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30 Seconds After

Frantic breaths. Frantic fingers. Reaching for Sam’s hand, her shoulder, her cheek, anything to let her know that this is real. She finds her lips, and the part of her that was threatening to fall apart completely settles itself, at least for the moment, in the heat of her chest.

“Are you okay?”

“Are you?”

The paperback chest plate falls to the floor, and with it the weight of the last three days, the last three hundred years. The only thing Deena can hear right now is the persistent, determined beating of her heart, the blood rushing in her ears. She feels Sam’s shuddered breath on her lips.

“Let’s get out of here.”

 

 

One Hour After

Before they even know where they’re going their feet start to take them west. A drumline pounds in Sam’s head, Deena bleeds through the bandage on her stomach, and they eventually realize they should head to the hospital, but with no way to call for help or a ride they keep walking. Hand in hand, they pull each other forward.

Ziggy and Martin are already in the lobby when they arrive. They both stand up at the same time, words spilling over each other so quickly that Deena doesn’t catch most of it, not until Martin says something about Josh getting fitted for a cast. The last trembling strand of strength that holds Deena together snaps under the weight of all the relief that slams into her, and she sinks to her knees on the white linoleum floor. She doesn’t feel herself hit the ground, but she registers the cool tile on her grime covered cheek. Josh is alive. Her eyes close. She doesn’t feel Sam’s worried hands on her shoulders, doesn’t hear Ziggy scream for help. Josh is alive. The world goes still.

Deena wakes up in a hospital bed with a new bandage on her stomach, her left hand wrapped in gauze, and an IV in her arm. She orients herself just as a nurse enters her space and pulls the privacy curtain closed behind her. The nurse is occupied with a clipboard and doesn’t see Deena staring.

“What happened?” she can only whisper.

“Oh,” the woman looks up for the first time. She’s older, the dark skin of her forehead pulled up in surprise. For a moment Deena sees the dead receptionist. Then she doesn’t. “You lost a lot of blood, passed out the second you walked through the door,” the nurse says.

“How long…?”

“You weren’t out long. Just enough time for us to get you comfortable.” The nurse checks the watch face on the inside of her wrist, “A little less than ten minutes.”

“Where’s Sam?” Deena croaks. Apparently two words is her limit at the moment.

“She’s alright, getting checked out in a private room,” and before Deena can summon the presence of mind to say let me see her the nurse continues, “The police asked us to keep you three separate until they can talk to you. After you’ve given your statements we’ll move her in here.”

Deena’s shell-shocked brain takes a moment to work through what she just heard. You three.

“My brother—”

“Is fine. A broken arm and a pretty nasty cut on his stomach, but he’ll be alright. Like I said, you can see him after you talk to the police.”

They have a lot of questions, and it takes a long time. Her clothes are taken for evidence, and the hospital gown she’s given scratches persistently at her neck as the minutes pass. The process is excruciating, although not altogether unexpected. If Deena found two of her coworkers dead in a mall and her boss stabbed to death in a secret tunnel system under his house she’d have a lot of questions too, so she does her best to play along. Two hours later though, Deena starts to lose her temper. They’re relentless, going over the same details again and again and again, as if they think she’s lying. She doesn’t even know what she’s saying anymore, doesn’t care if she sounds crazy, she just wants them to leave. The adrenaline has long since worn off and even though they’ve given her some painkillers, the hole in her stomach is taking up more and more space at the forefront of her mind. Finally, the nurse rescues her.

“That’s enough for now, she needs to rest.”

The cops reluctantly shuffle out, and Deena whispers a thank you.

 

 

Six Hours After

It’s hard to have a breakdown in the middle of an emergency room, so Deena finds a bathroom for some privacy. She locks the door behind her, chin and fingers trembling as she leans on the metal pole that her IV bag hangs from, before giving up and sinking to the ground.

And she cries. Hard.

Everything starts happening again all at once. She’s screaming in the chemistry classroom, her throat raw with the words we’re killing her. The bathroom walls are blurry as tears fall down her cheeks. Her breath comes in harsh gasps that tear at her lungs like claws. She’s in the grocery store, cold water splashing on her hands as Sam struggles beneath her palm. The IV stand creaks as she collapses, lightheaded, onto her side. She’s on the kitchen floor, her stomach is on fire and there’s blood pouring through her fingers. Deena’s joints shudder and shake with each choking sob. She wails loudly, unable to stop herself and unable to care if anybody can hear her from the other side of the door. She hangs from the tree, she slashes a deep cut across her palm. Her body aches with the pain of it all.

Kate and Simon laugh at her in the high school bathroom and there’s nothing she can do to stop what’s about to happen to them. Deena sees their faces and her hands reach out, grasping at memories. It’s my fault, I couldn’t save you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. She needs her friends to hear the words but she can’t get enough air in her chest to say them. She curls up on the ground and covers herself with her arms, trying to hide away from the guilt that swallows her whole, chews her up, spits her out.

It ends suddenly, as if someone ripped the needle off the record in the middle of the song, and she’s left in heavy silence on the bathroom floor. With nothing left to do, and nothing left inside, Deena pulls herself up and makes a halfhearted attempt to clean her face before walking back outside, pulling the IV stand with her. She makes it halfway back to her bed before a familiar voice rings out from behind one of the curtains and stops her.

“She saved my life.”

Sam. Finally. Finally the cops are done talking to her. Deena almost trips over herself to get to her but the response she hears turns her feet to stone.

“I don’t care what she did, if it wasn’t for her none of this would have happened to you,” Sam’s mother snaps with a quiet ferocity that used to scare Deena, but now it just pisses her off.

“If it wasn’t for her I’d be dead!” Sam screams back. It’s uncharacteristic of her, but then again, these have been an uncharacteristic few days.

There’s a long pause, and Deena can visualize Sam looking at her hands, scrunching up her lips as she collects herself. She’s always been so deliberate. Thinking through every word before saying it, considering the ramifications of every action before making it. It used to drive Deena crazy, especially when they were sixteen and Deena finally had the guts to tell her how she felt. Even after everything that’s happened, the thirty seconds of utter silence between Deena’s breathless confession and Sam’s composed response still holds up as one of the most agonizing experiences of her entire life. But she got used to waiting. Waiting for Sam to be the first one to pass a note in class, for Sam to be the one to reach for her hand under the lunch table, for Sam to be the one to kiss her behind the bleachers when she knew no one was looking. Deena waits again now, holding her breath in the middle of the emergency room, and she is not surprised when the next words out of Sam’s mouth are slow and calm.

“Mom, I promise I’m not lashing out. This is not me trying to make you upset. I’m tired, and I’m sad, and I want to spend the night with people who understand what I’ve been through. Can you let me do that?”

Deena is so focused on listening for a response that she is caught completely off guard when Ms. Fraser pulls back a curtain not ten feet away and walks out. As she passes she meets Deena’s eyes, and for the first time ever there’s no trace of a scowl, only a deep, indescribable sadness. It surprises Deena enough that she turns to watch her leave.

Deena pulls back the privacy curtain from the same place that Sam’s mother exited, and almost passes out again at the mere sight of Sam sitting there, legs hanging off the side of the bed, feet covered in the second pair of hospital socks she’s been given in the last 48 hours. Her head, hanging low between her shoulders, lifts up at the sound of Deena’s IV stand creaking its way toward her.

“You’ve been crying,” she says when she sees Deena’s face.

“Yeah,” Deena replies. It’s all she has the time or energy for before she closes the gap between them and wraps her arms around Sam’s waist. The needle in her arm tugs a little with the force of the gesture but Deena doesn’t care. She buries her face in Sam’s neck and takes her first deep breath in hours, maybe days. She feels Sam’s arms around her shoulders, her legs around her back, her fingers in her hair. They lose track of time.

 

 

Ten Hours After

Deena’s dad is finally able to leave work and pick them up, and he brings with him a random assortment of shirts and shorts for them to change into. The ride home is near silent, the only sounds coming from the soft folk tunes echoing from the car radio and the friction of worn down tires on worn down roads. Josh sits up front, his head resting against the window, and Deena sits behind him, glancing every so often at the sliver of the bright yellow cast she can see in the small gap between the front seat and the door. Sam sits next to her in the middle seat, close enough to rest her head on Deena’s shoulder as they ride home.

Deena’s father catches her eye in the rear view mirror as they stop at a red light. She sees relief, regret, and all the love that she’s been looking so hard for since her mother passed away. Her eyes get shiny but there’s not enough left in her to cry again. The light turns green. The moment passes.

The three of them decide to stay together in the basement for the night. They move the coffee table out of the way and pile up the space with every pillow and blanket the house has to offer, but before they retreat from the world completely, Deena and Josh figure they owe their dad some sort of explanation. Sam stretches out on the couch as she hears their footsteps pad back up the stairs.

 

She doesn’t remember falling asleep. She doesn’t remember waking up again. She doesn’t know how much time has passed since Deena and Josh left her down here. The only thing Sam is absolutely sure of in this moment is that she can’t move. The first thing she feels is her heart exploding in her chest, sending shockwaves through her veins, followed by the intense strain in her shoulders as she tries to move her arms and fails. Lying on her side, she can see her fingers resting right in front of her face but they might as well be solid metal welded to the couch. She tries to shift her legs, turn her head, anything. Her muscles ache. She pulls with everything she has, pulls so hard it leaves her breathless, and she can’t even open her mouth to suck in more air. Her heart gets louder with every beat, her lungs start to burn with every desperate inhale, and still she’s locked in place.

That’s when she sees the skull mask hovering in the corner of her vision, knife gleaming at his side. Everything inside her tenses at once, her heart slamming into her ribcage in an attempt to break through and end it for good. This can’t be real. It’s over. They broke the curse. Didn’t they?

Skull mask shifts suddenly and Sam struggles with renewed fear against the welds that hold her metal body in place. She feels her vocal cords tear into a growl with the effort of it all and for a moment she’s back on Deena’s kitchen floor, tied up in a phone cord with a fury unlike any she’s ever known. And then skull mask walks behind the couch, out of her vision, and that fury turns to panic. Her chest heaves. Something in her gut tells her he’s right above her, knife pointed at her neck. This can’t be how it ends. Not here. Not after everything. Not when she’s completely helpless and Deena is right upstairs. Sam closes her eyes.

And it’s over. As if a switch flips on in her brain, her mouth jerks open and sucks in enough air to fill a submarine. Her eyes go wide and the fingers in front of her face clench into a fist so tight it feels like her whole arm might fall off. She still feels heavy, but she has enough control to roll herself off the couch and thud to the floor, and that’s what seems to break it completely, whatever “it” is. Sam stands up, turning this way and that in frantic half steps, looking for skull mask or any of the other ones that may have gotten in. But she’s alone in the basement, the sound of her heavy, panting breaths the only thing to keep her company.

The shock quickly mutates into grief, and suddenly she’s sitting with her back against the TV stand, knees pulled up to her chest, arms thrown over her head like she’s hiding from a tornado. The tears come slowly at first. Originating in a small, painful burn in the back of her throat, they creep forward with each shaky inhale until the first drops wet her cheeks. It’s painful, what comes after. The kind of crying that turns your throat to sandpaper and your lungs to mush. She gets swept up in the cyclone, unable to suck in any air. She gasps desperately but her sobs keep forcing everything out, leaving a vacuum in her chest. The sound of her own crying becomes muffled. Her lungs fill up with water. Kate’s screams echo in her ears.

I don’t want you guys to die for me.

It’s not long before Deena’s footsteps come crashing down the stairs, but Sam can’t hear them over the sound of herself falling to pieces. She flinches when Deena touches her knee, and it makes her cry even harder. Eventually Deena tries again, moving to Sam’s side and pulling her gently into her chest. This time Sam sinks into her, grabbing onto whatever piece of fabric she can get a hold of. It’s hard to see with all the water in her eyes.

The minutes tick past but Deena doesn’t try to make her stop, she just waits for Sam’s hitched breaths to even out, for the muscles in her body to relax. Deena holds her longer than she has to, long after the crying stops, long after her legs fall asleep tucked underneath her. With her right arm wrapped around Sam’s back, she holds her steady. With her left hand, she runs her fingers through Sam’s hair, tucking it behind her ear again and again, something to keep her grounded. Her fingernails scrape gently at her scalp, and she feels her own heartbeat against Sam’s temple. They’re quiet for a long time, breathing together at the end of everything.

“I think I got snot on your shirt,” Sam mumbles, breaking the silence. After a long pause she adds, “I’m sorry.”

Deena puffs out a laugh through her nose. “I forgive you,” she says.

“I mean—” Sam pulls away enough to look at her but all she sees are the bruises around Deena’s neck. She looks down and sees the broken drumstick in her hand. Her throat closes up again.

“I know what you mean.”

Sam feels Deena’s lips on her forehead, and a second later the gentle pressure is replaced by Deena’s own forehead pressing against hers. Sam reaches for her hand, their matching gauze wraps sticking together as they interlock their fingers.

Josh joins them downstairs not long after, and they settle into the nest of blankets and pillows on the ground. An old movie chock full of soft lighting and show tunes plays quietly on the TV in front of them. Deena and Josh lean back against the couch and Sam lies with her head on Deena’s thigh.

“Did something happen while we were upstairs?” Deena asks softly, her fingers still running through Sam’s hair.

“Not really. Well, sort of,” Sam says. She rolls onto her back, trying to picture the words in her head before she says them out loud. “I fell asleep on the couch, I think. And when I woke up I couldn’t move. Like I was paralyzed. And I—” Sam pauses, thinking it through. She feels crazy, but if anyone is going to understand her, it’s going to be these two. “I saw skull mask. Or at least I thought I did. By the time I could move again he was gone.” Her fingers fumble with the hem of Deena’s shirt that she’s wearing. “I must have been… I don’t know, hallucinating or something,” she tries to say nonchalantly, but the wobble in her chin and the crease between her eyebrows give her away.

While Deena searches for a response she hears Josh sigh on her other side.

“This is never gonna go away, is it? We’re gonna be fucked up forever,” he says. He leans his head back on the couch cushion and stares at the exposed ducts crawling along the ceiling.

“I thought the whole point of putting this stupid movie on was so we wouldn’t say shit like that,” Deena says as the characters start tap dancing on screen.

Josh puts his left arm up in mock surrender, awkwardly raising his casted right arm to match. “Jeez, my bad. I forgot everything was all sunshine and rainbows now.”

Instinct encourages her to shove him with her shoulder, but empathy keeps her still. Usually when Josh says things specifically to piss her off it’s followed by a challenging look in her direction, itching for the satisfaction of seeing her eyes roll. A sacred Johnson sibling ritual. Now though, his gaze lowers with his hands as they drop into his lap. A character in the movie falls comically to the ground, and a laugh track chirps mercifully from the TV, as if consciously trying to fill the sudden silence in the basement.

Deena doesn’t give a witty retort this time. It’s her own way of acknowledging that they aren’t just going back to the way it used to be. That they can’t go back. Maybe ever. Instead, she leans over and rests her head on his shoulder. A few seconds pass, and Deena feels him return the gesture. They aren’t used to it, to leaning on each other like this. Neither of them realized it, but ever since their mom passed away and their dad started drinking, Deena and Josh developed a sort of fend-for-yourself attitude when it came to dealing with personal shit. It’s safe to say the last three days have changed things. Sam turns back onto her side, and they watch the rest of the movie in silence.

 

 

Five Days After

By the time they come back to the cemetery the sun is low in the sky, less than an hour away from slipping behind the tree line. Deena and Sam walk together through the rows of headstones, hands shoved deep into jacket pockets as the October air whistles past. The Shadyside cemetery has never been short on freshly dug graves, but they’re looking for one in particular. They were here this morning in their finest blacks when the coffin was lowered into the ground, but they didn’t stay long. It didn’t feel right to be there with so many people who didn’t know what happened, wearing clothes he wouldn’t recognize them in. So they left, and spent the last day of their excused week of school absences in the comfort of each other’s company. When enough hours had passed that they figured they’d have some privacy, they made a quick stop at a convenience store before heading back to say goodbye to their friend.

“They couldn’t have buried you closer to the parking lot, huh?” Deena says, the toes of her boots almost touching the new mound of soil. Sam can’t help but smile.

The name Simon Kalivoda stares back at them silently, engraved in clean granite.

Deena takes out the folded piece of paper from her jacket pocket and opens it up. They found it three days ago on the last page of an old notebook from freshman year. A horrible, hilarious, forgotten gem from a time when witches and curses were nothing more than a story, but the reality of meeting an unsatisfactory end in Shadyside was getting harder to ignore. At the top of the paper, written in light blue gel pen: Instructions for the funeral of Simon Kalivoda.

“Your funeral sucked by the way, they didn’t use any of your ideas,” Deena says as her eyes scan the page for the millionth time that week. “No roman candles, no pyrotechnics… no fire at all actually, and uh, no jack-in-the-box style jump scare with your body.”

“Jesus, I forgot about that one,” Sam says, the first words she’s spoken in about an hour.

“Yeah I know it was funny when we wrote it but I honestly can’t think of anything more horrifying,” Deena says, folding the paper back up again. “Instead all we got was a boring old man saying some boring old words, and lots and lots of crying. You would have been so pissed.”

Deena talks to him for two reasons. Mainly for Sam, who stands so still beside her it’s as if her joints have rusted in place. Her eyes haven’t left his name since she got close enough to read it, and Deena understands why. This is the first time she’s lost someone. The first time she’s watched someone she loved turn into a few etchings on a rock. Deena, on the other hand, knows exactly how many rows and columns of grave markers separate Simon from her mother, and she recognizes what Sam is trying to do as she reads his name over and over again. Trying to fit everything he ever said, everything he ever wore and felt, everything he was, into the spaces between the letters. She’ll realize quickly that there isn’t enough room. There’s never enough room.

The second reason Deena talks to Simon is because she hurts so fucking much, and she’s learned from experience that sometimes it helps to ask them questions, even if she knows they won’t answer.

Deena sighs, pulling the new bottle of purple nail polish out of her other pocket. She sets it on top of the folded instructions, in between some flowers right below his name. When she stands next to Sam again, she can feel her shivering. Sam’s hands are still shoved into the pockets of her jean jacket so Deena doesn’t make any attempt to reach for them, but she stands close enough that their shoulders touch, and hopes that’s enough for now.

“You know when we were fourteen he told me he had a crush on me,” Sam says suddenly.

“What?” It takes Deena by surprise. Not just the content of the sentence but the casual inflection. After observing Sam’s demeanor for the past few hours she was expecting something much closer to a breakdown. 

“It was after school, we were walking to the bus together. He told me he had a crush on me, but I was so distracted trying to find you on the band practice field as we walked by that I barely even heard him. I didn’t know what to say back, and I ended up blurting out that I had a crush on you. It was the first time I ever said it out loud,” Sam says.

Deena turns to look at her then, but Sam’s eyes haven’t left the headstone.

“I was so scared, and we both got so embarrassed that we promised never to tell anyone else as long as we lived. I figured, you know… contract’s up on that one.” The humor doesn’t work for her the same way it works for Deena, and her lips pull to the side of her mouth like they do right before she gets upset. Her eyebrows knit together for a brief moment but she continues.

“A week later he was over it, and we laughed about it all the time when you and Kate couldn’t hear us. He gave me so much shit for not making the first move. And every time you threw your arm around me or grabbed my hand to drag me somewhere he always gave me this look. I pretended to hate it. I’d roll my eyes, flip him off when you weren’t looking. But I was glad he knew.”

Deena shakes her head and her sigh turns into a heartbroken laugh. “I can’t believe it took us two years.”

“He must have been so annoyed,” Sam laughs, and finally takes a hand out of her pocket to wipe it across her cheek.

A cold breeze brings them back to the present, to the smell of flowers and dirt, and the glow of the setting sun. For the first time since they arrived, Sam looks away from her friend’s name and finds a shared grief in Deena’s eyes. It’s what she was looking for, but it very quickly overwhelms her, and her gaze drops to her beat up shoes.

“This really fucking sucks,” she says.

 

When they get back to Deena’s house there’s an extra car parked in the driveway. It looks familiar but neither of them can place it. Probably one of Josh’s friends. They sit in the car until the song ends, not because they know it but because it’s slow and sad and at the moment they both feel a little like letting the sadness win. The opening guitar riff of the next song ruins the mood though, so Deena shuts the car off and gets out. She gets halfway to her front door before she realizes Sam isn’t beside her, so she turns back and knocks on the passenger window. Sam flinches, then sighs and steps out.

“Sorry, I don’t…” she can’t find the words.

“It’s okay. I know,” Deena says, because she does know. She knows how disorienting it is to lose someone. How one errant thought can send you somewhere else, somewhere you’d rather not be. She has one of those thoughts now, and it sends her briefly to the chairs outside the principal’s office where Simon sits next to her, struggling to hold in a laugh. Sam closes the car door, and the noise brings Deena back to her driveway. They meet eyes for only a moment, but those moments seem to mean more these days. If Deena’s honest with herself they’re the only reason she hasn’t completely lost it yet. It’s much easier to get through a horrible thing if you’re helping somebody else get through it too, like teaching someone to swim even though you’re afraid of drowning.

Deena remembers who owns the car outside a half second before she sees her sitting in the dining room. Kate’s mother. In front of her, on the table, sits a small white box. Deena’s father stands up from his seat.

“Oh good, you’re home. Mrs. Schmidt wanted to uh, talk to you both,” he says. He looks between the women in the room, at Sam, who stares at Mrs. Schmidt, who stares at Deena, who stares at the small white box. No one says a word. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” he adds awkwardly, before making his way out of the room.

Surprisingly, Sam is the first to speak.

“I’m sorry we didn’t stay longer at her memorial,” she says, stepping out from behind Deena. “We just… couldn’t.”

“Oh honey, I understand,” Mrs. Schmidt waves her hand casually in front of her face as if batting away a fly, “I just came by to give you something.”

Deena sits down at the seat opposite her, and Sam follows suit. Sitting this close to the box, Deena can now make out the small print on top: Kate. Her stomach fills with acid and her throat goes dry. She knew what it was the second she laid eyes on it, but for some reason seeing the name makes it worse.

“I’m sure you two have heard that, given the circumstances, we decided to have her cremated,” Mrs. Schmidt says, not wasting any time. “We kept most of the remains but—” she pauses, folding her hands together on the table. Her voice shows no sign of breaking and her face shows no sign of tears, but she stops all the same.

Deena watches her, eyes finally lifting off the small white box. She stays silent as Mrs. Schmidt closes her eyes, breathes in through her nose, out through her mouth. By all accounts, the calmest person in the room. It’s then that she remembers something Kate said not too long ago, a tossed away sentence in the midst of all the carnage. My mom’s sister was there, that screwed the family up for a long time. Deena thinks of the story Ziggy told them about Camp Nightwing and wonders how old Mrs. Schmidt was when she lost her sister. She thinks of the urn on the fireplace mantle at Kate’s house, the one she never really paid attention to before, and pictures a matching one right next to it.

“We thought we might share a bit with you, if you’d like. You meant so much to her, both of you,” she looks at Sam. “I know she said some terrible things when you moved away, but you don’t hurt that much if you didn’t love a whole lot first.” She slides the box a few inches toward the girls.

Deena’s hands act on their own, fingers reaching for the corners of the box. She doesn’t pull it closer, just slides her fingertips along the edges.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. She doesn’t know if she means it as a condolence or an apology. Her vision starts to go cloudy but she feels Mrs. Schmidt’s hands cover her own.

“I won’t have any of that,” Mrs. Schmidt says. “I know all the million little ways you were there for her, all the rides to school and the shoulders to cry on, all the times she snuck out and came here when I was driving her crazy. She was never as sneaky as she thought, you know. But I always knew where she was going, so I never made a fuss.”

Deena breathes out a shaky laugh.

Mrs. Schmidt waits until Deena looks at her. “You have to believe me when I tell you those million little things add up to more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Deena drops her gaze and slides her hands out from underneath Mrs. Schmidt’s in order to wipe the cuff of her jacket under her nose.

“Thank you for… um… thanks,” Deena says, unable to look her in the eye.

“I don’t want to take up any more of your evening. You two let me know if you ever need anything.” And with that, Mrs. Schmidt stands up and leaves them alone in the dining room with a piece of her daughter in a small white box.

She doesn’t know what makes her do it, but once Deena hears the front door close her fingers reach for the box once again, this time lifting the lid just an inch, maybe two. She doesn’t see much, the corner of a Ziploc bag and a blur of gray, but it’s enough. Deena closes the lid, then promptly walks to the kitchen and vomits in the mercifully empty sink. She hasn’t been eating well so hardly anything comes out, but her stomach contracts over and over again as she coughs up whatever she can. It makes her eyes water more than they already were and fills the back of her throat with an unpleasant sourness, and when she’s done she turns on the faucet to clear the evidence. She turns to find Sam standing in the doorway with concern in her eyes, but she doesn’t say anything.

“Gross,” Deena sighs, breathing deeply in recovery. With all her energy washed down the drain, she lowers herself to the floor and leans back against the cabinet. Sam joins her quietly, filling in the spot on her right side. Their legs are matching pairs stretched out in front of them, and as they swing their toes from side to side, the soil from the cemetery falls off their shoes and dirties the small blue rug on the floor. They sit quietly for a while, and eventually Deena leans her head on Sam’s shoulder. Sam puts a reassuring hand on Deena’s thigh and Deena grabs it gratefully, holding it between both of hers.

“I’m really starting to hate this kitchen,” Deena says.

 

 

Eleven Days After

Sam’s pom-poms shake in front of her face and high above her head, without any real thought involved aside from the muscle memory. The combined voices of their synchronized shouts bounce off the gym walls and are absorbed by the massive student body filling the bleachers. Behind them their mascot, a senior named Jacob wearing an excessively intricate devil costume, does a backflip on center court, evoking a thunderous cheer. The routine comes to an end and the devil motions for silence. It’s the fourth pep rally of the year and by now even the freshmen have learned the ropes, so everybody gets quiet. A low drumbeat starts playing from the speakers, eventually accompanied by a bass guitar. As the music plays, the students stomp their feet, slowly at first to match the music, then building in intensity until the whole room starts to shake. The football team bursts from the locker room and runs onto the court in an explosion of rock music and teenage screams.

Sam struggles not to roll her eyes. It was admittedly pretty cool the first time she experienced the fanfare a couple months ago at the beginning of senior year, but now the whole affair leaves a bitter taste in her mouth. Something about a couple thousand mindless teens cheering on the devil just doesn’t sit quite right with her anymore. Funny how being possessed by the guy will do that to you.

After a passionate speech from the head football coach, the pep rally comes to an end, which means Sam has about two and a half hours before she has to be back on campus for the game. A few of her teammates invite her to Steak-n-Shake and she can’t think of a good enough reason to decline, so she joins them. They’re not bad people, at least not the ones she shares a booth with, but she still doesn’t particularly enjoy their company. To them, she’s just the girl with the dead boyfriend, which looking back on it was definitely the least traumatic part about that weekend.

Sam eats her burger quietly as her teammates talk around her. She has no idea when the conversation turned so drastically away from the boys in their physics class, but now Amanda and Kristen are sharing surprisingly detailed thoughts on the nature of the afterlife. If Sam really wanted to she could illuminate the topic considerably. From experience, she knows that Amanda is far closer to the truth than Kristen is, but instead of weighing in, all she does is take another bite of her burger. Out of the many, many rumors that started going around Sunnyvale in the days and weeks after Nick Goode’s death, apparently Sam dying and coming back to life wasn’t one of them.

Nope, instead everybody chose to focus on the far more interesting rumors about her and the band girl from Shadyside. Typical. Fortunately though, she’d been so caught up in her own grief that by the time she noticed people were talking about her most of them had moved on, aside from a few of the more intolerable cheerleaders who refused to change while she was in the locker room. She’d be lying if she said it didn’t affect her, and occasionally when she catches them staring she feels her cheeks redden with shame. She wishes she had the guts to defend herself, but she’s not as brave when Deena’s not by her side.

When the sun goes down, the temperature drops enough that the cheer team is allowed to keep their sweats and jackets on over their uniforms as the game begins. Sam’s body functions on auto-pilot, twisting and turning automatically as her teammates launch her into the air. She hasn’t been able to see Deena all week thanks to an unfortunate combination of extracurriculars and looming project due dates, and right now the phantom touch of Deena’s hands on her shoulder, her back, her thigh, is really all she can think about. It almost bites her in the ass. Unfocused, she doesn’t hold herself correctly as her teammates lift her up, and she almost loses balance and takes her whole squad down with her. Luckily she’s able to recover, but when her feet are back on the ground she hears a frustrated “What the fuck Sam, are you trying to kill us?” She doesn’t know who says it but she mumbles a sorry anyway.

The second quarter winds down, and fortunately for Sam, the Sunnyvale football team is still incredibly good, with or without the help of a three hundred year old deal with the devil. They’re up by over sixty points at halftime, and the coaches on both teams decide to call the game early.

 

Across town, in the Shadyside high school bleachers, Deena lifts the tenor drums off their stand and locks them into place in front of her on the harness that rests on her shoulders. She presses her shako onto her head, the blue and white feathered plume adding a foot to her height, and makes her way down to the field with the rest of the band as the game clock inches closer to halftime. She stands on the sideline breathing warm air onto her bare hands that threaten to go numb in the late fall air. At times like this she envies the wind players who get to wear gloves.

It takes Deena a minute or two to understand why she suddenly feels sick to her stomach. Her eyes scan the row of cheerleaders on the running track behind her, and she watches a boy she doesn’t know run past the band with his face painted green and a witch’s hat atop his head. It’s then that the missing part of her halftime routine smashes into her chest with the force of a sledgehammer. During football games the three of them almost never had time to talk to each other, but for the few minutes that Deena was on the field before half time, Kate and Simon would always find a way to meet up with her and pass a few jokes back and forth. Tonight however, as the cold wind makes her teeth chatter, Deena stands alone. She hadn’t realized until this moment that Friday nights had become a group activity, and as the clock winds down to zero she realizes that for the first time in her high school career, she’ll be driving home without them.

She’s grateful for the distraction that the halftime show provides. Roll-stepping across the field, hitting her spots, hands flying at the speed of light as the rhythm of the drumline pounds in her ears, she has no space left in her brain to think about anything else. Despite the near freezing temperature, she’s sweating as they march off the field. The wind players head back to their seats in the stands, but the drumline sets up in front of the student section, finishing the halftime ritual with a few upbeat cadences to get everybody on their feet for the start of the third quarter. She slams her drums on the final downbeat, and right on cue the new mascot’s voice booms, “When I say Shady you say Side!”

An overwhelming wave of nausea crashes over her, and she feels her knees go weak. She quickly walks off toward the chain link fence that separates the running track from the bleachers and takes off the drum harness, almost dropping the whole thing unceremoniously on the ground.

“You good?” Deena hears Michael behind her, one of the snare players.

“Bathroom,” she calls over her shoulder, then jogs toward the brick building past the end zone.

She doesn’t go inside, opting instead to run around the back and lean heavily against the wall. It wasn’t a far distance, but Deena can’t catch her breath as her clammy palms press against the brick. Her vision starts to go yellow and she tries to blink it away but fails. The shortness of her breath starts to scare her and she slides down the wall until she hits the ground. Her chest heaves, her fingers dig into the ground on either side of her and clench into fists, tearing grass. She pulls her shako off her head and tosses it away, watching it roll a few feet before stopping. Her lungs start to burn as the blue and white plume mocks her from the ground. The only reason she decided to stick with band was so she would have at least an hour a day where she wasn’t suffocated by grief, but as her heart pounds in her chest and she struggles to breathe, she feels like she’s going to die anyway. After a minute or two though, her vision starts to go back to normal and she’s finally able to pull in enough air to calm herself. Exhausted, she closes her eyes and attempts to regain her composure.

“Hey,” she hears a voice from her left.

Deena turns, looking up to find Sam standing with her hands in the pockets of her Sunnyvale cheer jacket. For a long moment Deena can only stare as spontaneous panic slowly gives way to immeasurable relief.

“Hey,” Deena says back.

“They called our game early. Got here just in time to see you run off,” Sam answers her unspoken question.

“Cool timing,” Deena says absently, still troubled by whatever just happened to her.

Sam takes a step further behind the bathrooms so she can’t be seen by any wandering eyes in the bleachers.

“Are you okay?” she says. She knows it’s a dumb question but she still hasn’t figured out a better way to phrase it.

“Sunshine and rainbows,” Deena says. She stands up and brushes her dirty palms on her uniform pants. Barely looking Sam in the eye, she steps toward her and wraps her arms around her waist, holding on tightly. The unexpected force almost knocks Sam off balance but she holds firm and returns the gesture.

Back in the bleachers, Deena’s eyes follow Sam until she finds some of her old Shadyside friends to stand with in the student section. Their group is pretty far away, but Deena can tell even from here that they immediately give her shit for what she’s wearing. She laughs to herself, grabs her drumsticks, and turns back toward the field. When the game is over, Sam leaves her car in the parking lot. It turns out Deena doesn’t have to drive home alone just yet.

 

 

Twenty-Six Days After

Sam lies motionless on her side on Deena’s bed, heart beating furiously in her chest. The Camp Nightwing killer, axe in hand, stands sentry in front of Deena’s door just at the edge of Sam’s vision. She’s welded in place again, but this time she knows what to do. She closes her eyes, breathes deep through her nose, and focuses all her attention on her fingertips. They don’t move right away, but before she lets herself get too nervous she listens for Deena’s breathing behind her. It’s a little more ragged than usual. Looks like both of them are having a rough night. The joints of her metal fingers creak, then twitch, and bit by bit she’s able to pull herself out of her half-alive state. Her lungs are always the last to get the memo, and when she finally wakes up fully she sucks in a deep breath and rolls her onto her back, immeasurably exhausted by the effort.

Deena flinches awake, either because of the sudden movement or because of the dream she was having, Sam can’t tell. Deena sits up, breathing heavily, then pushes the blankets off herself and leans her head against the wall. The multicolored glow of the disco lamp on the shelf shines on her face, and in the orange and purple light Sam can see she’s sweating.

“Fuck,” Deena breathes out, eyes unfocused.

Sam sighs in response, pushing the blankets the rest of the way off until they fall to the floor. She holds her hands up in front of her face and flexes her fingers a few times before dropping them on the pillow behind her head, arms still heavy as iron.

Deena, familiar with the gesture, asks, “Which one this time?”

“Nightwing.”

“Jerk,” Deena says. It makes Sam smile.

“You?” Sam asks. She doesn’t expect a response right away, and she doesn’t get one. Deena had told her what she saw when she reunited Sarah Fier’s hand with her body. Every excruciating detail. She needed to get it all out, to share it with someone who would understand the complete and utter terror of being hunted for being like them. It was a rough night, to put it mildly, and she never brought it up again. But when Deena gets that foggy look in her eyes, the one Sam sees now as she sits up beside her, she knows that’s where she is.

The night Deena was first pulled back and forth through time, Sarah’s unfathomable rage was enough to get her through what had to happen next. Her fury was a deep well inside Deena that was damn near overflowing after three-hundred years, but the second her knife went through Nick Goode’s eye, it had slowly started draining. Now, almost a month later, the only thing left in the well is the sound of Hannah Miller’s shattered sobs reverberating endlessly off the cold, stone walls.

“Can we get some air?” Deena says.

 

They sit on the white wood steps that lead out from the back door in the kitchen, huddled together under a heavy knit blanket. It’s barely enough to balance out the fact that they’re sitting outside in late October in shorts and tank tops. Crickets chirp in the distance as they lean into each other to stay warm.

“Do you think your mom knows you’ve been sneaking out every weekend?” Deena asks.

“Yep.”

“Do you think she’ll do anything about it?”

“I don’t know. She’s been kind of hands-off lately. It’s weird. I never really know what she’s going to do anymore.”

“Does that mean you’ll keep coming over?” Deena asks, trying not to sound like she’s relying too heavily on the answer.

“Not sure,” Sam says, pausing dramatically before saying, “The thirty minute drive is just sooooo long.”

“Shut up,” Deena shoves her with her shoulder, but since they’re both wrapped with the same blanket she ends up pulling herself too. Sam pushes back, laughing, and they realign themselves on the white wood steps.

Deena gets quiet after that. It was a harmless joke, but it accidentally knocked a pebble into the empty well, and now she can only hear the echo of it crashing against the floor. Her heart sinks with it, heavy with all the time she wasted being mad at Sam for things that weren’t her fault. Time that Sarah and Hannah would have killed for. Deena’s chest burns with her own selfishness and arrogance, embers spreading slowly through her veins. She closes her eyes and when she opens them again she’s kneeling on the floor of the meeting house, her fingertips trembling on the cold iron chains that bind her lover. She kisses her and tastes tears. Sam’s hand squeezes her thigh.

“Hey, come back,” she says softly. “I’m sorry.”

“No I—” Deena stutters, “It wasn’t you. I just…”

“I know.”

The certainty in Sam’s voice causes Deena to meet her eyes.

“You have the same look every time you think about her,” Sam continues. “I never asked because it seemed like you didn’t want to talk about it but…” she pauses, considering her next words, “If you think it will help, I’m here.”

Deena looks away after that, feeling undeserving of all the love in Sam’s eyes. There’s enough of it though that it seeps through Deena’s self-contempt and starts to drip into the empty well. She covers Sam’s hand on her thigh with her own, then slides underneath it to interlock their fingers, the callused, scarred skin of Sam’s palm pressing against hers.

“It’s just hard, having all this in my head,” Deena says finally. It’s the first time she’s admitted it to herself, let alone anyone else. “It was only a second but it felt like days. I was her, for days. Right up until…” she can’t finish the sentence. She doesn’t need to. “And I know that we won, that she won, in the end, but it doesn’t change what happened to her, you know?”

Sam squeezes her hand. Deena takes a deep breath and lets it out.

“I don’t know, I guess it just wears on me sometimes.”

After everything settled down, Deena had gone to the library to scour the preserved public records of the original Union colony. She scanned what few pages she could find for the name Hannah Miller, but to no avail. She even tried to trace the lineage of a few different Miller families she knew of in town, but couldn’t get further back than the early 1800’s. It bothered her, the not knowing. On bad days she imagined Hannah dying young, heartbroken and alone, succumbing to some sort of colonial illness and spending her last minutes on Earth in pain. Now though, as she watches the stars blink in the dark October sky, as her brother sleeps soundly in his bedroom, as Sam holds her hand and rests her head on her shoulder, she imagines Hannah and her friends packing up and walking west. Out of Union, out of Shadyside. Somewhere new.

Eventually the cold gets the better of them, and Sam and Deena head back inside. Deena locks the door behind them, and out of habit, pauses at the kitchen sink. She looks out the window to the spot in the darkness where her neighbor’s back porch light used to blink at her. Deena swallows hard, then turns away. She heard they hired a new babysitter.

 

 

Fifty-Four Days After

Josh is already in the kitchen when Deena comes downstairs, eyelids heavy with sleep, Kate’s small white box held firmly in her hands. They don’t say anything to each other, they only nod as Josh throws some snacks and the interstate map into a drawstring bag. Deena grabs a leftover bread roll from yesterday’s Thanksgiving dinner and takes a bite, holding it in her mouth while she slips on her jacket and boots. She doesn’t let go of Kate’s box until she sits behind the wheel of her car and passes it off to Josh in the passenger seat. She sees Josh’s Adam’s apple jerk up and down as he swallows, the letters of Kate’s name staring up at him from his lap.

They reach Sam’s house at 6:15am, while most of the country is lining up outside department stores to get their hands on those Black Friday deals. Sam knows they’re coming, and before they can even come to a full stop in front of her house she’s outside and closing the front door quietly behind her. She zips up her dark blue jacket and jogs across her front yard, leaving incriminating footprints in the morning dew that coats the grass. She takes one quick look behind her before she opens the back door and climbs in.

“Please drive,” Sam says by way of greeting.

“Good morning to you, too,” Josh mutters.

Deena takes her foot off the brake and smiles as she drives out of the neighborhood. “I take it your mom didn’t approve of our weekend plans?” she says.

“Something like that.” Sam settles into place behind Josh and pulls the seatbelt across her chest. “I’m definitely grounded when we get back.”

 

It’s a nine hour drive to the east coast, and it’s not until hour two that Deena realizes what Sam is wearing. A commercial interrupts the music on the radio and Sam leans over the middle seat to get a clear view of the long road ahead. The movement behind her draws Deena’s eyes to the rearview mirror. It’s a quick glance, but she recognizes the backwards letters of the Shadyside Cheer logo on the spot above Sam’s heart.

“You kept your jacket?” Deena asks, eyes returning to the road.

“Oh. Yeah.” Sam looks down at herself as if she forgot she was wearing it. “It might be stupid but… I don’t know. It felt appropriate.”

Seeing her in Shadyside blue flips a switch in Deena’s brain, and in the mirror she sees Kate with a matching jacket in the backseat next to Sam, rolling her eyes at Simon in the front seat, face still green, witch’s hat in his lap as he head bangs to a blaring guitar solo. She feels the collar of her band uniform jacket scratch against the back of her neck and in the brief moment before the memory fades and the heartbreak hits, she smiles to herself in the driver’s seat.

“I think it’s nice,” Deena says.

“I think she’d think it’s cheesy,” Sam responds.

“Yeah, you’re right. But it’s still nice.”

 

They stop somewhere in Pennsylvania, a hundred or so miles past Pittsburgh. It’s a pretty well stocked rest stop for being in the middle of nowhere. A vending machine stands between the two bathroom doors, and while Deena and Sam head into the women’s room, Josh pauses in front of the rows of chips. The combination to empty it all flashes in his mind, but he shakes his head and fishes in his pocket for a few quarters. He presses D4 and as if the universe has it out for him, specifically, the Doritos get stuck. The combination flashes in front of him once again and his fingers hover over the number pad. Where’d you learn how to do this? He hears it clear as day, right inside his ear, and it scares him so bad it makes him flinch.

“Fuck,” he mutters out loud, and slams his fist against the glass. The shock it sends through his arm feels good, so he does it again. And again. And again. The bag of chips isn’t even shaking but that’s not the point anymore. Josh slams his knuckles into the number pad over and over. Blood starts to cover the faded white buttons and his breath starts coming in short and shallow. His arm starts to get sore with the effort and he knows he’s being erratic but he can’t stop, not until Deena throws open the women’s restroom door and pulls him away from the machine.

“Dude, what the hell?” Deena has her hands on his shoulders and tries to make eye contact but can’t. His thoughts are somewhere else, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where. “Josh. Hey,” she shakes him once.

“Sorry. Ah, fuck. That hurt,” Josh backs out of Deena’s grasp and shakes his bloody hand, the intense angry feeling gone, the moment over. “My chips got stuck.”

Deena gives him a long look, then goes with it. “Okay well punching it never does anything, you gotta tip it on its side and then let it fall back into place. Momentum will take care of the rest. Here, get on the other side and push it towards me,” Deena says, moving to the side of the vending machine and holding her hands up against the frame.

Josh does as he’s told and moves to the other side. He presses his palms against the wall of the machine, feels the electricity humming underneath, and pushes hard. It takes a few tries but he's able to tip it towards Deena, who pushes it back with enough force that it almost falls back over on Josh, but it rights itself with a few loud clanks against the concrete. The Doritos fall lazily, anticlimactically down to the bottom of the machine and Josh grabs them with his non-bloodied hand, but suddenly he isn’t that hungry. The two of them stand together looking at the blood dripping slowly down the vending machine console.

“I’ll get some paper towels,” Josh says, moving for the men’s restroom.

“They only have air dryers,” Deena says, but an idea comes to mind. “Do you have another quarter?”

She comes out of the women’s restroom a few seconds later with a tampon from the machine on the wall. She unwraps it and soaks up as much blood as she can from in between the numbers. Sam follows her out shortly after, confusion painting her face, but as she takes in the scene she puts the pieces together herself. She nods, more to herself than to either of them, then walks back to the car and gets in the driver’s seat.

“You should clean your hand,” Deena says, glancing over at where Josh stands frozen solid, as if his shoes are stuck to the ground.

“Yeah,” he says absently, finally unsticking himself and heading to the men’s room.

Deena tosses the tampon and leans on the vending machine while she waits for him. He’s in there for a while and she starts to get antsy but she understands. She makes eye contact with Sam from where she sits in the parking lot and they hold each other’s gaze. No smiles, no silly faces, just the reassurance that they’re both still here. Another car pulls into the lot and a family of four steps out. A young boy sprints into the men’s restroom and the dad follows shortly behind, giving Deena a sheepish smile as he follows after his son. Josh comes out pretty quickly after that. They make it halfway to the car before Deena reaches out and stops him.

“Hey, it’s um,” she feels like she should say something but she hadn’t really thought this far ahead, so she stumbles, “It’s um, it’s okay to be… pissed about all this.”

“You don’t have to go all therapy on me, I’m alright,” Josh says.

“Shut up,” Deena uses the hand that was on his shoulder to shove him. “I’m just saying I—I get mad too.” She looks toward the car, where she knows the small white box is sitting on the passenger seat. “This sucks.”

“Yeah.” Josh walks the rest of the way to the car and opens the driver’s side passenger door, climbing in behind Sam.

Feeling unsuccessful, Deena turns on her heel and follows him, picking up Kate’s box before sitting down in the passenger seat and resting it on her lap. Sam raises her eyebrows but Deena only shrugs, so Sam starts the car and they get back on their way.

 

It’s windier than any of them anticipated. None of them had ever stood on a cliff before so they weren’t sure what to expect. Now though, as they step over the guard rail of the scenic outlook and walk as close as they dare to the edge, the wind comes at them in all directions. Not enough to knock them over, just enough to make their eyes sting and their noses run. But that was probably going to happen anyway. Deena stands in the middle, the white box held tight in both hands, as they all look down at the ocean thirty feet below. The afternoon sun shines warmly on their backs and the ocean sways calmly back and forth against the cliff face. Not the most accurate reflection of the emotions coursing through the three teens standing on the edge.

Deena is the one to break the silence.

“Well Kate, you always said you wanted out of Shadyside. We figured the ocean would take you wherever you want to go,” she says. She’s had the words in her head for six hours but she still chokes up hearing them out loud. “I uh… I hope that’s okay.” She swipes the cuff of her sleeve under her nose and clears her throat. “Anybody else want to say anything?”

Josh shakes his head, so Deena turns to Sam. She looks at the box in Deena’s hands and swallows hard, palms sweating in the pockets of her Shadyside Cheer jacket. The ache in the back of her throat tells her that if she tries to open her mouth everything is going to come crashing down, so she thinks the words instead. Thank you. For everything.

Deena nods, and opens the box.

It’s not as graceful as she would have hoped. The wind and the Ziploc bag make an unfortunate combo, but the goal is achieved in the end, and they watch their bit of Kate’s ashes disperse in the wind. Sam finds Deena’s hand and grabs on, squeezing tightly. It’s been fifty-five days without her, but for some reason this really feels like the end of something. Deena squeezes back, and for a moment she pictures a future where she drives Kate to the airport and waves goodbye, watching her drag her giant suitcases behind her as she boards a plane to a big, fancy college on the other side of the country. But all she gets instead is an empty white box with her name on it. What a fucking joke.

Josh is the first one to walk away, but he doesn’t walk toward the car. He walks further south down the coast, hands in his pockets, kicking loose stones as he walks past them. The land slopes down gently, and when he disappears from view Sam finally speaks up.

“Should we go with him?” she asks.

“I think he needs to be alone,” Deena says. She pulls Sam away from the cliff and they step back over the safety railing. There’s a single picnic table at this otherwise barren scenic outlook carved out of the highway, and they make their way to it. Deena climbs up and lies right on top, staring up at the clouds, and Sam sits on the middle of the bench next to her. It’s quieter here, away from the cliff, without the wind in their ears. Warmer, too.

The minutes pass in silence. Sam traces the seams of Deena’s olive green jacket with her fingertip, moving down her stomach, around each of the buttons, over the amateur stitching that repaired the hole torn by the dagger in Nick Goode’s hand. When Sam reaches that spot Deena’s eyes close, and she lets out a long sigh.

“She was so mad at you when you left,” Deena says suddenly. Sam turns to look at her but she hasn’t opened her eyes. “Even more than I was, sometimes.”

“I know,” Sam says softly. She still remembers what Kate said to her the day she broke the news. It was exhausting enough fighting with Deena, she didn’t have the energy to fight with Kate too, especially not when Kate had the unique ability to be so specifically cruel, so Sam had just turned around and walked away. It was one of the last times they talked until, well, until everything happened.

“I knew you guys were close because of cheer and everything. But I didn’t really get how much you meant to her until you left,” Deena says.

Sam’s chin falls toward her chest and it takes her a while to decide on her next words. “It wasn’t just because we were on the same team. It’s because we were both there for the same reason,” she says eventually.

“I take it that reason wasn’t an overwhelming sense of school spirit?”

Sam rolls her eyes but can’t help the smile. She remembers the first time she met Kate in the middle school gym. In a room full of preppy, pre-teen girls, they were the only two who were already thinking about college applications. It wasn’t any shared love of the sport that brought them together, but a shared cynicism toward the trajectory of their lives and the mindset, even at age thirteen, that if they wanted to get out of Shadyside they would need to do everything in their power to stand out. It felt good to have that person, to be that person for each other, especially after five years of cheering for a sport neither of them bothered to understand, surrounded by girls they couldn’t relate to.

“She always said we’d get out together, even though out of the two of us she clearly deserved it more. She had the better grades, she was in more clubs, she did more volunteer work. But none of it mattered. And I got out because my mom won a fucking custody battle.” She’s crying now, and at this point she knows there’s no point in trying to make herself stop, so she lets the tears fall down her face, lets her breath hitch and her shoulders shake. “I can still hear her screaming,” she whispers. She buries her face in Deena’s stomach and she can tell by the tightness she feels there that Deena is crying too. They hold each other for a while, wondering independently if the guilt that clouds their every waking thought will ever go away.

Josh comes back eventually, and by then all the tears have dried and all three of them are exhausted. The sun dips lower in the sky as they all pile back into the car in the same formation as this morning. Deena behind the wheel, Josh next to her, Sam in the back, although this time she lies down across the seat, maneuvering the seatbelt in such a way that she’s technically still buckled in. It’s nearing 4:30pm, and if they keep the same pace as before they’ll be home around one in the morning. Deena starts the car and peels back onto the highway, back the way they came.

Back toward Shadyside.

Back toward home.