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For a Long Time Looking at Stars

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It was the last one of the night – Shane Daniels was out of money.

He tilted his head back, draining the lukewarm dregs from the bottom of his glass. It clanged loudly when dropped to the sticky wood table and he glanced around to see if the noise had startled anyone. To his surprise the saloon was alive with chatter and laughter, as distant to Shane as he was to it.

It was spring in the valley but the nights were still long, and the air bit with unexpected teeth when he exited the stuffy bar. Tugging his hood higher and shoving his hands in his pockets, he slouched away from the muffled laughter and headed home. When he arrived the lights were off, and pausing at the door he could hear no noise – his aunt was probably already in her room. Those three beers at Gus’s hadn’t been nearly enough, but if he was quiet he could grab the bottle from his sock drawer and sneak back out without having to deal with her.

Sneaking out of the house at twenty-nine years old. Son of a bitch, he thought, tucking it in his pocket with shame.

Twenty-nine going on forty-five, that was. The bags below his eyes, tinted ruby. The five o’clock shadow that darkened his jaw no matter how close the shave. The way if he swept back the hair from his forehead several gray hairs poked through the nearly black ones, and the way, in the last few years, that his face had bloated from drinking. On busy nights the bar swarmed with both the early-twenties crowd and the middle-aged regulars, and while he was closer in age to the former, the latter was closer in spirit.

Weary, cynical spirit.

He reentered the darkness and started along the well-worn path from the ranch to Cindersap forest, and from there to the lake and the dock that had long been his brooding spot.

Son of a bitch, he thought again, seeing the silhouette near the shore.

Should he head back? There was no such thing as welcome company in this piss-water little hamlet, where everyone knew where you worked, where you slept, what groceries you bought or that you’d just seen the town doctor for that rash on your stomach. Shane closed his eyes, wishing it’d disappear into the forest like some shadow creature – somehow that’d be less terrifying. But when he opened them again not only was the figure still there, its upper half was turned toward him.

His eyes adjusted to the dark and he could make out a girl with light blond hair, who, like Shane, was hunched against the cold in a hoodie.

“Thought I heard someone,” she said.

“Yeah, well, not staying,” Shane replied gruffly, already facing to leave.

“Hey, do you know what time it is?”

Time for me to get the fuck out of here.

He pulled up his sleeve to check the watch on his inner wrist, and without turning around called back, “10:45.”

“Cool, thanks.”

He took out the bottle, unscrewing the cap and taking a long swig above his head before walking away again. He’d barely taken his first step when he heard, “Wait!” and turned to see the girl take a few steps toward him.

“What do you want now?” he demanded, patience short.

“You – this is pretty forward of me, but you don’t have a smoke I could bum, do you?”

So she’d seen him drinking straight from the neck and assumed he was a smoker. Natural thing to assume, he guessed, but he wasn’t – not enough money to go around for more than one vice. And who the hell was this chick anyway?

“No."

“Probably for the best,” she murmured, more to herself than Shane. “Thanks anyway.”

The way she scratched the back of her neck while looking around, then turned and anxiously rubbed her arms as she walked away – he could tell she was jonesing. He hesitated, knowing the feeling. For a moment some of his old compassion returned, overriding even his hatred of strangers and idle pleasantries; he heaved a frustrated sigh and walked over to where she stood.

“Here.”

She stared at the bottle of Jack he'd shoved at her, debating, then pushed out a hand that was hiding in her hoodie sleeve and took it. Bottle paused before her lips, she raised an eyebrow. “You know this only makes it worse, right?”

He shrugged. “Don’t have to.”

Closing her eyes she took a rather heroic swig, spine shivering as it hit her. “Thanks,” she said, capping it and offering it back.

“Go ahead.”

“No, that’s enough.” She handed it to him and put her hands in her pockets. “I’m glad you didn’t have a cigarette. I’m supposed to be quitting. And if that’s not hard enough on its own, try being plastered and craving one.”

Shane looked at her curiously; he didn’t often look at people curiously, but that’s because after a few months of living in Pelican Town – total population less than his old middle school – he thought he’d already seen everyone there was to see. Especially this far out, as the ranch skirted the edge of town and the lake went out of it completely. He had no idea where this girl had come from. Maybe she was from the city, visiting a friend or relative. She didn’t look rural, what with her high blonde ponytail, and the little stud on one side of her nose that kept catching the moonlight, shimmering like a small star.

“Oh well." She smiled at Shane with one corner of her mouth. “At least there’s no 24/7 convenience store here, right? Forced to ride it out.”

“Right." He wished he could leave again. Was it wrong to just turn and walk away? He could go by the river instead; it wasn’t as private, the ranch being well within sight, but at least he’d be by himself.

The girl was sharp though. She took one glance at Shane and said, “I’m imposing, aren’t I?”

“What?”

“This was supposed to be your dock. Well, not your dock, but you came out here to be alone, right?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled.

She shrugged. “I’ll go. Thanks for not having a smoke, mystery man. Saved me from going back to day zero.”

Then she walked away, and Shane couldn’t remember meeting anyone else in this town who’d offered to leave him alone without having to be told to fuck off first. They learned quickly after that, but still – no one else ever got it right on the first try.

All things considered the taste of unexpected small talk wasn’t as bitter as usual.

Pelican Town was snug deep in the heart of Stardew Valley, miles from the city where Shane had spent his whole life. He’d only been living there a few months – he and Jas, his seven-year-old goddaughter, moved in with Aunt Marnie on her ranch just before winter. The valley was familiar to him: the ranch and its animals, the river and lake, this very dock where he’d started coming as a boy when his parents dropped him off for a few weeks every summer. It was different as an adult and life in the valley didn’t suit him at all, but he’d run out of choices and if he had to be stuck in some hellish small town at least it was one that had places like the lake, places that carried some of his few good memories.

Marnie had always been good to him. In fact, she seemed to like him better than his own parents ever did. When Marnie got tipsy she liked to giggle and fall over herself like a twenty-year-old girl, rather than, say, make Shane dodge projectile beer bottles aimed at his head. She was chattier than he liked in a roommate, and far too interested in his life and goings-on, but she meant well. She never yelled or threw shit at him, and what more could he ask?

It was the same cloistered valley he'd known as a boy, the same too-empty/too-exposed feeling when walking around town, nothing to do and yet feeling like he was under the microscope of every bored housewife and nosy shopkeeper. A few things had changed, though – he'd never been here in spring before, and miserable as the town made him the cherry blossoms were rather pretty. The lake was a few inches lower, the water murkier than it used to be, and there was a wooden sign in front of the dock now, one that hadn’t been there before:

In loving memory of Emmet Wakeshire

Emmet Wakeshire once owned a great expanse of farmland just north of the ranch. Shane had never met the man, who’d died some years ago, but he knew that Emmet built the dock with his own two hands – when he wasn’t much older than Shane, as Marnie told it. The farm was one of the ranch’s closest neighbors and Marnie had been good friends with the old man, speaking of him often and fondly, erecting the sign as a memorial after he passed.

Shane walked to the edge of the dock and sat with his legs dangling, opening the whiskey and drawing out his pocketknife. He absentmindedly opened and closed it while staring at the hushed surface of the water.

Not much older than Shane, she’d said. He tried to think if he’d ever built anything in his whole life. A pyramid of beer cans in his room once, when he was sixteen. Sometimes they asked him to assemble cardboard display cases for holiday chocolate at JojaMart – once even entrusted him with snapping together an extra shelf when they’d ordered too much spaghetti sauce.

A regular architect, really.

A cloud drifted over the moon, Shane drank, and the lake was quiet but for small, pretty sounds: leaves rustling against other leaves, cicadas like cymbal brushes, hissing in the grass. The foam on the water stretched its white fingers out to shore, slinking back when they could stretch no further. He took a long swallow. Once upon a time it burned, like it had for the girl, but those days were gone and these days it went down like tea: warm, smooth, soothing. He laid down with his arms stretched behind his neck, his body heavy.

The stars were so much brighter here than the city. He felt thirteen again, lying on the same dock, staring at the same sky, feeling the same melancholy detachment from everything around him. Wishing just once he could look at the sky and feel wonder or awe instead. One star shone brighter than the rest and he stared at it, until the rest of the stars faded in the background and the bright one was the only thing he could see, pulsing like a beacon.

He felt lonely. Lonely at home, in town, at work, at the bar. Lonely out here too of course, but here it was different – here he was supposed to feel lonely. Insignificant, like everything else in this world. A cluster of atoms, huddled together in the shape of a human as if that meant something.

The universe wasn’t cold and uncaring. Quite the opposite; it was telling him that if he didn’t want to be here, it was okay. It would continue to rustle and foam and pulse without him. It was okay if he didn’t want to stay much longer.

 


 

On Monday Shane awoke to the shrill sound of his alarm.

As much as he loathed his job, it at least got him out of bed in the morning – more than he could say for anything else. Without the looming threat of joblessness (and not being able to afford Marnie’s rent, on top of his nights at the saloon) the siren call of those sheets was too strong. Not that he’d never caved, but JojaMart did keep it from becoming a routine.

The bright smell of coffee was the only other incentive to get up. He poured himself some, thankful Marnie was on the phone and couldn’t do more than nod good morning, and headed to the bathroom to shower.

At least there’s hot water, he thought as the steam from it filled the room, fogging the mirror and glass doors. He turned his face to the showerhead, the scorching water pounding his eyelids.

The town had a runty suburbia that Shane had to pass through on his way to work, and that morning he saw Emily, the assistant barkeep, tending to the flowerbeds beneath her window. Scant rays of sun shone on her blue pixie-cut hair, and she smiled kindly when she saw him. Emily smiled kindly at everybody.

“Morning, Shane!” she said. He nodded at her.

Emily was okay. A little out there perhaps, a little too hippie-eccentric for Shane’s tastes, but she wasn’t annoying about it – one of those live and let live types. She and Gus were the only people who'd warmed to Shane since he arrived, though he supposed it worked both ways – they were among the only people he hadn’t told to get bent. Possibly because they saw each other five or six nights a week at the saloon, and miserable as he was he didn’t actually seek to make things awkward. That they were naturally kind and patient people who put up with his moodiness? That was just another enabler.

He passed Dr. Harvey’s clinic next. Harvey was decent as far as the villagers went, nerdy and quiet and with a greater respect for privacy than most of them. But he was also only in his mid-thirties and an MD with his own private practice – a conspicuous reminder each day of Shane’s own stupidity. The doctor sat at his front desk, scribbling notes with his tongue protruding from under his handlebar moustache.

What a fucking moustache too. Shane could’ve ridden it to town.

His head hurt like hell; he’d stayed at the dock far too long, until over half the bottle was gone. May have even passed out for awhile when he was laying down, because it was after two in the morning when he stumbled home for a shitty four hours of sleep.

Next he passed the large front window of Pierre’s General Store, Pierre himself straightening the sign on a bin of potatoes. He avoided Pierre’s if he could help it. Though it was closer to the ranch than JojaMart, the few times he’d swung by on the weekend for a six-pack (or twelve-pack, or twenty-four, depending on his mood and wallet), the shopkeeper’s judgmental eyes said it all – Shane’s habits at the saloon weren’t exactly a secret.

And so, hands in pockets and head down as he tried to quickly pass the little grocer, he didn’t notice the front door swing open until he was almost hit squarely in the face.

“Shit! I’m sorry!” cried a voice, and Shane, trying to still his beating heart, realized with annoyance that it was the same girl as the previous night.

Must be on a morning cigarette run, he thought crudely.

He’d been several beers in when they met last night, and apparently in a bizarrely social mood because seeing her today – with throbbing head and bloodshot eyes – he wanted to snap his fingers and make her fucking disappear. This. This was what he hated about small towns. No anonymity, anywhere. Not even with strangers.

She wore the same hoodie as the evening before, along with jeans dusted with dirt, and for the few seconds before opening the door she’d been as deeply lost in her own thoughts as Shane had been in his.

“I didn’t see you!” she said quickly. “I’m sorry if – oh.” Her face shifted in recognition. “It’s you. Hi.”

“Yeah,” he grunted, trying to sidestep her, but she stepped back in front of him with eyes searching his face.

“Hey, are you okay?”

Like it’s any of her business. Probably thinks we’re friends now or something.

“I’m late,” he said angrily.

“I didn’t hit you with the door, did I?”

“Just fuck off.

This time he successfully stepped around her, leaving the stunned girl staring after him on the sidewalk. She didn’t know who he was yet. Perhaps she’d just think him bipolar.

He really didn’t care.

 

Chapter Text

The house was perfect. The land was perfect. The location, a beautiful enclave from the city, was perfect.

It was all perfect.

Sophia Wakeshire stood on her front porch, a cool morning breeze playing with the ends of her hair, and looked out over the property that was suddenly hers.

It needed work, having been abandoned since Grandpa’s passing. Entire acres were overgrown in grass and weeds, paths blocked by fallen trees from summer storms, and the porch where she stood was caving on one side. To the west of the house was a coop and barn in desperate need of repair, and to the east a shed packed with busted equipment. It was all a lot of neglect and brokenness.

But it was hers.

A former city girl with a corporate job all her young adult life, she’d gone from sensible skirts and heels to jeans and rubber boots, from six a.m. coffee runs to stomping in the mud before the sun even rose. At the office she’d been greeted by the cloying scent of a dozen clashing perfumes – today she smelled damp earth.

“Good morning, Amber,” she purred, bending down to scratch the sleeping dog between the ears. A mutt with adorable, straggly fur the same color as her name, Amber was as new to the farm as Sophia. She'd gone to the shelter the same day she left JojaMart, and though she’d only had her a few weeks Sophia was already in love. The contented gaze looking up told her the feeling was mutual.

The size of the farm was overwhelming, growing up as she did in a tiny downtown apartment. But she started small, tilling squares of dirt near the house to plant spring crops, watering them each morning. Only time would tell if they’d be fruitful but she had a good feeling; Grandpa had spent his whole life growing food in that soil. He’d taught her the basics when she was a girl visiting the farm, and she taught herself more every night with books from the town library - a veritable fountain of knowledge on the rural life she’d blindly flung herself into.

And it felt good falling asleep with aching muscles and a clear head, exhausted from the labor. It even stopped the dreams. For the first time in four years Sophia could work herself hard enough to stop the dreams – she hadn't thought it possible.

But life as Grandpa Emmet had shown her wasn’t only about hard work and growing things, it was also about what to do with the bounty. Which meant Sophia’s kitchen was currently filled with baskets of wild salmonberries picked off the edge of her property, all four burners of the stove hot beneath bubbling jam and her kitchen table hidden under a mantle of mason jars.

Grandpa was a generous man. He'd go to the saloon every night, not to drink but to visit an entire building of people he considered family. He’d invite half the town to his farm for potlucks and cookouts, or drive around dropping off bundles of zucchini to every single house when he’d accidentally grown ten rows too many. Sophia, preferring her friendships one-on-one, didn’t foresee house calls or cookouts in her future, but she still held onto his wisdom: that when you had abundance you shared. And so at eight o’clock that evening, she closed the lid on a box of jam and headed out to his beloved saloon. On Friday nights a considerable portion of the town showed up. It was the perfect time to hand out her gifts while having a few well-earned drinks.

The Stardrop Saloon was as picturesque a pub as the name would suggest: cabin walls, heavy wooden tables, a crackling fire in the hearth. When Sophia stepped inside she was greeting by the faint tinkling of a bell and a blast of warm air, smelling of pub food.

“Our farm girl!” cried the man behind the counter cheerfully.

“Hi, Gus, Emily." She nodded to the bartender, and then to a girl in the back who was wiping down glasses. She placed her box on the counter and sat on one of the stools.

“Evenin’,” said Emily, smiling under a head of shocking blue hair. Though she’d only met her a handful of times, Sophia liked Emily a lot. She and Gus were among the first people Sophia had been introduced to, and remained among the friendliest.

She patted the box in front of her. “I’m in need of taste testers.”

“Oh?” Gus squinted. “And what’s this?”

“Salmonberry jam, just made it today. I’m hoping Pierre will buy some from me, but I want to make sure it’s not, you know, poisonous or anything.”

“Oh, how lovely,” cried Emily, grabbing a jar. “My mom used to make this when I was a kid, I haven’t had it since. Where did you learn how?”

“Grandpa had a binder full of jam and canning recipes that I found, but he also taught me when I visited him as a kid. It just sort of... came back as I was reading through his notes.”

Emily gave her a sad look. “You know, we’re close to the same age – I wish I’d known you then. I think we could’ve been good friends.” She handed the jar to Sophia, who waved her hand and pushed it back.

“That’s yours. I need testers, remember?”

“Ooh." Emily held the jar to her chest. “Yes, I feel a positive energy from this gift. Gus, give this girl an extra drink tonight, on me. We have to make sure she sticks around.”

“She’s right, you know,” said Gus after Emily left, drawing a pint for Sophia. “Stick around and you’ll be as beloved as your Grandfather – great, great man. One of my closest friends, and we were friends for a lot of years. Broke me to see him pass.”

Sophia smiled sadly. “I wish I’d spent more time with him. I mean, I visited in the summer as a girl, but you know how it is when you get older. Busy, no more summer vacations… I regret not making the time to come out here.”

“He’d be proud.”

“Thanks, Gus.”

Sophia looked around the room, wondering if she’d recognize anyone else. Yes, there was Robin, the carpenter, with her husband. She’d met her on her very first night in the valley. Robin was who she’d eventually hire when she restored the barn and coop, or even just her caving porch – she was willing to throw seeds in the ground and hope for the best, but didn’t feel quite the same about the structural integrity of her house. She was sure Robin would accept one of the jams.

At another table was a grizzled man she recognized as the owner of the bait and tackle shop, drinking with a younger man whose full-bodied auburn hair looked like something off a romance novel cover, and who Sophia couldn’t stare at for too long without the overwhelming urge to giggle and swoon. Would they want one? She wasn’t sure she could deliver it without laughing.

Then there was the game room, tucked slightly away from the main bar, where she could see Sebastian, Robin’s dark-haired son, playing pool with two of his friends. The son was rather aloof, always dressing in black and rarely smiling, while the other two seemed friendly enough, but none of them looked the type to be excited over home canning.

“Hey,” she said, leaning toward Gus. “Anyone else around here I could offload this on? I’ve got tons at the house and would rather not lug this back.”

“Did you try Marnie?”

“Marnie?”

“Marnie Daniels, she owns the ranch south of your house. If you ever decide to go the husbandry way, she’s got your animals. Over there,” Gus jerked his head toward a plump, middle aged woman with a pleasant face and frizzy brown hair, who was chatting with Mayor Lewis.

She knew Lewis already; as mayor, he’d been the other half of her welcoming committee, joining Robin in helping her settle in at the farmhouse on her first night in the valley. “Perfect,” she said, grabbing two jars and heading to their table.

Marnie and the mayor were deep in conspiratorial conversation, even leaning across the table to talk, when Lewis noticed Sophia approaching. “Miss Sophia!” he said heartily, leaning back. “How are you?”

“Just fine. Am I interrupting anything?”

“Not at all, not at all. You’re settling in all right, then?”

“Just fine,” she repeated, putting on a smile.

Lewis was a nice enough man from what Sophia knew, but there was also something a bit off about him. Like he was trying to be as jovial as Gus, but lacked Gus’s natural ease – she supposed it was the politician in him.

“Forgive my manners. Sophia, this is Marnie, owner of the Daniels family ranch. Marnie, this is Sophia Wakeshire – Emmet’s granddaughter, you know.”

The pleasant woman suddenly looked furious, smacking the mayor on the shoulder with the back of her hand. “Lewis! She arrived already, and you didn’t said a word? Shame on you!” She then turned to Sophia, the ferocity immediately replaced with a warm, familial smile. “It’s an absolute pleasure, Sophia. I’d heard you were coming to town, but someone,” she shot daggers at Lewis, “never told me you’d made it.”

“Pleasure to meet you as well,” said Sophia, offering her hand.

“Your grandfather and I were friends, great friends,” said the older woman as she shook it. “The ranch and the farm, we were quite a team in those days. I’m thrilled you want to carry on with the estate.”

“Big shoes to fill." She smiled nervously. “But I thought I’d start by getting to know everyone – Grandpa always stressed the importance of community out here.”

Marnie tilted her glass toward Sophia. “Hear, hear.”

“I also wanted to pass out a few early gifts from the farm.” She held out a jar to each Marnie and the mayor. “Homemade salmonberry jam. Thank you all for being so welcoming.”

“Oh, my!” Marnie wasted no time in popping the lid off and dipping her finger in. She tasted it and closed her eyes. “Yes, that’s divine. You wouldn’t happen to have more of these, would you?”

“Dozens, at the house. I’m hoping Pierre will take them off my hands, if there’s interest.”

“I’d love to buy a whole box. The Spring festivals are coming up and these would make wonderful gifts for my friends. I always love to gift the local products.”

Sophia felt her face flush with pride. “The ranch is just south of me, right? I could walk it down tomorrow morning.”

“Tomorrow it is,” said Marnie. “Just follow the only road that direction and you can’t miss it.”

Sophia wrapped up their conversation – despite what Lewis said, she thought she had indeed interrupted something – and hurried back to Gus. “Made my first sale,” she said proudly.

“Well done, you!”

Marnie and Lewis left not long after, Marnie giving Sophia a bright wave goodbye and pointing to her jam as a reminder for the next day. The evening progressed and she passed out a few more jars, chatting with Gus and Emily between the whirlwind introductions. She was debating whether to wrap up her night or buy another drink – she was becoming exhausted of people – when the bell above the door jingled, bringing in a stream of cool air.

Gus glanced over Sophia’s shoulder. “Evenin’, Shane.”

Sophia turned around to see a figure walk in, shoulders hunched from the cold, cheeks bright red and hair windblown. It was the surly young man she kept bumping into – during what was, apparently, a very shitty week for him.

“How’re things?” Gus asked, but the man ignored the question, shoving money across the counter without looking at either of them and mumbling, “Usual.”

“Sure thing. Have you met Sophia, Shane? She moved into the Wakeshire farm, north of the ranch.”

“Huh.”

For a moment Sophia was insulted by the mere grunt of acknowledgement. Bumping into him on the street was one thing, considering she had almost broken his nose with the door – but ignoring her during a proper introduction?

Then she noticed the way one of his legs jiggled while waiting on Gus to draw his pint, how he leaned against the bar rubbing his face, not once looking either of them in the eye – he just wanted to get his beer and get the hell out of there. She supposed he’d already been drunk that night they met at the dock, when he’d been somewhat less anxious.

“Hi,” she said, smiling tentatively.

“She’s giving away homemade jam, too,” Gus added, and she nodded and reached in her box to grab one.

“No thanks,” he muttered, and without even looking up grabbed the pint Gus handed him and headed to an empty table near the fireplace, where he slumped with his head in his hand.

Gus shook his head. “Try not to take it personally. He’s not much of a people person, Shane.”

She lifted her eyebrows. “Hadn’t noticed.”

“Actually, he’s pretty new around here himself.”

“Yeah?” She looked again. He was wearing the same zippered hoodie as the last two times, and as a former JojaMart employee herself she’d know that shade of blue anywhere.

“Only been here a few months. Start of winter, maybe? I don’t think people in the valley have taken too kindly to him. Keeps mostly to himself, though.” Gus leaned closer, his voice low. “Emily and I try to be nice. Word is he’s had a rough time of it.”

As Sophia finished the rest of her beer, her gaze kept wandering back to the other newcomer. Though the pub crackled with life – people greeting, laughing, hugging like family – Shane sat with his back to them all, drinking in silence.

“Gus,” she said when the bartender returned, a sudden, possibly terrible idea forming in her mind. “I may regret this, but I’ll take two more beers.”

“Two?” He winked. “Aren’t we ambitious.”

“More than you know.”

When the beers were ready, she took a deep breath and headed toward Shane. He didn’t notice her until she was two inches from the table.

“What do you want?” he said darkly, glancing up with only his eyes.

Gus had said he’d had a rough time of it, but hadn’t said when, specifically. Perhaps he meant that very day – Shane did look rough. His work jacket frayed along the seams and had a large rip across the front, and his eyes looked as though they hadn’t seen proper sleep in weeks. With the way he slouched over his drink, she’d have thought it his fifth or sixth one.

“This place is packed tonight, and I couldn’t help notice you’re the only one sitting alone.”

“Trust me, you have better things to do.”

“Says who?” she said, filling the empty chair next to him.

A look of panic shot through his eyes. “Wh – what are you doing?”

“Gus told me you’re new, too. Everybody else in this place has known each other since they could crawl, so from one odd man out to another, I wanted to say hi.” She pushed the ale toward him. “Also, to pay you back for the other night – for not having a cigarette. Haven’t had one all week, so I owe you.”

He stared at the drink. “I tell you to fuck off, and you buy me a beer?”

“Well, consider it an apology, too. Pretty sure I’ve been catching you during a bad week and I’m sorry if I somehow made it worse.”

He finally looked at her, squinting. “You’re a farmer?”

“Learning to be one. Why?”

“I dunno. You’re just… not really what I picture when I hear farmer. What kind of farmer has a nose ring?”

“The kind that lived in the city for twenty-four years,” she said. “And it’s not a ring, it’s a stud.”

“Same thing.”

For a moment she thought Shane might relax, but after draining the remains of his current beer his anxiety became pronounced again: his tight grip on the empty glass, the leg jiggling under the table the same as it had at the bar.

“You work at Joja?” she asked, indicating his jacket.

“Thanks for reminding me.”

“Shithole, isn’t it?” When he looked up in surprise, she added, “I used to work there. Moved to get away from it, actually. I didn’t know Pelican Town had one.”

Shane sighed, tapping the bottom of the glass against the table. “Yeah. Yeah, it is a shithole. But do you really think I want to talk about my shithole job during my time off?”

“You’re right,” Sophia said quickly. “I’m sorry.”

“Just leave me alone, I don’t want your beer.”

“But I bought it for you. It’s already paid for.”

“Look,” he hissed, leaning over his empty glass. “I don’t come here for the company, okay? Just go away. Find somebody else to give it to.”

She stood up, stung, and slammed the beer in front of him, several drops splashing on the table and the sleeve of his jacket. “It’s a gift,” she said. “It doesn’t come with a contingency, not even my company.” Then she walked away, leaving him to decide what to do with the drink and badly craving a cigarette.

 

Chapter Text

Saturday morning, Shane groggily rolled over and yanked his curtains shut against the blinding sunlight. He lay flat on his back and wrapped a hand across his forehead, massaging both temples.

Water. He needed water.

“Uncle Shane, Uncle Shane!”

Jas, Shane’s seven year old goddaughter, barreled into his room, pouncing on the bed. “Uncle Shane, do you know what day it is?” She tugged impatiently at his blankets.

“No,” he grumbled, sitting up, but at seeing her eager face rearranged his expression into something gentler. “What day is it?”

“It’s the flower dance."

“Oh, yeah.” Shit. He’d forgotten about the stupid dance.

“Are you going to dress up?” she bubbled excitedly.

He rubbed his hand through his disheveled hair. “You sure Aunt Marnie doesn’t want to take you?”

Jas frowned and tugged his hand between her own two small ones. “But you promised.”

Shane sat up fully now, stroking her hair a few times and forcing a small smile. “You know what? You’re right. I did promise. Why don’t you pick a shirt for me?”

“Okay!” She bounced to his closet and began to flip through the bottom row.

He sat on the edge of his bed, elbows resting on his knees and head in his hands, rubbing his eyes. More than anything, he wanted to hang an extra sheet over the window to darken the room and head back to sleep.

“Here,” she said, shoving a navy polo on a hanger into his hands. “And wear pants! Not those dumb shorts you always do. I wish you had a bowtie.”

“I don’t,” he said, and she giggled.

“What about shoulder brooms?”

“Shoulder – what?

“Shoulder brooms. Like prince charming.”

Shane had no idea what she was talking about. “The shirt’s great on its own, Jas. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome!" She skipped to his door. "Don’t take too long, okay? Aunt Marnie said she wants to get a picture!”

Fan-fucking-tastic.

Shane quickly showered and dressed, then stood in front of the mirror trying to make his hair lay flatter; it was drying kind of funny. At least his eyes weren’t as bad today. He grabbed a paper cup from the bathroom dispenser, filling it with water and downing it like a shot, then doing it again a half dozen more times.

Uncle Shane!” Jas shouted impatiently, from the other side of the house.

“Just a minute!” he bellowed back. For a girl who could be so shy, she sure had a set of lungs on her.

Back in his room, standing in front of his sock drawer with fingers on the handle, he tried his best to talk himself out of it. It was one morning, one stupid morning. But images kept flashing through his mind: a hundred people, maybe more, gathered in a tiny forest clearing. Giggling girls in sundresses. Reluctant partners in uncomfortable clothes. Cotton candy decorations and sappy music, weaving through a sea of people who’d been trapped in this bubble of a village since birth.

He thought of the new girl, the way she kept bumping into him and trying to introduce herself, even buying him that beer. No one, not one soul, had ever tried to sit with him at the saloon, let alone buy him a beer. Could he blame them? They thought he was a shit person. He’d given them every reason to think it.

But he’d also given her every reason to think it, and she hadn’t assumed he was shit. She’d assumed he was having a bad week. Apologized to him for it. And it stung, her stupid kindness. He wasn’t sure why but it hurt like hell.

Pulling the drawer open he removed the bottle, draining the last two and a half inches.

 

Chapter Text

After watering her plants, Sophia decided to take a break from farm work for the rest of the day. It was beautiful, the warmest spring morning yet, and she traded her usual attire for a sky blue sundress, pulling her hair loosely to the side of her neck and turning from side to side in the mirror. Though she never wore much make-up, her skin was clear and her eyes bright and she felt unusually pretty that morning.

She prepared the box of jam to bring to Marnie, figuring that after delivering it she’d take Amber for a walk by the river or beach. With most of her time holed up on the farm, she hadn’t explored the town much beyond Pierre’s or the Stardrop Saloon.

“Be a good girl, Amber,” she said. Amber, lazing on the porch steps, raised her doggy eyebrows to look at Sophia and then immediately went back to sleep.

She reached the dirt road that went south of the farm, tunneled by trees that led deeper and deeper into the forest. It made for a gorgeous walk with wild daffodils and dandelions bursting up on all sides, the young green trees swishing above her and filtering sunlight on her path. White butterflies flitted the trail at her feet, and only the weight of the box she carried kept her from wishing the journey longer.

Then the ranch came into view: as Marnie said, she couldn’t miss it. Large, much larger than she expected, and with fencing on all sides where cows roamed freely. She adjusted the box on her hip and walked to the front door.

Marnie opened within seconds, beaming at her. “Hello, hello, come in!”

Sophia entered, soaking in the tall ceiling of the rustic country kitchen: her own kitchen seemed dim and crude in comparison. “Your house is beautiful,” she mused, looking around.

“You’re kind,” said the older woman. “Can I get you some tea or coffee? Please, have a seat. Is that the jam? I’ll get my wallet.”

“I’d love some coffee,” she said, and Marnie immediately put on a pot before leaving to fetch her purse.

It was like fiction, this hospitality – like a movie, or a storybook. She’d never felt anything like this in the city. In the city, life was divided into people who were friends and people who were strangers. There seemed no such division in the valley. It was more open, more intimate – more human, somehow.

While she waited and the coffee dripped, a young girl suddenly sprinted into the kitchen. She ran past Sophia yelling, “Uncle Shaaaaaaane! We’re going to miss the start!”

Sophia froze. Uncle Shane?

“I said, just a minute!” came a playful male voice. She turned her head just in time to see the girl barrel into the one man she’d never have expected to see at Marnie’s ranch that morning.

She barely stopped herself doing a double take.

The ratty jacket was gone. In its place was a navy shirt tucked neatly into slacks with a belt, the buckle of which he finished doing upon entering the kitchen. He didn’t look pissed off like all the other times, and despite the tiredness there was a smile on his face. He began to tickle the young girl the moment they collided and she slid to the floor, shrieking and giggling in delight.

Should she say something? Sophia felt she was witnessing something quite private, a dynamic not meant for her eyes at all.

The girl, however, noticed their guest first. Her eyes widened and between shrieks she gasped, “Who is that?”

Shane looked up and immediately stopped tickling, and the little girl shrank – both figuratively and literally – as she ran to hide behind his leg.

“Hi,” Sophia said, mouth suddenly dry and mind suddenly blank. 

Fortunately Marnie returned before she could flounder too long.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, seeing the group of them. “Have you all been introduced yet?”

Shane and Sophia stared at one another.

"Not quite," said Sophia carefully.

“Well I guess it’s in order then. Sophia, this is my nephew, Shane, and that little lady behind him is Jas. Shane, Jas, this is Sophia – she moved into the Wakeshire farm.”

While not normally a vindictive person, she kept replaying the way her kindness had been thrown in her face the previous night – along with his unnecessary rudeness all those other times – and felt a sudden need to break him, make him be civil in front of his family where he couldn’t escape.

She walked over and extended her hand, and with exaggerated politeness said, “It sure is a pleasure to meet you, Shane.”

After a short contemptuous look he shook it, muttering, “Same.”

Not quite mollified but with little else she could do, Sophia turned to the girl and smiled kindly. “It’s nice to meet you too, Jas.”

For a moment it looked like Jas wasn’t going to say anything back, but then, in a small, high-pitched voice, she asked, “Are you going to the flower dance, too?”

“The flower dance?” repeated Sophia with a confused smile.

Jas stared at her, eyes anxious and distrustful, then bolted out of the room.

“She’s shy,” said Marnie, “but she’s right. You’re certainly dressed for the occasion.”

“...I am?”

“The flower dance, it’s a spring tradition here in Pelican Town. Takes place in the woods south of the lake – I’m surprised no one told you about it. You ought to go, it’s a lovely little event.”

“I don’t know about that, I’m not much for dances,” admitted Sophia.

“Nonsense, all the young people go. It’s great fun. This will be Shane and Jas’s first year as well.” She looked at her nephew. “You could all go together, seeing as Sophia hardly knows anyone yet.”

“Neither do I,” said Shane flatly.

Marnie smiled. “Precisely. I’m afraid most people know in advance who they’re asking to dance, so seeing as neither of you have a partner, you could go together and not have to worry about any awkwardness.”

Marnie.

“We wouldn’t want any awkwardness,” agreed Sophia with an amused smile, looking at Shane, who looked at the fridge.

Marnie pretended not to hear his warning, walking up to straighten his collar and kiss him on the cheek. “You clean up so nice,” she whispered, a hint of pride in her voice. Then she did something odd: she lingered by his cheek, then pulled away, still holding his shoulders, and gave a small, exasperated sigh. “Oh, Shane.”

Sophia pretended to glance over the invoice she’d written up; a little touch she’d thrown in to appear more professional. Once again, this felt like something she shouldn’t witness.

“No more,” Marnie whispered fiercely.

Shane shrugged away from her. “I need to get Jas.”

“And what about Sophia?”

“You know what,” she said, trying to sound casual. “I appreciate the invite, but I’ll have to pass today.”

“Well, if you’re sure.” Marnie frowned.

Shane left the room and returned a moment later with Jas, clinging to his hand and refusing to look at their guest. He tried to usher her out the door without further notice but Marnie shouted at them to wait by the fence for a photo and then blew through the cabinets looking for her camera. Once found she raced after them, the front door swinging behind her.

Sophia waited patiently. There were the muffled sounds of voices, of someone being shuffled into place for a photo he clearly didn’t want taken, and then silence as it was.

“I hope I wasn’t rude,” she said eagerly, when Marnie returned.

Marnie sighed, pouring two fresh mugs of coffee and dropping into the chair beside her. “That wasn’t your fault. That’s just Shane.” She peered curiously at the younger woman. “Sophia, have you ever lived in a very small town before?”

“No, ma’am. I grew up in Zuzu City, right downtown.”

“Well, I’ve lived here my whole life. And trust me, if it feels small now, that’s nothing compared to what it’ll feel like once you settle in. Nobody minds their own business here. There’s no secrets, and for anything you say or do, someone will notice and spread it like wildfire. That closeness can be a beautiful thing. Like right now, getting to know you in my own home, at my own table. That’s rural life.” She sighed again. “But it’s not for everyone. My nephew has only been here a few months. As you can probably guess, he hasn’t made many friends.”

Or any, thought Sophia uncomfortably.

“Look, I’m only saying this because it’s better to hear it from the horse’s mouth than from a gossip hungry town that doesn’t have all the facts: Shane and Jas came to live with me under unfortunate circumstances. Life has been cruel to them, to both of them. I suppose – I know it’s not the easiest thing in the world, but I’m just asking that you give him a chance. Before the rest of the town sours you to him. Before Shane himself does…he can be so abrasive.” She looked into her mug. “He’s got a good heart, my nephew.”

“I believe it,” said Sophia quietly, again seeing him with Jas for that moment he thought no one was watching.

Marnie looked both surprised and pleased, but only for a moment. Then she stood, scolding herself. “Oh, listen to me. He’d just kill me if he overheard this. If he thought I were trying to find friends for him – of course he can make his own, if he really wants to—”

“I understand. You just care about him.”

Marnie choked, a strange sound, almost like a laugh but not quite. “He’s been an ass to you, hasn’t he?”

Sophia opened her mouth to protest – after all, she’d pretended they hadn’t met – but Marnie stopped her. “I saw that look. You recognized one another. And I’m sure whenever it was you met, he was an ass to you.”

“A bit,” she agreed reluctantly.

“I just can’t understand why. He won’t give this place a chance. He won’t give these people a chance.”

Sophia fell quiet for a moment, thinking. She'd known someone like that before. She'd been extremely close to that someone.

“The dance,” she said at last. “Where is it again?”

“That lake in Cindersap Forest – the one with your grandfather’s old dock? Go south of there and take a right. You can’t miss it, they’ll have strung up bunting and ribbons on the whole path.” Marnie paused. “Why?”

“Maybe it’d be nice to look into the town traditions after all.”

Marnie’s eyes lit up. “You’ll go? But, Sophia, please don’t say… don’t tell him I…”

“You aren’t sending me,” she said, and she meant it. “I want to go.”

 

Chapter Text

Pierre, the shopkeeper, greeted everyone from a booth at the entrance, and Shane was met with a look of surprise that annoyed him to no end. It was a look that said, You? At a town function not held at the bar? and was paired with an infuriating smile – as if Pierre was proud of him.

He did not want Pierre’s pride. He did not want Pierre to consider him at all.

The neatly pressed clothes made him self-conscious. When was the last time he’d properly tucked in a shirt, let alone ironed his pants? At that moment he’d have given anything for his Joja jacket: people expected that of him, and they clearly did not expect him to clean up as he had, based on the looks he received at the entrance. Even Haley – Emily’s polar opposite sister, and the town princess – gave him a curt, surprised glance.

“I’m nervous,” Jas whispered, tugging his hand.

He knelt in front of her, eye level. “Want to know a secret? Me too.”

She stared at him warily. She’d lost her spunk since their surprise visitor – she did not handle surprises well.

“You’ll be fine,” said Shane. “Isn’t that your friend Vincent over there? Next to Miss Penny? I bet he’s waiting for you.”

She gave a tiny squeak at seeing her friend, and visibly relaxed for the first time since they’d left the house. “Okay. Can I go play?”

“Knock yourself out.” He gave her a nudge and she made a beeline to her friend and teacher.

He was glad she had someone to play with, someone she was comfortable around – except now he was all alone, and without Jas he lost any sense of purpose in being there. Where did he look? Where did he stand? Being a dance that catered to the town singles, he didn’t want to get caught in the middle where someone might pass him a begrudging partner. Nobody wanted that.

Hanging with Jas and Vincent would have been okay, he liked kids, but he avoided Miss Penny when he could. Penny had her own reason for disliking him: her mother was a drunk, too, and Shane's habits hadn't exactly endeared him to her.

He grabbed some crummy fruit punch from the refreshment table and looked around. Pink and yellow blossoms festooned the clearing, along with colorful streamers and, on one side, a string quartet playing a waltz. The dancing area filled by the dozens, the girls flushed, the guys tugging at neckties.

This whole getup, what was this? It seemed a bizarre, archaic mating ritual to Shane. He had nothing against romance in general – other than the conspicuous lack of it in his life – but this felt so wrong. Who romanced someone in a group? And with all the old folks lining the perimeter, an audience to boot; it was completely mad.

Punch in hand he took to wandering the edge of the clearing, looking for a decent spot to relax. Everyone was too preoccupied to see more than three feet in front of their faces and so he slipped into the trees unnoticed.

It could have been worse. It could have been in a gymnasium, somewhere with four solid walls and nowhere to hide.

He leaned against a tall, wide tree and looked up. Sunlight shone through the leaves like lace, the pattern shifting every few seconds as the branches were jostled by the breeze. Though hidden himself, the tree had a fine view of the festivities and he took to watching the crowd.

There was Haley, hanging around Alex’s heels like a puppy. Though in college now, they both still resembled the high school version of themselves: the queen bee, the jock, together the power couple. Haley in particular held a special disdain for Shane, her surprised glance from that morning notwithstanding – when deigning to share the same sidewalk, she often shot him looks that suggested he was something gross on the pavement.

Lingering in the back were Abigail and Sebastian, the chick with purple hair and the guy who always wore black. They shared a cigarette, Sebastian with his typical above-it-all expression, Abigail with her arms crossed, though not even they were exempt from the mood of the day: even at the distance Shane could see them flirting.

They all looked so young. Even if he did have a date, he thought, he’d feel like a damn fool. This was kid’s stuff.

Then he saw Sophia.

When had she arrived? She stood at the refreshments table, nibbling a muffin and talking to someone. He squinted: Elliott, the guy with the Fabio-hair who lived in the beach house. He was probably close to Shane’s age. Elliott would never be embarrassed to be seen in nice clothes – dude dressed up like this every day, and he lived on a fucking beach.

At the ranch Shane had been too distracted to get a good look at Sophia, but now he lingered on her. It was the first time he’d seen her not in jeans and a hoodie. Instead of the usual ponytail, her hair was down and swept over one shoulder, and she wore a pale blue dress that Shane liked the color of. Sheer and summery, the fabric nestled into the valleys of her body.

What the fuck are you doing?

He downed the rest of his punch in one swallow and stared back into the trees.

Minutes passed, and when he glanced back at the clearing the two of them were gone. He saw Jas and Vincent playing clapping games while Miss Penny talked to Sam – Vincent's older brother, and Shane's own coworker at JojaMart – but most of the couples were pairing off more formally now and it looked like the actual dancing portion of the event was to begin. He wondered briefly if Sophia would dance with Elliott.

God, how he wished he could have stayed home and slept the whole morning.

Marnie would’ve been happy to take Jas had it been any other event, but with the whole romance-is-in-the-air thing, he understood why she didn’t: Lewis attended all the town functions, and she and Lewis had some “secret” affair going on. He knew it bothered Marnie to be with him in public while not being with him in public. They were both single, and as far Shane knew, free to date whomever they liked, but outside of a weekly rendezvous at the saloon it was kept very hush-hush.

Shane suspected that last part was on the mayor, and kind of hated him for it. Both for Marnie’s sake, and for his own that day. Because he couldn’t allow Jas to be disappointed; because he had to bring her himself.

Which left him leaning against a tree in his Sunday best, waiting for it all to be over.

“Hey,” came a sudden voice. “Got any room?”

It was Sophia, carefully stepping around brush and branches to make way to his little area.

Shane tried not to squirm too much as she took the tree directly opposite him. "What are you doing here?"

“I changed my mind.”

He folded the edges of the paper cup in his hand, then crumpled it into a ball. “Oh.”

“Yeah. It’s not really my thing, but…” she darted a look at his face. “Something tells me it’s not really yours, either.”

“What gave it away?”

She leaned over, plucking the crumpled cup from his hand and holding it up between two fingers, eyebrow raised.

He rubbed his hand back and forth over his unshaven chin. “Jas wanted to come.”

“It was sweet of you to bring her," she said, leaning back against the tree with that smile that tugged up one corner of her mouth.

“Er... I guess.”

“So what is your thing?”

“What?”

“Dances aren't your thing, so what is?”

“Why do you care?”

“Silly me, I forgot that taking an interest in you is somehow offensive.”

His cup stolen, Shane now had nothing to do with his hands and struggled not to fidget. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “Don’t really have a thing.”

“Not even telling people to get the hell away from you?” she asked, feigning innocence.

“That was—"

“Not a big deal. Just wondering if you say it to all the girls, or if I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Not since the day he met his best friend, thirteen years ago, had he been around someone so insistent on talking to him, despite the nothingness he offered in return. “Don’t you have something better to do?”

“No. You make me curious.”

“You must be pretty bored then.”

Her face changed after he said this, and when she spoke again the playful notes were gone. “That’s not a nice thing to say about yourself." Then: “Am I still catching you at a bad time?”

He almost laughed. “Not caught on yet? It’s always a bad time.”

“If you want to talk, I’m a pretty good listener.”

And she did look it: her attention was solely on him, her face a combination of the aforementioned curiosity and concern. But all Shane could say was, “I don’t even know you.”

“That’s not true anymore – I mean, we are neighbors now. And we’ve talked. Don’t you remember when I almost smashed your face with the door? Or last night in the saloon? You said you didn’t want my beer, and I slammed it in front of you like a little bitch? That one was pretty memorable.”

He bit his lip, fighting a smile.

“I see that,” she teased.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Offer still stands though, if you want to talk.”

Shane had never given much thought to piercings before, but the tiny crystal stud in Sophia’s nose was actually kind of adorable. He found it distracting, the way it kept catching the light.

“Look,” he said, embarrassed, rubbing his face again. “Just forget I said anything, okay?”

A long pause – “Okay.” Then silence.

That was it?

When Marnie pressed for information – an oft annoying habit of hers – she only became more and more insistent when Shane dismissed things, and it always ended with both of them frustrated. Sophia’s response threw him; he didn’t know what to do with the lack of fight.

“It’s rather pretty, isn’t it?” she murmured.

At first Shane thought she meant the dancers, the decorations, but she wasn’t watching the dance at all; she was looking to their right, at the layers of trees fading into ever deeper woods. Back in the clearing the quartet sprang back to life after a brief intermission, and the stringed instruments turned the scene before them into living, breathing Vivaldi – even the breeze rustling Sophia's skirt appeared to keep time with the music.

Twenty-four, didn’t she say? Five years younger than Shane. Because she looked at him then, suddenly much younger.

“Do you want to dance?”

His body almost lurched at the request. A pounding formed in his chest, and he asked, “Is this a joke?"

“No.” Her face fell. “Why would you say that?”

He stared at her in disbelief. “Are you deaf? Did you not hear all those times I told you to fuck off?”

“I did, and frankly, screw you for telling me what to do.” She started playing with the paper cup herself, rolling it in her palms. “I’m a city girl, don’t forget. If I had a meltdown every time someone said fuck you, I’d’ve turned into a puddle after my commute.” She glanced at him. “Unless, of course, this is your way of saying it again?”

“That's not what I meant,” he muttered.

“Look, I know neither of us are into... well, whatever this crackpot thing is. But we could still have something, right? Something that separates today from yesterday, or the day before that. And if you want we can walk away after and pretend it never happened. I won’t tell a soul that you danced.”

Shane hated that he could feel his heartbeat in his ears. He hated that he was in a secluded area with a pretty girl asking him to dance and all he could feel was doubtful. Maybe it wasn’t a serious request and after he accepted, she’d laugh in his face. Or maybe it was serious, but she’d be close enough to smell the liquor on his breath and be disgusted. Marnie had detected it, after all.

“It’s just an offer," she said, blushing, and for the first time looked less than composed. “You don’t have to.”

He glanced at the clearing where dozens of couples were already gliding around and choked, “I can’t go out there.”

“Oh, hell no." She looked horrified. “I meant right here, where we are.”

“I don’t...”

“Like I said, it’s okay if you don't want to.”

“No, I just... don’t know how," he finished lamely, chancing a look and expecting her to laugh.

“How to dance?” She didn’t laugh; she looked at him quite seriously. “I don’t know either, but how hard can it be?”

She set the paper cup at the base of the tree and took a step forward, slowly, trying to gauge whether she had permission. Shane wondered if she could see the pounding in his chest, in his Adam’s apple, but he took a step forward, too.

“I dunno, just…” Sophia took his hands and clumsily led them to her waist, then placed hers on the square of his shoulders. “I’m sure there’s a fancier way of doing this,” she added, flushing, “but the hell if I know.”

He stayed quiet. It was suddenly a lot to concentrate on, a lot to be aware of: how to move his feet, where to settle his gaze, trying not to breathe or step on her.

“Kind of feels like a ninth grade formal, doesn’t it?” she joked, and he knew she felt the awkwardness too – so much for what Marnie had said about sparing them that.

Shane thought of the last time he’d touched a woman, before he came to the valley. It wasn't a very good memory, but had any of them been? Perhaps once, in the moments themselves, but they were too spoiled for him to revisit fondly now; with Sophia’s soft warmth beneath his palms he wondered what would spoil this one.

The music soared, and the forest was private, and the longer their dance went on the more surreal it became. Shane felt his upper body relax and Sophia softened with him; the stiff hands cupping his shoulders became looser, eventually being replaced by her wrists, resting alongside his neck with her fingers dangling softly behind. Their shoes bumped into one another and she looked up at him, biting her lip and smiling.

This isn’t happening.

Except it was. And Shane’s aching loneliness rose to a crescendo with the music as he repeated over and over to himself: Don’t fall for her. Don’t fall for her. Don’t fall for her.

 

Chapter Text

Sophia returned home late that afternoon, and it wasn’t until she closed the door behind her and collapsed against it that she realized she was shaking. She held her hands in front of her, watching the slight vibration.

When it came to the opposite sex she’d always been the follower, not the leader. But Shane made it so stinking easy to lead, and it wasn’t his anxiety or shyness making it that way. The opposite, in fact. The brashness. The bluntness. The way he spoke and it sometimes felt like he bit her instead.

Sophia got along with most people, but that was due to politeness. Politeness that both sides acknowledged in order to avoid friction. Politeness that only faded after becoming friends, and no longer feeling the need to maintain that friction-less façade. And Shane skipped all that – he disregarded those steps on the staircase of social niceties, which led Sophia to disregard them as well. He was the first person she'd felt herself around since moving to the valley, and perhaps even long before that. She was polite with Gus, Marnie, Emily, and Robin, but Shane? He'd forced that politeness out of her.

It was exhilarating, having that freedom with a relative stranger.

The following Friday she went back to the saloon. She told herself it was because after a sixty hour week of farm labor she deserved a few drinks, but she knew, not too far down, that she wanted to see him again.

“Sophia!” Emily smiled. “What can I get your pretty face tonight?”

She’d walked in with the intention of ordering two beers. Strutting to his table and claiming the seat beside him before a word left either of their mouths. Saying, “Refuse my beer again and I’ll dump it on you.”

But: “Just a pint,” she chirped. “Anything dark.”

Bawk, bawk, you fucking chicken.

“You like a bit of heat?” asked Emily, either not seeing or choosing to ignore the way Sophia had winced at herself. “You could try our new lager with hints of chili pepper. Sounds weird, I know, but it’s actually quite lovely – nice smoky aftertaste, little bit of tingle.”

“I like heat,” said Sophia. “Sounds great.”

It didn’t take her long to find him: slumped at his usual table, his back to the bar, holding a beer with both hands and staring into it depths. He never brought anything to read or do, and she wondered what he could possibly spend so many hours thinking about. Didn’t he get bored?

A strange feeling entered her chest the longer she watched, noticing the way people avoided him. It wasn’t the fact they avoided him that made her feel strange – it was that they didn’t even make a conscious decision to. Like he was some spill on the floor to be stepped around so they didn’t get their shoes sticky. Like they didn’t even see him.

Turn around, she willed him. Turn around and see that I’m here.

“Here you go,” said Emily, returning with the lager. “Let me know how you like it.”

Despite the full house the barmaid didn’t look particularly busy – it was late and most of the crowd was already settled in, so Sophia said, “Hey, Em?”

“Yeah?”

“Just – maybe this is none of my business, but I was curious – does Shane ever sit with anyone?”

“He sat with you, last week.” She smiled when Sophia turned pink. “Yeah, I saw that.” Then her smile turned sad. “But other than that? No.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

“Is it because he tells people to get lost?”

“I see you’ve had the patented welcome treatment.”

“Possibly.”

Emily looked thoughtful. “You know, I’d sit with him if I weren’t on the clock. He’s always been okay to Gus and I – probably just used to us, since he’s here so often.” A pause. “Do you believe in energy, Sophia? Auras?”

Energy and auras? That was her sister’s domain, not hers. Amy was always reading vibrations and waves, assigning colors to people – Sophia, she said, had a compassionate aura. One the color of turquoise, except for when she was deeply happy and it turned pink. While Sophia believed in reading the moods of people, or the atmosphere of the room, she’d never thought much of assigning them shades of the rainbow.

“Depends,” she said. “What color do you think my aura is?”

Emily spent a considerable length of time gazing at Sophia from head to toe, then closed her eyes. “A lovely sky blue. No, actually... make that a very light teal.”

“Turquoise?”

“Yes, that’s it!”

Huh.

“Okay, today I believe in them,” said Sophia. “Why do you ask?”

“Because Shane’s aura is muddy, all different shades of brown and gray. Typically that indicates someone carrying a lot of negative energy. People say he’s mean and a jerk, but I’ve never really gotten that impression, not deep down. He has lots of negative energy, but I don’t think it’s mean energy. Does that make sense?”

“Strangely it does.”

“Personally, I think he’s lonely.”

Sophia remembered the words he’d hissed at her last time: I don’t come here for the company, okay?

“He’s in here a lot?”

Emily glanced around, but everyone nearby was absorbed by their own conversation. She lowered her voice. “Strictly speaking I shouldn’t be saying this, but it’s not exactly a secret… yeah. He’s in here a lot. Almost every night.” She looked at Sophia curiously. “May I ask why the interest?”

“No interest,” she said quickly. “Just making conversation.”

“Well in the interest of making conversation, did you know that people with turquoise auras are said to be natural healers?”

She looked into her glass, the implication not lost on her.

“This may not be my place to say so, but I did see you with him at the dance.”

“You did?” Marnie’s warning about village gossip flashed through her head.

“Yes. And frankly, this town is a pond and you two are both fish out of water. I’m just saying, I’ve heard worse ideas.”

Sophia bit her lip and stared at Shane, cursing him for always having his back turned.

“Tempted to try again?” Emily held up a second glass as if asking if she should fill it.

“No,” she lied, facing the bar again. What was that she'd been thinking at the house – that Shane had made it easy to lead?

“Hey Em!” came a shout. “Another round over here!” It was the owner of the bait and tackle shop, waving his hand around the cheerful group at his table.

“Coming up!” Emily called, then turned back to Sophia. “I’ve got to get back to work, but remember what I said." She made fish lips. “Doesn’t hurt to have a friend.”

Why did things have to change so quickly? Last week she’d marched over to him without any qualms, or at least none beside the expectation that she might be insulted. And that she could handle. But now their hands had been on one another and something had shifted. She supposed she should have seen it coming; her confidence always was a fickle thing, the boldness she felt one moment fleeing just as quickly the next.

But then, miraculously, the bell tinkled above the door and they turned at the same exact time, his eyes catching hers. For a moment they only stared, but then Sophia raised her hand a few inches off the table, giving him a slight wave.

He turned back around.

What the fuck?

She wondered if she’d even done it. Maybe, just maybe, she’d only imagined waving. If not, it'd be her own fault anyway, that stupid thing she said: If you want we can walk away after and pretend it never happened. He hadn’t argued at the time, and it appeared that’s exactly what he wanted to do – pretend it never happened. She’d ended the dance so awkwardly, too, saying thank you after the song was done, bumbling some excuse about needing to check on her dog. He’d shoved his hands in his pockets and nodded, and that was it. She’d left.

That wasn’t a bad idea now, in fact. The pub was crowded and she was suddenly grumpy; try as she might to carry on his legacy at the farm, she’d never be the loud, genial friend to half a village like Grandpa had been. When not playing that silly game of shower the villagers with gifts, this wasn’t her scene, not at all. Not even in Shane’s alone-in-a-crowd sense.

Sighing, she grabbed her bag and chugged her beer, not even noticing the tingly aftertaste.

 

Chapter Text

Work, saloon, trudge home, sleep. Lather, lather, rinse, repeat.

Fuck her. Fuck her for putting that one, stupid thought in his head.

We could still have something, right? Something that separates today from yesterday, or the day before that.

No. He didn’t know. Or at least he’d forgotten, until she reminded him it was possible to have different days, and now each one that wasn’t felt more miserable than the last. She served only to remind him that life was a broken record.

Fuck her.

After his JojaMart shift he picked up another fifth of whiskey; tonight he just wanted to get drunk. And not the ‘doze off at the table after six beers’ drunk, when Gus shook him awake at closing – the real drunk, the kind that felt like a punch to the head.

He started at the saloon as usual, nursing a few beers over the course of an hour. Once he had a decent buzz he’d leave for the solitude of the dock.

Shane was different than most of the other drinkers he'd known in his life. No matter how much he craved it, no matter how badly he needed it, he never got drunk as fast as humanly possible. It was so much more beautiful a feeling to ease into, to step one foot in quicksand and slowly be pulled under – not just trip and fall headfirst in a black hole. His dad was the black hole type, and Shane vowed never to be like him.

When he was a boy, barely older than Jas and watching his father stumble angrily around the furniture, cursing and tearing into cushions as he looked for the remote, he vowed never to be like him.

In seventh grade, trying that first sip of liquor from his dad’s stash and spitting the horrible, bitter liquid into the sink, he vowed never to be like him.

After being suspended in tenth grade when he came to class drunk and the teacher found the liquor bottle – after going home and leaving again with a black eye – he vowed never to be like him.

When he got sober at nineteen promising his best friend it was for good; when he drank again at twenty-six because he didn’t have a best friend anymore, he vowed to never be like him.

And now at twenty-nine years old, going straight from the saloon to the dock, where he planned to drink whiskey until his head was on fire and he could no longer stand, he discovered that the only reason he wasn’t like his father was because he never, ever jumped into that black hole.

He drifted gracefully down.

The nights were growing warmer. Shane left the saloon a little after ten o’clock, meeting a black, moonless sky and air that smelled of early summer. It was a fifteen minute walk to the lake, so he twisted the cap off his whiskey and drank as he went, feet carrying him down that familiar path while his thoughts were far away.

He was approaching his favorite stage of being drunk – the stage that made him drink in the first place. The one where everything in the world was perfectly aligned, if only for a moment. Because in that moment he was safe, and when it found him completely alone, it was the one place on earth he could break down.

So he walked to the forest, the lake, the dock. And he laid on his back and he cried.

His shoulders shook. The hair along his hairline became wet and matted. Tears rolled into his ears, muffling his hearing and causing the silent sobs to echo in his head. He sobbed until he couldn’t anymore, until his breaths came out in gasps and hiccups and the wetness on his cheeks grew cold from lack of fresh tears. And then, completely spent, he lay for a very long time just looking at the stars.

He was depressed. But even that word felt inadequate for the emptiness in him.

Sadness wasn’t the problem. In so many ways sadness was welcome because it was a feeling, not an emptiness, and crying as he’d just done now made him feel whole and alive in a way nothing else did. And it only lasted a few moments, and was only available in a bottle.

He sat up and rubbed his hands through his hair, all over his face, pulling on the skin below his eyes like a skeleton and then mashing it up again. Soggy and cold, he dug in his jacket lining and took out the fifth again, taking a long, hard pull.

You could never drink yourself back to that place. It happened like a firework; an explosion when everything aligned, and drinking more now would take him to a different place. But he had nowhere to be except drunk, and so he drank and waited to see where it’d land him.

Shane had been friendless as long as he could remember. That’s what happened when you grew up a white trash kid in a nice school. When you asked other kids, strangers, for food because no one remembered to pack you a lunch or give you money for it, and when you didn’t smell as fresh as the kids whose parents bothered to do laundry on a regular basis. When the stigma followed you to every new school, and you became known as the poor, weird, smelly kid before you even had a chance.

Until Garrett. He’d transferred to Shane’s school in tenth grade. They bonded over video games, shitty childhoods, shitty parents – Shane’s addicts, Garrett’s workaholics – and Garrett was the reason Shane stopped drinking before class, the reason he quit at nineteen and stayed sober for the next seven years.

He could never stand to think of Garrett for long.

Instead, Shane thought of one of the girls Garrett tried to set him up with – unsuccessfully, of course. He’d been twenty, a virgin, a recovering drunk with poor social skills. Though his friend denied it, it was clear to Shane that the girl found him repulsive from the start. She hated his drinking past and downer moods, and in the end she told Garrett she couldn’t do it – she found Shane unbearably depressing.

And he was; he was depressing to be around. So he focused instead on staying sober, working his dead end job, and learning to ignore the starving feeling in his heart because it was more painful to acknowledge it.

But then Garrett died, and Shane drank.

He started to go to the bar more evenings than not. At the bar he learned he’d outgrown his awkward stage; that there were women who liked his unshaven face and high tolerance for beer, who didn't mind that he was shorter than he wanted to be or that he’d never had a girlfriend at twenty-six years old. Women who wanted to sleep with him anyway.

His first time, she flirted for almost an hour. He bought her a drink; she stroked his arm hair and leaned in close. He ignored the guilt he felt for not even liking her, for only liking the attention. And then she whispered in his ear, giving it a little bite as she did, and he followed her to her car and fucked her on polyester seats under a flickering streetlamp.

He’d washed up in the men's room after, and when he returned to the bar she was gone. Until he saw her a different night, in a booth with a businessman, stroking his arm below its rolled up sleeve. He remembered what hurt the most was that he just didn’t care.

One girl brought him home with her. That one was okay, at first. She was pretty and funny, her home clean and comfortable, and she was really into Shane – for the full eight minutes before her boyfriend came home. He was unceremoniously screamed at to leave through the window, not even having the chance to come.

There was one girl; she’d been more special than the others. Rather than go home with her the first night, he got to know her over a span of several months. She showed up at the bar every weekend, same as Shane, chatting with him while picking up a round or waiting on friends. They had similar, self-deprecating senses of humor and riffed easily on one another’s speech. Sometimes she had extra time and they shared a drink.

After weeks of working up the courage, he brought flowers to the bar one night – crummy, convenience store flowers in a crinkly blue wrapper, but flowers nonetheless. She arrived after him, smiling and rushing up to the bar because her friends hadn’t arrived yet, and Shane had handed her the flowers, asking if she’d like to have dinner with him.

It was shit, he thought miserably, how he could lose entire weeks, entire months from memory, yet from nights like those he could never shake the stupid little details. The horrified look on her face. The idiotic way he clutched the flowers she never took. The frantic explanation that she’d never flirted or given him any indication she was interested, and the lack of sticky lip gloss on his cheek when she didn’t kiss him goodbye like all the other times.

Shane put his mouth to the bottle and drank. And drank.

He thought of Sophia. He thought of her blue dress, and the tiny crystal stud in her nose. Then he thought of his hands on her waist and felt sick. Like he’d defiled her with his touch; like she were some mansion of white carpet and furniture and he’d stomped all around it in muddy shoes. And with a sudden, violent jerk he grabbed his head to his knees.

“FUUUUUCK!”

And there he kept it, rubbing the hair on the back of his head roughly over and over, whispering, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” as his initial scream echoed in the darkness.

The lake was abnormally silent that night, and were he less distracted he’d have heard the snapping twigs and footfalls that signaled he wasn’t alone.

 

Chapter Text

Sitting in her living room with Amber late that night, scratching her furry ears and staring absently into space while low voices rumbled on TV, Sophia recalled how many nights she’d been in this exact situation – minus the dog – while living in her apartment in the city. When she’d eventually wander to the window that overlooked the pavement and parking garage, wishing she could run away to some beautiful place to gaze at the stars with a bottle of wine.

What was stopping her now? There were many such places in Stardew Valley; there were even wines aging in the cellar. With Amber passed out cold on the sofa, she got up and turned off the TV.

She didn’t have a plan leaving the house but her feet soon carried her in the direction of Cindersap forest and the lake. As a kid, she’d spent full days there with Grandpa and her sister, Amy: summer mornings learning how to fish, afternoons swimming near shore, evenings watching the first stars dot the cornflower blue sky. Even if he hadn't built it, she would've always thought of it as “Grandpa’s dock.”

Except perhaps it wasn’t; perhaps not anymore.

Closing in on the lake, unlabeled mystery wine in one hand and a blanket under the arm of the other, she halted at seeing the shadow there. Heart racing, she tried to make out if it belonged to him, and didn’t have to wait long for confirmation – the figure only moved to lift a bottle from time to time.

This is his dock, she marveled.

She was torn. On one hand this looked like another private moment, and she already felt guilty about all the previous ones. On the other hand, perhaps this was the time to do it – if he was always so closed off, joining him for a drink might be her only path in.

His shout pierced the air like a bullet while she was still attempting to make up her mind.

Heart pattering, blood running cold from the scare, she watched as he now cradled his head and rocked.

“Shane?” She walked closer, too worried to care if she was wanted there or not.

His head snapped up, startled, and he looked at her with damp, red eyes, his hair disheveled in every direction from the way he’d been holding his head. “You got a fucking GPS on me or something?” he muttered thickly, running his hand over his face.

“Starting to wonder that myself."

“Why're you here?”

Sophia, standing over him, held up her blanket and wine. “Same reason as you. Sort of.” She hesitated. “May I?”

He turned to face the water again, making a small, careless gesture with one hand as if to say, who am I to stop you?

Easing down next to him, she dangled her legs over the water and spread the blanket over them, offering half to Shane. He shook his head no. Having already loosened the cork at her house, she popped the wine open and again made an offering, but he dismissed it once more, this time by holding up a bottle of his own.

She raised an eyebrow. "Whiskey again?"

“What?”

“I don’t know, just pegged you more as a schnapps guy."

“Oh, fuck off.” He looked miserable, but not mad. Then he held out his bottle to her. “How about you? Still a whiskey drinker?”

She took it. "Guess I am tonight." Taking a sip, she managed to swallow without sputtering, then handed it back and wiped her mouth on her sleeve.

“Girl after my own heart, huh?” He tilted it back himself, drinking three times as much as Sophia and downing it as though it were water. He looked an utter mess, but when he spoke it was the most lucid she’d ever heard him. “Just don’t make a habit of it.”

“Could say the same to you.”

He squinted at her from the side. “Did you really work at Joja?”

“Corporate,” she admitted, straightening the blanket. “Different kind of shithole from yours. Shithole in a cubicle, but shithole nonetheless.”

“Figures. That makes more sense.”

“Why? I’m not above stocking shelves. In fact, I may have preferred it.”

“Okay, now I know you’re full of horseshit.”

“You have windows at your store?” she asked.

“Er, yeah.”

“My office didn’t. My whole floor didn’t.”

“You were underground?”

“Yep. Grey cinder blocks and fluorescent lighting as far as the eye could see. I sometimes took lunches in the smoking area just to see a different type of concrete. Come to think of it, that’s how I started smoking in the first place.”

He snorted.

“One day I saw this little dandelion, poking up through a crack like it was trying to escape, too. I know it sounds cliché, but I thought it was a sign, right?”

“Uh, right.”

“Walked out that afternoon.”

“Shit.” Shane kicked his foot in the water, wetting the toe of his shoe. “Wish I could.”

“You will.”

“Maybe when I’m dead.”

“You will. One day you’ll see a sign, maybe – I dunno, a bird’s nest in the rafters or something – and you’ll think, today’s the day.”

He actually laughed. “Yeah. Yeah, that’ll happen.” Then he offered the bottle a second time. Perhaps it was the girl after his own heart comment that she was after again; whatever it was, she took another drink.

“You’re different than I thought you’d be,” he said.

She swallowed, shuddering; it burned worse this time. “How’d you think I was going to be?”

“I dunno. Just… not like this. You’re not like all the other whack jobs in this town.”

“I guess us outsiders have to stick together then.” She kicked his foot with her own. “But for real? Those whack jobs aren’t so bad. Everyone I’ve met has been really nice.”

“That’s because you’re really nice back.”

“Yeah, well, people tend to like that shit. Should try it yourself sometime, might surprise you.”

“Didn’t expect the sailor mouth, either.”

“Ah, that.” While not fully buzzed yet, the whiskey and wine were starting to go to her head and she was feeling loose lipped. “Want to know why?”

“You have a reason?”

“I have a reason. And his name rhymes with ick.” Shane looked confused and she added, “My ex, he didn’t let me.”

“He didn’t let you?”

“Don’t you know? Girls shouldn’t cuss out of their pretty little mouths.” She smiled a saccharine smile, then her face fell flat. “He was a bit of a dick bag. A dick bag with massive control issues. And I’m not one of those people who trashes my exes for fun, by the way – his issues were basically textbook. So now when I swear it’s a little fuck you to him as well. Fuck you, Rick.”

“Fuck Rick,” agreed Shane, passing her the bottle again in solidarity. She smiled at him.

“May I ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“How old are you?”

A brief pause. “Twenty-nine. Why?”

Twenty-nine. Honestly, she would have thought younger, twenty-six or twenty-seven, except that for looking at his eyes – eyes that were tired, and not for the night, but tired of life’s bullshit, tired of life itself – she couldn’t help feeling they were both wrong. The gaze staring back was at least forty.

“Just wondering.”

“Look,” he said, and she was struck again by how lucid he sounded. “I appreciate what you’re doing here, and I’m sorry I’ve been a dick to you. Really. But you can stop trying now.”

“What do you mean, trying?”

He sighed, scratching his hand through his hair. “You know what I mean. Trying to be nice or be my friend or whatever the hell it is you’re doing. You’re better off not dealing with me.”

“You don’t know that."

“And you don’t know me.”

“Well, maybe I want to.”

“No you don’t. I’m a shit person with a shit future. You’re young. You don’t want to end up like me in five years.”

Sophia spun the wine bottle in her hands, running her fingers across the smooth glass. “I’m not that young,” she said quietly, then turned to him. “And you’re not a shit person.”

Shane stared at her, incredulous. “You think because we danced together that one time that you know me? You don’t fucking know me.

“Fine. I don’t fucking know you. But I’m allowed an opinion, so don’t bite my head off. I don’t think you’re a shit person. I think you just act shitty. And yes, there’s a difference,” she said, when he opened his mouth to argue.

They sat in silence, neither knowing what to say in light of the new tension. Sophia drank more of her wine, while Shane took out his pocketknife, flipping it open and close as he brooded. After a few minutes he spread his hand on the dock and began to stab the knife in the spaces between his fingers, slowly at first and then picking up speed – some stupid parlor trick Sophia remembered boys in high school doing.

While it’d always made her nervous, even in the past, seeing it now made her panic. She cried out and grabbed his wrist mid-stab.

“What are you doing?” he hissed. “I could’ve hurt you.”

“Stopping you!” She yanked the knife out of his hand. “What are you doing? Trying to kill yourself?”

He laughed; a cold, unhappy laugh. “Maybe I am, but sure as hell not with that thing. Relax.”

Lifting the whiskey again, he chugged. When she first arrived he’d had the better part of a fifth left – she now watched in horror as he drained it, inch by inch, to the bottom.

Still holding the knife, she stood, snapping it close and throwing it at him.

“You’re an ass,” she spat, snatching up her blanket and wine and storming down the dock.

Fuck, she was furious. She was hurt. And yet – she couldn’t leave him, not like that, not alone, when he’d just drank enough to put someone like Sophia in the hospital. While certain his tolerance was far higher than her own, she couldn’t chance it. Still shaking in anger, she plopped down beneath a tree not far off shore and bundled the blanket around her legs, leaning her head back and looking up at the black canopy of leaves.

Maybe she’d overreacted. It’s not like he knew.

Shane stayed on the dock until well after midnight, swaying more and more as the time went on, once or twice losing balance on the arm he leaned against. When he finally stood the empty bottle fell off his lap and rolled across the dock with a clatter, and Sophia nearly cried out as he bent to pick it up – he lost balance again and for a split second she thought he might topple into the water.

He saved himself by grabbing one of the dock's posts. When he finally stumbled to shore, there was a moment where he paused and looked almost steady. Then he bent in half and retched all over the ground.

Sophia had never seen such a mess of a human. She watched as he sank to his knees and threw up twice more, then struggled to stand upright again. When he finally did, he reminded her of someone riding a bike and unable to keep their balance for moving too slowly. The ranch was at least a ten or fifteen minute walk from the lake; he'd never make it at this rate, not without falling, and probably not without passing out.

Abandoning her belongings on the ground she walked over, and forcing his arm around her like a crutch said, "Come on. Let’s get you home.”

 

Chapter Text

It was a rough morning.

Upon waking Shane felt a lurch in his stomach and raced out of the room. Bolting up so quickly had the unfortunate effect of making his head swim and his vision go black – he lost balance and banged into the doorframe of the bathroom, smacking his elbow. Too focused on the churning in his stomach to even curse at the pain, he fell over the toilet and retched.

Marnie was in his room when he dragged his feet back, leaning against the dresser with her arms crossed and a non-committal expression on her usually pleasant face. She didn't speak. There was now a pitcher of water on his nightstand, along with an already full glass and two aspirin; Shane took the pills and laid back in bed, lifting his arms above his head and covering his face with them.

He felt like complete shit.

What had happened last night? Other than crying, of course – his swollen lids and dry, aching eyeballs gave that away. But even without knowing the rest he regretted it; regretted doing whatever it was in that blank, forgotten space of time that had caused his aunt to discover the state he was in.

He hadn’t been able to read Marnie’s face when he walked in, and now when she spoke he couldn’t read anything in her voice either. Her words were measured, careful.

“Do you know how you came home last night?”

He didn’t answer.

“A knock at the door, Shane, at almost one in the morning.”

A knock? He never knocked. Even when completely wasted he always used his keys.

“Sophia brought you. You couldn’t even stand on your own.”

Well, fuck.

It started trickling back in agonizing drops: the blubbering mess she found him in at the dock, the talking, the argument, the pocketknife, the whiskey. Pissing her the fuck off and watching her storm away.

Except she hadn’t left. There was a hole in his memory where he’d done god knows what, and she’d been there for all of it – dragged his ass back to the ranch and delivered him as a drunken package to his aunt at the end. She’d been so poised too, as if took no effort to look fresh and clean and sorrow-free, standing in her cream-colored sweater, holding a bottle of wine instead of a fifth of hard liquor. Sitting beside Shane, who looked like he’d rolled headfirst down a hill.

He'd had plenty of shameful moments while drunk. Completely trashed in the middle of the night, he'd pissed on the carpet of a girl's closet thinking it was the bathroom. There was the time he accidentally wandered into the ladies room, full of women from a bachorlette party who thought he’d done it on purpose. On one occasion he blacked out and woke in the hospital with a concussion, and after Garrett died he openly wept in front of an entire bar.

The humiliation now was worse than all of those moments combined.

“Shane,” said Marnie, and now he could hear the strain in her words. “This – this can’t happen. I’m so worried about you, I don't even know what to think. It’s not a joke, it’s not a game... you’re drinking more all the time. More than when you moved in, more than even a month or two ago. I can’t go to bed each night afraid that you won’t come home.” She choked, her voice cracking. “Don’t make me afraid that you won’t come home.”

Not only was his head pounding, the pounding had an echo. Her words were a blunt object beating across his brow.

“What’s your plan?” she whispered. “What is your future going to be? Is it just going to be like my brother’s, a life of nothing but drunkenness? Are you already giving up?”

He pressed his fingers hard into his eyes, his throat dry when he spoke. “Who gives a shit? If I’m lucky I’ll just fucking die in my sleep.”

Before Marnie could say anything there came a sob – Jas, standing in the doorway and listening to the whole conversation. At Shane’s word’s she burst into tears and ran down the hall.

“Jas...” He sighed, sitting up too quickly and feeling the room spin again. “Jas, I didn’t mean it! he called after her hoarsely.

Marnie couldn’t even look at him. “Yes, you did,” she said in a trembling voice, then turned off the light and followed his goddaughter.

 


 

Shane sat in the chicken coop the next morning, Charlie on his lap. He had a few minutes to spare before work and didn’t want to stay in the house any longer than necessary.

Charlie hatched a few weeks after Shane moved into the ranch and he'd grown unexpectedly attached to the little bird. While all the animals approached him for food, Charlie was the only one to walk right into his lap expecting scratches. He’d never known chickens could be cuddly; the white feathered creature purred almost like a cat as Shane massaged his neck.

He supposed Charlie was simply used to his touch. Shane held him for at least a few minutes every day, and petting him now he wondered why people couldn’t be as easy. He’d worried Marnie, terrified Jas, and – if she hadn’t already figured it out – shown Sophia what a complete and total loser he was. The only three people in the world who gave a shit about him and he’d isolated them all in a single night.

While he’d never been the most approachable guy, he’d also never been as nasty to people as he had since moving to the valley – quiet and guarded yes, but not nasty. For most of his life he’d been too timid to even tell people no. His childhood bullies used him like a welcome mat. Those past girls from the bar? He never told them to fuck off like he’d done to Sophia. Even the first girl, the one who took his virginity in that dirty, musty car – he hadn’t even wanted to sleep with her, but she showed him attention and it felt like he owed her.

The attention was better than the sex. It felt so good to be noticed.

Sophia noticed him. For whatever godforsaken reason she even sought him out, and two or three years ago he’d have been putty in her hands. Would’ve shown up at her house with flowers in a crinkly wrapper. Would’ve climbed out a second-story window when her boyfriend came home, and apologized to her for it.

He longed for the city again, for a place he was surrounded by strangers who were surrounded by strangers themselves – that harmony of being alone in a crowd, together. Lonesomeness was different in the valley. Here he was a stranger among friends, which had the strange effect of making him stand out like a neon sign while simultaneously fading him into the wallpaper. He didn’t belong with any of them; he didn’t belong anywhere.

In the city that was never a problem. The city didn’t care who you were or what you did, and it certainly didn’t care if you fucking belonged. It just left you alone. The valley, though – the valley either forced you to belong, or to painfully acknowledge that you never would. Small towns didn’t know how to leave a person alone and he’d tried so hard to block the whole thing out. He’d been good at it too, until Sophia. He hadn’t counted on anyone as stubborn as her.

Or as intriguing.

Shane wanted to know Sophia. He really, really wanted to know Sophia. He just didn’t want her to know him back.

That stupid game with his pocketknife, he should’ve known it might make her nervous. But it hadn’t occurred to him at the time that it would, it was just muscle memory, something he did mindlessly to occupy his hands – it’s not like he was slitting his wrists in front of her. Maybe it was the joke about killing himself; maybe she didn’t like gallows humor. But did it really matter? Even if she overreacted, he more than deserved it – more than made up for it with his own humiliating show. He wished he knew what happened during the second half of the night.

Then again, maybe he didn’t. He gave Charlie a final pat and got up for work with a sigh.

“You’re late,” tutted Morris, his supervisor, peering over rectangular glasses as Shane entered the supermarket.

“I know.”

“That’s four. One more and you start losing days, Shane.”

“I know.”

Morris’s watery eyes followed him to the time clock. “So long as you do,” he threatened, going back to his work.

Punching his employee number into the pad Shane thought about how sick of it he was – all of it. Sick of sloppy nights and hangovers. Of working this stupid job and living paycheck to paycheck because he blew all his money at the saloon. Sick of being a lousy nephew to Marnie and a worthless guardian to Jas – of keeping her at a distance for his own selfish reasons. Of pushing away the only person who wanted to be his friend since Garrett died. Of waking up every day hating himself.

Because he always had. He didn’t know how not to.

 

Chapter Text

It was a few weeks later when Sophia ran into Marnie at Pierre’s.

“Sophia!” the rancher called, beckoning her over.

She was at the cash register, Pierre signing an invoice for a large box of parsnips. They’d grown in plump, crisp, and beautiful, and while she wasn’t hurting for money at the moment – Grandpa had left a sizable sum on which to rebuild things – she’d never felt prouder than she did when yanking them from the ground and shaking the dirt off. The $34.00 Pierre handed her for those parsnips was more gratifying than five years of JojaMart cheques.

“Hey.” She folded the signed paper and slipped it in her pocket. “How’s the ranch?”

“Good,” said Marnie. “Lonely. When will you be able to come down for the grand tour?”

“Not sure – I’ve been so busy.” She nodded toward the box of vegetables still on the counter. “It’s paying off, but I underestimated how time-consuming this life can be.”

“Well, what are you up to this afternoon?” 

She ran her fingers through her hair, thoughtful. “Trying to clear out some fallen trees by my pond. It’s a maze trying to get the water running from it.”

“You know, you should ask Shane to help you clear it out. He’s a big help to me on the ranch.” Marnie frowned. “Honestly, I’m not sure how long I could keep it going on my own. I’m getting too old to move those hay bales, nearly threw my back out last year.”

Sophia found it strange of her to mention Shane so casually – as if their last interaction hadn’t involved knocking on her door in the middle of the night, passing his barely conscious form between them.

“Oh, I – I couldn’t ask him to do that.”

“Just a thought then. But truly, if you’ve got a couple of hours free I’d love to show you the animals. What about tomorrow? Surely you can take a small break on a Sunday?”

Sophia considered. She was pretty sure Shane had weekends off, meaning there was a good chance he’d be hanging around the ranch – she hadn’t seen him since that awful night either.

He was avoiding her. She made early morning trips to Pierre’s that weren’t strictly necessary, hoping to pass him on his way to work, but either he was leaving the house at a different time or had changed his route entirely. Dropping in on JojaMart crossed her mind, but it seemed unfair to corner him at work. She couldn’t do it at the saloon either – even with the slight chance he’d talk to her, he’d never do it with an audience.

And yes, he’d been inconsiderate that night – even an ass like she'd said – but he hadn’t asked her to come. He’d gone there for privacy and it was obvious he’d been crying before she arrived. She'd crashed in uninvited, possibly unwanted, and made him talk during a vulnerable time; maybe she was an inconsiderate ass too, and maybe he drank more than he would’ve if she’d left him alone.

When Sophia thought of the ranch she couldn’t stop picturing the way he tickled Jas in the kitchen, unaware of her presence. How normal, even handsome he’d looked, even if his smile didn’t quite meet his eyes – how different he looked from the man at the dock.

“I’ll drop by tomorrow afternoon.”

Shane could keep avoiding her if he wanted. She refused to avoid him.

“Wonderful,” said Marnie. “I’ll see you then.”

 


 

Sophia wore her blue dress again. Perhaps it was silly, but maybe he’d remember dancing with her in that dress – maybe it would make him more receptive.

The morning crawled. She watered plants. She fed the dog, fetched the mail, and prepared a much bigger breakfast than usual. She took a long steamy shower and spent far too long fussing in front of the mirror, thinking how funny it was that things that felt perfectly adequate when you didn’t care felt entirely unacceptable once you did – determined though she was to wear the blue dress, perfect as it’d been on the day of the dance, today it was horribly wrong. She yanked and tugged at the fabric, making faces at her reflection.

This was ridiculous; the last time she saw Shane, he’d been vomiting on the grass. Her outfit was fine. 

With a loud noise of frustration she marched out of the room.

She should know better. She’d gone through her bad boy phase already, reckless in her choice of boyfriend, allowing her last relationship to carry on for three years when it should’ve ended after one. You couldn’t change people; she knew that deep down. Knew how important it was to pay attention to red flags from the start. And on paper Shane didn’t show red flags, he was a red flag. Big and bold and flying in the wind.

But she also knew herself. With that miserable relationship finally behind her she was learning to rebuild who she was, and part of rebuilding was learning to trust her intuition again – to ignore what the paper said and heed her gut. And when it came to Shane her gut wasn’t afraid.

Well, it was afraid. But not for her.

When she knocked on Marnie’s door, her butterflies flitted so violently she began to hope he wouldn’t be there.  

“It’s open!” yelled a voice, and Sophia let herself in.

“Sorry about that,” Marnie huffed as she dropped a large box of papers on the kitchen table. “Didn’t I tell you I’m not fit for this anymore? Forget the ranch – taxes.” She indicated the box. “Winded just from thinking about ‘em. How are you?”

Marnie had a way of addressing several subjects in a single breath that left Sophia feeling dizzy. She could only laugh and say, “I’m good, I’m good.”

“Ignore this stuff, I wasn’t sure when you’d be over.” She led Sophia to the door. “I can’t wait for you to meet everybody. A little time with my babies today, you’ll be sprinting up to Robin’s tomorrow asking her to fix up that old coop.”

“If I had twice the hours in a day, it’d already be up.”

“Ah, I knew you were an animal lover – sensed it in you.”

Sophia gave a quick, final glance around the kitchen before they left, but there was no sign of Shane and the house was dead quiet. Maybe it was for the best.

They wandered the property soaking in the early summer air and chatting amiably about Sophia’s plans for the coop and barn, even a rabbit hutch she wanted built near the house. Marnie had dozens of animals: goats, pigs, and cows, barn cats lazing about, a lone bull fenced in at the edge of the property, even horses in a stable that was hidden from the front of the house.

Sophia liked all the animals, but she truly fell in love in that stable. One horse in particular caught her eye – its sleek chestnut coat, the huge, graceful head that shook and flared its nostrils. Though she’d never ridden a horse in her life, an image flashed in her mind of riding that particular one across the farm, perhaps during a sunrise or sunset, the tiny green tendrils of her new summer crops in the backdrop.

“I told you,” came a whisper, and she was shook from her reverie by Marnie leaning in and smiling. The older woman gave the horse a loving rub on its nose and brought her own nose in to touch it.

“Male or female?”

“A mare – Annabel’s her name. Most docile creature on the planet, this one. You won’t find a better trained horse.”

“Annabel,” she whispered. “You’re stunning.”

And she was. It occurred to Sophia that not only had she never ridden a horse before, she’d never even stood beside one. She’d seen them at a distance, trotting in their ring at the county fair, but it was no comparison to being in Annabel’s presence, close enough to smell her and become lost in her wise, gentle eyes. Once the horse was used to Sophia she rubbed her on the nose the way Marnie had, then ran her fingers through the dark mane.

“I've heard of crazy horse girls before,” she said, now nuzzling with Annabel’s entire head, the horse looking patiently on, “but I never understood it. Not until now.”

“It only takes one,” agreed Marnie, and after Sophia stood with her for a while longer said, “Not to rush, but shall we?”

Sophia blushed, and when they exited the stable the sun was low the sky. How long had she been daydreaming? It was practically supper time.

“All that’s left now is the chicken coop,” said Marnie, leading her through tall grass back toward the house. “You wouldn’t think it, but Shane spends an awful lot of time out there.”

“He does?”

Shane was full of surprises.

“I’ve hardly had to lift a finger since he moved. He’ll never admit it, but I think he’s grown rather attached to them.”

“Oh. Um, is he here now?” She tried desperately to sound casual. Marnie still hadn’t mentioned the night she brought him home, and Sophia didn’t want to be the one to bring it up.

“I’m afraid not. He went up to the spa today. Have you been there yet?”

Sophia shook her head.

“It’s this big old bathhouse north of town, if you take the road behind Robin’s house. Very pretty area. Rather unusual for him to go, actually.”

She wanted very much to know if Marnie had told Shane she was stopping by.

“And Jas – is she around?” she asked, thinking it might sound less pointed if she asked about both of them.

“Not today. She’s spending the afternoon at her friend Vincent’s house.”

Marnie opened the door to the coop. The smell of hay, feathers, and feed corn overwhelmed Sophia as she entered, bringing with it a powerful nostalgia for when she was eight years old and Grandpa Emmet kept chickens himself, letting her and Amy gather the eggs each morning.

“It must be nice having your family move in,” she said, bending to pet a curious hen. “You have such a big house, it was probably pretty lonely before they arrived.”

“It is nice. Jas isn’t actually family, you know, though I’m starting to forget that myself. She calls me Aunt Marnie now – I can’t say I hate it.”

“I’m sorry,” said Sophia quickly. “I just assumed Shane being your nephew, that Jas...”

Marnie shook her head. “Shane’s not even her real uncle, not by blood. He was her parent’s best friend. They named him godfather, and legal guardian in their will.” A small white chicken waddled close to her feet and she scooped it in her arms, scratching under its wing. “They died a few years back.”

“I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

Marnie smiled sadly. “She’s strong, and a couple of years can seem a lifetime to a child. The way she talks about them, almost like they were childhood friends who moved away...” She shook her head. “Shane though, that destroyed him. Lost his best friends in one night, and then Jas – he wasn’t ready to be a father to that little girl.”

How surreal, to be peeling back these layers of his life without him present. She'd wrongly assumed Jas to be a niece, a younger cousin - anything but a child he'd inherited. She felt very solemn, and when Marnie spoke again it was in a powerless voice. 

“He drinks too much.”

Sophia stared at the hay-covered ground, scuffing it with her toe. “I know,” she whispered.

“Do you?” There was a peculiar look on Marnie’s face as she leaned over, searching Sophia’s expression. It wasn’t a question; more like a confirmation – like she was trying to make sure Sophia understood exactly what that meant.

She nodded.

The chicken in Marnie’s arms began to wiggle and she released it. “You’ll have to pardon me, talking like this.” She dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a floral-print sleeve. “I don’t have the chance to share these things often. They just weigh on you after awhile, don’t they? And then the right person comes along and you can’t help but pour it all out. There’s just something about you, Sophia, that puts me at ease – your grandfather was the same way.” She looked around the coop, blinking hard a few times to regain composure. “I suppose it’s time we head back. Jas’ll be home soon and I should start supper. You’re welcome to stay, of course. It’ll probably just be the two of us.”

“Thank you,” said Sophia. “But I should really head back for today. Another time?”

“Of course, another time then.”

She did go home, but only for a moment – only long enough to pull the rusty bike from Grandpa’s tool shed and check that the chains wouldn’t snap. The walk to the bathhouse would take at least an hour, but with a bike she could make it in a quarter that.

 

Chapter Text

It was kind of beautiful in the heated pool.

Looking at the austere tiles, the tall ceiling, perhaps that was an odd thing to call such a sterile room. But it was the warmth and emptiness of it. The white noise of a whirring fan, and the gentle sounds of water around his body, the kind he’d hear while taking a bath. For the first time Shane was grateful for the small population of the valley; he had the whole spa to himself.

It was tempting to bring a six-pack along. Cracking open a cold beer in a hot shower was one of the few things in life that never lost its magic. But between the booze and the steam he’d probably pass out, and he had a brief vision of Lewis finding his drowned, bloated body in the pool when coming to lock up for the night. It seemed a small part of him wanted to live after all, or at least to go without Lewis of all people finding his corpse. And having sat in the water an hour already – several times nodding and jumping awake when his chin hit the surface – he was starting to think he’d made the right decision.  

Ever since the fiasco at the dock he’d been avoiding Sophia. He even changed routes to and from work so they wouldn’t accidentally bump into each other, and when his aunt mentioned that she was stopping to see the ranch that afternoon Shane’s brain went into overdrive finding an excuse to leave.

Maybe he should be grateful. This was his first time in the bathhouse and he had to admit he liked it. The heavy air slowed his racing thoughts and the sleepiness almost felt like a buzz, an imitation drunkenness. He might even consider coming more often – if only this kind of privacy was guaranteed every time. It was tough enough to deal with the world when he was wearing a shirt; he didn’t want to run into anyone without one.

Then, as if to answer the opposite of his prayers, the door to the pool room creaked open.

No. It can’t be her.

Maybe he was seeing things. The heat, the steam, the sleepiness; it was possible.

He ducked under the water, smoothing his hair and rubbing his eyes, and when he emerged she was still standing there surrounded by the tiles: Sophia, in the same blue dress as the dance. Fluorescent bulbs mingled with the late afternoon sun streaming through the high windows above, and she turned her attention to the light, looking thoughtful.  

Shane became suddenly conscious of his body. He was out of shape, soft in the chest, with a belly that betrayed his habits at the bar and was covered in too much dark hair. He sank lower and lower until only his head remained above water, but even then felt exposed.

But Sophia wasn’t paying attention to him. She’d turned away from the light, stepping out of her shoes and walking toward the pool. Once at the edge she sat down and lowered herself in, still in her dress.

Hallucinating. He had to be hallucinating.

She neither sought nor avoided his gaze: Shane was just part of the backdrop. First she walked up to her waist, the skirt of her dress billowing in a circle around her. Then she slid down to her elbows, her chest, her neck, and for a moment she tread water before pushing off – shooting backward as gracefully as an octopus in open ocean. Her body slowed, then rose to the surface where she floated on her back. Steam rose in clouds from her skin. She closed her eyes, and she drifted.

With a rapidly gaining pulse, Shane thought it was the most sensual thing he’d ever seen.

Shane sat and Sophia floated, her fingers occasionally drawing in the water at her sides, spinning herself in languid circles. He stared at the clock behind its metal cage on the far wall. If he didn’t, he’d end up staring at her the whole time.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

The second hand moved like a metronome, a maddening millisecond behind its tick, and Shane focused on the delayed movement and distant sound as it circled. Once. Twice. Five times. Ten. He’d been in the steam far too long and was feeling woozy but there was no way he’d stand up before she did.

What do I say? What can a person even say to this?

The dance in the woods, the shared whiskey at the dock, and now this – this bizarre, sensual show – what was she doing? Was she messing with him? He knew that women often did the strangest things, like kiss you on the cheek or buy you a drink without it ever meaning more than a kiss and a drink. But what could all this possibly mean, other than to make him want her?

Because if that was her intention it was working.

Just when Shane thought he couldn’t feel any more lightheaded, her figure gently sunk below the surface of the water. She pushed forward, rising to her neck, her shoulders, her waist; it was as if someone rewound the scene of her entering the pool. With fluid movements she waded back to the stairs, pushing handfuls of water behind her, and then rose up the steps with her wet blue dress clinging to every slope.

Oh shit.

How long had it been since this happened? He remembered what it felt like, of course he remembered. But he didn’t remember it feeling like this. The nausea in his stomach that was strangely exhilarating. The awareness of even the most infinitesimal movements inside him, so that the trickle of blood through his veins felt like a babbling brook. Shane couldn’t recall a time he’d been so alive in his own body: suddenly he was alert to everything.

Then she slipped her shoes on, and without looking at him even once she was gone.

He scurried out of the pool. Heart pounding, he sat on the edge for a moment to give her a head start, then dried off and threw on his clothes. As he ran out the door he noticed the sign on it: Changing Room, over a little male figure. She’d gone through the men’s room – hadn’t even hesitated.

He stepped into the early evening air just in time to see her disappear down the lane on her bike, tangerine sunlight on her still dripping hair.

 


 

Shane lay in bed looking into the darkness. It was late. He'd gone to the saloon that evening, but having nursed only a few beers he wasn't drunk – just open enough to think, to attempt to untangle himself. 

Was it her though? Or only the idea of her?

He wasn’t sure he knew the difference yet, but at the moment he didn't care. He thought he felt happy. Or at least some distant cousin of happiness, something that shimmered like it from afar.

Hope?

He was hard but rolled on his back and simply held it in his hand, staring at the ceiling.

He remembered the warmth of her waist when they danced. The way she’d kicked his foot at the dock, the weight of it striking his body. And when he closed his eyes, he couldn’t picture anything but her figure rising from the pool in that pale blue dress. He stroked himself; it felt better than he thought it would and he quickly rubbed again. And he was right – it hadn’t felt like this before, not even close. He could still picture the way the soaked creases of the fabric stuck to her body. He bit his lip, stroking harder. Fuck. The water that dripped from her skirt and rained down the back of her legs; he stroked faster, and shit – shit, it was good, it was too good –

But then he saw her smile: that crooked, adorable smile, when she tilted her head and lifted one corner of her mouth. He sighed and dropped himself, staring again at the ceiling.

Shane didn’t want to fuck Sophia on polyester seats under a streetlamp. He wished she'd get out of his head completely, because right now all he could think about was how she’d feel if she knew. Repulsed? Violated? Somehow flattered didn’t seem like an option.

Trying to ignore the emptiness now in his chest, he rolled over and yanked the pillow on top of his head.

 

Chapter Text

What had that been about?

Sophia couldn’t recall what her intentions had been on the ride to the bathhouse. A hundred conversations played out in her mind, a dozen different ways to start them, but then she’d walked in, done some weird-as-shit silent swim routine and left. She’d expected a “What are you doing here?” or “Why did you follow me?” but Shane hadn’t played by the script in her head and she wasn’t prepared to improvise.

Not that it’d been so bad. It was thrilling lying in that steamy water and knowing his eyes were on her, even if he did pretend to stare at the clock the whole time. He’d been nervous and she liked that – she really, really liked that. 

A few days later she stopped at Pierre’s close to suppertime. It was her fourth trip that day: though officially summer now, she’d dug up her final harvest of spring crops that morning and was seeing how many he could take off her hands. In the future she’d need to get a truck, but ever since meeting Annabel her less practical side was hesitant to spend that money on anything that wasn’t a horse. For the time being she would deal with the ten minute walks there and back, dragging the wagon with her produce behind her.

Pierre mulled over her cauliflowers, pulling back the leaves and inspecting their quality, and Sophia’s gaze wandered to the large front windows. Across the street was Shane in his JojaMart jacket, blue JojaMart hat crumpled in its pocket, walking with his head down. His shift must’ve just gotten over. She hadn’t timed her trip to see him, but now that she had, an urge to talk to him overwhelmed her.

“Are you almost done, Pierre?” she asked eagerly.

“What? Oh, yes, yes, just a moment and I’ll have these weighed.”

He moved at a glacial pace. Before even starting up the scale he stopped to breathe on each lens of his wire-rimmed glasses, wiping them clean on his sleeve and then peering through at a distance before returning them to his face. Sophia wanted to throttle him.

"You know what? I’ll just leave them here for now. You can pay me next time.”

He lifted his eyebrows, suspicious, but she was already halfway out the door. She sprinted to the other side of the street and was only a few yards away, about to call his name, when Shane – still looking at the ground – bumped directly into someone else.

It was Alex, the town super jock, loitering on the sidewalk near Pierre’s. He'd been talking to a well-dressed girl named Haley, whom Sophia had met a few times and assumed was his girlfriend.

“Hey!” shouted Alex.

She heard a mumbled “Sorry;” one that didn’t sound very sorry at all.

“Maybe just watch where you’re going sometime?”

“Watch yourself man.” Looking irritated, Shane jammed his hands deeper in his pockets and slouched away.

Haley stared at his back and shuddered. “What a loser.”

Sophia was just about to chase after him when Haley turned and noticed her, and without a moment’s hesitation called “Hey, farm girl!” and motioned her over. Sophia reluctantly closed the distance between them, glancing anxiously at Shane’s back and wondering if he’d heard the hurtful words.

“So I have to ask,” began Haley, not bothering to keep her voice down, “did you really dance with him,” – her eyes darted in Shane’s direction – “at the flower dance? I know this is super nosy of me, but my sister said she saw you guys together and I’ve been dying to know if it’s true.”

Sophia grew warm, feeling defensive. “Yes.”

“No!” Haley looked as if she’d just admitted to sleeping with the mayor, and even Alex lifted his eyebrows in surprise. “Look, it’s probably not my business, but you are new in town after all, and you might not know – that guy is a total drunk. He spends every night in the bar, and he’s been a jerk to people ever since he moved here. We only put up with him because his aunt is such a sweetheart, but really, he’s just bad news.”

“You’re right,” said Sophia cautiously. “It’s probably not your business.”

“But you’re so nice,” she went on, in a way that seemed desperate to prove she, Haley, was the good guy and doing Sophia a big favor. “I know you probably don’t know many people yet, but you could easily take your pick – there’s a lot of decent guys around here. You don’t have to go for someone like that.”

Sophia bristled. “His name is Shane, and I need to go now. Have a nice night.”

She walked away, fuming as soon as her back was turned. Who did Haley think she was? And who talked about someone like that when they were still within earshot? He was further up the road now but there was no way he hadn’t heard some of the stuff at the beginning; Sophia picked up her pace.

“Hey,” she called, jogging behind him. “Shane!”

He ignored her.

“Shane!” she called again, short on breath. “Hey, stop!”

He didn’t look at her and didn’t stop. “What do you want?”

Good question. Sophia fell into step at his side, forced to power walk to keep up. What did she want? A lot of things, it seemed. To apologize for that night a few weeks ago. To tell him Haley’s a bitch and to ignore her. To force him to acknowledge her after all the avoidance. Maybe even just to hear his voice.

She decided to start with the apology. “I’m sorry. That night at the lake, I’m sorry for what I said – for storming off like that. You obviously had something else going on, and I overreacted and I’m sorry.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he muttered, still walking fast.

“It does.” An idea began to form in her mind. “And there’s something I wanted to ask you. A peace offering of sorts. So we can try again, maybe not get mad at each other this time.”

“Not sick of trying?”

“No.” She waited, but he didn’t respond so she pushed forward. “I – I was hoping you could help me. My workload on the farm, it’s really piling up. At the rate I’m going I’ll never get my sprinkler system running, or the coop up by next spring – it’s just way too much for one person.” She glanced over as they walked but he was still looking at the ground, expressionless. “Would you want to come by sometime? Maybe on the weekend? I’d pay you for your time of course, you’d be doing me a huge favor."

A grunt. “Marnie put you up to it, did she?”

“No. I just need help.” It wasn’t really a lie. Marnie might have made the suggestion but it was only after she, Sophia, had stressed how much there was to do.

He finally stopped walking. “What is it you want from me?”

“Well, there’s lots of wood and grass that needs cutting. Trenches to dig for the sprinklers, and I have to clear out the sheds of broken equipment—”

“No, I mean, what do you want from me?”

This surprised Sophia: it sounded like an accusation. “What do you mean? Obviously I could put up a notice at Pierre’s or something, but I thought I’d be nice and ask you first."

“Well don’t, okay? I don’t need your pity.”

“It’s not pity, asshole," she said, getting annoyed.  

“Why then? What’s in it for you?”

Now she was beyond annoyed – she was infuriated. “What do you mean, what’s in it for me? What is with this hostility? You can’t just – no, you know what, never mind. Just forget it. Just fucking forget it.”

Shane looked at the ground, rubbing his hand across his face. It looked like he was working up to say something more, but when several moments passed and he didn’t Sophia gave up; it was hopeless. She turned away.

Then, red and almost shaking with anger, she did a sudden about-face.

“I don’t think you’re nearly as mean or spiteful as you think you are. I think you push people away. And I’m sure you have your reasons, and I’m not here to tell you how to feel, but I want you to know that I am genuine. I don’t play stupid games or yank people around for the fun of it, because believe it or not, I’m not some jerk who gets off on hurting people. If you sincerely want me to go away, then tell me right now – say the words and I’ll never fucking bother you again. But for fuck’s sake if you need a friend, I’m right fucking here.” She exhaled long and hard, her heart racing. “Fuck.”

Shane stopped rubbing his face but still stared at the ground, hand paused over his mouth.

“Say it,” she said, her breathing shallow. “Tell me to leave you alone and I promise it’ll be the last time you have to.”

Hand still over his mouth, he closed his eyes. He didn’t move or speak. Sophia emitted a long, loud noise of frustration and turned to leave – she’d said her part, and the rest was up to Shane.

She wasn’t ten steps away when a dejected voice said, “Wait.”

And as quickly as it’d come, the anger melted away.

He was standing in the exact spot she’d left him, but now his hands were in his pockets and he was rocking on the soles of his feet, eyes fixed on a nearby mailbox.

“Did you deny it?” he asked, his face reddening. 

“Deny what?”

Still staring at the mailbox. “Dancing with me. To her.”

Sophia’s heart gave a tiny leap. “Of course I didn’t.”

He looked like he was evaluating what this meant to him. Then he nodded. “Okay.”

“Okay.”

Then nothing. Was he finished? Was she supposed to leave now?

“The other week…” he said at last, still rocking on his feet. “That was messed up.”

Sophia twisted the bottom of her sleeve in her hand. She wished he'd stop fidgeting; it was making her fidget too. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”

Then he did it – he finally looked up and met her eyes. “Saturday cool?”

Her heart leapt again. “Yeah, Saturday’s great. I’m up by six every day, so just come over whenever.”

“Okay.” He rubbed his neck, looking back at the ground. “You know, I really am sorry.”

“I know.”

Still looking at the ground he nodded, then once again turned and slouched down the sidewalk.

 

Chapter Text

Marnie never mentioned the night Sophia brought Shane home. For weeks she walked on eggshells around him, careful and formal when speaking but never once bringing it up. Not his black-out, not his drinking in general, not the suicidal thoughts he’d voiced aloud. Shane couldn’t tell if she was hiding from the truth of what happened or if she’d simply resigned to the fact that her nephew was a sinking ship.

He’d also been avoiding Jas. The same as he’d avoided Sophia really, except Sophia was a crush he’d embarrassed himself in front of while Jas was a fucking seven-year-old, one he was legally and morally responsible for, who he blocked from his thoughts night after night by going to the saloon. Since the incident at the dock he hadn’t missed a single evening – he just couldn't face her.

He was acting more like his dad all the time.

After Jas lost both her parents, a drowning Shane had no choice but to bring her to his own broken home. His dad had mellowed out some by the time she moved in. Some. He wasn’t as violent now that Shane had grown up and was strong enough to swing back, but he was still a drunk asshole and even at his lowest of lows Shane would never allow his father to be alone with Jas. He’d have sooner brought her to the bar, locked her home alone – anything before he’d do that. His dad was nothing but an unfortunate piece of angry furniture they had to step around, hoping not to stub their toes.

But his mother? An ex-pill-popper who neglected Shane for most of his childhood, newly clean and looking for purpose, she’d volunteered to watch Jas. And for over two years she did, while Shane worked days at JojaMart to support them in the meager way he could. But this newly sober woman didn’t only babysit during the day, she also babysat every night – while her husband went to the bar on one side of town, while her son went to the bar on the other. The bar where her son sank into bourbon and hooked up with girls he meant nothing to, who meant nothing to him, when he should have stayed home with the one little girl who did. But Shane was still drowning, and for the first time in his life his mom had stepped up; for the first time in his life he trusted her to.

Stupidly. Because his mother had left. Like a wisp of smoke into the atmosphere – up, gone, her suitcases missing, and Shane hadn’t heard from her since.

On a personal level he felt little attachment to the woman, but now there was Jas, once again ripped from a guardian, once again hung out to dry. And it didn’t matter that Shane was a shitty, selfish, irresponsible person. He was the only constant in her life. A constant disappointment, sure – but a constant. The person whose leg she hid behind when frightened of strangers, who she wanted to dress up like a prince for that stupid dance. And now he’d shoved her onto Marnie.

Sometimes it was hard just to fucking look at her. Not only to see Garrett in her bright eyes, or her mother Samantha in her dark hair and olive skin, but to see his own conspicuous absence in her life. To not be able to face it and to cope by being absent even more, by going to the bar and staring into half empty glasses until it was technically morning, wishing for a quiet death in his sleep.

In the past he made up for his absences by bringing home treats, and she’d light up like a Wintersday bulb as if he were an angel meant just for her. And he loathed himself for it, those cheap shots at regaining her affection. But Jas was too young to hold a grudge – she was grateful for every moment Shane spent with her, every crappy toy from the dollar aisle he brought home. That little girl, she was buoyant. Stronger than any of the adults he’d ever known.

But this time she hadn’t bounced back. This time she kept looking at him from around the corner in fear, as if she might blink and he’d disappear. One day – like a knife to his gut – he saw her clinging to Marnie’s leg instead of his own.

That Sunday after the bathhouse when he went to the saloon, he didn’t only think of Sophia.

Once home he’d thought about her, true. She was unbelievably distracting. But while stretching out those beers at Gus’s table, that small, strange flicker had appeared in his chest – that bit of happiness or hope or whatever it was – and he thought about Jas. And his thoughts didn’t bury him in darkness like usual. It took Shane a long time of staring into the fire and turning his pint in circles before understanding why he could suddenly ponder what a shitty person he was without wanting to shoot himself.

Optimism. As foreign a feeling as he’d ever known, but there it was: a tiny spark of optimism.

After that night he didn’t go back to the saloon. Monday after work he brought home two cases, one of cheap Joja beer and the other of sparkling water, and later that evening after shoving them under his bed he approached Jas’s room with a book in his hand, knocking softly at her door.

“Hey.”

She was playing with her dollhouse, making the dolls jump around their furniture as if the floors were made of lava. Without looking up she said, “Hi.”

Shane walked over and sat on her bed, drawing his feet up. “Come here.”

She looked at him warily. He couldn’t blame her: he’d barely said two words to her in weeks. But eventually she dropped the dolls, grabbing her stuffed panda and climbing into bed.

“I miss you,” he said carefully. “I don’t like when we don’t talk.”

She pulled at a bit of loose fur in the panda’s ear.

He peered at her from the side, trying to catch her eye. “Am I still allowed to be your godfather?”

A bit of the fur came out and she dropped it on the bed next to her.

“What if we read stories tonight?”

She didn’t say anything, but after a moment crawled onto his lap. She began to suck her thumb: when emotional she behaved like a baby, something she'd done ever since her parents died. Shane gently tugged it out. When she didn't react he hugged her against his chest. “I’m not going anywhere, you hear me?”

She nodded, and without a word handed him the book.

Every night that week he read Jas a bedtime story. That first night she stayed silent, but each one after she became more involved, stopping him on certain pages to point out the words she recognized, insisting on reading those parts herself. And Shane could only stare at her in wonder, because when had she learned to read? How much had he missed over the last few months?

After she was asleep – and with only the warmth of a cheap, crappy beer or two – Shane played his console and watched TV until it was time for bed, throwing back can after can of sparkling water and trying to pretend it was enough.

It wasn’t. It sucked. He wasn't a violent person and it made him want to fucking smash things.

He thought about the last time he quit, after meeting Garrett. He was still in high school then, just a kid. But he’d done it. It took several years of soul-sucking relapses to kick for good, but he’d gotten sober. And whether it was Sophia’s wet dress, the fear in his goddaughter’s eyes, or just a sudden epiphany he didn’t know – but he thought he was trying again.

He slept poorly, taking hours to drift off and waking often through the night. Mornings were rougher too; somehow the less he drank the more it felt like he’d been hit by a truck. And that was before the long days of stocking shelves for a shitty, unlivable wage, as if it weren’t hard enough being sober without his sobriety showing him more clearly all the things that made him drink in the first place. Like watching Sam, his twenty year old coworker who worked at Joja part-time to save up money for college, while Shane had made pricing soup cans his crowning achievement in life.

But no matter how drained he felt he forced himself to be pleasant for Marnie and Jas, the two people who had to deal with his shit, who couldn’t just step around him in aisle twelve and not have to see his ugly mug for another week – and that left him with little energy to spare for other people.

That day outside Pierre’s, he'd treated Sophia like shit. 

He'd just been so overwhelmed by everything at the time. Beaten down from another day of retail, with nothing but discomfort in store for the rest of the night while he ached for the warm arms of alcohol. Humiliation at overhearing Haley talk to Sophia about him, and guilt on top of that for all the situations he’d been fantasizing about since the bathhouse. And so beaten down, uncomfortable, humiliated, and guilt-ridden, something in him just snapped. Because he knew Haley was right: he was utterly undeserving of someone like Sophia.

For whatever reason she was trying to be his friend, and when he thought about her – beautiful, confident, taking on twenty acres of farmland by herself after spending her whole life in the city – he’d never felt so undeserving of a friendship in his life.

He had no idea what the fuck was wrong with her.

 


 

It was seven a.m. on Saturday and Shane was already shaved, showered, and dressed. He headed down the hall toward his bedroom, tightening the strap to his watch.

“Where are you off to so early?” Marnie emerged from her own room in a lavender bathrobe, a cup of steaming coffee in her hand. She sounded both impressed and suspicious.

“Um. Sophia’s.” He concentrated on his watch, avoiding her eyes. “She needs help. Farm stuff.”

“And she asked you?” His aunt sounded pleased.

Why the fuck was this so embarrassing?

“Er – yeah.” He ducked past her into his room, closing the door behind him before she could say anything else.

He looked around. The place was relatively clean, but it was also completely soulless: a bed with a plain blue comforter, a clothes dresser, a gaming console hooked up to a small TV. There was nothing on the walls, nothing on the shelves, only a lamp and JojaMart nametag on his bedside table.  

Sophia had more personality in her left arm than he did in his entire dumb existence.

He sat on the bed, staring at the sock drawer and rubbing his knuckles over his jeans until the friction burned.  

He hadn’t spoken to her since the day they agreed to make this happen. That was Thursday. Today was Saturday. What if she’d changed her mind? What if he showed up and she gave him one of those looks Haley always did, that suggested he was about as welcome as a house fire? What if she regretted it immediately that day on the sidewalk but was too polite to say so?

What if, what if, what if.

He smacked himself hard across the face. It stung more than expected and he moved his jaw around the pain, but even the stinging couldn’t silence the voice in the back of his head:

There's still one bottle. You bought it for times like these. 

Hating himself as he did it, hating himself for having it in the first place, he grabbed the pint of whiskey from the sock drawer and drank. He didn’t care about falling in a black hole or drifting gracefully down or whatever nonsense he told himself in the past. He cared about one thing only, and that was smothering his goddamn anxiety.   

It took only seconds for the first sips to hit: like his body was a balled fist, and the mere touch of the liquid on his tongue enough to unclench it. He took several hard swallows and stared at his reflection in the mirror above the dresser – the stocky chest, the dark circles under his eyes.

She asked you to do this. She wants your dumb ass to come over. 

No matter many times he thought it, it didn’t seem true.

 

Chapter Text


Sophia didn’t know what time Shane was coming over so she got ready first thing in the morning. Tempted as she was to dress nicely, they were doing farm work and she resigned to the fact that she’d be better off in old jeans. After throwing them on she hung around the kitchen, peering out her window every few minutes and sharing anxious looks with Amber. Though often struck by random cravings, for the first time in weeks she seriously considered racing to Pierre’s to buy a pack of cigarettes – she felt as nervous as Shane always looked.

He’d made such an easy stranger, too. It was almost a shame to get to know him.  

She ran to the bathroom, pulling down her ponytail and arranging her hair in an over-the-shoulder braid instead. Leaning close to the mirror she spent several minutes carefully pulling free the wispy strands of hair that framed her face, but then Amber started barking at some unheard noise and Sophia rushed to the window.

Well that’s just not fair.

He was in jeans and a white t-shirt, his dark hair still damp from the shower. That look. The quintessential “I’m just here to work on your farm, ma’am” look, that in the movies always ended with the shirt coming off and a bare, sweaty back glistening in sunlight.

Okay, so maybe that fantasy wasn’t entirely in touch with the slightly out-of-shape, socially awkward man approaching her house, but to Sophia that white t-shirt was a cruel, cruel trick.

Not wanting to seem overeager by opening before he knocked, she hung back and waited. And waited. And waited. How had he not reached her house by now?

When she couldn’t take it any longer, she got up and with a rapid fluttering in her stomach opened the door. Shane stood on the stoop, his fist frozen in place to knock. At seeing her he lowered it uneasily.

“Hi,” she said breathlessly.

“Hey.”

“Do – do you wanna come in?” she asked, realizing with a panic she hadn’t thought this far ahead.

He rubbed the back of his neck and looked around. “I, er, thought I’d just get started out here.”

“Right. Of course.” She patted her leg. “Come, Amber.”

The curious dog trotted over, circling Shane with her tail wagging and sniffing his jeans. He held out his hand, and after Amber nuzzled her nose into it approvingly began to scratch behind her ears.

“She likes you,” said Sophia, giving him a nervous smile.

She led them off the porch, down her property and past the tilled rows of soil where her crops grew, pointing out what the different mounds of dirt would grow into: tomatoes, blueberry bushes, seven varieties of hot pepper. While Shane wasn't quite as tense or jittery as usual, he did walk several paces behind her with his shoulders rounded, his hands in his pockets.

When they passed the rows of peppers he spoke for the first time since they left the porch. "You into spicy food?” 

“I love it,” she said, pleased he was taking an interest. “You?”

“Yeah. Hate the mild stuff, has to be really spicy.”

She smiled. “Hey, me too."

She continued to babble about her vegetables as they walked, grateful to have something to steer the conversation with, but she couldn’t stop thinking about their last encounter outside of Pierre’s and wondered if Shane was thinking about it too. She also wondered if they'd ever be able to meet in the middle – somewhere between this stilted, overly-polite small talk and reaming one another out on the sidewalk.

“Well, here we are.” Sophia stopped, placing her hands on her hips and looking around.

They stood before a large pond, its bank wildly overgrown and the surrounding grass littered with boulders and fallen trees. “I need to clear this area out so I can get an irrigation system running from here. There’s a well by the house but it’s all dried up, and this is closer to the fields anyway.” She nodded to a dilapidated building about twenty yards ahead. “That’s the shed. Tools are in there.”

Working with Shane, she soon realized, was very quiet work.

He was willing enough for the tasks, chopping logs into lumber and filling the wheelbarrow, helping her heave boulders out of the way, clearing the tall grass and digging where she wanted a trench. There was no sign of his usual abrasiveness, and when asked if he was doing all right he merely gave a nod.

Sophia grew to like it. It was soothing to work side by side in the gentle summer sunlight, the air humming with the sounds of frogs and flies. The silence between them had been awkward when she thought she was supposed to fill it, but once she stopped trying it filled itself.

He also seemed to enjoy the work, and watching him at it wasn’t half bad either. While not toned he was strong: he probably worked the stock room at JojaMart, she reasoned, where the workers spent hours unloading shipments and lifting heavy boxes. Despite the occasional grunt or labored breathing there was a calm look on his face, one she hadn't seen before. And after thirty minutes of chopping wood, Sophia’s arms felt ready to break while Shane was still going strong: he swung the axe down on a thick log, cracking through most of it in one go, then gave a hard kick where it was still connected and split it in two.

“Damn,” she said, jokingly impressed. Half jokingly. Her heart beat faster when he returned a small smile.

“Got a chainsaw in there by chance?” He nodded toward the shed.

“Sorry. What about Marnie?”

“Nah.” He stood, putting his hands on his lower back and stretching, then rolling his neck side to side. Sophia caught sight of his watch.

“Hey, what time is it?”

He checked. “Quarter after twelve.”

She laughed. “We’ve been out here four hours! Don’t you want a break? Maybe some lunch?”

“I’m good.”

“Well, I want a break. I’ll get us something to drink, at least. Be right back.”

As she filled two glasses with ice Sophia looked out her front window. Though the pond was rather far out, the land was flat and she could see everything – including the tiny figure pushing a wheelbarrow of chopped lumber toward the shed, then stacking its contents one by one on top of the growing woodpile.

He looked good, and she wasn’t thinking of the sweaty, fantasy t-shirt men anymore. She was thinking about the fact that the man in her yard was the same man who sat hunched and hopeless in the bar each night. He really did look good out there. Healthy.

You know it doesn’t work that way, whispered a small voice in her head. You know it isn’t that easy.

She suspected he’d drank that morning. Maybe not a lot – it wasn’t at all obvious – but there was a certain ease to his manner that made her suspect, an ease that she’d only seen once before, the night at the dock.

“Shut up,” she hissed at the voice.

She arrived back at the shed with the water in her hands and a canvas grocery bag over her shoulder. Shane continued wheeling wood back and forth.

“Hey,” she said, nudging her head toward the pond. “Come take a break.”

She led him to a clear section of bank where they had room to stretch their legs in front of the water. They sat down and Sophia unloaded the snacks - two apples and a bag of potato chips.

“Not exactly a full meal, but you can’t work so long without eating.”

“Thanks,” he muttered, accepting a glass of water and sounding like the old Shane again. He fixated on a spot in the pond as he drank. The work had given them both something to focus on, something to quell their nerves – side by side and away from the work there was a sudden void to fill.

“Hey,” she said, then “hey!” again when he didn’t look up the first time. “This—” she indicated all around, then motioned between the two of them, “—this is pretty okay, isn’t it?”

Shane played with his water glass, the ice clinking against the sides as he turned it in his hand. “Yeah, it’s pretty okay,” he said at last. But then he caught Sophia’s eye and gave her a small, nervous smile, one that put a dimple in his stubble. Her stomach somersaulted: it was the cutest damn thing she’d ever seen.

They ate in silence for several minutes, Sophia basking in Shane's quiet company and the perfect weather. She loved early summer on the farm: all the crispness of spring, all the warmth of actual summer, the way verdant green grass mingled with the deep green plants in her fields. The noon sun shone overhead against a royal blue gradient, one that looked like the wallpapers on her old work computer. Only this one she could feel; with this one she could close her eyes and tilt her head back, burning the inside of her eyelids with blinding gold sun.

Marnie said Shane came from the city. She wondered how he felt about the countryside. Was he soaking it in now, like Sophia? Or was his mind far away? All those hours at the bar, those walks to and from work, even right now as he sat beside her – what did he think about? She knew so little about him, and there was only one way to change that.

“So where’d you move from?” she asked, breaking the silence.

He took a chip, and for a few uncomfortable seconds she thought he might not answer. But then he said, “Zuzu City.”

“No shit?" She smiled. "Same here.”

“You ever go to a Tunneler’s game?”

“Nah. I never got into gridball. Or any sport, for that matter.”

He stared down at his lap. “Yeah, don’t know why I just asked that. Doesn’t seem like your thing.”

“Is it yours?”

A pause. “Used to be.” She thought he looked sad for a moment, but he quickly changed the subject. “Where’d you live?”

“Sapperton. You?”

“Not even close – Singer.”

“Singer? You're a south side boy?” she teased.

He made a face. “Not proud of it.”

“Aren’t there lots of gangs in that area? My parents never let me go past 88th.”

“Eh, some of it was rough. The streets around us were shit, but my neighborhood wasn't too bad. Just took the bus to school and avoided the really bad blocks." He shrugged. "What about you?”

She shook her head. “Your basic idyllic childhood. Grew up in an apartment downtown with my parents and sister. I mean, I was jealous of my friends in the suburbs because they got to have a lawn and trampoline and all that… but I don’t think suburban envy really counts as roughing it.”

“You have a sister? She prefer the city or something?”

“Had,” said Sophia, quieter. “Had a sister.”

“Sorry.”

She waved to brush it off, but he caught her eye, looked at her hard and said, “No, seriously. I’m really sorry. I’ve lost someone too. Fucking sucks.”

“Jas’s parents,” she said, without thinking.

Shane looked shook, and Sophia kicked herself.

“I’m sorry... Marnie, when she was showing me around the ranch – she told me. I thought Jas was related to her, so…”

He dug in the dirt for a moment, finding a rock and then chucking it into the pond. For a moment she worried he was mad, but then he grunted, “Yeah. My best friend and his fiancé.” He searched for another rock, this time throwing it side-arm so that it skipped across the pond. “Just weird, you know? One day they’re there, the next, bam, dead.”

“Yeah,” said Sophia softly, “I know.” She looked for her own rock to skip, and they took turns skipping them for several minutes. “How did it happen?”

“Drunk driver.” He paused, then gave a derisive snort. “I know, right?”

She drew her knees to her chest and rested her head on them, watching him from the side.

“Look, I know what people here think about me. They’re not fucking wrong, but I never drive drunk. Not before it happened, not after. Makes me sick.”

Sophia watched his face; Shane watched hers back. Something about the current atmosphere made it very easy to look one another in the eye. The sun, the quietude, the weight of the conversation – there was a haze over just them.

“Your sister?” he asked.

She hugged her knees tighter, rocking slightly. “Suicide.”

“Well shit.”

Sophia couldn’t think of two words to sum it up better.

Shane finished his water in silence, looking out over the pond, Sophia sat rocking and thinking, and at long last they both stood up and went back to work. As gradually as the mood had fallen it lifted again, as they worked their way into the same comfortable silence as before. From time to time Sophia joked with him, even squeezing out another rare smile, and at four in the afternoon, sweaty and exhausted, they called it a day.

“One sec,” she said when they were back on her porch, running inside to grab her wallet and coming back out counting twenties.

“Don’t bother,” he said, looking embarrassed.

“I said I’d pay you,” she insisted. “So I’m going to pay you.”

“And I said forget it.”

“But I want—

“You invited me as a friend, right?”

“Right,” she agreed. “But I don’t work my friends to death for nothing.”

“Well joke’s on you, I’m still alive. Keep your money.”

She glared playfully. “What about next time? You going into free labor?”

An odd expression came over his face. “Next time?”

Sophia felt very shy again – it was a rollercoaster around him, these constant fluctuations of being bold and being bashful. “Yeah. Only if you want to, of course, on weekends you’re free…”

Shane shifted on his feet, hands in his pockets. “Next Saturday again?”

“Next Saturday is good,” she said, copying his stance.

“Well, okay.”

“Okay.”

"Okay." A pause. “Listen, that thing with your sister… what I said at the lake that day…”

She shrugged. “You didn’t know.”

“Still.”

“It’s okay, I swear." She gave a timid smile. "Thanks for today. I mean it.”

“Not a big deal.”

He turned to leave, and Sophia was just about to go inside when she heard, “Hey, Sophia?” and flipped around to see him still standing on the edge of her road, looking frustrated.

“What was that the other day?” he blurted.

She was taken aback. “What was what?”

“The other day. The bathhouse,” he said, the frustration on his face mingling with something else. Pleading? Like he wanted an answer badly, but it was costing him to ask.

“I – I don’t know,” she stammered.

But her answer wasn't enough. He turned away again, shoulders crestfallen as he walked down the dirt road that led south of the farm.

 

Chapter Text

So this was the cost of spending time with Sophia.

Shane tried to flop on his side the next morning and found his body unable to obey; it felt like someone had nailed him to the mattress in his sleep. He ached from every muscle, from ones he didn’t know he had, from places he didn’t know they existed. When he finally managed to crawl out of bed he wondered if this was what it felt like to be ninety. He wanted to stretch but was afraid to get stuck.

It was his own fault for overdoing it. He’d wanted so badly to impress her in some stupid macho way – strength or masculinity or whatever – that even when he felt ready to collapse from chopping wood he chopped more, even when he thought he might die of heart failure from moving another boulder, he moved it anyway.

And it was worth it. It was all worth it for that one comment. Damn, she’d said. Jokingly, of course, but still. She’d said it.

She was in his head.

We could still have something, right? Something that separates today from yesterday, or the day before that.

Not long ago those words had infuriated him, but now, now he treasured them. Now he looked for the thing that was different, the thing to assure him it wasn’t just a shitty clone of the previous day, word for word, step for step. He didn’t always find it, but he looked.

Except for the days he saw her – on those days he always found it.

Sophia began to pop into his life like paint strokes on a long forgotten canvas. A golden splatter, when she’d given him that shy, youthful look before dancing. A liquid blue line, undulating like her body when it sank into the water of the pool. The soft beige stroke of her sweater that night on the dock, the angry red slash from her outburst on the sidewalk. And from skipping stones at her pond yesterday – from the long, private look they'd shared after – a water spot. Slowly trickling through the canvas, it bled the rest of the colors.

She hadn't given him an explanation for the bathhouse, but maybe it didn't matter. Because this morning he wasn't thinking about the embarrassment he'd felt leaving the farm, but instead the way she'd blushed while giving her answer. As frustrating as it'd been at the time, today that blush felt like enough: he was buoyed by an unfamiliar lightness in his chest. And so he forced himself out of bed, into clothes, and spent the day playing video games while drinking sparkling water from a can.

To anyone else this would be laziness. To Shane it was a victory. Today he was glad to be alive, and he wasn’t sure the last time he’d put those words together.

 


 

Despite the week dragging on forever, Saturday pounced on him.

Though he continued to cut back at the ranch, on Thursday he caved and wasted himself at the saloon, and because caving was a slippery slope he also went Friday, drinking down his nerves for the following morning. But he’d promised himself he wouldn’t drink before going to Sophia’s this time, and come morning he didn’t.

“Up so early again?” said Marnie when Shane entered the kitchen. She scraped a spatula into a pan of scrambled eggs. “What’s the occasion this time?”

He poured himself some coffee. “Same.” Tempted as he was to lie and save on embarrassment, Marnie and Sophia sometimes talked and he didn’t want to start tangling truths.

“Sophia’s again?” She smiled as if knowing a secret.

“Er, yeah.” He avoided looking at her, pulling a pepper pocket out of the freezer to microwave for breakfast.

Marnie swatted him with her spatula. “Put that crap down. If you’re doing farm work you’ll need something decent.” She scooped a heaping pile of the eggs on a plate and then added several sausages from a pan on the stove, saying, “Toast is on the way.” Shane started to protest but she shoved the plate in his hands, glaring, and he reluctantly took it and leaned against the counter.

“You spending some time with that girl?” she asked innocently, buttering the toast.

“Just cutting wood and stuff.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“It’s not like that.” He shoveled in several large mouthfuls.

“Mm-hmm.” She finished buttering and handed him a toast off the stack, then took a seat at the table. “Sophia’s an awfully nice girl,” she said. “Pretty girl, too.”

Shane leaned against the counter, still chewing, not saying anything.

“You can’t tell me you didn’t notice.” When he shrugged, she looked at him sadly. “Shane, you aren’t twelve. You’re a grown man, you don’t have to be embarrassed.”

“She’s—” He stopped, flustered now. “I’m doing farm work, Marnie. She’s paying me.”

“Is that right? How much?”

He hesitated a split second too long, and when she spoke again she lost the pretend innocence. “I’m not blind or deaf in this town. I know you two were together, that day at the flower dance.”

He almost choked. “Does no one in this town have anything better to do?”

“So did you dance with her?”

“Just – what does it matter?”

“What about the day she came to see the ranch?”

“What about it?”

“That girl was looking for you the moment she stepped in the door.”

“No she wasn’t,” he muttered, now convinced his aunt was messing with him.

“Oh? And you were here to know that? No, that’s right – you went to the bathhouse that day. I remember, because not ten seconds after I told you she was coming you suddenly had to go, and you’ve never given a damn about that bathhouse before.” She paused. “And I know she went up there after you.”

Shane dropped his fork with a clatter. “How? How can you possibly know that?”

This fucking town, he swore. Like a closed network of spies.

“Because after I told her where you’d gone, she couldn’t leave the ranch fast enough,” said Marnie, and Shane’s heart began to pound. “That, and Linus saw you up there together,” she admitted.

He tossed his plate down behind him. “Fucking hell.”

“Hey, hey,” said Marnie, suddenly all gentleness. “What’s with the face? This is wonderful, Shane.”

“No,” said Shane, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes, “it’s not.”

“Sure it—”

“Have you SEEN me?” he shouted with sudden violence, spreading his arms wide as if to let her take it all in, voice reverberating through the room.

Marnie jumped.

“I’ve seen your bins,” she whispered. “The sparkling water cans.” She gained urgency: “I’ve seen you getting dressed and out of bed on the weekends, and coming home some nights instead of going straight to the saloon... Shane, whatever this girl is to you, this is a good thing.”

He leaned against the fridge, rubbing his neck. When he looked up Jas was standing in the doorway, cowering at the way he’d suddenly shouted. Her eyes quivered – she’d never seen an outburst from him before, not one where he yelled – and when he looked at her she slunk backwards down the hall. 

Fucking perfect.

Marnie was right; Sophia was changing him. But it didn’t matter.

“She deserves better,” he said dully, and left with the door slamming behind him.

 


 

He couldn’t go directly to her house. His heart pounded and his mind raced, and his own words echoed and he believed them: she deserved better. She was smart and resourceful and striking in the most unassuming way. She was kind, and listened better than most people learned how their whole lives. Of course she deserved better. 

So why was he trying? Was he really going to win her over with some façade of tucked in shirts and a 50/50 split of beer and sparkling water?

His brain screamed at him to stop but it was like his feet belonged to someone else; he went the opposite direction of Sophia’s house, the whole twenty minute trek to JojaMart. And again, with a hand that belonged to someone else, placed a twelve pack of cheap Joja beer on the checkout. If Sophia wanted to spend time with him he’d let her, but he’d be himself: his drunk, deadbeat, waste of a space self. Then she’d understand not to waste her time anymore, and he wouldn’t have to watch his heart fall to the pavement from any higher.

He drank on the walk to her house, not caring about the people he passed who saw the town drunk lugging a case of beer and downing them at nine in the morning – fuck ‘em. He already knew what they thought. By the time he arrived at the farm he had a buzz, and emboldened by it he knocked on her door – none of that should-I shouldn't-I pussyfooting like last time, when she'd opened to him standing like an idiot with his hand up.

“Hey!" She smiled brightly, any awkwardness from their previous parting long gone. "I was starting to wonder if you were even coming.” She still smiled, but it slowly faded as her gaze dropped and she saw what he carried in his hand. Then she said – and he had to hand it to her, how quick and composed her transition: “Oh, are we drinking today?”

“Yes,” he said lamely. “I can leave if you want.”

"What? No. Come on in.”

Shane stepped inside. Sophia’s house was rather bare-bones – naturally, as she’d only been there a few months – but it also bore evidence of a person who started a million projects at once. Her kitchen table was covered with canning supplies, this time looking like pickles. Her coffee table housed books three layers deep, and sitting on the armchair was a knitting project with the needles stabbed in it. All around him, bits and pieces of Sophia. Then he noticed what must be her bedroom: the door wide open, a dozen articles of clothing flung on an unmade bed.

She quickly slammed the door to hide it. “Sorry. I’m just sort of… figuring everything out right now.” She blushed. “I haven't cleaned in awhile.”

Was that for me? he allowed himself to wonder. Did she try on ten outfits before settling on this one? Maybe she was one of those girls who did that every morning anyway. Maybe she just hadn’t put away yesterday’s laundry.

“So, about that drink…?”

Shane took one out for her. “You sure? It’s like, nine in the morning.”

“As if you don’t already have a head start,” she said, snatching it. She cracked it open, drank heavily for a moment, then swallowed and said, “Tell you what. Let’s grab a few of these to go, and I’ll take you around the property. You hardly saw any of it last week and it’s a gorgeous day – I can show you some of the stuff we’ll work on next time, the coop, the barn, all that.”

“There’s still a next time?” Shane felt sure she’d never want him back after this stunt – in fact, he’d counted on it.  

“Are you kidding? I have a farm to get running. I could use your help every week for the next two years. However,” she scolded, only half-playfully, “I don’t condone drinking on the job, so now you’re stuck just hanging out with me.”

Shane had had worse punishments.

Sophia loaded several beers into her canvas bag and they set out. For almost an hour they drank and walked, sometimes on trail and sometimes wading through tall grass, occasionally making small talk about the farm itself. The property was surrounded on all sides by deep forest, and anywhere Shane looked was either wilderness or open field.

“I thought you wanted to show me the coop,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the small broken building, now a speck behind them.

“I changed my mind. Come on.” She led him toward the edge of the property, then slightly into the woods. “I know it’s here somewhere…”

Shane had no idea where she was taking him. “Should I be looking for something?”

“Never mind, found it!” She jogged a few yards and stopped in front of a tree with several rickety boards nailed to it. He looked up and saw, not very high, the remains of an abandoned tree house. “Come on up,” she said, starting to climb.

Shane wiggled one of the bottom boards. “This is safe?”

“It’s not that far,” she called, already most of the way up. “Worst case, you break a leg, right?” Once inside she hung over the edge and motioned for him to hand her the bag. He did and then climbed the boards nervously after her, though they were sturdier than they appeared.

“You made it.” She smiled and cracked open a beer for him, already working on her own. Shane tried to remember how many she’d had – this was at least the third. Her cheeks had turned rosy in the cutest way, and the corners of her lips twitched as she looked around.

“I haven’t been up here in so long. It seemed so much bigger as a kid. Higher too.” She gazed around in wonder, soaking in the derelict boards like she’d stumbled on a fairy palace; she looked happy. “This was mine and Amy’s place.”

“Your sister?”

Sophia nodded, folding her legs cross-wise under her. “We’d visit Grandpa for a few weeks every summer. My parents stayed for the first week and then Amy and I stayed for another two, just us. Once when I was ten and she was twelve, we dared each other to spend the night out here. We didn't tell Grandpa because he was always worried about coyotes after dark and we’d never have gotten his permission. God, I never saw him as pissed as that night he found out.”

Shane kicked back against a wall, turning the beer slowly in his hand and staring at the label as it spun. Why had he given in to that damned voice in his head? Once past their initial hellos, Sophia was the easiest person in the world to talk to.

“I used to stay with Marnie for a week or two every summer,” he said.

“No shit?”

“Think my folks dropped me off so they could have a vacation from me.”

“So you might’ve been running around Cindersap forest at the same time as me and Amy? That’s amazing. Like it’s fate, for us to be adults here together now.”

Yeah, he thought, fate. The booze was making Sophia giddier, but Shane felt increasingly worse. He watched as she became preoccupied with the walls of tree house, searching every wooden panel for some memory of childhood, occasionally getting lost in one. He thought about how peaceful she looked. How when she saw the beer that morning she’d jumped on board rather than shame him, and how, despite his intention of using that beer to keep her at a distance, her use of the word “fate” to describe something between them only served to raise his heart higher before the inevitable fall.

“Sophia?”

It was like she just remembered Shane was next to her; she blinked. “Mmm?”

“This was an asshole move,” he said, kicking the canvas bag with his toe, “me showing up with these today, like this.”

“Yeah.” She made uncomfortable eye contact. “It was. So why did you?”

"I don't know..." He looked away, wishing the answer would write itself on the boards. “Because I don’t know how to do this otherwise.”

“What, sit in a tree house?”

He hated that she was making him say it. “Talk to you.”

“You’ve talked to me loads of times now.”

“Not like this. I mean… I don't know...”

“It was an asshole move, but that doesn’t mean I regret it.” She scooted closer until their backs shared the same wall. The glow in her cheeks certainly didn't look regretful. "Shane? Talk to me."

He closed his eyes and they burned. “Why are you so nice to me?”

“I like you. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“But I’ve been a complete dick to you.”

“Yeah, and I got over it.”

“All the people here who’ve actually been nice to you – you could've asked any of them.”

“But I enjoy your company, you ass.”

He shook his head, mumbling, "Just doesn't make any sense."

“Well, maybe I’m a masochist and like being insulted. Or maybe,” she looked him hard in the face, “I happen to know the difference between someone who’s closed off and someone who’s truly a jerk. Maybe I’ve got a little experience in that realm. Maybe I hate to see someone hurting.”

Shane looked away, pressing on the sides of his empty can until they crinkled. “So what, you got some kind of savior complex or something?”

“Maybe,” she admitted, and he found her honesty attractive. “But I also hate that term. Kind of implies an end game, doesn’t it? You find someone broken, you fix them, then what? You’re done with them? I don’t think of you as a project, Shane, if that’s what you’re getting at. I like hanging out with you. Yeah, I wish we didn't always have to drink to do it, but I honestly like talking to you, as you are now. I want to be your friend and for me friendship isn't about trying to get to some finish line."

He didn’t know what to say; he’d only been wondering aloud but her answer was more thoughtful than he'd expected. Clearly she’d evaluated this before.

“We’ve got shit in common, you know?” she said. “We’re outsiders here. We both moved from the same city. We both worked for the same shithole company. We both lost the people closest to us…” she trailed off, looking thoughtful and adding, “We both like spicy food.”

He hadn’t really thought of it in those terms – he’d been too busy thinking about how much better she was than him.

“Can I make a request though?” she asked, when he didn’t respond.

“Shoot.”

“Maybe, next Saturday… don’t drink.”

"Yeah," he said quietly, still pressing the sides of his can. "I won't."

It was very still within the tree house. For several moments neither of them spoke or moved, until the stillness amplified and it felt like they were alone in an auditorium. Shane couldn’t take it any longer and reached for the bag, grabbing two more beers and handing her one.

“So you and Amy came here?” 

She nodded, opening it. “If I tell you about her, will you tell me about Garrett?”

Tightness seized his throat but he nodded too. “Fair.”

Sophia drank for a bit, thoughtful, looking around the room. She then pointed to a spot in a far corner, where a strip of wood was darker than the rest. “Over there,” she said. “That’s our blood.”

“Your blood?”

“Yes. Mine and Amy’s." She tilted her head, staring at the bloody board. "She was into all this witchy stuff – crystals, spells, spirit boards. It terrified me as a kid, but she was my older sister so of course I went along with it. She wanted to contact ghosts, sneak into morgues, hang out in cemeteries, that kind of stuff. I’ve probably walked over more dead people than everyone you know combined.

“On that night I was telling you about, the night we snuck out, she said we needed to leave a blood mark. That someday after we were both dead, kids like us might come along and do a ritual and they’d be able get in contact with us – you know, bring us back together. She was completely obsessed with blood. Some kind of neo-pagan vampirism thing. And she had this knife my parents didn’t know about, with this fancy carved handle and in its own sheath. I still have no idea where she got it.”

Sophia suddenly laughed. “I thought she was going to like, poke me on the finger with it. But then I give her my hand and she just fucking slices across my whole palm – I think I almost passed out.” She shook her head, still in disbelief. “Then she did the same thing to herself. I just remember being in awe, thinking how brave and absolutely nuts my sister was, and how much I loved her, even though at the moment I kind of hated her too." She laughed again. 

“Then we touched our hands together and smeared it on the wall, and Amy said this little incantation in Latin – I don’t think she even knew what it meant – and that was that. But then we couldn’t get our hands to stop gushing blood, so we were forced to go back to the house and Grandpa was so pissed. It was the only time he ever yelled at us. But then he cleaned up our hands and bandaged them and never said a word to our parents.”

She looked at Shane. “We were so different. I was this happy-go-lucky kid, she was always moody and private. But we both hated being around too many people at once – big family gatherings, groups at the lunch table, that sort of thing – so we just kind of clung to each other. And I remember thinking it was so cool, that she didn’t care that I was her dorky younger sister. She was never embarrassed to hang out with me, not even when she moved on to high school and I was still in junior high. Not many siblings were like that.”

After this Sophia became quiet, though her eyes continued to dance imperceptibly in the way one’s eyes do when playing through a private reel of memories. Shane let her visit them, and several long moments passed before she suddenly held out her hand. It hovered in the space above his lap and he sensed she wanted him to take it. Nervously he did, and she pointed at a faint white trail that crossed diagonally, almost like an extra line for palm reading.

“That’s Amy,” she said. “Ten years later, she slit her wrists with the same knife.”

Oh god. 

Oh, god.

Shane wanted to sink into the floorboards. That knife he’d been playing with at the dock – he’d laughed at her concern. She’d panicked, and he’d laughed at her. Joked about killing himself after. Half meant it.

“There was a time, right after, that I was so, so mad at her for this,” said Sophia, pulling her hand back, tracing the line with her vision. “I just thought, how dare she do this to me – make me live with this permanent reminder on my own body. But she didn’t know. How could she have known at twelve years old? She didn’t know.” She dammed her eyes before the tears in their corners could escape. “I never struggled like her. I knew she had problems, but never understood what they were doing to her inside. And we were so close. I always thought I’d know when something was up. But I didn’t. I had no idea. She was just my strange, emotional Amy. And then she wasn’t.”

She tipped her head back and drank and drank, not putting the can down until it was empty. She burped, hardly aware she’d done it, then blinked several times and turned to Shane.

“Garrett?”

He was still stuck in the horror of all she’d said, the whole story of Amy, as well as his own small part in it – her sudden transition threw him. But it was clear she’d already swallowed whole her emotions, tucking them neatly back into wherever they’d come from. She looked at him with the same rapt attention as always when it was his turn to speak.

“I… I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know how to follow up a story like that.”

Sophia flipped her empty can on its side, then flicked it with her finger and watched it roll across the uneven floorboards. “It’s not a pissing contest.”

Shane took a drink to buy time, feeling more stupid than usual. His best friend – the only friend he had for most of his life – and he couldn’t come up with two words to say about him.

“When did you meet him?” she asked helpfully.

“Um." The word came out broken; he cleared his throat, suddenly dry. "Tenth grade.”

“Did you have classes together?”

Two questions in and it was already deeper than he wanted to go. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he realized that with broaching the subject of Garrett he was dancing on a minefield. But Sophia had shared hers, and he’d promised to share his.

“He was new. First day he started at my school, I – er – got suspended. Got caught with liquor. My dad’s…”

Sophia looked somber. “You were drinking then?”

“It made school easier to deal with.” He glanced at her anxiously, but she showed no sign of judgment and so he pushed forward. “Garrett saw the whole thing go down, the teacher finding my bottle. He followed me after school that day. I was pissed, decided to walk instead of take the bus, and he just followed me. Had no idea who he was. Turns out, he thought it was pretty badass at the time. Guess that’s kind of funny now.”

“Why?”

“Because he helped me quit. I mean, he was impressed that one time, but even sixteen-year-olds stop being impressed when you’re drunk every fucking day.” He paused. “That first day, he followed me all the way home. I told him he’d probably want to leave because my old man was there, but he said he’d wait and maybe we could hang out after. Don’t think he had any idea what was coming. My dad... he liked to yell. Break shit. The school already called before I got home, so it was pretty fucking ugly.”

It was easier now, telling the story. Sophia was a good listener. He’d never said this out loud before and it felt good, talking about Garrett. But what really got to him was thinking how much Garrett would’ve obsessed about Sophia – he’d always wanted to be Shane’s wingman, disappointed when nothing worked out, pained by the mutual disinterest between Shane and the girls he tried to set him up with. But Sophia? Garrett would’ve shoved him at her, not caring if he tripped and fell face-first in her lap.

And, had it been Sophia any of those previous times, Shane wouldn’t have stopped him.

“Came out of my house with a black eye. Didn’t know where I was gonna go, just knew I needed to get the hell out of there.” Sophia’s face turned to alarm and he quickly added, “Look, my dad’s a mean son of a bitch, and he’s broken a lot of windows and plates and shit, but that stuff wasn’t common. Two or three times a year, tops.”

“Two or three times a year?” she said incredulously, clearly finding it two or three times too many, but Shane kept going before she could switch to a look of pity – that he couldn’t handle.

“Anyway, I come outside and Garrett’s still there. Asks me where I’m gonna go, I say I don't know. He invites me back to his house, we play video games and watch TV and shit. He asks if I want to stay for a few nights, just till things blow over with my dad. I mean, I know it doesn’t work that way – my dad would be ten times more pissed if I ran off – but of course I say yes. He didn’t have any friends either and after that we just started hanging out all the time. His parents were workaholics, so I could stay for weeks at a time and they barely realized I was there.”

He beat his fist rhythmically against his knee. “I dunno. Spent more time at his house than mine those couple years. He was like my brother. Eleventh and twelfth grade, convinced me to try out for gridball with him and we both made JV and Varsity. That's still fucking surreal - feels like it happened to someone else.” He shook his head. “Pretty sure I wouldn’t have graduated without him.”

“What happened after you graduated?”

“My grades were shitty so I just started at JojaMart, Garrett went to university. It was right in the city so we still hung out all the time. But then he met a girl, Samantha. First girl he ever had who didn’t try to get him to drop me as a friend.”

“Jas’s mom?” said Sophia.

“Yeah. They had Jas second year of college, Sam dropped out to take care of her.”

“And they asked you to be godfather.”

“Even though I was just some bum at JojaMart with no future. Even Sam wanted it to be me.” He looked at her. “I didn’t take it seriously at the time. I mean, I was touched and all, but when someone asks you something like that, you don’t think the worst is gonna happen. Like yeah, it’s implied, but you never think it’ll actually happen.”

“Were you close to Jas? Before it happened?”

“She called me Uncle Shane as soon as she could talk. I hung out at their place at least once a week, so she was like my little cousin or sister or something. I was watching her the night it happened. Right around this time of year, actually, few weeks after my birthday.”

A breeze picked up outside, the sound of rustling leaves and birdsong weaving between the cracks in the walls of the tree house. It was dark inside, and until he saw the sunlight playing through those same cracks, making lines on the floor, he’d almost forgotten what time it was – not even noon.

“Jas was four. I mean, I couldn’t even process what happened, and here they were telling me I had this little girl to take care of. It seemed so mental at the time – like, why are you lunatics handing a person over to me? I’m a fucking mess.”

“But she’s seven now, right? So she lived with you before you moved to the ranch?”

Sophia was stepping dangerously close to one of the mines – had her toe on it. If he told her the way he’d abandoned Jas, he’d never be able to look her in the eye again.

“Look, can we stop talking about this now?”

“Okay.” She'd hesitated though, looking like she had more to say.

“What?”

She hesitated again. “You said either.”

“Huh?”

“Either. You said, Garrett didn’t have any friends either.”

He reddened. Those words slipped out while telling the story – he hadn’t meant to say them.

“You didn’t have any friends before him?”

“No.”

“Never?”

“I was – we were really poor.”

“So?”

“So people didn’t talk to me. They didn’t like me. They avoided me, and I guess I avoided them too.” He stared at his lap, unwilling to look at her face.

“And after?”

“After what?”

“After Garrett and Samantha. Did you have anyone then?”

Shane picked at his finger. “I think you know the answer to that.”

“You have me,” she said, and fell quiet.

He felt more drunk than he ought to. Maybe it was the heat, the stuffy air in the tree house – he hadn’t drank much, not by usual standards, but switching to silence after so much talking felt like standing up too fast after taking shots, not realizing how hard they would hit.

But Sophia was drunk too. Her cheeks were warm, and her body close, and her head was tilted against the boards behind her, looking at him in that way drunk girls sometimes looked at you.

“Shane?” she said, and he thought it looked different on her than other girls he’d known.

“Yeah?”

“Are you tired?”

“Getting there,” he admitted.

“I am.” Then she closed the gap between them, placing her head on his shoulder. His whole body froze. “Shane?”

“Yeah?” He said quietly, because it seemed like the kind of moment where things ought to stay very quiet.

“I don’t know how to tell you this…” She looked up at him, and he could feel her warm breath; could see the hazel flecks in her blue-gray eyes.

Then she looked down at his lap, her head still on his shoulder. “I’m in love with your horse.”

“You – huh?”

“Your horse. Annabel. I have dreams… elaborate ones… I smuggle her out of the ranch at night, bring her back to the farm. Make her forget all about her previous life. Is that wrong?”

He bit his lip to keep it from twitching. “Kind of.”

“She loves me too. I saw it in her eyes. They were saying Please, Sophia, give me twenty acres of farmland to run on.”

“Naturally.” He paused. “You know, Marnie wouldn’t care if you came by the ranch to visit her some time.”

“Marnie, huh.” Then, after a long moment, “Shane?”

“Yeah?”

“Can we ever do this without drinking?”

His heart pounded so hard it made him nauseous. “This?”

She stirred against him. “All of it.”

He sat for a very long time with his eyes open, staring at the blood stain on the wall. The only sounds were the breeze outside and the gentle sigh of Sophia’s breath. He sat so long that it slowed, and when he looked at her again she was asleep.

 

Chapter Text


 

Sophia woke but didn’t open her eyes.

Warm. Everything was so warm, and it was that special kind of warmth, the kind that only came from napping in daylight hours, and especially after drinking. She could hear the lazy drone of bugs, low in the grass. In the distance a bird warbled. She was still in the tree house, her head resting against Shane’s shoulder and lifting slightly with each breath.

And shit, she was still drunk.

It was more than she'd had to drink in years. She and Amy used to share a bottle of wine on Friday nights, but after her death Sophia hadn’t touched much alcohol, and with being a lightweight and drinking on an empty stomach the handful of beers she’d had with Shane hit her like a sack of bricks. Between the drunken haze, the stuffy tree house, and the emotionally exhausting conversation, somehow this had happened…

But Sophia knew none of those things were an excuse. Leaning against him like this was of her own volition, and she even remembered her thought process at the time – that this would be a good move, that they were close and comfortable and she had a crush, and what was more natural than to lay against him when all the barriers were down?

She’d almost kissed him. She’d been saved by instinct alone, some small voice in the back of her head taking over at the last second and switching the subject to Annabel. Because she couldn’t kiss him while drunk. It’d be a mistake, it’d cheapen it, it’d make things messy just as they'd finally become able to talk as friends, and at the moment she was terrified to lose any of the progress they'd made.

She opened her eyes. The daylight in the tree house was brighter than she remembered and her vision swam, taking a moment to adjust. Once it did she noticed Shane wearing an inward facing watch on the arm closest to her and she carefully tilted his wrist to see the time: after one. She glanced up to make sure she hadn’t disturbed him.

He was already awake.

Heart thumping, Sophia slowly lifted her head. “How long have you been up?”

“Never slept.”

“You – you didn’t pass out with me?” she asked, face heating.  

He shrugged. “Just been thinking.”

“But you could have woken me.”

“You passed the fuck out. Pretty sure you needed the sleep more than I needed to get up.”

Of course Shane wouldn’t have slept – someone with his tolerance would never be drunk off the amount they'd had; he'd probably had nothing but a buzz the whole time. Feeling like an idiot, she got to her feet.

It was too fast. For a moment her vision swam again, her left leg stumbling against her right one. Shane shot up, but she’d already placed one hand on the wall and was able to steady herself.

The hand that he'd reached for her with went to the back of his head instead, scrubbing the hair there. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“What? Why?”

“The beer… I ruined everything…”

“You didn’t ruin anything.” Her face grew even hotter, and she found it difficult to make eye contact. “Maybe we should head back though. Get some water…”

As they gathered their empty cans Sophia thought how strange it felt to be the less composed of the two of them, how unsteady she was bending over while Shane looked no different than usual. And when it was time to leave and Sophia headed for the makeshift ladder, he stopped her.

“I’m fine, Shane.”

“Yeah, right.”

“I am!”

“I don’t need you falling out of a fucking tree.” He went first, then waited below as she slowly climbed down second.

Once they were both on the ground, he turned red. “Look – maybe just give me a sec.”

She was about to ask what for when she saw him glance at the trees to their left.

“Oh,” she said. “Of course. Um, me too, actually.”

She squatted behind a tree and could hear Shane unzipping in the opposite direction; it was a bizarrely intimate thing, peeing in the woods together. In a strange way she liked it, but then she began to feel weird for liking it, too—

She shook her head, staring at a crumpled green leaf on the ground.

It’ll be fine. It’ll all be fine.

Something about the tree house had been magical, all the stars aligning at once, but on the walk back to the farm it became evident it couldn’t last. Sophia felt in a fog, badly craving a cigarette, a coffee, anything to make her more lucid and to get the taste of stale beer out of her mouth, and Shane was simply Shane – walking silently at her side, hands in his pockets and face impassive. The man who’d opened up to her was long gone, and she hated that they were both acting as if the morning hadn’t happened, as if their intimate conversation within it never occurred.

And he never did answer her question. Could they do this sober? Because if the walk to the house was any indication, perhaps not.

“Maybe I should just go,” he said in a quiet voice once they’d reached her porch.

“You don’t have to.” Her fingers played anxiously on the door handle. “You could stay for lunch.”

He hesitated.

“Come on.” She opened the door and nodded inside. He followed uncertainly, and when she went into the kitchen he lingered by her dining room table.

“You can sit down, you know.” Being back in the house and having a task grounded Sophia, returning some of her confidence; she opened her fridge, yanking out items and throwing them on the counter. “I’ve got celery. Peanut butter. A big bag of tortilla chips and nothing to dip them in. Trust me, you’re about to eat like a king.”

He sat, but when he didn’t say anything Sophia began to wonder if she’d made a mistake. Maybe the day was meant to end at her door; maybe she’d been stupid to mess with the natural flow of things. Next Saturday, there was always next Saturday...

But then a tail-wagging Amber trotted over to him, resting her chin in his lap and looking up with hopeful, pet-me eyes. It happened in an instant: the stiffness of his shoulders dissolving as he bent over, scratching and massaging her ears, talking to her so quietly that Sophia couldn’t hear what he said. Amber’s hindquarters wiggled and her tail swished happily against the table leg.

It looked so natural. Secretly she began to think about how good a dog would be for him – something to stop him from sinking – and when she turned back to the food, there was a soft feeling in her chest.

A few minutes later came a loud buzz on the kitchen table; a single vibration from her cell phone. Sophia’s hands were sticky from cutting cantaloupe and she washed up, wondering who the hell would message her at the farm – her parents weren’t texters, and the remainder of her contacts list was laughably short. She walked to the table and grabbed the device, Shane glancing up at her.

She wished he hadn’t, because as she stared at the words on the screen her face grew hot as fire.

Sophia. CALL ME. I miss you so much, beautiful.

Another buzzed in, her blood pressure spiking as she read.

Admit you still think about me too – I know you cut all contact because it’s too painful. But I forgive you, for everything. Come back and we’ll pick up right where we left off.

And then, almost immediately, another:

You know it’s the truth. We’re never as good as when we’re together.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!”

She chucked the phone on the table. Shane and Amber both jumped at the noise, but to Sophia they didn’t even register: a lightning storm was flashing through her mind.

Sophia, you’re acting like a child – You don’t want the pasta, get the salad – You’re wearing that? You want to look like a tomboy? – Of course you like this movie, stop acting like you don’t – Those people are toxic and you know it – Honestly, nobody wants to hear you to talk that way, it’s obnoxious – Take off that stupid shirt, orange looks awful on you – Did I ask your opinion? No? Shut up – I never said that Sophia, you’re delusional – Stop being so goddamn sensitive – You think someone else is going to put up with all your crap? – You’re like a lost little girl – Of course we’re going to have sex tonight, you promised me… yes, Sophia, you did promise… well, clearly you don’t remember correctly –

She returned to chopping the fruit, far more passionate than before, the slice, slice, slice sounding more like slam!-slam!-slam! against the board.

“Is… um...” Shane cleared his throat, obviously not used to providing any sort of comfort to others. “Just… are you okay?”  

She reddened even more.

“It’s nothing,” she said, embarrassed to have lost her cool in front of him. But he only continued to watch her with a strange look on his face – possibly concern, it was hard to tell – and at last she sighed.  

“Fucking Rick. I changed my number after moving specifically so he wouldn’t pull this shit. My parents must’ve given it to him.” She went back to the counter, scooping the cantaloupe in a bowl. “Fuck, that pisses me off.”

He slowly spun one of the pickle jars on her table. “That the guy who didn’t let you swear?”

Sophia laughed. “Swear. Cry. Laugh too loud. Make dirty jokes. Talk to anyone on the fucking planet who wasn’t him.”

“That’s some bullshit.”

“I can’t believe they gave him my new number. For three years he tried to keep me away from them, and they give him my goddamn number.”

She started bringing things to the table, trying to push her resentment back to where Shane wouldn’t have to see it. “I’m so sorry. You don’t want to hear any of this. I'm done bitching now, I promise.”

He shrugged, still spinning the pickle jar. “You can bitch.”

She finished carrying the food over – cantaloupe, a box of vanilla cookies, a plate of squishy pizza rolls heated in the microwave, and the aforementioned celery, peanut butter, and chips – and for a moment only stared at it. Then she said, “You’re never going to want to eat here again.”

“It’s –” He paused, picking up a pizza roll. “It’s interesting.”

“I’m a shit cook.”

“It looks good, okay?”

“You’re just being nice. But thanks.”

She was concerned the meal might be even more uncomfortable than the walk back, but Amber saved them yet again. Trotting to her owner, she licked her chops and stared at the plate of pizza rolls so disappointingly out of reach on the table, and Sophia took that as a cue to spend the lunch showing Shane all the tricks she’d taught her. She told him about the day she’d gone to the shelter and seen the beautiful dog with the auburn fur curled sadly in the corner of an otherwise empty cage; how the other dogs yipped and raced to see her, but Amber lay on the shabby carpet looking resigned to her fate.

“She looks happy here,” he said, scratching her neck with both hands. He found a good spot and Amber’s hind leg began to thump the floor.

Sophia put her chin in her hands, watching them. “She is.”

There was no more mention of the text or the ex, nor of the drinking earlier in the day, or the fact that Sophia had slept against his shoulder for more than an hour: everything was beginning to feel like a dream. Like she’d invited Shane over for a casual lunch and that was it, and after they finished eating he stood up as if reading her mind, giving Amber a final pat. "I should probably go now.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

She had a feeling he was embarrassed about bringing the beer that morning. She wished he wouldn’t be, and was trying to think of what to say when she remembered something else.

“Hey, earlier you said – with Garrett – it was around this time of year, after your birthday. When’s your birthday?”

He shifted uncomfortably.  “Er, the twentieth.”

“Of last month? So I missed it?”

He gave her a look suggesting she might've gone mental. “You didn’t miss much.”

“I missed wishing you happy birthday, I missed giving you a gift.”

“Don’t really do birthdays.”

“Maybe you don’t, but I do, and I want to give you something.”

“I don’t want anything, Sophia.”

Her eyes sparkled. “I don’t care. Wait here.”

While he stood by the door, she tore a piece of yellow lined paper off a notepad and folded it in quarters like a card, writing HAPPY BIRTHDAY SHANE across the front and signing the inside.  She then slapped it on top of one of her jars of homemade pickles and presented it to him brightly.

“It’s not tickets to a Tunnelers game, but it’s probably the next best thing.”

He shifted again. “Seriously, just forget it.”

“But it’s your birthday!”

“Yeah, weeks ago.”

“They’re not just any pickles, they’re hot pickled peppers – you said you liked spicy food.”

“Yeah, but—”

“If you don’t accept I’m going to drop them in your mailbox tomorrow.”

“I’ll bring them back.”

"Shane, take the damned pickles.”

“But I hate pickles!” He stared at her, helpless, and when she didn’t respond he looked at the floor, his face turning red. “I just… don’t want them to go to waste.”

Sophia burst into laughter.

At first Shane looked embarrassed, but as she laughed it was like he realized how ridiculous it all was, and finally he gave a small laugh too. Rubbing the back of his neck and staring at the floor while doing it, but still – it was a laugh.

And god, she liked all of it. Whether they talked or enjoyed the silence; whether they shouted their intentions on the sidewalk or fell into a back-and-forth about pickles. She liked how neutral he smelled when she leaned against him in the tree house, like clean but unscented laundry. She liked it when he was nervous, and she really liked it when he laughed – she wondered when he last had. Shy as the laughter was, it made his entire face look different.

“Fine,” she said at last. “But you aren’t leaving till I find you a gift.”

“You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

“Of course not.” She scoured the room, certain there had to be something else. Then: “Aha!”

“Oh no.”

“Oh yes.” There it was: the round, lumpy object  from the armchair, the one with the knitting needles still stabbed in it. She removed them and snipped the yarn, knotting the end so it wouldn’t come undone. “It was supposed to be a toy for Amber, but I’ve never knit anything before and – don’t laugh!” She smacked him on the arm as he chuckled. “This was my first ever attempt.”

“Might want to make it your last.”

“Shane!”

“Can I – er – ask what it’s supposed to be?”

She blushed. “A turtle.”

He accepted it, twirling it in his fingers. “This is the saddest little turtle I’ve ever seen.”

“I know,” she said. “It’s awful.”

He looked at the toy and smiled, then put it in his pocket. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” She played with her hands nervously. “Right, so – don’t forget your beer. And your card.” She handed the folded paper to him. 

He took it, staring at the message on the front. At last he put in his pocket with the turtle, saying “You keep the beer.”

Then he left, and Sophia stared at the remaining cans on her table and wondered.

 


 

There were four new messages when she checked her phone again, but Sophia left them unopened and dialed her parent’s number instead. Her mother answered on the fourth ring.

“Hello?”

Jacqueline Wakeshire had been bubbly once, when her eldest daughter was still alive. Now she was like something carbonated gone flat.

“Hi Mom.”

“Sophia?” She sounded confused. “Is everything all right?”

Naturally she’d ask; Sophia never called her parents unless there was a reason, hating the need to walk on eggshells around them. But today she had no patience, and her compassion ran equally short.

“No, it’s not. Did you give Rick my new number?”

A pause. “Yes. He called and said he’d lost it.”

“Mom, I changed my number so he wouldn’t ever call me again – I told you guys that.”

“He sounded very sincere...”

“Of course he did! That’s his thing! Did you very conveniently forget how full of shit he is every time he opens his mouth?”

“Sophia, please don’t swear.”

“I swear to god, you never listen to a word I say. You know how long it took for me to finally get the hell away from him! I can’t believe you’d do this! You should hate him more than I do, this is bullshit.”

There was a tiny crack in her mom’s lifeless voice. “Well I’m very sorry Sophia, and it won’t happen again. But I’m not going to sit here and be cursed at.”

And then she hung up.

Sophia set down the phone and rubbed her fingers over her eyes.

She was the worst daughter alive to talk to her broken mother like that. But then, when did they ever not fight? Every since Amy’s death it’d been one disastrous conversation after another, her father looking passively on in the background. And to throw Rick into the mix…

Already in a foul mood, she opened the rest of the messages.

This isn’t what you want.

It’s you and me, Sophia, it’s always you and me.

You’re fooling yourself if you think you’ll find better than this.

She should have just deleted them. Those honeyed words, they nauseated her, and she no longer trusted anyone who used them. Rick was a sweet talker but he was also a self-serving narcissist who’d swooped down at a vulnerable time and stolen three years of her freedom.

Moving to the couch to sit, it suddenly dawned on her why she’d been so drawn to Shane in the first place – beyond just the closed-off exterior that reminded her of Amy.

Shane was rough on every edge, and Sophia couldn’t begin to describe how refreshing that was after the preternatural smoothness of Rick. Rick, so styled and clean-shaven, while Shane was slightly scruffy no matter what. Rick, saying exactly what people wanted to hear; Shane, well, no one was going to mistake him for a sweet talker. And she wouldn’t change a thing. He was raw and real, and one way or another she wanted him in her life – even more than she wanted Rick to go the fuck away.

One message left. Prepared to block the number as soon as her masochistic curiosity was sated, she opened it. The words that followed danced on the screen like puppets, taunting and cruel:

I love you more than life itself.

She could see his collegiate face behind them, smiling as if sincere – a smile that made most women melt, but those who knew him go quickly on edge. A smile that said it knew exactly what it was doing when it dug the knife in your back and twisted, knowing you were helpless to stop it.

He was sick. He was disturbed. He’d chosen those seven words for a reason, and innocuous as they seemed he couldn’t have picked any that would crush her heart more.

Sophia deleted the messages and furiously wiped the tears in her eyes.

 

Chapter Text

On his walk back to the ranch, Shane tried not to obsess over the two things that his brain desperately wanted to obsess over: the humiliating way he’d shown up at Sophia’s house with a case of beer, and the damned text from her ex.

He’d have to make peace with the first. What else could he do? It was his own dumbass decision. But the second, that one was going to haunt him for awhile. It was natural that she’d had boyfriends in the past, but Shane didn’t want those boyfriends anywhere near his thoughts – especially one that had treated her so badly. It was a volatile mix, hatred and jealousy.

She wants nothing to do with that prick. Settle the fuck down.

Instead he focused on his birthday gifts, and once back in his bedroom took them out: a card folded out of legal paper, and a lumpy, half finished dog toy. He placed the funny little object on his nightstand and then took the smushed card from his pocket, smoothing it on the edge of the dresser before leaning back to open it.

I’m glad you let me be your friend
Because I think you’re pretty amazing
xoxo, Sophia
p.s. next year your gift won’t be so shitty

Shane’s heart raced, and he read it five more times.

Next year.

His brain latched onto those two words, over the compliment, even over the hugs and kisses she’d signed with. Next year. Like this wasn’t something to keep herself amused in a new town while she settled in; like she wanted to stay friends with him, like she planned to stay friends with him.

But then he heard the shuffle of socks dragging on carpet, and looking up saw Jas’s dark eyes peering around his doorframe, looking solemn.

“Uncle Shane?”

He beckoned her in and she climbed up onto his lap, her small arms hugging the ones he wrapped around her.

“Whatcha need, kid? You okay?”

She snuggled against him, looking far more serious than a girl of seven ought to. He gave her a squeeze and she mumbled something so quietly that he couldn’t make it out.

“Hey,” he whispered. “Say that again?”

When she lifted her eyes she reminded him of a small animal caught in the road.

“I don’t want to die.”

Shane felt like he’d been slapped. He’d seen her face and expected a broken toy, a fight with Vincent. Maybe a cut finger. Anything but this.

At first he could only hold her, but at last he broke through the stun enough to say, “Jas, what brought this up?”

“When people die, they don’t come back.”

He licked his lips, heart pounding. He couldn’t lie to her; she was seven, not two.

“Yeah. You’re right, they don’t.”

Her chin quivered. “Isn’t it lonely?”

For a moment Shane thought about parenting books, the kind Samantha used to keep on the coffee table when she was pregnant with Jas. He’d never cracked one open in his life. Did they tell you how to handle discussions about death with an elementary school kid? Because right now he could only think about all the times he’d considered the opposite – considered dying to end the loneliness that was all too prevalent in life.

He adjusted his arms, hugging her closer. “It’s not lonely. It’s like sleeping. You don’t get lonely when you sleep.”

Her voice was so soft it was barely audible. “But I don’t want to sleep forever.”

“Oh, Jas. You don’t have to think about this for a long, long time. You’re just a kid. You get to grow up into a teenager, and then an adult, and then an old lady – like Aunt Marnie,” he teased, tickling under her arm. She couldn’t help giving a pouting smile and giggle, but when he stopped she stopped too, looking serious again.

“Please don’t die Uncle Shane.”

If there was anything on earth that could make him not want to, it was the look on her face when she said it.

“Are you still thinking about that? What I said that one day?”

“My mom and dad died a long time ago.”

A long time ago.

God, to be Jas’s age, when three years felt like an eternity. It was almost half of her lifetime. Shane had days where it felt like only last week that he was sitting in Garrett and Samantha’s apartment, letting Jas decorate his shirt with dinosaur stickers – only last week that he heard a knock and got up to answer with those stickers still stuck to his polo, when he opened the door to two police officers asking him if this was the residence of Garrett Prevost and Samantha Lorie.

He bit the inside of his cheek and closed his eyes. “I know kid. It sucks.”

She picked at a pill on the blanket he’d bundled over her lap. “Why don’t you want to be my dad?”

And the hits, they kept coming.

He thought of himself at seven years old, watching his dad come home drunk in the evening. How he sat in front of the television with a collapsible tray, eating a microwavable Salisbury steak, watching the news and pointing at the screen with his plastic knife saying, “The world’s gone to horseshit, son. You’re lucky you still have your old man to put a roof over your head.” How after dinner Shane tried to make little army men out of green twist-ties since he never had army men of his own, and when he asked his dad to play with him the only response was, “No. Now put that shit back in the junk drawer, and grab me a beer while you’re at it.”

But mostly Shane thought of how, night after night, he went to bed believing him – that he was lucky to have his old man. That maybe one day when he was old enough he’d get to eat Salisbury steak in front of the TV too, and then his dad would finally like him.

Jas wouldn’t know what a piece of shit Shane was until she grew up. She had her whole life to resent him. But right now she wanted the only father figure she had, and he knew when she asked that question she wasn’t asking what was wrong with Shane, but what was wrong with her

How could he say this? He stroked her hair, buying time.

“Jas,” he said at last. “I loved your dad very much. He was my best friend, and you’re his little girl, and that makes you my little girl too. Did you know I was at the hospital, the day you were born?” She shook her head. “I watched you take your first steps, and sometimes I rocked you to sleep when you were a baby. And do you know one of the first words you ever said?”

She shook her head again.

“Sane. Because you couldn’t pronounce Shane.”

She shyly tucked her head into his arm, like she was embarrassed to have been a toddler who couldn’t say his name – but she was definitely warming up.

“Listen, I know I just called you a little girl, but you’re a big girl now too. So can I tell you something? Adult to adult?”

At his words she perked up, unable to be resist being told something important.

“What you overheard, about me not wanting to be here – I didn’t mean it. I was feeling really sick when I said that. Sometimes I have very bad days and say things I don’t mean. I’m sorry I scared you, and I’m going to try not to scare you again. Okay?”

She gave a timid smile. “Okay.”

That night after Jas was already asleep and Marnie in bed with a book, Shane left the ranch and headed to the saloon. Emily smiled the moment he walked in.

“Hey mister! The usual?”

She never mentioned the fact that she used to see him five or six nights a week and now only did once or twice. She greeted him with the same bright expression as always, the same judgment-free face, which made it easier to say what he said next.

“Er – no. Just a soda.”

“What kind?”

That easy acceptance – not making a big fucking deal out of things – she and Sophia had that in common, he thought. He was grateful she didn’t point it out or ask him why. His gratitude was cut short however, when she returned with his lemon-lime drink.

“Shane, I’ve got a question for you.”

Oh great.

He braced himself. Apparently not hard enough, because as Emily leaned conspiratorially across the bar and said, “What do you think of our new farm girl?” Shane felt his face burn like a sunrise.

“I thought as much,” she sang, giving a little wink as she turned away. 

Face still hot, he went to his usual table by the fire and sank down with his back to the crowd.

His confidence in coming to the saloon was misplaced, he soon realized. Each tingle of carbonation on his tongue had him wishing more and more it was a beer, and the wish turned to longing, and then the longing teetered dangerously close to the edge of need. For fifteen minutes he sat with fidgeting feet and melting resolve until finally he shotgunned the remaining soda, leaving the saloon with both hands scrubbing through his hair.

Once outside, shoving his fists in his pockets, he kicked the brick building so hard his entire leg stung.

But he didn’t drink.

 


 

The following Saturday Shane and Sophia gutted the coop. She wanted chickens as soon as the snow melted in the spring, so they were preparing it for Robin to renovate – clearing musty hay and cobwebs, removing rotted boards and beams.   

They never talked of the previous weekend. Not a word of Shane arriving partially drunk with a case of beer. No mention of the conversation about their dead loves ones. Sophia jokingly asked if his turtle was doing okay, if it hadn’t come unraveled yet, but that was it – as if she hadn’t lain her body against his, as if she hadn’t said, “Can we do this without drinking?”

Because there they were, together and sober, as far apart as could be.

“Can you hand me that pitchfork?” she asked, and he obliged.

“You need those crates moved?” he asked, and she nodded.

They were being polite; so polite Shane wanted to scream, and when hours passed and the most they’d done was smile at one another when Amber tore after a squirrel, he wanted to pull his fucking hair out.

But so it went, quiet and cordial until it was time for him to leave.

Shane’s workweek began to drag more than usual. It’d always dragged, but before it did so in tandem with the rest of his pitiful existence. Now? For the first time his life outside of work was picking up the pace, and JojaMart felt like a relic of the past, one of that didn’t belong in his current timeline.

As for after work, walking past the saloon never got easier. The warmth inside as even the summer nights were prone to become chill; that promise of a slow descent into an easier world. Come Friday it became even tougher, because Friday night at the saloon had been his own personal tradition for as long as he could remember. Rain or shine, having gone every night that week or none at all, on Friday Shane went to a saloon, a bar, a tavern, a pub – anywhere they would serve him – and left the whole week behind. He unwound with a glass and a wooden table, and the calming, distant din of drinking, eating, and laughter. For years those pubs felt more like home than home itself did.

But he was done. No more nights at the saloon. No more drinking at the dock. No more cheap Joja beer or bottles of whiskey at home. He’d already been cutting back for several weeks; the withdrawal wouldn’t be as hellish as usual. He had to be done.

Approaching the saloon’s familiar street that Friday after his shift, he thought of Jas’s terrified face the morning after Sophia dragged him home. He thought of his best friend, who’d helped him get sober, who trusted him so much that he legally wrote Shane into Jas’s life should something happen to him. Who was killed by a drunk fucking driver, and whose memory Shane honored by neglecting his daughter and sliding right back down the neck of a bottle.

He ducked his head and didn’t allow himself to so much as look at the Stardrop’s door as he passed. 

The next Saturday started off better. Sophia was acting like herself again, cheerful and easy-going, and come noon she laid out an old blanket in the sunshine near the coop.

“I went shopping,” she said proudly. “I made a real lunch today.”

She spread the food on the blanket: turkey sandwiches, chips with spicy salsa, a bag of fresh plums from a tree right on the farm. They sat and Shane picked up a sandwich.

“Careful,” he said. “You’re setting the bar pretty high.”

“Good. You deserve better than soggy pizza rolls and celery.”

“No I don’t. But thanks.”

She sighed. “Why do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Put yourself down like that. Just stop.”

He hadn’t realized he was; for the rest of lunch he felt too self-conscious to say much else.

And then back to work.

Over the following weeks they fell into a comfortable routine, and Shane no longer felt the same nerves knocking on her door. He still felt nerves of course, each time she opened it and he was reminded again of the exact planes of her face, the exact scent of her coconut shampoo. But the threat of her pointing toward the ranch and telling him to get lost, that she’d changed her mind – that was gone.

Seeing her on the weekend was like filling his chest with fire that warmed him all week long, and only when that fire was down to its embers did his willpower finally slip away. Twice he caved, buying a half-pint of whiskey each time: enough to fill the need, but not enough to have leftovers that would tempt him again. After a few weeks he even began to feel strong enough to try the saloon again, testing his resolve by having soda on Friday nights, just to prove to himself that he could.

It was miserable of course. But he could.

He never again drank before going to Sophia’s house, but god, was it tempting. To talk to her like he had in the treehouse, to really talk and feel close. To be close physically. He wanted that again more than he'd wanted anything in his life; like a man who’d forgotten he was starving until given a morsel, and then he was ravenous for it. 

It felt strange to look her in the eye at a distance, knowing he’d been close enough to see the way the blue fanned from her pupil like a firework. Every morning when putting on his watch he felt those careful fingers on his wrist, trying to check the time without waking him. And he thought about sex. Despite his history with women it was never about sex, it was about loneliness, and he'd had to drink to even get it up those times. But now he found himself awake at night – restless, hard, and with a tremendous sense of longing. Some nights he left it alone, still feeling it was disrespectful to her. Other nights he couldn’t help himself.

One Saturday they were in the barn, the stuffy smell of deep summer surrounding them. They were gutting it the same as they’d gutted the coop: Shane pried rotten boards off the free stalls that needed replacing, Sophia shoveled and swept.

“You know,” she said, scooping a mound of straw. “When I first moved here I just wanted a distraction. To start over and get away from everything back home. But the longer I’m out here,” she lifted her head to the shaft of sunlight streaming from the rafters, and dust danced around her, illuminated, “the longer I’m out here the more I fall in love with all of it.”

Shane stared at her, staring at the sunlight, and felt quite the same way.

 


 

They were attempting to tackle the shed. Sophia’s grandfather had been many things, but well organized of equipment was not one of them – Shane had no idea what half of the strange sculptural items were for, and the labyrinth of metal and rust was giving him a headache.

“Hold still!” she cried.

“I am. You’re the one moving it up and down.”

“Ugh.” She dropped her end of the steel harvester at her feet with a clang. “Just leave it here before it impales me.”

“Right here,” repeated Shane, staring at the heavy piece of equipment that now blocked the exit. “Yeah. Great idea.”

Ughhh.” She dropped to the ground and laid on her back, rolling to face it. “I hate you, you great stupid piece of metal junk.”

Shane stood over her, looking down. She rolled her head back to center and met his eyes.

“You done throwing a tantrum?” he asked.

She nodded.

He offered his hand. It was an automatic sort of gesture – he hadn’t really thought about it – but as he pulled her to standing something like an electric current traveled down his arm, ending with a tiny bump in his chest.

“Thanks.” She looked at the ground, and Shane wondered if it was possible she’d felt the bump too.

It was a cloudy day and they’d decided on the shed in case it rained, but it was late afternoon now and the skies were beginning to clear. Sophia glanced at their dreary surroundings, then at the dirty window where a weak beam of sunlight shone through for the first time all day.

“You know, maybe the shed isn't really necessary. I can just throw a tarp over shit if I have to.” She stepped over the harvester and walked outside.

"Where are you going?"

She didn’t answer and Shane sighed and followed her. When they stopped, he could only stare at the sculpture now before him.

“What the fuck is this?”

He’d only said it out of surprise, because it was obvious what it was: a pyramid of hay bales, built up the entire back of the shed. Sophia hopped on the first level. “Come on,” she said, grinning and beginning to climb like a cat.

Shane followed her up, not nearly as gracefully.

“Just – how?” he asked, dropping beside her on the gentle incline of the roof.

“Borrowed Marnie’s truck. Drove them over from the barn and spent all of Thursday stacking them up.”

“But how’d you stack the top ones?”

“One level at a time. With these.” She patted a bicep.

“Why not just use a ladder to get up here?”

“Because I don’t have a ladder this tall, Shane."

As if it was obvious; as if he was ridiculous to even suggest such a thing. He shook his head, sucking in a smile.

"Christ. Here I thought you needed my help so you’d have time for the important shit.”

“It is important. And look what we’ve done.” She smiled at the landscape below them.

The field surrounding the pond was clear now, the sprinkler system intact and running below ground. Two dozen long rows of crops were in full fruition, Sophia tilling more ground all the time, and while she worked in the dirt Shane had tackled the overgrowth. He’d cut grass, cleared trees, and hacked invasive shrubbery until it began to resemble a functional farm again. The difference was night and day.

“It looks good.” He watched her profile. “I mean it. You should be proud.”

“I should be thankful,” she said, nudging his foot.

“I just do what I’m told. It’s your vision.”

She pointed at the pond, at the maples that shaded one side. “I’d love to get a hammock, hang it right between those two trees – lay out there after dinner and read or just relax.” Then she drew a line with her finger. “And right here, a stepping stone path so even when it’s overgrown there’s a walkway. Oh, and next to the house, a rabbit hutch! The first thing I see walking outside each day: bunnies.”

Shane twisted one hand in the other, his heart beating fast.

Just fucking do it.

He closed his eyes for several seconds, then opened them. “Sophia, do you want to come over tomorrow?”

Pulled from her fantasies, at first she only blinked.

“Not a big deal if you don’t want to,” he mumbled quickly.

"Come over?"

"You said – you said you liked the horses..."

She blushed, now playing with her own hands. “I’d like that. What time?”

“I dunno... morning? Marnie goes to church, so if you’re early she might not bug us too much.”

He really wasn’t comfortable with Marnie seeing them together, so Sunday morning seemed like the only option.

“Is nine okay?”

“Er, yeah. Nine’s good. Jas’ll be home though. Church makes her nervous.”

“No problem. Just tell her I’m coming, will you? I don’t want to scare her like I did the day of the dance.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I will.” Then he got up, heading back to the hay bales.

“Where are you going?”

He’d pooled all his nerve into asking her; now that he had, there was none left to handle sitting beside her.

“Back to work,” he said, his face rather pink.

 

Chapter Text

Sophia was a mess.

They’d found a good groove, their Saturdays: a set routine, a reliable time and place in which to meet, a list of tasks to complete. They worked, had lunch, worked some more, said goodbye. It was a good system.

But Sunday? Sunday was a wild card, heading to the ranch with only a vague notion of seeing the animals while somehow needing to fill several more hours with Shane. It was like all the past weeks had been rewound; she lost any sense of comfort in spending time with him, left with only the anxiety of seeing him on his own turf. 

She was not in charge this time, and it was freaking her the fuck out.

It was bright and blazing outside, one of those rare days where the sun was hot from the moment it rose instead of taking its time to warm up. Birds swooped languidly overhead, the world in that Sunday morning stupor of being sleepy yet awake, and Sophia brought Amber with her out of pure nerves – which was the first thing out of her mouth when Shane opened the door. 

“I, um, I brought Amber?” She scratched her cheek, a peculiar look on her face.

Why? Why did I say that like a question?

Amber dashed for Shane immediately – she’d long come to associate him with leg-thumping scratches – but Shane looked as out of it as Sophia felt, only patting Amber’s muzzle and saying, “No problem.”

She twisted the long canvas leash in her hands. “I can leave her tied up in the yard. She’ll just sleep in the shade all morning.”

“No problem,” he repeated.

Neither of them moved, and she half wished Jas would barrel through the kitchen screaming the way she had on Sophia’s last visit; anything that would tell them how to stop standing on opposite sides of the door frame, staring at one another.

Then Shane looked as if he’d been suddenly dumped with cold water, shaking his head and blinking several times. “Yeah, so come on in – sorry, just standing here and all…”

Sophia hooked the leash on Amber and roped her to the fence, then stepped inside the now familiar country kitchen, her arms crossed tightly over her chest while she looked around. It was such a vulnerable feeling, meeting at his home instead of her own – she hadn’t realized the leverage that gave her. This must’ve been what it felt like for him, the first time he came to the farm; she was now impressed for all the times he’d done it.

“So, did you want something to drink, or... um… something?” Shane stared at the refrigerator as if immediately regretting that he opened his mouth.

She could have kicked him. You have the leverage, she desperately wanted to say. Fucking use it.

“I – er – I thought we’d just get started with the animals.”

And oh god, it was exactly like his first time at the farm. This was a nightmare. Sophia rubbed her hands in slow circles over her cheeks, telling herself to get it together.

But he only nodded. “Yeah, okay. We should probably find Jas first—”

As he said her name, Jas rounded the corner from the hallway, her hands on her hips in a very sassy pose. “Uncle Shane, why do you have a UFO in your room?”

Shane stared at her. “Huh?”

“A UFO.”

“What are you talking about?”

Jas looked frustrated. “In your room! An onified flying object.”

“It’s not onified, it’s unidenti – when the heck did you learn about UFOs, and why do I have one in my room?” Shane looked bewildered.

Sophia, standing off to the side, couldn’t keep from laughing. “I may have to see this.”

Once again Jas hadn’t noticed Sophia in her house. She suddenly fell very quiet, a struggle visible on her face, like she wanted to shrink away like last time – she was fighting it.

Shane knelt in front of her, eye level. “Remember last night? I told you my friend Sophia was coming to visit.”

Jas nodded slowly, her brown eyes looking first at her uncle and then at Sophia, skeptical but trying to be brave. She clutched both sides of her purple and white jersey dress, twisting the fabric in her hands.

“She’s gonna hang out with us this morning.” He then leaned close to her ear, and loud enough for Sophia to hear whispered, “She’s really, really nice. I promise. Can you say hi?”

She looked at the floor and in a small voice said, “Hi Miss Sophia.”

“Hello, Miss Jas.” Sophia smiled. “I like your dress – I love polka dots.”

That seemed to do the trick; Jas giggled nervously. “I’m not Miss Jas. That’s only for old people.”

Sophia raised her eyebrows in amusement. “And how old do you think I am?”

“Um. Seventeen?”

She clamped her hand over her mouth. Composing herself but still fighting a smile she said, “Well, what about Uncle Shane? How old is he?”

Jas frowned. “I can’t remember. He’s old though. Maybe thirty-five?”

She was completely charmed now. With a sudden boldness swelling in her chest, she leaned down to Jas and whispered, “Hey, Miss Jas. Why don’t you show me that thing you found in your uncle’s room?”

“What?” Shane looked shocked. “No, don’t do that!”

“Quick!” squealed Sophia, ushering her down the hall, and Jas picked up on it right away, squealing along with her as they raced toward his bedroom. Shane followed them with his hands behind his head, like a man already given up.

She knew she was wrong, pushing her way into his bedroom like this. But she’d always been this way – when that boldness seized her she grabbed it before she could think, and as she looked around the plain, half-messy room she didn’t regret it.

That’s his bed, she thought, her pulse quickening. That’s where he sleeps every night. And that’s his dresser – his underwear are probably in there. Maybe his pajamas, too. Unless he sleeps naked. Which would mean he’s been naked on those sheets. Probably jerked himself off on those sheets…

Shane caught her eye and she smiled sweetly at him.

“Here it is,” said Jas, popping the bubble of her daydreams. She held Sophia’s own failed knitting project in her hand.

Sophia burst out laughing. “Do you know what this is?” she asked, taking the turtle from Jas.

“It’s not a UFO? Vincent taught me how to draw them.”

She could honestly see the resemblance, the turtle’s limbs like little beams hanging down from a saucer. But she said, “Nope. It’s the birthday present I gave your uncle. It’s a turtle.”

Jas stared at Sophia like she must be joking, then looked to her uncle.

He shook his head. “I know, kid. I had the same reaction.”

I love this. I love watching him with her.

The first day she'd seen them together when he’d been tickling her, unaware of Sophia’s presence, that was the thing that cemented her gut feeling about Shane in the first place. Despite the ups and downs they’d had since – all the times he’d royally pissed her off back in the spring – it was that moment with Jas she clung too. And it was that moment that led her here, standing in his bedroom on a sunny summer morning with wings fluttering in her chest.

The three of them headed outside, walking toward the stable with Jas between them. She held onto each of their hands, getting swung into the air on every count of three; her fear of Sophia had lasted all of twenty seconds.

“You know,” said Shane after they reached the stable, as Jas raced away to pat one of the horses. “That’s probably the fastest she’s ever warmed up to anyone. ”

Sophia smiled, but the boldness Jas had inspired in her was fading as quickly as it’d come. She gazed curiously around the wooden building with her arms crossed, feeling herself shrink inward again, and when Shane didn’t say anything more she wandered to a stall that housed a sleek black horse with knowing eyes. She reached over the gate, letting the horse sniff her hand and then petting its soft mane, the movement giving her something to concentrate on. There was a tangle in the hair and she combed it out gently with her fingers. The horse's dark eyes flickered toward her.

“Here.”

Shane was behind her, holding a brush.

“Oh. Thanks.” She gingerly accepted it. Turning back to the horse, she brushed the mane until it hung like black corn silk, then started on the rest of its coat.

When she looked up again Shane was knelt next to Jas in the middle of the stable, whispering to her and pointing at something near the entrance. Jas then shook her head enthusiastically and ran off, grabbing a white plastic dish before leaving the stable.

Sophia stopped brushing. “What’s that about?”

He brushed his jeans where he’d been kneeling. “Just thinking it’s pretty hot today… asked her if she wanted to get some water for Amber. She likes doing shit like that.”

“Oh, right. Thanks.” 

Damn it. She should have thought of that. Poor Amber – and they were supposed to entrust her with animals, when she couldn’t even remember to leave her dog water on a hot day?

Shane shoved his hands in his pockets, rocking on the balls of his feet. “Annabel’s your favorite, right?”

“My only,” said Sophia, though not feeling nearly as confident as her words would suggest.

He nodded and appeared to be thinking to himself for a moment, then walked to the wall where the saddles hung, hefting one to his side and grabbing a set of reins. Going over to the beautiful chestnut horse he opened her gate, tossing the saddle on her back and slipping the reins over her head. He looked behind him at Sophia and beckoned her over with his head.

She set the brush on a nearby bench and walked over, stomach fluttering. She felt as shy as Jas was with strangers.

“I’ve – I’ve never been on a horse before.”

“That’s okay.” He patted the seat of the saddle. “Come on.”

She placed one hand on the pommel and one on the seat, then looked to Shane, certain she was doing it wrong, but he only gave an encouraging nod. Lifting one leg, she fitted it into the stirrup hanging down, then did the next logical thing and gave a small jump to lift herself – promptly falling right back to the ground.

Eyes wide she looked at Shane, silently mouthing, “Help.”

Never having mounted a horse before she had no idea what to expect. But he moved behind her and squatted slightly, positioning his forearm under the leg bent in the stirrup, his fist in the space behind her knee.  

“Ready?”

She nodded. He gave a sharp thrust with his arm, propelling her upward, and she swung her other leg over. The sensation in her stomach felt like missing a stair step and her heart raced, and then, at realizing how elevated she was, it raced even faster and she gave a nervous laugh.

“You like it?”

“It’s… high.” She clutched the horn of the saddle like it was the edge of a cliff. Annabel stood preternaturally still, as if aware that Sophia were new to this and needed the assurance. 

“She won’t bolt. You can lose the white knuckle grip.”

She laughed nervously again, slowly loosening her grasp and then, emboldened, letting it go – but it felt like standing on a tight rope, and with a panicked feeling that she would lose her balance she swiftly grabbed the horn again.

Shane rubbed the side of Annabel’s face. “You’ll get used to it.” Then he stepped forward, the reins in one hand.

“W-what are you doing?” 

“What do you think?”

There was a sudden lurch beneath her like the earth was moving as the horse stepped forward. Her knuckles turning white again, Sophia found her voice trapped in her throat. Why did it feel so high? She stared at a spot on the back of Annabel’s neck, trying not to look down or think about how unsteady she felt under the horse’s slowly swaying hips.

They walked out of the stable, long grass blowing in the hot breeze, the clouds looking like cotton balls and the sky a deeper blue than was normal at ten in the morning. Shane walked them through the wide open yard and Sophia slowly adjusted to the feeling of riding Annabel; slowly began to understand the rhythm of her graceful hips, to feel more relaxed by the movement than unnerved. 

“You doing okay?” he asked.

“Yes.” She was. She even took one hand off the pommel and allowed it to pet the base of Annabel’s neck. “But Shane?”

“Yeah?”

“The next time you call Annabel my favorite, please don’t do it in front of the other horses.”

He didn’t say anything, only shaking his head.

Jas was back from her task and occupied chasing one of the barn cats near the house, not paying them any attention. They now walked alongside the field where the cows roamed, and Sophia was beginning to wonder how far Shane would take her when he stopped. He hooked the reins to a fence post and then leaned over it on his forearms, looking out across the field.

Comfortable on Annabel’s back now – especially without moving – Sophia leaned forward, draping herself over the horse’s neck and watching him.

He looked so different these days. The bloat in his face was almost gone, and below the puffiness had been an actual jaw that made him look younger, closer to his actual age. Perhaps it was her imagination but she even thought he carried himself differently, less slouching, less looking at the ground when he walked. But the biggest difference was in his eyes: like he’d stopped drowning in his own tiredness.

“You’re not drinking much anymore,” she said quietly.

In the distance several cows mooed, and Shane continued to stare into the field.

“You look really, really good,” she said, then buried her face in Annabel’s neck before he could see her.

They stayed at the fence for several more minutes in silence – though not necessarily an uncomfortable one – until Jas came running across the yard, apparently having lost interest in chasing the cat.

“Can I have a turn on Annabel?”

Shane turned, lost in thought. “Uh, sure kid. If Sophia’s done.”

“Yeah, of course.” Sophia smiled at Jas, and Shane moved to Annabel’s side once more, placing his hand on the pommel.

“Swing your leg around,” he instructed. So she did, but in lifting it over she lost balance with the foot still in the stirrup, twisting it and grabbing his shoulder to keep from falling. The soft give of his flesh below the t-shirt caught her off guard – she hadn't expected to touch him like that – and she lost balance a second time. Left at an odd angle and unable to straighten herself, Shane carefully scooped below her arms and lifted her down.

Her head swam before her feet even touched the ground.

She thought of the last time she’d been this close, dancing with him almost as strangers. But he wasn’t a stranger anymore. For a moment neither of them moved, even with her fingers pressed into his shoulders, even with his hands in the grooves under her arms.

“Hi,” she said softly.

His breathing was shallow. “Hi.”

“Is it my turn yet?” said Jas.

Her voice fell on them like a bucket of ice water. Shane dropped his hands to his side and Sophia quickly followed suit.

After lifting Jas into the saddle Shane slowly walked them back to the stable, Annabel’s large, graceful hips making the small girl sway on her back. Sophia followed feeling light-headed, light-bodied, as if gravity were only working at half its usual power.

The morning wore on and they visited the coop next, where Jas wanted to play with the chickens and where Sophia met Charlie, the little white bird that seemed oddly attached to Shane. They sat on a hay bale beside one another, the chicken on Shane’s lap, Sophia scratching its wing.

“I don’t really want cows or sheep,” she said. “At least not for a long time. I might turn the current barn into a stable instead.”

“For when you kidnap Annabel?”

“Horse-nap, yes.”

“I can help you get it ready.”

She smiled sadly. “That probably won’t happen for a few years.”

“I can help,” he repeated, locking her eye.

Then Jas raced toward them again, in that way kids did as if always on an important mission, screeching to a halt to pet Charlie with Sophia. “I like your gem,” she said conversationally, bending down to meet the chicken’s eyes while she scratched.

“My gem?”

“In your nose. Can I get one?” She looked at her uncle hopefully.

Shane fidgeted uncomfortably. “Maybe when you’re older.”

“How old were you?” she asked Sophia.

“Fourteen.” She winked. “Maybe ask him again then.”

“Gee, thanks.” He turned to Jas. “You know they have to shove a needle in your nose, right?”

Her tiny hand clamped her nose, eyes wide, and Sophia laughed.

“Miss Sophia,” she said, slowly bringing her hand back down. “Are you Uncle Shane’s girlfriend?”

Why. Why. Why.

Why couldn’t she have asked Shane instead of her?

Sophia was overcome by the crisp smell of hay, of dried corn and water in metal drinking troughs. Noises were louder too, the scratching of chicken nails, the soft clucking near the ground. Everything was amplified, and she couldn’t even look at Shane.

“Well, I’m a girl. Who’s a friend.” Her heart wedged in her throat. “But no sweetie, Uncle Shane and I aren’t together.”

“Can you come see me again sometime?” asked Jas, clearly more concerned about whether she’d Sophia again than her actual dating status.

“I’d like that very much.”

When she did finally – nervously – glance at Shane, he only stared across the coop.

 

Chapter Text

Only in Stardew Valley would a corporate supermarket close at noon because of a luau. Not that it was out of the goodness of their heart, of course; Morris knew the store would be dead at that time, that it would cost him money to stay open. No, Morris had a better idea.

“Watch out for that—”

“Son of a bitch,” Shane hissed, whacking his ankle against the rock and dropping his end of the table.

“Want me to go backward instead?” asked Sam.

“It’s fine.” He picked up his end and continued waddling with the awkward piece of furniture, this time with his head turned to see anything else in his path.

“What the hell are you doing, Sam?”

Abigail, Sam’s friend with the deep purple hair, walked across the sand with her arms crossed. Next to her and smoking a cigarette was Sebastian, the must-wear-black-at-all-costs kid.

Sam shifted his grip on the table. “Freaking Morris. Can't do anything around here without trying to monetize it. He’s making me and Shane set the damn thing up since we were scheduled today.”

Sebastian flipped his long black fringe out of his face. “Thought you were helping me with the sound system.”

“Ah, crap. I was, wasn’t I?” Sam looked to their right where a large wooden platform had been set up for dancing, behind it a mess of chords and speakers. Then he looked at Shane. “Hey, man—”

“I got it." If it meant getting away from Sam and his friends, he’d do the whole damn thing himself.

After they left he lugged over the chairs, decorations, and for-sale products from the JojaMart truck: beer nuts, jalapeño pretzels, and seven boxes of All-Purpose Dipping Sauce that was ordered by accident and would expire the next month. Once set up he just had to wait for what’s-her-face – the checkout girl, he could never remember her name – and then he could go home. With a sigh he opened the box of decorations.

What the fuck do I do with this junk?

Maybe if he just left it there cashier girl would do it. He reached into the jumble of tropical colors and pulled out a long ribbon with funny-shaped books of paper stapled along it – he began to pry one apart and it popped open accordion-style, forming a small pineapple.

“Christ,” he muttered.

Then he almost jumped out of his skin when a voice whispered in his ear. “Volunteer work?”

And there was Sophia, only inches from his shoulder, peering at the pineapple with amusement in her eyes. He quickly threw it on the table.

“Fuck you,” he said. “Fucking scaring me like that.”

“What are you doing?”

He rubbed his neck. “Got suckered into setting this stupid thing up. You?”

She nodded toward the entrance to the beach where his aunt’s vehicle was parked. “Marnie let me borrow the truck again. Lewis asked if I had anything to donate to the festival, and it turns out I grew an absolute shit ton of melons this year.”

“Yeah,” he said, trying not to smile; she’d been afraid none of her melons would grow, and compensated by planting seven times more than necessary. "I know."

She hopped on the table, sitting beside the boxes of all-purpose dip. “Festive set-up.”

“Do you know how to do this?” He pushed the box of decorations toward her. “I’m no good at this shit.”

“They going to dock your pay if it sucks?”

“Wouldn’t put it past Morris.”

She peered into the box, then pulled out a handful of leis. With an impish smile she leaned forward, lassoing his neck with a green one.

Sophia.” He turned bright red, pulling it off.

“But it brings out your eyes!”

God, the last time he’d seen her she’d been so different – shy, soft-spoken, scattered in a way he didn’t know possible. She'd left the ranch not long after Jas asked that painful question, and Shane had spent days now trying to make sense of her answer. What had her tone meant? Pity at trying to let him down gently? Or dare he dream that it might've been reluctance, that she'd wanted to answer a different way?

Either way, the shyness was gone. Today she seemed so natural, even bubbly.

“I just really want to get the hell off this beach,” he said.

She strung a purple lei around her own neck. “You’re not staying for the party?”

“Yeah, how about no.”

“Fine. Guess I didn’t want to hang out with you anyway.” She pulled out a few more decorations, tiny umbrella toothpicks and coconut-shaped bowls, then held two of the bowls in front of her chest like a coconut bra, looking down at them. “Morris just had all this stuff on hand?”

“Hey, I don’t ask about his personal life.”

“I’ll help,” she said, reaching for the string of pineapples. One of them was crunched and she focused on opening it without ripping the accordion, the tip of her tongue pinched between her lips.

It was so odd seeing her like this – here in public with people milling all around them, out of their usual routine, their usual work clothes. Today she wore shorts and a black tank-top with tiny straps, and Shane didn’t realize he was staring until he heard Sam’s voice again.

“Hey man, we’re pretty much done over there. You still need help?”

“No,” said Shane bluntly, pulling his eyes from her and violently wishing everyone else on the beach would sink into the sand. 

Sam glanced at Sophia. “Uh – farm girl? Don’t you sell your stuff to Pierre?”

She looked up, seeing Sam, Abigail and Sebastian for the first time. “Yes I do.”

“You know you’re working for the enemy right now, don’t you?”

She smiled. “And what better way to keep an eye on them?” Then she pulled two expandable posts from the box. “Er, Shane – I think these need to go on the sides of the table. To string up the pineapple thing.”

He knew it was silly but it thrilled him, the casual way she said his name in front of other people. As if they were actually close. And they were. But no one else knew they’d been spending every Saturday together since the start of summer; no one else knew the look they’d shared on Sunday when he lifted her off Annabel.

“I thought Patty was supposed to do the decorations?” said Sam. “Where is she?”

Patty, that was her name. Shane shrugged, cutting open another box of the all purpose dip. 

“Can’t you just leave it for her?” said Abigail.

Sam rolled his eyes. “Yeah right. Morris’ll blame us if it’s not done by the time this thing starts.”

Sebastian, smoking another cigarette, blew a stream of smoke behind them. “You just need to quit that job, man.”

“One more year,” said Sam. “I wait it out one more year, then it’s sayonara JojaMart, hello college girls.”

Abigail rolled her eyes. “Here’s a tip: don’t say sayonara around them.” A pause, then she added, “Maybe just keep your mouth shut in general.”

“You’re going to college next year?” said Sophia. “Where?”

“Zuzu City. ALU. Would’ve been gone already, but needed to save up some cash first.”

“My sister went to ALU for a year,” she said, and Shane looked at her in surprise – it seemed a strange time to bring up Amy. But then he went back to stacking dip. He didn’t belong in this conversation.

“Only one year?”

“She dropped out, wasn’t really her thing.”

Sam shoved a thumb in Sebastian’s direction. “Kind of like this fucker then.”

“So I dropped out,” said Sebastian, flicking an ash. “Still make more a week than you do all month.”

“Eat a dick man, I’m part-time.”

“What do you do?” Sophia asked Sebastian.

“Programming. Just an at home thing.”

“Don’t be modest,” said Abigail, scoffing. “Seb taught himself. Rounded up clients, put in the hours, and now he’s got his own business from it.”

“Really?” She raised her eyebrows. “Impressive.”

And in that one word, whatever good feeling Shane had extracted from Sophia saying his name fell to pieces.

All of them were young, early to mid twenties. He’d heard Sam talk about going to college for some kind of biology thing – or was it pharmacology? Shane couldn’t remember. But now Sebastian had his own business. And Sophia; Sophia was twenty-four and basically an entrepreneur with her farm. Shane would be thirty next year and the only thing he knew how to do was use a pricing gun on canisters of oatmeal. Even then, he sometimes forgot to switch the date on the gun.

They were also a good-looking group: stylish clothes, intentional haircuts. Sebastian probably had tattoos under all those layers of black. They liked music and computers and playing pool – he was sure their bedrooms contained more than empty shelves and a name tag on a dresser. And Sophia with her nose piercing and blonde hair and city looks, she looked fucking good next to them, like she fit in, like she belonged. Even the way she talked so easily. She was more comfortable with Sam in three minutes than Shane was in nine months of working with him.

He knew his place here.

He thought of his own washed-up appearance, always so gray, that perpetual shadow of stubble like a rain cloud on his face. Morris gave him shit for it – employees were required to be clean-shaven – but it wasn’t his fucking fault. He shaved every damn morning. How was he supposed to stop it from growing back before five o’clock? He also wore the same sneakers he’d worn for the past six years, the same cargo shorts that even Jas knew were long out of style. And his jacket, of course – the fraying threads, the eaten up cuffs. He wore the ratty thing despite the blistering day because without it he felt so exposed.

Sam and Sebastian were now arguing something about acoustics on the beach, and Abigail had pulled out her phone to text someone. But Sophia was still sitting on the table, swinging her legs slowly and watching him with a peculiar expression.

So he wasn’t completely invisible. Not to her. But at that moment, he almost wanted to be.

Still looking at Shane but addressing her question to the others, she loudly said, “So what’s so special about this luau?”

Sam and Sebastian stopped arguing, and Sebastian flicked an ash again. “Not much, unless you’re into the let's-hold-hands-with-the-whole-town thing.”

“Ah, it’s fun Seb,” said Abigail. “There’s tons of food, and the music will obviously be awesome. And it’s kind of tradition to make that big pot of soup in the middle.”

“That thing is for soup?” Sophia glanced at the cauldron in the middle of the event, propped over a fire and large enough to fit several children.

“People bring their own ingredients to add, so it’s different every year. Supposed to be this collective-effort thing.”

Sam shuddered. “Don’t eat it. Nasty as shit.”

“Then the governor shows up – some kind of publicity thing. He gets his picture taken looking all charitable with his small town visit, the valley gets a tourism boost from the papers. He’s supposed to taste the soup every year and judge it, so you can see where it’d be tempting to… sabotage things. Last year Sam got his whole family banned from adding to it.”

“People need to learn to take a joke.”

“Honestly?” said Abigail. “I’m just surprised no one’s laced it yet.”

“Me too.” Sophia shared another look with Shane. He knew what she was thinking – in the city, that shit would get someone killed. And his heart lifted just a little, sharing that glance.

Then suddenly there was Pierre, staring at them from across the beach with his arms crossed and a foul look in his eyes.

“Incoming,” sang Sam. “Don’t think your dad is cool with you hanging at the Joja booth, Abby.”

The purple-haired chick was Pierre’s daughter? This fucking town kept getting smaller and smaller.

Thankfully Shane caught sight of Patty walking toward them at the same time as the pissed shopkeeper. “I’m out,” he muttered to Sam, putting his hands in his pockets and turning to leave.

Sophia hopped off the table. “Me too.”

“You’re welcome to hang out with us,” said Abigail. “We’re just chilling until it starts, and then we get to DJ.”

“Thanks, but I’ve got some stuff to do today.”

Shane was already several paces ahead when Sophia jogged to catch up with him. “Leaving without me?”

“Why aren’t you staying?”

“Because I'm ready to go home? Pretty sure I just filled my socialization quota for the week.”

Sometimes Shane forgot that Sophia spent most of her time alone too.

“You’re still talking to me," he said.

“You don’t count.”

“Well fuck. Thanks a lot.”

She kicked sand at him as they walked. “I just mean you don’t drain me like everybody else.”

Oh.

Shane was just starting to feel happy about that when his happiness – and his step – was cut short by a plump, middle-aged woman, with makeup so loud and hair so shellacked with spray that she looked imported from the eighties. Pam. Penny’s alcoholic mother. She’d been lingering by the refreshment table, and flagged Shane down as he passed.

“Never see you in the saloon anymore!”

His face flushed hot, for the first time that day he wished Sophia would sink into the sand with the rest of the crowd. Why did Pam have to talk to him now? They’d never even spoken before. At most she used to lift her beers at him from across the bar, as if in a gesture of solidarity, a gesture saying, “Hey. You know how it is.” But that was it. 

Well, not entirely it. He had caught her staring before, but it wasn't clear if she'd been looking at him or zoning out on the fire. Then there was that one time she winked at him from under her gaudy purple eyeshadow... fuck, he’d almost forgotten how uncomfortable that moment was.

Until now.

“Er – yeah.” He tried to keep walking, but she kept talking.

“You outta money or something? Come back and I’ll buy you a beer, kid. We can put it on my tab." She barked a laugh. "It’s already a mile long, what’s another inch? Ha!”

Shane felt mortified. He couldn't even respond, he just kept walking and staring straight ahead. Maybe it was rude, but he literally did not know what the fuck else to do.

“Um…” Sophia trotted to catch up to his new speed, sucking in both of her lips and barely able to contain her laughter. “You got an admirer, Shane?”

“Just shut the fuck up.”

“It’s cute!”

“Seriously, fuck you.”

“You’re blushing. You’re so blushing.”

“Sophia, shut the fuck up.”

She didn’t look offended – on the contrary, she was laughing now – but he still felt like an ass. 

“Sorry,” he muttered. “Just in a pissy mood.”

“Don’t be sad, kid. She’s gonna buy you a beer.”

As much as he liked Sophia, Shane had the sudden urge to trip her. Just watch her face-plant right in the sand.

They were approaching the edge of the beach where the truck was parked, the area slowly filling with more vehicles as the time to luau drew nearer. Shane glanced at his aunt’s vehicle. “You need help lugging those melons?” he asked, realizing a second too late how uncomfortable that was to say aloud.

She giggled. “Why Mr. Daniels, I thought you’d never ask.” A pause. “But no, you perv, I already dropped them off. Just taking the truck back to Marnie’s now. You want a lift?”

“I can drive," he said. "Drop you off so you don't have to walk home.”

Shane hated driving in the city – it shot his anxiety through the roof – but it wasn’t half bad in Pelican Town. They only passed one other vehicle the whole way out of town, and once on the country roads it was even relaxing, surrounded by lush trees, tires crunching on the dirt road and kicking up clouds of dust. Sophia rolled down the window of the passenger side, the breeze smelling of fresh grass and whipping hair in front of her face. For once in his life he wished a drive could last longer.

Then they were at the farmhouse, and with her fingers on the door handle she said, “Hey, what are you doing later?”

Shane’s heart flipped. They never hung out on weekdays. “Nothing much.”

“You could come by after dinner. If you want. I'm thinking of trying something.”

He almost asked what it was before realizing it didn’t matter; nothing mattered except the fact that she was inviting him over.

“Yeah, I’ll come by.”

She smiled. “Good.”

Damn that crooked smile.

 


 

Six o’clock brought a peaceful, heavy feeling to the farm. The fields were bathed in after-supper sunlight, turning the grass a blinding yellow and casting long shadows from the trees. Everything felt warm and rich, and also felt slightly forbidden: being at her house so late felt like being in a museum after hours.

Sophia returned to the pond where Shane waited, carrying an armload of wood. She’d changed out of her shorts into leggings that he found even more distracting, and he tried not to get caught staring a second time that day.

“Ready to give it a trial run?” she asked, dropping the wood. 

She’d built a fire pit. Inspired by the one under the cooking pot at the beach, she’d come home and dug a hole, lining the bottom with sand and surrounding the edge with rocks. It wasn’t the prettiest thing Shane had ever seen but as Sophia arranged the wood in a teepee in the center she looked proud.

“You get it going,” she said, nodding toward a stack of newspapers and twigs off to the side, tossing a book of matches on his lap. “I’ll grab the rest of the stuff.”

Shane crumpled the papers and lit them on fire; it took a lot of trial and error before any burned long enough to transfer to the kindling. By the time Sophia returned with two folding chairs, a collapsible metal tray, and her canvas bag over one shoulder, he’d only just gotten the first licks of flame to take.

“It’s such a baby. I wanted a bonfire.”

He lit another piece of newspaper on fire, touching it to the twigs, twisting it as the flame burned closer to his hand. “I’m trying here. Either get me some gasoline, or give it a fucking minute.”

“You’re testy in the evening, aren’t you?”

“And you’re impatient.”

Sophia reached into her bag, removing a bag of pretzels and a two-liter of cola, opening the tray and setting the snacks on it. Once Shane was sure the fire wouldn’t blow out with the next breeze he sat down, and together they watched the flames slowly rise as the sun slowly sank. It would be a few hours until dark, but it was a cozy time to have a fire and though they sat mostly in silence it wasn’t an uncomfortable one; that easy silence was one of the things Shane loved most about spending time with her.

But despite the calming atmosphere, despite reminding himself that Sophia had invited him over, as the sky grew darker so did his thoughts, and he couldn’t stop his mind from raking over the events of the day. He could see her from the corner of his eye, nibbling a pretzel, and again he pictured her with Sam and Abigail and Sebastian, again saw how well she fit in with them. The longer he sat the more he could feel his mood sinking, the more his thoughts turned to brooding.

It didn’t make any fucking sense that she chose to spend her time with Shane.

He’d at least changed out of his JojaMart jacket, but glancing down at his blue hoodie he noticed a spot the size of a quarter on his chest – what looked like a grease stain.

Figures.

He sighed, a familiar feeling bubbling in his chest, an anxiousness, and a voice emerged in the back of his head urging him to smooth it all out. Telling him that five minutes into a bottle was all it would take to dissolve these thoughts from his head, to remove the restless feeling in his bouncing leg. To be able to enjoy her company instead of analyzing why the hell she chose his.

“What are you thinking?” she asked, breaking the silence.

“Nothing.”

“Liar.”

But she didn’t press, trusting Shane to come to her instead. He didn’t want to; didn’t want to talk about it or admit to her how weak he sometimes felt. But keeping quiet as the feeling escalated felt even worse, and so after a long silence, still staring at the fire, he said, “Sometimes I just really want a fucking beer.” He rubbed his face in his hands. “Dumb, I know.”

“It’s not dumb,” she said quietly.

“Just wish I could fast forward to next year or something.”

“Is it that bad? You’re not over the worst of it yet?”

He grabbed the fire poker she’d brought from the house, shifting a log and sending up a swirl of tiny orange stars, popping and crackling as they hit the air. “It’s not the quitting, Sophia, I’m really good at quitting. Done it about thirty times.” He stabbed the poker in the ash, leaving it there. “It’s the not going back, that’s the part I fucking suck at.”

She didn’t say anything for a moment, then stood abruptly and turned her chair to face his.

“Turn yours too,” she said.

Confused, Shane did as he was told. She brought her feet up next to his side, resting on his seat like a footrest, then reached down and grabbed him by his shoes, dropping them next to her own side. The length of their legs now resting together, she leaned back, slouched and relaxed, and reached for the two-liter of soda. After a long drink she handed it to him and said, “How long has it been?”

He couldn’t even react to what she’d just done; it didn’t feel real. So he took a swig of cola and stared at the crackling fire, close enough to feel the heat pulse his face. “Thirty-two days.”

“What?” Her eyes bugged in genuine shock. “Shane, that’s fantastic. That’s incredible.”

He shrugged and handed the bottle back.

“It shows, your thirty-two days.” She shook her head. “I told you, you’re looking crazy good lately.”

His heart beat harder and he closed his eyes, hoping she couldn’t feel it through the rest of his body.

Stop saying these things to me. Please stop saying these things to me. 

Back when the fantasies started they’d been so tame: the way she looked in her wet dress, the chaste touches they’d shared. But over the weeks they turned, betraying the barriers he initially laid down about what constituted respect, the filters he’d forced in place. And it wasn’t just a show of a respect, it was respect, deep and true respect for everything she was. Reverence, really. But no amount of reverence could stop the thoughts.

At first he could control them. Sophia, unhooking her bra and sliding out of her jeans after coming in for the night. Or washing her hair, fingers caressing the strands to a lather as hot water rolled down her bare shoulders. Lying naked on the bed sheets after.

Then he couldn’t control them anymore: fantasies of her stretched over every conceivable surface, her body pulsing beneath his. Of wetting his palm and pretending to be inside her. Of staring into her blue eyes, while her breathing hitched with his thrusts.

“Shane?”

He opened his eyes. “Yeah?”

“Are you even listening to me?”

“Er – sorry.” God, she was right there. He was despicable.

Then she withdrew her legs from the chair and he felt a jolt of panic not wanting her to leave, but she only kicked her boots off and put her feet back up, now in socks. He closed his eyes again, just for a moment.

“I asked how you felt about the city these days.”

He opened them again. “The city?”

“Just wondering. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.”

“You have?”

“Yeah. What it even means anymore, for people like us. I mean look at you – you’re out here for what, less than a year? And you look like you were born on that ranch. Just look at how good you are with Annabel, how much those chickens love you. You’re a total country boy.”

“Uh, not sure I’d go that far.”

She pulled her hair over one shoulder, rolling it into loose spiral. “Do you even miss it anymore? The noise, the people?”

He shrugged. He hadn’t thought about it much in the last few months. Reality was different now, in a lot of ways.

“Not at the moment.”

“So what changed?”

He knew the answer, and so did she. It was obvious what she wanted to hear. But when he didn’t speak she lifted one foot to poke him in the stomach. “What changed?”

He couldn’t help it, he was ticklish; he lurched backward at the touch and grabbed her foot instinctively to keep it away. But then he didn’t let go. Where the boldness came from he didn’t know – only that he was holding a part of her he’d never held, and she was fishing for a compliment. So he didn’t let go, holding it in one hand, a challenging expression on his face.

She tried to tug it back – a half-assed tug, Shane thought, she wasn’t even trying – and he held it firm, shrugging his eyebrows once. On the outside he was playing it cool; inwardly his thoughts were wringing their hands and racing around his brain, trying to understand how his body was doing this without their permission.

“Well if you won’t give it back you can at least give me a foot rub.”’

Those hand-wringing thoughts almost short-circuited as he began to do just that.

She blushed, squirming in her chair. “I was just teasing.” But when a straight-faced Shane continued to massage while looking her in the eye, she slowly lifted the other leg onto his lap too. For a long time he worked his thumbs against the soles of her feet through the powder-blue socks, and she pressed her back into the chair, her chin tilted down but her eyes lifted up and watching him.

You don’t do this with friends, he thought, not when you’re alone. This is how people who are dating act.

Shane did not consider himself a smart man, but he was acquainted with that look. He just wasn’t acquainted with seeing it sober; sober girls never looked at him like that, they never gave him those flirty eyes. Not in their right mind.

“Hey, I almost forgot.” Sophia craned over the side of her chair, digging in the canvas bag again and emerging with the green lei she’d put on him at the luau.

“You stole from my boss?” Shane said, as she dipped back in the bag for the purple lei she’d been wearing, slipping it around her neck.

“What can I say? I’m a sucker for petty crime.” Bending forward, she placed the green one around his head, fingertips grazing his hair. “Now you can tell everyone you got laid tonight.”

Shane felt lightheaded. But he said: “Oh, yeah, Marnie’ll be jazzed to hear it.” When she giggled, he added, “What about you?”

“Guess I can say the same thing.”

“Better come up with a better story for who you’re with.”

“Why?” She met his eye with a devilish look in her own, and their airy conversation slammed into him with the unexpected weight of a canon ball.

He stopped rubbing her feet, feeling like an idiot. “Because I’m a fucking shit stain on humanity?”

And just like that, annoyance surged across her face.

“Oh, that’s attractive.” She yanked her legs away, crossing them beneath her, and Shane was surprised to see she looked angry. “Just couldn’t fucking do it, could you?”

“Do what?”

“Feel good about yourself for one goddamn moment.” She still looked angry, but he was even more surprised to see that it was an inner storm, like she was angry at herself. “What’s the point of me being here?”

“It’s your house?”

“Don’t be dumb, Shane. Here. With you. What’s the point of being here with you if I can’t make you feel that comments like that aren’t necessary? Like, who the fuck are you trying to impress by putting yourself down like that?”

“ …no one? What the hell?”

“God, you’re infuriating.”

“I’m confused.”

She glared at him. “Tell me something. Is it really easier to say fuck off to someone’s face than it is to just say hi? Because that’s completely insane.”

“ – what?”

“Pushing people away, Shane. I’m talking about pushing people away.”

“I don’t push people away.” He spoke quickly, like a reflex, but even as he said it knew it was a heaping pile of horseshit.

“I bet you don’t even know why I talked to you in the first place.”

“Uh, not really. Been trying to tell you that for months.”

She looked furious. “It was because I knew someone like you. And she pushed people away like hell – like she thought the world would eat her alive if she acted like herself instead of some closed-off jerk.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh. And everyone we knew – cousins, kids at school, random ass people on the street – they all thought she was a bitch. And you know what? She was, she was a complete and total bitch. But not to me, and you know what that did? It spoiled normal friendship for me, because I was fucking special to her. I was the only person in the world she would open up to, the only person who knew how brilliant and funny and sweet she was. And it felt amazing, to be the only person let in like that.” She took a deep breath. “Back when we first met I saw the way you pushed everybody away. Christ Shane, that was like crack to me.”

He stared at her. “Am I supposed to be Amy in this situation?”

She tilted her head toward the sky. “I said you weren’t a project to me. I fucking lied, okay? I want to help you, I want to make you feel better. But that only works if you stop pushing me away eventually.” She looked back down. “You asked why I put up with you being such a dick in the beginning. It wasn’t out of the goodness of my heart – I saw how you acted with other people, and I wanted to be the exception. Special, like I was to Amy. I fucking miss that.”

She was winded now, and Shane found that he was breathing heavily too. He sat for awhile just absorbing what she'd said.

After a long time he said, “You are special, Sophia. And I’m not pushing you away.”

Her voice was weaker now. “Yes you are. That’s what putting yourself down does, and you know it.”

“It was a joke.”

“It was a shit one. You knew what you were doing.”

What happened to that look from a few minutes ago, the one given from under her lashes? He shifted uncomfortably. “Do you want me to just leave or something?”

She stood and grabbed the fire poker, rearranging the logs with fierce concentration. Only when she was done did she speak, a hint of pleading in her voice. “I don’t want you to drink tonight.”

“Said I wanted to. Doesn’t mean I’m going to.”

“But I just stressed you way the hell out again."

He rubbed his chin. “Doesn’t matter, Sophia..."

She began dragging the tip of the poker through the flaky white ashes in the bottom of the pit. For several minutes she moved it in nonsensical swirls, but then it looked like she was writing something. When she was done she tapped on the edge of the pit.

Shane leaned forward. Scrawled in the ash – not very legibly – were the words I’M SORRY.

“Don’t be, I’m the asshole. I should just go.”

She blurred her former message, then over it wrote NO.

“I won’t fucking drink, okay?”

Using the metal tip, she drew a fierce line beneath the word.

“So what, you just gonna make me sit here and talk to myself all night?”

Without a word she sat back down and plopped the collapsible tray between them – flimsy metal with a warped surface, the kind his dad used to eat dinner on. Reaching in her bag, she grabbed a deck of red-backed playing cards and dropped it on the surface.

“You know how to play Egyptian Rat Screw?”

“No. And what the hell kind of name is that?”

So Sophia taught him the rules, and as she did the tension melted and he began to wonder if he’d gone slightly crazy; if he'd dreamed everything that just happened. It was a fast-paced game, and with renewed happiness Shane learned it involved touching – slapping, specifically, the other person’s hand against the table when certain matches were laid down.

“You’re such a pussy,” she said, when he’d barely tapped the top of her hand.

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Look, I learned this game with a bunch of merciless cunts who were out to draw blood. They wore rings, for Christ’s sake. Don’t hold back.” She certainly didn’t, leaving Shane’s hand raw and stinging after each slam down of her own.

He enjoyed every second of it.

The sun sank lower, the fire lapping into the air beside them, and when the first game ended they started a second one. They played for a long time – until the fire spit out a live ember with a pop, one that flew onto the tray and right atop the ace of hearts. Sophia jumped up, shaking the spark to the ground and stomping it out, but it was too late: a small, black-edged hold was melted in the middle of the card.

“There goes our game,” she said sadly.

Shane checked his watch. “It’s almost Jas’s bedtime anyway. I should probably get back.”

Sophia’s eyebrows tilted, her expression going soft. “You put her to bed?”

He flushed. “We, er… read bedtime stories.” Fuck, that look on her face – like she’d just watched a commercial with puppies in it. But she didn’t tease, only smiling as she turned to repack her canvas bag.

They gathered everything and headed back to the house. Bending to set the chairs on the porch, Shane’s lei swished in front of his vision. He’d forgotten he was wearing it, and when he stood up Sophia was waiting, one hand playing with her own lei, the other behind her back.

“I’ll see you in a couple days?” he said.

She nodded, and then, on tip-toe, lifted herself up and pressed a kiss to his rough cheek. As she eased back Shane swore she was looking at him from under her lashes again – but only for a moment. Then she opened the door, spinning into the house and closing it behind her like a dancer twirled by a partner and then dipped out of sight. Shane was left alone on the porch, the imprint of her kiss hot on his skin.

He didn’t remember walking home.

Once at the ranch, he removed the lei and draped it from his lamp, staring at it for far longer than he’d ever anticipated staring at one of Morris’s possessions in his bedroom. Below it was the knit turtle, and seeing them on the same surface he wondered if this was what it meant to have a personality – that two funny knick-knacks could bring so much life to a barren room.

Ready to change into pajamas he tugged off his jeans, but halfway through paused; there was something stiff in the front pocket. Reaching in, he pulled out a playing card with a hole burnt in its center.

 

Chapter Text

The bathroom smelled like warm sugar cookies. The shower curtain was clear.

It had been a long day cramped among the cinder blocks, and when Sophia wedged herself in the tiny space between her desk and the wall to sort papers into the filing cabinet, her elbow caught on the jagged surface of the cement, tearing the skin raw. She kicked the metal drawer shut with a bang, arm stinging and suddenly pissed off. 

Matthew glared at her from over his cubicle. “Pipe down there, blondie.”

“Bite me,” she said, because that was the sort of relationship she and Matthew had – one where they jokingly told each other off while secretly meaning every word.

It was her second month as an intern, and Matthew was the closest thing she had to a friend in the building. It was a damn shame he sniveled so much. If only he’d blow his nose, just get it all out and let the snivels go dry – if he did that, she felt they could become much better friends.

That and if he stopped calling her blondie. Fuck, that name got on her nerves.

On the subway home she dug in her purse for a tissue and her water bottle, wetting the tissue and pulling down her jacket sleeve to blot against her still stinging elbow. A teenage girl sat beside her, and eyeing Sophia’s wound she pushed back in her seat, quietly saying, “Ew.”

Four more months. Four more months of the cinder blocks, and then she could work her way to an upper floor where the cubicles were grey fabric instead of grey cement and the filing cabinets didn’t require brute force to shut.

The subway prattled along, Sophia closing her eyes and letting the light jostling lull her to an almost-sleep. Somewhere deep in her purse her cell phone buzzed but she was too tired to dig for it; only one buzz anyway, just a text message. Instead she focused on the whirring of the car on its tracks, the white noise that created a pleasant static in her brain for the forty-five minute commute. Work was over and soon, blissfully, she’d be home.

It was late fall, the streets grey and the sky black by the time she stepped off the six o’clock. Heels clicking on the pavement – and god, her arches screamed – she headed to her apartment, inhaling the occasional cloud of cigarette smoke on the sidewalk.

God, she hated smoke; silently she cursed the bastards who made her walk through it.

After another block she heard an elongated, gravelly “Heyyy,” but knowing all too well that it was the heroin addict laying sprawled in his usual doorframe she stared straight ahead and ignored it. He was generally harmless, not looking for anything more than conversation, but if she accepted his greeting she’d find herself with a clingy, loquacious shadow the whole way back to her apartment.

Please ignore me. Please ignore me.

He did, and three streets later Sophia entered the doors to her apartment without further mishap.

She kicked off her heels as she entered, sending them skidding across the kitchen and slamming into the fridge. Dropping her jacket to the floor, she moved to the table where she set her purse down and dug for her phone. One new message blinked on the screen and she opened it.

I love you more than life itself.

“You sap.” She tossed the phone on the table, then went to the fridge and kicked her shoes out of the way once more before opening it. She stared at the contents, wishing something would pop out at her. Not the lasagna, they’d already had that two days in a row. Definitely not the chicken salad – that had to go.

Scraping the contents into the trash and holding her face as far from the stench as possible, Sophia yelled, “Amy? You want to just order Japanese tonight? I’m craving yakisoba, and I think the chicken salad just fucking winked at me!”

There was no answer. She looked at the plastic container she’d been scraping out of, whispered, “Sorry,” and dropped the whole thing in the trash – there was no way she’d get the smell of rotten chicken out of it.

She wandered into the bedroom they shared. Both beds empty, both tidily made. Amy must have made Sophia’s while she was at work. Sophia certainly hadn’t, and her messiness was the one thing about her that drove her sister up the wall. It wasn’t uncommon for her to come home to a clean desk or reorganized closet, a little post-it note with a heart drawn on it stuck to the surface. Peering now, she saw one such note on her pillow.

“Amy?”

But the apartment was unusually still, unusually clean even by her sister’s standards. No music or television playing in the background; the coffee table wasn't covered in its ubiquitous art supplies, the mail not in its normal spread on the counter. Absent of these everyday details, the fine hairs of Sophia’s arms began to lift off her skin, but she told herself it was nothing and headed to the bathroom to pee.

The light was already on, the door open just a crack. She slowly pushed it open the rest of the way, being met by the warm scent of a candle flickering near the sink. They weren’t supposed to burn candles in their apartment complex, but just like in the condo they’d grown up in, Amy ignored that rule. The candle reflected in the mirror, white wax pillars with dancing twin flames, blue at the base and orange at the tip.

But the shower curtain was clear. And when Sophia pulled it open, her entire world dissolved.

At first it was all hard lines. Veins frozen, full of jagged ice. The sharp scent of vanilla that she would never again smell without vomiting. A glassy stare at the ceiling, and red mermaid ribbons in the cold ceramic tub.

Then, after dragging the curtain shut again, it was the softness of everything. The stillness. The alien quiet, like the bathroom was a planet all its own. The silhouette through the plastic like an unfocused image in a camera, and the fuzziness on both sides of her vision like she’d been drugged. How the world seemed to slip in and out. How her body was weightless, like a dream.

Sophia jerked awake in bed.

Her t-shirt was damp and stuck to her back, the fine hairs framing her face clinging to her forehead. She felt the long familiar hiccup in her stomach and bolted to the bathroom, unable to make it to the toilet and throwing up in the sink. She placed her arms on either side of the basin, waiting for the next hiccup; it hit and she folded over once again.

When the last of it was gone she rinsed her mouth with water, wiping it down the length of her bare arm after. Still leaning against the counter, she stared at the sick slowly going down the drain.

Five minutes later she sat on her porch in pitch darkness in only her underwear and t-shirt, a mottled red-orange ember not far from her fingertips. She lifted the cigarette to her lips, inhaling deeply and then blowing the cool stream of smoke skyward. There was no moon tonight, only stars.

She hadn’t had a dream in months, but right after it happened she woke to them every night – months and months of reliving it every single night.

Wandering through her days like a corpse, she’d immediately moved out of their apartment and back in with her equally corpse-like parents. The six month mark came and went at her job and she kept her same shift on the underground floor, doing the same mindless paperwork day in and day out, letting every opportunity for promotion slip her by because she couldn’t find it in herself to care. Matthew moved on from his position and a new intern took his place, Rick.

Rick had a powerful personality: tall and self-assured, utterly in control of his own life. For some reason he took pity on the pale-faced girl with the lifeless eyes in the cubicle behind him, and he talked to her and joked with her, trying to make her smile.

She’d been drowning, and he’d looked so much like a life vest.

Two days after they met, he bought her a potted gerbera daisy to keep on her desk. Three days after they met she’d been hunched over paperwork in her cubicle, glancing up at a noise to find Rick sitting confidently on the edge of her desk. He told her to stand up, and she did, and then he kissed her like she'd known it was coming.

And she kissed him back, because obviously he wanted her to. But Sophia didn’t know what she wanted. She wasn’t sure she wanted anything; she just existed. So she let him decide, and right after kissing her he apparently decided he wanted more. It was minutes to closing and the underground floor was nearly empty, and once the only other employee gathered their belongings and left, she’d given him head at her own desk.

He hadn’t forced her or anything. But she also couldn’t remember how it happened so fast – one minute he’d been kissing her, the next he’d stuck fingers in the waistband of her skirt and whispered in her ear how sexy she was, convincing her it was what they both wanted; saying it was clear they’d been dancing around it for the last three days.

A week later they’d moved in together, Sophia confused and hanging on for dear life.

Six months after that, Rick didn’t miss his chance at moving up the ranks and easily got the promotion that all the interns aspired for. Six months after that, Sophia was being told what to wear, what to say, how to feel, what to think. He never raised a hand to her, but he knew best. Because she was broken, and under his twenty-four/seven care she’d be okay again. But only if she listened to him; he knew best.

The dreams never stopped. They weren’t every night anymore, instead every other or every third, but to Sophia that was worse – before she’d expected it, known that no matter what she’d wake up having to deal. Now it was Russian Roulette, a will-I won’t-I anxiety drowning her each night before sleep. And Rick, Rick who knew best, he refused to comfort her when she woke in cold sweats. Said she had to learn to ignore them and move on, and that paying attention to figments of your imagination was like giving in to a naughty child – that the attention was what caused them to keep acting up in the first place.

And the dreams felt like Amy was holding her hostage. It was either reliving that surreal, fucked-up moment of finding her body, or seeing her happy and healthy and alive, and having it feel so goddamn real that when she awoke it was like learning she’d died all over again. And with Rick she was miserable, and with her parents – their house and existence a vacuum of anything Amy, it being taboo to even mention her name – she’d felt like she was losing her goddamn mind.

Blowing another long drag out the side of her mouth, she turned the cigarette vertically between her thumb and forefinger, examining the tiny ash skyscraper ready to fall.

Moving to the valley was the only thing that stopped the dreams. For a long time she thought it was just the labor: working outside from dawn until dusk and then being so exhausted that she crashed hard all night, no energy even to dream. But soon she realized it was more than that. It was the whole place, just being in Stardew Valley at all – like she’d stopped suffocating in a bag where she was only allowed to breathe in the bad things. Alone on the farm she had all the beautiful memories of Amy without anyone pretending she’d never existed. Her sister was allowed to exist in peace, and in doing so it was like she could finally let her go.

This place. This was her sanity. And Shane, he let her talk. She’d almost invited him in that night.

That feeling in her chest as they played their card game, the one that grew hotter and hotter each time their hands touched… if he hadn’t mentioned putting his goddaughter to bed, there’s a good chance she’d have pushed him against her front door in a whirlwind of hands in his hair and lips on his mouth. She'd never been so drawn to a person in her life. 

She tried to imagine if he’d woken to find her sweaty, frightened, and vomiting – tried to imagine him saying, “Ignore it,” in an annoyed voice and rolling back to sleep.

She couldn’t do it. He might not know what to say, but Sophia knew he would never ignore it. She also knew that despite his penchant for rudeness, deep down there wasn’t a cruel bone in his body. Self-loathing bones, perhaps. Defensive bones for sure. But cruel ones? Shane would never send her a text that mocked her sister’s last living words, posing as a declaration of love.

Rick could burn in hell.

That breakneck pace of their relationship, like she’d blinked and suddenly found herself weeks or months in the future – she didn't want to blink and miss it with Shane. It had to happen naturally. It couldn’t be forced; it had to be right.

It had to be.

She still remembered sitting with him at the pond the first day he came to the farm, when she told him about Amy and he looked her square in the face and said, “No, seriously. I’m really sorry.” How those five words had brought her more peace than anything she’d heard in three years with Rick. The look on his face, the tone in his voice – it said everything about who he was.

And now he was thirty-two days sober. And it was because of her. She could lie to herself, tell herself he’d be at thirty-two days with or without her. But that’s all it would be. A lie. Even if he had dozens of reasons to want to get sober, it was because of Sophia that he was actually doing it.

Not that she deserved any credit. That was entirely Shane’s, the person who had to live with the struggle day after day. But because of Sophia’s friendship he wanted it badly enough to keep track of days, to turn that one day of not drinking into double digits, and that wasn’t trivial – for someone like Shane, nothing was harder. And perhaps it was unhealthy that he needed her, that he couldn’t find the motivation on his own, but in the selfish portion of her heart Sophia cherished that.

She was utterly okay with being his crutch. She missed being needed so badly.

It was four a.m. and the world was eerily quiet, and when a breeze finally stirred the trees it sounded like a whisper in a hushed room; felt like a ripple through still, silent water. In the distance a barn owl hooted. Sophia snubbed out her cigarette and leaned back on the porch steps, head tilted toward the sky and the pale stars that dotted it.

 

Chapter Text

The phone rang and it was JojaMart.

“Today?” mumbled Shane sleepily, listening to Morris’s plea after his aunt handed him the phone. He rubbed his eyes and checked the time: 6:34 a.m. “Yeah, okay. Fine. Be there at eight.”

Why couldn’t Morris’s weekend stock boy have waited until Sunday to get the stomach flu? Saturdays were his – his and Sophia’s. He supposed he would have to call and let her know.

He sighed and rolled out of bed to go shower, and after found Marnie in front of the TV with her coffee. She glanced at his uniform.

“Going in today?”

“Yeah,” he said, strapping his watch. “Eight hours overtime, be dumb not to.” He made no mention of needing to regain points for all the times he’d called in or been late. “You have Sophia’s number, right?”

“Surprised it took you so long to ask,” she said, smiling. But she left it at that, fetching her address book.

He flipped through to the W page. Wakeshire. The entry was still logged under Emmet, with his number crossed out and Sophia’s beneath it. He hesitated with his finger on the buttons. They’d never talked on the phone before, and even if he didn’t have crippling anxiety about making phone calls – which he did – calling Sophia would still make him feel like his breakfast was in his throat. He delayed dialing, telling himself he might wake her, but that was definitely bullshit: she was up at six every day. Staring at the ceiling, he swallowed and punched in her number.

“Hello?”

He was pleasantly surprised that his anxiety didn’t get worse when she answered. On the contrary, hearing her voice was a relief after waiting for her to pick up through all those menacing rings.

“Sophia? It’s Shane.”

Heyyy.”

Deep, slightly drawn out – that wasn’t a normal hey. Then she asked, “What’s up?” 

His heart hammered. “Marnie gave me your number. I – er – won’t be able to make it today. They asked me to fill for someone at work… I’m really sorry.”

“Oh.” Was that disappointment in her voice? “I understand. Thanks for letting me know.”

That was definitely disappointment. He shouldn’t feel so happy about her disappointment.

“I’ll still come next week,” he added quickly.

“Sure. Though, if you want—” she paused, then seemed to switch directions. “Just, feel free to keep my number. If there’s anything else.”

“Sure. Yeah. Okay.”

He would regret missing the farm that Saturday, and unbelievably it wasn’t just because of Sophia. He would miss how his body felt after working outdoors all day; he liked going to bed exhausted because it stopped him from laying awake half the night listening to the same negative thoughts on a loop. Muscles not seen since his gridball days had begun to form under the softness of his arms, and for the first time in his life he felt proud of a day’s work. Even though the chicken coop was his to manage at the ranch, it didn’t compare to laboring in the field.

At the fire that night Sophia had called him a total country boy. When he wasn’t busy denying it, he was starting to wonder if it was true.

 


 

Midweek Shane was crouched in aisle seven, restocking flour on the bottom shelf when he heard a light “Heh-hem.” He shoved the bag he was holding all the way to the back then stood up, ready to face another annoying inquiry about peanut butter or dish soap.

It was Sophia. In JojaMart. With her pale face and wide blue eyes, wearing a dress; a new dress, a white one. She leaned against the shelf next to Shane.

“Sorry to bother you, sir,” she said, in a breathy, Southern belle accent, “but I was lookin’ for a man I hear works here – a man by the name a’ Mister Daniels? You see, he was supposed ‘ta visit me down on my farm this Saturday, but I haven’t heard from him since and I’m jus’ so worried somethin’ awful happened.”

Shane stared in alarm for a second. Then he choked; he burst out in laughter.

“Stop!” She kicked him playfully with the toe of her shoe, her voice back to normal. “I practiced that all morning.”

He continued to chuckle but underneath it his heart soared. What was this magic? Not only did she just blatantly flirt with him, she'd planned it. She looked so fucking good too – of course she had to see him like this. He took off his stupid JojaMart hat, ruffling his hair. 

“Maybe he didn’t want to bother you,” he said.

She leaned against the shelf, eyes anxious. “He wouldn’t have.”

They looked at one another, Shane feeling like he was under a spotlight.

“So what,” he joked, “sudden craving for Joja cola that you just can’t ignore?”

“How did you know? Actually, I was going to try some baking today."

"Thought you were a shit cook."

"Cook, yes. Baker, I guess we'll find out. I found Grandpa’s book of family recipes. They’re even handwritten by him, but I’m missing a lot of ingredients. Pierre’s is closed on Wednesday, so…” She smiled a little, then hesitated. “Saturday felt weird without you.”

He twisted his hat in his hands. “Isn’t it the same stuff you do all week?”

“It is.” A pause. “But I missed you.”

There it was. And it was followed by a silence; a silence, Shane thought, that he was meant to fill. I missed you too. What was so hard about that? Just open his mouth, say the words – she’d already said them herself.

But no, of course not. He floundered so long that Sophia looked away.

“I have a lot of shopping to do, and you look busy… I’d better go.”

“Okay. Have fun baking.”

"I will. I, um, I guess I'll see you Saturday." She grabbed a bag of sugar, flickering a quick, uncomfortable smile before leaving down the aisle. 

Have fun baking?  That was all he could say after she told him she fucking missed him? Why couldn’t he just man up and go after her? Tap her on the shoulder from behind and say, "By the way, I think your aim was off the other night," and kiss her right on the mouth.

Yeah, right.

He jammed his hat back on and returned to the flour, wanting desperately to bang his head against the shelf.

He’d only been at it for a few minutes when Sam came down the aisle, pushing a wide broom and nodding his head up and down as if to music. He stopped next to Shane, pulling out an earphone that was carefully hidden by his hair.

“Yo, Shane.”

“Sam,” he said, not really in the mood to talk to his peppy young coworker.

Sam leaned on the handle of the broom. “So the new girl – you know her?”

He paused. “Yeah. Why?”

“Well, I’m not asking for me, but…” He looked behind his shoulder conspicuously, making sure Sophia was out of earshot. “Do you know if she’s seeing anybody?”

“Oh. Uh…”

Shane felt blindsided. How could he answer that? It wasn’t accurate to say, “Yeah, you dope, she’s seeing me,” much as he wanted to. Not counting the occasional chance meeting, he really only saw her once a week; for the most part, she spent six days and seven nights a week without him.

And fuck – she spent six days and seven nights a week without him.

How had he never realized that? What did she do with the rest of her time? She could have an entire life he didn’t know about, an entire group of friends, she could be seeing someone – maybe there was a boyfriend who came on Sundays, maybe that’s why she didn’t invite him when Saturday was cancelled. She stayed away from village gossip, but perhaps it was only to keep her own life a secret, to keep Shane a secret lest her other friends and boyfriend find out.

How much did he even know about this girl?

He shoved another bag of flour in. “I don’t know man, but I think so.”

“Oh, okay,” said Sam. “If you find out for sure let me know. Sebastian’s totally into her.”

Sebastian? Why was the goth kid interested? Didn’t he like the purple-haired girl?

What a bizarre match too, Sophia and Sebastian – it was hard to picture her with someone like that. He always looked so above it all, smoking and scowling from the sidelines.

Unlike you, Shane? Away from the crowd, drinking and moping?

“He doesn’t really seem like her type,” he scoffed, shoving flour on the next shelf with a little too much force.

“She’s definitely Seb’s type.”

“Well, pretty sure she’s seeing someone.”

Sam shrugged, putting back in his earphones. “I’ll let him know,” he said and went back to sweeping and bobbing his head.

It pissed Shane off, that Sam could see he and Sophia talking, hanging out – and not just at the store, but the luau too –  and not have it cross his mind that maybe, just maybe, she was interested in him. Like it was such an absurd, improbable thing that it hadn’t even occurred to him. Is she seeing anyone, Shane? Because I already know without asking that it couldn’t possibly be you.

He didn’t know much about Sebastian, outside of him being a programmer who probably took an hour to style that precious haircut each morning. But he was smarter than Shane. Definitely more successful. He was even taller, and all black clothes or not, he always looked so fucking polished. If the loner type was Sophia’s thing, well, wouldn’t she want one who was suave and sophisticated over one who was scruffy and miserable?

Despite the minimal time spent together each week, Shane had believed they were closer to each other than anyone else. Maybe he’d gotten that wrong; it was only an assumption. And if not, how long before she did get close to others, leaving him to silently, painfully slide down the rungs? He should have known that it was only a matter of time before someone else realized how amazing she was.

She was at the checkout now, half a dozen items in tow. A lot of shopping, she’d said, in her hurry to leave. Six whole things.

He tore open the next box and went back to slamming flour on the shelves. 

 


 

If any emotion had claws, it was doubt – the way it latched under his skin like a barb, hooking, pulling, bleeding out whatever measly self-confidence Shane had managed to muster in the past few months. His skin was so thin. He was spiraling, and he knew it.

Declining dinner at the table with Marnie and Jas that night, he grabbed a granola bar from the cupboard and closed the door to his room. There hadn’t been any cheap Joja beer in over a month, only the case of sparkling water beside his console, its cardboard torn jaggedly open. He reached in now; opening a can, he closed his eyes, curled his remaining hand into a fist and chugged.

He’d never been a very imaginative person. Not artistic because he had no vision, not a reader because he couldn’t see the words as anything beyond marks on a page. And now, trying to pretend that this carbonated but tasteless beverage was beer, his imagination let him down once more: this wasn’t beer, this was crap, and crap with no comfort, no reprieve, and absolutely no effect on the whirlpool of feelings sucking him down.

He reached for the playing card on his nightstand, flipping it over in his fingers.

Why did it suddenly feel like a bad thing?

He didn’t normally believe in signs. But what did he know, anyway? That night at the dock Sophia told him it might be a dandelion in the sidewalk; a bird’s nest in the rafters. But maybe Shane wasn’t meant for that kind of sign. Maybe his was an ace with a hole in the center, a black gash torn through a red heart.

He was dumb, but not so dumb that he didn’t realize Sophia flirted with him – and most heavily when they were off the clock, so to speak. Saturdays were like a business arrangement, but seeing her at the ranch on a Sunday, sharing a fire on a weeknight, her dropping in on his job – she acted different then. She giggled then, and she was far from a ditz. But he and Sophia most often interacted in a vacuum and he had no idea how she behaved with other guys; she could be the biggest flirt known to man and he’d be blissfully unaware. Perhaps, were she sitting at the luau fire instead of the one at the farm, it could just as easily have been another guy’s lap that she put her feet on, and that what meant the world to Shane was but a blip on her radar.

All this time he’d been so myopic, telling himself there’s no way she'd be interested in a guy like me, as if that was her only option, to be with Shane or not. For whatever godforsaken reason he’d not thought of the alternative – that Sophia could be interested in someone else, or someone else interested in her.

She said she wanted to be special to him. He hadn’t forgotten that; how could he? But plenty of people wanted to feel special to others, and just because she’d said it didn’t mean the opposite was true – it didn’t mean Shane had to be special to her. Some people just liked their own egos stroked. And hadn’t she told him to his face that he was a fucking project?

It made sense too, because that was all he could give her: the chance to feel good, to pat herself on the back for fixing him. He literally had nothing else to offer. And she’d either fix him or she wouldn’t, but eventually she’d see him for what he was, and any interest she had would be gone.

Because he was nothing. He was jack shit.

He drank a second can, then a third can, and when done he crushed each one in his hand and left them on the floor before walking out of the room.

“Jas?” He knocked on his goddaughter’s half-closed door, stepping inside. Dressed in a tulle skirt and a plastic tiara on her head, she brightened at seeing him – it was still twenty minutes before bedtime, twenty minutes before he’d insist they settle down and read books.

“Do you want to play princesses?”

He made a face. “Do I look like a princess to you?”

She sucked in her lips, trying hard not to smile, then beckoned him over with one tiny finger. She pulled off the pink-jeweled tiara and he knelt so she could place it on his head.

“You’re pretty,” she said.

“Thanks.” Still kneeling, he looked at her seriously. “Hey, listen. I know it’s a school night, but what do you say you and I get outta here for awhile?”

Her eyes, naturally large, grew even larger. “We get to go somewhere tonight?”

“Yep. You in?”

“I’m IN!” She jumped, shouting the last word. Then she grabbed a fistful of tulle skirt. “Can I still be a princess?”

“Duh.”

Wearing a light purple jacket over her royal attire, clutching her godfather’s hand, Jas entered the living room with Shane to find a very surprised Marnie. She set down her crossword puzzle, eyebrows lifting so far into her frizzy bangs that they disappeared. “Going somewhere? Isn’t it almost bedtime?”

Jas was so excited she sparkled. “It’s a surprise!”

“Oh?” Marnie looked to Shane.

“Er – the D-O-C-K,” he said, and Jas wrinkled her nose at him; she hated when they spelled things. Though based on her progress during bedtime stories, it wasn’t like he could do it much longer.

“Ah,” said Marnie. “On a school night, too. Sounds like someone is getting a special treat.”

Jas raced to the door, and Marnie caught Shane’s eye a final time. The look was so full of love and approval that Shane wanted to race out the door after his goddaughter, especially when Marnie’s eyes flickered to the crown in his hair. She couldn’t stop smiling.

“Oh, shut up,” he said, grabbing his jacket.

The trail through Cindersap forest was soft with the light of dusk, nighttime insects just beginning to hiss. Jas skipped the whole way, getting far ahead of Shane and then loping back like an over-eager dog on a walk. She found a stick on the ground which she made into a fairy wand, bouncing from tree to tree and tapping them saying, “You’re free! You’re free!”

“What’s free?” he finally asked, when she made another loop around him.

“The tree spirits! The wizard in the forest trapped them there one hundred years ago and I’m setting them free.”

“Oh. Of course. Don’t let me stop you.”

She’d been burning so brightly since he started spending more time with her: full of smiles and giggles, humming songs as she played, barreling into his legs each day when he returned home from work. Of course, he thought, with a stab of regret, maybe she’d always burned this brightly. Maybe he just hadn’t been around enough to see it.

By the time they reached the dock and settled at the end with their feet dangling, the sun had already sunk behind the trees, the sky the color and consistency of pale cotton candy – blues, purples and pinks that would last only a few minutes more. Jas sat kicking her legs, tapping her wand on her knee. Then Shane unzipped his jacket and pulled out a bag of colorful marshmallows he’d been hiding.

She stopped tapping. “Marshmallows too?”

"Yep." He ripped it open, and as she grabbed a handful he said, “You’re good company."

“I know."

“Well, did you know I come out here a lot?”

“All by yourself?”

“Yep.”

“Isn't it scary at night?”

“Nope, I like it. But I didn’t want to be alone tonight.” He paused, wondering how much of it he should tell her. She was smart; kids were always smarter than adults gave them credit for. “Do you know why I didn’t want to be alone?”

“No. Why?”

“Remember when I told you that I have a hard time with things? That sometimes I feel sick?”

She nodded very seriously, putting a lime green marshmallow in her mouth.

“Well, I was feeling pretty sick after work. I wasn’t having a very good day.”

“Aunt Marnie said you were in a bad mood.”

“I was. But hanging out with you is making it better.”

“Aunt Marnie says that going to Miss Sophia’s house puts you in a good mood.”

That was true as well, but he didn’t say it.

“Are you sure she’s not your girlfriend?”

Tiny stars were beginning to salt the muted pastel of the sky. Shane focused on connecting them, mentally drawing several constellations before speaking. “Jas, if I tell you something, promise to keep it a secret?”

“I promise. I’m really, really good at keeping secrets.” She pretended to zip her lips.

“Sophia’s not my girlfriend. But I wish she was.”

She picked out a pink marshmallow, squishing it between her fingers before popping it in her mouth. “Why don’t you ask her?”

“It’s not that easy, kid.”

“You could draw her a picture. Vincent drew me a picture and I said I’d go out with him.”

“Vincent’s your boyfriend?”

She nodded. “We’ll probably get married. But I told him we have to wait until we’re older and we can drive.”

“Yeah, that’s smart.” Shane dropped a handful of marshmallows in his mouth, even though he didn’t really like them.

“I can help you draw a picture for Miss Sophia. I’m really good at drawing.”

“I’m not. But you can draw one if you want. I’ll give it to her Saturday.”

“Okay!”

“What are you gonna draw?”

“I don’t know yet.” She bit her lip, then shrugged and picked up her wand again, attempting to spear one of the marshmallows on its end.

For some reason, Shane really liked talking about Sophia with Jas. Maybe because he didn’t have anyone else to share with. Maybe because Jas accepted things so easily, like Sophia herself.

“You know, she really loves horses. Maybe you could draw her a picture of Annabel.”

“Okay. I’m good at drawing animals.” The first marshmallow speared on the wand, she focused on doing another. “You could write her a poem. Or give her your favorite candy. Vincent gives me all his red gummy worms because I hate the green ones.”

“So that’s why you come home all sugared up.”

She looked up at him, raising her eyebrows and trying hard not to smile like she knew she’d been caught.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell Aunt Marnie. And Vincent, he sounds like a pretty good guy.” He held out his pinky. “I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.”

She hooked hers around it, shaking on it.

They sat quietly for a few minutes swinging their legs, then Shane wrapped his arm around her and kissed the top of her head. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“I almost made a dumb decision tonight. Having you here stopped me.”

“Oh. Okay.” She shrugged. “You’re welcome.”

The pastel sky had given way to deep blue, and Shane noticed the lightning bugs flickering in and out of sight in the grass near shore. He remembered catching them in his hands as a boy. Never a jar, just his hands; just long enough to feel the flutter of their wings and peek in the crevices of his fingers to see their neon bodies.

This was a better place for Jas. No matter his own feelings toward the city – and truthfully, he wasn’t sure how he felt anymore – there was no contest when it came to her. In the city he’d be lucky to find them a moldy basement apartment on his salary. But out here, thanks to Marnie, she had a beautiful, spacious house with her own bedroom, dozens of animals to play with, woods and fields to explore: all the best parts of his own childhood. She had a best friend – a boyfriend, apparently – and no matter how Penny felt about Shane, she was a good teacher who adored Jas and who cared enough to spend time with her at events outside of school, like the dance.

This was the best place for her. It was probably the best place for him too.

But the peace couldn’t last. Later that night after Jas was asleep, Shane’s dark mood returned, even heavier than before. He lay on top of his covers and stared at the ace of hearts, sure now that it was an ominous sign. At long last he opened his nightstand and dropped it in the almost empty drawer next to Sophia’s birthday card. He rolled on his back and stared at the ceiling, but a few minutes later reopened the drawer and dropped in the turtle and the lei as well, feeling like everything was mocking him.

Maybe it was as easy as Jas said: why don’t you ask her?

But hard as that'd be on its own, it wasn't the asking that stopped him. It was being able to accept her answer, whatever it may be. Not knowing was tough, but if she didn’t feel the same it would gut him; he wasn't sure he could accept that, and until he could, he couldn’t ask.

When Shane was all Sophia had, when she had nothing else to compare him to, maybe he didn’t look so bad. But if she got close to anyone – literally anyone else in town – it wouldn’t take long for him to fade. And it wasn’t just appearances. It was his lack of goals and ambitions and a future, all the poor choices he’d made in the past. The empty fucking pit in his soul where a personality was supposed to live. The negativity that festered in his brain like a cancer, occasionally in remission but never cured.

He was still spiraling, and he knew it.

 

Chapter Text

The Dance of the Moonlight Jellies was to happen the following Thursday night. Rather than a day on the calendar, the migration of the phosphorescent species of jellyfish was what marked the turn of the season in Stardew Valley. It was said the whole town turned up at the beach after dark to witness the spectacle, and unlike the festivals before it Sophia couldn’t wait.  

It was hard to believe it was already the end of the summer, especially knowing that Shane had been with her every Saturday since it started. In some ways it felt much longer, and in other ways everything still seemed brand new.

She wasn’t sure where she stood with him after her visit to JojaMart. What she did know was that she primped far too long in front of the mirror when she knew he'd be coming over. That she made unnecessary trips to Pierre’s in hopes of running into him on his route to and from work, the way a schoolgirl might hang around the hallway of her crush’s locker. And when he called that morning— “Sophia? It’s Shane,” —the way his voice sounded right in her ear, it made her blush as if he’d been physically standing there. She felt giddy; she felt high. And finally she’d done it: taken the chance into moving beyond casual friendship, into a realm that involved cheek kisses, visiting him at work, saying “I missed you."

And he didn’t say it back – didn’t say anything. Just like when she asked him, drunk, whether they could do it without drinking, and he left her unanswered. When she said “Keep my number” and then he didn’t call. When she made a joke about them fucking sleeping together and he rolled it away in a ball of self-deprecation.

She was so tired of her advances being given a blank stare. All summer long they'd flirted, but now that she was seriously putting herself out there it was like he couldn't backpedal fast enough. 

On Saturday they settled into their normal routine, this time on the coop project they’d started weeks ago and never finished. Sophia climbed on a stack of old hay bales next to where Shane was prying the nails off several rotting boards with a hammer. While she was used to the comfortable silence between them while they worked – even come to expect and enjoy it – he was quieter than usual, avoiding her gaze and barely saying a word since he’d arrived. She hadn’t seen him so moody in months. 

He was wearing that damn white t-shirt again, sweating through it slightly, and with his sullenness came extra-hard focus; he hadn’t stopped in hours.

She playfully kicked her legs, looking down. “Hey – come take a break.”  

He finished prying out the nail he’d been working on, tossing it in an empty ice cream bucket at his feet. “Too much to do.”

“Why don’t you let the lady of the farm decide that?” she teased, hoping for a smile. But none came, and when he continued to pry off the board with an almost comical amount of concentration, she threw a piece of hay at him. “Shane! What’s with you today?”

“Now there’s something wrong with me?”

“I didn’t say that. I just want to know why you’re acting so weird.”

“I’m not.”

“Yes you are.”

“I’m just busy, okay? Thought that’s what I came over here for?”

“Fuck me,” she swore, hopping off the hay bales and leaving him alone in the coop.

An hour later he approached her as she was kneeling in the dirt, using twine to twist her tomato plants up a trellis. It was late in the season but several of them were still bearing fruit.

“Sophia?” She looked up, and he tossed a handful of hay on her. “I’m sorry.”

She dropped on her butt beside the tomatoes, shaking her head and brushing the hay from her hair. “Sit.”

He sat.

“Are you okay? Tell me the truth.”

“Yeah… I know I’m being a prick today.”

“Do you want to talk about anything?”

“Not really. Just a bad mood.”

She grabbed one of the individual stalks of hay from the ground, then reached over and tucked it into the crevice above his ear. He didn’t react.

“Hey,” she said. “You heard about the Dance of the Moonlight Jellies, Thursday after next?”

“Er, yeah.”

“Are you going?”

He hesitated. “The whole town’s gonna be there.”

“Yeah, but it won’t be like the other festivals. This one is after dark.”

“It’ll still be packed.” He shook his head. “Fuck that.”

“Come on, this isn’t some lame dance. It’s glow-in-the-dark jellyfish that light up the whole beach. Tell me that’s not amazing.”

“Not enough to make me go.”

“Why not? Who cares if a bunch of people are there?”

He picked up a handful of dirt, straining it from one hand to the other. “Obviously I do.”

“But I wanted you to go with me. What does it matter if other people are there too?”

“It just does.”

“But why?”

“Because I hate being around them, okay Sophia? Because it makes me feel like fucking shit. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

“Of course not. But seriously Shane? You’re going to miss an amazing display of nature like that because you might see someone at a town function?”

“Fuck, it’s not seeing them, it’s – god, just stop pushing me.” He flung his handful of dirt, staring moodily at the tomatoes.

She stood up. “Okay, okay, I’ll take the hint. Jeez.”

He was determined both to maintain his foul mood and to – infuriatingly – remain standing where he was, no matter how close Sophia moved toward him.

She pulled out the piece of straw she’d stuck behind his ear and dropped it to the ground, then sighed and walked away.

 


 

Moodiness, Sophia realized that week, was contagious.

She woke grumpy and irritable the next several days, throwing herself twice as hard into her farm work yet enjoying it half as much. The head of her hoe broke from slamming it into the ground too hard, and the sprinklers they’d installed were acting up and she found herself kicking them like a child. Even the birdsong carrying over from the orchard grated on her nerves. Come Friday night she decided to go to the saloon, even if it was just to make small talk with Emily and Gus – anything not to sit at home and stir in her miserable mood.

Shane mentioned that he still went some Friday nights. Testing his resolve, he said, and so far doing well with it. But it was still a gamble if he’d show up, and whether she wanted him there or not, she hadn’t decided.

Two hours later there was another explosion of outfits on her bed, Sophia standing in front of the mirror and tugging multiple shirts on and off in an effort to find what looked best. She’d never been the type to stress about clothes before a date, yet here she was, doing exactly that for a chance run-in she wasn’t even sure she wanted to have.

At quarter to nine she finally entered the Stardrop Saloon, a gale of warmth and laughter sweeping her in the door. She was greeted first by Gus and Emily, then by the mayor, then by the man named Elliott she’d first met at the flower dance – even by the town doctor, sipping an ale and getting droplets of foam on his handlebar moustache. It felt like being in a parade as she made her way to the bar to order a soda and plate of pepper poppers.

She glanced at Shane’s usual table, and the twirling in her stomach betrayed all the uncertain feelings she’d had at her house, exposing them for the lies they were: she wanted him there. A lot. But his table was empty, and she knew enough to know that if he wasn’t at that table, he wasn’t at the bar at all.

Unless – yes, perhaps he was in the men’s room. Her stomach twirled again around that tiny bit of hope, and once Gus handed over her drink she walked to his table and sat down, hopefully waiting for him.

Because this was bullshit. This was all such bullshit. He liked her – it was obvious he liked her. He was going through some stuff at the moment, some kind of inner crisis, but he did. She refused to let herself believe differently.

But she waited a long time; even if he drank the house dry he’d be out of the bathroom by now, and Sophia stopped hoping. Slumping in her seat, clutching her glass and staring at the fire, she was too moody to realize that she was doing quite a good impression of Shane herself. She couldn’t even remember her reason for leaving the house in the first place, and had just finished making up her mind to have Emily box her food to take home when someone approached from behind.

“Hey, it’s Sophia, right?”

It was Sam, the blonde-haired kid who worked with Shane at JojaMart. Damn his poor timing.

“Sam. Hi.”

“Were you waiting on someone?” he asked, glancing around. Sophia didn’t know if that question was pointed or not; she didn’t know if Sam knew this was Shane’s table.

“Just Emily. She’s bringing my pepper poppers.”

“Well, if you’re not doing anything, Sebastian and Abigail and I were playing some pool in the other room – we were wondering if you wanted to join us.”

“Oh.”

Sophia was honestly surprised. Other than introductions when she first came to the valley – and then again briefly at the luau – she’d never talked to any of them. They seemed nice enough, but the invitation still caught her off guard.

“No pressure,” said Sam quickly. “We’re just casual about it, though Sebastian doesn’t have a lot of mercy on newcomers.”

“I haven’t played pool in years.”

“Seb’s tough to beat, but you’ll probably still kick my ass – I suck.”

She mouthed thank you as Emily arrived with her plate, weighing her options – her heart was screaming to go home, but her brain stepped in to remind her that she’d come to get away from her awful mood. With a final glance at Shane’s empty chair, she stood. “Okay, let’s go.”

Stepping into the game room, she was greeted immediately by Abigail, smiling warmly and saying, “Hey, farmer.”

Abigail had the same youthful vibe as Sam, but aside from that Sophia was startled by how much her tastes resembled Amy’s – her hair was dyed vivid purple, and she wore a black top with corset-style ties that her sister would’ve worn in a heartbeat. Even her mannerisms: the cross-armed stance as she relaxed on the game room couch, several ringed fingers casually tapping her elbows. It screamed Amy so much that Sophia didn’t even notice Sebastian in the room until he handed her a pool stick.

“Hey,” he said coolly. “You want first game?”

“Oh – sure.”

She felt suddenly self-conscious. Sam and Abigail were bubbly, but Sebastian was the type of aloof you could feel from across the room. Black clothes, dark hair brushed expertly to one side, all with a surprising sophistication – there was an effortlessness to his look, none of the clunky misfortune found in teenagers who favored the same monochromatic style. He seemed several years older than his two friends.

“I warn you, I won’t go easy just because you’re new.”

“That’s okay. I don’t like to show off my prowess too early anyway.”

He gave a small smirk and went to rack the table.

Sophia enjoyed herself more than she expected to. The longer they played the more she realized that despite exteriors, they were all a bit goofy and dorky – Sebastian and Sam liked fantasy tabletop games, Abigail kept a pet hamster. They each played an instrument and had impromptu jam sessions at Sam’s house, “just noodling,” as Abigail put it. Even the aloofness she’d assigned to Sebastian was only half true – he was definitely the quietest of the group, more into adding sarcastic quips to the conversation than actual sentences – but he was still friendly enough, and Sophia welcomed the distraction they all provided.  

Abigail preferred watching pool to playing it so Sophia took turns taking on the two boys. After a game in which she’d beaten Sam by a landslide – kicking his ass, as foretold – she was in the middle of a much tougher match against Sebastian when the bell at the front door jingled; she barely noticed.

Sebastian was making a real task of lining up his next shot to perfection, Sam rolling his eyes on the side, so Sophia leaned against her cue stick and talked to Abigail while she waited. As it turned out, she and Amy had more in common than just fashion.

“Oh yeah,” said Abigail enthusiastically, “I’m majorly into that stuff. I even have an antique spirit board – apparently it’s older than the whole town. Think back to the witch trials.”

Sophia had mentioned Amy, but strategically, implying that she was still alive and living in Zuzu City.

“My sister had one she bought from a band of gypsies who came through the city. My mom tried to throw it away because the damn thing creeped her out so much, and when Amy found it in the trash she started moving it all around the apartment at night to places my mom would eventually run across it – the linen closet, under her mattress. Let it sit for weeks sometimes, just for that moment she’d find it and scream.”

Abigail laughed. “I so need to do that to my dad. He always asks when I’m going to outgrow this stuff, but I think it’s because it seriously spooks him.” She tucked a purple strand behind her ear. “What about séances? Ever get roped into any of those?”

“Try every other week.”

“I want Sam and Seb to do them with me, but they’re too chicken.”

Sebastian overheard and rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that’s why.”

“Your shot, Sophia,” said Sam loudly.

Sophia looked up, and from her place in the room she had a clear view of the main bar – where Shane now stood, waiting on his drink. He must’ve heard Sam saying her name, because he looked up at the same time she did. Their eyes met, and he stared for a long moment before turning away.

“Oh – right,” she said, disoriented. She took her shot without much thought and it missed by several inches, then glanced at the bar in time to see Emily pass Shane a glass with clear, bubbly liquid.

For the remainder of the match she kept nervously glancing his direction, but he never once looked back. Her heart wasn’t in the game anymore; she was too distracted trying to keep tabs across the bar and Sebastian beat her easily.

Passing the cue to Sam she said, “Your game. I’ll be right back, you guys.”

She walked out to the main bar, where Shane sat with his back to everyone in the same chair she’d been in the hour before. While she’d planned to go straight toward him, when finally within range she chickened out and veered into the ladies room instead.

Was she annoying him? Was he avoiding her, after she’d embarrassingly thrown herself at him in JojaMart? Because that’s what it felt like at the time, throwing herself at him. Then the past two Saturdays, missing the first one and being in such a foul mood the next – was he mad at her? She had no idea what she’d done wrong. Tears pricked her eyes and she took a few deep breaths to compose herself, and when sure they wouldn’t spill over exited back to the bar.

Heart thumping, she went to his table. “Shane?”

He glanced up with only his eyes, the same look he’d given her the first time she approached him back in the spring.

“Hi.”

She sat down. “I looked for you earlier. I guess you came later than usual.”

“Yeah.” He took a drink of the clear beverage, which was almost empty. “Aren’t you busy or something?”

“What, the game room? That wasn’t planned, they invited me after I showed up.”

“Well go back. I have a headache and don’t really want to talk right now.”

“I can say goodbye to them. We could go somewhere else, somewhere quieter. I – I could walk you home, since you aren’t feeling well.”

“I’m fine. Just go.”

She nodded toward his glass. “Still not beer,” she said softly.

He didn’t quite meet her eyes, and as if on cue Emily swung by, setting a foaming pint in front of him.

“Back again, Sophia?” she said, eyes shining. “Weren’t you just at this table earlier?” Then she tapped the wood next to the pint, said, “Enjoy, Shane,” and walked away, leaving both of them redder than she’d found them.

Sophia stared at the pint. For a moment neither of them said anything, but eventually she looked up. “Shane?”

“Just leave me alone.”

She pointed at the glass with the foaming amber liquid. “What the shit is this?”

“What the shit do you think it is?”

“Why?” The tears that pricked her eyes in the bathroom returned with a vengeance and she blinked, trying to keep them at bay. “Forty-three days – what the hell are you doing?”

“Keeping track of me now?”

Yes, she was. She’d been counting the days with him ever since he told her his number.

Forty-three days, Shane. I don’t understand…”

“Five days,” he corrected, and her body ran cold. Then he took a long swig of his beer, set it on the table, and stared at it for what felt like an hour. “Zero days.”

A single tear began to crawl down her cheek. “Why? What the hell is going on with you? Will you just talk to me? Why would you throw it all away?”

“Jesus, Sophia, you’re not my fucking mother.”

It stung like a whip. Like none of the last few months mattered, like their talk the night of the luau meant nothing. When she spoke, her voice came out in a whisper. “Are you even coming over tomorrow?”

Elbows on the table, he rubbed a hand over his eyes. “Yes, I’ll be there. Now go away.”

“Sha—”

“Please.” His hand slid down to cover his nose, and distraught eyes looked at her from above it. “Please go?”

She was too hurt to even be angry. Movements wooden, she stood, pushed in her chair, and walked slowly back to the game room. Twice she glanced back, but he never looked up from the table.

He’d walked in ordering a soda, maybe a seltzer water. A few minutes after seeing her he’d ordered a beer. How could she not read into that?

But she shouldn’t have left him. Should’ve let him get angry, shout at her, cuss her out in front of the bar. Should’ve said, “No, I will not go away,” and planted herself like a boulder, grabbed his beer and dumped it on the floor – anything for him not to take that first sip, because when she looked back a few minutes later her heart broke in half.

Shane leaned on the counter of the bar, leg jiggling anxiously as he waited, much like the night they’d been first introduced. Then she watched as Gus deposited not one, but five tall shot glasses in front of him, as he threw his head back and downed them, one, two, three, four, five; as he scrubbed his fingers through his hair, turning and walking out of the saloon.

She flinched at the quiet slam of the door behind him, though she doubted anyone else in the bar even heard it. Trembling, she sat down on the couch next to Abigail.

“Sophia, are you okay? You’ve been so pale since you returned from the bathroom – do you feel all right?” Abigail looked at her with concern, a very sweet gesture considering they’d been friends for maybe an hour.

“What?” Sophia glanced around the game room, feeling like she’d never seen it before. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

But while they sat watching the boys play pool, she thought only of Shane.

Five days. Five days ago was Sunday, and she was an idiot. Because it was obvious –  obvious now that he’d spent the weekend drinking, that his moodiness had been some angry combination of hangover and regret. She’d been so dumb not to see it. And it was also obvious that when times got rough, Shane chose to push her away rather than lean on her; so much for being his crutch.

She didn’t even realize the match had finished until Sebastian offered her the cue stick again.

“Another game?”

She blinked. “Actually, I think I need to go.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Abigail still looked concerned.

“Yeah. I’ve just developed a bad headache… I should go home. It was fun guys, thanks.” She stood, looking around for her jacket before remembering she hadn’t worn one, then with three pairs of curious eyes on her she walked out of the game room.  

She headed straight for the dock. What if he was reckless? What if he got himself hurt? She was haunted by visions of a barely conscious Shane, unable to stand on his own, and she kicked herself for not following him immediately – adult or not, he was in a vulnerable headspace and couldn’t be trusted with himself. But he wasn’t there; he wasn’t at the dock or anywhere on the trail, and when she stopped on the road leading back she saw several lights on inside the ranch house, including the one to his bedroom.

Breathing a sigh of relief she started walking home again, but her heart still hung in two pieces.  

 

Chapter Text

Pacing.

More pacing.

A head tilted toward the ceiling in exasperation. A pause before a wall; a handful of darts.

One, two, three, four.

All wild throws, all missing the red and green segments of the dartboard and embedding into the white wall behind it – four new holes to accompany the hundreds of others.

And he was a sharp shot. It was unusual for him to miss even a triple, let alone the entire board. It was Shane who had the shit aim, and most of those errant shots belonged to him. But the couple dozen that didn’t?

They sort of belonged to him anyway. He was the reason they were there, at least.

“God damn it, man. Why does this always happen? Why does this alwaysFuckingHappen.” Three more darts found a home in the plaster, one for each of the final words.

Shane laid on the sofa looking at the high ceiling of the spacious room. One arm rested behind his head, the other played with the crumpled piece of paper in his pocket, turning it over and over in his fingers as he stared at the surface above.

It took a person down dark mental paths, relapse. Knowing he’d colossally fucked things up again, that in a single hour of weakness he’d destroyed a month’s worth of progress – that particular feeling dragged him far deeper into the twisted part of his brain than whatever it was that made him drink in the first place. It was when he woke the following morning and realized his night had gone missing yet again; when he tried to roll over only to find his chest pinned by iron barbells of shame and self-loathing.

But this time in his night missing from memory, his inebriated self had been kind enough to leave a message. A small reminder of what had transpired, and no one had seen it but him. He played with it now in his pocket – the balled piece of paper that had been flat when he found it there that morning.

Shane was eighteen. He’d been trying for sobriety for two years, he’d failed a dozen times, and now he’d written one suicide note. And Garrett, who had the patience of a saint every other day of the year, was blowing up around Shane like his own personal tornado.

His best friend had the sort of good looks that girls who liked the class clowns went for: ears that jutted out too far, a smile that managed to be both charming and a little ridiculous at the same time. He had the type of face that looked pleasant even when pissed, that could try to instigate a fistfight and have the other party think it a joke.

Except for now. Right now, nothing could take away from the dark passion on his face.

“Why can you never just fucking talk to me? Why can’t you just tell me when it’s happening?” He swatted a chair next to the pool table, sending it flying several feet into the wall. “You’re a grade-A dick man, you’re the biggest asshole I ever met. Fucking sick of just looking at you right now. Seriously, get the fuck out of my face.”

“I’m not in your fucking face, I’m on your fucking couch,” grumbled Shane, closing his eyes.

He was pelted hard with a pillow. Then another one. Then Garrett was standing over his head, beating him with it.

“Jesus Christ man, stop.”

Garrett chucked the pillow behind him, still standing next to the couch.

“Get up.”

“Gimme an hour.”

“I said, get the fuck up.”

Shane’s skin felt like lead. He sighed, standing up against the crushing pressure; maybe this was what it felt like to be thousands of leagues underwater. But then the pressure increased even more as Garrett seized him into a hug, clamping his shoulders like a vice. He was taller than Shane by several inches, and spoke into his hair.

“You’ll get through it man. You’ll do it all again, and this time it’ll be for good.”

 


 

For the second time in his life, Shane woke to a drunken message from himself. Only this time it wasn’t on a scrap of paper in his pocket – it was on Sophia’s card. It’d found its way to his nightstand again, the elegant script of her birthday greeting now overlapped with his own awful handwriting:

dont be a fucking pussy for once in your life just stop being such a FUCKING PUSSY. ASK HER. she wants to go and what kind of loser is scared to go get the FUCK over yourself and go to the stupid jellfish thing and just fucking ask her to go with you you dumbass

He sighed and lay back down.

Not only had he defiled one of the only possessions that meant anything to him, but he’d done it by scribbling like a profane child.

He was losing a lot of nights again.

Jas’s company at the dock had saved him that Wednesday night, but what did it matter if he blew it all the following day? Because he had; he’d gone to the saloon the next few days, drinking until closing, crashing at Gus’s table and waking to the bartender gently shaking his shoulder. Which of course meant he’d gone to Sophia’s with a monstrous hangover that weekend, acting like his old jerk self.

God, he’d been a dick. How many times was he going to treat her like shit before she had enough? He’d even tried to apologize that afternoon, but then she brought up the stupid festival and he’d gotten pissy all over again.

Because it wasn’t a stupid festival. Out of the full calendar of town events, it was the only one Shane gave a damn about. An after-dark migration of glowing jellyfish through the sea? That was no lame dance or luau, that was some phenomena of nature shit, and the thought of experiencing something so intimate with Sophia made his heart pump.

Except he couldn’t. Because it wasn’t intimate. It was, according to Marnie, the most popular festival of the year. Twenty minutes at the luau alone had dropped him into a black hole of inferiority; he couldn’t attend another function in Sophia’s presence, not if he was going to be surrounded by hundreds of people and the endless comparisons to them that his brain would insist on making. Then there was Sophia herself, having to be seen in public with a loser like him.

How did that not bother her?

If only they could be there alone – if only there were somewhere quiet to go, somewhere private. Surely they could find somewhere on the whole stretch of beach…

He stared at the ugly words on the paper: Pussy. Loser. Dumbass.

And of course: get the fuck over yourself.

He scrubbed his hands violently through his hair, staring at his reflection in the mirror.

He’d do it. He’d fucking force himself to.

After finding that note he stopped drinking again. He fell asleep in the middle of pep talks to himself, in the middle of thinking about what Garrett would say if he blew this chance with her; he was determined, feeling strong even, and on Friday went to the saloon to prove once more that he could do it without drinking.

And he couldn’t. Because there was Sophia, across the pool table from Sebastian, laughing and beautiful and looking like she was having more fun than she’d ever had with Shane.

Fucker didn’t waste any time.

Not that he hated Sebastian, exactly. He didn’t even know the guy. And could he blame him, when he himself was almost stupid with attraction for her? Could he blame him for having the balls to ask her to hang out? Shane – who already hung out with her by default once a week – didn’t even have the balls to do that. Not even when she kissed his cheek or said that she missed him.

But she had done those things.

She had.

Her flirting with him, it hadn’t been a dream. It’d been real. Even his drunk self knew it, leaving him that reminder, demanding he not fuck it up. And maybe he already had. That look on her face when he took his first sip of beer – yes, there was a good chance he’d fucked it up already. But today was Saturday, possibly the last day he’d see her before the festival. And after these last few weeks of face-planting, he had nothing left to lose.

Today he would ask her.

Walking down the country lane to the farm, there were two pieces of paper in Shane’s pocket: Jas’s drawing of Annabel and his newly scribbled-upon birthday card. The first was to give Sophia. The second was to keep in his pocket, where it could burn as a reminder all day.

He hadn’t felt this nervous approaching the farm since his very first weekend with her, and the tension was palpable the moment he arrived. The stilted hellos, the formal way she led him to the shed to pick out their tools – she was acting like Marnie had those weeks after the disaster at the dock, seemingly terrified to breathe too hard and watch him crack.

It was too difficult to start with the apology. Instead he pulled out Jas’s drawing, a brown horse with extremely long legs, a girl sitting on top with yellow hair and what looked like three nostrils. He spread it open and tried to flatten the crease on his jeans.

“Sophia?”

She turned, a shovel in one hand, and he hated the look on her face. Like she was fucking afraid of him, like he was a bomb ready to detonate.

“Here,” he mumbled, shoving the picture toward her. “Jas drew it for you.”

It was immediate, the way she softened, and for a moment she stopped looking afraid. Her eyes danced over the page. “Is that supposed to be my piercing?” she asked, pointing at the three nostrils.

“Er – I think so.”

She smiled, a natural one, and Shane breathed a sigh of relief.

“Tell her I love it and that it’s going on my fridge.”

“I will.” He shifted from foot to foot, staring at the rack of tools behind her: rakes, shovels, trowels, hoes. Fuck, this was hard. Finally he swallowed and blurted, “Look, can I say I’m sorry?”

She’d been reaching for a trowel; she paused, then leaned against a nearby beam and crossed her arms. “I don’t know. Can you?”

The words were snarky, but the tone she used soft.

He clasped his hands behind his head, stretching his face to the ceiling and watching several strands of cobweb dance. “God Sophia. I’m so sorry.”

Now she leaned her head against the beam too. “I wasn’t trying to nag you, Shane, I really wasn’t. I’m just worried about you, you know?”

He cringed, remembering his you’re not my mother line. “I know,” he said, voice strained.

“You still don’t want to talk about shit? I’m always right here. You should fucking know that by now.”

He shook his head. “As long as… I mean, we’re good, right?”

“Yeah Shane. We’re good.” But she sounded tired while saying it.

The ice was melted, but the rest of the day remained quiet. They mostly worked on separate projects, Shane breaking ground for the fall crops she’d be planting soon, Sophia on the opposite side of the yard tending to her summer ones.

Ask her.

He twisted the cultivator in the ground, breaking loose the soil.

Ask her.

He jumped on the edges of the shovel with both feet to jam it into the dirt.

Ask. Her.  

He wiped the sweat off his forehead and leaned on the shovel, staring in the distance at the sun that brushed the treetops in liquid gold. It was hot and bright and late; soon they’d be wrapping up for the day. Sophia had moved from her crops to the small flower bed near the pond, bent on her knees in the dirt and yanking weeds by the handful, the hair that usually formed wispy tendrils around her face falling limp with sweat. Shane swallowed hard and dropped his tool where he stood.

She noticed him approach and pulled up a seat on the grass, peeling off her garden gloves. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

The world looked so rich at this hour, the sky sagging beneath the weight of all its yellow beams. Sophia smiled up at him, squinting against the low sun and patting the ground beside her. He sat, drawing his knees up to rest his forearms on.

“I can’t believe it’s almost autumn,” she said, glancing up at the leaves. “It still feels like the middle of summer.”

“It’s hot,” he agreed.

She looked at the pond. “I love how this whole area is turning out. I mean, I’ve got my flowerbed and the fire pit already, and I could put a bench right here where we’re sitting. Maybe put a sundial next to it – I’ve always wanted a sundial.”  

Shane only nodded, too wound up in what he was about to do.

“What are you thinking?” she asked, clearly sensing his distance.

There was a tremendous pit in his stomach as he said, “That thing. Thursday.”

“The jellyfish?”

“Yeah.”

“What got you thinking about that?”

He leaned forward, rubbing his neck. After several moments of pushing down the heart that kept clambering into his throat, he faced her. “Did you still want to go?” His voice dropped lower. “I mean, like… with me?”

“Oh.” She cracked on the single syllable, a troubled expression falling on her face. “I’ve – I’ve kind of said I’d go with Sam and Sebastian and Abigail. They asked me, last night.”

Well shit.

Shane drew his hand over his face, wanting to sink into the pond. “Oh. Right,” he said, pulling on his mouth. “Sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“I dunno. Should have assumed.”

“Well, you work with Sam, right? You should join us.”

“Er – no.”

“You should, they’re all really friendly, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.”

The option of going as a group – particularly one that included Sebastian staring at Sophia the whole night – was about a thousand times less appealing to Shane than just going to the damned thing in the first place.

“Just forget it.”

“Shane…”

Forget it.”

Sophia wiped the hair off her forehead with the back of her hand, looking even more exhausted than before. “You didn’t want to come, remember? I’d prefer the beach emptier too, but I wasn’t going to miss it just because other people didn’t want to miss it either.”

“Doesn’t matter.” He stood up.

“If I knew you were going to change your mind – I mean, I asked you to go in the first place! Please come down to the beach? You don’t have to stay long, just watch the jellyfish come in...”

“I’ve got to go pick up my shovel and stuff,” he said quietly. “I’ll see you next Saturday.”

As he walked away she shouted, “Just think about it! Please?”

But he couldn’t think about it – he’d spiral right back down.

 


 

When Shane arrived at the ranch he noticed a large wicker basket on the table, full to the brim of late summer produce.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Marnie, standing at the counter and stirring a bowl of batter, a waffle iron heating next to her. “Sophia brought it over first thing this morning. Left it on the front stoop with a note.”

This morning? Shane always went to her house around eight; she must’ve dropped it off when he was still snoring.

God, she was ambitious.

“Can you bring me that pint of blueberries from it?” Marnie asked, and when he did she began to rinse them. “Said she wanted to thank me, all the times I’ve let her borrow the truck.” She shook her head, smiling. “Not that I mind one bit, but that girl needs to get herself a vehicle. Pierre’s might only be a few minutes away, but I have no idea how she runs a farm with just a wheelbarrow and a red wagon.”

What a load of horseshit – Marnie was totally putting on a show.

It started with her mouth in a grim line, that first night he came home too late to put Jas to bed, his eyes bloodshot and his words mumbled when she asked where he’d been.  The next night it was a look of dull disappointment. The night after that it was only resigned: this was her nephew. This was the nephew she’d always known, the one that would always return no matter what pleasant imposter occasionally hijacked his body. And with that resignation came the return of the old Marnie as well – the false cheerfulness, the determination to play the same game of happy family as she had in the months after his arrival.

“Breakfast for dinner tonight – blueberry waffles. Sit at the table with me? Jas is staying at Vincent’s, so it’ll just be me otherwise.”

Though Shane could think of nothing he wanted to do less, he plopped down at the table. It was that damned smile on her face. It was so disturbingly forced; like maybe Shane wasn’t the most miserable one in the room after all.

She dropped a hot waffle on a plate for him, the table already set with syrup and homemade butter. She drizzled more batter onto the iron for her own and then sat down to wait, again giving Shane the forced smile.

But then, after having it plastered to her face for the entire last week, it suddenly fell off.

“Shane, I’m terrified to talk to you.”

She took a deep breath, shook her head, and continued.

“I’m terrified I’ll pry, or say the wrong thing, or somehow make things worse for you. And you have to understand, it’s never my intention to make things worse.”

He said nothing, drizzling syrup on his waffle.

“It’s… obvious, that something has taken a turn for the worse lately. I promise I won’t ask you for details. I just need to know that you’ll be okay. If you need time to yourself, I understand – I’m always here for Jas, you never have to worry about her. You need to prioritize you, your – your—” she floundered for the right word.

“My sanity?” he said flatly.

“Well, yes. I love you, Shane. Jas loves you too, and Sophia obviously cares – please just realize people care, that you don’t have to do this alone—”

Fuck talking about this right now.

“What about you?” he said, harsher than intended.

“Me?” she said in surprise. “What about me?”

“You’re miserable too, aren’t you?”

She looked like he’d slapped her. “This isn’t about me, Shane.”

“Well maybe it should be. Maybe instead of worrying about me, you should worry about yourself. Make yourself happy for once.”

Her voice became fragile. “But I am happy. For the first time in my adult life I have my family with me...”

“Yeah. Some lottery you won, having my ass here.” He stabbed his waffle.

“Shane—”

“You know Lewis doesn’t deserve you, right?”

Nice transition, Shane. Way to fucking go.

Now it didn’t just look like he’d slapped her, it looked like he’d done it with the waffle iron. Her mouth clamped into a firm line and her cheeks brightened. “That’s not your business.”

“Apparently it’s nobody’s business, because the guy’ll sleep with you but won’t even hold your hand in public.”

Marnie’s face grew the color of one of the tomatoes in Sophia’s basket. Shane had seen her upset, disappointed, detached, but never this angry – her knuckles paled at gripping the edge of the table and when she opened her mouth, the words tumbled out like ice.

“You will not speak to me like that.”

“Yeah well, maybe I suck at saying it as nicely as you, but maybe you deserve to be happy too. Maybe you deserve better than that fuckwit.”

Marnie shot to her feet, bumping the table with her legs. “This conversation is over,” she spat, turning back to the waffle maker. When she opened it smoke funneled out and a sharp, bitter smell filled the room.

Shane put one elbow on the table, gripping his hair.

The stupid part was, he hadn’t meant to hurt her – he only wanted Marnie to know that she deserved better than to be shoved in a closet when company arrived. But he’d forgotten what an imbecile he was anytime he opened his mouth. He stared at the charred black square of the waffle, the small angry tears in her eyes.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” he said, getting up. “Everybody’s fucking miserable.”

Then he grabbed his jacket and walked out the door, treading the familiar steps to the saloon.

 

Chapter Text

On Thursday night as Sophia walked to meet the trio before heading down to the beach, she tried to imagine what it would be like. Black water, illuminated by hundreds, perhaps thousands of jellyfish? She'd never heard of anything like it, not so close to shore. But her heart sank at the thought of spending it with Sam, Abigail, and Sebastian. It sounded magical – it sounded romantic – and while she liked all of them well enough, they were still relative strangers. There was an intimacy about displays of nature like this, a beauty best absorbed alone or with someone close to you.

She wanted Shane there.

Though it was hot and muggy during the day, the air after sundown felt as if ice cubes had been slipped into it, and by 9:45 most of the town was huddled at the shore clenching their sweaters and jackets tighter, Sophia among them. The temperature dropped sharply by the water and she hadn’t dressed for such bitterness.

It was very crowded, and though she’d prefer an intimate experience with the jellyfish it was hard not to appreciate the sense of community at seeing the whole valley gathered in the dark. But the appreciation was short-lived as she thought about Shane at the luau: talking and joking when it was just Sophia, clamming up into silence the moment the others joined them. If by some miracle he did come down, he’d never stay in this crowd.

The four of them walked to the end of the furthest dock, as her new friends weren’t too keen on the packed beach either. Sebastian stood a little behind them to smoke a cigarette, courteously downwind, and Abby bounced on the balls of her feet to keep warm.

“Every damn year,” she said. “Every damn year I swear I’ll dress better, but I never do.”

Sam sighed and pulled his hoodie over his head, passing it to Abigail, who squealed and put it on. He rolled his eyes.

Standing those few feet away, Sophia felt Sebastian’s eyes on her. He was watching her rub her own arms through the thin fabric of her sweater, and when she looked at him he stuck his cigarette between his lips and unzipped his own black hooded sweatshirt, tossing it to her unasked.

Surprised, she caught it. “Um, thanks,” she said, awkwardly shifting it over her shoulders. It felt strangely uncomfortable and smelled of fresh smoke, which strummed up a craving stronger than she’d had in months.

Abigail leaned in toward her, smiling devilishly. “And every damn year I do it on purpose,” she whispered. Sophia forced a small smile back.

The wind was stronger this far on the water and beginning to howl like autumn was truly closing in. The last slivers of dusk faded to black and it was too cloudy to see either moon or stars, so once the jellyfish arrived they’d be the only source of light, outside of the faint glow from the end of Sebastian’s cigarette. While waiting the three friends talked comfortably about the music they were working on together, about Sam catching a shoplifter that week, about the previous year’s festival when a boy convinced his friends the jellyfish were lethal before “accidentally” falling off the dock. Sophia listened, smiled, and laughed where appropriate but in her heart felt a million miles away.

“I’m so jealous that it’s your first time,” whispered Abby during a lull in the conversation. “I wish I could forget what it’s like and see it for the first time again.”

She gave another attempt at a smile. “I can’t wait.”

At least until after ten when the first jellyfish was spotted, and then she forgot about everything: the forced smiles, the uncomfortable black jacket, even missing Shane. She sat on the end of the dock, and the ocean swept her away.

It was ethereal. The cold blue lights that began to twinkle in the distant water, like stars first coming into view in a clear night sky: one over here, one over there, until soon there were too many to count. They drifted closer, growing brighter, and as they approached shore in their slow and graceful streams Sophia held her breath; in that moment it was intimate, only her, the jellyfish and their ghostly blue light. The wind and the people disappeared, and surrounded by only the gentle pulsing of the jellies she almost cried. Time stood still; she didn’t know if minutes or hours had passed, all she knew was that they just kept coming like a gradual, luminous flood until the water from shore to horizon glittered in every direction. She was content to sit there until morning.

“Did you hear me, Sophia?”

“What?” she turned to the voice, snapped from her reverie.

Abby smiled. “I said, I think we’re going to head back now.”

“We’re going to my house for awhile, just to hang out,” added Sam. “If you’re bored and want to come.”

“Oh,” said Sophia, genuinely surprised to hear they were already leaving. But a quick glance behind them told her it was time: the crowd was beginning to thin, the people who remained buzzing with conversation again. She hadn’t even noticed how noisy the beach had become. “What time is it?”

“Just after eleven. It goes on for a few more hours, but not many people stay past the first one. Remember, most of them have seen this like, a dozen times or more. And a lot of them probably have to work tomorrow.”

Sophia looked back at the water, at the magical creatures still pulsing beneath her, unsure how anyone could leave before they did. “Thanks for the invite, but you guys go ahead. I’m going to hang around for a bit longer.”

She was surprised to hear Sebastian say, “You two go, we’ll catch up.”

Sam nudged Abby and the two of them headed down the dock, leaving Sophia and Sebastian alone.

“So what did you think?” he asked, sitting next to her, smacking a carton of cigarettes against his hand.

Sophia scooted over to give him more space. “It was beautiful,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He smiled from the side of his mouth – a pretty cute smile, she had to admit – then stuck a cigarette between his lips and reached for his lighter. Halfway to lighting it he paused.

“Sorry – do you mind? I can wait.”

“No, go ahead,” she said, feeling suddenly glum. They sat in silence while he lit it and took an initial few puffs, but then she said, “Actually, could I have one?”

“You smoke?”

“Well, I quit for the most part. But sometimes…”

He quietly chuckled. “Yeah, I know that feeling.” Pulling out a second cigarette, he lit it with the tip of his own and handed it to her.

“Thanks.”

Other than smoking after her Amy dreams she’d been doing okay abstaining, and had to admit it was nice doing farm work without getting as winded as she used to. The cravings never went away for good: she’d find herself during the most mundane moments, drinking a cup of coffee or sitting on her porch, thinking nothing would top off the moment quite so nicely as a smoke. But she hadn’t caved, not until now. Having the scent so close to her, teasing her lungs like that, and with feeling so stressed about Shane…

Fuck, that first drag felt nice.

“So what do you think, this place? Still feel like an outsider?” Sebastian’s voice was low, calm – almost as mellowing as the cigarette.

“Yes and no. I like it here, but still not used to the way everybody knows everybody else’s business.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t go away.” He flicked an ash into the water. “But you’re from the city, right?”

“Yep.”

“I’m going to go there, someday. Once I save up enough money.”

She flicked her own ash. “What is it you do again?”

“Programming. I work from my computer at home and set my own hours and stuff, which is cool and all, but honestly... I can’t wait to get the hell out of here.”

They were alike, Sophia thought, but in opposite ways. Even if she was still adjusting to life in this bubble of a town, she’d come to Stardew Valley because she couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the city.

“Have you been there often?” she asked. “The city, I mean.”

Sebastian ran a hand through his hair. It was a suave, practiced movement with the hairs falling perfectly back into place, like if she were to flutter the pages of a book. She had a brief vision of the way Shane did it – roughly, carelessly, leaving the hair messier than he’d found it – and felt a pang in her gut.

“I go from time to time,” said Sebastian. “Usually though, I just ride my bike up to Davenport – you know, that cliff up north?”

“I’ve never been.”

“It’s a good spot to park. Just chill, smoke, listen to music… you can see the whole city from a distance. Pretty cool spot at night.”

Sophia took another drag. “You have a motorcycle?”

“An older one, but I fixed her up okay. Working on bikes is kind of a hobby.”

“Thought your hobby was pretending to be a wizard during card games,” she joked.

He looked embarrassed, for the first time losing his exterior cool. “Yeah well, tell me you don’t have any guilty pleasures.”

“Oh, I don’t. I never feel guilty.”

They smoked and talked quietly for several more minutes, but as their cigarettes grew shorter Sophia found herself not wanting to linger long enough for a second one to be offered.

“Think I might head home in a minute,” she said, blowing a final stream of smoke above them. “But it’s been cool getting to hang out with you guys. And thanks, for this.” She lifted the hand with the cigarette.

“No problem.” He paused. “Sure you don’t want to come to Sam’s? It’s pretty chill, we just sit around, listen to music and stuff.”

“Maybe another time.” Clamping the smoke between her lips she unzipped his jacket, handing it back.

They walked back to shore and then down the beach. Sophia had hoped they would part ways here, but apparently Sam’s house was in the same direction she was headed and they were forced to walk together a while longer.

“You sure?” he said when they arrived, nodding at a quaint blue house with the porch light on.

She gave a small smile. “I’m sure.”

He went inside and closed the door, and Sophia waited for a full thirty seconds.

Then she began to run.

She sprinted down the deserted road, past the row of quiet houses, all the way to where the pavement ended and the dirt began. Huffing and panting she followed that country road for over a mile, and then – her heart holding onto a beautiful feeling – she slowed as the lights of the ranch came into view.

She bent over sucking huge amounts of air into her lungs, heart slamming into her chest. She had the slow stamina needed for a full day of farm work but she’d never been a runner; clutching the cramp in her side, she slowly made her way to the ranch door. Marnie and Jas had been at the beach for awhile, but surely they’d left early with the rest of the town. Would they still be up? Would she wake them?

It was only the one time; she wouldn’t do it again. She banged on the door.

“Sophia!” cried Marnie in surprise. She wore a lavender bathrobe, but didn’t appear to have been sleeping. “Is everything all right? It’s almost midnight.”

“I know,” she panted. “I’m very sorry – this is so late.”

“Did you go down to the jellies?” she asked kindly. She looked concerned by Sophia’s visit, but not mad.

“Yes, I just left. Marnie, is Shane home?”

Her hand was still on the door. “Yes.”

“Would you get him for me?”

She hesitated, then lowered her voice. “He’s… not in the best state right now.”

Sophia winced. “I understand. But I really do need to talk to him. I’m sorry again for how late this is.”

“Don’t be, dear. Step inside for a moment.”

She disappeared down the hall and Sophia stepped into the warm kitchen; a few moments later Shane emerged and Marnie was nowhere to be seen. He wore flannel bottoms and a white t-shirt, his hair tousled all directions, looking tired and confused. The lack of self consciousness was a dead giveaway of just how much he’d had.

“What’re you doing here?” he asked, rubbing his eyes with one hand.

She stood before the doorway, heart beating fast. “I wanted to go with you.”

He stared at her wearily.

“I wanted to go with you,” she repeated. “If I knew you were going to ask me – if I knew you’d change your mind – I’d never have made those stupid plans in the first place.”

Glancing behind him for signs of his aunt, he spoke in a low voice. “Can we talk outside?”

“Yes, but get some clothes on, okay? And grab me something too, I’m freezing. I’ll wait here.”

She wasn’t actually freezing – after her run she wasn’t even cold. But she needed to wear his, to cleanse her palate after Sebastian’s; she had to know what Shane’s felt like. He came out with his shoes and two hoodies, handing a forest green one to Sophia. She slipped it over her head, for a moment burying her nose in it.

Neutral, like unscented laundry soap.

“I don’t care how much you drank tonight,” she said. “You’re coming with me.”

He didn’t say anything, following her into the dark. She led them back the direction she’d come from and for a long while they walked in silence. Shane was obviously wasted, but Sophia felt she could work with it; it wasn’t like leaving the dock that night when he could barely walk. More like when she’d first arrived – when she’d found him a mess, but a coherent one.

“It was so beautiful watching the jellies come in,” she said quietly. “I wish you’d seen it.”

He shrugged.

A few minutes later she nudged him with her shoulder as they walked and said, “Cute pajamas, by the way.”

He shrugged again. “Wasn’t really expecting you.”

“So you sort of expected me?”

“Nah.”

Sophia’s heart was sinking. She’d hoped her declaration at his door would’ve made things better, at least a little bit, but he was still in this mood – this quiet, brooding, exasperating mood – and he felt so far away.

“Shane?” she finally said, uncertainly. “Are you okay?”

He walked with his hands in his pockets, staring at the unpaved road. “Not really.”

The apathy in his voice – like he knew he wasn’t okay, but he just didn’t care anymore. Like he’d given up. Sophia recognized that sound, it’d just been a long time since she heard it there.

“Can you please talk to me?” she asked carefully. “You’ve been acting so, so different lately. Did I do something wrong?”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Sophia. You’re allowed to do what you want.”

“Is it because of tonight? I only went with them because you made it sound like you’d rather peel your face off than go.”

“Thanks for the visual.”

“You know what I mean. Besides, it can’t just be about tonight – you’ve been giving me the cold shoulder for weeks.”

Shane kicked a rock off the path. “Did you bring me out here to argue?”

“Oh, was it that obvious, showing up at your door like that? That I just wanted to fucking pick a fight tonight?”

“Sophia, I didn’t ask you to come get me. Sorry if I’m not acting exactly how you want me to right now, but maybe I wanted to fucking be alone.”

That cigarette earlier, it was a bad idea – it made it too easy to want one now. She could only sigh and let the subject drop.

How would it be when they reached the beach? Maybe the beautiful spectacle in the water would soften him. Or maybe he’d just look at those amazing creatures with the same indifference he had for everything else lately; none of this was turning out like she’d planned.

They were halfway to the beach when Shane finally spoke.

“So what, you seeing him or something?”

“What?” she said, completely thrown.

“Are you seeing him?” he repeated, locking his fingers behind his neck as he walked, pulling forward on it.

Sophia gawked at him. “Who?”

“For fuck’s sake, don’t play dumb. Sebastian.”

“What are you even talking about? I barely know him.”

“You went with him tonight.”

“I went with Sam and Abigail too, we were all hanging out together.”

“Not the whole night.”

Sophia’s heart stopped. “You – you ended up coming down?”

“Yeah. I came down.” He pulled on his neck again.

“So why didn’t you come talk to me?”

“You looked pretty cozy. Didn’t really want to interrupt.”

She’d seen how hard it was for him to ask her to the jellies in the first place – just the idea of it had triggered his anxiety, yet he still worked up the nerve to change his mind and do it. And she’d had to tell him no. And then he’d shown up anyway  – like she asked him to – to see her sitting with Sebastian in what could be construed as a pretty romantic setting. But it hadn’t been, not from the inside, and she cried, “We were just talking!”

“Talking,” repeated Shane dryly. “You were smoking together, Sophia. I thought you quit? You were wearing his fucking jacket. But tell me again how you barely know him.”

“It’s – I was freezing! I told you that when I picked you up. Why the hell do you think I’m wearing your sweatshirt now?”

“Because you’re missing his?”

“Stop it, Shane. Stop it. This isn’t fair.” Her voice trembled and she didn’t know if she wanted to cry or yell; maybe both.

“Smoking a lot these days?” he continued.

“Me?” she exclaimed, and realized they were both talking louder and walking faster than before. “Me? What about you? Drinking a lot these days? Drank before you came to the beach, did you? Or – wait for it – was that only after you saw us? How about the saloon last week – you come in for a soda, then see me and switch to beer? What the shit is that about?” She was crying now, her vision blurring as the tears filled her eyes. “I don’t know what I did. I just don’t know what I did…” She wiped her face with his hoodie sleeve. “Why the hell are you acting this way?”

“Oh, come on, Sophia!” he cried, spinning in a sudden circle, head craned to the sky and still holding his neck. Then he stopped, and in a dejected voice: “You fucking know why.”

Her heart pounded harder than she could ever remember it pounding before, and she stopped walking too. She wiped her cheek again. “So what – we finally doing this?”

He looked down from over the outstretched arm that still held his neck.

“He likes you.”

“Sebastian?”

“Sam told me, at work. Asked me if you were seeing anyone.”

Sophia’s whole body felt on edge. “And what did you say?”

“That I was pretty sure you were.”

She breathed, not realizing how large of a breath she’d been holding; she was okay with that response.

“Sebastian’s a nice guy,” she said. “But it’s not… he’s not like… I don’t like him, Shane.”

Still looking down from over his arm: “You don’t?”

“I didn’t ask him for his sweatshirt. He just sort of... handed it over. And I was fucking cold, so yeah, I took it.”

Shane’s chest lifted heavily, breathing hard. “You asked me for mine.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I did.”

He relaxed the grip on his neck and stared at the ground, and Sophia blinked up at the sky several times to keep the remaining tears at bay.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

She wiped her eyes again. “You better be.”

He looked at her for a long moment, hesitating. But then with his hand inside the cuff of his hoodie, he reached over and gently dabbed the corner of her eye.

Sophia froze.

He didn’t pull away, continuing to gently dab at the wetness down her cheek. She found herself instinctively turning toward it, and then even more instinctively, nuzzling her face into the sleeve. After lingering there for several seconds, she spoke in a soft voice.

“Can we go see the jellyfish now?”

Shane pulled his arm back self-consciously. “You still want to go with me?”

“Of course I do, you jerk.”

But even as she said it the atmosphere around them changed, and though they walked again in silence it was different than before. Before it had been a tightly wound silence; this new one was open, exploratory. Sophia twisted the fabric of the sweatshirt’s sleeves in her hands, overcome by a powerful awareness of just how close Shane’s elbow was to hers as they walked.

The beach came into view, and when they reached the footbridge that crossed over the river into the sand, she stopped. Only half a dozen silhouettes dotted the shore, and the docks were completely abandoned.

“See?” she said. “Nice and quiet now. Let’s go to the dock – you get a better view there, since they swim right below you.”

Though sparser than in the previous hours, the surface of the water still emitted a cold, arctic-blue glow, and at a distance Sophia thought it looked like a lava lamp: the different shades of blue, the jellyfish viscous, the ocean like syrup. She glanced at Shane and saw his eyes widen, a flicker of curiosity crossing them.

They walked back to the spot where Sophia watched the first time, dangling their feet from the edge, their toes mere inches from the water where the ghostly creatures squelched below them. For several minutes there was silence. Shane understood: you let this kind of thing fill your entire being before you broke it.

“What’s that green one?” he asked at last.

“Where? You see one?”

He pointed, not far from the dock. Sophia inhaled. “It’s lucky,” she whispered. “Abby told me the green ones are really rare, and it’s considered good luck to see one.”

Sophia had been right, this whole beautiful scene was melting him. Shane followed the jellyfish with his vision, the blue reflecting in his eyes, and while he gazed at the water she gazed at him and those little reflecting lights. She couldn’t see the redness anymore, and almost forgot he was drunk.

But then, still staring softly, she remembered.

“Shane?” she whispered.

“Yeah?”

“You know we can’t do this, right?”

He turned to her, his expression suddenly nervous. Guarded.

“If we’re going to be friends,” she continued, “or, or… something else… we can’t just be destructive when things aren’t going well.”

He drew his fingers through his hair, leaving it untidy, and Sophia felt a surge of affection for that untidiness even as he said, “You mean me.”

“I mean both of us.”

“How are you destructive?”

“I broke my hoe this week. I was frustrated. Ended up –er – hoeing too hard, I guess.”

“Is that what happened tonight?” he joked. “Hoeing too hard again?”

She smacked him. “Fuck off. Besides, you installed a shoddy sprinkler. Stopped working the other day.”

“It’s free labor Sophia, I wouldn’t set my expectations too high.” But as she laughed he became serious again, looking down at his lap. “You asked a couple months ago if we could do this without drinking. Maybe you can.” He shook his head. “I can’t. Every time we talk this way – really talk – it only happens when I drink.”

She stared. “Did you conveniently forget about our talk by the fire? Fucking poured my heart out to you that night.”

“That was one time. It was a fluke…”

“A fluke? You fucker, I invited you over.”

He shook his head, winding his fingers in his hair again. “We act different together when I’m sober, and you know it.”

She thought carefully before speaking. “Maybe that’s true right now, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. We can practice.” She paused. “Can you answer something for me?”

Still staring at his lap, he nodded.

“Do you think I like being around you less, when you don’t drink?”

“You…” he hesitated. “You feel a lot farther away. And yeah, it sucks. All that stuff I said earlier? I couldn’t say that sober. Same thing right now.”

“I told you, we’ll practice.”

They sat, two silhouettes in the dark at almost one in the morning, watching the jellyfish slowly, surely say their goodbye. They were completely alone now, the final silhouettes on the shore having gone home, and Sophia noticed that the clouds had parted and stars were peeking out.

“Lay back,” she said.

Feet still dangling, she eased herself down on the dock, and Shane lowered himself next to her.

“Look,” she said, staring into the sky. “I can’t pretend to know what’s going on inside you, but for what it’s worth I think you’ve been doing amazing these past few months. I told you at the ranch that you looked good, and I meant it.”

She paused, and when he didn’t say anything took it as permission to continue. “I don’t know why it’s so hard for you to speak your mind while sober, but you’re right, there’s a very real barrier there. I see it all the time. But I’m also lucky enough to see inside it, when you let me. And you do better than you think. You got sober for seven years Shane – some people would give anything for that. And I truly believe you can do it again. I’ll help you, I promise I will. I just… can’t be your excuse to drink. I’ll be anything else you need, but I can’t be your excuse. That’s not fair.”

His voice caught on a bubble in his throat. “You’re right, it’s not.” Then he rolled his head to look at her, dark eyes staring with a confidence she’d not seen before. “You have no idea what you do for me.”

She looked back at him, their noses only a foot apart, their shoulders almost touching.

“My birthday present?” he said. “That was the best gift I’ve ever gotten.”

He still made eye contact, and she liked having it while they spoke, not just in the silences between. “Ever?” she said.

He laughed, an abrasive one, and to Sophia’s dismay he looked away. “Marnie used to send me ten bucks in a card every Wintersday. But my dad always knew it was coming. Took all my gift money and bought liquor with it.”

“God, your dad better hope he never runs into me.”

He gave a half-smile, putting a little dimple in his stubble. “You gonna rough him up for me?”

“Yes.”

Shane shook his head. “I wasn’t going to be like him, you know?” he laughed again, and each time he did, Sophia felt a stab in her heart; these were not happy laughs. “I know I can be a moody asshole, but he was violent. Yells. Punches walls. Tells you you’re a worthless son of a bitch because you forgot to put the toilet paper back on the roll or some shit.”

“You’re not like him,” she said quietly.

“I’m becoming like him. I yell at you, at Marnie. I’m not there for Jas because I go to the bar every night – that’s exactly fucking like him Sophia.” He blinked hard several times. “Do you know what Jas asked me, awhile ago? She asked me why I didn’t want to be her dad.”

“Shane…”

“I’m supposed to be somebody’s father,” he said, voice splintering. “Me. I just… how the hell do I wrap my head around that? I can’t even take care of myself. And my dad’s voice – his stupid voice, it just never fucking goes away. I don’t even know if it’s him anymore. Maybe that’s just me, that’s just who I am now.”

“Shane,” she said carefully. “Please don’t take this the wrong way. But have you ever considered getting real help? You know, talking to someone?”

He choked on his next words. “Don’t you get it? I can’t. Even right now. You’re sitting here listening to me, but I’m such a piece of shit. I don’t deserve you, and I couldn’t tell you this because of your sister and what you’ve been through, but fuck, sometimes I wish I was already dead.”

Sophia thought of how she’d gone to the ranch with the intention of spilling everything to him. How, if he was open to her, she’d even try to kiss him. But she couldn’t do it now, like this – not when he would taste of alcohol and she would taste of cigarettes. Not when he was drunk and didn’t realize that it could happen sober too, that he didn’t need to be drunk to kiss her. And right at that moment he didn’t need a crush or a kiss, but someone who knew he was not the piece of shit his brain relentlessly told him he was. He needed a friend. And so, as the stars twinkled above and the jellyfish swam luminous below, and they lay in the cold, shoulder to shoulder and staring at the sky, Sophia reached for his hand.

It was cold and he immediately stiffened at her touch, but she worked her fingers into the crevices of his.

“You want to know the funny thing about Amy?” she said, squeezing his hand. “She was the kind of person you’d expect to commit suicide.”

“Sophia?”

“No, just listen,” she insisted, squeezing it again. “Amy was exactly the type. Dark and moody and obsessed with death. And I think that disguised her – like it was too obvious. You always hear about the happy-go-lucky kids, the ones who’re always smiling and have tons of friends and it hits you like a truck when they do it. But Amy was so obvious that in a twisted way, it didn’t actually seem like a threat, you know? More like part of her image or something.” She rolled her head to face him again, waiting until he returned the look. Then in a trembling voice she said, “Shane, you’re too obvious. You’re exactly the type.”

The eye contact was tenser now but she kept it, focusing hard on one pupil rather than flicker between both eyes.

“I don’t want to get complacent. I don’t want to think, that’s just how he is, and then one day wake up and you’re… just… not…”

He looked at her for a long time before facing the sky again.

“It comes and goes.”

“And now?” she said, still looking at the side of his face.

“Right now it’s gone. Since knowing you…” he blinked hard. “I’m sorry, Sophia. I’m really, really sorry. It’s not fair to put that on you.”

“But it’s gone?”

“For now.” He shrugged against the dock. “It’ll be back. It’s always back.” Until then his hand had laid motionless in hers, but now he squeezed it, so hard it almost hurt. “I won’t do it. I’m too much of a chicken. I’ve tried, and I can’t. I can’t do it.”

There was courage in darkness, Sophia thought, and in sitting in the middle of the night after witnessing a spectacle of nature, feeling the smallness of your own life. A place where it was possible for Shane to speak like this; where he was drunk and told her things that he would have to deal with her knowing when he was sober again.

“Will you tell me?” she asked. “When it comes back?”

“If I can.”

“I’ll make it so you can.”

They both fell quiet after this, the only noise the lapping of the water against the posts of the dock. Holding his hand, Sophia could feel the slight way his body rose and fell as he breathed, and it was so steady that after awhile she glanced to see if he’d fallen asleep. He was still awake, staring at the sky.

“What are you thinking?” she whispered.

“That you said something else.”

“I what?”

“Earlier. You said friends, or something else.” He kept staring straight above him. “I want the something else, Sophia.”

She fell quiet. She had to do this right.

“You can’t come over this Saturday,” she said at last. “It’s my mom’s birthday, and I have to visit home this weekend. But I want to call you. No more of this bullshit where we only talk one day a week. I want to call you and talk more. I want to see you more… not only to work on the farm.” She squeezed his hand again, but before he had a chance to respond said, “Shane, I swear I could stay out here all night, but don’t you have work in the morning?”

He closed his eyes. “I don’t care. Let’s stay here.”

“Shane,” she said softly, sitting up. He sighed and eventually sat too.

They walked the length of the dock and beach separately, but when they reached the wooden footbridge over the river Sophia carefully took back his hand.

 

Chapter Text

The cold weather lingered, as if overnight the world decided it was autumn despite the summer warmth of the previous days. Shane’s walk to JojaMart stung but he welcomed it – would have welcomed snow that day, a blizzard, a hurricane or volcanic eruption – because for once he wasn’t woken by his alarm, but by his aunt softly shaking his shoulder.

Marnie no longer forced cheerfulness between them, but neither did she appear to be holding any sort of grudge. Ever since their disastrous conversation she’d simply been distant, greeting him with neither vitriol nor warmth, acting like Shane was a roommate she wasn’t especially close to. Hovering over his bed now, she held out the house phone and whispered, “It’s Sophia,” and left the room as quietly as she’d entered.

Less than five hours after seeing him? They hadn’t gotten home until two in the morning. Shane rolled on his back and closed his eyes, heart quietly racing for her.

“Hello?”

“Hey sleepyhead. I imagine you didn’t get much rest.”

“Enough,” he lied through his headache.

“So after last night… I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. You know everything we said still applies, right? I’m still here for you. Nothing changes just because it’s a new day.”

Lying in his darkened bedroom and hearing her voice like this, Shane once again felt a wave of blissful nausea – the same one he’d felt in the bathhouse in the spring when he realized how badly he wanted her; the same one he felt when she slipped the lei over his head and her fingers grazed his hair, and when she leaned against the shelves of the baking aisle in Joja. The one he felt when she did anything in his vicinity.

He let the wave wash over him, her words rolling through it.

“I know,” he said at last.

“You better.” A pause. “By the way – I’ve already arranged it with Marnie – but Amber’s going to stay at the ranch this weekend. Will you hang out with her, or at least let her chill in your room at night? It’s just that she knows you best, and she’s so used to cuddling in the evening, and I know she's a spaz but she won’t jump on the furniture unless you invite her and—”

“Look, she can hang out with me the whole time if she wants.”

"Oh, okay. Good."

Then there was another pause where she seemed to be working up to say more. A long pause.

“Sophia?”

“Shane, can you promise me something?”

“Yes,” he said, because she’d earned that.

“If – well, if you feel the need to drink… call me. Anytime, day or night. Just promise you’ll call before taking a single sip. And I don’t want you to be embarrassed or worry about what to say. You don’t even have to say anything. Just call and stay quiet and I’ll know what it’s about, I’ll take over. Promise?”

He remembered how much her kindness had hurt when they first met, when they were still strangers. Like a slap to the face. It still ached, but in a way he didn’t mind anymore – maybe because he knew it was genuine. Not mocking, not full of pity, but just Sophia being her beautiful self.

“Promise,” he said.

Promise?

“I’ll call, okay?”

“If you don’t, know that I can get a thousand times more annoying than I currently am.”

“You couldn’t be annoying if you tried. That’s the fucking annoying part.”

“Someday I’ll probably have to remind you of that. But I know you have work soon, so I’ll talk to you later, okay? And remember – you promised.”

He thought about that promise on his final stretch to the store.

That phone call should have mortified him. Would have, had it happened any other time. But the magic of the previous night was not only in the jellyfish, but the feeling of laying on the cold wood of the dock and telling her things that he was unable to stop his drunk tongue from telling, and not having her say, “Man up,” nor “Poor, poor you,” either of which would’ve crushed him. Instead she squeezed his hand and then listened, and while listening rubbed his fingers with her own small, slightly calloused ones.

There was also the walk home.

It’d been silent, but silence with Sophia was different than silence with anyone else, and after all they’d shared by the water Shane was glad she didn’t want to talk. He wanted to focus on holding her hand, because a walking handhold felt different than one sitting still and he wanted to memorize every detail of it. In twenty-nine years, he’d never held hands with someone before.  

Then there was the way she’d kissed him again, giving his hand a final squeeze while touching her lips to his cheek. The way she’d headed down the dirt road to her farm and not even offered to give his hoodie back; how she wore it home and his final image of the night was her burying her nose in the neck of it.

His tongue had been loose last night, and the details of what he’d told her were blurry. He’d rambled a lot and probably embarrassed himself a good number of times. But he remembered every last thing Sophia had done or said – every look, every touch, every word spoken. The eye contact she’d made while they laid with shoulders touching. The words about him being like Amy; about him not being like his father. The way she told him in no uncertain terms that she wanted to see more of him – of calling this morning as if to prove it.

It was like she could read him on a fucking preternatural level; as if she knew he would wake up doubting what had happened, thinking his drunk brain had fucked up the signals or wondering if she regretted it. And she would’ve been right – if her call hadn’t come first thing, he would have woken in a cloud of uncertainty.

But it had.

Though tired and terribly hungover, Shane never entered the doors of JojaMart with such a feeling in his chest.

“Hey Sam,” he said, greeting his younger coworker in the break room.

“Er – hey Shane,” said Sam, clearly taken aback. “Something up?”

Shane shrugged. “Nothing up. Just saying hey.”

“You feeling okay?”

He laughed, and a confused-looking Sam said, “Morris split his pants this morning or something?” When Shane laughed again he looked at him like he might be delirious, slowly backing away from his locker. “I’ll, uh, see you on the floor, man.”

Work was slow and he was able to leave at three instead of five, so once Jas got home from school he took her for a walk to Pierre’s – even his watchful badger eyes couldn’t piss on Shane’s parade – and let her pick out whatever ice cream she wanted, along with a small bunch of flowers for Marnie.

“What’s this?” said his aunt, when a beaming Jas presented her with the bouquet of white and purple alstroemeria.

“Uncle Shane said to pick you flowers because he’s been a booger to you.”

“Jas!” She wasn’t supposed to actually say it.

Marnie’s hand clamped to her mouth like she might laugh, but by the time she pulled it away the corners of her eyes were wet.  “I suppose I should get these in water then. They’re just beautiful Jas, thank you.”

She kissed the top of Jas’s head, then turned to the cupboard and spent so long searching for a suitable vase that Shane had a feeling she didn’t want him to see the front of her.

He went to the chicken coop after; sitting cross-legged on the ground with Charlie on his lap, he scratched and massaged his neck while two of the other chickens pecked at his shoes.

“Life can be okay, can’t it?” he said quietly. “Sometimes… it can be okay. I forget that a lot.” He stroked Charlie’s head. “I’m actually having a good week. It feels weird to say that.”

The chicken blinked his red-rimmed eyes once before closing them again, a guttural purring deep in his feathery throat.  

Then there was a knock in the coop, and when Shane looked up Marnie lingered by the doorframe in her apron.

“Do you have a moment?”

She’d caught him sitting on the ground, cuddling and conversing with a chicken – he couldn’t very well say no. He nodded.

She sat down on a hay bale. A few of the nosier chickens walked over and she scratched their heads. “I’m making a shepherd’s pie for supper. Will you please have some? You eat so many of those frozen pizzas – there’s just no need when I’m happy to cook.”

There was something like affection in her voice again, and it pained him. He didn’t fucking deserve it. He hadn’t even properly apologized to her.

But all he said was, “Okay. Thanks.”

Then she crossed her hands and took a deep breath. “The other day…” she began, and dropped her eyes to her lap. “Shane, you embarrassed me.”

His face grew hot and he focused on petting Charlie.

“I’ve never been spoken to like that. You put me on the spot. But I’m sorry for getting so angry.”

She was sorry? Why the fuck was she sorry?

“Marnie—”

“It’s okay. It is. I’m just – I’m not ready to discuss that, and all I ask is that you please understand.”

“I had no right,” he muttered.

“It came from a good place.” Then she smiled. It wasn’t forced this time, but it wasn’t cheerful either – just a simple, sad smile. “And saying that, I hope you understand that I come from a good place too. I still feel awful for that morning a couple months ago. I never meant to embarrass you either.” She sighed. “We’re both new to this, you and I.”

He glanced up.

“Being a family. We both grew up with my brother – let’s not pretend that was a picnic. And growing up in my family? You never met your grandfather, but let’s just say that your dad took after his own dad very much. I was the exception in my family. Just like you.”

Shane had been listening quietly until her last line – then without meaning to, he gave a derisive snort.

Marnie glared. “We are the exceptions. You’re a good boy – you got dragged down by a bad family, but you’ve always been good. You’re better than what you were born into. But that type of life, that’s all we’ve known until now, and I think we have to forgive ourselves if we aren’t perfect at this right away.”

He didn’t quite know what to say, but it didn’t matter because Marnie spoke again. “Keeping in mind that I don’t say this to embarrass you, and that I’m trying very hard to be respectful of your privacy...” she leaned with her elbows on her lap, peering at him. “You have to let your crazy aunt know – what is going on with Sophia?”

He should have seen it coming.

“I…” he sighed, scratching his neck. “I don’t know, Marnie.”

“Midnight visits, Shane? Seven a.m. phone calls? I know I’m just an old lady now, but let me give you a hint – she’s not just being your neighbor.”

As good as he felt about Sophia he hated this; hated having it brought to light in plain day. When it was a secret he could carry inside himself it was fine, like with Sam at work. But discussing it out here in the open felt dangerous – like if it was looked at in too clear a light, he’d see all the fine lines waiting to crack.

“You know she can come to the house, right? I may be nosy asking this, but you’re a grown man and I’ll respect your privacy. Sophia is a lovely woman and welcome any time.”

He nodded, still staring at the top of Charlie’s head.

“Shane?” She waited until he looked up. “You’re allowed to be happy too. Don’t forget that.” Then she stood, brushing her hands on her apron. “Supper’ll be ready in fifteen.”

She exited the coop, leaving her nephew red in the cheeks and regretting agreeing to a dinner where he’d have to sit across from her the whole time.

 


 

Sophia called again at nine that evening.

“Just packing for my parent’s house,” she said, voice louder than usual. Shane imagined her wedging the phone between her ear and shoulder, tossing her belongings in a bag. “Bus leaves at ten tomorrow.”

“How long you staying?”

“Saturday and Sunday night, coming back Monday. If I can handle it that long.”

“That bad?”

“We – haven’t really talked much since I moved. A few phone calls. The last time I was home was kind of ugly, so…”

“I’m sorry,” said Shane as he laid down on his bed. And he was, but he also couldn’t help feeling a thrill at the casual way she’d called him on a Friday night.

“Yeah well, we’ll see. I was actually just calling to make sure you’re still okay.” She hesitated. “The whole weekend is coming up, and I won’t be around... this is my cell phone number, so you can still call me if you need to.”

“I’ll be fine, Sophia.”

“But if you aren’t. You’ll call.” It wasn’t a question. “Also, next Saturday.”

“What about it?” he said, fearful she might cancel again.

“Just make sure you’re there. If Joja calls and asks you to come in – I don’t know, tell them you’ve got a minor surgery or something. You’re totally booked, okay?”

He laughed. “Done.” Then he racked his brain for another topic, anything to keep her on the line. “Hey, same goes to you this weekend. If you need a break, or some sanity…”

“I’ll go to that shitty Tex-Mex place around the corner from my parent’s apartment. Their mystery burritos got me through a lot of dark days.”

“Or, you know, you can call me.”

“Yeah, but after I get my burrito.”

“You’re fucking impossible.”

“Haven’t you heard? Nothing’s impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible.’”

Shane burst out laughing. “Please tell me you didn’t come up with that.”

“I didn’t, but don’t tease. If I don’t stay positive this weekend I’ll crack.” There was shuffling and then a sound as if she were struggling with a zipper. “You ever see those documentaries about haunted prisons and asylums and stuff?”

“Yeah…”

“Think I’d rather spend the night there. At least those ghosts are like, convicts and lunatics, not the shell of my mom and dad.”

“You sure you’ll be okay?”

“I have to be, Shane. My parents are broken people.” She paused. “I’m lucky to have you. You let me help you, and I think I fucking need that. My parents don’t let me help them. I know they don’t do it on purpose, but fuck, if it doesn’t break my heart into eight hundred pieces. If you pushed me away like them? I’d probably have to move to some mountaintop in Peru, live with alpacas or something.”

“Please don’t. JojaMart doesn’t pay enough for those kind of plane tickets.”

“You’d visit me on my mountain?” she asked, suddenly coy, and Shane’s heart beat fast – but then she dropped it as fast as she’d put it on. “Real talk though, I’m going to be completely drained by Monday. So if I don’t call right away, don’t take it personally. It won’t mean anything’s changed. And you can still call if you need to, that line is 24/7.”

“You’ll be okay?” he said.

“I’ll be okay.” She paused. “You won’t drink?”

“I won’t drink.”

She grew quiet. “I really want you to get better, Shane.”

“Makes two of us.”

He could hear the smile through her next word. “Good.”

After they hung up Shane closed his eyes. His head felt clear, his heart lighter than it’d been in years. If only every night could feel like this, he’d never feel the need to sink into a bottle again.

 


 

The next morning, a knock came at the door while Shane was digging through the fridge for breakfast. Marnie sat at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper with her coffee, and at the sound she folded it and silently walked into the other room.  

He stared at the back of her bathrobe as he nervously went to the door.

Sophia stood waiting with Amber at her feet, her canvas bag on one shoulder, and she smiled shyly at seeing Shane answer.

“Hey,” she said, at the same time as a suddenly-hyper Amber rushed forward to see him.

“Hey,” he said, scratching her but still looking up at Sophia.

Her shy smile flickered, and she slid the bag off her shoulder. “Um. All her supplies are in here. I put her treats in separate bags so you know how many to give each day. And there’s her blanket, and favorite toy…”

She handed the bag to him and he took it. Their hands met where she held the cloth straps, and Shane was certain she touched him longer than necessary – but then it was like she realized how obvious she’d been, and quickly pulled her hands into her pockets.

“I really appreciate you guys watching her.”

“No problem.”

The timid smile flickered again. “I wish I could stay awhile, but I’ve still got a few things to do before catching the bus…”

She was lingering, and Shane didn’t know what to do. They’d only held hands, and it’d be awkward to grab hers now while they just stood there. It’d be even weirder to try to hug her – he inwardly cringed at the idea of her shrinking back, asking what the hell he was doing. Somehow even her cheek kisses felt inappropriate; that was the sort of thing you closed a night with, not a two-minute interaction first thing in the morning.

Then Sophia got closer and Shane’s heart began to race, wondering what she was about to do – but she only bent over to give Amber a final pat at his feet. He felt both relieved and disappointed.

Until she stood.

She grabbed his hand and gave it a small squeeze, looking in his eyes.

“Bye, Shane,” she said softly.

He gulped. “Bye, Sophia.”

Then she quickly let go, and as he closed the door behind her he also closed his eyes.

He’d put this off for a long time – and not only because of how much he hated making phone calls.

After eating breakfast, he reluctantly picked up the phone and called Dr. Harvey.

 


 

The clinic smelled of astringent and cotton balls, the walls too white and the tile floors too pristine. The room felt tiny, almost claustrophobic as Shane sat on the rolled out paper of the check-up bed, staring at a green poster on the wall reminding him to vaccinate his children. He looked up when the door clicked open and the doctor entered the room, peering at him through rectangular glasses.

Dr. Harvey cleared his throat. “Good afternoon, Shane. How may I help you today?”

He hadn’t been in any sort of hospital since Garrett and Samantha died, and while Harvey’s humble clinic was nothing like the hectic city hospital with its bustling emergency room and blue-scrubbed orderlies telling him the line to his friend’s heart had gone flat, it was still too familiar. It smelled the same; had the same thin, sterile air that made him want to vomit.

“Er…” He rubbed his chin, glancing up at the doctor before looking away again. Then he spoke, but it came out as a mumble.

“Pardon?” Harvey blinked at him politely, clipboard resting horizontally against his stomach, knuckles wrapped over the top.

Shane took a deep breath. Harvey wasn’t a bad guy, but fuck he hated this.

“I, er, want to get tested.”

Harvey nodded. “I believe I understand – but could you please clarify for me?”

He could feel the heat rise in his face. “Sexual stuff.”

“Of course, thank you. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about Shane, this is all quite routine. I will have to ask you some questions, though, if that’s all right?”

He nodded miserably.

Harvey rearranged a few papers on his clipboard, then clicked his pen open. “What prompted you to come in? Are you seeing symptoms?”

Shaking his head, he muttered, “Just… want to make sure.”

“Well, it’s excellent that you want to be sure. I know it’s not always easy to address these things, but I’m glad you came in today.” Harvey gave a small, encouraging smile. “But moving on – can you tell me how long ago your latest sexual activity was?”

Fuck. Good question. He’d come to Pelican Town in early winter…

“I dunno, ten or eleven months ago?” Then he felt a momentary panic. “Am I too late or something? I – I don’t know how this works.”

“Not too late at all. It’s good you came in, if it’s something that concerns you. Now, may I ask how many partners you’ve had?”

Shane’s head snapped up. “You have to know that?”

“It gives me an idea of what kinds of tests we should run.”

He’d lost track a long fucking time ago. Harvey’s face was pleasant and free of judgment, but Shane felt too ashamed to even look at him.

“If you prefer, we can just do the full run of tests regardless?”

He nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, just do that.”

“One last question about your activity – did you use protection?”

His face, already red hot, burned hotter. “Um. Yes. But… some nights, I don’t really remember everything… so maybe not…”

Harvey unwound at the Stardrop Saloon on Friday nights, like most of the village. He’d have to be blind not to have seen Shane there, downing beer after beer alone.  

The doctor only nodded again. “Understandable. And symptoms, Shane? Any at all, even in the past?”

Shane shook his head.

“Well, the good news is, if you’ve been this long without symptoms and were in the habit of using protection, I’d say your chances of anything severe are relatively low. And again, I commend you for coming in today.”

Harvey asked a few more questions about his health and family history, then let Shane change into his dressing gown. He tried to let his mind drift elsewhere as he urinated in a cup, had blood drawn, had a swab taken. When he was done Harvey nodded and said, “You’re all set. I’ll give you a call within a week or two when I have your results.”

A week or two?

He left the clinic with his hands in his pockets, eyes down as usual.

It’s good to know anywayLike Harvey said, it’s smart.

But that didn’t stop him from thinking how presumptuous it was; from wondering what Sophia would think if she knew.

But maybe – maybe she wouldn't mind. 

 

Chapter Text

Standing in her old apartment complex with her finger on the buzzer and luggage at her feet, Sophia had the sudden urge to crawl under the table in the lobby, like she had as a girl when her mom took her to get a flu shot. Somewhere she could close her eyes and no one could see her. 

Bzzzzz.

The intercom gave a click.

“It’s me, Mom.”

“Okay.”

Their apartment was on the eleventh story. She could’ve taken the elevator, but even with carrying her suitcase and a wicker basket under one arm, she chose to use the stairs.

Slowly.

She loved her parents. She would always love her parents. But she had to keep reminding herself, else she turn around and head straight back to the country on the next bus.

Not only was it her first time seeing them since moving to Stardew Valley but it was her first time back in the city at all, and it felt so wrong, like those haunted asylums she’d mentioned to Shane – the prickling sensation that she wasn’t supposed to be here. It wasn’t even the memories, though those would hit soon enough. It was the city itself. The giant slabs of grey and the grungy dirt of the sidewalk, the kind of dirt trodden by too many pairs of shoes. Real dirt, Sophia knew, wasn’t grungy: it was clean, powdery, and smelled of living things. And god, the noise; this unrelenting backdrop of whirring engines and honking horns. No bugs. No swishing of grass. There was a breeze and she couldn’t even hear it. 

She’d loved visiting Grandpa’s farm as a kid – whining and dragging her feet at having to leave – but back then returning to the city still felt like returning home. But now? Gone less than a year, it wasn’t home anymore. It would never be home again.

Her dad opened the door. He looked more like Grandpa every day, except if Grandpa was the smiling comedy mask, Dad was the one of tragedy – both white-haired and square-jawed, but all the lines within that space turned in opposite directions. 

Setting down her luggage, she stepped in to hug him. “Hi Dad.”

He returned the quiet hug. “Hi, honey.”

Then there was her mom. She’d been blonde and trim like Sophia once, one of those middle-aged women who took great pride in carefully maintaining her appearance. The type of woman to be dressed before breakfast in immaculately fitted jeans and mascara, to shudder at the thought of wearing a pilled sweater.

Sophia hugged her next: her mom with the frizzy gray braid, her mom with the fuzzy knit cardigan.

The hug was disappointing. The kind you’d give a child who kept running back for more after you’d already hugged them twelve times – a patronizing little pat on the back. Determined, Sophia hugged her fiercely.

“Happy birthday, Mom.”

“Thank you, Sophia. It’s so nice to have you home.”

She found herself unable to lie and say it was nice to be home, because it wasn’t home, and it wasn’t nice. The air inside felt unfamiliar, the walls bare except for an abstract painting she swore she’d seen in at least twenty-nine different waiting rooms throughout her life. The once ornate décor was suddenly minimalist, the family photos gone.

Everything from their old lives had disappeared. If bits of Amy could cling to it, it simply wasn’t allowed.

“I brought some things from the farm,” Sophia said, handing the wicker basket to her mother.

“You grew this yourself?”

“I did,” she said proudly.

She’d spent an hour on the arrangement the previous night: summer squash and blueberries, cherry tomatoes in red and yellow, heirloom tomatoes in all shades of autumn. But her mom only said, “Very nice, dear,” and set it on the counter without looking further at the contents.

Stung, Sophia went into the kitchenette for a glass of ice water. She needed something – anything – to do with her hands so they didn’t end up strangling someone.

The morning crawled. She watched a midday talk show with her father – one where they kept recommending nutritional supplements for ailments she didn’t know she had, but was apparently in dire need of addressing. For lunch she offered to prepare a salad, and when asking what they thought of her lovingly grown tomatoes – the ones she strung to a trellis, deadheaded, watered, fertilized, sometimes even sang to when alone – they again nodded and said, “Very nice, dear.”

She wanted to scream. These people were not her parents.

This was not her father, who used to stand tall in the fields like Grandpa and who knew the satisfaction of biting into a tomato right off your own vine. This was not her mother, who once visited the corner farmer’s market every Saturday – in a sundress and cork wedge sandals – and bubbled with laughter while swapping stories with the regular vendors. That woman would have been delighted to have a daughter who was suddenly among them.

Why couldn’t they ask her about the farm? She was so proud of herself, the sixty and seventy hour weeks, the things she’d learned about the sun and seasons and alkaline levels of her soil. She was proud of the money she’d made, of the new muscles in her body, and how she’d quit smoking – something her parents had always loathed. And god, she wanted to tell them about Shane. About how she’d made a good friend in the valley, one who spent every single Saturday on the farm with her, and who two nights ago she’d started holding hands with.

But it was only cordial silence and small talk as they watched TV that night, until nine-thirty when her mother said, “It’s a big day tomorrow. I’m going to bed.” Then she went into the bathroom, and Sophia was left alone with her father.

Voices talked on the TV. The floor lamp buzzed, casting a cone of yellow against the ceiling of the otherwise dark room. 

“Dad?”

He glanced up from the anthropology magazine he’d been reading.

“She’s not doing any better, is she?”

He closed the magazine, then took off his glasses and folded them. “No, Sophia.”

“And you?”

He cast several long, silent blinks at the carpet.

She grabbed the cashmere blanket from the recliner and sat next to him on the sofa, covering both their legs and leaning her head against his shoulder. For a moment he froze, and she had an unsettling flashback of Shane in the tree house – that reaction of someone unaccustomed to nearness.

She ignored the feeling as much as she could. “I love it on the farm, Dad.”

He turned, just enough to lightly disturb the placement of her head. Despite the lines drawing his face down, there was a soft expression in his eyes. Deeply sad, but soft.

“You’re happy there?”

She wrapped the blanket tighter. “I’m no Grandpa, but my produce has done really well and I’ve been selling it to Pierre’s little grocery store since spring. I keep so busy – I’ve cleaned up the shed and the pond, and I’m outside all day in the sun, and I go to bed exhausted and sleep better than I have in years. I love it, Dad.”

She lifted her eyes to see what he was thinking; his expression had softened even more.  

“Grandpa – Grandpa would be so happy, to know you’re happy there.”

He’d become more relaxed, letting her lean in. It was something she’d done often as a child, though never as an adult.

“I quit smoking,” she added quietly.

“You did?” When she nodded, he almost smiled – the closest thing she’d seen to a smile in ages. “Oh Sophia, I can’t tell you how glad I am.”

This was good – this was better than Sophia could remember it being in years. Heart racing, she took a leap.

“Dad, I’ve met some really nice people in the valley.”

“Did you?” But he didn’t seem to pick up on her urgency, because all he said after that was, “I hope you tell us all about them tomorrow. But for now I think your mother has the right idea – I’m ready for bed.”

“Oh. Of course,” she said, deflating.

“Before I forget, though…” He reached for his wallet on the end table, then pulled out a folded slip of paper and handed it to her. “For the porch repairs.”

She opened it. Inside was a check – along with something small, stiff, and rectangular that fell out from the fold. 

“Dad?”

He quickly scooped it up and shoved it back in his wallet, but not before Sophia saw what it was.

A photo. He kept a photo of Amy.

Her heart surged with warmth, with a desire to burst into relieved tears. But he looked so fragile – embarrassed, almost – and she decided not to draw attention to it. Not yet. She only kissed his cheek and said, “Thank you.”

“Good night, Sophia.”

Alone in the living room after, she clicked off the lamp and television and sat for a long time, staring through the darkness at the faint afterglow of the screen. It was a familiar scene, these dim quiet nights that ended too early.

She sighed and went to her bedroom – the childhood bedroom she’d once shared with Amy.

All traces of her sister were gone here, too. The dreamcatcher that once hung in the window, the crystals that made prisms in the light. The candles she used to light against the building rules, turning every other evening into a séance. The dried flowers, the ones that spent years covered in white because their petals were too fragile to dust. Gone – all of it.

Her mom had tried to erase her from everything, as if afraid any leftover speck might multiply like germs and silently overtake the apartment. The room wore a fresh coat of paint. The old carpet, which an underage Amy and Sophia spilled wine on times too numerous to count, had been replaced with a new beige one. The meticulousness that her mom once channeled into her own appearance was now redirected at her house and keeping it spotless – even the furniture was new.

Except for the bed. Sophia lay flat on her back on the fresh vacuum lines of the floor, sliding underneath it.

Carved on one wooden leg was a triskele; a small Celtic spiral. Once, Amy had been sure she’d conjured a malevolent spirit into their bedroom with her spirit board, and she’d terrified Sophia so badly that they spent an entire weekend attempting to banish the room of evil. The last thing Amy did was carve the triskele.

“It'll protect you,” she’d said, smoothing her younger sister’s hair. “It’ll keep you safe in your sleep.”

Sophia traced the symbol with her fingertip.

“You’re still here,” she whispered, gazing it at for a very long time.

Then she slid back out, stripped fully naked, and stood looking at herself in the oval mirror above the dresser. She ran her hands softly over the bare skin until her body was rife with goosebumps in the slightly chilly room.

Amy loved to be nude, often locking Sophia out of her own bedroom so she could lounge around without clothes. She liked it too cold – said goosebumps made her feel alive. She liked it too hot – said the mugginess of a closed room in summer felt like being on drugs. As a kid she liked the prick of the flu shot that Sophia ran away from, and at twelve she liked the knife across her palm. And Sophia wondered sometimes if that was what had given her a taste for it – if Sophia hadn’t agreed to it, if she’d put her foot down like she’d wanted to at the time – maybe then her sister wouldn’t have learned that particular release.

She’d worn bracelets for years, inches of them all the way up both arms. Beaded ones, black leather ones, purple ribbons tied in a crisscross like ballet slippers. The few times she’d forgotten to lock the door and Sophia walked in on her, Amy had been naked from head to toe – except for the bracelets. The only times she took those off, Sophia now knew, was when she wasn’t so careless with the lock.

She walked to her suitcase, unzipping it and pulling out Shane’s hoodie. A small envelope fell from it and fluttered to the floor.

It’d been in her mailbox that morning – he’d either walked over last night after their phone call, or sometime that morning before she’d dropped Amber off. On the front of the envelope, in terrible handwriting it read:

open if you feel sad

and in smaller letters below:

(sorry if this is stupid)

Like his untidy hair, like his ripped Joja jacket, Sophia felt a rush of affection for that messy handwriting, her heart beating faster just to see it. But her gut told her she’d need it more the following day, and she tucked it back in the bag.

She grabbed the pillow and blanket off the bed, shoving them beneath it, and then slipped her bare body into Shane’s shirt.

“You’d like him, Amy,” she whispered, crawling back under the bed and rolling to face the carving. “In lots of ways, you’d probably understand him better than me. And people like you guys, you need people like me. Because I never put up with your bullshit, and people like you two are so full of bullshit.”

She pulled the hood of the sweatshirt over her head and tucked her hands in its sleeves. Her vision traced the symbol one last time before she curled into the blanket and closed her eyes, falling asleep with both of them.

 


 

The Twelfth Avenue Tearoom was homey as far as inner-city cafés went, but Sophia recalled it being homier before her move. After the Stardrop Saloon – a place where warm, familial feelings hung in the air as if part of the natural humidity – she couldn’t help thinking the atmosphere was a little too perfectly quaint. If the saloon was a shabby antiques shop, then this café was a showroom.

She couldn’t stop comparing every inch of this city with Stardew Valley.

“They added a few items to the menu,” said her mother as they sat down.

“Did they?” said Sophia, not really caring.

“A cream of cauliflower soup and a new bagel sandwich. I like the soup. It’s very light for something cream-based – not too fattening.”

Her mom was clearly making more of an effort today. Sophia wondered if she could work with it, even if it did have to start with soup calories.

She ordered the new sandwich and a side of California rolls, and after the waitress was gone excused herself to the washroom. On the way in, she discreetly stopped by the counter and instructed them to add a slice of cherry cheesecake to her mother’s order. When she returned to the table her parents were still quietly eyeballing the laminated menus.

She reached over their heads to tug them from their hands. “You guys already ordered! Step away from the menus.”

Her mother folded her hands, apparently already out of conversation after bringing up the soup; her father commenced staring out the window of the café. Sophia tried to swallow her resentment that this was the Big Day they’d both gone to bed so early to prepare for.

“Will you two please come visit the farm?” she blurted at last. “This autumn, before the snow arrives? If you don’t want to drive, the bus drops you off ten minutes from the house.”

Her dad gave her a sad look over his glasses. “You know your mother hates to take the bus.”

“What about you then?”

Her mom stepped in. “But your father volunteers at the museum now, on top of his work at the university.”

“Full-time? You sleep there now, Dad? Spend the holidays there?”

“Sophia, please,” said her mother, as if begging her to keep her voice down even though she was talking at a normal volume. “We’ll visit one day. It’s hard to get away.”

“For Dad maybe. But what about you? You’re retired!”

“Sophia, don’t mock me.”

“I’m not mock—”

“You’re welcome to visit here anytime you want. You know that.”

She sighed.

A few minutes later the food was dropped off, a welcome distraction, and they ate in relative silence –until the cheesecake.

“I’m sorry,” said her mom. “I didn’t order this.”

“I did.” Sophia nodded at the waitress to keep moving. “You have to have dessert on your birthday. And it’s cherry, your favorite.”

“You know I’m keeping strict calories.”

“It’s one day, Mom. You love cherry cheesecake.”

“I appreciate the thought Sophia, but I can’t have it.”

She closed her eyes, briefly remembering her words to Shane in the spring: But I bought it for you. It’s already paid for. The way she’d slammed the beer on the table in front of him, splashing his shirt.

She wished, for a split second, to push her mother’s face into the cheesecake. Instead she sighed and took the dessert for herself, then pulled out her gift. “Happy birthday then, Mom.”

She accepted the package, setting it beside her plate. “Thank you very much.”

“No,” said Sophia. “Open it now.”

“I haven’t finished my soup.”

“Well Christ, live a little.”

She was pushing her luck and she knew it – at the moment, even hated herself for it. Her mother hadn’t chosen this anymore than she had. But all the hurt and frustration she’d felt in the months before moving to Stardew Valley came rushing back, making it feel like no time had passed at all.

Her mother gave in, peeling a corner of the tape off the wrapping, and Sophia held her breath when she finally slid the box from the paper.

She’d commissioned Robin to make it. Robin liked to do smaller, more detailed woodwork as a hobby outside of her carpentry business, and for this gift she’d crafted a family tree out of oak – standing a foot high on its own beveled base, it had four intricate branches, with a photo of each Sophia, Amy, her mom, and her dad, hanging in matching oak frames. A larger frame was built right into its base with a picture of the four of them together, the last Wintersday before Amy’s death.

Her mom stared at the item in the box, not even touching it. The color simply drained from her face.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” said Sophia softly. “One of my friends from the valley does incredible woodwork.”

When her mother finally spoke, her voice was as low and coarse as sandpaper.

Why would you do this?

Sophia’s chest tightened. “Because you should have it. Because you should’ve had it ages ago.” She glanced at her father, but after his initial look at the gift he’d gone back to staring out the window, eyelids fluttering like he was about to lose control of them.

“This is cruel.” Her mom closed the box, voice shaking. “Here in public. Just cruel.

Not looking at Sophia, she set the gift aside and raised a spoonful of cauliflower soup to her mouth, as if determined to return to a time before she’d seen it. But as the metal touched her lips, her whole body jerked – she let out a sputtering sob, splashing the soup all down her front.

Heart racing, Sophia grabbed the box. “Then we won’t do it in public,” she snapped, voice as cruel as her mother had claimed the gift to be. “We’ll go home and do it in private.”

She left the café with the gift in her arms, unable to look at the tattered faces behind her, speeding down the blocks with blood rushing in her ears. She hardly noticed the journey, and once back inside the apartment she opened the box and stood the wooden tree on the kitchen table.

Then she waited, almost a full half hour before the door finally creaked open.

Her mother’s eyes were red, her father’s distant. They hung up their jackets and got settled in without acknowledging either Sophia or the gift: her father sat on the couch with a newspaper, while her mother used a small broom and dustpan to sweep bits of sand near the welcome mat.

Sophia’s own vision began to sting, and she’d never felt so alone in a room of three people.

“How?” she whispered at last. “How can you live this way?”

Her mother stood slowly, composed, holding the dustpan flat. She stared at its contents, blinking.

Then the pan began to tremble.

It was like the beginnings of an earthquake – a tremor in the tiny pile of sand, the particles shaking, jumping, and then with a sudden jolt through her entire body she flung it away, looking absolutely wild. “Because we have to, Sophia, we have to! Because we don’t have a choice!”

Sophia felt like her eyes were open underwater. “You have to?” she cried. “You have to pretend she never existed? You can’t let a single thing remind you that even if she’s gone now, she was here for twenty-two goddamn years?”

“Shut up!" her mother shrieked. "Shut up! Shut up, shut up!” On the last word she began to openly sob, trembling like the dustpan herself and then sliding to the floor, her face to the linoleum and pressed right into the freshly scattered sand.

At the moment, Sophia couldn’t feel anything for the woman collapsed on the ground; her own head was too lit with fire. “You know what else, Mom? I’m still here! I’m still alive, and it’s like you can’t even see that!”

She stormed across the room, passing her father on the couch with his head in his hands, fingers kneading roughly through his hair.

“You don’t even care that I’m happy for the first time since she died! You won’t come to the farm, because you know Amy was there and you might accidentally see something that reminds you of her. Well, I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry! But I won’t pretend she didn’t exist – I want to talk about her, I want to walk into my house and see her picture on the wall where it fucking belongs. And I know she was your daughter but she was also my sister and my best friend, and I found her! I have to dream about her every fucking night, I have to see her body every time I opened my goddamned eyes. Me!”

She dropped to her own spot in the middle of the floor, and just like both of her parents cradled her head in her hands, now speaking toward the carpet. “And I’m sorry if this hurts and I’m sorry if this is killing you. But it’s killing me too, that we can’t even say her name in this house without it being the end of the goddamned world. And Dad keeps a picture in his wallet, Mom, I saw it last night – you’re not letting him heal, he doesn’t want it to be like this either—”

She cut off, choking on her own tears, and for several moments the ticking of the wall clock was the only noise in the room. At last she whispered, “I’m happy on the farm. I see her every single day, in the orchard and our treehouse and at Grandpa’s dock, and I like it – I like seeing her. And I met someone, Mom, someone who makes me feel good, and he works with me on Grandpa’s farm and he's kind and he's sweet and he lets me talk about Amy. But you don’t care, do you? You’re never going to let yourself see good things or happiness again. You’re going to be mad at yourself for the rest of your life.”

It was silent but for the hiccups of her mother, searching for air. Sophia clumsily got to her feet, wiping her eyes.

“I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to sit in a blank apartment until I die.”

She went into her bedroom and shut the door.

 


 

Sophia slept all afternoon. It was past suppertime when she woke, but she wasn’t at all hungry.

Curled in bed, she mindlessly flipped through her mobile phone. The evening sun wore on and eventually gave way to darkness, and between the darkness, the cold bedroom, and the exhaustion of the morning, she couldn’t bring herself to move from under the covers. Her passion had cost her; she was feeling quite lifeless.

She began scrolling through the music on her phone, and finding the right song set it on the pillow beside her head, laying back to listen. And it helped, a little – it was the song she’d been listening to when she moved to the valley, first pulling up to that pretty, forested bus stop at the edge of Pelican Town. She thought of how she’d moved for a fresh start, for clean air, a new purpose.

She hadn’t gone to the saloon on a Friday night hoping to meet a guy, but she’d gone to the saloon on a Friday night and met a guy regardless.

Her suitcase was next to the bed now, and she leaned over and pulled out Shane’s envelope. Sliding her finger beneath the flap, she opened it and extracted a slip of paper with four simple lines.

roses are red
violets are blue
I need you Sophia
don’t move to peru

It was like seeing a friendly face after being trapped in a houseful of strangers; she grinned and pushed her face into the pillow, then rolled on her back and stared at his sloppy handwriting, the third line glowing as if scrawled in fire:

I need you Sophia

She grabbed her phone again, turning off the music and going into the call history. His name and number were the two most recent and she tapped one.

Marnie answered, as usual. “Hello?”

There was no need to identify herself anymore. “Hi Marnie. Can I speak to Shane?”

“Of course, dear. One moment.”

Sophia rather liked that her calls were expected now, but during the thirty second wait to get him on the line butterflies began to flit through her entire torso.

“Hello?” said a deep voice.

She would never tire of that sound.

Pulling her thoughts from the fluttering creatures, she took a shallow breath. “If I were to feed you a tomato from my farm and ask what you thought of it, what would you say?”

He paused. “Depends. What are you wearing?”

Noooo, Shane.”

“Okay, okay. Um. That it’s the best damn tomato I’ve ever eaten?” His voice dropped lower. “Did I get that right?”

“Yes, you did. Thank you.”

“Sophia, are you okay? Did you have to buy a burrito?”

“I’d rather talk to you this time.”

There was a slight hesitation, then he said, “I dunno if you checked your mailbox before you left…”

“I did.”

“D-did you open it?”

All the deadness she’d felt since waking from her nap rushed away, leaving a vacuum for emotions to pour in. She couldn’t help it; she burst into tears.

“Well shit. I know my poem sucks, but I didn’t think it’d make you cry.”

Her nose was already snotty. “You’re so full of bullshit.”

“What? No I’m not. I do want you to stay in the country.”

“Not your poem, I love your stupid poem. Just you – you’re full of bullshit. I haven’t met a person so full of bullshit since my sister, so I hope you know what that means.”

“Please don’t say we’re related. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I really, really don’t want to be related to you.”

He was in a good mood – cheerful, even – but as much as she loved this new playful side, she couldn’t help but be serious. Wiping her eyes, she remembered the way he’d wiped them with his sleeve the night of the jellies, then said, “It means I need you too.”

He grew quiet. “You can cry.”

“I screamed at them,” she whispered, voice clogged. “I don’t even know how long. They sat there and I yelled at them until my mom was just sitting with her face on the floor, and my dad didn’t say a single damn word the whole time. And the worst part is, I knew exactly what I was doing. I did.”

She rubbed her face on the pillowcase. “The birthday gift I gave my mom, it had these family pictures in it. They haven’t kept a single picture of Amy in the house since she died.  I knew what I was doing – I wanted to force her to fucking face it. I yelled and made her feel guilty on purpose, and she called me cruel and she was right, she was one hundred percent right. It’s her birthday and I was a complete bitch of a daughter…” She trailed off, her nose plugged so much that she had to breathe through her mouth.

“You’re not cruel,” he said. “That’s the last thing you are.”

“I was today. I hate this place, Shane.” She hiccupped, then said, “Did I tell you Amy and I shared an apartment?”

“No.”

“We did. And after, I couldn’t stay there. I moved back here with my parents. I was only here a few months, but fuck, it was the worst time of my life, of all of our lives. We were all so out of control. And then I met Rick at work… I moved in with him after one week. When I think back on it now, that seems crazy. Don’t you think that’s crazy?”

“I dunno,” said Shane, suddenly much quieter.

“Oh god,” she muttered thickly, rolling to put her face into the pillow. “God. I’m sorry, Shane. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“It was a shit relationship. Utter shit. I just – I couldn’t stay in this fucking house a day longer. I just wanted some semblance of control, of normal life, you know?”

Shane was, if possible, even quieter than before. “You said he was controlling.”

She blinked at the ceiling. “He had me convinced that my parents were too toxic to be around. And maybe he was right, maybe they were. But they’d just lost their first daughter, and then I let him rip me away too. Then three years later I finally get the hell away from him and move back home… it’s no wonder they act like I’m gone too. I was gone. Amy left, and then I did. And now it’s like those first months all over again.”

She inhaled and exhaled several times, trying to return her breathing to normal. Shane stayed silent on the other end.

“Just so you know, that relationship is dead and buried.”

“I know,” he said.

“You couldn’t fucking pay me enough to do it over.”

“I know, Sophia. Don’t turn this call around. I’m supposed to be comforting you, remember?”

“You are.”

“I’m just sitting here.”

“Where’s ‘here’?”

“Er – my bed.”

“That’s funny. I’m in bed too.”

She waited a beat, enjoying the taut silence this brought.

“Shane," she said, after letting him squirm. "You know you’re my best friend, right?”

A pause. “Same.”

“You’re your own best friend?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Well, maybe I want to hear you say it.”

"Seriously?"

"Seriously!"

He sighed. “You’re my best friend, Sophia.”

“Good. Now say it slower.”

"What?"

“Deeper.”

What?”

"You heard me."

“Sophia…” He couldn’t mask the redness in his voice and she pushed her face back in the pillow, this time to stifle her giggles.  

“I hear you protest,” she said at last, rolling on her back. “But I think you like it.”

Another pause. “And what if I do?”

She closed her eyes, heart fluttering.

It was unreal how good it felt just to be around him, just to talk to him like this after a bad day. He made her feel so goddamn good; she’d even told her parents as much. But she hadn’t mentioned how good, and right now – lying in bed, his words close in her ear – she was so distracted. He was talking again but her brain only vaguely registered what he was saying, focusing instead on the provocative timbre of his voice. Was it too early for him to be in pajamas? Maybe the flannel bottoms, like he’d worn to the beach that night… something that would take very little effort to slip a hand into…

God, he always looked so inviting. Solid yet soft, his chest thick, his arms warm. She’d only known holding his hand, but could vividly remember how his fingers felt in hers; the ridge of his knuckles, how she’d wondered what they’d feel like grabbing different parts of her—

Her hand absentmindedly lifted her shirt; she began drawing slow circles on her belly. 

“Sophia?”

“Mmm?”

“You – er – passing out over there?” 

For a moment she considered being bold enough to say what she was thinking and a sharp thrill shot through her chest. But then as quickly as the thrill came it fled; even she couldn't be that forward yet. 

“Sorry."

“Maybe you should get some sleep," he said. "Your day sounded fucking exhausting.”

"It was…" She opened her eyes, gazing softly at the ceiling. "But Shane?”

“Yeah?”

“It – it feels really good, talking to you like this.”

One of those long pauses he liked to give. Then, softly, “Yeah, same.”

“And we’ll get to do it again soon?”

“Fucking hope so.”

After they’d said their goodnights, Sophia once again stripped down, once again slipped into only Shane's hoodie. Except this time she climbed into bed, not under it, and lying on her stomach she slipped a hand between her thighs, working two fingers inside.

Amy would understand that tonight she wanted to be only with him.

 

Chapter Text

When Shane entered the kitchen Saturday morning before heading to the farm, Jas was already at the table.

“Hey squirt.”

She twirled a spoon in her strawberry yogurt. “Uncle Shane, are you going to Miss Sophia’s?”

“Yep,” he said, putting down toast.

“When is she coming to visit again?”

“I don’t know. But how about I ask her today?”

Jas squealed and twirled her spoon too enthusiastically, spraying the table with pink.

“Jas, eat nice,” chided Marnie, then drifted toward Shane with a fresh mug of coffee. In close quarters she said, “What’s this? It sounds like Miss Sophia’s been over here already.”

The phone rang before he had a chance to turn red. Grateful for the interruption, he grabbed a plate for his toast as Marnie went to answer.

“One moment,” he heard her say, and then she brought the phone to him. “For you.”

A phone call at this hour? Sophia usually called in the evenings – what if this was Dr. Harvey with his test results? That was both a highly anticipated and dreaded call, and his heart began to race as he took it into the hallway.

“Hello?”

Sophia’s voice burst into his ear, lively and urgent. “Shane! Don’t come over until noon.”

“Huh?”

Don’t come over until noon.”

“Why?”

She paused. “It probably would’ve been nicer of me to let you know yesterday, so you could sleep in.”

“Well, yeah, kinda – what’s going on?”

“Drive the truck over when you do come, okay? I’ve already talked to Marnie, she knows I need it today.”

“Don’t tell me we’re stacking hay bales to the roof of your house.”

“Maybe! Oh, and don’t eat lunch.”

“Soph—”

Bye Shane,” she said, practically singing it.

 


 

Shane spent the morning thoroughly cleaning the coop – something usually saved for Sundays – and then walking Jas around the property on Annabel. The weather was brisk but sunny, the leaves just beginning to tinge yellow and orange on their tips, and he led them to the half dozen apple trees growing in the backyard. Deep red apples dotted both the branches and ground, and after lifting Jas off the horse Shane picked one off the grass, shining it on his jeans and handing it to her.

She took a crunchy bite. “Can I come with you to Miss Sophia’s farm?”

He opened his mouth, then closed it without saying anything.

If he asked Sophia whether Jas was welcome, he was sure she’d be more than open to the idea, and Jas herself would love getting to dig in the dirt, pull weeds, and play with Amber. But after the mysterious call that morning – what with her changing the time and demanding the truck – he had no idea what to expect.

“Sorry kid, probably not today. Tell you what, though – I’ll ask her both things. When she’s coming over here, and when you can go over there. Deal?”

Deal.” Another bite of apple, juice dribbling onto the back of her hand. “Is she your girlfriend now?”

Shane took out his pocketknife, grabbing another apple and cutting a piece off. “Nope,” he said, offering it to Annabel on the palm of his hand.

“Why not?”

“Just… hasn’t happened yet.”

“She doesn’t want to be girlfriend-boyfriend?”

Fucking kid, always making him have to stop and think before answering. And this question, this one was tougher than most. He wanted to believe he knew the answer – wanted to, but just like when Marnie asked him about it in the coop, it felt dangerous to examine Sophia’s feelings out in the open like this. One wrong assumption…

“I dunno,” he said lamely.

Jas wiped her sticky hand on the bottom of her shirt. “Want me to ask her for you?”

“Don’t tempt me, kid.”

“Ask her today!”

He glanced up at the colored tips of the leaves, watching them ruffle in the breeze. “How about this? When I do, you’ll be the first to know.”

She rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue, then dissolved into giggles at her own goofy face. Shane ruffled her hair.

When I do.

 


 

Sophia was waiting on her porch when Shane pulled up, and at seeing him she jogged down, almost on top of his feet by the time he got out of the vehicle.  

“Keys.”

“Er…” Shane handed them over. “Where are you going?”

“Where are we going. Get in.”

She was in a sunshine yellow sweater today, her hair piled high on her head in a messy knot. With one hand on the on the steering wheel, the other on the key in the ignition she said, “You don’t have to pee or anything for the next hour, right?”

He stared at her. “No. What the fuck?”

She raised her eyebrows mysteriously and started the engine.

She’d called him almost every night since the visit to her parents, and all those conversations left Shane forgetting that – outside of the two minutes it took to drop off Amber at the ranch – it’d been two full weeks since he was sober in her presence. As vividly as he remembered all the flirting they’d done on the phone, all the things they’d shared while he was drunk at the beach, it suddenly felt like those moments belonged to someone else.

Especially to see her like this, smiling in bright yellow in the driver’s seat, as composed and sorrow-free as he’d foolishly assumed her to be when they met. To know that just a few days ago she’d been lying in bed crying and called Shane, because he was the person she wanted near when she was lying in bed crying.

God, he’d felt like her boyfriend.

He’d been with girls before, yes, but he’d never been a boyfriend – not a day in his life. And it was a strange feeling, one that filled him both with happiness and a vague, dreadful notion that if she had half a brain she’d be running the other direction. He tried to push that feeling aside.

“Sophia?” They exited her road and turned the direction of the bus stop. “What’s this about?”

Her eyes were brighter blue than he’d ever seen them.

“I... have a surprise,” she said, quickly glancing at him before looking back at the road.

“What is it?”

“That’s not how surprises work, Shane.”

Then she reached over and turned the radio up. It was louder than he’d listened to music in at least ten years; the bass rumbled through Marnie’s truck, and an elderly couple shot them withering looks as they rolled through the bus stop and pulled onto the highway that led out of Stardew Valley.

“Sophia! Tell me!”

“Can’t hear you!” she shouted back. “Must be so interesting though!”

“Fucking hell,” he muttered, looking out the side window and grinning where she couldn’t see it.

Now that they were on the highway, Shane realized that they were headed straight toward Zuzu City – both of their homes, he thought, a strange feeling in his chest. He hadn’t been back even once since moving the previous winter. Sophia had been focused on the road for more than thirty minutes, not saying a word, and as they approached the familiar skyline he reached over and turned the music down.

“Can you tell me yet?”

She glanced at him quickly, looking so excited that she reminded Shane of a twelve year old behind the wheel.

“When’s the last time you saw the Tunnelers?”

“The Tunnelers?” he repeated. He stared at her, looking for any sign that she was joking.

“Yes!” Her bag sat on the center console and she pulled two tickets from one of the pockets.

“What in the actual fuck.”

She shot him an exasperated look. “Here I was, thinking you’d be happy. Christ.”

“You’re – you’re taking me to a Tunneler’s game?”

“No.” She gave him the tickets. “You’re taking me.”

“The hell…” he said, eyes darting over them. “These seats…”

“Good?”

“Only the best. Never sat anywhere near… Sophia, these must have cost a fortune.”

“Yeah well, you know what else does? Good farmhands. Consider it a thank you.” Her words sounded strong, but the look she gave him was anxious. “And for more than just installing the shittiest sprinklers known to man. For everything. I look forward to Saturday all week long, Shane, and it’s not because of the extra shovel.”

He looked at the glossy slips of paper, block letters telling him the game started at three. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say that if I have to sit through a match where I have zero idea what’s going on, you’ll at least enjoy yourself. And that before we go you’ll try one of the mystery burritos from my shitty Tex-Mex place for lunch.”

“Yeah, think I can do that.”

He liked watching her drive. She was a comfortable driver, not a nervous one like him. She liked the music loud anytime they weren’t talking, and the way it reverberated through his body Shane wasn’t sure if it was the vibrations or if he was actually feeling giddy – maybe it was just the first time he’d felt enough excitement to override his nerves. When she glanced over every few minutes to give him quick, timid smiles, he even smiled back.

At the fast food place she insisted on bringing their order back to the truck, sitting on her knees and dropping the center console as a makeshift table between them. As she spread out paper napkins, Shane thought of her words on the phone the previous weekend, when she’d called him her best friend. Eating burritos in the parking lot together midday, he did feel like her best friend, and for all of two seconds wondered if that was a bad thing – after all, sometimes girls said that to establish boundaries. But the way she said it, the way she’d started teasing him right after…

It didn’t seem like she’d laid that kind of boundary. Or, if she had, she’d set it down and proceeded to step right over it.

Once they were in the stadium with the deafening cheers of the crowd, the voice of the intercom blaring, it was too loud to even hear himself think: Shane felt entirely in the moment. He hadn’t been to a gridball match since the last fall that Garrett was alive, and while normally the smell of beer would flood him with craving, this smell of beer was accompanied by popcorn and hot dogs, by grass and cleats and nostalgia. It was busy and cheerful and he was surrounded on every side by strangers, wonderful strangers, strangers he’d never seen a day in his life; alone in a crowd once more, his version of it, and in that moment he’d never felt less lonely.

“I have no idea what’s happening!” shouted Sophia, cheering along with their entire side of the stadium. “And it’s great!” Then she started to laugh and couldn’t stop.

Her cheeks were bright pink from cold and excitement, her already messy bun blown even messier by the wind, the loose blonde strands in front whipping her face. Amid the wall of blue and green team jerseys her sweater shone like a beam of sunlight. The crystal stud in her nose – her nose piercing, of all things – filled his chest with a warmth that spread through his whole body. She yelled, “Fuck him up!” at the two players wrestling for the ball below them, looking at Shane and cracking up, and he felt a jolt like lightning.

It was her. Not the noise or the crowd or the stadium. Not nostalgia. Not just the way she looked then, adorable though it was. And it wasn’t merely the idea of her like he’d worried when they first met. It was just Sophia; it was every last thing about her.

She was still laughing and Shane couldn’t pull his eyes from her. When she noticed him watching, the laughter slowly came to a stop. It left her with just a smile, and then the smile became nervous.

“What are you looking at?” she asked shyly.

You. I’m in love with you, and I think I have been for a long time. Maybe all summer.

“Shane, you’re making me feel weird.”

The crowd cheered behind them and Shane, still watching her, spoke so quietly that only she could hear.

“Is that a bad thing?”

She’d been frozen with that shy smile on her face, but now the corners of it gradually fell. The breeze continued to whip the loose hair across her forehead, and Shane stared directly in her eyes. He couldn’t hear the noise of the stadium anymore.

Softly she said, “No.”

Surreal; like their dance in the woods all those months ago, when she’d bit her lip and looked up at him, smiling, and he knew he was in trouble. Surreal; like when she’d swam silently for him in the bathhouse, and he realized he’d never known tenderness could escort the feelings of sexual desire. Surreal; like now, when he admitted to himself he was in love with her, and she stood before him with eyes that said it might be okay that he was.  

“You want to know what’s going on?” he asked, nodding toward the field. “I can try to explain.”

Still shy, she nodded.

The Tunneler’s won, and Shane spent half the match trying to explain the rules – he enjoyed leaning in close to her, pointing out players, fumbles, and saves. Several times they brushed shoulders, and on a few particularly loud occasions he had to tilt his head toward her cheek so she could hear him, shouting into her ear from only inches away. The whole time, he felt his heart turning circles inside his chest.

It was nearly seven when they exited the building, the sky unexpectedly dark after leaving the stadium lights behind. For a long time it was only pushing through crowds, trying to weave their way down the sidewalk without losing sight of one another, but eventually the flood of people dispersed into little rivers and they were able to slow down, walking side by side to the vehicle.

“We won,” she said happily. “I’m glad the seats were worth it.”

He shoved his hands in his pockets, feeling his wallet. He must have placed it there by habit since it wasn’t needed on the farm, but he was suddenly glad to have it. The night couldn’t end yet, and for the first time in his life he didn’t stop to doubt himself.

“Sophia, can I take you to dinner?”

The confidence in his own voice surprised him, and she looked up as if surprised by it too. With the same shy smile as before, she whispered, “Sure.”

He nodded down the sidewalk opposite of their vehicle. “This way.”

A few blocks later they arrived in front of AJ’s Bar & Grill, a hole-in-the-wall steakhouse with wine-colored booths and dark wooden walls. It was warm and cozy, the lights dim and an oil wick lamp on each table. A television played silent sports recaps, blue-barred subtitles rolling across the bottom of the screen, and a classic rock station hummed quietly in the background. Sophia gazed around appreciatively, her skin rosy even in the low light, the flickering of the candles dancing in her eyes. She seemed withdrawn, even timid.   

“Table or bar?” asked the hostess, appearing at the entrance with two menus.

“Booth,” said Shane.

The booths were far more private, their leather backs a foot taller than even Shane’s head while sitting, and when they were seated along the furthest side of the restaurant it felt like he and Sophia were in a private room all their own.

Sitting alone on her side of the table, with the wide bench and tall burgundy back, Shane thought again how young she looked, like when she’d been sitting in the driver’s seat leaning forward.  

“You’ve been here before?” she asked quietly.

“Me and Garrett came here after matches.”

She shifted on the bench. “Did you go to a lot of them?”

“Twice a year, one at the start of the season and one at the end. Then we’d come here after, kind of a ritual.”

“Oh.”

The waitress dropped off their water glasses, and Sophia busied herself stirring her straw through the ice.

He was so used to her being the bolder of the two of them, and it was strange to watch her shrink into self-consciousness beside him. She took a sip of water. Looking up after and meeting his eyes, she bit the very tip of the straw, laughing nervously with it between her teeth before looking away.

For several seconds they sat in silence, until Shane remembered the menus sitting in the middle of the table. He handed her one, grateful for something to steer the conversation with.

Sophia opened hers, her cheeks pink again. “What do you recommend?”

He could hardly handle it. This wasn’t his imagination; she was being flirtatious like she hadn’t been since the night of the luau, since the night they’d sat by her fire and every other look had been through her lashes.

“What are you in the mood for?” he asked, opening his own. “Unless you just want like, twenty appetizers and no entrée.”

“Only twenty?” she teased, for a moment sounding like her usual self. Then her eyes darted across the menu several times before slamming it shut. “I think this menu is in Greek. Please have the waitress bring me an English one.”

He laughed. “What?”

“Shane, you have to help me decide,” she whispered desperately. “Nothing in my brain is working right now.”

“We could split a pizza?”

“Pizza. Pizza is good.”

“There’s this really spicy deep-dish one,” he said, closing his menu and setting it atop hers. “Is that okay?”

She nodded.

After ordering they fell back into another long silence, occasionally glancing around the restaurant but never at each other, as if avoiding eye contact was the most casual thing to do. It felt so formal suddenly, having dinner together – Shane began to wonder if it hadn’t been such a good idea. His mind was terribly blank, doubts beginning to resurface in the empty space where his thoughts ought to be.  

A loud slurping noise crinkled the silence. Sophia blushed and pulled away from her water, which she’d drained to the ice. “Sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize it was so low…”

“I’ll get you a refill,” said Shane quickly, peering from the booth to look for a waitress.

“It’s fine, I don’t need one.” She sunk in her seat, but he’d already flagged someone down.

Then back to silence.

“Shane?” she said, after another uncomfortable minute. “Are we bad at this?”

He looked at the table. “Yeah.”

“Okay,” she said, and then, “okay,” as if to further her resolve. “So the good news is if we suck this bad, we can only get better, right?”

“Right…”

A pause, then: “I’m coming over.”

Shane opened his mouth to ask what the hell she meant, but she was already out of her seat and scooting into the bench beside him.

“Not that I don’t want to look at you – I do – I mean, I don’t – just… motherfucking shit.”

“Sophia?” He’d never seen her so scattered.

“I need to go to the ladies room,” she declared, standing, and once she was gone Shane dropped his head in his hands.

Was she having second thoughts? It was such a short time ago that she’d been acting coy with him, and suddenly she was erratic and couldn’t wait to leave. Those tiny doubtful fingers began to grab his insides again, twisting, and it occurred to him that he’d never actually been on a proper date before. Buying girls drinks at the bar didn’t really count, not when he’d only known them eight minutes and they’d met in the very same bar.

Luckily the pizza arrived before Sophia did, so when she sat back down on the bench across from Shane – and then, blushing, got up and again slid into the seat beside him – there was at least something to do besides look into glasses of water. They ate in silence for several minutes, though the doubt continued to claw.

“Sophia?” he said at last.

“Yeah?”

“Do – do you still want to be here?”

She didn’t say anything, sprinkling a bit of parmesan on her slice. Shane turned back to his food too, though he no longer felt hungry – he felt sick. She didn’t want to be here. She didn’t have the heart to tell him, but somewhere between shyly asking him what to order and running to the ladies room she’d changed her mind.

Then he felt something brush against him under the table. For one stupid moment he thought it was an animal – a cat maybe, though why it would be in the restaurant he hadn’t the foggiest idea – before realizing it was Sophia.

Her leg grazed his as she wrapped her left foot around his right, pulling it toward her and continuing to eat her pizza.

Uncertainly, he tugged his foot back, pressing the inside of his shoe against hers.

She did the same.

His pulse raced like mad. They continued to eat, but the silence didn’t feel like a bad thing anymore.

Toward the end of the meal, after he’d paid the bill, Shane excused himself to the men’s room. While washing his hands he glanced up at his reflection.

He still wasn’t used to it. It’d been years since he was sober for any length of time, years since he’d seen his face without the perpetual redness and bloat that drinking gave him. But even during those years of sobriety he hadn’t looked like this, because even without the drinking he could never escape the depression. Sober or drunk, he could never look in the mirror and not see dead eyes staring back.

He was older now, his face more sculpted by the natural erosion of time, a few light lines across his forehead. The redness was gone, his jaw line was visible, and the dead eyes had been replaced by ones that – dare he think it – looked happy. But as much as his face had changed, as much as even his heart had, he realized this state was the exception, not the rule. And looking at his own happy eyes, he wondered when it would end. He knew it would. Negativity was his cancer; it would always find something to latch onto in his brain and grow back.

He thought of the second Saturday he’d spent with Sophia, when he dragged that twelve-pack of beer to the farm and showed up already a few in at her door. The memory still made him cringe, but he remembered why he’d done it: to spoil things before they could rot naturally, to protect himself from the inevitable fall. And back then, they’d only just moved from acquaintances to friends.  

Today he was in love with her – had looked straight in her eyes while thinking it. This inevitable fall? It’d fucking murder him.

He ran the water ice cold, splashing it on his face, patting it dry with a brown paper towel and running his hands several times through his hair. Not right now. He wouldn’t think about this right now.

“I was about to come in there looking for you,” said Sophia with a timid smile when he returned. “You okay?”

“Yeah, fine. Ready to go?”

He walked a pace behind her and when they reached the door he almost placed a hand against the small of her back – but he hesitated too long, and then they were on the sidewalk again, the opportunity gone.

But it wasn’t the only opportunity. They walked the first block separately, Sophia’s arms wrapped around herself as if to keep warm in the now chilly night. But on the second block she dropped them to her sides, and for several moments Shane’s brain frantically tried to determine how deliberate it was. Was this a hint? Did she drop them on purpose? Maybe she hadn’t thought about it at all, maybe she was off in her own world—

Take her hand. Take her hand. Take her hand. 

Staring straight ahead, determined to stop overthinking and grab it in one bold moment – just like asking her to dinner – he blindly reached for it.

His hand connected with the purse hanging at her side. She looked up, startled.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Not watching where I’m going…”

“That’s okay.” Sophia just smiled nervously, then clamped her hands back around her arms like she had for the first block.  

You fucking dumbass, Shane.

Being in the vehicle helped considerably. Sophia fell back into her role on the driver’s side, adjusting her mirrors, setting the music she wanted for the ride – it must have been her own CD in the player, as she switched expertly between the tracks to find the song she wanted. It was pitch dark now and he helped watch for pedestrians as she backed out of the tiny parking lot, and those mundane acts helped him breathe normally again. As they crept slowly down the cramped streets, the music flooding the vehicle and again loud enough to massage Shane from the inside, he stared out the window at the city that had so long been home.

It felt strange to be back. It felt strange to be back with Sophia, back here among the endless rows of shops and restaurants and neon signs, sidewalks that bustled with people and noise long after dark. A group of teenagers hung near a crosswalk, laughing and talking, one holding a mobile phone for a photo. Behind them walked a middle aged couple hand-in-hand, a man in a construction worker’s uniform with a backpack slung over one shoulder, young women carrying shopping bags from expensive boutiques. And it kept going, endless people doing endless activities on an endless sidewalk. It continued on the street itself – cars in front of them, cars behind them, cars passing right by their side, little beams of light inching along.

Shane looked at Sophia. He remembered when they first met, when he thought she looked like she belonged on those sidewalks; that she’d moved to become a farmer had seem ridiculous. But that was before he knew her, before he’d watched her digging out weeds on her hands and knees, climbing hay bales to the roof of her shed, or sitting atop Annabel with an expression that said she never wanted to get down.

She wasn’t a city girl anymore. Maybe she’d never been one. Watching her now, he knew she was driving home.

But what about him?

He thought of the excitement and energy that shook him in the stadium that afternoon. He looked at the sidewalks currently swarming with people, remembering how once, despite the depression that sat on his chest like an anvil, the pace of the city forced at least a tiny dose of life into him.  

Then he thought of all his nights walking home from the Stardrop Saloon: the streets empty, crickets chirping, quiet enough to hear the crunch of his shoes on the gravel. How, once past the row of sleepy houses, it became so dark he’d need a flashlight if he didn’t already know the way. He thought of laying on a dock on the beach, jellyfish swimming silently beneath him and Sophia holding his hand.

He’d been so sure he’d be bored in Pelican Town. That the boredom, on top of the depression, would crush whatever life was left inside him. But as they pulled onto the highway and he watched the shining dots of the skyline disappear in the review mirror, he wasn’t so sure about anything.

Except her.

 

Chapter Text

They drove without speaking for a long time. The music was cranked, but even as it shook the truck Sophia found it comforting: the drums soft, the guitars dreamlike, the bass line massaging. She was enveloped in a blanket of sound, the space between the notes tingling with her own hot emotion.

This was happening. And it wasn’t about phone calls or weekends on the farm anymore, but about being in a dark vehicle with Shane after this unofficial date, after holding his hand at the moonlight jellies when he’d finally told her point-blank he wanted more than friendship. It was realizing she could pull over at any moment to kiss him and he wouldn’t try to stop her; realizing that if she didn’t pull over then the moment wouldn’t disappear, it’d merely slide to a later time that night, like when they arrived back at her house and had to figure out what was a proper goodbye for such an evening.

Sophia drove right past the turn that would take them back to Stardew Valley.

“You missed the exit!” Shane shouted over the music.

She continued to drive straight, no sign of slowing down.

"Did you hear me?"

Under the soft, liquid beam of the headlights she stared straight ahead, at the black highway rushing below them, at the white lines disappearing in a steady stream. Eyes still locked in focus on the road, she reached over and rolled the volume down until the music was gone.

“I sleep in your hoodie every night.”

Shane remained silent, but Sophia nodded as if he’d questioned it, still staring ahead, eyes wide open and caught in her own headlights.

“Every night since you gave it to me. I took it to my parent’s place, wore it that night when we talked on the phone. And the night before that. Last night. The night before last night.” Her hand reached again for the volume. “Every night.”

Then she turned the music on again, as loud as it’d been before. 

He still said nothing, but she felt the energy change within the vehicle. She thought of Amy and Emily, of their reading auras and vibrations in the air and slapping color labels on them. Though Sophia didn’t take it seriously she occasionally humored such thoughts, and felt that a moment like this ought to be red – something bright and high strung. But the sudden tension in the truck wasn’t red, it was colorless. Transparent. Clear, like clean water, waiting. 

After another ten minutes she pulled off the road, driving into what at first looked like a normal rest stop but was actually a cliff face, with a parking area and a thick fence blocking the sheer drop below. Davenport: she’d looked it up after Sebastian mentioned it. A pine forest filled the landscape below the drop, and straight ahead was the Zuzu City skyline, so small and sparkly it looked like it belonged in a snow globe.

She turned off the ignition, the engine whirring once before sputtering to silence.

“Didn’t know this was here,” Shane said quietly.

“I just learned about it.” Sophia unbuckled her seatbelt and brought her legs up onto the seat, facing him; she’d flipped the center console back in its upright position after lunch so nothing was between them now but empty space. The interior light remained on from the recently cut engine and Shane sat with his eyes boring into it, looking for all the world like he was trying to turn it off with his mind.

She leaned her head against the seat, watching him.

The gridball match had been a blast; she’d loved being with him in such an energetic place, learning about something that was a huge part of his life before meeting her. Every penny of those tickets was worth it to see his eyes light up with genuine excitement, and she had the sense he really liked leaning over and explaining the game to her.

She rather enjoyed that part too.

Still, when she squinted at the players and tried to imagine him on a field like that in high school it just didn’t compute. It wasn’t about the athleticism; he worked hard enough on her farm for that part to be believable. But playing on a team – a varsity team? Tackling people in front of an audience? It felt almost impossible.

Then Garrett popped into her head, as he had several times since Shane mentioned him at dinner. What had he been like, to convince him to quit drinking, to join a team sport, to graduate? She would never know Garrett yet she loved him, and they shared a silent bond of being the only two people Shane had ever let in. She loved him for being there for Shane, for encouraging him, for being his friend when he was friendless, and she hated the world for ripping that from him.

She knew all about losing your best friend. On the deepest level, she understood what it was to wake up day after day, gutted with the knowledge you would never again hear their voice, see their face, be on the receiving end of one of their playful insults. When talking to most people Sophia only felt connected by the words, but with Shane it was another phenomenon entirely – if normal conversations were formed by drawing a line between two heads, conversations with him formed a line straight between their two chests.    

And fuck, he felt it too, she knew he did – that underneath the awkwardness was something that couldn’t be shaken by awkwardness alone. They could continue this bumbling dance for months, but no amount of awkward flirting could break what was below it: this young but unexpectedly loyal friendship between them. One that wasn’t attempting to fill the holes left by Amy and Garrett but one that gave relief from the ache, that in spending time together and leaving those wounds alone, they could allow them to heal more properly than they had in years, while at the same time growing something new.

That was the friendship. But the dating?

Planning this day for them, she hadn’t taken into account that Shane being drunk wasn’t only easier on him, it was easier on her too. As friends his sobriety had felt like a wonderful gift. Now that they’d acknowledged more, it was downright intimidating. And it wasn’t just innocent teasing anymore – it was the long, penetrating stare he’d given her at the match, where one second she’d been cheerful, carefree, enjoying his company, and the next her limbs had gone weak and her stomach acrobatic. They’d felt like the only two people in the stadium; Sophia had been out of her element and Shane had somehow taken the lead, and as usual in the rare moments he did, her composure utterly unraveled.

Because that look changed everything.

“Shane?”

“Yeah?” He still stared at the light, the words shut off practically burned on his retinas.

“I acted like an idiot at dinner.” 

Well, that was an understatement: she’d never felt like such an imbecile in her life. Like her thoughts were scrabble tiles jumbled in a bag, and when she opened her mouth to speak the contents of the bag dumped all over the table. Looking at the menu, the words had been equally as scattered. Her sweater had suddenly felt too hot and she’d gone to the bathroom to pull it off in a stall, airing out in her bra and wondering what the hell was wrong with her. Then returning from the bathroom, she’d pulled him into that embarrassing game of footsie under the table… in fact, so much of trying to flirt with Shane made her feel like a gawky, inexperienced teenager.

Her statement seemed to surprise him, enough to pry his vision from the overhead light.

“What? No you didn’t.”

“Yes I did. All that shuffling and moving around, and then not even talking to you… I was a hot mess.”

“Well fuck, so was I.”

“You? You were so confident.”

For not the first time in their friendship, Shane looked at her as if she might be quite mental. “Since when? I asked for a booth, I didn’t book a fucking hotel room.”

The moment the words left his mouth he turned to the window, clamping a hand over his chin.

“See?” she squeaked. “Confidence.”

“Didn’t mean – I wasn’t even thinking – god, Sophia, I’m a mess too and you know it.”

She looked down; there was a hole in Marnie’s seat, and she absentmindedly picked at it. “Can I say something? If we’re going to act fourteen and all?”

Shane swallowed.

Not fully aware she was doing it, she tugged at the frayed opening of the hole, making it bigger. At long last she looked up again, heart hammering in her throat.

“I have a massive crush on you, Shane Daniels.”

More silence. Yet, with that one sentence, the tension in the vehicle changed. Before it’d been taut; a still glass of water. Now the surface of that water began to tremble, as if the pressure of her quickening pulse were enough to raise the vibrations of the air.

“I can’t get you out of my mind,” she rushed, voice urgent. “All week long when I have to wait to see you again, you’re just constantly in my thoughts. And I know I acted like an idiot today but you make me so goddamn nervous, and what we’re doing now, whatever this is… I want it. I don’t care what we call it, I want it. I want it.”

There was a long, deep moment of silence.

“Sophia, I told you I wanted more,” Shane said at last, his voice dry. “Of course I fucking want more.”

Then the overhead light dinged off, dropping them into sudden darkness.

Every small sound became amplified in the dark vehicle, including Sophia’s own heartbeat rushing through her ears. But even through that rushing the darkness brought courage, and her own boldness seizing her in that abrupt way it liked to do, she scooted into the center seat. He tensed as her knees grazed the side of his jeans, but she only moved closer again. They were near enough to feel the warmth of each other’s bodies, and when she spoke next it was in a very different voice.

“How much more?”

At first Shane didn’t react, still sitting tense and silent in the dark. Her whole body was on edge and she had the insatiable urge to crawl on top of him; after breaking through the barrier of her own nerves she could hardly stop herself.

Then, in a strained voice: “We can’t.”

She moved even closer, chest pressing into his shoulder, knees digging into his thigh. She felt so alive; this was hot and heady and right, this blood pumping through her body, this electricity in her skin. She wound one hand behind his neck, slipping her fingers below the collar of his t-shirt – he was setting off sparks inside her— 

“It's okay, I promise," she whispered, lips close enough to touch his ear. "I’m clean, I’m on the pill, it’s okay.”

Goosebumps prickled his neck. “Sophia…”

He shuddered, and she gave in; gave in to her own want, her own need, kissing down his sideburn, down his jaw, her body slinky against his as she kissed down his neck, and shit, this was happening, this was happening, her mouth was on him this very moment, she could smell his skin, her lips dragging along the coarse stubble—

“We can’t,” he repeated louder, suddenly shaking her off.

The words came out dry, but felt to Sophia like a bucket of icy water.

“Oh.” She leaned back, confused. “Okay.”

“I just…” Shane jammed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “We can’t.”

Oh god. What did I just do? What the fuck did I just do?

She could feel her face heating red in the dark; she smoothed her hair, sliding back into the driver’s seat and looking for the keys, her movements disjointed. “It’s okay,” she said, unable to hide the dejection in her voice. “I understand.”

“It’s not you.”

“I know.” She found the keys, fingers clumsy as she tried to select the right one. “But maybe… maybe we should head back for the night.”

He sounded miserable. “Okay.”

They listened to music the rest of the way home, but it wasn’t like listening on the way there – the comforting blanket of sound was gone, replaced with only jagged noise. They sat stiffly, neither of them speaking a word and the whole time Sophia feeling she’d snapped something very fragile. When they finally arrived at the farm she turned the volume down and spoke for the first time since being parked at the cliff.

“Do you mind driving this back to the ranch?”

“Yeah,” said Shane. “No problem.”

They hopped out at the same time and he met her on the driver’s side, where they did an awkward sort of dance – Sophia flustered, but without the smiles or giggles from earlier in the day. She handed him Marnie’s keys.

“Thanks.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Not for the keys – but thanks for those too. I mean, for today. The tickets. All that.”

“You’re welcome. Thanks for dinner.” There was an uncomfortable pause, during which Sophia wished she could sink into the dirt. “I should probably go inside,” she said at last.

“Yeah. Okay.”

As she slowly walked up the steps illuminated by her dingy porch light, she couldn’t decide if she felt more hurt by Shane’s behavior, or more awful and embarrassed by her own. Shit, it wasn’t like he owed her anything. Maybe he didn’t want to be in a parked vehicle. Maybe he wanted them to use a condom.

Maybe he just wasn’t fucking ready.

She had no right to feel hurt, and tried to imagine the roles reversed – if she’d refused sex and Shane had been the one to get grumpy and suggest they go home. That would never fly, so why should she be allowed to act so childish and entitled? And what the hell had she been thinking? They hadn’t even kissed yet – unless, of course, you counted kissing his fucking neck just now. And who did that? Who went for someone’s neck before even trying for their lips? It’d just been one of those moments, one of those dumb, dumb moments that she was completely at the mercy of: the light had shut off, she’d leaned against him in a way she’d been dreaming about since that day in the tree house, and it’d grabbed her and she’d pounced.

Driving to Davenport, she hadn’t planned on throwing herself at him. Not like that. She’d thought about wandering the fence that overlooked the city they’d both once called home, perhaps kissing him there in the dark – not climbing on his lap in his aunt’s vehicle, whispering that she was on the pill. She owned a house for fuck’s sake, a comfortable queen-sized bed…

Cringing, she unlocked her front door.

Behind her the engine roared back to the life, a song blaring with it, and her hand was turning the door handle when the music suddenly cut off, leaving only the rumble of tires on dirt. 

“Hey, Sophia.”

She turned around. He’d cranked the window down, one arm resting on the ledge. The other hand gripped the wheel, twisting nervously around it.

“Just… wear it again tonight, okay?”

Hand still on the doorknob – heart racing fast – she nodded.

 


 

That night after her shower Sophia slipped into his green hoodie, skin still damp. She curled her hands into the sleeves, her stomach twisting in similar ways.

The timing was off. She’d gone too fast, been too eager, and completely embarrassed herself. But he said he wanted more. He said it. The timing was off, that was all.

 

Chapter Text

After Shane arrived at the ranch he sat in the vehicle with just the battery running. Jabbing the button on the dash through the CD tracks, he found the song they’d listened to on the stretch driving to the cliff and reclined his seat, staring at the dark upholstery of the ceiling.

She’d looked so humiliated, and the whole drive home he’d felt enormously guilty. Perhaps, if he were suave or smooth or had an emotional intelligence higher than that of a lizard, he’d have known what to say – to assure her that not only was she desired at that moment, but she’d not left his thoughts during all manner of unspeakable acts for months. But he wasn’t smooth, he wasn’t smart, and he didn’t have his test results back yet. Even if he did, it couldn’t be in a vehicle – not with Sophia. The last time he’d done it in a car he’d started a virgin and ended a person who hated himself more than before.

But shit, if she started kissing him for real, no matter where it was…

The music was warm rolling through him and suddenly he was blinking back tears: strange tears, confusing tears, ones that didn’t spring from the usual well of dark isolation in his chest. Furiously he wiped his eyes but it was like the song had wrapped around him, squeezing and pushing those tears to the surface, and as quickly as he wiped them away they were replaced.

It didn’t feel real. It couldn’t be. Nothing in his life could possibly be this good. A montage flashed through his head, a dozen different blushes and bashful glances, the shy way she’d whispered, “Sure,” when he asked her to dinner, and the very different voice she’d used when they parked. He heard that voice over and over, and fuck, it just didn’t feel real. Even with the fragility of how he’d left her, humiliated on her doorstep, she’d still whispered those things in his ear, still said the words, “I can’t get you out of my mind.”

The song ended. Bringing the seat back up, Shane wiped his eyes and brought his head down on the steering wheel – and nearly had a heart attack at the sudden explosion of noise.

The goddamned horn—

Yanking the keys from the ignition as if it was their fault, he wiped his eyes one last time before leaving the truck and slamming the door, heading to the house with his heart thumping like a rabbit’s.

 


 

On Sunday they didn’t speak. On Monday they didn’t speak. On Tuesday Shane sat on his bed with the phone in his hand for over thirty minutes, staring at the buttons while voices on the TV rumbled quietly in the background.

He couldn’t blame her for not calling. He was the one to stop things. She’d as good as whispered “have sex with me” and he’d shoved her away. She was probably still fucking mortified.

The buttons on the phone stared blankly back at him. Finally he punched in her number, laid back on his pillow, and pressed call.

“Hello?”

Shane swallowed. “Hi.”

“Hey.”

That was it?

Finally he managed, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, of course.” A pause. “You?”

“Just… you haven’t called. I didn’t know if that was bad.”

“It’s not bad.”

Fuck this – fuck pretending like nothing happened. He closed his eyes and blurted, “Then why is this so weird right now? Are you mad at me? Because I’m really sorry.”

There was a longer pause, and when she spoke her voice was both quiet and frail. “You have no reason to be sorry. I – I should’ve called you first. I was the ass, I’m the one who should be sorry.”

“Wait, why are you sorry?”

“Leaving the cliff like that. Getting weird when you said no. And I pushed you – I’m always pushing you. It’s not fair to you, and it never brings you closer. I was trying to give you some space the last few days, but fuck, I should’ve at least called to apologize…”

“I swear, it wasn’t you.”

“I know.” Her voice was still so quiet, as if she didn’t have the energy to talk long. “This’ll work, okay? But maybe we shouldn’t rush it. I just… I keep acting like an idiot, and I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I’m okay with going slow.”

As good as Sophia made him feel in almost every respect, she’d also acquired the unique power of making him want to bash his head into blunt objects. Currently, his bed frame.

“Does that mean I have to wait until fucking Saturday to see you again?”

Another pause. Since when did she take so many pauses? Not knowing what to say, that was his thing, not hers. Finally she said, “No. But we don’t have to decide anything this second. I’m sorry Shane, I’m not very good company right now. Think I just need to sleep on things one more night. But I promise to call you tomorrow, okay? I promise.”

And she did. On Wednesday she called, and this time without the quiet, fragile voice, this time just speaking like Sophia, like the previous weekend had been nothing out of the ordinary. She rambled excitedly about their next project – fixing up the abandoned greenhouse, using her summer profits to buy all new paneling and heaters to keep growing berries through the winter. While not as intimate as Shane would’ve liked it was at least absent of the feeling he’d humiliated her, and when it came time to hang up she said, “Shane?”

“Yeah?”

“I still wear it every night. Just… I want you to know that.”

 


 

Thursday before supper, Shane received a call from the clinic. Marnie handed him the phone, thankfully without inquiry as to why the doctor was calling, and Shane took it to his room.

“Hello?”

“Shane, it’s Dr. Harvey. We received your results back from the lab today. I think you’ll be happy to hear that all the tests came back clear.”

“Everything?” he said, heart beating fast. “You’re positive?”

“I’m positive your test results are negative,” said Harvey with a sensible chuckle, and Shane couldn’t even hate him for it – for the first time in days, he felt elated. “If you’d like to see the conclusive results you’re welcome to swing by the clinic and pick up the paperwork. But otherwise, have a great evening Shane.”

“Yeah, thanks. You too.”

That night he ate dinner with Marnie and Jas at the table, and after they finished Marnie informed them she was headed to the saloon for an hour or two, her weekly public rendezvous with Lewis apparently pushed up from their usual Friday.

“I don’t think I’ll be long tonight,” she said, grabbing her coat and purse and not quite looking Shane in the eye. “These poor old bones are already half asleep.”

Much as he wished Marnie would publicly dump the mayor’s ass, he’d made his feelings clear enough already – he had no more power in the matter, and with his happiness renewed in light of Harvey’s call, he wasn’t about to let Lewis ruin his night. He only nodded as his aunt headed toward the door.

“What do you want to play tonight?” Shane asked, as Jas helped him load the dishwasher.

He was determined to have a real evening with her, one that didn’t involve parking her in front of the TV or her toys. Outside of bedtime stories he’d gotten far too comfortable letting her entertain herself; the guilt was starting to weigh again.

Jas’s eyes widened. “You’ll play with me?”

“Yep. Tonight is your night.”

She bit her lip, wheels clearly turning. “I guess we’ll play school. I’ll be Miss Penny!”

After cleaning up Shane joined her in her room, where she grabbed several stuffed animals off the bed and set them on the floor next to him. “These are the other kids. Today we’re going to go on a field trip to the library.”

For over an hour he pretended to be one of Miss Penny’s students, and after that they took to playing zoo with those same stuffed animals, Shane eventually becoming the main attraction as Jas instructed him to become an elephant, a lion, a seal – he was pretending to be an escaped gorilla and chasing her into the living room when instead of running away, she turned and bolted straight toward him. Flinging her tiny arms around his waist, she looked up with sparkling eyes.

“I love you, Uncle Shane.”

He felt almost as stunned as the day she told him she didn’t want to die. Realizing with a stab that he couldn’t even remember the last time he’d said those words to her – probably before they moved in with Marnie – he looped his arms around her back and whispered, “Love you too, kid.”

She gazed up at him. “Can we play dollhouse now?”

“Sure. Go ahead, I’ll be right there.”

Jas ran off to her room while Shane went to the kitchen to grab a soda, and he was filling a cup with ice when the phone rang again. His heart leapt as he answered; it wouldn’t be an odd hour for Sophia to call.

There was a long silence on the other end of the receiver. Then a gruff voice said, “Shane?”

Fear, immediately accompanied by anger: it rose straight to his head where it burned like hot water on icy skin. He checked down the hall to make sure Jas was still in her room, then spoke in almost a whisper. “What the fuck do you want?”

The gruff voice laughed, a cold laugh that turned into a cough halfway. “Evenin’ to you too.”

“I asked what the fuck you wanted.”

“Watch yourself, boy.” A pause. “You heard from your mother?”

“What do you think?”

“Just a question. Let’s lose the attitude, eh?”

As far as Shane knew Marnie hadn’t spoken to her brother in years, not even to tell him his son had moved in with her. He closed his eyes, seeing spots but managing to keep a level voice. “How’d you know I was here?”

The barking laugh was loud enough to blast static through the receiver, and he pulled it back with a flinch.

“Where the hell else were you gonna go? Real slick, by the way, slipping out of the house in the middle of the night like that – you and that bitch of a woman I married got more in common than you think.” Another pause. “But c’mon, buddy, I didn’t call to piss in your ear.”

Shane didn’t say anything; the way he called him buddy made his skin crawl.

“Look – your old man’s in a tight spot right now, okay? Lost half the rent with you gone, and now we’re in danger of losing the house.”

We? Who was this we? Surely he couldn’t mean Shane.

“So?”

So?” He heard a snarl, could picture the thick, dry lip curling into the scratchy mustache. “You’re a real fucking piece of work, you know that boy? Taking your goddamn grocery store checks with you, leaving your old man high and dry. What the fuck are you good for over there? You fucking owe me.”

“I don’t owe you shit.”

“Put a goddamn roof over your ungrateful ass long after you should have been outta here—”

“Yeah? That’s fucking funny, because I seem to recall you begging me to stay. Kind of like you’re doing now.”

You—” he started, then cut himself off. When he spoke again, there was a disturbingly sweet note to his voice. “You think you’re better than me?” he whispered. “ Is that it? You think you’re fucking better than me?”

Shane let the silence speak for him.

“Yeah… yeah, you do, don’t you? Well don’t that just put icing on the fucking cake.” His dad laughed. “You and me, boy, we’re cut from the same cloth. You know that, right?” He laughed again, and Shane heard a thundering smash, a sound he knew well – a bottle hurled at the wall. When he resumed speaking it was again sugary-sweet, again taunting. “Don’t you wanna come home, share a bottle of Jack with your old man? Remember when we used to do that? When I drank half a bottle, and you come along later and steal the fucking rest of it? Had a little fucking golden boy, didn’t I?”

Shane’s head pulsed with heat. He knew this was all a crock of shit, but he couldn’t help it. That voice – that goddamned voice that was hooked through his brain like a permanent fixture, that spoke to him at all hours of the day and night – that goddamned voice got to him.

“Uncle Shane?” Jas sounded near, and a moment later entered the kitchen. “Are you going to come play yet?”

Shit, shit, shit.

He brought the phone down, taking a deep breath. “Hey kid. I’ll be there in just a few minutes. Promise.”

He watched her skip away, and on the other end of the phone a tongue clucked three times. “Well, if that ain’t precious. How’s cupcake doing?” His voice lowered, silky and dangerous. “You finally playing daddy, Shane?”

The room blackened in his peripheral vision, head throbbing like a heart lived in his forehead. He could see his dad’s face, an older, even less attractive version of his own – the same lips and nose and heavy eyes, and the thought of aging fucking terrified him, having to watch himself transform deeper into the one person he hated more than himself. And it was the last straw, him bringing up Jas, as if he had any right to even think about her—

“’Cause you know just how to do it, don’t you?” the voice continued. “Make her somebody else’s problem, while you head out for a little pick me up? Deny it all you want, son – your mother left both of us. You’re exactly fucking like me.”

Barely above a whisper, voice gravelly, Shane hissed, “Go to hell.”

“Yeah, that’s right Shane, KEEP YOUR FUCKING MONEY you greedy little piece of sh—”

He slammed the phone so hard onto the dock that a line cracked through the plastic. 

Leaning against the oak cabinet, he tried to calm everything: his burning face, the pulsing in his head, the spotting in his vision. Living with his dad for so many years must’ve built a tolerance to the bullshit, while being gone for almost a year had dropped it down to nothing. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt such resentment.

Well, no, he could. That voice like a wasp, pure sugar one moment and all sting the next, that was the dad Shane knew best. In middle and high school it was the only one he knew, one moment sweet-talking, the next grabbing ashtrays off the coffee table to whip at his son’s back, drunkenly rattling off all the ways Shane had ruined his life and shouldn’t have been born. But then his mom had gotten sober and his dad had mellowed out – presumably from the combination of more attention and less responsibility that a sober wife brought him – and Shane had almost forgotten how bad he could be. Now, leaning against the cabinet, he remembered: remembered the day his mom left, the utter shit show it’d been, and how he’d grabbed Jas and run before the punches could fly again.

He didn’t know how long he stood there, two minutes, ten minutes, maybe longer, but eventually Jas appeared by his side.

“Can I have some apple juice?” she asked, none the wiser to Shane’s state.

A task. Good.

“Look,” he said, getting a cup and pouring her juice, the line of liquid trembling as he did. “I don’t think I can play anymore tonight. I’ve got a pretty bad headache. Why don’t we just watch cartoons until bed?”

“Okay,” she said easily.

Then she pulled out one of the kitchen chairs and climbed onto it. Shane was about to ask what she was doing when she reached up and placed a small hand on his forehead. “You need a cold washcloth?” she asked. “It’ll make your head feel better.”

“Thanks kid. But I’ll be okay.”

He tried to smile at his goddaughter, but as she scrambled off the chair and raced to find a spot on the couch, he paused with his eyes drawn to the cupboard above the fridge for a very long time.

 


 

Marnie arrived home at 8:30, yawning.

“You two have a good night?” she asked, smiling at the scene in the living room: Jas curled up asleep on the couch next to Shane, Shane staring blankly at the still-running cartoon. Her voice startled him back to reality.

“Marnie. Put Jas to bed for me.”

“O-okay,” said Marnie, startled by his abruptness but not questioning it. She set down her things and knelt next to Jas, gently waking her.

The pulsing anger had faded by now but it’d left an emptiness, and in that emptiness grew a darkness that spread through his body like black ink as he sat watching that stupid cartoon. Marnie kept a bottle of spiced rum for an occasional treat, tucked in the cabinet over the fridge; she didn’t know Shane knew she had it, and while she was tucking Jas in he grabbed it and took it into his room. He sat for a long time on the edge of his bed with the rum in one hand, the other clutching his knee to keep steady. The arm holding the bottle shook all the way to his fingertips.

He just wanted that voice to shut up. He’d give anything, even his current sobriety, for that voice to just shut the fuck up for good.

Except now there was Sophia.

She’d made him promise to call. Over and over, she’d made him promise. It was so much easier to back then, when he was feeling good and could hear her voice popping the question. In the moment, with his forehead sweaty and the weight of the liquor pulling on both hand and heart, he didn’t know if he could. It wasn’t even about shame – he was too far gone to feel shame. It was about not being able to resist the darkness inside that fucking bottle.

In a split second decision, he dropped it on the bed. Scrubbing his hands through his hair, he left to grab the phone from the kitchen and then returned to his room again, punching her number with clumsy fingers before he could back out. He sat back on the bed, grinding his face into his shoulder as it rang, eyes stinging.

“Hello?” she answered on the third ring.

He opened his mouth but nothing came out. What the fuck was he supposed to say?

“Hello?” she repeated. When there was no response the second time she quickly said, “Code red or code blue? Red meaning you can’t stop thinking about it, blue meaning the bottle is in your hand.”

He swallowed, and unsure of why he was lying said, “Red.”

“Okay. Meet me at the saloon in fifteen minutes, and don’t you dare go in until I’m with you.”

The saloon? He should have said code blue.

“Shane?” Her voice, all business until now, grew emotional. “Thank you so, so much for calling. I’ll see you soon.”

Shane picked up the rum again, staring at it in his hand while his whole body ran hot, unable to settle, unable to stop the sensation that he was sinking in quicksand. He wiped his face onto his sleeve again, telling himself to drop it, just drop it, but it was like someone else’s hand twisting the cap off, lifting it to his mouth, tilting it back—

Then with a hard jerk he yanked it down and threw the whole bottle, shattering it against the wall where it screamed into a thousand particles of liquid and glass on the floor.

Just like dad.

“What the devil—!” Marnie rushed into his room at the noise, seeing her nephew standing before the soaking wall and a circle of broken glass. “Shane? What—”

Shaking, he dropped the phone on the bed. “I’m sorry. I-I’ll clean it up. I’ll buy you a new one. I – I have to go.” He tucked his head and tried to leave, but his aunt blocked his way.

“Shane, what is going—”

“I’m sorry, okay? I’m fucking sorry.” Then he pushed past her, grabbing his jacket off the dresser and rushing out the door.

 


 

She was already at the saloon, waiting on a bench outside.

Even with everything that had happened tonight, Shane was still painfully aware that the last time he’d seen her, she’d had her lips all over his neck. However, if any of that was on Sophia’s mind she was hiding it very well.

“Okay,” she said, all business, like during the phone call. “I know what you’re thinking – the saloon, right? But you’ve done it before, so we’re going the exposure route, with me right next to you. We’ll order pepper poppers and tell Gus to make them as spicy as humanly possible, we’ll drink so much soda you’ll never want another carbonated beverage for the rest of your life, and I brought these—” she held up a deck of cards, “to keep our hands busy. I want you to really try, but if it gets to be too much and isn’t working for you, we can…” She stood, trailing off, her face full of concern. “Shane?”

He couldn’t do it. Not the saloon, not tonight. Hands shoved in his pockets, he looked up at the dark sky for several seconds, then said, “Blue.”

She stared for only a moment, before flinging her arms around him in the tightest hug he’d ever known. It took him by surprise and at first he stood frozen, but gradually he pulled his hands from his pockets and folded his arms over her, stiffly holding her back.  

Shane had had rare hugs from his mother as a kid, usually when she was dangerously high and in such a touchy-feely mood that she’d follow it up with hugging the sofa, the coat rack – anything, really, as long as it stood still long enough. Marnie tried to give him the occasional hug, but it was always very one-sided as he’d never been comfortable returning it. But there was nothing half-hearted about this hug: he could feel Sophia’s heartbeat, could smell the warm coconut scent of her hair, and as she hugged him he relaxed and allowed himself to breathe it in.

“Guess it’s true,” rang a sudden voice.

Sophia jerked back at the sound, breaking apart from the hug.

It was Alex, leaning against the fence in the yard next to the saloon; Shane had forgotten he lived there. He tossed a gridball in the air with one hand, looking both bored and amused.

“What?” said Sophia. 

“Girls really do go for the assholes. Didn’t know they went for the drunks, though.”

Shane’s ears immediately began to burn, and for the second time that night he felt a pounding rush to his forehead. And fuck, he wished it was anger this time – should have been anger, a comment like that – but this time the burning was only embarrassment.

Fiery, gut-wrenching embarrassment.

“There’s a lot of things you don’t know,” spat Sophia. “Now fuck off.”

Alex shrugged, tossing the ball in the air again and looking amused at the reaction he’d caused. Sophia only grabbed Shane fiercely by the hand, pulling him away.

“Taking a page out of my book now?” he joked, though feeling sick to his stomach. They were past the saloon now and she still hadn’t let go of his hand.

“Who the hell does he think he is?” she fumed, walking with a speed to match.

“He’s right.”

“Fuck him.”

“He is. I’m a jerk. I called you tonight because I’m a drunk. He’s fucking right.”

“I don’t care if you spit in his face sideways. You’re having a shit night and you don’t have to listen to that. I swear, it’s like he’s twelve years old.”

They slowed now, and Shane stared at the ground as they walked. “Don’t make excuses for me.”

“I’m not —”

“I was even an asshole to you. Lots of times, actually. Fuck, I was rude to you. If I was you, I’d never have talked to me in the first place. That drink you bought me? Would’ve dumped it over my head.”

“Then it’s a good thing you’re not me.” She stopped walking. “Shane, I don’t care what happened when we met, because we were strangers then, and the truth is, yeah, you suck with strangers. Horrendously. But you fucking know how I feel now, so don’t insult me by pretending I don’t know what I got myself into.” She took a deep breath and squeezed his hand. “I hope you’re ready. We have a long night ahead of us.”

“Doing what?” He felt like he couldn’t process anything tonight.  

She didn’t answer. They walked hand-in-hand in silence until arriving at her porch where she said, “Wait here,” and went inside. When she returned, she held two steel picks and a backpack.

Shane only stared.

“A lost form of art,” she said matter-of-factly. “And a therapeutic one.”

“Is – is that a fucking mining pick?”

“Yes.” She shoved the relatively small picks in the backpack and zipped it close, handles poking out the top. “There’s an abandoned limestone quarry on the other side of town. Grandpa used to work there when he was younger, and he kept all his equipment.” She nodded toward the side of the porch, where two bikes were parked. “We can ride those. I found them in the far shed last month – I think Grandpa hid them away after Grandma died.”

He blinked at the bikes. “You seriously had this all planned out.”

“Of course. How was I supposed to know when you’d call? I had to be prepared.”

He felt slightly better already, if only because the whole situation was so bizarre that he couldn’t wrap his mind around it. 

The bike ride itself was long and therapeutic, winding down country roads so dark he could hardly see, the air cold and the breeze colder. The black silhouettes of pines loomed overhead from either side, and the wind whistled so loudly through his ears it drowned out his thoughts. They pedaled down the roads behind Sophia’s house, past the carpenter’s house and the road that led to the spa, along the edge of a lake and then crossing a bridge over its gullet. And, awaiting them on the other side of that bridge, the quarry.

Shane had never been this far east of town. The valley was lush and green, while this place was abandoned by all life: bedrock as far as the eye could see, with a dim spotlight shining eerily in the distance.

Sophia dismounted her bike near the edge, and Shane came up behind her to do the same.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“It’s like a different goddamn planet.”

“I know.” She dropped her bike on the ground. “It’s kind of perfect.”

The path leading down was steep and she grabbed his hand again before descending, her fingers icy from the ride. Shane loved this new development, Sophia holding his hand everywhere. Once at the bottom they continued through the heart of the quarry, slabs of rock like mountainous stair steps behind them, colossal piles of rubble at their feet. He looked around.

“So what, we just start smashing?”

“Yep.”

“Isn’t it going to be… er… loud?”

“Nah, it’ll be fine. Nobody lives for miles around – we could scream bloody murder down here and no one would know.”

“Is that your plan?” He glanced up at the cold, alien landscape around them, at the murky beams from the floodlight. It was the kind of place that felt vaguely like the end of the world.

She sliced her pick several times through the air, making squeaky, horror-movie stabbing noises. Then she smiled. “You ready?”

“I don’t know how you come up with this shit.”

“Yeah, yeah. Put these on.” She pulled out two pairs of protective glasses from the backpack, handing one to him. As he put them on he thought about how, of all the unlikely scenarios he’d found himself in since meeting her, this was easily the most absurd. Then, mere seconds later:

 “AUGGHHH!”

Sophia swung her pick at a piece of rubble on the ground, shattering it. Shane stared at her, eyes wide as again and again she swung and shouted, pulverizing the shards at her feet. When she was done she turned to him, breathless, picking up one of the larger pieces and holding it in her palm. 

“Make sure it looks like this – all porous and fossilized. Swing at any of the other kinds and you’ll feel like you’re breaking your fucking spine.”

Gripping the handle of his pick, Shane faced a pile of his own rocks and took a deep breath. With every ounce of strength he could muster he swung the nose down, and – with the most satisfying crunch – splintered the limestone in two.

Then he did it again.

It was incredible: the hard contact of chopping lumber, the explosion of breaking china. He swung over and over, smashing everything in his sight, and at his side Sophia did the same. The air was filled with shouts and clanging – you could swing so much harder while shouting – and in the space between the noises he could almost hear the adrenaline rushing through his body.

“Aughhh!”

“AUGHHHH!”

AUGHHHHHH!

A sudden violence washed over him, and unlike the chaotic anger from earlier in the evening, the violence was focused – everything he’d ever lost sleep over rushed to the surface, flowing through a single line from his heart to arms to his pick. It started with her, and with each strike he could see her, the reckless woman who’d been three times over the legal limit for driving, her face as clear on the rough stone as it’d been on the news that day; with each swing he smashed that face, broke that face like he’d longed to do three years ago. Despite the freezing air he was sweating, his muscles already sore, but he struck on, almost drunk off the connection of steel and stone. When nothing was left of the first face it morphed into one of his father, and he smashed that too, and then it morphed into one of his own, and that one he smashed hardest of all – and smashed and smashed, over and over, his grip on the pickaxe slipping under newly formed blisters, turning the rock with his face on it to dust.

He paused to take a breath, and when he tried to swing again it was stopped midair; Sophia grabbed his arm.

“That’s enough,” she said softly, and followed him as he dropped to the ground.

 


 

Shane didn’t know how long he lay sprawled in the middle of the quarry, exhausted, sore, and unwilling to move. He only knew that Sophia was sprawled next to him, equally exhausted, and that the amount of time passing had never been more insignificant.

“What are you thinking?” she asked at last.

He stared at the sky. “Not about drinking.”

“So what are you thinking about?”

He didn’t answer. His hands and face were starting to feel numb from the cold. Ever since they’d stopped moving, the temperature seemed to drop twenty degrees. With a closer look he saw that she was shivering too.

“You ready to get going?” he asked, an idea beginning to form in the back of his mind.

“I can’t move, Shane.”

“Just get up. It’ll be worth it.” He stood, offering his hand.

She took it and pulled herself up too, grumbling. “What do you mean it’ll be worth it? We still have to ride back in this arctic chill.”

Shane shoved the pickaxes into her bag. “I’ll get it this time,” he said, slipping his arms through the loops.

She wrapped her arms around herself tightly as she stood, still grumbling. “I thought it was summer just a few weeks ago.”

“You’ll be warmer when we move. Come on.”

They trudged back to their bikes, despite the cold begging them to move faster. When they reached the top they stood for a moment, overlooking the quarry where so much emotion had been released. The dim spotlight flickered, a guardian presence over the abandoned dig site, and despite the exhaustion Shane felt like he’d left half his bodyweight down by those rocks. 

The wind on the ride home felt far colder than the wind on the way there, and he focused hard as he could on his destination. They crossed the gullet and rode past the lake again, then back past Robin’s house, and only after that did Shane veer off course, north toward the bathhouse instead of continuing west to Sophia’s.

“What are you doing?” she shouted, voice disappearing into the wind as she rode.

“Trust me,” he called over his shoulder, racing toward the darkened building that was already closed for the night.

“Shane,” she said, out of breath as they dismounted and dropped their bikes, following him to the doors. “Shane, it’s after eleven – Lewis locks it up at eight.”

“I need your hairpin,” he said.

“What?”

“Your hairpin – I saw one in there earlier. Give it to me.”

“You’re breaking in?” she said, though tugging at the clip all the same. 

“Thought you said you were into petty crime?”

The clouds then parted, revealing the moon for the first time in hours, and in the new light he could see the excitement in her eyes as she handed it over.

He fiddled with the lock and pin briefly and the door creaked open. They entered a small dark room, and Shane carefully locked the door behind them from the inside. Confronted with two new doors, he opened the left one.

“It’s eerie, isn’t it?” she whispered, holding his arm as they went through. It was difficult to see and their footsteps echoed loudly. 

He slowly led her through the maze of the changing room until they reached the pool entrance. Water lapped against the filters, the air smelled strongly of chlorine, and there was a low whirring from the ceiling fans that continued to spin despite the late hour. Clouds of steam hovered over the surface of the pool, white and wispy in the moonlight.

And it was warm.

Sophia was still holding his arm and he leaned toward her. “You want to?”

She looked at him, eyes shining, “Yes. But how?”

His stomach flopped as he realized he hadn’t thought that far ahead – last time she’d worn her dress, and he’d already been up to his neck in water when she arrived.

“We could wear our underwear,” she said slowly, noting his hesitation. “That’s basically a bathing suit anyway. And then after we can put the wet stuff in my bag, just wear our dry clothes home so we don’t freeze.”

“Okay,” said Shane, and all the confidence he’d felt with the idea of coming here and daring Sophia into the pool zoomed speedily away at the prospect of stripping down next to her.

“You go first,” she said. “I’ll close my eyes.”

Shane pulled off his hoodie and t-shirt, then undid his belt. The buckle was far too noisy, echoing in the tiled room and making him self-conscious of the fact that she was listening to him undress. He slipped out of his pants, socks, and shoes and lowered himself into the pool, cold body hissing against the heat.

“Go ahead,” he said, fixing his gaze on a square of moonlight in the pool.

There was the sound of a zipper, which Shane tried – and failed – not to imagine her unzipping. After that was relative silence, then some splashing and Sophia saying, “You can look now.”

The water covered her chest, but he caught the scoop of her collarbone and two beige bra straps before she dove under, emerging several feet away and paddling backward. 

He leaned against the side of the pool, keeping a respectful distance while she played. But after a few seconds she leaned forward and kicked toward him, closing the gap, smiling and half encircling him like a shark. “I’m all warm now.”

“Good,” he said anxiously.

“How did you know how to do that?” she asked, treading water. “Break in?”

“Had a lot of practice. Breaking into my own house as a kid, when my mom forgot to come home.”

“I’m sorry it was all so shitty for you.”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t bother me anymore.”

“Not having an unlocked house to go to as a kid? Living in a bad neighborhood? Yeah, I’m still sorry.”

She went back to swimming then, and he went back to watching her. Pushing off with graceful arms, her body spun in a slow cyclone below the surface of the water; she moved just like a fish, at ease and dreamlike. He became aware of how whenever Sophia was around they felt like the only two people alive, always like she had a small world encircling her, that when she got close to Shane she picked him up in her orbit and carried him off to where no one else remained.

After circling the pool several times in her graceful way, she swam to the center and paused in the square of moonlight that rippled on the surface. She smiled shyly, skin illuminated with the same icy glow as the water. “Come here.” 

He did. At that moment, if she’d said “drown yourself” he would have done it. When he reached her they stood side by side, gazing together at the starry portrait above.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” she whispered.

Shane looked at her, looking up at the sky and his heart pounded.

No, not pretty.

Fucking beautiful.

The hair that framed her face clung to her skin, rivulets of pool water dripping from the strands and rolling slowly down her forehead and cheeks. Not so long ago he’d watched a similar scene, but that one had been from afar. He’d been in her audience, close enough for her performance to stir both his body and emotions, but at the time only a fantasy to touch her. No, he’d gone home to touch himself instead, to dream for two whole minutes that someone like her could exist, that there could be more to his monochrome life than dullness or ache.

But those two minutes had turned into months, and Shane learned that it still ached – it ached so badly to stand beside her in the water when she was so beautiful, when he was so fucking in love with her, knowing he didn’t deserve her like this. So maybe she had a crush, but there existed miles of feeling between a crush and love. It would never be fair to ask that she love him in return.

The lightest touch then tickled his hand below the water – Sophia had found his pinky. She hooked hers around it, continuing to stare up through the skylight, not looking at Shane.

Ever since seeing her outside the saloon, her presence had been nothing but soothing. Hugging him, holding his hand… any other time those things would’ve made him a nervous wreck, but tonight they felt like the most natural things in the world: just a normal, accepted part of whatever this relationship was.

Unhooking their fingers – heart still quietly pounding – he stepped in front of her.

She wanted this. Even if it was a crush and not love she wanted this, she’d told him so, and not just with her words but with her fingers below his collar and her breath in his ear, and oh god, he’d never led a kiss before, never kissed someone he cared about—

She’d been looking up at the stars, but with Shane now in front of her, her gaze dropped onto his, and for a moment the whole world paused.

“Shane,” she whispered. As if she had nothing else to add; as if saying his name softly was the only thing.

Without stopping to think, he took her face in both hands and pressed his lips onto hers.

Freefall.

Oh god.

Like dropping down an elevator shaft; something wonderful and wild was happening in his stomach, and this was from only a touch, just pressing into her, barely moving, just feeling the softness of her mouth.

At last he pulled back, their lips sticking together slightly.

Sophia’s eyes remained closed, at first. When she finally opened them it was like she was adjusting to bright light in a dark room; for a moment she only stared, motionless, face still in his hands.

Then she grabbed his neck and yanked him down again, and Shane’s whole body turned to helium.

Between the water and the kiss he felt weightless, and for a long time stood there with her lips moving over his in the most beautiful way. It was Sophia; he was kissing Sophia, who he’d dreamed of kissing all summer long, and if she still wanted this – if she wanted this like she had only a few days ago, it could happen now – there was nothing to get in their way anymore, nothing to stop them—

Except there was.

She kissed him hungrily, both hands on his neck and digging into his hair, kissing him with more enthusiasm than he’d ever been kissed with in his life, but the confidence he felt in kissing her back was already gone. A heaviness had descended on his heart, an awful, intrusive weight, and he tried to push it to the back of his head, to just be with her. But it wasn’t cooperating; it became too strong to ignore.

He bit his own lip to break the kiss.

“Shane?” she said, strangely cautious, as if she sensed it too.

His eyes were still closed. “You’re not just messing with me?” 

“Huh?”

“This isn’t some prank?”

“A prank?” A long pause. “You’re fucking with me, right?”

“You could change your mind,” he continued in a weak voice, “regret it tomorrow. I wouldn’t blame you.”

When he finally opened his eyes, she was staring at him, her expression full of disbelief.

“Shane, you kissed me first!” she cried. “What happened to you? What happened that you can look at this moment and see it as anything other than me being crazy about you?”

Before he could speak she grabbed his hand, pulling him toward the bottom of the room. There was a division between the main pool and a smaller, more private pool at its base, and she rounded the bend into the private section. It was shallower, with room to sit along the edge in the water. Despite the entire bathhouse being theirs, the close quarters of this new room were almost too intimate; Shane followed her in taking a seat on the ledge, but sat as still as a statue.

Then Sophia began to do something odd.

She began to smooth him out.

At least, that’s what it felt like – like looking in a mirror before leaving the house, making small adjustments. She smoothed back his hair. Her fingers ran down the stubble on his cheeks, his chin, his neck. Hands slid toward his shoulders as if straightening an invisible shirt, then down the length of his arms until reaching his hands. Lifting them out of the water, she traced the blisters that had begun to form from the quarry, and bringing them to her mouth kissed the spots softly.

In all his life, Shane had never been touched like this. Like he was someone to be explored. Like he meant something. His heart already threatened to burst through his chest when, without warning, Sophia straddled his lap.

No, no, no.

He pleaded for his body to cooperate but their thighs were touching now, her lips still gliding over his palms, and it was all too much – he couldn’t stop the stirring between his legs. He tried to hide it, to sink lower, but it was impossible; she sat so low and close that his erection nudged her right between the legs, and then the feeling of the first nudge made it twitch and nudge her again. Mortified, he tried to pull away.

“Don’t,” she whispered, pressing her hips gently back down.

Then she kissed him. Her tongue pried open his lips, slipping between them, and the stiffness he’d been wearing like a straight jacket dissolved. He gave in to the kiss, to her, to the way her body bobbed in the water above him. For a long time their lips moved wetly in silence, then Sophia began to rock on his lap, breathing, “Stay with me tonight,” into his open mouth.

 

Chapter Text

It was the hot water. The emotional high – and then exhaustion – from the quarry. Even just the late hour. Maybe all of those things combined.

Sophia shimmied back into her jeans, a difficult feat over damp skin. Shane dressed behind her. 

It’s not like she’d planned for this to happen, not on the night he called her to keep from drinking. She’d planned the quarry, the code blue distraction, but Shane brought her to the bath house. Shane kissed her first.  And with the steamy water and the piqued emotions and how dark and late it was; being in that water was like being drunk. No inhibitions, just impulse and feeling.

Until now, when they were forced to take a break.

Once dressed they maneuvered their way through the pitch black changing room, back outside into the freezing autumn air. Shane was silent until the moment they stepped through the door.

“Fucking hell.”

She giggled nervously. “It’ll be even colder once we ride.”

It was; the ride back was almost unbearably bitter. Sophia’s teeth chattered and her fingers became numb in their grip on the handlebars, but even so, she didn’t want it to end – on the bike she could pretend the trembling was entirely from the cold, and not at all from the nerves that had suddenly slammed into her heart. 

You’re being ridiculous. You invited him. You want this. He’s coming home with you because he wants this too.

When they pulled up to her house, all she could manage was a muffled “Shit!” while the chattering of her teeth sent waves down her whole body.

“J-just d-drop them,” she stammered, climbing off her bike and letting it fall to the ground. Shane did the same, then followed her until he reached the bottom of the porch steps.

There he hesitated, looking first at Sophia, then the door, then back to Sophia.

“You – I’m still—?”

He looked as uncertain as she felt. But she nodded, motioning him up the steps with her head.

The house brought with it a little relief from everything: the cold, the dampness, the fear that Shane might somehow end up walking home instead of staying. The digital clock above the microwave flashed the time, 12:23 a.m., and Sophia flicked on the lights. Then, to her relief, she started to laugh.

“What?” said Shane, looking paranoid.

“It’s just… I guess we didn’t see our clothes after the quarry.”

He looked at her, then down at himself. “We’re a fucking mess.”

She bit her lip. “Did you want to shower? Not – not that you have to, of course, but you might feel better – you could warm up first…”

First? She wanted to bang her head into the wall. As if there were an itinerary: do A, B, and C before the main event. She looked away quickly, her face flushing.

But Shane only said, “Er – yeah. That’d be good, actually.”

“In here,” she said, realizing she had to lead him through her bedroom. At least it was clean this time. Then she dug through her dresser, pulling a few things out before heading to the closet for a fresh towel.

“It’s nothing fancy,” she said, “but here’s a pair of pajama pants that are too big for me, and a shirt that’ll fit. I mean, you probably don’t want to get back in your dirty stuff…”

He accepted the stack. “Um. Thanks.”

“Hot water’s a little finicky... just jiggle the handle around till it comes on, you won’t break it.”

“Okay.”

After Shane closed the door, Sophia leaned against the wall and slid to the floor. 

What had she been thinking?

No matter that she’d thought about this moment a hundred times, or that she’d flung herself at him less than an hour ago: that was then, this was now, and things felt very different away from the steam and hot water, and the darkness that acted as a buffer to her nerves. If this didn’t work – if for whatever reason, this just didn’t work out – the thought of living in Stardew Valley and only seeing Shane at arm’s length? It made her sick to her stomach. It didn’t even feel like an option.

Telling herself to put on some tea and make a fire – and she refused to think of it as setting the scene, it was just tea, and a fire – she went to the kitchen, where her cell phone blinked from the table. She’d forgotten to take it with them; picking it up now three missed calls flashed on the screen, and opening the notification she saw they were all from Marnie. The most recent was at 12:13 a.m., only a few minutes before they’d returned. Figuring she’d still be awake, Sophia called her back.

“Hello?” said a mildly frantic voice. 

“Marnie? It’s Sophia. I’m so sorry, I was out and left my phone behind – I just saw your calls. Is everything okay?”

“That’s just it, I don’t know! I have no idea where Shane is. He’s been gone for hours, and when he left the house he was in such an awful state – I thought he’d gone to the saloon, but when it got so late I called Gus and he said he hadn’t seen him all night. I know he’s an adult, but if you’d seen how he left the house, Sophia – you’re the only person he even talks to in this town—”

Marnie,” she interrupted, because the older woman wasn’t slowing down enough to give her an entrance. “Marnie, you can breathe, Shane’s fine.”

“He is?”

She peered around the corner. The shower was off now, but she hadn’t heard the door open yet. She lowered her voice just in case. “Yes. He was having a rough night, but he didn’t drink. He’s been with me since he left the ranch.”

“Oh, thank god. Thank you. I’ve just been thinking the worst for hours. After the last time…” The relief in her voice was palpable. “Will he be coming home soon? I didn’t want to lock up if he didn’t have his key.”

“Oh. Um.” Sophia froze. She looked toward the ceiling, closing her eyes. “I – I don’t think he’ll be coming home. Tonight.”

“He won’t?” said Marnie, sounding confused. Then, a moment later: “Oh.”

“He – we—”

“Say no more, dear,” she said quickly. “I’m so sorry to… well, I’ll say goodbye now. Thank you for letting me know he’s safe.”

“Of course,” said Sophia meekly, face burning as she hung up. 

She turned on the kettle and started a fire in the bedroom hearth, trying her best to push the phone call from her mind. Shane would have to deal with it tomorrow but she wouldn’t ruin things by bringing it up tonight, and she was stoking the growing flames when he emerged from the bathroom in the clothes she’d given him. The oversized shirts were her favorite for sleeping and it was surreal to see him in something she herself wore to bed, but even more than the outfit, it was seeing him right out of the shower that made her mind race. Skin fresh, hair still wet; that was an intimate look.

“Hey,” she said, hoping her face wasn’t red anymore. “I put on hot water if you want tea or something. And the fire’s already going. I won’t take long.”

Shane brought one hand to his neck, rubbing it as he glanced around the room. “Okay.”

“Just, you know. Make yourself at home.”

Like with the bike ride, Sophia was so nervous she didn’t want the shower to end. It wasn’t that she’d changed her mind – as the hot water poured down, she could think of nothing but the man in her bedroom and what she meant to do with him – but she had zero idea how to make the transition. She stayed in until she couldn’t reasonably stay in any longer, then dried off and slipped into pajama pants and a light sweater. Her nipples showed through the thin fabric and she debated the bra she’d brought in, but only for a moment before chucking it behind the laundry bin.

She wanted him to notice, didn’t she?

Her face was pink from scrubbing, looking fresh and clean and thankfully not as nervous as she felt. Tousling fingers through her wet hair a few more times, she took several deep breaths and left the bathroom.

Shane sat on the floor against her bed, not far from the fire, a steaming mug in his hand and another on the floor next to him. He looked up when the door opened and Sophia saw him discreetly glance her up and down before turning his attention back to the mug.

“I, uh, made you tea,” he said. “If you want it.”

“Thanks.” She shyly took it, feeling exposed and suddenly wishing she’d worn the bra after all. She sat cross-legged on the rug in front of the fire, clutching the mug and soaking in the warmth from all around, appreciating that the chill in her bones was finally gone.

Except she’d chosen to sit a good three or four feet from Shane.

Jesus, just scoot over there. His tongue was in your mouth less than an hour ago.

Except she couldn’t. Her body refused to budge; she wasn’t sure she’d ever felt so incapable of movement. Instead she said, “It’s cozy in here, isn’t it?”

“Um.” He fidgeted. “Yeah…”

Her brain begged her to stop there, but fuck it, her mouth just didn’t care.

“I love having a fireplace right in my bedroom – I’ll probably have one every night from now on, if it stays this cold. And I have such good memories in this house. This was Grandpa’s room, and when Amy and I were kids he used to read us books by the fire. When I first moved in it didn’t really feel like I was moving to a new house, you know? More like back to an old one.”

Oh, god.

What was she even doing? Hey Shane, come fuck me in Grandpa’s old bed – yeah, that was sexy. A perfect way to break the newly formed ice.

Then he said, “You ever get nervous?”

Her heart pounded. “W-what do you mean?”

“Being so isolated out here. I’m your closest neighbor, and that’s like, a fifteen minute walk.”

“Oh.” Her shoulders relaxed a bit. “No. Not really. I have Amber, she’d let me know if anything was off. And worst case scenario, Grandpa’s rifle is still behind the dresser.”

“You can shoot?”

“I don’t want to startle you, but I took out whole communities of clay pigeons as a teenager.”

He shook his head. “Doesn’t surprise me.”

“What?”

“That you’re a fucking sniper on top of everything else. You’re the smartest person I know.” He stared at his hands. “Wish I was smarter.”

“You are smart.”

“Yeah, I know that’s not true.”

“Shane? You are. Don’t be like that.”

He stared at the fire, flames flickering in his eyes. “I chucked a bottle of rum at the wall tonight.”

Well, that explained the phone calls.

“Why?” she asked, keeping her voice neutral.

“Because if I didn’t I was gonna chug the whole damn thing.”

“But you didn’t. You called me.”

“Came really close.”

Why?” she asked again. “What happened tonight? You’ve been doing really well. And if you tell me it’s Sebastian again, I’m going to fucking kick you.”

“Moment of weakness, I guess.”

“If it was just a moment of weakness we could have done the saloon. You wanted the quarry. Something happened.”

Sophia watched as he stared at the fire, shutting down, sinking back to the place he’d been before calling her that night. Forgetting her nerves she slid beside him, and his body tightened all over.

“Will you please tell me? You know I’m a good listener.  You know I won’t judge.”

He clenched and unclenched his hands into fists, flexing the knuckles after. “My dad called.”

“What? Why? What did he want?”

“Money. For me to move back in so he doesn’t lose the fucking house. Said I owed him.”

“That’s horseshit.”

“Yeah. Fuck, I’m stupid. Should’ve just hung up when I knew it was him.”

“That doesn’t make you stupid.”

“Yeah it does. If you heard how he talks… only an idiot would sit there and take it.”

“Stop it. That’s him talking, not you.” When he didn’t respond, she said, “What did you tell him?”

He ran a hand through his hair, wet clumps now sticking up in all directions. “That I didn’t owe him shit. To go to hell.”

“Good. I’m glad you said something – I still haven’t forgiven him for stealing your Wintersday cash, by the way.”

He set his mug down, dropping his head in his hands and rubbing the back of it. It was the same thing she’d found him doing at the dock in the spring; like doing so could rub away the bad thoughts.

His voice was muffled by his arms when he spoke. “He just goes on and on about how I’m like him, and I am. I’m the fucking same. That’s what I’m gonna be when I’m sixty, isn’t it? Some pathetic lonely fuck, and Jas hating me and wanting me out of her life. I don’t have a future, I’m not fucking good at anything and I’m gonna stock groceries until I die of liver failure or just fucking off myself. I want to tell him he’s wrong, but then he throws a bottle, and then I throw a bottle, and then I crack Marnie’s phone because I’m pissed and break shit, just like him. I’m the same, I’m the fucking same.”

He took a deep, shaky breath like he was about to dive in for more, but Sophia grabbed his arm. “That’s not true,” she said fiercely, “and you goddamn know it.”

Closing his eyes, he leaned against the bed once more. “I ruin everything.”

“What?”

He looked at her miserably. “What am I doing here, Sophia?”

“I want you here,” she said, staring down at her tea.

“So you can keep an eye on me. Make sure I don’t drink.”

Her eyes flashed toward him. “I know this is a sensitive subject right now, but seriously? Don’t act dumb. Because you’re not. You know exactly why you’re here, and it’s not so I can fucking babysit you.”

“It was a mistake. You – I dunno, you got caught up in the moment or something. You don’t want me here…”

It was the best thing he could’ve said. Sophia’s pulse skyrocketed, and not out of nerves.

“So you get to speak for me now? Know me so well you can read my mind?” She stood, yanking his mug from his hand. “Or are you trying to tell me how to feel? Because you know how much I love that shit!” She strode purposely into the kitchen, dropping both mugs in the sink before returning.

“Sophia…”

Adrenaline coursed through her as she scooped up Amber and left the room once more, depositing the sleeping dog onto the living room couch. Her heart wouldn’t stop pounding at the thought of what she was about to do, at the thought of throwing herself at him for what felt like the hundredth time. Only this time it wouldn’t be a shot in the dark – this time she couldn’t miss.

Returning to the bedroom, she closed the door and shut off the lights so all that remained was the glow of the fire, its flames crackling in the silence. She climbed onto the queen-sized bed, crawling across to where Shane leaned against it and draped her legs down on either side of him. Ignoring the way his body tensed she placed her hands on his shoulders, sliding them under the collar of his shirt. Drawing her palms across his bare chest, her heart pounding like mad to touch him there, she leaned down to his ear and whispered, “Come to bed.”

Then she eased herself back, fingers trailing slowly out of his shirt.

After what felt like forever Shane got up and sat on the edge of the mattress, and as he lifted himself back against the headboard his movements were stiff, like they weren’t his own.

God, he’d been so good in the bathhouse. There was a barrier there too, of course, but she’d broken it, he’d let her in and they’d been beautiful together. She thought it would have been enough. But this, this split her heart in two; it was like he couldn’t get close to her without everything rewinding the second they parted.

She sat on her knees, facing him, and her voice was quiet. “Shane?”

He rubbed his hands all the way down his face.

“Shane,” she whispered, shuffling toward him. “Let this happen...” She slipped a finger in his waistband, pulling. “Let this happen.” When he didn’t react, she moved in as close as she’d been in the parked vehicle that night, just shy of climbing on his lap. He sat so rigid but again she ignored it, winding one hand behind his neck, so near she could feel his breath. Her heart fluttered to recall how fucking good his mouth had felt in the water, and when he didn’t push her away she leaned in, pausing only a moment before touching her lips to his.

He didn’t kiss back.

Eyes shut, he mumbled right into her mouth: “I’m not drunk.”

She pulled away. “Huh?”

His voice was tight. “I drink first. I always drink first…”

“Is that what this is about?”

“I can’t do it.”

“Of course you can. It’s just me, we’ve already done this part.”

“You don’t get it, okay? I can’t. I literally fucking can’t.” His eyes darted pointedly at the crotch of his pants.

Her hand was still resting on the back of his neck; she drew it down. “But in the pool…”

“That just happened. Here, I dunno, it’s planned and shit.”

She fell very quiet. “You’re too anxious?”

A pause, in which he only stared at the wall.

“You’ve never been sober for it?”

He tugged at his face again, mumbling into his hands. “Fucking embarrassing.”

The two halves of her heart split into four.

“We don’t have to do anything right now. We can just talk, we can just hang out, no pressure. Please, please don’t be embarrassed…”

“You could have anybody else.”

Just like always, he knew exactly what to say to flip her switch – like he’d read a fucking manual on it.

“What the hell does that matter?” she cried. “I don’t want somebody else. God, you’re wasting your time, trying to convince me not to want you when I’ve already made up my goddamn mind that I do. And if I just wanted your dick, Shane, all I’d have to do is get us both drunk, fucking voila. But maybe I care about you a little more than that. Maybe instead of worrying about what can or can’t happen, you can just lay down with me right now.”

And then she slipped under the covers, her head sideways on the pillow and looking at him expectantly.

After a few moment’s hesitation, he got under the covers too.

She was reminded of the last time they’d lain next to each other, side-by-side on a dock. This time it was face-to-face in a bed, and it was unexpectedly intimate – far more intimate than even rocking on his lap in the pool, to lay here like they’d just woken up together.

“This feels fucking bizarre,” said Shane, reading her thoughts.

She wiggled closer. “You sure know how to sweet talk a girl, you know that?” Then she moved even closer, until they shared the same pillow.

“Sophia…”

“Shh.”

She kissed him. It was a delicate kiss, just barely brushing his lips, and when he opened his mouth to speak she stopped him with another one.

“You don’t have to be drunk,” she whispered. “You just have to trust me.”

She kissed him again, then again; light kisses, little pauses between each one. For a long time he only laid there accepting them and she wondered if she should stop, but everything in her heart pushed her to keep going.

And then, hesitantly, he kissed back.

They’d been laying under the same blanket, their heads sharing the same pillow, and now they were both kissing each other – slow kisses, sweet ones, their lips separating between each touch while the fire crackled softly behind them. He was giving into her, his body was relaxing, his lips melting into hers, and then below the covers he reached for her waist.

Those soft, sweet kisses turned suddenly long and deep.

Sophia had thought about this moment so many times, but having him here in her bed, wrapped up in him like this, she could never have anticipated the sheer emotion of it; the cascade deep in her gut that rushed over itself, thoughts like white water rapids.

This is real. This is right. This is why you came here. You can make him happy, this is who you’re meant to make happy. This is why you came to this place. You can change his world like he’s changing yours.

The crackling fire lived in her chest at that moment; every lick of flame, every spark.

His hand was still on her waist and Sophia placed her own on top of it – holding it firmly in place, she climbed onto his lap. She’d meant to keep kissing, but instead she jerked back and just looked at him. At his messy dark hair, still wet. At the five o’clock shadow she’d found inexcusably hot since that first night in the bar. At his heavy eyes, at the depth in their green like a labyrinth; a private world that only she’d been lucky enough to enter. When she stared at the green it stared back, and when her gaze flickered side to side his followed as if attached by an invisible wire.

She reached for the bottom of his shirt – and he reached down just as fast.

“You don’t want to see that.”

“Fuck off, you know I do. And you had it off earlier anyway.”

“Yeah, underwater…”

“Fine,” she said, grabbing the bottom of her sweater. “Me first.”

If she stripped down now, it was truly the point of no return. She’d never be able to take it back; he would always have that part of her.

Heart hammering, she slowly pulled it over her head.

Shane tensed beneath her as she dropped it off the side of the bed. It was obvious he wanted to look but he fought it, staring determinedly at her face instead. His thoughts circled, so mechanical she swore she could see the gears turning – and she wanted to rip them the fuck out of his head.

Grabbing his hands, she slapped them down on either side of her waist.

“Anything you want,” she said, feeling desperate. “I’m giving you permission Shane, whatever you want with me. Just stop fucking thinking about it, just do it…”

The room fell very quiet.

He began to take her in, vision moving up and down like a ladder. Then – as if by miracle – it was his hands, feeling the curves of her waist, slowly sliding up the sides. He paused when reaching her breasts, and Sophia was very conscious of her breathing, of keeping it steady while feeling so exposed.

He rubbed across each nipple with a thumb, and for a second she closed her eyes.

Sitting up slowly, he let his hands glide over the front of her breasts. He gave them a light knead, then cupped them from underneath, pushing up and squeezing gently, and as he did she reached into his hair and guided his head toward her chest.

And then his mouth was all over her – her shoulders, her neck, her collarbone. Hands found the small of her back and eased her down, and Sophia melted into that support until she was lying flat against him as he kissed a line between her breasts; a wave of goosebumps rushed over her chest as he took one in his mouth, her nipple growing hard under his tongue. Her fingers eventually found the inch of exposed skin below his shirt, and when she began to slide it up his back he didn’t stop her – in fact, he reached behind his neck with one hand and yanked it off himself, rolling back down with all his weight and skin on top of her.

And god, he was perfect. Warm, thick, just the right amount of softness so there was a lovely give to his chest when pressed against him. His full weight on top almost made her dizzy – she’d never wanted anything as much as she wanted Shane then, and she couldn’t help getting rougher, clamping her hands to his face and kissing him hard, sucking his bottom lip, arching her back into him. His hands began to roam again, the enthusiasm of her kiss bleeding into his grasp as he groped her shoulders, groped her breasts, groped her waist—

But as his hands slid further down, the movement became noticeably softer. When he reached her lower stomach he paused, and Sophia squirmed with the weight of his hand there.

“It’s okay?” he asked quietly.

She gazed up, starry-eyed. “It’s all okay.”

There was a warm, safe feeling in her chest as he slipped it into her pants, brushing softly through the hair. One fingertip grazed her clit, drawing a tiny circle.

“Shane…”

More slow circles. He slid the finger down and she lifted her hips to meet him, sure he was going in, but he only went far enough to wet the tip and then returned, now with slow circles that were slick. She bit her lip, trying to keep her breathing even as it went rapidly higher into her chest, as his wet finger rubbed with more pressure, as she began to throb and want its length inside her, while at the same time never wanting the circles to stop. But they did, and she let out a soft noise of protest – at least until realizing why.

One hand went under her back, and he lifted her just enough to slide her pants off.

She was naked now, completely naked on her bed in front of a half-clothed Shane. He cupped a hand between her legs again, and Sophia’s chest filled with the strangest combination of feelings – she felt vulnerable but safe, on display but protected, nervous but unable to think of another time in her life when anything felt so damned right. She gazed at him, heart still fluttering, as one finger began to spread her apart. He slipped it in, and then as she closed her eyes he slipped in another.

“Where does it feel good?” he whispered, slowly stroking from the inside.

Every time he spoke – it was so quiet, so unexpected.

She tilted her hips. “Up a little,” she whispered back, and then – quicker than expected – gasped, “Y-yeah. T-there…”

She felt lightheaded; Shane had somehow taken the lead, and she was ready for him, wet and growing wetter with each stroke, he was too good at this, he was making her flush, he was getting her off with just his hand – he was kissing her again.

He’d said he couldn’t do it sober, but he’d apparently learned a thing or two while drunk. His thumb rubbed her clit at the same time as his fingers moved inside, and she couldn’t stop her legs from twitching, couldn’t stop the way she whimpered right onto his lips. It was building too fast, it was too soon for this, he wasn’t stopping and her own hips were grinding as if to betray her, she was so sensitive, and she did the only thing she could think of in the moment.

Reaching over, she touched him through his pants.

His hand slowly came to a halt and she dipped away from it, shuddering at the sensitivity. She reached for him again but he grabbed her hand.

“It’s – it’s not…”

“There’s no pressure,” she whispered. “I just want to feel you. Please?”

He laid on his back and closed his eyes, and when she reached again he didn’t stop her.

She held him through the fabric. He wasn’t even half hard, and under her touch, she felt him go actively softer. He’d been fine concentrating on her, but the moment the focus was on him he fell apart – his chest was taut, his expression that of someone trying desperately to relax.

“No pressure,” she whispered again. Then she drew close to his side, sliding her hand in his waistband and – a thrill shooting through her stomach – wrapping it around him. She felt its weight, the warm squishy skin, the silkiness of the head under her thumb, and she wanted it; no matter how long it took she wanted nothing more than to make him relaxed enough to get hard for her. His eyes were still closed and she leaned over and began to kiss him, her tongue gentle in his mouth while her hand stroked softly below.

After several minutes he jerked back, looking miserable. “It’s not your fault.”

“It’s not yours either,” she whispered, still stroking. “And if this is all we do tonight, I’m still happy.”

But as she continued with no luck, Sophia’s mind wandered to what he’d said earlier – about how in the bathhouse it’d been spontaneous, but this was planned; she needed to do something to surprise him, to let him stop over-thinking for at least a few seconds.

Letting go of him, she suddenly yanked off his pants – and in his surprise, he let her.

She didn’t waste a second. They were fully naked together for the first time, and she didn’t want to give him time to protest, to think about his body or pull back. Feeling like her heart was holding its breath, she crawled atop him once more, but this time there was nothing between their skin and she sank down with his soft cock nestled between her thighs. Closing her eyes, she placed her hands on his chest and began rocking the way she had in the pool.

Slowly, tentatively, his hands crept over the curves of her ass, and she kept her eyes shut to remove the pressure of her gaze, focused only on the rocking. He rubbed up and down her cheeks as if testing the waters, then pressed his fingers deep into the soft skin.

Sophia shivered, and Shane snapped.

He gripped suddenly hard, lifting his hips and yanking her into them. He did it again, then again – rhythmically he gripped and pulled, gripped and pulled, and Sophia fell into the rhythm herself, pressing back; they began breathing hard, moving as if he was already inside. Whether he was truly relaxed, pretending to be drunk, or something else entirely she didn’t know – only that it was working, that he was growing thicker between her legs, and she was afraid to slow down, afraid to stop, afraid to do anything that would pull him from this pulse they’d created. And god, it felt so fucking good just to have the pressure of him there, even on the outside, and for a long time she lost herself in the rhythm, her hands on his shoulders and being rocked by each beat.

Then she was flipped swiftly and suddenly on her back.

Her whole body fluttered with the unexpectedness of it; whatever it was that snapped in him, it was a clean break. Shane hovered over her body, balancing his weight on one arm as he spit in the other hand and rubbed his cock to wet it, and Sophia loved being on her back under him – loved watching him prep himself for her, spreading her legs wider in anticipation, her heart racing wildly. He lined himself up with her opening, stopping with just the smooth tip pressed against her.

Rolling back down and staring straight into her eyes, he slowly pushed inside. 

Ohhh.

It happened so fast, the change: like her body was hollow, except for where Shane now filled her. She felt suddenly so open, so receptive, like she had all this empty room within her in which to invite him, and once he was fully inside she clamped her legs tight, wanting to hold him as deep as she could. She wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him, pressing into him and not letting him leave.

But Shane had other plans; his hips worked to loosen the grip of her legs and when they succeeded he began to glide – out and in, out and in, slow, sensual, painfully controlled. Then he started kissing her, continuing his maddening pace below.

And it felt fucking wonderful.

Sophia sank into the bed, relaxing into his strokes, relaxing into the sudden tender kiss. The sheets were cool under her back but Shane’s chest was like a furnace on top; she could hear her own wetness as he moved in her, and through the kiss she started to smile.

“What?” he whispered breathily, lifting his head.

She only dragged him back down to kiss again – harder. He kissed harder too, his thrusts quickening, then quickening more, and she began to ride him from underneath, meeting his stride—

“Let me on top,” she panted, her voice jerking with his movements.

Sophia couldn’t remember the last time she’d actually felt sexy during sex. For so long it had been a chore with Rick – something to close her eyes and put up with so he’d be less pissy the rest of the night. He always asked for head while refusing to go down on her, always stopped after coming no matter where Sophia was at. To be in bed with him was to alternate between feeling worthless and bored, and three years they’d been together – three years – and not once did he ever ask her if what he was doing felt good.

But she was with Shane tonight.

He lay stretched out below her with his perfect warm body, and meeting his gaze she lowered herself onto him. Once all the way down she began rolling her hips in slow circles – until unexpectedly giving several hard, fast pumps that made Shane tilt his head back with a groan.

And oh, fuck, that was hot.

Fuck. That was hot.

That groan clearly escaped before he could stop himself, and she wanted to make him do it again – needed to make him do it again – needed to make him feel so good he couldn’t help himself. She stretched cat-like over his chest until her elbows were on the bed and her hands in his hair, their noses almost touching, first sliding on his shaft and then grinding against him, sliding and grinding, sliding and grinding, she wanted to make him fucking moan again, to just utterly lose control and forget himself and feel better than he’d felt in his whole fucking life. And he was close, his whole body tensing, and when he gripped her ass and pulled her hips into his, she rolled back up to a sitting position. Looking toward the ceiling and closing her eyes, she began to ride him.

It was everything – it was flesh smacking flesh, her breath rapid-fire, her long, loose hair tickling the middle of her back – the way it felt like her heart lived in her fucking skin right then, and god it was building again, too fast, tingling as high as her scalp; he was so deep in her, she’d found the perfect angle to rub against him and she was losing willpower the longer it went, like she was possessed, like she couldn’t make herself stop, and oh shit, oh shit—

Shane rolled over so fast that she fell right off his cock.

“Sorry,” he panted. “I-I almost came.”

Sophia lay where she fell, breathing hard. “Me too.”

But she hadn’t even caught her breath when, biting her lip and smiling, she crawled back to him. Laying down on her back, she tucked her chin into her chest and looked up playfully, her legs stretched in a V and waiting.

And then something shifted.

There was no rush, no sense of urgency when he climbed on top of her this time. He lingered over her body, looking down with his hair ruffled in all directions, his lips flushed from kissing.

“You’re fun,” she whispered, gazing up at him.

They’d been so hot a second ago, their movements such fire, but now Sophia felt like they’d been dropped into an amber moment of time. Everything slowed – his heavy breathing, her racing pulse, the burning need to come against him. He was frozen above her, he couldn’t stop looking at her, and under his gaze it felt like her heart was slowly trickling from her chest to her toes.

She didn’t decide to say it; it came out on its own, in the softest voice:

“Hold me.”

And he did. Her eyes were closed, her face buried in his neck when Shane entered her for the last time.

This isn’t sex, she thought, as he moved inch by inch inside. I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t sex, it isn’t just sex…

It was all closeness after that, his body wonderfully heavy, his lips never straying more than an inch from hers, the warmth between her legs that pulsed around him. The sheets scrunched below her as he picked up the tempo, picked it up fast while still holding her tight, and it was building all over again – he pulsed harder and faster and harder and faster and then his body gave a sudden deep jerk and Sophia squeezed her arms around him; she loved everything about this moment, loved that she was the one to make him feel this way, and those final twitches of his cock were enough to send her over the edge too. He’d finished but was still inside and she pushed hard against him, staying there and finishing with the pressure alone – waves twisting one after another down her spine, and when they finally stopped she dropped her head against the pillow, closing her eyes as Shane rolled off of her.

After they’d both been laying and breathing hard for some time, he rolled his head to look at her. “You’re okay?” he said quietly.

She scooted closer, nuzzling under his arm, then burying her face in his chest and nodding. At first he didn’t react, but eventually began to stroke her shoulder, and they stayed like that in silence for a long time.

Shane fell asleep before her. Still resting against his chest, her head rising and falling with each breath, she gazed quietly up at his face. Serene; not a trace of anxiety or sadness.

She closed her eyes.

You’re so dumb. You’re so dumb to think I wouldn’t want this.

 

Chapter Text

The sky was still dark, and Shane fought the urge to slip out of Sophia’s bed unnoticed.

He didn’t know what to do with himself.

He’d never done this – he’d never slept with someone he gave two shits about. Never with someone he’d have to see again after whatever meaningless, half-drunk goodbye was said the following morning. Today, for the first time in his life, he was waking next to a girl he’d fucked, feeling something other than emptiness.

A girl he’d fucked. Jesus. As if Sophia was just a girl. As if last night was just a fuck.

Shane was all too familiar with those. It was practically a reflex to wake the morning after sex with an awful churning in his stomach, and not only from the previous night’s alcohol. The hangover was just the shitty cherry on top of a host of shitty feelings: the shame, the disappointment, the black hole in his chest.

The guilt that made him sick to his stomach.  

His drunken self knew what it was doing all those nights. Fuck, his sober self did too – it was his sober self that chose the most social bars, the ones popular among the hook-up crowd. It was his sober self that chose to drink there, knowing that halfway through his usual number of bourbons or beers he’d wind up talking to a girl, one who wanted to know what had him so down. And he knew exactly what to say; a surefire way to get him four minutes of pleasure in an otherwise miserable night.

Shane had done a lot of shitty things in his life, but none worse than using Garrett’s name to get laid. His best friend. His best friend’s death. That was how he earned all those pity fucks.

The beauty of alcohol, of course, was that as the day wore on the guilt and shame would segue into a sort of solace at the thought of returning to the bar again that night. To drink, to numb, to forget; occasionally to do it all over again, when fate and circumstance coincided to usher in another girl who’d had a bit too much to drink, whose lust was inexplicably drawn out by an unshaven chin and a pair of depressed eyes.

Shane lay with his eyes shut, pretending to be asleep, trying to understand just what the hell last night had meant.

He’d given her so many outs – so many opportunities to respectfully back away. She’d bulldozed every single one. Waiting at the bottom of her porch, she could have said, “It’s later than I thought, maybe we shouldn’t.” Instead, she’d nodded him inside. After blurting that he wasn’t drunk enough to fuck her, she’d slipped under the sheets and waited expectantly. When he couldn’t get hard in her hand, she’d pulled off his pants and sat her beautiful, bare body right on top of his.

He was in love with her. He was in love with her. He wished so badly that he could backpedal to a crush – to something that wouldn’t splinter his heart if she regretted this – but if there was even the slightest chance that could’ve happened, it was obliterated from the moment she kissed him back in the bathhouse.

God, the kissing. So much kissing. He’d spent more time kissing in the last twenty-four hours than he had in his whole life. It was usually an afterthought in his world, an “Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be into you too, not just here for your dick.” But last night nothing had been an afterthought, and tonight he wouldn’t drink to numb and forget. He wanted to burn her touch onto his skin. To never, ever forget the blissful look on her face when she’d closed her eyes and leaned back to ride him, or the smile when she lay there with her legs wide open, waiting for him to fill her.

What he did want to forget was how with a few glasses of whiskey he could fuck a stranger, yet without it he couldn’t get it up, not even for the person he was in love with.

She’d been stunning, and he’d been pathetic.

Fuck, leaving was tempting. He hated himself for thinking it, but slipping out before she woke, before she saw him and realized what a mistake she’d made after all – before she realized she’d given him a pity fuck, just like all the other girls—

“Shane?”

He opened his eyes. White pillowcase. White sheets, and a burgundy comforter – and he could barely move. Apparently even with all the farm work that summer, his body wasn’t accustomed to something as strenuous as breaking rock. It protested painfully as he rolled over to face her.

She lay with her head on the pillow, hands in prayer-form under her cheek. “Hi,” she whispered.

That throaty sound of her voice first thing in the morning – oh god. 

“Hi,” he said back.

Blue eyes gazed at him under soft lids, then she said it again, shyly: “Hi.”

He was naked under the sheets. She was naked under the sheets. He was still in her bed, and the tired eyes staring at him seemed utterly okay with that.

Shane’s heart hammered as she inched closer, sliding like a little snail across the sheets until her head was on his pillow.

“So… last night,” she whispered, her cheeks tinting pink. “That happened.”

He swallowed. “Y-yeah.”

“We knew it would eventually, right?”

Knew? Yeah, right. Maybe she knew – he’d only dreamed. Even after that night in the vehicle when she’d made it abundantly clear she was open to the idea, he was still positive he’d find a way to fuck it up before it came to this, to having this discussion.

“What are you thinking?”

His thoughts were still going a million miles a minute, but he only shrugged lamely against the sheets.

“Nothing?” she said, disappointed. “But how do you feel? About last night?”

That I’m in love with you? That I made love to you? I can’t say that after one night. I want you to like me, not get a goddamn restraining order.

“Um. It was… good.”

Understatement. Understatement of the fucking year.

She looked suddenly sad. “You don’t want to talk about it.”

“I-I don’t know what to say.”

“Just say what you feel.”

“I – can’t we just enjoy what it was?”

“But I want us to be able to talk about it.”

“So talk,” he said, and she winced.

He hadn’t meant for it to be rude. God, he was an asshole; he’d just never had a line of questioning like this. It was always implied that they’d both be on their way upon waking. Sometimes he’d be offered coffee, other times he was not-so-subtly shooed out the door. Occasionally he slipped out before they woke, like he’d considered doing two minutes ago. But this? Was she looking for him to slap some kind of label on it? Did they have to discuss it right now, when he was naked and uncomfortable and sure that if she pulled the sheet back she’d realize the error of her ways?

Except she looked so hurt. Maybe he didn’t understand why she wanted him here, but she’d been so unbelievably sweet the entire night, and fuck – she didn’t deserve this.

“Sorry,” he whispered.

She absentmindedly rolled the top of the sheet in her hands, staring at the fingers that did it. “Don’t be sorry. I’m sorry. I’m ruining this.”

“No you’re not.”

“Yes I am. I’m pushing you too much again…” Then she let go of the sheet, reaching under the covers and grabbing his hand. “We don’t have to talk, but I want you to know that last night… it was good. No regrets, not from me.”

He looked at her. The sheet covered up to her chest, her neck and shoulders exposed, and her hair was piled messily on top of her head – she must’ve thrown it up like that this morning. She watched him earnestly, waiting for his reaction, and the hand holding his tightened in a nervous sort of way.

He swallowed again. “No regrets, Sophia.”

Except, you know, the ones about asking if her kiss was a prank, or bringing up how much like his jackass father he was, or not being able to get hard when his dick was right in her hand – just the ones where he’d aired his insecurities on a fucking flag post. But his response seemed to please her. She released his hand, and before he had time to think she’d already found his happy trail, her fingers curling into the hair. She leaned closer to his pillow and whispered, “It was really, really good.”

Then she pushed the length of her body against his. He’d almost forgotten her skin already: like the silky inside of a flower petal. He became suddenly conscious of his breath, but she didn’t go that direction, only whispering, “No pressure,” and then wrapping her hand around him, at the same time leaning over to softly kiss his chest. Then again and again, each kiss lower than the last as she stroked him.

Panic. Silent, inward panic, as his body clenched for no other reason than to fuck with him.

Relax. Relax. Relax.

Her lips were on his stomach now, his heart racing, both unable to believe this was happening again so soon and unable to get hard, his cock refusing to budge even as her lips moved to his bellybutton, then even lower, almost to her hands—

A high pitched whimper came from the other side of the bedroom door, and Sophia groaned and dropped her face right onto his lower stomach.

“Stupid dog.” The words were muffled through his skin, annoyed and affectionate.

The whimpering got louder, soon accompanied by tiny barks; the noise so early in the morning made Shane think of his alarm and he said suddenly, “What time is it?”

She sighed and rolled away from him, reaching toward her dresser for her phone. “7:09.”

“I’ve got work at eight… my clothes are still at the ranch and I have to shower.”

“So call in.”

Yes, a very good idea. Except lazy, depressed son of a bitch that he was, all those days he’d called in in the past – along with the days he hadn’t, but still wandered through the heavy blue doors ten or twenty minutes late – well, Morris wouldn’t have any more of it. Even with taking on overtime, one more call-in put him in danger of his hours being cut.

“I can’t. I want to… but I’m on really thin ice already.”

“Fucking JojaMart. I thought they were done ruining my life.”

“Yours maybe, but not mine.”

“And I’m in the crossfire.” She sighed sadly, amid the continued yips from Amber. “So I guess I can’t hold you hostage… like, you’ll actually lose your job?”

“Lose half my hours and maybe end up cleaning toilets.”

“Okay, okay. Leave me then. See if your precious JojaMart sucks your dick instead.”

Shane couldn’t even react to that before she gave a coy smile and rolled off the bed, and then without bothering to cover herself walked across the room to her dresser. He stared at her ass the entire way. She’d given him that body last night. And if he weren’t so goddamn anxious, and if he’d only waited five more minutes to ask the time…

The house was still toasty warm, the fire having burned all night, and Sophia slipped into just a tank-top and underwear before leaving the room. Shane’s vision followed her, and after her white bikini briefs disappeared into the kitchen he looked toward the ceiling and closed his eyes.

This. Her. Everything. He was going to wake up.

Any moment now.

But when he opened his eyes he was still there, and he realized that not only would it take her mere seconds to let Amber out, but he was naked too, his clothes scattered around the bed. Not nearly as comfortable in his own skin, he raced to pull them on, and was shrugging into his t-shirt when she reappeared.

She leaned against the doorframe to the bedroom. “I know you’re in a rush, but can I get you something for breakfast?”

“Sophia, I really have to g—”

“Three minutes. Two, if you don’t mind the middle cold. You can eat it on the way.” Without another word she turned into the kitchen and Shane followed her, where she pulled two pizza pockets from the freezer, plating them and tossing them in the microwave.

He stared.

She was kind of perfect.

When the microwave began to whir in the otherwise silent kitchen, however, Shane realized he didn’t understand her at all. She could make him breakfast in only her underwear – moments ago even joke about sucking his dick – but right now, she wouldn’t even look at him. They stood on opposite sides of the kitchen, Sophia wiping the counter with her hand as if to remove invisible crumbs, Shane looking down and pretending it took the whole two minutes to arrange his belt buckle the way he wanted it. It was the longest two minutes of his life, and he let out a sigh of relief when the microwave finally beeped.

She wrapped one of the pockets in a wad of paper towel so he wouldn’t burn himself.

“Thanks,” he said nervously, accepting it, unsure of how a goodbye went after something like this.

“You’re welcome.” Then she shrank back, looking embarrassed. “I’m so sorry, Shane.”

“Huh? Why?”

“This morning was weird. It’s my fault.”

“Wasn’t weird,” he lied.

“Yes it was.” She twisted one hand in the other, then looked up. “I’ll – I’ll call you?” she said, as if it were a question.

“Yeah,” said Shane. “Yeah, for sure.”

“Good.”

“Good.” His eyes flickered toward the door. “I really gotta go, though…”

“Right, sorry.”

Then he nodded and waved as he left the house.

He fucking waved.  

 


 

With each step down the dark country road toward the ranch, Shane’s dread increased. Until now, he hadn’t given Marnie a single thought – not of the storm he’d caused leaving the house, not of how inconsiderate he’d been to stay out all night without telling her, and not of what he planned to tell her now, wandering into the kitchen at 7:30 in the morning.

She stood in her lavender bathrobe, sipping coffee as hash browns and eggs fried on the stove.

“Morning,” she said cheerfully, smiling as her nephew entered the brightly lit room.

“Er – morning.”

“Late night, was it?”

Fuck, that smile, that cheerfulness – it was too damn normal for how he’d left last night. She knew something. Somehow, just like always in this microscopic town, she knew something.

“Um. Yeah.”

Taking the tiniest sip of coffee, she raised her eyebrows. “And how is Sophia?”

Just like that – as if she were asking about the goddamn weather.

“Jesus Christ, Marnie,” he muttered, face burning.

Unwilling to face her for two seconds longer than necessary, he headed straight for his bedroom – and he’d forgotten the mess. Marnie had cleaned up all the liquid and glass, but the alcohol ate part of the floor’s finish, leaving it duller in one spot. With a hot surge of guilt he grabbed his Joja jacket and shorts, ready to go shower.

“Shane?”

Great. She was blocking the door.

“It’s nothing, okay?” He refused to have this conversation; refused to discuss Sophia with her.

“Well, can’t say I believe that… but that’s not what I want to talk about.” She glanced at the spot on the floor, and Shane’s gaze followed, his breakfast churning in his stomach. “I don’t need to know what happened to cause this,” she said, “but if it makes it easier, that rum was in there for years. It was the only alcohol in the house, and I feel no need to replace it.” She smiled gently. “Though if you insist on doing something, some hardwood polish wouldn’t be amiss. I know Robin carries it.”

He nodded, still red, still ashamed despite her gentle tone. Maybe because of it.

She made to leave, but not before turning around one final time. “I’m so glad you feel comfortable going to Sophia. She’s quite a special girl.”

Shane’s face grew so hot that he decided to take a cold shower, even though it’d been freezing outside.

Undressing in the bathroom, he kept his back to the mirror, avoiding his reflection – he couldn’t stand knowing that’s what Sophia had seen last night. He needed to keep this illusion in place, that she could be just as attracted to him as he was to her. Drying off, however, he noticed a dark purple mark on his chest, just below his collarbone.

Sophia had done that. Her mouth had done that.

Shirt off, he looked in the mirror the entire time he brushed his teeth, eyes drawn to the spot.

He could have teleported to work for all he noticed. When he looked up, there was her face, smiling down as she lay on his chest. When he looked left it was the road that led to her farm. When he looked right it was the road that led to the beach, the one he’d stopped in the middle of, drunk, well after midnight and acting like a jealous fool. And when he looked down, it was the bruise on his chest from her sucking his skin.

Sophia, Sophia, Sophia, Sophia.

Then, Sophia.

Shane stared. She was leaving Pierre’s in jeans and a navy button-up coat now, her hair still messily thrown up on the crown of her head, and Shane’s heart took off in a gallop.

I came inside her last night.

Guilt immediately flooded him, that such a base thought was his first reaction. But he didn’t mean it like that, it was just incredulity, this sense of the last twenty-four hours being fucking surreal – the way she stood in front of the grocer’s doors like it were any other day.

“Hey,” she said, cheeks bright from the early autumn cold.

“H-hey,” he stammered.

The color in her face now spread from the apples of her cheeks all the way down. “I, um, I was in Pierre’s when I saw you walking by. Didn’t know I’d be seeing you... if I did I’d’ve dressed a little sexier…”

Shane’s face grew hot, and Sophia looked at the sidewalk, laughing a little and shyly scuffing the toe of her boot. He didn’t know what to say, and for a moment they only stood there, blushing at their feet. Then they looked up at the exact same time, laughing when they caught each other’s eye and awkwardly gazing at their feet again.

Eventually Shane glanced to their left. Pierre was watching them through the front of his store: bespectacled eyes, narrowed and assessing, and when Shane caught him he quickly looked away and began to arrange a display of gourds in the window.

“I should probably keep going.” Shane nodded in the direction of his employer. “Kind of cutting it close.”

Sophia bit her lip. “Can I walk you the rest of the way?”

Though the streets weren’t busy yet, he was very aware of walking with her in public like this. Other than that day at the luau, or the few minutes she stopped into JojaMart, their relationship was kept strictly at the farm. The few times they had been in town together it’d been late and dark out. Early morning, broad daylight and Sophia at his side, Shane felt almost embarrassed for her, having to be seen with someone like him.

She’d fucking hate it if you said that. She’d probably kick you.

It was true. It really seemed to piss her off when he put himself down. For once he tried not to; he pushed the voice away and focused only on walking with her.

He remembered how buoyant he’d felt after confessing to her at the Dance of the Moonlit Jellies, how he’d been so giddy and high coming into work. Perhaps it was strange that he didn’t feel that way now, but he knew it wasn’t a bad thing – he was just processing everything, evaluating it on a much deeper level. His giddiness last time seemed shallow in comparison, like he hadn’t known how deeply her presence could massage his soul.

“This is it,” he said at last, of the blue and white building now in front of them.

“Yeah.” She sounded sad.

“I’ll see you, Sophia,” he said, and there was a low tenderness to his own voice he hadn’t anticipated.  

She nodded, looking for a moment like she might leave. Then something flashed suddenly across her face – some kind of urgency – and she said, “Hey, what time is it?”

He glanced at the watch on his inner wrist. “7:56.”

Before he knew what was happening she’d grabbed his arm, dragging him toward the massive JojaMart truck parked in front of the store. She pulled him to where they were hidden from sight and there she slammed him against the side of the truck, kissing him hard, passionate, her mouth sliding hot and eager over his, both hands winding in his hair. A surprised Shane had just started to kiss her back – fuck, her lips were so soft, she tasted like mint and his head was already spinning – when she pulled breathlessly away and found his ear, the words tumbling out fast and fierce:

“It wasn’t just sex, Shane, you know it wasn’t, you know it was more – you know it was.”

And then she turned and hurried away, leaving Shane out of breath, his back against the truck. Every few steps she turned to face him, jogging backwards and giving a nervous smile before hurrying forward again.

 

Chapter Text

Autumn descended unusually early. It was the first time Sophia had been in the valley to see the turn of the season, and it was like watching her farm become consumed by a slow-burning flame. Grass tinted gold in the sunlight. Trees were dipped in color, lime-green leaves bleeding into fire-orange tips. The air was thin like a mountaintop, the world crisp and clean, and as she stood on her front porch the wind swept several leaves across her vision. Amber saw them too, barking and racing down the steps to chase them.

Each season painted the farm with its own beautiful brush. Spring was juvenile and bright green, full of hope. Summer was the deepening of that greenery into adulthood, everything emerald and jade. And autumn? In autumn it was all maturing, becoming nostalgic; not a pointed nostalgia toward anything in particular, but an overarching feeling that danced quietly in the shadows of each autumn day. The valley heightened the seasons in a way the city never could, and Sophia knew she’d never return. Deep in her heart, in the part in touch with her own old soul, she knew she would live in the valley, on the farm, for as long as her life allowed it.

Her dad had grown up on the farm. All her years of city living, riding passenger in his car and staring at penthouses and coffee shops and dirty gray sidewalks – they were punctuated with the sound of her father’s beloved country music. Before Amy died he’d loved visiting the farm, and equally loved to visit his roots, sitting in city traffic and blasting songs about country roads to the merciless teasing of his two urban daughters.

Except Sophia knew country roads now. She walked them every day. In summer she walked them in sandals, clouds of dust powdering her feet, the dirt they sprang from fresh and clean. Countless times since moving she’d dropped right into that dirt while tending her crops, staring into the pale dome of the sky and feeling like she’d never known such clarity inside or out. It was where she lay now, while Amber ran playfully through the fields. A gust of wind brushed through the branches of a nearby oak, a single yellow leaf fluttering to the ground, and she thought of Amy and Grandpa Emmet – both their presences so strong in her memory, but so absent in the free air around her. On the farm they were visitors, not hostages, and Sophia closed her eyes and listened to the cold whistling wind because god, it was beautiful to be here without being haunted.

Then she thought about Shane. Because she always did; because he was everywhere too.  

 


 

After eating dinner and showering Sophia sat on the couch, a freshly-bathed Amber at her side, both of them snuggled under a thick flannel blanket. The TV was on but ignored, the phone resting in Sophia’s hand.

Ring. Ring, damn it.

Except it wouldn’t. After weeks of always being the first to call – with a single, forced exception – she knew that staring at the phone waiting for Shane to dial was the equivalent of staring at a boulder, waiting for it to move. If he’s just fucking do it, just this once – she’d already popped up on his walk to work that morning like a little stalker, and calling so soon after his shift would be coming off pretty strong…

She sighed. Strong or not, if she wanted to talk to him tonight she’d have to do it herself. Waiting just long enough to be sure she wouldn’t interrupt supper, she punched in the ranch’s number.

“Hello?”

“Jas?” Sophia was not accustomed to his goddaughter answering the phone.

“May I ask who is speaking, please?”

“You may. It’s Sophia.”

“Hi!” she cried, losing ten years of maturity from her voice. “Are you coming over?”

“I promise I’ll try to soon,” Sophia said, and heard a tiny squeal. “Sweetie, can I talk to Uncle Shane?”

“He’s in the chicken coop. I’ll get him!”

The clunk of the phone being placed down, the patter of tiny feet running away, then – after several nervous moments – the shuffle of the receiver and Shane’s low voice saying, “Hey.”

Sophia’s heart rose to her throat like it’d shot through an elevator. “H-hey. What are you up to?”

“Was out in the coop. You?”

“Snuggling with Amber. We just had a bath.”

Why was his tone so hard to read? She suddenly felt far too eager, calling this soon. The hey had sounded normal, but what about the second part? She picked at the fringed yarn on the edge of her blanket, sure she was bothering him and wondering why she hadn’t planned this conversation out better in her head.

“So... today,” she said at last.

“Yeah.”

“What I said this morning, at JojaMart… it didn’t freak you out?”

“Seriously, Sophia?”

“Yes, seriously. Why else would I ask?” She closed her eyes. “I just – I wanted to make sure you didn’t change your mind.”

A pause, then quietly: “Of course I didn’t change my goddamn mind.”

This unpredictability of her moods around him – around everyone else she knew her role, what to expect and how to behave, but with Shane it changed on a dime. She’d woken so fearful, desperate to extract his thoughts – to know he’d wanted it too and that she hadn’t talked him into it. Then the moment that assurance came through it lit a fire under her confidence, had her strutting naked across the room and parading around in her underwear. And the walk to work, it’d been so bashful, and the kiss against the Joja truck so wild…

She was so addicted to this unpredictability.

“Well, I’ve been thinking,” she said, voice calm but heart pattering. “It’s Friday night. I’m no expert, but I think that’s a pretty normal time for, say, a lonely farm girl to invite the cute neighbor boy over.”

“I’m listening.”

He was. And shit, the way he said it. Sophia bit her lip, for a moment remembering just how fucking good he’d felt.

“I was also thinking, after Friday comes Saturday. And if you’re going to come over tonight, and then again tomorrow morning to work outside, it just seems logical…”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve got a big comfy bed and possibly room for a neighbor boy.”

 


 

Shane wouldn’t arrive until he’d put Jas to bed, and Sophia wanted everything perfect.

It was another bitter night and he’d surely freeze on the walk over, so for the second time in a row she started a fire, then straightened the living room. After folding blankets and picking up Amber’s three dozen toys, she spent far too long adjusting the lighting. Feeling dumb, she scrolled the dimmer up and down several times. What was the optimal setting for romance? Dim enough to say I want you, without being so dim as to say you’re just here for my booty call

Halfway. Halfway was fine.

Next she went to the bathroom, to nitpick her appearance, brush her teeth, brush her hair – then to set the brushes down and stare at her reflection for a long time.

Shane would never again be the guy who helped on her farm once a week; would never again be the guy she only daydreamed about in the days between seeing him. That person belonged to summer and it was autumn now, and everything had changed. They’d been together. Standing in front of the mirror, Sophia couldn’t quite believe that Shane had been over and around and inside her body – that somehow this depressed man had stumbled into her world, and in a blur of brashness and sadness and a few too many “fucks,” he’d become the most important person in her life. She didn’t understand why or how it happened. It just had. He just had.

And then Amber howled, and he was there.

He arrived with a blue plastic JojaMart bag containing his overnight things, cheeks splotched red and eyes watering from the cold. As he stepped over the doorstop, Sophia’s heart took off in a gallop.

“Hi,” she said breathlessly.

Which, considering she’d done nothing to get out of breath, seemed rather embarrassing.

“Hi.”

She twisted her fingers in one hand. “Do I want to know what you told Marnie?”

He dropped his things in the chair before unzipping his jacket, and with a rush of affection she thought how familiar a gesture it was – like he unzipped his jacket in her kitchen every day.

“Said I was going out tonight and wouldn’t be home till tomorrow.”

“She didn’t pry?”

“She already fucking knows, Sophia,” he said, turning redder.

“Oh.”

Of course Marnie knew. But Sophia had been dying to know if she’d been able to keep that knowledge to herself – clearly, that was a no.

She leaned against the kitchen table, pushing on the heels of her hands. Shane stood clasping the back of the chair he’d dropped his Joja bag on. While she was happy to not see any of the self-loathing from the previous night, the hesitation and shyness remained, and without a catalyst to catapult her into comfort-Shane mode, Sophia felt stuck there as well.

“Look,” she said. “I know I’m standing here like an idiot, but I didn’t ask you over to do the same thing.”

Shane swallowed. “Yeah.”

“So maybe… I mean, do you want to sit down?”

“Okay.”

Sophia pushed hard on the table one last time, getting up. She walked to him, then carefully unwrapped the fingers that grasped the chair, taking them in her own. “Come on.”

She’d done it several times now, holding his hand. She’d held it the night of the moonlight jellies. She’d held it while dragging him away from the saloon, dragging him down to the quarry, and dragging him toward the private room in the bathhouse. It seemed impossible those things happened only the previous night – especially now, holding hands like it was the first time they’d ever touched, as if they hadn’t just had sex less than twenty-four hours ago.

They sat on the sofa and she smiled shyly at him; he looked nervously at her.

Amber lazily wandered into the living room, stretching first her front paws on the rug, then one leg at a time behind her. She made several circles before laying down, resting her head against the floor and lifting her eyebrows at the two of them amid the stony silence.

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” said Sophia at last.  

“What?”

“Everything we’ve done… yet I’m so fucking nervous just holding your hand right now.”

His face fell. “I’m really bad at this.”

“Yeah, but at least you’re like, consistently bad. I do great one minute and suck the next.”

“Well fuck, that makes me feel better.”

She drew her legs onto the sofa, hoping to make it more casual. It worked a little, removing the stiffness of her pose, and she tugged the hand holding his. “Relax, neighbor boy. You’re here all night.”

He eased back too. “You really like that, don’t you? The fact that we’re neighbors?”

“It – well, it may or may not play into a dirty fantasy of mine.”

“What, liked some guy in the next apartment?”

She blushed. “No. That particular fantasy never occurred until moving here.”

It was Shane’s turn to blush, the rosiness filling in the splotches of his wind-burnt cheeks – and not for the first time, his bashfulness turned her bolder.

“What about you?” she said, still red but gaining confidence. “Bet you’ve got fantasies.”

“Sophia…”

She scooted closer, trying to inspect his eyes while he tried to avoid hers. It reminded her of when Amber chewed the furniture legs – how when she was scolded, she’d look anywhere but Sophia’s face.

“That embarrassing, huh? I’ll tell you right now, I’m pretty open-minded. I won’t make you sleep on the porch if you say whips and chains.”

It was almost a game now, seeing how many shades of red deeper his cheeks would go. And her confidence was starting to soar again; before she could stop herself, she twisted around and laid her head in his lap, looking up and smiling. When he’d successfully flushed to the next shade, she aimed for one more.

“Or maybe it’s something like this?”

They were still holding hands; she extracted his index finger from their grip and, gazing up, slipped it slowly in her mouth. Shane immediately shifted to adjust his lap, his face practically on fire.

“How the fuck do you do that?” he said.

She drew his finger out of her mouth. “Do what?”

“Get over your nerves in like, four seconds.”

She smiled, pulling it coyly to one side. “Come on. What do you fantasize about?”

He looked to the ceiling for a long time.

While she waited she brought his finger back to her mouth, but this time he was too distracted by his own thoughts; it was like he didn’t even notice. She tried to figure out what he was doing – counting to a hundred maybe, or rehearsing his words, working up to spill them. He was quiet for too long, and she began to feel guilty.

“Hey,” she said. “I’m just teasing. You don’t have to answer.”

He took a deep breath, looked down and blurted, “That you’re my girlfriend, okay? That we’re in a real fucking relationship and you’re my girlfriend. Are you fucking happy now?”

Sophia bit her lip, her heart beating happy and fast.

“Shane,” she said, trying hard not to laugh. “Are you – is that your way of asking me out?”

He became, if possible, more flustered.

“It’s—”

“I mean, am I fucking happy now? Really?”

“I—”

“You have to do something for me.”

He stared.

“Take your hoodie home and wash it, and then wear it around for a little bit.”

“What?”

“I had to wash it and it lost your scent. I want it back.”

“Oh.” The tension in his shoulders relaxed a bit. “Yeah, okay.”

“Shane?” She sat up. Two fingers found his collar, pushing it down just enough to see the mark she’d left on his skin. Her tone grew serious, and she looked him square in the eye. “I really, really want to be your girlfriend. So if you want to be my boyfriend… you are.”

He inhaled, looking like he desperately wanted to believe her. “Yeah?”

She drew closer, close enough to feel his breath – to feel that electricity when their faces were so near. She leaned in and her lips paused against his for a beat, then she wound her hands into his hair and pulled him into her, hard.

They fell back on the cushions, Shane on top, and as his weight rolled over her Sophia had never felt safer.   

 


 

They fell asleep wound in each other. Or rather Shane did, Sophia resting against him with her eyes shut but her mind awake, her emotions like live wires.

How much stock did people put in pheromones? It wouldn’t surprise her to learn he was emitting silent waves of intoxication, personalized just for her. His presence did something to her. His voice. His scent. His rough, unshaven face. The feel of his knuckles when they held hands. His thick body that radiated like a furnace when she wrapped hers around it. His reserved nature because it was endearing; his brashness because it’d drawn her in from the start. His depression because she knew, when he wasn’t a slave to it, the same things that made him depressed were the things that allowed him to feel as deeply as he did. How sexy it was when he was shy with her; how sexy it was – in a different way – when he escaped from his anxiety and stopped doubting himself.

It hadn’t been as difficult tonight. He’d still needed time to relax, but tonight she didn’t have to convince him it was going to happen. He knew.  

He was fast asleep now, his breathing low and steady, and she nuzzled into his neck. “I’m going to fall in love with you," she whispered, so quietly she couldn't even hear herself. "I’m pretty sure it’s already happening.”

He gave a light snore.

 


 

North of Pierre’s and the Stardrop Saloon was a road that led to a quiet part of town Sophia had only been to a few times. It was home to the long abandoned Pelican Township Community Center; a derelict  building, its brick faded and its roof dotted with missing shingles. Crooked shutters hung from windows that were smeared over with an opaque white film, and vines crept up the sides. It reminded Sophia of an old haunted schoolhouse.

To the side of the Community Center was a playground, looking like it’d dropped in from a different world. There was a colorful plastic jungle gym with a bright yellow slide, a swingset, and a purple duck on a bouncy coil in the ground. It sat on a bed of fresh sand, surrounded by park benches.

Shane glared at the toy on the coil. “God, I hate those things.”

“Why? What did purple ducks ever do to you?”

“Rode one as a kid. The spring was worn or loose or some shit – got too much momentum and the thing dragged me through the dirt. Ate fucking woodchips that day.”

Sophia kissed her own lips not to laugh. “You know what they say. What doesn’t kill you—”

“Oh, fuck off.”

They sat down on the swings. Sophia was glad the playground was empty, especially being a Saturday afternoon. It’d been like pulling teeth, convincing Shane to come here in the first place, and she had a feeling if they’d run into a bunch of noisy families they’d be heading straight back to work on greenhouse repairs. He kept insisting on keeping up their usual weekend workload, despite Sophia – who was used to seventy-hour weeks – wishing to lounge in bed the whole day.

She spun her swing in slow circles. “Gus told me that the Community Center might get bulldozed in the next year or two if no one starts the plans to restore it.”

Shane shrugged. “What difference does it make?”

“I don’t know, I just think it’s sad. It has a sort of charm, doesn’t it?”

“If by charm you mean really fucking creepy.”

“Not creepy. Broken. I like broken things.”

He dug his shoes in to spin his swing too, dropping his gaze at the sand.

“Don’t read into that Shane, that’s not what I meant.” She twisted toward him, clamping her feet around his ankles. “I was thinking of the farm. Did you see it, when I first moved in? Did you see how we’ve given it a brand new life? I think the Center should have a second chance.”

“Isn’t it some kind of social gathering place? Would you even use it?”

“Maybe. But even if I didn’t, don’t you think others would? Marnie? Jas, if there were children’s groups? I guess I’m starting to think long term. This is my home now. And even if I’m not the most social person in town I’d still like to have some kind of impact. Behind the scenes, maybe. I want to feel pride here.”

“You already should. Morris is pissy because our produce sales have dropped a lot – everyone’s going to Pierre’s for your stuff.”

She rubbed her foot further up his leg. “Is it home to you yet?”

He was quiet a moment. “It’s... I dunno. It’s weird.” He twisted himself back and forth, using Sophia’s hold on his ankle as an anchor. “I want it for Jas, though. I can live wherever, but she has a way better life here. I can’t give her shit in the city.”

“You have a better life here, too.” She blushed. “In – in your girlfriend’s opinion, at least.”

He couldn’t stop his smile when she said the word, the little half-smile that always made her heart flip. She reached over and pressed a finger into the dimple now on his cheek. “I love this.”

“What?” He touched his face.

“Your dimple, when you smile. But it’s only there when it’s a real smile. That’s how I know you aren’t faking.”

He turned to the side, looking embarrassed and hiding it from view, but then his smile dropped anyway.

“What’s wrong?”

The crunch of dried leaves underfoot made it unnecessary for him to say. Sophia turned to the sound and saw two people walking through the grass toward the community center, and two pairs of eyes staring their direction. It was Jas’s teacher Penny, and her friend Maru. Sophia was slowly learning that everyone in this village was connected – Maru was Robin the carpenter’s daughter and Sebastian’s half-sister; she also worked part-time at the clinic with Dr. Harvey. Sophia had never talked to either of them.

“They’re looking at us.”

“So?”

Shane pulled his feet back underneath him, the swing swaying to straighten itself. “Penny hates me.”

“Why? I thought she was Jas’s teacher.”

“She is. But her mom, she – well you fucking met her. The luau. And Penny just gives me this look every time she sees me. Like she blames me for her mom’s drinking or something.”

Sophia discreetly glanced back at the women, who were talking quietly among themselves. Penny’s eyes did glance their way once more, but the glance looked more curious than judgmental. She wondered how much Shane was projecting.

“They’re always talking,” he grumbled. “People in this town are always fucking talking.”

“Why does it bother you so much?” When he didn’t answer, she frowned and poked him with her foot again. “You embarrassed to be seen with me?”

“Of course not…”

“Then what? Embarrassed to be seen having fun?” she teased, but he looked so uncomfortable that she stopped. “Embarrassed to be seen at all?”

He mumbled something.

“Huh?”

He rubbed his face in the way she’d grown to associate with his anxiety, staring at the sand again. “Embarrassed for you, okay?”

“What?”

“You – I get to be seen with youYou have to be seen with me. People are going to think there’s something fucking wrong with you. And no offense but they’re probably right.”

The late afternoon sun shone bright as a dandelion, casting long shadows from the playground equipment. Penny and Maru stopped to sit on a crumbling bench near the Community Center, both of them pulling out stacks of books and papers, but setting them aside while they continued to talk. Then more dry leaves crunched – it must be the time of afternoon the villagers came out of the woodwork. Pierre’s wife approached a bench by the park fountain, holding a novel, and Haley came up the path in a bright pink sweater. She was carrying a camera; she stopped walking to aim it toward a section of ornamental grass billowing in the sun. She hadn’t seen them yet, but it was only a matter of time.

Sophia hopped off her swing and went to Shane’s, slipping first one leg over him, then the other, straddling his lap. He was holding the metal chains of the swing and she wrapped her hands over his. His cheeks were red again and his eyes bright – she loved what the windy weather did to him.

“If this town is going to talk, let’s make it worth their while,” she said, and began kissing his cold lips with her own.  

 

Chapter Text

Sophia was glowing. There was no other word for it.

Shane had seen her in so many ways, but he’d never seen her glow. These days when she smiled it lifted her whole face. There was a skip to her step when she walked, just barely perceptible; the kind usually only seen in children Jas’s age.

I did that. She glows like that because of me.

All this time later, he still didn’t know what was wrong with her.

Shane had never entered the saloon with anyone before. Walking in now with Sophia on a Friday night – when she was close enough to his elbow that there was no mistaking they’d arrived together – it felt like a spotlight was on them. Not helping was the shit-eating grin Emily gave as they approached the bar.

“Sophia,” she said happily. “You’re so pink today!”

Shane shot her a confused look; Sophia was in her navy jacket again. But Sophia only grinned, bowing her head. “Why thank you.”

“And Shane, you’re not muddy anymore.”

He stared at her. “What the fuck does that mean?”

Emily smiled again and he felt as dumb as a rock.

“What can I get you two?” she asked, ignoring his question. That smile, too – she looked almost proud, as if she were personally responsible for setting them up. Shane usually liked Emily, but he was liking her less every second.

“Just a root beer for me,” said Sophia. “Shane?”

“Er – same I guess.”

“Two root beers coming up.” Emily paused, eyes flashing wickedly. “Or is that one root beer, two straws?”

Shane couldn’t take it. “What is this, a soda shop? I mean, we are in a fucking bar, right?”

“Yeah, Emily.” Sophia crossed her arms. “Jeez.”

The two women exchanged another look that made Shane wish they’d just stayed home.

After Emily left to fill their glasses, Sophia looked at him incredulously. “A soda shop?”

“Well, Christ. Why the hell does everyone need to point everything out all the time?”

“She used to push me to talk to you, you know. Seemed to think we had something in common. What a bitch, right?” There was that glow again, and she leaned in close. “You’re cute when you’re flustered.”

Feeling dumb, he lowered his voice. “What did she mean, I’m not muddy?”

“Oh. She meant your aura.”

“My – huh?”

“It’s fine, Shane. It’s a good thing.”

They sat at his usual table near the fire, away from the main bustle of activity. Sophia threw a deck of cards on the table – she’d purchased a new one from Pierre’s, aces unmarred.

“So what is it? Egyptian Rat Screw or a new game?”

He’d avoided the saloon entirely since his relapse around the time of the moonlit jellies, but the urge to drink was so small these days he almost felt he’d conquered it. He knew better, of course, but at the moment could at least enjoy sitting at a table with Sophia, firmly planted in his seat instead of teetering on some slope of self-destruction.

“You know poker?” he asked.

“Do you?”

“Used to play with Garrett. I can teach you.”

“Okay, but it has to be strip poker.”

“Yeah, funny.”

“Look at me, Shane. Do I look like I’m joking?”

Shane looked.

“What, here?

She rolled her eyes. “That’s the fun of it. You’ll have to be discreet.”

He glanced around. Emily and Gus were behind the mahogany counter, laughing hard together over some private joke. Robin was dancing with her husband in an open section of the bar, not too far from their table, and the owner of the tackle shop sat at a table alone, occasionally looking around – presumably waiting on friends. As much as Shane still felt in the spotlight, he had to admit that no one was paying them much attention.

“God, don’t make me regret saying yes.”

“The only thing you’ll regret is starting this game in public where you can’t finish it.”

He shuffled and dealt an open hand for them, explaining the rules. Sophia was a quick learner, far quicker than Shane had been when Garrett taught him; after two more open hands she told him to deal for real, and not go easy on her.

“Two pairs,” he said, laying down at the end of their hand.

“Impressive.” Then she fanned four diamonds in front of him. “But I have a flush.”   

Shane bent low over the table. “So what the hell am I supposed to do?”

“We’ll start easy. Give me your watch.”

He begrudgingly undid the strap and handed it to her, and she slipped it in her pocket with a smirk.

Sophia’s luck, however, ran out after the first hand. First she undid the clasp of her necklace, dropping the slinky silver chain into Shane’s open palm. Then she argued that her hair band counted, pulling her ponytail down. Watching her comb her fingers through the messy fallen locks Shane did in fact begin to regret playing this game in public, at least until he glanced up and saw Sebastian over in the game room, watching the way she shook her hair loose – the way she did it while sitting across from Shane.

With a juvenile sense of satisfaction he turned back to his cards.

His next turns weren’t so lucky though, and unlike Sophia he didn’t have many small accessories.

“Belt?” she said coyly.

Feeling like the entire bar was watching he slipped his hands under the table and undid the buckle, careful not to move his arms too much, rolling the leather in his hand as he pulled it from the loops. Sophia casually set her purse on the table, already unzipped, and though he glanced nervously at the bar, he had to admit it was exhilarating to drop the coiled belt inside. But then a few minutes later he was forced to pull off his hoodie, and was grateful when Sophia lost the following hand; he’d run out of anything discreet and would probably have to forfeit if he lost again.

She stood suddenly. “I need to use the ladies room, I’ll do mine when I come back.”

While he was waiting Emily passed by with a round for another table, and after dropping it off she returned to Shane’s side.

He glanced up. “Chatty tonight, are you?”

She smiled guiltily. “Look, Shane. I know that made you uncomfortable earlier, and I’m sorry for teasing like that. It just makes me happy to see you… well, happier. But I’m sorry if that’s not my business. I guess I went a little overboard with it.”

He almost preferred her teasing to such a stark confession. “Er – it’s okay. Promise.”

She smiled. “I just don’t want one of my favorite regulars mad at me. Have a good rest of the night, okay?”

“Um, right. You too.”

Shane was still reeling at this when Sophia snuck up behind him; she grabbed his hand and pressed something soft into it before going to her seat. He looked down.

Underwear. Black, soft cotton underwear.

He quickly shoved them in his pocket while scanning the crowd and feeling paranoid, but no one was watching except Sophia, looking far too smug for her own good. He leaned over the table and their two empty soda glasses.

“So when can we get the hell out of here?”

She stood almost before he finished speaking. “Um, like now.”

Her fingers fumbled while buttoning her coat, clearly in a hurry – Shane tried not to let that stroke his ego as much as it did as he stood too, pulling on his hoodie and feeling the bulge of her underwear in his pocket.

They’d only just stepped outside when Sophia’s phone began to ring.

“Shit. My parents. What the heck do they want so late?” She nodded at the bench beside the saloon door. “I’m gonna take this over here.”

Giving her privacy, Shane stuck his hands in his pockets and wandered to the other side of the building. He walked up and down the fence, fingertips playing with the soft lace on the elastic band of the underwear, feeling for the hundredth time that he was about to wake up from this dream; that he’d be back at the moonlit jellies and Sophia would confess her feelings for Sebastian, and Shane would fall back into his lonely, empty existence.

It was too good. Good things never lasted in his life. He just wanted this to last.

“Hey.”

It came from the other side of the fence. Shane squinted and saw a silhouette, then something round tossed in the air above it. A gridball.

What the fuck – did this guy just stand there twenty-four seven, waiting for him to walk by?

“What?” he demanded. 

“Come here for a sec.”

Against his better instincts – and unsure of why he was giving this prick the time of day – Shane did.

“Look man, I didn’t mean to get you all riled up the other day. Sorry for being an asshole. Sometimes I just say shit to say shit, you know? Nothing personal about it.”

Shane rolled his eyes. “Sure.”

“I was just messing with you. Honestly just surprised me is all – her going for you.”

And there it was: the backhanded part of the apology. His dad was a master of that particular style, and being rather numb to it, Shane only mumbled, “Whatever, man.” He took a step to leave, but Alex reached over the low fence and stopped him with a hand on one arm. Leaning in conspiratorially, he nodded toward Sophia on the bench.

“So what’s the deal dude? You getting your dick wet in that?”

Shane’s whole body went cold.

He’d lose. Alex was half a foot taller than him, and had spent most of the summer hanging out shirtless in his yard, showing off how much he could lift – he’d pulverize someone like Shane. But that did nothing to stop the pulsing in his forehead; the feeling that he’d never wanted to sock someone in the jaw so badly, not even when his dad screamed and flung spittle two inches from his nose.

But that? Not Sophia. Not her. That.

“Go to fucking hell,” he spat.

He began to walk away, shaking in anger, and Alex called after him, “I mean, good for you man – she’s pretty hot!”

Shane bit down on his cheek so hard he almost drew blood; it was all he could do not to turn around and punch him anyway, even if he had to take a few in return.

Sophia was still on the phone, one finger held over the ear not against the receiver. Seeing her on the bench with messy, finger-combed hair, the jewel in her nose sparkling in the light of the lantern that hung beside the saloon door, something powerful rushed through Shane. A warmth, but not just one that filled his chest – one that burned it.

Protective. He was feeling protective.

It was a powerful feeling. Outside of hopelessness, he wasn’t accustomed to feeling anything this fiercely.

She finally hung up, looking weary. “My second cousin’s been sick, and my dad wanted to tell me they just got the full diagnosis. Something terminal. I know that’s awful and I should feel bad… but I’ve never met the guy. I mean, I do feel for him, but – I never even met the guy, Shane. Am I cold-hearted?” She sighed. “I feel cold-hearted.”

Shane heard her. But for that moment, he pretended not to. He took the phone from her hand, setting it down on her purse. Sweeping her hair behind her shoulders, he grabbed her face in both hands and kissed her – slow, careful, deep. He kissed her until her body went limp and her knees buckled, then with tenderness broke the kiss and wrapped his arms around her.

“What’s that for?” she whispered, voice muffled by his shoulder. The smug confidence was gone, only softness in its place.

“Everything,” he said.

 


 

Rumors began to spread that Emmet Wakeshire’s granddaughter was dating Marnie Daniel’s deadbeat nephew. 

It was towards the end of his shift and Shane was unloading a pallet in the backroom of JojaMart when Sam approached from the freezer, dragging a cart of pizzas.

“So,” he said, pausing by Shane’s pallet. “You and Sophia, huh?”

Shane froze, hunched over a case of canned artichokes. “Er – I guess. Yeah.”

Sam shook his head. “Man, you could’ve just told me back then that you had your eye on her. I mean, Seb’s my best friend, but if you guys were already close…” He shrugged. “Happy for you, dude.”

Shane watched him walk out the swinging doors with his pizza cart, for the first time considering that Sam might not be so dopey after all.

He overheard the next one outside of Pierre’s on his walk home. Pierre’s wife stood near one of the community flower gardens, talking to the elderly woman who tended them – Evelyn, the same lady Sophia took her melons to for the luau. He approached from behind, just in time to hear the tail end of their conversation.

“—and she’s such a private little thing herself—”

“You can say that again! Not much like her grandfather in that regard.”

“No, but Pierre says she’s friendly and professional – just the sort of person you want to do business with.”

“But him! He always looks so angry. What would Emmet say, were he still alive, to see his granddaughter with someone like that? Doesn’t even make an effort to be part of the town…”

Shane was feeling reckless. Two feet behind them he said loudly, “Do I even know you people?”

The two women turned, startled, both turning deep shades of scarlet. But after having to swallow his white hot anger at Alex the other night, this stuff was fucking child’s play; he kept walking, and behind him could hear Evelyn say, “Didn’t I tell you? Always such a sourpuss, that one…”

The next day he saw Haley. Immediately he went on edge, scanning the area for Alex – who usually wasn’t far behind – but this time she was alone with her camera, snapping photographs of the same flowerbeds he’d passed the previous day. He braced himself for the usual look of disgust, but instead Haley did something incredible.

She gave him the tiniest smile.

Shane turned to look straight ahead. It was too weird; at this point, he almost wished for her scorn.

Then there was Marnie, of course. When Shane returned home from work one day she was sitting at the kitchen table with a notepad, clicking the nub of a pen in and out while staring into space.

“Marnie? Er – you okay?”

She blinked in surprise. “What? Oh, yes. Yes, of course.” Then she jotted down a few more lines, as if his appearance had reminded her of something important.

“What’s that?” Shane didn’t actually care, but he’d been trying to make more of an effort with his aunt.   

Marnie slid the notepad to him, and he sat down to read.

“You can’t.”

“I have to, Shane. My back’s been acting up again, where I threw it out last year. I just can’t ride anymore and it’s not fair to the horses. Grazing aside, they don’t get out enough as it is.”

“You can’t,” he repeated.

“I don’t want to either, but it’s too expensive to keep housing them when I can’t even give them proper care.”

“Then I’ll take them out.”

Marnie looked at him in wonder. “Between the three of them? That’s hours and hours a week.”

“Just Annabel then.”

“Shane, what’s this about? Since when do you care about the horses?”

“I’ll buy her off of you.”

“Do you have any idea how much a horse like that costs? Fully professionally trained? You might as well get a decent used car.”

Shane sighed and leaned back in his seat, staring at the ceiling. “I’ll pay you in installments.”

“Why in the world—” Marnie started, then cut herself off. To his surprise, she began to laugh. “Oh. Oh my. I am a fool. This is about Sophia.”

He rubbed his face. “So?”

“You want to buy her a horse, Shane?” She looked incredulous. “Have you even bought her dinner yet?”

“It’s – look, if you sell Annabel she’ll be fucking heartbroken.”

His aunt folded her hands on the table, peering at him. “It’s that serious between you two? I know you’ve been seeing each other—” Shane did not like the way she emphasized the word seeing; he flushed, “—but it’s really that serious?”

“It’s… I…”

“It is. It’s that serious,” she said wondrously.

Shane made a noise of frustration and got up from the table. “Just don’t sell the damn horse, okay?”

“Do you love her?”

“Oh, shut up Marnie.”

His aunt was still shaking her head and smiling as he stormed off to his room.

 


 

It was sweltering in the house – Marnie had built one of her hellishly large fires in the wood stove, the kind that made the walls sweat. Shane sat on the floor wearing only his flannel pajama bottoms, leaning against a stack of pillows and flicking through the menu of his console.

He’d begun to take detours to Sophia’s house after his shifts. He always returned to the ranch in time for supper, and to see Jas to bed – as he’d promised himself he wouldn’t let having a girlfriend distract him from her – but he still made those detours, and every night after Jas was asleep he spoke to Sophia on the phone. Sometimes non-stop, sometimes just sitting with the receiver at their ears while they watched the same TV show and she made fun of the bad writing and laugh tracks. And each Friday and Saturday after Jas was tucked in, Shane spent the night with her.

Now it was ten o’clock on a Tuesday, they’d already had an hour long phone conversation, and he was trying – without much luck – to find a game that would take his mind off her. Fuck, it was hot; he scrolled through the titles, contemplating stripping down to his boxers.

Tap, tap, tap.

His head jerked up, but it wasn’t a knock at the door. It sounded like glass, and sure enough when he looked to his bedroom window, it was completely fogged over but for three words.

IS MARNIE ASLEEP

Heart racing, Shane got up. He couldn’t see her through the black window, only the reflection of his own bare chest, but he nodded. A sleeve came across the window to wipe the message clean, and then it fogged over again – she must be breathing on it – and she wrote a new message.

LET ME IN

He quickly slipped on a t-shirt, as no matter how often she’d seen him without, he was never comfortable being on display. Then he went into the hall, double checking that Marnie’s door was closed and her light off before going to the front door. When he opened it, Sophia practically fell into the house – out of breath, reaching for his face, pushing him backward through the kitchen and kissing him like her life depended on it.

He stumbled over his own feet, bumping into a chair; though he could barely speak for her frantic kisses covering his mouth, he urgently managed, “Not in here,” and began pulling her down the hall to his room by the collar of her jacket, still attached at the lips. Once inside with the door closed, Sophia broke from his grip to fling the jacket off – Shane had never seen her in such a hurry, and once it was on the floor she immediately reached for the bottom of his shirt.

“Why the fuck did you put this on? You know it’s coming right back off!” She tugged it over his head, too enthusiastically and getting it caught on his chin. She stifled her laughter as he reached to untangle it, and the moment it was off attacked him again – after yanking him into a hard kiss, she released his face as if from suction and breathlessly said, “Take off your pants.”

She went to lock the door but he didn’t take them off; he was still far too self-conscious to be naked when she was fully clothed.

“Shane!” She came back and began tugging at his flannel like they were being timed.

“Can we turn off the light?”

“Don’t be like that, I fucking love your body.” But as if reading his mind, she held up her own arms and said, “Help me then, quick.”

So he did, yanking her sweater from the bottom and ripping it off of her head. She turned around and swept her hair over one shoulder to expose the clasp to her bra; he fumbled for a moment but then it sprang free and she shook it off her arms to the floor. Spinning back around, she kissed him and grappled at the zipper of her jeans, eventually shimmying out of them and reaching for his pajama bottoms again. This time he didn’t stop her – they slid to the floor and as he stepped out of them she kissed him like a woman possessed, her hands digging into his boxers.

“Sit,” she said at last, breaking the kiss, still breathless. She pushed him down on the edge of the bed and Shane’s heart raced like mad; he wasn’t even ready for this, she was too enthusiastic, too sexy right now, her eyes too full of fire.

Then she sank to her knees in front of him, yanking the already-low boxers to his ankles.

From the moment she did it was like someone flipped a switch – everything slowed. She looked up with a sudden shy smile, running her fingers through the trail of hair below his bellybutton, down the crease of his legs and groin. He hadn’t had time to over-think things or work himself into anxiety, and as she leaned in to kiss along those same trails – fuck, her lips were on his inner thigh – he began to grow longer and thicker, and he was torn, torn between watching her and closing his eyes, just to feel, just to—

Oh god, who was he kidding? He couldn’t look away.

After several agonizing minutes she wrapped her hands around his cock and kissed it, her lips soft against the tip; then she did it again and again, covering just the tip in kisses, one hand remaining on his shaft while the other slid lower to stroke his balls. Shane was starting to feel like he might go crazy when – staring straight into his eyes – she wrapped her lips around the head and gave it a suck. And though he meant to stay silent, he couldn’t stop the low, quiet moan when she closed her own eyes and took him all the way in her mouth.

 


 

Sophia lay with her head on his pillow, so close it didn’t matter that Shane’s bed was only a double. She was still glowing. It was the same glow she had while they were out, except right now it was fainter – just enough to light the space between the two of them. At the foot of the bed, she rubbed her feet against his.

“How did no one ever get to you before me?”

Shane, thinking she was teasing, said, “I know. Some catch.”

“I’m serious.”

He spoke very quietly. “Most people aren’t you.”

She inched closer, placing one hand on his cheek, a finger drawing through his stubble. “I can’t believe that six months ago I didn’t even know you existed,” she whispered. “What are the chances we’d move here and find each other in such a short time?”

Shane didn’t know; he couldn’t quite believe it either. Nor could he believe it had been someone like Sophia – someone built to handle the sinking ship of his existence.

The lights were off now but his eyes were adjusted to the dark, and in the blue shadow of the room she was more beautiful than he’d ever seen her. Her legs were winding through his, she was touching his face, and it felt just like the first time she’d touched him in the bathhouse – like he was someone who mattered. Like she’d left the warmth of her house to trudge through the cold dark night, solely to crawl in his bed and touch his face like this.

“I want to ask you something,” she said softly. “And it might sound crude, but I don’t mean it that way at all.”

“What?”

She scooted closer again, pressing their chests together. “Before we got together, did you… I mean, did you ever…” her voice trailed off, hesitant. “You know. Did you ever do it, thinking about me?”

He stared at the shadow on her cheek.

“I know that’s super, super personal,” she whispered. “But I promise whatever you answer, it’s okay.”

Shane’s face heated in the dark. “Well. Yeah.”

“Yeah?” she wiggled even closer. “How often?”

“Christ, I don’t know… a lot?”

“Like when?”

He closed his eyes. “After you swam in your dress.”

“I knew it!”

“Huh?”

“Okay, I didn’t know it. Maybe I hoped…” She bit her lip. “When else?”

“Um… after you fell asleep against me in the tree house. Not like, right after,” he rushed to add. “But you know, that night.” Shane had no idea why he wasn’t more mortified to answer this; she just sounded so happy about it, and seeing her eager face, he continued. “That night I gave you a foot rub. Every Saturday, probably… fuck, I don’t know. A lot.”

“I did it too,” she whispered. “So freaking much. I should honestly be ashamed.” And then, staring straight at him, she stuck two fingers in her mouth, and Shane watched as she drew them out – a thin strand of saliva trailing – and dipped her hand between her legs. “I couldn’t help it,” she said softly, starting to rub herself. “I just wanted so badly to feel close to you. You made me feel safe. You make me feel safe…”

He had no idea how to process this. Thinking too much about anything Sophia did was dangerous, his brain always looking for ways to convince him it wasn’t real. But this? Laying in his bed, whispering to him as she touched herself…

“Can I ask you something else?” she said.

“Yeah, of course.”

“What did you do, those seven years you were sober?”

It was probably the last thing he’d expected to hear – especially at a moment like this. His initial reaction was to brush it off, but god, he wanted this; more than anything, he wanted this closeness she was trying to cultivate. So he cleared his throat and said, “Well, I watched a shit ton of gridball.”

She smiled her crooked smile, wiggling against her own hand. “What else?”

“Played a lot of video games. Worked at Joja full-time.” Saying it aloud, he felt embarrassed. “It wasn’t that exciting a time.”

“You were still depressed.”

“Yeah.”

“So how’d you manage?”

He shrugged against the bed. “Went over to Garrett and Samantha’s a lot. No idea why Sam liked me, honestly. I spent way too much time there. Asked her once, why she didn’t want to kick me through the door.”

“What’d she say?”

“That she couldn’t tell Garrett’s brother to leave or he’d kick her out too.”

The hand touching herself stopped, and her eyes searched his in the dark.

“You miss him a lot,” she said, and it wasn’t a question.

She called him her boyfriend now. Said she was his girlfriend, even though Shane himself was too shy to use those words. She said it like a fact, and for weeks now she’d given herself to him in ways he’d never dreamed of.

Like right now.

Even so, most of the time he still felt like he needed permission to touch her, like he was never sure which day, exactly, she would change her mind. But tonight they were naked and warm under his blankets, and she felt so close, in far more than physical ways. Because she understood. She understood losing the person closest to you, on a level Shane wished she didn’t – but she did, and it felt so good just to be near her.

His instinct was not to move, in case his movements weren’t welcome. But for once he told himself fuck it: he made her feel safe. She’d just said so.

He drew her close to his chest. She nuzzled his neck, murmuring slightly as his fingers slipped into her, and Shane wondered when he’d wake up.

She made him not feel empty inside.

 

Chapter Text

Deep autumn was settling in. Through Sophia’s front window it appeared the skies had dumped the cornucopia of a harvest feast over her fields, a muted rainbow of orange, burgundy, and gold.

She wished her parents would visit. During the phone call with her father she’d invited them over yet again, and yet again he’d danced around a real answer. She wanted so badly to repair the damage of her previous visit, especially in the beautiful open air of the farm where her father had grown up. Before autumn was over, ideally: the property was so impressive with its pumpkin patch and rows of corn, its tall field of sunflowers and amaranth. But weeks were passing, more leaves dropping every day, and she had a sinking feeling winter would arrive – hiding her and Shane’s hard work – and still her parents wouldn’t come. The resentment was starting to build.

She pushed it out of her mind. Today, she had a delivery.

Once again she’d borrowed Marnie’s vehicle, loading pumpkin after misshapen pumpkin into its trailer. They wouldn’t be as perfectly round as the ones at JojaMart, but they were bright and healthy and Sophia felt the assortment of shapes gave them character; she was very proud of them.

“I’ve got an empty cardboard bin in the back,” said Pierre when she arrived at the store. “Whatever doesn’t fit we can line up along the sidewalk, right outside the door.”

She helped him set up and fill the display, then waited as he filled out the paperwork. Scribbling his signature and then handing the sheet over the counter, he said, “Oh, one moment, I almost forgot.”

He walked into the back room and returned holding a bouquet of flowers – a beautiful assortment of fall chrysanthemums in every shade of purple and wine. A card was stuck in the middle with a tiny plastic trident.

“I was instructed by a Mister— ” Pierre peered at the card, holding his glasses away from his nose. “A Mister ‘She’ll know who it is okay’ to give you these when you came in.” He handed Sophia the flowers. “I’m guessing you’ll know who it is.”

She took the bouquet, gazing into the colorful blooms and fighting the burning sensation behind her eyes. “Thanks, Pierre.”

Rick had bought her a gerbera daisy once, true, but that had been an unusual stroke of imagination. The usual was two dozen red roses each anniversary – nothing more, nothing less – and Sophia had failed to be moved by them. Those splayed flowers in their 1-800 vase had been nothing but an ostentatious display of what he thought love was supposed to look like; a gift from a twisted mind where male-gaze porn and greeting card clichés were the pinnacle of any relationship, where a few thorny stems were meant to mitigate a year’s worth of controlling behavior. But fall mums? They were humble and pretty, Sophia carried them to the truck with the warmest sensation in her chest of feeling understood.

Of course, had Shane given her red roses she’d still want to cry, because it wasn’t about the damn flowers.

“Sophia!”

Just about to climb into the vehicle, she turned to see Haley rushing up on the sidewalk, her camera in one hand and a messenger bag slung over one shoulder.

“Hi, Haley.”

She brushed a perfectly curled blonde lock out of her eyes, then nodded at the bouquet. “Those are gorgeous.”

Sophia’s guard was quickly rising. “Thanks.”

“Did – did he give them to you?”

She felt the heat rise to her cheeks and was prepared to tell Haley to mind her own goddamn business when she noticed the look on her face: earnest, even kind. Sophia tightened her grip on the flowers, still treading carefully. “If you mean Shane, then yes.”

Haley blushed. “I know we aren’t close or anything, but I wanted to say I’m sorry, that day I stopped you out here. You were right. It wasn’t any of my business. And I think – well, I think I misjudged him. I mean, he’s still not my favorite person in the world, but…” She reached into her bag, ruffling through papers and pulling out a small glossy square; a Polaroid photo. She held it out to Sophia, who gingerly took it.

The park by the Community Center. In the foreground was the stone fountain, the water bubbly as it tumbled down. In the background was the silhouette of two people in late afternoon sunlight: two people on one swing, their heads bent in a kiss.

“I hope it doesn’t creep you out that I took it. I was out that afternoon taking photos, and you two made such a beautiful shot…” She smiled apologetically. “I know I can be pretty judgmental at times, but sometimes my camera helps me see things more clearly, you know? And you guys look really cute together. Like, that was real emotion, I could totally tell.”

Sophia looked at the picture, blinking, and for the second time that morning wanted to cry.

“I’m so sorry!” Haley rushed. “I should have asked permission.”

She shook her head. “It’s not that, I swear. It’s a beautiful photo.” She drew a finger across the white border, then looked up. “Really. It – it means a lot to me.”

“I’m glad you like it. It’s all yours.” Haley smiled, looking relieved, but then hesitated before speaking again. “Hey, look, about Alex…” She bit her lip. “He’s really not a jerk all the time, I promise. It’s just, his dad was a pretty nasty drunk, so like… he’s bitter about stuff, you know? But that’s no excuse, and I’m going to tell him to be nicer. I know he sometimes gives him – Shane – a hard time.”

So Alex and Shane had something in common after all.

While she had no intention of feeling kindly toward Haley’s boyfriend, she did appreciate the gesture. “Thanks, Haley.”

Sophia was glad they parted after that, as tears were pricking her eyes again and she wasn’t sure how long she could keep them in. Once in the truck she gazed at the flowers and photograph in private, sure the tears would spill and keep her from driving home. But they didn’t; they lingered all day, like an itch she couldn’t scratch. Late afternoon when her yard work was done she came back in the house, sitting at the kitchen table where the flowers were now in a vase. The photo was also on the table, propped up against the bottom of the vase. She stared at them – and then the tears came in waves. Nose plugging, eyes growing puffy, she sat crying at the table for over ten minutes.

She’d always thought she didn’t care what other people thought, that that sort of thing was Shane’s burden to carry. But what Haley said, it meant the world to her. For someone else to see the goodness in him? He fucking deserved that.

And then he walked in, windblown hair, fresh from his shift and still in his JojaMart jacket – she’d told him last week to stop knocking. Quickly she flipped the photograph over, dragging a few pieces of mail on top. She loved it, but Shane was anxious enough about people merely seeing them together. If he knew they were snapping Polaroids when his eyes were closed, he’d never go in public again. She wiped her nose on her sleeve, and he stared at her.

“Fucking hell.”

“What?” The word came out garbled and snotty.

“My poems make you cry. My flowers make you cry. What the fuck can I give you that won’t make you cry?”

She snorted; she’d tried to laugh but her nose was too plugged.

He grabbed a tissue from the box near the couch and brought it to her, but instead of taking it she stood, pulling him into a fierce hug and burying her face in his shirt. There she rested, swaying against him slightly, and he planted a kiss on the top of her hair.

 


 

According to the rest of the town autumn was unusually cold that year, but when Sophia walked to Pierre’s one Saturday morning it was beautiful out, the air chilly but the sun bright: perfect sweater weather. There she bought a jug of fresh apple cider and a box of doughnuts – cinnamon, powdered, and glazed – and once home set them up on a tray on her porch, along with newspapers and a stack of her own pumpkins. She’d woken both excited and nervous. Jas would be visiting the farm for the first time that day, and she wanted everything to be perfect.

Later that afternoon two figures approached in the distance, hand-in-hand, and a warmth bloomed in Sophia’s chest. As the visitors grew closer Amber took notice and barked, racing to greet them. She took off so fast down the porch that she couldn’t slow down and had to circle Shane several times before crashing into his legs, where she rolled on top of his shoes eagerly awaiting scratches. He bent to deliver them, eager scratches which got her riled up again – she tore back to the house, and Jas screeched with laughter and chased after her.

Shane took his time walking the rest of the way, and as he got nearer to the house the warmth in Sophia’s chest grew. He’d left the farm just that morning after staying the night with her, but she wanted to race down the steps like Amber and push him to the ground, kissing his unshaven face like she hadn’t seen him in months.

And then she did – minus shoving him to the ground, that’s exactly what she did.

Sophia,” he muttered, flushing deeply and glancing at his goddaughter, but Jas was too busy running with Amber to notice Sophia covering his cheeks in kisses.

“What,” she said breathlessly. “Didn’t you tell her yet?”

“Well yeah, but…”

She gave his lips one final kiss and smiled, grabbing his hand. “Come on.”

Jas had been chasing Amber first, but now it was the other way around, her dog tearing after the little girl, who ran back to them screaming in delight and crashing into Shane. He squatted, and as if on cue – this was clearly an established move – Jas jumped on him piggyback-style, and he carried her like that the rest of the way to the house.

It made Sophia feel things. Things she hadn’t planned to feel for years; maybe ever.

She’d never given kids any real thought. With Rick she’d been too unhappy to even consider them, and before him she’d been too young, focused only on herself, pushing that decision deep into the unknown future. But as she walked by Shane’s side now, she tried to make sense of the feeling. It was unsettling, but in a way that didn’t feel entirely unwelcome. Like homesickness, but not quite. It wasn’t her first time seeing Shane interact with Jas, but fuck – right now it was doing something wild to her insides.

They approached the porch and Jas noticed the doughnuts, excitement filling her eyes. “Are those for me?”

“For all of us.” Sophia smiled, ignoring the twirling in her stomach. “Did Uncle Shane tell you what we’re doing today?”

“Carving pumpkins!”

“That’s right.” She pointed at the stack of oddly-shaped pumpkins. “Pick whichever one you want.”

Jas picked the shortest, fattest one and Sophia cut the top off for her, then spread newspaper on the porch for them to sit on.

“It’s slimy,” she said in awe, reaching in with both hands and then holding them open in front of her, pumpkin guts dripping.

Sophia grinned. “Cool, huh?”  

Jas squeezed, letting the orange goop ooze between the cracks of her tiny fingers. The expression on her face said she didn’t know whether to be horrified or excited.

“Haven’t you ever carved pumpkins before?”

“No!”

Sophia set a bowl in front of her. “Put all the seeds in here. When we’re done, we can roast them in the oven and eat them.”

“But they’re covered in guts.”

“Just trust me.” She glanced at Shane, smiling, but he didn’t return it. He looked suddenly depressed, and with Jas now occupied with her pumpkin, Sophia moved to the steps and sat beside him.

“You okay?” she asked quietly.

“She’s seven. She should’ve carved a pumpkin by now.”

Sophia frowned. “Did you carve pumpkins growing up?”

He snorted. “Yeah right.”

“Exactly. So it’s not your fault if you didn’t think about it – you never had any memories around it.”

“I guess.”

But he still looked depressed, and Sophia wound a hand around his neck and kissed his cheek softly before returning to Jas.

“Er – sweetie – hold on a sec.” She bent down, sweeping Jas’s dark hair over her shoulders, which was quickly becoming caked in pumpkin slime. “Can I put your hair up?”

Jas glanced down at the sticky hair. “Will you do it like yours?”

Sophia smiled. “Sure.” There was a spare hair tie around her wrist; she combed Jas’s hair with her fingers, then began to braid it to one side.

When she was done Jas said, “I want to see.”

Her phone was sitting on the tray beside the doughnuts and she grabbed it, snapping a photo of Jas and then flipping it to show her.

“I’ve never had my hair in a braid.” Jas soaked in the picture, eyes wide. Then she said,  “Can I take one with you?”

“Of course.” Sophia snapped one of them smiling side-by-side with their twin hairstyles, and when Jas was again soaking in the picture with wide eyes, she glanced at Shane with a grin.

He sat watching them. She couldn’t read the look on his face; he just sat on the steps, leaning back on his elbows, quietly observing.  

She got up and sat behind him on the top of the porch. Phone still in her hand, she said, “Can I get one with you?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “Effing hate pictures.”

“Just one. For me?”

She rested her chin on his shoulder, leaning her head against his. He refused to smile but did lean back slightly. Sophia was happy as she clicked the photo, and after it was taken she cut open two more pumpkins, convincing him to sit on the newspaper and work on one too. At first he was reluctant, but when Jas beamed and offered to help him pull out the pumpkin goop, he relaxed into a real smile for the first time since arriving.

The afternoon passed pleasantly like that; the sun staying warm, the wind bringing dry leaves in gusts over the porch. At one point Sophia was bent over her pumpkin, sawing tiny teeth into it, when something cold slithered along the back of her neck. She jumped and swatted at it – connecting with Shane’s arm. He’d been dragging a pumpkin string along it, and when she glared playfully he just laughed.

She loved it when he laughed. He didn’t do it nearly enough.

Stomach again twirling, she pretend to concentrate extra hard on cutting eye triangles into her pumpkin, then casually asked, “So what are your plans tonight?”

“I have to take a bath,” said Jas sagely.

“Sounds good. But what about after?”

“Stories and a snack.”

Sophia carefully popped out the eye she’d just cut. “Well, we’ll have to ask your uncle’s permission, but I was thinking a slumber party might be fun.”

Here?

“Yep.”

Jas shot pleading eyes at her godfather. “Can we? Pretty, pretty please?”

The look Shane gave Sophia then – like he was seeing her for the first time.

“Sounds good.”

 


 

After the pumpkins were done, Shane and Jas went back to the ranch for a few hours and Sophia laid down on the couch with her phone, scrolling through the photos she’d taken that day. Lots of Jas; up to her elbows in orange slime, smiling with her finished jack-o-lantern, hugging Amber’s neck, the selfies she’d taken with Sophia.

She paused for a long time on the one she’d taken with Shane. Though he hadn’t smiled his eyes were soft, no trace of the dark thoughts that usually lingered behind them. Their heads leaned against one another, and they looked so fucking good together – she set the photo as her wallpaper, staring at it until the screen eventually went black. That strange feeling of homesickness returned tenfold as she stared at the dark glass, her stomach doing flips like it hadn’t done since the first night they’d been together. Eventually she got up to prepare the pumpkin seeds, feeling almost physically sick from it.

While they were in the oven she started a fire in the fireplace and then prepared the living room, pushing the coffee table aside, pulling every cushion and spare pillow from the furniture to arrange on the floor. She was covering them with a sheet and then topping with half a dozen blankets when a knock on her door signaled they were back.

She opened it to Jas: pajama bottoms tucked into her boots, a fleece hat over still-wet hair, and clutching a stuffed panda. Behind her was Shane with a purple backpack in one hand.

“Inside!” she said. “It’s much warmer in here.”

Jas loved the cushions, and as soon as her boots were off she jumped around them like Sophia had made her a trampoline. While she played, Sophia changed into her pajamas too.

“Where are yours?” she demanded Shane.

“I’m good right now.”

“Jas, tell him it’s not a slumber party if he’s not in pajamas.”

Jas stopped jumping and put her hand on her hip. “Uncle Shane, it’s not—”

“Yeah, yeah, I heard.” He dug in the backpack for his pants.

In some ways it felt bizarre to be sitting in her grandfather’s living room with her new boyfriend and his kid, all of them in pajamas and sprawled across pillows on the floor. In other ways, she couldn’t think of the last time she’d felt so comfortable in a family moment. Certainly not with her own family. And while her stomach continued to churn and make her nauseous, she realized then exactly what she was feeling.

She was freaked out – freaked out that she wasn’t freaked out, by any of this.

They put cartoons on the television and Sophia sat on the cushion-less couch, Jas on the floor and nestled between her legs.

“I can give you a bunch of braids tonight, and then if we take them out tomorrow it’ll look super pretty,” said Sophia, combing the damp hair and dividing it into sections.

Jas hugged her panda in front of her. “Miss Sophia, how do you know how to braid hair?”

“My sister taught me.”

“Will you teach me?”

“You bet.” She paused. “You know, you don’t have to call me Miss Sophia anymore. We’re friends now. You can just call me Sophia.”

Jas tilted her head all the way back, looking at her upside down. She grinned. “Okay Sophia.” Then she giggled like she’d said something forbidden and flipped forward again, squeezing her panda.  

In the corner of her eye she saw Shane reclined on the cushions with his hands behind his head, again observing them with the quiet expression he’d worn on the porch.

For a moment Sophia remembered him as he’d been when they met – when those eyes were so tired all the time, so anxious and exhausted and bloodshot from drinking. She knew he would always have tired eyes. He’d been through too much not to. But seeing them now, relaxed and contented, and observing Sophia who knew those changes only happened after he’d met her…

“Sophia?”

“Yes sweetie?”

“Uncle Shane said you’re his girlfriend now.”

Her fingers expertly worked a braid. “That’s right,” she said with a smile. “And do you want to know a secret?”

“What?”

“Do you remember when I visited you guys at the ranch, and you asked me if I was his girlfriend?” Jas nodded. “Well, I felt really shy when you asked me that. Because I had a big crush on your uncle back then, and I hadn’t told him yet.”

“Are you gonna get married?” she asked.

Sophia remembered how uncomfortable she’d been answering Jas’s question last time. But even with the boldness of this current question – one that caused Shane to finally look away to the TV – it didn’t feel as uncomfortable tonight, and she tickled Jas’s neck with the end of the braid. “You silly, we just started dating.”

“But after you date you get married.”

“Well, sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.”

“I’m going to marry Vincent,” said Jas knowingly, and Sophia smiled.

“You must really like him.”

Jas nodded – then threw her a curveball. “I don’t have a mom. She died.”

Sophia ran the comb through a section of hair several times before answering. “I heard about that. I’m really, really sorry you don’t have a mom anymore.”

“If you marry Uncle Shane, you could be my mom,” she said, with what sounded heartbreakingly like hope in her small voice.

And there it is. Fuck.

Sophia was afraid to look at Shane, and equally afraid to answer. After what felt like an eternity she managed to say, “Sweetie, nobody knows what is going to happen in the future. It’s much too soon to think about things like that.” She tied off the current braid, then added, “I know it’s not the same thing as having a mom, but you know I’m your friend, right? You’re a lot of fun to hang out with, and you can talk to me about anything you want. Does that sound good?”

Jas nodded, plucking at the fur in her panda bear’s ear and turning her attention back to the cartoon.

After Sophia finished the braids, Shane reached into the backpack and pulled out a toothbrush in a ziploc bag. He handed it to Jas. “Go brush up. You remember where the bathroom is?”

She nodded and raced away.

It’d been awhile since Sophia felt awkward with Shane in the room. She carefully gathered the comb and hair ties she’d been using, suddenly too aware of her movements.

His voice carried from the cushions. “You don’t have to do this.”

She shrugged. “Trying to get in the habit of cleaning up my messes as I go.”

“Sophia.” He brought his hands down over his face, rubbing his eyes. “You know what I mean. Just because you and me… just because we’re…”

She walked over to lay down on the cushions next to him, head propped on her elbow.

“I’m not gonna make you sign up for a seven-year-old,” he said quietly.

She laid down fully, head on her arm. “That’s not how it works.”

“She just – she’s always asking questions like that. Never simple ones, always something fucking hard. I mean, fuck if I know how to answer them. I’m sorry you had to.”

“I’m not.” She lowered her voice. “You’re in my life now, Shane. I’m not just going to pretend your kid doesn’t exist.”

His voice sounded trapped in his throat. “My kid.”

“Isn’t she?”

He rubbed his eyes again. “Well, yeah. I mean, she’s supposed to be… but shit Sophia, this is the first time I’ve really been there for her, you know? I’m always just shoving her off on other people… even now, Marnie watches her more than I do.”

“It’s okay to have help. Marnie likes having her there, and you’ve made so many changes in such a short time…” Her finger played with the hair on his arm, twirling it. “You love her, right?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“That’s what matters. The other stuff, you’ll get there.”

He rolled his head to face her. “I don’t deserve any of you.”

She closed her eyes, nuzzling into his shoulder. “You can say it a thousand times, but you’ll always be wrong.”

 


 

Much later that night, once Jas and Amber were long asleep in the living room, the bedroom door was closed and locked. 

Sophia lay on her stomach, gripping the sheets near her face. Shane was on top of her, his chest heavy against her back, thumping her body into the mattress every other beat. She released one hand from the sheets to reach back for him and he grabbed it, hooking their fingers together and pressing it onto the bed. His body then tightened, completely restraining her – she couldn’t move but for his hips pumping hers, his breath warm and jagged on the back of her neck.

While Sophia almost always initiated sex, she was learning that once they started Shane almost always took the lead. At first it surprised her, given how self conscious he’d been their first time. Then it started to make sense. It more than made sense; it was exactly the way things were meant to be. Especially the way he did it.

Quietly.

She never knew what was next, he just silently did things. Like now, when he pulled out and flipped her around to face him, then grabbed his cock and slid right back in. Rolling down, he buried his face in her neck, pulsing in and out – like for the first time in his life he knew exactly what he wanted, and he took it.

It was in Sophia’s nature to take care of those around her. She always, always put them first, whether or not they deserved it; whether or not it was harmful to herself. But right now, trapped under Shane’s warm body, she’d never felt so taken care of. Never so protected and safe, never so attended to and desired—

“Pillow,” she whispered, and he reached for one, immediately tucking it beneath her lower back.

He was perfect. He was stupidly perfect.

Wrapping her arms around his neck she sunk into his rhythm, smelling his skin and his hair, feeling the whole weight of his body. Everything was building again, those tingles like warm water trickling through her. She hugged tighter as he thrust faster – then faster and faster, until his body went rigid and with a groan and a shudder he forced himself as deep as he could go. It was too much, and even as she hitched at the sudden pain, a shock went through her and she was coming too, wave after wave as she pressed into him, hips rocking, riding the last of it long after he’d gone still above her.

It was the first time they’d come perfectly together. For a long time neither of them moved, her arms and legs still clamped around him, his face still buried in her neck, both of them breathing hard. Eventually their breathing slowed; eventually he began to go soft inside her. Still they didn’t move, only holding each other. 

In those moments Sophia couldn’t imagine a future without Shane, because she was completely in love with him.

 

Chapter Text

The following weeks were a blissful, heady blur.

On Halloween Sophia insisted they go to the Spirit’s Eve festival. They walked through the town square with its purple twinkle lights and smoking cauldrons, a soundtrack of ghostly wailing in the background. Sophia’s own pumpkins were carved and lit atop the refreshment tables and she beamed at Shane, saying, “I grew those – me,” and then looking at him in wonder. She held his hand the whole time they weaved through the crowd, and while rumors of them dating had been floating for awhile, Shane still felt the eyes of incredulous townsfolk who were seeing it in the flesh for the first time: the pretty farmer girl dating the drunk.

Except he wasn’t anymore. He hadn’t drank since the night of the moonlight jellies – not a sip since he and Sophia had made it official. But the rest of the town didn’t know that, and Shane continued to feel embarrassed on her behalf.

Sophia herself just continued to glow.

She loved the thrill of being in public and Shane found himself slammed against buildings: the saloon, the library, the community center, his back against brick and her tongue in his mouth. They still spoke every night on the phone, though more and more often the calls ended with Sophia purring as she touched herself on the other end of the line. Sometimes they traded the calls for walks after dark, roaming hand-in-hand through the village or by the beach – sometimes ending with Sophia pulling him into a secluded cluster of forest, unzipping just enough to take him in her mouth, with Shane shrugging from his jacket to hold over her head and keep them both warm while she did. Other walks ended at the river near the ranch, sitting along its banks with her head on his shoulder and watching the quiet dark water.

The first snowfall of the year came in November. After Jas was put to bed, Sophia met him outside, bundled adorably in her navy coat and grey mittens, a matching knit hat pulled over her head. She reached for his hand and they walked through the snowfall down the path into Cindersap forest, the flakes fluffy, the sky so pink that it felt like late afternoon instead of evening. A layer of white already covered the ground and Sophia bent down to scoop some up, then pulled back the hood of Shane’s jacket, dropping it down his neck.

“Fuck!”

His whole body gave a shudder, and he immediately reached down for his own handful of snow, Sophia shrieking and racing away but not quick enough – he caught her by the hand and pulled her back in, smashing the snow on her cheek. She took a step back, gasping from the icy shock of it, and he laughed and pulled her close again, brushing it off and kissing the cold wet spots of her face.

She turned into those kisses, stealing them with her lips, but as soon as Shane was square with her she pushed, forcing him to drop into the snow. Once down he laid on his back, grinning, and she dropped on top of him.

Her cheeks were red and her eyes sparkling, her breath shallow and coming out in little puffs. “This is one of those whirlwind things, isn’t it?”

“Those what?” Shane was out of breath too, his extremities frozen but his chest warm where she sat.

“Those whirlwind things. The kind you think back on when you’re eighty years old and say, ‘that was the best summer of my life.’”

He was still grinning; he couldn’t help it. “Sophia, it’s almost winter.”

She covered his mouth with her mitten. “Shhhhh.” 

Then she scooted down to lay on top of him, head resting on his chest, and Shane wrapped his arms around her. He stared up at the black tangle of branches against the rosy sky, the snowflakes coming down among them.

He’d never felt so perfect in a moment. There’d been a lot of nearly perfect ones, of course. That lightning flash at the gridball match, when he realized he was in love. Their kiss in the bathhouse. The words “hold me” coming from her lips the first time they shared a bed. The moment weeks later when she snuck into his room and told him he made her feel safe. But as close as each of those moments felt to perfection, they couldn’t compete with this. The world was silenced, his heart was calm, and his was mind beautifully absent of any thought but for the woman laying on top of him in this cold weather.

If ever there was a time to say it, it was now.

The amount of times he’d said those words aloud could be counted on one hand. A few times to Jas. Once to Garrett, but that one definitely didn’t count considering he’d been in a fucking coma at the time. Best friends for a decade, and Shane hadn’t been able to say it until it was too late. And as much as the words hammered inside him right now – as perfect as this moment was to say them – he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. He opened his lips, then closed them; he opened and closed them again. It was like a dream state, trying to speak and no sound coming out.

For a long time they said nothing, and when Sophia spoke again her voice was as soft as their surroundings.

“If I met you in the city, I’d want to run away with you to a place like this.”

Shane continued staring up at the dark rosy sky.

I’d want to be with you anywhere, he thought, and the snow fell quietly around them.

 


 

With winter approaching, their usual yard work rolled to a close. They’d spent a few weekends preparing the broken down greenhouse, and now that it was done Sophia spent most of her time in there, leaving Saturdays free to do as they pleased. Often this boiled down to Shane laying on her sofa, Sophia on top of him, watching afternoon gridball matches while he tried to teach her a little bit more each time, pointing out plays and fights and—

“Fuck!” He burst off the couch. “Did you see that?”

He stood so fast Sophia tumbled off his lap onto the floor.

Sometimes he even got a little too excited.

She rolled her eyes, but as she climbed back on the couch – and then on top of him – she was smiling a loose, happy smile.

“What?” he said, feeling self-conscious.

“Nothing. It’s just, it’s so fucking nice, seeing you enjoy this again. The game, these dumb fights—”

“They’re not du

"It’s nice,” she repeated, nuzzling into his shirt.

And it was fucking nice. He’d forgotten what it was like, feeling adrenaline over something on TV, to have his heart race over an admittedly dumb fight. He’d forgotten what it was like to fully relax in someone else’s company and just be himself.

Forgotten what it was to start the day with something other than the desire to go back to sleep and never wake up.

Of course, even with feeling lighter than he had in his entire adult life, his old anxiety still clung like a shadow. When the sun shone directly overhead that shadow was invisible, and Shane felt so warm and happy it was easy to forget it existed. But the sun couldn’t remain there forever, and there were moments each day where it set, where he watched the shadow elongate in front of him, that reminder of what was always, somehow, underfoot.

Sophia didn’t know, and Shane wasn’t about to tell her. She was nothing but that ray of sun in these increasingly dark, almost-winter days. She seemed to grow brighter all the time, and Shane had no idea how she did it. It was miraculous, the way she was able to build off it, as if each happy day could give birth to the next even happier one. Shane’s own happy days felt limited, like he was allotted only a certain amount of them in his lifetime, and fuck – he wasn’t even thirty and he was burning through them fast.

Still, it was fucking nice. For so many years he’d fluctuated between being numb and suicidal, resigned to the fact that his life would never be anything more. But now it was, and anxious or not, he’d never known what it was to have the good moments outweigh the bad. His days were now a steady flow of gridball matches and frozen dinners, of card games and movies, and of late nights where they shared a pillow and Sophia held him below the covers while they talked.

Then, one night, she wished to give him more than frozen dinner.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry,” she said, staring forlornly at her plate of blackened roast vegetables and overcooked pasta.

“It’s good,” said Shane, chipping burnt shards off the top of his asparagus with a knife.

“It’s shit. You’re full of it. It’s utter shit.”

“It’s good.

She miserably spooned sauce onto her pasta. “I hate liars.”

“I’m not lying,” he insisted, now twirling his fork into the mushy noodles, which broke apart mid-twirl.

“They’re falling apart. They’re disintegrating.”

“They’re fine,” he said, trying – and failing – to twirl them a second time.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” She slid her chair out with a noisy squeak and headed to the utensil drawer, grabbing two spoons and slamming one next to him.

“What’s this for?”

“The goddamn spaghetti.”

“I don’t need it.”

She towered over him, looking like she had half a mind to force-feed him the spoon still in her hand. Then a spark of decisiveness flared in her eyes, and with one arm she shoved aside everything that had been in front of him.

“Hey,” he protested. “I was eating that.”

“No you weren’t. Trying to eat it doesn’t count.” She hopped onto the table, sitting directly where his plate had been moments before. The pot of tomato sauce was just to her left and she dipped her finger into it, wagging it threateningly in front of his face.

He stared. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Tell me it’s awful.”

“Jesus Christ, you’re overreacting.”

Tell me it’s awful,” she insisted, then drew a line down his nose with the sauce, which Shane gave himself a lot of credit for ignoring.

“I fucking won’t.”

She drew a second line, this time down his cheek. “I swear to god, you’re asking for it.”

“Yeah? Asking for what? This?” He dug his own hand into the sauce, and before she could react he smeared it down her face from forehead to chin. She closed her eyes and gasped, sputtering over the sauce on her lips.

“Shane!”

“Oh come on, you started it,” he said, laughing, and the look of saucy indignation on her face was quickly replaced by a devilish grin as she slid off the table onto his lap. Without hesitation she began to rub her face all over his, the same way Amber rubbed with her muzzle when she wanted attention. He laughed harder, trying to push her off without getting sauce on their clothes – well, at least any more of it – but she only rubbed harder, and was just about to pull him into a very messy kiss when he pushed back his own seat and stood, picking her up with him.

“Where are we going?” she asked breathlessly, legs dangling at his sides.

He didn’t answer, but took her into the middle of the kitchen and deposited her on the linoleum, rolling her down gently so she wouldn’t bump her head.

“Very considerate of you,” she said, blue eyes sparkling. “Not to get spaghetti sauce on the carpet.”

Though her face was a mess, as Shane looked at her he felt a stab. She looked so beautiful, so happy, and once again the world was silent and the moment was right and he imagined what he might say any second, those three words he was so desperate to get off his chest. Tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, his gaze flickered over her face and three words did indeed come out—

“Dinner fucking sucked.”

Sophia burst into laughter so fast she sprayed spit all over his face.

“Oh god,” she said, still laughing. “We’re disgusting, aren’t we?”

“Like I haven’t had your spit before.”

“Fine. Then gimme.” Her hand wound behind his neck and pulled him down, a moment later her tongue in his mouth.

The meal abandoned, they kissed until Sophia pulled him into the shower. Though extra playful they managed to behave – early on, they’d both agreed shower sex was one of the most uncomfortable things ever. But when she turned to set down her shampoo, Shane clamped his arms around her from behind. Under the scorching water her body was hot, the skin turning red, and he squeezed as he whispered in her ear.  

“Dinner sucked, but I love that you tried.”

She paused, perfectly still, and Shane froze around her.

I love that you.

They stood beneath the running shower, his arms still hugging her and his heart beating faster, the words now hanging in the steamy air between them. And oh, god, they were out there. The words were out there. If he could only reach up and pluck that single word out of the equation – if he could only whisper it again, but this time get the sequence right…

Why was it so hard? Why was it so fucking hard? This wasn’t brand new anymore. This was Sophia, who asked to be his girlfriend not a day after they hooked up; who glowed every time they went out together, and who’d been treating him like a goddamn king for months despite how little he deserved it.

She won’t go anywhere. She’s in your goddamn arms. Just say it. Say it. What if she dies tomorrow and you never get to—

Oh, Christ. No. Just no. That thought – that thought, it could go fuck itself, is what it could do—

“Shane?” Before he could answer she spun in his arms, hugging him around the waist. “I’ve been thinking. It’s been weeks since Jas came over.”

Hearing his goddaughter’s name was perhaps the only thing that could’ve successfully dragged him away from that awful last thought. Of course, it also brought on other thoughts he wasn’t particularly keen on addressing.

“Uh… yeah.”

“I mean, she had a fun time, didn’t she? I thought she did.”

He licked his lips. “Yeah, she loved it.”

Too much. It was no accident, no mere oversight that Shane hadn’t brought her back for a second visit. Asking if they were going to get married? Talking to Sophia about not having a mother? It was just too much. Sophia had never had a kid. She was young, and Jas was fun to hang out with for a few hours, but she didn’t know what it was like to be responsible for her – to feel exhausted by her, like Shane was almost every day. To have Jas so attached after one visit, to have Sophia not understand what she was getting herself into…

Fuck. She’d been waiting all these weeks for him to bring it up, and some dumb part of him hoped she’d forgotten about it.

“I loved it too,” she said, a delicate finger drawing circles on his back. “I was kind of hoping we could do it again. A sleepover, or at least a day for the three of us to hang out.”

“Sophia…”

“Has she asked to come back over?”

Try three times a day.

Shane closed his eyes. “I dunno if it’s a good idea, okay?”

“Why?” she demanded.

“It’s – she just…”

“Look, you got nothing. Bring her over next weekend. I found Grandpa’s box of Wintersday ornaments in the basement, and I’m going to find a nice tree on the property to cut down. We can turn it into a whole festive thing for her. Come on Shane, you saw how much she loved carving pumpkins. It’ll be good for her.”

Oh, that was a low blow and she knew it – guilting him about holidays, after he’d admitted to feeling bad about Jas never having a proper Halloween. But she was right. His family had never been the happy-holiday type. Even with his mother sober, the most they’d ever had for Wintersday was an artificial tree, small enough to sit on the end table. It didn’t even have lights. And gifts, gifts were whatever Shane could afford after his tabs were paid off…

He was pretty sure Marnie had tried to make things special for Jas last year, but that was so soon after they’d moved in, and his memories of those months were a black hole. He certainly hadn’t done anything to make it special for her, and now it was his job to make up for those lost years.  

“Saturday?” he said with a sigh.

“Thank you,” she whispered, and tilted her head up to kiss him.

He let the tension go, of talking about Jas, of saying I love you. He let it go just to give in to kissing her; her lips wet, her breasts squished softly against his chest. The water beat down, and he kissed this woman who inexplicably still wanted him.

 


 

An idea had been forming in Shane’s mind for some time.

He’d never have had the confidence for it a few months ago. Fuck, a few weeks ago even. But Marnie had agreed not to sell Annabel through the winter, and in the meantime he wanted to give her the one thing she wanted most after a horse. He’d been planning like crazy, even deigning to go to Robin’s carpentry shop – a place he might run into Sebastian, of all people – to ask for help. Working up the nerve to ask her advice had almost made his lunch come up, but he’d done it, and now he was finally ready to start.

With Saturday no longer free, he’d put in to have Friday off from work so he could spend a whole day on the project while Jas was in school. Except now it was Thursday morning, and Shane was up earlier than usual with a knot in his stomach.  

The snowfall of the previous week hadn’t stuck but it was cold enough that each morning brought frost, and when he stepped outside the air was bitter, the ground crunchy and the sky still black. He was dressed and ready to go in his JojaMart uniform, but that wasn’t his first destination. A flashlight was in one hand, a stack of papers and tape measure in the other, and he went straight to the farm.

Sophia wouldn’t even know he was there. He just had to double check, that was all. Triple check. Make sure all the dimensions were correct before dragging everything to her house the next day.

He was bent on one knee, tape measure to the ground and peering at the paper next to it – trying to read the chicken scratches of his own handwriting – when he felt a sudden chill that had nothing to do with the weather.

Then, an inch from his ear: “What are you doing?”

—Fuck!

Shane threw his head back, nearly startled out of his skin – and made sudden contact with something hard.

Sophia’s face.

“Oh shit!” He jumped to his feet; she’d jumped back herself, hands clamped over her nose and one eye. “Oh Jesus. Are you okay?”

“I’m fibe,” she said through her hand, looking toward the ground, her visible eye watering.

“Holy fuck, did I break your nose?”

“My nose is fibe,” she repeated, still holding tight to her face.

“Holy fuck, I broke your nose.”

“No you dibn’t,” she protested, but let him pull her into the house anyway, where Shane turned on the overhead light and pulled two chairs to face one another, sitting her down.

“Let me see,” he said, and she reluctantly pulled down her hand.

Christ – he hadn’t broken her nose, but he’d given her a fucking shiner. The deep bruise was already spreading outward from her eye, the corner of the eye itself going bloodshot.

“Sophia, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry –”

“Shane, shut up. It’s my fault, not yours, I’m the one who’s always sneaking up on you like that. It doesn’t even hurt much. See?” She smiled, though wincing and trying to hide it from him.

“You liar. Just – hang on, one second…” He went to her freezer and pulled out a bag of frozen peas, then wrapped it in a clean dish towel and handed it to her. She pressed it to her eye, smiling again.

“I’m fine,” she said, and at seeing the pained expression on his face: “Don’t feel bad!”

But seeing that she was going to be all right – that he hadn’t broken her nose or done any permanent damage – Shane’s thoughts took a much darker turn.

She had a black eye. His girlfriend had a black eye, and all he could think was what would go through the villagers’ minds when Emmet Wakeshire’s granddaughter showed up in town like that, not two months after starting to date the guy everyone knew was a drunk asshole.

“Shane, I promise. It’s fine. I’ve never had a black eye before – something off the bucket list.”

“You think this is funny?”

She smiled. “Doesn’t hurt to laugh about it.”

“Fuck, you’re naïve.”

Excuse me?” Her smile faded in an instant; it was replaced with a look that said he’d better be joking.

He rubbed his hands over his face, pulling down on his cheeks. “What’s going to happen when you go to town with that thing?”

“Er – nothing? I didn’t break my leg, Shane, I think I’ll manage.”

“What are people going to think?”

“Why would I care?”

“Because I do!” He ran his hand through his hair, looking at the ceiling. “Sophia, they’re going to think I fucking beat you.”

She gave him a goofy grin. “No they aren’t.”

“You don’t fucking get it. You don’t.”

Her smile fell. “Shane, you’d never hurt me.”

“Yeah. And you’re the only one who knows that.

Her eyes had stopped watering from being hit, but now they began to fill again. “It’ll be okay. I promise it’ll be okay.” She started to set down the peas but he grabbed them halfway, shoving them right back.

“Keep the cold on or it’ll get worse,” he said, then turned to the front door.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“I just need some fucking air.”

Funny how quickly certain feelings fled back under the right circumstances. Shane walked across her property in the pitch darkness, hands in his pockets and head down. When he reached the pond he sat on the bank – the same place they’d sat his first day working on the farm – and stared at the glassy black surface of the water, thinking of everything that happened since.

Why didn’t she care? Why did she never care how bad he made her look?

He didn’t care what people thought of him on his own. If they thought him a loser, well, they weren’t exactly fucking wrong. But in relation to Sophia? With her, he cared about everything. He still felt embarrassed on her behalf in public – still thought that every look in their direction was a look wondering why she’d settled for a fuckup like him. And now, if they thought that he hit her?

“I’m behind you – just a warning this time.”

He glanced over his shoulder to see Sophia wrapped in her winter coat, carrying a flannel blanket. She wore a timid smile and sat beside him, covering both of their legs and placing her head on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Shane. I wasn’t thinking about how you’d feel. I get it – I do. I just really fucking hate that it’s even an issue. You’re so good to me. I’ve never been happier, I’ve never been treated better… sometimes it feels like it’s such a given, like the whole world should see it too.” She grabbed one of his hands, clutching it in both of hers. “It’s not like I’m making any deliveries to Pierre’s now that the snow’s here, so if you pick up my groceries I don’t even have to go to town until this thing goes away. Okay?”

And there she was, being too good to him again – after he’d snapped, after he’d insulted her and left, cursing.

“I don’t deserve you,” he muttered.

She gazed up from his shoulder. “And that’s what you don’t get – that it fucking hurts when you say that. I chose you, Shane. I can deal with an accidental black eye, but you saying that? Fuck, it’s like a slap in the face every time. You deserve me because I say you do, end of goddamn story.”

He said nothing back. He only leaned his head against hers, again cognizant of the shadow that still crept beneath the surface of his newly found bliss.

 

Chapter Text

It was the beginning of December now, and the unusually cold autumn was followed by unusually early winter snowfalls. On Friday Sophia woke to two things outside her window: a fresh mantle of white, still flaking down, and the yellow beam of her porchlight illuminating that scene. Confused, she slipped a winter jacket over her pajamas and stepped outside, hands clamped under her arms for warmth.

“What the hell are you doing?”

After the fiasco of her black eye the previous morning, she’d never gotten around to asking Shane what he’d been there for – now, for the second day in a row, he was standing outside her house before the sun was even up. Snowflakes were caught in his dark hair and his hands were bright red from the cold, sifting through a stack of papers. Marnie’s pick-up truck was parked beside him, its bed stacked with two-by-fours and giant rolls of chicken wire, and there was an open toolbox at his feet.

He didn’t look up from the papers, though his face colored slightly. “Building your rabbit hutch,” he said, as plainly as if he were making her a cup of coffee.

“You – what?” She stared in disbelief.

He glanced up. “Don’t tell me you changed your damned mind.”

“I didn’t, but… what? It’s the start of winter. It’s snowing right now… Shane, you’re building me a rabbit hutch?”

Grabbing several boards out of the truck bed, he mumbled something indecipherable. Sophia walked down the porch and hopped on the open tailgate. “Huh?”

“Wintersday,” he muttered. “Needs to be done.”

Her eyes softened. “You’re making me a rabbit hutch for Wintersday?”

“Look, I know you want Annabel but I can’t get her this year. We don’t even have the stable ready… did you know horses cost a metric fuck-ton to house each year?”

Sophia blinked. “I’ve only been teasing about that. I’d never ask you for an actual horse…”

“Yeah, you’re not teasing. You want one.”

“Well maybe I do, but shit… you’re building me a rabbit hutch? I had no idea you could do something like that.” She could feel the brightness in her own eyes; she leaned deeply to one side and in a sultry voice asked, “And how do you feel about repairing fences?”

“Next Wintersday. This thing’ll probably take me till then anyway.”

“I – hang on, don’t you have to work today?”

“Switched with Sam earlier in the week.”

He’d really been planning this.

“I’m amazed,” she said. “I’m completely amazed.”

“Just wait till it’s done before you get too excited. I’ll probably forget to put in the floor or something.”

Glancing around at the boards in the truck bed, she couldn’t help it: she closed her eyes and squealed. “I’ll leave you to it,” she said, bouncing off the hitch, then grabbing his face in both hands and pulling him in for a deep, happy kiss. “You’re wonderful, and I think this whole thing is super sexy, and when I go inside I’m going to make myself some coffee and put my feet up and watch you work.”

He sighed. “Of course you fucking would.” 

 


 

Relax,” she said, for what felt like the thirtieth time as her knuckles dug rhythmically into his shoulders. “Just watch the damn movie.”

It was later that night; Shane had spent the whole day working on the hutch, then went home at suppertime and returned to the farm after Jas was in bed. They’d just showered and gotten settled on the sofa together, Sophia flipping through the channels, when they’d run across some G-rated gridball movie from Shane’s childhood and he’d momentarily forgotten himself – enough to give an excited, “Oh, shit! I haven’t seen this in fifteen years” – at which she insisted, of course, that they watch it. She also insisted on giving him a backrub, which he continued to grumble at.

“I give you a black eye and you give me a fucking massage.”

“That’s how we work,” she teased. “You think I’d’ve asked you to dance in the spring if you hadn’t given me that death glare in Marnie’s kitchen first?”

“Makes me sound abusive.”

“Well, you can fuck right off with that noise.” It was only after the words were out that she realized they sounded angry. “Sorry,” she whispered. “Just… don’t joke. I’ve been there, and you’re the furthest thing from it.”

A long pause. “How does your eye feel right now?”

“It’s fine, I promise. Now relax.

They’d made enormous progress in his level of comfort when showing his body – it’d been almost a month since he asked to turn off the lights before they were intimate. Sophia was so happy that he was willing to shower with her now, or agree to take off his shirt in a brightly lit room when she insisted on giving him a massage. Right now he lay on his stomach while she straddled his back, kneading her knuckles into his shoulder, digging deep into the muscle below the softness.

“Like something?” she asked, bending over his ear after he let out a sigh.

“Just, why are you fucking good at this too?”

“Is that a problem?”

“You’re good at everything. It’s sickening.”

“Have you forgotten my cooking?”

He grumbled again, trying to move, and Sophia lifted her hips just enough for him to roll on his back underneath her. Once she’d settled onto his stomach, he slid his hands up her shirt.

“Nope,” she said, tucking backward with a smile. “This is your massage, not mine.”

But it wasn’t just a massage. It wasn’t just Shane growing more and more comfortable with her.

It was happiness; happiness that burned through her chest and down her arms, right into the fingertips touching his skin. It was pure, like the happiness of childhood – but with the profundity of experiencing it as an adult. It was contentment, like the happiness of having her best friend at her side once more – but such a different kind of contentment than being with Amy.

It was intense. With Shane, everything was so intense.  

Love came with a honeymoon stage, of course, and logically Sophia knew she was there – had cliff-dived right into it, swimming in waters far above her head. But the idea that such a feeling was a mere stage, and that it could ever fade in intensity? Not only did that seem impossible, but asinine. As she gripped his upper arms over and over, massaging the body that had so quickly come to feel like home, their eyes met, her heart pounded, and she couldn’t stop her next thought.

If you asked me to marry you right now, I’d say yes.

Oh.

Oh, fuck.

She’d tried so hard to be careful with Shane, to take things slow and let them unfold naturally. For awhile, they had. But sitting on his lap now – with thoughts she had no right to be thinking this early in the relationship – she realized she was still the same person. A person whose first kiss was with her crush at the tenth grade dance, and whose first time having sex wasn’t two hours later. One who’d roped herself into three years of hell because she’d moved in with a guy after knowing him for only a week. And love? That word she’d tossed around so cavalierly – to that high school boyfriend, mistaking her clinginess after sex for something more; to Rick, saying it for years while secretly hating him.  

But this was different. Without a doubt in her mind, Shane was different. If she said it now it wouldn’t be cavalier, because she’d never been so certain of something in her life. The length of their relationship was of no importance whatsoever. Something as real as this just existed, a truth in all timelines.

He might even be okay with the words. Maybe he wouldn’t say them back, but it was unlikely he’d bolt from her house. If she told him the full truth, though? The potency of what she felt, and how despite her ferocious need to be independent outside of their relationship, within it she felt an equally ferocious need to be near him – would he be okay with that level of need? Because lately he could never be close enough. She’d never get her fill; he was an obsession that made it impossible to concentrate on anything or anyone else.

Sophia knew herself, and didn’t trust herself to speak. If that floodgate was opened, there’d be no stopping it, and what was supposed to be a simple “I love you,” would turn into a proposal that would make Shane bolt all the way back to Zuzu City.

Instead she kept quiet and laid down on him, sliding her hand to his groin. His pajamas were thin and his body hot there, and she stroked him through the fabric. It’d been a long time since he had anxiety about being with her. He started to fill, pulsing several times against her palm.

She finally had it. Whether he loved her or not, Shane relaxed with her when he didn’t with anyone else. He was still stubborn and private and seldom opened up, but on the rare occasions he did, it was only Sophia he allowed in. And all those months ago at her fire, when she’d embarrassingly confessed that she wanted to be special, the exception, the one person he wouldn’t push away—

She finally had it.

“I love this,” she whispered, hooking her fingers into his waistband and sliding down his pants. Usually she enjoyed teasing more, but tonight just needed him close. Taking him in her mouth she savored it, tongue swirling lovingly, not trying to get him anywhere fast. He was in no rush either, watching with that calmness she’d grown to love – that sort of contentedness she’d never seen in him until they were dating. He lay with his back against the pillows, one hand behind his head, the other softly stroking her hair as she sucked.

“Sophia?”

“Mmm?”

His voice was quiet, but serious. “Hey.”

She took him out of her mouth, resting her head on his thigh. “What?”

“When do I get to do this?”

That was not what she expected. One hand returned to his cock, lightly playing, and she didn’t answer.

It was true she hadn’t let him. She’d never explicitly said no, but every time his head went too low, every time he kissed too far into her thighs, she always repositioned herself or distracted him with other touches. Sometimes she got up, pretending to have to pee.

She’d tried so damn hard not to let Rick have any power over her anymore – once she’d finally gone through with it, she was proud of how quick and clean the break was. And for months after, any time his voice came creeping back in she threw every ounce of her contempt at it before it could work its sick magic. Toxic or not, Sophia embraced the hatred – hating him kept her sane, and kept her from blaming herself for all the fucked up things he’d done. But there were still triggers. Being told what to do, for one.

Oral sex for another.

Oh, naturally she’d done it for him, and not just in her goddamn cubicle that first day he kissed her. He wanted it most days, practically demanding it, and when Sophia didn’t comply he turned so nasty and immature that she’d end up giving in anyway. God, she’d been a doormat – giving in to spare herself from his fucking tantrums; it was a wonder he hadn’t spoiled it for her permanently.

Receiving was different. He’d put off reciprocating for months, always with some excuse. The one and only time he’d done it, he’d barely been at it for a minute before stopping to say, “God, do you not wash properly? I feel sick. Finish it yourself.” Then he’d given her pussy a smack and left her on the bed, naked and humiliated, trying not to cry as she listened to him gargle mouthwash in the other room.

In hindsight, she didn’t know what she’d expected. He wouldn’t even kiss her after she’d gone down on him. As if he always tasted fucking divine himself…

She blinked, back to reality, back to laying on Shane’s thigh as his hand brushed lightly through her hair. When she looked at him again, his face was bright red.

“It’s okay if you don’t like it or something. But you haven’t said anything – you don’t really let me near…”

This wasn’t about Rick taking something from her. It was about him taking something from them, from their relationship, and Shane… he wanted this. But the thought still made her sick. He’d never say such hurtful things as Rick but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t think them; she couldn’t handle the thought of disgusting him, of him not wanting to hurt her feelings and pushing through it while secretly being repulsed…

She scooted up to lay on him again. Then, tentatively, she kissed him, with the lips that had just been around his cock.

He kissed back, no hesitation.

“Is that a yes?”

She buried her face in his neck, for a moment wanting to cry.

“Let’s just finish the movie,” she murmured at last.

 


 

After Shane left on Saturday morning, Sophia prepared for later that day when he’d return with his goddaughter. She chopped down a small pine tree on her property, dragging it inside along with a wagon full of cedar and spruce trimmings. She set up pillows and cushions on the floor for Jas’s bed, then prepared the counter with a treat: mugs, marshmallows, and little packets of instant hot chocolate, all beside a plate of cookies. There was even a CD of holiday instrumentals tucked into Grandpa’s ornament box, and when snowflakes began to drift down in early afternoon amidst the music, Sophia thought the day couldn’t be more perfect.

Still, excited as she was, she was relieved when Shane arrived back at the farmhouse in a good mood – he’d been so hesitant for this to happen, and she’d worried he might be moody again.

“Look at that, kid,” he said to Jas, nodding toward the tree in the corner.

Jas kicked off her boots and unzipped her jacket, face aglow. “A tree? Can we decorate it, Sophia?”

“That depends,” she said. “Did Uncle Shane bring the thing I asked for?”

Jas looked from Shane to Sophia, then back to Shane. “What thing? Tell me!”

“Yeah, I brought it,” he said.

Squinting up at Sophia, Jas said, “What happened to your eye?”

“Just a little accident.”

“Does it hurt? Are you okay?”

“I’m okay, but thank you very much for asking,” said Sophia with a smile, carefully glancing at Shane to see his reaction.

There was none; instead, he grabbed his goddaughter suddenly by the waist, flipping her upside down and carrying her tiny shrieking form into the living room, her dark hair sweeping the floor. Reaching the bed of cushions he flopped her onto the middle of them, where she fell into a fit of giggles. She shrieked again as he began tickling her – which made Amber race over to see the commotion, licking Jas’s face, playfully growling and nipping at Shane’s arms to get in on the game. Sophia bit the inside of her cheek, watching happily from the side.

“Sophia!” screamed Jas, out of breath and clearly wanting back up.

She laughed. “What, you think I know how to stop him?”

At the sound of Sophia’s voice he stop tickling, turning to look at her instead. He stared for a second, shrugged his eyebrows once, then dove. Sophia shrieked too, causing Amber to howl as Shane scooped her by the legs over his shoulder, flipping her onto the cushions next to Jas. Her stomach dropped – the briefest sensation of shooting down a rollercoaster – and as she lay there in surprise Shane flopped next to her, placing a kiss on her lips.

Her eyelids fluttered shut and she kissed him back, and for that moment it all felt new again. At least, until Jas interrupted.

Ewww.”

Sophia’s face grew hot under the gentle kiss, but for once Shane didn’t seem to care. He just leaned back on his elbows and grinned.

“Can we decorate the tree now?” Jas asked.

Still on her back, slightly out of breath, Sophia said, “Sure.”

While she didn’t have any of her own Wintersday decorations yet, Grandpa Emmet had left plenty in the cellar. She opened the boxes, letting Jas dig through them.

“Careful with those.” Sophia nodded at the glass deer she’d picked up. “They’re older than Uncle Shane.”

“I’ll be very careful,” Jas said solemnly, her face lit with childlike wonder – the kind that only came from delving into a box of treasures that belonged to someone else.  The small hands shifted in their hold on the ornament, as if she were holding a delicate butterfly.

They spend the rest of the evening decorating. Shane and Sophia the top half of the tree, Jas the bottom half, and when it was done Sophia said, “I think we’re ready for the topper.”

“What do you have?” asked Jas. “Aunt Marnie has a star, but Miss Penny put an angel on the school tree.”

“Neither. We have a UFO turtle.”

Jas burst into giggles. “For the tree?”

Sophia held out her palm, and Shane handed her the lumpy knit turtle she’d asked him to bring over. She slipped a hook through the yarn and, standing on tiptoe, placed it on the very top of the tree. Behind them, Shane flicked off the lights.

“Oooh,” said Jas softly, her giggles from the moment before suddenly replaced with reverence. “It’s the prettiest tree ever.”

Tucking a strand of dark hair behind her ear, Sophia said, “I agree.”

They settled in to watch Jas’s favorite princess movie after, and toward the end she passed out on the cushions between them, her breath fluttering the hair in front of her face. Shane stood up shortly after, just as a song began to play – one of those sweeping emotional numbers at the end of animated love stories. Sophia thought he was getting up to use the bathroom, but a moment later heard, “Come here,” from the kitchen.

It was dim, lit only by the glow of the tree and television from the other room, but she could still see the softness of his expression as he looped his arms around her waist – as he began to slow dance with her, the same as they’d done in the spring.

Well, not entirely the same. Last time there’d been space between their bodies, bashful glances interspersed with long looks at their feet or into the forest. She’d been inexplicably drawn to him, having no idea what was in store. But tonight? Tonight she was in love, hugged right into the warmth of his soft, sturdy body. She glanced up, and he was looking right back down at her.

He’d been in such a great mood all day that the look in his eyes took her by surprise. He looked fucking tired – truly tired, the kind of tired she hadn’t seen in months.

A tendril of worry began to wind through her heart. “You okay?”

“Yeah, of course,” he said, and as he spoke the tiredness seemed to disappear – Sophia blinked, wondering if she’d imagined it. She turned back to his chest, hugging tighter, and when the song rolled to a close grabbed his hands and gently steered him into the bedroom. Once undressed and in bed, she curled into his side.

“You’re so good with her, you know that?” she whispered.

Shane paused. “Don’t say that.”

“Why not? It’s the truth.”

“Just don’t.”

With those two words, his voice tensed, and the air in the room changed.

“God forbid you give yourself some credit.” Sophia sighed, taking his hand and drawing on his fingers with her own. “I didn’t say it to ruin your night, you know.”

“I know.”

“Just – my own personal opinion aside, straight up facts? That little girl adores you.”

“Hmm.”

“It’s the truth.” Then she hesitated. “Can I ask you a question?”

“You’re going to anyway.”

“Why don’t you like to talk about her? Things are going really well, for both of you.”

She peered at him earnestly, but he only stared at the ceiling, giving a noncommittal shrug against the sheets. Then he rolled on his side, facing her and saying, “Hey, what about right now?”

“Right now?” She scrunched her eyebrows. “What, you do want to talk about her?”

“Not talk,” he said, closing in to kiss her. “Forget that stuff.” Then his hand found her waist, gliding around its curve and slipping into her pants.

“Shane…”

He began to finger her gently, kissing her neck, pausing only to whisper, “Can I?”

It was perhaps the most obvious attempt to change the subject she’d ever seen – and one that switched from his discomfort to hers. She closed her eyes and he kissed down her throat.

“I want to let you,” she said quietly.

“So let me.”

She’d showered not long before his arrival, but suddenly it didn’t feel like nearly enough. Her voice dropped quieter. “I don’t – I don’t want you to be grossed out.”

He stopped what he was doing, clearing his throat. “Oh, um… did you start? I mean, I didn’t feel anything…”

It took her a second to realize he meant her period.

“No.” She was surprised – and strangely touched – that it’d been his first thought. “It’s just… I don’t...” she trailed off, unsure of what to say.

“Don’t have to. But like, it doesn’t gross me out. I fucking want to.”

Heart beating quicker, she buried her face in his neck and blurted, “I have serious hang-ups about this, okay?”

There was a long silence. Shane stiffly rubbed her back, and Sophia’s blank mind tried to think of anything that would make this moment less uncomfortable – but then she was interrupted anyway.

“Uncle Shane?!”

Though muffled through the door, the cry was shrill and frantic and Shane burst up instantly. “Be right back,” he said, throwing on his shirt and bolting out of the room.

Sophia leaned back on her pillow and took several deep breaths, silently glad for the interruption. Her cell phone was on the dresser and she reached for it – gingerly, as if it might detonate. Once in her hand she opened the lock screen and went into her messages.

Rick had sent her another message a few days ago. She hadn’t told Shane about it – not wanting to put him in a bad mood – but she hadn’t deleted it either. She was starting to wonder if it might be good to have proof. While the thought that she might need proof one day made her shudder, the message itself made her shudder more:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the months since we decided to take a break, it’s that this break is the dumbest decision either of us have ever made. You’ve had your space now, Sophia, you’ve proved what an independent woman you are – there’s no need to keep up this charade. Come see me again, or let me come to you if you prefer. I love you with all my heart and soul. You’ll come around, and I’ll be waiting.

Reading it the first time, it’d felt like acid being poured over her body. “Since we decided to take a break.” The fucking gall, to try his gaslighting bullshit again, even after all these months – as if Sophia hadn’t been the one to step out the door, to not care if he rotted. Reading it again now should have been torture, but instead it filled her chest with the most wonderful burning as she shut off the screen and replaced it on the dresser.

“Sorry,” said Shane, returning several minutes later. “Had a nightmare, forgot where she was…”

“She’s okay now?’

“Yeah, passed out again.”

He pulled off his shirt and climbed back into bed. Sophia drew herself right up to his face. Knots twisted in her stomach, but her chest still burned and breathlessly she said, “If you want to, you can.”

“I can what?”

“Go down on me.”

He blinked. “But a minute ago…”

“Shane, just do it before I change my mind.”

He didn’t need to be told twice.

She leaned back against the pillows, closing her eyes as he slipped off her pants. The knots were still in her stomach, tight enough to make her queasy, but she focused only on the thought that had driven her to this moment: she loved him. Whether he loved her back or not – at least to the extent she craved – it didn’t matter. He cared about her more than any man ever had, and proved it every time they were together. Whatever they had, it was real – infinitely more real than the declarations of the person who claimed to love her heart and soul in that foul message.

Most importantly, she trusted him. She had to. He’d fucking earned it.

Until now she’d been laying there too paranoid to even feel his touch, let alone enjoy it. Now she counted down from five in her head, and at one took a deep breath and opened her eyes. His own eyes were closed, the dark hair that usually fell to one side now falling over his forehead. If she was waiting for any signs of misgiving, there were none – his hands gripped her hips just a little too hard, his stubble grazing her sensitive skin, and his lips never stopped moving. He seemed lost in her.

For a moment she recalled all the times she’d had to tell him to relax, to stop thinking. It was time to take her own advice. Slipping one hand into his hair, threading her fingers between the strands, she took another deep breath and let herself drop open even more.

 

Chapter Text

One night when Shane was laying in bed talking to Sophia on the phone, she wearily dropped a bomb.

“So it seems my parents had an epiphany. They want to visit the farm.”

“What? Why now?”

She sighed. “My cousin, the one with the terminal illness? I guess they’re only giving him a few more weeks. My mom and dad weren’t exactly close to him, but maybe it was one of those reminders. Life is short, the holidays are almost here, that kind of stuff. I dunno. All I know is that they’re visiting the farm for the first time all year, so…”

“I thought you wanted that?”

“Yes, but now that it’s here, I’m thinking it was a better idea in theory.” A long pause. “And, um, they kind of want to meet you.”

“They know about me?”

“That weekend I went to their house and blew my lid? I may or may not have mentioned that I met someone.”

“That was before we were dating.”

“Oh, come on. Tell me we weren’t already an item then.”

As much as he dreaded meeting anyone new – let alone his girlfriend’s parents, who would probably hate him – those words felt so good to hear.

“Anyway, they’re coming Friday for dinner, and it’d mean the absolute world to me if you came.”

“Friday?” Shane panicked. “That’s only a few more days… Sophia, there’s no way you won’t still have a black eye by then – take it from someone who’s had a few.”

“It’s already tingeing funny colors. It’ll probably be yellow by the time they come.”

“I want them to fucking like me, not think I beat their daughter.”

“Shane, it’ll be fine. If it’s still bad I’ll get Emily to help me out, we can cover it with make-up or something – you know Emily of all people would believe us. And the best way to get my parents to like you? Don’t swear so much.”

“That’s rich, coming from you.”

“I cussed them out last time and it ended with my mom on the floor with her face in dirt. You really want to witness that in person?”

He sighed. “Fine. I’ll watch my fucking language.”

“Thank you.” A pause. “You’ll be fine, okay?”

 


 

The only thing Shane knew about Sophia’s parents was that they were still in a stage of deep grief four years after the loss of their daughter. That, and they didn’t like cussing.

Getting dressed for dinner, he felt an urge to drink like he hadn’t felt in months. He shaved, put on his best shirt, and spent more than thirty seconds on his hair – all the while his anxiety creeping in, wetting the armpits of that shirt, drying his mouth no matter how much water he drank. Maybe he didn’t look like a hopeless drunk anymore, but Shane couldn’t see how Sophia would be able to present him to her parents unashamed.

“That’s a big step, meeting the parents,” said Marnie when he entered the kitchen, tugging uncomfortably at the tucked in shirt.

“Shit. Tell me about it.”

She patted him on the shoulder before going to the fridge, retrieving a green dish covered in cling film. “A fresh cranberry and apple salad, for your dinner.”

“You didn’t have to make something,” he muttered.

“Of course I didn’t, but I wanted to. This is an important day for you.” Then against all his better wishes, she pulled him into a hug. “Be yourself, Shane. You’ll be just fine.”

He wished people would stop telling him he’d be fine – that they needed to assure him so much made him think the opposite.

Standing on Sophia’s porch with the cranberry salad in one hand, the other on her doorknob, a million thoughts flooded his head. What if he was late, and they were already there? He didn’t see a vehicle, but maybe they’d taken the bus. Should he knock? It might look rather presumptuous to waltz in like he lived there. And what if Amber bolted for him straight away, like she usually did? Should he pet her, or put the food down first? Would they be grossed out if he pet her while holding the food? Though if he didn’t—

Sophia threw open the door. “I thought I heard you! What the heck are you doing?”

She grabbed his shoulders, lifting herself to place a kiss on his lips. Shane’s eyes remained wide open as she did, noticing the two people behind her. 

Emily and… Haley?

“Didn’t realize it was a dinner party,” he mumbled as she pulled off of him. He kept his arms clamped firmly to his side to hide the growing wet spots, and it was hard to imagine that for the past two months this kitchen had been a safe place for him.

“It’s not! It’s just, I asked Emily to come over and help me cover up this sucker since I’m horrible at doing make-up.” She pointed at her eye. “But as it turns out, Haley is a million times better than either of us.”

Shane stared at them, heart racing. “I swear to god, I didn’t fucking touch her.”

“Shane, relax, they know what happened.”

“We know you didn’t touch her,” said Emily, then paused, giving a little pixie smirk. “At least, not like that.”

All three girls laughed, and Shane began to think that perhaps this was his version of hell. Forget meeting her parents – he wished now that he’d walked in on them.

And shit, make-up took a long time. He sat on Sophia’s couch for what felt like an hour, scratching Amber, stomach rumbling at the smell of the turkey that was already cooked and keeping warm in the oven. Sophia sat in one of the kitchen chairs, Haley bent over her like a beautician while Emily stood back with her arms crossed, appraising the situation and wandering from side to side to make sure it look good in all angles of the light.

Tonight Sophia wore a long, loose sweater over a pair of white leggings, hair tumbling over her shoulders. Something about the way she sat in that chair while the other two fussed over her was captivating – like she was the star in a play, like it was her special day – and he could tell in her own modest way that she enjoyed the attention. A small smile played at her lips, even as Haley patted over her closed eye with a make-up sponge.

She was so goddamn beautiful. With a stab, he realized he’d never told her that. He’d thought it of course – oh god, so many times – but he’d never told her, and wondered if it ever made her sad.

Eventually the girls finished up and Sophia called Shane over to look. Even knowing nothing about make-up he was impressed: she looked brand new, and no one would be able to tell.

“It’s – really good,” he said, still supremely uncomfortable to be in the same room as Haley.

Sophia looked in her handheld mirror, beaming. “It’s perfect. Thank you guys so, so much.”

“Any time,” said Emily, and after they’d gathered their things the two sisters waved and walked out the front door.

The moment they left Sophia flung herself at Shane with all the energy of a coiled spring being released; she pushed him against the refrigerator, kissing his face with an enthusiasm he still couldn’t understand being mustered on his behalf.

Except she was being sloppy. Sloppy in the sexiest way, but sloppy nonetheless—

“Sophia – stop—” He tried to push off her kisses, succeeding only in redirecting them to his jaw. “Come on, don’t fuck up your make-up before they even get here… Sophia!” he repeated, louder, when she moved to sucking his neck.

Like dinner wouldn’t be uncomfortable enough; why not throw in a throat hickey?

She sighed, releasing him. “Fine, you win. But the whole time they’re over here, I don’t want you to forget how fucking bad I want you.”

And god, he wanted her too, but she was so damn feisty and Shane was too tired to reciprocate her enthusiasm. Lately, everything had been so exhausting. His job, with its alternating bouts of stress and boredom – a job that had him walking past shelves of liquor every day, whispering how easy it would be to get a few minutes reprieve. Jas, who’d become accustomed to the Uncle Shane who sat at the dinner table every night, who played with her after, and then started her bath and read stories with her before bed. He let her expect certain things of him now, and that was dangerous for someone with his track record. And fuck, trying to uphold those expectations day after day, when they sucked him dry of energy he didn’t have, and then keeping up his responsibilities on the ranch for Marnie…

It was exhausting, waking up and being present in life. Sometimes he wished so badly that it could just be him and Sophia, dropping the rest of the world behind.

His arms were loose around her waist now, and her expression reminded him of the gridball match – the way her smile slowly came to a standstill, her energy turning softer before his eyes.

“Shane?”

“You’re beautiful,” he said quietly.

She blushed. “Only because they fixed my fucky eye…”

“No.”

She blushed again, laying her head against his chest. Her fingers hooked into his back belt loops, and the pressure pulling on them filled his chest with the strangest sense of longing. It wasn’t even a sexual longing, not exactly. Well... maybe. Maybe a little bit…

Fuck. He really liked her fingers in his belt loops. It was a good pressure. It was a good spot. And he needed to say something right this second, before this seemingly innocuous act gave him a goddamn erection right before dinner.

“When did you learn how to cook a turkey?” he blurted.

Sophia didn’t seem to notice the agony she’d produced twisting her fingers in those loops; she just smiled innocently, tucking her chin. “I cheated. Pierre’s has most of this stuff ready-made at this time of year. But it counts if I had to heat the oven to keep it warm, right? And the jam for the rolls, that’s homemade…”

It was one of those idiosyncrasies Shane found stupidly endearing – that she dragged her feet at even preparing toast, yet throughout the summer had filled the pantry floor to ceiling with homemade jams, pickles, and sauces. But before he could respond there came a sudden loud rumble, and then the cut of an engine.

“Shit,” she said, jerking back. “They’re here.” Immediately she let go of him and began pacing the room. “Remind me again why I wanted them to come?”

“To see the farm?”

“Exactly – and it’s the start of goddamn winter. Everything is shriveled and awful. Motherfucker… should’ve just told them to come in the spring.”

“No offense Sophia, but you’ve seen me in front of strangers. You should probably hold it together.”

“Yes, you’re right, of course you’re right.” She paced some more, until there was a knock at the door. She took a deep breath, drawing her hands down in front of her face like she were doing some kind of yoga or meditation, and then walked with poise to answer it.

God, the way she could turn it on and off like a switch. Shane would’ve done anything to have a similar switch for his own anxiety.

“Hi!” she said, swinging the door open and graciously ushering her parents inside.

Her mother looked vaguely like Sophia might, if she were thirty years older and had lost all will to live. Her father reminded him of a sad clown, a pleasant looking man who ought to be cheerful but was weighed down by the lines of his own face. Shane was glad to see them in sweaters and jeans at least; he’d been afraid of being underdressed.

Except the next thing out of Sophia’s mouth was, “Mom, Dad, I’d like you to meet Shane,” and fuck, his palms immediately grew sweaty, knowing he was meant to shake their hands. He couldn’t wipe them on the front of his pants without looking like a nervous idiot, so tried to inconspicuously blot them on the sides as he walked over.

“Hey. It’s – uh, nice to meet you both.”

Hey?

There it was, the fuck-up on the first sentence.

“And you,” said her mother, shaking his hand first. Her expression remained neutral, unreadable. Her father came next, and though he didn’t say anything he did lift the corners of his mouth, just enough that Shane felt reasonably sure it was meant to be a smile. Sophia waited off to the side, eyes anxious.

Her mother frowned once the introductions were over. “I left your centerpiece in the backseat, Sophia. I’ll go get it now.” Then she left, the three of them standing awkwardly in the kitchen.

Sophia gave her dad a timid smile. “Dad, Shane lives on the ranch south of the farm – Marnie Daniels is his aunt.”

Her dad’s tufted white eyebrows lifted slightly, and for the first time since arriving he spoke. “You’re Marnie’s nephew?”

“Yes, sir,” said Shane, certain he sounded like an imbecile.

“My father always spoke very highly of your aunt. Is she doing well?”

“Er – yeah, she’s good.”

“And you work on the ranch?”

“Oh, uh…” Shane licked his lips. “Not exactly. But I help out with stuff. The chicken coop, the horses sometimes…”

It looked like Sophia might butt in to save him when the door reopened and her mother returned, holding an arrangement of burgundy flowers with a tapered candle in its center.

“Oh, Mom, it’s beautiful,” said Sophia, taking it from her. But the moment it was in her hands, a shadow fell over her face. She rushed it to the table, dropping it in the center and then – unexpectedly – yanking out the cream-colored candle, depositing it on the far side of the counter behind a coffee canister.

“Sophia, what –”

“It’s a gorgeous arrangement,” she said mechanically. “But Shane is terribly allergic to anything scented. We can’t light it.”

Huh?

Shane swallowed. “Uh, yeah. Sorry to ruin your arrangement…”

Fuck. What were you supposed to call your girlfriend’s parents? Were first names disrespectful? Was Mrs. Wakeshire appropriate, or would it make her feel old?

“Of course. Nothing to apologize for.”

“Shall we get the food?” said Sophia, apparently already free of whatever weirdness had overtaken her for those few seconds. She opened the oven to reveal a small roasted turkey and several side dishes in white Corningware; Shane helped her bring it to the table, grateful for something to do, and once they sat down things remained peaceful as everyone filled their plates.

Once the meal started Sophia began to prattle on about the farm, saying how she wished they’d come sooner, how beautiful it had been in the autumn. She described the sunflowers amid the rows of eggplant, corn, and amaranth. She talked about the pumpkins she sold at Pierre’s, that later ended up as decorations at the Spirit’s Eve Festival. Then she began to describe all the work she’d done with Shane, the chopping and pruning and cutting, the sprinklers installed, buildings gutted, the pond cleared – mentioned that they currently spent Saturdays repairing the greenhouse, and how close it was to being done.

Her parents nodded quietly and politely throughout, but Sophia was clearly getting more and more excited as she talked – when getting to the parts with Shane, she was beaming and bragging so much that his face grew hot and he found it hard to look up from his sweet potatoes.

And yet – after fifteen minutes where her pride flooded joyfully from her lips – her mother set down her fork and looked at Shane. “You two are dating, then?”

His heart broke for her, for that look on her face: she only wanted her mom to acknowledge all her hard work. It didn’t last two seconds however, before it was replaced with one of fierceness. Shane had barely opened his mouth to respond when she said, “Yes, Mom. Very much so.”

Her foot grazed Shane’s leg under the table but he was afraid to move, sure that Jacqueline Wakeshire would know, would sense it somehow. Why was she so intimidating? He couldn’t put his finger on it, only knowing that three people currently sat at the table, with the unspoken shared goal of doing nothing to displease the fourth.

“What is it you do,” she asked, “other than help my daughter on the farm?”

His mouth went dry. “I, um. I work at JojaMart.”

“JojaMart? Like Sophia did?”

“Er – no. Just sales floor. Filling shelves, that kind stuff…”

Christ, this sucked – telling her parents he was a fucking stock boy.  

“He also helps his aunt on her ranch, Mom,” Sophia interjected. “Every Saturday he works with me on the farm literally the entire day, and on top of all that, he’s got a kid to take care of.”

Shane gawked at her.

Why would she bring this up now? Not that he was ashamed of Jas, of course not, but his gut told him it was the worst possible time, that it wouldn’t land at all gracefully—

“A kid?” Her mother’s eyes narrowed.

“She – she’s not mine,” he stammered quickly. “I mean, she is, but – my goddaughter…”

Sophia’s father continued to politely eat his stuffing; the way he stared at his plate reminded Shane very much of himself, and what he’d prefer to be doing this moment.

“Still.” Her mother wiped her hands on her napkin. “A child. That’s a big responsibility.”

“Her name is Jas, Mom. She’s seven years old, and Shane is incredible with her. She even drew the picture on my fridge—”

“Seven? Sophia, you’re only twenty-three.”

“I’m twenty-four! And what does that even matter?”

Oh no.

Shane knew that tone. Whatever simmered under Sophia until now had suddenly cranked to a boil – he’d been in that line of fire enough times to know an explosion was very well imminent, and braced himself.

Her mother, however, remained focused on him. “What are your plans for the future, Shane?”

His nerves finally overwhelmed his ability to remain mannerly, and he stared at his plate, pushing around a piece of corn with his fork. “Um… well…”

“With a child, surely you must think about other avenues? Have you gone to college? What’s your skill set?”

Sophia’s face was turning violently pink. “What is this Mom, twenty questions?”

“I’m trying to get to know your boyfriend.”

“You’re drilling him!”

“It’s okay,” Shane muttered, knowing damn well it was falling apart.

“No it’s not,” said Sophia, indignant. “She’s attacking you.”

Her mother’s voice trembled. “I am trying, so please don’t yell at me for taking an interest.”

“Then talk to me about the farm! Ask Shane what he likes to do for fun. Don’t sit over there and fucking judge him.”

“Sophia, for goodness’ sake, your language.”

For the first time not caring that it was in front of her parents, Shane took her hand. “It’s fine Sophia, just stop…”

She swallowed hard, eyes glistening, and the hand that wasn’t holding his formed a loose fist to rub away the frustrated tears.

But then—

“What is that?”

And oh, fucking hell – she was rubbing her make-up right off. Shane watched in horror as the sickly yellow bruise was revealed, and the line of purple that hung beneath it like a single dark eye bag. She looked at her hand, at the flesh-toned pigment now smeared on it, and Shane felt her take a deep breath. She closed her eyes, composing herself, then calmly said, “I promise you, it’s not what it looks like.”

If her mother’s movements were stiff before, now they were downright robotic. Those previously dead eyes glared at Shane as if with lasers, and her words sounded like tin. “It looks, Sophia, like you have a black eye.”

“I do. I did. It was an accident, Mom.”

Jacqueline Wakeshire gripped her spoon hard against the table, knuckles going white.

Mom.”

“An accident.”

“Yes, an accident! I stood over him, I startled him and he stood up too fast— ”

The hand gripping the spoon shook ever so slightly. “If you ever touch my daughter—”

Shane was just beginning to feel nauseous when Sophia jumped to her feet, bumping the table with her legs and making all three of them jump. Her water glass tipped over, clear liquid spreading over the tablecloth. “Mom, I want to talk to you in the bedroom. Dad, Shane, please excuse us.”

She stormed off. Her mother sat rigidly at the table for several seconds, then slammed her spoon on the table with force and followed her daughter.

Shane sat at the table with Sophia’s father, both silently staring at their plates and listening to the strained conversation behind the closed door. Eventually he righted Sophia’s water glass, and with a deep, shaky breath looked up.

“It really was an accident. I swear to god, I’d never hurt her. Ever. You have to believe me.”

But Shane wasn’t sure he did, because though the older man’s expression remained mild, he suddenly got up, walked across the room, and without a word descended the steps to the cellar.

What a fucking nightmare.

Sophia’s kitchen wasn’t tall and open like the ranch’s, but he’d never felt claustrophobic in it either – until now. Like the walls were slowly sliding toward him; his heart picked up speed at the thought that he might have a panic attack, and he’d almost convinced himself it was happening when the creaky footsteps came back up the cellar stairs.

Then the walls stopped moving. Everything stopped moving. Time froze, because her father returned and set an unlabeled bottle of wine and a corkscrew on the table.

He found the cupboard with the wineglasses, grabbing two, then sat down with the bottle between his legs to uncork it. “My father loved to make wine. He grew the fruit himself. Plums, apples, strawberries.” The bottle opened with a vibrant pop, a wisp of smoke rising sensually from its mouth, and he poured several inches of burgundy into each glass.

Shane closed his eyes. This wasn’t happening. It was a cruel trick of the imagination; he’d open his eyes and the wine would be gone. He’d be back in his own bed, her parents had canceled, there’d been no dinner…

Instead he opened them to a wineglass, mere inches from his face. Afraid of offending if he didn’t accept – or worse, looking suspiciously like a recovering alcoholic – he followed her father in taking a drink. Then another. And another. The wine was bitter at first but sweet on the finish, and Shane’s heart raced.

It tasted like failure. Like disappointment. Like relapse.

It also tasted like relief.

This was not good – this was not good at all. He wanted this drink out of his hand. He wanted the whole goddamn bottle.

“Sophia looks happy,” said her dad suddenly, breaking the silence. “Truly happy. I haven’t seen her look happy in a very long time, and if you’re any part of that happiness then I’m extremely grateful.”

Shane had expected either admonishment or silence; anything but praise. He took another drink, hating it and loving it – hating that he loved it – when her dad spoke again.

“Sophia and her mother can’t seem to talk without fighting the past few years.” He took a contemplative sip.  “Her mother… she doesn’t know how to see good things anymore. But I believe you, and I’ll tell her. I’ll tell her I believe you treat Sophia very well.”

Shane could predict nothing about this night, and listening to Sophia’s father tell him he was good for her, sharing a fucking glass of wine with him? That felt more surreal than anything yet. He was still processing, trying to figure out how to respond when the voices behind the door began to rise, like a volcano rumbling in preparation to explode. And then, to Shane’s horror, they could hear every word – at least of Sophia’s.

“I don’t understand this! I don’t understand why you can’t just believe me when I tell you things. I tell you Rick’s a piece of shit and you give him my goddamn number. I tell you Shane’s perfect for me, and you treat him like crap. It’s bullshit!”

A pause, presumably where her mother answered. Then:

“What do you mean, a man with a kid? His best friends fucking died and he takes care of their daughter! That is selfless and admirable and who the shit cares if he doesn’t have a degree—”

Shane cringed; he knew Sophia, knew that in an emotional outburst like this she had zero awareness of how loud she could become.

“Newsflash, Mom, life out here doesn’t cost what it does in the city! He supports Jas just fine!”

He drained the rest of his wine; her father did the same, then poured them each another glass. Shane could already feel the warmth in his cheeks; felt that hook in his brain that already anticipated the next glass, even though his current one was still full. The two men drank in silence as the women continued to argue behind closed doors.

Loudly.

“That’s just fine, because after you guys leave, Shane is staying– he’s been my best friend since moving out here, and now he’s my boyfriend, and if you can’t accept that—”

And for the first time, her mother’s voice was loud enough to hear. “Sophia, that boy is a mess, he does not deserve you—”

“He’s a mess because you were giving him the third degree! God, so stupid of us, to think we could have a nice goddamn dinner…”

Shane stared at the glass in his hand, the crimson liquid rippling slightly.

“I can’t do this,” he declared, standing up. He spoke to himself, but couldn’t stop how loudly the words tumbled out. “I can’t do this – I can’t be doing this…”

Glass still in hand, he grabbed the wine bottle and headed to the sink, where he began dumping both of them out.

He felt Sophia’s father approach from behind. He braced himself for it, for being yelled at, for being asked just what the fuck his problem was. Instead, he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“Are you all right, son?”

Shane dropped the bottle in the sink with a clatter; he leaned against the counter on the heels of his hands, still shaking. And fuck, that simple touch on his shoulder – it was like it’d knocked the wind out of him.

“I shouldn’t be around this stuff,” he finally choked. “At all.”

Least of all when Sophia was shouting at his defense in the other room.

Her dad patted him on the shoulder again. “I’m sorry – I’m so sorry. I wish you’d told me, when I brought it out.”

Shane shook his head, still staring into the sink. “She’s right though. She’s right. I don’t deserve her.” He gripped the edge of the counter. “But I’m trying really goddamn hard.”

A long silence, and when her father spoke again, it was the quietest he’d spoken yet. “Sophia thinks you do. And I think it’s time we all started to believe her.”

As if on cue the bedroom door burst open, Sophia storming out. Her mother was right behind her, grabbing her jacket, purse and car keys and walking straight through the front door, letting it slam behind her. Sophia stopped in the middle of the room, breathing hard, and when her father cautiously approached her she glared as if challenging him to say a single word.

Ignoring the glare, he placed a stiff kiss on her forehead. “I trust you, Sophia,” he said in his frail voice, then picked up his coat and followed his wife out the door.

Sophia stood with her shoulders pulsing in and out. She stared at the door, her eyes – a moment before furious – now heartbroken and confused. She turned those eyes to Shane and he walked straight toward her, wrapping her in his arms.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, falling into him, her throat sounding clogged. “I’m so goddamn sorry, Shane.”

“Maybe you’ll feel better if you shower,” he said, purposely ignoring what she was apologizing for.

She wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “Yeah. Okay.”

While she washed up Shane cleaned the kitchen: putting away the food, doing the dishes, destroying any evidence of the wine. After wiping the table clean he found the candle behind the coffee canister and stuck it back in the arrangement. He wasn’t sure what that was about earlier, but thought maybe if she came out to a clean kitchen, dimmed lights and a lit candle that it would be soothing for her.

After finishing he sank onto the sofa, elbows on knees and head in hands, the tannins of the wine still sharp on his tongue and the buzz of alcohol touching every raw nerve in his body. He wished there were more to clean. As it was, he could only try to think of anything but the cellar below the stairs, all those unopened bottles, and the fingertips that anxiously dug in his hair because they so badly craved a third and fourth glass.

“Shane?” Sophia was now in pajamas, a flannel blanket wrapped around her, fingers gripping it in place at her neck. She leaned against the doorframe to her bedroom, looking and sounding so small. “Will you come to bed early?”

He blinked, smoothing his hair as he stood. “Yeah, of course.”

Then her eyes flickered to the kitchen, the gleaming table and dim lights and candle. Shane watched what little color she had disappear from her face like she’d seen a ghost, and she drew the blanket over her nose and backed into the bedroom.

“Sophia?” He quickly followed.

She lay curled in bed in the fetal position, wrapped in her blanket. Staring at the pillow she said, “Please blow it out.”

Shane didn’t question her; he blew out the candle, then returned to her room and closed the door. Stripping to his boxers and t-shirt he climbed into bed, wrapping his body around hers and covering them both with another blanket. And god, she smelled like Sophia, like coconut shampoo and warm skin, but she was so listless and Shane felt helpless as he held her.

They must have fallen asleep like that, because the next thing he knew she was sitting up and trying to untangle herself from the blankets, frantically kicking a foot that was wound into the sheets.

“Soph – what?” His eyes were barely open when she freed herself, bolting to the bathroom, and he scrambled out of bed to chase after her.

She was curled over the toilet, dry-heaving. Shane knelt beside her, holding her hair from falling in the bowl, awkwardly rubbing her back as new thoughts flashed by, blurring like headlights on a dark road: the paleness, the sensitivity to smell, the need to vomit.

Jesus Christ, is she pregnant?

He continued rubbing her back, inwardly panicking. She only threw up a little – mostly saliva – but sat with her head tucked for a long time, giving little hiccups that might’ve turned into more. At long last she wiped her hand across the side of her face, pushing back the sweaty hairs that stuck there and looking at Shane like she’d just noticed him. He helped her to her feet, then filled a paper cup with water, letting her rinse out her mouth.

Still standing beside the sink, she looked at him with empty eyes. “It was vanilla.”

“Vanilla?”

“Amy. When I found her, she lit a candle. Vanilla.”

When she found her? For all the times Sophia brought up Amy – even talking about her suicide as if it were normal, as if she’d long accepted it – she’d never talked to him about specifics. All Shane knew was she’d cut her wrists. But Sophia found her?

With awkward movements she extracted from Shane’s support and left the bathroom, holding the wall while walking to the kitchen. There she pulled a chair to reach the highest cupboard and took out a carton of cigarettes, then looked down guiltily.

“Don’t be mad.”

“I’m not mad, Sophia, I’m worried…”

Then he pulled on his pants and followed her outside, grabbing the blanket off the sofa and draping it over her shoulders. He sat next to her, huddled in his own jacket, breath coming out in tiny puffs.

She lit the cigarette and smoked in silence for several minutes, then ashed it over the side of the steps and looked at him. A little of her color was back, her expression calmer. “It’s the only time I smoke.”

“You don’t have to explain.”

She inhaled deeply, tilting her head back and sending a funnel of white into the air. “Do you know the last words I said to Amy? Or at least, the last words I said when I thought she was still alive?”

Shane just watched her.

“I said, ‘I think the chicken salad just fucking winked at me.’” She shook her head, still looking at the sky. “I’ll be ninety years old and never forget that. And you know the last thing she said to me?”

He kept watching quietly.

“It was in a text message. ‘I love you more than life itself.’” A pause. “Just fucking like her too – double meaning, being all stupidly poetic.” She took another long drag. “Rick sent me a message that said that.”

“What?”

“That day you came to my house, when he messaged me? Sent me that, word for word.”

“And he knew?”

She rested her elbows on her knees, staring into the darkness. “Yeah. He knew.”

Shane’s chest grew hot. “Fucking bastard.”

Sophia gave a single, mirthless laugh. “Yeah.”

There was a long silence, Shane watching the clouds of smoke slowly disperse one by one into the air. “Your dad believed us,” he said at last. “About your eye. Said he’s going to tell your mom that I treat you well.” He swallowed hard. “Do I?”

She became very quiet. “You shouldn’t even have to ask that, Shane.” Then she snubbed out her cigarette, turning her knees to face him and looking straight in his eyes. “How much did you hear, when I was with her?”

“I don’t know.”

“Everything?”  

“Well…” He hesitated. “A lot.”

“It wasn’t about you,” she said, an almost pleading look on her face. “It was about me and her. She just… she’s a different person now, she never used to act like this. She shits all over my happiness because she doesn’t know how to be happy anymore – I don’t think she believes it exists. I swear to god it wasn’t about you, and I want you to forget anything you heard.”

“Doesn’t help though,” he muttered. “Being a stock boy. Having a kid. I mean, she’s not wrong, Sophia.”

“No. Shut up.”

“It’s—”

Shut up, okay? Shut up. Whatever you’re about to say, it’s not fucking true.”

She grabbed his hand, both of hers gripping it tight. Their eyes hooked under the frosted moonlight, and Shane was startled by how intensely she looked at him – a look that pierced right through his chest. 

“You have to know,” she said, fingers kneading his knuckles. “You have to realize by now.” The movements grew deeper, her eyes wide. “I love you, Shane. I do. I love you. I’m in love with you… sometimes so much, I don’t know what to do with myself.”

Her grip on his hand tightened more, and the same sensation gripped his heart. He opened his mouth but the words stuck in his throat and nothing came out, and he stared, caught in her headlights.

“You don’t have to say it back, if you can’t. If – if you don’t,” she continued, a desperate edge to her voice. “But say something. Tell me it’s okay that I feel this way – tell me it’s okay I feel this strongly. I’ve never been here, I’ve never felt this before. Please tell me it’s okay.”

He couldn’t do it looking in her eyes. Heart hammering, feeling like a coward, he ran his free hand over his face and stared at the bottom porch step. “Sophia,” he choked, and the tightness in his chest grew tighter. “I’ve loved you since fucking summer.”

There was a long, full silence. Then, in the faintest voice:

“Will you look at me?”

He rubbed his mouth once more, looking up.

She smiled. It was the softest kind of smile, the kind where her lips barely moved, and then she whispered, “I love you.”

So, so softly.

And yet, even as she looked at him, saying those exact words, he felt certain she had the wrong person. For a moment he was again cognizant of that shadow beneath the surface, and he loathed it – loathed it for being there to witness this moment that was meant to be only the two of them, for bringing that sense of doubt he could never escape from.

He pulled her fiercely into a hug, his face in her hair, the scent of smoke mingling with her coconut shampoo.

 

Chapter Text

Sophia woke late Saturday to find herself alone, the sheets crumpled beside her and the smell of coffee drifting in from the kitchen. Her head ached, her mouth tasted like ash, and the disastrous dinner of the previous night flooded her thoughts – but only for a moment. She rolled onto Shane’s side of the bed, burying her face in his pillow while morning sunlight streamed down the back of her neck.

He’d been perfect. Beyond perfect, and not just in the aftermath of the dinner, but the dream as well. Throughout hundreds of nightmares in her past, she’d only ever woken to one of two things: Rick telling her to get the fuck over it, or dead lonely silence. But Shane had stayed with her through all of it. He rubbed her back while she was sick. He joined her in that usually-private, post-dream cigarette. And on a cold porch in the middle of the night she told him she loved him, and he said it back. 

Well, sort of. The words hadn’t been quite in the traditional order, and he’d strictly avoided eye contact while saying it – but it wouldn’t be Shane if he’d been too comfortable, right?

For a while she only lay there, snuggled into the bedding and wondering if he’d return with the coffee. It wouldn’t surprise her, not after last night.

She was so used to taking care of everyone else. Amy had been her best friend, but emotionally was a full-time job. She’d grown exhausted with her parents, always hitting that brick wall when she tried to help them. And Rick? He’d given such a beautiful illusion of caring at the start, but too soon – or perhaps not soon enough – that illusion was shattered by his narcissism. He took and took and took, giving nothing in return while her existence catered to him.

Of course, she also took care of Shane, but Shane was different. He wanted her care. He needed it, and even loved her for it. She was useful to him beyond a warm body, a wet mouth, or an ego to stroke, and every stride to his happiness was a stride to her own. And he took care of her too.

He always had, but now he was being more overt about it. He was putting her welfare ahead of his own, he was giving stability to her new life in the valley, he was—

…probably not coming back.

Pulling on pajama bottoms and a sweater, she rubbed her eyes and wandered out of the bedroom. Shane was already dressed and sitting on the sofa next to Amber, a cup of coffee in hand and blank eyes staring at the meteorologist on TV. Sophia poured herself a cup too, then shuffled over to plop down beside him.

“You’re up early,” she murmured, setting the steaming mug on the end table.

“Yeah.” His voice was as flat as his expression. “Gonna work on the hutch.”

For one sleepy moment Sophia wondered if she’d dreamt it all – a dream within a dream, that she’d never actually woken up in the cold sweat with Shane chasing after her, never actually said, “I love you” to him on her porch steps.

“Hey,” she said, cuddling into his side. “You all right?”

“Yeah, fine.”

“You don’t seem fine… you’re never out here this early.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Of course not, but—”

“I wanted an early start, okay?”

“Okay, Jesus.”

She reached for her coffee, leaning back and watching the dark liquid ripple. Why didn’t he understand how needy she felt? Why couldn’t he give her a single affectionate touch – a single look of reassurance –to show that she hadn’t actually dreamt it? As it was, something suspiciously like dread was drumming into her.   

A commercial came on, blasting far louder than the weather report, and she looked up just in time to see Shane mute the TV. Silence followed. Then:

“I’m spending too much time here.”

Six simple words, and Sophia instantly felt sick.

“Y-you are?” she trembled, setting her coffee back down.

He stared through the commercial. “I’m abandoning Jas again.”

“Huh? That’s not true at all. You’ve never been better to her.”

“Like that’s saying a whole fucking lot.”

“Shane!”

“Marnie’s watching her the whole damn weekend.” He paused, then snorted. “Again.”

“Yeah, because she knows you’re staying here to work on my hutch. This was planned, remember?”

“And all the other weekends the past few months?”

“It’s—”

“Just fucking like me, shoving her off on somebody else. Every day after work I come here. I pick my girlfriend over my kid.”

Had she slept through a whole extra day? What could possibly have happened in the last few hours to cause such an abrupt change? He sounded so angry.

“And I told you not to choose!” she cried. “Jas is welcome any time – I tell you to bring her over here at least once a week. You’re the one who ignores that.”

“Because I told you.” He put his hands over his face, rubbing hard. “I’m not going to force a kid on you. Fuck.”

She took a deep breath to keep her voice measured and free of her bubbling anger. “It’s not forcing if I invite her over. I love Jas, and I love when the three of us spend time together. Shane, if this is about those stupid things my mom said—”

“Look,” he said, standing abruptly. “Just let me do my own thing today, okay?”

Then he slipped on his coat and shoes and walked out the front door.

Sophia, feeling small and stupid, fought back the stinging in her eyes. What had she expected? For them to immediately say those words again? For him to gaze at her through dark, sleepy lids and pull her on top of him for morning sex? For all their problems to disappear in a flurry of tangled limbs and kisses in light of these newly proclaimed feelings?

Well, yes – for a day or two, at the very least.

She left him alone, respecting his space as he worked on the hutch, hoping the fresh air would lift his mood. At noon she went outside with an offer of lunch, but after being met with a gruff, “No thanks,” excused herself to the greenhouse for the remainder of the day. Tending to the berry seedlings, she tried to distract herself from the hurt in her heart; tried to reassure herself that this moodiness was only the dinner catching up to him and had nothing to do with what they’d shared on the porch. 

At suppertime she returned to the house to find Shane already inside – and in an even worse mood than before.

He’d committed an irreparable, unforgivable sin.

He’d cut several boards too short.

“I’m sure we can fix it,” she said carefully, the room chilled with more than the gust of cold air brought in from outside.

He shook his head, grabbing a soda from her fridge. “It’s – I have to buy new ones. I fucked it all up. Your stupid rabbits will get wet and freeze because I cut the boards wrong, because I didn’t fucking measure properly. Knew I was going to do something dumb like this. Just fucking knew it.”

“Shane… Shane, I love that you’re doing this for me, but I don’t want it to be a source of stress – I don’t want the process to make you hate yourself…”

“Nothing can make me hate myself if I already fucking do.”

“You’re frustrated, you just need to take a break—”

He interrupted with a loud sigh, then stared at a spot on the floor. “Your gift,” he mumbled at last. “I’m ruining it.”

Hurt as she felt, Sophia found it impossible to stay away when he was folding in on himself like this. She smoothed back his hair, wet where the snowflakes had melted since coming inside, then softly kissed his cheek. “You made a mistake. You didn’t burn my house down, so stop beating yourself up. Please?”

“Yeah.” But he didn’t wrap his arms around her; didn’t kiss her forehead like usual when she kissed his cheek. Taking a swig of soda, he only stared at their reflection in the black window.

Later that night when they were in bed – after having spent a long evening in strangled silence – Sophia sat up against the headboard.

“What’re you doing?” Shane muttered thickly.

“It’s bothering you.”

“It’s fine.” He yanked the covers higher to his neck. “I’ll pick up new boards tomorrow.”

“Not the goddamn hutch. I’m talking about the things my mom said.”

“It’s fine. Fuck, Sophia, come on…”

“It’s not fine! It’s the opposite of fine. Last night you tell me you love me, then today you treat me like this?” The last word caught in her throat. “You’ve barely talked to me all day, you’ve barely even looked at me...”

He sighed angrily. “What do you want me to do? It’s late and I’m fucking tired, okay?”

No, it was not okay. She’d given him space all afternoon, and right now his space could go fuck itself.

“No. No. This is the Shane you give to strangers, not to me. I deserve better – I deserve more of you than whatever the hell this is.”

He said nothing, only putting a hand over his face. She had half a mind to keep ripping into him, to tell him what shit it was, acting so cold and distant after what they’d shared. Except when she opened her mouth to do just that, something stopped her.

It was all her fault. It was her stupid dinner that’d done it; he could deny until he was blue in the face, but she knew it was true. Without the dinner they wouldn’t have been stressed – she wouldn’t have had the dream – he wouldn’t have needed to comfort her, and possibly say things he wasn’t ready to say—

“I need you,” she whispered, voice cracking. “Please, please don’t pull away from me. Not after last night…”

He rubbed the hand down his face, but then – to her surprise – pulled himself up to a sitting position.

“Shane?”

More silence. Then, in a defeated voice: “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” she said, feeling desperate. “Be here.” She pressed her body against his. “You know you can tell me anything, right? Anything. Even if you think it’ll make me upset, it’s so much more important that we’re honest.”

He lifted his head sharply. “What?”

“Just – if it made you uncomfortable last night. If you regret saying it…”

“Oh,” he said, posture relaxing. “Sophia, that’s not—”

“I won’t be mad. Just please, please don’t pull away from me.”

He closed his eyes. “I don’t regret that.

“You don’t?”

“Fuck no.”

“Then what is it?”

“I told you, it’s nothing.”

Clearly it wasn’t nothing. But knowing he didn’t regret what they’d said, Sophia’s hurt subsided enough to drop it – to focus instead on the fact that he wasn’t pushing her away. She pressed into him, feeling her own body language change.   

“Sophia…”

“We don’t have to talk right now, but please stay close. Please?”

Even as her hand slid to his groin, she felt guilty. She knew she used sex to bring him closer, and maybe they did rely on it a little too much. But was it really so wrong, using her physicality to get through to him? He was so goddamn frustrating, so stubborn and closed off and unwilling to talk about the important things. At least, not without the softness that followed lovemaking, when for a few precious moments Sophia had access to the whole of who he was – a few soft, precious moments that never lasted long enough.

“Soph—”

“Not for sex sex,” she whispered, slipping the hand into his pajama pants. “Just to be close.”

He sighed. “I’m not in a good place right now, okay?”

“Then let’s get you into a better one.”

God, she was being pushy again. Had she always been this pushy? She only wanted everything to feel right again, but there had to be a better way. But then– just as she was about to pull back – Shane’s hand slid over her thigh.

She wore only a t-shirt, and as she climbed on him his hands continued to stroke her thighs, then glide along the curve of her ass.

“Forget everything about today,” she said, sinking onto his lap. “Please? Just let it go, just be close.” Leaning in with breath close enough to tickle his ear, she whispered, “Get hard for me, Shane.”

There was the slightest movement beneath her.

“Please,” she whispered again. “Please get hard for me. Please, please get hard for me…”

This was a first. He’d never let on that he was into having her beg for it, but with each please that left her lips his body reacted more, and Sophia latched onto it.

“Please,” she repeated, over and over, pressing into him. “Please…”

As small, excited ribbons streamed through her body, she realized something – she loved feeling desperate for him.  No matter that he almost always took the lead during sex. This was different; it was intoxicating needing to beg her way in. She pleaded, grinding against him, certain he was already there and making her wait on purpose.

Then without a word, one hand reached up to scoop the side of her neck. Then the other. At first they remained still, but a moment later they wrapped around, encircling it.

Gently they squeezed.

It wasn’t hard. It didn’t hurt. It was just enough; through the dark she could make out the shape of his head, the darker spots where his eyes were, and she stared solemnly into them, her face growing hot from the hold.

“Shane,” she whispered, voice constricted.

His hands closed tighter, the pulse in his thumbs against her throat.

She loved when he led, always. And it was quiet like this, always. But until the moment his grip tightened, she had no idea she was into this. The heat in her lips and forehead began to tingle. Her head swam, and all the worries of earlier in the day seemed to disappear. Right now it was only Shane and the implicit trust between them, and she silently willed him to grasp tighter.

Instead, he let go.

“Fuck,” he mumbled.

She continued to stare at the dark spots of his eyes. “Shane.”

Fuck. Should’ve asked…”

“I liked it.”

“I’m sorr—”

“I said I fucking liked it.”

“Well maybe you shouldn’t, okay? Maybe you should find somebody who’s not a complete dick to you all the time.”

She half wanted to strangle him back.

“Do you hear yourself? Did you listen to a single word I said last night? I love you! What more do you need me to say? Because I swear to god, I’ll say it. Whatever it is, I’ll say it – I’m willing to sound desperate, I’m willing to make a fool of myself – I’m fucking yours.” She reached down, pulling his cock free from his pants and guiding it into her. “I’m yours, Shane,” she whispered, sliding slowly to its base. “I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours…”

She needed to be as close as possible to him. He was inside her but it wasn’t enough – it was never enough – and it was a crazed feeling that ran through her as she rocked on his lap; obsessive and wild and probably not entirely healthy at its core.

“Forget everything else,” she whispered. “Just make me yours.”

 


 

December shaped into a rough month for Shane’s mental health. His moods became unpredictable.

That Monday after work he burst through Sophia’s door just as she’d returned from working in the greenhouse. Not bothering to let her change from her work clothes – nor changing from his – he took her against the wall of her kitchen, lifting her entire weight off the floor, her back pressed against the paneled wood and his hands under her hips as he pushed into her saying, “I love you Sophia, I love you Sophia,” over and over, as if each thrust were determined to prove that.

He continued working on the hutch each day. Some days he came inside grinning and teasing her, others only silently grabbing a soda and remaining moody until he left. At first Sophia tried to cheer him up on those days, but she quickly learned her efforts made it worse.

“Maybe you ought to take a break, just for awhile,” she said.

“Great. Then I’ll never finish and you’ll always have a half-built hutch to remind you what a fuck-up I am.”

Another time she ran a hand down his arm. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, Shane. Cut yourself some slack.”

But he only shook her hand off. “You mean the way I’ve done my whole fucking life and never accomplished anything?”

It broke her heart over and over. Saying I love you was supposed to strengthen their bond, not diminish it, but ever since that night he’d been coming apart at the seams, and Sophia felt like she could do nothing to fix it. 

On Friday – exactly one week after the dinner – Shane arrived a little after nine, and she stopped him on the porch before he could step inside.

“You warm enough?”

“Huh?”

His tone, his expression – it was clearly not one of his good days. She tried to ignore that fact, saying, “Are you warm enough to keep walking? We have a date tonight.”

“Since when?”

“Since now.” She shoved the stack of blankets she’d been holding under one of his arms, then grabbed the flashlight from the canvas bag on her shoulder. “Come on.”

“I thought we’d just relax tonight…”

“We’ll relax when we get there,” she said, grabbing his free hand and wrapping the cold fingers in her own.

The beam of the flashlight swung over the dark, snowy property, the world silent but for their crunchy footsteps and the whistling wind through the trees. A lump formed in Sophia’s throat as she gazed at the blanketed farmland, at remembering how lush it’d been only months ago – how snarled and overgrown only months before that.

How different everything would have turned out if she hadn’t met Shane.

In the distance was the fire pit, and she lamented how few times they’d used it before the snow came. Next year. Next year they’d have more fires. She’d invite Jas over for s’mores, or to go swimming in her pond. Maybe she could buy a small tent and the three of them could camp in her yard. And the city – she definitely had to take Shane to the city more often, he’d been so at home on those sidewalks, and the change of scenery would be good for him.

If he still wants to be with you next year.

Sophia squeezed her eyes shut. They would be together. He loved her. That wouldn’t change because of a few bad moods. Just look at Amy – she’d cycled through terrible spells of depression for years, often cranky and shutting Sophia out, but even during the worst times she’d never stopped loving her. Even during the worst times, Amy never hesitated to call Sophia her best friend.

Whatever life threw at Shane, she’d be there for him. She’d be patient. She’d do whatever she could to make him happy again.

After what felt like ages they reached a section of forest along the edge of her property, and Sophia came to a halt. Shane paused too.

“The treehouse?” he said, realizing where she’d led them.

“Yes.” She passed him the flashlight and began to climb. “We have good talks in here.”

He snorted. “Once.”

“After tonight it’ll be twice. Now hand me those and come up.”

Once inside she propped the flashlight on its end and laid out the blankets. They sat with their backs against the wall, just like they’d done in early summer – only this time Sophia wormed her way under Shane’s arm.

“Remember being here with me last time?”

He snorted again. “You mean when I came over drunk.”

“I mean when we had one of the best conversations we’ve ever had.”

“Because I was drunk.”

I was drunk,” she whispered. “You barely were, and you know it.”

A pause.

“Look,” she continued. “I know we never talk about it anymore. And I know you’re having a rough time lately. You are,” she insisted, when he opened his mouth to deny it. “I hate to say this because I’m terrified it’ll come out condescending, but – I’m so, so proud of you Shane. It’s been ages since you drank last. It can’t be easy, but you’re doing so well, and after everything you’ve gone through—”

She stopped talking as he yanked his arm free of her, dropping it to his lap.

Oh, god. She’d offended him.

“I swear!” she said quickly. “I’m not blowing smoke up your ass. I’m proud of you, and I mean that with all my heart."

Silence.

“It hasn’t been ages,” he spat.

“Huh?”

“I drank, okay?”

“You what?!”

“I drank, Sophia, with your dad. And he knows I’m a fucking alcoholic, and now your mom probably does too.”

The wind howled outside, but tucked into this little pocket of stillness in the trees Sophia felt removed not only from the wind, but the world as a whole. It was the first time either of them had ever used that word aloud. Alcoholic.

“You were,” she said, biting her lip. “You were an alcoholic. You’ve been better for months…”

“Yeah? I was also better for years, at one point. Bunch of fucking good that did me.”

Though she spoke in a whisper, her voice seemed to amplify through the treehouse. “Y-you told my dad?”

Shane dragged his hands down his face, looking like this was the last thing on earth he wanted to discuss. “He brought up wine from your cellar. I drank two glasses and then freaked out. Dumped the rest of it down the drain, right in front of him.”

Sophia briefly remembered the last time she’d seen him drink in person. They’d been at the Stardrop Saloon, he’d looked miserable, and when she pointed out that he was drinking beer again, he’d responded by heading to the bar to down shot after shot.

It hadn’t been a lie, telling him she was proud of him just now. And hearing the rest of the story, that pride soared even higher.

“You dumped it out,” she repeated softly.

“So?”

“So? You dumped it out!”

“Yeah, after I already drank some.”

“And that was probably even harder to do! That’s huge, Shane. Are you going to hate me if I keep telling you I’m proud of you?”

“Honestly? Yes. Knock it off.”

It felt like a smack to the face. The words could have been a joke, but the seriousness in his voice was anything but.

“It doesn’t matter.” She looked at her lap, growing equally serious. “It’s my fault anyway.”

“Oh, fuck off.”

“It is. I put you in that position to begin with. My mom – everything she said – leaving the room to fight with her—”

He tilted his head back against the boards with a frustrated groan.“How many times do I have to tell you, it’s not what your mom said? Fuck. I thought you said this was a date? Why the fuck are we talking about this?”

“Because we need to!” she cried. “Because I need the person I love to be honest with me! You’re not alone anymore, so why do you insist on acting like you are? If you slip up and drink I want to know, because I support you! And if you’re upset about the stuff my mom said, I want to know so I can tell you I feel the exact fucking same. She was way out of line, and if I could rewind time so you’d never have to hear that shit, I’d do it in a heartbeat!”

Shane stared at her. One side of his face was illuminated by the pale yellow beam of the flashlight, the other in harsh shadow, and he said nothing.

She took a deep breath. “Shane, my mom’s had some kind of break with reality. Ever hear those stories about people who have strokes that affect their brain? Like, they come out a different person, blunt or vicious or angry all the time. Ever since Amy… that’s my mom. She’s a different person. I already told you, it’s not you. If she met you before, if I dated you before it all happened…”

“I’d still be an alcoholic,” he said quietly.

“You’d still be you, and my mom wouldn’t have said those horrible things.”

Shane picked up the flashlight, playing with the clasp on its side. After a long moment of silence he said, “Do you remember the dance?”

“Of course.” Sophia braced herself; this was clearly not going to be a pleasant trot down memory lane.

“You asked me what my ‘thing’ was. I didn’t answer, because I didn’t have a thing. I got shitfaced, that was it.” He continued to fiddle with the clasp, avoiding eye contact. “At dinner when your mom was grilling me you told her to stop – told her to ask me what I like to do instead. Well, I’m fucking glad she didn’t. What would I have said, Sophia? I don’t do anything. I don’t have hobbies or a career or any of that shit. I’m not good at anything. All I’ve ever done is drink and stock groceries and sit around on my ass—”

“Oh come on! That’s not true.”

“Yeah? You don’t know who I was before all this – you don’t know what I was like.”

“Fuck, Shane, I know at least a little b—”

“Do you have any idea what it’s like to drink like that?”

Fighting the stinging behind her eyes, she whispered, “No.”

He began snapping the flashlight clasp so hard it looked like he was trying to break it. “You get off work, you drink. You wake up on the weekend, you drink. You drink before you go anywhere. Nothing to drink at home, you go to the bar. Too early for the bar, you go to the liquor store and stand there like a jackass waiting for it to open. If you’re not drunk you’re either hungover or only thinking about when you’ll get your next drink. You blow your whole paycheck and then wonder where the fuck your money goes. You sleep like shit. It’s your whole goddamn life.”

The flashlight fell with a clatter, and Sophia jumped.

“What kind of idiot wants to go back there?” he muttered, dropping his head in his hands. “What kind of idiot has one drink and then can’t stop thinking about going back to that miserable fucking place?”

Trembling, she said, “You can’t stop thinking about it?”

He sank against the boards. “Do you know what it’s like going to work now? Passing that stupid liquor wall twenty times a day?”

She shook her head.

“I’m nothing. No goals, no ambition. You’re the most ambitious person I’ve ever met. It’s fucking terrifying trying to keep up with you. Why the fuck are you with somebody who doesn’t have a future?”

Sophia sank against the boards too, resting her head on his.

“Because I don’t think it’s true,” she said quietly. “I think you’re just shit at seeing what you’re capable of. Look at everything you do. You work full-time. You help Marnie on the ranch, and that chicken coop is basically yours. You were here every Saturday for months, working all day long for free. You take care of Jas, you’re building me a rabbit hutch, and you’re an amazing boyfriend – you aren’t lazy or stupid, Shane, and you don’t have bad moods. You’re chronically depressed. Doing everything you’ve done, being that way? None of that is easy.”

In their time together, Sophia thought she’d learned all the different inflections of his voice. But when he spoke next, it was a sound she’d never heard before – bruised and desperate.

“Sophia, I don’t want it to come back.”

“It won’t,” she said, knowing she had no authority to make such a promise.

“It will. I can’t do it.”

“You can. You are, right now. Look, you’ve had a shit lot in life—”

“Doesn’t matter. Could’ve been born into a family like yours, I’d still end up like this. If Garrett hadn’t died, it would’ve been something else that made me go back, I fucking promise you. I can’t do it. I can’t. It’s who I fucking am.”

Cold wind whistled through the cracks of the treehouse, and the dropped flashlight illuminated a circle of light on the far wall.

Sophia wiped the corner of her eye and whispered, “But I love who you are.”

 

Chapter Text

“Jas, come on. Stop it.” 

Stop it,” she repeated, her tiny voice mocking.

“Seriously, kid? You want a time out?”

“Seriously, kid?”

“Yeah, that’s it. No toys, no TV. Ten minutes.”

“Ten minutes is forever!”

“It’s ten fuck— it’s ten minutes,” he said through gritted teeth, not quite catching the curse in time. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. “Seriously. Butt in chair, now.”

“You should get the time out!” she yelled, redness scrunching into the skin around her eyes. “You’re so mean, and you just said a bad word!”

“Yeah?” He grabbed the magnetic timer off the fridge and punched in ten minutes. “Sounds good. We’ll both sit here.” Then he plopped down in the chair next to her, leaning back and rubbing his temples.

Resigned to her punishment Jas began to sob, tiny arms crossed and eyes squeezed shut so she wouldn’t have to look at Shane; an image that carefully straddled the line between tragic and adorable.

Marnie had called JojaMart just before his shift ended, asking if he might come straight home today rather than go to Sophia’s. She’d planned to go grocery shopping before dinner and didn’t want to bring Jas along like usual – and once Shane arrived at the ranch he understood why.

She was in a horribly bratty mood.

The worst part was how apologetic Marnie had been; as if she were asking a huge favor, as if Shane wasn’t supposed to be Jas’s primary caretaker in the first place. Supposed to be being the operative phrase, of course. He didn’t act like her primary caretaker, not by a long shot. He just hated being reminded of it.

The phone rang, and a sighing Shane got up, too worn to feel the usual anxiety of answering.

“Hello?”

“Oh – um – Mr. Daniels?” said a timid voice.

“Yeah,” he said, feeling suspicious.

“Is Miss Daniels… is Marnie available?”

“No.”

“Oh. Okay. This is Miss Penny, Jas’s teacher. Do you know what would be a better time to call?”

A surge of frustration shot through Shane’s chest. “No, but if it’s about Jas, you can tell me.”

“I’ve only spoken with Marnie previously—”

“I’m her guardian,” he said gruffly.

“Yes, of course.” Penny sounded flustered. “It’s just, well, Jas had a rough day at school. She was acting up a lot – not listening, sassing back, even being mean to the other kids. She’s usually such a sweet and well-mannered student and it’s very unlike her, so my call is merely out of concern. You see, I believe the reason for her behavior was today’s assignment.”

“…and?” said Shane, regretting the word immediately. God, no wonder Penny sounded so meek. He was a fucking jackass.

“Well, today the children worked on family trees and – I’m sorry, this is awfully intrusive – but I’m aware of Jas’s living situation, and I’m afraid she was rather frustrated by the whole thing. You see, the children were meant to draw pictures of their family members and then label how they were related to them. Jas was quite confused about some of the labeling, and I tried to help her, but when she realized her tree was so different than the other children’s…”

Penny trailed off, and all Shane could say was, “Oh.”

“It was an oversight on my part. I should have realized, been more sensitive to the fact… well, anyway, I assured her that her tree would be just as lovely as any of the others, but I’m afraid my words fell on deaf ears. If you or Marnie could help her with it this week…”

Shane rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, okay.”

“She really is a wonderful student,” said Penny. “I adore having her in my class.”

“Right. Um. Thanks for the heads up.”

Just that astounding natural charisma at work, yet again. Could he have sounded more uninterested in his goddaughter’s schooling? Thankfully Penny took her goodbye then, before he was able to shove yet another foot in his mouth.

He rubbed his eyes with the pads of his fingers, then, sighing, pushed his chair in front of Jas and sat down. “Hey kid.”

No response. The small arms were still crossed, her chin tucked; she refused to look at him.

“That was Miss Penny. Heard you had a rough day at school.”

Her eyes flickered briefly.

“So what’s this project?”

She still wouldn’t look at him, forcing her mouth into a deeper, angrier frown, as if to show this was not up for discussion.

“Will you show me?” he asked carefully.

“I don’t want to talk about it!”

Shane flinched. “C’mon Jas, it’s your homework, just—”

“I lost it! The wind blew it away!”

“The wind—”

“Just leave. Me. Alone!” She burst in an angry staccato, erupting from her chair and racing down the hall toward her bedroom.

Shane followed, only to have the door slammed in his face. He was about to open it anyway when there was a strange sound, like tiny pieces of Styrofoam squeaking together, and he realized she was dragging her beanbag in front of the door to keep him out.

Fine. He’d give her space – let her cry and burn herself out and maybe fall asleep after. Probably for the best, given her mood.

He said nothing about either the phone call or project to Marnie when she returned, only that Jas had a headache and was taking a nap. This felt too personal, something between him and Jas alone, and that was to say nothing of the lingering resentment from the way Penny had addressed the call: as if informing Shane about his own goddaughter hadn’t even crossed her mind.

After dinner Marnie went to work in the stables and Shane went to Jas’s room with a bowl of grapes, knowing she hadn’t eaten anything. He knocked, gently calling her name, and when there was no response he pushed open the door, the beanbag that blocked it sliding across the carpet. She was fast asleep on top of the covers, still in her school clothes and hugging her panda. Shane sat next to her, wondering if she was pretending, but no – she was out cold, not moving a muscle even when his weight pushed the bed down.

He glanced around the room, knowing her backpack had to be somewhere. He was not in the habit of checking it for homework and newsletters – Marnie usually did that – and the guilt settled into his stomach like a rock. It’d been one thing when he was drunk and half-suicidal, but now? Now he fucking knew better, he had no excuse, and he still chose to go to Sophia’s after work rather than settle Jas in from school.

The backpack wasn’t in sight and he got up, peering under the bed, in the closet, behind the toy chest; nothing. Then he noticed the rather suspicious way her stuffed animals were stacked in one corner. They normally sat in perfect rows – she liked to see all their faces – but today they were heaped unceremoniously in the corner. Sure enough, there was a small purple backpack underneath. He unzipped it, digging beneath the pencil pouch, box of crayons, and early reader books, and discovered a crumpled yellow sheet of construction paper, which he carefully smoothed against his leg.

It was covered in drawings. And scribbles.

One heavier set figure with bushy brown hair – AUNT MARNE

One thin figure with long gray hair, now scribbled out – GRAMA

One figure that was only a head with severe, angry looking eyebrows, also scribbled out – MEAN GRANPA

Then there were three figures in a row. One little girl, one woman, one man.

The drawings couldn’t be clearer. Over his own picture was DAD, and then UNCEL SHANE – apparently neither one working for her. At seeing those crossed-out words his heart clawed its way into his throat, but it was the drawing itself that made him choke on it. She’d scribbled over all three of the final figures, but especially hard over the little girl; she’d ripped holes in the page with her pencil.

The whole page, scribbled and torn. Except for Marnie, and the words written at the very bottom :

I dont have bothers I dont have sisters. I dont have a mom. Grama went away granpa said she went to hel. I dont like granpa. Aunt marne is nice I love her. My dads girlfrend Sofia is nice to me she culd be my mom. I love my dad I like when he is not sad.

Shane licked his lips, eyes burning, then blurring.

That scribbled, torn little girl – he couldn’t help thinking of himself at the quarry, when he’d smashed those rocks with the faces of the people he hated, smashing his own face hardest of all. Jas was too fucking young for this shit, she was too young to blame herself…

But she didn’t know what to do. She was told to draw a family tree, and she had to draw five people she wasn’t even technically related to – two who were now gone from her life, one who was brand new, and one she desperately wanted to call dad but who wouldn’t let her. His own jackass father had a slot on the page, yet there was no sign of either Garrett or Samantha. And Sophia was there. In a family tree; a tree whose branches and leaves seemed to snap off every time there was a storm. Jas was getting attached, and all it would take was one wrong move from Shane for another person to be gone from her life. 

He crumpled it back up, shoving it to the bottom of the bag and then returning the bag to its hiding spot. When Sophia called him that evening, he just let it ring.

 


 

“Don’t tell me you’re out.”

Shane, pulling a pallet of two-liter cola, stopped abruptly. His cargo, however, did not.

He closed his eyes and swore in his head as the metal jack caught his heel, then looked up at the middle-aged woman in the pink parka. “Huh?”

She rolled her eyes, because clearly he was an idiot for not reading her mind. “The low-sodium olives.”

“Oh,” he said, “Those. Yeah, we’re out.”

“Will you go check?”

“I put out the last box this morning.”

“But my husband has high cholesterol and can’t have regular olives. We’re having a cocktail party this weekend with his coworkers. Surely you understand that I can’t serve him regular olives.”

“Er…” Shane flexed the handle of the pallet jack several times, unsure of how this was his problem.

“Can you go look in the back?”

“I told you, we’re out.”

“Excuse me, but isn’t it your job to double check? Or do I have to find someone else to help me around here?”

He sighed. “One sec.”

He went to the backroom, standing in the middle of the floor and knowing with one hundred percent certainty there weren’t any more low-sodium olives in the goddamn store. He stared at his fingers, picking briefly at a hangnail. He looked down and noticed his shoelace was loose and retied it. Then he wandered back out to meet the woman in the pink coat.

“Sorry. Still out.”

“Guess I’ll be going to Pierre’s,” she huffed. “You people are always out of the things I need.”

It was always the cherry on top – the way customers threatened to take their business elsewhere, as if he’d be personally gutted by the news.

He was startled then by an obnoxious honk, followed by a cranky, “Excuse me.” Turning, he saw an elderly man in an electric wheelchair, a gnarled finger pressed on a button to emit the noise.

“Sorry,” he muttered. He quickly pumped the handle of the jack to lift it off the ground, but it still took several seconds to get going. The man in the chair tapped his fingers on his leg and sighed impatiently.

Only a few weeks until Wintersday, and Shane had worked retail long enough to know it brought out the fucking devil in people.

He never told Sophia about his days at JojaMart, even though she always told him about her days on the farm. What was there to say? He filled shelves with low-sodium olives, at least when they had them in stock. He parked pallet jacks in the aisle to piss off old men. He mopped floors, and put up sale signs, and lately, paused a moment too long at the liquor shelves.

He told Sophia her mom’s words didn’t bothered him, but he lied. They were murder, all of them. Because they were true. He was a stock boy, and after almost a decade with the same company was making less than a dollar above minimum wage. He had a kid, and whatever Sophia might argue, he knew he was a shitty guardian and provider – the only reason Jas had anything halfway decent was by the good grace of his aunt. As for deserving Sophia? Of course he fucking didn’t. She was amazing, and he was a joke.

And drinking with her father was the worst thing he could’ve done.

The soda aisle was beside the liquor, and as Shane tugged the heavy load behind him he stared at the rows of bottles, at the seductive curves, at the liquid lying in wait behind glass windows and looking as innocent as water.

He tried to convince himself what he knew, logically, to be true: it would feel like shit to drink. Because it would. It would feel like shit. And then – for a moment – it would feel like heaven. Then it would feel like shit again, and the only remedy would be to do it all over – to let himself drown the whole day just to experience that one, transient moment of bliss.

It’ll feel like shit. It will.

But the wine hadn’t. Instead, his most recent memory was one of being stripped down and seduced; of flushed cheeks and a warm chest, so close to euphoria but ultimately left without pleasure. He should’ve finished the bottle that night. Should’ve drank enough to return full-circle to feeling like shit – let himself wake up with a raging hangover, and have his most recent memory of drinking be one he never wanted to repeat.

The hardest part was admitting he loved it. He loved drinking. He hated it too, of course, but he loved it all the same. It was hell to ignore when so much of him just fucking wanted it; it was the most fucked up part of the whole fucked up process. Even when it felt awful, he wanted it. Even when it felt awful, it felt good in its own fucked up way.

He blinked; the aisle was empty for a change, and he’d caught himself paused in the middle of it, staring at the bottles of whiskey as the fluorescent lights buzzed overhead. He thought of all the time he’d spent staring at his dad’s stash in high school, trying to talk himself out of it – usually failing to do so. Then his thoughts were interrupted by a voice crackling over the intercom.

“Attention, customers! Be sure to stop by our produce section – cranberries and winter squash are half off, today only!”

Shane rubbed a hand over his mouth, glancing one final time at the shelves and then yanking his pallet forward again.

Maybe he just liked feeling awful in general. Maybe alcohol gave him permission to feel that way. That there was a part of his heart, not deeply buried, that was addicted as hell to his own melancholy.

 


 

After work Shane went straight home for the second day in a row – this time because it was Friday. Friday was when Marnie met with Lewis, so he'd stay at the ranch and watch Jas until she returned, then stay the night with Sophia after. 

“Leaving a little earlier than normal,” announced Marnie, eyes bright.

Shane glanced up. “Before dinner?”

“Yes. Lewis wants to grab a bite before drinks.”

He snorted.

“Shane, I know how you feel, but I think – I think he’s coming around. I really do.” She slipped on her winter jacket, then paused in front of the mirror above the coat rack. She smoothed several frizzy hairs before giving him an all-too-hopeful smile and slipping out the door.

Fucking Lewis. Shane didn’t buy it. Probably stringing her along, a nasty little strand of faith tied around a dinner date so she’d stick around for a few more midday house calls.

Fucking Lewis.

He lingered in the kitchen as long as he could, knowing Jas was watching cartoons in the other room. The family tree project from yesterday was yet to be confronted, and Shane had spent half the day stressing over how to bring it up to her. As usual, he’d come up with nothing.

Well, not nothing. He’d come up with one thing – a memory. Most of his memories were foggy but this particular one was as vivid as a movie, and now it wouldn’t stop playing on repeat in his head.

They’re in AJ’s Bar and Grill after a gridball match. They’re listening to the sizzle of a fryer – the clink of plates stacked atop one another – a classic rock radio in the background. There’s an order of hot wings in front of them. Garrett’s nervous, fidgeting in ways that are normal for Shane but not his best friend. He’s making Shane nervous too – making him consider for the first time what his anxiety might do to those around him.

He says, “You high or something?” and Garrett looks around before looking back at him. He gives a drumroll on the table with his hands, sucking in his lips before releasing them with a pop, saying, “I got news, man.”

He tells Shane his girlfriend is pregnant, and Shane chokes on his chicken wing.

They’re twenty-two. Shane can’t even imagine having a kid at thirty, let alone twenty-two. But Garrett – he’s twitchy as shit, but he’s not looking terrified. Not like Shane would be in this situation.

He asks his friend, “Is that like, a good thing or a bad thing?” and Garrett grabs his head in his hands, dramatically releasing them to both sides as if it were exploding, saying “I don’t know! It’s – it’s fucking something.” He cracks up in laughter after, shaking his head and saying, “I don’t know why I just said that. It’s good man, it’s good.”

He tells Shane that after the baby is born – “Man, that feels weird to say!” – that they want him to be godfather. And not just some fancy fucking title. Legitimately, shit ever hits the fan, the kid’s all yours, even Samantha wants this, etc.

Shane falls very quiet, staring at his water glass, rotating it on the table and saying “You want some asshole like me as your backup?”

Garrett stares him down, says, “I trust you with my goddamn life, Shane. If that’s not good enough for my kid, I don’t know what is.”

The final words are left unspoken, Shane staring at the table and only thinking them.

Something ever happens to you… that poor fucking kid.

And then he toasts his buddy with a glass of water, because he’s two years sober.

 


 

Shane was almost thirty. Shit had hit the fan. He had a kid, and he still didn’t know what to do with that information. And now he had vomit: all over the carpet and down the side of the sofa, next to a miserable little girl hiding her face.

He closed his eyes and looked toward the ceiling, counting to five, but when he opened them the scene in front of him was still the same.

Jas felt awful the rest of the night, and by extension, so did an already exhausted Shane. Whatever bug she caught had latched on hard and fast, and she spent the entire evening throwing up. Most of the time it was in an empty ice cream bucket he’d found with the cleaning supplies, but once – right after he’d finished scrubbing the sofa and carpet from the last episode – she threw up while laying in bed, covering one side of her hair.

How the fuck did you wash puke out of long hair when the person attached to it was feeling too sick to sit up properly?

Shane scooped her up and carried her to the bathroom, and while draped in his arms she started to bawl.

“I know kid,” he whispered. “I know.”

He set a warm bath for her, keeping her in just long enough to wash the sick out of her hair. She cried throughout most of the bath, though just sitting there, too miserable to fight him on it. By the time he carried her back to bed she was too tired to keep up the tears – only hiccupping occasionally in his arms, nose sniffling.

She also had a temperature and spent the evening fitfully trying to fall asleep, Shane at her side reading books, his mind wandering off each short page.

She exhausted him. Even when she was healthy – even when she was in a good mood and not being bratty – she fucking exhausted him. He’d been trying so hard for months but he still couldn’t look at her without being riddled with guilt. Guilt for the three years he’d barely been around. Guilt for being exhausted by her, when it wasn’t her goddamn fault that she was a little girl with no parents. Guilt because this was his kid now, his kid, and this was not her first time sick but it was Shane’s first time having to deal with that sickness on his own.

How was he supposed to keep doing this, day in, day out? He wasn’t cut out to be a father. Garrett hadn’t expected fatherhood either, but he’d embraced it, shrugging at Shane’s concerns and saying “It’ll be fine. I’m going to be a great dad,” and then proving himself right the moment Jas was born.

Shane never felt it’d be fine. He knew he’d never be great at it. He wasn’t meant for this, he wasn’t cut out for it, he couldn’t do this—

She’d fallen asleep. He closed the book, staring into space for a long time, at least until he heard the front door.

“How’d your evening go?” asked Marnie as he emerged from the hall.

“Jas is sick,” he said flatly. “Temperature. Throwing up.”

“Oh, no.” She clapped a hand to her mouth. “Poor thing. Where is she?”

“Sleeping, for now.”

“Well, that’s good at least. I’m just going to have a quick shower, then you’re fine to go to Sophia’s.”

Shane stared. “She’s sick. I have to take care of her.”

“Oh, you know I don’t mind.”

“Maybe you should,” he said crossly. “She’s my goddamn responsibility.”

A look of hurt struck his aunt’s face, but she only said, “All right,” quietly and left down the hall.

Fuck.

Shane whacked the heel of his hand against his head several times. He had a bad headache; he was being an asshole again, and he couldn’t stop his mouth from running. It was probably a bad time to call Sophia, but he picked up the phone anyway. Not much choice, especially after ignoring her call the previous night.

“Hello?”

“Hey.”

“Hey! Was just about to call you.”

She sounded normal; maybe it was presumptuous to assume she’d be upset by the ignored call. Nothing said they had to talk every single night.

“I can’t come over,” he said.

“You can’t?”

“Jas is sick.”

“Oh." She sounded disappointed. “I understand, of course. Take all the time you need.”

“Thanks for your permission.”

The voice that had been soft until now turned suddenly bitter. “Well, fuck me for caring, right?”

The conversation didn’t last long after that. Shane bleakly apologized, but Sophia didn’t seem particularly keen to keep talking, and honestly neither did he. He only told her that he might not be able to come at all that weekend, and after refusing the offers of her company and canned soup, they both hung up in a bad mood.

The rest of the weekend passed just as heavily. Jas remained terribly sick until late Sunday, after which she grew just well enough to become whiny. Every syllable became stretched out and high pitched, and tantrums were thrown over the pettiest things: the applesauce was touching the crackers on her plate, Shane didn’t know how to do a braid and she wanted one, the toothpaste fell off her brush and into the sink.

All these things were the end of the world.

He never did address the family tree project either, and now she’d return to school with her crumpled, torn paper and reaffirm Penny’s suspicions of how little he seemed to care.

On Monday he actually welcomed his shift at JojaMart, dreading returning to the ranch. But he dreaded facing Sophia even more, and so once again went straight home rather than visit the farm – and there found the kitchen thick with heat from the oven, the smell of roast potatoes in the air. A pot came to a boil on the stove, its lid rattling, and Marnie pushed her sleeves to her elbows before stirring it.

“Shane,” she said, “You haven’t seen Sophia in days.”

He shrugged.

“Jas was feeling much better today. She’ll be able to go to school tomorrow. Why don’t you take a break? You’ve earned it. Go see your girlfriend.”

Yeah. Earned it. Two days taking care of my own damn kid, and suddenly I deserve a fucking award.

“Nah,” he said, grabbing the phone and heading to his room to dial her number.

“You aren’t coming over?” said Sophia. “But I thought you said Jas was getting better.”

“Just because she’s getting better doesn’t mean I can drop her. She’s my goddamn responsibility,” he said, echoing the words he’d told Marnie.

“Okay, okay.” She sounded hurt.

“Well for fuck’s sake, everyone acts like I’m doing them a favor when I watch her. She’s my kid, I’m just doing what I’m fucking supposed to do.”

“I know, Shane. Christ.” She sighed. “What’s going on with you? We barely even spoke this weekend. You didn’t want me to come over, and then Thursday you blew off my call…”

So it had bothered her.

“Talk to me. Come over tonight, after Jas is asleep. Who cares if it’s a weeknight? It’s not like it takes you long to get home.”

“I can’t.” Shane rubbed his eyes, feeling like more of a jackass every second. “Just… we’ll talk tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay,” she whispered. Then, quietly, hesitantly: “I love you.”

Sometimes it felt so good when she said it. Other times it felt like a needle.

Say it. Say it. You’re frustrated right now, but it’s fucking true, just say it.

“Night,” he said, and hung up.

Yet despite all the noise about Jas being his responsibility, he left her in Marnie’s care the rest of the night. He sat in his room pissing away the hours on his console, feeling like of all the times he’d played without caring what the fuck his score was, today was the day he cared least of all.

Then he laid down in bed, staring at the ceiling and gazing up. He laid there for hours.

It wasn’t enough, was it? For someone he loved to love him back. It wasn’t enough to keep it away. It’d been creeping back in for some time now, even though it’d never truly left. It nudged him every time they were in public together. It lingered when he watched her with Jas and realized they were both getting attached. It had a positive fucking field day when he met her parents and was made to feel the size of an ant. It even sat under the porch that night to spy on them, when she first told him she loved him.

And she did. She loved him. She said so almost every time they were together. If there was anything Sophia was not, it was stingy with her words and affection – yet Shane still struggled to say it back most days. It was so easy to feel that love in all the little moments around her, but practically impossible to make himself spit it out. It was a miracle he’d even said it the first time.

He just wanted to close his eyes and be back in the treehouse with her head against his shoulder. Back in the bathhouse the first night they’d kissed, or in her bed the first time he’d been inside her. Back to any of those times and places when the shadow had been shrinking instead of growing. Anywhere but apathy or depression – he couldn’t go back there.

God, he’d been treating her like shit.

What was he thinking, giving her the cold shoulder? Was it so bad that she loved him, or that she was getting attached to Jas? What was so wrong with that? He could go to her, lose himself inside her like he’d been doing for months, apologize and tell her he loved her fifty times and forget about the shadow underfoot.

It was 10:47 p.m. and Jas was fast asleep, and Marnie already settled in bed for the night. Shane grabbed a pen and post-it note, scrawling “Be back tomorrow” and leaving it on the kitchen table. Then he grabbed the truck keys off the hook – the truck because he had to be there now – and peeled out of the yard with the engine revving, dirt spraying from the tires. The rumble of the truck built in him as he drove the mere minutes to her house; he felt like someone else had climbed into his beaten body of the last few days and given it new life, and he pulled into the farm and dug out the key Sophia had pressed into his hand the previous week, letting himself in, kicking off his shoes and dropping his jacket on the floor.

“Jesus!”

Her house was again roasting from a fire in the hearth, and she stood in the doorway to her bedroom in only a t-shirt and underwear, her grandfather’s rifle in one hand. At seeing Shane she slumped against the doorframe, setting the gun down on the dresser behind her. “You scared the ever-loving shit out of me!”

But Shane didn’t waste a second responding; he felt possessed, half-crazed by this sudden energy, and without so much as a single word – let alone an apology – he grabbed her by the waist and yanked up her shirt. While she stood there slightly stunned, he yanked off his own, then grabbed her again and plowed her backward into the bedroom where he shoved her onto the bed, and for a moment his brain caught up to his body—

Oh god, this is way too aggressive, you didn’t even ask—

But Sophia, shirtless and leaning back on her elbows where she’d been thrown, only whispered “Holy shit,” and looked up with eyes that couldn’t be more clear: she was into this.

It was all Shane needed.

He was on top of her, both hands on her neck and kissing her with force, violence in his lips, while her hands balled to fists in his hair, tight enough to hurt his scalp, and he pushed deeper into the kiss to make it pull and hurt even more. It felt so fucking good, he felt alive, and it was a different kind of alive than he usually felt with her, this was a primal feeling, one far beyond his usual energy; he’d never considered himself a testosterone-riddled guy, but fuck – this was pure intoxication. He yanked off her underwear and a dazed Sophia barely had time to react before he flipped her onto her stomach. And fuck, she was willing, she was waiting, instantly tucking her lower back and lifting her ass into the air, and Shane yanked down his pants and grabbed himself, rubbing it up and down her opening, taking a dip first to wet it and then shoving hard all the way inside.

And god, on a purely physical level, she felt so goddamn good wrapped around his dick. He didn’t often let himself think such base thoughts about her, but it was just the honest fucking truth – the mound of her ass, the wet heat between her legs, those slick sounds every time he moved…

He took her in more positions than he’d ever had her before, on her back, her stomach, her side; every move was impulse, he was sloppy, and he’d never felt less self-conscious in his life. She was on her back with arms pinned at her sides as he unapologetically rammed into her and she started to moan, oh, god, how she moaned – she always made the softest, sexiest sounds, little whimpers that drove him crazy, but this was fucking beyond—

“…hnnnnnSh…Sh…uhnnnnn…uhhhhh…uhhhnnn…”

—trying for his name, hardly able to get it out before dissolving into more drenched moans, and then Shane grabbed her hips with both hands just to fuck her like that – it was love, of course it was love, this was all his love, but he was fucking her too, they’d never purely fucked like this before, not on this level, and there was no room for tenderness – only skin and sweat and two bodies smacking together. Sophia clamped her hands to her groin and dug into her own pleasure, arching her back and rubbing herself as he slammed into her again and again. Her body slid further back on the sheets, moans hitching in her throat with each thrust, and as Shane felt himself getting close he lurched forward, grabbing her jaw and pulling her mouth into his, sucking in her kiss as he bucked into her below; and god, those moans escalating right into his mouth, the way she moved, whatever energy he’d brought to bed she’d risen to match it, and fuck – he was coming – he was coming—

It was a long time after that they lay there, panting, too hot and sweaty to even touch one another. When Shane finally looked over she was laying on her back with her eyes closed, his come still dripping between her legs.

He stared back at the ceiling.

“Shane?” She was out of breath, even through her whisper.

“Yeah?”

“Where did all that come from?”

He was silent for a long time, then said, “I dunno.”

 


 

For possibly the first time in their relationship, Sophia fell asleep before him. She was curled into his side, both exhausted and extra clingy from the moment they finished. She always had to be touching him in some way – holding his arm or nuzzling his neck, brushing her foot against his leg. When Shane tried to adjust his position she hung from him, whispering “I love you,” at least four different times.

He was treating her like crap. He was treating her like absolute garbage, and she was letting him, showing him all this affection after. It was fucked up.

She wasn’t supposed to put up with his shit.

When he was sure she was fast asleep he carefully extricated himself from her limbs, going into her bathroom and shutting the door behind him. He didn’t bother to turn on the light, staring blankly at the wall while taking a piss. When he was done he closed the lid to the toilet and sat down.

It was dark, the tank hissed thinly behind him, and Shane felt empty.

 

Chapter Text

Sophia loved her greenhouse. She loved the smell of baby greens shooting through wet crumbly soil, and the sound of water dripping through the hose. She loved stepping into springtime in the middle of a snowfall.

Still, it wasn’t enough.

The greenhouse was but a hobby compared to running the entire farm, and she missed being outside from sunup to sundown. She missed coming in for the night sweaty, exhausted, and satisfied. More than anything she missed the distraction – one powerful enough to steer her away from thoughts of Rick and Amy and her parents. It wasn’t even about healing, so much as not having the time or energy to hurt. That afternoon, repotting berry seedlings that had outgrown their starter containers, she craved that distraction again.

He’d left. He’d walked in, fucked her like it was his last night on earth, and then left.

She knew that between Shane’s mellow moods there lived moments of powerful, concentrated passion, but was still blindsided by how powerful they could be. Waking in the middle of the night to see him lying next to her – one arm crooked above his head on the pillow, his face relaxed, his lips parted – Sophia was filled with a sense of longing she couldn’t describe.

What he’d done, it worked. It suited them. They could talk about it the next day; she could tell him she’d loved it, and if this was something he wanted to explore she was more than willing to take it further…

Then she fell back asleep. Next thing it was morning, with Shane standing on the side of the bed, pulling on his pants.

“You’re leaving?”

“Work.”

But her phone only read 6:15, and she said, “You have plenty of time. Stay for coffee. We didn’t even talk last night.”

He’d pulled on his shirt, pausing in her doorway. “Sorry, coming over like that. Shouldn’t have.”

Then he’d left.

Not even a kiss, she thought angrily, shaking loose the soil around the roots of a strawberry plant. Not a kiss, not a good-bye, not even a fucking glance my direction.

No kiss. No goodbye. Only the marks he’d left on her ass from groping too hard, which she’d discovered in the mirror that morning.

Just as she finished transferring the plant to its new home, her back pocket began ringing. With a sigh she peeled off her garden gloves and checked the screen.

Mom & Dad.

Sighing again, she accepted the call.

“Sophia?”

“Hi Dad.” Much as she didn’t want to talk, she was glad it was him and not her mother.

“Am I calling at a bad time?”

Sophia walked to where Amber lay gnawing on a piece of old rope she’d found in the yard, sitting beside her. “It’s fine. Is everything okay?”

It was a fair question. They talked on the phone so rarely, and never just to chat. But her father only said, “That’s what I wanted to ask you.”

“I’m okay.”

A pause, then quietly: “When we visited, you seemed better than okay.”

“Yeah,” she said, sifting her fingers through Amber’s fur. “I was. But should’ve known better than to think Mom could be happy for me.”

“That’s not entirely fair.”

“Isn’t it? Guess I must’ve misinterpreted the part where she shit all over my boyfriend.”

A longer pause. “She wants what’s best for you…”

Sophia laughed. “Kind of like she wants what’s best for you too? Making you hide pictures of Amy like they’re some kind of contraband? Wake the hell up, Dad! It doesn’t matter if she wants what’s best for us, because she’s got no goddamn clue what that means anymore.”

She knew this call was costing him. He didn’t talk about feelings. He acknowledged you with a glance across the table, or a quiet hug that never made the mistake of being too intimate – but he didn’t talk about feelings.

“I’m so sorry about the dinner,” he whispered.

“If you’re apologizing for Mom, forget it. I honestly don’t give a shit.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“She broke him, Dad!” she cried. “He’d just started being okay again, and she crushed him.”

Of course, it wasn’t her mom’s fault alone – Shane would’ve crashed eventually. He’d been showing signs for weeks. But fuck, did it feel good to blame someone, and her mom was certainly deserving for slamming on the accelerator.

“She was out of line, I agree,” he said quietly. “But what can I do? She doesn’t—”

“What can you do? Make her see a goddamn grief counselor again! She went for what, a month before giving up? She’s even worse than before, and if you don’t make her do something, you’re both going to spend your entire lives miserable. And I was finally not miserable, but now she ruined that too.”

“You… you two didn’t…?”

Sophia wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, hating how often she had to deal with frustrated tears lately. “We’re still together. But he wouldn’t even look at me the next day, you know that? Started talking about how he doesn’t want to force a kid on me, and how he’s spending too much time at the farm. She made him feel like crap, and now he’s having a really hard time again. And he’s not a bad person,” she said feverishly, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “He’s not. He tries so, so hard for me.”

Her father wasn’t a daft man – he’d know what she was referring to.

He hesitated, then spoke softly. “Sophia, please don’t take this the wrong way… but my best friend in college, he struggled with drinking too. I know it doesn’t make someone a bad person. But my friend wasn’t able to beat it, and we drifted apart many years ago. I’m not saying that’s the case here. I liked Shane very much, and I’m so sorry for how our visit turned out. But please, be careful.”

Amber had grown bored of laying, and now wandered over to an open bag of potting soil.

“We’ll be fine,” said Sophia. Then her voice cracked. “But make her get help, Dad. Please, please make her get help.”

His voice cracked too. “I can only try.”

After they hung up Sophia flopped on her back, staring at the ceiling of the greenhouse. It was silent but for Amber crinkling the bag of the soil – a silence that made her ache to her soul.  

We’ll be fine. We’ll be fine.

 


 

At five o’clock Sophia reluctantly headed back to her house. Shane would be getting off work any time now, and she had no idea what to expect from him.

At 5:20, no Shane.

At 5:30 – heart sinking – no Shane.

At 5:45, she dialed the ranch.

“Sophia!” At least Jas seemed thrilled to hear from her. “Uncle Shane is being a meany butt. I want to ride Annabel in the snow, and he won’t take me because I was sick. But I’m all better now, I promise.”

“That stinks,” agreed Sophia. “But he’s got a point. You don’t want to feel yucky again. Can I talk to him, sweetie?”

“Yes, if you tell him he’s no fun.”

“Deal.”

The sound of hands shuffling a phone, and then Sophia pulled it from her ear as Jas bellowed for her godfather. When he answered, she put on a falsely cheerful voice.

“Jas says you’re no fun.”

“Big surprise.”

She flinched; his voice was just as flat and dead as it’d been that morning.

“So, um… are you coming over at all today?”

“It’s already dark.”

“I know, but it’s not like you have to work on the hutch. We could just hang out. Watch a movie and relax.”

“I’m really tired. Tomorrow, okay?”

After brooding for far too long after they hung up, Sophia threw her phone on the sofa.

She needed to get out of the house.

Winter jacket and boots already on, she grabbed her grey hat and mittens, then paused. Tonight was extra chilly and she ought to wear them – except the last time she’d worn them was with Shane, when they walked through Cindersap Forest during that first snowfall.

A stupid lump formed in her throat as she held those stupid grey mittens and stupid grey hat, and she shoved them in the stupid closet and slammed the door.

She walked to Pierre’s, grateful for the empty dirt road – grateful for how empty the store itself was once arriving. Not a soul in sight, not even Pierre, and she grabbed a basket and wandered the aisles for twenty minutes: zoning out in front of the spices, reading the ingredient labels on loaves of bread, nothing to interrupt her thoughts but for the dulcet tones of an adult contemporary station in the background.

“Sophia!”

Well, almost nothing. Abigail stepped out from a door in the back, startling Sophia from her arduous task of selecting a single lemon.

“Oh,” she said softly, suddenly self-conscious. “Hey Abby.”

Abigail held several sheets of paper, pinning one to the bulletin board as she said, “How are you? It’s been forever since you’ve been in.”

“I usually do my shopping in the morning,” said Sophia. “And, you know. Farmer, winter.”

“Of course. I’ve just missed you – you’re so much better than most of our vendors. Our soda guy is like, fifty, and he always hits on me when dad isn’t around.” She made a face, and Sophia did her best to match it.  

“Sorry you have to deal with that,” she said. “But I was, um… I was actually on my way out…”

Much as she wanted out of the house, she couldn’t handle socializing right now. She peered at the cash register, but Pierre was still nowhere to be seen.

“I can ring you up.” Abigail squeezed behind the counter, setting the papers down. “Was hanging these up for Sebastian,” she explained. “He took a few more courses this summer and wants to advertise that he’s space programmer level or something.” She grinned, but then her expression grew soft. “We never see you in the saloon anymore.”

“Oh. Yeah, I’ve been busy.”

“We still get together for pool every Friday – if you have a free night you should stop by again. And I mean, Shane’s welcome too. I know you guys are a thing now, we wouldn’t exclude him or anything.”

Sophia bit her lip. “I – I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

Abigail leaned over the register, talking lower even though they were alone. “Look, Seb’s a chill guy. I know he had a crush on you over the summer, but I swear, he wouldn’t make it weird or anything.” She bagged the final item and said, “16.47, by the way.”

It’s not because of Sebastian. It’s because my boyfriend is an alcoholic, and this would be a very bad time to surround him with alcohol.

Sophia handed over the money. “Thanks. I’ll try to make it sometime.”

The following day, Shane skipped the farm again. Tired of feeling like she was annoying him, she waited for him to call first.

He didn’t. She waited all night and at eleven o’clock crawled into bed, feeling empty.

Was she being needy? A lot of couples would probably find their relationship too close, and feel suffocated by how often they were together. But this wasn’t about other couples, this was about them and the precedent they’d already set – speaking every single day for months, seeing each other more often than not. And now this active pulling away, giving lame excuses or ignoring her entirely…

On Thursday Sophia woke with both a pit in her stomach and an idea in her head.

She walked to Pierre’s again and purchased a poinsettia for Marnie, then found the presents she’d bought for Jas and wrapped them. Wintersday was still two weeks away, but that afternoon – when Jas would be home from school, but before Shane got home from work – she made the chilly trek to the ranch with her armful of gifts.

“Sophia, dear! What a surprise.” Marnie smiled warmly as she opened the door.

Sophia was met with a blast of hot air, holiday music, and cinnamon smells from the oven. “I’m not interrupting, am I?”

“Not at all! Come in, come in.”

She did, handing over the poinsettia – which Marnie beamed over  – and then setting Jas’s gifts on the table to shrug out of her jacket.

“I’m afraid you’re early. Shane won’t be home for another fifteen minutes.”

“Actually,” said Sophia, grabbing the gifts again. “I came to see Jas.”

“Oh, well aren’t you about to make that little girl’s day.” Marnie beamed again. “But I hope you’ll stay longer than that! I’m always telling Shane to bring you over for supper. I’m more than happy to cook, but you know him – stubborn as an old ass. Doesn’t want to ‘put me out’ even if I’m the one offering.”

Sophia smiled, trying not to betray the small heartbreak she felt at hearing that.

“Anyway dear, I’ve got to keep an eye on my baking, but you’re welcome to find Jas. She’s playing in her room.”

“Thanks.”

The door to Jas’s room was closed but for a crack, and after Sophia knocked, a bright eye stared at her through it.

“Sophia!” she cried, flinging it open. “I didn’t know you were coming over. Do you want to play in the snow? Uncle Shane says I’m allowed to now!”

Jas’s smile was just what Sophia needed – it melted her tense heart.

“I don’t know,” she said, pulling the gifts from behind her back. “I had something else in mind.”

The little girl’s eyes widened, reflecting the white twinkle lights strung above her doorframe. “Before Wintersday?”

“You don’t have to,” Sophia teased. “If you’d rather wait, I can be patient.”

“No! I want to!”

She laughed and handed the presents to Jas, who raced to her bed with them. “The flat one first,” she said, nodding toward the smaller parcel and sitting beside her.

The paper was off in seconds, revealing a shiny hardcover book. Jas looked at the title, and in a soft voice – much softer than her speaking voice – tried to read. “The… Kee… kee…”

“Keepers,” Sophia whispered.

“Keepers. Of. The… Forest.”

“That’s right.” She smiled. “Have you ever heard of the Junimos?”

“The whaaat?”

“The Junimos.” She pointed to the cover, at the little creatures that looked like apples with arms and faces, except in a multitude of bright colors.

“What’s a Ju- a Jumano?” asked Jas, tripping on the word.

“They’re magical creatures. They’re very special because Stardew Valley is the only place in the whole world that they live.”

“It is?”

“Yes. My Grandpa told me stories about them when I was your age. They’ve lived in the forest for thousands of years, and their magic is one of the things that makes it so beautiful.”

She’d found the gifts in a tourist shop just outside Pelican Town, one that sold local products, along with keepsakes from Stardew-born legends. The shop had placards near each item to describe the legends, but Sophia hadn’t needed them – it was all nostalgia from her childhood summers, from the stories Grandpa Emmet told her and Amy. The wizard’s tower, in the southwest part of the forest. The monsters that hid in the deepest mines beyond the quarry. The mysterious caravan that sold goods from the legendary Gotoro Empire, which appeared for lucky travelers to buy souvenirs from, but which disappeared if they ever tried to return.

And the Junimos, of course.

“Will I ever see one?” asked Jas.

“They’re almost impossible to find, but maybe if you’re lucky.” Sophia smiled again. “Ready to open your other gift? Then we can read the book, if you want.”

Jas squealed as she opened the second box, unfolding the velvety blanket covered in dancing pink, green, and yellow Junimos. She hugged it to her chest and beamed. “Thank you!”

“You’re very welcome.”

They settled against the headboard to read, Jas snatching up her panda and snuggling under her new blanket as Sophia opened to the first page.

“Sophia?” Jas said, her voice turning small and serious again.

“Yes sweetie?”

“Do adults get sad without beer?”

Not prepared for this question, she nervously said, “What do you mean?”

“I thought beer made Uncle Shane sad. But he doesn’t drink it anymore, and yesterday he still got sad.”

Her heart beat quicker. “Sometimes adults just get sad. I’m sure you get sad sometimes too. It happens to everyone.”

“I’m glad he doesn’t drink beer anymore. When he does he’s too tired to read stories or play with me. But now we read lots and Miss Penny says I’m a great reader.”

Sophia swallowed hard. “Well, why don’t you show me? I’d love to hear you read this story.”

Jas took the book onto her lap, but then looked back at Sophia and lifted one tiny finger to touch the crystal stud in her nose.

“I’m going to get one when I’m fourteen,” she said matter-of-factly. Then she looked back down and started to read.

The more Jas read, the more Sophia melted. She’d never been read to by a child before: the soft, innocent voice, the tentative pronunciations. The book was above her reading level but she pushed through, sounding out the words if she could. At one part where the Wizard was angry with the Junimos – and so threw a block of cheese out his tower window at them – she dissolved into giggles. They were so sweet and contagious that Sophia giggled too, until they were both laughing too hard to stop.

“What’re you doing here?”

Sophia jerked up at Shane’s voice, and her laughter dissipated at seeing his face: she hadn’t expected him to be thrilled by her visit, but neither did she expect him to look so angry about it.

“Uncle Shane!” cried Jas, bouncing up and over toward him, jumping into his arms. “Sophia brought me presents. See?”

She pointed at the book and blanket on the bed, and Shane gave them a cursory glance before looking back at Sophia and glaring.

“Very nice,” he said, in a way that suggested it was not nice at all. Then he set her down. “Can you stay here and play for a bit? I have to show Sophia something.”

“Can I see too?”

“It’s boring adult stuff. It won’t take long.”

Sophia nervously followed him down the hall, grabbing her jacket as they passed the kitchen, and then outside and into the chicken coop. Charlie strutted over to Shane, but for once he ignored his favorite chicken.

“Something interesting to show me?” she joked.

He rounded on her. “What the fuck were you doing?”

“Reading with Jas?”

“I didn’t invite you over.”

“I invited myself,” said Sophia, voice growing prickly.

“I’m sure it was just a coincidence, coming over when I’m not here.”

“Uh, newsflash? I was waiting for you. Lately you give me fuck-all of thirty seconds on the phone, and I’m pretty sure if I asked to come over you would’ve had some excuse to say no. Am I wrong?”

He shook his head, as if her behavior were unbelievable. “You can’t just fucking waltz in here and give her gifts and read to her and – and—”

“And what, Shane? I can’t what?”

“Act like her fucking mother!”

Sophia’s shoulders began to shake; she wasn’t sure whether from anger or hurt, because they both rolled over in noxious waves. “You knew I got her a present,” she said in a low voice.

“Yeah, for Wintersday! Not – not just because.”

“Is that really what this is about?”

“You can’t go getting her hopes up—”

“Is that really what this is about?” she repeated, more dangerously.

He stared at her, breathing hard.

“I’m sorry I acted too comfortable with Jas. I’m sorry I came over without asking, and I’m sorry if I’m being clingy or needy or annoying. But ever since that stupid dinner I’ve been walking on eggshells not to piss you off! You ignored my call last week. We barely talked all weekend. Then you barge into my house unannounced, fuck the shit out of me for one night – then go back to pretending I don’t exist?”

Shane threw a glance over his shoulder, gritting his teeth. “Could you say that any louder?”

“I don’t care!” Frustrated tears brimmed in her eyes. “If I have to yell to get your attention, I’ll do it. I just need you to fucking talk to me for once!”

“And what do you want me to say, Sophia?”

“Anything! Just make it honest!”

Silence.

Staring at the floor of the coop, she switched to a whisper. “We’re in a relationship, and you can’t just plug your ears and close your eyes and make it go away when it’s inconvenient for you. Because that fucking hurts.”

Then she turned and walked out, not waiting to hear whatever excuse he’d have next.

 


 

Sophia walked all over town that night. She walked along the river and by the beach, and then looped back around past the Stardrop Saloon and Pierre’s. Once home she wandered her own property, stopping by the now- skeletal orchard, and the gutted barn and chicken coop. When at last she went inside – only to discover a message from Rick on her phone – she couldn’t do anything but drop onto the sofa and laugh.    

Of course. Of course he would send one today.

What was it going to be this time? More sickly sweet confessions? Come-back-to-me and you-know-you-miss-this and Sophia-stop-being-so-silly? Maybe he’d shake things up this time; tell her to eat a fucking salad for once. Finding this thought far funnier than it ought to be, she opened the message, still laughing.

Remember this?

That was all it said, because attached to the message was a picture: Sophia and Rick, cheek to cheek, smiling in a restaurant.

It was the first time she’d seen his face in almost a year, and she stopped laughing.

In the frenzied weeks it’d taken her to gather the courage to leave him, she’d gotten rid of all of it: dumped his gifts into the trash bin behind their apartment complex, deleted every single picture and phone message. She’d finally even managed to scrub the exact timbre of his voice from her memory. Until now, as she looked down at his face and it weaseled right back in.

And her prediction was sort of right. In the restaurant the night of the photo – Sophia in a burgundy dress, and more make-up than she ever wore these days – Rick had ordered her a salad. Dressing on the side. He’d taken her hand across the table during dinner, and with the air of someone presenting a Publisher’s Clearing House award, told her he loved her.

Like she’d won. She was the luckiest girl alive.

When she said it back – wasn’t she supposed to? – he smiled lazily like he knew all along, then ordered her a fruit cup for dessert.  

She’d shredded that burgundy dress, the night before she left him. They had a business dinner to attend and Rick told her she had to wear it, because she was “looking sickly” that day and the color of the dress would help disguise it. It was embarrassing enough that his girlfriend was still in a lowly intern-level position – couldn’t she at least look put together in front of his colleagues?

After he said that she took the dress into the bathroom with a pair of scissors, shredded it to ribbons, and then walked back to the kitchen and dropped the pile of them into a sink of dirty dishes.

He’d been pissed – told her if she was having some kind of mental breakdown then he couldn’t risk taking her out in front of people. His fellow higher-ups at JojaMart, of course; as if they worked on Wall Street. Said he’d tell them she wasn’t feeling well, that they’d talk about her stunt when he got home, but if she ever pulled something like that again…

She stared at the photo. Rick with his stupid jaw-line and clear eyes that belonged in Hollywood, with his smile that made her nauseous because it was so damn convincing. Her own smile wasn’t. She was younger then, and prettier in the sense that she was more dolled up. But the girl in the photo wasn’t happy. Her smile was the kind given for family photos one didn’t want to take; one that didn’t reach the eyes.

She got up, dropping her phone on the counter and then digging into her cupboards. Sugar, cinnamon, cornstarch – slammed on the table. Frozen raspberries and mason jars – slammed on the table. A large sauce pan – slammed on the stove.   

Ten minutes later warm, fruity smells bubbled from her stove.

Normal. Like when she and Grandpa and Amy spent rainy summer nights making jam, the radio set to his favorite oldies station, the kitchen filled with the ‘60s bubblegum pop that had colored her childhood. Even Amber getting underfoot by the stove, the same as Grandpa’s old mutt, Moon.

It was normal. Normal and soothing. The sort of thing a sane person would do.

While stirring more sugar into her current batch, the song on the radio rolled to a close, and in the few seconds of quiet that followed she heard her phone vibrate on the countertop.

She closed her eyes and counted to five, then picked it up.

And what about this?

There was a slight delay. Then a video popped onto the screen and began to autoplay: Sophia, on her knees, bobbing on Rick’s cock. One hand held her hair back in a messy ponytail, the other clearly holding the phone from above. At first it was only crackly recorded silence – and awful mouth sounds – until Rick’s quiet yet firm voice:

“That’s it…”

Her finger couldn’t pound the power button fast enough; she grappled over it, hands shaking, until the screen went black. Then she opened the silverware drawer, dropping it inside and slamming it shut before sinking down to the floor.

This. This was more like him. Not those flowery declarations of love he’d been spamming her with over the months from so many different numbers. This smugness – this realization that if he didn’t have the higher ground, he was going to push her down until he did. She’d deleted those photos and videos. She’d snuck into his phone and gotten rid of them all. So why the fuck did he still have copies? Why the fuck did that piece of human garbage have to go and make copies?

She felt so fucking dirty. This house was meant to be free of him, of his stupid face and his memory and the shame she felt over their entire relationship – how pathetic she’d been letting it go on for years. It was under her skin and crawling where she couldn’t reach it, and she scraped her nails down her arms, leaving trails of bright pink, but it wasn’t enough to erase the dirty feeling. She was supposed to be over this – but all this bullshit with Shane, it’d left her open and vulnerable and now Rick had crawled into the wound, and she was supposed to be over this…

Time slipped away, and the next thing she knew was the smell of burnt raspberries and sugar.

The air was eerie that night on the farm. Hushed, as if Sophia were the only person awake in the valley. While the pot of tar-like jam soaked in the sink, she sat on her porch, lighting a cigarette and taking several long drags. The nicotine was like aloe to cool her agitated mind, and as she smoked the dirty, crawling sensation slowly washed from her skin.

She’d been surprised how easy it was to quit. Granted she’d only smoked for a few years – and obviously still snuck one on occasion – but leaving it behind as a daily habit hadn’t been difficult. A few weeks of cravings, yes, but none so powerful that they broke her. And it was true she kept them around for moments of stress, but after the moment was gone she had no trouble putting them away for weeks or months at a time.

Staring at the slim white stick between her fingers, she thought of Shane. It felt like years ago, meeting him that night for the first time and asking for a smoke. She tried to imagine him as a smoker; he’d have a hell of a time trying to quit.

It was so fucking frustrating.

On a fundamental level, she would never understand him. She’d never understand what it was to have an addictive personality, to battle the same shit day after day after day – he knew it was a miserable existence, and yet the temptation still sang him back. Why couldn’t he see how much better his life was without it? Why wasn’t that enough to flip some switch in his brain, and realize no matter how bad things got, drinking would do nothing to help? What was it about that kind of person, that they could ignore someone who was standing at their feet, begging to love and support them?

She stood, snubbing her cigarette in the snow on the porch railing. Then she went inside and retrieved a bottle of wine from the cellar and a glass from the cupboard, taking both to her room.

It’s not because you’re stressed. It’s because you want to understand.

At least, that’s what she told herself as she poured it into the glass. Gracelessly; it poured out in chunks rather than a steady stream, splattering the surface of the dresser in dark flecks.

Amy knew how to pour smoothly, but Sophia had always made a mess of it.

She drank, and when the first glass was gone she poured a second. Steadily she worked her way through over half the bottle, her cheeks flushing, her forehead warm and her limbs growing languid. The drunker she grew, the more she was amazed by how lucid everything remained – like her thoughts were sober and merely being rocked about inside her drunk body.

She was never enough. She wasn’t enough to keep Amy alive. She wasn’t enough to fix her parents in the aftermath. She wasn’t enough, because Rick had wanted to change everything about her. She wasn’t enough, because however much she loved him, she could do nothing to keep Shane. He was going to pull away and drown, alone, in the fucked-up world of his own head, because she wasn’t enough to keep him on the surface.

She was never. Fucking. Enough.

Sitting on the bed, swaying ever so slightly, she turned her head toward the dresser. The ground tipped along with the motion of her head, and her eyes took an extra moment to focus on the olive green bottle.

How long had she been going? She didn’t want anymore. Not having eaten in hours, she was solidly drunk off the two thirds now in her stomach. Past a certain point it just wouldn’t feel good, and if she drank more now she’d be sick later. But it didn’t matter. She needed to understand him, and it didn’t matter if it stopped feeling good; in her shoes Shane would drink the whole bottle, and so tonight so would she.

She sloppily poured the next glass.

“Don’t judge me,” she snapped at Amber, who’d stopped in the doorway to watch her owner with sad, skeptical eyes. “I never do shit for myself. Tonight I’m taking a break from everybody else’s bullshit, so don’t sit there and fucking look at me like that.”

Amber tucked her tail between her legs, and with head down slowly approached the bed.

Sophia burst into tears.

“Come here,” she blubbered, patting the bed beside her. “I’m so sorry, girl. Please come here…”

Amber hopped up, and Sophia melted into her, crying into her fur.

Maybe it was wrong to need to see him every day, and for her house to feel hollow when he wasn’t there. Maybe it was wrong to see his paternal side and become homesick. Maybe it was wrong that for a few months she’d felt like Shane belonged to her; like he belonged in her life, like he was permanent. But she couldn’t help that he felt permanent: they’d fallen in love in a pressure cooker, the weight of their own struggles and heartbreak pushing them into one another’s lives until the basic chemistry had changed. You couldn’t change that much without something being permanent, right?

She was startled from her thoughts when Amber suddenly lifted her head, cocking an ear.

“What is it, girl?” she whispered thickly, but not before the dog had jumped off the bed and raced toward the door.

Then Sophia heard footsteps, and as their familiar cadence came up the porch, her heart floated into her chest: Shane. He was here. Even after their fight, he was here.

Then there was a loud knock, and her heart instantly sank back down.

If he walked in now – if he saw that they’d fought, and now she was drunk—

She raced to the bathroom. Her breath surely reeked of wine, and fuck, her eyes were red and wet and her cheeks blotched; she’d never be able to hide the fact she’d been crying. She poured mouthwash into the cap, gargled, and then in her hurry to recap it missed the bottle – hand slipping, she knocked over her toothbrush cup and sent the cap clattering to the floor.

Oh god. He was going to know. He was going to know and hate her for it.

She wiped her eyes with her sleeve and rinsed her mouth one more time before heading unsteadily to the door.

“H-hi,” she stammered breathlessly, leaning one arm against the door in a pose she hoped was casual, but that her paranoid brain was sure was a dead giveaway. “I didn’t – I didn’t know you were coming…”

Shane, staring down at the porch with his hands in his pockets, looked up when she spoke.

Oh god, he knows. He knows, and he’s going to be so, so hurt—

Before she could think, he was in the door and had swept her into a bear hug.

Her heart raced. “S-Shane?”

“I’m sorry,” he choked into her shoulder. “Sophia, I’m so, so sorry.”

The tiny hairs on the back of her neck prickled to life. “Shane…”

He hugged tighter, talking into her hair. “Don’t make me go home, please don’t make me leave, I wanna be with you so bad right now—”

“Shane—”

But he only continued to murmur in her hair, hands clumsy on her waist.

“You’re drunk,” she trembled, feeling like she’d just downed an extra shot herself.  

“I know,” he mumbled, now into her neck. “I only wanted one, that’s all I was gonna have, I promise. I’m sorry, Sophia, I’m so sorry, I fuck – I fucked it all – I messed it up—”

It was almost an out of body experience; she was drunk, but Shane was utterly wasted. He leaned on her with dead weight, and in the absence of her own strength they both stumbled backward. As they steadied themselves he took her face in both hands, clumsily caressing it.

“I love you,” he said, beer powerful on his breath, his eyes swimming back and forth for focus. “I love you, and I still wanna – you’re the only reason—”

Sophia’s head pounded. “You’re drunk.

His eyes stopped swimming; for a moment they rested on hers and he frowned. “You were crying.”

She shook her head. “I wasn’t. I wasn’t crying. But Shane, let’s sit…” The head-shaking had made her instantly dizzy; she tugged his shirt, attempting to pull him toward the sofa. “Shane, I wanna sit down…”

“But you’re crying.”

“Please let’s go sit do—”

But she was too weak to pull him and he seemed intent on moving forward, forcing her back with slow, unsteady steps until she bumped into the wall. “Jas,” he said, and even with the wall to lean against he fell forward, stepping on her toes as he righted himself. “Jas called me Dad. And I didn’t help her with her project, Penny said I was supposed to help her but I didn’t – I didn’t – what the fuck was I supposed to do… I’m sorry I yelled at you for acting like her mom. You’d be such a good mom, you know that? You would, you’d be a damn – a damn good mom. You’d be better than me, I’m a really shitty parent.”

“You’re not—”

“She’s her own little person, Sophia, I always forget that. And she’s so smart and she knows I’m a fuckup and so does  Marnie, and s-s-s-so do you.” He tripped on the word as he tilted forward again, catching himself on the wall above her head.

Her head pounded harder. Somewhere in a far-off region of her brain a voice whispered how bad this all was. And it was – it was wrong, it was all wrong, and yet it was also the first time anything had felt right in days: pressed between the wall and Shane’s warm body.

She touched his neck.

Red, sunken eyes looked back at her. He blinked, one eyelid lazy.

“Shane…”

He leaned in, bumping his forehead to hers. “You’re the best fucking thing that’s ever happened to me. You are.”

Her head spun; even against the wall it was hard to keep the room steady.

“I’m sorry I’m so shitty,” he said. “I’m sorry you have to be with me. You’re so fucking smart and I’m so fucking stupid… I didn’t want you to know, but you found out, you found how fucking stupid I am. I love you and I know that’s not good enough…”

She burst into fresh tears.

“I thought you were falling out of love with me,” she said, the words babbling out before she could stop them. “I thought you didn’t want to be with me anymore, I was so scared you didn’t want to be with me anymore…”

“You’re the reason I don’t drink,” he mumbled, his stubble scratching her cheek.

The hand kneading his neck fell still. “But you’re drunk now."

“Because I don’t like me, Sophia. I love you, but I don’t like me...”

It wasn’t fair.

He could have been a mean drunk. Could have walked in angry and throwing accusations, and they could have fought screaming like drunk couples were supposed to do. But he was so soft, the Shane she’d known all along, except with an openness and earnestness he never let her see. Because he was here. Here with his soft slurring, and his warm body – she couldn’t stop thinking how warm his body was – and she touched his face, unable to bear the thought of letting him feel rejection right now. She wondered if she was dreaming; if this wasn’t just a bad dream, except combined with a good one…

Her heart pounded and her head spun; she couldn’t even look to the side without feeling ill. But for the first time in her whole life, she welcomed living in denial if it meant that for a few precious minutes she could believe nothing had changed; she gripped his neck tighter, then leaned forward and kissed him.

He tasted like beer, but his lips felt like home.

They stumbled backward, bumping first into the doorframe and then into her dresser, knocking over the empty wineglass. He was sloppy but she was sloppier; as they fell backwards on the bed, the room seemed to flip upside down with them and then it was a tangle of shirts and limbs and sloppy kisses; it was Shane groping her tits and Sophia slurring words in his ear. It was accidentally hitting her head against the headboard when moving higher up the bed, but not caring; it was all the pillows and blankets sliding to the floor—

—those other girls got to be with him when drunk, but she was his girlfriend, it was only fair she got this too, it’s not like she was the one who got him drunk tonight anyway—

—and they were always so good together, they’d never lacked sexual chemistry and even when everything else was terrible this, this was still perfect and right—

She lay on her back, feeling like she was underwater as Shane lay on top pumping into her.

But it wasn’t perfect and right. Something was very wrong. She couldn’t feel it properly; she was starting to feel sick, but she couldn’t feel what she was supposed to feel anywhere else. It went on – and on – and on – until he stopped and rested on top of her, once again dead weight, until she found it difficult to breathe.  

“Shane…”

“I can’t… can’t fucking do... fucking anything right…” he mumbled, rolling off and laying on his back with his eyes closed. Sophia looked down; his cock had gone limp.

“It’s okay.” She clambered unsteadily to her knees, slipping and falling sideways on the bed. “It’s okay,” she repeated, trying again. “I’ll fix it.”

She’d never before gone down on him after he’d already been inside her, but the thought didn’t even register as she took him in her mouth. She closed her eyes, the room spinning wildly in her blackened vision. This wasn’t as easy as she thought – it was so difficult to concentrate, and Shane wasn’t getting any harder – and the room was spinning really fast.

“I—” she sat up, her stomach pulsing in an awful way. “I can’t…”

She crawled off the bed in what felt like slow motion, but once down made a dive for the garbage can beside her dresser. She puked within seconds, and when her stomach continued to churn she plopped miserably to the floor; soon after a second wave hit.

Buckled over the can, head hanging, she wondered why anyone would voluntarily feel this way.

“Shane?” she whispered.

No answer.

Though still feeling sick, the churning had subsided. With great effort she managed to stand, using the dresser as a crutch, and then looked over at Shane—

He was already asleep.

The room spun like a carnival ride that wouldn’t let her off; she flopped on her stomach next to him, still nauseous, hoping she could fall asleep before another wave hit. The last thing she saw before closing her eyes was an olive green bottle, half an inch of liquid in the bottom. 

For that moment, she hated herself too.

 

Chapter Text

Tick.

Tick.

Tick.

Shane woke with his face in the pillow, head already hurting: in what was an otherwise silent room, each tick of the clock was like a nail being driven into his skull. Peeling his cheek off the pillowcase, he cracked one eyelid.

No.

No, no, no—

Not here. Not her.

He rolled his head to the left and there was Sophia, sprawled completely nude across the sheets, her blonde hair fanned across her face. Head pounding harder, he rolled back to his original side – and then saw the nearly-empty wine bottle on her dresser.

Her?

But it had to be. He didn’t want to believe it, but it had to be hers: he’d woken like this too many times to count, and it was the only explanation. It was an unlabeled bottle like the ones from her cellar, and she’d never in a million years have given him more alcohol – not on his best day, let alone after showing up on her doorstep already trashed. And to fuck him like that? There was no other way.

Then Shane shifted his legs, and with horror realized the bedsheets around him were soaked.

Ignoring the splitting pain in his head he scrambled up, frantically tugging the sheets to cover it. Which was stupid, of course; it wasn’t going to disappear after hiding it. But what was he supposed to do? It was soaked through the fitted sheet and probably the mattress, and he couldn’t exactly tear it off when Sophia was sleeping on it, and oh, god – he’d just wet his girlfriend’s bed. Almost thirty years old, and he’d wet the fucking bed.

Burning from the inside out, he slipped into his boxers and went to the bathroom to clean up. There was a container of baby wipes under the sink and he pulled out a handful, wiping down his junk and thighs, wishing he could hop in the shower but too terrified of Sophia waking and finding his mess. Against his better judgment he stopped scrubbing and looked up at his reflection: hair smushed to one side, eyes bloodshot, lips dry – a wipe in one hand to clean his own piss.

Just the look of someone who’d flushed away his sobriety.

Again.

The bed was so far away, and Shane paused leaving the bathroom. Leaning his head against the doorframe he closed his eyes, wishing the damn clock would shut up. How long he stood there he didn’t know – he might’ve even fallen asleep. What he did know was the voice that shook him back to the present.

“Shane?”

Sophia was sitting up now, knees drawn and sheets scrunched around her chest.

He blinked, taking a moment to come to – until a surge of panic hit at remembering the wet bed. But it was still covered, Sophia oblivious, and Shane dropped his gaze to the hardwood floor and trudged back to her. Right before sitting down he paused, however, his cheeks growing hot. There in the bottom of the trash bin: vomit.

“Not you,” she said quietly. “Me.”

He looked up and her cheeks were hot too.

The pain in his temple grew sharper. He sat on the edge of the bed with his back to her, and a long silence followed.  

“Um.” His tongue was dry, sticking to the roof of his mouth. “Did, um… did we…?”

“You don’t remember?”

He winced at the hurt in her voice, then shook his head no.

She grew quieter. “We tried to.”

The embarrassment between them was so thick he could taste it, and there was no point putting off the inevitable: he bunched up a corner of the blanket, mumbling, “I need to wash your sheets.”

“Huh?”

“Your sheets. I need to wash them.”

“Oh. Um, tomorrow’s laundry day.”

“I pissed on them!” he shot. “I wet the fucking bed, so just let me wash the stupid things, okay?”

There was another long moment of silence, and when Sophia finally spoke she sounded like she might cry. “Don’t. Don’t be embarrassed. I-I can do it.”

“Your fucking mattress though—”

Please. It’s not a big deal.”

All he could picture was Sophia hunched over the bed once he left, scrubbing his pee out of the mattress, and Christ – he just wanted to torch the damn thing. But he had no energy to argue, not with his head splitting, and especially not when she sounded so hurt in every syllable. Instead he clamped his hands on top of his head, slowly turning to look at her.

“You really drank?”

Her chin trembled, and she nodded.

Why?”

He simply couldn’t picture her drinking so much on her own. Not enough to puke; not enough to fuck her bed-wetting alcoholic boyfriend, who’d wandered in completely trashed after treating her like garbage all week. It didn’t seem real.  

She played with the blankets scrunched over her legs. “I don’t know.”

“Because of me.”

“Because a lot of things.” Her eyes glistened. “Because we don’t talk. Last night we talked…”

Then the tears spilled soundlessly over. She buried her face in her knees, making no noise, perfectly still except for the occasional twitch of her shoulders.

Shane didn’t know what to do. Once upon a time she’d told him she couldn’t be his excuse to drink. Now here he was, being hers.

The truth was, he’d fantasized about this. Not just drinking, but drinking with Sophia. Because she expected him to talk – forced him to, even, like that night in the treehouse, needling him until he’d snapped, and then drawing so close after, as if they’d bonded over something special. She thought she was helping him; thought making him say those things would be a release of the pressure trapped inside.

It wasn’t. Telling her those things sober was like tearing off a fresh scab. If they could drink though, like their first time in the treehouse? He wouldn’t even have to be wasted, just a nice strong buzz to open up the usual block in his throat, give him an excuse to be so emotional and weak…

The ticking of the grandfather clock went silent, replaced by the sound of seven mellow gongs.

“Shit.” Shane ran his hands through his hair, then dragged them down his face.

Sophia looked up, eyes red.

“Work,” he mumbled. “I forgot about work...”

She wiped her eyes. “D-do you want a glass of water? Or aspirin?”

God, it was too much.

“It’s fine,” he said, though he could only think: don’t you dare try to take care of me right now.

She rubbed her eyes again, gazing at him sideways from where her head rested on her knees. She looked so damn young again, and as Shane slipped into his clothes he felt repulsed by himself.

“Just… just don’t, Sophia. I’m not fucking worth it.”

Then he left, and once out of the room heard a thud – like a pillow thrown at the wall – followed by a single loud sob. His repulsed feelings were only amplified when he stepped outside and the porchlight detected his movement, casting light on the cigarette butt snubbed into the railing.

Had she had another Amy dream? Or was it all because of him?

At least it was winter. Seven a.m. brought no sunlight in winter, and as Shane walked to the ranch he tried to soak in that darkness. In less than an hour he’d be under fluorescent JojaMart lights, in a blinding, bustling world where people in bright coats and slushy boots grabbed colorful boxes of cereal off the shelves. People who looked in their fridge and realized they were low on milk and so added it to the grocery list; people who answered their mobile phone in the check-out line, chatting away while the transaction went through, throwing the cashier a bone of a smile before grabbing their bags to leave – back into the bright busy world, back into their bright, busy lives.

That was supposed to be normal. That was supposed to be reality. Shane couldn’t understand how they lived like that, when at work he felt like he was floating above, looking down on some kind of fairytale, twisted in how normal it was. Like only he was aware of the roles they were playing; he alone knew that reality, at its core, was monochrome.

When had the cynicism come back? A short time ago he’d been laughing at his own dumb jokes in front of Sam, happy just to be alive. When had it turned back into what it was before?

Two weeks until Wintersday, and it was all a vortex down.

 


 

“The guy wanted to know if there was decent Indian food around – wouldn’t believe me when I said it’s literally pizza at the Stardrop, or bust. Laughed in my face. I said, mate, you’re looking at a town of about seven and a half people, you need to go to Zuzu City – then he wants me to draw him a map on the back of the invoice! I’m like, I don’t flipping know Zuzu streets, don’t you have a phone to look it up? He doesn’t care. Says, ‘Just give it your best shot, I trust you.’ I mean, cool, but I don’t trust me. End up drawing him the damn map anyway. Looked it up on my break – I totally sent him to either a sex toy shop, a closed pet store, or a carpet liquidator, depending which way he turned at the light. When I tell you not to trust me, for fuck’s sake, don’t trust me.

It wasn’t that Sam was a bad guy. Quite the opposite; from the moment Shane made the mistake of being friendly toward him, Sam had been nothing but friendly back. He held no grudge over the cold shoulder Shane had given him for months, back when they first started working together.

Except right now, Shane had no energy to devote toward not being a jerk again. All he could say was, “Huh.”

Sam looked crestfallen, but only for a second. Then he raised an eyebrow. “No offense, but you look like ass. You’ve only got an hour left. Just leave if you don’t feel good.”

If he looked like ass, it was because he felt like ass.

“Morris wouldn’t let me.”

“Dude, don’t ask him. Just go, I’ll punch out for you when I leave.”

He shook his head. “It’s fine.”

But after Sam left the backroom, Shane didn’t return to filling his L-cart with boxes of oranges. Instead he parked it in the cooler and headed to the employee bathroom, where he locked himself in a stall and sat on the closed lid of the toilet, dropping his head in his hands.

One mistake. One drink. That was all it took for a domino collapse.  

It was different when quitting. Quitting meant a surge of uncharacteristic willpower: the ability to cut back, to switch to sparkling water after a few beers because the buzz had taken the edge off, but the willpower of not wanting to feel like utter shit remained. He knew some people couldn’t do that – it was cold-turkey or nothing – but Shane hated being thrust straight into sobriety after a long spell. He had to ease into it. Let himself realize it wasn’t half bad.

Until it was bad.

Relapse was another story. Relapse was when that willpower went to shit and a buzz was a tease, not a comfort. The idea of ‘one beer and leave’ might’ve worked when that spark of hope first descended on him in early summer, but he was on the decline, and he knew better. Knew ‘one beer’ at this stage was to step into mud on a wet, slippery slope, and he’d done it anyway.

Emily hadn’t been there. It was only Gus at the Stardrop yesterday evening, and while it was clear Shane had stopped being a regular, Gus didn’t know for sure he’d quit drinking – not the way Emily did. So when the bartender handed over his pint with only the slightest tilt of an eyebrow, Shane had ignored whatever that eyebrow meant. He simply walked to his old table by the fire, his back to the few scattered patrons, and drank. When Gus stopped by later to collect his glass, he motioned for another. And another, and another. And when Gus gently said, “Are you sure, Shane?” to the fourth, he’d snapped, “Look, I’ll tell you when I’m done, okay?”

That was the last exchange he remembered of the night.

When he was a regular at the saloon, his tolerance had been high. It wasn’t unusual for Gus to keep them coming all night, and for Shane to hold his booze well enough not to behave questionably – he had a lot of practice acting more sober than he was. Maybe last night auto-pilot had kicked in. Maybe even with low tolerance, he’d kept it together enough for Gus to assume his number was nothing out of the ordinary.

And of course he’d gone to Sophia’s. Because one relapse triggered another, and consciously or not he’d been trying to quit her; she was his effortless, easy escape. But then he’d built a tolerance to her too. Before, a single afternoon or evening with her – a single phone conversation – was enough to have him soaring through the day. But then it wasn’t, and being with her was like taking a hit, one that only lasted while in her presence, and then it was back to withdrawal the moment he left.

The bathroom door creaked open, followed by squeaky sneakers on the tile that stopped at the urinals left of Shane’s stall. He sat silently while whichever co-worker it was took a piss; closed his eyes and listened to the zipper unzipping, the stream, the faucet, the hand-dryer, and the squeaky sneakers across the tile once more.

Alone again, he dragged his hand down his face, squeezing over his mouth – then dug that hand in his pocket and pulled out his wallet, counting the bills inside.

 


 

Marnie had been taking a hands-off approach to the return of Shane’s black cloud. Even that morning when he stopped home to shower and change, she’d said nothing . Eggshells – that was the word Sophia used yesterday. He made the people he loved walk on eggshells in order not to piss him off, made them tip-toe around so he wouldn’t detonate. And after the way he’d snapped at Marnie when Jas was sick, he couldn’t blame her.

Except now, returning home from work, she stopped him in the kitchen with a serious look on her face.

“Were you ever going to tell me my brother called?”

Shane kicked off his shoes on the mat, though leaving his jacket on. “Fucking months ago.”

“So you weren’t going to tell me.”

“Why would I? He just wanted money.”

“I know. He was going to be evicted this month.”

Shane paused. “Was.”

She flushed.

“Don’t tell me you gave him money.”

“Just – just for one month. I told him no more, of course. No more after this.”

“God dammit, Marnie! You know what he’s gonna spend that on, and it sure isn’t fucking rent.

“Shane – he’s still my brother. I have to believe…”

“Have to.” Shane snorted. “Always have to believe the good in people, don’t you? My dad. Lewis. My sorry ass. We ruin your life, and you let us.”

Then he headed straight to the shower for the second time that day, not lingering to see her reaction. The 40 oz. was still ice cold and sweating into the liner of his jacket, and as Shane passed Jas playing in her room he wondered what was worse: that he’d planned his next move, or that he felt so little guilt about it.

Once in the bathroom he locked the door and undressed, staring down at his gut. Though still soft, he’d dropped quite a few pounds over the summer and fall, and for a time had felt slightly better about looking the mirror. Not exactly happy, but not immediately filled with self-loathing either. But right now? The idea of pride in something as dumb as losing weight filled him with more self-loathing that the weight itself had. Because what the fuck did it matter? What the fuck did any of it matter?

The hot water fogged the mirror and the glass door of the shower. Steam rose from the porcelain tub. Shane’s fingers lifted the metal tab, and the can cracked open with a hiss. The cold ran down his throat; the hot water ran down his body. The knot in his chest loosened, just a touch.

Like father like son.

He’d been sixteen. It was his birthday, which generally meant nothing to anybody. This was before being suspended from school for being drunk – before his dad knew he’d been sneaking from his stash, filling the bottles with just enough water to hide the missing liquor. His dad was late getting home that day, and Shane had the house alone after school: the best birthday present he could hope for, next to an ice cold beer from the fridge.

It still played through his head sometimes, as crisp as the day he’d heard it:

“Whatcha got there, son?”

And Shane, caught red-handed by the man who’d just arrived home, said nothing. He froze, holding the beer and waiting for the outburst: the shouts that would pierce like shrapnel from across the room, the march of angry feet, and the hand that would grip the scruff of his neck while the other ripped the can from his fingers. The hot breath in his ear as the shouting turned to the more dangerous thing – whispers.

But none of it came. His dad calmly took the beer, holding it up in one hand and inspecting it like some kind of artifact. Then he turned back to his son, and for the first time in his life Shane felt – for a split, split, second – that his dad liked him. The lips formed a smirk that might’ve even been a smile. Calloused fingers popped open the tab, and then the arm holding it extended toward Shane.

He’d accepted, because it would probably be dangerous not to. Then his dad grabbed his own beer from the fridge, taking it into the living room and turning on the TV. Wondering if this was a test, Shane did nothing. He sat at the counter with the open beer in front of him, staring at it in fear, until his dad reappeared fifteen minutes later to grab a second drink. When he saw Shane still sitting there he paused.

The shadow towered over him from behind; and just like a cloud over the sun, the temperature seemed to drop.  

“You letting my beer go flat? You some kind of idiot?”

Shane froze, waiting for the thump on the head, the one that made his ears ache on the inside. It never came. Only an arm reaching over from behind, grabbing the beer and shoving it into his chest.

“You ain’t a little boy anymore, Shane. Drink. Up.”

And so he did. He drank the whole can, his old man standing behind and watching with his arms crossed. When he finally set it down his dad barked a laugh, slapping him on the back. “Good man.” Then he handed Shane the other beer he’d just taken out. “Know what? I’m feeling generous today. You want a beer, you go in there and help yourself.”

The generosity never returned after that day, of course. Nor did the look that said that’s my son. Only the shouting and the cuffing and the shrapnel, and on good days, silence.

The water was hot enough to burn, and Shane turned it hotter before tilting his head back and draining the can. This was in his DNA: to drink, to screw up, to hurt the people who were dumb enough to love him. He’d avoided snapping at Jas so far – that he could remember – but how many times had he lost it at Marnie or Sophia? And Garrett, Garrett put up with a ton of his crap. Years of it.

He wanted to go straight to his room after the shower, but opening the bathroom door he bumped into the last person he wanted to see when feeling like this.

“Uncle Shane?” A blanket was tied around his goddaughter’s neck like a cape, and she clutched a paper towel tube in one fist. “Will you play with me?”

He rubbed one eye with his fingers. “Kid… not right now.”

She frowned, then ripped off her cape and dropped it. “You never play anymore. We only read. We never play.”

Then she walked dejectedly away, leaving Shane alone with the Wintersday tree in the hall. It glowed with white fairy lights, their warm happiness mocking him.

He shut the whole image out of his head and left for his room. Once inside he closed the door, stuffing the empty beer can in his dresser drawer and then sitting on the bed, still clutching his Joja jacket.

If – well, if you feel the need to drink… call me. Anytime, day or night. Just promise you’ll call before taking a single sip.

But it was too late. He’d already taken the first sip – in the shower today, at the bar yesterday. He reached into the jacket and pulled out the fifth of whiskey stuffed into the other side of the liner. Tilting it back and forth, he watched the golden liquid slip around inside.

It was different last time he called her. He hadn’t planned to drink that night they went to the quarry, nor had he even wanted to – it’d been a kneejerk reaction to a bad situation. Tonight there was no dilemma. It wasn’t about whether he’d drink or not; he was going to, and resigned to that fact, he was merely putting it off for a few more minutes.

A tap at the door startled him, and then Marnie said, “Shane?”

Panicking, he shoved the bottle under his pillow just as his aunt cracked the door. He hadn’t even heard the phone ring, but there she was, holding it next to her shoulder.

“It’s Sophia.”

She didn’t make eye contact as she handed Shane the phone. He waited until she’d closed the door and he could no longer hear her footsteps before placing it to his ear. Heart filled with dread, he opened his mouth to speak – and nothing came out.

She must’ve heard him breathing, because she said, “Shane?”

“Yeah,” he managed.

She took a deep breath. “Look, we both know this is going to be uncomfortable, so I’ll be blunt – we need to talk. About everything.”

“Sophia—”

“We both fucked up last night, okay? There’s no point in feeling embarrassed or ashamed. It was both of us.”

Yeah, right.

This was her first time fucking up – unlike him, she didn’t have a laundry list of these moments. The awful attitude he’d given her when they met. His black-out drunkenness and puking by the pier. Visiting her farm for the second time and deciding he absolutely had to go on a beer run first. Drinking before the moonlight jellies because he was stupid and jealous. Asking if it was a prank when she kissed him; telling her he wasn’t drunk enough to fuck her the first time they spent the night together. Being a hopeless mess in front of her parents. Showing up drunk and pissing in her bed.

Everything – every important thing in their relationship – was preceded by him making an idiot of himself.

And what had changed, really? Nothing. He was the same Shane as last month, as last year. He’d been delusional these past few months with Sophia, that was all – he could finally see himself clearly again. And what he saw was despicable. It was one thing to talk to her about missing Garrett, or being afraid of becoming his father, but this whininess, this self-loathing and anger… it was all so fucking pathetic. Hearing himself be that way aloud was so much worse than keeping it in his head, but he’d gotten too comfortable with her, too close to keep it all hidden.

“When are you gonna give up?” he said angrily.

“Huh?”

“I said, when are you gonna give up?”

A pause. “I’m not.” Then, quietly: “Are you?”

I already have.

“Look,” he mumbled, staring at the lump under this pillow. “We’re better off forgetting this.”

“Forgetting this? What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

Shane remained silent.

“Us? Forget us?”

“Sophia, I can’t do this, okay? I can’t.”

“You can’t, or you won’t? Because if you’re saying you want to break up Shane Daniels, then you’re the biggest fucking liar I’ve ever met. Maybe you don’t remember everything from last night, but I do! You said – you said I was the best thing that ever happened to you. You did.”

In his mind, Shane could only picture her as he’d left her that morning, and his heart almost split on the spot. She’d been heartbroken, but so beautiful. Of course she’d been beautiful. She had the most beautiful soul he’d ever met, and it radiated out, and he remembered how he’d felt the first time he touched her, back at the spring dance: like he was wrong and dirty and had defiled her.  

He also remembered the first time he’d been in her house, seeing her bedroom door wide open when the bed had been covered in clothes. Tried to imagine telling his past self that in half a year’s time he’d be living sober, sleeping in that bed several nights a week, making love to her – being her boyfriend. Then he tried to imagine telling his past self that despite all that, he’d still wake up one day and be depressed. That he’d continue to live in a world so bleak that being in love with someone who loved him back wasn’t enough to make life bearable. And fuck, if it wasn’t bearable with her, what hope did he have on his own?

And then he did defile her. Just this week. He’d used her body and ignored her after, and she’d cried and drank because he was scum.

“You’re never going to let yourself be happy with me,” she whispered. “You’re going to find some way to ruin it. You’ve been looking for an out for weeks now, because you have this stupid idea that I’d be better off without you. But you’re wrong, and I know that you love me – I fucking know you do—”

Sophia.”

“It’s a bump! That’s all. We’ll sort it out, okay? We’ll talk, change up our routine, whatever we need to do. I promise to be right there with you—”

“Jesus, would you stop? Why the fuck do you keep trying? I can’t do this shit – I’m too fucked up for any of this to work—”

“You’re not!” she choked. “You need help, Shane. Therapy, medication, I don’t fucking know. But it’ll work because we’ll make it work, because we love each other.” A sound like she was wiping her nose on her sleeve, and then she started to beg. “Please, please don’t do this. I can help. I can be anything you need—”

“It doesn’t work that way, Sophia! You can’t fucking fix me. You just want to save me so you can feel better about not saving Amy, there’s no other reason for you to stick around this long.”

If ever he could rewind time and eat his own words, he’d give a limb for that moment to be now – because he was pretty sure he’d just said the worst sentence of his life.

There was a long, chill silence. Sophia’s voice was distant, as if he’d physically slapped her away from the receiver; all she said, in four monotone words was, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Then she hung up.

Shane furiously wiped his eyes; he felt dizzy, too hot, head pounding, and it was like it belonged to someone else – the hand that cracked against his skull as hard as it could. Pain split through his head but he kept going, knocking out all the thoughts and replacing them with white light and hurt, hitting himself again and again, until in a panic he came to his senses and grabbed the wooden edge of his bedframe with both hands. He gripped as tight as he could, twisting the wood as if trying to wring out a washcloth. The skin around his palms turned red and raw, but he was afraid to let go – afraid those hands might give him a concussion.

Then they stopped.        

Through the throbbing pain came a blue tide of calm. His hands fell off the bedframe onto his lap. He stood, slipping on his jacket, reaching under the pillow for the whiskey and tucking it into his pocket, and in an eerily tranquil state left his bedroom.

With unusual luck Marnie was in the bathroom, not around to see him grab his winter jacket, throwing it atop his Joja one and slipping out into the cold. He wasn’t even off the ranch’s property when he snapped the seal on the cap and took the first swallow. It burned like it hadn’t in years, and he savored that fire as his feet carried him down the familiar path to Emmet’s dock. Walking home with those bottles hidden in his jacket, it’d been a steady pattern of comfort one step, shame the next: comfort, shame, comfort, shame. Walking to the dock now, he had no room for shame. There would be plenty of time for that later, and right now it was about letting in comfort, and he threw back several shots on the way.  

Once there, legs dangling over the edge above the icy water, he closed his eyes and drank from the neck – long, scorching gulps that had his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat.

He thought of the first night he’d met Sophia. How after she left, he’d sat in this exact position, drinking this exact brand of whiskey, contemplating the insignificance of it all. Staring at a sky full of stars, wishing he could feel something – anything. Taking comfort in the idea of death. Why was there never a happy medium? He felt everything at once, or nothing at all. Being with Sophia was the closest he’d ever been to any sort of balance, and now he’d gone and flipped the table out from under them.

Another long swallow; another hot burn that singed away another layer of discomfort.

He couldn’t take it back. He could be in love with her for the next fifty years, but he could never take back what he’d said. A thousand apologies wouldn’t be enough to erase the way he’d flung her sister’s suicide in her face, practically blaming her for it and damning her feelings for Shane in the same breath.

How could anyone be such a complete piece of shit? Things had been perfect. He loved her, and she loved him back. In what world wasn’t that enough? She was a lightning strike that had jolted him into the land of the living, and she’d held his hand through everything for months. She still was. Her entire phone call tonight had been saying that –saying, “Hold my hand.” But she didn’t understand. She thought it would keep him from falling, but all it would do was pull her down with him. It already had. Look at the drunken mess of the previous night. That sloppiness wasn’t herIt was him – the guy currently chugging from the bottle for six straight seconds.

Slow down, man.

His best friend’s voice pierced the night air, shooting a chill across Shane’s exposed neck.

Yeah, that was perfect. Was he going to start hearing voices now? Because really, that’d be the fucking cherry on top.

“Go away,” he muttered, staring down the white caps in the middle of the black lake.

Dude, you’re like a little kid covering his eyes. ‘You can’t see me!’ I wasn’t fucking stupid. The only reason I ever got pissed was because you waited until after to tell me. 

He took another shot, rubbing his bleary eyes.

Garrett wasn’t welcome here. He could go back to wherever the hell he’d gone when he left Shane the first time.

Some people took comfort in the thought of their loved ones watching over them, but Shane felt only loathing at the idea: Garrett – mangled in heaven, or whatever – looking down at the stars of a beautiful, brightly lit city at night. Zooming in to a single brightly lit building, and in that building a single lit bulb over a single dark table. At that table, a twenty-six year old man leaning on his elbows in front of a whiskey on the rocks. In that whiskey a hidden fist; one that crushed seven years of sobriety to powder.

Garrett watching his daughter sitting at her desk in school, drawing a picture of his best friend and writing the word “Dad” over it. Scribbling it out after.

Garrett watching the way, over the course of a summer and fall, Shane had trained Jas to trust him again. And if anything was irresponsible, it wasn’t Shane’s prior neglect of her, but that he was now actively creating illusions about what he was capable of giving long term: getting her hopes up, when deep down he was going to abandon her again.

Garrett watching Sophia enter his life, Shane’s second chance at it all.

Watching him blow that up, too.

When he tilted his head back this time, it was like the whiskey was a full bath and he’d pulled the plug, and with quiet gurgles it sunk lower and lower the same as a draining tub.

Slow the fuck down Shane, that’s way too fast. Seriously, man – you haven’t done this in months, you need to slow down.

He dropped the bottle to his lap, blinking at the way it was only a third full, not understanding how that much had disappeared in mere minutes. He swayed woozily, and between blinks the horizon seemed to tilt from side to side like a seesaw. He grabbed a fistful of his own hair, just to keep his head in place.

The apathy, he’d thought that was the worst of it – that nothing could feel worse than being a dead object trapped in living flesh. But falling from such great heights to where he was now? Even with Sophia and loving her as much as he did – and he did, he loved her in a way he didn’t know he was capable of – even with that, he didn’t know how long he could do this.

The only thing he knew how to do was make those thoughts leave him alone for awhile, if he drank enough.

C’mon man, this is too fast  – this is way, way too fast – put the fucking bottle down, Shane, you need to fucking stop…

In less than a minute he’d finished the rest of the whiskey. The glass sparkled in the moonlight and he turned the bottle, watching the light shift from bevel to bevel. But only for a moment: he blinked, and the next thing he knew, that bottle was in the water below him, a wave rolling beneath it and giving it a shove back to shore. He blinked again and the bottle was gone. He blinked a third time and his body was turned around, and he blinked a fourth time and he was halfway down the dock, only he didn’t remember standing up—

He hadn’t meant to drink all of it. He didn’t want to black out, but somehow every time he blinked he lost another piece of time and space and he—

He needed to find Sophia. He needed to tell her he was fucking sorry, and she needed to forgive him and tell him it would be okay. He needed her. There was no point in trying without her. Without Sophia he was no good to Jas, he was no good to Marnie, he was no good to himself, to anybody—

The earth rolled under him; the ground tipped sideways and the bottom of his shoes slipped. The bottle lilted in the waves near shore and he was confused that he was watching it again – he needed to go to Sophia, but every time he blinked he lost more time, more space, found himself looking a different direction. Home; home was left, but his legs would only go straight – no, scratch that, he wasn’t walking. Was he?

He had the sensation of moving forward, but when he looked down his legs were folded beneath him. He paused to rest, just for a moment, and this time when he blinked he was flat on his stomach against the snow.

The ground tilted again, and Shane slid slowly off its edge into blackness.

 

Chapter Text

“Isn’t it amazing?”

Sophia peered over her sister’s shoulder. “It’s a stump.”

“No, you dummy. It’s a whole world.

Amy, squatting in front of the stump, looked up with sparkling eyes. Sophia squatted next to her, and together they peered into the jagged, cave-like crevice. It was all decay: black rot shining from the cracks, cobwebs that glistened in the corners, pill bugs scurrying. It smelled like earth and rain.

“It’s pretty,” Sophia agreed, seeing it from this height.

Amy touched a spot of the black rot. “It’s like a little black heaven for those bugs.”

 


 

Sophia sat in her bedroom, sighing. It was almost midnight and Amy still wasn’t back, though she’d promised Sophia she’d return by eleven. She’d had to lie to her parents, plumping Amy’s pillows under the sheets and turning on the soft, lo-fi pop her sister always listened to while falling asleep. The CD had almost run its course, and Sophia flipped the page of her magazine, sighing again, when she heard muffled laughter.

Creeping through the dark apartment, she paused at her parents’ bedroom and listened. Total silence. Tiptoeing forward through the kitchenette, she cracked the front door open and peered into the hallway. Not ten feet down was Amy, pinned against the wall and making out with a girl with long reddish hair.

Sophia cleared her throat and Amy looked up, then laughed again and held her finger up in a “Shhh” motion to her partner, who’d laughed even louder.

“You’re going to wake them up!” Sophia hissed.

Amy whispered something to the girl – Meredith, Sophia thought her name was – and she cracked up, sliding her hand down Amy’s arm and grinning before heading the opposite direction.

“Hey,” Amy whispered, far too loudly. “I didn’t mean to be loud.”

“Just get in the room before Mom or Dad wake up!”

Amy followed her sister, along with a strong smell of lingering pot, and once inside the room she draped her arm over Sophia. Her breath was sharp – a clear alcohol, like vodka. “Got you a lil something, dear,” she said, fishing a lime green soda bottle from her purse and handing it to Sophia.

Sophia uncapped the lid and took a sniff.

“Screw you for making me wait!” she said, plugging her nose and taking a swallow. Then: “How’d it go?”

Amy flopped onto her perfectly made bed and stared at the ceiling of the room. “I’m in love, Sophie.”

Sophia said nothing, clearing off her bed of the magazines. Today it was Meredith. Last month it was Caden, and two months before that Steve. And who could forget Rachel? Rachel, who she’d met on the internet, and who lasted almost four months before the illusion crumbled; before they could consummate their plan of meeting in the middle of the seven hour drive that separated them.

Her sister’s heart would be broken. Tomorrow, next week, next month; it was just a matter of time, because Amy didn’t know how to keep a friendship, let alone anything beyond. It would be brutal, and she’d snap and swear at Sophia for not understanding. But Sophia didn’t mind because in her heart she was a very selfish person, and she knew Amy would always return. She’d cry on her shoulder, and tell her that of all the miserable people in this miserable fucking world, the only person she could count on was Sophia.

 


 

It was Wintersday. Her parents were gone for the evening, a holiday gala for her Mom’s work. The apartment was quiet for once, not filled with loud music or funny videos or laughter – the usual when they had the house to themselves. Amy had wanted to quietly watch TV, and Sophia was trying to finish her final homework assignment due before winter break.   

Then it was too silent. The TV was off; the only noise Sophia’s pen scratching the paper. Unable to concentrate, she dropped it and went into the living room.

The lights were off but the room was welcoming and warm, softened by the glow of the Wintersday tree, of the twinkling that reflected off a hundred glass ornaments. Amy sat in front of it with her knees drawn, her back to Sophia. She was eighteen, but sitting silhouetted in front of the holiday tree, hair falling around her shoulders in the loose curls she’d set that morning, she looked doll-like; a young girl.

Sophia sat beside her. Amy’s arms wrested on her knees, fingers fidgeting with her black bracelets. They watched the tree in silence, the tiny reflections of light appearing to dance in Sophia’s vision even though she sat still. Amy wiped her eyes with the back of one hand, smearing black mascara.

"It hurts,” she whispered in a crackly voice, then started to cry.

Sophia smoothed her sister’s hair, fingers combing through the tiny knots in the curls. The apartment was quiet around them. Smoothing the hair one last time, she then grabbed Amy’s hand in her own, tracing the scar on her palm. She put her own against it, holding their scars together, and dropped her head on her sister’s shoulder.

“I know,” she whispered, though she didn’t.

 


 

Sophia sat with a lit cigarette between her lips, a lighter in one hand. She flicked it on and off several times, the hiss of a flame springing to life then fizzling out, staring at the footprints leading away from her porch. Size eleven. There’d been a light snowfall that afternoon, and without that fresh layer dusting them they’d be a flat print with no grooves, the shoes that made them so old the treads had worn flat.  

There was no wind and the smoke from her cigarette lingered, clouds hanging above the porch as if crystallized there. She turned her attention to the half-finished rabbit hutch: a two-level structure with a ramp going to the second floor, the ground below it blocked off by chicken wire. The walls were already half done, one side even having a window.

It was turning out beautifully. That he could build that, mistakes or not, and still say he didn’t know how to do anything, that he was dumb and useless and a failure…

Asshole. Stupid fucking asshole.

She sucked in with violence, blowing the smoke out just as hard.

How could it have been him? How could he be the one to say that to her? One day he was pinned beneath her in a twilight snowfall, looking up with eyes that said she, Sophia, was home. The next he was a stranger, threatened by her company and lashing out like a scared animal. Not so long ago it’d been summer and she’d been here in the same spot, smoking, warming her heart with the knowledge that Shane would never pull something like Rick; Shane would never use her sister’s suicide as leverage in a fucking argument. But then he did, and now her insides felt like tar.

Fuck him. Fuck him.

Just because it was true – just – that didn’t give him the fucking right to throw it in her face like that. Just because Amy killed herself right under Sophia’s nose and she’d been too stupid to see it, to fix it, to stop her from ripping a black hole into her entire family’s life – that didn’t mean he could go around telling her how bad she’d fucked up. She knew how bad she’d fucked up. She lived with it every goddamn day, and Shane could go fuck himself.

She sucked on her cigarette hard.

She’d hated him. For a moment his words had felt like a hundred lacerations at once: a stabbing in her heart, and a knife across her palm, and Amy’s glass eyes searing into a ceiling. God, she’d hated him. She didn’t know it was possible to hate him, but in that moment she found out it was.

But the moment was gone. She was pissed, yes. She was hurt, and half wanted to hurl something equally hurtful back. But hate him? How could she hate him, when it wasn’t him that said it? She wouldn’t accept that it was him; she couldn’t accept that it was him. His mind wasn’t his own anymore. She didn’t know whose it was. His father’s? His alcoholism? His clear chemical imbalance? It didn’t matter – it wasn’t him, because if it was, then she was still the girl who let her boyfriends treat her like crap.

She chucked her cigarette butt in the snow, where it hissed for a fraction of a section before going cold.

It wasn’t him.

Depression lied to people. She knew the convoluted realities Shane came up with, the warped ones that turned every positive into a negative, and repeated so often in his brain that they wore their own grooves into it. Right now Shane was at the mercy of those realities, and the longer Sophia sat the more the coldness spread through her limbs, unrelated to the temperature outside. Even her anger – even her momentary hatred – couldn’t drown out the voice that whispered that he couldn’t be trusted with himself. Not after how wasted he’d gotten yesterday, and then their argument tonight.

Icy fingers fumbled in her pocket for her phone, shaking as she dialed the long familiar number. She stared at his footprints with slow-filling dread, her teeth chattering while she held the ringing phone at her ear.  

“Hello?” came a wary voice.

“Marnie—”

“Sophia?” The wary voice turned warm.

“Please, I need to speak to Shane again. Please.”

The warm voice went on edge. “Is everything all right?”

“Yes, I just – I need to speak to him.”

“Of course.”

Her whole body began to jerk from the cold while she waited; it was like a switch had dropped the night into a proper arctic freeze.

“Sophia, dear? He must’ve gone out. I can’t find him in his room or the coop.”

“Oh. Right. Thanks.”

“Are you sure you’re okay, dear? You sound a bit scattered.”

“Thank you, Marnie,” she repeated, hanging up before realizing her reply didn’t make sense. Jamming her phone in her pocket and looking up at the black sky, she hurried forward into the darkness to follow the footsteps.

She thought about the first time she’d walked the road to the ranch, back in the spring. The sunlight like yellow glitter between the leaves; the white butterflies that flitted by her feet, and the dust that her sandals brought up from the road. She’d worn a sundress that day, and wound up going to a dance she hadn’t planned on going to, dancing in private with a man who would go on to consume her entire world.  

Tonight the road was empty. The moon overhead was hazy, the sky too overcast for stars, and on either side of her the trees were tangled black silhouettes. Cold; silent but for the crunch of her boots on the snow.

She picked up her pace, a beating uncomfortably high in her chest – the feeling like when she’d drank too much coffee, and the nervous palpitations felt like an oncoming heart attack. Rounding the final bend, she saw the lights of the ranch come into view. She followed the trail of footprints to the door, fully expecting fresh, undusted tracks to lead toward the saloon, but instead they went the opposite direction. Cindersap Forest.

He hadn’t gone to the saloon?

Maybe he wasn’t drinking. Maybe he’d gone out there to brood, that was all. If he was drinking that meant he’d bought alcohol earlier in the day, that he’d planned it, and he didn’t do that anymore. Last night had just been a moment of weakness and the saloon was open late, unlike the stores. He said it himself – he’d only wanted one.

You’ve gone out there to be alone like usual, and you’re going to be pissed to see me, but you’re going to have to deal. I don’t trust you not to do something stupid.

Sophia clamped her hands under her arms for warmth and hurried forward. She was so pissed at him, something she rarely let herself feel. But she was; he pissed her right the fuck off. And if she found him drinking she was going to be even more pissed, but at least she wouldn’t have to worry. She’d be at his side, proving to him once again that she wasn’t going anywhere. And if he was determined to break up with her? He could do it to her fucking face. None of this phone bullshit; none of this bullshit where he walked out the door with his back to her, without so much as goodbye.  

As she neared the lake, the clouds parted to reveal a sliver of moonlight. The snow underfoot was illuminated, and then the steel-grey lake, and the dock. And, not far in the distance—

Déjà vu.

For a moment, her feet stopped working. The small muscles around her eyes began to twitch as she stared at the figure in the dark brown coat lying on the ground. She couldn’t feel her body, only the eyes that continued to spasm, blurring her vision into wavy lines. Having lived through the world collapsing once Sophia thought she’d been through the worst of it, and that nothing would ever be so bad again. Except now that world, already fragile, already built with matchsticks on a foundation of sand, collapsed again.

Like the crack of a whip, she was back in her body. It shook. She took several hurried steps forward, then just as quickly turned on her heel, walking a half-circle back to her original spot. Another crack of a whip – she did it again – walking forward – circling back. She was caught in some kind of glitch in the universe; it was refusing to let her move forward, only allowing her to repeat, repeat, repeat, a skipping record of steps forward, circles back.

He was laying there. He was dead. He was laying there, and he was dead.

You don’t – you don’t – he might – you don’t know – you have to—

She couldn’t. She couldn’t go over there. If there was anything on earth that was not happening at this moment, it was Sophia going over to meet that immobile figure.

There was a vile feeling in her throat, like a pit had suddenly wedged inside to block her air. She tried to take a deep breath but it refused to budge. She tried again – sucking in as much air as she could to remove that pit, to push it down – but it only expanded, blocking the airway more. Another breath. Another, accompanied by a gasp – more gasps – more. She couldn’t get air. She couldn’t fucking breathe. Every attempt only shortened it more, her torso squeezed by an invisible corset and her vision sinking inward, darkness in her peripheral as her surroundings zoomed away. She dropped to the ground, clutching her knees to her chest, her heart barreling like a freight train, every breath a gasp.

How long she stayed like that she didn’t know, only that she was having a panic attack, the same as she’d had for almost a full year after Amy’s death, and that her own death felt imminent, just as it did all those other times. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to remember how to count, but for a long time couldn’t even form the numbers in sequence. Unable to breathe and unable to count – that’s how she was going to die.

But it passed. Five minutes, ten minutes, longer – it passed enough that although her eyes were so blurred she couldn’t see straight, a small, rational voice urged her to look again.  

She took a great gulp of air, now that she finally could, and did.

Shane was still there, the same as before. But there was no blood. His face was hidden. There was no way of knowing. Hope was a dangerous thing, but there was no way of knowing for sure, and if there was even the smallest possibility—

With a body that felt distinctly not her own, with the strangest sensation she was watching it all from above, Sophia crawled toward him through the snow. She was clumsy, her breathing still short, but she pressed forward, because he’d probably just fainted. Yes. That was all. He’d fainted and she was overreacting, except god, he was so still, and as her trembling form dropped beside him her stomach rolled. Certain the contents of her dinner were about to be all over the snowy forest floor, she turned him over.

Like a sleeping Shane, his cheek red and frozen where it’d lain in the snow.  

“S-Shane?” she whispered, her voice disappearing into the night air. “Shane,” she repeated louder, forcing the fragile voice out, shaking his shoulders. “Shane! Shane! Shane!”

She was trembling too much and her vision was too impaired: she stared at his chest but couldn’t tell if it was moving, and leaned over his face but couldn’t feel his breath. With jerking hands she grabbed his wrist, her fingers slipping off it four times. She loathed her body for betraying her when she needed it the most, certain that the inability to find life beneath the pads of her icy fingers meant that she ought to give in to the vacuum feeling – just let it take her too—

But then, a pulse.

A slow pulse. But a pulse.

“Shane?” She lifted his head behind the neck, bringing him to an upright position against her. “Shane!”  But he remained unresponsive, and she began shaking him, saying his name louder and louder as her voice gained strength. The difficulty to find air was gone, her breathing suddenly racing.

He had a pulse, and that meant she couldn’t let the blurry vision pull her away, not this time; this time it wasn’t hopeless, it wasn’t over, and she had a responsibility to get help as soon as humanly possible. She let his body lean against her while she frantically patted her pockets, searching for her phone—

Somewhere in here—

She’d brought it, she remembered bringing—

It was gone. Every pocket, empty. Fallen out at some point during her walk, maybe but oh, god, there wasn’t time for this bullshit. Her cheeks soaked, the cold stinging against them, she lifted her head and looked wildly around. Maybe her phone dropped nearby, somewhere in the snow… but no. Nothing, except a few yards away in the water, an empty fifth of whiskey, bobbing as innocently as driftwood.

Sophia buried her face into Shane’s shoulder, and muffled against him she screamed.

There came a low rumble, from somewhere deep in his throat.

“S-Shane?” she stammered. Her movements became frantic at the sound, disjointed, and she gripped at his face. “Shane?” But there was no more sound and, teeth chattering, she whispered “We’re going to get help, okay? I’m not going to let anything happen to you. I love you so much, I love you so much, I love you so fucking much…”

She gripped under his arms and began to drag him backward through the snow; she’d never been less graceful and were he cognizant it might’ve even hurt him, but it was all she could do, and there was another mumble in his throat as she dragged him back to a tree. The same tree she’d once sat under, watching him as he downed a different fifth of liquor, only then he’d had a tolerance. Then, he’d been out there half the night. This time he had no tolerance. This time he couldn’t have been out more than an hour.

She leaned him against the tree – it made a v-shape with another, smaller tree next to it, and she wedged his body between them, bracing his shoulders so he couldn’t fall over. It wasn’t perfect, but her brain was tripping over its own thoughts and it was all she knew to do: keep it so that if he vomited, he wouldn’t swallow it. His head lolled forward and she prayed it was enough, pulling off her jacket and draping it over his chest, and then began to run through the frozen night toward the ranch.

It hurt. The cold in her lungs, and her recent shortness of breath – it felt like she was breathing in sharpened icicles, but she ignored every jab, running hard until she reached the front door, and without slowing down crashed into it and hammered violently with her fists.

Marnie flung the door open, looking shook. “Sophia? What in the world?”

For the first time in several minutes Sophia paused; she collapsed over with hands on her knees, huffing, her face streaked with pale lines from tears and her breath hitching in her throat.

“Mar – Marnie. I n-need your keys. Please, please—”

A flash of terror crossed the older woman’s eyes. “Where’s Shane?”

Sophia burst into fresh tears. “Please, Marnie, your keys. I-I didn’t have my phone on me, you need to call Doctor Harvey and t-tell him it’s an emergency, please—”

Marnie raced to her purse, digging frantically through the canvas flaps. Her own eyes were filling, threatening to spill and she said, “What happened? Where is he? Is he going to be all right?”

Sophia was crying so hard she coughed, choking on it. “I don’t know. He’s not responding, I think – I think he drank a whole bottle tonight, and he hasn’t drank in months – please…”

Marnie was crying now too, but she found her keys at last and shoved them in Sophia’s hands, saying, “Go, I’ll take care of Dr. Harvey, just go,” and Sophia listened, running back outside at the protest of her still burning lungs.

The trail through Cindersap Forest to the lake wasn’t a true road, more suited to recreational vehicles than a clunky pick-up truck. But while it was a tight fit, it was still a fit, and Sophia drove in a minute and half what it’d taken her almost ten to run.

It was more open in front of the lake and she had plenty of room to turn the vehicle around. With a rocket of relief she saw Shane exactly as she left him, he hadn’t fallen over, he hadn’t vomited – but then with an equal surge of panic she wondered if that wasn’t worse, why hadn’t he moved, please still have a normal pulse—

She didn’t even shut the vehicle off, only slamming it into park and jumping down to him, throwing open the passenger door and using every ounce of her strength to lift him. And fuck, he was heavy, not just because he weighed more but because he was so much dead weight, and it took Sophia so long to drag him in that she started to cry even harder out of pure frustration. With Herculean effort she managed to shove him limb by limb onto the seat and buckle him in. This time there were no low mumbles in his throat, only silence.

Her knuckles were white gripping the wheel, her breathing shallow and her cheeks wet, but she’d done it – she’d gotten him in the truck, and now she had to get him to the clinic. She had a purpose, a task, she needed to focus, and she needed to not think about anything but driving them there safely as fast as she could.

“Damn you,” she whispered, blinking away the burning tears.

They exited the forest trail, driving down the road of the ranch and then into town. It was dark and all but abandoned except for the saloon, the mahogany wood and honey lights emitting a warmth as if the whole building was aglow from within. Sophia swallowed a loathing for it; she drove straight to the brightly-lit clinic where Dr. Harvey already stood waiting outside the doors. She killed the engine and Harvey rushed to the passenger side unasked, and together they lifted Shane out between them. When they’d rushed him inside and onto the clinic’s bed, Sophia sat to keep him upright while the doctor began rushing around the room.

“Sophia,” he said, his voice low and calm. “I’ll need your help for a few minor things. Maru is usually here for procedures, but tonight it’s just us.”

“O-of course,” she choked, blinking back the stray tears. “Anything.”

“Do you know how much he had to drink?”

She wiped her face with the back of her hand. “I’m not positive, but I think a full fifth of whiskey.”

“Nothing else? No pills, no other drugs?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so. He’s never done that. He’s… he’s drank this much before, but he hasn’t done it in months…” She hiccupped, leftover from her crying.

“I’m going to get him on oxygen therapy right away, and intubate him to be sure if he does vomit the airways remain open.” He handed Sophia two straps. “Strap his wrists to the bed, because if he wakes up he may try to rip the tubing out.”

“O-Okay,” she stammered, hands shaking as she accepted them.

Harvey pulled over a stainless steel table on wheels, now covered in several pieces of medical equipment. He began to prep Shane’s hand for an IV as Sophia – again feeling like she was watching from overhead – tied his arms to the rungs of the hospital bed.

“I’ve called an ambulance from Zuzu City,” said Harvey, hands constantly moving. “He’ll be transferred there tonight, but in the meantime we’ll need to treat him here as best we can. We don’t know how long ago he drank, and time is of the essence.”

“But he’s going to be okay?”

“I don’t know, Sophia, but I sincerely hope so. You were absolutely correct to bring him in when you did – alcohol poisoning is never taken seriously enough.”

Sophia felt a ball in her throat again, and immediately began to count in her head. She couldn’t fall apart right now.   

Dr. Harvey laid Shane down, clearly ready to start the intubation. “This isn’t pleasant. You should leave the room.”

“I need to stay,” she said immediately.

The doctor hesitated, but only for a second. “Very well.”

Sophia sat in the chair beside Shane’s bed, holding his tied-up hand, his fingers too cold. She stared at a section of flooring where four tiles met, waiting. She didn’t wait long: she heard Harvey’s careful tutting noises as he worked the curved metal utensil into Shane’s throat, heard his unconscious form still react as a conscious form would, sputtering and gagging around it. A few silent tears trickled down her face, and from the tip of her nose a drop of snot fell to the tile, splattering there.

Then Harvey said, “Ah, there we are,” at its successful insertion, and Sophia glanced up to see the plastic tubing emerging from Shane’s mouth.  

She gripped the cold fingers as the doctor finished the procedure; as he pushed a needle into Shane’s other hand for a second IV, as he opened his jacket and cut into his shirt to place white circular patches on his chest, hooking them up to a machine to monitor his vitals. He bustled around the room, connecting tubes, pressing buttons that gave sterile beeps, opening and closing the velcro of a blood pressure cuff. Then there was retching,  a splattering sound in a metal pan – the first of many retches, as the yet-unconscious Shane vomited around the tube several more times.

The room either fell much quieter, or Sophia’s senses were closing in on her again, because everything went soft and she could no longer hear Harvey bustling about. For a long time she squeezed her eyes shut, counting up and down from one hundred, wishing she could get the sound of his gagging out of her ears. She lost track of the time until a sharp squeaking sound made her open her eyes again, and a tissue appeared under her nose.  

She took it, looking up to see Dr. Harvey, who’d wheeled his chair over to her. She blew her nose and he looked at her with kindness from under his rectangular glasses.

“Sophia, may I ask you a personal question?”

The room was feeling very small, her peripheral vision once again boxing her in. She nodded, still focusing on the floor.

“You and Shane, you’re seeing one another?”

She nodded again.

“As I thought. I don’t want to alarm you, but I’m afraid I must be honest. Shane’s heart rate was dangerously low tonight. He’s suffering acute alcohol poisoning, and partial respiratory failure. I’ve done all I can for him at the moment, but he’ll need to remain under close watch.”

Her head jerked up at those words, so fatalistic.

“The ambulance will arrive shortly to transfer him.”

Wiping her nose again with a fresh patch of the tissue, she nodded again.

“Sophia, I cannot make any promises on his condition. You understand that, right?”

Another hiccup. Another nod.

“That said, if in the future – if Shane is struggling with his alcohol use, there are options for him. My door is always open.”

Her grip tightened over Shane’s hand, and she glanced up at Dr. Harvey, feeling the desperation in her own eyes. “He’s been sober for months. Almost since summer. He’s better – this, this is a fluke…”

Harvey looked at her sadly. “For many people, that struggle doesn’t go away. It’s something they’ll always have to live with.”

Her chin began to quiver; she bit her lip hard to stop it.

“We share a common interest, Sophia – we’d both like to see him well. And considering you know him much better than I, is it all right if I ask another personal question?”

“Yes,” she said softly.

“As much as I’d like to discuss treatment options with Shane, at the moment my gut says we should be more concerned about his mental health. And as someone who knows him better than I, would you say that concern is unfounded?”

She looked at her hand, rubbing her thumb across Shane’s, wishing it would warm faster. She shook her head. 

“He… gets depressed a lot.”

“I see.”

With her free hand she wiped her eyes. “He’s really, really hard on himself. He doesn’t – he can’t—”

Harvey touched her shoulder. “Again, I must stress that I cannot make any promises on his condition. But if it’s needed in the future, I know several excellent counselors and therapists in Zuzu City. Please keep that in mind – as I’ve said, my door is always open.” He gave her shoulder a pat. “You’ve done well tonight. You ought to get home.”

“I need to stay.”

“The ambulance will be here very soon, and you’ve been through a lot.” At seeing her open her mouth to protest, he said, “He’ll be monitored all night, Sophia. We’ll do everything we can. You could use rest yourself.”

But Harvey didn’t understand. Sophia wouldn’t get rest. If she slept at all tonight she’d dream, only this time of two cold white surfaces, one ceramic and one snow; this time of two bodies, one on its back, one on its stomach.

She felt sick.

“Can I go with him in the ambulance?”

Harvey hesitated. “Truthfully, that will depend on the EMT who arrives. Some only allow family. Others are more lenient.” He adjusted his glasses. “While my professional opinion is to advise you to go home and get rest, because this has been stressful for you… my nonprofessional opinion understands far too well. I’ll do what I can to see you’re allowed to ride with him.”

Sophia nodded again. So much nodding. Then: “May I use your phone? I need to call his aunt.”

“Of course. Use the front desk, dial ‘9’ first.”

She went out, and once by the phone she stared into the darkened waiting room. There were no lights but for the small Wintersday tree glowing merrily in one corner, and there was a soft hum beneath the surface of the air, that sound of hospitals after hours. For several moments she oscillated between feeling in her body and out of it, at last dialing Marnie’s number. She lifted the receiver to her ear, staring at the tree until the bright, twinkling lights blurred like the bokeh of a camera lens.

“Yes, yes, hello?”

Marnie sounded so frantic that Sophia felt awful for waiting a minute longer than necessary to call.

“He’s—” she choked on the word, then started over. “Harvey says he’s okay, at the moment, but he won’t make any promises. He’s got – he’s got severe alcohol poisoning. They’re taking him to Zuzu City tonight, and I’m going to try to go with them.”  

On the other end, Marnie softly began to cry. Sophia let her, the sound oddly soothing when it came from someone else, layered atop that monotone humming in the air.

Eventually Marnie blew her nose away from the phone. “I can never thank you enough,” she whispered, returning. “To think… if you didn’t go after him. If… if…”

“Don’t think about that,” she blurted, as much to herself as to Marnie.

There was a long pause. “My nephew loves you, Sophia. You’ve shown him more happiness in a few months than he’s probably seen his whole life.”

She stared at the increasingly blurry Wintersday lights, lips trembling. “Marnie, I love him too.”

In the distance came ambulance sirens.

 

Chapter Text

Like the baler at JojaMart: the low purring of heavy machinery pressing down. The crunch of fresh cardboard, and the sickening whir of the chain as it lifted again. A musty back room. The taste of stale vomit. A pounding headache, and eyelids that flickered open – somehow still functional despite the pressure crushing down on them.

“You’re awake,” said a deep, polite voice.

Shane blinked and was met with blinding light, and a moment later a silhouette with a glowing halo behind it. It looked vaguely like the angels seen in movies, the kind that showed up on one’s death bed. An angel of mercy, come to take him out of this crushed, lifeless body?

But no, not an angel.

“You’ve had quite a night,” said the nurse, his blue scrubs filtering in between Shane’s eyelashes and the fluorescent beams. He tried to lift his arm to shield himself from the light, only to discover it wouldn’t budge.

“…the hell is this?” he mumbled, closing his eyes again.

“I’m sorry for the restraints. I can remove them now. When you were unconscious, we couldn’t risk you accidentally ripping out your IV or tubing.” The nurse bent over to undo the velcro straps, the raspy noise like sandpaper on Shane’s eardrums. “How are you feeling?”

How was he feeling? Maybe like he’d fallen off a three story building. Maybe like he’d kissed a moving semi truck.

He groaned.

“I imagine so,” said the nurse, his voice sympathetic. There was a beep and he turned to the monitor next to Shane’s bed, punching in a few buttons. “Is there anything I can get you? Water? More blankets?”

“A bullet,” mumbled Shane darkly, though barely moving his lips, and the nurse didn’t seem to notice.  

“I still need to change the drainage bag on your catheter, but other than that I’ll leave you be. The doctor will be making their rounds in an hour or two, so try to get some rest until then.”

The word catheter registered in a far region of Shane’s brain but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He was exhausted, he ached from head to toe, and he was pretty sure his body had started the process to death, forgetting to take his soul along for the ride. An hour or two of rest sounded like bullshit; he needed at least a year.

Sleep must’ve found him regardless because the next thing he knew was a second coming of blinding light, a second angel figment appearing before his bed. The figure spoke softly at first – as if in another part of the room – and shortly after there was a shuffling sound, and then that of a closing door.

The figure spoke again, this time ringing clear.

“Good morning, Shane. I’m Dr. Maeve.”

The sound of a chair being pulled across tile, the metallic creak as someone sat down in it.

“Do you know where you are?”

Shane let some air exhale from his nostrils in response.

“You’re at Zuzu Regional Medical Centre. You were transferred here last night by ambulance.”

Maybe he should have been surprised by this news, but he wasn’t. Surprise cost energy, and energy was currently an endangered resource.

“You were brought in with acute alcohol poisoning and a critically low heart-rate.”

With effort Shane opened his eyes, letting them adjust for real.

His room was small and dingy. The once-white walls had discolored through the years, and the dinged up baseboards needed a good scrubbing. The blinds were yellowing. There was one lonely chair near the door, upholstered in scratchy blue fabric – that shade of blue that made furniture look at least a decade old, no matter how old it actually was. All this stood in stark contrast to the brand new equipment surrounding Shane’s bed on three sides: shiny plastic and sparkly metal, dotted in blinking lights.

The brightness never eased up, the light like a knife digging straight through his eyes into the back of his skull. Now that his restraints were off, he tried again to lift an arm to shield himself.

Holy fuck, was he weak; his arm felt like rubber. Like dead, heavy, painful rubber.

The doctor sat with a clipboard on her lap, facing him. Her dark features were sharp, her expression intimidating – the polar opposite of Harvey’s gentle eyes and fluffy moustache. This doctor was no-nonsense. This doctor was busy, and ready to get down-to-business. 

“Do you have any memory of what happened to bring you here last night?”

Shane tried again to shield his eyes, flinching at the pain but at least succeeding this time.  

“Guessing I drank,” he mumbled through his forearm. 

Between the crook in his elbow, he could see the doctor inspecting him.

“You’ll be quite sore for awhile,” she said. “The body doesn’t like to detox.” Then her expression, already sharp, grew severe. “Have you ever been hospitalized for alcohol use before?”

Yes. This was good. Twenty questions, that’s exactly what he needed.

“Once.”

“For alcohol poisoning?”

“Blacked out,” he muttered. “Got a concussion.”

“I see.” The doctor, who’d been tapping her nails on her clipboard, now clasped her hands together over her knees. “Shane, were you trying to kill yourself last night?”

For the first time, he became aware of the heart in his chest. “What? No.”

At least, he didn’t think he’d been trying to. For twenty-nine years he’d been too much a coward to pull the damn trigger, and it was unlikely he’d changed his tune last night. But then, who knew what his drunk, dumbass self had been up to? 

“It’s important you answer honestly.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Your blood alcohol level was .41. Accidental overdose from binge drinking is common at parties, but your fiancée found you completely alone, and .41 is a lethal dose. If you were found any later, you’d likely be dead.”

Lethal dose?

His fiancée had found him?

Shane’s brain was cloudy and thick and lagged a few seconds behind the conversation, but that word stood out like the beacon of a lighthouse, shining through the fog: fiancée. Even in his current state he understood exactly what that meant.

“Wasn’t trying,” he repeated quietly.

“I’m glad to hear that. However, she said you were gone for less than two hours, and in that time – alone – you drank enough alcohol to kill yourself. I’m afraid I must rule this as a suicide attempt.”

The doctor had a matter-of-fact way of speaking. The words she spoke were harsh enough, but the edge in her voice made them even sharper.  

“Your vitals are much improved since last night, though we’ll be keeping you in this room until they’re completely stabilized. After that you’ll be transferred to the Psychiatric Ward for at least 72 hours.  I’ve already started you on a low-dose of lorazepam through your IV to ease any anxiety and help you rest this morning, but we’ll evaluate again once you’ve been transferred.” The doctor stood. “If there’s anything you need, don’t be afraid to ring the buzzer for the nurse.”

Shane said nothing. He had a feeling there was more and wanted to save his energy for it. But to his surprise – and then dread – there was only one thing.

“There’s someone outside the door who I’m sure would like to see you now. I had her step into the hallway while we talked but she stayed in this room all night, waiting for you to wake up.”

Shane stared at the ceiling as Dr. Maeve exited the room. He wasn’t ready for this, but it didn’t matter – there was that shuffling sound again, and when he turned his head to the side there she was.

Sophia. His fiancée, apparently. Who’d found him completely alone and almost dead.

She looked fucking exhausted. Her hair was in its usual ponytail, but her face was framed in loose, messy segments that had fallen out. She clearly hadn’t slept all night, eyes puffy, her sweater wrinkled. When she met Shane’s gaze her own looked hollow. With slow, careful steps she walked toward him, and upon reaching his bed sat down in the empty chair beside it.

Without a word she draped herself over his torso.

Shane kept quiet against the pain. His body felt like one giant bruise, sensitive to the slightest pressure, but that was nothing compared to the pain of her being there, holding him; proving for the hundredth time in their short relationship that she wasn’t going anywhere, no matter how little he deserved it. She moved only enough to bury her face in his chest and rest there. Shane closed his eyes. He wanted to sleep like this. And Sophia – she was so fucking tired, he wanted her to sleep like this too. Maybe the doctors could give them an hour just to exist like this, in beautiful, aching silence.

Except Shane broke it himself.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, voice throaty, eyes still closed. “Sophia, I’m so, so sorry.”

Silence.

Had she heard?

Before he could open his mouth to say it again, the lifeless body tightened around him. Her voice was as fragile as cracked glass when she spoke.

“You’re sorry.”          

“I fucked up,” he mumbled.

The body tightened even more.

“You fucked up,” she repeated, and Shane felt suddenly afraid.

Every hangover he’d ever had was child’s play compared to this. Sophia tightening around him, it hurt like hell – hurt as her shoulders pressed into him, hurt as she woodenly lifted her head from his chest. He wanted to give her a better apology, to explain, but he had nothing.

“You fucked up,” she repeated again, this time woodenly rising from the whole seat.

From within her exhausted, willowy frame Shane could sense the early tremors; that electricity before the storm. He was afraid to look at her, but after several moments of silence had no choice.

He was right to be afraid.

“You FUCKED UP?”

“Soph—”

“Don’t you dare look at me right now.”

“I—”

“Don’t you look at me, don’t you fucking look at me!”

Her messy hair, her wild eyes – she’d snapped, gone from hollow to hysterical in seconds.

“Don’t you do that to me! Don’t you fucking do that! Don’t you fucking DO THAT!” She began to smack him; even if Shane’s body allowed him to move he couldn’t have, he was too much in shock – Sophia continued to claw and slap at him, at his arms, his chest, his face, Shane turning away as best he could, trying to shield his eyes. Her slaps weren’t hard but they were wild, painful against his aching bones, and she continued to scream: “Don’t you fucking do that, don’t you fucking do that to me! Don’t you – don’t you—”

Shane hadn’t heard the doors open through Sophia’s hysterics; he was still in shock when the male nurse came up behind, grabbing her by the wrists to stop the hands that slapped him, slowly forcing her backward while she continued to flail to free herself, still screaming at Shane.

“I FOUND her! I found Amy, I found her! Fuck you, Shane! Fuck you! FUCK.YOU!” Shaking, she dropped to the ground, slipping out of the nurse’s grip, and once on her knees on the cold tile she began to cry.

“I hate you,” she whispered, hiccupping. “I hate you for making me find you.”

From his spot on the bed, Shane could only stare in horror at the way she unraveled before him.

“Miss.” The nurse knelt beside her, saying soft, calming things that Shane couldn’t hear. She was done screaming, done slapping, now only hiccupping for breath with silent tears, and the nurse helped her to her feet, sitting her down in the chair beside the door and continuing to speak gently. There was a pitcher of water beside Shane’s bed and he grabbed a new plastic cup, crinkling it out of its protective wrapping and pouring a glass. He walked it back to Sophia, who accepted it with trembling hands. While she drank she stared at the floor, the feral energy gone and her eyes once again hollow. When she was done the nurse took the cup back, helping her up and leading her from the room by her elbow.

Shane stared at the ceiling again, feeling like his body had been beaten all over by a baseball bat, his heart not any better.

He’d done that. He’d done that to her.  

Time needed to rewind. Back to the day Sophia snuck into the ranch after bedtime, writing on his window and falling through the door kissing him. When all this had been new, and just being around her had lifted the shroud of his depression. When he sat on his bed and she kneeled in front of him, and god, those eyes – meeting those eyes then, how he’d felt like this was his second chance at life. How she laid down with him after, and he realized that for once he didn’t feel empty.

To know real happiness – happiness that wasn’t merely water leaking through cupped hands. For a few dreamlike months, he thought he’d found it.

The nurse returned a few minutes later, and Shane continued to stare at the ceiling.

“Is she okay?” he whispered.

“She will be,” the nurse said. “She’s been through a lot, and I don’t believe she slept at all last night. But she’s calm now, at any rate.”

Shane swallowed hard. “She’s never like that. It’s my fault. I messed her up. She’s never like that…”

“Try not to stress yourself right now. You were actually about to have more visitors – your aunt and goddaughter? They just arrived, but they’ve taken it upon themselves to see your fiancée home safely first. They said they’d return as soon as they could.” The nurse gave a small, meant-to-be-encouraging smile. “You’ve got a bit of a stay with us, Shane, so try to get some rest for their visit.”

 


 

The baler was back, crushing his body all over again.

The light was back, acting like a blowtorch on his retinas.

The nurse was back, saying, “Are you ready to see your visitors now?”

Even if he felt like warm death each time he woke from one of his naps, “Yes,” was the only response to a question like that. It was his own damn fault for feeling this way, and after the hell he’d put his aunt through for the past year, it was the least he could do for her.

The nurse exited the room, and Shane stared at the white boards of the ceiling, pockmarked with holes – the kind he’d spent far too many hours staring up at in school classrooms, also filled with regret. But regret came in all shapes and sizes, and of all his fuck-ups, this was surely the worst. This was unforgivable, and whatever pain he felt right now he deserved.

The door creaked back open, slowly.

“Uncle Shane!”

He knew his body was in rough shape when the wind was knocked out of him by a seven-year-old. With great effort, he hugged her back with one arm and she snuggled against him. Her knit hat – white and pink, with kitty ears – was uncomfortable against his cheek, its fibers scratchy and wet. It must’ve been snowing when they arrived at the hospital. 

“You got sick,” Jas said, pulling her head back and frowning. “When are you going to feel better and come home? It’s almost Wintersday! If you want I can write to the Wintersday Wizard and tell him you’re here, so he knows where to bring your presents. I’m learning how to write letters at school.”

Marnie set her purse down on the spare chair. “Careful, sweetie. Give Uncle Shane some space.” She slipped off the kitty hat and smoothed Jas’s hair. “The doctor said he has to stay a few more days, so that’s why we’re visiting him now. But he’ll be home in time for Wintersday.”

With a pang Shane noticed what his goddaughter held under her other arm, the one that hadn’t hugged him – her stuffed panda, and the book Sophia had bought her. The one about the Junimos.

“How is she?” he asked hoarsely, when he was finally able to find his voice.

“She’ll be fine,” said Marnie. “I brought her home, made her some tomato soup, and she was trying to nap when we left.”

She’ll be fine.

That’s what people kept saying, but none of them reassured him she was fine right now, this moment. And how could she be? He’d royally fucked with her head and her heart and her trauma, and now she was alone with his waspish words about how she couldn’t save him – alone with the horror of those words almost coming true.

Jas’s tiny fingers touched his IV tubing where it went into his hand, running over the plastic nub and adhesive covering. “What’s this?” she asked, curious as ever.

Marnie stepped in, explaining how the IV dripped important medicine into his body from a bag, and while she did Shane closed his eyes. He knew he should be grateful to see them but this tiredness was too much. For awhile Marnie kept the conversation going, answering Jas’s dozen questions, leaving Shane to simply give a tired nod or noncommittal grunt.

Eventually though, Jas’s curiosity gave way to boredom; she settled into the chair by the door with her panda, flipping through the pages of her book and humming. For the first time Shane allowed himself to look at Marnie.

She was looking straight back at him, her eyes full of tears.

“Shane,” she whispered, drawing the chair closer to his bed, placing her hand on his. Her fingers were both calloused from hard work and silky from old age, and she gently rubbed the back of his hand, wet eyes trilling. “You’ve no idea how much you terrified us last night.”

He couldn’t keep her gaze, letting it drift to Jas instead. Within seconds her voice had become thick, the sound of the dam bowing before the flood.

“Is there nothing we can do? As your family, is there nothing we can do? I never want to feel that way again, Shane. Thinking we’d lost you…”

Jas was absorbed by her book, kicking her legs and eyes darting over the page while her mouth silently sounded out the words. She hadn’t heard Marnie.

Shane licked his dry lips. “She doesn’t know?”

“Of course not.”

He remembered the last time she’d had to confront him about his drinking: the strained words, the cracking voice. There was no trace of the frustration this time. On the verge of tears or not, she sounded as soft and caring as a mother, and not the kind he’d had growing up. The real kind.

“Why’d you do it?” he muttered at last.

She wiped away the lone tear that trickled down her face. “Do what?”

Jas,” he muttered, even lower so as not to spark his goddaughter’s attention. “She’s my kid. But you take care of her all the damn time. You watch her like she’s your own.” He bit the inside of his cheek, savoring the sharp pain that was such a contrast to the dull, heavy pain elsewhere. “Why didn’t you ever just call me out on my bullshit?”

“Because I didn’t want to,” she said, soft and plain – as if it were universal fact. “Because it didn’t put me out at all. I’ve been lonely for a lot of years, and that little girl makes me smile every day. I love waking up to her face, and now that I do? I don’t know how I ever did without.” She paused. “But it was more than that. It was the first time you’ve ever done something positive for yourself, and I’ve known you a long time, Shane. Going to Sophia’s made you happy. Maybe you thought you were hiding that fact, but trust me, you weren’t. It made you happy. I just… I thought if you allowed yourself to be happy, you’d be better for Jas when you were around. And I was right.”

“But—”

“You can’t even lift your head. Don’t waste energy arguing with me.”

He rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, resigned. “I fuck everything up.”

“We’re a goddamn family,” she snapped, the sudden intensity like a whip. “I know what alcoholism does to families, and so do you. But it doesn’t have to be like this. You’re so incredibly young, Shane. Just wait till you’re my age, you’ll see how incredibly young you are, how foolish you’d be to give up this early. You and me, we’re not like the rest of them. We’re not. We don’t want to be, and that… that’s what makes all the difference.” She grabbed his hand in both of hers now. “I saw what you’re capable of, and I’m not going to forget that. No one’s getting left behind here. Not Jas. Not me. Not you.”

He felt a lump; especially painful in his raw throat.

“Sophia hates me,” he muttered.

The hands gently rubbed his again. “You stop talking like that. You know nothing is further from the truth.”

“You don’t get it.”

Marnie didn’t know about their fights or how shitty he’d treated her the last few weeks. She didn’t know the bomb he’d dropped in their phone call, or about finding her sister’s dead body as a precursor to his unconscious one.

“Shane, do you have any idea how much of your shit that girl has put up with since the beginning? Yet when she called me from Dr. Harvey’s last night, do you know what she said?” Tears once again pooled in the corners of Marnie’s eyes, wetting the wrinkles that creped there as she smiled with the apples of her cheeks. “She said she loved you, and then cried for three straight minutes.”

Just like that, the invisible baler crushed the life out of him again.

Marnie squeezed his hand. “We’ll talk more when you’re feeling better. You’ll see.” She looked up. “Jas, are you ready to let Uncle Shane rest? He’s very tired.”

“But I don’t want to leave him!”

“Shhh, we’ll be back to visit tomorrow. And how about this? Before we leave, we’ll get some hot cocoa from the cafeteria.”

“Okay,” she agreed, mollified. She grabbed her belongings and walked up to Shane’s bed. “Uncle Shane, you get to sleep with Hershey tonight,” she said, taking her stuffed panda and tucking it under the thin hospital blanket at his side. “So you don’t get lonely.”

Shane blinked hard. That stung.

Placing his IVed hand over the panda, he used the last of his energy to hug Jas with his other arm. “Thanks, kid.”

She stood on tip-toe to lean forward and kiss his cheek. “I love you.”

More stinging, more blinking.

“Love you too,” he whispered.

Then it was Marnie’s turn, leaning over to plant a kiss on his forehead. “I love you, Shane.”

For so long those three words had just not been a part of Shane’s life. The exchange always felt stiff and uncomfortable, and it was rare he even said them to Jas. But Marnie? He’d never said them to Marnie. Still, when his aunt leaned down to carefully hug him, Shane swallowed hard and whispered, “Love you,” back.

The words felt like gravel on his tongue.

Right now, he had three people he loved very much – three people who claimed to love him back. But it was all so wrong. He wasn’t supposed to have this. Someone like him? Someone like him didn’t know how to have this.

He expected Marnie to let go but she didn’t, only holding tighter. Shane let her, ignoring the pain.

“You don’t have to do this alone,” she whispered fiercely, giving one final squeeze before pulling away. She grabbed her purse off the chair, and Jas waved a mittened hand at her uncle before they both walked out the door.

After they left, Shane picked at the panda’s fur with one finger.

It was the toy he’d given Jas for her second birthday. She’d been too young to keep interest in opening presents at the time; Garrett had finished pulling off the wrapping for his daughter, afterward attacking her face and neck with the soft toy while she giggled. She didn’t remember that it had been Shane’s present, and he never bothered to remind her. It was her favorite – that was all that mattered. Other stuffies came and went through the years, but Hershey the panda was her always her favorite.

 

Chapter Text

The sheets from the bedwetting were still in the dryer. Sophia lay with her cheek on the exposed mattress, staring at the paneled wood wall while the grandfather clock ticked in the other room. She’d promised Marnie she would get some sleep, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. If she slept she would dream, and if she dreamed she would fall apart.

She’d only been gone overnight, but returning to the farmhouse felt like coming home from a weeklong vacation. Opening the door to that comforting-yet-unfamiliar smell, the smell of home that one became blind to while living there. The dishes built up in the sink from meals she couldn’t remember eating; the messy living room that no one had lived in for days.

Then there was Amber. In all the commotion Sophia had forgotten her poor dog completely. She’d walked in to an empty food and water bowl, puddles of pee on the linoleum, and an ashamed, tail-tucked Amber hiding beneath the kitchen table, not far from where she’d gone to the bathroom. Marnie had helped her clean it despite Sophia’s protests that she could do it herself, and then she’d spent the rest of Marnie’s visit holding Amber, half out of terrible guilt, half out of her own need for comfort.

The hours trudged by, but Sophia didn’t move.

Shane was everywhere.

She sat at the kitchen table and there he was, reaching across for her hand the night her parents came to dinner. She walked aimlessly to the fridge, but there was the wall they’d had sex against while he told her over and over that he loved her. She sat on the couch but he was sprawled there watching the gridball game, taking up too much space. He was in the armchair with Amber, in the shower beside her, in the bed where they made love and then fell asleep in a single curve.

Outside wasn’t safe, either. He was in the shed, in the barn. The barren orchard. The empty fields. On the banks of the pond, and in the middle of the dirt road every time he walked home. It was like being in the apartment after finding Amy all over again. Shane hadn’t died but he could have, it had been a very real possibility, and right now Sophia found it hard to breathe. She couldn’t handle being alone with this phantom.

At 6:30 that evening she set off in the dark for the ranch, hunched in her navy coat, unshowered and probably looking exactly like she’d gone thirty-eight hours without sleep.

“Sophia!” Marnie stepped aside to let her in without question. “I wanted to call, but was afraid of waking you if you were able to sleep.” She ran an affectionate hand over her hair. “I’m guessing you didn’t.”

Sophia stood unnaturally in the country kitchen, giving a small shake of her head. She could feel the weight of the bags below her eyes, the messy windblown hair, and felt like a stray animal who’d wandered in by mistake.

“Dear, why don’t you warm up by the fire? I’ll make us some tea.”

Feeling so lost, she was grateful for Marnie swooping down in mother-mode and taking the lead. But she didn’t go into the living room by the fire, at least not right away. Something caught her eye on the refrigerator first.

Shane in his polo and slacks, looking tired and with a beaming Jas at his side; the photo that Marnie took the day of the Flower Dance. She took it down and held it in her palm, remembering how she’d thought him quite handsome cleaned up like that, the first time seeing him outside of his scruffy work clothes. But that was before all the changes of his sobriety, of helping her on the farm. In the photo his face was still puffy from regular drinking. His stomach pressed harder against his shirt. And his eyes? She hadn’t realized at the time just how dead and sad they were – not until now, when she could compare them to the ones she’d seen so full of real happiness and love. Even in the photo she’d snapped of them on her mo