CXIII. A Duo

I can tell,
we've got an awful lot,
in common,
even though,
we look as different as can be!
We don't even have to try,
to see things eye to eye,
it just comes to us, naturally!
Come to think of it I think we fit together,
playing cat and mouse won't get us, very far!
There's no need to fued and fuss,
when it isn't really us,
Let's you and me be who we are.

We're a duo,
a duo,
a pair of lonely ones who were meant to be a two!
Oh, a duo,
it's true-o,
wherever we go, we're going me and you!

No matter what now we've got one another,
we'll be be there to pick each other off the floor!
Anytime you're feeling glum,
count on me to be a chum!

If ya get an itch attack,
I'll be there to scratch your back!

Now who could ever ask for more!
(laughs and talks some)Oh stop, oh stop, no, don't stop.
(back to singing) More, more,
we're friends and that's what friends are for.

We're a duo,
a duo,
a pair of lonely ones who were might to be a two.
Oh, a duo,
it's true-o,
if we're ever in a stoop,
we know we can make it through,
cuz you've got me and I've,
got,
you! Yes, sir!

A Duo is the property of Dom Deluise and appears in the film An American Tail.

1985 is the property of Bowling for Soup.

"Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, way before Nirvana," sings Craig. "There was U2 and Blondie, and music still on MTV..."

"Her two kids in high school, tell her that she's uncool," sings Ashley. "Cause she's still preoccupied..."

"With 19, 19, 1985!" they sing together.

Craig lowers the volume as they near the end of the road. Ashley lets the tune stroke her soul, fill every part of her purposely empty mind, ignores the movement of breeze-touched trees and leaves swirling to the ground. If she's with Craig, she'll really be somewhere on the other side of things. They'll be able to sing whatever and for however long she imagines. They'll never run out of road.

When they removed her IV, told her to take off her gown, deposited her into a wheelchair, and settled her into the car, none of those actions seemed completely real. It was the biggest hospital stay of her life and she can scarcely detail a single moment. She would have to measure everything through reactions - gritting her teeth during the prelude to a possible seizure; shadowy forms standing above her; foggy conversations while she was on different medications. Now the true test...would it add up to anything? Detox was done, and the rest lies ahead.

"I'm glad I'm riding with you," says Craig, glancing at Ashley and returning his gaze to the road.

"Yeah," says Ashley, then quickly. "How's school? Have you met your roommate?"

"Uhh, I did," says Craig. "I'll tell you more next visit."

Great. She tries to direct the conversation to a non-rehab subject and they're talking about his next visit, which wouldn't be for weeks. If this bothers Craig, he hasn't said. He's very tight-lipped today. When he switched on the radio, they both relaxed and pretty soon the musician habit of rocking their hearts out took over. Ashley had a crystal-clear memory of Craig complimenting her "air guitar" in this car on this day. In fact, she realizes that most of her most vivid memories from the past few weeks were due to Craig, and just as he's going away.

"Who's going to sing silly song lyrics with me in there?" moans Ashley, pulling her jacket sleeves above her wrists.

"You'll find somebody," says Craig.

"Maybe that's outlawed too," says Ashley. "I can't believe they banned CDs and ipods."

"So compose," offers Craig.

"I've got nothing left," says Ashley. "The tour left me dry. I won't be playing for awhile anyway. Maybe that's a silver lining."

Craig bites his lip, continues to focus on the winding path to Harmony Hill. She's pretty sure he's pitying her. But she is glad she won't have to play. Her keyboard can stay in its case for all she cares. Ashley cranes her neck to view her parents' cars behind Joey's car.

"The bonus is that you took care of the introductions the previous night," mentions Craig.

"Right, my addiction team," says Ashley. "The A-team."

"Ash, you're going to take this seriously, right?" says Craig, moving slowly as they come to a loop.

"It was a joke, Craig," says Ashley. "These people get paid to float around me and analyze every detail of my existence. Might as well have a couple of laughs at the weirdness."

"Yeah," breathes Craig. "Okay."

Stalling the car at the entrance, Craig shuts off the radio. Ashley unclips her seatbelt and stares at a gushing fountain in a lawn to her left. She came during the night so she had little idea about how beautiful the scenery actually was and what surrounded the entire facility. A see-through birdhouse and nursery stood farther on the grounds, while three wooden cabins sat across from a glittering lake. The land was more breath-taking than the brochure.

"Peaceful," says Craig, breaking the silence.

"For what it is," says Ashley. "The conflict's inside."

Craig removes his seatbelt to stretch and stare at the adults, still in the car. He slides over to Ashley.

"You have to tell them," says Craig softly. "About that night."

"I've already got enough on my plate, okay?" sighs Ashley.

"I've already started...well, I have somebody looking for Wheeler," confesses Craig.

"Craig!" exclaims Ashley, then lowering her voice. "Please say you didn't."

Based on his slumped shoulders, he did. He more than did. Ashley would love to bang her forehead against the dashboard.

"I don't need this right now," says Ashley, clutching her head with her fingers.

"The longer you wait, the better chance he has of getting away with this," says Craig. "He may've gotten away already. But...but if you speak to your dad and your therapist, that's one less hurdle for you during your recovery."

"If I don't speak and let it fade, that's one less hurdle I have to deal with," counters Ashley angrily. "Let's go. My parents are at the door."

Ashley crawls out and slams the door. What was Craig thinking? She can guess, but she'd rather not. Wheeler is a pre-rehab memory she'd sooner block out. She can't handle a confession or a trial. She can barely handle being five feet from these double doors.

The doors open to reveal Reva, Angelique, Hiram, and Colby, her rehab specialists. Included in the fray is a woman she's never interacted with before. This must be Dr. Englecourt, her psychotherapist. Fairly tall, with red hair that goes down to her waist, Dr. Englecourt grins politely at the two teenagers. She has an orange I.D. unlike the others who wear standard white staff badges.

"Hello, Ashley," says Dr. Englecourt, stepping forward immediately. "I'm Doctor Englecourt and it's a pleasure to finally meet you."

"Likewise," says Ashley though anybody would doubt the truth of her statement.

They all reenter Harmony Hill's main reception area. It's exactly how it looked about a week ago. Ashley finds this odd, but comforting.

"I imagine this is quite a change of scene from Toronto," continues Dr. Englecourt. "Or London for that matter."

Stiffening at the word "London", Ashley pretends to be distracted by the fire roaring in the fireplace.

"Were you in London alone?" questions Dr. Englecourt.

"No, Craig was with me," answers Ashley, watching a flame leap to another log.

Luckily for her, the Q&A session ends when Farrah, the receptionist from the night of the intervention, strolls to the desk.

"Welcome back, Ashley," greets Farrah. "Your bed's ready and your roommate's waiting. Do you have any primary questions about the living arrangements?"

"Can I ask why I can't listen to outside music?" asks Ashley.

"We try to have patients avoid any materials with references to drugs or other harmful behavior," chimes in Angelique. "Since that's become widespread, it's easy just to listen to or read the material we have here."

"Censorship," mumbles Ashley under her breath.

The staff members frown or suck in their cheeks with the exception of Doctor Englecourt, who offers a thoughtful smirk.

"Ashley, it's for a matter of weeks," says Robert. "Surely that's a sacrifice you can make."

"Anyway, lunch is at one o' clock," says Farrah. "We have your weekly schedule right here."

Ashley takes the schedule and reads the contents. She has breakfast at seven-thirty, pre-admission counselling at nine, a group therapy session at eleven, lunch at one, family counselling at four, an AA meeting at five, and dinner at seven. This is a packed schedule.

"Is this for every week?" asks Ashley.

"For the first two, at least," says Farrah. "You won't have to speak in the group sessions during that period, but we do want you to listen to other individuals' experiences."

Throughout her delimma in detox, she kept hearing "two weeks", as if the duration was the cut-off of something great.

"Can I go home after two weeks?" says Ashley.

"That's simply not feasible, Ashley," says Dr. Englecourt.

"She's asked this before," interjects Riva. "Ashley, I don't think you understand..."

"No, I think you do understand, Ashley," interrupts Dr. Englecourt, coming towards her. "There's simply no way someone could go through detox, endure what you've endured, and expect to come out ready for the world in two weeks."

This woman has some nerve. They just met moments ago. She's going to be her therapist? Hard to believe when she's telling a patient she can't do something.

"I have to lie down," says Ashley, facing Farrah and not Dr. Englecourt.

"You should find everything in tip-top shape," says Farrah, handing Ashley a key. "You can have twenty minutes to yourself, then we'll all meet for lunch."

Ashley shoulders her duffel bag and walks down the hall without saying another word. What if she bailed on meeting Englecourt today? Would she get paid then? For whatever reason, her parents remain behind, but she hears a pair of feet rushing to her. Loud, energetic steps...has to be Craig.

"I'll see you guys at lunch," says Ashley, crossing her arms.

"I...I can't go to lunch," shares Craig.

To his credit, he lets out a frustrated sigh, though that doesn't solve the problem. He's leaving. He's leaving right now.

"Craig," chokes out Ashley.

"I have college stuff," says Craig. "And they said family counselling could only include family. Ash, I'd be here if...well, maybe I can be."

"No," says Ashley, dabbing her wet eyes. "You can't miss college stuff and..."

"That's not what I mean," offers Craig.

He removes a thick item from his leather jacket. They're bound envelopes, addressed to Ashley Kerwin. Every envelope is sealed.

"Some of these are thoughts, some of these are lyrics," explains Craig. "Some of the lyrics suck..."

Ashley releases a reluctant chuckle.

"But they're from me to you," says Craig. "And I promise, Ash, you won't be without me for these two weeks. I am always thinking about you."

Ashley can practically feel her body seep through the floorboards. What would she have done without him this summer? He's been there or tried to be there through every ugly argument, every dumb action, and every painful second. He was her peace.

"Craig, what I said in the car...," begins Ashley.

"Whenever you're ready," says Craig.

Craig collects her in his arms, Ashley shaking against the leather folds as if she was against ice. Will she be able to do what she told him? Will she be strong enough to conquer this, without shaking on her own?

"I'll read each of them twice," promises Ashley. "I need to hear your voice that much."

"I hope you like mine more than Bowling for Soup," kids Craig.

"Likewise," says Ashley, and this time she meant it.

Letting him go, she watches him walk slowly down the hall and out of sight. She crouches slightly for an intake of breath. Gone. He's gone. This is hers to win or lose, and the battle's just begun.

The key goes perfectly into the lock. Turns out that the door's not locked. Ashley enters the room and immediately spies her keyboard sitting on her bed. Opposite her bed, she sees a very slim girl in a short-sleeved denim shirt and ripped jeans. Her chesnut brown hair is gathered in a side ponytail and her startled hazel eyes peer at Ashley.

"Cybil," says the girl.

"Ashley," returns Ashley.

Cybil falls onto the bed, crosses her legs. Her half of the room resembles a museum. There's art covering the wall, landscapes and portraits and images Ashley couldn't articulately explain. They would stick her with an artist. Ashley goes to her more bare part of the room. She puts her keyboard on the floor and sits on the bed.

"How old are you?" asks Cybil, fussing with her pants leg.

"Eighteen," replies Ashley.

"Same," says Cybil. "Where are you from?"

"Toronto," says Ashley.

"Oh, a city chick," says Cybil, somewhat dismissively. "They always stick me with city chicks."

"That's not what I am," says Ashley, shrugging off her jacket.

"What are you then?" says Cybil and then nodding to the keyboard. "A musician?"

Ashley kicks the keyboard beneath her bed, firmly. "Nope."

II.

"First impressions?"

Sean tosses a Koosh ball haphazardly in the air, the small item landing softly on the wooden floor. Ellie sits Indian-style on her black bedspread.

"You sure she's not secretly a cheerleader?" asks Sean.

He scoops up the ball and places it on Amberly's desk next to a U of T megaphone.

"I wouldn't put it past her to try out," replies Ellie.

She's lived with her roomie for a good while, and Ellie hasn't gotten much serenity in quite awhile. Amberly always wants her to go with her to campus events - dorm meetings, movie nights, the quad barbecue, and of course every party within walking or driving distance. Ellie would rather focus on nailing her driving test tomorrow and even if she did have her license already, she'd sooner go anywhere with Marco or Sean than Amberly. Amberly might be bearable if she toned it down a peg but she just didn't have an off switch.

Thankfully, the rest of her life has become less hectic. Sean and Jay were bound for community service; her parents checked in occasionally but weren't overbearing; Matthew delivered the final draft of their article that would appear in the Core; she believes Ashley's alright since Jeff failed to mention anything at Sean's trial. It is hard to believe that she fainted because of stress several weeks ago, but Ellie was dealing with the types of things squeezing a Koosh ball couldn't fix. As far as she could tell, only one problem remained after the driving test: bringing her parents and Sean closer. Maybe they should room together. Nah, Sean would be out on his butt before breakfast.

"She's hogging too much space," says Sean, glancing around. "Got a tape measure?"

"I don't care," waves off Ellie, scanning the section on traffic signals.

"Yeah, you do," guesses Sean. "You're just in study mode."

"It's fine, Sean," says Ellie.

"Alright," sighs Sean. "But don't come crying to me when she puts a treadmill in here."

Ellie shrugs, goes to her drawer, and gives Sean a tape measure. He bends to his knees to measure the width of the floor.

"I'm not sure whether I want you to leave before she gets back or not," confesses Ellie.

Sean wrinkles her brow. "What are you, embarrassed of me or..."

"No," interrupts Ellie strongly. "I'm embarrassed...for her. My brain hurts now. Study break."

"Gotta meet Emmitt in an hour anyways," says Sean. "He got a new part-time job. Powell's Garage on Sutton Road? He asked me to stop by."

"Cool, I like Emmitt," says Ellie, nudging Sean with the eraser of a pencil. "And I can make the most of an hour..."

Playfully rolling his eyes, Sean lets the tape measure snap into its compartment and kicks off his tennis shoes. Ellie smirks.

"Do you guys have a sign, like one of those girly hair thingies on the doorknob?" whispers Sean, tucking a pillow behind Ellie's neck.

"Sean," chuckles Ellie as she gets under him. "That's only in bad movies."

The dorm room door flies open, and Ellie grimaces, certain no signal will suffice in keeping Amberly out of their room. Amberly stares flummoxed at Ellie's bed with her jaw a good distance from her nose. Sean rolls to the side to sit up.

"Eleanor!" cries Amberly. "How could you do this to Marco?"

"Marco?" blanks Sean.

"Honestly?" groans Ellie. "That again?"

"What would he think if he saw you in the sack with this sandy-haired babe magnet?" continues Amberly. "Isn't it enough that he has to hang out with Dylan since you're conveniently busy most of the time?"

"Marco spends time with his boyfriend just like I spend time with mine!" exclaims Ellie, rising from her bed.

"What?" cries Amberly.

"Um, I'm her boyfriend, Sean," says Sean, reaching out for her hand.

Amberly looks at Sean, then Ellie, and then does a double take once more.

"Isn't she a little young for you?" asks Amberly.

Young, as in out of her league? Ellie's about to tell her where she can cram her Koosh ball.

"We're the same age," replies Sean. "I'm in high school actually."

"Oh, so you like that you're dating a college girl," says Amberly, patting his shoulder. "Good for you."

That's really all she can stand. Amberly clearly doesn't respect her opinions, her privacy, and according to Sean, her need for physical space. She's due for an outburst, and hello, only one of them has a test tomorrow!

"Stop bothering my boyfriend and berating my relationship or I'll push your perky body into my printer!" snaps Ellie.

"Eleanor!" cries Amberly. "I...I thought we were friends."

"We could be friends if you listened to me and didn't drop bombshells around my parents," insists Ellie.

"Are you still mad about that?" sighs Amberly. "They would've found out about your boyfriend eventually...who's apparently Sean. Let it go."

"No!" cries Ellie. "You go!"

Amberly whips her hair to the right, and throws the lanyard holding her room keys behind her. She stares stonily at Sean for a moment and then locks her gaze on Ellie.

"Nothing is solved by yelling," affirms Amberly, marching out.

The door slams. Ellie hears her roomie's retreat, wondering if she'll snitch to the RA or simply head for a latte at Starbucks. Please, please let there be no conflict resolution classes in my future, thinks Ellie. She's taking heavy-duty courses and doesn't need the extra pressure, which Amberly would be sure to bring.

"Bombshell?" questions Sean.

"Guess who spread the secret that we weren't done to John and Amanda Nash the day of the hearing?" sighs Ellie. "I meant to tell..."

"Whatever," interjects Sean. "As long as you came."

"I would've come regardless," assures Ellie.

Sean settles onto the bed, pensive, eyes on his lap.

"Do you...do you think your parents will ever like me again?" says Sean. "Your mom used to, but I understand why she...and your dad...well, I bet he's not thrilled either."

"My dad's more of a wild card," counters Ellie. "He's very forgiving."

That's true, and she doesn't feel as if Sean should give up hope. She loves her mother, despite their turbulent bond, but her father has the more open heart.

"That must be where you get it," says Sean, leading Ellie to lie on the bed with him.

"Are you trying to convince me to give Amberly a second chance?" kids Ellie.

"Well, she did leave us alone," notes Sean as he glances around the empty room.

Yes, she did. Advantage? Ellie. She tosses her manual as easily as Sean chucked the Koosh ball. After all, she's read through it five times.

"But I could go back to measuring," says Sean, standing to fetch the tape measure.

He starts to bend, Ellie stealing the tape measure and wrapping the bendable banner of numbers around his neck. Her mouth reduces the inches between them, Sean eagerly returning the kiss. They fall onto the bed within the span of two seconds.

"Don't you dare," says Ellie.

"No hair tie needed," jokes Sean.

"Nope," says Ellie.

"Hey," whispers Sean. "We should do it on her bed."

"Sean!" cries Ellie. "What would Marco say?"

"Please don't mention him again," says Sean, both of them laughing until their lips meet.

III.

This small space of borrowed cabinets, cedar shavings, and inventoried belongings almost evokes paradise for her. Well, at least today it does, what with Toby's decision made hours ago. She stands with Toby in the dim prop room located backstage. To keep her mind off the discussions they've had over the past two days, she set about doing early prep work, marking and setting aside items for Romeo and Juliet. Manny somehow forgot that the fictional love story would only make her feel worse about her own. They did end up separated, then dead.

Manny could barely sleep beforehand. She ingested the feelings around her like a sponge - the quiet, polite unease following the scholarship discussion with her parents; the persistent melancholy of Emma, who still hadn't contacted Spinner; the little tensions of Drama Club, which only became worse since her co-chairmen's relationship with Darcy was out of whack. Her eyes closed but she couldn't rest. She was particularly worried about Emma with Snake's arrival being less than twenty-four hours away. With the scholarship committee and Toby, the outcome was decided, whether she liked it or not. The same could not be said for the Simpson-Nelson marriage. She secretly wishes Spike and Snake would get together already. She can't imagine them being apart. That was up to them, though, and there's nothing she or Emma could do about it.

"I found some poison," says Toby, tossing over a wine-colored vial.

"Awesome," says Manny as the prop sails.

Catching the vial, Manny puts an orange dot on the bottle's bottom.

"Why aren't you trying out for Juliet again?" asks Toby.

Manny marks three spears leaning against a dollhouse and carries them to a corner.

"Remember I told you I wanted to stage manage?" says Manny.

"Yeah, but I was hoping you forgot," admits Toby. "You did Shakespeare all this summer, won the top award at camp, and still have no interest in playing the most famous heroine ever?"

She falls silent. Truthfully, right now, she doesn't feel very accomplished. The scholarship's out of reach. Camp is over. Things may improve while she's in the Academy, but there's no certainty.

"If anybody thinks Manny should play Juliet, raise your hand," says Toby.

Of course his hand shoots up first. Officers Patton and Wheaton, taking a break from sorting silverware, lift their hands as well. Manny smiles briefly.

"There will be other Juliet opportunities," assures Manny. "Listen, can we finish this? I have somewhere to take Toby."

"Where?" says Toby, startled.

"Just you wait, Romeo," says Manny with a teasing smirk.

Before Toby can speak, the room's door flies open and the visitor enters unapologetically. Liza Hatzilakos, midriff bare under a sleeveless blue crop top, stands in front of Manny. An out of breath Nate follows her.

"I want to join your stupid Drama Club," says Liza.

"Look, I told you we had auditions awhile ago," says Nate after a long breath. "You can't come in here and disrupt what we're doing! You're too late!"

"I'm the principal's niece so I can audition whenever I want," challenges Liza. "She's obsessed with me being involved with a club, and you should be pumped I chose this one."

"Well, we're not pumped," insists Nate. "And we're not stupid."

"Everybody, calm down," says Manny, placing a hand on Nate's shoulder.

"I am calm," says Liza. "It's Blondie that's out of sorts."

"Blondie?" balks Nate. "I've done commercials, TV spots, regional plays...what have you done?"

"We know, Nate," says Manny good-naturedly. "Why'd you change your mind, Liza? You weren't into this when we talked."

"Cause I can sing, dance, and memorize stuff," replies Liza, shrugging.

"That stuff is quality entertainment, which is very difficult to master," argues Nate.

"Plus Aunt Daphne said she'll cough up some cash if I stick with an activity," adds Liza.

"See?" cries Nate. "You see, Manny? That's exactly what she told me. She's not a serious performer. We already have a set list anyways. It's just a matter of posting it."

Okay, sure, Liza wasn't the most serious actress, and no, she wasn't auditioning with the best of intentions. But her voice was much stronger than any Degrassi student Manny's ever heard. Liza might be a diamond in the rough, a diamond wearing a thong, but a diamond.

"I think we should let her try out," says Manny, crossing her arms.

"How is that fair?" exclaims Nate.

"Nate, you said we were looking for the best how many times?" replies Manny. "Liza has a drop-dead gorgeous voice. We need a triple threat. What if she's our threat?"

"She's a threat to the heart of theatre!" says Nate. "A premature diva dressed like Britney Spears!"

"Just cause your girlfriend dresses like the poster girl for Banana Republic...," begins Liza.

"Shut up about Darcy!" interrupts Nate.

"Guys!" exclaims Manny. "Liza, if you're going to audition, you have to do it all. A full performance. Acting, singing, dancing. If Nate says no after you show what you can do, you'll have to wait until next year. Is that cool?"

Already rubbing his hands together, a grinning Nate stares at Liza. Manny suspected he wouldn't pass up the chance to judge another potential club member. Liza is clearly not intimidated and stares at him right back.

"Prepare to be a fangirl," says Liza, pushing Nate to the side.

"A fangirl!" says Nate, trailing her. "Hey, what does that mean?"

Manny sighs. "Another crisis averted."

"You are such a pro," praises Toby.

Over the next fifteen minutes, they manage to identify every prop that will be used in the production. The future Verona will be well-stacked. Manny closes a box of candles, which will circle Juliet and Romeo's corpses. Morbid. She's kind of glad she's going to pass on playing the part. She doubts her parents would like her playing dead after a summer like this.

"That Liza was a wild child," says Toby. "Entertaining, though."

Manny takes a lampshade from a lamp the Club used for a production of Hedda Gabler.

"No more wild than you, party animal," says Manny, placing the shade on Toby's head.

Toby chuckles along with the officers.

"I'll be one too," says Manny, putting a shade on her own head. "I dub us the bad kids of Degrassi."

They smile at each other, only stopping when the prop room door opens. It's done more reluctantly this time and Emma comes inside after a few seconds.

"Hi," greets Emma. "I...I didn't mean to bust up your prop party."

"No, we're done," says Manny, lifting the shade. "I could use the fresh air. I'll be with you in a bit, Tobes."

"Take your time," says Toby.

He takes off the shade and ruffles his hair as the two girls go out. Officer Patton stands in the corridor while the two girls hang in the stage wings.

"I've erased a bunch of texts to Spinner!" cries Emma. "What am I supposed to say to him? How do you make up after something like that?"

Manny's immediate advice after Emma revealed what went down was to call Spinner. Chances are that he's more confused than upset. That's how she was when Toby wasn't able to say "I love you" to her this past winter. It took a while for her to get why it was so hard for him. However, Toby said it in about a week, and his family wasn't falling apart in the process. Manny fears the root of Emma's problem is something they're both afraid to say, that her fear is deeper than whatever anxiety Spinner may have himself.

"Em," broaches Manny carefully. "Do you think you can't say...can't say I love you...because you're scared?"

Emma eyes Manny up and down. She grabs her hair, twisting the blonde locks into a loose braid.

"N...no," replies Emma. "Of course not. He...he caught me offguard."

"Well, then why don't you go over to his house and tell him what he's dying to hear," suggests Manny.

"It's not that simple!" says Emma. "Manny, you're different. You love to say 'I love you.' You're a romantic. You made your Beanie Babies kiss when you were little."

"That may be true, but there's nothing worse than keeping someone in suspense," says Manny. "Does this...oh, I'll go ahead and put it out there."

"Put what out there?" says Emma, a flash of recognition in her eyes betraying her naivete.

"Does this have to do with your parents?" sighs Manny. "With Snake?"

"What does Snake have to do with Spinner?" cries Emma, releasing her hair.

"Maybe nothing," says Manny defensively. "Maybe everything. I mean, your attitude towards your parents can influence your life. Believe me. Their marriage could be affecting you and Spinner."

"I treat Spinner way better than Snake treated my mom!" exclaims Emma.

"I didn't mean that!" insists Manny. "It's just...you've been through a lot. Snake leaving, your parents fighting, counselling. If you can't say it, it would be understandable. Spinner deserves to hear why and I'd be shocked if he were upset afterwards."

Emma shakes her head, rocking on her feet. Tears stay stuck to her eyelids. Manny wonders if she should've brought the subject up at all. But that's where her mind went first and she's betting that's where Emma's mind has been ever since Spinner dropped the L bomb.

"What Spinner deserves is to hear it," says Emma, wiping her eyes furiously. "To actually hear it."

"You deserve time too," says Manny, hugging her. "He won't go anywhere. He never has, has he?"

"No," says Emma, with a bit of a smile.

"Listen, we're in serious need of a girl's night," affirms Manny. "How about we have a Grey's Anatomy evening of McDreamy and McSteamy in my bedroom, pigging out and passing out due to hotness included?"

"We never did have our girls' night," recalls Emma.

Yes, because she fell asleep with Toby, moans Manny inwardly after releasing Emma. She didn't mean to bail. That night lead to dire consequences for their friendship, consequences that she's had to make up for. Well, if life gives you a do-over, take it and don't sweat what you can't change. She'll more than make it up to her.

"I'm driving Toby somewhere, but tonight belongs to you," promises Manny. "We'll be closer than Ashley and Mary-Kate in a straight-to-DVD film!"

Emma laughs. "Well, somebody has to point out which one's McDreamy and McSteamy to me, cause I can't keep them straight."

"Hello?" says Manny. "As long as their shirts are off, who cares?"

IV.

The mirrors checked, the distance calculated, and confidence summoned, Ellie Nash reminds herself that she's moments away from scoring her license. She arrived at the DMV at four sharp. Taking her father's advice, she had a full breakfast so she wouldn't be hungry or ill-tempered during the test. Then she took Mr. Ehl's advice. Ellie focused on her breathing before entering the vehicle, paid attention to the important nuances of the test area, and didn't let her very chatty examiner hinder her awareness of the surroundings.

John Nash and Marco were waiting with bated breath for Ellie's return. They took turns teaching her and wanted to see if their efforts paid off in person. So far, so good.

"You're doing nicely, Ellie," says Drew, keeping notes as Ellie checks her blind spot.

Nicely? She couldn't get a "great" or a "wonderful" or a "fantastic". Maybe the enthusiasm would come when she completed her final task.

"Would you ever buy a self-driving car?" asks Drew.

Rather than ignore him, and be docked a few points, Ellie shrugs.

"They have those?" says Ellie.

"I keep hearing about them," says Drew thoughtfully. "Perhaps they're a myth. Okay, the big Kahuna. Parallel parking."

Ellie's too agitated to release a "yipes", but it's very much at the back of her throat. The dreaded parallel parking. Aspiring drivers lost their minds over this. She grips the wheel, sighs, and starts the familiar motions. Steer right, left, align, look to the rear, squeeze, park. Done!

"Let me hop out and assess," says Drew, undoing his seatbelt.

Stiffening in the car seat, Ellie taps the steering wheel until her fingertips throb. She can not go through this again. Please, borrowed car, be cooperative.

Drew slides over to Ellie's window. She stares at the evaluation sheet as if it were a court order, which is the last thing she'd like to see more of, thank you very much.

"Ellie Nash is ready for the road," congratulates Drew, presenting her with the form.

Hopping up and down in her seat, she accidentally presses the horn.

"Yes!" cries Ellie. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, and in case you missed it, thank you!"

Drew chuckles, and climbs into the passenger seat. Ellie regains her composure and drives to the front where Marco and John sit patiently on a stone bench. Ellie pulls to the curb and grins. Drew jumps out, and lifts his arms in triumph.

"I can ride shotgun now!" exclaims Marco. "Congrats, El!"

"So proud of you, sweetie," says John, coming over to kiss her cheek.

The open road is calling her name. Well, it would if she had a car. But that won't stop her from navigating Toronto's streets or pulling into any driveway she chooses in another car. Going to college and claiming a license are the first tastes of freedom. She can't wait for what's next.

"Unflattering thumb-sized picture, here we come," jokes Marco as Ellie exits the car. "Too bad Sean couldn't be here."

Ellie delivers a disappointed glance at Marco while receiving her results. She would've invited Sean if her mother wasn't milling around the DMV. Amanda Nash walks outside to find an enthused Marco, a congratulatory husband, and a torn Ellie.

"Oh, Ellie, surely you will smile for your picture," says Amanda.

"And you'll come by after," adds John. "Eight-ish this evening?"

"What's happening at eightish...I mean eight o'clock?" asks Ellie.

"We've had it in the works for awhile," offers John. "If you're that curious, you have to show."

Ellie looks pointedly at Marco.

"Listen to your father, Ellie," says Marco.

She laughs and elbows him, certain the event's tied to today. A milestone calls for a celebration, she supposes. However, it won't be a true celebration if somebody else isn't in the room with them. Ellie heard Sean yesterday. He craved approval, not from a judge or from his own parents but her parents. Shouldn't his honesty count for something? Sean lost a lot by confessing his part in the ring. He lost double when he tried to rectify his original mistakes. Sean wasn't even requesting full, immediate forgiveness. He'd settle for so little when he's suffered so much.

"The line for the photo IDs is lengthening," informs Amanda. "Come on, Ellie."

"In a second," says Ellie.

Marco and John start towards the door, until Ellie stops one of them. John's puzzled stare almost mutes her request, but Sean's downcast demeanor acts as fuel to make her as loud as that horn.

"You can give me a reason to smile in my picture," says Ellie.

"Go on," says John, intrigued. "A hybrid? A black VW that's all the rage?"

"Not a car," counters Ellie. "A second chance...for Sean."

John rubs the stubble near his chin.

"Can he go to this party?" says Ellie. "Assuming it's a party."

"Ellie, your mother would flip," replies John.

"Would you?" says Ellie. "Didn't you say that you expected us to be together? At least there we could all be together."

"Do you really want drama on the day you got your license?" sighs John.

"I'll deal," says Ellie. "Especially if the only drama is off the road."

"You're going to blame that frown on me for the rest of my life, aren't you?" kids John, more declarative than inquisitive.

"I do have to look at it everyday," says Ellie playfully.

Viewing the test area, full of unmoved orange cones and ordinary road signs, they both take in the breadth of the course, which isn't that intimidating from afar. Ellie must've flown through at a decent speed. She nailed the twists and the turns, prepared for the final result. The course had it coming.

V.

Too bad this car doesn't have a GPS. This is the second straight day where Manny's more informed than him. However, she swore that this trip would result in relieved nerves rather than any scary self-assessment. Besides, most of their excursions in J.J.'s car were fun-filled and he sensed that they could do for some fun. The way she cheerfully changed the subject when he mentioned Juliet made him wonder if she was disappointed about an unnamed source of trouble. His source, Eli Chernoff, had a name at least.

"Anybody need air-conditioning?" asks Manny, guiding the car off the highway. "Or you can stick your head out of the window. It's perfect for where we're going."

"Can't be a car wash then," says Toby.

"Like I'd do a favor for my brother," waves off Manny playfully.

"That would be nice," says Officer Patton, the perfect response from a parent with two kids.

It'd be nice if he had a clue why Manny was so evasive. There's the investigation, which is always on his mind too, and the distance that would soon be between them. He's terrified to dig, terrified that he might have said or done something he can't undo. That stupid deal. What if merely mentioning it lead to a host of other problems?

"Is this a fast food place?" guesses Toby, hoping the mental image of ordering into a cow menu will put her in better spirits.

"This will cost way more than a combo," says Manny. "Though I think this combo will work out for you."

She drives the car into a parking lot, but it's not the only car he recognizes across from a group of office buildings. His father waves to Toby from behind his car windshield. They're not in a car lot and frankly a new car would be more extravagant than a trip.

"Hop out, peeps," commands Manny, shutting off the ignition.

The officers, Toby, and Manny leave the car. Jeff exits his car and meets the other four on the sidewalk.

"Where are we?" asks Toby.

"Look around," suggests Manny.

Toby shifts his gaze along the line of office buildings. There's a dentist office, but none of his teeth are bothering him. There's a baby clothing store. No chance...unless Manny isn't telling him something. Toby nervously scans the other door to their left.

"Uh, the store window has collars, chew toys, and cardboard paper pawprints," lists Toby. "So we're at the vet?"

"No, Toby!" cries Manny.

"The groomer's?" says Toby.

Jeff laughs, along with the officers. Alright, he's lost. Toby reads the sign on the door carefully. Paws Worthy of Applause. The phrase sounds familiar. Kaelyn springs up behind the glass door to grin at the small group.

"Oh!" cries Toby. "This is where the dogs came from...when you were dog-sitting."

"Yep," says Manny. "Let's go in."

They walk into the animal rescue shelter, instantly surrounded by pet paraphanelia. From dog carriers to rubber newspapers, leashes to shampoo, it's all here. The walls are a bright green and the furniture in the lobby is a bright blue. Kaelyn, her blonde hair in a top bun, wears a smock and gloves.

"Thanks for coming in, guys," greets Kaelyn. "We're going to have fun."

"Are we volunteering?" murmurs Toby to Manny.

"Possibly," murmurs Manny. "Do you want to bail?"

"No, I like dogs," answers Toby.

"That's what I heard," says Manny.

Turning their attention back to Kaelyn, she's spotted her mother who is introducing herself to Jeff and the policemen. She's blonde too and only slightly less cheerful. They follow her and Kaelyn into a play area the size of a tennis court. Toby smiles as the dogs wrestle, nudge, or sit beside each other. There are ten of them at the most. They're surrounded by balls, toys, and a food dish in four different sectors. Kaelyn's mother, Enid, asks Toby and Manny to wash their hands.

"Have you ever had a dog before?" asks Enid.

"I haven't," says Toby. "My sister did for a little bit. She gave hers to a friend."

Jeff frowns at the mention of Ashley but he manages to play it of really well. She'd get better. Toby has confidence in her, as confident that he's sure that these dogs will go to good homes.

"I asked for a dog and I got this job," says Kaelyn spacily.

Manny smiles into the sink, making certain the soap has gone into the drain.

They're fitted with PWA smocks and gloves, and then Kaelyn unlocks the gate. The officers stare into the play area. Toby's positive they're trying to see if they can recall any of the dogs' names. Toby believes he knows about five of them. When he's past the gate, the Pekingese from the park instantly jumps to his waist.

"Perry, isn't it?" says Toby, patting his head.

"That's Perry," confirms Enid.

Perry trots over to Manny who squeals.

"Hi, baby," says Manny, smoothing his cheeks. "Remember me? Remember me?"

He wags his tongue and sits placidly when Manny lets him go. The other dogs are more than busy. A pug, who Manny says is named after one of the Sopranos, is gnawing relentlessly on a rubber newspaper. The dachshund Popcorn is trying his hardest to hide behind the largest food dish. The rough collie, Prince Harry, is watching two females, Duchess and Winnie the Pooch, spar over a Frisbee. There's a notable absence, however. Right, the boisterous white dog that was all over the place.

"Where's Coconut?" questions Manny.

"Alas, poor Coconut," sighs Kaelyn. "She gets adopted, then returned, adopted, then returned. Not many can handle the hyperactive powderpuff."

"She just needs someone who's patient," says Enid. "Perhaps this new family will fit her."

Toby can see why dogs are brought here. They talk about them like they're children with fur.

"We were about to give Perry a bath," says Enid. "Do you guys want to help with that?"

"Sure," says Toby.

Enid attaches a leash to Perry's collar and the dog watches as she reopens the gate. Toby exits the area, Manny going to follow him.

"Why don't you let Toby do it by himself?" says Jeff, cupping his chin.

Manny shrugs. "Okay."

"You can hold Winnie why I trim her nails, Manny," offers Kaelyn.

Manny didn't appear too elated with the job yet she returns to collect Winnie from the group. This is strange. Why would his father recommend him for a task he knows virtually nothing about? And why would Manny bring him here to volunteer out of the blue? Nevertheless, Perry proves to be a very easy customer. He has mounds of fur, layers of hair around his face, but he looks at Toby the entire time with a warm expression. Toby does his best to keep soap and shampoo out of his sweet, little brown eyes, and cover every angle of his long, thick coat. Enid provides great tips during the ordeal.

After the bath, Toby and Enid return to the play area. Kaelyn was trying to prevent Winnie from clawing the gate with her newly cut nails. Manny throws a Frisbee to Prince Harry who catches it for her but won't deliver it. He goes into a fit on the floor, chewing on the toy like it's a steak. Perry stands beside Toby, clean and content.

"Prince Harry, stop being selfish," complains Manny.

The collie rolls to the other side, barks and bites the Frisbee in a frenzy.

"Lassie had better manners," mumbles Manny.

She walks to Toby.

"He's so clean he's sparkling," says Manny, scratching Perry behind his ear.

'Toby did a very good job," says Enid. "Their ears have to be cleaned daily, and you have to brush him out too."

"That sounds like a lot of work," notes Jeff. "So Toby, if you could have any of these little rascals, which would you pick?"

"What?" cries Toby.

"What's the matter? You didn't clean out your ears this morning?" kids Jeff. "I think you're old enough to take care of one of these, and it's not like we haven't had a dog in the house before."

"Plus it's a rescue dog!" chirps Kaelyn.

"You're behind this?" asks Toby, turning to Manny.

"I am," replies Manny. "I figure you need something to keep Eli Chernoff-type people away, and I want someone to watch you and have fun with you while I'm gone."

Toby's cheeks hurt from smiling too wide. She didn't have to do this, especially since he almost fell prey to Eli's machinations. He had police protection but this was Manny-approved protection and it meant a lot.

"Make sure you pick right, because this is where my movie extra money is going," says Manny.

"I can't," argues Toby.

"Yes, you can," insists Manny. "There's no other way I plan on spending this."

He sighs, scanning the area, taking in each of the animals. Most of them were engaged, doing their own things, except for Perry who hasn't moved an inch. He locks eyes with Toby. The gaze is helpless and hopeful at the same time.

"I believe in staying loyal," says Toby, patting Perry's head. "And I'm a hard worker."

"Pekes are unflinchingly loyal," reassures Enid. "And we've had Perry since he was a pup. He's the sweetest thing walking."

"Actually, he kind of rolls," says Kaelyn.

"Are you sure, Toby?" asks Jeff. "He just has so much hair."

"That's what I thought, too, but the more I hear about him, the more I want to take him," replies Toby.

"Yay!" cheers Manny, bending down to Perry. "I had my fingers crossed for you. Are you going to protect Toby for me?"

Perry barks, eliciting a laugh from everybody, even Jeff.

"If you come into the lobby, we'll go over pet care, supplies, and Perry's medical history," says Enid.

Kaelyn secures the gate with Prince Harry still terrorizing the plastic dish. They walk in single file toward the lobby, except for Toby who hangs back with Manny.

"When I went away to computer camp, I also had my fingers crossed that it'd be you," whispers Toby.

"Me too," says Manny, kissing him on the lips. "You'll never know how much."

Reaching the lobby, they find that they're not alone. Enid was removing paperwork when she heard the store's door close. The powderpuff had returned. Coconut bounds to Perry, clearly excited to see her friend. Perry barks a hello while Coconut puts a paw on the Peke's nose. The woman with him, apparently the owner, thrusts a stack of paperwork into Enid's palm.

"This fluffy thing is a menace!" cries the woman.

Enid starts to speak, but is blocked by a raised finger.

"She ripped my new drapes, put my designer shoes into the toilet, and tried to climb into the mailman's truck on seven different occasions," explains the woman. "What a deplorable mutt!"

"She's a purebred," says Kaelyn defensively, ushering Coconut behind the counter.

"We told you she was very active," says Enid.

"There's active and then there's a typhoon!" insists the woman. "Normally I'd ask for my money back but I'm a charitable lady and Lord knows it needs some behavioral training so you can spend it on that for her. Anything to be rid of her without any more hassle."

The woman storms out, leaving a wave of open mouths behind her. Coconut jumps onto the lobby desk and licks Enid's cheek.

"Well, that's a first," sighs Enid. "Sorry for that folks."

Kaelyn grabs a pawprint from the front desk, whispering insults at the woman who was still visible through the glass door. Toby notices that the pawprint has Coconut's name in the center. Up goes Coconut, and down comes Perry's pawprint. Oh yeah. In all the excitement, Toby almost forgot that he has a dog now.

"Are you going to keep his name?" asks Officer Wheaton.

"You can add onto it," suggests Officer Patton. "That's what some people do."

"Well, I do like Perry," says Toby. "But I kinda like Happy too. Maybe I'll call him Happy Perry, or H.P. for short."

"Like the computer company," chuckles Officer Wheaton.

"Yeah, exactly," says Toby.

He goes to tell his father, but Jeff is already thumbing through breed information.

"The Pekingese used to be royal watchdogs for ancient Chinese rulers," reads Jeff. "Because of this, they're excellent family companions. That sounds good. Brave, but stubborn. Aloof to strangers and very protective of owners. A picky eater."

"I can give you a list of what Perry will eat," says Enid.

"Oooh," says Manny, who was very quiet and checking out cloth bags. "Can we get this for him? This blue bag is so cute."

Over the next fifteen minutes, Toby is pretty overwhelmed by all the new information, supplies, and instructions coming his way. He could hardly check the final receipt he stuffed in his wallet. Perry sat fascinated with the whole affair. He probably watched this happen to other dogs and couldn't fathom that it was happening for him this time around. If anybody could identify with being surprised about being a first choice, it was Toby.

"Ready to go home, Happy Perry.?" says Toby.

H.P. wags his tail and goes ahead of Toby.

"Bye, Perry," says Kaelyn affectionately, her eyes welling up. "I mean, H.P."

"We'll make sure he comes to visit his friends," guarantees Toby.

The group begins to go through the glass door until Manny stops in her tracks. A series of beeps blast through the store. Manny stares at everyone in confusion, puzzingly goes through the blue cloth bag. She rolls her eyes and pulls out a plastic porkchop with a sales tag.

"Who put this in here?" exclaims Manny. "I can't be in trouble. I don't shoplift, I swear! How did..."

Coconut yaps twice and manages to fly past Manny and out the door at full steam.

"Oh my God!" cries Manny. "Coconut!"

VI.

The not too shabby Powell's closes at eight. Unlike Hill's, the garage welcomes a slew of heavy-duty modes of transportation. Trailers, semis, and smaller delivery trucks line the lot. They're cared for by twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, and higher-ups well beyond forty. Sean never considered Hill's workers to be that young (he and Jay were a couple years younger than most), but Powell's clearly had an experienced army under the hoods.

Emmitt seemingly fared better without Dale. Sean expected that to be the case, although not this fast. Emmitt now shared a station with his supervisor, Linc, in the midst of the powerful machines. Linc let him hang his summer school completion diploma above the Sports Illustrated calendar, which Linc leers at when they're not working. Sean's glad Emmitt is doing alright. Delonte and the bulk of Dale's guys were either unemployed or no longer interested in fixing parts. They probably wanted a clean break. Who could blame them? Certainly not me, thinks Sean. Where are they going to say their last job was, at an illegal business that burned down?

Truth is, Sean envies Emmitt. He not only has a job; he also has twice the knowledge of his co-workers, thanks to Dale and Sean.

"Catch any trucker speak?" asks Emmitt.

He rolls a tire to an eighteen wheeler. A diesel engine roars in the rear of the garage.

"The stuff on the radio?" poses Sean.

"They say the strangest sentences," says Emmitt. "Might as well be a foreign language."

"What if they taught that in school?" says Sean.

"Then I'd be on the honor roll," replies Emmitt.

While Emmitt assesses the old tire, Sean casually peers at his phone. Ellie's not done yet? She said she would text him with the verdict. Verdict? Bad choice of words. She'll pass. Ellie always passes.

"Stupid punctured tires," groans Emmitt. "Why do you keep looking at your phone?"

"Expecting a text," says Sean. "Ellie's going for her license today."

"As soon as I drive, I'm going to start saving for a towing company," vows Emmitt. "More cash in the bank."

Emmitt affixes the pliers to the damaged tire. If he could fix the damage, repair the trust the Nashes used to have in him, he could be at the DMV. Months ago, he was at Ellie's and sharing a root beer with John Nash. They talked cars. They talked trust. Then he started ripping pieces out of cars and out of his relationship. Ellie claimed her father was forgiving but you don't forgive a tire that has a tear. You throw it away and get a new one.

There's an item in his pocket that's fairly new. When Dale presented Sean with this key, he told him to think about what it would open. Of course Sean guessed the office and did his research. The building was condemned. If he was going in there, it'd be a risk. For Ty, he's willing. He just wishes he had a clue so he wouldn't have to search in a crumbling space for hours and hours.

"Um," says Sean. "Have you...do you ever go back to...the building?"

"What building?" says Emmitt, then registering the question. "Oh. I did. They were putting police tape up."

"And the inside is...gone?" says Sean.

"I wager you could walk in there," replies Emmitt. "I should bet Delonte."

"No, don't," says Sean. "I mean, I'm only asking cause Dale gave me this key. It could be to a desk or a cabinet that's already ashes..."

Emmitt takes his hands off the pliers, sticks his grease-covered fingers into his pockets.

"I bet I know," says Emmitt laboriously. "Dude, it makes sense."

"What?" says Sean.

Hitting the pliers in frustration, Emmitt watches the instrument shake.

"Sean, when we were at Ace's, who did you like more?" asks Emmitt. "Me or Ty?"

"I...I liked you guys the same," stammers Sean.

"That's a lie," affirms Emmitt.

"Emmitt..."

Rather than debate the argument, Sean chooses to let it go. Only one boy stayed with him, accompanied him to his hometown, met his family, managed to wedge himself into a hole in Sean's healing heart. He likes Emmitt immensely; they just weren't as close yet.

"At the funeral, I saw it," says Emmitt, sniffling. "But I wanted you to say it."

"I wouldn't help you out here if I didn't respect you," insists Sean. "No matter what, you're a good mechanic. No matter what, you're my friend."

Emmitt wipes his nose with his sleeve. He steadies the instrument.

"Before the fire, I saw Dale and Ty arguing over something in a yellow UPS package," says Emmitt. "Their last conversation was not a good one."

"What else?" says Sean.

"Dale said he'd burn it if Ty ever got hold of the thing again," continues Emmitt. "Or tried to mail it. He said destroying it would be for his own good. Since it would make you come looking for Ty."

What could possibly be in that package? He has no idea. Whatever the package holds, Sean's convinced it has to be found.

"You think of me as a mechanic?" asks Emmitt, breaking Sean's thoughts.

"No doubt," reassures Sean.

Emmitt removes his fingers, reaching towards the tire, shaking Sean's hand instead.

"Thanks," says Emmitt. "You know, I said once that you treated him better because he was black. I've felt bad about it ever since. You guys were just close... because you were close. Attached from the start. Sometimes that's all it takes."

"We're close to finished," says Sean. "If we aren't done, feel bad about that."

They change the tire as a team. Linc would show in twenty minutes, and neither of them would enjoy explaining why Emmitt needed a refresher's course on the Nealy tire system. They don't teach that in driver's ed.

"Two more tires," observes Emmitt.

"I got 'em," says Sean.

He spots the semi-ready tire near a canoe some family forgot to take with them after unloading their RV. He grunts, getting a great grip on the large tire.

"Excuse me...Emmitt?" says a voice behind Sean. "Is Sean here?"

That's not Link or even Ellie. Sean sighs in the rough circumference surrounding him.

"Sean?" calls over John Nash.

"Oh God," mutters Sean into the hole, slowly removing his frame from the tire.

John steps over the canoe to stand in front of Sean. He's in a button-down shirt with blue slacks, and doesn't have Ellie with him. That's the shocker. His daughter is nowhere to be found.

"I recognized Emmitt from the trial," says John. "How are you?"

"Surprised," says Sean.

"We thought you would be," says John. "Ellie said you'd be here. Is this your new place of employment?"

"No," says Sean. "I'm helping Emmitt. Uh, how can I help you?"

"We're throwing Ellie a little celebration at eight tonight," says John. "My house."

"Oh, she got her license!" remarks Sean, then reddening. "Not that she wouldn't..."

"Anyway, your presence has been requested and we'd be more than happy to have you," says John.

"Uhh, request...request accepted," says Sean.

"Til eight, then?" poses John.

"Til eight," replies Sean.

Sean freezes as John steps over the canoe again, walks among the trailers, and disappears completely. Is this real? He leans, unfortunately so far that he falls into the tire's center.

"Sean," jokes Emmitt, coming to him, extending his arm. "You're useless."

VII.

"Wheeeeeee!" cries Manny.

Slump, slump, thud. The dog, formerly known as Perry, pants with pleasure as Manny's flats touch the ground. If they were any bigger, they wouldn't fit on the slide. Manny figured this would be the best way to bond. If Toby's dog hated her, that would infinitely suck. She paid for him after all.

"He's going to hurl," claims Manny, returning H.P. to Toby's arms.

"Thanks for giving him to me, then," says Toby.

H.P. has gone through half the playground without being sick. He's having the time of his three-year old life. Toby sets him down to explore. Walking over to a swing, he puts his paws on the seat as if to guard it. Officer Wheaton goes to take him off.

"You're going to spend the whole night with him, right?" encourages Manny. "He might be scared to sleep in a new environment."

"I will," says Toby.

"Good," says Manny.

Deep down, she's wondering if Toby is losing any sleep. Eli may be taken care of, but his son wasn't caught. What if Toby saying "no" sent Justin further into hiding? What if he was in another city, another country? No, she has to put faith in the police department. Two months is quite a while but it's not forever.

"Manny, what's up?" asks Toby.

Manny laughs it off, starts to climb the nearby jungle gym. She, Toby, J.T., and Emma climbed the bars when she first met Toby. When you reach the top, you can see yards and yards away. Too bad you can't look far into the future up here.

"I'm up," says Manny, smoothing her skirt as she sits on the third rung of the gym.

"Is it the deal?" says Toby.

Not the deal itself, she'd love to reply. She's concerned that what she told Bubbe is a genuine problem. Playing with innocent parties, dozens of dogs, held benefits for her as well. Manny didn't have to confront the uglier parts of what Eli insinuated. Like them, and she wasn't thrilled about comparing herself to dogs, she wanted to feel special and picked out. Losing the scholarship made her think that she wasn't. Toby places his body on the gym and stares at her.

"The scholarship I had the best chance of getting...well, I didn't get it," shares Manny.

Toby straightens himself.

"With that, I thought being Filipina would be a plus, but...," says Manny, not bothering to complete her unrewarded hopes.

They toss glances at the officers who are trying to keep H.P. off the swing. He's pretty stubborn, doing so whenever he's told not to do so. Officer Wheaton was giving him a long lecture.

"That is a plus," says Toby. "People will see that."

"Not if they're like Justin, or his father," says Manny tearfully, spreading out her skirt among the bars. "It's dumb to think a scholarship committee full of strangers would appreciate it either."

Manny inches up the jungle gym, her knees next to Toby's glasses. When is being who she is going to pay off? She's not hungry for money, though the scholarship would've been amazing. She's hungry to be valued, hungry for admiration, on or offstage.

Folding his glasses and putting them in his jacket, Toby inches closer to Manny.

"Do you...do you know what I did after the first time we were intimate?" says Toby softly. "The morning after the ball?"

She shrugs, failing to guess what this has to do with her predicament.

"I looked at you and I really didn't want to do anything else," continues Toby.

Her cheeks flush. Toby kisses her bare knee tenderly.

"I love the shade of your skin," says Toby, gazing at her. "I love the shape of your body. I did then and I do now. Uncovered or covered, asleep or awake, you are exactly who I was looking for."

"Even if I'm not Jewish?" whispers Manny.

"I love who you are, and I love you for what you're not," replies Toby.

She almost chokes on her tears, so grateful to hear part of her fears abated. She wanted to feel wanted...by him. The rest would just have to wait. Manny slides down until she's level with Toby.

"Rawr," says Manny, cupping a butt cheek.

"Stop," chastises Toby despite the smile filling his face.

"Okay, but that was sorta sexy," says Manny, removing a hand. "Besides, I squeezed the left one so the cops couldn't see. You started it with the knee-kissing."

"Sorry," says Toby as he primly buttons his jacket.

"No, you're not," says Manny. "That's why I love you. And let it be known that the statements you said about me apply to you too."

Toby undoes his jacket and wraps the folds around Manny. Manny giggles as their lips touch. Yet another space she's not too big for.

"We could go appreciate each other at the Dot tonight," suggests Toby, resuming the kiss after speaking.

"I promised Em...," begins Manny as she allows Toby's kiss to cover her words.

"We'll eat cafe-style and let H.P. have scraps," says Toby. "He'd miss you as much as I would. Please..."

"Ummm...," says Manny, relaxing in his hold, appreciating the kiss and the blackness that comes with closing her eyes.

VIII.

If I hurt you...

We have something good...

Maybe if you actually talked to me, we could...

Stop being a blockhead, Spinner!

Emma deletes the last possible text with fury. There's no way she can send that. Emma sweeps her screen to stare at incoming messages. There are none. None. She climbs onto Manny's bed and ponders whether to throw Manny's pillows outside the window.

"Whatever, Manny," says Emma, stretching her legs.

The angry texts should be sent to her. Emma suggested they start promptly at seven-thirty, a reasonable time that respected Manny's investigation-related curfew and Emma's sleep schedule. This way, they could each pick out two episodes for their mutual enjoyment. But "mutual" implies that there's going to be two people! Manny's alarm clock shifts from seven fifty-nine to eight.

Deja vu. This is what she did when she waited for Snake. Snake came in at suspicious hours, made lame excuses, and didn't give a fig who he hurt. Don't commit if you're out with other women. Don't make promises you can't keep, especially promises to people you supposedly love.

Don't leave a person hanging. Spinner. Did Manny, despite her carelessness, hit the right bell? What if she never says those crucial words to him? What if she never believes in those words until it's too late and she's left alone?

The phone rings. Emma, certain it's Manny, prepares herself for another Toby-related excuse.

"Are you done making out yet?" says Emma to the listener.

"Uhhhh, Emma?" says Snake.

Oh no. She wasn't counting on Snake. In fact, she wasn't counting on talking to Snake if she could avoid it.

"Yeah?" says Emma, scrunching her legs to her chest.

"My flight's arriving at ten in the morning," informs Snake. "Can you meet me?"

She was supposed to go over in Spinner's car. Well, those plans are dead. She roped in Manny at the last minute, although she's forseeing a silent ride to the airport, back and forth.

"Do I have a choice?" says Emma.

Bleh. She remembers using the same exact expression regarding Daphne at the park.

"I can catch a cab," says Snake. "I'd hate to be an inconvenience."

"No, I've set something up," offers Emma.

"Thanks for that, Em," says Snake.

He sounds pretty pleased. You shouldn't be, thinks Emma. Because when you get to T.O., we'll barely talk. And it won't hurt like it does with Spinner.

"My meds are making me groggy," lies Emma.

They weren't but he didn't know that.

"Yeah, yeah," says Snake. "Good night. See you in the a.m."

Emma clicks off without wishing him a good night. He didn't bother doing that for her when he was with Daphne during those late nights. She starts to cry, thinking about the screaming matches between her parents, the lonely breakfasts with Snake absent, the apartment he got and that she never saw in person. This whole situation is screwy. Nothing is reliable. Everything...everyone changes.

Shutting off the lights and using the remote, Emma goes through the channels.

"Emma, would you like a hot chocolate?" calls Maria from the kitchen.

"No thank you, Mrs. Santos," calls Emma.

At least Manny's mom cares about her. Emma stops flipping. She stares at the TV in the dark. A round of steady footsteps sound, reaching the door. Something clatters after the footsteps. She told Mrs. Santos "no", correct?

"Emma, why are you watching Ever After in the dark?" asks Manny, shifting the paper bag to her hip. "I got HD to better view the prince's cheekbones."

"Manny!" says Emma, springing up.

Manny flicks on the light and sets the bag on the floor. A package of double-stuffed Oreos falls to the carpet, along with a box of Graham crackers. The clattering. Junk food fills the entire bag.

"Mom said the kitchen was missing a key ingredient," says Manny. "Cookies!"

"I...I thought you weren't coming," admits Emma.

"Not even," says Manny. "I've got my two eps picked out, and...and you're my bestie."

Grinning, Emma stretches out her legs again. Manny joins her on the bed. Emma offers her a hesitant side-hug that Manny alters into a full one. Inside, Emma kills any notions of the silent treatment. There's reason enough to speak, loud and clear.

"Thanks, Manny."