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all we've got is each other

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1-

Spring settles in, and with it warmer temperatures, longer days, and a mellowing of everyone’s mood. A sense of calm, of peace, the kind that comes from acceptance. There’s no denying the horrors they went through, the hardships they’ve endured, but they are alive, and together, and working through it. Which makes Fatin really fucking proud of all of them, because it’s no easy thing to face your demons willingly, and yet they’re all doing it, in their own way, one step at a time. They’re going to be okay, Fatin knows it in her heart - no, in her bones, all the way down to the marrow.

So it catches her and everyone else by surprise when, at the end of April, after almost two months of progress, they all have a very bad day.

A team of lawyers in suits and blazers arrives at the house one morning. The trial is set to start over the summer, and so they need to review the girls’ statements ; they ask questions, demand clarifications, and - by far the worst part of the whole ordeal - they show them footage of the island and the bunker, to double check that they remember everything correctly. When the lawyers finally pack their bags and leave, at around five in the afternoon, everyone is on edge, the collective anxiety so thick Fatin swears she can see it - a layer of mist hanging over their heads.

The rest of the afternoon is a shit show. Nora doesn’t speak a word to anyone, sitting unnaturally still by the window, the hood of her sweater pulled so low it covers half her face. Shelby hides in the bathroom for an hour, and comes out with red eyes. Martha keeps rubbing at the back of her head, at the scar she got from falling, and snaps at Toni when she frets over her. Rachel tries to skip dinner, and only makes an appearance because Marco drags her out of her room. A fuming Toni takes out her frustration on Leah while they’re setting the table, and Leah pushes right back, and for a hot second it seems like they’re going to throw hands in the kitchen, until Dot separates them, her voice laced with worry, shoulders taut and rigid from stress. And Fatin realizes she has to do something, before Dot tries to fix it all by herself, before the strain of the day brings all their progress crumbling down like so many sand castles.

So she does what Fatin does best. She jokes. She compliments. She teases. She flirts. She asks questions and makes outlandish comments and gets them to talk, and laugh, and relax, until, slowly, the tension fades. And then, once they’re all sitting in the common room, still a bit shaken up, but calmer, quieter, no longer buzzing with unease, Fatin proposes they play a game.

“No offense, but I’m not in the mood for party games,” Rachel declares.

“I was thinking about something a bit different, actually.” Fatin lets suspense build for a few seconds. “We should play hide and seek again.”

Dot frowns, perplexed. “Do you not remember what happened last time?”

“I already asked for permission, and Sam said yes, as long as we stay on the property,” Fatin replies, brightly. “No risk of anyone getting confused, this time. Come on, it’ll be good for us to be outside! We’ve spent the entire day on our asses, reading legal shit or watching screens.”

In the end, it’s easier than expected to convince the other girls, and they all scramble out of the door to hide while Dot counts to fifty. As she hurries out of the backdoor, Fatin can’t help smiling to herself. Mission accomplished: they’re all distracted, focused on something that has nothing to do with the trial or the experiment or Gretchen. She really is a fucking genius.

She’s so preoccupied with her success that she doesn’t realize there’s already someone hiding behind the toolshed, and barely avoids walking straight into Leah. They stare at each other in the dim moonlight.

“We can’t both hide here, Dot’s going to find mmmff!” The rest of Leah’s sentence is lost in an incomprehensible muffled sound when Fatin slaps a hand on her mouth.

“She’s coming,” Fatin murmurs.

They stand completely still, listening to footsteps on gravel. Fatin tries not to be distracted by Leah’s hot breath against her palm, by the brush of soft lips on her skin. Leah doesn’t protest, or move away from Fatin ; her eyes, somehow bluer in the moonlight, don’t leave Fatin’s face ; her jaw clenches, and the minuscule tightening of muscles under Fatin’s fingers feels like an earthquake.

When the sound of footsteps has grown safely distant, Fatin removes her hand. “Was that really necessary?” Leah grumbles, but she sounds strangled. They wait in silence for a few more minutes, alone behind the shed. The night bristles with noises, insects buzzing, leaves rustling in the breeze.

Maybe it’s because she hasn’t been alone with Leah in a very long time. Maybe it’s because of the day they had, filled with unpleasant memories. She’s not sure why, but the urge to talk is suddenly impossible to resist.

“Last time we played hide and seek, I got so scared for you,” Fatin admits, out of the blue. “I thought something bad had happened to you, I thought maybe - fuck, I thought I’d lost you. And all I wanted was to hug you, but I didn’t. I still regret not doing it, you know.” She lets out a puff of air. It’s easier to say the truth in the dark. “I should have hugged you then. Just like I should have hugged you when you came back, after you ran away, instead of getting mad and lecturing you.” She leans against the wood, feels sharp edges digging into her shoulders. “I’m sorry I didn’t understand what you needed from me.”

“Fatin…” She feels Leah shift beside her. “I should be the one apologizing.”

There’s a small silence. “Go on,” Fatin prompts, bluntly, turning to face her.

Leah chews on her lower lip before speaking. “That day, when I left… I was so angry and fucked up, about everything, and I took it out on you, because you were there, saying all the things I didn't want to hear. I’m so sorry. I know you were just worried. I was hurting, and I wanted to hurt someone in turn, and you didn’t deserve any of it.“ Leah sighs, lips twitching into a halfhearted, self-deprecating smile. “Sorry I was such a bitch.”

“You weren’t,” Fatin protests. Leah raises an eyebrow. “Well, maybe a little,” Fatin amends, with a grin. “But that’s okay. I like bitches.” She winces. “Yikes, I sound like a frat bro.”

Leah snorts. “They really do rub off on you.” Her eyes widen. “I don’t mean… I’m not saying that’s bad, I, you can do whatever you want with - not that I’m implying that you - fuck, sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Fatin almost feels bad for laughing, but Leah is very cute when she gets like this, rambly and nervous. “You’re fine,” she reassures her, with a light touch on the shoulder. A flicker of hesitation in her belly, then she forces herself to say: “About the whole Jeff situation. I want you to know you can talk to me about it, okay? We can talk about anything.” She swallows. “I mean it. Anything at all.”

Leah grows rigid under her hand, and for a brief moment, Fatin fears she said the wrong thing, but then just as quickly Leah’s body relaxes. She exhales. “Maybe we should talk about the elephant in the room, then.”

“Right,” Fatin chokes out. This is her chance. She has to say it out loud, the truth of her feelings, but fear, gluey, stodgy, clogs her throat, she can’t get the words out, and Leah speaks first.

“I loved him.”

Fatin recoils, heart in her throat, because she thought, she hoped… But Leah grabs her by the upper arm, not allowing her to move away. “No, listen - I did. I loved him. It doesn’t help me to pretend that wasn’t the case. It was real for me. It’s just - I guess my feelings aren’t the only reality, you know. There’s another one, which is that he hurt me. Both things can be true.”

“Okay.” Leah lets go of her arm, and Fatin misses the contact immediately.

“Anyway, I did love him. And you’re probably gonna give me shit for being dramatic but I honestly thought I would never love again. I just couldn’t even fathom having feelings for someone else, after him. And the thing is”- Leah licks her lips ; her piercing eyes stay fixed on Fatin, pinning her in place -“the thing is, I do have feelings for someone else. For you, Fatin. But they are nothing like what I used to feel for him, so it’s taken me a while to come to - to accept them for what they are, without feeling all sorts of guilty about it.”

Fatin doesn’t move, frozen in place. She spent so many months stewing in the unfamiliar heartache that comes from rejection. She tried so hard to numb her heart with boys and sex and alcohol in August, telling herself that it would pass, that they would at least remain friends. That it would be enough. And here is Leah, bold and brave and laying herself bare in front of Fatin. “You have feelings for me?” she whispers. There’s something raw in her voice, and in the past she would have been embarrassed by such a pathetic, needy display, but in this moment she couldn’t care less.

“Yeah.”

“Like, the romantic kind?”

Leah rolls her eyes. “Obviously.”

“Good.”

“Good?” Leah repeats, incredulous. “That’s all you have to say?”

Fatin takes a step forward, close enough to touch her, though she keeps her hands to herself. “Good,” she says once more, low and intent. “Because I feel the same way.” They look at each other. The warm spring night feels like honey - sweet and floral, thick and rich. “Tell me what you want,” Fatin prods, a gentle command, when the silence stretches a beat too long.

“I want you,” Leah answers, with an utter lack of hesitation that sends fire to Fatin’s lower stomach. “But, Fatin…” And here she sighs, and frowns. “I’m a mess. I'm still picking up the pieces after Jeff, after the island, and I’m, like, a complete disaster, you know, mentally, emotionally, all of it. So the question is more, uh, are you sure you want this?” She points a thumb at herself, derisively, as she says the last word.

“Yes,” Fatin says, firmly.

“I’m serious.”

“So am I. You think I’m scared that, what, you’re going to be too much for me to handle because you’re irredeemably fucked up, or something? First of all, babe, you’re not the only hot mess here. Emphasis on hot.” A small laugh escapes from Leah’s lips, and Fatin’s heart trembles with delight. She’s missed making Leah laugh. She brushes her thumb against Leah’s face, following the curve of her cheek bone. “You’re never going to be too much for me,” she says, seriously, “because I’m not trying to fix you, or save you, or whatever. I just care about you. And I want to be with you. Simple as that.”

Leah juts out her chin, stubbornly. “I don’t have a fucking clue how to be in a normal relationship. My only experience with dating was a secret affair with an older man. How do you know I’m not going to fuck up and hurt you?”

“I have never dated anyone,” Fatin says quietly, truthfully. It’s terrifying, being so vulnerable in front of someone else, but also comforting, and strangely easy, because it’s Leah. “I never even wanted to, before you. My longest relationship is probably this guy I fucked four times in a row - and one of these was a threesome with his girlfriend. The only model for a committed relationship I ever had was my parents’ marriage, which turned out to be a total sham. I don’t know a fucking thing about how this is all supposed to work. I’m just as scared of fucking it up as you.”

“So we take things slow,” Leah offers, after a few seconds. “We figure it out together?”

“Sounds good to me,” Fatin says, with a smile. Leah smiles back. A strange sort of tranquility settles over the two of them - it feels like closure, yet also like a beginning.

“About what happened on the island, by the waterfall...” Leah starts.

Fatin winces. “Yeah, shit, sorry about that. I shouldn’t have --”

“No,” Leah cuts her off, hurriedly. “No, that’s not - Fatin, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.” Her voice grows rough, and Fatin’s spine tingles. “I can’t stop thinking about kissing you.”

“Oh,” is all Fatin has time to say, and then suddenly Leah is, in fact, kissing her.

It’s a slow kiss, but there’s no shyness in Leah ; rather, she’s purposeful, fingers cradling Fatin’s jaw, one hand curling around the nape of her neck, lips soft and firm and opening against Fatin’s. And Fatin closes her eyes, overcome, because she’s been kissed by many people, but never by someone she loves, and nothing could have prepared her for the wave of longing, of desire, of relief. Everything vanishes around her, except Leah’s hands on her burning skin, Leah’s mouth, the wet slide of her tongue, the sharpness of her incisors.

“What happened to taking it slow?” Fatin lets out when they pull away from each other to take a breath.

“Sorry, I--”

“Couldn’t resist me, uh?”

“Shut up,” Leah groans, so obviously affectionate that Fatin’s heart implodes from a kind of giddy joy she’s never felt before.

“Gladly.” Fatin kisses her again, standing on the tip of her toes to reach Leah’s eager mouth. And then she pushes, with her whole body, until Leah is pinned against the wall of the shed, the two of them pressed together. Leah is taller, which gives Fatin perfect access to her neck, and she takes advantage of it, hands firm at Leah's hips to keep her still, sucking a wet red kiss onto the exposed pale skin above her collarbone, delighted by the stutter in Leah’s breath.

“Wow, it’s like you’re not even trying to hide,” an unimpressed voice rings out behind them. Fatin pauses, but doesn’t move away from Leah.

“Dorothy, we’re kinda busy.”

“Yeah, I can see that. Hi, Leah. Ya got something on your neck.”

Leah makes a noise that’s halfway between a laugh and a frustrated grunt. Fatin would very much like to finish what she started, but she figures the moment has passed, and takes a step back. Her heart beats too fast at her throat. She can’t quite believe this just happened. With unexpected difficulty, she turns away from Leah.

Dot is staring at the two of them with her hands on her hips, and a grin. “Having fun?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Clearly,” Fatin says, quite smugly. Leah pushes away from the shed and joins them, rosy-cheeked.

“Congrats,” Dot says, softly, no longer teasing, “I’m really happy for you two.” Then she grabs each of them by the shoulder, and steers them towards the rest of the yard. “Come on, losers. We still got a game to play.”

Fatin doesn't say it, but she’s pretty sure she already won.

 

2-

Shelby asks her on a Friday morning, before they go on their usual run. Everybody else is still asleep - which is what it takes to have some privacy, because this damn house may be big, but it sure is crowded with eight teenage girls, two adult men, three federal agents, one dog, one cat, and three ducklings who aren’t so tiny anymore.

“Hey,” she says, as they walk out the door into the cool morning air. The sun has yet to rise fully - the house is bathed in eery blue light.

“Hm?” Toni says, one knee on the ground, tightening her shoelaces.

“I have something to ask you.”

Her tone must freak Toni out a little bit, because when she looks up, there’s apprehension in her eyes. “What’s up?”

Shelby straightens her shoulders, and takes a deep breath. “Toni, will you go on a date with me? Tomorrow evening?”

Toni’s mouth opens, and nothing comes out. She’s staring at Shelby so intently, Shelby starts feeling self-conscious. “Oh,” Toni says, at last, and it’s not really a word, more like a sigh, a breath. She stands up and smiles, toothily, happily. Shelby’s sure, in this moment, that she would do anything, anything at all, for Toni to keep smiling at her like that. ”Yeah. Yeah, of course.”

“Okay.” Shelby smiles too ; she can’t help it. Her heart feels like a soft little animal in her chest, purring, content. “Okay,” she repeats. “Is 7 P.M. alright?”

Toni pretends to check an invisible cell phone. “Let me take a look at my Google Calendar… Yep, schedule’s all clear.”

“You’re such a dork,” Shelby comments, her tone fond.

Toni’s grin widens. “What do you have planned?”

“You’ll see,” Shelby replies coyly. And then, to avoid any further questioning, she starts running down their usual path.

She’s still smiling when she gets into the shower, forty minutes later. She did it. She finally did it. Ever since their conversation by the clothesline, she knew she wanted to officially ask Toni out, and do something special for her. But she also wanted to wait for the right time. For the tension to truly dissolve. For the two of them to reconnect, without pressure. So, for the past month and a half, they’ve been hanging out, casually. Talking at breakfast. Doing their school readings together on the couch, Toni’s feet on Shelby’s lap. Playing video games. Cooking together. And all the while, Shelby’s been mulling over what to do.

It’s not easy to plan a date in the middle of nowhere. There’s none of the things Shelby’s used to: no bowling alley, no diner, no mall, no movie theater. She can’t pick Toni up, since they literally live together, and aren’t allowed to leave. But it’s kind of thrilling, in a sense - there is no script to follow.

The next day, at 7 P.M. sharp, Shelby’s waiting for Toni by the front door, in the lobby. There’s a large, heavy basket under her arm. It’s the first week of May, and the weather is blessedly warm, so she’s wearing a sundress, blue with yellow and white flowers sewn around the waist. She wasn’t sure she’d be into wearing dresses ever again, but when she tried this one on, and looked at herself in the mirror, with her short blond hair, her skin no longer perfectly tanned and shaved, her face bare of makeup - it felt right. Fatin told her she looked like a gay Disney bitch, whatever that means. Shelby thinks it’s probably a compliment.

Five minutes later, Toni rushes down the stairs. “Hey, sorry I’m late. Marty and Leah kept trying to put eyeliner on me. I had to fight for my fucking life just to escape from the bathroom.”

Shelby smiles. “Aww, they were helping you get ready? That’s sweet.”

“More like super annoying,” Toni groans. As she reaches the door, she seems to take in the sight of Shelby ; her eyes follow Shelby’s figure, in a slow up-and-down motion that she can’t quite hide. “You look beautiful,” she says.

Shelby’s cheeks heat up. It’s not like she isn’t used to the compliment - she made a hobby out of beauty, after all. Hell, it’s not even the first time she’s heard it from Toni. But it means more, here and now, when she finally feels like she’s found herself, like she isn’t playing a role anymore, performing for an audience. There is no one watching her - except Toni. And she very much wants Toni to watch her. “Thanks,” she manages. Her voice sounds husky, which makes her blush even harder. “You’re beautiful too.”

Toni looks down at herself. She’s in shorts and a simple t-shirt, her hair up in a ponytail. “I mean, I don’t have that many clothes, so I can’t really, uh, dress up, but…”

“You look like yourself,” Shelby interrupts her, firmly. She takes Toni’s hand in hers, lacing their fingers together. “Nothing more beautiful than that.”

Toni squeezes her hand in response. Excitement and longing bubble in Shelby’s chest like fizzy water. “So, where are you taking me?” Toni asks, raising an eyebrow. “Any fun restaurants in the neighborhood? Ooh, are we going to a club?”

Shelby snorts. “Sure, if you don’t mind the DJ being a goat.” It’s a dumb joke, but it makes Toni laugh, and for a moment Shelby loses herself to the sight, captivated by the way Toni’s face transforms when she laughs - the crinkled lines at the corner of her mouth, the light in her eyes. “Alright, you ready?”

“Not so fast, girls!” Marco calls out, popping up from the living-room and sidling behind Toni. “I expect you to bring her back before curfew,” he tells Shelby, sternly. The effect is ruined by the fact that he very obviously has to bite the inside of his cheeks to stop himself from laughing.

Shelby puts on her most innocent face. “Yes, sir.”

“Shut up, both of you,” Toni groans, rolling her eyes.

Marco chuckles, and pats her on the shoulder. “Have fun, kids.”

Shelby opens the door, and they both make their way out into the yard. The night has started to fall, but it isn’t too dark yet that they can’t see where they’re going.

“Who’s babysitting the ducklings?” Shelby asks, as they walk together towards the field where the horses graze during the day.

“Rachel.”

Shelby raises an eyebrow. “Interesting choice. What did you have to promise her in exchange?” It’s not that Rachel dislikes the birds, but she’s by far, of all of them, the least enamoured with Toni’s proteges.

“She volunteered, shockingly,” Toni reveals. She frowns. “Actually, now that I think about it, everyone’s been strangely helpful, don’t you think? And not one of them came downstairs to make fun of us?” She looks around, suspiciously. “Do you think they planned a prank or something?”

Shelby laughs. “Actually, no, quite the opposite. I asked Dot to keep the others from fucking with us. My guess is, she gave everyone a lil speech, and scared them into behavin’.”

“Wow. Her power.” Toni whistles. “We should probably get her a thank-you card or something.”

“Probably,” Shelby agrees. She meets Toni’s eyes, and they smile at each other, casual, carefree. It’s so easy, Shelby thinks to herself, with a sort of astounded joy, to just be, when she's around Toni. As if reading her thoughts, Toni’s fingers tighten around her hand.

“I’m excited to spend the evening just with you,” Toni murmurs.

Shelby hums, not trusting herself to speak. Emotion is threatening to spill from her, which is ridiculous, because the date hasn’t even started for real. And yet, here she is, overflowing with affection for the girl at her side. Instead, she focuses on leading Toni to the spot she chose, at the edge of the field, far away enough so that they’re hidden from the house, but still inside the perimeter.

Here, she finds everything as she left it earlier in the day: the blanket, weighted down with polished stones on each corner, piled with cushions she stole from the common room sofas. Lanterns placed all around give off a soft orange light. She turns on the old CD player that Marco agreed to lend her for the night, and music starts playing - a slow blues melody, the singer’s voice warm and bright.

“You did all this?” Toni asks, wide-eyed.

“Yeah.” Shelby fights against sudden nervousness. “I mean, I know it’s not much, but we don’t have a lot of options out here, so I figured, a picnic could be kind of romantic?” She puts the basket down, in the center of the blanket, and reveals its content: food, plates, cutlery, and two bottles of iced lemonade. “I made the food myself, so don’t expect anything crazy,” she warns, self-conscious.

Toni hasn’t moved. “Shelby,” she starts, and swallows, and all of a sudden Shelby realizes there are tears in Toni’s eyes. Her stomach drops. She scrambles to her feet, rushes to Toni.

“Hey, hey, what’s wrong, what did I say? Toni, I’m sorry --”

“No,” Toni cuts in, voice rough, “no, you didn’t do anything wrong, you…” She inhales, shakily. “I just didn’t expect… I don’t know, all of this. You went through so much effort for me. Everything is so beautiful. And it’s for me, and I--” She sniffles, and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, but when she looks at Shelby again, she’s smiling. “Thanks.”

“Of course,” Shelby replies, softly. She smiles, and grabs Toni’s hand once more. “I’m glad you like it.”

“I do,” Toni says, in a small voice. She clears her throat. “I’m starving.”

They sit down, and eat dinner. When they’re done with the meal, they push everything aside, and lie down on the blanket, side by side, gazing at the night sky above them.

“Can I interest you in an icebreaker?” Shelby says, in an exaggerated version of her own Texan accent.

Toni bursts out laughing. “Sure. Why the fuck not.”

“I thought we could play twenty questions, or something. I know it’s lame, but… on the island there’s so much we didn’t talk about and I’m curious, you know? I’m curious about you,” Shelby says, softly.

“Go for it.”

So they ask each other things. Mundane, banal things. They don’t talk about survival, about the twisted social experiment they went through, about all the sad and painful things of their pasts. Instead they compare favorite movies, and argue over TV shows, and discover that they both love Taylor Swift. Toni tells her about basketball, her favorite players and the games she’s watched on Martha’s tiny television. Shelby talks about joining the drama club and finding solace in acting. Eventually, they broach the topic of previous relationships.

“Regan was… A good person. She took care of me, even when I didn’t really deserve it. She really was amazing.” Toni winces. “Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t praise my ex in front of you.”

But Shelby shakes her head. “I don’t mind. I’m glad you had someone like her in your life.”

“What about, uh, Andrew?” Toni asks. “Was there anything good about him at all, or was he just a dick?”

“Nothing good,” Shelby says. “We weren’t even friends.” She broke up with Andrew in August - more for her own sake than his, since he had clearly deemed her prolonged absence over the summer permission enough to openly fool around with Christa Findlay.

“I’m sorry, that must have sucked.”

“It’s okay. I have you now, so I’d say I’m pretty lucky.” She rolls to her side, and Toni does the same. Their faces are so close, Shelby can count each individual eyelash resting against Toni’s smooth cheekbones. Toni licks her lips. She swallows, and Shelby follows the small movement of her throat, before finding Toni’s gaze again. Oh, she could look at her forever, lying down under the moonlight. She could lose herself in the freckled brown of Toni’s eyes, in the perfect bow of her mouth, the dimple on her chin.

“I love you.” Shelby lifts a hand, cups Toni’s face, gently tucks an errand strand of hair behind her ear. “I love you so much. I never stopped loving you.”

“I love you too,” Toni whispers between their mouths.

And then Toni kisses her, and Shelby, tasting lemonade on her tongue, breathes her in like someone takes their first gulp of oxygen after almost drowning: desperately, passionately. Her hands slip underneath Toni’s shirt, exploring warm skin. Toni’s fingers trail up her bare thigh, past the hem of her sundress. They don’t stop kissing, their bodies so close that Shelby forgets where she ends and Toni begins.

Above them, the stars shine.

 

3-

After two months on a deserted island, and eight here, in the countryside, Martha does not miss social media nearly as much as some of her friends do. Sure, she, too, used to enjoy scrolling down Instagram, scrutinizing with a mix of admiration and envy the life of other girls - girls who were prettier, thinner, richer than her. Of course, she had fun watching funny TikToks, laughing at dumb memes with Toni, or reading witty back-and-forth exchanges on Twitter. But all in all, the absence of it doesn’t make her all that unhappy.

In fact, the truth - and she knows she sounds just like her mom - is that she might be happier without the constant flow of information, the never-ending petty fighting, the temptation to compare herself to everyone else. It’s a nice break.

That being said, right about now she would sell her soul if it meant she could take a picture of Toni and post it on Instagram. She bets queer girls worldwide would thank her for the image: Toni, with her brown hair down and elegantly windswept, wearing a wide-brimmed felt hat she borrowed from Joey, and a red flannel shirt rolled-up at the sleeves, sitting comfortably on top of a grey horse, green hills and an empty blue sky stretching in the background. Although what really makes the sight picture-worthy, in Martha’s opinion, are the three small yellow duckling heads sticking out from the saddlebag.

“What’s the holdup?” Toni yells, impatient, her hands on the reins. Not far ahead on the trail, Joey and the horse he’s riding today, a black and brown mare aptly named Cookie, have also stopped, waiting for Martha.

“Just enjoying the view!” Martha replies. Which is true, and also isn’t.

“Well, hurry up! We’re never going to make it up the hill and back before lunch at this pace!”

“Everythin’ alright back there?” Joey asks, his low voice carrying far.

Martha gives them both a thumbs-up. Toni grins, and taps her heel against the horse’s side, urging the animal forward. Martha’s hands tighten around the thick knotted leather of the reins. Her own horse, Holly, is a sweet mare, her coat light brown, with a darker mane. Martha carefully squeezes her legs, and Holly responds to the cue, starts walking again down the path.

When Joey offered to take a pair of girls on a horseback hike just outside of the property - an outing he somehow managed to negotiate with Agent Clipper - Toni volunteered Martha and herself before anyone else had time to say a single word. They were both taught how to ride in middle school by Martha’s aunt, who owns a couple of horses, and they used to do it all the time, until Toni started playing for the high school basketball team. Martha went a couple of times on her own, to say hi to the horses, but it wasn’t half as fun without Toni.

So, of course, Martha agreed without a second thought. But now she feels awkward, and unsure, afraid of hurting the horse underneath her, hands too light on the reins.

(Afraid, terribly afraid, of falling, and hurting herself again.)

The three of them make it up one of the hills half an hour later. It’s still mid-morning and the sun is hiding behind a few low clouds, but the back of Martha’s shirt is drenched with sweat. Joey hops down, agile despite his limp, and Toni and Martha do the same. They remove their helmets, drink some water, and let the horses rest, enjoying the quiet, and the view.

“This is one of my favorite spots,” Joey tells them. “Whenever I need to be by myself, and the weather isn’t too bad, I go up here. Space helps me think.”

“It’s beautiful,” Martha agrees.

“Yeah,” Toni says, distractedly. The ducklings are peeping from the saddlebag, demanding her attention. She goes to feed them, sitting cross-legged in the damp grass, pouring water in her palm so they may drink.

Joey and Martha watch her from afar. “Gotta tell ya, I did not see that coming,” Joey confides, with a smile.

“What? That Toni would become the adoptive mom of three baby ducks?” Martha snorts. “Yeah, none of us did.”

“Out of all you girls, I thought you’d be the one to adopt some of our furry or feathered friends.”

Martha blinks. “Me? Why?”

“You have a way with animals. Saw that from the start. Have you thought about working with them in the future?”

“I’m - I love them, it’s true --” Martha stammers, surprised by the question.

“But?”

“When I was little, I wanted to become a veterinarian, but now... it’s complicated.”

Joey hums. “Well, I'm not here to tell you what to do, but I can see you love animals, and you’re good with them. Lots of interesting jobs in that field. Though, of course you don’t gotta make everything you love into a career.” He smiles at her, kindly. “And there’s no rush. You got plenty of time to figure it out.”

He goes to check on the horses, and Martha stands still, alone, on the hilltop. From up here, she can see the house, far away, and the road, dense woods spreading on either side. A hawk glides high above, in wide circles. She wonders if it has found a prey.

Predator. Prey. She remembers the goat, on the island - blood on her hands. The taste of meat, tangy and rich, on her tongue, and how she had to work past her nausea to swallow. Predator or prey. Fear in her belly, paralyzing. Anger burning underneath her skin, dangerous. What if Martha doesn’t want to be either?

“Hey,” Toni says, softly. Martha, lost in thoughts, didn’t hear her approach. “You good, Marty?”

“Do you know what you’re going to do after?” Martha asks, instead of answering. “Like, what kind of job?”

“Not really.” Toni shrugs. “But we’ve got time, right? We haven’t even started college.” She throws an arm around Martha’s shoulders, familiar, comforting. “Maybe I’ll try basketball again. Or maybe I’ll become a nurse, or a fucking astronaut. Who the fuck knows?”

“I think,” Martha starts, and pauses, wetting her lips, “I think that maybe I want to do something to help make sure what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else.” Toni’s arm tightens. “But I’m not really sure how to do that just yet.”

Toni moves so she’s facing her. She puts her hands on Martha’s cheeks. “I’m so fucking proud of you. You know that, right?” Martha nods. “Whatever you end up doing, whatever you want, I’ll help you. I’ll be there every step of the way. I know you’re gonna do great things out there, Marty.”

Before she can add anything else, Joey calls out: “Time to get back, girls!”

Martha glances at the horses. “I’m scared of falling,” she confesses, in a small voice, and she’s not really talking about horse riding.

But Toni shakes her head. “Nah, you’ll be alright.” And Toni’s absolute confidence in her must be infectious, because Martha gets back on her horse, filled with newfound determination, even if she doesn’t quite believe her.

That night, exhausted from the hike, she falls asleep earlier than usual, and then she wakes up, all at once, in the middle of the night. There’s light coming from Dot’s side of the room - too feeble to be her bedside lamp. Martha rolls to her side, and finds Dot sitting in bed, holding a flashlight, staring at the wall.

“Dot? Are you okay?” she whispers.

“Shit,” Dot startles. “Did I wake you up? My bad.”

“No worries.” Martha sits up, blinking the sleep from her eyes, gazing at Dot with concern. “Are you okay?” she repeats, because this is very out of the ordinary. Dot usually sleeps like a log. And she definitely doesn’t stare at walls.

Dot sighs. Her shoulders sag. “Couldn’t sleep. I’m just, I don’t know, too anxious? Too sad? Not sure why, but, yeah.”

Martha stretches, and checks the alarm clock on her bedside table. It’s just past one in the morning. “Wanna go downstairs? Make some tea, eat a snack? There’s leftover rhubarb pie.”

Dot hesitates for just a handful of seconds, before shrugging. “Yeah, what the hell.” She puts on the ugly furry slippers Fatin gave her, Martha wraps herself in a shawl, and the two of them pad silently down the stairs.

The kitchen welcomes them with its familiar smells. It dawns on Martha that this place has been their home for eight months now. Much longer than the island ever was. And part of her doesn’t want to leave. Part of her feels safe here, safer even that at her parents’ house. There is no risk of falling, in this big country house filled with people she trusts, no risk of getting hurt again. But she can’t stay, of course. She knows that.

Martha makes them chamomile tea, with a drop of honey, while Dot rummages through the fridge to find the promised pie. They grab a couple of spoons, and sit side by side on the bench, eating directly from the Tupperware. Martha’s mom would have an aneurysm if she could see her right now.

Neither of them talk much - Martha can tell Dot is anxious. But they sit close to each other, and sip their hot drink, and eat sweet mouthfuls of rhubarb pie ; their shoulders brush against each other, and Martha rubs light circles on the small of Dot’s back, and eventually it’s enough to quieten the tense energy of Dot.

When they’re done, they leave their spoons and mugs in the sink, and climb back upstairs, ready to finish their night. Except their bedroom is no longer empty.

“What the fuck,” Dot mumbles, when they open the door.

Martha blinks, just as confused. Toni and Shelby lie in her bed, under the blanket, fast asleep, Shelby’s head burrowed in the crook of Toni’s neck, Toni’s nose in her hair.

“When did they even get here?” Dot asks, incredulous, and almost impressed. “We were gone for less than an hour!”

Martha tugs her back, and gently closes the door. “Let’s not wake them up,” she says quietly. “I can take Toni’s bed, and you can sleep in Shelby’s.”

They walk down the hallway to the second bedroom, and carefully open the door.

“Oh, you gotta be kidding me.” Dot shakes her head at the sight in front of their eyes. The light is on. Leah is sitting on Shelby’s bed, wrapped in Shelby’s comforter. Fatin is in her own bed, and they both look up at Dot and Martha in surprise. Martha waves, awkwardly.

“Rude, much? You really should knock, Dorothy, you could have interrupted something spicy,” Fatin complains.

“Right,” Leah says, drily, “cause there’s nothing spicier than debating early 2010’s fashion trends with your girlfriend in the middle of the night.”

“Fashion?” Dot repeats, doubtful, closing the door behind them.

“Girlfriend?” Martha squeals, immediately interested. “I knew you guys were, like, together, but I didn’t know it was girlfriend official!”

“I didn’t know either,” Fatin says, staring at Leah with the widest smile Martha’s ever seen.

Leah blushes bright red. “Well, I.. Are we not?”

“Hey, Dorothy,” Fatin calls, loudly, “can you believe I have a girlfriend?”

“Oh my God, this is so exciting!” Martha exclaims. She clasps her hands together, and turns her attention to Leah. “I’m so happy for you.”

The door bangs open. “Can you guys keep it the fuck down?” someone yells, as the four of them all jump and let out surprised screams.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Rachel, what is wrong with you,” Dot grumbles. She lets go of Fatin’s arm, which she instinctively grabbed at the sudden intrusion. Fatin doesn’t let go of hers. Martha, who reflexively hid behind the wardrobe, starts giggling despite herself at the absurdity of the situation.

“Once again,” Fatin says, glaring at Rachel, “for the love of God, you guys need to fucking knock. What if I was in the middle of going down on Leah, hm?”

“With Martha and Dot watching?” Leah points out, one eyebrow raised. “Didn’t know you were into that.” Fatin winks, and opens her mouth.

“Not another word,” Rachel cuts off, her arms crossed against her chest, standing in the middle of the doorway with a look that says you may be my friends but I will not hesitate to murder you.

“Anyway, what’s your take on romper suits, Rach’?” Fatin asks her, unbothered.

“On what?”

“A romper suit,” says Nora, appearing behind Rachel as silent as a ghost and provoking another round of startled yelps, “is a one-piece or two-piece combination of shorts and a shirt, dating, in the US, from the early 1900s, and very popular in the 2010’s.”

“Thanks for the heart attack, Nora,” Martha says, with a hand on her chest. Leah pats the empty spot next to her. Martha gratefully accepts the invitation, and climbs onto Shelby’s bed. “Can we go back to the girlfriend conversation?”

“What girlfriend conversation?” Rachel asks, resigned, as she hops on beside Martha, and tugs until Leah shares the comforter.

“There is no girlfriend conversation,” Leah replies, weakly.

“What about the O.G. girlfriends?” Fatin offers, cleverly changing the subject. “Toni and Shelby. Let’s discuss them.”

The door opens once more, revealing Toni and Shelby in pajamas. “Yo, you guys talking about us?” Toni mumbles, grumpy as she always is when woken up too early.

“Yes,” says Nora.

“No,” says Dot, firmly.

“Are y’all having a sleepover?” Shelby asks, with way too much enthusiasm for the middle of the night.

“Yeah, wanna join us?” Martha signals the two of them to come in, and so they comply, Toni with an eye roll, Shelby with a bright smile. Warmth floods Martha’s chest, because these are her friends, her people, these seven girls who couldn’t be more different, and yet love each other so fucking much.

They keep chatting until they pass out late in the night, falling asleep one by one, four warm bodies per bed, and Martha, as her eyelids drop, as her breathing slows, is struck by the dazed realization that friendship like the one they share is akin to a safety net.

It doesn’t matter if she falls. They’ll catch her.

 

4-

Nora looks at herself in the tall mirror of the bathroom. It’s a slow and methodical act, a scientist meticulously, impartially observing data. She starts with the shoes - a new pair that still hurts her toes a little bit - and goes up, cataloguing every detail of her appearance. Her shins, bare and brown, sporting a few faint scratches she got from exploring a thick patch of bramble in the woods two days ago. Then the gown, dark blue, falling to her knees. A simple skirt and blouse underneath. The sash around her neck - red and grey, the colors of her high school in New York. Her head, at last: her eyes, her nose piercing, her dark hair, artfully curled, and the traditional cap on top, with the golden tassel.

When she blinks, instead of the image in the mirror, she sees a different person, as if superimposed: dirty, salt-stained sneakers, pants covered in sand, a long-sleeved shirt, her hair a mess, her skin sun-burnt and peeling. She blinks again. Back to the present. Back to the gown and cap.

The Nora of the island isn’t gone. She’s here, living under her skin, scared and guilty, but also brave and strong, and it dawns on Nora, with a curious sort of certainty, that she'll always be the sum of all the girls she’s been. The Nora who, at six years old, already knew how to read fluently. The Nora who got braces in middle school and had to hide in the library during lunch hour. The Nora she was with Quinn. When she walks across the stage today, she will carry all of them within her. Within this new Nora, who is turning eighteen in six months, headed for college in four, and going to therapy every week. Who almost lost her sister, but didn’t. Who found friends in the most unexpected place. This new Nora, who is graduating high school today.

None of them really expected a graduation ceremony, given their less-than-ordinary senior year, but Joey and Marco surprised them with as close to the real thing as possible: they built an actual tiny platform in front of the house, ordered eight sets of gowns and caps, had the high schools send in their diplomas. They even promised a party - a prom, if you will - and it’s all very sweet.

One by one, they rise up when their name is called, and walk up the makeshift stage while everyone claps and cheers, to receive their diploma from Agent Clipper, whom Leah somehow convinced to play the part of the Dean - a surprising development that had all of them dying of laughter when they were told - and flowers from Joana. Agent Boone, in the back, is filming the whole thing for their families, and maybe tearing up a little. Hard to tell behind the dark sunglasses.

As soon as Toni, the last one, is back in her seat, clutching the rolled paper in her hand, the girls start chanting Nora’s name excitedly. Nora stands up, nervous. As their unofficial valedictorian, she agreed to give the closing speech. She makes her way to the stage once more, and faces her friends, and one errand duckling waddling between the seats.

“I’m not a great public speaker,” she says. “But there is something I’d like to read to all of you. It’s part of my college essay. Which, I realize, sounds a little narcissistic, but I didn’t write it just about me. I wrote it about the eight of us.” She clears her throat. “It’s called All we’ve got is each other.” And she starts reading.

After the ceremony, they all change out of their gowns, and while the other girls reconvene towards the living-room to set up the party, Nora sneaks outside, just for a minute. She sits on one of the lawn chairs by the pond. It’s quiet, at this hour. The sun is already low in the sky.

“Good speech.”

Nora startles, surprised, as Leah plops down in the chair next to her. “Thanks?” Nora replies. It sounds like a question.

“I’m serious. I like your writing style. It’s”- Leah pauses, searching for the right words -” perceptive, and blunt, but not cruel.”

Nora leans back against the chair, gazing at the willow tree, the pond, the reeds. The compliment is kind, and sincere, but there’s something bittersweet about it too. “We could have been great friends, you know,” she murmurs, not looking at Leah. She hears a sharp intake of breath.

“We are friends,” Leah protests.

Nora sighs. “No, Leah, I don’t think we are,” she counters softly. It doesn’t hurt, not as much as it used to - she’s made her peace with it - but it aches, a faint discomfort in the pit of her stomach.

Leah stays silent for a moment. “I’m sorry. Everyone’s moving on, and I just - I feel stuck. I want to forgive you, I do, but --”

“It’s okay,” Nora cuts her off. She turns, and catches Leah’s eyes. “Really, it’s okay. I get why it’s harder for you. It was - personal, between us. So I get it. Whenever you’re ready. And maybe, one day, we can try to be friends for real.”

“I’d like that,” Leah breathes out. “Thanks.”

Nora stands up from the chair, extends a hand. “Come on. We should get back, the party’s about to start. I’m sure your date is eager to see you.”

Leah smiles, hesitant, and accepts the help. But she doesn’t let go of Nora’s wrist once she’s up. “Just so we’re clear,” she says, in that intent, hoarse voice of hers, “I do care about you.”

Nora grins. Sometimes Leah is surprisingly earnest. “I care about you too.” She cocks her head. “Can I ask for a graduation hug?”

She barely has time to finish her sentence before Leah is embracing her. Nora wraps her arms around Leah’s back, gingerly. She remembers tackling Leah down on the beach, pinning her wrist to coarse wet sand. She remembers her hand on Leah’s cheek, guiding her back to camp through the dark jungle. She remembers how furious she was when Leah ran into the ocean and Rachel risked her life to save her. She remembers leading Leah to the pit, the sound it made when Leah fell, the screaming that echoed behind her as Nora left her there.

And now she’s hugging Leah, and Leah is hugging back, and they’re not friends, not quite, not yet, but they’ve come a long way. Small victories are still worth celebrating.

The party is fun. There’s music and dancing and a whole lot of laughter. Fatin attempts to teach them TikTok dances, with results that range from tragic to disastrous. Giving in to pressure, Joey and Marco bring out the karaoke machine, which leads to loud and discordant renditions of various pop songs. The agents stay out of their way, and for one night, Nora can almost make herself believe she’s just a normal teenager, having fun with her closest friends after graduation.

A little after midnight, Joey and Marco go to bed, and Shelby and Dot volunteer to clean up. Toni and Martha are giggling in a corner trying to put tiny party hats on less than cooperative ducklings, and Fatin and Leah are nowhere to be seen, so Rachel and Nora exchange a look, and make their way upstairs, just the two of them, and into the bedroom they’ve been sharing for months. They don’t need to say anything. The moment finally feels right. They both sit on the carpeted floor, facing each other. Perfect mirrors of each other.

(Their bodies are no longer symmetrical images. But their hearts, Nora senses, for the first time in a long while beat at the same pace.)

“So,” Rachel says, “how does it feel to graduate high school?”

Nora shrugs. “Not as dramatic as I thought it would be.”

“To be fair, we’ve had our fair share of drama this year,” Rachel jokes. “Hard to compete.”

“True. It was an eventful year.” A pause. Nora remembers watching her sister diving, how she’d throw herself off the edge, head first, never fearing the fall. Maybe it’s time for Nora to jump too. “Rach’, I wanted to say again --”

But Rachel interrupts her. “I forgive you.”

Nora blinks. The three words hit her like a wave slams into you, destabilizing, washing away all pretense. “You do?” she asks, carefully.

“Yeah.” Rachel links her hands atop her lap, flesh and plastic fingers intertwined. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m still angry. And sad. And I’ll probably struggle with what you did, and why you did it, for a very long time.” She’s looking at Nora, light brown eyes trained on Nora’s face, familiar and foreign all at once. “But I know you were always looking out for me, Nor’. Whatever mistakes you made, you were trying to save me from myself, and that has to count for something. So I forgive you. You’re forgiven. I don’t want this hanging over your head anymore.”

“I’m the reason you got hurt,” Nora whispers, deep-seated regret coloring her voice.

“But you’re also the reason I’m still alive.” Rachel swallows. “For eighteen years, you’ve taken care of me. And I… I haven’t done the same. I wasn’t even there for you when you lost someone you loved. This thing, where you do everything with me in mind, and I don’t think about you enough...” She shakes her head - and there’s a hint of the old Rachel in her, suddenly, that willful determination Nora knows so well. “It’s gotta stop, now, for good. It’s gotta change. We both have to change the way we do shit, the way we think about us.”

Yes, that’s her sister - that fire in the eyes, that unshakable conviction in her voice. Nora isn’t the only one coexisting with past versions of herself. Maybe they’re all juggling with who they were, who they are, who they want to be. Maybe growing up doesn’t end with graduation - maybe it never does.

“You’re right,” Nora says, voice hoarse from emotion. “But I think we both already have changed a lot. Just the fact that we’re finally having this conversation is a pretty good indicator. And”- she tries to smile, and it comes out a little wobbly, but Rachel smiles back, automatically -”things will continue to change, and us with it. Next year we’re going to be separated for the first time ever. We’ll be in college, living brand new lives. We’ll have to figure out how to be sisters from afar.”

“We’ll make it work,” Rachel states. Nora is struck by the confidence of her tone. “We’ve gone through way too much shit for this to be a problem.”

“I hope so. I’m - I know a bit of distance will be good for us, but... I guess I’m a little scared that you’ll forget about me. You’ll have Leah, at UCLA, and you’ll make other friends, and… I don’t know, it’s just… maybe we won’t talk that often, or we won’t be that close, and what if you don’t miss me, and...” She stops her rambling, self-conscious. “Is that stupid?”

“No,” Rachel replies, softly. And then she frowns. “Actually, yeah, it is stupid, Nor’. What the hell are you talking about? I’m not going to forget about you. Believe me, you’ll hear from me every time Leah drives me up the wall, whether you want it or not. Of course I’ll miss you, dumbass.”

It’s a rebuke, but a soft one, born of concern rather than anger or impatience. Relief washes over Nora instantly. “I love you,” she says, simply.

“I love you too. I want you in my life, alright? Always.” There’s an openness in Rachel, something new and vulnerable and honest that prompts Nora to shuffle, on her knees, across the carpet, until she’s seated next to her. Rachel’s hand fits in hers like it always has. Nora rests her head on Rachel’s shoulder.

“We’ll make it work,” she affirms, repeating her sister’s words. She sounds, to her surprise, just as confident as Rachel.

 

5-

Transcripts of video and audio footage, property of the Dawn of Eve program, by Susan Huang.

[...]
Day 30, 10:15, camera Jungle-12-B.

[Rachel is lying on her back on a bed of palm leaves. There is a jacket covering her legs. Her amputated arm is heavily bandaged, in a sling. Dorothy is sitting a few feet away from her, watching the fire. For comparative footage of the rest of the subjects, check cameras Jungle-34-A, Waterfall-03-C, and Beach-45-A.]

Rachel: She’s not dead.

Dorothy: [sigh] Rachel, look, I... I get it. [pause] When my dad died, I had a hard time, just… coming to terms with it, I guess. And I’m so fucking sorry, I can’t imagine... but you gotta accept the truth. She’s gone.

Rachel: [groan of pain, she sits up] I’m not in fucking denial, Dot. She’s my twin sister. I would know if she was dead, okay? Leah said --

Dorothy: [interrupting] Leah says a lot of shit. Doesn’t make it true.

Rachel: [louder] She’s not dead! [forehead against her raised knees, arms around her legs, muffled] She’s not dead. You’re not dead. You’re not dead.

[...]
Day 41, 18:20, camera Beach-44-B

[Shelby and Toni enter the frame, holding hands. They are walking along the shore. For comparative footage of the rest of the subjects, check cameras Jungle-12-A and B.]

Shelby: We should get back soon. It’s getting dark. I don’t want Dottie to worry.

Toni: Yeah, I know. It won’t take long. I, uh, I wanted to tell you something, and I kinda needed some privacy.

Shelby: What is it? [stammering] Is.. is it… am I… is it about the… are you regretting that we told the girls yesterday? I thought...

Toni: [laughing] Nah. I’m so fucking glad we finally spilled the beans, I hated keeping it a secret from Marty. It’s about, um, fuck. [stops walking, faces Shelby] Shelby, I know we haven’t known each other all that long, but, shit, time doesn’t mean much in this hell hole, so I’m just gonna say how I feel. And you don’t have to say it back, I just need you to know, in case anything happens. [inhales, exhales] I love you.

Shelby: Oh, Toni... [kisses her] God, I [inaudible] [ kisses her again] I love you too. I love you too.

[...]
Day 59, 11:05, camera Waterfall-03-C.

[Leah and Fatin enter the frame. They are carrying a large suitcase tied on a branch. Inaudible dialogue, laughter, while they stay close to the bank, filling the suitcase with water. They stand up, put the suitcase on the ground, walk closer to the camera. For comparative footage of the rest of the subjects, check cameras Jungle-12-A and Jungle-34-A.]

Fatin: [inaudible] just saying, it’s the third time you switch with someone to be on water duty with me.

Leah: Yeah, so what? I just like getting away from everyone, that’s all. It’s quiet here.

Fatin: [smiling] You wanna get away from everyone… but not me?

Leah: [pause] No. Not you. [looks down, fidgets] You’re the only one who doesn’t think I’m crazy. You’re the only one who listens, and, like, cares, Fatin. You’re my… you’re my person, here, you know? [hides face in both hands] Ugh, sorry, this is so corny. Forget it.

Fatin: Hey. [grabs Leah’s hands, pushes them away, holds Leah’s face in both her hands] You’re my person too.

Leah: [smiling] I am?

Fatin: Leah… [gets closer, hands fall on Leah’s neck, pauses, then tries to kiss her]

Leah: [jerks away] Wait, I… fuck. I can’t. I can’t do this, I’m sorry.

[...]
Day 61, 14:38, camera Cliff-06-D.

[A goat runs into frame, followed by Martha alone, haggard, covered in scrapes and scratches, some of them visibly bleeding. She throws a rock, which does not hit the goat. The goat starts hopping down the cliff face. For comparative footage of the rest of the subjects, check cameras Jungle-12-A and Jungle-34-A.]

Martha: [Inaudible] make me [inaudible] stop!

Martha: [approaches the cliff edge, hesitates, picks up another rock] I’m sorry, but I need to do this [throws the rock, it misses again]

[The goat startles and moves further down the cliff side. Martha waits for ten seconds, then starts climbing down as well. She loses her footing, and falls.]

Martha: [screaming]