Hell On Earth II

HELL ON EARTH II

Prologue: And Every Day After That

Elijah stood with a hunch in his back, watching the taillights of Veronica’s car as she drove away. He knew she was looking at him, her puffy eyes staring through the back window. But he couldn’t look back, he just couldn’t. So he stared at the taillight as its blinker flashed, before the car vanished around a corner. And now he was alone in the parking lot, feeling absolutely numb. Like a shadow on the pavement.

With nothing left to do, he began walking home. He couldn’t bear to sit on a sweaty, overcrowded bus. He wanted to take as long as possible to get home; anything to stop this day from ending. But it’s not that he wanted to continue living it, he just couldn’t imagine living past it.  It was all finally over, yet it felt like something had just started. He didn’t know what that was yet, but he felt like he had finally escaped from quicksand, only to end up having to trek through a storm. Hurting felt easier than healing. As he dragged his feet home, he watched the cars drive by, observing their blurred silhouettes in the driver's seat. He thought about how they all have their own lives, their own loves, their own losses. But nothing felt like this, nobody else could feel like this. A cocktail of grief, and regret, and shame; yet somehow numb, all at the same time. As if his brain was trying to flush it all out.

Within the blink of an eye, he was home, in a daze for the majority of the walk. When he stepped inside, it felt so cold and still. Like no one was meant to live here. It wasn’t a home anymore, it was a husk of ghosts, both human and mental. The blood on the floor was bleached and practically scrubbed to dust. Before the funeral, he had spent the day and night erasing every fingerprint, every drop of blood, every trace that linked him back to it. He needed a believable story, one that posed him as the troubled, innocent child of an alcoholic father that reached his breaking point and vanished. A single finger couldn’t be pointed at him. He found it funny, how much effort he was putting into not getting caught. It didn’t even feel like he cared, it just felt like an instinct. Like the creaky gears were pulling him through the motions. Maybe there was some hope left in him that took the wheel, or he’s now just a robot that’s doing what needed to be done. He didn’t have the energy to decipher it.

The steps creaked under the pressure of his heavy steps as he made his way upstairs. The upstairs hallway illuminated as he flipped the lightswitch. The last time he was up here, he had walked to the closet, grabbed the hammer, and made up his mind. And now he had to spend his entire life trying to justify that decision. He just wanted peace of mind, but he couldn’t imagine a day where he would be settled with this choice.

Walking into the bathroom, he shut the door behind him, feeling the cold atmosphere against his skin. He leaned against the sink and looked in the mirror, staring at someone he didn’t recognize. He almost expected to blink but not see his reflection blink back; as if this person was a doppelgänger.  So many versions of himself were reflected in this mirror, and each one felt more and more like a stranger. Tears welled in his bruised eye, he couldn’t stand to look at himself anymore. He threw open the medicine cabinet, his eye stinging as he wiped away a tear. Then, something familiar caught his eye. His fathers razor rested on a shelf. He pursed his lips as he stared at it, a knot forming in his throat. He impulsively snatched it, almost dropping it from his sweaty palm as he ferociously attempted to remove the blade. The handle dropped to the ground as he pinched the blade between his fingers, the yellow bathroom light reflecting off of it. He couldn’t handle feeling everything and nothing all at once; his brain felt like it was overfilling, and it was reaching the brim. He needed to drain it somehow. He needed to feel just one thing. So he pressed the blade against his scarred wrist, his clenched jaw trembling as he let out shaking breaths. He stared at the indent in his skin as he kept light pressure on the tip of the blade. Two options appeared before him: he could slice and dice until it all felt better, or he could press harder this time. Just like Maggie, he could dig deeper, one final cut after so many cuts. He could lay on the bathroom floor, riding the peaceful escape as every bad thing drained out from him. Why live for an uncertain future? His eyes fixated on the blade, he weighed out these options… until a third one appeared. He dropped the blade, pressing his hands against his face. He let out hot, shaking breaths into his palm, tears streaming down his cheeks. Before he could change his mind, he stormed out of the bathroom and towards his room. Slamming the door behind him, he paced back and forth, his emotions boiling to a rage.

“F-FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!”

He tantrumed around his room, blood rushing to his face. The desire to shove his fist through something till it turned to ash swelled. He balled his fists and rapidly punched his head, letting out gasping sobs. His knees buckled as he dropped to the floor, his head in his hands. Tears dripped onto the floorboards as he let out screaming sobs. He regretted everything, every waking moment. He cursed Maggie, he cursed his father, he cursed himself.

“Hello?” A muffled voice suddenly spoke from his walkie-talkie.

He lifted his head, tears soaking his beating red face. He crawled over, pulled open his drawer and grabbed the radio. The antenna wobbled as he extended it, his shaking finger hovering above the button.

“Hi,” he responded, his voice shaky and gravelly.

“Elijah?”

It was Veronica.

“Y-Yeah… it’s me.”

“Are you crying… ?”

“... No.”

“Elijah.”

He dropped his head as he continued to sob, the radio hanging in his hand.

“Hey… what’s wrong?” She felt like it was a stupid question to ask, but didn’t know what else to say.

He lifted his head, sniffling.

“Fucking everything! Everything is wrong!”

“I know… we’re gonna… we’re gonna get through this together. You’re not alone-”

“Y’know, you always say that… yet I still feel so fucking alone…”

“But you’re not!”

“That doesn’t- that doesn’t fucking change anything! I have to wake up in an empty house! I have to go home to an empty house! And eventually, I’ll be shipped off to some distant relative that doesn’t even want me! I’m alone!

But whose fault is that… ?

She went silent, listening to his cries.

“You’re right… I can’t change anything. But what I can do… is reassure you that I’m always here. Always.”

He sniffled, staring blankly as the tears continued to pour.

“I don’t mean to be so… cold. It’s just hard to believe what you’re saying...”

“I get that… but I will drill into your head that you’re never alone because it’s true.”

Tears slid down his weak smile. He tried to appreciate her care, but it felt like a bandaid on broken glass.

“You guys okay?” Stanley interjected.

“Just… grand,” Elijah sighed.

He chuckled lightly, pausing before he spoke.

“I appreciated you guys… coming to the funeral. I can’t lie… a part of me wasn’t expecting y’all to show up.”

They couldn’t even take that insultingly because, truthfully, they wouldn’t have if they finished the hole.

“We got our priorities straight… even if it felt too late,” her words trailed off into a croak.

“I’m… I’m sorry… for leaving you guys that night.”

“Stanley… no. We’re sorry we didn’t leave with you,” Elijah reassured him.

“You guys stayed because you loved her.”

“You left because you did, too,” she contested.

He went silent, forgetting to breathe for a moment.

“We all made choices…” Elijah mumbled.

They all fell into a silence, reeling from every path they took.

“How do you… move on from this?” Elijah questioned aloud.

It was an impossible question with an impossible answer.

“You… don’t. You just… wait till time carries you far… far enough that it all becomes just a bad memory,” Stanley sighed deeply.

He so badly needed somebody to tell him, with full reassurance, that it’d all be okay. But even then, he wouldn’t believe it.

“I gotta… I need to go do something,” Elijah stumbled to his feet.

“Are you gonna be okay… ?” She asked worriedly.

He stayed silent, unable to confidently answer that.

“I love you guys… so much.”

“I love you too, man.” Stanley gushed.

“... Love you too,” she mumbled.

He pushed the antenna back down, flipped the power switch and tossed the radio back into his drawer. He walked downstairs, approaching the phone that hung on his kitchen wall. There was a hesitation in his reach, as if he had another choice. He grabbed the phone and dialed 911. The phone shook in his grasp as he pressed it against his ear, his heart shaking with each ring.

“Gettysburg police, how can I help you?”

He froze as he heard the operator's voice, struggling to get his words together.

“Hello?” The woman called out as he stayed silent.

“I... uh… I need to report a missing person.”

“Has it been twenty-four hours since this person was last seen?”

“Y-Yes…”

“May I have their full name?”

“It’s… Eric Morris... the chief of police.”

“What is your relation to him?”

“... He’s my father.”

There was silence on her end for a moment, only the sound of typewriter clicks.

“What’s your address?”

“N-Nine Bayberry Road…”

She went back into silence again as her typewriter continued to click.

“A patrol car will be sent to you shortly for further questioning.”

“O-Okay… thank you.”

He hung the phone up, standing aimlessly in his kitchen as he dazed out with a nauseous stomach. Even when it all felt too real, it somehow continued to feel realer with each second. With time to kill, he opened the fridge, peeking inside. As always, it was only filled with beer. But this time, he didn’t mind. He grabbed a bottle, slamming the fridge shut as he swung his arm back and forth, the beer dangling in his grip. He plopped onto the recliner, feeling his thighs sink into the imprint that his father had left. He reached over to the coffee table and grabbed a bottle opener. The cap popped off, clanking as it hit the ground. He leaned back, taking a swig as he stared up at the ceiling, waiting for the red and blue lights to flash through the window.

Chapter One: Two Years Later. . .

        In Manhattan, New York. . .

Veronica stood in front of the tall mirror that hung on her closet door. She was wearing a slick black dress, one that was a bit over her comfortability level. Her hands slid down the shape of her body, which she was observing critically. Even after dieting and months of exercise, she still hadn’t achieved the body she wanted. She lost weight, but it didn’t feel like enough.

        “Stop looking at that thing, you’ll start hallucinating.”

        She turned to see her roommate Rebecca, who was leaning in the doorway. Her wavy blonde hair was draped over her shoulder, her fingers in the pockets of her jeans.

        “Is it too much… ?” She turned to her, her expression droopy.

        “No! Stop overthinking! You look great.”

        She walked over, standing behind her in the mirror. She rested her hands on her shoulders, a grin on her face.

        “You look stunning, don’t ever question that.”

        She smiled weakly, looking away from her reflection.

        “I just… It’s been a while, y’know. I haven’t exactly been in the dating pond…”

        “That’s why it’s your time to shine, girl! You’ve been in the city for over a year and you still haven’t been to a fancy restaurant. That’s, like, a crime.”

        Veronica chuckled, looking down at her feet, which were cramped in black heels.

        “But we’ve also barely spoken. What if we don’t mesh?”

        “Ronnie, that’s the point of a date. To see if you mesh.”

        “Okay but what if he doesn’t-”

        Rebecca pressed her finger against Veronica’s lips, shushing her. Her eyes crossed as she looked down at her finger.

        “You’re going on this date, and it’s going to be fun.”

        Veronica sighed as she slid her finger away.

        “Okay… I should get going.”

        “Hold up, don’t forget a jacket.” She tossed her a thin coat with a fur lined hood.

        “Ah yes, this will surely protect me against the harsh winter weather,” she raised her eyebrows.

        “It’s not a cute outfit if you’re not freezing your ass off.”

        “Cheers to that.”

        “Now, go get ‘em tiger!”

        Veronica giggled as she left her bedroom, making her way towards the front door. She carefully walked down the stairs of her apartment building, preventing a broken heel. As the exit doors opened, the chilled air and sounds of the buzzing city hit her like a brick. She stepped outside, swiftly merging with the evermoving crowd that flowed like a school of fish. Snow stuck to the fur of her coat as the body heat of fellow pedestrians kept her warm. Even after spending so much time in the city, she never felt like a city girl. Besides living in a gated community, she still lived in Bumfuck for her entire childhood.

        Heh, childhood… Never think about that.

        She preferred to not dwell on her childhood. In fact, she likes to think she’s never had one. She liked to imagine that she spawned from the city sewers; emerging from a manhole as a fully grown 19 year old. When she did think about her childhood, all she could think about are all the things she left behind, for better and for worse.

When she applied to FIT, all she wanted was to leave. New York wasn’t a sea away from Pennsylvania, but it was a different state, a different pace of life. And that was good enough for her. But when she received her acceptance letter, her mindset changed. Suddenly, she felt cowardly. Instead of feeling like she was escaping, she felt like she was running away. Instead of thinking about all of the bad things she was leaving behind, she thought about all of the good things. There weren’t many of those, but the ones that were, gave her the only happiness in her life. She’d miss Uno nights, school lunch, movies with friends. It was really just her friends, all of it. They were the root of all the good. The last thing she wanted to do was leave them, but it was just a part of life. They had to go their own ways too, wherever that is.

She began thinking about Elijah and the state that she left him in. After the funeral, the last few days of school didn’t feel like an achievement. She remembers tossing her graduation cap into the air as everyone else threw theirs. But Elijah stood there in an absolute daze. Like he was barely standing on his own two feet. Her mind then blinked over to the moment she was packed up and leaving. She had hugged Stanley, who was soon going to be on his way to college as well. And then she turned to Elijah. He had such a sad smile, it was practically a frown. She hugged him so tightly, burying her face into his chest one last time.

        “If you need me, I’m always here. I’ll drop the world to answer that phone call. Okay?”

        “Okay.”

        She wished she kept that promise. She wished she responded to those piled up voicemails. She wished there was a place for him in her life now. Maybe there was, and she just didn’t want it. She wished she understood herself. She wished for a lot of things. Last winter break, she skipped out on going back home and became a couch potato with Rebecca. She just couldn’t handle going back home. It wasn’t home anymore. But this year, she wanted to make up for that. She’d locked out everything for too long, and when she got that call from Stanley asking to meet-up over the break, it felt like she had some catching up to do. But before that, she needed to survive this date.

She looked up at the unpronounceable name of the restaurant; an Italian word written in bold, golden font with a white glow behind it. The last time she went to a restaurant this fancy she had called her own Mom a cunt. Standing awkwardly under the awning, she shielded herself from the flurry. She peered over the bustling crowds, trying to spot the top of his gelled head. Eventually, she saw him jogging down the street, seemingly in a rush. Before she could greet him, he halted to a stop in front of her, his chest pumping.

        “I am… so sorry. Am I late?”

        “N-No, not at all, actually.”

        “Oh, well. Good exercise, at least.” He straightened his tie, slowing his breathing down.

        She smiled, looking away as they walked towards the door. He quickly shifted in front of her, holding the glass door open.

        “Oh- Thank you.”

        He nodded, moving out of her way. She stepped inside, turning her head around as she waited for him to appear next to her. A young woman with a pixie cut suddenly approached them.

        “Reservations?”

        “Yes. Seven o’clock for Derek.”

        She flipped through pages on a clipboard before looking back up.

        “Follow me,” she smiled.

        They stayed on her tail as she navigated them through tables occupied with chit-chat. They thanked her as they sat down, making themselves comfortable. To avoid conversation, her first instinct was to pick up a menu. As he browsed his, she sporadically peeked up at him. He was clean cut, with his short brown hair perfectly gelled back, a jawline that could cut diamonds, and a gleaming smile that could battle the sun. But all she could think about is why he was sitting at a table across from her.

        “What brought you to FIT?” He asked.

        She dropped the menu, taking a moment to process her answer.

        “Well… I mostly just wanted to get out of Pennsylvania. Needed a change of scenery.”

        “Ah… Yeah I’m a city boy, I couldn’t imagine churning butter with you folks down in Pennsylvania.”

        She giggled, looking down at her plate.

        “But, for real, I came to FIT because I genuinely am interested in fashion. As a… woman on the bigger side, I felt like fashion was never made for me. And I want to change that.”

        The way he looked at her with genuine interest made her bizarrely anxious.

        “Well, I’d argue that that dress was made for you,” he grinned slyly.

        She blushed, pursing her smiling lips.

        “What brought you there?”

        “A buddy and I want to start our own clothing company.”

        She raised her brows.

        “But you can’t do that without knowing how to make clothes, so I ended up at FIT.”

        “I hope that works out for you.”

        “Thank you, I do too.”

        They looked up as the waiter approached them, a notepad in hand.

        “What can I get for you today?”

        “I’ll have… the filet mignon, medium rare.”

        “Anything to drink?”

        “Water is fine.”

        He turned to Veronica, whose heart skipped a beat.

        “Uh… fettuccine alfredo, hold the chicken.”

        “Anything to drink?”

        “Water.”

        He quickly finished jotting down their orders.

        “I’ll be right back with your drinks,” he smiled.

        They thanked him as he sped off, then turned back to each other.

        “So, tell me more about you,” he inquired.

        “Like what… ?”

        She worried that she was exuding awkwardness.

        “What blazing trail did you leave back in Pennsylvania?”

        Her face fell as her eyes shifted away in a daze. Regret ran over him as he noticed.

        “Oh my- I’m sorry, did I pry?”

        “N-No, I’m sorry. I just… blanked for a minute.”

        Her shaking eyes shifted towards the waiter as he placed glasses of water onto the table.

        “Th-Thank you,” she grabbed the cup and swallowed a gulp of ice cold water.

        “Are you… okay?”

        She looked up, her eyes slightly widened.

        “What? Yeah! Yeah, I’m… fine,” she readjusted her tone, grounding herself.

        He stiffly watched as she collected herself.

        “Okay, Pennsylvania. Yes. I… grew up there!”

        “Yeah, you told me,” he chuckled awkwardly.

        “Right… Well, it isn’t exactly a tale for the ages. I grew up in a gated community that was like a twilight zone in a rural area. I had a close group of friends, and then I graduated,” she stretched a straight smile.

        “Had? Did you guys… ?”

        “Oh! No no, we were tight knit till the end. Just the distance, y’know.”

        “Yeah, I get that. I was grateful when my closest friend had the same dream as me. Made leaving somewhat less painful.”

        “My roommate has been a new friendly face, but I still miss everyone else.”

        “Do you keep in touch?”

        She hesitated on her answer.

        “N- Yeah, kinda. Everyone’s just… so busy!” She laughed weirdly as she sucked down another wave of water.

        

        “But enough about me,” she quickly passed the hot potato. “Where’d you grow up?”

        “Like I mentioned, I’m a city boy. Homegrown in the big apple orchard.”

        “Right! I’m sorry, I don’t know how I forgot. You literally just mentioned it too!”

        “Yeah…”

        Jesus, Veronica! You’re fucking scaring him!

        “Even after being here for over a year, I still feel like I haven’t fully experienced the city. Do you have any places you’d recommend going?”

        “Hm… Ah! Brasserie!”

        She tilted her head curiously.

        “Delicious eggs benedict, and the occasional mobster clientele.”

        She chuckled, her nerves calming.

        “Sounds fun, I should go some time.”

        “I… could take you.”

        She tried to stop the look of surprise from plastering across her face.

        “Uh- Yeah, I could… look at my schedule and see.”

        “Alright,” he nodded with a smile.

        They looked over as the waiter walked towards their table, balancing two steaming plates of food on his palms. He placed the steak in front of Derek, then placed the pasta in front of Veronica. As the plate entered her peripheral, her brain practically calculated the calories of each basil leaf. He placed his napkin on his lap, Veronica then snapping out of her trance and doing the same. She hesitantly picked up the fork as she thought about how fattening that creamy sauce was. She imagined one bite bringing her back to high school.

        “So, tell me about your friends.”

        She froze, her eyes darting up at him.

        “Wh-What?”

        

        “Your friends? From back home? I want to know about the people you surrounded yourself with, it tells me a lot about you.”

        “... Yes! Sorry, this food just… looked so good! Had me in a trance!” She squeezed out a faux laugh

                

        “I… could imagine!”

        “Anyways… my friends. Stanley was one of them. Short little ginger kid. He was very smart and prided in it too. He was nerdy but not in the get-shoved-in-a-locker type of way.”

        “Sounds like a great guy.”

        “He was- is. He’s not dead,” she laughed awkwardly. “He’s actually up in Connecticut attending Yale!”

        “Oooh, ivy league.”

        “Then there’s Elijah…”

        Derek couldn’t decipher the look on her face as she thought about him. It was as if a smile and a frown were battling for control of her face.

        “He was-... is… my closest friend. We kinda grew up together, until he ended up six feet tall and left me and all the other fairies down here,” she giggled anxiously.

        He chuckled, resting his chin in his hand.

        “He was such a hothead, but also such a softie. You’d get different versions of him on different days. It was a gamble.”

“Where’d he end up?”

        “I… don’t know, actually. He was… floundering when I left for college.”

        “Ah, happens to the best of us.”

        “Yeah…”

        She twisted strings of pasta around her fork before lifting it towards her open mouth. As she chewed, she suddenly felt this overwhelming embarrassment. As if she was somehow chewing wrong, or if he was observing every chomp. She began rapidly chewing, then prematurely swallowed it as the clump of food slowly slid down her throat. She practically inhaled her third gulp of water, cramming the food down.

        “Sorry, back to what I was saying. So yeah, there was Stanley, Elijah, and… a-and…”

        Maggie. Her name was Maggie.

        Everything flooded back in this overwhelming wave, memories and images flashing through her mind. He looked at her concernedly as she blankly stared, her eyes shifting.

        “Veronica?”

        “And… and…”

        The word played from her mouth like a broken record. It was as if she had forgotten who Maggie was, and truthfully, she had tried to.

        “Will you excuse me? I have to use the restroom,” she abruptly broke from her trance.

        His throat knotted for a moment, feeling slightly disturbed.

        “Y-Yeah.”

        She shot up out of her seat and quickly walked to the bathroom. The knot in her throat tightened as she received glares from fellow diners. She swung the bathroom door open, her heels clicking against the pearly tile. Quickly entering a stall, she locked it behind her so she could break down in private. She closed her eyes as she took in deep, shaking breaths. The last thing she expected from tonight was a pop quiz on her childhood. But most people are able to talk about their childhood because most people didn’t try to dig a hole to Hell during it. She wanted to throw water on her face, but that would ruin her makeup. So, she gathered herself together and exited the stall. For a moment, she stood in the middle of the bathroom, taking one last breath. As she opened the bathroom door, it felt like time resumed as the chatter hit her ears. She calmly made her way back to the table.

        “Sorry, I’m back,” she smiled as she sat down.

        “No, it’s alright. Are you feeling okay?”

        “... Yeah, just a stressful week.”

        He reached out, wrapping his hand around hers.

        “Relax. I want you to have fun.”

        She sighed with a smile, then pulled her hand away and used it to hold her straw as she took a sip. He retracted his hand, his cheeks lightly blushing with embarrassment.

        “Enough about my… boring childhood. Tell me about yours,” she rested her chin on her hands, a grin on her face

        Two Hours Later. . .

        Veronica quietly slipped through her front door, attempting to make as minimal noise as possible. Truthfully, she wanted to avoid Rebecca because she knew she’d want every detail about the date, ranging from every breath and blink he took. She pursed her lips as she gently closed the door, flinching with each creak. As the door safely closed, she let out a sigh of relief. Until the light turned on, leaving her body frozen.

        “You’re not getting past me!”

        Veronica stretched a wide smile as she took her hand off the doorknob.

        “Well, tell me all about it!”

        Veronica took in a slow breath, moving her head back and forth as she tried to put a white lie together. But before she could even exhale, she crumbled. Her face trembled as she tried to stop it from scrunching into tears. Rebecca’s face fell as she watched.

        “What’s wrong? Was it bad?”

        She couldn’t utter a single word as she struggled to get her heels off.

        “Ronnie-”

        “It was terrible! It was fucking terrible and I’m never going on another date again!”

        “What, why?!”

        “I just… can’t!” She vigorously kicked her shoe off.

        “What did he do?! I will chop his balls off!”

        “It wasn’t- It wasn’t him! It was me! It was all my fucking fault, I ruined it!”

        She stared at her with confusion.

        “What- What happened?!

        “I… I felt so fucking stupid! Like, what was I even doing there?!”

        “What are you talking about?!”

        She kicked off her shoes and proceeded to storm off to her bedroom, Rebecca pursuing behind her.

        “Veronica, what happened?”

        “I… he asked about my… childhood.”

        Rebecca was never given the details about her childhood, all she knew was that it was a subject that was left untouched for a reason.

        “Well, he’s gonna want to get to know you.”

        “N-Nobody can know me! Nobody can truly know me!”

        “I know you!”

        “Becca… I love you, but you don’t know me. There is so much about my life that you don’t know and the only reason that this-... that we work is because that shit is kept locked up.”

        She tossed her jacket onto the floor as she sat on the edge of her bed. She cautiously sat next to her, feeling like she was in a tiger's den. Veronica dropped her face into her hands as tears began to stream down. Rebecca wrapped her arm around her, rubbing her back.

        “It’s ok… At least you tried.”

        She lifted her head, her cheeks shining with tears.

        “But I feel like I can never try again. I just can’t…”

        “Yes, you can.”

        “No, I can’t! I feel like I can’t give any part of myself to anybody! I’m not even damaged goods, I’m just fucking damaged!

        She dropped her head as she continued to sob, tears soaking into the fabric of her dress.

        “Look… Maybe you’re just not ready for this right now, but don’t say never. Focus on yourself.”

        “The last thing I want to do is focus on myself. I just want to restart, wipe away my fucking life and start with a blank slate.”

        “I know…”

        Rebbeca’s head rested on Veronica’s shoulder, holding her tightly as she cried. She wasn’t built to deal with this baggage. She stupidly assumed that everything was tied to her hometown, and that running as far as possible would fix it all. She hadn’t expected it to follow her like this dark cloud. And she felt like such an idiot for believing so.

        In New Haven, Connecticut. . .

        

        The veins in Stanley’s head popped out as he pressed his thumb against the pencil. Every time the tip of it touched the paper, his roommate's new girlfriend would roar with moans as the bedframe pounded against the wall. He pursed his lips, taking in a deep breath as he attempted to regain his focus. Then, to his surprise, they went silent. He furrowed his eyebrows, wondering if they were finished. The tip of his pencil cautiously touched the paper, as he waited to see if he was in the clear. After a few more seconds of silence, he began writing again. Until, the bedframe smashed against the wall, causing the items on his desk to jolt in the air. His blood boiled as his shaking hand gripped the pencil tightly, the tip grinding into dust against the paper. Then, there was a knock on his door.

        “Come in,” he sighed with frustration, dropping the pencil and running his fingers through his hair.

        

        A weak smile stretched across his face as his girlfriend, Debbie, peeked her head through the crack of the door.

        “Hi,” she chirped.

        Her eyes then widened as she heard the banging and the moans, holding a laugh in her cheeks.

        “It’s been all. Fucking. Night,” he groaned, leaning back.

        She slipped through the door, closing it behind her.

        “Who is it this week?” She pushed up her glasses.

        “Some bartender.”

        “Ah.”

        His cheap mattress squeaked as she sat on it, her hands on her knees.

        “With the tuition we pay you’d think we’d be sleeping on clouds,” he chuckled.

        The smile on her face faded as she looked at him.

        “You look tired.”

        “Because I am.”

        He rubbed his bloodshot eyes as the girl's moans pierced his ears.

        “I can’t do this anymore. It’s like living with Ron Jeremy.”

        “I know. I want you to move out with me.”

        “I want to as well, but I need a job and that just doesn’t fit in my schedule right now.”

        He dropped his head, his breaths slow and deep. Suddenly, his roommate let out a growling moan as the banging came to a stop. The nightmare seemed to have finally ended. The floor shook as they stumbled around, seemingly snagging all their clothes off the floor. Then, the door swung open, the girl leaning against the doorframe. Her clothes were barely on; her nipples protruding from under her thin top. Her blonde hair was knotted into a bird's nest, strands of hair sticking to her sweaty skin. They waved awkwardly as she noticed them. She waved back with a wobbly smile as she stumbled towards the door. Their bodies stayed tense as they waited for her to leave without falling and knocking her teeth out. She then tugged at the doorknob, unable to get it open.

        “You have to turn it-… yeah,” he motioned for her to turn it the other way.

        She smiled wobbly as she figured it out, then left the room. They sighed with relief as she was finally gone. His roommate, Danny, then stuck his head out the door, his forehead drenched in sweat.

        “She’s fuckin’ smoking, amirite?”

        “A real charmer…” Stanley scoffed.

        His roommate shut the door, finally leaving them in peace. Stanley turned to her, letting out an exhausted laugh.

        “God, I can’t do this anymore.”

        “You’re almost out of the woods, don’t stress it.”

        “Being alive is stress. I shouldn’t be bursting my blood vessels right before winter break.”

        She walked towards him with a pout on her face. He closed his eyes as she began rubbing out the knots in his shoulders.

        “You’re doing the best you can, I know it’s a lot.”

        “So many essays, Debbie, it’s madness!” He jokingly cried, throwing his hands in the air.

        She giggled, continuing to rub his shoulders.

        “And winter break isn’t stressing me out any less.”

        “Why?”

        “Just… seeing everybody again, being back home. I know I’m the one who invited them, but it’s still... kinda scary.”

        “I think it’ll be nice, you need some familiarity.”

“Yeah, but…” He trailed off into silence.

        He struggled with peeling back every layer of himself, like there was a mental “NO TRESPASSERS”  sign when he tried to share his trauma. She leaned down, her brown ponytail draping across his shoulder as she rested her head.

“Then stay. Tell your folks you’ll take a rain check.”

“I do miss them, though. Even Levi, if you could believe,” he chuckled. “I… miss my friends, too.”

As complicated as it all was, nobody understood him like they did. Nobody else ever would. She bit the inside of her cheek, shifting her eyes around.

        “I know you… don’t like talking about it, but maybe you can mend whatever happened by going back.”

        “It’s… mended. Just left a gnarly scar.”

        She pulled back a bit, feeling like she was prying. As close as their relationship had grown, she always felt like there was something between them that prevented them from ever being truly connected.

        “I wish I could do more, I’m sorry.”

        “It’s… It’s fine.”

        “But what I can do…”

        She began running her hand down his chest, his body quivering as her fingertips reached his waistline. He closed his eyes as he took in deep breaths.

        “Maybe if you moan loud enough, we can give Danny some payback.”

        He laughed, grazing his tongue across his teeth as he smiled. She reached his crotch, rubbing the outside of his jeans. Her fingertips squeezed through his tight waistband, running her fingers down his shaft. Soft groans passed his lips as he leaned his head back. Although his brain was clouded with pleasure, he couldn’t help but think about going back home. It lingered around a corner of his mind, and he couldn’t get it to go away.

He continued to let out soft moans as she slowly stroked him, his penis hardening. He then fell into a mellow headspace, as if he was making snow angels in his thoughts. All of his thoughts.

        “Oh, Maggie…” He moaned.

        She abruptly paused like a scratched record.

        “I’m sorry, who?

        She yanked her hand out of his pants, stepping back. His eyes widened as he realized, his scattered brain desperately trying to form a response.

        “I- I’m sorry. It’s- It’s nobody!”

        “Doesn’t sound like nobody if you thought to say her name.

        “It’s- She’s an old friend! That’s all!”

        “Oh, great. So I’ve been a four month rebound?”

        “N-No! Not at all!”

        “Look, I tried doing something nice to destress you, but clearly you’d rather have Maggie do it.”

        “No- Debbie! She’s- She’s dead!”

        Her jaw dropped as a laugh of disbelief escaped from her.

        “You- You thought about a… dead girl during a handjob.”

        “... Yes.”

        “... Okay.”

        She stiffly made her way towards the door.

        “Debbie, wait! I’m sorry!”

        “Stan…” She raised her palm. “I think you need… time alone.”

        She stepped out of the room, slamming the door behind her. He groaned in frustration as he slammed his fist against his desk. Then, Danny cautiously peeked his head out, seeing Stanley’s face in his hands.

        “Bro… you moaned another girl's name? I fuck, like, twelve-ty girls a week and I don’t do that.”

        “SHE’S FUCKIN’ DEAD!”

        He looked away, bug-eyed as he shut the door.

        Jesus Christ, how did he even make it into this school?

        Why did he do that, though? Truthfully, he didn’t believe it was because going home has been on his mind. Before meeting Debbie, he never had feelings for anyone other than Maggie.

        Why did I… do that?

        

In Boston, Massachusetts. . .

        

“What is that fucking smell?!”

Elijah hyperventilated as he balled up on the floor, his body dripping with sweat.

“Elijah, there’s no smell,” his roommate, Jesse, desperately tried to reassure him.

“Y-Yes there is! There’s this rotten fucking smell and it won’t stop!”

Jesse dropped next to him, pulling him close as he felt his body tremble beneath his hand.

“Your senses are just heightened, it’s okay.”

Elijah’s face scrunched as he shifted his tongue.

“It t-taste’s like I sucked on fucking p-pennies.”

“I know… I know…”

Jesse rubbed his arm as Elijah shivered, his entire body feeling frostbitten.

“I need to get this off, I feel like I can’t breathe,” he tore his shirt off over his head, tossing it across the room.

His exposed skin was drenched with sweat; his thin, pale arms riddled with self-harm scars and blown veins. They sat in silence as he took in trembling breaths, Jesse’s arm wrapped around him. He slowly closed his eyes as he attempted to sit still, but quickly failed. Then, he began shaking his head.

“What? What’s wrong?” Jesse asked worriedly.

“... I can’t do this… it’s never gonna end…”

“Hey, look at me,” he lifted Elijah’s head, looking into his dilated eyes. “You can do this.”

He looked back at him; Jesse’s eyes soft and hopeful. But not hopeful enough for him to feel the same.

“I can’t do it…”

“You can and you will. You promised yourself you’d be sober when you went back home; I’m not letting you break that promise.”

“B-But it hurts so fucking badly. Everything hurts. My bones, my veins, my blood. It all aches so badly…”

He began to sob, overwhelmed by it all.

“I know… But I’m here, and we’ll go through this together.”

He wiped away a tear as he leaned against Jesse, savoring his body warmth.

“I feel like I can… taste everything, smell everything, hear everything… my head’s gonna fucking explode.”

“It won’t last forever, you can get through it.”

He felt so vulnerable in this state, but so grateful that Jesse never judged him for a second. He hadn’t found a friend like that in a long time.

“I need water, can you please get me water.”

“Yeah, of course.”

Jesse rushed over to the kitchen, which was practically in the living room of their small apartment. Elijah gagged on the putrid taste that plagued his mouth, desperately waiting for a drink. Jesse quickly grabbed a cup, then filled it up with tap water. He carefully rushed it over, a bit spilling over the brim.

“Here ya go.”

He snatched the cup and began gulping it down to wash out the taste.

“Slow down, you’ll make yourself puke.”

He slowed his pace, taking sips. His lips parted from the cup as he finally came up for air, then wiping the excess water off.

“Thank you,” he squeezed out between breaths.

“Of course.”

The cup shook in his trembling hands, a drop streaming down the side of his mouth as he drank. Then, the tremor began to calm.

“See, it’s stopping,” Jesse smiled.

“But it’ll start again… and again…”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. You survived your first withdrawal, I’m proud of you.”

He smiled weakly as Jesse wrapped his arm back around him. Taking another sip, he looked over at Jesse, who smiled back. He then blankly stared at him, exhaustion blanketing him. He always liked Jesse’s hair; auburn colored with the sides shaved, leaving the rest tied back in a bun. His dopey amber eyes were behind browline glasses, with dark circles under them from staying up for so long. His beard, auburn like his hair, was trimmed and scruffy.

“You okay there?” He grinned.

He continued to keep his eyes locked on him, his pupils undilating.

“You, my good sir, are crashing.”

“Is that what this is?”

Elijah dropped his head, savoring the peaceful, but dizzying, moment.

“Thank you… for everything. I’m sorry if any of that was scary for you… it’s scary for me too.”

“Do not apologize. I’m here to be scared with you.”

He took a moment to breathe, feeling the symptoms coming to a stop.

“Fuck… I’m hungry,”  he growled.

Jesse chuckled, shaking his head as he rolled his eyes.

“You… need to go to bed.”

“Agreed.”

Jesse stood up, Elijah’s legs buckling as he attempted to stand. Jesse quickly grabbed his arms, helping him keep his balance.

“I got you.”

He carefully stood on his own two feet, his muscles sore and weak. They walked to Elijah’s room slowly, his arm around Jesse to keep his balance.

“Jesus, I feel like I’m taking my first fuckin’ steps.”

“You’ll feel better in the morning.”

Jesse kicked the door open with his foot, then led him towards his bed. A clutter of trash was slowly growing in his room, with empty water bottles and sauce stained paper plates scattered around. Elijah dropped himself onto his bed, exhaling deeply as he laid.

“You made it!” Jesse cheered, raising his arms with a wide smile.

“Yay…” Elijah groaned, raising his heavy arm and then dropping it.

Jesse flipped the lights off, then stretched over Elijah and laid next to him. He looked at Jesse in confusion for a moment, his brain still clouded with static.

“You don’t… have to stay with me.”

“I want to.”

“... Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” he smiled softly.

He kept his eyes open as Elijah closed his, listening to the sound of his breaths.

“Goodnight,” Jesse said.

“Goodnight…”

He wanted to sleep but just couldn’t. He wanted to watch Elijah all night and make sure he made it safely to sunrise. His hair fell onto his face as he pulled the hair tie off and tossed it onto the floor. Then, he took his glasses off and reached over Elijah, placing them on the overstuffed nightstand. The cold pillow soothed his skin as he laid against it, continuing to watch Elijah through his blurred vision.

Four Hours Later. . .

Jesse’s slumber was abruptly interrupted by the faint sound of mumbling. His eyes slowly creaked open, his vision blurry. Elijah was twitching in his sleep, his legs kicking back and forth. He was mumbling and groaning as if he was having a horrible nightmare.

“Elijah,” he mumbled raspily.

He laid his hand against Elijah’s skin, feeling a radiant heat. He continued to shift and grumble as he slept, beads of sweat forming on his skin. Jesse reached over and grabbed his glasses, his vision clearing up as he put them on. Suddenly, Elijah shot up, taking in a wheezy breath.

“Jesus, are you okay?”

He was silent as Jesse stared at him from behind, his sweaty back lifting as he breathed.

“Elijah?”

Before he could reach out, Elijah hunched over and puked onto the floor.

“Shit… it’s ok, you’ll be ok,” he rushed over, placing his hands on Elijah’s shoulders.

Saliva dripped from his lip as he hyperventilated, his face beating red. Then, his throat pulsated as more vomit began to crawl up his throat.

“I’ll clean it up later, just let it out.”

He hurled onto the floor again, chunks floating in the brownish green liquid. Before he could get a breath in, he puked once more, a vigorous chill taking over his body as the singeing bile ran up his nasal passages. He let out wet coughs as the puddle of puke spreaded across the floorboards, soaking into dirty clothes.

“... I’ll do laundry too.”

“It’s in my fuckin’ nose,” he nasally whimpered.

“I’ll get you napkins.”

Jesse carefully hopped off the bed, avoiding the flowing puddle. He bursted into the bathroom and began pulling on the toilet roll till it reached the cardboard. He waddled back, holding an armful of toilet paper in his arms like a baby. As he entered the room, he stopped at the doorway, noticing Elijah sobbing at the edge of the bed.

“Hey, hey, it’s ok,” he tossed the toilet paper onto the bed as he rushed to Elijah’s side. “Don’t worry about it, I’ll clean it up.”

“It’s… It’s not that,” he wiped away his streaming tears. “I can’t… I can’t even sleep one fucking night…”

His face scrunched as he continued to sob, dropping his head into his hands. Jesse pulled him close, resting Elijah’s head on his shoulder as tears dripped onto his shirt.

“Do you wanna go back to sleep?”

“I don’t think I even can…”

“Okay… do you wanna at least lay down?”

“Yeah…”

        

        Jesse tore off a piece of toilet paper from the pile and began wiping the puke and saliva from Elijah’s chin.

        “Fucking stop!” He spat, slapping his hand away.

        Jesse froze with widened eyes, concern and confusion blended on his face.

        “I’m- I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-,” Jesse stammered.

        Elijah dropped his head onto the pillow in silence, a frustrated look on his face. Jesse continued to stare at him, his tongue in a knot.

        “I’m… sorry. This is just… hard.”

        “I get that. But you need help right now, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting that help.”

        His face fell with guilt, staying quiet as he stared off.

        “Get some rest… I’ll clean this up.”

        He dropped the pile of toilet paper onto the floor, his stomach churning as the puke quickly soaked into it. He got on his knees and began spreading it around, trying to pick up as much as possible. He glanced over at Elijah, whose tired eyes were open, staring blankly. His attention turned back to the floor as he lifted the puke soaked pile of toilet paper, a chill running up his spine as it dripped. Cold air sucked through his bared teeth as vomit trailed through the hallway and to the kitchen. He tossed it into their garbage can, his hands coated with puke. Feeling skeeved, he used his elbow to turn on the sink and rinsed himself off.

As he scrubbed his hands, he felt a knot form in his throat as tears welled in his eyes. It hurt to see somebody he cared about hurting that badly. And as much as he helped, it never felt like enough. He could do everything but stop it, and that made him feel helpless. It was irrational, but he couldn’t help feeling that way. Using his arm to wipe his teary eyes, he turned the sink off and dried his hands. Now came the hard part.

He grabbed a few layers of paper towels, a wet sponge, and soap. He lugged the supplies over to the room, which already reeked of vomit. After dropping to his knees, he placed everything on the floor. With the paper towels, he scooped up any extra chunks that had been left behind. Then, with the soapy sponge, he began the grueling process of scrubbing every spot. His muscles quickly grew sore as he moved his arms forward and back, grunting with each movement. As he scrubbed, he glanced over at Elijah, who was still awake, staring with sunken eyes. At this point, he ran out of things to do or say, so he just kept scrubbing.

Chapter Two: Winter Break

The pit in Veronica’s stomach slowly grew as she zipped her luggage closed. Winter break had felt so far away, until it crept up, and she couldn’t feel any less prepared.

“You forgot this,” Rebecca reached out, a toothbrush in her hand.

Veronica twitched at the sound of her voice, taking a minute to process what was in her hand.

“Shit… thank you,” she snatched it, unzipped her luggage and stuffed it in.

“Are you alright… ?”

“Honestly… no! Not at all,” she stood up, a straight smile across her face.

“You’re gonna be fine! You get to see your friends again,” she smiled warmly.

“This isn’t the reunion you think it is, Becca,” her tone sharpened.

Rebecca clenched her mouth shut, knowing she had overstepped a boundary. It was hard to comfort her without wandering into closed off territory.

“So then why are you going back?”

“My parents want me home for the holiday’s. I already skipped last year, they’re not letting me get away with it again.”

Truthfully, she missed her friends a lot. But missing them didn’t make it any easier. She didn’t know where she stood with any of them, not knowing whether to expect a hug or a punch in the gut. Especially from Elijah.

“Well… I hope you have a decent time,” Rebecca weakly smiled, walking away after feeling like she pried too hard.

Veronica sat at the edge of her bed, taking in a deep breath.

It’s gonna be ok… you’ll reunite with your friends and tolerate your Mom… just like the old days.

She grunted as she lifted the luggage and stood it on its wheels. It rolled next to her as she walked out of her bedroom and towards the front door.

“At least give me a hug before you go,” Rebecca rushed over.

They paused in a moment of embrace, savoring the peaceful moment.

“You’re going to be okay,” she reassured her.

Veronica smiled weakly, looking away.

“Try not to burn the place down while I’m gone.”

“No promises.”

She chuckled as she opened the front door.

“Drive safe!”

“Hopefully I crash and die on the way there!”

She shut the door behind her, and made her way down the apartment building steps, the wheels of the luggage banging against each one as she dragged it down. The cold winter air chilled her skin as she entered the parking garage. As she approached her car, she pulled her keys out and unlocked the trunk. She dumped her luggage into it and slammed it close. As she closed the driver's seat door, she hesitated in starting the car. The key shook in her hand as she inserted it, the engine roaring to life as she turned it. She put the car in reverse and gripped the wheel, taking a moment before she pulled out. As she drove out onto the street, she tried to process the fact that after two years, she was going home.

In New Haven, Connecticut. . .

Stanley anxiously listened to the phone ring as he twisted the cord around his finger.

“Hello?” Debbie answered.

“Debbie- Hi.”

“... Hi.”

“I was gonna leave early to get a headstart on this drive home, didn’t know if you were awake yet. You… uh… never returned any of my calls…”

“Sorry, I assumed those calls were for Maggie,” she teased.

He laughed weakly, his cheeks red with embarrassment.

“Yeah, I’m… I’m sorry… about all that.”

“Look… I’m not mad. But can you at least explain to me what all that was about?”

“She was just… somebody on my mind at that moment.”

“At the moment I was giving you a handjob… ?”

“N-No, at a moment of… stress. She was a childhood friend. I haven’t been home since she passed.”

“Did you guys date… ?”

“No. I mean… at the time, I wanted to but… she was gone before I could.”

She paused in silence.

“Are you… over this girl?”

Her throat knotted as she asked, unaware if she even wanted the answer. Stanley swallowed roughly, knowing she wouldn’t like the answer he had. But his silence wasn’t a much appreciated response either. Her voice cracked as she scoffed, he could practically see the tears welling in her eyes.

“Goodbye, Stanley. I don’t need your baggage.”

He furrowed his brows, his eyes shifting back and forth as the other end of the line went silent.

“De-Debbie? Debbie?! Fuck!”

He slammed the phone back onto the hook, dragging his sweaty hand down his mouth. It felt harder to have admitted it to himself than it was to admit it to her. He still carried love for her, but also so much hate. So many loose threads that would never be tied. Loving somebody else felt like letting go of her, and he wasn’t ready for that.

Stanley left his dorm empty handed, not needing luggage as a lot of his things were left back at home. He slipped past people in the halls, making sure not to trip over people that stretched their legs across the floor as they leisured with friends. He made his way towards the overpriced campus parking lot, full of Daddy’s- money cars. He unlocked his car door and sat inside, taking in a deep breath of scented air that the dangling tree freshener emitted. The mix of emotions he was feeling were unexplainable; he couldn’t tell if it was butterflies or moths in his stomach. After so much time passed, he wondered what his first words to his friends would be. Whether he’d shed a tear or freeze up. It’s weird how going back home can feel like a fear of the unknown. You live somewhere your whole life, yet it becomes the scariest place to return to.

Now or never…

He put the key in the ignition, the dash illuminating as it started. He looked behind him as he reversed, hoping he didn’t accidentally run over some prick with a sweater tied around his neck. What a lawsuit that would be.

In Boston Massachusetts. . .

        Elijah’s eyes creaked open as the smell of eggs entered his nostrils, passing last night's stench of puke.

He found himself in the fetal position, his skin coated with dried, sticky sweat. The blanket was kicked to the foot of his bed; he must’ve done it in his sleep. His head felt like a bowling ball as he sat up, his vision staticy. A chill ran up his spine as his bare feet hit the cold floorboards. Jesse had cleaned all the puke up, streaks of water spots still remnant. He felt so guilty about exploding on him, especially after all he’s done. It was hard to not feel infantilized, even if that wasn’t his intention.

His arms trembled as he lifted himself up, feeling like he could drop back onto the floor. He peered through the doorway, briefly seeing Jesse standing by the stove. He smiled as he watched him cook like a housewife. Before entering the kitchen, he scavenged his floor for clothes, but found nothing. He then remembered that they were all soaked with puke.

        “Fuck,” he grumbled to himself.

        “You awake? I hear you cursing to yourself,” Jesse chuckled, scrambling the eggs with a spatula.

        “Yeah, uh, are my clothes clean?”

        “In the dryer.”

        He waddled towards the small laundry room at the end of the hall, crossing his bare arms as his body shivered from a chill. He opened the dryer door, snatching his warm clothes. He hopped down the hall as he shoved his legs into a pair of sweatpants, then crammed his head through the neckline of his shirt, leaving static in his hair. As he entered the kitchen, Jesse turned, a warm smile growing across his face. His hair was down and messily spread.

        “Smells good, and the smoke alarm didn’t go off.

        “Oh haha,” he scrunched his face. “Sit down.”

        Elijah dropped onto a chair, resting his face in his hands.

        “How’d you sleep?”

        “I didn’t, really.”

        “You were shaking in the middle of the night; kicked the blanket off like it was gonna kill you.”

        He sighed deeply, pursing his lips.

        “Thank you for cleaning everything up, seriously.”

        “Don’t sweat it, you’ve done that enough.”

        “Heh, indeed I have.”

        “Your friend, Stanley, called.”

        “What about?”

        “Something about meeting up at a diner? Sunny… something?”

        “Sunny Side diner?”

        

                “Yeah, that.”

        “Ah, that dump.”

        “You sound excited.”

        “I can barely contain myself,” he said sarcastically, raising his eyebrows and smiling weakly.

        He turned off the stove and dumped the steaming eggs onto two plates.

        “This should be light on your stomach.”

        He pulled forks from the drawer, balancing it all in his hands. Elijah felt the heat against his face as Jesse set the plate down in front of him, dropping the fork on it as well.

        “Tell me how it is.”

        He leaned his crossed arms against the table, his eyes darting back and forth between the plate and Elijah’s face. He pierced a piece with the fork, then gently blew on it. Jesse observed his facial expressions closely as he chewed; he was always made fun of for his cooking, and hoped to prove him wrong this time. He looked to the side as he slowly chewed, leaving Jesse in painful anticipation.

        “So, is it good?”

        “... The weather seems nice today,” he squeezed out.

        “Oh fuck off,” he laughed, leaning back.

        “I kid I kid…” He paused to swallow. “It’s not bad,” he smirked.

        “I’ll take what I can get.”

        Jesse picked up his fork and began shoveling the food into his mouth.

        “Schurman called earlier,” Jesse said with a stuffed mouth.

        “About what?”

        “To inform you that…” he cleared his throat. “If you want to continue to receive the privilege of taking my class, you must raise your academic performance,” Jesse mocked, deepening his voice.

        Elijah chuckled, stabbing his eggs with his fork.

        “Fuck him, fuck that class, and fuck his ugly mustache. I swear, one day you’re gonna see him in a headline for touching kids.”

        “Oh, most definitely. But seriously, please don’t flunk out. I can’t survive his boring lectures and phlegmy coughs alone.”

        “I won’t, my Aunt and Uncle would take my tuition away faster than I could blink.”

        The chit chat ended as they finished eating, Jesse taking Elijah’s plate and placing it on top of his.

        “You don’t have to-”

        “I got it, just relax.”

        Elijah smiled softly, looking away. He walked the plates over to the sink and began drizzling soap onto a sponge. He stared at him with a warm flutter in his chest, one that only grew stronger each day. He hadn’t felt this close to somebody since Veronica, and she left a hole that he never knew could be filled till now. But he couldn’t fully discern their relationship. Neither of them specified that they were more than friends, but it felt like it was. The countless nights Jesse would stay up with him, the times he’d pull a needle from Elijah’s hand, the times he’d drop the world for him. He was everything that Veronica promised she’d be. He thought he might love him, if he even knew what love felt like. He didn’t even know if Jesse was into guys. All he knew was that he had never wanted to kiss somebody so badly in his life. To run his fingers through his hair, to feel his bare skin as they’d drift off to sleep. It felt like his chest was bursting with fireworks at the thought. He so badly wanted to just flat out ask him: are you gay? What are we? He still had to tell him, too. They’ve known each other for almost two years now, he felt stupid about never coming out. He didn’t anticipate a negative reaction, but the possibility lingered in the back of his mind, like a hiss in his ear. The only other person he had come out to was Veronica, and it wasn’t as planned.

        “You ok?” Jesse suddenly asked.

        Elijah broke out of his trance, looking back at him.

        “Y-Yeah, sorry. Dazed off…”

        “Got a lot on your mind?”

        “Yeah… winter break and shit.”

        Elijah had only briefly mentioned that his childhood wasn’t… ideal. But Jesse spared him the recap.

        “Y’know, you don’t have to go back if you don’t want to. You could always just stay here. You already know that I’m… not going back home,” Jesse’s words trailed off into a mumble.

        “But I want to, I just… it’s a hard pill to swallow. I’m gonna have to stay in my old house, and Veronica and I haven’t even directly spoken yet! I talked to fuckin’ Stan about meeting up and he told me she agreed and-… it’s just so much,” he puffed his cheeks with air as he brushed his dark brown hair back.

        “I could give you money for a hotel.”

        “No, no. It’s… it’s fine…”

        Noticing his frustration, he set down the plates and sat across from him.

“It sounds overwhelming, but you’ll settle back in.”

        “What if… what if I don’t? What if it’s not like it was before?”

        Jesse sighed, leaning in.

        “It’s never going to be like it was before. You guys are grown now. You’ve started leading your own lives. Don’t let your friendships revolve around your childhoods, friendships are so much more than that.”

        “You’re right… you’re always right,” he chuckled, pursing his lips.

        “I know I am. You’ve got a long drive ahead of you, get to packing,”

        “Right again… how do you do it?” He smirked.

        He shrugged with raised brows and a cheeky grin, as he walked back over to the sink. As Elijah walked towards his room, he stopped in his tracks. He turned to Jesse, who was placing the plates back in the cabinet.

        “Hey, Jesse?”

        He turned around, wavy strands of hair dangling in front of his lenses.

        “Yeah?”

        I’m gay.

        They locked eyes for a moment, Elijah’s throat tightening as he fidgeted his fingers, nausea brewing in his stomach. As he took a deep breath, his lips finally parted to speak.

“... Nothing, forget it.”

Jesse followed him with his gaze as he flew off towards his room, closing the door behind him. He furrowed his brow, standing still in confusion. Elijah plopped onto his bed, a deep sigh rumbling in his throat.

Why now? Why couldn’t you do it?

He rubbed his dry eyes and pulled his suitcase towards him with his foot.

That was stupid…

He groaned in annoyance as he reached for clothes on his floor, realizing they were all in the dryer. He dragged his feet down the hall, Jesse noticing his frustration. His hands dipped into the dryer, cradling a pile of clothes in his arms. He kicked the dryer door shut and waddled back down the hall, Jesse chuckling at the sight. The pile of clothes thumped into his suitcase as he dropped them. He began lazily attempting to cram the clothes in, cursing through his teeth as it was too overstuffed to close.

“Fucking… cunt! Fuck! Bitch!”

Jesse peered around the doorway, watching his face grow red.

“Jesus, did your parents leave you home alone for the first time?” He chuckled.

“I’m about to put a hole in this fuckin’ wall if this suitcase doesn’t close.”

“Alright, calm down. You gotta fold them first, dummy.”

He sat down next to him, removing a shirt from the pile.

“I can do it myself,” he insisted, snatching the shirt.

“Oh really?” His eyebrows raised. “Go ahead, fold that shirt. Correctly.

        Elijah paused for a moment, the shirt wrinkling in his tight grip. He pursed his lips as he handed it back, avoiding eye contact. Jesse reclaimed it with confidence, a cocky grin across his face.

        “That’s what I thought.”

        “Just fuckin’ fold it,” he bit back a smile.

        The shirt draped against his chest as he folded it, setting it aside on the bed. He continued to do this with each article of clothing in the luggage, Elijah watching from the sideline. He was always in disbelief at how much Jesse was always there for him, even when dealing with his own shit. Struggling with family relationships, working to pay for his own tuition; Jesse’s plate wasn’t exactly empty. Yet he always made time, like he had unlocked an infinite amount of it. Maybe it feels better for him to help than to pity himself. Or is he thinking that just to deflect the idea that somebody cares about him enough to do something as small as folding his clothes.

        “Are you feeling okay?”

        “Wha- Yeah, yeah… I’m fine,” he mumbled, breaking out of his train of thought.

        “Do you want me to come with you?”

        Yes, please. Come with me.

        “Oh- No, it’s ok. You don’t… need to do that, I’ll be fine. I’m just stressed.”

        “Are you sure? Like I said, I’m not going anywhere over the break.”

        “I’m sure. I wanna be able to… handle myself.”

        “Okay…”

        As much as he wanted to help, the only thing he wanted more was for Elijah to be able to pick himself back up. He wasn’t always going to be around.

        

        “If you need anything, call me. Okay? And if I’m at work, you can call there.”

        Last time he heard those words, they became a shattered promise, and the shards had sliced a hole in his heart. But this time, he believed it.

        “Okay… I will.”

        Jesse nodded, continuing to fold the last of his clothes. As he firmly packed them in, he furrowed his brows, noticing something missing.

        “Where’s your toothbrush?”

        “Back at the house.”

        “You’re gonna use a two year old toothbrush?” Jesse’s face coiled in disgust.

        “What? I’m sure it’s still good!”

        “A fucking ecosystem has probably grown on those bristles! Jesus, Elijah,” he couldn’t help but laugh, dropping his face into his hands.

        An embarrassed blush painted Elijah’s cheeks as he laughed, a smile stretched across his face. Jesse walked off to the bathroom, returning with a toothbrush.

        “Please, don’t get, like, mouth cancer,” he chuckled, handing it to him.

        “Well, now you foiled my plan to break my sobriety and drink the two year old beer, too. I’m sure it’s nice and marinated now!”

        “Ew!” He bursted into laughter.

        His heart fluttered as he watched Jesse clutch his gut, his laughter uncontrollable. He thought this is what love might be like; witnessing those moments that they can’t see themselves. Jesse’s wide smile, his clenched eyes, his reddening face. Oh, god. Love. He swatted the word out of his mind like it was a fly.

Noticing his glasses slipping off his nose bridge, Elijah impulsively reached out, Jesse’s eyes crossing as he watched him push his glasses back up. His laughter slowed to a stop, almost stunned by the act. Elijah stopped his eyes from widening, feeling embarrassed. Their gazes froze on each other for a moment.

        “Th-They were about to fall, so-”

        “Yeah- no- you just caught me off guard for a second,” he chuckled nervously.

        Jesse turned away for a moment, as if that could hide his blushing cheeks. Elijah didn’t know how to decipher that reaction, but he knew he regretted doing it.

        “I… You should be all packed, are you bringing anything else?”

        “Uh- No, that should be it,” he smiled weakly, twiddling his thumbs.

        That was weird. Why was that weird? Everything feels weird!

        “Are you sure you’re okay with me taking the car? Don’t you need it for work?”

        “Don’t worry about me, I can take a ten minute bus ride. Are you gonna be okay with driving… ?”

        “Yeah! Yeah… if I’m feeling sick, I’ll just pull over.”

        “Ok… you’re all set. I’m gonna go put the finishing touches on a portfolio piece for class, so knock if you need anything. And let me know when you’re leaving, I’ll give you my keys,” he smiled, before disappearing around the doorframe.

        “Got it…”

        Jesse shoved his hands into his pockets as he flew down the hall, his eyes darting around as his face pulsated with heat. Elijah, unknowingly feeling the same, dropped his head into his hands.

        What the fuck was that?! Was that weird? Did I do a weird thing? Did I make him uncomfortable?! Did he… like it?

        A million possibilities ricocheted throughout his brain. He almost wanted to go and apologize, but he didn’t want to twist the knife.  The last thing he needed on his plate right now was unrequited love.  Instead of dwelling on it any further, he grabbed his shoes and crammed his feet into them. Then, he peered around the corner, a dim light leaking out from the crack in Jesse’s bedroom door. He crept down the hallway, the floorboards creaking beneath his weight.

        Jesse hunched over the desk, his pencil scraping against the paper with each stroke. Instead of walking in, Elijah silently watched from behind the door. He observed as he swiftly dropped a colored pencil and picked up another one, his movements like clockwork. He wished he was as passionate about something as Jesse was about art, but he never had the support to do so. The door creaked as leaned in, attempting to see what he was working on. Upon hearing the noise, Jesse turned his head, noticing him in the doorway. Elijah’s eyes shot open, his nerves spiking with even more embarrassment.

        “What’s up, creepster?” He chuckled, swiveling around in his chair.

        A wobbly smile extended across his face as he laughed painfully, pushing the door wide open. One thing he was always grateful for is the way Jesse could act like the past five minutes simply didn’t happen.

        “Sorry, I didn’t want to disturb you.”

        “Well, you standing there and staring at me was disturbing enough,” he teased.

        “Shut the fuck up!” He looked away, leaning against the doorframe.

        “Are you heading out?”

        “Yeah, I just need the keys.”

        “Sure thing.”

        He swirled back around, pulled open a drawer and grabbed his keys.

        “Think fast,” he quickly tossed them at him.

        He caught them between his fingers, almost dropping them.

        “Thanks.”

        He grabbed his luggage, rolling it next to him to the front door, Jesse following suit.

        “And you’re gonna be fine with driving?”

        “I said yes,” he insisted, laughing.

        

        “Ok…” He pursed his lips, looking him up and down.

        Jesse pulled him in for a tight hug, Elijah slowly wrapping his arms back around him. They savored the embrace for a moment, feeling their hands on each other's backs, Jesse’s scruff against his skin. Inside Elijah’s body felt like the 4th of July. When they pulled away, they locked eyes.

        “Remember, if you need anything: call me. I’ll drop everything and help you with whatever you need. Ok?”

        “Yes, I believe you,” he chuckled.

        “Sorry, I don’t mean to be like a helicopter parent. You’ve just been doing so well. I’m proud of you.”

        “Thank you, seriously. This week felt a little bit less like Hell with you.”

        Jesse smiled softly, pushing his glasses up as he looked away.

        “Ok, go before I look at you for too long and start hating your ugly mug,” Jesse patted his shoulder.

        “With pleasure,” he grinned.

        Jesse opened the front door for him, motioning for him to leave like a bellboy.

        “Thank you, sir,” he joked with a deep, British accent.

        As Jesse stood in the doorway, watching him walk down the hall, a wave of a thousand different sentences were crashing around his throat. But they all yearned for one thing.

        Let me come with you.

        But when he opened his mouth, the words that rolled off his tongue decided otherwise.

        “Send me a postcard!”

        “Will do!” He waved from behind, his voice echoing as he turned the corner.

        He was only going to be gone for a little over a week, but Jesse still found this strange ache in his heart, as if he had empty nest syndrome. So much care, put into somebody else, so he felt he was left unknowing with what to do with himself. But, strangely, he didn’t want to do anything with himself. Grossly enough, Jesse felt a bizarre pleasure upon hearing the news that Elijah’s Aunt and Uncle refused to pay for rehab, and that he couldn’t afford it himself either. Caring for him felt so… intimate. When they slept in the same bed, the urge to shift closer to him was undeniable. He wanted to feel the heat of his body, his scarred skin. He always passed it off as him giving Elijah the support that neither of them ever had, but it felt like more than that. This incessant need to care, one that may not feel platonic. Nothing felt better than needing to be needed, especially by him. There wasn’t a more euphoric feeling in the world, and all that left him with was one big question mark.

        Do I… like him?

        From Manhattan To Pennsylvania. . .

        Veronica adjusted her rearview mirror as she navigated the unfamiliar streets. The map that lay next to her on the passenger's seat wasn’t much help, as her only indication of reaching Pennsylvania was spotting a lot of trees. As she slowed to a stop at a red light, she anxiously tapped her finger against the steering wheel. The journey from point A to point B had never been more nauseating, as she wished a semi would just ram into the side of her car. By going back home, there were too many things she felt unprepared to encounter. Her parents, her friends, her past. She was going back to the source of the plague in her mind, and she felt less and less like she could handle it. Most of all, seeing Elijah. The first thing she’d say to him ran through her head a hundred times; whether she should start off with an a simple greeting, a stupid joke. An apology. One major factor was missing from her equation: how he feels about seeing her again, and that scared her more than anything. His first words. If he held it all against her, she’d spiral. What would she even say? How do you tell your best friend that he’s inherently a part of your trauma?

        Also in her gift basket of trauma, was her Mom. That day that she left for college is a foggy memory now, but she remembers that her last words to her Mom were not a tearful farewell. The closest connection she’s had with her parents in the past two years are the funds that are wired into her tuition. No calls, no visits. I’m sure to them it felt like a betrayal, but to Veronica it didn’t. The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb. But in the end, she was a lone wolf. And she felt it was unfair to be labeled selfish for it. How can you care for yourself without being selfish? Running off was nothing personal, and her friends and family lacked the same amount of effort to reach out that she did. But, maybe it was unfair to assume Elijah and Stanley would cope the same, maybe she just had thicker skin. That felt easier to admit than realizing that maybe, just maybe, she was being a little too selfish.

        She couldn’t tell which call had her jaw farther dropped: the one from Stanley that invited her to meet up, or the one from her Dad that invited her to stay at home over break. Although, both had her nerves fried. But most of all: the hole. She didn’t like to think about it, and she didn’t know if she’d be able to coexist with it while visiting. She hadn’t even reached Pennsylavania yet, and all she could think about was it sitting there, unfinished. For so long, she thought about how she was on the precipice, until Elijah pulled her back. But what racked at her brain even more was the possibility that she wasn’t. That if he hadn’t stopped her, maybe she wouldn’t be feeling the way she is today. The only thing that scarred her more than that experience, were the amount of what-if’s that spawned from it. Maybe, deep down, the reason she could never reach out to Elijah is that a part of her can’t forgive him. Like this tumor in her brain that believes he ruined her life by chasing after her that day. She can’t bring herself to forgive him for all the what-if’s.

        She furrowed her brows as she scanned the highway signs, then glanced back at the map. She appeared to be going the right way, but she still felt like a spinning compass. Only two years had turned her into a city girl, and these rural areas now made her feel like a stranger. But, to some extent, that was her goal.

        She continued down the barren highway, snow covered trees lining the sides. From her surroundings alone, she had to be, at least, near Pennsylvania. As she flew down the empty street, a big, blue sign that erected from the side of the road came into her view. She squinted, leaning in to try and read it. As she got closer, the blur in her vision cleared.

Welcome To Pennsylvania

She sighed with relief at the sight, throwing her exhausted back against the chair. But her relief faded fast as a knot formed in her throat, when she realized.

Fuck, I’m home.

From Boston To Pennsylvania. . .

Elijah winced awake as his car viciously vibrated from the rumble strips. He quickly swerved back into his line, blinking rapidly. Unable to tell if he had fallen asleep or dazed out, all he knew was that a sudden ill feeling came across. He swallowed roughly as he gripped the wheel, attempting to regain his focus.

You’ve made it six hours, you can make it farther…

Soon after, his forehead beaded with sweat, his clammy hands beginning to tremble.

Don’t do this… not now…

An unbearable nausea brewed in his stomach as his heart rate skyrocketed, beating against his chest. He eyed the other cars ahead of him with shaky eyes, worrying that he’d crash into them. Sweat smeared across his arm as he wiped his forehead, swallowing again. Then, the most visceral cravings hit him. His brain screeched for a drink in his hand or a needle in his vein; anything to stop it. Shaky breaths exited his nostrils after taking shallow ones in. The nausea grew worse, feeling like food poisoning. Tears welled in his eyes as he thought,

Is this it? Is this my life now? Will every waking moment be this?

It was in moments like this that he, guiltily, wished Jesse was here. He wished Jesse was in the passenger's seat, laying a hand on his shoulder, talking him through it. So much guilt came with that wish, but who else to want at this moment? In a past life, he’d say Veronica or Stanley. But that’s not how it is anymore, and the value of carrying yourself to safety only increased.

His tires screeched as he swerved to the side of the road, the stench of burnt rubber flowing through his vents. He lifted his hands off the wheel, leaving sweaty prints. Cars whirred past him as he stepped out of the car, stumbling towards the frosted woods. When far enough out of sight, he vomited into the snow, his body shivering with the force of a tremor. Wet coughs scratched his throat as he tried to take in a breath before the next wave. He brushed his hair out of his face as more puke ejected from his mouth, it’s warmth melting the snow around it. The vile flavor and singeing sensation made him want to puke even more, some of it dripping out of his nose. He straightened his back as he wiped his nose and mouth with his sleeve, his face beating with heat. Taking in a deep breath of the chilled air, he closed his eyes, desperately waiting for it to pass. His body radiated so much heat, it practically could’ve melted the snow around him.

It’s gonna pass… it always does…

Behind his eyelids, he pictured Jesse’s face. His soft smile, his doe eyes, this feeling of his hands on his skin. He wished he was here so badly, and he hated it. He hated dependency, his life was never grounded on it. And to end up needing dependency to function made him feel so broken. One stupid bottle, one stupid neede, two stupid choices, ended him up here. The cherry on top of the dozens of other things he’ll never forgive himself for.

As time passed, the shaking came to a stop, his heartbeat slowing. He slowly opened his eyes, his vision blurry. It felt like he had paused life for a moment, and now resumed it. His muscles aching, he trekked back to his car. He wiped his watering eyes, his nose burning as he sniffled. A heavy sigh erupted from him as he plopped his exhausted body back onto the driver's seat.

You did it… you handled yourself.

He wished he understood why he so badly needed to be independent. Maybe it’s just what he's accustomed to. Letting somebody else care for him wasn’t the scary part, the thought of them leaving was. Veronica abandoning him left a wound he never realized was so deep, and deep down, he was afraid of Jesse closing that wound and tearing it open again. He didn’t believe Jesse would ever do that, but the possibility scared him enough.

Upon seeing his friends again, he couldn’t imagine what he’d feel or say. He had never felt such a love-hate relationship with people. It felt cruel to blame people for moving on with their lives, but it was more than that. He wasn’t expecting to be a part of their baggage, all he wanted was to be a thought inside somebody else's head. A person people worry about, a person people care about. Once upon a time, he was that. And then he became an afterthought, and soon, a memory that felt poison. That’s what he could never forgive them for. Maybe, just maybe, if Veronica had answered one of those calls, he wouldn’t have drank that bottle or used that needle. Or it was just easier to drop some of that weight onto her.

He wasn’t asking for a therapist, just somebody who cared enough to nudge him in the right direction. Just some words of advice, words of encouragement. Somebody to tell you it’s going to be okay. And he was grateful that Jesse became that for him, but gaining something that good made it all the more scary. Like Jesse was going to slip through his fingers like sand if he needed too much. So much need made loving people so fucking scary. How much can you need before people decide they don’t need you anymore? Need, need, need. That word defined his life, his relationships, his hopes, his fears. Then, he realized that's why he’s so insistently independent. For other peoples’ sake. So he didn’t drive another person away from being so fucked in the head. Like caring about him was pouring into an empty void; both souls left empty.

But what scared him to the core about visiting home, was staying in his old house. It felt like the rotten, beating heart of everything that ruined him. The bruises, the cuts, the bloodshed. His moral compass spun under that roof. Another version of him haunted those halls, one he tries to convince himself isn’t a part of him. Veronica and Stanley treated leaving like a reset button, a fresh start. To him, college was just the next beat in a broken tune. It wasn’t gonna change him or heal him, his past was latched to his back, getting heavier each day. The night after the funeral, Stanley said that time would carry him far enough that it’d all just be a bad memory. But all time did was carry him from one shitty point in time to another. He was tired of waiting for it all to turn into bad memories.

“Hey! Do you need a jumpstart?”

Elijah broke out of his trance, looking out of his window. A truck pulled up next to him, a man with a mustache driving as a blonde headed woman chewed gum in the passenger's seat.

“Uh- No, no! Not dead, just parked!”

“Oh, ok!”

He watched as the truck drove off, its muffler coughing up smoke. Finished with dwelling on his past, he put the car in drive and merged back onto the highway.

While driving, he thought about what Jesse said, that it’s never going to be like it was before, and to not let their friendships revolve around their childhoods. He couldn’t tell if he was okay with that, but the truth didn’t care about his comfortability. Maybe instead of holding grudges, he could make amends. Maybe that could be the first thing he says to them; something that helps him move forward.

From Connecticut to Pennsylvania. . .

“H-Hey, Deb. It’s Stan… I just wanted to-... you don’t have to answer this, but I felt like you deserved to hear it. I wasn’t… trying to put my baggage on you, I should’ve gotten rid of it long ago.”

He anxiously tapped his finger against the payphone as he tried to collect his thoughts.

“I’m, uh… on my way back home, and I’m hoping to come back ready. Ready for you, the way you deserve. And if I’m not…” A deep sigh erupted from him. “Don’t wait for me.”

He hung up the phone, dragging his sweaty palm down its handle as he dropped his arm. Doing that felt like relieving the weight of a feather off his back, but it was better than nothing. The gas station shielded him from the bright, winter sun as he got back in his car. Merging back onto the highway, he turned up the radio to drown out his thoughts. But they were just too loud; screeching about Debbie, going home, seeing his friends, seeing Maggie’s parents. Yet he felt like his problems were the least of anybody else’s. After leaving for college, he struggled with validating his own trauma. As if tapping out early on digging the hole made him any less affected by it. Sometimes, he’d look down at the scar on his arm, one given to him by the claw of a demon, and dissociate. It almost didn’t feel real, and maybe that’s why his trauma didn’t either. Maybe he didn’t crawl out of the trenches soon enough. He wished he had.

After his last encounter with Debbie, he couldn’t process still being in love with someone that is no longer here. Was he in love with the memories? Was he in love with who he thought she was? It was a struggle to wrap his head around it. Grief played such twisted games. And how Debbie must’ve felt; how do you compete with a dead girl? Maggie was always going to have a headstone in his heart, but how much space was that taking up? If there’s no room for another, how do you find the courage to make more? The only thing he feared more than letting somebody in was pushing Maggie out, and they felt synonymous. It was cruel to admit, but Debbie felt like number two. Like she was placed in a hole that she didn’t quite fit in, because it wasn’t molded for her.

He didn’t want Maggie to turn into a faceless name, he didn’t want to forget about her, ever. But remembering her came with remembering her. It was impossible to reminisce about the nights spent on their walkie-talkies, when she’d paint his nails, without thinking about the lying and the bloodshed. It hurt to associate her with all of that, but she did it to herself. And now all the good memories were poisoned; the person in them someone he didn’t recognize. Her suicide and then finding the diary felt like losing her twice. He lost her, and who he thought she was. And he was left with somebody he somehow still loved. Even with all of the resentment and regret, he couldn’t help but think about the time they should’ve had.

Even after two years, he still couldn’t piece together what her motivations with the hole were. Deep down, he somewhat wished Veronica had finished it. Maybe it would’ve cleansed the image of Maggie he had in his mind, or it would’ve just tainted it even farther. An answer would’ve been so much easier to accept than this puzzle he was left with. But maybe the puzzle is forever going to be unsolvable, maybe it’s time to walk away from the pieces. He hoped that going back home would help him do that; to finally walk away.

Aside from all of the traumatic memories he’d be revisiting, he was actually excited to see his friends again. He wanted to know where they all ended up, hoping they were good places. Keeping in touch was a struggle that he tried to balance, achieving some success. He’d call a few times, getting a few responses from Elijah, almost none from Veronica. The separation was rough on Elijah, and when he’d call him, he could just tell that he wanted somebody else to be calling. It hurt to not be the one wanted, but he understood. He wished somebody else could call him, too. He imagined that he and Veronica would be calling daily, but it appeared not. Maybe he did a good thing by inviting them; gives them a chance to be in the same room to rekindle. He’d kill for that normalcy again, for everything to be just like it was before. Deep down, he knew it never would be, but maybe they could dig through the rubble and uncover something new, something better.

Chapter Three: Homecoming

        Two years did a number on her hometown, yet it was still exactly how Veronica remembered it. Memories flashed through her head as she navigated familiar streets and passed by stores she used to shop in. A few mom-and-pop businesses closed, with big name brands replacing them.

        Ugh, gentrification.

        One building in particular, that was still standing, caught her eye. Their local animal shelter. Her stomach dropped as she remembered the last time she was there, quickly averting her gaze.

        I just got here… I can’t do this already…

        She swallowed roughly, ignoring the building as she drove past it. Continuing down the roads, she passed her old high school, smirking as she slowed down to scope it out. Not much had changed, the American flag still whipping in the cold wind. She reminisced the days they’d burst through those doors and run for their lives to the bus, and on snow days like today when they’d bust their asses doing so. A soft smile stretched across her face, as it suddenly felt like coming back home wasn’t all bad memories.

        She slowed to a stop at the gate of her community, punched in her code, and waited as it slowly opened. Taking in a deep breath, she prepared to come face to face with her Mom again for the first time in two years. The last thing she was going to do was put everything behind her, but she didn’t need to make this trip any worse, so she decided to, at least, be civil. As she pulled up to her house, she eyed the tall front door, one she never imagined herself walking back through.

        Now or never…

        She stepped out of the car, her boot sinking into the grey slush. Her luggage splashed water onto her shoes as she dropped its wheels down, slamming her trunk shut. After safely making it up the snow coated steps, she paused at the front door, experiencing a wave of unpreparedness.

        Do it, just fucking knock.

        She hovered her fist in front of the door as if it was gonna knock itself. Tired of waiting for herself to build up the courage, she swiftly knocked on the door, then shoved her hands in her pockets. As she waited, she prayed it’d be her Dad to answer the door. Muffled footsteps could be heard from inside the house, the sound growing closer. Her head perked up as the door opened, her Dad standing in the doorway.

        “Come in, it’s freezing!”

        She smiled, quickly stepping inside. He shut the door behind her as she pulled off her dripping shoes.

        “Hi, honey,” he smiled warmly.

        “Hi, Dad.”

        They hugged tightly, his eyes scanning her as they pulled away.

        “Look what New York has done to my little girl!”

        She giggled, looking away.

        “I’m a city gal now!”

        “How is it down there? Is the snow bad? Let me get your coat for you.”

        “Oh, thank you,” she bent her arms backwards as he slid the coat off her arms. “The snow isn’t bad, most of it has already melted from all the walking.”

        “That’s good. How about FIT? Is it worth the tuition?” He chuckled.

        “Ha, yeah. I’ve met a few good people. My roommate Rebecca, in particular.”

        “That’s good, I’m glad you’re settling in,” he spoke from inside the closet as he hung her coat.

        Quickly eyeing the entire house, she wondered where her Mom was.

        “You want coffee?”

        “Uh- Yeah, yeah that’d be nice. Thank you.”

        She watched in confusion as he walked away; why was there no mention of her Mom?

        “Where’s Mom? Is she out?”

        “Uh, she’s… lying down!” He shouted from the kitchen as he pulled a mug from the cabinet.

        She scoffed in disbelief.

        Bitch couldn’t even be awake to greet me.

        “I’m gonna bring my luggage upstairs! I’ll come down after!”

        “Ok, hun!”

        The wheels clanked against each step as she lugged it upstairs. Rolling it down the hall, she reached her childhood bedroom, the door creaking as she opened it. Everything was exactly as she left it, as if it was a time portal. She stepped inside, looking around. The only noticeable difference was the empty corner, where her mirror once stood. The best decision she ever made was demolishing it.

        The springs of her bed squeaked as she dumped her luggage on top of it, then zipped it open. She began filling her empty closet, never imagining she’d see it filled with clothes she actually felt somewhat comfortable in. Then, she moved onto filling her drawers. As she pulled open the first one, her eyes widened. Her walkie-talkie was still there. She smiled as she lifted it, wowed at its perfect condition, as if two years hadn’t passed. The light illuminated as she flipped the switch, amazed that the batteries still worked. She remembered the countless days and nights she’d lay in her bed holding it, talking to her friends till their vocal chords fried. Even the paint on the button was fading, she had pressed it so often. She tossed it onto her bed, needing room for clothes. As she filled her drawers, she caught herself glancing over at it, wondering if any of her friends had gotten home yet. She had about an hour till she had to meet her friends at the diner, so they were most likely home soon.

        Finished unpacking, she left her room and made her way down the hall. As she passed her Mom’s room, she stopped in her tracks, hearing a cough from behind the door.

        She’s awake?! Is she fucking avoiding me?!

        Deciding to rip off the bandaid now, she turned to the door, slowly reaching for the knob. She peeked through the crack of the door as she slowly opened it, revealing more of the room to her view. She furrowed her brows as she saw her Mom lying in bed, her head leaning against a propped up pillow. She almost appeared ill, with her empty gaze staring at the wall ahead of her. Suddenly, her eyes darted towards Veronica, sending a spike of chilled fear up her spine. She quickly shut the door, unable to process what had just happened. That was not how she expected her first encounter to go. Embarrassed by her attempt, she continued downstairs, spotting her Dad in the kitchen.

        “Ah, there are you. Here’s your coffee.”

        She stood in the middle of the room, an expression of confusion and worry plastered on her face. Her Dad slowly trotted over with the mug, as to not spill it. As he reached out to hand it to her, her eyes glanced at it, then up at him.

        “What’s wrong with Mom?”

        His smile fell as he swallowed, looking away for a moment.

        “Just take your coffee.”

        “Wha- Is she okay? I went to go say hello and she looked sick. Does she have the flu or something?”

        “Please, just take your coffee and come sit down.”

        “Ok? Are you gonna tell me then?”

        She followed him as he walked to the dinner table, feeling absolutely puzzled. Sitting down slowly, he placed the steaming mug in front of her, then sat down across from her. She waited, watching as he tried to get his words together.

        “Your Mother… is sick.”

“Ok, then what is it? If it’s just a cold or something, stop acting like it’s cancer,” she chuckled.

Her faint smile fell as she watched his cold reaction. She had only joked because she didn’t imagine it was something that serious.

“What are you saying… ? Is it cancer?” She questioned panickedly.

“... Early onset dementia.”

A numbing chill ran down her body, her eyes wide.

“I-... I don’t-... she’s forty-six!”

“I know… that’s why it’s early onset.”

“When was she diagnosed?!”

“... Two years ago.”

She scoffed with a smile of disbelief, glancing away.

“You’re fucking joking, right?”

His face was ridden with guilt, as he avoided looking her in the eye.

“I left for college two fucking years ago!”

“Veronica, please-”

“Veronica please what? I’m in another fucking state for two years and you don’t tell me that my Mom has dementia?!”

“I didn’t want to-”

“Didn’t want to what? Bother me with the information?!

“I- I DIDN’T THINK YOU’D CARE!”

Her eyes widened as her jaw hit the floor, glaring at him in horror. He looked away with regret, his face red.

Fuck you!

“Veronica!”

“I get we didn’t end off on the best note, but to assume that I… wouldn’t care?!”

He pursed his trembling lips, continuing to avoid eye contact. Daggers shot from her eyes as she waited for him to say something, waiting for whatever excuse he’d conjure up.

“I never should’ve come home,” she mumbled, kicking her chair back and storming off towards the front door.

“Veronica, please... sit back down.”

“Just… stop. I need some air.”

He cursed to himself as he dragged his hands down his face, Veronica slamming the door behind her. Before she could even hit the first step, she burst into tears. They soaked into her sleeve as she wiped them away, storming down the sidewalk. She hadn’t even been home for an hour and something had already gone wrong. Betrayal ached her heart as she crossed her arms, the cold wind drying her tears.

Two years… Her memory has been rotting away for two fucking years…

Saying she wouldn’t care is what stung the most. She already felt so selfish for leaving everything behind to start over, and this just twisted the knife. The image of her in the bedroom flashed in her mind; she looked lifeless. But, truthfully, she didn’t feel upset for her Mom, she felt upset for herself. She cried for every compliment she’ll never get, for every traumatic memory caused by her that now, only she would remember, for every apology that she will never receive. And most of all, she cried over the fact that maybe her Dad was right. If she had received the news earlier, out in New York with her new life, maybe she wouldn’t have cared.

---

        As Elijah navigated his hometown streets, the memories came flooding back. So much pain rooted in one space, like Hell on Earth. He questioned why he even came back here in the first place; for friends that abandoned him? For places that no longer feel like home? Or, to try and reverse all of that. If this was the root of all the pain, it was time to put a stake in its beating heart.

        It was bizarre to him how a place could harbour so much trauma, as if it was embedded in the pavement of its sidewalks and the bricks of its buildings. A simple supermarket, which he passed by, is just a supermarket to anybody else. But for him, it’s where he bought candles and knives for satanic rituals. He wished he could just perceive it for what it was: a supermarket. That’s what he found funny about trauma, the simple things it’d inject its venom into. A supermarket, a shovel, a knife, a candle, a hammer, a cat, a diary, all warped in his perception. But most of all, a house.

        His childhood home still stood like a cockroach in an apocalypse. As he parked in front of the house, he almost wanted to turn the car back on and drive off into the sun. But it was time to confront his demons. His eyes stayed locked on it as he got out of the car, as if it’d move closer if he blinked. As he walked up the overgrown pathway, his luggage rolling behind him, he could practically visualize his memories replaying in front of him. Remembering the frog in his throat as Veronica stormed away, the words finally leaving his mouth: “I’m gay.” Glancing over at the driveway, he could see himself towering over the open trunk of his Dad’s car, his hand splattered with blood.

        The wooden steps bent beneath his feet as he approached the front door, his hand trembling as he reached for the knob. A dizziness weighed on him as he stepped inside, breathing in the heavy air. It was exactly as he left it, and that scared him more than anything. Another memory played, his face wincing as he practically felt the suckerpunch his Father dealt him upon finding out he was gay. He looked down at the floorboards, remembering the cold feeling against his cheek as his vision faded to black. Then, he hesitantly glanced over at the chair that sat in the living room. Its aura was sickening, unable to even pinpoint a specific memory for it. The countless nights his Dad sat in that chair, a beer in his hand, his dirty soul staining its cushion. And his last day in that chair, when he raised that hammer and made a choice that made him question what kind of person he was. It’s self defense, he’d tell himself. But he didn’t feel like that washed the blood off his hands.

        He continued throughout the house, remembering the sensation of the cooled blood against his skin as he scrubbed the floors to dust. Entering the kitchen, he opened the fridge, the flickering light illuminating its emptiness.

        No beer? Must be a blue moon!

        Slamming it shut, he turned to the phone that hung on the wall. He remembered dialing 911 with trembling fingers, rehearsing his lines. He felt like he was in the Tell-Tale Heart as they asked him questions about his Dad, in fear of them finding a missed splatter of blood or a fingerprint. One thing he was sure of though, is that they’d never find the body.

        He was so scared when they shipped him off to his Aunt and Uncle, the most communication he had with them were holiday cards that got left in the mailbox. They were kind to him, though; generous enough to pay for his tuition. They wanted good things for him, but that wasn’t the support he needed. He reminisced on his first night there, his eyes wide open. He called out to his friends on the radio, but was met with static. Never had he felt more alone in his entire life.

        As he ascended upstairs in the dark hallway, more memories played before him. He watched himself stand in front of the closet door, reaching up for the hammer. In that moment, it was like he had flipped a switch inside of him. He became somebody he never wanted to be again.

        Entering the bathroom almost felt safe, like a home away from home. Countless nights he’d run in here and lock the door, his body trembling as he listened to his Dad’s drunken tirade through the door, praying for him to tire himself out. Then it became a space of guilt, one where he’d cut himself for that fleeting feeling of something else. No matter what the resulting feeling was, it was better than whatever life handed him.

        Looking up in the mirror, he paused, staring back at his reflection. The last time he was here, he was seventeen, looking back at somebody he did not recognize, his brain screaming stranger danger at the sight of himself. Now, nineteen years old, he feared recognizing himself, because recognizing himself meant he had to recognize every part of him. Every needle injected, every bottle emptied, every drop of blood spilled. He wished he could accept that it was him in those moments, but he couldn’t. It was not a doppelganger, it was him. It was so hard to not let those moments define him when they defined everything else; his trauma, his addictions. If he accepted these choices as ones consciously made by him, he didn’t know whether it’d bring him peace or make himself feel more like a monster. But now he stood in front of the mirror, nineteen years old, looking back with sunken eyes and two more years of choices and experiences that defined him. And that made it a bit easier to look.

        Stepping out of the bathroom, he made his way to his room. This was the only room in the house that didn’t harbour much trauma, mostly conflicting memories. As he stepped inside, he first saw his bed, and remembered Veronica’s lips against his. He so badly wanted it to feel right, but it felt so wrong. And at the time, he didn’t understand why. He felt like puking as the encounter escalated, his brain screaming for it to stop. But he continued, hoping it’d fix something. He wished he could go back and tell himself that nothing needed to be fixed.

        Since the house was left untouched, he wondered what he had left behind. He began opening drawers, not finding much besides busted wristwatches and crumbled paper. When he opened an empty drawer, he felt like something was missing, something that was once there. Then, a lightbulb lit above his head; his walkie-talkie. After leaving for college, he left it at his Aunt and Uncle’s. He couldn’t bear to take it with him, knowing the other end would forever be static.

        He wanted to unpack, but walking around the halls felt exhausting and overbearing. The air was thick, like you had to trudge through it. Its haunting atmosphere nauseated him, causing him to crave a drink or a needle, and he couldn’t imagine staying the night here. He wished Jesse was with him; it sounded nice to have somebody with him that had no ties to this place, somebody that can help him look at it through their eyes. Now all he wanted to do was call him, just to hear his voice. The desire like an itch he couldn’t scratch, he swiftly jogged downstairs and grabbed the phone. He held it to his ear as he swirled the dial onto the numbers.

        Just to… let him know I got here safely. That’s all.

        He bit the inside of his cheek as the phone rang.

        “You’ve reached the establishment of Jesse O’Brien and Elijah Morris, please leave a message and we will get back to you with the utmost urgence,” Jesse mocked a deep, british accent on their voicemail.

        He giggled as he heard it, his mood already lightening.

        “Hey, it’s Elijah. I, uh,  just got home… The drive here was good, got a little sick on the way here, but don’t worry about that. I… just wanted to let you know I made it here safely, and I’ll update you on how everything goes. I…”

        Miss you. Wish you were with me.

        “... know you’re probably working or putting the finishing touches on your next piece for the Louvre,” he chuckled weakly, “so I won’t bother you with a long ass voicemail. Call me back… if you want… alright, bye.”

        He sighed as he hung up the phone, the unsettling atmosphere of the house creeping back into him. The craving to have Jesse here with him was stronger than any drug he’s taken, and he didn’t want to fear that dependency anymore. He needed to drop into somebody else’s arms for once.

---

        Stanley clenched his jacket closed as the frigid wind brushed against him. The graveyard was coated with snow, bouquets wilting in the freezing temperatures. He brushed the snow off the top of the headstone, then wiped down the front of it as well.

        In Loving Memory of Our Beloved Daughter        

Maggie Anderson

        He hadn’t been here since the funeral, and it felt wrong to skip on visiting. The graveyard felt like a morbidly calming place. Somewhere that made the ones you’ve lost feel not so gone. It felt weird to do so, but he decided to sit down, the snow soaking into his jeans. He crossed his legs, eye to eye with her grave.

        “Been a while.”

        He pursed his lips as he breathed deeply, his skin numbing from the cold.

        “I got into Yale, which is cool… the people are a little prissy but, it’s not all bad,” he smirked.

        Pausing for a moment, he almost waited for her to respond.

        “I met a girl… Deborah. But I call her Debbie. She’s… undeserving of me. We, uh…” He rubbed his reddening nose. “... didn’t leave off on the best note, and I’m… still trying to figure it out.”

        He took another pause, envisioning what she’d say.

        “I imagine right now you’d tell me to stop being such a fucking dope. Minus the swearing, you were classier than me. I just… can’t get over you. Took for you to be dead to confess it, heh.”

        Another pause.

        “You didn’t know?! Well I thought I was so obvious!” He laughed to himself.

        To any other person around him, he looked like an escaped psych ward patient, but he didn’t care. Even in death, he couldn’t connect with anyone more than he did with her.

        A knot fastened in his throat as he looked away, trying to collect himself.

        “I, uh… wished you were here for so many things. I actually went to Paris for a school trip, and I visited the Louvre. I remember approaching the Mona Lisa, close enough to see the brush strokes, and I thought… Maggie would’ve loved this. I would’ve loved to have seen you love this.”

        Tears welled in his eyes as he thought about every moment, every experience, that had a Maggie sized hole in it. He didn’t know what love was, or what it felt like, but he knew he wanted to be next to her.

        “Sorry, didn’t mean to get all sappy on you,” he chuckled, wiping his eyes.

        A part of him wanted to get angry, wanting to ask why she did it, why she felt like she had to kill herself. Why did she have to rob him of the experiences they could’ve had together? His pain couldn’t have amounted to hers, but it was still crushing to be the collateral damage.

        “The… gang’s actually getting back together. I invited them to that diner we went to after that Billy Idol concert we scraped money together for. We scarfed down that shitty, burnt bacon as our ears still rang,” he smiled as he looked down at his crossed legs.

        “I… I think I’m excited to see them. It’s just very jarring after so long. I… wish I was coming home to see you, too. I mean, I guess I am right now, but you know what I mean. You’d tell me all about whatever prestigious art school practically begged you to take your scholarship, and all the cool, like-minded friends you’ve made. You would’ve been somewhere you belonged. You never belonged in this dump, and you don’t belong six feet under either.”

        It was hard to stay on track when he remembered it was a one-sided conversation with a dead girl.

        “I feel like the longer I stay here, the more I’m just preventing the inevitable. So… I’m gonna go,” he stood up, brushing the snow off the back of his pants.

        “Thank you for being such a conversationalist,” he teased.

        He paused for a moment, staring at the headstone with a timid smile. Then, he walked off in silence, unable to squeeze out a goodbye. The word, goodbye, just felt too final. And something like “see you later” felt like a lie. So he got back in his car, his farewell left as a hanging thread that would hopefully one day be tied.

        He pulled into the driveway of his house, parked the car, and stepped out. The house hadn’t changed much over the years, only a few potted plants on the front porch. He grabbed his luggage from the trunk and rolled it behind him up to the front. As he rang the doorbell, he prepared for the barrage of family hugs and motherly kisses. He quickly widened a smile as the door opened, his Mom’s eyes widening as she saw him.

        “Stanley, honey, come in!”

        She squeezed him tightly as he stepped inside, leaving a lipstick stain on his cheek.

        “Hi, Ma.”

        “Hey, look who it is!” His Dad entered the room, his hands raised.

        “Hi, Dad,” they hugged.

        Suddenly, he felt the sensation of knuckles against his scalp, his face wincing.

        “Hey, ya little shit!” His brother Levi exclaimed.

        “Easy on him, he just got home,” his Mom gently slapped Levi’s arm.

        “I appreciate the warm welcome,” he laughed.

        “Seriously, welcome home lil bro,” he reached in for an unexpected embrace.

        “I see military school has whipped you into shape.”

        “And Yale has whipped you out of it,” he scanned Stanley’s consistently skinny figure.

        “The real muscle is up here,” he tapped the side of his head.

        “I’d like to see your brain throw a right hook,” he teased as he pretended to throw punches.

        “Alright, alright, enough,” their Father laughed. “Don’t scare him off back to college.”

        “I’m gonna go unpack quickly and I’ll be right back down.”

        “Ok, sweetie!” His Mom responded from the kitchen, scrubbing a dish.

        He rolled his luggage upstairs and into his old bedroom, a wave of memories washing over him. So many Uno nights spent on that bed, so many radio conversations. It was insane how so much of his life was packed into one space.

        His bed shook as he tossed his luggage on top of it, unzipped it and behind filling his closet. As he shifted around the room, he felt something knock against his foot. He looked down, the tip of his foot under the bed. His curiosity peaked, he kneeled down and peeked under his bed. To his surprise, it was his walkie-talkie. A wide smile stretched across his face as he snatched it from under the bed. He stood up, admiring it in his palms as he blew off dust. At the time, he wanted to take it to college, but didn’t think it’d reach that far out of state. The amount of stories, secrets, and emotions that were poured into the speaker of it was astounding. He set it aside on his nightstand and continued to unpack. When he was finished, he checked the clock, realizing it was nearing the afternoon. He had told his friends to meet up around this time, and they should’ve been finished with their drives by now.

        “I’m gonna head out now! Told my friends I’d meet up with them!” He called to his family as he jogged downstairs.

        “Are you gonna be home for dinner?” His Mom responded.

        “Yeah, probably!”

        “Ok, have fun!”

        He closed the door behind him and got in his car, pulled out and began to make his way there. As he turned the corner, a lightbulb lit above his head, and he realized he needed to make a pitstop. He redirected himself, and made a short drive to two blocks over. When he reached his destination, he stepped out of the car and approached the front door. He rang the doorbell, staring at the “Home Is Where the Heart Is” sign as he waited. When the door opened, the woman’s eyes widened.

        “Oh my gosh, Stanley! Hello!”

        “Hi, Mrs. Anderson,” he smiled.

        They tightly embraced in the doorway.

        “Come in! Come in!”

        He stepped inside, the house smelling of warm apples and cinnamon.

        “Love what you’ve done with the place.”

        “Oh, you’re too kind!”

        She leaned against the bannister of the staircase, eyeing upstairs.

        “Rob! Stanley’s here!”

        “What?!”

        “Stanley is here, Robert!”

        “Oh, be right down!”

        He chuckled as she turned to him with a scoff.

        “I swear that kook is already going deaf.”

        Her Dad smiled as he waddled down the steps.

        “Stanley!”

        “Mr. Anderson,” he smiled back.

        They shook hands, his grip tight.

        “How’ve you been, son?”

        “Good! I’ve been up at Yale.”

        “Good for you! What are you studying?”

        “I’m majoring in mathematics.”

        “I hope that works out for you.”

        “Thank you, sir.”

        “I’ll put on a pot for some tea,” Mrs. Anderson grinned, walking towards the kitchen.

        Looking at both of them was bittersweet; grief had clearly aged them. But he couldn’t spend his first day here without seeing them. Following behind her, she filled up the kettle and turned on the stove.

        “How are Veronica and Elijah? Do you guys keep in touch?”

        “The distance has been a little… severing, but we’re actually meeting up today!”

        “Oh! Then I won’t keep you long.”

        “Don’t worry about that, it’s no bother.”

        The kettle began to hiss as steam spewed from it. Sparing their eardrums, she lifted it off the stove, preparing two cups in front of her. She carefully poured the boiling water into them, then dipped in the teabags.

        “Here you go, dear,” she gently handed him a cup.

        “Thank you,” he carefully cupped it between his frosted palms.

        He sipped it as he sat down, the warmth spreading throughout his chest. As she sat down across from him, he could see the weight in her smile, like it took everything in her to keep it up.

        “How are you?

        She sighed as she looked away.

        “I take it day by day… two years didn’t make it easier.”

        He nodded, looking down as he took another sip.

        “I… never expected to feel like I had so much time to fill. I had to find another purpose after mine was taken from me.”

        His heart shattered as the words left her mouth. As much as he ached, nothing amounted to a parent's grief.

        “I took up a dozen hobbies. Knitting, sewing, gardening. But I couldn’t knit, sew, or grow a new daughter, y’know? But then I stumbled upon wood carving, and it was calming for me.”

        “I’m glad you found something.”

        “I actually just finished this piece,” she stood up and lifted a small wooden figure off the windowsill. “It’s a sunflower, she loved those.”

        She handed it to him, and he twisted it between his fingertips, feeling its roughly carved edges and beginner-level details.

        “I love it,” he smiled.

        “Keep it.”

        He looked up at her in shock.

        “No, I- I can’t.”

        “Please, keep it. I can always make another.”

        “Are you sure?”

        “She loved sunflowers, and she loved you. Please, keep it,” she nodded.

        He glanced down at it, then back at her.

        “Thank you,” he squeezed through his tight throat as he placed it in his pocket.

        “Alright, I’ll let you go now. And you can say hello to Veronica and Elijah for me.”

        “I will.”

        As they walked to the door, his head perked up as an idea popped into his head.

        “Actually, could I use your bathroom quickly?”

        “Of course! Second door on the left.”

        “Thanks.”

        He jogged upstairs and made sure the hallway was clear. The floorboards creaked as he attempted to tiptoe down the hall, approaching the door of Maggie’s bedroom. It felt invasive, but he didn’t want his last time in her room to be the moment they found that diary. He gripped the doorknob, gently opening it. As he peeked through the crack, he immediately noticed rearrangements. The room was practically cleared out, now filled with tables covered with wood carved figurines. The room expanded in his view as he fully opened the door, scanning the tables and their contents. Her Mom’s creations ranged from small pieces like animals, to more attempts at bigger pieces like a boat. Wood shavings crunched beneath his feet as he admired all of them. Then, he reached the centerpiece of the room. At the back by the window, stood an unfinished sculpture. It was tall enough to reach past his waist, and had enough carvings in it that it appeared to be a person. Then, something on the table next to it caught his eye; it was a picture of Maggie. It was from junior year, when she won the school’s annual art competition, her smile gleaming with pride. Suddenly, tears welled in his eyes as he realized it was placed next to the statue as a reference photo.

        “I couldn’t knit, sew, or grow a new daughter. But I could try and carve my only one.”

        He whipped around, noticing her Mom in the doorway with glassy eyes.

        “I- I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude,” he placed the picture down as he quickly wiped away tears.

        

        “It’s ok, I’m glad you saw it. It’s a work in progress, and will probably look mediocre when finished,” she chuckled weakly. “But I… needed a physical piece of her.”

        “It’s beautiful so far,” he smiled as he stopped a tear from streaming down his cheek.

        “Thank you, so was she…”

        He walked over and gave her a tight hug, savoring the embrace. They walked back downstairs, Mr. Anderson sat on the couch as he flipped a newspaper between his fingers. He looked up, noticing their teary eyes.

        “You showed him the piece?”

        “Well, he showed himself.”

        They chuckled weakly, their voices gravelly.

        “She’s been slaving over it day and night,” he grinned.

        “It’s paying off.”

        “I’m sorry, I didn’t want it to go like this,” she tried to collect herself.

        “Don’t apologize. I’m… very glad I came.”

        “Thank you so much for visiting.”

        They reached in for one last hug, making it the tightest.

        “Take care of yourself, kid,” he reached out to shake his hand.

        “You too, both of you.”

        They waved goodbye as he stepped outside and made his way to the car. Again waving as he drove away, he let the tears stream when he was out of sight. Barely home for an hour and he was already flooded with emotion. He wasn’t prepared for what seeing his friends again would bring him.

        At The Sunny Side Diner. . .

        Before she stepped inside, Veronica wiped the tear stains from under her eyes, attempting to compose herself. Feeling ready, she stepped inside, the tiny bell ringing as she pushed open the front door. The pleasing smell of bacon and pancakes quickly flowed into her nostrils.

        “Take a seat wherever you’d like,” the busy waitress said.

        “Thank you.”

        She quickly scanned the empty booths, but with no sign of her friends, she took an empty seat.

        A little early, I guess.

        “What can I get for you?” The waitress suddenly appeared before her.

        “I’m actually waiting for friends, so I’ll wait on that.”

        “Gotcha, just call me over when your whole party arrives,” she smiled as she bustled off.

        She fiddled with her fingers as she anxiously waited for one of her friends to walk through the door. Deep down, she prayed it’d be Stanley first. As she waited, she watched the cars fly by, and scoped out the ones that pulled into the parking lot. Her head would perk up like a dog, a shocking wave of nervousness going through her, everytime that little bell rang. But it’d end up being some trucker making a pitstop.

        This is so stupid… Why am I shitting myself? These are my friends!

        After waiting a couple more minutes, the entrance bell rang again, and her stomach dropped into a freefall when she looked up. Elijah stood confusedly in the doorway, glancing around. Her lips parted to call for him, but her throat tightened, blocking the words. Instead, she waited for him to notice. After a brief conversation with a waitress, she pointed to Veronica, Elijah then turning to her. Their gazes crossed for the first time in two years, their hearts skipping beats. She wanted to smile, but at the same time she wanted to frown. There was something about him that looked… worse. His eyes had sunken deeper, his body somehow thinner. He stiffly walked over and sat down across from her, still in complete silence.

        “Hi-”

        “It’s been-”

        They both clamped their tongues, letting the other speak.

        “No, you can go-” She stuttered.

        “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-” He stammered.

        They chuckled, Veronica’s heart warming at the sight of his smile again. But upon seeing her, he didn’t know how to feel. He didn’t feel the anger he thought he would, but not the joy either. It just felt… normal. The way it always did.

        “How’ve you been?” She asked.

He wished she had asked that over the course of two years.

“I’ve… been better,” he nodded.

“Yeah, I… haven’t been having the best week of my life either.”

“But let’s not get into our bullshit right now, y’know. Tell me all the ways Manhattan has fucked you up. How many times have you been robbed?”

“Wow! To think of me so vulnerable!” She laughed.

“Can’t exactly picture you getting into a subway brawl.”

“You should’ve seen what happened to the guy that grabbed my ass at a bar called The Sleazy Dragon.”

“Ironic name.”

“I know, right.”

Neither of them expected it to feel this good, this natural. Even with all the anxieties and the grudges in the back of their minds, they weren’t worth releasing in this moment.

“I’d fill you in on more, but I feel like we should wait for Stan to get here,” she pouted.

“Right, right… Do you know where he is?”

She shrugged. Suddenly, as if summoned, Stanley comes through the entrance, seemingly out of breath.

“Stan!” She waved him down.

As he turned, a smile stretched across his face. He walked over and sat next to Elijah, his heart still pounding from rushing.

“Sorry I’m late, I had to make a pitstop.”

“That’s alright, Elijah just got here too.”

“Did y’all order?”

“Not yet, just small talk,” Elijah smiled weakly.

“Well? Holy shit! It’s been two fuckin’ years!” Stanley exclaimed.

He noticed the other two didn’t feel as ecstatic, the tension still looming.

“Veronica, tell me about the big apple, how’s FIT?”

“It’s good! The city is obviously a different pace of life from here, but I adjusted quickly. I love when it gets fuckin’ crazy, though. A few weeks ago, I watched bootleg Minnie and Mickey Mouse brawl in Times Square,” she giggled as she reminisced.

They laughed as they imagined it.

“Who won?” Elijah asked curiously.

“The random crackhead that came up and puked on them.”

They bursted into laughter, clutching their stomachs.

“Is it like that everyday?” Stanley wondered, his face red from laughter.

“Once every other day, I’d say.”

“I gotta visit sometime, I need my energy to be matched,” Elijah grinned cockily.

“And about FIT, it’s been fun. Stressful, but fun. I met somebody, my current roommate, Rebecca. She’s sweet, she’s also a lot to handle, but she means well. At school, the one thing that still gets me is when you feel so much less talented when everyone in the room is either on your level or better. But my teachers have been very supportive of my creative visions.”

“Please, make Stan a new wardrobe so he can stop dressing like he’s on the list of sex offenders,” Elijah teased.

Veronica held a laugh in her cheeks as Stanley whipped his head towards him.

“Fuck you!” He couldn’t help but laugh.

They halted their laughter as the waitress approached their table.

“Are you guys ready to order?”

They nodded, and quickly picked up their menus. After Elijah and Stanley ordered theirs, she turned to Veronica, whose eyes could suddenly only focus on the calorie count next to each item. Embarrassed with the amount of time she was taking, she spat out the first thing in her field of view, and it had a number that did not please her.

“Alright, it’ll all be out shortly.”

They thanked her as she walked away, resuming their conversation.

“Ok, back to Stan’s shitty fashion sense,” Elijah snickered.

“Elijah, you’re dressed like a hobo that puked on Mickey and Minnie!”

        He pursed his lips as he held in a laugh, unable to admit he found it funny.

        “... Touche.”

        They glanced over at Veronica, who was dazed out and chewing on her lip.

        “You okay… ?” Elijah asked.

        Suddenly, she lifted her chin, glancing at both of them.

        “Yeah! Just got a lot on my mind, y’know. Being home and all.”

        “Me too,” Elijah leaned back.

        “Me three,” Stanley frowned.

        “But enough of that shit, what’s going on with you guys? Stan, how’s Yale?”

        “It’s just as privileged as you’d imagine. A lot of mouths with silver spoons. But not all the people are bad. I actually… met a girl.”

        Their heads perked up, eyes wide with interest.

        “Please, inform us of this damsel,” Veronica teased, leaning in.

        “Her name’s Debbie, she’s a mathematics major like me, that’s how we met. She’s insanely smart, like a human calculator. And she... keeps my feet on the ground.  I felt so out of place with these trust fund babies, y’know.”

        “Aww, I’m glad. She sounds great,” she gushed.

        “So is this a girlfriend? Or just a girl you met?” Elijah pried.

        “It’s… tricky,” he looked away.

        A tricky relationship resonated with Elijah, as he thought about his puzzling dynamic with Jesse, one he still couldn’t solve yet.

        “Where’d you end up, Elijah? I know last time I saw you, you were still undecided,” he  asked.

        “A community college in Boston, somewhere close to my Aunt and Uncle’s. My one point five GPA definitely spoke for itself, so I wasn’t left with many options,” he chuckled.

        “How are they? Your Aunt and Uncle,” she asked.

        “They’re nice. Very generous for paying for my tuition, and I have gratuitously repaid them by being a ‘below average’ student, according to my teachers. But Jesse won’t let me flunk out.”

        “Jesse?” He questioned, tilting his head.

        “Sorry, forgot to mention, Jesse’s my roommate, we met in class. He, uh… really picked me up when I was down,” he faintly blushed as he smiled softly.

        Veronica especially noticed this, feeling guilt ridden that she wasn’t there to pick him up instead. The conversation began to dwindle after they felt like they all caught up.

        “Here… you… go,” the waitress began placing down their plates and drinks.

        They all thanked her as the steaming food heated their faces.

        “Can I get you guys anything?”

        They all shook their heads, then thanked her as she walked off. Elijah and Stanley began to dig in, leaving Veronica glaring down at her plate. It was a stack of thick pancakes, with a smile made out of whipped cream and strawberries. 288 calories, a number that set off an alarm in her head. Elijah glanced at her as he chewed, noticing the nauseated look on her face.

        “... You okay?”

        She looked up, pursing her lips.

        “Can I be honest with you guys?”

        “Yeah, of course,” Stanley nodded.

        “Today has fucking sucked,” she dropped her head.

        They slowed their chewing, realizing they felt the same too but didn’t wanna damper the mood.

        “Same for me…” Elijah sulked, dropping his utensils.

        “Today has definitely been… a lot,” Stanley sighed.

        “Who wants to go first?” Veronica frowned, crossing her arms.

        “You can, you were the first to crack,” Elijah chuckled weakly.

        “Alright…” She exhaled deeply, straightening her back. “I… come home, and my welcome back gift is being lied to for two years! I found out my Mom has… early onset dementia.”

        Their eyes widened upon hearing it.

        “You can get it that young… ?” Elijah questioned.

        “Yup…”

        “Fuck… I’m so sorry.”

        “Yeah, that’s… a lot to come home to,” Stanley looked at her solacely.

        “And it’s just… weird, because I still don’t know how I feel about it. I was obviously upset about being lied to. But what got me the most is what my fucking Dad says to me. You will not believe… he says he didn’t tell me because he didn’t think I’d care.”

        Their jaws dropped farther.

        “Honestly, do you?” Elijah cautiously questioned.

        “... I don’t know. I just feel… cruel now. Like, how am I supposed to hate her? She’s so far along, she probably doesn’t even remember who I am or what she's done to me. How can I hate this… shell of her former self?”

        “Her forgetting doesn’t mean you have to, and it doesn’t erase it either. You don’t owe her anything,” Stanley reassured her.

        “I know, I just… I was hoping for a lot, I think. I was hoping for her to see me come home, grown and confident. Doing it all without her. And now… she won’t even remember me to do it.”

        She choked back tears as she attempted to compose herself.

        “It feels like kicking someone when they’re down, y’know? I feel like a monster for holding a grudge, but I just… can’t forgive her. It’s not that easy.”

        “Have you spoken to her at all?” Elijah asked.

        “No. I tried but she was… scary. She looked so hollow.”

        “Maybe there’s a chance she still remembers you. Maybe you can get the things you hoped for,” Stanley encouraged.

        “Maybe…”

        She wiped her nose as she sniffled, still leaving her plate untouched.

        “I didn’t mean to rain on the parade… I just needed that off my chest.”

        “No, it’s ok. I… had a pretty heavy day too,” Stanley looked away, feeling the wooden flower in his pocket.

        “I visited her grave.”

        The color almost drained from their skin as he said it.

        “I… spoke to her a bit. Not actually, obviously. I just… sat down and talked to her. And it was… nice. I didn’t need her to respond, I always knew what she’d say, y’know?”

        He avoided eye contact, feeling embarrassed.