Influence

By Sappho’s Ghost A Brittana Fanfic
Disclaimer: Glee and related characters are property of Fox. No copyright infringement is intended. All songs included are property of their respective owners. No copyright infringement is intended. Original characters and storyline are copyright © 2011 Sappho’s Ghost

1

Portrait of a Young Girl

There’s a point in your life, usually when you’re young, when you determine who you’re going to be for the people around you. It’s never really an exact moment in time, like sitting down to make a list of things that you will alter about yourself to fit the socially acceptable mold. It’s more a series of moments, when you concede to the idea that someone else knows better. No one ever makes these decisions consciously, with the purpose of someone who knows they are changing themselves forever and unalterably. But still, these decisions are inherent in growing up, and will shape the way we live the rest of our lives; the way we act and react to situations that are thrust upon us when we age. When you’re young and still moldable, there’s a level of influence that friends hold, no matter what the guidance counselors and motivational speakers will tell you about being yourself. Be yourself and people will like you. Be yourself and you’ll find out who your true friends are. Be yourself and you can do anything. Chances are, if we were all really ourselves all the time, everyone would be alone. Your friends during childhood are those perpetual determiners of your fate. No matter how old you get, you look back at those first remembered friendships for guidance in how to proceed with new ones. Your first friends taught you friendship etiquette. They taught you what traits of your personality were unacceptable, and you changed to accommodate. They molded you into someone they were comfortable with, and you, in turn, molded them. Some people are more accommodating to these changes. Others retain more of their original selves. In the end, though, we all cast ourselves into our surroundings, bending until we fit without discord. The people who don’t… well, they don’t really fit anywhere, do they? No one liked that I could sing, so I danced in the background and let others stand in the spotlight. No one liked that I was smart, so I played dumb. It was easier to follow than lead, because leading meant showing people all these things I could do, making myself stand out when it was better to fit in. When we were eight years old, Santana found me on the playground at recess. We’d never spoken before that day, but I’d admired the way her long brown hair fell across her shoulders, and how her skin always stayed tan, even in the winter. She was beautiful, even at eight. I, on the other hand, was lanky. Too tall too fast, and brazenly loud. The combination of the two made for snickers in the hallways. Lurch. Big Foot. Lumberjack was especially hurtful. That day on the playground, I had found myself cornered by a group of older girls. After several minutes of taunting, I ended up in a mud puddle. I was still sitting there when Santana came up, her arms crossed over the picture of Justin Timberlake emblazoned on her chest.

“What are you doing down there?” “I fell down.” “No, you didn’t. I saw what they did. Why’d you let them do that?” “I dunno. They’re older.” “So? You’re bigger.” “Why do you care? Either help me up or leave me alone.” She stared at me for a minute, her dark eyes narrowed, as though she was seriously weighing the two options. After a beat she reached out her hand and pulled me to my feet. I stood a full head taller than her, and as I wiped the mud from my jeans I caught her watching me again, sizing me up. “They wouldn’t pick on you if you stopped standing out so much.” It seemed like a ridiculous comment. “I can’t help being tall.” “Not just that. I heard you singing by the swings. I hear you in the bathroom at lunch. And everyone in school saw you win the spelling bee. No one likes a show off. Maybe if you stopped, they’d leave you alone.” Friends. The perpetual determiners of fate. This tiny little brunette stared up at me with her huge eyes filled with nothing but sincerity in her sentiment. She wasn’t warning me or threatening me. She meant it. She wanted them to stop bothering me, and this was the one way she knew how to make it stop. I think I fell in love with her in that moment. “Maybe.” She smiled at me, something more than happiness at my agreement on her face. “Come on. We’ll show ‘em.” I followed her across the soccer field next to the playground, where the older girls sat indifferently on the bleachers, chewing the sugar-free gum their moms bought them and picking at their nail polish. Santana crossed her arms again, her feet planted firmly shoulder-width apart. She called out the pack leader, who scoffed and got to her feet. Santana, as small as she was, stood on her toes and whispered something in the girl’s ear. After a moment the girl’s eyes went wide, and she took a jerky step backward, her fingers at her mouth. Santana smirked. I would come to know that face well over the next few years.

“Come on, Britt.” She grabbed my hand and together we walked back to the swings. I waited until she picked her favorite before sitting next to her. “What did you say to her?” “Doesn’t matter. She won’t bug you again.” “Well… thanks.” “That’s what best friends are for.” When I was eight years old, Santana told me that she would be my best friend forever. Her loyalty was fierce, unwavering, and unquestionable. No one ever bothered me again. But I learned rather quickly that this was contingent on a few concessions on my part. When you’re young and still moldable, there’s a level of influence that friends hold, no matter what the guidance counselors and motivational speakers will tell you. It’s taken me eight years to realize that, sometimes, maybe you weren’t supposed to let them mold you at all.

2

Like Ripples

Most people will claim that they are in a constant state of reinvention, that no one ever stays the same as they were when they were a kid. They’ll say how much they’ve grown since they were in school. That they are stronger and more independent, or maybe that they’re more relaxed; more comfortable with who they are. The problem with these statements is that there is no objective way for someone to prove that they’ve changed. They may have new friends, new clothes, new ideas, but their basic functionalities – their quirks, habits and personality defects – are never really gone. My first mistake was believing that I ever changed to begin with. Santana and I were never supposed to be friends. In all honesty, I don’t think Santana was meant to be friends with anyone. Even in the beginning, through fourth grade, fifth grade, she was entitled. She expected certain things, and knew exactly how to get them. Resistance was futile, as it were. I learned this quickly, following the incident on the playground. Neither of us had had a real friend before, so we were feeling each other out, learning the way each other worked, and pushing back when we didn’t like something. Well, Santana pushed. I bent. We weren’t in the same class at school, so we found each other at recess three times a day, and always in the same spot: by the puddle where she first picked me up. It was unspoken. She went there the next day, after it had happened, and I instinctively found her. So, for fifteen minutes twice a day and half an hour at lunch, we were together. “Today we’re going to play a game.” Three weeks later we were sequestered on the top of the jungle gym, sitting with our legs dangling and our backs to one another, watching for any potential usurpers. It was fairly well known that the top of the jungle gym had the best view of the playground, and we were ready to land a swift kick to prevent someone from taking that from us. “Sure, San. What game?” I didn’t really like games, though. “Truth or Lies. You tell me something, and I’ll tell you if I think it’s a truth or a lie. Then I’ll tell you something, and you tell me.” I didn’t really like lying, either. “Okay. Me first?” She nodded. “You’re my best friend.” “Too easy,” she smirked. “That’s true. My turn. My dad’s a doctor.”

“Truth! Umm...” I remember pausing, wanting to come up with a convincing lie to tell my best friend. But I hated lying. What I hated more was disappointing my friend in her game, so I went with something easy. “My hair is brown.” Santana snorted and rolled her eyes, flipping her tresses over her shoulder, as she was wont to do. “You really suck at this game, Britt. That doesn’t count. Tell me something secret. Or make something up that ought to be a secret.” I had no secrets from Santana. Even three weeks into our friendship, I had told her everything there was to tell. My parents were divorced. I lived with my mom, and saw my dad every other weekend. I hated his new girlfriend because she smelled like bleach and flowers, the result of a disorder that made her clean everything more often than it needed. I was good at math, but no one needed to know about that because smart kids got picked on. I liked to sing and dance, but I was too loud so I only sang at home now. Santana taught me how to blend in when I didn’t know how. She knew everything. The kids below us started fighting, with two boys shoving each other hard. I recognized the bigger boy as Noah Puckerman, and I watched him as he wound his curled fist back and landed a swift, decisive blow to the smaller boy’s stomach. Kurt, wearing his usual bow tie, doubled over in the sand. Kurt was a nice kid. He’d shared his tea with me once at lunch. Seeing him on the ground, while Noah stood over him cackling, brought something new to mind. “I dunno, San... I guess... I don’t really like boys.” Again, she snorted. She turned her head to look over her shoulder at me, and I turned mine to do the same. She was grinning. Not condescending, like she knew something I didn’t, but like she understood. “No one likes boys, B. They’re gross. I saw Finn Hudson eating mud the other day, right out of our puddle.” The way she said ‘our puddle’ made my heart flutter unexpectedly, and I nodded. “Super gross. Your turn, San.” She thought for a minute, watching the kids below us playing a raucous game of tag. No one really knew who was ‘it’, but they ran in circles hitting each other screaming “It!” anyway. “You’re my only-” The playground monitor rang the bell by the door and a phalanx of children ran screaming for the school. I rotated, waiting expectantly for her to finish, but her eyes had clouded over, calm and sad, and she remained silent. “Nevermind,” she muttered. “This is a stupid game. We’re gonna be late.” She slipped over the outside of the jungle gym with a grace I didn’t expect from someone so small, and bolted toward her classmates while I sat atop the structure and watched her. She slid deftly between Quinn Fabray and Tina Cohen-Chang, with whom she immediately struck up an

intense conversation. She looked up at me over Tina’s head, and even from a distance I could tell she was angry. I made a mental note: Santana doesn’t like telling truths about herself. I never really stopped to wonder why, and instead crawled down the bars of the jungle gym, banging my knobby knees along the way. The last one in the building, the playground monitor gave me a look over the top of her glasses and followed me inside with a gruff ‘harrumph’. I passed Santana’s classroom on the way to my own, and stopped outside the door to look through the small, wire-mesh window. She had her notebook open and pen to paper, but was staring off out the window into the courtyard, with the playground just behind it. If I followed her line of sight, she seemed to be staring at the puddle at the back of the grounds. She wasn’t angry anymore; just wistful. Quinn reached over the table and tossed a balled up piece of paper at her, and Santana snapped back to reality. She didn’t see me at the door or catch my eye, so I moved on, walking late into my own classroom, alone. “Nice to see you, Brittany.” My teacher chided me from the front of the class, chalk in hand. “Maybe you can solve this problem on the board for everyone, since you like taking extra time at recess.” I didn’t want to, but there wasn’t much choice. The other kids were staring me down like an inmate on death row as I marched solemnly, head down, up to the board. Looking at the problem, I knew what the answer was. The teacher handed me the chalk and I looked down at it, dusty in my fingers, and thought of Santana. No one likes a show off. I put the chalk to the board and waited, thinking. Smart kids get picked on. I filled in the first number, then stopped. Look at Kurt. He’s smart AND he sings. I filled in a second number - the wrong one - and handed the teacher back her chalk.

3

On Compromise and Integrity

When you live a lie as long as I have, certain things get ingrained in your psyche. Walk on the left. Just her pinky. Never on the lips. You forget what you wanted in the process of making sure everyone else got what they needed before you. Interpersonal relationships always require compromise, to be sure. But where is the limit? Where does the compromise end, and see one person bending with the other just pushes? Once I started getting things wrong on tests, forgetting to do my homework and avoiding most responsibility, the adults around me assumed I had plateaued. You don’t call a 12-year-old stupid. Developmentally stunted, maybe. Learning disabled. Dyslexic or autistic. The adults, they liked labels. No one ever sat me down long enough ask why I had stopped trying, they just slapped a prescription for Ritalin or lithium down on the table and called it a day. The first time I took the pills I walked around in a haze. The halls of the middle school were crushing in on me, students slamming past and shoving me into lockers while my glassy eyes roved the doors, the classroom numbers blending together like so many mirages. Eighth graders were unforgiving, and the relentless stares didn’t go unnoticed, despite my foggy state. Santana followed me around all day, her eyes deep with concern, straightening me out when my walk began to falter, or I drifted toward the other side of the hall and into oncoming traffic. She dropped me off at my classes, picked me up when the bell rang, and guided me to our usual table at lunch. “What’s wrong with you, B?” She cut my school-grade pizza slice into small bites, the plastic knife grating over the paper plate and cutting through it, the grease making it easy. I blinked at her, slowly forming my sentences. “Nothing wrong. Pizza is a funny word.” She pushed the plate toward me, leaving a streak of orange grease across the lunch table. “Eat your food,” she replied warily, watching me. “And chew. Jeez, you look like Puckerman after he spends the afternoon with his cousin behind the bleachers at the high school. You’re not... doing drugs, are you, B?” The small pieces Santana cut for me wouldn’t stay on the fork. I stabbed at them with a limpwristed jab, and the fork either went off to the side, or it picked up only cheese and no bread. I frowned, internally furious with my own ineptitude, but unable to explain why I couldn’t use a simple utensil. I stopped trying and lifted the plastic thing to my face, staring at it, contemplating.

“Why are forks called forks, San?” It was the first thing that came into my head, without thinking about it. It was the first time I’d done it in nearly four years. Since befriending Santana everything had to be considered before being spoken. She had a short fuse. “Seriously?!” Here was that fuse, dwindling. “Britt, I swear to God I’ll tell your mom you’re on drugs. I will tell her.” “They gave them to me.” I’m spinning the fork between my fingers. It faded in and out of focus, Santana’s anger not registering in the fog. “They gave them to me.” “Who’s they?” She snatched the fork from me and I was forced back into clarity. “No one just gives you weed, Brittany. Only, like, cancer patients get to do that. Last I checked you weren’t a cancer patient, you were just stupid.” Her words hung in the air longer than she expected. I focused on her, my eyes stinging with tears. She had a quick temper, yes. But she’d never been mean to me before. Up to this point I’d been the object of her unyielding protection. I followed her, and she led me. We trusted each other. But this... this was something entirely different. “It’s not...” I started slowly, shaking away the fuzziness behind my eyes. “I can’t...” There was no way to articulate what I was trying to say. Anger. Embarrassment. Heartbreak. My best friend - my only friend - called me stupid in front of a lunch room full of eighth graders. The most unforgiving of beings. I stood shakily. From the pills or the shock, I couldn’t say which. But nonetheless I stood, took a few slow steps backward then turned. Only to trip, head over foot, on my backpack that was on the floor. There was a brief moment of silence before the eruption. A moment where I lay on the ground, when the smell of burnt cafeteria food and gym socks combined with the fresh lacquer on the floor and I felt my knees scrape and my breath formed a cloud of condensation on the cool ground and for the first time all day my head was clear. The moment burst like a bubble with the laughter that engulfed me, rushing over me in waves and all of a sudden, in the crowd, I was irrevocably and emphatically alone. The tears were falling before I had a chance to stop them, my cheeks burning as my eyes squeezed shut trying to drown out the noise. I put my palms over my ears and tried to get to my feet, but couldn’t without using my hands to push myself up. So I lay there, curled into a ball, cowering and crying, blind and deaf. If I couldn’t hear them, see them, it would stop. It would all just stop. Two strong hands wrapped around my waist and lifted me to my feet. I was guided, still blind, through the laughing crowd and into an empty hallway, where those same hands pulled my fingers out of my ears and rubbed my upper arms, soothing me. “B, look at me.”

Santana. I refused to open my eyes and shook my head furiously, wiping my wet cheeks with the backs of my hands. “Brittany. Please. I’m sorry.” I slumped against the wall and finally looked at her. She was frantic, her eyes panicked and wide. She clung to both of our backpacks with white-knuckled fists and stood closer than she usually did, searching me for a response. “I’m so sorry, B, I didn’t mean it. Are you okay? Are you hurt?” “I’m not on drugs,” I whispered, lowering my eyes, unable to look at her. How could she be so upset when I was the one that had just been humiliated? “And I’m not stupid.” “I know you’re not, B,” she said, reaching up to push my hair out of my face. “I was angry and confused. I don’t know what’s happening to you.” “They... they gave me these pills,” I wanted to explain, but I didn’t know how. “I can’t think straight. I don’t feel like myself, San. I just started blurting out everything that was on my mind. I’m not on drugs. They gave them to me.” She was still confused, her hand on my cheek, looking up at me with those big brown eyes that screamed for her best friend back. I didn’t know how to help her anymore than she could help me. The laughter in the cafeteria hadn’t died down yet, and for a moment I saw something click in her head. She took my hand and led me back to the door we’d just come out of, and stormed back into the crowd, beelining for Finn and Noah at the popular table. They pointed past her, at me, and burst into hysterics once more. Neither one of them noticed as she brought back her fist to land sharp blows to each of their jaws. The room went silent and she bent over them as they nursed their injuries, now crying a bit themselves. “If you ever laugh at her again, you won’t get a warning shot. I’ll just make sure you bleed.” She returned to me, took my pinky in hers and together we walked out of the lunch room. “Brittany?” Both of our heads snapped up. The guidance counselor stood at the end of the hallway, watching the scene. Santana blushed furiously, expecting detention, but was surprised when the counselor simply handed me a small paper cup with two pills inside and a bottle of water. “Brittany, you missed your medication. We talked about this last week. Two at lunch, everyday. Okay?” The pills weighed heavy in my hand, and I looked at Santana. She shook her head, silently begging me not to take them. The counselor watched us, tapping her toe sternly. There was no way out.

I upended the paper cup as I tossed my head back, took a swig of the water, and fell back into the endless fog.

4

Half In, Half Out

No one steps into a new environment knowing that they’re going to be popular or successful, or even remembered. It’s a series of events that can lead you down different paths, and you make the decision to hide or flourish. Had it been up to me, hiding would have been a feasible and highly acceptable alternative to thrusting myself in the spotlight. I never wanted any of this. Santana, though, was a different story. And what Santana wanted, Santana got. Santana wanted to be popular. Up until that point, we had lived a pretty quiet existence, the two of us. From the day she pulled me out of the mud until we passed the try-out sign-up sheet freshman year, we were inseparable. She had made an observation: wearing a uniform signified to everyone around you that you were to be respected. You had earned something that was unattainable to most everyone else, and with that came status. “Look at those guys in the Army,” she commented one idle day during the summer between eighth grade and high school. We were laying on the trampoline in her backyard, watching clouds meander slowly across the sky like leaves in rivers. We spent a lot of time like this, just laying, talking. It was hard for me to focus on an activity long enough to follow through on it, and Santana was comfortable just sitting with me. There was no one else around to impress, and I’d noticed that she was trying a lot harder to impress toward the end of the school year. As we laid there, head-to-foot with our fingers casually intertwined, she tried to help me see that wearing a uniform would be good for both of us. “You see a soldier on the street and you respect him, right? High school is totally the same way. My cousin had one of those jackets with the letters on them when he played football for McKinley and he was, like, the most popular guy in school. It’s just another uniform.” “Do they give the football players guns?” It had taken the better part of the previous year to regulate the medication to an acceptable level; to a point where I no longer walked around like a zombie, but I was neither entirely present at any given moment. Half in and half out the door, Santana called it. I still had quirks in the going up and coming down of it all, but I knew, and she knew, what was me and what was the pills. Usually when I was going up I would get lost, lose things, or space out. Coming down, though, I was prone to panic or paranoia after losing that ephemeral sensation of being weightless and outside myself. She was very patient with me, and now, as I contemplated the horrifying notion that popular kids in high school ruled with an iron fist -- and possibly automatic weapons -- she lifted her head and propped herself up on her elbows, smiling warmly at me. “Half in, or half out, B?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Half out,” I said finally, still staring up at the clouds. “The edges are clearer now. I’ll be better in a few hours.” Her thumb stroked the top of my hand comfortingly. “Good. And there are no guns. Cheering is just dancing but out on a football field. You love to dance, Britt. I’ve been to your recitals. And you’re so good. I swear, if things work out and we make the Cheerios, we’ll never have to worry about being laughed out of the lunch room again.” “They don’t laugh anymore, San, not since you punched Finn and Puck.” “High school is different,” she said, her voice changing. She was nervous. I lifted my head and looked at her. She was biting her lip, her brows furrowed. “We have to start over from scratch there, no one knows about what I did to Finn and Puck. I can’t...” I sat up and scooted closer to her, our legs touching as the trampoline bounced under us, like water. “Don’t worry, San. Who cares about them? You’ve got me.” She cracked a smile. “I know, B. And you have me, always. But sometimes that’s not enough.” She didn’t let go of my hand, but I felt an immediate, overwhelming need to yank it away. I clenched my jaw and sat up straighter, looking down at her hand in mine. It had felt so right there just a moment before. But now, somehow, I wasn’t enough. My chest ached. “Don’t be like that,” she chided, feeling me tense next to her. “I mean that I can’t... we can’t just have each other. High school is all who-knows-who. It’s... unless you have a group, you’re nothing.” “We’re not nothing,” I looked up at her, desperate. “You’re everything to me, and I’m everything to you. You said. Forever, remember?” “It’s okay,” she shushed me by leaning in and pressing her forehead to mine. “I’ll never leave you. But we won’t survive by ourselves. Quinn can-” “Quinn? San, she’s horrible. S-She’s always talking about Jesus a-a-and church and she treats me like I’m a baby. I j-j-just can-” Panic. I felt it settling in my chest, knowing that things were going to change. It wasn’t anything I had any control over; change was inevitable. But I never expected things to change with Santana. I felt her breath on cheek as she watched me, seeing my eyes widen and my ribcage begin to expand and contract rapidly. She wrapped her arms around me tightly and pulled me into her lap while I heaved unhappily, trying to control the restriction in my chest. “I’m doing this,” she said firmly, stroking my arm, her lips at my ear. “We need it. I need it. I won’t be that weird kid who only hangs out with her best friend.”

There was a slight hesitation, and I felt her arms tighten around me before she spoke again. “I love you, B. But we need to meet new people. High school is going to be hard if it’s just the two of us. Cheerios will make things easier.” I was calm, but not happy. I allowed her to hold me a little longer before I sat up and pulled away, readjusting so that we were no longer touching. She frowned when I did this, somewhere between hurt and annoyed. I crossed my arms over my chest and laid back to look at the clouds again. “Fine,” I said after a few minutes of silence. “But I’m not doing it because you want me to. I want to dance. I’d rather dance with you, though. Alone.” She crawled up next to me and swung her leg over my body so her thighs were straddling my hips. She did this a lot when she was trying to get her way, because for some reason I could never argue when she was on top of me. She knelt there, her palms on either side of my head as she bent over me, smiling. “You won’t regret this, B.” And then, for the first time, she kissed me.

5

One and Two, Three, Four

Everyone has those things in their lives that sit at the back of their minds and needle away at them until they let them out. They rarely get talked about, instead sitting in the corners of our brains like elephants, trumpeting that we are not dealing with our issues. So it went that the kiss lingered in my mind after that day on the trampoline, needling. I returned to it when I was feeling cloudy. It was one of the few things that stuck around no matter where I was on the pill cycle. I could go back to it, like watching a video. I could slow it down, watch the sun glint off her hair in a halo of light as her head blocked it out, eclipsing me in a dark shadow while she bent to press her mouth to mine, her lips achingly soft. She was smiling when she kissed me, so gently it might not even have happened. I thought about that possibility many times; that it might not have been real, that I’d imagined it. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Things like this tended to crop up from time to time, and Santana would very politely correct me, taking my hand and reminding me of what had really happened. But this time she hadn’t said a word, and I refused to bring it up for fear that it really hadn’t been real. I didn’t want to lose that memory, that feeling that had swelled in my chest when she sat on my hips, her knees squeezing my waist and her small breasts pressed lightly against mine. That feeling like I was infinite and together, just like that, we were unstoppable. But she hadn’t talked to me about it. The summer was over three weeks later, and we spent every day of it on that trampoline. She never tried it again. She was just Santana, comforting and patient, and only a few times short with me when I was Half In. The transformation, in my eyes, between her short-fused middle school self and the girl laying with me on that trampoline was marked. She watched me carefully, lovingly, and made sure I was always present, even if I wasn’t entirely aware. When classes began, she walked the new hallways with me in the mornings, before I went Up, when I could memorize the patterns and directions. She wrote my class numbers on the inside of my wrist, and walked me home after school. When it came time to try out for Cheerios, she even rehearsed with me before I went in for the audition. Dancing was the one thing I was always sure of. No matter where my head was, dance brought me back to ground level and I was free. The simple act of left-step-kick / hip-thrust / spin was ethereal. I counted the beats in my head and moved, and it was like I was another person. One not encumbered by a constant state of elsewhereness, of fog and glassy eyes. One-and-two, three, four. Left-step-kick / hip-thrust / spin. The songs never changed rhythm, it was a constant thumping in my chest and ears that pounded and pounded until my eyes vibrated and I just moved. Most of it was instinctual, the steps left or right depending on the treble of the beat, the drum of the bass causing a different movement than the pitch. Memorizing a routine wasn’t impossible, but it felt so much more natural to just feel. Feeling had been an exercise in futility for two years, except when I danced.

So I danced every chance I got. Cheerios was an excellent excuse to start dancing at school, when people were looking; to defy the order Santana had laid down in third grade, that I should stop drawing attention to myself. It seemed that no one cared about either of us drawing attention to ourselves anymore: we were cheerleaders, it was required of us now. The look of pride on Santana’s face when she put on the uniform the first time was unforgettable. Like she had realized she was missing something and suddenly found it. But with that uniform came something I was unprepared for. Quinn, with her perfect petite frame, entered my life unwanted and unwelcomed. She attached herself to Santana’s hip (the right hip, I noted; the wrong hip) and never left again. And Santana didn’t make her leave. Not when Quinn chided me for being forgetful or when she asked me if I was retarded. My friend laughed awkwardly and later, when I was still quietly thinking about it she took me by the elbow and bent her head close to mine. “She doesn’t mean it, B,” Santana would say. “That’s just how Quinn is, she’s like that with everyone. Don’t take it personally.” I didn’t care about Quinn, but she didn’t really pick up on that. The hurt I felt came not when Quinn rolled her eyes and called me a moron, but when Santana refused to defend me. Looking back on that now, so many years later, I should have been hurt that I was unable to defend myself. But when you’re fourteen and Half In, coming up with a witty retort becomes harder in practice than in theory. Quinn was the ideal of every girl in school, and the ultimate prize for every boy. The football players pursued her relentlessly, but the cross she wore around her neck acted as force field, holding all suitors at bay, and with that withering glare of hers, they should have considered themselves lucky. She formed the Celibacy Club the day after our first sex-ed class, and the day after that Santana and I were spending our lunches in the Home Ec. room with a dozen other Cheerios wearing crosses, talking about boys and filing our nails. Or rather, they were talking about boys and filing their nails. I was watching Santana, who in turn was watching Quinn. This is the first real memory that I have of jealousy, seeing my best friend hero-worshipping this spectre of human being; this manipulative, fake girl that used the people around her to advance stealthily, like a guerrilla army, through the ranks of high school. Knowing that Quinn was more of an influence on Santana than I was horrified me to a level that I found frightening, which scared me even more. I couldn’t do anything but sit idly by as Santana’s expressions changed when Quinn was around. Her face became harder. Her lips were pursed, her eyes narrowed in a superior, haughty way that reminded people that she was a Cheerio. She really was superior. I caught her mocking other girls in our grade for reasons that to this day elude me. Quinn had a particular fascination with Rachel Berry, and she spent a large amount of her time thinking up ways to torture the poor girl. Santana, in her effort to maintain Quinn’s affections - or what passed for affections - aided in the torture.

Unlike Quinn, however, who shunned most of the amorous attention of the jocks around school by using her unattainability to keep them chasing her, Santana seemed to bask in it. When the boys realized that Quinn was never going to give them what they wanted, they turned to the next best thing: Santana. The first few boys who approached her made her blush and she meekly turned them down. But as more came, her shyness waned and her confidence was bolstered in knowing that she was, as the boys called her, hot shit. The same superior face she used when mocking those girls appeared when a boy leaned casually against her locker and smiled coyly at her while she retrieved her books. She drank up the “Hey baby”s and “Lookin’ good, pretty girl”s like water. She walked taller, her shoulders back and her nose in the air, with them trailing behind her staring at her ass in the short Cheerios skirt. In the middle of it all, though, she never changed around me. She found me at the end of each day and we would walk, me on the left holding her pinky in mine, home from school. I think she liked the idea that boys could see her holding my hand almost as much as she liked the idea of just holding my hand. When we were alone, we never talked about boys or sex the way that we did when the rest of the girls were around. We were just us, and I thrived on these hours together, either on her trampoline or alone in my room. I just never told her how much the contrast between school-Santana and home-Santana bothered me. Nor did she ask. “I need to tell you something, B,” she mumbled to me as we laid in my bed together half way through freshman year, our science books unopened in our laps. “But you have to promise not to get mad.” “You know I could never be mad at you, San,” I replied, looking over at her with a sad sort of smile. “You’re good, right? You’re Out now, they’re out of your system?” Her face was guilt-ridden, and it scared me. “I’m fine, San. You know I’m fine by now. What’s going on?” I watched as she bit her lip nervously, her knee bobbing up and down next to me. I put my hand on it to calm her, feeling her warm skin under my palm, but she jerked it away fast. “What? What did I do?” “Nothing,” she said quickly. “Nothing, it’s not you. I just... B, I slept with Puck.” I didn’t move. Inwardly, my chest collapsed on itself as my heart exploded behind my ribs, and my brain liquified in my skull. If I had had my first taste of jealousy when Santana was with Quinn, I had my first taste of heartbreak when she told me about Puck. My mouth opened and closed but no sound came out. I couldn’t look her in the eye. I felt a sort of secondhand shame for her, knowing that she had given him something of herself that was so precious. Something, I realized, that I had wanted for myself. “Talk to me...” she whispered. I shook my head and got up off the bed and started pacing. I felt that feeling of panic I normally had when I was Half Out, but I knew it wasn’t because of the pills. This was an entirely organic,

rational closing-in of my feelings as they crashed together in the sudden realization of two very dramatic things: first, that I was in love with Santana; second, that she would probably never feel the same way. That was enough to stop my heart completely. “B, please, talk to me!” She got up and came over to me, her hands grabbing my upper arms and holding me in place like she had the year before, when she had been apologizing for something entirely different. "It just happened, we were at Q’s party over the weekend, we were drunk. It was just a thing, I swear I didn’t mean for it to happen.” “Are you in love with him?” I asked, finally looking her in the eye. “What?” She seemed shocked by the question. "God, no. I just... I just like the way he makes me feel. It feels good, not having to think all the time.” “So you weren’t thinking when you decided to sleep with him?” She reached out to take my hand but I pulled it away, so angry that she had betrayed me. But somehow the sense of betrayal was overshadowed by the knowledge that I had never had any claim to her in the first place. That hurt more than anything she could have done. “It’s just easy with him, B,” she sighed. “Can’t some things ever just be easy?” “So I make things hard for you?” Her mouth dropped. “No, my god. What would make you think that?” “This summer, the trampoline...” I trailed off and she blushed violently. “You kissed me. Then you didn’t again. And now you’re kissing Puck... More than kissing Puck. What am I supposed to think?” “Brittany, I...” she stopped and stared at me, searching, like she was trying to find something in me that she was missing. Before spoke again she brought her hand to my cheek, stood on her toes and kissed me. Lightly at first, then when I released the tension from my body and allowed her to kiss me she grew more fervent. Her tongue parted my lips and the backs of my knees buckled. I leaned against the bedroom wall and put my hands on her waist, pulling her into me so her hips were pressed against mine. “Santana...”

6

Just Like Dancing

The first kiss on the trampoline was like a firecracker. This... this was an atom bomb. Everything happened in slow motion, our hands tangling in one another’s as we fought to have the upper hand. I wanted to take my time and explore every inch of her. She wanted to strip my clothes off and have me in a desperate fury. My fingers played up and down her sides while she reached around and yanked down the zipper on the back of my Cheerios uniform. She didn’t break the kiss as she pulled the top over my shoulders and down my arms, leaving me standing in my bra and skirt while her palms pressed hungrily against the sides of my breasts. She was breathing hard as she continued to kiss me, her lips pressed to mine in exactly the opposite way they had been on the trampoline. Now she was desperate, unable to stop or restrain herself as she pushed my skirt down over my hips and guided me by my waist to my bed. She she gave me a gentle push and I fell backward voluntarily, my skirt left discarded on the floor. She stood between my spread legs, looking down at me in just my underwear, and took her uniform off faster than I had ever seen her disrobe in the locker room. We had seen each other in a similar state of undress before, but the circumstances in this instance were -- obviously -- different. When her lack of clothing mirrored mine, I sat up, my face inches from her chest. I looked up and found her gaze, holding her there. “Santana, I-” She wrapped her hands around either side of my face and pulled me to her, kissing me so deeply I thought I would disappear inside her. My heart pounded in my chest, threatening to break free and latch itself forever to Santana’s, but my ribs loyally held the organ in place. My hands were on her hips, my fingers playing with the lace fringe on her panties as I hesitated to push them down. Santana wasn’t shy, though. She reached behind me and unsnapped the clasp on my bra with one hand, freeing my small breasts. She pulled the piece of fabric from my body and tossed it across the room, then gingerly climbed on top of me on the bed, my legs hanging off the end and my feet planted on the floor. She undid her own bra before bending at the waist, pressing her bare chest to mine. I flashed back to that day on the trampoline. She was pinning me in the exact same way, sitting on my hips while her knees squeezed my waist. Only this time it felt strange. Not unnatural, not entirely right, but definitely more intoxicating. Her body was radiating heat, especially between her legs, the juncture of which was positioned nearly perfectly above mine. I ran my hands up and down her thighs as I tried to get her to look at me again, this time repeating her name in a sharp whisper. “Santana, wait-” “Shhh...” She put her lips on mine and silenced me, “I know.”

But did she? Here we were, three minutes past an argument about her sleeping with the biggest manwhore in school, and we’re both half naked -- mostly naked -- on my bed. I was a virgin. I wanted a second to think. Instead I got her lips, her hands, her hips, her heat... and it seemed like a reasonable enough trade off. Her fingers got tangled up in my hair and she stroked my face with one hand while she kissed down my cheek. My chin. My jaw. My neck. Her lips stopped on my collarbone when I arched into her with a throaty moan. I put my hand on the back of her head, her long, beautiful hair gathered in a tail in my hand and I smoothed the rest out of her eyes. Her lips -- those soft, sweet lips -- traced the grooves and hollows of my neck before diving low and connecting with each of my nipples in turn. I let out a little whimper as she trailed down between them to my abdomen, my belly button, the top of my underwear... She had lowered her whole body to sit between my thighs, her shoulders holding them apart as she lightly kissed my covered mound with closed eyes. I felt a shudder rip through my body and I involuntarily tried to close my legs. “Please,” I heard her whisper. I lifted my head and was met with the most exquisite look of sincerity I had ever seen. “I... just trust me, okay?” I allowed only a moment’s hesitation before I nodded and her eyes closed again, contented. She kissed the inside of my thigh from knee to juncture, then slipped her fingers under the elastic waist of the faux boy’s underoos and slid them off carefully. I lifted my hips so she could pull them down, and I suddenly, as if I hadn’t realized before, I was naked. Completely vulnerable to her. And, it bears mentioning, completely without shame. Where she had been uncontrollable while kissing me, here she hesitated. I could feel her hands gripping my thighs, her palms clammy. She was nervous; I made her nervous. The thought of it made me smile and I laid my head back to bask in it for a moment. Had I not been busy gloating inwardly I wouldn’t have been so surprised when I felt the quick, warm flick of her tongue against my swollen clit. My hand snapped to the back of her head and I arched my back violently. A second flick and my leg muscles gave way. I put my arm over my eyes as she took my moan as permission to advance, and suddenly her lips were pressing down, her tongue performing circus acts between them, and I did my best not to cry out. I could hear my mom outside in her garden, throwing weeds into her wheelbarrow, completely unaware of her daughter naked in bed just twenty feet above her. Santana moved awkwardly below me, readjusting so my thighs were over her shoulders and her hand came up. Her fingers fumbled in my wet folds for a moment before she found the spot. Her tongue didn’t stop, and the combination of digits and licking made my body quake. “Santana!” I had been holding my breath, and as her fingers pressed against me I let it out in a quick hiss, her name sliding off my tongue in a feeble plea. “Oh god, San...” Her fingers slipped away from my clit and slid down toward my center, my pulsing core that felt hotter and wetter than I had ever experienced before. The tips of her fingers danced on the

exterior and I felt her tongue pull away, leaving me cold and aching for more. She maneuvered her way back up my body without ever moving her fingers from their limbo, finally coming to rest on my left side, with he top of her head just below my chin. "Are you okay?" she asked as I panted and whimpered. The only thing I could think to say was, "Why did you stop?" She smirked at me and pressed her lips to my left nipple, sucking lightly while I squirmed under her. I could feel her fingers teasing me with the proximity and I bucked my hips against her hand as a prompt. "Are you sure?" she mumbled into my chest, kissing her way across the expanse of my skin to my other nipple, which she promptly took in her mouth. "Santana, I swear to god, if you don't-" Her index finger slid deftly inside me before I could finish my sentence. I opened my eyes and the entire spectrum of light seemed brighter. Like seeing for the first time, or hearing a song that makes you want to cry, or standing in the rain and screaming at the sky just because you can. She was watching me as she added a second finger and began to move them slowly in and out, using her thumb to rub my nub at the same time. I felt something inside me pinch and I yelped, squeezing her against me tightly before the initial pain passed. Santana waited patiently, her fingertips casually stroking the insides of my thighs while I let out a few controlled breaths. "I didn't ask you to stop," I said, grinning down at her. Again, she smirked. I bent my head to kiss her as she pushed back inside me. The pain came and went in moments and I rocked against her hand, gyrating with her motions. As we found each other’s rhythm, I wrapped my arms around her back and together we moved. It felt like dancing, the clarity of the movements coming to me as easily as left-kick-step. She repositioned herself so she was directly on top of me, her arm pinned between us. She used her knees to scoot both of us further up the bed, then her entire body moved against me. She ground her hips against her hand, which in turn pushed them deeper into me than before. The whites of my eyes must have exploded then, overtaking my corneas and pupils, because all I saw was bright light, and Santana’s face as she bent to kiss my neck. “God, Brittany, I had no idea...” she whispered into my collarbone, trailing off, out of breath and pausing in her grinding long enough for me to wrap my arms around her and flip both of us over. It was my turn to straddle her, her fingers still deep inside me. Her eyes went wide with surprise, but she didn’t fight me as I sat on top of her and bent down to kiss her. My hands, for the first time, traveled up to her breasts and I marveled at the feel of them. So much like my own, slightly smaller, and warm and reactive to my touch. Her nipples hardened as my thumbs caressed them, and her back arched up into me when I mimicked her early action and sucked each one in turn. She moaned and her fingers curled inside me, hitting a spot that she hadn’t before.

“Ohh, shit...” I nearly screamed as my body began to shake and I bucked again and again against her hand, my palms still on her breasts, holding myself steady as the wave washed over me. My muscles clamped down on her fingers as I felt a spasm run down my spine. In that moment I understood the world. Her free hand came up to my cheek and she pulled me close to her as I groaned, heaving, our foreheads pressed together. I felt her fingers leave my body and her arm came up from between our legs. Her hand was soaked, but neither of us were really paying that much attention. I kissed her again, my eyes squeezed shut as I fought to hold onto the epic clarity that had come with my first orgasm. My entire body was vibrating with electricity and I couldn’t sit still. I began running my hands over Santana’s torso, trying to touch every inch of her. She shuddered and gently took my hand and pushed it back down from where hers had just emerged. She looked up at my expectantly, nervous excitement in her eyes. I got her wordless hint and adjusted myself so I was in between her warm thighs. My fingers shook as the fumbled at the juncture and awkwardly sought that button Santana had found on me not that long before. She guided my hand and after a moment I felt it, and she immediately responded with a deep, rumbling moan. I perched there between her legs and tried to repeat what she had done to me, starting first with my fingers and gathering the courage to lower my mouth to that sacred space. I bent low, taking in the scent of her, before I dragged my tongue up the length. She gasped and dug her nails into my shoulder. “Jesus, Britt...” she hissed through clenched teeth and I knew I had done something right. I repeated it until my jaw ached, listening to her moan and feeling her writhe under me. It was empowering, knowing I had this control over her, and I savored it, taking my time when I thought she was close to finishing. I waited until I heard her begging to slide two fingers inside of her and she responded by arching up into them, climaxing almost immediately on my hand. She heaved, running her fingers through my hair and then pulling me roughly back up to eye level so she could kiss me hard. We laid like that for some time, me on top of her, my head resting on her shoulder as we felt each other breathing, listened to our hearts beating against one another’s. It had been light out before the fight, but when I looked out the window again it was pitch black. My bedside clock reminded me that the rest of the world existed and I gently rubbed Santana’s stomach, shaking her out of her semi-comatose state. “San, it’s nearly midnight.” She groaned and pulled herself up into a sitting position, rolling me off of her chest and onto my side. I watched her walk naked across my room and smiled. It gave me a sense of satisfaction knowing that I got to see her like that. “We didn’t even do the biology homework,” she grumbled as she pulled on her panties and snapped her bra back in place. “Where did my skirt go?”

“Santana, wait...” I sat up and wrapped a sheet around my chest, suddenly shy as she dressed and I remained naked. “You’re just going to leave?” “My parents are already going to kill me for breaking curfew,” she replied, sighing. “Better to just go and take the punishment than wait any longer.” “Stay,” I begged, taking her hand. “You stay here all the time, why’s tonight any different?” She looked up at me as she pulled the top to her uniform on and zipped the back. “You know why, B.” “You won’t stay because we had sex, but if we hadn’t you would have been perfectly happy to sleep in my bed with me? I don’t get it.” Her shoulders slumped and she came over to me, taking my hand. “Please don’t be mad,” she soothed, her thumb doing that rubbing thing on the back of my hand she knew I couldn’t resist. “We just... you’re my best friend. You’re a girl, I’m a girl. No one can ever know about this, Brittany. What happened here tonight can never get out to anyone at school, to our parents. I need to go home. And we need to keep this a secret.” I dropped her hand and let mine fall limply to my side. I had never felt this confused when I wasn’t Half In. The matter-of-factness in Santana’s voice as she told me, in her own way, that what we did was wrong threw me off and I sat on the edge of my bed, nearly in tears. “So no one can ever know?” She picked up her book bag off the floor near my feet and kissed the top of my head as she turned toward my door to leave. “No, B. No one can ever know.” I didn't argue with her as she slipped out silently, closing the door behind her. I watched from my window as she walked down the street and around the corner, disappearing the darkness. I went to my bedside table and picked up my pill bottle. I dropped two into my mouth and swallowed hard, wanting nothing more than to just forget it ever happened. For both our sakes.

7

I Forgive, You Forgive, She Forgives

Santana picked me up for school the next morning, and every morning after that for a month, as though nothing had happened. Her Cheerios uniform was always freshly pressed, but I could still feel myself on her. I could see her standing naked in my room. I could hear her moaning my name in my ear. Sensory overload allowed me to sit in silence on the bus each day, the side of her hand gently touching mine on the seat between us. She still held my pinky as we walked down the hall together. She still reminded me which books I needed, and which I could leave until after lunch. She still handed me a pen when she knew I’d forgotten one. I still stared adored everything about her. Santana was right, after all. Nothing good would come out of anyone at school knowing about us. Between Quinn’s fire-and-brimstone speeches about the power of women withholding sex from men and the fact that there just weren’t any other couples -- is that what we were? -- at McKinley to compare ourselves against. So I pined in silence and she remained her usual self. She returned to taunting Rachel Berry mercilessly, finding any number of ways to bring the poor girl down a couple of pegs. There was no reason behind the constant and progressively more vicious verbal attacks, as far as I could see. Beyond Quinn’s unrelenting hatred of the girl, there was nothing that Rachel had done to Santana that would provoke such a response. Still, it persisted. “Outta my way, Man-Hands,” Santana called from across the hall. She tightened her grip on my pinky as we maneuvered our way through the lunch crowd. Rachel was hovering next to Santana’s locker, absent-mindedly staring out the window into the courtyard, where Finn and Puck were throwing a football back and forth. “I said ‘Move’, Berry,” she repeated as we approached. “I don’t have all day for you to live out your own personal soap opera romance in front of my locker.” Rachel’s head snapped up as she realized Santana was talking to her. “Santana. I’m sorry, I was simply lost in thought. It does tend to happen around this time of day. I didn’t know I was in your way. I’ll do my best to avoid this general vicinity next time.” “You do that, Boy George. While you’re at it, stop stalking Finn. He’s out of your league. Besides, he’s got a girlfriend. You might know her. Quinn Fabray? A cheerleader.” With a slight bump of her hip, Santana shifted Rachel from in front of her locker. I watched as the sweaterclad girl clung tighter to the books she held to her chest, her lower lip jutting out just a bit farther. With a quiet humph she spun in her Mary Janes and stomped off down the hallway.

“Why do you do that?” I asked, my eyes following Rachel before she turned the corner. “Do what?” Santana reached into her locker and pulled out her books without looking up. “Talk to her like that,” I replied, leaning against the panel of lockers. “You’d never talk to me like that, so why her?” She hesitated for a moment, staring into her locker. “Why not?” she said after a moment, her face drawn tight, like she did when she was losing her patience. “What do you care, anyway? She’s not my friend, B. You are. She just pisses me off with her ridiculous optimism and gold stars. She needs to learn that the world isn’t fair, and she can’t always get what she wants.” I opened my mouth to say something then thought better of it. Santana slammed the locker shut and smoothed the front of her Cheerios uniform, just like she had in my bedroom. “Come on. We’re going to be late for class.” The bell rang and she dropped me off at my classroom. I had Spanish with Mr. Shuester while she went to trigonometry. Instead of taking my usual seat at the back, I sat at the desk next to Rachel, who didn’t look up from her pink notebook to notice I was there. I tore a piece of paper out of my spiral and wrote on it. Sorry bout Santana. She’s not always horrible to everyone. -B I slid the note under the edge of her binder when Mr. Shue had his back to us, and she looked up in surprise. I met her eye and smiled as kindly as I could without scaring her, and nodded toward the note. She took it skeptically, watching me, and read it in her lap. She looked up again, uncertainty written on her face. She picked up her glittery gold pen and wrote a lengthy response in her curving penmanship and sticking a gold star at the bottom before sliding it back to me. I have no doubt that you believe her to be the best of persons, Brittany. But in my experience Santana has two moods: angry, and pissed off. You’re very sweet for apologizing but it’s unnecessary. I’ve come to understand that she will continue on her path until she comes to terms with her own personal issues. Best, Rachel Berry I read the note several times before I looked over at Rachel. She had returned her attention to Mr. Shue, and was dutifully taking notes from the board and repeating back to him the conjugations of “to forgive” along with the rest of the class. “Perdono, perdonas, perdona..." I forgive. You forgive. She forgives. What did she mean, coming to terms with her own personal issues? Santana didn’t have issues. She would have told me about them. She told me everything. I spent the rest of class rereading

the note and trying to identify the ‘issues’ that Rachel was referring to. I couldn’t think of anything. I went to meet Santana at her locker after to talk to her about it, but was surprised to find she wasn’t alone. Puck was standing with her, his forearm propping him up as he leaned over her. She had her back against the lockers, books clutched to her chest, and she smiled up at him flirtatiously while he ran his fingers up and down her bare arm. Jealousy. Heartbreak. There it was again. I seethed silently across the hallway, watching them. My palms itched when he touched her. He bent down to whisper in her ear, smirking all the while, and my pupils dilated when she put her hand on his chest and playfully pushed him away with a laugh. He tried to kiss her but she turned her head and stuck her nose in the air. How quickly her affections waned. Not that long before she had been with me in my bed, and now... now Puck touched her in public in a way that I could not. Now she could openly flirt and not worry what the rest of the Cheerios would think about two of their freshman members cavorting when no one was looking. The warning bell rang and her attention was broken. She averted her gaze from Puck’s, and she saw me watching them. Her face fell, her mouth set in a thin line while her eyes were immediately apologetic. She shoved Puck’s hand away and jogged over to me. “B, it’s not what you think.” She touched my upper arm and I shrugged her off. “I’m not thinking anything. I never think, remember?” My chest tightening. Panic settled in. Damn it. She looked hurt for a moment before reaching out again, this time ignoring my efforts to keep her from touching me. From making me feel her skin on mine and remember that we had had this beautiful night together, and no one would ever know. “Don’t say that,” she whispered. “You know I don’t think that. Puck is just being Puck. He thinks that because we slept together once he can get it any time he wants. Like he owns me.” “Not so subtle suggestion that I won’t ‘get it’ any time I want either, huh?” Controlling the tremor in my voice became more difficult, and the words caught in my throat. My heart pounded in a syncopated rhythm. I felt faint. She heaved and dropped her hand, crossing her arms over her chest. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. Look, there’s a code that you have to abide by in high school. Cheerios date football players. Quinn just started dating Finn. He’s going to be the starting quarterback next year. And Puck is already starting as runningback, so it’s only natural that he has a Cheerio girlfriend too. He picked me. I can’t not take this opportunity.” “Opportunity? To what, get your boobs manhandled by a giant meathead with a mohawk?”

“To improve my social standing!” she threw her hands in the air and tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Haven’t you been listening?” “So you slept with him to climb the social ladder? That’s great, San. What did you sleep with me for? A better spot in the pyramid?!” My voice hitched somewhere near my tonsils, and I felt the tears well up in my eyes. Finally, we were getting to the root of it. Finally, she was going to have to explain herself to me. That alone was enough to make me panic. “Keep your goddamn voice down, Brittany.” She used my full name. She never used my full name. Her face conveyed anger, but her voice told me she was scared. Petrified, even. “I thought we talked about this. No one can know about that. With Puck it’s different. It’s...” “Easy,” I finished for her, tears streaming down my face. “I could make your life easy, too, San. If you gave me half a chance.” She looked up and down the now empty hallway. Everyone was in back in their classrooms, and we were already late. She pushed me into the girls bathroom behind me and, after checking the stalls for any lingering students, she put one hand on my waist and the other on my face, using her thumb to stroke my cheek and wick the tears from my skin. “You’re my best friend,” she whispered, pressing her forehead to mine. “My only friend, if you get right down to it. You’re the only person in the world I trust completely.” “So why-” “Because no one would understand,” she cut in, pulling her head back and taking her hand away from my face. “Relationships are hard enough without everyone judging because you’re with a girl.” “I don’t understand why everyone would judge. We’re always together anyway, nothing would change.” “Everything would change, B. This is Ohio. Ohio and high school. Two girls dating is only okay in places like New York or California.” She stood a bit back now, putting both hands on my waist and holding me at arm’s length. I wasn’t getting the answers I needed. She kept skirting around them, dancing around the truth of the matter without ever actually addressing it. “But WHY-” “Because it was just sex!” She burst, once again throwing her hands up. I winced at the sound of her voice carrying through the tiled bathroom, the acoustics causing it to echo and reverberate, the outburst lingering longer than it ought to have. She took a deep breath, her eyes closed and her nostrils flaring, calming herself before she spoke again. “Sex isn’t the same thing as dating, B. It’s different when people know your business. They’ll look at you differently, depending on who you’re with. Puck might not be the best guy in the world, but at least they won’t look at us like we’re freaks.”

“We’re freaks now? Because we had sex, we’re freaks?” My head was starting to hurt. “You’re twisting my words,” she moaned, covering her eyes with her hand and pacing. She looked nearly as panicked as I felt. “I understand the way the world works, and how awful people can be when someone is different. You’re too sweet, too-” “-too stupid-” “-too sensitive for your own good. Believe me when I say that I really liked being with you. More than I liked being with Puck. But sex... sex changes things.” We both stood there for a minute, staring at one another. She looked so incredibly broken in that moment, her eyes pleading with me to just stop stop STOP fighting, let her go and tell her it was okay for her to be with Puck, and not me. She needed reassurance just as much as I did. The unfortunate thing was we needed reassuring on two contradictory topics. I wanted her, and she... she couldn’t want me. We both needed permission from the other, and since we couldn’t both get what we wanted, someone had to bend. So, as always, I bent. I chose my words carefully, slowly developing them on my tongue before speaking. “I might be a little naive sometimes,” I started, standing up straighter and gathering courage in knowing that, in that moment, I was stronger than she was. “But I understand the world, too, San. I understand you. You need to fit in, fine. Be with Puck. I’m your best friend and my job is to support you when you need me to. So go. Be with him. I’ll be here when you’re ready.” She didn’t say anything, but started to cry silently in front of me. She put the heels of her hands to her eyes and bent at the knees, squatting into a fetal position in the middle of the bathroom, quiet sobs wracking her body. I didn’t move to comfort her; I figured she would only push me away anyway. So I waited for a minute, two minutes, five minutes... until she stood up and wiped the snot from her nose and hiccuped. She took two steps toward me and wrapped her arms in a vice-like grip around my shoulders, her face buried in my hair. “I don’t deserve you,” she whispered, kissing the skin where my shoulder met my neck. I shuddered under her touch, wanting to reach out for more, but before I could lift my arms to return her embrace she had let me go. I watched as she pulled the bathroom door open and walked out, leaving me alone with my thoughts. “No,” I said aloud to no one. “You probably don’t.”

8

The Mastodon in the Room

Imagine for a moment that you are alone on a road. You come to a fork and must decide which way to go. But this isn’t your average “at a crossroads” analogy. At the end of the first fork is a series of thorn-laden paths, splintering off into another smaller, more hazardous set of trails with steep terrain, poisonous snakes and possibly a hungry bear. At the end of the second fork is a path leading you through the first fork, coming full circle as you first encounter snakes and bears, then a labyrinth of thorns and rocky hills, which must maneuver if you have any hope of returning to the beginning, where the fork meets the road. Now imagine for moment that you’re fifteen and in love, and somewhere in this labyrinth is the person you want to be with. Now imagine you’re naked and weaponless, and a hoard of angry villagers -- complete with torches and pitchforks -- is chasing you down the safe path on which you are traveling, right toward that terrifying death-fork. Perhaps now you can better understand the position I found myself in when freshman year drew to a close. I was standing at this fork, naked and vulnerable, with a hoard of Cheerios at my back and nothing but uncertainty ahead. Santana was lost somewhere in the middle, struggling against her own labyrinth of issues that I was only just beginning to understand. “That rat fucking bastard!” she shrieked as she plopped down in the grass next to me, her purse landing behind my head with a dull thud. I sighed and adjusted my sunglasses, my glassy eyes not ready to adjust to the summer afternoon sun. I had been enjoying the silence in my backyard, laying out on a blanket in my bikini while I slept off the extra pills I had taken that morning. I anticipated a golden brown tan by the time the sun had gone down. “What’d Puck do this time, San?” As infinitely uncomfortable as I was listening to Santana discuss her “romance” with Puck, I reassured myself that I was keeping her close by being the best friend I knew how to be. Besides, the chances of me remembering what this particular fight between the love birds was about was rather slim. Short term memory had been the first thing to go. “More like who did Puck do,” she hissed bitterly, laying down next to me and crossing her arms over her chest. She shook her head and corrected herself. “No, strike that. More like who didn’t Puck do. Half the Cheerios’ moms have had their ‘pools cleaned’ by Puck this summer. He got

his fucking nipple pierced after I told him not to because, and I quote, ‘mom-types dig rock ‘n roll, baby.’” I nodded and absently handed her the sunblock. By this point she had removed her top and was laying in her shorts and bra next to me. Earlier in the day this might have bothered me, but by then all I did was admire the fractal-like pattern of the lace that bordered the top hem, bobbing up and down under Santana’s heavy, angry breathing. “That sounds like a very ‘Puck’ thing to do,” I mumbled, grinning as I turned over onto my stomach and continued to watch the pattern rise and fall. “What are you going to do about it?” I heard her sigh, differently from the angry huff she had laid down with. I lifted the lenses that were shielding my eyes to look at her. She was staring at the sun, squinting hard, but not blinking. I thought for a moment that she must be so brave. “Nothing,” she muttered. “If I punish him and withhold sex he’ll get it somewhere else. If anything now I have to work harder to keep his attention.” “Too much work,” I replied with a yawn. “Go find another football player and sleep with him instead.” She sat up. “Huh?” “Go sleep with someone else,” I repeated, returning my sunglasses to their proper place. “So much easier.” I could hear the smile in her voice. “B, you’re a goddamn genius.” “I know.” I rolled over and shut my eyes. Too much talking; I was tired. “No, I meant it.” She shook my shoulder and I groaned, pulling myself into a sitting position and crossing my legs wearily. “It’s fucking perfect. I sleep with someone else, make him jealous, and he’ll come crawling back.” I had inadvertently introduced her to an idea I had milled over many a time. Jealousy was a strong motivator, as I had personally discovered earlier in the school year. When she had first started dating Puck, despite the permission I had given her, I thought of all the ways in which I could make her see what a mistake she had made in choosing him -- if she had in fact chosen him. I thought about ignoring her completely, cutting her off. But that would have hurt me just as much as it hurt her. I was reliant on her for several basic needs throughout my day. That wasn’t an option. I thought for the briefest of moments bout just hurting myself -- cutting, burning, maybe even a bout of bulimia -- but that would have drawn more than just Santana’s attention. I couldn’t afford anyone -- especially nosy Ms. Pillsbury, who might involved my parents -sticking their faces in my business. No, that was out too. It had come down to two options: sleep with someone else, or do nothing and wait.

The idea of allowing anyone else to have the same kind of intimacy that I had allowed Santana was absolutely horrifying at the time. She had taken a piece of me with her when she walked out of my bedroom that night, and I was still struggling with figuring out what, exactly, that piece was. I wasn’t without options, of course. As the new number three Cheerio, once Coach Sylvester promoted Quinn to head cheerleader, I was a hot commodity. If I had learned anything from Quinn’s Celibacy Club, though, it was the art of the chase. “It’s all about the teasing and not about the pleasing,” she repeated like a mantra at the end of each meeting. I understood that to mean playing hard to get. Santana, however, took a more literal approach She teased Puck to the point of frustration, and then ‘pleased’ him to keep him around. From what she had told me -- which was a lot -- she spent two or three nights a week under him while he grunted and sweated, often finishing before she even had a chance to get started. Her stories of his sexual exploits were scary enough, without my own insecurities further mucking up the works. While I was pursued by any number of football players and incidental athletes, I never felt any desire to pursue in return. I found myself using Quinn’s advice more often than I would have ever previously admitted, and I even reluctantly began to respect her. She was confident, strong, and kept to the values she preached. After a school year as one of her sidekicks, she seemed to take a shine to me as well, offering up more, if unsolicited, advice. “You don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with, Brittany,” she had said. “But just pick one. It will make the rest leave you alone. One guy is a lot less overwhelming than an entire offensive line.” It was more reasonable than a bout of bulimia, that was for sure. So I chose. Dave Karofsky was everything that Santana was not. He was a boy, first and foremost, which proved to be one of the smaller hurdles I had to jump while we were together. He was lethargic and rumbling, carrying his shoulders slung low. His neck was twice the size of anyone else in school, and his large, beefy hand dwarfed mine when he clutched it possessively as we walked down the hall. My initial hope that Santana would see this mastodon of a boy as competition for my affections was misplaced. In fact, when she saw us leaving our respective practices together for the first time, she congratulated me on my appropriate selection. “I should have thought of it from the start,” she said as he walked three steps in front of us, his long, thick, ungainly legs carrying him farther, faster. “He’s so like you. Quiet, athletic...” At the time I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. From where I was standing, Karofsky couldn’t have been further from myself. He was brutish, aggressive, and nearly without conscience. If I had been uncomfortable watching Kurt getting punched in the stomach once in third grade, I was absolutely appalled at seeing him throw into dumpsters, shoved into lockers and verbally abused on a daily basis. And Karofsky was usually one of the instigators. He flung gay slurs like he was talking about the weather, dropping “faggot” and “dyke” into casual conversation. That is, what passes for casual conversation when you’re talking to neanderthal. It was easy to stick to what I knew: remain quiet, nod when he talks, laugh when he shoves Kurt

into lockers. Laugh harder when he empties the slushie he was supposed to have bought for me into Rachel’s face. But, most importantly, never let him touch me. We got by for the last month of school just holding hands in the hallway and eating at the jock table during lunch. The boys threw food at one another while the Cheerios rolled their eyes at each other and tried to avoid getting hit with stray french fry missiles. Santana and I sat together, Puck and Karofsky on our respective empty sides, always with our thighs and knees touching. Despite her breakdown in the bathroom earlier in the year, she hadn’t changed toward me in any way. I admired her ability to compartmentalize, even if I was unable to articulate it. While she held everything inside by sheer force of will, I wasn’t nearly so capable. If the pills made me foggy when taken on a regulated schedule, they made me incoherent when taken recreationally. It started as a simple desire to forget, an impulse decision after Santana left me standing naked in my bedroom. I had popped those two pills while lucid and aware, knowing that they would clear the heady rush of emotion that swelled in my chest, leaving only blessed emptiness. That first night, laying alone in my bed with the scent of our sweat still lingering in the air, I was free. I felt nothing, and it was the first time in months that I wasn’t nervous or anxious or lost. I just was. And it was exhilarating. I took a few more after Santana’s breakdown in the bathroom, needing the sweet relief of oblivion to block out the image of her sobbing on the floor, or the feel of her lips on my neck. I took them again when she fell asleep in my lap during our weekly movie night, her head resting on my thigh and her hand limp across my knee. I took them every single time she took my hand in hers to write my schedule on the inside of my wrist. I took them, and for a while she didn’t haunt me, even though she was standing right there. Karofsky kept his distance at the beginning of the summer, texting when he was hanging out with Puck to get Santana and I to join them. I rarely saw him alone, but when I did he barely touched me. I assumed it was because I was in the Celibacy Club and he was at least smart enough to figure out what that meant. He and I would part ways around the time our double dates with Puck and Santana turned into the two of us watching the two of them making out. Santana never asked about him, nor did I offer any information. She threw herself headlong into Puck’s chiseled arms, and the time we spent together dwindled, leaving more time for me lose myself in my self-medicated stupor. Three weeks into the summer, Karofsky and I left Santana and Puck in the parking lot at Breadsticks. I was three hours into a four-pill trip. Most of the dinner had been spent in what felt like ear muffs. I had asked the waitress to only bring me food that was red. Santana made her use food coloring. My lips were stained a bright, transvestite-like shade. Karofsky kept looking at them as we walked between the cars until we got to his father’s chevy. He had just gotten his licence, and he swung his keys around his index finger like Clint Eastwood wielding a gun. He sat in the driver’s seat without turning the car on, twirling them while he glared. “Why don’t you and I do that?” he asked his keys. “I don’t think they can hear you,” I said, watching him.

“No, not them,” he spat, flustered. “You. Puck has been nailing Santana for months. You won’t even kiss me. And don’t give me that Celibacy Club shit, because San is in that club too and she’s a Grade A Slut.” I stared down at my hands in my lap and started to count the lines on my palms. I didn’t want to have this conversation. “Well?” “I dunno...” I mumbled after a minute. “I didn’t really want to. You didn’t ask me to.” “I’m asking you now.” “Asking what?” He slammed his fist against the steering wheel with an angry howl. I jumped, shrinking back into my seat. “Goddamn it Brittany, you can’t be that fucking stupid! You’re my girlfriend and I get to kiss you! I get to touch you and... and...” His hand was shaking as he put it on my knee, slowly moving up my leg, pushing my Cheerios skirt up as he went. I didn’t stop him. He slid the hand between my thighs and I closed my eyes. Every instinct in my drug-addled body told me to shut my legs and get out of the car. It was type of mental discomfort that probably would have made me scream, had I not been medicated. He was invading me in more ways than I could count, and all he was doing was touching my thigh. Suddenly his fingers felt like they were covered in sandpaper, and I whimpered at the sensation. He was so much stronger than I was, and clumsy. As much as he probably wanted to be gentle, given his size and the obvious desperate nervousness in his gesture, it was nearly impossible for him to be anything but ogre-like. He leaned over the center console, adjusting so the shifter didn’t hit him in his now-tented pants. I opened my eyes long enough to see his face coming toward mine, his trout-lips thrusting forward hungrily as they connected. Again that instinct to flee overtook my cloudy head, but I remained planted. He practically climbed over his dashboard and used his free hand to find the latch on the side of the seat, making it fall backward with a slam. He pushed my legs open with his knee and suddenly both hands were there, pushing my skirt up. Even with his thick, angry fingers, I imagined Santana, and it felt better. His tongue in my mouth wasn’t his tongue. His hips crushing mine were not his hips. The hands fumbling at his heavy belt buckle were softer, even dainty as they unzipped the jeans and very briefly there was pain... and then there wasn’t. It was over quickly. He panted on top of me, his head resting on my shoulder. I had always imagined it would have been more revelatory, sleeping with a boy. But it felt hurried and frantic, unpracticed and without any soul. He took a few minutes to regain his strength, breathing heavy.

He finally lifted his head and, casually, pressed his lips to the space where my neck met my shoulder. Through everything, I had been still for him. But this small action, the tiny physical reminder of Santana, made me snap to attention. I pushed him off of me and sat up. He was grinning as he swung his legs back over the center console and yanked his pants back up. I smoothed my skirt down and checked my hair in the mirror. “Take me home, please.” He blinked, the grin gone. “But we just-” “Take me home. Please.” He dropped me off at my door and tried to kiss me goodnight. I slipped out from under his lips and out the door before he had the chance. The next day, I broke up with him. “Brit.” I lifted my head off the blanket, and I was back in my backyard, with Santana laying next to me. I blinked and tried to focus. Maybe I’d taken too many that morning. “Hellooo, Britt,” she crowed, waving a hand in front of my face. “Jesus, you’re not just Half In today, are you? What’s going on with you? Are you fighting with Karofsky again?” I shook my head. The night I was remembering was two week before. She’d ask questions. Why didn’t I tell her sooner? What was he like? Where did it happen? I couldn’t be sure that I was up for answering those questions. Not yet, anyway. “B, come on.” Her voice changed. She was concerned. It was nice knowing she still cared. “I slept with him. Karofsky.” She was silent. She didn’t looked shocked or excited, or even grossed out. She just sat there, staring out past the picket fence at the end of my yard. I waited patiently, until she was ready to talk again. The sun had started to set around us, giving her a beautiful reddish-orange pallor. She got up as dusk settled in and a warm June night descended. “I’m happy for you.” And then she grabbed her bag and walked back down my driveway, out of sight. I didn’t go back inside right away, instead opting to enjoy the evening air and watch the stars blink into existence. She had said four words in response to my revelation that I had slept with Karofsky. Four tiny, seemingly insignificant words. But to me, they meant everything.

She was jealous.

9

Antidote

Santana didn't call me the next day, or the day after that. I waited a week before I sought her out. I think the reason I waited so long might have been that I kept forgetting what day it was. My mom took me for my driver's test some time after that evening in my backyard, and when I was filling out the forms I forgot my middle name. I failed the test. I probably shouldn't have been behind the wheel at all. Mom made it perfectly clear that I wouldn't be trying again, so I had allowed the days after to blend together, not realizing how much time was passing. I showed up on her doorstep at midday, four pills deep, and sat on the front stoop. Her parents were at work, and she wasn't answering the door, so I leaned back against the heavy wooden entryway and reached into my pocket for my cell phone. It wasn't there. It was little things like this: middle names, wallets, cell phones. Little things got lost, but never the memory of Santana, or of Karofsky and his sandpaper fingers. I squeezed my eyes shut against the afternoon light, still seeing red through the thin veil of my eyelids. I slipped my sunglasses over the bridge of my nose. It was hot; one of those humid Midwestern summer days where flies move slower and the heat comes up off the pavement in waves. I extended my legs out in front of me and laced my fingers behind my head, baking in the sun. Puck dropped her off a few hours later. The sun was only just starting to set, but it was still steamy in the early evening. She paused in the passenger seat, an indiscernible look in her eye as Puck kissed the side of her neck, not noticing that I was sitting a few feet away. She swatted him off and got out of the car, leaving him confused. He looked up, saw me, and grinned. He lifted his chin in his usual way, nodding and pouting his lips. It was the look that meant, "Hey baby, how you doin'?" It was one of two that he knew how to do well. That, and "I'm going to throw you in a dumpster now." "How long have you been sitting here?" Santana asked as Puck backed out of the driveway and sped off down the road. I shrugged. I genuinely didn't know. She sighed and pulled me to my feet. "Your face is all red. You got burned. You should have worn sunscreen. Come on, let's get some aloe on that before you start to peel. No way will Coach Sylvester let you try out in a few weeks with a patchy, dried out complexion." She didn't let go of my hand as she led me into her house and immediately up the stairs to her bedroom. I sat on the bed quietly as she rummaged in her medicine cabinet across the hall for the aloe. I still had my sunglasses on, and from behind the dark lenses I looked around. We hadn't been in her room in a while. Nothing had really changed, but it still felt different. The pictures of the two of us at various ages were lined up on her window sill, collecting a thin layer of dust, while the picture of her sitting in Puck's lap was free of debris. She returned with the bottle in

one hand and a heap of cotton balls in the other. She sat down next to me on the bed and reached for my glasses. My hand went up faster than I thought it would and I whacked myself hard in the face, the lenses flying across the room. "Jesus Christ, Britt, what the hell is wrong with you?" She heaved, watching the glasses arc and fall a few feet away. She turned back to me and for the first time looked into my eyes. She stopped abruptly and searched them, hard. Anger crossed her face as she grabbed my chin and moved closer, her nose nearly touching mine. "Did you change your medication again? I thought that we were stable, we had everything worked out. B, you really should tell me when something-" I couldn't stop myself from giggling as I felt her breath on my face, and saw abject horror in her eyes when she noticed my dilated pupils and bloodshot eyes. It was like a game. How pissed off can Santana get before she snaps? Where, oh where, does her patience with me end? "B... B, tell me what's going on," she was stern, but her eyes were pleading, almost scared. "This isn't like you. Why didn't you just call me? I have my cell on, you know that." More giggling. "Lost my cell phone. Besides, I didn't want to interrupt your sex date with Puck. I know how cranky you get when you don't get laid." Her mouth dropped open, her eyes narrowing. She gaped a moment before shaking her head slowly and going to work with the aloe. She upended the bottle onto a cotton ball and pressed it softly to my forehead, dragging it down one temple and then the other while her hand still cupped my chin. I hadn't realized just how deeply I'd been burned until I felt the cool sensation against my skin. I closed my eyes and let out a little moan. The closeness of her body to mine made my spine weak. She was perched on the bed next to me, one leg bent and curled underneath her and the other hanging over the edge as she leaned in to nurse my burn carefully under her gentle hand. I bent into her, my knees touching hers and I put my hands on her thigh to balance myself. I finally realized how long it had been since I was near her. The weight of that time dropped on me, and in that moment I wanted nothing more than to feel her bare skin on mine. I wanted to tell her, but hadn't yet found the words in the midst of my haze. "My face feels like that time I got my tongue stuck in the freezer when I tried to lick the peas," I said instead. "Remember that, San?" She sighed heavily, the tension draining from her hand on my face at the laughable comment. "Yeah, B. I remember. I had to douse you with warm water to get you separated. What was that, eighth grade?" I smiled and shrugged. "It was right after you punched Finn and Puck. Hey... why did you punch Finn and Puck? You're dating him now, but back then we hated him." "You know why I punched them," she said quietly, the cotton ball in her hand running over my cheeks now, just under my eyes where the sunglasses left a tan line on my skin. "But it's complicated now. Puck is just a some guy. We work because neither of us really cares."

I lifted my hand, trying to blink the cloud out from behind my eyes, and took her wrist in my fingers. "But you care about me." It wasn't a question. She nodded sadly, running her thumb along my cheek where the aloe had dried. "Yeah. I care about you. You're my best friend." "I'm your best friend," I repeated, processing slowly. Again, she nodded. "But you want to fuck me." Santana stopped short, but still I held fast to her wrist. I wasn't sure if it was the expletive that startled her, or the indisputable truth of my statement. I didn't break her gaze as she nodded, her eyes torn between terror and absolute affirmation. "We still can, if you want," I said softly, lifting my free hand to touch her cheek in the same place she had touched mine. "I understand now. I understand what you need. I need it, too. I miss you. I'd rather have you this way... just like this... than not at all." She squeezed her eyes shut, her lips pressed in a tight line. She lowered her head and shook it violently. "What about Karofsky?" "What about him?" "You're his girlfriend, aren't you? That doesn't bother you?" "It doesn't seem to bother you. Or Puck, for that matter." I didn't mention that I'd broken up with Karofsky. It wouldn't have helped my argument. "I'm not... we're not-" she started, then sighed, her shoulders slumping. "You're not like us, Britt. You're too good for that." I put my index finger under her chin and lifted her face to mine. Her gaze met mine and I leaned in, keeping eye contact as my lips stopped a hair's breadth from hers. "Don't tell me what I'm too good for." I surged forward, the contact between our lips sending a jolt of electricity down my body that awoke me from my stupor. If the pills had given me the courage to kiss her, the absence of them gave me the courage to keep going. She didn't fight me as I pushed her back onto her bed, her head landing squarely on her pillows as I pressed my hips to hers and her legs parted willingly. I needed her touch; her hands on my body to rid myself that feeling he had left on my skin. Like I was coated in a thick film of toxins that only her hands could wash away. She put them first on my waist, holding me close to her, then wrapped her arms around my torso and clung to me like

a child as we kissed, my tongue greedily reaching into her mouth and searching for the antidote to his poison. There was too much between us. I needed her skin on mine. I sat up, pulling her with me, and yanked her tank top up over her head. She wasn't wearing a bra. How had I not noticed that until now? Was I that addled, that I'd missed it? I stared at them, soft and round, slightly larger than they had been six months before. When had they swelled? I lifted my hands and cupped them, my thumbs running over her nipples as I leaned in again to kiss her. She groaned into my mouth and reached down between us to start unbuttoning my cut offs. I swatted her hand away before she could push them down over my hips. I wanted control. No, I needed control. I pushed her shoulders gently until she laid back in the bed without fighting me. Her eyes were wide with anticipation and surprise, like my sudden take-charge attitude turned her on. I slipped my hands down her torso, tracing a line from collarbone to navel, then let my fingers play with the zipper on her bermuda shorts until it gave way and parted, the teeth popping one by one to reveal a pair of green lace panties. She lifted her hips and I slid the shorts down her legs, my entire body moving down the bed as she bent her knees to aid in removing them once they got to her ankles. I dropped the article on the floor and crawled back up between her legs to retrieve the panties as well, similarly tossing them aside. I knelt between her thighs, looking down at her naked body while I remained fully dressed. I found my antidote. "This isn't fair," she murmured, sounding drunk. "I need you naked." "A lot about this isn't fair, San," I replied calmly, running my hands over her skin, soaking up my healing elixir. "Please just be quiet for now." She didn't know whether to be offended by the fact that I had basically told her to shut up, or to be turned on by my hands exploring every inch of her. I felt the tiny hairs on her arms stand on end as I let the tips of my fingers caress them. She reached for my hands but I pinned her appendages to her sides and clicked my tongue. "Not yet..." I freed myself from her skin and peeled my shirt from my body, followed in quick succession by my bra and cut offs. She was biting her lip in silent agony as she watched me, but careful not to touch me until I told her she could. Her obedience to my command was unwavering, and she lay nearly frozen under me as I laid down, pressing my chest to hers, my hips in between her thighs and my hands on either side of her head. "Now." Her fingers ran up my sides and I quivered, the toxic feeling dissipating from my body. Instantly, she had fixed me. The sandpaper sensation of Karofsky's clumsy fingers on my skin was gone, and I felt clean. I felt real.

I felt alive. She held me tightly as I trembled on top of her, my face buried in the crook of her neck, torn between kissing and crying. She read my body movement and waited for me, lightly rubbing her hand up and down my back, comforting me as I let the antidote work its way through my body until I felt cured. I lifted my head and brought my lips to hers, my hands sliding between us to push my underoos down. I kicked them off and pressed my heat to hers, wishing for just a moment that I could feel myself inside her, the way a boy could. I lifted my leg over the top of hers so I was straddling one of her thighs, pressing my core against her leg and my own thigh against hers. She moaned and dug her nails into my shoulder, arching up into me. Slowly, I sat up and knelt with one knee on either side of her right leg, repositioning myself so I faced slightly right. She instinctively lifted her hips and in that moment our hot, wet centers touched. A gun went off in my head and I went blind, light overtaking my vision as I moaned and pulled her left leg to my chest and held it there, using it as leverage to thrust against her. She was panting violently as I continued to pin her beneath me, my hips working against hers in a way that I didn't know possible. I watched as she arched and writhed, biting her lip and begging me not to stop. Her eyes were rimmed red and she kept squeezing them shut and pressing her palms to them, trying to hide her tears. "God, B... please, I need you." She sounded so vulnerable, and for a moment I forgave her for everything. One strong thrust of my hips and I saw stars. My knees gave way under me and I collapsed into a violent orgasm against her thigh. I ground myself against her hard as it came in waves, the first knocking me over while the subsequent just shook me. She clung to me, her fingers digging into whatever flesh she could hold as I felt a similarly wet spot appear on my thigh. She moaned and cried out, arching into me and holding there until her body settled, and together we just breathed. Air returned to my lungs slowly, and when my heart no longer felt like bursting I peeled myself off her and stood. It was too much, being that close for so long. It overwhelmed me and I needed separation before I started thinking this was more than just what it was. Sex for sex's sake. I started dressing and she sat up, her hair mussed and her lips plump from where I'd been kissing them. "You're leaving. Just like that, huh?" I nodded. That intolerable clarity that came following sex with Santana lingered, and I knew I had to leave. It would do neither of us any good if I stayed. "Serves me right, I suppose," she continued, not bothering to cover herself as I stood, now fully dressed, in the middle of her room. "I did this to you." "We did it to each other," I replied picking my sunglasses up off the floor. "I'm not an unwilling party here. I know what's going on. I might not always be one hundred percent but I'm not a child. I'm here because I want to be, and now I'm leaving because I want to leave. I needed a cure and you gave it to me, so I'm okay now. I can go home. I can sleep again."

"Huh? Britt, what are you talking about?" She didn't understand my meaning, but I wasn't about to explain it to her. "Doesn't matter," I said with a shrug. "I'll see you later, okay, San?" I started for the door but I felt her fingers curl around my wrist. "Wait." I stopped and turned. She was still naked, sitting on the edge of her bed with her arm stretched out, holding onto me. My eyes caught on the curve of her breast against her abdomen and I exhaled sharply. As much as I wanted to keep collected, it was hard not to admit how beautiful she was, how comfortably she sat in her nudity. If only I could be so comfortable. "Tell me what happened," she prompted, not letting go of my hand. "Tell me why you came here, why we did this. Tell me why you were so spacey before." I shook my head. "It's not important." "Yes, it is," she insisted. "If something's wrong, you tell me. We can't let this change who we are to one another, B. I'm your best friend, and if you have a problem, you tell me." It was almost comical, the way she called herself my best friend as she sat naked in the bed I'd just fucked her on. But as willing as I felt going into this... whatever it was... with Santana, I hadn't felt that way with Karofsky. The dubious nature of my consent when I was with him made me stop and consider telling her. I wanted to tell her. But I also considered the outcome. What could she do? Nothing. What would it get me? Her sympathy? Her love? No, nothing would come out of telling her why I'd needed her healing hands, or why I'd taken four times my usual dosage that morning, or every morning prior. "I'll see you later, San," I repeated, gently pulling her hand from my wrist. I left her sitting there, confused, and walked out into the night air. It was cooler after dark, but still muggy. The mosquitoes had gone dormant past the setting of the sun and all I heard was the steady hum of the street lamp and the occasional car horn from the highway a few blocks over. I walked the mile back to my house slowly, allowing a little time to think before I had to explain to my mother where I'd been all day. As much I hated the way we were using one another, I hated not having Santana in my life even more. The idea that I couldn't talk to her, and the fact that I was willing to keep something so important from her, was terrifying to me. Like I'd lost something more than just my wallet or my middle name. But there was something else that kept me from revealing the truth about Karofsky. She'd assumed that I'd enjoyed my time with him, in the way that she enjoyed her time with Puck. She thought that we were the same. I knew, then, that we were never really the same.

I'd done it not out of some vain hope of social acceptance, or even as a way to make her jealous. I'd allowed Karofsky to grunt on top of me because I needed to know that Santana and I were not the same. The fact that I gained both social acceptance and her jealousy... well, those were secondary side effects. It was not "easy", as she said it was with Puck. It was complicated and left me toxic to the touch. But she was right about one thing. I couldn't allow what I felt, what we'd done, to change the fact that she was my best friend. My only friend. I wouldn't survive without her, even with my secrets.

10

Mixing Meds and Metaphors

Every afternoon for the next three weeks, I got a phone call from Santana. Sometimes I answered, sometimes I let it ring and called her back a few hours later, just so she knew I wasn’t waiting by the phone for her. Even though I was waiting, I knew seeming overeager to hear her voice was not conducive to either of us getting through the sex to maintain our friendship. I was only just starting to understand the term ‘friends with benefits’, and I wondered how so many people had found the proper balance of sex and friendship. It took me physically removing myself from her presence to render myself capable of intelligent thought once more. Was no one ever jealous, an emotion that both of us had obviously been prey to? How would I look her in the eye when she got out of Puck’s car, her ponytail slightly askew, and I would know that he had probably just fucked her in the backseat? The problem was that I couldn’t look her in the eye. So I kept my distance, getting a fix from the sound of her voice once a day. I still had a friend, and she made sure I knew it, even though I was doing my damnedest to make it feel otherwise. At first she tried pushing the issue at hand, asking me repeatedly why I’d acted so strangely. She asked about my meds and threatened to call my mother, just like she had when we were twelve. I knew she wouldn’t, but the threat of it reminded me she cared. When she realized that I wasn’t ready or willing to talk about it, she backed down. She didn’t force me when I refused to see her during those last weeks of summer, instead spending a precious hour or two every day on the phone, just talking, like friends ought. She talked about lifeguarding at the community pool, about Puck, about Quinn and Finn and how disgustingly adorable they were together. I knew the tone she picked up when she spoke of them was laced with bitter jealousy. She and Puck were not the cutesy kind of couple, but when she talked about Quinn and Finn, it almost sounded like she wanted to be. Maybe not with Puck; she had greater goals than settling down with another Lima Loser. That was another thing she mentioned frequently during our conversations. “One of these days, B,” she’d repeat on a loop. “I’m gonna get out of this hick town. No more Lima Losers. I’ll graduate, go to college, get a job and make a ton of money ordering people around.” “Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out, San,” I would reply, knowing that I probably wouldn’t go to college. I would be lucky to graduate from McKinley, at the rate I was going. I’d probably get back together with Karofsky. We’d get married at 19 and he’d work as a middle manager at a hardware store while he went to community college at night. I’d raise three kids in a house that always needed work, and we’d be divorced by the time we were 35.

See, I had big plans, too. I often imagined the way she was sitting while we talked. I could hear the expansion and contraction of her body in her voice when she moved, heard the rustling of her sheets or the creak of her window as she opened it. I could tell when she was sitting on her bed cross-legged, and when she was in her bay window, her knees brought up to her chest. At the same time, she chided me through the phone for biting my nails, and scolded me for throwing my clothes on the floor rather than hanging them up or putting them in the hamper. This comforted me, how well we knew each other. I could hear frustration or fascination in a single breath, and she could calm me with a word. I was so sure that all best friends had this sort of sixth sense about one another. It just felt natural. My excessive laziness (brought on by being excessively high) during the summer had kept me away from my dance studio for a few months, but in the weeks leading back to school I’d found it easier to go, especially after talking to Santana. I managed to pull myself into the studio a few times a week to train, washing away the fog of self-medication. Free form dancing was, for lack of a better term, freeing. The other students and I swayed to synth beats, our spines and arms and legs like jelly, finding a simple rhythm and just moving with it. There was no structure, no instruction, and no rules. Best of all, there was no Santana. It was my time, to shut out the entire world and forget for one moment that I was different. Just how different, I couldn’t yet articulate. But I knew, especially in those beautiful moments of clarity while I danced, that something about me was different from other girls. And it revolved very heavily around Santana. My third day back in the studio found me on the bar against the wall, watching my own motions in the floor-to-ceiling mirror. My back leg extended behind me in a long, luxurious stretch that felt like a demi arabesque. Where my front leg should have been on the floor, it was extended high in front of me, with my ankle propped on the bar. It was later in the evening, after all the classes had ended, and when I liked to be alone. The teachers usually stayed until after 10, talking to one another and relaxing after a day of young prima ballerinas prancing around their studio, so they jumped at the chance to let me use the studio without needing to supervise. I worked silently, hearing the music through the earbuds I put on when I entered. I took my leg down, switch positions, and began a quick succession of pliés to the the beat of my music, my feet planted heel to heel and my toes outward. My eyes were closed as I began to slink across the floor, low and loose, using the little I knew of ballet to chassé across the floor, one foot chasing the other in quick, deliberate movements. At the end of the room I spun sharply, hands crossed at the wrist above my head. Once, twice, three times... only to come face to face with a young Asian boy I recognized. I stopped mid-turn and stared at the boy, who stood in the doorway of the studio with a duffel bag over his shoulder, grinning. He was barefoot, like me, wearing a tight tank top that revealed sculpted abs and sweatpants that had been cut off at the knees. “You’re good,” he said, setting the bag down in the corner. “But I’m better.”

I pulled the earbuds out of my ears and tucked the iPod into the front pocket of my ripped sweatshirt. I wiped my hands on the thighs of my leggings and sniffed indignantly. “I wasn’t even trying. You’re Mike Chang? You go to McKinley. Don’t you play football?” He nodded as he moved in front of a mirror and bent grandly into a stretch, touching his toes. “Yeah, but this is more fun.” He put his hands on the flat ground and did a standing flip, ending in a twist and returning to a standing position to face me, that grin still plastered in place. He went over to the audio system on the far wall and turned on the speakers, a heavy bass beat emanating from them, followed by the deep voice of a hip-hop artist. “Brittany, right? So, Brittany, are you just going to stand there, or do you need an invitation?” He held out his hand, and I crossed the room on my toes, like a dancer ought, and took it. He spun me faster than I anticipated, and I fell into a dip, his arm holding me up. Again, the grin. He was disarmingly charming. I arched my back to stand again and bore down on him, challenging him to dance against my lead, but he pushed back. Our bodies moved together, his hands on my hips as we both gave and took against rhythm of the music, playfully fighting one another for dominance. It was fast, heady, and unlike anything I’d experienced. I felt so confident and comfortable at the same time, like nothing outside that studio mattered. The music ended abruptly and he pulled me into him, my hands on his chest and his arm holding me across my lower back. I looked up at him. He was taller than me, but without the girth and grit of Karofsky. He felt strong, but not rough. He was breathing hard, and the grin had faded. I realized that I, too, was out of breath. How long had we been dancing? I looked up at the clock. It was after 11, the instructors would have gone home by now, leaving me to lock up. I took a quick step back when I noticed I was still touching him in the silence. “Wait, don’t go,” he begged. “Things were going really well.” “You’re a great dancer, Mike,” I stated quietly, backing up and feeling with my feet for my bag. “Maybe I’ll see you around.” “Brittany...” He followed me and took my hand. He was surprisingly soft. I looked up at him, and I wasn’t scared. I had never been alone with a boy and not been terrified before, but Mike felt nice. He felt calm. Before I realized what I was doing I was kissing him. He was surprised, but didn’t stop me, and soon he was kissing back, his hands on my waist. I needed someone -- anyone -- to touch me and make me believe they cared, even if it was just for a moment. He lifted me easily, putting hands under my thighs and pushing them up around his hips. He walked a few steps and then knelt. I fell backward onto one of the workout mats, him on top of me, still kissing fervently. The difference between his fingers as they pushed down my leggings and Karofsky’s pushing up my skirt was stark. Karofsky has been clumsy and rough. Mike knew what he was doing, and was gentle about it. He lifted my hips for me, applied light pressure on the small of my back, and I allowed them to slip effortlessly down my thighs. He was up on his knees, looking down at me and panting as he started to undo the knot in his cut-off sweats.

“Are you sure?” he asked, pausing. When I nodded he deftly untied the knot and reached into his duffel, pulling out his wallet and with it, a condom. I pulled him down by his tank top, making him kiss me again. As much as I wanted to feel this, to feel something, anything, I didn’t want to see him naked. I hadn’t seen Karofsky and it had been easy separate him from myself. If I didn’t look, then it didn’t have to matter. We didn’t have to be having sex. It could be something else. He pressed his hips into me and I yelped unexpectedly. He was bigger than Karofsky, but he stopped when he heard the noise, and waited. “Do you want me to stop?” “No.” He kissed me along my jaw and down my throat to my collarbone as he moved inside me. He lasted a few minutes, then groaned and went still on top of me. I hadn’t felt the overwhelming sense of satisfaction that he had, but at the same time it hadn’t been the agonizing experience it had been the first time. I called it a wash and waited until he rolled over onto his back on the mat to reach for my leggings. I slid them on and stood, grabbing my bag. “Off so soon?” he smirked, pulling his own pants back on and tossing the condom in the garbage. “It’s late,” I replied tonelessly. “Right, I see that... You should come to the end of summer party this Friday. Matt and I are hosting. You could... be my date.” I had no intention of dating Mike. I hoped, secretly, that he would transfer schools before the year started, but I knew that was an unlikely scenario. I was even less enthused about attending a party as his date. If other football players were there, then all the Cheerios would be invited, too, which meant Santana would be there. I needed more time. “I’ll think about it,” I said, inwardly promising not to be within a 10 mile radius of that party, but still sounding outwardly hopeful. “Keep this to yourself, okay? Santana wouldn’t be very happy with me for, um... well, you know Santana.” He smiled, nodding. “Yeah, I get your point. Just between you and me. As long as you at least consider coming to the party.” Mike left, kissing me on the cheek as he went, and I stayed to put things back in order. It was part of my deal with the instructors. I could stay late, but I needed to straighten up. After a romp on the workout mats with Mike, things needed straightening. My head needed straightening. Nothing about what had happened in the studio felt right. The dancing was wonderful, even liberating, but what it had led to felt indescribably wrong. It had been easy, yes. Easy to fall into that rhythm of take and give, then nothing but take, take, take from Mike as he was inside me. It hadn’t hurt, that much I was happy about. But it hadn’t felt good, either. I’d heard these stories from girls at school, talking about how good their boyfriends made them feel. Was it because he wasn’t my boyfriend? I didn’t know him that well, maybe that was a factor. Maybe I needed to

love a boy before it felt good. But plenty of those girls didn’t love the boys they slept with, so I just didn’t know what my problem was. I walked home in silence, trying to use the quiet to clear my head. There were too many thoughts, too many theories and ideas. I got home, took three pills, and fell into a dark, dreamless sleep. Friday arrived, and I still had no intention of going to Mike’s party. Santana called me as usual in the afternoon, and we talked for a while before she sighed heavily. “There’s a party tonight,” she said casually. “Puck asked me to go with him.” I tried to sound surprised. “A party? Really? Are you gonna go?” “No. My parents are taking me out to my grandmother’s in Cleveland for the weekend. We’re leaving in a few hours. I won’t be back until Sunday.” “That sucks, San,” I replied, suddenly wondering if I should go to the party after all. “I hadn’t heard about it before now, so I guess I wasn’t invited.” “It was going to be lame anyway,” she muttered, sounding slightly indignant. “Mike Chang is hosting. That kid has zero game.” I let out a small snort and it made her giggle as well. We were laughing at two very different things, but it still felt good, laughing with her. I cleared my throat and said, “Call me when you get back, I guess.” We hung up and I considered, once again, going to the party. The only reason I’d been hesitant before was because I’d assumed that Santana would be there. Knowing that she wasn’t going made my decision a little easier. I could go, make sure Mike knew that he wasn’t my date, and have a good time. I took a couple pills before I left my house, and wandered over to Mike’s in a haze. I got there late, just before midnight, and the house was thudding. The music could be heard halfway down the block, but no one inside seemed to care. I wandered in, a little off kilter, and was immediately handed a drink by Matt Rutherford, Mike’s cohost for the night. I sniffed it, but my senses were dulled by the pills, so I upended the cup and swallowed its contents without really tasting it. Matt gave a loud cheer and slapped me on the back when I’d finished, then handed me another before returning to the party. In what used to be Mike’s living room, the lights were out and a throng of people were dancing to house music under a strobe light affixed to an empty bookcase. Feeling the effects of the obviously strong drink mixed with the pills I’d taken, I threw myself into the fray and closed my eyes, just feeling the beat. I pressed my body against anyone close to me, not caring who, and began reaching for more. A pair of lips pressed to mine and I opened my eyes. A female face was next to mine, her hands on my cheeks holding me in place. She was a Cheerio, a new recruit,

but I didn’t remember her name in the moment. She clung to me desperately, her vodka-soaked tongue roaming my mouth. She needed me, just like I needed to feel, so I kissed her back. The sensation of kissing another girl -- a girl other than Santana -- was breathtaking. I had experiences to compare it all to now. Kissing boys I didn’t like, boys I did, and girls I was pretty sure I loved. Now this girl, whom I didn’t know personally, but rather instinctively, kissed me and it was an entirely new sensation. The boys were okay, but I hadn’t had any visceral reaction to them. They didn’t make me feel like my spine wasn’t there. Santana made me feel whole, like the when I was with her, kissing her, I didn’t even need to breathe. This girl, with her hands roving across my chest, sent a shiver through my ribcage and a tingling sensation between my legs. I pushed her away sharply, and she immediately latched onto one of the football players and resumed her desperate clinging. I stumbled backward, directly into Matt, who held me up and pulled me into the less crowded hallway. “Are you okay?!” he shouted over the music. I pulled him closer, so his mouth was in my ear, and he shouted it again. “No,” I said, not loud enough for him to hear me. “No, I’m not okay.” The strange girl on the dance floor had affected me more than she should have. It was just a kiss, and yet it felt like so much more. Kissing, I reasoned, shouldn’t feel like anything. Kissing shouldn’t matter. To prove my own point I pulled Matt close to me, pulling at his shirt so his body was pressed against mine and I was pinned between him and the wall. “Kiss me,” I demanded, yelling into his ear and smiling as a euphoric wave between drunk and high washed over me. “Kiss me, or I’ll find someone else who will.” He did, and hard. The back of my head banged against the wall and bouncing and I saw stars. He fumbled as he stuck his hand up the front of my shirt and grabbed my breast roughly. I flashed back to Karofsky, with his sandpaper fingers, and I shoved him away. He stumbled and glared at me, wiping the saliva from the corner of his mouth before throwing his hands up and walking away. Nothing felt right. The world was spinning. I needed to sit down. I found a staircase and plopped down, resting my head against the wall and willing my mind to stop working. Santana. Karofsky. Mike. The new Cheerio. Now Matt. I had that toxic feeling again, like I was coated in oil and floundering in open sea. I was drowning, and it was my own fault. “Brittany!” I felt a sharp slap to my face and my eyes opened. Mike was standing over me, concerned but slightly drunk. I could smell the beer on his breath. His hand returned to my face and I winced, not wanting to be slapped again, but he took my chin gently between his thumb and forefinger. “Should I call Santana? To come get you?”

I shook my head violently and stood, grabbing him by the collar of his shirt to pull myself up. “I was never here,” I hissed into his ear. “You make sure everyone knows... I was never here. If she found out...” What? What would Santana do if she found out what I’d done at the party that night? I was unprepared for the answer, so it was easier -- that goddamn word -- to just make sure everyone understood that whatever it was Santana would do, it would not be good. Mike took me by the elbow and stabilized me. “Of course,” he nodded shakily. “I’ll make sure.” I patted him on the shoulder and swayed. “You’re a nice guy, Mike. You don’t deserve this mess.” I kissed him on the cheek and stumbled for the door, wandering out into the night.

11

Hero

I don’t remember how I made it home from that party, but I woke up the next day in my bed, my clothes still on and wearing only one shoe. Santana had called three times while I’d slept. When I called her back, I claimed illness, and she didn’t question me. “You sound like shit, B,” she said through the phone, concern laced in her voice. “Want me to come over when I get back?” “No,” I told her, burying my face in my pillow and curling into a ball. “It’s just a bug, I’ll be fine tomorrow. I just need sleep.” The very last thing I wanted at that point was to see her, after the confusion of the night before. I needed to be alone. “Okay, if you’re sure,” she replied and I could hear her shrugging. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow?” I nodded, even though she couldn’t see the gesture. “Tomorrow. Bye, San.” When she called again, we made arrangements to meet outside the school the following morning, on our first day as sophomores. As anxious as I was to ensure that she never find out about my night at the party, I was more anxious to see her, and reassure myself that there was nothing wrong; I wasn’t drowning. I had decided to try the day without my usual four, and cut back to my prescribed single pill that morning. I expected two more at lunch from the nurse’s station, but just in case, I had shoved my spare bottle in the bottom of my book bag, covered by the usual paraphernalia of dried up pens and last year’s unfinished homework. She was on the steps in the courtyard overlooking the tables when I arrived. I was ten minutes later than I had promised her I’d be, but she wasn’t angry as I climbed to the third step, where she sat in her Cheerios uniform. Her smile was so effectively genuine that I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and held her when she stood to greet me. No one was around yet, so she pressed her face into the fateful crook that she loved so much when she hugged me back. “I’ve missed you,” she whispered into my throat, not letting go of her vice grip around my waist. “You can’t do that to me again. I need you, B. Not having my best friend around is just painful.” I sighed heavily and returned the hold as tightly as I could. The pressure around my rib cage sent a flurry of endorphins through my body, and I was instantly happy. She hadn’t mentioned the party, so as far as I knew, Mike had kept his word. “I missed you, too. I need you, too. But this feels good, doesn’t it? Two best friends, coming back together. It’s... it’s easy.” She lifted her head off my shoulder and even without looking at me, I knew the expression that crossed her face was skeptical. ‘Easy’ was probably not the term I should have used, but I

wanted her to know that I wasn’t going to push her anymore. Being best friends could be easy, just like being with Puck was easy for her. It was as much for my benefit as it was for hers. I needed reassurance, and she didn’t know it, so I said it out loud for both of us. And if I ever lost my grip on that, there was always the pills. “Right,” she finally replied, easing her grip on my waist. “Easy.” She took a step back and smiled again, but it wasn’t quite the same genuine smile that had crossed her face when I’d first arrived. “Let’s get our schedules so we can complain about them now. It’ll be faster to switch them so we’re taking all the same things if we get there early.” She turned to go up the rest of the stairs, but I didn’t follow right away. I just enjoyed watching her walk, studying the way the Cheerios skirt ended at just the right spot on her thigh. She stopped and looked back, that smile returning; the genuine one. She extended her left hand and stuck out her pinky, beckoning me to take it. My eyes shifted from the skirt to her finger, then with a matching smile I met her eyes. I took the pinky in mine and together we entered McKinley for the first time as sophomores. I held my breath as she wrote my schedule on my wrist, after transferring from a few of my lower-level classes into her advanced classes turned out to be impossible. She had even offered to take the remedial courses with me, but Figgins had pulled Ms. Pillsbury into our meeting, and between the two of them they talked Santana down. She was on the fast-track to college, they stated. Why would she want to jeopardize her future by taking courses that were too easy for her? I pretended not to understand that they were talking down to me when they assured me that Santana wasn’t abandoning me for the more advanced classes. She was at a different place in her academic career, she needed a different kind of teaching than I did, et cetera, so on and so forth. She vocalized the hurt that I felt, shouting at Figgins about his tone before grabbing my hand and pulling me out of his office. “Forget them,” she said, the tip of her pen pressing lightly against my skin as she wrote out English - Room 213 - First Bell, Spanish - Room 104 - Second Bell... one on top of the other. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. You and I both know you’re smarter than half this school. But look, at least we have four classes together. That’s better than nothing, right?” I was too busy watching the strokes of black ink over the blue lines of the veins in my wrist to really pay attention. I had a sudden sharp need to pound a few pills. I had grown accustomed to being Half In when she took my hand like this, but now, after a few months of taking triple my dose, I was far from Half In. I felt everything. The ridges of her fingerprints burned me. The soft brush of her sleeve cut my skin. I wanted to pull away, but I stayed, gulping audibly. “You okay?” “Huh?”

“I asked if you were okay,” she said, letting go of my hand and I started breathing again. “You look terrified, B. Don’t worry. It’s just a new schedule. We have second period together, so I’ll see you again in an hour. Okay?” I nodded, giving her a shaky smile. “Okay.” I wasn’t okay. We parted ways at our new lockers, she on her way to trigonometry while I headed to remedial tenth grade English. As soon as she rounded the corner and was out of sight I ripped my bag open and found the bottle at the bottom. I slid two pills under my tongue and went to the drinking fountain, sighing heavily as the cool water slipped them down my throat with ease. I waited two minutes for the high dose to kick in, and the edges of my world went fuzzy. It was easy to smile when the world looked like that, all hazy and unclear, like looking through foggy glass. The way the windows look in winter, when the heat from the interior of the house clashes with the cold exterior of the panes, making them steam and become translucent. Every day was Christmas in that world. Or so I told myself, as a sort-of justification. I saw Santana during second, third, fifth and seventh periods, and I managed to make it through the day without forgetting where to go. I even kept my backpack with me along the way, never leaving it in a classroom, the bathroom, or under a lunch table. At the end of the day she walked me home, even though it was a mile out of her way and Puck had offered to drive her, and stayed to get me oriented to the new class schedule and homework docket. “Things’ll be easier tomorrow,” she told me as she packed up her things. “See you in the morning, same place as today? Maybe not quite so early.” I nodded and got up to walk her out. She pulled my front door open and started out onto the porch when I stopped her. “San...” She turned to look at me, pulling her coat closer around her chest in the cool September evening. “Yeah, B?” “Today was alright. I was alright. You don’t need to worry about me so much.” I wasn’t quite sure where it came from, but my gut spat the words out before my head had a chance to process. She took a step back to me, pulling me into a quick hug. “I’ll always worry about you, B. What are best friends for?” She let me go and with a smile she left. During school hours, things returned quickly to the way they had been the previous year. Santana mocked Rachel mercilessly, and Quinn’s queen bee routine took a turn for the dramatic when Finn unexpectedly joined the glee club with her nemesis. This sent Quinn into a tailspin of jealousy that even I couldn’t rival. She did what she could, silently and behind Rachel’s back, to ensure that every slushie to enter McKinley ended up in Rachel’s face, but this didn’t deter the tiny diva from pursuing Finn as the Fred to her Ginger. Quinn made an executive decision for the three of us: she, Santana and I would join the glee club too, if only to protect her reputation as

half of the hottest couple in school. Because we were Quinn’s back up, Santana and I were meant to assist in all her endeavors. I hadn’t argued very much with any of the ridiculous missions we had been sent on in the past, but when we got together to prepare for our audition, Quinn seemed more out of her element than I’d ever seen her. Her confidence was waning in the face of what she perceived to be legitimate competition. I wasn’t complaining about joining the club. I’d been at the school assembly where they’d performed and it was a great show. I’d stopped singing in public a long time ago because Santana had asked me to. But now, on Quinn’s order, I was being asked to start again. I couldn’t really argue with that. We asked permission from Sue, and received marching orders to take apart the club at the seams. I listened, high-fived Santana when she got a little thrill out of the idea, but I didn’t really think glee club was hurting anyone. Frankly, it sounded like more fun than slaving for Sue Sylvester. Still, Cheerios was a bigger priority than singing and dancing, so I did as I was told. Even though Santana and I now had two extra curricular activities together, in addition to our classes, we rarely had time to sit down and talk like friends. She buddied up to Quinn more so than the year before, and didn’t bother to tell me when she broke up with Puck a few weeks into the school year. I heard about it from another Cheerio, who gossiped uncontrollably while she and I held up the bottom of the pyramid. “You broke up with Puck?” I asked her after practice, on our usual walk back to my house. “Yeah, I guess,” she shrugged, her face suddenly growing dark. “It’s not a big deal.” “It’s a huge deal, Santana,” I replied, adjusting the backpack on my shoulder as we walked up my driveway. It suddenly felt twenty pounds heavier. “This is the guy you said it was easy to be with. What happened? Things get complicated?” She shook her head. “It’s not important why, B. He wasn’t the right person for me, so I ended it.” “Sometimes it really amazes me how quickly you slip in and out of ‘bitch’ mode, San,” I said without thinking. “You burn hot and cold faster than anyone I’ve ever met. Boredom isn’t an excuse to fuck with someone else’s life.” She and I both knew that I wasn’t really talking about Puck. She stopped in the middle of my front yard, her arms hanging limply at her sides and her mouth slightly agape. “That’s what you think this is about? I got bored or something and now I’m looking for the next shiny mohawk to attract my attention?” “What else could it be?” I responded, turning on my heel with my arms crossed over my chest. “He treats you like garbage and you let him keep coming back for more. I’d be bored with that, too.” “He doesn’t treat me like-”

“Yes, he does,” I interrupted her. “He’s slept with nearly every girl in our grade -- and their mothers -- and you’re the only one who keeps letting him back into your bed, expecting things to change.” She shook her head slowly, sighing. “Things were never going to change with Puck, and I knew that. He’s the same jerk who laughed at you in the lunch room when we were twelve.” “Then why did you stay with him so long? And don’t you dare tell me ‘because it was easy’, Santana. I might vomit.” I blanched, my tongue hanging out of my mouth in mock disgust. “It felt good, I guess,” she shrugged. “Knowing I had someone like him. We spent so much time at the bottom, B. With him I’m on top.” “More of that social status bullshit,” I said, rolling my eyes. “You know I never cared about any of that.” “That’s because I care enough for the both of us. How do you think you make it through every day last year without being tossed in a dumpster? You’re not exactly the brightest kid in school, and it doesn’t take much for these people to turn on you. It’s because I got us where we are, and I’ve protected you. If we weren’t Cheerios, if I hadn’t dated Puck, we’d be laughing stocks. I did what I could to keep you safe. And I’ll keep doing it, as long as I’m able.” I stood in silence under a flickering street lamp, watching the orange horizon lighting Santana up from behind. “I didn’t ask you to do that,” I said after a moment. I didn’t know what else to say. “No,” she sighed. “You wouldn’t, would you? But I’m your best friend and it’s my job to protect you.” “If part of protecting me was dating Puck, then why’d you break up with him? You’ve been so selfless-” here I emphasized selfless with a sharp, bitter tongue - “up until now. So why the change of heart?” “I heard him saying things that I didn’t like,” she said, stiffening. “It’s one thing to let him run around on me, but this... I was just done.” “After all the cheating, what could he possibly have said that would make such a difference?” Her eyes darkened and she looked away. “He... he was talking shit about you. He was spreading lies, and I wasn’t going to stand by and let him.” I furrowed my brow and took a step closer. I hadn’t realized how far apart we were standing until now. We’d practically been shouting at one another in the middle of my yard. She still didn’t look at me as I reached out and put my hand on her arm, squeezing just above her elbow. “What... what was he saying?” “He was talking to Matt...”

Oh god. “...who was saying that he’d made out with you, and you’d let him touch you...” The party. “... and Puck laughed, and said that Mike Chang had gotten further than just touching...” No. No, no, no. “...and that one of the freshman Cheerios on the squad had kissed you too. They were talking about the end of summer party. I knew it couldn’t be true, because you would never have done any of that garbage. And you hadn’t even heard about that party before I talked to you.” She finally turned her head to look at me and her face dropped. My look of terror must have been as transparent as it felt, because her eyes went wide and she took a tiny step backward. “Please tell me it isn’t true,” she whispered. I couldn’t breathe. The air hitched in my lungs and when I opened my mouth all I could do was croak feebly. “San, I... I...” “Oh my god,” she breathed, her lips quivering. “B, what did you do?” Every ounce of shame that I’d been feeling rushed out from the back of my mind, like a dam bursting behind my eyes. My knees went weak and I trembled. I could have dealt with what I’d done in silence, but hearing it out loud, and from Santana’s lips, made me question everything I thought I could handle. If I told her about the party, I’d have to tell her about Karofsky, and the pills, and drowning. I’d lose any sense of control I had left in my life. My heart pounded unrelentingly in my ears, so loud I thought I would have to scream to hear myself over the noise. I couldn’t think. I needed to be home, I needed a handful of pills to calm down. I needed to be out from under the heartbroken gaze of Santana, who remained silent before me while I panicked. “I- I- I just needed... I needed to know. I was confused, and things didn’t make sense-” “You’re not making sense, Britt,” she whispered, unmoving. “Calm down and tell me what the hell happened.” “I- I- It was nothing, I swear,” I stuttered. “Mike goes to my dance studio, he told me about the party. I went, I got a little drunk. I didn’t mean to, I’d been drinking. I swear, nothing happened with Matt or that girl. I was drunk.” There wasn’t anything that I could say about Mike that she would like, so I said nothing.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” she asked bitterly. “All that work, and you just destroyed it. Your reputation is shattered. I broke up with Puck because I thought he was lying, and here I find that you were the one who lied to me. You weren’t sick when I called you that weekend. You were fucking hungover. Did you have someone in your bed when I called you?” I suddenly realized that this was no longer about me, and as panicked as I’d been the moment before, my mood suddenly turned angry. “So what if I did, San?” I questioned furiously. “Jealous? I don’t owe you any explanation for who I might be sleeping with. You don’t get to be jealous. You can either have me, or let me live my life. If I want to sleep around, I’ll fucking well do it. Yeah, I made out with Matt and that girl. So fucking what? It’s none of your goddamn business. I-” “It is my goddamn business!” she interrupted, grabbing my forearm and pulling me closer to her. “I worked too hard for you to-” “No,” I yelled, interjecting and ripping my arm away. “You can’t have me both ways. I’m not going to stop what I’m doing just because it makes you uncomfortable. You know what else? I let Mike Chang fuck me in that dance studio. He wasn’t half bad, for a kid with zero game.” I was just trying to get a rise out of her, and it worked. Her face turned a deep shade of red as she balled up her fists and huffed angrily. “So, what, you’re a slut now?” she asked, looking me up and down with disgust. “Spreading your legs for every jock in school? It’s one thing to have a boyfriend and put out for him, Brittany. That’s what happened with Puck. It’s another thing entirely to become the class whore. What happened to Karofsky? You get bored after sleeping with him?” “Jesus Christ, Santana,” I spat. “You think I wanted to have sex with him? He’s a monster.” “What are you saying?” she asked, her face still red, but her hands relaxing. “I don’t understand what that means.” “Nothing,” I corrected, my anger now mixing with frustration and confusion. “Forget it.” “Tell me,” she demanded, stepping closer again, but without the anger in her voice. “Britt, did he rape you?” “No!” I shouted; I hadn’t wanted to tell her about it this way. “Yes! ...I don’t know. Maybe. All I know is that I never told him no, but I certainly didn’t tell him yes, either.” Her entire face softened into an inexplicable expression, somewhere between confusion and despair. “You told me you slept with him.” “The circumstances weren’t exactly clear,” I replied, wringing my hands. “Let’s go inside, I don’t want my neighbors listening to us. They already know more about me than I’d like them to.”

I spun and pushed my front door open, and she followed silently. I took the steps up to my bedroom two at a time, and when I’d set my bag down on the floor, I turned to see Santana shut the door and press her forehead to the door jam. “I need to know,” she said to the wood. “I need you to tell me how it happened. I need to know so I know exactly how long I have to torture him before he dies.” There wasn’t a hint of humor in her voice, and it terrified me. “San, please,” I begged. “It’s not like that. I just... I wasn’t all there, you know? We were in his car. He was upset because you’d been with Puck a while and I wasn’t so willing to go that far yet... it just happened. He was on top of me and then...” “And then?” she asked incredulously, turning to me, her eyes full of tears. “And then? That’s it, B? That’s not what it’s supposed to be like. Your first time isn’t supposed to be with a monster who falls on top of you in the back of a Honda.” “He wasn’t my first,” I corrected her. “You were. And I could have stopped him. I should have. But I was confused. I told you, I wasn’t all there.” “You know what I meant,” she said softly, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “And it doesn’t make a difference. I’m still going to kill him.” “Don’t,” I sigh. “Just be here now, okay? I need you now. I need you to stop being angry with me for getting drunk and being stupid when I was trying to deal with something that I didn’t know how to handle. Just... just be my best friend for a minute.” She wrapped her arms around me and didn’t let go. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled into my shoulder. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. I spent so much time worrying about keeping us on top and not enough time keeping you safe.” “You’re never going to stop trying to protect me, are you?” I asked with a sad laugh, holding close to me and feeling the comforting thump of her heart against my chest. “Never,” she replied. “You’re stuck with me.” I kissed her neck and breathed in the healing scent of her for a moment. She kissed me back, her teeth playfully nipping at my throat, but then she retracted and immediately replaced them with her lips. “San, will you stay tonight?” I asked, my arms clinging hopefully. “Of course,” she replied immediately. She slipped her hand up around my wrist and laced her fingers through mine, and led me over to my bed. She sat and pulled me, still standing, between

her legs. She smiled up at me as she lifted my shirt slowly, kissing up my abdomen as she pushed the fabric over my head. “San, wait...” I started, too exhausted to fully object, but she put her finger over my lips. “Shh,” she commanded gently. “I just want to take care of you, okay? Nothing funny. I promise.” I nodded and she reached around my back to unzip the Cheerio’s skirt, sliding it over my hips. I stood above her in just my underwear and she smiled up at me. “You really are beautiful, you know,” she whispered. “The most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. Don’t let anyone tell you different.” She kissed my stomach again and stood, her hands on my waist, turning both of us and pushing me down on the bed. She crawled up on the bed, kneeling behind me and working her fingers deep into the knots on my shoulders. I moaned softly as she kneaded them, her thumbs running in slow circles. I let my eyes close and my mind went blank for the first time in weeks, her hands working their magic on me, healing me. I started to list slightly to the right, my head aiming for my pillow, and she caught me, cradling me until I was on my side. She got up and the light went out in the room. I heard soft rustling behind me in the dark, and then silence. “San?” She crawled into the bed behind me, and slid the blanket over both of us. She pressed her bare body against mine, her arm wrapping around my abdomen and pulling my back into her chest. “I’m here,” she murmured into my ear. “You can sleep now.” And I did, without pills, for the first time in months.

12

Confession

The last thing I ever wanted was to be treated differently. Santana didn’t seem to get this memo, and from then on I was porcelain. She opened my doors for me, held my backpack, and carried my books. The rest of the Cheerios assumed I had a terminal illness when she barked ferociously at them for kneeling too hard on me in the pyramid. She escorted me to every class, a wary eye out for Karofsky, Matt and Mike. She diverted both of us any time we were in the same hallway, muttering expletives under her breath as we rerouted ourselves down a different hall or ducked into the girls’ bathroom. It seemed like she was shielding me from every football player in school with the vain hope that none of them knew what I’d done. The only one she didn’t flee from was Puck. I watched her when he walked by us in the hallway. He would still raise his chin and make suggestive comments to her, but she didn’t return the gesture. She remained stoic until he passed, rolling her eyes when she knew I was looking, and staring forlornly when she thought I wasn’t. I knew in the back of her mind she regretted letting him go, knowing that she’d broken up with him unnecessarily. I didn’t ask her if she missed him because of the power he brought her, or if she had genuinely enjoyed his company. Frankly, I didn’t want to know the answer. Whatever it was, she didn’t let me know if she resented me because of it. But as attached to my side as she was, we didn’t talk about what happened again. She substituted talking for proximity, and she started spending a few nights a week in my bed, sleeping with her arms wrapped tightly, possessively, around my waist. There was no sex, and the incomprehensible longing I felt for her touch drove me slightly mad for the first few nights she climbed under my blankets, naked and unashamed. During the few waking hours we had in between arriving home from school and falling asleep with our limbs intertwined, she she helped me with my homework and, occasionally, with whatever song we were working on in glee. She hated to admit it, but she enjoyed the singing and dancing as much as I did. It didn’t however, prevent her and Quinn from making various small attempts to derail both Mr. Shue and Rachel, per Sue’s instructions. I didn’t take much part in that. I was happy to dance in the background and enjoy a couple hours of singing while they plotted. I think she liked taking her frustration with her situation – with me, and with Puck – out on the diva and our instructor. I didn’t revel in it the way she did, and instead spent my energy investing myself in the music. The glee kids were, for all intents and purposes, the biggest losers in the school, but they were also the most genuine. No one ever held back, and the passion they had for performing was palpable. Despite Rachel’s generally obnoxious demeanor, she was the soul of the group. Her voice carried when others’ did not, and she led them when Mr. Shue lost control. Kurt and

Mercedes had teamed up early, establishing what Santana had dubbed a “fag and his hag” relationship. I thought that they played off each other in the same way that Santana and I did, backing and protecting each other when it counted. Everyone seemed to have a strength, and despite Finn’s horrible dancing, we came together as a group and blended our sound until it worked. I fell into a casual rapport with the glee kids. They seemed to like my loose-lipped comments on things going on around me, courtesy of a consistent two-pill high. With Santana around so much and her newly developed need to sleep naked in my bed, I needed a regimen that left me sufficiently addled. The rest of the group took me for a simpleton, and neither I nor Santana corrected them. It was easier to explain away my spacey nature with stupidity than with drugs. Ultimately, it was better to be an idiot savant than an addict. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when Kurt asked me for help on a dance unrelated to glee club, that I realized that I had inadvertently assimilated into the group without Santana and Quinn. It was as much a surprise to me as anyone, and I think Kurt was a little put off my shocked expression. “Should I take that as a ‘no’?” “Huh?” He had approached me after rehearsal, standing a lot like Santana did, with his hip cocked and his arms crossed over his chest. I hadn’t had anyone other than Santana ask me for anything before, so the request confused me. “It’s just that you’re the best dancer in glee,” he said, continuing without explaining again what exactly it was he wanted me to do. “And I’m working on something... specific. It’s not something for Mr. Shue, but I do a little of my own performing outside the group. It would be really nice if you could help me with the steps.” It took me a minute to process, and he patiently waited while my expression changed from surprise to confusion to realization and happiness. “Seriously? I thought all gay people knew how to dance. Those guys on Jersey Shore sure seem to, anyway.” He grinned. “Well, some of us need a little push in the right direction. I’m working on Beyoncé’s seminal classic, ‘Single Ladies’. I’d like to recreate the video with as much accuracy as possible.” It was a favorite of mine, and I knew the dance well. “Great!” I said cheerily. “I’ll tell Santana and we can-” “About that,” he interrupted, putting his hand up to stop me. “I think it would be best if Santana didn’t attend this particular event, if you don’t mind. It’s not that I dislike her... Well, yes, it’s that I dislike her. And she isn’t particularly fond me, either. You’re a sweet girl, Britt, but she’s not what I’d call friendly. I’ve heard enough gay jokes for one year.”

I looked over at Santana, who was waiting for me by the door. She pointed up to the clock, indicating that it was time to go, and gave Kurt a vicious glare. I turned back to him, and he rolled his eyes, running his index finger and thumb over the front of his hair to smooth it. He was right, I supposed. She hadn’t been very kind to anyone in the group thus far, and it showed as she stomped out of the choir room, throwing her hands up when I didn’t follow. “Okay,” I agreed, slightly forlorn. “I can meet Santana later, I guess.” “Fabulous,” he said, clapping his hands. “My place, tomorrow after glee. Tina will be joining us as well. We need a third to make it accurate.” Outside the school, Santana waited for me. “What did the little homo want?” she asked, venom on her tongue. “He wanted help with a project,” I replied, wincing at the slur. “Why do you hate him so much?” “What’s to like?” she laughed. “He’s a loser. A gay loser.” “San, stop,” I said firmly. “Don’t call him that. He can’t help-” “He can help it,” she cut me off. “He doesn’t have to be gay. And he can certainly stop acting so gay in public. No one needs to see that.” It was the first time she’d been short with me in weeks, and it caught me off guard. I thought that she was overreacting, but I kept my mouth shut about it. “I’m still going to help him,” I said slowly. “He asked, and no one’s ever asked me for help before. I want to.” “Sure, B,” she said nonchalantly, relaxing a bit when she realized how harsh her voice had sounded. “I was thinking about going over to Puck’s, anyway.” That, more than her unexpected homophobia, surprised me. “Wait, I thought you broke up with him?” She shrugged. “Yeah, so? We’ve been hanging out.” “Hanging out?” “We get down a little. Just because we’re having sex, it doesn’t mean we’re dating. You said it yourself, I get cranky when I don’t get laid.” I didn’t bring up the fact that she was cranky anyway, or that she’d had ample opportunity with me, and sighed. From the way she’d been looking at him, I should have suspected she’d go back to him eventually. The one facet of Santana’s personality that she never could hide was her unending need for attention and recognition from her peers and betters. She followed Quinn around because Quinn was more popular than she was. She dated Puck because he was the hottest guy in school. She couldn’t have cared less about the glee kids, because they couldn’t get

her anything she didn’t already have. In fact, they could probably take more from her than they could give. It made sense that she would distance herself, and be angry with me for getting close to them. I didn’t like the correlation, but she was my best friend. And what are best friends for, if not a little understanding? She didn’t say much else to me that night at my house. We did our homework in silence. I snuck off to my bathroom to take two more pills before she crawled into bed with me, her warm body pressing against my back. She held me in the dark for a few minutes before speaking. “You should help him,” she whispered, her chin on my shoulder. “Kurt. Lord knows he could use a few dancing pointers. I just... I’m your friend, B. Those kids don’t know you like I know you. Just be careful what you say to them, okay?” In my haze I didn’t quite understand why she assumed everyone was out to get us, but I nodded. “Okay, San.” She nuzzled her face into my hair and then used the hand not wrapped around my waist to pull it away from my neck. She leaned in and kissed it, biting gently and sighing. “Goodnight, babe.” I thought back to the first night she had stayed with me, and the deep, unaided sleep I had experienced. Then I compared it to the deadened, dreamless repose I had with pills I was forced to take every night thereafter, just to get to sleep. Leading up to that point I’d been erratic with my medication. If I didn’t see Santana, I could get through the day on one or two, but the longer she was around, the more I felt the need to be numb. Feeling was too much when she stood next to me, the back of her hand casually rubbing against mine. She hadn’t noticed my unpredictable behavior because she was admittedly distracted with her own problems. Once she’d recognized that I needed her, though, her attentions returned to me in force. Jumping from one pill a day to four was no longer an option. I’d found a steady rhythm with two pills in the morning, at lunch, and before bed, returning me to a state similar to the one I’d been in when I’d first been stabilized on the pills at the age of twelve. It was enough to get me through her pinky-holding, or when she linked her arm through mine, or when she leaned against me in class. Especially when she stripped down in my room, draping her Cheerios uniform over the foot board, and walked around the side of my bed to crawl up behind me, naked, to sleep. There, in my bed that night, I didn’t feel the soft bites on my neck. I didn’t feel her breasts on my back or the heat of her breath on my throat. I felt nothing, and it was a blessing. “Goodnight,” I whispered. The next afternoon I spent two hours in the sterile white basement of Kurt’s house, teaching him and Tina the steps to the dance. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking about the conversation I’d had with Santana before glee, when she repeated her desire to spend her afternoon alone with Puck. “He’s been asking me for a week to come over,” she’d said, filing her nails while we waited for Mr. Shue to arrive. “You’re going to teach the gay kid how to dance. What’s the big deal?”

The idea of her in his bed while I was here, dancing in a black unitard, made me nauseous. But I’d promised Kurt, and I despite the knot in my stomach, I found myself enjoying spending time with the two of them. It was, for lack of a better word, easy. I could feel with them, rejoin my head with my body and exist as a normal person. “No, Kurt, it’s hip-hip-hand, not hand-hip-hip,” I said with a giggle as he pointed to his ring finger out sync with me and Tina. “Hip-hip-hand, tap-the-heel, wave. Here, watch.” I demonstrated once more, for the third time in a hour, as “Single Ladies” played in the background. He mimicked my motions, watching my feet and hands, a fraction of a second behind me. He lifted his foot to tap his heel and promptly tripped himself, falling to the floor in a heap. Tina snorted and paused the music, and we both helped him to his feet. “This is more difficult than I originally thought,” he muttered, dusting off his sequined vest and checking his matching gloves for debris. “It’s a complicated routine. If you can get it, it should be easy for me.” “K-K-Kurt...” Tina warned, as she watched my face fall at the back-handed compliment. I was sure we’d gotten past that, at this point, but I tried to remember that this was Kurt, and he had a habit of saying things that were true without thinking about the way in which he delivered that truth. Kurt realized his quick tongue had hurt me a moment later, and he snapped his mouth shut, wincing. “God, Britt, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I just-” “It’s okay,” I said with a sigh. “I know I’m not... I understand. But I like to dance. It’s the one thing I’m good at. And I can help you be good at it, too, if you’d just relax and stop kicking your legs like a Rockette. This is Beyoncé, not Broadway.” He smirked and nodded. “You’re right. Let’s take it from the top. And this time, we’ll start the tape.” By the end of a third hour in the Hummel’s basement, we nearly had it down. He’d begun recording the whole thing, but for what reason I didn’t bother to ask. He wasn’t going to be entering “So You Think You Can Dance” any time soon, but I think he enjoyed having evidence of his talent around him, and on hand to share with others. He was a lot like Rachel in that way. We’d just begun our final run-through, Tina and I in the background while Kurt rocked the dance out front in his own special way, when the music cut out unexpectedly from behind us. Kurt whirled faster than I’d ever previously seen him move, his eyes wide. His dad stood by the speaker, his worn baseball hat shielding skeptical eyes. I looked down at his feet and wondered if Kurt would have allowed Burt in with his dirty, scuffed boots if he’d been able to stop him from entering before he muddied up the pristine white room. “Dad,” he said, trying to hide the embarrassment and shock on his face. “You’re home early.”

“‘Deadliest Catch’ is on,” Burt grunted, looking back and forth between Tina and I, then to Kurt in his skintight black ensemble. “What are you wearing?” “It’s a unitard,” he replied quickly, out of breath and sounding slightly panicked. “Guys wear them to, uh, workout nowadays. Do sports. They wick sweat from the body.” Mr. Hummel took a few steps closer to his son, and reached out to slip his finger under the elastic neck of Kurt’s spandex, allowing it to snap back against his skin. The sound rang out in the concrete room, and I winced, putting my arms across my chest defensively. “F-F-Football!” Tina tossed out helpfully with a big smile, like she had said something extremely relevant. Kurt looked at her, the surprise only heightening on his face. “Yeah, all the guys in football wear them. They’re jock chic.” He laughed nervously. I watched the looks Mr. Hummel gave his son, dressed like a sequined ballerina in his contemporarily decorated bedroom, and I came to the conclusion that he hadn’t seen much of Kurt this way before. I’d been under the impression that everyone knew Kurt was different. I only saw him in glee, but the way he reacted to his father’s presence in his room was palpably different than anything he’d ever done in the choir room. At school he was confident, and he knew exactly who he was. Here in the basement, the presence of his father had reversed his attitude in a matter of seconds. He was a child, cowering nervously in the face of an unknown force. He was hiding in his own home, in the way that I was hiding around everyone at school. It was painful to watch, so I did what I could to help, following Tina’s lead. “Totally,” I jumped in. “Kurt’s on the football team now. He’s the kicker, that’s the smallest guy on the field, right?” If Kurt had been nervous before, he was terrified now. He whipped his head around to stare at me in shock and I knew instantly that I should have kept my mouth shut. I thought it would make a difference, seeing how his father reacted to the news that his son was playing football, and not dancing to Top 40 in a sparkling vest and gloves. “Yeah,” he continued for me, his voice shaking. “Britt and Tina were just helping me with some... conditioning work.” “Hmm,” Mr. Hummel nodded, a small smile crawling across his face. “You know I played in J.C. Before I busted out my knee popping wheelies on my dirt bike.” Kurt giggled, playing with the tie around his neck like it was choking him. “Cool. I guess we’ll have something to talk about then.”

His father nodded, his eyes darkening slightly. “So, one of you two his girlfriend?” The question was directed at Tina and I, and I suddenly saw why Kurt was so anxious. He reached out and grabbed Tina around the waist, smacking her ass with his glove and pulling her closer. “But I’m not ready to be exclusive yet,” he smirked, and I rolled my eyes. As much as I understood what he was trying to hide from his father, I couldn’t help but laugh. Mr. Hummel looked back and forth between Kurt and Tina, nodding skeptically, but not questioning his son. After a minute he exhaled. “Yeah, just keep the music down. I can’t hear myself think up there.” He headed up the stairs and the three of us began to relax, but he stopped at the landing and turned to us again. “And Kurt? Be sure to get me a ticket to your first game.” When he was gone Kurt turned to me and angrily threw his hands in the air. “The football team, Britt? Really?! You couldn’t have just stayed quiet? Now he’s expecting to see me play, and there’s not a chance in hell that I’m going to be able to follow through.” Tina took a few steps backward and grabbed her bag, stuttering as she gestured toward the stairs. She didn’t like confrontation, and wasn’t prepared to deal with the shouting that was about to ensue. “I-I-I’m g-g-gonna go...” And she fled, leaving me alone with an irate Kurt. “I just-” I started, but he cut me off with a gloved hand. “I know you think you’re helping, but I can’t do what you’re suggesting. My dad is... my dad and I are very different. Telling him I’m on the football team was like telling him I’m dating Quinn Fabray.” I sighed and closed my eyes, trying to clear my head to say what I was thinking without screwing it up. “Kurt, I’m sorry. I thought I was helping. I know what you’re going through, this hiding that you’re doing. It’s hard to keep the lies straight. If you really want to keep up your lie at home, you can’t keep up like this without making some accommodations for your dad. Football will help. I’ll help, if you want. You already kick like a Rockette, remember? It’ll be okay.” His mouth was agape, but with a small smile creeping into the corners. “I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you speak, Britt,” he commented, correcting his smile and feigning an angry stare once more. “What makes you think you know anything about what I’m hiding?” I shrugged. I’d heard the slurs Santana had used for him, that poisonous tone she had when she dropped “faggot”, “homo”, and “gay” into sentences about Kurt. The reality of his situation was that he had friends at school who knew that he was gay, but everyone else had just assumed it to be true and he was okay with that. Here, in his own home, he was living that lie. We weren’t so different, he and I. “You’re two different people,” I said slowly, once again reaching for the clarity I needed to say what I was thinking. “In school, and here. That thing with your dad, that’s not how you are with us. I’ve never seen you so anxious. The Kurt Hummel I know wouldn’t have lied to his dad

about dating Tina. He would have commented on his dad’s out-of-date jeans and told him that his jacket needed to be dry cleaned. You’re hiding, Kurt. And it’s okay. I’m hiding, too.” Kurt took the tie from around his neck and tossed it in a chair as he sat down on the sofa against his wall. I sat down next to him, watching his expressions change from faux anger to silent resignation. He sighed, looking down at his hands. “You’re the last person I ever expected to be having this conversation with,” he murmured, inspecting his nails. “I’m not confused, you know. I know who I am. What I am. But I can’t bear the thought of disappointing my dad. I’m all he has, and if he knew I was... if he knew I was gay, he’d be devastated. We have nothing in common, but at least we have each other. I don’t want to lose that.” I smiled sadly at him, the sadness mostly for myself. He was right; he did have his father, despite their differences, and he had his friends who understood and loved him. What did I have? Santana, who treated me like porcelain and yet used me for sex, all while running back and forth to Puck when things got complicated. My mom, who worked too much and too hard, often leaving me alone in our house on the nights when Santana slept over. My little sister, who lived with our dad and his new wife in Akron. None of that felt like a comfort, especially when I was Half Out. And where Kurt had his certainty about who and what he was, I had confusion. And, most unfortunately, I also lacked the ability to articulate how confused I really was. “Britt?” “Yeah, Kurt.” “What are you hiding from?” I hadn’t even thought he would ask. I was just trying to be sympathetic, and here he was, actually curious about my life. Outside of my friendship with Santana, no one had ever asked me about myself before. I blinked at him, stumbling over my words, but grateful that I was finally getting an opportunity to say what I’d been thinking for as long as I could remember. “I don’t work the same way that everyone else does,” I started, wringing my hands and looking out the small window at the top of the wall behind the couch, which opened up even with the grass outside. “My brain doesn’t function properly. It hasn’t since I was a kid.” Kurt smiled and patted my hands comfortingly, but with mild condescension. “That’s not a surprise, darling.” “I’ve been on pills since I was twelve,” I continued, trying to explain that this wasn’t entirely about my malfunctioning brain. “Lithium, mostly, but they’ve changed things up over the years. And I’ve changed things up as well.” Kurt straightened and his eyes went a little wider as he understood what I was trying to say. “Wait, you’re... so you’re like, self-medicating? I never pictured you for a pill-popper, B. I might be impressed if I wasn’t concerned.”

“I have to,” I stated simply. “I can’t be around her if I can feel things.” “Be around who, Britt?” I sighed. “Santana.” His eyes bugged and he nodded knowingly. “My god, I feel like someone just gave me the answers to Cosmo’s sex quiz. This makes so much more sense. Absolutely brilliant.” I didn’t have his words, but I knew he understood. “When did you know?” I asked, still looking out that window. “When did you know you were... different?” He thought about it for a moment and wrapped his fingers gently around my palm. “I was probably seven. It was before my mom died, I know that. I knew I wasn’t like the other boys. I didn’t want to play sports or watch football with my dad. I wanted to have tea parties and wear clothes that didn’t have grass stains permanently embedded in the knees. I wanted to kiss Noah Puckerman every single time he punched me in the stomach on the playground. My opinion of him has since changed, but there was still that lingering notion that I wasn’t quite the same.” I nodded, switching my gaze to stare down at his hand on mine. “I’m different,” I concluded. “I’m different, like you’re different.” I was trying to find that word, the one he’d used to call himself. It hadn’t sounded so poisonous when Kurt had used it. Maybe if I tried again, I could say it, and it would mean something more. “So you’re...” “I think I’m gay,” I finished. The word clung to my tongue and lingered there. I could taste it rolling around in my mouth and I whispered it a few more times, acclimating myself to it. It felt real. Comfortable, even. “Gay.” “What does Santana have to say about this?” he asked softly, using his thumb like she did, rubbing the back of my hand. “Santana’s not gay,” I stated, but still questioned it silently. “She’s sleeping with Puck.” “But she spends all her time with you.” “She’s my best friend,” I countered, not sure if telling him about our nocturnal habits would be the best idea. “She protects me. It’s just sometimes...” I didn’t have the words anymore. “The people we’re closest to are the ones we’re the most afraid of hurting,” Kurt filled in. His voice was understanding, and I met his eyes. They were warm, and I smiled at him, realizing that I’d just said everything I’d been thinking and nothing had fallen apart. My life wasn’t different because I’d said out loud what I was feeling in the deepest bowels of my soul.

On the one hand, it was really quite liberating. On the other, I was suddenly terrified that I had just revealed something that, until now, had been kept in the strictest confidence. Santana would kill me if she found out. She’d even told me to be careful what I’d said to the glee kids. She didn’t trust them. But did I? “Please don’t tell anyone I-” “I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” he interjected with a smile, and I wrinkled my nose, confused. “But I just told I was-” “I was kidding, Britt,” he said with a little shake of his head. “No one will ever hear this from me.” He gave my hand a quick squeeze and stood. “It’s getting late. I’m already behind on my nightly moisturizing ritual. You should get home, before Santana gets jealous.” I let out a small snort, knowing that she was off with Puck at that moment, and being jealous of me sitting in Kurt Hummel’s basement was the farthest thing from her mind. But still I stood, gathered my Cheerios uniform and pulled on a pair of sweatpants from my duffel. I took off the heels I realized I was still wearing, and exchanged them for sandals. Kurt had already started his ritual by the time I was ready to leave, and he looked at me through his mirror while he wiped moisturizer across the bridge of his nose. “Thank you,” I said suddenly, watching him smile in return. “I had fun today.” I waved before I darted up the stairs, to walk the six blocks back to my house. Kurt and I didn’t exchange any sort of conversation for the next week, but his ‘Single Ladies’ dance went over well with the football team after he won their game using the moves I’d shown him. I cheered the loudest of anyone when he made the extra point kick on Friday night, and the boys hoisted a previously pariahed kid up on their shoulders. I watched Mr. Hummel in the stands, and I don’t think I’d ever seen a prouder man in my life. Monday afternoon Kurt cornered me before glee rehearsal, pulling me into an empty classroom. He was positively glowing. “Are you using a new product? You’re skin looks like a baby’s.” I asked absently running my index finger down his cheek. He reached up and took my hand and smiled. “I told him, Brittany. I told my dad.” I stared at him for a moment, trying to remember what it was that he would have told his father. It had been over a week since we’d spoken, after all, and I was Half Out. “I told him I’m gay,” he continued, ignoring the fact that I’d completely forgotten we’d spoken. “You made me think. I was hiding, and my father is the only person I have in my life who would care if I lived or died-”

“That’s not true,” I interrupted. “What about Mercedes? And me.” “The point is, Britt,” he went on, ignoring my question. “That I was hiding from the one person who was going to love me no matter what I told him. And I was doing it for selfish reasons. I told him I was gay and do you know what he did?” I shrugged. “Did he buy you a rainbow? I’d totally want a rainbow if I ever told anyone.” “He hugged me. He told me he loved me and he hugged me, and that was it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that kind of relief before. It’s amazing, Britt, knowing you’re not hiding anymore. I know you’re still struggling with this, but if you’re going to tell anyone, don’t you think Santana would be the one to tell? She can help you with your problems... both of them.” It was the first time anyone had told me the drugs were a problem, and I cocked my head, thinking about that. I hadn’t seen it as anything other than normal. I’d been on them so long that it just felt natural to be fuzzy around the edges. “I’m happy for you, Kurt,” I said, giving him a quick hug, but suddenly desperate to be away from him. “But I’m not ready yet.” I left him in the classroom and headed for glee, more unsure than ever.

13

Managing the Situation

Things are never just simple. There is no black and white in life, as much as we’d like there to be. There are some questions that don’t have answers. No matter how hard you look for them, you can’t produce concrete, incontrovertible solutions to certain problems. I’d like to imagine that these types of problems are the ones that people say make you stronger. That which doesn’t kill you, and all that. But I think there’s is a point at which you need to stop and wonder why there isn’t an answer. Maybe the lack of answer is, in itself, the solution. Or maybe you’re just as fucked as everyone else on the planet, and you need to learn to deal with your problems in silence. Kurt’s tenure as kicker on the football team had a larger effect on the glee club that I’d anticipated. The day after the team won their first (and only) game of the season, three new members came tramping into the choir room after school. Mike, Matt, and Puck wandered in with their hands shoved deeply in their pockets. I did my best not to groan, and immediately checked Santana for her reaction. Her eyes could have pierced body armor. She shook with a rage I hadn’t seen from her before, and she flicked her gaze back and forth between Matt and Mike, then Puck in turn. I put my hand around her forearm and squeezed discreetly. “Don’t,” I whispered. “Not now.” My hand on her arm calmed her, and she looked over at me, some of the anger dissipating from her eyes. “For you,” she affirmed. “Okay.” The rehearsal went as smoothly as could be expected with three new male voices. Everyone was surprised when Mike started to pop-and-lock in the middle of a song, but I just smiled, happy to be the only one to have known his secret. He and I hadn’t spoken since the party, and after rehearsal, he came up to me shyly, scratching the the back of his head as he stared at the ground. “Hey, Britt,” he said as I packed up my bag. Santana was on the other side of the room, conversing quietly with Quinn. “I just wanted to make sure that we were okay. We haven’t talked in a while, but... no hard feelings, right?” I smiled and opened my mouth to respond, but before I had a chance, Santana was in between us. “No,” she said, pressing her index finger into his sternum and digging in, making him wince. “You will absolutely not talk to her. I won’t have it.”

“Santana, don’t you think you’re overreac-” “I said no!” she shouted, her fingers snapping in front of his face, cutting him off mid-sentence. I took her elbow and pulled her gently away from him, glancing over my shoulder and mouthing ‘I’m sorry’ as I took her aside. “San, you said you wouldn't do this here,” I said, trying to calm her. “Besides, Mike isn’t the person you should to be angry at. He’s a nice guy. Please, don’t be cruel.” She narrowed her eyes and flicked them back and forth between me and Mike, who looked scared, his hands clutching his bag with white knuckles. “Are you sure?” she asked, still watching him. “I don’t want him around if you’re not comfortable.” “The only one who’s uncomfortable with him is you,” I said, smiling and squeezing her hand. “It happened once. Neither of us are holding on to it anymore. Can you let it go, too?” She sniffed and straightened, then marched back up to Mike, her neck craned to look the much taller boy in the eye. “Keep your hands to yourself, Chang,” she hissed. “And we won’t have a problem.” She walked away quickly, leaving me alone with him. “I’m sorry,” I told him as she went back to Quinn, who was standing, bewildered, a few feet away. “But I did tell you she wouldn’t be happy. Friends?” I extended my hand, and he took it after a moment, relaxing. “Just make sure she knows I’m not a threat, okay? I’d like to keep my balls.” I laughed and nodded. “I’d like you to keep them, too. Later, Mike.” I met her just outside the choir room door. She had calmed down significantly, but she was still wary. “You’re sure it’s okay?” “Yeah, San,” I sighed. “And please, don’t do that to Matt, too, okay? I don’t want the whole club thinking you’re on a rampage.” She nodded and took my backpack from me. “If you’re sure.” “I am.” It ended there, but I still caught her giving both boys dirty looks a few times, and she did everything in her power to keep either of them from being my partner in our dance routines. She otherwise kept her distance from anyone in the club, sticking to Sue’s directions and following Quinn’s lead. Quinn’s lead, though, was visibly faltering. We had both noticed the look of constant panic on her face, and the way she clung to Finn when they were in the same room. It wasn’t their usual

loving couple, mushy behavior. It was more desperate than that, like they both knew something awful was about to happen and they were holding onto each other as they waited to die. It wasn’t uncommon for Quinn to keep things from us, but when Puck blurted out her secret in the choir room in front of the entire glee club, both Santana and I were taken aback. “I can’t believe she didn’t tell me,” Santana muttered as we walked back to my house after rehearsal. “I’m supposed to be her best friend.” “I’m your best friend,” I corrected her, hurt. She smiled and linked her pinky with mine, swinging our arms together as we walked side by side. “Of course you are, B. And I’m your best friend. But Quinn considers me the closest person in her life. It doesn’t mean she’s mine. But I still thought she would have trusted me enough to talk to me about this. I mean, how do you go from president of the Celibacy Club to the pregnant high school stereotype? And with Finnocence? If that kid really knocked Quinn up I’m buying him a beer and a cigar. Damn, this is a shit show.” She said this as sincerely as she knew how, but I saw the corners of her mouth creeping up as we walked, our fingers still locked together. She was calculating just how long it would take for Coach Sylvester to find out about Quinn, and after that how long it would take her to become head cheerleader. It was what she’d always wanted: to be at the top. No matter how much she followed Quinn around, the resentment she exhibited behind her back was unavoidable proof that, in their relationship, trust and loyalty took a backseat to social acceptance. They were friends because they had to be. Quinn was the head cheerleader, and Santana was her second in command. The two most beautiful girls in school were required to like one another, and for no other reason than that, Santana has aligned herself with Quinn. Now, with Quinn’s social standing hanging in the balance, I could see the gears turning in her head. Calculating. It was a side of Santana that I hadn’t seen much of recently, but I guess old habits die hard. “We should talk to her,” I suggested when we dropped our bags on the floor in my bedroom. “She’s going to need someone to talk to, right?” She smirked to herself and stripped her Cheerio’s uniform from her body. It was taking less and less time between arriving home and this ritual of removing her uniform, draping it over the end of my bed, and sliding up next to me in her bra and panties to do homework. Homework, with a mixture of casual caresses and neck bites, of course. “If she didn’t tell us before, what makes you think she’ll want to talk to us now?” she asked as she sauntered around my room, nearly naked in a purple lace bra and matching panties. “If she wants to talk, the little slut can come talk to us.” I watched her bend over her bag, her ass in the air and her rounded hips bobbing slightly. I sighed, realizing I was staring, and turned my eyes back to my biology book. “Don’t you think that’s a little cruel, San? She didn’t do anything that either of us haven’t already done.”

“Yeah, she did,” she corrected, standing up with a notebook in her hand. “She was stupid about it. What moron doesn’t use protection when they have sex? Oh, right. The zealous Christian moron. Remember that day when Man-Hands came into Celibacy Club and used the word ‘contraception’? Quinn nearly had a coronary. Honestly, I’m just surprised this didn’t happen sooner.” There was a hint of pleasure in her voice as she crawled over my legs, which were outstretched on the bed in front of me, to get to her side. She settled in with her homework and wrapped one arm through mine. As much as I wanted to disagree with Santana about Quinn, there was this lingering, nagging question at the back of my mind. Hadn’t Quinn been the one to preach all along about waiting for marriage, saving yourself for someone you loved? Hadn’t she been the first to criticize Santana when she’d told her she’d slept with Puck? And now, here she was. Pregnant at 16 because she couldn’t live up to her own ridiculous standards. I thought back to when Santana and I had first joined forces with Quinn. Even as freshmen we were unstoppable. The Holy Trinity, they had called us after Quinn started the Celibacy Club. Santana had mocked the moniker, referring to us instead as the Unholy Trinity. I guess that turned out be a portent of things to come. I’d admired Quinn from the start. She seemed to have everything, and it came so easy. She held to her beliefs, and even if I didn’t agree with them, that in itself garnered her my respect. But after all that – the years of lectures and guilt – she had turned out to be the a hypocrite of monumental proportions. Even if Santana and I weren’t quite in agreement that Quinn deserved what she was getting, I had to admit that feeling sorry for her was difficult. “Maybe you’re right,” I muttered and went back to my book, scoffing. “Hypocrite.” “Damn right,” she answered, cuddling closer. I’d been moderately numb to her hand on my arm, but it was still difficult to concentrate with her fingers running up and down my wrist and her leg snaking around mine. I could feel only that tingling, half-asleep sensation with each stroke of her fingertips on my skin, and I swallowed hard, readjusting so we had less skin touching. She noticed the movement and sat up, looking at me oddly. “Are you okay?” she asked, staring at me sideways, my quilt covering her up to her hips, but baring her naked, smooth stomach and everything above it. “Did I say something?” I didn’t have a satisfactory answer that would allow either of us the peace of mind we both sorely needed. Nope, I’m great, San. It’s just that your fingers on my skin make my spine feel like it’s not really there.

I’m peachy, San, just thinking of all the times we’ve fucked in this bed and I was hoping maybe you’d stop fucking Puck when you keep coming back to me. Nothing wrong, San, I’m just not high enough to allow you to touch me. The clarity with which I thought these responses, and the heated emotion behind them – anger, resentment, bitter sadness – was overwhelming and for a moment I just looked at her. Internally I knew it wasn’t time to need more pills yet. I had a schedule, and I stuck to it because it worked. But here, when I needed it the most, it failed me. My mouth had been hanging open in disbelief at my own body’s failings and I closed it with a gulp. “I, uh... I’ll be right back.” I left her sitting in my bed, squinting after me as I darted, half naked, into my bathroom across the hall and slammed the door. I didn’t realize until after I’d taken a deep breath and stabilized myself on the edges of the cool porcelain sink that I’d probably make things worse by leaving than if I’d just made something up. I was panicking, losing my grip on the situation. But did I ever have a grip on it to begin with? I fumbled through the medicine cabinet above the sink, reading the labels and shoving them aside as I searched for something that could help me. I’d been going through pills too quickly, my prescriptions running out before I was due to refill them. I’d supplemented what my doctor gave me with the Valium from my mother’s underwear drawer, or the Xanax from my stepmother’s purse. Neither missed them, as they both only seemed to use them at irregular intervals and refilled when their supplies were low. If they had ever wondered what became of the missing pills, they never asked me about it. I went a little further, adding to my cache with bottles gotten from the college guy down the street, who thought I was cute and floated me a fistfull of Lithium when he was home from Ohio State on the weekends. The bottles had piled up, in one way or another, and now I searched through the empty containers for something – anything – to make the tingling up my arms stop. It was incessant, her fingers staying with me like ghosts long after she’d stopped touching me. I hated it, and loved it, but hated it more knowing I wanted her so badly and she was resisting with every fiber of her being. Or was she? Did she even care? Was she using me as a warm body while she was away from Puck? I hyperventilated as I pulled the last bottle off the shelf and, finding it empty, slammed my fist against the sink. I felt something pop and yelped, bringing the fist to my chest and cradling it like an infant. I collapsed next to the toilet as my knees buckled with the sudden jolt of pain. Between that, Santana waiting for me in my bed, and the empty cabinet above me, I bent over the bowl and vomited. “Britt?”

Santana knocked softly on the bathroom door and I groaned, dropping my forehead to the toilet seat with a thud and clutching my aching hand to my stomach. “Britt, are you okay?” I couldn’t answer without screaming every thought that had been rattling around in my mind, so I dropped my forehead against the seat once more, oddly at ease with the stars that appeared when I did so. “Brittany, if you don’t answer me, I’m coming in.” “Jesus, Santana, I’m sick,” I blurted, desperate to keep her from coming in and seeing the graveyard of dead prescription bottles all over my sink and floor. “Can’t I just be sick in peace? Go away and leave me alone.” There was silence on the other side of the door for a full minute before I heard her bare feet pad away on the hardwood. A few minutes after that my bedroom door closed gently, and I listened to the familiar sound of her shoes on my stairs. She galloped down them like a horse, clomping down in a quick, dance-like, one-two rhythm. The front door creaked open and closed, and she was gone. I lifted my head and looked about me. Half naked, surrounded by empty pill bottles, collapsed over a toilet with vomit in my hair. All that, and I’d just sent the one person who might have taken care of me home angry. “Shit.” * She greeted me the next morning in the courtyard of the school with a hug that made my skin crawl. I was still without medication, and by that point it had been almost 18 hours since my last dose. My hands were clammy and shaking, and I felt faint. It had taken every ounce of strength to pull myself out of bed and come in to school, and the last thing I could handle was her hand on the small of my back. “Hey,” she whispered into my ear, not yet noticing how I shook beneath her hands. “How’re you feeling?” “Better,” I lied. I was in no way better. Worse, in fact. Definitely worse. I felt sick, my stomach rippling itself in two as it screamed for sustenance in pill form. She pulled away, smiling at me affectionately with her palms wrapped around my upper arms. She wasn’t angry, as I’d previously thought, and it made me weaker. I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, not stand there and play nice. It would have been easier for her to have been pissed at me, knowing her anger would have kept her away until I had figured out what to do. I could have mustered up the energy to tell her to fuck off, but not to tell her I was sorry for sending her away.

“Listen, B, I-“ “San-“ I tried to interrupt her but she stopped me. “No, let me finish. I get why you sent me away. I don’t like being sick and having people dote on me like I’m an invalid, so I can’t expect you to always want me there when you’re not feeling well. So I respected your wishes and left. But there was more to it than that. You’ve never done that before.” “What, gotten sick?” She shook her head. “Snapped at me unprovoked. You scared me, B, and so I left.” “So I’m not allowed to have a bad day?” I felt that energy to be angry rising from my core and I wiped away the cold sweat that was developing on my temple. “That’s not what I mean,” she said calmly, staring at her feet. “I’m not blaming you. I’m just saying that you weren’t yourself, and I didn’t know what to do. I won’t let that happen again. Next time, I won’t leave you alone. Even if I can’t hold your hair back, I’m going to be there. You’re my best friend, and your mom isn’t always around. I have to take care of you. It’s my-“ “Your job,” I finished for her, suddenly tired again. “Yeah. I know... I’m sorry I snapped.” It was so hard to be angry when she did this. Her protective nature was so much more prevalent than the super bitch everyone else saw, and it often baffled me how they didn’t see her the way I did. It was lucky for me, I suppose, that they didn’t. Then everyone would have been in love with her. “Don’t apologize, I-“ she started, smiling and reaching her hand to my face to brush her thumb on my cheek, but stopped abruptly when she felt the heat rising off my skin. “B, you’re burning up!” I yanked my face away and pushed her hand back at her. “You probably shouldn’t touch me, then,” I grumbled, my skin burning hotter where her thumb had grazed me. “Don’t want to get you sick.” She started toward me, but I took a step back and looked at the ground with an intensity I didn’t know I had. She couldn't get closer; she couldn’t touch me again. I’d fall apart. People were beginning filter into the courtyard and she took another step forward and lowered her voice. “Brittany, you’re obviously really sick. Why are you even here?” Lunch, I thought. I just have to make it until lunch. I get two then. I can talk to mom between her shifts, maybe have her refill the bottle for me. It was easy to formulate the idea in my head. It was another thing entirely to enact it, considering Santana’s incredibly inopportune bout of concern. She had gotten closer now, her face inches from mine. She searched me, but I was too empty to reveal my secrets. I was too tired, and only that reflected back at her.

“I’m taking you to the nurse,” she said, grabbing my hand, the one I’d hit on the sink the night before. I cried out and pulled away, shrinking back in utter agony. Her skin on mine, the verylikely-broken bone in my hand, her deep concern for my well-being. It hurt too much. “I’m fine!” I shouted, righting myself and limping half-heartedly into the school. She made to follow me, but a crush of freshman girls stepped between us and I lost her in the fray. She was right, though. I needed the nurse. I went there first, weaving through the crowds, clutching the wrist of my injured hand to stabilize it. The elderly woman in white orthopedic shoes gently ran her fingers over the painful section on the side of my hand and clicked her tongue. Probably sprained, maybe fractured, but definitely not broken. It was enough, though, for her to wrap it tightly in an elastic bandage and hand me a white pill while she called my mother. When she was on the phone I laid back on the cot and let the painkiller kick in. My head went foggy first, and a few minutes later my hand felt blissfully numb. No more tingling. No more ghosts of fingers on my skin. Perfect nothingness. With my free hand I reached into my bag for my phone. I texted slowly, trying to hold the thing in one hand and use my thumb to type. I couldn’t think of anything to say. All that ended up on my screen was her phone number, and one word. sorry I hit send and laid the phone on my chest. I watched it rise and fall with my now-steady breathing, my drooping eyelids a side effect of the codeine in the painkiller. Five minutes that felt like hours passed before the phone vibrated softly against my sternum. don’t be sorry. we’ll talk tonight. love you, b. I let the phone fall against the bridge of my nose and it balanced there, the screen going dark after a minute and leaving me with the weight pressing down on my forehead. I closed my eyes and allowed the painkiller to take me over, and I floated above it for a while, outside myself. She still wanted to talk to me. She wasn’t angry. I’d yelled at her, snapped, and worse, I was lying. I was sick, mentally and physically, falling apart at the seams, and she still wanted to talk to me. My heart, if it hadn’t been straining so hard just to keep beating, would have skipped in that moment. At the same time, I thought back to what Kurt had said about the relief he felt when he’d told his dad. I remembered what he’d said about my problems... this problem I had. The pills. I was sick because of them, that much I’d gleaned. I’d been without them too long, and I wasn’t used to it. The problem, I reasoned, wasn’t that I was taking them to feel normal. It was that I felt abnormal when I wasn’t taking them. So the only logical solution was to keep taking them, and ensure that nights like the night before never happened again. If I could maintain my lifestyle, as it had been,

I could be around Santana without driving myself insane. I could laugh and crack jokes with the glee kids. I could survive. Mom picked me up an hour later, and the effects of the codeine were still fresh in my system. I felt groggy, a very different sensation than what I was used to. I didn’t hate it, if only because it was better than stomach-ripping, skin-burning, bone-rending agony. She was quiet in the car, looking at me every few minutes out of the corner of her eye while she drove. She appeared as tired as I felt, her bank blazer sitting stiffly around her shoulders. In the back seat hung the uniform for the cafe she would be waitressing at after her shift at the bank. It smelled of fryer grease and pickles, which used to be a comforting scent when I was a child. Now it reminded me of absence and loneliness. “Did you hurt your hand at Cheerio’s practice?” she asked softly when we’d pulled up to a red light. My temple was pressed against the cool glass window, and I nodded, the combination of sweat and skin making a squeaking noise as I moved. “Must have.” She pressed her lips together and looked at me again, harder this time. Like Santana had in the courtyard. Searching. “You’d tell me if there was something wrong, wouldn’t you, Britt? You seem so far away.” She put her hand on my knee and it was the first time she’d touched me in weeks. I barely saw her, let alone had the chance to talk to her or hug her. I’d had Santana, and Kurt for a little while. But my mother’s touch didn’t burn. It felt heavy, like guilt. Like longing and desperation. Hers or mine, I wasn’t quite sure. “I’m fine, mom,” I answered, closing my eyes and cracking the window, letting an icy blast of late-autumn air hit my cheeks to numb the lie. “I’m just tired. The nurse gave me a pain pill to help my hand.” Her fingers squeezed my leg in a way that she probably thought was comforting, but it only felt like dead weight. “Okay, baby girl. If you say so.” She pulled into the pharmacy parking lot and pulled up on the emergency brake between us. “What are we doing here?” “I saw your empty prescription,” she said flatly, stepping out of the car. “I got the doctor to call in a new one. I’ll be right back.” Whether she had seen one empty bottle or all of them, she never said, but she returned a few minutes later with a paper bag and tossed it into my lap as she started the car back up. I sat frozen with the bag resting on my thighs, my hands trembling as I forced myself to sit still. I would have ripped the bottle open with my teeth any other time, but the codeine-haze made it a little easier to resist. She dropped me off at the house, and immediately went back to work with a wave of her hand out the car window. I bolted -- or what could be described as bolted, given my state -- into the house and tore open the bag, dumping the bottle’s contents onto the kitchen counter. I reached for three, my fingers grabbing wildly, but as I brought my fist to my mouth I paused, thinking about what I’d told myself earlier.

Stay in control. Manage yourself, don’t medicate. Take what you need, not what you want. I had the painkiller already. I didn’t need three. What I needed was a steady, ready supply. I put two pills down and swallowed the one without water, then leaned against the kitchen wall. Exhaustion hit me faster than I’d expected. I took a deep breath and pulled myself back up, swiping the pills on the counter back into the bottle. I shoved it deep into my bag before limping to the couch and collapsing, the combination of drugs taking its toll. I shut my eyes and groaned as the room spun even behind dark lids, and curled into the ball I’d so desperately wanted to be in earlier that morning. When I opened my eyes again, Santana was sitting cross-legged at the other end of the sofa, a book open in her lap. She closed it when she saw me stir, and sat up straighter. “Now,” she said firmly. “Tell me how you really feel.” I stopped to assess myself before speaking. My hand still ached, but with the bandage it was stable, and not uncomfortable. I was no longer groggy, but I felt the familiar fuzz at the corner of my vision, so I was more at ease. I sat up, testing my strength, and found that I was more rested than before after what felt like a small coma rather than a nap. “I’m... I’m okay,” I started, realizing that my tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth. “Thirsty. But better.” She stood and pressed her palm to my forehead. I nearly pulled away but the sensation of her hand on my skin didn’t burn, which allowed me to relax after the briefest of hesitations. “You’re not as warm as you were this morning,” she stated. “That’s an improvement.” She turned on her heel and left the living room, returning a minute later with a glass of water. “Drink this.” I did as I was told, not needing the command. She watched me as I swallowed and put the glass down on the table in front of me. “Thanks,” I said, wiping my mouth. “You’re welcome,” she responded, sitting down next to me once more and re-crossing her legs. “So, do you want to tell me what the hell happened this morning?” I’d assumed that she would be gentler about broaching the subject, given her concern for my health, but she hit me with it like a truck and I reeled for a moment. “San, I... uh...” She wasn’t angry. Her eyes weren’t narrowed like they got when she was mad, and her shoulders were slumped forward instead of back, like thet ought to have been if she was on the defensive. She was just... She was scared.

“How did you hurt your hand?” she asked without waiting for me to continue. “Why’d you get so angry when I tried to help? I don’t understand what I did to upset you.” She scooched forward on the couch and put her hand on my knee. I stared at it, then turned my attention to her face. Again, she searched me. I was beginning to hate that look, knowing that they might see through me if I wasn’t careful. I averted my eyes and looked at my hands, which were clasped tightly in my lap. “I know I’ve been hard on you,” she went on. “But we were doing so well. I thought we were okay. You need to tell me if I’ve done something, so I can change-“ “There’s nothing you need to change, San,” I cut her off, still studying my hands. “It’s me. I need to change. You’ve been perfect, and I’m not. This isn’t – wasn’t – your fault.” I couldn’t help but reach out, then, and put my hand on top of hers. She sounded so broken, like I felt, and I think we both needed the comfort of a best friend. “I still don’t understand,” she murmured, turning her hand over so she could wrap her fingers around mine. “What’s going on that you need to change? You’re being so cryptic. You used to tell me everything.” “We all have our secrets,” I replied, feeling her hand clutching me, but not really feeling it. “You’re just going to have to trust me on this one. I’m managing the situation. I need you to respect that.” “I trust you with my life, B,” she said without hesitating. “But I don’t know if I trust you with your own. I know you. You won’t ask for help if you need it.” She was probably right, but I knew better than to agree with her on that point. It would only make things worse. “I know what I can and can’t handle,” I said instead. “You don’t need to worry about me just yet. I’ll let you know if that changes. Until then, I think I need some space, San. You needed that from me once, and now I’m asking you for the same favor. I have to work out my issues without you trying to solve my problems for me. I can do this, I just need to do it without you standing over my shoulder.” She bent at her waist and pressed her forehead against the back of my hand, the one holding hers. “I’ll always worry. But I’ll do my best to give you the space you need. We’ll still see each other, at school and Cheerios and glee. But maybe I’ll start spending my nights at home. How does that sound?” I nodded, relieved that was being as receptive as she was. “That would be good, yeah.” She sat up and pulled me closer to her. I didn’t fight it. “Promise me one thing, though.” “Anything,” I replied as I leaned into her body, feeling the familiar warmth and weight of her arms holding me.

“Don’t ignore more. I need you, you know. No one else can stand me long enough to listen.” I laughed softly into her chest, taking in her scent and suddenly missing her, even though she was right there. “Stay tonight,” I begged. “I’ve had enough space today. We can start the rest tomorrow.” We made love that night, nearly silent as she took the lead and kissed her way across my skin, and for once when I burned there was no pain. She held me from behind, the way she did when we slept, her arm wrapped around my body with her fingers pressed deep inside me. Her mouth trailed up and down my back and shoulders, our height difference making it impossible for her to reach my neck while we were in that position. It didn’t matter. I quivered at every touch and she felt my orgasm up her arm as my muscles contracted violently around her fingers, and I gripped her wrist to push her into me deeper, harder. My hips bucked as she flipped me with startling ease and slipped her thighs around them, pinning me while her hands explored my neck, my collarbone, my shoulders, my breasts, and I was on fire for her just like the first time. I had to fight her to put my hands between her legs, both of us silently wishing the other would just submit, until I took both her wrists in my hands and looked up at her, where she still sat on my hips, whispering. “Please.” She panted, her hands in fists, and she gave in. I released her and made no move to get on top. Instead I ran my fingers up her thighs and slipped one hand between us, curving my index and middle fingers up into her. Her eyes went wide and her hips moved against my palm, riding me while I bent my digits inside her. She moaned and breathed in rhythm with her thrusts, and I felt my own lungs fall in sync with hers. She arched her spine and put her hands behind her on my knees, her head thrown back as se moved, her core pulsing, while my thumb worked against her clit. “Ohh…” One tortured syllable and her body quaked. She snapped forward and bent over me, grinding her hips down hard on my hand that I thought she’d break this one as well. Her palms found my breasts and she kneaded them mercilessly as she climaxed on me, and then went still. She kissed my temple and removed herself from my body, groaning as she walked awkwardly to retrieve her clothes. “Just like old times,” I noted affectionately, my edges still fuzzy as I watched her tie her shoes. “You’re out the door before I get a word in to stop you.” “You don’t want to stop me this time,” she replied, slinging her bag over her shoulder. “Remember?” I nodded. “Yeah. I remember.”

“See you at school, B,” she whispered, and with a sad smile she was gone. * Seeing her again was inevitable, but we both handled it gracefully. She was the consummate best friend around anyone who mattered, and kept her distance as I’d requested when no one else was watching. We followed Sue’s directives to the letter, becoming her go-to spies in glee once she ousted Quinn after discovering the pregnancy. In turn, Sue doted on us, and I felt oddly warmed by her attentions, even when they were negative. Her disappointment when we failed meant that she cared if we succeeded, which was more than I could say for my own parents. Even if her motives were selfish, some concern was better than none at all. Without Santana around, I had few obligations and fewer inhibitions. She had made me feel contained, and it had been both a luxury and a burden. The freedom of being unhindered left me with options I’d never before experienced. I went to parties unaccompanied, and always ended up once again mixing medication and alcohol. I left a trail of people in my wake. Boys, girls. Anyone within arms reach was fair game, and I quickly accrued the reputation for making out with anyone in school. A list began circulating of all the people I’d locked lips with, and soon it became too long, so they changed it to include only those people I hadn’t. It was much easier to keep track that way. I didn’t mind it, knowing everyone knew about my extracurricular activities, but it seemed to bother Santana who, despite her promise to give me space, was always in the background. “I know I’m supposed to be leaving you alone,” she said as we spent biology filing our nails. “But this thing you’re doing, the kissing list, is it really helping you?” “What do you mean?” “Is kissing all of these people helping you work out your issues? Or are you just doing it to show me you’ve moved on? Because I get it. You can stop now.” I had, in the back of my mind, always thought about her when I was with someone new. How does this girl compare? Where does this boy put his hands? Santana didn’t do that. But telling her that would have been torture for both of us. “It’s your life,” she shrugged, not nearly as aloof as she was trying to be. “But I’m just saying. It’s okay. You’ve made your point.” I didn’t know what point she was referring to, but I did start to think a little more carefully about how I was acting. It had been weeks since I’d asked her for space, and yet I’d done nothing to change my situation. I was surviving, living pill to pill, and nothing ever felt right. No amount of kissing was going to change that, despite all the people I’d tried it with. And so I found myself regulated once more, my scheduled dose increasing from two pills in the morning to three, and declining at night to one. Without Santana there, with her arms wrapped

tightly around me, I was able to sleep nearly unaided. I still worried about repeating the awful night that led to our parting, and so I further supplemented my stash with pills bought from the college guy. I’d purchased this time, using hoarded allowance money when the amount I requested from him was too much for him to just give away. I managed to get the price down even further by making out with him in the back of his car, which didn’t even feel wrong by the time I was done. Kissing didn’t mean anything anymore. By my own calculations, what I bought would last me through the end of the semester. I was pleased with myself, both for the math I’d done to arrive at my conclusion and the restraint I showed each time I told myself, “No, Brittany, just one.” As stable as I felt, I watched Santana deteriorate. Her fling with Puck continued in my absence, but when he began pursuing Rachel, she was left alone, and my limited involvement wasn’t able to help her the way that she needed. “I thought you were taking time to yourself,” she muttered when I asked her about him during second period. “I am,” I replied. “But you look so… angry, San. All the time. I’m worried.” “Don’t be,” she snarled back. “Trust me on this one, I’m managing the situation. She threw my words back in my face and I allowed her her anger. She had a point. We both needed to manage our problems. Glee became the only time I saw Santana when she was happy. Even though she never got the solo, her face lit up when we sang, and I wasn’t too far gone to notice. I watched in pained agony as she suffered through Puck serenading Rachel with Sweet Caroline, then the frustration of having to wheel herself around in a wheelchair as some off-the-cuff life lesson from Mr. Schue, and I ached for her. I tried telling myself that I could last a little longer, but I knew that, with my schedule back on track, there was no reason to stay away from her any longer. I reassured myself that Santana was the only stable force in my life. We had an understanding. Sex wasn’t dating. We’d make new arrangements. But I had to get her back first. Finding the right opportunity to bring her back into my life fell into the hands of fate when Mr. Schue assigned us a glee project: ballads. Santana picked my name from a hat full of the glee kids, and I knew that I’d found the perfect way to speak to her. We were to sing a ballad to one another, conveying the emotion that we were feeling for that person. It was the perfect assignment, and I prepared nervously for three days, choosing my song carefully and praying that I had the strength – no, the clarity – to get it right. “All right, guys, settle down,” Schue shouted over the din of the excited choir room. “It’s ballad day. I hope you’ve all come prepared.”

Santana sat next to me, as she always did in glee to keep up appearances, and wrung her hands. She was nervous. Neither of us had sung solo in front of the group before, and I felt as jittery as she looked. “It’s okay,” I whispered. “You can do this.” She bit her lip and didn’t look at me. “I’m glad you have confidence in me, because I’m about to choke, big time.” I didn’t know what she had planned, but I thought, maybe if I went first, she’d be more comfortable. Plus, I was too excited to get what I needed to say off my chest. I straightened my spine, shot my hand in the air and shouted over Schue, who was still lecturing about the power of a ballad. “Mr. Schue, can Santana and I go first?” The whole room turned to look at us, and Santana’s face burned bright red. “What are you doing?!” she hissed. “Trust me on this one,” I returned with a wink. “I’m managing the situation.” The dumbfounded expression on her face was priceless as I dragged her down to the front of the room and sat her on a chair. I was meant to sing to her, and I wanted to look her in the eye so she understood where I was coming from. I handed Brad the sheet music, shrugged off my heavy Cheerio’s jacket and took a deep breath, blinking a few times to clear my fuzzy edges. I separated my heart from my head To feel out what’s inside I don’t like what I see So I say goodnight My voice started shakily, my nerves getting the better of my as I stumbled over the first few lines, knowing that every lyric meant something to me – and hopefully to Santana. Don’t wake me ‘cause I’m dreaming in color Black and white is not my friend Candy coated figures hold me in my bed She sat up straighter in her chair, listening carefully to me. I stood in front of her, my back to the rest of the group, and it didn’t even matter that they were there. This was for her, and no one else existed. I’ve never been so deep inside a shadow I’ve never been so insecure of what I know I knelt to the cold tile floor, taking her hand in mine and pulling her to her feet. I swept her into a slow waltz, smiling at her as she stumbled over her feet and I corrected our course, dipping her low as I reached the chorus.

I’ve gotta figure it out I need a story to tell Where’s the feeling I long for? I’ve gotta figure it out Before I lose you, love Her eyes went wide as I lifted her back into a standing position and she darted them around the room, watching the rest of the glee kids as they watched us. I put my index finger to her chin to pull her attention back to me. Big city streets are calling me loud The busy keeps me high Well, this quiet town is wearing me down tonight She swallowed hard and I could see she was panicking. I let her go and she immediately sat back in the chair in the center of the room, still watching me intently with wide doe eyes. I know that I should stay here for a while Listen to the sound Of my shaky heart Looking for gold in the ground There was no sound from anywhere in the room except Brad’s piano and my voice carrying, now more confident and bolstered by a couple of pills, as I sang what I needed to sing. I’ve never been so deep inside a shadow I’ve never been so insecure of what I know I’ve gotta figure it out I need a story to tell Where’s the feeling I long for? I’ve gotta figure it out Before I lose you, love She was listening, I knew that much, but she kept flicking her eyes to the other ten people in the club, making tiny gestures to try and cut me off. I was pushing my limit, but I was so close to finished. It’s not okay to make you wait To make you wonder why I Can’t hold you close or give you hope That this will be all right I wanna make it right She froze, and then I knew she understood.

I’ve gotta figure it out I need a story to tell Where’s the feeling I long for? I’ve gotta figure it out Before I lose you, love The music came to a fading finish and I breathed deeply, gathering air back into my lungs. The group howled their applause and Santana narrowed her eyes. Not angrily, but suspicious. “Well?” I asked, knowing she knew what the question was. She stood with everyone still watching us, slowly moving closer, contemplating. I thought she might brush past me and just go back to her seat, but she threw her arms around my neck, and again the room erupted. “I’m glad you’re back,” she whispered. “This doesn’t change things, though. I love you. You’re my best friend. But I can’t give you more than that.” As much as I’d wanted to believe that she would have come around, I knew this response was the most I could have hoped for, and for that I was grateful. “I know,” I replied, letting the fuzzy edges return as the adrenaline slowed its course through my body. “I’ll take what I can get.”

14

The Things We Don’t Say

Santana didn’t sing her ballad. Instead, she took my pinky in hers and pulled me from the choir room, closing the door behind us. I expected to get yelled at for being so brazen, for jeopardizing our secret, or even for calling her “love” in my song. But when the door was closed and we were around the corner, she wrapped her arms once more around my neck, squeezing tighter than she had in the classroom. The hallway was empty, everyone having gone home for the day, and she was completely uninhibited, pressing her face into my neck. “You have no idea how long I’ve needed to do that,” she said after a few minutes of standing in silence, just hugging. “Jesus Christ, B. It’s been over a month.” “I’m sorry,” I replied. “No, I’m sorry,” she retorted, pushing me against the lockers at my back and looking me square in the eye. “I should have put a stop to this a week into your strike, but I wanted to respect your wishes. I let you go to those damn parties. I let that fucking kissing list start circulating. I could have stopped it.” “I needed those things to happen, San,” I murmured, looking at my shoes. “I needed you to leave me alone. If you hadn’t I might not be here right now.” Her eyes narrowed. “And what does that mean?” “I was just having a hard time,” I shrugged, trying to maintain my strength with her hands on my elbows, holding me. “With you, with school, with everything. I wanted something I couldn’t have and you being there all the time made it hurt worse.” “You’re going to have to stop with the cryptic bullshit, Britt,” she said, letting me go and putting her hands on her hips. “Because we talked about all of this a long time ago. You knew where I stood and I thought that we had an understanding. Now you’re telling me that I was hurting you by just being around? And what was that song all about? I’ve been really patient, but I need an explanation. I’ve always been honest with you. It’s not fair.” Fair. That was a laughable concept. “I’m over it, San. Can’t we just let it go now?” “No, I don’t think we can.” There really wasn’t another way around it. If I wanted her to keep talking to me, I needed an explanation. One that didn’t involve my use of excessive amounts of prescription medications, or the fact that my skin exploded every time she touched me. I needed a lie.

“I was having a hard figuring out how we worked together,” I said, letting out my breath slowly, taking pieces of everything I didn’t want to tell her and coming up with a suitable half-truth. “You and me, we’re not the same. You were in my bed every night and the next morning it was like nothing happened. I didn’t know how to do that. I got attached. But it’s okay now. I got a little taste of what the world outside our little universe is like. I’m okay. I understand how we can work. I figured it out.” She closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh. “I thought we’d been over that. I thought I was helping by staying with you at night, after Karofsky. Maybe I was being selfish. I liked it, too. Having someone to curl up next to.” “You have Puck,” I offered. “I have Puck for 15 minutes before he finishes,” she scoffed. “Then he asks me to make him a sandwich before handing me my panties and telling me to lock up on my way out. And that works for us. That’s how we work. That’s not what I wanted for you, though. You’re my best friend. But at the same time, I can’t give you everything you want… wanted. I’m just glad you understand now.” I didn’t understand, but I smiled unsurely at her anyway. All I really wanted was my friend back. I’d had enough of the parties, the kissing. As enjoyable as being my own person was, it was just as confusing being on the receiving end of so many propositions following the drastic turn in my reputation. Without the threat of Santana breathing down their necks, boys were approaching me. Girls watched me dance and sidled up to me, encouraged by a few shots of tequila. I was a commodity and I didn’t like the attention. I craved not their acceptance, but hers. Even if it came with a few caveats or conditions. “We’ll be okay, though, won’t we?” She nodded, returning my smile. “I think so.” She didn’t look any more convinced than I felt. “Come on, let’s get back before they start getting ideas.” She took my hand and I followed her back to the choir room, where she promptly dropped it before opening the door. Eleven pairs of eyes turned to us as we walked back in, and they studied us as we went to our usual places in the back, next to one another. “So you guys are done pretending you’re not fighting, right?” Mercedes asked, breaking the silence. “We’re not fighting,” Santana replied, a little too quickly. “Not anymore,” I corrected and gave her a small smile. “Well, thank god for that,” Quinn huffed. “I was getting really sick of listening to Santana complain about your kissing list, Britt. Maybe now you can take her off my hands.”

I turned to Santana and gave her a questioning stare, jerking my head toward Quinn, indicating the question without saying a word. You talked to her about me? She shrugged, rolling her eyes. I read the response as, She was around. “So, Santana,” Mr. Schue said from the front of the room. “How about that ballad?” She lifted her head in surprise and her mouth hung open for a moment before she shook her head and waved her hand. “Uh, no, it’s okay. It doesn’t really apply anymore. I mean, I had a song, right? But we were fighting, and now we’re not, so it doesn’t really-“ “Why don’t you come sing it anyway?” Schue interrupted her, that smirk he always carried plastered to his face. “I’m sure Brittany would like to hear it, after she sang for you.” She opened and closed her mouth a few times, gaping like a fish before she failed to come up with a valid excuse for turning that suggestion down. She stood up slowly, going down one step before turning back and taking my wrist, leading me to the chair where she had sat a few minutes before. I looked over at Schue, mouthing a silent “Thank you” while Santana stood next to the piano, her eyes shifting back and forth between two stacks of music. She bit her lip before handing one stack to Brad. He reached out to take it, but at the last minute she yanked back, placing the second stack in his hand instead. She put the unused music in her bag on the floor, while Brad and the band gathered what she’d given them. The pianist smiled with a nod as the guitar player picked out a few chords behind me. Santana moved to stand in front, her back to the group. She shuffled her feet, finding a comfortable stance while the opening notes introduced her song. I don’t know if I can yell any louder How many times have I kicked you out of here Or said something insulting She stood stiffly at first, shifting her weight from one foot to the other while she sang to the floor. I can be so mean when I wanna be I am capable of really anything I can cut you into pieces When my heart is Broken She looked up and her eyes were sad, staring at me like she felt ashamed. Her shoulders loosened and her lids fell shut as the band swelled into the chorus. Please don’t leave me Please don’t leave me I always say how I don’t need you But it’s always gonna come right back to this

Please don’t leave me I watched her hands curl into fists as she belted out the lyrics, and in that moment her voice fit the song better than any she’d ever sung before. She practically screamed over the top of the band, her eyes still squeezed shut, until the chorus eased out and a new verse began. She opened them slowly, and once again looked at me, apologetic. How did I become so obnoxious What is it with you that makes me act like this I’ve never been this nasty Can’t you tell that this is all just contest The one that wins will be the one that hits the hardest But baby I don’t mean it I mean it I promise She circled me the chair where I sat, serenading me with this song and begging me to take her back. I already had, and yet she was still singing it with the passion of someone who needed to plead for forgiveness. Please don’t leave me Please don’t leave me I always say how I don’t need you But it’s always gonna come right back to this Please don’t leave me She was beautiful, standing over me. It was rare that I had to look up to see her, but as she loomed, her voice echoed in the acoustics of the choir room her musical plea that I return to her continued. She seemed so vulnerable, and I wanted to reach out to her. Before I could she pulled away and stood up straight, throwing her head back for the bridge. I forgot to say out loud How beautiful you really are to me I can’t be without You’re my perfect little punching bag And I need you I’m sorry At the last line, “I’m sorry,” she met my gaze again. I’m pretty sure I was caught somewhere between adoration and awe bordering on hysterical tears, and it reflected in her face when she recognized it, smiling as she sang on. Please, please don’t leave me Baby please don’t leave me Please don’t leave me I always say how I don’t need you

But it’s always gonna come right back to this Please don’t leave me Baby, please, please don’t leave me I threw myself at her before the rest of the group even had a chance to start clapping, enveloping her in a hug that didn’t burn, but simply felt right. She’d been so concerned about failing before we’d stood up at the front. She’d been nervous, and I saw now that she’d wanted me back in her life as much as I wanted her. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t – or wouldn’t – reciprocate my feelings. All that mattered was that we were us again. As tortured as we both were, coming back together was easier than ever being apart. She hugged me back and I used my height difference to lift her a few inches off the ground. I watched over her shoulder as she kicked her feet up happily, and the glee club applauded us both. “You two gonna make out now or what?” Puck sat slouched in a chair in the second row, smirking facetiously and chomping loudly on a piece of gum. Santana suddenly felt like dead weight in my arms as she was no longer trying to hold herself up on my shoulders. I let her down and she turned angrily to Puck, who held his hands in the air defensively. “What’d I say?” “Fuck you, Puckerman,” Santana hissed. “I was planning on that for later, but if you’re up for it now, sure.” Puck smirked and San made a move to lunge at him. Mr. Schue got to his feet and stuck his hands between Puck and Santana, still clapping awkwardly, and ushering the two of us back our seats. “Great job, Santana. Very powerful. As happy as I am that you two have made up, we need to keep the language to a minimum here, okay? Now, who’s next?” The other took their turns, but neither of us were paying attention. She had draped her calves over my knees, sitting sideways in her chair while my fingers ran lightly up and down her shins. Studying the way her skin wrapped her muscles, flawless in their design, could have distracted me for days. She, for her part, pushed my bangs off my forehead, took my hair down from its ponytail and ran her fingers through it. “They’re going to think we’re a couple after that song,” I told her as we left rehearsal later, pinkies locked. “No, they won’t,” she replied firmly, as though her denying it would make it so. “We’re just going back to the way things were before.” “Sex isn’t dating,” I intoned, recalling every single time we’d said this phrase over the course of our relationship.

“Right,” she agreed. “Sex isn’t dating. And they can’t know about that.” We were both silent as we entered the parking lot, and she made to walk toward the new car her parents had gotten her after she’d passed her driver’s test. She stopped and turned when I didn’t follow her. “I keep forgetting,” she sighed, fingering the keys in her hand. “I went home alone every day for weeks. I got used to not having someone waiting for me.” “Maybe it’s a good thing,” I said softly, watching her hands fidgeting. “We both learned how to live without each other. I know it hurt for a while, but now… now it can be easy.” She smiled. “Easy. We do like that word, don’t we?” “You do,” I shrugged. “So I like it, too. Sometimes complicated is better, though. More interesting, for sure.” Santana looked back at her keys and turned them over in her hand, not arguing with me. She gestured to the red sports car parked a few spaces away. “So… do you wanna go for a ride?” “I thought you’d never ask,” I grinned and bolted for the car. “Shotgun!” She drove around without speaking, but there was a small smile on her face that let me know it was okay to be comfortable in the silence. The new car smell lingered around us, even with the windows down in the chill of the fall evening. We didn’t have a direction, per se, or a destination. For an hour we drove in circles around the Lima city limits before she unexpectedly diverted us onto I-75 and took it north, merging into rush hour traffic and turning the music on after rolling the windows up. She sang softly to herself, her iPod synced to the speakers so she knew what songs were up next on her playlist. Your baby blues So full of wonder Your curly Q’s Your contagious smile I watched her singing, thinking about her ballad again. It wasn’t exactly a ballad, but it had served its purpose. It had told a story, just like Schue had said it would, and our story was that Santana needed me as much as I needed her. It had been so long since I’d seen her like this: calm, comfortable, just relaxing. The scenery flew by quickly around us, and before I knew it I’d lost track of where we were. It didn’t seem to matter to either of us. “I like it when you sing,” I said absently, hearing the song change and listening as she shifted keys to mold her voice to the male lead on the vocals. “I liked it when you sang to me.” We expected something, something better than before

We expected something more Do you really think you can just put it in safe Behind a painting Lock it up and leave? Walk away now And you’re gonna start a war “Hm?” she asked, turning to me, her eyes heavy-lidded in her contentment, not hearing what I’d said in the midst of the song. “I like it when you sing,” I repeated, putting my hand on hers, which was resting on the shifter in the center console between us. “Your song today, it was beautiful. You should do it more often.” She blushed and slipped her hand out from under mine to take hold of the steering wheel. “I didn’t want to sing that to you,” she replied nervously. “I was hoping Schue would let me out of it, after… after what you sang.” “I’m glad he didn’t.” Her cheeks flushed pinker, her hands tightening on the wheel. “I meant it. Every word. I know what we have is… complicated. But I think we can make it easy, as long as we both understand one another. I didn’t understand where you were coming from, before. I hurt you, and I’m so sorry, B. But you’re the best thing in my life, no matter what. I know you’re going through something, and I want so much for you to trust me enough to tell me about it, but I-“ I cut her off, mid-sentence. “This isn’t about trust, San. I just… You’re right. This is complicated. And there are things I need to keep to myself, so I don’t rely on you for everything. You’re the strong one. I need to be strong sometimes, too.” “I know that, B, but I was just trying protect you.” I sighed and shook my head. “When are you going to learn? You can’t protect me from everything. Frankly, I’m not going to let you.” She sat up straighter and just nodded, falling silent again in thought. The song switched over once more, and she started humming, tapping her finger lightly on the leather of the wheel as she took an exit off the freeway and merging into a turning lane. She drove in a U to cross over the busy road we’d just been on, made another turn, and we were back on the freeway. This time we headed south, back to Lima. I don’t play well with the other kids They know that I’m dangerous It’s evident I’m different My punishment is imminent

“What was the other song you were going to sing?” I asked as we neared the Lima exit, the songs fading in and out on her iPod, and beginning to repeat after our long drive. It was pitch black, other than the occasional streetlight on the service drive above the freeway. The clock read 11:30, which meant we were both going to miss curfew. “Huh?” She seemed surprised by the question, more so than just me breaking the quiet in the cabin of the small car. “You had two songs ready for the ballad,” I told her, and she stiffened slightly. “You gave Brad one, but what was the other?” She shook her head slowly. “It doesn’t matter.” Santana didn’t want to tell me, and I didn’t want to force it from her. “Maybe one day you can sing it for me. When you want to.” She relaxed a bit and nodded. “Maybe I will.” Her car slowed to a stop outside my dark house, and she shifted into park, idling near the curb. I looked out the window, dreading going into my empty bedroom and sleeping there alone, after everything that happened that day. I had already missed my dose for the evening, and even so, it didn’t hurt so much, having her close. If being apart for a month had taught me anything, it was that I could survive without her, but with her, I was actually living. “Do you want me to come in?” she asked after a beat, when I didn’t immediately exit the car. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” Her shoulders slumped, her face resigned. “No, but I’ve missed you.” She said this like she wanted me to invite her. To make it okay for her to want to sleep in my bed with me, as though nothing had happened. I wanted it as much as she did, but neither of us could say that out loud without confronting the ever-present elephant. I reached out and, hesitantly, put my hand on her knee, testing the waters. Like a warning, I received a sharp shock of static when my fingers touched her skin that made both of us jump, and I pulled back quickly. “We can try again another time,” she sighed, running her hand over the area where I had shocked her. “It’s been a long day. We could both use some time. You know, to think.” “Right,” I agreed, tucking my hands inside the pockets of my Cheerios jacket. “Goodnight, Santana.” I moved to get out of the car and felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and she was there, nothing between us but the air escaping our lungs, having crawled over the center divider to perch on her knees on the seat I had just vacated. She pulled me back down by the lapel of my coat and pressed her soft lips to my cheek, her face lingering there after. Her breath was warm and thready in my ear. My heart leapt unexpectedly in my chest.

“I’m sorry,” she said again. “For everything.” She sat back in the driver’s seat as I straightened up, my knees wobbling beneath me. “I know,” I replied, and shut her passenger door behind me. I walked slowly up the driveway without turning back, listening to her pull away and turn the corner. “I know.” *** I was surprised to find the red sports car I’d spent so many hours in the night before sitting in my driveway the following morning. Santana was idling there when I opened my door to leave for school, and her face lit up as I climbed in the passenger side. “Morning, B,” she greeted, handing me a cup of coffee. I tasted it: skim milk and 3 sugars, just how I liked it. “Morning,” I replied, settling into the deep bucket of the car seat with a smile. “A girl could get used to this.” “I’ll be picking you up from now on,” she said firmly, as though I would argue with her. Walking a mile to school each morning was not what I’d consider a fun activity. Especially now that it was getting colder, and soon winter would set in, making it a trudge through two feet of snow, the result of secondary cold fronts from the lakes just north of Ohio. “You don’t need to convince me,” I responded, taking another sip of my coffee as she backed out of the driveway. We spent a week re-acclimating ourselves to one another, but it felt comfortable being back in the same room and not having to feign an interest in the other’s activities. I kept to my regimen, two in the morning, three at lunch, one at night, just to keep myself stable. Her pinky in mine no longer made my whole arm ache, and the cheek kisses, like the one she’d given me in the car, became regular occurrences – but always out of sight of prying eyes. She still dropped me off at my front door each night, kissed me goodbye in the driveway and then went home. As close as we were becoming, neither of us were prepared for what a sleepover would mean. It was two Fridays later when she and I felt mutually comfortable enough for her to come inside when we arrived at my house. Whether or not she would stay was something I’d neglected to ask, but just having her in my living room again was enough. The last time we’d met here, I was recovering from withdrawal symptoms, and telling her I didn’t want to see her for a while. Two months, and the same nervous energy from that day made my stomach shuffle uncomfortably. She sat next to me on the couch while we watched an ancient animated movie involving talking ducks, a small token of her gratitude at being allowed back in my home. Somewhere between the opening credits and the part where the littlest duck gets lost in the forest, she had leaned against

me, her head resting in the crook of my neck on my shoulder, with her arm linked through mine. Had it not been for the fact that that she’d actually lifted my arm to slide hers under it, I might not have noticed her shifting closer through the first fifteen minutes of the movie. I watched her as she tucked her legs up underneath her and pressed her side against mine. The too-long red sweatpants we’d been issued for the winter months of Cheerios practice bunched adorably around her bare feet, and she wrapped the excess fabric around them to keep against the cold. I relished in the fact that I remained Half Out, my vision still hazy around my edges and I was blissfully disinterested in the small brunette subtly wrapping herself around me. The movie was engaging, despite the fact that it was older than both of us put together and designed to entertain preschoolers. She knew my fascination with ducks and took full advantage, squirreling her way into my abdomen until her arms were wrapped around my ribcage, and her head was pressed just below my collarbone. There was no other comfortable way to sit than to wrap one arm around her shoulder, and allow her to continue her desperate burrowing. I felt her breathing slow against me, and the tight grip she had around my torso loosened as she fell lightly into sleep. I was afraid to move, fearing waking her, and disturbing this sense of utter peace that had settled over the room. The movie played quietly in the background, but I’d stopped paying attention. The warmth of her body radiated off her like a furnace, enveloping me in a cocoon as I absently stroked her bare upper arm where my hand had fallen. The room was still, with the exception of the soft humming from the television. We hadn’t bothered turning the lights on when we’d sat down, what with the afternoon light streaming through the open curtains of my front windows. But now the sun had set, and the only light came from the street lamp near the curb. Beside me, from the recesses of Santana’s backpack, came a harsh buzzing. I checked her carefully before moving, but she didn’t stir. Reaching into the bag I pulled out her phone, pressing my thumb to the keypad to unlock it. Puck’s name flashed brightly in the darkened room, with a short message below it. Let’s hook it up tonight I debated deleting it without telling her. I thought about texting back that she was sleeping, that we were really tired from all the sex we’d just had. I considered calling him and telling him to grow up, leave her alone if he wasn’t going to commit. But I also knew what would happen if she’d found out I’d done any of those things. We’d go back to our cold silence. That was a more unacceptable outcome than her leaving me there to go sleep with him. “San,” I whispered, laying my palm flat against her arm and shaking softly. “Mmmph,” she mumbled, pressing her face into my breast. “Puck is texting you.” I let out an involuntary shudder at her proximity. She heaved but didn’t sit up. “Tew hm t fuff umph.”

“What?” Another shudder as she mumbled once again, her fists balled up in the fabric of my shirt. “Tell him to fuck off,” she repeated, finally lifting her mouth away from my body. “I’m comfortable here.” I looked back at the phone and bit my lip. “Are you sure? He wants to hook up.” She snapped her head up and snatched the phone from my hand. “Gimme.” I watched her thumbs move furiously over the keys. She hit send with more anger than anyone ought to direct at a cell phone, and threw it back into her bag before returning to her spot beneath my arm. A minute later the phone buzzed again. “Goddamn it,” she hissed. “Ignore it.” But I couldn’t. It felt compulsory. I needed to know what he said to her that might make her jump up and leave. I grabbed the phone and read the message she had sent him first. Can’t i’m with B. Maybe tmrw. She lifted her head to see why I was fidgeting, and her eyes went wide when she noticed that I still had her phone in my hand. She made to lunge at me, trying to pull it out of my grasp, but I ducked away and read his reply. Tell me about your panties I fell backward onto the couch, suddenly finding the entire situation terribly funny. She threw herself on top of me, but I tucked the phone behind my back, between the couch cushions and myself. Her hands probed as deep as they could, grazing my sides and tickling me. I writhed underneath her, shrieking. “He wants to know about your panties, San!” I shouted, drowning out her angry pleas for her phone. “What should I tell him?” “Nothing!” she returned, her knees on either side of my waist, pinning me to the couch. “What the hell, B?! Give me my phone!” I twisted, fast and hard, so I was on my stomach and had better leverage to push her off and squirm away. I scrambled onto the floor and toward the kitchen, tapping out a new message as I went. Not wearing any “Sending!” I shouted from the next room, but she was already right behind me, her expression caught between anger and hysterical pride.

“What did you send to him?!” she shrieked, launching herself across the foyer and tackling me into the kitchen wall. “Brittany, I swear to god, I’ll-“ The phone buzzed in my hand and I spun so her chest was against my back. I hunched to protect my hold on the phone and scrolled to Puck’s newest message. You are smokin’ and when i think about you i get so hard “Oh my god!” I screeched and slapped her hands away as she reached around me to snatch at the phone. “Seriously, San? He must have the biggest cock in the world because these lines are so bad.” I used the strength I had that she did not to give her a soft hip check, and she stumbled backward. I darted back into the living room, shouting out my reply as I typed it. “Do you think i'm too hot? What do you think he’ll say to that, San?!” She came barreling around the corner, and the last thing I saw before I hit the ground was a flash of her growling smile and her ponytail whipping past my face when she threw me to the floor like a linebacker. We landed in the open space in front of the couch, on the carpet next to the coffee table. The breath escaped my lungs faster than I expected and I grunted as she straddled me again, her strong little hands trying to pry the phone out of mine. I laughed and gasped for air as she fought me, but I was bigger, and stronger. Her fingers were wrapped around my wrists and I yanked down hard, pulling her so she was flat on top of me, then rolled hard to the left. She yelped as our roles reversed and suddenly I had the upper hand. I scooted up her body, pinning her forearms under my knees so I could text without her swiping at me. She grunted and tried to pull her arms free, but I had her, and she wasn’t moving. “B, come on,” she whined. “Seriously, what are you telling him?” His next reply had come in while we were struggling, and I read it out loud to her. “You so hot and stuff and stuff. ‘And stuff and stuff’? What does this even mean? I know you think he’s a hottie, San, but really. This is just sad.” She rolled her eyes and went back to struggling against my legs. “We don’t do a lot of talking during,” she muttered. “Britt thinks im hot too,” I typed back, repeating it out loud as I did. Her eyes bugged wide and she flailed. “Brittany Susan Pierce, I’m going to break every one of your fingers so you can never text again if you don’t let me up right now!” i bet she does. what u 2 doin? i wanna watch.

“What do I tell him, San?” I asked, smirking down at her. My head was spinning with the rush of adrenaline and pills, and I teetered slightly. “Would you really want him watching us?” she retorted, her body limp under mine while her face remained intense. “Of course not.” “Maybe you tell him that then,” she murmured, lifting her hips and arching her back so her stomach ground into my pelvis. I sucked in my breath and watched her facial expression, trying to tell if she was teasing me or manipulating to get free and snatch the phone back. “You’re sexy when you’re on top.” Definitely teasing. “like we’d let u watch. gotta go, shes on top and i'm getting tired of it.” She ground her hips harder. “Does that mean you approve of the text?” She bit her lip. “The first half,” she replied, craning her neck to lift it off the ground, closing the distance between us by a few inches. “Where you shut him down and told him to fuck off, like I asked you to from the start. But I’m really not tired of you being on top. Though my hands are going a little numb.” I tossed her phone away and lifted my knees, releasing her. She made no move to overtake me, instead running her palms up my thighs and letting them come to rest on my hips. “I missed you. I missed this.” I snorted, still a little high from the last few minutes. “Only you would miss sex with me when you’re getting it on the regular from someone else.” She swatted my ass -- hard -- and pursed her lips. “I meant I missed being able to be around you without you jumping out of your skin,” she reprimanded, shaking her index finger at me and all. “Yeah, this is nice too, but when was the last time you let me touch you like this?” Her hands glided further up my torso, running up under the thin fabric of my t-shirt until her fingers grazed the undersides of my breasts. I let out a little gasp and arched my chest into her hands, forcing her to palm them roughly. She obliged, then wordlessly pushed my shirt over my head, pulling herself into a sitting position with me holding her hips between my knees and sitting on her thighs. She wrapped her warm arms around my waist and pressed her face into the crevice between my breasts, breathing in deeply and pausing there. Her fingers spidered up my spine to the clasp on my bra, which she snapped open. She pulled the lacey straps down over my arms without separating her cheek from my chest, then reached up and cupped one breast in each hand, lifting and squeezing as though they were her lifelines. I let out a quiet whimper and pulled

lightly at the back of her shirt, sliding it over her back and pulling it to her shoulders before she released me reluctantly and put her hands above her head. We came back together and she immediately returned her arms to my waist, looping them around me and locking her hand around her wrist at the small of my back. The skin-to-skin contact sent an overload of misfiring synapses to my brain and for a moment I malfunctioned, like a toy with dying batteries. I slumped into her, hunching my shoulders so that I could rest my forehead against her temple, breathing heavily and waiting for body to regain the use of my limbs. “Are you okay?” she mumbled, her voice muffled by the expanse of my body curved over hers. I didn’t have an answer for her. On the one hand, yes, I was better than okay. Ecstatic would have been a more appropriate emotion to describe what I was feeling. Elated, maybe. Euphoric, if you wanted to continue with the alliteration. It was impossible not to be, with her body wrapped so neatly up under mine and no pressure from either of us to continue removing our clothes. On the other hand, though, it was Santana, and I was high. I was feeling, at best, a fraction of the emotional and physical effects she was having on me. Considering my brief mental malfunction, the idea that there could more was terrifying, and yet I knew it was impossible to give myself over to her entirely when I was in that state. For that, I suppose, I should be grateful. “Mmm,” was the only response I could give. It wasn’t a lie, but rather a mumbled statement of contentment. “Brittany…” She pulled back and the absence of her body against mine left me cold. “We can stop.” I shook my head and cupped her chin in both hands, lifting her mouth to mine for a deep kiss. In that moment I thought back to that day on the trampoline, when we were thirteen and stupid and she had straddled me much like I was straddling her now. That first kiss was sweet, the kind of innocent show of affection that would normally have no consequence for young girls who don’t know how else to show their best friends that they love them. This kiss was the opposite of that; it was slow and deliberate, with the accompanying grinding of my pelvis against hers. It was meant to incite a thousand different feelings of confusion and passion and desperate heat between two people who were obviously more than just friends. It had its appropriate effect, and she moaned lightly into my mouth, her body returning to the groove she had etched for herself against me. Her hands explored further down my body, slipping down the back of my pants and gripping my ass firmly. She clung there as I ground down against her again, the heat from our cores pressed together with the restrictive fabric of our matching sweats separating us from what we both desperately wanted. She whimpered, her body shaking. I had been leaning on her too long, and she was holding both of us up with the strength of her taut torso. I bowed back, pulling her with me. I was sitting on her knees now, with her hands sliding out the back of my pants and coming to rest up at my sides. She placed her head on my bare chest, panting quietly with her eyes closed while I unfastened the clasp of her bra and

slipped it off her body. Her hot breath against my chest was calming, and I stopped -- if only for a moment -- so the two of us could hold each other in the darkened room and catch our breath. It had been too long, and it overwhelmed us both. I began moving again first, running the pads of my fingers down the vertebrae that protruded from her back. Her hands tightened on my sides in response and I carefully began pushing her, until she was once more on her back on the floor beneath me. I put my palms flat on either side of her head, sweeping my eyes over her features. Her hair, having fallen loose from its usual tight ponytail, fell across her eyes. I pushed it away, and got lost in the deep brown orbs looking back at me. They were so dark, her pupils were barely visible, which gave her a surreal, unintelligible quality. I couldn’t read them, especially now when she was doing her best to hide from me. The street lamp outside cast a stream of pale light into the room, streaking across the left half of her face. She tried to move into a shadow, but I put hand against the side of her head, wrapping my fingers around the back of her neck and holding her gently. “Don’t,” I said, my thumb running along her cheek. “I want to see you.” I bent low and pressed my mouth once again to hers. She parted her lips and let her tongue dance in and out as she reached between us and slid her down to the waist of my pants, fumbling absently with the knot while I kissed her, never releasing her head from my hand. She loosened the string and widened the band enough to slip her arm inside, her fingers tracing over the elastic on my panties. I arched my back to pull away, wanting to take things slow, but her palm landed flat on the small of my back and pushed my hips down onto her waiting hand. She kissed me harder, her teeth nipping at my lower lip while she ran her index and middle fingers over the wet patch between my legs. I panted hard into her mouth, trying not to buck into her, and used my free hand to scoop under her breast and squeeze. Softly at first, then rough, dragging my fingers over her nipple until she moaned. Her hand went slack in my pants and I took the opportunity to switch positions. I slipped my legs between hers, never breaking for air as I reached down with both hands and pulled her thighs up so her knees were bent. The pressure from my hips parted them, and she cradled my body with hers as I let my weight press down. I propped myself up with one elbow, while my other arm went to work on her nipple, pinching and caressing, making her yelp and moan alternately. It wasn’t until I began rocking my hips into hers that she finally pulled her lips free from mine and openly groaned. “Jesus Christ,” she hissed, both her hands pulling at the elastic band of my pants, pulling me harder into her as I rocked, mimicking the thrusting motion I’d seen the boys make. “Fuck… B…” I rolled slightly to the right, lifting my left hip off her pelvis and stealthily slipping my arm between us. Where she had fumbled with my knot, I untied her in moments, and my hand disappeared in the recesses of red fabric. The mound beneath the cotton panty she wore burned hotter than anything I’d felt before. Even with all those months of explosions when her skin touched mine, it couldn’t compare to this. I ran my fingers over the soaked-through fabric and she whined softly under me, trembling. I reached deeper and pressed the heel of my hand against the wet spot and she arched, gasping Her hands groped for something to hold on to. Her left latched onto my shoulder, while the right extended out behind her head and found the leg of the

coffee table. I curled two fingers and slipped the thin material between her legs aside, pushing the tips of those fingers against her slick center. She whimpered and tried to buck her hips into my hand to force me inside of her, but I pulled back, teasing. I snuck my thumb beneath the cotton barrier as well, running it against her swollen clit, and flicked. “Hnnnggg…” she moaned. “Oh god… please…” The hand that had once been on my shoulder found my wrist and she gripped me, tugging me closer to her, so her mouth was at my ear. “Please…” I’d been perfectly happy to continue as we had been, half clothed and progressing slowly, but her desperate plea in my ear changed my mind instantaneously. I pressed my lips to her neck and lifted myself up to kneel between her spread thighs, pulling the sweats over her hips. I sat on my heels and watched her, her chest heaving, making her perfect caramel-colored breasts rise and fall. “What are you waiting for?” she asked, a slight whine in her tone. “You’re beautiful,” I returned, not having anything else to say. She sat up, placing her elbows on her still-bent knees. She never broke eye contact with me as she reached to take my hands in hers, then placed a delicate kiss on the top of each. “One day,” she said, her voice a chaste whisper. “You’ll find someone who can give you everything you deserve. Until then, you have me.” I had no idea what she meant by that, nor did I have the capacity at that moment to infer anything from it. She was still nearly naked, still soaked through, still beautiful on the floor of my living room. She leaned her head backward and lengthened her body to press her lips to mine, pushing my hands back down to her panties. I pulled them off her, slipping them down over her smooth, perfect thighs before flinging them into a corner and returning my attentions to where they belonged. She laid back down, looping her fingers through the waist band of my pants and pulling me down with her. They were already loose from when she’d untied the knot earlier, so she pushed them over my hips and I kicked them off behind me as I pressed my breasts to hers and thrust my pelvis into her core. I smashed my right hand between us, grinding my fingers against her exterior. She was unhindered by clothing now, and I took advantage. My fingers plucked a symphony across her clit, dancing just around and barely grazing her while she writhed beneath me. I had never seen her face in the throes of it before, having spent the majority of this time with my head between her legs, but I found myself completely enthralled by the expressions that crossed her face, and how counter they were to the sounds she was making. Her eyes were pressed tight while I ground against her, the heel of one hand pressing hard against her forehead while the other scrambled to hold onto my back or arm. She was moaning like she was having the time of her life, but her face looked pained. I wondered if that was common, having never seen my own face during sex either. But it still concerned me, knowing that Santana wasn’t one to show weakness like that.

“Am I hurting you?” I murmured into her ear, kissing down her hairline to her neck. “You’re not hurting me enough,” she growled, bucking hard against my hand, begging. “Jesus, B, stop teasing…” I wasn’t convinced. She was still making that face, her brows furrowed and her lips parted in a way that didn’t mean, “I’m about to come.” “San, tell the truth,” I prodded, not letting up with my fingers, sliding them along the exterior of her blazing core. “Why are you fighting? You look like you’re in pain.” Her eyes snapped open and she grabbed the back of my neck, holding me with our foreheads pressed together, our eyes boring into one another’s. “Brittany, do you really want to talk about this now? Or do you want to make me scream. Because you’re teasing, and it’s so not fucking fair.” I hesitated for only a second before sliding two fingers into her. She gripped the back of my neck so hard that I thought she might draw blood from the nails she dug into my flesh, but it felt so good having her slick muscles clenching around my hand. Her back arched and cried out as I pushed deeper, burying my fingers to the last knuckle and scissoring them inside her. I pressed my own pelvis against the back of my hand, leveraging myself up on my knees so I could use them to thrust forward, pushing hips into hand, and hand in turn into Santana. She gasped and rode against my fingers, bucking hard and biting her lower lip a way that made my body quiver. My wrist became an extension of my pelvis, thrusting in and out in perfect sync while my fingers worked inside her and my thumb rubbed her clit fiercely. I bent over, still thrusting, and took each of her nipples in my mouth, one at a time, sucking while she pressed her hand to the back of my head, her fingers getting tangled up in my hair. She wrapped her legs around my back and began to assist in my thrusting, pulling me up and easing me down in time with my rhythm. “Don’t stop…” she murmured, and I heard that quiver in the back of her throat that told me she was close. I kissed across the top of her chest and over her collarbone before speaking into her neck. “I’ll never stop.” I had been trying hard to ignore the friction that had been building between my legs the entire time I was on top of Santana, but it was growing rapidly more difficult. I’d underestimated how arousing it was to be the instigator, to take the lead and do the work. I felt my own core pulsing against the back of my hand and I did what I could with each thrust into stroke my clit through my panties, which had the misfortune of still being on my body. I ground against my knuckles or wrist, sliding my body against them so the motion I was making with my hips was, ultimately, was small figure eight. I pressed my mouth to hers as I picked up my pace, my heart racing from the effort and from the sensation of her contracting muscles. I wanted to watch her face as she came. I wanted to see her

at her most vulnerable so that I knew what that kind of emotion from Santana felt like. I needed it, as much as she needed me in that moment. Most of all, I wanted us to climax together. Judging her reaction to my change of speed, and my own rapidly flushing cheeks, I was about to get my wish. My thumb flicked hard against her clit one final time and she screamed, her body bending upward at the middle, arching so high that I had to sit up on my knees to compensate. In doing so she squeezed her legs like a vice around my hips, forcing my center roughly toward hers. I struck it hard against my soaked hand, and my knees gave out. I moaned, watching in ecstasy as she flailed beneath me, writhing. It made my orgasm that much stronger, knowing I’d given her that, and I shuddered, my free hand gripping her thigh to keep myself steady. Her face, from what I remembered, had gone through three stages. The instant before her orgasm hit, she still looked pained, almost conflicted. When I’d struck her final chord and pushed her over the edge, her eyes had gone wide and her face slack, and the conflict became joy, with a smile the likes of which I hadn’t seen on her in ages. As her gyrations slowed and her climax subsided, her face slipped into a hard, protective façade that reminded me of the face she used when she was around her family. She hid things from them, mostly, and put up a front when they were around so they understood that she was fine, and didn’t need their help. That she used this face with me, after what we’d just done, broke my heart. “Brittany? Baby, are you home?” The front door creaked open, and before either of us had time to talk about what we’d done we were on our feet, scrambling for clothes and underwear. She darted through the back hall toward my room, and I followed in quick pursuit, calling over my shoulder to my newly-returned mother. “Yeah, mom! San’s here, we were just studying!” I made it into the bedroom and slammed the door before realizing I’d dropped half my clothes in the process. She was doubled over on the bed, rubbing between her legs as she laughed low, either at the ecstasy of a perfect orgasm or at the fact that my mother had nearly caught us fucking on the living room floor. I leapt into the bed next to her and slid my hand in next to hers, both to help and to get back to that perfect moment we’d had when I was inside her. She groaned and rolled over, burying her face in my shoulder. “I take I’m not leaving tonight,” she mumbled. I pulled my hand from between her thighs and she shuddered. “You really have the energy to move? Because between that and the mad dash to the bedroom, I think I could sleep for a year.” She slid her body against mine and I wrapped both my arms around her, pulling her into my chest. She didn’t say anything else for a while, just laid there. I let my head fall to the pillow

after a minute, relaxing when I realized that she wasn’t going anywhere. I was wired. I didn’t plan on sleeping, but I made Santana and myself comfortable anyway. “I missed you, B,” she murmured in the dark, sleep in her voice. “It wasn’t the same without you.” I ran my hand up and down her back comfortingly. “What wasn’t the same?” She tucked her head under my chin and yawned, slipping her leg in between my knees and curling herself around me. “Any of it.” I kissed the top of her head, feeling both secure and unraveled at the same time. I looked down, and the light from the street outside reflected off her open eyes. She wasn’t any more tired than I was. “I’m sorry I left.” She let out a long, shallow breath. “I’m sorry I let you go.” We didn’t need to say anything more. Between what had happened in the living room, both those many weeks before and that evening, we both had too much on our minds to really say it without screwing it up. So we lay there, our legs entangled, pretending to be okay.

15

Relief

Falling back into sync with someone after being apart lends to each party a certain set of expectations. You both want to return to when your relationship was happy or symbiotic, but you know that time or distance has made that impossible. You might not have changed, but the tone of the relationship has. It makes going back to the way things were… impractical. It would mean repeating the same mistakes a second time, and therefore repeating whatever had driven you apart in the first place. So, then, your expectations are these: both of you expect that the other will have modified their opinions, actions, or behavior in such a way that the relationship can continue unhindered. Whether either person meets these expectations is dependent upon their willingness to adapt in a new environment. Because, really, this relationship is distinctly separate from the one you had before. It might feel familiar, even comfortable, but the lapse between fighting and making up causes an uncrossable rift. You cannot go back. Only forward. Up until that night, whether Santana had modified her behavior hadn’t yet been seen, but I thought myself to be adapting nicely to the arrangement we’d fallen into. I thought that I could survive, having her around not being able to say what I wanted to say, as long as I realized that being without her meant being half alive. I’d felt that, in our month apart, and felt myself desperately trying to fill the void she’d left whenever I kissed someone new. Before that night, in the weeks leading back to our physical reconnection, I’d felt better simply being around her. She was still aloof at school, but kinder and slightly more accommodating to my need to be near her. She’d let me link my arm through hers in the hallways. She played with my hair during glee. She allowed me a sense of calm, knowing that these displays of affections were not going to upset her to the degree they had in the past. When we woke the following morning, her head was resting on the pillow next to mine, with her arm draped across my stomach and her body curled up into my side. My left arm was asleep, I realized, after having spent the night squashed between the bed and her ribcage. She was facing me with her mouth slightly open and her hair falling across the bridge of her nose. The muscles in her face slack until I reached out to brush the strand back behind her ear, and then they shifted into wakefulness. Her eyes opened slowly, blinking back the morning sunlight, and she smiled at me as she rolled over to stretch. Her legs extended out to pointed toes beneath my quilt, and I pulled my arm free to shake it back to life. The tingling that accompanied it brought back vivid memories of the last time we’d been together in my bed, and I shuddered.

“Cold?” she asked in a soft, sleep-filled murmur, and immediately slid her body over the top of mine, pressing me to the bed. She brought her lips down for a kiss, and I realized, somewhat sadly, that this was the first morning-after affection she’d ever given me. “Yeah,” I whispered into her mouth. “But not anymore. The opposite, actually.” The movement of her pelvis against mine sent my brain racing, and I knew that waking up next to her meant waking up sober. The tingling from my deadened arm had not dissipated, but rather spread up my shoulder and across my chest, making it difficult to breathe. She took my sharp panting as a sign that I wanted a second round, and she used her knee to part my thighs and lie between them. Her lips ran down my neck and I bit my tongue to keep from yelping at the agony of it all. My head was spinning, and not in the good, I’m-about-to-get-morning-sex kind of way. I felt sick, which was a new occurrence, considering that she’d never stayed this long following one of our trysts. I hadn’t experienced her so intimately, so close together. I wanted to be happy that she was so willing to stay through the night, and I wanted even more to be receptive to her advances. But the churning in my stomach made that all but impossible. “San, wait,” I began as she made her way down my throat and over my right shoulder. “My mom’s down the hall.” “Then we’ll just have to be quiet, won’t we?” she countered, cooing into the soft flesh of my breast. I took in a shaky gasp as her hands traveled south. We were both still naked, so she was completely unhindered by clothing and therefore quick to slide her index finger between my folds. At this I jumped, rolling her off me and sitting up, pulling my knees to my chest. Santana was visibly disappointed in my reaction, likewise sitting up and crossing her legs as she faced me, unaware or uncaring of the fact that she was entirely exposed. “After last night I thought…” she started, but trailed off. She hadn’t known what was going to happen any more than I had. “I just… I think slow is better,” I said softly, not wanting to hurt her. “I loved everything about last night, but this morning things look different.” She didn’t say anything, but mimicked my position and pulled her knees to her chest, suddenly bashful of her nakedness. I watched her bite her lower lip, deep in thought, like she was trying to find the right thing to say. I appreciated that, at least. “Why don’t you take a shower,” she said at last. “I’ll use your mom’s. We’ve done that before. Then we’ll get breakfast. Talk. Okay?” I couldn’t see a flaw in the plan; it felt innocuous enough. So I got up, wrapped the bed sheet around my torso and let it hang off my shoulders like a Grecian gown. “Okay,” I replied, looking down at her bare, beautiful body. “We’ll get breakfast.” I could feel her smiling at my back as I left the room. Shutting the door behind me, I released the breath I’d been holding for the last few minutes. My hands were shaking, and the nausea had not

yet subsided. Taking the few teetering steps to the bathroom, I snapped open my prescription bottle and tossed two pills down the back of my throat, sticking my hand under the cold water now running from the faucet and bringing it to my mouth. The cotton that had been on my tongue a moment before dissolved, and I let out a small sigh of relief. I could get through the day now. Breakfast went genially enough at first, the two of us riding in her car over to Denny’s during the Saturday late-morning rush. We talked, but not about what had happened the night before. It seemed that, once we’d both returned fully clothed to my bedroom, our showers had washed the remnants from both our bodies and our memories. I was more than Half In, flying nicely as we were seated in a far corner away from the blinding sunlight that came in through the plate glass windows. I made Santana read the menu to me, and insisted that I have a strawberry sundae as an appetizer. “They’re strawberries,” I’d said insistently. “It’s like, so healthy. Coach would be proud. Besides, the pancakes are full of carbs. We’ll get waffles instead.” She’d arched her eyebrow at me, a sure sign that something I’d said was wrong, but then smiled and nodded to the waitress. “Two strawberry sundaes to start,” she commanded. “And don’t skimp on the whipped cream.” Things were progressing according to plan. What plan, I’m not quite sure, but we were having fun. Making fun of the busboy that was in the AV club at school. Building towers out of waffles and strawberries using whipped cream as mortar. Indulging in a fourth cup of coffee (decaf for me) while waitress rolled her eyes and hovered, ready to clear our table for another, highertipping customer. We’d both just gotten a fifth refill when Santana stopped midway through her sentence. Her eyes were on the door, narrowed and angry. She had been in the middle of telling me about Coach Sylvester’s latest plot to destroy glee club, and I was disappointed not to hear the ending. I turned to look over my shoulder to see what could have distracted her, only to find Puck walking in, last night’s conquest hanging on his arm like a stray puppy while he rolled his eyes and got a table. He didn’t notice us sitting out of his line of vision, but Santana’s withering gaze followed him like a sniper’s, watching. “San?” I prompted, waiting for her to say something. I’d already forgotten what we had been talking about moments before, and it bothered me that I was sitting inside this dense cloud and she was too busy shooting death lasers from her eyes to guide me out of it. “Santana.” “In a second, B,” she waved me off, still staring at the conversation across the room. The girl was chatting enthusiastically while Puck tapped away at his phone. A moment later, Santana’s buzzed in her bag, and I sighed inwardly. She thrust her hand into the purse and fished the phone out.

“Tonight lookin any better to hook it up” She read it out loud to me, and I knew she thought I cared. After the night before, I would have thought the same thing. That morning, however, I couldn’t bring myself to want to hear about how she was going to jump into his bed 24 hours after having vacated mine. Santana was already texting back. After hitting send, we both turned to look at him. He glanced down at his lap, where he was conspicuously hiding his phone, and snorted. He picked it up and typed a message without trying to hide the fact that he wasn’t paying attention to what his date was saying. She was growing visibly annoyed with the distraction, but he ignored her and waved his index finger, the universal sign for, “Just a minute; something more important than you is happening right now.” Santana received his reply, and her cheeks went red. Her fingers curled into tight fists, her knuckles white with rage, and she let out an exasperated huff that was more like half a scream. She leapt to her feet and, leaving my sitting at the table agape, stormed across the restaurant with the fresh cup of coffee in her hand. I stood up to follow, but stopped halfway when she reached Puck’s table. He greeted her with a nervous smile, not moving to stand or make room for her. She didn’t say a word, simply up-ended the steaming mug into his lap and smirked at his high pitched wail. Over the din of the restaurant and Puck’s pained cries, I couldn’t hear what she said to the girl at the table, but after Santana was finished, the girl pressed her face into her hands and went running from the restaurant, sobbing. “Come on, B,” she said, her nose high in the air as she returned to where I was standing. “We’re leaving.” I followed her without questioning, and once we were in her car she let out a blood-curdling screech that left my ears ringing. “He was with Quinn!” she shouted, her face still flushed her fists pounding hard on the steering wheel. “San, that girl didn’t look anything like Quinn. Unless she got plastic surgery. And you’re always saying that she needs it, so I don’t see-“ “Last night,” she interrupted, letting her anger seep from every pore. “While he was sexting us. He was with Quinn Fucking Fabray, babysitting. What the fuck would prompt that? And why her of all people?! I get that she’s a Grade A tramp, now that Finnocence knocked her up, but don’t you think that’s a little cheap? Just because her man is going to spend the rest of his life working in Burt Hummel’s tire store, it doesn’t give her the right to go after mine.” Mine. She called Puck “mine”. I knew better than to complain outright, but the twisting in my stomach was nearly unbearable. He didn’t belong to her. He didn’t belong to anyone. It was Puck we were talking about. The self-described “sex shark”. The fact that she wanted to claim him for her own was laughable, at best. At worst, delusional. It came to my attention, and probably hers, even though she would deny it, that Puck was using both her and Quinn in turn. Using one to get

at the other. Not that I completely understood why Puck would want to go after Quinn in the first place, but I’d seen the way he looked at her. It was the same way I looked at Santana. Like something he couldn’t have. “He’s not your boyfriend, San,” I said calmly, trying to pretend I didn’t think the same things she was thinking every time she left to be with Puck. “You don’t own him.” “He doesn’t have to be my boyfriend,” she returned, jamming her keys into the ignition and twisting with all her might, turning the V8 engine over with a thundering rumble. “I have that boy’s virginity. I do own him. The surest way to get a guy to follow you around forever is to take his virginity.” I considered this carefully before coming to the conclusion that, by association, this meant that she owned me as well. And, somewhat ironically, I hated the thought of it. It was one thing to want her, or even need her, but to be owned by her? That wasn’t something I wanted. I didn’t think anybody could want something like that. “Let’s just go home, okay?” I suggested, wanting nothing more than to distract her, by any means necessary. I leaned across the center console, my hand on her thigh while my fingers crept strategically northward, and I brush my lips across her neck just below her ear. She shrugged me off so quickly that she nearly clocked me in the chin with her shoulder. “Jesus, B,” she hissed, whipping her head to and fro to check the area outside the car for witnesses. “We’re in public.” I sat back, crestfallen. “Oh,” I mumbled, knotting my fingers in my lap. “Sorry.” Santana closed her eyes, her mouth set in a tight line. She inhaled deep, through her nose, and parted her lips just so to force the air out through them slowly. “No,” she breathed. “It’s not your fault. It’s Puck. Bastard.” That was the end of the conversation. Neither of us had anything to add beyond her hushed expletive, so we fell into contemplative silence as she backed out of the parking space and drove the few miles back to my house with quiet resign. She didn’t pull into the driveway, as she had the night before when she’d planned on coming inside. Instead she slowed to a stop at the curb and shifted roughly into ‘park’. “Not coming in?” I asked, trying to hide my disappointment. “I don’t think so,” she replied, shaking her head and playing with the zipper on her Cheerios jacket. “I have a lot of homework. Math. You know.” “This isn’t about back at the restaurant, is it?” I knew it was more than that, but I asked anyway. She shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe. I just want to think. By myself. You get it.”

I did get it, so I didn’t fight her, even though I wanted to. I wanted to scream at her, dump hot coffee in her lap to get her attention, the way she’d gotten Puck’s. I wanted to drag her kicking and screaming from the car and pin her to the ground in the middle of the street until she bent, like I had bent so many times for her, and gave in to my will. Until she stopped this awful game. Until she loved me. Instead I just nodded. I put my hand on top of hers, where it had fallen on my knee, and squeezed. “She wasn’t nearly as hot as you,” I reassured her with a smile. She snorted, the dimples forming in her cheeks giving away her poorly hidden grin. “I know, right? Where’d he find her? Wal-Mart?” I nodded. “West Lima crack district, probably. Or worse. Cincinnati.” A pulsing, genuine laugh erupted from her diaphragm, her mouth open wide as her infectious smile spread across her face. “I’ll see you Monday,” she reminded me happily, the levity between us making it sound like a promise instead of a dismissal. “Bright and early.” “Bright and early,” I repeated with another nod. I pushed the heavy passenger door open and shut as I exited, striding up the walkway a few steps before I heard her calling behind me. “Hey, B?” I turned at the sound of her voice, and saw her leaning across the passenger seat to stick her head out the open window. “Thanks.” “You’re welcome,” I returned, although I didn’t know if she was thankful for cheering her up or for… well, everything else. I didn’t know that it mattered, either. *** On Monday, I didn’t hear about Santana’s talk with Quinn until after the fact, when Jacob Ben Israel tried to interview me just before lunch. I was so distracted by the way his hair bobbed when he moved that I didn’t even hear him ask the original question. “Huh?” “Do you have any comment on the fact that your two best friends had a verbal smack down in the hallway this morning after Quinn’s attempts to catch the attention of one Noah Puckerman on Friday night?” I’d assumed that Santana would talk to Quinn about hanging out with Puck, but I’d hoped she’d at least show the restraint to do it in private. Given her flair for the dramatic, though, I should have known better. There was nothing I could say that wouldn’t make the situation worse, without knowing exactly what had happened, so I did what I did best: played dumb.

I reached out, knocking his microphone out of the way, and patted the top of his head. His hair really was mesmerizing. “It feels like a brillo pad. You could get a job at Breadstix washing dishes. That’d be awesome.” He didn’t quite know what to say to that, so he ducked his head slowly out from underneath my wandering hand and back away, tucking the microphone protectively to his chest. When he and is cameraman lackey switched directions and disappeared into a crowd of students mingling between classes, I smiled and considered it a successful encounter. Santana rounded the corner, watching Jacob and his crew disappearing hastily and looked back and forth between his dust trail and me, still standing dumbly at my locker. “What was that all about?” “He wanted to know about the fight between you and Quinn this morning,” I replied with a shrug, tossing my ponytail over my shoulder and adjusting the strap of my bag. “I didn’t have anything to tell him, because you didn’t tell me. So I touched his hair. He feels like a brillo pad. I told him to get a job at Breadstix washing dishes.” She stuck the tip of her tongue out of the corner of her mouth in disgust, paling just a little. “Britt, please don’t ruin Breadstix for me.” I smirked. “Come on,” I said, taking her pinky in mine. “You can tell me what happened with Quinn during lunch.” “Right after we stop at the nurse’s station,” she reminded me gently, pulling me down the hall to the station, tucked between Sue’s and the main offices. I hadn’t forgotten; I liked the fact that she cared enough to remind me, so I followed, and took my allotted dose from the ancient woman behind the desk. It wasn’t what I’d prescribed for myself, but it would tide me over until I got a moment alone to remove the spare bottle from my bag and finish the job. We were leaving the nurse, pinkies linked, when Sue popped her head out of the office next door. “Ahh, Brittany,” she called, her mouth neither smile nor sneer. “Just the girl I wanted to see. Step into my office.” I exchanged a look with Santana that was a cross between curiosity and terror. Sue Sylvester calling you into her office meant one of two things: she was pissed, or she was scheming. Either way, the chances that you would come out of the room unscathed were very, very small. I guess she reminded me a lot of Santana. I nodded at her and made to move through the open entryway, still holding onto Santana, but Sue stopped me. “Not you, Jenny from the Block,” she quipped. “I only need Britt, here. We’ll be just fine, won’t we, Brittany?”

She looped her arm around my shoulder, and gently separated our hands. Santana looked back and forth between me and Sue, aghast. Her shoulders slumped, and it wasn’t clear if she was upset at being left out of a powwow with Coach, or at leaving me behind. “Britt…?” she asked, and I knew the end of the question without her asking it. Will you be all right? I nodded to her, not really sure, but trying anyway. “I’ll meet you in the caf, okay?” Sue nudged me into her office and shut the door before Santana had time to protest. “Have a seat,” she commanded, and I did without hesitation. You don’t hesitate around Sue. “Well, Brittany, I have to say I’m a little disappointed in you,” she said, sitting in the personalized chair behind her desk and propping her feet up. “I’d expected the glee club to be something from a horrific dream, by this time. But here we are. And, dare I say it, you’re enjoying yourselves.” I opened my mouth to try and counter her, but she put her hand up and I closed it, and looked at my shoes. “You and Santana are the only two I’m considering for head cheerleader, now that Fabray has gone and broken my already lifeless heart. No, I mean it. I had it replaced with a mechanical device, and when I found out about Quinn’s betrayal, the damn thing actually stopped working. It’s a good thing I had my blood switched out for formaldehyde ten years ago, or we would have had a seriously problem on our hands.” She paused, as though waiting for me to question the validity of the statement, or stare in awe. It sounded legitimate enough, and so I sat silently, which she took as acceptance of her story. “Brittany, I’m going to ask you something.” At this I lifted my head and met her gaze. Her usual look of condescension was gone, replaced with something more tender than I’d ever seen on Sue’s face. It wasn’t the type of tender you would expect from someone who expressed genuine concern, but she actually looked like she was trying. It made for a combination of sad eyes and pained, pursed lips that I could only take as her attempt at hiding behind her façade. “Yeah, Coach?” “I took the liberty of reading over your file,” she said without a tone of pity, like most people would have in this situation. “You’ve been on medication for a few years now. Behavioral modifiers, if I remember correctly.” I nodded, suddenly feeling the great need to leave the room and fish the pills out of my bag and complete my midday dose.

“You’re not really any better off than you were before, are you.” There it was. The question no one had asked me since I’d first taken the pills four years earlier. And coming from Sue Sylvester, of all people. There was no answer to the question which, unironically, had been posed as a statement. Like she knew that things weren’t changing, hadn’t changed. Not in four years. I knew that, of course. It wasn’t really about helping me get better anymore. It was about helping me survive. That’s all I wanted. That’s all that the doctor wanted. No one expected anything beyond that. No one except Sue Sylvester, who expected perfection. “I’ve never been a big proponent of medicating teenagers to improve behavior, Brittany,” she continued, not waiting for a response to the statement. “I’ve always found that all a child needs to change their behavior is one afternoon in Sue Sylvester’s Life Coaching seminar, in which I rail for six hours on the horrors of poverty, homelessness and sexually transmitted diseases. Have you ever heard about the side effects of gonorrhea, Brittany? It’s not a pretty picture. But you… I’ve spent the last two years watching you. And most of what I have to say rolls off your back in a way that isn’t because of some extreme, deluded sense of self-satisfaction like that furry-footed hobbit, Rachel Berry. There’s something that’s keeping you from being entirely with the rest of the coherent, functioning world. I, for one, blame those meds.” Sue liked to talk. That wasn’t a secret. But she usually talked at people, not to them. She was addressing me like I wasn’t a sounding board for her rant, but someone who actually wanted and needed to hear what she had to say. She was taking the time to talk about someone other than herself, and to express, to the best of her limited ability, concern. It was completely baffling. But what Sue didn’t understand, despite her intentions, was that the pills didn’t make me “less”. They didn’t prevent me from living, the way she was talking about them. They helped me keep moving when all I wanted to do was stop. Because not taking them was more painful than being Half In or Half Out. “Now, I’m not a medical practitioner, but I do have a Ph.D. from an accredited online university and I think that qualifies me to dole out a little advice. Do yourself a favor and ask yourself what exactly you’re getting from those pills. If your answer has something to do with anyone or anything other than yourself, and making you the happiest that you can be, then maybe it’s time for a change.” The statement was entirely rhetorical, so trying to answer was futile. Nodding would have given her some sign that I agreed with what she had to say, and arguing would have simply brought down her wrath, and I didn’t want either. So I sat, silently, and didn’t move. “But that’s not the real reason you’re here, though,” she said after a moment, breaking the tension and allowing her usual abrasive and superior tone to return. “The real reason is that I haven’t seen that set list for sectionals like Schuester promised me. I am the co-director, after all,

you’d think that he would have given it to me already. So you’re my go-to girl on this, Brittany. So, let’s hear it. What does Schue have up that polyester sleeve of his?” I debated not telling her. If Mr. Schue hadn’t told her yet it was probably for a reason, but she was right. I was her go-to girl, and Sue, of all people, had been observant enough to point out what everyone else was so obviously missing. She cared about me, so I would return the favor, and give her what she wanted, Mr. Schue be damned. I met Santana in the cafeteria with only a few minutes left before the end of the lunch hour. She was picking at a plate of peeled celery and sucking anxiously on her water bottle, choking down the contents of Sue’s Master Cleanse. Coughing, she looked up as I sat down at the round table, immediately scooting her chair closer. “What was that all about?” she asked in a hushed whisper. “What did she want? Are you okay? Did she hurt you?” She reached out and took both my hands, flipping my arms over to check for signs of abuse. It would have been charming if it wasn’t so funny. “It was nothing,” I replied, pulling my hands back into my lap. “She just wanted to talk to me about my grades.” It was a lie, but it probably wasn’t too far from the truth. I wasn’t doing well, and the pills were a part of that. “Grades?” She sounded skeptical. “That’s all? And why couldn’t I have been there for that? She knows I help you. I could have come up with a new plan for homework, helped find you a tutor.” “Don’t worry about it, San,” I reassured her. “It’s not a big deal.” She reached out under the table and took my hand again, pulling it into her lap where no one could see. “It is a big deal. What if we don’t get into the same college? What am I gonna do without you?” Hearing that, coming from her in the middle of the lunchroom while she held my hand, even in secret, made my heart pound against my ribcage. My skin vibrated with the sudden anticipation of a future, one away from McKinley and Lima. A future with Santana, through whatever came our way. I nearly choked on my tongue, I was so happy. “Don’t worry, San,” I said again. “We’ll be okay. Let’s think about sectionals first. We can worry about the rest later.” She gave me a small, pressed smile and I reveled in it. Santana rarely smiled, but when she did, I always knew it was for me. This time, it just felt so much more real. “Sectionals,” she said with a nod. “You’re going to be amazing up there.” I blushed and squeezed her hand under the table. “Not as good as you.”

Her fingers gingerly let go of mine and I pulled my arm back into my lap. Looking around furtively, she checked to see that no one was sitting nearby before letting out a sigh. “One of these days, B,” she breathed dreamily. “You and I are getting out of this shithole of a town. Move someplace with a little culture, like Chicago. Marry rich men who are never home. You can dance, if you want. I miss your dancing. Us against the world, you know?” It was very nearly everything I wanted. Not quite, but close enough. “Yeah,” I replied with a smile. “I know.” The lunchroom was beginning to clear out, leaving her and I nearly alone in the large, echoing space. From across the expanse, a figure darted toward us with surprising efficiency and speed. Mercedes threw herself into a chair across from Santana, her eyes wild. Santana immediately leaned into me, slightly disgusted with the close proximity to a glee club loser outside the choir room. Her nose scrunched up and her mouth dropped open in shock at the diva’s audacity. “I’m sorry, but are you lost?” she asked, sneering at Mercedes. “Look, I know you don’t exactly want to be seen with me, but I’ve been waiting all afternoon to get you alone. I just need to know.” Mercedes had both her palms flat on the table in front of her, looking around anxiously to make sure no one was overhearing her. “Know what, Wheezy?” “Who told you? About Puck and Quinn? I heard that you had a freak out at Denny’s and poured hot coffee in his lap, so it could only mean that you know now.” Santana’s sneer turned into a confused scowl. “I don’t know why you think this is any of your business, but Puck told me. He texted me Saturday morning and told me. I was in the same restaurant, and I was pissed. So I made sure he knew that he’d fucked up.” “God,” Mercedes breathed, almost in awe. “If I’d been you, and I found out my boyfriend had knocked up my best friend, I would have done so much more than dump hot coffee in his lap. I’m just so happy that I’m not the only one who knows anymore. It’s been so hard, not tell-“ Santana must have taken a second to process the new information Mercedes had leaked to us, because it wasn’t until this point that she shot to her feet, knocking her chair over behind her. It clattered the floor, cutting Mercedes off mid-sentence. “Stop,” she hissed. “And rewind, Aretha. What the fuck do you mean, Puck knocked up my best friend?” Mercedes was frozen in terror. She’d accidentally revealed what was probably supposed to have been a secret to the one girl -- other than Quinn -- who could be hurt the most by it. And I just sat there, gaping at both of them.

“Oh god,” she mumbled. “I-I-I thought… I thought you knew, after the thing with the coffee. God, Santana, I’m so sorry. I didn’t… I didn’t mean to-“ “You’re going have to stop the stuttering for half a fucking second,” Santana shot back in a vicious whisper, bending over Mercedes, her back to me, and holding her face within inches of the other girl’s nose. “And start making some fucking sense.” “P-Puck,” she returned softly, her eyes wide. “Puck’s the father of Quinn’s baby. Not Finn. No one else knew, just him, Quinn and me. I shouldn’t have said anything. I shouldn’t ha-“ “You can leave now,” Santana righted herself, pulling down the front of her Cheerios uniform and smoothing her skirt as the sneer returned to her face. “You’re going to be late for class.” I’d never seen Mercedes do anything but strut in the time that I’d known her, but when Santana dismissed her, she actually scurried from the room, clutching her oversized bag to her chest and looking hastily at us over her shoulder. I expected an outburst like the one in the restaurant. I expected screaming, and ranting, and possibly even a thrown chair or two. But as I watched her, her back still to me, her shoulders slumped, and she turned. She plopped unceremoniously into the chair that Mercedes had just vacated, her expression completely unreadable. “San…” She closed her eyes and shook her head, and I stopped talking. Outside in the hallway, the bell rang, signifying that we were late for class. At that moment it didn’t really matter. I got up slowly, moving to her side and kneeling there, sitting back on my heels. She reached her hand out for mine, her eyes still shut, and I took it. She squeezed so tightly that her nails dug into my palms, but I let her. She let out a long, labored breath, like she’d been holding it in for years. “That could have been me,” she whispered at last. “That could have been me, and not her.” She opened her eyes and looked down at me. There was no anger, no pain or sadness. It was relief looking down at me; relief encased in dark chocolate eyes. “What would I have done, had I been in her place?” she asked, directing the question to me, as though I could answer for her. “Would I have done it differently? Lied? Aborted? Kept the thing? My parents wouldn’t be any more sympathetic than hers. You know how they are. Damn Catholic guilt. They’d make me have it, make me keep it. I’d be stuck here, B. If that had been me, carting around Puck’s bastard, my life would really and truly be over. I’d be alone.” “You wouldn’t be alone,” I replied, squeezing back against her palm. She snorted. “You really think Puck would make an effort to take care of me like he’s obviously trying with Quinn? God, all those looks and gestures make so much more sense now.”

“No, not Puck.” I shook my head and got to my feet, then leaned against the table in front of her so she had to look up to see me. I bent my index finger and placed it under her chin, lifting her gaze to mine. “Me. You’d have me. I’ll never leave you alone, San. Even if… even if that had happened. I’m here.” The smile the erupted on her face was better than a fistful of Valium. I saw her shoulders jut forward just a bit, like she wanted to reach out to me, but she remembered where she was and sat back, her hand still in mine. “Suddenly I don’t feel like going to math. Or history. Or glee.” The smile spread to her eyes, making them sparkle incandescently. “You wanna get out of here?” I pulled her to her feet and squeezed one more time, trying to count the different ways her eyes could kill me. I returned that smile, and said, “Absolutely.”

16

The Cost of Deception

Despite Santana's constant and sometimes overwhelming need to one-up Quinn, she didn't take the news that Finn wasn't the father of the baby public. It might have been out of some small bit of human decency, the inability to kick a fellow Cheerio while she was down, but I assumed that it was more about protecting her own image than Quinn's. Puck had been her man, after all. Or, at least that's what she told herself and anyone who would listen. Puck belonged to her, if only physically. The fact that he had looked elsewhere for satisfaction, and with Quinn Fabray of all people, meant that she wasn't doing something right. It called her status as sex symbol of McKinley High into question, and she really couldn't have that. Her relief at not being the one who'd been knocked up was probably also a factor. Her initial reaction to the news – relief instead of anger – had left her thinking, first and foremost, what she would have done in Quinn's situation. If that didn't spark some shred of empathy, I didn't know what would. At least in the weeks after Mercedes' misstep, she made fewer attempts at provoking Quinn and none at revealing the secret that she knew most of glee club knew as well. "It's only a matter of time before someone says something," she'd yawned. "Do you have any idea how much those glee losers like to gossip? Jesus. If they sang half as much as they yapped, we'd have won nationals by now." A week before sectionals, when stressors were at their highest after Mr. Schue had been disqualified as our director, Santana was doing her damnedest to keep a low profile while glee was tearing itself apart from the inside. Sue, despite her best efforts, had failed on that account. But the internal drama of Quinn's secret and Finn's ignorance was enough to do the job a few times over. When your best performers are all at odds with one another, it's difficult to maintain the "glee" part of glee club. We spent weeks tiptoeing around one another, trying our best not to let on that we all knew. It was demoralizing, living with the lies that everyone else was telling on top of my own. Their lies were secondhand, while mine festered silently beneath the surface, just under the pill-soaked façade that I had built up. When Rachel began putting the pieces together, the few of us that remained on the outside of the entire situation found it in all of our best interests to attempt to contain the situation. Puck was making it too easy for Rachel, doting on Quinn and making thinly veiled attempts at being around her after their impromptu food fight in the home ec room. Everyone had seen him leaving covered in egg and sugar, followed closely by a chocolate-coated Quinn with a confused Finn on her arm. Subtlety was not their strong suit, and the fact that Rachel and Finn were the last ones to know about Quinn's predicament hadn't been lost on any of us. We could only go on the assumption that she didn't know for so long, and between the six of us with vested interests in

seeing glee club succeed, we kept our ears to the ground while we waited for the other shoe to drop. Santana and I met at my locker between third and fourth periods, so she could double check that I had my books for my next class. She was fixing my hair, swooping my hangs back to the side and over my ears when Rachel wandered up to her locker, which was a few rows over from mine. She was mumbling something under her breath about Puck, which piqued Santana's interest. Her hand wavered at my ear as she listened to Rachel without engaging. I tried to catch her attention by tapping her shoulder, but she ignored me, her eyes trained on our classmate as she continued to mutter nonsensically into the open locker. "Santana, are you okay?" She waved me off with a finger and casually leaned against the lockers, crossing her arms over her chest and donning her usual sardonic glare, accompanied by tight, pursed lips. "What's up, Treasure Trail?" she asked, snapping Rachel out of her own private conversation. "Back from Thailand so soon? I was sure Schue would have extended the vacation, after seeing all the other toys he could have gotten down there." Rachel lifted her head, her eyes wide with the recognition that Santana was actually speaking to her. Her mouth opened and closed for a moment before she shook her head to clear her thoughts and spoke back to Santana without indulging her need to belittle Rachel at any cost. "Santana," she said, acknowledging my best friend and ignoring my presence all together. "As interested as I am to know why you're talking to me, I'm going to be late for class. I'll be on my way now." Santana stepped out in front of her as Rachel attempted to leave without gathering all the things she'd needed for her next class. "Wait a second there, Berry," she said, holding her hand up to stop the smaller brunette. "You were talking about Puck just now. Granted, you were talking about Puck to yourself, so it doesn't really mean very much in the long run, but I'm still interested to know what you have to say about my man." I stood back and watched the two interact without inserting myself into the conversation. I knew what Santana was getting at, but Rachel still had no idea what was really going on. Rather than bringing attention to myself, and to the fact that I was high as a kite, I leaned against my nowclosed locker and watched the two of them. Rachel stuttered for a moment before sighing and turning back to her locker, realizing that Santana wasn't going to allow her to leave without a fight. "It's nothing," Rachel replied breezily, shuffling the papers in her bag to make room for her geometry textbook. "It's just…"

She trailed off, trying to gauge whether or not we would be receptive to what she had to say. You could see the gears turning in her head as she tried to formulate her thoughts into a cohesive theory that she could say out loud to someone. You could tell that she had been trying hard not to say anything up until this point, but her walls were caving. "It's just that I've noticed that Puck has been behaving very strangely around Quinn these last few weeks," she continued. "Have you seen this, too?" Santana cocked her head to the side, her eyes narrowing as she did her best to brush it off and pretend she didn't know anything. "I don't know what you're talking about, Berry. So you should probably be a little bit clearer. What exactly are you trying to say?" Rachel shrugged nonchalantly and shoved her book into her bag, but we could both see that her hands were shaking. "I just mean to say that I think there's something going on between Puck and Quinn. He's spent a lot of time with her recently, and he's not very subtle about the fact that he likes her, and more than just as a friend. I just think that, for Finn's sake, someone should say something before something goes very, very wrong." It was obvious to both Santana and I that there was no way of deterring Rachel from the path that she was on. Once she grabbed onto the notion that Puck and Quinn were cavorting behind her crush's back, there was nothing to stand between her and proving her theory correct. The best that we could do was look as falsely confused as possible and call her "man-hands" a few more times for good measure. "I don't know where you're getting your information for these wild accusations, Bait Girl," Santana started slowly, standing straighter and cracking her neck menacingly to the right and left. "But you really better be able to back up your talk when you say shit like that. Quinn Fabray is not someone whose life you want to fuck with, dethroned head cheerleader or not. And believe me when I tell you that, if you think your life is miserable now? Just you go ahead and breathe one word of what you just said to me to anyone else. I will end you, Berry. Not just your life at McKinley. I will ensure that every precious dream you've ever had is so broken, you'll be picking pieces of gold stars out of your hair when you're ninety." Rachel's lower lip was trembling so badly and her eyes were wide enough in terror that she looked like she belonged in one of those Japanese anime movies. I half expected her to speak in jilted sentences that ended three seconds before her mouth stopped moving. Considering that she said nothing in response and fled a moment later, though, I knew Santana had gotten her point across. She turned back to me, the venom gone from her face and replaced with worry. She latched her hand onto my wrist and pulled me in the opposite direction from which Rachel had run. "Party line," she said, and I instantly pulled my phone from my bag. She dialed for both of us, handing mine back to me, hesitating only a moment when she couldn't tell which was hers. They were identical phones, courtesy of Sue and a generous contribution to the team from a corporate sponsor who insisted we use his network to communicate. It made for a lot of confusion between

the Cheerios, considering how often we're swapping phones to make calls and read each other's texts. She pressed her phone to her ear and walked down the hall with purpose, looking at me out of the corner of her eye. Between the two of us, the crowds in the halls parted as we headed down the stairs, the soft buzz of the holding tone ringing in our ears. The line clicked open, and before anyone on the other end had a chance to say a word, Santana spoke "We just heard. Who told?" "We assumed it was you." Artie was the first to reply. I didn't know why she would have called him, but then again, we were both pretty desperate for answers. Santana scoffed, tossing her hair defiantly. "Why would I do that?" Kurt spoke up next, and I was surprised to hear him on the same call with Artie. For a moment I smiled, missing him more than I'd previously thought. "To get back at Puck. Aren't you guys dating?" She narrowed her eyes, as though she was glaring at Kurt through the phone, then used the words that she'd said to me more times than I could count. "Sex is not dating." "If it were, Santana and I would be dating." It was an instant reaction, like I needed to qualify her response with my own. I couldn't stop myself from spitting out the words as they tumbled from the tip of my tongue in an avalanche. She froze next to me, her head snapping to the right where I walked next to her. I stopped in my tracks when I realized what I'd said out loud. The look of panic on her face was laced not with anger, but with fear. It was so brief, the pause she made before averting her eyes from mine and glancing back and forth across the hall, making sure no one else had heard my outburst. She recovered so quickly that it left my head spinning, remembering that we had four other people on the other end of the phone, waiting for us. "Look," she started again, the acid returning to her voice and her spine so straight she could have been plastic. "I don't wanna rock the boat. Since Quinn got pregnant, I'm top dog around here." "Hold up, Rachel's walking by," Mercedes cut in, and I felt Santana's hand jut forward in front of me, stopping me so quickly that I winced. I heard faint voices through the phone as I gave another wary glace to Santana. She wouldn't look at me. Mercedes returned to the line, and I was forced to pay attention once again. "She's gone. Look, I know I screwed up telling all you guys about Quinn and Puck. And I feel really terrible about it. But we cannot let Rachel figure this out. If she tells Finn, he's going to flip." "And then we'll really have no shot at sectionals," Kurt added. No one had anything left to say, so all at once we hung up our phones. Finally, Santana met my gaze, and in that moment I knew we were about to fight. I just wasn't prepared for how intensely her gaze penetrated mine.

She didn't say a word as she took my wrist once more, glancing from side to side before pulling me into the locker room next to the gym. She shut the heavy, bulkhead door and slid the deadbolt into place before turning and pressing her back against it. Her eyes were closed, and her chin was raised like she was trying harder than usual to keep composure. Her cheeks flushed to the tips of her ears, and her fingers were curled into tight fists at her sides. "San, I'm sorry," I whispered. In the silence, even though I spoke so softly, the words echoed back at me, weighted with guilt. "I'm so sorry, I wasn't thinking. We've said that so many times that it just came out. I didn't mean it. I'll tell them all I was kidding. They already think I'm stupid, I'll tell them I was confused. I swear, no one else will ever know." The only movement was the bending of her knees as they buckled underneath her, and she slid slowly down the length of the door. Falling to the ground, her knees tucked up to her chin, she breathed heavily in her nose and out her mouth. Her face burned red and even though her eyes were still closed, I could see wetness gathering at the corners, making her mascara'd lashes cling together in thick, angry clumps. "Santana, please," I begged, shifting closer to her and getting down on my knees on the cold tile floor, but allowing a foot or two between us to respect the fact that she still needed her space. I tried every line or excuse I could think of to get her to react. I'd never seen her so broken before. "They won't tell. All of their friends are in glee, there's no one left to talk to. I'll make sure they don't say anything. They're glee losers, anyway, who'll believe them? I promise, I'll-" "Stop," she whispered; it wasn't angry, like a hiss, but it caught in her throat and slipped awkwardly past her lips as she hiccupped on the floor. "Just stop. It's done." Her eyes slid open cautiously, trained on the ceiling with her lids raised. A dam was broken. Her tears flowed freely down blotchy cheeks in rivers, taking streaks of black mascara and eyeliner with them. Her shoulders shook as she bit her lower lip so hard it bled. Her nose glistened and blushed bright red as she tried to hold back a sob and failed. It burst from her chest and the sound bounced from wall to wall in the concrete room, echoing off lockers and shower stalls until it came back to us, resting above our heads like a black cloud. It wasn't until there was silence again, compounded by the heavy beating of our pulses and thick, rasping breaths, that she finally let her shoulders go and her body collapsed. She exploded into a sob and pressed her fists to her eyes. I was too scared to reach out to her, for fear of frightening her even more, so I slipped my knees out from under me and sat on the floor. She wrapped her arms around her knees and pressed her forehead to them, rocking back and forth while she mumbled under her breath. "Stupid," she hissed. "Stupid, stupid, stupid…" At first I thought she was talking about me, and my heart lurched. But as she brought her fists back up to her head, I watched as she pounded them against her temples angrily, punishing herself so violently that I lunged toward her without second thought, snatching her by the wrists and pulling her toward me. She fought me hard, flailing against my grip, but I held fast and she squealed her anger and frustration at me, slamming her fists against my shoulders. I winced, but

accepted that I deserved it, taking the blows with as much stoic silence as I could muster until her strength gave out and she flopped into my lap, gasping for air. It was all that I could do to sit with her in my lap and not collapse on top of her. I was Half Out, and the sight of Santana – the warrior, the Amazon woman, the titan – hysterical and broken on the locker room floor was more than my paranoia-driven, panic-prone brain could handle. I pressed my hands to her shoulders and squeezed, almost as much for my own benefit as hers. I needed an anchor to hold me in place, and even though she was more unstable than I was, we rooted each other to the floor and prevented the world from floating away around us. "Santana…" I wanted to say something, anything, to reassure her, but I didn't have the words. She was so much better at making things sound right, at making me feel better, than I could ever be for her. I didn't want to screw it up, so I pulled her up by her shoulders, so the upper half of her body was cradled in my lap with her back pressed against my stomach. I wrapped my arms around hers, crossing both sets across her torso and forming a tight, comforting embrace. "Sex isn't dating," I found myself saying, not looking at her as we both rocked to and fro on the floor. "That's what matters, right? This doesn't mean anything. You're my best friend, that's all." And, just as though nothing had happened at all, she sat up. Her face was blotchy and smeared with black makeup. She pushed herself away from me, dragging the backs of her hands across her cheeks, only succeeding in further smearing the mess. She sniffed sharply, tossing her head and reaching to smooth the fly-aways that had sprung from her ponytail. She looked over at me, her bloodshot eyes giving away the fact that she was still in pain. "I didn't hurt you, did I?" I shook my head. "No," I replied, scooting backward a few inches, as though that would make a difference. "I'm okay." She nodded, taking a long, deep breath before pushing herself shakily to her feet. "Maybe we can salvage this situation," she said curtly, smoothing down her skirt and rounding a corner to check her makeup in the mirror. She scrunched her nose angrily at her reflection and splashed water on her face to wash away the remnants of her brief breakdown. "Puck's been asking me for ages to bring you over to his place. Before today I'd always told him no, but now it looks like we might not have a choice." She was making it very clear how she expected me to rectify the situation I'd created. It was abhorrent, to say the least, but what was even more abhorrent was that, for a moment, I considered it. I was more disgusted with myself than her. Her reaction was normal, by Santana Standards. But to take the suggestion that I go over to Puck's with her and… and, well, to take that and actually give it credence? I balked. "You're kidding, right?" I begged, knowing full well she wasn't.

She'd pulled her mascara from her bag and was too busy reapplying it to look up from the mirror. "It's not like it would be anything new for either of us," she shrugged, eyes open wide as she reaffixed her mask to its proper place. "It's just combining two experiences into one. It'll be fine. Puck is certainly a step up from Mike Chang." I stood there, stunned into silence. She was so willing to hand me over as a sacrifice to the gods of social standing, and so cavalier about the fact that I could use my body to fix things. I'd screwed up, telling the club about us, and this was how she wanted to punish me. I wished that she had hit me instead. It would have hurt less. I thought about Puck, his hands on me while Santana watched, and all I could feel was Karofsky's sandpaper fingers pulling at my thighs. The memory brought a knot to my throat, panic settling in my chest involuntarily. I reached out and laid my palm against cold concrete, struggling to catch my breath while my lungs constricted and my knees wobbled dangerously. It had been so long since I'd had one of my Half Out panic attacks, and I wasn't prepared for how quickly it hit me. Santana smacked her freshly balmed lips together and finally looked up. She saw me clutching at my chest and dropped her bag, rushing to my side and grabbing my elbows as I began to fall. She caught me, holding me up as she hissed to herself under her breath, so low she thought I didn't hear her. "Shit. Jesus. Stupid, stupid, stupid." She sat down on one of the benches in the rows of lockers and pulled me into her lap, running her hands up and down my arms as she cursed herself nearly inaudibly. "God, I'm such an idiot. Stupid cunt move, Santana. Useless, fucking asshole." Her expletive-laced, self-deprecating tirade did nothing to help me, but her arms wrapped tightly around mine, holding me to her chest, slowly calmed my breathing just as it had the first time she'd done it when we were thirteen and on her trampoline. She pressed her lips to my shoulder and then rested her forehead there, sighing deeply. "I'm sorry, Britt," she muttered bitterly. "That was awful, and I didn't mean it. I know what you've been through and I would never suggest that you should… that we could… I'm just sorry." My heart still felt as though it had been rent in two, but my breathing had evened out and my knees were no longer jelly. I didn't respond to her, still unable to speak, but I leaned back against her and let my shoulders slump. I didn't blame her for suggesting Puck as a solution to our problem. It was the most obvious answer, after all. I blamed myself for digging up Karofsky, knowing it would do nothing but hurt both of us more than we already were. I just wanted to take the entire day, call it a wash, and go home. I told her as much. "We can't, B," she sighed, still holding me. "We have sectionals in a week. Do you really think that now is a good time to be skipping rehearsals?"

I shook my head. "No. But I don't want to face them either. Not without an explanation or a story." "Fuck 'em," she said with less venom than she intended; it was a half-hearted attempt at best. "We'll figure something out. Until we do, it's probably best if we just don't talk about it. Hopefully they won't bring it up. And if they do…" She didn't have an answer for that yet. "They won't," I reassured her. "I trust them, San. I know you don't, but I know they won't say anything to anyone. Glee is their safe haven. Why can't it be ours, too?" She pressed another kiss to my shoulder and I felt her nod behind me. I stood, using her arm for support and then pulled her to standing after. The clock on the wall told us that we'd already missed fourth period, which meant that we were both meant to head to lunch. "Come on, Schue wanted us in the choir room for his announcement," she mumbled, wiping my own smeared mascara with the pad of her thumb. The rest of the day went by in a blur that still continues to mystify me. The chronological order of events feels rushed, even by my standards. Mr. Schue named Ms. Pillsbury as our interim director at our lunch meeting, then acted like he was never going to see us again. It confused me, because I had Spanish with him everyday. To make matters worse, that afternoon he burst into the room like a superhero in a sweater-vest when Finn began beating the shit out of Puck. We all knew why Puck was getting pummeled, so no one stepped in to stop him until Schue arrived. He deserved a little ass-kicking for all the people he had hurt. I took a particularly sick pleasure out of it, but I knew that it was a selfish sort of happiness. Santana's face was stricken with horror, and I felt ashamed. So Quinn and Puck had been discovered, and it seemed that their drama and Finn's abrupt departure was more of a concern to the group than my and Santana's sexual exploits. She was visibly relieved when we left the choir room that afternoon, walking a little lighter than she had been before. We made it through the end of the week without incident, mostly because Finn never came back to rehearsals and it became apparent that we would need a replacement to compete. Jacob Ben Israel stepped in as our twelfth member, and Saturday morning we boarded the bus to the civic pavilion where we were to meet our competition. I was out of my mind with nerves when we arrived, but as we sat in the audience and watched the other two schools using our numbers – exactly as we had choreographed them – I panicked. I'd decided several days before that I would stay sober for the competition, and I realized very quickly what a horrible idea this was. By the time the deaf kids from Haverbrook started singing "Don't Stop Believin'" my hands were shaking and I was sweating and nauseous. Santana put the back of her hand to my forehead and poked me hard in the ribs. I waved her off just as Rachel demanded a meeting in the green room to discuss the limited options we had left. "What wrong with you?" Santana asked as we marched single file to the back of the auditorium.

"Nothing," I replied quickly, wiping the sweat from my brow. "Just nerves, I guess. We're so screwed, San." "No, we're not," she whispered, touching my hand. I shuddered and she pulled away, looking around in case anyone had seen. "We'll be okay. We'll think of something." I'd never seen Santana nervous before a performance before. She'd opened herself up to a menagerie of new emotions since we'd been friends, but nerves before a crowd was unheard of. We'd performed all over the country with the Cheerios, and she'd never flinched. Now, as we traipsed into the green room and stood in a corner away from the rest of the group, she faltered. "You leaked the set list!" Kurt shrieked at us before anyone had even settled in. "You don't want to be here. You're just Sue Sylvester's little moles." The anger in his voice was palpable, and I winced at the force behind it. He really did blame us, and that hurt. I'd trusted them completely, but as it turned out, that trust was not returned. And, when I considered that, I knew I didn't deserve it anyway. I had leaked the set list, after all, but how I could have known that this was Sue's intention? She sought perfection, and cheating was so beyond her realm of acceptability. The standards to which she held her Cheerios were so much higher than those we held for ourselves, and cheating was one of those behaviors that would not be tolerated among champions. But I guess she had a different set of standards for herself as well. "I know for a fact that's true," Quinn cut in before we had a chance to defend ourselves. "Sue asked us to spy for her." Santana and I stood stoic until this point, when she crossed her arms defensively over her chest and glared at Quinn's back as her "friend" went to sit down with the group. It was obvious where her allegiance had fallen. "Look," Santana started, and I could hear a slight waver in her voice that she attempted to cover up with indignance. "We may still be Cheerios, but neither of us ever gave Sue the set list." She didn't know the truth; I'd lied to her about that. One of the many lies I'd told her, but now it had come fill circle. There was no running from it now, and I rathered that I took the blame than have them hate her more than I knew they already did. "Well…" I stuttered slowly, ashamed. "I-I did, but I didn't know what she was going to do with it." There was a collective groan from the rest of the group, and the dejected, betrayed looks on their faces were enough. I was silenced. Santana threw a confused, horrified glance my way before taking a step away from me, as though to distance herself from the shame I'd caused. "Okay, look," she declared, taking the withering eyes off me, which I was grateful for. "Believe what you want, but no one's forcing me to be here. And if you ever tell anyone this, I'll deny it… but I really like being in glee club. It's the best part of my day, okay? I wasn't gonna go and mess it up."

She wandered to the other side of the room, away from me. I couldn't even be mad at her for leaving me standing there alone; not when she'd just had what amounted to a major breakthrough. She'd opened up to the entire club and admitted to them that she liked them. That she needed them. She'd made glee club her safe haven. Our safe haven. There was silence across the room as she sat in a chair in the far corner, as though everyone was trying to determine if she was being honest or not. Only I knew that she was, but it was Rachel who spoke first. "I believe you," she said, and the smile they exchanged was enough to make my heart twinge green with jealousy before I remembered that this was Rachel Berry, and she was Santana Lopez. Never the two shall meet. They argued about songs to replace the stolen ones we'd been planning on using, and I made my way over to the couch next to Mike. He squeezed my knee as I sat down, and I instantly felt better, knowing I still had a friend in the room. He smiled at me and I blushed back, patting the back of his hand to let him know that I appreciated his gesture. Finn swooped in like a knight, carrying sheet music instead of a sword, and all of a sudden we were a team again. He really felt like our leader. Rachel might have been the soul of the group, but Finn? He was our heart. We'd stopped beating for a little while when he was gone, but he shocked us back to life with a stack of music and a heartfelt speech. I couldn't help thinking, looking at his song choice, how apropos it all felt. "Mike, Matt, Brittany, Santana…" he addressed the four of us, and I looked at him nervously. "You're our best dancers. Figure something out and we'll follow your lead." "It's gonna be choppy," Mike replied, looking up from the music warily. "Good," Finn answered confidently. "We're best when we're loose." Being given the responsibility of preparing this dance was a step up from the day that Kurt asked me for help. I should have been happy that they were still thinking of me, after what I'd done, but I couldn't help the lump of terror that rose in my throat as Finn dismissed us, and he pulled the rest of the group together to get the lyrics down. Between the nerves of throwing together a new routine and the stress of admitting my mistake to the glee club, my nauseous stomach had gone from tropical storm to monsoon in minutes. I wanted so desperately to make it through the day without being Half In and muddled, but as Mike pulled the four of us together and began to distribute sections of the song – chorus, verse, and bridge – I knew I wasn't going to make it. I excused myself to the bathroom and took a long drink of cold water from the faucet, cupping my hands under the stream and bringing them to my mouth. I pulled a bottle of pills from my bag and dumped two into the back of my throat without checking to see what I was taking. Everything had just started to mix together anyway, so I'd

stopped bothering to separate one prescription from another. It made for somewhat inconsistent highs, but certain combinations left me reeling, and it was exquisite and terrible at the same time. I looked at myself in the mirror, the harsh fluorescent lights beating down like heat lamps. There were deep circles under my eyes. I was paler than usual and breathing heavily. "Get it together," I told my reflection, splashing water on my face. "It's almost over." I felt the pills kicking in as I arrived back at the green room. I used the little time that I had before becoming useless to pound out a simple choreography, with Mike and I taking the steps while Santana and Matt took the beat. She didn't say anything outwardly hostile to me, but I could tell that she was still upset about Sue and the set list. I didn't blame her. We had half an hour to run through the routine with the group before we needed to be in costume. Mike demonstrated with Santana as his partner, showing each person where they would be standing on the risers on stage and placing Artie on his cues so he wouldn't be in the way. I watched, standing next to Matt, trying to shake the fuzzy, indistinguishable halo that surrounded my head. My eyes drooped heavily, but from the muscle relaxant that I had swallowed inadvertently. My limbs felt like jell-o, but I forced myself to stay on my feet, pushing through it. "Are you sure you're okay?" Santana asked as we rushed into our dresses in the bathroom attached to the main green room. "You seem a little out of it." "I swear," I said, crossing my heart with my index finger. "I'm fine. I'm exhausted and I'm nervous. I just need to get out on stage and I'll be okay." "Your heart is on the other side of your chest, B," she corrected with a nervous laugh, moving my hand from my right to my left and holding it there a little longer than she should have. I smirked lazily. "See? Everything's fine." I went through the motions on stage, but with two pills in my system, there was no passion behind it. No one seemed to notice; it probably wasn't anything different than what they were used to when it came to my behavior. Either that or they were too busy with their own concerns to worry about why I was spacing out and missing a step here and there. But I got through it. And at the end, despite our last-minute preparations, we won. I'm not sure that Jane Adams or Haverbrook were ever really our competition to begin with. We spent so much time arguing with each other, keeping secrets, fighting over petty injustices that we were lucky to have made it through at all. The only real competition we had was one another. If we could overcome every obstacle that we'd faced so far, I supposed that we could overcome anything. Santana had sidled up to Puck after they announced the winner, and I'd been left to fend for myself. Mike hugged me on stage, and whispered in my ear that he was proud of me. I had glanced at Santana over Mike's shoulder, and she was glowing. "Santana" and "happy" didn't

really belong in the same sentence, but as I watched her wrap her arms around Mercedes in celebration, that's all I could see: Santana was happy. It was comforting, and it made it easier to find a seat alone at the back of the bus, away from the rest of the club that insisted on singing during the hour-long drive back to McKinley. "You look like someone killed your cat." I was surprised to feel the seat next to me depress with a soft 'woosh' of air, and the mezzo soprano voice floated around me in my daze. I could almost see the accompanying music notes. "Hi Kurt," I said with a toothy, Half Out grin. "You were so good today." He scowled back at me, not even pretending that he wasn't still angry with me. "I'd say the same to you, but I think we both know that isn't exactly true." "Hmm." It was as close to an agreement as he was going to get from me. "You're high right now, aren't you?" I grinned again, toothy and wide, my head lolling back against the plastic covering on the seat. "Yep. As a kite." He shook his head bitterly, lowering his voice in case anyone was listening. "Why today, Britt? Of all days? We needed you." "I was there," I countered, watching the lines on the highway flash by. "We won, didn't we?" "We won," Kurt replied, angrily gesturing to the group at the front of the bus. "You didn't. The second you took those pills, you lost, Britt. And you could have cost us the competition. You nearly cost us the competition before we even walked through the door. You betrayed your team to the one person who has been hell-bent on destroying us from the beginning. Why did you do it? What else could she have possibly wanted the set list for?" "I don't know," I answered honestly, trying to convince myself that it wasn't nearly as bad as he was making it out to be. "But Sue saw through me. No one else did, not even Santana. I owed her that much, I guess." "I see you," he said quietly as he calmed a little, watching me and studying my slow, muted movements. He took in my heavy, labored breathing, and noted my dark circles and pale visage. He softened his tone, and I knew it was because he felt sorry for me. "I know you, Britt, whether you like it or not. You can't hide from me." I smirked, pressing my forehead to the cold window. "I can hide from anyone." "Not forever." He smoothed a strand of hair from my eyes, searching them when they were clear. "Why didn't you tell me about Santana?"

I smiled sadly. "You heard that, huh? We were so hoping it would be forgotten." I was trying so hard to make him laugh, make him crack a smile, but I knew that he was in no mood for jokes. I'd put the entire team in jeopardy, put myself in jeopardy. He was worried, and it showed. "Kinda hard to forget," he replied coolly. "'Sex isn't dating.' 'If it were, Santana and I would be dating.' It wasn't exactly subtle." "Don't remind me," I moaned, putting my hand over my eyes and peeking through my fingers. "Not one of my finer moments." He arched his eyebrows. "You have finer moments?" "Ouch," I hissed, smacking him lightly on the shoulder, but his grim expression didn't falter. "Low blow, Hummel." "It's a legitimate question, Pierce," he returned, no levity in his voice. "When was the last time you did something you were proud of?" Never. That was my immediate response, but I fumbled over it. I wanted to proclaim how happy I was, that everything was great and I was getting on just fine. But I couldn't, because it wasn't true. And I'd told enough lies for one year. "I don't know," I said instead, staring down at my hands, wringing them in my lap. "It's been so long since I've done anything, let alone something I could be proud of. I'm just kind of existing." "And you're okay with that?" I shrugged. It was all just word vomit now. Everything I wanted to say seemed to be spilling out anyway. Kurt had that effect on me. "As long as I have her, I don't really need anything else, do I?" Kurt furrowed his brow and glanced down the aisle of the bus to the seat where Santana was nuzzled up to Puck. She caught his stern glare and quickly averted her eyes, blushing. "You don't really have her, you know that, right?" "Yeah," I agreed, watching her sing along with the rest of the club in a rousing rendition of "We Are the Champions." "I know that." "Nothing about this relationship is healthy, Brittany." He took my hand and I nearly jumped at the contact. The pressure of his fingers around mine was so light, and yet it was shocking how heavy his hand felt on my skin. It ached, and I blinked down at it for a moment, shaking my head out, trying to shake my synapses into waking. I'd never felt anyone else's skin on mine when I was Half Out. Only Santana's. I'd assumed it was just her touch that made my skin crawl, but here was Kurt holding my hand, and it ached. I

studied it carefully, turning our clenched palms over on one another before I answered. "I know that, too. But I don't need healthy. I just need her." He squeezed hard on my fingers, his cheeks burning red as he tried not to burst with anger or sadness or some other emotion I was incapable of feeling for myself, as though he wanted to feel it for me. I was a pitiable character in his eyes, and for just a second I wanted to push him away. "Have you told her?" I lifted my head and met his gaze, not sure to which of my many lies he was referring. "Told her what?" It was clear that this answer broke his heart, and slumped sideways against me, making me shudder once more, and harder. "Anything." "What is there to tell?" I asked the question even though the answer was plain. I could tell her the truth. About the pills, that I thought I was gay, how I really felt about her. I could tell her that I'd loved her ever since we were eight years old and she pulled me out of the mud, that I loved her more when she punched the popular boys in the face for laughing at me. That I loved her the most when she crawled naked into my bed and just held me after I'd told her about being assaulted by Karofsky. But both of us knew that I never would. So he sat next to me in silence, his hand still wrapped protectively around mine, for the rest of the trip home. Santana was waiting for me at her car in the parking lot. Kurt held tight to my hand and stopped me as we stepped off the bus, holding me far enough away that she couldn't hear us. "Far be it from me to tell someone how to live their life," he began, now taking my free hand in his. "But you can't keep this up forever, Britt. You can't hide from her forever. So when you decide that you're ready to see the sun again… you call me, okay?" I nodded and bent to kiss his cheek. I had no intention of calling him. "Of course." Santana shouted to me from across the lot, jangling her keys above her head impatiently. I turned and gave her the 'one minute' signal, and she rolled her eyes at me before getting into the Mustang and turning it over with a rumble. "Don't be a stranger, Brittany," Kurt called as I walked away from him, toward Santana's idling car. "Remember… I see you." I waved to him as I slid into the bucket passenger seat and she motioned for me to put on my seatbelt. "What did he want?" I slipped the belt across my lap, snapping the buckle in place and sighing. "Nothing," I lied. "He didn't want anything."

17

Lamb to the Slaughter

There was no time following sectionals for anyone to really process anything that had happened over the weekend. We had three days of school before winter recess, and in that time no one approached me for anything beyond a casual “hello” (from Mike, who punched me lightly in the shoulder as he walked by), or a fleeting look of concern (from Kurt, who didn’t touch me at all). I welcomed the relief of the holidays, even though I knew it meant spending a week with my father. Our visits had become less frequent, between his obligations to work and mine to school, so neither of us were really making the effort anymore. I saw him perhaps once a month, which meant that I only saw my sister that often. She was young, too far removed from the perils of growing up to understand why I was never around, or why, when I was, I didn’t want to do anything but sleep or watch television. What pained me more than anything was that I was missing her childhood. At least, I reasoned, I wouldn’t have a chance to rub off on her. She needed better role models than me to guide her. My mother, as usual, was scheduled to work at the diner on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. She missed our performance at sectionals for the same reason, but left a note on the fridge that I kept, squirreling it away in a shoe box beneath my bed that was filled with all her other notes. I dated the back of the post it and slipped it onto the top of the pile. I had started the box with the intention of one day compiling a list of all her maternal transgressions, but at some point the box became less of an angry homage and more of a reminder that, hey, at least she was trying. BrittSorry I missed the show. I bet you were great. Your dad called, call him back tonight. Love, Mom If had called my father back that day, as the note suggested, I wouldn’t have been so surprised when, on Christmas eve, he didn’t arrive at the house to pick me up. He answered his cell on the third ring, sounding haggard and so much older than I remembered. If voices aged, they grew deeper, scratching in the throat, scarred with a lifetime of lies that scrape up your esophagus from your gut like broken glass. “Daddy?”

“Hey, babygirl,” he sighed, using the nickname I both despised and adored. I could hear him take a deep drag on his mentholated cigarette and release it with a rumbling cough. “What’s up?” “Daddy,” I repeated, staring out the kitchen window, as though watching the street would make him appear. “Are you stuck in traffic?” There was a long, empty pause, followed by the smoldering of lit tobacco being sucked through a fiberglass filter. “Jesus,” he said on the exhale. “Britt, I thought you mom had told you.” My breath hitched in my throat and I closed my eyes, knowing what he was going to say before he said it. “You’re not coming.” “No, babygirl,” he mumbled, sounding genuinely apologetic. “I’m not. I swear, I told your mom to tell you, or to have you call me so I could talk to you myself. You never called, so I just assumed…” When you’ve been let down as many times as I had been, something like this was not enough to get you upset. Upset would imply that I had some expectation, and I’d learned quickly, after my parents’ divorce, that there was nothing to expect but disappointment. In that way, I’d gotten exactly what I was waiting for. “What happened this time?” There was a flick of flint against metal as he lit another cigarette. “Sharon wanted to go see her family in Michigan,” he explained. “Her dad’s not doing so good and she wanted to spend the holidays with him. I can’t take you out of the state, or the judge won’t let me see you anymore, you know that. It just wasn’t happening this time. I’m sorry, I know how much you wanted to see Courtney. She’s been asking about you.” I sat down at the kitchen table, pressing my forehead to the plastic top and sighing. “You could have asked mom,” I muttered, more to myself than him. “Can I talk to Court?” “Sure, babygirl.” He shouted her name without attempting to cover the mouthpiece, and it reverberated through my phone so loudly that it shook against my ear. A moment later a small voice came through the line. “Brittany?” I couldn’t help but smile. “Hey, munchkin. How’s Michigan?” “Cold,” she grumbled, and in my mind I could see the pout she gave when she was displeased with her situation. “Daddy promised to take me sledding at the dunes but mama said she doesn’t want me that close to the water.” I smirked and shook my head. Sharon was a lot of things, but first and foremost, she was a worrier. I was ten when Courtney was born, and my mom had driven me up to Akron to see her.

Sharon had never been very kind to begin with, but the most vivid memory I have of her is that day in the hospital, when I reached into the clear plastic cradle to touch Courtney’s hand. That’s all I’d wanted, really; to touch her. She was so small, so pink, and she terrified me. But she was my sister – my half sister. Half me, half someone else, and I needed to know if I could feel pieces of myself in her. If I held her hand, did it feel like holding my own? I’d only wanted that, to make sure that we were both real, and wholly our own. But as I reached over the edge of the box Sharon, from her hospital bed, had shrieked in a way that I had never heard before. “Daniel!” She shouted my father’s name, not mine. “Get her away from the baby! She hasn’t washed her hands, she doesn’t know what she’s doing!” He’d swooped in, scooping me up like I was still a baby myself, and held me over the bassinet to watch her squirm in her swaddling, disturbed to wakefulness by her mother’s outburst. “Better not upset Sharon today, kiddo,” he warned softly without allowing anger into his tone. “Best just look. You’ll have plenty of time to get to know her later.” Nearly seven years had passed, and she was still shouting at me to wash my hands. “I’m sure Daddy will take you,” I reassured her. “He keeps his promises. And a promise is a promise.” But only when it comes to Courtney. “Brittany, why didn’t you come to see me?” she asked. “I miss you and you said you’d teach me how to ride the big girl bike.” Our father had removed the training wheels from her bike back in September and had attempted vainly to get her to ride it. As little as she was, her stubborn streak had taken over and she flatly refused to even sit on the thing until I was there to help her. “It’s a little cold for bike rides, Court,” I answered, turning my head to rest my temple against the table so I could look out onto the snow-covered street. “When the ice melts, I promise, I’ll teach you.” “A promise is a promise?” “Yeah, Court,” I sighed, leaning the phone against the side of my head and dropping my hands so it rested there unaided; my arms were so tired. “A promise is a promise.” “Okay!” she shouted so excitedly that I winced at the sound, and I was abruptly handed off to my father, who returned to the line with a heave. “She misses you.” “I miss her, too. But it’s not my fault I never get to see her.”

I could hear him scratching his head, searching for a good answer. “I know it’s not, Britt. But me and your mom, we both just got so busy. Commuting between Lima and Akron ain’t easy. We’ll make a plan for March, how’s that? Don’t you have another week off around Easter?” He sounded like he was striking a good deal, optimism in his voice like he was doing me a favor. But Easter would mean another three months between visits. Three months of not seeing Courtney. “Sure, dad,” I grunted somewhat sarcastically. “Easter.” “Easter it is,” he said, smug with himself and not catching my tone. “Love you, Brittany. Say hi to your mom.” He hung up before I could say goodbye, and I left my head on the table with my eyes closed as the phone drifted from my ear to my cheek. My suitcase sat by the door, packed for a week and now useless. My mother was working, and the hours she wasn’t would be spent sleeping. As much as I thought the disappointment wouldn’t phase me, I found myself crying silently in the dark kitchen. And there was no one else I knew to call when I was crying other than Santana. “Hey, you,” she said warmly when she answered. “I need you,” I sniffled, without returning her greeting. “What happened?” Her tone changed abruptly, and concern seeped through the phone. “I thought you’d be in Akron by now.” I wiped my nose on the sleeve of my McKinley High Athletics sweatshirt and shook my head, even though she couldn’t see me. “No, something came up. Can you come over, just for a little while? I know it’s Christmas Eve, but I really don’t want to be alone.” “I’ll be there in ten minutes.” I could already hear her keys jangling in her hand, and her father calling out to her in Spanish in the background. She cupped her hand over the receiver to muffle her voice, but I distinctly heard my name mixed in with the jumble of Spanish phrases that I had yet to learn from Mr. Schue. “San, don’t get in trouble for me. It’s Christmas eve, and you-“ “I said,” she cut me off, returning to the phone with an accompanying slam of her front door. “I’ll be there in ten minutes. My parents can survive the midnight mass without me. I would’ve done nothing but complain the whole time anyway.” I grinned, catching her in her lie. “No, you wouldn’t, San. You like going to church, especially at Christmas.”

She snorted, trying to cover up her giggle and I heard the soft dinging of her car when she sat down and put the keys in the ignition. “You’re right, but so what? Jesus will still love me at the morning service.” She’d always loved going to Sunday mass with her mother, even when we were kids. She’d been so confused when I asked her what being a Catholic meant. Like she had never met someone that hadn’t been inside of a church before. She brought me with her to catechism when we were nine, like I was part of her show and tell. “This is Brittany.” She introduced me to the small group of kids in a basement classroom of the parish center. “Mom says she’s a heathen.” That had sent a ripple of laughter through the rest of the students and the aging nun at the front of the room bristled like a challenged peacock. I hadn’t wanted to go back after that, fearing that the imposing nun would see me and I’d be burned alive in the hell she spoke so fiercely about during the lesson. But somehow Santana convinced my mother that midnight mass on Christmas Eve wouldn’t send me home in the same tears I’d come back with after meeting the nun, and so I went. Fear clenched my stomach on the drive over, but she held my hand tightly in the back seat of her mother’s car. She pulled me behind her through the massive and seemingly immovable double doors, past the stained glass renditions of Christ performing his miracles and dying horrifically on the cross. In the pew she sat next to me and put a hymnal in my lap, pointing out the beauty that surrounded us. The massive cathedral was decorated in sheets of red velvet and gold lamé. The entire expanse smelled of thick, heady incense that burned from several shining brass thuribles, round metal balls filled with lit coals that were swung carelessly by tired altar boys. A life-sized display of the nativity scene was set up near the marble baptismal font in the grand foyer, and a gold paten and chalice were on display at the back of the church. Later, after we’d sung our O Holy Night’s and Angels We Have Heard On High’s, these were processed ceremoniously to the altar, where a large bald man in the most beautifully embroidered white robes stood and blessed them. He raised his hands and stared at the ceiling, a passion in his eyes that I had never experienced before. He begged God to take our sins, and make the bread and wine before him into the body and blood of Christ. Santana told me later, when I fearfully asked her if she’d really eaten a man’s body and blood, that it was just a metaphor. The thin, yeasty wafers they pressed to their tongues were just bread, but it was part of having faith. God had blessed these things, and by taking them into their bodies they were taking parts of Christ. They became worthy of God. It was all so terrifyingly beautiful. Santana loved the tradition of it all; the ritual, the repetition, the songs. Church was where she learned to sing, and where she learned that lifting her voice in song made it easier for God to hear her over the millions of other people who begged him for help. “When I sing,” she told me once. “God listens a little bit closer.” But, she clarified, only when she sings in church. Which made her reluctance at joining and participating in glee more

understandable when we hit that crossroad a few years later. What was she singing for, if not for God? The headlights of her car lit up the kitchen through the open window, but I didn’t get up to meet her. She knew where the hide-a-key was and immediately went for it, not seeing any lights on in the house. “Britt?” she called nervously as she pushed open the front door. “Are you here?” The front hallway extended down the length of the house, with the living room to the immediate right and the kitchen to the left. She paused in between the two open doorways, and I shifted slightly in my chair, making her jump. “Jesus,” she hissed, clasping her hand to her throat. “Why are you sitting in the dark?” I shrugged as she came over to sit with me, not bothering to turn the lights on as she went. She pulled a folding chair closer and spun it around so she could sit straddling the back. “Dunno. I guess I didn’t think I’d still be here when I needed the lights on.” She pushed my bangs aside, seeing in the light from the streetlamp how puffy they’d gotten from crying. “He bailed? Again?” I shook my head. “No, I fucked up. He called when we were at sectionals to tell me he wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t call him back, so I never got the message.” “So he did bail.” “I guess.” There wasn’t really a way to argue in his favor, so I just sighed, dejected. She cupped my cheek in her fingers. “Did you talk to Court, at least?” Her hand was still cold from the below-freezing temperature outside, and I noticed for the first time that she had neither gloves nor a coat. Just a Cheerios hoodie and ear warmers. I leaned my head against her palm, letting her cradle me there for a moment before I wrapped my fingers around it and brought it to my mouth. I breathed heavily on her frozen extremities, rubbing them between both my hands to warm her. “Yeah, I talked to her,” I said, pressing her knuckles to my lips. “She still hasn’t gotten on the bike.” Santana’s face scrunched up, in that half-sad, half-adorable way a face does when something is both cute and unfortunate. Like a puppy falling off a couch. “Aww, B… at least you know she thinks about you.” But when do I ever think about her? “Yeah, that’s true, I guess.”

I let my two hands, still clasping hers, fall to the table. I stared at our intertwined fingers, knowing that she would never have allowed me to touch her as intimately as I just had if we were anywhere else. I pulled my arms back, leaving her hand empty. “Thanks for coming.” She snatched my hand back, miffed, and tugged on my arm. “Are you going to tell me the whole story, or are we going to sit here in the dark all night? I could be churching it up right now. You know how much I love incense. And Christmas music. ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, B. I could be caroling.” She was teasing. The smirk on her face was meant to cheer me up, and it felt like it worked. I blushed, trying to hide my grin. “I saw that,” she said triumphantly. “Come on. We can talk in the car.” She pulled me to my feet and dragged me toward the door before I could object, tossing my coat at me from the rack. “Where are we going?” “My place,” she replied, grabbing my suitcase by the handle and shoving me out the door in front of her. “You didn’t think I was going to come all the way over here and then leave you in an empty house, did you?” She locked the deadbolt and put the hide-a-key back while I gaped. I had thought I’d be alone, if only for a little while. Mom would be back by midnight, and then she’d leave at 9am for another shift. Technically, she would have been around. But Santana had other plans. The suitcase went in the trunk and the pair of us climbed into the freezing car, listening to the leather seats crackle under our weight. “Okay,” she prompted, blasting the heat and pulling out of the driveway. “Spill.” “There isn’t much to tell,” I shrugged, trying to dismiss the whole thing. “Sharon wanted to go to Michigan, he can’t take me out of the state, blah, blah, blah. I just missed the call. That’s all.” She scoffed, rolling her eyes as she rounded the corner off my street. “Should have known it was the step-bitch. Did he at least tell you when they’d be back? Maybe you can go over for New Year’s instead.” “He said Easter.” Her head whipped sharply to the right, her mouth hanging open in her patented look of disgust. “Easter?! Jesus, that’s in fucking March. How is that fair?” I shrugged again. She was angry enough for the both of us, and it felt nice to be able to brush it off and let her do the shouting for both of us. “It’s not meant to be fair. It is what it is.” Her hands clenched the steering wheel tightly, her knuckles white from the effort. She scowled, but kept her eyes on the road. It was late, definitely past curfew, and she still had a restricted

license. Getting pulled over on Christmas Eve was the last thing either of us wanted. “What it is is your father being a deadbeat. I don’t understand how you can take it, getting rejected over and over.” Practice, I thought with a morbid grin. I might as well have said it out loud. She bit her lip, worrying it between her teeth as we pulled onto her street. Even though she only lived a mile from me, our two neighborhoods were distinctly different. Mine consisted of small, single-family, ranch- or bungalow-style houses that were cookie cutters of one another. They were all haphazardly shingled and had dirty, fading aluminum siding and bars on the windows. A few had broken down cars in their driveways or backyards that sat on cinderblocks, being held as collateral for when the owner ran out of luck with his bookie. The streets often went unswept for days, and most residents had no qualms about decorating their lawns with pink flamingoes. Hers, on the other hand, sat immaculate and serene. The houses were palatial in comparison. Multi-storied with brick or cobblestone facades, most had large white pillars and double oak doors with brass lion-headed knockers. In the summer they had landscaping companies planting fresh flowers and maintaining lawns that were the perfect shade of green, without a flamingo or gnome in sight. Even in the dead of winter, the snow glistened whiter in the moonlight. Santana slowed as she turned into the circular drive of her house and pulled the Mustang into the garage beside her father’s BMW. The automatic door slid closed behind us with a whine, and she led me into the house after retrieving my bag. We didn’t linger in the common areas. As beautiful as her house was on the outside, the interior was even more so. Finished with deep reds and whites with black accents in the tables and molding, it felt both angry and strikingly cold, and had a noticeable lack of holiday decorations. On the far wall hung a giant crucifix, the face of Christ contorted in agony, making the image of this room as a torture chamber that much more believable. None of the couches were comfortable, and served more as talking points when the Lopezes entertained guests than actual furniture. Dr. Lopez was never home to sit on them anyway, and when he was he was usually locked in his study. The grand foyer and living room, therefore, were entirely for show. The décor had changed many times over the years, but one thing remained the same: the large, imposing family portrait above the working fireplace (that had never actually been used). Each year, Santana and her family sat for a portrait with an area photographer. The print was blown up to massive proportions, framed and mounted to the wall as the centerpiece of the room. Dr. Lopez, with his thick gray mustache and stern, cold glare, stood rigid at the back while his wife, an older and graying but equally beautiful version of Santana, stood unsmiling at his side. Santana herself sat in front of them, her lips set in a grim line. It was a mirror image of the photos taken for the last four years, but prior to that, there had been a fourth face in the Lopez family portrait. Now, placed on the mantle directly below the mounted frame, was a picture of young man with a rugged face and dark, tortured eyes. His hunter green beret was cocked perfectly to the right, his collared shirt crisp against a dark green button up jacket with brass

buttons across the lapels and shoulders. Across the left chest, just over his heart, were a series of multicolored bars, indicating years of service and accolades. A silver eagle sat just above that, and across his sleeve were the stripes of a captain’s rank. On his shoulder was a white-on-red caduceus patch, the twin snakes winding tenuously around a winged staff. At his rear an American flag, was draped patriotically across a blue backdrop. I paused to look at the photo of Martin Lopez, the older brother Santana rarely spoke of. His picture, surrounded by a dozen unlit candles encased in glass cylinders with religious figures on them, was held in a rustic, antique-style frame that stood out garishly against the harsh modern angles of the Lopezes’ living room. I turned to look out their large bay window at the front of the house, and sure enough, the white silk banner with the single blue star hung in the center. Santana stopped at the bottom of the stairs, seeing me pause and my eyes shifting back and forth between the photo and the window. “Britt?” she called, her treble stiff with sudden agitation. “Are you coming?” I spun immediately and smiled, pretending as though I hadn’t stopped and brought attention to the one thing that I knew to never speak about under any circumstances. Her expression softened, and she began lugging the heavy suitcase up the circular staircase. Her room was essentially its own apartment on the second floor. She had a separate dressing suite that you walked through to get to her bedroom, where she had her own bath and a set of private stairs that led down to the kitchen. Although the house wasn’t nearly old enough to ever actually contain them, she called these stairs the “servants’ passage”, because her father had insisted that their maid service use these rather than the main staircase to cart their equipment through the house. If she’d had a way to enter and exit the house from her room, she would have never seen her parents at all. She deposited the suitcase in a corner with a huff and flounced onto her king-sized bed, taking a few long, deep breaths. “You’re going to have to stay a week to make it worth carrying that thing up the steps, B,” she joked, rolling on her side and propping her head up on her fist. “C’mere.” I had been lingering at the doorway, eyeing my bag. My pills were inside, and I had neglected to take any before she’d arrived. I’d thought that I would have more time. My skin was already beginning to crawl, and the prospect of her bringing me into her bed while her parents were out at the Christmas mass was enough to made my stomach fold in on itself. Too many things had already gone wrong that day, and I was not about to invite more chaos down, not without a Xanax in my system at the very least. I was about to protest her invitation when a heavy chime from downstairs reverberated through the house, sounding the time. From her spot on the bed, she grinned and pushed herself to her feet, making my objections moot. On the sixth chime she reached me and snaked her arms around my waist, pulling me slowly into a tight embrace with her face buried in my neck. There she breathed. One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. On the eighth chime she began to sway,

moving both of us in time to a nonexistent melody, a movement I found so familiar. One-andtwo, three, four. On the tenth chime, she lifted her head and looked up at me, smiling. “Merry Christmas, B,” she whispered on the eleventh chime. And on the twelfth, she stood on her toes and kissed me. *** I woke before the sun, nauseous and sweating. Her body was wrapped around mine, the combination of flannel pajama pants and thermal sheets making my skin overheat. I stifled a groan into her downy pillows and shifted as gently as I could out from under her tight, desperate grasp. I’d always thought that, when you slept, your muscles relaxed. Santana became a vice in her sleep, and whatever she clung to was no match for her muscular hold. She grumbled in her sleep but didn’t wake, rolling away from me and curling into a tight ball to compensate for the sudden lack of heat. I crept silently to my bag, removed the hidden bottle, and shut her bathroom door behind me. I sat down on the closed toilet lid, clenching the bottle between my knees to get a better grip, and finally popped the child-proof cap open with a desperate grunt. Half the contents clattered to the floor as I dumped it over into my hand and I cursed quietly, listening at the door for movement from Santana. There was nothing but the sound of my own pulse, thread and frantic in my ears. I gathered my fallen pills, holding two between pressing lips while I struggled to return the cap to its place. I whimpered angrily, like a child unable to get her way, before stopping, taking a slow, deep breath, and exhaling. I counted backward from ten to calm myself down, and tried to make my hands stop shaking. When I reached zero, I still had a slight palsy in my right side, but I was no longer the wreck I had been. The bottle closed easier, and the deafening rush of blood through my ears had settled. I let the two tablets I’d been holding in my teeth wash to the back of my throat and I dry swallowed them, unsure that I could stand long enough to make it across the expansive bathroom to the sink. Instead I leaned back against the tank of the toilet, breathing. I wished the dull ache that had spread through my body would subside. It felt like I’d been hit by a car. Nothing was outwardly wrong, but my nerves endings vibrated with pain and my muscles ached, contracting on themselves. I was sure that my bones were as brittle as dry twigs, ready to snap with the wrong movement. My body was covered in a thin film of sweat and my hair was plastered to my forehead. Between that and my aching body, all I wanted was a hot shower. Hers was so close, and I knew that there was the possibility of waking her up. It had gotten to the point where I no longer cared. I stumbled awkwardly to the large shower stall that easily could have fit four of me. The water took only seconds to shift from cold to scalding, and I sat on the tile under the harsh stream, letting it scorch my skin and loosen my muscles. I didn’t hear her knocking on the door at first, and the quiet knock became a frantic pounding soon after. I didn’t have the energy to get the door myself, and gave a feeble shout to let her

know it wasn’t locked. I was glad of that, because it meant I didn’t have to leave the warmth of the shower. She flung the door of the shower stall open, making no sign to show she was embarrassed at my nudity. I figured that we’d both seen each other naked enough that it was more natural to be nude with one another than it was to be clothed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d blushed when she saw me undressed, but most days I couldn’t even look her in the eye when we were both in our Cheerios uniforms. “Brittany, what the hell?” She stared down at me, having opened the shower door, and watched as I curled into a fetal position on the tile. “Are you okay? It’s four in the morning.” “Don’t feel good,” I mumbled over the rush of water. “Close the door, it’s cold.” I expected her to huff and leave me be. Instead, Santana hesitated only a second before stripping off her pajama bottoms, tank top, and underwear and climbing in next to me. She sat with her back against the wall and pulled my head into her lap. She bent low to kiss my wet hair, brushing it out of my face and reaching up to find her shampoo. Her hands made quick work of rubbing it into my scalp, gently massaging my temples and neck, causing me to groan. There was nothing sexual about it, but I felt more vulnerable at that moment than I ever had when we were having sex. Santana worked silently, pulling the shower head down to rinse the shampoo from my hair, covering my eyes so nothing got into them. Next she took a bar of lavender soap and began to rub it across my shoulders, moving slowly over my arms, then my back and legs. Finally, she held the bar out to me without a word, offering it to me to wash myself in my more intimate areas. She was, if this is the proper term, a perfect gentleman. I turned down the soap, so she did it herself, tenderly, lingering no longer than she needed to before once again rinsing me clean. She pulled me fully into her lap, holding me to her chest and allowing the water to run tepid before turning it off and helping me to my feet. An indescribably fluffy towel was wrapped around my shoulders and she dried me off, once again pausing to see if I would take care of myself. Once again, I declined. She brought me back to her bed, and the only thing keeping me from collapsing was her firm hand at the small of my back. She eased me down on the bed, unwrapping the wet towel from my torso and using it to dab one last time at my hair before tossing it into the hamper. I recalled having been in a similar position – naked, lifeless, sitting at the edge of a bed – not that long before. It was a strange sense of déjà vu, considering how tired I was. The pills had worked their magic quickly, and when she crawled into bed beside me, pulling me into her chest, I felt nothing but a desperate need for sleep. I was drifting quickly in the dark. I felt my body slacken, and my breathing even out, but I was still in a state of semi-consciousness. The bed floated a few feet off the ground, swaying like a bassinet, rocking me. In the silence, Santana ghosted her lips across the back of my neck cautiously, testing to see if I was awake. I didn’t move, and she let them linger on my spine. “You have no idea how much you terrify me,” she whispered.

My lips wouldn’t form the words that pressed up from my stomach to my throat, so lay there, content to imagine that I’d said it and hope she could read my thoughts. About the same as you terrify me. But that’s okay. *** The bed was empty when I awoke to light filtering through translucent lace curtains. I had no idea what time it was, but based on how high the sun sat in the sky, I assumed it was late. I rolled onto my side, holding my spinning head and rubbing my eyes before searching the room for Santana. She was nowhere to be found. I stood gingerly, a slight hangover from the ache of the early morning lingering in my limbs. I dressed and checked my hair in the mirror in the bathroom, only to find my bottle of pills sitting conspicuously on the back of the toilet. I snatched it, storing safely away with a knot in my stomach before wandering slowly down the servants’ passage to the kitchen. “San?” I called, seeing no one there, but the remnants of a hastily made breakfast sat on the counter. “San, are you here?” I rounded the corner to the living room, where once again I was confronted with the Lopez family glare from the portrait. I stared at it, and at Martin’s directly below, suddenly desperate to find Santana before the sheer force of those stares bowled me over. “Santana?” I meandered down the main hall out of the living room. There were guest rooms at the end on the right, and on the left were the library and Dr. Lopez’s study. Normally the door was shut, but this time it was cracked just enough for a stream of light to tumble out into the darkened hallway. “Santana?” I eased the door open and saw her sitting in her father’s massive leather chair behind his equally massive desk. He was an imposing man of height and build, and the chair, with its brass rivets and stiff back, reflected that. She looked like a child, dwarfed by the size of it. She was running her fingers over a display of fountain pens, shifting from one to the next, as though memorizing them, but with this expression of utter despair on her stricken face. When she heard the door creak, she looked up. “There you are,” she said, correcting her face and grinning. “Did you sleep okay?” I nodded, toeing the Persian rug on the floor. “Yeah. I feel a lot better. You could have woken me up sooner, though. What time is it?” “Half past one,” she replied, standing and coming around the desk to take my hand and guide me from the room. Along the way, she stopped to adjust a stack of books that I’d bumped without noticing, making sure they were perfectly flush end to end before closing the curtain she’d

opened. She shut the door behind us and led me back down the hall, past the living room, and through the kitchen to a set of stairs leading into the basement. Here, I saw where all their Christmas decorations had been hiding. It was like the North Pole had vomited all over a nativity scene in the entertainment-roomturned-Christmas-Palace, but somehow it was still beautiful. There was a small tree in the corner next to a giant flat screen television, which was so heavily decorated that it teetered precariously when we entered the room. “D’you like it?” she asked, taking a seat on what was probably the only comfortable couch in the entire house. “I know the tree is small, but it’s all I could carry, so I figured-“ “It’s beautiful, San,” I said, interrupted her and plopping down next to her to take her hand. I realized quickly that she had done all this work herself. “The tree is perfect.” “You think so?” she asked, sounding unsure. “It felt a little Charlie Brown Christmas to me. Like it’s not really worthy of being here. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the house.” “That’s why it’s perfect,” I countered, leaning my head against her shoulder and admiring all the work she had done. “Hey… about this morning…” Her hand tightened on mine and she reached across herself to brush my bands aside. “Don’t worry about it,” she breathed, but I could hear a tinge of concern. “It’s what I’m here for.” “I know,” I nodded, separating our hands for a moment to link our arms, then immediately relacing my fingers through hers. “But you didn’t have to do all that… in the shower. I was okay.” “If that was okay I really don’t want to see what not okay looks like,” she responded, staring at the blinking lights in the tree. “I did what I needed to do, that’s all, alright?” “Alright.” I allowed the subject to drop, like I could tell she wanted. “Where are your parents?” “Dad’s working,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “He’ll be back for dinner. And mom went to her support group. I didn’t even know they had meetings on Christmas.” “Seems like that’s the one day of the year they’d need it the most,” I offered. “How’s she holding up?” Santana was growing progressively tenser next to me, and I knew we were approaching dangerous territory. It was entirely up to her how the rest of the conversation proceeded. “She’s good, I guess,” she said after a beat. “Better than last Christmas, but she’s still holding the vigil.” “What would a trip to the Lopez house be without a candlelight vigil?” I joked, trying to break the tension, but she just shrugged it off.

“I wish I could come home to a house where three hours of nightly prayer and a dozen scented candles weren’t the norm. I’d give anything for my parents to just yell at one another and get a divorce like everyone else in this godforsaken town.” “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” I returned, nudging her. “Look at me, alone on Christmas.” “In case you hadn’t noticed, I was going to be pretty alone myself.” I nodded, mentally noting that we were quite the pair. “Yeah. I noticed.” A door slammed upstairs and Santana jumped, ripping her arm away from mine and bolting to her feet. “Mija?” A voice floated down the stairs, the sound of age lingering in the speaker’s throat. “Mija, come help me with dinner. Your father will be home soon.” I looked over at Santana, who was staring at the steps like they were foreign objects. Her body was rigid and her fingers curled into tight balls. She shook them out, cracked her neck and took purposeful strides toward the stairs. “Come on,” she said from the bottom landing. “We have a dinner to make.” The graying woman in the kitchen was surprised when another person joined her and her daughter at the counter a moment later. “Oh, Brittany,” she observed, her voice thick with disdain. “Santana didn’t mention you were coming over today.” “She stayed the night, Mamí,” Santana prompted gently, almost submissively. “Remember? I missed mass to go get-“ “But you went to the morning service, sí?” Mrs. Lopez asked, as though she had forgotten her daughter hadn’t been with them the night before. The older woman’s tone was both desperate and angry. “Of course, Mamí,” Santana answered, subdued. So that’s why she was up and gone. “I said hello to Father Michael and gave alms. Don’t worry, I prayed for him too.” There it was. The mention that I had been waiting for. So fleeting, and ultimately vague enough that any outsider listening to the conversation wouldn’t have understood, but I did. Martin. Mrs. Lopez nodded with a sharp sniff, and went back to dicing her celery. Santana took the onion and handed me a tomato, and we went to silent work, chopping and mincing.

It’s difficult to describe an atmosphere such as the Lopez household, other than to say it lacked atmosphere. When her mother and Santana were in the same room, they might as well have been two thousand miles apart for all the attention they paid one another. They worked so seamlessly around each other, preparing different parts of the same meal without ever acknowledging the other or their place in the production. It was a well-rehearsed dance, the two of them sidestepping in turn to let the other through. It wasn’t cold, the thing between them. That would imply that either of them actually had some feeling, positive or negative, for the other. It was obvious that neither really cared if the other was present. It was the best show of indifference I’d ever seen, and I realized just how alike Santana and her mother really were. Santana’s parents were older than most, probably a full generation older than mine, who had had me too early, when they were still kids themselves. Mrs. Lopez would have been completely gray, had it not been for the expensive salon downtown that she paid good money to assist her in hiding her true age. She hadn’t gotten – or needed – plastic surgery, and her similarity to Santana was noticeable in every feature, right down to their matching scowls when they were deep in concentration. While they did their dance, I watched, like an audience to a play. Santana would hand me little things to do: slice this, baste that. But she never said another word to her mother. Being the middle of that felt suffocating, like two fleshy walls were closing in on me. I created so much tension by preventing them from going on as usual that Santana took a mixing bowl full of molè sauce from me and asked me to go set the table. I knew it was just to keep me from poisoning their mutual disinterest. I was surprised that I’d been entrusted with the fine china, considering my penchant for breaking things, but I laid everything out carefully while I listened to the silence from the kitchen. It was getting darker earlier, and by five that evening the sun had set and I was left wondering how long the mother-daughter charade would last. Santana came into the dining room and double-checked the table, adjusting goblets and napkins with military expertise so everything was even and set according to Miss Manners’ instructions. I could see that, as it grew later, she came more apprehensive in anticipation of her father’s return. I came up behind her as she fixed the silverware at the head of the long mahogany table, wrapping my arms around her, wanting to calm her down. But at my touch she spun so fast that she knocked over the heavy wooden chair and shoved me back abruptly. I stumbled into the wall causing the chandelier to shake. Her eyes were so wide I could see the whites on the tops and bottoms of her irises, and she pressed her hand to her chest to slow her own heartbeat. “What was that?” her mother called form the kitchen. “You didn’t break anything, did you?”

Santana never took her eyes from mine, nor did the panic settle, but her voice was so steady that I thought it had come from another person. “No Mamí,” she returned. “Brittany tripped. She’s fine.” “As long as my china is all in one piece,” came the indignant response, and I wrinkled my nose at both of them. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed silently, reaching out to me, but I put my hand up and shook my head. I was still reeling from the blow. I needed a minute. She took a step back when her mother came into the room carrying a tray of hors d’oeuvres. She chewed on her bottom lip, watching me doubled over, trying to catch my breath. “Is she okay?” Mrs. Lopez asked, eyeing me warily. “She looks like she might be sick.” Her concern wasn’t for me, but the expensive rug beneath my feet. “I’m fine,” I replied, trying to cut my irritated tone with gratitude and avoid allowing my resentment to show through. “Thank you, Mrs. Lopez.” She nodded curtly and went back to the kitchen, the swinging door creaking behind her. Santana waited until she heard the grind of a food processor to rush to my side. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, pulling me upright. “You scared me. You can’t… not here. Not when they’re right there.” She shot a panicked glance over at the kitchen, where the food processor stopped suddenly. Her hands trembled against my arms and I gently pushed her back, understanding. “Better not stand too close,” I said softly, and she began to breathe again, getting what I was trying to do: help her. Santana whirled at the sound of another door slamming, and heavy feet stamping off snow in the foyer. “He’s home.” It was not as though I’d never met the Lopezes before that night, but they had always kept a comfortable distance between themselves and their daughter, as well as her friends. They were polite, to a point, and then they gave up pretense and went about their business. Having been around them for eight long years, that pretense had long since been forgotten, and Dr. Lopez was the first to let me know it. “Maria, I’m starving,” he called as he rumbled through the front hall and into the living room, before stopping short when he saw the two of us in the adjacent dining room. “Oh. Company.” Santana gulped and lowered her eyes, taking a step toward her father. “Welcome home, Daddy,” she said demurely, standing on her toes to kiss Dr. Lopez’s cheek. “Brittany’s going to be staying with us for dinner, if you don’t mind.”

He stared at me, his eyes narrowed in the same way that Santana’s did. Except when he stared, more than an ounce of terror crept up my throat. “I don’t suppose we have another choice in the matter,” he said gruffly, dropping his briefcase in Santana’s arms and taking off the white coat he still wore. She took them both, nodding for me to follow her as she scurried down the hall to deposit the items in her father’s study. Santana’s hands were sweating and she wiped them nervously on her pants. I didn’t know what to do to calm her, as petrified as she was of being touched in her own home. “Whatever you do,” she warned in hushed whisper. “Don’t speak unless spoken to. Don’t mention Martin. And don’t look my father in the eye.” “Tell me what you need, San,” I asked, reaching out to touch her, then pulling back quickly when she recoiled in terror. “I can go, if it makes things easier.” The flicker in her eye before she shook her head told me that she’d almost said yes, I should go, but there was something much more prescient in the fact that, after I offered to leave, she took my hands in hers. “You can’t go,” she replied, her eyes shifting back and forth between the door and me. “I need you. God, I don’t think I’ve ever needed you more than right now.” She was petrified. Probably because of the fact that I was there, that her parents were sitting down to a meal with me for the first time in eight years. Or perhaps because she was just genuinely afraid of them. The most horrific thing about it all was the absolutely sense of powerlessness that Santana exuded; an emotion she was not quick to reveal. I squeezed her hands hard, just once, and pulled away. No use tempting fate. “Come on,” I suggested, taking a step toward the study door. “They’ll wonder where we are.” She let out a small snort, like she was skeptical about that, and followed me back to the dining room, where Mrs. Lopez was setting out a turkey and various side dishes: Spanish rice, molè con pollo, corn salad. We’d all worked on them together, but when Dr. Lopez finally took his seat at the head of the table, he only looked to his wife at the opposite end and grumbled his appreciation only to her. Santana made no move to correct him, instead staring at her empty plate. “Bless us, oh Lord,” began her mother, bowing her head for the blessing, the string of rosary beads wrapped around her wrist and hand clanking against her plate, and I mimicked her action. “And these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” The platters of food went around the table in absolute silence. I kept my head down, glancing up at Santana occasionally, only to see her nudging her food from one side of her plate to the other in an attempt to make it look like she was eating something.

“Santana, eat your food,” her father commanded. “Stop playing with it. Your mother made your favorites.” She shook her head and sighed, mumbling something indiscernible under her breath. “Excuse me?” Dr. Lopez raged. “If you have something to say, you say it clearly. No child of mine will mumble.” “I said, ‘They aren’t my favorites,’” she repeated a bit louder, still not lifting her head. “They’re Martin’s.” The mention of the name – the forbidden word I’d learned not to repeat – caused her mother to whimper at the other end of the table. The older woman stood and went to the mantle, lighting the religious candles around her son’s picture. “Goddamn it,” her father cursed, slamming his hand down on the table. “Maria get back to the table, now. We are not heathens. We do not leave the table before the meal is over.” Her mother hesitated. Her first mistake. “I said now!” She pressed two fingers to the glass and scampered back to her seat, wiping tears from her eyes. “You will sit at this table like a civilized human being, and stop that crying,” he hissed, pointing a deft finger at his wife. “He did not fly half way across the world to have his mother sobbing over him every second of the day. He’s a hero, and one day he’ll come back. And when he does you sure as hell won’t disrespect that boy with your tears.” Martin, though, was much less a boy than a man. He was nearing thirty now, their first and only son. Their pride and joy. A doctor himself, just like his father. Santana had never been part of their plan. But God giveth, and God taketh away. He took their son away to Afghanistan, and what they had left was their consolation prize. The defective little girl they’d never wanted in the first place. They’d told her as much, the day he enlisted four years earlier. Martin, of his own volition, hadn’t returned home since. I watched her face for some sign of a reaction. It remained blank, and she continued to shove the food around on her plate. She sunk low into her chair, trying to disappear in on herself, as though she could escape the looks of disapproval she was receiving from both ends of the table. “You had to go and say something,” her father spat. “We were having a perfectly pleasant meal before you went and upset her.” He jabbed his finger at Mrs. Lopez and she winced reflexively.

“I’m sorry,” Santana murmured, folding her hands in her lap, beaten. “Damn right, you’re sorry,” Dr. Lopez continued, ignoring my presence and directly his anger at his daughter. “Your brother is fighting in a war, healing the wounded soldiers who keep this country safe. What are you doing? Prancing around in a cheerleading skirt that’s far too short. Joining a glee club. Where are your extracurriculars? Your brother was student body president, captain of the football team, a youth minister and still found the time to ace his Advanced Placement exams. You’re wasting the gift God gave you, Santana. Wasting it. Stupid, stupid, stupid.” At this he glared at me, daring me to say a word. My mouth had opened to protest when I saw Santana’s jaw set hard to keep from quivering. The look silenced me and I sat back in my chair, studying the doctor. I avoided direct eye contact, instead opting to run my eyes over his thick, square frame. He did the same to me, sizing me up and letting out a scoff before rolling his eyes. “Pierdes el tiempo con ella, también,” he said to Santana in Spanish, shoving a forkful of turkey into this mouth and speaking as he chewed. “¿No puedes encontrar a amigos más inteligentes?” I didn’t understand what he was saying, but it was obvious that Santana did. She clenched her fists in her napkin and ground her teeth angrily. He took another bite and smacked his lips, gnashing at the meat before tossing me another look. I gathered that he was making an off-handed comment about me, masking it behind the language he knew I didn’t speak. “Puedes mejora.” “Stop.” The room froze, and her father lifted his head slowly, as though he wasn’t sure of what he’d just heard. He stared at Santana, his eyes in slits, and put down his fork carefully on the table. “What did you say?” “I said, ‘Stop.’” She was crying, tears streaming down her cheeks as she put her palms flat on the table and she looked at me, desperation in her eyes. “It’s one thing to say those things about me. Don’t say that about Brittany.” He had been talking about me. Something offensive enough to push her to speak up, which meant… well, I didn’t know what that meant. “This is my house, and I’ll speak to her or about her in any way I see fit,” he snarled, his fist pounding hard on the table, just once. “You bring her here, today of all days, and expect me to be welcoming? To an urchin, whose family can’t even provide for her? My heart was pounding in my chest. I wanted to get up, to run away, to hurl myself out the front door and into the perfect layer of snow that coated their front yard. I wanted to rip down their chandeliers and tear up their Persian rugs and declare their home more unfit than mine could ever be. But if I did that, if I left Santana, I didn’t know what would happen. So I sat in silence, taking

the assault with as much grace as I could muster, my hands folded in my lap so I could hide the fact that I was digging my nails into my palms. “They’re doing their best, Daddy,” Santana returned, her voice faltering, losing her resolve, but not backing down. “And she’s my best friend. She doesn’t deserve this.” “You don’t like it?” Dr. Lopez snapped to his feet, knocked his chair backward angrily and slamming his fork down, cracking the china plate. “Then get her out of my house. And don’t come back until you learn some respect. Useless fucking asshole. Maria, clean this up.” He walked away from the table, leaving the three of us with our mouths hanging open. “Now look what you’ve done,” her mother whimpered, clutching at the rosary around her wrist and fingering the well-worn beads one by one. “What I’ve done?!” Santana growled furiously, her mascara staining her cheeks, and got to her feet. “Come on, Britt. I’ll take you home. Merry fucking Christmas.” She darted so quickly from the table that I barely saw her take the stairs in the kitchen up to her room. She was already packing my bag for me when I got there, and moments later we were in her car. The whole time she was shaking with rage, her face contorted so heavily that I was honestly afraid to be near her. Her face burned red to the tips of her ears as she drove in silence. Her breathing was ragged, like she’d been running, and I reached out to her, taking a risk and gently placing my fingertips on the crook of her arm. All at once, she burst. A violent sob, not unlike the one she’d experienced in the locker room, ripped from gut. She took her foot off the accelerator and allowed the car to coast to a crawl in the middle of the street while she grabbed frantically at me, pulling me to her. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she blubbered into my shoulder, nearly incoherent. “He didn’t mean it. Please. Forgive me.” The car was still slowly inching forward, forgotten in her anguish, and I pushed the shifter into park before grasping at the back of her jacket. I fisted the material, pressing my lips to her ear. “This was not your fault,” I reassured her, trying to be strong when I was shaking nearly as bad as she was. “And he did mean it. But that’s okay. I don’t care about him. I care about you. Santana, look at me.” She buried her face deeper into my coat, struggling for breath. I recognized the shallow wheezing; it was a panic attack. “Santana, sit up,” I commanded. “Breathe. Look at me.” She obeyed, her eyes so swollen that I could barely see her irises behind heavy lids. She sucked hair in rapidly through her mouth, the sharp gasping caused by a closed windpipe making her

sound like she was drowning. Her nose ran freely and her hands gripped the lapels of my coat so tightly that I thought she might rip them off. None of it mattered, as long as she couldn’t breathe. It was clear that she wasn’t going to regain control on her own, and being in the awkward position next to her, I saw only one way I could help. I reached around her as she swallowed at the air and unbuckled her seatbelt. I gently pulled her hands from my coat and she whimpered, needing something to hold on to. “I’m right here,” I told her, opening my car door and backing out slowly. “I’m not going anywhere.” I went around to the driver’s side and slid my arms around her, pulling her out of her seat. She couldn’t drive, let alone walk, so I lifted her, using my last ounces of strength to carry her across the front of the car and over to the passenger side, depositing her there. Despite the fact that I didn’t have a license, I knew how to drive. It had always been an issue of driving while intoxicated. But that moment I was running entirely on adrenaline, the drugs having escaped my system somewhere between her father’s outburst and our escape to her car. I was clear headed for the first time in as long as I could remember, and it neither ached nor burned. All I felt was the desperate need to take her home, and get her to a place where we could both feel safe. I shifted uneasily into drive and let the car creep forward, tapping my toe to the gas while she clung to my right arm, still sobbing and gasping for air. We were so close to my house, but too far to walk. We needed to move, and fast. I steeled myself, and pressed down on the accelerator. Lurching forward, I got us the half-mile back to my house without damaging anything other than her steering wheel under the digging of my fingernails. My mother’s car was in the driveway when I pulled in, and there was a light on in the living room along with the flicker of the television. I checked my watch; just past eight in the evening. She wasn’t supposed to be home until midnight. There wasn’t time to waste wondering, so I parked and pulled Santana out of the car, her face nearly white and her breathing slowing, but still not evening out. I slung her arm over my shoulder and lifted her again, carrying her to the stoop and kicking at the front door with my foot. “What the- Brittany?” My mother stood agape at the door as she saw me, Santana curled in my quickly-weakening arms, and immediately stood aside to let me through. I took her to the couch and laid her down, kneeling on the carpet by her head. I rubbed the side of her head, her hair falling loosely around her face while she panted, looking up at me through slitted eyes, her hand clenching mine ferociously. My mother came up behind me and put my hand on her shoulder. I turned to look at her, and she cocked toward the kitchen, beckoning me to follow her. “Mommy…” I pleaded, begging her not to make me leave Santana alone. She looked down at the girl convulsing in tears on her couch, her eyes confused and uncertain but altogether compassionate and maternal. She nodded, not questioning me, setting her shoulders back and moving past me to sit down next to Santana’s head.

“Come on, San,” she said softly, pulling her by her shoulders so her head was resting in my mother’s lap. She fought for a moment, unable to speak but terrified all the same of being touched. Mom pressed her hand firmly to her forehead, holding her against her body and shushing her as she began to rock. “Shhhh, it’s alright. We’re here. It’s going to be okay.” I remained rooted to my spot on the floor, my eyes locked with Santana’s, watching the panic melt into confusion at the tender, maternal touch. She clung to me, and I leaned against my mother’s knees, my face inches from Santana’s. I reached out and gently ran my finger across her cheek, wiping away the black rivers that ran from her eyes. Her breathing slowed, and her eyes slipped shut a few minutes later as my mother rubbed her back. Neither of us said anything until we were sure Santana was asleep. When she finally spoke, she did so in just above a whisper so we didn’t disturb the unconscious girl in her arms. “You don’t have to tell me what happened now,” she began, reaching out a free hand to run her fingers down my cheek. “But I need to know how I can make sure this never happens again. Okay?” I pulled my attention from Santana long enough to look up at her, and saw that she, too, was crying. “Mom, I…” I didn’t know how to thank her. In theory, she was a stranger to Santana, but here she sat, cradling her like a child. Like her own mother ought to. And I let my heart explode for both of them. “You love her very much, don't you.” It wasn’t a question, but an observation born of several years of “Of course,” I replied, looking back at Santana and smiling sadly. “She's my best friend.” I felt her shaking her head through Santana’s motionless form. “You and I both know it's more than that.” My throat clenched tightly, terror gripping at me. “I don't know what you're-“ “It's okay, baby,” she interrupted, that hand coming to rest on my cheek once more before cupping my chin and pulling it to make me look at her. “I love you. I love her. Nothing you could ever tell me – about either of you – will change that.” I shifted my eyes back and forth between her and Santana, the last of the adrenaline draining from my body. I leaned myself against her legs, my head on her thigh by Santana’s. “I love her, Mommy,” I whispered as her hand stroked the side of my face comfortingly. “She’s everything. But it’s all so fucked up. We’re so broken, I don’t know how to help us.”

She didn’t chide me for my language, clicking her tongue to silence the negative talk. “Thank you for telling me,” she whispered. “We’ll figure it out in the morning. It’ll be okay. I’m here.” With my hand in Santana’s, and my mother’s hand on my head, I closed my eyes. It was all so much. There were battling feelings of rabid uncertainty and elated relief, and neither could win in the midst of my exhaustion. So I slept, with the two people who loved me most in the world doing the same nearby.

18

Once More With Feeling

I stroked Santana’s hair while she slept late into the morning, unmoving. Mom had needed to leave for work, and had gently lifted Santana’s head from her lap so I could take her place. Before she left, she stood at the doorway, watching us together. Her bank blazer was slightly wrinkled, and she looked tired from her night on the couch with Santana and I, but she was smiling. It had been so long since I’d seen her do that. “You’re so much braver than you think you are,” she commented absently, as though she were thinking aloud. “You’re not my little girl anymore. When did that happen?” She left before I had a chance to respond, but I don’t know that I would have come up with an acceptable answer if she’d stayed. Brave was the last thing I thought myself to be and I felt like more of a child on that night than I ever had before. I was helpless, unable to do anything for my best friend beyond holding her while she slept, whimpering softly at a dream. I imagined that was something like what she’d felt the previous morning in the shower. I couldn’t bear to wake her, so I sat on the couch, running my fingers through her hair. The silence was peaceful to a point, and then I felt my skin crawling once more, but not enough to make me disturb the first peaceful night’s rest she’d had in probably months. So I bit my lower lip, worrying it between my teeth, and tried to think of something other than the need for a pill. I started humming indiscriminately, no particular tune in mind, and softly so as not to wake Santana. At first it was to drown out the steady rhythm of my own pulse in my ears, the reminder that I was going on twelve hours sober. It was an unconscious reaction, to shift from a hum to a song, my vocal chords finding the notes before my brain processed the decision. I was busy thinking about other things: Santana, the dinner, the Charlie Brown Christmas tree in her basement. Anything to take my mind off the vibrating of my skin. But then, as I felt Santana’s sleep-whimpering quiet, I did it more to calm her than myself. “So high tonight, and I don't feel like coming down,” I said softly, the melody lost in my whisper. “I could lie to you all my days, but you're the one. You’re the one.” The tight grip she had on my hand loosened for the first time all night, but she didn’t move. I found the notes to the song that was now looping through my mind, another distraction from the innate distaste I had for being sober. “And I'm a fool for waiting so long… to let you know…” Come around Come around

Come around Come around to me There's something in between You and I Come around Come around to me She didn’t stir, and I gently leaned over her so I could see her face. I pulled strands of dark hair out of the way. Her expression was calm, the bridge of her nose no longer scrunched but slack, and her mouth hung open just so. I grinned. You feel like breathing Come around Come around Come around Come around to me I tucked the loose hair behind her ears, marveling at how small they seemed. I ran my index finger around the shell and down the curve of her chin to her lips, parted just enough for her heavy breath to slip through. Like summer light Won't you come Lay a ray down You're the one I could run I could run for the life of me But where would that get me? Where would that lead? She shifted as I looked over her, and I stilled. The music continued in my head while I stifled my mouth. I watched her, silent, and a frown crept across her face. She was awake after all. “Why’d you stop?” she asked, her eyes still closed. “That was a beautiful song.” I tried to sound angry, but it was difficult, watching her wriggle closer to my body. “How long have you been awake?” “Somewhere around the time you called yourself a fool,” she replied, rolling onto her back and looking up at me. The light from the front window made her eyes glint and when she smiled at me, completely at ease with her head in my lap, she seemed more at peace than I’d ever seen her. “Finish the song, B.” “Those were just lyrics,” I corrected quickly, averting my gaze in embarrassment. “I didn’t really mean…” The look she gave me was skeptical and I sighed. “You weren’t supposed to hear that. I can’t finish now.”

She squeezed my palm, still held in hers from the night before. “Sure you can. Just like in glee club. Sing to me.” I ran my finger down the side of her face and nodded, picking up at the chorus, just before the bridge. And I'm a fool for waiting so long Please, come around Come around Come around Come around to me There's something in between You and I Come around Come around to me She studied me as I sang to her, my voice lower and more reserved with the knowledge that she could hear me. It didn’t help that she was laying so intimately against me while I serenaded her with this pleading song that begged her to love me. But she never broke eye contact, even when I blushed and squeezed her fingers in mine. Can't you see You're my life line? Come around Come around Come around Come around to me I broke her intense gaze and sang the final chorus while looking out the window. When I finished she remained quiet for a bit, and we both knew what the other was thinking. “Maybe we should talk,” I said at last, changing the subject entirely. “About yesterday.” She nodded, not moving from my lap. I looked down at her, seeing her mouth set in a grim line. It wasn’t going to be an easy conversation. “You didn’t tell me it had gotten that bad,” I prompted, nudging her shoulder softly. “All those nights you spend over here, and you never said a word.” “I didn’t want to worry you,” she replied, readjusting her hand in mine so our fingers laced together. “You seemed like you had – have – a lot you’re not telling me, too.” My cheeks burned red and I averted my eyes, embarrassed. I was not as stealthy as I’d hoped I was. “I take it you still haven’t heard from Martin?”

She shook her head. “No. His last letter was sent from Kabul, with his new deployment orders. He lets us know where he’s been and where he’s going, but beyond that, the only way we know he’s not dead is because we haven’t had a visit from the army chaplain yet.” There was no bitterness in her tone, despite the fact that Martin was the main cause of much of her and her parents’ pain. If he hadn’t left, nothing would have changed. They could have gone on pretending to be happy and things might not have been great, but they would have been better than the way she was living now; like a pariah in her own home. “Why doesn’t he come back?” I asked curiously, still not understanding his decided lack of interest in the family that had raised him. “He’s got to have furlough or leave or something.” “My father says he’s a broken soldier,” she said with a sigh. “One too many tragedies and no way to deal with them all. He doesn’t know how to be anything but a warrior anymore. His platoon is his family now, not us. Mom knows the only way he’s going to come home is in a body bag. It’s why she gets so upset when we talk about him. I think he doesn’t come back because he doesn’t want a reminder of the way he used to be. It’s okay. I get it.” I held my tongue to keep from blurting that I knew why she understood, that she wanted to change her family in much the same way that Martin had. But I knew better. Despite the way they treated her, she still loved them. They were her parents. They hadn’t always been like that; distant and cold, even angry. When she was younger, and Martin had been around, she was lavished with gifts and Martin doted on her as the protective older brother. Her parents, loving Martin the best, followed suit. Once Martin was no longer around to show them how she ought to be treated, their attitudes changed abruptly. With his departure for boot camp came their resentment of the burden she represented, and she soon realized that she would be a poor substitute for the child they loved the most. She was left confused and desperate for the affection she’d once been given but was now denied. “What are you going to do now?” She cocked her head up to look at me, squinting. “What do you mean?” “You can’t go back to your house,” I told her firmly. “Not after last night.” She pulled her hand from mine for the first time in more hours than I could count, and I was left with the loss like a hole in my chest. She sat up, her hair in a halo of tangles, and inched backward to look me more clearly in the eye. “What do suggest I do, Britt?” she asked, her tone biting. “Where do you think I should stay? Here? Should I move in with you and your mom, play house, like everything is normal? Maybe you want me to make nice with the glee kids to take my mind off my horrible family and how awful they treat me?”

I should have expected her reaction, but I didn’t. She wasn’t just angry, she was livid. I’d crossed a line, talking about her family. Even though she knew that I was right, that she ought not go back, she was too proud and too loyal to ever admit as much. “San, I didn’t mean-“ “Maybe your family functions a little differently than mine,” she spat. “Maybe your mom cares about your friends enough to sit with them all night while they cry. Maybe she listens to you tell her you're in love with another girl, and instead of kicking you out, she tells you she loves you no matter what. My mom doesn't do that. She would never...” she trailed off, her words catching in her throat in her own horror. The realization that she had been awake the whole time I was talking to my mother hit me like a truck. She swallowed, setting her shoulders, and her rage returned full force. “But she's still my mom. The only one I've got. You of all people should respect that.” She got to her feet and went to gather her coat, eager to escape the confines of my living room, of my company. She searched the floor for her discarded shoes, her back to me. “Santana, stop.” She halted in the middle of the room, but didn’t turn to face me. I stood and went to her, my knees weak in my sober state. But I needed to be strong; stronger than Santana’s anger, stronger than her sadness. I took her by the wrist and she tensed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.” “Of course you didn’t,” she returned shortly, but the bite had dissipated some. “I'm not going to just leave them." I shook my head. "I wouldn't ask you to." “But you did,” she countered, her voice changing dramatically, lowering to a frightened whisper. “You think you're sneaky, Britt. You think I didn't know. Sing me that song again, B. Tell me what that meant to you.” She turned then, and I was stunned into silence. When had it grown so easy to profess everything but the one thing I want to tell her the most? "You told your mom last night,” she pressed on, taking a desperate step toward me. “Tell me now. Tell me what I already know.” “San, I don't-“ “Don't lie to me!” she shouted, yanking her arm away furiously. “Not you, B. I could take it from anyone but you. We've done this dance long enough. I can't do it anymore. I'm so tired of it all. Just tell me. Tell me!”

I was pacing as she shouted, biting my lower lip and packing at my nail beds, tears welling at the corners of my eyes. She knew. She’d heard. Had she known before that night? How long had we been skirting around one another, so close and yet never saying what we were thinking? “I can’t.” It was instinctual; to protect this secret I’d been carrying with me. I’d invested so much of my energy into making sure that this was my reality, that I never came up with a plan for the day that maybe the fantasy came true. “Yes, you can,” she prompted, her eyes afire. “You've said it before.” “It didn't mean as much as it does now,” I hissed, my stocking shuffling across the floor, picking up static while I paced. “If I say it, if I tell you and I get the same answer I did before, I don't think I could survive it.” She reached out to me, stopping my movement and holding us both so still that I swear I could hear her heart beating quick, in time with mine. “Try me,” she said desperately, her grip tight on both my wrists. “Tell me again, see what my answer is. Please.” I searched her eyes, hoping they would show me something I was missing. Why did I have to be one to say it? I’d done my due diligence before, and I’d been emphatically shot down. She’d been given her chance, and here she was, begging for another. Or was it a third chance? A fourth? Did it even matter? All that mattered was that she was begging. Santana Lopez did not beg. I saw that something I was searching for in that gesture. She couldn’t be the one to say it because she was just as terrified as I was. Terrified that she’d missed her shot. I leaned into her, a heavy sigh on my lips that weighed them down, preventing them from moving to shape my words. She pulled me closer, our hips and foreheads meeting in the silence. We were both trembling. I pressed the bridge of my nose to her neck, grazing the soft flesh at the groove and breathing in her scent. She was musky, sweating anxiously. I considered, for a moment, not being able to take in the smell of her again, of not being allowed to make her anxious. The thought of that made my chest clench angrily. I knew, then, what I had to tell her. “Santana…” I started, my words getting lost between my mouth and her skin. “Brittany…” she returned, lifting her palm to cup the back of my neck, pulling gently so I was forced to look her in the eye. I wanted to look her in the eye, but even after all that, I was scared. Even though I knew, and she knew, what we both wanted to say. Saying it out loud made it real. We both needed a moment to prepare ourselves for the consequences of that.

The pad of her thumb dusted lightly across the base of my skull, just below and behind my ear. That rubbing thing she knew I couldn’t resist. I leaned into it, sighing. Now or never. Now or never. Now or— “I love you.” I exhaled, the words sounding nothing like any other time I’d said them to her before. “I love you so much that it’s hard to breathe. You touch my arm and my entire body goes nuclear. One look from you and everyone and everything else disappears. I love you so much I could die of it, San. Die.” Her hand didn’t move from my neck, and she listened so intently as I rambled nonsensically. Her expression was soft, her eyes shifting back and forth between mine and my lips. But she stood silent, and still. “Say something,” I begged, fearing my words were once again falling on unwilling ears. She licked her lips and took a practiced breath in, preparing herself. “I told you once,” she started slowly, lifting her chin up to level her face with mine as best she could. “That I didn’t deserve you. It’s still true. But I think – I mean, I know – that without you there would be no me. I exist because you will me to. I exist because you love me. I exist to love you back.” She stood on her toes and pressed her lips to mine and my knees, having held up so well in the face of everything else, finally gave beneath the strain. She caught me, both arms cradling my weight as she lowered us to the ground. She sat with her legs spread and leaned back against the front of the couch, pulling me between her thighs and holding my back to her chest. My limbs were limp and immobile, but she gripped them across my body, her lips tracing circles over my shoulder. I’d expected tears. Large, wallowing, terrified tears that usually appeared when one of us got overwrought or emotional. But none came. It was as though an easy calm had settled over the house like a blanket, swaddling us both together. We were done with tears, she and I. At least we could be happy with the knowledge that we were no longer dancing around one another. We had taken so long to get to that moment, torturing ourselves along the way, and for what? The sky hadn’t opened up, lightening hadn’t struck. I think we both half expected it to. But no; there was nothing but quiet, the rhythmic thump of her heart beating against my back, and her deep breathing in my ear. I settled back into her body, letting her arms envelope me. She ran her palms down the tops of my arms until her hands were on mine, and she slid each of her fingers in between. I trembled at the fire under my skin when she touched me, and she squeezed me closer, not realizing that what I was shuddering at. I closed my eyes and the tremors eased as I took deep, rasping breaths through my nose and expelled them through my mouth. I rathered that I keep her arms around me, even though it hurt, than pull away from her. “Now what?”

Her laughter broke the dreaded silence and echoed in the empty house. Pressed her lips to my neck then rested her chin on my shoulder. “I have no fucking idea, B.” As uncertain as she was, it didn’t leave me in a panic. The not knowing was overshadowed by the knowledge that she loved me. That was enough certainty for one day, I thought. “Can we just sit like this for a while?” she asked quietly, her mouth tenuously close to my ear. I nodded, turning my head just enough to allow my lips to reach hers and I whispered into them before kissing her softly. “I’d like that.” Her grip around me tightened, but at the same time she relaxed further back against the couch, taking me with her. “Good. Because I have you now, Britt. I’m never letting you go.” Never should have been a frightening prospect. She put the full weight of her sincerity behind the statement, and I knew that she meant it. But there was something more comforting in the notion of forever than any 16-year-old should have been prepared for. In hindsight, it was a harbinger. Never is difficult to promise. Forever is nearly impossible. But we were both happy enough to lie to ourselves, because lying was the closest to happy we’d ever been.

19

Devil’s Advocate

No decisions were made on the floor of my living room. We simply sat like that, my back resting against her chest with her knees brought up at my sides. Her arms were draped across my stomach, hands gripping opposite elbows. Every once in a while she would murmur something incoherent in my ear about school or Cheerios. To her credit, she was trying to have that practical conversation where we talk about what would happen when we left the safety of my shag-carpeted front room. Neither of us, though, were keen on practical application. Theoretically, we were going to sit like that forever. Just like she promised. Funny thing about theory is that it’s so much harder to apply to reality without first testing a hypothesis. And in order to test our hypothesis, we had to get up off the floor. True to her word, she gathered her things to go home after an extended goodbye in the hallway in front of my door. It seemed that once we’d broken that invisible barrier that had been standing between us – the dance we’d done, avoiding our feelings – she was unable to detach herself from me, and I from her. The taste of her lips on mine, uninhibited by our emotional baggage, was sweeter than anything I’d experienced. It was nearly enough to drown out the persistent rush of my pulse as my heart sped up and slowed down, the result of my body’s confusion at being so long denied the medication I’d grown used to feeding it. Nearly. She separated our entwined limbs when she heard my mother’s car pull into our driveway. She hastily rebuttoned my pants for me, then flattened first my hair and then the tangles in her own just as Mom’s key turned in the lock. “Britt- oh,” she pushed the door open, calling as she did, then stopped short when she saw the two of us a few feet away. “Hey guys. Did you eat? I can make you something before my shift at the diner… what?” She was staring at Santana, whose face had contorted violently. Her hands were still gripping mine, fearfully torn between yanking them away and holding defiantly. She knew that my mother wasn’t going to judge her, but that ingrained sense of self-preservation told her that her first instinct ought to be to hide. I wasn’t going to let her. “Fear is only a verb if you let it be,” I whispered into her ear. “Don’t you dare let go of my hand.” Her face relaxed, but she stared in modest adoration at my mom, who eyed us both warily as she took off her coat and hung it by the door.

“Did I interrupt? Because I can make myself scarce if you two want to be alone. But just because I know what’s going on now doesn’t mean I’m letting you fornicate all over my house. Doors stay open at all-“ Santana launched herself across the hall and nearly bowled my mother over with her embrace. She wrapped her arms tightly around Mom’s neck, burying her face in the padded shoulders of her blazer. Mom looked at me over the top of San’s head, arching an eyebrow. I still owed her an explanation, after all. But rather than insist on one then, she ran her hand up and down Santana’s back, much like she had the night before. “Thank you, Maggie,” San mumbled into polyester with a wet sniffle. She used my mom’s first name, as she’d been instructed to do since were kids. “Mrs. Pierce” seemed so inappropriate after the divorce, but she’d never found the time to change it. “Honey, I don’t know what you could possibly want to thank me for,” Mom said incredulously. “But you’re more than welcome for it. You just keep taking care of Britt for me, and you’ll never want for anything in this house.” Mom pushed Santana back by the shoulders, holding her at arm’s length and looking her up and down. She smiled, as though Santana had passed some sort of maternal assessment, then kissed her on the forehead before wandering to her bedroom without another word. “Your mom is amazing,” she said in awe, staring down the empty hallway in which my mother had disappeared. I could only smile. “I know. You sure you don’t want to stay?” I nudged her gently with my hip and she slipped her arm around the small of my back. “No,” she sighed, pulling me nearer. “I have to face them sometime. But thanks.” She kissed the side of my neck, her lips lingering just long enough to send a shiver down my spine. She smirked and yanked her jacket over her arms, jingling her keys in her hand. “I’ll call you later, okay? Just so you know I’m still alive.” She was kidding, but it struck a nerve and I frowned, worried. Her lower lip jutted out, fake pouting, and she kissed me again, this time firmly on the lips. “Don’t worry, B,” she tried to reassure me, but it didn’t help. “I’ll call you.” She made for the door, bundling her coat around her neck as she steeled herself against the cold, but something was missing. I took a step toward her, calling out. “San?” She turned, her hand on the doorknob. “Yeah, B?”

“I love you.” She darted across the foyer, pecked me quickly on the cheek and grinned. “I love you, too,” she said, and then she was out the door. I watched her car disappear down the block from the front window, then, with a heavy sigh, made my way to my mother’s room. She was laying in her bed, still fully clothed, her eyes shut. She was doing a poor job of faking sleep, and I plopped down next to her. I rested my head on her shoulder, nudging her leg with my knee. “How much of that did you listen to?” She opened her eyes and smiled. “All of it. What kind of mother would I be to ignore a conversation like?” I snorted bitterly. “Santana’s.” She nodded, her expression knowing. “Ahh. So that’s what that was all about. It was either that or she was pregnant, and I had hoped, for your sake, it wasn’t the latter.” “Mom!” I chided, elbowing her roughly, but she dodged the blow with a laugh. “What? You have to admit it would have crossed your mind too, if you were in my position.” I remained silent, but nodded. I saw her point. Santana wasn’t exactly subtle about the fact that she was sleeping with Puck. Or had been. I felt that anxious knot return to my chest when I thought about that. “They’re horrible to her, Mom,” I said quietly, trying to remove the knot by talking about something else. “And there’s nothing I can do to help her. She won’t leave them. I can’t make her. She’s not being abused or anything, so I can’t even call the cops. How am I supposed to just sit here while I girl I…” I trailed off, suddenly self-conscious. “’Love’,” she finished for me, finding my hand and squeezing it. “You can say it, baby. It’s okay. You love her. I love her, too. She’s always taken care of you while I’ve been gone, and I owe her everything for that. But this isn’t our battle. This is her family, and as much as you want to, you can’t interfere with family.” I bit my lip and burrowed into her side, letting her wrap her arms around me. “So what do I do? Sit there and let them treat her like she less than perfect? Or worse, like she doesn’t exist? Do I have to sit there and listen to Dr. Lopez insult me in Spanish?” Her body tensed and she looked at me darkly. “What did he say to you?”

My shoulders lifted and dropped, which was awkward with her arms squeezing mine. “I don’t know, but Santana defended me and he kicked both of us out. I didn’t think the details mattered.” She held me tighter and the tone of her voice was tinged with anger, but she maintained her neutrality with surprising grace. “You don’t have to tolerate anyone insulting you, Britt. But you can’t force her to stand up for herself if she’s not ready. All you can do is love her. Let her know that even though her parents don’t appreciate her, you do. Unconditionally. You just love her, baby. Just love her.” We didn’t speak again. Her grip on my arms loosened and her soft snores told me she’d fallen asleep. I made a mental note to wake her in an hour for her shift at the diner, and lay quietly in her arms for a few minutes so as not to disturb her. I was too consumed with worry over Santana and the creatures crawling beneath my skin to sleep. The bedside clock told me that it had been nearly 24 hours since my last pill, and as the bustle of activity around me calmed, I felt it catch up to me. I slipped out of her embrace and shuffled awkwardly to the bathroom. The movement caused my stomach to knot in on itself, and I doubled over the sink, reaching blindly for my bottle in the medicine cabinet with shaky hands. I managed to pull it off the shelf, knocking over a few things along the way, and popped two in my mouth, grimacing as I saw the bottom of the bottle through the handful of tablets left in my stash. Maybe you don’t need them, I thought. Look at it this way. You took them to keep yourself numb so not having Santana wouldn’t hurt so much. Now you have Santana. Do you really need these pills? “No,” I said emphatically to my reflection, righting my body with a painful lurch, noting how pale I’d become. “You have what you wanted. Don’t be greedy.” But… A voice in my head, no doubt playing devil’s advocate, spoke from the recesses. You never know what might happen. Better hold onto those. The voice didn’t sound like my own. Like there was someone else perched in my head, waiting for the right time to pop up and give me sage advice. It didn’t feel out of the ordinary, hearing it there. And it sounded authoritative, like it knew something I didn’t. Like someone trying to help me. So I listened. I capped the bottle, noting how many were left, and put the container back in the cabinet. “It can’t hurt,” I reassured my reflection, smiling at it like it wasn’t just my own face in the mirror, but a friend. “Keeping them. Just in case.” I nodded sharply, having made a silent resolution to need only one thing: Santana. I turned to leave the bathroom, the pills in my stomach causing the pain to recede enough to move again. But as I looked away from the mirror, I caught a flash in it. My reflection winked as I walked away. ***

Santana didn’t call, like she promised. I waited, staying up well past the time I would have normally gone to bed, but my phone never rang. I sent texts which went unanswered, and called as many times, even though after the third try it started going directly to voicemail. It was at that point that I panicked. I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t drive, so I couldn’t go to her. I sat in my bed, staring out the window, feeling my heart jump awkwardly, skipping beats and pausing erratically. What were only minutes felt like hours. I sat in them and wallowed, picking my cuticles bloody and wearing my lower lip to chapped. There was a solution to my grief, though. The pills. Two more and I could easily put myself in to a waking coma, where not even Santana’s absence would be noticeable. But it had only been a few hours since my resolution, and I wasn’t about to give in so easily, no matter the physical and emotional grief I was in. I rocked back and forth, knees pulled to my chest and spine tight while my muscles contracted painfully. I thought of all the scenarios in which I’d never see Santana again, and how to end my own suffering with minimal clean-up for my mother. I had actually formulated what I considered a solid plan for my own demise when, from my night table, the phone vibrated. Just after three in the morning and from her house phone, Santana finally called. “Hey,” she whispered, and I could hear her hand cupping the mouthpiece around her jaw to muffle the sound. “I’m sorry, I know it’s late. I couldn’t call earlier. Dad took my phone and I had to be sure they were asleep.” Her voice, though quiet and slightly rushed, soothed me and I relaxed as much as I could. “Are you okay? What happened? Did he hurt you?” I fired off questions I knew she didn’t have time to answer, but I needed her to hear them anyway. “I’m fine, B,” she said emphatically. “He just yelled, that’s all. I can’t talk any longer, but I needed to hear your voice, and to tell you that I love you. I’ll call again tomorrow, after they go to work, okay?” It wasn’t much, but she was right. I just needed to hear her voice, and I felt better. “I love you, too. Get some sleep.” “You too. You sound exhausted.” “Hey San?” I said before she could hang up. “I am gonna see you again before break is over, right?” It was a harrowing thought, the idea of a week without seeing her. Especially after the previous 24 hours. “I’ll make it happen,” she replied, and I knew, once again, that she meant it. “Don’t worry, B. I’ll sure everything works out.” But there was a twinge of hesitation in her voice, and I could tell there was something she wasn’t telling me. She was protecting me again, and even though I didn’t want her to, I was too tired to question the tone. Not over the phone at 3am, incoherent and Half Out.

She hung up, leaving me alone with my thoughts. It was unnerving, sitting in silence after so much time having her next to me, her breath and her pulse keeping me company even when she wasn’t speaking. I hadn’t recognized just how lonely I’d been before, but now that I knew, it was a soul-crushing experience to sleep alone. So I snuck, silently and with great care, into my mother’s bed, like I was five years old and waking from a nightmare. She lazily pulled me into her, still smelling of frying oil from the diner, her embrace comforting and loose. I buried my face in her chest as her hand found my hair and stroked. “Bad dream?” she mumbled sleepily. I nodded. It was a bad dream, being without Santana, bring without the pills, being alone. But, I thought. If I can survive tonight, just tonight, I can make it to tomorrow. Even in the familiar embrace of my mother, I found no respite. Sleep didn’t come. I took what I could from the steady drum of her heart, counting the beats like sheep, until she rose at dawn and once again, I was alone. *** Santana was nothing if not reliable. She called the next day, explaining that her car keys had been taken along with her phone, so coming to pick me up wasn’t an option. As disappointing as it was, realizing I’d be home alone while she was doing the same a mile away, the two hour conversation left me sated. It made the need for the pulls less, but not all-together absent. I still ached for them, feeling the perpetual chill down my spine as I forced myself over and over into submission. But, when I hung up the phone and I was once again left to my own devices, I figured out rather quickly that I couldn’t survive on willpower alone. Maybe just one, the voice said, returning to my ears slick as oil down the back of my neck. Just one, to take the edge off. One can’t hurt… My stiff legs carried me to my bathroom without being told, as though acting of their own accord any entirely out of habit. The bottle in the cabinet weighed like lead in my hand, and removing the cap took what felt like house of pressing and prying at the childproof plastic. One pill of unknown origin slid awkwardly down my throat and I stared at the ceiling, waiting for my eyes to shift out of focus. My arms moved slowly, like I was sifting through jell-o. Not because I was Half In or even because I had taken too much. It was apparent that one would never truly be enough, and if I expected to be able to function and be worthy of Santana, I needed the pills just as much, if not more, than the sound of her voice to keep me moving. I was reaching for the bottle a second time when the doorbell rang, and insistently. My arms, stuck in slow motion, sagged. The pills were left discarded in the sink, and I plodded down the stairs in a disoriented haze. The bell continued to echo throughout the house, angrily shouting to hurry up, hurry up, hurry up. I grumbled at the sound, wincing as my own movements made my head hurt. I yanked the front door open and there, on the snowy porch, was Santana. She panted and pressed two fingers to her neck, checking her pulse.

“I just ran a six-minute mile,” she said proudly, looking at her watch with a satisfied grin. “Are you gonna let me in? It’s really cold out here, B.” Her smile washed my arms free of their jell-o prison and I stepped aside to let her in. “I missed you,” I said into her collarbone after she’d removed her coat. “And it’s only been twenty minutes.” She ran her hand down my back and kissed my hair. “I told you I’d see you. We can make this work. We can make anything work, if we do it together.” I breathed deeply of her skin, smelling sharply of cold sweat and I nodded, desperate to have her keep talking. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s make it work.” *** “You two should be wetting yourselves with shame.” The last place we expected to find ourselves three hours into our first day back at school was Sue’s office. We thought the worst, but stood stoically side-by-side while she eyed us with a look of mild disgust. The only thing I could think of as she glared at us from elliptical machine was that we’d screwed up. Someone figured us out, someone knew, someone told her. I considered how we’d begun our day, having spent the week before classes resumed deciding on a strategy. One in which we survived any assault on our social standing. One in which we pretended that nothing had changed. She’d driven us to school, having been given back her keys for the express purpose of class and Cheerios, with her hand clutching mine so intensely I winced each time she accelerated or slammed down hard on the brake. “We can do this,” she mumbled, more to herself than to me. “It’s just another day. You’re just my best friend. That’s all.” We sat in the parking lot until the last possible moment, embracing the last of the physical contact we could have until late that evening. It was an uncomfortable silence. Neither of us had liked the idea, but it was our best – our only – option. “You know I love you, right?” I thought back to the day she ran over to my house – what she would do every day that she was without her car – and the hours she spent with me after her arrival. She had clutched my body close to hers in the late afternoon light coming through my window.

“I know, San,” I reassured her, my arms laced around her torso. “I love you, too.” I don’t know how many times we had said it, but it never failed to strike me to my core that she was saying it, and she meant it. She meant it so much that she was willing to defy her father in order to spend an afternoon entwined with me, our clothes haphazardly discarded in our haste. To anyone looking at it from the outside, this might have been an overly sexualized scene. But when Santana had stripped herself of her clothes and pulled me – also naked – into my bed with her, she’d done nothing but wrapped herself around me and laid there, like we had so many times before. “I love you,” she repeated. “But this doesn’t change things at school. We’ll still lose everything.” I just nodded. I had figured this was how we would tackle this problem: by ignoring it. But, as I’d come to understand, she had a point. “We can tell people,” she had whispered, her lips against my ear and her breasts pressed to mine. “I’ll do that for you. If you want. I owe you that much. But if we do you know we’ll never get it all back. It’s okay, though. I think I can handle it. If I have you, what else do I need, right?” There was terror in her voice, but like all the promises she’d made to me, I knew she was serious about coming out. If I asked her to, she would have. She probably would have insisted on a grand gesture; some public announcement followed by a shedding of our Cheerios uniforms before Sue could rip them from our bodies. She would have gotten slushied every day and held my hand the entire time. If I’d asked her to. “No,” I said firmly. “You’re right. I have you. You have me. It’s none of their business, beyond that. We can think of another way. We don’t have to tell anyone.” She seemed both relieved and unsure. “Really? Are you positive?” I kissed her, settling my head beneath her chin. I could hear the air flowing in and out of her lungs, reliably steady. “You would hate me in the end, if I asked you to do that. You’d lose more than popularity and Cheerios. And then I’d lose you. We need to be careful. I can’t go through it again, having you, then not. I won’t make it.” I thought again of the plan I’d made when I thought I’d never see her again, remembering the vivid details. It never ceased to amaze me, the frailty and strength that existed simultaneously with the words ‘I love you.’ She and I were at once unified and closeted. The fear of admitting the forever-ness of our union out loud was enough to silence us. But not completely. We’d been so careful. How, so soon into our first day, had we been discovered? Santana was silent at my side, her eyes trained on the patch of carpet in front of her feet. She was probably having the same thoughts I was.

Sue stepped off her elliptical in the corner, her lip brought up in an angry sneer. “Glee club won sectionals and you did nothing to stop it.” My eyes darted sideways to Santana, who glanced at me as her shoulders relaxed just so. Glee club. This meeting was about glee, and Sue’s insistent need to destroy Mr. Schuester. For that, despite my allegiance to the group, I was grateful. She didn’t know about San and I, and that was one less thing to be concerned about in that moment. “If you were samurai, and my letter opener were sharp enough, I would ask you both right now to commit seppuku.” She circled around us like a predator circling a wounded gazelle. It was unnerving. “In Japanese this means ritual belly slitting.” It was a horrifying thought, but Santana remained frighteningly quiet next to me, as though she had been scared into silence. I interrupted, my voice shaking as I stumbled over an excuse – any excuse – to get us out of her office, and fast. “We were seduced by the glitz and glamour of showbiz.” Santana looked at me, and her eyes might have been grateful, had they not been so apprehensive. I wanted to reach out and take her hand, but I resisted and clenched my fists together at my stomach. “Let me drop some knowledge on you.” Sue’s face didn’t soften and once again she circled, walking around behind us. “Ever since Quinn Fabray got knocked up, I’ve been in the market for a new head cheerleader.” At this my attention fell to Santana, who had returned to staring at the floor. This was what she wanted. Everything she wanted. And Sue was offering it to her on a silver platter, but she was too scared to even acknowledge that our coach was speaking. We both were. “If you want the job, and back in my good graces, you’re gonna have to turn around.” We spun, wiping whatever looks we might have exchanged from our faces. Sue mentioned Rachel as we nodded our assent that, yes, we knew her. Sue smirked, curling a set of three-pound hand weights as she laid out her plan to us, her willing minions. “Rachel’s the kind of girl who wants things too badly. And what she really wants is one Finn Hudson. I want you to go after him.” I stopped listening. Santana looked at me, her face blank, but the nervous energy she expelled from every pore hit me so hard I nearly faltered under it. She was giving us an order, once again, to destroy something we both loved. Something that had brought us together, and then back together. Glee. Only this time we weren’t supposed to passively spy and report back our findings. This time she wanted us to commit guerrilla warfare, underhandedly and actively aiming at one person that she considered the lynchpin of the entire group. And she wanted us to do it using what she assumed we knew best: sex.

“And without her, Schuester won’t make it to regionals.” She’s satisfied grin and the sudden appearance of one of her weights in my hand shook me awake. Santana had the other one, and I wondered how we’d arrived at holding them. She took mine and set them both down as she dragged me by my wrist out of Sue’s office, not stopping until we reached the girl’s bathroom at the end of the hallway. She bolted it behind us and paced angrily across the tile, her brows knit and her arms crossed over her chest. “San, calm down.” She stopped mid-step and lifted her head. “You do realize what she’s just asked us to do, right? She wants one of us to seduce Finn. Finn fucking Hudson. How could she ask…? No. You’re not getting involved in this. I’ll do it. We’ll get dinner, I’ll grind on him ‘til he shoots early. That’s what he does, right? That’s what Quinn said he does…” She was doing her damnedest to convince herself that there was nothing wrong with the whole situation. That both of us were going to be okay with the outcome. She wasn’t convincing me at all, and based on the way her lower lip had worked its way between her teeth, she was failing at convincing herself as well. There wasn’t an easy way out of this. We couldn’t say no. It would mean demotion to the bottom of the pyramid, at best. At worst, a whole other host of problems that came with not being a Cheerio would distract us from the inevitable expulsion we faced. At the same time, we both felt uneasy at the prospect of the other going out with someone else. We – the two of us as a couple – were so new. Something like that so early in a relationship could destroy us. But Santana, being Santana, had offered to take the burden on herself. And she would bear it martyr-like silence, if I let her. But I wasn’t about to do that. “San, no,” I tried calming her, taking her hands in mine. “We can’t. I won’t let you do that. Just because we can’t be together at school, it doesn’t mean we can separate and let someone come between us. There are expectations that come with being a girlfriend. Finn would… he would think that…” Half Out meant I was prone to panic. Right then, thinking about Santana and Finn in any sort of position together – especially a compromising position – was enough to leave my lungs empty. She swept me into a hug and held me, applying pressure to chest and reassuring me that she was there, not letting me go. “Shh, B, it’s okay. I would never… And I don’t think Finn is that kind of guy, you know? I could just… I could go out with him after practices, but come home to you.” She gnawed her lip angrily over my shoulder. The domesticity of her phrase ‘come home to you’ struck me. It felt monogamous, and natural, that we’d fallen into such familiar terms so quickly. If I’d understood the clichés that represented then, it might have broken the tension. But I was still naïve, so unlearned in the ways of same-sex relationships, that our codependent attachment felt normal. We needed each other, and that’s all that mattered.

“What if…” There was an idea forming in the back of my foggy mind. Remnants of previous conversations – previous arguments – surfaced when it came to Santana and boys. Certain things that, even when medicated, I just couldn’t let go of. “What if we both go.” She pulled back sharply, her nose scrunched into a sneer, shaking her head vigorously. “No, absolutely not. I won’t-“ “Hear me out,” I interrupted softly. “It’s not like it hasn’t been suggested before.” She looked visibly hurt, recoiling slightly at the memory of our fight in the locker room before sectionals. “I’m just saying that we can do this together. We both know we won’t have to do anything with him. You said it yourself: Finn isn’t that kind of guy. But think about it. Combining two experiences. Dating boys and girls. Without the, you know… experience.” Her brows furrowed in confusion. “You’re going to have to be a bit more specific, B,” she replied anxiously. “Because the reference is familiar, but the point is eluding me.” “We both go,” I repeated with a smile, hoping that it would help ease her discomfort at my reference to her threesome-with-Puck suggestion. “Together, on a date with Finn. We team up, set our own rules. He can’t say no to a date with two of the hottest girls in school. We control this, San. Together.” Her scowl softened a bit and she relaxed to my touch, but her uncertain expression remained. “B, you don’t have to-“ “Yes, I do. I want to. We have to. To stay together, we have to do this. It’ll be okay.” The rate at which our emotional instability flip-flopped was dizzying. The constant need to reassure one another was tiring, but entirely acceptable as long as it meant we cared enough to try. She nodded at this, resigned to the idea but at least more comfortable with it. She hugged me again, her lips connecting with mine. “It’ll be okay,” she mimicked when we parted, and I squeezed the back of her neck affectionately. “Yeah, it will.” We didn’t have a chance to get Finn alone and away from prying eyes between leaving the bathroom and glee that afternoon. But after his “Hello” solo, when Rachel – his rebound after Quinn’s betrayal – was distracted, we looked at one another. “Now or never,” she said apprehensively. I extended my pinky and she took it tightly in hers. We stood and together walked over to Finn. I threw a glance over my shoulder, checking for Rachel, and out of my peripherals I saw Quinn staring at our interlocking digits. An expression mixed with concern and curiosity crossed her features.

“You’re a really good dancer,” I said, pulling myself back into the moment and trying to ignore Quinn’s dagger-like gaze at my back. Finn, who had been talking animatedly to the band’s drummer, turned to Santana and me. It was quite astonishing how she’d gone from hesitant to overly confident. The stroll from one side of the choir room to the other had changed her demeanor entirely. At least she didn’t notice Quinn’s stare. “Uh, thanks,” Finn mumbled, shifting his eyes back and forth between the two of us. “But my feet weren’t really moving.” He seemed surprised that we were talking to him, and I couldn’t blame him. Our interaction in the past had been limited to football games and the few times Quinn had deigned to bring us all – her boyfriend and her “best friends” – together. “That was the best part,” I returned with a false smile, and Santana choked back a giggle. We weren’t going to get him to go out with us by making fun of him, and she corrected herself quickly. She straightened her back, addressing him haughtily with that over confidence oozing off her lips. “Britts and I were wondering if you… wanted to go out.” It was a subtle invitation, and I reminded myself to compliment her later on her acting skills. She was so convincing that I almost forgot for a moment that her pinky was squeezing mine for dear life to her head clear. “On… a date?” Finn’s confusion mounted, and his shifting eyes narrowed, trying to cut through San’s subtlety. “With… which one of you?” Santana looked at me, her fake smirk plastered perfectly in place. Just like we practiced, I thought and extended my elbow. She slipped her arm through and held onto me tightly, reassuringly. “With both of us,” we said in unison, our rehearsed grins coming across artfully as his expression went from confused to pleased in a matter of moments. “Cool,” he mumbled, embarrassed and nervous. He looked around quickly for Rachel, and we took that as our cue to leave. Santana arched her eyebrows suggestively as we turned and walked arm-in-arm out of the choir room. Once out in the empty hallway, she leaned against the panel of lockers and took a few deep breaths, bent over with her hands on her knees. “We did it,” I patted her shoulder, not getting any closer for fear that someone might enter the hallway behind us. “That’s one less thing to worry about. Just one date to go. It’ll be great.” “’Great’ is not the word I’d use to describe this situation, Britt,” she groused, standing up. “But yeah, we did it. Now we have to get through tonight, which is a significantly harder thing to do.

But I was Half In after my lunchtime does, and optimistic. “There’s nothing we can’t do, remember? If we do it together.” She smiled warmly at me and took my hand squeezing it. “You’re right. Now come on. We have Cheerios in twenty minutes. No way are either of us making head cheerleader if we start showing up late.” I made to follow her, but realized that she had her bag, while I did not. I sent her on ahead, rushing back into the choir room as everyone else was walking out. I looked for my bag, which I had left beneath my chair. It wasn’t there. “Looking for this?” I spun and there was Quinn, sitting on the piano bench. In her hand was my duffel bag, swinging precariously from two fingers. “Uh, thanks,” I said, hesitantly reaching for it. “I must have forgotten it.” “Of course,” she replied icily, yanking it just out of my grasp. “After that little performance for Finn, I’m sure you had other things on your mind.” Shit. “I don’t know what you’re talking ab-“ “Don’t play dumb, Britt,” she cut me off, setting the bag down and getting to her feet. “I would have expected this from Santana, but not you. Never you.” I was in a metaphorical corner. She obviously knew something was up, but the extent of her knowledge was still suspect. It was enough to make my hands shake. I wished I hadn’t sent Santana ahead. She could have been better equipped to deal with this. “Quinn, please,” I begged, not sure that I knew another way out than to plead. “I don’t know what you think is happening, but it’s not what it looks like.” “When it comes to Santana, I honestly have no idea what could possibly be going on,” she snapped, getting closer and placing a protective hand over her growing bump. “But I saw what happened with Finn just now, and I can make some assumptions. I assume that Santana is making a play for Finn to appease Sue. To get my spot as head cheerleader. But what I don’t understand is why you’re involved, Britt. And why she keeps looking at you like you’re going to break. I get that you’re her best friend. I’ve always known that I was second fiddle, but I thought that I had a little more loyalty than all this, even after the baby…” She was partially right, about Santana and Finn and Sue, but she’d mistaken San’s motivations as selfish. No, it was apparent to only me that Santana was being entirely selfless in this. To protect me. But I couldn’t very well tell Quinn that. What she was also partially right about was our

waning loyalty. Following Babygate, as Mercedes called it, Santana and I had avoided her like pregnancy was a communicable disease. And it was because she had failed us both. She failed Santana by not being a good enough leader, and she failed me by proving herself a liar about some of the most sacred values she possessed. But now here she stood, the glow of pregnancy replaced with a seething anger at the revelation that we were – in her opinion – trying to steal her man. Because no matter what she tried to tell herself or anyone else, she still loved Finn to the depths of her soul. “Quinn, really,” I said slowly, my hands up and my head down submissively, the way you’d back away from a hungry lioness. “You have no idea what’s going on. But you have to trust me that this is so not what it looks like. I can’t explain right now. I wish I could. God, do I wish that. But this is as much me as it is Santana, and it has nothing to do with you. I swear. Please. Just take my word for it.” Her eyes were narrowed, but not in a way that might be construed as threatening. Instead, she looked curious, like she was more interested in actually hearing a story than trying to beat it out of me. “You’re not the same girl that walked into this school last year, are you?” she asked, kicking my bag over to me and crossing her arms over her chest. The action emphasized her distended belly, and for a moment I dropped my guard, seeing her as less of a threat when she looked so… maternal. “I don’t know who I am,” I replied, picking up the duffel and slinging it over my shoulder. “Not anymore.” I left her standing there alone in the choir room and darted as quickly as I could to the gym. Santana was there, leading the stretching in the center of the basketball court with a large huddle of red-and-white clad bodies surrounding her. She looked up as I walked in, and the scowl she’d carried as she shouted out the count slipped into a relieved grin. “Brittany!” The euphoria at being away from Quinn, so close to back with Santana, where there were fewer secrets, was quickly dashed when Sue shouted angrily from across the gym. “You’re late! Thirty laps! Now!” Any other day, the prospect of running those thirty laps would have upset me, but it was the familiarity of it all that comforted rather than bothered. I double checked my laces and left my track pants on, taking off down the out-of-bounds line at the edge of the court. The easy rhythm I fell into let me forget for a moment that I needed pills, that I needed Santana, that there was anything except the sound of my own feet against the wood floor and my own pulse throbbing in my jugular. Even running in circles, I got lost in it. There was no thought process, no need to analyze the left-right-left-right of one foot in front of the other. Running, like dancing, was a drug in its own right.

I lost count of how many laps I’d done when Santana fell into step next to me. She loped, her tan legs deceivingly long as she kept stride with me, her arms bent at the elbows while hands hung from limp wrists. The perfect runner’s stance. She didn’t even seem winded as she winked at me. “You get lost on your way back?” she whispered as we rounded the far corner away from the rest of the rehearsing Cheerios. “Doesn’t take that long to get a bag.” “No,” I puffed, my cheeks flushed with the effort of speaking. “Quinn. She caught me in the choir room. Asked me about you. And Finn.” I kept my sentences fragmented, no longer able to lose myself in the action when she insisted on distracting me. I only made it worse by telling about Quinn’s confrontation. “What?” She shifted a few inches closer and leaned her head nearer to mine, but kept her eyes trained on the line we were following. “What did you tell her, B?” “Nothing.” I felt my lungs begin to burn and I regretted losing count of how many laps I’d done. “She’s just scared. That’s all.” “Tweedle Dee! Tweedle Dum!” Sue’s bellow through the bullhorn nearly made us trip over one another. “Back in formation! I don’t have time for you to braid each other’s hair while you take your leisurely strolls. My mother, the famous Nazi hunter, could outrun you on her Rascal scooter.” “You’ll explain what you by, ‘she’s just scared’ later, right?” she muttered as we cut across the gym and retrieved our pompons. “Because this is scaring me, Britt. I don’t like it.” “It’s fine,” I said, stepping into position at the front of the pack and holding my poms out in front of me, ready to start the routine. “I promise. For now, it’s fine.” I added the qualifier “for now” because I honestly couldn’t tell her how things would fare in the morning, or the next week, or the next month. But, just then, thing were fine. We were at Cheerios practice. We were in charge. We had control. Nothing outside that gym mattered. The most important things in the world were getting the routine right and making Sue happy. It was comfortable, and it worked. And for two hours we didn’t have to worry about her family or Finn or Quinn or pills or Courtney or homework. I danced, I swayed, I watched Santana shimmy in those amazing skirts. Nothing. Else. Mattered. It was for me the way glee was for her. She’d never been passionate about Cheerios, but she was good at it, so she let it take over. Glee, on the other hand, gave her a new sense of self-expression that the rigidity of Cheerios could never provide. She needed that freedom, to have passion for a song the way I had passion for dance. If I had passion for anything, it was dance. And Santana. And Cheerios combined the best of these two worlds. It kept me sane when everything else about me was falling into chaos. Cheerios was nothing if not consistent. And Sue, above all, was a rock of immovable consistency.

“Enough!” The bullhorn squealed its resistance to Sue’s berating. “If I wanted to watch a bunch of primate humping one another, I’d have recruited the baboons from the Cincinnati Zoo to do this routine. I can’t even look at you anymore. Hit the showers!” The group dispersed quickly, leaving Santana and I alone in the locker room as we prepared for our date with Finn. If she was concerned about it, she didn’t let on, and stripped her workout uniform off in uneasy silence. With no one else in the locker room, there was no need for modesty, and she didn’t bother with a towel. Maybe it was the endorphins from the workout. Maybe it was the realization that I hadn’t touched her in that way in longer than I could remember. Or maybe it was the way she extended her body to reach the top shelf of her locker to reach her shower caddy, her nipples hardening in the chill of the isolated tile room. “You’re staring,” she commented idly, pausing before she wandered into the shower and flicked on the hot water. “It’s hard not to,” I called after her, a lazy smile spreading across my lips. It felt right, following her. The steam from the shower fogged my vision, and it was almost like being Half In, without the disorientation. No, here I knew exactly where I was, and what I wanted to do. I slipped my uniform off and dropped it without a second thought about it getting wet on the shower room floor. I could see her silhouette through the dense cloud, her long dark hair draped heavy down her back as she ran her fingers through it. I stepped silently behind her, noticing the way she stood under the water, one hip cocked casually and her hand extended out in front of her, resting against the shower wall. “You’re staring,” she repeated without turning. “In some circles that’s considered impolite.” I closed the gap between us, a spray of near scalding water hitting me over her shoulder. We let out twin gasps. I at the unexpected temperature of the water, and she at my index finger running down the ridges of her spine. “What circles am I in if I do this?” I ignored the searing water and slipped my arm around her, my fingers splayed across the taut muscles of her stomach. My free hand ran along her shoulder, pushing the thick veil of wet hair of the way. I pressed my lips to the back of her neck and she leaned into me, her breath quickening at my touch. “Britt…” she panted through the steam. My hand dipped lower, dusting along the dark patch of hair between her legs, which radiated more heat than even the shower could mask. She slipped her palm over my fingers, guiding them down, down, down, while she took her other hand off the wall and reached back over her head. She dug her nails first into my shoulder, then my neck, and finally my hair. She clung to it like a rope, her fingers twisting it in knots as mine found her entrance with her assistance. I teased at first, gently running the pad of my index finger along the exterior from bottom to top, applying light pressure to the sensitive bundle of nerves there. I listened with mounting pleasure

to her mewling, nearly inaudible beneath the steady drone of the water. Her hips spooned neatly against me, her body fitting so perfectly into the bends and grooves of mine that I feared the moment she would pull away, that she might rend me in half in the process. But she made no such move, and I went to press a digit into her. Her hand on mine, once a guide, became a barrier as she held me still. My spare hand dropped the clutch of hair over her shoulder and wound it way around her torso so I enveloped her, waiting patiently for her to be ready. I bent my head to trail kisses across her bare shoulder, the water cascading over both of us as she took deep, reverent breaths. “Britt, I…” she murmured, her fingers tightening in my hair. “It’s just…” The arm around her ribcage squeezed gently, and my lips moved from her shoulder to her neck, then her ear. “What’s wrong, baby?” She shook her head, the wet cape of hair spraying any dry surface left around us. “Nothing. There’s nothing wrong. It’s just the first time since… since you told me. Since I told you…” I didn’t let her go, that fear of rending myself into pieces if we separated still lingering. But she had a point. This felt different. Like when I touched he I could feel it too. When she moaned, I moaned compulsively. Every sensation was a shared experience, because we were no longer two separate people moving against one another. We were two halves of one being that the universe had split, and when we found one another again – when she told me she loved me – we could never go back to being just her, or just me. I understood why she hesitated. This reconnection of our souls could either make us unstoppable, or it could destroy us both. But I was willing to take that risk. “I love you,” I told her again, letting my hand wander to cup her left breast, if only momentarily as I pressed my palm flat to her sternum, feeling for her heartbeat. The hand on top of mine, holding me back, relaxed. Still, I waited patiently for her. She pressed her fingers against mine and bent just so, enough for her to angle them into herself and push. “I love you…” she keened, and I took over, pushing a bit deeper as her arm shot out to once more brace herself against the tiled wall. “Oh, god. Britt… I love you.” She repeated it over and over as I slipped my fingers slowly in and out of her body, her back braced against my stomach and my palm pressed to her chest, pinning her upright. Every muscle in my body fought for her, and I knew immediately when she wanted more without her needing to tell me. I nudged her forward, closer to the wall. As we inched up I pushed her feet further apart with mine, giving me better access to her core. My upper body pressed down on hers, forcing her to bend, and she was able to brace her forearm and head against the wall as I continued my

reaching thrusts into her. My thumb worked against her clit while she panted and groaned for me. My lips traced tender lines across her back and shoulders while she whimpered in the fog of the shower. Her arm, having lost the strength and dexterity to grip the back of my head from her new position, instead found its way to her chest. There she laced her fingers through mine and clung desperately, pushing my palm harder against her collarbone, then bringing it to her mouth. She kissed the tips of my fingers then took them past her lips and sucked. I bucked at the sensation, roughly ramming her hips into my thrusting hand. She bit hard on my digits, but there was no pain. How could I possibly feel pain when she moaned like that? I didn’t expect an apology for the biting, but she separated her mouth from my hand and craned her neck, exposing the immaculate skin there as she arched back to press those lips to mine. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, and I pushed a third finger into her as my acceptance. “Oh… don’t stop...” As her hips worked against my hand, my own pressed forward, grinding anxiously. My muscles vibrated with the strain. I was holding both of us upright, in addition to working my fingers inside her at an exceedingly awkward angle. She was struggling to stay on her feet. Neither of us were going to make it to an orgasm if we stayed in that position. Not to mention the fact that I wanted nothing more than to kiss her, face to face, with my hand inside her. “I’m gonna pull out…” I warned her softly, lifting her upright as she whimpered in protest. Even as the water washed over us, I could feel how wet she was. When I slipped my fingers out of her and spun her so I could pin her against the wall, I couldn’t resist bringing them to my mouth, sucking the slickness of her off them while she watched. She groaned and ground her hips against mine, taking my wrist and dragging her tongue over those same fingers before dipping them low. With my right arm pressed between us, I used my left to hike her thigh up against my hip. My weight crushed her into the wall as the twice-licked fingers found their home again, and I pushed in with a gasp. She wrapped both her arms around my neck to hold herself up, pulling at my until our bodies were flush and neither of us could tell where one ended and the other began. Her lips crashed frantically into mine, her tongue forcing its way into my mouth and probing. I ground my core against my arm, thrusting my fingers deeper into her, buried to the last knuckle. She cried out, but it was muffled in the cavern of my mouth and I pumped harder. My grip on her thigh tightened when she began bucking her pelvis against my hand. She was so close. I could feel it on every inch of her skin. That alone drew me nearer to an edge I hadn’t reached in a long time, and I pulled my mouth away, opening my eyes to stare at her as we both arched together. “Santana…” I murmured, and she lifted her face to mine before slipping her own arm between us and reciprocating my deep thrusts. “Oh, fuck.” “I’m so close,” she whispered, her eyes not breaking from mine. “Brittany… Christ.”

I flicked my thumb across her clit roughly and she bucked, tossing her head. The arm around my neck choked me while the one buried inside me rammed deeper, and I toppled. The flood from within me washed over her fingers, palm and wrist just as hers washed over mine. We shook together, our muscles contracting violently against our mutual climax for what felt like eons. Santana slid down the tile wall, pulling me with her into a heap of limps and skin and tangled hair. She was panting hard, but the grin on her face spread slowly and infectiously. I returned it, grabbing her by the back of the neck and pulling her mouth to mine. “C’mere,” I grunted with a smirk and kissed her, lazily running my finger up and down her wet, slippery core. “Ohh…” She moaned into my mouth and stilled me with a quick smack to my wrist. “No, god, not again. I can’t…” I giggled, pulling my hand away and licking the fingers clean before rinsing them under the stillwarm steam of water. I watched her sheepishly do the same, both of us wishing we had more time. “It’s getting late,” I said softly. “We have a date tonight.” Not even the prospect of a date with Finn could ruin the high we were on. She shook her head and leaned into me with a sigh. “It’s called being ‘fashionably late’, Britt. Finn can wait a few more minutes.” I nodded. “Sure. Two of the hottest girls in school have a date with the quarterback. But first they need to recover from the earth-shattering orgasms they just gave each other.” She punched me lightly in the shoulder, then immediately leaned in to kiss the spot remorsefully before getting unsteadily to her feet. “Come on,” she said, extending her hand to pull me up. “We have a boy to seduce.” She was mirthless, and it left me thinking as we dried ourselves off and over-applied lotion to our pruned skin. How much effort were we putting into getting him to like us, and what would that entail? What, exactly, did you do on a date with three people? I got nervous, but Santana seemed so calm about the whole thing. It might have been my idea, but I was so much better at theory than practice. I didn’t want to do it, now that the date was looming. I wanted to take her home with me and repeat everything we’d just done in my bed a few more times. I wanted her, and no one else standing in our way. I slunk off to the sinks to swallow a pill, just to press my fear to the back of my mind. Breadstix was calm when arrived, the crowd thin for the past-dinner-rush hour. We were already fifteen minutes past the time we’d told Finn we’d be there. She had decided that we ought to

wear our game uniforms, which were really just the cleaner versions of the ones we wore to practice, so it didn’t appear as though we were dressing up for him. “Just let me do the talking, okay?” she hissed as we pushed open the double glass doors and saw Finn in a booth at the back of the restaurant. “I have this under control.” I didn’t know that I believed her. Her voice cracked slightly, but her posture was unflappable. We walked, pinkies locked, up to Finn, and he stood when we drew near. I stifled a laugh as he nearly tripped over his own feet in an attempt to exit the booth. “Ladies,” he acknowledged with a grin and a nod. “Glad you made it. I was getting worried.” “Looking this hot takes time, Finny,” Santana purred, sliding into the booth and opening a menu with a snap. “Britts and I are effortless, of course. But a girl likes to primp.” I fell into the vinyl seat next to her, my eyes glassing over. The pills were kicking in and I smiled dumbly at Finn as he sat across from us. I’m sure his excited grin would have been endearing any other night, but after our shower escapade, it just made me think that he knew, and we were screwed. “So…” he started, flashing us his teeth and rubbing his hands together. “What’s good here?” Santana looked up over the top of her menu. “You’re kidding, right? Have you been to Breadstix before?” He shook his head, the pleased grin still plastered there. I thought he might be drunk. “Wow,” she monotoned, rolling her eyes exaggeratedly and shutting the menu. “You’ve lived in this town your whole life and you’ve never been to Breadstix.” “Well, Mom is a really good cook and-“ Santana waved her hand in the air, signaling for him to stop. “Okay, I’m bored now,” she interjected, and he closed his mouth slowly, looking down at the table like a kicked puppy. “I’ll order for you, Finny. Don’t worry your pretty little head.” She was mocking him, and he knew it. He scrunched up his nose, wrinkles appearing on the forehead of his otherwise baby-like face. I giggled hopelessly as his confusion and San grabbed my knee under the table to silence me. It was a pinching gesture, indicating that I needed to stop laughing. I didn’t pick up on that, and her hand on my leg only made the giggling worse. “What’s so funny?” Finn asked, his expression softening. Santana noticed this and took advantage. “Britts and I heard a really funny joke today, didn’t we, Britts?”

I turned and opened my mouth to ask if she meant the joke about the two gay cheerleaders out on a date with the quarterback of the football team, but she didn’t give me a chance. I was disappointed. It was a good joke. “What do you call a football player that talks too much?” she asked him pointedly, and waited for a response. “Uh…” he scratched his head. “I dunno. What?” “Single.” She finished the punchline with an emphasis on the ”s”, hissing it through her teeth like a snake. “Oh,” he replied, his face blank. “Um… haha?” I could tell she was uncomfortable. Her grip on my knee tightened, but all I could do was smirk through heavy-lidded eyes and watch them fidget awkwardly across from one another, almost like I wasn’t even there. The food came not long after we ordered, and all three of us were grateful for the distraction. After her rather rude behavior at the beginning of the date, she calmed down with the normally off-limits plateful of carbs in front of her. Or, she calmed down as much as she could have. They made casual conversation, Finn doing more of the talking than Santana, while she and I nodded enthusiastically, as though we were actually listening. He talked to us about school and glee and even, once, football. He seemed to be enjoying himself for a while, having someone who would let him talk rather than force him into submissive silence. I took this to mean that we were an improvement from Quinn and Rachel, despite Santana’s cool exterior. Santana was content to spend the time Finn was talking shoveling her pasta down her throat, and I followed suit. When her plate had seemingly emptied itself by magic, she stiffened, growing restless once more without food as a distraction. Her eyes darted around the restaurant until she found our waitress, an older, haggard woman who looked as thought she’d rather be anywhere else than at the beck and call of a bunch of teenagers. “Excuse me,” she called, the polite address tinged with acidity. “We’d like to send these back.” The waitress blinked at her, confused. “But you ate all of it.” Santana put on her best bitch-face and narrowed her eyes I could tell by the way the corners wrinkled but her mouth remained relaxed that it was an act. She had told me, however vaguely, to just go with anything she did during the dinner, and I trusted her. I assumed that being rude to a waitress – to which I usually took personal offense, given my mother’s position – was part of a larger plan. “Look,” she groused, cocking her head to one side and turning the bitch-face into a spoiled-bratface. “I’m pretty sure you have to do what we say. And this food? Was not satisfactory.”

She paused long enough for me to interject with the only thing I could come up with on short notice. “There was a mouse in mine.” She tossed me a quick smirk before lifting her empty plate and handing it to the server. “So we’d like more please.” The older woman was at a loss. She took our plates with open-mouthed horror and walked away, checking over her shoulder as though we were going to burst out laughing and shout, “Gotcha!” From his side of the table, Finn, who had barely touched his own food, eyed us warily. She ignored him now, to the point of deliberateness, turning her entire body so she faced only me. The eye contact was frightening, as though she was putting undo pressure on me to perform just by looking at me. “Alright,” she prompted, and I caught a flash of something in her eye. “Hottest guys in school. Go.” It should have been a simple enough question. There were really only two that amounted to anyone important. And one of them was sitting across us, a forkful of twirled spaghetti hovering just beyond his mouth. It should have been easy to spit out a quick list of guys that were conventionally “hot”, but in whom I had zero interest. But the only thing I could think of was how clear her eyes were. I imagined that mine, normally blue, looked like a rainy day in comparison: full of clouds, floating across the expansive sky. Every once in a while the sun would peak through and I’d be aware, but for the most part, there were storms. “Okay,” I acknowledged after only a beat, but which felt like minutes. “Um… Puck’s super fine. Finn’s cute too.” I knew what she wanted to hear. These two, the only two that mattered. She was trying to make a point, but I didn’t know yet what, exactly, that point was. “Yeah,” Santana agreed, nodding and ignoring the obviously offended look Finn was shooting at both of us. “But he’s not hot though.” “He really isn’t.” The point was still elusive, and a nervous knot built up in my stomach as I watch how upset we were making him. “And you know what Britt? I think that dwarf girlfriend of his is dragging down his rep. I mean if he were dating, say, popular pretty girls like us, he’d go from dumpy to smokin’.” If she had been vague before, here she slapped both of us over the head with her meaning, and turned back to Finn to enunciate once more that she was trying to tell him something without directly telling him what she wanted to say. She used me as a conduit, and it seemed to work. “Hello,” he waved at us, clearly put off by the way we were ignoring him. “Hey, I’m right here. D’you guys mind, like, including me in your conversations?”

Santana bristled, sitting up straighter and then bending challengingly across the table. “Let me give you an introduction into the way we work. You buy us dinner, and we make out in front of you. It’s like the best deal ever.” I nodded dumbly, but internally I was screaming. She had told Finn. Finn, of all people. She’d admitted that we would – did? would again? – make out. There were too many questions to formulate one into a cohesive thought. Am I happy about this, or should I panic? How do I respond? Do I acknowledge the statement or gloss over it completely? “Did you see what Rachel was wearing today?” I changed the subject. I didn’t know what else to do. “I know. She looked like Pippi Longstocking but, like, Israeli “Hey guys,” Finn interrupted, no longer interested in the uneaten meal in front of him. “Don’t make fun of Rachel. I mean, she’s kinda cool.” For some reason, what he said sounded a thousand times harsher than Santana’s jibe about Israel. “Finn, that’s mean.” To my left, there was a shift in Santana’s demeanor, and she dismissed Finn to the car. He got up in a huff, through some cash down on the table and marched angrily from the restaurant. As soon as he was out of sight, she slumped, exhausted. “Fuck,” she groaned, pinching the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” “I didn’t think it was that bad,” I commented, shrugging. Santana looked at me over the tops of her fingers and shook her head. “What date were you on, B? Because that was a disaster. And it was my fault.” I was useless to her, in my state, for anything beyond comfort. I couldn’t offer any reasonable solution to our problem – which she perceived as her problem – so all I could do was look around the restaurant, checking to see if we were being watched, before slipping my hand into hers under the table. She released the bridge of her nose, her fingers leaving red welts in their place. She squeezed my palm under the table, and tried to relax, but her shoulders were set firmly, and I could see her worrying her lower lip raw. “Sue won’t be happy,” she said after a beat. “We failed. I failed.”

“We did what we could,” I replied, an equal failure at cheering her up. “She shouldn’t be asking us to do this anyway.” “Tell Sue Sylvester she shouldn’t be doing something, and it makes her want to do it even more.” Santana pressed her forehead to the table and heaved, her back expanding and contracting with the deep inhalation and exhalation of air. “What happens the next time she wants us to go on a mission for her?” I shrugged. “We do what we can. She can’t expect anything else from us.” The waitress swooped in, setting a second helping of alfredo appeared in front of her, and my hand was left cold as she yanked it away, nervously darting her eyes about us. “Hopefully this is more satisfactory for you,” the older woman mumbled, then shuffled away. She shot glances at us from the register, alternating between frightened and defiant. “I don’t even want this anymore,” she sighed, pushing the pasta around with her fork before sliding the plate away in disgust. “Let’s go.” Finn had long since left the parking lot, as she’d assumed he would. We didn’t need him to get home, but the fact that he’d gone was just one more thing to remind us of how badly we’d failed. She drove back to my house in silence, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel anxiously. When we pulled into my driveway, she immediately crawled into the backseat and motioned for me to follow. I was too tall, and the car to cramped, for it to be anything but uncomfortable. Our legs knotted together when she pulled me down on top of her, both of us lying in the tiny back seat that was not meant for anything involving horizontal bodies. She gripped my shoulders tightly as we laid in the dark and cold, motionless. “This would be more comfortable inside,” I whispered into her neck, where my face had had no other choice but to settle. “Mom won’t be home until midnight.” I knew she couldn’t stay, but levity seemed the easier route than talking about it. It was bad enough that we’d screwed up, but she still had to go home and face her father, who had already taken her car away from her once before. She just needed a few minutes of this – us, in silence – to wash the day off. So I did that for her; I was her antidote, and she in turn, was mine. “Am I strong enough for this?” she asked, her eyes trained on the streetlight outside the window. “Can I do this, the lying, and still make you happy?” I buried my face in her shirt to hide my guilt. The better question is, I thought. Can I? “If you’re not,” I said instead, squeezing her in the tight confines of the backseat. “Then we are. We can make it. And then we’ll leave Lima and none of this will matter so much.” Her lips sought mine in the shadows, landing instead on my cheek next to my nose. I might have liked that more, if it was possible. “I’m sorry it took me so long to find you.”

“You found me when we were eight,” I corrected, still confused and unable to put things together properly. “No.” She was firm, shaking her head. “I found you when you showed me what love is supposed to look like. But, somehow, you’d found me a long time before that. I have a lot to make up to you, B.” “Just promise you won’t leave me,” I murmured, pressing myself closer to her. “And we’re even, okay?” “I’ll never leave you,” she said immediately, then fell quiet. Her hand found mine and she lifted both to study them together in the light from the streetlamp, turning one over the other as though comparing one against another. “I don’t that’s enough,” she said at last. “But okay. I promise.”

20

A Beautiful Mind

"I don't want to do this anymore." I said this quietly, and Santana leaned in closer to hear over the din of crowded hallway. She kept her eyes ahead of her, her arms tightening at the statement over the books that she clutched to her chest. We'd been walking on eggshells for weeks, and I'd had enough. "Not here," she whispered, looking around the between-classes crowd before ducking into a janitor's closet and pressing her back against the door. We'd found ourselves in this position before. In the weeks since the disastrous date with Finn, finding time alone at school had become difficult. Sue's disappointment had run deep, and as punishment for our failure, we'd been forced into what amounted to indentured servitude. We fetched her dry cleaning, polished her trophies, washed her Le Carre, all in addition to our continued work against glee club while we fought for the coveted head cheerleader spot. The janitor's closet (or the bathroom, or even the cold storage fridge in the school kitchen) had become a place of solitude for us to us after hours of pretending that we didn't want to hold hands under the table, and more. Here, the small musty room was a minor comfort after a day of practiced bitchiness on her part, and inadvertent flightiness on mine. We'd spent the morning in a mandatory Cheerios meeting after Sue had one of her midnight revelations. When these happened, it usually ended in one or more of the girls on the squad in tears, a cast, or worse. In this case, it was worse. "I don't want to do this anymore," I repeated, shuffling my feet beneath the solitary flickering light bulb above me. Her eyes flashed, even in the dim closet. "We agreed," she said shortly. "We said that it would be best if we just keep going as though nothing has changed. I know it's hard, B, but we can't just out ourselves to the whole school without-" "That's not what I'm talking about," I cut her off, my shoulders slumping. She had assumed immediately that I was talking about our secret, that I was tired of hiding what we were. It only reinforced the idea that, despite her previous suggestion that she was willing to go public with our relationship, she was not ready for the consequences. If I had been talking about that, the terror in her voice would have been the opposite of any reaction I could have hoped for.

"Then what, B?" she came toward me and pulled up two milk crates, one for me and one for her. We sat, knees together and holding hands between them. "We've got it good right now. Just a bit more sucking up to Sue, and one of us is head cheerleader." "That's just it, though," I mumbled, hazily staring at our intertwined fingers. "I don't care about that. I know you do, but she's gone too far this time, San. You want this, and I'm not going to tell you that you can't, but what Sue wants us to do…" She was wrapped around me before I could finish the thought, her arms tight and comforting. I'd been listless before, mildly sick to my stomach while my arms felt weak. Her body held me up, and made the absence of the pills not quite so horrible. I was trying, at least. For her. "Hey," she chided softly. "Don't think like that. You know Sue is completely crazy. She's on this Madonna kick this week, but next week, who knows. It could be Olivia Newton-John for all we know." I didn't agree with her that Sue was completely crazy. She'd seen me, after all. Or maybe that just proved that she was crazy. It takes one to know one, as they say. I'd felt less like myself in the weeks of attempted (and often failed) weaning off the pills, and it wasn't outside the realm of possibility that they'd been keeping dormant a monster, which I allowed out slowly now that I'd removed some (but not all) of the monster's suppressors from the equation. She's going to leave you. I repressed the familiar voice in my head and leaned into Santana in protest, reassuring it and myself that she would do no such thing. She stroked my hair in response, her fingers raking through my ponytail and ruining its perfect curl. "I don't want you to date anyone else," I said into the shoulder of her Cheerios uniform. "The dinner with Finn was one thing. We were both there." She released me and held my gaze, her eyes hurt that I would think so little of her. I looked away, ashamed. "It's just for Sue's sake, you know that. You're the only one I love. One week. That's all it'll take before she's onto something new. Then it's you and me again." Date younger men. Sue's new edict was written in stone. Santana had gone so far as to get a bracelet made just to prove to Sue that she wasn't fooling around anymore. I could feel the cool rubber brushing against my leg where her hand had fallen at my knee. She was determined to make head cheerleader, at almost any cost. For us, she kept saying. If she were head cheerleader, our problems would miraculously disappear. We could be out and no one would question it because she would be head cheerleader, and that would give her a free pass to rule the school in any manner she saw fit. I didn't have the heart to remind her that Quinn had been head cheerleader, too. And look where she ended up.

"We'll be fine," she said when I didn't respond right away. "Nothing will go wrong." Promises flowed like water. She wasn't any more convinced of their validity than I was. "Okay," I replied anyway, forcing a smile even though I felt like vomiting. "Starting Monday, I guess you and I need boyfriends." Santana frowned, but nodded, her attitude shifting dramatically in an instant. "Right. Because you're going to your dad's this weekend." She was bitter about it, and didn't hide her distaste for the idea. He'd been unreliable in the past, and she'd been there to pick up the pieces. She didn't like the thought of it happening again. "He means it this time, San," I shrugged, knowing his promises meant little to her. "And it's been so long since I've seen Court. I need to go. It's only the weekend, and then I'll be back to you." I knew she needed reassuring more than anything. That I would be okay, that I would come back. We hadn't been apart more than a few hours since Christmas, and the separation for her was uncomfortable. She was especially displeased at the thought of me being disappointed with my father, despite my many attempts to assure her otherwise. She didn't want to be two hours away from me if anything went wrong. She clung to me when we were away from prying eyes, and I found that even if I hadn't been trying to wean myself off the pills, she would have made it nearly impossible for me to take them. When we were together, her hands were never more than inches from mine. When we were apart, she texted or called to check on me. She defied an order from her father to stay away from me, and as worried as she was for my health, I worried more for her safety. "You've just been really sick lately, B," she persisted. "Maybe a trip up to Akron isn't such a good idea. I know you said that you're not contagious anymore, but mono is a serious illness. You don't want to get Courtney sick, do you? I could come over for the weekend, take care of you. We'll deal with Sue and the boyfriend thing next week." I smiled weakly at her, ignoring the way she brought up yet another one of my lies – that I had mono, not a raging addiction - and cupped her chin in my hand. "I'm going. This is my family. My father. The only one I've got." She sat up straighter at the words she recognized as her own, and sniffed. She understood what that meant, and had no more room to argue with me on the matter. "You're right," she conceded, squeezing each of my knees and standing. "He's your dad. And Court needs to see her big sister. I just worry about you, B. After what happened at Christmas…" "Both of us were pretty let down that day," I reminded her, standing as well and linking my pinkie in hers. "But look what came out of it. I got you." She blushed in the soft glow of the dangling light bulb and gently kissed my cheek. "We got each other," she corrected. "You're right about that too."

"I'm not right very often," I smirked, leaning lazily into her brief kiss. "I think I like it." I was always the one to leave the closet first, while she waited a few minutes to follow behind me so no one would see us together. Today, like the other days, I pecked her on the lips and moved toward the door, hiking my duffle over my shoulder. My fingers were wrapped around the handle when I felt a soft tug on the strap of the bag, and I turned. "I want to come with you," she said quietly, toeing the ground. I looked back and forth between the door and Santana, wondering why she would want to risk walking out into the hall with me in the middle of the lunch rush where everyone could see. "San, everyone will see us if you leave now." "No," she said with a shake of her head. "To your dad's. I want to come with you to your dad's. I know you want to see him, but… I don't want to be without you. I know it's only a weekend, and maybe I'm being really stupid. But I don't think I could sleep with you so far away." I sighed and slipped my bag from my shoulder, realizing that this was going to be a longer conversation than we anticipated when we'd first snuck in. I didn't want to deny her when seemed so genuine in her reasons. Her voice was tinged with a tone of desperation, like she didn't know what she would do if I said no. But it was my dad, my first weekend with him in months. As much as I didn't want to be apart from her either, I didn't know that I could justify her presence in Akron to my father. "San…" There wasn't an easy way to tell her no. It wasn't something we said to one another. Her especially, since Christmas. She gave in to everything I asked of her, and the guilt of denying her this one thing she asked of me was overwhelming. "Hear me out," she argued, slightly insistent, but soft. "I can drive you up there. Your mom won't have to take time off work and your dad doesn't have to come down here just to turn around and go home. I want to get to know him, maybe start to see what you see in him. I guess I want him to like me, you know? I'm your girlfriend, I ought to have the approval of- what?" I was doing a poor job of hiding my elated smile, stifling an almost irrepressible giggle that made my cheeks ache. "You called me your girlfriend," I said, grabbing her hand and pulling her to me. "You've never said that before. And now you're being all chivalrous." She put her hands on my waist and nuzzled my neck, blushing again. "Yeah, well. I just think he ought to know who I am, you know? Maybe not, like, know know, but he should meet me. I want him to think that you have good people in your life." "You don't need my dad's approval, San," I mumbled, the feeling of her body molding perfectly against mine giving me a heady rush. "You're my girlfriend, and I chose you. Whether or not my dad likes you shouldn't matter."

She seemed relieved at first, her muscles relaxing against me, but then she pulled back and looked up at me. "Wait, does that mean you don't want me to come?" If it had been difficult to say no before, after hearing the phrase "girlfriend" from Santana's lips made it impossible. I leaned in and kissed her. "You can come. Dad'll like to meet you. I talk about you a lot." "All bad, I hope," she winked, no longer apprehensive. "Have you told him that we're… that we're together?" My shoulders lifted and dropped. "No. I didn't think it was something I could say over the phone. We don't have the closest relationship, and I don't want any more distance, you know?" She nodded but didn't say anything, deep in thought. We stood like that, both thinking to ourselves, before she pressed her fingers into my hips with a gentle squeeze and pushed me toward the door. "Come on," she prompted. "We have glee rehearsal. But after school? You and I are going on a road trip to Akron." There was no easy way to tell dad that San was coming without having to explain why. It wouldn't have been an easy conversation, and if my father was anything, he was polite. Springing San on him would easier for everyone in the long run, because he would never be rude to her outright. I think Santana expected the worst from him, and a lot of her reasons for asking to come along were fueled by a significant distaste for fathers in general. Her own was not to be trusted, and mine was considered unreliable at best. That, to her, signified someone unworthy of my love. I hoped that, if she saw how he was with Courtney and I first hand, she might be more willing to let me go in the future. It seemed unlike her to have other motives – jealousy or loneliness – for not wanting me to go alone. Her clinginess could have sprung from her innate need to protect me. Where this might have bothered me once before, when we were still dancing around one another and her protectiveness often came off as possessive, now it just felt akin to adoration. She loved me so much that she couldn't bear to see me hurt, so she did everything in her power to see that didn't happen. I had nothing to go on but what Santana told me, and my own assumptions. It felt right, identifying her desire to stay by my side as her version of love. Looking more closely at it now, I think that my own experiences and feelings in the moment were clouding my judgment regarding Santana's behavior. It would still be a while before I could pinpoint her – and my own – problem. We left from Lima immediately after two brief stops that afternoon; first to her house, and then to my own, to gather a few items for the weekend. Then, in true Santana fashion, she created a playlist on the fly to get us through the two-hour drive from Lima to Akron without repetition. "Adele, she's essential," she stated as she merged the Mustang onto I-75 and pressed her boot heavily on the accelerator. "And Ingrid, can't forget her. I know you're a dancer, B, but there's so

much more passion in a true female vocalist than anything auto-tune and a bass beat could produce. You can dance to this, too. It's just a different kind of rhythm." I would have danced to cats screaming if she'd put it on the speakers. Just because I knew how much she liked to watch me dance. I shuffled through her iPod idly, searching for the song that had been stuck in my head since that afternoon, needling at me. I needed to hear it again. "D'you have 'Express Yourself' on here?" She let out a massive groan. "You're some kind of masochist, B," she said with a roll of her eye. "You didn't get enough of that earlier?" I hadn't gotten enough, much to her chagrin. The number that Rachel had choreographed and produced on the fly that afternoon (despite protests from Santana and, at first, myself) was intensely personal once we were done performing it. We'd gone into glee's version of Madonna with the Cheerios' attitude, and the interpretations of her musical personality were so drastically different that Santana and I were left conflicted. On the one hand, we had Sue shoving power, dominance and accomplishment down our throats. We were nothing unless we had someone crushed beneath our Cheerio-issue sneakers. On the other hand, glee taught Madonna's desire for equality and self-acceptance. It was enough to leave us reeling from the back and forth of it all. "It was a good song," I answered, putting it on softly in the background after I found it. "It got me thinking." A smirk played across her lips. "Oh yeah? I knew I saw you looking at me in that outfit. It was hot. I'll give Berry that much. She knows how to put together a costume." Her hand crept seductively up my thigh, her fingers caressing the insides beneath the hem of my skirt. "That's part of it," I said slowly, slipping my hand between hers and my already heated center, which was her obvious destination. "I want to talk about this. About us, and you and me." "You and me are 'us', B," Santana furrowed her brow and pulled my hand back with hers so it sat squarely in her lap. She wasn't understanding me. Then again, I wasn't really explaining myself well. "Not all the time. Sure, we're 'us' right now. But you're still you and I'm still me and being together doesn't change who we are without one another, does it? There are parts of me that will always be me, even if I don't have you in my life." "You're starting to scare me," she twitched behind the wheel and the car accelerated from the tension extending down her legs to the gas pedal. "Why are you talking about being apart like this? What are you getting at? Are you trying to break up with me? Because I have to tell you, B, you picked a pretty shitty time to spring it on me."

"Santana, no!" I tried to calm her with a squeeze of my hand in hers, turning my body in my seat and struggling against the seatbelt around my chest. She was jumping to all the wrong conclusions, and I couldn't help but think it was my fault. I was confusing even myself. "I'm trying to tell you something. It's not bad. I don't think so, anyway. But I need you to understand that as much as you're part of it, you're also not the cause or solution." The needle on the speedometer climbed higher. "Jesus, B. Spit it out." I thought back to that afternoon in Kurt's basement, the act of saying aloud the word I hadn't previously been able to articulate. Even now, months later and so much surer of its meaning, I found myself faltering. "If Madonna can teach us anything, it's about empowerment, right? Being sure of yourself? I just wanted to tell you… because we haven't really said it before, you know? I just wanted to say…" I paused, and she looked at me out of the corner of her eye, still silent, still increasing her speed. "San, I'm gay." Nothing. She flicked her eyes back and forth between me and the road, and she said nothing. For a minute, maybe two, we sat like that, watching one another. Her shoulders pressed back, flush against her seat and her arms stretched rigidly in front of her. "I'm not." I don't know what I expected her to say, but it wasn't that. So flatly delivered, void of anything resembling empathy. "That's it?" I asked, and she shrugged stiffly. "What did you want me to say?" Her lips were set, but didn't seem angry. More like she was trying to keep herself from saying something. "You're gay. That's cool. I'm not. That's cool, too." "So, what then? You're bisexual? Is that the right word?" The car peaked at 90 miles per hour before she realized what she'd been doing. Slowly the needle inched back down as she considered her words carefully. "What does it matter?" She let her shoulders drop a bit, arching her back to stretch out the tension that had built there. "I'm with you. That doesn't make me gay or bi or whatever. I like boys, but I love you. I'm not gay." She emphasized the 'not' more heavily than she ought to have, and it came off indignant. Like she resented having the association attached to her. Like it was something to look down on.

"It sounds awful when you say it like that," I replied quietly, pulling my hand away and righting myself in my chair so I could stare out the window. "I thought maybe you'd care a little bit more." Her eyes softened and she sighed. "I do care, B. I care that you're comfortable enough with yourself and with me to say that out loud. I know it must have been hard." She bit her lip and reached out to grab for my hand. "I'm sorry I didn't think about that at first. But as sure as you are that you're gay, I'm sure that I'm not. What I am doesn't need a label. I don't have to define myself like that. I don't want to. I have too much life left to make that decision now." Her words stung almost as much as her hand clutching mine. She was, in my mind, telling me that I was being rash in deciding this part of my life. Like I had a choice and I wasn't struggling through every moment, even after saying it out loud. She made me question myself once again, just when I'd thought she was done making me feel that way. "I love you," she said. "Isn't that enough?" It ought to have been, but just then it sounded like a cop out. Like we were always going to be on opposite sides. I needed someone in my corner when I talked to my dad, but I knew then that she would never have my back in that way. Maybe it was to do with her parents or her religion, or that she was just scared. It didn't matter. We weren't the same, even though we were together. No amount of arguing on my part – that the fact that she loved another girl made her just a little bit gay – would changed her mind. "Sure," I replied after a minute. "I love you, too." I cranked the volume on the radio before she had a chance to speak again, and we drowned ourselves in the music for a while without talking. I wanted to work out for myself where she was coming from, to try and understand how she could claim to love me and still be fighting so hard against it. I didn't want her to explain, because it wasn't helping either of us, and the fact that she saw being gay as a kind of defect made me angry with her in a way that I hadn't previously known was possible. I accepted very little about myself, but somehow I knew that this was an indisputable part of my life. I'd had a litmus test of every possible scenario. I'd kissed boys and girls; those I liked, and those I didn't. While no one made me react the way Santana did, every time I'd kissed another girl, starting with that freshman Cheerio at Mike's party, I'd had a lingering physical reaction through my groin that radiated out and left me breathless. No boy – not even Mike, who had been so kind – had left me feeling like that. I knew that I was gay. How could Santana deny it, when it was so obvious that her reaction to me was the same? She broke the mutual silence when the song switched, and she immediately and instinctually began humming along with the song on her play list, feeling it out. She started tapping her fingers on the steering wheel, and her infectious rhythm left me wriggling in my seat. We dueted Paramore, then she took Rihanna's part while I rapped out Eminem. We'd just finished the reprise

to Seasons of Love when she turned onto a side street and slowed, checking the house numbers before coming to a stop at the curb. My father's house was in no better state than my mother's, if only slightly larger. Even though I was rarely around, he had insisted on keeping a room for me so I knew that I was always welcome. I'd hoped that Santana would see this and be less apprehensive about the whole situation. As it was, she stared at the yellow split-level out her window, biting her lip. "Maybe this was a bad idea," she said without taking her eyes off the house. "It's your weekend. I can just go home, come back Sunday night to pick you up. No big deal." I leaned over the shifter and kissed her cheek, all but forgetting our earlier conversation. "No turning back now," I stated firmly. "He's a good man, Santana. It'll be fine." If his voice had sounded older when we spoke, his face further revealed his age. My father opened the door with a smile and pulled me into a vice-like embrace in his strong arms. His stubble scratched my forehead, and I was five years old again, and he was holding me while I cried over a skinned knee. The memory, however painful, was welcome and I hugged him back just as tightly. It wasn't until he pulled away that he noticed Santana standing sheepishly at my side. Only his eyebrows showed his surprise, arching and causing his forehead to wrinkle even more than it already was. "Who's this?" he asked, the smile never faltering. "Daddy, this is Santana." I turned so I wasn't standing between them, to let him inspect her. "My best friend." He stuck a large, calloused hand out to her and she looked at it for a moment before putting hers inside cautiously, as though it might bite her. Just when she thought it was a handshake and nothing more, he yanked her sharply into a hug with a slight guffaw. "We hug around here," he said when he released her. "Britt's talked a lot about you. It's a shame we haven't met before now. Come on it, meet the family." He ushered us both inside, taking our bags and carrying them down the hall into the small bedroom that was mine. "Sharon!" he shouted as he set them on the bed. "Britt's here! And she brought a friend!" Sharon popped her head out of the kitchen and blinked at Santana and me for a moment before fake-smiling. "Lovely. The more the merrier. Dinner will be ready soon, although one more mouth means everyone gets a little less." She was starting with her passive aggression right away. No pulled punches. I would have responded myself, but Santana jumped in before I had the chance.

"It's fine, Mrs. Pierce," she said, more politely than I'd ever heard her speak before. "Britt and I don't eat much. Coach keeps us on a restricted calorie diet, so I'm sure that whatever portion was meant for Britt, we can share." "Oh," Sharon blinked once more, her tone losing some of its ice. "Well isn't that nice. Courtney should be in her room, if you want to see her, Brittany. Maybe you'd like to wash your hands before you do, hmm?" Santana looked at me sideways and I shrugged at her. We both washed up and then went silently up the stairs to Courtney's room. The door was cracked, and music spilled out. I pushed it further open, Santana and I leaning against opposite door jams and watching as Courtney danced, her back to us. She'd pushed her furniture up against the walls to make the most of the open space in the center. You could still see the indents in the carpet where here bed had been. The song was something by one of the many teen popstars that littered the cover of Tiger Beat, and I didn't recognize it. But she had the rhythm of it, if not the practiced steps. She free-formed without noticing that we were there, and I noted with admiration that she would be far better than me in a few years. "Watch your back, B," Santana smirked. "She's coming for you." Courtney whirled in surprise and her eyes lit up. "Brittany!" She sprinted up to me and pressed her face into my abdomen. "Hey, munchkin," I greeted warmly, returning the tight embrace and kissing the top of her head. "Been a while." She jumped up and down with her arms around my waist, shaking my entire body in her excitement. "You're here!" It came out in a squeal and I saw Santana wince out of the corner of my eye. "Brittany, I missed you! Oh my gosh, you're really here!" She spoke so quickly I could barely understand what she was saying, but she pulled me by the hand into her room and sat me down on her bed and began showing me all the things that I'd missed out on since my last visit. Drawings of her family in crayon, all square-bodied and sticklegged, with me towering over her parents and a cartoon bike in the corner. Santana stood at the door and didn't move, watching us with her arms crossed over her chest. I looked up at her over Courtney's head as she showed me how her ballet instructor had taught her to pirouette, my mouth open in a gaping smile at all the changes my little sister had experienced in my absence. It was overwhelming, and I had to feign happiness to keep myself from crying. Santana's expression remained passive, but when Courtney tried to pull me into a game of Candyland, I saw her mouth twitch. Courtney had seemed to miss her presence all together, and she didn't seem to mind that much. As Courtney made to set up the game on her floor, I coughed sharply and nodded toward the door.

"Hey Court, do you remember Santana?" I pointed to the door and Courtney lifted her head, as though seeing her standing there for the first time. "You met her last year when you and dad came down for one of my dance recitals." My sister scrunched up her face, trying hard to remember even though I knew she probably didn't. She was only six years old, and I doubted that she remembered what she'd had for breakfast. "No," she said honestly, shrugging. "But she can play too, if she wants." Santana let out a laugh and entered the pink-painted room. "Thanks, Courtney. I'd love to play." No sooner had Santana sat down on the floor than we heard Sharon shouting at us from the bottom of the stairs about dinner. Courtney scrambled out of the room, forgetting us and the game, and I watched her go with a sad smile. "She's gotten so big," I commented, still staring at the open door. "I'm missing everything." She put her hand on my knee and scooted closer, squeezing. "It's not your fault, B. Life gets in the way of things sometimes. She knows you love her and you'll always be there for her. That's what counts. Now, come on. I'm starving." She pulled me to my feet and guided me down the stairs, careful to let go of my hand before we stepped into the dining room and took seats at the table. Sharon had made some kind of roast chicken, and true to Santana's earlier statement, split a single portion between the two of us. Neither of us said anything about it, and ate quietly with our ankles linked under the table while dad talked about work. "The union is talking about striking," he said bitterly through a mouthful of green beans. "As if we didn't have enough trouble with our contracts. Construction isn't going to stop because the workers are picketing. They'll just get some scab to cross the line and then we'll all be out of work." Union workers, he said, kept this country running. Teachers, auto workers, construction workers. The labor jobs that worked men to the bone needed the support of something like a union to make sure that they're being fairly treated and fairly paid. He was never a political man over anything other than his union, holding the opinion that a man deserves to live his life without anyone telling him what's right and what's wrong. So I knew that when he brought it up it was serious. "I was hoping that you – and Santana, of course – could watch Courtney tomorrow afternoon while Sharon and I go to the union meeting," he said, meeting my eye across the table. "Just for a few hours, and then I'm all yours. I just can't miss this meeting. If we strike, I need to know the details."

"Of course, daddy," I replied, only too happy to have an afternoon with my sister. "It's totally cool. Take care of business." He smiled, a little bit relieved. "Great," he sighed, then turned his attention to Santana. "Now, Santana. I only know what Brittany has told me, and we all know what a fibber she is. Tell us about yourself." She was so shocked at being addressed, let alone with a small tease and a smile that she sat in silence for a minute before answering. The tension she'd held onto since walking into the house a few hours before disappeared, and I watched as she laughed along with my sister at a horrible joke my father made, and held her sharp tongue when Sharon made an off-handed comment about glee club. Not even my step-mother could ruin the mood, and once she figured out that neither of us were taking her bait, she quieted and allowed us to enjoy everyone's company. Courtney managed to get the entire household in on the abandoned Candyland game, and we took turns letting her win after we'd finished dessert. Two hour later, Sharon gently led my sister to her room for bed when she began nodding off over a lukewarm mug of hot chocolate, leaving Santana and I next to one another on the couch while my father watched us from across the room. We'd done well, keeping our hands to ourselves throughout the night, but the chill from the February evening got the better of her and she'd tucked her feet under my legs and took my hands to rub between hers, warming us both simultaneously. It wasn't an overtly sexual or even romantic gesture, but I saw my father glance at us and then away quickly, so I pulled my hands back to myself. He'd been nothing but kind since we walked in, and hadn't once questioned why Santana had come along. I couldn't let him assume things without being upfront about it. This, however, didn't feel like the right time to tell him. "I'm glad you came out this weekend, Britt," he said after clearing his throat, but still not making eye contact. "I know we'd planned on March, but you know how your sister misses you. Me and Sharon as well. I'm sorry things get put off like they do." I couldn't tell if he was fidgeting because of my legs draped over Santana's, or because he was embarrassed at how long it had been since we'd seen one another. Either way, he stared at the day-old newspaper in his hands and scratched his stubble awkwardly. "It's fine, daddy," I replied, and he loosened up a bit. "We can try harder from now on." He nodded his approval then got to his feet. "Early day tomorrow. Don't stay up too late. I left a sleeping bag for Santana in your room, and an extra pillow." He kissed the top of my head as he walked by, and I caught him looking one last time between us before taking the stairs up to his and Sharon's room. "Sleeping bag, huh?" Santana grinned as we wandered down the hall to my room, the only one on the first floor. "I know the bed is a twin, but I was really hoping it would just mean we'd have to spoon a little bit closer this weekend."

I sighed and stared at the rolled up sleeping bag on the floor. "Maybe it's for the best. What if they come in and see you laying with me?" She'd closed the door behind us and had her clothes off before I'd turned around. When I did, she pressed her body against mine and kissed my neck softly. "We could always lock the door," she murmured into my collarbone. "But if you want, I can sleep on the floor…" She was teasing me, running her fingers up and down my sides while she grazed her lips across my skin. Just enough to make my already dizzy head spin. If this was how the night was going to progress, I needed a pill to calm myself down. I felt feverish from the few hours I'd been without, and having her wrapped tightly around my body in my father's house was not helping my head stop swimming. She kissed further up my neck and paused at my cheek, her lips lingering on my skin as she used them to take my temperature. "Baby, you're really warm," she said, stepping back. "I knew this was a bad idea." "I'm fine," I mumbled. No you're not. "I just need to sleep it off." Both to her and the voice that hissed in my ear needed to be pacified. My eyes were going in and out of focus. I wanted her out of the room in order to take what I needed to clear my head. "Maybe you could get me some water?" She nodded skeptically, pulling on a pair of pajama pants and a tank top before slipping out of the room silently. I dug through my bag while I heard the water running in the kitchen and dropped two pills on my tongue and swallowed hard. They got stuck in my throat and I coughed shallowly, grabbing for the glass when she came back in and chugging it until I could breathe again. "I told you we shouldn't have come," she grumbled, sitting down on the bed and rubbing my back while I pulled ragged breaths in through my mouth. "We should go home in the morning. You need to see a doctor." "The doctors can't help me," I told her honestly, my throat hoarse. "I just need to sleep, okay? Can you just hold me, and let me sleep?" She nodded again and stripped off the pajamas she'd just put on, then helped me out of my clothes. She laid down first, her back pressed against the wall, and put one arm flat on the bed and lifted the other. I settled my back against her chest and she wrapped those open arms around me, then slipped her knee between my legs. "You wake me up if you get worse, Britt," she commanded softly into the base of my skull, then buffered it with a kiss. "I mean it. I'm worried about you." "I'm fine," I said again.

No you're not. It was louder this time, more insistent. "I just need sleep…. You won't make it through the weekend. Yes, I will. "I'll be better in the morning… You need more than sleep. Stop it, no I don't. "I love you." Santana nuzzled up against me once more, and for a moment I forgot that we were in my father's house. "I love you, too." She's going to leave you. I fisted the blanket that Santana pulled up around my chin, willing the voice to leave me alone. She'll never leave me. She promised. You made promises, too. Liar. I'm not. I'm not a liar. Keep telling yourself that. It won't make it true. "Stop." Santana mumbled something incoherent into my back and I froze, realizing I'd spoken aloud. "You okay, baby?" She repeated herself and her grip on my waist tightened. I just nodded and closed my eyes against the darkness. "I'm fine." The phrase was losing its meaning. "Go to sleep." Behind my eyes, a set of lips curled into a coy smile. Sweet dreams.

Courtney came bursting into the room what felt like only minutes later. The door swung wide and slammed against the adjacent wall, startling both Santana and I into wakefulness. It took my still-drugged mind a few seconds to realize first, that Santana and I were both naked, and second, that she was wrapped unceremoniously around my body.

"Brittany, Brittany, Brittany, wake up!" She, too, took a moment to realize that Santana was in the bed with me, and cocked her head to one side curiously. "Courtney, this isn't what it-" "It musta been cold on the floor, huh?" It was really quite amazing how a six year old could provide such a ready-made excuse for Santana being in my bed. The nudity would be another story, but there was time to think about that later. "Very cold, yes," Santana agreed, nodding sharply and pulling the blanket tight around her chest. "Hey Court? How about you not tell your dad, okay? I don't want him to think I was ungrateful for the sleeping bag he left. Our secret." She smiled, as a six year old is wont to do when presented with the opportunity to have a secret with an older, wiser girl. "Our secret!" And she bounded from the room as quickly as she'd arrived. "We're so fucked," I mumbled incoherently as I stumbled to close the door behind her. "She's six, she's can't keep a secret." "We'll just say we were cold, like she said," Santana reassured me, slipping on her jeans and kissing me into consciousness. "We'll tell him she was mistaken about the whole being-naked thing. You said it yourself. She's six. What does she know?" I shrugged on a hoodie while she buttoned my jeans for me. "I'd just really like to be able to tell him myself. Not get outted by my little sister because she walked in on us. I told you it would happen." She kissed me again, and rubbed my arms soothingly. "We just have to make it through the weekend. Next time you come back, you can tell him whatever you want to tell him." I pulled back, my mouth ajar. "San, you knew I wanted to tell him this weekend, didn't you?" "I wanted him to meet me," she frowned. "See that I'm good enough for you. Not pass judgment because I'm the one fucking his daughter. Can't you wait until you come back?" "After Courtney walking in on us when I told you the sleeping bag was the better option?" I let my voice fall to a hushed whisper in case we could be overheard. "No, Santana, I probably can't wait. I need you behind me when I tell him. I know you're still scared but this is my family, and I won't hide from them."

She crossed her arms, her face grim. "I understand that, B. But I'm just as much a part of this little revelation as you are. You could be a little more considerate of my feelings the next time you decide to out yourself to people that have the ability to rip us apart. Your dad seems like a good guy, but you don't know how he'll react. Especially if you spring it on him and he thinks I've taken advantage of you, or of his hospitality." My shoulders fell when I realized that she had a point, and her face softened. "Look, I'm not telling you not to tell him," she continued. "But maybe this isn't the best time. I didn't know this was happening. He sure as hell wasn't expecting me to come around. Maybe let this weekend be the test run. So he can get to know me before you tell him. I'll even come back with you when you want to tell him for real. But please, not this weekend. Please? For me?" Again, I couldn't say no to her. Not when she begged like that. I sighed heavily and closed my eyes, acquiescing physically before I said it out loud. "Fine," I conceded. "But if Courtney says something to him, we might not have a choice in the matter." "Understood," she grinned, and kissed me on the cheek. "Let's go. I smell bacon." No one mentioned anything at breakfast, and when Dad and Sharon left a couple hours later for the union meeting, we both relaxed and enjoyed the afternoon ahead with Courtney. "Will you take me to the park?" she asked as soon as her parents were out the door. "My friend Wes is playing soccer and asked me to come play too. Please, please, please?" I exchanged a look with Santana, who shrugged. "They didn't say we couldn't leave," she reasoned, and it was decided. Courtney bundled herself up, and even though it was February, she was determined to enjoy herself on the muddied field while Santana and I sat on a bench at the edge of the field, watching her and the boy Wes kick a ball back and forth. "They're adorable," I commented, noticing how Wes helped Courtney up every time she slipped, and how she blushed when he did so. "You think they're like us, San?" "What? Fabulous, popular, bound for greatness?" She teased me and slipped her hand covertly into mine between our legs on the bench. "Sure, why not." "Soul mates," I corrected with a laugh. "Two people who meet and are destined to be together. Forever." She paused, staring at the kids running up and down the soccer field while she bit her lower lip. "Forever is a long time, Britt." I could see her backpedaling. "It doesn't have to be, if you're with the right person… maybe we'll find that someday. Maybe we already have."

"Maybe," she said without conviction. "Maybe you just have to take life as it comes and hope that you make the right decisions, and that the people you care about don't get hurt along the way." "Hmm." Another thing we were on opposite sides of, I noted ruefully. "Court, be careful! Dad will kill me if you get hurt on my watch." From across the field she and Wes came running, stopping just short of me and Santana and huffing, out of breath. "Wes wants to ask you something," she said as she poked him hard in the ribs. "Go on, sissy. Ask her." I arched my eyebrows and flicked a look over to Santana before leaning down and meeting Wes's sheepish gaze. "What's up, Wes?" "Willyoubemygirlfriend?" It came out in one jumble of words and I blinked for a moment, surprised. I'd barely said two words to the kid, and here he was, infatuated. I couldn't very well break the poor kid's heart, and… it just might have solved my Madonna dilemma. I opened my mouth to answer, but Santana got to her feet and stared the boy down. "Now you wait one minute, Wes," she said, her hands on her hips. "This is my very best friend, and I'm not going to just let her run off with the first boy she sees. What makes you worthy of fair Brittany over here?" She'd picked up an accent somewhere in her speech, ending it sounding like a medieval knight, standing tall and gallant as she questioned the boy. Wes picked up on it, and like the good sevenyear-old he was, took the challenge to heart and puffed out his chest. "I'm the bravest warrior the kingdom has ever seen!" he shouted, picked up a stick and holding it out like a sword. "I'll fight any man to prove it!" "You will, will you?" Santana smirked and picked up another stick, smacking Wes's lightly and standing defensively with one foot in front of the other. "Well then, en garde, good sir!" I winced as twig hit twig and they play fought down the field, Santana never using enough force to knock the boy's stick away even though he came at her with all the energy he could muster. She ran when he attacked, Courtney chasing after them, calling out instructions and warnings when one got too close to the other. I sat on the bench, my chin on my hands as I watched my girlfriend fight a seven-year-old for my honor. He caught up to her and rapped her hard on the calf and she fell, exaggeratedly and with enough melodrama that I could see her fake it from across the field. She put her hands up in surrender and he threw down his stick, granting her kind mercy. Together, the three of them – out of breath and covered in mud – tramped back up to me.

"I yield," she said, getting down on one knee in front of me. "He is the better warrior, fair lady. He will serve you proudly." I snorted and did everything in my power to hold back the uncontrollable laughter that threatened to bubble from my chest when she lifted her head and winked at me. Wes got down on one knee in a similar fashion when Santana moved aside and sloppily kissed the back of my hand. "I would be…" he trailed off and looked at Santana, who mouthed the rest of the words to him, instructing him on what he was meant to say. "I would be honored to take your hand, beautiful maiden." I glanced back and forth between Wes and Santana, not able to discern which of them was more adorable. She was flushed pink from the run around the field, and bumped me with her hip as she sat down on the bench. "Accept the boy's proposal, fair maiden," she chided, grinning widely. "He won the duel, fair and square." "Fair and square," Wes echoed, and I laughed. "That you did, good sir. I accept, and shall henceforth be called your girlfriend." He whooped with joy, then grabbed Courtney's hand and took off down the field, obviously losing interest in courtship in favor of the abandoned soccer ball. "You just gave that boy his first wet dream," Santana said with a smirk and wrapped her arm around my shoulder, not caring who was around anymore. "Whatever I did doesn't hold a candle to how completely fucking adorable you were, playfighting him for my hand," I retorted, leaning into her body as the clouds rolled in overhead. "You're really good with kids, San. I didn't expect that. And who knew you were such a dork." "Kids are easier than people our age." She watched Courtney and Wes dodging puddles and shoving each other playfully. "It doesn't take much to make them happy. Everything gets complicated when you get older and you learn that love doesn't exist in the way you'd like it to. The way Disney told you love ought to be." The wind picked up and snow began to fall lazily from the newly settled clouds above us. In the chill, I did my best to shrug off the notion that Santana might fear love itself, more than loneliness or even rejection. If that was the case, it meant that every time she told me she loved me, she hadn't really meant it. "Come on," I said, standing and shrugging her arm off my shoulder. "Let's get these two home before they catch pneumonia and die. Dad will kill me."

She was quiet for most of the evening, but polite whenever Dad tried to talk to her. She excused herself after dinner, claiming exhaustion after the long day out with Courtney and Wes, but I knew she wanted to give me and my father the space we needed to be alone. "She seems a little worn out," he commented quietly when she'd left the living room. "But I'm glad you have such a good friend. Not many people would drive two hours out of their way to spend the weekend with an old man and a six-year-old." I smiled, somewhat mournfully, and glanced down the hallway where she had closed my bedroom door. "She's the best friend I could ever ask for." "Hmm." He nodded cracking the knuckles on his hard hands and stretching in his recliner. He stuck the bottoms of his feet out to the fire he'd built in the fireplace, warming himself. "You two seem really… close. Maybe it's a generational thing. Your mom or Sharon never had friends like that." "We've been together since we were eight," I shrugged, trying to ignore his not-so-subtle hints at his concern over the closeness of my and Santana's relationship. "We're never really apart. We tell each other everything." Not everything. Shut up. Not now. "Like sisters, then," he offered, and I tried to hide my grimace. Sisters didn't do what we did to one another. It felt dirty, thinking about it in that way, imagining her hands on my body and putting the word "sister" as a label on what we had. "Sure," I mumbled, choking out the word to appease him. "Sisters." He wouldn't understand, if I tried to explain to him what she really meant. I could hear it in his voice, when he faltered over calling us 'close'. I could see the skepticism and confusion in his time-beaten eyes. "So…" he tried to break the awkward silence, scratching his head. "Got any special boys in your life?" I blushed scarlet, even in the dim glow from the firelight, and shook my head. "You sure?" he asked again. "A father has a right to approve of any boy his daughter dates. I know we're not all… lovey-dovey, or anything. But I'm your dad. I want to know who's in your life. Make sure they're good people." He used the exact words Santana had the day before, and I pinched myself to keep from bursting and telling him everything. I had good people. He met her. He approved. Or at least I thought he did.

"I don't have time for boys, daddy," I muttered. "With school and Cheerios and glee. When I'm not doing any of that I'm with Santana. I don't need a boyfriend." It wasn't a lie. Just an omission of the truth. He nodded with a smile. "Right, of course you don't. My girl is going places. Boys will only hold you back." The clock on the wall chimed, and he got to his feet. "Be up early tomorrow. I'm making waffles." And he kissed me on the forehead before trudging heavily up the stairs, leaving me alone with the smoldering coals in the mantle and the silence. "You were right," I whispered into Santana's ear as I crawled naked into bed with her. "I can't tell him. He's not ready." She didn't open her eyes, but sighed heavily. "I didn't want to be right," she murmured sleepily. "Give it time. This was just a test run, remember?" She rolled onto her back and I pressed my body into her side, resting my head above her heart. I draped my leg over her hip and ran my foot up and down her calf, wishing for a moment that we were back in Lima, in my bed where I could do more than just lie there with the fear of being caught in the act. Her chest rose and fell beneath my ear, and I listened to the combination of her expanding lungs and steady heartbeat. She'd fallen back to sleep, but I couldn't manage to get there. I was nauseous, with a spinning head like I was drunk, and not the kind that offers deep, unhindered sleep. The kind that leaves you awake and assessing your choices while the girl you love – who loves you back – lies beneath you, unburdened. The kind that leaves you staring at the ceiling while your stomach turns in on itself until the sun comes through the window in the morning. Just long enough to still be conscious when, once again, your little sister bursts into the room unannounced. "Was it cold again?" she asks when Santana just grumbles and rolls over. "Yeah, Court," I sighed. "It was cold. Shut the door, we need to get dressed. And remember what Santana said about secrets." My body dragged achingly to life, and I spent the morning doing my best to remain alert. Breakfast felt forced, with dad standing awkwardly at the stove while he scrambled eggs for us, his gaze settling on Santana every few minutes and just staring. She didn't seem to notice. She was playing endless games of rock-paper-scissors with Courtney and laughing, as though it was the most fun she'd had in years. I did, though, and bit my lip. He was studying her, trying to figure her out. I'd seen that look on Santana's face every time I slipped up. It was a look that meant someone was desperate to understand, even though they knew they probably never would. It sent further ripples through my belly, which was already painfully constricted in withdrawal.

"I think it's time to go home," I prompted Santana after breakfast, whispering it quietly while she carried our plates (mine still full of most of my food, uneaten) to the sink. She put them down and checked over my shoulder for my father before pressing her lips to my forehead, taking my temperature. She stood back, her eyes drowning in concern. "Britt, you're burning up!" She hissed low, shifting me against a wall to help hold me up. "We need to tell your dad, he can take you to a hospital and-" "No hospitals," I insisted, whipping my head from side to side. "No doctors. Just take me home, okay? I can sleep it off in the car." "This is ridiculous! You're sick! Why are you fighting this so hard?" "No doctors," I repeated, as though that explained things. "I'll call your mother," she warned. "The second we leave, I'll call her." I slumped into the wall and sighed. "Fine. But please can we just go? I can't be here anymore." Santana stood rigidly and nodded. She led the way back out to the dining room and apologized, making an excuse about homework and needing to get home. Dad looked back and forth between us, his eye clouding in something that looked like frustration or anger. "I understand," he answered, toneless. "They work you kids too hard these days." She packed both of our bags in silence while I watched from the bed. Dad carried them out to the car, and she stayed outside to warm it up while I lingered with my father at the door, the few feet between us feeling like miles. "I've missed you, kiddo," he said, staring at his feet. "I'm missing a lot. You've changed so much. It's almost like I don't know you anymore." "You kind of don't." It slipped out before I could stop myself and he flushed, half embarrassed and half angry at the truth of it. "That may be," he returned, scratching his stubble. "But I'm your dad. I deserve a shot. I'm trying." "I know," I shrugged, my stomach knotting on itself. "I'm sorry." "We had a good weekend. We can have more. You're welcome here no matter what. But next time…" He trailed off and looked out at the idling car in his driveway, where Santana sat in the driver's seat. "Maybe leave your friend at home." The way he said 'friend' made my throat close. With so much more connotation than the word actually held. Like his meaning was implied. My hands clenched inadvertently at my sides and

he noticed, his eyes flicking to them. He nodded, as though this small gesture confirmed his – and my – worst fears. "I don't want Courtney getting the wrong idea about her sister. She loves you. So do I. But there are some things I don't want her to see." So he knew. He was too polite to put it any other way, but he knew. And in his own way, he was telling me two things: first, that even though he knew, he still loved me. But secondly, that it would never be okay with him in the way that it was with mom. It was as much as I could have hoped for. "U-Understood," I stammered, meeting his gaze and watching as he flinched, the fear in my voice stinging him. "Goodbye, daddy." He hesitated for just a second before pulling me to him, a heavy sigh making his chest expand to twice its size. He kissed the top of my head and let me go, his face still flushed. "I love you, babygirl," he mumbled, patting my shoulder awkwardly. "Safe trip, yeah?" Santana didn't speak to me on the drive back. Instead, she periodically felt my forehead and mumbled under her breath about fevers and fatigue, as though running down a list of symptoms in her head. She was a doctor's daughter, after all. For my part, I drifted in and out of sleep, thinking about my father and his reaction, and his subsequent banishment of Santana from his home. I couldn't tell her. It would be a devastating blow. Her plan had backfired. Maybe he didn't hate her, but he certainly wasn't going to be inviting her over for holidays. It was better that she think the only problem with the weekend was my supposed illness. At least, I thought as Santana turned on her iPod softly in the background. At least the voices have gone. We're never really gone, though. And I groaned, burying my face in my hands.

21
Monday 10.

The Truth in Ten Lies

The silence was perfect. A limitless sense of calm settled over me just moments after they slid down my throat. I exposed my tongue to the vigilant nurse, who nodded and sent me on my way. I floated down the hall. For the first time in days, I felt normal. Not weak, not tired, not sick. And the silence? I basked in it. Not even the lunch crowd could take that blissful emptiness from me. There was one voice in my head, and it was my own. I drove my own actions, directing my feet toward my locker and, inevitably, Santana’s. She was there, waiting for me, standing perfectly straight and eyeing the other students as they passed. But as I approached, her mask faltered and she reached out to me, putting her hand on my arm for a just a moment before jerking it back and righting her shoulders. She inspected me top to bottom with her eyes, obviously noticing a difference from the day before, when she’d poured me into bed and promptly called my mother. Just as she’d sworn she would. “You’re looking better,” she noted cautiously, checking up and down the hall before putting the back of her hand to my forehead. “Feeling better, too.” I grinned toothily. “I told you, it was just a bug. I’m fine.” 9. She returned the smile, the corners of her mouth twitching hesitantly before she allowed her shoulders to relax. “As long as you’re okay, that’s what I care about.” The tenderness in her voice melted me and I had to take a second to remember where I was. I wanted to kiss her, because for the first time since Friday I could do that and not feel like I was strapping a bomb to my chest. But it was lunchtime and were in the middle of the hallway. Kissing her was not an option. So I leaned into the lockers and returned the tenderness in her voice with a look to match. I held out my pinky to her and she took it happily. “Come on,” she prompted, squeezing discreetly against my finger. “Coach’s lunch meeting starts soon.” She was so good at that; managing my time for me, on top of her own. I never remembered things like Cheerio lunch meetings or rehearsal schedules. That meeting in particular, though, is one I’m unable to forget.

We were the last two into the gym, and Sue looked at her watch as we hustled across the freshly waxed floor, counting the seconds that would equal the number of punishment laps we would run after school. Our shoes squeaked against the wood as we spun and sat, Becky Jackson on my left and Santana on my right, with the freshman I’d made out with at Mike’s party on the other side of Santana. She glowered at the girl out of the corner of her eye, and for a full minute Sue surveyed her willing minions before lifting her bullhorn to her lips and shouting. “Miserable, lousy failure!” We all winced, but with practiced resilience, did not look away. “You’re putting Madonna’s name to shame, ladies. I have seen no tangible proof that you are following in those iconic footsteps.” She lowered the bullhorn and motioned to Becky, who had become more a Cheerio mascot and administrative assistant than an actual member of the team. The girl got to her feet and hurriedly distributed a single sheet of paper to each member of the squad. It was blank except for one sentence, bolded and centered in sixty-point font. DATE YOUNGER MEN. “You will have this typed on and on my desk by Monday morning,” she commanded, the scratching of her track suit sounding so much louder when we were sitting so observantly, as though the silence were compounding around us. “I want names. I want phone numbers. I want a blood sample. I don’t care how you get it.” An actual report, written and submitted, detailing our efforts at emulating her idol. With references. Santana, if it were possible, paled. Assignments in hand, Sue summarily dismissed us with a wave of her hand and a sneered insult, but grabbed Santana by the arm as we were walking away. “She’ll meet you outside, Brittany,” Sue said, her eyes boring holes through my skull when I stopped short. “Be a good girl and wait for her there.” It was another one of those situations where neither of us knew what to do. Sue’s word was gospel. I wasn’t going to argue, but I couldn’t leave without knowing Santana would be okay on her own. We exchanged the briefest of looks that communicated our entire relationship in the simplest blink of her eyes. Go on, I’ll be fine. Her chin lifted and fell, indicating toward the exit. Are you sure? I can stay… My eyebrows furrowed and I flicked my gaze back and forth between her and the door behind me.

Go. Don’t get us both in trouble. She set her jaw and nodded again. It all transpired in less than a second, and then I turned on my heel to escape. I leaned against the lockers outside the gym entrance, picking nervously at my cuticles until she emerged a few minutes later, shoulders stiff and her eyes blank. “Let’s go.” She took my pinky roughly in her, and even through my haze I felt the violent yank as she pulled me behind her. “Santana, wait.” Despite my protests she didn’t stop, pulling me up the stairs to the second floor, through a throng of freshman who leapt out of the way as she came barreling at them. “Santana, what happened?” I kept repeating her name, hoping that it might stick that I was addressing her. She didn’t seem to notice. Up ahead I saw her destination: the janitor’s closet. She ducked inside, yanking me behind her and shutting the door. “Ow,” I mumbled when she released me, rubbing my arm and glaring at her as she fumbled in the dark for the string to pull the light above us to life. She looked at me when the bulb flickered on, as though she’d just noticed I was also in the room with her, like she hadn’t dragged me behind her half way across the school. She saw me cradling my hand and her cool exterior softened. “Did I hurt you?” she asked, and I shook my head. “I’m sorry.” “What happened?” I repeated, stepping closer in the dank closet. “‘This is your shot, Santana,’” she mimicked, Sue’s trademark sneer crossing my girlfriend’s face. “‘Get this right, set an example, and you’ll be my head cheerleader.’” “She told you you’ve got it in the bag,” I reminded her, my fingers finding the waistband of her skirt and pulling her to me. “Why are you angry?” “I’m half-assing this because of you,” she stated flatly, and I felt like I’d been insulted, but wasn’t quite sure how. “I have to set an example. I have to be the best. I have to go above and beyond. But if I do that, I hurt you. I’m having a hard time reconciling what I want and what I need.” I cocked my head, not understanding. “What’s the difference?”

“I want to be head cheerleader,” she sighed, her hips leaning into mine. “But I need you. More than you need me, I think.” She wasn’t entirely wrong, so I couldn’t correct her. “Can’t you have both?” “Not without compromising on one,” she replied, and rested her head on my shoulder. Her anger was fading, slowly replaced with fatigue. “Don’t give up on what you want because of me,” I prodded, bumping her temple gently with my nose and slipping her arms around my waist. “You don’t have to compromise… I’ll do it for you.” She lifted her head and stared at me. “Huh?” “I’m the reason you’re not doing everything you can to be Sue’s Number Wah. I wouldn’t forgive myself if I kept you from that. So I’m not standing in the way.” “Britt, I-“ “One week,” I said, interrupting her before she could protest. “You have one week to find a guy, date him, prove to Sue you’re what she wants, and become head cheerleader. I can look away for a week and let you do what needs to be done. Then you’ll come back to me. Clean slate.” 8. She shook her head and pulled me tight again. “I can’t. I won’t.” “Yes, you will,” I corrected. “Because you shouldn’t have to choose between want and need. You’d do the same for me, right?” “Of course.” Her response was immediate and decisive, but her tightened grip said otherwise. If the situation were reversed, she would make me choose. But that was okay. I knew what my decision would be. Her. Every time. “Come on,” I prompted, kissing the side of her head. “We have a boyfriend to find.” Tuesday McKinley was not short of boys that were younger than Santana and I. The issue that arose was finding a suitable boy that was younger, but would also satisfy Sue’s endgame: be like Madonna, and you will succeed. Puck was her first choice. But since our return from the holiday break, he’d been attached to Quinn’s hip. I found it endearing, that he would stay by her side like that, after what she’d done

to him. She’d made him lie for her, alienated him, chosen another boy to be the father of his child. And still, when Finn had found out, Puck was there. I could no longer hold it against him that he had been Santana’s first, if only because I knew that he was decent. Somewhere under that mohawk was a good man. Azimio wasn’t her type. Karofsky was never even mentioned. We went through a list of every athlete in the school throughout the day, negating each in turn. But one name – the most obvious – wasn’t brought up. She held my hand in her car on the drive to my house after practice, and didn’t let go until she needed it to pull my uniform from my body in the safety of my room. She pressed frantic kisses to my neck and collarbone, sending shivers down my spine when her fingers trailed up my sides. Her top came off moments later, and I sucked in a sharp breath at the shock of our bare abdomens pressing together. “Santana, slow down,” I murmured, trying to contain her hands as they roamed across my back and stealthily unsnapped my bra. She wasn’t slowing down, though. In fact, at my words she yanked the offending lingerie from my arms and pressed her fingers into my hips, pushing me back onto my bed. She slid her thigh between my knees and forced them apart, crawling up to perch between them with a look like lust in her eyes. Her upper leg pressed roughly against my core and I spread my thighs instinctively at her motion. She was determined, I noted, to be in control this time. Something she’d done very little of in the past few weeks. But as she lowered her body down on mine, her weight distributing evenly over my torso, I knew there was more to this than just Santana wanting to change things up. “San, baby, please,” I mumbled, rasping as her palms found my breasts and cupped them roughly. “Come on, not so hard…” Her teeth nipped at my neck in response and she smirked into the curve of my jaw. “Are you saying you don’t like it? Because this-“ she reached down with her left hand and cupped my mound, fingers running up and down the spot on my panties that I’d soaked through “-makes me think otherwise.” It wasn’t as though sex had become a taboo subject once we’d started talking about what it actually meant. But that afternoon, with her teeth bared in a sly grin and her hands more rough than they usually were with me, things felt off. They felt wrong. She was pushing harder than she ought to, because she knew I would never fight her if she wanted to be on top. But she was asserting a sort of dominance that was uncommon for us. We’d grown comfortable in our roles when our clothes came off. I was in her shadow at school, but when it was just us, completely exposed to one another in the safety of my bedroom, I took control. This person on top of me was not the Santana I knew, and for a moment the glint in her eyes scared me. “Stop,” I said sharply, wincing as the hand between my legs tried pulling my underwear off before I was ready. She pulled at them again, harder this time, and I felt them rip. I braced my

palms against her shoulders and pushed up, the length of my arms distancing her from me and I said it again. “Stop.” Her face fell instantly, and it shifted from confused to angry as I watched. “What? What did I do?” “It’s too fast,” I said, studying the way she curled in on herself as she sat up and knelt between my legs with her arms crossed over her chest. “Just slow down, okay? You don’t have to prove anything to me.” “I’m not trying to prove something,” she sniffed, turning her nose up at the accusation. “Can’t I just be butch for once?” I sighed and propped myself up on my elbows, trying to stop my head from spinning as I did. My afternoon dose was wearing off, and I could feel the tingling sensation creeping out from my chest toward my limbs. “This isn’t about butch, Santana,” I told her. “Although that’s an interesting choice of words, considering neither of us has worn anything other than a skirt to school in the last two years.” She noted my smirk and valiantly fought off a grin, forcing it down with the strength of a prizefighter until there was nothing left on her face but disdain. “What’s it about, then?” “I don’t know,” I shrugged, nothing but theories running through my head. “Maybe you’re trying to show me you don’t care about all these guys we’ve been talking about all day. You’re not gay. Fine. You don’t have to pretend this isn’t bothering you if it is.” “Can we stop talking about guys for like, half a minute?” Santana pouted, her upper lip curling into a snarl. “I don’t want to think about them when my girlfriend is naked underneath me. I just want you right now. That’s it. I don’t want to talk, I just want to be with you. Can we do that? Please?” By the time she was finished the lip had fallen and her expression read more like pleading than angry. She wanted me to give in so badly that she was willing to ask me for it. To ask me not to question her motives and just let her do what she needed to do to. Because, if she thought about it too deeply, she would realize that all this talk about dating boys and being with them was lingering with her longer than she wanted it to. She might have been with me emotionally, but the physical aspect of her relationship with guys had always been the driving force behind them. She was confused, and ending the physical separation between us helped her remember that I was what she wanted in that moment. Physically and emotionally. No amount of discussion regarding her as-yet undetermined fake boyfriend could shake that from her if I just let her do this.

I sat up further so my body leaned against hers, still kneeling between my legs on the bed. I wrapped my arms around her waist and kissed her bare chest, my lips pulsing with the rhythm of her unsteady heartbeat. She tensed for only a moment before melting into me and twining her limbs around my shoulders. “Okay,” I agreed quietly. “No more talking. Just… slow down. A girl likes to be wooed.” She giggled and pushed me playfully back down on the bed. “Wooing. Got it. Anything for you, baby.” The pace didn’t let up, but the tone of it did, and when she pushed her lips to mine the urgency and clumsiness were gone. Instead, I felt heat and electricity surge between us, sparked by the smile she pressed against my mouth. Her hands, instead of fumbling with the few remaining articles of clothing on our bodies, cupped my jaw and held it tightly but tenderly, so intimately that I might have completely forgotten that we’d been arguing a moment before. Once again, her torso splayed across mine, her thigh pushing my legs apart with gentle insistency. I obliged, and a moan slipped from my throat as she ground the leg against my center. Her breath hitched at the sound and a soft laugh followed her hands as they carefully removed the scrap of ripped panty that was left hanging on my hips. “Sorry about that,” she said ruefully as she sat up and inspected the remnants before tossing them aside. “To be fair, though, they were in my way…” “And nothing gets between Santana Lopez and what she wants,” I noted with a grin, running my hands up her thighs as she released the clasp on her bra and threw it away. “Nothing that a little muscle can’t fix,” she returned, and flexed mockingly before falling back on top of me, one arm snaking between us while the other palmed my breast, fingers pinching and teasing at my nipple. Her tongue slipped past my lips, parting them. The fingers of her left hand danced between my legs, skirting around my folds while she pressed steamy kisses against my teeth. The pressure there sent my head reeling, and I realized quickly that my dose was gone. I was feeling everything. And, in her arms, nothing hurt. It was transcendent, I thought. That feeling like breathing clean air after a lifetime of living in smog. Everything was amplified. Her lips were not as smooth as I remembered them being, but instead a bit dry and chapped from constant worrying. Her fingers trembled slightly, despite the confidence in her voice as she commanded, “Spread a little wider, baby,” and I complied. Her digits ran the length of my entrance, teasing while she leaned to the right just enough to allow her arm a free range of motion. I tucked my feet up around her back, my knees bent in the air while she moaned into my mouth. “My god, Britt,” she hissed, bringing a slick finger to her mouth and sucking on the tip. “You’ve never been this wet before. Maybe I should rip your panties more often…”

Was the change that noticeable? That even my body reacted differently to her touch when I was completely off the medication? Or was she simply a replacement for the drugs I ingested, a new kind of high that made the act of feeling different than it was before? Perhaps I was substituting one addiction for another. They were questions that weren’t meant to be answered. Not just then, anyway. Not with Santana on top of me, slipping that beautifully manicured finger between her teeth and tasting me on it. I watched, my body jelly beneath hers, and clenched my thighs around her hips. “Jesus,” I breathed, my breath labored under her weight and the heightened sensations I was feeling. “That was so fucking sexy.” She cocked an eyebrow suggestively and smiled, her teeth flashing white as the finger left her mouth and the hand dipped low once more. She traced my center again, moistening her fingers against me. She bent her head and slowly pushed the tip of her tongue out, beckoning me to taste myself on it. I obliged immediately, biting on it carefully and sucking it into my mouth before releasing her. She moaned and captured my lips with hers, pressing her pelvis against the hand in between us. Two fingers entered me swiftly, buried to the last knuckle with a force she hadn’t used before. It wasn’t painful or unpleasant, just surprising. I took my shock out on her lower lip, biting roughly as she pulled those fingers out and pushed back in, aided once again by bucking hips. The rhythm began slowly, her pelvis rocking against mine in short jabs forward and languid draws back. Each deep thrust of her fingers into me sent my head tilting back, and she pressed her lips to my pulse point, sucking and kissing in turn. The little grunts she emitted as she pumped against me again and again rang vividly in my ears. It was as though I was feeling and seeing and hearing everything for the first time. Two fingers inside me stretched me in new ways. My own whimpering was an octave higher than I ever thought it was before. Even the color of my ceiling was brighter. But most of all, the building up toward my climax was shorter, more intense, and infinitely more satisfying. Santana’s body arched into me with each pump of her hips, her breasts smashed roughly against mine and her teeth biting alternately lightly and hard at my throat. I could feel her curl her digits inside me, hitting a spot that sent stars across my vision. Her thumb, previously holding steady on the outside of my clit, pressed against it then, pushing back the hood and exposing it. I gasped and arched, a sharp crying I couldn’t control erupting and echoing in my small house. “Fuck!” I let it ring and my ankles locked precariously at the small of her back, holding her against me. “Santana… harder.”

The demand caught her off guard but she responded by pushing a third finger into me, a throaty moan leaving her lips this time. “You’re so tight,” she whispered, peppering my collarbone with kisses and pulling her pelvis back cautiously after a few tentative thrusts. “I need to taste you, B.” I whimpered as the movement stopped for a moment and her weight lifted, leaving me cold. She shifted down my body and perched with her shoulders between my thighs, fingers still buried deep. As soon as her free arm had wrapped itself around my left thigh, she began to pump again, with more control and speed. Her tongue flicked out, tentatively testing the waters of my stamina. One flick and I mewled, her name dancing on the tip of my tongue until she flicked again. And again. And again. She drew up the sensitive button in broad strokes with the flat of her tongue as her fingers entered and left my body in sharp jabs. My hips rolled instinctively into her hand and mouth, my fingers twining in her long dark hair and pulling her deeper into me. I pushed the back of her head against my aching core and her lips wrapped around my clit. She sucked once, and my hips rocketed forward, nearly throwing her, but she held fast to my thigh. A second time, and I groaned, throwing my arm across my eyes. “Santana…” Her name became the only word in my vocabulary. As though this name, this beauty, was the only definition of ‘alive’ I ever needed. A third time, and the cliff I’d been standing on disappeared beneath me. Her mouth never stopped as my body rolled and my muscles clamped hard down on her three fingers and I screamed, the name mingling with profanities and curses and pleas for more, always more. The explosion reverberated out from my center, rippling my limbs and causing every muscle and tendon in my body to contract. My thighs, once held apart by her shoulders, clamped around her ears and I had a fleeting thought that I might suffocate her before I could release the hold. But she didn’t fight it, and I could have sworn I felt her smile into my clit as I squeezed her head and bucked again and again into her mouth. Minutes passed. My legs relaxed, but her head remained firmly between my thighs. I lay splayed on the bed, one calf draped across her back while the other twitched in time with my aftershocks. I could feel her hot breath against me as she let her pulse slow, her fingers still curled inside me. When she gently pulled them out, I groaned and grabbed her wrist before she had a chance to wipe her soaked hand on the sheets. She took the hint and crawled up my body, her weight pinning me down before she offered me those fingers. My grip on her wrist tightened as I opened my mouth and sucked, one at a time, her fingers clean. She watched me, her mouth open in a tiny ‘O’, and her eyes wide in amazement. “You are so beautiful,” she moaned, pulling her hand from my lips and kissing the remnants of me from them. “That was… just… damn.”

Her stuttering was adorable. But even as we both took in deep, uneven breaths, I knew there was no way I could let things end there. She was still lying between my legs, which I used to hold her still as I rolled us together, until she was on her back, haloed in my pillows. “Don’t get comfortable, baby,” I said with a smile, my hand coming up to cup her cheek and brush her mussed hair from her face. “I’m not through with you yet.” Wednesday “Ugh. Crap. I need a younger, inferior man.” Santana slammed her locker closed and it resonated in my head like a gunshot. I’d been fighting through the morning’s hangover with as much grace as I could muster, but the combination of churning stomach and splitting migraine left me wincing at the sound. She’d woken me that morning with a kiss, placed tenderly on the side of my neck as I slept. The evening before had been exhilarating; a thrilling look at what it must have been like to be sober all the time, and to feel things in their entirety. I thought that maybe I’d beaten it, that I had been able to avoid all the clichés about addiction that you hear on television. But those lips on my neck, as my alarm buzzed like a chainsaw at my bedside, burned my skin and I’d groaned in agony. I hadn’t beaten anything. I was right back where I stared. Good morning, sunshine. No, strike that. I was worse off than I had been before. Between the voices taunting me from the behind my eyes and Santana sauntering around my room naked, gathering the various pieces of her uniform, I was in hell. The over-stimulation of my senses left me clutching my head. I bent in half at the side of the bed, fingers digging into my scalp. “Please,” I whispered. “Don’t do this. Not today.” “D’you say something, babe?” Santana’s hand ran down the length of my spine, her fingers like razors on my skin. “What’s wrong?” I lifted my head, plastering a smile in place even though I knew my eyes said so much more than my mouth ever could. “I didn’t say anything.” 7. “Jump in the shower, I’ll be there in a sec.”

I didn’t answer her second question, and she caught it, but didn’t repeat herself. Instead she placed a soft kiss on the top of my head, her hand lingering at my chin and her gaze scrupulous as she studied me. “Okay, baby,” she said at last. “Don’t take too long, we’re gonna be late.” She’s so conscientious. Shut up. I took stock of myself as I moved slowly around the room, pulling together what I needed for the day. I ached. My stomach was knotted. The voices were back, and louder than before. I noted silently that they seemed to come around when I was sober, but I had never heard them when I was Half In or Half Out. And, more importantly, they were a recent development. Or had they been there all along? Maybe they were the monster I’d feared, laying dormant, kept asleep by a steady supply of medication. I’d only begun hearing them when I’d started trying to wean myself off the pills. Where did you come from? Does it matter? Yes. You already know the answer. Maybe you could pretend like I don’t, and just tell me. You already know the answer. You said that before. You already know the answer. “Stop it!” “Brittany?” Santana wandered into the bedroom. She had a towel wrapped around her torso. Her hair was piled in a wet, messy bun on top of her head, with a toothbrush sticking out of the corner of her mouth. And there I was, standing in the middle of my bedroom, naked, talking to myself. Somehow I had lost 20 minutes while she’d finished showering. “Who are you talking to?” She spoke around the toothbrush in her mouth, muffling the words.

“No one,” I replied. 6. “Hope you left me some hot water.” She rolled her eyes and pulled the brush from between her teeth, lather from the paste sticking to the corners of her mouth. “You would have had all the hot water you wanted if you’d gotten in with me like I asked. Now come on, we’re going to be really late.” As she sauntered back into the bathroom to rinse and spit, I looked over at my bedside clock. It was nearly 8am. I’d lost all that time, and I didn’t know where it had gone. I blinked once, twice, three times. When I opened my eyes I was in the hallway in front of our lockers. “If I don’t find one Coach Sylvester will kick me off the Cheerios for sure.” More time lost, I noted, as Santana pulled me back to reality. I didn’t remember how we’d gotten from my bedroom to school, but there I stood just the same. And based on the black lace gloves on my hands and sky-high hair I sported, Santana had been the one to style me that morning. Probably another bid to win Sue’s affections. She’s baiting you about the boys again. She needs to find someone, or Coach won’t make her head cheerleader. You know who she wants to ask, though. He’s the only one left. The only one who might help her. But one date won’t help. You saw what happened the last time you failed. She just has to be seen with him, that’s all. And Coach will promote her and everything will be fine. It’s not enough. Stop kidding yourself. I don’t want her to do that. Stop, please. You don’t have a choice. And she’d probably do it anyway. Look at how scared she is. She loves me. She wouldn’t. Well, there’s only one way to figure that out, isn’t there? “Hello?” I prompted, trying to control the tremor in my voice. “Finn. His birthday is like three days before yours. And he’s super dumb.”

Good girl. “We already tried with Finn and he hates us.” Now tell her what she needs to hear. Tell her what she already knows. It’s worked once for her… “Trust me. The way to get a man to follow you forever? Take his virginity. Madonna, like… wrote a song about it.” 5. And she was gone. With a cock of her head and an impertinent smile, she walked away. She had my permission, and she ran with it. Ran directly to Finn, who stood oafishly by his locker across the hall. I couldn’t watch. I played it cool, placing a beauty mark on my upper lip before shutting my locker and walking away without ever turning around. I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to see her giving herself to him. After everything we’d been through, she was still so easily swayed. I made it to the bathroom before my knees wavered. I reached into my bag, pulling out the bottle stashed at the bottom, and tossed two nondescript pills down my throat. I guess we’ll see you later, then Not if I can help it. Thursday I waited for her on my stoop in the morning, reading the text messages from the day before. where'd u go? schue is asking about u Britt, seriously, where r u? if I skip practice to come find u and u aren’t dying then im gonna be really pissed im sorry I didn’t mean that. just txt me back. pls? After I’d left the bathroom, I’d also left the school. It might have been a poor decision, walking out into the world when I had little control over my own actions, but with the pills in my blood it was quiet. And that’s what I wanted. Just quiet. So the phone had been turned off, thrown into my backpack, and forgotten. Maybe my body was telling me something, but on the mile-long walk back to my house, everything began to shut down. A woman on the street asked me for directions, and my mouth

failed to deliver the words. I tripped over my feet as I misjudged the distance between my foot and the ground. Even the graze on my knee from the fall failed to bleed properly, instead oozing and never really clotting as a scab ought to do. The last thing I recalled was perching on a curb a few blocks from home to catch my breath, before time disappeared again. When I awoke it was dark, and I was in my bed. Then I’d found the messages. She arrived at my door the next morning, perfectly coiffed and boiling mad. "You’re alive," she observed, getting out of her car to meet me on the porch. "Good, it'll make killing you so much more interesting." I sighed. "Sorry," was the most I could muster. "I texted you all day, Britt. Where the hell did you go?" "...home, obviously." "Don’t be a smartass, you know what I mean." She crossed her arms over her chest like an angry parent. "Why’d you cut? This week, of all weeks. Coach was livid. She made us run wind sprints all practice. The entire squad hates you right now." I couldn't have cared less about the squad. I cared that she was angry with me, and that she didn’t understand why I didn’t feel like talking to her about this. "Didn’t feel good. I didn't want to be there, so I left." "And you couldn’t have just told me?” she queried, cocking her head to the side incredulously. “What did you do, walk home?" I shrugged, irritation crawling up my spine, wondering if I really needed her to escort me everywhere, or if it was just on her insistence. "It’s not that far." "You still should have told me." Are you my mother or my girlfriend? "Are you my mother or my girlfriend?" Oh, Jesus. Santana’s eyes narrowed, and she took a staggering step back as though she’d been punched. "You know, I don't know if I can tell anymore." Fuck you. "Fuck you."

The voices crept up quietly, but their influence was no longer limited to telling me what to do. Now they were just doing it. Speaking for me. Saying what they wanted, through me. She balked, backing up another step. "What is your problem? I didn’t come here to be attacked." Why then? "Why then?" "I was worried! Jesus, Brittany, what the hell is wrong with you?" She stood her ground then, leaning forward and inspecting me top to bottom. Her eyes bore holes in mine, digging until I was sure she could see the voices, when I could only hear them. But still she waited, quietly, for an explanation. I’m sick of being treated like a child… "I'm sick of being treated like a child. I can make a decision without consulting you." I was answering of my own accord again, picking up where the prompt left off. I was angry, and itching for a fight. I didn’t know why, but Santana was my intended target. "Can you? Because skipping yesterday was a really fucking stupid decision." "Go to school, Santana,” I grunted, turning toward my front door. I needed a pill. I needed the voice to stop needling me, pushing me, making me snap at the only person who really cared. I needed Santana to go away for that to happen. “You came, you did your duty, now leave me alone." "No,” she snapped, straightening and taking a few careful steps behind me. “You can’t skip again, B. Coach will kick you off the team. I need you there with me. Please, just tell me what’s wrong.” She knows. No, she doesn't. If she didn’t before, she will soon. Fuck you, too. Leave me alone. Touchy today, are we? “Call it PMS,” I retorted over my shoulder, and she scoffed at me.

“You don’t get PMS. You get chocolate cravings and you get cuddly and maybe you’ll cry during The Lion King, but you sure as hell don’t yell at me like this, unprovoked. Unless…” She trailed off and her eyes widened. “Jesus Christ, this is about Finn.” Ding ding ding. Give the girl a prize. Seriously, fuck off. “This isn’t about Finn.” 4. I whirled on her, and the guilt on her face silenced the bitter retort the voices tried to force past my lips. She was thoroughly beaten, and I limped achingly down the steps to meet her in the path to my door. “This isn’t about anything. I’m sorry. I’m just having a bad couple of days. I get to have bad days sometimes.” “Of course you do,” she reassured, still standing stiffly, but allowing a softness to dull her sharp edges. “You get all the bad days you want. I just want you to be able to tell me about them, so I can make them better. I don’t want to fight.” “Me either.” I pulled her into a hug as a chorus of complaints sounded in my head. Oh, come on! This was getting interesting. You’ll be gone soon. Get it out while you can. “Go to school, San,” I told her once more, gentler and with as much of a smile as I could muster. “I’ll be there for practice after school. I just need some sleep. Okay?” She nodded, breathing in deeply of flesh at my throat. “Okay, Britt… He turned me down, you know. In case it was bugging you.” I tensed, shoulders drawing up around my neck. “It wasn’t.” Santana pressed her lips discreetly to my neck, and I fought the urge to throw her off at the burn of them. “Well,” she said with a quick squeeze. “Just in case it was. I’ll see you after school for practice, okay?” Absolutely. “Absolutely.” Friday

We sat in the parking lot at school long after the bell had rung. I’d tried to get out, to leave the car and go inside, but she’d held fast to my hand, so I stayed. She wasn’t looking at me, but out the windshield and at the building, studying it. Searching for weak points, ways to burn it down. “San?” Being late for home room was one thing, but I would lose participation points for being late to English as well. And they were about the only points I could count on. But she wasn’t moving, and I couldn’t leave her there. “He changed his mind.” “Who?” She closed her eyes. I could see them roll behind her lids, but I said nothing as she sighed. “Finn. He changed his mind. I just thought you ought to know.” My chest contracted. She unbuckled her seatbelt and got out of the car, leaving me there and heading toward the school. I waited until my lungs restarted and I could once again feel the rush of blood to my brain before jumping from my seat and tailing after her, calling out across the parking lot. “Why?” She stopped, her shoulders slumping. “Don’t make me explain it again,” she said without turning. I caught up to her, circling around so I stood between her and the school, her escape. She stared at the ground, one hand balled into a fist while the other clung to the strap of her bag over her shoulder. “You never explained it the first time,” I replied, bending to try and catch her eye, but she turned away. “Yes, I have. A hundred times.” She lifted her head and looked up at me, that defiant expression of determination she carried around crossing her features. “Finn changed his mind, so I’m going through with it. You told me to, remember? Don’t make me out to be a cocktease now.” She was putting it on me to be the bad guy. It made sense, I suppose, given that I really had told her what to do. But somehow it still hurt. “I know, but…” “But what, Brittany?” Her eyes darted back and forth, staring deeply into each of mine individually, with the vain hope that maybe one would tell her what she ought to do. She was torn, that much I could tell. She was a scared little girl in a situation that was too grown up for her to respond to properly, and she was looking to me, of all people, to tell her how to react. To give her direction. I had none to give.

“Nothing.” 3. I said this heavily, the weight of one word dragging my body down. “Come on, we’re late.” I turned then, and left her standing in the parking lot, darting through the halls to my class while a soft cackle echoed in my ears. It’s up to her now, you know that, right? She has motive, means, and opportunity. But will she follow through? I don’t care. You can’t lie to us. We’re you. I can try. Go away. You know how to make us go away. I can’t. I have to stop. You’ll never stop. You can’t. You’re weak. I have to be strong. Stronger. For Santana. She’s just as weak as you are. Worse, even. She’s the bravest person I know. Now you’re really trying to kid yourself. “Brittany, you’re late,” the teacher scolded from the front of the room as I pushed the classroom door open. “Take a seat, get out your book.” Take out your book, Brittany. Be a good girl. Don’t make a fuss. Oh, look who it is. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him. Six feet, several inches of ogre in a flannel shirt and lumberjack vest. He looked like he belonged on the cover of Field & Stream. He threw a ball of paper at Puck across the room, and laughed silently as the teacher failed to notice. He was carefree, even cavalier. Not that he knew what his happiness was doing to me, but it felt like a personal assault. He was happy to spite me. It was irrational, but it seethed beneath the surface, and I turned to the spiral notebook open on my desk.

The page open in front of me was covered in pen. Dark, angry marks drawing thick lines across the lined sheet, forming the same word over and over. “Stop.” “Did you say something, Brittany?” I’d said it out loud without meaning to. I shut the notebook quickly, not wanting the rest of the class to see the ferocious word scrawled one on top of another. “No, sorry.” 2. Finn turned in his chair, smiling at me. He motioned toward the teacher, rolling his eyes, trying to establish some sort of camaraderie between us. But the only thing I could see was Santana, and I scowled. He furrowed his brow and slowly righted himself, facing forward once more. It’s going to be a very long day. I know. I know a way to make it go faster. No. You’ll come around. After school, when she drives away with him and you’re left behind, you’ll come around. It doesn’t matter. Sex isn’t dating. Dating is dating. We’re together. I promised her a clean slate. Keep telling yourself that. You make a lot of promises you really can’t keep. The bell rang and I jumped in my chair. People moved around me, crowding me, and I closed my eyes and held my breath until they were gone. When I lifted my lids, I was in math. Parabolas were drawn haphazardly along with scrawled words, notes for myself more than the class. “Stop” was repeated again and again in the margins of the page. I blinked and I was at my locker, a history book in one hand and my unfinished homework in the other. Once more, and I awoke in the locker room, a chorus of high-pitched squeals from my squadmates ringing in my ears. “B, come on,” Santana’s voice floated down the row, hollow and echoing off the walls. “You can’t be late today. Let’s go.”

My feet moved, but my mind was three steps behind. I watched myself fall in line, take position, and go through the motions of the routine. The stilt-walkers threw me in the air, and I was still flying long after I’d hit the ground. I watched Santana, her face deep in concentration as she remembered the steps and executed, in perfect form, each one in turn. These things that came so easily to me were trials for her. Movement was a short like focus was for me. Even then, when I was not myself, I could accurately perform these routines because they were all I knew. Dancing came as naturally as breathing. If I kept breathing, I kept moving. For Santana, who fought so hard to move, breathing must have seemed like the greatest kind of task. Another blink, and I was in the shower, hot water pouring down as the girls giggled and splashed each other around me. Santana was in the next stall, eyeing me over the tiled divider. “Where are you?” she asked quietly, rinsing the shampoo from her hair. “I’m right here.” My brain caught up with my body, and they crashed together. No longer outside myself, I saw her – nude, water cascading over her perfect breasts – and I imagined Finn seeing them. Touching them. I looked away, nauseated. Maybe it was the sobriety. But the thought of a hand over than my own being given access to her sent a shock to my system. Wake up, she’s leaving. “Santana,” I called on instinct without even looking up to see if the voice was right. I knew it was. It saw what I saw, only faster. It was the part of my brain that was rational. It was me, after all. The part of me I’d beaten down with years of mind-altering medication. The voice was not the monster I feared so much. What I’d become, that was the monster. The uncontrolled girl. The addict. You’re learning. We’re proud of us. She was on her way out of the locker room. I stood, still wet and wrapped in a towel that had appeared around my torso. She, however, was dressed in street clothes and carrying her duffel over her shoulder. She wasn’t even going to say goodbye. “San, wait.” She stopped and looked around. There was no one left in the locker room. Turning, she rushed back to me and cupped my face in her hands before pressing her mouth to mine in desperation. She kissed me furiously, not letting go of my cheeks, as though she might never see me again. She broke, gasped for air, and pressed her forehead to mine. “I have to go,” she whispered, but the tone said something else entirely.

Don’t let me go. “I love you,” I managed, and her shoulders pitched violently. “I have to go,” she repeated, softer, and to herself rather than to me. “I’ll come over tonight. I’ll see you… later.” After. She was going to say after. “I love you.” And then she was gone. I watched as she disappeared around the corner. I couldn’t chase her. I couldn’t stop her from going, even though we both knew she didn’t want to. The sense of obligation was thick. She had to go. I had to let her. We were both being tested. Whether either of us was passing was undetermined. There were no right answers. There was only outcome. Reaction. Response. What now? Wait. Just wait. It was dark when I left the gym. Dark, and bitter cold; March’s last attempt at clinging to winter. The wind bit at my ears with icy teeth as I walked – trudged – the mile home. I didn’t stop, kept my head down with my arms wrapped like a straight jacket around my chest. Holding myself in, preventing my own hysterics. I didn’t bother with lights; the house was empty. Mom had a shift at the diner, so I was left alone. I took each stair up to my room as though it would be the last stair I’d ever climb. Savoring each worked muscle, feeling it all. I was weak, and by the time I reached the second floor I was winded. From withdrawal, from Cheerios practice, from missing Santana. It didn’t matter. I stepped into my room, dropping my bag in the corner and sitting on the edge of my bed. The bright blue LED lights within the bedside clock ticked off the time. 6:37 PM 6:38 PM I watched the numbers change, counting the seconds as the simplest form of distraction. Not that it worked. Each counted second was a second she was with Finn. She didn’t tell me where they were going, just that she was meeting him, and she didn’t plan on being gone long. I, in the meantime, had nothing to do but watch the clock tick off numbers and listen to the voices in my head. We’re in agony. Thanks for pointing that out.

We don’t have to be. Yes, we do. Why? Why suffer like this? Not feeling at all was so much nicer. Not feeling is what got us into this mess. We can’t do it anymore. It’s all or nothing. Nothing. We choose nothing. “Nothing” isn’t what we think it is. If “nothing” makes the pain stop then “nothing” can be whatever it wants to be. No. Stop it. We’ve thought about it before. We’ve got everything we need. Stop. No one would miss us. Santana would. Santana would be crushed. She’ll have Finn’s awkward shoulder to cry on. “Stop it! Just stop!” I threw myself back on the quilt and pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes, as though it would stop anything. I clawed at the pillows at the head of the bed, pulling the first one I grabbed into my chest and curling into a tight ball around it. Muscle fatigue had faded into muscle contraction. Everything felt tight, like a rubber band pulled to its maximum length, teetering precariously on that edge where just a little bit more pull and it will snap. I felt that, the desire – the need – to snap. The pain coursed through me like fire in my veins, to every extremity, burning me from the inside out. As much as I didn’t want to listen, the voice had a point. We had thought about it before. We – I – had considered it carefully, actually. Made a plan, even formulated a proper time so I wouldn’t be interrupted. But as much as I thought about it, I didn’t know with enough conviction that I couldn’t survive this night. It hurt. Everything did. But I could cry and moan about the pain, the agony of being left here alone, and I could take a pill. One or two to dull the ache, and I would be okay. I could manage. The question was more along the lines of, “Can I manage tomorrow without Santana?”

I wanted to pace; to get up and move around and work off my nerves on something productive. But the rubber bands that were my tendons held me stiffly in place and I dug my fingers into the bed spread, counting the stitching in each square. My eyes flicked to the clock when I was sure I’d counted every stitch and every square. 9:13 PM 9:14 PM Beside the clock, my phone vibrated angrily. The agony that ripped through my limbs as I reached for it, desperate for word from Santana, shattered any sense of calm that I’d found and I groaned. The phone was heavy in my hand, like a brick. I slid it open, and the screen illuminated the room, blinding me for a moment. Recovering with a few quick blinks, I read the screen. It was a text message, and not from the person I was expecting. Santana just left the diner with 1 of the football playrs. Seemed upset. Where r u? love u -mom I retched. My stomach churned on itself, and I vomited, my head falling over the side of the bed so it landed on the floor. Not only had she gone through with it, she’d gone out to dinner with him after. A proper date for a proper head cheerleader. Is it time to revisit our earlier conversation? “No,” I gasped through my burning throat. “God… no…” I pulled myself from the bed and crawled on my hands and knees to the bathroom across the hall. I couldn’t stand. My hands hit cool tile and I grappled for traction, something to keep me moving forward. I slipped on the slick surface and cracked my head hard against the floor. I saw stars, little spots of light that flashed across my vision as I rolled over on my back and tried to pull myself up on the sink. My legs dragged uselessly behind me as I fought to make it to the toilet before retching once more, my empty stomach knotting itself and my esophagus burning with bile. I pulled my head from the bowl, spitting the bitter remnants from my tongue and heaving. The breath had been stolen from my lungs. My eyes faded in and out of focus. I heard a noise downstairs and I froze. Santana opened and closed the door using the spare key, and I heard her call for me from the bottom of the stairs. Her weight made each step creak as she climbed, drawing nearer. I panicked. I couldn’t see her, not like this, not after… “Brittany?” her voice carried through the hallway. The door to the bathroom was open. My room stank of vomit and I was lying in a limp pile of limbs on the floor. I was helpless. There was no escaping it, escaping her. I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand and yanked as hard as I could on the sink, pulling myself upright, teetering precariously on the dry twigs I called legs. I wiped the sweat from my brow with a towel and stepped out into the hallway, walking the dreaded tightrope that was keeping me standing.

She stopped as soon as she saw me, and I knew there was no hiding how awful I looked. She, for her part, wasn’t much better. She appeared shrunken, a skeleton, when just a few hours earlier she had been vibrant. I reached out to her, needing something – anything – to hold on to in order keep balance. She shrank away, and I staggered, leaning against the wall. “I need a shower,” she stated, her hand clenching and unclenching at her side as she fought the urge to hold me. “Don’t touch me.” She feels dirty. She should. Because she cheated on us. And I told her to. She could have said no. Sue told her to. Santana allowed someone other than us to fuck her tonight. You’re not angry about that? “Of course I’m fucking angry.” “Who are you talking to?” She was behind me, headed toward the bathroom. I turned, swaying at the sudden rush of blood to my brain. “No one. Forget it.” 1. Santana caught the bitterness and she stood, staring. She took careful stock of me and shook her head. “No. Not this time. You’re going to tell me what’s going on. You’re everywhere but here. You’re sick. You’ve been sick for weeks. Brittany, there’s something wrong. I know you’re not telling me because you think you need to be strong, but you’re holding this in and you can’t anymore. I’m not forgetting it, and I’m not letting it go.” I scoffed. She thinks we have cancer or something. “I know.” “Then you know you can talk to me,” she said, thinking my reply had been for her. “B, please. Stop lying to me. I know something is wrong.”

I sniffed and blinked my bleary eyes. “I’m not lying.” 0. “Go take your shower. Get nice and clean.” She crossed her arms over her chest and narrowed her eyes. “Is that what this is about? We talked about this. We agreed. Clean slate, remember?” The rubber band in my limbs snapped. I shot forward and shoved her hard in the shoulders, anger taking over before reason could object. She stumbled backward, her eyes wide, bracing herself against the wall. “Did you moan his name when he fucked you, San?” I shouted, head spinning and arms flailing weakly against her. I fell into her chest, beating my fists at her shoulders with no strength behind them. She grabbed my arms and held me away from her, those wide eyes filled with tears. “Don’t do this,” she begged. “Please, Brittany, I didn’t want to.” “No, you wanted to be head cheerleader,” I hissed, fighting futilely against her hold. “You said you needed me. But you didn’t. You needed Finn. To get what you want, got what you needed. I guess you can have it all, Santana.” This hurts too much. “I know, stop telling me about it.” “Telling you what?” she demanded, pressing me backward against the wall and pinning me there. “Brittany, what’re you talking about? I love you, please, stop fighting me. I don’t need Finn, I never needed Finn. I need you, just you. Let me help you, I’m sorry, please.” She can’t help you. Only one thing can help you. “Where are they?” I asked, needing to remember. The voice knew. The voice always knew. In the cabinet. “Where are who, Brittany?” Santana let go of one of my arms to pull my chin toward her but my eyes stayed trained on the bathroom door immediately to my left. If I could just break her hold… “Look at me. Who, Brittany? Where are who?” In the medicine cabinet. Empty the bottle and it stops hurting.

“It’ll stop hurting,” I repeated, and I lunged away, the last ounce of strength I had used to slap her hand away and dart for the bathroom, for freedom, for my escape. She trailed immediately behind me and for the first time saw the mess that I had made. “Oh god,” she covered her mouth with her hand, forgetting for a minute that I had sprinted away from her for a reason. “Brittany what the hell did y-“ She turned to me just as my hand found the bottle. It was unlabeled, stripped of any identifying markers, and I fumbled with the lid just long enough for her to reach my side and pull it from my fingers. I launched myself at her, clawing at the hand that held the bottle. She pushed me back against the sink and held me there, pinning me with her back and hips so she faced away and could keep it from my grasping hands. The bottle opened with ease for her, and a cache of pills fell guiltily into her palm. None were the same. It hadn’t mattered in quite a while what went into my mouth as long as it left me numb. More than anything I wanted that, at that moment. Seeing the look of horror on Santana’s face as she put two and two together, I realized that my secret was out. She knew. Santana knew I drowned myself in pills. There was no coming back from that. Her body eased off mine and she went to the toilet before even looking at me. I understood immediately what she was going to do. “No, don’t!” I whimpered, limping forward with one arm out, begging her not to flush them. “I need them, please.” “Do you, B?” she asked, and I looked at her face when the words came out muffled. I realized then that she was crying. “Do you need them more than you need me? You have to choose. I won’t let you die like this. I’ll die right along with you. So choose. Me or the pills.” Take the pills. “No.” I spoke aloud, talking to the voice and giving Take them, stop the pain. “I need Santana.” Take them. “I can't. I won't.” You can. You will. We need them. Her hand found the curve of my jaw and cradled it, and I crumbled, falling into her as she embraced me and pulled me into her lap, weeping. The bottle fell discarded at her side and I

stared at it longingly. But her hand on my face felt like a cool compress, soothing me and reassuring me that the bottle wasn’t everything I had to live for. “Come back to me, baby,” she whispered, bending her head to press her lips to my temple. “Please, I love you. Come back to me.” Choose. “I can’t.” A sob broke from her throat. “I can’t do this without you, B. Don’t leave me.” Choose. I looked up at her, her trembling hands cradling my face and desperately pulling me close to her, as though she could bring me into herself and give me the strength I didn’t have on my own. I saw her eyes, dark and cloudy and so very sad. She was broken. Just as broken as I was. I couldn’t leave her like that. I couldn’t. And I thought back to the realization I’d had before. If I had to choose, I’d known all along what the answer would be. Choose. “Her. Every time.” I reached up and put a weak hand on her cheek and she held me tighter against her stomach, rocking us both back and forth while she wept into my hair. I listened hard, but the only thing I could hear was her rasping breath and the thumping of my own erratic heart. The voice, beaten, was gone. “I’m sorry,” I murmured, my eyes closing as I realized how tired I was. “Don’t,” she commanded, feebly scolding me as her lips found mine. “I’m the one… I did this. I did this to you. It’s my fault, I should have seen you. I didn’t see you.” Santana slipped her arms beneath my legs and, with more strength than I thought she possessed, lifted me up. She carried me from the bathroom, down the stairs and into my mother’s room. There, she laid me out on the bed, and slowly pulled the soiled clothes from my body while she cried silently at my side. I felt my breathing even out as she pressed a wet cloth to my mouth and neck, cleaning the sick from my skin. I leaned into her hand, my eyes still closed, just feeling her and knowing that things would stop hurting if she just kept contact with me. So when she pulled away, I whimpered and reached clumsily for her in the darkness behind my lids.

“Shh,” she whispered. “I’ll be right back. I’m not going anywhere.” I heard her footsteps disappear out into the hall, and I held my breath. I didn’t want to breathe if she wasn’t there to breathe with me. From outside the door, I listened as she pressed careful fingers to the number pad on her phone. In the stillness, I heard it ring, and a familiar voice on the other end. “Please, don’t hang up…” she begged into the receiver. “We need you.”

22

All Those Who Wander

Santana moved slowly around me, cleaning up the room where she’d dropped my clothes and the wet towels. She drifted in and out of the hallway, taking the bundles with her, and pausing along the way to brush her fingers against my cheek or forehead. It was as though she knew how these touches comforted me, even though I was unable to tell her as much. Nothing amounting to sleep would come for me. Instead, I settled into what might be described as a semi-comatose, out-of-body experience. I felt alert, keenly aware of her movements and the way she disappeared from my mother’s room to tackle the vomit I’d left in my own, but there was no way for me to call out to her, to beg her not to leave. The weakness spread through my entire body, weighing on me like lead until I stopped trying. Effort spent on anything but breathing was futile, and I worried that, if I tried, I’d even have to stop that as well. So I lay motionless on the bed, naked and breathing. The pad of her finger grazed the ridge of my brow, wiping the collected beads of fevered sweat there. She paused, bent, and pressed her lips to my hairline to gauge my temperature. She stood rigidly, back straight, and tucked the blanket up closer around my neck. I watched through heavy lids when she walked out into the hall once more. Obstructed by darkness and the entryway, I just listened. My senses were still so very attuned to her. I could actually feel her shoulders shake as she leaned against the wall outside the room. I could see the phone illuminating the area around her as she pulled it from her pocket and dialed the same number she had before. I listened, the voice on the other end responding after the second ring. “Where are you?” she hissed. The desperation that clung to each individual word was thick and heavy. Muffled noises through the phone answered her question, and she let the air in her lungs out quickly through her teeth. “Look, I know you didn’t ask for this, but I can’t do this alone. I need help. So please. Help me. Help her.” Another pause lingered as she let her labored, distressed breathing regulate itself. A sharp inhale through her nose, followed by a slow release through her mouth, preceded calmer speech. “Thank you.” Relief laced her tongue. “Just hurry. She can’t wait much longer.” Her phone slid shut with a soft click, and for a few moments there was utter silence. She was holding her breath, counting to ten, preparing herself to come back into the room. Her chest

contracted and the air escaped once more before she rounded the corner with a weak smile on her face. “Hey,” she whispered, sitting on the edge of the bed. Her hand found my cheek, drawing her finger across it gently, just as she had several times previously during the night. If I had had the ability, I would have moaned. “There’s someone coming,” she continued, talking to me as though we were having a two-way conversation. “We need help, B. I love you, but I don’t know what to do. I can’t do this alone.” Santana looked down on me, her eyes sweeping over my form. I was curled into a fetal position beneath my mother’s quilt. If mine was a physical agony, hers was the emotional counterpart. She had gone pale not long after dropping the bottle of pills in the bathroom, and her color had never returned. It left her a ghostly shade of white. She appeared tired, her shrunken eyes holding back everything she hadn’t been able to say. “You’ll be okay, won’t you?” she asked, expecting no answer. “If I go, for just an hour? I swear I’ll be back for you, Britt. Just an hour. That’s all…” She pulled her long legs up onto the bed and I lay unflinching as she curled herself around the lump that was my body beneath the blanket. She shifted against me, her head resting on top of mine so our cheeks were pressed together. Her lips moved at my ear, whispering things she thought I couldn’t hear. “I’m sorry,” she began, so softly that it might have been a dream. “I shouldn’t have let you take on this burden. I shouldn’t have let you be the one to sacrifice for me. All you’ve ever done is sacrifice, Brittany. For me, for your mom, for Sue… we all failed you.” Her hand came up once more, her palm gripping the back of my neck with gentle ferocity. Tiny, apologetic kisses dusted my ear while her fingers tangled in my hair. “Do you remember Mr. Schue’s ballad assignment?” I couldn’t respond, but in my mind, I was smiling at her. “Of course you do,” she chided herself reproachfully. “How could I think you’d forget?” I was motionless in her arms, in the stillness, feeling a fresh wave of insurmountable agony wash over me. She squeezed me tighter, as though sensing the change in the air. “That ballad assignment… I had two songs. You asked me what the second one was and I blew you off. Because I wasn’t ready to sing it then. But I told you I’d sing it for you one day. I’m ready now, B. I’m ready to sing that for you. But you have to make me a promise. If I do this, if I sing you this song, you can never leave me.”

She paused, as though waiting for an answer. None would come, and she knew that, but she hoped just the same. “You’re stuck with me, B,” she whispered at last, a heavy breath leaving her lungs. “Forever. You and me? We’re it. Fred and Ginger. Bonnie and Clyde. We’ve got that. We have epic love, Britt. Not even this can stop us. If I sing for you, that’ll be me saying ‘forever’. Okay, B? Okay?” The slow drip of water off the end of her nose let me know that she was crying, even though her voice had barely wavered. The salty liquid slid across my cheek, forming a delta at the river of my own tears that I hadn’t realized were falling. “I love you,” she mumbled, clinging desperately. “I’m nothing without you. Please, B. Say something.” I tried. I willed my mouth to open and words to emerge, to reassure her, but nothing happened. My body had revolted, and there was no coming back from it. Not until the years of abuse had left my system and my body regenerated. The pain – the unbearable, inconsolable pain of withdrawal – would continue until my body was prepared to live without medication. So I lay next to her, immobile and half-comatose, listening to her choke on a sob when I didn’t – couldn’t – respond. “I hate you for lying to me,” she wept, her shoulders quaking against me. “I never lied to you. How could you? All this time…” She shuddered violently, a combination of cold and despair sending shivers throughout her limbs. She wrapped herself around me, the quilt still between us, in a vain attempt to steady herself. “But I can’t really hate you, you know? And I think I hate that more. That I love so much that not even this can make me hate you. I love you more than my own life, Britt. If I could take this from you, if I could feel all of what you’re feeling so you didn’t have to, I would. But I can’t. I can’t stop this, and I can’t help you alone. I’m helpless. You make me helpless. I hate you for that, too. So I’m going to sing you the song. Because even though I hate what you’re doing to me, and to yourself, I love you too much to let you go. I’m ready now. I need you to be ready, too. I won’t survive if you aren’t; if you leave me. Tell me you won’t leave me. Please?” Santana broke, holding me so tightly to her that I could feel her arms above the burning throb of my own blood in my veins. She sobbed into my neck, desperate and alone. I might as well have not been there at all. That wasn’t acceptable. I couldn’t let her lie there, thinking I would leave her, when the only reason I was fighting to stay was because she needed me. So I fought harder, feeling the words rise like bile in my stomach. They came up my throat like vomit, nausea hitting me as my lips parted, the effort of it like running a marathon at a sprint. My dry tongue clung to the roof of my mouth, but I peeled it apart and let it all – words, nausea, exhaustion – fall from my lips. “Love… you…”

She jolted and looked at me, though I could not look back. Two words had taken more effort to say than any dance I had ever done, and so I lay, eyes half closed, staring at the wall. She choked again, this time on a laugh. She took my face in her hands and kissed me, the pressure from her palms burning like a vice heated over coals. Inwardly, I winced. She didn’t notice, peppering me with her lips and continuing to whisper her nothings in my ear. “We can do this,” she said, calming down and settling next to me once again, her head tucked beneath my chin. “We can beat this. You’re so strong B. So much stronger than me. But I’m going to help you. I swear, we’ll make it through this.” She took a deep breath, soaking in the strength she so clearly saw in me that I did not. Letting it out, it washed over me, and I took what I could from it as she began to hum, the familiar song setting the rattling of my bones at ease. When the rain is blowing in your face And the whole world is on your case I can offer you a warm embrace To make you feel my love She pulled herself up, shifting so her back was against the headboard of the bed. Tucking her legs under the quilt, she guided my head into her lap and stroked my hair. When the evening shadows and the stars appear And there is no one there to dry your tears I could hold you for a million years To make you feel my love Though I couldn’t feel it, my eyes were leaking salty tears. Over the constant burn of the acid in my blood, tears were the least of the things my body reacted to. But her hand found my cheek and her thumb brushed them away. That – the slow-motion swipe of her finger on my skin – burned me in a way that I would have begged a thousand times to feel again. I know you haven’t made your mind up yet But I will never do you wrong I’ve known it from the moment that we met No doubt in my mind where you belong Her own tears had dried, and her voice held a secretive smile. I thought back to that day in the choir room, how she’d struggled with the song she was going to sing. Now she sang this song with a confidence I knew she didn’t have then. I was grateful to her for waiting. If she’d sung it then, without the strength to mean it like she did now, it only would have broken me further. I’d go hungry, I’d go black and blue I’d go crawling down the avenue

No there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do To make you feel my love The storms are raging on the rolling sea And on the highway of regret The winds of change are blowing wild and free You ain’t seen nothing like me yet She swelled, her soft voice echoing for just a moment in the empty house, as though she was trying to fill it with the song, to take up the crushing vastness. She pulled me tighter, calming herself down, and I listened as her song settled once again into a whisper. I could make you happy, make your dreams come true Nothing that I wouldn’t do Go to the ends of the earth for you To make you feel my love To make you feel my love “I love you,” she murmured into the silence, leaving it hanging in the air between us and allowing it to settle over us like a blanket. Her hand wound through the knots in my hair and I heard her breath in the stillness of the all-too-empty house. “Hey.” I sensed movement across the room, and Santana’s legs tensed beneath my head. “You came.” She sounded surprised. “I’m here for her,” the voice said, terse and short. Santana carefully lifted my head and set it down on a pillow as she got to her feet. She moved cat-like to the door and pushed the new body out into the hall, where she thought her hushed anger was safe. “You think I like this?” she asked, indignant. “You think I wanted to call you? I did this for her. She trusts you, for some reason. And right now how I feel doesn’t matter. Helping her is all that does. This? Me calling you? Doesn’t change anything between us.” The other person sniffed, and I could hear the rustling of clothing being smoothed coolly. “I need to see her,” the voice said, and before Santana could protest, a new, broader body was at my side. “Hey sweetie,” Kurt soothed, gently kneeling at the edge of the bed and putting a manicured hand on mine. “Rough day?”

I wanted to laugh. Internally, I was. But when your body revolts, laughter is the last thing you allocate energy for. He searched my face, the smile from his joke faltering at my glassy eyes, feverish hand and the palsy in my body. He craned his neck, turning to look at Santana, who stood hugging herself at the door. “You lied to me,” he stated, anger creeping up into his throat. “She’s not just sick. She’s in withdrawal, isn’t she?” It was Santana’s turn to get angry. “You knew?” “You said it yourself,” he hissed, his hand squeezing mine viciously. “She trusts me. She told me a lot, actually.” This fact went unnoticed as Santana yanked at his pristine collar, pulling Kurt to his feet. “You knew and you did nothing?” “Don’t play like you never suspected,” he spat, batting her hand away. “She loved you more than life itself. You did this to her. She was drowning herself so your constant rejection stopped hurting. Who was I to stop her?” I wasn’t able to follow their fight across the room, but when a hard thump resounded, followed by a grunt and a streak of purple as Kurt fell to the ground, I realized that Santana had hit him. He knelt on one knee in my line of vision, clutching his mouth and nose as it streaked red over his lips and across the violet shirt he wore. With more gumption than I thought he had, he stood, wiping the blood away with the back of his hand and spitting crimson unceremoniously onto my mother’s carpet. “Fine,” he slurred, his split lip bleeding as badly as his nose. “You can handle this without me then.” I watched him flick his eyes at me, glimmering with his empty threat, and then he turned to leave. He pushed past Santana gruffly, but her hand shot out. She grabbed his arm, her fingers digging in. “Don’t leave.” She was desperate, begging him. “Why not?” he snapped, yanking his bicep away. “Why do you care about her now, after all this time?” “You don’t know anything about me,” she growled, her voice low and predatory. “About us.” “Then explain it.” Kurt turned on her, unafraid of her in the dimly lit room. “Why should I help you? What makes you so goddamn special to her now, when you’ve done nothing but cause pain?”

“I love her.” It left her mouth on a breath, lingering like a fine mist over all three of us. “I love her, Kurt. Is that what you want to hear? She’s sick, and I’m helpless because she’s the strong one. My girlfriend could die and I can’t let her. I didn’t know what else to do, so I called you. Because she trusts you. Don’t make her out to be a liar.” He looked her up and down, measuring her ability to lie to him in this situation. Then he looked at me, laying shivering with fever in the bed. He ran his bloodied palms over the front of his already soiled shirt and gave her a curt nod. “What do you need me to do?” Santana let her shoulders slump and she leaned into him. For the first time, I realized just how small she was. He had a few inches on her when she stood barefoot next to him, boot-clad and stiff-backed. When she fell against his chest, he struggled for a moment with the appropriate response. His arms twitched just once at his sides before he lifted them up around her shoulders, letting her crumple. He held her there as she cried, both at the sheer magnitude of what we were all up against and at the gesture he made in asking her how he could help. She wasn’t used to it, having someone she could depend on. Everyone had so consistently let her down. Even me. “Stay with her,” she said, the words muffled through congested nostrils. “I’m going to get more help. Just take care of her. Call me if she gets worse.” “What could possibly be worse than this?” he asked, gesturing my way as she took a step back. “She’s strong,” Santana decreed, as though her will would make it so. “If anything changes, just call me. And don’t under any circumstances call her mom.” “Why not?” It was a reasonable enough question, and I wondered about the answer myself. “Maggie shouldn’t have to deal with this, on top of everything,” she replied. “I take care of Britt. She’s my responsibility. I can fix this. I can.” She sounded so determined that Kurt said nothing in response. She brushed past him and knelt by me, meeting my gaze and running her fingers through my hair. “I’ll be right back.” That was all she said, and pressed her lips roughly to my forehead, clinging there before pulling away and darting out the door. Kurt watched her go, shoulders heavy, and turned to me with a wince when we both heard the front door slam. He sighed, sitting down gently on the edge of the bed and resting his hand on my back to check my breathing and pulse. “What have you gotten yourself into, honey?” he asked sympathetically, pushing fallen strands of hair from my forehead. “I warned you, didn’t I? I told you this relationship wasn’t healthy. Look where it’s gotten you.”

I wanted to yell at him, shout that the only reason I hadn’t just killed myself months ago was because of her. It was no longer about drowning myself to save my heart from breaking. It was addiction. Santana had little to do with it anymore. That’s the nature of addiction. The root cause isn’t another person or one event in time. It’s a conscious and continued decision to choose a drug over a reality. I made that decision, not Santana. I took those pills, kept taking them, long after the effects ran their course. Santana wasn’t to blame. I was. But I couldn’t tell him that, and I hadn’t already been trembling, I would have shook with rage. My fever climbed and behind my heavy lids I saw the mouth, the origin of the voice that had so long plagued me in my hallucinations. I couldn’t run from it, the withdrawal-induced visions and whispers in my ear. But I fought it off as long as I could, blinking again and again, wasting my energy on keeping it from saying anything that Kurt might hear, even though I knew, realistically, that he could hear nothing. Minutes passed. Kurt was oblivious to the war I fought as he sat beside me with hand on my spine. He had a book in one hand and hummed melodically while I raged and seethed in silence. The fever made the visions more real, and I flashed back to that first time. The winking reflection. The sympathetic voices. It was too much. I was too hot. Too long without a pill. My eyes rolled back into my head and my body went rigid against Kurt’s leg. He jumped up, watching me seize violently on the bed. Having no medical expertise, he could do nothing but stand there, and scream. I remember this distinctly, even now. How loud he was, how high-pitched it sounded beyond the rushing of blood through my brain. How completely idiotic he sounded, screeching like a child as my limbs flailed and snapped at my sides, tongue clamped until it bled between my teeth. Nothing else registered but that scream. And then, for the first time in what felt like days, I greeted the darkness like a friend. I woke with a jolt at a sharp stab to my arm. My bleary eyes could not make out the face hovering over me any more clearly than I could fight the person off, to make the stabbing pain and the rush of liquid through my veins cease. “What are you giving her?” Kurt’s voice sounded far away. “Ativan.” Santana leaned over me, checking my pupils by pulling gently at my eyelids. “An antiseizure medication. I can’t give her anything else. Methadone would be best, but getting this was hard enough.” It was as though my head were under water. I could barely hear them but they argued above me about my fever, about a welt that had appeared on Santana’s cheek between leaving and her

return, about the medication coursing through me that left me dizzier than before and limp to their strong arms. I was lifted, the two of them carrying me into my mother’s bathroom. Real water hit me then, the cold counteracting the fever. Santana, still in her clothes, held me under the icy blast and ordered Kurt to get her something. She shivered but held tight to me, whispering into my ear things that I didn’t understand. She pressed a cup to my lips, a glass of juice Kurt had retrieved. “Drink,” she commanded, and I realized she was shouting. I tried, opening my mouth slowly as the cold shower brought my fever down enough to give me a few coherent thoughts. But the seizure and the medication left me weak, and as she poured the liquid into my mouth it dribbled uselessly down my chin. Santana stiffened suddenly, hearing things that I could not, and from above my head I listened to her muffled shouts. “What did you do?!” “I panicked! You were gone, I’m sorry!” Kurt paced outside the shower, then moved to the door when a third figure entered the bathroom. “Brittany?” Another familiar voice called to me. I desperately lifted my head, an instinctive reaction. “Mm... Momma…” Santana held me tightly, but my mother slid down next to us, the water making her gasp. “What happened?” She pried at Santana’s hands that were holding my wrists around my bare chest, and she resisted valiantly, crying as my mother shouted at her again. “Santana! Look at me. What. Happened.” She was trembling, frozen to the core while my fever was just barely breaking. She let me go, her hands releasing me into the waiting arms of my mother, who cradled me like an infant. “She’s sick, Maggie,” Santana sobbed as Kurt pulled her into a waiting towel and held her to warm her. “She’s sick. I didn’t know. She never told me.” They argued over my head, my mother rocking me beneath the wave of water. I blinked into the blinding light of the vanity, thinking that maybe this is what death feels like. Light, fractured sound. Waves of cold to wash away your sins while the ones who love you most guide you toward something that might be heaven, or nirvana. A sharp slap to my face woke me, shook me away from wandering to another, more ethereal place. Mom shook me, calling my name, and again I blinked.

“M-momma…” I was a child again, speech limited to whining moans of, “Momma, momma…” while my lover wept a foot away, reaching out feebly in desperation. Over the rush of water I heard half her explanation. Love. Drugs. Lies. Terms tossed around without me there to fully explain them. I didn’t want to lie. I didn’t mean for this to happen. I love you. All of you. Please, just listen. Except there was nothing for them to listen to but the pathetic groans that escaped my throat. “How long?” The question left my mother’s tongue in a feeble croak. “Years.” Arms lifted me, the slight frame of my mom handling my weight with unthinkable ease. My arms flopped lifelessly as she carried me from the bathroom, naked and soaked, but somehow still hot to the touch. Kurt handed her a towel and she wrapped me in it while her own teeth chattered against the cold. “Maggie, I-“ “Be quiet, Santana.” My mother was not the type to get angry. Even during her divorce, she’d never raised her voice to my father or lost her temper with me for my crying and confusion. But then, as she hovered over me, terrified and so confused herself, she snapped. It took Santana by surprise and she whimpered like a kicked puppy, rolling back into Kurt’s arms. Without the aid of the cooling water, my blood once again was fire beneath my skin. I shook under mom’s careful hands, the towel drying me and her quilt wrapping me in swaddling, just like she had when I was a baby. “Shh…” she hushed the moans I could now hear myself making. “Momma’s here. I’m here, baby. It’s gonna be okay.” Not even my mother’s reassurances could assuage the terror rising in my chest, and the idea that this pain would never end. That I would die in agony after days of suffering. My fingers gained purchase against her sopping shirt and there I clung, desperate for something to keep me from being pulled back into the black abyss. I could blink again, and I stared into the light on the ceiling, embracing it and hoping it would envelope me, keep me from getting lost again.

“Brittany, baby, I’m here.” Santana was at my side. I’d called her name, begged for the one person I knew would come when I called. She took my hand in hers and brought it to her lips, making every physical connection possible as Kurt tugged at her and my mother tried to push her away. “Get her out of here,” she shouted over Santana’s pleading and my moaning. “Just get her home.” “Sh-She doesn’t have a home,” Kurt replied, his eyes wide as he tried to understand everything that was happening so quickly around him. He let his grip on Santana falter and she climbed into the bed with me, pulling me away from my mother while I trembled. “They kicked her out,” he went on, explaining the story I hadn’t been able to understand before. “She went to her dad for help, and he gave it to her. Then he kicked her out.” I blinked hard, looking up at the face of the girl I loved, who’d been made homeless because of me; whose cheek showed the raging purple welt gotten from a shaming hand, the result of her admission that she loved me. “San…” I only had enough energy for one word, but she got the tone. “I’ll be alright,” she whispered, stroking my hair while she tried to comfort me. “We’ve gotta worry about you now, okay? You need to get better.” Mom sat by my side, aware that her actions next would determine the futures of two people instead of just one. I watched her, my eyes darting between the two of them as the anger my mother harbored toward Santana dissipated. She might have blamed her for my state for a moment, but she took a second look at Santana. She saw the bruise on her cheek, the way her left eye swelled slightly so she squinted through it. She saw the way she cradled me, rocking me and using the towel to wipe the fevered sweat from my forehead. She saw love in that moment. A love she’d never found with my father or any of her subsequent boyfriends. She saw it, and she couldn’t bear to send her away angry. “Kurt.” I watched as she motioned for my friend to come closer, and he did, timidly. “Take her outside. Now, please.” She was gentle but firm, and Santana hesitated before allowing herself one final kiss to my forehead before Kurt pulled her to her feet and half-dragged, half-carried her from the room. “You have a choice,” she said when Santana was out of earshot. “You can come with me quietly and send her away, or you can make this hard and fight me. Either way, we’re taking you to a hospital, and she isn’t coming with us.”

The idea of a hospital, with its sterile tubes and wires and machines made me shudder. The idea that we might go to the nearest hospital, where Dr. Lopez worked, was even more terrifying. But the pain alone was crippling, and I was sure that I wouldn’t last without help. Santana had tried, but it was too much, even for her. She’d done what she could, and suffered extreme consequences. But this was out of her hands. I gave myself over to my mother, using the last of my accumulated energy to nod, before collapsing on my side and breathing heavily through my mouth. I was carried to the car, my face buried in my mothers strong shoulder. Santana trailed behind, the expectation to join us going unspoken. Kurt helped me lay down in the back seat and held my hand while Santana sobbed. Being left behind wasn't something she was ready or willing to accept. "You can't help her now, San," mom said calmly, but her resolve was fading. She was just as scared as Santana, but she was the adult. She needed to be strong enough for all of us. Needed to put her foot down, to send Santana away for both our sakes. "I can help," she insisted, clutching at Mom’s hand and looking at me over her shoulder, making sure I was okay. "I know the doctors, I can make sure she gets the best-" "She will." A firm grip on Santana's arms forced her to look at my mother. "She'll get the best of everything. But it's the middle of the night. You can't do anything for her now. Let Kurt take you home." Kurt let me go at Mom’s behest, coming to take hold of Santana while mom got in the car. "Brittany!" she screeched as the ancient station wagon rumbled achingly to life. "I'm coming! I'll be right behind you!" But Kurt's grip on her tightened and he whispered in her ear with a shake of his head. They would not be following. "You’ll come home with me," he said, loud enough for me to hear. His last act of kindness before the car pulled out of the driveway and we left them to fade into the darkness. *** I waited. Three long days of vomiting into a plastic bowl while nurses monitored my vitals and stuck me with needles attached to banana bags filled with saline, the only thing I could be given safely. I waited, but Santana never came. The nurses wandered in and out on rounds, changed my bedding and helped me stand to shower. They were kind, if silently judgmental. But one woman, a young girl in her twenties, fresh-faced and innocent, took pity on me. She held my hand when she wasn’t on rounds, and let me cry without asking why.

“One of the surgeons came by today,” she said, speaking softly as I sniffled myself out. “He asked about you. Dr. Lopez, I think. Do you know him?” Yes, I knew him. And I wondered silently if he was genuinely concerned or if he was curious to know if the girl that had corrupted his daughter was going to die, and free her from the sinful homosexuality. Either way, it gave me the hope that maybe – just maybe – Santana could go home. In the dead of night, when the sterile hallways were filled with nothing but the sounds of beeping heart monitors and soft snores, I tried calling her cell phone. It had been disconnected. I called Kurt, and received no answer. I cried myself to sleep, because for three days there was nothing but pain and sickness and needles. No pills to comfort me. Not even the voices emerged to distract me from the thought that I had become too much. I was a burden Santana was no longer willing to bear. They sent me home with a number for a local Narcotics Anonymous meeting a warning that relapse would probably kill me. There was nothing else for them to do. My body was as mended as they could make it, but my soul was still in need of healing. Nothing but time would tell how I'd fare. Mom had spent her waking hours at my side, saying nothing but, "It's going to be okay." But her expression on the drive home told an entirely different story. Her lips were pressed as she helped me up the stairs to my room. Her brow creased angrily when she put me into bed. Her hands were stiff as she pulled the blanket up over my shoulders. "Sleep," she commanded, and I did, dreamlessly. It could have been days, but I woke in the dark, alone in my bed. My hand slipped across the cold, vacant space on my left, where Santana usually slept, and I felt an immediate sense of loneliness settle in. Had she tried to call me? Did she even care? My phone was gone. Probably taken as part of the inevitable punishment I knew I'd face after the truth came out. Grounding wasn't really an appropriate punishment for a drug addiction, though. I tried to come up with alternatives, but nothing really fit the crime. Alienation could make things worse, the doctors had said. "You need support in your darkest hours." They'd spouted every inspirational or religious adage at their disposal to tell me how to live without the drugs, but they'd never once told me how to live without Santana. I got to my feet on shaky legs. I hadn’t eaten anything in days, unable to keep it down, and without the life-sustaining saline from the hospital, I once again felt weak. I took careful steps to the bathroom, feeling along the wall to guide me in the darkness. My hand found the light switch after my toes hit tile, and I blinked back the blinding light before turning to face the mirror. The stranger looking back at me was not the reflection I’d come to recognize. I was thin; deathly so. My cheeks sunk into hollows, with the deep circles beneath my eyes emphasizing the bones

under them. There was no color in my skin, and my irises had lost the lustrous blue they’d once been. Now they were grey at best, cloudy with experience and lost innocence. My collarbone jutted viciously out of my chest, pulling the skin tight around it. I could see the outline of my sternum in the baggy t-shirt draped over my body. How long had I looked like this? A shrunken version of my former self, skeletal and ghostly. I was what you’d imagine a horror movie villain to look like. A zombie personified. It sent a glimmer of rage down my spine and I looked away, turning on the cold water with a sharp, angry jerk before splashing my face. “Welcome back,” a voice said, and for a moment I thought it might have been in my head. But I turned slowly, pressing a towel to my face to dry it, and my mother hovered in the doorway. With her arms crossed over her chest and in her pajamas, she looked ragged. Not quite as sickly as me, but certainly anemic and pale. She was exhausted, and the guilt instantly chewed at my gut. “Hi,” I whispered, staring at the ground. “I… I’m really hungry.” I knew there was more to say. There were thousands of apologies to be made, questions to answer, but I couldn’t look her in the eye. Not yet. She gave a dismissive sniff and unfolded her arms, opening herself cautiously to me. I took one careful step toward her, hesitating on the balls of my feet. I was sober. I was in pain. But I was clear headed, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been touched by her when I could still see out of the corners of my eyes. As though she sensed my hesitation, she took initiative and leaned into the bathroom, putting the open arm around my shoulders and stiffly holding me side by side. Maybe it was the proximity to a warm body, or the exertion it had taken to cross the hall to the bathroom, but I pressed into her. Instinctively, she turned, wrapping her other arm around me. She hadn’t wanted to. She wanted to be angry with me. She wanted to scream and curse and ask me why, but she couldn’t. She could only be my mother and hold me, the way a mother should when her child is hurting. The reason for my pain didn’t matter. Resolving it, that was the issue. She pressed her face into my hair, squeezing me tightly to her chest and breathing deeply, taking in my smell as though she’d forgotten it. I swayed, lightheaded. The constant ache of withdrawal did not go away after three days, and every moment I was awake the yearning for satisfaction – for a fix – grew stronger. She felt that in my tightened limbs and held me still, her silent grip reassuring me that I could do this. “Let’s get you something to eat, then,” she said, and carefully guided me down the stairs. The clock on the microwave blinked just past three in the morning, and she sat me down before setting about the kitchen in a quiet, rehearsed dance. Bowl. Water. Oatmeal. She boiled water while I watched, mixed in the oats, stirred. She was giving me time to prepare myself, because we both knew that this – her making me oatmeal at three in the morning – was not entirely about food. This was a conversation in the making, and both of us needed these precious minutes of silence to steel ourselves for both the questions and the answers.

The bowl clinked gently against the plastic table and I looked down. She’d made a smiley face out of strawberry jam, just like she used to when I was little. I looked up at her, expecting some sort of smile, an expression that recalled the happier days when our family was still a whole family. But her eyes were rimmed red and she was more reminiscent in that moment of the year around her divorce than the times before it. She sat, handing me a spoon, and waited. Even though I’d lost my appetite, I ate. I fed myself slowly so as not to upset my still tender stomach, digging in first to the strawberry eyes and then mixing the mouth into the rest of the bowl. It was a ritual I had performed a thousand times before, but it felt so foreign in the anxiousness between the two of us. She watched me, making sure I finished, then pushed the dishes aside and waited again. I sighed. I was so tired of waiting. For Santana, to feel better, for something to go right. So I closed my eyes and shifted in my seat. How do you apologize for addiction? “Don’t say you’re sorry,” she said quietly, as though reading my expression but speaking without any malice in her voice. “Because past is past. I know you’re sorry. I forgive you. But that’s not why we’re sitting here.” “Why, then?” If I wasn’t going to apologize, repent, explain myself, what was I going to do? What else was there? She reached across the table and took my hand in hers. It was warm, damp with nervous sweat. I clung to it, our shared nerves seeming to have a calming effect. “Because you need to get better,” she answered, patting my fingers and straining a smile. “And beating yourself up isn’t the place to start.” I didn’t think it was possible. “Getting better” felt more like preparing for battle than simply not putting a fistful of pills in my mouth. I ached from head to toe, and the oatmeal, as bland as it was, didn’t settle well in my stomach. I brought my feet up onto the edge of the chair and curled my knees into my chest, trying to make myself as small as possible. “I’ve called your dad,” she continued, scooting her seat around to be closer to me. “He’ll be here in the morning. We’re going to talk about our options. Your options. We want you to have some say in this. But we’re your parents and we’re going to make the final decision. Understood?” I gulped and nodded, staring at my bare feet, toes curled around the edge of the chair. I gripped her fingers harder and she returned it, her other hand coming up to my face to brush my hair aside. “We’ve been talking.” She said this like it was a surprise. Honestly, it was. My parents rarely spoke longer than it took to organize a weekend visit. “Your dad thinks it might be a good idea for you to go live with him for a while. You can do your outpatient therapy up in Akron.” The grimace that crossed my face was visible, and she sighed. “It’s for the best, baby.”

I shook my head and pulled my hand away, keenly aware that this meant moving away from Lima, away from her, and away from Santana. “Is it, though?” “I think so. I hope so.” “Those are two very different statements with two very different meanings,” I countered, and she shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what it means.” She reached for my hand again and I pulled it away. “What matters is that, for right now, you can’t be here.” So that was it. I was too much for her. She couldn’t do anything more, so I was being shipped off. If I couldn’t think of a punishment to fit my crimes before, I certainly knew what it was then. “Why can’t I be here? Everyone I love is here. This is my home. I need my friends, I need you, I need Santana. Why hasn’t she called? Where’s my phone? I need to talk to her.” Mom shook her head and pulled herself even closer to me; close enough that pulling away was no longer an option, and she took each of my wrists in her hands. Her fingers pressed lightly into my pulse points, counting the beats of my heart while she spoke. “You can’t see her again, Britt. I won’t allow it.” My stomach dropped so abruptly that the oatmeal nearly climbed its way out of my throat. I fought against her, the rage at begin forbidden from seeing Santana sending me into a fury. “You can’t do that! I won’t let you. I need her, I can’t do this on my own!” She held me tightly, fingers wrapped vice-like around my arms, holding me in place. “You can, Brittany. You have to. That’s why you’re going away. To learn that you shouldn’t depend on anything – or anyone – like this ever again. You have to love yourself enough to be able to do it on your own.” “So I really don’t have a say after all,” I pouted, trying to yank my wrists from her grasp. “I’m just going away. You’re getting rid of me.” Her hands never tempered as I fought, pulling and shifting away only to have her pull right back, keeping me in place. “Do you think I want do to this? If I thought it would help you, you’d never leave my sight again. But neither you nor Santana can survive like this anymore. It’s not healthy, Brittany, and I need you to be healthy more than I need you with me. So yeah, you’re going to your dad’s. And you’re going to learn how to live again. Because what you’ve been doing? That’s not living.” Her voice cracked and I stopped fighting, lowering my arms to watch as she began to cry. She pulled me again towards her, and this time I didn’t ward her away. She held me against her shoulder, both of us sitting awkwardly in our chairs and leaning into one another while she sobbed.

“I spent so much time trying to make sure that you were taken care of that I never actually took care of you,” she hissed through her teeth, bitter and angry at herself. “I never saw this. I never saw what was going on. I’ve failed you. I’m so sorry. Baby, I’m so sorry.” There are few people in the world, I think, that can see their mother cry and not react to it. Sociopaths, perhaps. Serial killers. I thought about this, of all things, as my throat closed and I knelt down on the floor, pressing my body into her lap and letting her hold my shoulders while I wrapped my arms around her waist. “This isn’t your fault, Momma,” I said. “I did this. I chose this. I could have stopped. I did this, not you.” “I won’t fail you again.” She was determined, firmly pressing her hands into my back like a promise. “I won’t. So you’ll go to your father’s. You’ll start fresh. You’ll stop seeing Santana.” She had me until she mentioned Santana. I would have done anything she’d asked, if only she’d not said that name. “I can’t,” I leaned back, drawing my body away from hers. “I can’t leave Santana. She needs me. I need her. Where is she? Why won’t you tell me?” My panic resonated throughout the kitchen, echoing off every wall, and she knew there were questions I needed answered if I was going to listen, if I was going to go without a fight. “She went to Kurt’s house. She’s still staying there.” “Did she come see me?” I asked, anxiously praying that she’d tried. “Did she call?” Her eyes flicked back and forth, looking down and to the left, the sure sign of an impending lie. She opened her mouth to speak, then closed it with a shake of her head. “She was there every day,” she said, meeting my gaze. “I didn’t tell you because I kept her away. She’s not well, Brittany. She’s no better off than you are.” I got to my feet, swaying with the sudden movement and she got up to catch me. I hit my fist weakly into her shoulder. “Why would you do that? Why keep her from me? She needs me. Especially now. I’m all she has.” She led me into the living room and laid me out on the couch, smoothing her hair as she sat on the coffee table and spoke frankly. “She’s not alone, baby. You know how much I love her. She’s taken care of you when I couldn’t. But she’s a child, just like you’re a child. She was given too much responsibility, and I think it broke her. She can’t live without you in the same way you couldn’t live without the drugs. You’re addicts, the both of you. You’re only going to get better if you take away the thing that you’re addicted to. Cut it from your life. She needs that. And even though her parents won’t do it, I’m going to do my damnedest to make sure she gets the help she needs.”

Her hand wound its way into mine, and this time I didn’t push it away. Instead I gripped it, my nails digging in, knowing she was right. I’d spent years relying on Santana, needing her, basing my happiness on hers. Making sure she was just as taken care of as I was. And she was doing the same thing. I was her drug. Worse than any liquor, powder, or pill, she was addicted to me, to my love. To an unhealthy, obsessive degree. “Do you want to get better, Brittany?” She asked the question as though there was a choice in the matter. Like I could say ‘no’ and she would allow me to pop a pill and leave me to my devices. But she also knew what my answer would be. “Yes,” I whispered, burying my face into one of the couch pillows beneath my head. “I just want to be normal again. I want to stop hurting.” She nodded sympathetically and wiped away the tears from the bridge of my nose. “And you want Santana to stop hurting too, right?” I stiffened. Of course, I did. But would my leaving make things worse, or better? There was no telling unless I tried. So I nodded. It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. Harder than coming out, harder than enduring Karofsky, harder than the withdrawal. I was letting Santana go. For both of us. “I need to talk to her,” I said, curling up tightly into a ball, sounding like a child as I begged. Mom sighed heavily and shook her head. “Brittany, you can’t just-“ “I won’t leave her without saying goodbye.” I would not argue with her on the point. I would leave, and I would go quietly. But only if Santana understood why I was going. Why I had to leave her. After I’d promised her I wouldn’t. When the rain is blowing in your face… I could hear her song ringing in my ears as my mother stood and went to the window, looking out into the darkness. I lifted my head to see where her focus fell, and there, parked across the street, was Santana’s Mustang. “She’s been there for two days,” my mother said, not taking her eyes off the car. “I told her to leave, so she slept on the stoop. I threatened to call the police, and she went to sleep in the car. But she’s been there for two straight days. Waiting.” I tried scrambling to my feet, wanting nothing more than to burst out onto the street and run to her, to tell her I waited for her, too. To kiss her and tell her that I loved her. But a strong hand

held me back. Mom shook her head, forcing me to sit back on the couch. “Don’t. I’ll get her. You’ll have ten minutes. And then she’s leaving.” Ten minutes was more than I could have asked for, so I didn’t argue. She slipped on her coat and shoes, then opened the front door and went out. I watched through the front window as she crossed the street and went to the car. She tapped on the window, and in the darkness, I saw shadows shifting from within. A flickering streetlamp gave off enough light to make out my mother’s lips. “She’s awake. You can’t stay long.” And seconds later Santana was there, puffing and already in tears as she flung herself at me, kneeling between my legs on the floor and pressing her ear to my stomach. Her arms wound around me, and for a moment I thought about running. She had a car, she had the keys. We could just go, she and I. Leave this house, leave my mother. We’d get jobs, get an apartment, and be together. Forever. But then I felt the aching pang in my damaged stomach, and I remembered. I’m an addict. So is she. She’d been speaking into my torso, her words unintelligible. I lifted her chin and kissed her, hoping that one kiss would calm her. She caught my lips in her mouth and didn’t let go. She crawled up my body and straddled me, cupping my face in her hands as she kissed through her tears, still murmuring incoherently as she went. I got lost in her, secretly counting the precious seconds I had left. “San…” I whispered into her throat as her kisses left my lips and dusted my cheeks, then my closed eyes. “San, stop. Listen.” “You’re okay,” she said, reassuring herself of that more than me. “You’re okay, you’re going to be okay…” “Santana, I have to go away.” There was no other way to say it, and we were wasting so much time. She sat back on my legs and searched me, testing my seriousness. She took one look and knew I wasn’t lying. “Wherever you’re going, I’m going too.” She was insistent, giving the final word on the matter. “Rehab? Fine. I’m an alcoholic. I’m a coke head. Hell, I’m addicted to sex. We can do this.” I pressed my forehead to her collarbone, breathing deeply of her and shaking my head. “You can’t come with me this time, San. I have to do this on my own. I have to get better. I can’t do that when you’re around.” “Yes, you can. You can do anything, B. I can help you. Let me help you.”

She wasn’t getting it. I’d never told her ‘no’ before. I didn’t want this – leaving her – to the first time for that. I didn’t know how to say it. So I started at the beginning, working it out in my head from start to finish. “I’ve loved you since we were eight years old, Santana.” “So keep loving me,” she sniffled, sensing the change in my tone as I tried to convince her of the inevitable. “It’s not that hard. That hasn’t changed.” “No, it hasn’t,” I said, my fingers wrapping around her waist and pressing delicately into the soft skin there, using the slight pressure as my way of asking her to forgive me. “But in the eight years I’ve loved you, you’ve only known half me, and I half of you. I don’t even know who I am, Santana. How could you know me?” Her face contorted, like I’d slapped her. Her cheeks puffed out, angrily, offended at the accusation. “If there’s anyone who knows you, it’s me. I’ve been with you through everything. Don’t you dare try and tell me that I don’t know you.” My skin burned with her glare, her eyes tight with rage that I could think she didn’t know me, after all this time and everything we’d been through. But the truth was that she didn’t. I’d been nothing but a liar for years, and if I didn’t know myself, how could she? “Santana, please,” I begged, squeezing once again on her waist, trying to force myself inside her so she might understand. “I love you. You know I do. But I can’t get better here. Not with all this history. The doctors called them triggers. Things that make me remember, make me want to go back to how I was.” She shoved my hands aside, balking at the sensation of my sweaty palms on her cold skin. She stumbled back, nearly falling as she got to her feet. I reached for her, but she slapped my hands away. “Don’t touch me. I’m a trigger. I could make you want to hurt yourself again.” “Don’t do that.” I followed her to my feet, trying to calm her, reaching out with a weak hand only to have it smacked away again. “Don’t make this about you. I’m not doing this to punish you. I love you. But I can’t be better – or be myself – while I’m here. There’s too much to push me back to where I was before.” She spat her anger out in her words, sneering and exposing her teeth like a panther, hissing them past cracked lips. “But this is about me, isn’t it? I did this to you. Because I couldn’t tell you how I felt sooner. By the time I did it was too late. You were already damaged goods.” I blinked and staggered, the pain of her words like a knife in my gut. Her eyes flashed for just a moment as I fell backward, and she flinched, keeping herself from reaching out to catch me before I landed on the couch. She kept the sneer in place, trying to hide the concern I saw when I fell, but I knew she was hurting. “I love you,” I repeated, ignoring the lashing out of an angry addict and letting her know that her words, while painful, didn’t change how I felt. “Love me enough to let me go.”

Santana faltered, her curled upper lip dropping and her hand coming to her chest like I’d shot her through the heart. Her eyes welled up, angry tears falling before I could say something to stop them. She turned away from me, not wanting me to see her break, even though I’d seen so much worse. This was different. This wasn’t her apologizing for once. This was me, the one person she’d always known to count on, ripping her heart from her chest. “I have nothing left but you.” Her shoulders shook, her voice cracking and her hands tightening into fists at her sides. “Please, don’t take that from me. Please.” I took a deep breath, listening to my own heart screaming against my ribcage, battering my bones and begging for release. I didn’t have the strength to stand, and I knew that if I went to her I wouldn’t have the strength to send her away. So I sat on the couch, breaking us both with two words. “I’m sorry.” Santana stifled her sob into her hand, back hunched and her knees bent as my words took the breath from her lungs. She nodded just once and, without turning to me, walked to the door, passing my mother who’d waited patiently in the hall. I watched as she brushed off Mom’s concerned hand and paused with her fingers on the knob. One final time, she looked at me. She lifted her chin, defiantly telling me that she wouldn’t let this hurt her, even though we both knew it was a lie. She wiped her nose on the back of her hand and spoke, before running out into the night. “You promised you’d never leave me.”

23

Mutiny

Step 1: We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable. “My name is Brittany, and I’m an addict.” In Narcotics Anonymous, they say that it’s important to own up to your sins. The things you’ve done in the past guide your path in the future. You learn from your mistakes so you aren’t doomed to repeat them. So when you go to a meeting, you stand up in front of a group of people with problems that are both tragically similar and grievously different from your own, and you say out loud that you fucked up. The 12-Step Program is about finding God in your search for absolution for the things you did while you were high. It seemed like a load of bullshit to me. “Hi, Brittany.” A chorus of voices, young and old, returned my greeting. In the basement of a church rectory, the meeting was about as anonymous as a block party back in Lima. Sitting on the exterior of the circle was a man who worked for my father, thick and rugged and unshaven while still wearing his work boots from the day’s job. Next to me was a thirty-something punk rocker who bagged groceries for Sharon and went to night classes when she wasn’t at a meeting. Her Doc Marten’s tapped impatiently against the tile floor while she looked up at me expectantly. At sixteen, I was the youngest in the group. The youngest they’d seen in a while, from the whispers around the room. I walked into the meeting that first day, listening with a stony expression as every one of them fell silent and stared when I took a seat in the circle. I’d been invited to introduce myself by the visibly shaken middle-aged man who was leading the group, considering it was my first day. So I stood, hands trembling at my sides and knees knocking together. “My name is Brittany…” After their greeting, I sat back down, unable to say more without my voice trembling. No one expected me to spill my story on the first day. But the woman behind me grumbled her condescension to the leather-clad biker to her left. “They’re getting younger every year,” she hissed through coffee-and-cigarette stained teeth. “What, do they hand the shit out with lunch now?”

Running out of your first NA meeting in tears is not generally the sign of a good start. But I did, my hands balled up over my eyes and my cheeks flushed red with humiliation. I was an outsider in every way possible. Not even the other addicts would accept me. No one tried to follow as I shoved open the heavy double doors and burst into the hallway, only to gasp as I smacked hard into the broad trunk of a Sequoia tree. Its limbs wrapped around me, holding in its unwavering grasp. I fought against it, thinking of all those horror movies where the trees came to life and attacked, but it held fast. “Whoa, whoa,” it said, and I looked up into the concerned green eyes of not some mythical walking tree, but a man. “Where’s the fire?” He wasn’t much older than me, when compared to the rest of the muddled group within the sanctuary of the meeting. Maybe mid-twenties, with a purposely unshaven jaw that made him look rugged, despite the collared shirt and tie he wore. Something about him – perhaps the juxtaposition of his unkempt brown hair and the perfectly pressed suit, or maybe the look of genuine concern in his eyes – made me stop. I made a snap judgment, finding no flaw in the logic that trees can’t really hurt you, and I fell into him. The thick, oaken arms enveloped me instinctively, and the immediate sense of safety loosened a sob caught in my throat. “Francine, I’d bet,” he said with a knowing sigh as he ran his massive hand up and down my back. “She said something cuntish, didn’t she? Bitter hag likes picking on newbies. See who can hack it… hey.” His arms shifted and his fingers – which wrapped completely around my still-shrunken upper arms – pushed me away with gentle force. He held me at arms’ length, looking me up and down in earnest for the first time. There was a flash of realization when he saw how young I was, making his fingers snap away from me as though my flesh were white hot. He blushed and cleared his throat, taking an embarrassed step backward and shoving his hands deep into his pockets. “Sorry,” he said, looking at the ground. “I didn’t realize you were… um…” “A fucking mess?” I filled in bitterly, swiping the back of my hand across my runny nose like a child. “A teenager? Are you going to harp on me too? I need to get out of here…” I tried to slip by him, seeing the exit and the parking lot just beyond it over his shoulder, but he side-stepped and rooted himself in my way. He speed was surprising, considering his size, and although he continued to stare at the ground at our feet, he wasn’t letting me by. “Look,” he started slowly, letting out the breath through his teeth and scratching the back of his head, further mussing his hair. “I know Francine is a bit of a cunt, but it’s your first day. Give it a shot. You’re here for a reason, right?” “Why?” I asked, sniffling and jutting out my lower lip. “Why, when that’s how people look at me? Even the people know what it’s like. I’m a freak.”

He let out a small snort and shrugged. “Yeah. You are.” The words shocked me, but his tone – full of mirth, almost laughing – made me bristle angrily. I gaped, my jaw creaking on its hinges. “Who do you think you are?” He shrugged again. “What? You are.” The unapologetic smirk on his face didn’t fade, and I jutted my chin forward indignantly. “You don’t know anything about me,” I snapped, fists balled at my sides as my shoulders straightened and I looked up at him defiantly. “What gives you the right to-“ “Good,” he interrupted, still grinning. “Get angry. You’ll need that.” “You’re goddamn right, I’ll get angry,” I shouted, taking an offensive step forward, itching to slap him. “First you come here all comforting and understanding, then call me a freak?” “No,” he corrected, leaning back on his heels casually. “You called yourself a freak. I merely agreed with you.” I stuttered dumbly for a minute, mouth opening and closing like a trout. “That doesn’t give you the right to-“ “How old are you?” he asked, narrowing those inquisitive green eyes. “Sixteen? Seventeen? Look where you are, sweetheart. This is Narcotics Anonymous, not a Girl Scout troop meeting. You are a freak. So am I. So is every person on the other side of those doors. For that matter, so is every single person who isn’t in Narcotics Anonymous. Everyone has a bit of freak in them. The sooner you deal with that, the better off you’ll be.” He wasn’t angry, or cruel, and his voice carried with it a confidence that told me he’d given that speech before. I stopped, evening out my breath and shifting my gaze back and forth between him and the doors leading back into the meeting, and those leading out into the freedom of the parking lot. “Who are you?” I asked cautiously, sitting back and watching him through slit eyes. “Just another freak,” he smiled, and stepped nimbly past me toward the interior doors. “You coming?” I turned and looked at him then, incredulous, still gaping. He was holding door open for me, the mirth gone and replaced with hopeful good conscience. He confused me, this boy – man – who was all at once infuriating and calming. With his knowit-all attitude, he was cocky. He knew what he said was true, and he knew I would listen, which

only made me angrier. But his arms had fit flawlessly around me, and his voice had that quality to it… rough, raspy, but soothing. Like the rumble of an old car engine. I eyed him a moment longer, as though to let him know that I could still say no to him, if I wanted to. Then I sniffed and lifted my chin haughtily, brushing past him and walking back into the meeting with my head held high. “You’re late, Charlie,” the same middle-aged man from before called warmly to the man trailing behind me. “And I see you’ve found our stray.” “She wouldn’t have needed finding if Francine could keep her goddamn trap shut,” Charlie quipped with a good-natured and utterly charming grin. “Why you gotta assume it was me?” Francine shifted indignantly in her chair. “Well, it was you, wasn’t it?” the older man returned, cocking his head toward me apologetically. “Yeah, well.” She shrugged and crossed her arms over her chest, as though her resignation was some kind of apology. I caught Charlie’s eye from where he sat across the circle and he winked, the cherry on top of his charming routine. I hated myself for smiling back, but I couldn’t help myself, and I blushed stupidly in silence for the rest of the meeting. He found me after, sitting on a bench outside the rectory while I waited for my father to pick me up. He plopped onto the hard plastic seat next to me, huffing loudly as though the tremor he sent through the bench wasn’t enough to get my attention. “Rough day,” he observed with mock solemnity. “Could sure use a drink after that.” I gave him a sharp look, eyebrows raised scrupulously. “I thought you weren’t supposed to drink in the program, either.” He smirked and tapped a finger to the side of his nose. Reaching into his coat pocket, he pulled out a pack of cigarettes, flipping the top open and pulling one out with his teeth. Holding it there, he offered me the box. I flicked my gaze back and forth between him and the package. “I’m not 18,” I reminded him, and he shrugged. “A lot of addicts substitute cigarettes for drugs when they get clean,” he offered before snapping the top closed and tucking the pack away. “Something to do with your hands so you don’t get fidgety, thinking about what you can’t have. But you’re right. None for you.” He flicked his Zippo open and inhaled deeply, exhaling a moment later. I watched him, the smoke exiting his lungs in a long stream that blended with his breath, condensed into steam in the cool evening air.

“You’re the youngest person this group has seen in a while,” he stated after a few minutes of silence. “They’re afraid of you.” I listened as the paper around the tobacco burned close to the filter, hissing near his lips. “What do they have to be afraid of?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the red-hot embers. “I ran out crying. Hardly worth being scared of.” He took another deep drag and flicked the butt between his thumb and forefinger, sending it flying twenty feet away. “It’s not you, per se. The idea of you, maybe. That someone so young could make the same mistakes they did. You remind them of their mortality.” I thought about that for a moment while he pulled out and lit another cigarette. “What about you, then? You’re not that much older than me.” He shook his head and ashed the cigarette. “I was still older than you when I got here. Old enough to know better. They weren’t scared of me. I just pissed them off. A rich kid with a cocaine problem, in need of an attitude adjustment.” “You still need an attitude adjustment,” I noted without a hint of levity, glaring as he nodded ruefully. “It’s a different kind of attitude.” He put out the second cigarette and was about to reach for a third when my father’s truck rounded the corner into the parking lot, coming to a stop in front of us. His rapidly-aging face hung from the window, a cigarette of his own dangling from his lips. “He bothering you?” he gruffed, spitting the cashed butt onto the black top. “No, he’s just-“ “I wouldn’t dream of it, sir.” Charlie got to his feet and walked up to the window of the truck, extending his hand genially to my father. “My name is Charlie McNamara. I’m one of the group leaders for this meeting.” He turned his head to look at me over his shoulder, then winked. “I’m also Brittany’s new sponsor.” My dad reached out slowly, taking Charlie’s hand to shake it while he eyed up the young man in front of him. “I was under the impression that it would take a few meetings for her to find someone,” he coughed, still cautiously looking between the two of us. “And I was hoping for someone a little… older.” Charlie smiled, ignoring the passive aggressive jab. “Brittany had a rough first meeting, but I feel like we’ve made a connection. I promise, sir, your daughter is in good hands.”

“Hmm,” Dad muttered, squinting tiredly. “We’ll see. Get in the truck, Britt. Let’s go home.” Home, in Akron, was a laughable concept. In the week I’d been living in my father’s house, the atmosphere had shifted from terror upon my arrival to open hostility. It was obvious that my being there, and the reason for it, had been a shock. Everyone was dealing with it differently. “How are the other sick people?” Courtney asked innocently when my father and I returned and sat down at the table for dinner. “Were they pukey and gross?” I smiled sadly at her, about to explain, when Sharon let out a sharp cough and shook her head. I caught her glare and sighed, once again resigned to keeping things from my sister. “No, Court,” I said, pushing the food around my plate with my fork. “The sick people are getting better.” “You too?” She sounded concerned, like she wasn’t sure that I was telling her the truth. It ached, knowing how astute she was, even though she would never question it outright. I nodded as enthusiastically as I could. “I’m trying.” We ate in silence, Courtney sensing the tension that had been mounting since I’d arrived the week before, ghostly pale and straw thin. Her questions had gone consistently unanswered by our father and Sharon, who’d allowed me to sleep the first three days. I was only interrupted to be driven to the clinic in Akron that administered out-patient methadone treatments for recovering addicts. A little dose of methadone a day keeps your system from shutting down. It keeps your body from rejecting the idea of living without the drugs. As though it would realize that you were never going to feed it what it truly wanted and mutiny. It weans you off, if you do it right. It helps with the nausea, the fevers, the seizures, the hallucinations… all things I’d experienced when I’d tried to do it on my own. My body tried to relearn how to work without the pills, failed, and gave up. Mutiny. I’d woken up on the fourth day with Courtney curled up around me and little memory of the trips to the clinic. She slept soundly at my side, clinging to my t-shirt in her tiny fists. I watched her breathing deeply. I remembered that day, not that long before, when Santana had woken up with me in that bed. When she had chased Wes Brody around a soccer field, play-fighting for my honor. When she’d told me that she didn’t believe in soulmates and how, now, I didn’t believe that for a second. I caught my breath in my throat, holding back a sob in favor of not waking the delicate body next to me. She was worried enough without me waking her up in my hysterics.

I’d crept out of bed that morning, not knowing what day it was or what time. I wandered into the kitchen, my stomach both growling for food and turning at the thought of it. There, at the table, were my father and Sharon. For the first time since I’d arrived, I was clear enough to recognize them and meet their eyes. Sharon was horrified, the look of fear on her face holding steady not for me, but for Courtney and herself. She’d said nothing to me since I’d arrived, and even then, I understood exactly how she and I would interact from now on. She hated me for ruining her home. For sullying it with my sins, my problems, my addictions. She’d probably been told about Santana, which only made things worse. My father, on the other hand, looked broken. His eyes drooped heavily when I came into the room, and they fell back to the plate of bacon and eggs on the table in front of him. He couldn’t even look at me, his oldest daughter, the fuck-up. He had the look of “where did I go wrong?” and it killed me. I stood in the doorway for a while, the three of us not speaking. “I just need to eat,” I said after the silence became unbearable. “Then I’ll leave you alone.” “No,” my father replied, not looking up. “Sit. Sharon, will you make her some breakfast?” The request was not so much a request, but a demand, and I felt relieved for a moment. I took the seat she vacated, sitting across the table from my dad while he played with his food. “Your mom explained a lot of what’s been going on,” he mumbled, tucking his hands into his lap and fidgeting as Sharon banged pans together angrily at the stove. “But I think I deserve to know as well. From you.” I nodded and chewed on my lip, not knowing where to start. I didn’t want to give him the gory details; how I’d fallen in love with Santana, how she’d left me time and again. I didn’t want her blamed for what I’d done to myself. It seemed inevitable, considering how much he already disliked her. Step 4: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. “I have a problem,” I admitted out loud, and Dad shifted awkwardly in his chair. “It got out of hand because I was trying to hide my feelings. The pills made it hurt less.” Sharon cracked an egg roughly against a mixing bowl and snorted. “Well, isn’t that lovely.” “Shut up, Sharon.” The snapping words from my father’s lips made the ache in my chest swell into pride as she turned to look at us, hurt. “She’s trying. Give her a goddamn minute.” He needed more than what I wanted to give him. More than I could give him. He wanted me to give him reasons, concrete and exact. Dates and times of moments that would tell him when and why I’d done what I’d done. But how could I tell him all that, when I didn’t know myself?

“Daddy…” I needed to give him something to calm him down, but there was so little in my stillfoggy brain that would satisfy his curiosity. Nothing that he didn’t already know. “I know I messed up. I’m so sorry…” Frustration mounted in my chest and my shoulders sagged. I put my elbows on the table, bracing my forehead against my fists and holding back that lump that was still raging in my throat. Sharon’s banging continued and all I wanted to do was scream at her, but I felt warm, rough hands on my wrists. I looked up, and my father was staring back at me, his blue eyes that matched mine holding a steady, unwavering gaze that told me it was okay to cry if I needed to. So I did. He held my hands in his across the table while I sobbed, choking on my humiliation. “Daddy, I’m gay.” It was as much as I could say, and enough of an admission that he couldn’t ask for much more. His fists clenched around mine and those blue eyes clouded gray with sadness. He’d known, but hearing it hurt just as much as Santana’s presence had. He didn’t like it, but he couldn’t stop loving me, either. Not then, when I needed him the most. “Is that what did this?” he asked quietly, never letting go of my hands. “You were trying to hide those feelings?” He offered it like it was a blanket explanation, as though my being gay was the only thing he needed to hear in order to have closure on the how and why of the drugs. Perhaps his next thoughts were the how and why of being gay. But if they were, he didn’t voice them. It was another problem for another day. “I was scared,” I explained, letting him think what he needed to in order to avoid placing the blame anywhere but on me. “I didn’t know why I was different. I needed not to feel like that because I thought it was wrong. I didn’t want to get hurt. It got out of control, Daddy. I just lost control.” He got up and came around to my side of the table, the legs of the chair squealing with how quickly he moved to my side. He didn’t say a word as he scooped me into standing and held me, squeezing me even though I knew he thought I might break. I held fast to his chest, fisting the fabric of his sweatshirt and holding him praying that he’d never let go. “It’s okay,” he said into my hair. “We’ll get you through this. All of it. You’ll be okay.” Behind him, Sharon slid a plate of eggs across the kitchen table and stormed toward the living room, stopping only long enough to linger at the door. “Courtney doesn’t hear a word of this sin, do you understand?” she hissed. “She’s a child. She doesn’t hear a word.” The lies, it seemed, would continue.

*** The day after my first meeting, my tutor arrived. It turns out that recovering addicts aren’t exactly welcomed in the Akron public school system. Dad thought it would be a better idea to spend the rest of the semester catching up without the pressure from a new school, new people, new temptations. I didn’t think I could have handled school without Santana, anyway. My body wasn’t the only thing relearning how to function without pills. The tutor – a retired teacher from Sharon’s church – took stock of my basic knowledge with a series of tests during our first session. The words and numbers jumbled together on the pages like they were liquid, blending and fading in incomprehensible ways. I knew I’d skated by in my classes because of Sue and the Cheerios, but the test, with its Pythagorean theorems and questions on recumbent DNA, was beyond anything I remembered learning. I set the pencil down at the end, tears streaming down my face while the older woman sat across the table from me. “What have I done?” I muttered, dropping my head to the table and blindly shoving the papers away. She took them, but placed her weathered hand on mine and held it until I looked up. “You’re alive,” she commented, as though I didn’t know, as though I wasn’t suffering enough. “Better that, and a little behind in your courses, than dead with no chance to make up for it. One step at a time, sweetie. One step at a time.” She smiled so warmly, that grandmotherly glow forcing the tears to stop. She patted the top of my hand and took the stack of test papers, slipping her glasses down the bridge of her nose before picking up a red pen and digging in. *** From: Kurt E. Hummel <kurtelizabethhummel@gmail.com> To: BrittBritt Pierce <bsp1994@gmail.com> Subject: Hey Hi Britt, I just want to make sure you’re okay. No one has heard from you in two weeks, and we’re all getting worried. I’ve tried calling your cell, but I think it’s been disconnected. Santana keeps calling it anyway, just hoping to hear your voice. She’s kind of a wreck, Britt. Dad and I are trying to help her as best we can, but things with her folks aren’t going well.

She moved back in with them, after they found out you were gone. I thought you’d want to know. She’s not really talking to any of us. Well, except Sue. She made head cheerleader. I know you were both pretty excited about that, when you were here. She quit glee club, too. She spends a lot of time in Sue’s office when we’re not practicing. Mercedes and I joined Cheerios to keep an eye on her for you. I told her what happened. I hope you don’t mind. She was just really worried. I know you’re off getting better, Britt. I really want you to get better. But just let us know that you’re okay. I know Santana would like to hear from you, especially. Call us, if you can. Please? Love, Kurt From: BrittBritt Pierce <bsp1994@gmail.com> To: Kurt E. Hummel <kurtelizabethhummel@gmail.com> Subject: RE: Hey Hey Kurt, I’m okay. I’m at my dad’s in Akron. I’m in treatment and I have a tutor. I go to meetings. My sponsor’s name is Charlie. He’s a really good guy. My parents disconnected my phone. They thought it would be better if I could start over here from scratch. It’s okay that you told Mercedes. She was always really nice to me. Don’t let Sue get under your ski, but keep an eye on Santana for me. Tell her I said congratulations on making head cheerleader. Love, Britt I hit send and closed the borrowed laptop carefully, looking up to my father, who watched me carefully from the other side of the table. “It’s done,” I said, sliding it back to him. “I don’t think they’ll contact me again. Not until I’m ready.” He nodded once, his eyes sad. “I don’t want this for you, babygirl. I want your friends in your life. But you need to be a better you before you can be a better friend. D’you get that?” I returned the nod. “I’m going to call Charlie.” ***

We sat in the children’s park in the center of the city, surrounded by tall skyscrapers and honking horns while we ate out of the fast food paper bags. He didn’t say anything, instead sucking his fingers clean of the grease and then rubbing them on the thighs of his jeans. Out of the suit, he looked like a lumberjack, large and imposing. For a brief moment I winced, remembering Finn in his flannel shirts and puffy vests. I’d called out of necessity, really. I needed to get out of the house, and there was no one else to come and get me. I’d picked up the house phone and instinctively began punching the number for Santana’s cell phone, only to stop a few numbers in and blink, remembering that I couldn’t call her. But I wanted to. So badly. So instead I pulled Charlie’s business card out of my bag, the one he’d given to me before my father drove away from that first meeting, and called. He wasn’t surprised to hear from me, but happy just the same. Once we’d cleared the corner, after a brief meeting with Dad to assure him we weren’t going out to score a fix, we’d driven in silence. He picked up the food, getting my order right even though I’d never told him what I wanted, then pulled up to the park. I followed him silently up a grassy hill and we sat on a bench beneath a tree while we ate, quiet all the while. It went on like this for half an hour, him munching loudly and wiping his hands while we watched the kids and their parents playing on the brightly colored slides and jungle gyms, laughing and enjoying their ignorance. I chewed on a French fry, but had little appetite, knowing that the world these kids were growing up in was the same one that had produced me. “They’ll be okay, you know,” Charlie said after he noticed how sadly I stared at the kids. “Who?” I asked, as though I didn’t know to whom he was referring. He cocked his head toward the screaming kids playing tag on gravel a stone’s throw away. “Them. You look worried. You shouldn’t be.” I narrowed my eyes at him, annoyed that he could read me so well. First the food, then the kids. I wondered what else he’d discerned from just a few casual interactions. “I’m not worried.” He shrugged and took the uneaten burger from my bag, biting into it and leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Yeah, you are. Maybe not entirely about those kids, but there’s a lot of shit weighing on you. It’s best to get it out now. Work out the demons you’ve got resting on your shoulders so they don’t bite you in the ass when you really hit a low point in the recovery. It’s all part of the Steps.”

The Steps, yes. Those twelve, ever-present rules for recovery that seemed to both irk Charlie and drive him forward. “Coming from you, that’s an interesting thing to say,” I observed, taking another fry from my bag and chewing, even though I wasn’t hungry. “What did you say during my first meeting about the Steps?” He smirked, shoving the food to one side of his mouth, making his cheek puff out like a chipmunk. “They’re trite and overbearing. But workable. I didn’t think you were listening.” But I had been listening. I’d listened to everything everyone had said in that meeting, and everything Charlie had said afterward on that bench. Because they knew more about recovery and getting clean than I did, and I was lost. Even then, on that bench with Charlie, I was adrift. Guidance was something I craved, and the Steps seemed to be the only things the people in those meetings were clinging to. Everyone, that is, except Charlie, who had argued politely about the need for God in a place where it was obvious that there was none. God, if he existed, had better things to do than assist the dregs of the earth. No, Charlie wasn’t working the steps for God. He was working them for himself. It had pissed a few people off, but others had nodded sympathetically. Myself included. Why believe in God? Santana did, and look where it had gotten her. Where it had gotten us. “I may not look like much,” I offered as I balled up the paper bag and tossed it into the trashcan beside the bench. “But I do listen. And I get where you’re coming from. The God thing… I get it.” He swallowed his food and threw out his garbage, wiping his hands on his jeans one final time. He leaned back, draping his arms across the back of the bench with a sigh. “The Steps are there to help people find their way home,” he said, watching the kids through squinted eyes as the sun came out from behind a lazy cloud. “The people who show up to these meetings are lost. They need a roadmap, and sometimes it seems like God or religion are the only paths without the thorns. But you can’t substitute a dependence on drugs for a dependence on religion. It’s why they say you shouldn’t have a relationship in the first year of recovery. The urge to become dependent on that person is too strong. Once an addict, always an addict, no matter what your drug of choice is.” There was no hiding the way my face curled into a bitter snarl, so I turned away from him, wiping my nose and hoping he wouldn’t notice. But Charlie, ever the astute person he was, poked me in the shoulder closest to him and tried to call me back to him. “Hey,” he said softly. “Something I said?” I shook my head and stood. “No. Can I go home now?”

He shrugged and stood, pulling out the familiar cigarette pack and lighting up before walking down the hill ahead of me. The smoke puffed over his shoulder as he exhaled and I dodged the cloud all the way back to his car, where he stopped short, staring at me as I tried to pull open the locked door. “Explain something to me,” he said, the cigarette clenched between his lips. “Why’d you get so mad back there, when I talked about God? You said you got it, but then you got, like… really upset. What happened?” My shoulders sagged and I turned my back to him, leaning against the passenger door and petulantly crossing my arms over my chest. I didn’t want to talk about Santana. Especially not to Charlie, who would probably turn it into a joke. “Nothing,” I groused, but he wandered across the front of the car to lean next to me, mimicking my position with his arms over his chest. He was probably a little less than a foot taller than me, which was frightening. He loomed over me without meaning to, and I shuddered. “You’re lying,” he stated simply without making it sound like an accusation. “That’s the first thing that needs to stop, and right now. Because you’ve spent a lot of time before today doing that, haven’t you? Lying to people to make them think you were okay.” I looked up at him, but he was staring out into the park, not looking at me. I think if he had been looking at me, I wouldn’t have been able to agree with him. He was making things easier by not staring me down, and I was thankful for that. I nodded, assenting to his observation that I’d spent a lot of the last few years being nothing but a liar. “Hmm,” he acknowledged with a small, sad smile. “It happens. Lying is just another addiction. It comes with the territory, when you’re trying to protect this world you’ve built for yourself. So that no one can take away the thing you’ve grown dependent on. You lie to the people you love, and who love you, because you need to keep them from seeing the way you’re living, because even though you need it, you know it’s wrong.” My instinct to protect Santana kicked in then, thinking about the way we had lied to protect ourselves from her family, from the bullies at school. There was no way that what we had was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t always right, or healthy, but how could all of what we’d shared – everything, from that first kiss on the trampoline, to her devotion to me when I was dying – been wrong? “It’s not always like that,” I said, frowning. “Sometimes you lie to protect yourself, and what you’re lying about isn’t wrong. Sometimes everyone else is wrong, and you’re the only one that’s right.” He shifted away from the car and bent his knees so his head was below mine, and he had to look up to meet my gaze. He stared scrupulously, trying to figure me out. “We’re not talking about drugs anymore, are we?” he asked, and I shook my head.

“No,” I agreed, and it wasn’t a lie, but simply an omission of the rest of the story. “We’re not.” He stood up straight and smirked, jangling the keys in his hand before shrugging and unlocking the doors and walking back to the driver’s side. I slid into the car and waited patiently for him to start it up. “This was a good start,” he said happily as we drove back to my father’s house. “But you’re going to have to do better if you want me to sponsor you. I may play fast and loose with the Steps, but the truth is the only rule I have that’s unbreakable. Understood?” The truth was probably going to be harder than staying clean. But he was so optimistic, and so ready to take on everything I threw at him with a stupid grin and witty comeback. So I nodded. “Yeah. Understood.” *** “My name is Charlie, and I’m an addict.” Charlie opened the next meeting by greeting the group with his long, large arms outstretched and welcoming. The older man was absent, so he led them first in calling out and congratulating new milestones (I got a chip for two weeks sober) and then by telling his story. Something I hadn’t heard before. “I’ve been sober for three years now,” he began, standing on his side of the circle and smiling, catching each person’s eye as he looked around the room. “I was a stupid kid, thinking I could have it all. Money, friends, drugs… until my cocaine addiction got out of control. “When I was 21 years old, I got behind the wheel of a car stoned out of my mind. It was late, and there was no one willing to drive me home. All of my friends – or the people I thought were my friends – opted to stay at a party where the alcohol and coke was as free-flowing as water. So I drove myself. And somewhere between that party and my house, I hit another man’s car. I got lucky that night. No one died. But the damage was bad enough to put him in the hospital, and me behind bars. None of those people who had supplied and supported my habit for all the years I was at my fancy college came to bail me out. My parents disowned me, and I was left alone.” He stopped and looked around the room, his normally jovial expression falling into a more serious, self-reflective one. His eyes fell on me and he sat, never looking away. “The judge gave me a choice: prison, or rehab. It was honestly a tough call, because I didn’t want to get clean. I wanted my life back, the life I enjoyed, where I was free and no one told me what I could or could not do. But then I looked around at that courtroom. There was no one on my side, and I knew that it was my own fault. So I picked rehab.”

The story, from what I gathered, was one a lot of the people in the room had heard before. The retelling of it now was mostly for my benefit, so many of the eyes in the room were on me, waiting for a reaction. I didn’t know what to think, other than how much he’d changed from those carefree days when he was on the drugs. How he’d turned his life around. I was proud of him, even though I barely knew him. “After rehab, I struck out on my own. I finished school at Ohio State last year, and now I’m working on my MBA. I have a job at a consulting firm downtown, and I support myself. Most of all, I live a clean, sober lifestyle with friends that I know I can count on when things get rough. I know a lot of you know how I feel about the Steps, but I’m thankful every day that I’ve had them to guide me. I hold myself accountable to myself, and when I falter, there’s no one to blame but me. And I think, at the end of the day, letting myself down is the worst thing I could do. Other than letting down all of you.” The punk-rocker punched him lightly in the shoulder and he grinned at her. The next person stood up and began their story, but I wasn’t listening. Instead, I watched Charlie, who in turn watched me. The looks we exchanged were silent agreements that he expected that from me, soon. To get up like he had and bear my soul, and my wrongdoings, to this group of people. Because he trusted them, and by association, so could I. That didn’t make it any easier. Trust was hard to come by. I just needed more time. *** Sharon slammed the lid down on the simmering pot of stew on the stove, making sure we all knew how unhappy she was with the situation. Dad looked up over his newspaper and rolled his eyes while I did my homework across the kitchen table with as much calm as I could muster. “I don’t like this,” she said out loud, vocalizing her frustration. “I don’t like it at all.” “Yeah,” Dad smirked and sighed. “We can tell.” “Why does he have to come here?” She moved around the kitchen with well-rehearsed precision, grabbing everything she needed without a second’s hesitation and placing the tools of her trade on the counter for later use. “I don’t want Courtney asking questions. I don’t want her messed up in this sinful business.” I winced visibly, but my father took little notice. When it came to Sharon and her constant tirades against my “sins”, he had little to say beyond, “Calm down, Sharon.” Which is what he said then, without looking up from his paper, or at me, while I scribbled harder against the sheet of math problems in front of me. I took my anger out on the calculator, punching the numbers viciously until he cleared his throat, and I blushed. “It’s just dinner, Sharon,” he reassured her. “It’s important to Britt’s recovery that we get to know him. He’s her sponsor, we have to know who’s coming in and out of her life, and if those people are good influences.”

The ironic thing about that statement was that Charlie had suggested meeting my family in order to make sure that they were good influences, not the other way around. The third week of meetings had come and gone, and he’d begun picking me up for trips to the park on a regular basis. We’d sit in silence while he hoped I’d open up, and while I stared at the kids playing, worrying. It was during one of these long silences that he’d suggested the dinner. “I still don’t like it,” Sharon retorted, lifting the lid on the stew and adding cornstarch while she stirred. “He ought to have asked us, not her.” “’Her’ is sitting right there, dear,” Dad grunted, snapping the paper and folding it shut before pinching the bridge of his nose between two calloused fingers. “You can talk to her, not me. I’m going to shower before dinner. Don’t want our guest thinking we’re a bunch of slobs.” He left the kitchen, and for a few awkward moments Sharon and I stared at one another. She blinked once, her eyes large and confused, like my father had left her alone in the room with a wild animal. If she moved too quickly, I’d pounce and rip out her throat. “He’s not going to speak about your situation until-“ “Until Courtney goes to bed,” I finished for her, frowning. “I got it, Sharon. You want me to keep lying to my sister so she lives in a bubble all her life. Fine. Have it your way.” She slammed the cast-iron pan down on the stove with enough force to chip the porcelain top and she hissed a curse before covering her mouth and catching her breath, closing her eyes to count to ten. Once her reddened face had returned to its normal color, she looked at me, livid. “Don’t you dare try and put any of the blame for this awful mess on me,” she snapped coolly. “You’ve brought sin into my house, and I will not have my daughter exposed to you or your lifestyle.” I cocked my head to the side, wondering if she was still talking about Charlie and Narcotics anonymous. “Are we talking about the drugs, Sharon? Or is there something else you’d like to get off your chest?” “Stop it,” she hissed, turning her back on me. “I love all of God’s creatures. Even the heathens who fornicate against his commandments. Now go set the table. Your friend will be here soon.” I got to my feet, closing the math textbook with a slam that made her jump. “Whatever makes you comfortable, Sharon,” I said, a Cheshire grin crossing my lips. The evening was off to an interesting start. ***

“The stew is delicious, Mrs. Pierce,” Charlie commented, spooning another mouthful to his lips before leaning back and patting his stomach exaggeratedly. I laughed as his buttons stretched, straining against a distended stomach. He blushed and smoothed his shirt down, making my father snort a little as well. “The boy has a good appetite,” he said, taking a swig of the beer in front of him. “I like that. What do you do, Charlie? You’re dressed pretty snazzy for a recovering ad-“ Sharon kicked out hard under the table, landing a swift and decisive blow to Dad’s shin. He winced, rubbing the wound and clearing his throat while Courtney continued to eat without the slightest inclination that anything had happened. “You’re dressed pretty snazzy,” he corrected, and finished the soup in his bowl with reddened cheeks. Charlie looked back and forth between Sharon and my father, then to Courtney, confused. He took a sip of the water in front of him, ignoring the beer that Sharon had set out, even though he had denied her when she’d asked the first time. He watched me carefully while he spoke, blinking as he tried to piece together a puzzle without looking at the original picture. “I’m a consultant,” he answered, putting his elbows on the table and pointedly looking at Sharon, who blanched visibly. “I work for a small firm downtown that assists other businesses in making the most of their resources. We basically take a business and make it run better.” It seemed to impress my father enough that he went on asking questions, trying to discern whether or not something like Charlie’s business would be helpful in the construction trade. While they talked shop, I looked around the table. Sharon sat rigidly across from my father, while Charlie sat at the head of the table, and I at the end. Courtney was between me and her mother, oblivious. “Hey munchkin,” I whispered, bending low to catch her attention. “How about Charlie and I take you out to get some ice cream after dinner?” Her ears perked up and she grinned widely, the prospect of ice cream more enticing than finishing her dinner. But Sharon, with her eagle-like ears, spun her head and knotted the cloth napkin in her fist. “You’ll do no such thing,” she barked, and all of us jumped. Courtney’s lower lip jutted out, upset, and Sharon glared at me. “Now look what you’ve done.” “Me?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest and sitting back in my chair. “You’re the one who’s denying her ice cream, not me.” I could see the blood boiling in her brain, her eyes bugging as she attempted to control her tone. “You know very well that I wouldn’t deny her anything. But I will not have her leave this house with a couple of-“

“A couple of what, Sharon?” Charlie asked from the head of the table. He was calm, collected, but the question was pointed. He wanted to know exactly what Sharon thought about him, and by association, what she thought about me. He knew, I could tell. But he wanted to hear her say it. She flushed, caught in her own game. She didn’t want Courtney to hear, but she’d brought it up, so she was trapped. Rather than answering, she got to her feet and began clearing the table, picking up the bowl in front of Charlie, even though he wasn’t finished. “Come help me with the dishes, Courtney,” she commanded, trying to carry as much as she could so she didn’t have to come back to the table. “And then I’ll take you for ice cream after.” “But I want Brittany to take me,” she whined, digging in her heels and not getting up. “I never get to do anything with her. I wanna go with Brittany.” I couldn’t help but smirk. “It’s not a big deal at all, Sharon,” Charlie said, still waiting for the answer to his previous question. “I’d be happy to take Courtney out for some ice cream. Two scoops. How does that sound, munchkin?” He used my nickname for her, and she twittered with excitement, nodding enthusiastically. “I said no!” Sharon shrieked, dropping the bowls in her arms and leaping as they shattered at her feet. Ceramic shards and uneaten stew were sent flying and Dad leapt to his feet. “Brittany, take Courtney to her room,” he demanded, unsure of whom he ought to be angry with. “Now. Then go to your room.” As I lifted Courtney from her chair, holding her until we’d cleared the broken glass, I listened as Charlie spoke softly to the two adults left in the room. “What you’re doing to her, alienating her like that, is counterproductive to her recovery, Sharon. You cannot make her feel like she is less than a full member of this family if you expect her to kick this addiction. You’re making things far worse than they ought to be, and I, for one…” As I ushered Courtney up to her room, his voice faded and missed the last of his lecture. But the fact that he was down there, standing up for me to the people who ought to be the ones providing me with support when he barely knew me himself was enough to give me the strength not to cry in front of Courtney. I led her into her room and silently helped her get ready for bed. I tucked her in, read her “Hop on Pop”, and shut the door behind me before making my way to the top of the stairs. I could hear Charlie at the bottom and I froze, listening as he and my father exchanged hushed words. Sharon’s light in her sewing room across from Courtney’s bedroom was on, so I sat still, careful not to disturb anyone.

“She’s my little girl,” my father whispered, he and Charlie only a few feet apart at the door to the house. “I don’t know what I can… I don’t know how to help her, Charlie. Tell me what I have to do, and I’ll do it.” I listened as the floorboards creaked beneath Charlie’s mass, the weight of his muscle making them groan with effort. I watched as he moved closer to my father, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. “You have to stop your wife from doing what she did tonight, for starters,” he said, leaning down a bit to meet Dad’s eye. “Your daughter is the most important person in the world right now. I know you have a family, but you need to reprioritize for her. Because if you don’t, you’ll lose her. She might not seem like it, but she’s fragile. So fucking fragile. She won’t let you in unless you’re willing to hear what she has to say and stop judging her. She’s made mistakes, but haven’t you? She fucked up a little earlier in life than most. But now she has a chance to fix it, and she needs you, sir. More than anyone, she needs her dad.” My father’s shoulders, normally strong and firm, broke beneath the weight of Charlie’s hand. He cried. For the first time in my life, I watched my father sob like a child, bending so his hands were on his knees to hold himself up. Charlie’s hand patted him on the back a few times, avoiding the very unmanly gesture of hugging, because he was observant enough to know that my father would never have accepted it. He righted himself, wiping his nose on his sleeve and clapping Charlie on the shoulder just once as he smiled. “You’re a good man, Charlie,” he hiccupped softly. “You’re a better man than me.” “No, I’m not, sir.” Charlie shook his head and reached for the door. “Just a different kind of man.” My father opened it for him and walked him out, but from the porch I heard him say, “The best kind. And please, call me Daniel.” *** “I’m not fragile, you know.” I slid into the passenger seat of his car for our weekly trip to the park, and he continued driving with a smirk on his face. “You were listening.” I nodded. “You think I’m this delicate little flower, that I’m going to break. But I’m not.” He passed the usual burger joint we stopped at for lunch and went directly to the park, rolling the car to a stop at the curb. He shifted the emergency break into position and unfastened his seatbelt to turn to me, waiting.

“Okay,” he agreed. “You’re not fragile. Tell me your story, then.” He’d earned it. He truly had, after the night before with my father and Sharon. But I bit my lip, turning to look out the window, wishing the hill wasn’t in the way so that I could watch the children playing just beyond. I could trust him, I knew that much. But I didn’t know if I trusted myself. “I’m gay.” It fell from my lips much easier than it had with my father, or even with Santana. I chewed on the afterburn of it while I listened to him hum a soft agreement. “Hmm. That wasn’t so hard, was it?” I turned back to him, looking him square in the eye. “You say that like it was as obvious as me saying, ‘My hair is blonde.’” He shrugged, leaning back in the bucket seat and smirking. “I’ve had a little experience with gay girls in my time,” he offered without explanation. “Let’s just say you weren’t exactly hiding much.” I sighed and buried my face in my hands, mumbling incoherently into them as I tried to explain things without actually having him hear me. I was right. He was making jokes. “You’re gonna have to speak up,” he prodded, poking me in the shoulder. I swatted his hand away, frustrated and red in the face. I didn’t want him turning my relationship with Santana into a punch line for one of his jokes. He put his palms up defensively and sat back, leaning against the driver’s side door to wait patiently. “My best friend… Santana… I fell in love with her,” I said slowly, letting the words marinate in my mouth while I felt them out. No one had heard the story in its entirety before. Hardly anyone even knew it had happened. Knowing that it was out there, that our story was being repeated like an old folk legend – this story of epic love, as Santana had put it – was comforting. Someone would know about us. Someone would know, and it wouldn’t be such a secret anymore. So I let it out. Every last gory detail. From the first day she’d picked me up out of the mud, to the day I’d told her goodbye in Lima, and she’d left me in tears. “You promised you’d never leave me…” I could still feel the faint echo of her pain in my shattered ribcage. He remained silent the whole time, listening and nodding where appropriate. He never prompted me, asked questions or tried to fill in any blanks. He just let me tell the story, and he sat vigilant all the while. When I came to the end, he took in a long, deep breath, then let it out slowly

through his nose. I waited, anticipating a witty comment. Instead he looked at me, his eyes heavy with everything I’d just told him. “You did the right thing,” he said softly. “For both of you.” He pulled me into a firm hug when I started crying. *** When he met me at the bench before the next meeting, he wasn’t sitting and smoking, as he usually was. Instead he stood, arms crossed over his chest, brooding. “Today’s the day,” he said as my father drove away. Up until that point, he had been accommodating, if a little snarky. But the way he said it left no room for argument. He wasn’t pulling any punches. “No,” I said anyway, feebly. “I’m not ready.” He spat on the ground, shaking his head. “Yes, you are. You’ve been ready since day one, when you walked back into that meeting with your head in the air. I’ve babied you long enough. Time to grow up. Don’t chicken shit out on me now. Get off your ass and prove that you want to get better.” He’d been crass before. Sarcastic, mocking, even condescending. But he’d never gotten angry with me, or cold. I gulped, trying to hide a fresh wave of inconsolable tears. “I… I can’t,” I sniffed, standing in the middle of the sidewalk, just out of arm’s reach. “You lived your life in a constant state of lies when you were on the drugs,” he said unsympathetically. “You’ve skirted the truth with me since you started these meetings. Your family has pushed you to keep lying about your recovery to maintain their lifestyle. It’s been a month, Brittany. You’re clean. You’re sober. Now it’s time to actually get better. Make that step.” “But you hate the steps,” I croaked through my tears, knowing how it would only make him angrier. “That’s not the goddamn point!” he shouted, throwing his hands up. “The steps are a plan. You don’t have to follow them to the letter but they’re the best guides we have for getting you from where you were then to where you can be. Give me some slack, here, Britt. Give me what you can and get in there and tell your fucking story. Because god knows it’s a good one.” “Charlie…” I started, but couldn’t finish the thought when I didn’t even know what I wanted to say myself.

“Don’t,” he snapped. “You’re done making excuses. You can do this. You can anything. I won’t let you tell yourself otherwise anymore.” I made no sound to protest, instead pleading with my eyes. It’d only been a month, just a few short weeks. He expected so much more from me than I ever expected from myself, and he barely even knew me. The pressure built in my chest, a hand wrapping around my heart and squeezing. My breath quickened and I felt something like one of my Half Out panic attacks coming on. I wanted to be calm, and not there, and with Santana. I wanted her arms holding me, like they had when we were fourteen on her trampoline. I wanted that first kiss. I wanted my innocence back. More than anything, though, I wanted a pill, to leave Akron and find it. I’d have done anything he asked of me – anything – if the promise of a fix was the result. But with that thought, I knew he was right. It was time. “Okay,” I nodded, swiping my eyes clear with the heel of my hand. “Okay.” His hard expression melted and he held his hand out to me. I took it tentatively, fingers fumbling in his massive but careful paw. He wrapped his around mind, steadying me. I stared at my wrist which disappeared into his palm, then slowly lifted my gaze to meet his. The look I found there sent me reeling harder any I’d received – good or bad – since I’d gotten clean. Pride. He was proud of me. “Come on,” he said quietly, tugging my arm with a smile. “Let’s go confront those demons.” Step 5: We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. We walked out of the meeting together, his hand on the back of my neck like a protective older brother. He ran his knuckles over the top of my head roughly, both proud and playful as we exited the building into the night air. “I’m proud of you, kid,” he said as he lit up a cigarette. “I knew you could do it.” I nodded, blushing, even though he couldn’t see in the darkness where I stood. “Well, I have you thank for th-“ “Charlie!” A voice from across the parking lot called out to him, and he turned enthusiastically. A young woman ran up to him and threw herself into his arms. I took a step back, masking myself in the shadows while he picked her up and spun her, laughing. I assumed she was his girlfriend, but he’d never mentioned one before. He dropped her, and she landed nimbly on her feet. She was a full head and a half shorter than him, but in the light from the streetlamp I could see a resemblance in their features. She had his

same green eyes and rumpled hair. Hers was cut short, a messy shock of waves that looked stylishly chic on her, when matched with the skinny jeans and leather jacket she wore. He turned her, then gestured to me in the shadows. “Britt!” he called, waving me over. “Britt, I’d like you to meet my sister. Erica, this is Brittany.” The young woman stretched her hand out to me and I took it. She shook my hand hard, and I watched as she looked me up and down, one eyebrow raised and a coy smirk on her face. “It’s nice to meet you, Brittany. Charlie was right. You are cute.”

24

Here is the Deepest Secret Nobody Knows

Six Months Later – September We walked hand in hand up to the heavy double doors of the high school, her thick combat boots thudding against the sidewalk while my flats shuffled awkwardly next to them. My grip on her tightened when people brushed past us. I waited for a slushie facial, a jeer, anything. But nothing came. “See?” Erica whispered, leaning her shoulder into mine and bumping my hip with hers. “I told you it was okay. No one cares enough. It’s the first day, they’re too busy trying to figure out where their classes are.” I relaxed, my shoulders dropping and my hold on her hand loosening. Erica let her fingers curl through mine, swinging our arms between us. She cocked her head toward the school and smirked. “Come on, then, newbie,” she teased. “We’ve gotta get our schedules, and then I’ll help you find your classes.” I shuddered, for a moment remembering every first day of school I’d had for the last eight years. A hand on mine. The pen as it wrote my classes on the inside of my wrist. We were at the door already, Erica guiding me through, and I stopped short. My back straightened violently, and I froze. “No.” She turned, puzzled, and waited patiently. “Okay.” She let go of my hand, her expression soft, not offended. “You can find them yourself. You’ll be fine.” I got lost in the trust in her eyes, the simple statement, and the way she didn’t question why. I smiled at her, relieved, and reached out to take her hand again. She returned the grin, her slightly-grown mop of shaggy hair falling in her eyes. She shrugged her slouch bag over her shoulder and tried to hide the shy smile as I pulled her to me. Confidently, I leaned down, closing the six-inch height gap between us as I pressed my lips to hers in the middle of the quickly-filling main entrance of my new high school. She smirked, trying to hide the surprise on her face, when I pulled away. “What was that for?” “Nothing,” I shrugged. “Just a thank you. For everything.”

“You did the work,” she reminded me, leading me down the hall to the main office, where we collected our schedules. “I’m just the pep squad.” “Hey.” I pulled her against a panel of lockers, not unlike those back at McKinley, and took her other hand so she had to face me. “Don’t do that. You’re more than just a pep squad. I know I’m still working on things and we’re taking things slow, but you mean more to me than that.” Erica grinned widely, her cheeks flushing. “I know,” she mumbled, slipping her hands out of mine and grabbing the belt loops on my cut off jeans, pulling our hips together. “And I appreciate that. A lot, actually. Things can’t be easy for you, and I’m just being supportive. I know that you have quite a history with-“ I put my index finger to her lips, stopping her before she could say that name. That name would ruin us. “Don’t,” I begged, and she quieted. “Let’s just enjoy the day, okay?” She nodded and I took my finger away. Bending to press my lips to hers once more, I felt for the crumpled schedule in my pocket. I grinned, trying to forget all those other first days, and stepped back, ready to go out on my own. “I’ll see you at lunch, right? Lunch A?” A flood of students separated us, pushing to get to their lockers, and I waved over their heads before disappearing into the crowds. I moved through them, dodging and shifting against the mass of bodies until I reached the numbered door. Room 213. English. I swallowed hard, biting my lower lip and closing my eyes, the delicate fingers of a phantom hand holding my wrist steady as an invisible pen wrote out those same numbers a year before. The neat scrawl became a mottled memory, fading in and out of focus, just as most days where I was Half In were wont to do. Remembering the little details – how she dotted her i's or what color her nail polish was that day – was harder than it ought to have been. So I went out of my way not to remember them at all. Until that moment, in front of the door, that is. English, room 213. Things like that have a way of sneaking up on you, forcing you to think about them when you’d rather not. Because thinking about them makes you remember everything else, and for a moment you forget the great things you have now. You start living in the past, and it slowly eats away at your future. You cannot go back. Only forward. I wrapped my hand around the cold doorknob, and pushed it open.

Six Months Earlier – March “It’s nice to meet you, Brittany. Charlie was right. You are cute.” She didn’t let go of my hand right away, instead holding it and anchoring me to my spot so she could study me. Her inquisitive green eyes swept up and down my body, checking me out in a way that part leer, part assessment. I couldn’t tell if she was trying to determine whether I was good enough to hang out with Charlie, or if she was hitting on me. If I hadn’t been so shocked, I might have laughed. “Britt shared today,” Charlie said with a not-very-subtle cough, and we tore our eyes from one another. “I was thinking about celebrating. Steak n’ Shake is open. Want to come with us?” Erica separated her hand from mine to turn to Charlie with an equally not-subtle wink. “Sure Charlie, sounds great. I’ll meet you there?” Charlie nodded and she jingled her keys in her pocket. “Congratulations, Brittany. Sharing is a big step.” She eyed me head to toe with a smirk before darting to what looked like a brand new Mini Cooper at the other end of the parking lot, leaving Charlie and I standing in the light from the streetlamp. “Did she just…?” My hand was still outstretched, my fingers now contorted to point after her, the confusion at what had just happened running through my limbs, which failed to respond to commands. Charlie smirked – the same smirk Erica gave me – and rolled his eyes. “Yeah, she did. Ignore it. She’s a little… well, she’s flirtatious. Remember when I said I had experience with gay girls?” I nodded and he swept his arm out, gesturing to the retreating figure of his sister. “There you have it. And she’s been quite the experience. Came out of the womb quoting Betty Friedan and holding a petitioner’s clipboard. She’s a great kid, but she can be a little in your face sometimes. You’ll get to like her. Eventually.” As he led the way to his car, I bit my lip, nerves overtaking me. Charlie had said that you shouldn’t get into a relationship in the first year of recovery. But here was Erica, dangled in front of me just one month in, and Charlie was probably the instigator. “She was the only one in my family to keep in touch when I went to rehab,” Charlie commented as he started the car. “She was only 14, but she had more faith in me than everyone else combined. She got me through the roughest time in my life.” I tried to imagine Charlie, this giant of a man, small and broken and crying like I had been. In withdrawal, in pain, sick and dying. I imagined what it must have been like to be alone during that, how he’d only had the thought of his little sister to keep him moving. At least I’d had-

“I’m not trying to set you up with her, you know that, right?” Charlie seemed worried. He was feeding off my own nervous energy, and I tried to calm down. “That’s not what inviting her out was all about. I wanted you to meet her because she’s a mentor at her school to the kids in the GSA. The Gay-Straight Alliance. She’s a great listener, and I know that you haven’t really had someone who you can level with about who you are without fear. So just… ignore the first impression. I’ll tell her to cool it. I really want you to have someone like her in your life.” “What about you?” I asked, staring out the window as he drove. He smiled and shook his head. “I’m glad you think I could help you, but she’s really your best resource. Just talk to her. For me?” We pulled into the Steak n’ Shake parking lot before I could answer, and he tossed me his phone. “Call your folks, let them know where you are.” Sharon was happy to not have me in the house for dinner, so there wasn’t an argument from the other end as we as sat in the booth that Erica had saved for us. She already had a milkshake in front of her, and she was tapping out a text on her phone while we pulled out our menus. “Charlie drives like an old man, doesn’t he?” she asked with a giggle, taking a drag on the straw in front of her. “Took you guys forever to get here.” I watched them bicker good naturedly back and forth across the table, the way a brother and sister ought. He chided her for her gauged ears, she mocked his hobo-beard. They seemingly forgot I existed until the waitress came up to the table and addressed me first. “What can I get you tonight?” She was in her mid-forties, but her eyes were much older. Her hands were deeply veined, her knuckles swollen from hours of serving people who took and took ungratefully, then left her with only the meagerest of tips. She reminded me of my mother. When I said nothing, simply stared, Charlie cleared his throat and ordered for both of us, followed a confused-looking Erica. “You okay, kiddo?” he asked when she’d gone, and I’d stopped following her with my eyes. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied, snapping back to attention with as much of a smile as I could muster. “And don’t call me kiddo, old man.” Erica sucked down the last of her milkshake with a loud slurp and a grin. “I think I’m going to like her, Charlie,” she smirked, winking at me. I felt Charlie’s body jerk next to me, and Erica jolted just after. “Ow! Goddamn, Charlie, I’m kidding! Respect the steps.”

She put her hands up in surrender and smiled at me. This time it was less of a leer and more friendly, and I relaxed back into the booth. I wasn’t prepared for the flirting to be serious. “Good,” Charlie said with a stiff nod, narrowing his eyes at her. “I’m serious, Erica. I invited you out so you and Brittany could chat, not flirt.” Erica jutted out her lower lip in a mocking pout, crossing her arms over her chest like a child and stamping her foot under the table. “Charlie never lets me have any fun, Brittany. How do you stand him?” I bit my tongue, torn between laughing at Erica and siding with Charlie. She was a flirt, that was for sure, but she seemed harmless enough. The kind of person who made friends by being overly extroverted, and assuming that you like her when you barely knew her name. She probably liked to hug a lot as well. “He means well,” I said, nudging Charlie with my shoulder and watching him smirk in satisfaction. “And he knows what’s best for me right now.” Her body relaxed and she propped her elbows up on the table with a shrug. All the flirtatious energy draining as she slumped over her empty glass. “If you say so. So, tell me what we need to chat about, Charlie. Or do I have to guess?” Charlie shrugged and shifted aside as the waitress set his food down in front of him, then passed around plates to the rest of us. “She needs a friend other than me, and you’re her age, or thereabouts. Britt, I think you have a lot in common. Now if you’ll excuse me.” He left the table and headed toward the back of the restaurant and the restroom sign that hovered there. I watched him round the corner, out of sight, and turned sheepishly to Erica. She was staring at me, feeling me out. I blushed and looked away, and she sighed with a shake of her head. “Sorry,” she said, leaning back into her seat. “I… I can come on pretty strong. Charlie told me you were gay, it’s just kind of this instinctual reaction. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” I shrugged, staring at my hands. “It’s fine… really. I’m not used to anyone being so…” “Open?” She asked this curiously, with genuine concern. “I don’t know how things went down at your old school, or with your family, but there are no secrets around me. Especially after Charlie. If what he’s gone through has taught me anything, it’s that lies ruin your life. So I don’t live like that, and everyone else can fuck off, right?” She was blunt, to be sure. But she wasn’t lecturing. It was her very upfront way of telling me that she understood where I was coming from. I glanced up quickly, then diverted my gaze again and nodded.

“Yeah, I guess,” I agreed, but I wasn’t quite sure that it was as easy as all that. “I just… I’m still getting used to all this. Honesty wasn’t very easy to come by back in Lima. From anyone, really.” I chewed the inside of my cheek to keep from telling her anything more. I wanted to spill my guts to someone who understood. Charlie was right. She was easy to talk to, someone I could relate to. But I wasn’t ready to unload more of my past on a stranger. Not when everything was still a fresh wound, and picking at the scab only made the healing of it slow. Telling Charlie had been hard enough. Telling this girl? Infinitely more difficult. Especially when she looked at me like she did just then, with incredible sympathy and knowing eyes. She knew what it was like, being unsure of yourself. She might have even known the kind of love that I had known. But I wasn’t ready to give her the chance to tell me. “Honesty is all you have right now, Britt,” she said softly, cocking her head sympathetically. “I know it’s hard, and I don’t expect you to trust me right away, but Charlie thinks we could be friends. And if Charlie knows one thing, it’s people. I trust him, he trusts you. So I guess I trust you, too. But you take all the time you need.” She dug into the massive hamburger in front of her as Charlie slid back into the booth with a grin. “Chow time.” He dropped me off at home with a hug and another reassuring comment about Erica. I nodded my thanks to him and trudged into the house. It was late, well past the time that Courtney and Sharon would have gone to bed, but my father waited up in the living room, the television playing a highlight reel of that night’s basketball game. He got to his feet when I came in, locking the door behind me, and stretched awkwardly. “I, uh, just wanted to make sure you got in okay,” he said, scratching his belly. “And… congratulations. One month, that’s a big milestone.” He was trying so desperately to say the right thing. Since his talk with Charlie, he’d been different. Calmer, for sure, but also more defensive of me. Protective against Sharon and her snide comments, curious about my recovery and the process there. He’d spent more time on the phone with my mother since then than he had in the entire span of their divorced years combined. He was invested, and it helped, knowing he was there. “Yeah,” I smiled tiredly. “It was a big night. Charlie took me out for burgers to celebrate. He introduced me to his sister, Erica. She’s a junior at Akron South.” “Good, good.” He stretched again and wandered over to give me an affectionate if inept sidehug. “You could use a friend your age. Don’t stay up too late. Night, babygirl.”

The nickname stuck to my throat as he lifted his weight wearily up the stairs, leaving me alone in the living room. That he still called me that, after everything, made me believe more than ever that he loved me. Even if it hurt him, he loved me. I slipped quietly into my room and opened the spare laptop I’d been granted permission to use, changing into my pajamas while it slowly came to life. I was waiting for another email from Kurt, but the first thing in my inbox when I logged into my account was the last thing I expected. To: BrittBritt Pierce < bsp1994@gmail.com> From: <trampoline.daze@gmail.com> Subject: (no subject) Attachment: for_britt.mp3 My heart beat out of sync with the rapid blinking of my eyes and I grew dizzy. My palms began to sweat and I fumbled to double click the attachment without even reading the body of the email. The song file took what felt like hours to load on the ancient laptop, finally starting up in the outdated version of iTunes that contained a grand total of four songs. The fifth, the new one sent from her, completed the soundtrack of our relationship. There, next to Erin McCarley, Pink, Rosi Golan, and Adele, sat Missy Higgins. I don't know what I've done Or if I like what I've begun But something told me to run And honey you know me, it's all or none I thought that maybe she might have recorded it herself. I’d hoped she had, anyway. I wanted to hear her voice, almost needed it, much in the same way I had right after Christmas. Instead I heard the voice of the original artist, the saddest voice in the world, serenading me softly from dying computer speakers. I knew the song, but for a moment I forgot the words and I just sat there, listening, waiting for her message. There was always a message when it came to us and songs. There were sounds in my head A little voice is whispering That I should go and this should end Oh and I found myself listening I didn’t realize that I was panting, my chest expanding hard and fast as I waited, air sucked in sharply through my nose and let out like a bull, nostrils flared, only to take in another deep breath until my head spun. I steadied myself on the desk, palms flat, watching the seconds tick by on the counter. 'Cause I don’t know who I am, who I am without you All I know is that I should And I don't know if I could stand another hand upon you All I know is that I should

'Cause she will love you more than I could She who dares to stand where I stood The chorus kicked up and I fought the urge to snap the computer shut. I held my hands still in my lap, hearing not the musician, but her. The way her voice had cracked that day in my mother’s bedroom. The way she’d cried. I heard it, even though she wasn’t there to sing it to me. See I thought love was black and white That it was wrong or it was right But you ain't leaving without a fight And I think I am just as torn inside Memories of the many songs we’d sung to one another bubbled to the surface as the lyrics of this new song told me all the things she couldn’t say in person. She didn’t want to let me go, but she would anyway. No matter how painful – for both of us – she was making a decision. 'Cause I don’t know who I am, who I am without you All I know is that I should And I don't know if I could stand another hand upon you All I know is that I should 'Cause she will love you more than I could She who dares to stand where I stood Another round of the chorus made my joints ache from the strain of clenching. She could tell, even from a hundred miles away, what I’d been doing that night, and who I’d been with. I could hear the challenge in the words, even though she didn’t know Erica. They were calling her out, daring the new girl to try and take her place. And I won't be far from where you are if ever you should call You meant more to me than anyone I ever loved at all But you taught me how to trust myself and so I say to you This is what I have to do My chest collapsed from the effort of breathing, and I pulled my knees up to make sure they were still attached to my torso. I’d been the one to break her like this. This shouldn’t have been so difficult to hear. I’d done it first, after all. Left. And yet the idea of her giving up made it real. 'Cause I don’t know who I am, who I am without you All I know is that I should And I don't know if I could stand another hand upon you All I know is that I should 'Cause she will love you more than I could She who dares to stand where I stood Oh, she who dares to stand where I stood

The song faded out, the piano tinkering softly into nothingness, and I shut down the program before the song could loop around again. I sat there, staring at it in the dark, the brightly lit screen blinding me. Breathing heavily, slowly evening out my intake of air, I lifted myself up and slid into bed, still dressed. I curled up into a ball, pressing my back against the wall and my fists into my eyes. I couldn’t cry. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t allowed to be upset by this, not when I had hurt her so badly. I deserved it. And she deserved to move on, like I was trying to. Perhaps I’d thought that I could get better, go back to Lima, and we would be together again. I never really considered how she might feel in the process. All I knew was that she had loved me, and I had broken her. I never thought I wouldn’t be the one to fix her as well. The computer whirred from across the small room, the ancient thing overheating because I’d left the internet browser open. I crawled over to it, reaching out to shut the laptop, when I noticed the single line in the body of the email. Tabula rasa, Britt. Five Months Earlier – April From: Kurt E. Hummel <kurtelizabethhummel@gmail.com> To: BrittBritt Pierce <bsp1994@gmail.com> Subject: RE: RE: Hey Hi Britt, I know you probably don’t want to hear from me. I got the message pretty clear from your last email, but I just wanted you to remember that we love you, all of us. And we want you to get better and come home. Things aren’t the same around here without you. Everyone just seems a little… sadder. You were the little bit of light a lot of us had to get through the day, Britt. I don’t know if that was because of the way you were reacting to the drugs, but I want to believe that you knew how to make people happy because that’s just how you are. I want that happiness for you, so badly. Even if it means we all have to go without while you find it. I don’t know if I can take Cheerios much longer. How did you stand this? I’ve barely eaten in days. Mercedes already quit after Sue spent two weeks berating her weight. She says she’s sorry, but it’s not worth it. I’m beginning to agree with her. I know you don’t want to talk about her, but I think you need to know. She won’t talk to me, but I can see it in her eyes. She’s just going through the motions without you. As much as she and I don’t get along, no one should be that unhappy. And no one should ever resort to Sue Sylvester to forget that unhappiness. If she’s not on the field or in class, she’s in Sue’s office, and she always leaves looking like she’s been crying. Please come home soon, Britt. I’m doing what I can for her, but I’m running out of ideas. I love you, Kurt

From: BrittBritt Pierce <bsp1994@gmail.com> To: Kurt E. Hummel <kurtelizabethhummel@gmail.com> Subject: RE:RE:RE: Hey We’ve both made our choices, Kurt. I love her, but we can’t do it anymore. I love you too, Britt PS. Coach Tanaka keeps a stash of Power Bars in the equipment shed under the bleachers. Eat something, please. The chip weighed heavy in my hand, the thick plastic emblazoned with HELP, GOD, SOCIETY, SERVICE, FREEDOM, GOODWILL around the ’60 Days’ in the center. I held it proudly, but looked around the still-unfriendly room, watching the others either ignore me completely or eye me from a distance. They were still scared, two months later. I didn’t blame them. I was terrified every day of my life. Of relapse, of going back to the way I was. But Charlie, sitting next to me, put a heavy hand on my shoulder and squeezed. I looked up at him and his smile reassured me, if only for a moment. And that was good enough. “Burgers tonight?” he asked as we walked out of the rectory together. “We could make it a thing. You know, to celebrate. Incentive to keep moving forward. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no greater motivator than a cheeseburger and a milkshake.” I giggled, my stomach growling. “Yes, please. D’you think Erica wants to come, too?” Charlie spun his keys on his index finger, frowning as he unlocked the door to his car and got in, the whole thing shifting beneath his weight. “You remember what I said about getting attached, right? Your recovery is about you, especially so early on.” I sighed and rolled my eyes, even though my stomach clenched guiltily. Yes, I understood the consequences of trying to start a relationship with someone so soon into the process. But the song sitting at home on my computer taunted me daily, reminding me that she was gone, and forever. That girl I loved wasn’t going to wait for me, nor should I ever expect her to. She deserved more than that. So I was taking her cue, and trying to move forward. Look at a future, instead of the past. It was so much harder in practice than theory. “Yeah, Charlie,” I replied, reminding myself not to stare at her if she did decide to come to dinner. “I remember. I would just like someone other than you to talk to. You’re cool and all but… well, you’re a guy.”

He scoffed and pulled out his cell, firing off a text message to Erica as he tried valiantly to look offended. “What, I’m not enough? My wit and charm beyond measure don’t earn me cool points?” I giggled again and tossed my hair dramatically. “You’re just, like, so uncool, Charlie.” He tried to ruffle my hair and I smacked his hand away playfully before he set in about my schoolwork. We talked about my kind-yet-infuriating tutor and an upcoming test on the drive to the diner, which distracted me from the nervous tension building in my stomach when I saw Erica’s Mini Cooper in the parking lot when we got there. “She’ll never turn down a cheeseburger,” he noted ruefully, leading the way inside. Erica sat at the same booth we had the first night I’d met her, nursing a cup of coffee and staring at the menu. She stood when she saw us walk up, throwing a hug around Charlie’s massive shoulders before putting her hand out to me. I took it the butterflies dissipating when I realized that she was the one blushing, not me. “Hey, Britt,” she smiled, her cheeks rouging deeply. “Didn’t think Charlie was gonna let me loose on his new sponsee again, after my miserable first impression.” Charlie balked and took her cup of coffee before she could snatch it from him. “She asked if you were available tonight. We’re celebrating again.” If it were possible, she burned redder, tucking her chin to her chest before she realized what she was doing. I smirked, feeling a little haughty that I had that effect. But at the same time, the butterflies in my gut began to flap faster. I guess I just had a better poker face than she did. “Nice to know someone wants to see me,” she joked, sliding back into the booth. “You’ve been monopolizing my time with my brother, Britt. I think that if I ever want to see him again, I’ll have to see him when you’re around.” It was smooth, to say the least. But Charlie wasn’t an idiot. Just like last time, he lashed out under the table with his foot and she yelped. “Jesus! She knows I’m kidding!” She glared at him and then begged silently for sympathy from me. I just shrugged. “Cool it, Charlie,” I said, elbowing him in the side. “She’s harmless.” “Harmless,” he snorted, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly, but curbing his own sharp tongue with a teasing grin. “Yeah, like a rattlesnake.” “I like to consider myself more of a constrictor than and a snake of the venomous variety,” she sniffed, taking his joke in stride. “I’ll crush you with my love.”

They jumped from that to the lizard Charlie had had as a pet as a child, and from there to Erica’s refusal to ever keep pets again because of the way in which that lizard had died. “Mom’s cat ripped it apart,” she moaned, covering her eyes with her hands. “It was disgusting.” “That cat tried to eat just about anything it could get its claws into,” Charlie noted, a slightly nostalgic look on his face. “I blamed it for eating my homework once, and Dad actually believed me. Hey, speaking of homework, you never finished telling me about your test.” “Test?” Erica asked, and I looked up. Both of them were watching me, and I realized I had been brought back into the conversation. “Yeah,” I said, blushing. “I just have a test this week. Biology. I’m probably going to fail.” Erica seemed to perk up at the mention of schoolwork, and I inwardly groaned. She was one of those people, who liked school and worked hard and got good grades. I thought about how we used to laugh at people like that. Like Rachel Berry, trying so hard. Then I remembered how much I’d loved gold stars on my tests as much as Rachel had when I was younger. Before all this. Before her. And I wondered if – maybe – Erica knew something I didn’t. “I loved bio.” She was overly excited, leaning on her hands as her elbows rested on the table. “Something about seeing life at its most basic levels really puts things into perspective. Where do you go?” Charlie cleared his throat and stepped in when he saw me blushing, embarrassed. “Britt has a tutor right now,” he said, trying to sound casual, as though being kept out of school because of a shameful drug habit was a regular occurrence in Akron. “Until she can catch up.” I looked at him gratefully, then nodded toward Erica, confirming Charlie’s story. “My dad and stepmom are zoned for Akron South. If I can pass the equivalency, I’ll be a junior there next year.” “You don’t sound so sure that you will pass.” I shrugged, trying to brush off her comment. In truth, I was terrified. I had two months to prepare for a test that would determine whether or not I would spend an extra year in high school, an extra year enduring the torment of homophobic peers and vindictive, angry stepparents. Akron South was the destination, come September, but my survival there would come down to passing a single test. And as much as my tutor tried, I was failing to find the joy in learning that I had when I was a child. She swallowed a massive bite of her cheeseburger hard, setting the rest down on her plate before digging through her bag and pulling out a Sharpie. From across the table, she reached out and grabbed my wrist, yanking it toward her and pressing the marker to the back of my hand. She stuck the tip of her tongue out of the corner of her mouth as she scribbled, then released me. I

pulled my arm back and stared at the series of numbers on my skin, just below the almost illegible scrawl of her name. “That’s my cell,” she said, both satisfied and insistent. “I go to South. I can totally help you with that equivalency exam. Besides, there’s no way I can be friends with a sophomore when I’m a senior. That’s just unacceptable.” She winked and took another bite of her burger. I flushed crimson to the tips of my ears, but this time I wasn’t embarrassed. I had a friend. Four Months Earlier – May From: Kurt E. Hummel <kurtelizabethhummel@gmail.com> To: BrittBritt Pierce <bsp1994@gmail.com> Subject: Updates, whether you want them or not We lost regionals to Vocal Adrenaline. I thought you’d want to know. I think Schuester was a little zealous in thinking that we could take them on without a similar level of choreography, and I told him several times that your services would be essential to a victory, but he didn’t listen. So we lost. Then Quinn practically popped out her kid in the green room and things were exciting for a while, but mostly they’ve calmed down. Sue must have been feeling particularly benevolent after the Cheerios won Nationals, because she got Figgins to let Glee have another year. We’ll still be here when you come back. I hope you come back. She’s gotten better, you know. She doesn’t cry anymore, but she still spends a lot of time with Sue, even though Cheerios is over. I almost think Sue might be good for her. She’s probably telling her to put her Big Girl panties on and suck it up. She wears that uniform like a suit of armor, but she’s better. Miss you, Kurt From: BrittBritt Pierce <bsp1994@gmail.com> To: Kurt E. Hummel <kurtelizabethhummel@gmail.com> Subject: RE: Updates, whether you want them or not I’m sorry about Regionals, but I’m glad you got to be there for the Cheerios at Nationals. It was so amazing last year, being up there, knowing we were the best. I’m glad you got to feel that too. Because you deserve it, Kurt. And thank you for telling me.

Miss you too, Britt A trickle of cold sweat dripped down the back of my neck. My stomach churned angrily, and I curled into a ball in my chair, wrapping my arms around my knees as I brought them to my chest. Panic settled in, and I cringed. “Please,” I begged. “Put me out of my misery.” Erica shook her head and pushed the book toward me again. “You’re not trying. Stop being a baby.” She thrust a pencil at me, eyebrows raised expectantly. “It’s just a little geometry. It’s not going to kill you.” I gulped, staring at the sea of numbers, letters and symbols that swam across the page. I balked, trying to swallow the knot in my throat. ‘Trying’ was a lot harder than she was making it out to be, and as much as Erica claimed to know what she was talking about, she wasn’t making it any easier for me to understand. “I am trying,” I moaned, glaring at the pencil she tried to push into my hand. “No, you’re not. Now stop whining and just look. All I want you to do is find the slope of the line.” When I only blinked, she rolled her eyes and redrew the graph at the top of a blank sheet of loose-leaf paper. “Just pick out two points on the line, and divide their coordinates like this-“ No matter how many times she explained it, no matter how many different ways, none of it made sense. Spending four years in various states of elsewhereness had made it difficult to focus on things like math. There were too many variables, too many things happening at once. Too many formulas to memorize and rules to remember. I missed dance. I missed the easy rhythm, the way I could move one way or another and it was never wrong. I missed glee club. I missed the way they rallied behind one another when things went wrong. I missed… well, I missed a lot of things. I drifted in and out of focus, only half-listening as she tried once again to explain. I further complicated matters by catching the first or last things she was saying, then missing steps in the process of trying to replicate her method. I could hear the frustration in her voice as she crumpled up one example sheet after another and threw them aside. I could feel it, gathering low in my belly and creeping up into my chest. She was trying, I was not. She knew it, I knew it. But no amount of solving for x could give me what I really wanted. “Just stop,” I spat as she tried uselessly to pull my attention to the now-solved equation on the table in front of me. “This is pointless. I’m just stupid. Accept it and let’s move on.” She glowered, lowering the pencil and reaching for my hand. Despite my anger and frustration, I let her take it.

“No,” she countered sharply, punctuating it with a squeeze to my fingers. “You stop. You’re not stupid, you’re not dumb. You can do this, you just need to relax. Take your time. I know you probably think that you can just jump back into the way things were before, that you’re off the drugs and things will immediately be normal, but that’s not how it works. There’s no quick fix for addiction, and everything that comes with recovery. Schoolwork included.” Her words would have been calming, but they began to fade as the hand on top of mine started to move. Her thumb came to rest against the knuckles of my left hand, and as she spoke about recovery, the thumb slid carefully – protectively – back and forth across my skin. That rubbing thing she knew I couldn’t resist… I ripped my hand away from hers and stood with enough force to knock the dining room chair over with a crash. Where her thumb had been there remained a white-hot burn, creeping outward until I wanted to rip my entire arm off. The tingling sensation I’d once felt while coming down off my high that radiated from my chest now came up my limb. It moved with the slow, purposeful creep of a lava flow: unstoppable and horrifying. I stared at my palm, now so foreign and not my own. I hadn’t felt that – the helplessness of my limbs betraying me – since I’d left Lima. The force of recoil sent Erica from her chair, eyes wide and hands up, defensive and conciliatory. I saw nothing but the burn, things flashing white as I backed away from her in terror, clutching the alien hand at my wrist and holding it away from me, willing any sensation but that one. The one that reminded me so vividly of what I’d left behind. What I’d lost. “Brittany, I-“ She reached out to me, fear mixed with confusion crossing the softness of her features. I waved her hand away and took another step back, putting my overturned chair between us. “Don’t,” I said, the sharp hiss of my voice revealing an anger I wasn’t aware I had. Anger at her, for being to obliviously kind. At myself, for a whole slew of other things, not the least of which was allowing her to get close enough to make me burn like this to begin with. It only burned when I cared. “Please,” she begged, frozen in place now. “Please, I don’t understand. What happened? What did I do?” Nothing, I thought. You’ve done nothing wrong. It’s me. I’m wrong. It’s all wrong. “I can’t…” I murmured. “You can’t…” She noticed how I held my arm, slightly away from myself, as though it was infected. My hand hung limp from my wrist, and she gulped.

“Is this because I…” She shifted her eyes between me and my hand. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I know you’ve-“ “You don’t know!” It burst from my chest like a gunshot, loud and fast and with deadly accuracy. It struck her in the heart and she staggered. “You don’t fucking know! You can’t come in here and think you understand. You’ll never… you can’t.” She didn’t move, eyes on the floor, taking her undeserved beating in martyr-like silence. “I was trying to-“ “Well, fucking don’t, then.” She winced and I screamed at myself to stop, that she wasn’t to blame. But I’d spent months avoiding this. Avoiding talking about it because it hurt too much, even after I’d left Lima. There was no escaping it, escaping her. It had built up, the pain of leaving and being left. I needed release, and Erica was the only person in the crosshairs. I expected her to cry, to take my stinging words and flee. I thought I’d never see her again, and that would have been both a blessing and a curse. But she stood her ground and let the words echo off the walls, breathing deeply through her nose. “If you think this is going to make me run away,” she said quietly, neither of us looking at the other. “You seriously need to reevaluate your strategy.” It was a challenge wrapped up so politely that I almost grinned. I countered the feeling with flared nostrils, my brain fighting with itself as I tried to figure out whether I wanted her to stay or go. She was just so overwhelmingly there, so in my face and calm and never backing down. She was never afraid. She was everything I was not. “You couldn’t even begin to imagine the things Charlie said to me the first few months he was getting clean,” she said with a more confident shrug, as though she was used to the abuse. My heart lurched at the thought of her being so nonchalant about it, knowing that I was inflicting the same pain. She didn’t deserve that. “So this little tantrum you’re having isn’t going to make me leave. I don’t know what it’s about, but I’m here if you ever feel like telling me.” She sat back down at my dining room table and neatly arranged the strewn pages of math problems, placing them in the space where I’d been before sliding the pencil toward me. It was a silent invitation, and as she went through the motions, I felt my racing pulse slow. I watched her, and she, in turn, watched me. There was no expectation there. She didn’t know how I would respond, and that didn’t scare her. She just waited, patient as always, and watched.

“I’m sorry,” I said, still standing by the overturned chair. “I-It’s not you.” She nodded, agreeing, but said nothing. It was infuriating for all the wrong reasons. “Maybe you should go.” It was all I could think to say, even though it was the last thing I wanted. “If that’s really what you want.” She didn’t get up, challenging me once again. I thought about what she had told me before, about lies. I thought about Charlie. I really didn’t want her to leave, and that – the trust I was building – was terrifying. I bit my lip and looked at the ground. “Do you want to talk about it?” I shook my head, a gut reaction. “No… Yes. I don’t know. I wouldn’t know where to start.” Erica got up slowly, approaching with caution and setting the fallen chair upright. “How about you sit,” she said. “And we’ll start from there?” Waiting until she had safely returned to her seat, I took mine and stared at the blank pages in front of me. I picked up the pencil and began to doodle, never looking at her as the soft graphite swirls turned into poor renditions of eyes I hadn’t looked into in months. The memory of them was fading, and I pressed a little harder, hoping the force of it would create a picture that was more accurate than my untrained hand could produce. It didn’t work. “She used to do that,” I said to the sketched eyes looking up at me. “That thing you did with my hand. You reminded me, and I’d thought I’d forgotten.” There were a few moments of silence before she spoke. I could hear the way her voice cracked, trying to hide the hurt there. “Who was she?” “My best friend. I loved her.” Love her, I corrected, but not out loud. Never out loud. “But we messed each other up.” She didn’t respond, and I glanced up to find she was no longer looking at me. My chest ached. “Do you think it’s possible to love someone too much?” She chewed on her lower lip, playing with the corner of one of the pages while she thought. “Yes,” she returned, folding and unfolding the paper. “If you lose sight of yourself in order to be with someone else, it’s too much.” I didn’t understand how she could put everything so simply while still encompassing the full breadth of my relationship. She knew nothing, but at the same time had more perspective on it than I had after eight years of endless emotional toiling. It caught me by surprise, but my cheeks burned and I realized I was crying.

“Did she love you, too?” It was an innocent question, but the way she asked was guarded, like she didn’t want to know the answer. “Yes,” I said, swallowing the thickness in my mouth as it went dry. “Too much.” I swiped the back of my hand across my eyes. We’d never found a balance. We’d lost ourselves. In each other, in drugs, in lies. Her hand twitched, wanting to reach out, but she stopped herself. I looked at it, hanging there, desperate to be of use, and I felt a tug. I slipped my fingers into hers and the only thing that hurt was my chest with the aching need for kindness, for comfort. She was grateful for the gesture, squeezing gently and at last looking up. “What was her name?” She kept using the past tense, as though she could help the moving-on process by referring to her as though she was dead. But she wasn’t, and maybe that hurt more than if she had been. Knowing she was still out there, and I wasn’t with her. “Santana,” I said, each syllable a welcomed lit match on the tip of my tongue. “Her name is Santana.” Three Months Earlier – June From: Kurt E. Hummel <kurtelizabethhummel@gmail.com> To: BrittBritt Pierce <bsp1994@gmail.com> Subject: Thought you’d like to know… She smiled today. It was our last day of classes, and she smiled and gave me a hug. Come home. From: BrittBritt Pierce <bsp1994@gmail.com> To: Kurt E. Hummel <kurtelizabethhummel@gmail.com> Subject: RE:Thought you’d like to know… Please, Kurt. I need you to stop. Following the five-hour equivalency exam at the beginning of June, I spent lazy weekdays at the community pool with Erica while I waited for the results, and evenings with Charlie at meetings and the park. Weekends, though, were family time. Once Courtney was released from school, our father took us everywhere he could think of in order to occupy her and, in turn, me. She begged for Cedar Point, so we spent three days in Sandusky. She asked to see monkeys, so he drove us to Cincinnati. I couldn’t ask for what I wanted, so I remained content to take Courtney’s happiness and make it my own. At least Dad was there, spending time with us, trusting me. Or trying, anyway.

“Where are we going today?!” Courtney came screeching into the kitchen on a hot Saturday morning, energy unbounded and limitless. I envied her. Sharon looked up from her newspaper and smiled happily. She hadn’t stopped hating me, but by that point she’d grown passive about it. We ignored one another and Dad was complacent enough to let that go. “You and I are taking Wes out to the Children’s museum,” she said, sugary sweet with a small hint of disdain that told me I was not invited. Courtney, always astute, narrowed her eyes. “What about Brittany?” “Yeah,” I chimed in, mockingly offended, pulling Courtney into my lap. “What about me?” They couldn’t have paid me to spend the day alone with Sharon. My stepmother smiled falsely, looking at Courtney and shaking her head. “Brittany is expecting a visitor today. She’s staying home.” “Wait, what?” I asked, realizing that plans had been made for me without my knowledge. “Since when?” The plates clattered angrily in the sink and she turned on the water, rinsing them before beginning to pile things into the dishwasher. “Talk to your father.” The two of them had gone out of their way to ensure that whoever was visiting did so unannounced, and that could have meant one of two things: it was someone I didn’t want to see, or someone I desperately did. Either way, I walked out of the kitchen terrified. I found my father in the dilapidated garage twenty yards behind the house, scratching his head over the rusted blade of the lawnmower. He saw me coming and his cheeks rouged. “Who’s coming here?” I didn’t have the patience for pleasantries. I was prepared to call Erica or Charlie for an escape if I needed to. He let out a long breath, the buttons on his shirt straining as he stretched. “She called last week. Asked if it would be okay to stop by. I didn’t see the harm.” “But who is it?” He was being vague, infuriatingly so, and I glared. “She’s-“ he began, but a voice from behind us cut him off, and we both turned. “Here.” Standing in the driveway, sunglasses shielding her eyes and track suit immaculate as ever, was Sue Sylvester. “Mr. Pierce, I’d like to talk to Brittany alone.”

She was blunt, verging on the point of rude. She hadn’t even said hello, and she was standing there, ordering him away. He hadn’t been around in Lima to know how Sue worked, so he frowned, crossing his arms, determined to say something. I put my hand on this bicep and shook my head, watching her carefully as she waited. He looked down at me, then back at Sue, one eyebrow cocked and suspicious. “I’ll be right inside,” he muttered, bitter at being kicked out of his own backyard. “Holler if you need me.” My eyes followed his trail back into the house through the back door, leaving his shoes on the cement patio. Once he was gone, I stood awkwardly, waiting for Sue to speak. “You don’t look like him,” she noted without emotion. “With a father like that, I would have assumed you’d be a little chubbier.” I sneered and she slipped her sunglasses from the bridge of her nose. “What exactly do you want, Sue?” “No need for that tone,” she shrugged, a sarcastic smile creeping across her face. “I was trying to pay you a compliment. And from Sue Sylvester, that’s the equivalent of the Midas Touch. Appreciate it.” Rolling my eyes, I pushed past her and made my way toward the house. The last thing I needed was this woman – the catalyst to several of the more incidental problems in my life – insulting me. She didn’t try to stop me as I nudged her roughly out of the way, but the heavy sigh I heard escape her lungs stilled me. Sue Sylvester doesn’t sigh. She doesn’t even breathe. She’d told us once that breathing was for the weak, and it alerted your enemies to your whereabouts, so she’d trained herself not to. I’d believed her once. Then, with her standing so surprisingly in my backyard in Akron, I didn’t believe anything I’d once thought to be true about her. “Why are you here?” I asked, turn in the grass, still dewy from the morning’s cool fog. “What do you want?” Sue stood straighter than she usually did, her back stiff and her shoulders high. She was unsure, her eyes giving away the apprehension she was trying to hide. She almost looked vulnerable. I remembered that day in her office, when she’d seen through me, and I softened the glare I gave her. “I want you back on the Cheerios,” she said, the unflappable demand in her tone broken by a flicker in her eyes. “Come September, I expect you back on my squad. I need you for Nationals.” This wasn’t about the Cheerios, and we both knew it. It was an excuse, at best, and a poor one. “You seem to have done okay without me. You still took the title.”

“With Santana leading the squad, it was a given,” she shrugged, her words minced together in an almost painfully awkward way, like she was trying to clip her usual derogatory tone and failing. “I should have given her the head cheerleader spot at the beginning of the year. She’s a workhorse, that one.” Something inside me snapped. Now she realized what Santana was capable of. Now she qualified all the work she had done. Now she recognized the effort. It could have been avoided. Finn, Santana, all of it. We would have gone on as we had been and it would have been okay. Maybe not for long, but at least we would have been together. Rage simmered over and I launched myself at her, only to have her strong, wiry hands catch my wrists before they could pummel her. Here, she didn’t flinch. Not as I flailed against her, and not as my father came running out, pulling me back. “I think you should go,” he hissed at Sue while I wailed and lashed out. She pressed her thin lips together and looked at the ground. “That’s not what I came here to do,” she said, not moving while I seethed in my father’s arms. “I didn’t come here to upset you.” “Well, you’re doing a fine job of it anyway,” Dad sniped, his strong arm around my torso, holding me to his chest. I felt his steady, even pulse against my back and it calmed me, the rage subsiding but the anger still there, hatred of this woman the only thing on my mind. “I just wanted to tell you that…” She paused, clenching her hands at her sides and thinking very carefully about her words. “That I was wrong to ask you to do the things I asked of you.” “So you came to clear your conscience,” I spat, relaxing in Dad’s arms. He loosened his grip and set me down, but kept a firm hand on my shoulder, holding me in place. Sue shook her head, pinching the bridge of her nose. “No, I came to clear yours. What happened between you and Santana was my fault, and I feel responsible. I want you to understand that I should have done more to help you. Both of you. I failed, not you.” The hand on my shoulder clamped hard as I tensed, the only thing keeping me from lunging at Sue once more. My lip curled into a snarl and I felt myself growl like a feral dog. “What the fuck do you know about what happened between us?” Again, her lips pursed tight, like she had a secret to keep. She didn’t want to tell me, but another rumble in my throat changed her mind. “After you left, Santana was on her own,” she explained. “For some reason, she came to me. At first I told her to get over your little Sapphic romance, there were other dumb blonde fish in the sea.”

At this my father tightened, defensive on my behalf. Sue put up a hand, asking for another moment to finish the story, but he stood behind me, guarded and ready. “But she told me about your… your problem, Brittany.” She stopped and set her shoulders back rigidly, reaffirming her resolve. “I asked you about that long before you left, and you never said a word. So I kept listening. And then, after I while, I couldn’t really stop listening.” She adjusted her feet in the grass and tried to be casual by wiping the lenses of her sunglasses clean with a tissue from her pocket. “I know how you must think of me,” she continued, staring at the reflective frames, seeing herself in them and grimacing almost indiscernibly. “You probably think I’m a monster for what I asked you to do. But I did care – do care – about you. And Santana. Especially Santana. I got her help, after you left. What little I could give to her wasn’t enough. I guess that’s why I’m here. To let you know that she’s getting help. And that I’m sorry.” I was so thankful when she stopped speaking. When there was silence, I could think. There was no more rage, or anger. I was lighter, the weights in my arms loosening because I knew that Santana was healing, like I was healing. But at the same time, there was no forgiveness for Sue Sylvester. Apathy, perhaps. I couldn’t hate her, but neither did I want to invest enough energy into convincing her that her sins were in the past, either. I just wanted her to leave. “Have a nice drive back to Lima, Sue,” I said, and my father let go of me. I brushed past her, feeling her stiffen, and walked into the house without looking back. My body moved me instinctually to the phone, and I dialed a familiar number. “Erica?” I pleaded into the receiver. “Can you come get me?” Two Months Earlier – July From: Kurt E. Hummel <kurtelizabethhummel@gmail.com> To: BrittBritt Pierce <bsp1994@gmail.com> Subject: (no subject) Santana’s mom left. Thought you oughta know. I wish you’d email me back. I hate not knowing that you’re okay. The fireworks had long since died down, leaving only the faintest trace of phosphoric smoke lingering in the air. It mixed with the smoke from the wood in the fire pit, creating a thin gray curtain between Erica and I. We sat together in my backyard, feet propped up on logs while we reclined in our lawn chairs. It was a lot later than we’d planned on being up, but the clear night sky had kept us both out, staring. “What’s that one?” I asked, pointing heavenward and guiding her eye line to a particularly dense cluster of stars in the northern sky.

“Cassiopeia,” she said confidently, raising her arm next to mine and trace a “W” in the stars. “The upside down Queen.” I grinned, imagining a stately royal woman upended forever in the sky, red-faced and clinging to her crown. “What about that one?” My arm fell to the south, and once again she followed my finger with her eyes. “Lupus, the wolf.” She leaned back in her chair and shivered against the chill that had settled in as the fire died. Instinctively, I got up and pulled my chair closer to hers, draping a blanket across both our laps. I kicked her feet over to make room on her log, leaning my shoulder into hers. She leaned back and grinned. “Thanks.” “Where’d you learn all this?” I asked, feeling her rustle to get comfortable next to me. “Akron South has an astronomy club,” she said, as though it were the most normal thing in the world to be in the astronomy club. “Freshman year I liked this girl who was in it, so…” I snorted and rolled my eyes, and she smacked me under the blanket, indignant. “You do strange things when you like people, don’t even try to pull that with me!” “Like get addicted to drugs?” I set my face in a solemn expression, only too happy to make her squirm. Even in the white light of the moon, I saw her pale. “I didn’t- that’s not what I meant.” I kicked her foot again playfully. “I know. I’m kidding. It’s okay to have a sense of humor about it, you know. Step 7 is about removing our shortcomings. One of mine is taking the past too seriously. So I’m kidding. Relax.” The color returned to her face as she leaned her head against the back of her chair and turned to give me a wide, relieved smile. “Charlie should be really proud of you,” she commented idly, and under the thick wool blanket I felt a brush of her hand against mine. I giggled nervously and wrapped my fingers tight around the plastic arm of the chair. “He sure as hell better be proud.” I tried to hide the crack in my voice as my stomach flipped, her index finger grazing the side of my hand once more. “I worked my ass off for him.” “I’m proud of you, too, you know.” Both of us sat still, listening to the whir of insects around us. I blushed bright and hoped that it was masked by the darkness. “Yeah?” She nodded and smiled. “Yeah. And even if you decide to go back to Lima in the fall, I want you to know I’m here for you.”

I bit the inside of my cheek, turning to the smoldering coals in the fire pit in front of us. “I don’t know what I want to do yet.” I sat forward, the barely-there touches of her finger against my hand a faint memory as I leaned over and tossed a bundle of kindling into the coals, watching it light in the heat. She pondered as the flames ate away at the dried twigs, then balled up the newspaper at her feet and tossed that in as well. “Your coach offered you a spot back on the cheerleading squad,” she reminded me, matching the way I leaned my elbows on my knees, our faces beginning to warm against the growing fire. “All your friends are back in Lima. You could dance again.” “I have friends here,” I scolded, reaching over to squeeze her knee. I realized only a moment later that maybe it was too much. She tucked her chin to her chest and fluttered her lashes bashfully. “And I can dance here, too.” “I’m just saying you have a lot of reasons to go back.” Erica took my original gesture and built on it, resting her hand on my leg and leaving it there. “There’s also one big reason not to go back,” I countered, avoiding using Santana’s name, as though it was a sore subject for Erica. Really, it was a sore subject for me. She shrugged, her shoulders deflating a little. “Well, if you need a reason to stay, rather than just a reason not to go back…” She trailed off, biting her lower lip, her hand hot against the bare skin below the hem of my shorts. “What?” I asked, nudging her knee with mine. Her hand tightened as I moved, and I fell still against it. “What’s to stay here for?” Erica lifted her chin, those big green eyes blinking wide and bright against the flickering fire. Her hand moved from my leg to reach down where my own dangled uselessly. She wrapped her fingers around mine, pulling them both into her lap. She ran her thumb over the long crease in the center of my palm, tracing the lifeline before leaning in and arching. Her body came up off her chair as she pressed her torso to mine, our linked hands between us while her empty one came up to my cheek, cupping it. My racing heart was the only thing that didn’t slow as she paused, our noses touching, mouths open and breathing hard. I licked my lips, my eyes searching hers. “What’s to stay for?” I asked again, the heat of my own breath lingering in the space between us. She swallowed, blinking slowly, so her lids stayed shut for a full second before opening, clearer than before. Her face came forward and there was a jolt as her mouth connected with mine, hot and hard and wet. Her tongue darted out, parting my lips. I melted into it, and the only burn I felt was the burn of the heat from the fire.

“Me,” she whispered into my mouth. “Stay for me.” One Month Earlier – August From: Kurt E. Hummel <kurtelizabethhummel@gmail.com> To: BrittBritt Pierce <bsp1994@gmail.com> Subject: (no subject) [Are you sure you want to delete this unread message?] [OK] The heels of her hands pushed insistently against the bones jutting out of my hips. Her fingers dug into my sides, guiding me backward to my bed. She crept forward on her toes while I bent so our lips could meet. I giggled as we both tripped over our feet and she fell on top of me, flat on my back in the rumpled sheets. "Shhhh," I hissed as she let out peal of laughter. "Shhh, my parents are home..." She silenced us both with her mouth, pressing lips against lips roughly and bringing her knees up to straddle my hips. Her hands found mine and she wound our fingers together before pushing them over my head and pinning me. I rocked my hips up into her heat and she moaned into my tongue. "Fuck," she murmured, separating us and tossing her hair - now cropped around her chin - so she sat upright, rocking gently on top of me. "You're overdressed." "You too," I smirked, the tips of my fingers grazing her sensitive sides. I watched her squirm at my touch a moment before pushing her shirt over her head and pulling her down to kiss me again. I unsnapped her bra, the clasp giving easily against my years of practice. She freed herself of it and tossed it aside, and I immediately latched my hands to her chest. Her breasts were small, barely enough to fill my hand, and her nipples were pert and pink beneath my thumbs as I pinched them. She grunted into my mouth and yanked back, pulling at the hem of my shirt until I sat up and she could pull it off me. I wrapped my hand around the back of her neck, fisting the hair there and crashing our lips together while she ground her hips down on me. My arm wound around the small of her back and pulled our bare stomachs together, breasts flush before I flipped us. She landed on her back, my pelvis nested between her thighs. "Who knew you were a top," she giggled, her teeth crushed into my lips. "I kinda like it..." "There's a lot you don't know about me," I teased, kneeling and playing with the button of her jeans. She bucked her hips into my hands and wriggled loose from her pants. "So teach me." She chewed on her lower lip, lids heavy. As the confining denim slipped over her raised rear, I let out

a low, anxious breath. "You are so..." I trailed off, not sure of what I was allowed to say. We had made rules, after all. No strings. No pet names. No emotional affectations. No sex. Well, that one was flexible. I had the program to think about. Recovery was a deservedly selfish process. There was a reason they said you shouldn't be in a relationship in the first year. You can't devote yourself to someone else when you can barely devote yourself to your own well being. We were friends. We both wanted more, but it was too soon. We needed boundaries. The rules were supposed to help us keep them. It seemed that we had stopped caring about the rules so much, though. "We can stop..." she mumbled, but the way she said it assured me that I wouldn't take her up on the offer. It had been so long, and I thought I needed it. "No." I lifted her legs by the ankles and yanked her jeans off, letting her calves fall against my shoulders. My hands rested on her thighs and I dusted the tips of my fingers along the interior, making her shiver. "Britt..." she moaned, and I pressed a kiss to the inside of her right knee. I bent, sliding down and trailing my lips against the smooth skin on the interior of her thigh, hands shaking as I made my way closer to"Britt, are you here?" The bedroom door swung wide and in its place stood my father, in his pajamas and mouth agape. "Shit!" I cursed and rolled off of Erica before yanking a thin sheet over her. I reached for the only thing I could find to cover myself: her bra. His face flushed and he immediately turned around, thick fingers digging into the doorjamb. "Dad, don't you knock?!" "This is my house," he gruffed, coughing out the words like his throat tried to choke them down. "And you haven't earned the right to keep this door shut." "Mr. Pierce, I'm so sorry," Erica began, holding the sheet tightly around her chest as roses bloomed in her cheeks. "Save it, Erica. Get dressed, both of you." He walked out into the dark hallway, leaving us to fumble in our humiliation. I tossed her the bra I still clenched in my hand and she groaned, flopping into my pillows. "I'm so stupid," she mumbled, slipping back into her clothes. "I should have listened to Charlie."

"Be quiet," I scolded. "You didn't force this on me. Come on. Get ready for a lecture." Out in the living room, Dad rocked in his recliner in silence. We sat across from him side by side on the couch, hands in our laps, guilty. We waited for the yelling to begin, but he folded his fingers together and set his lips tight. Erica and I exchanged confused side glances, heads down, and from the chair my father sighed. "It's not my place to yell at you, Erica," he said, sitting up straighter and checking his watch. "And I am not equipped to deal with what I just saw on my own. So Charlie will be here in ten minutes. Until he arrives, I want you both to think about all the ways you've broken our trust tonight." While Erica buried her face in her hands in anticipation of Charlie's arrival, I just gaped. My father was, for the first time and at the most inopportune moment, acting like a father. Getting upset over that then, when he was finally doing his job, seemed out of place. So I sat quietly until the front door burst open and a blast of warm night air followed Charlie into the living room. “What the fuck?!” It wasn’t the best entrance he could have made, but it made the point, and Erica winced. “Charlie, I-“ He waved me off and looked at Erica, who played with her shirt sleeve and refused to lift her head. “Erica? Seriously, now is not the time to get all passive.” “I just wanted to-“ “What?” he shouted at her, once not waiting for either of us to finish a sentence. “She’s an addict, Erica. A recovering addict. You of all people should understand the ramifications of getting involved with someone in her condition.” Dad sat quietly in his chair, watching, blinking. He made no move to intercede. I stood on Erica’s behalf and stepped between her and her brother, whose face was a shade of purple I hadn’t seen on a human being before. “Can you please stop talking about me like I’m not here?” I asked, and he took a step back, to run his hand through his shaggy hair in frustration. “It’s not all her fault, Charlie.” “She knows better!” he bellowed. “She understands what its like, what the limitations of an addict are. I know you think you’re feeling great right now. You made it this far and you think you’re invincible. But the greatest number of relapses happen within the first year of recovery. And you don’t need another reason to go back to that.” “I’m sorry,” Erica said, muffled by the hands over her face, and Charlie huffed loudly.

“Go home, Erica.” He was firm, almost parental. “I’ll call you tomorrow to talk about this.” She made to get up and I reached out, grabbing her wrist and holding. “Wait a second.” I glared at Charlie and he returned the look with equal fervor. “You’re a sponsor, Charlie, not a prison guard. And you’re my sponsor, not hers. You don’t get a final say in how either of us lives our lives.” “But you respect him enough to listen to his opinion.” Dad finally spoke from his armchair, and we all turned to look at him, his arms folded in contemplation. “You understand that he knows this process better than you do and what works and what doesn’t. You trust him to tell you the truth to help you, and not because he wants to hurt you.” No one said anything, but Charlie gave Dad a grateful nod. It was not an easy thing for my father to say, knowing that Charlie understood his daughter better than he did. It must have been a difficult call to make. He put aside his pride to hand he reigns over to someone else, someone who could handle the situation with a more familiar hand. Not that he didn’t like Charlie, but no father likes knowing that he’s not capable of helping his children. He was hurt, more than anything, that my problems were beyond his realm of control. “Well?” he prompted, and I looked at the floor. “Yes,” I said. “I trust him.” Dad grumbled as he got to his feet. “Then maybe you should stop fighting him and him help you.” He left the room without another word, carrying himself up the stairs on creaky joints. “Maybe I should go.” Erica slipped her wrist from my grasp and pulled her zip-up over her arms, obviously unhappy with the situation. There was a pang in my chest that I realized was me agreeing with her. Charlie stood quietly, eyeing Erica and me. She seemed conflicted, unsure of whether or not she ought to leave. It was apparent to both of us that Charlie was going to have this conversation whether she was in the room or not, and neither of us were comfortable with what we knew he was going to say. "Stay," I murmured, brushing her wrist with my fingers, and she stilled. "Fine." Charlie sat in the chair my father had vacated and I returned to the couch, pulling Erica down with me. "Do the two of you understand why Daniel was upset tonight?" I nodded, Erica just shrugged. She knew perfectly well why Dad was upset, but it was apparent that she didn't deal with conflict well. "Maybe we shouldn't have done this here," I offered, but Charlie rolled his eyes. "You shouldn't have been doing that at all. What were you thinking? How long has this been

going on?" Again, Erica only shrugged. "Tonight was - would have been - the first time. But I kissed her after the Fourth of July party." Charlie let out a low whistle and shook his head. "When you fuck up, you fuck up big, Er." "Dont put this all on her," I scolded, inadvertently squeezing her hand in the process. "I wanted this just as much as she did. I thought that..." What? What had I thought? That I needed her? Was she a filler? Some kind of replacement or consolation prize? I liked Erica. A lot, actually. But her hand in mine didn't feel like the perfect fit I'd grown used to. It didn't feel wrong, but neither was it entirely right. Like someone else had worn my favorite shirt and stretched it out in the process. It was still my favorite, but somehow it wasn't the same. "I'm happy, Charlie," I said when I couldn’t think of anything else that would explain why I'd done what I'd done. "For the first time in months, I'm happy. What kind of a rule is it if it leaves me worse off than I was before?" "The kind that keeps you sober," he countered. "You're vulnerable to a lot of things when you're learning how to be you again. With someone else in the picture, especially someone as strong as Erica, you risk losing pieces of yourself to their influence." I flicked my eyes over to Erica, but she was staring at our hands, playing with her cuticles. "The last thing that I want is for you to be unhappy." He looked pointedly at Erica, leaning over to tap her knee to get her attention. "Either of you. And I'm not going to tell you that you can’t do this. But I want you think really hard about what you want out of your recovery. Who are you going to be a year from now? What you decide right now could be a big factor in that person. So... Think about it. Come on, Erica. Let's go." She lifted her chin and looked at me, waiting. The decision for her to leave was not Charlie’s to make, and she was relying on me to make it instead. She was giving me the way out, if I needed it, if I wanted it. I wasn’t sure that I did, though. I wasn’t sure of anything. All I knew was that Erica made me smile when nothing else in the last six months could, and it wasn’t something I was ready to let go of. But how could I, in good conscience, ignore Charlie’s warnings? “You should go,” I said softly, looking her directly in the eye. “But I’m going to call you tomorrow, okay?” The fear that had flickered across her face for an instant dissolved, and she understood. I was compromising. We couldn’t do this – sex, intimacy, et cetera – when I was still trying to figure

myself out. But I wasn’t going to just let what we had go, either. She squeezed my hand with a tiny smile, and got to her feet. “Okay,” she said. “Talk to you tomorrow.” She pulled her keys from her pocket as I walked them both to the front door. She stood lightly on her toes and pecked my cheek, making me blush in front of Charlie. She shot him a defiant look as she stepped out onto the porch and headed to her car, leaving me with my sponsor in the entryway. “I’m sorry, Charlie.” I watched her pull away, waving out her window as she went, and there was more than remorse squatting in my chest. “It kind of just happened. I don’t know what I could have done differently to prevent it. What could I have done?” He shrugged, shoulders drooping in resignation. He’d understood my compromise just fine, but he had been hoping I’d simply give in and admit that he was right. I wasn’t quite sure that he was so, for the moment, calling Erica the next day was the best he could ask from me, and he knew it. “Don’t ask me what you could have done differently then. Ask yourself what you can do right now.” Charlie wrapped a massive arm around my shoulders and pulled me into a suffocating hug, his hand on the back of my head, ruffling my hair. He held me longer than he usually did and then, to my surprise, planted a quick kiss on my forehead. “You’re an amazing kid, Britt,” he said, a twinge of regret lacing his tone. “But I wonder if you have patterns that you fall into because you’re more comfortable letting someone else tell you who you need to be than figuring it out for yourself.” He let me go and lumbered down the walkway, leaving me to ask myself whether I’d ever known who I was at all. Present Day – September The final bell rang at quarter to three, and I darted out into the hallway, slinging my bag over my shoulder. I hurtled toward the new locker I’d been assigned. Having never really carried books to class before, I hadn’t been prepared for the weight they added to my backpack, and my shoulders ached as I pushed through the eager crowds out into the parking lot, where Erica stood by her car. “One day down,” she called as I jogged up, grinning stupidly. “Only 179 to go.” “If every day goes like today, I don’t even care.” I let out a happy sigh and slid into her passenger seat. She turned the car over with a quiet rumble and eyed me as she adjusted her mirrors. “That good, huh? Well, I’m glad someone had a great start. Calculus is going to kick my ass.”

“If you can teach me geometry without spontaneously combusting,” I reminded her, putting my hand on top of hers on the shifter. “Then you can make it through calculus.” She grinned, blushing at the compliment, and pulled out of the parking lot, dodging the pedestrian traffic as she went. “The teacher already gave us homework, though.” She turned right onto the main road through town, heading toward my house instead of hers. “Which means I’m just dropping you off. Then back to my batcave to solve world hunger through advanced placement math. Or something.” I giggled as she took another right turn, followed by a left, then came to an idle in front of my house. I smirked and leaned over the center console, meaning to give her a kiss goodbye. Out the driver’s side window, something caught my eye and I stopped. The kind of car that most certainly didn’t belong in this type of neighborhood was parked across the street. While I looked out her window, Erica was busy looking over my shoulder and out of mine. “Britt…” Her voice came out in a hushed, horrified whisper. I didn’t want to turn, but she tapped my shoulder and pointed. I shifted back to my seat and looked, my hands shaking. There on my front porch, smiling, sat Santana.

25

And This Is the Wonder That's Keeping the Stars Apart

It blindsided me. Not that she was there, or that she looked good, healthy even. It was that smile. Santana sat on the stoop, overdressed in one of the tight skirts she’d taken to wearing when we weren’t in uniform. Her heeled boots emphasized how long her legs were, stopping at her knee. Despite the attire, she didn’t seem uncomfortable on the porch, leaning on the heels of her hands. She didn’t get up. She just sat, legs extended in front of her and crossed at the ankles, and smiled. “Is that…?” Erica’s voice trembled. “Yeah. That’s Santana.” Her fingers grazed my wrist, wanting to hold me back, keep me from leaving the car, but I was already halfway out the door. I ignored the twinge of guilt in my gut. I didn’t notice how quickly behind me she followed, but as my feet carried me weightlessly up the front walk, I felt her presence not far behind. I stopped far enough away from Santana that Erica maneuvered up beside me, half her body in front of mine protectively. I touched her arm and stepped around her without waiting for what I knew would be a painful look. And still, Santana did nothing but smile. She smiled when she stood, smiled when she brushed off the back of her dress, smiled when she wiped her hands on her thighs. She smiled when she held out her hand, and smiled when said cocked her head kindly and said, “Hi, I’m Santana. It’s nice to meet you.” And it was strange, because when she said it, she wasn’t looking at Erica. She was looking at me. I furrowed my brow, glancing between Santana, her outstretched hand and Erica. “San, what are y-“ “Hi,” she repeated, nudging her open palm closer. “My name is Santana. It’s nice to meet you.” She was patient, waiting, watching. She hadn’t even acknowledged Erica, standing just behind me and not quite glaring, but certainly not happy about the person standing there with her hand out, expectant. It seemed so odd, that smile on her face, the sentence she repeated before she’d said another word to me. Seven months apart, and the first thing she did was act like we’d never even met. But Santana always had a reason. So I trusted her. I reached out and put my hand in hers.

The burn I anticipated never came. Instead of a searing wound, there was an electrical current. It ran through her slender wrist, down her palm to the tips of her fingers, brushing so delicately across mine that I almost didn’t realize how badly she was shaking. It surged through my hand, up the length of my arm, tingling against every nerve in my body. She caught my eye and held it there, the smile breaking for just a moment. I held her tighter, trying to calm her tremor while grounding myself against the current. That’s how you avoid getting struck by lightning, right? Ground yourself? I was told that didn’t happen twice, not in the same place, not to the same person. But here she was, her hand in mine, and I was struck. How could I have ever thought that anyone else existed? “I don’t understand,” I said, pulling my hand away regretfully. The current was making my thoughts foggy. She looked down at the palm that had once held mine and shook it out, feeling the surge as well. But still, she smiled. “Clean slate, B,” she said, curling the shaking hand into a fist at her side. “Tabula rasa, remember?” Erica inched her way forward, once again putting her body between Santana and I. Santana’s eyes flicked to her for the first time, and the smile faltered. Her full upper lip righted itself almost instantly, but her eyes still blinked back what I thought was fear. I saw my old Santana there, hunkered down and waiting for the façade to crack enough that she could slip through. The old Santana that was too scared to talk about feelings, that wanted acceptance and normalcy, that certainly wasn’t gay. But the old Santana that loved me. Too much. “San…” I didn’t know what I wanted to say, but her name on my tongue felt unfamiliar. I tripped over it, stopping and looking at her, hoping she’d fill in the confused blanks. I shrank back, allowing myself be scared while Santana tried to be strong. “Kurt told me he wrote to you,” she said, clenching and unclenching the hand I’d held. “You seem surprised to see me, though. I thought he might have warned you I was coming.” I remembered the email I’d deleted without reading, unsure of whether or not him telling me would have changed things. Would I have told him to ask her not to come? Would warning have readied me for her sitting on my porch? How do you prepare yourself to be struck by lightning? I could still feel the tingling in my nerves, something akin to goosebumps, but on the inside of my body. That, and the way she looked at me – like she was trapped at the bottom of a well, and I was the ladder – reassured me of one thing. I would have given anything to see her again, even if it was just once, to say goodbye.

“He wrote,” I confirmed, not mentioning the deleted email. “He didn’t say anything about you visiting in the emails I read, though.” Not a lie, but neither entirely true. Erica nudged me with her hip and I immediately felt guilty. Pleasantries aside, we had nothing left to say. Nothing that wasn’t I miss you. I love you. Come back to me. So we said nothing, shuffling our feet. Erica, not one to withstand an awkward silence, shoved fully between me and Santana. She stuck her hand out, mimicking what Santana had done a moment before. “We haven’t met,” she said forcefully. “I’m Erica. Brittany’s… friend.” She pointedly emphasized ‘friend’ as though trying to imply something, and the reaction she received was appropriate. Santana winced, glancing at me either for permission to shake the offending hand, or for confirmation that the implication was true. I gave her neither, blushing and toeing the ground, which she took as shame; shame that Erica’s emphasis meant exactly what she thought it did. “Santana Lopez,” she returned, taking Erica’s hand but staring at me, her voice carrying the mournful twinge of a widow. “Brittany’s.” She stopped there. Just ‘Brittany’s’, a rebuttal to Erica’s subtle jab. It was effective enough and the two of them fought a silent mental war, their eyes causing maiming wounds before I could intercede. “Brittany’s told me about you.” Erica assessed Santana, eyeing her suspiciously. Despite the fact that Santana had three inches on her, Erica’s menacing confidence shook Santana noticeably. “What are you doing here?” Santana narrowed her eyes, glancing between me and Erica with an Is this girl for real? look on her face. I couldn’t fault Erica for asking the question that had been on my mind since I’d first seen Santana on the stoop. “Clean slate, B,” she said again, looking over the top of Erica’s head, mustering up some of her lost courage. “Please, can we talk? In private?” Yes, I wanted to say. But before I could, Erica stepped in. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” I yanked her arm sharply, turning her on her heel to face me, livid at her intrusion. “You don’t get to make that decision, Erica.”

Tugging her arm from my hand, she tried not to look hurt. “Think about this, Brittany. You told me what it was like being with her. You’re still in recovery. Maybe I don’t get to make this decision, but I sure as hell won’t sit here while you make the wrong one.” Santana didn’t move, watching intently. From the girl I’d known back in Lima, I might have expected anger toward Erica, who probably reminded her of a queer Rachel Berry. But the only emotion I found on her face was hope. She wanted to talk, not fight, and as much as Erica thought I was making the wrong move, I needed to hear what Santana had to say. “Go inside, San,” I said softly, and the relief that broke in her smile sent a burst of warmth through my chest. “I’ll be there in a minute.” I tossed her my house key and she disappeared inside, leaving Erica and I alone on the lawn. “You know I care about you, right?” I nodded, staring at the closed door and all the potential behind it. “Yeah, I know.” “Then you know why I’m going to call Charlie.” Again, I nodded, and followed it with a sigh. “I’m sorry I let you down.” She took my hand, squeezing hard and inching closer. “I think she clouds your judgment, Britt. I want you to be healthy, and I think she could stand in the way of that.” She stopped, her mouth open, losing her next thought in the ether. She shook her head and chewed anxiously on the inside of her cheek. “Maybe I’m standing in the way, too.” I cocked my head, curious. She had been nothing but supportive from day one. “Clearly you’re still working the steps,” she explained. “You’re too new to sobriety, too unsure of who you are to make decisions to help yourself move forward. You want to go back to the way things were. I get it. But look at what you’re walking into, Britt. Look at who you’re walking into. You said yourself that she’s not stable. She –” “I never said that,” I interjected, suddenly defensive of Santana, recalling the day in the dining room, and how I’d spilled Santana’s and my story to Erica with a lingering burn on the back of my hand. “I said she needed space from me, just like I needed space from her.” “Well, look at her,” she said, gesturing to the house and the girl waiting inside. “Does it feel like she’s had enough space? Do you feel like you’ve had enough space?” I bit my lip and stared at the ground.

“I didn’t think so.” She sighed, her voice softening. “You jumped right from her to me and it wasn’t like I was trying to stop you. I was supposed to be your friend, help you be independent from all that. All this. Instead I was just another crutch.” I tried to object, but she squeezed my hand again, silencing me. “You’re no more ready to be with me than she is to be with you. This—“ she gestured between the two of us “—was a bad idea. We should have listened to Charlie.” There was nothing more to argue. Even if I had, it wouldn’t have been fair to Erica to try and keep her. Not when she saw the resignation in my slumped shoulders and knew there was no place for her. Not then, when I was just seven months sober, when Santana was waiting inside and I had made my decision. “I meant it, you know.” I looked up from the ground, guilty. “What?” “What I said that night, that I’ll still be here for you.” She closed the space between us and stood on her toes. Even then, she had to rest her hand on my shoulder to pull me down enough to place a kiss on my cheek. “You’re amazing Brittany. And I’d rather be your friend and see you happy than be nothing to you.” She settled back on her heels and glanced nervously at the house. “But think about this, okay? What you might have thought was happiness then doesn’t always equate to happiness now.” Erica tightened her hand around mind one last time before turning and heading back to her car. On the way she pulled her phone out of her pocket and made the call to Charlie. Before she drove away she waved, her arm heavy and her expression solemn. Maybe she thought she knew what would happen when I went inside. I didn’t even know myself. *** She sat on the couch with her hands tucked between bouncing knees. I curled into Dad’s recliner across the coffee table, my feet beneath me. I couldn’t risk anything by taking the vacant seat next to her. Her eyes followed me down, studying me, my movements. When my hand came to my forehead to brush away a fallen strand of hair, she watched it, observing me for hints of change. I, in turn, watched her. Without Erica there, she had my full attention. I could take in the small things I’d missed in that first encounter on the stoop. How her cheeks had fleshed out a little, her face fuller and almost cherubic in its glow. She had a healthy rouge in her cheeks and her hair had grown a

few inches. The way it fell around her shoulders (it was so uncommon to see it down) was oddly comforting. Loose, it reminded me of all those nights she spent in my bed, her body wrapped tightly – protectively – around mine. “You look good.” We spoke in unison, and likewise we both blushed simultaneously. I tried to hide my smile by tucking my chin to my chest, but she tutted reproachfully. I lifted my eyes to meet hers. “You look good,” she repeated, adding emphasis and smiling. “Great, even.” My cheeks burned brighter. She didn’t stop her quiet assessment, studying the way I curled closer in on myself when she spoke. She opened me up, exposing me, making me feel naked beneath her eyes. It wasn’t an unwelcome feeling. But at the same time I wanted to shrink away from it, protect myself from those eyes that could undress me in an instant and break down every wall I had without even trying. I needed distance. At least for the moment. “You look good too, San,” I said, and she grinned nervously. “But…” “But what?” I looked down at my hands, picking at my cuticles, trying to find a kind way of asking. There wasn’t a good way to go about it. “But why are you here?” She gave a single stiff nod and sat up a little straighter. Her knees bobbed quickly up and down, fidgeting. She tried to get comfortable in her tight dress and tall boots, but the relaxed look she’d had on the porch was gone. In its place were anxiousness and unease. “Why is the easy part,” she said, finally settling back to her original position, hunched with elbows on her thighs and her hands between her knees. “Ask me something harder.” Perhaps it was obvious to her, but ‘why’ was still elusive for me. ‘Why now’ was something else entirely. ‘How’ led to ‘what’ and ‘whom’. There were so many questions. I thought ‘why’ would have been the easiest way to begin. Maybe interrogation wasn’t the tactic to start with anyway. “Kurt said you quit glee,” I offered instead, not asking the question that was implied with the statement. “Too many reminders,” she returned. “Too many people telling me I’d be okay without you.” “Were you?” Santana paused, considering her answer before speaking. Even then, she chose each word carefully, delicately putting together the most sensitive version of, “No, I died when you left.”

“Not at first,” she said, looking at her bare knees. “I drove around until I couldn’t see anymore. Burt was the one they called to tow my car after the cops found it in front of the school. Figures that the only auto shop in Lima would be owned by Kurt’s dad… The Hummels took me in, I guess. I stayed with them for a week, until Daddy let me go home.” I arched an inquisitive eyebrow and she shrugged, trying not to make a big deal of what was obviously a surprise to both of us. “Burt talked to him. We didn’t really, like, sit down over it. One day I was in Kurt’s room, curled up on that ridiculously uncomfortable couch, and the next I was home. Things… they kept going, whether I wanted them to or not. Life kept going. I felt like I was sitting there watching it happen.” She cleared her throat and sat back, crossing her arms over her chest defensively, the memory of it effecting her more than she might let on. “But what about you, B?” She changed the subject smoothly, her voice not giving in to the discomfort her body language betrayed. “You’ve been… busy.” We both took a second to linger on that word, assessing the meaning. She wanted to know about Erica, but I wanted to tell her everything else. About Charlie and the program and the way Sharon distrusted me so much that rather than having me baby-sit for free after school, she sent Courtney to a latchkey program until she got out of work. I didn’t want to hurt her with details of a love life that I wasn’t even sure existed. “Busy seems like a strong word,” I mumbled. “I don’t think I’ve done anything in the last six months but study and go to meetings.” She waited, silent, expecting more. Quid pro quo, I owed her that much. “Erica…” I paused when she winced at the name, trying to soften the blow. “She helped me catch up. I’m going to graduate on time because of her.” “You’ll forgive me if I don’t fall grateful at her feet.” Santana’s defenses went up abruptly, her arms clinging tighter around her chest. It wasn’t angry, but the distaste on her tongue was noticeable. “Seems like she caught you up on more than school work. She give you lessons in Gay 101, too?” “Don’t do that,” I begged, hearing her itch to attack. “You don’t know her.” Santana lowered her eyes, ashamed. But like a Rottweiler, she didn’t know when to let go of a bone. “Do you? You’ve been gone a few months and you’re already cozy.” “Seven,” I corrected. “Seven months, Santana. And if I remember correctly, you send me a pretty clear message that you were moving on, too.”

“I didn’t mean…” She started, but paused, and I could almost see her playing the song over again n her head. She sighed. “You and I were focusing on different parts of the song, I guess. Maybe that was always our problem.” I tucked my legs up tighter under my body and narrowed my eyes. She had something worth coming all the way to Akron to say, and she decided to be passive aggressive instead. The old ache of insincerity and fear bubbled up in my chest, reminding me of everything I’d left behind in Lima. I blinked back the strong desire to call Charlie and ask him when he’d be there. I needed him. “You can’t do this, San,” I whispered, serious and scared. “You can’t come here and dredge up the past without telling me why.” “You know why—” “No,” I snapped, harsher than I intended, and I stopped to take a calming breath. “No. I don’t know why. Why now? Why wait seven months? What’s changed for you, Santana, that you can come here and judge how I’ve chosen to get sober and the people I surround myself with? Last time I checked, Sue Sylvester isn’t exactly a model for mental health.” The affronted expression on her face meant I’d struck a nerve. Embarrassed and ashamed, she bit her lip and stared at the floor. “I never meant to… I wouldn’t judge… You’re right. I’m sorry.” The apology was whispered so sincerely that I regretted snapping. We sat there, quiet, waiting for the other to take initiative. I figured I’d asked what I needed to ask. She could answer my questions, or the conversation would be over. I didn’t want it to be, but I couldn’t sit in the same room with her and not know that she was there for the right reasons. “I’ve missed you,” she murmured, and I could hear the tears that refused to fall. “Everyday, I’ve missed you.” I sighed and closed my eyes. She hadn’t changed. It was still pulling teeth to get a real, honest answer. “That’s not enough, Santana,” I said, digging my nails into the arms of the recliner. “You think I didn’t miss you, too? You think being here – alone – was easy? It wasn’t. I worked so fucking hard every goddamn day, and you know what I was thinking the whole time? ‘I wonder if Santana is working just as hard.’” She swallowed thickly and refused to look at me. I wanted her to explain, tell me everything in gratuitous, disgusting detail. I wanted her to get up and scream that she was okay, that she had fought just as hard as I had. That she’d thought of me like I had thought of her; always present, but distant enough to have learned what it meant to be alone.

But she said nothing, sitting with her arms tight around her, shielding herself, still so scared of feelings so many months later. I wasn’t even angry with her. I’d gotten what I wanted: to see her one last time, to say goodbye. “Thanks for coming, San,” I said, fighting back the lump that welled in my throat. “Tell Kurt I said hello.” “Wait.” I’d gotten halfway to my feet, but she was already on hers. The force in her command sent me back into the recliner and I lookup at her. She hovered next to the couch, surprised at her own outburst. With wide eyes she moved around the coffee table and sat down on it in front of me. She stared, pleading and silent for a full minute, before her trembling hand reached out and came to rest on mine. “Wait.” Her hand and the word begged for patience, and despite everything in me that screamed to let her go, I nodded. She held me, her grip around my fingers tight and unwavering. Her eyes, though, were unsure. “Just talk to me, San,” I urged, as gently as I could. “Start at the beginning. I’m not going anywhere.” She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, pressing her knees together and bowing out her heels. “When you left, I…” She caught herself, tripping over her words. She let go of my hand to steady her own pulse, pressing the palm to her chest. “When you left I thought my life was over. I didn’t have a home, I didn’t have a family, I didn’t have any friends. I had nothing. Without you? Nothing.” The guilt that plagued me fought with the logic I’d clung to since leaving Lima. It was what was best for both of us. Stop beating yourself up. You did the right thing. But I warred with it, especially now, seeing her in front of me, reliving those first days alone. I’d had the luxury of being unconscious for most of it. She had suffered, and at my hand. “Kurt… he let me stay with him,” she went on, trying not to look me directly in the eye, as though this homelessness was an embarrassment. “Burt was a better father to me in a week than mine had been my whole life, but somehow… somehow I still ended up back there. It was quieter. Eerie, really. I walked in the door with Kurt and my bag and it was like I’d never been kicked out. Daddy said hello and went to work, like always. Mamí… she didn’t say anything. Nothing had really changed.” The mention of her mother sent a rivulet down her cheek. Despite the fact that they never really got along, I knew why. She’d been emphatic about it once before. The woman was her mother,

after all, and the only one she had. But she was also the mother that had decided it was easier to leave than stay and fight. I reached over, the old instinct to comfort taking over, and wiped the tear from her face. She flinched at my thumb beneath her eye and I withdrew. “I’m sorry,” I said, pulling my hand away, thinking like I’d overstepped. She stopped me, her palm finding mine and holding it midair, feeling the surge again. It revitalized her, and as quickly as the tears had come, they were gone. “Don’t be sorry,” she said, bringing our hands down to hang together between us. “You’ve done nothing to be sorry for.” “I’m sorry about your mom.” It wasn’t the original intent of the statement, but I was, so I said it anyway. I hated her mother and how she’d treated Santana, but I knew how Santana felt. I felt it, too; the absence of someone you so desperately wanted to love you. She smiled sadly and shook her head. “She didn’t even leave until well after Sue started me up in therapy. You know she’s allocated some of the Cheerios’ budget for emotional counseling? Apparently the school was sued a few years ago after one of her cheerleaders had a breakdown. She’s forced to use some of the sponsorship money to get girls help if they start falling apart because she’s such a tyrant.” I couldn’t suppress the giggle in my throat and it escaped. She heard it, and her smile broadened. “I missed that, too,” she said, inching closer. “Your laugh.” “Don’t change the subject,” I teased, blushing. “You were in therapy?” She nodded, not letting go of my hand. She adjusted in her place on the coffee table, and our knees brushed. The connection of our skin sent a shudder down my spine, and I pressed forward, wanting to feel it again. She leaned closer, obliging. “You know, trust is a really funny thing,” she observed, staring at our legs. “It’s fickle. It’s there and gone so quickly. And once someone takes it from you, you can’t really get it back without working for it. I didn’t show up at practice for a week after you left, and when I did, Sue looked like she might have a coronary. Two of her best cheerleaders just disappeared. But what else was there for me to do, if not Cheerios? So I went back, and had to explain. It was like ripping out my own heart and showing it to a starving lion. I thought I’d be eaten alive for showing weakness. But for some stupid reason, I trusted her.” “And she helped you,” I offered, and suddenly Sue’s appearance at my house didn’t seem so random. “Yeah,” she grinned. “Sue Sylvester, the woman without a soul, went out of her way to help another human being. How messed up is that?”

She’s getting help, Sue had said. I’m sorry. Maybe I’d been quick to judge her. All her reassurances had fallen on deaf ears, but here was Santana, living proof that the woman was more than a dictator in a tracksuit. “Not messed up. I think she needs us just as much as we needed her. She just has a funny way of showing it.” Santana rolled her eyes, but smirked. “For all her screaming during practice, she was almost kind when it was just the two of us. She was a little gruff at first. Something about ‘there are more dumb blonde fish in the sea’. But she took me to that therapist and she sat in the waiting room during my first appointment and when I came out in tears, she handed me a tissue and said, ‘Man up, Lopez. We have Nationals in a few weeks. I don’t want my head cheerleader to have puffy eyes for the camera crews.’” Her impression of Sue sent her back straight and her shoulders back. She squeezed my fingers in hers and we snickered together over the woman that had both caused and solved some of our greatest problems. “Do you still hate her?” I asked, curious. She shook her head. “No. She’s not my best friend, but I can’t really cling to the past, you know? It’s over. She apologized to me. Who am I not to accept?” A glimmer of hope raged up from my gut. Maybe everything she’d been through had helped. Maybe the therapy had been for her what the meetings and Charlie had been for me. Solace, a clearing of the confusion. Maybe she was ready after all. The thought that she might have her things sorted wrenched my abdomen so tightly that I nearly winced. Charlie’s warning rang in my ears. I swallowed and clamped tighter down on her hand. “What did you talk about?” I asked softly, carefully treading into deep water. “In therapy, I mean. What was it like?” She hid a smile with a cough and shook her hair out. “You, mostly. And my parents. And… learning how to be honest. I never really realized how many lies I told myself in a day until someone asked me to tell the truth. It was good, for a while. It didn’t change things at home, but it helped.” “Why did you go back?” She let out a shallow breath, licking her lips as though they needed preparing. “Logically? I’m a minor. I had to. My parents could have gotten Burt in a lot of trouble for kidnapping or some garbage if I’d stayed with them after Daddy said I could come back. Honestly? I was hoping that they actually wanted me there. I was hoping they were sorry.” She touched her cheek absently, and I recalled the bruise that had been there the night I’d been discovered. I lifted my hand and cupped her chin, running the pad of my thumb across the spot.

She leaned her face into my palm and smiled, knowing that I remembered and finding comfort in the touch. “It was her, you know. Mamí. She hit me, not him.” “Why?” Santana’s eyes dropped to our hands. Somewhere along the way she’d laced our pinkies together. She “I told them about you. That I loved you, and you needed help. She told me I was going to hell and she hit me. Then she kicked me out of the house.” “You didn’t have to do that,” I argued, despite knowing that whatever I said now was useless. “Yes I did,” she countered vehemently, taking my hand from her face and bringing it down so she clasped both of mine in her lap. “You would have died, Britt. You don’t know how scary it was, seeing you like that. You could barely… I did what I had to. It was worth it.” Reliving that night through her eyes was horrifying. I couldn’t even imagine how I’d looked, what she might have been thinking, or the lengths to which she’d gone to make sure that I’d survived. It was a shaming experience, and I tried to pull away. She held me still. “My father gave me the drugs you needed,” she continued. “He didn’t even question me. That’s why I went back. Because I needed to know why he did that, even after my mother had told me to leave.” “Why, then?” I asked, the bitterness in my tone seeping through. He’d never been kind to me before. “I didn’t know,” she shrugged, pulling at my hands until I was forced to sit closer. “Mamí was angry that I’d been allowed back at all, and no one spoke to anyone. I rode it out, went to my therapy sessions, focused on school and Cheerios and did everything I could to forget that you were gone. Then one day, I got home and she wasn’t there. Daddy was on the couch, holding her note, and he was crying. Jesus Christ, my father was crying.” I tried to imagine the brick wall that was Dr. Lopez in tears. I couldn’t imagine that man broken. I couldn’t imagine him giving her the drugs she’d asked for, either, but I guess I had a habit of misjudging people. “Can you imagine that?” she asked, almost reading my mind, her eyes getting wide at the happiness the memory brought her. “He was like… sobbing, B. He just broke into a million pieces and when he saw me there wasn’t even a pause. He got up and threw his arms around me and hugged me. I swear to god, he’s never hugged me like that in my entire life. Like I mattered. For the first time I didn’t feel like a burden. I felt like an anchor.” I bit my lip and fought the urge to interrupt. You were always my anchor.

“He’d lost Martin, then Mamí. I think he realized that I was all he had left. And suddenly everything was different. He talked to me. We ate dinner together and he asked me about my day… He asked me about you.” My cheeks burned and I regretted, once again, believing that I understood the dynamics of Santana’s relationships with her family. “I didn’t have much to tell him, though.” She nudged my knees with hers and leaned in closer, so her face was a foot from mine. “Just what you sent back to Kurt. Then you stopped, and I thought… I thought you’d moved on. So I got my shit together and told my therapist what I wanted to do.” “What was that?” I lifted my eyes and met hers, and found she was smiling widely. “Come here and get my girl,” she replied, eyes shining. “Show you that even though we’ve been through hell and back, that I’ll always love you. Britt, I want to be with you.” The electrical current passing between us surged and she closed the distance between us. My chest contracted as I watched her lips inch closer. I didn’t close my eyes as they brushed first against my cheek, then dusted across to my lips. There they lingered, soft and delicate, testing me. And still I watched her, my pulse pounding an earthquake between us as my head fought against my heart. Kiss her. No, don’t kiss her. Fucking kiss her! I pressed my hungry lips to hers, and the jolt down my spine was the most thrilling thing I’d ever felt in my life. She hummed happily into my mouth and I pulled her closer, eagerly groping at her hands and yanking her into my lap so I could feel her against me. Her arms wrapped around my neck and when her chest pressed to mine, I could feel her own heart beating just as erratically. Her hands found my hair and fisted it at the nape my neck, holding me and claiming me and for an instant I forgot every reason I’d ever had to stay away. “I thought I’d lost you,” she mumbled into my mouth, pinning me against the back of the recliner. “When I saw you with her. I thought I was too late.” “Shhh…” I cupped her jaw in my hands and pulled her face away, so only our foreheads were touching. I inhaled sharply, catching my breath and looking deeply into her soulful eyes. “Don’t—” Out of the corner of my eye something shifted. I glanced over, and Charlie stood in the doorway, arms crossed angrily over his chest. I pulled back from Santana, and she turned to see what I was

staring at. She locked eyes with Charlie, the giant angry bear in the living room, and she jumped out of my lap, yanking her short skirt down in the process. “Don’t let me interrupt,” he mocked, glaring pointedly at me. “Charlie, I…” I opened my mouth to make and excuse and he raised an eyebrow, calling me out on it before I’d said a word. I sighed and stood, inching closer to Santana and pulling her pinky into mine. I nudged her and gently introduced her. “This is Charlie. He’s my sponsor… Charlie? This is Santana.” “I gathered that much from Erica’s phone call,” he said, acid brimming over each spat word. “It’s nice to meet you, Santana. I’ve heard a lot about you. Now I think you need to go.” “Wait a min—” Santana had been staring, frightened, at Charlie. She pulled on my pinky and shook her head. “I think he’s right,” she whispered. “I showed up unannounced. I surprised you. You should talk to him. I’ll go.” I was torn between yelling at her for giving in to Charlie’s bullying and hugging her. This girl was not the same girl I’d left in Lima. This girl was mature and clear headed, if a little nervous and overeager. I settled for a soft smile and a tight squeeze to her pinky. “I’ll call you later, okay?” She nodded and stood on her toes to press a quick kiss to my cheek. “I’m staying at a motel downtown. Just for the night.” Charlie watched us as she pulled reluctantly away from me, our hands hanging entwined in the space between us. I let go, my arm falling uselessly to my side, and she inched past Charlie toward the door. “Thank you for taking care of her, Charlie,” she said, and cautiously stuck out her hand. He took it, and for a moment I thought he might break it in his anger. But the tension in his arm eased and he pumped it politely before letting her go. “You’re welcome.” She glanced back at me one last time before letting herself out the front door. We both watched her go, the door clicking shut quietly while stood awkwardly. Charlie fidgeted angrily, bristling audibly. He finally turned, staring and pursing his lips. “I’m not even angry that you basically broke my sister’s heart,” he began, and held up his hand when I tried to protest. “Because she’s a big girl and knew exactly what she was getting herself into. Nevermind that I told you both that it was a bad idea to start with. Nevermind that I fucking

warned her. I’m angry because, after all this time, you’re still taking one step forward, two steps back.” He fell into the couch and it groaned beneath his weight. He pressed his hands to his face, combing through his beard and then running them through his hair. He pushed it out of his eyes and I could see how upset he was. Anger had been the only thing I’d seen, but there at the corners of his eyes was also disappointment. I sat back in the recliner, and even with Charlie’s disappointment hanging over me, I wished Santana still there, her hands in my hair. “She’s not the same person she was before,” I said, arguing feebly against something that hadn’t even been said out loud. “She’s different. She’s better.” He looked up. “Are you, though?” “Of course.” It was a knee-jerk response, too quick, and I saw the skeptical cock of his eyebrow. “I am better. I’m in the program. I’m sober. I’m caught up in school.” Charlie let out a sigh and shook his head, heavy with regret. “If that’s what you think, then I haven’t been a very good sponsor to you.” “Charlie, you’ve been amazing!” I got up and went to sit next to him on the couch, punching him playfully in the shoulder and shaking my hand out when it bounced off his bulk. “How could you even say that?” “The fact that you think you’re better, that you’ve beaten this thing already? It means I haven’t taught you what you need to know. This isn’t an infection, Britt. You can’t take a few antibiotics and call it cured. Addiction is worse than a cancer. You can fight it with everything you’ve got, and think that it’s gone, but it can still creep up on you, years down the road. You’ll live with this the rest of your life. Why do you want to make things harder for yourself when you’re still in the thick of it?” I looked down at my hands, agonizing over his words. “I don’t think she’d make it harder.” He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and pulled me into him. I leaned against his side, my head on his chest, and wished I’d had a big brother like him growing up. I wished I could be this for Courtney. A solid, steady comfort. “Maybe not, but she isn’t going to make things easier, is she?” “You don’t know that.” “No,” he conceded. “I don’t. But I do know that when you’re in the program, you have a responsibility to yourself that you can’t fulfill if you’re stuck with a responsibility to another person. You have to be completely selfish right now, Brittany. Do you think it’s possible to be selfish with Santana around?”

I sat quietly against him, listening to his steady breathing. I didn’t say anything, but he knew what my answer was. “Hmm.” He smiled and squeezed my arm. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever let her back into your life. I’m just saying that maybe you should wait a little while longer. Take the time that you need to be a different person. Don’t let her determine how you recover. Be your own influence, you know? Decide for yourself how you want to live, then see if she fits into that puzzle.” The mental image of my life as a giant jigsaw emerged before I could stop it. I rearranged the pieces in my head. School, dance, Mom, Dad, Courtney… But there in the middle was a big Santana-shaped hole. Could I finish the puzzle without that piece? “It’s hard imagining a life without her, Charlie.” “You’ve spent the last seven months without her, though,” he countered. “Yeah, I’m sure it was hard, but you did it. Maybe you got a little sidetracked with the Erica debacle, but you can see the right path clearly now, right?” I wasn’t sure that I did. Everything felt foggy, like I was trying to find that path in the middle of a storm. Everyone else was trying to tell me where to walk, shouting over one another, and I was struggling to sort out who really knew where to go. I wanted Santana. More than anything, I wanted her. I wanted her in my life, and I wanted her there while I was getting better to see it and be proud of me. But I knew that what Charlie said made sense, that I couldn’t focus on me when she was there. Erica’s warning still stuck with me. Maybe I was so stuck on what I’d felt for her in the past that I wasn’t looking at what we might have in the future. Maybe our love hadn’t been as real as I’d thought. Maybe we couldn’t be happy together, like we thought we were before. “You have one life, Britt,” Charlie said, interrupting my thoughts. “You get a lot of second chances to fix your mistakes, but third chances are rare birds. Think about that before you make any decisions.” His words weighed in my chest, stewing. We sat there a while longer, both of us thinking about the other but not saying it aloud. He’d said everything he could to push me in the direction he thought was right. It was up to me now. “Can I borrow your phone?” He handed it to me and I took it gratefully, walking into the foyer while I typed the number I’d always known by heart. The second ring was cut short, and she answered. “Hello?” I could hear the hotel room cable playing in the background, a laugh track slowly dying as she turned down the volume. “San, it’s me. Can you meet me?”

I heard her breath hitch happily and there was rustling as she reached for a pen. “Anywhere.” I sighed, wondering once again if I was doing the right thing. “Tomorrow, after I get out of school. Three-thirty. At the park where we took Courtney and Wes. Do you remember it?” The smile on her face came through the phone. “Yeah, B. I remember it. I’ll see you tomorrow.” I gripped the phone tighter, chewing on my lip and nodding, even though she couldn’t see me. “See you tomorrow, San.” *** I adjusted the strap of my heavy backpack over my shoulder when I stepped out of Erica’s car. She rolled down her window as I walked up the grassy, sloping hill into the park and called after me. “Good luck, Britt.” I turned and looked back, waiting for a biting remark or a hint of sarcasm. But she smiled at me, genuine in her well wishes. I darted back to her and opened the door I’d just closed, leaning into the car to wrap one arm around her shoulder. Surprised, she hesitated a moment before returning the hug. “You’re a good friend, Erica,” I said, righting myself and closing the door again, speaking through the open window. She shrugged and turned the keys in the ignition. “It’s a gift and a curse. Call me if you need a ride home.” She drove off, leaving me on the knoll. I climbed nervously over the hill, making my way through the trails. At the end of the bend, the trees opened onto the soccer field, and across the expanse were the benches we’d sat on. Santana was already there, watching a couple of kids kicking a ball around. She didn’t see me there, hidden by the grove of trees, and I stared at her from a distance. Her leg bobbed lightly, crossed over her knee. She was so calm, relaxed and leaning with her elbows draped over the back of the bench. Her eyes followed the ball back and forth across the field, the kids kicking it lost in their game and ignoring her presence. In true Santana form, she laughed when they tripped over one another and wrestled angrily on the ground. I smirked, glad that some things hadn’t changed. Pushing past the shrubs I walked across the field, muscles tense. She saw me coming and stood, grinning and holding her hand out to me as I approached. I took it, and she squeezed. “Your palms are sweating,” she observed. “Nervous? Should I be worried?”

I sat down on the bench, my knees weak from the effort of holding it all in. She followed and curled her leg beneath her to turn and face me, her hand still in mine. “Thanks for coming.” I ignored her question, hoping not to upset her unnecessarily. “I wanted to talk more yesterday, but I think we were a little… distracted.” Santana blushed and covered her mouth with her hand, embarrassed. “Yeah, sorry about that.” “I wasn’t exactly fending you off with a stick,” I shrugged, leaning back against the bench. “It was nice.” “Nice?” Her eyebrow shot up. “That’s it?” “Yeah,” I teased. “Nice. Nice to feel wanted again. You’d think that being in a program where everyone knows I’m an addict would make me less tense. It doesn’t.” She ran her fingers through my veil of hair, pushing it behind my ear so she could see me. “Tell me about it. Your program. I talked so much yesterday, I didn’t even get a chance to hear about you.” Her head leaned against her fist, propped up on the back of the bench. She stared, tracing the outline of my profile with her eyes. It really was amazing how easily she could expose me. “I’m the youngest person the group’s ever had,” I began, watching the boys on the field, feeling her eyes on me. “Charlie says I scare them, so they’re kind of… well, they don’t really talk to me. Since I moved here, it’s been just him and me.” “And Erica.” There was no accusation in her voice. Sadness, maybe, that I’d let someone else in to a place that she thought only she belonged. I closed my eyes, mortified. “And Erica. She was a good friend. Is a good friend. I don’t think I could ever have been more than that with her. Not really.” Soft fingers found my hair again and she tugged lightly on my ear. “No one’s blaming you for needing someone to lean on.” “But I shouldn’t have leaned on her,” I countered. “Not like that. I thought I needed her. I was wrong.” “What do you need, B?” It was a fair enough question, something I’d asked myself again and again in the months I’d lived in Akron. In the beginning, the answer had been pills. But after a while, with Charlie at my back, the answer changed. Instead of pills, I found myself needing other things. Acceptance. Happiness. Balance.

“Charlie, mostly,” was what passed my own surprised lips. “He’s been the only one here that’s never looked at me like I was broken.” “He seems like a really great guy.” I smiled. “The best.” “He doesn’t like me very much, does he?” “It’s not that,” I said, shaking my head. “He’s worried about me, that’s all.” Santana nodded and bumped her leg against my thigh. She slipped her pinky through mine effortlessly. “I’m worried about you, too, B. I think you came here to tell me something that you’re scared of saying. And I don’t want you to be scared of whatever it is you need to say.” I turned to her, following the curve of her jaw down to her chin, up across her lips, where the upper curled into a smile while she watched the boys playing. The bridge of her perfect nose gave way to a sculpted brow, which shadowed her unreadable eyes. They seemed both sad and hopeful. Not resigned, like she thought she knew what was coming, but neither were they expectant. “You’re my best friend,” I said, and her smile curled a little higher. “Since we were eight years old, you’ve been the best thing I’ve had in my life.” “That goes both ways, B.” She looked at me and I searched her dark eyes for something that might guide me in this, make things easier. But I knew that it wasn’t up to her how this panned out. I could only hope that she’d take my decision and understand. “You’re my best friend,” I repeated, emphasizing it, hoping she’d hold onto that. “And then you were more, and between the two of us, things got so screwed up. I took the easy way out of our problems and this is where I ended up. I’m an addict, San. Recovering, sure, but I’m still an addict.” She held tighter to my pinky, letting the smile fall a bit, but not entirely. “We both have things we need to work out. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot my stupidity caused you the pain you thought you needed to hide. I hurt you, and you reacted. No one will ever blame you for that.” “No.” I inched closer, needing to feel the warmth of her body against my thigh, for strength. “A lot of people get hurt every day, Santana. None of them drown their pain in pills. What I did, I did to myself. And it’s taken me a really long time to understand how I need to live without that as a crutch.” I stopped, licked my lips and stared at our hands. Her pinky linked so easily with mine, so completely and with such finality. Like this was the only thing her pinky was ever made to do. I swallowed hard, my other hand coming down and lifting out entwined digits to my mouth. I

kissed her knuckle delicately, not breaking our locked gaze. The corners of her eyes creased with her smile and I clung to her hand as I set it back in my lap. “There are twelve steps in Narcotics Anonymous,” I told her, tracing the lines in her palm. “I’ve only been through a handful of them. All the damage I did to myself is still fresh, San. I’m an addict, and I have to treat myself like one. Charlie says that I need to be selfish, think of myself and my recovery like a puzzle. I have to put the important pieces together first, and then when everything else has settled, find out where you fit.” A slow breath passed her lips and realized she’d been holding it. Our hands had gripped tighter together, so neither of us had noticed how hard we were holding on until she let the breath out. I eased the pressure on her, but she kept holding, afraid to let me go. “Do I have a place in your puzzle, Britt?” The question sat suspended between us, electricity surging through our hands, holding it up and leaving me breathless. My options weighed down on my shoulders. “I have to be selfish,” I said. “That’s what everyone keeps telling me. Think about myself, and how I want to live my life. So I’m going to be selfish, Santana. I’m going to be selfish, and ask you for a favor.” “Anything.” It came out in a whisper, sincere and perfect. “Time. Six months, to finish a year of sobriety. Give me that, so I can know for sure that I’m on the right path. Six months, and I’m yours. Always.” She pulled me into her and held me, her hand on my back. She clung there, holding herself upright as she breathed deeply into my hair. “I’d give you six years, if you asked me for it.” The swelling in my chest betrayed me and I choked out a sob. I eased her away and pressed my lips to hers, my hands cupping her jaw and holding her there until I had to break for air. I inhaled, taking in the familiar scent of her as I leaned my forehead against hers. Her tears ran in thick rivers down her cheeks, falling into the deep dimples of her happiest smile. I wiped them away with my thumbs and kissed each dimple in turn before returning to her lips and lingering there, feeling her breath against them as she whispered again and again, “I love you, I love you…” “You told me once that I'd find someone who could give me everything I deserved.” I pulled her to me – this girl I’d loved since I was eight years old, my soulmate – and kissed her. She smiled and wove her fingers through mine, bringing my hands to her lips and pressing them to my knuckles, remembering. “I think we've found each other now.”

Epilogue
I Carry Your Heart (I Carry It in My Heart)
It’s late. Judging by the way the whole world has stilled, far later than I intended on sitting at this desk. The usual din of passersby on the street below has calmed. Even the car horns, an everpresent fact of life in New York City, have been silenced by the night. Any time you’re up late enough to hear nothing in a city like this one, you know you’ve been awake too long. Ad yet here I sit, perched on a second-hand chair, illuminated only by the light of my computer screen that rests on a second-hand table. My mind is restless, yet not ill at ease. I simply cannot turn off. It’s nothing new. Since beginning this endeavor I’ve fought the battles of the past all over again. Telling this story was never meant to be easy, but perhaps I underestimated the toll it would take on me. Reliving these old wounds means reopening some of them that had long since healed. It would be one thing if I was only torturing myself, but I have others to think about now. Other lives to consider, that could be hurt in so many ways with one word out of place. I have said so much already. Now that it’s finished, I wonder if I’ve really even said anything. The end of this story is merely the beginning, after all. How appropriate, Santana says, to end at the beginning. Because all the exposition leading to the climax and subsequent denouement was the story you were interested in hearing. The dirty, gutting version of what I call truth. To end here, when the drama recedes into the background and the true horror of monotony begins, that is a blessing for you. You don’t want to hear about the six months we spent apart; the awkward phone calls that were limited to just minutes and always ended in, “I’m proud of you,” until pride couldn’t overshadow what we really meant. You don’t want to hear about the indirect love letters emailed to Kurt, who read and responded patiently, but to this day doesn’t forgive me for the images I placed in his head. You don’t want to hear about my return to Lima, or the way Erica carried the first box into my mother’s house and embraced Santana as a friend. You certainly don’t want to hear about the hours Santana and I spent making love that first night. In my familiar bed, we relearned the curves of one another’s body, like the lines of an old forgotten poem. Memorized and recited with flicks of tongue against tongue. No, you don’t want to hear all that. You want the viscera. The blood – my blood – poured out, so willingly and graciously given. I offer it to you, and hope that might take from it strength. I imagine the road has not been an easy one to follow. My memory is suspect at best. Santana says that my details are clear, as far as her

portion of our story is concerned. But I cannot help but question whether these things actually happened. Could I really have made so many mistakes? And how is it, among all those wrong decisions, that I managed to make one that was – and remains to be – so perfectly right? Santana sleeps soundly these days. Her once fitful dreaming has calmed and when she wraps herself around me in the dark, those unspoken things between us cause no distress. We rather enjoy knowing that, with one look, we know what the other is thinking. Five years is a lifetime to an addict. I count every hour of every day knowing that these are hours that I might have lost. Hours that I have lost. Hours that I have to make up for. Amends – the ninth step – is more than telling those whom you have failed, “I’m sorry.” Amends is action, definable and tangible. Amends is comfort and correction. All the words in the world mean nothing if their sincerity – in theory, practice and application – is lost once they’ve been spoken. Five years, and I spend every day of it making amends for my indiscretions. To Santana, who has long since forgiven me. To my family, who would rather I move forward and begin a family of my own than dwell on the problems of my past. To my friends, who can tell me in their unbiased opinions that getting to know me off drugs was more rewarding than any stupid thing I said to make them laugh while I was high. But mostly, to myself, because I must prove every day that my life was worth saving. I’d hoped that, by telling this story, I could make my life mean something. Now, across our studio apartment, Santana is shifting in her sleep. Soon her hand will caress the side of the bed that belongs to me and whine, feeling it cold. That will be my cue to return to her, slip quietly beneath the blanket, and let her arm fall gracefully across my chest. She’ll pull me to her and smile without opening her eyes, then ask what time it is. I’ll want to lie, ease her worry, but we made a promise many years ago about lies, even lies that spare pain. Her forehead will crease when I tell her how late it is, but I will press my lips to those wrinkles, deepening as she ages and we have more to worry over, and she’ll still against me. Other nights, I would tell her simply, “I love you, go back to sleep.” Tonight, though, I have more worth saying. When I crawl into our bed, I’ll press my face to her neck and trail my lips along her skin, coaxing her into wakefulness. “I’ve finished,” I’ll whisper, my breath warm against her ear. “It’s done.” Perhaps she’ll open her eyes, blinking sleepily. Perhaps her hand will find the small of my back because she knows what that means for us. She might pull me tighter, her lower lip stuck between her teeth, expectant and waiting. I made another promise when I began this, and she’ll know I’m going to follow through. I’ll reach over into my bedside table and pull out the black velvet box from beneath a pile of bills. She’ll start to cry, and I’ll kiss away those happy tears as I slip the ring on her finger.

Five years is a lifetime to an addict. Tonight, I’m going to ask her to spend the next twenty lifetimes with me.

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