“Emma are you ready to share your story?”
Paul, the group leader, looked at her, his eyes encouraging. She inhaled slowly and nodded.
“Hey,” she gave a small wave. “So, my name is Emma Swan. I’m twenty-six. As most of you know I’ve been coming to this support group for a while because…” Her voice trailed off as she looked around the room and found expectant eyes starting back at her. Well, almost everywhere.
“Take your time,” Paul said and smiled.
“W-what? Oh, yeah, sorry about that. I suppose we’re all here for the same reason, right? I guess the only difference in our stories is the who and how.” There was a slight tremor in her voice as she continued. “I’m not sure where or even how to begin. So, if this turns into a rambling ordeal, please feel free to stop me at any time.”
She heard light chuckles around her and ran a hand through her long locks while her left hand held on to a picture. She didn’t dare look at it.
“I suppose I should start at the moment it all went haywire. I think, at the time, it felt as if there was a darkness inside of me. One I often thought would end up consuming me. I tried so hard to keep it inside, but it seeped out of me when I least expected it. I didn’t think that she had noticed it. It terrified me to think of what would happen if she did, but I doubt she would have welcomed it, like she welcomed everything and everyone else.”
Emma’s thumb traced over the picture before she continued.
“It was there, though. That feeling, right beneath the surface, lurking, waiting for the perfect moment. I think it happened when she laughed. It was more than just a laugh,” Emma shook her head lightly and smiled. “When she laughed, the world became a brighter place. I wanted to crawl inside of her and consume it all. I didn’t think it was normal. Her laughter was my fuel, it empowered me. When her fingers lingered on my arm, I found it difficult to breathe. My heart would pound in my chest and while part of me wanted her fingers to let go of me, a part of me also dreaded the moment she would. Her fingers were fire and I was the moth that couldn’t resist the flame.”
Emma’s eyes closed as she remembered that feeling. Her throat dry, gone unnoticed except for the laughter that still rang in her ears.
“I was very much a socially awkward butterfly, y’know?”
A loud laughter made her look up and when she found the source of the laughter, her breath hitched in her throat until the woman nodded for her to continue.
“It’s true,” she said. “Anyway, I asked her if she wanted to watch a movie. It felt so lame, I mean, we were in our twenties. I suppose I still am, but there’s a world of difference between being twenty-two and twenty-six.
She groaned inwardly, thinking how incredibly stupid that sounded.
“I figured she’d want to go to a bar instead. It wouldn’t be the first time we would walk into a bar, flirt with boys, smoke cigarettes and try to find our way home, drunk, at four AM.”
She stole a glance at the woman who’d laughed earlier, finding that same woman smirking back at her now.
“She said she’d love to watch a movie, even had this big stupid grin on her face. I never stood a chance. Especially when she suggested we’d watch Harry Potter.”
Emma laughed and god¸ somedays it just felt so good to laugh.
“I’m a bit of a Harry Potter snob. I’m still utterly disappointed I never got my letter inviting me to Hogwarts. I would’ve made an amazing Slytherin.”
“Hufflepuff, at best,” a voice called out.
“Maybe,” Emma said, “but either way I would’ve made an amazing witch!”
A gentle scraping of a throat to her right reminded her that she was getting off track and she felt properly chastised.
“I was in charge of putting the DVD in the player and as I watched her walk out of my room to grab snacks and booze, I could only think, ‘America, she’s beauty, she’s grace.’ I was so smitten by her. I could hear her whistle the Harry Potter theme in the kitchen and in that moment my heart melted. I fell for her hard and I don’t know if it was in that moment, or if it had always been there. I mean, we’d known each other for years, we used to built sand castles on the playground and run after any big boy that would trample it. We looked out for each other. We were best friends.”
Reaching behind her, Emma grabbed a bottle of water from the table and unscrewed the lid. Coming out was always a scary thing and even if she was proud of who she was, that feeling never really went away.
“I just happened to have a big crush on my best friend,” she said quickly and downed half of the bottle’s contents.
When lightning didn’t strike and no one from the group came after her with pitchforks she felt safe enough to continue.
“We always watched movies in bed. It was comfortable. I’d lean against the wall and she’d lean against the wall. It had always been like that, it was our thing. That day, though, I had trouble finding the wall. She told me to scoot over and dropped a bowl of popcorn in my lap.” Her face scrunched up. “I despise popcorn. It gets stuck everywhere and if you’re lucky enough to not choke on it, you’ll still be picking out pieces out of your teeth years later.”
With a grin, she said, “I can’t stop eating it, though.” She looked down and her smile immediately dropped.
“She poured us both some alcoholic drink, I don’t remember what it was. I just remember her telling me we could both do with some liquid courage. She had this big shit-eating grin on her face, as if she’d just made the cleverest pun. Perhaps she didn’t, but I’m too biased. I thought everything she did was clever and intelligent.”
Emma sighed. “I had trouble focusing on the movie because Hermione Granger was sitting right next to me. Granted, her name wasn’t Hermione, nor do I think she’d know what to do with a wand. Still, like Hermione, she was beautiful, smart, kindhearted and didn’t take shit from anyone.”
Taking another sip from her bottle, she focused on the feeling of the water sliding down her throat, as if it could steady the heartbeat that beat so strongly under her skin.
“Halfway through the movie I choked on some popcorn and I thought she called me an idiot. She wouldn’t have been wrong, but as it turned out to be, she was talking about Harry. She glanced at me, though, and told me that on certain days I’d qualify as an idiot as well. I asked her if she could tell my professors that, as it obviously meant that any other day I was bright and smart.”
Several people chuckled, and Emma smiled fondly at them.
“She rolled her eyes at me and I remember her exact words. They’re inked into my skin, I can never forget them. Perhaps they aren’t even that special, but in that moment, it was the greatest sentence I’d ever heard in my life. She said, ‘Shut up, Emma, your professors love you, as do I.’”
She wiped angrily at the single tear that rolled down her cheek, hoping no one had noticed her moment of weakness.
“I remember thinking we’d make such a great couple. There was just one problem with that. Sophie was as straight as they come,” Emma said with a heavy sigh. “At some point I must have fallen asleep, because I woke up the next morning with her tickling me. I told her it was a rude awakening, but she laughed, and it was still the most beautiful sound. She informed that a bucket of ice water would qualify as a rude awakening and I couldn’t help but grin at her. At that time, I had no idea that my rude awakening was yet to happen. I wasn’t prepared for it.” Her voice quivered. “How could I have been? She lured me into this false sense of security and went in for the kill. It was such a simple question she asked me, but I wasn’t prepared for it. And when she did ask, I thought I was having a heart attack.”
She thought back of those four simple words and how easy they were to answer now. One word. Yes. Back then it was agony.
“She asked me if I was gay. Told me it was okay, and that it wouldn’t change a thing. But in my head, everything had already changed, and I just wanted things to go back to normal. I didn’t answer her question, so she hugged me and informed me that I was still her best friend. I must have cried, because she nudged me with a shoulder and tried to distract me by telling me that I spoke in my sleep.”
Clearing her throat, her thumb still absent-mindedly stroked over the picture.
“I remember thinking that I had been stupid, careless. How could I have fallen asleep and what the hell happened when I was? Had I confessed my undying love for her? I was on the verge of a meltdown. But, being the person that she was, she told me what I had mumbling about.”
Her gaze went back to the woman who had laughed earlier. Something about that laugh kept drawing her back, although she wasn’t quite sure why. When eyes met her own, she blushed and looked away.
“This is quite embarrassing, but whatever. I had been mumbling about angelic voices and soft fingertips. She said it didn’t exactly describe your average John Doe. I’m not sure she told me everything, maybe she knew it would already be embarrassing enough. She asked me who my dream lady was. I feigned confusion. I didn’t want to play that game with her. It was dangerous, and I just wanted to flee the premises. She made me feel as if I was a criminal who had just ransacked a kitchen, dropped the flour, stepped in it and was leaving evidence everywhere. I didn’t feel safe.”
She looked up at Paul.
“Am I rambling too much?”
“Not at all. Please feel free to continue when you’re ready, and if you need a moment that’s okay as well.”
“Sophie said she would just have to guess if I didn’t want to reveal my Jane Doe to her. I begged her not to. She started mentioned names that made zero sense to me. I told her none of these people were my type and she seemed so pleased in that moment and perhaps I had played right into her little scheme. ‘So, there’s a type,’ she said. I refused to answer her. She nudged me in my ribs and then she said the thing I had dreaded all along. ‘It’s not me, is it? Am I the one you’ve been lusting after?’”
Her heart felt as if it was about to beat out of her chest any second now. It was a feeling she remembered all too well. It had been the same back then.
“Sophie laughed but that laughter quickly died down when she noticed my deer-caught-in-headlights look. I tried to tell her she wasn’t and as I did I got out of bed. Perhaps I should’ve have. I snapped at her when she tried to grab my arm to turn my around. I instantly regretted it. She looked hurt and I knew the feeling all too well.”
She was surprised when Paul walked over and handed her a tissue, the tears that streamed down her face had gone unnoticed by her. She hated showing weakness to others.
“It’s okay,” Paul said. “You’re doing a great job. It’s so hard to tell your story, but I promise you’ll feel better afterwards, even if it might take a while. Do you think you’re good to continue?”
Emma nodded. “I don’t think either of us knew what to do in that moment. Sophie knew my dirty little secret and I could only wonder if this was the end of our friendship. It scared me to death. She grabbed her backpack and turned to leave. She asked if I could call her later, I nodded but barely noticed her leaving after that. I don’t know how long I stood there before my phone rang. It was my sister, I answered and started bawling. The line went dead, and I knew she was on her way over and not even five minutes later she was there, holding me. I didn’t even have to say a word. Mary Margaret knew, I have always told her everything, we have always depended on each other for everything. She told me everything was going to be okay and I couldn’t even nod or acknowledge it. It was only when she wrapped me in her arms that I felt safe again.”
Her gaze finally lowered to the picture and that heart ache hit her like it was the first time all over again. It was as if all air was compressed out of her chest and she looked up in a panic.
“Take your time,” Paul said.
She bolted straight for the door and ran through the little hallway until she stood outside on the top step of the stairs. Hunching over, she took quick and swallow breaths. She hated the anxiety she had lived with ever since she was a little child. Some days she would rock back and forth underneath a table until she could breathe. Other days she couldn’t get out of bed, hid in the darkness until that darkness in her soul let in some light.
“It’s easier to breathe if you stand up straight.”
Emma looked up and frowned.
“Trust me, Miss Swan.”
It was a lot to ask for someone she’d never interacted with before. Still, deep down Emma knew the woman was right, so she tried to stand up straight and control her breathing to the best of her abilities.
“In through your nose and exhale through your mouth,” the stranger said. With a kind nod she showed Emma exactly how to breathe like a proper human being. As if she needed to be taught all over again.
Still, the gentle commands helped, and it wasn’t before long that she finally felt her heartbeat return to its normal drum.
Emma nodded. “Thank you, eh–sorry I don’t know your name.”
“Regina Mills,” Regina said as she extended her hand and shook Emma’s. “I should get back inside, but please take your time. Focus some more on that breathing technique of yours, Miss Swan. It’s important.”
With that Regina Mills turned and went back inside. For a moment Emma wondered what her story was, but quickly discarded that thought as none of these people had happy stories to tell. It was a grief support group, not happy hour at Granny’s diner.
Once she felt calm enough she retraced her steps until she sat down in her seat once more and waited for Paul to motion to her that she could continue with her story.
“Sophie and I didn’t talk for almost two weeks. She’d call and text, but I just couldn’t face her. I was too embarrassed. She kept trying to tell me that it was okay, that I had nothing to be embarrassed about, but I felt too exposed. My secret was out in the open and there was no way for me to put it back in a box, only to never open it again. I wanted nothing more than to be able to face, y’know? I wanted to show her that I could still be her friend, that I wasn’t actually lusting after her, that I was…I-I don’t know…normal.” Emma shook her head. “I never got that chance. I fucked up so badly.”
Her hand shook as she passed the picture onto the person sitting to her right. She took a deep breath. “I’m sure you’ll recognize me on that picture, I haven’t changed much. The beautiful girl next to me is Sophie. She was twenty-two. We were the best of friends, she loved me, and I loved her.”
Emma’s hand covered her mouth as she choked back a sob.
“I had sent her a text and asking if we could talk. I missed my friend and Mary Margaret talked some sense into me. We decided to meet at a café. I couldn’t handle meeting her at any of our houses, it would’ve been too intimate. I sat at the café for an hour, but she never showed up. I didn’t understand why until Mary Margaret walked into the café and wrapped me in her arms. She told me that Sophie had been in a car accident on her way over and was called instantly. It wasn’t the other driver’s fault, just an accident, nothing anyone could do.”
This time Emma couldn’t choke back the sob and her nails dug themselves into her knee.
“I should’ve gotten my act together more quickly. I should’ve spoken to her. It’s my fault that she’s dead.”
She felt utterly spent and didn’t dare look at anyone, overcome with shame and guilt.
“It was an accident,” Paul said. “You said it yourself, there wasn’t anyone could do, that includes you. I know those are just empty words to you now, but that’s why we are here. We are all grieving a loved one, whether they be friends or family. Thank you for sharing your story, Emma. I hope you’ll find the support here that you need and deserve. We are all here for you, unconditionally.”
Emma nodded, still unable to speak, a million thoughts running through her head. As everyone scattered around to grab coffee, Regina walked over and squeezed her shoulder for a mere second.
“You were very brave to share that with us, Emma. I am deeply sorry for your loss.”
Before Emma could reply Regina had already turned around walking out through the door and Emma found herself wondering what her story was once again.