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Trial by Fire

by Vilia Kinell

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Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10

© - 2007 Vilia Kinell, all rights reserved.
May not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without written consent!
But please feel free to share amongst yourselves for private use, if you so wish. (heck - I'd be honored!) <g>

Disclaimer: None needed – These people are mine, I made them up. Please let me know if you wish to borrow them so that I don’t think they’ve been kidnapped and come after you with a shovel.

Violence/Drugs/Alcohol Warning:
Excessive use of sleeping pills – Check
Unhealthy/Harmful thoughts, wants and needs – Check  (although, most of them are passing…)
Medical use of morphine – Check
Drunken silliness – Check
However, no one smokes a single cigarette! Huzzah!! =)

Hurt/Comfort: Some say so, I don't. Guess it's best to say yes.

Language: Yes, without it we fail to communicate and express ourselves. Swearing occurs.

Sex: This is Alternative Fiction, meaning physical expression of love between two adult, consenting women is depicted, hinted at and/or punned with. If this is illegal where you are or you are under the age of eighteen (18), please grow up, move and come back later. If it just flat out offends you – Go away.

Thanks: My Betas Tintin and Beanie – You guys ROCK! Seriously - You are the Best and Brightest! Marcus, my ever Faithful friend... ;-) Your feedback has proved to be invaluable! Julia, my Sweet, yes you!

Notes: The "I" in this story has attempted suicide multiple times. But we can't have our girls not ending up together, right? So, you needn't worry. She won't do it again. ;)
The song "Molitva" is sung by Marija Serifovic and the lyrics are used without permission.

Comments and/or feedback: vilia@stockholm.com

Chapter I

"Come with me if you want to live," the fire-fighter stated as she stalked past me, barely sparing me a glance where I sat perched on a table, calmly leaning on the wall. I didn’t follow and it took her a second to realize this.

Coming back and facing me, she questioned, "Didn’t you hear me? We've got to get out of here!" Even through the dim, smoky air and over the roaring of the fire surrounding us I could see her glare.

More than a little annoyed, I scoffed and rolled my eyes as I lifted my arms in front of her, the bandages covering both my wrists clearly visible to her. "Hello!?" Sure, death by fire was a little drastic but I’d take whatever exit I could at this point.

First I had tried sleeping pills. Supposedly simple, painless and efficient. I failed for two reasons. Apparently, I had not taken enough of them and I had also forgotten to tell Mrs. Wood, my neighbour, that she didn’t need to come in and feed the cat while I was at work. He always found food on his own anyway, the cat that is, and would soon leave for greener pastures, I was sure. Mrs. Wood found me snoozing on the couch and called for help when she couldn’t wake me.

Second, I had tried not to breathe. Not hanging myself or putting a bag over my head, because that would have looked intentional. I just wanted things to end, not burden my family and friends with questions like ‘why?’ and ‘what could we have done?’ I never thought of the fact that simply not breathing long enough would only cause you to pass out, thus giving full control back to your body which, of course, will do all in its power to keep your ticker going.

I had tried and failed a variety of methods in the past six weeks and finally I had given up on my ‘compassionate’ streak and gone straight to what I thought would be the last attempt on my own life. I had slashed my wrists. That had failed too.

A quizzical look had settled on the woman’s face. She obviously needed an explanation.

"I don't want to live, so why should I leave?" I offered as a flaming beam came crashing from the ceiling and shattered into several small chunks of burning wood behind her.

I half-expected the frantically busy woman to scurry along and save whoever else was in trouble and leave me to my fate, but instead she grabbed one of my forearms, slightly hurting my healing wound in the process, and pulled me closer. With deft determination she threw me over her shoulder and anchored my legs with her free arm. In the matter of minutes we were outside and she dropped me unceremoniously on the ground and walked away without a word. My attention was torn between the burning house we've just exited and the dark form now tending to someone who was coughing violently.

For a brief moment I contemplated whether or not to go back inside. The flames or smoke would do the trick easily but it did look a bit uncomfortable. Even by my standards. I heard someone crying behind me and turned. It was Ruby, one of the few people you could actually talk to around here. After my parents had heard of my lethal spare-time activities they had insisted on me spending some time at Oakshire Residential, a temporary resting-home for mentally challenged and ill. In other words – the local loony bin.

I crawled on all fours over to Ruby and put my arms around her. She was a fair bit younger than me but wise beyond her years. She claimed to be an old soul and I believed her.

“I thought you got your wish,” Ruby whimpered through her cries, strangely affectionate towards me.

“Nearly did, I guess…” My eyes went searching for the fire-fighter responsible for my sore backside as I gently rubbed my friend’s back. One of the orderlies came up to us to see if we were okay and ushered us to our feet. We were led towards an area a safe distance from the alit building and I could see most of the girls and women from my ward.

Ruby stayed close to me as a stout man with a clipboard addressed us. His face covered in sweat and soot, he nervously wiped his tearing eyes. “Damn smoke,” he muttered. “What are your names, ladies?”

As Ruby stated her name, age and ward I again looked around at the people filling the large garden. As the man turned to me I said “Sydney Denton, 25, ward C,” ignoring Ruby’s expression and hoping desperately that I sounded sincere. The man nodded as he scribbled, gave us each a note and was off.

“What are you….?”

”Don’t worry. It’ll be fine,” I interrupted.

We crisscrossed around the scattered masses and halted on the far end of the area. The sound of the cough that erupted from my lungs was enough to scare a bear and within seconds an AMT was upon me, setting me down on a gurney sticking out of an ambulance. I hadn’t even noticed they were there. He took my note, which apparently served as an id-card, and handed it to someone out of my line of vision. He took a quick look in my throat and put an oxygen mask over my mouth.

“No way you’re 25,” Ruby whispered as the AMT left us momentarily.

“No, but I look the part, don’t you think?” I smirked back through the mask, knowing full well I didn't look a day over 20.

“Actually, you look terrible, but that’s beside the point. Isn’t it,” she paused. “Sydney…”

“Schhh, not so loud!”

“But that’s your name, right? Sydney?” Ruby articulated the words painstakingly clear, earning her a swat on her arm.

“It is now.”

Ruby knew my intentions and motivations of getting away from Oakshire were next to desperate. She had also been let in on most of my escape plans as I had made them up. She had woken me up in the middle of a thunderstorm one night and made me promise to take her with me when I left. At that time I had only known her for two days and I had made the promise while crossing my fingers beneath the covers. It had now been two weeks since, and in a place like this it might as well have been two years. She was my kid sister in every sense of the word but biological.

Another AMT ended our dialogue. “’Kay, you’re in this one…”

He motioned towards the large, boxy white and red vehicle. I hadn’t taken the time to actually feel how I felt and at that moment it hit me. My lungs ached and my throat was sore. The skin on my hands and face felt stiff but upon inspection looked fine, albeit a little red and a lot sooty. My eyes were stinging as if I hadn’t slept for days and I felt now for the first time how they were watering, tears that weren’t really tears rolled down my cheeks, softening the skin where they trailed.

In a hurry I was pressed down on the gurney and strapped to it. “We’ll be taking you to the hospital right away Ms...” a quick glance on the note in his hand, “Denton.”

Before I knew it the gurney was slid inside the ambulance and the AMT climbed in after me. I saw Ruby standing with a worried expression as the doors closed and before long the sirens were blaring.

* * *

Without shame I stood watching her, the fire-fighter who had supposedly saved me earlier. I made no effort to hide my gaze as she turned around, hoping she’d see me and come over. In all honesty, I was a bit surprised by my sudden interest in her and a small pang stung me when her eyes flickered past me without really seeing me.

Judging by the state of her, she had been brought here for the same reasons I had; Smoke inhalation and possibly light burns. I could see her face clearly now, both because my eyes were back to normal and there was no helmet or mask covering her face. Once again her eyes flickered passed me.

Why won’t she look at me?

My hand went to my hair as I imagined it to look unruly, unseeingly fixing it to look presentable. With sure steps I made my way over to her.

“You’re the one that saved me,” I stated blankly, not sure if I should thank her or if I wanted to.

“Possibly. You were at Oakshire?”


Her eyes once again only graced my being for a second before looking away. Of course, I realized she must do this every day and one save here or there probably didn’t register with her. Still, I found me being so easily forgotten a tad hurting.

“You carried me out,” I began, suddenly ashamed for my reasons of being in the burning building in the first place. “You’re strong.”

“Not like you’re heavy…” Finally she looked at me, albeit with a crooked smile and slightly disinterested expression.

“Why thank you.”

To this her only response was a shrug.

At that time I realized she not only had likely forgotten me, but also probably didn’t recognize me if she did remember. Having had some time to clear my lungs and get out of the fog, as it were, I had also had a nice time in the bathroom cleaning myself up. I had on a hooded sweater that had been given to me from the hospital’s Lost and Found Fashion Line. My hair had been a dark sooty mess when she’d seen me and now it was washed back to its original fair shades.

She doesn’t know why I was there! The thought pleased me.

In all the hurry to get my respiratory system back to normal and with the ER filled to the brim with slightly panicked loons, the bandages on my wrists had been sloppily ignored. I had made a show of hiding them and acting calm and collected, granting less prying attention from the ones treating me. Careful not to break my performance, I stuck out my hand to the fire-fighter with the arm of the sweater covering the bandages completely.

“I’m Sydney Denton. Thank you, I guess I should say.”

“My pleasure,” she nodded. “Alley.”

Our meeting hadn’t lasted long before she was called away. I watched her leave, the big black and yellow bottom part of her protective clothing not showing anything of what promised to be a fine looking view.

Chapter II

Three weeks later…

Either it was the buzzing sound, or maybe the dull pain, I wasn’t quite sure. It could have been the very unattractive, big smelly guy leaning closer to me than necessary, but I was getting nauseous… And fast!

“Can we take a break?”

“Can’t take it?” he continued his ministrations.

“No, no… It’s not that… Just… A break? Please?” I felt like a complete wuss!

“I’m almost done. Stick it out.”

Of all the nerve!
“Hey! Get off!”

“Keep still or you’ll be sorry!”

There was truth in that statement, I was aware of it. Last thing I wanted was for this to go wrong. Had to be done precisely right. And the guy had talent. That’s why I went to him in the first place.

“Hey! Don’t hold your breath! You’ll pass out!”

So sue me, you stink…
“Can I??”

”Hell no!” he stopped and bore his eyes into me, leaving my raw skin to relax for a moment.

“Listen here, little lady, I’m gonna finish this, and you’re not gonna move. You’ll keep on breathin’ and you will shut up!”

How rude!

“No! Now sit still.” He was losing patience so I obliged.

A few minutes past. I kept squirming; he kept right on torturing me. Then the not-so-silent-silence was broken and he leaned back. He took my hands in his and twisted them around, intently studying my wrists.

“M-hm” he grunted smugly.

“Stay,” he commanded with a finger in my face as he rose.

When he came back he had some sterile compresses, a liquid of some sort and a salve. He took one of my hands again and made me hold it out in front of him. The liquid went on the compress which went to my wrist. I thought it would sting but it didn’t. Next he smeared the salve on. He was remarkably gentle and I found myself oddly impressed by this rough-looking biker.

The salve was cool and comforting. My wrists didn’t hurt, but they felt a little strained. He did the same thing to my other wrist and then proceeded to wrap them both up in thin plastic which was taped securely to my skin.

“Leave these on for tonight. You can take ‘em off tomorrow.” He held up an anti-septic soap. “Wash every morning and evening, don’t scrub, dab.” Then he showed the salve again. “Finish by putting the salve on. Do that until it’s completely healed.”

I nodded. Simple stuff.

“If any of it comes off in the process, come back and we’ll re-touch it free of charge.”

I knew there was a catch. “Comes off?”

“You might bleed or otherwise excrete bodily fluids through the skin,” he said with what I swear was a sadistic sneer, talking to me like I was five. “That often takes the ink out with it.”

“Great…” was all I managed to reply.

He stood again. “No drugs, no alcohol, no sex… For at least a week. And no swimming. Shower – completely ok, but no swimming or bathing.”

“No sex?!” The other stuff I could understand.

“Makes for bacterial exchange, which is bad.”

Again, I nodded, then looked at my wrists. They looked kind of icky with all that salve mixed with a trace of blood under the thin layer of plastic holding it all in place.

“Come again,” he smiled as he held the door to the small parlor, motioning me to get out.

* * *

I had only walked five steps from the House of Pain when my wrists had begun itching. The entire way home, all I could think about was ripping off the bandages and kneading my wrists as if they’d just been released from the grasp of cuffs.

Ahem... Not that I knew what cuffs felt like, of course... Where was I?

That was hours ago. Just knowing that I wasn’t allowed to touch the areas for yet a fair while made them itch even more and I was slowly but steadily going insane.

Mindlessly flicking through the TV for a distraction I came across many sad excuses for tv-shows. It ended up being a tossup between Rescue 911 and Barney.

Who the hell watches Barney in the middle of the night anyway??

Settling for the overdramatic voice of the host, I let my eyes rest on what looked like a burning car. I missed my fire-fighter. Not that I’d ever admit it, but secretly I hoped to see that blue-eyed beauty courageously defying the flames of the… toy car.

Now I felt stupid. And I wanted a beer. Knowing I would have neither wish granted, I waited for the next segment.

Oh joy, child choking on a holiday ornament…The telltale music clued me in that the child was indeed still alive, and I promptly fell asleep as the ambulance drove off on the TV.

* * *

“GOOD MOOORNING, MY DARLINGS…..” someone’s voice blared out and made me jump.

I could have sworn I had hit the ceiling if I hadn’t known that to be a physical impossibility. After fumbling for the remote and determinedly pressing that lovely mute-button, the annoying morning person was shut up and left to talk in silence.

I made my way out of the recliner, through the hall and into the bathroom. The sight of myself in the mirror was all but pretty. Disheveled hair standing in all directions, mascara and eyeliner had clogged and traveled around my eyes and dried drool decorated the corner of my mouth. Had I been in a better mood I would have laughed.

I took a moment to observe my overall demeanor. Yesterday’s t-shirt was wrinkled, the jeans slightly ajar and one of my socks, which was dirty I might add, had twisted on my foot so that the sole faced upward and it was halfway on its way off the limb.

Something needs to be done, I thought.

I put my other foot down on the fleeing sock and pulled free from it. Same with the other sock as I unbuttoned the jeans and I stepped out of both foot- and leg-wear at the same time. The shirt went over my head, leaving my hair in an even bigger mess.

This time I grinned at my reflection. A thought occurred to me and I padded into my bedroom and rummaged through a drawer. Once I had found what I sought, I struck a pose, gave the peace sign and snapped a photograph.

“That’ll be one for the Christmas-cards,” I said to no one in particular.

Then I caught eye of my neighbor. The freak stood glaring at me from her window, not even ashamed that she’d been watching. Before I did anything stupid I remembered that I had no clothes on. Looking down at my body, all I saw was my naked legs, my panties and bare breasts.

Quickly backing away from the window, I grabbed the robe lying over the foot of my bed and dropped the camera in its place. I went back to the bathroom.

I wasn’t sure as to what to do with the bandages covering my wrists so I let them stay on as I took a quick shower. Feeling altogether squeaky-clean, I put the robe on and observed the altered image in the mirror.

This is much better!

A towel took care of the dripping hair before I added my beloved wax. It always looked like hell if I didn’t use it, so that was my routine. I manipulated the strands into what initially looked kind of cool, then thoughts of an Emo came to mind and I rearranged them. Once satisfied, I took to getting dressed. This time I was more mindful of any onlookers as I entered the bedroom.

Having lots of choices doesn’t help when it comes to picking out an outfit, but luckily that wasn’t a problem for me. Clean undies, black jeans and simple shirts were all I had. I did, however, have to think for a minute before I could decide what motif should grace my chest today. I ended up choosing a white formfitting t-shirt with “The Cure” written on it in splashy black letters. I threaded my red karate belt through the loops of my jeans. It wasn't actually mine. I hadn't earned it or anything. I found it bundled with my laundry when I got home from the Laundromat a few days ago and decided to adopt it.

Leaving my feet bare I headed for the bathroom yet again, this time to take care of yesterday’s little addition.

Carefully, I let the scissors sneak between my skin and the tape holding down the plastic. I cut it open and rinsed with water as I slowly pulled the first bandage off. Beneath the remaining salve was the most beautiful, intricate and elegant pattern I had ever seen. Thin and thick lines intertwined and went over and under each other. At first glance, it looked like a detailed tribal tattoo, but when you looked a little closer, you could see that all the lines made up the body of a dragon, its head tucked neatly in a whirl of blackness just above the pulse point.

Despite the original scars still being a little red, the evidence of my suicide attempt was now very well hidden and would be as close to invisible as they ever could be once they faded.

Heh! Who said tattoos were no good?

I used the soap and salve on the pattern with great care before doing the same to my other wrist. I observed them closely for a moment, satisfied to successfully have suffered through Mr. Bikey’s body odor.

The other wrist had a similar design. Again, you were forced to look very close to actually see the dove hidden in a vast nest of thorns, but at first glance - the two bracelet tattoos appeared identical.

* * *

I don’t have a clue why, so don’t ask, but I found myself in a rough part of town a little later that day. I was just walking, minding my own business, when suddenly I was grabbed from behind and dragged into an alley. I heard a mumbled whisper demanding cash.

Somehow I broke free and turned around. I was planning on pummeling the living daylights out of whoever was trying to rob me, but I didn’t get a chance… Because that’s when I saw that I had been dragged into the alley by Alley. My fire-fighter!

Needless to say, I was surprised…

Chapter III

It took a while before I registered that she had said something. I was lost in more ways than one, I realized, as I firstly had no recollection as to how I got here, second, the skin where she had grabbed me stung a bit and third – All I could see was my fire-fighter looking almost terrified.

She just stood there, waiting for a reply. As if I was the one owing her an explanation. Although, I have to say, I wasn’t complaining. She was looking at me. Not like in the hospital or before that. She was really looking at me!

Her lips moved again and as her facial expression started to change I began to hear over the thunder in my head.

“Oh, God… You’re in shock! It’s okay! I can fix this…” she started fidgeting and got closer. “Hi, remember me?”

I didn’t trust myself enough to speak. By the time her hands were on me again…

Oh, I never told you how very confused I felt right then, did I? We'll get to that…

I could hear from the tone in her voice that she was asking me something. She resembled a deer caught in the headlights, even if I hate that analogy.

“What?” I managed, acutely aware of her fingertips now traveling from my head, passed my neck, over my shoulders, coming to rest on my upper arms.

“Are you okay?” she said in a manner that made me suspect she had repeated the words a few times.

“Um, yeah. Fine.”

“I didn’t hurt you, did I?”


“Oh, shit… I’m so sorry!”

Again her hands were traveling over my body. Was she looking for injuries?!

Look, I’m not hurt, okay? By the way you grabbed me you could only have hurt my shoulder and its fine.” I moved my arm to prove it.

“Okay…” She said, but didn’t look convinced.

I didn’t know what to say so we just stood there. I was vaguely becoming aware of our surroundings again as a car horn sounded somewhere in the distance. Still I was trapped in her presence. Her hair was ruffled and the shape of her eyes almost comically wide, jaw clenched tight and working ferociously. Now, I’m just guessing here, but she looked a little stressed.

“Do you want some lunch?”

Out of all the things she could have said at that time; that was not a sentence I had expected to hear.

“I know a place. It’s not far.”

She switched her weight from one leg to the other. She was nervous! For once in my life it appeared I had the upper hand. The thought pleased me.

“My treat,” she said.

“You have money?”

“Of course I do. Wouldn’t offer if I didn’t.”

“Then why the hell were you going to rob me?”


What can I say? At least she was honest about it.

* * *

The smell of grease and bacon was almost staggering as we entered the small diner.

“Don’t let the shabby looks fool you. The food is to die for!”

“This place serves food?”

“Funny. Over there,” she said and pushed me towards a corner booth.

“Afraid to be seen with me?” I had to ask...

“Course not. Just so happens this is the best one.”

We sat and she pointed to our right. “Bathroom.” Her finger moved. “Cash register, exit.”

“You’re not planning a stickup are you?”

She laughed.

Ah, what a sweet sound, and a beautiful smile too …

“No, just this booth is close to the essentials, that’s all.”

She studied me curiously for a while. Or at least I hoped that was what she was doing. “So what’s good here?”


Just then a waitress walked by and dropped two menus at the end of the table.

“That’s Ginger,” Alley informed me when she had passed. “It’s not her real name. We just call her that because you’ve got to be really careful around her.”

”Or what? She’ll swat you with a spatula?” I watched the waitress who was actually holding a spatula despite not being anywhere near the kitchen.


I skimmed through the menu for something even remotely edible.

“Are you a vegetarian?” Alley asked suddenly.


“I am. If you’re feeling iffy about eating the meat here, just pick what you want and add ‘veggie-style’ when you order.”

“Wouldn’t that defeat the whole idea of ‘The Still Breathing Grill’?” I cringed at the name of this joint.

“Ah! That’s down to crappy management. The name’s been there since the 60’s. They have a whole assortment of yummy quorn. You just gotta know to order it.”


“It’s a mushroom. Replaces the meat in carnivorous meals.”

I must have looked skeptical.

“Try it. If you don’t like it, just get something else.”

I closed the menu and put it back where Ginger had left it. Alley hadn’t taken hers.

“My treat, remember?”

“I guess I’ll just go nuts then.” Another smile.

Sweet mother of the heavens, she’s beautiful! I thought, despite having known that for weeks.

Ginger came back. She tucked the menus under one arm and glanced at me before turning to Alley. “And go!”

Well, that’s rude, I thought but Alley didn’t flinch. She placed her order.

“I’ll have the Chicken Salad with extra crispy bacon on the side, veggie-style, please.”

“Drink?” Ginger looked bored.

“Just water, thank you.”

“’thing else?”

“No, that will be fine. Thank you.” Alley smiled sweetly but not over the top.

Ginger stiffly turned to me, not really moving any part of her body except her feet. “You?”

I noticed she didn’t have a pad to write my order down. I felt a light kick under the table and was momentarily distracted. As if she knew my concerns, Alley mouthed a “don’t”. Either that or “no”… They look strangely alike when mouthed; I was amazed to think as the shape of Alley’s lips caused a small battle to break out in my belly. Another kick and a nod reminded me that Ginger was waiting.

“Same,” I said, looking up.

Ginger huffed and stomped off drawing my gaze with her.

“She won’t spit in my food, will she?”

“No, the manager caught her doing that once and smacked her around a bit. Hasn’t done it since.”




“Thank you.”

There’s that smile again…

* * *

“So where do you live?” Alley’s voice filled the silence that had settled as we walked.

“Just around the corner, actually.” I suddenly wondered if I had cleaned my apartment or if it still looked like the war zone it usually did.

“I’ll walk you.”

I felt antsy.

Should I invite her up? She did pay for lunch…

And a delicious meal it was! Who knew a mushroom could taste so much like the real thing? Alley said it was the seasoning, and since I didn’t know, I chose to believe her. And Facon!! Sooo much better than real bacon!

I was very tempted to ask her to join me for a coffee.

But she did try to rob me, I reminded myself. Should I even let such a person know which building is mine? Besides – This isn’t a date! … Is it?

“Tell me a little bit about yourself,” I said.

“What would you like to know?”


“Okay…” she pondered. “My name is Allegra, but don’t call me that…”

“Why not? It’s beautiful.”

“It is, but it’s my mom’s name… It’s just too ‘Mom’, you know.”

“Alley it is then.”

I don’t know if she remembered telling me the nickname back at the hospital or not, but she looked surprised. I figured it was the most logical short for her real name, but maybe there were others. I mentally shrugged.


”So you’re…?”

”Half Italian. Dad’s from Florida. What about you?”

“All over the place, really. Navy-brat.”

“Really? Which parent?”

“Mom. You know, you’re the first one not to assume it was my dad that dragged us from base to base.” I said, looking at her.

“Never judge a movie by its poster…”

“I’ll remember that.”

“What do you do?” she asked.

“School. Last year art major. But I might have to take another year.”

“How come?”

“I’ve missed a lot of classes lately.”

Don’t ask me why. Please, don’t ask me why!

“You paint or something?”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Only when I have to. I’m more into the history of it. You?”

“You mean, do I paint?” She scoffed.

“No, do you go to school?” I matched the smile spreading across her face. I could look at that all day.

“Nah, graduated last year.”

I wanted to know more but she spoke as our gait slowed upon approaching my building. Or rather, my gait slowed and she did what I did.

“This it?”

“Yup. This is me.”

I really had a hard time deciding what to do next. I wanted to spend more time with her, but she could be a criminal for all I knew. Hell, she was a criminal!! Maybe not a convicted one, but still!

“Can I call you sometime?” Her voice broke my thoughts and erased the barriers raised there.

“I don’t have a phone.” FUCK! Why hadn’t I gotten a phone yet?? I don't think she believed me because she looked at me funny.

“I’m not just saying that. I’m really not. I’d love for you to call me...”

“Take mine,” she said and pulled a cell phone out of her pocket. “I have another one for work.”

I took the small phone and looked at her. “Fire-fighters get phones?”

“No, delivery-people do.”

“I thought you…”

“That was just community service.”


The silence was awkward. She was a convicted criminal!!! What the hell have I gotten myself into?! I wanted to ask but didn’t have to.

“I was really drunk one night and fell asleep in this boat…” she said. “Somehow it caught fire and the judge thought it was fitting that I spend 300 hours putting out fires as opposed to starting them.”

I nodded slowly, trying to balance my Will and my Want. “How many hours do you have left?”

“Two more weeks and I’m done.”

Against my better judgment, I said; “I’ll hang on to this,” holding up the phone briefly. That earned me another smile. I could get used to this!

“Good. My other number is on it, so if you want to give me a ring sometime… I’ll come running…”

Well, that’s a little bit forward, but okay… HEY! Is she flirting with me!?

Alley started to back away with a somewhat sheepish grin, both hands deep in her pockets and her gaze flicking. Oh, that’s adorable!

I wanted to see that beautiful smile again before she was gone. I thought of five simple words, quite astonishing myself in the process, that I was absolutely certain would earn me what I sought.

“I will if you will…”

I was right.

“See you around, Sydney,” she said and walked away.

I knew there had to be a catch...

Chapter IV

Standing in the middle of my living room, I had only two thoughts in my mind; one being that I could never bring a living soul home unless I cleaned up the mess, the other – How the hell am I going to explain to Alley that my name isn’t really ‘Sydney’?

Actually, there was a third thought - why the hell hadn't I taken more stuff when I went by my old place?

Anyway, I usually only clean when my parents are coming over or if I have something on my mind that I don’t want to think about. Since my parents didn’t know I lived here, that was clearly not the case today. I spared a fleeting thought for Dr. Snuggles, my cat, who was staying with them for the time being. I had to figure out a way to get him back…

On the floor in front of me were two plastic bags; one which to put laundry in and one to put trash in. I was far too distracted to decide on which CD to listen to, so I moved around in silence. Half an hour later I put the vacuum away and studied my work. It amazed me that it hadn’t taken longer. It even looked nice now! Well, if you ignored the bare walls, the coffee table made out of books and a plank that was supposed to be a shelf.

I sat down on my couch and was poked in the thigh by Alley’s cell phone. My cleaning spree had successfully made me forget my little dilemma for a while but now it was bombarding me once again.

I should just call her. Tell her ‘Sorry for the misunderstanding, but my real name is Erin Greene...’ I could easily explain the introduction in the hospital to momentary confusion due to shock or something, but I hadn’t corrected her when she had said goodbye earlier today. That could pose a problem.

I pulled the phone from the pocket to straighten this out before it got out of hand. I knew I wanted to see her again and the longer I waited the harder it would be. But I only got as far as opening the phone and locating her number.

‘Work’, it said, followed by an angry emoticon. I had to chuckle. Then I panicked and closed it. Knowing I was being silly I opened it again. After all, she had told me about doing community service and she had tried to rid me of my change! This was nothing compared to that!

Then I snapped it shut again.

“I’ll call her in five minutes,” I told myself, both as an excuse not to do it right away and as a promise that I would indeed call… Five minutes from now…

* * *

Two hours later I still hadn’t called and I was getting frazzled. In the meantime I had done the dishes, run to the laundromat with a load of the dirty clothes previously collected from the living room floor and written a letter to Ruby which I signed with “Syd” but at least she was in on the deal. Besides, if I used my real name they’d know where I was and come get me. I had enough nightmares about big men in white clothes chasing me without adding that scenario to my paranoia.

Ruby was to be let out soon and had written about it in her last letter. She only had three more weeks before she’d be allowed to go home, but she worried her parents wouldn’t let her see me. Maybe we could pretend to be secret agents, she had suggested, sneaking out of the house – well I wouldn’t have to sneak, but she would – meeting up at some obscure place we had arranged earlier, stay in the shadows, hiding from the evil people…

It’s a good thing she had used the unofficial post office, one of the patients who was allowed to leave the ward for a few hours every day and go out. No one had read her letter before me. If anyone heard about her little plan it would surely be ruined. I couldn’t reply saying anything of the matter, of course. Then the stuck-up proofreaders would smell something fishy and she’d be in trouble. Instead I had made a weak reference to one of our early escape plans hoping she’d pick up on it.

My stomach growled as dinnertime came and went. I knew raiding my fridge wouldn’t do any good because I hadn’t been shopping for days. I was just about to grab my keys and head out when my pocket buzzed.

“Wanna grab some dinner?” a voice said as I picked up.

“Is food all you think about?”

“Is that a yes or a no?”

“Definitive yes! Where are you?”

“A few blocks away. Come down in five minutes and we’ll go.”

As the call ended I spun around a few times where I stood. Should I go now so that I don’t miss her? Wait? Wouldn’t want to seem too excited...

A moment’s hesitation led me to the bathroom instead. A quick once over and my hair looked as good as it ever would given the time-pressed situation. A thought suddenly struck me; What if I smell? Tearing off the t-shirt I did the three D’s. Disinfect, Dry, Deodorant.

Okay, so ‘disinfect’ might be a tad strong but you try to think of a d-word for ‘wash’ when you’re in a hurry!
New sweater on and I was out the door!

* * *

“Is this a date?” I heard myself say as we came out of the movie-theatre hours later. “I can never tell, but it sort of feels like a date…”

Whoa! Did someone spike my soda? Where did that come from?

Alley had an altogether too-amused-for-her-own-good-look on her face. “Even despite the crappy war-movie?”

“Not your fault they weren’t showing anything else!”

She hummed. I loved that sound.

I had come to realize a lot about myself today, most in relation to this new person by my side. She paid attention to me and I liked that. She made me feel good when she wasn’t even trying. Maybe it was the fact that she wasn’t trying to please me that made me appreciate it that much more. Or she did try but hid her intentions very well… Now there's a depressing thought. Why would she hide that?

She had a great laugh, the sort that’s heartily and deep for a woman but without being burly. The sense of humor that went along with it was dry, slightly morbid and completely hilarious. Or so I thought, anyway. The other movie-goers had failed to see the fun in a bunch of men standing around in a circle, politely waiting their turn to attack the Hero.

She had leaned over at one point, saying something about the silver screen and my eyes. I was distracted by a glimmer in hers so I didn't quite grasp what she was saying. For a moment I had almost kissed her, but me being me – I chickened out and turned back to the much less interesting film.

“So is it?” I asked.

“Do you want it to be?”

“Kinda, yeah.” I dared to admit, not really seeing a way to avoid the obvious.


I waited but that was all she said.

“Do you?”

Again I was met with silence. Naturally I thought I had misinterpreted things, as I had several times in the past.

Why won’t I ever learn!?

Of course this was too good, and hasty, to be true! I was falling fast and hard and although that was not such rare occasion for me, I never seemed to know when I had trampled over the line...

I started to say something then felt a grip on my arm, turning me, pushing me up against the wall. Then lips brushed against mine. I forget the details here as my mind went blank, but I remember the kiss being slow but determined. My instinct was to grab hold of whatever part of her I could and pull her closer, so I did.

Parting my lips with her tongue she easily deepened the motion.

The combination of being pinned to the wall almost aggressively and the breathtaking resolute her mouth paid mine made me comprehend but a single word for the whole event; Swoon!

As she broke the kiss but didn’t move away, I had to rattle my brain just to get a coherent thought together.

“It’s a date, then…?” I assumed, panting for air.

“Hell yes!”

Chapter V

“She’s getting out!”

“Who is?”

Alley was puzzled. I could tell because her brows furrowed and her lips transformed into a sort of pucker. When she knew the answer to something she always looked smug. And when she didn’t it was either a face with lack of interest or a touch of insecurity.

“Ruby. They’re releasing her tomorrow!” I must have been beaming because Alley now looked knowing.

“That would be the little sister, right?” she said, shifting her feet on my makeshift coffee table.

“Well, we’re not really sisters, but we just about could be.” I read the last couple of lines of the letter again.

“Aw, I’ve missed talking to her. This letter-business just isn’t the same.”

“Should I be worried or do I need to be jealous?”

There was humor in her tone, I noted gratefully but said anyway, “No need whatsoever.” and kissed her squarely on the tip of her nose. The couch protested a bit as I moved. I made a mental note to kill it later. In our yet brief time together I had mastered what I considered the finest art form of them all – how to make her smile. It had become a small hobby of mine. I know – Pathetic, right? But it worked wonders on my mood!

“You know, you never told me what you were doing there in the first place.”

If the world had faded away at that precise moment – I would not have complained. I always knew the question would one day come, but had never been clever enough to think of an answer and rehearse it in the mirror so that it sounded believable. Right now, my mind was as blank as it had been the first time Alley kissed me, but that was the good blank. This was very much the bad blank.

I feigned reading the letter again. Maybe I could form a psychic bond with Ruby and ask her what to say… Yeah – that would work just marvelously... Maybe if I stalled her and then distracted her I coul…


Yes! I know! I’m horrible! Three weeks we’ve been going out now and I still haven’ told her. Feel free to smack me in the face with a cod!

“Hmm?” I looked up, probably looking terrified. Alley didn’t seem to notice. Bless her heart!

“Why where you at Oakshire?”

“Volunteering?” It was more a thought I just happened to speak aloud, wondering if it would work.

“Why did you stop?”

“Stop what?”

“Volunteering... Was it for a charity or just in general?”

“What’s with the questions?”

“I’m interested, that’s what,” she said a little harshly.

I must have appeared a bit too defensive or she wouldn’t have that scowl… Shit! I can’t do this anymore… I’ve got to tell her.

I turned so that I was facing her full on. That caught her attention and she did the same.

You know that feeling you get when you know you just want to sink through the floor and melt away? Not dread, this is worse… You get nauseous, lightheaded, forget how to breathe… Your heart is having a race with the blood rushing in your veins, trying to see which can move the quickest… Sort of like when you’re really horny and the love of your life just suggested you hit the sack… Only this would be the evil twin of that feeling.

I felt like I was dying and realized I didn’t want to.

Alley was looking at me with a bewildered expression. I got the feeling she knew I wanted to tell her something. I opened my mouth but nothing came out. So I sighed and tried again.

“We need to talk,” I began but couldn’t find the words to continue. How do you tell someone you’ve been lying for weeks without them running away?

She dipped her head a bit, urging me on. I felt her fingers suddenly entwine with mine. My gaze fell to our clasped hands and for just a short second I wanted to stay that way forever. Not telling her. Conjuring up something else to say. Anything! The fact that it wasn’t even a “big” thing only made it worse.

A small thing like my name shouldn’t be such a difficult task to clear up. She knew where I lived, where I spent my days, where I liked to go when I felt down… Small things that you know when you know someone. Why should my name really mean anything at all? She knew me.

I had an epiphany then, right there on the couch. If I told her why I took someone else’s name, she would know that I had been committed… Maybe she didn’t remember carrying me out of the building and therefore wouldn’t remember why I had wanted to stay inside it while it burned to the ground. But she would ask, all the same… ‘Why were you there?’

I could, of course, hide the truth and say something else… But that would be another lie… I wasn’t planning on talking to my parents anytime soon, but if I did and we somehow worked out our problems and things with Alley got serious… God, I wanted things to get serious with her!

Anyway, my point is – if all those things happened, Alley would one day probably meet them and she’d find out from them. That was not an option!

I braced myself, took a deep breath and stared into her eyes. This is it! Now or never!

An annoying little tune broke my mental chaos.

“Hold that thought,” Alley said and pulled her hand from mine to answer her work phone.

I felt my jaw drop at the unexpected interruption. Alley stood up and started pacing the floor. I watched.

“You’re a sad excuse of a girlfriend, you know that?!”

I jumped, thinking she meant me.

“What the hell were you thinking?”

Okay… Good news – she was talking into the phone. Bad news – What fucking girlfriend!?

The phone was snapped shut. “I gotta go,” she said and leaned down to plant a firm kiss on my lips. “We’ll talk later, okay? Promise.”

And she was off.

I know! I was stunned too!

* * *

I still hadn’t heard from Alley when I went to meet up with Ruby the next day. I’d thought about calling her once or twice… um, correction – that was all I had thought about since she left, but I hadn’t. I couldn’t decide if I had a right to judge her for not telling me anything about this “girlfriend” she apparently had when I hadn’t been completely honest with her myself.

The park was pretty empty except for the odd jogger here and there. It had rained all morning and there were big puddles everywhere. Not the nicest setting for a picnic.

I stood under a large oak as to not get too wet and as thunder rumbled in the distance I thought of the possibility of lighting striking the tree, frying me.

I should move, I thought, but I didn’t want to get wet…

“Erin!” The familiar voice rang out at the same moment that I saw her. She came running towards me and I went to meet her halfway.

We hugged as if we hadn’t seen each other for years. We hadn’t even known each other that long, but that’s beside the point.

“Where are the parental digits?” I asked her as I looked around.

“I asked them in my most precious voice if I could take a walk and just enjoy being outside. I can’t stay long.”

“Clever girl.”

For someone being barely fourteen, she sure could be very convincing when she tried. Who in their right mind would pick their daughter up from a mental institution only to let her go to the park alone an hour later? Then again, she had had the entire ward in her pocket back at Oakshire...

“So tell me everything!”

I chuckled. “That would take all week!”

“So do the Cliff Notes version. I’ve got to get the oldies to trust me before I get to go out again. This is a one-time-outing, I’ll have you know.”

“Mm-kay… biggest news – I met someone.”

“Get out!!” Her eyes were like saucers.

“Already am,” I winked and she laughed.

“Can’t believe it. You’re free less than a month and you’ve got a whole little life going.”

“I do not!” I tried to protest, but she cut me off.

“You got a new place to stay, a new job, you’re back in school and you’ve got a special someone… I call that a life!”

“Fine, by those measures I guess I do.” I hadn’t thought of it that way before… How nice! I grinned to myself.

“So what’s she like? What’s her name??”

Ruby really did seem fourteen at that time. All jumpy and expectant at the prospect of love. If only things where that simple.

“Her name’s Alley. Short for Allegra, but she won’t let me call her that. You’ve seen her, actually.”

The restless form came to a dead stop. “When!?”

“She’s the one who saved me from the fire. The fire-fighter…”

Ruby thought for a while. I guessed she was trying to remember who I was talking about. What she said threw me off.

“That is sooooo romantic!!” All of Ruby seemed to light up, goofy grin, huge eyes and a noticeable wish to hug something, anything. “You try to off yourself and end up romantically involved with the one who saved your life. That’s so sweet.”

“Actually, it’s a little disturbing…” Kids, I thought, suddenly feeling old with my 21 years. “And I don’t know if I’d call us ‘involved’ either.”

The thought hurt, but couldn’t be helped.

Chapter VI

So this was it. The feeling of abandonment and rejection had settled into its new home, me, quite without fuzz and I once again felt the unsettling familiarity of being alone. Outside, people seemed as uninterested in my pain as always and their preoccupied chatter about gas prizes and diapers seemed a welcome break from my mental ramblings. Sometimes, living on top of a coffee-shop wasn’t half-bad.

I had spent the entirety of my day in bed, blowing off both school and work without as much as a phone call to either to explain my whereabouts. Neither had called looking for me when I did the same thing yesterday anyway so why bother. No one missed me.

I need something for the walls, I thought as I lay there, contemplating my existence. Every sound bounced around the room and sounded nearly painful at this point. Having listened to nothing but the traffic outside and not so witty banter between old and new friends having a soy latté with chocolate chip scones and cheesecakes all day, I was starting to get bored. For someone as dull as myself, I was too easily amused, I decided. Come to think of it, I wasn’t really bothered by the acrobatic acoustics in this room. It was just that the empty walls that provided the echoes had absolutely no personality at all.

Mostly on a whim I made a trip to the crafts-store just off campus, effectively avoiding all those I thought were in my classes. After getting the supplies I needed I dragged it all home in one of those little carts you’re not really supposed to take with you. No one seemed to mind or notice.

That evening and night I was lost, completely engulfed in what I was creating, which I couldn’t tell you what it looked like even if I tried. It was an array of shapeless splats of white, red and black. Like my mood, black as in depressed, red for anger and white for being terrified. I’m not sure how much of that was by my own choosing and how much of it was color-theory, telling me from my subconscious what I was feeling. The thought that the wall now matched my wardrobe somewhat confounded me before another thought took over. My landlord was going to kill me.

* * *

“I’m sorry I haven’t called.”

Those were the first words out of her mouth as I opened the door. She both looked and sounded sincere. I don’t have to tell you that my reply was a lie. “That’s okay.”

“Really sorry!” She actually looked ashamed.

Well, this is new, I thought. She awaited my invitation and came inside. “What’s going on?”

“I owe you an explanation. I shouldn’t have left like that.”

Damn right, you shouldn’t have! But I kept that thought to myself.

“Whoa, what’s with the wall?” She was distracted. “I thought you didn’t paint?”

“I don’t. I express myself.”

“I like it. Looks… deep.”

I studied my work from the night before. Red and white sometimes making pink. Black and white making gray. Red and black… it looked like blood.

“What does it mean?” she asked.

“What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.”

“Does it have to mean something?”

“No, but I think it does.”

We stood shoulder to shoulder, looking at the same wall. I was sure all she saw was a mess. I didn’t know what to say.

“So, anyway. Back to why I’m here!” Alley spun toward me without warning and took my hand to pull me over to the couch. I recalled our last encounter there, when it had creaked… It did it again as we sat, but apparently I was the only one who cared.

“It didn’t hit me until just an hour ago that you might have misunderstood who was calling me before.”

“Um…” Great, now I’m back to the Ums again…

“I don’t have another girlfriend.”


“Apart from you.”


“Yes, you. Who else?” She smiled… Oh, that beautiful sight.

My head worked overtime as I tried to focus on what she was saying. When had this happened? We were girlfriends? As opposed to just dating…? Was I really that behind? How the hell did I miss that!? Her voice broke into my thoughts.

“Okay, you don’t believe me…” She sounded just like she did that time in the alley when she realized it was me standing before her. A little flustered and a lot panicked. I couldn’t help myself but take that as a good sign.

“I do… It’s just… What’s going on here?”

“That was Ava, my then would-be future sister-in-law.”

“Oh.” That was a good excuse, wasn’t it? “Wait a minute, ‘would-be’…?”

“My brother proposed to her and she broke up with him.”



“Bummer. How’d he take it?” If I’d been him and she’d been you I would be devastated!

“He… uh… went out and stole a car, actually.”

“Is everyone in your family a criminal?”

“Excuse me?”

I was relieved beyond words that there was a smile on her face and amusement in her voice at that time. “You’re doing community service by court order and he’s stealing cars… What do your parents do?”

A car. Singular! And I’m done with my hours, thank you.” She lightly shoved my shoulder but the humor stopped there. “And I don’t really know what my parents are up to right now.”

It occurred to me then that besides Alley telling me her mother was Italian and that her dad was from Florida, I knew absolutely nothing about them. We had never talked about them since that fateful day when the unexpected lunch had introduced me to a legal funky mushroom, which in itself had sparked an interest in a greener cuisine, but most importantly – it had set aflame a roaring awareness of this new person in my life, previously mostly known as ‘my fire-fighter’. It was a pretty humorous coincidence. I’m easily amused, remember?

There was a moment of resigned stillness, at least for me. It ended the second Alley continued.

“I’m really an orphan.”

“What? You never said,” was all I could say.

“It never came up.”

“Are you okay?”

“Besides being a ‘criminal’, as you so charmingly pointed out?”

She smirked. I got the feeling she was teasing me and went with it. “Yes, besides that.”

“Then, yes. I’m okay.”

”Wanna… talk… about it?”

“Not that much to say, really, but if you must know,” she said winking. “My brother, whose name is CJ by the way, and Ava raised me.”

“He’s older than you then?”

“By almost nine years. Don’t ask me how he managed to get custody of me when mom took off, but he did and I came to live with them.”

“Where was your dad?”

“Off somewhere.” She shrugged. “For all I know, mom might just as well have gone to the same place. The stayed in touch, you know. It’s likely they just dumped us and started over.”

Now I was dumbfounded. It was with a seemingly remarkable ease that Alley spoke of these things, which to me would have been excruciating. As she told me about her childhood, I thought back at my own parents, whom I blamed for most things gone bad so far in my life. Compared to Alley’s, they seemed pretty decent. I’ve chosen to ‘forget’ most of my childhood, playing that selective memory-game for so long that I’ve actually managed to alter my life’s story enough to make it bearable. Of course, compared to Alley’s childhood – mine seemed like a walk in the park.

I felt like a shit for having dared complained when I knew for a fact that my parents really did care about me. They might not be the best ones out there, not even by a long shot, but at least they never left me, literally, on my own.

“Long story short – CJ proposed, Ava broke up, I had to play the middle-man paving way for a reunion…” Alley steered the conversation back to its original subject.

“That’s some weekend you had!” Somebody, help me, but that was all my vocabulary could muster.

“Yeah, well, it’s over now. They’re back on track and all is well in the jungle.”

I laughed a bit. “But why’d she leave him in the first place?”

“Because he’s a criminal.” She dragged the word out as a verbal elbow to my ribs. She joked but meant every bit of it.


“Yup.” She almost seemed proud. A most odd grin adorned her features as she went on. “He’s got this thing going where he gets money in a not too legit way, but it’s nothing horrible,” she was quick to assure. “Just a little something to keep us all floating in the down-time.”

“And Ava doesn’t approve.” That would be normal.


Alley tuned serious then, quite surprising me in the midst of her apparent happy-go-lucky attitude. “That’s actually something I’ve been meaning to tell you for the longest time… The day in the alley…” She shook her head as she looked away, refusing eye contact all of a sudden. It was almost a whisper. But I heard it. Just barely. “I needed bail-money…” My mind played puzzle.

“For CJ?” I finally asked.

“Yeah… I’m really sorry about that.”

“Hey…” I touched her cheek with my fingertips, bidding her to look at me. “But you didn’t do anything. You didn’t take my money.”

“I was going to…”

She tried to look away but I wouldn’t have it. I held her gaze firm. Her eyes, which I actually hadn’t studied that hard up until then, almost seemed to glow. They did that when there was something of importance on her mind, I had found, but now was the first time that I noticed the tiny prickles of dark blue, almost black, that spattered the otherwise deep, azure shade.

“You stopped yourself. You bought me lunch instead… and took me to the movies!!” I wanted so desperately to let her know that the whole robbing-thing was nothing more than a story I’d one day tell my grandchildren, if I ever had any.

“Yeah… and CJ spent a few nights in jail…”

I burst out laughing but caught myself. That was without a doubt the biggest sacrifice anyone had ever made for me and who was I to laugh it off? “Ouch. I’m sorry…”

Her eyes took on a different look as if she knew what I was thinking. “I’m not.”

There was something simple in that moment that stroked my ego enormously. I felt special. Someone had let their own flesh and blood spend days behind bars just to spend a few hours with me. Alley had let her brother, her virtual protector and savior, do time pretty much – for me!

I should have felt guilty, obviously, but I didn’t want to. Alley had made it very clear right then and there that she kind of liked having me around, as I did her. It was an all too new feeling, being wanted, that I simply could not think bad about.

“Not to ruin our little moment here, or anything, but I clearly remember you wanting to talk with me about something before I left.”

Oh fuck!

“What’s on your mind?”

Chapter VII

Ruby and I had been in the middle of hatching a plan as to how to get my cat back from my parents when Alley had shown up for a surprise visit after work. Leaving them to get better acquainted while I put on some tea was now something I wasn’t sure if I regretted or not. They were up to something, I was sure of it!

In the time I’d known Ruby, she had never looked so cunning. And she was obviously in cahoots with Alley, who was grinning smugly. I stood leaning on the doorframe, quiet but not really hiding. I just hadn’t announced my presence yet.

That’s when I heard it. The one word that froze my entire existence as Alley knew it. Ruby referred to me by my real name, “Erin”.

Despite having vowed to myself that I would tell Alley who I really was, upon given the opportunity, I had failed to gather the courage. I kept telling myself that ‘tomorrow’ was a good time. There’s always tomorrow… or next week… next week might be good…

I wasn’t sure if either of them had seen me, but I ducked out as quietly as I could anyway, remaining just out of view in the hallway so that I could listen, and possibly make a run for the bathroom, which had a lock, if need be. I half-expected an outburst of some sort, followed by Alley coming to look for me for a straight answer. That lock on the bathroom door was at this moment my most treasured feature in this apartment.

Listening carefully, I paid close attention to the sounds of their voices, searching for clues that would reveal to me the mood change that was guaranteed. I mulled over the option of joining them and telling Alley everything, right here and now, so that I could at least add and subtract vital parts of the story that could potentially soften the blow a bit. But I remained outside the room, waiting for Ruby to do my dirty work, to rat me out so that I wouldn’t have to myself.

“Who’s Erin?” Alley asked.

She didn’t sound too puzzled but then again, why would she?

What to do? Help Ruby or lock myself in the bathroom? It was a tough call.

“Um… Err… She’s, ah…”

I could hear Ruby turning back and forth between looking at Alley and the doorway where I had recently stood as she stuttered. Argh, this was horrible. Save my friend or save myself?

“She’s a friend of mine,” Ruby finally concluded, not lying but at the same time not revealing my secret.

Alley didn’t respond, which was unusual for her and without having the prerogative of watching her body language I could only assume that she stood squarely facing Ruby, all or weight on one leg with the other casually crossing it at the ankle, both hands on her hips and her jaw sticking out just a little with a downward glance at the girl in front of her. I had seen that stance a few times and knew it was Alley’s prime weapon for silently communicating her dissatisfaction with a certain response. When used on me, ‘The Stance’ had a million thoughts battling out a war with ‘nothing at all’ in my head. It really was the best way to both shut me up and send me talking a mile a minute. Usually it resulted in a rant of incoherent words and stammered sentences with my gaze going everywhere but to hers.

I felt for Ruby.

“I met her at Oakshire,” Ruby continued, still not lying. Clever girl, that one, finding a middle way when I so cruelly left her out to dry.

“Does Syd know her?”

Oh, my poor Ruby!! I owed her a large cheesecake after this for sure! With sprinkles on top and chocolate chips inside. And maybe strawberries too.

“Err, I don’t know,” the girl said. “She never said. Why don’t you ask her?”

She said the last part a little louder. No doubt in a plea for help for me to come to her rescue. I contemplated walking in there right that second and say ‘ask me what?’ but I hadn’t a clue what to say if Alley really did ask.

Alley had never really struck me as a particularly skeptical person or a very suspicious one. The sounds coming from my living room, or rather, the lack of sounds coming from there had me worried. Normally if she was confused by something she’d say so. Well maybe not say it but she’d ask questions until she knew what she wanted to know. The fact that she didn’t ask Ruby now meant that she thought the girl was lying and therefore wouldn’t get a good enough answer from her. Asking questions would be a waste of breath and time.

To any other person, Alley’s silence wouldn’t mean much else than that she simply wasn’t interested or that the conversation was not anything out of the ordinary at all. After all, all Ruby had done was mention a friend of hers in passing. People did that all the time. Nothing weird about that.

But Ruby was dragging her fingernails over the fabric of her skirt and that tic was something she engaged in only when she was nervous. I could hear it out in the hall where I stood and could just picture the expression on her face. Surely Alley had picked up on the sudden change in the girl’s appearance. She wasn’t blind! If someone got all fidgety over something mundane there was clearly a reason for it. Of course she could smell a rat!

I hazarded a look into the room and saw Alley very much doing ‘The Stance’, silently demanding Ruby to tell her more. What surprised me was that Ruby was returning her stare. She oozed of insecurity but wouldn’t let the most obvious sign of defeat, an averted gaze, to work against her. Way to go, Rube!!

I couldn’t help but be impressed. Alley had a way of looking at you that made you want to look back. As if it was an honor to be kept in her line of vision and the only way you could repay her for that gift was to endure the gaze. But it also made you desperate to look away, even when she was just listening to you or talking. She did not have to be mad to be intimidating. Her interest alone was enough to make you rattled, afraid even. What if she didn’t like what she saw? What if she saw all the horrible things you hoped no one ever would? What if she saw right through you and decided you weren’t worth her time? What if indeed… It was the worst case of indecision you could ever have. To look or not to look, that was ever the question!

At that moment, I was reminded of the smugness that had been going on just moments before. What were they up to, to begin with?

I retook my place, leaning on the doorjamb, this time deliberately not quiet about it. I dragged my feet and sighed as if walking the two steps had been a chore. The two figures in the living room both turned their heads and both broke out into smiles, Alley one of delight of my presence and Ruby one of sheer gratefulness.

“Hey!” they both said simultaneously.

“Hey yourselves. What are you up to?” I stuck my hands in the back pockets of my jeans, trying to look at ease despite my heart beating away furiously in my chest.

Alley reached out her hand and I couldn’t resist going over to her and wrap my arm around her waist as she draped hers around my shoulders. I was almost sure she would feel my pulse but as least I could explain that away at my own very eager happiness to see her. She’d understand…

“So, how about it?” I reminded them when neither answered my question.

“Oh, nothing,” Ruby said a little too quickly.

She looked sheepishly at me as she knew I could call her bluff if I wanted to. But I had no intension of dragging myself into that particular conversation right this minute so I let her be. Instead I pressed my forehead to Alley’s chin which earned me a light kiss on said part of my face.

“Well,” Ruby started, looking way too happy all of a sudden. “I should go. My parents will be expecting me.”

“Right. Want some company?” I offered, torn between spending time alone with Alley and, well… spending time alone with Alley.

“No that’s okay, but thanks. I’ll be alright.”

Ruby excused herself and turned just before she left the room. “It was nice meeting you, Alley.” Then she left before getting an answer.

Ally and I remained as we were for a few moments, listening to the door open and close as Ruby let herself out.

“So that’s Ruby…” Alley finally said.


“Nice kid.”

I could hear the ‘but’ from a mile away but it never came. “You don’t think so?”

Alley shifted a little but kept her hold on me. I really wanted to know what the deal was here. I thought they’d get along famously and whatever they had been talking about before Ruby accidentally mentioned my name suggested that they had. Now I wasn’t so sure.

“Well, she mentioned someone named Erin and then got all strange.”

My heart picked up its pace again and I heard a faint whooshing sound in my ears.

Why does this scare me so much! It’s just Alley, for heaven’s sake!

“How do you mean?” I managed without sounding too frazzled.

“I don’t know, she just started acting real antsy and…” Alley shrugged. “I got the feeling she was hiding something.”

“Can’t imagine why she’d do that.” I tried to steer the conversation away from impending disaster. “She’s not like that.”

“Like what?”

Uh-oh…Good one, Erin… “She doesn’t hide things. She’s one of the most open people I know.” Please don’t ask any more.

“How well do you really know her?”

“Well enough.”

I had to fight myself hard to pull out of her embrace. It was my favorite place to be after all. But I had to nip this in the bud before my beautiful rose grew thorns.

If that’s not sappy poetry, I don’t know what is. Better write it down later anyway… for future reference…

“Look, she’s a little aloof and wayward sometimes but she’s a good kid.”

I met Alley’s eyes. They had that glow about them again and I knew without a doubt that she was only looking out for me. It made it hard to defend Ruby knowing Alley only wanted to protect me but at the same time my kid sister was under attack here. Well, sort of, anyway… And without Alley having all the pieces to the puzzle there was no way I could support Ruby without blowing my own cover. Of course, I wanted that cover blown to bits more than anything… I was just scared witless of what might follow in its wake.

“What do you know about Erin?”

“Who?” Lord help me, but I just couldn’t seem to help painting myself into a corner, could I?

“Erin. Someone she met at Oakshire. A good friend of hers apparently.”

Aw…It gave me a fuzzy feeling to think that Ruby had managed to convey that.

“Seemed protective of her,” Alley continued. “Do you know who it is?”

“Um… Yeah. I do.” Well, I did… Why lie? “She was one of the residents…” I trailed off there, not sure how to go on.

It would be so easy. Just tell her!! The little voice in my head kept screaming at me and soon it grew so loud I actually winced as if I’ve really heard it.

“Hey, you okay?” Alley touched my cheek with a pained look on her face.

A thought struck me at that moment, one that would end this whole discussion in a heartbeat. One that would likely land me in Alley’s soft, reassuring embrace… I knew it was wrong. So very wrong… But in some cases it was true. Or it was the official story at Oakshire, at least.

“Erin died in the fire,” I said before my better senses caught on. Running away just seemed easier. Not dealing with the shame of admitting my self-destructive past, even to Alley whom I trusted more than anyone ever in my life. However, that trust wasn’t untainted and now, as I stood there, in the split second between spoken words and falling tears, I was painfully aware of that.

The one phobia I had, the number one fear and ultimate horror was that Alley would leave me. Not because of what I had done in the past, but for what I was doing to her now. Not trusting her. Not letting her make up her own mind. Not allowing her the choice of not sharing her life with me…

The thought was unbearable and the tears I knew would come sprung to my eyes. I was right about one thing though. What I had just said had indeed brought me into Alley’s arms again.

That single thought, the ‘truth’ as it was written in the aftermath of the fire at Oakshire where I had taken someone else’s name and fled, left ‘Erin Greene’ to be one of the bodies not found after the flames were put out. I had known that for the several weeks I had been out on my own. I had known I was officially dead and I hadn’t cared. Even felt a little proud over my ability to get away with it…

Going back to school had been easy. I had just walked in there, found one of the teachers who knew me and said, “Do I look dead to you?” and the problem had been resolved. Getting a job wasn’t hard either. Not when you knew the owner of the establishment in question. And the apartment… Second hand renting was remarkably easy if you were okay with not doing things completely by the books.

Everything since I got away from Oakshire had been simple tasks, just going through the motions really. As long as you know the right people… anything is possible.

Or so I had thought. The more involved I had gotten with Alley, this wonderful, beautiful, flawed but amazing person, the more I had realized what was really at stake here. I had gone through life looking for a way out when I should have spent that energy looking for a way in. Life could be good. Life was good! If you dared to live it!

Here I was, one week short of being twenty-two years old, realizing how fucking wrong I had been. How wrong I still was! I realized that my parents had most likely had a funeral for me when the authorities had thought me dead. Not once had I thought about explaining all this to them.

It felt like the walls were closing in on me and all I could do was sob at my own pettiness while strong arms hugged me and rocked me and hands stroked my hair and the sweetest voice you’ll ever hear whispered that everything would be alright. It would all be alright…

This perfect woman called Allegra Johnson, but she wouldn’t let me call her that, cared for me and I didn’t deserve her. I so desperately wanted her but she was too good for me. All I had ever done was lie to her. Not about small things, but about who I was. She loved me, that she had said, and I had found that ‘love’ was too weak a word to describe what I felt for her. And yet I stabbed her in the back by not letting her in. Oh, how she deserved someone better than me!

We sat on the floor for what felt like hours. I was huddled by Alley in my sobbing state until I had no more tears left in me, until my voice gave out and all that was left was the painful lump that made it hard to breathe, my skin hot from the ordeal and my eyes threatening to burst from their sockets.

I had cried for myself, my selfishness and stupidity and ultimately guilt that I dared feel sorry for myself. All my troubles were let out wordlessly during those moments when Alley never left my side. I felt her hand rubbing my back as dry heaves threatened to interrupt my hiccups. With my head resting heavily on her shoulder, my face nuzzled against her neck, I could feel the pulse beneath her skin. Steady and strong… comforting.

And all this time Alley believed I was crying over the loss of Erin... The supposed friend of Ruby’s that judging by my current sadness had also been my friend. Maybe I was mourning the loss of Erin. Maybe I had managed to end my life, only not in the way I had planned. Not by stopping my heart from beating but by becoming someone else. It was hard to tell.

Chapter VIII

My little breakdown earlier had resulted in Alley insisting on spending the night. I had felt broken and ashamed but once Alley puts her mind to something there’s just no stopping her so finally I had caved and let her stay.

She had wanted to talk but how could I? I needed time to regroup and think up a plan I couldn’t just back out of. The afternoon had proved fruitful as I had come to realize a few more things about myself.

One – I wanted Alley in my life!
Two – I didn’t deserve her…
Three – I wanted to keep her! Definitely! Keep, keep, keep! I wanted her as mine!
Four – If I were to be honest with myself – I didn’t want her to have to settle for me. She deserved better.
Five – Letting her go was out of the question. Not even on the map.
Six – She might not want me when she finds out the truth.
Seven – That didn’t really matter because – she deserved someone better.
Eight – I wanted to be that ‘someone better’.
Nine – I was going to become that ‘someone better’ if so it killed me!
Ten – I had known this all along…

We were seated on the living room floor, not far from where I had made a right mess of myself just hours earlier and we were finishing off the last slice of the pizza Alley had ordered. Or rather, I was finishing it off as she was practically force-feeding me with it. It was cold and I really was quite full but she insisted and once she’d pried open my mouth with her fingers, which had been quite a funny scene mind you, she had managed to get me to bite off a piece and surprisingly – it hadn’t been half bad!

I really wasn’t sure how much more I could stomach though as I had big plans for the bowl of popcorn sitting between us.

Alley had opted for a movie night but since I had yet to get a DVD-player, or even a VCR that idea had been scratched.

So we were sitting in a small mountain of CDs instead, mixing great songs with not so great songs, horrible songs with flat out embarrassing songs! Some of the albums I had simply were not for public consumption!

I had a small obsession with the Eurovison Song Contest so naturally I had all the albums released from the European annual musical event. It wasn’t so much that I actually liked the so called music featured in the contest, but I had a delightful time making fun of the artists. It was a well known fact that the “right song” never won and most of the ones that could be considered real music never made it to the final but that was beside the point.

However, this year someone who could actually sing had managed to win the thing and the song itself was actually pretty good! Alley had sat through several painful experiences and laughed probably as much at me as she laughed with me while listening to the wannabe musicians.

I had been somewhat lost in this year’s winning contribution and suddenly found myself being stared at by my much taken aback girlfriend.

“What?” I said, barely containing a grin.

“You know the lyrics!”

“It's a great song. Of course I know the lyrics...”

“They're in Serbic!”

“I know...”

“You don't speak Serbic!” Alley was stunned, looking at me with a bewildered expression.

“I know that too...”

“But you know the lyrics!”

“Hey, I think I recognize that tree!” I said, hoping it would end the discussion before the short instrumental part was over. I really wanted to hear the last verse and repeat of the chorus.


“We've been over this... So I know the lyrics. Big deal. Anyone with a good ear that's listened to it a few times will pick up on it.”

Alley just shook her head as I geared up to sing along again. Here it comes!

Al Bogu ne mogu
lagati sve dok se molim,
a lažem ako kažem
da te ne volim

I wailed it out at the top of my lungs, much to Alley’s dismay. I did not sing well, but I did love the song!

Molitva, kao žar na mojim usnama je,
Molitva, mesto reci samo ime tvoje.
Nebo zna, baš kao ja,
koliko puta sam ponovila,
to nebo zna, baš kao ja,
da je ime tvoje moja

I did not for one second mind Alley’s shocked face. I was enjoying this way too much.

I nebo zna, kao ja,
koliko puta sam ponovila,
to nebo zna, baš kao ja,
da je ime tvoje moja jedina

As Marija Serifovic sang the last lines again I just sighed and looked blissfully at nothing in particular.

“I guess you really like that song, huh…?” Alley now looked amused.


Alley knew from a previous conversation I only bothered learning the lyrics of songs that said something. “I take it has good lyrics?”


“You know the translation then?”


“Will you tell me?”

She seemed truly fascinated by this little episode of mine and who was I not to oblige?

“Well, I’ll have to look it up online for an exact translation but it’s about an undeniable love so strong that you can’t lie even to God about it…”

“Sweet…” Alley sipped on her soda.

“It is...” I pondered if I should mention the song’s rumored status as a ‘lesbian battle song’ or not. “Molitva means ‘prayer’.”

“Well it sure was better than those other ones on that CD!” Alley laughed.

“Amen to that!” I smiled back at her.

“Don’t you think it’s a little cheesy, though?”

“Well, had this been a movie, sure! I’d be squirming all over the place, probably.”

I had to grin.

“But since it’s just you and me in my living room listening to mostly crap and eating popcorn, I tend to think it’s pretty charming.”

“All things considered.” Alley raised her glass of coke and made a toast. “To sappy songs that are really kinda cute if you overlook the context and just take it at face value.”

“I’ll drink to that!”

Our glasses clinked and I saw a hint of something brewing behind Alley’s eyes. Ha! I knew it!! She likes the song! I mentally applauded myself for dragging her down with me. Or maybe she was just replaying the part where I sang out of tune…?

Oh…my inner voice groaned. I think we just made a memory…

* * *

The following day had me in somewhat of a blur. Not because of a hangover for once, which was a nice change, no, it was because Alley and I had not gotten much sleep at all during the night.

There had been talking, some makeshift karaoke that I even managed to get Alley to participate in and some quiet moments of reflection over what we’d been through and what we had yet to do together.

It was one of those nights that start out frivolous and uplifting and then go on to be serious and deep, leaving you in a mood to not really do anything but just sit and enjoy the silence.

It was definitely a new experience for me!

I had awoken snuggled closely to Alley. We were still on the floor and my butt was asleep. Our legs were somehow tangled together as I almost sat in her lap but still, not quite… I had my face buried deep in her dark hair which covered her shoulder and her cheek rested on my head, our arms enveloping each other.

I couldn’t quite decide if I had gone lame in the night or if my subconscious willed me not to move, but I couldn’t for the life of me change positions. A sigh from above me told that Alley seemed to have the same problem.

“I think I’m stuck,” I said drowsily. “Then again, I might not be trying hard enough.”

“To move?” Alley said with equal grogginess.

I sort of nodded against her neck, catching a strand of her hair on dry lips.

“Me too,” she said and gingerly moved one of her arms. “Oh, that hurts!!”

Her body seemed as unbendable as mine but together we eased our way out of our embrace, both feeling the pain she had spoken of.

“I thought this was reserved for old people,” she joked as she made it to all fours and took support from the couch to get up.

I laughed and the sudden movement of my abdominal muscles almost made me lose my balance despite I was still sitting on the floor. Moments later two arms pulled me up and we found ourselves limping around the room trying to loosen up the stiffness.

“Shit, what time is it?” Alley asked.

I had to check the mobile Alley had given me before. “Almost ten.”

“Oh, crap. I’ve got work in an hour! Can I use your shower?”

Alley proceeded to do just that and I rummaged around the kitchen for something that could serve as breakfast. All I had was yogurt, cereal and a banana. Oh, and raisins! It amazed me sometimes, the things that made me happy.

I prepared the meal and set the plates up in the living room. Maybe we’d have time to watch some TV before Alley had to leave.

“You got a shirt I can borrow?” Alley’s voice came from the bathroom.

“Yeah, just look in the top drawer in the bedroom.”

That’s were I kept all my fan-shirts of various bands. They were a little bigger than my other clothes and should fit Alley’s taller frame just perfect I figured.

I heard a light giggle coming from the room and wondered what could have caused it. I simply had to know so I went to see what Alley had found.

What I saw left my jaw hanging.

Alley, in all her presumably naked glory stood by the dresser only half-wearing a towel. She was holding something in her hands.

“Whaa…” I tried, but needless to say I was a fair bit distracted.

Alley looked up at me with the most humorous look I had yet seen her use. “You never told me you modeled.”

Modeled? What the…? OH HELL!!!!!! “Give me that!!”

I lunged for her but she sidestepped me laughing and I went crashing by her. Still a little stiff after the night’s very uncomfortable yet pleasant sleeping arrangements I stumbled and grabbed desperately for whatever item I could get a hold of to keep me from falling. Naturally, that item turned out to be the towel Alley had more or less covering her body. I actually did stop myself from falling but when the towel was firmly in my hand as opposed to covering up the indeed naked Alley, I did go down, landing smack on my bottom staring up at what surely had to be a Goddess!

I had absolutely no wish at all to obscure this beautiful sight but I offered her the towel back, trying but not succeeding to look away. Alley looked down at herself then back at me, not reaching for the soft terry-cloth I held out.

“Only fair, right?” she said and waved the camera she was holding.

I stared in horror as my fears really were confirmed – she had seen the photo I had taken of myself the morning after I got my tattoos… the photo with the messy hair and rundown makeup… the photo with me giving the peace sign in the nude…

I was aghast, not knowing if I should laugh or cry. I had completely forgotten about that photo and I certainly wasn’t happy that Alley had seen it! But as she stood before me I could hardly complain, now could I?

Okay, I know what you’re thinking… We’ve been going out for over six weeks, seeing each other next to daily, we’re young and healthy and very much in a relationship, but still no sex?

The answer to that is no. We hadn’t taken that step yet. Seeing each other naked that day, well, I saw her, she saw a photo, but that was very much a first for us. You could play it down to taking things slow or basking in the newness of those early days when there were still ‘places to go’ physically but the truth of the matter is, it just hadn’t happened. It wasn’t for lack of trying, or trying for that matter, it just hadn’t. We kissed and cuddled and enjoyed the presence of the other, but that kind of closeness had yet to embrace us.

I personally wasn’t sure I wanted things to get that serious before I had told Alley everything there was to know about me and maybe that had been a factor in the ‘why not’. My security blanket, if you will. The best advice I had ever gotten was to not shave my legs before a date with someone I liked but really didn’t know. Sure beats the hell out of all the arguments of unwanted pregnancies and STD’s and whatever else is thrown at you in school together with a complimentary condom. To heck with those risks – someone seeing you with hairy legs – now that was a Risk with a capital R!

Alley did get to work on time. But not before posing for a matching photo to go along with mine.

Minus the jumbled hair and makeup, of course…

Chapter IX

“What have I done?? How the hell did I manage to screw this up even more than it already was? How am I supposed to get out of this little gem of a problem? Huh??!”

I was pacing the floor like there was no tomorrow. To say I suspected myself to be toast would be an understatement! Ruby had been watching me wear a track in the floor for the last hour now and at first she had looked on with amusement. That had soon turned to annoyance, then indifference. The look she sported now was one of actual worry.

I had explained to her everything that had happened since she had left my apartment the day before. How I managed to stave off Alley’s question by saying a certain someone was dead… I didn’t have a single clue as to how I would explain to her that one – I was the Erin Ruby had mentioned and two – why on earth I had said ‘she’ had died!

“This isn’t good. This is bad! It’s not even ‘bad’, it’s super-bad!” I continued my tirade.

“I don’t think ‘super-bad’ is a word, really…”

“What’s the difference, Ruby? I’m fucked! By myself no less!” I stopped pacing and glared at her, my hands buried deep in my hair, tugging at it. I’m sure I was quite a sight…

“Okay, listen…” Ruby pulled my hands from my hair. “You’re obviously not going to solve anything by going bald... or by not talking to her.”

“Are you insane? How can I talk to her?”

“Well, I think you’ve proved that you can’t sink through the floor and disappear either.” Ruby pointed to the intact floor that had failed to swallow me during the past hour. “Why can’t you just tell her? Plead temporary insanity if you have to... or just plain insanity? That could work too…”

“This isn’t funny, Ruby!”

“Is to me.”

“Yeah, well, you’re evil.”

Ruby seemed to mull that over. “Maybe you’re simply incapable of doing it.”

“Don’t be silly. Of course I can tell her I just don’t know how.”

“I bet you can’t.”

“Can to.”

“No, you can’t,” she said cunningly.

If I didn’t watch it this could easily become one of those ‘is to, am not’ dialogues that three-year olds play.

“You have a point?”

“Not really. But I bet you will not have told Alley anything about this by next week.”

“What makes you think you’ll see either of us next week? There’s no way you’ll know who won.”

“Please…” Ruby snorted with a smile and rolling eyes. “If you tell her, you win and you get to choose your prize. If you don’t…”

Ruby looked me over as if planning what she could do to me. I did not like her confidence!

* * *

I didn’t see Alley that night. She had called asking me if I wanted to go to the movies or something but I had lied and said I had stuff to do for school. I didn’t, but I couldn’t bear her being all sweet and wonderful to me when I belonged in a doghouse.

And I knew just how she’d be too, if I said yes to going out. She’d come by the apartment to pick me up with some little trinket she’d found in a shop on the way. I had a very cute collection of very, very odd-looking miniature ‘action figures’ thanks to Alley. They looked like they were made out of toothpicks and some leather-look-a-like fabric and were really quite ugly. Clearly, I loved them.

Then we’d go to the ‘Still Breathing Grill’ for a quick bite and follow it up with whatever was showing at the movie-theater down the block. Didn’t matter if we had already seen it or if it was just plain bad, it was tradition and it was what we did. Sort of re-creating our first date and changing the details around.

I didn’t see her the day after either or the one after that. She called and said she was worried about me and even came by but I didn’t open the door. She said she heard me through the door so she knew I was in there but I didn’t answer. Just stood there with my forehead and hands pressed so hard to the wood it hurt. I wanted to touch her, hug her and feel her against my body but couldn’t bring myself to open the door and let her in. Fitting metaphor, I thought…

After that I stopped answering when she called.

She used a payphone once and since I didn’t recognize the number I picked up thinking it was someone from school or work. I had a devil of a time assuring her that I had just been busy, forgotten the phone in the apartment when I went out or that the battery was dead. She didn’t believe me, I’m sure, but played along and let me act as if nothing was wrong. I wondered if she did that just so I would keep talking to her. She sounded really concerned and when she asked if I’d come out with her and Ruby the next day I accepted. I couldn’t stand the sadness and worry in her voice.

* * *

You know, it never struck me as odd that Alley and Ruby had planned on going out. It should have! It probably should have bothered me a little too. But the thought never came. Not until it was too late.

Alley had picked me up and said we’d meet up with Ruby later. I had gotten another one of those stick-figures and we had indeed gone to ‘our place’. It wasn’t until Ruby jumped up from our booth in the corner yelling “Surprise!!” at the top of her lungs that I put two and two together.

So this is what they had been up to before, I thought as I took in the scene.

There were decorations throughout the diner, small paper loops in various colors that had been chained together and hung from the ceiling and in the windows. There was music in the background, but not the regular radio station that usually played. I eyed Alley and she grinned and nodded that she had indeed taken one of my most embarrassing CDs and asked the owner to play it. In the center of our table stood a large banana split with three spoons and around it several bowls and platters with cakes, cookies and pastries. There were also milkshakes and sodas.

“I think I’m gonna be sick if I eat all that,” I said absentmindedly, wondering just when I had told either Ruby or Alley what today was. I couldn’t remember a time but clearly, they knew.

“Location, location,” Alley said as she ushered me forward. I could feel her arms wrap around me from behind and as she leaned down to whisper in my ear I could also feel her smile. “Close to the bathroom, remember?”

“Oh, that’s gross,” I said and swatted her arms but laughed nonetheless.

Ruby was nearly jumping in her seat and when Alley and I sat down her pride was evident. “So did we fool you?”

“Yes, you did.”

I felt a bit foolish and sentimental as a tear threatened to fall but this really was nice of them. I knew Alley wasn’t too fond of Ruby after the incident the week before and Ruby certainly didn’t like being alone with Alley after she gave her the stance-treatment but they had gotten together and planned this, for me. I couldn’t ignore the gesture. It was too sweet for that.

“Happy birthday,” Alley said and squeezed me in a hug. Well, half a hug really, as we were sitting next to each other and I was still looking at all the goodies on the table.

“I’m gonna get your present!” Ruby shot up from her seat and headed for the kitchen.

“When did you guys do all this? How?”

Actually, I couldn’t care less about the small surprise party right then because Alley pulled me closer and rested her free hand on my thigh.

Yup. Definitely have to do something about this secret of mine, and soon!

Alley began to answer me but trailed off as she was distracted by something. “We had help…”

I looked over to where she was focusing her attention. Ruby was talking with ‘Ginger’, who I had learned was a pretty nice lady, once you knew how to handle her. Ruby hadn’t met her to my knowledge and clearly did not know how to avoid a confrontation. Something told me there was trouble on the way…

“Um, you think we should…?” Alley began but was interrupted by a loud smack.

Everything seemed to pause before a slow-motion scene took place. Ruby stood bewildered about three feet from Ginger. Ginger looked exceedingly arrogant and was holding her trademark spatula in her hand. By the look of things she was not averse to using it again.

Had I been Ruby I would have swallowed my pride and apologized for whatever it was she had said to the waitress and left it at that. But I was not Ruby and Ruby most certainly did not apologize! She lunged for Ginger with a hysterical scream and for the very first time I saw why she had been committed to Oakshire - temper-tantrums gone wild!

Alley and I flew from our seats and over to the two wrestling individuals. Alley went for Ginger and I tried to pull Ruby off of the other woman but neither of us was very successful. Sounds from the spatula could be heard repeatedly as it slapped Ruby all over and sometimes struck me too.

Ruby straddled the waitress as she for a moment lost her balance and went down. She managed to get her hands around Ginger’s neck and as the waitress turned pink then red and finally purple without ever losing strength from her batting spatula, I didn’t know what to do. I grabbed Ruby around one of her upper arms as Alley tried to get a hold of the spatula but Ruby was notably strong for her size and age.

There is a truth beyond every other truth; “While it is fun when things go good for you, it’s even more fun when they go bad for somebody else.” If being hit with a kitchen utensil didn’t hurt so much I probably would have laughed at this whole thing.

There are levels to this ‘truth’, of course, but seeing as neither Ruby nor Ginger seemed to really cause any damage to each other, I could see the humor in it. Alley didn’t appear to, however, so I suspected I might have been wrong in this instance.

But come on! A scrawny, young teenager having a fit while being pummeled on by a middle-aged, hefty woman – who clearly had the upper hand in this fight, despite being pinned beneath her opponent – was a pretty funny sight. I guess it could be mostly because of the spatula and frantic laughter coming from Ruby that did it, though.

I got a good grip around Ruby’s waist and pulled with all my might. I got her off Ginger and held on for dear life when Ruby tried to lunge at her again as Alley helped Ginger up from the floor.

“Calm down, Ruby!” I said, holding her off. She had a feral look on her face and I looked to Alley who had somehow managed to twist the spatula out of Ginger’s hand.

We were at a standstill for a moment before Alley wanted to know, “What the hell is this all about?” She glared at Ruby, probably correct in her assumption that it was something she had done that had brought on the attack from the waitress.

“She said I was out of order!” Ruby yelled.

“What, and you’re not?” Alley shot back.

Ruby was breathing heavily then and thankfully couldn’t find the strength to get out of my grip. I think she would have clawed Alley’s eyes out, given the chance. Not that Alley would let her, but you get my point.

Ginger stirred behind Alley, wanting to get closer to Ruby but Alley stood firm between her and us. When they both seemed to calm down a little I let down my guard. Too soon, unfortunately and Ruby twisted loose.

“No!” Alley yelled and stepped forward before I could stop Ruby.

The sound of shattered glass echoed through the now very quiet diner and before I could really register what had happened, Alley was on the floor with Ginger bending over her and Ruby had backed away to a corner where she stood hugging herself and giggling nervously.

There were pieces of a broken saltshaker strewn on the floor and I could only guess how much of its contents had found its way into the multiple cuts I could see on Alley’s left hand.

“A little help here,” Ginger called and from that point on all I could feel was dread.

Chapter X

Seeing Alley on that hospital bed was not a pleasant sight. She looked alright, it wasn’t that, she was sitting up, fully dressed in her normal clothes and even dangling her legs a little, but she refused to look at her hand or the person attending it.

A nurse was seated on one of those small stools on wheels that let the people sitting on them almost fly across the room in any direction if they so wished, which the nurse had done while gathering supplies, but now she was staying put. Situated next to Alley’s left hand she was deeply engrossed in what she was doing.

She had gotten all the small glass pieces out, first with a pair of tweezers and then with a thorough wash of streaming water, and was now in the process of cleaning it up with antiseptic soap. Personally, I was amazed that there hadn’t been more blood. The nurse called her ‘lucky’, though. Maybe that had something to do with it.

Alley looked at me where I stood, just outside the curtain, and motioned for me to come sit next to her.

“I hate hospitals,” she whispered when I had parked myself on the bed.

She took my hand in her uninjured one and the squeeze she gave me told that she really did not enjoy this at all, but then again – who did? I snaked an arm around her back and leaned my chin on her shoulder.

“You’ll be done and out of here soon,” I replied.

She gave the hint of a smile at that and sighed a little.

“That’ll teach you for getting involved with crazy people,” I tried and successfully made her smile a little bigger. She didn’t know I was talking about myself just as much as I was of Ruby.

“How’s Ruby?” she asked, sounding sincerely concerned.

I probably wouldn’t have been if I had been her, but I guess Alley knew a few things about life that I didn’t.

“She’s okay. A little panicky, but okay.”


I threaded my fingers through her hair. “Why? She hurt you.”

“She didn’t mean to.”

“I’m not all too happy about this.”

“Neither am I but she doesn’t need me being angry with her.”

“You’re a bigger person than me…”

We sat quiet for a while before Alley spoke again. “Hey, are you wearing a collar?”

My hand went to the item in question and I smiled. “Yeah. Birthday present from Ruby. She gave it to me as they were taking care of your hand in the diner.”

“And you’re wearing it!”

“I lost a bet, get over it.”

She flinched as the nurse dried off her hand. I figured Alley could use a distraction of sorts as the nurse began to prepare for the sutures the cuts would need.

The time has come, I thought and wondered briefly if Alley would do something to further hurt her hand when she heard what I had to say. But it couldn’t wait any longer. I had to tell her and I had to tell her now. The nurse seemed so preoccupied that I didn’t mind having her there.

“You saved my life, you know...” I said quietly.

“How’d I manage that?” Alley said with a scoff. She probably thought I meant today.

“You carried me out of that 'place'…”

She turned her head to get a better look at me but since I was already so close she didn’t get a much better view. I could almost hear the cogwheels turning in her head.

“You mean Oakshire?” she said after a moment’s silence.

I nodded. “Yeah.”

“So if I hadn't someone else would've,” she shrugged, but quickly went still as the movement jerked her hand a little and the nurse’s grip on it was felt over the morphine.

I drew in a deep breath. This is it! Just get it out!  “I don't think I would have let them… I wasn't there as a volunteer...”

Alley leaned away and forced my head off her shoulder. “O-kay...” she said slowly, watching me intently.

Her eyes were glowing faintly. She knew there was something important I was trying to tell her. I found her gaze very comfortable right then. I had her complete attention and for once it didn’t scare me. “I was forcibly committed by my parents.”

“Ouch... What for? You seem normal to me!” She nudged me with her elbow.

I didn’t have to look away, but I did anyway. This time not because I wanted to hide myself from her but because I wasn’t sure I wanted to see her reaction. I just wanted to get this over with. “I, uh... I tried to kill myself,” I blurted out so fast I couldn’t stop myself. There. I had finally said it.

Both Alley’s eyebrows traveled upward on her forehead but her voice sounded more disbelieving than surprised. “You what?”

This was clearly not a conversation she had expected to be on the receiving end of. Least of all here, in a hospital, with someone else present.

“Several times,” I continued. “I nearly made it the last time.”

Alley just stared at me. She glanced at the nurse as if to see if she was listening then returned her focus on me. The nurse had not been distracted from her task.

I shifted on the bed, drawing one leg up beneath the other and faced her. I studied my tattoos for a moment then showed them to her. “I'm sort of surprised you haven't asked about these...”

She knew just as well as I did that I wasn’t referring to the ink work but rather what the ink was concealing. I knew she had seen the scars.

“I was waiting for you to tell me. I wasn't sure so I didn't want to assume...”

“Really?” I looked back into her eyes. There was an assortment of emotions swirling around in them and I couldn’t quite identify them all.

“I figured you covered them up because you didn't want people to see them...” She tilted her head imperceptibly, encouraging me to go on.

“I did. They usually scare people…”

I studied my dragon and dove again, marveling at the meaning behind them and how fitting they really were. The dragon symbolized bravery and honesty. The dove was fragile and clever. Well, they had a good sense of direction anyway… I smiled a little at the thought.

“It's not the scars that scare; it's the reasons behind them.” Alley brushed my cheek with her right hand then let it drop to my wrist. Her thumb gently caressed the sensitive skin over my pulse point and she studied the image embedded there. “People don't know how to cope.”

“Do they scare you?”

She looked up at me again. “Should they?”

“I don't think so.”

“Then they don't.”

It astounded me how effortless this was. During all our time together I had agonized over this very moment, almost praying it would never come. Yet here we were, having the very talk that had terrified me for so long, and it was easy! “What if I told you they should?”

“Then they would,” she said simply.


“Because to me, that would be you asking me for help, and I don't know if I would be the go-to person for that...”

Alley shrugged a little with her right shoulder, careful not to move the left one again. She looked away from me and rested her eyes on what was going on with her hand. The nurse looked to be halfway done with the sutures and Alley looked a little surprised at that.

“Would it bother you?” I let my knuckles stroke her forearm lightly; not really demanding eye contact but I got it anyway.

“Define 'it',” she said.

“If I asked you for help and you didn't know what to do.”

“I'd feel honored that you came to me of all people, but it would scare me senseless not knowing what to do.”

I nodded, knowing the feeling all too well. I smiled. “Then you can feel proud now and forget about being scared.”

She just looked at me, an unsure expression on her face.

“You’ve already helped me. More than you’ll know.”

“I don't know about feeling proud...” she said, looking briefly to the nurse again. “I don't know what I did.”

“You don't have to.” I grabbed her well hand in mine.

“What if I need to do it again!?” she said a little louder, insecurity and anxiety written all over her body.

“You won’t have to.” I squeezed her hand to emphasize that I really meant it.

She didn’t say anything at first. Then the purest, most clear and amazing blue eyes locked on mine again. “Do you really mean that?”


“…As in never...?” It was barely a whisper.

“Not Ever!” I assured.

“Thank you for telling me.”

“Thank you for not running away.” I paused. I had gotten over this part, now there was only one more thing left to clarify. “There is… one more thing...” I said hesitantly. Something told me this particular detail might not go over as easily after all… But, in for a penny, as they say.

“Whatever it is... You can tell me anything… Sydney...”


Thank you for reading! Want a sequel?
Let me know! ;-)

Comments and/or feedback welcome at vilia@stockholm.com
Visit the Creativity-section of my website http://www.neminat.com/ for complete listings of my work.

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