AN: Thank you so much for the thoughtful feedback. It's always good motivation to get back into a story and I was finally able to finish this chapter a week or so ago. It's been murder to get it to actually upload to the site, so at least part of the blame should go to website, right? Right.
A word of warning, as always, I don't know when the next chapter's going to be up so read this one with caution.
I hope you've all had a great holiday season and hopefully this has been worth the wait :)
Spencer and Arthur were nestled in a corner booth of a diner, the sky steadily creeping past an indigo blue that they were both using as a timer. So far their conversation had been easy and flowing, both politely avoiding a topic they knew would be discussed soon when the sky was dark.
Spencer sipped the last of her soda through the straw and smiled at the crackle, feeling like a child. It made her think of her mother, all those times Paula had broken her promise to count to three before ripping a band-aid free from her skin as a little girl. Of course, a fine drama queen, each and every one of those times had left Spencer outraged and in agony for all of ten seconds. The potential impending discomfort was already her own doing but it seemed appropriate now, to stop waiting for a later time. She'd waited long enough to have this conversation. Too long. She'd counted to three over and over again.
"Dad, do you ever really look at me?"
"Is this a trick question?" he asked around a bite of pie. Strawberry Surprise.
Spencer didn't like it when her father asked her that. She was always a straightforward kind of girl when she spoke. Her head shook and she looked down to Arthur's plate where one half of a large strawberry was hanging out of the pastry. Perhaps that was the surprise; that the strawberries were honest to God fresh fruit and not the frozen shit that turned to tasteless mush.
She supposed it was a pretty good surprise for her father. He always found joy in the smaller things in life. It was a diner pie, what could be considered smaller?
"Not a trick question. Do you?"
"Spence, you would have wandered into the middle of the road a thousand times as a little one if I never looked at you," Arthur answered.
"But I mean now, when I have more sense than to walk into oncoming traffic."
He smiled, looking to her startlingly blue eyes. This wasn't a trick question, not even a silly one. It was his daughter asking him if he saw her.
"Of course I do."
"Is that something that people —parents just say?" Spencer wondered. "Do you look at me and see me, or do you look at me and see the little girl who apparently had either a sincere death wish or superhero complex?"
"Some parents," Arthur said. "Not me. I see you, Spence. You're my daughter. There's nothing you can hide from me and nothing I ever want you to."
Spencer knew he meant every word; she just needed to hear them. Part of her regretted not telling him about her relationship with Ashley before anyone else but part of her believed that this was the right decision.
Her father was a safety net. He always caught her when she needed him to.
"Does this have anything to do with your fight with Glen?" he asked.
It wasn't exactly a fight with Glen but of course her father didn't know that. Ashley had kept telling her to lower the ranking from a fight to a disagreement. It felt better that way, Spencer agreed. It wasn't as if Glen had raised his voice to her in the few times they'd spoken in the past week, anyway. In fact, he'd barely spoken to her at all unless it was to tell her to back off and give him space or if they were around their parents at the same time.
Her head shook nervously and she reached forward, stealing the strawberry from the pie. She grinned and chewed it over and over again; a brief delay to prepare for the inevitable, of why she had brought her father to a quiet diner in the first place. It was a place she could depend on. It always had customers but was never crowded. She needed faceless people in the background but not so many that it would turn into an audience. What she had to say tonight was for her father's ears only.
"I still don't like pie," Spencer said. "But that was good." Her heart was beginning to thump with sickening force. "Dad, things with Glen are... complicated."
"But the important thing is that it's not a fight. I mean, it looks like a fight and there's not a lot of talking going on right now so we haven't made up, but it's not a fight. I would argue that it's a level 3 disagreement."
"Okay. What's this disagreement about?"
"I think that's the complicated part. It's one thing but then it's a dozen things."
Arthur nodded seriously but a slow smile appeared. "Do you want to explain?"
"I need to apologise first," Spencer said. "I love you. Okay? I love you and I trust you and I believe in you. Not even just as a parent, but as a guy, as a person; I trust you. And I think that's a big part of why I trust and believe in myself. I'm sorry that this conversation has taken so long when I do trust and believe in you. I want you to know that it was never about feeling afraid. It was about feeling safe."
"And now I'm starting to feel nervous."
Spencer held one of his hands. "The only reason my heart is beating out of my chest is because I don't want you to be hurt. Please don't be."
"Don't worry about me, tell me about you."
Spencer's thumb was stroking over the back of his hand and she looked right into his eyes. "You remember that time I asked if Ashley could stay over and you wondered if there was a reason I hadn't asked in a while?"
Arthur nodded, instantly clued in to what this was about. His hand tightened into a secure hold. "Your burp-fest," he said seriously.
Spencer laughed unexpectedly, a pink hue painting her cheeks. "My burp-fest? Uh, no, I believe that was yours."
"Ashley?" Arthur asked patiently. He watched her take a deep breath.
"I love her, Dad. And not like a sister or just as a friend. I'm in love with her, everything she is and who she's going to be. I have been for a really long time. I love knowing her and being with her and making her laugh. I love making plans with her, being serious or stupid. I love her body and her voice, the way she doesn't flinch at a scary movie unless someone's feet are being broken or an animal is killed. I love how she sees things. She's so black and white and I can't stand that on anybody else but I love it on her. She's so sure of what and who she believes in and I know I've always been one of them. I know I've always believed in her the way I believe in you. And this...it's not a joke or a phase. We're sure of ourselves and each other and what we have. It's special and we take it seriously. I want you to know that. And I want to share that with you."
Arthur now grasped Spencer's hand with both of his, raising them to press a kiss to the back of her hand. His eyes were bright when they finally settled on Spencer's, a little more colour to his face. "I love you so much, do you know that?"
Spencer's tears were instant and she nodded.
"Thank you for telling me, honey," he said.
"Did you know?"
Arthur smiled. "For years. Now, stand up, I'd like a hug."
Spencer laughed and stood to hug him tightly. She felt him kiss the top of her head. "I love you."
It was when they were seated again that Arthur turned serious. "This disagreement with Glen, it's about you and Ashley?"
"He didn't take it too good. I mean, he was pretty shocked. I think you could still knock him down with a feather. Unless I was holding it, then maybe he'd set fire to it."
"Spencer, some people just need time. This is just his adjustment period, that's all it is. Glen doesn't hate you and he doesn't hate Ashley. He's shocked and doesn't know how to react. This is just his way of trying to figure things out."
"He doesn't get a free pass to be a jerk just because he's having trouble adjusting to my life," Spencer said.
"But I don't want him to shut me out either. I want him to talk to me so I can help him understand." She ran a hand through her hair. "I don't get why he's so surprised. I couldn't have been more obvious."
Their conversation halted when the waitress refilled Arthur's coffee and smiled at his polite thanks, resuming as soon as they were alone.
"This can't be about you. I know you have the best intentions but you made a decision to be honest with Glen, right? He had no idea; this was out of the blue for him. He needs time. It's important that you give it to him."
"I didn't die, Dad. This isn't the five stages of grief he's soldiering through. He's being weird and that makes me feel weird."
"Give him time," Arthur said again. "Give him everything he needs and then it's his problem, not yours. None of this is your problem, Spence. I'm going to help Glen, okay? There's no room for any more worry here."
"It feels like there's plenty."
"Glen has always been protective over you, Spencer. Ashley too. For a long time he's been prepared to threaten potential suitors for you both in the name of sibling love. Somehow I doubt he was picturing either of you. Some people in this town are closed-minded. I think he's afraid of how it's going to affect you, not giving a second thought to the possibility that it won't. He's your big brother, he gets even a sniff of you getting hurt and his mind goes to the worst possible place. No matter what he's said or how he's said things, I promise you, Glen loves you. And I promise that I'm going to do everything I can to help him process everything, okay?"
It was then that Spencer began to feel a burdened weight fall off her shoulders.
The past week had been a slow one at school. Aside from the odd muttered comment or dirty look, neither girl was subjected to any hate-filled rants like they had expected on some level. It was Ashley who was much more prepared that sort of behaviour, always had been. Spencer was no longer as naive as she had once been but she was like her father in the sense that she saw the best in people. And if she didn't see it right away, then she would keep looking until she found it.
It was the reason why Ashley was puzzled to sit opposite Spencer and watch her pierce her fork into her tuna pasta salad, eyes occasionally blazing a path across the cafeteria where Caitlyn, one of Ramona's so-called friends was sitting.
God, Spencer had a glare on her. The nicest girls always had the best glares, Ashley thought. It looked like Spencer could burn the place to a cinder if she wanted to.
Ashley's phone vibrated on the table and she smiled when she read the message. It was Emily, asking what had happened to Spencer's face and was it Ashley's doing. She was three tables away and Ashley found her easily, shrugging her innocence. Emily widened her eyes and gestured her head.
Spencer brought her fork down roughly, furiously stabbing through the pasta and chewing with only a little less passion.
"Are you mad?" Ashley asked.
"No, I'm furious. Sickened. Outraged. Mad doesn't begin to cover it."
Ashley looked down to what was left of her chilli fries. "I'm sorry. I have gum."
"It's not about your lunch, Ash," Spencer said.
Ashley's chair creaked when she twisted around to see what Spencer saw. She spotted Ramona and rolled her eyes. "Okay, so what'd she say?"
"Nothing original," Spencer said irritably. "Just running her big mouth in class, as usual."
"I thought you said things were cool."
The lines began to converge with the dots. The only reason Spencer would react like this was if it was about her, Ashley knew. Spencer didn't stand up for anyone the way she stood up for Ashley, even herself. There was a bothersome atmosphere all of a sudden and Ashley wanted it gone.
"Ramona can bite me. I don't care what she says."
"Yes you do, and it was Caitlyn. Bitch." Spencer mouthed the last word but it didn't go unnoticed.
"Ignore her. I don't care enough for it to make you so mad that you resort to using the b-word."
"Well, maybe you should."
Ashley sighed. "What'd she say?"
Spencer averted her eyes and swallowed. "I used to think that all of that talk couldn't bother me more. I used to get sick to my stomach to hear idiots who didn't know the first thing about you tell me who you were sleeping with. But now that it's me you're sleeping with, now that we've been together like that, I'm— It's different. It feels different and it makes me mad when you tell me to forget about something that hurts me."
"Don't make this about us," Ashley pleaded gently, her hand covering Spencer's. "I don't want to fight. You've been telling me for weeks that if we don't react to anybody they'll move on and forget about us. You shooting fire from your eyes is as adorable as it is scary but I don't think a Kara Kent impersonation is going to do any good."
"But it is about us. People know we're together now. What they're saying about you, they're saying about me. It's exactly the same."
"You have to let it go. It's the only way people like her are ever going to get bored."
Spencer stared at her, hard enough to make Ashley worry about what was going to come out of her mouth. "Really? Let it go? That's your natural state of mind any time Mr. Foster even looks in my direction?"
Ashley smiled a little. "Okay, since when did some stupid little girl spreading a rumour compare to that freak show?"
"Since you started defending the enemy."
"I'm not defending that troll, I'm just saying—"
"Mr. Foster's a creep, but that doesn't prove he'd really hurt anybody," Spencer said flatly, shrugging her shoulder like her interest in this conversation was low, though everything else screamed the opposite. "Being a creep doesn't mean he's a bad guy, it just means that you don't invite him over for dinner."
"This conversation is heading in a direction I really didn't see coming, so... halt. Let's turn the car around. You're mad because you love me. We'll focus on that."
"We're not in a car."
"Spencer," Ashley dared to smile some. "Can we drop this before it gets ugly? I'm sorry those girls piss you off and I'm sorry there's nothing I can do about it without getting into serious shit with Ertman, but that doesn't mean I don't care if it hurts you, you know that."
"Do I?" Spencer asked. She knew she was being difficult on several levels but this was a situation that had been bothering her greatly for a long time. It was more important than having Ashley mad at her.
"I'm telling you I do."
"Maybe that's the problem. Maybe I don't need you to tell me."
"And what, if I go over there and throw down with her you'll be sold? You know as well as I do that it will make things worse." Ashley looked at Spencer in quiet speculation. "What's the matter with you? You never want me fighting."
Spencer's face softened slightly. That was the last thing she wanted for Ashley to do. "I don't want that, Ash. I don't want you to react because of me. I want you to do it because you want to. I want you to believe in yourself enough to do that just once."
Ashley frowned. "You think I don't?"
"I think you take what people say to heart."
"Oh, that's right; I forgot I fucked all those guys. Thank God I have people like Caitlyn to remind me." Ashley's eyes had darkened. Apparently a nerve had been touched. "Don't tell me what or who I believe in, Spencer."
"Fine, you tell me," Spencer said. "Tell yourself. Then prove it."
A realisation swept over Ashley like a cloud, the absurdity pulling her mouth into a smile. "My dad says that an important skill of being in a relationship is knowing when to walk away from a ridiculous fight. Pretty sure I'm being strangled by that vibe right now."
Spencer's eyes drifted upwards as Ashley rose from her seat. "This isn't stupid. And it's not like it's come out of nowhere. I'm tired of you sitting back and letting people crap all over you. Challenge them. Challenge someone."
"I challenge you that this is a ridiculous conversation," Ashley said, her tone much too light to be natural and Spencer watched her walk away, struggling to keep her face neutral.
It had been a while since they'd had a fight and Spencer's first inclination was to do as she had done with Glen and consider it as a disagreement rather than a fight, but it went deeper than that. With a sigh Spencer pushed herself up and walked away from her half-eaten lunch, following in the same direction Ashley had left, throwing a sharp glare towards Caitlyn on her way past.
Emily watched it happen and directed her own glare to that particular table, though at a different person. She wondered what Ramona had done this time.
She knew from months ago when it was a bad time to bring Ashley up around Spencer, so as soon as she had sat down next to her friend in their only shared lesson of the day, Emily had simply asked Spencer if she was all right and left it alone when she nodded and thanked her.
When it was finally time to go home Emily had seen Ashley waiting outside of the school for Spencer but she couldn't tell what kind of mood Ashley had been in. That had been hours ago. There could have been another fight, this time worse than it looked in the cafeteria. She'd tried to call both girls but neither picked up.
Now that she didn't hate Ashley, Emily abhorred the thought of having to split her time between each of them. She found herself hating Ramona more than that. Ramona ruined everything, was good for nothing. It was time Ashley and Spencer were reminded of that and stop letting her come between them.
Dark grey clouds were scattered about the sky and Emily glanced up to them distastefully, wondering when spring would finally arrive.
"You're Spencer's friend."
The voice seemed to come out of nowhere. For a second Emily wondered if she'd imagined it, but then she turned her head and located the source. She'd been on her way to Spencer's house and didn't even realise she'd made it to her street though the length of the walk wasn't exactly extensive.
It was Mr. Foster.
Emily could count on one hand the times she'd seen him in the past year. Even more unusual was a random conversation, which had never happened even once before. Was he really going to try this? She looked up to him, a searching look crossing over her face as if to say, 'Yes, what of it?'
"You must be a lovely person to have such a wonderful friend," he said.
"I'm a gem."
Mr. Foster smiled. "It appears so."
He was a tall man, taller than her father. Emily's father stood at five-foot nine, a mere three inches taller than her. Mr. Foster was six-foot two, perhaps even three if she had to guess. His hair was beginning to silver around the sides and was combed back neatly. He shaved and trimmed his facial hair the same way. Neat and precise.
Emily stumbled over an appropriate goodbye.
"I have to—"
"Were you passing through, or are you here for Spencer?" Mr. Foster asked. "It may not be my place to say so but she looked like she could use a friend when I saw her this afternoon. Big frown. Lots of pouting."
"She's fine, we're just hanging out."
"Perhaps you should double check, just to make certain," he said.
Emily was unsure why he was pushing it but she didn't like it. "I know my friend, so." She was intending to smile, kind of bitchy like she knew she could absolutely be, but she couldn't bring herself to. Emily eyed him strangely, looking like she was preparing herself to bolt. It was not unfamiliar body language to the older man.
"Yes, well, like I said, this probably isn't my place," Mr. Foster said, "but all the same, it's much nicer to see her wearing a smile."
The one Mr. Foster wore —gentle, to go with his eyes, had a curious effect on Emily. Instead of being comforting it made her skin itch like ants were scuttling all over. "Why do you care?" Emily couldn't prevent herself from asking. It happened often. She didn't mean to say a lot of things she'd said over the past few years. "Some people might find your fixation on Spencer strange. You should stop whatever it is that you're doing before they get the wrong idea."
The calm and pleasant expression Mr. Foster wore didn't seem to falter even once. Emily looked to Spencer's house which was just about in-view from this angle, though she couldn't see inside. She wished now that she'd had the forethought to leave a voicemail or send a text message to either Spencer or Ashley before leaving her house.
"You find me strange?"
"I didn't say that. I said some people might," Emily said.
"But you don't mean that, do you? You know for a fact that they do."
"I was trying to be nice."
"So you do find me strange."
Emily looked to Ashley's house now. There was a car in the driveway and she could see that the lights were on in the living room but the curtains were drawn. "I'm late," Emily said. "My friends are going to wonder where I am."
Mr. Foster pressed his lips together. "Why, you're right here in the street. Anybody could find you."
Emily stepped away and swallowed when he moved with her. "I should go inside. Spencer's a real worry wart when she wants to be." Her voice had wavered slightly and she wanted to slap herself.
"Correct me if I'm wrong Miss Cooper, but you don't know me, do you?"
Emily frowned. "You're..."
"By all means, go ahead. I did ask, after all."
"You're Mr. Foster, the town creep."
He didn't seem upset by that depiction. Aside from a blink there was no physical reaction at all. The early March wind was sharp against Emily's face the way it had been in January and she felt it seep underneath her coat, chilling her skin. It took only a few seconds of silence for the chill to percolate down to her bones. It was like cold water sinking through fabric.
"I should go," she said.
"And where did you hear that?"
"Who taught you that I was the town creep, as you so ingeniously put it?"
His hands were deep in the pockets of his slacks but Emily kept glancing down like they were going to shoot out and grab her. She shrugged. "I don't know."
It was Ashley. Emily had overheard one of Ashley and Spencer's conversations in the classroom. They'd all been in the fourth grade and Emily had been waiting weeks for the perfect thing to talk to Spencer about. All she had to do was listen for any time that Ashley spoke about the redneck vampire until she had enough information that she could carry a conversation with Spencer. It was a few days after that she heard Spencer telling Ashley that he was not a vampire, but every time after that Ashley would call him, amongst other things, a creep. Over the years Emily had heard Ashley refer to Mr. Foster as more than a creep, using words far less ladylike than she'd care to.
"You don't know?" Mr. Foster's mouth twisted into a smile. "'Course you do. Young girls like you got memories like elephants."
"I'm an old soul."
"It was the Davies girl."
Emily shrugged again. "Town chatter."
"Really now? You're certain?"
His eyes lit up. "Isn't that funny? Just a second ago you had no idea."
"You must have triggered a memory."
Mr. Foster stared down at her. "Are you always late, Miss Cooper? Nobody seems to care that you're tardy."
Emily opened her mouth to speak, not knowing what it was that she was going to say to that, but someone beat her to it.
Emily had to turn her head and see with her own two eyes to believe it. Ramona Castro was standing next to her, so close she felt the press of her shoulder against her own, holding steady eye-contact with the man opposite them.
"Sorry to break up the party, but we should get going," Ramona said. "Let's go, Cooper."
There was a clear message in her voice not to argue, but Emily would have never dared to. Not tonight.
It was more than ten minutes later when Emily stopped looking behind every time they turned a corner and another five until they were at the park. Ramona sat on a swing and waited for Emily to sit next to her to pull out a packet of Winston. Aside from their footsteps, the scratch of the lighter sparking was the first sound either of them had made since leaving Mr. Foster. Ramona took a long pull of her cigarette and turned her head away to exhale. She raised her hand several seconds later but her mouth touched the back of Emily's fingers instead of the cigarette.
Emily hadn't ripped it out of Ramona's hand, but taken it carefully, much like the way she was examining it. Emily was going to drop it to the floor and crush it under her foot. It was cancer in a stick. What Emily was going to do and what she actually did first were two very different things.
Ramona was grateful that her lungs were empty of smoke; otherwise she might have choked upon the sight of Emily Cooper raising a cigarette to her lips. Emily didn't cough but she did frown and blow out a steady line of smoke from a tight mouth.
"Bad?" Ramona asked.
"Worse." Emily saw that Ramona was reaching to get her cigarette back and so she dropped it to the floor and crushed it under her foot. "You shouldn't smoke."
"Maybe I'll stop."
Emily smiled. "Doubt it."
Ramona instantly felt awkward with Emily looking at her the way she was, like she didn't want to slap her face off. There was a long beat of silence until she asked, "What?"
Emily turned away, facing ahead. "Nothing, I just... it wasn't so long ago that I was thinking awful things about you, and now I should be thanking you." She looked confused. "Don't quite know why the words won't make it out of my mouth."
"Shock," Ramona said. "Who would've thought we'd ever be here?"
It took a few seconds, almost like she was inebriated and needed those few extra seconds for the light to come on, but then Emily blinked slowly. "God, I know. Maybe I'm dead. Maybe he killed me and I'm dead."
"You do tend to be dead when you're killed."
Ramona sucked her bottom lip behind her teeth for a second. "So is this heaven or hell?"
She smiled. "Are you okay?"
"No, you're being nice. It's weird."
"I didn't say I cared, I'm just asking."
Emily looked thoughtful and then like she was going to correct the girl next to her. In a split second it was decided that now was probably not the time so Emily offered a nod instead. "Need some gum," she said. "But yeah."
"You always look this white at night?"
"I have red hair."
"Yeah, but usually there's some colour to your cheeks."
"How would you know?"
"Because I'm not Stevie Wonder."
"I'm fine. Mr. Foster is just a big creep." Emily sighed, adding a smile on the end. It failed to lighten her mood.
That was putting it mildly, Ramona thought. She didn't want to frighten Emily any more than she'd already been so she settled on a nod. "People talk. Doesn't mean it's always true," she shrugged.
No, it did not. But it didn't mean it was false either.
Emily nodded and was now aware that her hands were trembling something silly. She watched Ramona look down to them. "Look, I'm more afraid to be alone with you than I was with him."
"We should get you home," Ramona said, her voice unrecognisable the way it had been in the classroom months ago when she told Spencer that Raife had cheated on Christine. Soft was different on Ramona, Emily thought. Very different.
They were halfway to Emily's house when Ramona passed over a stick of gum.
It took a long moment for Ashley to process what exactly her mother was telling her. It had been a long day, perhaps she'd misheard. She'd once been told that selective hearing was hereditary. She'd also been told, more than once and by both parents that they each had it. Ashley had considered herself screwed ever since.
Christine swore her daughter did this to her on purpose, just to test how many times she would repeat herself before giving up entirely. Well, not this time. "Peter is retiring. His party is this Friday and we're invited."
"Peter Dalton, aka fossilised Sheriff Pete?" Ashley asked. "I thought he put off his retirement until next year?"
"He changed his mind. As citizens of the United States of America, we are allowed to do that. It's not a crime." According to Paula, Peter had recently had a health scare and no longer believed that having himself as sheriff was in the town's best interest. Christine wasn't sure whether or not to disclose that information to Ashley and ultimately decided against it. "Anyway, now that you know, I thought you'd like to go shopping after school tomorrow. I'm buying. I trust your opinion so you can help me choose something in return."
"I'll go shopping with you, but not for him. I'm not going to his party."
"Your company is not a request, Ashley."
"You can't force me to go."
Oh, Christine loved when her daughter said that. "I think you'll find that I can. Now, you are going and you will thank Peter for his service to our town and community, and wish him well. You will also congratulate him for—"
"Knocking up his wife forty years ago?"
Christine rolled her eyes. "Ashley, please, let's not go there. We are supporting Pete. He's as innocent as you and me. Well, me. You're a terror."
"Hey, I had a good teacher!"
"We have to go," Christine said, looking slightly unsure this time. "Peter has always been wonderful to us, so we shouldn't penalise him for his daughter's behaviour. We'll go and we'll probably see Carol there, but we will be civil. We will be adults."
"Adults who are secretly plotting her death," Ashley added. If she couldn't successfully do that, she supposed she would settle for saying something to Carol that would cut her to the core, ruining her forever. She just didn't know what exactly what that was.
Christine smiled. "Yes, exactly. Please don't make me do that alone. I need you there."
Ashley felt that one in the chest; an intended reaction from her mother, she was sure. However, she could hardly say no. "Can I be civil and glare at the same time?"
"If you think you can manage it."
She wasn't sure if she could do that, so to be on top form she considered asking Spencer for pointers in that area. According to yesterday in the cafeteria she had Ashley beat in that department. Maybe Spencer would be able to tell her that the anger she still felt towards Carol Dalton was perfectly normal. All anybody had to do was mention Carol's name and something snapped inside Ashley. It was like a dam that broke, leaking venomous rage into her body that spread with each beat of her heart.
Things were still strained between her and Spencer. Ashley still resented her for suggesting that she didn't believe in herself and she was still annoyed at herself for being so defensive, an emotion she no doubt shared with Spencer.
"Is Spencer going?"
"They've all been invited, even grandma and grandpa Carlin. But I don't know if Spencer is going."
Well, that was potentially a situation to be rectified immediately. There was no way Ashley was going to trust herself around Carol Dalton without Spencer by her side. She wondered if asking Zach to be Carol's bodyguard would be wholly unnecessary or a smart consideration.
"So, the whole town's going to be there?" Ashley asked. There was a nod from her mother.
"Everyone. I'm sure that once we've been down memory lane and the drinks have been flowing we'll have lots more to talk about. Scandals and secrets always come out at times like these."
"I should have waited to come out to you. This would be such a better story."
"I can forget, if you'd like? You can really set the scene. I used to want to be an actress, you know?"
Ashley smirked. "It would only work if you threw a glass of red over me and screamed at me to move out. Are you ready for that kind of drama, Meryl Streep?"
Christine slapped at Ashley's arm. "Where do you get this from? Honestly."
It was a blessing that the Davies family had no major secrets from one another or apparently Friday would be the day to dread. But even without secrets, Ashley had a twisting feeling in her gut that wouldn't go away.
With Raife home from work, Christine left to get ready for dinner. He was taking her to some restaurant in town and Ashley would have the house to herself. Generally that would be cause for celebration but of course not currently when things were still strained with Spencer.
Ashley would apologise. She'd apologise and graciously accept Spencer's apology so that they could move on. She'd meant to all day, anyway. Nobody appreciated her humour the way Spencer did and she could never stand to go too long without making somebody laugh or smile. It was always better when that person was Spencer.
She'd barely opened the front door when she heard a familiar but unanticipated voice. Ashley walked further outside to see Ramona on Spencer's doorstep.
"Next time, take an eye off your girlfriend and maybe pay some attention to your friends," Ramona said.
"What are you talking about?"
"See? You're so annoyingly selfish that you don't even know why I'm here right now."
Spencer looked impressively confused. She scratched the back of her head. "Am I supposed to know what this is about?"
Ashley had walked up behind Ramona and moved to stand next to Spencer. "Want me to get the Winchester, Spence? Bigfoot's just invaded camp."
Ramona didn't take her eyes off Spencer but she did raise a hand, putting it up in front of Ashley's face. "Take a walk. I came here to talk to Spencer."
"Am I stopping you?"
"Is Emily okay?" Spencer asked.
"No thanks to you." Ramona wasn't sure if she resented Spencer more for her apparent genuine concern for Emily despite what had happened last night, or the fact that she had no idea what went on right under her nose.
"So if Emily's okay, why are you here squealing to us?" Ashley wondered aloud.
"This really has nothing to do with you."
"Emily is my friend, so yeah, I think it does."
"Ash." There was gratitude in Spencer's eyes but also an unspoken request in the infliction to her tone. Back off until we know what this is about.
But Ashley knew what it was about. Nothing. It was Ramona using any excuse to be a bitch and make them feel awful about themselves, that's all. It was all she'd ever done. After the news Ashley had heard just minutes ago, that she would soon have to be in the same room as Carol Dalton and act like a civil human being for her mother's sake, Ashley wasn't in the mood to brush off Ramona's presence there. And now Spencer was siding against her.
Ramona gritted her teeth. It was more than a little inconvenient that Spencer and Ashley lived next door to each other. You could never just get one of them alone without the other butting in. They were a team, always. She knew she had to act quickly, so she stepped closer and pulled on the front of Spencer's top at the same time, tipping her head down to the other girl's ear. "Your neighbour is a—"
The ground rushed towards Ramona.
"Ashley," Spencer said irritably.
Ashley ignored her and looked down to Ramona instead. "Are you serious? You're really gonna come here and start something by yourself?"
Ramona bit back the dull pain in her shoulder and swung her leg out, kicking Ashley off her feet to even the score. Now that they were on the same level she didn't feel so stupid. Unfortunately the way Ashley had fallen meant that she was awkwardly sprawled over Ramona's legs. In pushing Ashley away from her, taking the necessary space she needed to get up from the ground, Ramona was on the receiving end of a blind backhand.
It wasn't coordinated particularly well but it was enough to catch the side of her mouth. She hoped she didn't look as shocked as she felt. Ramona glanced up to Spencer and hoped she didn't look even half as surprised as that. Her face heated with more than a little embarrassment and she pushed hard against Ashley to force her underneath, hitting out in retaliation. It was a slap. It stung her hand but she could have done worse. She'd wanted to do worse.
Ashley was shorter but that didn't seem to matter because they were rolling around equally matched, doing nothing more than scrapping and grabbing each other.
Spencer got close enough to nearly be knocked off her feet and grabbed Ashley's arm, pulling her away. She gripped her shoulder and carefully turned Ashley's face to expose the angry red skin of her cheek.
Ashley's eyes bugged seconds later when Spencer turned to ask Ramona if she was okay, an expression which soon turned into a grimace when she caught sight of Paula at the door. Great.
Paula's first instinct was to look Spencer over for any obvious signs of injury, and then Ashley. Her eyes took on the same look that Ashley's own mother had, the one that could express both sympathy for her obvious pain but be equalled with the same amount of disappointment. Ramona was the last to be looked at but Paula was more surprised to see the small trickle of blood at her mouth.
"Does somebody want to tell me what's going on?" she asked.
Ramona was all too eager. "Fucking Cujo over there. She practically mauled me to death."
"Oh, you were practically mauled to death?" Ashley stretched over Spencer's shoulder, who had turned around to stop her from charging forward. "Chewbacca throws down and somehow I'm the animal?"
"Okay." Paula had heard enough. She gestured towards Ramona. "Come on inside, let me take a look at that cut."
For the second time in the same amount of minutes, Ashley's eyes widened. "Seriously, Mrs. C?"
"Forget it." Ramona gave Spencer the glare. "I'd rather bleed out." She didn't stick around any longer than she had to and she could feel the three of them watch her walk away.
Paula shook her head. "Inside, Ashley."
Ashley charged inside the Carlin house with an exaggerated sigh. This was bullshit and she said as much to Spencer when they were in the kitchen. She was clued in to Spencer's anger with her as soon as their eyes met. They would have only seconds alone, so she spoke quickly.
"You know that wasn't me, right? She started it. I thought she was going to tear your face off with her teeth."
"Thank you for rushing to my defence, but next time—"
"There's a 'but' here?"
"You made her bleed for no reason, Ashley," Spencer said. "You can't do that."
Paula caught the end of that as she entered the kitchen. "At least one of you has some sense."
"You both know what she's like, so why the hell am I about to get the lecture?" The right side of Ashley's face had darkened to an even harsher red. It stung like a bitch and she tried in vain not to hiss in pain when Paula held her face and touched around the abused area.
"Because of this. Seeing you like this hurts me and I'm sure it hurts Spencer. And when I tell your mother—"
"Please don't tell her," Ashley cut in. "She has enough to deal with right now. Sheriff Pete is turning in the badge and gun this week and you know that hag will be there. I don't want her worrying about me."
Spencer felt very out of the loop. She held up her hand. "Wait, Pete is retiring? Really this time? I thought it was next year."
"I thought you knew?" Ashley said.
"I meant to tell you weeks ago. I know it's extremely short notice, but it's this weekend," Paula explained, leaving out the reason for Peter Dalton's spontaneity.
"Weeks? Why did you wait so long?"
"Chris and I weren't sure that it would be fair to ask either of you to go. But this night is going to be about Peter, and he's been such a sweetheart. If that isn't enough, he's your grandfather's friend. It would look rude if at least your father and I didn't go." She looked at Ashley with sympathy. "I know it doesn't seem like it, but this will be good for you."
"You and Dad?" Spencer shrugged. "So I don't have to go? What about Glen?"
"Yes, you do," Ashley insisted. "That's why I was on my way over here. Please go," she said. "I know we're both kinda mad at each other now but I need you there."
She was irked with Ashley but that didn't seem to play a part in Spencer's decision. If she'd had any reservations, the fierce desperation in Ashley's eyes would have knocked them down in a second anyway. "I'll be there."
Paula was grateful for that particular conversation going so smoothly. She didn't know that she had the energy to convince both of her children to attend a party they had no interest in attending. Now it was just Glen to talk to, and she would ask Arthur to handle that.
"You won't be the only person to want Carol to trip and fall, honey," Paula said, hoping she didn't need to tell Ashley that. Paula was civil to Carol because she had to be, not because she wanted to be. Part of her felt like a teenager in the way that she still wanted to slap and publically shame the woman who had been partly responsible for her best friend's heartbreak last year.
"No, but I'm the only one imagining a volcano."
As it turned out, every member of the Carlin's went to the party.
The town hall was packed less than an hour after the party began and many cars lined the street since the parking lot had never been extended since the refurbishment in 1965. It led Arthur and Raife to pat each other on the back over suggesting that they all walk to the hall. It was a chilly night and would no doubt sober them both back up on the way home.
Christine nudged Paula as they walked, gesturing towards a brand new Honda sedan parked up between two older cars. "This is their new car. I told you, didn't I? They have three children and go to Europe twice a year, how can they afford this on top of that on their income?"
"Obviously their parents are chipping in because there is no way a teacher and a secretary are making enough to afford this," Paula said.
"Who?" Ashley demanded. If she knew who was being discussed, she could add her valuable opinion in.
"Nobody, just a woman we used to go to school with." It was a clear brush off.
Spencer was walking beside Ashley, the wheels quickly turning in her head. The only person she could think of in town whose father was a teacher was Mia Sherbinski, a quiet girl in some of her and Ashley's classes. Her mother worked the desk at one of the doctor's surgeries.
"It's Mia's parents," Spencer whispered to Ashley.
"No, Sherbinski, from school."
Glen glanced to his sister. He knew who she was talking about. Craig, one of Mia's older brothers was on the basketball team. Glen had been walking slower so that he didn't have to walk in line with his mother or little sister, hanging back with Arthur and Raife, but he didn't particularly want to be back there either so he increased his pace to pass all of them.
"Cards." He didn't look at either of the girls. "Locker room talk that I wasn't supposed to hear, but Mr. Sherbinski's supposed to be really good at it, hardly ever loses a hand. Big league stuff."
"I wonder if he'll teach me how to play." Ashley looked up to her mother and Paula and spoke loudly. "That's how they afforded the car?"
They both spun around. It was Christine who asked the questions. "What? How?"
Ashley shrugged. "What?" At the sight of her mother's challenging squint, she relented. "If you slip me a glass of wine, I'll tell you." A sigh signalled Ashley's triumph. "Apparently it's cards."
"Cards?" Christine echoed, turning to Paula. "Well then it's clear he has a problem. You don't get a brand new car if you're putting a five dollar bill on the table."
"Scandal number one," Ashley announced. She wondered how many more secrets would be revealed tonight.
The room was large but tables were positioned close together, either to encourage friendly interaction between the attendees or make it easier to eavesdrop on a private conversation. Christine did say that secrets and scandals had a habit of being revealed at events like this. Maybe this was why.
Arthur and Raife had looked at the cars pulling up outside the hall before they went inside and immediately pushed two tables together, leaving a larger gap between theirs and the one next to it. There were still plenty of tables left to choose from but the last thing Arthur wanted was Cindy Hill and her family to sit so close next to them after Cindy had underhandedly beaten Paula at a promotion at the hospital five years ago. There was still bad blood between them.
Ashley was looking around, searching for something. She turned to her father as they took their seats. "Where's the rest of the food?" All that was visible were nibbles, hardly enough to sustain a budgie.
"Give Betty and her friends a chance," Raife said.
Betty was Peter's older sister. She'd been a caterer for most of her life, and at eighty-seven years-old her habits had turned into stone.
"Betty?" Ashley shrugged her jacket off. "So glad I fasted since breakfast. I can't wait for the rest of the quiche and cheese on sticks."
"Be nice. I'd like to see you feed this many people and not have that sour scowl on your face the entire time."
Ashley crossed her legs and looked over to the corner of the room where Arthur had gone to join his family. Paula was giving Peter a hug and Spencer was quick to step in when her mother backed away. Glen and Arthur each offered a handshake and words of thanks. Stood next to them, dolled up to the nines, was Carol.
"I'm on my best behaviour, trust me."
Across the room, Carol smiled at Spencer. "You look beautiful, sweetie. It really means a lot that you came tonight. I'm so glad you could make it."
Spencer turned so that she had her back to Pete. The friendly approachable look she usually seemed to have vanished without warning, replaced now with impressively controlled scorn. "You don't really believe that anybody is here tonight for you, do you?"
"Of course not. Tonight is about my father."
"That's right, and I'd prefer it to be kept that way."
Carol frowned. She'd been under the impression that Spencer was the weak link. It did not bode well for even Spencer to look at her like she was garbage. "I am so sick of shouldering all of the blame. Raife was forgiven, why can't I be? Is it because I'm the woman? Well guess what, we make mistakes too. None of us are perfect."
"I don't care what mistakes you make, just don't make them with Ashley's dad," Spencer said. "The difference between you two is the fact that he's shown how truly sorry he is and has tried to make up for all of that. What have you done besides parade around town like butter wouldn't melt?"
"You listen to me right now, young lady—"
Paula had appeared at Spencer's side, wrapping an arm around her daughter. She kept her voice hushed to not attract any unwanted attention. "No, you listen to me, you piece of trash, the only reason any of us are here tonight is because of your father. That is the only reason. Nobody is interested in what you have to say, and my daughter certainly isn't. If I see you anywhere near her or any other member of my family tonight then we're going to have a big problem, do I make myself clear?"
Raife looked up to see Carol walking away from Paula and Spencer and rubbed Ashley's arm. The coast was as clear as it was ever going to get. "Ashley, I think you should come up there with me. Give Pete a hug. You haven't spoken to him since what happened and I think that's hurt him. He watched you grow up, you know, you can't punish him for the mistakes that his daughter and I made. That's not fair."
"You know what else wasn't fair? You asking me to forgive you," Ashley said. "But I did. Do you know how hard that was for me? So now you'll have to forgive me that I don't feel like going over there to hug an old man who seemed to brush his daughter's affair under the rug like it meant nothing when it was everything to me."
"You don't know that," Raife said. "You can't possibly know that when you haven't even spoken to the guy. He is a good man, Ashley."
"Yeah." Ashley's voice came out flat and disinterested, ending the conversation. She remained alone at the table and watched her father approach Peter with an awkwardness that was to be expected under the circumstances. They skipped over the handshake and their exchange of words was brief but was appreciated on both sides. It was the polite thing to do.
Ramona Castro's idea of a good time was not standing in a function room at the town hall that had smelled the same since ever since she could remember; stale cigarettes and booze from god knows how long ago to accompany the distinct aroma of fust. It was also not spending a night with her mother, but the added punch of it being a Friday didn't help matters either.
Her father would probably show up soon.
Ramona wished she wasn't in a room full of cops because a drink sounded appealing. She'd have to make do with a soft one until she could discreetly ask one of the guys from school for a flask.
She looked around and saw The Carlin's and Davies' at the opposite end of the hall. From what she could tell, Ashley looked pissed. It was difficult not to acknowledge some level of respect for her even turning up at all. She knew how difficult it had been to follow her own mother out of the house knowing that her father and his partner would probably be in attendance.
Ramona pulled at her dress a little. She hadn't seen him in almost eighteen months.
Her mother, Lana, noticed the action with an air of disgust.
"I don't know why you're trying to fix it, look at the state of you. You're beyond that, baby."
Ramona pitied her with a look. "And it looks like you're already beyond sobriety. You might want to tone it down in front of the town. Can't have them thinking ill of the sad divorcee."
"You look like a whore."
"You still look like a whore." Lana watched her daughter make the same expression her ex-husband made when they were fighting and he was doing his utmost to remain unaffected. Ramona failed, as she often did. A gifted actress she was apparently not. It made her sick. "It's no wonder your father left."
"Get a grip mother, we're in public," Ramona said. She'd had enough and reached for her mother's glass, grazing their fingers in the process.
Lana tensed, her shoulders drawn up tightly as she pulled away. "Don't touch me. Don't you lay one finger on me."
"Mom, please, not here." It was impossible but it felt like all eyes and ears were on them. Ramona couldn't help feeling embarrassed.
"You make me sick. Looking at you makes me feel sick, Ramona. You're not like your sisters, you're exactly like him and I hate that. Do you understand? I hate it, can't stand it, and for you to be touching me—"
"I didn't ask to be. I didn't ask for any of this either."
Lana thought of Christine Davies who had arrived with her family —husband included— and felt another pang of jealousy stab through her. "Oh, please, with your behaviour at school, and your attitude everywhere else? We're lucky your father stayed as long as he did."
"Maybe it was because of you," Ramona accused.
"No, it was you, always getting into trouble, always wanting his attention when he was busy. Why would anyone stick around for you?"
"I don't know mom, but as this is a special occasion and you could almost pass as lucid, let me ask you a question. Why would daddy rather fuck a woman who looks like an emu than stick it in you? Is it because he finally stopped loving a mean control freak or was it because he realised he never loved you to begin with?"
The strike to Ramona's face was sharp.
People saw. It would be discussed at almost every table before the night's end.
Lana didn't feel anything until she saw the betrayed eyes of her daughter, and then she felt like she'd been punched in the stomach. The shame should have burned her skin off. She gasped. "Ramona..."
Ramona wrenched up her purse from the table they were standing in front of and left in a storm, leaving her mother to rush after her. She didn't care; she just had to get out of there as quickly as possible. Somebody bumped into her, or maybe they bumped into each other but she wasn't in the mood to shoulder any more responsibility for pain, so she spun around with a glare.
It was Spencer.
"Are you blind?" she screamed.
"Get in my way again and you will be."
Spencer watched Ramona stalk off with her mother close behind and laughed. God, what was it with everybody being tense? Maybe it was something in the water. Even the two women who had been in the restroom with her seemed tense, talking about something work-related that Spencer didn't understand.
After she had been steered away from Carol Dalton, Spencer had been pulled into a conversation with a group of people from school. It was only ten minutes later when she found Ashley again but it might as well have been an hour because she seemed to be struggling to keep a lid on things. A pitcher of water was on their table. But she knew that Ashley had a good reason to be tense. She just didn't know what had made it worse and Ashley hadn't been forthcoming in her explanation. At least she hadn't been so angry that the supportive rub to her back wasn't shrugged off.
Spencer found her by the punch bowl this time.
"Is it spiked yet?"
"No," Ashley grouched.
"Give it time."
She turned around and leaned against the table, watching people filtering in. The hall was still only half full. She felt Spencer looking at her. "Bobby says hi."
Spencer smiled. "He's here?"
"Oh, my God. We hardly see him at school... did you ask how he's doing?"
"It was kind of awkward, Spencer. Even if you were like twelve when you were together..."
That made Spencer smile again. She rolled her eyes. "We were not twelve."
"Whatever, he's fine, says he's all about college plans right now."
"Isn't it?" Ashley's voice was dripping in sarcasm. "He's also eight feet tall. If you stand next to him tonight people are going to want to take pictures."
"Have you seen Pete? As long as we've shown our faces, I don't see why we can't just leave," Spencer said. "Let me get my jacket and we can get a coffee and take a walk."
"I don't want to go yet."
"Why not?" Spencer grasped one of Ashley's hands and looked hopeful. "It'll make you feel better."
"I might see one of the guys that people say I slept with. Maybe seeing their faces will bring back all the memories."
"I didn't say I believed any of that crap!" Spencer hissed. "All I said —all I meant— was that you act like nothing can touch you but I know it does. And you never say anything to the people who trash you and I just don't understand why when you've always been on at me to do the same when it's me it's happening to. I said it because I love you."
Ashley lifted her head higher. "You're distracting me. I might miss someone."
Spencer looked as irritated as Ashley now, moving next to her to lean against the table and watch people filtering in. "You're being a freak."
They watched the Sherbinski family arrive and knew Paula and Christine would be over at their table at some point during the evening, never directly asking about their financial situation but doing their best to steer the conversation in that direction anyway.
The man behind them made Ashley's face twist.
"On second thought, maybe the punch was spiked."
Ashley inclined her head forward and Spencer leaned closer to her to see around a group of people standing talking. She tried not to wince when she saw Mr. Foster. She didn't want Ashley to get herself worked up over him on the best of days, never mind a time when Ashley's fuse was at an all-time low.
"Pete was his sheriff too."
"He has no right being here."
"Well, if he does or he doesn't, it's not our business so why don't we ignore him? Or better yet, leave."
"If you want to go, go. I'm not stopping you."
"I want to leave with you, Ash," Spencer said. "Or I want to stay with you, either one as long as you snap out of it. I know tonight sucks but you've won. You see that, right? You see how coming here united, as a family, is the biggest slap in the face to her. You're stronger now. Don't paint her the wrong picture."
It was twisting Ashley up knowing that Spencer had spoken to Carol. She was the most forgiving person that she knew but there was no way she could handle Spencer forgiving that woman, talking to her like nothing had happened.
"What were you talking to her about?" she asked quietly.
"Ashley, I wasn't nice to her if that's what you're worried about. I was kind of a...bitch."
"This place is making me crazy," Ashley admitted, running a hand through her hair. "I can't get away from her. I feel like she's everywhere, and everyone is staring at me."
"Because you look amazing tonight."
"No, don't be all sweet to me when I'm being like this. It makes me feel worse and—"
"Okay," Spencer shrugged. "Silent treatment starting in three, two, one..."
Ashley abruptly turned to look at her. "No, I hate silent treatment. Just call me a stupid bitch."
"Please. It'll make me feel better."
"You are so weird."
Ashley was hurtling towards a smile when she caught sight of Mr. Foster at the end of the long table they were leaning against, guarding the punch that (unfortunately) had yet to be spiked. She was sent off-course to a glare. Why had he gone straight over there if not to annoy the shit out of her? It was clearly a ploy in her opinion. "Look at him," she seethed. "God, why is he here? Nobody likes him."
Spencer sighed. They'd been so close. "How is that weird? Ooh, he's eating cubes of cheese off a toothpick. Scary."
"Uh, so he has a weapon?"
"For the grapes?"
"And you call me dramatic?"
Ashley clenched and released her hands against the edge of the table. "I'm gonna kill him."
"I can't, he's baiting me. The only reason he's here is to piss me off."
Spencer's hand covered Ashley's and she rubbed the skin. "Mr. Foster is not going to make a scene in a room full of cops, Ashley. God. All he's done is show up. I don't want him here either but let's not aim the hatchet at his head just yet."
"I swear to God, if you keep taking anyone's side but mine..."
"I'm here tonight because you asked me to be. And if you hadn't have asked, I'd still be here because I know you need me, so don't stand there and say that, especially if you don't mean it. There are no sides to me other than yours, even when I think you're being an idiot."
"It didn't look that way when Ramona came over the other day."
"Because you can't just sock someone in the face when you're stressed about your current situation."
"Why not, Spencer? It's Ramona."
"I know, but... look, you're better than that. You don't have to lash out. And I know part of it was because you thought she was going all Night of the Living Dead on me, and I'm still grateful to have skin on my face." She tried to catch Ashley's eyes. "Really."
Ashley grunted and then added, "You'd look hideous without it."
"You'd still kiss me."
"Only on Halloween."
Spencer looked behind Ashley and twisted her hand underneath to hold it properly. "I'm declaring this funk over, at least for five minutes. Come dance with me."
Ashley let Spencer pull her along. "I don't really feel like busting a move."
"Shuffle your feel awkwardly, I don't care. You won't embarrass me."
The voice came from behind and Spencer squeezed Ashley's hand in a silent plea, continuing towards the stage where several couples and some girls from school were dancing. She was just going to ignore it. "God, this song could have been played in the Mesozoic era."
If there was a God, he was certainly testing Ashley tonight. She supposed there had to be because by his grace, she was able to keep her mouth shut.
She squeezed Ashley's hand again. "Did you see what happened with Ramona and her mom? When I was on my way to find you, I wasn't looking where I was going and I bumped into her. She freaked out. Her mom was chasing after her like they'd been fighting though. Did you see anything?"
"If it did, I'm sure we'll hear about it."
"Spencer." The voice was louder this time, no way avoidable.
Ashley stopped walking and whirled around. Mr. Foster was behind them. "Do you know how to take a hint?"
"I was just stopping to say hello," he said.
"Hello." Spencer made an effort to be polite. It was the best she could manage when there was a time-bomb next to her. She tugged on her girlfriend's hand. "That dance?"
"Goodbye," Ashley added, staring up at him.
"How's the punch, Spencer?"
"I don't know," she shrugged. "I didn't have any. Ash, come on."
"It's over there," Ashley said helpfully. "Why don't you get a cup and choke on it?"
Spencer skipped right over the verbal request and pulled Ashley away.
In the end, Mr. Foster didn't end up going anywhere near the punch bowl. He walked across the hall and endured many stares and whispers as he passed. He always found it funny that none of them actually opened their mouths to say anything to his face. Yes, that was always a side-tickler.
He ended up at the bar sipping a scotch. The ice swirled and rattled inside his glass as he tipped it upright and placed it back on the bar. Someone stood beside him. All he saw at first as a white sleeve, and then he glanced upward.
Raife smiled politely prior to ordering two bottles of beer and two glasses of red wine from a female bartender. She left to get his order and that left the two men alone.
"I thought I told you to stay away from my girls," Raife said.
"From my understanding, you're only father to one of them."
"Make no mistake, Spencer is still my girl. I don't want you near her." When his order was complete, Raife handed the money over and waited patiently for his change. He slid it into his pocket and then picked up his drinks. "Let's not have this conversation again."
After their run-in with the bane of Ashley's existence (her own words), she didn't much feel like dancing so Spencer suggested some fresh air being good for them. She'd been right, of course. The crisp air had a sobering effect on Ashley even if she was still furious that she had to spend an entire night around two people she couldn't stand.
When they saw Mr. Foster leave the building, Ashley's little smirk was victorious.
She absolutely felt like dancing now.
They practically collapsed on their seats six songs later. Ashley called dibs on the entire pitcher of water after pouring Spencer half a glass —and apologising about her need being greater because being a bitch was thirsty work. Spencer had shaken her head and leaned over her father to reach or the pitcher on her family's table instead.
There hadn't been a single time Spencer had looked at the main entrance in the past five minutes and not seen people arriving, waiting to greet Pete before taking their seats. Lydia had walked past her table and smiled, uttering a simple greeting as she passed, and Spencer had been amused to see a glint of jealousy in Ashley's eyes from the time Ashley had worked herself up enough to imagine Lydia whispering intimately to her during a movie. Spencer felt pretty good about herself.
It lasted long enough to see a dark-haired girl saunter over to their table and fix her eyes upon Ashley.
"Hey, Ash," the girl smiled.
Ashley's mouth curled unpleasantly without much thought "Hey, Megan," she sighed. They hadn't seen or spoken to each other since Spencer had caught Megan kissing her outside her house. Spencer looked cute when she was jealous, as was evident by the long face she was wearing, looking anywhere but there.
"Been a while," Megan said, looking considerably more hopeful than her opening words. "How've you been?"
"Not long enough."
Megan directed a scowl towards Spencer and lifted her head in the air, walking away with what little pride she had left.
A slow smile was working its way onto Spencer's face and only widened when she saw Emily standing in line next to her father, flailing an arm in the air.
Glen looked unimpressed at the way Emily's voice had travelled so well from across the hall. "Why are you still friends with a banshee?"
"Shut up, Glen," Spencer said, waving her friend over.
Emily hobbled over like one leg was considerably shorter than the other. "Hi, guys," she said, smiling politely at Ashley and Spencer's parents. "You look great."
"You look beautiful."
Ashley's eyes bugged when she saw her. Apparently Emily had a figure when a dress was painted on. She whistled and laughed at Emily's roll of the eyes. "Wow. You look...different." Ashley leaned sideways to see around the table. "But what's wrong with your leg?"
"Oh, it's my stupid shoes. I got them on sale and the heel snapped on the way from the car."
"That's what you get for being cheap," Glen said.
"Glen," Arthur warned while something caught Emily's eye across the hall.
"And sitting over here while your girlfriend sits across the hall with another guy, that's what you get for being a jerk."
Actually, that was Glen's reward. Brooke hadn't been able to deal with her boyfriend's sister being gay and did not hesitate to insult both her and Ashley at the drop of the hat ever since she'd found out. Glen had called it off last week.
"Must be," he said.
Spencer looked apologetic and her voice was soft. "I didn't know you broke up."
"Why would you?"
Emily felt the tension and was uncomfortable. She spoke to Ashley. "Find me later?"
"Might be sooner than that," Ashley muttered.
"I guess I wouldn't," Spencer shrugged. "But I'm sorry, Glen. I know how much you liked her."
"Maybe you can ask her out when you and Ashley break up. She's a bitch with a big mouth. That's your type, isn't it?" He shot an icy look towards Ashley as he got up from his chair and headed over to the corner of the hall where most of his friends were held up.
Spencer caught the beginning of Paula's apology to Ashley and Christine before she was out of her seat, following after Glen in quick strides. Her hand reached out for his arm when hers was taken and she was pulled away, led in another direction.
Ashley led them outside of the main room, walking down the hallway for some privacy.
"What are you doing? I have a brother to slap."
"Stopping you from making a scene that you'll only regret," Ashley said.
"Did you hear what he said?"
"Yeah. I don't know why you look so mad; I am a bitch, and I do have a big mouth. It's this hole in my face that gets me into so much trouble, remember? And is also why I'm apologising for earlier. I'm sorry I was a brat."
It had always been a little confusing for Spencer to be peeved at some of Ashley's behaviour and yet still feel the need to shield her from Glen's —or anyone else's— equally as big mouth. "I don't want him talking about you like that."
"So tell him. Say, 'hey, you, don't talk about my girlfriend like that. She's awesome and hot and so thoughtful sometimes I could die, and she won't think about going easy on you the next time you're playing videogames, so keep your cake hole shut.'"
"I can imagine his response."
Ashley smiled when Spencer's shoulders relaxed. "Isn't it fun? I love that game."
"Look, Ash, I meant it when I said the only reason I said what I did in the cafeteria and at my house was because I love you. I know you're still mad at me for even suggesting it but I think it needed saying, so I'm okay with that. But I am sorry if it hurt you. And I know we still need to talk —this so isn't the place, but we're in this together tonight. Foster's gone, and Carol's just a cockroach. Mom already stepped on her when she tried to speak to me earlier."
"It was so cool. My mom was like ice, it was amazing."
"Tell me she cursed her out."
"She called her trash."
It figured. Paula Carlin was a lady, after all. Ashley was still grateful for her support. There would have to be a tight hug before the end of the night. She leaned in to give Spencer a kiss and then they made their way back. Arthur was gone, probably talking to Glen, and Christine was sat talking at the Sherbinski table.
Ashley and Spencer's reappearance halted Paula and Raife's conversation.
Ashley's hand was on Paula's shoulder as she walked around her to get to a seat. "Heard a thank you is in order."
Paula's confusion didn't last very long. She smiled. "That's not necessary, Ashley."
"Sure it is. Should we hug it out, or do you wanna go high?"
Paula lifted her hand in the air to slap against Ashley's. She also wanted a hug, because it wasn't very often that Ashley was physically affectionate and Paula cherished every time she was.
When Ashley and Paula were occupied, Raife put his arm around the back of Spencer's seat. "Everything okay?"
"I'm a little bored," Spencer admitted with a smile, "but everything is good." The night was always going to be a yawn-fest. It was a retirement party.
"What did Foster want?"
"I don't know. Nothing. He said hi..."
Spencer nodded. "Pretty much, before Ashley told him to choke on the punch."
Raife smiled. That was his girl.
Emily felt uncomfortable in her dress.
She didn't dress up often and she wondered why she'd even brought a new dress anyway. There were plenty in her closet that she could have worn. But it was nice to be complimented, she conceded. And who would have ever thought Ashley Davies would sincerely compliment her?
There weren't many people there from school that she, Spencer or Ashley knew yet but hopefully Angela and Maria would hurry up and get there soon. Or any of the people that they knew and spoke to casually. They were always a life-saver at times like these.
Her father put his hand on her back. "I'm going to the bar, do you want something to drink?"
"I'll just get some punch," Emily said. "Hopefully nobody's spiked it yet."
He headed off towards the bar and so she did another sweep of the hall to see who was sitting where. There were three little old ladies sipping sherry in the corner that she could have sworn died at least two to three years ago. How surprising. Then again, the elderly always soldiered on, didn't they? Always more resilient than they were given credit for.
She turned to sit down and was startled to see her mother standing behind her.
Emily had thought about this moment many times before but still remained unprepared and blindsided. She was forced into a situation where she was the deer in the headlights, without even her father there to shield her.
"Hi, sweetie," her mother greeted cautiously. "You look so grown up." She watched Emily's eyes be drawn to where her arm was linked with her partner's. "You... you remember Nigel."
Nigel extended his hand. "It's good to see you, Emily."
Emily turned to leave but her mother stepped forward and touched her arm. "Emily, wait. It really is good to see you. I've missed you so much."
"Well, if you couldn't tell from the way I haven't replied to any of your letters or e-mails, I haven't missed you, Valerie, so if there's a point to this then you should get to it before dad sees you." She looked up to Nigel. "You can stay. I can watch my dad can punch your lights out."
Valerie swallowed that comment with difficulty. "If you'd like to come over to our table later... when you've had time to—"
"No. If you have something to say, say it now."
"I wanted you to know that Nigel and I... we're engaged. We wanted you to hear it from us rather than anywhere else."
It was the strangest thing, hearing one of your parents announce an engagement to someone other than each other. Emily stared back at them blankly as it sank in. Her eyes were the only part of her face that indicated how angry she felt. She looked to Nigel.
"You have my condolences," she said, not meaning it at all but saying it anyway. Emily didn't wait around to hear anything else her mother had to say and made a beeline for the exit.
She needed some air.
It didn't matter how ridiculous she looked storming away with one leg shorter than the other, thanks to her snapped heel. The main thing was getting outside. It was almost like she'd been holding her breath for the entire conversation and as soon as the first blast of fresh air hit her face she could finally breathe.
And when Emily could breathe, she could feel the pain as prominent as the betrayal.
It felt worse than hearing her mother's broken apology the day she'd come clean to her, because now there was no chance in hell of things ever going back to how they'd once been. She hadn't talked to her mother much since that day. Emily avoided her as often as she could because she'd betrayed her, broken apart their family, and she could just as easily do it again if given the right amount of power. There was no way Emily was giving her that. Not ever.
And there was no way she was going to spend one more minute walking like she had a wooden leg. She hobbled over to the closest bench and sat down heavily, slipping one of her heels off. The ground was cold underneath her foot so she rested it on top of her other foot. Her shoe was repeatedly and violently slammed against the ground.
"What're you doing?"
Emily had no need to glance upward.
Ramona had asked one question but her tone asked another, wondering if Emily had lost her mind.
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
"Trying to wake the ants, or to make yourself look stupid. I'm not sure which one you were aiming to achieve first but congratulations on both, since I'm pretty sure I just saw an army of ants scuttle away from you like you were a can of Raid."
Emily continued to thrash her shoe against the floor. "Like I care what you think."
"Seriously, what are you doing?"
"I'm trying to break it!" she answered impatiently, annoyed with its durability. "You'd think it'd snap like a piece of spaghetti like the other one did, but no, things can't be that simple. Emily can't look nice for more than five minutes at a time."
Ramona went to sit beside her on the bench and held her hand out for the shoe. It wasn't handed over. "Give it."
"What, am I going to steal one shoe? Give it to me." Ramona groaned when Emily refused, and took off one of her shoes. She extended it. "You're so stupid. Swap."
Emily reluctantly swapped shoes and watched Ramona lean down and put force on the heel at an odd angle, trying to snap the heel for her. It was a weird sight to see and she came to the conclusion that the reason her eyes moved from Ramona's hands to look at her over from head to toe practically, was because it wasn't every day that this sort of thing happened to her.
Emily wondered why Ashley called Ramona any variation of Chewbacca or Bigfoot because it was the most absurd accusation she'd ever heard in her life. Ramona's hair was long and thick but it hung loose and glossy, curled lightly around the bottom as it fell around her face, and the purple dress she wore clung to her body in a way that was still shy of being tight. Emily envied her figure so much.
Ramona moved her foot and used her leg as an added force. Something snapped several attempts later.
"Was that your shoe, or mine?"
Her mouth twisted into a reluctant smile but only for a second. She handed Emily her shoe back, sans the heel, and put her own back on. "Don't bother thanking me."
"Wasn't going to."
"It's still going to be weird to walk in those."
"Yeah," Emily sighed, not caring. Anything would be better than how it felt before. "So why are you here tonight? I thought the cool kids avoided this sort of thing?" Her choice of words was not pleasing.
"Don't call me that."
"Are you always like this with people who help you?"
"Only with people who attack my friends," Emily said. "I didn't think you'd have the guts to show up here after that. Is that why you're hiding outside?"
"No," Ramona replied with a small shake of her head. "I just felt like some air." When Emily made a small sound, she asked, "What?"
"I figured you'd be used to not being able to breathe, that's all. Aren't you from the east wing of Hell?"
"South." Emily just gave her a dirty look and Ramona gave up trying to figure out why. "Did someone piss in your cereal this morning, because it wasn't me, I swear."
"You have to ask?"
Emily couldn't stand that. Her mother acted like that all the time. She didn't know how it was possible for someone to hurt another and then act like they had no idea what they'd been doing. Even if people were stupid, nobody she knew was dumb enough not to know how their words and actions could tear a person apart inside.
The news that her mother was getting married again had torn through her.
"I thought I'd made a mistake. I thought I owed you an apology as well as thanks. Then I hear from Ashley and it turns out to be the biggest joke I've ever heard."
"Yeah, it is."
Ramona frowned. "So, that's it? That's why you've been giving me evil's, because you think I went to your friend's house looking for a fight?"
Emily shrugged. "I think you've been quiet lately, probably waiting for an excuse to pounce."
"I hate to discredit your hypothesis Cooper, but if I wanted a few bruises to go along with a sore body my first thought would not be the Siamese twins."
"They're not even related. Besides, it's conjoined, not Siamese."
"Look, Ashley and Spencer being together the way that they are... it was such a shock. I almost died when she told me. But Spencer is one of my best friends, and Ashley, well, she's not as terrible as I used to think. So when I hear that, one, you've been talking about my friends again, and two, that you used one of them as a punching bag, I get upset. It's human nature, not that you'd know anything about that. You don't choose who you fall in love with, okay. That's the point. And if you and your stupid hoard of minions find that something to ridicule then I feel even more sorry for you than I already do."
"It wasn't," Ramona said after a minute.
"Shocking. I always knew."
"Something in my gut?"
Emily shook her head. "I know you hate them as much as they hate you, but at least they don't always find ways to attack you. Lay off them."
"You're out of order, ginger snap."
"Don't call me that and no I'm not."
Ramona frowned. "What do you keep talking about? I haven't said anything about Ashley or Spencer."
"You don't have to deny it. I know you'd love the credit. But you should know that all you're doing when you make fun of them is make people hate you more." Ramona was looking at her strangely. "What, is that a shock? You think just because you're one of the most popular girls in school that people don't hate you? In this town it pretty much means the opposite even though they're too afraid to say it."
Ramona breathed out a laugh. "Lucky for me you're fearless." She got to her feet. If she'd ever deluded herself into thinking that they could have more than one civil conversation, the spell had been broken. "While you're stranded up there on your high horse, do me a favour and make a list of all the times you've seen or heard me make fun of your friends over their not-so-shocking announcement. When you're through with that, make a list of the times I ever brought up Ashley's dad getting his leg overwith that Magda wannabe."
Emily leaned forward, the tips of two fingers touching to her chest. "I'm the bad guy? That's rich."
"No," Ramona said, "you're just an idiot. But maybe you're right, I don't know. I haven't been feeling myself lately, no doubt due to some sort of withdrawal from not making Spencer and Ashley miserable. I'm sure I'll be feeling like a new person come Monday morning at school. I'll make sure Spencer has the most memorable day to date."
Emily's glare was something fierce. "You're a bitch," she spat out venomously. "You're a loser —no, you're the loser. You're a coward and a sheep, and I bet underneath all of that you're the saddest, loneliest girl in this town."
It was said before she could stop herself.
The words were registering all over Ramona's face and there was no possible way Emily could look away from the resolve beginning to crumble or the tears making her green eyes shine. Emily's face fell, and when Ramona looked at her again, wounded, she jumped to her feet. It didn't make her feel any taller.
She reached out to catch Ramona's wrist a she turned away. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that."
It was hardly a surprise that Ramona left anyway.
An important announcement had been made.
As soon as she heard it —over Spencer telling her that Mr. Purdy had just arrived with his wife, Ashley stopped mid-laugh. She stared at her with wide eyes. "Yes!" she exclaimed, and then joined their hands, taking off to the food tables.
The biggest surprise had been a slight variation in Betty's usual menu. Ashley figured it was the special occasion but didn't dwell on the why for long when she could focus on the how. How much could she eat in one go?
She'd had to double her paper plate up and hold an open hand underneath as she piled the food on.
Spencer's was getting full too. She looked to a woman next to her and saw her plate only half full. Fastest way to feel like a pig. She transferred some of her dinner over to Ashley's plate. "Can you look after these for me?" she asked.
Ashley nodded even as her plates were bending further against her hand. She hadn't heard what Spencer said because she'd just spotted what looked suspiciously like a spiced layer cake with pecan frosting. It was Margaret's signature cake from the bakery.
The night was looking up.
When it became a chore to keep the food on the plate each time she made a move, Ashley granted it time to put that plate down at her table and begin with another. She walked with her free hand held in front of her plate like a shield.
"Ash, do you have room for one of these chicken wings?"
As if she had any dignity left anyway.
Ashley twisted around and opened her mouth, letting Spencer shove it into her mouth to be clamped by her teeth.
They made it to their table and Spencer took her chicken wing back gratefully.
"Did you see that cake?" Ashley asked, followed by a groan. "I can't wait."
Christine spotted the mountain of food on her daughter's plate. "Jesus Christ, Ashley."
Spencer laughed. "She's going back for more."
"Only when she finishes that plate first."
Ashley considered it as sort of a challenge; one she knew would be passed. It had been a long day and she was starving. She was left alone at the table with Spencer while their parents went to fill their own plates and her teeth had just sunk into a finger sandwich when Emily walked up to the table looking anxious and contrite.
Spencer noticed first. "Are you okay?"
Something about her tone made Spencer go from looking concerned to sympathetic. "Is your mom here?"
"No. Well, yeah, but that's not why I feel like this —even though she did corner me and tell me about her engagement, leading me to storm out and act like a big bitch."
"Oh, my God. Em, I'm so sorry."
Even Ashley felt sorry for her. "That sucks. Do you want some chicken?"
"No." Emily looked between them both. "I went outside and I was mad. I was trying to fix my shoe. Ramona was there." Ashley made a disgusted sound and Emily was eager to stop her from saying anything. "No, but she didn't say anything to me. Nothing bad. But we ended up in a fight anyway. I was a bitch, and—"
Ashley's mocking didn't even register. Emily continued. "Spencer, either the wind was blowing into her eyes or I made her cry."
"Ramona doesn't even have tear ducts." Except for that one time when they were children but that didn't exactly count. Kids were stupid. They cried at anything.
Spencer shot Ashley a silencing look.
Emily sagged in the seat. "Ashley, I don't suppose you'd do me a favour now that we're friends?"
"After my dinner."
"Can't it wait? She looked really upset. Can you just find her and make sure she's not alone?"
Ashley looked amused. "Willingly leave all of this to go find a girl I can't stand?"
"Please, Ash," Spencer added. She didn't know what had happened but if Emily was this upset, it was important to her.
"If you go now, you have more chance of finding her. Maybe you can both apologise about the other day, too? It can be a fresh start on both sides."
"And then the pigs will fly."
Ashley had devoured another mini triangle sandwich. She leaned over to wrap her arms around Emily. "But we have a friend in emotional anguish. How will I sleep tonight if I leave her right now?"
Spencer smiled. "I'm sure you'll manage."
This time Ashley's hands carefully held food she would be taking on her pointless journey. She heard Spencer and Emily's grateful thanks and walked around the table, leaning down to talk quietly.
"Will you get me some cake?"
"The biggest piece," Spencer said, kissing her on the cheek until Ashley turned properly to kiss her on the mouth. "Unless you want me to go with you?"
"No, I'll be ten minutes. The cake could go."
Spencer nodded seriously. That was her mission.
Ashley added a mini pizza to the pile of food in her hand and accepted a slice of cucumber from Spencer (she ate her greens every day to balance out the junk). "And I want a gold star tonight," she told her before heading off.
Emily took that at face value and added her opinion that it was a little childish for a young woman of Ashley's age to be bribed into good behaviour for a shiny sticker, but she hadn't noticed the slight blush on Spencer's face.
Emily shouted out to Ashley's retreating figure, "She left like she was going home!" She watched Ashley raise her arm to let her know she'd been heard, and then a thought sprang to mind. She turned to Spencer after a moment. "You know, you just talked about how they both owe an apology but I didn't ever hear you offering one for when you bulldozed into Ramona that one time in P.E," Emily said.
"No, not different." Spencer's face began to contort. Eventually she sighed. "I hate being a hypocrite. Do you think we should catch up? I can tell my mom to get the cake and we could all go together. Can you imagine the look on Ramona's face if we all did? She'd probably die."
"In a few minutes? I need to think about what to say... I was really mean, Spencer. I was awful," she sighed. "What happened that day with you and her, anyway?"
"She was talking about Ashley," Spencer explained. "I heard them fighting and I was going over to break it up but Ramona said something that I couldn't help but react to. I shouldn't have, I know that. It's weird because Ashley's one of the strongest people I know, she always has the perfect retort and knows exactly when to say things, but when someone talks about her... it twists me up inside. It's like she's the sweetest, most gentle girl in the world and it's my job to protect her."
"Sweet and gentle? You've met Ashley, right?"
Spencer swatted Emily's arm. "She is with me."
"You really love her?"
"That's so weird," Emily said.
"Because we're girls?"
"Don't insult me like that. No, because you're so sure. I've never even come close to feeling anything like that. Sometimes I think I never will."
"Yeah, it's time to start worrying. You're seventeen, for god's sake."
"Are you being sarcastic?"
"The boys in this town act like I have leprosy."
"There's a whole world out there, Em. You'll meet your perfect guy when the time's right."
Emily blinked. "Thanks, grandma."
"My grandma would never say that. She says that most boys don't know what they want, all you have to do is tell them."
Emily snorted. "Right. I'm going to go up to the next cute guy and say, 'you don't know this, but you want to date me."
Spencer nodded. "And that they have medication for leprosy these days, so he doesn't even have to worry."
Her arm stung where Emily slapped her.
Ashley manoeuvred the streets quickly, heading in the direction of Ramona's neighbourhood. It wasn't all that far from her own. There were few things she'd be more reluctant to do than spend time alone with Ramona Castro but she admitted —reluctantly and only to herself so far— that Spencer was right. She didn't mean to hit her the other day, it was just her reaction given the sour mood she'd been in and thinking that Ramona was starting a fight.
The sky was heavily clouded and looked minutes away from raining. Her jacket was back at the hall and she bit into her mini pizza while contemplating turning back but there was really no point. This wouldn't take long. Plus, talk about the perfect excuse to go back in a few minutes. Emily could come across as a little heartless sometimes but Ashley had confidence that even a sharp-tongued Emily would find it difficult to send her back out into the rainy night.
She exaggerated a moan as she chewed the last bite of pizza. "Mmm."
Ashley was looking down to the food in her hand, trying to make a decision between the two finger sandwiches she had left.
She never did get chance to make it.