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all we've got is each other

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1-

They make it to the safe house at two in the morning. As soon as the car stops, just past the entrance gate to the property, Toni presses her forehead against the tinted window, but the night is so dark that she can’t see more than shapes: the looming, rectangular mass of a tall, wide building, bunches of vertical lines, which must be trees, the blur of other, smaller buildings in the distance.

She narrows her eyes, trying to make out any other details, until, giving up, she turns to Martha instead, who’s snoring lightly in the seat next to her. “Hey,” Toni says, softly, touching Martha’s shoulder. “Wake up, Marty. We’re here.”

Martha’s eyes open, and she blinks, bleary. She looks as tired as Toni feels - it’s been an exhausting day, both physically and emotionally. They had to say goodbye to Martha’s family at dawn, when federal agents for the witness protection program arrived as scheduled in their fancy black car, and took them away. Seeing Bernice cry was probably the worst part of it, but the rest of the day wasn't particularly fun either: they were either traveling, by car or by plane, or waiting in tiny secluded rooms, with bland food and nothing to distract themselves, since they both had to leave their cellphones behind. Toni is not even that into social media - not like Fatin, who seems to post a TikTok every ten minutes - but she already misses the familiar weight of a phone in her pocket. During those three weeks they got to spend at home - after they were rescued from Gretchen’s underground research bunker, after a couple days stuck in a federal military hospital, being checked for wounds and illnesses and evaluated for trauma - Toni’s phone was the one thing that served as a tangible reminder that it was all real. That she was one text, one phone call away from the other girls. From Shelby. (Not that she dared call Shelby, after their last conversation at the hospital, but still. She could have, and that was almost as comforting.)

“What are we waiting for?” Martha asks, sleepily.

“No fucking clue. Want me to try and ask the driver?”

They’re separated from the driver by a glass panel, and the guy has mostly declined to answer their questions, but patience has never been Toni’s strong suit. Martha shakes her head. “They’re probably just checking that everything’s safe, or waiting for the others.” And indeed, right as she says this, the car door opens, without any warning. Toni starts, before getting a hold of herself and cautiously exiting the vehicle. A stocky woman is standing by the car, feet planted on the loose gravel of the driveway; she has pale skin, very short brown hair, a neutral expression, and a torch light so bright it blinds Toni for a second, after the darkness.

“Hello, Miss Shalifoe, Miss Blackburn. I’m agent Clipper, please call me Sam. Let’s get you inside.”

Toni nods, silently, and then helps Martha get out of the car, and tries very hard not to stare at the gun hanging from the woman’s shoulder holster. Martha links their hands together, and squeezes, a wordless gesture of reassurance. Toni has never felt comfortable around the authorities, be it a regular local cop, or a super important secret agent, or whoever this Sam is. The sight of weapons and badges always turns her stomach, but she grits her teeth, and, hand in hand with Martha, follows the woman towards the main house - a two-story building she can now see, emerging from the dark night, thanks to the agent’s flashlight. An owl hoots, somewhere behind them. Toni’s hold on Martha’s hand tightens.

“Oh, that’s not good,” Martha mumbles, shakily.

They’re safe, Toni tells herself, sternly, as gravel crinkles beneath her shoes. It’s just a stupid bird. She doesn’t believe in any of that ill omen stuff Martha’s family always whispers about. Still, she feels better once they’ve made it inside the house, and into a lobby, well-lit and spacious. The woman leads them through a vast living-room, then up a flight of stairs. Toni is too tired to focus on any details, but the place seems clean, and smells of wood and dry herbs and old furniture, a surprisingly pleasant mix ; nothing pings as dangerous, so she relaxes, slightly, unclenching her jaw. She’s used to being brought to strange houses in the middle of the night, thanks to her years in foster care. At least that part’s familiar.

On the upper floor, the stairs end in a large room, furnished with colorful sofas and chairs, a television and a coffee table, and tall sets of shelves filled with books and board games, all warmly lit by a few strategically placed lamps - some sort of play room, maybe - but before Toni can absorb what she’s seeing, let alone say anything, a body collapses against her own, and suddenly she’s trapped in a fierce, almost violent hug.

“Leah, let her breathe,” says someone to Toni’s right - Fatin, she recognizes immediately, though she can’t see anything with her entire face pressed into a woolen cardigan. Yeah, that’s Leah alright.

“I’ve missed you,” Leah says, somewhere above Toni’s head.

Toni returns the hug. “Missed you too.” Her voice cracks unexpectedly, and as she says the words she realizes how true they are, even if they’ve only been apart for less than a month - she has missed Leah. She’s missed them all. “Please stop trying to crush my ribs,” she adds, voice rough.

Leah lets her go, and smiles, apologetic, before she subjects Martha to the same treatment. Toni turns to Fatin, who gives her a much gentler hug. “You good?” Fatin whispers.

Toni shrugs, and glances around them. There’s the woman, Sam, and another agent, a man with darker skin and a clean-shaven face, also armed. Hard to feel comfortable. “You?”

Fatin sighs with the panache of an actress in a tragic play. “I’m already suffering from withdrawal. Can you believe I won’t be able to tweet for months? Because I still can’t. This is fucking torture.” There’s a little smile dancing at the corner of her mouth, so Toni knows Fatin’s laying it on thick on purpose, and she shakes her head, amused despite herself.

“You know what I didn’t miss? Your dramatic ass.”

Fatin, not duped, gives her a little shove, just as they hear the sound of people coming up the stairs. The four of them turn around. Toni’s stomach brims with anticipation, and she can’t tell if she feels relieved or disappointed when a third agent - a white man with shockingly red hair and a burly frame - leads Rachel and Nora to them, before going back to the first floor.

“Hi guys!” Martha says, brightly, despite her obvious fatigue. She pulls both of them into her arms. The twins stand, a bit rigidly at first, then melt into Martha’s embrace, and Toni smiles to herself. That’s the Marty effect, right there : no human being is immune to a hug from her best friend.

Rachel pats Martha’s back with her prosthetic hand, gently, before she moves to greet Leah, Fatin and Toni. Nora waves at everybody ; she keeps her distance, but her smile is genuine. The twins aren't just tired, like the rest of them, they look on edge - from traveling together Toni guesses, and she’s suddenly very grateful that things between Martha and her aren’t weird, even if Martha won’t talk to her about the last few days on the island, about her injury. At least they didn’t have to go through this horrible day with unresolved tension.

Speaking of unresolved shit. Toni turns her head towards the stairs, and her heart registers before her mind does, with a confusing pang of joy, relief, and hurt. Blond hair, very short. Green eyes. That warm smile, the one Toni still sees in her dreams every night.

“Hey, y’all,” Shelby says. Leah and Martha both rush to hug her. Toni doesn’t move, petrified, staring at her the way flowers turn to face the sun. There are bruises under Shelby’s eyes - dark smudges that tell Toni she hasn't been sleeping well. The column of her neck is taut, her shoulders tense, anxiety written in every line of her body. But her smile is sincere as she greets the other girls, as she presses a kiss to Martha’s forehead and cups Leah’s cheek and squeezes Nora’s shoulder. God, she's missed her.

It’s been twenty-two days since Toni last saw her, but it feels like an eternity has passed. She remembers vividly how their goodbye went - how, at the airport, before the flight that would take them both home, in front of everyone, including her parents, despite the awful conversation they’d had only a few days prior, when she’d asked Toni for time, Shelby grabbed her by the shirt and planted a quick, impulsive, desperate kiss on Toni’s lips. And then looked terribly guilty, like she was going to cry, or apologize - and which of these options would have been worse, Toni still doesn’t know - so Toni caught Shelby’s face between her palms. She did not kiss her, Shelby’s words still ringing in her ears - “It wasn’t real, Toni. None of it was real.”- but she pressed their foreheads together, and held her close. For a sprinkling of seconds, it felt like everything was going to be okay after all.

(It hasn’t been okay. Toni’s given her plenty of time, and distance, but they haven’t talked since, and now they’re in this weird limbo and Toni can’t stand it, sick with heartbreak and the nauseating uncertainty of hope.)

“‘Sup, bitch,” Fatin says with a wide smile, as Dot appears at the top of the stairs, behind Shelby.

“Hey, asshole,” Dot says. She gathers Fatin in her arms, grinning at the rest of them. “Well, I haven't missed any of you fuckers!”

They all start laughing, but then someone coughs behind them, and they swivel towards the sound. “Hello. I am agent Sam Clipper,” says the woman who greeted Toni and Martha, in a voice that commands attention. “This is agent Will Boone-” she points to the dark-skinned man, before turning to the third agent -”and agent Brett Swanson. We are your handlers, responsible for your safety while you’re a part of the witness protection program. If you see anything suspicious, come to one of us immediately. If we tell you to do something, do it without questions. We are here for your protection - it is our priority.” She pauses, peering at them. Toni wonders what she sees. A group of eight frightened, shaken girls in need of sleep, probably, because the woman’s voice softens. “We can talk about all of that when you meet the rest of the staff, tomorrow. You must all be tired. Come, let me show you to your rooms. Your bags arrived before you did.”

It’s said gently, but under the air of suggestion, it’s an order, so they file after her, as she leads them down a long corridor on the right. She tells them, in the same matter-of-fact, polite but efficient tone, where they’ll find showers and bathrooms, before stopping in front of a door.

“Blackburn, Campbell,” she says, and then opens the door, and looks at the group of them, expectantly. Dot shrugs, gives Shelby a little pat on the arm, and goes in. Martha follows suit, with one last look at Toni, and Toni has to stop herself from going after her. She swallows. Right. With the joy of seeing everyone again, she almost forgot. This isn’t a vacation.

Sam keeps walking, stops at the next room. “Goodkind, Jadmani.” So clearly they went with alphabetical order. Fatin blows them all a kiss before going in, but Shelby pauses at the door, turns around slowly. Their eyes meet, and longing overcomes Toni, all of a sudden, like a wave that’s been building, growing, from the depths of the ocean, and now unfurls onto the shore, unstoppable, inevitable. Fuck, she wants her. She wants Shelby to tell her that they’re okay, that she’s thought it through and realized none of what they learned about the island changes what they had together, how they felt. How they still feel. She wants Shelby to want her enough that she won’t leave, like everyone else, because Toni’s worth fighting for.

“Goodnight” is all Shelby says before she closes the door. Toni’s chest turns cold, then hot, then cold again, the sudden burst of familiar anger drowned out by sadness and disappointment. She stares at the closed door a beat too long, before following Sam and the others down the hallway.

Next is the Reid twins, and then there’s only Leah and Toni, alone in the room they’ll be sharing for months. Their bags are, indeed, already there, propped against the wall. It’s a very nice room, all things considered. Big and clean, furnished with two queen beds, two bedside tables, an antique armoire, a small white sink in one corner. Decorations hang on the walls, old photos, movie posters, quaint little paintings of farm animals, and a big, comfy armchair sits by the window.

“Fuck,” Leah exhales. She’s glaring at a realistic drawing of a duck hanging above one of the beds as if it were a threat, a sign, a clue to decipher. “I feel like I’m in a dream. Or a nightmare.” Toni hums in agreement, disoriented by the sudden quiet after the exhilaration of their reunion, and, to her horror, an unwelcome pressure builds behind her eyes.

She turns away from Leah, and exhales, keeping the tears at bay. It’s so awfully familiar - memories of foster homes, of strange bedrooms and new faces flash in her mind, along with the usual dread, and a terrible, overwhelming loneliness. She's tired of feeling untethered.

But she’s not alone, Leah’s here, Marty is here, a few doors down the hallway. Shelby, and the other girls, too. Toni grits her teeth. In the pit of her stomach, she stokes the fires of anger, forcing herself to think of her mother, of broken promises. It helps ; it always does. Then, she turns back around, like nothing happened, and starts unzipping her suitcase. If Leah notices anything, she doesn’t say. Drowsy and quiet, they both change into their pajamas, brush their teeth, get ready for the night.

“I’ll take the bed with the duck drawing,” Toni offers. “Since you clearly hate it.” It’s also the one closest to the door, to an exit, but she doesn’t say that.

“Cool.”

They stand by their beds, awkward, hesitant. “I guess we should go to sleep,” Toni mumbles. It sounds like a question.

“Hmm. Do you want to know what I think?” Leah asks, in a conspiratorial tone that, historically, has rarely led to good outcomes.

But of course, Toni is intrigued. “Do I?”

“We should go check on the others. Make sure everyone’s okay.”

Toni grins her approval. “Fuck yeah.”

Turns out, they’ve all had the same idea, because when Toni opens the door, everyone else is already in the hallway, chatting in low voices, in their pajamas. The agents are nowhere to be seen, so they all gather in Martha and Dot’s room and, unwilling to be away from each other, exhausted and overwhelmed, they pile up into the beds. It’s a tight fit, but with Rachel’s back to hers, Martha in her arms, and Shelby on the other side of Martha, Toni feels right at home.

She’s asleep before she even closes her eyes.

 

2-

Nora is awoken, too early, by the sunlight streaming through the shutters, and the loud trills of an excited mockingbird.

She blinks, confused. Right in front of her, so close their noses almost touch, Dot is sound asleep, drooling on their shared pillow. In a rush of images, it comes back to her: leaving her parents, the long day of travel, the arrival at night, everyone falling asleep in the same room.

Carefully, Nora sits up. The room is quiet, but for the sound of soft breathing. Beside Dot, there’s Fatin, curled on her side, with one arm around Dot’s waist, and on the other side, Leah, her forehead pressed between Fatin’s shoulder blades. Nora looks at them, looks at the other bed, equally crowded, and smiles. There’s a diffuse sensation of warmth in her chest. The eight of them sleeping together again feels right. Safe. The only safety they had on the island was at night, when they’d lie around the campfire and pass out from sheer exhaustion, despite the hollow stomachs, the aches and pains, the fears, and spend a blissful few hours unaware of their predicament. Nora would watch over them, often, at night, while they slept. It helped with the guilt.

After, when she was taken away from them so abruptly, she was sometimes allowed to watch them on the screens, in Gretchen’s control room. But it wasn’t the same, of course ; she was no longer one of them - was she ever? - she’d become someone they thought was dead. A ghost, staring at her friends, unable to talk to them, desperate to reach out through the screen, forced to watch them grieve for her.

(She had been so grateful, then, for Leah’s suspicions, because Leah did not mourn her, Leah never bought her death, even when it put her at odds with everyone else, in the days right after the shark attack, when they were frantically trying to save Rachel’s life, and no one had any patience for Leah’s wild theories.)

It hasn’t been easy, winning them back after they learned the whole truth. In fact, most of her friendships are still fragile, like just-healed broken bones. When they found out she was alive and well, in the bunker, they all cried. Even Rachel, who’d insisted time and time again that Nora wasn’t dead, couldn’t be dead, she would know. Even Leah, her rage forgotten, gathered Nora in her arms and sobbed in relief. Then, they all went their separate ways, for those three weeks of August, before the safe house, and everyone's been friendly, but Nora can sense the lingering hurt, the distrust - she’s always been perceptive. And Rachel… No. Rachel said she was working on it, and Nora will give her sister, who has suffered more than anyone else, all the time she needs. She owes her as much.

Martha moves in her sleep, interrupting Nora’s thoughts. As silently as possible, she leaves the bed and her sleeping friends, swings by her room to get dressed and grab her backpack, and pads down the stairs.

The house is quiet, and huge. She crosses an empty living-room with comfy looking furniture, objects that look frankly exotic to Nora’s city girl eyes, and, napping on a thick, beige rug, a black cat, who lifts its head and stares at Nora with curious golden eyes. Nora blinks, smiles, and gives the cat a polite nod as she passes by, following the smell of bacon and eggs and toast all the way to the kitchen. There, she finds an old kettle whistling on the stove, a stained wooden table, with benches on either side, drowning under an amalgam of round plates and white faience bowls, tin cups and cutlery, fruits and bread and pots of jam, and, in front of the stove, poking into the contents of several huge pans with a wooden spoon, a stranger in overalls.

“Mornin’,” the stranger says, even though Nora’s pretty sure she hasn’t made a sound. He turns around. “Name’s Joey. Pleasure to meet ya.”

“Nora,” says Nora, graciously, cocking her head to the side. He’s not one of the agents from last night. He doesn’t look the part, either: grey-blond hair, greyer beard, the tanned skin of someone who’s spent a lot of his years outdoors. He must be around fifty, in good shape, though he limps when he brings Nora a cup of coffee, before going back to his pans.

“There’s milk and sugar and cream on the table, help yourself. Food’s almost ready, lotta bacon. I made some beans, too, just in case. These government folks never did tell us if some of y’all were vegetarian or not.”

Nora smiles. “One of us is, she’ll appreciate it.”

“Well, good.”

There’s a silence, and she sits down on one end of the bench and sips her coffee- black, no sugar - as he finishes cooking breakfast. She opens her backpack and takes a book out - they’ve been given syllabi and textbooks for each subject they’re taking this year, since they’ll have to do distance learning. When the man is done, he joins her at the table, and smiles, and there’s something kind in his smile, something Nora trusts instantly.

“You sleep okay?” he asks. “I know it can get hot in these rooms, sometimes, and awfully stuffy.”

Nora thinks of eight girls sleeping in the same room, piled in two beds. “I slept great.”

He hums, nods, takes a sip of coffee. She can’t resist asking.

“Excuse me, but, who are you?”

“Oh, I’m Joey,” he says, looking up in surprise, “Joey Clark, I live here. This is my house. Well, me and Marco.”

“Marco?”

“My husband. He’s outside, feeding the horses. Only three of ‘em, but they take their sweet ass time. Not like Edith and George, these guys are fast. Would eat anything, too. Our goats,” he explains, when Nora makes a small grimace to indicate her confusion.

Goats? Nora frowns. Aren’t they supposed to be in a safe house? “You... work for the federal government?”

“In a way. Me and Marco usually foster kids, year-long. Kids who need to be away from everything for a while. Kind of a boarding school, in a way. But this year we were contacted about you guys. I think the program needed a big enough place since there’s eight of you, and we had enough space to house y’all without suspicion, and--” he gestures around himself “-- we’re in the middle of nowhere, which is the safest you could be.”

Where in the middle of nowhere are we?” Nora asks. They weren’t told the location of the safe house. Not even their families know. It’s a safety precaution, until the trial is over, but Nora can’t help being curious.

He chuckles. “‘Afraid I can’t say. I’ve signed the papers and all.” Then he winks. “But I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Seems like you’re a smart one.” He gestures with his chin to the textbook she has laid open on the table, between a jar of honey and a pot of cream.

Nora ducks her head, touched by the compliment. It shouldn’t mean anything, coming from a man who has known her for ten minutes, but it makes her feel comfortable. Noticed. “I’m doing pre-calculus. It’s not that hard, once you get used to it.” She pauses, hesitant. “I find it soothing, actually.”

Joey shakes his head. “Well, I’ll take your word for it. Never been a math guy, myself. Marco has a better head for numbers, though I can’t say he’ll be of any help to you, you’re doing some advanced stuff.”

“So you aren’t teachers?” Nora asks, one finger rubbing the hard edge of the textbook. “You said this is a boarding school.”

“Oh, no,” Joey laughs. “No, me and Marco, we’re more like foster parents, not teachers. If we can help with homework, we will, but usually we have instructors and tutors coming during the week. The kids we foster, they’re old enough to do most of the studying on their own.” He shrugs. “I believe that’s what’s gonna happen for y’all as well.” Then he smiles, warm and easy. “It’s fun, you’ll see! Gives you a taste of college independence.”

Nora nods, but her chest tightens. She thinks of her college visit, of Quinn, and she has to close the textbook, suddenly unable to even look at it.

Their conversation is interrupted by the rest of the girls trickling down the stairs, in various states of displeasure and awakeness, flanked by agents Clipper, Boone and Swanson. Joey salutes the group with a cheery wave, before he makes himself scarce, grabbing an old hat and limping out of the backdoor. Nora finds herself missing his presence. In contrast, their three handlers seem even more rigid and serious than last night.

“Why don’t you have breakfast, and then we will give you a tour,” agent Will Boone says, when everyone is settled around the table. Just like last night, it’s an order phrased as a suggestion. “We’ll meet up with the rest of the staff back at the house afterwards for orientation.”

The girls eat in silence. Nora, who’s already done with breakfast, stays, and tries very hard not to feel like an outsider, a stranger among friends - like a ghost.

 

3-

It’s a beautiful place, this isolated, vast chunk of land where they’re going to spend the next ten months or so, completely isolated from the rest of the world. Leah can’t deny it, it has a lot of charm. The house, with its whitewashed walls and wooden shutters, the front courtyard, the lawn, bracketed by tall, imposing trees, the fields behind the house, the patch of woods, the charming barn, the small pond with its banks covered in tall reeds and its clear water. They even have animals here - horses and goats and chicken and ducks, a house cat and a brown dog who’s been following them on their tour outside. They have flowers and fruit trees and a vegetable patch, like some sort of countryside paradise. Yes, what a beautiful place. Or rather, a beautiful prison, because all Leah feels is trapped, and she hates it.

“No going past the property line at any point,” that annoying agent, Sam Clipper, lectures them on the way back as they walk alongside the gate. “You are to stay inside the perimeter at all times.”

Leah can’t help herself. “Or what?” she challenges, arms crossed against her chest as she stops in her tracks. Her stance is a bit less impressive than she’d hoped, because the dog, who has apparently decided he loves her, sits at her feet, big brown eyes looking up at her as if he’s expecting a treat. She resists the urge to pet him.

The rest of the group halts, looking at her, and there's a tense silence. Sam cocks her head. “What was that?”

“I said: or what?” Leah repeats, enunciating the words slowly and clearly, not intimidated in the slightest.

Agent Brett Swanson turns red across the cheeks, frowning in frustration. The other agent, Will, clears his throat, and says, hurriedly: “Or it’s harder for us to protect you.”

Leah wants to snap, wants to say she’s heard all of this before - “It’s for your own good,” croons Faber’s voice inside her head ; she feels the sting of a syringe piercing the muscle of her shoulder, or her thigh - but before she has time to talk, Fatin strides towards her and grabs her by the upper arm, and Leah freezes. Fatin touches her so rarely these days. Something like an electric current races through her, leaves her spine tingling.

“Is there a problem, Leah?” Sam asks, peering at her closely. Leah doesn’t look away, stubborn, not quite tamed by the press of Fatin’s fingers on her skin. “I’m sure you’re aware that these rules were put in place for your safety. And that you agreed to abide by them when you entered the witness protection program.”

“No, no, we’re all good here,” Fatin replies. She squeezes Leah’s arm, once, a warning, and then lets go. “Leah loves following rules.”

“Since when?” Dot grumbles, and that breaks the tension, making the other girls snicker.

The three agents exchange a few concerned looks, but don’t comment further, ushering them back towards the house. Fatin casts her a stern, worried little glance, one Leah is more than familiar with, though she hasn’t seen it since the island ; it means we’ll talk about this later. Sam stares at Leah the whole walk back to the house, like a hawk who’s found its prey. Good, Leah thinks, pettily. They had little choice in coming here - the federal government did not want to risk their precious witnesses, the girls didn't have much say in the matter, even the more recalcitrant parents capitulated - so if she’s to lose her freedom again, barely a month after she was subjected to an illegal experiment, Leah doesn't intend on making it easy for anyone.

In the lobby, Shelby slides next to Leah. “Not even twenty-four hours here, and that Sam agent is already annoyed with you. You sure are the most talented of us when it comes to alienating people,” she murmurs, teasingly.

Leah scoffs. “Hello, have you met your girlfriend?” she retorts, but immediately regrets her choice of words when Shelby tenses at her side. She knows Toni is a sore subject. Shelby and her have talked quite a bit about the experiment, about the way it has messed with their minds, and their ability to trust themselves - or to trust others.

“Sorry,” she mumbles, catching Shelby’s hand in her own, briefly.

Shelby gives her a smile that’s more of a wince. “It’s all good, Leah.” It doesn’t make Leah feel any better, but then they’re in the living-room, surrounded by people, and there’s no more time to talk. They’re directed to sit, so they do. The room is crowded, between the eight of them and - Leah counts, quickly - eight adults, three of which are their handlers. Sam introduces the rest of the federal staff assigned to this mission, who won’t be living in the safe house with them, listing their names and titles: Danielle, chief administrator, Joana, psychotherapist, Matt, nurse practitioner, Miriam, communication supervisor.

They go over some guidelines for a while. Leah tries to pay attention, but it’s the same stuff they already know, that was explained to them and their families before they were enrolled in the program. No contact with anyone, except their legal guardians, twice a month. Supervised access to the internet. Many, many security protocols. Sam reiterates the importance of staying within the property's limits, and looks right at Leah as she says it.

Then Joey and Marco Clark introduce themselves, and talk about the house rules, and what their daily life will look like. They seem nice enough - Joey, in overalls, with freckles dotting his sun-tanned face ; Marco, bronze skin, dark curly hair, warm voice - smiling as they welcome the eight of them in their home. But it’s stifling, to be treated like children again after everything they went through, to be given a chores chart and a curfew, to be told what is and isn’t allowed.

Abruptly, Leah stands up.

“Orientation isn't over yet. Where are you going?” Sam asks, curtly.

“To the bathroom.” Leah can feel the other girls’ eyes on her, worried, on edge, and it reminds her of the island, of how they acted when she would go on a rant about Nora, about her suspicions and her theories. Guilt, and shame, simmer in her stomach, like always when she thinks of the wrongful accusations she hurled at most of them, or the way she behaved, irrational and obsessive and unable to stop herself. But there’s something else, too. Something hard, angry and resentful. It makes her face the agent. “Sorry, do you also have rules about how and when we can take a piss? ”

There’s a brief, shocked silence. All the adults in the room stare at her. “Of course not, Leah,” the therapist, Joana, says, placating. Like Leah’s a wild animal they have to approach with caution. Her anger grows.

She stomps out, up the stairs, and to the bathroom at the end of the hallway. Her breath is shallow. She stares at the mirror above the sink, and wonders if she’s going to have a panic attack, distantly, but before that can happen, the door swings open and there is Fatin.

“I’m fine,” Leah says before Fatin can ask, not looking at her. “Just needed a breather.”

“What you need is to chill the fuck out.” Leah bristles and spins around, but Fatin isn’t looking for a fight. Her face is open, her eyes soft, disarmingly so, and all at once the anger pulsing at Leah’s temples evaporates, and tears fill her eyes instead. She swallows, forcing herself not to cry, and slides down against the sink until she’s sitting on the floor, knees up, arms around her legs.

“I can’t do it,” Leah whispers. “Fatin, I can’t do months of this again - being watched and controlled and stuck and kept in the dark, always wondering if we’re being told the truth, not knowing what’s real and what’s in my head.”

Fatin crosses the room and sits next to her, close, but not touching. Leah thinks of that day by the waterfall, of Fatin’s hands on her neck, of Fatin’s lips brushing hers, of things that could have been, and her belly twists, unpleasantly, with longing and regret, and then, in a brutal, unwanted flash of memory, she sees Jeff - his eyes, gleaming with betrayal, with disgust. His mouth moves, and she hears his angry voice, you lied to me, you’re a child, get out. Nausea stirs in her stomach, just like it did then, in Jeff’s car. Just like it did when Fatin tried to kiss her.

“I can’t do it,” Leah repeats, and she’s not sure what she’s talking about anymore.

“Yes, you can,” Fatin says, simply, unaware of the whirlwind of emotions Leah’s experiencing. “This isn't the island, or the bunker. And you have all of us, Leah, you’re not alone. But you have to calm down, okay? Keep yourself in check. Don’t get yourself in trouble now over some stupid shit. I need -” she cuts herself off, bites her lip. “I want you to be safe. And staying here is the safest thing for all of us. Gretchen's people want to hurt us, Leah. Don't make it easier for them.” Leah, defeated, lets the back of her head fall against the sink. “Hey, you know I’m on your side, right?” Fatin adds, in that soft, careful tone of hers, the one she only ever uses with Leah. It stings, a bit. Everything about Fatin’s gentleness hurts nowadays.

“I know.”

“Come on. Let’s go back downstairs, before Dot sends a search party.”

“Fatin,” Leah starts, right as they leave the bathroom. She stops herself. Fatin looks at her, and there’s something apprehensive in her eyes. “I’m sorry,” Leah sighs, eventually. It’s not really what she means to say. She wants to explain herself, she wants to ask… but she’s paralyzed by shame and guilt and fear.

Fatin shrugs. “You don’t have anything to be sorry about.”

But Leah does. She does. She ruins everything.

 

4-

Dot wakes up with a gasp, and fumbles for the light switch in the dark.

She was dreaming of the bunker, of her small cell and the smell of concrete and bleach, of the unbearable isolation ; sweat beads at her brow, drenching the back of her pajama shirt. She breathes, steadily, in and out, until her heartbeat slows down, and lets her eyes roam around her. It was just a dream. She’s been out of the bunker for two months now, and living at the safe house for one of them. She’s okay, and no longer alone, with her thoughts and memories and feelings for only company.

Except, she is alone, she realizes, as her gaze falls on the other bed which stands, empty and unmade, across the room. Martha is nowhere to be found. Dot frowns, and sits up. The alarm clock says it’s one in the morning. Where the hell did Martha go? She seemed tired when they all went to bed, around ten, and she fell asleep before Dot did. A few minutes pass, as Dot waits, hoping to hear footsteps, or any sign of activity. Maybe Martha just went to the bathroom or something. But the big house stays quiet and still around her, like a huge sleeping animal, and Martha doesn’t show up.

So Dot sticks her feet into her slippers - huge, furry, pink atrocities, a gift from Fatin - and goes to search for her missing roommate. She’s thankful for the distraction, her nightmare forgotten now that she has something to focus on, but part of her is genuinely concerned. She’s been worried about Martha ; she remembers all too well her recklessness, on their last few days on the island, her agitation. Her accident had been, they’d learned later, the reason they were evacuated. Now, Martha seems herself again, grounded, stable, but Dot has been keeping an eye on her. She’s worried.

She worries about all of them to be fair. About Toni, and Shelby, and whatever’s brewing between them after their sort-of breakup. About Rachel and Nora, of course, and all the ways they're hurting. Leah, still so on edge. Fatin’s quiet heartbreak.

(Not herself, though. Dot doesn’t think about herself at all.)

She makes her way down the corridor, and steps into the large bathroom, which she finds dark and empty. She checks it meticulously, but no one is hiding in any stall, or behind a shower curtain, so she heads back towards the bedrooms, and quietly opens Leah and Toni’s door. If Martha had trouble sleeping, she probably went to seek Toni.

Dot expects to find darkness, but one of the bedside lamps is on, and she frowns at what she discovers instead: Nora is sitting in Toni’s bed, back propped against two pillows, a book open on her lap. “Hey,” she says, cocking her head as Dot in the doorway. “What’s up?”

There is no trace of Toni, or Martha. Or Leah, for that matter.

“Nora, what the hell?” Dot whispers. “What are you doing here? Where are Toni and Leah?”

Nora shrugs, closes her book. “I don’t know. I couldn't sleep earlier, but I didn't want to keep Rachel up, so I went to see if I could borrow one of Leah’s books. The room was empty when I came in. It seemed like the perfect place to read without bothering anyone.” She gives Dot one of her curious looks, a gentle assessment. “I assume you’re not after Leah’s books.”

“Hell no,” Dot says, with a shudder, and a glance at Leah’s side of the room, where piles and piles of books lay haphazardly against the wall like the worst kind of death trap. “I’m looking for Martha.”

“I haven’t seen her,” Nora says. “But I’ll help you find her.” She hesitates, and winces. “I mean, if you want me to.”

“Yeah, dude, of course.” Dot doesn’t miss the relief on Nora’s face as she scrambles off the bed, and her heart aches. Poor Nora has been trying so hard to present a brave face, but Dot knows it’s been hard on her, the distance from the others, the tension, that weird in-between, of having been forgiven, but not quite absolved. She resolves to give a few of the girls a stern talking-to. Yes, Nora betrayed them. Yes, she knew the truth all along. But Dot knows first-hand how persuasive Gretchen Klein can be, how easy it is, for this wretched woman, to worm her way inside a grieving heart.

The next room is the one Nora shares with Rachel. Again, Dot expects to find darkness and people peacefully asleep where they should be, and again, she's wrong. When she pushes the door open, Fatin and Toni both raise their heads with twin looks of surprise. They’re sitting on the rug in their pajamas, cross-legged, holding cards in their hands.

“What the fuck,” Dot says, tiredly.

“Is that my deck of cards?” Nora murmurs.

“Hello to you too, Dorothy,” Fatin replies, with a smirk. She gestures to the cards on the floor between her and Toni. “You guys want in? Shalifoe’s losing badly, turns out she sucks ass at poker. I could use a worthy opponent.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Toni grumbles. She stretches one leg in front of her, and peers at Dot and Nora. “Why aren’t you in bed?” she asks, as if she’s not playing poker with Fatin at one thirty in the morning in Rachel and Nora’s bedroom.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Dot says, with her hands on her hips. “In fact, I am asking you the same thing. What’s going on here?”

“Jeez, okay, don’t go all mom friend on us,” Fatin says, rolling her eyes. “I was on my way to get a midnight snack when I ran into Toni. We stole some cookies from the kitchen - remind me to compliment Joey, they’re incredible - and then we realized we didn’t really want to go back to sleep. This room’s door was open, and nobody was there, so we decided we might as well stay. The cards were on your nightstand,” she adds, looking at Nora, who’s biting her lower lip. “Sorry, we should have asked.”

“Oh no, that’s okay,” Nora says, gently. “I’m glad you found them. I’m just wondering where Rachel is.”

“And Martha. And Leah.” At Dot’s words, Fatin and Toni both look up, sharply. “Yep, everyone’s fucking wandering around, tonight.”

“Let’s check the last room,” Nora says.

Toni stands up, Dot hefts Fatin to her feet, and they all walk together to the adjacent room. For the third time tonight, Dot turns the handle, as quietly as possible, and pushes the door open. But this room is dark, and occupied.

Martha is asleep in Shelby’s bed, one of Shelby’s arms slung tight around her waist, her dark hair contrasting with Shelby’s short blonde curls on the pillow. Their chests rise and fall, harmonious, the rhythm of their breathing synchronized and peaceful. In the other bed, Leah and Rachel sleep curled together.

“Is Rachel spooning Leah?” Toni murmurs, in awe. She's not even looking at Martha and Shelby. “Fuck, I wish I had my phone.”

“Same,” Fatin whispers, but there’s an edge to her tone that Dot can’t help but notice. She closes the door very carefully, and turns around to face the three of them.

“Okay, well, I don’t know why Shelby’s the only one sleeping in her own damn bed, but everyone is safe and accounted for, so I guess that’s the end of this little mission.” She pauses. None of them moves, standing still in the dark corridor. “Y’all gonna be able to sleep?” Dot asks, in a low voice, though she can already guess the answer.

“I don’t think so,” says Nora.

“Nah,” says Toni.

“Definitely not,” says Fatin.

Dot sighs. “Wanna go in my room and watch a DVD on one of the laptops we use for school? I found Marco’s collection of action movies, they’re not half bad.”

They all end up in Dot’s bed, watching men with too many muscles run from way too many explosions, until they pass out in the early morning. The next day, they are, of course, exhausted, and not particularly inclined to study. Dot tries to focus on her Spanish textbook, but all the words blur together, so she gives up, goes to the kitchen to clean her coffee cup, and then sneaks outside through the back door. It’s lightly drizzling, but not cold, not really. Dot, hands in her pockets, walks across the courtyard, and then around the barn, towards her favorite hidden spot - a wooden bench, under an awning, between the barn and the chicken coop. To her surprise, there’s already someone there : Rachel, sitting on one end of the bench.

“Hey,” Dot says.

Rachel nods. Dot sits on the other end, and grabs her cigarettes and lighter from her pocket. “You mind?”

“Nah,” Rachel says. Then she adds, drily :”You know that stuff’s gonna kill you, right?”

“Yeah, no shit.”

Rachel shrugs, like she doesn’t care either way. Dot knows she does, but she appreciates the absence of a lecture nonetheless. Rachel always knows when Dot’s already beating herself up for something. Raindrops splatter on the ground before them, dotting the mud with dark, wet spots. Far away, in the fields, the horses have found refuge under the tree-line. It's always so quiet, here, nothing like Texas - but Dot doesn't mind. She lets out a puff of smoke, watches it swirl away with tired eyes, and turns towards Rachel. “What are you doing out here, anyway? The weather’s shit.”

“Just needed to get away for a minute, everyone's getting on my nerves this morning,” Rachel says, but her fingers close around her wrist, the one missing a hand, and Dot narrows her eyes at her. She hesitates, but then she’s never been tactful, and she isn’t going to start now.

“You in pain?” she asks, bluntly.

“No,” Rachel says, but then she sighs. “I mean, not more than usual.”

“I’ll take you to the nurse,” Dot offers, “just gimme two minutes. He said to come by if you ever needed painkillers, right?” Better this than her Spanish homework.

Rachel looks at her strangely. “You know, you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to look out for us anymore. We’re safe here. You can stop.”

“Ever heard of friendship, dumbass?” Dot retorts. “Jesus. I’m not gonna stop caring for you just cause we made it out of the island.”

But what she doesn’t say is: no, I can’t stop. I don’t know what would happen if I did. I don't know what else to do.

 

5-

Agent Samantha Clipper
Field notes on mission [redacted] for the federal witness security program, with unaccompanied minors.

10/10
Good weather. Nothing to report. It seems all the girls have acclimated to the safe house, at least to some degree. I had a conversation with one of the tutors, who said they were all doing well with their school work. He noted that the lack of rigid school structure may actually be very helpful, as it encourages them to study together and help each other in subjects where some may have more difficulties than others. I will transmit this information to parents and legal guardians. This is also pertinent data for future programs with unaccompanied minors who can't go to a normal school.

10/11
Weather was cold, light rain. I did the usual headcount at approximately 18:00, and noticed L. Rilke missing. I immediately alerted the other agents, then proceeded to search for her. Found her at 18:15, on the main road, walking away from the property. She made no effort to hide, but refused to come back with me, arguing that she was not a prisoner, and should be allowed to leave for a “hike”. She relented after I made it clear that I could and would employ force if necessary. I notified the therapist of her behavior, as well as all personnel, and recommended closer supervision. I am concerned that L. Rilke may pose a threat to herself, and to the operation in general.

10/12
Cloudy skies, light rain, windy. Sudden noise at 03:00, coming from the second floor, as I was doing my rounds. Went to check immediately, found all the girls in bedroom number 002, playing a game of strip poker. A number of them were only partially dressed, so I asked them to put their clothes back on. Found clear evidence of alcohol consumption - the girls were inebriated - as well as a pack of cigarettes. M. Blackburn admitted to stealing a bottle of rum. Reminded everyone that they are under 21, and that the house rules prohibit alcohol and other substance abuse, then sent them back to bed. They complied, and all were back in their rooms by 03:40. Allowed D. Campbell to keep the cigarettes if she promised to only smoke outside.

10/13
Heavy rain, everyone stayed indoors. Mood was low, until J. Clark and S. Goodkind made chocolate chip cookies. Nothing to report.

10/14
Clear skies. Sunny afternoon. All girls volunteered to help M. and J. Clark with outdoor work, which is unusual. Agent Swanson suggested they were probably feeling “cooped up” after the last few days of rain. R. Reid sustained a minor injury - bruises- trying to use a hammer one-handed, and I pulled her off the activity and sent her to the nurse. N. Reid volunteered to go with her, but R. Reid didn’t want her sister to come. Before things escalated, M. Clark intervened, and defused the situation by asking for N. Reid’s help, and sending M. Blackburn with R. Reid instead.

10/15
Good weather. Group therapy was held outside. At around 17:30, F. Jadmani demanded access to a cell phone. When asked why, she stated that she wanted to “check her finsta”. Request was denied by the communication supervisor and myself, despite protests. It appears she then attempted to “seduce” agent W. Boone into lending her his cell phone, which also failed. Unrelatedly, at 20:00 I sent an email to my supervisor, asking for my next assignment not to be with teenagers.

Chapter Text

1-

It’s well into October when Shelby realizes that she is happy.

She likes her life here, in this big old house, in the middle of nowhere, with her friends. Sure, she misses her family - that’s what she tells them on the bi-monthly video calls, anyway - and it’s weird, not to have a phone or WiFi or school or church. But there’s such peace to be found on these grounds. It reminds her of the island, in a way, without the ever present threat of death, without the constant fear of starvation or the insidious danger of losing your mind.

Without the falsehood of it.

Every morning, she wakes up before dawn and goes on a forty minute run with Rachel. They don’t do much talking, but Shelby knows Rachel loves their quiet companionship just as much as she does. They run along the fence, all the way to the patch of woods, passing the horses in their stable and the chickens in their roost ; this early, the only sounds are the birdsongs, the wind in the trees, Shelby’s feet hitting the soft earth, Rachel’s measured breathing.

(Toni also goes for a run in the morning, at about the same time, but she takes a different path. Once, on their second week, Rachel asked her about it, and Toni said something evasive about needing some alone time. Shelby knows Toni is avoiding her - and she can’t exactly blame her. After all, it’s what she asked. But it hurts all the same - in that corner of her heart that hasn’t stopped hurting since they were separated after the island, since she learned what the island was.)

Still, despite her heart aching over Toni, Shelby is happy. Morning is for school, but whenever the weather allows it, she spends the afternoon helping Joey and Marco with the never ending task of managing the property. Part of it comes from her need to feel useful - “Service is holy, and Jesus loves a helpful child”, had said her pastor, often, when lecturing the youth group - but part of it is purely, shamefully selfish. It’s simple, really: Shelby loves herself most when she wears an old straw hat and dirt-stained clothes and muddy boots, when she plunges her hands in soil to repot a plant of basil, when Joey teaches her how to make a sourdough starter. Then, she can forget the pageants and their rituals, the familiar imperative to look pretty and delicate and feminine, because nobody cares what she looks like when she’s pruning Marco’s bushes of roses, or feeding the horses, or helping Martha hang wet laundry on the clothesline. And what a relief that is.

They aren’t under any obligation to help out, except with house chores - a bit of cooking, a bit of cleaning, laundry - but Shelby finds herself volunteering, day after day. It’s not like there’s much else to do anyway, unless you’re Nora and Leah and you don’t mind reading all the time, or Dot and Toni who spend hours playing board games. Shelby likes books just fine, and loves a good game night, but she needs something to do. And if she finds it easier to be around Toni when both her hands are busy, be it with a rake or a potato peeler, well, that’s not something she wants to think about too much. She’s happy, in a new and unexpected way ; that’s what matters.

At night, the eight of them usually gather in the common room upstairs, away from the adults, and play games or watch something on the TV until it’s time for bed. There’s always an agent lurking around, but otherwise they’re left alone, and that’s what they want. Some nights, they don't even do much of anything at all - sitting in silence, reading or absorbed in thoughts, taking comfort in each other’s company, like they did on the island. No matter what, Shelby is always one of the first to go to bed, and, before slipping under her covers, before Fatin comes back from her extremely long and meticulous beauty routine, Shelby gets on her knees, and prays. Somehow, the words are easier on her tongue than when she kneeled in church.

She could almost convince herself that she’s spending her senior year at a slightly unconventional boarding school, if it weren’t for mandatory therapy. They all have one hour of individual therapy per week - Shelby’s is on Wednesday afternoons - during which Joana tries to help them cope with their hellish summer. Shelby hates it. Look, she’s not an idiot, she knows that they went through something traumatic, she sees how much some of her friends are struggling. It’s not even that she thinks she wasn’t affected - it’s just - therapy won’t help her. It’s like her parents said when her high school offered counseling after Becca passed away: there’s nothing a shrink can do that the Lord can’t do better.

Group therapy is easier. It takes place every Saturday, after lunch, and usually Joana has them do games and trust exercises, or they practice mindfulness, and talk about stuff like school-related stress or missing their families and friends, and it’s fine. Fun, even, sometimes. One session, Shelby leads a blindfolded Nora across the room, and laughs with everyone else as Fatin keeps coming up with increasingly more vulgar sexual innuendos - Dot, Fatin’s partner, merely rolls her eyes, but Leah blushes bright red, and, fully distracted, lets poor Martha walk straight into a wall. Another time, when the sun is still hot, they lie outside on the grass to meditate and everyone makes fun of Toni for falling asleep.

Yes, group therapy is fun, until late October, when Joana, for the first time, tries to make them talk about the island.

“Today we’re going to focus on gratitude. I want you to think back on that traumatic period of your life, when you were alone on the island, and think of one action, or even one word from someone here that made it easier for you to survive, that helped you in some way, no matter how small. Then you can stand up, and thank the person you thought of.”

A tense silence falls on the study room where they all sit, in a circle, on plastic chairs. They never talk about the experiment, not all together as a group. And certainly not in front of someone who’s basically still a stranger. Shelby glances to her right, and catches Toni looking straight at her, and finds herself unable to look away, transfixed by a face she knows better than her own. The light brown of Toni’s eyes, in the sunlight filtering through the window, appears dotted with specks of gold and amber, just like it did on the island. The stubborn bow of her lips curves down, in a way that it so familiar, and so endearing, and fuck.

Memories Shelby has pushed away for months fill her mind: Toni, kissing her under the lychee tree. Toni, holding her hand as they lie side by side on a bed of palm leaves and fronds. Toni, smiling at her across the campfire. Toni, crying in her arms as Martha lay, unmoving, on the ground. Toni, laughing at her own jokes. Toni, talking quietly as they walk together, barefoot in the sand. Toni yelling her name when the rescue team sent by Gretchen separates them. Shelby has barely let herself remember any of it - not after the bunker, when they learned the truth, when Shelby realized none of it was real. When she almost lost her mind trying to decipher which feelings were truly hers, and which had been designed, created, engineered, by the machinations of Gretchen Klein.

(Had they wanted her to fall for Toni? In August, she called Leah almost every night, sick with the feeling of having lost her bearings, of having been nothing but a puppet. Leah understood. Leah said they’d all need time to untangle this mess. But how is Shelby supposed to make sense of what happened, to fix it, when she can barely think about it?)

Beside her, Fatin clears her throat, interrupting her internal crisis, and raises a hand, lazily. “I can go first,” she drawls, overly confident.

“Great! You have the floor,” Joana responds, with a smile.

Fatin stands up. Everyone stares. Shelby can feel the tension emanating from the group, the way each one of them is holding their breath, wondering what Fatin is going to say, which moment she’s going to bring up, who she’s going to thank. On the opposite side of the circle, Leah is chewing on her lower lip, fingers drumming against her thigh.

“Martha,” she starts, and all heads turn to Martha, whose mouth opens in surprise, “I am grateful that you shared your 2-in-1 pear scented shampoo with us. It may have been an abomination, but at least it made me feel, like, vaguely human, and also it gave me a newfound appreciation for all the beauty products I had taken for granted before that, so thanks.”

Fatin sits down. There’s a small silence, and then everyone is cracking up, Martha included, something like relief in their laughter. Joana’s eyebrow twitches, but she remains neutral. “Martha, what about you?”

Martha stands up, with a big grin. “‘I’m grateful for you, Toni, for finding the most useless thing to bring back to camp: the love of my life, Marcus.”

“You’re welcome,” Toni says, very seriously, as she takes Martha’s place in the center of the circle. “And I’m grateful for...” Her eyes scan the group, drawing the suspense, and Shelby’s pulse fastens, even though she knows she shouldn’t hope-- “ ...all of Nora’s dirty jokes.”

Laughter again. Joana’s arms are crossed against her chest, and she’s smiling, but she looks pensive too. Disappointment settles, like dregs, at the bottom of Shelby’s stomach.

It goes on and on, everyone picking light, funny answers, until it’s Shelby’s turn. She thinks, again, of Toni, as she stands up and takes a step inside the circle of her friends. She thinks of Toni letting her set her own pace, never pushing, never demanding anything of her. She thinks of the way Toni used to touch her, light fingers on her bare skin, hungry lips. Without Toni, would she have had the courage to accept herself? To come out? Shelby wants, more than anything, suddenly, to be earnest. But she knows this would be akin to a betrayal - she knows they all implicitly agree: the island, its horrors and its joys, is theirs, before it’s anyone else’s. They have been watched, filmed, recorded, debriefed: they get to keep some of it to themselves.

So instead, she says something meaningless, like everybody else, and avoids looking at Toni entirely.

That night, Shelby says her prayers, and waits for Fatin to come in, but Fatin never does. Instead, Dot knocks at the door. “Hey, can I sleep here tonight? Toni wants to stay with Martha. I already talked to Fatin, she doesn’t mind - says she’s gonna bunk with Leah.”

“Oh wow,” Shelby says, eyes widening as she signals Dot to come in. “With Leah, really? Kinda makes me want to be a fly on the wall.”

Dot snorts. “Please, as if anything’s gonna happen. I bet you they’re not even gonna talk about it. You know Fatin had the audacity to tell me she was over her, in August? I just wish they could see how unhappy this makes them both.”

Shelby winces, which is stupid because she is happy. She misses Toni, and she doesn’t know what to do about it, but altogether, she’s not pretending: she really is happy here.

(The question, of course, is: could she be happier?)

“You okay?” Dot asks, worriedly, after a long silence.

“Yeah, sorry, just sleepy.” Dot hums, chucks off her ridiculous slippers, and lies down on Fatin’s bed, staring at the ceiling. Shelby mirrors her position. “It’s not so bad here, right?” she asks Dot, a bit shyly. “I know some of the girls miss their lives, I know Leah’s taking it hard but…”

“No, yeah, you’re not wrong. It’s not bad. Way better than that place they put me in, back home,” Dot replies. Shelby swallows. Dot was placed in foster care when they came back. Maybe she’s not the only one, then, who’s happy here.

Dot turns off the light. They’re quiet, for a while. “Dottie,” Shelby whispers in the dark, “what would you have said, if we did it for serious? Joana’s gratitude game, I mean. What would you have said? Who are you grateful for?”

Dot thinks before answering. “It might sound corny, but, honestly? All of you. Like, don’t get me wrong, you were all a pain in my ass at least half the time, but-” Shelby hears Dot exhaling softly “- I’m grateful for the trust that y’all had in me. Gave me a purpose, you know. Kept me going.”

Shelby smiles to herself. “I’ll remind you of that next time you complain about those headaches we apparently give you all the time.”

“Yeah, yeah. What about you? Who would you have picked?”

“You, of course. You kept us alive.”

“Damn right, I did.”

And it’s not a lie. She is grateful for Dot. But it’s not the truth either.

The next morning, she knocks on Toni and Leah’s door, at dawn. Toni opens, in her workout clothes. Behind her, still in bed, Leah glares at Shelby and grumbles something that sounds like an elaborate curse, before grumpily pulling her blanket above her head.

After quietly closing the door, Toni looks at Shelby with a puzzled, weary expression. Shelby’s chest is buzzing with nerves, but she made a decision, and she will see it through.

“Do you want to run with me and Rach’ this morning?” she asks, all at once, breathless.

Toni blinks. “Sure,” she says, her voice still rough from sleep - the sound tugs at Shelby’s heart, fills her with warm and inconvenient fondness. Toni, for her part, looks surprised at her own answer.

Rachel, bless her heart, does not comment on Toni’s presence. The three of them warm up in front of the house, in silence, then start running together like a well-oiled machine. Shelby takes the lead, eager to rid her body of the nervous energy still brimming in her limbs.

This doesn’t fix anything, she knows. But maybe, just for now, it’s enough.

 

2-

Fun fact: until exactly two months ago, Fatin had never set foot on a farm. Or anywhere farm-adjacent. She was perfectly happy with that, because Fatin is a city girl, through and through - she needs noise, crowds, movement. People to see, places to be, shit to buy. So this forced relocation from her beloved East Bay to fucking nowhere, USA, has been less than ideal. She misses her car, and her phone, and clubs with awful music. She hates this big ugly house where everything is plain and old - and not old in a cute vintage way. She hates being surrounded by boring nature, could not care less about the beauty of fall-colored leaves, or the peaceful silence of the countryside, or the invigorating smell of wet earth. And she hates the stupid goats most of all.

(She can’t stand being around Leah without her usual distractions. In August, there were parties, there were college boys, there were former friends and acquaintance eager to reconnect over a shot of tequila, and she didn’t have to feel this emptiness, in her stomach, this constant, miserable, pathetic yearning for someone who’s made it clear she doesn’t want her like that.)

At least she’s not alone - it’s nice to be with her friends, especially since having friends in the first place is kind of a new thing for Fatin. It helps that Marco and Joey are decent guys - more than decent, really, they’re kind, and they do their best to make them feel at home. Oh, and she has her cello.

She’s practicing a new piece today - Bach, for her Juillard admission requirements ; she’s been at it for a couple hours, it’s already late afternoon - when Martha barges in.

“Fatin, it’s time! Everyone is ready to start!” She sounds excited, and that, more than anything, makes Fatin pause, even though she’s not quite finished. Martha’s mood has been up and down, recently, and Fatin knows they’ve all noticed, knows they’re all keeping an eye on her.

“Well, let’s do this, then,” Fatin says, with more enthusiasm than she feels. She carefully puts away her cello. Martha grabs her hand, and all but dislocates Fatin’s shoulder as she tugs her towards the bedrooms.

Tonight is Halloween, and they’ve been planning it for a week now, with Marco and Joey’s help, and despite some initial resistance from the federal agents. (“Let them be kids,” Joey insisted. “Nothin’ too crazy, just costumes and candy and games and scary movies.”)

In their shared bedroom, Shelby is waiting for her.

“No peeking while I change,” Fatin says, teasingly.

Shelby rolls her eyes. “Nothing I haven’t seen before.” Fatin marvels, for a second, at how far Shelby’s come. On the island, after she came out, there was a period where Shelby kept apologizing and averting her eyes whenever someone would undress. It took all of them a while to convince her that she wasn’t the pervert her family had made her out to be.

They get dressed on their own side of the bedroom, with their backs to each other. Fatin isn’t usually modest, but the girls all agreed to keep their costumes secret from each other, so she doesn’t look at Shelby as she puts on her all-black outfit: a crop top, a very short miniskirt, fishnet tights, and a pointy hat that Joey helped her make. Red hot lipstick, and a little spider drawn on her cheekbone. An old bristle broom, essential accessory. When she checks herself in her pocket mirror, Fatin sees exactly what she hoped: a very sexy witch. Nailed it.

The big reveal, when everyone opens their eyes at the same time in the living-room, is actually really fun ; Fatin barely knows where to look at first, there is so much to gawk at. Nora has somehow managed an extremely realistic rendition of Frankenstein’s creature, complete with a fake screw through the skull. Rachel is surprisingly unsettling as a mummy, wrapped in linen with cadaverous makeup covering her face.

“Martha, we agreed to try and look scary!” Toni says, with laughter in her voice. As if she’s any scarier with her stupid eyepatch.

“I’m a werewolf!” Martha protests, bundled in her furry costume. Everyone laughs.

“You look like a lost puppy,” Toni jokes, with a fond smile.

“It’s not like a pirate is super terrifying. And at least I made an effort,” Martha retorts, pointing at Dot, who is sporting a pair of cardboard wings on her back and, as far as Fatin can tell, nothing else in the way of costume.

“What the fuck are you supposed to be?” Fatin asks.

“I’m a bat,” Dot says, drily. “Duh.”

Laughter rolls in waves. Fatin catches Leah staring at her bared midriff, and feels a sharp spike of pleasure. “Leah, are you a vampire?” Nora wonders, a bit shyly, like every time she talks to Leah. “That’s a great choice.”

“I’m Count Dracula,” Leah corrects. She’s slurring a little, because of the fangs, and it’s cute. She looks cute, Fatin thinks, despite herself, in her cape and fluffy white shirt and tight pants. No, more than cute, she looks hot - and oh, this is a dangerous train of thoughts. “I like the fake mustache,” she says, instead. “Almost as horrifying as Toni’s fake beard.”

“Arrgh,” says Toni, menacingly. They all laugh. “Honestly,” Toni adds, “I thought you’d be a pirate too, Rachel.”

“Why?” Rachel asks, neutrally.

An awkward pause. “Cause, you know. Captain Hook and shit,” Toni tries to sound casual, but the words are forced.

“Oh, so just cause I’m missing a hand I have to make it into a costume? LIke it’s something to laugh about?”

“No,” Toni says, very deer-in-headlights, “that’s not --”

“Hey, let’s talk about Shelby’s costume,” Nora interrupts her, in an obvious attempt to change the subject.

It backfires, because Shelby withdraws into herself under the attention. She’s dressed as some sort of corpse bride, with a wig, artistically tattered wedding dress, and hauntingly beautiful makeup - and, for some reason, she’s very clearly uncomfortable.

Joey clears his throat. “Well, y’all look fantastic. Why don’t I take a group photo, so y’all have a souvenir, uh?”

They shuffle close together, still kind of awkward, and when that’s over, they have pizza, and soda, and candy, as they watch a couple of scary movies, and it’s all very tame. When the credits roll for the second time, at around midnight, there’s a brief silence. “What now?” says Toni. “Are we going to sleep?” She’s removed her eyepatch to watch the movie, but she still has a fake beard eating half her face. In the dimmed lights of the room, she looks alien, not like herself.

On the far end of the couch, Shelby grins. Earlier, she washed her face clean, and exchanged her wedding dress for jeans and a sweater. “Now, we play a game.”

Rachel raises an eyebrow, suspicious. “What kind of game? And please don’t say Never Have I Ever, I already know way too much about everyone’s sex lives.”

“We could play Spin the Bottle,” Fatin teases, sending Rachel a wink. Rachel rolls her eyes.

“No,” Shelby says, firmly. Her eyes take on a conspiratorial glint. “It’s Halloween! We’re gonna play hide and seek --”

“Lame,” Fatin grumbles.

“-- outside.”

That makes Leah perk up. “What about the curfew?” she asks.

Shelby shrugs. “Well, Marco and Joey have already gone to bed, and Halloween is the perfect night for mischief, right? We’re playing hide and seek - we’ll just have to be sneaky, I guess, and not let our dear agents see what we’re up to.”

“So rebellious,” Toni says, light and playful, “I like it.” The obvious flirting is quite a surprise - they’ve been so distant, at odds, ever since they reunited after the bunker. Shelby’s cheeks color.

Fatin turns to Dot, who hasn’t said anything yet. “What do you think, Dorothy?”

“Sure, why not. Beats going to bed early.” Dot surveys the rest of them. “Everyone cool with it?”

It’s not just Leah, it turns out, who’s kind of excited at the perspective of breaking the rules. They all agree, and then Nora produces a quarter, and they flip the coin to find out who’ll be hiding, and who’ll be seeking. To her dismay, Fatin is it. So she waits, dutifully, in her room, while everyone else sneaks out of the house, a slow trickle of girls pouring through the backdoor, or, for the more adventurous, the windows, like prisoners escaping into the night.

When she deems that they’ve had enough time to hide, Fatin pads downstairs, and silently chooses her point of exit - the window of what’s become her cello studio, which gives on the northern side of the house, between the edge of the vegetable patch and the chicken coop, well out of sight of the main door. (Fatin has some experience sneaking out.)

Outside, the night is very dark but for the moonlight, falling on the house and the trees, transforming their ordinary surroundings into an eerie scenery. Fatin shivers, and pulls on the sleeves of her sweater so it covers her hands. It’s very quiet, here, in the middle of the countryside, but not silent. Her ears, sensitive, used to picking up even the tiniest of discordance, the subtlest of nuance in the vibrations of her cello, catch plethora of small noises: leaves whispering in the breeze, birds calling out to each other in warning, small animals scurrying in the grass. Fatin longs for the noises of a city at night, abruptly, instead: cars going fast on empty streets, drunk college students laughing too loud, glass bottles rolling on concrete sidewalks, sirens in the distance. Her heart seizes, and she wishes, a child’s wish, that she could go back in time, to when she knew what she was doing, when her dad was still her hero, her best friend, her confidante, when her biggest problems were convincing her mom to let her stay out a bit later than usual, and which boy would be a good lay.

She shakes herself out of her weird nostalgia, and reminds herself she has a game to play. A game to win, really, because Fatin doesn’t lose.

(She won’t lose again, she’s already lost so much. Her family. Her life in the city. Her heart.)

She finds Dot first. Something catches her eye by the chicken coop, a shadow - no, not a shadow, a mass, solid, a person, crouched below the awning of the coop’s roof - almost invisible in the dark. Fatin narrows her eyes, and approaches. “I think you’re a tad too big to be mistaken for a chicken, Dorothy.”

Dot sighs. “Oh, no, you caught me,” she whispers, drily. She unfolds herself from her position, and cracks her neck.

“Gross, don’t do that,” Fatin hisses.

“So delicate. Okay, I’ll help you find the others. I think I heard someone go towards the barn.”

They make their way to the barn, silently, and Dot opens the door. Fatin goes in first, and she’s not scared, really, she isn’t, until -- someone moves, in the dark, and there are teeth at her sleeve, and Fatin jumps, crying out in shock and terror, pulling to get free from whatever, whoever, has hold of her - oh God, she sees two eyes glowing in the dark, demon-like, and feels warm breath on the skin of her hand, and Fatin pulls --

-- and her brain catches on, at last. Goats. It’s one of the goats, who’s gotten out of its stall somehow.

Fuck,” she yells, before remembering they have to be discreet. Her heart is pounding at her throat. “Fuck you, George,” she seethes, sharply freeing her sweater from the hungry mouth of the stupid animal. “God, I fucking hate it here.” When she looks behind her, Dot’s whole body is convulsing - she’s having a silent laughing fit.

“I almost wish we were still being filmed, just so we’d have a recording of that,” Dot says, in between shaky breaths. She wipes her eyes.

Fatin flips her off. “You’re the worst best friend I’ve ever had.”

“How many best friends have you had before me?”

“Not relevant,” Fatin replies, as dignified as possible.

They find Shelby next, hiding in the reeds by the pond, thin and tall and blond like them, and then Dot spots Rachel crawling away from them, by the fence. Nora is squatting under the tarp that protects the big ball of hay by the field. Toni’s up one of the big chestnut trees at the edge of the woods. Fatin is just starting to genuinely enjoy herself when a scream shatters the silence.

They all freeze. It’s a human scream, born of genuine, acute fear.

“Marty,” Toni murmurs. She looks grey-pale, even in the dark. She darts off in the direction of the scream, and they all follow suit, racing towards the horses’ field. There’s a small gate, but Toni doesn’t bother, jumping above it like a deer, before Dot unlocks it. Fatin is vibrating, her whole nervous system alight, pulsing with adrenaline. What happened. Where’s Martha. Where is Leah. Every time she blinks, she’s back on the beach, or back on the plane, and maybe she never left. She can’t think, her brain foggy like a morning in San Francisco, her heart stuttering, out of rhythm.

When she snaps out of it, Martha and Leah are standing in front of her, looking shaken, out of breath. Toni has both arms around Martha’s shoulders. Fatin wants very badly to hold Leah, then, but before she has time to do so, before Martha and Leah can explain what got them so spooked, there’s light behind them, movement, and they spin around to watch agent Clipper run toward them at full speed. “What’s going on? Is anyone hurt?” she asks when she reaches their little group, barely breathless. She has a hand on her gun. Fatin feels sick.

Leah clams up, visibly, distrust etched into the stubborn lines across her forehead, into her clenched jaw. But Martha says, haltingly: “There’s someone out there. We saw someone.” She points, with a trembling arm, behind them.

Sam presses a finger to the device in her ear, and she sighs. “What you saw is agent Swanson walking the perimeter, as he always does at night.”

“But… but he chased us--”

“He thought you might be intruders.” Sam turns away from them, murmuring orders to whoever’s listening, in a voice too low for Fatin to catch any of her words. Then she flashes her light in each of their faces. Fatin shuts her eyes, wincing.

“Dude, too bright,” Dot protests.

“I’m checking that everyone is accounted for and in one piece,” Sam says, with a very obvious lack of sympathy. When she’s done blinding them, she inhales.

“I’m not going to ask what you all are doing out here, past curfew. And I won’t remind you what is at stake here, or tell you what could have happened if it wasn’t agent Swanson out there, but someone who actually intended to do you harm. Clearly you’ve been scared enough for one night.” She pauses, lets her words fall on them. “If this happens again,” Sam warns, “I will confine you to your rooms. Understood?”

There’s a mumbled assortment of answers.

She sighs, and gestures with her flashlight. “Okay. House. Now!”

They obey, silent and chastised. Even Leah doesn’t say a word. Twenty minutes later, Fatin’s back in her room, in bed, eyes wide open, the events of the evening replaying in her mind. She can’t stop thinking about the fog, the fear. Her heart is still beating too fast, and she knows she can't sleep in this state, so she waits till Shelby’s breathing slows, deepens, and leaves the room.

When she opens the door to the fourth bedroom down the hall, Toni’s bed is empty - she must be with Martha - and Leah’s lamp is turned on. “Can I sleep here?” Fatin says, a low whisper.

“Okay.”

She closes the door behind her, and then hesitates. She doesn’t know how to ask for comfort. She has no words for what she needs - for the deep pull at the pit of her stomach, the desperate kind of yearning - this kind of vulnerability is foreign to her. It would be simpler if it were just sex - asking for sex is easy, she knows the script - but it’s not sex she wants from Leah right now. She wants - she’s not even sure what it is. She wants to be selfish. Self-loathing roils in her stomach. She is selfish, just like her dad. She shouldn't be here.

"Come here,” Leah says, when Fatin doesn't move. She pushes away her blanket, shuffles to one side. Fatin, grateful, slips into Leah’s bed, and they lie, side-by-side - not touching, but close enough that Fatin falls asleep to the sound of Leah’s respiration.

 

3-
Joana Perez, PhD
Personal notes on group therapy, 11/05.

The group was agitated today. They recently heard news from the trial preparations underway in D.C and were asked for further written testimonies. As a result, they had trouble focusing, they kept interrupting each other, and a few of them even snapped at each other, which does not happen often - at least not when I’m there.

Dot was late, which is out of the ordinary for her, and in a bad mood (frowning, curt, monosyllabic answers, closed body language). Agent Clipper tells me she suspects Dot is out of cigarettes. I will suggest that our administrator, Danielle, pick some up for her on the next supply run. It did not help with how today’s session went, as the other girls tend to mirror Dot’s moods - Fatin especially is attuned to her, and the two of them often affect the group’s general attitude - though I don’t believe this is a conscious choice.

During the initial group check-in, Rachel wasn’t eager to participate. She thought it was a waste of time, that everyone knew how everyone else felt about their current situation, and talking about it did not help. This prompted several of the other girls to commiserate, which seemed to be of some comfort to Rachel at least, but it also made Nora visibly unhappy. I suspect Nora would very much like the group - and particularly her sister - to discuss certain issues.

For our conversation section, I didn’t ask about the island. Instead, since it was clearly on their minds, we explored emotions relating to the trial, its possible outcomes, their hopes and wishes and fears. Many jokes about money, and what each would do with it. Shelby still shows signs of discomfort every time we broach the subject of the footage that may be shown in court - she never says anything, but she is visibly tense, and won’t look anyone in the eye. Although, I have to note that there is some progress between her and Toni, who are now both making an effort to engage in conversation, and seem a bit more comfortable around each other. I paired them up today for our mindfulness exercise, and they did not protest, unlike previous times.

In general, tensions and conflicts within the group have yet to be addressed. There is a lot of reluctance to talk meaningfully about their shared trauma - to me, but to each other as well. They may joke about some minor events, but they refuse to touch on anything deeper. This might stem in part from the manner in which the false “interviews” were conducted by Gretchen Klein’s team. They were forced to relive in extreme detail what happened to them, in an unsafe, manipulative environment, so it’s understandable that they’re having difficulties with therapy now. Leah in particular is very suspicious of me, and all other adult staff. She’s quite confrontational, which I think is due in part to her harboring some anger - I was told she was the first one to suspect that something was wrong. Martha is equally distrustful, but in a much quieter, and maybe altogether more worrisome way.

The girls are obviously very attached to each other, and remain a tightly-knit group, which is how they survived the experiment. I wonder if they refuse to address any problems because they fear that it could fracture the group’s cohesion, and thus put them at risk of losing their best and only source of comfort and safety in such a stressful, emotional period of their lives.

 

4-

One afternoon, Rachel surveys her friends, lounging on the couches and chairs of the common room, and makes a decision. They’ve been spending too much time indoors, lately, as the weather grows colder and less pleasant, and the lethargic atmosphere is grating on her nerves. She doesn’t like feeling aimless.

(She never has, but especially not now that she actually is aimless. Rachel Reid, left without a single one of her numerous, ambitious life goals. How pathetic is that.)

Of course, given their situation, forced in isolation once again, together inside one house with nowhere to go, and not much to do, Rachel’s bound to become restless, impatient - but she’s also aware that she’s not the only one. There’s an undercurrent of fitful energy, fizzling from all eight of them. They’ve been here three months. They have many more months to go. They can’t afford to go stir-crazy already. “When your head feels stuck, move your body,” her coach used to say, and this advice hasn’t failed her yet, so Rachel makes a decision: she has to get her friends moving, even if only for a few hours. Plus, now is the perfect time for it ; it’s an unexpectedly warm and sunny day for mid-November, and everyone has completed their chores, schoolwork, therapy, and other mandatory activities until dinnertime.

She claps her hands together. The sound of flesh against prosthetic is so fucking weird, still, a sharp, plastic-like slap, instead of the organic thump of palms brought together, but at least it’s loud enough that heads automatically lift in response. “Listen up! Change into your gym clothes, put on your sneakers, take off your earrings - that’s for you, Fatin - and meet me outside in ten.”

“What? Can this wait?” Toni says. “We’re playing.” She gestures to the Monopoly board on the coffee table, around which Dot, Martha and her are sitting. Dot’s pile of money is significantly bigger than Toni’s.

“You can lose against Dot another time. Let’s go!”

“I’m not losing, I’m-- She’s-- This is white privilege in action,” Toni grumbles, at the same time as Fatin looks up from her fashion magazine.

“Okay, why are you acting like you’re possessed by a middle school PE teacher? What’s going on?”

“Yeah, Rach’, why do you want us to go outside?” Nora asks, eyes still on her book. “Because just so you know, I don’t really feel like running.”

“No running, I promise. Well, maybe a little bit of running.” Rachel grins. “We’re gonna play dodgeball.”

“Aww, that’s a great idea!” Shelby exclaims, getting to her feet, sending Rachel a bright smile. Good, one down, six to go. She knew Shelby would be easily convinced - she likes staying active almost as much as Rachel.

Martha and Toni shrug at each other, and get up. Nora, resigned, puts her book down too.

“No,” Fatin says, shaking her head at Rachel. “Sorry, girl. Not interested.”

Dot pokes her ribs. “Come on, girl. Don’t be a dick, and come play.” She pauses, and grins. “Think of all the ball jokes you’ll be able to make.”

“I’ll throw balls in your face, how about that?”

“Better than your fist,” Dot says, with a shrug. “That shit hurt, man.”

Fatin pouts, but Martha and Shelby each grab an arm, and get her off the couch, and she rolls her eyes. “Fine! But if I break a nail, I am going to complain, and you will have to listen to me.”

Rachel snorts, and then realizes that someone has kept suspiciously quiet. Leah is hiding behind her book, curled in the armchair nearest to the window, and very obviously pretending she can’t hear the conversation. “Hey,” Rachel yells, in her direction. “Rilke!”

Leah peers over the edge of her book. “Hard pass.”

“Non negotiable. Come on, it’ll be good for you. Gotta stretch your legs. Or any muscle that’s not your brain.”

“I’m busy.”

“Think of it as a bonding exercise.” When this has no effect, Rachel puts her hands on her hips, and stares her down. “Don’t make me come and get you, cause we both know I will, and you’re not gonna like it.”

With a long-suffering sigh, and stormy eyes, Leah relents. (All that attitude is for show, Rachel knows. If Leah genuinely doesn’t want to do something, no amount of cajoling or threatening will change her mind.)

When they’re all gathered outside - a good fifteen minutes later, because of course Fatin takes her sweet ass time - Rachel explains the rules, distributes the foam balls she got from Marco, and separates them into two teams: Dot, Toni, Martha and Fatin, versus Rachel, Nora, Shelby and Leah. They take their positions while the dog, Pepper, who followed them outside, runs excited circles around them, thinking he’s gonna get to play.

“No hitting Pepper!” Martha warns the group, sternly. “Or you’re disqualified!”

Toni laughs. “Marty, this isn’t a professional competition.”

“I don’t care. If you harm the dog, I’m disqualifying you.’

“Okay, okay, let’s do this already!” Dot complains.

They start playing, and soon enough they’re all into it, laughing and yelling and throwing the foam balls at each other with ferocity. God, Rachel loves it. She loves the burn in her legs and arms, the thin sheen of sweat on her forehead, on her temples, her shirt soaked with it. She loves her body doing exactly what she wants it to do. And she loves, unexpectedly so, playing with the others ; there’s an unfamiliar but potent joy, in watching her friends have fun, in being a part of it.

Toni is clearly the best player, so Rachel tells her team to focus on her, which leads to Shelby eliminating her with a sneaky ball to the left calf, and Dot, in retaliation - and mostly by accident - eliminating Nora right after. One of the agents, Sam, comes outside to keep an eye on them, or maybe just to enjoy the show, and Leah’s next throw mysteriously hits her right in the stomach.

“My bad,” Leah yells, trying, and failing, to hide a smirk. Distracted, she doesn’t see Fatin’s ball until it’s too late, but she doesn’t seem to care all that much about her elimination. The game continues.

Rachel is having so much fun, she doesn’t even care when she ends up losing the ball, her stiff prosthetic fingers grazing the surface of it. The foam ball slides past her, falls on the ground, and Rachel knows that means she just lost, and there’s a small pang in her chest, but it’s just ordinary disappointment. Nothing like her horror, on the island, after the shark attack, when she’d woken up with one hand gone, and just couldn’t get her brain to understand the new reality of her body, constantly trying to grab things with a phantom limb, constantly dropping logs, or water, or food, like a toddler who hasn’t mastered control of their muscles yet.

Martha wins that round for her team. They agree to a rematch. Rachel doesn’t even have to motivate them this time, they’re all in. They play a third time, but the game ends in a draw, because for some obscure reason Pepper decides to run after every ball, catching them in his powerful jaws, and refusing to give them back, and so they fall in an exhausted pile, on the lawn - Toni, sprawled starfish-like in between Nora and Martha, Shelby sitting cross legged, leaning against Fatin. Dot goes to get them some water, which they gulp down avidly.

Rachel wipes sweat off her forehead. Leah, sitting at her right side, lies down, and rests the back of her head on Rachel’s lap, without asking. The dog, hilariously, lays half his body across Leah’s stomach, imitating her. “Ugh, no, Pepper!” she protests. “You’re so heavy. And smelly.”

Rachel huffs. “Yeah, tell me about it.” Leah gives her the finger, and does not move. Pepper doesn’t either. Rachel’s lips twist into a smile.

She catches Nora looking at Leah and her with something akin to jealousy, a flinch of hurt, there and gone, in her eyes, and Rachel -- does not feel any guilt. Far from it, there’s a sharp, cruel wave of satisfaction, deep in her stomach. It’s not nice, or fair, and Rachel doesn’t give a fuck. She’s earned the right to be an asshole. And then, immediate guilt, surging up her throat, and all trace of pettiness gone, replaced by a strange kind of grief. Rachel remembers the worst morning of her life, when she thought she’d lost two parts of herself - hand, and heart - and then her absolute, month-long denial of the possibility that Nora had died. She’d spent days arguing, yelling, crying that Nora was not dead. How could she, now, take pleasure in hurting the sister she’d willed alive? It made no sense.

Vaguely ashamed, she stretches one leg, and pokes Nora’s foot with her own. “Good game, Nor’,” she says, with a smile. A peace offering.

Nora’s mouth curves in a half-smile, and her eyes drop to the ground. She looks very young, all of a sudden, and Rachel has to look away.

“That really was a brilliant idea, Rachel,” Shelby says softly. “We should do stuff like that more often.”

“Before the snow,” Martha agrees, wisely. Appropriately, a gust of wind makes them all flinch, everyone tucking their chins under their collars. The cooled-off sweat on Rachel’s neck feels icy-damp.

A head pops through the kitchen window. Joey waves. “Hey, girls, if you wanna have time to shower before dinner, you should get to it now! Rachel, don’t forget you’re on cooking duty with me tonight.”

“You got it, boss,” she says, with a lazy salute, though her throat tightens.

After showering, Rachel pads, wrapped in a towel, barefoot on the chilly wood floors, to her bedroom. Nora is already dressed and gone, and she has the space to herself, but she locks the door anyway. There’s always the risk of someone barging in, unannounced, and right now, Rachel needs some goddamn privacy.

She has a routine. First, she lets go of the towel, and stands in front of the mirror above the sink, far enough that she can see most of her body reflected on the smooth surface. She looks, and forces herself to only look - no assessment, criticism, not even pride. Rachel stands, immobile, and turns her brain to its most neutral setting, and beholds the portion of herself she’s able to see, from her neck to her knees. It’s very hard, not to pinpoint flaws, not to let her eyes focus on the obvious emptiness where a hand should be - but she knows everything becomes a habit with sufficient discipline, so she endures, in silence, and tells herself it’ll get easier.

Afterwards, she gets dressed, and sits down so she can rub some moisturizing cream on her stump, in slow circles, letting it penetrate the sensitive skin. She barely winces anymore at the sensation, the strangeness, wrongness of it. Then she does her exercises, the ones Matt taught her, during their first week here - she was fitted for a prosthetic at the very end of August, just before they were moved to the safe house, and she had no time to see any kind of physical or occupational therapist about it, so the nurse, Matt, has been helping her with it. Mostly, it entails strengthening, and a lot of stretching, and conditioning her other arm, too, not just the amputated limb, so it doesn’t get hurt while she makes it work more than before. She finishes with drills, repeating movements with her prosthetic hand until it becomes natural: grabbing a book, a cup of water, holding a pencil, buttoning her shirt. It’s still all very new, of course - she lost a hand less than five months ago, and five months is nothing in a lifetime - but it’s also starting to feel normal. A new kind of normal, settling over Rachel with finality. She’s not certain it’s a good thing, but she sure as hell can’t do anything about it.

When she’s done, she makes her way to the kitchen, passing the other girls in the common room, all in dry clothes and damp hair, and all back to their previous activity - Leah and Nora reading, Fatin and Shelby chatting, the rest playing Monopoly. “Still losing, I see,” she teases Toni, escaping down the stairs before Toni has time to retaliate .

Joey is waiting for her, studying an old cookbook he has set, opened on its cracked spine, on the kitchen table. “How about pasta for tonight?” he asks, cheerful, when she comes in. “It’s basic, but ya can’t go wrong with pasta. And you guys were runnin’ around all afternoon, you must be hungry. Whaddaya think?”

Rachel shrugs. “Yeah, fine.”

“Lemme find a good meatless sauce recipe, for our resident vegetarian. And maybe we’ll make a salad?”

“Fine,” Rachel repeats. She wants the deliberation to be over, already, and for Joey to give her a task. Of all the chores they have to do, she only hates cooking. On the island, when it was a question of survival, she never questioned her hunger, never paused to ask herself what she was eating, and how much. Now that she’s back, though, the impulse is there, right there, at the tip of her tongue, under her skin - “How many calories in this?” “How much fat in that?” “Should she really eat dessert?” - and it’s exhausting to resist it.

Discipline. She used to have plenty of it. Rachel fills a huge pot with water to boil, lifts it with both hands so she can place it on the stove. Her prosthetic hand shines, unnervingly metallic. Her stomach grumbles, and she bites her tongue, fighting the unease.

And she wishes, not for the first time, that the island had taken her weaknesses, and not only her strengths.

 

5-

At the very end of November, one of the things Martha dreads the most happens - and there are many such things, but this one in particular makes anxiety curdle in her guts like bad milk : a doctor comes to the safe house.

It’s not anyone they’ve met before. A woman, in her fifties, with dark hair cropped short, and deep brown skin, who’s kind and polite and professional when she shows up on Tuesday, at eight in the morning. A nice, harmless, family doctor, who knows Marco and Joey well enough to call them by their first names, and yet Martha’s jaw clenches so hard it hurts. Her palms are clammy with sweat. And her head is pounding, a sharp ache right behind her eyes that pulses, flares, every time she moves too fast. They were told the evening before, by Danielle, the administrator, that there was a scheduled doctor visit, and Martha hasn’t been able to think of anything else since, and so she hasn’t slept at all, tossing and turning in her bed all night, unable to turn off her brain. It’s not even anything serious, just a routine physical exam to check that they’re all in good health, that there aren’t any unexpected after-effects of their two months in hell. Oh, and they’re getting a flu shot, too. All normal, benign stuff.

(But Martha is sick of doctors. There have been so many doctors. She can’t stand the sight of them - white blouses, plastic gloves, clipboards, and that face that doctors wear, that sympathetic turn of the mouth, grave eyes, pensive brow. Ugh. She was surrounded by doctors, in Gretchen’s underground facility ; doctors, and nurses, and assistants, all of them very worried about the state of her, rambling about concussions and blood loss and scars and mental faculties in low voices on the other side of the infirmary room, as if she couldn’t hear them. She still has nightmares about that room. The white walls, white sheets, and tiny windows, too high to see anything but a morsel of sky. Nobody would tell her where she was and why she was suddenly alone. And every time she closed her eyes, lying on that bed in the bunker, Martha felt like she was still falling. Always falling. From a jagged cliff of sandy rock. From a cheap trampoline.

Then there were the doctors of the federal military hospital where they spent two days being prodded and poked and examined, again. A long succession of generalists and brain specialists and gastroenterologists and pathologists and cardiologists and orthopedists and gynecologists and psychiatrists and therapists, and even a dentist - and nowhere to escape, nowhere to go at all, except her own mind. At least, she wasn't alone, then. Toni was in the same room, refusing to let go of her hand, and her parents were there too, and the other girls nearby. Not unlike their sleeping arrangement now, in the safe house: two per room, same corridor. Except with way less freedom of movement, and way more pills to swallow.

And of course, deep, deep, embedded at the core of it all, there’s him. The doctor.)

But it’s not like they have much of a choice. They are, temporarily, wards of the state, under protection, and the state wants them to get a check up. So while they have breakfast - Martha doesn’t eat, nibbling on an apple, refusing even coffee - the doctor sets up in one of the smaller study rooms of the first floor, and then they’re gathered in the living-room, to wait for their turn.

“Just like a regular waiting room,” Marco jokes, “except instead of gossip magazines, we’ve got ones about gardening.”

“Not the kind of dirt I wanna be reading about,” Fatin grumbles.

The other girls laugh. Martha smiles. She thinks if she opens her mouth she might throw up.

The doctor comes in, finally ready, peers at them all over the rim of her elegant glasses. “Alright, who’s up first?”

“I’ll go,” Dot says, standing up. She disappears behind the closed door. And the waiting begins. While her friends occupy themselves in a variety of ways - playing cards, reading, doing homework even, Martha can’t do anything but stare at the wall in front of her. She wants it to be over. She wants it to not be happening in the first place. She wants to be home, safely tucked in her bed, with her mom making indian tacos in the kitchen downstairs.

(But what she wants doesn’t matter. She learned that a long time ago.)

When Dot comes back, about thirty minutes later, there’s a bandaid on her upper shoulder, and a lollipop in her mouth.

“If I had known they give you candy, I’d have gone to the doctor more often,” she says, with a wide grin.

“Lollipops, really?” Rachel scoffs. “Do they think we’re ten?”

“What flavors?” Toni inquires, with interest.

“No idea, I just grabbed the biggest one. Anyway, Leah, you’re up.”

Leah blanches. “Already?”

“Yeah, come on, dude, she’s waiting. What’s the matter with you?”

A pause, and then Leah says, hoarsely, “I don’t like needles.” There’s a word she doesn’t say, but it’s implied, and they all understand. Anymore. I don’t like needles anymore. Martha is abruptly thankful that she was deemed too fragile for Faber to ever order she be given a sedative. Even when she was yelling and sobbing, freaking out, calling for help - the worst they did was leave her alone. Leah, however...

“I’ll come with,” Shelby offers, before anyone else has time to say anything. She smiles at Leah, that bright smile of hers that Martha has cherished from the moment they first met on the plane. A smile that makes you feel like everything’s going to be okay, magically so - and what a pity, that it doesn’t work, right when Martha needs it the most. “We can do the whole thing together,” Shelby goes on. “Unless you mind?”

“No,” Leah says, with obvious relief. “Thanks, Shelby.”

(Martha wishes it were that easy. Bring a friend, make it all better. But she knows she has to face her demons alone.)

When they come out, an hour later, they’re both sucking on a lollipop, and Shelby’s right forearm is sporting five small marks, red, crescent-shaped. The kind made by nails driven forcefully into skin. Fatin goes next, then Nora, then Toni. Once done, they don’t go back to the living-room, relocating to the main study room, the one with plenty of desks, and comfortable chairs, to do their schoolwork for the day.

“Want me to come with you?” Toni asks, when she’s called, meeting Martha’s eyes, not bothering to hide her obvious concern. Toni knows. Of course, she knows.

“I’m good.”

Toni frowns, bites her lip, but doesn’t insist. And so Martha is left with Rachel, who is perusing Gardens Illustrated with a very serious expression. Rachel doesn’t look at her, but after a minute or so, she says, quietly, “Do you want me to go last?”

Martha thinks about it, briefly, and says yes, please.

“Cool,” says Rachel. She doesn’t ask any questions. Rachel is good like that - she’s blunt, and she’s not sweet, not like Shelby, or Fatin - but she’s good. And she never treats Martha like she’s fragile, broken, the way the other girls do sometimes. Like a ticking bomb. Rachel’s steady presence, in fact, soothes her nerves, calms her down, and when Toni comes out, Martha takes a deep breath, and walks straight into the doctor’s makeshift office.

The visit is quick.

The doctor listens to her lungs and her heart, the stethoscope hard and cold and hostile against Martha’s skin. She checks her reflexes, feels her throat and her stomach for lumps or abnormalities, writes down numbers in her file - height and weight, heart rate and blood pressure - and asks her questions. Martha answers mechanically. Yes, she exercises regularly. Yes, she knows what makes a healthy diet. No, she has no pain, or other symptoms, to report. No, her head wound doesn’t trouble her anymore. No, she doesn’t have any questions. Yes, she’s ready for her flu shot.

And then she’s done. There’s a lollipop, in it’s red wrapper, stuffed in one of her back pockets. Absent-mindedly, she thinks she better give it to Toni. Toni loves sweets - she never really had many of them as a kid, and what you lack as a child, you crave later in life, her grandma used to say - and all of a sudden Martha is taken with the urge to laugh. Rachel, passing by on her way to the doctor, stops and puts a hand on her shoulder.

“Hey, you good? You look like hell.”

But Martha feels someone else’s hand on her, and instinctively she shoves, frantic, freeing herself from the touch. And then her mind registers the look on Rachel’s face - shock, and worry. “I’m sorry,” Martha says, horrified. She’s losing control, like on the island. No, she can’t let it happen again. “I’m so sorry,” she repeats, and then she flees to the study room, and delves into her AP History lesson with a sort of determination that resembles desperation.

Thankfully, as the day goes by, her mood gets better. The routine of their life here - study, lunch, chores, free time - may be a bit boring, but it allows Martha to slowly come back to herself, until she’s not even sure why she reacted so strongly. Before dinner, Toni and her bundle up, and take a walk. They haven’t had a moment to talk, just the two of them, in a while, and it’s nice to get some fresh air, and watch the animals - though Martha gives the barn a wide berth. She can’t stand being near the goats.

“I’m glad we got them to cancel fucking Thanksgiving,” Toni starts, voice muffled by the massive green-wool scarf she’s wrapped around her neck. Her hands are hidden deep inside her pockets. Her mom’s jacket still looks faintly too big on her, and the sight is strangely comforting in its familiarity. Martha’s reminded of numerous minnesotan winters, the two of them chatting in her parents’ backyard, or on the way to school, along the freeway, teeth chattering in the cold, Toni’s red nose peeking between scarf and hat. It’s not even winter yet, Martha thinks, with a kind of all-consuming, bone-deep fatigue. “I’m telling you Marty,” Toni adds, “I was ready to throw hands.”

“Nobody disagreed with you, though,” Martha points out.

“Yeah, cause they knew I’d have punched them in the throat.”

Martha snorts. “You’d have punched Shelby in the throat?”

“... Maybe. Probably.”

“Uh-huh.”

It’s such a normal, familiar conversation - Toni getting riled up about something, Martha teasing Toni about her feelings for a girl. Martha feels lighter than she has all day, and she bumps her shoulder against Toni, playful, affectionate. She loves all her friends, could not begin to imagine what her life would be like without them, but Toni and her… There’s something special, grounding, about their friendship. It tethers her, and she knows Toni feels the same.

“Have you talked to her?” Martha asks.

“No,” Toni says, after a brief moment of hesitation. “But I think, maybe, we’re -- I don’t know, reconnecting?”

“That’s good,” Martha says, softly. She wants Toni to be happy. She’s had so few chances at happiness. She wants Shelby to be happy too. All of them, really.

“Marty,” Toni says, and then pauses, like she’s searching for her words. Martha waits. Far away, on the horizon, the sun is setting, disappearing behind grassy hills in a blaze of red and orange and purple clouds. “Are you ever gonna tell me what happened? How you fell?”

“It was an accident,” Martha replies, automatically, which is the truth. It was. There’s more to it, of course, but she doesn’t want to think about it. She’d rather watch the sunset with her friend, and enjoy dusk in all its dark, eerie beauty.

“We’re safe here,” Toni murmurs. She grabs Martha’s hand, holds it tightly in hers, and chuckles. “I mean, it’s the whole fucking point, right? We’re in a safe house. There’s the fucking FBI, or whatever, keeping us safe. You can talk to me. Or whoever you want. About it - about all of it, Martha.”

Martha squeezes her hand back. “Yeah, I know.”

(But there is no such thing as safety. Another thing Martha learned a long time ago.)

Chapter Text

1-

It all starts going to shit on the first Saturday of December.

(Well, Rachel thinks maybe it all went wrong about six months ago, when she boarded that plane to Hawai’i. Or even years before that, when she decided to try diving, and found out that she was good at it. That she could mold her body into perfection, into a machine that would twist in the air and penetrate the surface of a pool with little to no splash, and all at her will. That unlike her mind - too slow, too shallow, never quite enough - her body could make her worthy.)

It’s Saturday, so they have group therapy after lunch, as usual. And, as usual, they drag their feet - nobody is in the mood, Rachel least of all. Last session, Joana insisted that they talk about the bunker, and it was - well, like pulling teeth, until Fatin came up with a brilliant idea: she asked about the food they got, in their first interview, when Faber and Young were playing good cops, and offering them treats. So they went on and on about each girl’s choices, and then discussed the quality of their meals in the bunker, and that weird vending machine in the corner, and how it all compared to their island diet of goat meat, fish, fruits, and wild onions. Of course, it’s not at all what the therapist wanted from them, but hey, at least they talked. Which is why what happens this time feels like a shift, an irrevocable change. This time, on the first Saturday of December, when Joana introduces the session’s topic - blame, resentment, forgiveness - not one of them can think of a clever way to reroute the conversation towards safer territory, and so nobody says a damn word.

They shut down, like oysters, like those fucking mussels Rachel brought to shore thinking she’d saved the day, clamming up and keeping their poisonous secrets hidden. Hours later, Rachel can still hear the ugly, compact, gelatinous silence, stretching, weighing on them like water presses you downward when you sink. Joana lets them stew in it for a while, maybe hoping that one of them would start talking out of sheer awkwardness, but none of them breaks. They sit rigidly on their mildly uncomfortable plastic chairs, avoiding eye contact, eight girls turned mute.

Eventually, taking pity on them, Joana launches into a speech about the importance of honest communication and conflict resolution, or something equally dumb, and Rachel doesn’t pay her any attention. Instead, her eyes flick between her friends, cataloguing small details, as if collecting evidence of everyone’s mental state: Toni’s shoes scratching against the wooden floor like she’s thinking of running, Leah picking at her left eyebrow, her skin reddening under the relentless assault. Martha’s bouncing leg, restless and nervous. Nora, twisting strands of hair between her fingers, like she always does when she’s deep in thought. When Joana lets them go, way earlier than usual, Rachel strides out of the room first, not looking at anyone, not waiting for anyone, and doesn’t slow until she’s outside. She hasn’t bothered putting on a jacket, and she shivers, wrapping her arms around herself as she goes left and around the house. The weather’s grown cold, real winter-cold, but Rachel doesn’t mind. In fact, right now she loves the biting harshness of the wind, a nice change from the way the air sat, stilled and oppressive, in the study room. Behind the house, between the toolshed and the vegetable patch, is a long stretch of grass, safely hidden from most eyes, where nobody goes except Joey when he’s gardening. Rachel takes a deep breath, and with numb fingers unfastens her prosthetic hand, lets it fall on the dead grass.

She lies down on her back. Cold seeps from the ground through her clothes, inhospitable, unforgivable, but she pays it no mind, and starts doing what she came here to do. Crunches. Squats. Lunges. Bridge. Jumping jacks. Side plank, with hip abduction, regular plank - on her forearms. One-armed push ups - those are hard, and her arm shakes, sweat drips in her eyes, but she doesn’t stop. When she runs out of exercises to do, she gets back on her feet and runs, sidesteps then high knees then quick accelerations from the wooden wall of the shed to the first row of potato plants, and back. Again, and again, until the only thing left on her mind is how her breath clouds white in the cold air, and her heart beats painfully fast at her throat.

Agent Swanson comes out a few times to check on her, but he doesn’t talk to her, a small mercy, and at six she makes her way to the showers, sweaty and exhausted. Dinner is weird - nobody’s talking. Well, that’s not true : Shelby makes conversation, in that insufferable cheery tone she used to have, early on the island. Fatin tells a few jokes, which all fall flat. Rachel doesn’t try any of this nonsense. She drinks her water in small, controlled sips. Her stomach rumbles, but she pushes food around on her plate instead of bringing it to her mouth. It’s carrot and peas and potatoes, served with a thick gravy. It smells good, rich and flavorful. But she doesn’t want to feel good. She wants hunger cramps to worsen, erase everything else, sharpen her focus, like they used to. She wants to feel in control again, just for a moment.

“Rachel.”

Rachel raises her head, meets Nora’s eyes. The worry in them is overwhelming, irritating in its sincerity, and no, Rachel wants to say, you have no right. Not anymore. “Don’t,” she grunts, brusquely, a warning. Nora looks like she’s going to argue, but Dot clears her throat.

“So, whose turn is it to pick a movie for tonight?” she asks.

“Me,” Martha answers. She smiles, and it’s weak, forced, but it’s also Martha, so the whole table relaxes, ever so slightly, at the sight. “I’ve got a few ideas!”

“Oh, fuck,” Toni groans. “Not another romcom, please Marty.”

Of course, Martha chooses a romantic comedy. Even worse, it’s a Christmas movie, and Rachel’s pretty sure it’s because Martha knows how much it’s going to annoy Toni. They sit in the common room on the second floor, where they spend most evenings, and start the movie, and for a few minutes it feels - not good, but ordinary. They’re all still tense, not as talkative as they usually are, but maybe they only need a quiet movie night, the harmless, simple routine of it, and things will go back to normal. Rachel sinks into her side of the couch, besides Fatin, and allows herself to be distracted by the inane plot of white people falling madly in love with each other in less than three hours.

And then, because nothing good - nothing mediocre, even - can last, Nora has to open her mouth. “You know, this type of movie is often about miscommunication. Things left unsaid that result in conflict which could have been avoided if people had just talked to each other.” She’s not looking at any of them, eyes on the screen where a grown man dressed as an elf is attempting to buy an extravagant ring. “We could all learn something from this, don’t you think?”

“What the fuck are you on about,” Rachel says, flatly. She hopes her tone will be enough of a deterrent. She wants Nora to let it go.

But Nora rarely does what Rachel wants, these days. “You know what I’m talking about, Rach’.”

“Guys, don’t talk over my movie,” Martha protests.

“Yeah, can we not do this right now? The common room is a therapy-free environment,” Fatin says. “A safe space from fucking feelings and shit.”

“We have to talk about it eventually, if we ever want to get past it!” Nora exclaims. She’s agitated, and Rachel knows, immediately, because she knows her sister like the back of her own hand - the one she lost - that it’s going to go badly. Nora stands up, and places herself right in front of the screen, blocking everyone’s view.

“Nora,” Dot says, with placating hands, “I hear you, but maybe now’s not the best time.”

“It has to be now. It’s been months.” God, sometimes Rachel forgets how fucking stubborn Nora is.

“Guys!” Martha repeats, craning her neck to try and see the screen, distraught.

“Can you all shut the fuck up and let her watch this shit movie?” Toni growls.

Nora, with a quickness that surprises Rachel, spins around and presses the power button on the television. The screen goes black, interrupting a dramatic confession of love. “There, now we won’t miss any of the movie, so. Let’s have it! Let’s hear it out!” She faces all of them, but she’s looking at Rachel. “I want you to say, out loud, once and for all, how you feel. Because -” and here her voice cracks a little, and she hesitates, and it both tears at Rachel’s heart, and feeds the anger simmering in her belly “-I know you’re all still pissed off about what I’ve done.”

Again, silence. But it’s different than in group therapy. This silence is thin, fragile, like an eggshell - it’s about to crack open, it’s about to birth something into the world, and they are all aware of it.

“Nora, we don’t blame you --” Shelby starts.

Leah, who so far has stayed blessedly quiet, says, very drily, “We don’t?”

Nora slowly turns to face Leah, and everyone tenses in anticipation of what Leah has to say. But Leah doesn’t speak, just looks at Nora. There’s something dangerously bitter in the downward curve of her mouth. Oh, here we go, Rachel thinks, having abandoned all hopes of peace and quiet.

“You should get it off your chest, Leah,” Nora prompts, very calmly. “For your own sake.”

“Oh, that’s so considerate of you.” Leah chuckles - the sound makes Rachel’s hair stand on end - and rises from her seat, and takes two steps toward Nora, towering over her. Rachel sits up, alert. From the corner of her eye, she sees Fatin doing the same. “Hey, remember when you trapped me into a pit and left me there, all alone in the woods?” Leah asks, spitting each word as if it were the hard stone of a cherry. “Was that for my sake as well?”

Nora winces. “I wanted to protect you, to protect everyone, and I didn’t know what else to do --”

“Not an excuse,” Leah cuts her off. “But sure, whatever. Gretchen manipulated you. She made you lie to all of us, made you keep your dirty little secrets. You know what? Fine. I get it. What do you expect me to do, forgive you?” She takes another step forward, and this time Nora takes a step back. Adrenaline tastes metallic at the back of Rachel’s tongue. Everyone is frozen in place, eyes glued to the scene unfolding before them, as inevitable as the happy ending of Martha’s romcom.

“Yes,” Nora answers, almost timidly. “Because we’re friends, and I’m sorry, and --”

You let me believe I was crazy!” Leah roars. Rachel jumps to her feet. Dot does too. “You knew I was right and you didn’t say anything. You let everyone think I was fucking crazy!”

“Leah,” Shelby says, worriedly, and Fatin moves, but it’s too late because Leah has caught Nora by the shirt, gripping the material in closed fists, screaming in her face, and before she knows what she’s doing, Rachel is reacting, obeying an impulse etched deep into her soul, deeper than thought.

“No,” she snaps. She grabs Leah by the arm, and yanks her away from Nora, sharply, roughly. “Don’t you fucking dare.”

Leah shakes her arm free and stares at Rachel, eyes widening in surprise. “I’m sorry, you’re defending her? You? She did this to you, and she’s your sister --”

“Yeah, Leah, she’s my sister, so back the fuck off.”

Leah lets out a small laugh, incredulous and harsh. “I can’t believe you.”

“You don’t have to protect me,” Nora pipes up, which only manages to ignite the anger in Rachel's stomach.

“Oh shut up, Nora!” she barks. “I wouldn’t have to protect you if you hadn’t been so fucking stupid.”

Nora’s face turns ashen. “I wasn’t stupid,” she mumbles, stubborn, defiant. Everyone is staring at them in shocked silence.

“Oh yeah? You let an old white woman trick you into thinking this whole experiment was a good idea. How is that not stupid?”

“I wanted to help you…”

“Did you?” Rachel isn’t aware that she’s yelling, until her voice resonates in the silent room like a gunshot. “Did you help me, Nora? Is that what you fucking did?”

She expects Nora to cave. To apologize. Or even cry. But instead, Nora draws herself tall, shoulders straightening, and looks Rachel in the eye. “You never asked.”

“What?”

“You never asked about Quinn.”

Rachel shakes her head. The day they got rescued from the bunker, the day they were reunited after a month of anguish and denial, Nora, in between sobs, told them all the story of how she fell in Gretchen’s arms: the death of this boy she loved, caused by Gretchen’s own son, how it had seem like fate, at the time, like finding meaning in a tragedy. It was a lot to learn, all at once, so yes, Rachel hasn’t asked for more information, too busy trying to disentangle the anger and betrayal from the shocking horror of what brought Nora to Gretchen. “I told you I was working on it. Told you I’d need time, and we’d talk eventually. All you had to do was wait, Nora.”

“I’m not talking about now. I’m talking about before, before the island and everything. You never asked about Quinn.”

“You never told me he died,” Rachel retorts, impatient.

Nora swallows. “Why do you think that is? The boy I was in love with was killed, and I didn’t even tell my twin sister.”

“Don’t put this on me--”

“You didn’t even notice that I was grieving. Or you did, but you didn't care. I don’t know what’s worse.” Nora inhales, shakily. “I’ve thought about it a lot, you know. About the fact that I couldn’t tell you. About the fact that you didn’t ask. At the time, it felt like I had lost Quinn, and I’d lost you too - and I couldn’t save Quinn, but I could still save you. So yeah, I made a mistake, I trusted Gretchen - but at least I tried to help you. You never even saw that I needed help.”

“Nora, you lied to me,” Rachel says, brokenly. “You lied to me for months. Without what you did, I would still have two hands.”

“I know. And I'm sorry.” Nora looks around, at the other girls, silently watching this exchange. “I’m sorry about all of it, I really am. Maybe I’ll be sorry all my life. But this also happened to me. I was on the island. I spent a month alone in that bunker. I’m just as angry and fucked up as any of you, I was used by Gretchen too. I need you to acknowledge this. I need us to talk about it, because we’re not making any progress, and I can’t go on like this forever.”

There’s a brief pause as Nora waits for someone - for Rachel - to speak, but an unexpected voice rings out instead. “Um, girls?”

They all swivel around to find Joey at the top of the staircase. He’s wearing the ugliest flannel pajamas Rachel’s ever seen. “I don't mean to interrupt, but we heard yellin’ and figured we'd check in on y’all. Everything okay?”

“Yes,” says Rachel.

“No,” says Nora. Like a challenge.

Joey’s eyes flicker between the two of them, concerned and confused.

“No,” Rachel corrects. “We’re not okay.” She wants to add but we will be, except she can’t. She can’t say another word.

Nora closes her eyes, briefly. And then she leaves. They hear the door of a bedroom slammed shut. Some of the other girls wince at the sound, but Rachel doesn’t move. Her ears are ringing. Everything has grown blurry around her, as if swathed in cotton, and her body feels too heavy in comparison, lumpish and unwieldy, a different body than the one able to do a relentless workout just a few hours ago. As if from very far away, she hears Dot and Fatin reassuring Joey that everything is fine, she sees Leah arguing, Toni and Shelby blocking her path, stopping her from going after Nora. Rachel’s tongue rests, stodgy, useless, in her mouth. She thinks of white tiles, bright light, cool smooth porcelain against her skin, two fingers reaching far inside, touching the back of her throat, emptiness. She wants so badly to feel light again.

But she won’t. She doesn’t do this anymore. “Martha,” she murmurs, instead. “Can I sleep with you tonight?”

“Of course,” Martha says, softly. She hesitates, but doesn’t grab Rachel’s hand, and Rachel is grateful. She’s afraid the touch alone would have made her cry.

In the upcoming months, Rachel will think of that day as the catalyst. The first lancing of the abscess: painful and draining, and revealing, in a slow trickle of pus, all of the horror hidden underneath.

 

2-

“Wanna get out of here?” Leah says.

She wipes the window pane clean ; the cloth leaves a wet blur on the glass, so she wipes it again. It makes it worse. Toni grumbles, from behind her: “What the hell do you mean?”

Leah turns around. Toni, perched on a stool, is busy dusting the top of the wardrobe, wrinkling her nose as if struggling not to sneeze. It’s early afternoon, and they’re alone on the second floor - after lunch, they usually have some free time, but today Marco took the two of them aside. Gently, but firmly, he reminded Toni and Leah that they were supposed to clean their room last week, and didn’t do it, and directed them to the cleaning supplies. And then he walked them up to their bedroom door, and said thank you, as if they had any choice in the matter. Toni rolled her eyes at him when he left, which made Leah smile. At least they’re both equally done with this shit.

It’s not that Leah doesn’t like cleaning - well, she doesn’t, but she gets why she should do it ; it’s being bossed around that she hates. Even if Marco is pretty chill, compared to the agents. Not that she plans on admitting this to anyone, ever.

“I mean, let’s sneak out, go explore. Nobody will notice if we’re gone for a couple hours, especially if we don’t follow the road like I did last time. That was dumb. Don’t you want to know what’s out there? What’s beyond our little golden cage?” Leah taps on the window with her fingernails. “I bet if we could get past all those hills, we’d see a town, or a road sign, or something. Finally figure out where we are, since nobody will fucking tell us.”

She remembers Young, abruptly, remembers opening the Maps app on his phone, her fingers still greasy from the fries. Remember being told they were in Peru, and learning, days later, that they were in fact in California. It’s not the same thing, of course. She knows. But it doesn’t feel so different, sometimes - an underground bunker, a countryside safe house ; she’s a captive all the same. Her anger, rekindled by the fight with Nora and Rachel, has been boiling right underneath her skin all week, and she’s eager to do something. Anything, but passively waiting to be given scraps of knowledge, in between chores or homework, like a child.

Toni jumps down from the stool, agile and light, and twirls the duster in her fingers. “So basically you’re looking for trouble.” She shakes her head. “Yeah, nah, I’m good.”

“We won’t get in trouble if we don’t get caught,” Leah points out.

“Hmm,” Toni says, nonplussed. “Wonder what Fatin would have to say about that.”

“She’s not my keeper.”

“Right.” Toni lets herself fall on her bed, resting on her elbows, gazing at Leah with inquisitive eyes. “Do you not remember Halloween? How scared we all got? Why do you think it’s a good idea to go fuck around in the hills alone like a white girl from a horror movie?”

Leah scoffs. “It was the middle of the night, we overreacted. There was no danger.” She crosses her arms against her chest. “Honestly, I thought you’d be more excited. You complain about how bored you are, like, every night, but I offer you a little adventure on a platter, and suddenly you’re the reasonable one?”

“Okay, look. Take it from someone who’s ran away multiple times from foster care: they always come after you. And when they catch you, they aren’t fucking pleased. Sorry, I’m not doing this just cause you want to piss off Clipper. You might get away with it with a slap on the wrist, but there are real consequences for people like me.”

Toni raises an eyebrow, as if daring her to argue. Leah averts her eyes. “Fine,” she says. “You’re right.” Toni nods, satisfied, and sets to dusting their bedside tables.

An hour later, Leah is walking through empty fields, alone. She snuck out after Toni and her finished their cleaning: grabbed a jacket and a hat from the rack, at random, left through the back door when nobody was looking, jumped the fence, and ran. She ran for a while, until she couldn’t breathe, her lungs not used to such strenuous exercise, and decided she was probably far enough from the house. It’s thrilling, in a way that reminds her of escaping her bunker room, racing through dark underground corridors, finding archival footage of boys who went through the same thing as them, years ago. It’s not an escape, she’s not running away for real - Leah expects she’ll be back in the safe house tonight - but it’s thrilling all the same. It feels so good to be free, to go exactly where she wants, and know that for a moment, nothing can stop her - no locked doors, no guard dogs, no cameras.

She breathes, deeply, and doesn’t even care that the air hurts - she welcomes the sharp pain in her lungs, in her throat. It’s cold, wherever they are, much colder than California. No snow, not yet, but wind that bites at the bare skin of her face. She tugs the hat lower until it covers her ears, and hides her fingers in the pockets of her jacket, wishing she’d thought to bring gloves. Above her head, low grey clouds amass ominously.

The countryside is beautiful. The hills roll in front of her eyes in waves of brown and yellow and faded green, the color of old photographs, dotted with spiky, bluish sagebrush, and groves of dark trees, vulnerable without their foliage. For a brief moment, Leah manages to forget it all, under the vast sky : she forgets how angry she is with Nora, and Rachel, and the whole world ; she forgets about Fatin, about the inextricable mess of feelings in her chest ; she forgets about the bunker, Faber, sedatives, the pit, the shark, the island, drowning, Jeannette, her parents, the car, Ian, Jeff.

And then, of course, fucking Sam Clipper finds her, of all people. When Leah sees her, running towards her in the distance, she stops. There’s no use trying to outrun the agent.

(She doesn’t move to meet her halfway, though.)

Sam is seriously out of breath when she catches up with Leah, her face red from exertion and anger, which gives Leah an absurd amount of satisfaction. “What in the world are you trying to do, here, Leah?” Sam berates her, when she’s close enough to talk. “You want me to pull you out of the program, is that it? Because I’m happy to send you on the first plane back to California. See how quickly you run back to us with your tail between your legs. If you don’t immediately get kidnapped or murdered.”

“That’d make you pretty bad at your job,” Leah says, drily. “I thought your only priority was our safety?”

“Yeah, kid, I’m not paid enough to keep you safe from your own stupidity.”

Leah shrugs. “Maybe you should ask for a raise then.”

Exasperated, Sam reaches out, one hand closing around Leah’s wrist like a manacle. Like a restraint.

Leah’s reaction is instinctive, and immediate. “Don’t touch me,” she hisses. Her voice, in the quiet hills, sounds venomous, visceral, animal-like.

“Okay, okay,” Sam says, releasing her immediately, looking shocked. To tell the truth, Leah is just as shocked. “But you gotta come back to the house with me. This really is all for your protection, Leah. Some very bad people want to hurt you.”

“Some very bad people have already hurt us!” Leah yells. Her eyes fill with tears, and she blinks them away, wiping at her cheeks angrily.

“I know that,” Sam says. If she weren’t trying, and failing, to stop crying, Leah would laugh at how lost the agent looks. Clearly there’s no federal protocol on how to handle a hysterical teenage girl. “I’m -- Leah, I know that. We all know you’ve been through something terrible. We all want to see justice, which is why you have to stay safe.”

“I don’t care about justice.” Leah’s voice is wet, and rough, and she presses both palms against her eyes. God, this is so mortifying. “I want, fuck, I want to stop feeling like a prisoner. Nobody is telling us anything, about the trial, about when we’ll go home, about where we are--” She bites her tongue, hard enough to taste blood. “I’m so tired.”

To her credit, Sam doesn’t say anything. She lets Leah cry, and doesn’t try to comfort her with false promises, nor does she try to touch her again. She does offer Leah a tissue, which is a nice gesture that almost makes Leah bawl her eyes out all over again.

“You’re gonna catch a cold,” Sam mumbles at last, as Leah dutifully blows her nose. “Let me get you back to the house. Please.”

The worst isn’t the walk back through the hills, tears freezing on her cheeks, failure and anger and mental exhaustion mixing dangerously inside her. No, the worst part is when they reach the house, and Leah sees them, all her friends, and Marco and Joey, and agent Boone, and even Pepper - all waiting for her by the gate, the most humiliating of welcomes. Like her own jury, her own assessment committee, and she can already hear the diagnosis: poor Leah, she can’t help herself. Still so paranoid. Still the craziest of them all.

Fatin detaches from the group, half running towards Leah and Sam. The rest of them don’t move, but they are all watching her. Leah is so fucking sick of being watched. “Is she okay? Are you okay?”

“Fine,” Leah mutters.

“She’s okay,” Sam confirms.

When Fatin doesn’t move, Leah rolls her eyes. “Seriously, nothing happened. I just went on a walk.” She knows her eyes must be all red and puffy, and her teeth are chattering, which probably severely undermines her point.

Fatin’s hand twitches, as if she’s struggling not to touch her. Leah wishes she would, which makes her even angrier. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Leah? We were all super worried. We looked for you everywhere.”

Oh, she can’t do this. She can’t handle a lecture, not even from Fatin, not when frustration and despair are bubbling over in her throat like milk left too long on the stove.

“Maybe,” she snipes, “you could all do with being a little less obsessed with me.” She turns to the rest of the girls, and says, loudly enough to be heard by all of them: “Here goes Leah again, that fucking nut-job! Hey, I’ve got an idea, how about you all mind your fucking business, and leave me alone, instead of fretting over everything I do as if I’m about to snap. Maybe remember that I was never crazy, I was right.”

“Leah,” Sam says, discomfort evident in her voice. “Why don’t you come inside.”

“No, I’m fine, it's all fine.” Her fingers have gone numb, and she doesn’t fucking care. “Let’s get it over with, Fatin. Tell me how I’m acting crazy this time.”

Fatin exhales, white smoke curling in between them. Her jaw works, once, and when she speaks next, she sounds uncharacteristically, unnaturally neutral, like it’s taking all of her will, all of her control not to show emotion. “It’s not about you acting crazy or not. Can you please think about how it feels for the people who lo-” She cuts herself off, swallows the end of the word she was about to say. “- who care about you, when you pull stupid shit like that?”

“Sorry I’m such a fucking burden, then. I didn’t ask you to worry. Or care.”

A flash of frustration distorts Fatin’s mouth. “Fucking hell, Leah, you’re not the only one going through stuff. Do you ever stop to think that it’s hard for us too? For me?”

“What? What’s so hard for you here Fatin? Are you missing Starbucks that much? Or is it the lack of validation from your Instagram followers that’s getting to you?” She knows she’s being unfair and petty and mean, and she can’t seem to stop herself, because there’s nothing Leah can do about anything, nothing she can change about her current situation or her past, but -- but Fatin is here, in front of her, and all her anger has to go somewhere, before it suffocates her.

Fatin’s eyes grow dangerous, and she advances on Leah, invading her space, close enough that when she talks nobody else can hear. Leah forces her body not to move, even if she very badly wants to take a step back. “You know what I think? I think your little rebellious act ever since we got here is nothing but a stunt, a front. I think you’re desperate for a distraction, for anything to obsess over, because you don’t want to deal with what happened to you. And I’m not talking just about the experiment - I’m talking about that whole mess with Jeffrey Galanis too. But it’s easier to convince yourself that everyone here is an enemy, it’s easier to see the rules as problems to solve, because if you can pretend there’s still a conspiracy to defeat, you don’t have to stop and examine any of your shit.”

A new kind of cold congeals in Leah’s chest, one that has nothing to do with the weather.

“I’m not looking for distractions. Just cause it’s your M.O. doesn’t mean it’s mine,” Leah snaps back. “I’m not the one who spent August going to parties and getting dicked down by any fucking rando who so much as looked at me, as if nothing even happened.”

Fatin cocks her head. She smiles, showing her teeth. It’s not a nice smile. “We’ve been over this, Leah. Slut-shaming isn’t a good look on you. Why do you even care, anyway? Are you upset because I had fun while you were too busy still mopping over your ex?”

“No. Are you upset because you didn’t get to fuck me?”

She regrets the words as soon as they’re out. They haven’t even talked about it yet - their almost kiss by the waterfall, their friendship tottering on the edge of something else - and this isn’t how she wanted to broach the topic at all.

“Fuck you,” Fatin says, quietly. Her smile is gone, and her eyes are very dark, and hurt. She spins on her heels, and without another word, without another glance, she leaves Leah behind, in the cold.

It’s a good thing she has no tears left to spill.

 

3-

Toni does not give a single fuck about the birth of Jesus, and she never believed in Santa. And yet.

“We should decorate,” she announces at dinner, one week before the holiday, “and make plans. For Christmas.”

“We should?” Martha says, frowning. She’s been subjected to enough rants on imperialism and christianity to be understandably perplexed. The Blackburns don’t celebrate Christmas, and Toni never has either. Well, that’s not quite true: a few years ago, her mom, fresh out of rehab, joined an evangelist church, and tried to talk Toni into joining as well, and Toni caved and went to their Christmas service with her. It was fucking weird as shit, but her mom smiled, and sang, and held Toni in her arms, and talked about renting an apartment for the two of them, and Toni would have gotten baptized on the spot if her mom had asked her there and then. Of course, like any of her mom’s commitments, it didn’t last long. Two weeks later, she was back on meth, and Toni was back in foster care.

“Yeah, why not?” Toni insists, shrugging. She’s trying to sound casual, like this isn’t wildly out of character for her, but everyone is staring at her, and her ears burn. “We could use a fun project, you know? It doesn’t have to be religious. Just, uh, good food and like a tree or something. For morale.” Because everything sucks right now, she doesn’t say, and Christmas, with all its rituals and stupidly elaborate preparations, makes for a great distraction.

Marco eats a spoonful of bean soup, considering. “As long as everyone is comfortable with it, sure.”

“Well, my family’s muslim, so I don’t really give a shit about Christmas,” Fatin says, “but yeah, whatever. Just don’t make me sing stupid carols about Jesus.”

“No church shit,” Toni agrees. She locks eyes with Shelby, who shakes her head, amused.

“No church shit,” Shelby repeats. Then she smiles, a bit wicked. “Toni should be in charge, since it’s her idea.”

“What? No, I’m not -”

“I second that,” Rachel interrupts her, calmly.

Wait,” Toni says.

“Let’s put it to a vote,” Dot offers. “All in favor of Toni organizing Christmas?”

Everyone raises their hands. Even Martha, that traitor. Toni slumps in her chair. “Fuck you guys.”

Well, at least they’re all in agreement, she thinks to herself as she grumpily finishes her bowl of soup. It’s what she wanted, right? Some kind of rallying event that would take their minds off of all the drama, give them a common goal to focus on, instead of making passive-aggressive comments at each other, since apparently half her friends have transformed into toddlers who won’t fucking kiss and make up even if it means letting their friendships disintegrate before their very eyes.

Yeah, Toni's angry at them. Of course, she is. She’s supposed to be the time bomb who represses all of her feelings until they explode out of her like shrapnel and ruin everything. She didn’t account for Nora deciding out of nowhere that movie night was the time and place to air all their dirty laundry, or for Leah’s utter inability to ever let things go. She resents Rachel for refusing to meet her sister halfway, and Fatin for always going for the jugular instead of deescalating. And, to top it all, she’s mad at everyone else for doing fuck all about it. Why hasn’t Dot fixed this? Why isn’t Shelby playing peacemaker, or mediator, or whatever? Why isn’t Martha working her magic, and making people apologize and promise to do better, like she always does when Toni fucks up?

(The truth is: underneath all the anger, Toni is terrified. Her family is splintering like wood, falling apart, dry pieces of bark breaking and exposing the raw, vulnerable, rotting core of them, and she can’t, she won’t allow it to happen. She’s failed to protect her family before - the memory of Martha, bloodied, too still, lying on the sand at the bottom of a cliff, haunts her nights - but she has to save them now. She has no one else.)

So, Toni’s in charge of Christmas. Which is a mindfuck and a half, since she doesn’t have a whole lot of experience in the management field - she only was captain of her basketball team for a few months, before she got kicked out - but it actually goes surprisingly well. The administrator, Danielle, gets them everything they ask for, including a big Christmas tree, which they put in the living-room. Fatin, Martha and Shelby spend a few afternoons crafting ornaments for the tree, spreading materials on the big kitchen table and passionately arguing over color scheme ; Toni is happy to let them take the creative wheel, and helps out when needed. Apart from a small mishap involving the hot glue gun, Toni’s right thumb, and an unplanned visit to the nurse, it’s a success: the tree, a tall evergreen pine, thrones in a corner of the room, splendidly decked in garlands and glitter balls and painted pinecones and stupidly cute little animals. There’s also a few very underdressed Santas, rocking incredible abs - Fatin’s contribution - which gives Joey a laughing fit when he first notices them.

Meanwhile, Dot and Rachel, under Marco’s supervision, set up the lights inside the house and out on the front facade. They even put string lights on the chicken coop, a stroke of genius as far as Toni’s concerned. Leah, begrudgingly, helps Joey with menu ideas, and because Toni still feels responsible - she should have known Leah would do something dumb, she should have kept an eye on her - she gives Leah free rein to chose the Christmas movies they’ll watch, which seems to mollify her a bit. Nora wants to do window painting, so Toni gives her a hand, and they decorate every single window with piles of gifts, snowy mountains, and chubby santas. Toni’s artistic skills are significantly less polished than Nora’s, but whatever, who cares if her reindeers look like malnourished demonic horses. At least it makes Shelby laugh.

(They still haven’t talked. But they’re definitely closer, way more comfortable around each other, ever since Shelby invited Toni to that morning run, and hope has bloomed in Toni’s chest, like bright winter flowers.)

When Christmas Eve comes, the house has been successfully transformed into a mess of red and gold and green, and even though things haven’t gone back to normal, there’s a distinct sense of accomplishment, of satisfaction - like a truce, a ceasefire. Maybe she’s done it, Toni lets herself believe, maybe she’s kept them from imploding. After a delicious dinner, they all settle in the living-room to watch a Christmas movie, and Toni volunteers to clean up the kitchen instead.

“I don’t mind,” she says, shrugging, when Joey insists on doing the cleanup. “Go enjoy Charlie Brown, or whatever the fuck Leah picked.”

It’s a Wonderful Life,” Leah informs her from the other side of the room. “It’s a classic for a reason.” Behind her, Fatin rolls her eyes, and mumbles something to Rachel, who snorts. Alright, maybe this truce won’t last too long. Toni starts retreating towards the kitchen.

“Hey, wait up. I’ll help you,” Shelby offers, hurrying after her. She smiles, genuine and bright as ever. Toni’s heart does a somersault inside her chest. “I’ve seen that movie a million times.”

They work together in silence. And it’s a charged silence, because of their history, but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s more electrifying than anything else. Like something is bound to happen.

“Well, I think we’re all done,” Shelby announces, as she puts the dish soap back where it belongs, in its little case on the sink.

“Yeah,” Toni says.

They’re standing close to each other, by the counter. Muffled noise comes through the closed door, and it’s as if they’re underwater, the two of them, alone in their own small bubble. Toni twists the wet rag above the sink, in both hands, getting rid of excess water, just to do something.

“Do you want to go join the others?” Shelby asks. There’s something in her voice - an edge, an olive branch, a different question within the question.

“What else would we do?” Toni answers, slow and clear, turning to face her.

Shelby’s eyes meet hers with a surprising lack of nerves. “This,” she whispers, and before Toni understands what’s happening, Shelby is closing the distance between them in one easy step, putting her hands on either side of Toni’s face, and kissing her. The rag falls from Toni’s hands and onto the floor. Her palms fit like they always have around Shelby’s waist.

She doesn’t think, can’t think - not when Shelby’s mouth presses, hungry, against hers, not when Shelby’s tongue swipes along her lower lip, demanding access, not when the kiss grows more intense, desperate, like they’re both starving. So Toni leans into it, kisses Shelby back like she’s done so many times, except they aren’t in lush jungle anymore, or by the shore, listening to the crashing of waves against the cliff ; no, they’re alone, in a kitchen that smells of pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes. Outside, the winter wind sings its loneliness, clanking against the shutters.

When Shelby pulls away, she gives Toni’s lip a sharp little nip that sends fire to her lower belly, makes her think of other places Shelby’s teeth have bitten, other places Shelby’s tongue has lapped, like she licks the sting away, now.

“Sorry.” Shelby grins, almost coy, and takes a step back. “I just couldn’t help kissing you.”

Toni, still dazed, rests a hand on the counter. Her pulse is going wild, heart pounding erratically against her ribs. “Fuck, I’ve missed you. I’ve missed this.” And then, because she’s said it before, on the island, and she’s been waiting to be able to say it again: “I love you.”

Shelby’s smile turns awkward and stilted. “Oh. Um. That’s… maybe that’s a little too fast, don’t you think?”

“Huh?”

“I mean, it was, like, one kiss. I don’t know if I’m ready--”

“Shelby, what are you talking about,” Toni interrupts her. She takes a step back, feels the cold hard edge of the sink digging into her spine. “Look, I know we were on, like, a break, but why are you acting like this is all new territory? You hit your head or something?” Toni laughs, awkwardly. “Forgot about that entire month we were together, on the island?”

“No,” Shelby says, quietly, “I haven’t forgotten.” She pauses, and worries her lower lip with her teeth. “But part of me wants to.”

“Okay, ouch,” Toni says, still trying desperately to stay light and playful. Like it’s all a big joke. “Is this about that time I got a cramp during--”

“I’m serious,” Shelby cuts her off. She leans back against the kitchen table, crossing her arms against her chest, and sighs. “Okay, I guess we should talk.”

“Oh, you think?” Toni says, curtly. Fear always makes her a bit snappish.

Shelby flinches. “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to figure things out. You’ve already been so patient with me, on the island--”

“No, Shelby, I don’t care about that,” Toni retorts. “You can take all the time you need. What I care about is you not talking to me for months, and then kissing me, and then acting super weird. Like, I’m getting mixed signals here. Feels like you don’t know what the fuck you want with me.”

“I know I want you,” Shelby says. The words should be reassuring - somehow, they’re not. “But I also know I can’t pretend anymore that what happened on the island between us was normal. It wasn’t just a regular relationship. Toni - it wasn’t real.”

This again. It’s what Shelby told her at the hospital, months and months ago, and Toni’s hopes crumble. All this time, she’d wanted to believe that Shelby was working on it, but nothing’s changed. “It was real to me,” she protests. It comes out louder than she expected, in the empty kitchen. “And honestly it fucking hurts that you think that, Shelby.” It’s only when saying the words out loud, for the first time, that Toni realizes, with abrupt clarity, how true they are. She is hurt. She’s been hurting for a while. She pushes it aside, wishes for anger instead - good, safe, reliable anger.

“I don’t mean to hurt you,” Shelby says. “I just don’t understand… Toni, we were guinea pigs in an illegal scientific experiment. Everything we did and said was filmed, recorded, studied. And you’re fine with that?

“Of course not,” Toni growls. “But it’s got nothing to do with how I feel about you.”

“Yes it does!” Shelby cries out, frustrated. She starts pacing in the kitchen, between the table and the fridge, in wide, angry strides. “They wanted this to happen. They chose to put us together on this island, because they knew we’d clash and end up liking each other, they knew you’d be the right person to get through to me. Toni, you were chosen for me.” Shelby pauses, and stares at her. She looks beautiful, Toni thinks, distantly, her short blond curls like a halo, a crown. But she looks defiant, too, and heartbroken. “Toni,” Shelby goes on, “all my life people have chosen who I should be and who I should love. And when I thought I’d finally escaped from one prison, turns out I was actually in another one. You told me I was free, once, on the island, far from my parents and their expectations. But I wasn't! And you weren’t either! And I don’t get why you aren’t fucking furious about it!”

“I am.”

“But you never talk about it!”

“What’s there to talk about?” Toni replies, hotly. “You think you haven't had enough control in your life? Try being me, Shelby. I've had no control over anything that’s ever happened to me. This fucked-up experiment isn’t any different. But that doesn’t mean my feelings aren’t my own.”

Shelby swallows. “Can’t we just start over? Our life, here, in the safe house - I’m happy, Toni, for the first time in a long time. I just want to try again with you, now that we’re free. Forget what happened, and get a fresh start.”

Something slithers in Toni’s chest, something cold and viscous and unpleasant. Unexpectedly, she starts laughing. “Fuck, why didn’t I see it until now? I’ve heard all of this stuff before. Fresh starts, second chances, let’s start over, it will be different this time…” She shakes her head in disbelief. “You’re exactly like my mom. You’re so set on trying to pretend the past never happened, you’ll make the same damn mistake over and over again.”

“No, I won’t,” Shelby stutters. She’s very pale, under the kitchen lights.

“You asked for time at the hospital, and then two days later, you kissed me, before our flights. You don’t talk to me for months, then you kiss me on Christmas Eve, and you freeze when I tell you I love you... Shelby, I am not doing this. I don’t need another relationship where I never know what to expect, where it’s never on my terms, where I never know if it’s going to end or not. I already got my mother for that.”

“Please...”

“You said you loved me,” Toni whispers, miserable. “On the island, you loved me. Doesn't it matter? Isn’t it enough?” Am I not enough, she wants to ask, childishly, and doesn’t.

Shelby stays silent. Toni clenches her jaw, walks past her, pushes the door open, and leaves her behind. All she wants is to forget about this disastrous conversation, about the memory of Shelby’s mouth on hers - watching It’s a Wonderful Life with her friends while stuffing herself full of pumpkin pie sounds really fucking good right about now - but she finds the living-room mostly deserted: there’s only Martha left, curled on the couch. Marco and Joey are cleaning up what looks like a sad pile of glass debris and crumbs on the floor.

“Where’s everyone?” Toni asks, thickly. Fuck, she hopes she doesn’t cry.

“There was a bit of an incident,” Joey says. He clears his throat.

Marco sighs. “I’m sorry, Toni. Some of your friends started a fight. Someone broke a plate. I sent them upstairs to cool down.”

“Oh,” is all that Toni says. Her face feels numb. She sits next to Martha on the couch.

“I can start the movie over, if you want?” Martha says, in a small, sad voice.

“It’s okay,” Toni replies. She throws an arm around Martha’s shoulders, sinks into her best friend, exhausted, drained, and lets self-loathing unfurl in her stomach, familiar and nauseating.

It’s not okay. She failed. She can’t do anything right: not protecting Martha, not fixing her friends, not getting through to Shelby. Maybe there’s a reason everyone leaves. Maybe there’s a reason she can’t seem to ever get the kind of love she craves.

Maybe she simply doesn’t deserve it.

 

4-

Dot’s always loved New Year's Eve better than Christmas. Christmas, in Dot’s small Texas town, was a minefield of vitriolic speeches against sinful atheists, calls to boycott Starbucks because of its too generic slogans, and old ladies or cheerful teens trying to rope Dot and her dad into attending their Christmas service. All in all, stressful. Plus, Dot’s dad never had much money to spend on gifts, and Dot knew he felt bad about it. But New Year's Eve was simple, an easy-to-understand celebration of the passage of time, and fun in all the right ways. There were fireworks, and Dot got to stay up until midnight, and yell the countdown with her dad. He’d let her have a sip of something he called champagne - it was most definitely not champagne, just some cheap sparkling white wine, she learned later - which tasted sour on her tongue, but she didn’t care, because she felt like such a grown up.

The thing about grief, Dot is starting to realize, is that it can lie dormant for a while, an undercurrent of sadness you learn to accept, you make space for in your life, like an intrusive roommate ; and then suddenly something triggers it, and it surges, brand new in its ferocity, from the depths of your heart, and you remember that grief isn’t a roommate so much as a monster under your bed. And when the monster shows its teeth again, no matter how much time has passed, they’re just as sharp as ever.

Like right now, when it dawns on Dot that this will be her first New Year’s Eve without her dad. Last year, he was in bed, and in pain ; he could barely breathe, let alone talk, or drink cheap sparkling wine, but he was there. She filled a plastic cup for him anyway, and she counted down, alone, the seconds till the new year, and he smiled at her under his oxygen mask. He was there, and now he's gone. Dot lies on her bed, the morning of December 31st, and can’t wrap her head around it. It’s stupid. He’s been dead for months. But it’s like all her memories just got wiped, and she’s facing the brunt of her grief all over again. And it’s fucking exhausting.

To make things worse, the safe house has been rife with tension for a full month now, despite a brief respite at Christmas, and everybody is under the impression that Dot is some sort of marriage counselor or catholic priest, going to her for advice, or confession, or straight up venting. And she tries, she really tries, to be who they need her to be. But on that day of New Year’s Eve, Dot finally reaches her breaking point.

It starts with Shelby. Dot makes herself get out of bed and walk to the kitchen, sluggish and unbalanced, hoping that food and coffee will tame the sorrow clouding her mind, push it far, far, until it becomes manageable once more. She finds Shelby sitting at the table, looking like she hasn’t slept at all. Dot mumbles a greeting, pours herself some coffee, sits in front of her, and hopes that Shelby won’t want to talk.

No luck. “Dottie, do you have a minute?” Shelby asks, not looking at her.

Dot grunts. It’s not a yes, by any means, but obviously Shelby interprets it as such, because she starts ranting, words falling out of her like she’s been holding onto them all night long. “I know that I’ve hurt her feelings, I get it, and I am real sorry about it, believe me, but now she won’t talk to me, and that’s not fair, because I didn’t mean -- she just took it all wrong, Dottie. And I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to give her what she wants from me, when she doesn’t seem to get where I’m coming from at all.”

“Well, what do you want?” Dot asks, bravely. She takes a long sip of coffee.

“I want -- God, I don’t even know.” Shelby exhales. “I want everything to be easy, and nothing is. Sometimes, I wish we’d been in a simple, awful plane crash, instead of this mess.”

“Yeah, well, you can’t change the past. No matter how much you wish it didn’t happen, it fucking did.” There’s a lump in her throat, and suddenly she can’t bear the thought of eating. She stands up, brusquely. “Gotta go shower,” she mumbles to a surprised Shelby - and flees up the stairs, leaving her food untouched.

Fatin corners her in the showers. “She’s such a bitch,” she whines, dramatically throwing herself on the small wooden bench opposite the stalls. “I fucking hate her.”

“You don’t mean that,” Dot says, neutrally, as she hangs her towel on the hook. She doesn’t have to ask who Fatin is talking about.

“Yes, I do! And as my best friend, you’re contractually obligated to take my side, Dorothy.”

“Okay.” Dot shuts the partition that separates her shower stall from the rest of the bathroom, and sighs, closing her eyes. “Did something new happen?”

“No,” Fatin admits, and then she starts complaining about Leah anyway, and Dot takes off her clothes, turns on the shower, and lets her. Water pours on her face, pleasantly hot. The sound of it muffles Fatin’s voice, but it doesn’t really matter, because Dot’s heard it all already. Part of her entertains the idea of telling Fatin to either go talk to Leah or get over it. Then again, it’s easier to say yes or uh-huh every few minutes, and wait for Fatin to tire herself out.

Afterwards, she returns to the kitchen, and volunteers to help prepare appetizers for the party tonight. Better to have something to do than sit around with her monster-grief for company.

(Why they’re having a New Year’s Eve party, after the fiasco that was Christmas, she doesn’t know. But hey, maybe it’ll turn up better this time.)

Joey is directing the cooking team, which consists of Martha, Leah, and Dot. Martha doesn’t talk at all - and if Dot was herself, she’d worry, but today she’s simply grateful. As for Leah, maybe she’s developed an actual sixth sense, because she sidles up beside Dot, by the counter, under the pretext of chopping the carrots that Dot is peeling, and asks, in a low whisper, “Is Fatin talking to you about me?”

Dot isn’t in the habit of lying to her friends. “Yeah,” she answers, simply, and prays to any god who might be listening for the conversation to stop there.

Which, of course, isn’t the case. Leah gnaws on her lower lip. She positions the knife above one carrot, and brings it down hard - the blade hits the cutting board with a resounding and uncomfortable whack. “Well, you can tell her that --”

“Leah,” Dot cuts her off, “no offense, but I’m not a damn messenger bird, or whatever. Go tell her yourself.”

“She’s the one who stopped talking to me!”

“Come on, we both know that’s not true.”

“Cool. So you think it’s my fault.”

“No, Leah, that’s not -- I’m not saying that.” God, it’s so hard to be patient with Leah when she’s on the defensive. Thankfully, Joey asks, with perfect timing, if anyone can go check the coop for eggs, and Dot jumps on the opportunity to escape.

All through the day, everywhere she goes, it’s non-stop. Nora wants to talk about Leah. Toni about Martha. Martha about Rachel. Before the evening festivities, Dot sneaks out, going to her usual spot, desperate for solitude. She lights up a cigarette, and though it’s winter, now, she thinks of her dad, smoking on their beat-up porch on summer nights while she sucked on an ice-pop, the two of them listening to their favorite rock bands on his crappy portable radio. When Rachel joins her on the bench, Dot lets out the deepest sigh.

“Can I have one?” Rachel asks.

“You don’t smoke.”

“New year, new me.”

Dot shrugs, and hands Rachel a cigarette, and the lighter. “Knock yourself out.”

A few seconds pass, and then, as expected, Rachel starts coughing and hacking. “Ugh, this is horrible,” she manages to complain, in between gasps for air. “Feels like my lungs are on fire.”

Dot pats her on the back, wordlessly, until she catches her breath.

“So,” Rachel begins, and Dot braces herself, wondering if someone is finally going to ask her how she’s doing, but all Rachel says is: “Tonight’s gonna suck.”

Dot can’t tell if she’s relieved or disappointed. She sucks on her cigarette, and exhales a cloud of grey smoke. “Yup.”

They sit quietly for a while. It is, strangely, the best part of Dot’s day so far.

“We should go,” Rachel says, eventually. “Party’s about to start.”

At first, it’s not an outright disaster. Everyone stands around awkwardly in the living-room, picking at the appetizers. Marco pours champagne - real champagne, in real champagne glasses, and Will, who’s on duty tonight, looks away ; man, they really must all feel bad for them, Dot thinks to herself. Joey makes a toast, tries a few jokes. There’s some scattered laughs, but the room is mostly silent, tense and heavy like the air before a storm. Dot nibbles on the food, waiting for the inevitable. About thirty minutes in, the bickering starts. And then, quickly enough, it turns into an actual fight, everyone arguing with everyone at the same time, and Dot sits down on the couch, sips her drink, and watches her friends tear into each other, while the Clarks try to reason with them. Good fucking luck. She doesn’t pay attention to what they’re saying, tuning the angry voices out.

“Dot,” someone calls.

“I don’t care,” Dot murmurs in response. She stares at the bubbly liquid in her cup, and wishes, suddenly, more than anything, that she could disappear.

There’s more yelling around her, insults flying. Someone pushes someone else. Dot wonders, distantly, if this is going to end in an actual brawl.

“Dot, can you please tell Toni how unreasonable she’s being?” Rachel yells.

“Well, can you tell Nora that --” The rest is lost in loud protests, more insults. The low baritone of Marco’s voice, pleading with everyone to calm down. Someone bumps into Dot, almost making her spill her drink, and frustration sparks within her. She grits her teeth.

“I. Don’t. Care.” This time she says it loud enough that everyone stops, and turns to face her. “I don’t care!” she repeats, and lets the truth of the words wash over her. “I fucking don’t care anymore. Do whatever you want. Fight as much as you want. Fucking rip each other to shreds. I’m not picking up the pieces.”

She stands up. Fatin touches her arm, and she pulls away. “No,” she growls.

“Dorothy, are you alright?”

“I’m fine!” She shakes her head. She feels dizzy. In her stomach, grief is like a wave of dirty water, like a cloud of cigarette smoke - drowning everything else, suffocating, numbing. “I’m just done, with all of you. Deal with your fucking shit on your own. I’m out.”

She inhales, shakily. The room is deathly silent, her friends frozen around her. Shelby takes a step towards her, hesitant. Dot puts a hand up to stop her. “I need space to deal with my stuff. If you want to talk, go to Joana. Go to the goats for all I care. Just leave me alone.”

“I think you could all do with a little bit of space,” Marco says, gently.

“Yeah,” Dot says. Her throat feels tight. It’s all gone so, so wrong. “I’m going to bed.”

Alone in her bedroom, she sits on her bed. When the time comes, she counts down the seconds to midnight, and toasts to herself in the dark. “Happy New Year, dad.”

Her champagne tastes salty.

 

5-

From: Joana Perez
To: Maryann Rilke ; Rana Jadmani ; Dave Goodkind ; Angela Reid ; Bernice Blackburn ; Texas Department of Family and Protective Services ; Leech Lake MN Reservation Foster Care Program

Dear parents and guardians,

As per section C, clause 2b of the witness security program agreement for unaccompanied minors, this email is to inform you of a new development in the treatment of the children under your care. Given recent events, I’ve made the decision to pause group therapy until further notice. Things are too volatile right now for group therapy to have any positive effect on the girls. I will continue to work with them in individual therapy in the meantime.

Sincerely,

Joana Perez, PhD

Chapter Text

1-

Personal diary of Marco Clark.

January 16th.

They all sleep in their own beds now.

I know it sounds like a useless observation, but it struck me, tonight, as I listened to the sound of their footsteps on the floor above us. They all went to their assigned room, two pairs of feet past each door. So orderly. And so sad!

I’m writing this at the desk in our bedroom, while Joey gets ready for bed. I’m still all ears, but there’s only silence from upstairs.

It’s funny, I’m sure they had no idea that we knew they weren’t sleeping where they should most of the time. But they’re teenagers, they move about as discreetly as a herd of elephants, and our bedroom is right underneath the hallway. In the fall, Joey and I had bets on who would sleep where every night. (He usually won.) I would get woken up by the sound of girls stomping down the stairs, followed by giggling and whispering in the kitchen, which was extremely annoying, and also meant that there would be no cookies left in the morning. I remember the night agent Clipper found them playing strip-poker at 3am with one of our bottles of rum! She gave them a lecture, and sent them back to bed, and at breakfast the next morning she made a show of giving us back the bottle in front of all the girls. Clipper was this mix of grumpy and disbelieving and stern, as if she’s never been around teenagers before (maybe she hasn’t, I don’t know what her life’s like, she’s not much for sharing personal information) and the girls were contrite but also kind of giddy and very obviously hungover. Poor Martha apologized for stealing the bottle in the most earnest fashion and it was all Joey and I could do not to laugh.

Anyway. There’s been no shenanigans lately. And no bed-sharing. And I just realized how much I miss it. And how much I want these kids to be okay.

In all our years fostering, I have never witnessed something like this. I've seen fights - some violent ones - I’ve seen kids insulting each other and threatening to kill each other and crying and yelling and refusing to leave their rooms. But I’ve never seen a group of friends so tightly bound together unravel so quickly and so completely.

The tension is unbearable. The constant bickering is exhausting, for sure, but the silence is far worse… It's so awkward, and it puts everyone on edge. Some pairs don’t seem to hold any animosity towards each other - Toni and Martha, or Fatin and Shelby - but whenever they’re all together it’s always a recipe for disaster. Joey and I are wondering if we should lift our “we eat dinner together” rule, honestly, given how many broken dishes we end up with. The weather doesn't help: it’s too cold to go outside much, so we’re all stuck inside, and the house is big, but not big enough when the girls can’t be in the same room for too long without arguing.

I’ve tried talking to them, and I know I’m not the only one, but so far they haven’t been very receptive, so anything I understand of the situation, I’ve pieced together through their (sometimes very loud) fights. Dr Perez hasn’t brought back group therapy, but they still have an hour of individual therapy per week with her, maybe she’ll be able to help them. Maybe the distance is something they need, right now. They’ve been stuck together for a long time, after all, and in terrible, traumatizing circumstances. These bonds, these friendships are strong, but not entirely healthy, I’d wager.

Joey tells me I worry too much, that they’re hurt and angry and scared teenagers: of course they’re gonna fight, lash out at each other, break up, in a sense. He’s an eternal optimist, and he thinks they’ll find their way back to each other. I hope he’s right (he usually is). Breaks my heart to see them all so unhappy.

 

2-

It has been snowing for hours, since the middle of the night, and all throughout morning. Nora, curled up on a couch in the living-room, feet tucked underneath her, stares at the window, at the white flakes swirling in the wind, covering everything in a layer of silence and cold.

Her face rests on her palm. Outside, there’s endless grey-white sky, cotton-like, the view distorted and blurred out. A proper snowstorm, like the kind they had sometimes in New York, the kind that would mean school got cancelled. Nora remembers winter days spent at home, how exquisitely out-of-balance it felt to be in the apartment on a weekday, and not in a classroom, playing games with Rachel or reading a book, and then, later, going out to the park, crowded with kids, all of them ecstatic to play in the snow.

There will be no snow angels with Rachel this year. Not that it has happened recently anyway - they haven’t been little kids in a long time.

There’s a laptop perched precariously on Nora’s knees, and the screen is as blank as the view out the window, but not nearly as beautiful. Nora glances at it now, at the white rectangle of a new Word document. It’s not completely empty - just like the naked silhouettes of trees appear in sharp contrast, like narrow strokes of a black pen, in the all-white clouds, a few words, at the top of her document, cut through the blankness in precise dark letters.

NORA REID - COLLEGE ESSAY

Her fingers brush the keyboard, not applying enough pressure to type anything. Next to her on the couch, the cat, Mocha, stretches, pushing his paws into her thigh, and Nora gratefully removes her hand from the laptop and scratches him behind the ears instead. He purrs, content, looking at her with his half-lidded golden eyes. Nora sighs. She wishes she were a cat, with no other worries than laying on a couch on a winter morning, waiting to be fed. Then she wouldn’t have to work on this stupid essay. Time is running out, and she still has no idea what to write.

Well, that’s not exactly true. She knows what she’s expected to write about ; all their tutors have said they ought to milk their horrible but unique experience for all its worth. Talk about resilience and strength. About how tragic events reveal so much of one’s personality. About how this has made them realize that they are interested in: physics, psychology, history, you name it, just connect the dots, make it sound interesting and personal.

They’ve all written about it. The other girls. They haven’t said so - maybe because they’re embarrassed, mostly because no one is talking right now ; Nora doesn’t even know where any of them are applying, except Fatin who has her eyes set on Juilliard - but she’s pretty sure. Sometimes, just for fun, she tries to imagine what their college essays look like. Maybe Fatin wrote about the musicality of hunger. Maybe Rachel described, in that curt, practical style of hers, the determination and will necessary to survive accidental amputation. Maybe Leah made a metaphor out of her multiple near-drowning experiences.

What would Nora write about, anyway? She only spent a month on the island, and all of that time she only had Rachel in mind - Rachel’s health, Rachel’s happiness, Rachel’s progress, Rachel’s affection for her. Everything else was minor, extraneous. But she won’t write about Rachel. She can’t write about Rachel. She’s way too angry, and way too sad.

Guilt, metallic and bitter, at the back of her tongue. It’s not the first time she and her sister fight, but it’s by far the worst, because they can’t escape each other. They sleep in the same room. Eat at the same dinner table. At least, they’re separated during the day. Right now, Rachel is in the study room, which is why Nora isn’t, why she sits instead in the living-room with Mocha and the snowstorm. It also means Leah is probably hiding in her bedroom. Fatin in her makeshift cello studio. Dot in the kitchen. Toni wherever Shelby isn’t, and Martha wherever Toni is. They really have exploded, scattered around like particles no longer bound together, spinning free, on their own.

Nora is used to being on her own, but this particular loneliness, this loss of friends and sister, it hurts like a missing tooth, like a hole in her mouth, a raw place she can’t help poking with her tongue.

She misses Quinn so very much these days. She never was lonely with him.

Mid-afternoon, the storm breaks. Nora puts on snow boots, a coat, gloves and hat and scarf. When Rachel and her packed their bags, at the end of August, in the humid heat of New York City, it had seemed impossible that they’d ever reach winter, that they would stay so many months away from home. But fall passed, and winter is at its peak, and Nora is glad that she has clothes warm enough to brave the weather.

Agent Will Boone stands right in front of the door, arms crossed against his chest, listening device in his ear, a tablet in hands - probably a camera recording the gate, its eye blinking red under the snow. Nora shudders at the thought. Briefly, she wonders if he’s going to stop her, or go with her. After her little escapade, Agent Clipper decreed that Leah wasn’t allowed outside unsupervised, and though so far only Leah is concerned by the new restriction, Nora wouldn’t be surprised if they decided to widen its scope to all of them.

But Will moves away from the door. “Don’t stay out too long,” he says, soft-spoken. “It’s very cold. And the visibility isn’t great.” Then he tries to smile, in this awkward way people have been smiling at them ever since they were rescued from Gretchen’s claws - with an undercurrent of pity. It’s gotten worse, after the winter holidays. The adults here have all been walking on eggshells around them, unsure how to proceed, how to help. Maybe there’s a career opportunity in this specialized field: training people to deal with traumatized teenagers. Maybe that’s what Nora should write about.

The snow crunches satisfyingly under her feet. It’s deep, she sinks almost to her knees as she passes the coop, wondering if the chickens are cold, if the horses have blankets, if the goats would like hot chocolate to warm up. In the middle of such important considerations, she almost misses Dot, sitting on the bench between the coop and the barn, protected by a small awning. She’s smoking. Nora stops. Dot’s bare fingers are reddened from the cold, and white around the nails.

“Hey,” she greets Nora, glancing at her briefly.

“Hi,” Nora says. She wraps her arms around herself, burying her nose under her woolen scarf. “Isn’t your seat kind of cold?”

“Yeah, I’m freezing my ass off.” Dot shrugs, a very small movement of the shoulders, as if to say what can you do. An acknowledgement that sometimes you simply have to endure pain and discomfort, there is no easier way of getting what you want.

Nora hums in understanding. She doesn’t sit next to Dot, unsure that she’s welcomed to do so. Dot hasn’t sought company ever since New Year’s Eve - not even from Fatin - so they’ve gotten in the habit of giving her space. Still, Nora doesn’t leave. “Do you like snow?” she asks. “You probably don’t see a lot of it in Texas.”

Dot breathes out a thin cloud of smoke. “It’s just a lot of white shit to shovel.”

It’s blunt, and the message is clear: Dot does not want to talk. But words press against Nora’s teeth anyway, words she can’t help but utter, letting them fall like snowflakes.

“I’m sorry.”

Dot crushes the tip of her cigarette in the snow piling by her booted feet, the orange glow disappearing in a hiss, swallowed by wet and cold. “Nora, you don’t have to keep apologizing, at least not to me. This confederate business and shit, frankly I’m over it--”

“I don’t mean that,” Nora cuts her off. At this, Dot looks at her, finally. The skin of her cheeks is blotchy red from the harsh winter wind. “I mean I’m sorry I made it so hard for you. You were the glue that kept us together, all this time, ever since the island, and I’m the one who made us fall apart.”

“No, you’re not,” Dot retorts. She stands up, wipes snow off her pants. “It’s not your fault. You’re the only one who was smart enough to try and get them to talk it out, actually.”

Nora swallows. “Yeah, and I did it all wrong,” she says, guiltily. “I should have listened to you.”

But Dot doesn’t acquiesce, doesn’t offer her what she wants - blame, and then absolution. Instead she says: “Sometimes shit is broken, and you can put all the fucking glue you want on it, it doesn’t matter. You gotta let it fall apart, and figure out if any of the pieces are worth saving.”

And she leaves Nora alone by the bench.

It’s where Joey finds her, about thirty minutes later, unmoving, deep in thoughts, and chilled to the bone. “Nora!” he exclaims, taking her by the shoulders, eyes filled with concern. “What are you doing out here? It’s way too cold, honey, you’re gonna get sick.”

He leads her back inside, and into the warm kitchen, deserted but for the cat, Mocha, stretched on the table. She can’t feel her hands, her face is numb, and she starts shivering, uncontrollably. “I’m sorry,” she lets out, between chattering teeth.

Joey puts a kettle on the stove, and then sits beside her on the hard wooden bench, and rubs her back, between the shoulder blades. “It’s gonna be fine,” he murmurs, kindly, which is when Nora realizes, abruptly, that she’s crying.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats, sniffling.

“What are you sorry about?” Joey asks. He’s genuinely concerned, and trying to help, and - God, Nora misses her parents. Misses the safety of their arms, and the safety of childhood, when it seemed that they could protect her and Rachel from anything.

“I screwed up. So fucking bad. And they all hate me for it.”

As if to answer her, there’s a high whistle - the kettle, shrieking on the stove. Joey gets up, limps away, and pours boiling water in a teapot. He places the pot in front of Nora, and two porcelain cups. “Gotta let it steep,” he says, taking back his seat beside her. “Some things take time.”

She’s not stupid, she understands the double meaning, and she shakes her head. “It’s been months. I’ve waited so long. They’re never going to forgive me.” She wipes tears off her face, willing herself to be strong. “I just don’t know what else to do. They’re all I’ve got, and I don’t know what they need from me.”

(She’s used to loneliness. She survived Quinn, she can survive this. But it hurts so much, and it’s all her fault, and Nora is so tired.)

Joey pours hot tea in the cups. Steam rises, fragrant, comforting despite the depth of Nora’s anguish. “This ain’t an easy thing to hear,” he says, slowly. “But I reckon you might need to hear it.” He pushes a cup of tea towards Nora, and closes both hands around his own. “Truth is, your friends don’t owe you forgiveness, Nora. It might take some time, it might happen tomorrow, it might never happen. Nothin’ you can do about it.”

Nora takes a sharp breath, ready to argue, but he places a hand on her back again, calming and gentle.

“But there is something you can do. Something I think you should try and do, for your own sake.” His voice rumbles. His hand is warm. Her teeth have stopped chattering. “You have to forgive yourself.”

“I don’t --” she almost says I don’t deserve it, then thinks better of it. “I don’t know how to do that.” Guilt curls in her chest, so familiar, like a domesticated beast, and Nora is afraid to let go of it, has grown to - not like it, exactly, but respect it.

“Well, then, that’s what we gotta work on,” Joey answers, simply. He blows on his cup, and takes a sip. “Perfect. Try your tea.”

Nora does. Heat runs down her throat, pools in her stomach. “It’s good,” she murmurs.

Her fingers around the hot mug prickle as blood flows again under her skin, driving away the numbness. Mocha yawns and stretches his long fluid cat body, and then casually drops himself into Nora’s lap, purring. Joey drinks, silent and solid at her side, an unexpected confidant. And Nora’s tears dry, her heart lulled into contentment, into a sort of peaceful awareness that she’s alive, and safe, and not as alone as she believed.

She still doesn’t know what she should write about in her essay. She still doesn’t know if her sister, and her friends, will ever come around. She still doesn’t know how to live with the terrible emptiness that Quinn left behind.

But it’s okay. She doesn’t need to have all the answers. (Some things take time.) She doesn’t need to fix everything for everyone. (Some things must break fully in order to heal.)

Maybe, for the first time in her life, what Nora needs to do is focus on herself for a little while.

 

3-

On a Tuesday night in early February, Shelby lies in bed. Her eyes ache with fatigue, but she can’t sleep - anxiety rattles like nails in her chest. Earlier that day, she bumped into Toni in the kitchen, and Toni snapped at her, a growl of anger-fear, and Shelby snapped right back, on edge from the palpable tension in the house, and then they stared at each other in silence, frozen in place, until Toni left without another word. Now, rather than letting sleep take her, Shelby’s mind replays the scene on a loop. The thin line of Toni’s angry mouth. The fire in her voice, burning bright, but not bright enough to conceal how hurt she is. The bunched-up muscles of her shoulders.

Shelby snapped at her, and immediately wanted to take it back. Wanted to wrap her arms around Toni instead, press their foreheads together, breathe in the smell of her. Wanted to cup Toni’s cheek and tell her that she’s loved, and safe, that Shelby never meant to leave, only meant to shave off the past so they could think of the future together. Oh, if only Toni had listened, had understood. They could be snuggling under the covers right now, legs intertwined, and Shelby could kiss the top of Toni’s head, like she did a thousand times on the island as they fell asleep together on a bed of palms, except this time it would matter.

Instead, they’re avoiding each other, and exchanging fearful snipes.

Shelby rolls onto her side, pressing her cheek to the cool pillow case. On the other bed, Fatin, in the small circle of light created by her lamp, reads, propped up on her own pillow, frowning as she does. It’s one of Leah’s books, Shelby knows, but she hasn’t commented on it, because Fatin and Leah are currently not speaking, and Fatin and her are getting along just fine, and she doesn’t want to risk losing the haven that their bedroom has become, just because she asked about something that’s none of her business.

Shelby sighs. It’s no use - sleep won’t come. She sits up. “Hey, I’m gonna go get a snack, be right back.”

Fatin doesn’t look up from the book. “Okay.”

Shelby puts on a pair of woolen socks, and a sweater she stole from Dot back in November - it’s a little bit too long for her in the sleeves, but she can’t bring herself to return it because she misses Dot like crazy - and leaves the room. The house is quiet, though it’s only nine o’clock. A month or two ago, they’d have been in the common room, watching a movie, or playing Clue, or bickering about their favorite bands. Now, when she passes through the big room, on her way to the stairs, it’s empty, except for Nora, sitting on a chair. Everyone else is already in bed.

Nora looks up when Shelby walks by, and gives her a little smile. Shelby smiles too. “Still working?” she says, gesturing at the laptop on Nora’s knees.

“I’m playing Solitaire, actually.” Nora shrugs. “Waiting for Rachel to fall asleep before I go to bed.”

“Ah.” Shelby doesn’t know what to say. The twins are - well, it’s complicated, and she’s not sure she wants to get in between them. But Nora must be lonely, and for all that she’s done, she’s still one of them. So she offers, casually, “Want some company?”

Nora blinks. And then smiles, slow and genuine. “Thank you. But no, I’m okay. Don’t worry.”

“Sure thing,” Shelby says. “Well, goodnight then! I’m going for a snack, I’m, like, starving.” She laughs, awkwardly, and doesn’t know why. Nora considers her with thoughtful eyes but doesn’t say anything else, so Shelby makes her way down the stairs.

The truth is, she’s not hungry. Just restless. And she’s not even sure what it is she’s looking for, until she walks into the living-room, and finds Marco and Joey sitting together on the big leather couch, watching TV.

“Hey Shelby,” Marco says when she comes in. His arm curls around Joey’s shoulders, Joey’s head resting against his neck. “We thought you were all asleep already. What’s up?”

‘Oh, nothin’ much really, uh, couldn’t sleep. Sorry, I don’t mean to bother you,” she says. Her voice sounds higher than usual to her ears. Childish and uncertain.

“You’re not bothering us at all. Marco is making me watch a documentary about pesticides, so if anything, you’re saving me from terrible boredom,” Joey says, with a playful smile.

Marco snorts. “Okay, drama queen. It’s not that bad.”

“Boring and depressing, dear.” Joey pats Marco’s leg, just above the knee, easy and affectionate and familiar, and Shelby swallows. She’s never seen anyone like them. There weren’t any older gay couples in her small texan town. At least none that she knew of.

“When did y’all come out?” she blurts out. And then brings a hand to her mouth, horrified. Her cheeks are burning. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to --”

“You’re fine,” Marco interrupts her. They’re both looking at her with fond curiosity, and Shelby wants to disappear under the snow, to burrow deep into the earth like one of those hibernating animals. Come back in six months when everything is forgotten.

“I didn’t mean to pry,” she repeats.

“We don’t mind, honestly. Come sit with us,” Marco says, with a gesture of the hand, a wide half circle, as if showing the rest of the living-room off, all available to her.

Shelby sits on one of the armchairs, and notices that her hands are shaking. She hides them under her thighs.

“I think this calls for hot chocolate,” Joey says in his slow, easy drawl that reminds Shelby so much of home. He presses a quick kiss to his husband's temple, and retreats into the kitchen.

Marco shifts on the couch, crossing his legs. “That’s not an easy question to answer, you know. I told my parents when I was twenty, but coming out… it doesn’t really stop. You have to do it again and again all your life.” He gives her a little smile, rueful and knowing. “Although, getting married to a man tends to make things clear for most people.”

“I --” Shelby bites the inside of her mouth, and stares at the rug. “I came out on the island.”

“Hmm.”

“I already knew I was gay,” Shelby admits, hurriedly, like she needs to confess it all. “At home, there was -- she -- I’ve known for a while. But my family, my dad, he wouldn’t… I couldn’t do anything but hide and pray that these feelings would disappear. Then I got stuck on the island, and I met Toni, and suddenly I didn’t want to change anymore. She made it easy to just be me. I felt free for the first time ever. So I came out to her and the other girls.”

“Did you tell your family when you got back home?” Marco asks, his clever, piercing dark eyes on her.

“Obviously. Didn’t have much of a choice. Gretchen’s people recorded everything we did, everything we said. It was only a matter of time before my parents learned about it, and I figured it’d be better if they heard it from me.” Shelby grips the edge of her seat. She lets out a chuckle, and is surprised at how angry she sounds. “Turns out they thought they were sending me to some sort of conversion camp, so clearly they already knew.”

“Oh, Shelby,” Marco whispers. His voice is so gentle it hurts. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.” He hesitates. “How are things now?”

Shelby grits her teeth. “Oh, everything’s just fine. Daddy even apologized - they were so worried, he said, they had no idea what that evil woman had planned, and they regret everything oh-so-much. All they want is for me to be happy.” She inhales, and the anger dissolves, replaced by sadness. “I know he hates that I’m gay, and probably prays for me to be saved. But he won’t talk to me about it. And my mom won’t either.”

“I see.” Marco uncrosses his legs, and leans forward, elbows on his thighs. “If he doesn’t have to acknowledge it, he can pretend it’s not real. Denial is a powerful drug.”

Joey comes back with three mugs of hot chocolate, which he puts down on the coffee table. A welcome distraction from the way Shelby’s throat closed up at Marco’s words. For a moment, nobody says anything, as they all take a sip of their delicious drinks.

“You know they shaved my head,” she says, barely louder than a whisper, “when they took us away from the island. Apparently my hair was too much of a mess to save it. And I thought I’d be upset about it, but when I looked at myself in the mirror, in the bathroom of my cell, I just felt - relief.” She snorts, mirthless. “My dad was outraged. That they’d done this to me. Like it was the absolute worst thing they did - cutting my hair. But you want to know what the actual worst thing is?”

She takes a breath. It’s all gushing out of her, like arterial blood from a rifle wound. She’s seen animals die that way, on hunts, by her father’s hand. But this isn’t death so much as salvation. The purging of some truth that’s been slowly poisoning her from the inside.

“The worst is that they did something bad to me, and I liked it. I was grateful for it. They cut my hair, and I liked it.” She passes a hand in her still-short curls. “I used to have long hair and wear dresses, but now, I can’t imagine… I tried putting on a wig and a dress and makeup for Halloween, and I hated it. So I guess I’ll keep my hair short for now.”

“It suits you,” Marco says. “But I have a feeling it’s not just about your haircut.”

“No,” Shelby says, and stops, and then, all at once: “They gave me Toni, and I liked it too.”

Joey cocks his head. “Doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me.”

“But it is! They took my choices from me, so many choices. Because of them, I haven’t been in control of anything. Not my feelings for Toni, not coming out to my parents, not even my fucking hairstyle. And Toni’s hurt, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, because I can’t just forget that I didn't get a real choice, and”- Becca, sitting on her bedroom floor, laughing ; the shape of her smile, of her lips against Shelby’s mouth ; her kind eyes, and kinder words -”I keep hurting the people I love, because nobody ever gives me a choice.”

In the silence that follows, Shelby stares at her hot chocolate, and fights the instinct to run.

“You did have a choice, though.” Marco’s voice is still gentle, but there’s something firm in his words. “And don’t forget that other people make choices too. The people you love. Toni. They’ve made choices. Don’t take that away from them just because you’re angry.”

It hits Shelby in the chest like a wave, knocking the breath out of her, spitting her onto the shore. She is angry, but it’s an anger that predates the island. Anger at someone else’s choice, anger turned both inward and outward, poisoning her heart while she pretends it doesn’t exist.

And suddenly, she knows what she has to do.

The next day, Shelby meets Joana for her weekly therapy session, and before sitting down, before Joana has time to say anything, not even a greeting, she announces: “I don’t want to talk about the island.”

“Okay,” Joana agrees, after a small, surprised pause.

Shelby sits, gingerly, and takes a deep breath, and rips out the bandaid.

“I want to talk about Becca.”

And for the first time ever, she tells someone the full, sad story of Becca Gilroy.

Afterwards, Joana slides a box of tissues across her desk - Shelby started crying about midway though, and hasn’t stopped since - and says: “I’m sorry this happened to you. You must have loved her very much. You must be very angry at her.”

“I did,” Shelby lets out, pitifully. “I am. Mostly, I’m angry at myself.”

“Why don’t you share some happy memories you have of her? You’ve only talked about the tragedy.”

It takes Shelby by surprise, but she complies, too drained from the dreadful experience of reliving one of the worst moments of her life to protest. And soon, as she recounts bowling dates, and sleepovers, she finds herself smiling amid the tears. “I haven’t thought about any of this in a long time,” she says, in awe. It hurts, still, but it also feels good. Like she misses Becca a little less. Or - not less, but she misses her better.

Joana nods. “You try so hard to protect yourself from the past, Shelby, but by cutting yourself off from bad memories, from everything that is tainted by loss or trauma, you lose more than just those bad memories. You also lose all the good things that have happened to you. Like your friendship with Becca.”

Or like Toni, Shelby thinks, with abrupt clarity.

Oh.

She’s been going at this all wrong, hasn't she.

 

4-

On February 9th, Fatin gets the email. Well, more accurately, Miriam, from Communications, gets the email, and then prints it out for Fatin to read, but that’s not important. What’s important is this: Juilliard reviewed her application, and has officially invited her to audition for their music department in two weeks.

It’s a huge deal, obviously, and she’s vaguely nervous, but mostly ecstatic. For all her past doubts about the cello, about her future, getting the audition is a clear victory - and God fucking knows Fatin needs one of these. The federal government, no doubt pressured by Fatin’s parents, arranges for a short trip to New York City, which means a change of scenery, which means escaping the bleak winter countryside in all its lonely, miserable glory… Yeah, Fatin is fucking thrilled.

Finally, she gets to be herself again. Fatin Jadmani, cello prodigy, budding influencer, city girl, hot, single, and ready for some action. (Not that the witness protection program will let her out of their sight long enough for that. Still, a girl can dream.)

“Are you all packed?”

Fatin spins around, and finds Leah and Dot standing in the doorway of her room, looking at her. Well, Dot is looking at her, and Leah is looking somewhere right above Fatin’s left shoulder.

“Almost,” Fatin says, answering Dot’s question. She places the last item of clothing in her suitcase - a black dress, bland but fancy. The kind she used to wear for public performances, before her life drastically changed.

They’re the last ones to see her off. Shelby and Martha stopped by a few minutes ago, with a tupperware of oatmeal cookies for the road. Rachel gave her a little pep talk at breakfast. Toni hugged her, which was so completely unexpected Fatin didn’t hug her back, too shocked to react appropriately. Nora offered a slew of facts and percentages about Juilliard’s acceptance rate and Fatin’s objective chances of getting in, which was both overwhelming and strangely reassuring. Little gestures, the girls careful not to cross any new boundaries, unsure of where they stand, but also clearly nervous that one of them was leaving for two days. Fatin appreciated all of it, while noting, with some trepidation, who still hadn’t come to say goodbye. Dot and Leah.

And now here they are, uncomfortable, tense, but here. Something loosens in Fatin’s chest, like one of her cello’s tuning pegs untwisting.

“Do you, hm, need any help?” Leah’s voice sounds husky, and hesitant, as if treading on unstable ground, where a lack of caution could mean a bad fall, a twisted ankle. Bruises.

“Thanks, I’m good.” A few months ago, before everything crumbled like sand and left all of them licking their wounds in private, Fatin would have made a joke about Leah wanting to touch her underwear again. Actually, that’s probably not true, not after their almost-kiss, not after Leah rejected her, because Fatin isn’t in the habit of throwing sexual innuendos, even jokingly, at people who may not be comfortable with it. Maybe she’d have found a way to make the same joke about Dot.

Anyway, the point is: she doesn’t tell that joke. Doesn’t tell any jokes at all. Everything feels fragile and fraught between the three of them (between the eight of them), and she can’t bring herself to be playful, when her heart has yet to mend from the beating it took in December. There's still so much resentment and guilt swirling in her veins at how things went down with these two in particular. Her emotional support white girls, she used to call them, on the island, one arm around each girl’s shoulders, and she’d press wet kisses on their cheeks, and watch with delight the very different reactions she’d get: Dot’s amused disgust, Leah’s bashful interest.

She misses them terribly. And she is absolutely furious, at Leah for the things she said, at Dot for the things she didn’t say. At herself, for being a terrible friend.

“Hope you have a good flight,” Dot says. Her arms are crossed against her chest, and her traits are pinched in an expression Fatin knows well - a mix of pensive and cross, crinkled lines between her eyebrows, the set square shape of her jaw. Dot is worried. Of course she is, none of them particularly trusts planes, even after learning that the crash was faked, and Fatin is about to board one alone. At first, when she learned about the audition, Fatin toyed with the idea of asking one of the other girls to come with her - Dot, or Leah, or any of them, really. But she didn’t. It’s not like she’ll be completely alone, anyway: they’ve dispatched a couple of agents to accompany her to New York, where her parents will be waiting for her after the audition.

And won’t that be interesting.

(No, Fatin hasn’t forgiven them, either of them. She wonders if she ever will.)

(Yes, Fatin misses them. Both of them. It’s complicated.)

So, here she is, on a Friday morning, checking that her small bag contains all she needs: the fanciest, tamest clothes she brought, sheet music, a book for the plane. And two of her favorite people, who she has no idea how to talk to anymore, are standing in the doorway, not quite in, but not out either. In thirty minutes, a car will pick her up, drive her to a private plane, and then she’ll be on her way to a safe house in New York, for a very important audition, the outcome of which will likely influence the rest of her life.

Fatin zips the bag closed. “Well. Wish me luck,” she says, and though she intends to sound light, casual, because Fatin Jadmani doesn’t need luck to get what she wants, there’s an awful, pathetic, unmistakable pleading aspect to her words.

“You’re gonna do great,” Dot replies. She takes a step forward, like she’s going in for a hug, but seems to think better of it. Fatin’s heart breaks a little.

“Dot,” she lets out, an exhalation more than a name. And then she doesn’t know what to say. I wish you’d told me how you were feeling. I wish you’d felt you could talk to me. I wish you’d let me help you.

“I’ll see you soon.” Dot meets her eyes, and holds, one, two, three seconds, and then she’s gone.

Fatin hears her footsteps retreating down the stairs, and wonders how long it will take before Dot starts wearing her slippers again. If she ever will. And, because she can’t avoid her forever, she turns to Leah, who’s still waiting, one hip leaned against the doorframe. They haven’t apologized to each other. Fatin wants to - well, part of her, at least. But she’s hurt, and still angry, and now they stand facing each other and she’s leaving and there’s no time to talk about any of it.

“I know you don’t need any encouragement, but... break a leg?” Leah says. She keeps touching her eyebrow, and then letting her arm fall back to her side, in that way that tells Fatin she’s nervous, and trying very hard not to act on it. It’s such a familiar gesture, so endearingly Leah, that a smile creeps up Fatin’s lips, before she stops herself.

“Thanks.” It comes out terser than she intended, and Leah flinches.

Silence stretches between them for a few painful minutes. Fatin puts on her shoes, refusing to look at Leah. They haven’t been alone together since their fight, in early December, and Fatin’s mind swarms with all the harsh words exchanged that day.

“Fatin,” Leah says, softly, like a question - and fuck, why does it hurt to hear Leah say her name, it’s so unfair, Fatin didn’t ask for this, why can’t she just move on.

“Yeah?”

“Do you… do you think we can fix this?” When Fatin looks up, Leah gestures at the space between the two of them.

“I don’t know,” Fatin replies, which is the truth. And then, because Leah’s eyes turn sad, her mouth curving downward in a disappointed frown, she adds, a concession: “Probably?”

Leah’s shoulders drop, and she sighs. Her fingers rise, instinctively, to her eyebrow, twisting and pulling, and Fatin, just as instinctively, walks up to her and closes her hand around Leah’s wrist, forcing her to stop. Leah’s skin is warm and dry and soft. Her pulse flutters against Fatin’s thumb. “Don’t do that,” Fatin murmurs.

Leah’s eyes bore into hers, terribly blue, and the pull of her body, so close, is intoxicating, and so Fatin does the only thing she can: she lets go.

Later, in the private plane taking her to New York, stuck between two agents who look like less humorous versions of Sam Clipper, which shouldn’t be humanly possible, she wishes she’d said more. Or less. She wishes she knew what to even say, how to disentangle this knot of feelings, resentment and desire and guilt and, at the center of it, love, the most inconvenient of all. Love sucks. Love gets you hurt, and makes you hurt people in return, and Fatin, sullenly, sinks into the luxurious leather seat, and wishes her heart would ice all over, like the little pond by the house, safe and secluded once more, the way it used to be before the island, when nobody had yet wormed their way inside of her chest and made her vulnerable.

(Of course, that’s not true, is it? She never was the cold-hearted bitch she constructed in her head. Even before the island - before she met her friends, before she knew Dot’s blunt affection, Rachel’s laughter, Martha’s steady hands, Toni’s jokes, Nora’s insight, Shelby’s sweet smile, Leah... - she was no stranger to love. She loved her father, fiercely so, and got hurt for it.)

What a relief to be in a city again, where she belongs. The whole trip from the airport to the safe house, Fatin stares through the car’s windows at the busy, dirty streets, at the parks and the passersby, the shops and the bus stops. It’s not the first time she’s been in New York City - her dad used to take her on weekend trips sometimes, and they’d stay in a fancy hotel and order room service and eat in front of the TV and he’d let her try his cocktail. Then he’d take her to museums and clothes stores and expensive restaurants. Her little brothers were so jealous of her. It seems like a lifetime ago.

It was a lifetime ago. Fatin sighs, excitement suddenly waning. Her father even ruined New York for her, that asshole. And now she’s going to have to see him. She does not want to see him.

(That’s another lie. She’s excited to see him. She misses him. In spite of herself, she misses him so, so much.)

That night, in the little appartement serving as a safe house, still with the two non talkative agents for only company, Fatin feels horribly, tragically lonely. She misses Shelby: the sight of her ugly pajamas, the smell of her shampoo, the sound of her breathing in the bed next to her, the way she always tells Fatin goodnight, before turning off the light.

“Fuck, we really are codependent,” she murmurs to her reflection in the mirror of the small bathroom. The reflection has nothing to say in response, staring at her with Fatin’s own deep brown eyes. She falls asleep reading a book she stole from Leah, back when they were still talking.

Fatin has never had nerves about public performance. But it’s been a while, almost a year since the last time she was on stage, and her stomach is buzzing, her skin tingling, when she walks into the auditorium the next morning. Her heels clink too loudly on the wooden platform.

She greets the jury, sits, inhales. And lets the music talk through her hands.

Afterwards, her parents are waiting for her in the large hall. “Fatin!” her dad exclaims. His face lights up. He looks older - which is stupid, and not possible, but he does. Not the man of Fatin’s childhood anymore, who always had all the answers, whose booming laughter and conniving eyes made her feel just as safe as the strength of his arms.

“We are so proud of you!” her mom says, rushing to her, gathering Fatin in her arms. Fatin lets herself be hugged by her parents. They smell so familiar. Tears prick at her eyes, and she swallows them down stubbornly. This is a good moment, the audition went well, she knows the jury was impressed. She won’t ruin it by being all weird and emotional.

“Where are Kemal and Ahmad?” she asks, hoarsely.

“With your aunt Lila. They say hi, and they miss you. How are you? How did it go?”

“I killed it,” she says, arrogant and sure of herself. “Can we go eat now? I’m fucking starving.”

“Language,” her mom protests, reflexively. And then she looks at Fatin, as if taking her in for the first time. “My God, you’re so grown up.”

“Yeah, yeah, come on, let’s go already,” Fatin whines, playing the impatient so she doesn’t accidentally reveal any of the mixed emotions crowding her chest.

She has lunch with her parents in the tiny safe house. The witness protection program agreed to give them an hour together, before they fly Fatin back to the countryside, so they get take-out at a nearby Chinese restaurant, and sit around the little table, just the three of them. Fatin devours her lo mein and dumplings - she hasn’t had Chinese in months, and as soon as she smells the food she turns ravenous - and they talk about normal, mundane stuff: Fatin’s audition, her friends, schoolwork and practice and did you lose weight are you eating enough do they treat you well?

“I’m fine, mom,” Fatin grumbles, rolling her eyes. “They treat us fine. It’s not prison.”

“Well, soon enough you’ll be done with your exile, and headed for NYC, where you’ll be able to finally forget about all that stuff, move on with your life, get back on track. This whole year, it will only be a bump in the road, in the grand scheme of things.” Her dad sends her a smile, and Fatin returns it, automatically, even though food turns to ashes in her mouth. Is that what you and mom did, she wants to ask, forget it all and move on?

The conversation goes on, but Fatin now feels like a very distant observer. Her parents talk about her brothers, about work, about future family vacations, about what they’ll do to celebrate Fatin’s admission, about Fatin’s career as a cellist, and Fatin gives them mechanical answers and looks at them, and thinks I love you, but you’re both cowards.

There is no going back. The life she had before the island is gone, pulverized by her father’s careless, selfish actions, by Fatin’s own rash, selfish retaliation, by her mother siding with him. She won’t pretend she doesn’t love them, but she also won’t pretend she hasn’t changed, deeply, and that makes the fracture between her and her parents irreparable, like a broken bone that healed wrong, and forever altered the shape of a limb.

But she has one family that isn’t beyond repair yet. People who mean too much for her to think of them as forgettable, a bump in the road, an accidental detour in the path that her life should take.

On the flight back, Fatin makes a list, in her head, of things she wants.

She wants Juilliard, first of all. Not for her parents’ sake, but for herself, because she missed playing the cello, on the island, and she’s fucking great at it, and it turns out she actually enjoys it when it’s on her own terms.

She wants to be a good person, a good sister, a good friend. Maybe even a good partner, someday. She wants to be good, and honest, and kind, and loyal, and for that, she can’t follow in her parent’s footsteps.

And most pressingly, most urgently: no matter how angry or hurt she still is, she doesn’t want to lose any of the people she loves.

 

5-

“How is school?”

Such an ordinary question, it’s incongruous. Martha shifts in her seat. In front of her, on the wide screen, her mom waits, attentive, her elbows on the dinner table where Martha ate most of her meals, chin resting on laced hands. Behind her mom, a painting hangs from the wall ; an enormous raven, encircled with geometrical shapes, bought from a local artist when Martha was a small child.

“School is fine,” Martha answers. “I just sent in my college application.”

“Oh, that’s great! I’m sure you and Toni will get in.”

“I hope so,” Martha says, worrying her lower lip with her teeth.

“I bet you two can’t wait to start college. I know our family can be a tad overbearing.” Bernice’s mouth curves in a small smile, as if trying to convey to Martha that she understands, that she was young once too, and desperate for independence.

But that’s not it, quite the contrary. Martha would love to stay home a bit longer. To see her grandma in the morning, awake before anybody else, feeding the dogs in the courtyard. To tease her older brother, who has a job in town but still comes for dinner with his girlfriend every Friday, and has a knack for entertaining the whole family with hilarious anecdotes. She misses them all, even her little sisters, now both in high school, one a freshman and one a sophomore, and probably the most annoying people on this earth. Even her dad and her uncle Pete - who’s not her uncle by blood, but was raised with her dad, and has been a part of the family for longer than she’s been alive - and their interminable card games.

It’s stupid. She’s been through some horrible stuff. Scary, traumatizing stuff. More than most people her age. And yet, somehow, after all that, the perspective of moving out of parents’ house for college is still petrifying.

“Will you miss me?” she asks, before realizing what she’s saying, and then bites the inside of her mouth, hard. She sounds like a baby. She’s turning eighteen in two months, and she sounds like a goddamn baby.

“Of course, sweetheart! We’ll miss you then, just like we miss you right now.” Bernice’s voice grows rough, and she clears her throat, and smiles again. Even through the screen, her smile lights up the room. Martha wishes she were home so fiercely it’s like a needle, a shard of bone, is stuck in her lungs - it hurts every time she breathes. “I’m so proud of you,” her mom adds, something raw in her voice now. “You’re the bravest girl I know. What you’ve had to overcome...”

Martha freezes. “How are things back home?” she asks, quickly changing the subject.

If Bernice notices her discomfort, she doesn’t mention it. Instead, she talks about their winter, a cold one this year, about the neighbours, Martha’s high school friends, the most recent pow wow. Eventually, she runs out of news and gossip, so she asks Martha how the other girls are doing. Martha replies too evasively, and her mom frowns.

“You seem sad, honey. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine. I’m just tired.”

Everything is not fine, but Martha doesn’t want to worry her mom. The truth is, the past few months have been the hardest yet - all that tension, all that anger, it seeps into Martha’s veins, accelerating what is already at work inside her. She’s restless, anxious, depressed. And she feels completely invisible in her distress. Everyone else is so loud! Some literally, like Toni or Leah or Fatin or Rachel ; some metaphorically, like Shelby who projects her sadness and confusion onto everything she does, or Nora whose silence is deafening, or Dot who walks like she wants to break something. But not Martha. And she’s used to being overlooked, but for the first time it’s bothering her, a low, insidious ache in her chest.

Can’t you all see that I’m not doing well? Does anyone care?

Even now, Bernice doesn’t push, nodding as she accepts Martha’s explanation. It makes Martha furious, all of a sudden, a hot flash of anger in her belly.

(Not the first time she’s angry at her mom for not seeing her.)

She gets up. “Toni wants to say hi, let me go get her.”

Toni has refused to have video calls with her own mother, but she usually comes and chats with Martha's family. Martha opens the door, and Toni, who was waiting outside, comes in.

“Hey Mrs B,” Toni says, cheerfully, taking Martha’s seat. She’s smiling, genuinely smiling, for the first time in weeks.

Bernice,” Martha’s mom corrects her, shaking her head. She’s smiling too.

Martha clears her throat. “I’ll leave you guys to it, I have to go help out for dinner.” Before they can protest she leaves, closing the door gently behind her.

Still angry, still rattled by the conversation, Martha doesn’t go to the kitchen, where surely Marco is waiting for her with potatoes to peel and onions to fry. There’s something she has to do - something she’s been avoiding for too long. So she puts on her winter clothes, and goes outside. There’s no agent at the door - not that it matters, she’s still allowed to go out whenever she wants, as long as she stays safely within the perimeter. Why wouldn’t she? She’s not Leah, she’s never drawn that kind of attention to herself. Or any attention, really.

The night has fallen already - it’s a little after six - but Martha doesn’t mind ; there are worse things than the dark. Packed icy snow crackles under her boots, wind lashes at her face. She hurries towards the barn. When she pushes the heavy oak door open, the horses, all three of them in their stalls, snort their greetings. She brushes her fingers on their flat noses, relishes in their warm puffs of breath. But she’s not here for them.

Martha keeps moving until she’s all the way to the back of the barn. To the goats' sheltered pen, where they’re kept at night. The animals perk up, sensing her approach, and come to the little wooden gate, probably hoping for treats, Edith, tan all over with a white tuft of a tail, George with white spots on a dark brown coat. Images flash in Martha’s mind. The smell of blood invades her nostrils. Specks of salty iron on her lips make her gag.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers, brokenly. The heft of a stone in her hands. Innocent eyes gazing up at her.

Edith bleats in response, nuzzling the gate. Now Martha remembers the second goat, leading her to the cliff after a mad pursuit, faster and nimbler than the one she killed on day twenty-two. She remembers violence erupting in her hands, throwing rocks at it, and the sound the goat made when she hit its rump with one. How numb she felt then. Like she was totally out of herself, which was exactly what she wished for.

She wanted to kill that second goat, and almost died instead. Led up the cliff, but less surefooted than the animal, and rendered irrational by rage and despair, she fell.

“Fuck you,” she growls at Edith and George, at their long-gone island sibling. There is so much anger in her, and she doesn’t know what to do with it. “You did this to me. Fuck you.

But of course, they didn’t do anything. Of course, she’s not really talking to the goats. Martha opens the gate, and walks inside the pen. She’s very tired now, and she staggers, falls to her knees on the soft fragrant hay. George nuzzles her shoulder. Edith chews at her scarf. Martha starts crying, hot tears running down her face, sobs shaking her shoulders. She buries her face in the soft short hair of Edith’s flank, and cries, and cries, for everything she’s had to do, for everything that was done to her. She cries for a very long time.

A hand on her shoulder. “Martha, are you okay?” comes a voice, sounding far, far away.

“Marty!” yells another voice, familiar. The hand on her shoulder shakes her, none too gently.

Martha blinks, hazy from sleep. Everything around her smells pungent, animal-like, musky and warm. There’s someone - no, two people. She recognizes Shelby and Toni, on either side of her, blurry but real. Her eyes are swollen, her cheeks tear-strained, but she’s not cold. Edith and George kept her warm, however long she slept.

She pushes herself up to a sitting position, prodding the goats to move away from her, and that’s when she sees the others, pressed against the wooden fence, lit by the weak electrical lamp of the barn: Leah and Fatin and Nora and Rachel and Dot, all in their coats and jackets, with red cheeks and red noses. And behind her friends, Sam Clipper and Will Boone, solemn in their dark clothes, rigid and professional. “Are you alright?” Will asks, his voice tight and low.

Martha nods. “Yeah, I just fell asleep.”

“Jesus,” Sam grumbles, with a mixture of exasperation and relief. “And here I was, thinking I could finally let my guard down since this one”- she points to Leah with her chin -”started behaving. You kids are trying to kill me, I swear.”

“What’s going on?” Martha asks, feeling very disoriented.

“You disappeared!” Toni cries out. She still has a hand on Martha’s shoulder, like if she stopped touching her Martha would evaporate. “We… I was so fucking scared, Marty, you can’t do shit like that!”

“I fell asleep,” Martha repeats, uncomprehending.

“Yeah, well, you didn’t show up at dinner, and we thought you’d gone missing. We thought maybe something had happened,” Dot says, “like…”

“Like the last day on the island,” Shelby finishes, softly. She squeezes one of Martha’s hands in hers. Her other hand is resting on Toni’s forearm, which is confusing, and Martha wonders if she’s still dreaming.

“I thought we all hated each other now,” she mumbles, still half-asleep.

There’s a pause at that, a kind of guilty silence. On each side of her, Toni and Shelby exchange a glance.

“I don’t hate any of you,” Nora says, first. She’s always been brave, Nora. For all her deception, all her lies, she’s also the quickest to say the truth.

“Me neither,” Leah mumbles. The admission draws a sharp breath out of Nora.

Rachel claps her hands. “Okay, well, not that I don’t enjoy all this corny-ass shit, but I’m fucking freezing. Let’s get inside, alright?”

Toni does not let go of Martha until she’s sitting in the middle of the big couch, in the common room upstairs, and even then, she plops down next to Martha, and refuses to move while the agents and Marco check that Martha is okay. Martha is oddly touched, and vaguely guilty - she did not mean to worry anyone. The other girls sit around the couches and chairs, except Shelby who’s down in the kitchen helping Joey make hot chocolate for everyone. At last, when the adults are reassured that nothing’s wrong with Martha, and all the girls have a hot beverage in hand, they’re left alone.

“Martha, angel, what’s been going on with you?” Fatin asks, jumping into the thick of it first, as she always does.

Martha takes a sip of hot chocolate, lets the thick sweetness coat her tongue. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve been acting weird again ever since we got to the safe house. Island-weird,” Dot says, on Martha’s other side. “Disappearing in the middle of the night.”

“Freaking out every time there’s a doctor visit,” Rachel adds.

“And you just seem generally unhappy - but like, worse than any of us,” Shelby finishes, sweetly.

“Oh,” Marta says. She thinks about denying it, but instead what comes out of her mouth is: ”You pay attention to me?”

“Of fucking course, we do! We’re your friends!” Toni argues, hotly, indignantly. “We notice when one of us isn’t doing well, or goes missing, because we fucking care about each other!”

Martha catches Leah’s face, in that moment: the way her mouth opens, her eyes widen, as if struck by a realization. But she doesn’t say anything, and so Martha turns her attention back to the conversation.

“I guess it’s true, I haven’t been doing so good. You know how we always said that the island made us confront our issues?” A murmur of agreement in the room. “There’s - there’s something you should know about me. Something that happened before the island.” She’s never told anyone. Toni knows, but they’ve never really talked about it. But Martha, warm and safe in the circle of her friends, cupping a mug of steaming hot chocolate in her hands, Toni’s arm around her shoulders, decides it’s time to let go.

She tells them everything. There are tears - of shock, of anger - on her friends’ faces. Toni fumes in silence. “When I killed the goat,” Martha explains, at last, “it was like I was killing him, in a way. At that moment, I felt… I don’t even know how to explain. Cleansed. Powerful. And when the guilt and disgust and horror came, after, I just couldn’t handle it. I wanted to feel that way again, I wanted the catharsis of”- here Martha pauses, and swallows, ashamed of herself -” hurting something. I kept hoping I’d find another goat. It was all I thought about towards the end. And then eventually I did, and I.. I tried to… but it was too fast, and too agile, and I wasn’t careful, and I fell.” She rubs the scar at the back of her head. “You know the rest.”

The silence is deafening, but before Martha’s mind can spiral, Dot says, simply: “What would help?”

“I don’t know,” Martha admits. “I don’t really know how to deal with any of it.”

“Joana is actually pretty helpful.” Shelby’s smile is steady, though she’s blushing a little, and fidgeting with the hems of her sleeves. “Have you tried talking to her?”

“Joey has good advice,” Nora offers, thoughtful. And then, with a crooked smile: “I recommend giving Mocha a belly rub. Always makes me happier.”

“Same with Pepper,” Leah says. She hesitates, and mumbles, staring at the rug: “Also, Sam is a surprisingly good listener. I’ve been talking to her on my walks outside since I can’t get rid of her anyway, and she never interrupts.”

Fatin strokes her chin as she thinks. “Maybe find an activity or a hobby that really takes your mind off of shit. Something you can put all your energy into. Helps if you’re good at it, too, so you can feel like the bad bitch you are!” she finishes, with a grin.

“Work out,” is all Rachel says. The other girls look at her with a mix of disbelief and amusement. “What?” she protests. “It works for me!”

Martha laughs with everyone, and abruptly finds herself close to tears again, overwhelmed, though for a vastly different reason. Here, among her friends who came together because they cared more about her than about their differences, it dawns on her: she never was invisible.

She always was loved.

Chapter Text

1-

Of all she left behind in California, Leah most misses the sun. So when March finally comes, after a grey and depressing winter, and the weather grows warmer, Leah hopes for more sunny days. Instead, she gets enough rain to drown herself all over again.

(Not that she wants to, she has to explain, when she makes the comparaison out loud and everyone stares at her with deep-seated concern. At her next therapy meeting, Joana asks her if she’s harboring any suicidal thoughts.

“No,” Leah says, which is the truth. “Why?”

“Some of your friends were worried about you. And I know there was an incident on the island,” Joana adds, tactfully. Ah, right.

Leah rubs at her temples. “I wasn’t trying to kill myself,” she answers. Also the truth. ”I was trying to save myself. To prove my theory and force Gretchen’s team to come out.”

“Hm,” Joana says, peering at her above the rim of her glasses.

Leah sighs. “You don’t believe me. Great.”

“Oh, no, I believe you, Leah. I don’t think you’re suicidal. But there are other ways someone can treat their life as disposable. You weren’t trying to die, but you also didn’t care what happened to you.” Joana counts on her fingers. “You got hit by a car. You almost drowned. Am I wrong to see a pattern here?”

“No,” Leah says, and almost chokes on the word.

Joana smiles at her, a gentle, careful smile that makes Leah want to hide, or cry, or both. “Maybe that’s something we could talk about, you and I.”)

All of this would be so much easier if Leah could see the sun.

“I think I’m in withdrawal,” she whines, one morning at breakfast, staring forlornly at the cloudy sky. “I need vitamin D.”

Rachel rolls her eyes. “Oh my God, Leah, please chill. Are all Californians that fucking dramatic?”

Toni snorts, Fatin blows Rachel a kiss. Leah steals a piece of bacon from Rachel’s plate in retaliation, narrowly avoiding a slap to the hand, and can’t fight the laugh bubbling from her lips at Rachel’s expression of utter outrage. Soon everyone at the table is laughing.

Oh, how Leah has missed this. Missed the sound of her friends’ raucous laughter, the drum of conversation in the morning, the eight of them fitting together again like an improbable eight-piece puzzle. Ever since that day Martha disappeared, there’s been no fighting, their anger melting away like snow in the early days of spring. Of course, it’s not quite the same. They’re all aware of the lines of tension coursing between them like invisible electric currents ; they’ve all said things they can’t take back. No, their bond is not the same as it was on the island, born of necessity - but who’s to say that’s a bad thing? What matters is they’re united again, this time on purpose, by an implicit agreement: they survived the island when all they had was each other, and they’ll survive the painful, arduous, frustrating road to recovery together as well.

That same day, after lunch, as if the world finally decided to answer Leah’s prayers, the sun pierces the barrage of clouds, for the first time in a week. Leah presses her forehead to the window pane, avidly. There’s a pull, like thirst, a need that she has to satiate. She turns around. Everyone has gathered in the living-room after their meal, as they often do now that they aren’t at each other’s throats anymore: Nora and Toni are chatting with Marco, all three of them sipping from tiny espresso cups, the strong smell of coffee wafting in the air ; Shelby and Martha and Fatin sit close together on one of the couches, heads bent above a gossip rag Fatin cajoled Danielle into buying for her, reading about the newest celebrity scandal with the appropriate amount of gasps and laughter ; Dot and Rachel are playing a game of checkers on the coffee table, quiet and focused ; Agent Sam Clipper stands by the window, munching on a cookie.

Leah steps into the middle of the room. “Hey, uh, I’d like to go on a walk,” she starts, and pauses, and takes a breath, and lets out the last word hurriedly, “unsupervised.”

The reaction is immediate, unanimous, and, unfortunately, not in her favor.

“Nope,” Fatin says. “Not a chance.”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a good idea, Leah,” Dot agrees, while Rachel shakes her head.

“Just a walk! I’m not running away!”

“Right,” Toni says. “You’ve lied to us before. Fool me twice--”

“Okay, well, I’m not asking any of you, anyway,” Leah interrupts her, haughtily. “I’m asking Sam.”

“Uh-huh,” says Sam, arms crossed against her chest, watching Leah skeptically. “I’m listening.”

A surge of anger and frustration wells up in Leah’s stomach, but she bites the inside of her cheeks, and lets the wave pass. She remembers her realization, after they found Martha: maybe when her friends are worried about what she does, and where she goes, it’s not because they are judging her, or trying to control her. Maybe it’s because they care about her.

It’s what prompts her to declare, very calmly: “I won’t cross the fence. I won’t go past the gate. I promise. I’m sorry I made you all worry, in December. It won’t happen again.”

A beat of silence. The girls stare at her, wide-eyed. Sam blinks. “I appreciate that. Thank you. I just don’t know... ” Sam trails off, visibly conflicted. Leah steels herself for disappointment.

Marco clears her throat. “Agent Clipper, if I may... It’s your decision, of course, and I understand your concerns, but… I think it’d be good for Leah. She’s making an effort. Maybe you could make one too?”

It takes a few minutes of tense silence, but eventually Sam agrees.

“Thank you,” Leah breathes out. She grins. “Does that mean you kind of like me, now?”

Sam puts both hands on Leah’s shoulders as if she’s about to give her a pep talk, but instead she spins Leah around, and gives her a little push in the direction of the door. “Go, before I change my mind.”

Leah doesn’t have to be told twice. She rushes to the lobby, and puts on some shoes. Martha and Marco follow her. “Can I come with you?” Martha asks. Leah nods, still kind of stunned she got what she wanted.

“Put some layers on, it’s cold out, still,” Marco says, smiling, holding out a jacket for her. Leah takes it, giving him a wide, grateful smile.

Joey yells from the kitchen: “Take Pepper out with you!”

And so Leah, Martha, and Pepper find themselves outside. Martha picks up a stick, and throws it, impressively far. Pepper zooms out past them. Leah closes her eyes and turns her face towards the sun, welcoming the warmth on her skin.

“Hey, Leah?” Martha asks.

“Mmm?” Leah says, not opening her eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

Leah frowns, glances at Martha. Pepper runs back to them with the stick, his tail wagging excitedly. “About what?”

“Not believing you, on the island. Not listening to you.”

Leah puts a hand on Martha’s arm, stopping her. “You don’t have to do that. Seriously. I was… I was acting crazy most of the time--”

“That’s not true,” Martha cuts off, so firmly it shocks Leah into silence. “You were scared and overwhelmed.” Her voice softens. “And I know what it’s like not to feel seen, or heard. So just let me apologize, okay?”

Leah swallows. “Thanks.” She grabs the slimy stick from Pepper’s jaws, and throws it, watching him leap after it. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry too. For not realizing you were going through shit on the island, or here. I’ve been so wrapped up in my own feelings, it’s like I forgot I wasn't the only one suffering.”

Martha acknowledges this with a little nod, waiting for Pepper to come back.

Leah stuffs her hands in her pocket. The air is cold, despite the sun. “I’m glad you came with me today, I, uh, I’ve been meaning to talk to you, actually. After you told us what happened to you, I couldn’t help thinking about”- she hesitates -“Jeff.” Martha says nothing, and Leah rushes to add: “I know it’s not the same, I don’t want to compare our situations, obviously.”

“Then let’s not compare,” Martha says, with a small smile. “That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about stuff, right?” Her smile wavers a bit. “What did you want to tell me?”

Pepper barks, and bumps his head against Leah’s knee. She realizes she’s crushing his stick in her fist. She lets it drop. “Can we sit?” she asks. Martha acquiesces, and they walk to the small bench by the pond, and sit side by side on the slightly damp wood, the dog following them, happily carrying the stick. “It’s okay if you’re angry,” Leah begins. Her throat tightens, and she threads her fingers in Pepper’s soft brown fur, grounding herself. She exhales. “All that stuff with the goats, the obsessive need to hurt something… I know how it feels to be angry, and to aim that anger at the wrong target. I just - it took me so long to figure out that he hurt me, and that it wasn’t my fault. That he took advantage of me, and I shouldn’t keep punishing myself for it.” The dog turns his head towards Leah, big innocent eyes staring at her. She swallows. “I’m still kind of struggling with the whole thing, if I’m being honest. But I wanted you to know that I get it. I understand how messy it gets, how it makes you feel and act crazy sometimes. I get it, Martha, if you ever need to talk.”

Martha shifts in her seat, and bends so she can pet Pepper as well, rubbing both his ears. One of her hands finds Leah’s fingers, and grabs them, tight enough to hurt. Leah’s eyes burn. Her chest aches.

“I don’t know where to put it,” Martha murmurs, one hand scratching the dog’s neck, the other holding onto Leah like a lifeline. “The anger. I just have so much of it, and I have no idea where to put it.”

Leah winces. “Yeah, I’m not the person to go to for advice on how to cope with anger. I was so deep in denial, I’m pretty sure I hurt everyone in my life before I even thought of blaming him.”

“Well, I’m not going to ask Toni,” Martha says, drily, which makes Leah huff out a short, surprised snort of laughter.

“Maybe you should,” Leah argues, half-joking, half-serious. “The anger management thingy she’s doing with Joana is starting to work. She’s way less grumpy when I wake her up in the middle of the night, these days.”

Martha chuckles, fondly. Pepper lets out a very sad bark, so Leah resumes petting him. For a moment, they don’t say anything. Martha doesn’t let go of her hand.

“I used to dance,” Martha reveals, in a quiet, mournful voice. “That’s something that makes me angry too. The Jingle Dress Dance, it’s kind of a big deal. I was good at it, and I gave it up because of what he did to me, and it sucks.”

“Fuck him, and fuck that. He already took so much, he doesn’t get to steal what you love too,” Leah snaps, her jaw clenching in cold anger. And then, suddenly timid, hoping this isn’t a terrible idea, hoping she isn’t crossing any lines, she asks: “Do you wanna show me? Like, do you wanna try and dance, right now, you know, without any real pressure?”

Martha cocks her head, pensive, and stares in the distance, long enough that Leah starts fidgeting with the hem of her sleeves, nervous. “Yeah. Okay. I mean, normally there’d be music, and other dancers, and I’d be wearing my dress, but… fuck it. Why not?”

She gets up, and Leah holds Pepper by the collar so he doesn’t follow Martha, pushing him gently to lay at her feet. Alone, by the pond, with Leah and a dog for sole audience, Martha dances. The sun falls on her as she moves, and everything is silent but for the sound of her feet hitting the damp earth, and the rhythm of her breath. Sunbeams reflect on the still water behind her, the surface glistening, crystal-like. The willow tree rustles. Leah commits the moment to her memory, the perfect, almost surreal image of her friend, dancing by herself, brave and beautiful, on an early spring afternoon.

Afterwards, Martha lets herself fall on the bench, breathless and giggly. “Aww, man, I’m out of shape.”

“That was amazing,” Leah lets out, awed.

“You should see the real thing. Maybe you can come to a pow wow when this is all over?” Martha offers, with a bright smile.

“I would love that.”

A pause. They sit in the sun, together, watching Pepper as he gets up and goes to sniff a suspicious spot of dirt.

“You should listen to your own advice, by the way,” Martha says. “Don’t let Jeff rob you of something that could make you happy.”

“What?”

Martha turns to face her. “Remember when I asked you about love, on the island, and you said it was misery, and self-loathing and all that kind of stuff? That was Jeff. It wasn’t true.” She smiles, her gaze affectionate and warm. “You deserve a good kind of love, Leah. It’s okay to feel things again, for someone else, someone better.”

Her words hit Leah like a punch to the throat, triggering a cascade of images in her mind: Fatin, by the waterfall, her calloused hands on Leah’s face, her lips, so close, the deep, warm brown of her eyes holding Leah captive. Fatin hugging her on the island. Fatin laughing, carefree, brighter than any sun. Fatin sleeping in her bed after their Halloween scare. Fatin’s fear, Fatin’s anger, Fatin’s hurt, all caused by Leah.

“Just talk to her, when you’re ready,” Martha whispers, pulling Leah from herself. “Fatin is more patient than she seems.”

Wait. Leah’s cheeks burn. Is she really that obvious? “How did you… how did you know?”

“Please,” Martha says primly, “I’m Toni’s best friend. You think I don’t recognize gay pining when I see it?”

Leah bursts out laughing. And keeps laughing as they walk back to the house together, feeling lighter than she has in a long time.

Feeling braver, too.

She leaves Martha in the living-room, and climbs the stairs, goes to her room, to her pile of books. There, hidden where nobody would go look, is Jeff’s novel. It's not the one he gave her, of course - she left its ashes on the island’s wet sand. But when Leah went home in August, she bought another copy. Not to read, just to have. Just to know it’s there, the way you scratch your nails against a scab, mindlessly, obsessively, thus preventing the wound from healing. Now Leah opens the book and reads the pages she knows by heart. She confronts him, directly, unflinchingly, for the first time: his words, his voice in her head, the memory of his hands on her.

It hurts, but not as much as it used to. And outside her window, the sun is shining.

 

2-

Toni is helping Marco cutting down dead reeds by the pond when she finds them. At first, her brain can’t even make sense of what she’s looking at: a mess of wet, muddy plant-matter, with flashes of white eggshells, and in the middle, three tiny shapes, twitching.

She kneels on the broken reeds, and looks closer, and it finally clicks. “What the fuck,” she murmurs, putting down her shears carefully, eyes on the small, pitiful creatures. “Hey, Marco!” she calls. “Come look at this. I think I found ducklings.”

A dozen seconds later, Marco crouches by her side, clad in his work outfit - a thick pair of dark jeans, an old jumper that smells like wet wool, rubber boots. “Oh, poor little guys.”

“Why are they barely moving? Are they okay?” Toni asks, worriedly.

“We have a couple of ducks that live by the pond, but I haven’t seen them in a few days.” Marco sighs. “Whatever it is, these babies hatched but the parents are out of the picture. It’s a miracle they survived at all.”

Carefully, Marco scoops them up one by one. The ducklings chirp, a weak, pathetic sound that makes Toni clench her jaw. “What are you gonna do with them?” she asks, her voice gravelly.

To her complete shock, Marco offers her the baby ducks nestled in his large hands. “Here,” he says, as if that explains anything at all.

“What?”

“Take them. You found them, Toni. They’re your responsibility.”

“I don’t know how to take care of fucking ducks!”

“Me neither. We can do some research. I’ll help you out.”

“Marco, wait, you don’t understand, I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I --” Toni inhales and bites her lower lip, ferociously. A cold gust of wind ripples through the reeds, making her shiver. “I’m not good at taking care of shit, okay?”

But Marco doesn’t move, unwavering. “All the more reason to learn. Come on. Open your hands.”

Toni has no choice but to obey. Gently, Marco transfers the three baby birds to her custody. They wriggle in her palms, wet and cold, their little feet sharp against her bare skin. They must be so scared, she thinks, as she kneels in the muddy bank, her pants growing wetter and colder by the second. Marco touches her shoulder to get her attention.

“Bring them inside the house, in the kitchen, wrap them in a clean towel, and keep them close to your chest, they need your body heat. Wait for me there. I’m gonna put away the shears and the wheelbarrow, and I’ll get Joey too. I’ll be quick.”

Toni walks back to the house, with small, careful steps, holding the fragile ducklings against her heart, terrified of crushing them. On her way to the kitchen, she passes by Nora and Martha, who must get the word out because barely five minutes later she’s sitting at the table and all the girls are pressing around her, peering at the ducklings enveloped in a flower-patterned kitchen towel, the fluffiest Toni could find, and cooing in hushed voices, which is how Marco and Joey find them.

“Okay, girls, I get that this is exciting, but give them some space,” Joey says, laughing. “Toni, just keep holding them. Martha, grab one of the smaller dishes from the cabinet, fill it with room-temperature water, and then dissolve one teaspoon of sugar in it, will you?”

“Don’t they need to eat something?” Toni worriedly asks, as she watches Martha comply. The other girls retreat, under Marco’s gentle but firm direction, to the other bench, on the opposite side of the kitchen table.

“Yes, we’re gonna give them some crumbled bread, one hard boiled egg, and greens. Here, Dot, can you chop this bit of lettuce? Nora, do the same with the egg.”

Martha hands Toni a tiny dish of sugar water. “Do I… how do I get them to drink?” Toni asks, feeling extremely foolish.

“Are we sure Toni should be the one doing all this?” Fatin mutters from her spot on the bench.

“Shh,” Shelby chides her, with a well-placed elbow to the side. “She’s doing fine.”

“Just put the water in front of their beaks,” Marco indicates, “until they take a few sips.”

Toni does as she’s told, and sends Shelby a grateful little smile. The tip of Shelby’s ears turn pink, and Toni has to look away, heartbeat quickening, very thankful for the weak little ducklings demanding all her attention. A welcome distraction from whatever the fuck is going on between Shelby and her.

When Martha went missing, a couple weeks ago, Toni would have lost it without Shelby. It didn’t matter that they were fighting, then, or that Toni spent almost two months boiling with resentment and anger over Shelby’s handling of their relationship: Shelby stood by her side the whole time, serious and calm, murmuring reassurances whenever Toni needed them, the soft press of her hands on Toni’s arms a tether, an anchor line.

Toni’s not sure what to make of it.

“Now what?” she asks, when the ducklings have drunk, and eaten, and fallen asleep against her chest.

“Now we wait and see if they survive the night,” Joey says, soberly.

They do. Over the next few days, they grow stronger, and noisier, and cuter, too. They follow Toni everywhere, a little army of ducklings chirping in line behind her, while the cat, Mocha, stares at them with hungry golden eyes, and Pepper barks his confusion over their new guests. Toni doesn’t let them out of her sight, protective, worried, still, that they won’t make it. She obsesses over her three charges day and night, neglecting schoolwork and chores.

“You’re lucky,” Marco tells her one afternoon, standing in the doorway to her bedroom. She’s sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching the ducklings waddle on the soft carpet, making sure they don’t wander off or eat something they shouldn’t.

Toni snorts. “I’m what now? Never heard that one before.”

He hums. “I know, I know. You’ve had your fair share of hardships. But you also have something very precious, something not everyone is lucky enough to get.”

A duckling chirps. Toni picks it up gently, and feeds it a wet bit of special duckling feeder that she asked Joey to buy a few days ago. “Oh yeah? And what’s that?”

“Unconditional love.”

This time, Toni actually laughs out loud. “Dude, you’re tripping. Do you know anything about my life? Don’t you guys have access to our files and shit? Cause let me tell you: an addict mother, no father, six different foster homes, and a billion underpaid social workers don’t really spell out unconditional love.” She swallows. “Not like reading my file would make you think I deserve it, anyway. I’m sure it’s chock-full of shit like “attitude problem” and “aggressive tendencies” and “curses like a motherfucker” or whatever.” The duckling is peeping, in distress, and with a burning flash of guilt Toni realizes she’s holding it too tight, hurting it. She relaxes her fingers. “Sorry, little one,” she murmurs to the bird, putting it back on the carpet with its siblings.

“I’m not talking about whatever’s in your file,” Marco counters. “I’m talking about what I see with my own eyes, every day.”

“Huh?”

Marco crosses his arms against his chest, leans his hip against the door frame. “You love your friends, don’t you?”

“For all the good it does them,” Toni mutters. Part of her wishes he’d drop it, but another part of her - a more traitorous part - desperately wants to hear what he has to say.

“Well, they love you too. That’s what I’m talking about. Unconditional love.”

“Oh, really. Did you notice all that unconditional love when we spent months hating each other’s guts?” Toni asks, derisively. There’s something hard and sharp stuck down her throat, like a fishbone - it hurts every time she swallows. She remembers all too well her failure, at Christmas.

But Marco only shrugs. “Family fights, sometimes. It didn’t stop you from looking out for Martha. All of you.”

“Martha’s different. She’s a good person.”

“And you’re not?”

Toni’s jaw clenches. Her teeth grind together. She doesn’t want to hear what Marco has to say anymore. She stares at the little ducklings, exploring the floor of her bedroom, blissfully unaware of this whole conversation.

“Toni, look at me,” Marco says, behind her. His voice is unbearably soft. She turns around, warily. She can’t think of any adult who’s ever spoken to her softly without wanting something from her. “Everyone deserves unconditional love. Everyone deserves a family.”

“I don’t.” The words slip out of her mouth without her permission, before she can stop herself. Toni inhales, sharply. Hot tears press behind her eyes ; she doesn’t let them fall. She tries to get mad, but there’s no fire in her belly, just cold, stale resignation. “I ruin everything I touch. Everyone I care about gets hurt, and they always leave in the end, and I can’t blame them, because I can’t protect them. I’m never enough. I’m not worth it.”

“Love isn’t about measuring who’s worthy of it,” Marco retorts, imperturbable. He strides into the bedroom, and crouches by the ducklings, picking one up, stroking the soft feathers of its small neck. “You think this baby bird deserved to be saved? Why? What about all the ducklings you didn’t save, because you didn’t find them in time? Does it mean they didn’t deserve to be saved? To be cared for?”

“No,” Toni says, thickly.

“No,” he repeats. “It’s not about worth. Love is a choice we make to care for something, and it’s a choice we have to keep making every day, knowing sometimes we’ll fail.” He kisses the top of the duckling’s head, and places it back on the floor. Then he meets Toni’s eyes. “Your friends, sometimes they’ll fail you. Sometimes you’ll fail them too. What matters is, you keep choosing each other, and that makes them your family. That’s love.”

“You have no idea how they feel about me,” Toni protests, stubborn. The fishbone itches inside her throat, a sharp prickle.

“I mean, I have some idea,” Marco says, a smile curling at the corner of his mouth. “But how can you ever be sure of another person’s feelings?”

“Exactly!”

“Better to look at what people do,” he continues, ignoring her interruption. He points at the cardboard box, where the ducklings sleep at night. “Who made this?”

“Dot, but--”

He taps the little bowl of wet food. “Who told you that you could get a special feeder for ducklings?”

“Nora.”

“Doesn’t your roommate mind that her bedroom has become a nursery for orphaned ducklings?”

“What? No, it was Leah’s idea, she said that way it’d be easier for me to keep an eye on… oh.”

“And whose idea was it to move one of the desk lamps from the study room above the box, for extra heat?”

Toni huffs. “Martha. Okay, I get your point, but--”

“Weren’t you supposed to be doing laundry today? I could swear I saw your name on the chore wheel.”

Toni blinks. “Shelby said she’d do it for me.”

Marco hums. He pushes himself back to his feet, and pats Toni on the shoulder, a light touch. “You’re lucky,” he murmurs, before leaving the room.

“Well, fuck,” Toni whispers.

“Chirp?” says one of the ducklings.

“Yeah, man, I know.”

She picks the three babies, stashes them in the pockets of her mom’s jacket, and makes her way downstairs, and out. She finds Shelby by the clothesline behind the house.

“Hey,” Toni says. She scoops the ducklings out of her pockets, and deposits them on the ground, by her feet ; they immediately start investigating their surroundings, curiously peeping at each other, although they don’t stray far from Toni.

“Hi, Toni,” Shelby replies. She glances at the little birds, and then back at Toni. Her eyes are so fond, Toni’s heart almost leaps out of her chest. “This is so freaking adorable. They love you,” Shelby marvels. She’s smiling. She has such a beautiful smile.

“They think I’m their mom. Bunch of idiots,” Toni grunts, affectionately.

“What are you doing here?”

“I thought I’d help you get this done.”

Shelby frowns. “You don’t have to, I said I’d take over for you, remember?”

“I want to,” Toni insists, softly, and before Shelby has time to argue some more, she grabs a piece of clothing from the basket - one of Rachel’s workout shorts - and pins it on the line. After a few seconds, Shelby does the same with Leah’s brown-orange cardigan. For a moment, they work in silence, hanging wet clothes to dry. The air smells of lavender-scented detergent, fresh and pleasantly crisp. Toni’s hands are a little cold, and, worried for the ducklings, she puts them back in her pockets to keep them warm.

“You take such good care of them,” Shelby remarks, as she clips one of Fatin’s hideously flashy shirts to the line.

“Thanks,” Toni says. Marco’s words ring in her ears. “I get a lot of help from everyone, so I can’t take all the credit.”

“Well, still. They’ve clearly adopted you.” Shelby grabs a bra from the basket. “Oh, I haven't seen that one in a while. I don’t know why Nora doesn’t wear it more often, it’s cute.” She glances at Toni, with an endearingly awkward little grin. “Is it weird that I now know everyone’s wardrobes so well I can tell whose bra this is instantly?”

Toni chuckles. “Yeah, a little, but I guess that’s how it goes with family.” Shelby beams at her. Toni’s heart hammers against her ribcage. She strokes the small warm bodies of the ducklings in her pockets, gathering her courage.

“Shelby,” she starts, at the exact same time Shelby says: “Hey, I--”

They stop, look at each other. Toni picks up a pair of jeans - Martha’s - and gestures at Shelby to go ahead.

“I wanted to say I’m sorry.” Shelby wrings the sweater she’s holding, obviously nervous, and Toni’s struck by the urge to hug her, to touch her. “I haven’t been fair to you. I never meant to hurt you, but I know I did, and I’m real sorry about all of it.”

“It’s okay,” Toni whispers.

But Shelby shakes her head, stubborn, as she hangs the sweater in front of her face. “It’s not. I have to stop hurtin’ the people I care about, y’know?” Behind this makeshift curtain, she sounds fragile, heartbroken, but still just as brave as the girl Toni fell in love with, all these months ago. “I want to be better. I promise I’ll be better.”

Toni dips under the clotheslines, emerges on the other side of the wet sweater hiding Shelby from her. “It’s okay,” she repeats. She meets Shelby’s grave eyes. “I get it, it’s a mess. We met in actual hell, except it turned out to be an even worse hell than what we thought. So I get that you’re all messed up about it. Fuck, I am too.”

“It’s not just the island,” Shelby says, very softly. “It’s everything that happened before, too.”

“Okay,” Toni says, simply. “Then tell me about it.” Shelby is so close, she can count every freckle on her cheeks, every shade of green in her bright eyes. “Look, I think with all the drama of this year, the experiment, the trial, the safe house... we kind of forgot that we’re friends, first and foremost. All of us, but you and me, too. Friends help each other, even when they're fighting. And friends talk to each other. So just - just talk to me, ‘kay?”

“I can do that.” Shelby smiles, shakily, and lifts her fingers to Toni’s face, brushing the apple of her cheek with so much tenderness, it’s a miracle Toni doesn’t faint on the spot. “But you have to agree to talk to me too, about your life before the island. About everything.”

“Deal,” Toni croaks out. She takes Shelby’s hand in hers.

For a moment, neither of them speaks. The clothes of their friends sway in the breeze, like fragrant drapes, sheltering them from the rest of the world. “You were right, by the way,” Shelby murmurs, in the quiet space between their mouths. “What we have, the two of us… it really is something that could be good.”

“Oh,” is all Toni can reply, stupidly.

“But I’d like to take our time, if that’s alright with you.”

“Why? I mean, it’s okay, of course. But why?”

Shelby smiles. She squeezes Toni’s fingers. “Because I want to do it properly this time. No rush. No looming threat of death or starvation. No cameras. No pretending the past didn’t happen. I wanna choose you, every step of the way. You deserve it, Toni. You deserve to be loved on purpose.”

And, with one hand holding Shelby and pockets filled with ducklings, Toni, for the first time ever, believes it.

 

3-

Medical log of Nurse Practitioner Matthew Johnson.
Location: [redacted]

03/17
Patient Name: Rachel Reid
Reason for visit: Weekly physical therapy
Notes: Rachel is making steady progress. She’s developing her fine motor skills with the prosthesis, though she remains frustrated by her loss of strength in the amputated arm, understandably. I demonstrated two new strengthening exercises she can do, which should help in the long term.

03/18
Patient Name: Fatin Jadmani
Reason for visit: Shoulder and neck pain.
Notes: I gave her Advil (500 mg), and told her to alternate ice and heat, and also to stop playing the cello for at least a week. She practiced non-stop for months, before and after her audition, and my best guess is that she overused these muscles. She said it’s not the first time it happens, but she usually powers through it - I suspect because of parental pressure.

03/20
Patient Name: Dot Campbell
Reason for visit: Seasonal allergies.
Notes: Her nose was so stuffed she could barely breathe, and she developed a cough. I gave her some anti-allergen medication to take every day, it should help with congestion. We also talked about various options to quit smoking - she brought up the topic herself. I don’t think she’s committed yet, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

03/21
Patient Name: Shelby Goodkind
Reason for visit: Menstrual cramps.
Notes: I gave her two pills of Ibuprofen 500mg, to take with a glass of water, and I mentioned that sometimes birth control helps with cramps, if that's an option she’d like to explore. She said she hadn’t thought of it, given her sexual orientation, and proceeded to ask me a great number of questions about contraception and sexual health in general. She told me she never had any sex ed at school or at home.

03/24
Patient Name: Rachel Reid
Reason for visit: Weekly physical therapy
Notes: Nothing to report as far as the physical therapy exercises go. I did notice some redness around her amputated wrist, and asked about it. She said she sometimes gets a small rash. After some discussion, we came to the conclusion it was probably due to excessive sweating in the prosthetic socket. I’m ordering her some prosthetic antiperspirant, and moisturizer as well, to protect her skin.

03/24
Patient Name: Toni Shalifoe
Cause for visit: Sprained ankle
Notes: Dot came to get me because Toni hurt her ankle - it seems the girls found an old portable basketball hoop in the garage, and had a game. Only a mild sprain, with some swelling and moderate pain, but since she's sprained the same ankle before while playing in high school, I opted for caution. We used ice, then a bandage. I also gave her a brace, and pain medication. She wanted to go back to playing, but I told her to stay off her feet, keep the ankle elevated, and ice it again in a couple hours. Shelby kept her company in the infirmary.

03/26
Patient Name: Leah Rilke
Cause for visit: Panic attack.
Notes: It’s not the first time Leah had a panic attack here, but it’s the first time she came to me unprompted. We focused on her breathing for a while. When she felt better, I asked if she knew what triggered the panic attack, but she wasn’t sure. I also mentioned that there are a variety of medications, antidepressants or anti-anxiety, that often help. She agreed to talk about it with her therapist.

 

4-

With spring comes new life : buds and green leaves cover the no-longer naked branches, early flowers burgeon, tender sprouts emerge from the earth. And, taking their cue from nature, Marco and Joey prepare for a whole lot of work in the garden.

Dot would have gladly watched all the agitation from afar, sitting on one of those comfy deckchairs, with a lemonade and a cigarette. But alas, Joana and the Clarks have different plans for them. They’ve decided that instead of resuming group therapy - which was a resounding failure - the girls will spend some time each Saturday afternoon helping out with gardening or animal care. Joey pins a schedule on the fridge, with all of them divided in pairs or trios, and assigned a specific project. Some of the girls grouse a bit, to no avail.

And so on the first Saturday of the month, Dot finds herself on her knees in the dirt, planting rows of broccoli with Shelby and Nora. Joey gave them some instructions, then left them to their own devices - he’s somewhere in the yard on the other side of the house, busy tending to the small orchard, close enough to come to their rescue if they royally fuck this up.

The three of them start by working several inches of compost into the soil, to improve it, make it as fertile as possible. The sun is high in the sky, warm enough that a few minutes in, Dot takes off her sweater, and rolls up her sleeves above the elbows. The cool air feels nice against her heated skin. Shelby, wearing a light tank-top, a pair of worn jeans, and an absurdly cool straw hat, looks totally in her element, handling her pickaxe like she’s done so all her life. Which Dot knows for a fact isn’t the case. Nora, still clad in a long-sleeved shirt, gets distracted after barely ten minutes by a huge black beetle, leaving the bucket of compost and the shovel to peer with interest at the insect buzzing around.

Shelby wipes her hand across her forehead, leaving a smudge of dirt on her pale skin. “Y’all ever think how crazy it is that this” - she makes a sweeping gesture that encompasses the whole yard, maybe the whole world - "was all dead, no flowers, no leaves, nothin’, and in just a few weeks, it all started growing back?”

“Spring is the season of rebirth,” Nora says, slowly, staring intently at her new beetle friend. “That’s why there are so many myths, across so many cultures, about it.”

“I guess Easter is about rebirth too, in a way,” Shelby says softly.

Nora nods. “Everything gets a new chance at life.”

Dot puts down her own shovel, and puffs out a breath, frustrated and not really sure why. “Whatever. It’s all just a bunch of stories that our ancestors came up with to make sense of the seasons. What is dead stays dead.” Something heavy weighs on her chest. “My dad ain’t gonna suddenly come back to life. He died last year, and I can’t just, fucking, plant him again this year. He’s not fucking broccoli.”

Silence answers her at first, and she worries that she was too aggressive. Too negative. After her outburst at New Year’s Eve, and the subsequent months of tension, Dot’s tried to keep her emotions in check. Not because she regrets it. Because she knows that, although satisfying, lashing out didn’t solve anything.

“Nobody comes back to life,” Nora agrees eventually, in a low voice. She’s staring at the dirt underneath their feet. “But I like to think that when we die, we come back, reborn in a way - not us, but what makes us us. Molecules, atoms, all the infinitely small parts of our bodies and minds forming something completely new--”

“That’s beautiful, Nora,” Shelby exclaims before she finishes.

“-- so what I’m saying is: maybe your dad is broccoli.”

Shelby winces, but Dot bursts out laughing. “Nora, you really are one of a kind.”

“Thank you, I think?”

“I don’t know if we should compare the deceased to, uh, vegetables,” Shelby argues, weakly.

“Why not?” Dot shrugs. She picks the little packet of seeds, and dangles it in front of her face. “Hey, Dad. Long time no see.”

Nora starts laughing uncontrollably, and soon enough Shelby joins in, despite her initial protest.

“You know what we should do?” Dot says, struck by inspiration. “When we’re done planting these guys, we should have a moment. For the people we’ve lost.” She swallows. “Maybe we can’t bring them back to life, but it’d feel nice to bring back the memories of them, ya know.”

Nora and Shelby agree, and they all work in companionable silence for the next hour. They each pick one row, pushing the seeds two or three inches into the soil, spacing them out about twenty inches apart, following Joey’s instructions. They water the ground thoroughly. And, at last, they lay down a thick layer of organic mulch - homemade by Marco and Joey from finely ground leaves and bark - to preserve moisture and prevent weeds.

Then they sit in a circle, on the mulch, pants caked in dirt, hands muddy, shirts sweat-stained.

“Do you want to start?” Nora asks Dot, quietly. Her curly dark hair sticks to her temples.

“Yeah.” Dot’s voice is rough, like gravel. She clears her throat. “Uh, so, my dad, Tim Campbell, he was - he loved music, and soccer, and he drank too much fucking beer, and smoked way too much.” She chuckles. It sounds a bit hoarse. “I guess I’m kinda following in his footsteps. Should probably quit eventually.”

“He was a fantastic soccer coach,” Shelby adds. She rests a hand on Dot’s shoulder. “And it seems like he was a great father too.”

“Mmm,” Dot says. She grits her teeth. Grief is tearing at her, harsh and cruel - and anger, too, at her father, for what he asked of her. But she plunges her fingers into the soft earth, and focuses on the sun baking her skin, on Nora’s familiar smile, on the pressure of Shelby’s hand.

“What kind of music did he like?” Nora inquires, curious eyes fixed on Dot.

Dot tells them about shows he took her to see, CDs he bought, posters they hang on their walls, old tickets pinned to the fridge. Flies buzz around them as she talks, birds cry in the distance.

“Quinn played the accordion.” Nora’s voice trembles, barely noticeable. “Very badly. I don’t think he would have liked the kind of bands your dad listened to.”

It catches Dot by surprise, and she lets out a bark of laughter. “Yeah, probably not. Not a lot of accordion in punk rock and metal.”

“Did you… Were you two dating?” Shelby asks Nora, shyly.

Nora shrugs. “I don’t know, dating feels so reductive. We were in love. We were friends. We were partners.” She takes a breath, and lifts her face to the sun, closing her eyes. “I miss him every day. He understood me like nobody ever has. I was never lonely with him.”

Dot doesn’t even realize she’s crying until she sees drops of water coloring the dirt underneath her. “Ah, fuck,” she grumbles, and impatiently wipes her nose off her sleeve. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Nora says. Her eyes are still closed, but there are tears running down her cheeks.

“I wish I’d known him. He sounds like a cool dude.”

This makes Nora laugh, wetly. “I don’t think anyone has ever described him as a cool dude. But he was. He was the coolest person, actually.”

Dot waits a few minutes, and then pats the back of Shelby’s hand. “What about you?”

“My friend Becca, she, uh, she took her own life.” Shelby sniffles. “I always felt responsible, because I said horrible things to her, and I pushed her away. Right before she... did it.“

“Oh, Shelby,” Nora says, softly.

“I kissed her,” Shelby continues, in a small, strangled voice. She’s crying now. They all are. “She was kind, and she was so freaking funny, and more alive than anyone else I’d ever met, and I - I kissed her, cause I loved her.” She smiles, despite the tears. “I loved her.”

They keep talking, and crying, together, and their grief doesn’t disappear, of course. But for a moment, it is tamed.

“You think Joana grouped the three of us on purpose?” Nora asks, pensive, while Dot noisily blows her nose. “Because she knew we were all struggling with loss?”

“That does sound like something a therapist would do,” Dot grumbles, though without any real animosity..

“Hey!” someone calls to them suddenly. It’s Agent Brett Swanson, hurrying towards them, evidently bamboozled by the sight of three crying teenage girls sitting in the dirt. “Are you… is everything okay?” he asks, looking around for some sort of threat, and then back at them, with a hilariously panicked expression.

“We’re paying homage to spring,” Nora says, red-eyed, very seriously.

Brett’s expression grows even more confused, and Dot starts laughing so hard she forgets to cry.

That evening, she spots Fatin alone on one of the sofas upstairs, and approaches. “Yo. Wanna play a game of Uno?”

Fatin looks up with surprise and a hint of apprehension, which makes Dot feel a little bad. She’s been avoiding her. “Sure.” Fatin pats the empty space beside her, and Dot sits down, producing the pack of Uno cards from one of the pockets of her cargo pants. She deals them seven cards each, quietly, and places the draw pile in between them.

Fatin grabs her cards, pauses, and raises her head. “I’m sorry, Dorothy,” she says, in her serious voice, the one she only ever uses when she’s completely genuine. “I wasn’t there for you, after the island. I took you for granted, and I was selfish, and I should have been a better friend. Should have known you needed support too.”

“Thank you.” Dot smiles. “But don’t beat yourself up too much. I was in a bad place, and I didn’t know how to ask for help. You can’t be there for someone who doesn’t let anyone in. So, I guess I’m sorry too?”

Fatin narrows her eyes. “Are you trying to steal my thunder, you dick? This is my apology. My time to shine.”

“Fuck off,” Dot laughs. She picks the top card, turns it over. It’s a green two. “You can start.”

Fatin discards a red two, shifts on the couch so she can cross her legs. “So, in the spirit of our grand reconciliation. Is there anything you gotta rant about? Anyone?” Her face softens, and she rubs at her left knee. “Do you want to tell me about your dad?”

Dot thinks of dirt, of broccoli, of the heat of the sun on the back of her neck, of Nora’s smile and Shelby’s touch. “I think I’m okay, actually. But thanks. I promise, if I need to talk, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Yeah, I better be!”

Dot picks a card. “Should we play for chores, like we used to do on the island? Winner can get rid of one chore of her choice that the loser has to do?”

“Fuck no, that’s how I ended up on water duty three days in a row. I’m not letting you fuck me over again, Dorothy.” Fatin smirks. “Though, as I’ve said repeatedly, I’d let you fuck me.”

“Dude, how many times do I have to come out as straight for you to get the memo?”

Fatin laughs as she discards a blue nine. “It’s not my fault, okay, I need to get laid.”

“Didn’t you bring a vibrator?”

“Well, yeah, obviously,” Fatin replies, sneakily placing a Draw Two card on the discard pile, “but it’s been hard to get some privacy, and I’m not about to traumatize Shelby even more, okay? Girl already has a lot on her plate, I don’t think she can handle my Magic Wand, or my O face.”

A very undignified giggle escapes from Dot’s lips. Fuck, she’s missed her. She slaps down a Draw Two card on top of Fatin’s, and grins. “Let me know when, and I’ll get Shelby to sleep with me and Martha so you can have the room.” At Fatin’s raised eyebrow, she shrugs. “It’s what friends do. At least I think so, I’ve, uh, never really had friends before you.”

“Yeah, me neither.” Fatin stretches her leg, and prods Dot’s thigh with her foot. “Hey, you know I love you, for real, right?”

“I know,” Dot says, through the inconvenient lump in her throat. “I love you too.”

They look at each other for a few seconds. And then, still looking Fatin straight in the eye, Dot slowly puts down a Draw Four.

“Bitch.”

 

5-

Whenever Rachel had chores, at home, she used to complain endlessly. Vacuuming her bedroom, she’d argue, was a waste of her time. Same went with emptying the dishwasher, setting the table, taking out the trash. It’s not that she was a spoiled child, mind you. It’s that every minute she spent helping out was a minute she wasn’t getting better, and there was so much pressure to succeed. To achieve her goals, to carve her body into the perfect tool it needed to be, she had to devote every precious second to her training.

A lot has changed since that time. Rachel has changed. And though she still doesn’t find laundry, or cooking, or gardening particularly fulfilling, Rachel starts throwing herself into all sorts of tasks, in the house, in the barn, outdoors. Because now every activity, from the easiest one to the most exacting, is an opportunity to admire how effortlessly her body still works, despite the trauma of losing a limb. Rachel prunes the apple trees, and relishes the sensation of her arms extending over her head, her feet solid on the ladder. She bends down to weed the vegetable plot, and notices how strong her thighs are, her spine, the muscles of her back. She’s always been in good shape, but she’s never let herself feel good about it, luxuriate in the pleasure of having a body: the way her belly grows taut when she stands up, the powerful flex of deltoids in her shoulders when she carries a piece of furniture Joey has to repair. Even the pangs of hunger have become something to marvel at : a sign of victory, rather than a failure. Because despite everything that’s happened to her, every tragedy and every loss, Rachel is still here, and her body hasn’t lost its hunger to live.

So yeah, she no longer performs athletic feats. No more jumping from the highest springboard, twisting and rotating in the air, tucking herself into a tight ball, launching herself from a handstand. Nothing she does is extraordinary anymore, yet she’s captivated by everything she does ; mesmerized by the miracle of her body, this intricate machine of nerves and muscles, skin and bones and brain, all of it working together to keep her alive. Even the part of her that’s different, made of inorganic metal and plastic, gleaming darker than her dark skin. It’s foreign, but it’s also hers. And Rachel is determined to love herself, at last.

But her newfound interest in manual labor has little to do with why Rachel is absolutely fucking delighted when Joey asks Fatin and her to clean up the goats’ pen one Saturday afternoon. No, the truth is, she would pay good money just for this spectacle: Fatin trying her very best to glare the goats into submission, and the animals failing to be even just a little bit intimidated.

“No, no!” Fatin shrieks, as George starts munching on her skirt while she’s in the middle of refilling their feeder. “This is designer, you fucking demon!”

Rachel shovels a pile of dirty hay into the wheelbarrow. Her prosthetic hand clinks awkwardly against the wooden handle, but she knows to compensate for the lack of grip, and the shovel does not fall from her hands. “They know you secretly like them,” she teases Fatin, cheerfully, making zero effort to hide her glee. “That’s why they keep coming at you, but they leave me alone.”

“I don’t like them,” Fatin scoffs. “I hate them.” Edith bites at the sleeve of her sweater, and she uselessly pulls at it.

“You give them more treats than anyone who’s not Martha,” Rachel points out. She empties the shovel again, and then takes a moment to rest. Her muscles ache pleasantly, like after a workout. She hasn’t been working out as often lately, but she doesn’t miss it.

“Whatever,” Fatin groans. “Ugh, I can’t wait to get out of here. New York City is gonna treat me right, I know it. No more goats, no more gardening, no more compost.” She finally frees herself from the unwanted attention of her goat frenemies, and brushes straw off her clothes, unaware that there’s more of it in her hair. “You don’t think you’ll miss it?”

Rachel shakes her head. “Nah. New York’s in the past. Nothing left for me there.”

Over the past two weeks, the answers have trickled in from prospective colleges, one by one, each letter of admission finding their recipient through the private and secure channels of Miriam’s communication center. First Nora, who got into Columbia. When they heard the news, they all cheered and clapped and congratulated her, Rachel louder than all of them combined, so proud of her sister, even though the inevitability of their separation made her throat tighten. Then it was Fatin’s triumphant admission to Juilliard, which they celebrated with two bottles of sparkling wine liberated from the Clarks’ cellar by Rachel and Martha. Rachel’s pretty sure Agent Boone caught them red-handed, but he pretended not to notice. And nobody said a damn thing when they showed up at breakfast the next day in various stages of hangover.

Two days later, Dot and Shelby were jumping into each other’s arms upon learning that they got into UT Austin, their first choice, then it was Martha and Toni hugging, both headed to UMN Twin Cities - the school closest to Martha’s family, and both of them with full scholarships. And, at last, there were two letters from UCLA, and Leah and Rachel were staring at each other across the screens of the com’ center.

(“I had no idea you were applying to UCLA,” Leah says as they leave the room. She sounds surprised, though a tiny smile flickers at the corner of her mouth.

“Yeah, well, you didn’t tell me either,” Rachel replies. She bumps Leah’s shoulder with her own. “Glad I’ll have a native Californian to show me around, though.”

Leah’s smile widens. “I can’t wait for you to fall in love with the west coast.”

“As long as you don’t make me surf.”)

Of course, it dawns on Rachel, afterwards: she’s about to move to the opposite side of the country from Nora. She’ll be the farthest away from her sister she’s ever been. They’re running out of time ; they have to talk before the end of summer, before they fly to their respective coastlines. Rachel knows neither of them will be happy if they leave without the conversation they owe each other. And she wants Nora to be happy. She wants Nora to have the time of her life at Columbia.

It’s what pushes Rachel to ask, with unexpected vulnerability, leaning on her shovel: “Will you keep an eye on Nora next year? For me?”

Fatin cocks her head, surprised.

Rachel looks at the ground, at the muddy hay. “I know, I know, she can take care of herself, obviously. And she’s done - she’s done things we’re all having a hard time forgiving. But,” she raises her head and meets Fatin’s eyes, and doesn’t do a damn thing to hide the concern she’s sure is written all over her face, “she won’t ask for help, Fatin, if she needs it. I know her. And she’ll need help, just like all of us. So please, just, don’t forget about her, okay?”

“Of course,” Fatin answers, gently. Edith nudges her hip and she scratches her behind the ears, absent-mindedly. Such a softie, Rachel thinks fondly, but she keeps the observation to herself. “Of course, I won’t forget about Nora. She’s one of us.” As if it were that simple. Maybe it is. “And,” Fatin goes on, hesitant now, fingers tight in the coarse hair of the goat, “maybe, you could… hm, do the same? For...”

“Leah?” Rachel finishes.

Fatin’s brown skin darkens across the cheeks. “Yeah. I just - I worry. It’s going to be such a huge change, and she... You know what she’s like.”

“A pain in the ass?” Rachel says, drily.

Fatin snorts. “Among other things, yes.”

“Right.” Rachel goes back to shoveling. “Yeah, of course I’ll look out for Leah. I would have, anyway, even if you hadn’t asked.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

They finish their work, and each grab one of the wheelbarrow’s handles, pushing it together all the way behind the barn, where they empty its content on top of the compost pile.

Fatin wrinkles her nose at the smell, and wipes sweat off her brow. “How do you feel about UCLA, for real? I know it’s not what you wanted, before --” She makes a vague gesture, as if to say every-fucking-thing that has happened to us. “It’s no diving career at Stanford.”

“Stanford wasn’t happening anyway,” Rachel shrugs. It still stings, a little - she suspects it will sting for a while, but it’s a disappointment she can bear. “I’ll be fine. I’ve had some time to get used to the idea.”

Fatin nods. “Do you think you’ll ever go back to diving? Or you’ll find another sport, maybe?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m gonna do anything sport-related at all, to tell you the truth.”

Fatin gasps, exaggeratedly. “Now that’s a plot twist!”

Rachel flips her off with her good hand, and starts pushing the wheelbarrow away towards the toolshed, where it belongs.

Fatin has to jog a little to catch up with her. “Wait up, girl. What’s with the change of priorities? I thought you were an athlete through and through. It’s like, half of your entire personality.”

Ignoring the playful jab, Rachel bites her lower lip. “You know, the only reason I became an athlete was because Nora couldn’t. It made me feel special. But it also made me hurt myself. So maybe it’s not the worst thing if I let go.”

“Is that why you stopped going on your morning runs?” Fatin says. “I thought you were just sick of third-wheeling Toni and Shelby.”

Rachel laughs. “I mean, yeah, not gonna lie to you, that was definitely part of it.”

“I know! They are so annoying,” Fatin whines as they put the wheelbarrow back in the shed, and close the door. “I don’t know what’s worse, that period where they hated each other on the island, or this new thing where they’re all sweet and tentative. It’s like, we get it! You’re in love! Can you hurry up and date already?”

Rachel wants very badly to make a comment regarding pots and kettles, but she stays quiet. There’s a new quality to Fatin, these days, a sort of candor, as if parts of her facade crumbled down, revealing underneath the real girl - who’s much like the old Fatin, only more vulnerable, and stiller, and Rachel is too proud of her friend to tease her about Leah.

“What about you?” she asks instead. “On the island, you said you didn’t want any of this - playing the cello, Juilliard. And yet, here you are, exactly where your parents wanted you to end up.” She sounds blunt, but she’s not too worried. Fatin may be more vulnerable, but she sure as hell ain’t fragile.

“Yeah, well. Turns out I wanted it for myself too. It’s crazy the kind of shit you learn about yourself when you’re stuck on a deserted island for two months.” Fatin hesitates, and adds, softly, “I’m sorry you had to give up on some of your dreams. I know what it’s like to assume something was going to be a part of your life forever, only to lose it. So if you need to rant or rage or whatever, I’m here.”

Rachel looks down at her prosthetic hand. “Thanks, Fatin.” A pause. “I won’t pretend it’s easy to come to terms with it - the hand, the loss of purpose, all of it. But I’m okay, I think, all things considered. I’m even, uh,” she takes a breath, and forces herself to look Fatin in the eye, and admits out loud, for the first time, “I’m kind of excited, actually. I have so many options! So many dreams I can follow.” She grins. “I can do anything I fucking want!”

“Hell yeah, you can,” Fatin agrees, with a smile. Her stomach growls and she grimaces. “What time is it?”

Rachel glances at her watch. “4:30.”

“No wonder I’m starving. It’s afternoon snack time. Come on!”

Fatin tugs her towards the house, and Rachel follows without protest. They find the rest of their friends already sitting in the living-room, drinking tea and apple juice, and devouring Shelby’s chocolate cake and a fresh batch of cookies, courtesy of Nora.

“You’re just in time!” Marco says, when he sees Rachel and Fatin come in. “Sit down, have something to eat.”

Fatin plops down between Toni and Martha, prompting Toni to yelp: “Careful with the ducklings!” Rachel sits besides Nora, who sweetly, politely, informs her that she smells like goat shit. Unfortunately, there’s no time to flip her off, or come up with a riposte, because Shelby hands Rachel a cup of steaming tea and Dot passes her a plate with a slice of cake, and so all Rachel can do is stick her tongue out at her sister like when they were five. Nora hides her laughter beneath her palm.

“Leah, honey,” Joey scolds in his gentle drawl, “please stop feeding peanut butter cookies to the dog.”

“But he’s so cute!” Leah pouts. Shelby shakes her head at her, and Martha jumps to Pepper’s defense, passionately arguing his right to dessert. Fatin fawns over the ducklings in Toni’s lap. Dot and Nora chat about the cabbages they planted this morning.

And Rachel, holding her cup of tea, balancing the small plate of cake on one knee, sinks into the back cushion, and soaks it all in. She never used to appreciate moments like this before. Working, training, climbing to the top, giving everything her all - it doesn’t leave a lot of time for just living. Sometimes she forgets she’s not even eighteen. She forgets she still has her entire life in front of her. All the time in the world.

So Rachel thinks she’s going to take it slow and easy, for once. She’s going to enjoy the simple things, like sitting with her friends on a Saturday afternoon. Like taking a bite of cake, and savoring the rich chocolate flavor, carelessly, casually. She’s going to enjoy the peace and quiet, for as long as it lasts.

She’s earned it.

Chapter Text

1-

Spring settles in, and with it warmer temperatures, longer days, and a mellowing of everyone’s mood. A sense of calm, of peace, the kind that comes from acceptance. There’s no denying the horrors they went through, the hardships they’ve endured, but they are alive, and together, and working through it. Which makes Fatin really fucking proud of all of them, because it’s no easy thing to face your demons willingly, and yet they’re all doing it, in their own way, one step at a time. They’re going to be okay, Fatin knows it in her heart - no, in her bones, all the way down to the marrow.

So it catches her and everyone else by surprise when, at the end of April, after almost two months of progress, they all have a very bad day.

A team of lawyers in suits and blazers arrives at the house one morning. The trial is set to start over the summer, and so they need to review the girls’ statements ; they ask questions, demand clarifications, and - by far the worst part of the whole ordeal - they show them footage of the island and the bunker, to double check that they remember everything correctly. When the lawyers finally pack their bags and leave, at around five in the afternoon, everyone is on edge, the collective anxiety so thick Fatin swears she can see it - a layer of mist hanging over their heads.

The rest of the afternoon is a shit show. Nora doesn’t speak a word to anyone, sitting unnaturally still by the window, the hood of her sweater pulled so low it covers half her face. Shelby hides in the bathroom for an hour, and comes out with red eyes. Martha keeps rubbing at the back of her head, at the scar she got from falling, and snaps at Toni when she frets over her. Rachel tries to skip dinner, and only makes an appearance because Marco drags her out of her room. A fuming Toni takes out her frustration on Leah while they’re setting the table, and Leah pushes right back, and for a hot second it seems like they’re going to throw hands in the kitchen, until Dot separates them, her voice laced with worry, shoulders taut and rigid from stress. And Fatin realizes she has to do something, before Dot tries to fix it all by herself, before the strain of the day brings all their progress crumbling down like so many sand castles.

So she does what Fatin does best. She jokes. She compliments. She teases. She flirts. She asks questions and makes outlandish comments and gets them to talk, and laugh, and relax, until, slowly, the tension fades. And then, once they’re all sitting in the common room, still a bit shaken up, but calmer, quieter, no longer buzzing with unease, Fatin proposes they play a game.

“No offense, but I’m not in the mood for party games,” Rachel declares.

“I was thinking about something a bit different, actually.” Fatin lets suspense build for a few seconds. “We should play hide and seek again.”

Dot frowns, perplexed. “Do you not remember what happened last time?”

“I already asked for permission, and Sam said yes, as long as we stay on the property,” Fatin replies, brightly. “No risk of anyone getting confused, this time. Come on, it’ll be good for us to be outside! We’ve spent the entire day on our asses, reading legal shit or watching screens.”

In the end, it’s easier than expected to convince the other girls, and they all scramble out of the door to hide while Dot counts to fifty. As she hurries out of the backdoor, Fatin can’t help smiling to herself. Mission accomplished: they’re all distracted, focused on something that has nothing to do with the trial or the experiment or Gretchen. She really is a fucking genius.

She’s so preoccupied with her success that she doesn’t realize there’s already someone hiding behind the toolshed, and barely avoids walking straight into Leah. They stare at each other in the dim moonlight.

“We can’t both hide here, Dot’s going to find mmmff!” The rest of Leah’s sentence is lost in an incomprehensible muffled sound when Fatin slaps a hand on her mouth.

“She’s coming,” Fatin murmurs.

They stand completely still, listening to footsteps on gravel. Fatin tries not to be distracted by Leah’s hot breath against her palm, by the brush of soft lips on her skin. Leah doesn’t protest, or move away from Fatin ; her eyes, somehow bluer in the moonlight, don’t leave Fatin’s face ; her jaw clenches, and the minuscule tightening of muscles under Fatin’s fingers feels like an earthquake.

When the sound of footsteps has grown safely distant, Fatin removes her hand. “Was that really necessary?” Leah grumbles, but she sounds strangled. They wait in silence for a few more minutes, alone behind the shed. The night bristles with noises, insects buzzing, leaves rustling in the breeze.

Maybe it’s because she hasn’t been alone with Leah in a very long time. Maybe it’s because of the day they had, filled with unpleasant memories. She’s not sure why, but the urge to talk is suddenly impossible to resist.

“Last time we played hide and seek, I got so scared for you,” Fatin admits, out of the blue. “I thought something bad had happened to you, I thought maybe - fuck, I thought I’d lost you. And all I wanted was to hug you, but I didn’t. I still regret not doing it, you know.” She lets out a puff of air. It’s easier to say the truth in the dark. “I should have hugged you then. Just like I should have hugged you when you came back, after you ran away, instead of getting mad and lecturing you.” She leans against the wood, feels sharp edges digging into her shoulders. “I’m sorry I didn’t understand what you needed from me.”

“Fatin…” She feels Leah shift beside her. “I should be the one apologizing.”

There’s a small silence. “Go on,” Fatin prompts, bluntly, turning to face her.

Leah chews on her lower lip before speaking. “That day, when I left… I was so angry and fucked up, about everything, and I took it out on you, because you were there, saying all the things I didn't want to hear. I’m so sorry. I know you were just worried. I was hurting, and I wanted to hurt someone in turn, and you didn’t deserve any of it.“ Leah sighs, lips twitching into a halfhearted, self-deprecating smile. “Sorry I was such a bitch.”

“You weren’t,” Fatin protests. Leah raises an eyebrow. “Well, maybe a little,” Fatin amends, with a grin. “But that’s okay. I like bitches.” She winces. “Yikes, I sound like a frat bro.”

Leah snorts. “They really do rub off on you.” Her eyes widen. “I don’t mean… I’m not saying that’s bad, I, you can do whatever you want with - not that I’m implying that you - fuck, sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Fatin almost feels bad for laughing, but Leah is very cute when she gets like this, rambly and nervous. “You’re fine,” she reassures her, with a light touch on the shoulder. A flicker of hesitation in her belly, then she forces herself to say: “About the whole Jeff situation. I want you to know you can talk to me about it, okay? We can talk about anything.” She swallows. “I mean it. Anything at all.”

Leah grows rigid under her hand, and for a brief moment, Fatin fears she said the wrong thing, but then just as quickly Leah’s body relaxes. She exhales. “Maybe we should talk about the elephant in the room, then.”

“Right,” Fatin chokes out. This is her chance. She has to say it out loud, the truth of her feelings, but fear, gluey, stodgy, clogs her throat, she can’t get the words out, and Leah speaks first.

“I loved him.”

Fatin recoils, heart in her throat, because she thought, she hoped… But Leah grabs her by the upper arm, not allowing her to move away. “No, listen - I did. I loved him. It doesn’t help me to pretend that wasn’t the case. It was real for me. It’s just - I guess my feelings aren’t the only reality, you know. There’s another one, which is that he hurt me. Both things can be true.”

“Okay.” Leah lets go of her arm, and Fatin misses the contact immediately.

“Anyway, I did love him. And you’re probably gonna give me shit for being dramatic but I honestly thought I would never love again. I just couldn’t even fathom having feelings for someone else, after him. And the thing is”- Leah licks her lips ; her piercing eyes stay fixed on Fatin, pinning her in place -“the thing is, I do have feelings for someone else. For you, Fatin. But they are nothing like what I used to feel for him, so it’s taken me a while to come to - to accept them for what they are, without feeling all sorts of guilty about it.”

Fatin doesn’t move, frozen in place. She spent so many months stewing in the unfamiliar heartache that comes from rejection. She tried so hard to numb her heart with boys and sex and alcohol in August, telling herself that it would pass, that they would at least remain friends. That it would be enough. And here is Leah, bold and brave and laying herself bare in front of Fatin. “You have feelings for me?” she whispers. There’s something raw in her voice, and in the past she would have been embarrassed by such a pathetic, needy display, but in this moment she couldn’t care less.

“Yeah.”

“Like, the romantic kind?”

Leah rolls her eyes. “Obviously.”

“Good.”

“Good?” Leah repeats, incredulous. “That’s all you have to say?”

Fatin takes a step forward, close enough to touch her, though she keeps her hands to herself. “Good,” she says once more, low and intent. “Because I feel the same way.” They look at each other. The warm spring night feels like honey - sweet and floral, thick and rich. “Tell me what you want,” Fatin prods, a gentle command, when the silence stretches a beat too long.

“I want you,” Leah answers, with an utter lack of hesitation that sends fire to Fatin’s lower stomach. “But, Fatin…” And here she sighs, and frowns. “I’m a mess. I'm still picking up the pieces after Jeff, after the island, and I’m, like, a complete disaster, you know, mentally, emotionally, all of it. So the question is more, uh, are you sure you want this?” She points a thumb at herself, derisively, as she says the last word.

“Yes,” Fatin says, firmly.

“I’m serious.”

“So am I. You think I’m scared that, what, you’re going to be too much for me to handle because you’re irredeemably fucked up, or something? First of all, babe, you’re not the only hot mess here. Emphasis on hot.” A small laugh escapes from Leah’s lips, and Fatin’s heart trembles with delight. She’s missed making Leah laugh. She brushes her thumb against Leah’s face, following the curve of her cheek bone. “You’re never going to be too much for me,” she says, seriously, “because I’m not trying to fix you, or save you, or whatever. I just care about you. And I want to be with you. Simple as that.”

Leah juts out her chin, stubbornly. “I don’t have a fucking clue how to be in a normal relationship. My only experience with dating was a secret affair with an older man. How do you know I’m not going to fuck up and hurt you?”

“I have never dated anyone,” Fatin says quietly, truthfully. It’s terrifying, being so vulnerable in front of someone else, but also comforting, and strangely easy, because it’s Leah. “I never even wanted to, before you. My longest relationship is probably this guy I fucked four times in a row - and one of these was a threesome with his girlfriend. The only model for a committed relationship I ever had was my parents’ marriage, which turned out to be a total sham. I don’t know a fucking thing about how this is all supposed to work. I’m just as scared of fucking it up as you.”

“So we take things slow,” Leah offers, after a few seconds. “We figure it out together?”

“Sounds good to me,” Fatin says, with a smile. Leah smiles back. A strange sort of tranquility settles over the two of them - it feels like closure, yet also like a beginning.

“About what happened on the island, by the waterfall...” Leah starts.

Fatin winces. “Yeah, shit, sorry about that. I shouldn’t have --”

“No,” Leah cuts her off, hurriedly. “No, that’s not - Fatin, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.” Her voice grows rough, and Fatin’s spine tingles. “I can’t stop thinking about kissing you.”

“Oh,” is all Fatin has time to say, and then suddenly Leah is, in fact, kissing her.

It’s a slow kiss, but there’s no shyness in Leah ; rather, she’s purposeful, fingers cradling Fatin’s jaw, one hand curling around the nape of her neck, lips soft and firm and opening against Fatin’s. And Fatin closes her eyes, overcome, because she’s been kissed by many people, but never by someone she loves, and nothing could have prepared her for the wave of longing, of desire, of relief. Everything vanishes around her, except Leah’s hands on her burning skin, Leah’s mouth, the wet slide of her tongue, the sharpness of her incisors.

“What happened to taking it slow?” Fatin lets out when they pull away from each other to take a breath.

“Sorry, I--”

“Couldn’t resist me, uh?”

“Shut up,” Leah groans, so obviously affectionate that Fatin’s heart implodes from a kind of giddy joy she’s never felt before.

“Gladly.” Fatin kisses her again, standing on the tip of her toes to reach Leah’s eager mouth. And then she pushes, with her whole body, until Leah is pinned against the wall of the shed, the two of them pressed together. Leah is taller, which gives Fatin perfect access to her neck, and she takes advantage of it, hands firm at Leah's hips to keep her still, sucking a wet red kiss onto the exposed pale skin above her collarbone, delighted by the stutter in Leah’s breath.

“Wow, it’s like you’re not even trying to hide,” an unimpressed voice rings out behind them. Fatin pauses, but doesn’t move away from Leah.

“Dorothy, we’re kinda busy.”

“Yeah, I can see that. Hi, Leah. Ya got something on your neck.”

Leah makes a noise that’s halfway between a laugh and a frustrated grunt. Fatin would very much like to finish what she started, but she figures the moment has passed, and takes a step back. Her heart beats too fast at her throat. She can’t quite believe this just happened. With unexpected difficulty, she turns away from Leah.

Dot is staring at the two of them with her hands on her hips, and a grin. “Having fun?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Clearly,” Fatin says, quite smugly. Leah pushes away from the shed and joins them, rosy-cheeked.

“Congrats,” Dot says, softly, no longer teasing, “I’m really happy for you two.” Then she grabs each of them by the shoulder, and steers them towards the rest of the yard. “Come on, losers. We still got a game to play.”

Fatin doesn't say it, but she’s pretty sure she already won.

 

2-

Shelby asks her on a Friday morning, before they go on their usual run. Everybody else is still asleep - which is what it takes to have some privacy, because this damn house may be big, but it sure is crowded with eight teenage girls, two adult men, three federal agents, one dog, one cat, and three ducklings who aren’t so tiny anymore.

“Hey,” she says, as they walk out the door into the cool morning air. The sun has yet to rise fully - the house is bathed in eery blue light.

“Hm?” Toni says, one knee on the ground, tightening her shoelaces.

“I have something to ask you.”

Her tone must freak Toni out a little bit, because when she looks up, there’s apprehension in her eyes. “What’s up?”

Shelby straightens her shoulders, and takes a deep breath. “Toni, will you go on a date with me? Tomorrow evening?”

Toni’s mouth opens, and nothing comes out. She’s staring at Shelby so intently, Shelby starts feeling self-conscious. “Oh,” Toni says, at last, and it’s not really a word, more like a sigh, a breath. She stands up and smiles, toothily, happily. Shelby’s sure, in this moment, that she would do anything, anything at all, for Toni to keep smiling at her like that. ”Yeah. Yeah, of course.”

“Okay.” Shelby smiles too ; she can’t help it. Her heart feels like a soft little animal in her chest, purring, content. “Okay,” she repeats. “Is 7 P.M. alright?”

Toni pretends to check an invisible cell phone. “Let me take a look at my Google Calendar… Yep, schedule’s all clear.”

“You’re such a dork,” Shelby comments, her tone fond.

Toni’s grin widens. “What do you have planned?”

“You’ll see,” Shelby replies coyly. And then, to avoid any further questioning, she starts running down their usual path.

She’s still smiling when she gets into the shower, forty minutes later. She did it. She finally did it. Ever since their conversation by the clothesline, she knew she wanted to officially ask Toni out, and do something special for her. But she also wanted to wait for the right time. For the tension to truly dissolve. For the two of them to reconnect, without pressure. So, for the past month and a half, they’ve been hanging out, casually. Talking at breakfast. Doing their school readings together on the couch, Toni’s feet on Shelby’s lap. Playing video games. Cooking together. And all the while, Shelby’s been mulling over what to do.

It’s not easy to plan a date in the middle of nowhere. There’s none of the things Shelby’s used to: no bowling alley, no diner, no mall, no movie theater. She can’t pick Toni up, since they literally live together, and aren’t allowed to leave. But it’s kind of thrilling, in a sense - there is no script to follow.

The next day, at 7 P.M. sharp, Shelby’s waiting for Toni by the front door, in the lobby. There’s a large, heavy basket under her arm. It’s the first week of May, and the weather is blessedly warm, so she’s wearing a sundress, blue with yellow and white flowers sewn around the waist. She wasn’t sure she’d be into wearing dresses ever again, but when she tried this one on, and looked at herself in the mirror, with her short blond hair, her skin no longer perfectly tanned and shaved, her face bare of makeup - it felt right. Fatin told her she looked like a gay Disney bitch, whatever that means. Shelby thinks it’s probably a compliment.

Five minutes later, Toni rushes down the stairs. “Hey, sorry I’m late. Marty and Leah kept trying to put eyeliner on me. I had to fight for my fucking life just to escape from the bathroom.”

Shelby smiles. “Aww, they were helping you get ready? That’s sweet.”

“More like super annoying,” Toni groans. As she reaches the door, she seems to take in the sight of Shelby ; her eyes follow Shelby’s figure, in a slow up-and-down motion that she can’t quite hide. “You look beautiful,” she says.

Shelby’s cheeks heat up. It’s not like she isn’t used to the compliment - she made a hobby out of beauty, after all. Hell, it’s not even the first time she’s heard it from Toni. But it means more, here and now, when she finally feels like she’s found herself, like she isn’t playing a role anymore, performing for an audience. There is no one watching her - except Toni. And she very much wants Toni to watch her. “Thanks,” she manages. Her voice sounds husky, which makes her blush even harder. “You’re beautiful too.”

Toni looks down at herself. She’s in shorts and a simple t-shirt, her hair up in a ponytail. “I mean, I don’t have that many clothes, so I can’t really, uh, dress up, but…”

“You look like yourself,” Shelby interrupts her, firmly. She takes Toni’s hand in hers, lacing their fingers together. “Nothing more beautiful than that.”

Toni squeezes her hand in response. Excitement and longing bubble in Shelby’s chest like fizzy water. “So, where are you taking me?” Toni asks, raising an eyebrow. “Any fun restaurants in the neighborhood? Ooh, are we going to a club?”

Shelby snorts. “Sure, if you don’t mind the DJ being a goat.” It’s a dumb joke, but it makes Toni laugh, and for a moment Shelby loses herself to the sight, captivated by the way Toni’s face transforms when she laughs - the crinkled lines at the corner of her mouth, the light in her eyes. “Alright, you ready?”

“Not so fast, girls!” Marco calls out, popping up from the living-room and sidling behind Toni. “I expect you to bring her back before curfew,” he tells Shelby, sternly. The effect is ruined by the fact that he very obviously has to bite the inside of his cheeks to stop himself from laughing.

Shelby puts on her most innocent face. “Yes, sir.”

“Shut up, both of you,” Toni groans, rolling her eyes.

Marco chuckles, and pats her on the shoulder. “Have fun, kids.”

Shelby opens the door, and they both make their way out into the yard. The night has started to fall, but it isn’t too dark yet that they can’t see where they’re going.

“Who’s babysitting the ducklings?” Shelby asks, as they walk together towards the field where the horses graze during the day.

“Rachel.”

Shelby raises an eyebrow. “Interesting choice. What did you have to promise her in exchange?” It’s not that Rachel dislikes the birds, but she’s by far, of all of them, the least enamoured with Toni’s proteges.

“She volunteered, shockingly,” Toni reveals. She frowns. “Actually, now that I think about it, everyone’s been strangely helpful, don’t you think? And not one of them came downstairs to make fun of us?” She looks around, suspiciously. “Do you think they planned a prank or something?”

Shelby laughs. “Actually, no, quite the opposite. I asked Dot to keep the others from fucking with us. My guess is, she gave everyone a lil speech, and scared them into behavin’.”

“Wow. Her power.” Toni whistles. “We should probably get her a thank-you card or something.”

“Probably,” Shelby agrees. She meets Toni’s eyes, and they smile at each other, casual, carefree. It’s so easy, Shelby thinks to herself, with a sort of astounded joy, to just be, when she's around Toni. As if reading her thoughts, Toni’s fingers tighten around her hand.

“I’m excited to spend the evening just with you,” Toni murmurs.

Shelby hums, not trusting herself to speak. Emotion is threatening to spill from her, which is ridiculous, because the date hasn’t even started for real. And yet, here she is, overflowing with affection for the girl at her side. Instead, she focuses on leading Toni to the spot she chose, at the edge of the field, far away enough so that they’re hidden from the house, but still inside the perimeter.

Here, she finds everything as she left it earlier in the day: the blanket, weighted down with polished stones on each corner, piled with cushions she stole from the common room sofas. Lanterns placed all around give off a soft orange light. She turns on the old CD player that Marco agreed to lend her for the night, and music starts playing - a slow blues melody, the singer’s voice warm and bright.

“You did all this?” Toni asks, wide-eyed.

“Yeah.” Shelby fights against sudden nervousness. “I mean, I know it’s not much, but we don’t have a lot of options out here, so I figured, a picnic could be kind of romantic?” She puts the basket down, in the center of the blanket, and reveals its content: food, plates, cutlery, and two bottles of iced lemonade. “I made the food myself, so don’t expect anything crazy,” she warns, self-conscious.

Toni hasn’t moved. “Shelby,” she starts, and swallows, and all of a sudden Shelby realizes there are tears in Toni’s eyes. Her stomach drops. She scrambles to her feet, rushes to Toni.

“Hey, hey, what’s wrong, what did I say? Toni, I’m sorry --”

“No,” Toni cuts in, voice rough, “no, you didn’t do anything wrong, you…” She inhales, shakily. “I just didn’t expect… I don’t know, all of this. You went through so much effort for me. Everything is so beautiful. And it’s for me, and I--” She sniffles, and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, but when she looks at Shelby again, she’s smiling. “Thanks.”

“Of course,” Shelby replies, softly. She smiles, and grabs Toni’s hand once more. “I’m glad you like it.”

“I do,” Toni says, in a small voice. She clears her throat. “I’m starving.”

They sit down, and eat dinner. When they’re done with the meal, they push everything aside, and lie down on the blanket, side by side, gazing at the night sky above them.

“Can I interest you in an icebreaker?” Shelby says, in an exaggerated version of her own Texan accent.

Toni bursts out laughing. “Sure. Why the fuck not.”

“I thought we could play twenty questions, or something. I know it’s lame, but… on the island there’s so much we didn’t talk about and I’m curious, you know? I’m curious about you,” Shelby says, softly.

“Go for it.”

So they ask each other things. Mundane, banal things. They don’t talk about survival, about the twisted social experiment they went through, about all the sad and painful things of their pasts. Instead they compare favorite movies, and argue over TV shows, and discover that they both love Taylor Swift. Toni tells her about basketball, her favorite players and the games she’s watched on Martha’s tiny television. Shelby talks about joining the drama club and finding solace in acting. Eventually, they broach the topic of previous relationships.

“Regan was… A good person. She took care of me, even when I didn’t really deserve it. She really was amazing.” Toni winces. “Sorry, maybe I shouldn’t praise my ex in front of you.”

But Shelby shakes her head. “I don’t mind. I’m glad you had someone like her in your life.”

“What about, uh, Andrew?” Toni asks. “Was there anything good about him at all, or was he just a dick?”

“Nothing good,” Shelby says. “We weren’t even friends.” She broke up with Andrew in August - more for her own sake than his, since he had clearly deemed her prolonged absence over the summer permission enough to openly fool around with Christa Findlay.

“I’m sorry, that must have sucked.”

“It’s okay. I have you now, so I’d say I’m pretty lucky.” She rolls to her side, and Toni does the same. Their faces are so close, Shelby can count each individual eyelash resting against Toni’s smooth cheekbones. Toni licks her lips. She swallows, and Shelby follows the small movement of her throat, before finding Toni’s gaze again. Oh, she could look at her forever, lying down under the moonlight. She could lose herself in the freckled brown of Toni’s eyes, in the perfect bow of her mouth, the dimple on her chin.

“I love you.” Shelby lifts a hand, cups Toni’s face, gently tucks an errand strand of hair behind her ear. “I love you so much. I never stopped loving you.”

“I love you too,” Toni whispers between their mouths.

And then Toni kisses her, and Shelby, tasting lemonade on her tongue, breathes her in like someone takes their first gulp of oxygen after almost drowning: desperately, passionately. Her hands slip underneath Toni’s shirt, exploring warm skin. Toni’s fingers trail up her bare thigh, past the hem of her sundress. They don’t stop kissing, their bodies so close that Shelby forgets where she ends and Toni begins.

Above them, the stars shine.

 

3-

After two months on a deserted island, and eight here, in the countryside, Martha does not miss social media nearly as much as some of her friends do. Sure, she, too, used to enjoy scrolling down Instagram, scrutinizing with a mix of admiration and envy the life of other girls - girls who were prettier, thinner, richer than her. Of course, she had fun watching funny TikToks, laughing at dumb memes with Toni, or reading witty back-and-forth exchanges on Twitter. But all in all, the absence of it doesn’t make her all that unhappy.

In fact, the truth - and she knows she sounds just like her mom - is that she might be happier without the constant flow of information, the never-ending petty fighting, the temptation to compare herself to everyone else. It’s a nice break.

That being said, right about now she would sell her soul if it meant she could take a picture of Toni and post it on Instagram. She bets queer girls worldwide would thank her for the image: Toni, with her brown hair down and elegantly windswept, wearing a wide-brimmed felt hat she borrowed from Joey, and a red flannel shirt rolled-up at the sleeves, sitting comfortably on top of a grey horse, green hills and an empty blue sky stretching in the background. Although what really makes the sight picture-worthy, in Martha’s opinion, are the three small yellow duckling heads sticking out from the saddlebag.

“What’s the holdup?” Toni yells, impatient, her hands on the reins. Not far ahead on the trail, Joey and the horse he’s riding today, a black and brown mare aptly named Cookie, have also stopped, waiting for Martha.

“Just enjoying the view!” Martha replies. Which is true, and also isn’t.

“Well, hurry up! We’re never going to make it up the hill and back before lunch at this pace!”

“Everythin’ alright back there?” Joey asks, his low voice carrying far.

Martha gives them both a thumbs-up. Toni grins, and taps her heel against the horse’s side, urging the animal forward. Martha’s hands tighten around the thick knotted leather of the reins. Her own horse, Holly, is a sweet mare, her coat light brown, with a darker mane. Martha carefully squeezes her legs, and Holly responds to the cue, starts walking again down the path.

When Joey offered to take a pair of girls on a horseback hike just outside of the property - an outing he somehow managed to negotiate with Agent Clipper - Toni volunteered Martha and herself before anyone else had time to say a single word. They were both taught how to ride in middle school by Martha’s aunt, who owns a couple of horses, and they used to do it all the time, until Toni started playing for the high school basketball team. Martha went a couple of times on her own, to say hi to the horses, but it wasn’t half as fun without Toni.

So, of course, Martha agreed without a second thought. But now she feels awkward, and unsure, afraid of hurting the horse underneath her, hands too light on the reins.

(Afraid, terribly afraid, of falling, and hurting herself again.)

The three of them make it up one of the hills half an hour later. It’s still mid-morning and the sun is hiding behind a few low clouds, but the back of Martha’s shirt is drenched with sweat. Joey hops down, agile despite his limp, and Toni and Martha do the same. They remove their helmets, drink some water, and let the horses rest, enjoying the quiet, and the view.

“This is one of my favorite spots,” Joey tells them. “Whenever I need to be by myself, and the weather isn’t too bad, I go up here. Space helps me think.”

“It’s beautiful,” Martha agrees.

“Yeah,” Toni says, distractedly. The ducklings are peeping from the saddlebag, demanding her attention. She goes to feed them, sitting cross-legged in the damp grass, pouring water in her palm so they may drink.

Joey and Martha watch her from afar. “Gotta tell ya, I did not see that coming,” Joey confides, with a smile.

“What? That Toni would become the adoptive mom of three baby ducks?” Martha snorts. “Yeah, none of us did.”

“Out of all you girls, I thought you’d be the one to adopt some of our furry or feathered friends.”

Martha blinks. “Me? Why?”

“You have a way with animals. Saw that from the start. Have you thought about working with them in the future?”

“I’m - I love them, it’s true --” Martha stammers, surprised by the question.

“But?”

“When I was little, I wanted to become a veterinarian, but now... it’s complicated.”

Joey hums. “Well, I'm not here to tell you what to do, but I can see you love animals, and you’re good with them. Lots of interesting jobs in that field. Though, of course you don’t gotta make everything you love into a career.” He smiles at her, kindly. “And there’s no rush. You got plenty of time to figure it out.”

He goes to check on the horses, and Martha stands still, alone, on the hilltop. From up here, she can see the house, far away, and the road, dense woods spreading on either side. A hawk glides high above, in wide circles. She wonders if it has found a prey.

Predator. Prey. She remembers the goat, on the island - blood on her hands. The taste of meat, tangy and rich, on her tongue, and how she had to work past her nausea to swallow. Predator or prey. Fear in her belly, paralyzing. Anger burning underneath her skin, dangerous. What if Martha doesn’t want to be either?

“Hey,” Toni says, softly. Martha, lost in thoughts, didn’t hear her approach. “You good, Marty?”

“Do you know what you’re going to do after?” Martha asks, instead of answering. “Like, what kind of job?”

“Not really.” Toni shrugs. “But we’ve got time, right? We haven’t even started college.” She throws an arm around Martha’s shoulders, familiar, comforting. “Maybe I’ll try basketball again. Or maybe I’ll become a nurse, or a fucking astronaut. Who the fuck knows?”

“I think,” Martha starts, and pauses, wetting her lips, “I think that maybe I want to do something to help make sure what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else.” Toni’s arm tightens. “But I’m not really sure how to do that just yet.”

Toni moves so she’s facing her. She puts her hands on Martha’s cheeks. “I’m so fucking proud of you. You know that, right?” Martha nods. “Whatever you end up doing, whatever you want, I’ll help you. I’ll be there every step of the way. I know you’re gonna do great things out there, Marty.”

Before she can add anything else, Joey calls out: “Time to get back, girls!”

Martha glances at the horses. “I’m scared of falling,” she confesses, in a small voice, and she’s not really talking about horse riding.

But Toni shakes her head. “Nah, you’ll be alright.” And Toni’s absolute confidence in her must be infectious, because Martha gets back on her horse, filled with newfound determination, even if she doesn’t quite believe her.

That night, exhausted from the hike, she falls asleep earlier than usual, and then she wakes up, all at once, in the middle of the night. There’s light coming from Dot’s side of the room - too feeble to be her bedside lamp. Martha rolls to her side, and finds Dot sitting in bed, holding a flashlight, staring at the wall.

“Dot? Are you okay?” she whispers.

“Shit,” Dot startles. “Did I wake you up? My bad.”

“No worries.” Martha sits up, blinking the sleep from her eyes, gazing at Dot with concern. “Are you okay?” she repeats, because this is very out of the ordinary. Dot usually sleeps like a log. And she definitely doesn’t stare at walls.

Dot sighs. Her shoulders sag. “Couldn’t sleep. I’m just, I don’t know, too anxious? Too sad? Not sure why, but, yeah.”

Martha stretches, and checks the alarm clock on her bedside table. It’s just past one in the morning. “Wanna go downstairs? Make some tea, eat a snack? There’s leftover rhubarb pie.”

Dot hesitates for just a handful of seconds, before shrugging. “Yeah, what the hell.” She puts on the ugly furry slippers Fatin gave her, Martha wraps herself in a shawl, and the two of them pad silently down the stairs.

The kitchen welcomes them with its familiar smells. It dawns on Martha that this place has been their home for eight months now. Much longer than the island ever was. And part of her doesn’t want to leave. Part of her feels safe here, safer even that at her parents’ house. There is no risk of falling, in this big country house filled with people she trusts, no risk of getting hurt again. But she can’t stay, of course. She knows that.

Martha makes them chamomile tea, with a drop of honey, while Dot rummages through the fridge to find the promised pie. They grab a couple of spoons, and sit side by side on the bench, eating directly from the Tupperware. Martha’s mom would have an aneurysm if she could see her right now.

Neither of them talk much - Martha can tell Dot is anxious. But they sit close to each other, and sip their hot drink, and eat sweet mouthfuls of rhubarb pie ; their shoulders brush against each other, and Martha rubs light circles on the small of Dot’s back, and eventually it’s enough to quieten the tense energy of Dot.

When they’re done, they leave their spoons and mugs in the sink, and climb back upstairs, ready to finish their night. Except their bedroom is no longer empty.

“What the fuck,” Dot mumbles, when they open the door.

Martha blinks, just as confused. Toni and Shelby lie in her bed, under the blanket, fast asleep, Shelby’s head burrowed in the crook of Toni’s neck, Toni’s nose in her hair.

“When did they even get here?” Dot asks, incredulous, and almost impressed. “We were gone for less than an hour!”

Martha tugs her back, and gently closes the door. “Let’s not wake them up,” she says quietly. “I can take Toni’s bed, and you can sleep in Shelby’s.”

They walk down the hallway to the second bedroom, and carefully open the door.

“Oh, you gotta be kidding me.” Dot shakes her head at the sight in front of their eyes. The light is on. Leah is sitting on Shelby’s bed, wrapped in Shelby’s comforter. Fatin is in her own bed, and they both look up at Dot and Martha in surprise. Martha waves, awkwardly.

“Rude, much? You really should knock, Dorothy, you could have interrupted something spicy,” Fatin complains.

“Right,” Leah says, drily, “cause there’s nothing spicier than debating early 2010’s fashion trends with your girlfriend in the middle of the night.”

“Fashion?” Dot repeats, doubtful, closing the door behind them.

“Girlfriend?” Martha squeals, immediately interested. “I knew you guys were, like, together, but I didn’t know it was girlfriend official!”

“I didn’t know either,” Fatin says, staring at Leah with the widest smile Martha’s ever seen.

Leah blushes bright red. “Well, I.. Are we not?”

“Hey, Dorothy,” Fatin calls, loudly, “can you believe I have a girlfriend?”

“Oh my God, this is so exciting!” Martha exclaims. She clasps her hands together, and turns her attention to Leah. “I’m so happy for you.”

The door bangs open. “Can you guys keep it the fuck down?” someone yells, as the four of them all jump and let out surprised screams.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Rachel, what is wrong with you,” Dot grumbles. She lets go of Fatin’s arm, which she instinctively grabbed at the sudden intrusion. Fatin doesn’t let go of hers. Martha, who reflexively hid behind the wardrobe, starts giggling despite herself at the absurdity of the situation.

“Once again,” Fatin says, glaring at Rachel, “for the love of God, you guys need to fucking knock. What if I was in the middle of going down on Leah, hm?”

“With Martha and Dot watching?” Leah points out, one eyebrow raised. “Didn’t know you were into that.” Fatin winks, and opens her mouth.

“Not another word,” Rachel cuts off, her arms crossed against her chest, standing in the middle of the doorway with a look that says you may be my friends but I will not hesitate to murder you.

“Anyway, what’s your take on romper suits, Rach’?” Fatin asks her, unbothered.

“On what?”

“A romper suit,” says Nora, appearing behind Rachel as silent as a ghost and provoking another round of startled yelps, “is a one-piece or two-piece combination of shorts and a shirt, dating, in the US, from the early 1900s, and very popular in the 2010’s.”

“Thanks for the heart attack, Nora,” Martha says, with a hand on her chest. Leah pats the empty spot next to her. Martha gratefully accepts the invitation, and climbs onto Shelby’s bed. “Can we go back to the girlfriend conversation?”

“What girlfriend conversation?” Rachel asks, resigned, as she hops on beside Martha, and tugs until Leah shares the comforter.

“There is no girlfriend conversation,” Leah replies, weakly.

“What about the O.G. girlfriends?” Fatin offers, cleverly changing the subject. “Toni and Shelby. Let’s discuss them.”

The door opens once more, revealing Toni and Shelby in pajamas. “Yo, you guys talking about us?” Toni mumbles, grumpy as she always is when woken up too early.

“Yes,” says Nora.

“No,” says Dot, firmly.

“Are y’all having a sleepover?” Shelby asks, with way too much enthusiasm for the middle of the night.

“Yeah, wanna join us?” Martha signals the two of them to come in, and so they comply, Toni with an eye roll, Shelby with a bright smile. Warmth floods Martha’s chest, because these are her friends, her people, these seven girls who couldn’t be more different, and yet love each other so fucking much.

They keep chatting until they pass out late in the night, falling asleep one by one, four warm bodies per bed, and Martha, as her eyelids drop, as her breathing slows, is struck by the dazed realization that friendship like the one they share is akin to a safety net.

It doesn’t matter if she falls. They’ll catch her.

 

4-

Nora looks at herself in the tall mirror of the bathroom. It’s a slow and methodical act, a scientist meticulously, impartially observing data. She starts with the shoes - a new pair that still hurts her toes a little bit - and goes up, cataloguing every detail of her appearance. Her shins, bare and brown, sporting a few faint scratches she got from exploring a thick patch of bramble in the woods two days ago. Then the gown, dark blue, falling to her knees. A simple skirt and blouse underneath. The sash around her neck - red and grey, the colors of her high school in New York. Her head, at last: her eyes, her nose piercing, her dark hair, artfully curled, and the traditional cap on top, with the golden tassel.

When she blinks, instead of the image in the mirror, she sees a different person, as if superimposed: dirty, salt-stained sneakers, pants covered in sand, a long-sleeved shirt, her hair a mess, her skin sun-burnt and peeling. She blinks again. Back to the present. Back to the gown and cap.

The Nora of the island isn’t gone. She’s here, living under her skin, scared and guilty, but also brave and strong, and it dawns on Nora, with a curious sort of certainty, that she'll always be the sum of all the girls she’s been. The Nora who, at six years old, already knew how to read fluently. The Nora who got braces in middle school and had to hide in the library during lunch hour. The Nora she was with Quinn. When she walks across the stage today, she will carry all of them within her. Within this new Nora, who is turning eighteen in six months, headed for college in four, and going to therapy every week. Who almost lost her sister, but didn’t. Who found friends in the most unexpected place. This new Nora, who is graduating high school today.

None of them really expected a graduation ceremony, given their less-than-ordinary senior year, but Joey and Marco surprised them with as close to the real thing as possible: they built an actual tiny platform in front of the house, ordered eight sets of gowns and caps, had the high schools send in their diplomas. They even promised a party - a prom, if you will - and it’s all very sweet.

One by one, they rise up when their name is called, and walk up the makeshift stage while everyone claps and cheers, to receive their diploma from Agent Clipper, whom Leah somehow convinced to play the part of the Dean - a surprising development that had all of them dying of laughter when they were told - and flowers from Joana. Agent Boone, in the back, is filming the whole thing for their families, and maybe tearing up a little. Hard to tell behind the dark sunglasses.

As soon as Toni, the last one, is back in her seat, clutching the rolled paper in her hand, the girls start chanting Nora’s name excitedly. Nora stands up, nervous. As their unofficial valedictorian, she agreed to give the closing speech. She makes her way to the stage once more, and faces her friends, and one errand duckling waddling between the seats.

“I’m not a great public speaker,” she says. “But there is something I’d like to read to all of you. It’s part of my college essay. Which, I realize, sounds a little narcissistic, but I didn’t write it just about me. I wrote it about the eight of us.” She clears her throat. “It’s called All we’ve got is each other.” And she starts reading.

After the ceremony, they all change out of their gowns, and while the other girls reconvene towards the living-room to set up the party, Nora sneaks outside, just for a minute. She sits on one of the lawn chairs by the pond. It’s quiet, at this hour. The sun is already low in the sky.

“Good speech.”

Nora startles, surprised, as Leah plops down in the chair next to her. “Thanks?” Nora replies. It sounds like a question.

“I’m serious. I like your writing style. It’s”- Leah pauses, searching for the right words -” perceptive, and blunt, but not cruel.”

Nora leans back against the chair, gazing at the willow tree, the pond, the reeds. The compliment is kind, and sincere, but there’s something bittersweet about it too. “We could have been great friends, you know,” she murmurs, not looking at Leah. She hears a sharp intake of breath.

“We are friends,” Leah protests.

Nora sighs. “No, Leah, I don’t think we are,” she counters softly. It doesn’t hurt, not as much as it used to - she’s made her peace with it - but it aches, a faint discomfort in the pit of her stomach.

Leah stays silent for a moment. “I’m sorry. Everyone’s moving on, and I just - I feel stuck. I want to forgive you, I do, but --”

“It’s okay,” Nora cuts her off. She turns, and catches Leah’s eyes. “Really, it’s okay. I get why it’s harder for you. It was - personal, between us. So I get it. Whenever you’re ready. And maybe, one day, we can try to be friends for real.”

“I’d like that,” Leah breathes out. “Thanks.”

Nora stands up from the chair, extends a hand. “Come on. We should get back, the party’s about to start. I’m sure your date is eager to see you.”

Leah smiles, hesitant, and accepts the help. But she doesn’t let go of Nora’s wrist once she’s up. “Just so we’re clear,” she says, in that intent, hoarse voice of hers, “I do care about you.”

Nora grins. Sometimes Leah is surprisingly earnest. “I care about you too.” She cocks her head. “Can I ask for a graduation hug?”

She barely has time to finish her sentence before Leah is embracing her. Nora wraps her arms around Leah’s back, gingerly. She remembers tackling Leah down on the beach, pinning her wrist to coarse wet sand. She remembers her hand on Leah’s cheek, guiding her back to camp through the dark jungle. She remembers how furious she was when Leah ran into the ocean and Rachel risked her life to save her. She remembers leading Leah to the pit, the sound it made when Leah fell, the screaming that echoed behind her as Nora left her there.

And now she’s hugging Leah, and Leah is hugging back, and they’re not friends, not quite, not yet, but they’ve come a long way. Small victories are still worth celebrating.

The party is fun. There’s music and dancing and a whole lot of laughter. Fatin attempts to teach them TikTok dances, with results that range from tragic to disastrous. Giving in to pressure, Joey and Marco bring out the karaoke machine, which leads to loud and discordant renditions of various pop songs. The agents stay out of their way, and for one night, Nora can almost make herself believe she’s just a normal teenager, having fun with her closest friends after graduation.

A little after midnight, Joey and Marco go to bed, and Shelby and Dot volunteer to clean up. Toni and Martha are giggling in a corner trying to put tiny party hats on less than cooperative ducklings, and Fatin and Leah are nowhere to be seen, so Rachel and Nora exchange a look, and make their way upstairs, just the two of them, and into the bedroom they’ve been sharing for months. They don’t need to say anything. The moment finally feels right. They both sit on the carpeted floor, facing each other. Perfect mirrors of each other.

(Their bodies are no longer symmetrical images. But their hearts, Nora senses, for the first time in a long while beat at the same pace.)

“So,” Rachel says, “how does it feel to graduate high school?”

Nora shrugs. “Not as dramatic as I thought it would be.”

“To be fair, we’ve had our fair share of drama this year,” Rachel jokes. “Hard to compete.”

“True. It was an eventful year.” A pause. Nora remembers watching her sister diving, how she’d throw herself off the edge, head first, never fearing the fall. Maybe it’s time for Nora to jump too. “Rach’, I wanted to say again --”

But Rachel interrupts her. “I forgive you.”

Nora blinks. The three words hit her like a wave slams into you, destabilizing, washing away all pretense. “You do?” she asks, carefully.

“Yeah.” Rachel links her hands atop her lap, flesh and plastic fingers intertwined. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m still angry. And sad. And I’ll probably struggle with what you did, and why you did it, for a very long time.” She’s looking at Nora, light brown eyes trained on Nora’s face, familiar and foreign all at once. “But I know you were always looking out for me, Nor’. Whatever mistakes you made, you were trying to save me from myself, and that has to count for something. So I forgive you. You’re forgiven. I don’t want this hanging over your head anymore.”

“I’m the reason you got hurt,” Nora whispers, deep-seated regret coloring her voice.

“But you’re also the reason I’m still alive.” Rachel swallows. “For eighteen years, you’ve taken care of me. And I… I haven’t done the same. I wasn’t even there for you when you lost someone you loved. This thing, where you do everything with me in mind, and I don’t think about you enough...” She shakes her head - and there’s a hint of the old Rachel in her, suddenly, that willful determination Nora knows so well. “It’s gotta stop, now, for good. It’s gotta change. We both have to change the way we do shit, the way we think about us.”

Yes, that’s her sister - that fire in the eyes, that unshakable conviction in her voice. Nora isn’t the only one coexisting with past versions of herself. Maybe they’re all juggling with who they were, who they are, who they want to be. Maybe growing up doesn’t end with graduation - maybe it never does.

“You’re right,” Nora says, voice hoarse from emotion. “But I think we both already have changed a lot. Just the fact that we’re finally having this conversation is a pretty good indicator. And”- she tries to smile, and it comes out a little wobbly, but Rachel smiles back, automatically -”things will continue to change, and us with it. Next year we’re going to be separated for the first time ever. We’ll be in college, living brand new lives. We’ll have to figure out how to be sisters from afar.”

“We’ll make it work,” Rachel states. Nora is struck by the confidence of her tone. “We’ve gone through way too much shit for this to be a problem.”

“I hope so. I’m - I know a bit of distance will be good for us, but... I guess I’m a little scared that you’ll forget about me. You’ll have Leah, at UCLA, and you’ll make other friends, and… I don’t know, it’s just… maybe we won’t talk that often, or we won’t be that close, and what if you don’t miss me, and...” She stops her rambling, self-conscious. “Is that stupid?”

“No,” Rachel replies, softly. And then she frowns. “Actually, yeah, it is stupid, Nor’. What the hell are you talking about? I’m not going to forget about you. Believe me, you’ll hear from me every time Leah drives me up the wall, whether you want it or not. Of course I’ll miss you, dumbass.”

It’s a rebuke, but a soft one, born of concern rather than anger or impatience. Relief washes over Nora instantly. “I love you,” she says, simply.

“I love you too. I want you in my life, alright? Always.” There’s an openness in Rachel, something new and vulnerable and honest that prompts Nora to shuffle, on her knees, across the carpet, until she’s seated next to her. Rachel’s hand fits in hers like it always has. Nora rests her head on Rachel’s shoulder.

“We’ll make it work,” she affirms, repeating her sister’s words. She sounds, to her surprise, just as confident as Rachel.

 

5-

Transcripts of video and audio footage, property of the Dawn of Eve program, by Susan Huang.

[...]
Day 30, 10:15, camera Jungle-12-B.

[Rachel is lying on her back on a bed of palm leaves. There is a jacket covering her legs. Her amputated arm is heavily bandaged, in a sling. Dorothy is sitting a few feet away from her, watching the fire. For comparative footage of the rest of the subjects, check cameras Jungle-34-A, Waterfall-03-C, and Beach-45-A.]

Rachel: She’s not dead.

Dorothy: [sigh] Rachel, look, I... I get it. [pause] When my dad died, I had a hard time, just… coming to terms with it, I guess. And I’m so fucking sorry, I can’t imagine... but you gotta accept the truth. She’s gone.

Rachel: [groan of pain, she sits up] I’m not in fucking denial, Dot. She’s my twin sister. I would know if she was dead, okay? Leah said --

Dorothy: [interrupting] Leah says a lot of shit. Doesn’t make it true.

Rachel: [louder] She’s not dead! [forehead against her raised knees, arms around her legs, muffled] She’s not dead. You’re not dead. You’re not dead.

[...]
Day 41, 18:20, camera Beach-44-B

[Shelby and Toni enter the frame, holding hands. They are walking along the shore. For comparative footage of the rest of the subjects, check cameras Jungle-12-A and B.]

Shelby: We should get back soon. It’s getting dark. I don’t want Dottie to worry.

Toni: Yeah, I know. It won’t take long. I, uh, I wanted to tell you something, and I kinda needed some privacy.

Shelby: What is it? [stammering] Is.. is it… am I… is it about the… are you regretting that we told the girls yesterday? I thought...

Toni: [laughing] Nah. I’m so fucking glad we finally spilled the beans, I hated keeping it a secret from Marty. It’s about, um, fuck. [stops walking, faces Shelby] Shelby, I know we haven’t known each other all that long, but, shit, time doesn’t mean much in this hell hole, so I’m just gonna say how I feel. And you don’t have to say it back, I just need you to know, in case anything happens. [inhales, exhales] I love you.

Shelby: Oh, Toni... [kisses her] God, I [inaudible] [ kisses her again] I love you too. I love you too.

[...]
Day 59, 11:05, camera Waterfall-03-C.

[Leah and Fatin enter the frame. They are carrying a large suitcase tied on a branch. Inaudible dialogue, laughter, while they stay close to the bank, filling the suitcase with water. They stand up, put the suitcase on the ground, walk closer to the camera. For comparative footage of the rest of the subjects, check cameras Jungle-12-A and Jungle-34-A.]

Fatin: [inaudible] just saying, it’s the third time you switch with someone to be on water duty with me.

Leah: Yeah, so what? I just like getting away from everyone, that’s all. It’s quiet here.

Fatin: [smiling] You wanna get away from everyone… but not me?

Leah: [pause] No. Not you. [looks down, fidgets] You’re the only one who doesn’t think I’m crazy. You’re the only one who listens, and, like, cares, Fatin. You’re my… you’re my person, here, you know? [hides face in both hands] Ugh, sorry, this is so corny. Forget it.

Fatin: Hey. [grabs Leah’s hands, pushes them away, holds Leah’s face in both her hands] You’re my person too.

Leah: [smiling] I am?

Fatin: Leah… [gets closer, hands fall on Leah’s neck, pauses, then tries to kiss her]

Leah: [jerks away] Wait, I… fuck. I can’t. I can’t do this, I’m sorry.

[...]
Day 61, 14:38, camera Cliff-06-D.

[A goat runs into frame, followed by Martha alone, haggard, covered in scrapes and scratches, some of them visibly bleeding. She throws a rock, which does not hit the goat. The goat starts hopping down the cliff face. For comparative footage of the rest of the subjects, check cameras Jungle-12-A and Jungle-34-A.]

Martha: [Inaudible] make me [inaudible] stop!

Martha: [approaches the cliff edge, hesitates, picks up another rock] I’m sorry, but I need to do this [throws the rock, it misses again]

[The goat startles and moves further down the cliff side. Martha waits for ten seconds, then starts climbing down as well. She loses her footing, and falls.]

Martha: [screaming]

Chapter Text

1- June 6

Rachel wakes up with a stomach ache.

She opens her eyes, rolls onto her back, and winces, both at the uncomfortable burn in her guts, and at the familiarity of it. She used to get stomach aches the evening before a diving competition. Especially after Coach tried to cut her off the team, when the pressure to prove herself was highest, and utterly inescapable - as if she’d swallowed a ballast of lead, and it had sunk to the bottom of her stomach where it remained, weighing her down. No matter her efforts, she never succeeded in expelling this pressure out of her body - though God knows she tried, in the bleached bathroom by the lockers, kneeling on the cold white tiles, emptying herself of everything except that horrible, persistent, painful weight.

There has been no diving competitions in almost a year, though, no pressure, no stomach aches, so the disturbing sensation takes Rachel by surprise, until she remembers what day it is. June 6th. The first year anniversary of that fateful morning when she boarded a plane to Hawai’i. She recalls the silent, uncomfortable ride to the airport with her parents, dragging her suitcase, sulkily, in the long crowded hallway to the boarding gate, and snapping at Nora when she tried to chat ; she remembers sitting down in the private plane, in LAX, arms crossed against her chest, thinking what a waste of time, scowling as girls she had no intention to befriend slowly filled the cabin.

She had no idea. She had no idea these were the last few hours of her life. Her stomach churns.

“Rach’.”

Rachel turns her head towards the other bed at the sound of her sister’s voice. Nora is sitting very still, fully dressed, her chin resting on her raised knee. There’s a closed sketchbook by her side, on the bed cover - Rachel wonders if Nora was drawing her, but she decides against asking. If Nora wants to talk about it, she will do so in her own time.

“Morning, Nor’.”

“Are you okay?”

“Hm,” Rachel says, which is not really an answer, though Nora nods as if she understands. She probably does. Rachel clears her throat. “What about you? You good?”

Nora sighs, a long puff of air that disturbs the dark curly strands of hair framing her face. “I can’t believe it’s been a year,” she murmurs, “since the island. It feels like centuries ago.”

“Okay, dramatic,” Rachel groans, but Nora isn’t wrong. Her life before the island does seem remote, almost foreign, so completely divorced from her current reality she might as well be a different person altogether. “Gonna be a rough day,” she adds, gruffly. “For everyone.”

Nora nods once more, and then she unfurls from her crouched position, and offers a hand to Rachel, who takes it and lets herself be guided out of her bed.

Breakfast is a somber affair. There’s something dark and heavy in the air - Rachel sees it in everyone’s eyes, hears it in the unusual silence at the table - but she can’t place the energy ; it’s not anger, exactly, nor is it sadness, or fear. It’s only after she sits down, having made herself a bowl of oatmeal she has no real appetite for, looking around at the sullen, withdrawn faces of her friends, that it dawns on her.

It’s grief. On this one year anniversary, they are all mourning the lives they could have lived.

“Gonna make pancakes, I think,” Joey declares, too cheerfully, waving a kitchen towel at them. “Who wants some?”

Rachel shakes her head, poking a spoon into her half-congealed oatmeal. Dot sips her coffee, before she mumbles, vaguely apologetic, “None for me, thanks.” Leah doesn’t respond at all, staring at her buttered toast with vacant eyes.

“I’ll have pancakes, sure,” Shelby tries, valiantly, though she fails to sound genuinely enthusiastic. “Toni?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

Rachel looks up in shock. Toni refusing pancakes is about as likely as aliens showing up for breakfast. Martha, with a worried frown, stops peeling her orange, and turns towards her best friend. “Are you okay?”

“Obviously, she’s not,” Fatin snaps, impatient, across the table, before Toni can answer. “None of us are okay, Martha. What kind of useless question is that?”

“Hey, back the fuck off,” Toni snarls, slamming a hand on the table so hard coffee spills from her cup. Everyone freezes. Toni’s eyes widen. “Sorry,” she mutters. She looks down at her lap in shame. Dot, wordlessly, wipes the spillage with her napkin.

Silence stretches, a beat too long, and Rachel’s stomach turns even sourer. “Fucking hell,” she lets out, startling her friends. She pushes away the oatmeal. “Joey, can you give us a minute, please?” Joey places the kitchen towel on the counter by the sink, slowly, hesitating. Rachel meets his eyes. “We got this,” she adds, hoping he’ll understand that they need a moment, that they need to sort this out on their own.

He gives her a smile. “Sure. Alright. I’ll be in the living-room, call if you need help. Or a mediator. Or pancakes.” He limps out of the kitchen, closing the door behind himself, and now it’s only the eight of them, sitting around the table.

“Today is gonna suck,” Rachel starts, bluntly. “Let’s not make it even worse by being at each other’s throats the whole damn time.”

“I know,” Toni agrees, in a small voice. “Sorry, Fatin. I’m… I didn’t mean to react like that, I just feel so fucking on edge.”

“It’s cool.” Fatin sighs, and she glances at Martha, who’s chewing on her lip. “I’m sorry too, honey. Shouldn’t have lashed out at you.” Her hand is trembling where it lies by her empty plate, and Leah, without saying a word, grabs it, linking their fingers together, rubbing her thumb against Fatin’s knuckles.

Martha slings an arm around Toni’s waist. Shelby’s hand comes to rest on the back of Toni’s neck, fingers cupping her nape. “We got you, baby,” Shelby murmurs, and Toni’s skin darkens across her cheeks as tension visibly lifts from her shoulders.

“Disgusting,” Fatin says, with a playful smile. Toni rolls her eyes, but returns the smile, accepting the olive branch.

“Rachel’s right,” Dot says. Annoyingly, Rachel’s face heats up at the praise. Coming from Dot, who, though she’d never admit it to anyone, Rachel admires quite a bit, it means a lot. The discomfort in her belly quietens. “Let’s not lose our shit,” Dot continues. “We’ve come too far for that.”

“Hm,” Nora starts, and pauses, grimacing.

Rachel gives her an encouraging nod. “Go ahead, Nor’. What you got?”

“Remember in one of the early group therapy sessions –”

“I’m trying to forget those,” Leah interrupts. Rachel glares at her warningly, and she shuts up.

“- Joana said people can’t just guess the exact kind of help you need, and it’s good to learn how to ask for it?” Nora licks her lips. “I thought maybe we could go around and, uh, talk about what we need from each other today.”

No one says anything at first. Rachel’s throat feels tight, too tight to speak. Her prosthesis hangs, heavy, from her forearm. Her stomach still aches. She doesn’t know how to do this - asking for help - without feeling like a failure. Like a loser. Someone needy and weak - someone she doesn’t want to be ever again.

And then Leah bravely breaks the silence. “I need you all to give me some space. I know you guys still get a little scared when I, uh, isolate myself, and I appreciate the concern, but I need you to trust me, today.”

“We can do that,” Nora says, softly. She blinks when Leah meets her gaze, but does not avert her eyes. “We can trust you.”

“Thanks.”

Leah swallows, with some difficulty. Fatin kisses her on the cheek, and her mouth lingers there, against Leah’s skin, close to the corner of Leah’s lips.

Now who’s disgusting,” Toni mumbles, but there’s no edge to it.

Rachel tunes out the familiar banter, and looks out of the window instead, at the yard bathed in bright sunlight. It’s a hot day, already. The first hot day of summer - there’s no wind, and the heat feels heavy - the kind of day they’ll have to spend mostly indoors if they want to stay cool. Rachel remembers summer days in New York, when the humidity sticks to your skin and walking outside feels like wading into soup - everything hot and moist and unpleasant. Their dad used to take them to the public pool, on such hot summer days, when Nora and her were little, and they’d gladly exchange the warm air for warm water.

Rachel has not seen a pool in more than a year. Her nostrils fill with the familiar smell of chlorine and bleach. Her eyes sting with absent saltwater, remembering the last time she swam in the ocean, and her stump tingles, the ache intensifying deep in her belly. But she won’t be governed by the past. She looks outside, at the lawn, and the trees, and the reed-enclosed pond. It’s a hot day. The start of a new summer. And she misses the water.

“I want to swim,” Rachel blurts out, interrupting the chatter. Her friends stop talking, and she takes a breath, not quite willing to look at them. She feels Nora’s gaze on her, familiar like home. “I want to swim”, she repeats, “in the pond, before it gets too hot to be outside. But I…” She pauses. Martha takes her hand. Toni knocks her knee, encouraging. “I don’t think I can do it alone.”

“We’ll go with you, then,” Dot says, as if it’s as easy as that. Rachel’s eyes sting with a different kind of saltwater.

And it is as easy as that. All she needed to do was ask. They finish their breakfast hastily, put on their bathing suits, and go jump in the pond, all together, eagerly followed by Toni’s ducklings. It’s nothing like a pool, or the ocean: there’s a soft kind of silt at the bottom, under their feet, and it smells faintly, not unpleasantly, of rotting plant-matter, and though it’s a decently sized pond, it isn’t quite deep enough to dive. But they have fun nonetheless. And when, one by one, her friends leave to go dry under the sun, Rachel, surprising herself, isn’t afraid to stay.

Because for the first time in years, floating alone in the middle of the pond, cool water like a balm against her skin, she doesn’t feel weighed down by pressure. She feels light.

 

2- June 17

Martha adjusts her sunglasses, and takes a sip of iced lemonade, before carefully placing the tall glass back on its tray next to her head, and lying back down on her beach towel. “You were right,” she exhales, contentedly, “this is the life.”

“Told you,” Fatin replies. She’s lying next to Martha on a bright pink towel, wearing her pair of gigantic heart-shaped sunglasses. “Sometimes doing absolutely nothing is what it’s all about.”

On Martha’s other side, Shelby hums. “Do any of y’all need some more sunscreen?”

“Yes, please,” Nora pipes up, from her spot across the drinks’ tray. Martha watches as Shelby rolls to her side, handing Nora the sunscreen lotion they’re all sharing. Nora brought a sketchbook, but it lies, unopened, next to her towel.

The sun is warm on her skin, and the soft summer grass makes for a plush mattress. It’s a Sunday afternoon, the sky is blue and vast, and there is absolutely nothing to do but relax, so the four of them decided to go sunbathe outside. The air smells sweet, the scent of roses wafting over them. Martha’s mouth tastes like sugar and lemon.

Some distant noise has her lifting her head. Across the pond, on the courtyard of gravel by the house, Rachel and Toni are playing basketball. Or rather, competing to see who can shoot more balls from increasingly difficult angles. If Toni’s loud cheers and Rachel’s annoyed grunts are anything to go by, Toni must be winning. Martha smiles to herself. It’s good to see her best friend happy and carefree.

Fatin shifts to grab her glass of lemonade, and sighs. “Too bad we can’t have proper cocktails. I would kill for a margarita.”

“Yeah, same,” says Martha, who has never drank a margarita in her life. Or any cocktail for that matter.

“Aw, come on,” Shelby protests. She rolls to her stomach, leaning her chin onto her hands. “Don’t diss the lemonade, you’re gonna hurt my feelings. And we don’t need alcohol to have a good time!”

Fatin lowers her ridiculous sunglasses so she can give Shelby her most unimpressed stare. “Okay, first of all: lame. Second of all: that’s rich coming from the girl who downed half a bottle of vodka by herself on the island.”

“She wasn’t exactly having a good time, though, to be fair,” Nora argues, “so you’re proving her point.”

“Kind of the opposite, in fact,” Shelby agrees. “Don’t you remember my little episode with the scissors, Fatin, after I drank all that vodka? Not fun at all.” She speaks calmly, matter-of-factly, as if she’s reminding them of a benign incident, and not a scary, legit mental breakdown.

“Fine, fine, you’re right.” Fatin pouts. “Jeez, you guys are killing the vibe.”

“Just keepin’ it real,” Shelby retorts, cheekily, before she sits up. She stretches her arms above her head, her lips curving in an automatic smile as she watches Toni and Rachel play in the background, and then she looks around. “I don’t see Dottie and Leah anywhere. What are they up to?”

Nora takes a sip of lemonade, then points towards the barn with one thumb. “Learning how to ride a horse with Joey. He promised to give them lessons, remember?”

“Oh, that’s right. Dottie was so excited!”

“Leah, not so much,” Martha jokes.

“I’m sure Leah will do great, given how well she rides my –”

“Fatin!”

“What?” says Fatin, wearing a wide, self-satisfied smirk, to a blushing Shelby.

“You talk a lot about having sex with Leah for someone who’s never had sex with Leah,” Nora remarks, in her quiet yet devastatingly brutal way.

Fatin opens her mouth, closes it, opens it once more. A bee flies by them with buzzing expediency, tempted by the lemonade. Martha bites her tongue, trying her hardest not to laugh at Fatin’s dumbstruck expression.

“I think it’s sweet that you guys are waiting,” Shelby says. She pats Fatin’s shoulder.

Martha rolls on her back. “I wanna have sex,” she blurts out, and cringes, immediately, at the words that fell out of her mouth, at the horribly sincere tone of her voice. The others shift around her, presumably to stare at her in shock, but Martha stays very still, her eyes trained at the cloudless sky.

“Martha, angel, you’re going to college,” Fatin replies, after an excruciating pause, teasing but kind. “Do you know how easy it is to fuck college boys? If you wanna get some, you just gotta wait, like, two months, top, and they’ll fall right into your bed with their dicks out.”

Despite how vulnerable she feels at her involuntary admission, Martha can’t help chuckling at the image. Leave it to Fatin to be unflinchingly practical about the topic.

“It’s okay to want sex,” Shelby murmurs, to Martha’s right. “You’re not… there’s nothing wrong with that.”

“I know,” Martha says, because she does, she knows that. “It’s just – I’ve never”-- she takes a deep breath, swallows the doubt and the self-consciousness and the guilt -–”for the longest time, I just could not even think about it. Because of – because of what happened, I guess. Toni would make a joke, or people at school would gossip about who’s having sex with who, and I’d just – I’d smile and laugh with everyone else, but I used to just feel so detached. Like I couldn’t relate to any of it, and I didn’t want to.” Her speech is halting, the sentences beginning and stopping fitfully, like an old car whose engine only works in fits and starts, like a scared horse wavering before a jump. “I wanted love, but not sex.”

“And now, you feel different,” Nora says, halfway between a statement and a question.

“Yeah. Now I feel… I feel curious, I guess.”

“Curiosity is good,” Fatin says.

“And kinda scared.”

“What are you scared about?”

“That I won’t be good at it?” Martha lets out a small awkward laugh. Her cheeks burn. She shuts her eyes, tightly, fighting the inconvenient, sudden urge to cry. “That, I don’t know, I’m way too inexperienced and it’s embarrassing and I’ve never even had an orgasm, and maybe nobody will want me anyway because I’m, like, I’m not normal about it, and –”

Fatin grabs her hand. “Let me stop you right there, honey. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of slutting it up, it’s that there’s no such thing as normal when it comes to sex. Everyone’s got their own fears and their hang-ups and their weird shit.” A pause. Martha bites her lip. “Martha, open your eyes. Look at me.”

Fatin’s voice is very soft. Martha complies, blinking in the sunlight, and rolls around to meet Fatin’s gaze.

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, I promise you.”

“She’s right,” Nora adds. She shuffles upward, kneeling on her towel, and Martha turns to look at her too. “And you shouldn’t worry about being good or bad at sex. It’s like anything else - you have to be patient and learn what works for you. Nobody’s born a sex goddess.”

“Except me,” Fatin chirps.

Nora rolls her eyes. “Except Fatin.”

“And maybe Toni,” Shelby jokes, which is gross, but it does have the effect of drawing Martha out of her self-pity party.

Martha fake-gags. “Yikes. Don’t tell me anything,” she says, at the exact same moment Fatin says, “Oooh, please, tell us everything.”

“Sorry, sorry, kidding,” Shelby laughs, bumping Martha’s shoulder with her own. Her face grows serious. “I think it’s super cool that you know what you want. And that you’re open about your feelings.”

“I don’t feel super cool right now,” Martha winces. “I feel like a loser.”

“You’re not,” Nora says, firmly. Her dark eyes find Martha’s, glinting in the bright sunlight. “You’re growing,” she adds.

Martha lets out a long breath. “Yeah. Thanks.” She looks at her friends. “I guess I know who to ask for advice if I meet a guy next year, then.”

“For sure. And while you wait for that lucky dude, how about we get you a vibrator?” Fatin offers, wisely.

Martha feels the burn all the way up to the tip of her ears, but she grins nonetheless. “Yeah, I think I’d like that.”

“That’s my girl.”

 

3- June 26

Someone knocks on her bedroom door.

“Shelby! You ready?” Joey asks from the hallway, his voice muffled.

“One sec’!”

Shelby inhales, and faces her reflection in the mirror hung above the sink.

A stranger stares back at her. Okay, maybe stranger is an exaggeration - but she looks strikingly different, almost unrecognizable. In a way, it reminds her of her pageant show days: then, also, she’d take one last look before walking onto the stage, and experience a weird, uncanny dissociation, unable to see herself in this girl with blond, perfect straight hair, face hidden under what felt like pounds of makeup - a mask of powder and moisturizer - and body artfully spray-tanned. And of course the dresses: always glamorous and always chaste, vibrant colors and conventional cuts. The picture of youth and beauty and feminine elegance.

But, today, Shelby looks nothing like a pageant beauty. Her short hair is boyishly tousled, a few strands curling on her forehead. Her make-up accentuates her cheekbones, and the square line of her jaw, but she’s not wearing lipstick, nor eyeliner - though she’s filled in her eyebrows to give them a more defined shape. No dress either for the occasion: rather, a suit, a light blue tuxedo actually, exhumed from the deepest corner of Marco’s closet, and altered to fit her smaller frame.

She doesn’t look like herself, and yet she does - it’s both foreign and freeing.

“Ready,” she says, to the person looking back in the mirror. And then, at last, before she steps outside, she pauses - and takes off her flipper.

Joey is waiting for her in the hallway, decked in a fantastically elaborate gown of satin-like material, beautiful with his long fake eyelashes and an extravagant purple lipgloss. He grins at her. “You look great!”

“Thanks, Joey, you too. This eyeshadow color is poppin’ on you,” Shelby says, and snorts when he responds to the compliment with a curtsy.

“We make a fine pair, don’t we?”

“We sure do,” Shelby agrees, smiling, and then, overcome with sudden affection for the man in front of her, she throws her arms around him, hugging him tightly.

He chuckles, a low surprised sound that vibrates against Shelby’s chest, but when she doesn’t move away, he puts one careful arm around her shoulders. “Everything okay, sweetie?”

“Um, yeah.” She steps away. “Sorry. I just…” She trails off, unsure how to voice her feelings.

“You know you don’t have to do this, right? It’s just for fun. No pressure.”

“Oh yeah, of course, I know. I’m not – that’s not the – I’m just a bit emotional, is all.”

“Right.” Joey straightens her bow tie, gently. “Are you sure?”

“Totally,” Shelby says. “Hey, Joey?”

“Yep?”

“Thank you. For everything.”

“My pleasure.”

When they finally make it to the backyard, they’re greeted by an impatient crowd - the girls, Marco, Pepper, the goats - and the still hot sun of a late June afternoon. Marco has refitted the wooden platform they used for their home graduation into a little stage, and he hands Joey and Shelby the karaoke machine mics.

“Showtime,” Joey whispers to Shelby, with a wink.

And then the music starts, and Shelby, for the first time in over a year, sings.

She’s timid, at first, uneasy - hot under her suit, distracted by Pepper’s excited barking and one of the goats repeatedly headbutting Rachel’s thigh, by the unfamiliar environment. She’s not used to singing outdoors, or in front of such a small audience, or without her flipper, or even in pants. Part of her expects to see her parents, sitting somewhere in the front, as they always do - and with an uncomfortable, visceral pang, she misses her father’s proud approval, her mother’s quiet support.

But the discomfort fades. Joey croons his part of their duet, his deep voice ringing loud in the yard, hips jerking in rhythm, and her friends are cheering, and Shelby loosens up, and lets joy overtake her - the unique, liberating joy of performing. They finish the song under wild applause, plus one single quack from an errant duck, displeased by all the ruckus.

“Thank you, thank you,” Joey says, playfully solemn, with a deep bow. “Honored to be sharing the stage with Miss Shelby Goodkind today.” He sends her a kiss. “Any last word before we kick this party off?”

Shelby puts her mouth to the mic, and grins, wide and happy. “Happy Pride, y’all!”

And then Fatin, in the tiniest skirt Shelby’s ever seen, puts on her playlist, and everyone starts dancing. Shelby steps down from the stage and slides between the bodies of her friends towards Toni, who’s wearing a pink tank top, a pair of hideous rainbow shorts, and an absurd amount of glitter on her face. Toni smiles and, before Shelby has time to say anything, pulls her in for a kiss, hands cupping Shelby’s face.

“You were incredible,” Toni murmurs into Shelby’s mouth.

Shelby’s hands find the curve of Toni’s hips, slip in under the thin cotton top to meet warm, soft skin. “Thanks.”

“Seriously, I had no idea I was dating a superstar.”

Shelby kisses the grin off of Toni’s mouth. “I’m not a star,” she says. Pop music beats loudly all around them, and they sway in tandem, bodies pressed together. “I just like to sing.”

“Uh uh. Well, I’m noticing a serious lack of serenading your girlfriend. Probably should fix that.”

“Oh really? Would my girlfriend like that kind of thing?”

Toni’s eyes are sparkling brighter than all the glitter in the world. “Yeah, she’d love it. I hear her bedroom has a window, you know. Just in case you wanted to sing to her under the moonlight. Very romantic.”

“I also hear she has a roommate,” Shelby remarks.

“I can get rid of Leah. I’ll just lure her outside with a book, or one of Fatin’s bras.”

“You’re so dumb”, Shelby says, but she’s laughing, and Toni kisses her again, once, twice, a dozen times. As they keep dancing together, she peppers kisses on Shelby’s lips, her chin, her nose, her neck, insatiable. Shelby, drunk on love, lets herself be devoured.

“So,” Toni says, when the first song ends, “how’s your first Pride party so far?”

“Amazing,” Shelby exhales. She brushes a thumb against Toni’s face, following the line of her cheekbone, her finger collecting glitter as it glides along Toni’s smooth skin. “Mostly because I’m with you.”

Toni catches her wrist, and brings Shelby’s hand to her lips. “Next year, we can go to a real parade together. If you want.”

“Yes, please.”

The next song comes onto the speakers, and Toni is swept away by Marco. Shelby watches the two of them dance, laughing as Marco attempts to teach Toni his favorite disco moves.

Abruptly, she thinks of her father again - of church gatherings, and dancing with him to corny songs from tame Christian bands. Laughing with him as he twirls her around until she’s dizzy. This girl doesn’t exist anymore - Shelby’s so far from who she used to be, who she used to pretend to be - and she knows, deep down, that even if she could, she wouldn’t go back. Not even for her father. No matter how badly he hides his disappointment, or how much he tries to change her. She’s much too happy to ever betray herself again for his sake.

“Hey.” Suddenly, Dot is standing next to her, offering her a can of coke. “Gotta stay hydrated.”

“Thanks, Dottie.”

“Sure.” They stand in silence for a moment, watching their friends dance. “You doin’ alright?” Dot asks, after a while, not looking at Shelby.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. I’m…” She takes a breath. “I’m thinking of home. How weird it’s gonna feel, you know, being back. So much has changed.”

“Ah,” says Dot. She shifts so that their shoulders are touching, but doesn’t say anything else. In front of them, their friends are belting out the lyrics to a popular song, excitedly jumping up and down as they do so - happy, oblivious. An odd tightness creeps inside Shelby’s chest. She doesn’t want to leave them. And then she thinks of Dot, who doesn’t have anyone at all waiting for her in Texas.

She grabs Dot’s hand. “I’m here for you, you know that, right?”

“Yeah, obviously.” Dot squeezes her fingers. “And same.”

“Okay. Good. Cause there’s no one else I’d rather have as a college buddy than you, Dottie.”

“Don’t let Toni hear you say that.”

Shelby laughs, and presses a quick kiss to Dot’s cheek.

Dot groans, feigning disgust. “Come on,” she says, pulling on Shelby’s hand, leading her back into the group. “No more moping. Let’s go dance.”

Shelby follows her willingly.

 

4- July 4

The trial starts on the last week of June, and for the first time since she left California, Leah is really fucking thankful that their access to social media is restricted, because she knows she’d be glued to her twitter feed otherwise. It’s a big deal, this trial, and she can only imagine half of what people are saying about it, about them. They get updates from the lawyers, of course, and their parents, and they watch the news, but overall there’s a conscious effort to shield the girls from most of the online chatter. Six months ago, Leah would have hated it - she’d have raged at the lack of information, at the lack of control, just like she pushed back against the safe house and the agents at first. It still irks her, now, not knowing - but she understands the difference between being manipulated, and being protected.

So she handles all of it surprisingly well, until one evening. They’ve gathered in the living-room after dinner to watch the news on the small television, as they’ve been doing ever since the trial started. Leah is sitting on the couch between Fatin and Marco, absently petting Pepper’s head, her cup of now-cold chamomile tea forgotten on the coffee table.

And then suddenly the news anchor says something unexpected, and Leah’s adrenaline shoots up, racing along her spine and awakening her entire nervous system in a shocking flash.

“News from the US vs Klein trial today: one of the victims was allegedly involved in a relationship with popular author Jeffrey Galanis prior to the experiment, when she was still a minor. Galanis declined to comment. Here’s what our team on the ground –”

The rest of the sentence disappears, drowned by the loud buzzing in Leah’s ears. With a sort of unbearable slowness, almost as if her body wasn’t quite her own, Leah stands up. She’s aware, distantly, that people are watching her, calling her name. “Be right back,” she manages to say, before she hurriedly retreats to the upstairs bathroom.

She splashes water onto her face, and then grips the cold edges of the sink in both hands, breathing in, and holding, and breathing out, and holding, like the nurse taught her. Old guilt coalesces in her stomach, sentiments she thought she’d left in the past: that it’s her fault. That she ruined him. That she made all the wrong choices, and a fool of herself.

The door to the bathroom opens behind her. “Leah,” Fatin says, cautiously. There’s a hidden question in her tone.

“You can come in,” Leah answers. She lets out a breath. “I’m fine, don’t worry. I just - I wasn't expecting this, not so soon.” They aren’t naive. They all knew such a public trial meant that some of their secrets would be spilled. But no amount of anticipation could have prepared Leah for this - like a punch to the gut, it leaves her gasping for breath, unbalanced, nauseous.

She turns around to face Fatin, who takes it as an invitation to step closer.

“What do you need?” Fatin asks. She stops in front of Leah, and cups Leah’s face in her open palm. “Do you wanna talk about it? Do you wanna be left alone? You want me to call Joana, or make you another cup of tea, or get one of Toni’s emotional support ducks?”

Leah smiles, and presses a kiss to Fatin’s inner wrist. “I’m okay. This helps. Just give me a minute, and we can go back downstairs.”

But Fatin’s question eats away at her all night long, as Leah lies, unable to sleep, in her bed, listening to Toni snoring. What does she need? It feels like she should do something.

It comes to her the next day, as she watches Marco and Joey gathering wood for their Fourth of July bonfire. She’s struck with the memory of campfires on the beach. And suddenly she knows what she has to do.

She grabs the copy of Jeff’s book she’s kept hidden the entire year, and finds Rachel in the common room. “Can you help me with something tonight?”

“Sure,” Rachel says, with an absolute lack of hesitation that quietens some of Leah’s anxiety. Rachel might be blunt, and stubborn, but she is ride-or-die for her friends in the best possible way.

“I want to burn his book.”

Gingerly, brows furrowing, Rachel takes the copy from Leah’s hands. “Didn’t we already go through this? I thought I threw this shitty excuse for a novel in the fire on the beach?”

“I bought another one,” Leah admits, and then she steels herself, and explains. “When I gave the book to you on the island, I was choosing you guys over him. Now, I want to choose myself over him. My happiness over his. I don’t want to feel guilty anymore, or ashamed, or whatever. I don’t want him to matter anymore.”

Rachel ponders this for a moment, before she nods, and looks back at Leah. “Why me?”

“Cause I trust you. You’re one of my best friends. You’re, like, the strongest person I’ve ever met. And I know you won’t let me off the hook if I try and chicken out.”

Rachel smiles. It’s sudden, and bright, and pleased, and it takes Leah by surprise. “Okay. But I got a favor to ask you in return.”

“Anything.”

“I wanna go to the gym early in the morning next year, before classes. Come with me?”

“Anything but that.”

Rachel groans. “Come on, Leah. Exercising isn’t gonna kill you.”

“It might,” says Leah, drily.

“Just twice a week?” Rachel offers. She looks - well, she looks almost pleading, which is not a word Leah associates with Rachel often.

“Why do you want me to come, anyway? I’m just gonna be whiny and you hate it when I’m whiny.”

“I don’t,” Rachel protests, unconvincingly.

Leah raises an eyebrow, and waits for Rachel to come out with it.

Rachel’s jaw clenches. “Look, I want to keep working out, because I enjoy it, but… It’s just gonna be hard, being back in a real gym, and with this”-- she gestures with her prosthesis --” I know people are gonna stare. I don’t, uh… I’d rather not be alone.”

Leah stares at her, astonished, and touched, by the display of vulnerability, by Rachel openly discussing her fears with her. Unlike Leah, whose feelings tend to pour out of her no matter what, Rachel usually keeps everything close to the chest. The moment feels important, and Leah savors it until, obviously misinterpreting her lack of response, Rachel gets up, defensive. “Look, if you’re gonna be weird about it, forget I even asked, it’s fine, I can –”

“Hey!” Leah puts a hand on Rachel’s shoulder. “Sorry, I’m not – I was just surprised, that’s all. I’ll come. I’ll come with you. I didn’t realize… sorry, yeah, of course, I’ll come with you. Whatever you need, okay?”

Rachel swallows. She puts her hand on top of Leah’s and squeezes her fingers, briefly. “Cool.” She clears her throat. “I’ll help you tonight.”

“Cool,” Leah repeats.

And so it’s decided. Hours later, Rachel and Leah are standing alone by the bonfire, under the dark sky ; the flames cast shadows around them, lapping at the dry wood hungrily. They have a few minutes before the rest of their friends come back with s’mores.

Smoke rises, and Leah’s eyes sting, but she doesn’t move. Rachel doesn’t either. She’s silent beside Leah, arms crossed against her chest, a solid, unmovable force, grounding. Leah holds up the book in front of her. She stares at the cover, at the title ; feels the weight of it in her hands, the familiar shape, the smooth, glossy surface. She reads the name of the man who wrote it - a ghost who lives in these pages, still haunting her. And then, deliberately, she throws the book into the fire.

It crackles, warps, flames erupting from the paper, erasing words that are forever etched into her. She wishes she could burn the inside of her brain. Turn memories into ashes. Begin anew, cleansed by fire. But it’s not possible, of course, and so she watches the book burn instead, for a while, with Rachel.

Later, they all eat s’mores around the fire, and sing, and laugh, burning their tongues on melted chocolate, fingers sticky from the sugar. And closure, to Leah, tastes just like roasted marshmallow.

 

5- July 15

The midday sun is high in the sky, baking the back of Toni’s neck. She picks a small, round strawberry, places it in her half-full basket, and pauses, wiping sweat from her brow with the bottom of her shirt. Briefly, she wonders where the ducklings are - the ducks, really, she should say. They’re grown now, and live by the pond, though they still often waddle into the house in search of treats.

Only four months ago they were tiny babies squeaking on the floor of Toni’s bedroom. Time passes so quickly.

“How are you and Leah going to deal with next year?” she asks, out of the blue, as she moves to the next plant and its bounty of red fruits.

Fatin, in the next row over, straightens up, and brushes dirt from her knees. “Being long distance, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, our parents still live in the same city, so we’ll see each other whenever we go back home for breaks.” Fatin tips back her hat, tucks a dark curl behind her ear. She’s really committed to her farm-chic aesthetic, as she likes to call it, and has been wearing a straw hat and cut off overalls every time she works in the garden.

“Right.”

“And”-- Fatin hesitates, uncharacteristically shy, for a very brief moment -- “don’t tell her anything, but I’m kinda planning a surprise visit at some point. You know, showing up at her dorm room all sexy, with champagne and flowers. In my most outrageous bikini.”

“Dude, Rachel’s gonna fucking murder you. You know they’re gonna be roommates, right?”

“I know,” Fatin shrugs, shameless.

Toni rolls her eyes, amused, even as she feels a twinge of sharp envy, deep inside her chest. Unlike Fatin, she won’t be able to hop on a plane to go visit Shelby whenever she wants. She doesn’t have that kind of money. “It’s a sixteen hours drive to get to UT Austin from Minneapolis,” she says, as she picks another strawberry. This one she pops into her mouth, rather defiantly. “Sixteen hours and ten minutes.”

“And ten minutes?” Fatin repeats, with an eyebrow raised. “How… precise.”

“Yeah, I looked it up, whatever.” Toni doesn’t tell her she’s got the Google map itinerary imprinted on her brain - the highlighted path of roads and highways, the sequence of terse directions, the exact number of miles that will separate her from Shelby in two months - insignificant, on the computer screen, yet such a vast distance Toni can barely comprehend it. “Anyway, that’s like, a two days road-trip. And I don’t… technically… have my driver license…”

Fatin snorts. “Technically? Girl. I’m afraid to even ask what that means.”

“But Martha said she could drive us both down to Texas for spring break, if we borrow her uncle Pete’s car.”

“Spring break is, what, seven months away?” Fatin winces in sympathy. “It’s a long ass time.”

“Yeah.” Toni frowns, and resists the petulant urge to kick at the packed dirt, afraid she’d harm the strawberry plants. “Sucks that we lost so much fucking time, you know? We spent a whole year living together, and we wasted, like, half of it either fighting or not talking.”

“Is it lost time though?” Fatin probes her, gently. “You both needed some kinda break, to figure your shit out. Not saying you guys went about it in the best way, but in the end, it made your relationship stronger.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Fatin gives her a look, but doesn’t insist, which is good, because Toni knows that Fatin’s right, but it doesn’t make the reality of her situation any easier to swallow. She’s thrilled at the idea of going to college with Marty, of course - it’s something she never allowed herself to dream about, fully aware that people like her don’t get to have that kind of life - but the perspective of being so far from Shelby, from all of them, is daunting.

When both their baskets are filled with ripe strawberries, the two of them walk back to the kitchen, where Joey has set up everything they need - he taught all of the girls how to make jam, the week before, and Toni and Fatin volunteered to try it on their own. Together, they wash and hull the fruits, and crush them in wide bowls, and mix them with sugar and lemon juice in a huge pot. Toni stirs until the sugar has completely dissolved. The air smells overwhelmingly fruity, sweet and acidic - breathing feels like tasting summer. It’s very hot, in the kitchen, by the stove, but Toni doesn’t mind. She watches the fruits she picked morph into something else entirely, and forgets all about her separation anxiety, lost in the still unfamiliar satisfaction of creating rather than destroying.

“Look, Toni,” Fatin says, as they bring the mixture to a boil, “I’m not sure how to say this, but...”

“What?”

“You know you can borrow as much money as you want from me, right?”

“Uh huh,” Toni replies, noncommittally ; her mouth feels too dry, all of a sudden. Money’s a complicated issue. She hates relying on other people’s generosity ; she’s uncomfortable enough asking Marty’s family for help. The jam bubbles on the stove, thickening, and Toni keeps her eyes firmly on the content of the pot, and stirs, and hopes Fatin will drop it.

But Fatin wrestles the wooden spoon, not unkindly, from Toni’s grip. “Hey. I’m serious. I’m loaded. Just - let me help you with plane tickets to Austin, next year.”

“Fatin, I –” Toni sighs. “I don’t know. I don’t know when I’d be able to repay you.”

“Aren’t you always talking about wealth redistribution?”

Toni can’t help a snort of laughter. “Wow, I didn't think you paid attention, One Percent.”

“Just cause I’m pretty, doesn’t mean I don’t have a brain,” Fatin says, dramatically.

“Having a brain isn’t enough, you need to have functioning brain cells.”

Fatin flips her off. Toni grins. “The point is,” Fatin says, pointing the strawberry-covered spoon toward Toni in a somewhat menacing manner, “there’s nothing wrong with accepting help that you need. And sometimes the kind of help we need is not a hug or a nice therapy session - sometimes it’s simply some fucking dollars. And I happen to have a lot of those.”

She turns the stove off, and hands the spoon back to Toni. “Okay,” Toni lets out. Warmth spread through her chest ; she’s a little embarrassed, and unsure still, but mostly grateful for her friend.

“Okay?”

“We can talk about it. About the plane tickets idea.”

“Good,” Fatin says, smiling. “Just let me know whenever you need them.”

And then she tries to dip a finger in the hot jam, and Toni slaps her hand away with the wooden spoon.

 

6- July 28

“Do you see anyone?” Dot whispers, crouched with her back against the northern side of the house. She clutches her weapon against her chest. Hair sticks to her sweaty temples. Her pulse beats erratically at her throat - she just ran across the lawn, and she’s breathing hard. She really needs to quit smoking, she thinks to herself, as she watches Nora retreat from the edge of the house.

“I saw movement by the tool shed, but I couldn't tell who, or how many,” Nora murmurs. “What do we do? What’s the plan?”

“Think we got a shot at taking them out before they notice us?”

“I don’t know,” Nora whispers back, “but it’s worth a try.”

They creep around the house, quietly, carefully. Dot’s finger is on the trigger - she won’t be taken by surprise. Nora’s head keeps turning back, to check if someone’s coming at them from behind, but all they hear are bird songs.

“You go left and wide, I go right. Shoot on sight, we’re not taking any risks,” Dot tells Nora, when they get close.

Nora gives her a thumbs up, before she starts moving to the left in a wide circle, through the vegetable garden, weapon aimed right in front of her. Dot advances up to the small wooden shack and hugs the wall. Sweat trickles down her back. Anticipation makes her hands tremble.

She rounds the corner of the shed, and suddenly there’s a figure standing in front of her with their arms up, and Dot doesn’t think, doesn’t hesitate: she shoots, point blank.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Dorothy!”

Dot blinks, and lowers her water gun. “Fatin?”

Fatin glares at her, soaking wet. “I’m on your team, you idiot!” She attempts to sponge off some of the water running down her face, but her shirt is drenched, and her efforts wasted.

“You’re supposed to be in the woods with Martha!” Dot protests. “What the hell are you doing hiding here?”

“We got ambushed by Toni and Leah, so we ran.” Fatin wrings the bottom of her shirt, grumpily. “These two are vicious together.”

“Hey,” a voice calls out, to their left, and both Dot and Fatin jump at the sound, water guns at the ready. “Woah, woah, it’s me!”

“God, Nora, don’t do that,” Dot says, weakly.

Nora squints at the two of them. “Did you shoot Fatin?”

“Maybe.”

“Damn. You really need glasses.”

“Fuck off.”

“Where’s Martha?” Nora asks, unperturbed.

“No idea. We got separated.” Fatin pushes away strands of wet hair plastered against her forehead, and huffs. “I hate this game.”

She sounds convincing enough, except they’ve known each other for more than a year now, and Dot sees right through her. “Please. You love it.”

Fatin rolls her eyes, but a smile creeps at the corner of her mouth. “Reminds me of my little brothers,” she admits, softly. “We used to do shit like that over the summer, when I was younger. Like water balloon fights, and stupid cannonball competitions in the pool…” She trails off, smile fading a bit. “I miss them. I miss hanging out with them.”

“We didn’t have a pool,” Dot says, picturing her childhood home in Texas. “Or a real backyard, honestly - it was just dirt and weeds, cause my dad never had time to garden or anything. But on hot summer days, sometimes he would borrow Mrs Walter’s hose, our neighbor, and we’d both take turns spraying the shit out of each other.” She chuckles. “Must have looked like total lunatics. No wonder Mrs Walter never spoke to us much.”

“Fuck Mrs Walter,” Fatin declares, more passionately than the situation warrants. Dot finds herself smiling at her friend’s protectiveness. “This bitch probably never had an ounce of fun in her life.”

“She was alright,” Dot counters, honestly. “When I was a kid, I thought she was an asshole, but she actually tried to help a bit when Dad… towards the end.” She swallows. “Brought me food a few times, kept an eye on the house when I was at school, that kinda stuff. And I never even asked her for help, you know, she just did it. ”

“People surprise you,” Nora says. “We form ideas of who someone is, especially when we’re children. But part of growing up is letting go of these kinds of assumptions, and learning to really see someone for who they actually are.”

“Deep,” Fatin says, teasingly.

Nora shrugs. “I’m talking from experience. It’s taken Rachel and me eighteen years to see each other, but we’re finally doing it. We’re not kids anymore.”

“I haven’t been a kid in a very long time,” Dot lets out - and, saying the words out loud, Dot, for the first time, comes to terms with this truth. When her father got sick, she grew out of childhood - all at once, no warnings, no time for regrets. She had to step up, and take care of him, the way he had always done for her. She’s only now starting to understand the toll these past few years have taken on her. But this summer, far from home, far from responsibilities, surrounded by trustworthy, competent adults, by friends who have learned not to put all of their burdens on her shoulders, Dot has finally allowed herself to relax, and have fun. “So it’s nice,” she adds, voice rough, and gestures with her plastic pistol, “doing this, playing silly games with y’all. It’s nice to have another chance at just… being childish, I guess.”

“It is.” Nora pats her arm. “And you deserve it.”

Dot exhales. Then straightens up. “Okay, guys, enough chatter, we have to go rescue Martha.”

“Oh fuck, you’re right,” Fatin exclaims, shaking her head. “She must be completely outnumbered over there. Poor thing.”

Nothing could have prepared them for what they actually find, on the other side of the house, which is: Rachel, Shelby, Toni and Leah thoroughly drenched, and Martha, standing victorious on top of the chicken coop’s roof.

“What took you so long?” Martha says, cheerfully, when she sees the rest of her team, waving them over. “I think we won!”

“What in the world,” Dot mouths out to Nora, who smiles, serene, as if she expected this exact outcome.

“Oh thank God, you’re back,” Shelby breathes out while Rachel helps Martha get down safely from her sniper’s nest. “Can we take a break, now?”

Toni, looking very disgruntled, shakes water off her hands like a dog shakes himself dry. “I gotta get outta these soggy clothes, man, this is so uncomfortable.”

“Sure, let’s take a break,” Fatin agrees, still looking at Martha with a mix of awe and disbelief. “But afterwards, I wanna hear all about how Martha single-handedly defeated the four of you.”

“Hm, what happened to you?” Leah asks Fatin, eyeing, with a faint blush, her girlfriend’s very soaked, very see-through shirt.

“Dorothy got me all wet.”

“That’s what she said,” Dot retorts, reflexively, and immediately regrets it.

Fatin’s eyes widen. “Oh my God,” she cackles, delighted. She slings her arm around Dot’s shoulders. “I feel like a proud mother.”

“Ugh, get off me,” Dot grumbles. But she doesn’t push Fatin away, and doesn’t protest at all when everyone else piles up into the stickiest group hug they’ve ever had.

 

7- August 5

The fifth day of August is the hottest yet - the air is stagnant, oppressively humid, the heat sweltering - so they stay inside the house until nightfall, when the red sun, extinguished under the horizon like a cigarette stub, gives way to refreshing darkness.

The girls all congregate on the lawn, lethargic from their day stuck indoors, while Marco and Joey retire for the night. Two of the agents sit nearby, by the entrance door, far enough that they have some privacy. There’s a slight breeze - a relief after such a scorching day. Fatin is lounging in a hammock set between two of the birch trees bordering the alleyway. She shares it with Leah, their bare legs tangled up together. Toni and Shelby are sprawled on the grass, surrounded by three ducks and Pepper. Nora, with her back against a tree, is doodling in her sketchbook, and the rest of their friends sit in a loose circle of wicker chairs. Before he went to bed, Marco made them iced tea with mint he picked from the garden, and Fatin watches condensation form on the glass in her hand, pearling like sweat. It’s quiet, blissfully so - the only sound is the wind blowing through the trees, slow and regular, as if the entire world started breathing again once the sun disappeared.

Fatin twists over the edge of the hammock so she can deposit her cup safely onto the ground, then settles back and closes her eyes. When she first came here, she used to miss the noise and agitation of city life so intensely that the quiet of the countryside felt like a splinter lodged under her skin, not horribly painful, but uncomfortable, a foreign object, something unnatural, unfamiliar, unwelcome. Part of her still misses it, of course, but she's grown to enjoy this too - the stillness. Fatin is a lot of things, but, until now, she’s never been still. In the past, there was school and cello practice during the day, wild parties at night, family gatherings on the weekend. Always jumping from one thing to the next, she relished the hustle, and ignored how tired she was. She remembers her great-aunt Mona telling her one day, over a cup of tea, that a peaceful life was the truest blessing ; at the time Fatin had rolled her eyes, and chalked it up to Mona being super old and boring. She understands now, in a way she couldn’t then, lost as she was in the tumult of her life. It’s hard to appreciate peace, when you’re not at peace with yourself.

Still, she’s not a huge fan of silence. She wishes someone would start a conversation.

“Are y’all bored? I’m bored,” Rachel declares, with perfect timing. It happens a lot, this kind of thing, nowadays: they’ve spent so much time together, sometimes Fatin truly believes they’ve become mind-readers.

Shelby perks up. “We could –”

“If you say we could play one of your party games,” Rachel interrupts, “I am throwing you into the pond.”

“Okay, rude,” Shelby mumbles. Toni leans up on her elbows and directs her most threatening frown at Rachel - unfortunately, it’s impossible to look intimidating when covered in cute animals.

“How about a board game?” Nora offers.

Martha raises her hand excitedly. “Oh, we could play Uno!”

A chorus of groans answer these suggestions, but Fatin is distracted from the banter by a foot tapping against her knee, quick and gentle. “Hey,” Leah murmurs.

“Hmm?”

“I have an idea.”

“That’s never good.”

“Bitch,” Leah grumbles, and she punctuates her displeasure with a small kick to Fatin’s calf.

Fatin grins. She grabs Leah’s foot and places it on her lap, rubbing the bare skin apologetically, following the bony arch of Leah’s ankle with the tip of her fingers. “Sorry. Tell me.”

Leah’s pout vanishes, and she hums contentedly at the touch. Fatin’s chest feels too full, as if her heart’s grown massive, taking too much space inside her ribcage - Leah’s a sucker for casual affection, and it’s just so fucking endearing. Across from them, Dot obnoxiously kisses the air, mocking them. Fatin responds with an equally immature gesture, and gives Dot the finger.

“Maybe you could play the cello?” Leah says, at last.

Fatin’s fingers still on Leah’s leg. “What? Now?”

“Yeah,” Leah insists. “You’ve never played for us, you know. We didn’t even get to go to your audition. Are we going to have to wait till you’re a famous musician?” she adds, playful. “You’re gonna make us pay for the privilege to see you perform?”

“I don’t know if it’s the right moment…”

“Why not? There’s nothing else going on.”

“The others –”

“Would love it,” Leah finishes before Fatin can protest, her tone firm, her head cocked to the side, as if daring Fatin to find another excuse.

“Yeah, we would,” Nora pipes up.

Fatin spins around, and finds that everyone else is now following their conversation. The attention makes her feel self-conscious, which is weird, because she thrives on attention. But she’s not used to having friends who care that she plays the cello, much less friends who want to know about it. Her crowd, in high school, was an assortment of rich teens and college guys, who liked her party girl persona, or wanted to sleep with her, or both. Fatin the virtuoso was reserved for her family - especially since it often seemed like the only thing that mattered to her parents - and her life remained neatly split in two.

“Girls, I’m flattered, but you realize we’re talking classical music, right?”

“Sounds lovely.” Shelby smiles at her, that bright, infectious smile of hers.

Fatin chuckles a little awkwardly. “Come on, I don’t think that’s what Rachel needs. She’s already bored.”

“Actually, I’d love to hear you play,” Rachel argues. “I’ve gotten kind of into listening to classical music on my morning runs.” Fatin stares at her in disbelief, and Rachel shrugs. “What? I got layers.”

“You don’t have to,” Leah says, in a reassuring voice, one hand finding Fatin’s fingers, and squeezing them gently. “I just thought it’d be nice.” Their eyes meet, and there is such deep, genuine fondness in Leah’s gaze that Fatin’s reticence melts like ice-cream left in the sun.

“Okay, sure, why not, I’ll do it.” She swings her legs over the edge, and climbs out of the hammock. “For you, mostly,” she adds, and she grabs Leah by the cheeks and kisses her, in front of everyone, pressing their open mouths together, swallowing the small gasp that escapes Leah’s lips, before she saunters away towards the house.

When she comes back, carrying her cello, the girls have arranged themselves in a circle, and left one armless chair for her. Fatin sits down, both feet solidly on the ground, her spine a few inches away from the backrest. Carefully, she situates the endpin of her cello on the soft grass, and rests the body of the instrument against her chest, balanced between her knees. The cello’s neck lies over her left shoulder ; she grips the bow lightly in her right hand. And, surrounded by people who love her for exactly who she is, Fatin starts playing.

She does a Bach piece, suite no 1 in G major, the first three movements - she knows it by heart, and it’s only a little over nine minutes. And it’s one of her favorites: the prelude is melodious, but wistful, and then it builds and builds, intense and unrelenting and challenging. The alternating crescendos and decrescendos echo in the quiet space between the trees, and each note, each vibration of the strings, is a message Fatin sends into the world, far-reaching, towards the neighboring hills, or perhaps towards the stars - a conversation between herself and the universe.

This is why she loves music: it is the opposite of silence.

Afterwards, as everyone claps and cheers, Fatin stands up to take a bow, and though she’s smiling from ear to ear, proud of herself, there are tears in her eyes - tears of joy, and Fatin lets them fall, and doesn’t stop smiling. She won’t hide how she feels, or who she is. Not anymore.

 

8- August 15

Nora sits alone in the grass.

Well, not quite alone: Mocha is curled on her lap, his tail rhythmically thumping against her thigh. He purrs, and Nora lifts a hand, automatically, to pet his head and the soft black fur of his little ears. She will miss him. She will miss this house, and the backyard, and the pond, and the vegetable garden, and the small patch of woods, and the horizon of blue sky and grassy hills.

By this time tomorrow, Mocha will probably be right here, lounging on the warm grass, but Nora will be back in the New York apartment where she grew up, because today’s their last day in the witness protection program. It happened fast: they won the trial only a week ago, and while they were busy celebrating, the agency reassessed their situation. Sam announced the news a few days ago: they are no longer considered at risk. Which means that they are all going home.

One more night together in the big country house, one more dinner with Joey and Marco, and then they’ll leave, just as they came, paired off in black government cars. It’s bittersweet, of course: all of them are excited to start college, and go back to some semblance of a normal life ; none of them are ready to say goodbye.

The sun is setting, and the light turns pink, the clouds purple. Nora’s hands itch for her sketchbook, but she’s left it in her room. She has plans for her drawings tonight.

“Nora!” Rachel calls out, popping her head through the main door. “You coming? We’re ready to eat!”

“Be right there!”

Nora takes in her surroundings one last time, committing the scene to memory. Then, she picks up Mocha, gives him a kiss on the forehead, between the ears, before placing him carefully on the ground, and making her way to the big outdoor table, set on the other side of the house.

She’s the last one to arrive. Dot and Joey are chatting together as they man the grill, flipping meat and vegetable and bean patties with metal tongs. They’re dressed almost identically, in cargo shorts and sandals and music-themed t-shirts, the Beach Boys for Joey, an obscure metal band for Dot, and they both wave at Nora as she walks by on her way to the table.

“You still want the veggie burger, right? With cheese?”

“Yep,” she tells Dot, “thank you!”

Leah, who’s cutting a loaf of homemade bread into thick slices, smiles as she sees Nora approaching. “Hey. You want some? I baked it today!”

“Oh wow, you did?” Nora pinches a slice from the pile, and bites into it hungrily - it’s sourdough, airy and light, with a deliciously crunchy crust. “So good,” she mumbles to Leah, through her mouthful. She takes a seat at the table, between Toni and Fatin. Rachel comes back from the kitchen carrying a huge tray of freshly made potato fries, which smell so delicious that Nora doesn’t even think before she offers her empty plate to Rachel.

“Anyone want some pop?” Martha asks, looking around the table, holding an enormous bottle of coke.

They pass Martha their cups so she can fill them with soda. Marco insists on everyone having at least a little bit of salad. “Made with tomatoes from the garden!” he adds, enticing. Pepper attempts to steal a whole burger patty from the grill, but he’s no match for Dot’s vigilant eyes. Inexplicably, there’s a duck on Toni’s lap - she feeds him wet crumbs of Leah’s bread. Fatin and Rachel get into a friendly argument over what is the objectively best condiment. It’s chaos, of the best kind, and Nora sits in the middle of it, smiling, soaking it up all through dinner. Finally, when the food is eaten, and everyone’s belly is full, Marco stands up, and taps a spoon against his glass.

“So,” he says, as everyone falls silent. “This is goodbye.” He smiles. “Joey and I feel so lucky to have met you all. And as much as we will miss having you around to raid our pantry at midnight, we couldn’t be happier that you get to go home.” He pauses, and his eyes soften. “And we are so, so proud of you. I know this hasn’t been easy, for any of you, but you got through the rough patches. You’ve made so much progress in just one year. And you deserve all the praise, because what happened to you… nobody should have to go through that.”

“It’s thanks to you,” Shelby says, voice a little hoarse. “We couldn’t have done it without you, without this place.”

“Oh, don’t sell yourself short. You eight did all the hard work, you know. If you hadn’t ended up here with us, you’d still have been just fine,” Joey argues, in a gentle voice. “But I’m glad we were able to help y’all, I really am. Anyway, my husband’s bein’ corny, as usual, so let’s end this with a toast.” He raises his glass. “To all of you girls! To winning this damn trial and going to college! To new beginnings!”

Everyone clinks their glasses together, and drinks, and then there’s a beat of silence. Someone sniffles. Martha grabs Nora’s hand and holds it tight. Across from them, Shelby blinks rapidly, fighting tears. Before this can devolve into a full-on crying session, Nora changes the subject.

“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you finally get home?”

“Spend some time with my family,” Martha says without hesitation. “I miss them so much.”

“Taco Bell.” Everyone stares at Toni with various amounts of disbelief. “What? I don’t have a family, really, and their crunchwrap supreme is fucking good, man.”

“Why am I not surprised that you have the worst taste in fast food,” Fatin groans.

“Sorry, we can’t all be into caviar and champagne, rich girl.”

“Ha ha.” Fatin rolls her eyes. “I’m going to In-N-Out, obviously. But I also really miss just… driving around town.” She grows wistful. “Yeah, I think I’ll just go for a drive. Maybe all the way to the beach.”

“Can’t relate,” Rachel says - she, like Nora, does not have her driver's license. “Honestly, I just wanna take a walk in Manhattan. Listen to my music. Go to Central Park. Get a bagel. Fight some pigeons. Maybe even take the L train all the way to Queens.”

“Only a New Yorker would miss public transport,” Leah teases. “I’m definitely going to my favorite bookstore first thing.”

“Nerd,” Rachel says, with obvious affection.

“I wanna go bowling,” Shelby says, quietly.

Dot nods. “Yeah, solid choice. I’ll go with you. And maybe get one of those soft pretzels they have at the mall.”

“Oh, yes! I love those!”

“Fucking mall people,” Fatin says, earning herself a fry to the face from Dot.

They keep talking about their plans - about foods they crave, favorite places they want to revisit, old friends they’re eager to see again, and how best to schedule weekly Zoom calls once they’re all busy with school - as they clear up the table and clean the kitchen. It doesn’t take long ; they’re so used to working together. Soon enough they’re upstairs, standing in the common room where they’ve spent countless evenings.

“What do we do now?” Toni wonders out loud, hands in the pockets of her shorts.

Nora steps forward. “Follow me,” she says, “I have something to show you.” And, her heart beating fast, her palms sweaty from trepidation, she leads them to her and Rachel’s bedroom, and opens the door.

There’s an audible, collective gasp as her friends file into the room and discover what she’s done: covering the walls, in carefully thought-out constellations, are dozens and dozens of pages from Nora’s sketchbook ; some in color, some in pencil, some half-finished, and some incredibly detailed. The drawings aren’t perfect, often not even good - Nora’s talented, but she’s no professional artist, and she’s fine with that ; she doesn’t need her drawings to be impressive, she needs them to be meaningful.

“Nora,” Rachel breathes out, in awe, “what is all this?”

“It’s us,” Nora answers, simply.

And it is. She’s been drawing them all summer: a series of vignettes, a collection of various moments from the past few months, preserved on paper like fossils caught in amber. Toni sitting at the edge of the pond, watching the ducks. Shelby on top of a ladder, pruning the hedgerow. Fatin, at breakfast, sipping her coffee. Leah reading on the couch in the afternoon light. Rachel taking a bite off a sandwich. Martha petting the goats. Dot on a horse tipping her hat like a cowboy. Toni and Shelby laughing as they brush their teeth together. Fatin and Leah walking hand in hand in the yard, surrounded by wildflowers. Dot and Martha playing Uno. All of them riveted by Fatin's impromptu cello performance.

Dot’s fingers graze a drawing of herself and Fatin washing dishes in the kitchen sink. “They’re beautiful, dude. I… I don’t even know what to say.”

There are murmurs of agreement from the other girls, all over the room. Nora presses her back against the door, overwhelmed with a complex mix of emotions - pride, relief, joy. She can’t believe she ever felt like an outsider.

“When we were on the island, you drew us too,” Leah says, her piercing blue eyes fixed on Nora. Her tone is intense, but not accusatory ; she’s focused, eager to understand. Of course, Leah would be the first to make the connection.

“I did,” Nora confirms. “In that stupid Dawn of Eve notebook.” She wasn’t able to keep it, of course. Evidence, and all that. “At the time, I wanted to remember what happened to us, for the experiment's sake, you know. But this year, I realized... I had to make sure we remember our second summer together just as well as the first. You know, immortalize the good times too, not only the bad stuff. And” – she gestures around the room with one hand – “these are not just for me. They’re for you guys too. So, please, pick one you like. Take it with you to California or Minnesota or Texas. I don’t know when we’ll be together again, but that way a small piece of me, of us, will be with you.” Nora rubs her neck, suddenly insecure. “If you want to. No obligation. I just thought…”

Rachel throws her arms around her in a hug so fierce it leaves Nora breathless. “You’re a genius, you know that?”

“That’s fucking dope, Nora,” Toni says, very softly. “Thank you.”

“Yeah, thanks!”

Nora blushes under the compliments, and a smile blooms on her lips, wide and unafraid. She doesn’t stop smiling as she watches each of her friends select one of her drawings. Later, when the eight of them fall asleep piled in two beds, just like they did on their very first night here, Nora remembers her college essay.

All they’ve got is each other - but that’s not true, is it? They have each other, but not only each other ; they have family, friends, strangers like Joey and Marco, who welcomed them in their home with open arms, and all the people they are yet to meet and love. They have each other - that is a fact they needed to relearn, over the course of this past year and its roller coaster of emotions: they’ve survived, because they have each other. But it was only ever the first step.

Now all that’s left to do is go into the world, and live.