Friday, for whatever undeserved reason, God decides to throw Sarah a bone.
She thought for sure she’d be stuck in line alone when Helena wheezed her way to a breathing treatment at the hospital Wednesday night, despite her sister bravely trudging through school the following day with less than three hours sleep to sway their mother’s mind.
I can’t abandon you, Helena said on the walk to the warehouse, “again” unspoken despite it never being their choice, and Sarah wished she could erase their whole past. Every last awful page in a social worker’s file.
Maybe that’s why God stepped in (out of pity, Sarah’s sure, because it certainly wasn’t earned) – Mrs. S wakes them both up for school Friday morning with her pleasant grimace, and two minutes later Sarah’s smothered by Helena’s hug as they celebrate their verdict.
“Half the night, Helena’s home by one. If she starts to cough at all you call me and I’ll pick her up.”
“You won’t regret this,” Sarah promises, moving Helena’s hair out of her face so she can see.
Mrs. S sighs. “I already regret letting you go, but you’ve got a convincing group of friends.”
Sarah grins and Helena grins right back as she takes a seat on Sarah’s bed.
It’s enough for S’s dour expression to slip and the slightest smile peeks through. “Right-o,” she says, “get on it then. If you aren’t down for breakfast in fifteen minutes I’ll keep you both home tonight to help Felix with his homework.”
She leaves them with a smiling shake of her head that spurs Helena into action, bouncing to her dresser to start her morning routine as if her life depends on it. Which: maybe. They get to spend half the night bundled up with more snacks than they could ever need, just the two of them, kept company by their friends on the radio. But Sarah knows the part that matters most to Helena, and she’s equally excited to spend the time with her sister.
“If you make us late I will pop out your eyeballs with my thumbs,” Helena threatens, halfway into a pair of jeans with a little sun embroidered on the pocket, and she pauses long enough to demonstrate the popping motion.
Sarah groans, hoists herself off the bed. She’ll have enough time after school to layer up so all she needs to do now is find something to wear that doesn’t smell, easy enough with half her wardrobe conveniently spread out on the floor. Helena shoots her a disapproving look as she fishes a pair of ripped tights out of her third-favourite pair of shorts, but she ignores it. That and the little sigh, and then Helena’s muttered, “I did put away your clean laundry for you; in your dresser where it belongs, sestra.”
Same thing every morning. Helena doesn’t expect her to reply, anyway. It’d break their routine. And then they wouldn’t get to kick each other under the table as they eat breakfast or pretend to fight for space in the hall to get their shoes on. Sarah really loves it, sometimes. Having a sister. Having a twin.
She feels whole.
They make it down to breakfast with a minute to spare – if it had been Helena who kept them, Sarah would be pinching her skin behind their backs, but Helena bounces down the stairs with her fingers caught in Sarah’s and her smile matches the light that comes through the glass of the front door.
(Sarah keeps meaning to ask her about forgiveness. How you do it, how you just let go.)
Their fingers are entangled even as they drop into their usual seats, as Mrs. S passes the cereal box. Helena’s a master at pouring one-handed.
(How you keep holding on, then, when you’re letting go of the hard parts. If she’d just confess… maybe, maybe, Sarah could have it too.)
No one seems able to sit through classes today – more than the usual Friday restlessness.
Radio Swan plays the Beastie Boys at the end of lunch to herd them to their next period and the change of pace matches the unsettling energy, like they’re all bunching it up in the gaps between them in the halls, packing it in so the second the doors open to release them it’ll explode. Boom. They’re airborne.
Sarah’s leg bounces under her desk as she keeps her eyes on the clock and she knows her teacher’s saying something, but it’s muffled by the squeak of the chair and clock hands cutting notches in the feverish drone.
Somewhere in a classroom Helena might be coughing; every clock tick sounds like crackling lungs, and Sarah winces.
Mrs. S said yes, but it’s always conditional. Nothing good can ever be trusted.
U amped?? Cosima texts when everyone seems to be working on a handout Sarah doesn’t have. She’s not sure how she missed it, but the teacher’s busy grading papers and Sarah would only fill the page with anxious doodles anyway.
Something like that, she texts back.
More like ready to vomit, at the conviction it’ll somehow get ripped from her hands the second she lets herself get excited. Helena will have to stay home, Sarah will get stuck with, god, Rachel, ruining her night for more reasons than she can think about.
(Maybe that’s part of the nausea, too. But if she considers it-)
Cosima always has a dog picture at the ready, and even though Sarah’s not her sister the little costume on this particular pup puts a significant dent in her nerves.
Thx cos :*
Yr the one doing us the favour, sarah. Were gonna owe u for… shit, awhile huh
Sarah grins at the phone in her lap, grateful for everyone’s focus on other things today. It’d be just her luck to get her phone taken when it’s the only thing keeping her from bouncing her way through the floorboards.
Sarah drew the short straw, she should remind Cosima. It was chance. But every time she goes to type it she thinks of Rachel in the washroom and Helena’s temperamental cough and can’t quite get the words out. It was chance and she’s grateful. But she’s on the verge of puking nonetheless and the two feelings won’t separate.
Nah, just for the next century :P
The smiley face is particularly offensive, one she usually avoids if just for personal aesthetics. However with the churning of her stomach it comes closest to capturing her two opposing moods – and she can’t help thinking someone else would catch that, someone who throws down for the tiniest scrap of symbolism maybe only just for the fight.
Someone she’s dreading running into tonight, she reminds herself. Someone who, on paper, might as well be her biggest enemy.
They’re not friends. They had two half-stitched conversations and this is just a reaction to witnessing a rare moment of human emotion from someone who seems to pride herself on her razor-sharp edges.
Sarah’d feel the same way if the devil held a door for her, and that’s all this is, and she’s so desperate to distract herself from tonight that she’s, yet again, making it a far bigger issue than it deserves to be. This is her party trick, Mrs. S would say. The queen of overreactions.
If only she could be the queen of getting her shite together, she lets her little Mrs. S voice tell her, as everyone passes the worksheets back up to the front of the class. At some point her report card’s gonna grace the fridge with its shameful presence and Felix will delight in the consequences that brings, holding it over her just because he can.
But the bell finally rings.
And, one period to go, Sarah almost feels like she’ll be able to make it.
By the looks of S’s truck, Sarah might as well be moving out with how much they’ve crammed into it. It isn’t even that cold, she keeps trying to say, but it won’t dissuade their mum, or Helena, the two of them trying to find space for yet another emergency blanket.
At this rate, there won’t even be room for Helena.
Sarah has a mortifying flash of driving up to the line and everything tumbling out of the truck like a clown car, the whole line gawking, then being trapped with them the rest of the night as they continue to look in her direction and laugh. She’s never done this before: camped out for tickets, or anything. She could show up and find out she’s doing it all stupidly wrong.
“Excited?” Helena says as she bumps into Sarah’s side, and they’re still in the driveway, ground littered with fallen leaves.
She catches Sarah’s expression and her own darkens in concern.
“Fine,” Sarah says, but Helena’s frowning.
“You won’t be alone, Sarah,” Helena reminds her, with another soft bump of the hip. “Even when I go.”
Helena taps her chest through her puffy jacket and Sarah can’t help but laugh, at the sound it makes and Helena’s intended meaning. I’ll still be in your heart. Somehow, in spite of her childhood, Helena managed to cultivate a Disney outlook on life. Positive to a painful point.
Sarah rolls her eyes and gives in, because she knows Helena believes it.
“Time’s a-marching, chickens,” Mrs. S says from the other side of the truck, always in her element next to that terrifying hunk of metal. Her fourth child. “You got the cookies, yes?”
“Obviously,” Sarah says. And then shoves Helena to the car door, needing someone else to take the first step.
She has no real reason to be nervous. She keeps telling herself that. She keeps trying to pretend it’s the excited sort of anxious, that she can’t wait to be in the midst of it, that the lump in her throat is only anticipation. And she can almost believe it.
Helena slides down the bench seat to the other side, kind enough not to make Sarah walk around.
Part of it, Sarah decided during fourth period, is the radio show. Not that it’s hers, but…
She hops in and Helena wiggles back to the middle seat, a non-believer of personal space, pressed so close that Sarah can feel her warmth between their combined eight layers of fabric. Just the two of us, Helena happily exudes.
Obviously the show will go one without her. It might even be better, and Sarah wouldn’t even be that upset. She just wishes she could experience both, simultaneously. Be there for the show’s first steps, so to speak. She’s lost count of how many things she’s started and had to leave before she could get to this point.
At her side, Helena stifles a cough, and Sarah grimaces.
“I’m fine,” Helena whispers, the two of them refusing to look at the front seat.
Her mitten-clad hand finds Sarah’s and the squeeze is a promise.
“Think S has any of her birdwatcher friends keeping an eye on us tonight?” Sarah finally whispers back, just to feel something, anything, different.
Helena loves conspiracies (thanks, Felix) and games, and she grins in response. “Only one, but he will be a part of the line and will say exactly three words to you.”
“Ooh, what three?” Sarah indulges.
Helena’s mischievous smile is always Sarah’s favourite.
“Not telling. You’ll know.”
“Hmm. Definitely a he?”
Sarah accidentally catches Mrs. S’s eye in the rear-view mirror and her benignly amused expression gives Sarah absolutely nothing to go on. Really, S could be in the mafia and they’d never know for sure. She’s Irish. She has different truths for everyone.
“Unconfirmed,” Helena says, and rests her head on Sarah’s shoulder, where it stays until they rumble to a stop ten minutes later.
There are already a good dozen people in the line, enough to draw it out past the tattoo shop next door and halfway across a little vintage boutique, sleeping bags and cots and even a tent set up like they’re all planning on being here a while. Most of them have thermoses or coffee cups that send little curls of steam up into the dusky sky. The Starbucks across the street is the unofficial washroom of the night, open twenty-four hours, so the drinks are a viable means of keeping warm. Mrs. S packed them an extra large thermos of tea for this very reason.
“Here we are,” S says, a full minute after the engine cuts. As if none of them are really ready for this.
“It isn’t too cold,” Helena says, despite the tip of her nose already coloured a nice bright pink. “We will be fine.”
The assurance sets them all in motion, Mrs. S heading to the truck bed to start unloading, Helena joining her as soon as she untangles her bundled self from the seat.
It’s an endeavour to do anything with this many layers on, and Sarah tells herself this is why she hesitates to assist in the setup. Helena and S have the cot in place on the sidewalk, directly behind the tent (“A good wind-shield,” Sarah hears Helena say) and are carrying the blankets and bags over to their claimed spot.
Sarah hasn’t budged from the open car door. She has her backpack of snacks in one hand, held by the strap, but is mostly frozen in place – and she keeps telling herself it’s the cold, it’s the layers, it’s her own bullshit, but she can’t make up any more excuses when the truth walks over to S and Helena and introduces herself with a handshake.
Rachel. In a ski suit.
“Look who’s here!” Helena calls to Sarah, punctuating with a wave.
Sarah grimaces. Rachel turns to keep up her well-mannered façade in the face of someone’s parent and Sarah can see how impressed Mrs. S is with this delightfully polite behaviour. Yeah, whatever. Some people are too busy being kids.
“Hello, Sarah,” Rachel says, and Sarah finally shuts the car door and drags herself across the street to the line. Her backpack bumps against her leg the whole time, counting her steps.
Mrs. S rubs her ungloved hands together and places them on Sarah’s shoulders, the touch light years away through the layers. Helena has a grin directed towards the whole group, all of them bunched there with Sarah’s giant mess and Rachel’s tidy tote bag and camping chair folded in its carry case.
“Glad you’ll have some company after your sister leaves,” S says, her brisk smile more genuine than it lets on.
Rachel somehow returns the exact same smile and then busies herself with setting up her spot in line, carefully leaving just enough space to make it clear she’s waiting alone.
Once everything’s out of the truck and plopped somewhere around the cot in haphazard order, and Rachel’s zipped herself into a sleeping bag, leaning back in the camping chair with its fancy little footrest, Mrs. S gives Sarah and Helena one last hug and reluctantly departs with a final reminder of one o’clock, chickens.
Helena has a semi-constructed nest of blankets on the cot and opens a wing to invite Sarah in. Sarah, somehow still standing on the sidewalk like S’s truck might return at any moment, gives herself a shake and tucks herself in next to her sister.
On their left Rachel has the world’s biggest pair of headphones slipped over her hat, no doubt blasting her best mate Mozart. Her eyes are closed. Sarah can’t decide if it’s better this way.
“Cookies first?” Helena asks, so snuggled into Sarah they feel like one overstuffed person.
“Yeah, go for it.”
More people are joining the line now. A hipster couple has an air mattress inflating behind Rachel, matching each other with ambiguous haircuts and plaid scarves. They seem happy. Giddy.
It’s a stark contrast to Rachel’s blank face, eyes shut and directed to the darkening sky, only semi-lit by the amber glow of the streetlights. She doesn’t show a single emotion. All she is is a face poking out of a sleeping bag cocoon, so still she could be sleeping.
By ten o’clock it’s clear the show isn’t bombing without her. Sarah has her head on Helena’s shoulder as the outside speakers grace the line with the slightly altered voices of her best friends, her other family, laughing at Einstein’s answer to a particularly gruesome would you rather.
Beth values her fingers over her eyeballs. Sarah files the knowledge away for later, knowing it says something, but too stiff with the act of prolonged sitting in minus-eight degree weather to figure it out just yet.
They play a Nina Simone song Sarah doesn’t know the name of but will always associate with a particular record cover; a few more conversations in line become audible as if they too were listening to the radio hosts, and Helena lets out a contented hum. She has a lollipop in her mouth – one with gum in the middle, that will soon bump Sarah’s head up and down with every chew but for now just provides the soft click of hard candy against teeth.
Her fingers are fine, thanks to the hand warmers, and the two of them have Cosima’s hot water bottle held between them like a baby doll. Like a memory they never got to make, before.
Their cot is angled just enough to see both Rachel and the street, where cars continuously slow down as they pass as if trying to figure out the reason for this camped-out line of nutjobs; Rachel seems to be sleeping, but there’s a rhythmic tapping of her index fingers in their gloves that betrays the ruse.
Sarah wants to sleep.
But she wants to drink up as much of her time with Helena as she can, because she knows how quickly the seconds are snatched from them. Even if they’re only sitting in a mutual silence it’s far more than that and sleep would only disappear the moment.
“We are lucky,” Helena murmurs near the end of the song, as if to prove Sarah’s looping thoughts’ point.
Sarah gives Helena’s mittened hand a squeeze in response.
On the radio, Cosima opens a letter from Beth she first received in middle school, some ancient hate note, and Sarah’s chest tugs with two opposite feelings at once.
She can see the lined paper. She knows where the creases are, because she remembers Cosima finding it again a year ago, and the two of them reading it on Cosima’s bed, feet dangling over the edge of the mattress as they laughed their way through it. Beth’s face right now must be on fire.
You think everyone respects you for being some genius but it’s just pity. Also your name is embarrassing. Obviously your parents really hated you when you were born.
Beth wrote it in purple ink and signed it with a heart, which was probably the first clue that she was like them in more ways than she knew. Hate crushes. Sarah doesn’t miss those at all.
“Is this real?” Helena asks, over broadcasted snickers and an apologetic moan from the horrified guest host.
“Too real,” Sarah says.
She lifts her head from Helena’s shoulder to reach into the snack bag, ready for something crunchy, grabbing the peanut butter pretzels from Costco that came from one of Tony’s mom’s grocery runs. With the change in position she can also access a different view of Rachel in her camping chair, and this is how she spies her first clue.
(Rachel isn’t one of Mrs. S’s birdwatcher friends. But Sarah is on the lookout for those clues as well.)
It’s the smile – the humour of someone else’s misfortune, and this doesn’t come from uppity classical music.
“In my defence, I’d only ever made friends through spite before this,” Einstein’s saying, sounding positively mortified to the peals of laughter in the background.
Rachel’s smile remains more or less the same, but ebbs with the tone of the show just enough for Sarah to believe she isn’t imagining it.
Helena, she goes to say, right as someone stumbles by their spot and nearly trips over a cot leg.
“Ope,” he says, apologizes, as his hands go out. “Nearly caught me.”
And then he’s gone. Helena’s own eyes are on him like a wild cat in the grass, the only part of her to move, even the nub of the lollipop still against her teeth.
“Hm,” she breathes out.
Sarah cranes her neck to look after him, this mystery figure in a grey coat now too far down the line to have any other discernible features, and tries to recall any voice in her life that’s ever sounded familiar. But he just sounds like a man. Another voice Sarah blurs without thinking.
“Yeah?” she says, twisting back to catch Helena’s full face.
It’s a mix of contemplation and mirth, like this could easily be another one of her games. Sarah wants it to be real. She wants the conspiracy, because she wants Helena to be the one to put all the pieces together. Like a real-life game of Clue. Like Sarah’s the Wallace to her Veronica Mars. (That might be giving Sarah a little more credit than she deserves, actually.)
Leda’s already onto another song: an old Lady Gaga hit, which moves through the line with an appreciative ripple. Sarah missed the end of the letter. If they even put the best part on air.
Middle school should have been a nightmare, and easily could have been on paper, but she can only really look back with fond sympathy. They were children; Sarah had her best friends, she’d recently acquired a sister, and everything felt possible. It only took one terrible French teacher for Beth to go from a bitchy pain in their arse to part of their group. One offer to get him fired so they might actually stand a chance at learning something, and there they were: friends.
Sarah still remembers the awe of that, of having something that once felt so intangible.
Helena nudges her out of her thoughts in time to catch Newton and Einstein singing (something else she never thought she’d experience), either Scratch or MK accompanying them on what sounds like empty Tupperware, serenading the airwaves with an ode to the periodic table.
“Good lord,” Sarah mutters, and Helena lets out a soft snort of a laugh.
It’s vaguely familiar – but Sarah doesn’t place it until they’re giving a shoutout to ninth grade science for birthing the beast, and she tries to ignore the twinge of unnecessary jealousy it sparks.
Helena fits an entire cookie into her mouth in what’s probably an attempt to rid Sarah’s face of whatever emotion just betrayed her and then grins with her lips struggling to keep the cookie from shooting out.
“Gimme one,” Sarah replies, reaching a gloved hand over Helena’s lap, mostly a pile of blankets shrugged off their shoulders over the past couple hours. She really should thank Cosima for the handwarmers with how effective they’ve been. It does not feel like November under all their layers.
Not for Rachel either, it seems; the sleeping bag’s unzipped and halfway down her body, leaving her with the god-awful pink and white ski suit. Christ. Even without a helmet she still manages to look like a bootleg Power Ranger.
Helena pulls one of the last cookies out of the bag and sits it in the palm of Sarah’s glove. (An offering.) “Have you written songs lately?” she asks.
“Any kind,” Helena says, and Sarah thinks it over as she chomps on the cookie.
Not since the last scathing one about Rachel, which has enough verses to whip one out every so often on the show, to everyone’s delight. She tries to justify that it’s hard to write anything when her guitar stays at the warehouse, but that’s not it. Not all of it.
“I see,” Helena says when Sarah’s silence drags. “You should write one about me, maybe.”
One of her curls has slipped out from under her toque, a little golden spiral dancing in her eyes, and Sarah resists the urge to tuck it back for her. She couldn’t anyway with her thick useless gloved fingers, but mostly she doesn’t want to see this soft face of Helena’s flinch. And she always does when Sarah just reaches. And she always apologizes.
“I have, I’ve written a couple,” Sarah says. “About us, too.”
“And Felix?” Helena asks shyly, with a look in her eyes Sarah knows too well.
She smiles for it. “No.”
Helena does her best to hide her own smile, but Sarah can feel it as she leans into her. Feelings are complicated, she projects at her sister. It’s okay.
Sarah’s own feelings complicate the dreaded moment Helena has to go – a quarter of their stuff (empty packets, extra blankets, things meant for two) join Helena in the back of S’s truck and as Sarah turns to try to fill the massive cot on her own, she accidentally catches Rachel’s curious eye.
Her stomach flips; the truck rumbles off down the street, and Rachel’s hand hovers by her headphones for what feels like an entire minute until she caves and takes them off.
It’s all Sarah can do not to throw up and she tells herself it’s from the peanut butter pretzels.
“Are you on your own, then?” Rachel asks, carefully, her breath coming out in a tiny puff in the cold.
Sarah’s fingers curl around a handwarmer in one of her gloves, itching to text Helena, or Cosima, or even Tony to just get her out of this. Now. Before she has to figure out why Rachel cares.
She manages to give back a stiff nod, which causes Rachel to hit something on her phone and pull the headphones off her neck completely. Then they sit in her lap, ominously, like a villain’s hairless cat.
The radio bleats out the end to what must have been one of Tony’s songs for all Sarah was paying attention but then her friends’ sleep-giddy voices are back and laughing and it gives her the jolt she needed to power through this. In her heart is Helena, is the dog park, is Tony’s kitchen, is the unparalleled feeling of a hug from everyone at once.
She scoots down to Helena’s end of the cot, to the storefront of the vintage boutique and its dark, cultivated window. Rachel’s eyes follow her movement.
Sarah can’t acknowledge exactly what she’s doing. Later she’ll blame it on exhaustion, on the numbing cold, on the sudden absence of her twin sister and all those abandonment issues. Later she’ll do her best not to think about it, because it’s insane. Absolutely mad.
“She took most of the warmth, too,” Sarah says, ignoring the pooling heat inside her, from her core to her flushed cheeks. “Kind of hard to fill the cot by myself…”
Rachel glances down at what’s left of her sleeping bag, now bunched at her ankles, a pile over her boots, and when she looks up again it’s clear she’s following Sarah’s painful train of thought. But – she smiles. Catlike. Just enough to cover her uncertainty.
The shift is quick, easily missed by anyone half paying attention, and Sarah shivers at Rachel’s sudden presence beside her. It’s too hot and too cold and neither of them can look anywhere but in front of them and this is the first time Sarah’s actually felt someone’s nerves radiating through this many layers of fabric.
She doesn’t want to think about it. Why Rachel would be nervous.
Maybe it’s her own nerves bouncing off Rachel and coming back, like sound waves or airwaves or- her friends are still talking, teasing someone, one of them, maybe Sarah, and she brings a glove to her mouth in a terrifying wave of nausea.
“English class,” Rachel rushes out with, pulling Sarah back to the brink of sanity.
“Uh-” Sarah flounders. “What?”
Rachel tucks one of her gloved hands underneath her, then shifts her body, and Sarah has to follow to face her as well because basic human instinct has taken over and mimicry is the single remaining tool in her basket.
Rachel looks a little less bewildered than Sarah’s expecting, which is good. She thinks.
“Ah, the homework we have,” Rachel attempts, rocking forward to free her hand, then moving it into her lap. She cradles it with the other one and Sarah feels herself doing the same. “In English class. I was wondering if you’ve done it yet.”
Sarah drops her gaze to her gloves, silently ridiculing herself for their position yet unable to change it until Rachel does.
“Yeah, no,” she says, looking up just in time to catch Rachel’s shut eyes flicking open. “Uh, couldn’t even tell you what it was, honestly.”
It brings an unexpected laugh out of Rachel, whose shoulders drop just enough for Sarah to realize how tense they were.
“I can’t imagine living like that,” Rachel admits, and Sarah laughs too.
Her little puff of breath reaches the tail-end of Rachel’s, and Sarah’s grateful for the streetlights, for the forgiving tungsten glow, only providing enough light to make this all seem like a dream.
Dream-Sarah can say anything, because Dream-Sarah won’t be around for the consequences. Dream-Sarah is fearless. Almost.
“Right, you’re a Future Leader,” Sarah teases – and her heart twists at Rachel’s playful groan, hands covering her face.
Sarah’s hands flounder until Rachel drops hers back to her lap, a tiny pouf against her ski suit. It doesn’t look quite as ridiculous as it did earlier. Somehow. Sarah blames the dream light, her own delirium, and the odd, feverish electro-folk song that she’d bet her life is only playing because of Veera.
“Not my choice,” Rachel finally replies, in a voice Sarah hasn’t heard from her before.
It’s… tired. A kind of tired Sarah wouldn’t expect her to know.
But then she thinks back to the dog park, to the dog that isn’t even Rachel’s, forcing her out in the snow despite those thin nylons.
It certainly paints a picture.
(Not one any of her friends would see.)
“I get it,” Sarah says, even if she doesn’t. She gets that sort of tired. She was born into that sort of tired.
Before she has a chance to think it through, she puts one of her gloved hands on Rachel’s leg, only really feeling the thermal thickness of the ski suit but her whole body humming at the mere thought of her hand on Rachel’s leg. Pathetic. But-
“Thanks,” Rachel murmurs, and she moves her glove over Sarah’s, both of them unable to look at anything other than their point of connection.
Of course Leda picks this moment to blast an air horn and the whole bloody line jumps out of their skin as the speakers scream, “WAKEUP CALL!”
The air horn bleats a couple more times in case anyone missed the message and Sarah’s a whole foot away from Rachel again, rolling her eyes at herself and her friends, who are cackling at their own joke. Scratch was the first to fall asleep so they had to, they made a pact, it was his idea, even.
If Sarah ever speaks to them again it will be with great restraint, because Mrs. S would kill her if she got arrested for murder.
“Unbelievable,” Rachel mutters, dusting who knows what off her ski suit and repositioning herself like there really is a stick up there. “Just when they were starting to…”
“To what?” Sarah prompts, when Rachel seems to collect herself.
The hipster couple behind Rachel’s camp chair have gone back to spooning, and the rest of the line seems to be settling in again as a mellow cover of Clash City Rockers apologizes for the interruption.
Rachel shakes her head, but then she sighs. “It hasn’t been… terrible. What I’ve heard tonight. If you repeat this to anyone I’ll-”
“My lips are sealed,” Sarah promises, not forgetting Rachel’s own utterance of this phrase and what it did to her last time. If it has the same effect on Rachel, it doesn’t show. (Sarah swears she isn’t disappointed.)
“You understand, I can’t be caught paying a compliment to my nemesis station,” Rachel explains, her posture so stiff she might as well be graded on it.
Sarah raises an eyebrow. “A compliment? Since when is not terrible a compliment?”
“When it comes from me,” Rachel pushes back, and the way she suddenly leans in has Sarah biting back a grin, because it’s exactly like English class. The spark in Rachel’s eyes is mesmerizing; she’s exactly where she wants to be, and Sarah only wishes she had more to offer in rebuttal.
“Well, high compliment from Leekie’s little puppet,” Sarah retorts.
It feels cruel until Rachel’s face lights up in a smirk and she swings her legs over the side of the cot so she sits completely facing Sarah. “And I suppose you’re a Leda supporter, then? Can’t say I’m surprised with the amount of holes in your daily ensembles.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised you’ve been paying me that much attention,” Sarah says, mirroring the inflection. She shifts so she’s cross-legged on the cot, completely facing Rachel, and it’s just the shove Rachel needs.
“Only giving back what I’m getting,” Rachel purrs, and on Sarah’s reaction she launches forward, so much force Sarah feels her back hitting brick in tandem with Rachel’s mouth on hers.
It’s going to bruise – both the kiss and the storefront between her shoulder blades, but Sarah can’t help pressing up into it, prolonging it until they both come apart breathless.
Her lungs ache as she gulps in the cold air, then exhales an admiring, fuck… Rachel.
Rachel’s cheeks are flushed, likely pink in anything other than this cloudy amber light. There’s a shine to her lips as they release a coy smile and Sarah nearly kisses them again, but then reality sets in and she can feel the whole line around them and the car passing on the street and the voices on the radio who would not let this go.
“That was okay, right?” Rachel asks. It’s another voice that surprises Sarah; one she’s sure not many people ever get to hear.
Sarah bites her lip. “It was, just…”
She’s grateful for the tent on their one side, because it might’ve at least blocked part of that from view.
“Just not with this many people around,” Rachel finishes for her. “Got it. Not when it’s me.”
“No,” Sarah protests, but Rachel’s already moving, already heading back to her chair.
“Believe me, I understand,” Rachel says, and she seems genuine before her hands are on her headphones and something in her expression hardens. “I wouldn’t want people witnessing me kissing you, either, Sarah.”
It stings exactly as Rachel likely intended and any response Sarah could muster up is swallowed by Rachel’s headphones, back over her ears, Rachel back in her cocoon as if nothing ever even happened.
Sarah releases a record-breaking sigh as she lets her head hit the cold glass window behind her. Might as well add to the bruises.
“Two o’clock, line buddies,” Newton crows out on the radio, just as Sarah shuts her eyes. “Only five hours to go!”
They’d better effing appreciate the tickets, is all Sarah’s saying. In her hand they’re flimsier than expected, and she pins them in an envelope to the cork board above her and Helena’s bedroom desk with the little photo booth strips and flattened origami and general detritus the two of them have collected to prove they’re living this life.
It’s Helena’s desk, mostly. Helena’s trinkets and papers covering everything but Sarah’s small collection of drugstore makeup.
Sarah keeps her thumb on the pushpin long enough to ensure it sticks and then she counts herself free of the responsibility, now the corkboard’s painfully expensive stack of printed cardstock, safe and sound until Beth comes to pick them up.
“Good?” Helena asks, the first word since Sarah dragged her heavy corpse into their cramped, barely-lit room.
What’s left of the sunrise barely makes a dent through the curtains – black, Sarah’s idea, and she’s both grateful and annoyed as she stumbles over her mess on the floor to reach Helena’s bed. The blankets are lifted just enough for her to crawl in. She strips down to her last layer, the long underwear and a sports bra, and lets Helena’s bed swallow her whole.
“I listened the whole way through,” Helena whispers, breath hot on Sarah’s neck.
It’s almost too warm under the covers but Sarah’s body still feels cadaver-stiff from far too long sitting in one position, the skin on her face prickly as it refuses to adjust to indoor heating. She can give it a good few hours of this cozy little sauna; then one of them, usually Sarah, will kick herself free and wake up cold again.
“Did you,” she says.
Helena’s head moves: a nod.
They’ve gotten so good at sharing one pillow that Sarah wants it to be a struggle again, to not feel so calm with her sister curled around her. They’re two years from adulthood – at some point they’ll have to stop it completely, not even after a long night, and she tells herself they’ll be adjusted enough not to miss it.
But. Helena buries her face in Sarah’s hair, chasing out the last of the chill. Maybe it’s a normal thing. A sister thing. It’s not like they have enough experience to know for sure.
“I thought of you listening too,” Helena murmurs against Sarah’s neck. “Just like we were together.”
It’s sharp through Sarah’s chest, for both Helena being alone and what exactly Sarah was doing without her. She can’t tell. But Rachel sits inside her ribs like a teratoma: the teeth and the hair and the unwanted cells are suffocating, ready to burst.
“No more medical documentaries for a while, okay?” she mumbles, half her mind in the world of sleep.
She can see white coats. A scalpel and Rachel’s sleeping bag.
“Mm,” she gets in reply.
There’s a swan where Sarah’s lungs should be; she lets it curl up, for now, the long neck a suture over its feathered form. Somewhere in there it has teeth and she knows it but in a distant way, and she isn’t fully afraid. She’s felt those teeth on her lips before. They could be gentle if they wanted to.
Hours later, when Mrs. S forces them out of bed to pile formlessly on the couch (just as long as their eyes are open, S says), Sarah can still feel teeth on her lips, and she’s nearly gone through half a tube of chapstick trying to erase the sensation.
“Maybe a little frostbite?” Helena offers, after watching Sarah run the tube over her lips for the fifth time this episode. Some baking show. Another mind-numbing competition.
“Then her lips will turn black and fall off,” Felix supplies from the armchair.
He seems mildly put out at not being in their tangled pile on the couch, but he’s also semi doing his homework, a binder open in his lap, and that kind of productivity isn’t welcome right now in Sarah’s sphere. She’d give anything to be back in bed; six hours sleep was not enough, by any measure, but S didn’t want them to mess up their schedule any more than was necessary.
“You’ll turn black and fall off,” Sarah mumbles.
Felix sticks his tongue out and gets the same in response from Helena.
“Sarah was a hero last night,” Helena says. “Have respect.”
Sarah uncaps the chapstick again, just leaving it open in midair with the sharp tingle taunting her from under its many chapstick layers.
“Some hero, forcing you all to see a shitty band,” Felix says, and Mrs. S shouts an oy from the kitchen.
She’s meal prepping again – Tony’s mom has clearly been over recently, because there are recipes and a mountain of Tupperware on the table and S never gets this into anything unless someone (Tony’s mom, nine times out of ten) convinces her it’ll change her life.
Still, Sarah’s glad to have her home on a rare Saturday. The child inside her glows when the whole family’s home together: it’s a TV picture she could replicate in crayon from the amount of times she wished for it, and the novelty never quite goes away.
Mrs. S appears behind Felix with a ladle in her hand (so obviously they’ll be eating soup at some point this week) and gives him a smack up the head for his language.
“Heard you had a good time, Sarah,” she says as a way of silencing anything Felix might have in response, and he sighs and just rubs at his head as she perches on the arm of his chair.
Sarah frowns. “From who?”
Helena’s giving her a mighty strong eye – birdwatcher, she mouths, even as S waves her off.
“Well it was just nice to know you weren’t alone after your sister left,” is all S says in reply, and before anyone can question it she’s back in the kitchen, turning up the radio until they can barely hear the bakers on TV.
Sarah presses her lips together in a hard line. The tingle grows stronger.
“How,” she says, just loud enough for Helena to catch, because talking to herself almost always means talking to Helena.
“Three words, I told you,” Helena says with a shrug.
Sarah digs her teeth into her bottom lip and unintentionally consumes a thick mouthful of chapstick, coating her tongue in a waxy mint that does nothing to quash the tingles that travel through her full body. Little nervous needles. “He said four, though.”
Felix gets up to adjust the volume on the TV, the remote lost in its alternate dimension yet again. He’s the only one watching at this point, despite the open binder; Sarah catches sight of a few loose sketches on his worksheets as he settles back in the chair.
“Nearly caught me,” Helena repeats, fingers ticking off the words.
Sarah wriggles until she’s half under her sister again, trying to achieve maximum pressure to alleviate the discomfort. “Ope. Ope counts.”
The radio volume gets louder, despite none of them catching Mrs. S moving from her position at the stove. Felix scoffs. Helena yawns, inciting a yawn from Sarah, and shakes her head.
“Untrue, but thank-you for trying,” she says, and the patronizing tap to Sarah’s tingling head seals the discussion.
Sarah’s hands feel for a pillow behind her and she pulls it over her face, muffling her groan, and muffling the sounds of the room around her just enough to create a tiny break from reality. No more radio. Clink of utensils against metal in the kitchen. Bakers worried about their piping. Helena’s tuneless hum of contentment. It’s just Sarah and her needle nerves shooting off in every direction, holding her secret to the light of S’s comment, desperate for even ten more minutes of sleep to prolong having to process any of this.
Because she will have to, much sooner than eventually. Rachel will be at the concert. Hell, Rachel will be at school on Monday, and Sarah will return to Leda like nothing happened, and the whole world will shift under their feet.
Anyone could have seen. It’s the thought Sarah keeps avoiding.
If it’s a secret at all, it doesn’t have much time to incubate. At some point everyone will hear and she’ll have to go on living, and the worst part is how, at her very core, all she truly wants is to kiss Rachel again.
(And again, and again, and again.)