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all we've got is each other

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1- June 6

Rachel wakes up with a stomach ache.

She opens her eyes, rolls onto her back, and winces, both at the uncomfortable burn in her guts, and at the familiarity of it. She used to get stomach aches the evening before a diving competition. Especially after Coach tried to cut her off the team, when the pressure to prove herself was highest, and utterly inescapable - as if she’d swallowed a ballast of lead, and it had sunk to the bottom of her stomach where it remained, weighing her down. No matter her efforts, she never succeeded in expelling this pressure out of her body - though God knows she tried, in the bleached bathroom by the lockers, kneeling on the cold white tiles, emptying herself of everything except that horrible, persistent, painful weight.

There has been no diving competitions in almost a year, though, no pressure, no stomach aches, so the disturbing sensation takes Rachel by surprise, until she remembers what day it is. June 6th. The first year anniversary of that fateful morning when she boarded a plane to Hawai’i. She recalls the silent, uncomfortable ride to the airport with her parents, dragging her suitcase, sulkily, in the long crowded hallway to the boarding gate, and snapping at Nora when she tried to chat ; she remembers sitting down in the private plane, in LAX, arms crossed against her chest, thinking what a waste of time, scowling as girls she had no intention to befriend slowly filled the cabin.

She had no idea. She had no idea these were the last few hours of her life. Her stomach churns.

“Rach’.”

Rachel turns her head towards the other bed at the sound of her sister’s voice. Nora is sitting very still, fully dressed, her chin resting on her raised knee. There’s a closed sketchbook by her side, on the bed cover - Rachel wonders if Nora was drawing her, but she decides against asking. If Nora wants to talk about it, she will do so in her own time.

“Morning, Nor’.”

“Are you okay?”

“Hm,” Rachel says, which is not really an answer, though Nora nods as if she understands. She probably does. Rachel clears her throat. “What about you? You good?”

Nora sighs, a long puff of air that disturbs the dark curly strands of hair framing her face. “I can’t believe it’s been a year,” she murmurs, “since the island. It feels like centuries ago.”

“Okay, dramatic,” Rachel groans, but Nora isn’t wrong. Her life before the island does seem remote, almost foreign, so completely divorced from her current reality she might as well be a different person altogether. “Gonna be a rough day,” she adds, gruffly. “For everyone.”

Nora nods once more, and then she unfurls from her crouched position, and offers a hand to Rachel, who takes it and lets herself be guided out of her bed.

Breakfast is a somber affair. There’s something dark and heavy in the air - Rachel sees it in everyone’s eyes, hears it in the unusual silence at the table - but she can’t place the energy ; it’s not anger, exactly, nor is it sadness, or fear. It’s only after she sits down, having made herself a bowl of oatmeal she has no real appetite for, looking around at the sullen, withdrawn faces of her friends, that it dawns on her.

It’s grief. On this one year anniversary, they are all mourning the lives they could have lived.

“Gonna make pancakes, I think,” Joey declares, too cheerfully, waving a kitchen towel at them. “Who wants some?”

Rachel shakes her head, poking a spoon into her half-congealed oatmeal. Dot sips her coffee, before she mumbles, vaguely apologetic, “None for me, thanks.” Leah doesn’t respond at all, staring at her buttered toast with vacant eyes.

“I’ll have pancakes, sure,” Shelby tries, valiantly, though she fails to sound genuinely enthusiastic. “Toni?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

Rachel looks up in shock. Toni refusing pancakes is about as likely as aliens showing up for breakfast. Martha, with a worried frown, stops peeling her orange, and turns towards her best friend. “Are you okay?”

“Obviously, she’s not,” Fatin snaps, impatient, across the table, before Toni can answer. “None of us are okay, Martha. What kind of useless question is that?”

“Hey, back the fuck off,” Toni snarls, slamming a hand on the table so hard coffee spills from her cup. Everyone freezes. Toni’s eyes widen. “Sorry,” she mutters. She looks down at her lap in shame. Dot, wordlessly, wipes the spillage with her napkin.

Silence stretches, a beat too long, and Rachel’s stomach turns even sourer. “Fucking hell,” she lets out, startling her friends. She pushes away the oatmeal. “Joey, can you give us a minute, please?” Joey places the kitchen towel on the counter by the sink, slowly, hesitating. Rachel meets his eyes. “We got this,” she adds, hoping he’ll understand that they need a moment, that they need to sort this out on their own.

He gives her a smile. “Sure. Alright. I’ll be in the living-room, call if you need help. Or a mediator. Or pancakes.” He limps out of the kitchen, closing the door behind himself, and now it’s only the eight of them, sitting around the table.

“Today is gonna suck,” Rachel starts, bluntly. “Let’s not make it even worse by being at each other’s throats the whole damn time.”

“I know,” Toni agrees, in a small voice. “Sorry, Fatin. I’m… I didn’t mean to react like that, I just feel so fucking on edge.”

“It’s cool.” Fatin sighs, and she glances at Martha, who’s chewing on her lip. “I’m sorry too, honey. Shouldn’t have lashed out at you.” Her hand is trembling where it lies by her empty plate, and Leah, without saying a word, grabs it, linking their fingers together, rubbing her thumb against Fatin’s knuckles.

Martha slings an arm around Toni’s waist. Shelby’s hand comes to rest on the back of Toni’s neck, fingers cupping her nape. “We got you, baby,” Shelby murmurs, and Toni’s skin darkens across her cheeks as tension visibly lifts from her shoulders.

“Disgusting,” Fatin says, with a playful smile. Toni rolls her eyes, but returns the smile, accepting the olive branch.

“Rachel’s right,” Dot says. Annoyingly, Rachel’s face heats up at the praise. Coming from Dot, who, though she’d never admit it to anyone, Rachel admires quite a bit, it means a lot. The discomfort in her belly quietens. “Let’s not lose our shit,” Dot continues. “We’ve come too far for that.”

“Hm,” Nora starts, and pauses, grimacing.

Rachel gives her an encouraging nod. “Go ahead, Nor’. What you got?”

“Remember in one of the early group therapy sessions –”

“I’m trying to forget those,” Leah interrupts. Rachel glares at her warningly, and she shuts up.

“- Joana said people can’t just guess the exact kind of help you need, and it’s good to learn how to ask for it?” Nora licks her lips. “I thought maybe we could go around and, uh, talk about what we need from each other today.”

No one says anything at first. Rachel’s throat feels tight, too tight to speak. Her prosthesis hangs, heavy, from her forearm. Her stomach still aches. She doesn’t know how to do this - asking for help - without feeling like a failure. Like a loser. Someone needy and weak - someone she doesn’t want to be ever again.

And then Leah bravely breaks the silence. “I need you all to give me some space. I know you guys still get a little scared when I, uh, isolate myself, and I appreciate the concern, but I need you to trust me, today.”

“We can do that,” Nora says, softly. She blinks when Leah meets her gaze, but does not avert her eyes. “We can trust you.”

“Thanks.”

Leah swallows, with some difficulty. Fatin kisses her on the cheek, and her mouth lingers there, against Leah’s skin, close to the corner of Leah’s lips.

Now who’s disgusting,” Toni mumbles, but there’s no edge to it.

Rachel tunes out the familiar banter, and looks out of the window instead, at the yard bathed in bright sunlight. It’s a hot day, already. The first hot day of summer - there’s no wind, and the heat feels heavy - the kind of day they’ll have to spend mostly indoors if they want to stay cool. Rachel remembers summer days in New York, when the humidity sticks to your skin and walking outside feels like wading into soup - everything hot and moist and unpleasant. Their dad used to take them to the public pool, on such hot summer days, when Nora and her were little, and they’d gladly exchange the warm air for warm water.

Rachel has not seen a pool in more than a year. Her nostrils fill with the familiar smell of chlorine and bleach. Her eyes sting with absent saltwater, remembering the last time she swam in the ocean, and her stump tingles, the ache intensifying deep in her belly. But she won’t be governed by the past. She looks outside, at the lawn, and the trees, and the reed-enclosed pond. It’s a hot day. The start of a new summer. And she misses the water.

“I want to swim,” Rachel blurts out, interrupting the chatter. Her friends stop talking, and she takes a breath, not quite willing to look at them. She feels Nora’s gaze on her, familiar like home. “I want to swim”, she repeats, “in the pond, before it gets too hot to be outside. But I…” She pauses. Martha takes her hand. Toni knocks her knee, encouraging. “I don’t think I can do it alone.”

“We’ll go with you, then,” Dot says, as if it’s as easy as that. Rachel’s eyes sting with a different kind of saltwater.

And it is as easy as that. All she needed to do was ask. They finish their breakfast hastily, put on their bathing suits, and go jump in the pond, all together, eagerly followed by Toni’s ducklings. It’s nothing like a pool, or the ocean: there’s a soft kind of silt at the bottom, under their feet, and it smells faintly, not unpleasantly, of rotting plant-matter, and though it’s a decently sized pond, it isn’t quite deep enough to dive. But they have fun nonetheless. And when, one by one, her friends leave to go dry under the sun, Rachel, surprising herself, isn’t afraid to stay.

Because for the first time in years, floating alone in the middle of the pond, cool water like a balm against her skin, she doesn’t feel weighed down by pressure. She feels light.

 

2- June 17

Martha adjusts her sunglasses, and takes a sip of iced lemonade, before carefully placing the tall glass back on its tray next to her head, and lying back down on her beach towel. “You were right,” she exhales, contentedly, “this is the life.”

“Told you,” Fatin replies. She’s lying next to Martha on a bright pink towel, wearing her pair of gigantic heart-shaped sunglasses. “Sometimes doing absolutely nothing is what it’s all about.”

On Martha’s other side, Shelby hums. “Do any of y’all need some more sunscreen?”

“Yes, please,” Nora pipes up, from her spot across the drinks’ tray. Martha watches as Shelby rolls to her side, handing Nora the sunscreen lotion they’re all sharing. Nora brought a sketchbook, but it lies, unopened, next to her towel.

The sun is warm on her skin, and the soft summer grass makes for a plush mattress. It’s a Sunday afternoon, the sky is blue and vast, and there is absolutely nothing to do but relax, so the four of them decided to go sunbathe outside. The air smells sweet, the scent of roses wafting over them. Martha’s mouth tastes like sugar and lemon.

Some distant noise has her lifting her head. Across the pond, on the courtyard of gravel by the house, Rachel and Toni are playing basketball. Or rather, competing to see who can shoot more balls from increasingly difficult angles. If Toni’s loud cheers and Rachel’s annoyed grunts are anything to go by, Toni must be winning. Martha smiles to herself. It’s good to see her best friend happy and carefree.

Fatin shifts to grab her glass of lemonade, and sighs. “Too bad we can’t have proper cocktails. I would kill for a margarita.”

“Yeah, same,” says Martha, who has never drank a margarita in her life. Or any cocktail for that matter.

“Aw, come on,” Shelby protests. She rolls to her stomach, leaning her chin onto her hands. “Don’t diss the lemonade, you’re gonna hurt my feelings. And we don’t need alcohol to have a good time!”

Fatin lowers her ridiculous sunglasses so she can give Shelby her most unimpressed stare. “Okay, first of all: lame. Second of all: that’s rich coming from the girl who downed half a bottle of vodka by herself on the island.”

“She wasn’t exactly having a good time, though, to be fair,” Nora argues, “so you’re proving her point.”

“Kind of the opposite, in fact,” Shelby agrees. “Don’t you remember my little episode with the scissors, Fatin, after I drank all that vodka? Not fun at all.” She speaks calmly, matter-of-factly, as if she’s reminding them of a benign incident, and not a scary, legit mental breakdown.

“Fine, fine, you’re right.” Fatin pouts. “Jeez, you guys are killing the vibe.”

“Just keepin’ it real,” Shelby retorts, cheekily, before she sits up. She stretches her arms above her head, her lips curving in an automatic smile as she watches Toni and Rachel play in the background, and then she looks around. “I don’t see Dottie and Leah anywhere. What are they up to?”

Nora takes a sip of lemonade, then points towards the barn with one thumb. “Learning how to ride a horse with Joey. He promised to give them lessons, remember?”

“Oh, that’s right. Dottie was so excited!”

“Leah, not so much,” Martha jokes.

“I’m sure Leah will do great, given how well she rides my –”

“Fatin!”

“What?” says Fatin, wearing a wide, self-satisfied smirk, to a blushing Shelby.

“You talk a lot about having sex with Leah for someone who’s never had sex with Leah,” Nora remarks, in her quiet yet devastatingly brutal way.

Fatin opens her mouth, closes it, opens it once more. A bee flies by them with buzzing expediency, tempted by the lemonade. Martha bites her tongue, trying her hardest not to laugh at Fatin’s dumbstruck expression.

“I think it’s sweet that you guys are waiting,” Shelby says. She pats Fatin’s shoulder.

Martha rolls on her back. “I wanna have sex,” she blurts out, and cringes, immediately, at the words that fell out of her mouth, at the horribly sincere tone of her voice. The others shift around her, presumably to stare at her in shock, but Martha stays very still, her eyes trained at the cloudless sky.

“Martha, angel, you’re going to college,” Fatin replies, after an excruciating pause, teasing but kind. “Do you know how easy it is to fuck college boys? If you wanna get some, you just gotta wait, like, two months, top, and they’ll fall right into your bed with their dicks out.”

Despite how vulnerable she feels at her involuntary admission, Martha can’t help chuckling at the image. Leave it to Fatin to be unflinchingly practical about the topic.

“It’s okay to want sex,” Shelby murmurs, to Martha’s right. “You’re not… there’s nothing wrong with that.”

“I know,” Martha says, because she does, she knows that. “It’s just – I’ve never”-- she takes a deep breath, swallows the doubt and the self-consciousness and the guilt -–”for the longest time, I just could not even think about it. Because of – because of what happened, I guess. Toni would make a joke, or people at school would gossip about who’s having sex with who, and I’d just – I’d smile and laugh with everyone else, but I used to just feel so detached. Like I couldn’t relate to any of it, and I didn’t want to.” Her speech is halting, the sentences beginning and stopping fitfully, like an old car whose engine only works in fits and starts, like a scared horse wavering before a jump. “I wanted love, but not sex.”

“And now, you feel different,” Nora says, halfway between a statement and a question.

“Yeah. Now I feel… I feel curious, I guess.”

“Curiosity is good,” Fatin says.

“And kinda scared.”

“What are you scared about?”

“That I won’t be good at it?” Martha lets out a small awkward laugh. Her cheeks burn. She shuts her eyes, tightly, fighting the inconvenient, sudden urge to cry. “That, I don’t know, I’m way too inexperienced and it’s embarrassing and I’ve never even had an orgasm, and maybe nobody will want me anyway because I’m, like, I’m not normal about it, and –”

Fatin grabs her hand. “Let me stop you right there, honey. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of slutting it up, it’s that there’s no such thing as normal when it comes to sex. Everyone’s got their own fears and their hang-ups and their weird shit.” A pause. Martha bites her lip. “Martha, open your eyes. Look at me.”

Fatin’s voice is very soft. Martha complies, blinking in the sunlight, and rolls around to meet Fatin’s gaze.

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, I promise you.”

“She’s right,” Nora adds. She shuffles upward, kneeling on her towel, and Martha turns to look at her too. “And you shouldn’t worry about being good or bad at sex. It’s like anything else - you have to be patient and learn what works for you. Nobody’s born a sex goddess.”

“Except me,” Fatin chirps.

Nora rolls her eyes. “Except Fatin.”

“And maybe Toni,” Shelby jokes, which is gross, but it does have the effect of drawing Martha out of her self-pity party.

Martha fake-gags. “Yikes. Don’t tell me anything,” she says, at the exact same moment Fatin says, “Oooh, please, tell us everything.”

“Sorry, sorry, kidding,” Shelby laughs, bumping Martha’s shoulder with her own. Her face grows serious. “I think it’s super cool that you know what you want. And that you’re open about your feelings.”

“I don’t feel super cool right now,” Martha winces. “I feel like a loser.”

“You’re not,” Nora says, firmly. Her dark eyes find Martha’s, glinting in the bright sunlight. “You’re growing,” she adds.

Martha lets out a long breath. “Yeah. Thanks.” She looks at her friends. “I guess I know who to ask for advice if I meet a guy next year, then.”

“For sure. And while you wait for that lucky dude, how about we get you a vibrator?” Fatin offers, wisely.

Martha feels the burn all the way up to the tip of her ears, but she grins nonetheless. “Yeah, I think I’d like that.”

“That’s my girl.”

 

3- June 26

Someone knocks on her bedroom door.

“Shelby! You ready?” Joey asks from the hallway, his voice muffled.

“One sec’!”

Shelby inhales, and faces her reflection in the mirror hung above the sink.

A stranger stares back at her. Okay, maybe stranger is an exaggeration - but she looks strikingly different, almost unrecognizable. In a way, it reminds her of her pageant show days: then, also, she’d take one last look before walking onto the stage, and experience a weird, uncanny dissociation, unable to see herself in this girl with blond, perfect straight hair, face hidden under what felt like pounds of makeup - a mask of powder and moisturizer - and body artfully spray-tanned. And of course the dresses: always glamorous and always chaste, vibrant colors and conventional cuts. The picture of youth and beauty and feminine elegance.

But, today, Shelby looks nothing like a pageant beauty. Her short hair is boyishly tousled, a few strands curling on her forehead. Her make-up accentuates her cheekbones, and the square line of her jaw, but she’s not wearing lipstick, nor eyeliner - though she’s filled in her eyebrows to give them a more defined shape. No dress either for the occasion: rather, a suit, a light blue tuxedo actually, exhumed from the deepest corner of Marco’s closet, and altered to fit her smaller frame.

She doesn’t look like herself, and yet she does - it’s both foreign and freeing.

“Ready,” she says, to the person looking back in the mirror. And then, at last, before she steps outside, she pauses - and takes off her flipper.

Joey is waiting for her in the hallway, decked in a fantastically elaborate gown of satin-like material, beautiful with his long fake eyelashes and an extravagant purple lipgloss. He grins at her. “You look great!”

“Thanks, Joey, you too. This eyeshadow color is poppin’ on you,” Shelby says, and snorts when he responds to the compliment with a curtsy.

“We make a fine pair, don’t we?”

“We sure do,” Shelby agrees, smiling, and then, overcome with sudden affection for the man in front of her, she throws her arms around him, hugging him tightly.

He chuckles, a low surprised sound that vibrates against Shelby’s chest, but when she doesn’t move away, he puts one careful arm around her shoulders. “Everything okay, sweetie?”

“Um, yeah.” She steps away. “Sorry. I just…” She trails off, unsure how to voice her feelings.

“You know you don’t have to do this, right? It’s just for fun. No pressure.”

“Oh yeah, of course, I know. I’m not – that’s not the – I’m just a bit emotional, is all.”

“Right.” Joey straightens her bow tie, gently. “Are you sure?”

“Totally,” Shelby says. “Hey, Joey?”

“Yep?”

“Thank you. For everything.”

“My pleasure.”

When they finally make it to the backyard, they’re greeted by an impatient crowd - the girls, Marco, Pepper, the goats - and the still hot sun of a late June afternoon. Marco has refitted the wooden platform they used for their home graduation into a little stage, and he hands Joey and Shelby the karaoke machine mics.

“Showtime,” Joey whispers to Shelby, with a wink.

And then the music starts, and Shelby, for the first time in over a year, sings.

She’s timid, at first, uneasy - hot under her suit, distracted by Pepper’s excited barking and one of the goats repeatedly headbutting Rachel’s thigh, by the unfamiliar environment. She’s not used to singing outdoors, or in front of such a small audience, or without her flipper, or even in pants. Part of her expects to see her parents, sitting somewhere in the front, as they always do - and with an uncomfortable, visceral pang, she misses her father’s proud approval, her mother’s quiet support.

But the discomfort fades. Joey croons his part of their duet, his deep voice ringing loud in the yard, hips jerking in rhythm, and her friends are cheering, and Shelby loosens up, and lets joy overtake her - the unique, liberating joy of performing. They finish the song under wild applause, plus one single quack from an errant duck, displeased by all the ruckus.

“Thank you, thank you,” Joey says, playfully solemn, with a deep bow. “Honored to be sharing the stage with Miss Shelby Goodkind today.” He sends her a kiss. “Any last word before we kick this party off?”

Shelby puts her mouth to the mic, and grins, wide and happy. “Happy Pride, y’all!”

And then Fatin, in the tiniest skirt Shelby’s ever seen, puts on her playlist, and everyone starts dancing. Shelby steps down from the stage and slides between the bodies of her friends towards Toni, who’s wearing a pink tank top, a pair of hideous rainbow shorts, and an absurd amount of glitter on her face. Toni smiles and, before Shelby has time to say anything, pulls her in for a kiss, hands cupping Shelby’s face.

“You were incredible,” Toni murmurs into Shelby’s mouth.

Shelby’s hands find the curve of Toni’s hips, slip in under the thin cotton top to meet warm, soft skin. “Thanks.”

“Seriously, I had no idea I was dating a superstar.”

Shelby kisses the grin off of Toni’s mouth. “I’m not a star,” she says. Pop music beats loudly all around them, and they sway in tandem, bodies pressed together. “I just like to sing.”

“Uh uh. Well, I’m noticing a serious lack of serenading your girlfriend. Probably should fix that.”

“Oh really? Would my girlfriend like that kind of thing?”

Toni’s eyes are sparkling brighter than all the glitter in the world. “Yeah, she’d love it. I hear her bedroom has a window, you know. Just in case you wanted to sing to her under the moonlight. Very romantic.”

“I also hear she has a roommate,” Shelby remarks.

“I can get rid of Leah. I’ll just lure her outside with a book, or one of Fatin’s bras.”

“You’re so dumb”, Shelby says, but she’s laughing, and Toni kisses her again, once, twice, a dozen times. As they keep dancing together, she peppers kisses on Shelby’s lips, her chin, her nose, her neck, insatiable. Shelby, drunk on love, lets herself be devoured.

“So,” Toni says, when the first song ends, “how’s your first Pride party so far?”

“Amazing,” Shelby exhales. She brushes a thumb against Toni’s face, following the line of her cheekbone, her finger collecting glitter as it glides along Toni’s smooth skin. “Mostly because I’m with you.”

Toni catches her wrist, and brings Shelby’s hand to her lips. “Next year, we can go to a real parade together. If you want.”

“Yes, please.”

The next song comes onto the speakers, and Toni is swept away by Marco. Shelby watches the two of them dance, laughing as Marco attempts to teach Toni his favorite disco moves.

Abruptly, she thinks of her father again - of church gatherings, and dancing with him to corny songs from tame Christian bands. Laughing with him as he twirls her around until she’s dizzy. This girl doesn’t exist anymore - Shelby’s so far from who she used to be, who she used to pretend to be - and she knows, deep down, that even if she could, she wouldn’t go back. Not even for her father. No matter how badly he hides his disappointment, or how much he tries to change her. She’s much too happy to ever betray herself again for his sake.

“Hey.” Suddenly, Dot is standing next to her, offering her a can of coke. “Gotta stay hydrated.”

“Thanks, Dottie.”

“Sure.” They stand in silence for a moment, watching their friends dance. “You doin’ alright?” Dot asks, after a while, not looking at Shelby.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. I’m…” She takes a breath. “I’m thinking of home. How weird it’s gonna feel, you know, being back. So much has changed.”

“Ah,” says Dot. She shifts so that their shoulders are touching, but doesn’t say anything else. In front of them, their friends are belting out the lyrics to a popular song, excitedly jumping up and down as they do so - happy, oblivious. An odd tightness creeps inside Shelby’s chest. She doesn’t want to leave them. And then she thinks of Dot, who doesn’t have anyone at all waiting for her in Texas.

She grabs Dot’s hand. “I’m here for you, you know that, right?”

“Yeah, obviously.” Dot squeezes her fingers. “And same.”

“Okay. Good. Cause there’s no one else I’d rather have as a college buddy than you, Dottie.”

“Don’t let Toni hear you say that.”

Shelby laughs, and presses a quick kiss to Dot’s cheek.

Dot groans, feigning disgust. “Come on,” she says, pulling on Shelby’s hand, leading her back into the group. “No more moping. Let’s go dance.”

Shelby follows her willingly.

 

4- July 4

The trial starts on the last week of June, and for the first time since she left California, Leah is really fucking thankful that their access to social media is restricted, because she knows she’d be glued to her twitter feed otherwise. It’s a big deal, this trial, and she can only imagine half of what people are saying about it, about them. They get updates from the lawyers, of course, and their parents, and they watch the news, but overall there’s a conscious effort to shield the girls from most of the online chatter. Six months ago, Leah would have hated it - she’d have raged at the lack of information, at the lack of control, just like she pushed back against the safe house and the agents at first. It still irks her, now, not knowing - but she understands the difference between being manipulated, and being protected.

So she handles all of it surprisingly well, until one evening. They’ve gathered in the living-room after dinner to watch the news on the small television, as they’ve been doing ever since the trial started. Leah is sitting on the couch between Fatin and Marco, absently petting Pepper’s head, her cup of now-cold chamomile tea forgotten on the coffee table.

And then suddenly the news anchor says something unexpected, and Leah’s adrenaline shoots up, racing along her spine and awakening her entire nervous system in a shocking flash.

“News from the US vs Klein trial today: one of the victims was allegedly involved in a relationship with popular author Jeffrey Galanis prior to the experiment, when she was still a minor. Galanis declined to comment. Here’s what our team on the ground –”

The rest of the sentence disappears, drowned by the loud buzzing in Leah’s ears. With a sort of unbearable slowness, almost as if her body wasn’t quite her own, Leah stands up. She’s aware, distantly, that people are watching her, calling her name. “Be right back,” she manages to say, before she hurriedly retreats to the upstairs bathroom.

She splashes water onto her face, and then grips the cold edges of the sink in both hands, breathing in, and holding, and breathing out, and holding, like the nurse taught her. Old guilt coalesces in her stomach, sentiments she thought she’d left in the past: that it’s her fault. That she ruined him. That she made all the wrong choices, and a fool of herself.

The door to the bathroom opens behind her. “Leah,” Fatin says, cautiously. There’s a hidden question in her tone.

“You can come in,” Leah answers. She lets out a breath. “I’m fine, don’t worry. I just - I wasn't expecting this, not so soon.” They aren’t naive. They all knew such a public trial meant that some of their secrets would be spilled. But no amount of anticipation could have prepared Leah for this - like a punch to the gut, it leaves her gasping for breath, unbalanced, nauseous.

She turns around to face Fatin, who takes it as an invitation to step closer.

“What do you need?” Fatin asks. She stops in front of Leah, and cups Leah’s face in her open palm. “Do you wanna talk about it? Do you wanna be left alone? You want me to call Joana, or make you another cup of tea, or get one of Toni’s emotional support ducks?”

Leah smiles, and presses a kiss to Fatin’s inner wrist. “I’m okay. This helps. Just give me a minute, and we can go back downstairs.”

But Fatin’s question eats away at her all night long, as Leah lies, unable to sleep, in her bed, listening to Toni snoring. What does she need? It feels like she should do something.

It comes to her the next day, as she watches Marco and Joey gathering wood for their Fourth of July bonfire. She’s struck with the memory of campfires on the beach. And suddenly she knows what she has to do.

She grabs the copy of Jeff’s book she’s kept hidden the entire year, and finds Rachel in the common room. “Can you help me with something tonight?”

“Sure,” Rachel says, with an absolute lack of hesitation that quietens some of Leah’s anxiety. Rachel might be blunt, and stubborn, but she is ride-or-die for her friends in the best possible way.

“I want to burn his book.”

Gingerly, brows furrowing, Rachel takes the copy from Leah’s hands. “Didn’t we already go through this? I thought I threw this shitty excuse for a novel in the fire on the beach?”

“I bought another one,” Leah admits, and then she steels herself, and explains. “When I gave the book to you on the island, I was choosing you guys over him. Now, I want to choose myself over him. My happiness over his. I don’t want to feel guilty anymore, or ashamed, or whatever. I don’t want him to matter anymore.”

Rachel ponders this for a moment, before she nods, and looks back at Leah. “Why me?”

“Cause I trust you. You’re one of my best friends. You’re, like, the strongest person I’ve ever met. And I know you won’t let me off the hook if I try and chicken out.”

Rachel smiles. It’s sudden, and bright, and pleased, and it takes Leah by surprise. “Okay. But I got a favor to ask you in return.”

“Anything.”

“I wanna go to the gym early in the morning next year, before classes. Come with me?”

“Anything but that.”

Rachel groans. “Come on, Leah. Exercising isn’t gonna kill you.”

“It might,” says Leah, drily.

“Just twice a week?” Rachel offers. She looks - well, she looks almost pleading, which is not a word Leah associates with Rachel often.

“Why do you want me to come, anyway? I’m just gonna be whiny and you hate it when I’m whiny.”

“I don’t,” Rachel protests, unconvincingly.

Leah raises an eyebrow, and waits for Rachel to come out with it.

Rachel’s jaw clenches. “Look, I want to keep working out, because I enjoy it, but… It’s just gonna be hard, being back in a real gym, and with this”-- she gestures with her prosthesis --” I know people are gonna stare. I don’t, uh… I’d rather not be alone.”

Leah stares at her, astonished, and touched, by the display of vulnerability, by Rachel openly discussing her fears with her. Unlike Leah, whose feelings tend to pour out of her no matter what, Rachel usually keeps everything close to the chest. The moment feels important, and Leah savors it until, obviously misinterpreting her lack of response, Rachel gets up, defensive. “Look, if you’re gonna be weird about it, forget I even asked, it’s fine, I can –”

“Hey!” Leah puts a hand on Rachel’s shoulder. “Sorry, I’m not – I was just surprised, that’s all. I’ll come. I’ll come with you. I didn’t realize… sorry, yeah, of course, I’ll come with you. Whatever you need, okay?”

Rachel swallows. She puts her hand on top of Leah’s and squeezes her fingers, briefly. “Cool.” She clears her throat. “I’ll help you tonight.”

“Cool,” Leah repeats.

And so it’s decided. Hours later, Rachel and Leah are standing alone by the bonfire, under the dark sky ; the flames cast shadows around them, lapping at the dry wood hungrily. They have a few minutes before the rest of their friends come back with s’mores.

Smoke rises, and Leah’s eyes sting, but she doesn’t move. Rachel doesn’t either. She’s silent beside Leah, arms crossed against her chest, a solid, unmovable force, grounding. Leah holds up the book in front of her. She stares at the cover, at the title ; feels the weight of it in her hands, the familiar shape, the smooth, glossy surface. She reads the name of the man who wrote it - a ghost who lives in these pages, still haunting her. And then, deliberately, she throws the book into the fire.

It crackles, warps, flames erupting from the paper, erasing words that are forever etched into her. She wishes she could burn the inside of her brain. Turn memories into ashes. Begin anew, cleansed by fire. But it’s not possible, of course, and so she watches the book burn instead, for a while, with Rachel.

Later, they all eat s’mores around the fire, and sing, and laugh, burning their tongues on melted chocolate, fingers sticky from the sugar. And closure, to Leah, tastes just like roasted marshmallow.

 

5- July 15

The midday sun is high in the sky, baking the back of Toni’s neck. She picks a small, round strawberry, places it in her half-full basket, and pauses, wiping sweat from her brow with the bottom of her shirt. Briefly, she wonders where the ducklings are - the ducks, really, she should say. They’re grown now, and live by the pond, though they still often waddle into the house in search of treats.

Only four months ago they were tiny babies squeaking on the floor of Toni’s bedroom. Time passes so quickly.

“How are you and Leah going to deal with next year?” she asks, out of the blue, as she moves to the next plant and its bounty of red fruits.

Fatin, in the next row over, straightens up, and brushes dirt from her knees. “Being long distance, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, our parents still live in the same city, so we’ll see each other whenever we go back home for breaks.” Fatin tips back her hat, tucks a dark curl behind her ear. She’s really committed to her farm-chic aesthetic, as she likes to call it, and has been wearing a straw hat and cut off overalls every time she works in the garden.

“Right.”

“And”-- Fatin hesitates, uncharacteristically shy, for a very brief moment -- “don’t tell her anything, but I’m kinda planning a surprise visit at some point. You know, showing up at her dorm room all sexy, with champagne and flowers. In my most outrageous bikini.”

“Dude, Rachel’s gonna fucking murder you. You know they’re gonna be roommates, right?”

“I know,” Fatin shrugs, shameless.

Toni rolls her eyes, amused, even as she feels a twinge of sharp envy, deep inside her chest. Unlike Fatin, she won’t be able to hop on a plane to go visit Shelby whenever she wants. She doesn’t have that kind of money. “It’s a sixteen hours drive to get to UT Austin from Minneapolis,” she says, as she picks another strawberry. This one she pops into her mouth, rather defiantly. “Sixteen hours and ten minutes.”

“And ten minutes?” Fatin repeats, with an eyebrow raised. “How… precise.”

“Yeah, I looked it up, whatever.” Toni doesn’t tell her she’s got the Google map itinerary imprinted on her brain - the highlighted path of roads and highways, the sequence of terse directions, the exact number of miles that will separate her from Shelby in two months - insignificant, on the computer screen, yet such a vast distance Toni can barely comprehend it. “Anyway, that’s like, a two days road-trip. And I don’t… technically… have my driver license…”

Fatin snorts. “Technically? Girl. I’m afraid to even ask what that means.”

“But Martha said she could drive us both down to Texas for spring break, if we borrow her uncle Pete’s car.”

“Spring break is, what, seven months away?” Fatin winces in sympathy. “It’s a long ass time.”

“Yeah.” Toni frowns, and resists the petulant urge to kick at the packed dirt, afraid she’d harm the strawberry plants. “Sucks that we lost so much fucking time, you know? We spent a whole year living together, and we wasted, like, half of it either fighting or not talking.”

“Is it lost time though?” Fatin probes her, gently. “You both needed some kinda break, to figure your shit out. Not saying you guys went about it in the best way, but in the end, it made your relationship stronger.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Fatin gives her a look, but doesn’t insist, which is good, because Toni knows that Fatin’s right, but it doesn’t make the reality of her situation any easier to swallow. She’s thrilled at the idea of going to college with Marty, of course - it’s something she never allowed herself to dream about, fully aware that people like her don’t get to have that kind of life - but the perspective of being so far from Shelby, from all of them, is daunting.

When both their baskets are filled with ripe strawberries, the two of them walk back to the kitchen, where Joey has set up everything they need - he taught all of the girls how to make jam, the week before, and Toni and Fatin volunteered to try it on their own. Together, they wash and hull the fruits, and crush them in wide bowls, and mix them with sugar and lemon juice in a huge pot. Toni stirs until the sugar has completely dissolved. The air smells overwhelmingly fruity, sweet and acidic - breathing feels like tasting summer. It’s very hot, in the kitchen, by the stove, but Toni doesn’t mind. She watches the fruits she picked morph into something else entirely, and forgets all about her separation anxiety, lost in the still unfamiliar satisfaction of creating rather than destroying.

“Look, Toni,” Fatin says, as they bring the mixture to a boil, “I’m not sure how to say this, but...”

“What?”

“You know you can borrow as much money as you want from me, right?”

“Uh huh,” Toni replies, noncommittally ; her mouth feels too dry, all of a sudden. Money’s a complicated issue. She hates relying on other people’s generosity ; she’s uncomfortable enough asking Marty’s family for help. The jam bubbles on the stove, thickening, and Toni keeps her eyes firmly on the content of the pot, and stirs, and hopes Fatin will drop it.

But Fatin wrestles the wooden spoon, not unkindly, from Toni’s grip. “Hey. I’m serious. I’m loaded. Just - let me help you with plane tickets to Austin, next year.”

“Fatin, I –” Toni sighs. “I don’t know. I don’t know when I’d be able to repay you.”

“Aren’t you always talking about wealth redistribution?”

Toni can’t help a snort of laughter. “Wow, I didn't think you paid attention, One Percent.”

“Just cause I’m pretty, doesn’t mean I don’t have a brain,” Fatin says, dramatically.

“Having a brain isn’t enough, you need to have functioning brain cells.”

Fatin flips her off. Toni grins. “The point is,” Fatin says, pointing the strawberry-covered spoon toward Toni in a somewhat menacing manner, “there’s nothing wrong with accepting help that you need. And sometimes the kind of help we need is not a hug or a nice therapy session - sometimes it’s simply some fucking dollars. And I happen to have a lot of those.”

She turns the stove off, and hands the spoon back to Toni. “Okay,” Toni lets out. Warmth spread through her chest ; she’s a little embarrassed, and unsure still, but mostly grateful for her friend.

“Okay?”

“We can talk about it. About the plane tickets idea.”

“Good,” Fatin says, smiling. “Just let me know whenever you need them.”

And then she tries to dip a finger in the hot jam, and Toni slaps her hand away with the wooden spoon.

 

6- July 28

“Do you see anyone?” Dot whispers, crouched with her back against the northern side of the house. She clutches her weapon against her chest. Hair sticks to her sweaty temples. Her pulse beats erratically at her throat - she just ran across the lawn, and she’s breathing hard. She really needs to quit smoking, she thinks to herself, as she watches Nora retreat from the edge of the house.

“I saw movement by the tool shed, but I couldn't tell who, or how many,” Nora murmurs. “What do we do? What’s the plan?”

“Think we got a shot at taking them out before they notice us?”

“I don’t know,” Nora whispers back, “but it’s worth a try.”

They creep around the house, quietly, carefully. Dot’s finger is on the trigger - she won’t be taken by surprise. Nora’s head keeps turning back, to check if someone’s coming at them from behind, but all they hear are bird songs.

“You go left and wide, I go right. Shoot on sight, we’re not taking any risks,” Dot tells Nora, when they get close.

Nora gives her a thumbs up, before she starts moving to the left in a wide circle, through the vegetable garden, weapon aimed right in front of her. Dot advances up to the small wooden shack and hugs the wall. Sweat trickles down her back. Anticipation makes her hands tremble.

She rounds the corner of the shed, and suddenly there’s a figure standing in front of her with their arms up, and Dot doesn’t think, doesn’t hesitate: she shoots, point blank.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Dorothy!”

Dot blinks, and lowers her water gun. “Fatin?”

Fatin glares at her, soaking wet. “I’m on your team, you idiot!” She attempts to sponge off some of the water running down her face, but her shirt is drenched, and her efforts wasted.

“You’re supposed to be in the woods with Martha!” Dot protests. “What the hell are you doing hiding here?”

“We got ambushed by Toni and Leah, so we ran.” Fatin wrings the bottom of her shirt, grumpily. “These two are vicious together.”

“Hey,” a voice calls out, to their left, and both Dot and Fatin jump at the sound, water guns at the ready. “Woah, woah, it’s me!”

“God, Nora, don’t do that,” Dot says, weakly.

Nora squints at the two of them. “Did you shoot Fatin?”

“Maybe.”

“Damn. You really need glasses.”

“Fuck off.”

“Where’s Martha?” Nora asks, unperturbed.

“No idea. We got separated.” Fatin pushes away strands of wet hair plastered against her forehead, and huffs. “I hate this game.”

She sounds convincing enough, except they’ve known each other for more than a year now, and Dot sees right through her. “Please. You love it.”

Fatin rolls her eyes, but a smile creeps at the corner of her mouth. “Reminds me of my little brothers,” she admits, softly. “We used to do shit like that over the summer, when I was younger. Like water balloon fights, and stupid cannonball competitions in the pool…” She trails off, smile fading a bit. “I miss them. I miss hanging out with them.”

“We didn’t have a pool,” Dot says, picturing her childhood home in Texas. “Or a real backyard, honestly - it was just dirt and weeds, cause my dad never had time to garden or anything. But on hot summer days, sometimes he would borrow Mrs Walter’s hose, our neighbor, and we’d both take turns spraying the shit out of each other.” She chuckles. “Must have looked like total lunatics. No wonder Mrs Walter never spoke to us much.”

“Fuck Mrs Walter,” Fatin declares, more passionately than the situation warrants. Dot finds herself smiling at her friend’s protectiveness. “This bitch probably never had an ounce of fun in her life.”

“She was alright,” Dot counters, honestly. “When I was a kid, I thought she was an asshole, but she actually tried to help a bit when Dad… towards the end.” She swallows. “Brought me food a few times, kept an eye on the house when I was at school, that kinda stuff. And I never even asked her for help, you know, she just did it. ”

“People surprise you,” Nora says. “We form ideas of who someone is, especially when we’re children. But part of growing up is letting go of these kinds of assumptions, and learning to really see someone for who they actually are.”

“Deep,” Fatin says, teasingly.

Nora shrugs. “I’m talking from experience. It’s taken Rachel and me eighteen years to see each other, but we’re finally doing it. We’re not kids anymore.”

“I haven’t been a kid in a very long time,” Dot lets out - and, saying the words out loud, Dot, for the first time, comes to terms with this truth. When her father got sick, she grew out of childhood - all at once, no warnings, no time for regrets. She had to step up, and take care of him, the way he had always done for her. She’s only now starting to understand the toll these past few years have taken on her. But this summer, far from home, far from responsibilities, surrounded by trustworthy, competent adults, by friends who have learned not to put all of their burdens on her shoulders, Dot has finally allowed herself to relax, and have fun. “So it’s nice,” she adds, voice rough, and gestures with her plastic pistol, “doing this, playing silly games with y’all. It’s nice to have another chance at just… being childish, I guess.”

“It is.” Nora pats her arm. “And you deserve it.”

Dot exhales. Then straightens up. “Okay, guys, enough chatter, we have to go rescue Martha.”

“Oh fuck, you’re right,” Fatin exclaims, shaking her head. “She must be completely outnumbered over there. Poor thing.”

Nothing could have prepared them for what they actually find, on the other side of the house, which is: Rachel, Shelby, Toni and Leah thoroughly drenched, and Martha, standing victorious on top of the chicken coop’s roof.

“What took you so long?” Martha says, cheerfully, when she sees the rest of her team, waving them over. “I think we won!”

“What in the world,” Dot mouths out to Nora, who smiles, serene, as if she expected this exact outcome.

“Oh thank God, you’re back,” Shelby breathes out while Rachel helps Martha get down safely from her sniper’s nest. “Can we take a break, now?”

Toni, looking very disgruntled, shakes water off her hands like a dog shakes himself dry. “I gotta get outta these soggy clothes, man, this is so uncomfortable.”

“Sure, let’s take a break,” Fatin agrees, still looking at Martha with a mix of awe and disbelief. “But afterwards, I wanna hear all about how Martha single-handedly defeated the four of you.”

“Hm, what happened to you?” Leah asks Fatin, eyeing, with a faint blush, her girlfriend’s very soaked, very see-through shirt.

“Dorothy got me all wet.”

“That’s what she said,” Dot retorts, reflexively, and immediately regrets it.

Fatin’s eyes widen. “Oh my God,” she cackles, delighted. She slings her arm around Dot’s shoulders. “I feel like a proud mother.”

“Ugh, get off me,” Dot grumbles. But she doesn’t push Fatin away, and doesn’t protest at all when everyone else piles up into the stickiest group hug they’ve ever had.

 

7- August 5

The fifth day of August is the hottest yet - the air is stagnant, oppressively humid, the heat sweltering - so they stay inside the house until nightfall, when the red sun, extinguished under the horizon like a cigarette stub, gives way to refreshing darkness.

The girls all congregate on the lawn, lethargic from their day stuck indoors, while Marco and Joey retire for the night. Two of the agents sit nearby, by the entrance door, far enough that they have some privacy. There’s a slight breeze - a relief after such a scorching day. Fatin is lounging in a hammock set between two of the birch trees bordering the alleyway. She shares it with Leah, their bare legs tangled up together. Toni and Shelby are sprawled on the grass, surrounded by three ducks and Pepper. Nora, with her back against a tree, is doodling in her sketchbook, and the rest of their friends sit in a loose circle of wicker chairs. Before he went to bed, Marco made them iced tea with mint he picked from the garden, and Fatin watches condensation form on the glass in her hand, pearling like sweat. It’s quiet, blissfully so - the only sound is the wind blowing through the trees, slow and regular, as if the entire world started breathing again once the sun disappeared.

Fatin twists over the edge of the hammock so she can deposit her cup safely onto the ground, then settles back and closes her eyes. When she first came here, she used to miss the noise and agitation of city life so intensely that the quiet of the countryside felt like a splinter lodged under her skin, not horribly painful, but uncomfortable, a foreign object, something unnatural, unfamiliar, unwelcome. Part of her still misses it, of course, but she's grown to enjoy this too - the stillness. Fatin is a lot of things, but, until now, she’s never been still. In the past, there was school and cello practice during the day, wild parties at night, family gatherings on the weekend. Always jumping from one thing to the next, she relished the hustle, and ignored how tired she was. She remembers her great-aunt Mona telling her one day, over a cup of tea, that a peaceful life was the truest blessing ; at the time Fatin had rolled her eyes, and chalked it up to Mona being super old and boring. She understands now, in a way she couldn’t then, lost as she was in the tumult of her life. It’s hard to appreciate peace, when you’re not at peace with yourself.

Still, she’s not a huge fan of silence. She wishes someone would start a conversation.

“Are y’all bored? I’m bored,” Rachel declares, with perfect timing. It happens a lot, this kind of thing, nowadays: they’ve spent so much time together, sometimes Fatin truly believes they’ve become mind-readers.

Shelby perks up. “We could –”

“If you say we could play one of your party games,” Rachel interrupts, “I am throwing you into the pond.”

“Okay, rude,” Shelby mumbles. Toni leans up on her elbows and directs her most threatening frown at Rachel - unfortunately, it’s impossible to look intimidating when covered in cute animals.

“How about a board game?” Nora offers.

Martha raises her hand excitedly. “Oh, we could play Uno!”

A chorus of groans answer these suggestions, but Fatin is distracted from the banter by a foot tapping against her knee, quick and gentle. “Hey,” Leah murmurs.

“Hmm?”

“I have an idea.”

“That’s never good.”

“Bitch,” Leah grumbles, and she punctuates her displeasure with a small kick to Fatin’s calf.

Fatin grins. She grabs Leah’s foot and places it on her lap, rubbing the bare skin apologetically, following the bony arch of Leah’s ankle with the tip of her fingers. “Sorry. Tell me.”

Leah’s pout vanishes, and she hums contentedly at the touch. Fatin’s chest feels too full, as if her heart’s grown massive, taking too much space inside her ribcage - Leah’s a sucker for casual affection, and it’s just so fucking endearing. Across from them, Dot obnoxiously kisses the air, mocking them. Fatin responds with an equally immature gesture, and gives Dot the finger.

“Maybe you could play the cello?” Leah says, at last.

Fatin’s fingers still on Leah’s leg. “What? Now?”

“Yeah,” Leah insists. “You’ve never played for us, you know. We didn’t even get to go to your audition. Are we going to have to wait till you’re a famous musician?” she adds, playful. “You’re gonna make us pay for the privilege to see you perform?”

“I don’t know if it’s the right moment…”

“Why not? There’s nothing else going on.”

“The others –”

“Would love it,” Leah finishes before Fatin can protest, her tone firm, her head cocked to the side, as if daring Fatin to find another excuse.

“Yeah, we would,” Nora pipes up.

Fatin spins around, and finds that everyone else is now following their conversation. The attention makes her feel self-conscious, which is weird, because she thrives on attention. But she’s not used to having friends who care that she plays the cello, much less friends who want to know about it. Her crowd, in high school, was an assortment of rich teens and college guys, who liked her party girl persona, or wanted to sleep with her, or both. Fatin the virtuoso was reserved for her family - especially since it often seemed like the only thing that mattered to her parents - and her life remained neatly split in two.

“Girls, I’m flattered, but you realize we’re talking classical music, right?”

“Sounds lovely.” Shelby smiles at her, that bright, infectious smile of hers.

Fatin chuckles a little awkwardly. “Come on, I don’t think that’s what Rachel needs. She’s already bored.”

“Actually, I’d love to hear you play,” Rachel argues. “I’ve gotten kind of into listening to classical music on my morning runs.” Fatin stares at her in disbelief, and Rachel shrugs. “What? I got layers.”

“You don’t have to,” Leah says, in a reassuring voice, one hand finding Fatin’s fingers, and squeezing them gently. “I just thought it’d be nice.” Their eyes meet, and there is such deep, genuine fondness in Leah’s gaze that Fatin’s reticence melts like ice-cream left in the sun.

“Okay, sure, why not, I’ll do it.” She swings her legs over the edge, and climbs out of the hammock. “For you, mostly,” she adds, and she grabs Leah by the cheeks and kisses her, in front of everyone, pressing their open mouths together, swallowing the small gasp that escapes Leah’s lips, before she saunters away towards the house.

When she comes back, carrying her cello, the girls have arranged themselves in a circle, and left one armless chair for her. Fatin sits down, both feet solidly on the ground, her spine a few inches away from the backrest. Carefully, she situates the endpin of her cello on the soft grass, and rests the body of the instrument against her chest, balanced between her knees. The cello’s neck lies over her left shoulder ; she grips the bow lightly in her right hand. And, surrounded by people who love her for exactly who she is, Fatin starts playing.

She does a Bach piece, suite no 1 in G major, the first three movements - she knows it by heart, and it’s only a little over nine minutes. And it’s one of her favorites: the prelude is melodious, but wistful, and then it builds and builds, intense and unrelenting and challenging. The alternating crescendos and decrescendos echo in the quiet space between the trees, and each note, each vibration of the strings, is a message Fatin sends into the world, far-reaching, towards the neighboring hills, or perhaps towards the stars - a conversation between herself and the universe.

This is why she loves music: it is the opposite of silence.

Afterwards, as everyone claps and cheers, Fatin stands up to take a bow, and though she’s smiling from ear to ear, proud of herself, there are tears in her eyes - tears of joy, and Fatin lets them fall, and doesn’t stop smiling. She won’t hide how she feels, or who she is. Not anymore.

 

8- August 15

Nora sits alone in the grass.

Well, not quite alone: Mocha is curled on her lap, his tail rhythmically thumping against her thigh. He purrs, and Nora lifts a hand, automatically, to pet his head and the soft black fur of his little ears. She will miss him. She will miss this house, and the backyard, and the pond, and the vegetable garden, and the small patch of woods, and the horizon of blue sky and grassy hills.

By this time tomorrow, Mocha will probably be right here, lounging on the warm grass, but Nora will be back in the New York apartment where she grew up, because today’s their last day in the witness protection program. It happened fast: they won the trial only a week ago, and while they were busy celebrating, the agency reassessed their situation. Sam announced the news a few days ago: they are no longer considered at risk. Which means that they are all going home.

One more night together in the big country house, one more dinner with Joey and Marco, and then they’ll leave, just as they came, paired off in black government cars. It’s bittersweet, of course: all of them are excited to start college, and go back to some semblance of a normal life ; none of them are ready to say goodbye.

The sun is setting, and the light turns pink, the clouds purple. Nora’s hands itch for her sketchbook, but she’s left it in her room. She has plans for her drawings tonight.

“Nora!” Rachel calls out, popping her head through the main door. “You coming? We’re ready to eat!”

“Be right there!”

Nora takes in her surroundings one last time, committing the scene to memory. Then, she picks up Mocha, gives him a kiss on the forehead, between the ears, before placing him carefully on the ground, and making her way to the big outdoor table, set on the other side of the house.

She’s the last one to arrive. Dot and Joey are chatting together as they man the grill, flipping meat and vegetable and bean patties with metal tongs. They’re dressed almost identically, in cargo shorts and sandals and music-themed t-shirts, the Beach Boys for Joey, an obscure metal band for Dot, and they both wave at Nora as she walks by on her way to the table.

“You still want the veggie burger, right? With cheese?”

“Yep,” she tells Dot, “thank you!”

Leah, who’s cutting a loaf of homemade bread into thick slices, smiles as she sees Nora approaching. “Hey. You want some? I baked it today!”

“Oh wow, you did?” Nora pinches a slice from the pile, and bites into it hungrily - it’s sourdough, airy and light, with a deliciously crunchy crust. “So good,” she mumbles to Leah, through her mouthful. She takes a seat at the table, between Toni and Fatin. Rachel comes back from the kitchen carrying a huge tray of freshly made potato fries, which smell so delicious that Nora doesn’t even think before she offers her empty plate to Rachel.

“Anyone want some pop?” Martha asks, looking around the table, holding an enormous bottle of coke.

They pass Martha their cups so she can fill them with soda. Marco insists on everyone having at least a little bit of salad. “Made with tomatoes from the garden!” he adds, enticing. Pepper attempts to steal a whole burger patty from the grill, but he’s no match for Dot’s vigilant eyes. Inexplicably, there’s a duck on Toni’s lap - she feeds him wet crumbs of Leah’s bread. Fatin and Rachel get into a friendly argument over what is the objectively best condiment. It’s chaos, of the best kind, and Nora sits in the middle of it, smiling, soaking it up all through dinner. Finally, when the food is eaten, and everyone’s belly is full, Marco stands up, and taps a spoon against his glass.

“So,” he says, as everyone falls silent. “This is goodbye.” He smiles. “Joey and I feel so lucky to have met you all. And as much as we will miss having you around to raid our pantry at midnight, we couldn’t be happier that you get to go home.” He pauses, and his eyes soften. “And we are so, so proud of you. I know this hasn’t been easy, for any of you, but you got through the rough patches. You’ve made so much progress in just one year. And you deserve all the praise, because what happened to you… nobody should have to go through that.”

“It’s thanks to you,” Shelby says, voice a little hoarse. “We couldn’t have done it without you, without this place.”

“Oh, don’t sell yourself short. You eight did all the hard work, you know. If you hadn’t ended up here with us, you’d still have been just fine,” Joey argues, in a gentle voice. “But I’m glad we were able to help y’all, I really am. Anyway, my husband’s bein’ corny, as usual, so let’s end this with a toast.” He raises his glass. “To all of you girls! To winning this damn trial and going to college! To new beginnings!”

Everyone clinks their glasses together, and drinks, and then there’s a beat of silence. Someone sniffles. Martha grabs Nora’s hand and holds it tight. Across from them, Shelby blinks rapidly, fighting tears. Before this can devolve into a full-on crying session, Nora changes the subject.

“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you finally get home?”

“Spend some time with my family,” Martha says without hesitation. “I miss them so much.”

“Taco Bell.” Everyone stares at Toni with various amounts of disbelief. “What? I don’t have a family, really, and their crunchwrap supreme is fucking good, man.”

“Why am I not surprised that you have the worst taste in fast food,” Fatin groans.

“Sorry, we can’t all be into caviar and champagne, rich girl.”

“Ha ha.” Fatin rolls her eyes. “I’m going to In-N-Out, obviously. But I also really miss just… driving around town.” She grows wistful. “Yeah, I think I’ll just go for a drive. Maybe all the way to the beach.”

“Can’t relate,” Rachel says - she, like Nora, does not have her driver's license. “Honestly, I just wanna take a walk in Manhattan. Listen to my music. Go to Central Park. Get a bagel. Fight some pigeons. Maybe even take the L train all the way to Queens.”

“Only a New Yorker would miss public transport,” Leah teases. “I’m definitely going to my favorite bookstore first thing.”

“Nerd,” Rachel says, with obvious affection.

“I wanna go bowling,” Shelby says, quietly.

Dot nods. “Yeah, solid choice. I’ll go with you. And maybe get one of those soft pretzels they have at the mall.”

“Oh, yes! I love those!”

“Fucking mall people,” Fatin says, earning herself a fry to the face from Dot.

They keep talking about their plans - about foods they crave, favorite places they want to revisit, old friends they’re eager to see again, and how best to schedule weekly Zoom calls once they’re all busy with school - as they clear up the table and clean the kitchen. It doesn’t take long ; they’re so used to working together. Soon enough they’re upstairs, standing in the common room where they’ve spent countless evenings.

“What do we do now?” Toni wonders out loud, hands in the pockets of her shorts.

Nora steps forward. “Follow me,” she says, “I have something to show you.” And, her heart beating fast, her palms sweaty from trepidation, she leads them to her and Rachel’s bedroom, and opens the door.

There’s an audible, collective gasp as her friends file into the room and discover what she’s done: covering the walls, in carefully thought-out constellations, are dozens and dozens of pages from Nora’s sketchbook ; some in color, some in pencil, some half-finished, and some incredibly detailed. The drawings aren’t perfect, often not even good - Nora’s talented, but she’s no professional artist, and she’s fine with that ; she doesn’t need her drawings to be impressive, she needs them to be meaningful.

“Nora,” Rachel breathes out, in awe, “what is all this?”

“It’s us,” Nora answers, simply.

And it is. She’s been drawing them all summer: a series of vignettes, a collection of various moments from the past few months, preserved on paper like fossils caught in amber. Toni sitting at the edge of the pond, watching the ducks. Shelby on top of a ladder, pruning the hedgerow. Fatin, at breakfast, sipping her coffee. Leah reading on the couch in the afternoon light. Rachel taking a bite off a sandwich. Martha petting the goats. Dot on a horse tipping her hat like a cowboy. Toni and Shelby laughing as they brush their teeth together. Fatin and Leah walking hand in hand in the yard, surrounded by wildflowers. Dot and Martha playing Uno. All of them riveted by Fatin's impromptu cello performance.

Dot’s fingers graze a drawing of herself and Fatin washing dishes in the kitchen sink. “They’re beautiful, dude. I… I don’t even know what to say.”

There are murmurs of agreement from the other girls, all over the room. Nora presses her back against the door, overwhelmed with a complex mix of emotions - pride, relief, joy. She can’t believe she ever felt like an outsider.

“When we were on the island, you drew us too,” Leah says, her piercing blue eyes fixed on Nora. Her tone is intense, but not accusatory ; she’s focused, eager to understand. Of course, Leah would be the first to make the connection.

“I did,” Nora confirms. “In that stupid Dawn of Eve notebook.” She wasn’t able to keep it, of course. Evidence, and all that. “At the time, I wanted to remember what happened to us, for the experiment's sake, you know. But this year, I realized... I had to make sure we remember our second summer together just as well as the first. You know, immortalize the good times too, not only the bad stuff. And” – she gestures around the room with one hand – “these are not just for me. They’re for you guys too. So, please, pick one you like. Take it with you to California or Minnesota or Texas. I don’t know when we’ll be together again, but that way a small piece of me, of us, will be with you.” Nora rubs her neck, suddenly insecure. “If you want to. No obligation. I just thought…”

Rachel throws her arms around her in a hug so fierce it leaves Nora breathless. “You’re a genius, you know that?”

“That’s fucking dope, Nora,” Toni says, very softly. “Thank you.”

“Yeah, thanks!”

Nora blushes under the compliments, and a smile blooms on her lips, wide and unafraid. She doesn’t stop smiling as she watches each of her friends select one of her drawings. Later, when the eight of them fall asleep piled in two beds, just like they did on their very first night here, Nora remembers her college essay.

All they’ve got is each other - but that’s not true, is it? They have each other, but not only each other ; they have family, friends, strangers like Joey and Marco, who welcomed them in their home with open arms, and all the people they are yet to meet and love. They have each other - that is a fact they needed to relearn, over the course of this past year and its roller coaster of emotions: they’ve survived, because they have each other. But it was only ever the first step.

Now all that’s left to do is go into the world, and live.