“I’m sorry,” she said, failing to keep the shakes out of her voice. “I got so sick of waiting for you to catch on. I dropped so many hints, and you missed all of them.”
Many times in books, I had read about characters being dumbstruck, but I never knew what the word meant, until now. My brain overloaded, threw illegal exception errors and force-closed all my thoughts. I could only sit there, staring at her, mouth hanging open. Remembering the last 24 hours, she was right. There had been a hundred hints, one thing after another that made the identity of the love letter’s author so obvious that not even a blind autistic dyslexic amnesiac could miss it.
I had been an idiot, stupid on galactic levels. I was ashamed, and I put my elbows on my knees and hid my face in my hands.
“That’s that, then.” Alice stepped back to the door. “Now that you hate me, I’ll just let myself out—”
“Wait.” I reached out, grabbed her by the wrist. It was an impulsive move, no thought behind it. I only wanted to keep Alice from leaving. I didn’t expect the power of it – this was the first time I had ever touched her. The texture of her skin, her body warmth, the faint feel of her pulse in the bottom of her wrist. Through that touch, I perceived her. I felt her life, her presence, her realness. It was something I hadn’t felt in anyone, not even myself, since the last time I had been with Bianca.
Touching Alice reminded me that I was alive. I still had my own realness. A dark dream passed from my mind, and I was awake for the first time since my loved one died.
I didn’t like it. Waking up hurt, forced me to think and feel painful things. I let go of Alice’s wrist, letting my hand fall at my side. She wouldn’t leave. That door might as well be a barrier of adamantium. We were both trapped now, by each other and ourselves.
I looked up at her, and I wanted to say so many things, everything I felt. Angry, betrayed, flattered, scared, regretful. Emotion rose up, choked me, and I could only get out one word.
She turned away, drifted across the room and sat on the bed. She set her tablet down beside her, hung her head and shoulders. The old image of Alice Aihara, the strong council chairman who laid down the law, was gone. Now she was a small, lonely girl who wrote anonymous emails because she couldn’t show her feelings.
“I’ve asked myself that, over and over,” she said. “At first I thought, it’s because you have what I don’t. I saw you getting in trouble, mouthing off to teachers and the council. It made me think, wow. What if I were more like Cheryl? She wouldn’t care if her dad stifled her. She just lives her life, no matter what.” She looked up, meeting my eyes. “And that’s part of it, but... I don’t think there ever is a why. You feel the way you do because you do.”
Her voice faded to silence that hung thick enough to choke us. It was real effort to breathe, and my heart kept trying to pound my ribcage apart from the inside.
“I have....” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath. “For a long time I’ve... been in love with you.”
It had been wrong of me to call Alice a coward. She was braver than I could understand. Things that seemed cowardly at first were really courageous ways of dealing with her feelings. I couldn’t imagine how hard it must have been to write that letter. Contacting me through email must have been tough. Worst of all, saying it to me just now.
I’ve been in love with you.
I remembered a year ago, when I first told Bianca how I felt. I had been so scared that only my trademarked Cheryl-brand aggressive attitude could see me through. What if Alice didn’t have that? She was confident when speaking from her seat of power, but the student council chair wouldn’t help her with personal things. It must have been all the worse for coming from a family with traditional Asian values, where no one is allowed to feel anything ever.
In her own context, Alice had bigger nuts than the fake plastic ones that hillbillies hook to their trailer hitches.
“I wish you could have told me face-to-face,” I said.
“Part of me wanted to,” she said. “It seemed too soon. I didn’t know how much time you’d need after Bianca passed away, but I couldn’t keep it to myself either. That letter was the compromise.”
“You didn’t seem to care about that last night. Trying to make me talk about Bianca through email.”
“I did that because I do care. I’ve been worried about you. Since that night the ambulance came, you haven’t been yourself. I don’t think....” She swallowed. “I don’t think you’ve let yourself mourn.”
I grunted, put a hand over my eyes. “This again.”
“Yes, this again.” Alice stood up, pulled her hands into trembling fists. “I’ve done something hard. Now it’s your turn. You dodged the question last night, so answer me straight this time. How are you dealing with Bianca’s death?”
“I’m fine,” I said, my hand still over my eyes.
“You’re lying.” Her voice picked up volume. “What did it feel like, having her dying in your arms? Do you ever wonder how it could happen so fast, so suddenly? Do you ever wake up and think she’s lying beside you, before realizing she’s gone a second later?”
“Stop it,” I said, an angry growl.
“You didn’t shed a single tear at the funeral. Have you cried since then? Do you ever silently scream at God for taking her from you?”
Alice was closer now, yelling at me. “You don’t feel anything! You put Bianca out of your mind like she never meant anything to you. You don’t care. You don’t even miss her!”
“Of course I miss her!” I stood up and screamed, blazing in rage. I grabbed Alice by the shoulders, shook her hard. “I miss her so much I can’t even stand it! I can’t even think about her!” A choking sob closed my throat, like a loud hiccup. “It hurts so bad that I, I—”
Finally the pain came. After a week of numbness, the dam burst. Grief and agony flowed over me, overcame me, destroyed me. My eyes flooded, and I couldn’t talk, couldn’t breathe. My body grew weak, and I fell to my knees. I would have fallen on my face, but Alice knelt down and hugged me tight, letting me cry on her.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and her voice was thick. “I’m so sorry. I’m here for you.”
I didn’t care. The pain was too sharp to let me feel or think anything else, but she helped more than I realized. I cried, and I cried. It came out as long, whining sobs.
Eventually, I hugged her back.
I loved Bianca.
I loved her so much that her death tore out a piece of me that I will never get back. Common knowledge tells us that time heals all wounds, but that’s wrong. No matter how long I live or how many people I love, this pain will never go away. Some random thing will always remind me, and it will hurt. A smell like hers. A pretty woman with red hair. Someone using a word where it doesn’t belong. The wound will reopen, and I will cry. Maybe I’ll cry a little less each time, and it will fade to a stinging feeling in my chest or a mist in my eyes. It will never not hurt.
The strange thing is, I think that’s how it should be. Real pain comes from real love, so I know Bianca and I shared true romance. My mind and heart were stuck in denial for a week after her death. That seems disrespectful to her memory, but I don’t regret it. Losing her was a shock like none I have suffered before or since. I couldn’t deal with it all at once.
Luckily, there was another girl who loved me. She helped me through it, cared enough to be the shoulder I cried on.
I don’t know how long we stayed like that, Alice and I wrapped around each other as I cried myself hoarse. It was long enough that my knees hurt and my feet went numb. I pulled back, sniffled and wiped my hand over the damp spot on Alice’s shirt.
“S-sorry,” I said. “I ruined your clothes.”
“Kinishinai,” she said. “Aishiteru yo.”
I sniffled again, cleared my throat. “You know, Lori does that all the time, says random things in French that no one understands. It’s kind of annoying.”
Alice smiled. “That’s just me being scared again. That was It’s all right. I love you, because it might be too soon to say it in English.”
“It’s not too soon.” I rest my head against her again. “I don’t know if I can say it back, but maybe you’ll give me some time to figure that out.”
“As long as you need. What about tonight? Do you want me to go, or...?”
“No.” I tightened my hug on her. “Stay. Please, please stay.”
She returned the hug, rubbed one hand on my back.
“Okay. I’ll stay.”
Crying that hard had been an absolute physical and emotional drain. I wanted only to lay in bed and stare at the wall, so that’s what I did. Alice kept me company, but she still had work do to. While I rested, she sat at the desk and began reading through contest entries on her tablet. Once the wall lost its therapeutic charm, I rolled over and stared at Alice as she worked.
This felt nice, soothing. Not since last week had I spent my free time around someone without feeling like a third wheel. Now I was with someone who liked me, wanted to be with me. I took in the sight of Alice, sitting at that desk with her head hung over the tablet, her eyes scrolling back and forth over the screen.
She’s beautiful, I thought.
Hers was a beauty both including and beyond outward looks. She put so much of herself into what she did. Writing love letters, working for the council, chasing a girl she had the hots for. It was criminal that she came from a family so intent on crushing her.
Someone should appreciate her. Someone should love her.
Watching her was relaxing like a TV show about pastel coloring and sewing doilies. Each time I blinked, my eyelids felt heavier. I stopped bothering to keep them open, and drifted off to sleep. I had no dreams.
When I awoke, I felt stiff and had a sore throat. I slowly pushed myself up in bed, shedding the covers. The sunlight coming in through the window had become weak and orange. Alice still sat at the desk. She looked over at me when I moved.
“There you are,” she said. “You napped for a few hours.”
I rubbed my face, trying to make my eyes function. “You been here the whole time?”
“Most of it. I disappeared for a bit to get something to eat.”
She was also wearing a new shirt, I noticed. Couldn’t blame her for that.
“You’re probably hungry too.” She rolled her shoulders to work the kinks out. “Want me to get you anything?”
I couldn’t feel less like eating if someone tore out my stomach and used it for a rodeo lasso.
“Other stuff first.” I climbed out of bed, then padded into the bathroom to take care of some biological needs. I ended by washing my face with two lathers of soap, and drinking a whole glass of water in one go. Leaning on the sink, I looked into the mirror and saw a woman aged thirteen going on eighty. Too young to deal with all this.
My hair was a mess, but something in particular bothered me. The back of my head ached. My hair had been tugged for hours since I fell asleep with my ponytail in. I reached back, pulled out the tie and shook my hair free. A yellow mane fell down my neck.
That ponytail was the old you. Keep it like this for a while.
With a flick of my fingers, I threw the hair tie into the bathroom wastebasket. Shaking out my hair again, I went back out into the bedroom area. Alice glanced at me. Her eyes grew wide, and she smiled.
“That’s what you look like without the ponytail,” she said. “I like it.”
Everything that had happened today left me in a weird mood. After experiencing so turmoil and darkness, I was starved for clarity and light. Alice had suffered her own angst, and I wanted to thank her for trying so hard to be close to me. I could think of only one way to thank her – to give her myself. So I would.
I stepped up behind her. She was about to stand up, but I put a hand on her shoulder to keep her sitting.
“Stay still,” I said, my voice just more than a whisper. She settled back in the chair, which let me hug her from behind. I wrapped my arms around her front, pressed my chest into her back. Her hair had a fruity smell, from whatever gel or spray she used.
“I want to try being close,” I said, breathing by her ear. “I know I’m all sleepy and disgusting right now, but—”
“You’re not disgusting.” She clasped my hands with hers.
I kissed her on the cheek. It was supposed to be a romantic, sexy gesture. Instead, it felt like tearing the bandage off a fresh wound. I regretted it the moment it was done. My arms went limp and fell off her.
“No. It’s too soon.” Alice stood up, faced me and laid her arms on my shoulders. “I’d feel like I was taking advantage of you.”
“Maybe I want you to.”
“That doesn’t make it right.” She smiled, and her voice grew warm. “But I’m happy you thought of it.”
I nodded, then put my arms around her and pulled her close. If this was all the closeness I could endure, then I would make the most of it. I savored her smell, her warmth and weight, the feel of her breath and heartbeat against mine. We stayed that way for a long while, simply holding each other, and that was enough. Except it was more than that.
A girl gave me her love while I recovered from the worst thing that had ever happened to me. That wasn’t just enough – it was a blessed bit of happiness.
Later that night, after the winter darkness came on, my tablet chimed with an email.
What have you been
up to today? Lorelei and I went out to Getty’s this afternoon.
We would have invited you but we thought you wanted to be left alone
so you could work on your contest entry. We haven’t heard from
you all day, so we’re a bit worried. How are you doing? Did you
get some writing done?
To: Cheryl Tilly
What have you been up to today? Lorelei and I went out to Getty’s this afternoon. We would have invited you but we thought you wanted to be left alone so you could work on your contest entry. We haven’t heard from you all day, so we’re a bit worried. How are you doing? Did you get some writing done?
Good old Maggie, making sure her friends didn’t self-destruct in despair. She might be a mother hen, but I couldn’t keep the smile off my face as I wrote the reply.
Not much writing,
no. I’ve been doing something more important. There’s
someone new in my life now, a friend who will probably become more. I
care about her a lot, and I want you two to meet her. Can I drag her
over to your room?
From: Magdalene Paige
To: Cheryl Tilly
Wow, really? Yeah, me and Lorelei were just watching a movie. Come on over.
The best part about having friends is screwing with their heads. Sweet excitement crept back into me, much missed through this week of emptiness. I decided to drop two bombshells on my friends tonight. The first came as I took Alice by the hand and pulled her down the hall to Maggie’s room. The door was unlocked, so I threw it open and yanked my new girlfriend in beside me.
“Behold!” I said. “A treasure from the Far East!”
Maggie and Lorelei were sitting side-by-side on the bed, watching one tablet shared between their laps. They both looked up, startled, stared at the girl I had brought in. I relished uncomfortable moment.
“The... Battery?” said Maggie, not at her most cordial.
Alice made a disgusted noise. “Ugh! Why do people keep calling me that?”
I pulled her fully into the room, then kicked the door shut behind us. “You don’t know? Come on, everybody knows. It’s because....” I drew a blank. “Why do people call you that?”
“I thought you knew, Cheryl,” said Maggie.
In this moment of awkward confusion, Lorelei came to our rescue.
“Alice’s initials,” she said. “Double A. The Battery.”
I laughed, let out a merry noise for the first time in longer than I could remember. I sounded like a guffawing long-haul trucker. Kehahahaha!
“That is the stupidest thing,” I said. “I love it. Maggie and Lori, you two pause that movie. We should all four play a game together.”
“Wait. Hang on.” Maggie pushed the tablet onto Lorelei and stood up. “You two are...? But I thought you both—”
I made a talking gesture with my hand. “Arch enemies doomed to mortal combat until the end of time, blah blah. Yes, but we got over it. You know how married couples constantly scream and argue because they love each other? This is like that, but less depressing. Can’t get angry at someone you don’t care about.”
“You’re acting more like yourself,” said Maggie.
“Give it time. I’ll act more like me than I ever did. Anyway, you two still have that zombie game, right? Alice, let’s get it installed on your tablet too. The developer came out with an expansion, undead lingerie models. It’ll horrify you and arouse you at the same time.”
Alice was less than enthusiastic to play a video game, but I forced her into it. She sat on the bed while the rest of us relaxed on the floor, holding her tablet loosely and stabbing it with one finger as if she would rather do anything else in the world. Though unhappy at first, every passing minute found Alice concentrating harder, her hand moving more quickly to manipulate units and resources. I knew the game had her when she talked the talk.
“There’s too many on my southern flank,” she said. “Cheryl, were you sending me those transports sometime today? Maggie, stop lobbing those bombs so close to me. Look, I will give you all my research on flamethrowers if you just give me room to work. By the way, when do the lingerie models come out?”
We played for an hour or so, but all the while a thought nagged at me. There was a second bombshell that needed dropping, not the make-believe kind that blew up zombies. This was a choice I needed to make, one that both scared me and thrilled me. It would cost me a lot. Thankless hard work and toil. Disrespect and frustration. Losing most of my free time to various projects. Oddly though, all of that seemed minor compared to what I would gain.
“So Alice,” I said, just after collapsing a building atop a zombie horde. “Are we taking time out of your work schedule?”
“Hm?” she looked up. “Oh, not really. Before we came over, I read through all the entries that came in so far. Need to let it digest for a while, think of what scores to give them.”
“That doesn’t seem right,” I said. “Scoring them all by yourself. Shouldn’t a contest like this have a judges panel or something?”
“I told you before, that was supposed to be the council. Except I’m the only one who does any work.”
“Well, for the next batch of stories that come in, make sure to get my input before you score them.”
She tilted her head at me. “What? Why should I—”
I held up a finger, stopping her. “Maybe the older girls are lazy, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the first-year council member’s opinions. You’re the big important chairman, but treat me like a doorstop and I’ll bring the school down on you, missy.”
“F-first year?” Alice’s face showed awe. She smiled, and her eyes glistened. “You mean you’ll...? What about your story? Didn’t you want to make an entry?”
“Eh. I don’t need an excuse to write. If I really want it, I’ll do it on my own time.” I patted my hands off each other. “It’s done and done. I’ll hunt down Ericka on Monday and tell her I’ve taken the job.”
Alice’s tablet hit the headboard with a thunk as she threw it aside. She launched herself off the bed and tackled me in a falling hug. Her weight knocked me on my back. She landed on top of me, arms clamped around my neck.
“Oh god, thank you!” she said. “I didn’t... I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
“This is lovely, but you’re crushing my lungs.” I patted Alice on the back. “And we have bystanders.”
Maggie and Lorelei sat watching, both gawking and trying not to laugh.
“I don’t care,” said Alice, hugging me tighter. “Let them watch. And I’ll buy you new lungs.”
Maggie helped pry Alice off me, though it required much coaxing and manual effort. With that episode over, we played the zombie-killing game for a while longer. The best part of the evening was the four of us talking, the simple exchange of friends. Mostly it involved the other three all getting to know each other. Alice is an imposing figure at first, but she’s fun person when she unwinds. Maggie and Lorelei learned that faster than I did.
There was still something missing, the empty spot that Bianca left behind. Alice couldn’t fill it. Instead, she brought her own light and life, her own humor and smarts. While she didn’t cure the longing, she did make it easier to bear. I loved having her with us.
The night wore on, and it was soon time for bed. Maggie and Lorelei would spend the night together, so Alice and I left them alone. We headed out into the dim dorm hallway, and a decision faced us. Would we go to the same room, or go our separate ways?
“I think you know what I’ll say,” said Alice, hugging her tablet to her chest. “After everything that’s happened....”
“Yeah,” I said. “Too soon and all that. I don’t think it’ll be long, though.”
Alice gave a shy smile, like a girl asked out to the prom. “I hope not.”
“And I don’t care if it is too soon. I’m doing this.”
I put a hand on her cheek to hold her still, then dove in and kissed her. This was no deep embrace, no tongue or teeth. My lips only puckered on hers, and it pleased me that hers puckered back.
Our lips parted with a soft sound. I let her face go, trailing my fingers down her arm on the way.
“Good night,” she said. “I love you, Cheryl.”
I nodded, but didn’t say it back. I couldn’t use those words until I meant them, but I wasn’t worried.
It wouldn’t be long.
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