Sunlight streamed through the windows, filtered by curtains. It was lightest alarm anyone could have asked for.
And yet, I woke up in a frenzy.
Consciousness came like a quick and sudden hit, a jolt of lightning that sent a shock through my whole body.
I shuddered, and the regret came just as fast.
Groggy, sore in places I hadn’t been aware of until just recently. Cricks in my neck, joints popping and aching. I felt old, or worn out at least. An overwhelming sensation that thrummed through my entire body in waves.
I figured my healing might take care of this sort of thing, but apparently not.
While my body felt like it was hit with a shock, my mind was the opposite. A haze, pieces of things coming at me in slow, languid movements.
Mentally walking through a fog. Very little was clear to me.
I blinked, squinting as the light intruded into my vision. I shifted around, feeling sheets roll over my body.
Direct contact on my skin.
That started to clear the fog.
I shifted again, pushing myself up. The sheets were bundled together in some places, falling off me as I threw them to the side.
The sun was on me, but I immediately felt a chill.
I wasn’t wearing anything.
The realization wasn’t embarrassing so much as it was confusing. I sifted through the haze of my memories, searching for anything that could-
I grabbed the sheets and covered myself up again.
One by one, the pieces started falling into place, until the puzzle formed a better picture. I could barely keep the image in my mind’s eye, though, because I hadn’t the faintest idea on how I’d begin to approach what happened last night.
A moment that came and went in a flash, bang, but the impression of it had seared and left me dizzying and stunned.
I could feel my face warm up, sunny as the light that was on me. Trying to think back on it… it was still too bright to face directly. I instead worked on the edges, taking in the detail on the peripherals.
The bed was in disarray, the sheets folded over and stretched flat in different spots. Pillows weren’t where they were supposed to be, one at the foot of the bed, a few others seemed to be missing.
This was my bed, at least. I knew that much. I was back in my apartment. How I got there or what happened as soon as I got here… it was fuzzy.
I had to put my focus on something else. Anything else.
Couldn’t stay in bed forever, couldn’t not be clothed, either. That, I could work on.
The sheets fought with me as I tried to get out of their grasp. Everything was in a tangle, snaked around my arms and legs. It took actual work, more effort than I would have normally wanted to put forth, especially with it being so early in my day, and especially with my body feeling like I had sprinted an entire marathon. Sore in so many different places.
I groaned as I climbed out of bed, the blankets and sheets finally relinquishing their hold on me. The light chill had its turn, instead, but I wouldn’t let it keep its grip for much longer. I went right for my closet.
My foot brushed past something, and I was jumpy that it made me do just that. Almost tripping over, I had to catch myself by setting a hand back on my bed.
Clothes, piled on the floor. Not just mine.
I flicked at it with my foot, not strong or hard enough to be a kick. I separated the clothes, from mine to…
I couldn’t, no. Needed new clothes.
Bending down, I collected what was mine, and set the rest at one corner at the foot of my bed. There were still some other clothes strewn about, but I could work on that later. I just wanted to have something on me.
My closet was like a haven when I retreated into it. A smaller space, easier to take in, with everything set in place and organized.
I dumped the clothes in a basket by a corner, and went to searching for what to wear. I wasn’t trying to be picky, but I was at a loss on what I wanted to wear, exactly.
Why was I thinking about it so hard?
I started with the easy ones. I found some underwear, then put on a pair of shorts. A loose oversized shirt with long sleeves was next. I decided to go without bra because… just because.
It was a wonder, just how much having a shirt on put me in a clearer headspace. Just a little bit of weight on my body went a long way. Something that kept me… tethered. It wasn’t unlike the feeling I got whenever I had my mask on.
I saw the box would be, tucked under other baskets and clothes. All my V stuff, and old Blank Face stuff I hadn’t thrown away yet.
No need for that stuff, not now. It was too early for that.
Feeling satisfied enough with my clothing choices, I came out of the closet. Blinking, I shuffled around to other parts of my room. Walking a lazy path, with only a blurry idea of what I wanted in my head.
I… couldn’t find my phone. I couldn’t find my glasses.
There wasn’t much else I could gather from wandering around my room. Aside from the very, very obvious fact that my room was a mess.
Really had to get out of here.
I shambled like a zombie as I entered my living room. Groaned like one, too. I felt like I had died and come to life. And, in a really weird way, it wasn’t even the first time.
A voice called out to me like a siren. Loud, with my ears still being attuned to the concept of waking. I followed it.
I rubbed at my eyes before I saw her. She noticed me before I ever had a chance to.
Dressed in what seemed like just a shirt, but it wasn’t several sizes too big like mine was. Her hair was tied up, but it wasn’t done very neat, just enough to keep her face and eyes clear as she reached up into a cabinet, grabbing for a plate.
I wasn’t sure of what to make of anything, as I saw Sarah in my kitchen, setting plates and utensils together. She looked at me again once she had everything settled. She smiled.
“You kept me waiting, wondering when you’d get up. Got some hotcakes prepared if you’d like.”
She indicated to a countertop in the kitchen, a stack of fluffy cake things set and ready to be eaten.
I sniffed the air. The smell wasn’t as fresh as the stack looked, but it was easy to ignore.
“I didn’t know I had stuff to make… hotcakes,” I said. I rubbed at my eye again. “What time is it?”
“Not too late. About ten.”
“Relax, you’re allowed to do that you know,” Sarah said. She smiled. Bright, yet somehow shy.
There was a sharp sensation in my chest. Under any other circumstance, I would have recognized it as pain, some type of hurt or ache. But this wasn’t really that. Not really.
“I can give it a shot,” I said, almost at a whisper. “Relaxing.”
“Awesome,” Sarah said, still smiling. “Now come on, sit with me.”
She grabbed a seat at the center counter in the kitchen, taking her fork and knife and helping herself with some… some hotcakes.
I didn’t go straight there, as much as I wanted to just right to Sarah. I went to go get a cup of water for myself. Sarah had set out glasses, but they were filled up with orange juice.
Guilt struck, and it struck me hard. She put in all that work while I was out, and I couldn’t even properly accept her efforts.
“I can sit,” I said, as I filled my cup with water from the sink. I paused, then said, “Not very hungry, though.”
“You can’t eat, or won’t?”
I frowned as I said, “Bit of both?”
Sarah smile faltered by a fraction. But it didn’t break completely. It was too bright for that.
“Ah, that’s right. More for me then!”
She added a few more to her plate. She ate them with fervor.
I wasn’t sure of what to make of anything.
I finally joined her at the counter. Sitting across from her, I propped my elbows on the surface, resting my chin in the palms of my hands. I stared at her. Long, longing.
“A lot happened last night,” I said. It was more of an observation. Trying to take a step back and assess everything. But it was hard when I was still very much in the thick of it.
Sarah had to finish chewing and swallowing before saying, “Certainly. You did great though.”
“That could be referring to anything.”
“I’m referring to everything.”
I got warm again. Sarah had opened up the windows in the living room, too, letting light spill out all over the place.
“You are so lame,” I said. Her dumb smile was stupid. Contagious, too.
The moment was so still, quiet. Even with the occasional word and clanking of metal on ceramic. There was a calm, here, that I wasn’t used to or aware was possible. It resonated on a deeper level.
I could call this peace. Solace. Maybe. I was wary on crossing that line, making it definitive. Making that commitment.
If there was anything I had learned, being a leader of a gang, it was that everything was fragile. I wouldn’t want to push my luck and risk breaking something.
“You sure you can’t eat anything?” Sarah said, pushing it. More of a nudge, to be fair.
“I’m sure, I think. I haven’t had the craving to eat anything, I just get, uh, thirsty.”
“You were looking a little thin, though.” Sarah looked away from me. “Around the… sorry, couldn’t help but look.”
“It would be weird if you didn’t.” I looked away too. “I guess.”
The thought did come to me, brief as it was. What would I eat, anyways? The only things my body would accept were blood and water. What were the next logical steps from that?
I dismissed the thought as soon as it began to take form. Avoided it.
This was what I wanted, right now. This moment. Sarah. I knew how fragile this was.
“What kind of… what did you call them?”
“Hotcakes,” I repeated, “Never heard of them.”
“It’s what it said on the box. Tastes sweeter, fluffier. But, what, you don’t know what’s in your own pantry?”
She had a teasing tone in her voice that rang like a bell. I was compelled to follow.
“I have some idea,” I said, “But it’s mostly D who stuffs it herself. She likes to bring snacks whenever she comes over.”
“How often does she come over?”
Sarah took another bite, then a sip of juice. She was clearly enjoying herself.
“That explain all the teddy bears you’ve got around here.”
“It does,” I said.
“But, I do hope she doesn’t come over today. Wouldn’t want to be interrupted.”
She smiled at me. Dammit. It was getting too bright and warm in here. It also made me wonder just how long she was expecting to stick around. Not that I wanted her to leave or anything. I was just…
I was just what?
I wasn’t sure of what to make of-
Yeah, I know.
“How does it taste?” I asked. I changed the subject.
“Hmmm?” she sounded, she slid her fork out from between her lips.
Her voice had a melody to it.
She knew exactly what she was doing.
Damn her. I hated it.
“I thought you couldn’t eat, well, eat this stuff?”
Teasing me again.
“I can’t, but, I still want to know. Describe it to me.”
Sarah licked her lips, cutting out another piece of her breakfast. As if it was gliding up, she brought the food to her mouth, taking a bite. Her eyes lowered a tad, an eyebrow raised ever so slightly, furrowed in concentration. She was really putting thought into this.
Fuck, she looked so fucking cute.
“Fluffy,” she said. “Sweet, even more sweet with syrup.”
“I know sweet,” I said.
“Tell me more though,” I said. I didn’t want this to end. I wanted to make this things last for as long as I could possibly could. If I could reach in and use my own physical strength to stretch out this moment in time, I absolutely would.
Sarah still had a lot of her breakfast left. We still had a lot of time.
She went for another piece of hotcake. It was easy for her.
“Chewy, and I put in a little chocolate extract but I can taste it. Oh, I sprinkled in some powdered sugar so I can really taste that.”
“You really do have a sweet tooth,” I said.
“I was just using what I found. You said D stocked everything here, right?”
“Yeah, and she has a sweet tooth. But you didn’t have to use everything she brought in.”
“I didn’t use everything. Just a lot of it.”
I gave her a look.
Her smile turned into a smirk. It had the same effect on me.
I fixed my glasses, until I realized I wasn’t wearing them. I nearly poked an eye out.
Why am I being so weird about this?
“You know where my glasses are?”
I had a feeling she might know.
All Sarah had for response was a glance elsewhere, stuffing her face with more food.
“Don’t,” I said. I set my hands on the countertop, propping myself so I could reach across and hold her wrist. I pulled the fork out of her mouth, still being careful. Her mouth was still stuffed.
She got me there. I’d have to wait until she finished.
I’d keep holding her wrist while I waited, though.
“Can’t remember,” Sarah said, once she was free to talk. “Think I tossed it somewhere in my car?”
“They better not be broken.”
I tried a teasing tone, myself. I doubted I sold it as well.
“I don’t think I did,” Sarah said.
Yeah. She was much better at it than me.
“You’re lucky I don’t actually need those to see,” I said.
“It’s just an accessory. People do that sometimes, right?”
“They do. Sometimes.”
I let go of her wrist. Almost having to peel my fingers off.
Sarah didn’t seem to mind, though. I hoped that was the case, anyways.
“Your hair’s gotten long.”
I fixed my posture in my seat.
Setting her fork down, it was Sarah’s turn to reach across the counter. Instead of my wrist, her hand went to my face.
Grazing just past my cheek, her fingers found their way around some strands behind my ear. Light, I could feel what she was doing. She pulled.
I suppressed a small noise from escaping my lips. It took more effort than anything else.
Her fingers brushed from the base of my ear to somewhere near the middle of my neck. Several inches.
I tilted my head where she pulled. If she kept going, I would have fallen out of my chair, completely.
She wasn’t that cruel. She released her hold on me. But even that felt like a temporary thing. She wasn’t that kind.
“It’s gotten longer since I first saw you,” Sarah said.
I could only speculate when she first saw me, because I had the notion that she saw me first. She got to me before I ever knew what was coming. I never had a chance.
My own fingers filled the space Sarah’s hands just left, and I almost felt them, as if they were still there.
I fixed my hair and shook my head.
“Has it?” I asked.
Talking just to talk. Sarah was doing what she could to extended this moment out, too. I found some comfort in that.
“I think so. Reminds me of the picture you showed me.”
Then, I remembered.
Sarah must have seen something in my reaction or expression, because her smile faltered by an even larger fraction. Was I frowning that much?
I coughed, as if the deflect things, and looked away.
“Maybe I should get another haircut,” I said, a touch hollow. “I guess it has been a while.”
“It’s all up to you,” Sarah told me. “I think you’d look good no matter what.”
I clicked my tongue. “You’re just saying that.”
“Am I, though?”
“You’re also insinuating that it wouldn’t matter what I do with my hair because you’ll just say you like it anyways.”
“Insinuating?” Sarah’s smile returned to grace her lips. “That’s a pointed word.”
“I’ll point as much as I want since I know I’m right.”
“You’re getting heated. Are we having our first fight?”
“Fight? No, we’re not fighting. Why would it be a fight?”
Sarah’s smile broke by more than several fractions. She laughed, hard.
“I’m just messing with you!”
Sarah was teasing me again. I grimaced.
All I could do was stare at her, unamused. That only made her laugh harder.
Watching her… I couldn’t keep it up.
I grabbed my cup and took a sip. Mostly just to hide my face. I wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction of seeing me crack a smile, too.
Cold water cooled me as I drank it.
We both managed to get settled again. The moment became still again. Still.
I had zero complaints about that.
She ate, and I just watched. I was nervous, had been awkward about things, and probably looked as dumb as I felt.
But that was okay. More than okay.
Sarah set her utensils to the side. I had put my cup down as well.
“Did you, um…”
Sarah met me in the eyes. Direct. She wasn’t smiling.
“I wanted to know if you found what you were looking for, last night.”
If one part of last night was a dreamy haze, another part had a razor edge to it that cut.
Going back to her apartment. Alexis Barnett. Seeing the woman that had the single most connections to her, the ones that could still pulse with life whenever I was in close proximity. One of the many reasons I knew I had to leave in the first place.
Seeing that woman again… it brought back a flood of memories that I couldn’t call mine, but they were there. They hit me, anyways.
Dinner at the table in the kitchen, eating her favorite meal. Chicken and some type of soup. The name was lost on me but the attachment was still there. It pulled.
Seeing her, blank and down and at a loss, it gave me a pang that I didn’t want to put a finger on, because it would take that and make it real. It was like whenever I looked at Lawrence now, but on a deeper level. Past the surface to and a core that I thought had buried itself at the very bottom. But apparently not.
Natalie Beckham had dug at it, throwing the dirt into my eyes. It irritated and made them red, but I had to face all of that again, if I wanted to put it back into the ground.
I went back to bury it again. But this time, I caught myself in mourning.
Rubbing at an eye, I gave Sarah the best answer I could.
“I think so. It helped, or I at least got something out of it. And, uh, in one case, I got way more than I would have ever expected.”
I made sure to look into Sarah’s eyes as I said that last part. I made sure she saw me.
“I think it was worth it,” I said.
The smile I saw as it came back, it was like a beacon.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Sarah said. “Very glad.”
“Yeah,” I said.
We sat near, and in near silence. Time passed, and by those minute degrees, the room got warmer and brighter, and I was able to just sit and soak all of that in.
I could almost see the future being brighter, too, and not just by fire.
A knock broke the moment. I knew it. So fragile.
“I can get it,” I said, hopping out of my seat, going to the front door.
“You definitely can,” Sarah said. “Sorry.”
“I mean, should I put this away now? Or go somewhere else?”
Sarah was leaning partway, out of her seat, hands near her plate and stack of hotcakes she hadn’t yet finished.
“You should be fine,” I told her. “I’ll check who it is, first.”
There was another knock. I hurried over.
I heard the lock tumble out of place, the door cracking open. I hurried faster and put my hands on the door.
Behind me, I heard Sarah scramble to clean up the kitchen.
On the other side of the door. I heard a small voice.
“Let me in!”
“You were just about to let yourself in, D.”
I looked over to Sarah. We exchanged looks.
It was hard to gauge how we wanted to go about this. We only a few seconds away before things got even more awkward.
“I knocked and knocked again and I didn’t hear anything so I was going to check if you were okay.”
“There are other ways to check on me. Barging in is not one of them.”
“I was not- okay but I knocked twice and waited-”
“You barely gave it a second, D-”
“Let me in please!”
I pursed my lips. I checked how Sarah was doing.
She had worked rather fast, the kitchen was close to clean, save for some silverware in the sink, but that could be ignored. Or not. D had good eyes.
But, did it really matter?
I gave Sarah a shrug. From across the kitchen, Sarah noticed me and shrugged back.
Turning to the door, I asked, “Is it just you?”
“It’s just me that wants to come in. Why? What’s going on?”
I let out a breath. I didn’t hesitate, but I did pause.
Then I let the door open.
D barged in.
As the door swung the full arc it was allowed before breaking off its hinges, D shattered any semblance of peace and quiet, bringing instead her own unique brand of chaos.
“What took you so long to-”
It was like D’s words entered the room first, then D herself. It meant that she needed an extra second to assess everything once she was fully inside.
Maybe a second more, it looked like.
She craned her neck to me, over to the kitchen, back to me again.
“You ate without me,” D said.
“It’s past ten,” I said. “You haven’t had breakfast?”
“I am always down for hotcakes.”
“They’re still fresh,” Sarah said from across the apartment. “Warm enough to make the butter soft when you put it on.”
D looked towards the kitchen. It was so obvious she wanted some.
She booted her boots off and slipped into the slippers I had gotten her. They squeaked, rabbit ears flopping as she skipped her way into the kitchen.
I half-turned, and noticed Isabella sidling into the apartment before the door closed on her.
She looked up at me and shook her head, her pigtails swaying. She adjusted her backpack.
“D wouldn’t have listened even if I said anything.”
I responded with an understanding look.
D was already off in her own world, helping herself in getting a plate and fork and some breakfast. Or near brunch, I supposed.
“You did cook using my supplies,” D said, taking what was once my seat. “Without asking, to boot. So I get to judge if it was worth the thievery.”
“By all means, go ahead.”
Sarah sounded confident.
I returned into the kitchen, and Isabella followed. From where I could see, Sarah had sat back down, using an apron to cover her legs. At least she found something to make her decent.
Checking on Isabella again, I was about to ask if-
Isabella raised a hand, as if to physically block the suggestion itself.
It was actually funny, just how different those two were.
D went right to devouring her food. Through the butter and syrup, I could have sworn I saw some powdered sugar puff up into the air.
Licking her lips, D was deep in thought. She tapped her fork against the plate.
“Not bad,” D said, sitting back. “I can accept this.”
Sarah put her hands together, a light clap for herself.
“That makes me so happy.”
D folded her arms.
“Well, don’t get all supercilious about it.”
“I’ll try not to, whatever that means.”
D made a sound. A loud hum.
“So, D, what brings you over?”
I had to ask, because if I could deal with D now, she could leave sooner.
Not that I didn’t want D around… but I didn’t want D around.
Not usually. Not this time.
D went to cutting her another bite of her breakfast.
“I brought over some of the paintings we, eh, procured last night. I thought maybe you wanted to get some decorating done today.”
“You had decorating in mind for today?” I asked.
“Why not? Why? Are you busy with something else?”
Or someone else.
I stopped myself from looking at Sarah. I noticed D hadn’t commented on the fact that Sarah was here in the first place. Not even Isabella.
“Nothing in particular,” I answered. “I figured you’d have some other work on your itinerary for today.”
“She just wants to play,” Isabella said. “She always does.”
“Or, yeah, did you just want to goof off?”
D took a bite, talking while she chewed.
“I do not just want to goof off. Well, truthfully, I do, but still.”
The gap in D’s teeth whistled out the word ‘truthfully.’
But D continued. “We can do the stuff Lawrence suggested last night, but we aren’t exactly in a rush to do that. We can take a day off.”
A day off. That was exactly what I wanted.
If I could, I’d take a whole week off.
“If you think that’s a good idea, sure,” I said. “We could afford a day to take it slow. Not easy, but slow.”
There was a metric ton of things to consider, now that the journalists were out of the picture. Like Mrs. Carter, if we had earned a seat at the table, looking after the territory, and waiting if there would be any fallout following the Alexis article.
Natalie wasn’t sure of my end game, I had to tell her. But she had to know that there was one, because she tried to throw a wrench in things, regardless. Releasing that article on Alexis was only a part of it. They wouldn’t give up the full picture, Natalie or Oliver, rather taking it to the grave.
The whole thing was tricky, because it was a hard situation to address in direct manner, not without directing more attention to it. Lawrence wasn’t aware, he didn’t know about Alexis Barnett. D and I would just have to keep an eye on how it all unfolds.
It wouldn’t be easy, but we could take it slow.
“Cool,” D said, chewing and talking. “Then after I’m done we can go down and pick out what you want. I was able to fit most of it into the back of the van, but I had to be really careful not to rip anything when I was rolling it up because I was taught to always take care of my stuff and-”
“I already told Sarah which painting I’d take for the apartment,” I said. “And please stop eating with your mouth full.”
“You did?” D completely ignored my last sentence. “When? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Because you would go out of your way to make it weird with Sarah and I didn’t want to make it weird with Sarah.
“Because you had more important things to worry about last night,” I said, trying to put it as lightly as I could.
“Oh. Okay then.”
She returned to finishing her hotcakes. She seemed to enjoy them.
It occurred to me, how I had never been able to share a proper meal with anyone. Not with D, not even with Lawrence, and now, not with Sarah. That soured my mood a little, and I couldn’t even taste sour.
“All done!” D exclaimed. Her fork hit the plate with a long clang. “Let’s go!”
“Put everything away first,” I instructed. “And how about you just go down and pick out the painting. I don’t need to be there for that.”
“But I don’t know which one you wanted!”
“It’s the pop art looking thing. Bright colors. A woman’s face.”
“Oh, that one? I actually liked that one. Good taste.”
Sarah added her voice. “That’s what I said.”
“You would like anything I picked out.”
“Maybe,” she intoned. Teasing.
“But why can’t you come down?” D questioned, whining really.
“I’m not, what’s the word, decent? I hadn’t changed or even taken a shower yet.”
“It’s just right outside, we’re not going anywhere! Unless you want to? Do you want to?”
“No, I,” I stuttered, scratching my neck, where Sarah had her hand before. “We can discuss that once we’re done with this.”
“Boo,” D said, protesting, but she managed to find it within herself to listen. She scooted out of her chair, hopping back down.
“Dishes,” I said.
D collected her stuff and brought them over to the sink.
“Have you heard from Lawrence, though?” I asked.
“Not since last night.”
“If you’re wanting to take it easy today,” Isabella said, “Maybe we should give him a break, too.”
“Right, let’s try to not bother him. I have a feeling he’ll need his space for now.”
“Wow, what a diva,” D said. “That’s the Ellie I know.”
D washed her plate and fork and put them away. Her footsteps squeaked again as she hopped back to the front door.
“I’ll be right back!”
“No need to rush,” I said. I saw Isabella, still standing there.
A look was all it took for her. She did roll her eyes at me before she followed D out the door.
Kids these days, I thought.
I turned to Sarah. But it was more like I let myself get pulled to her direction.
“Sorry about that,” I said, as if by instinct.
“What do you have to be sorry for?”
Sarah stood, setting the apron on the seat. She walked to me. I gulped.
“You know, getting interrupted, work beckoning like always…”
“That’s just who you are, the nature of what you do. If I’m not able to keep up, then I don’t deserve walk beside you.”
“Is that where you are now? At my side?”
“Can I be?”
Sarah positioned herself. Exactly as she had mentioned.
“Can’t say anything about it now,” I said.
“You can’t, or won’t?”
Having Sarah stand right next to me, it made the height difference all the more glaring. How much more mature she was than me, how little in experience I actually had.
But, being inexperienced might not be so bad, if it meant getting taught a thing or two by her.
Sunny. So bright that I could burn if I tried to fly higher. But, that wasn’t even a concern right now.
“Bit of both,” I said, before having to stand on the tips of my toes, my lips reaching for hers, wanting for hers. Sarah met me the rest of the way.