a note: I am so grateful for your comments. I would say so as much as possible but then I'd sound like a broken record. Some of these are so amazing that one would be enough for me to launch 10 new chapters of this story… hypothetically.
"You don't want a muffin."
"No, I want a muffin."
The third person at our table—Kyla—lifts her head from the cradle of her arms, looking at us like bad dates she would like to abandon. "Stop bickering. Hung over here."
Ashley plows on, ignoring the interruption, squinting at me intently. "You're having the cheapest thing on the menu."
"No, it just happens to be the cheapest thing."
"I know you're hungry. You didn't touch the alcohol and there wasn't much to eat last night. Don't lie to me."
"You know what," her back straightens as she leans over the table, "I know why you're being like this. You've lived like this for so long, haven't you. You're used to this, whatever this is. Not being able to pay for things. Breakfast. Clothes. A decent place. You've accepted this. But I don't. I won't."
"Just stop!" I hiss out, feeling like all heads are turned to us, ears cocked. "You know know anything about me or what I'm used to. So just…"
A tentative placement of a latte on the table and my words and our heads separate. It's the server with drinks, napkins, sugar and cream. We're still staring each other down, tangled in a battle of wills.
"Eggs Benedict for me. Belgian waffle for her. Unless you prefer something else?"
"Uh—no. That's fine."
And just like that, I've lost. I know she's seen the split second my eyes fluttered in surprise. But of all things, today, she remembers. What else does she remember, just the noteworthy, or the insignificant details, like my favourite breakfast food? Does she try to remember, does she want to?
"Guess not. Thanks." She doesn't watch the server leave, eyes honed on mine. They had never wandered since we slid into the corner booth, across from each other.
I let my head fall back onto the booth seat, bouncing gently. The thrill of expectation, of intrigue suddenly gone. "I'm going to pay you back," I insist. "For all of this. Someday. Every penny."
She looks at me, lips quirking, looking distraught, amused, and uncertain all at once. "I don't want your money."
"And I don't want yours."
I shut the car door firmly, cutting off the outside world.
But not quite everything. "Your waitressing job is shit and you know it."
"Thanks for sharing." I lean back into the seat, closing my eyes, feeling the beginnings of a migraine. My lower half breathes in relief, and every other part dreads the return to too-long hours, too-little pay, and unsavoury customers. There's a paycheck in my back pocket, toeing the limits of being adequate.
I think back to when she had told me, under no uncertain terms, that she would be the one to watch me walk into the diner and out of it, the one who drove me to work and dropped me off.
"No, what do you mean no?"
"I said no. You're not my sitter and I'm not a child that needs to be watched twenty-four seven."
"You know if it can't be me I'll still have someone watching out for you."
"You'd hire someone? Don't you think that's going a little too far?"
"No, I'd do anything for a little peace of mind. What is this about? Your dignity, your pride? That you've been alone and holding yourself up so long you can't stand to have someone take just a little bit of that weight? You're not the damned Atlas, Spencer. I'm just trying to keep you safe."
"You're not helping me, Ashley."
"You don't want any help!"
"Not from you."
"You'd rather be out on the streets than with me?" She lets out a burst of air, a harsh laugh. "You're not an idiot, Spencer. You don't exactly have a choice, here."
"So I'm just going to accept you holding my hand every time I cross the road?"
"If that what it takes."
"Okay, you just—whatever. This arrangement won't be for very long."
I shoot her a short, meaningful glance, and she looks a little less sure.
Is she thinking of this, the way I am? This game of pulling and pushing. Two steps back for every one forward. Fighting circles. But I still can't get over those images of us, whenever I see her, lying in our beds, lounging on the couch, laughing in her car with the top down. That easy camaraderie, this unbearable awkwardness.
"Look, don't take this the wrong way," she starts, out of the blue, through the thick haze of my thoughts. "There's someone I know who does this after-school art program, for kids. It's just a couple block's walk away, at a community center. He's the only one teaching the class so he's stopped accepting students. Unless someone helps him even out the workload. He doesn't really require much."
"So you're going to use your—friend status, or whatever—to get him to hire me?"
"No. I showed him, the uh… the picture."
"You showed him what?" I ask softly, already knowing the answer, not believing it.
"The one you drew of me."
"The one without the eyes."
"Yeah, that's the one. He held it up next to me and said he'd hire whoever drew it on the spot."
And I had wondered, in the hospital, lying the bed, where it had gone. If I had lost it, if a nurse had thrown it away with a building panic. I spent hours reminding myself that it was cloyingly sentimental, not meant for me to keep.
"So that's where it went," I conclude, oddly apathetic.
"Yeah, and uh, I have still have it." Her hands flex around the wheel. "I didn't mean for any of it. I didn't want to show him. It didn't feel right—like it was too personal."
"You don't have to explain it. It's yours. I gave it to you."
"That's why I think I felt that way."
We're still squabbling when she pulls inevitably into the community center.
"I keep trying to help you. You keep pushing me away."
"You ever stop to wonder why?" I scoff, disbelief trickling into my tone. "I don't need your help. I already have a job."
"And don't call me that."
"I will. Spencer. Just wait." She slides in her seat, towards me. An open palm hovers over my thigh, bobbing to accentuate her words. "Look, don't let me… what you've got against me or all these things get in the way of a job opportunity, okay? Please. Just go inside, talk to the guy. That's all I ask."
"I'm so tired of fighting you," I admit. But I don't admit that somewhere, somehow, we haven't changed at all. There's nothing different about seeing Ashley's face, not unalike from the one in my mind's eye, or hearing her voice. Then having these familiar things thrown at me, now, but angry, disconsolate, and desperate. It's unfitting, somehow, like seeing her image, doctored, three sizes too large, into a crowd.
"Do it for you," she continues, nevertheless. "He needs someone. You're perfect."
"You're biased." I open the door and scoot off my seat. It's minutes too late when I look back, pondering the legitimacy of my comment.
"It was a dark and stormy night."
"And that was clearly a cry for help."
"It was? Good." An eyebrow rose. She smirked and slid her notebook across the table.
"You want me to write it for you?" I recoiled, disapproval my first and only reflex. "Yeah, I wonder who wouldn't tell the difference."
"God, Spence. Relax, would ya. I was kidding," she snickered, not even attempting to restrain herself. " Wait, maybe you could dumb it down a little bit—"
"Shut up and work. How hard could an eleventh-grade paper be for Ashley Davies, God."
"You're the boss."
"Oh, wait for it. Wait for it." The end of her pen met her temple in a light beat, maybe to the one that was constantly in her mind. It paused on the way down to paper, a quick stop for her to tap the back end against her chin. "Once upon a…"
"Now you're not even trying."
"Hey!" She waved her pen in my face, until I swatted it away. "It takes effort to look this good, every day."
"Now use that effort and put out."
"That I can…"
"Wasteful," she waved dismissively.
"Your priorities are so screwed up."
She only laughed.
"Just pretend you're writing one of your songs, or something," I suggested, off-handedly.
"I've tried that. It's different. It's like..." She broke off, frowning at me pensively.
She took a second too long, eyes narrowing as she took me in. Then she turned away, curls falling around her face and shoulders as she bent over her work. "Yeah, something like that."
"So…? How'd go with uh, new boss? "
"Not my boss yet. And his name is Kent. But he reminds me of Mr. Dougall."
"Our high school music teacher? I can't believe you remember him! The chubby, balding guy, right?" Kyla chuckles. "He's like, still the only person I've ever known that manages to be completely honest and funny… and pull it off."
"I know." I pause to shoot her a smile. "Oh, I'm going back for an interview tomorrow."
"You know that's just for show, right?" Kyla beams at me, stepping out as the elevator doors open, walking backwards to continue our conversation. "You've got this one. On the money."
"Damn right," I reply before I realize, because Kyla's unerring optimism and friendship has always made me feel like they should. And I think, for the longest and hardest yet, that this isn't so bad.
Kyla laughs, unlocking the door to Ashley's apartment.
"Wait. Ash just got back from schmoozing with her band so she's probably a little out of it."
"Schmoozing? Ashley?" I give her a look.
"Really just drinking and girls." Kyla shrugs, looking idly around. "She used to like it."
"Not so much lately. I don't know what has changed for her lately," she smiles at me, a smile cut from stone.
"A lot has."
"Too much," she murmurs. "Well, I'll see you later, yeah?"
"Thanks for the ride back, Kyla."
I lean against the doorframe, watching her re-enter the elevator, giving her a finger wave from the gap between the closing doors.
I turn the lock and study the unlit apartment closely. Nothing out of the ordinary, no bottles lying around, no clothes on the floor, not one thing out of place. What did I expect? Why?
"Hey, Ashley? You okay?" I call out, before I can stop myself. It wouldn't have been wrong to leave her alone in the dark, wherever she is, with a girl in her bed, draped over the toilet, half-conscious on the floor somewhere. Wouldn't it?
Then I hear it, somewhere between a whine and a moan.
Following it to her room, heart pounding at what I might see an don't want to so see, and stop at the door, trying not to openly look around when really, I am. It's too dimly lit, only by the lights of the city through flimsy curtains, but I can't resist. "Did I wake you up? Do you need anything? I'm sorry."
She's on the bed, the thick covers in a jumble. Her head lolls to one side, eyes shadowed by her lashes, but unmistakably looking at me.
We hold that look for a couple long, aching minutes. Then she looks away, suddenly speaking. "You get this look, sometimes." She looks out the glass doors, as if the potted azalea outside on the balcony happens to have caught and held her attention.
"Like someone's dangling something in front of you, but you're too afraid to go after it. As if it's been pulled out of reach too many times and you can't believe that this time—this time, whoever's doing that to you won't be so cruel."
I struggle with my words, and the cotton-candy silence in the entire apartment between us, expanding and forcing us apart. What I'm supposed to do, leave or stay? I could leave to spare her the words shaken loose in her inebriated state she might regret. But more than ever I want to stay to hear the first real honesty I've heard from her in all this time. In the midst of everything I manage one noncommittal syllable. "Yeah?"
"It makes me want to shoot that person. Whoever's holding doing that to you. Then I realize I was probably that person."
She flops onto her side, limbs splayed, the covers outlining her form hazily in the dark. A notebook falls off the bed and sprawls open, hers. There's a pen tucked into the spiral binding. There are words, I can see in the dim light, between the lines, on the lines, packed tightly into the margins.
Her eyes are hooded, meeting mine, holding them, as if she's sober. Because it's what she never stops doing, when she's sober. It's always been the most unsettling part about her. I retrieve it, putting it somewhere near her curled fingers. She smells faintly like alcohol, food spices, cigarette smoke and perfume.
"I've been writing," she smiles ruefully.
"Do you always drink this much?"
"I haven't. Not since—not since—" Then she's asleep, somewhere beyond the fetters of ordinary speech, the answer left to dangle above us.
The next day dawns bright and empty. I even dare to visit Ashley's room, but the bed, with its heap of crumpled covers, is cold. I make it without realizing what I'm doing, and flee from the apartment like I've been caught with my hand in a cookie jar.
Reviewing all the possible questions on the short walk, the interview as brief as one statement.
"Consider it a bonus."
"I get paid on hire?" I hold the cheque out, between my hands, hardly believing it. "No. I can't accept this."
He pushes my hands back towards me, check safely ensconced. "Yeah, well. Take it as a sign of what's to come. Now, go away. But remember to come back."
I meander outside, to sit on the steps. This is enough. To rent a decent little place, to hold myself up, until I save enough to just go on with one job. I've done it before, on less. I can do it now.
My head shoots up to look at her, hands trembling although my mind tells them it's too late to hide it now.
"Hey." She leaned against the doorway to my room, smirking in amusement at me sprawled across the bed, books and papers spread before me, the sheets draped across my body and head like a tent.
"Got room under there for me?"
"No. One-person party."
"Having too much fun for two?" She faked a pout.
"Well..." My answer was cut short as she crossed in three quick strides and leapt onto the bed, scattering papers as she wrapped her arms around the lump of blankets that was me, pinning me sideways as I fell onto the bed under her weight.
"You crashed my party." I scowled at her smug expression.
"You reminded of that one Halloween your dad dressed you up as the Charlie Brown ghost."
"You were so cute!" She dragged out the last word long and high, mocking the comments I had gotten that day in my ripped up white sheet.
"You are so annoying." I looked at the papers spread out on the ground. "Look what you did."
"So anal." She rolled her eyes, making sure to rock the bed as she launched herself onto the ground. She returned with a stack of papers, suddenly removing a small crumpled slip from the top.
"Oops. That's mine. Must've fallen out."
"What's that?" I asked, noticing her hastiness.
"Well, they…" She looked down at it, frowning. "They want me to audition for them."
"Some record label."
I take her wrist and turn her palm up to read the slip of paper in her hand. "That's not just some record label."
"I know… I just… I wanted something big and now I have it."
"It's pretty hard to believe, isn't?"
She looked at her feet and nodded.
"Come here." My hand still on her wrist, I pulled her onto the bed next to me. "I'm not surprised, Ash. I knew you'd make it. You just needed the right person to hear you sing."
"Maybe, but…" She drifted off, leaning her head into the crook between my shoulder and neck, like she thought I could hide her away, even if just for a little while.
"What's this?" Her eyes read the numbers on the slip of paper, and up, wide, to read mine.
"Did you know he was going to do this?"
"Of course I didn't."
"Would you have let him, if you knew?"
"Don't ask me to answer that."
"So you wouldn't."
"Just listen to me for a minute. I know what you're thinking." She suddenly drops to the doorstep, sitting next to me. Her words no longer tight and forceful, but quiet and fast. "You can't go out there with so little. You'll work yourself sick. It'll be months before you can live comfortably. You can't do this."
"You're saying I can't?"
"You can't damn well stop me."
"Please don't do this. You can't walk yourself out of the hospital and into another one. Do you know what it did to me, finding you like that? God, I've been so afraid to bring it up with you. Because I don't want to know why you could do that to yourself. How you got pushed so far…" She stops for breath. "Do you hate living with me that much? Is that it? You can't stand me. 'Cause I get that. That I get."
She reaches out, tapping my arm, the one holding the check.
"Do whatever you want with this, but Spencer—I won't give up on you. Not now. Not since I found you, like that."
I look at her, and I know my eyes are full of mistrust. "You can't expect me to believe you this time."
She doesn't skip a beat. "Then don't. Believe in yourself, because you know, to me, it looks like you gone too long without. You have a new chance, Spencer. A fighting chance. Don't go back there. Don't put yourself back there."
"Here, I have an extra key in the car." She works the house key out of her key ring, grabbing my hand and curling my fingers around it. "You know the way back. Please, think about it. I'll wait for you."
She looks at me, hard, then grabs my wrist to pull me towards her. As soon as I'm close enough her other hand circles my waist under the thick wool of my jacket. It all happens in a second. Her lips are hot and delicate my own, and the sudden hitch of my breath brings in the subtle scent of her perfume to swim in my head, for long after I stare at her leaving with the sharp click of her heels across the parking lot.
The sun is a smudge of yellow on the horizon when Kent comes out, car keys jangling, and almost walks into me on the steps.
"Stop crying and go home."
"I don't know if that's what I want to do."
He sighs, sinking down to his raised ankles next to me, balancing on his toes.
"Do you love her?"
"I don't know how I could."
"Do you trust her, then?"
"I don't know if I should."
"So you hate her."
"That's a, uh, strong word." I wince, seeing my retreat as the feeble thing it is.
He leans forward, opening me like a book, and shocks me mute. "You never corrected me when I said go home."