is one of her favorite dumpling restaurants.

“Better,” I say. “Your dad.”

Her eyes gleam at me and she picks up a set of disposable chopsticks to pull them apart, more than ready to dig in.

“Where’d you get the to-go boxes,” she asks.

“I bought them at the little shop in Chinatown when I picked up the groceries.”

She hands me the separated chopsticks and picks up another set for herself. I clasp one of the dumplings I know she loves so much, dip it in the sauce, and hold it up to her mouth. She takes it without hesitation and closes her eyes as she chews slowly, moaning out her appreciation to the ceiling.

“My dad is the best,” she finally says around a mouthful, and I have to agree. “And so are you.”

I’ll plead the fifth on that one, but I’ll also admit that I so love it when she’s tired. She’s all floppy and squishy and filterless. It’s better than drunk because I know how much she means her uninhibited mush. She prepares a dumpling and puts it in my mouth. It truly is heavenly. Everything turns quiet as we focus on eating, taking our time to savor the sweet and salty taste and the companionable silence. We playfully feed each other, and there are plenty of stolen glances, sticky kisses, and tender touches. It’s a little messy, but that only makes us both giggle, though I’m fairly certain that she is genuinely disappointed when the last dumpling slips through her chopsticks and falls to the floor. Fortunately, there are noodles and other items to pull her back from the edge of dispair.

Once we’re both stuffed, she seems to have perked up quite a bit and I stand, holding my hand out to her. She takes it without hesitation and I pull her to one of the walls where I touch the drying putty.

“I did that,” I say.

Her eyebrows scrunch together and she cocks her head at me. “You hung a wall?”

I chuckle. “No, Spence.” I show her the little plunks of putty that dot the lines in the sheetrock. They’re still wet. “The construction workers built it. I just put the putty on the joints and screw holes.”

She looks around, examining my handiwork. It’s noticeably sloppy in some areas, but I can see how I progressively got better throughout the day as we do a full circle. Her arms link over my shoulders and my hands find her hips, moving up her back and locking us together. We start to sway, though there’s no music, and her eyes catch mine and hold.

It’s intense, staring into someone’s eyes. I know it’s cliché, but whoever said that the eyes are the windows to the soul… well, I have to agree. Looking this deeply, this closely, there’s a profound intimacy to it, especially with Spencer. Her eyes have always been so expressive. She can’t hide anything behind them, and it makes my heart skip a beat to see into her, to see through her this way, even as what I can see may be too thoughtful.

We stay this way for minutes or days, I’m not sure. I’m only certain that I don’t care. And I only wish that I could know her thoughts, hear them. So I decide to just ask.

“Spence, what are you thinking?”

She debates within herself, and I can tell it’s something big, some place that she really doesn’t want to go. But as if she can read my mind like I so desperately want to be able to read hers, she goes there anyway, for me.

“Do you have your list with you?”

We stop swaying and I feel my forehead wrinkle. Suddenly her eyes are too intense and my head tilts down, away. She reaches up to brush back the wayward wave that’s fallen into my eyes. I have no idea why she’d want to look at the list. Like asking me to pull the pin on a live grenade, that list has the power to ruin this night.

Why go there?

But then her hand against my chin insists that I look at her again, and so I do. And while I realize that Spencer would never do anything to intentionally hurt either of us, she’s spectacular at hurting us unintentionally. Either way, just looking at her, I know that I trust her. With a heavy breath, I release her and pull the wallet from my back pocket to fish the list out. She takes it from me and gently unfolds it.

“I don’t suppose you have a pen in your back pocket, do you,” she asks with sarcasm.

I chuckle, confused as fuck, but now more interested than ever in learning what she’s up to. There’s a work table along the back wall and I retrieve the giant, flat, sturdy pencil that every single construction worker carries.

“Will a pencil do?”

She nods and takes it from me, bracing the paper against her open palm to strike through a line. It takes a couple of tries before she gets it right. The pencil is awkward and the tip dull. Offering the list back to me, I take it and turn it so that I can see what she’s done, and feel my heart swell as I find that she’s marked through the line that says, ‘Make a difference in at least one person’s life.’

My vision swims and I glance back up at her. She takes me in her arms and I bury my face in her neck. All of my planning for this list has centered solely around those things that I could actually accomplish. And most of that has been trips or actions where I could just do something and tick the line off like a robot. My only attempt at something deeper, something emotional, was the trip to the prison and there’s no strike through that particular line.

I lean back and look at Spencer again, and that swelling something bursts inside of me. I could call it hope or gratitude or joy or inspiration, but when I really try to pin it down, I realize that it’s all of those things. I realize that the hardest parts of this list, the things that I thought that I never could do, now I actually have a fucking chance.

She leans in and kisses me before putting her forehead to mine.

“Thank you, Spencer,” I say.

“You did it, not me,” she says simply.

Oh, how she’s so right, and so very wrong.


“Hello?”

“Um… hi, Paula.”

The line’s quiet, too quiet. I pull my iPhone away from my ear to look down at the screen and make sure that it’s even still connected. It shows that it is, so I put it back to my face, waiting for the woman to say something, and almost instantly regretting it.

“Who is this,” her voice is icy with suspicion.

“It’s Ashley.” Nothing. “Ashley Davies?”

The line’s nothing but faint static again and I force myself not to look at the phone. She’s there; she’s just seething in disbelief, I’m sure.

“Is Spencer okay,” she finally asks and I hear that ice shift and melt just a little.

“Oh, yeah, of course. She’s fine. I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“Arthur?”

“He’s good too.”

“Then why have you called?”

That ice is back and blacker than ever, and this is the moment when I’m supposed to say something profound that will magically change her mind. It’s all so foolish, both her beliefs and my insane hope that I would be able to sway her to at least give me the ring, if none of the love that it represents. But I really do have to try, so here goes…

“I’m, uh… I’m calling to talk to you about something. And I know that you aren’t going to like it. But I hope you can understand that I’m only doing this for Spencer.”

“If Spencer needs something, she could call me herself. Why would she ask you to do it?”

“She didn’t ask me to call you. In fact, she doesn’t know that I am.”

“Well, you’re not calling for Spencer then. You’re calling for you. And whatever it is, I don’t really want to hear it. Goodbye, Ashley.”

“Please, Paula, just hear me out…?”

There’s a long pause before she speaks again.

“Okay, I’m curious. What do you want?”

I pull the phone away from my face and squeeze it with both hands as I bloody my tongue to keep from telling her what I actually want. Because right now, I don’t want her to change her mind and I sure as fuck don’t want walk her through how to be a decent person. I just want to scream at her for being a shitty mother. But somehow, I put the phone back to my ear and take a deep breath.

“Spencer and I have reconciled, and I’m going to ask her to marry me. What I want is her ring so that I can do this right.”

I swear I can feel the fires of hell licking at the soles of my feet simply because she’s willed them to with her mind, even from this distance. But after a few long moments, she finally makes an utterly disgusted sound.

“Do this right,” she asks. “Nothing about this is right.”

I sigh, pinching the bridge of my nose against the headache that’s forming.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Paula. I love Spencer. I make her happy. And it’s very right.” She scoffs and I continue. “I’m not asking you to agree. I’m not asking you to come to the wedding. I’m not asking you to love Spencer. I’m just asking you for something that’s already hers.”

“Who do you think you are to suggest that I don’t love my daughter?”

I sigh with emotional exhaustion. “Allow me to rephrase: I’m not asking you to love Spencer as she is. I’m asking for her ring.”

“That ring isn’t hers,” she says.

“It’s been passed down through the women in your family when they marry for seven generations. Spencer’s a woman, she’s your daughter, and she’s going to be married.”

“That’s not a marriage. If and when Spencer decides that she actually wants to pursue a real relationship, her groom will get that ring, but not a moment before.”

I close my eyes. “Paula, Spencer is a lesbian. It has nothing to do with me, or you, or biological sex, or any religious belief. It’s just part of who she is and she can’t change it any more than you can change the fact that she is your daughter.”

For a moment I wonder if I’ve actually reached her because her voice turns pleading. “If you really care about Spencer, you’ll leave her alone. Not only have you hurt and confused her, but don’t you see the bigger picture here? Can’t you see that what you’re doing is a mortal sin? You really care so little for her soul?”

“Paula, even if I did believe that, pushing her away only hurt her, and I’m never going to do that to her again, not for God and not for you. Do you really love her so little that you’d rather she lived miserably with a man, any man, than happily with me simply because of what you choose to believe?”

“If it weren’t for you, she wouldn’t have been miserable. Those… feelings, would have passed and she’d have eventually fallen in love with a decent man.”

“You can’t know that. It’s just a fantasy you’ve created to console yourself and shift the blame from your own bigotry onto me. I’m not the problem here, Paula, and neither is Spencer. Homosexuality isn’t the problem either. The problem is with you and the things you choose to believe. Spencer and I are in love with each other, and that’s never going to change.”

“It’s not possible for two women to fall in love, even if they’ve convinced themselves that’s what it is.”

“I accept Spencer unconditionally. Her happiness is my happiness. I love everything about her: her mind, her heart, and yes, even her body. What about that isn’t love?”

“Just because you lust after her doesn’t mean that you love her.”

“Aren’t you listening? I’m telling you that her happiness is my happiness. If she could be happy without me, I’d let her go, but the opposite is true, and you know it. You saw it for yourself. You really want her to spend the rest of her life suffering? Is that what love is to you…, suffering?”

“Of course not,” she spits out.

“Then how can loving someone be grounds for eternal torment? How can God be love incarnate and then sadistically torture people? Why would you ask me to leave her to suffer and call that love? Why do you want her to suffer any loss, Paula, me or you? Where is the love in that?”

There’s a long, pregnant pause, and I find myself holding my breath.

“The answer is no.”

The line goes dead and I pull the cell away from my face to just stare at the screen. A deep sadness fills my chest and I find tears welling in my eyes, not because I didn’t get the ring, but because I know what it means to be abandoned by a mother. It hurts somewhere fundamental, and in a way that’s truly devastating. And while I personally understand that pain, I can’t even comprehend how it must feel for Spencer, because she has the added element of memory.

She had a mother once. She knows what it used to be like, what it should be, and what it could be again. She actually had to grieve the loss of someone, whereas I just never had them to lose them. All of a sudden my own mother doesn’t seem so monstrous. At least she never pretended to care.

I knew that this was the most likely outcome, but somehow it still feels inconceivable. I have no idea what to do other than start looking for a different ring, but that just doesn’t feel like the right thing to do for Spencer. So with a heavy heart, I decide to hold off. I’m going to wait. The right answer will present itself. Now I just have to find a way to be patient.


We haven’t played a show since the incident with Jon, and while I want to be on that stage playing my heart out because my blood screams for it, in some ways it’s even better to be down here in the crowd, despite the fact that we’re in one of the seedier venues in Los Angeles.

First off, it’s my birthday. I’m twenty-three fucking years old and determined to make it to one-hundred and three. Second, Spencer Carlin, the love of my life, is just as much in love with me. We’re together, ecstatically so. Those might have been enough satisfaction for the entire day in and of itself, possibly the rest of my life, but Spencer had other plans.

She kicked off the day with the best wake-up sex ever endeavored. Then, there was a nap. When I woke again, breakfast was laid into my lap, a veritable smorgasbord of all my favorite things from pancakes covered in reddi-whip, to sushi, to crab canapes, and right down to a homemade cup of hot chocolate, which, oddly enough, turned into more sex. I had no idea just how many different ways those little marshmallows could be enjoyed, but I’ve been dutifully educated. This brought about a shower, which turned into more sex and yet another nap.

By the time we pulled ourselves out of bed, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk straight, let alone do anything else. I was happy in the cocoon she’d made for us. And maybe I am walking with a limp. So fucking what? I’m fucking thrilled about it.

To my everlasting disbelief, the day continued to get better and better. Shirley, Sam, Mr. C, Kyla, and the band came over. We had cake, dark forest – which is my favorite, and I opened presents. While the more mature members of the bunch presented me with things like a vintage boom box replete with a full collection of 80’s new wave cassette tapes, a 1974 telecaster in powder blue that had me swooning, a litter of mixtiles from a plethora of phone pictures that I had no idea existed, and an original oil painting from Kate’s personal collection that I’d previously admired; Jac presented me with barely there lingerie, some of which were most conspicuously Spencer’s size. This had me winking at Spencer, and it’s what started the downfall of what little was left of her dignity. Jon’s gift was last, something called a feeldoe, and that’s what did Spencer completely in.

It’s essentially a two-sided strap-on without the straps. When I unwrapped the box, opened it, and held up the rainbow-colored, plastic dick, Spencer was so red she looked like she’d fallen asleep in a tanning bed. Personally, I was very intrigued by the device, giving her a lascivious grin that only made it worse. She bounced back though, quickly hiding the phallus and giving me the most amazing thing I could have asked for aside from the woman herself: a green hoodie. And not just any green hoodie, but the green hoodie, expertly repaired by a local tailor. And, to top it off, she’d been wearing it anytime she wasn’t with me.

It smelled like her again.

This had me in crying in her arms.

Once everything had settled down, and Mr. C had been sent home with far too much information about lesbian sex, Spencer presented me with riot girl revival concert tickets. I even got a text from Erin and a call from Christine. I was on overload. I wasn’t sure how much more I could take of what was shaping up to be a truly unforgettable birthday. But Spencer still wasn’t done. She then had the audacity to wear what she’s wearing.

If I start from the top, her yellow hair hangs in long, gently sloping waves that curl around her shoulders. Her eyes are a startling blue against the expertly applied smoky flare fanning out around her thick lashes. Shiny gloss catches any available light so that her pouty lips look wet and ripe for the taking. The black bustier is little more than two triangles of cloth tied at the nape of her neck by a thin string that barely contains her breasts. And the dress, if I can even call it that, is little more than a black net that plunges down the sides of her cleavage to gather at her hips where it solidifies into the shortest, tightest skirt I’ve ever seen. Finishing every glorious inch of her off is a pair of open-toe heels that make her at least six inches taller than me.

It’s understandable that my eyes almost fall out of my sockets every time I look at her.

And fucking Christ, I’m looking. It’s impossible not to. She’s been grinding against me all night from the back of the pit. I’ve got a little buzz going, but I’ve avoided getting drunk so I don’t lose any detail of this day. There are only two points of contention, and they are miniscule at best. First, Aiden didn’t come for cake. But then, fuck him. I’m not dealing with any drama today. And lastly, Bikini Kill is almost done on stage, meaning that this epic show and this epic day are regrettably coming to a close.

And then it happens, Julie Ruin says her goodbyes and the lights turn up, but I just can’t find it within myself to be disappointed. I seek out the rest of our crew, and I find it odd that they’re not moving to leave. In fact, they’re all smirking at me. Further inspection of the room reveals that no one’s trying to leave, and the roadies are resetting the stage. I turn back to Spencer and she’s grinning at me like a fucking fool. She grabs my hands and leads me to the backstage area, walking backwards so that she can keep her eyes on me.

With a flash of our tickets we’re in, though the tickets themselves don’t mention that they’re VIP. She leads me up the tiny stairs to the side of the stage and slings my Flying V over my neck. But I didn’t bring it…

“Spence, what’s going on,” I ask.

There’s no answer. Instead, she slowly circles to my back, her hand trailing along my shoulders in a worshipful way that tries to override my curiosity with lust, but it’s a toss-up. She eases my arm through the strap and adjusts the wireless pack down until it’s exactly where I like it. She even checks the batteries for me. And then it happens. Awareness nearly knocks me on my ass when I see Lita fucking Ford and Joan fucking Jett come out of the dressing room and approach me like we’re old friends.

“Lita,” the tall guitar goddess says, resting her left hand on the neck of her guitar as she shakes my hand.

When I touch her, I feel like I might die. But then Joan does the same, and I find the will to stay on my feet.

“What do you say, kid, wanna join us for the first song?”

Joan Jett just asked me to play a fucking song with her…

My mouth works for a minute but I can barely breathe, let alone speak. I feel a hand settle on the small of my back and a warm body curve against my right side, and I find the strength that I need to form words.
Well, word. “Yes.”

So it’s not the most eloquent I’ve ever been, but it’s something and it’s honest. And at least I’m not gushing like the fangirl that I am.

“Right on,” Lita says, an amazing smile on her face. “Pick your poison.”

“Uh…” My thoughts starts to jumble. If I get one song, I have to make it count. I glance over at Spencer, looking at her in utter shock and wonder, and I find that I know exactly which song. “I Love Playing With Fire?”

“Let’s do it,” Joan says.

My two fucking heroes flank me on either side and lead me out onto the stage. I’ve never been more terrified or excited as the already raucous crowd flings themselves forward in a frenzy of heat and sweat. In all of my years of playing shows, I’ve never felt anything like this. Playing in front of a live audience was always amazing, but right now, every single one of those past experiences is utterly insignificant. I’m overwhelmed, but then that ravenous burning in my blood starts to consume and feed my desire for more.

I hear Joan and the drummer kick into the beginning rhythm melody of the song and almost panic when I’m not even sure if I’m plugged in. I look down to see my rig of pedals right where they always are, everything lit up just like it’s supposed to be. Spencer knew everything, from how I wear my strap, where the wireless box goes, how to plug it in, to which pedals to select to give me the tone that I want… absolutely everything is exactly how I’d do it. There’s only one thing I need to do.

I run the side of my hand up along the volume knob at the bottom of my guitar to crank it all the way up and snag one of my picks from the clutch on the boom of the mic stand. Lita’s guitar screams into the intro solo and I feel her talent wash over me. On instinct, my fingers find the octave chords that will compliment Joan’s rhythm, adding an extra element to the song that isn’t normally there. I then realize that there’s no lead singer and almost miss the cue when the verse starts, but only almost.

“Ohh…,” I grind the lyrics through my throat and into the mic. “My one and only shining star said, stick with me and I’ll take you far. Your eyes are sparklin’ with teenage fire,” I glance over at Spencer. “I’ll satisfy your mad desire. Cuz I love playin’ with fire.”

Joan and Lita back me up, filling in around me to use the same mic. “Fire!”

“And I don’t wanna get burned. I love playin’ with fire. And I don’t think I’ll ever learn. Yeah…”

I don’t want to stop looking at the gorgeous bombshell that made this the second most memorable day of my life, but I can’t help it when I close my eyes and open my mouth against the mic.

“My heart is achin’ to see you play. And I can’t wait ’til another day. The way you shake me is really hot. You know how to use what you got. You know, I love playin’ with fire. And I don’t wanna get burned. I love playin’ with fire. And I don’t think I’ll ever learn.”

I step away from the mic and Lita fucking shreds on the frets, coming up to me and nodding her head towards my guitar. I pick up the solo with her and we duel, squealing out the gungy tones that can only be found in rock and roll heaven. When she sees that I can keep up with her, she grins at me and thrashes her head in time with mine. It’s over far too soon and she steps back as the last verse starts.

“Actin’ tough with looks that kill. You got me goin’ and I can’t stand still. My arms are dyin’ to hold you tight. Well, you’re my little blonde dynamite.”

No one notices the change in lyric, but a quick glance and grin from Spencer tells me that she did. And that’s all that matters.

“You know I love playin’ with fire. And I don’t wanna get burned. I love playin’ with fire, and I don’t think I’ll ever learn.”

The tempo starts to pick up as we repeat the chorus over and over again, both me and Lita embellishing and drawing it out until we finally hit an intense wall of speed and I swear to fucking Christ I can feel the shouting of the crowd blowing my hair back away from my face. The drummer kicks us down with three well-timed crescendos that end the song in one last flurry of guitar solos until all that’s left is the feedback of the last ringing notes.

My heart almost stops as the roar of the crowd sends me a couple of steps backwards. Lita and Joan pat me on the back and, like I’m sleepwalking, I make my way side-stage and to Spencer. She takes my guitar off of me and lays it back in its case. The batteries are still active on the wireless receiver but I don’t care. I just stare at her, my chest heaving as Joan and Lita start into the next song. Without even thinking about it, I snag her hand and start to drag her outside to the Humvee. She doesn’t protest. The people congratulating me on the way barely even register, and despite the height of her heels and the unsteady weave through the crowd, Spencer stays right with me.

When we get to the Humvee I can barely get the keys from my pocket to unlock the doors I’m so charged. Adrenaline is thudding through my veins. They feel stretched inside of me, like power lines pulsing throughout my body. And it only intensifies when Spencer takes the keys from me, unlocks the door and climbs into the backseat. She takes a fist full of my over-sized, white t-shirt and drags me in with her.

I’m on top of her, ravaging her mouth and running my hand up her skirt before she can even reach past me to struggle with the door and slam it shut. When I get to the apex of her legs I find nothing but warm, silky skin. There’s no barrier and she’s so wet that my whole hand is soaked in seconds. I hear her leg slam against the window so hard that I wonder if she’s cracked it, but it’s only a fleeting thought.

My forehead falls to her neck. “Jesus, Spencer, you’re so wet.”

She’s panting, her chest heaving against me as her frantic fingers find my wrist and wrench me inside of her. Two fingers pass easily, and then three, and her back hits hard against the seat as her legs pump her pelvis up into me.

A brace with my free arm and lean over her as a frantic rhythm ensues. Her pants become guttural, feminine whimpers, going higher and higher until her legs vibrate, her torso arches up into me, her hands claw at my back, and everything goes still on the outside even as I can feel her rattling inside. The grip is so tight I wonder if my fingers might break, but somehow I just want it to get tighter.

I want more.

My free hand roughly liberates one of her breasts through the deep slope of the mesh blouse and my mouth bites down on its peak. It wrenches a cry from her, but it’s most definitely not one of pain or protest. One of my fingers is released and the remaining two curl up, calling her to me, beckoning her to break open for me one more time. Her back stays rigid, but her hands find my face and lock our mouths together as every fucking muscle in both of our bodies strain. Her teeth find my bottom lip and we both cry out as she tumbles off the cliff and takes me with her.

We lay there for a moment, collapsed in a jumbled heap of sweat, arms, and legs. She’s stroking me, though I’m not sure where she found the strength, especially when the stroking becomes insistent shoving. I’m nearly thrown off of her and pinned against the door. Her skirt is lewdly hiked up to her breasts, her hair is disheveled, her make-up smeared, and there’s a wild look in her eyes in the split second that it takes for her to lay into me.

I don’t know how she manages it, but the skin-tight leather of my pants is gone, so are my shoes, and I’m halfway down the seat on my back. My thong is roughly thrust aside and held in her fist. Her head is perched between my crudely spread legs, one thrown over the backseat rest and the other pressed hard against the floorboard. My stomach is tightening and releasing in time with her rhythmic grip on my breast. I’m clutching the backs of both seats as tightly as I can, but my sweaty palms keep slipping every time my pelvis bucks up like it has a mind of its own.

The pulse of her tongue and the hot breathes escaping past it are nearly too much. It almost makes me want to crawl away but then every time my hips attempt to escape, they change their mind and push back. I can’t think. I can’t see. I can’t breathe, and I start to panic because the tide of sensation that’s already here is going to be too much.

Exquisitely too much.

I’ve never felt anything like it. I feel like my bones have shattered, my heart has exploded, and my muscles have snapped like rubber bands. There’s no breath in me to push out, but somehow a cry is strangled from my throat. Everything gets tighter still until I see small pinpricks of light explode behind my eyelids and I’m finally released, only to rattle with each suck of air.

I can feel her and smell her all around me. Her touch becomes soothing and gentle, and I lay in her arms, more spent than there are words to express it. Time passes, and I may have blacked out for a moment, but the calm that follows is complete in its serenity. My mind begins to replay what just happened and I find myself chuckling.

Spencer joins in until we’re both laughing so hard that our bodies can’t even express the full extent of it they’re so taxed.

“Why are we laughing,” she finally asks.

“You,” I say, reaching up to smooth her hair back so I can see her gorgeous face. “You were always a wet and wild ride, but Jesus, Spencer…”

“And that’s funny,” she asks, cocking her head at me.

“It’s just…,” I start, trying to find a way to explain. “You’re so… modest and innocent, at least in public, but get you turned on and alone and holy shit… I can barely keep up with you.” She smiles. “I guess I just forgot how fucking good you are at this.”

“Does that mean I get to go first with the feeldoe?”

I can feel my mouth fall open in shock before I start to laugh. “I thought you hated that thing.”

“No way,” she says. “I’m totally game, but no one else needs to know that.”

I lean up and kiss her. “Well, it’ll be a first for me, but I’ll give it the old heave-ho.”

That sly grin returns. “Ash, when I said I wanted to go first, I meant I’d be on top.”

I gulp, and she just laughs.


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


Continued in Chapter 16 – The Rabbit Hole

Chapter 14 – I Win

The plane taxis down the runway at the speed of a snail… on ADHD medication. I’m tapping out an insistent and frustrated rhythm against the armrest of my seat, staring at the ‘Stay Seated’ sign and willing it to fizzle out, or explode, or do something. Everyone around me is relaxed, most asleep in the dark cabin, and I start to wonder how many of them would be aware enough to stop me if I tried to open one of the emergency doors and jump out. Hell, I wonder how much of a limp I’d have to endure if I survived the fall to the tarmac.

If it’s possible, the plane slows even further and I swear to fucking Christ that I want to scream. There was a four hour wait at McCarran International for the next available flight to board, this slow ass flight, and now I have to deal with this shit too? There’s a ding, like a microwave has gone off, or perhaps I’ve popped an embolism, and my head snaps to the sign. It’s no longer lit. The lights in the cabin begin to brighten and the captain’s voice comes over the intercom, but I’m not listening.

I attempt to jump to my feet but the seatbelt holds me in place. With a frustrated growl, I fumble with the release and then with getting the damn straps clear so that I can finally throw myself down the aisle. Only I run into a door, slamming my hand against it in frustration. At least I’m first in line. The stewardess, like the gatekeeper to hell, gives me a horrified expression. And I realize that I must look like a maniac, or a customs jockey with a punctured condom of cocaine in my asshole leaking death into my bloodstream. But really, I just want the damn gangway to finally hit the side of the plane and she’s in my fucking way.

Years pass before I finally feel the solid thump, and the Stewardess barely has time to get out of the way before I scream past her at a run. I don’t stop until I’m on the curb, and I probably have security chasing me given how many people I pushed out of my way. A single taxi is pulling to a stop and a man is opening the back door. A burst of speed has me sitting in the seat on the other side before the original customer can even bend down to see inside.

“Hey,” he says accusingly.

“Ma’am,” the cab driver scolds, clearly choosing the tip of the well-dressed business man over whatever the fuck craziness I must look like just now.

I shout the address at him and attempt to throw some bills over the seat, but I can’t get them out quick enough. Eventually, I just chuck the whole damn wallet at him, a couple of Benjamins poking out of the top. There’s probably a thousand in cash in there but I don’t care.

The cabby does.

The car starts moving and I have to shift to the other door to close as it as the business man yells from the curb.

“He’s fine,” I say. “Just get me there as fast as you can…, please.”

“Alright.”

Quiet descends and I stare out through the window, willing the world to blur by faster.
“Can I ask where the fire is?”

I smile at his question. “It’s in my chest.”

He pulls a couple of bills from the wallet before tossing it back to me. I envy his calm.

“So why the rush?”

“Because I need the one person who can put it out.”

“Ah,” he says knowingly. “You’re not the first star-crossed lover I’ve braved a high-speed chase for.”

That thought fills me with expectation that he’ll hurry the fuck up.

“So you know how fast I need you to go.”

He nods and I feel the engine rev. It’s soothing.

“Have you ever been in love,” I ask after a time.

A handsome smile graces his older features in the rear-view mirror. “I married my first love. We’ve been together forty-five years.”

I feel a little awestruck. I can’t imagine forty-five years with Spencer, but I want to.

“How did you live with it, every day… loving someone so much that it makes you want to puke?”

He chuckles. “It’s not easy, but just wait until you have kids. That kind of love will give you ulcers.”

I chuckle with him this time.

Kids…

A family…

With Spencer…

I close my eyes and envision it, destroy all of those carefully erected barriers around this part of my heart with as little effort as a quick swipe of a forearm across a chessboard. Spencer’s there, flushed with exhaustion, joy, and beauty, our child warm and swaddled in her arms. I see myself leaning in to kiss her as my finger finds the strong grip of a hand so tiny that it’s barely the width of one of my knuckles.

I see it all.

I feel it all.

And it’s beyond words.

“We’re here,” the cabby said and I open my eyes. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” I say, throwing open my door and bolting up the steps to her apartment building.

I jam my finger on the buzzer and sound out an intense morse code but no one’s answering. It’s still early, the sun only barely beginning to turn the sky gray. As if the universe is finally throwing me a bone, the door opens and a man in a jogging outfit comes out with a dog on a leash. I wait for him to pass me before catching the door and flinging myself to the elevator to slam my hand on the up button. The stupid thing is taking ages and I want to scream. My eyes light on the stairwell sign, a little stick man with a fire under his ass, and, with a roll of my eyes, I jettison myself up the five floors. My legs and lungs are burning so acutely that my pace slows, and that’s frustrating too. I’m running out of adrenaline when I need it the most.

I practically crash into Spencer’s door where I begin to frantically pound on it. Several dogs bark and the door next to me opens, a head peeking out to tell me that if I don’t knock it the fuck off they’re going to call the cops. I, of course, flip the old woman off and keep pounding, and even ratchet the noise up a notch.

“SPENCER!”

Finally, I hear the scratch of a chain from the other side and it opens. She’s standing there, dumbstruck and disheveled, and I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in my life.

“Ash?”

I push inside and shut the door before leaning against it.

“I’m an… idiot,” I say, putting my hands on my knees and trying to breathe.

“I’ll be in my room, with headphones on, and maybe some heavy metal music,” Mr. C says from somewhere.

“Try… Pantera…, Mr. C,” I gasp out.

“I’ll do that,” he says.

A door clicks shut.

Spencer frowns. “Ash, what’s going on?”

“I broke up with… Erin. Well…, she… broke up with me.”

“Ash, slow down…”

She takes my hand and pulls me to the couch and it’s everything I can do to sit, even as I want to collapse. Spencer turns to leave but I catch her arm, standing again. I put my forehead to hers and try to breathe. Her hands on my hips and the clutch of her face help to ground me and steady me. And some of my mania dissipates.

“Ash, please just try to calm down,” she whispers.

I laugh at the absurdity of the idea. I’m on fucking fire, for her, but she can’t know that until I’ve finally regained some of my air.

“I’m not in love with her, Spencer,” I finally get out, though it’s all in a rush. “I tried but I couldn’t, and now I know that I’m not going to let you walk away from this. And it was the same for her. She understands, better than anyone ever could.”

“Ash, you’re not making any sense.”

I lean back and look at her, trying to force some sanity into me, to cool the flames. There’s no way for me to explain to her what’s happening, how she has a role to play in this too.

“Spencer, do you love me,” is all I can think to say.

“Of course I do.”

“Are you in love with me?”

“Yes,” she says almost shamefully.

“And you know that I love you, that I’m in love with you too?”

Her eyes harden in her sockets and no answer is forthcoming.

“Spencer, you’ve got to be kidding me. I’ve been head over fucking heels in love with you my whole life. Everything I’ve ever done has been because of you.” She gives me a sardonic look. “Yes, Spencer, even the stupid things.”

She slumps against the edge of the couch, her shoulders hunched in defeat, and the pose makes my stomach tighten.

“But you’ve convinced yourself that you’re not ready,” I continue. “You thought there was something wrong with me, and then you thought that there’s something wrong with you. But those excuses don’t work anymore. We’re both a mess, it’s true, but that doesn’t matter.”

She keeps her eyes on the floor. “You’re right, Ash…” Her voice is resigned. “It doesn’t matter…”

“You know that’s not what I meant. The problems don’t matter, but the fact that we love each other so much that we have literally moved heaven and earth for each other, does.”

This causes her to look at me. “When I left the first time, I made you believe that I was rejecting you. I hollowed out your confidence. And when I came back, you started to see that what you rebuilt wasn’t the way you wanted it to be. So you did what you always do: you fixed it. And then you gave me a reason to do what I never do, and I fixed it, but I had to meet someone like Erin to do that. You took another huge blow to your confidence. It helped me figure things out for myself, but sent you reeling again. I don’t think I can ever tell you how sorry I am. I mean, it’s little wonder you’ve given up.”

“It doesn’t mat-”

Even I can feel the ice in my eyes that causes her to shut the fuck up with that bullshit.

“Yes, it does. It matters, and that’s why you’re mad. Why can’t you just say it? Why do you think you have to protect me from the truth, especially when it’s just getting us both hurt? It’s okay to get messy, Spencer.”

I wasn’t sure what to do when I got here. I wasn’t convinced that Mr. C was right, but now I see that he is. I still have no idea what to say or how to approach her, but the weariness on display is so heavy now that I wonder how I ever missed it. I think I finally understand what she needs, and it’s the very thing she’s always denied herself. Even when she’s been hurt and she’s angry, she doesn’t take the full justice she deserves because gentleness is in her nature. Perfectionism is in her nature too, but that just doesn’t fucking exist. And I don’t need her to be gentle with me. I don’t need her to be perfect. I don’t need to be perfect. Not anymore. In fact, I hate the very idea of it. She just needs to be her and I need to be me. That’s fucking it.

“Get mad, Spence.”

“What? No…”

“Be mad.”

She sighs. “I don’t want to.”

“I don’t think you get a choice.”

“I’m fine, Ashley.”

“Bullshit! Get mad, dammit!”

Her eyes are soft, and I shake my head. “You mean to tell me that it doesn’t matter that you were thrown aside by someone who claimed to love you?

“Why are you doing this…” There’s a steely quality to her voice.

“You have nothing to say about the fact that the person you trusted most in this world pushed you away, shut you out, shut down on you like you didn’t matter…”

Her arms fold over her stomach in a desperate grip. “Don’t do this…”

My resolve waivers, but I push, wishing that I didn’t have to hurt her. “You really have nothing to say to the person who failed you, who wouldn’t let you in, who ran away…”

“Stop!”

“You really deserved to be betrayed, abandoned, used…?”

“JUST STOP IT,” she screams, getting to her feet.

She comes at me and I worry that she’s going to hit me, but she stops herself short and screams in my face.

“FUCK! Where do you get off?! You come here in the middle the night and tell me that your girlfriend broke up with you, and so I’m supposed to what, just fall into your arms?! You want me to remember just all of the ways that you ruined my life, how you stole my happiness, and that’s going to make it all better?! All of a sudden everything matters to you?! Well, fuck you! You did ruin my life, but I’m not going to let you anymore! I’m so – fucking – tired of this bullshit!”

She’s trembling so violently that I start to wonder if I’ve made a mistake, but then more comes out.

“You have the nerve to call me weak, to tell me that you took my confidence, to tell me that it matters?! Just fuck you, Ashley! I’m not weak and I fought hard to fix the fucked up mess that you made because you’re just so fucking selfish! I think I did a pretty fucking amazing job! I at least did better than you because I didn’t put my goddamn head in the sand! But none of it matters, least of all to you!”

“But it does matter, Spence. It’s everything.”

I step closer to her but she backs away, going as far as to shove my hand away.

“Don’t you dare touch me,” she warns, but I just follow her, swooping in fast to take her in my arms and bury my face in her neck.

She struggles, painfully so, but I don’t let her go.

“I deserved so much better,” she shoves harder but I’m unmoving. “I was committed to you and you tossed me aside, not once, but twice, and I let you, because I’m just as fucking stupid as you are! I hate that you matter to me so much! I wish I’d never… I wish…”

It’s all of the things she’s been holding in and I need to hear them; I need her to say them, not because I deserve them, even though I do, but because in all of the ways that I couldn’t let her see my pain, she needs me to see hers. That is just who we are, different as night and day.

I’m solid in the embrace, my arms locked around her, and I’m not letting her go any more easily than she ever let me. The yelling and fighting finally weakens, turning into sobs that wrack her whole body, and I find that I’m the only thing keeping us standing.

“I want to wish that I’d never met you…,” she finally sobs out. “But I can’t…”

I close my eyes against this omission because that’s what it all comes down to, the root of this weed that’s choking everything.

“You fought hard,” my voice cracks out. “And you won, even after everything I did to you; you bounced back. You were strong. You have every right to be angry at me and yes, you deserved so much better. It always mattered, Spence, I just couldn’t show it. I’m just so fucking sorry, and I’m even more fucking thankful that you love me anyway.”

She clings to me. I have no idea how long we stay this way, but my muscles are sore with the effort of holding her so tightly. I don’t loosen my grip until she does, but even then, I don’t let her escape.

“You were never second best. I thought you just didn’t want me because I’m stupid and broken, and I know you were trying to tell me but I just couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see that you’re human too. I had you on a pedestal. I never, not once, thought that you were weak, but it’s okay to be weak, Spence. Do you have any idea that the mere thought of you is all that kept me going through the darkest parts of my life? I never should have put you in that in position, but damn if you didn’t make the very best of it that you could. You did do an amazing job, Spence. You faced everything I never could. You were and always will be the best thing that ever happened to me: stubborn, unrelenting, and crazy as you are, you’re perfect, for me.”

“It doesn’t change anything,” she sobs out. “I still fucked it up or you wouldn’t have moved on.”

I lean back and take her face in my hands once I know that she’s not going to run. “I didn’t move on. Don’t you see that’s why I’m here? And you fucked up. So? So did I, over and over again. For whatever I ruined, for whatever I stole from you, you never gave up on me, and I feel the same way about you. I’m not running anymore. I’m not hiding. You gave me that; you’ve given me that strength; you’ve given me joy; you believed in me so fiercely that I couldn’t help but believe you even while I thought you were crazy, and it is the most amazing gift that anyone has ever given me. How can you say that it doesn’t matter? You can’t really believe that.”

I search her eyes but nothing is forthcoming. It’s like something has broken, snapped, disconnected. “Please, Spence,” I plead. “Let me give some of that back to you now. Listen to me. Stop protecting me. I couldn’t handle it before, but I can now. You don’t have to pretend like everything’s okay. You don’t have to be perfect. I see you, as you are, not the person that I built into a fantasy. Not anymore. And I love you all the more for it. The real you, angry and hurt, is better than anything I ever made you out to be.”

I can’t make sense of what I’m seeing. Her eyes are a mask, and I know that I’ve pushed her, perhaps even harder than I should have, but I would do anything to help her, just as she’s always done for me.

“If you can stomach the idea of giving me one more thing, please just decide. Decide what you want, take it with all the strength I know you possess, and find your joy. Commit to your happiness, in whatever form that takes, not for me, but for you. This is the only gift I can give you that means a damn, and I need to give it to you, Spence. I need you to be free, just like you did for me.”

I release her, stopping just long enough to smudge away some of the tears from her cheek. I step away and she remains as still as a stone. I have no idea what to do from this point. I have no idea if what I’ve done is right, but I followed my instincts and I hope and pray to anything that will listen that whatever I’ve done, it’s the right thing for her. This is the moment that’s been coming, the moment that we’ve both been passive aggressively struggling for, the moment where we become real, whole people, individuals with flaws and fractures, but still perfect, especially together.

“Life will suck us down and spit us back up no matter what, Spencer. We can get through it together or we can do it alone. It’s never going to be perfect. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be amazing and just… so worth it.”

Time drags on and still nothing. I want to shake her again, but I feel like I’ve done enough of that tonight.

“I don’t want to leave, Spencer, but I can’t tell if you want me to stay. Please just… say something.”

She’s as still as a statue, the only signs that she’s alive in the deep rise and fall of her chest and slowing trickle of tears from her eyes. I stand there for what feels like an eternity, frustration starting to take me over.

“Goddammit, Spencer, this isn’t over, not by a long-shot.” I walk to the door and reach for the handle. “For whatever it’s worth, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I can’t tell you how much it mattered to me, even if it doesn’t matter to you.”

“Kiss me.”

My hand drops and I find myself looking at her again. She still hasn’t moved except to lift her head and train her eyes on me, but even from this distance, I can see the naked pleading on her face. She takes a small step forward, and that’s what I needed her to do.

Just a step.

“I’m asking you to kiss me.”

It takes a long moment for the words to register their meaning and my sluggish brain to send the signal to my legs, but once it happens, my muscles snap like straining bands and propel me forward at a speed I didn’t know I possessed. There is no gentleness, no slowing of movements, but somehow I still find it within myself to savor the instant crush of her against me. Our hands pull and grasp, and the momentum causes us to stumble back a few steps, wrenching a small cry from her.

It doesn’t slow or become tender. I devour and I am consumed. It’s painful, but in the most soul-stirring of ways, in the way that I now understand that to be purified I had to endure the fire, in the way that I had to die to be reborn, in the way that I had to know that I was dying in order to truly live. And I see why it was all so worth it. This is life: wild and unbridled, powerful and immense, and I’m humbled because for all of my insignificance, I’m a vessel through which worlds are made, destroyed, and then made again.

Spencer finally tears herself away and I’m thankful, because I didn’t have the strength to do it, not even for air.

She’s so much better than air.

We stand here, our foreheads touching and our ragged breathes trying to even out.

“We have a lot to talk about,” she says after a time.

“Yeah, we do.”

“I’ll… start the coffee, I guess.”

I smile, leaning in for another kiss, this one gentler.

“I’ll help.”

I follow Spencer into the kitchen, taking her right hand in my left and keeping this side of my body as close to her as possible. There are a thousand reasons why, but I’m just not willing to stop touching her, even when I can tell that she’s not ready for that kind of intimacy. Somehow I know that she does it for me, because she knows that this kind of intimacy is what I need. She’s seething as she puts a filter in the machine on the counter. I pull the Starbucks bag over to scoop for her, both of our tasks coming together as if choreographed, working in perfect tandem.

“I’m still mad at you,” she says quietly as she holds the pot under the tap for be to turn it on.

The pot fills and I nod in understanding. “I know, Spence.”

I pop the top of the coffee maker open for her to pour the water in, waiting for her mouth to catch up with her mind. And while I know that she’s intensely angry, I can’t help but feel a deep satisfaction in this moment. Once she’s done I close the lid, she returns the pot to its base, and I hit the power button. The wonderful aroma immediately begins to fill the air and she reaches for the cabinet above us where I collect two over-sized mugs. She’s a bit rough as she shuts the door and I set the mugs down.

Really mad at you.”

She turns and leans against the counter, and I have two options: let go of her hand or fold with it to stand in front of her. I choose the latter happily, lifting our joined hands to kiss her fingers for good measure. Her free hand finds my chest, and for a moment I think that she’s going to push me away. But then her fingers dig into the material and pull me closer, so much closer that I’m practically laying along the length of her.

She lays her forehead on my collarbone and I breathe her in.

“Who broke up with whom?”

“It was mutual,” I say immediately, lifting her face for eye contact as I explain. “Erin’s fiancée committed suicide a while back. She’s still in love with him. She’ll always be in love with him. She knew that I was in love with you, and that would never change for me either. Our relationship was transactional, Spencer, at least at the beginning”

“But…?”

“It started to get more… physical.”

That hand on my shirt loosens and I can tell that this omission is repellant to her, but I don’t let her push me away.

“Don’t, Spence. We’re not allowed to do that anymore and you know it.”

She sighs, her anger flaring, but she shifts and crosses her arms over chest, neither participating nor repelling. I can’t help but find it adorable so I rest my hands on her waist and choke down my smile so that I can continue.

“I’ll admit that it felt nice. It was easy to be with her, even when it wasn’t, because we both felt safe that it could never truly go anywhere serious. Hell, we didn’t like each other half the time, but it never really hurt.”

“So it was primarily sex,” she says, a statement, not a question.

I shake my head. “Spencer Carlin, I know I have a reputation, but aside from making out with the occasional bandaid and Erin, I have only ever had sex with you.” She scowls at me and I can tell she doesn’t believe me. “It’s true, Spencer. The last time I had sex was the night before high school graduation.”

“But Jon…,” she says, her arms unknotting and her features softening.

“Is an idiot,” I finish for her.

“But I saw you…”

“Making out and heavy petting, which was a brand new development, as I just said. It’s not sex, Spencer. But even if it were, could you really blame me if I hadn’t been celibate for almost five years? I mean, I assume you and Carmen, and maybe even your other girlfriends before her…”

“Only Carmen,” she says. “And you’re right. I don’t like it, but you’re right.”

I can see that something else needs to be said or asked, so I just wait for her to realize that she not only has the right, but the obligation to communicate.

“Why,” she finally asks.

“You know why, Spencer. I couldn’t do it. I may have left, but I never wanted anyone else, especially in that way. In all the ways that I betrayed you, I never betrayed you here.”

I take one of her hands and place it over my heart. She knots the shirt and pulls me closer again. I smile against her cheek.

“What happened?”

The coffee maker sputters to a stop and she shifts again. I pull back to let her turn, but keep close behind her, one arm wrapping around her waist while the other grabs the pot to help her. She lays one of her hands across mine, pulling me tighter, while the other steadies one cup and then the other for me to fill.

“It was getting harder to put it off, but I just couldn’t do it.” I say. “I also wasn’t ready to lose Erin. She actually means a great deal to me, now more than ever.”

She stiffens at this and I reach up to move her hair so that I can put my chin on her shoulder.

“She didn’t just understand what I was going through, Spencer, she supported me in choosing you. She told me that if Josh were alive, she wouldn’t have thought twice about leaving me for him. She respected my love for you, even when I didn’t. And because of that, I can’t help but love her.”

“You love her.”

I nod, turning to nuzzle my face against her neck. “Yeah, I do, but I’m not in love with her.”

“If love is unconditional acceptance, what’s the difference?”

She shivers slightly when I skim my nose behind her ear and lower my voice. “Your happiness is my happiness. You’re so much a part of me that I can’t even tell where your happiness begins and mine ends. I do accept Erin unconditionally, but I accept you as I do myself. I don’t feel that way with Erin and she doesn’t feel that way with me.”

A minute passes before she replies, “I get it.”

I kiss her ear. “Good, because if you don’t, then we have yet another problem. It has to go both ways.”

She turns and brushes the hair back from my face with both hands. “All I’ve ever wanted for you is to be happy. It hurt, more than the first time…” She pauses and I can see the soul deep agony on her face. It stabs through me. “But that was the only comfort I had: the fact that you were happy, and I was clinging to it.”

“Then we don’t have a problem.”

“Not that one, no.”

“Spence, it’s not going to happen again. I’ll die first.”

She doesn’t say anything but I can tell that my words didn’t help at all, so I lean in to kiss her, to reassure her in any way that I can that she’s not alone in this mess, that I’m here to help put the pieces back together again. It’s a bittersweet kiss, and she breaks away to breathe as she grieves some of that pain out on my neck. And I find myself grieving into her hair.

It takes a while for the emotions to dry up, but when they do, we reheat the coffees in the microwave and, without a word, move to her bedroom. She puts the mugs on the nightstand and I kick off my shoes and jeans to get comfortable. She’s sitting against the headboard and I crawl up to sit next to her. At the last minute, she pulls my arm and nestles me between her legs, my back against her chest and one of her hands wrapped around my middle. I missed the feeling of being held this way, of being just enough smaller than her to feel surrounded like this.

She passes me a cup and I take a sip, groaning and laying my head back against her shoulder to savor the warmth that seems to seep into me from all directions. It’s not just the feeling of the coffee trickling down my throat. It’s in the warmth of her bare legs against mine as they cradle me, the feel of her fingers snaking under the rim of my shirt to draw patterns on my stomach, the smell of her shampoo and the skin just beneath her ear. Everything is perfectly warm and liquid, and I float in it.

I float in her.

She takes the mug from me and pulls a long draft, the rumble of approval against my back making me smile against the delicate pulse point beneath my lips. I kiss it and revel when I feel it quicken.

“Talk to me, Spence?”

“I understand what was actually happening now, but it’s a lot, and it’s still… it doesn’t feel… fixed. I guess I feel… raw.”

I sink down so my head can rest against her chest and look up at the popcorn ceiling of this tiny apartment in the semi-ghetto of Los Angeles. Her right leg hooks over mine and I run my hand from her knee to rest it on her bare thigh, feeling more at home than I ever thought possible.

“What can I do,” I finally ask.

She squeezes me, her lips finding my temple and her breath tickling me. And I know that this is my answer.

“Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

I find a well-known ticklish spot right behind her knee and she jerks.

“Not that,” she says and I smile.

We finish the coffee together and she puts the empty mug back on the nightstand, the other too cold now and neither of us willing to get up to heat it. Her free hand joins mine on her thigh to entwine our fingers.

“Did you get my text,” I ask.

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you respond?”

“It hurt too much.”

I turn over, grasp her legs behind her knees and tug her down so that she’s lying flat and I can settle on top of her. She’s surprised, but I quickly get to the crux of the issue.

“Where does it hurt, Spence?”

“Everywhere,” she says, the tears still leaking from her eyes.

“Show me,” I say, brushing the hair from her face.

She rests her hand on her stomach.

“How does it hurt?”

“It feels sick,” she says.

I lean down to kiss the spot she just touched with as much sweetness as I can.

“Where else,” I ask, coming back up to face her.

She points to her head right above her eyes.

“How does it hurt?”

“I’m afraid… and worried… and anxious…” She squeezes her eyes closed. “And I know that we’re both going to get even more hurt in this but none of that seems to outweigh how much I need you,” she admits with a rattling voice.

My eyes sting as I kiss her forehead multiple times and then nuzzle her nose.

“Where else?”

Her eyes fill with more tears as she touches her heart, and that sends my own stomach into knots.

“How, Spence?”

“It feels… broken.”

I lean down and kiss the spot as reverently as I can before turning my head and resting my ear to it.

“It sounds a little worse for the wear,” I tell her, my eyes closed. “But it’s still going strong,” I say, leaning back up to gaze at her. “And that means there’s hope, Spence.”

The tears come faster, but they’re quiet, so I nestle my cheek against hers, wanting so badly to give her some of the hope that I feel.

“I choose you, Spencer. I will always choose you. I need you to believe me when I say that I’m done hiding and running. I’m committed to you and I’m committed to me. We’ve made a mess of things but that’s okay. We’re human.” I lean my face down so I can bury my nose in the hair at her neck. “I promise you I’m dedicated to working with you. I’ll do everything I can to stay alive, to keep us healthy and happy, to honor the sacrifices you’ve made and meet your needs as if they’re my own. All I need from you is for you to forgive me when I fail.”

Her hands run up my back and she balls my shirt in her fists, her knees clutching at my hips and bringing me down so tightly against her I worry that I’ll smother her.

“Both of us are strong enough to live without each other, but we’re stronger when we’re together. And that’s what we need to focus on.”

I kiss the skin of her neck and breathe deeply, everything aching as her hold gets impossibly tighter, yet somehow not tight enough.

“Ash,” she breathes, pulling my face from her neck to kiss me with an impatient plea.

It’s not as violent as our first encounter, but it’s so powerful that all of the pieces inside that were just turned to liquid start to swirl together, they morph and bleed. It’s homecoming. It’s belonging. It’s connection. It’s all the internal needs manifesting themselves externally. There are no barriers, no strings, no limitations.

Her hands wrench the shirts from both of our bodies. One of mine finds the cloth at her waist and pushes inside. She arches beneath me as another piece slides into place. I’m inside her and she’s drawing me in, grasping at me from somewhere deep as her hands pull my mouth back to hers. We’re like gears, locking, grinding, and propelling time forward so that she can shatter against me like a stormy ocean against a lighthouse.

There’s this barely discernable moment where everything stops and stands still. I see her, all of her, lit in the dark by the soft light of the lamp, by the soft light of passion, and the pain it takes to find it. She’s open and vulnerable, trusting me with everything she has left, which is so much more than even she knows. She’s already given me so much, too much. But for all of her flaws, for all of her insecurities, she is an inexhaustible well from which to draw. To say that I love her would be woefully inadequate. She adds so much to my world, makes the colors sharper and more vibrant, subtracting from my sadness and multiplying my joy.

On the last night that I saw her this way, felt her this way, locked into her this way, I was sure that once I said goodbye, she would never know these lonely dreams, even as no one else would know this part of me. But I still drove away. I was sorry for it every day. I didn’t know that I wouldn’t always love these selfish things or live life at all, let alone without stopping.

Like then, again it’s my turn to decide, and while so much is the same, while all of it is still true, I know that this is our time. No one else will have me like she does. No one else will have me, only her. But this time she will have all of me.

Amazing still it seems, next month I’ll be twenty-three, and I no longer yearn for what I thought I’d never have again. I no longer live with my regrets. She would have sat alone forever, waiting for the right time with nothing to hope for. But I’m here, I’m now, I’m ready, holding on tight. I already know how this ends. And that’s the one thing that stays mine, even as much as it’s hers too.

Something shifts. My vision swims and I look down the length of my body to see Spencer remove my last barrier so that she can plunge into me, her mouth finding some knotted and aching part of me. The sensation slams my head back onto the pillows. It’s too quick; she’s everywhere and spasms overtake me. I hear a cry from somewhere far away. It fades and I float for another moment before it starts again, my muscles rattling in my body, breaking me apart until my legs quiver and that same cry bubbles up in my throat to tear past my tongue for another glorious, heart-stopping moment.

I feel that liquid warmth seep out to meet her, to pull her in to float with me, and she claims it with relish, dragging her mouth up my body to swallow my ragged breathes. I taste myself on her lips and something primal inside of me stirs with memories.

That first taste.

That first moment when I knew I was loved, body, mind, and soul.

I don’t even know if I believe in a soul, but I know that there’s more to me than flesh and bone because I feel that love in the spaces between the flesh, the ether between the bones, the lights and shadows beyond the cursed marrow and fractured snapshots of trauma.

I long to reclaim them, to recreate them, to worship them.

The world shifts again, my muscles straining to find the strength that they need but somehow managing. Spencer’s ready for me, raising her hips so I can liberate her. My nose nuzzles at the heat, breathing in the heady scent that reminds me that those memories are real, that those feelings are real. It’s like the breeze off of the ocean, the salty tang of life and sweat. It’s not photos or the desperate imaginings of a mind trying to cope with what was lost. It’s right here, material and immortal. I drag my tongue through her, my heart through her, savoring the moisture and texture, the throbbing pulse and the breathless gasps.

I can’t seem to get enough, to slow or temper myself. She’s raw and exposed and swollen, and I break her open until her body shakes and some of that warmth that I just gave her is returned to me. I take it in, let it fill me, and let it drown me. Everything begins to solidify inside, as if all of the melted pieces have become something brand new, something forged, something stronger, because I am her and she is me and we are we.

My body collapses and my mind screams because this isn’t over, not nearly, but there’s just so little strength left in me. My head finds the juncture of her hip and I coast through an indeterminate amount of time as my bones and joints turn to salt water. It’s only at Spencer’s pleading that I find the strength to crawl back up to her and collapse, wrapped in her yet again.

I’m home.

“I love you,” I say as my eyes close. “So much.”

“I love you too.”


It doesn’t matter how she falls asleep, which side of the bed she’s on, whether there’s a wall to smother herself against, or if the position puts the sun directly into her eyes. If Spencer is unencumbered while she’s asleep, she will roll onto her stomach, tuck her bent arms up against her sides, and put her face as close to the edge of the mattress as she can get without actually hanging off. In all fairness, she would have been encumbered if I hadn’t gotten up to use the restroom and get some coffee. I was attached to her like a limpet for the entirety of the night.

It really is rather fortunate for me that she’s lying this way though. I can sit here on the floor, sipping this hideous coffee and staring at her unabashedly. It’s also fortunate that the dim, early morning sun just so happens to be filtering over her face, creating attractive shadows that accentuate the pale definition of her eyebrows, the naturally dark line of her long lashes, the faint downy coating of microscopic hairs that line her skin, and the almost silver highlights of her golden tresses.

I’ve already smoothed the mane away from her face. My only disappointment is the fact that while I normally couldn’t ask for a better view, I need for her to open the shutter of her eyes. I miss them. I take another sip of my coffee with a grimace and consider the pros and cons of waking her for purely selfish reasons, but then she goes and saves me the trouble. She stirs, her head lifting off of the mattress and twisting around with a scowl that I find adorable, at least until it becomes panicked.

“Ashley,” she asks the room, before she finally sees me.

I can’t help but smile at her and stare into those eyes. I’m all for instant gratification, especially when I’m actually allowed to stare at her like I always want to. So I do, for several long moments. She seems to relax a little.

“Are you alright, with everything that happened last night, with us” I finally ask.

She seems to contemplate what I just said, and I feel a tendril of doubt slither through me when she smashes her face into the mattress, cutting me off. I scoot up until I’m right in front of her.

“What,” I ask, my nervousness seeping out, especially when she doesn’t answer. I’m not sure if I should, but I reach out and gather her hair away from her face with more confidence than I feel. “Spencer, what’s wrong?” She finally turns her head towards me and something in me aches with the sight of her like this, so close and so vulnerable. I speak again without thinking. “You are so beautiful.”

Her eyes become even glossier, even clearer, but she doesn’t seem sad. “Stop,” she says. “I’m okay.” I don’t quite believe her and she must see that on my face because she continues. “When I woke up this morning and you weren’t here next to me, for a second I thought it was a dream.”

The nervousness is quickly snuffed out and replaced with a gooey warmth. “I know,” I say. “I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I just wanted to shut out the world a little bit longer.”

She puts her arm out and drags her fingers through the hair at the base of my skull. The sensation is my favorite, though her insistence is almost painful.

“Come back,” she says.

I quickly abandon my coffee and crawl up on top of her as she rolls onto her back. My arm slides beneath her head and I shift to the side so that most of my weight is supported by the mattress. The sheet is trapped between us but I’m able to pull it down just enough to leave a kiss at the furrow between her breasts. She releases a sigh and I move to her sternum. Then there’s the hollow at her throat and her chin, before I finally claim her mouth.

It’s not an intensely deep kiss, but definitely not chaste either. My desire for her is still lingering from the night before, and I’m left to wonder if I’ll just have to learn to live with the simmering feeling indefinitely.

“No fair,” she says when I pull away. “You already brushed your teeth.”

I grin at her and kiss her again.

“No I didn’t.” I lean in close and whisper, “Don’t tell your dad but I’m pretty sure his coffee is just turpentine.” She giggles. “Who needs toothpaste when you can just soak your teeth in acid?”

Her mirth gets louder and I can’t help but chuckle with her as I continue. “I’m serious, Spencer! The man makes the best crab canapes I’ve ever had, but he can’t make coffee to save his life!”

Her laughter dies away with a sigh and she smooths her hand across my cheek, turning her body into me and hooking her leg over my hip.

My knee gravitates to the tight space between her thighs and she pulls me down into a heated kiss, only stopping long enough to breathe out, “God, I forgot how much I missed this,” against my lips.

It continues and lengthens, and I find my hands trying to worm their way under the sheet.

“Girls! Banana Pancakes,” is bellowed from the kitchen.

We both groan but it quickly turns into giggles.

“So what do you want for breakfast,” I ask. “Pancakes or…?”

She pulls me in again but Mr. C won’t have any of it. He knocks on the door.

“Come on, you two. There’s plenty of time for that after breakfast.”

“To be continued,” Spencer says, letting me go and crawling out of the bed.

I slump into the warmth she just left with frustration, and she thinks it’s funny. I don’t. I have needs, long pent up needs. But my frustration is tempered as I watch her naked form rummage through her dresser for underwear. She finds a pair and slips them on, and I find myself resenting the fabric. She then finds a tank top and turns to me, lifting her arms to shimmy it over her head. I feel entranced at this little dance and realize that maybe some clothes aren’t so bad.

“Ash, come on.”

“I’m more than willing, but you keep putting clothes on.”

She snorts at my cheesy joke and hops up onto the bed to lean over me, a glint of something in her eyes that sends a throb low between my hips.

“If you help me make nice with the father, I’ll make it really worth your while later.”

I can literally feel my eyes glaze over as the possibilities rip through my mind.

“Anything I want,” I ask.

“Anything,” she purrs, and that’s all the motivation I need.

“I’m up,” I say, nearly dumping her on her ass as I get to my feet, grab her hand, and drag her into the kitchen.

She’s laughing as we come to a stop only about four feet from the bedroom door. Her apartment is just that tiny. The dining table Aiden gave her is in storage. There’s literally nowhere to put it.

“Good morning,” Mr. C says, a beaming grin lighting his face when he sees that we’re holding hands. “That’s a sound I like to hear, and you’re just in time.”

He gets some juice from the fridge and we all scrunch in around the tiny counter. There’s a stack of flapjacks on a plate in the center and he’s even warmed the syrup.

“You have impeccable timing too, Mr. C.”

He lets out a nervous chuckle, Spencer blushes, and he clears his throat before pouring the juice.

“I just wanted to have breakfast with you before I head out to meet my sponsor. You can indulge an old man for half an hour.”

“You’re not that old, Mr. C. I mean, you listen to Pantera.”

He nearly spills the juice and Spencer jabs me in the ribs, but I grin at her. I have no shame, and no regrets.

“Ash, I’ve certainly missed your candor, especially around the dining table- or counter, as it were.”

We all dig into the pancakes, Mr. C glancing up at us far too often for it to be only mild curiosity. It dawns on me that he insisted on breakfast so that he could get the lay of the land. I’m happy to give it to him, but outside of just blurting out that we’re together now and won’t be separating again so long as I can help it, I’m not really sure how to help him out until we find a minute alone. But then, certainly he must know enough given what he saw last night and this morning. Apparently not, because once we’ve all finished and it’s almost time for him to leave, he takes matters into his own hands, in my own patented style.

“So,” he says. “In the spirit of candor, when can I expect grandchildren?”

I swear that Spencer just shot juice out of her nose. As for me, as soon as the initial shock wears off, I start laughing my ass off.

“Dad…,” Spencer scolds.

“I’m thinking within a year or two, Mr. C,” I reply coolly.

I can feel Spencer’s eyes on me but Mr. C brightens even more, if that were possible.

“That seems reasonable,” he says, finishing off his juice and getting to his feet. “I’ll leave you two to get started then.”

I want to laugh, but in solidarity for Spencer’s embarrassment, I do my very best to hold it in.

I cannot, however, stop myself from saying, “I don’t think it quite works that way, Mr. C.”

He grins at me from the door. “It’s still a good start.” He opens the door. “Oh, and I don’t think I’ll be home very soon. In fact, don’t wait up.”

With that he leaves and I can’t help but laugh some more, and Jesus, does it feel good. Spencer starts to clean up and my brevity tapers off as I watch her. She doesn’t seem angry, but pensive, and cleaning is her coping mechanism. This is most definitely coping cleaning. She’s running water for the dishes even though she has a dishwasher.

“Spence, talk to me.”

She hesitates at the fridge before opening it and putting the juice away. Then she turns off the tap and retakes her stool next to me. I grasp one of her hands, more for my own comfort than hers.

“It’s just, we haven’t really had a chance to talk about that kind of stuff yet. And the last time we did…”

She trails off and I let out a deep breath. The circumstances are still the same, but a lot has changed as far as how I see my future now. Mainly, I have one. I consider my options, and decide to think out loud for Spencer’s benefit.

“Okay,” I start. “So we have options, and we can talk about them, but first… and I hate to put this all on you, Spence, but I need to know where we stand.” She looks up at me, a strange expression on her face. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re married tomorrow and we keep the promise I just made to your dad, but you’re the one taking all the risks in that scenario.”

Understanding lights in her bottomless eyes. There’s not even a fraction of hesitation as she gets to her feet, nestles herself between my legs, and rests her arms on my shoulders.

“My life has you in it. Period,” she says fiercely. She gives me a gentle kiss. “There’s no more room for discussion on that.”

I hook my legs around her knees and pull her in as close as possible. “And children? Do we want to risk that for them?”

Her brows furrow in concentration. “Yes, I think we should. We’ll both love them and give them a good life. All children lose their parents. Ours just run earlier risks.”

I can’t argue with her logic so I kiss her and nod my agreement.

“Okay, so we really have two options then: you carry the children, or… we adopt.”

She hugs me, resting her head on my shoulder. “I know those are the best choices to make, but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t want to have a little you.”

I hold her for a long while, a sad silence falling over us. “I want to experience that, too,” I say. “But not at the risk of passing anemia to our children.”

She leans back. “Maybe we should talk to your doctor? You didn’t inherit the disease; it was chemically induced. Isn’t it possible you won’t pass it on?”

I hadn’t actually thought about that. “I’m… I’m not sure. It couldn’t hurt to get information. We’ll talk to my oncologist at my yearly checkup in December. If everything’s still good…”

That comment hurts us both, so I take her face and pull her in for another kiss.

“Are we really getting married tomorrow,” she asks and I chuckle, relieved by the change in subject.

“Say the word, Spence, and I’ll have us on a plane to Vegas in an hour.”

Her face scrunches up at the thought and we both chorus, “Nah,” together.

“Besides,” she says. “You haven’t asked me yet.”

I make a show of getting on my knees and she smacks me on the arm. “No way! I may be easy, but I’m not cheap! I want the full experience: pretty outfits, good lighting, romance, the ring..”

With a tug, I bring her down hard but make sure to catch her and cushion the fall. I roll over on top of her and stare down at her.

“I’m glad to know you’re easy.” That earns me a pinch. “Any other requirements I should be aware of?” I can tell that there’s something more, but she seems to be having an internal debate. She doesn’t continue so I prompt her. “Well…”

“No, that’s all,” she says.

“Spence…,” I say in a bored tone.

“It’s stupid.”

I roll my eyes and seek out the best places to tickle her. It has the desired squirming effect and she calls uncle almost immediately.

“Tell me,” I demand.

“Fine, my grandmother’s Claddagh ring.”

I scoff at her. “Easy.”

“Oh you think so,” she challenges.

“Mr. C loves me,” I boast.

She grins at me. “From my mother’s side.”


When I first got sick and gave up on my life, it was a struggle to get out of bed, even when I was healthy. I used to sleep whole days away, whole weeks. That changed recently, and while it was a good change, there were times when I wanted to be able to bury myself that way again, but I just couldn’t. My mind wouldn’t give me that comfort, that release anymore. I’d finally figured out that it was a cold comfort, an empty release.

But for the last week of August, I’ve done little else but lie in bed. It’s no struggle at all anymore. That probably has something to do with the fact that my bed isn’t so much for sleeping at this point. It’s gone from a grave to a wondrous playland where imagination and physical delight reign. The comfort and release it offers are staggering. Literally. Walking isn’t the easiest thing to do, even to the bathroom, which is usually about as far as I go these days. But I’m perfectly, incredibly happy with that full, sore feeling that seems to simmer in my stomach. It’s funny to me that I worked so hard to be able to pull myself out of bed, only to fall right back into it once I’d figured out how.

Spencer and I brought our personal party to my house the day that we started down this road together. And that’s what it truly is, a road. The road trip is still in full swing, it’s just not what I thought that it would be. I thought I’d be in an RV traveling America, taking in all of the sights and smells and wonders from an interstate. It turns out that I’m in my bed, taking in all of the sights and smells and wonders from a blonde that stole my heart and is taking me places so much better than an ocean or a casino. She’s taking me into happiness, into the future, a future she inexplicably wants to share. And even better, this road doesn’t end; it endlessly vanishes into the horizon. I am officially chasing the sun.

The initial road trip is still going too, so the house has been empty except for us and the dogs. We thought it would be good to give Mr. C a break so that he wouldn’t have to be tied to his headphones, and here, we have more room to… maneuver. There’s not a single room in this house that hasn’t been christened. I literally can’t go anywhere without brand new memories flooding through me. And this house definitely feels like it’s mine now. We also got a rather interesting jam session recorded in the studio entirely by accident.

Movement catches in the corner of my eye and I turn to see Spencer flip over. We’re both sunbathing in the nude. One of the many perks of being alone in my home is that clothing is entirely optional, within and without. James, my housekeeper, whose name I actually now know, found that out when he let himself in on his usual day to clean. While he was embarrassed and Spencer mortified, I think he was happy to see that there wasn’t all that much laundry to do.

“You know,” Spencer breathes out happily, her eyes closed. “We should probably get dressed. Everyone’s coming home today.”

I turn myself over and enjoy the sensation of the sun warming my front, even as I moan about what Spencer just said. She giggles and I glance over again, delighting in the wonderful way the laughter jostles her exposed body.

“I could just finally call Kyla back and tell her not to come home.”

Spencer turns her head and gazes at me. I feel so much love in that look.

“It can’t last forever, Ash.”

I scoff. “Like hell it can’t.” I scoot over until my front is pressed against her side. “I can get us on a plane to Cabo right now.”

“Cabo,” she asks with raised eyebrows.

“Well, actually, I can afford that entire area of Mexico if you want.”

She shakes her head in that adoring way of hers, turning so that more of her front is pressed against mine. Her warmth replaces the sun and it is markedly better. My eyes close when she tangles her hand in the hair of my neck and my head falls until my forehead is touching hers.

“I love being with you like this,” she says. “Almost as much as I love you, but…”

I groan again because there are no buts, or at least there shouldn’t be, except the literal kind. She chortles as if she knows just where my mind went.

“But…,” she continues. “It’s time to incorporate the other parts of our lives into this little bubble we’ve created.”

“I like this bubble,” I say pathetically.

“Me too,” she agrees. “But I need to check on my dad and you need to check on Kyla, and Erin…”

I lean up and look at her. “What?”

“I know that neither of you were in love, but she has to be hurting, Ash. She lost him and she lost you. What happened probably has her thinking about him a lot right now, and I don’t even have to imagine how much that hurts.”

I know she’s right, but I also know that Erin isn’t the self-reflection type. “Spence, she told me, in no uncertain terms, that she doesn’t like to think or talk about painful memories.”

She shrugs a shoulder. “Doesn’t mean you can’t be there for her.”

“So you’re okay with us being friends?”

Her face scrunches up in thought. “I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t give me the heebie jeebies, but, it’s not my place to tell you who you can be friends with. And… I trust you, Ash…”

“Do you trust me,” I ask, needing to know given how little I believe her.

“I trust that you love me, so I know you won’t cheat on me. It’s the other stuff that’s going to take time.”

I lean in and kiss her gently. “And you promise to talk to me from now on?”

“That’s going to take time too, but yes. I have to.”

“Not if you don’t want to, Spence.”

She shifts so she can link both hands around my neck. “I meant that I have to talk if I want us to work, and I want that more than anything.”

“That’s better,” I say, giving her one last quick kiss. “So no Cabo?”

There’s that adoring headshake again.

“WHOO!”

We both crane our heads towards the back of the house to see Jac, Jon, and Kate clapping, Jon clearly the source of the outburst. Aiden is standing there with a dumb expression on his face. The bag in his hand slips to the deck and Kyla starts to manhandle him back through the doors to shut them, but that doesn’t do any good. The whole back wall of the house is glass. He’s still just standing there, his mouth in the shape of a perfect ‘o.’ And Janice, she’s here, staring at the deck.

“Jesus, put some clothes on already,” Kyla squawks at us.

I honestly don’t care about nudity, but Spencer is getting redder by the second. So I shield her body with mine as much as I can as I attempt to shimmy the bath sheet beneath me free. It takes effort, a few grunts, and an “Ouch,” from Spencer, but I finally hand it to her. She covers herself immediately and we both get to our feet. I take a bow because the applause hasn’t stopped and Spencer quickly tries to cover me with the sheet that she was on.

“You’re incorrigible,” she says and I just stand there. “I knew we should have gotten dressed.”

“Come on,” I say. “They weren’t supposed to be back for hours.”

“I know,” she seethes out in frustration.

“Well, now I get it,” Kyla says accusingly as she approaches us. “Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?”

“I told you I was fine, Kyla.”

“One text,” she holds up a finger, fire burning in her eyes. “One! You leave without a word and all I get for all of the calls and texts, is…” Her voice deepens and she uses air quotes. “I’m fine. I’ve been worried sick! We left early because you wouldn’t respond!”

“Didn’t Erin tell you,” I ask.

I mean, she was supposed to.

“Well, yeah,” she says. “But still…”

“You just wanted to get all the dirt,” I accuse knowingly. “But it’s none of your business.”

“This isn’t my business,” she gestures to us incredulously.

“No, it’s really not.”

“You’re out of your mind! I’ve been waiting for this for… almost a year!”

“Did you really need to see this,” I ask, gesturing to our undressed states.

“Well, no, but still! If you’d have just told me what was going on…”

“I just got her back, something I’ve been wanting for years, Kyla! I didn’t want to spend hours talking to you about it! I wanted to be with Spencer, alone.”

That kills the mood for all of the spectators. They go inside and clear the windows. And Kyla seems to deflate too, though there are now tears in her eyes. She flings herself at both of us, crushing us in a hug that I eventually have to fight my way out of. As if we weren’t just having a fight, Kyla bounces right back in her usual fashion.

“Get dressed…” She gives us the once over. “Well, shower first, and then you’re mine, at least for the rest of the night, both of you.”

“Kyla, I have to work tomorrow,” Spencer says.

“So,” Kyla gives her a shrewd look. “You were staying here tonight anyway, right?”

I look over at Spencer hopefully, but then I remember that Mr. C has been giving us alone time all week. He doesn’t have a job and or many friends, not to mention that he and Spencer only just got reacquainted. She’s worried and she misses him; I can tell. And I’m sure he misses her too.

I take Spencer’s hand and pretend like Kyla isn’t here. “Spence, let’s call your dad over. We can all have dinner together and get the worst of this shock over with.”

She seems relieved, leaning in and giving me a hug. “Thank you,” she says in my ear.

I turn to give her a kiss but the squeal Kyla lets out stops me in my tracks and startles us apart.

“Aww!”

I find myself looking to the sky and praying that some inconceivable force would just make her go away.

“Jesus, Kyla…,” I say.

“Fine,” she says. “You have an hour. I’ll call Mr. C.” And with that, she stalks away, a decidedly happy bounce in her step. “And Shirley and Sam and mom,” she calls out over her shoulder.

Spencer and I follow her.

“I’ll take care of mom,” I say hotly, and this causes her to stop and turn towards me, a dumbfounded expression on her face.

I feel my own cheeks flush at the word. I hadn’t meant to say it, and I sure as fuck have no idea how I feel about it now that I have.

“What did you say,” Kyla asks.

I can’t tell by her expression whether this was a good or bad thing. And I haven’t had but a second to think about it for myself, let alone for her.

“I meant, Christine,” I say, backpedaling. “I’ll handle that myself.”

She looks like she’s about to say something but Spencer stops her, taking my hand and unleashing a look that’s much like a protective mother over her cubs. It clearly says, ‘Walk away.’ And with a beaming smile, Kyla does just that. I find myself releasing a breath I didn’t know I was holding and looking to Spencer with wonder.

“How did you do that,” I ask.

She smiles and we start walking again. “I’ll walk you through it later.”

I tug her to a stop and kiss her, not just because I’m grateful, but also because I can.


I watch Mr. C and Spencer work together at the oven. It’s like watching synchronized swimming. He leans one way and she moves to compliment him. He’s clearly the lead in this dance, but his partner is what makes it so beautiful, even as she looks so damn cute in her apron.

I sit happily at the island as I watch her, my elbow resting on the granite surface and my head resting in my palm. Occasionally she’ll glance over at me and we’ll share a knowing smile, and it will remind me of roughly three hours ago when she had me pinned up against the wall in the shower. Even now it sends heat racing through me.

Once we’d finally finished, we found Mr. C had been patiently waiting for us to go grocery shopping. Of all of the amazing memories I’ve made with Spencer throughout our lifetime together, that simple, stupid trip to the store is probably now in the top ten. They were both so playful. Silly antics laced everything, even picking the ripest eggplant, and my sides are still sore from laughing so much. I can’t help but revel in the joy they share just being together.

Mr. C comes over to me, something small and no doubt delicious skewered on a toothpick with his hand just beneath it to be sure nothing spills. He puts it in my willing mouth and I nod my approval. Whatever it is, it inspires a mouth orgasm. He grins at my favorable reaction and returns to his work.

The week of solitude didn’t ruin him even a little. In fact, it gave me enough time away from him to notice the subtle changes. He’s starting to fill out; the dark shadows under his eyes have begun to fade into his more natural pallor. His hair, curly as ever, looks dark, thick, and shiny, except for the light swathes of gray at his temples. And the gleam that’s been missing from his eyes has most definitely returned. I see it every time he looks at Spencer, even as he puts the same thing in her mouth only to find that she thinks it needs salt.

Even Aiden has joined the fray, and I can’t help but believe that he and Mr. C have done this together before too. I haven’t seen Aiden this relaxed since, well, any time that I can remember. Even growing up together, he was always alert. I never understood why until recently. His demeanor hasn’t changed towards me in the slightest, not even now that Spencer and I are finally working things out. But it’s nice all the same to see him this way, a smile on his face at something Mr. C’s just said as his deft hands chop something at the board.

Mr. C approaches me again, and like a baby bird, I open my mouth in anticipation. It’s the same delicious something from earlier, but it’s too salty. When I tell him, he gives Spencer a look.

She just shrugs and says, “Sorry.”

He returns to his work and Spencer chooses this moment to grace me with another of those smiles, but it’s fleeting. Her concentration is elsewhere, even as I know that her mind is on me. I pluck up a cube of cheese from the platter in front of me and the intercom buzzer rings. I’m happy for something to do since no one trusts me with food, and make my way to the screen on the wall.

It’s Shirley and Sam, and I buzz them in immediately, though I’m not sure why they didn’t just come in. They’ve known the code to the gate as long as I have. It doesn’t take long for the sound of a car to move up the drive and I open the door to greet them. They have a bottle of wine and bright smiles on their faces as they each give me a hug in turn.

“Kid, you look great,” Shirley says.

“Thanks, I say, taking the wine. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but we can’t drink this tonight. Spencer’s dad is in recovery.”

“Ah,” they say in unison. “That’s okay.”

“Thanks for understanding.”

Kyla was tasked with finding and hiding all of the alcohol while Spencer and I showered. It’s all tucked away in my bedroom closet. It’s not that we don’t trust Mr. C, but that Spencer doesn’t want to tempt him. So, when he’s here, no one drinks, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Anyone who isn’t can go fuck themselves.

We enter the house and everyone in the livingroom greets Shirley and Sam, except for Kate. She’s been sulky since Janice left, hiding in the studio and thumping around on the kit. I’d extended the invite to Janice, but I got the feeling that she was uncomfortable in light of recent developments. Erin is her friend, so I’m not sure how that’s going to work, but I’ll find out soon enough. I thought that I’d be cutting Erin out of my life, but Spencer squashed that idea. It brings a smile to my face to know that Spencer trusts me, in this way at least.

While Shirley and Sam chat with the band, I take the bottle to my room and place it in the closet with the others. As I turn to shut the door, I feel hands snake around my middle and kisses trail up my neck. The sensation makes the hair of my arms stand on end and I finally turn when I can’t take it anymore. I have to kiss her, so I do. There’s so much longing in this touch that it’s almost agony to endure it.

I feel a hand find the skin of my stomach and push up, my skin tightening with anticipation.

“Jac, Jon,” Kate calls down the hall, startling us. “Come here.”

“I take back what I said,” Spencer breathes out. “Let’s go to Cabo.”

I laugh and we continue kissing, Spencer backing me up to the bed.

“Kyla,” Jon calls from the studio, muted laughter filtering out behind her. “Get your ass in here! Now!”

We split apart again and stare at each other. There’s something that pangs between us as we try to figure out what’s happening in the studio, but then the realization hits us both like a ton of bricks. Spencer slumps down on the edge of the bed and puts her face in her hands and I take off like a rocket towards the studio, nearly plowing my pregnant sister over.

The minute I open the door, I hear it on the monitors, but it’s not at all what I thought it would be, though in some ways, it’s still as embarrassing. It’s Dirty Mind, a song I wrote when I was roughly thirteen years old. It’s hokey and silly and kind of cheesy, but I wrote it for Spencer. I had been playing with it before we went on the road trip, and forgot that it was in here. There are not words to describe the relief that washes through me.

“I didn’t know you play piano, Ash,” Jac says brightly.

I just nod and consider my options. I have to tell Spencer so that she can relax but I’m not leaving this studio unattended until I’ve had the time to wipe the track from the drive.

So I turn my head towards my bedroom. “Spence, come here, please.”

Her tentative face appears in the bedroom door and I give her a thumbs-up. Everything about her sags in relief and she comes to me. When she hears my childish voice strangle out of the monitors she instantly recognizes it and turns to me with shining eyes.

“You still have it?!”

“Well, yeah, Spence. Don’t you?”

“I couldn’t find that CD you gave me anywhere, especially after you left! I thought it was lost forever…”

I hear the pain in her voice and I’m left to wonder if it will ever even be lessened. She sits down next to Kate at the mixer, pulls me down next to her, and lays her head on my shoulder to hug my arm, and listen.

“So,” Kate says leaning into me. “I think it’s time we have a talk where you spill your guts on every song you’ve ever written, because I’m kind of tired of finding stuff that you’ve kept hidden.”

“Why,” I ask. “It’s not like we’d ever play something like that at a show. Besides, it’s Spencer’s. I never intended for anyone else to hear it.”

“That’s right,” Spencer says, wiping her eyes and looking at me adoringly. “I get all the beautiful things.”

There’s a chorus of groans and I tune them out to lean in and kiss her. Jon puts her finger down her throat, and she and Jac leave the room.

Kate just snorts. “So it’s only okay for those two to be all lovey-dovey…”

“I remember listening to you fuck that song up over and over again from your room,” Kyla says. “It was awful. Is this why you called me in here?”

Kate nods and Kyla just leaves. We all laugh and the song finally comes to an end.

“I have to get back to the kitchen,” Spencer says before giving me another kiss. “You’ll burn me a copy and get rid of the other,” she asks quietly.

“Yeah,” I say, holding her hand as long as I can before she exits the room.

It’s quiet, the kind of quiet you can only achieve in a soundproof room. Kate just clicks the track on the screen over to another and hits play. I know what it is immediately and fumble as I try unsuccessfully to stop it.

“Kate, what the fuck? That’s private,”

I finally hear the heavy breathing stop.

She smiles at me. “You thought I was showing that to everyone, didn’t you?” I don’t say anything and she snickers. “To be honest, I thought about it, but then this happened.”

She clicks the play button again and I grind my teeth together as the ragged breathing starts again. But I see what Kate means almost immediately. This track isn’t just a porny fuck, all moaning, cursing, and wah pedals. It’s lovemaking. Spencer’s voice is breathy and achingly sweet as she says, ‘I love you, Ash.’

I stop the track again, easily this time.

“I know I’ve been a cunt recently, and I’m sorry. But I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“You just said you thought about it.”

She shrugs. “Yeah, and had it been just a random girl to tease you about, I might have. That’s what bandmates and best friends do.” I have to agree. I’ve been teasing her mercilessly about Janice. “But that’s not a random girl. That’s some serious shit, Ash.”

I breathe again. “Thank you.”

She looks to the screen, through it, past it, and I watch her face. Those guards are down again, the same ones I saw fall for just a moment on the bungee jump.

“Kate, are you ever going to talk about it,” I ask.

She glances over at me and opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. I get the feeling that she wants to, but just doesn’t know how, so I prompt her again.

“Start with the one that fucked it all up,” I say.

“She didn’t fuck it all up,” she says. “I did, and she died.”

That sends a shock of sympathy and grief through me. I put my hand on her shoulder and she relaxes a little.

“How,” I ask.

“We had a fight one night. We were both young and stupid and drunk. She tore off in her father’s car and she never came back.”

“Was she… your Spencer?”

“No, I loved her but it wasn’t like that. We were just kids. I still feel responsible.” She laughs humorlessly. “In fact, knowing that I didn’t love her like that makes it worse.” She gets to her feet and starts to pace in the small space. “Now do you see why I’ve been so frustrated with you?”

“No, I don’t see how that compares.”

She stops pacing and gives me a bored look. “There’s a reason we’re best friends, Ash.” She bends at the waist to prove her point. “We’re alike. So is Jon. We fuck up and hurt people in truly spectacular ways. Both of you had a chance to fix it. I didn’t, but you wouldn’t. Fuck you are frustrating people.”

“Well, I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to fix it, but I’m working on it.”

“Yeah,” she says slumping down next to me again. “You are.” She bumps my leg with hers. “Finally…”

“Kate, what happened? You and Janice seemed to really be hitting it off. Did you have a fight?”

She smiles. “No, we had an amazing time together. No fighting. Yet…”

And now I get it. She’s scared she’s going to hurt Janice. To death. This also explains why I’ve never seen her date, not once, in almost five years. We really are all alike.

“Kate, I’m sure a million people have told you in a million different ways how it wasn’t your fault.”

“No one really knows, but those who do, yeah.”

“So I’m not going to tell you that.” She glances over at me, shock registering on her face. “I’m going to tell you to give yourself a chance, with Janice or whoever, but be careful how you treat people.”

Just like I told Jon. Just like I tell myself everyday.

She releases a huge breath. “Isn’t it better if I just stay away?”

“It’s a risk anytime you love someone that either or both of you are going to get hurt. In fact, I’d say it’s a probability. I think you just have to weigh that risk against how you feel about that relationship. Is Janice worth it?”

She seems to consider what I’m saying, but by the looks of it, I don’t think she’ll have an easy, immediate answer. She’s like me in that regard too.

I bump her with my shoulder. “You could always start by being nice to me for a change.”

“Oh, please.” She rolls her eyes. “I’ve been an amazing friend to you.”

I can’t argue. “Yeah, you really have.”

Silence descends again as I lean over the mixer to delete the track, but then I change my mind. I pull open my hard drive and quickly drag a copy of the file into my password protected vault before deleting the original. Kate hands me a CD and I pull up Dirty Mind to get it burning. A long breath escapes me as I lean back, my work complete.

“Is it gross that I want to save that track,” I ask quietly.

“No,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to delete the love of my life saying I love you either.”

I smile at her. “So when are you and Janice gonna get married and have babies?”

Her tone is patronizing. “I should be asking you that.”

“Well…,” I frown. “I don’t know Janice all that well…”

She shoves me hard but we both laugh.

“Go fuck with Spencer or something, and give me some fucking peace.”

I stand and squeeze her shoulder once before leaving and shutting the door behind me. Everyone’s floating around the kitchen, Shirley and Sam talking animatedly with Mr. C, and as I get closer, I hear that it’s about the Crisis Center. Each person is in various states of snacking on the yummy foods that have filled its surface since my departure, laughing, horsing around, and just generally having a good time. Someone even put some music on at some point and it feels like an actual party.

I feel my heart burst a little, especially when I catch Spencer’s eyes. She has one of the hors d’oeuvres I was taste-testing earlier poised at her full mouth. Her gaze leaves heat trails over my body as she looks every inch of me over from under her lashes. Once she’s finished and I’m left feeling naked, she stares right into me as she bares her teeth to slowly pull the little morsel off of the stick. I suddenly feel like I have no moisture left in my body, all of it pooling southward. I find myself wiping my too dry palms on the thighs of my jeans before lifting a finger to beckon her closer.

If she wants to create a scene, then I’ll give her one.

She saunters over to me, her arms tucked behind her back like she’s so perfectly innocent, and I marvel at how smooth she is about this lie. She’s like a wolf in all-american-girl skin glory. Not a soul would know they were about to be devoured before she was on them. And none would survive.

And all would die happy.

Once she’s close enough, I grab her waist and pull her in close to me. I’m not entirely forceful about it, but then I’m not entirely gentle either, and I can tell it has the desired effect. Spencer always did like it when I was a little rough with her. But then she presses into me, her hand finding the skin of my lower back to lazily play right at the rim of my jeans, and I know that she plays just as rough in her own way. She plays me better than I’ve ever played any guitar.

“Excuse me,” I say once I can tear my eyes away from her. “Everyone…” They all stop what they’re doing and turn to us. “I want to thank everyone for coming and get to the reason for this happy, little gathering.”

Without further preamble, I take Spencer, dip her back, and lay one on her. She clearly didn’t expect it and she squeaks into my mouth. But soon she melts, tangling her hand in my hair. There are a couple of roguish whoops, a wolf-whistle, a couple of groans, an aww, and one familiar voice that rises above it all.

“HA,” Shirley shouts. “I win!”

I bring Spencer up, release her mouth, gaze into her eyes, and say, “No, McD, I win.”


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Continued in Chapter 15 – I Love Playin’ With Fire

Chapter 13 – Shit or Get Off the Pot

“Hey, thanks for meeting me.”

“You’re welcome,” Erin says, sitting down on the bench next to me. “It’s been awhile.”

I put Al back into his case and give her my full attention.

“Three weeks,” I say.

An awkward quiet descends for several minutes and I find myself watching Flot and Jet dart off after the ball that the portable fetch machine just threw. It’s on its highest setting in the hopes that I can burn off as much of their energy as possible.

“So,” I finally break the silence. “How have you been?”

“Good… You?”

“Life is never boring.”

The sounds of the city, traffic, dogs, and even some birds drown us for a few more minutes.

“Actually, I asked you here so that we could talk.”

She stiffens. “What about?”

That sort of feels like a slap to the face. Surely she knows that things aren’t all that great between us. But then I have to stop myself. That would be an assumption, and assumptions aren’t fair to anyone, especially in my own experience. They tend to get me into trouble.

“Well, I wanted to talk about us, but I think I really just want to understand what’s happening. I mean, was it just me, or were we having a really good time together?”

She relaxes, smiling at me without derision. “No, we were.”

“That’s just it,” I say. “We were. What happened, Erin?”

More silence, only this time it doesn’t feel so pointless. She seems to be considering my question.

“I guess I just don’t feel comfortable around your friends or with how you act around them.”

“What do you mean? You think I act differently around them?”

“Yeah, Ash, I do.”

“How so?”

“You’re just… it’s kind of like Lord of the Flies.

I feel offended by that reference, but I decide to let it go. “Erin, I’m no different around them than at any other time.”

“I’m sorry, Ash, but that’s not true. They say or do something mean or rude, and you either play along or laugh at it. And you don’t do that when they’re not around.”

“Erin, trust me on this. Just because they create more opportunities when they’re around doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do the same thing in the same situation if they weren’t.”

She glances at me, her brows pulling together. “I hadn’t thought about it like that, but it still feels different around them.”

There’s a pregnant pause where I consider whether I should just say what I’m thinking or let it go, but then if I do, there was really no point in meeting up with her.

“Erin, it feels like you just don’t like me.”

“God, Ash, that’s not true. Sometimes I like you so much that it’s a little scary. But then sometimes…”

“Erin, I’m not going to get rid of my friends, ever. I love them, even when I don’t like them very much.”

“I get it, but I don’t know what to do. I’m happy when it’s just the two of us, but it feels like anytime we add someone else into the equation, it throws one of us off balance.”

I have to agree with her. We’re fine when we’re alone, but we can’t spend the whole of our lives in seclusion.

“I don’t know what to do about it,” she says.

“Me neither,” I agree.

It gets quiet again, and I feel a certain amount of heaviness set in at the prospect that this might be the end, like we’re breaking up, even though we’ve never even declared ourselves. But then that’s what made this relationship feel so good. There are no declarations. There is no ownership. We aren’t possessed or conquered. We just are.

“Erin, I have an idea, but it’s a little crazy.”

She looks over at me, a hopeful expression on her face. “Good, because I’m completely at a loss.”

“Don’t get too excited yet. I’m fairly certain you’re going to hate it.”

She exhales in a resigned way. “I think I know where you’re going with this.”

“Then you know that in order for it to work, we have to start with a clean slate.”

“What specifically did you have in mind?”

“In about two weeks I’m doing the cross-country road trip from my list. I’m renting a bus and everyone’s coming. I could get a bigger bus, and I figure that putting all of us in a confined space together could be the best idea ever, or…”

“World war three,” she says. I nod my head, a small smile tightening my face. “So who is everyone?”

“Well,” I say, scooting closer to her and taking her hand. “There’s you and me, obviously. Then there’s Spencer, Aiden, Kyla, Kate, Jac, and Jon.”

Everyone, everyone,” she says, looking away thoughtfully.

“Hold on, though,” I say. “This isn’t a one-way street. I think you should bring Gavin, Janice, and Column too.”

She turns back to me, a furrow forming between her brows.

“Ash, I don’t think this is a good idea. I mean, we’re going to be trapped in a bus for how long?”

“At least a week,” I say. “Maybe more. But that’s kind of the point. We get everyone we care about together, and we leave no escape. We’ll all either learn to love each other or hate each other. And, either way, we’ll have an answer.”

She plays with my fingers. “What if we don’t like the answer, Ash?”

I sigh and look down at our hands, frustrated with this whole situation. But I don’t have any idea what more we could do if this doesn’t work.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

She nods, a small smile gracing her features. “I have one requirement.”

I feel an eyebrow rise in suspicion and she laughs, full and throaty. I realize that I missed the sound.

“Don’t worry, Slick, you should only hate it marginally.”

“I’m listening.”

“I know you don’t like politics, but I want the opportunity to change your mind on a few things.”

“Do you really believe I’m ignorant, Erin?”

She holds my eyes with her own. “Do I think you’re ignorant in general, not at all. But I do think that some of the civil issues our country is dealing with haven’t actually reached you yet.”

“Okay,” I say, confident that she’s wrong about my understanding or lack thereof, but willing to hear her out. “I’m willing to listen, but what if you can’t sway me? Is that a deal-breaker?”

She leans in and gives me a less than gentle kiss that leaves me a little light-headed.

“I’m not sure,” she says honestly. “But I hope not.”

“Then I have a condition as well.”

It’s her turn to be nervous and I parrot her in a high, mocking voice. “Don’t worry, Erin. You should only hate it marginally.”

“I’ll have you know that I don’t sound like that.”

“I’ll have you kno-,” she kills my asshatery with another kiss.

“What were we talking about,” I ask.

“You were going to tell me what your condition is.”

“Oh, right. We spend the next two weeks getting to know each other better, or, you know, doing more of that.”

Her eyes are warm, melted like chocolate. “Only marginally hate it?”

“Hey,” I squawk out indignantly.

She gives me another kiss. “I’d really like that.”


I’m practically bouncing in the captain’s chair as I pull up in front of the house. The springs squeak as I come to a stop, and I feel my smile grow impossibly wide at the lack of modern innovation. I don’t know what it is about this thing that I love so much, but I do. Fortunately for me, it’s mine.

Kyla comes up to the window and her mouth is moving but I can’t hear what she’s saying, and I find my love for this motorized beast doubling. I do, however, turn off the engine and depress the emergency brake pedal with a satisfying crunch of gears.

“What is this… thing,” Kyla asks, her face indicating that she’s smelled something bad.

“This…,” I say, opening the door and hopping down. “Is a 1973 Winnebago Indian Chieftain.”

“You were supposed to be renting a van,” she accuses.

“Yeah, well, I was going to, but then the lot manager said he was selling this beauty, and I just couldn’t pass it up. Look, Kyla,” I walk her around and open the side door so she can step in. “It has a lot more room, a fridge and microwave, a bathroom, plenty of storage space, aftermarket Bose speakers, a brand new engine and transmission, and she’s in perfect condition, inside and out. The seats aren’t even ripped! No smoke smell. No scratches or dents. Oh, and she’s a classic, a real Winnebago!”

She looks around at the paneled walls, the strange brown and yellow upholstery, and turns to me with an indignant gleam in her eyes.

“You’ve lost your damn mind.”

“Oh, come on,” I plead. “Why is this worse than a twelve passenger mini bus where you’d be confined to a single seat? At least with this we can stand and move, and we have some creature comforts. I mean, look at this.” I reach up above the captain’s chairs and pull down a hideaway bed. “Besides, I also get to keep it.”

“This thing is twice your age, Ash, and it looks like Saturday Night Fever in here.”

Kyla reaches up between the captain’s chairs and pokes her finger at the hula dancer bobble on the dash. It shakes its hips provocatively, and it’s probably my favorite part of this amazing behemoth.

“But it is at least clean. Are you sure it isn’t going to break down? It’s really old.”

I shake my head. “I paid for a Carfax on it. He wasn’t lying when he said he’d replaced the engine and transmission. This is as new as it gets for a classic. It also had the maintenance history on there. This baby has been loved for the whole of her life.”

“I still think you’ve lost your damn mind.”

“I’m okay with that. And if you shut up about it, I’ll get you a vegan burger on the way out of town.”

She makes a show of zipping up her lips and steps down out of the Winne. I follow her. A look around reveals that there are several cars on the lawn, including Erin’s. If we’re still missing some people, it can’t be many. My gardener’s going to have a heart attack when he sees the impromptu parking lot, but I just can’t care. I’m so ready for this trip.

I walk into the house to find it full to bursting, or at least as full as I’ve ever seen it. We’ve got Aiden, Kyla, Spencer, Jac, Jon, Kate, Erin, Gavin, Column, and Janice. Everyone that’s coming is here. But I also notice that everyone has splintered off into two groups, the dividing lines easily distinguished between Erin’s and mine. Some of my levity dims. I knew this was a suicide mission, but…

I grab Kyla before she can go any further and pull her back towards the front door.

“Kyla, I need your help.”

“Yeah, you do, but I don’t think I’m qualified.”

I roll my eyes. “I’m serious.”

Thankfully, she relents. “Fine. What’s up?”

“Do you notice the battle lines?”

I gesture towards the two groups, relieved to at least find that they’re animated within themselves. No one seems upset, but then ignoring the people you don’t like makes things pretty damn easy.

“Ash…,” Kyla says. “You knew this was going to happen, right?”

“Yeah, I guess I did, but there’s got to be a way to fix this.”

“Ash, you know as well as I do that no matter how much you shake a bottle of oil and water, they aren’t going to mix.”

“Yeah, I do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try.”

Kyla folds her arms over her chest. “Ash, it’s an exercise in futility. Why are you doing this?”

I feel my face fall. “Doing what?”

It’s her turn to roll her eyes. “Trying to force something that doesn’t fit to fit.”

I stop and consider what she’s saying, but then I don’t believe that’s my motivation here. She can’t possibly know that though. When Erin and I are alone, it’s great. The past two weeks have been amazing. It does fit. It’s the communal aspects that are pushing us out of alignment.

“Erin and I do fit, Kyla. It just doesn’t work when we have others around. I don’t see why it’s a bad thing to try and fix that.”

“Normally, I’d agree with you, Ash, but in this case, I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Um, Spencer…”

I can hear the ‘duh’ attached to that sentence.

I scrub at my face in frustration. “Kyla, Spencer isn’t ready and I have no idea when she will be. Neither does she. And while part of me will always want her, there are other parts that want to move forward. I need to move forward. I can’t wait around for Spencer to figure it out any more than she could for me.”

“But she did wait for you.”

I snort. “How do you figure that?”

“She left Carmen when you entered the picture. She quit her job to go traipsing around with you for a year. She put up with your disappearing acts and completely selfish behavior, and she helped you through your mood swings. If it weren’t for her, you probably wouldn’t be as happy as you are.”

“No one’s denying that Spencer loves me, Kyla, least of all me. But that’s all that was: love. That doesn’t mean that she didn’t have personal motivations for doing those things, or that she’s ready. I mean, if you haven’t noticed, I’m fixed, but it doesn’t change anything for her. I actually really like Erin. You think I should just dump Erin and sit on my hands? You think I owe Spencer my life, even if she doesn’t want it?”

She sighs. “No, it’s not about obligation and you’re fucking blind if you think she doesn’t want it. Besides, wouldn’t you rather wait for what you really want as opposed to settle?”

I think about that for a minute, and determine that she’s both right and wrong. “If Aiden told you he wasn’t ready to be father or a partner, how long would you wait around for him?”

She scoffs. “It would be a very long time before I was looking for someone else, Ash.”

I nod. “Right, but how long have Spencer and I had to process the fact that every attempt to work it out has failed?”

“Okay,” she says, dropping her defensive posture. “I get that. But look at Carmen. How well did that attempt to move ‘forward’ really work for Spencer?”

“You’re right. It’s a risk,” I shrug. “But I like Erin enough to take it. And even Spencer tried to make it work with Carmen after the fact. They weren’t able to reconcile their other issues. This,” I gesture to the two groups. “Is mine and Erin’s other issue, and shouldn’t I at least try?”

“Again I ask, why? I mean, have you even slept together?”

“Well…,” I splutter. “That’s… personal.”

She laughs. “Oh, please, Ash. You’ve had sex with how many women? And you can’t seal the deal with this girl? Do you even want to?”

I scowl at her. “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, Kyla.”

This causes her to scrutinize me. “What does that mean?”

“It means that my exploits have been… over-exaggerated.”

“Okay,” she says slowly, suspiciously. “How many?”

I feel nervous so I look down at the floor and try to count the lines in the wood grain to buy myself some time. It doesn’t work of course.

“Ash… how many?”

“Zero,” I whisper.

“What?”

“Zero,” I hiss, my frustration getting the better of me. “Null, ling, nessuna, aucun…”

“WHAT?!” Everyone stops talking and looks over at us. “YOU’VE GOT TO BE JOKING!”

“Be right back,” I say loudly, manhandling Kyla back out the front door.

“Are you serious,” she squeals immediately.

“Everything okay?” We both turn to see Aiden at the door, looking at me accusingly.

“We’re fine, babe. Just give us a minute, okay?”

He looks like he doesn’t believe it, but relents, going back inside. I shut the door and pull her further away from the house.

“Kyla, no one knows and I’d like to keep it that way, so keep your goddamn voice down.”

“You’re serious…,” she says, her voice oozing in sympathy and maybe pity.

I hate it but I just nod.

“Wow, Ash, this only further proves my point.”

“Yeah, but it also only proves mine. I’ve waited almost five years to care about someone who’s not Spencer. And yes, I’ll love Spencer the rest of my life. And yes, I wish Spencer was ready, but she’s not. I care about Erin. It hardly seems fair to throw her away like garbage simply because she’s not Spencer, especially when there is something here.”

She throws her hands up. “Okay. I think it’s a huge mistake, but I get it. What do you want me to do?”

I breathe out in relief. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. I still don’t know what it is you want me to do.”

“Just be nice to them, even if they’re not nice to you. Help me try to bridge the gap.”

She looks at me like I’m off my meds. “You’ve met me, right?”

I can’t help but chuckle, and since I can’t determine whether the appropriate answer is fortunately or unfortunately, I just keep my mouth shut.

“And you realize that my filter, if I even have one, is even less than usual now that I’m pregnant?”

“I have faith in you.” Huh, it could be true… I guess. “You can do it.”

That’s better.

“Ash, I’m going to need a real reason here, something big. Do you love Erin? Do you think that you could? Give me something better than like here.”

Love…? That’s big – bigger than I’m ready to determine. But by the look on her face, I don’t think I get to say maybe. I already know that I love Erin’s spirit. I love how she makes me do things that I wouldn’t normally do, and I love that she understands my affection for Spencer. She doesn’t seem to be the jealous type, or even the controlling type, and I like that very much. She’s beautiful, there’s no denying that, and I love how she understands music on the same level. I hate politics, but I don’t hate that she has conviction in her beliefs.

If I truly believe that love is unconditional acceptance, and I put Erin into those terms, I can say yes. I can say that I love her.

“I do love her, yes.”

Kyla seems taken aback. “You love her like you love… Kate, or you’re in love with her?”

“I-uh… I mean…” I have to stop making sounds until something intelligent presents itself.

Being in love adds something extra, something more. It’s taking that acceptance of this person and making them part of you, removing the distinction between your happiness and theirs, because the only way to achieve one is to achieve the other, and it flows both ways.

I try to imagine living with Erin, having a home together or a family together, though I’m not sure how that particular desire fits into my future, or if she even has that same desire. I try to imagine fitting her, not just into my life, but taking her in as part of me. I try to imagine that her happiness is my happiness and vis versa, but it’s hard to do this. It’s hard to imagine what her happiness even looks like because the honest truth is that I don’t know.

“I honestly don’t know, Kyla. It’s still new. We’re still getting to know each other, and the fact that we can’t be in group situations makes it hard to remedy that. If we could be alone all of the time, I think the potential is there. But we can’t, and that’s the whole point of this. If we can’t find a way to reconcile this issue, it’s over. But if we can… it’s possible.”

“And this is what you really want? You’re ready for this to work?”

“I’m not looking back, Kyla.”

She sighs. “Okay, I’ll try, I promise. But you owe me if I pull this off.”

I stare at her. “After what I did for you and Aiden, I’m fairly certain that you owe me.”

“Ugh,” she stamps her foot. “Fine!”

I sling my arm around her shoulders in victory, and lead her back into the house. Everyone looks at us, but lets it go almost instantly. Aiden is a different story though, and I try not to be frustrated with the idea that he thinks I’d hurt my sister, but it’s difficult. Kyla looks less than pleased, but I’m okay with that. I make a point to go to Erin’s group first.

“Hey, guys,” I say brightly. “I’m glad you could make it.”

Erin gives me a kiss and I rest my hand on the small of her back. Janice seems in good spirits, but then I didn’t really get a chance to piss her off at Pride. Gavin and Column are much more resigned but they greet me nonetheless.

“Have you introduced everyone,” I ask Erin.

“Not yet. I was waiting for you.”

I smile and turn to get my group’s attention. They all come forward. Spencer, of course, is the most polite, greeting everyone again despite her previous frustration with Gavin. Kate and Janice hit it off immediately, seeing as they’re both wearing Ramones t-shirts. But that’s about it. Everyone is pleasant enough, but it’s awkward, and I don’t want to let it last.

“Well, listen, I’ve got our ride. We can go ahead and load up if everyone’s ready.”

Everyone agrees and starts to disperse, some making last minute preparations and some heading outside.

“I’ve gotta pee,” Kyla says, and she heads off for the bathroom.

I walk to my room to get my backpack and turn to find Erin behind me.

“So this house is pretty spectacular.”

“Thanks,” I say, grabbing my song book and checking to make sure I have pens.

She sits down on the end of the bed and touches the duvet.

“I had no idea that you were loaded. I’d seen your cars, but this is a whole new level.”

I stop what I’m doing to focus on her before sitting next to her. “Does it bother you?”

“No,” she says. “It’s just something new to add to the book of Ashley. And it explains a couple of things.”

“Oh? Like what?”

“Well,” she says, linking her arms around my neck. “It might explain why you’re disinterested in politics. Who cares about laws when they don’t really have to rely on them?”

I roll my eyes and she laughs. “And it definitely explains why you’re such a brat.”

“I’m not a-,” I try to protest, but it’s rather difficult to do that with her tongue in my mouth.

This kiss is very different than those we’ve shared before. Usually they’re sweet, almost chaste, but this one speaks of desires I haven’t awakened in a very long time, desires that died when I left to do the same. My hands react without thought, going to Erin’s waist, and before I know it, I’m pinned to the bed, one of her legs on either side of my hips. Her hands tangle in my hair and I feel a low moan strangle from my throat at the sensation. It spurs my hands to slide up her back and claw at her shoulders.

I’ve made out with plenty of women, but I never let it go this far, and I find my mind in a strange, disconnected place. The difference between those other girls and Spencer was night and day. For them, I felt nothing, not even physical gratification. For Spencer I felt everything, an all-encompassing tidal wave that filled the insides and outsides to bursting. With Erin, the physical gratification is there, but emotionally, it’s very calm. I decide that I like it. I feel like I can just be, just go with it, and the fate of my world doesn’t hinge on it. So I just do.

“Ash, are you in h-”

We pull apart in surprise and look to the door. Spencer’s there, holding something, her face draining of color.

“I’m so sorry; I didn’t realize. I’ll just leave this…” She says in a rush, moving back and forth as she tries to find something. “Here,” she decides to finally just put the book on the floor. “I’m so sorry,” she says to the floor before she leaves.

Erin slides off of me and I just look at her.

“That was awkward,” she says.

“Yeah,” I agree.

“Will she be okay?”

I try to smile at her, but it feels tight. “Would you be okay if you were her?”

She blows out a breath. “Probably not. But I figure if she wanted to be with you, she’s had plenty of opportunity.”

“It’s not that simple, but you shouldn’t feel bad. It’s not your fault.”

She takes my hand. “Are you okay?”

I think about that for a moment, looking down at our hands. Erin’s hands are smaller than mine, thinner, more delicate. I link our fingers.

“I do feel bad, but only because I know what that feels like.”

She nods. “Are you sure you’re ready to move on?”

“Are you,” I ask.

“I don’t really get a choice, you know?”

It is different. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”

“You never do,” she says with a sigh.

“Erin, I have to. I’m not sure how much time I have but I know that time is precious. I need to keep moving forward, wherever that goes, even if it goes places I don’t expect.”

She grins at me. “Next time, we’ll make sure to shut the door.”

I laugh. “That’s a good idea.”

She leans in and gives me another kiss. “I’ll see you outside.”

“Okay.”

And with that she leaves the room. I make my way to the door to retrieve the book and realize that it’s my journal. Something inside of me squirms as I feel some of the pain that Spencer’s in because it pangs in my memory. I begin to doubt what I’m doing. Maybe Kyla’s right. Maybe I am trying to force things. Is it really worth hurting Spencer?

I pack my song book and journal into the backpack and zip it up. Part of me knows that if Erin and I had been alone, we wouldn’t have stopped there. She’s the first person I’ve met since Spencer where the idea of being intimate doesn’t repulse me. In fact, it excites me. Those feelings aren’t forced. They just are. But I’m uncertain if they are for the right reasons.

Is sex really separate from emotion? It certainly felt that way just moments ago. But now that the flood of arousal has cooled, what’s left? That answer is easy: a gentle coasting of pleasant feelings. Maybe I need to take a step back and evaluate what’s happening before I go any further. But to do that would mean to call off the trip, and everyone took time off of work to do this, never mind the fact that I committed to try and so did Erin. I have no desire to hurt Spencer, but I don’t want to hurt Erin either. At the end of the day my focus should be me. I feel the need to move forward. I feel that Erin is forward. And the agreement I made with myself when I chose to live is that I would follow my instincts. Thing is, if this is what my instincts are telling me, where is the doubt coming from? They both feel like they come from the same place.

I sling the bag over my back and make one last check around the room to be sure I haven’t forgotten anything. I’m not shelving my feelings, but at the same time, I can’t make sense of them. And when that happens, which is often, I have no choice but to just ride them out until the answers become available. That’s all I can do. I have a gym bag with another pair of shoes and toiletries in it, but it’s in the living room with Al, so I make my way there. The space is empty, except for Spencer.

She looks at me and the effect is crushing, even when she appears to be just fine, if not a little rosy in the cheeks.

“Ash,” she says. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have barged in like that.”

“Spence, the door was open. It’s not your fault. I’m just sorry you had to see that. I know it’s not easy.”

“No,” she says. “It’s not. Is that how you felt with Carmen?”

I chuckle. “Spence, every time she touched you, I wanted to gouge my eyes out.”

She laughs too. “Yeah.”

“Please don’t gouge your eyes out, Spence. It would be a shame to ruin something that beautiful.”

She smiles at me, but it’s a sad smile. “I won’t.”

“Are we good,” I ask.

“Ash, don’t feel bad for moving on. All that matters is that you’re happy. Does she make you happy?”

I swallow. “In a lot of ways, yes.”

“Then I’m happy for you.”

“It’s okay, Spence, you don’t have to lie to me.”

She laughs again, but it’s without mirth. “It’s not a lie. I’ll admit that I envisioned something very different for both of us, but your happiness is all that really matters.”

“Your happiness matters too, Spence.”

“I know. I’m working on it.”

I step closer and put the bag down to pull her into a hug, but she backs away like she’s been stung.

“I can’t hug you right now. I don’t want to start crying.”

“Spencer… what can I do?”

“I think I need to sit this one out, Ash.”

“You’re not coming?”

“Would you forgive me if I didn’t?”

“I mean, it won’t be nearly as fun without you, but there’s nothing to forgive.”

“So you won’t be mad at me?”

“No, Spence. I get it.”

“Thank you,” she says almost desperately, closing her eyes and breathing in a way that relaxes the rigid set of her shoulders.

I pull the journal out of the backpack and hand it to her. “Do me a favor, okay? Take some time and write. It might help you make sense of your feelings, and you won’t have to give it back to me if you don’t want to.”

She takes it, and runs a finger over the leather surface almost reverently. “Okay.”

I rezip the backpack and start for the door, but I feel like I can’t really leave things like this. So I heed the call and move back to Spencer.

“Can I hug you now?”

She blows out a breath. “Yeah, I think so.”

I pull her close and hold her tight, rocking us from side to side. Her grip is intense, but she doesn’t cry, not even when I let her go.

“Take a lot of pictures for me, okay?”

“I will.”

She smiles and it’s plastic. “What are you waiting for? Get out of here.”

I reach up and tuck some hair behind her ear, pausing only long enough to run my thumb over her cheek. And that question hits something deep. Somehow, as much as I hate this, as much as my stomach feels tight, like I’ve swallowed concrete, I also feel a sense of closure. Not in the way that one would close a book, but in the way that one would turn a page.

I pick up the bags and Al, and walk out of the house, not stopping to look back, even as my heart demands it.


Erin has her bare feet up on the dashboard. The air conditioner in this jalopy is as cold as ice, but we opted to roll down the windows and let the August air inside. It’s warm, but the breeze is nice, especially as we make our way further and further from the smog of Los Angeles. We decided that we wouldn’t plan the trip outside of making sure we had packed the appropriate necessities and picking a few destinations that are must-have American experiences.

One is Las Vegas. Another is Yellowstone. Then there’s Seattle, the Oregon coast, and Maine, but that’s all in the way of pre-planning. We figured we’d start by following the California coast up to Oregon, stop in Seattle, and then back track to Vegas. From there, we’ll fly by the seat of our pants as we head East and go where the wind takes us.

Kyla took care of the necessities with a checklist as we loaded. Those included music playlists, many of which I contributed. Any one of us can access GPS from our phones, but we decided to get a real map too. We also made a voting app a prerequisite for everyone so that we could easily settle conflicts that might arise based on the varying interests of this crew. Then there’s a first aid kit, portable chargers, an emergency roadside kit, tents, sleeping bags, pillows, a baseball bat, a pocket knife, a decent selection of games, laundry detergent so we could pack light, a fully stocked fridge and dry snacks, and plenty of water.

Kyla, bless her, then made a poster that hangs on the wall in the main space of the cabin above the small nook. It reads:

We’re Better than Jack Karouac, and Here’s Why:

1. We will never say no to a full tank of gas.

2. We will take all of the pictures.

3. We will not get lost when we get off the interstate.

4. We will pay attention to bad weather and signs.

5. We won’t break the law.

6. We will savor our destinations.

7. Any bitching and you’ll be left on the side of the road.

That last one had been thrown on there last minute. I think it’s her way of trying to help me bridge the gap. I should have known better. But whatever. This trip may be a disaster, and it isn’t as freedom based as I’d have liked it to be, but I can’t really fault Kyla. She’s pregnant, and there’s nothing wrong with being blunt or safe, though with this many people, I find it hard to contemplate that anyone would mess with us.

I glance over at Erin to see her dozing. It was an early start this morning, and I’m starting to feel it too. I’ve been driving along the coast for the better part of the day. I think everyone has felt it. They’ve all been pretty subdued, only small, quiet conversations, even Jon and Jac. It’s still an adjustment to see them all googly-eyed, but I can’t really complain. Band practice has become rather extraordinary, the energy returning tenfold.

“Where are we,” Erin asks in a groggy voice.

“Just about to San Francisco,” I say.

She lets out a breath and sits up in her seat. “Are we going to stop?”

I shrug. “We can. Either way, I think I want to switch off with another driver.”

“I’ll do it,” Aiden says from the back and I smile at him through the giant rearview mirror.

He’s almost as excited about my recent purchase as I am, though I’m pretty sure he’s the only one. I know he’s been itching to play with her. The signs for the San Francisco city limits come into view and almost immediately we’re inundated with gas stations and fast food restaurants. I take the next exit and pull into its gas station. This seems to rouse everyone.

I stand and stretch before grabbing my phone and sending out a poll for whether to actually stop in San Francisco or keep going. I can hear the blips of notifications on everyone’s phones and I feel a small touch of triumph. I vote to keep going. I’ve seen the bay.

This app really is ingenious.

Several people get off of the Winne, me included, and we all file inside to use the facilities. We have a toilet on the RV, but there’s no point in using it over a bathroom that we don’t have to empty by hand. Once I’ve worked the kinks out of my muscles, I grab a water and start to gas up while I sip it.

Erin leans against the side of the RV next to me. “So did she change her mind because of what she saw?”

I mirror her pose and stare down at my flip flops. “It’s part of the reason, I’m sure, but honestly, I think there’s more to it.”

“Like what?”

“Well…, we had a long talk the day before I met you at the park. And she explained to me that she’s working through some things. She’s not in a great place right now as it is emotionally, and I think she needed some time alone to work through it.”

Erin looks over at me. “I don’t really get that.”

Now it’s my turn to ask, “What do you mean?”

“Working through emotions. I get what it’s like to hurt over something, obviously, but I’ve always just left that stuff alone. I don’t sit and think about things that hurt, especially if I can’t change them.” She shrugs. “It seems sort of masochistic.”

This information adds a new layer to Erin for me, though I don’t think she’s trying to be revealing. I fully understand what she’s saying. I used to be the same way. It’s called avoidance. The irony is that avoidance is the most masochistic thing you can do. The more you avoid something, the more prevalent it becomes in your mind. You think about it more than anything else because you keep trying to force yourself not to.

It’s human nature.

I guess that it could be different with Erin. She doesn’t seem to be ruined by her painful experiences, of which I only really know of one. But I also know that this one thing damaged her deeply. And if what she says is true, if she hasn’t worked through it because she believes that there’s no point in working through it, she’s still stuck on it.

“Not to be contrary, but I disagree.”

“Of course you do,” she says with a smirk.

“Hear me out. It’s just my personal experience, so maybe yours is different, but until I actually took the time to work through some of my stuff, I was stuck wallowing in it. Forcing myself not to think about it was actually worse.”

“That doesn’t make sense to me. That’s like saying it’s easier to get socked in the face instead of avoiding the hit.”

“For a time, sure, it feels better to not get hit. But there’s only so long you can keep that up. After a while, you’re spending all of your time watching and waiting for it to come, and you start to slip up because it only comes faster and harder as new problems join the fight. You eventually get hit anyway, and when you do, it’s a beating. Whereas, if you take them as they come, not only is it just one here and there, but you start to build some endurance. They don’t hurt as much. Some glance off completely, and you’re not so paranoid anymore.”

She staring at me and I can’t tell what she’s thinking.

“That’s just my experience though.”

“That’s cool,” she says. “I still prefer my method.”

I nod, wishing she’d explain exactly what that method is. Exactly how does one avoid every pain in life? The gas pump clicks to indicate we’re full and I return it to its base. With the cap securely in place, Erin takes my hand and we get back on the RV. Aiden and Kyla are already in the front seats talking, but it’s still relatively empty.

Erin leads me to the back where a sectional shaped couch lines the sides of the walls. Jac and Jon are here, cozied up together. Erin tries to turn away immediately, but I don’t let her. Instead I lead her to the opposite side of them and pull her legs over mine to get her comfortable.

Or maybe to trap her. However you choose to look at it.

I think Erin chooses the latter, but she relaxes all the same and I’m grateful.

She’s trying.

“What was the vote,” Erin asks, and I pull out my phone to check the app.

“Three didn’t vote, three others voted to stay, and four said keep rolling.”

“Good,” Erin says. “I like San Fran, but the sooner we move the sooner we’re done.”

“We’re just getting started,” Jon says. “This is going to be an epic week.”

“Yeah,” Erin says, but somehow I don’t believe it.

“Are you miserable,” I ask quietly.

She rubs the back of my neck in what I feel is an attempt at reassurance. “I’m just not one for travel, remember?”

I nod. She did tell me that. And I find that I have more respect for her in this moment. She really is trying to meet me halfway. I lean in and kiss her, and enjoy her immediate response. It’s very favorable.

“You guys need some privacy,” Jac asks, a gleam in her eyes.

“No,” I say.

“Maybe,” Erin says at the same time.

We share a smile.

“No,” Erin asks me, playing with the string of my tank top.

“Are you into exhibitionism,” I ask her.

She shows a predatory grin and shrugs. “I can go either way.”

I gulp and Jon laughs. “Ash, you’re in so much trouble with her.”

Don’t I know it…

“We could at least make out,” Erin says. “They’ve been doing it pretty much all day, so I don’t think they’d mind, and it would alleviate some of the boredom.”

An extremely long minute passes where I feel utterly paralyzed, but then Aiden peaks his head in and looks at all of us.

“Yeah, Kyla, everyone’s here,” he yells before exiting as quickly as he came.

I feel the engine rumble to life. Jac and Jon are already going at it again, and a look at Erin confirms that she wasn’t kidding. I shrug and she smiles, and before I know it, I’m swept up in a sea of decidedly fantastic physical overload.


When I wake up, I find that it’s dark outside. Erin’s leaning against the wall at the end of the couch, her legs still slung over my lap and my head is cradled on her chest where I’d slumped over in sleep. Jac and Jon are in much the same entanglement as they were when we left San Francisco, and Kate and Janice have occupied the only remaining portion of the couch. It’s not cramped exactly, but we’re all touching in one small way or another.

I push aside the curtain behind me and peak out the window. The coast is still on the left side but the air is cooler and the familiar salty smell is laced with pine. I also notice that there are more stars and less signs of human life. The moon hits the water in an attractive way, and I find myself just watching for a time, at least until my bladder decides that I can’t wait anymore.

It’s a study in stealth as I try to extricate myself from Erin without moving her much, but she seems pretty out of it, stirring only once and then resuming her less than delicate snores. There’s a little bit of drool at the corner of her mouth and I chuckle. I guess I should have known that Erin would be just as lively in sleep as she is in the waking.

I squeeze into the on-board bathroom and relieve myself before grabbing a couple of waters and carefully making my way to the driver. It’s still Aiden, but Kyla’s abandoned the captain’s chair in favor of the hideaway bed. I have to duck down under it to reach the cockpit.

I hand Aiden a water bottle.

“Thanks,” he says quietly.

“No problem,” I whisper. “What time is it?”

He looks down at the lit phone in his lap where the GPS is tracking us.

“Four thirty.”

“Where are we?”

“Oregon,” he says.

I nod and sip on my water, propping my feet up on the dash and letting the amazing scenery wash over my senses.

“Are you tired,” I ask.

“A little. But I slept most of the day so it’s no big deal.”

“Well, let me know and I’ll take over.”

He nods and then it grows quiet, but it’s not the awkward or uncomfortable kind. Time passes much like the scenery until the sky finally starts to lighten through the thick crest of pines to my right. We keep going until we see a break up ahead, the cliffs near the water fully visible now, as well as the small coastal village cozied up between them. It has a tourist appeal – austere shops of rustic beach wood boasting wares such as fresh seafood, candies, and even handmade jewelry. Aiden finds a place to park where we can see the water and turns the engine off.

The beach in front of us is clean, cleaner than any I’ve seen, even in Australia. There’s no trash, no people, nothing but nature. There aren’t even footprints in the sand. It’s like a perfect blanket of off-white velvet that leads up to the rolling tide of the dark, blue-green water. The sky becomes a study in pinks and blues as the sun claims its domain, and we both just watch in companionable silence.

There are rock formations jutting out just beyond the edge of the water, and I find myself staring at them as if I’ve seen them before. They’re familiar and then my mind finally catches up with what it already knows. This is the beach at the end of The Goonies where the pirate ship comes out.

I find myself thinking of Spencer with an odd sense of remorse because she’s not here, and then happiness because thinking about her brings a smile to my face. So many memories come to the surface as I soak it all in, so many adolescent nights of innocent laughter and love-making. I remember my promise to her and fish the Nikon camera out of its bag. Eschewing my flip flops, I make my way out onto the beach to get some shots before the sunrise colors disappear. Once I have a good gigabyte worth, with a deep, salty breath, I head back to the Winne.

Aiden’s out now too, stretching and taking it all in. It’s kind of impossible not to; it’s just that beautiful.

“You want to spend the day here before we move on to Seattle?”

“That’s fine with me,” he says. “I was only coming for Kyla and Spencer, but you managed to scare Spencer off.”

That brings me up short. “You think I scared her off.”

He shrugs.

“I didn’t do anything wrong, Aiden.”

“No, of course not.”

“Do you even know what happened?”

“I don’t really care. I wish Spencer would have come, but then I’m glad she didn’t for her sake.”

“Right, because I’m such a bad person.”

He gives me a bored look. “I don’t really know what kind of person you are, Ashley. All I know is that you’re not reliable, and it gets people hurt.”

“I kissed Erin, Aiden; that hardly makes me unreliable.”

“Like I said, I don’t really care.”

“Then why say anything?”

He thinks about that and then nods his head a few times. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have.”

With that he takes off down to the beach. His gait appears to be that of a leisurely stroll, and I decide not to let his assholery eat at me. I knew the agreement was too good to be true. He’s too angry to be completely civil, but he’s clearly not going to give up, and for Kyla’s sake, neither will I.

I spare a few more moments thinking of Spencer before grabbing my phone from my pocket and snapping one last picture of The Goonies rock, knowing that she’ll recognize it. I text it to her with the caption, ‘Wish you were here.’ There’s no immediate response, but then it’s the crack of dawn. I look out at the ocean. Aiden hasn’t gone far. Just close enough to fish up some rocks and throw them into the surf. The right side of the beach slopes up into a cliff, and perched at the top is a hotel. It’s probably about a mile away, but it seems smaller than a resort and I imagine that the view is pretty spectacular. I could use a shower and change of clothes.

I go back to the Winne and start it up, hoping that the sound will reach Aiden, and it does. He throws one last rock before jogging back and slumping into the captain seat next to me.

“I thought we were staying,” he says.

“We are,” I reply, pointing through the windshield to the hotel.

I was right. It’s about a mile up the cliff, and it only takes about ten minutes, even with the in-town speed limits. Sounds start to fill the cabin and by the time we come to a stop, everyone’s awake. I find Erin and we grab our bags before heading inside. The place is smaller, probably only about twenty or thirty rooms, but the sign out front had a vacancy slip on the bottom.

The inside is cozy, consistent with the apparent history of the place, though still greatly updated. There’s a café with colorful displays of candies, cupcakes, and other sugary confections. The pungent aroma of freshly ground coffee beans makes me groan in anticipation.

The others of our group start to filter in as the pleasant woman behind the check-in counter greets us with a perfect smile.

“Welcome to the Canon Beach Hotel. Do you have reservations?”

“No,” I say. “I was hoping you had some vacancies.”

“Certainly,” she smiles. “How long will you be staying?”

“Just tonight.”

“Easy enough,” she says. “All of our single occupant rooms are booked, but we have a four occupant suite with shared living quarters, the honeymoon suite, and several double occupant options.”

I do the math in my head. With two per room, that would be five, but then that also means that Kate and Janice would be sharing a room. I look around for them and find them at the café counter together. It strikes me that they’ve been together since the start of the trip. And neither seems unhappy about that fact.

“We’ll need five doubles, ocean views if you have them.”

She nods and starts typing into her computer. After a minute or two the printer beneath the counter starts to whir. “Fortunately, there’s no wait for check-in, if you’d like to do so now.”

I pull my wallet out of my back pocket and hand her a card. It doesn’t really matter which one, and she picks up the contract beneath the desk, setting it down with a pen for me to peruse and sign. It’s the standard, so I sign it. A few minutes later, I have a receipt and card keys.

“Rooms seven, eight, and nine are ocean views. The others are quite lovely though.” She leans forward over the counter conspiratorially. “Nine is the better of the three,” she says with a wink.

I thank her, and we make our way over to Kate and Janice. I hand them the keycard for room eight.

“I hope you two don’t mind, but you’re sharing a room.”

“That’s fine with me,” Janice says in her lilt, shyly glancing at Kate.

Kate’s cheeks redden and she scrubs at the back of her neck. “Me too.”

I glance at Erin to see her trying not to laugh.

“Okay then,” I say, locating the others and pairing them off.

The only ones who aren’t coupled are Gavin and Column, but they seem happy about the accommodation as they take their keycard. Kyla and Aiden get the other ocean view room, and we’re all set.

“Do you want to eat or get a shower first,” I ask Erin.

“Shower,” she says. “I’m in desperate need of a toothbrush.”

We make our way up the single flight of stairs. Room nine is all the way at the end. Once inside, I take a look around. It’s really beautiful, but there’s only one giant four-poster bed.

“I thought she said this was a double occupant,” I mumble under my breath.

Erin kicks her shoes off and flings herself onto the end of the mattress, a huge smile on her face.

“What, don’t want to share a bed with me, Slick?”

That pulls me up short as it sucks all of the moisture out of my mouth. I’m certain that I would enjoy anything that Erin wanted to do to me in that bed, but then at the same time, I’m not certain that I’m ready to enjoy it.

Kyla’s words ring in my ears: ‘do you even want to?’

I have no clue what I want because I seem to want several things that don’t coincide. But I know that I have to tread carefully here so I don’t hurt Erin, or overwhelm her. I have no idea how I manage it, but I pull my shit together just in the nick of time.

“I don’t know, Erin. You drool and you snore.”

That would probably have been hurtful had I not sauntered over to her while saying it and climbed up on top of her. She hooks her knees on my hips and pulls me in closer.

“You’ll pay for that, Slick.”

She leans up to kiss me but I teasingly avoid her mouth. Her grip is strong, but she can’t hold me in place long enough to hit the mark. I can’t tell if she’s frustrated for being denied or for losing the battle. Finally, in Erin fashion, she plays dirty, running her right hand down between my legs to press hard against the denim at the apex. A breath escapes me and then my mouth is seized.

She continues to rub as the kiss deepens and I find myself falling forward onto her. She laughs when my weight breaks her contact and that gives me the opening that I need to roll off of her.

“You don’t play fair,” I say.

“Nope,” she agrees, eyes beaming with pride and lust. “You wanna join me in the shower?”

I give her a baleful glare and she laughs again, getting to her feet to lift her shirt over her head and throw it at me. It hits me squarely in the face and I pull it off just in time to see her unhook her bra.

“Your loss,” she says, disappearing into the bathroom, this garment sailing out to land a few inches from my face.

I hear the water start and stare at the bra in disgust. Jesus Christ, what is wrong with me? A gorgeous woman is practically throwing herself at me. I actually like her and want to take things further. She’s not just a fling and everything with Spencer, while still a mess, finally feels like the right kind of mess, the kind of mess that isn’t my responsibility to clean up.

I crawl off of the bed and walk to the window. The view is as gorgeous as I’d imagined, the ocean bluer now that the sun has turned yellow, the same blue as Spencer’s eyes…

So this is how it’s always going to be: Spencer or nothing, which essentially means nothing either way because Spencer’s not an option.

‘But she could be,’ that annoying fucking voice says in the back of my mind.

‘But she’s not now,’ I reply with undisguised venom. ‘And now is all we have.’

It shuts up, if only for a moment, and I breathe with relief, though there really is no relief for this. The water shuts off in the bathroom and I have to decide. Either I’m going to go all in with Erin or I’m not, and as much as I want to, I just don’t know that I can.

I need help.

Erin steps out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around her.

“Hey, I’m going to call Shirley. I’ll only be a minute,” I say, kissing her shoulder as I pass.

She slaps me on the ass, startling me, and continues to rummage through her clothes as if it was all my imagination. Once in the hallway, I stand there for a moment just gulping in air, my fingers shaking as I hit the appropriate speed dial. The voicemail picks up and I realize that they’re probably at the Crisis Center. Renovations start this week.

I try Sam, but there’s no luck there either.

“Hey, Siri,” I wait for a beep. “Call the LGBT Crisis Center in Los Angeles.”

“Calling LGBT Crisis Center,” she says.

The line rings and when ten of them go by without answer, I start to get really nervous, but then finally, I hear Shirley’s out of breath voice.

“LGBT Crisis Center,” she says, with what sounds like rhythmic hammering in the background.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s Ashley. I need to talk.”

“Hey, Ash,” she says brightly. “I can’t really talk right now. It’s loud in here.”

“Shirley, please, just get your cell phone and call me from outside or something. It’s important.”

“Okay, I’ll call you right back.”

“Thank you,” I breathe out, the line going dead.

I make my way down the hallway, looking for somewhere private, and finally wind up in a broom closet. I feel better already, safer. My phone rings and I pick it up immediately.

“Thanks, Shirley. I’ve got a problem.”

“It’s both of us,” Shirley says. “You’re on speaker.”

“Okay…”

God, they’re like grandparents.

“Talk to us, kid.”

“We’re on the road trip.”

“Yeah, we know,” Sam says.

“Well, Spencer sort of caught me and Erin making out before we left and decided not to come.”

Shirley groans and Sam says, “I told you,” to her.

“Can you two focus, please?”

“Sorry, kid,” Shirley says. “So aside from the fact that you’re a late bloomer, what’s the problem?”

I ignore the insult. “Erin and I are… well, we’re…”

“You’re having sex,” Sam asks incredulously.

“No,” I say. “Not yet, but it’s…”

“Ah,” Shirley says. “It’s shit or get off the pot time.”

“Really romantic, Shirley,” Sam chides her.

“Well, am I wrong?”

“No,” I say. “You’re right.”

“Ashley, we can’t help you with this,” Sam says. “You have to decide for yourself if that’s what you want.”

It’s quiet and I lean against the wall in defeat.

“However,” Shirley interjects. “If you’re not comfortable, don’t you dare do it. Sex is a choice, not an obligation.”

“But what if I don’t know what I want,” I whine pathetically and I want to slap myself.

“What,” Shirley laughs. “Trust me, kid, if you wanted to do that, you’d know it.”

“Shirls…,” Sam chides again. “Ashley, what my wife means is that you’ll know if it’s right. Trust your instincts. Don’t do anything you’re not ready to do. And if you decide that you’re not ready and Erin can’t respect that, well… well, then fuck her.”

“And anyone else who doesn’t respect it,” Shirley adds.

“But I do feel those things for her. When we’re kissing, I want it. A lot.

“Come on, kid, we both know what’s going on here. Are you ready to let go of Spencer or not?”

“Ashley, before you answer that,” Sam cuts in. “I want you to realize that there’s no shame in deciding that you’re not ready to let Spencer go.”

“You just want to win the bet,” I say.

“Ash, you know that’s not true,” Shirley says. “We just want you to be happy.”

I sigh, properly chastised. “Yeah… I know. So how do I figure out what I want to do? That’s the problem here. I’m just not sure.”

“Kid,” Shirley says. “When it comes to stuff like that, there’s one rule of thumb I live by: when in doubt, don’t do it. Take the time to be sure. Don’t act rashly.”

“Rashly Ashley,” I say, and they both laugh. “It’s not funny.”

“No, you’re right, it’s not,” Sam says clearing her throat to be completely serious. “Now is a pivotal time for you, Ash. You’ve made all this headway, but it’s really easy to fall back into old habits. Don’t let your guard down. Really think this through before you do it. There are more than your feelings on the line here.”

“Okay. I won’t do anything until I’m sure.”

“I’m glad to hear that, kid. Are you good?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Okay, call if you need us,” Sam says. “Seriously. Don’t hesitate.”

“I won’t. Thanks, guys.”

“We love you, Ash.”

“Love you. too. Bye.”

I hang up the phone and bang my head on the wall for a little bit. They’re right, but the dread and uncertainty is still there. For once, their words didn’t help me very much. I’m still not sure, so I need to take a step back. But if I do that, Erin’s going to know why and then I might lose her. As uncertain as I am about our physical relationship, I’m equally certain that I don’t want to stop seeing her.

On impulse, I make one more phone call. He picks up within a couple of rings.

“Hey, Ash. How’s the open road?”

“So far, so good, Mr. C. How’re… you?”

He chuckles. “I’m fine, just fine. And I’m alone, so we can be honest. You’re worried about Spencer?”

I blow out a breath. “Yeah. She was pretty upset when we left. Did she… tell you?”

“No details or anything, but I got the picture.” We’re quiet for a moment and then he decides to be brave. “Ash, can I be candid with you?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Are you trying to punish her for Carmen?”

“What? No, of course not…”

“Do you love this girl – Erin?”

“I’m still trying to figure that out, Mr. C. I know that I care about her a great deal.”

“Okay, then I’m going to ask a huge favor of you. And you can say no, but I’ll ask you to please just think about it.”

“Okay,” I say, the word drawing out into three hesitant syllables.

“I know that you aren’t actually with Spencer, but you two have been dancing around each other for the better part of a year. If you’re going to pursue Erin, then let Spencer go. Make it a clean break.”

“Why can’t we be friends?”

“Because you’re not friends.”

“Mr. C, she’s my best friend…”

“I know, but that’s not all she is, and the two of you don’t seem to know how to make that distinction. The way I see it, you have two options: get it together or give it up. No more riding the fence.”

I’m quiet, heavy with a strange sickness that starts in my toes and numbs to the top of my head.

“I’m sorry, but no. I’m not going to kick Spencer out of my life.”

There’s a smile in his voice. “So you’ve decided. Now it’s time to commit. I know it’s not fair of me to butt in. It’s not my business, but it’s killing me to see Spencer hurting this way, especially when she doesn’t have to.”

“Mr. C,” my voice sounds alien to my ears. “Spencer’s not ready. She told me.”

“I know,” he says. “We’ve been talking, a lot. Just trust me on this, Ash. Spencer’s ready, she’s just tired.”

“She said that she’s a mess, that she can’t catch up to me.”

“Right, and she’s told me that too, but Spencer’s not stupid, Ashley. I’m not trying to be cruel. I love you both, but what you’re doing is choosing Erin over her. And if that’s what you want, that’s fine, but if that’s the case you need to let Spencer go. Let her grieve and move on.”

I can feel my heart beating faster. “I didn’t choose Erin over her.”

“Even if it didn’t start out that way, that’s what you’re doing now.” I feel like he’s just punched me in the gut. I can’t find words. “It’s not really fair to Spencer for me to do this, but she thinks you’ve moved on, and she doesn’t want to hold you back. That’s a big part of her lack of motivation.”

“So she lied to me…”

“No, she didn’t lie. She actually believes that she’s not ready. She’s trying to do the right thing for you, Ash, just like you did when you left. You both just need to give in or give up, decide and commit. And unfortunately, it looks like the first step falls on you because Spencer has given up. And that’s not all her fault, Ashley.”

Ouch…

“If she’s given up then what do you want me to do, force her,” I ask.

“Not force her, but push her a little. She’s a gunpowder keg ready to go off. It won’t take too much for her to go, but you’re the only one who can get in there past all of her defenses to set her off.”

“Why would you want me to set her off? That would hurt her.”

“Surely you know by now that pain is part of the prize?” He’s not wrong, at all. “She knows how she feels. She knows who she is and what she wants, but she’s fighting herself because she’s tired and because you’ve given her every reason not to. She has the strongest will of anyone I’ve ever known, but you’re the stronger of the two of you on a whole.”

“That’s absurd,” I say.

“No, it’s the truth.”

“Spencer’s always been stronger than me. Always.”

“Don’t get me wrong, Spencer’s strong, but you’re stronger. You didn’t have a choice in the matter. Even when you felt weak and helpless, you survived things where others would have crumpled. She hasn’t been tested that way, Ash, except for when she lost you… and while I don’t diminish her pain, the two don’t even compare. You’re stronger because you’ve had to be.”

Those words hang in the air like the rot of a corpse.

“Ash, when you left, you took some pretty big pieces of her with you. It’s not your fault she gave them to you, but that’s what you do when you trust someone: you give them the pieces you wouldn’t normally share with anyone else. She rebuilt, and she found happiness in seeing you rebuild, but she’s thrown in the towel. She thinks that she lost herself while you were finding yourself, that she’s just not ready, but that’s not it at all. She’s angry at herself and angry at you and angry at the situation and just plain angry, but she hasn’t let herself really feel it. She’s still as strong as she ever was, but it’s like she’s lost the will to use it. She just needs to let that out. She has the tools to clean it up once she does, just no desire to let everything get so messy to begin with because she’s afraid to hurt you. I’m asking you to make a mess for her to fix.”

“Mr. C, I don’t… know…”

I hear his long-suffering sigh. “Ash, just know that I love you, both of you, no matter what. And please, really think about what I’ve said.”

“Okay.”

“Thank you. You have the number. Call day or night.”

“I remember.”

“Bye, Ash.”

“Bye.”

I hang up and pull myself off of the wall. I need to get back to the room or Erin’s going to start wondering where I’ve been. I make my way back up the hall, wrapping my arms around myself against a sudden and inexplicable chill. I can’t even really comprehend the conversation I just had.

When I get back to the room I see that Erin’s gone, but there’s a note on the bed.

‘What the hell, Slick? Get your ass down here for breakfast.’

I shower perfunctorily and I’m down in the cafe in roughly ten minutes. Erin spots me right away and I can tell that she’s upset, at least until she sees my face.

“Ash, are you okay,” she asks as I sit down next to her.

“Yeah,” I say. “I think so. I don’t feel all that well.”

Her eyes get big. “You’re not coming down with something, are you?”

I go to reassure her but then I stop, suddenly feeling an immense sweep of relief flood my system as the idea forms in my mind.

“I hope not,” I lie, knowing damn well that it’s emotions, not physical illness.

“Is it the flu?”

“No, I don’t think so. Probably just a cold.”

That’s good. Something non-life-threatening but contagious. That should buy me some time to shit or get off the pot.

“Do you think you can eat,” she asks.

Oddly enough, the answer is, “No, not right now.”

“Okay, well, what do you want to do? Do you need to rest?”

“Actually, I was thinking I’d walk around in the town a little bit. Maybe some fresh air will improve my constitution.”

“That sounds nice,” she smiles.

We both stand, I pay for her order, and while she still takes my hand, I notice that there’s definitely more distance between us. And I can’t help but be relieved by it.


I lean on the railing and look over the edge of the space needle. My view is limited by the fencing put in place to keep people from falling to their deaths, but the height makes my stomach flutter in an exciting way. Erin isn’t so brave as to look down, but with all of the protection up here, even she’s enjoying the view.

In the last two days, we’ve explored the city, the highlights being Capitol Hill and the music museum. I got to see Jimmy Hendrix’s guitar, and that was amazing. We also fiddled around in one of the rentable studio booths. By far though, my favorite thing about Seattle is the Pike Street Market. It’s famous for the stevedores that throw fish, but that’s not even the best thing about it. It’s roughly two miles of every sort of delicious confection, brilliant, hand-made art, and all of the strange human acts of curiosity imaginable. We both got a new pair of Chuck Taylors with customized airbrushing, which was an amazing find with an amazing artist. We’ve spent countless hours just ambling around down there, the whole group staying together this time. And I have to say that I’m surprised at how well that’s going.

There hasn’t been one fight. There have been a few complaints here and there, things like the music or the temperature, or just plain boredom. But on the whole, everyone’s doing really well sharing a cramped space.

I’d swear hell is experiencing its first ice age.

But it’s true. Everyone is getting along, and some more than others. I’m fairly certain, given the sounds that permeated the wall of our room that night in Canon Beach, Janice and Kate have hit it off smashingly well. Pun intended. Erin hasn’t said anything about it, and I haven’t seen Kate this happy in, well, ever.

It did make mine and Erin’s first foray into sharing a bed together more challenging than even I’d anticipated. Of course, Erin hasn’t initiated any physical interaction since she found out that I’m not well. And I knew she’d have that reaction. Hell, most people would. I don’t blame her, but I do blame myself for putting this wall between us at such an excellent time.

We’re getting along. Actually, we’re getting closer, learning each other, enjoying each other, and have been for more than two weeks now. The avoidance of before is nowhere to be found. Things have been exactly as I’d been hoping for, and we’re doing it around others. We are, however, avoiding certain topics. Politics mostly, despite our agreement, but then also I’ve been extra careful in how I treat her or what words I use around her. And I think she’s made peace with the fact that Jac and Jon get under her skin by ignoring them the way the rest of us do. Either way, she doesn’t seem to be as easily upset by their antics anymore. Gavin is the only point of contention. He’s neither friend nor foe. He just sticks to his crew and is mostly civil when he has to be, sort of like Aiden.

So here I had to go and fuck everything up, find some drama to stop the momentum I’d been pushing for. It’s possible that I’ve simply relapsed. Any sort of recovery is expected to have those moments. But I feel no less desire to keep moving forward. I feel no more or less attachment to Spencer than I always have. I am, nonetheless, stuck in this rut, or on this fence as Mr. C so poignantly pointed out.

And I have no idea what to do yet. I do know that my make-believe illness will only last so long. Erin is bound to notice that I’m not all that sick and get over her worry. I figure I maybe have a day before it gets intense again. This sense of urgency does nothing to force a decision, however. So I’m riding the fence, naked, and it’s chain-link.

It’s painful.

“It’s close to eight,” Erin says and I lean back off the railing. “You ready for Vegas?”

I smile at her. “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to go.”

“It’s alright,” she says knowingly and I glance at her as we head towards the elevator.

“You’ve been,” I ask surprised.

“Yeah,” she says. “A few years back for Column’s birthday.”

“So you should know the best locations.”

“You can do better than we did, Slick. We were on a pretty stringent budget.”

I take her hand for the ride down. “You can still point out the best places,” I counter and she nods.

“Probably.”

“Did you like Vegas?”

“Yeah, it was okay. It’ll be hotter than hell this time of year, but then it’s Vegas. It’s always hot.”

We hail a cab and before we know it, we’re at the hotel and checking out. Everyone’s already in the RV because we’re late. Aiden is in the driver’s seat so Erin and I find our spot on the couch in the back and settle in for the drive with some snacks.

“You seem to be feeling better,” she says.

I can’t find it in me to lie to her anymore so I nod. “Yeah. I think I’m okay.”

“You had me worried there, Slick.”

“Kind of par the course for me, but I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault,” she says. and I feel my face tighten because it is and I’m an asshole.

We continue to snack, and laugh when a rousing game of twister is performed in the main cabin. This was an ingenious game selection on Kyla’s part because the motion of the vehicle makes the game that much more difficult. More than once we see someone land hard on their ass and topple others over with them.

Gavin starts in on politics to Kate, accusing her of being a TERF when the answers she gives aren’t favorable to him. She laughs him off and I can’t help but find him ridiculous. It’s like he’s itching for a fight with no way to scratch. Little does he know that Kate is exactly the wrong person to try and bait. She literally gives zero fucks what anyone thinks of her.

All in all, we have a good time, whiling away the hours with funny stories, games, music, and playful banter, until time catches up with us and everyone starts falling asleep. When I wake it’s dark out, and the breeze coming in through the windows is actually pretty cold. A quick peek reveals that we’re in the desert and I pull my phone from the charger to check the time. Sunrise is about an hour away.

I get up and use the on-board shower to warm myself, and find a blanket to lay over Erin before making my way to the driver. It’s still Aiden and I tell him to get some sleep. He doesn’t argue, just pulls over and crawls into the other captain chair to recline it all the way back.

Kate gets up to use the facilities, but other than that, everyone’s still passed out in various areas, some having taken a sleeping bag to the floor to get more comfortable. There’s a strange light in the desert, probably from the reflective quality of the sand, and I find myself in awe of the sheer beauty of the landscape in front of me. I grab the headphones from the console and put on some Explosions in the Sky, somehow knowing that this music will fit my mood perfectly.

And it does, especially when it gets to The Moon is Down. I let the music, scenery, and crisp air wash over me. And that anxiousness that’s been weighing on my mind is unleashed, only this time I’ve done it on purpose. I’m going to embrace it, find it inside of me and cradle it like an old friend until it gives up its secrets and loosens its chokehold.

I sink into it. I let it hurt. I don’t argue with it or judge it, even when it tightens in my stomach and brings tears to my eyes. And it hurts for a long while, but then it shifts. There’s this moment of relief and I absorb it. It fills me with gratitude for these emotions that not only remind me that I’m alive when I shouldn’t be, but give me the full range of emotions required to know what joy really feels like.

As I think about joy, I find myself asking if I’ve ever really experienced it. I thought that I hadn’t, but then it’s with supreme clarity that I can pinpoint the joy around me. Joy is this moment right now, finding peace within the darkest parts of myself. Joy is the boy sleeping next to me, even in this broken state of uneasiness between us because he’s here and where there’s life there’s hope. Joy is my irritating baby sister and the niece or nephew that I know I’ll be able to meet, even if that’s all the time I have left. Joy is in the rolling hills and gentle rocking of the seat beneath me.

Joy is in everything.

So I sink a little deeper and I search for that most profound, most ultimate of joys. I want to know if I understand joy at its most primal level. And I realize that I do. Ultimate joy is the touch of Spencer’s hand and the simple sweetness of her laugh. It’s the curve of her lips and the flutter I feel in my stomach when I look into her eyes. Joy is making love, not with a body but with a heart.

And something profound touches me in this moment: I could never separate sex from emotion. I’ve worked far too hard to put myself back together again for me to split myself that way. And this is why my emotions have been so tumultuous. I’ve been forcing myself into something that I don’t want. It goes against who I am, something that is a core value, and to do that is to betray myself. I don’t ever want to be fractured again. I’m whole, and there’s no going back.


I pull the RV up to the valet parking in front of The Bellagio with more than a few curious looks thrown my way, but fuck them. My RV is fucking badass. The valet looks from the machine to the key in his hand and back again. And I can almost hear the little hamster wheel in his head squeak as he tries to determine what he’s supposed to do with this thing.

I give him a couple of Benjamins to soothe his worried mind and that seems to do the trick. Not only does he help us unload our bags from the underside compartment, but he has a bellboy waiting for us to load them on a rack and escort us inside.

I look around us as we walk in. This place is all the elegance of mafia history, right down to its polished marble floors and columns, golden fixtures, crystal chandeliers, and exemplary water features. We’re out of place here, all ripped up jeans, dusty shoes, and carefree smiles, but not a single fuck is given.

The woman at the counter isn’t all that pleasant, but exorbitant amounts of money have her setting us up with two of their penthouse suites, one of which connects to a deluxe tower suite for an extra bed. We’ll be split up, but on the same floor and supremely comfortable. We plan to spend two nights here before the wind carries us East.

Kyla and Aiden decide to share our suite. It’s huge and modern, more like a loft than a hotel room. The view from the living room window showcases the inner city night life, and it’s not long before everyone’s showered, as well dressed as they can be from a travel bag, and ready to go gambling.

We hit the main floor of the Bellagio Casino and I give everyone a generous stipend of gambling cash. We then split off and go our separate ways. Erin and I choose to play on the slots for a little while before messing with the craps tables. And that’s where the real fun begins. I start with about three thousand dollars and within a half-an-hour I’m up an additional fifteen hundred. I’m on fire, making risky, lazy bets, and both Erin and I are a little tipsy. The more we win, the more we’re intoxicated with the thrill of it all, and the heavier the flirting becomes. We’re practically forced to abandon our streak or fuck right there in front of the dealer.

By the time we arrive back at the suite, we’re already undressing each other, leaving a trail of clothes on the way to our bedroom. Erin shoves me down onto the bed and crawls up over me, straddling me and licking at my lips, devouring my mouth. I feel giddy, heady, and overwhelmed, like a fire is burning a hole low between my hips and the flames fanning out anywhere her body touches mine.

There’s some fumbling and laughter, but finally all of our clothes are gone and we’re seeing each other for the first time. She breaks the kiss and leans back on me, beautiful, dark curves and goosebumps giving her skin a pleasant texture to both my hands and my eyes. Her touch is purposeful, skillful, practiced, and for a moment I think I might understand how my instruments feel when I pull at their strings and make them sing, especially as her hand strokes a southernly course. The anticipation is startling. She’s right there, almost there, torturously slow as she gets closer and closer to the most intimate area of my body, a place I’ve only let one other go.

It is a supreme act of trust.

And love…

I look up at her, pushing her hair back so that I can see into her eyes. They smolder and that sends a current down my spine, but I dig deeper, looking for that last connection that I need, that spark of recognition to reassure me that this is the right choice. I look, and I look, but I don’t find it, or at least not enough of it.

She leans in to kiss me again, her hand a hair’s breadth away from a pulsing target, and I push her back, halt her.

“Erin, wait…”

The scrutiny, the naked pleading for something different than release, I can tell that they make her uncomfortable. But this can’t go any further until I see what I believe is there. I’m looking so intently that I can see myself in her eyes, and that mirror dumps all of my scrutiny into my own lap. I find myself pulling her off of me to set her gently to the side, in more ways than one. I can’t even look at her as I see exactly what I need to know but could never find the answer to because I was looking in the wrong place. I don’t need her to be in love with me. I need to be in love with her, and I’m not.

“Ash, what’s wrong,” she asks.

She scoots closer to me and takes one of my hands. It burns but that’s my fault, not hers.

“Erin, are you in love with me?”

She stiffens at the question. And I don’t blame her. It’s so forward, so out of place in a moment where it should be the primary concern, but then that’s the problem.

“I- whu… well, I’m… not sure?”

I turn to face her, making our knees touch and taking both of her hands in mine. I feel wretched.

“It’s okay,” I say, releasing a hand to brush her hair out of her face and lift her chin. “It’s just a question.”

“Ash, I’m not- I mean, I don’t think that I can… answer that… yet. We don’t really know each other that well.”

“Erin, it’s okay. You don’t have to explain. I know I caught you off-guard, but I just wanted to be sure that we were on the same page.”

I start to cry and she starts to worry. This conversation isn’t going anywhere near the direction that I’d imagined. She kisses the crown of my head and holds onto me as I come to terms with the honesty of what I’m doing. And like the tears tumbling over my lashes, I tumble off that fence, and land solidly on the ground.

“Ash, are you saying you’re in love with me,” she asks tenuously.

I laugh through my tears. “I wish I were, Erin, but I’m… I’m just not,” I say pathetically. “I’m sorry, but I’m not. I want to be, so much, but I can’t and I’m sorry…”

She releases a sharp breath and holds me for a while.

“Ash, it’s okay. You don’t have to love me like that. There’s time.”

I sniff and look at her, giving her what she needs to come to terms with, what she already knows as well as I do because this is the one commonality that made our relationship so easy, so safe. We’ve always known that this could never go to the bottom. At least I have a chance of going there again, but for her… it’s so much worse. She could wait an eternity and he’d never show up, whereas all I have to do is go home.

I see tears form in her eyes, but she smiles and it’s genuine. “It’s okay,” she says. “I understand.”

“Erin, I’m so sorry…”

“Stop. You need to go. Now…”

My tears stop with the abrupt shift of conversation. It distracts me. “What?”

“You need to go, Ash. Don’t wait any longer.”

It’s here that I see Erin in a new light. For all of the things that make her so lost to my understanding, we understand each other on this single, fundamental level.

“Don’t you want to yell at me, get angry, tell me off, anything?”

She laughs. “A little, if we’re being honest, but if Josh were still alive, I’d already be gone.”

I put my hands on either side of her face and bring my forehead to hers. “Thank you.”

She tilts forward and kisses me, and it’s back to that sweet chasteness of where it started. And with it comes the understanding of why we never really burned out of control for each other. Our relationship was built entirely on a mutual understanding and a mutual agreement.

I’m released and she shoves me. “Go, Ash.”

I scramble off of the bed and start to throw clothes on, barely paying attention to whether or not I own them.

“Don’t worry about your stuff. I’ll make sure it gets home with us.”

I throw her a grateful look while I locate my wallet. “Listen, you guys can finish the trip without me or have Kyla buy you tickets home. Hell, get tickets and go anywhere you want. It’s on me.”

She smiles at me, albeit sadly. “I might do that.”

“I hope you do,” I say.

She slips on a robe while I put my shoes on and stand.

“Don’t forget your phone.”

I take it from her and when I go to hug her, she doesn’t stop me. In fact, she returns it. I feel so excited that I’m about to go off like a timebomb, but the dread of hurting this truly amazing person is stifling.

“Good luck,” she whispers.

“Erin, I…”

She shoves me away playfully. “Why are you still here? Don’t you love her?”

“I love you too, you know.”

She sighs. “Yeah, Slick, but we both know it’s not the same. Don’t worry about me.”

“I can’t help it.”

“Ash, I’m not in love with you either. This isn’t going to break me. I’m disappointed, but there’s no contest here. I love Josh like you love Spencer, and I truly understand.”

She shoves me one last time and I trudge from the room. Once I hit the hallway, my legs start to pump faster and faster as an urgency overtakes me. I’m quickly sprinting as fast as I can for the elevator.

“Hey, Siri,” I almost shout, slamming a fist on the first floor button.

She beeps at me.

“Call the airport nearest me.”

“Calling McCarran International Airport.”


Please Rate and Review Before Moving on!


Continued in Chapter 14 – I Win

Chapter 12 – Weekend at Ashley’s

It’s kind of difficult to tell Kyla to wipe that huge grin off of her face when I’m wearing a matching one. Or at least, I believe that I am. My cheeks certainly ache. When our arrivals come into view, it suddenly doesn’t seem so ridiculous that she’s bouncing on the balls of her feet, the balloons around the edges of the huge sign in her hands wobbling. My sign is much more subdued. There are no balloons. My letters aren’t large, round, curly, and colorful, the kind of letters that a child might lovingly scrawl on a Mother’s Day card. They’re black blocks that get the point across. And while hers reads, ‘We Missed You, Mom,’ and mine reads, ‘Welcome, Mr. C,’ the sentiment is the same really. It feels the same, anyway.

The two of them make their way down the escalator to where we’re waiting just behind the customs checkpoint. Mr. C is waiving with barely concealed enthusiasm and Christine has a fond smirk curling her mouth. When they reach the bottom, Kyla doesn’t waste a moment throwing herself into Christine’s arms to sob, and Mr. C takes me in a bruising hug. It’s somehow comforting to know that this one thing about him will never change, no matter what life tries to do to him.

“Thanks for bringing me out here, Ash,” his low tones grace my ear with utter sincerity.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I say, pulling back from him. “Spencer’s gonna lose it when we spring you on her.”

He smiles, the kind of smile that actually reaches his eyes, and I notice that he seems a little less sad since the last time that I saw him, though he still smells of whiskey. Christine looks over at me, and it’s a little awkward, but her eyes are unusually warm and the brief hug is genuine.

“It’s good to see you,” I take the lead this time, having learned my lesson with expecting her to.

“You too, Ashley.”

These are really the only words any of us get out as Kyla starts to lead the way to the Humvee, chirping at them about any and everything. She’s so giddy with elation that time escapes on a tidal wave, and before I know it, we’re already pulling up to the house. It’s here, in the final moments of the this trek, when Kyla is forced to finally take a breath, that I feel a sudden pang of unexpected nervousness.

“Ash, this place is beautiful,” Mr. C says behind me.

“Thanks,” I say uncertainly.

My home isn’t modest, by any means, but it’s not really a mansion either. It’s only a little bigger than the two almost identical homes that Spencer and I shared in our adolescence. For starters, it has a huge yard, the front rimmed in a tall, wrought-iron fence, while the back fence is stained wood for complete privacy. The electric gate at the front requires a code and there’s an intercom system with a little camera and screen so that the occupants can see and speak to those waiting outside. My neighborhood is pristine, all of the other homes just as well maintained, and the small drive to the two-car garage gives a short but sweet view of the perfectly sculpted shrubs, trees, and flowers that give my gardeners an easy paycheck every week.

I didn’t really want a home like this, especially in a neighborhood like this. It all seemed so pedestrian to me. But Shirley and Sam had convinced me that the loft that I had my eye on wasn’t a place for me to recuperate, and I had to agree. Here I have privacy, seclusion, safety, room, and I wouldn’t have to manage an elevator or stairs in my weakened condition.

So no, it’s not modest, but it was always a pretty box to wither and die in, and because of that, I sort of hated it, like I hated everything else. Only all of this information is new to me. I had no idea that I felt that way about my own home until this very moment. It, me, we – were just there. It’s strange, how this keeps happening. Before the trip, I had no clue that the world that I lived in didn’t actually exist in the way that I was experiencing it. It’s like I had no idea that all of my senses were dull in the extreme. And now everything’s slowly but surely becoming vibrant, and not always in a pleasant way. Just like now, I’m sitting in my car looking at my house, the same house that I’ve lived in for years, scrutinizing it like those in the back seat might be. And I’m just as dumb-struck as they are at how beautiful it actually is, but the sudden and unexpected nature of this revelation isn’t all that fun to deal with, especially with spectators.

That’s okay though, because I know how to handle it now: let it happen.

I could have had any house, really. Shirley’s Realtor friend had given me an elaborate list of exemplary options, but I chose this one because it wasn’t all that far from a well-equipped hospital or Shirley and Sam. And, the house itself was more appealing to me. I preferred it’s size. It’s smaller than those next to it – only three bedrooms and only a two-car garage. It’s also more modern, whereas most of the other homes offered were classic colonials, all brick and bay windows. This one sort of looks like a few perfectly smooth boxes set just so, creating interesting angles and recesses that are inviting in their textures and open by their design. The tall windows placed into every available space make it feel like the indoors and outdoors aren’t really all that separate. It has a clean, minimalistic feel without being sterile or lacking character. And it’s a one-of-a-kind, the brainchild of a gifted architect that was forced by unforeseen circumstances to sell his ‘baby.’

We pull into the garage and my apprehension intensifies as my guests enter the laundry room that connects to the kitchen. I’m not entirely sure why. It could be because I feel chagrin at such an ostentatious display of wealth. For all of the minimalism I can easily find in this house, it’s still leagues beyond regular. Or, perhaps, it’s because Christine is here adding a motherly quality to the scrutiny. Or maybe it’s the hopeful dread of inviting the past into the present so that they can merge into a future. Maybe it’s some tincture of all three. Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that I’m uneasy, so I tuck my hands into my pockets and rock on my feet as everyone proceeds into the kitchen. I’m trying to process what I feel as opposed to avoid it. That in itself could be part of my anxiety since processing doesn’t come so naturally to me.

Mr. C lets out a low whistle and I can’t read what Christine’s thinking.

Deciding to push past the feelings, I break the quiet. “Um, Christine, I thought you might be more comfortable in Kyla’s room, so she’ll bunk with me. And Mr. C, you’re in the spare room.”

“Want me to give the tour, Ash?”

I sigh gratefully at my sister. She is completely unaffected by displays of wealth. In fact, I’d say she enjoys the status. She takes both of them by their hands and pulls them to the French doors off the kitchen while engaging in a lengthy discussion on where she wants to put a pool. Flot and Jet come bounding up the doors to stare at their visitors with undisguised glee, but Kyla hates them so she ignores them. The kitchen, living room, and even the large deck are essentially one giant open area of clean lines and mahogany floors. And it’s here that I realize that I never really decorated this place. It always felt so temporary. So aside from what few things Kyla has scattered about during her stay here, there’s not much in the way or art or décor, character or… me. There’s not much of anything really, not even furniture. The walls are stark white. There’s one rug in front of the couch, a state of the art sound system, and a television. But that’s it really, aside from functional accessories. I’ve never even used the two-sided fireplace near the recessed bookshelves.

I pick up the abandoned luggage, two small carry-ons with handles, and make my way towards the hallway beyond the French doors, doing my best not to repress or distract from what I’m feeling so much as give it time to settle. Mr. C’s luggage is deposited in the first room on the left, and I pass the connecting bathroom to Kyla’s room where I set Christine’s down. Across the hall is a half bathroom and a large den that I’ve converted into a studio. This is probably where most of my personality shines through, and it has a slightly soothing effect on my suddenly raw nerves.

There are a few posters of some of my favorite artists in here. I’m most proud of the more obscure stuff like Billy Talent and Emery, and the vintage stuff like The Runaways and Doris Day. But even still, most of the walls are coated in black foam meant to dampen noise reverberations. I mean, it’s a studio… but even this space is bland, sparse, and utterly lacking in character.

I hear Kyla lead her entourage into the living room, and for some reason, I feel drawn to the double doors at the end of the hall. It’s only my room, but something in me pangs as if this is my first time stepping foot in here as opposed to my thousandth. My king-sized bed dominates the far wall. There are floor to ceiling glass windows just adjacent that showcase the backyard, but I can’t see it. My blackout curtains are shut tightly, closing the space, choking it.

How did I miss this choking feeling before?

That same something pulls me forward again and I yank them open to let the natural light in. The space lights up immediately, but there’s little that can be done to liven the stark… just plainness of it all. The only color is the deep green of the grass and carefully built walls of trees and attractive shrubs that obscure the back perimeter of the fence. Everything else is white and sterile, even my duvet.

Somehow I feel the sudden need to make the space mine, to claim it in some way that a deed never could. It’s something I haven’t felt since living with Christine. And I’ve now, in a moment of unbidden self-awareness, determined the root cause for my discomfort: this house obviously belongs to an empty person, and while that’s been true, it’s not true anymore. And I don’t others to see me that way.

Having nailed down the whys helps to settle some of my anxiety, because now I can start to focus on the solution instead of the problem.

“This place really is beautiful,” I jump, startled by the gentle voice behind me.

“Thank you,” I say, breathing carefully to calm my heart.

Christine comes up next to me, mirroring my stance and staring out through the windows.

“It’s all so clean,” she says. “You were very sloppy when you were younger.”

I can’t help but smile at that. My room was almost always a mess. Part of it was just my personality. Brilliance and insanity are two sides of the same coin, or so they say. But another part of it was that I loved having Spencer over and watching her tidy up after me. She never complained, and it was probably a shitty thing to do on purpose, but something about it made me feel… utterly cared for.

“I still am,” I say. “I can just afford to pay others to clean up after me now.”

She exhales, not heavily and not lightly, but somewhere in between, and it’s quiet for a few minutes.

“I know it’s not my business, but how can you afford all of this?”

I glance over at her, willing to give her what answers she wants, but that’s a discussion that could easily eat away an hour or two, and with Kyla and Mr. C approaching behind us, I know that now isn’t the time.

“It’s a long story. We’ll need time, but I don’t mind explaining what happened when we find a moment alone. I owe you that much, Christine.”

“You don’t owe me anything, Ashley.”

“Then maybe I want to,” I say.

“I’d like that,” she says almost warmly. But still only almost.

“Me too.”

“Ash, we’re starving,” Kyla announces, breezing into the room and sucking all of the air out of it.

Christine and I share a knowing look before we turn around, though I’m fairly certain that I know more than she does. That is, however, Kyla’s long story to tell in private.

Kyla goes to speak again and I cut her off. “Huh uh. I know what you want but there are other people to consider this time.”

She folds her arms and gives me a glare but I shrug it off. She’s been on an M Café kick because of their off-menu, loaded vegan burger. I thought it tasted like ass, but then I’ve never been a fan of hot sauce or artificial cheese. I don’t know if it’s just her quirkiness or her pregnancy, but she would eat them six times a day if she had the option. By the time she’s in the delivery room, I may have to hook her up to an IV with a steady flow of the fucking things in a liquid state.

“Mr. C, this is your area of expertise,” I continue. “Any culinary itches you’ve been dying to scratch?”

His eyes light up. “In-N-Out Burger.”

I chuckle and look to Christine. “Burgers okay with you?”

“That’s fine,” she says.

Kyla gives me a hopeful expression and I roll my eyes. M Café is close to In-N-Out. What’s an extra window drive-by?

“Fine,” I say, making her clap and bounce.

She loops her arm with Christine’s and starts a brisk walk back out into the hallway, probably trying to get us moving faster because her cravings are that monstrous.

Mr. C catches my eyes. “Does anyone else know,” he asks, and I feel my mouth fall open. He laughs and puts his arm around my shoulders, giving them a gentle squeeze. “Don’t look so surprised. I have three children and I used to be a social worker for at-risk teens. I still know the signs pretty well.”

“Just me and Spencer,” I admit. There’s no sense in lying.

We start to walk towards the door.

“Do you know who the father is,” he asks quietly.

“Aiden Dennison,” I say just as quietly.

He pats me on the shoulder and releases me, but then I stop and look up at him as what he’s just told me finally registers.

“You used to be a social worker,” I ask.

He lowers his eyes and nods his head, and I feel like the world just got a little darker. This is a travesty. I can’t think of a better person to help the newer generation of homeless and abused, and not only has he lost his life’s work like most everything else, but they’ve lost their greatest advocate.

“When? Why? How,” I breathe out.

He sighs and finally looks at me. “About two years ago…,”

‘After Spencer stopped calling,’ I piece together.

“And well, because I’m a… a…”

‘Drunk,’ my mind finishes, even as my mouth can’t form the word.

I swallow hard and follow an impulse to console him for once, leaning in to hug him. And for the first time since I’ve known him, it takes a minute for him to reciprocate, but when he does, it’s just as fierce.

“Thank you,” he whispers, his voice like breaking glass. “For not judging me.”

“COME ON, YOU GUYS! I’M STARVING,” Kyla shouts from somewhere near the kitchen, her voice pleasant but subtly annoyed.

I pull back from Mr. C, tears stinging my eyes and my tongue swelling in my throat, though I’m not really sure why. All I know is that I hate that he’s hurting, possibly as much as I hate it when Spencer hurts, and I’m surprised to find this train of thought move to surpass even the hate that I’ve felt for my own pain. Somehow, this man and his daughter, they matter more. Hell, if I let myself, right here, right now, I can focus on all of my closest relationships and find that their pain overshadows my own.

It’s a little staggering, and while I’m making an effort to stop distracting myself from my feelings, I can’t have a full on meltdown right now. I have no choice but to shelve this particular revelation. I swipe at my eyes and Mr. C sniffs, but nothing more is said as we both recover enough to answer the insistent call of a hormonal woman with endlessly hollow legs.


“You know, the furniture shopping was supposed to be for my new apartment,” Spencer says with a playful smile while she gathers some of my purchases from the backseat. “I’m glad you were actually into it though. I thought I might have to mildly sedate you to get your cooperation.”

I grab a few bags and shut the trunk. There are more, but they can wait.

“We did plenty of shopping for your apartment too,” I counter.

“True,” she says, shutting her door. “I only wish I had kept my big mouth shut about a few things.”

I snicker at her accusatory glare as we push into the house. “There’s not a lot you can do about it now, Spence. I already had your new address, so…”

She sets her bags down and looks at me seriously. “Ash, it was really sweet of you, but you know how I feel about it. It makes me really uncomfortable.”

I set my bags down and give her my full attention. “I know, Spence, but there’s a difference between staying out of your personal business and leaving you to sleep on the floor until you can afford what you need.”

She softens at the truth but she’s still angry, and it’s the real kind, not a petulant flare up or dramatic outburst.

“Listen,” I say, fishing the receipt out of my back pocket and stepping closer. I hate to say this to her because I find it so ridiculous, but I respect her vehemently opposing view. “You got what you needed when you needed it. You know exactly how much I spent.” I hand her the receipt. “Instead of saving up and sleeping on the floor for a few months, you can just make payments to me, okay? This way we’re both happy.”

She takes the receipt, a skeptical look on her face. “You’ll actually let me pay you back?”

I roll my eyes, but nod my head. “If you must.”

This seems to mollify her, but she’s still upset. “This is better than nothing, but I didn’t want to be indebted, or I would have looked into a line of credit.”

It takes everything I have in me not to shake her and hope her stubborn pride will magically fall out, but I manage to keep my hands at my sides.

Barely…

“Spence, would you leave me to sleep on the floor if you could do something about it?”

“Well, no…”

“Would it be weak of me to ask you for help with something I need?”

“Absolutely not…”

“Can you try to give yourself some of that understanding and compassion?”

She closes her eyes and breathes before opening them again. “You’re right. I’m being stubborn. It’s not like you bought me anything frivolous, just really expensive.”

I feel my face tighten in a way that I only seem to experience with her. It’s a smile that I don’t feel in my cheeks so much as my nose.

“I don’t suppose you’d let me gift them to you since your birthday is tomorrow,” I try hopefully, though I know I’m pushing it.

She glances up at me from under her lashes, her head still turned down towards the receipt. And I can tell that she’s about to protest, so I just wait. But then something shifts and she straightens up, looking at me with a curious tilt of her head.

“You really hate my financial hang-ups, don’t you,” she asks.

“Yes,” I say immediately, frustration evident though I hadn’t intended it to be.

“But you were willing to let me repay you so I’d feel better about what you did, while at the same time making sure you didn’t have to live with me camping on my floor for a while.”

It was a statement, not a question, so I just let it be. She has the right of it. She seems to consider this for a moment, something in her demeanor melting.

“You know what,” she says, handing me the receipt. “I’m keeping the furniture and you aren’t getting a dime.”

My mouth gapes and I just stare at her. It takes a moment for me to regain myself, but once I do, I reach out to touch her forehead and confirm that she’s not delirious with fever. She lets me too. There’s no protest, just a smirk on her face.

“I’m perfectly healthy,” she says, and I have to agree.

“Are you sure,” I ask.

“Yes.”

“Spence… what just happened,” I ask in mild frustration.

She shrugs. “I give up. You’re rich and you’re going to spend money on me. I’m just going to have to learn to live with it.”

I feel my eyebrows climb into my hairline before a wicked thought comes to mind. “Does this mean that I can get you the car?”

Her eyes get wide and she splutters a little bit. I can’t help but laugh, especially when she doesn’t find it at all funny. Her expression is just too cute.

“Okay, so maybe we should meet in the middle,” she says.

“I thought I was,” I chuckle out, holding up the receipt.

Her eyes are warm. “You were, but I could tell it was making you miserable.”

I start to fidget with the receipt as I consider her words. “I guess I just feel like it shouldn’t be so hard to do something nice for someone I love, especially when it literally doesn’t even cost me anything to do it, not really.”

She gestures to me. “This is why I decided to just take the furniture and go with it. I hate making you feel that way more than I hate being a leech. I think you’re right on this. It’s just money, and I wouldn’t want to hold back if our roles were reversed.”

“Okay,” I say. “So, you won’t fight me on gifts and I’ll try to keep them of the reasonable variety, unless that reasonable variety is an immediate need. Those are nonnegotiable.”

She relents, but not entirely. “That means no little, Italian sports car.”

I shake my head, holding her eyes for a long minute before she diverts her attention to her shoes. It feels like she broke the contact too soon, but I use her distraction to take her hand and lead her to the wall of windows behind us. My eyes verify the text I got when we left our last shop. With a grin, I open the French doors and tug her out with me. Mr. C is right where he’s supposed to be, playing with two Dobermans.

“I hope this gift isn’t too extravagant then,” I say.

Spencer’s face falls into shock, morphs into laughter, and then dissolves into tears. There’s this incomprehensible look that filters across her eyes, so many emotions processing so quickly that I can’t really keep up with them all. But there’s gratitude, and I feel how immense it is. She takes me in her arms, buries her face in my neck, and squeezes so tight that I feel my air forced out.

“Thank you,” she breathes.

“You’re welcome, Spence.”

I see Mr. C approaching over her shoulder and realize that we only have seconds before the over-excited dogs maul us, so I pull back just in time for each of us to brace. Spencer doesn’t give either of them the attention they’re used to, she just hugs her father, and I turn to go back inside to give them some privacy, deciding to unload the rest of my new treasures, Jetsam coming with me.

I actually didn’t buy all that much. Only a few things throughout the day actually struck me in a way that made me want to live with them. We did more walking and looking than anything else, pilfering small items from random antique stores, a few of our selections surprising me. I still have this image of Spencer’s childhood room in my mind, all bright, cheery colors and feminine frills. And that held even through high school, but given her purchases, I think her tastes have matured, though thankfully they’re nothing like Carmen’s. But so have mine. I have no idea why I was drawn to certain things, but I was, and those things just weren’t what I would have expected for myself.

I set the last of the bags down with the others and start to unpack them, pulling out five round, ruched throw pillows reminiscent of the 1920’s and in varying shades of blue. In fact, many of my items seemed to be drawn from that era. I even have a couple of deep chairs being delivered in the next few days. Their clean lines and absolute comfort will fit perfectly with the modern shape of the living room itself and my sectional. The best piece I found was an old photo of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe that I fell in love with almost immediately. They’ll be arriving with the chairs.

A few more odds and ends reveal themselves as I continue: a table lamp with a shade, an interesting, hand-blown glass vase, a few super old music books to go on the empty shelves near the fireplace, and a new duvet cover. Now that most of it is unpacked, I don’t really know where I’m going to put it all. There was no thought in these purchases. If I liked it, I bought it. The pillows and books are easy enough, so I start with them. I have no idea if this is how it should look once I’ve put them in their places, but I’m having fun all the same. The small splash of color does wonders and I go back for more. There aren’t any end tables in the livingroom for the lamp, so I determine that it will go by my bed and grab the duvet cover to take it with me.

The glass and metal jar of the base is easy enough to set into place and plug in. The shade is what drew me to this particular lamp. It’s gray, a single perfect hoop, and the velvety texture literally makes me want to touch it on sight. It’s ready to go in minutes and I decide it looks very nice, adding something interesting against the sterility of the wall, at least by my estimation. It’s a lot of work getting a king-sized duvet out of the old cover and into the new one, but after a few curse words and a complete loss of breath, I’ve accomplished it. I’m forced to wonder how the man who comes once a week to clean does it on his own and figure I’ll give him a raise.

Once the bed’s made, I take a step back to look at my handiwork. I decided to really go for some color on this particular piece and got the Robin’s egg blue. It reminds me of the ocean and coral life, bright but understated so as to not be garish. The pintuck creates a soothing diamond pattern across the otherwise smooth surface. I feel very pleased with how just these few things have livened up the space, how it’s made me feel more connected to this home somehow.

“What do you think, Jets?”

His big, brown eyes just stare up at me adoringly. I get the feeling that he approves.

We make our way back to the kitchen and I clean up the bags, leaving the vase where it is. I still don’t have a dining room table yet, but somehow I feel that’s where it should go. If nothing else, it gives me a reason to keep adding, to keep growing. A peek out the back wall brings a bittersweet smile to my face. Spencer and Mr. C are lying shoulder to shoulder in the grass with Flot, their arms stretching towards the sky to point at the clouds. And a wave of nostalgia almost knocks me over. I know immediately what they’re doing. I mean, who hasn’t stared at the clouds and called out the shapes for others to imagine? It’s nothing new to anyone, but it was entirely new to me when I found joy in something so simple for the first time, and it just so happened to be with these two people. It’s one of my fondest childhood memories, at least after the first ten years or so.

I’m not entirely sure if I should give them more time alone or not, but when I search myself, it doesn’t feel like I’d be intruding. So Jets and I pad our way over to them and lay down on the other side of Spencer. I scoot in close, listening, and watching for the next shape to make itself known. She glances over at me with a smile that could cure cancer it’s so pure and so genuine. And then I wonder at the strange bunny trails my mind takes, as well as the succinct verbiage it uses.

“Dolphin,” Mr. C says, and we both turn our attention to the sky, following his outstretched finger to see what he sees.

And we do.

“I see it,” Spencer says.

“Me too,”

It’s quiet again while we watch the clouds pull apart and close in together in new ways.

“Heart,” I say, pointing to the perfect little heart-shaped hole punched into the center of some clouds.

Spencer’s head gets close, almost lying on my shoulder, as her eyes follow the invisible track of my finger.

“I see it,” Mr. C says.

I turn to Spencer. “Do you see it?”

I can tell the moment that she does because she smiles again and the sheer loveliness of it makes me concerned that another one of its kind may kill me.

“Yeah, I do,” she says, glancing over at me.

She’s so close that I can see the fissures in her eyes, the way the flexible lens of her iris cuts into strange patterns across the sea of baby blue. I decide then and there that my favorite color is Spencer’s eyes. That’s the actual name of it.

“You have no idea how much this means to me,” she whispers.

“I think I do,” I whisper back. “That’s why I didn’t wait until tomorrow to surprise you. I thought you might want more than a couple of days with him. Happy Birthday, Spence.”

I feel her hand snake into mine and give a firm but gentle squeeze.

“There you guys are,” Kyla yells from the backdoor, and the five of us sit up. “Are we ready to eat yet?”

The humans chorus a chuckle while the dogs ignore my sister, and I have to wonder if Christine has caught on yet. I mean, Kyla’s ferocious appetite isn’t the only factor at this point. She’s actually starting to put on weight, probably more from food consumption than the baby. And her skin looks luminous and beautiful, but then she’s never really deviated in that department. We all stand and meet up with them by the doors.

“I could eat,” I say, looking to Spencer and Mr. C.

Mr. C puts his arm around Spencer’s shoulders and brings her in close, the happiness on his face taking years off of him.

“Would it be okay if we sat this one out,” he asks.

“Of course,” I say. “You can stay here or not. Up to you. Just lock up if you leave and don’t forget your keys so you can get back in.”

“Thanks, Ash,” he says, and Spencer’s face conveys much of the same.

“No worries. We’ll see you later.”

“Have fun,” Kyla says as we head towards the Humvee.


We made it home late, dinner having turned into long intimate talks and several drinks, at least for me and Christine. Oddly enough, it was a lot of fun. We didn’t get drunk, just pleasantly buzzed, and no matter how deep we seemed to go into the past and its consequences, I found myself feeling closer to her instead of frustrated and sad. Fortunately, the alcohol had been all the hammer needed to break the baby ice and Christine now knows mine and Kyla’s entire stories.

She took it all exceedingly well, and was actually fairly ecstatic and forthcoming about how she felt. She told us both that she couldn’t really ask for a better outcome. She never has to worry about us financially, which means we’ll always have the things we need, both for health and happiness. And then she gets to be a grandmother. Her only point of contention is Aiden. She doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of him. She and Kyla butted heads about him a couple of times, but it didn’t become uncomfortable, so much as funny, for me at least. It felt really fucking good to have Christine’s scrutiny off of me for a while.

No one was home when we got here and we all decided to share some popcorn and a pint of ice cream while lazing around in front of the television in our pajamas. I was the first one to tap out, leaving them to their own devices, choosing instead to pluck out an insistent tune that had formed in my head on the way home from the restaurant. The light of my new lamp is more than sufficient and I’m enjoying the open drapes that make my space feel boundless somehow, even as it’s too dark outside to see much of anything.

Even from back here in my room, I can still hear Kyla snore from the couch to the incessant chatter of the QVC host, and determine that both of them must have passed out. Flot and Jets certainly are. Jets head is hanging completely off of the bed and Flot is softly snoring.

There’s a soft knock at my door and I pull the pen out of my mouth to say, “Come in.”

Spencer’s face appears. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be asleep.”

I yawn as if on cue and wave her in. She takes her shoes off and crawls up next to me where she plops down and yawns, which makes me giggle. I feel a thump to my knee in an effort to put me in my place, but it was half-hearted retribution at best. The dogs rouse just enough to look at her and promptly go back to sleep.

“How’d it go with your dad,” I ask, plucking lightly on the strings.

“I feel like I’m thirteen again,” her face beams at me.

Those were the golden years…

She rolls onto her side to face me and props her head on her arm. “I’m laying here next to you while you play your guitar, dad’s down the hall, and none of that shit with my mom, my brother, or your health exists. It’s like everything’s the way it was, the way it was supposed to stay.”

There’s no anger in her voice, just wistful joy tempered with sadness, and I can’t help but understand exactly what she means. I decide to join her in the fantasy.

“If you could have anything, right now, what would it be?”

Her eyes stay glued to mine, the whimsy draining away to reveal something that’s still nowhere near anger but somehow just as dangerous. In fact, it might be more dangerous. I feel intrinsically that I know what to call it, but I can’t seem to find the word. Or maybe there is no word. Maybe it’s something that can only be felt, that can only be experienced. And oh how I feel it. And oh it feels familiar. It’s like her eyes are boring into me and leaving hot trails as they travel down to my mouth where I can’t help but bite my lip.

“I want,” she says haltingly. “For you to… play me a song.”

I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding and blink a few times. I feel like my brain is disconnected from everything else.

“Okay,” I say as amiably as possible, sitting up and shaking my fingers to make sure they’re still functional. “What song?”

Her eyebrows furrow and something in me can tell that she knows exactly what song she wants to hear, but she’s weighing the pros and cons of being honest about it. It’s always this song with her. But surely she doesn’t really want to go that far down memory lane tonight. That song is beyond personal. It would hurt, and why choose hurt over the happiness of only a moment ago?

I find myself apprehensive as I wait for her to decide whether she’s going to ask. And I’m not entirely certain that I could give her what she’s asking for if she did go there.

“How about one of the songs you wrote on your trip,” she says. “The journal said that you’d been writing like a maniac.”

So she did read it. I didn’t have the balls to ask her and she’d made no mention of it. I find myself frowning. This would be no less loaded had she picked the song, though I don’t think she realizes that. However, if I didn’t know any better, I would say that Spencer is deliberately trying to get under my skin tonight. And while it doesn’t feel malicious in intent, it does feel invasive. I mean, I’d share any and everything she asked with her. I’d lay my own guts in her hands. I trust her implicitly. But she seems… I don’t know… hungry. It feels like if I trust her right now she’s not only going to take everything I give her, she’s going to reach inside and scoop out more and more until I’m completely empty.

Am I okay with that?

I honestly don’t know.

I do know that I’m nervous, and it’s not because literally no one has heard this song but me.

I also know that I won’t be able to figure it out unless I let her go deeper, unless I trust her with everything.

“Okay,” I say, clearing my suddenly dry throat, but finding the will to rise to the challenge.

I knock the top two strings down to drop D and begin to pluck out the opening lines of the song, a lightly somber but melodic tune that’s extremely difficult with Mona’s extra strings and my small hands. But I’ve had plenty of practice given that this is the guitar I wrote it on. It soon becomes the music for the verse, long ringing octave chords that are dissonant against the dropped E string to give them a beautiful but haunted quality.

“Runaway train, leave with my regret, call her by name. You’re going nowhere, or so you never said. I expected too much from you but I – but I still hold your stare.”

I change into plucking those same chords and using hammer-ons to accent the prettier notes that were hiding, and find that Spencer hasn’t even blinked when I glance over at her.

“It feels like blue.”

But they’re not blue. They’re better than that. They’re Spencer’s eyes. And kicking into the heavier, more driving chorus feels bolstered by this extra understanding of why blue is suddenly everywhere in my life, in my home.

“May be slow but sure, but I have a mind to save you. Hate me, please. Because inside I know, it’s for all the right reasons. I’m sorry – I’m sorry – I’m sorry, I… gave a damn.”

Suddenly, somehow, this song feels even more intensely personal, but I’m kind of stuck with finishing it so I soldier on, looking keenly away from her as I transition back into the verse.

“No, I’m not. No, I’m not. I’ve grown without you here, but always the same intentions: you’ll love me yet. And I still feel you near. I still feel you near. It feels like blue.”

The chorus is back and my heart is pounding out a rhythm that I don’t feel any choice but to follow. “May be slow but sure, but I have a mind to love you. Hate me, please. Because inside I know it’s for all the right reasons. And I’m sorry – I’m sorry – I’m sorry, I… gave a damn.”

And the next lines are the most damning of them all. This song was a pouring out, an emptying, an evisceration. This is probably the bloodiest part, and it’s my blood.

“I know, that you know, I’ll be here, waiting for you. Always. Always. Always… Hate me, please, because inside I know, it’s for all the right reasons.”

It’s bad, but it can get worse, and find that I’m okay with it. I feel it, every word, every emotion that spoke of these fears, losses, dreams, and desperation. And I close my eyes to belt out the last part, focusing on letting the emotions carry me away and acknowledging that they exist, that they’re part of me, and that it’s okay to feel this way as the melodies get higher and more desperate.

“Hate me, please. Because inside I know, it’s for all the right reasons. I’m sorry – I’m sorry – I’m sorry, I… gave a damn. But I still give a damn. I’ll always give a damn, about you…”

I pluck out the intro, only now as the outro, and feel a sense of relief as this whole mess Spencer just asked me to create of myself comes to a bittersweet end. I find myself slumping over the guitar and wiping the unbidden moisture from my eyes. I’m not sobbing, but I feel utterly exhausted. Spencer’s there in an instant, clearing the guitar away and wrapping her arms around me.

“I’m sorry,” she says and I can tell that she’s crying too. “I didn’t realize just how much that would hurt…”

“It’s okay,” I say, pulling back and scrubbing my face.

And it’s true. It did hurt, but I don’t feel worse for it. In fact, as hard as it was to feel all of that again, it’s so freeing to know that those feelings are temporary. I’m no longer trapped in misery. I can go there and come out at will. And when I come out, I can just as easily go into happiness. I feel balanced and maybe like I needed that cry. I’d been upset about Mr. C’s new revelation for almost a couple of days now.

Spencer pulls back and sits next to me, her shoulders slumped as she leans her arms on her knees and grips the hair on her head. I study her for a moment and try to understand what’s going on with her.

“Spencer, are you okay?”

“I don’t know,” she says before looking up at me, her hair rumpled. “I don’t think so. I mean, I knew that we both needed to work on ourselves, but I’m beginning to believe that I was just foolish.”

“Spence, I’m sorry, but I don’t follow.”

She exhales and flops back onto the pillows and I mirror her, though I’m less rough about it.

She looks me right in the eye and I watch her walls come down. “I kept telling you that you didn’t see what was right in front of you, and I was right, but I think I was missing what was right in front of me too. I don’t think I’ve fixed anything. But you…” She gestures towards me incredulously. “You’re galloping along like it’s the easiest thing in the world.”

She rolls to her side and braces her arm like she did before she asked for the song. I gulp. She’s close and above me now.

“Whatever it was that was holding you back, you’ve moved past it. I know you’re still working through things, but I don’t think anything’s going to stop you at this point.”

I look up at her. “That’s not true, Spence. If I get cancer again… I don’t know…”

She nods, the glass of her eyes getting a little thicker. “That’s extreme though. It would take something of that magnitude to stop you. You’re you again, Ash. Different, but one hundred percent, bonafide, Ashley fucking Davies.”

She smiles, causing a few of the unshed tears to be liberated and I smile with her. And I realize right in this unguarded moment that I made the right choice in letting her scoop me out, because she’s giving me all she has too. She trusts me in this moment. I get the feeling that if I were to ask a personal question, she’d be completely honest with me. And what’s more disturbing is that neither of us are inebriated.

Just crazy, it seems…

“Spence, you wanted the song, didn’t you.”

She sighs at having been caught.

“Yes, but I had no intention of taking you down that path,” she says seriously. “When you asked me what I wanted, my mind just went there, so I tried to find something safer to say, but I guess I took too long, huh?”

I take a moment to consider what she’s said and decide to push a little further.

“And you didn’t even want the song,” I say. “You wanted me to kiss you.” The look in her eyes confirms, even as she refuses to acknowledge it. “Why didn’t you ask for what you actually wanted?”

She sighs. “Ash, you’re with Erin and I don’t want to be the cause for any issues there. And what kills me is that if I could figure out what it is that’s holding me back, I think we’d actually have a shot, but I’m not good enough for you yet.”

She lays on her back to stare up at the ceiling and I find myself shooting up to loom over her.

“What do you mean you’re not good enough for me?”

I can’t help how harsh my voice sounds. I’m sort of pissed. No, I’m a lot pissed.

She reaches up and touches my cheek. “I’m the broken one, Ash. And I would never do anything that might halt your momentum.”

I feel an itching, crawling feeling under my skin. Spencer’s watching me. I can feel that too, but it’s everything I can do to stop myself from shaking her. This keeps happening, this insessent need to shake the shit out of her. Instead, I pull away from her. Her touch burns right now.

“You make things so much harder than you have to, you know that?” I’m not shouting but I want to. “You keep putting regulations on everything, like you’re trying to control it. People don’t have to be a certain way to work together, Spencer, or to love each other, or to be happy together. What do you think love even is?”

She sits up, her eyes round with shock. “It’s… self-sacrifice,” she says stoutly. “And yes, people have to be compatible to work.”

I laugh without humor. “No, Spence. See, I used to think that too, but we were both wrong. And I’m fucking frustrated because I thought you’d figured all this stuff out long before and were waiting for me to catch up, but that’s not really it at all. You have no fucking clue, do you?”

She throws her hands up in frustration. “Well, if that’s not what love is, then what is it?”

I exhale heavily. “You told me that I needed to love myself.” She nods. “So, if love means self-sacrifice, how the fuck can a person sacrifice themselves to save themselves, Spencer?”

Her brows draw together, and I can tell that she understands just how fucking stupid that idea is.

“You’re right. That doesn’t work.”

“Damn right that doesn’t work,” I say, starting to calm down. At least she’s listening and understanding what I’m saying. That’s more than I can say for myself when she was talking to me before the trip. “Spence, love is…,” I pause because this is so hard to put into words, to make into something tidy, neat, and understandable. “…unconditional acceptance.”

It sounded good when I thought it, still sounded good when I said it, and I find that it still sounds good even as I have the time to actually scrutinize it.

“Unconditional acceptance of what?”

I look her right in the eye. “Whomever and whatever you love.” I turn my body to face her. “There is literally nothing about you that I can’t or don’t accept. You hurt my feelings a lot, get in jibes that prove that you still haven’t forgiven me all the way, make me cry, fight me on everything, you’re bossy, you refuse to let me push you away or draw you in… and at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Who you are is enough, flaws and frustrations and all. I really, really wish some of those things weren’t true, because they annoy the shit out of me, but that annoyance isn’t nearly as strong as my love for you.” I feel like I’m shaking, I’m so angry. “That’s the only thing that I could do to fix myself: accept myself, and it’s working, so I know there has to be something to it.”

The look on her face is somewhere between astonishment and anguish. And for once, even with her guards down, I can’t make a single determination from what I see. It’s all just there, convoluted and waiting in ambush.

“Jesus, Ash, you’re right…”

I hastily grab my discarded songbook and pen and dump them in her lap. She laughs through fresh tears, though obligingly writes, ‘Ashley is right – Spencer.’

When hands them back to me and I put them on the nightstand with a testy thump. I notice that she’s playing with her fingers, fat tears falling into her lap, but I just can’t cool off enough to feel bad for her right now, even when I know that those feelings are there.

“Ash, does this mean that I don’t love you, because I kept trying to… get you to… change?”

I sigh. “Is there anything about me that you don’t accept, even before, even when I was suicidal?”

She nods and I feel my heart drop, but then she takes my hand.

“I can’t accept you wanting to kill yourself.”

I take a deep breath and nod, because I’m fairly certain that particular problem doesn’t work for anyone in any relationship.

“I think that’s a special circumstance, and besides, that’s over. Anything else?”

She looks down at our hands as she starts to play with my fingers. “You’re thoughtless, always late for everything, utterly oblivious sometimes, you make me cry too, you didn’t used to communicate, especially not like this, you gave up on your happiness, and maybe I haven’t forgiven you for running away even though you’ve stopped doing that too.” She groans. “Jesus, I’m a fucking mess.”

“Listen, Spence, you’re still not getting it. I don’t care if you’re a mess. That’s the point. That’s love. As to how you feel, I can’t tell you if those are deal breakers for you. I can’t tell you if you love me. You have to decide that for yourself. All I can tell you is that I know where I stand.”

“Where do you stand?”

This is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to say to her, let alone feel, but it’s honest, and I’m done living in denial.

“I love you. I will love you forever. But with or without you, I love myself enough to be as happy as I can be, and that happiness isn’t contingent on anyone or anything else but me.”

She reaches up to touch my face again. There are fresh tears in my eyes too, but even though what I just said is true and probably the most healthy emotion I’ve ever felt, I know the knowledge of it stings her. At least it did for me when I thought the same of her. But now I’m wondering if perhaps I had her on a pedestal in my mind, built her up into something that she’s not. I thought she was an angel, a paragon. And maybe she is, only now I’m figuring out that angels and paragons are just as flawed as everyone else, that perfection is imperfect. Either way, Spencer is far more real to me now, more human, more reachable, and god help me, more lovable.

“I do love you, Ashley, unconditionally, even those parts that make me crazy. I don’t even have to think about it, but if you want me to, I guarantee you that the answer will still be yes.” She offers a sad smile as she says this, and I can tell that there’s more so I just stay quiet. “But you’re with Erin and I won’t be happy with myself until I can, at the very least, catch up to you.”

I understand this, deeply, and it doesn’t even sadden me because it means that she’s going to win. She’s aware, she has a light, and now she can find her own path through the shadows. If fixer Spencer can come to understand that she can’t fix other people, I know for a fact that she will fix herself. I also know that I love her either way, and I honestly just don’t see why it matters.

As for Erin, well I feel like this talk resolved a lot of things for me that I seemed to already know but hadn’t quite realized yet. I haven’t spoken to her since Pride. She’s not called or texted, and while there’s still a possibility that I could accept her unconditionally, even after the display that she put on at Pride, I know for a fact that she doesn’t accept me. I will, however, give her the benefit of the doubt. I’ll be the first to reach out and let her decide for herself.

Time slips away from us as quiet settles and we just lay there facing each other until our eyes slip shut.


“Ash, thanks for doing this.”

I wave Spencer off. “It’s your birthday. That’s definitely something to celebrate.”

“I agree,” she says cockily, and I decide that I like it. “But I hadn’t planned on anything. My apartment isn’t exactly ready.”

“What, you didn’t want standing room only for your guests?”

She grins and shakes her head. “Probably not.”

“So are you determined to pay me back for the furniture or are you going to take them as the gifts they were intended to be?”

“Gifts,” she says immediately and it’s my turn to grin. “I’m done fighting it.”

I whistle low. “I know you’re determined to fix some stuff, Spence, but take it easy. Don’t overwhelm yourself.”

She pokes my ribs and it’s a delicious kind of masochism. We look at the small smattering of friends and family that are milling about the finger foods that Mr. C made, and I have to admit I’ve missed his culinary skills. The man truly is a god in an apron. Speak of the devil… Mr. C strides up to us and takes a seat on the other side of Spencer.

“They’ve been in there awhile,” he says, talking about Kyla and Aiden. “You think that’s a good or a bad sign?”

I think about it for a moment and shrug. “Could be either with Kyla, and I’m not all that sure about Aiden anymore.”

He didn’t so much as acknowledge my existence when he showed up. He just followed Kyla to her room.

“I haven’t heard any shouting,” Spencer says. “That’s probably a good sign.”

We all nod and take a sip of champagne, Mr. C his whiskey.

“I’m sorry they did this on your birthday,” I say to Spencer and she just shrugs.

“Ash?”

We all turn to see Kyla’s tear-streaked face and I’m the first to stand up. She motions for me to follow her so I down the rest of my drink and Spencer’s there immediately for the empty glass. One last look at Spencer and Mr. C, a comforting squeeze on the shoulder in solidarity, and I’m off. My hackles rise with how upset Kyla is, but I feel a little better when I enter the room to see that Aiden’s eyes are just as red. Kyla shuts the door behind me and takes a seat next to him on the bed. I find myself just standing here, unsure of what to do.

Aiden lets out a long breath and looks up at me. “Ash, I’m sorry I’ve been so unreasonable.”

That’s a good start. I take it as a sign that I can relax a little and pull Kyla’s vanity chair over to sit where we can see each other easily.

“I’m sorry I dropped off the face of the planet.”

He just nods. “I’m not entirely sure if I can ever trust you again,” he continues. “But you’re part of Kyla’s life, and I want a life with her, and our baby, so I’m willing to let the past go.”

I think I get what he’s saying, and not saying. He’s not looking to be best friends again, but he loves Kyla more than he dislikes me. And I can respect that. In fact, I expect it, so I say as much.

“I understand.” It gets uncomfortably quiet and while I can live with his terms, I find that I can’t live with eggshells scattered all over the floor. “Look, Aiden, you have every right not to trust me and to be angry. I get that you love Kyla and that puts you in a position where you have to deal with me, whereas if you had the choice, you wouldn’t. But I don’t want things to be awkward. If you need to yell at me or tell me off, you might as well just get it all out now.”

He looks at me for a moment and I can see that my words stirred something in him, but his voice is so calm that it’s almost remote.

“I don’t see the point in that,” he says. “Sometimes, broken things stay broken. Talking about it isn’t going to fix it, not without trust. And I’m sorry, but I don’t.”

I nod, because it makes sense, but he’s still also wrong. Talking builds trust. Somehow though, I know that telling him this won’t be received.

“Okay, well in the spirit of civility, will you at least let me try to rebuild trust?”

He smirks. “That could take more than one lifetime.”

I play my words down. “That’s fine. I’m just asking that you meet me in the middle here. I won’t push you to give more than you’re willing, and in return, you won’t fight it if and when you do find yourself willing. Does that work for you?”

He frowns. “I guess so.”

I stand. “Okay.”

“Okay,” Kyla says. “That’s it?”

“Well, yeah, unless there’s something more that we can do here,” I reply.

Kyla seems annoyed, throwing her hands in the air and getting to her feet. “That was the strangest conversation I’ve ever witnessed, but if you two are good now, that’s all I need.”

We both look to Aiden.

“I’m good,” he says, getting to his feet.

“Great,” I say, albeit a little lack luster. “Then can we shelve the drama for the rest of the night? I don’t want to ruin Spencer’s birthday party any more than we already have.”

“I can agree with that,” Aiden says.

“Yeah,” Kyla breathes out.

I leave the room first, a little flummoxed by the conversation, but completely unfazed at this point. Life just gets weirder and weirder.

Spencer finds me immediately and pulls me back to the sofa, not to sit, but to be quiet.

“How’d it go?”

“I have no idea, really. We agreed to be civil and see what happens, I guess.”

Spencer seems surprised. “I honestly didn’t think he’d even go that far. He must really care about Kyla. She told him?”

“Yeah, he seemed committed.”

She exhales and takes another sip of her champagne, and I can tell that she’s relieved. The room seems quieter and I notice that a couple of people are missing.

“Where’s Jon and Jac?”

Spencer makes a face and I roll my eyes. “Please tell me they aren’t in my room or the studio…”

“No,” she smirks. “I’m pretty sure they’re in Jon’s car.”

“Okay. So you want to wait for them to open presents or jump right in?” She vibrates excitedly, a manic grin splitting her face, and I can’t help but crinkle my nose at how cute she is. “Jump right in it is then.”

We head to the island… well, Spencer sort of bounces, and Mr. C calls everyone to attention so Spencer can start opening presents. The first one is from Kyla, and it’s a gift card to M Café. I look over at my baby sister with annoyance. The gift was supposed to be for Spencer, not herself. But Spencer is as gracious as ever, thanking Kyla.

The next gift is from Kate. Spencer opens the small package that I assumed was a DVD, but it turns out to be a videogame called Hitman. Spencer snorts a laugh before giving Kate a humorous expression and the two of them share some sort of inside joke that leaves me and everyone else completely in the dark. I’ve never known Spencer to play videogames, let alone violent ones.

The third is from Christine and it puts a lump in my throat when Spencer holds up the small, framed picture of our young, goofy faces, my tongue hanging out and Spencer giving me googly eyes. It gets a chorus of, “Aw,” from the group and a look from Spencer that makes my heart burn. Of course, she hugs Christine in thanks.

It’s about this time that Jac and Jon come back inside, both rumpled but grinning from ear to ear. They sidle up next to me and I promptly instruct them both to go wash their hands. But Spencer has just selected their gift so they stay put. She holds up yet another videogame, this one called Assassin’s Creed, and this time she shares a laugh with Kate, Jac, and Jon. When did Spencer start playing videogames? Oh well. I’ll find out later, one way or the other, my curiosity incurable in this arena.

I motion for Jac and Jon to go wash up and, with a roll of their eyes, they do as they’re bid.

My present is next and Spencer gives me a strange look when she sees how heavy it is. She seems to know not to shake it though. When she finally liberates it from the packaging and sees the prewar camera from Louisiana, her jaw hits her sternum.

“You didn’t,” she breathes.

“Get you the car? No,” I say, feeling pretty damn proud of myself.

“Are you kidding,” she asks, holding it reverently. “This is way better than the car.”

“I’ll take the car, any car,” Kate says and those assembled share a laugh.

She really does need a functioning vehicle. The Gremlin just ain’t what it used to be. I guess I know what I’m getting her for Christmas.

“Ash, this is… Beyond beautiful. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Spence.”

Mr. C’s gift is pretty big so Spencer has to go to it in order to open it. When she does, I realize that I may have been outdone. Inside is an old reel to reel player with a few spools of old movies. I watch them hug and find myself amused at how similarly they seem to do that particular activity. Seriously, they both give the best hugs in the world.

Aiden’s gift is too big to bring in, so we all follow him out to his truck. There’s something large in the back covered by an old blanket. He throws it back and I realize that we’ve all been outdone. Inside is a small, handmade dining table with four matching chairs. I don’t know what kind of wood it is, but it’s a deep color, perfectly smooth and finished. It’s simple in its construction and design, except for an ornate inlay right in the middle of the top that I realize must have taken the creator months.

“Aiden, where did you find this? It’s gorgeous,” Spencer asks.

“I made it,” he says simply.

We all look at him a little dumfounded, except for Kyla. She takes his arm and rubs it approvingly.

“My baby’s talented,” she says.

We all groan.

Spencer gives him a hug too, and we all drift back inside, put the music back on, and proceed to engage and snack as desired. I find myself with two slices of German Chocolate cake, Spencer’s favorite, and join her on the end of the sectional. She takes her cake gratefully and that first bite sends her head back and a deep moan rumbling from her throat that I do my best to ignore.

I can tell that she’s spent. It’s been an overwhelming weekend and I feel it too. But there’s always energy for cake, especially if Mr. C made it. I take a bite and find myself in much the same ecstasy as Spencer’s. It’s not my favorite, but it’s definitely not second rate.

We then enjoy the rest of our cake in companionable silence and everyone seems ready to call it a night. This was never supposed to be a raver and most everyone has to work early in the morning, Spencer included. We put our plates in the sink and everyone gets more thanks for their gifts before departing, Aiden agreeing to deliver table tomorrow and whisking Kyla away with him.

“You staying here again tonight or going home,” I ask Spencer as the four of us who remain start to clean up.

“Would you mind,” she asks. “My furniture doesn’t arrive until tomorrow. Which reminds me, I need someone there to sign for it and let them in.”

“You can stay as long as you like and I’m free tomorrow if you want me to do it. Just be sure to leave your key before you go in the morning. I’ll drop your stuff off too.”

It’s my turn for one of those amazing hugs and I take it with gusto, though it saps what little remains of my energy.

“The food’s put away, and the rest can wait. We can worry about all of this tomorrow,” Mr. C says, and we all agree without fuss.

Once Spencer and I each have a turn in the bathroom, this time we actually get under the covers before taking our sides and turning towards each other. There’s a knock at the door and I call them in. It’s Mr. C. He smiles at us before stepping inside and shutting the door behind him.

“Can I talk to you girls for a second?”

“Sure,” we say at the same time.

He sits on the edge of the bed, propping up a knee, and something about his hesitancy makes me a little nervous.

“I, um, I wanted to run something by you both.”

Spencer sits up and puts her hand on his. “What is it?”

He clears his throat. “Spence, I hate to tell you this, especially today, but your mom and I are officially divorced. It finalized this morning.”

Spencer lets out a huge breath and I find myself sitting up to rub small circles on her back. She gives me a reassuring smile and I get the feeling that she was prepared for this.

“I’m not surprised,” she says and Mr. C just nods.

“The bigger issue is that as part of the divorce agreement, we’re… well, honey, we’re selling the house.”

This hits me like a brick to the gut and I get the feeling that Spencer is just as jarred. The sheer thought of someone else living in that house seems perverse.

“Do you absolutely have to,” Spencer asks, and I can hear the pain in her voice.

He puts his hand on her knee. “I wish I didn’t, honey, but that’s what your- those are the terms of the divorce. All of our shared assets have to be liquidated and the money split between us.”

“Where are you going to go,” she asks him.

“Well, that’s really what I wanted to talk to you about. I need to work again, and both of you have inspired me a great deal since I came here. I want to find a good therapist, work through my… alcoholism, and if it’s okay with you, I’d like to move here, to LA, to do that. I think this would be the best place to start over.”

“Dad, of course,” Spencer says, considerably brightened. “Just let me know what you need.”

He sags with relief. “Well, if it’s not too much trouble, I’m going to need a place to stay while I get on my feet.”

“Dad, I’d love to have you with me.”

Tears shine in his eyes as he looks at his daughter and somehow, my tortured emotions find some of their own to wring out, even after everything that’s happened over the weekend.

“That’s so good to hear, Spence. Thank you.”

They hug again, but not too long this time. Everyone’s too exhausted.

“Mr. C,” I say. “You know you’re welcome here too, and if I can help in any way, I will.”

He smiles at me over Spencer’s shoulder, releasing her. “I think I’m good right now, but thank you.” He gets to his feet and leans down to give me a hug as well before leaving and shutting the door behind him.

Spencer crawls back into her spot with a heavy sigh and a heavy heart, and I turn off the lamp before turning back to her.

“This has been a birthday for the books,” she says, her cheeks still wet.

I reach up and brush the hair away from her face. “I’ll take you some place nice next year, and very far away from other people.”

She chuckles and sniffs and I reach back to the nightstand to get her my trusty box of Kleenex.

“Thanks,” she says, cleaning her face and blowing her nose.

“It’ll be okay, Spence. Eventually…”

Her lips rumple as she blows out a breath. “I know.”

“How do you know?”

She turns towards me. “It has to be.” Her eyes search my face for a long moment. “Is Erin going to kill you for me sleeping in your bed this weekend?”

I chuckle and let out a breath of my own. “What’s another transgression to the already long list?”

“Still mad at you, huh?”

“I honestly don’t know. We haven’t spoken since Pride.”

“That long,” she asks.

“Yeah. But I plan to text her tomorrow.”

She nods and an indeterminate amount of time passes, causing my eyelids to close.

“Spence,” I say fading.

“Yeah?”

“Happy birthday.”


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Continued in Chapter 13 – Shit or Get Off the Pot

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 rambling, her voice sounding 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.

“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 cheek 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 a 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 that 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, Janice.”

Gavin snickers and Erin chuckles.

“Correction: my other best friend, Janice. 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. Janice 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 t-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?”

“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 orientations. There are families with small children and people on bikes and motorcycles, and it all feels normal, innocent. But something about it 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 lesbian 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 Glen,” I chuckle out.

“No! Not even Glen! But then Gavin…” She says the name with increasing venom. “…is just like Glen, 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  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.

“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. 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!


Continued in Chapter 12 – Weekend at Ashley’s

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

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

“Why are we here again,” I ask.

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

I look at her, puzzled. “What?”

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

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

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

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

Her dry expression exhibits her disbelief.

“Really, I’m not…”

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

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

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

“Hey,” I say indignantly.

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

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

“Okay, I’m sorry.”

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

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

“That’s why you’re nervous?”

“Well, yeah…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh no you’re not…”

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

“You ready to order?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, that’s cheating,” I say.

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

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

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

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

Kate slides into the booth across from us next to Kyla, who’s been as quiet as a church mouse as she’s scrutinized me and Erin and stuffed her face with waffles. I told Erin to just ignore her, but she’s actually been really sweet to Kyla, almost too sweet, despite Kyla’s strange behavior. My sister 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 at me. “You’re still in love with Spencer and she’s still in love with you.” She looks back at Spencer. “Tell me that this…” Jac gestures to me and Erin. “Doesn’t hurt.”

Spencer doesn’t know what to say.

No one does.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone snorts at that, even Spencer.

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

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

“Did you really feel that frustrated by it?”

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

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

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

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

“No, it really is,” Kate disagrees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smile at her, 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.

“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. Spencer 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 arguing to speak. When one doesn’t present itself, she just butts in anyway. Jac and Jon continue, their hand gestures excentuating their shouts while Kyla speaks to Spencer. Spencer turnsa 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 into traffic 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 like nature,” she gives me a thin-lipped smile. “But 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 twists 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 yssa something under her breath and Erin leans forward to address her. “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 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 menacing 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, taking in our surroundings 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.”

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, but my foot catches on something causing me to topple over. Of course, this also makes me grab a hold of Spencer and drag 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 up 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.”

We both chuckle, and for a moment, everything feels good and right between us. But then 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 start firing off in my head as I realize that I do have Erin, but oddly enough, none of the warnings are centered on that 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. I don’t want it to happen, not like this.  And for the first time, I’m able to recognize it in the moment, 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. I’m 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. She’s heavy and all I managed to do was settle her hips firmly between my legs and bring 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 increasing her pressure on me. 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 but all I can hear is the war drum of my heart.

“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. 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.

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 is heavy as fuck.

“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’ll get over it like she always does, but I never can tell how long it will take. 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 slide 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 glances at me 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 side.

“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 says, picking up a yellow, nylon harness and starting to adjust the straps.

I swallow thickly as I watch him deftly maneuver the holdings. 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 all of 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 bad 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’re 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 the 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 I’m 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 needs 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 railing 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 it 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 an unmanned 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 now, 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. There’s nothing 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 to 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 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!” Spencer’s voice is much calmer. “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 t-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 the water.

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

“Easy, Jon,” I say.

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

“Thank you,” she says.

“You’re welcome.”

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

“Ugh,” she says. “No thanks.”

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

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

“I’m sorry I hit you,” I say.

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

“I deserved it.”

I nod once.

“You took care of me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

“Really?”

“Yeah, Jon, really.”

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

“I took care of it.”

“How?”

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

She snorts and I stop talking.

“It’s always money,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

That shuts her up.

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

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

“Wow, Jon… When did you get to be this bitter? What have I done to you to make you so angry at me?” I watch her jaw work at grinding her teeth, but she doesn’t say anything. “Go ahead,” I say, frustrated. “Don’t hold it in for my benefit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jon-“

“Just leave me alone.”

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

“Do you want Jac?”

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

“You’re a cunt, you know that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” she says.

“Then why are you pushing her away?”

“Because…”

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

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

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

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

“Just… fuck you,” she says in defeat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I say, a little too quickly.

“Jesus, Ashley…”

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

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

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

“I’ll hurt her, Ash.”

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

She snorts. “I know me.”

“Then… be a different you.”

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

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

“Will you help me… not fuck it up?”

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

“This morning…”

“Yes.”

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

I tilt my head. “Yeah, I guess…”

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

I can’t help but chuckle. “Trust.”

“Where do I even start,” she asks.

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

“Ash, I mean with Jac.”

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

“Groveling?”

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

“There’s worse than that?”

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

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

“What if I can’t?”

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

“What about you and Spencer?”

“What about us?”

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

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

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

“Do you want it to?”

“No.”

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

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

“Ash, can I be honest with you?”

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

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

“On this, we agree.”

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

I smile at her. “Deal.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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


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