Five parts pain, five parts... more pain. Some background Goody/Lamb.


[ finding ]

i.

"Wanna come with us later to that fast food place that just opened up? Joe says he's paying but we all know he borrowed from Tyrone," Lambchops says idly, tapping the beat to one of their songs on her knee.

Rehearsal's just ended, and Carmen has already flown out with a skip in her step, looking perhaps a bit too happy for someone who has just messed up on the lyrics to their newest song at least four times. Goody doesn't bother trying to stop her, because he's too busy looking at Schlomo's face, in the way Schlomo knows he's trying to analyze his every little move, every change in expression. He's good at that—too good, perhaps.

"Sorry, I've got plans," Schlomo says as neutrally as possible, which is a big mistake, because Goody leaps up and starts guffawing, almost falling back. Schlomo looks to the side and wonders why he's friends with this boy. "It's not what you think, Goody. I'm just—"

"Going out on a date, is that it?" Goody crows, sounding entirely too proud of himself. Lambchops' fingers abruptly stop, and large eyes stare up at Schlomo, who is regretting every decision he has made in his life. "I didn't think you would abandon your friends after you scored a hot girl, Metzenbaum."

"It's pronounced Metzenbaum," Schlomo and Lambchops say on reflex, and they shoot each other a grin. "And anyway," Schlomo continues, trying his best to sound nonchalant as he closes his bag, "I'm not abandoning you or anything. You'll do just fine by yourselves." After all, he's well aware that Joe and Tyrone are going to ditch and it'll just be Goody and Lambchops awkwardly eating fries and burgers across each other.

Goody snorts disbelievingly. "Of course not. You're absolutely going to head off to study in your cozy little room, and not go, I don't know, watch a movie with Diaz so she has an excuse to fuck you senseless, is that it? I bet she tops in bed—"

Carmen peers out from outside, staring curiously at Goody, who stands perfectly still with his mouth still hanging open. "Schlomo, are you done? Or, what, are you sick or something? You're unhealthily red," she says, an undertone of excitement in her voice.

"You've been waiting long," Lambchops notes.

"I'm glad you see that. I'd be gladder if you noticed that, too," Carmen says, the last part pointedly aimed at Schlomo, who is still blushing too much to be good for him. "Come on, I've been waiting all day for this. If you don't hurry up, I'll leave you!" And she slams the door on her way out.

There is a moment of silence. Lambchops' vivid red lips are pulled up in a vicious grin, and the tapping on her knee starts again. "Fifty bucks she comes on him first," she says.

"Damn it," Goody sighs, already digging out his wallet and flipping through the bills. "I'm short ten. Sorry, Joe, looks like you'll be even more in debt now."

"Can you not talk about us like I'm not here?" Schlomo asks weakly.


ii.

"Miss Diaz," the teacher's voice says sternly, cutting through the low hubbub of noise, "would you like to read that note you're passing to Mister Metzenbaum?"

"You said it wrong again," Carmen says instead, staring up at the teacher innocently, her little mouth grinning cockily. "Also, why me, specifically? I could very well lie, you know. It'd be very easy for me."

"Carmen," Schlomo hisses, his hand clenched into a fist, "don't."

Carmen ignores him, as she's rather fond of doing. The teacher stares at her disbelievingly before heading over and taking the folded up piece of paper in one fluid motion. Carmen's expression doesn't change, still in the same confident grin, her posture still perfectly casual and not a hint of worry on her face at all. Schlomo, on the other hand, looks like all the blood has drained from his face. "Oh my God," he says, under his breath. "Oh my God."

"What do we have here?" the teacher muses mockingly, looking up from the paper to cast a raised eyebrow at the still-smiling Carmen and the definitely-still-white Schlomo. "'My place later'… 'maybe you'll finally be able to lead'… 'I saw what you bought the other day'?"

Usually, Schlomo would be on his knees begging for the teacher to let them off with a single detention, but his body is practically locked in place. He's pretty sure if he tries to move, he'll fall apart and he'll sink into the floor and never see the light of day again. To be honest, that would be a lot better than the teacher continuing to give them a very disturbed look.

From nearly the other side of the room, Goody sniggers, and Lambchops is gripping her pencil so tight in some effort to hold in her laughter that it's a wonder it hasn't snapped. Serena coughs as discreetly as she can.

Carmen is still smiling angelically, or maybe it's actually a smirk sent by the devils. Schlomo sees both right now. "Is there a problem?" she asks, voice still entirely too loud for the completely silent classroom.

"Would you like to explain the full details of this note or is it detention for you and Mister Metzenbaum once more?" the teacher replies dryly.

"Sir," Schlomo manages shakily, "I'll, er, take the detention."

Carmen flashes him a grin that would send full-grown men running for their mother. In this case, Schlomo sees a troublesome woman who is going to dig herself a hole she can't climb out of one day, and he can see himself in that damn hole with her, lifting her up. "This is all your fault," he tells her as they exit the classroom.

She casts a glance at the corridor before leaning in to give him a chaste kiss on the lips. "But you love me," she says cheekily, dragging sharp, shining nails across his chin.

Schlomo gives her a very disappointed look, but he can feel a smile tugging at the edge of his lips. "Sure."


iii.

"Carmen, if you keep writing on the table, I'm going to accidentally drop my sandwich on that paper once and for all," Mabel declares, some bread crumbs straying dangerously close to the sheet of paper on the lunch table. Carmen squeals in disgust, sweeping the crumbs away with unnecessary vehemence. Mabel snorts. "That was just a warning."

"Can you not? I've been working on these lyrics for a full two weeks now," Carmen whines, moving the paper further away from where Mabel has just finished her second sandwich and is making her third. "You see the effort in these words? You're going to love this song when you hear it, I promise you that."

"That's what you've been telling me for the past seven hundred something songs," Mabel replies.

Serena awkwardly glances up from her script. "What kind of song is it about this time? Because I vaguely remember your previous one being about dismemberment and strangulation, among other things."

"Oh, that was Lambchops' idea. She wanted drowning and suffocation too, but there wasn't enough space," Carmen says dismissively, like songs about various methods of killing isn't a big deal at all. "This one is—" she pauses to think for a moment, before a little smile blooms on her face. Then it disappears as quickly as it had come. "It's about, well. Nothing, really. Just music in general. You know?"

"Oh, I know," Mabel says impishly, eyes skimming over the lyrics, one hand still holding on to her sandwich, "especially by the way you mentioned 'piano' and 'keyboard' enough times for me to puke rainbows. Wow, look at this one—'sometimes I feel like my chest can't hold all my love for you'—maybe you're better off a poet than an actress, Car!"

"Mabel!" Carmen shrieks, diving for the paper, but Mabel calmly passes it over to Serena, who doesn't look up from her own script before taking the paper and browsing the lyrics. "Serena, Serena don't," Carmen warns, "or I swear on Miss Sherman's virginity that I will tell Nick you made out with Lambchops that one time."

"'Is it love or is it not, it's all the same when I'm with you'," Serena reads, leaning so far back in her seat that it's a miracle she hasn't fallen off the chair yet. "I get the feeling this would sell as really great info for the gossip mongers in this school. Carmen Diaz, actually the cheesiest singer in PA."

"Serena," Carmen says, tone flat, "don't make me tell Nick the other time you made out with Lambchops and Joe. At the same time."

Serena gives back the paper and returns to her script, expression carefully neutral but cheeks flushed a bright red. Carmen sets the paper on the table once more, significantly more relaxed as she whips out a pencil and scribbles out the last few lines.

Mabel leans over and very much accidentally drops her fourth sandwich on the lyrics. "I told you," she says proudly. Carmen is screaming so loud that she isn't even making any noise anymore.


iv.

"Always did think that guy was a bit of a lying cheater," Schlomo says mildly, trying to focus on the piano notes written messily on the margins of his notebook.

"A bit? Schlomo, he made out with another guy in front of his girlfriend. Like, in plain sight," Lambchops says very importantly. There's a pause, and Schlomo stiffens up, looking at the phone suspiciously. Lambchops doesn't just stop talking. She's planning something, he knows it. Then, "Well, what about Carmen?"

"What about her?" Schlomo asks as steadily as he can. He's definitely not focused on those notes now, and he's pretty sure he won't be for a while.

He can almost see the grin on bright red lips. "You heard me. I told you what I thought about Goody, the fucking asshole, so now it's your turn. Tell me about your little giiiirlfriend, why don't you?"

Schlomo closes his notebook and tries not to think of Carmen. It fails when Lambchops says, "Didn't you go out on that little date with her the other day?"

"Oh, um." His mouth is suddenly quite dry. "Cough, cough. Oh, it, um, it looks like I got some, er, something in my throat. Oh, dear, what a, cough, problem. Um—"

"Schlomo," Lambchops says simply. There is a very clear, very obvious warning in her voice.

Schlomo doesn't say anything for a very long while. Finally, "I think she's very high-maintenance."

"You know that's not what drama calls for," Lambchops says plainly. "Date details, Metzenbaum, or I'm telling Goody that you called him a braceface!"

Schlomo groans. "Alright. We didn't—It's not like anything, well, interesting happened, I mean, we just… had some coffee together, and then Carmen went shopping for clothes and all that, and um, we got home really late because the traffic was quite terrible, you know—"

"When was that? Friday or something, right?" Lambchops interrupts.

"Uh… yes?"

"I was out last Friday too. The streets were empty," she says, in the tone of someone who knows the other person is lying and is not afraid to tell it like it is. "What's up with 'we'? Was it your place or hers?" She's wiggling her eyebrows right now, he's so sure.

"It was not—"

"Braceface."

"… Hers," Schlomo admits weakly. "Her place is, um, really great. Homey. It's got a lot of windows and it's got that 'organized mess' vibe going on, and also, she's very beautiful—"

"Did you just call me beautiful?" A very familiar, very high-pitched voice exclaims. "Schlomo, you adorable son of a bitch!"

"I said her house is very beautiful!" Schlomo protests until he realizes that that is certainly not Lambchops talking, because Lambchops is currently laughing so hard that it's coming through as static. "Oh my God, Carmen? Lambchops, did you just—Lambchops!"

Her response is more laughter. Lambchops is starting to sound less like she's actually laughing and more like she's seriously starting to run out of air. "I can't believe you fell for that," she manages to choke out somehow.

"I knew you weren't piano-sexual," Carmen adds.

Schlomo rests his head on the piano keys and contemplates the merits of not going to school in the next few years, probably.


v.

"You're terrible at this, aren't you," Carmen says, leaning back slightly. It wouldn't have been a problem if it isn't for the fact that's been leaning back slightly since ten minutes ago, and now she's practically in his lap.

Schlomo tries to ignore that little thought, though, and concentrates on braiding her hair. It's soft enough that it feels like it keeps slipping through his fingers—plus, her hair smells amazing, which only adds to the difficulty of focusing. "Thanks, I guess," he responds, giving up on the impossible task and laying his chin lightly on her head, combing her hair with his fingers lazily. "This is nice," he says, rather unnecessarily.

Carmen smiles, or at least Schlomo's pretty sure she smiles. Yet the action is strained, and it looks like it takes effort for her to so much as quirk her lips upwards. Schlomo looks down at her slightly, moving his arms to rest gently on her shoulders, his hands somewhere around her stomach. "What do you think you're touching, darling?" she asks, voice teasing and dangerous at the same time as she traces patterns on the back of his palm.

"You," Schlomo replies idly. He takes her hand, twining their fingers together, and he marvels at the soft smooth skin of her hand, that such a fragile thing is part of a woman who can turn sparks into wildfires.

Carmen grins again, this one slow and lazy, effortless, but it fades away too quickly for Schlomo to not notice. He doesn't say anything, though, until Carmen murmurs, "Schlomo," her voice the most serious he's ever heard it.

"Yeah?"

(He doesn't want to hear it. He doesn't want to know it, doesn't want to acknowledge the fact that—No. It can't happen. He doesn't want to hear it, doesn't want to have to know that eventually…)

"I'm going to LA," Carmen says, and he can feel everything stop around him.

His world doesn't shatter. That happens much later on, when Miss Sherman calls him out of class and tells him, with red, bloodshot eyes that Miss Diaz is—well. The point is, the world doesn't shatter just yet. It's glass, but it's durable. For now, it cracks. It cracks, and the cracks spread, and it will break into pieces, but not now.

He swallows, hard, and blinks back what could have been a tear. "When?"

Carmen doesn't answer for a moment. When she does, her voice is considerably lower and softer than her normal, boisterous one. Right now, she's not Carmen, who talks back to teachers and can switch between heavy rock and classical like it's nothing for her pale little throat. Right now, she's just Carmen, who loves it when Schlomo does her hair and draws patterns on his palm with soft fingers. "Next week. I… I'm sorry I never told you. Just—there's this agent. He promised me—I'd get everything I want. Schlomo, this is… I really want this. And I really think it can happen. You…" she bites her lip. "You understand, right?"

"I—"

His tongue is glued to the roof of his mouth. He remembers the way her eyes light up when she talks about her future and how it could go, remembers how her face brightens at you have potentials and you're not half-bad, Diazs. Carmen is not a person who stays in one place. She does not stay rooted, and Schlomo won't stop her—he knows that. But—he wants her to be happy. And this is how she will be happy. He knows it. He knows she'll be happier there.

He squeezes her hand tight, just enough to remind himself that for the moment, she's still here, and for the moment, he still has her. "Of course I do," he says, voice trembling. "Of course I understand." Because I love you, he wants to say, but of course, he doesn't. Maybe because it's only in that moment that he realizes that, but he doesn't say it.

Love is something that roots someone in place. Carmen Diaz doesn't need love. Carmen makes love for herself. And he knows that. He can do this for her. She'll be happy, happier there than here, with boring him who taps on dusty keyboards all day and boring him who roots himself.

She'll be happier.

(That's what he tells himself, right up until the moment he hears drug overdose.)


[ found ]

vi.

"Do you think she thought of me?" Schlomo asks, even though he knows the answer is not something he needs, or wants, to know. "When she was in LA. Do you think she thought of me?"

Goody and Lambchops don't say anything, because they know she didn't, or maybe they know she did—Schlomo will never know, that's for sure. Because she's—gone. Lost, maybe. But certainly gone.

(He can't bring himself to say the d word.)

"Do you think she was happy?" Schlomo tries, pulling at the grass below them absently. They're soft, damp with morning dew. Soft like—he shakes the thought away. "In the beginning… when she just arrived, do you think she was… happy? Not faking it, when she talked to us over the phone?"

"Her agent—" Goody starts, but Lambchops reaches over and smacks him in the arm with her drumstick. For once, the only thing Goody does is glare at her and rubs his shoulder. They don't have much tact, but they have enough to know a situation where they shouldn't talk.

And Schlomo keeps pulling. The grass is so soft, a little slick, and it reminds him of—(he shouldn't be thinking of her but—) it reminds him of her hair, freshly showered, smelling faintly of her shampoo that he can never remember the brand of—he remembers her bright little smile, comb my hair for me, Schlomo?

"Were we real?" he whispers, and he tugs so hard a clump of grass comes off, leaving bare soil behind. He looks down at the blades of grass in his fist, so fragile, so easy to snap with a little bit of force. Just like—no.

(Carmen doesn't simply break, because she can bend and bend and still snap back into place. Carmen is strong, unbreakable, not as weak as her lithe frame might suggest, but even then—

Even then.)

"I could have helped," he says, opening his hand and letting the grass blades float lazily to rest on the ground. "I could have stopped her or—but I just—I." He's blinking back phantom tears, and for a moment he thinks the heavy drone of the beat of his heart is Carmen's, except no, he remembers how her pulse always is, light and rabbit-quick, ready to burst at a moment's notice—

(—and it did—)

"Schlomo," Lambchops says, voice gentle for only the third time since Schlomo has met her, "don't do this."

He looks up at her, and he wants to, badly, to throw himself in her arms and hug her and cry on her shoulder and just let go. Lambchops is a rock, a constant in his life, and it'd be so easy, but—he has to stay strong for Carmen where she hadn't.

Or maybe she had been strong up to the end, maybe when she had taken that last breath she had laughed and said fuck you to the ceiling of her cheap motel room, and—maybe she'd thought of him. Just in that one last moment, maybe she had thought of him and felt—what?

What does he feel, really?

Schlomo latches on to Lambchops' hand and lets her pull him up with her superior strength. Grass clings to his pants legs. He doesn't bother sweeping them off.


vii.

Her number is still on his contacts.

He can't really bring himself to delete it and all the conversations they've had. Doing that would just make him really—really see that she's gone, for real, not just away, but gone.

When she was still just away, she used to call him almost every other day when she had time, telling him, and often Goody and Lambchops, too, about how Los Angeles is the best thing that could have happened to her, how her agent gave her everything she could have imagined and more, how the city lights up at night and never goes to sleep. He remembers her voice saying, I'm in love, her voice singing pitches high and low, her voice saying his name like a prayer.

In LA, she goes, I feel like I can lose myself in the lights and the sounds.

Well, she really did lose herself, didn't she, Schlomo thinks bitterly, looking down at the digits of her phone number with blurring eyes. Went ahead and got lost, lost enough until she wasn't even lost or away anymore, but just gone. Faded away into the concrete forest of LA, where she'll never be remembered.

I'm gonna live forever, she'd said.

Schlomo closes his phone, lies down on the bed, and covers his face with a notebook. Stop thinking of her, he tells himself, but that only makes him think of her more. He tries not to remember of how she'd looked, buried in blankets on this very bed, down with a light cold and using it to her every advantage so he could fetch her sweets and turn on the TV for her. He remembers, vaguely, how he'd tried escaping by telling her she's quite well enough to get up and do it herself, but how he'd gone ahead and made her orange juice anyway. And then, damn it, he had caught the cold, too, after that, because she'd been a little excited with the kisses—

He gets up and grabs his phone. It's still open on his contacts, the string of numbers staring tauntingly back at him. He wants to—he doesn't know, throw his phone, maybe, like the protagonist always does in movies, or delete her number, but he knows he's going to recover it anyway. Deleting her number would just… set it in stone, he supposes, convince him that it's not a dream and she's really gone and he's never going to hear her voice again.

(Never going to hear her sing him a stupid, cheesy love song she wrote herself, never going to hear her murmur his name and send shivers up his spine, never going to hear her say, wanna get some coffee, Schlomo?, never going to hear her—)

He almost, almost deletes her number, but his thumb swipes the wrong contact and ends up deleting Tyrone's number instead. Schlomo doesn't bother trying to retrieve it.


viii.

Sometimes Schlomo forgets he's not the only one mourning her… disappearance. He realizes this when he bumps against Serena in the hallways and she breaks down into tears.

It's kind of awkward because he has no idea what's wrong with her, or what happened to her, so he can't really comfort her, and especially not in the middle of a crowded hallway. He does the next best thing he can think of, which is gather up the books and binders she had dropped, and carefully place them in her shaking arms. "I'm sorry!" he blurts out, partially apologizing for bumping into her and partially for the other reason he's very much unaware of.

"I-It wasn't anything you could have helped w-with," Serena sobs, and the reason hits Schlomo like a freight train. Before he can pull her away from the quickly gathering crowd and into a classroom or something, though, Serena chokes out, "She loved you so m-much."

The hallway is eerily silent. Schlomo helps her up onto trembling legs and guides her into a currently unused classroom. It's the music room Goody goes to—there are papers and various musical instruments strewn about everywhere, making the floor almost impossible to walk on. Schlomo manages it anyway, because he's quite used to Goody's messes. When Serena's sitting on a stool and her sobs have subsided to sniffles, Schlomo tries, "Are you… um, feeling better?"

"Yes. Thank you," Serena mumbles, scrubbing at her eyes with the backs of her palms. "Sorry about, um, that."

"It's okay," Schlomo says, because he doesn't really know what else to say. An awkward silence descends on them, punctuated every so often by a sniffle from the other girl. Finally, after what must have been half a minute, he asks, even if he knows the answer, "Why were you crying?"

Red-rimmed eyes stare up at him. "Shouldn't you know?" Serena replies, not unkindly.

"You said she loved me," Schlomo says, instead of acknowledging her response and the way he's using the past tense like it's nothing. "Did she really…?"

"Of course, you never saw all the little things, did you," Serena sighs, voice shaky. "Sometimes she skipped her lunch to focus on writing lyrics. And every time you had a rehearsal right before lunch break, she'd be twirling around and humming little tunes and—Mabel got so sick of Under and Beyond after two straight weeks of hearing her every day." Her voice is so soft that Schlomo has to strain himself to hear her, even in the silence of the music room. Serena's lip wobbles dangerously. "You can see the marks on the table when Mabel shook her arm when she was writing. And sometimes she got so excited that she'd write too deep and rip the paper."

"That's why," Schlomo says plainly, staring at the floor, laden with scrapped music sheets and melodies long forgotten. He can see a score for a song meant to be played on the piano from his peripheral vision, and it takes him all of his self-control not to bend down and get it, because he knows if he moves a single inch he'll pull a Serena and start crying embarrassingly hard.

Serena looks over at him, eyes brimming with tears again. She blinks them back rapidly, apparently having had her share of crying for the day. "Just know that she talked about you all the time," she says miserably. "She drew your name all over my scripts. It was really hard to explain them to Nick." Then she gathers up her things and leaves with little fanfare. Schlomo hears a weak sob just before she closes the door behind her.

He takes a seat on the floor, among the music sheets and instruments, and folds his legs against his chest, resting his chin on his knees. He loves her.

And she loved him back.

(And all this time—)

"I could have helped you," he says, and somehow, he's not crying. "All you had to do was ask."


ix.

The day Carmen had gone to LA, Schlomo takes a walk. It's a year after, and he's still not quite used to the emptiness of it all just yet.

(Her number is still on his phone. Tyrone's certainly isn't.)

He doesn't really take walks anymore. He used to, with—with her, but when she left (forever), he stopped doing it. It got too painful.

Everything got too painful after she was gone. Some things just hurt less.

Schlomo considers it an honest-to-God miracle he managed to get up this morning, fortunately a Saturday. If he had had to go to school on a day like this, he would have had to go home in his first class, probably. Right now, though, he's just settled for torturing himself in a little walk in his neighborhood.

The torturing part is really working, he reckons.

It's been a year, he tells himself, get over her. But he still sees her in everything, all the little things that he had never bothered to notice until she was gone. He looks down at the cracked pavement and, with startling clarity, he can almost see her laughing and dancing her way through the street, belting out the lyrics to their newest song with the charming enthusiasm he loves so, so much it hurts.

It gets worse when he looks up, just so he can avoid a terrible hallucination, and he's greeted by the sight of the tall tree his neighbor has in his backyard. And then, because apparently his brain hates him almost as much as he hates himself, he hears her say, bet you I can't climb up that tree, and he hears his halfhearted protests because he's well aware whatever he says won't matter. She reaches halfway to the top before the middle-aged man living there sees her from—he remembers—his kitchen window and rushes out to yell threats to sue her—

Schlomo doesn't see that he's reached a part of the neighborhood he's never gone to before until he stumbles over a dented soda can. It rolls away and hits the wall of a dilapidated, abandoned house with a sad clang. With a start, he realizes this is the older side of his neighborhood, the one his father has always told him to steer clear of, the one Carmen had always wanted to take a look at but always stopped short of it.

(Why? He wonders. Is it because he'd always say no, more seriously than he does any other time? Did she love him even then?)

It doesn't matter now, he supposes, what harm's going to come to her now that she's gone?

He takes a few steps in. When nothing, or no one, comes out of the shadows to rob him, though it's not like he actually brought anything with him, he takes several more steps.

It's dirty, the ground decorated hazardously with trash bins, small animal corpses, empty spray paint bottles—it's the typical delinquent's haven. It's the sort of place that Carmen would call an adventure. Schlomo thinks it's more of a suicide street, but everyone has their own opinions.

(Carmen certainly did. They're all gone and buried along with her now.)

Something cracks under his shoe, and Schlomo carefully lifts his foot up. It's a portable CD player, though it definitely doesn't look like it can work now, even if he hadn't stepped on it. And even then, even then it still reminds him of her—of course, it's not like she actually uses one, much less have such an old thing. But he remembers her voice, high and clear and always, always used to be there to say, morning, Schlomo, or maybe, you're going off beat again, Goody, or I'm going to LA.

It takes him a while to notice his tears, but when he does, it's too late to wipe them off. They fall on the CD player, coloring it slightly darker, and when he sees the saltwater on the surface of the broken device, he, absurdly enough, remembers her smile. Bright and warm and the thing that brought—brings sunshine and laughter along with it.

"I love you," he says, a murmur swept away in the light breeze. At the back of his mind, he thinks that maybe the wind can bring his voice to Los Angeles.


x.

"I finally fucking passed Physics," Goody shrieks, his voice reaching far higher than Serena can, and Schlomo knows how high Serena can reach. "I passed Physics!"

"Good job, want a medal?" Lambchops replies uninterestedly, shoving a fat bacon sandwich in his mouth to shut the boy up. Goody makes an incoherent noise and almost falls backwards and hit his head on the floor if Schlomo doesn't hurriedly help steady him. "Jesus Christ, you'd think I'd be better at English by now, but no, apparently Miss Sherman really loves the fucking classics."

"Romeo and Juliet is nice," Schlomo offers.

Lambchops looks at him like he just said pizza is awful. "Sure it is," she finally allows, after quite a while, letting the sure drag on. Then she turns to face Goody with a vicious smirk. "By the way, a little bird told me you had a fun time with Mabel the other night."

Goody flushes the brightest red Schlomo has ever seen him, which is kind of commendable, because, well, it's Goody. He makes more unintelligible sounds until he pops the sandwich out of his mouth and yells, "It was her and Serena, I'm telling you!"

"Until you joined in?"

Goody is redder than the school uniform. He doesn't bother answering and plops himself down on the seat by the lunch table instead, tearing a huge chunk of sandwich off and chewing it with unnecessary vehemence. Lambchops snorts and mutters something about indirect kissing.

Schlomo smiles, and for the first time in a long while, he doesn't think, I wish Carmen were here. Because he's happy, and maybe he's not totally alright just yet, and maybe Carmen is gone and, well—he doesn't want to say it, but it's something he has to get used to, and, and he's got to get over it sometime—she's dead. She's gone, and she's dead, and she's not coming back. And Schlomo stops thinking that she will, somehow.

He can get through this. He will get through this. He loves her, and maybe she loved him, but he's never going to know for sure and for the first time, it's okay. He's okay with it, because Carmen doesn't need love, does she, all she's ever needed is herself and Schlomo happened to be the nice guy that came along with her. And maybe that's okay, that all he's ever going to be is a footnote in her biography. Carmen doesn't need him, but maybe she loved him, and that's what matters.

"Want some coffee? To celebrate?" Schlomo asks, looking over at the Physics paper Goody had set on the table. He's smiling, and it's not bitter or fake or strained, and it feels so, so good.

Goody and Lambchops stare at him uncomprehendingly. Goody recovers first, and clearing his throat, he stands up and nods importantly. "Say you're paying, because I blew my cash on your birthday gift and I am really, terribly broke right now."

Lambchops smacks him with his own sandwich, but she's smiling so fondly and genuinely that Schlomo can feel his own smile growing. I wish Carmen were here, he thinks, and then, she'd probably tell me to piss off way up in Heaven, though.

For one slow second, he thinks he can hear a soft, chiming laugh.


Guess who cried hardest when Carmen died in our play. Guess who resolved to make others feel her pain by making this.