Sure enough, Sarah ends up with a nice linear bruise across her back, but by Monday it’s changed from sharp red to bluish-purple, no longer the disgraceful colour of someone’s lips. It’s about the only part of her that’s forgotten.
Helena’s respectfully quiet on the walk to school – something Sarah attributes to the lime green lollipop a little too quickly, a little too eager to believe her twin hasn’t picked up on any of the weekend’s secrets even with the looks exchanged in the bathroom mirror that morning. Helena lets them crunch their way through the drifts of leaves covering the sidewalk without a word; Sarah sighs and coughs and hums at the sickly-sweet citrus scent and still gets silence in reply, and that’s how she knows she’s lying to herself.
Of course Helena knows. Sarah never has to tell her anything: she just knows.
“Look,” she starts, receiving a sharp eye from under Helena’s wind-tangled curls, but they’re both interrupted by the body hurling itself towards them as they round the corner to the school.
“Mannings!” Cosima shouts just as she hits them both in an over-the-top hug, sending Sarah stumbling backwards a few steps.
Helena’s lollipop leaves her mouth with a pop. “Beth has the tickets,” she says.
Cosima releases them to respond, her cheeks flushed from the November chill. Even though, Sarah wants to say, it’s a good ten degrees warmer than Friday night. But: that would mean bringing up Friday night.
“I know,” Cosima says, pulling her hair away from Helena’s lollipop. Helena wrinkles her nose. “She gave me mine before practice.”
“God, how long’ve you been here?” Sarah asks.
She waves that away with a laugh as they pick up their pace again, dutifully heading towards the school’s front steps. As always, it’s lined with students sitting in clusters, on the stairs and the grassless hill surrounding them.
“So you heard how well the show went,” Cosima says as they begin the process of weaving their way up the steps. No one ever moves. But Sarah doesn’t either, when she’s the one sitting there, so it’s only fair the inconvenience goes both ways.
“Every minute,” Helena says, and she’s back to sucking on her lollipop, which Sarah registers with mild discomfort.
Cosima slips ahead in the narrowest part but still turns her head to continue speaking, giving Sarah a lurch in her chest that has nothing at all to do with them approaching the school doors and is fully about the fear of Cosima tripping and rolling all the way back down to the sidewalk.
“Well, get this,” Cosima says as she hauls open one of the unlocked doors.
Sarah always gets a locked door first try no matter which one she goes for, so it’s a shock to see. That, and the burst of warmth from stepping inside, and the overwhelming scent of school that comes with more than just the usual dread, all work together to invoke her startle response.
“What,” Sarah mumbles. Her boots are heavy.
Principal Leekie’s on his usual shtick of pretending to be human as he greets random students in the main hall, no one returning even half his frantic energy this terrible Monday morning. From one of the tinny speakers Sarah can just make out the edges of a song she recognizes – and the other speaker blares static, which feels apt.
Cosima grabs both Helena and Sarah to direct them out of Leekie’s path, her grip tight until they’ve turned the corner and are safe by the niner lockers like he’s a video game grunt who forgets you exist once you’re out of sight.
“Okay, well we got a ton of calls after, on Veera’s line,” Cosima goes on. “A lotta compliments, lotta people just wanting to say they enjoyed the show. You know. But the best one-”
She pauses for dramatics and Helena shares a discreet eye roll with Sarah, who only now places the song Radio Swan’s playing. Her stomach drops.
“Someone wants to advertise with us!” Cosima squeals.
Helena joins her in jumping up and down, and Sarah feels her arm being tugged along with them, bouncing their way down the hall. Just past the radio booth. Live broadcast today; no pre-recording.
“That’s so good!” Helena says as Sarah tries to slip behind them both.
“I know,” Cosima says. “It wouldn’t be much, but we’d each get a little cut, and the exposure...”
Sarah misses the rest of the sentence and misses her next step and catches her balance just to see Rachel Duncan, through the glass window of the booth, staring right back at her.
“That was The Trews with Yearning,” Rachel says through the glass and the overhead speakers, “and these are your morning reminders.”
“Sarah, come on,” Helena calls back, somehow several feet ahead with Cosima.
The moment’s over and Rachel’s reading her reminder sheet, just as uninterested as she was a second ago when she was looking at Sarah like she was a piece of furniture. A floor lamp. Or an ugly ottoman.
“I want to get to our lockers before the bell rings,” Helena’s saying as she appears at Sarah’s side, nudging her along.
Sarah goes without comment, without even looking back. But she knows Helena does. And she knows exactly what Helena sees: that Rachel’s never going to acknowledge what happened. Because it was nothing. And everyone just needs to move on.
It’s easy enough, she guesses. Apart from English class, the two of them don’t have any reason to interact (unlike Beth, who spends gym and half the walk to the station telling Sarah how awesome and rewarding the all-night show was). They weren’t even acquaintances before the all-nighter. Sarah can slip in the classroom while Evie’s busy berating Rachel over her stance on the book versus the movie, doesn’t matter which book, which movie, Sarah’s sure Rachel will always be wrong in Evie’s eyes, and no one even notices Sarah take her seat at the very back.
It’s fine. A week later and it’s fine.
“No more bruise,” Helena comments when they’re getting dressed for school, Sarah’s back to her.
Of all things, this shouldn’t be the one that stings. But Sarah pulls her shirt over her head with cruel, jerky motions, letting it yank her hair through the collar. And Helena’s movement ceases.
“You didn’t say how you got it,” she murmurs.
Sarah pulls her knotted hair from her shirt. “No. I didn’t.”
At school, Helena gives her their usual cautious hug before parting for their respective classes, her hand lingering for a second where the bruise isn’t anymore. Then she pats it. Secrets. And disappears into her classroom without even a goodbye.
It tastes like the cough syrup Sarah once drank for fun from the medicine cabinet, that Mrs. S made her puke back up, the toilet water turning a bitter purple as she heaved. Stupid girl, S had called her then. And the voice in her head calls her now.
It’d be different if she could tell her sister – but every imagined version of this conversation ends after a few stilted words, just Helena staring at her before she either laughs or yells or walks away, no reaction feeling anywhere close to the truth. She could lie and say it’s because it’s a girl, or because it’s their sworn enemy, or because she didn’t tell her as soon as it happened. She’d be closer if she said it’s because it’s Helena. But. Really.
Every time she thinks about bringing it up, there are several images burned into her brain. And it’s all the ways Helena ever looked at Rachel.
The walk to her own English class is lonely, marred by the argument she’ll have to slip past, by the disinterest of everyone else when she can’t imagine being in a room and not noticing Rachel.
(She can’t tell Helena because of Rachel.)
And today’s argument is no different: the teacher has her coffee, the students busy themselves with their phones, or last class’s homework. Sarah trudges in unnoticed.
(Because of how Helena knows Rachel. The way Sarah’s sure Rachel doesn’t know herself.)
Or. Mostly unnoticed.
“Late again, huh?” Art-or-Arthur says from the next desk over, his smile kind despite the tone.
Her own smile comes out more like a wince, but it’s something.
“Just hoping to miss... this,” she says, gesturing to Evie and Rachel at the front.
He laughs and the sound disturbs Evie enough to shoot them a look, which results in Rachel seeking out the cause of the interruption. Sarah can feel it before she sees it – the needle-heat of Rachel’s eyes on her, and the blatant disinterest of the gaze sweeping over her. Oh. That.
Sarah swallows down the disappointment. (And the disappointment in herself.)
“I get it,” Art (she’s decided) says, not quite as loud this time. “They sure do love their audience.”
Something in his voice makes her want to ask how much he knows, and why he’s talking to her today, when they’re fighting about unreliable narrators, so on-theme the teacher lets it continue longer than usual if just to give herself the break. It’s written on the board behind them. Unreliable Narrators. Sarah would laugh it it wouldn’t just give her another chance to be ignored.
But then there’s later, after the teacher finally starts her lesson, after Sarah survives math class, after her friends convene for lunch and they’re decompressing over various disappointing meals. When the caf speakers click on, and Rachel’s voice cuts through the chatter.
“Good afternoon, DYAD cafeteria. It’s Rachel Duncan, kicking off the first official lunchtime show with my co-host, Paul Dierden.”
Sarah can hear the eye roll. And then feels it with the jab Cosima gives her, so Sarah can catch her faux-gag.
“Excited to be here, Rach,” Paul gives back, and this time it’s Sarah’s turn to roll her eyes.
“Ugh, fuck off,” Tony mutters.
The pause before Rachel speaks again says more than enough.
“And you’ve got the first song for us, huh? Let’s see here.” Paper rustles and Sarah imagines the two of them crammed in the tiny booth, Paul spreading his disaster over all of Rachel’s organized stacks, Rachel massaging her temples as she attempts to ward off an aneurysm. “Uhhh, right. Oh cool, love this band.”
Rachel’s baneful sigh hits the mic with the perfect amount of venom, and Sarah feels herself smiling before she can stop it. “Care to introduce it, then, Paul?”
It gets a few laughs from the cafeteria, some from Sarah’s own table, where she’s not the only one grinning. Veera bites down her snort with a Twizzler, shaking her head. “Idiot.”
“The Trews,” Rachel says when Paul takes a millisecond too long to react. “With, Why Bother.”
Another wave of laughter at Paul’s expense.
But Sarah’s smile falls faster than the fork from her hand, hitting the tray with a noticeable clank. Cosima raises an eyebrow at her. All good, Sarah shrugs off. It’s fine. She’s sure the song’s only there for Paul, a jab at Rachel being the one to get him tickets. It has nothing at all to do with...
Christ, she can still feel Rachel’s lips on hers. And the heat that creeps up her neck at the sensation.
“Gotta go,” she says, with just enough time to grab her bag before she stumbles away from the table. Tony’ll eat the rest of her lunch, she’s sure. Nothing will go to waste. And she can ignore Cosima calling after her and the odd look Veera shoots in her direction.
She doesn’t even know where she’s going until she gets there.
Until she’s standing across from the radio booth, and Rachel is indeed trapped inside with Paul Dierden, busying herself with the cord of her headphones while he inhales a bag of chips, raining down crumbs. Rachel’s finger slips from the knot she’d made in the cord. Sarah’s heart freezes.
Rachel looks up, and for a second forgets to be guarded.
Sarah, for that second, sees everything.
She doesn’t walk away. The sane thing to do is walk away. But Sarah has her back to a storage room door, shielded by the dim light of its alcove. And the speakers are off in the hall, in the classes too, not to disturb the second lunch period students, they’ll get the repeat broadcast later, the booth right now a silent movie as she watches Paul and Rachel go through the motions on the other side of the window. Rachel doesn’t look up again.
Paul laughs and Sarah isn’t sure, by the elbow he gives to Rachel’s side, if a song’s over or not, if they’re back on the air, if this playful joking is performative or he’s genuinely trying to engage a girl who would rather watch him chew drywall.
Rachel realigns a stack of loose papers, the spot where he elbowed her now held closer to the other side of her rolling chair. Smaller. She’s made herself smaller.
It’s voyeuristic, but Sarah stays the full length of the twenty-minute show – watching Rachel’s spine straighten every time the mics presumably turn back on, watching her dodge Paul’s increasingly large gestures, watching the chairs drift across the small space of the booth until the show’s over and Rachel’s pressed into a wall. A whole foot from her mic.
Doesn’t matter that Sarah heard none of it, that it ends with Paul’s empty chip bag claiming his spot after he’s gone and the booth door stays wide open.
She doesn’t need Rachel’s head in her hands to tell her it was a disaster.
And not for Paul. Guys like him thrive on their little mistakes, little promises that they too are like everyone else, even as they sit on their pedestals. Sarah’s sure people found it charming. They’ll choose his incompetence over Rachel’s professionalism every time, doesn’t she know, because it looks bad to want something that much, when it’s a girl wanting.
She steps out of her alcove without meaning to, just as Rachel’s head lifts. She doesn’t look at Sarah. Her vacant expression settles on a spot somewhere between the two of them: the dead air in the hallway.
Sarah can only imagine what her friends are saying right now, picking her lunch tray clean.
“Hey,” Sarah says, surprised to find herself at the open booth door, hand on her backpack strap so tight it burns.
Rachel’s gaze doesn’t shift. Her shoulders stiffen, slightly, but the only thing that follows is silence.
“I just- you deserve a better co-host than Paul,” Sarah says with a shrug, as if they’re friends, or acquaintances, or even just classmates who lend the odd pencil.
“Sarah,” Rachel finally responds, after letting Sarah’s words hang between them. “I don’t want to hear it from you.”
Somehow it has more bite than the entirety of that Friday night – Sarah’s cheeks flush, the wash of hot needles pinning her to the spot while Rachel gathers her crap and leaves the booth, her back to Sarah as she locks the door, so close all Sarah can smell is the spice of her perfume before it’s just a trail that leads down the locker-lined hall.
Rachel pauses at the corner. She doesn’t look back, but.
“I’m sorry, Sarah, that you thought this was more than it is.”
When Sarah can feel her hands again, when Rachel’s gone, she lets herself fall into the sharp corner of the doorframe. Right on the ghost of the bruise. Yeah, she thinks. But say that with anyone else around.
Report cards arrive through the mail slot, Sarah’s past catching up with her a few weeks before the winter break. Helena’s is filed in the desk drawer. Felix sticks his on the fridge. Sarah’s sits on the kitchen table with a lecture from Mrs. S, and yes, Sarah could do better, they all know it, but maybe they could consider the positives just this once.
She hasn’t punched anyone this year, for instance. (Mrs. S grimly reminds her it’s only December.)
She almost has a job – if you count Leda’s single advertising slot, for a local fitness studio that seemingly doesn’t know their demographic. Sarah’s come up with a a truckload of fitness-related puns, lead-ins, you name it, but she’s still barely passing nearly all her classes, and there’s no running from the consequences.
“Just not the concert, Mum, please,” Sarah begs, as Helena peeks around the doorway, her eyes dark and wide. “You know how much it-”
S waves a hand then lets out a sharp sigh.
“If it wasn’t my money that bought those tickets...”
Sarah runs her fingernail over a groove in the table, a knife mark from an angry outburst, and it could’ve been any one of them, really. She can’t remember. It isn’t like it’s the only one.
“I’ll get a tutor,” she swears, as if they don’t go through this every year. Sarah promises. Sarah tries. Sarah fucks it up, it’s the end of the world, she still can’t figure out how she got to that point.
“You’re darn right you’ll get a tutor, you’ve got exams coming up in the new year and we’re not going through this nonsense again.”
There’s a soft shuffle as Helena chances leaving the doorway, her fingers little claws, trying to keep the hope inside. It’s the worst time to notice, but she’s wearing Sarah’s skull shirt from Tony. Sorry, Helena’s arms say, as they fold around it. It never feels right to be mad, but Sarah’s told her. And Mrs. S still holds the concert over them like a childhood gift – always on the verge of being snatched away.
“I promise,” Sarah only barely gets out. It’s the tears that threaten to betray her, it’s the ever-present anger. Everything ready to explode if she loses her grip. “Anything, just let us go.”
S finally relents, if only to avoid having to be the one to disappoint Sarah’s friends yet again. “But the tutor is non-negotiable. And if those exam marks are anything like these, we’ll have to rethink your extracurriculars, Sarah. I mean it.”
Helena’s hand lands on Sarah’s arm just as the weight of the threat sinks through her stomach to the linoleum beneath them.
S puts on the kettle and that’s the end of it, Sarah’s report card joining Helena’s in the desk drawer, Helena tugging Sarah from the table just to sit on her bed with the blanket tented over them. Window cracked. The chill snaking in brings them both shivers, and it’s a comfort, one she couldn’t explain to anyone else. That a long time ago they felt this chill by themselves. That Helena koala-hugs Sarah from behind, that she can smell both of them on her skull shirt, that sometimes it’s a relief to control the ache.
“We still get to go together,” Helena whispers, her chin on Sarah’s shoulder. Bumping as she speaks.
Sarah inhales, the crackle of guilt and anger and shame and relief too sharp in her lungs. “Yeah,” she says. “And then it’s Christmas.”
Helena’s breath is hot against Sarah’s neck, but she doesn’t think of Rachel. Not really. It’s too soft. The air under the blanket is too soft to burn.
“We will go tobogganing,” Helena assures. Like it isn’t Helena who always begs.
“Who’ll be the first to flip?” Sarah asks.
It’s all warm now, the open window unable to touch them. Her heart has stopped punching her ribs. Helena’s hum vibrates her skin.
“You, I think. It’s your turn, Sarah.”
“Yeah?” Sarah asks.
Helena adjusts her hands over Sarah’s stomach, like a single squeeze could calm it completely. “Well, when was the last time? That you flipped?”
Anger to apology. Callousness to caring. Trying. Not failing.
“It’s been a while, yeah.”
The next afternoon, at the station, even if S isn’t listening, Sarah slips in a track for her.
She’ll be better. She’ll be smarter. More grown up, a better daughter.
From the sticky vinyl of the couch, Helena gives her a tiny, sister smile. Of course you will, Sarah. You can do anything. And if Helena believes it, then maybe Sarah can.
Like head lice, Paul’s presence spreads quickly over the wings of Radio Swan. In no way could his stint on the lunchtime show be considered a success, but the administration must see it that way, giving him the social half of the morning announcements as if Rachel Duncan couldn’t possibly read out what sports teams are practicing that afternoon or which fundraiser will be happening in the foyer to benefit a cause that truly doesn’t matter.
And yes. A month ago, Sarah would have eagerly accepted anyone else’s trite voice filling the halls and classrooms with mostly-useless information while students lingered at their lockers or napped at a desk before the second bell let class begin. She even spearheaded a bit on FLR about a takeover by the robo-voice of every your child or children was late or was absent from one or more periods phone call that Mrs. S has grown all-too-accustomed to receiving. It had its own jingle and everything.
But it’s Paul, she keeps trying to tell herself.
“I mean, you do almost feel bad for her,” Cosima says when Sarah actually voices the thought out loud, during the ninth lunchtime show where Rachel’s reduced to the role of scripted, un-witty banter.
“But,” Tony adds, and Sarah has to force herself to join their laughter.
Veera passes her a sour key without comment, which is the only part of lunch that doesn’t feel like chewing tinfoil.
Neither Beth nor Helena join them at the station after school, Helena at therapy and Beth at a rescheduled cheer practice, and while they’re both busy holding painful smiles Sarah writes the first song she’s been able to scrape out in almost six weeks.
Part of it is the emptiness of the vinyl couch. Part of it is Tony and Cosima’s smoke break before the show starts, kindly huddling by the dumpster outside the warehouse as to not accidentally hotbox the station again. Getting the window closed the first time was hard enough; no one wants to chance it again now that December’s started and the temperature’s doing its annual dance between fall and subzero.
Sarah doesn’t even jot down the lyrics – Veera’s busy in the booth, something with wires, and it’s safe enough to just sing quietly as the words come. With the wolf at the wheel, now, the feathers flutter ‘round... just a bird in the corner, plucked of all her down...
It comes faster than she can quite get it out, the ache in her chest, her fingers struggling over the fret board to match the sound of her voice. It’s like the air mattress Felix once jumped on with a fountain pen, the whole song falling at her feet before she can even find the puncture mark.
“Beautiful,” Veera mutters, when they both realize Sarah’s finally let it all out.
Ten minutes to air – Sarah registers with a jolt, lurching forward to set her guitar back on its stand.
“Will you play it on today’s show?” Veera asks.
“No,” she says too quickly, avoiding looking at the booth entirely. Not that Veera would likely be looking back; one of Sarah’s favourite traits of hers is the comforting lack of eye contact. “God, no, it’s not...”
“It’s about Paul, though, isn’t it?” Veera’s fiddling with her laptop when Sarah finally glances over, hair kindly in her eyes. “Radio Swan?”
The unspoken remaining subject hangs between them, as Sarah busies herself with her show notes on the table. There’s something sticky on the underside of the paper, something vaguely fruit-scented, but only enough to elicit faraway memories of the novelty elementary school erasers Sarah always stole from other kids.
“I don’t know, maybe not everything’s a bit,” Sarah instantly regrets saying, hit by both Veera’s quick gaze and the clunk of footfall coming down the metal warehouse steps.
A second later Tony and Cosima come laughing through the inner door, falling into their respective chairs like it’s still part of the joke. The clock above the window reminds them there’s only seven minutes left. Veera has the song queue geared up, everything plugged in and ready for the switch to flip.
Ten days ‘til The Trews concert! Is how Cosima’s going to start, and Veera will input the little cheering soundbite Sarah’s starting to wonder if they overuse. A tie-in to their advertising partner, which Sarah jotted down in math class. She may not be able to balance an equation, but she has more puns than a middle-aged dad at a barbecue.
One hour and six minutes later, it’ll be over. Sarah will walk home alone, because Helena and Beth aren’t here today and everyone else heads west from the warehouse. Veera won’t say another word about the song. Sarah will go home and write it down in one of the half-filled notebooks under her bed like it’s only just come to her and her guitar will still be at the station so there’ll be no temptation to sing it.
In her bed, in the dark, she’ll hear the chorus on repeat.
With his teeth around your neck. With his claws all down your back. And your trumpets are met with silence, in the distance, as the eyes through the forest go black.
She’ll picture Strummer singing while her friends pretend not to read into it, the whole naked song filtering through car radios and phone speakers and somewhere, all by herself, Rachel listening. Any other song, that would be the point. But Sarah’s never before written an apology. And it’s never been Sarah singing it. The real point, Sarah will admit, just before falling asleep, is that Rachel would figure it out. Rachel would finally know who her enemy is.
Helena does Sarah’s hair for the concert, and Sarah does Helena’s makeup. Which means they both end up looking a little bit glam rock-Medusa, as Felix puts it, hands on his hips in their doorway. It’s a compliment. Helena throws a dirty sock at him anyway.
She’s wearing one of Sarah’s shirts with permission, this time, a couple roses and twisting snakes around a cross, which clearly has a different meaning to both of them. But Sarah’s fine to let her sister believe worship means punk. It suits her either way. As does the glittery smoky eye, and the abundance of hairspray, and the choker Sarah’s pretty sure she stole from Claire’s a few years ago but Helena claims is hers.
“We’re gonna be the hottest ones there,” Sarah appraises before they head downstairs, and Helena’s laugh sounds like cotton candy.
By the time Beth and her brother arrive with their dad’s van, most of Helena’s lipstick is on an apple core in the trash bin, leaving just a hazy pink suggestion, like the mouth of a porcelain doll. A striking juxtaposition with the rest of her outfit – Sarah’s almost mad she didn’t think of it first.
“Wow,” Beth says when S lets them in. “Look at you two.”
“Look at yourself,” Sarah says with a whistle.
Felix cranes his neck from behind S to get a glimpse and nods in approval. It’s a crop top and loose black cargo pants, her cheerleader abs on full display like she came in with her coat unzipped just to show them off. Her hair’s down, curled, and her makeup’s pretty simple, but on Beth it looks like the girls Sarah used to cut out of magazines for “inspiration.”
“How the hell did you get that past your dad?” Sarah asks.
Beth chuckles nervously as Teddy clears his throat, behind her, suddenly coming into Sarah’s awareness. “Yeah, I had some help,” Beth says, and gives Teddy a smile.
The poor guy manages a nod in response, mostly focused on Mrs. S’s presence by the stairs like she might be telepathically ratting them out right now.
Instead, S claps a hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “Good for you, chicken,” she says to Beth, and nudges Sarah forward with a, “Grab your coats, now; don’t keep them waiting.”
“Nice to see you, Mrs. Sadler,” Teddy finally says in a soft voice, but he’s usually quiet, so Sarah can’t tell if it’s still nerves or just his general demeanor.
(General demeanor, she decides as he greets Felix in the same gentle tone. It puts a hilarious colour in Felix’s cheeks and she reminds herself to tease him about it later.)
S sends them off with a stern wave from the doorway, which is as much a drive safe as it is a behave your sorry asses and don’t disappoint me. But she does it with love and Sarah wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Right,” Beth says as they all buckle up, leaving her brother alone in the front so there can be a seat beside her. “Onto Veera’s!”
In the very back, Helena gives Sarah’s hand a squeeze. They’re cute, she’s saying. They are. And Sarah wonders when that started to sprout a tiny seed of jealousy inside her.
By the time they reach the venue, the van’s bursting with teenage sweat and a nervous energy. Tony, in the front with Teddy, somehow sweet-talks his way to the aux cord and inflicts a good half hour of Johnny Cash on the group, which everyone but Teddy agrees is not the mood for a Trews concert despite the painfully high volume.
It’s only in the final ten minutes, mostly spent looking for parking, that Cosima manages to get a Trews song going and it’s this that serenades the far end of the parking lot as they all tumble out of the van, a swarm of delirious clowns.
“Let’s GOOOO!” Tony cries out, bouncing across the salt-stained asphalt with Helena at his side. Someone whoops from a distant part of the lot in response, which sets off both Helena and Tony howling back.
“Feral,” Cosima mutters to Sarah, but with a fond smile Sarah finds herself echoing.
The two of them together are like pitbull puppies – far too adorable for their own good.
Beth and Veera linger behind long enough for Teddy to lock the van, a hopelessness on his face Sarah’s never before seen on a nineteen-year old. Then they haul ass to catch up to Tony and Helena already waiting at the doors, screaming out a song with a group of guys in leather jackets.
“This is Davey!” Helena says about the one with the steel wool beard.
Teddy gives one last longing glance back at the parking lot before dutifully falling in line.
It only takes three songs for Helena to wedge a particularly sharp elbow into Sarah’s side, and then they’re all looking about twenty feet over at Rachel Duncan, in a sinfully short silver dress, standing alone in the crowded venue.
Teddy’s somewhere alone too, at the back, but it’s different when he’s only here to fulfill his dad’s unnecessary wishes. And he still came with a group.
Rachel hasn’t seen them yet; another song starts up and Sarah’s stomach flips, hoping she doesn’t, hoping she has someone coming back from the bathroom or with a drink to make her look less alone. Not because she looks lonely. But it’s the way Cosima and Beth glance at each other, the way Tony raises his eyebrows. Sarah wants Rachel to look... well, less pathetic than she probably does in her friends’ eyes.
“We should say hi,” Helena decides about two seconds before taking off, too quick for Sarah to yank her back.
“No we shouldn’t!” Sarah calls after her. The band’s far too loud for anyone but Veera, right beside her, to hear, and Sarah grudgingly starts shoving her way through the crowd to go after her sister.
She’s stepped in about four different sticky things by the time she reaches them – Rachel’s unfazed until she catches Sarah’s eye, and her response to whatever Helena said grows remarkably colder.
“-prefer my own company, thank-you.”
She says it straight to Sarah. Right as the rest of the group catches up to them.
“Surprised to see you here, Rachel!” Tony says over the music. Beth elbows him and Cosima gives Sarah a questioning glance.
It’s Helena, she wants to say, but Helena’s not even here, suddenly, leaving just Rachel’s venomous stare and a dress Sarah’s trying not to look at, not a single person wanting to be where they are.
Finally, Cosima comes up with, “I thought I saw Paul earlier, he with you?” Which is enough for Sarah to turn on a sticky heel and attempt to herd her friends away.
“No,” Rachel huffs, a knife through the music.
“Okay!” Sarah says with a forceful shove to Tony, which thankfully gets them all moving back to their original spot where Teddy could see them. Not that he needs to, he assured them, only here to tell his dad that he was, but it’s far, far away from Rachel.
(And Rachel’s dress. And Rachel’s eyeshadow. And Rachel’s thighs in nearly-invisible nylons that accentuate just how short that dress actually is.)
The crowd moves like quicksand but they still manage to squeeze back to their starting point, Cosima’s dancing enough to give them the space to breathe without strangers in their armpits. She mellows out when the next song starts, a slower one, that has Sarah forcefully keeping her eyes on the stage even as Helena finally reappears.
“Where were you?” Sarah hisses at her sister’s ear. She somehow now smells like cotton candy, and when Sarah looks there’s even more glitter on her face.
Helena grins as she loops an arm around Sarah. “Making friends!”
It rings in Sarah’s ears along with the heavy bass, and the drums, and the pulse of the music that snakes its way through every muscle in her body. They’re here to have fun, she reminds herself. Rachel’s not going to ruin that.
She lets herself get lazily danced around by her sister, a hazy little sway that eventually leads to bouncing as the songs change from slow to fast, faster to louder. By the end of the final set all six of them have joined in a tangled mess of- she can’t even call it dancing, but they’re sticky and giddy and can barely hear their own heartbeats, and it’s exactly what they wanted.
“Worth freezing your ass off?” Beth asks in the parking lot, her hair significantly less curly than it was several hours ago.
At the mention of the cold, Veera shivers and Beth pulls her in for a hug, wrapping them both in her open coat.
Sarah shivers as well and tries to tell herself it’s from the icy December air. “For sure,” she says, plastering a grin on her face. “Gonna still be half-deaf by Christmas.”
It gets a laugh from the two of them, Veera’s head on Beth’s shoulder, catching Sarah’s eye for the briefest second as Helena and Cosima join their little circle by the van.
“Tony’s still in the merch line so it could be a while,” Cosima says, her cheeks flushed despite the rush of wind.
“Where’s Teddy?” Sarah asks, pulling her jacket a little tighter. “Least he could do is give us the keys.”
Helena glances back at the venue, then to Cosima. Let her break the news, she seems to be saying. Sarah shifts and steps onto some broken glass and can only focus on the sound it makes, even as Cosima says they ran into Rachel, that Tony and her got into it, that Teddy wanted to ensure Tony got his shirt without further incident.
The scrape of glass between rubber sole and wet asphalt.
“He’s convinced she knows,” Cosima’s saying. “With everything with Sarah.”
Sarah jolts back into the conversation so hard she nearly gives herself whiplash.
She can feel both Veera and Helena looking at her, their gaze leaving needle marks in her skin as she tries not to make eye contact with anyone.
“You know, the whole evil glare thing earlier?” Cosima says. “He’s pretty sure she knows you’re Strummer, and – it makes sense, actually – is like, gathering receipts so she can rat us out to Leekie at the worst possible moment.”
“Oh,” Beth says. So neutral Sarah’s neck gets hot.
“Right?” Cosima replies, before going into the details of Tony’s conspiracy theory.
It should be terrifying, the prospect of Rachel tanking their entire show and possibly adding yet another red mark to Sarah’s permanent record. The whole point of anonymity is- well. Rachel probably would, too. Not to ruin the show. Sarah knows hardness enough to know it only covers up hurt, and hurt only wants to create more hurt. And still, it doesn’t scare her. Not like the alternative.
The ride home is quiet; ears ringing, heads on shoulders, eyes shut. Sarah and Helena are dropped off last. As she did with Veera, Beth gets out to walk them to the door.
“Sarah,” she says, as Helena bounces inside.
Sarah’s half in the doorway, half on the front stoop. Teddy has the van running but his hood over his eyes, either for privacy or from utter exhaustion.
“Remember that letter I wrote to Cosima, back in middle school?” Beth asks in a very measured voice.
Sarah shifts closer to the doorframe. “Your hate crush letter?”
Their breaths make wispy clouds between them and Sarah thinks back to that first snowfall, the little pompom on Beth’s hat.
“I just knew I was scared, of what those feelings might mean,” Beth says, carefully, not quite looking at Sarah. “And it’s always been my first instinct to push things away.”
She doesn’t outright say it. She won’t, and Sarah’s grateful. But it still hangs there as Beth gives Sarah a quick hug, cold cheek to cold cheek, and makes her way back to her brother in the van.
Sarah stays in the doorway until the van’s all the way down the street, out of sight, even as Helena comes up behind her, even as Mrs. S yells that she’s letting the cold in.
“Let’s wash it all off,” Helena says, a hand gently tugging Sarah into the warmth. “Get to bed.”
End the night, she’s saying. Sarah shuts the door.
A week later school lets out for winter break, and, despite the forecast, doesn’t gift them a single flake of snow.
Helena spends the entirety of Sunday morning staring out their bedroom window at their beloved backyard tree, its branches naked of both leaves and ice, just sad brown veins against a grey sky. Mrs. S lets her eat breakfast in bed as a consolation – eggs and toast, which is brave, with the ketchup – and Sarah joins her around lunchtime just to break up the monotony.
“It’s gonna snow before school starts again,” she tells her. “Don’t worry.”
Sarah’s fine either way, knowing snow comes with seas of dark road slush, making the streetcar tracks a real slip hazard when trying to cross. It’s pretty, the snow; she gets why her sister loves it. The first hours after a fresh snowfall makes the city look like a holiday postcard. But it doesn’t stop the salt stains from taking over Sarah’s boots, or the cuffs of all her jeans. And unless it’s the good packing snow, there’s not much they can do with it in their yard.
“Sarah, you have to promise.”
It does make for a nice scene out the window.
Pinky on pinky, they seal her vow. If it doesn’t come true I get to break your finger, Helena reminds her, the glint back in her eyes just enough for Sarah to fairly tackle her into the pillows. She isn’t always sure what sisterhood is but sometimes, in the little things, she can kind of get it right.
(Violent love – something they’re learning to use with care.)
Helena’s dreams and Sarah’s promise come true exactly two days before Christmas: Christmas Adam, as Felix calls it, which comes with a joke he doesn’t say in front of S. They wake up to just over six inches which, apart from making for that classic white Christmas, means the good hill’s in perfect condition for toboggans.
Felix and Helena head out to the shed to find the magic carpets, the (cracked) saucer, and the big toboggan they garbage-picked in one of the fancy neighbourhoods, which will no doubt be tangled up in yards of garden hose no one will ever use.
Sarah calls the two people who first took her tobogganing, her beloved welcome committee to Canadian winter, and half an hour later Tony and Cosima meet them at the top of Riverdale hill.
“Hey, same snow pants!” Tony says to Felix, pointing at the patched-up pair barely visible under Felix’s oversized coat that match his own.
Felix responds with a wonderful scowl. “Yeah, these were yours, genius.”
They’re the only two actually wearing snow pants, solely thanks to Tony’s mum, but Sarah figures half the fun’s in trying to defrost your legs under your soaked jeans on the chilly walk home. Plus she’d really rather look even mildly respectable as she plummets down the steep, bumpy slope.
People have already carved out pits and built jumps out of snow, meaning they’re sure to get some good crash landings today. Sarah claims the saucer immediately – the crack makes it spin even faster, and she’s never once landed upright in the bright orange disc. There’s a scuffle for the big toboggan, Helena eventually winning out, Felix settling for Tony’s snow tube while Tony grabs a magic carpet and heads down on his stomach. He makes it almost halfway before taking a face full of snow.
Helena hangs back long enough to see Cosima and Felix navigate the course, watching them both get some good air on the jumps before rolling off in laughter at the very bottom.
“You want me to go first?” Sarah asks, motioning with her saucer.
Helena glances over at the family nearby – three kids and their parents, the youngest probably seven or eight. It’s about as crowded as expected, but everyone’s got their own little lanes, and they both watch the dad make sure his youngest is properly seated in their dual sled before taking off.
“No, it’s okay,” Helena says. “If I have to see you in that thing before I-”
Sarah laughs. The first run’s always the hardest, and Sarah landing on her ass with the saucer ten feet away won’t exactly instil confidence in any spectators.
“I’ll watch you, then,” Sarah says. It’s hard to make a visible thumbs up in her chunky ski gloves, but Helena receives the message.
Helena pulls her fur-lined hood over her toque in preparation, ignoring what the wind will do once she gets going, and Sarah doesn’t take her eyes off her sister as both she and the wooden toboggan go speeding down the hill. The first run’s the hardest, but Helena holds tight to the reins as she hurtles over snow bumps, passing Tony trudging back up the hill, her mittens maintaining that tight grip as she slows to a stop near a cheering Felix and Cosima at the bottom. Even without her turning around, Sarah can see the exact grin her sister’s sporting.
“YOUR TURN, SARAH!” Helena shouts against the wind, waving one bright yellow mitten.
It gets a warm laugh from the mom on the run next to them. Sarah gives her a quick, embarrassed smile, and then takes her saucer for its first chaotic trip of the season.
When she was little, in England, snow like this was a TV dream; a fictional world of kids meeting Santa Claus, drinking hot cocoa with two parents beside a tinsel-filled tree. It wasn’t something she wished for because she never thought it was attainable. She had foster homes and a tired case worker, and even when S took her in she’d long ago stopped dreaming about family.
It isn’t something she thinks about often. People had it worse, and she knows because she’s known those people. But every so often the comparison comes back – years ago she was alone, and today her siblings dog-pile her the second she lands with her ass in the air. Cosima, kindly, grabs the saucer from another group’s lane. They all climb back up together.
“It feels weird, doesn’t it,” Cosima says on the walk back before they all split up.
Enough people have yet to shovel their sidewalks for them to be able to drag their various sledding equipment behind them, only occasionally interrupted by the scrape of plastic or wood on concrete.
Tony, wearing his snow tube over his head and shoulders like a large hat, catches on before Sarah does.
“The show’d be ending just about now,” he says, tilting the tube to look up at the quickly-darkening sky.
“It’s like we’re just regular people,” Cosima replies, and it’s only been three months of FLR, but Sarah feels the same. Somehow, in such a short period of time, it’s become part of their identity.
She swallows as S’s threat comes back to her; their short break is a novelty, but to actually have to quit? To know the show’s still running, just without her, and it’s out of her life all the same? She hasn’t told them yet because she doesn’t want them to have to worry, but, mostly, it’s the fear that telling them will make it come true.
(She’s never superstitious until she is superstitious. It takes an extra-wide step to avoid the next sidewalk crack, her foot landing on a rogue chunk of snow.)
“Soon it will all be back to normal,” Helena assures them just before they head their separate ways. It’s said with the typical Helena lightness, even as she catches Sarah’s eye.
Yeah, they all say, with their little waves, their wet jeans and rosy cheeks, everyone heading to their warm homes with warmer feelings than Sarah.
It’s nearly Christmas, and winter break, but the minute she’s changed into dry clothes Sarah opens her computer to email the one person who actually might be able to help her from the tutor list her advisor gave her. Not Alison, despite Beth’s halfhearted (and fully empty) recommendation.
Sarah’s not sure Evie will even reply before they’re back at school, but at least she’s finally taken a step towards not losing the show. Or failing her exams.
Helena reads the email over Sarah’s shoulder, clicking her tongue in approval. “Professional,” she says. “You misspelled sincerely, though.”
She doesn’t tell S she’s sent the email only because S thinks she sent it a week ago, but Helena grins at her all through dinner with the pride a fictional version of S might give Sarah for doing the bare minimum. She’ll take it. That, and the extra meatball Helena rolls onto her plate, and the warmth of the four of them around their little kitchen table, snow on the big tree in their backyard.
Exactly twenty-five hours later, Sarah gets a new email.
Helena’s in the shower and Sarah’s heart kicks against her ribs as she clicks to open this has-to-be-a-mirage-of-an email, quick glance to her closed bedroom door, not that she’s looking at porn, but the thought of someone barging in on-
Shivers. Surely they can turn the thermostat up, it’s Christmas Eve for fuck’s sake. The pipes are still groaning out the last of the hot water for Helena’s shower – thank God Sarah couldn’t be bothered tonight – and the sound is permission enough to keep reading, her skin crawling.
Attached are several photos slated for the January edition of the DYAD Chronicle. I will be publishing my coverage of the Trews concert, a brief article and a photo spread, and thought I’d offer you a courtesy veto before sending them in.
Courtesy. Best. Sarah’s eyes stumble back over those two pinched words again before she’s able to open up the first attachment. It takes a minute to load the image, and when it does her breath catches.
It’s the concert, all right. But it’s Sarah – in profile, almost haloed by the stage lights, her cheeks glittering.
She clicks to the next: Helena’s arms around her, shot from the back, the stage out of focus in front of them. Helena’s hair has a crown of kaleidoscope colours tangled into it; they’re faceless, but it radiates love.
And another, as she clicks through, with Beth and Veera holding hands, Sarah mid-jump beside them.
In the final one Sarah seems to be looking straight at the camera – she has no memory of even seeing a camera, let alone Rachel after she’d herded her friends back to their spot. It was the middle of a shift in the lights, Sarah’s face half red, half blue, and she’s quite small in the crowd, but she’s smiling. A smile she’s never seen on herself before.
There’s a sudden silence as the water shuts off – then the screech of the shower curtain’s plastic clips across metal. Helena turns on the space heater after a pause that Sarah knows she spent drying her hands, no wet hands on electrical appliances, but Helena’s always hated that cold bite of air after stepping out of a shower. Lean into the small comforts, the therapist says. Helena’s taken that to heart.
Sarah has a good five minutes left to herself while her sister dries off now, and, somehow, she has to craft an acceptable reply in that short window of time.
Not that Helena would say anything, were she to walk in on this. But it’s never about the saying. Not with Helena.
Wow, Sarah types out, did you take any photos of the actual band, and it’s meant as a light-hearted joke but she quickly deletes it, not wanting to risk severing this tiny, unexpected connection. (On this late Christmas Eve.)
Of course if she replies at all to the unspoken message it’ll sever it just as quick, no matter how carefully she treads in that direction.
The bathroom door unlocks.
Sarah exhales and hurriedly types out the safest, most neutral approach she can think of. Looks fine, some nice photography. Let me know if I make the front page lol. No name at the end. Sarah-Polite and Rachel-Polite are two different categories.
“Sarah, I smell of grapefruit and cloves,” Helena announces as she swings their door wide open, her hair covered by an adeptly-wrapped towel.
Send. Exit. Shut down.
She doesn’t expect a reply.
But it comes the next morning, sent while Sarah’s family is opening presents.
Will do. Merry Christmas, Sarah.