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To the Beat of a Heart

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Better take it, just to be safe, her mom always used to tell her. About anything, everything — her medication, an extra change of underwear, spare batteries. It was a mantra she spoke so often that it had become a joke in the Reyes household. Better to have it and not need it than the other way around, they'd sing-song in parody back to her, and she'd just smile and comment that she must be teaching them well.

Erica was taught well. That's why she has the fake ID, tucked carefully away behind her library card. Because she'd rather think that someday she'll find herself digging it out of there and handing it to a bouncer and knowing the secret thrill of getting away with something forbidden, than admit to herself that she'd probably never dare.

Days become weeks and then months, and the ID still hides in her wallet, shiny and unused. It becomes an itch in the back of her mind that she can't scratch, a need that pulses just beneath her skin. She brings her books home and spreads them across the couch to study, day after day. She dodges questions about how her day was at school because the answer is never, ever, "Good." And the itch grows until she can't bear it, until when her parents come to her room dressed to the nines and announce that they're going out for their anniversary and she shouldn't wait up, and there's a TV dinner for her in the freezer, she seizes the impulse to finally do something about it.

She has nice clothes. They're a just in case, too, tucked into the far back of her closet. For birthday parties, she told herself (though no one invites a girl who might start seizing in the middle of the celebration to their birthday). For special occasions.

This is definitely a special occasion.

She takes out her favorite, a silk dressed that hugged her body when she tried it on in the store and frightened her, because it'd rip if she had a seizure while she was wearing it. It rides high on her thigh and shows off her cleavage and it doesn't look like her at all. But it looks like the kind of girl she wants to be. The kind she's going to be, at least for one night.

She does her hair, her makeup. She chooses shoes with heels, knowing she'll break her ankle if she has an attack in them. She puts them on anyway. And when she gets to the club, she takes all the confidence she doesn't feel and she wears it as armor. When she flashes her ID at the bouncer, he lets her stride right in without a second glance.

The thump of the music and the mass of writhing bodies draw her to the dance floor, but the way the lights spin and flash against her eyes makes her afraid. They could trigger an episode. She heads for the bar first and tells herself she's seeking the full experience, not liquid courage.

A man asks if he can buy her a drink almost immediately. It's gratifying -- buy then it's frightening. His eyes roam over her, lingering on her breasts, her hips, her waist. She's not used to being noticed. At school she takes pains not to be, because if someone's noticing her body, it's probably because its betraying her.

She's here to be noticed, but she didn't expect it to make panic sit thick and heavy on the back of her tongue. She turns him down, slides into a seat at the bar, and tells herself that she's just pacing herself. She'll accept the next one.

She passes up the next two before the bartender sets down what looks like a rum and Coke in front of her and inclines his head toward the other side of the bar. There are two men there, but they're flirting with each other. And there's a woman, fingering the stem of a martini glass and watching Erica with a clear, direct gaze.

Erica lifts the drink in a silent toast to the woman and swallows her nerves when she slips of her stool and makes her war down the bar towards Erica. She slides in close, leaning one elbow against the bartop, and says, "You looked lonely."

Erica's not sure how she managed that when she's been turning guys down since she arrived, but she just smiles at the woman and sips her drink to show her appreciation.

It's cloyingly sweet, all Coke and no rum. She chokes on it and scowls. "You're not my mother."

The woman smiles like she's won something, like Erica's proved her right just by speaking. "No," she says, that simply. And she holds her hand out and waits for Erica to shake it. "I'm Laura."

Erica studies her through narrowed eyes, dubious. After a moment, she shakes the other woman's hand, says only, "Erica." No last name, because she's not stupid. She drapes her arm over the bar and tries to look casual, indifferent. "Are you gonna narc on me?"

Laura's face transforms with surprise, then laughter, loud enough to carry over the heavy music. "God, no. That's not why I'm here."

"Why are you here?"

She means standing there in front of her, buying her drinks and calling her bluff. But Laura tips her head to the side, pulls her fingers through hair that's long and dark and sleek and perfect, and says, "I'm in town taking care of a family matter. Thought I could use a break before it did my head in."

"And so you figured you'd just hang out at a bar and chaperone minors?"

Laura's lips quirk. She's wearing red lipstick, as bright as Erica's. Erica chose hers because she wanted to be the sort of person who dared to wear bright red lipstick. She rather suspects that Laura wears it because she is that sort of person, and Erica thinks she might be just a little bit in love. "No," Laura says, still grinning and laughing beneath her breath. "I figured I'd dance."

She waits, watching Erica with an expectant air that Erica doesn't know what to do with. A moment passes and then Laura laughs again — softly this time, lost beneath the music, but Erica sees it in the curve of her red mouth, the breath that parts her lips, the light in her eyes. She offers Erica her hand again, palm turned up, and lifts her brows in an expression that says very clearly, Well?

This is what she came for. To drink, to dance, to spend just one night enjoying her body instead of dreading it. So she smiles and slips her hand into Laura's and follows her onto the dance floor, and leaves her fear behind at the bar.

The music is loud and rhythmic, a primal beat that works its way down to her bones. The press of bodies around her makes panic rise, but she fights it back and lets the crowd push her in close against Laura instead. She lets her hands go where they want, lets herself twist and move. It's the first time in longer than she can remember that she lets go and allows her body to do as it wants without fear.

It feels good. Laura's hands skim her waist and glide down to her hips. She moves against Erica and the heat from her body makes Erica's blood run thick through her veins. Sweat gathers on her skin and drips in a rivulet down her spine.

When they break away from the crowd and stumble back toward the bar, she's breathless and her skin is tingling. She turns in against Laura and kisses her because she's gorgeous, because she wants to, and because it's something she wouldn't have dared to do before tonight. Tonight's for adventure, for living. She doesn't want to leave here regretting something undone.

Laura kisses her back, for God knows what reason. It's exhilarating.

When the night's over, Erica stumbles back home, drunk on excitement and a sugar high from the sodas Laura kept putting before her. Her skin feels like pure electricity. She sneaks up to her room in the dark, toes off her heels and peels the dress off, lets it slide to the floor. She stands naked in front of her mirrored closet doors and tries to see what Laura saw in her.

It's easier with the lights off, the shape of her body made foreign in the faint moonlight coming through her window. It's easier to look at her body and see beauty, instead of thinking, Traitor!

She climbs onto her bed and thinks of Laura as she slips a hand between her legs. She's been wet and wanting since the kiss, though Laura never took it farther than that. She doesn't do this often. It's hard to want to touch a body that she doesn't particularly like, most days. It's difficult to enjoy an orgasm when the shuddering and twitching reminds her too much of a seizure.

But tonight she's got Laura in her thoughts, her smile and her warmth. Erica keeps her there as she pushes two fingers into her cunt and slicks her thumb around the hard, aching knot of her clit. Her blood's still heated from the music, and it takes no time at all to bring it to a boil. She comes hot and wet around her fingers, muscles twitching and jumping, but this time instead of thinking about seizures, she thinks about the club, music like the thunder of her pulse in her ears, the way her body had moved without her command and it had been glorious.

She thinks of Laura and that red smile and hopes she's there, the next time Erica sneaks out. Maybe next time, she'll be bolder.

She can't wait.