So, after some angst over the last chapter and some thinking about the end of this story and a little chat with someone who basically read my mind (in a sense), I realized that my angst was over the fact that this story was actually at the end - and I was trying to drag the story out longer than it needed to go.
With a few minor differences, this is exactly the ending I had envisioned. May you enjoy it. Or... not. Either way, this has be a delight to write and very cathartic for me.
Thanks for the reviews and for taking the time to read this! I appreciate it. :)
/ / /
"The art of living does not consist in preserving and clinging to a particular mode of happiness, but in allowing happiness to change its form without being disappointed by the change; happiness, like a child, must be allowed to grow up". - Charles L. Morgan (22 January 1894 – 6 February 1958)
Leaving behind all that you have held on to, the former misery and all the previous notions. Every image of yourself - a childish smile, a naive belief in ever-after, a broken home, a shattered sense of self, the endless weeping and the never-ending hope you just couldn't kill.
You, in front of that mirror, skin pulled tight over newly formed shapes and eyes that dig in deeper and see those other differences, those other new places within, that part of you that cannot be denied. Oh, but you'll try, you'll try for years to deny them. To deny them, to drive them away, to turn them into the enemy.
You, leaning against a wall, sick to your stomach and dry heaving and crying from the physical pain, from the hollowness, from the lack of anyone to trust - not even yourself, especially not yourself, not who you are now... Against this wall and your arms ache and your mind is clouded and nothing is right, but you don't know how to fix it. You don't know who to run to when you cannot even seek out yourself.
You, sitting in that circle and talking in a whisper, because you aren't sure you can speak at all. You've used up all your hours, haven't you? You've gone too far, right? You are not so easy to save and you are not so sure you can be saved now. But you whisper and you shake and you feel the air enter your lungs and you keep on talking even as your throat threatens to close up.
You whisper and one day you speak and one day you shout.
You are not eight years old anymore, caught up in a photographic life, with a father's truth and a mother's care. You are not the older sister, taking Kyla's hand, pulling her up the stairs when the shouting first begins, when the cracks show themselves.
You are not fourteen years old anymore, fearful of the shadows that creep along your body and the lies you'll have to live and the chance at love you'll have to leave behind. You are not that young girl, drinking until you cannot remember that a boy is touching you and that you'd give anything for it to be softer, sweeter, more like your own hands, more like a girl would.
You are not twenty-one years old anymore, strung out and useless on the floor, surrounded by faces you do not know and names you cannot recall. You are no longer the marks along your flesh, no longer the smoke curling around your mouth, no longer the chipped shot glass in your grip. You aren't that bloodshot nightmare, the one you could never seem to wake up from, that's not you anymore.
But who are you, hmm?
Who are you now, with all that behind you, but somehow still inside of you - gone but not forgotten - who are you now?
/ / /
Ashley opens her eyes.
And further away, there is Kyla, running along the shore and yelping in sudden amusement as Aiden picks her up and spins her around and carries her to the ocean. There is Madison, giggling, and a pair of big sunglasses covering up her pretty eyes. And Spencer stands beside Madison, golden hair fluttering in the breeze off the waves, lips moving in what looks to be happy chatter. And Aiden's laugh carries over the air, booming and broad and wild, trying to escape a soaked Kyla as she chases him down.
He runs to Madison and uses her as a shield, which does not work, and Kyla tackles them. They fall to a heap on the wet sand, grappling playfully with each other and Spencer is backing away, laughing and waving her hands to avoid getting involved.
And Ashley's feet are moving, without thought but not without intent, pressing into the sand with a heel-to-toe motion. And she takes a deep breath as she gets closer, reaching out quick before she can change her mind.
Her hands grab a hold of Spencer's arm and the girl turns around, grinning.
"They're obviously crazy..." Spencer starts off, but the blonde must sense something is about to happen, the way her gaze narrows and one eyebrow quirks upward.
And Ashley smiles, smiles like she really means it, and she gets Spencer's other arm and starts to tug.
Those blue eyes widen and those feet start to dig in and Ashley's smile only grows bigger.
"No, Ashley... no fucking way, you better let... me... go!" Spencer's voice goes from low to loud in seconds and Ashley is pulling and Spencer is pulling back, their activity garnering the attention of the other three on the ground.
"Not gonna happen." Ashley replies with a negative shake of her head, noticing a trio of smirks from over Spencer's shoulder.
And the poor girl didn't have a shot in hell after that.
Ashley finds it hard to run and laugh at the same time, but being caught by Spencer Carlin is not part of her plan. So, difficulty in breathing is a small price to pay as they all scatter from the blonde.
Of course, even irate and drenched, Ashley thinks the girl is pretty damn beautiful.
Pissed off, but beautiful.
Kyla and Madison do the smart thing, flying past Ashley and up onto one of the walkways, sandy footprints carrying them to the SUV and perceived safety. Aiden tries to do a bit of backwards taunting, which ends up with him falling back and onto the ground. He scrambles for a second, doing a version of that crab-walk everyone did as a little kid, hands and feet working at odds with each other. But Spencer has two fists full of sand and flings it at him, triumphant smirk on her lips as he sputters and wipes his face off with a good-humored scowl.
Ashley shouldn't have stopped to watch, though.
And Spencer is off like a bolt of lightning and Ashley is tripping over her own feet as she tries to pick up speed in the dry sand she has found herself in.
But an arm snags her tight around the waist and then the other arm follows suit and down they go. They roll for a second or two and Spencer is able to pin Ashley down.
Strings of wet hair dangle in front of Ashley's gaze and Spencer's face takes up the rest of the available view, out of breath and pleased.
"Thought you could throw me in the ocean and get away with it, eh?" Spencer says, fingers around Ashley's wrists and knees on either side of Ashley's hips.
"Yep." Ashley responds with a faint chuckle and Spencer glares at her, but instead of it being a hard expression, it is kind. It is warm. It is affectionate.
"Well, then... you thought wrong..." Spencer says softly and one of those fingers moves just a little, going from grasping to sliding, caressing the inside of Ashley's wrist.
And Ashley feels her heart beating rapidly in her chest.
And she sees the sunlight slip through Spencer's hair, creating afternoon shadows on both of their faces. Spencer blinks once, eyelashes slowly closing and then fluttering open again.
I could spend my whole life with you looking at me like that and be content.
The thought springs to life and careens around Ashley's body, trembling in her bones and heating up her blood and causing her pupils to dilate, the air to catch along her tongue.
The thought dares to come out, to leave her mouth and become words, to be declared.
It is a moment. Maybe one of many. She hopes it is one of many. Ashley is hopeful, after so many years of feeling hopeless. She has hope for so many many things now.
This is but one. This is only the beginning of what I want.
"Aiden!" Spencer shouts and Ashley is knocked away from her musings, deciding now is the time to struggle. But Spencer is sort of strong and Ashley is only partly away, arms free, but legs still tangled up with Spencer's. That's when Aiden arrives, hands on his hips like a disapproving parent.
"Ashley needs to cool off. Wanna help?"
Both of their faces light up with mirth and evil motives and Ashley does her best, she really does, and she tries to break away from them.
They have her, though. And she fights and she pleads with them both - Spencer's just sticks her tongue out and says something along the lines of 'serves you right', whereas Aiden's grin just widens and they both drag Ashley a bit faster and there is no way to stop it now. They use momentum to make it happen, pulling and pushing and spinning Ashley's body along, until she goes in sideways and the end of a salt-water wave washes over her flailing form.
And she can hear them laughing.
And she can hear herself laughing, too, even as she chokes on some of that water.
The three of them start up all over again, running and chasing and falling down. Madison and Kyla finally turn up from their hiding place, joining back in on the mayhem, until all of them are covered in sand and have been shoved into the sea more than once.
It goes on for hours it seems, contagious feelings of joy that get passed along from each smile to each giggle to each touch from one person to another.
Freedom in their steps and in their voices and in their total abandonment of all that has been, of all that has come before, of all the relationships that had to change and that had to end, of all the used-to-be's and all the once-upon-a-times - they let it all go.
And they run.
And they run faster.
And they run more and more.
The five of them run until the sun dies from the sky.
/ / /
Who are you now?
Every road and every path, every hallway and every sidewalk, every room and every set of stairs, every bar and every party, every kiss and every touch, every tear and every fist into a wall, every hit and every snort and every pill and every pull from the bottle, every dream you never let go of and every wish you never reached for, every call you didn't make and every answer you tried to give, every drop of sweat and every cold you caught, every false friend and every bit of real loneliness, every card tucked away and every birthday missed, every time you looked up and every time you fell down, every time you talked and every time you stayed silent, every hand that holds you back and every hand that pulls you forward, every second of every moment of your existence.
You are where you came from and where you are going, too.
You are Ashley Davies, that's who are you are now.
But certainly nothing less.
/ / /
They drive for another four hours or so, reaching the Keys around two in the morning. And they all eat junk food along the way, bags of Skittles and chips and such.
Madison starts chanting about wanting a hot shower, saying there is sand in uncomfortable places and a wash-off just wouldn't cut it. And while most motels expect you to check-in much early in the day - this is the Keys.
Rules do not apply here.
They find a little place covered in sea-foam green and pale pink, hurricane paintings on the wall and conch shells all over. But it is cheap and it has running water and so they all crash in one room with two beds. There is a round of rock-paper-scissors to see who would end up on the floor, which turns out to be Kyla.
"This is so not fair!" Kyla exclaims for the third time. "Aiden cheated!"
"How did I cheat?" Aiden retorts.
"You just did. Cheater. Besides, you're the only guy, you should do the right thing and sleep on the floor."
"Hey, we all agreed to one game of rock-paper-scissors, Kyla. And you lost, so there."
Madison is pursing her lips in order to not laugh out loud, but she is shooting Ashley an amused look and Ashley is grinning a bit herself. When Spencer comes in, more machine-quality snacks in her hands, she stops short upon seeing the vague stare-off between Aiden and Kyla.
"Okay, what did I miss?" Spencer asks.
"Oh, Kyla is still ranting." Madison answers. Spencer chuckles and dumps the food onto one of the beds.
"Nothing new then." Spencer mumbles, earning a pillow to the head. "Hey!"
"All of you suck." Kyla states, stomping off to the bathroom with that pillow still in her grasp, none of them knowing how she got a hold of it in the first place.
When water of the shower starts up, Madison finally feels safe enough to start laughing.
"Well, there goes all the hot water..." Aiden mutters with a roll of his eyes, snatching a pack of crackers and flopping back the other bed.
"Oh, shebetter noteven think of doing that or I'll flush the toilet right now." Madison states with a chuckle, but none of them doubt that she'd do it - to Kyla or to the rest of them.
Ashley turns her eyes back to the assortment of snacks, trying to decide between a Twix or a Butterfinger, when Spencer's shoulder gently nudges into her own.
"Something tasty has caught your eye?" Spencer's voice is light and slightly teasing. Ashley does not look over at the girl, but the slight smile on her own face is undeniable.
"More than one something actually."
"Oh, well, no wonder you look so serious..."
And it's like she can hear Spencer's grin, can feel how close they are to each other. Ashley's head is leaning towards Spencer even as her gaze stays on the plethora of bad-for-you food.
"This is serious business. Twix or Butterfinger. This decision could make or break the rest of my night." Ashley says quietly, letting her shoulder do the moving this time, bumping into Spencer's. She just doesn't move away. They stay pressed against one another, shoulder to shoulder and arm to arm.
And she hears Spencer take a breath, short and quick, followed by a subtle swallow rolling up and down her throat.
"Then, uh, let me help you out..." And Spencer reaches down, grabbing the Butterfinger.
Ashley grabs the Twix and they finally look at each other and everything with them is a moment now. Candy or beaches or campgrounds or car rides - they are perpetually in a moment with one another, each one building up to something.
Something good. Something real. Something amazing.
"Thanks." Ashley hushes out and Spencer nods quietly.
The door to the bathroom opens, steam pouring out, and Kyla comes out in her pajamas. Madison doesn't wait to ask or see if anyone else wants to go next, she just grabs a towel and darts right in. And when there isn't any angry cursing, they all know that Kyla might have been irrationally ticked off but she knew better than to use up all the hot water.
Aiden is trying to win Kyla over with cracker-bribes. And Kyla is being stubborn, but Ashley can see her sister slowly cracking, trying hard not to grin and laugh.
Then Kyla looks over at her, face flush from the heat of the shower and eyes bright, and Ashley thinks her sister is lovely - vibrant and sweet and so much more rare of a find than anyone could ever imagine.
And she knows Kyla can see it in her stare, can feel all that love that went missing and now is returned. From Kyla to Ashley. From Ashley to Kyla. And they've got something good, too.
Something really good.
/ / /
"Are you sure?"
"I mean really sure, though... you don't have to, okay? I was just being-"
"Uh... yea, something like that..."
Kyla's grin is sheepish, hair tumbling over her face as she looks down at Ashley. And Ashley softly grins in return.
"Ky, it's okay. I've slept on floors before."
Which is true. And Kyla knows it and Ashley knows it, too. Those were other days and nights, though. Days and nights where Ashley was on the floor because she could barely walk and she definitely didn't care if she were on a bed or not.
Those were other floors, though.
That was a different Ashley.
"I know. I just... I don't want you to have to... Not for me, Ash."
But Ashley waves her sister off, smiling the whole time. Because this is so small, so tiny of an effort, such an insignificant way to make up for lost time and give some sliver of comfort. Ashley would sleep on a million floors if it meant her sister would be better off.
"I promise, Ky... it's all good."
"But are you-"
Ashley lays down on her side, away from the bed, tucking one arm underneath her pillow.
"Good night, Kyla."
"Fine, fine... Night, Ash."
The room settles down after that. Madison and Aiden are already long gone from the waking world. Ashley can hear Kyla shifting and breathing heavy before growing quiet. Spencer is the only one she has not heard a sound from in all this time, that body curled up and face buried.
And then there is Ashley, listening to the hum of freon-filled air moving around and to the faint sounds of people who don't plan on sleeping, in the street and at the bars.
Bars that she would once lose herself in. Streets that she would wake up in, either covered in vomit or not remembering how she got there.
Even now, if you asked her, Ashley could probably find the best party - with the best drugs, with the best chances for sex, with the best of everything that is wrong for you.
That's a bit of knowledge I'll never un-learn, I guess.
Ashley blinks and turns over onto her back, eyes adjusting to another level of darkness, back towards the bed and away from the blinds that do not fully block out the light.
But she knows it is Spencer, can catch the hints of blonde hair, and Ashley pushes herself up a bit so that she is resting on her elbows.
"Wanna sit outside for a while?" Spencer asks in a whisper.
And Ashley is nodding yes before the question even fully registers in her brain, pushing the light blanket off of her legs and standing up. Spencer slips out of the bed, looking back for a moment to see if Kyla is disturbed - which she is not.
Then they both move towards the door, Spencer sliding the chain-lock and her hand reaching back to find Ashley, to pull her out of the room and to tug her along to the end of the open-air walkway.
It over-looks one of the roads by the motel, all the cars silent but foot traffic still about, even after three in the morning. There are drunks meandering around and there is way too much in the way of public displays of affection going on, too.
But there they sit, side by side, legs dangling through the metal balusters and one of them will yawn, which makes the other one yawn in response.
Ashley almost wants to ask why they are out here, why are they not sleeping when they are both so obviously tired, but - deep down - she knows the answers to these inquiries.
Ashley knows the answers because they are her answers as well.
And then Spencer leans her head against the bars, turning towards Ashley, and the girl smiles lazily.
"You know what?"
"Uh, no... what?"
"I want to know everything about you."
'Everything' is a lot, though. 'Everything' is... well, it's everything. It's not just the good times, like this one. It's not just new feelings, like these feelings. It'll be the mistakes and the relapses and all the days when nothing works out. It'll be that past. It'll be the present, too.
'Everything' is a whole fucking lot to know about a person.
And, yet, the two of you know all about each other's deep end, those waters where you might drown. Spencer knows Ashley is an addict. Ashley knew of Spencer's secret.
They've mirrored one another during this entire trip, working with crutches and working with honesty, working on how to be themselves in a world they hid from.
'Everything' is a whole lot to know about someone, but we are already on that journey, aren't we?
"...And I want to let you know everything..." Ashley says, her voice barely able to be heard, but Spencer can hear it. She knows that Spencer hears her, loud and clear.
And they move as if synchronized, one of Ashley's hands pressing down hard onto the felt-covered concrete below and the other hand lightly tripping over Spencer's cheek, but carrying onward and into Spencer's hair.
She threads her fingers there, applying the faintest amount of pressure, and Spencer willingly complies. Spencer's head comes forward and tilts to the right and eyes slope and shut and lips part and sweet breath floats into Ashley's mouth right before they finally kiss.
A sober kiss. A truthful kiss. An 'everything' kind of kiss.
The best kiss of my life.
/ / /
That's what you are, in your tiny shoes and with the laces undone and sticky face from an ice-cream cake, caught in mid-laugh by the camera your father never would put down. And your mother pulls you aside after the flash, licking her thumb and wiping it over your chin as you squirm, but she is smiling at you the whole time - even as you finally break away and join your collection of friends on that playground, dirt on your knees and grass stains on your shirt.
You look back, just the once, to make sure that even as you leave and even as you sprint away... They will be there, won't they?
Your mother and father, they will be there, won't they?
And there they are, grinning and telling you to have fun, ready for when you return.
They were everything to you. The makers of all your beliefs, the realm upon which you built all your notions, and watching them recede was like watching the world explode and disappear before your very eyes.
And if love couldn't save them, then how could it save you? And if fighting always leads to ending, then why even start something up with anyone?
If everything could turn to nothing, then what was the point of anything?
And there they are, in your mind and as you remember them, his lips to her brow and an embrace and packages with bows and Sunday dinners and stories as you fall asleep.
There they are, in your mind and as you remember them, shouts that bounce off the walls and glares from across the room, the way her hand connects with his cheek, the way he walks out the door and says it is not about you, never about you.
But how can you believe that? How can you believe a single thing they say from now on?
That's what you you are, awake when you should be sleeping and a perfect kiss still lingering on your lips and the sounds of your sister in slumber.
That's what you are as you get up, eyes bleary but completely open, slipping feet into shoes and putting Kyla's college hoodie on, leaving a little note on your pillow - 'Just down at the beach' - and out the door you go.
A couple of places are up like you are, the smells of coffee mixing with the scent of the sea as you pass establishments, the throwing up of shades and the turning over of signs.
The six o'clock crowd of men still not sober, of women yet to rest. White beards and parrot-shirts, as if they were all the many shades of Hemingway, as you continue on - the cats running in front of you and the rustle of palm fronds above you.
And you can hear the ocean and you walk a bit faster and your hand reflexively grips around this cell-phone in your shorts pocket. You hold it a bit tighter than before. Maybe a part of you is wishing you'd just forget about it and turn around and pretend some more.
What's one more day, right? What's one more week? One more month?
What's another year after all the time that has passed?
But there you are, Ashley Davies, looking out as the sun rises over the water - a kaleidoscope of pink and yellow, spilling out into the deep blue dawn - and every second that has flown by you, every time you wanted to reach out to them and didn't, every time they wanted to find you and couldn't...
Here you are, Ashley, at the first day of the rest of your life. And you can't turn back now. You can't turn back, nor do you want to.
/ / /
She sits down on the sand and pulls the phone out, tracing the pattern of the numbers with her gaze. And with each one she eventually presses, another breath gets lodged in her throat and there is this terrifying heat behind her eyes and the fact that - in California - it is still nighttime does not seem to matter.
She is crying silently, an ancient river down her face, and all that stunted air is now permanently stuck in her body - refusing to move, refusing to expand.
And it rings. And it rings. And it rings.
But when it is finally answered with a voice she has not heard in so long, Ashley chokes out a name with her sob and the breathing begins and the blood flows again and everything will be okay. She knows it. She knows it like nothing else.
Everything will be okay. I'll just take it day by day and I'll be okay. I'll be okay.
A gasp travels along the lines and sinks into Ashley's heart.
"...Ashley, is that you? Is that really you?"
And in that heart, Ashley finally finds home.
/ / / / / / /