In the dead of winter, or the height of summer, the supermarket often proved a welcome reprieve from the elements. Today, the supermarket was too bright, the aisles too narrow; today, life was a long, long road, and the end was nowhere in sight.
Collecting a plastic shopping basket from the entrance, Nia picked the receipt out of the basket in her hand and left it in the first basket at the top of the stack. She let her legs carry her somewhere, feeling the tiredness of her limbs with every step she took but refusing to buy into it.
She'd slept enough that she shouldn't have felt any tiredness at all, but she knew that this was depression, and she wasn't giving in that easily.
She walked through the diary aisle, assailed by the constant hum of the refrigerators, humming their tired old song. She didn't stop or slow – if she listened hard enough she was sure she could hear them ask, You're tired, too, aren't you? – and even so her ears rung with their song long after she had passed them by.
Shaking herself mentally, she stopped in the confectionary aisle, biting at her lip. She wondered if the sugar would lift her up for a while, dump her back on her feet, or if it'd only end in a stomach upset. As a girl, she'd loved nothing more than a sugary treat when she'd been glum; nowadays, the sugar upset her much more than it did comfort or excite her.
Even the thought of food, of something sweet, failed to incite her to raise her hand and reach out for a chocolate bar or health bar. She gripped the shopping basket harder, afraid that it might slip from her grip and clatter to the floor loudly, embarrassing her thoroughly.
Her thoughts shifted, slightly; a spark of life, maybe? She almost dropped the basket right then. Just to feel something!
A voice to her side spoke, startling her and overturning her rash, ridiculous plan. She'd hardly be pleased if the basket broke, she thought, and the supermarket staff would be even less impressed. Hurriedly, she stepped out of the man's way, shuffling to the side and searching the shelf wildly for something she might actually be able to convince herself to eat.
She picked something with almond, honey and yoghurt, placed it in the bottom of her almost empty basket – somewhere she'd stopped to add a box of tissues – and walked away, making her way toward the front of the aisle.
Though she'd been to the supermarket more times than she could count on both of her hands, she couldn't remember where the scourers, sponges and dishwashing detergents might be stocked. Hopelessness made her stop, determination made her turn slowly back toward the flicker of something that had caught her eye moments earlier, the man who'd been looking at the sweets with her.
A slow frown worked its way onto her face. She'd only been intending to ask the man if he knew where she might find what she was looking for, but the universe had handed her something else.
Her mind scrambled to wipe the fog from her eyes. She forcibly pushed the frown from her face before finding her voice. It seemed like ages since she'd last spoken. Her voice sounded foreign to her own ears; she felt a stab of icy fright. "Jarod?"
As if startled, Jarod spun away from the shelf.
For a moment, she thought he might not recognise her; for a moment, she thought she'd scared him. For a moment, she wanted him to run.
The moment was broken by a smile.
He remembered her, remembered her voice. That's good, she thought. Ask how I am. Before I can lie, ask me!
They stopped at a café for coffees; they could chat.
"How are you? How have you been?" Nia asked. She didn't smile as she asked, but she wanted to. She wanted to let him know how good it was to see him again, how light the day had become suddenly.
"I'm here," Jarod replied. "I'm alive, I guess. Nah, I'm good." His smile, she saw, was as much to convince her as it was to convince himself; the world hadn't ended last night.
"Has something happened?" she asked, even as she felt something inside turn over at the thought that it had been something bad, at the thought that she was only pretending to care because then she wouldn't have to think about what had happened with herself. No, she thought fiercely, this is real! I really care!
"I saw my mother," came Jarod's considered answer.
The waitress arrived with their coffees. Jarod nodded and thanked the young woman; Nia watched him do so silently.
She reached across the table for his hand, placing her hand over his. "It gets better," she told him softly. When you were at the very bottom, you could only go up; if you could see it, you'd be right. Something quick and warm beat in her chest, telling her that she was the one; the one who could help Jarod to see that sadness was just our way of letting us know how much we missed happiness, how much we wanted happiness, of letting us how much we had to fight for, even when it seemed there was nothing.
"You'll find her again, Jarod. You'll be together. You'll find each other." She felt her eyes prickle with tears. Look at the way you're lying, she thought. Look at you, friend. A true friend! Fighting tears, she silently rebut, No, it's true!
"I promise you, Jarod, it'll get better. Tomorrow, or a week from now, maybe even a month from now, you'll open your eyes and find that you're awake and there's the sunshine! Goodness is real in real life, and it can happen to you; you can find it inside you and let it be a part of your life.
"I know you're a good person, Jarod. Sometimes you might doubt that yourself, but here I am, telling you that you are – you are a good person!"
She watched a smile reach onto Jarod's face, she watched him smile, really smile. And she was happy!
"I hope so, too, Nia," he said. "I hope I find her. I'm glad I found you again!"
Finally, Nia allowed herself to smile, and it felt… real. It felt good.
They drank their coffees, and when it was time to go, Jarod stepped up to her and put his arms around her in a hug. Of course, it meant that he was leaving her again, but, for that moment, it also meant that he cared, that he trusted her. For that moment, life was good again, the world was bright again, and Jarod was holding her.
She smiled, feeling safe and warm in his arms.
Later, as she watched Jarod walking away from her, she still hadn't stopped smiling. Go on your way, she thought fondly. Go safely, you. You find them, Jarod! Find that happiness! Be happy!
Disclaimer I don't own the Pretender or any of its characters.