Like all things that are in no way Sarah’s fault, it starts with a bad idea of Cosima’s. This is what Sarah maintains. For an impressively long time.
Then it’s a bad idea and opportunity, when, over lunch, Veera casually mentions owning the equipment they’d need to pull it off. They sit with it for a minute, ignoring the drone of Rachel Duncan’s midday announcements on the PA system. Tony says there’s always his uncle’s nearby warehouse, where he, Sarah, and Cosima have been hanging out in the small unused office since they were twelve. They could bring in some better furniture. Set up Veera’s broadcasting equipment in the glassed-off file closet.
All Sarah can think is that it’s sure to crash and burn, but at least it won’t be on her this time. And at least, before it burns, it’ll give people something to listen to other than the school’s terrible radio station.
Rachel Duncan’s trite jingle ends her lunchtime broadcast just as Cosima gives Sarah a nudge.
“So what do you think?” she asks. “Are you in?”
Sarah glances at Veera, the only sane member of the group. Probably because she’s only been friends with them for a year, thanks to Sarah’s desperate need for a math tutor. She hasn’t been exposed to their stupidity long enough to be affected.
“Think we can pull it off?” Sarah asks her.
Veera shrugs, puts another mini powdered donut in her mouth. It’s eerily similar to Helena, who, along with Veera’s girlfriend, was stuck with the second lunch period this year. Yet another thing to blame on the school amalgamation.
Cosima actually has a running tally of things to blame on their school absorbing the Delta York Academy - two lunches, a hundred and eighty new students, bloody Rachel Duncan (Sarah’s contribution), Rachel’s awful school radio show, having their mascot changed from a bull to a swan.
It was the combination of the last two items that pushed Cosima into this idea, after a month of listening to the principal-approved radio programming while lamenting the apparently horrific implications of having a swan as a mascot. (Sarah’s not sure. She stopped paying attention to Cosima’s rants a few weeks into it, but it was something to do with feminism and mythology and Sarah’s probably not smart enough to care.)
(“Wasn’t there a bull in mythology too?” Tony asked once. But only once, with the withering look Cosima shot him.)
“It’ll be great,” Cosima says, ignoring Veera’s response. “We’ll really stick it to the man. Show the administration they can’t just go around brainwashing everyone into conforming little robots.”
Sarah and Tony exchange a glance, trying to feel out if this is about to turn into another rant. Sarah eyes the exit just in case but Cosima takes another bite of today’s questionable tuna casserole and doesn’t continue.
The cons of this terrible idea are numerous, mostly all leading to the fact that they could easily be expelled if they were caught (well, Sarah and Tony could, given all that’s already on their record), but the biggest plus, in Sarah’s mind, fully makes up for that. Rachel Duncan will finally have a rival. They’ll finally be able to put her in her place.
Not to sound like Cosima, but all Sarah’s wanted since the schools combined and Rachel decided it was her mission in life to be the head of everything is to crush her underfoot like a gross little bug.
Sure, Rachel hasn’t done anything to her yet, but they share an English class, and Sarah’s heard enough of her gratingly snooty voice on the school radio. It’s time someone knocked her down a peg or two. Let her know hers isn’t the only voice that matters.
“There are still a few things to work out, obviously,” Tony says, although he looks just as excited as Cosima.
Cosima’s hands fly. “But we have time. I already have a name and some of the topics I want to cover and setlists and-”
Sarah tunes out, mostly because it’s a boulder she can’t stop now that it’s started its long roll down the mountain, a little because Rachel Duncan walks into the cafeteria in a pair of pumps that are definitely against the dress code, bypassing the entire caf line to grab a cold water from one of the lunch ladies.
“The things she gets away with just because she’s stuck her entire face up Leekie’s arse,” Sarah says to Veera, whose head swings to follow Sarah’s line of sight.
Veera nods. Eats another donut.
Tony and Cosima are busy scribbling something in Cosima’s notebook, geeking out about music, neither of them paying attention. It’s just as well; they’re convinced her issue with Rachel is a queer thing, which, obviously not, given that Rachel dresses like she’ll be a porny high school principal herself someday. Sarah has standards.
And still doesn’t know if a bunch of sixteen year-olds can actually pull off their own radio show, but as long as she doesn’t get blamed it might be kinda cool. They’ll be like, underground superheroes. Saving the airwaves one song at a time.
Rachel Duncan won’t know what hit her.
A week later they have this much: a teeny tiny broadcasting booth for Veera, a garbage-picked table where the couch used to be, set up with microphones and a switchboard for the phone, an entire shelf of all their pooled CDs, and a plan to maintain their anonymity.
“It’s important,” Cosima says, off Sarah and Tony’s rolled eyes. “Some of us would like to go to university, and therefore don’t want to get expelled.”
Veera carefully lays out the pitch changes she’ll make through the mixer, altering their voices enough that they won’t sound so much like themselves. And they’ll have radio names, Cosima adds. Secret identities like Sarah wasn’t so wrong about the superhero thing.
The rest of the details fall into place in the following couple of days; flyers are printed, Tony designs the station’s logo, Cosima finally catches Sarah long enough to explain the myth behind their station’s name. Well, Sarah makes the mistake of asking about it, just wanting to know who the fuck Leda is. But Cosima pounces on the opportunity.
“So, it’s oppressive,” Cosima concludes, the two of them sitting at the table where, soon enough, they’ll have the microphones switched on and will be broadcasting their first show. “To choose the swan means to stand by what the swan represents, so this name is, like, a little fuck you to the school.”
Sarah nods, still a little unsure. Free Leda Radio.
“But she’s… isn’t she already free?” Sarah asks.
Cosima launches into a ten minute rant of the chains of forced motherhood and its connotations in modern society and Sarah scrapes at the sticky remnants of something on the tabletop just to occupy herself.
Veera’s the first to pick out her radio name; MK, after an online username, which explains the few times Sarah’s heard her girlfriend call her Mika. Tony proudly chooses Scratch (“like a record scratch,” he says, ignoring Cosima’s comment that it sounds like a skeevy old man’s prison nickname), and Sarah settles on Strummer, after Joe Strummer from The Clash.
Cosima’s name comes from something as geeky as Sarah expects, Newton’s third law, because, as Cosima justifies, their radio show is a reaction to the oppression of the high school’s actions.
“Equal and opposite,” she says. “Just as professional, but without the suck.”
The suck part remains to be seen, but with Veera covering all the technical aspects it definitely will be just as professional. Sarah tries to ask, once, where she got all the equipment. It’s met with a very long look that’s no doubt taken from her girlfriend, who’s been an admirable pain in Sarah’s ass since middle school.
“It could bomb, you know,” Sarah says to Cosima the night before their first show.
The two of them are at the warehouse under the guise of tying up a few loose ends, mostly just here to settle their nerves. Sarah’s stretched out on the couch that’s been her safe haven whenever she needed a place to crash, trying to escape her foster mum or a guy who thought she’d spend the night, the couch now shoved against a wall plastered in sun-faded posters because its old spot is taken by the giant table.
Everything looks different from here. Like they haven’t been hanging out here for years, sneaking beer or playing darts, the three of them always so convinced the world was out to get them.
Cosima twirls in one of the desk chairs they garbage-picked to go with the table, spinning in a full circle before acting like she heard what Sarah said.
And then: “I know. I mean, statistically it will. But then it’ll get better.”
Sarah considers it.
“So you’re not nervous?”
“I didn’t say that,” Cosima says, a sheepish smile on her face, and something in Sarah settles.
They don’t stay for too long. Cosima wants to make it home before her dad comes home from the lab, always eager to see him in a way Sarah’s never understood, and Sarah has to get back before curfew and can’t make Helena cover for her yet again. It isn’t fair.
That, or the way the new school year’s split them up, or the fact that Sarah never asked if Helena wanted to be a part of this radio thing, because the selfish part of her still continues to want to keep her friends to herself like they’ll leave if they spend enough time with the better sister. She’s a terrible twin.
She’s always such a terrible twin.
It’s not her fault, she always reasons, because she didn’t know she was supposed to be a twin until she was fourteen, but two years is more than enough time to figure it out.
“So guess what,” she says to Helena as she crawls into bed that night, under the cover of darkness.
“What?” Helena says.
Sarah tells her everything. Every last thing.
The silence stretches to an impossible length, and after a while Sarah assumes Helena fell asleep, but then, tiny, inexplicably warm, Helena says, you’ll be great.
As it goes, both Cosima and Helena are right.
The first show bombs. Not for lack of trying, because they have the setlist and an outline of topics to cover and they want it so bad, but it has to fail. Because of the statistics. Because they want it so bad, because they’re nervous, because their tongues can’t stop tripping over themselves and all Sarah can picture is Rachel Duncan somewhere, in a criminally short skirt, delighting in their failure.
And then Sarah’s great.
They’re all great, a few shows in.
But there’s a moment, in their third show, when Sarah knows. Tony says some quip off of Cosima’s rant about the pep rally and its lack of acknowledgement of taking place on stolen land, transitioning them into the next song like he’s been doing this all his life. The light coming through the one frosted window paints them all gold for a soft minute, and Veera in her booth raises two fingers to signal how much time they have left until they’re back on air. Sarah’s breath catches in her chest.
She doesn’t know why, just that this is it: this is how it’s supposed to be. They’ve found their place.
People are talking about it in school the next day, too. Beth finds Sarah in gym class, in the change room, to let her know she heard a few girls gushing about it in the washroom earlier.
“And they’re not the only ones,” Beth says, before handing Sarah a hair elastic she hadn’t yet asked for.
“Really,” Sarah says, in awe.
Beth smiles like this is her accomplishment too, like she’s just as proud, and Sarah’s glad that Veera told her girlfriend because it means there’s now someone else to share the excitement with. (It guaranteed them at least two listeners, as well, with Helena tuning into the first show from her bedside radio.)
The ultimate accomplishment doesn’t happen until a few weeks in, when they’ve established enough of a routine to sound close to polished.
During the midday announcements, when Sarah and Tony are busy building a tower out of their overcooked fries, their station name actually comes out of Rachel Duncan’s mouth.
“It seems I have a little competition,” she says, irritably smug, her sneer coming through the sound system. “Or I would, if they were any good. I’d wish them luck but I don’t want to waste my breath. Keep reminding listeners why they choose Radio Swan, Leda. I appreciate the free publicity.”
Sarah sends a fry flying all the way to the other side of the cafeteria.
“Well, we’re enough of a threat to be mentioned,” Cosima comments.
Veera smiles into her bag of gummy bears. “Fear looks good on her.”
Everything looks good on her, Sarah doesn’t say. Her stomach’s busy doing the weirdest flipping sensation, like a choppy lake, the same as the last time Rachel acknowledged her. But that was English class and it was only to tell her how wrong she was on her half-arsed interpretation of some bullshit symbolism.
Well. At least they’re anonymous, and Rachel doesn’t know it’s her.
She can’t figure out why that’s the opposite of calming.
She can’t figure anything out, but all she wants, after that announcement, is to be even better. To make it so that Rachel can’t pretend they aren’t in the same league.
It ends up being the kick they need - their show that afternoon is the best one yet, Sarah gracing the airwaves with a withering one minute song on the guitar about Rachel’s ass-kissing tendencies, three people calling in to tell them how much they loved it.
“All she is is Principal Leekie’s little clone,” the last caller says, making Tony snort.
They don’t mean to turn the show into a personal witch hunt, but it works. And the next day, Rachel says nothing. Her voice doesn’t even waver on the daily reminders. Although, as Sarah alone notices, there’s a little less venom in her usual comment about the chess club’s meeting.
And maybe that’s why that afternoon, in the washroom, when Sarah finds Rachel at the sink as she comes out to wash her hands, she lingers. Glances at her through the mirror.
“Is there a reason you’re gawking?” Rachel says, after a minute.
She doesn’t look any different than usual. Her makeup seems professionally done compared to Sarah’s slept-in dark smudges, and she has on a pressed white blouse that shouldn’t fit as well as it does. Sarah flounders for a second. Wipes her hands on her jeans.
“Are you suddenly a mute?” Rachel asks, and the way she says it it’s as if they’ve known each other for years, not the two months since their schools combined.
“Just trying to figure you out,” Sarah hears herself saying.
Rachel’s eyebrows lift, like out of all the answers she’d foreseen this wasn’t one of them and it’s somehow both startling and confirming. Sarah squirms under her gaze, unsure why she even said it. She doesn’t want to know her. She hasn’t from the first day she saw her, tucked under the new principal’s arm like some small darling pet.
“Hm,” Rachel says. She moves to get paper towel, drying her hands deliberately and methodically. Through the mirror, she takes another look at Sarah. “You’re from London, aren’t you.”
“Brixton,” Sarah says.
Rachel smirks, her features catlike. “Of course.”
And then she goes, pleased with herself for having the last word, leaving Sarah to question everything about that interaction. But mostly: why she knows she won’t say a word of it to her friends, even though a month ago it was something she’d eagerly share so they could all make fun of it.
It’s like… she wants to keep it for herself. Or, she wouldn’t be able to explain herself if they asked. And she really doesn’t want to.
Rachel pays for it the next show, anyway. Sarah sings a little song about an unfeeling robot to the tune of Rachel’s jingle, rounding up a solid discussion on Leekie’s new cell phone policy that only seems to benefit those with no friends.
The best part is that she knows Rachel’s listening. And so every word is just a little bit sharper.
Originally, it was just the one school. Allen Dundas Collegiate Institute. Big building, average classes, a few sports teams that didn’t do too poorly. Sarah and Helena were still in the same lunch period. Veera got to eat with her girlfriend. No one really cared that the school didn’t produce winners.
But then there was some fire and budget cuts, and letters went out over the summer. The nearby Delta York Academy for Future Leaders would be combining with Allen Dundas CI, to form one big Frankenstein school. (Frankenstein’s Monster school, Cosima would say.) Delta York Allen Dundas Collegiate Institute. Or, DYAD CI.
(It kind of bothers Sarah that their school’s name is entirely in capitals, like it’s constantly yelling at them. She mentioned it to Tony, once, and he laughed for five minutes straight, and she never mentioned it again.)
At first the changes didn’t seem to be too big, just a few more students each grade, a few less empty lockers to be used for drug deals, but then the first week ended and the curriculum got harder and the mascot changed, replacing Cosima’s beloved bull with an unsettling swan.
And then they had a school radio show.
The thing is, Cosima tried out for it. Her and about twenty other kids, reading bullshit announcements into an unplugged microphone for the new Principal Leekie to oversee. She did fine. But it didn’t matter, because Leekie had already chosen. It was Rachel’s idea in the first place, apparently, to make up for the amalgamation’s lack of a leadership program, because something had to pad her transcript for university applications. And then Rachel was suddenly captain of the debate team, and on the school council, and Leekie’s prized office aid.
Nepotism, Cosima said.
Rachel’s the golden girl. Nothing can touch her.
Maybe it was like that back when the Delta York Academy still existed outside of some tumor at the heart of what once was an all right school, because the kids that came from there don’t seem to pay her much attention.
She doesn’t even seem to have friends, actually, apart from Leekie. She eats in the office or in the radio booth. People fear her, but no one ever says shit to her.
“Do you feel bad?” Sarah asks her friends, mistakenly, one morning when they’re there early enough to take advantage of the school’s breakfast program.
Rachel walks in to grab a coffee and looks at no one, and Sarah asks her question and they all stare at her like she’s grown two heads. No one graces her with an answer. They just go back to their cereal, or in Veera’s case her Pop-Tart, and Rachel walks out alone.
(That afternoon she slips a song into the play queue, avoiding Veera’s eyes. Gutless by Hole. It means nothing. Her stomach still churns.)
Sarah really tries to tell herself it’s only because she knows what it’s like to be the new girl, with nine schools under her belt by fourteen. Except Rachel isn’t new, per se. Just alone.
Somehow, through the amalgamation, she managed to both rise to the top and sink to the very bottom, and it would be admirable if Sarah wasn’t up close with the details, and it would be sad if she let herself stop long enough to take it in. But as it is it’s just fact. It’s something Sarah sits with, resting hard in her chest. And Rachel’s either aware of it or she isn’t. And it shouldn’t be Sarah’s problem.
“At what point does being alone turn to loneliness?” Sarah asks on the radio during a Friday broadcast, near the end of their show.
Tony’s fingers stop moving around the base of his microphone, and Cosima takes the lollipop out of her mouth. Her tongue is red, contrasting Veera’s purple tongue in the booth, the two of them watching her like they should have been paying closer attention.
“Something you need to tell us, Strummer?” Tony jokes, trying to lighten the mood.
Veera clears her throat, her microphone on for the first time all week. “When you start to think about it,” she says.
Sarah swallows and says something stupid in return, introducing the next song like that’s all she really meant to do. The looks on her friends’ faces lessen a little. Maybe they get that she isn’t talking about herself.
She has a weekend to get her shit together and when she sees Rachel in an empty hall on Monday she keeps moving, pretending she didn’t notice at all.
They fall into a nice routine after about a month. There’s a comforting cadence to it, making their way from school to the warehouse every day, dropping their bags by the door, picking at some homework until there’s only ten minutes to the show. Sometimes Helena comes with them, to drape herself on the couch and eat Veera’s stash of candies. Sometimes it’s Beth and she brings pizza or a bag of chips she doesn’t touch.
The show always starts the same. You’re listening to FLR, Free Leda Radio. The underground answer to all your music dreams.
Cosima gets closer to her mic. I’m Newton, and this is your thought of the day.
Tony cuts in. I’m Scratch, and this is your burp of the day.
Sarah reads the headlines. Upcoming show downtown, another one of Leekie’s insane policy changes, a comeback to something Rachel said on Radio Swan.
Veera draws something on her little chalkboard, holds it up. It’s always encouraging.
Over the break Strummer mentioned…
So I’ve been thinking about…
Without fail, Tony slips in something bluegrass or folksy, and the three others suffer through it. Veera likes to play Cosima’s attempts at being experimental.
(“We are not an EDM station,” Sarah says.
Cosima grins. “For the next five minutes we are.”)
Helena always lets Sarah know which parts she liked and which parts she didn’t, whether she heard the show from home or from the worn vinyl couch. Inevitably, there’s a comment about Sarah’s accent and the fact that pitch changes can’t hide it. “You just sound… butch, Sarah.”
Sarah’s mostly sure that comment comes from Helena’s lunches with Beth, when Helena isn’t eating with Gracie and Beth isn’t with her cheerleader friends, so Sarah lets it slide.
On Fridays Cosima sits them all down after the show and runs through the week’s ups and downs, taking notes in her glittery spiral bound. They discuss show ideas for the following week and pull CDs for the setlists. Veera archives the week’s recorded shows. We’ll want to have this someday, she said with such assurance the first time they saw her doing it.
And then they were all quiet, because it was the first time they had to conceptualize it someday being over.
Sarah goes home to her foster mum and Helena and Felix, who always has another complaint about the seventh grade, and she and Helena battle over the TV while Felix practices the violin upstairs until Mrs. S calls them all to the table for dinner.
Sarah doesn’t realize she’s happy until it snows for the first time.
She’s walking home from the warehouse with her backpack half off one shoulder, Beth keeping her company until they hit Queen Street because it’s one of the nice days when Beth came and brought pizza, and the two of them walk in a comfortable silence eating the last two slices of pepperoni.
“It’s snowing,” Beth says suddenly, sounding giddier than Sarah’s ever heard her before.
Sarah’s heart leaps. They both glance up at the sky, watching tiny flakes drift aimlessly, eventually disappearing when they hit the sidewalk.
“God, it isn’t even Veera’s birthday yet,” Beth says. A snowflake lands on her cheek as she catches Sarah’s probing look. “So like every year, no matter what, the first snow happens on her birthday. November twenty-fifth. It’s the first thing we ever talked about in person.”
“How long did you guys talk online before you met up?” Sarah asks. She’s reached the crust of her pizza, and it’s cold, but she chews on it anyway. Beth, of course, tosses hers in the nearest trash can.
“Hmm, about five months, I think,” Beth says. “She didn’t even tell me we went to the same school until I told her I had a bit of a crush on her, and then it was still a week before we met up in person. I think she expected me to… freak out, or something. Like I’d stop caring if we hung out.”
“But you didn’t,” Sarah says, stepping over a bag of dog crap left on the sidewalk.
Beth smiles fondly. “No. It was snowing pretty bad that day, and she met me in the library, in that big window, and she told me about her birthday. Because she was nervous. And then I kissed her, because I was nervous.”
Sarah’s heard it from Veera before, but hearing Beth’s side of it twists an odd little part of Sarah’s stomach that she didn’t know existed.
Veera tells it like it was a miracle Beth didn’t run, that she came in her cheerleading uniform and Veera was so sure it had all been one long elaborate prank. From Beth’s mouth it’s all infinitely tender. It’s so soft it hurts.
“Anyway,” Beth says, her cheeks flushed in a way that isn’t from the cold.
The snowflakes keep finding her face and settling onto her skin like they don’t know they’re supposed to melt. Sarah’s chest fills with warm air, suddenly, as if her lungs just stepped through the front door on their own and smelled something lovely cooking in the oven and Helena was right there ready to give them a hug.
She stops in the middle of the sidewalk. Beth stops as well a second later, turning to frown in confusion.
“What?” she says.
Sarah shrugs, the action muffled by her heavy jacket and the thick sweater underneath. “I don’t know. It’s just… so pretty. All of it.”
She waves a hand around at the side street they’re on, with all its little brick rowhouses, every so often a small thatched cottage. Some parts of the city look so much like England it’s painful. The snow’s falling a little thicker now, glittery, enough to make a tiny pile on the pompom on Beth’s hat. Up in a tree, a squirrel chatters at the two of them.
“Yeah,” Beth says, looking around at everything. “It is. It’s also cold, so come on. My mom made soup last night that I’ve been looking forward to all day.”
“Okay,” Sarah says, laughing.
She picks up the pace, catching up to where Beth’s started walking. They’ll part in another block and Sarah will go home to her family. Her little patchwork family. And they’ll ask about the radio show, even though she knows Mrs. S listens to it in secret. There won’t be any arguing about her grades for once because she hasn’t yet fallen behind. It’s a bloody miracle.
“You wouldn’t want to come over, would you? Have some of that soup?” Beth asks when they reach Queen Street.
“Nah, it’s okay,” Sarah says. “Maybe another time.”
“Sure, yeah,” Beth says, but she still seems a little reluctant to split, so Sarah clears her throat and gives her a tentative hug, their jackets adding a strange padding.
“Uh,” Sarah says, “see you tomorrow?”
Any awkwardness she has disappears when Beth’s smile hits, amplified by the sparkle of snowflakes in her eyelashes.
“It was a good show today, Sarah,” Beth tells her as they go off in their separate ways. She has to shout a little, and a guy walking his dog turns to look.
Sarah shouts back an enthusiastic THANKS anyway, because it was. It was really good.
Sarah spends time with Helena the first weekend after it snows, because Saturday morning they wake up and it’s snowing again, and even though Helena’s been in this country for three years she still sees it as a thing of magic when the weather changes.
It’s the big oak tree in their backyard, Sarah’s pretty sure. They have a perfect view of it from their window, and trees that drop their leaves are the only way to really know what the seasons are doing. Helena gets up every morning and tells it dobroho ranku. Good morning. A year ago they thought it had a disease and Mrs. S phoned the company to cut it down, Felix and Helena in tears, Sarah keeping a stiff upper lip because someone had to. The guy came out with a clipboard and said no, it was fine. They hung a swing.
Helena’s first request is breakfast, because all things with Helena involve food, and Sarah used to joke about it but then the therapist talked about food insecurity and it wasn’t funny anymore.
Sarah fries up eggs and puts some frozen hash browns in the oven, and they save some for Felix and Mrs. S even though she works on weekends and won’t be back until dinner. Mrs. S never expects it, which is why Helena always reminds Sarah to do it. Sometimes Helena acts like a perpetual houseguest. But sometimes she just knows how to do the whole family thing better than Sarah does, and Sarah can never fully tell the difference.
“We should go to the beach,” Helena says as she squirts ketchup on everything.
Sarah mutilates her egg with the corner of a piece of toast, creating a nice mirror image of destruction to Helena’s bloody mess. “It’s cold,” she says.
Helena nods, happily chewing on a hash brown. “The best time to go. We’ll see all the birds and dogs.”
Going anywhere with Helena means stopping to pet every dog they see, but it’s Saturday and Sarah somehow managed to finish her math homework yesterday at the warehouse and has been feeling weirdly light since that walk with Beth so she says yes. They’ll go to the beach even though it’s mid-November and the lake only really knows how to be offshoots of grey.
“I wish we had a dog,” Helena laments, before she’s done talking and focuses only on eating.
Sarah does too, sometimes. It’d have to be a cool one, like a pitbull or a rottweiler, although she could make do with some kind of hound. If they had a dog Tony would never leave their house, though, so maybe it’s a good thing.
“So we have much to talk about,” Helena says as they head out, in sweaters and jackets (Sarah’s leather and Helena’s a dirty green) and hats and mitts, for Sarah, because Helena keeps her hands bare to pet dogs.
They’re only twenty minutes from the beach, which is one of the perks of this house. It’s the second place they lived in Toronto, but Helena’s first with this family. She doesn’t talk about her life before this one and Sarah doesn’t like to think about the first Toronto home, which was a tiny flat that she ran away from three separate times, so it’s as if the two of them have only had one home here and it was always good.
(Of course, it’s not always good. Not even in the nice house, in the nice neighbourhood, with everyone safe. You can’t run away from your past, the therapist likes to remind her.)
Sarah fishes a ticket out of her pocket and holds it carefully with her thumb against her mitt, not wanting it to catch in the slight breeze.
“You saw me yesterday,” Sarah says.
They reach the streetcar stop and sit on the cold bench, and Helena produces a ticket of her own from one of her many pockets. She also produces a lollipop, and offers it to Sarah. Sarah shakes her head and it goes in Helena’s mouth, even though it never had a wrapper.
“Yes,” Helena says around the lollipop. “And we ate. But I did not see you at lunch, and at lunch I sat with the cheerleaders.”
“With Beth?” Sarah says.
They pause their conversation as the streetcar arrives, suspiciously quick for how often they have to wait at this stop. They drop their tickets in the fare box and accept the transfers with a thank-you, heading to the very back of the streetcar. It’s only ten stops but Helena likes the windows, and Sarah likes that the big windows don’t open, because it’s always a few degrees warmer back here.
“Yes, I ate with Beth,” Helena says when they’re seated.
Queen Street moves by out the window slowly, the streetcar stuck behind traffic, everything slightly speckled with tiny snowflakes. It isn’t enough to call it a flurry, but it’s enough to catch the light.
Helena’s head turns to watch their favourite cafe disappear behind them, and then she continues. “Alison Hendrix listens to your radio show. Does not like Scratch’s burps. But I think they’re funny, so don’t tell him this.”
“I won’t,” Sarah promises, even though she could do without them. It’s the smell; she can always tell what he had for lunch.
Six more stops.
“You know the funny thing?” Helena says. She’s finished her lollipop and is now chewing on the stick, all the paper swollen with spit. Sarah says what. “Evie Cho. From the Academy. Pretty? Also mean?”
“Yeah, I know who she is,” Sarah says. Four stops.
She was either Rachel’s friend or her rival - Sarah hasn’t been able to figure out which. But they know each other. That much has been made clear in English class, with this apparent feud rising up over Edgar Allan Poe.
“She liked that bit on the football team’s controversy,” Helena goes on. “Says it was like real reporting, unlike DYAD’s Radio Swan.”
Two stops. Sarah frowns. “Huh.”
Helena shrugs, and then it’s their stop and they stand up and pull the request cord, making their way to the front doors because Helena always likes to thank the driver. They walk down through the park, and Helena doesn’t mention Evie again, even though the full walk to the beach Sarah’s chewing it over with great contemplation.
She was the one who did the bit on the football team, weirdly. Not Cosima, who might make a career in this, or Tony, who usually covers the guy stuff.
Helena pets six dogs in the first ten minutes, and one of them she pets for three straight minutes because it won’t let her leave.
Sarah, politely, stands by like a bodyguard, making awkward eye contact with the dog owners like they’re both lamenting their social companions. She finally gives in and pets the sixth dog at Helena’s insistence, but only because it’s a doberman.
They’re doing well, is what she’s saying.
And then they reach the dog park on the beach, Helena’s idea of heaven, as cold as it is, and they have to stop just before they reach the gate.
Because coming out of it, expression bitterly pinched, is Rachel Duncan.
Rachel Duncan and a sleek greyhound in a fluffy white sweater.
“That’s-” Helena says just as Sarah grabs her coat and says “ leave, ” but it doesn’t make a difference because Rachel spots them, and then the three of them and the dog are standing uncomfortably in the sand between the gate and the boardwalk like they’ve all just walked in on each other on the toilet. Which, in the dog’s case, is tragically true as it lets out a nervous stream of pee.
Rachel Duncan breaks the silence to utter a contemptible, “Oh, Ira.”
The dog looks away as if it didn’t hear her. The pee steams in the cold.
“Hello, Rachel,” Helena says, stepping forward, even though Sarah’s pretty sure the two of them have never had a conversation in their life.
Rachel realizes she can’t ignore them any longer, and then she tugs the dog to meet Helena halfway, as if this is slightly more dignified than waiting by the piss. Sarah considers staying back to let them duke it out, but Helena would never in front of a dog. So Sarah joins them with great reluctance and pretends she hasn’t noticed Rachel’s legs in thin nylons where the top of her boots and the bottom of her white coat don’t quite meet up.
“May I pet your dog?” Helena asks, too polite, already crouching down.
The dog shivers with anxiety and Rachel breathes out through her nose, replying with a quiet yes, eyes narrowing just a bit as the dog calms at Helena’s touch.
“It’s my mother’s dog,” Rachel says to Sarah for some reason, as if Sarah’s standing here with her arms crossed and her fingers cold in her mitts because she cares. “His name is Ira and I hate him.” Then she glances back at the dog park. “He has a nervous temperament, so I have to socialize him every weekend.”
Sarah snorts in pity. “Why doesn’t your mum do it?”
Rachel shuts her eyes for a moment, deeply pained. When she opens them there’s a hint of amusement there, like Sarah’s almost imagining it.
“Because she lives to see me suffer,” Rachel says.
Helena’s scratching the dog so well it has full body shivers, not from nerves but from pure joy, and Rachel eyes him like she’d love nothing more than to chuck him in the lake for the mutated fish to enjoy.
“He is a very nice dog,” Helena says from her crouched position, and the dog’s tail could sever someone’s limb with how hard it wags.
Rachel’s lip curls up in disgust. “He pees in my bed sometimes.”
“Sarah’s brother Felix peed in her bed once,” Helena says, “because he was angry that she ran away for a week.”
“ Helena,” Sarah barks, melting from embarrassment.
She can’t even lift her eyes to look at Rachel, instead focusing on the yellow puff of Helena’s hair sticking out from under her hat while her cheeks burn as hot as the sun. Rachel’s boot shifts into Sarah’s vision and she switches to focusing on that instead, distantly wondering if Rachel cares that the black suede is covered in sand.
“Was it at least dry by the time you came back?” Rachel asks, when it seems like something needs to be said.
Sarah lets out a soft groan. “Yeah, but he didn’t tell me he’d done it until after I slept in it, so…”
Rachel’s laugh is kinder than Sarah expects, and even manages to alleviate some of the burning of Sarah’s cheeks.
“Well apparently having a human brother is worse than having a dog brother,” Rachel says casually, and then she and Sarah make eye contact, and they both have weird smiles on their faces. Not quite laughter, but- no, Sarah doesn’t know what it is.
“Okay, time for the next dog,” Helena says, finally standing up.
The dog looks at her like she’s just betrayed him but she’s already given her last pet and looks eager to move onto the dog park.
“See, Ira?” Rachel says, still looking at Sarah. “You’re unwanted. I told you.”
“Ever think you’re part of his nervous temperament?” Sarah asks with a careful snicker.
Rachel’s features settle into a poised mirth. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Sarah Manning.”
They part with Sarah wondering how exactly Rachel learned her full name, and Rachel walking the dog at a brisk pace along the boardwalk as the snow begins to fall in an actual flurry, and Helena bouncing in her boots as they enter the dog park to see at least twenty dogs having the time of their little lives.
For some reason, Sarah can only think of what Beth said about Veera as Helena nearly trips over herself in glee.
And she told me about her birthday. Because she was nervous.
Sarah didn’t think Rachel was capable of saying that much at once without also biting off someone’s head. If it wasn’t nerves, it was something. And if it was nerves… Sarah stops thinking about it, because the sweetest pitbull in a sock monkey sweater comes bounding over with Helena and there are more important things in the world than why Rachel Duncan made a joke.
“His name is Lunchable,” Helena introduces.
Sarah’s already in love.
(ah, good old Canadian rock bands who appeared on Radio Free Roscoe and became known to thousands of tweens around the country. for this chapter's purposes we're focusing on The Trews, not The Pettit Project, though both have my love.)
also in this chapter: Helena catches a cold, birthday preparations begin for Veera, and Sarah and Cosima's standing second period bathroom meeting is interrupted by the last person Cosima wants to see. Sarah, on the other hand, doesn't quite mind.
to steal from RFR's episode titles we might call this chapter, "The All-Nighter" (part one).
first of all, the (generous, wonderful, heartwarming) comments on chapter one turned me into a being made entirely out of light beams so thank-you all for that. i'm so happy to hear this little universe is being enjoyed! and that there IS some love in the world for Ira the greyhound.
second: i'm posting this before heading on vacation for a couple weeks where i'll have zero internet access but it'll be remote enough for me to hopefully finish writing chapter 3 and even a chapter 4, as well as the ending of gods (which i swear is a mere 3000 words that just won't assemble). only mentioning it because it means there won't be an update to anything before about halfway through september.
and third- as a young 11 year-old child i actually saw the trews at a summer music festival solely because they'd been on radio free roscoe, and it was pretty awesome. very canadian.
“So The Trews are back in town,” is how Cosima starts their show on Monday, after the usual introductions. Veera inserts a small soundbite of people cheering. Tony whoops. “Advanced tickets are being sold through a handful of record stores throughout the city, a week Saturday, the twenty-sixth, doors opening at the early hour of seven o’clock. Which, if you’ve looked outside as you’re stumbling out of bed these days, you’ll know is now before the sun gets up.”
There’s a teasing look at Sarah, everyone knowing full well her alarm doesn’t go off until eight. She flicks a goldfish cracker across the table in Cosima’s direction before taking over.
“Our sources tell us despite the near-freezing weather fans are planning on camping out overnight to ensure they get there before tickets sell out, so be sure to wear that thermal underwear,” Sarah says, as another goldfish cracker returns to her.
From the couch, Helena snorts. Sarah doesn’t even know where she got a goldfish cracker, considering the one on the table has been kicking around for well over a week. Sarah tosses it back as Tony leans into his mic to read the next bit, and Helena catches the cracker with terrifying reflexes and pops it into her mouth.
“Because we love you guys,” Tony says as Helena crunches in delight, and Sarah stares in horror, “Leda will be keeping you company from nine p.m. Friday to the very second the doors open. That’s right — your all-nighter is our all-nighter. Get ready for bad jokes, good music, and a few stories that should never be told over the radio. We’ll even throw in a mystery guest for those of you who are growing tired of our beautiful voices. In the meantime, here’s a song that may not be beautiful but it’ll sure get your grandpa’s foot tapping.”
He shoots a finger gun at Veera in the booth, who flicks off the mics as something terribly country starts to play.
Cosima rolls her eyes at the clattering sound of spoons.
“Why,” is all she says, before bending to pull a bag of candy out of her backpack.
Helena sits up with great interest. It’s cold in the station today, thanks to Tony trying to air out a smoke session of his and Cosima’s and opening a window that’s too old to know how to shut, and Helena’s wrapped up in her big green coat with Sarah’s scarf draped over her shoulders. She didn’t ask to borrow it, but Sarah’s tired of trying to feel out the lines of sisterhood and hasn’t said anything.
It might be one of those things that’s just supposed to happen — she’d ask, but Beth only has brothers, and Cosima’s an only child, and the closest Tony’s come to a sister is his cousin who’s a year younger than Felix. Veera has a sister, but she’s one of those sisters that’s already an adult and has a family of her own, and the only thing Veera’s ever said about her is that she monogrammed her bath towels. So: out of the question.
“Is that for me?” Helena asks, eyes still on the bag of candy.
Sour gummy worms. Helena’s favourite. (They’re all Helena’s favourite, except for black jellybeans. But those are Sarah’s favourite so it balances out.)
“I wanted to thank you for putting up with us,” Cosima says, spinning her seat so she can hand the bag to Helena, whose face lights up like Sarah’s never seen it before.
And then it calms, and she looks— like Beth, actually. Serious. Like some little part of this is self-sacrifice only no one will ever know it.
“It is not a problem,” Helena says, holding the bag of candy like a small baby in her lap. “I like the behind-the-scenes. And spending my time with, ah. All of you.”
Her eyes go to Sarah for a second. A banjo twangs too hard in the song and Sarah’s heart shudders.
Yeah, she likes spending time with all of them. But only because they’re part of Sarah’s world, and all Helena’s wanted, since entering that uncomfortable radius, is to feel like she’s a part of it too. For a minute. So to get sixty minutes of Sarah in the same room must really be great.
Sarah’s the shittiest sister she’s ever known.
“Welcome back,” Cosima says when the song ends. “For those of you who are just tuning in, you’re late! But we’ll forgive you, this time. As Scratch was saying, before that three minute glimpse into hell, Leda’s doing its very first all-night show and we want you to be a part of it.”
Her eyes keep drifting back to the scrawled notes on the table in front of her but she doesn’t need them, the words coming out so naturally like she’s been ready for this her whole life. It’s weird, seeing someone find their place. Seeing someone find a place that they created, and it doesn’t swallow them, and they haven’t fucked it up.
Sarah presses the edge of her nail into a torn cuticle, trying to subdue the envy. Cosima shifts the topic to The Trews to lead into the next song.
On the couch, Helena digs in the bag until she unearths a green and yellow sour gummy worm, and then lobs it over Cosima’s head towards Sarah who manages to catch it just before it hits the table. Helena’s mouth twitches in a little smile. For you, sestra.
Because Sarah hates the blue and pink ones.
And this is something Helena remembers, even when Sarah can’t always remember to wait for her before leaving for school in the morning.
Thanks, she mouths, and then chews off the worm’s green head.
Helena does the same with a blue and pink worm, grinning.
After the show, when they’re walking home together in the slightly greying sky, Helena wordlessly passes the remains of the bag to Sarah. It’s only the yellow and green worms left inside, like she specifically didn’t eat a single one.
They draw straws, because as it turns out, no one wants to miss the all-night show to get tickets for the group.
It’s one of those nice rare moments when the whole gang’s at school before first bell, Helena plastered to Sarah’s side, Beth holding Veera’s hand like she’s won the bloody lottery, and maybe she has because as Leda’s mystery guest she’s automatically out of the drawing. Veera’s out as well, because that Friday is her birthday, and Beth’s on the show to keep her company.
“I was gonna have a small party or something,” Beth told Sarah in gym class the day after it was all decided. “But you know, I think she’d like this better. Besides, we’re going back to my place in the morning.”
Then there was a comical amount of eyebrow waggling even though neither Beth nor Veera care for anything beyond making out that had Sarah tossing a ball at her with great force just to make it stop.
Anyway, it’s only three suckers doing the draw, and then it’s one sucker with the short straw in her hand, and even though everyone puts on a sympathetic face Sarah knows the lot of them are all glad they won’t be stuck in the cold for ten excruciating hours.
“Tough luck, buddy,” Tony says a second before he snorts.
Helena pats Sarah’s arm with great seriousness. “Sarah, I will wait with you. We can take the sleeping bags and much hot chocolate.”
Then she sneezes.
“Right,” Sarah says, even though she knows the likelihood of Mrs. S letting that happen if Helena even sniffles in her presence.
Beth tries to hide her laugh behind the hand that isn’t holding Veera’s, but all that does is transform it into a mildly evil muffled chuckle, and Sarah gives her shin a halfhearted kick to shut her up.
“Yeah, fuck off,” she says to Beth’s snicker.
“You’d better be grateful you’re so weak, because if you’d hurt me there my girlfriend would have to kick your ass,” Beth says, nudging Veera forward as Veera pretends to look menacing.
It’s all incredibly cute, and Cosima rolls her eyes in Sarah’s direction at how sappy it is. Perpetually single, the two of them have had no time for this whole relationship. Especially not when they make it look so easy.
“But, then I would have to kick your girlfriend’s ass,” Helena says with a shrug. “So who wins then.”
Everyone has to laugh at that, and then the bell rings, and the six of them grudgingly break apart to get to their first class. Sarah and Helena are at least in the same hall, so they walk together until they’re at Helena’s room and the ESL teacher waves from her desk and Helena lifts her eyes upwards because she’s still working on mastering the eye roll.
They hug, even though it’s something else they’re still working on. Helena always crushes like it’s her last chance to be this close. Sarah prefers to breathe. But. It makes Helena happy.
And then Sarah’s alone, forced to face the beast by herself.
She can already hear Rachel Duncan and Evie Cho arguing about something in the English classroom because of course they get to class early just to bicker. It’s impressive in a pathetic way. Or it’s just pathetic, and they’re all too chicken to say a word against the cheerleading captain and Principal Leekie’s personal arse-kisser.
At the very least Rachel and Evie were kind enough to stage their argument at the front of the class, where their poor teacher’s trapped at her desk with only a thermos of coffee to save her. (She’s sipping it slowly like she knows she has to make it last.)
Sarah slips past the ruckus to her usual seat at the very back and puts headphones in until the teacher manages to put an end to- what is it today? A debate on the exact nature of Poe’s relationship with his cousin. Christ.
Twelve minutes later, the teacher finally rises. Everyone takes their seats. Evie sends one last menacing glare to Rachel, which Rachel doesn’t return if only to look like the bigger person.
The teacher continues on with the current theme of madness in literature, today being the last day to discuss Poe before their assignments are due, so clearly Rachel and Evie were just getting a head start. Next they’ll be reading One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the teacher says, writing dates on the board, which Cosima’s at least read for fun so Sarah won’t be completely lost.
This whole damn class is just her struggling to keep her chin above water. She still has no idea why they continue to put her in academic English; she and Helena should switch, let Sarah go back to the basics of this damn language while Helena breezes through literary analysis.
There are a few things to copy down from the dusty board — which Rachel does at an unnatural speed, twisting in her seat to make sure everyone knows. Or-
To look at Sarah. Uh.
Rachel’s features soften for just a second, and Sarah remembers the dog park, where for a full ten minutes Rachel appeared something close to human.
There are three rows of kids between them, too many to say anything, and anyway it’s just as well as Sarah honestly has nothing. Not a single thing. Just a couple dust motes drifting around in her brain. And then as quick as it came Rachel’s back to facing the board, adjusting the sleeves of her grey blazer like this is still a school of overachievers.
They didn’t even have a uniform, apparently. Cosima asked. This is just how Rachel’s always dressed.
Sarah finally remembers she was supposed to be copying something down just as the teacher goes to erase it, so if she and Rachel ever talk she can let her know it’s all her fault. That whatever Sarah fails next is fully on Rachel’s shoulders.
Weirdly, a part of her looks forward to it.
“So guess what?” Beth says in gym class.
They’re practicing basketball drills, which basically means for the past ten minutes they’ve been alternating trying to keep the ball from their partner and Beth gets it within the first bounce and Sarah hasn’t stolen it at all.
It’s fine, because Sarah doesn’t care. But Beth also doesn’t care, having sworn off all sports except cheerleading (“if you don’t think it’s a sport go ahead and try it,” Beth’s challenged many people) and track, mostly to spite her dad but a little because she’s tired of being naturally good at everything. She has brothers, she says, like that explains it.
One brother’s a lit major and the other two have been focused on a single sport because they have to work for their talent, but okay. Sarah doesn’t mention it. They all have shit they keep under a rug.
“Hm,” Sarah guesses, as Beth grabs the ball again too easy. “You’ve figured out a way to clone yourself to build the ultimate human pyramid.”
Beth makes a face. “What? No.”
“Well anything else’ll just be disappointing,” Sarah says, pretending to be miffed.
Beth tosses the ball back hard, and Sarah catches it in the stomach with an oof. The gym teacher looks over at the sound but seems surprised that Sarah caught it at all, and writes something on her clipboard. Maybe she’ll actually get higher than a C in this unit.
“I came up with my radio name,” Beth says. Sarah doesn’t drop the ball yet because she knows it’ll only be back in Beth’s hands in a second. “You know, for the all-nighter.”
“Oh,” Sarah says.
Now that she’s the one sitting it out it kind of stings a little, but she isn’t going to purposely rain on Beth’s parade. Veera told her Beth’s been making lists of all the topics she might bring up and all the jokes she could say and it’s optimistic in a way that makes Sarah’s stomach hurt.
“Well you have a Newton,” Beth says, even though her eyes flicker over Sarah’s face like they’re absorbing the disappointment. “So you obviously need an Einstein. What do you think?”
“It’s great,” Sarah says, forcing out a grin.
It is. Cosima will love it.
She drops the ball to halfheartedly dribble it and Beth must have figured it all out because she doesn’t even try to go for it. Just lets Sarah slap the rubber with her palm each time it comes back up, hoping it’ll hit on a wrong angle and take a long trip across the gym so they don’t have to do this anymore.
“Look, I didn’t intend to replace you,” Beth says, frowning, although it is sympathetic.
“I know,” Sarah says. The gym teacher looks over again and Beth sighs and swipes the ball and then hugs it to her chest. “I just wish we could all be there. Together.”
“I could try to make Alison get the tickets for us,” Beth says, cradling the ball. “But there’s no guarantee she’d spend the night. You know how she is with anything outside her comfort zone.”
“Yeah,” Sarah says, even though she doesn’t.
She tries to make a habit of steering clear of Beth’s best friend. Hanging around one cheerleader is bad enough; she suspects if they had the same lunch she’d end up at their table, and she can only imagine what prolonged exposure to that many pompoms would do to her.
It’s still ridiculous that Beth’s on the cheerleading team, even two years later. But then they’ve all done ridiculous things for the people they love, Sarah figures.
Most of the time they don’t include scrunchies, but. Sarah’s learned not to judge.
“It’s fine,” she says, because even though Alison might say yes if Beth asked, it’s not something Sarah wants to owe her. “I’m probably the best girl for the job, anyway. We didn’t have heat in our first place here so I’ve got tons of stuff to keep warm. Thermal underwear, insulated sleeping bags…”
Beth’s looking at her like she’s suddenly something that needs to be handled with care, even as Sarah clears her throat and tugs at the hem of her ugly satin green gym shorts.
Beth finally drops the ball, but Sarah doesn’t try to get it back because she’s sure Beth would let her. And it would be one hundred percent pity. So the ball bounces back into Beth’s hand and Beth continues to dribble it, perfectly, unable to shift her gaze from Sarah.
“Was that before Helena?” Beth asks, because apparently Sarah’s told her business to too many people.
Or too many people have seen her drunk, and she can’t seem to shut her bloody mouth when she’s had a few drinks in her and thinks the whole world cares about her troubles. It’s always humiliating once she sobers up but it still doesn’t stop her from doing it the next time.
“Mhm, yep,” she says, relieved when the gym teacher blows her whistle.
Everyone starts to jog back to return the balls to the rack, Sarah walking her usual slow pace, only this time Beth hangs back with her like Sarah’s curt answer didn’t finish the conversation. Sarah turns to give her a scowl but there’s something in Beth’s face that stops her.
“We went a little while without heat too, when my dad lost his job,” she says, and the ball in her hands looks a little too orange. A little too clean.
It’s one of those things Sarah knows enough about to know she really knows nothing, that mostly it’s collected fragments from people who meant well or the few times Beth said anything herself, and she’s respectful enough to never ask. Everyone has something like that. Business that doesn’t belong to anyone else.
“It’s the pits,” Sarah says, and Beth agrees.
They slip the ball back on the rack with everyone else’s and it goes back to being a dull, dirty colour to match its neighbours. They’re the last ones, and with their ball in place the gym teacher calls for squads, everyone trudging to their lines.
Beth and Sarah split, because C and M aren’t close enough in the alphabet.
Beth tightens her ponytail and stares straight ahead.
On Wednesday, Cosima and Sarah go shopping for Veera’s birthday gift after the show’s over.
Helena was supposed to come with them, supposed to have the great ideas about what Veera might want, but she didn’t even make it to the show, having gone home sick during third period with a horribly wet cough.
Every so often she catches a cold that makes its way to her lungs, another one of those nice reminders of her stint in the Ukrainian orphanage between foster families, and in between antibiotics and inhalers she always tries to tell Sarah isn’t as bad as the coughing sounds. That really, she’s fine. But Sarah’s shared a room with her long enough to know it sucks.
And that it puts a huge damper on their all-nighter plans.
“I will be there,” Helena promised in the school hallway, when she pulled Sarah from class to tell her she was heading home. “Even if I must lie to Mrs. S.”
Sarah’s not getting her hopes up, because she knows how these things go. But it’s nice that Helena cares like this. And maybe if she gets enough rest she’ll stop coughing so much and Mrs. S really will let her go. Sarah will give up an afternoon of shopping for that.
“So you should know I’m on a limited budget,” Cosima says when they get off the streetcar, eyes on the traffic cluttering the road.
“Mate, me too,” Sarah says. “I mean I try to save my allowance, but…”
“No, I totally get it. I’m right there with you,” Cosima says, and then they both dash across the street as if cars aren’t speeding at them, ignoring the honks.
It’s warmer than it usually is this late in November, which bodes well for the all-nighter, but Sarah’s still grateful to step inside Value Village with the nice blast of stale warm air that replaces the chill of outside. Cosima’s glasses don’t fog up, which is a sure sign that it isn’t truly cold yet. As soon as the temperature properly drops she has to spend a few minutes in the mouth of every building just waiting for her sight to return.
It’s comical because it doesn’t happen to Sarah. Thankfully, she didn’t spend her childhood reading in low lighting or whatever nerdy thing cost Cosima her sight so she doesn’t have to suffer.
They decide to hit up the music section first, even though anything that Veera would want she probably has already. There are a disturbing number of cassette tapes waiting for someone to take pity on them — Sarah heavily considers something homemade and faded just for the laughs before Cosima tugs her along.
“We could always just get her a shitload of candy,” Sarah suggests in the sweater section.
It’s only a month and a bit to Christmas so all of the holiday stuff is out already, more than a few ugly Christmas sweaters clogging up the shelves. Sarah holds out a particularly gruesome Santa sweater and Cosima laughs loud enough to disturb the lady in the next aisle.
“We should’ve brought Beth,” Cosima says as they’re picking through shirts, fingers catching on too many sequins. “This is ridiculous.”
Sarah frowns at a t-shirt with a bear on the front, cartoony and cute and not far off of what Veera already has. But that’s also the problem, and Sarah lets the shirt slide back between the rest of them with a sigh.
“We could always call her,” she says.
Cosima shakes her head. “It’s cheerleading today. Don’t want to incur Alison’s wrath.”
“I thought you loved Alison’s wrath,” Sarah teases, passing on yet another shirt that looks far too similar to something Veera’s worn before.
“I did,” Cosima says, “back in elementary school, before she got all strong and it started to hurt when she punched me. You wouldn’t think, but she’s scarily good at concentrating her anger to leave a mark.”
“Doesn’t surprise me, actually,” Sarah says. She’s witnessed enough of Alison’s tiny rages to get the picture.
They abandon the shirts for the homegoods, coming to a stop at the giant wall of mugs. Every one of them is a winner.
“Oh look, Kwanzaa,” Cosima says, pointing at a festive mug near the top of the wall. “Good to see some diversity.”
Sarah’s phone rings and it’s her foster mum, so she dips away to the appliances to take the call. Hello, Sarah. When’ll you be home, Sarah. Your sister’s sick, Sarah. I’m sure you’ve got homework, Sarah. When she hangs up Cosima’s found a mug shaped like an old-school desktop computer and a small ceramic sheep who breaks in two to become salt and pepper shakers. The back half is pepper and the front half is salt, and it’s all so weird that Veera will love it.
They have just enough time to stop in at Shoppers Drug Mart to grab some candy to go in the mug, spending the rest of that limited budget on sweets and a blue Gatorade for both of them. (It’s two for three dollars, so they have to.)
It’s fully dark by the time they leave, and they stand at the streetcar stop for what seems like forever, sipping their Gatorades until their tongues are blue, Cosima holding the bags because they agreed she should be the one to put it all together. She’s more responsible and she’s an only child, so the odds of it getting destroyed before they can give it to Veera are pretty slim.
And then the streetcar comes, and Cosima gets on with a little wave to Sarah, and Sarah walks home alone.
Helena greets her with a hug when she steps in the door, squeezing her like she’s a bloody stress ball. It’s nice. Sarah melts into it for a second, and then Helena pulls back to cough and it sounds like she’s in the process of coughing up a lung.
“You feel cold,” Helena tuts when she’s done coughing.
“You look sick,” Sarah counters.
They grin at each other.
“Mrs. S is making meatloaf for dinner,” Helena says, following Sarah up the stairs so Sarah can drop her stuff on her bed.
Sarah makes a face even though she doesn’t mind meatloaf, and then she wonders if it’s all the telly she internalized as a kid; all those sitcoms where kids hate their mothers because that’s what their fathers do. It’s strange. A strange feeling.
“Sweet,” she says, and drops onto her bed herself.
Helena does the same. Echoes, “Sweet.”
Sarah can smell the meatloaf wafting up from the kitchen and it’s warm and smells like love.
Helena’s cough doesn’t improve at all over the weekend, and between Mrs. S threatening to take her to the walk-in clinic and Felix googling symptoms on his tablet to let Helena know she has the plague and the mumps and cancer and is pregnant the house becomes unbearably stifling.
For that reason and for Sarah’s craving of a chocolate chip muffin (“you know you could be pregnant too, cravings are one of the first symptoms,” Felix says to her glare), they leave for school ridiculously early Monday morning. It’s cold; enough for Sarah to press against Helena’s side the whole walk, and a sense of dread falls over her for Friday’s campout.
“My toes could like, fall off,” she says to Helena in the cafeteria, when they’re behind two people in line, seeking out that chocolate chip muffin and a lemon cranberry for Helena.
Helena usually prefers some kind of flavoured yogurt, oddly fond of mixing it with granola, but any time she coughs like this dairy is immediately out of the question. Too much mucus. It’s heartbreaking.
“I won’t let them,” Helena vows. She gives Sarah’s hand a squeeze then coughs again, and the girl in line behind them takes a step to the side. “Many many socks, and your good boots, and you should have your toes by morning. Don’t worry.”
Sarah’s about to say something but they’re at the cash and the cafeteria lady looks at them expectantly, and as Helena orders a little part of Sarah keeps whispering Helena knows what it’s like to be cold, Helena didn’t have all those pairs of socks, you have no reason to be complaining, like a thick metallic taste in the back of her throat.
Helena hands over her muffin wrapped in cellophane. They head to a table by a window, still too early for the sun to do anything but blearily smudge some grey through the glass.
“Will you still love me if I have no toes?” Sarah says jokingly, just to silence the gremlin of a voice inside her.
Helena looks over at her quite seriously, the chunk of muffin between her fingers stilling, and Sarah feels the joke die in the air between them.
“Always,” Helena says. It’s a knife.
Sarah doesn’t know what to say in response and Helena seems to want to hide behind that single word like it’s a wall she built in an empty field, just flowers and dirt and now this mound of stone, and they eat their muffins and don’t say anything else. Helena goes back for more muffins once they finish, bringing Sarah back a shitty cup of tea that Sarah fits into a specific spot in front of her to watch it cool.
Beth shows up just as the sun’s making itself known, when the cafeteria lights up gold, and joins them at their table with a water bottle and all her cheer stuff in a cheer-branded duffel bag that she drops onto the linoleum.
She’s exhausted in a way that Sarah usually doesn’t get to see; it’s the exhaustion of working hard at something you love, and the sweat on her hairline is earned, wanted, the ache of her muscles as she stretches them something she seeks. She’s almost a different person. Or- Sarah’s rarely around after cheer practices with them all taking place super early or terribly late, but maybe this is who Beth really is. When she’s in her element.
“Are you eating that?” Beth asks, pointing her water bottle at Sarah’s nearly-whole muffin.
Sarah passes it over, lips curling in a smile.
Beth devours it like she’s never seen food before, hilarious with her next to Helena, who’s currently picking at her muffin with mild scrutiny. Usually it’s the other way around. Usually neither of them are bathed in a soft gold light either, but here they’re all sitting in the morning sun and the listless cafeteria looks beautiful and everything, everything glows.
Sarah sips her tea. That gremlin voice in her switches to something softer, says, you’ll remember this exact moment even when you’re eighty. Just her sister with her shimmering curls and Beth taking out her ponytail and the two of them lost in their own small moments. A table full of quiet.
It’s gone three minutes later when Tony shows up with Veera, the pair of them at school this early for their own ritualistic reasons, filling up the table with an animated conversation that seems alien without knowing the first half.
Still, Veera puts it on hold to say hi to her girlfriend, kissing the top of her head with a tenderness that tugs at Sarah’s chest. She looks to Helena, who seems to also be feeling the pull, pressing her lips together in a response only for Sarah.
“Never thought I’d see Sarah Manning in school before the late bell,” Tony says, grinning, and Sarah flicks a muffin crumb his way.
“She was here early last week, dipshit,” Beth says with an impressive eye roll. “That’s when we saddled her with the all-nighter.”
“Right, yeah,” Tony says, then shrugs an apology at Sarah.
She rolls her eyes as well and Beth shakes her head, a smile twisting her mouth.
“Speaking of,” Beth says, sitting up straighter in her chair. Veera turns at the sound of her voice. “Could you pick up an extra ticket for Teddy? I have the money.”
Sarah rubs her nose and then sniffs. “Your brother’s coming? Chaperone, huh?”
Beth lifts her shoulders like there’s nothing she can do, but Sarah doesn’t press, knowing how Beth’s parents are. Four kids and only one of them seems to merit this much attention. Sarah still remembers her thirteenth birthday party, the sleepover, where one of Beth’s brothers sat in the kitchen with Mrs. S until well near eleven just to make sure there was adequate supervision. Sorry, Beth kept saying. Over and over until Cosima hit her with a pillow.
“As long as he doesn’t try to hang out with us, I’m cool with it,” Tony says, bumping Beth’s leg under the table with his foot. “Teddy’s pretty chill. Henry, on the other hand…”
Veera snickers, sharing his sentiment. She’s put in far too many hours at the Childs’ to not feel the same.
“Yeah, well, there’s bound to be at least one asshole in every family,” Beth says with a little mirth.
Helena glances between Sarah and Beth, hesitant, then says, “And your family lucked out with so many, hm?”
It’s the kind of joke they’d expect from Sarah, but Sarah’s heart is bursting with pride at the mystification and laughter it produces at the table as they all try to process it. Helena’s smile is devious. Beth can only snort, fully agreeing.
“At least I’m in good company,” she says, which no one can deny.
Tony finally gets up to grab himself something to eat, always ready to take full advantage of the free breakfast program despite his mom cooking for him every morning. He’s gone long enough for Cosima to join them, abandoning the science lab for a subpar cup of coffee, taking the last seat at the table.
That solves it, really. They can’t have any more friends — there just aren’t enough seats at a table to support it.
“Did you talk to Sarah?” Cosima asks Beth, struggling with the plastic lid on her coffee cup.
“I did,” Beth says. She stares at Cosima’s fingers and the lid until Veera lets out a tiny huff and takes it from her, fitting the lid in place with ease, then returning it to grateful hands. “Obviously no one wants Teddy to come, but. It’s either that or my dad standing in the back with like, a shotgun. Because god forbid I go out on my own when some boy might get me pregnant.”
“Ah, the plight of bisexuality,” Cosima says, even though Veera crinkles her nose.
“I’m glad I play such an important role in your life,” Veera says.
Beth’s eyebrows go up in concern and then she has Veera’s hands in hers, apologizing, holding her hands like they’re something she’s already broken and desperately wants to fit back together.
“No, you know how he is, he’s an idiot,” she says, as Veera says she knows, she gets it, it’s okay.
It’s uncomfortable, everyone trying not to watch, but their only other option is to stare at Tony with his tray piled high beelining for their table before a cafeteria lady notices how many apple juices he took from the fridge and he’s yet another trainwreck for them to pretend they don’t see.
“Well,” Cosima says, with Veera and Beth still in their moment, and Tony dropping down hard beside her. “Uh, Sarah, I have a bunch of handwarmers from our camping trips that I’ll bring for you. For the line. To uh, keep your hands warm.”
“Now your fingers won’t fall off,” Helena murmurs, giving Sarah’s fingers a little tap on the tabletop.
Sarah peels her eyes away from Beth and Veera. “Shit, thanks Cos. You don’t have to.”
“No worries,” Cosima says.
“My mom’s making you cookies,” Tony says, handing over an apple juice that Sarah tucks into her bag for later.
“Chocolate chip?” Helena asks. “Those are her favourite.”
She coughs again and everyone winces, too aware of the likelihood of her joining Sarah on Friday with the cough sounding like that. It’d be a good sound effect for an alien movie, but not for appeasing their mum.
“Of course,” Tony says. He hands Helena a juice as well and she takes it between her hands and curls her fingers around it.
“I love your mum,” Sarah says, even though he knows that.
His mom is always baking, always cooking, sending food when Tony mentions Sarah had a bad day or when she thinks Mrs. S is getting overworked because she’s all about solidarity for single mothers. Sarah’s never been to Tony’s house without there being at least two things on the stove and something ready on the counter, so his mom has a permanent spot in her top five. (Maybe bumping out Tony. She hasn’t looked at the numbers in a while.)
“I have a cot for you, actually,” Beth says, leaving her little Veera bubble. “So you won’t be directly on the ground. It’s like winter camping — the best way to stay warm is to stay elevated.”
The table stares at her. Even Cosima, whose family goes camping in the country every August.
“Oh I forgot, none of you assholes suffered through Girl Guides,” Beth says.
“Hey,” Tony says, a hand up. “Before my mom realized she had a son, not a daughter, I had to suffer through two years of Brownies, thank-you very much.”
“Brownies don’t go camping,” Beth counters, even though her frown lessens.
“They do too,” Tony says.
“No, it’s in buildings, it doesn’t count,” Beth says.
Tony huffs. “Actually-”
“Actually whatever, it isn’t winter camping, you weren’t stuck in tents in January, and the other girls didn’t all hate you and throw your underwear down the outhouse. All of it.” Beth folds her arms over her chest like this’ll distance herself from her statement, but Veera rubs her shoulder anyway.
“Beth…” Cosima says.
Beth shrugs. “The point is I have a cot. Do you want it or not, Sarah?”
“I- yeah, sure,” Sarah stumbles. The table’s suddenly laden with landmines and she’s not sure when it happened. Tony throws her an appreciative glance for a benign response, and then Helena steps in, asking Beth about other tips for staying warm.
“I’ll be there for at least part of it, so I want to know how to prepare,” she says, scooting her chair closer to Beth.
They sidebar and it gets easy again, and everyone has juice from Tony whether they want it or not. When something’s free he just can’t pass it up. He also grabbed a bunch of fruit salads, the kind in a strange carbonated juice, which they pick at while Helena and Beth discuss the best way to ensure Sarah doesn’t get hypothermia as she does them all the biggest favour of the year.
Sarah lets out a breath that edges up on a sigh. Veera makes eye contact, shaking her head with her tiny smile.
There’s still, somehow, fifteen bloody minutes to first bell.
Just before the bell rings, Radio Swan’s awful jingle cuts through the chatter of the caf to signal the morning announcements. Beth’s already gone, taking Veera to their lockers for something birthday-related, and Tony’s trying to weasel another bagel out of a cafeteria lady, so it’s only Sarah, Helena, and Cosima who are stuck at the table with the piercing sound of Rachel’s voice.
“And so we find ourselves, DYAD Collegiate, at the dawn of a new day. One that is yours to twist however you like, good or bad, impactful or monotonous. As with each day we’re given the choice is yours. This is Rachel Duncan with your morning announcements.”
Helena makes a fart noise with her mouth as Rachel runs through the clubs meeting today and an update on the construction in the parking lot. Basketball game this Thursday, football in two weeks, some cheer meet coming up that she sounds oddly kind about considering Evie’s the team captain.
“I hate her,” Sarah mutters to no one in particular.
It’s the usual script — Rachel talks and they all tune her out, and someone says they hate her, and someone comments on how annoying her voice is, and someone mockingly repeats a line or two at which everyone laughs. Only it’s just the three of them today, and Helena isn’t playing.
The dog park, maybe? Sarah raises her eyebrows at her, trying to suss it out, but Helena’s hyper-focused on a nick in the tabletop and won’t look Sarah’s way.
And then it doesn’t matter, because Rachel shifts from the announcements to her own commentary and all of them sit up with a fresh wave of irritation.
“It’s come to my attention that the little station that couldn’t will be putting on an all-night show for those of you spending your Friday night in the ticket line,” Rachel says, voice crackling with villainous glee and subpar broadcasting equipment. “Since that’s painful enough, may I suggest a list of alternatives for your listening pleasure?”
“I hate her,” Cosima says sharper than Sarah, glaring at the speaker up in the corner as Rachel begins her list.
“Dead air. A man on a park bench clipping his toenails. Your own tragic inner monologue. Two strangers next to you engaging in frightful PDA for an hour straight, and somehow their gum ends up in your hair. Listeners, I can only recommend noise-cancelling headphones.”
Helena tilts her head all the way back until she’s frowning at the ceiling. “I will kill her. Knife to the throat and thip- gone. No more Rachel Duncan thorn in our sides.”
Sarah laughs, a little too dark for Monday morning, enjoying the image nonetheless.
There’s only two minutes to the bell so they gather their stuff to stand up, all freezing in place as Rachel doesn’t lead into the morning song that usually rushes kids to class but instead goes off script with about as much enjoyment as everyone gets from listening to her.
“I do have one treat for you all, however,” Rachel utters, voice dripping with disdain. “It is my pleasure to introduce Radio Swan’s newest DJ, Paul Dierden, who will take you into this morning’s song. Paul?”
Sarah, Cosima, and Helena share a what the fuck look as Tony rejoins them with an equally perplexed expression.
“Thanks, Rach,” Paul says. Paul Dierden, captain of the lacrosse team, of the basketball team, of the soccer team, of-
Jesus, basically the male Rachel. If Rachel had charisma and people thought she was the coolest person on earth. Paul Dierden? Sarah mouths to Cos, who can only shake her head. Paul.
“Either Leekie’s losing interest in his little pet or Rachel’s slipping,” Tony says, hefting his backpack over his shoulder in a maneuver that doesn’t disturb the bagel in his other hand. “But the world’s definitely ending.”
His step towards the hall gets everyone walking with him, leaving crumbs and a few wrappers on the table that Sarah would feel bad about if she didn’t hate literally everyone in this school except her friends, and the song finally pushes through the PA like it too is disturbed at being held back a full minute for Paul Dierden.
Sarah actually kind of feels bad for Rachel.
For a second.
Then she remembers everything that came before that announcement, and the world is right as annoyance fills her once again.
“They deserve each other,” she says to the air, everyone too busy trying not to get crushed in the surge of kids rushing to class to hear her.
Even before the Delta York Academy infiltrated the school it was like an honest to god stampede in the halls every morning, throngs after throngs of students all shoving to get where they’re going. It isn’t so bad on the upper floors but somehow that’s never where Sarah is. You get what you give, Mrs. S always says, so Sarah’s obviously due a bit of the universe pushing back. But still. She’d prefer it wasn’t with so many elbows.
“See you second period?” Cos says as they separate at a stairwell, grabbing Tony before he’s swallowed up by an opposite current, referring to her and Sarah’s unofficial standing appointment in the girls’ bathroom every morning.
Sarah nods, giving her a lazy two-finger salute. She and Helena head for the English hall.
“I think I’ll have a third muffin at lunch today,” Helena says, happily bumping along at Sarah’s side as they squeeze into a hallway that’s less crowded.
She’s glowing, still, a remnant from breakfast. Sarah almost wants to tell her she has sun caught in her hair but then it might go away, and she doesn’t want to take the gold from her. Not when it seems like it’s something that should belong to her.
“You’ll have to pay,” Sarah says. They dodge an A/V cart and the handful of students that follow it.
Helena shakes her head, curls flying. “Not so. I have a friend in the cafeteria, likes me more than the rest of you.”
It isn’t surprising, really. Helena makes friends everywhere. The dog park, the library, crowded subway cars… she’s like a puppy herself, always fixing herself to whoever will love her. Or ply her with food. But. Most of the time it feels like the same thing.
They reach the ESL class with a heavy sigh, and Sarah wishes more than ever they could trade places. She can already hear Evie and Rachel shouting about something a few rooms down and it’s exhausting. Helena makes a face, pitying. They exchange a hug that’s more like a metal claw in some rigged carnival game, grasping but not quite securing, hurting all the same. I’m sorry, Sarah wants to whisper into Helena’s hair, for nothing in particular.
Just that feeling she has when she remembers she’s a sister. A twin. When there’s a part of her that wasn’t a part of her for long enough to let herself forget.
Helena disappears into the classroom with a cough, sounding more like armour with how people step aside. She’s so good at that: drawing up boundary lines. Sarah builds walls, but. They always have holes. Always keep the wrong people out.
She doesn’t mean to do it, just like she doesn’t mean to bump into Rachel as she enters her own class, hip crashing into Rachel’s side with enough force to bruise.
Rachel whips around with a mask of anger that just sort of sits on her face as she takes in who hit her.
“Sorry,” Sarah stutters, genuinely apologetic.
Rachel’s eyes dart under the mask and rest on Sarah’s lips and finally a hand comes up, waving it away. No matter. Move on. It’s foreign enough for Evie to take note, staring at Sarah like she’s some vial of poison until Sarah’s seated at the back of the class and Evie remembers she was in the middle of a debate.
“You always were so stuck in your ways, Rachel,” Evie says in response to something Sarah wasn’t here to witness. If it bothers Rachel it doesn’t show.
“And you were always too eager to leave the past behind,” Rachel says, flippantly calm.
It’s the first time a debate doesn’t end in verbal blows, with Rachel taking her seat before the teacher has to look up from her thermos and startling Evie and the rest of the class into a strange silence. No one quite knows how to break it with Rachel just sitting there, her spine the softest rod of steel.
Another blazer, Sarah notices. This one burgundy.
It matches the bow hanging loose around Evie’s neck, tied in a thin satiny cord.
Sarah’s not the only one paying more attention to them than the teacher who’s finally starting her lesson — the boy at the desk beside her, Arthur, or Art, or she isn’t quite sure, has a mildly interested expression fixed on the pair of them like he too is seeing something past the argument.
Sarah would ask, but the last time they spoke was the introductory icebreaker game of modified bingo the teacher forced upon them on the first day of school. Do you have any pets? Sarah asked. No, he said, and she said Christ, and then he said wait, actually, I have a couple fish, and she rolled her eyes and made him sign his name in the corresponding square. Before he could ask she said I speak another language, here, gimme, and signed the square, and he said really? and she said what, you think they’ll be checking? and they both grinned. But that was it. He hasn’t even asked for a pencil, although she supposes she’s not the kind of girl you’d ask for school supplies.
He stops looking at Rachel and Evie anyway, sitting up a little straighter as the teacher passes out copies of their next book. The crappy part of this is that Sarah’ll have to dig up her copy of the last book they read, because the teacher’s sure to be asking soon. Or maybe the crappy part is that she actually has to read this book. The fucking cuckoo nest.
It takes place in a psychiatric facility, the teacher’s saying, chalk poised to start scribbling on the board. Sarah squints even though she knows she won’t be able to read it either way. Between the teacher’s shitty handwriting and Sarah’s uninterested eyesight it’s all a blur.
She’s grateful when the class ends and even more grateful when she gets to dip out of second period, math, to meet Cosima in the girls’ bathroom. Good riddance to all that shite.
As far as bathrooms go it’s a nice one, up on the third floor. It’s one of the old ones, still with the separated sinks and the long, speckled wall of mirror, the stalls scarred with years of graffiti. All the pale pink tile, under the flickering of tepid fluorescent light, gives it the appearance of a movie set — sometimes it’s a period piece, sometimes it’s a horror.
Once Sarah found a handprint of blood on the porcelain curve of the sink and it oddly didn’t feel like a horror movie day, the way the lights were casting their shivering shadows over the L-shaped room. That day was definitely a drama. Short skirts and someone crying on the phone.
The real point of atmosphere is that there isn’t a single window, all the light coming from the long tubes behind the light fixtures up above with the cemented mounds of spitballs and paper towel. That’s why it takes on the mood of whoever’s in it. That’s why it shouldn’t be their favourite bathroom at all, but somehow it transforms itself into something self-contained, a little pocket of safety away from the rest of the school.
So this is where they meet. Any time Sarah doesn’t feel like trying to figure out math without Veera and Cosima’s grown tired of expressing her feelings in art class. Of course that means Cosima’s often sporting evidence of just having left the art room: charcoal smudges, long strips of dried glue. Nothing she ever cares enough to deal with.
She’s freckled with paint today when Sarah walks in; little dots of blue and yellow, mixing in places to make green. Sarah smiles as she meets her. Cosima’s at the sink but isn’t doing anything to wash it off, instead staring at herself in the mirror just absorbing her reflection.
“Do you ever think about how weird it is to have skin?” she says, eyes mapping her own face through the glass.
Sarah snorts and moves over to the counter that was probably installed with diaper changes in mind, but has now become a place for bags to vomit their contents and girls like Sarah to sit on and pray it doesn’t break off the wall.
“All that pot is catching up with you,” she warns, and Cosima laughs.
“That may be,” she says. For a second it looks like she’s about to say more, but she just continues to watch herself in the mirror, finally slipping her glasses onto her head to touch up her eyeliner.
Sarah swings her legs from her perch on the counter, watching and not watching, eyes on Cosima’s hand with the eyeliner brush, thoughts drifting back to her run-in with Rachel this morning. All she could really say about it is I bumped into her and she wasn’t mad but her brain keeps trying to spit it out anyway, like it needs someone else to know for it to be real.
“So what do you think about Paul?” she eventually comes up with in replacement.
Cosima’s done her eyeliner and moves over to Sarah’s half of the room, taking a seat on the ledge of the heater. Of course it isn’t on. The temperature at this school is either freezing or the bowels of hell itself, and since Sarah isn’t sweating buckets she knows the metal under Cosima’s butt is as cold as Rachel’s heart.
“Almost makes me feel bad for Rachel,” Cosima says, and for a second Sarah thinks she spoke out loud, and that Cosima’s gone soft, until Cosima adds, “fucking Paul.”
Sarah lets out a dragging breath.
“Remember that party?” she asks semi-wryly. Cosima snorts.
“Of course I do. That’s why I almost feel bad for Rachel. But you know what, she deserves it. This is karma for shitting on our station all the time. At least we play good music; Radio Swan is just…”
Her hands come up in a funky twisting gesture, so Sarah supplies, “Leekie-approved bullshit on the days they remember they’re supposed to be a radio station?”
“Exactly,” Cosima says.
She shifts her weight on the heater, balancing on the five inches of metal ledge as if it’s actually comfortable. Sarah clears her throat and kicks her feet again, swinging, able to look clear over Cosima’s head at a fine piece of graffiti on the nearest stall, but she still accidentally catches the expression that passes across Cosima’s face — like she’s betrayed herself and has fallen back to thinking about Paul.
Sure enough: “Think he would’ve done it? Had no one come in?”
Sarah sighs. They were fourteen, he was a sophomore, Sarah always likes to pretend she’s remembering it wrong. A house party where Tony left them to puke outside and Cosima had to pee. The door they picked wasn’t the bathroom.
“I don’t know,” Sarah says.
She hadn’t seen the girl before, but that just made it worse. In the dark it could’ve been anyone.
Cosima leans her head back against the pink tiles, staring up at a fresh glob of wet paper towel glued to the ceiling. “I like to think he wouldn’t. Even if he’s like, the shittiest, I like to think it was just one of those freak things and we came in at a bad time. But then I don’t know either. That’s the thing, right? It’s not like we ever will.”
“He didn’t even say anything,” Sarah replies.
Cosima nods. Her eyes are shut. “I know.”
They stumbled in and he froze. The girl was just… Sarah apologized. And then he took off, disappearing downstairs before they could they could think to stop him.
They were drunk, is the point. They were all drunk. He was fifteen. The girl was just some girl who fell asleep. He never put his hands on her or anything. But the way he froze like that? Sarah didn’t even have to speak; Cosima just took her hand and then they shut the door behind them.
“He could’ve denied it, if he was going to,” Sarah says, unsure even two years later. “Or. I dunno. Made sure we didn’t tell.”
Ten minutes later they were back downstairs and he was dancing with another girl, someone who seemed all too pleased to have his attention like that. The moment he caught Sarah’s eye she thought she might have to join Tony outside on the lawn but it passed and she kept drinking and kissed her first girl and the night became something else to remember. Oh fucking well.
Sarah shrugs and hops off the counter, heading into a stall to pee. The water bottle she downed in English to keep herself occupied has made its reappearance, and by the time she’s done Cosima’s moved on and has something else to talk about.
“So the record store’ll be playing our show through their external speakers,” she says as Sarah washes her hands.
The soap at this school sucks and is too pink and runny and makes Sarah’s nose itch. She keeps threatening to start bringing her own, but it’s been three years and she’s never quite gotten to it.
“Oh?” she says.
Cosima stands up, moves over to the sink next to Sarah to examine her makeup again. Having precise eyeliner is hard work, Sarah’s noticed.
“I talked to them,” Cosima says. “They’ll broadcast all night, until the doors open. I thought we’d have to like, count on people to bring their own little radios but this is good news.”
Sarah smiles, scrubs a bit at the pen drawing on the inside of her wrist before deciding to leave it. “Yeah,” she says. “It is.”
But then she pauses.
“Wait, who’d you talk to them as? You or Newton? We are anonymous, you know. It’d be nice not to fuck that up.”
Cosima’s pulled a lipstick out of her giant bag and has it perched just in front of her lips, freezing to shoot Sarah a look through the mirror. “Newton, obviously. It was on the phone. Turns out they’re all about supporting the local music scene.”
She lifts her shoulders and goes back to what she was doing, which is applying a strangely orange-coloured lipstick to her puckered lips, as Sarah considers this new piece of information. She hadn’t exactly seen them as part of any kind of scene but she supposes they are — it’s weird, but in a nice way. Like this isn’t as amateur as she thought.
“Least I’ll have some good quality tunes to get me through the night,” she says as the bathroom door creaks open.
A pair of heels click the floor and Rachel appears out of the tiny entrance hallway with the same pinched expression she’s been wearing all morning. Cosima rolls her eyes at her presence, entirely ignored in return, frowning towards Sarah as Rachel slips into a stall.
“Anyway,” Cosima says, like this was some awful interruption.
Sarah glances at Rachel’s stall door through the mirror with an odd sensation in her stomach then turns off the tap and heads to grab paper towel. Rachel’s shoes are the only thing she could see, visible from under the stall’s door like a fashionable wicked witch under the house.
“Anyway,” Sarah repeats, just to stop thinking about it.
Cosima caps the lipstick, drops it back into her bag. It’ll be a miracle if she finds it again.
“I have a really nice hot water bottle for you, for the line,” she says. “It’ll stay hot for ten hours. I usually use it for cramps or like, really cold nights, you know how the heat rarely comes on in my room, but it’ll be nice for you to have to stick under your coat or something.”
“It will, thanks,” Sarah says, taking far too long to dry her hands with a sheet of paper towel.
She can’t decide if she’s purposely stalling to look busy when Rachel comes out again or if her hands have actually given up and can’t remember how to work with Rachel in the room but Cosima notices and scrunches her face.
“Need help?” she teases.
Sarah grunts out a refusal and drops the paper towel into the trash, hands still slightly damp. “I’m good, actually. School’s too cheap to get proper paper towel but I guess we all just choose to live with it.”
The toilet flushes and Cosima glances at the stall like she truly doesn’t want to be here for its opening, as she shifts her bag’s strap higher up onto her shoulder.
“Guess I gotta get back to class,” she says, half reluctantly. “Since we all suck so much it’s mostly a participation mark. Teacher’s started to notice me disappearing at the same time every day.”
“It’s ‘cause you’re too much of a noticeable presence,” Sarah says, as if she’s any better at staying invisible. Even the teachers she hasn’t had know who she is by reputation alone. Not her fault she gets so worked up at the sheer stupidity of the guys at this school.
“Whatever,” Cosima says as the stall door opens, and then she makes a face and gives Sarah a little departing salute before hightailing it out of there so Sarah’s left alone with the beast. Fantastic. The plumbing sighs.
Rachel heads straight to the sink as if she’s alone, hands out like she’ll only let them be a part of her body again once they’re free of germs. It’s endearing. Or it would be on anyone else, Sarah forces herself to think, then averts her eyes, hauling herself to the sink closest to the wall to look like she has a purpose in here.
After a panicked second of staring blankly at her own reflection, she remembers there’s a mascara somewhere in her backpack and digs around until she finds it.
It’s a little old, but she’s sure the makeup she’s left on from yesterday could use a touch up. And at least she has something to do while Rachel methodically lathers her hands in the awful pink soap.
“Cutting class, are we?” Rachel says as Sarah has the wand to her lashes.
“Uh,” she stutters.
Rachel’s smile should be a smirk, but something stops it from quite reaching its goal. She shifts a bit, her body turning towards Sarah as if this is now a conversation, even as she rinses her hands in a stream so hot Sarah can see steam rising when she glances over.
“Not to worry,” Rachel says while her hands burn. “My lips are sealed.”
It’s a terrible thing to say, because now Sarah has to look at her lips, hating the way it makes her stomach trip over itself as she tries to yank herself back to doing her mascara.
This time, Rachel’s smile doesn’t even pretend to be anything else.
“Just trying to prevent myself from accidentally learning anything in math,” Sarah says, lifting her shoulders in a shrug that’s much too forced. “You know how it goes.”
She sounds like a blithering idiot is how it goes. And Rachel notices, still smiling as she flicks excess water into the sink before heading to get paper towel of her own. There’s a hand dryer in here, over on the opposite wall. Sarah wonders all of a sudden why no one ever uses it. There’s gum stuck all over the opening but surely it still gets the job done. And then it would mean Rachel wasn’t standing just two feet behind Sarah, staring at her with that little smile through the mirror so when Sarah looks she accidentally makes eye contact.
“I heard you’re planning on lining up to get Trews tickets,” Rachel says, breezing past Sarah’s comment. Quite likely out of courtesy. Sarah would thank her if she wasn’t still staring.
“My friends elected me, unfortunately,” she says, sounding more collected than she expects. “We drew straws. I got the short one.”
“Unfortunate indeed,” Rachel says.
She’s taking just as much time as Sarah was with the paper towel, barely even rubbing it over her skin. Is she stalling? Is this some power play? Sarah puts the mascara back in her bag and pretends to give herself a once-over as if she isn’t stuck on Rachel’s presence behind her but it does nothing to alleviate the flipping of her stomach.
So she turns around. Faces Rachel head on.
It’s a horrible choice.
Rachel’s undone a few more of the buttons on her blazer since first period, despite the need to layer up with this school’s cheap approach to heating, and Sarah has to fight to keep her eyes away from the small amount of cleavage it’s revealed. It shouldn’t be so difficult — this is Rachel, bloody Rachel Duncan, who’s managed to fuck up the whole school for her own personal gain. Rachel who doesn’t have a soul. Who’s been on Sarah’s shit list since the first week of the amalgamation.
“I’m in the same situation myself,” Rachel says, and Sarah’s been focused so hard on not staring at Rachel’s chest that she’s forgotten what the hell they were talking about.
She blinks for a second, playing it all back in her head. “Oh? Wait, you’ll be in line too?”
The paper towel drops into the garbage bin, Rachel’s hands miraculously dry.
“Mm, picking up for a few people,” she says.
There’s no polite way to say since when do you have friends so Sarah does her best to keep her mouth shut, reaching for anything else to say in response.
It must show on her face though because Rachel says, “Evie and Paul. I… drew the short straw myself, you might say.”
“Didn’t think you lot were friends,” Sarah says, a voice in her head just uttering, Paul! Paul! Paul! like a bloody flashing neon sign.
Jesus. There are too many people to hate.
“We aren’t,” Rachel says.
It’s softer than Sarah expects, soft in Rachel’s face, as if standing here in the bathroom with only a foot and a bit of space between them they’ve turned into two different people who aren’t afraid to show their necks. But then that’s all she says, and Sarah’s left staring at the stretch of vulnerable skin without a response for far too long to be socially acceptable.
Rachel eventually clears her throat and runs her hand down the length of her purse strap as if locating the metal piece connecting it to the purse was all she ever wanted to do in life.
“Well I was planning on purchasing a ticket for myself,” Rachel says, eyes now on Sarah’s dirty, mud-caked boots, “so when she questioned my interest in the band it somehow led to me offering. I do hate her.”
What is your interest in the band, Sarah wants to ask, but doesn’t because she’s more focused on the expression that passes over Rachel’s face as she says that last bit.
“She’s- something, yeah,” Sarah says, trying to find anything to give in response.
Rachel exhales through her nose. “Apparently they have a date planned, would you believe it? Evie and Paul.”
(Paul! Paul! Paul!)
Sarah grinds her molars. In any other situation she’d probably be on Evie’s side of this, with what Evie said about her bit on the football team the other week. But for some reason she’s right here with Rachel’s disgust, feeling it ball itself up inside her stomach, a hard little clump of questionable items. Evie and Paul.
“Gross,” she says.
“It is, isn’t it,” Rachel replies, her face hardening for just a second. “But it’s fine. They deserve each other.”
And then she breathes in like she’s only just realizing who she’s talking to, and that it’s in the girl’s bathroom in the middle of second period, and Sarah’s forced to see this conversation from the outside, equally jarred by the sheer oddity of being here.
Better get back to class, Rachel says with her next expression.
Sarah nods. Gives her a tiny smile that gets returned for only an instant, and then Rachel and her purse and her perfectly smooth hair disappear out the bathroom door with only the click of her heels against the linoleum. It echoes even after she’s gone.
Paul, the voice in Sarah’s head mutters, as she turns to look at herself in the mirror. God, she looks tired. And then the voice gets quieter, not from distance but tone, and says, he doesn’t belong to Rachel, so why is she so bothered, huh? Always snarky. Always irritating. But this time… Sarah considers it.
She considers it until there’s only ten minutes left to the bell and she’s forced to head back to class, and all that considering only leads her to one sensible conclusion.
It throws something stranger into the ring than she could have ever predicted.
guess who finally showed up to the party? "The All-Nighter" (part two)!
in which everyone stays up all night and what happens in the line stays in the line, unless it doesn't.
yeah, so this somehow took me a solid lifetime to complete, for no real reason other than i completely lost the ability to write for an entire year. many many thanks to the people who commented on this or sent messages or just mentioned it in passing, despite there only being 2 little chapters out there in the universe. you kept it firm in my heart so that even when i couldn't write i was still piecing it together in my head, and these past couple months when i was finally able to make typed words happen i had so much LOVE in my heart that i couldn't quit if i wanted to.
hopefully you enjoy the progression of rachel and sarah's gay situation (situ-gay-tion?) and everyone's all-nighter experience as i did, and don't think too hard about the logistics of this taking place in november or parents letting teens spend the night camped out alone in the city in our modern era, because i certainly didn't.
good time to mention the tv show, RFR, supposedly takes place in a small town despite being filmed 100% in toronto. not all plots lend themselves to city life. however, the neighbourhood i've set this in, leslieville (where the filming location of mrs. s's house is), is pretty much a gay hipster/yuppie town of its own, and i've decided it's close enough.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Friday, for whatever undeserved reason, God decides to throw Sarah a bone.
She thought for sure she’d be stuck in line alone when Helena wheezed her way to a breathing treatment at the hospital Wednesday night, despite her sister bravely trudging through school the following day with less than three hours sleep to sway their mother’s mind.
I can’t abandon you, Helena said on the walk to the warehouse, “again” unspoken despite it never being their choice, and Sarah wished she could erase their whole past. Every last awful page in a social worker’s file.
Maybe that’s why God stepped in (out of pity, Sarah’s sure, because it certainly wasn’t earned) – Mrs. S wakes them both up for school Friday morning with her pleasant grimace, and two minutes later Sarah’s smothered by Helena’s hug as they celebrate their verdict.
“Half the night, Helena’s home by one. If she starts to cough at all you call me and I’ll pick her up.”
“You won’t regret this,” Sarah promises, moving Helena’s hair out of her face so she can see.
Mrs. S sighs. “I already regret letting you go, but you’ve got a convincing group of friends.”
Sarah grins and Helena grins right back as she takes a seat on Sarah’s bed.
It’s enough for S’s dour expression to slip and the slightest smile peeks through. “Right-o,” she says, “get on it then. If you aren’t down for breakfast in fifteen minutes I’ll keep you both home tonight to help Felix with his homework.”
She leaves them with a smiling shake of her head that spurs Helena into action, bouncing to her dresser to start her morning routine as if her life depends on it. Which: maybe. They get to spend half the night bundled up with more snacks than they could ever need, just the two of them, kept company by their friends on the radio. But Sarah knows the part that matters most to Helena, and she’s equally excited to spend the time with her sister.
“If you make us late I will pop out your eyeballs with my thumbs,” Helena threatens, halfway into a pair of jeans with a little sun embroidered on the pocket, and she pauses long enough to demonstrate the popping motion.
Sarah groans, hoists herself off the bed. She’ll have enough time after school to layer up so all she needs to do now is find something to wear that doesn’t smell, easy enough with half her wardrobe conveniently spread out on the floor. Helena shoots her a disapproving look as she fishes a pair of ripped tights out of her third-favourite pair of shorts, but she ignores it. That and the little sigh, and then Helena’s muttered, “I did put away your clean laundry for you; in your dresser where it belongs, sestra.”
Same thing every morning. Helena doesn’t expect her to reply, anyway. It’d break their routine. And then they wouldn’t get to kick each other under the table as they eat breakfast or pretend to fight for space in the hall to get their shoes on. Sarah really loves it, sometimes. Having a sister. Having a twin.
She feels whole.
They make it down to breakfast with a minute to spare – if it had been Helena who kept them, Sarah would be pinching her skin behind their backs, but Helena bounces down the stairs with her fingers caught in Sarah’s and her smile matches the light that comes through the glass of the front door.
(Sarah keeps meaning to ask her about forgiveness. How you do it, how you just let go.)
Their fingers are entangled even as they drop into their usual seats, as Mrs. S passes the cereal box. Helena’s a master at pouring one-handed.
(How you keep holding on, then, when you’re letting go of the hard parts. If she’d just confess… maybe, maybe, Sarah could have it too.)
No one seems able to sit through classes today – more than the usual Friday restlessness.
Radio Swan plays the Beastie Boys at the end of lunch to herd them to their next period and the change of pace matches the unsettling energy, like they’re all bunching it up in the gaps between them in the halls, packing it in so the second the doors open to release them it’ll explode. Boom. They’re airborne.
Sarah’s leg bounces under her desk as she keeps her eyes on the clock and she knows her teacher’s saying something, but it’s muffled by the squeak of the chair and clock hands cutting notches in the feverish drone.
Somewhere in a classroom Helena might be coughing; every clock tick sounds like crackling lungs, and Sarah winces.
Mrs. S said yes, but it’s always conditional. Nothing good can ever be trusted.
U amped?? Cosima texts when everyone seems to be working on a handout Sarah doesn’t have. She’s not sure how she missed it, but the teacher’s busy grading papers and Sarah would only fill the page with anxious doodles anyway.
Something like that, she texts back.
More like ready to vomit, at the conviction it’ll somehow get ripped from her hands the second she lets herself get excited. Helena will have to stay home, Sarah will get stuck with, god, Rachel, ruining her night for more reasons than she can think about.
(Maybe that’s part of the nausea, too. But if she considers it-)
Cosima always has a dog picture at the ready, and even though Sarah’s not her sister the little costume on this particular pup puts a significant dent in her nerves.
Thx cos :*
Yr the one doing us the favour, sarah. Were gonna owe u for… shit, awhile huh
Sarah grins at the phone in her lap, grateful for everyone’s focus on other things today. It’d be just her luck to get her phone taken when it’s the only thing keeping her from bouncing her way through the floorboards.
Sarah drew the short straw, she should remind Cosima. It was chance. But every time she goes to type it she thinks of Rachel in the washroom and Helena’s temperamental cough and can’t quite get the words out. It was chance and she’s grateful. But she’s on the verge of puking nonetheless and the two feelings won’t separate.
Nah, just for the next century :P
The smiley face is particularly offensive, one she usually avoids if just for personal aesthetics. However with the churning of her stomach it comes closest to capturing her two opposing moods – and she can’t help thinking someone else would catch that, someone who throws down for the tiniest scrap of symbolism maybe only just for the fight.
Someone she’s dreading running into tonight, she reminds herself. Someone who, on paper, might as well be her biggest enemy.
They’re not friends. They had two half-stitched conversations and this is just a reaction to witnessing a rare moment of human emotion from someone who seems to pride herself on her razor-sharp edges.
Sarah’d feel the same way if the devil held a door for her, and that’s all this is, and she’s so desperate to distract herself from tonight that she’s, yet again, making it a far bigger issue than it deserves to be. This is her party trick, Mrs. S would say. The queen of overreactions.
If only she could be the queen of getting her shite together, she lets her little Mrs. S voice tell her, as everyone passes the worksheets back up to the front of the class. At some point her report card’s gonna grace the fridge with its shameful presence and Felix will delight in the consequences that brings, holding it over her just because he can.
But the bell finally rings.
And, one period to go, Sarah almost feels like she’ll be able to make it.
By the looks of S’s truck, Sarah might as well be moving out with how much they’ve crammed into it. It isn’t even that cold, she keeps trying to say, but it won’t dissuade their mum, or Helena, the two of them trying to find space for yet another emergency blanket.
At this rate, there won’t even be room for Helena.
Sarah has a mortifying flash of driving up to the line and everything tumbling out of the truck like a clown car, the whole line gawking, then being trapped with them the rest of the night as they continue to look in her direction and laugh. She’s never done this before: camped out for tickets, or anything. She could show up and find out she’s doing it all stupidly wrong.
“Excited?” Helena says as she bumps into Sarah’s side, and they’re still in the driveway, ground littered with fallen leaves.
She catches Sarah’s expression and her own darkens in concern.
“Fine,” Sarah says, but Helena’s frowning.
“You won’t be alone, Sarah,” Helena reminds her, with another soft bump of the hip. “Even when I go.”
Helena taps her chest through her puffy jacket and Sarah can’t help but laugh, at the sound it makes and Helena’s intended meaning. I’ll still be in your heart. Somehow, in spite of her childhood, Helena managed to cultivate a Disney outlook on life. Positive to a painful point.
Sarah rolls her eyes and gives in, because she knows Helena believes it.
“Time’s a-marching, chickens,” Mrs. S says from the other side of the truck, always in her element next to that terrifying hunk of metal. Her fourth child. “You got the cookies, yes?”
“Obviously,” Sarah says. And then shoves Helena to the car door, needing someone else to take the first step.
She has no real reason to be nervous. She keeps telling herself that. She keeps trying to pretend it’s the excited sort of anxious, that she can’t wait to be in the midst of it, that the lump in her throat is only anticipation. And she can almost believe it.
Helena slides down the bench seat to the other side, kind enough not to make Sarah walk around.
Part of it, Sarah decided during fourth period, is the radio show. Not that it’s hers, but…
She hops in and Helena wiggles back to the middle seat, a non-believer of personal space, pressed so close that Sarah can feel her warmth between their combined eight layers of fabric. Just the two of us, Helena happily exudes.
Obviously the show will go one without her. It might even be better, and Sarah wouldn’t even be that upset. She just wishes she could experience both, simultaneously. Be there for the show’s first steps, so to speak. She’s lost count of how many things she’s started and had to leave before she could get to this point.
At her side, Helena stifles a cough, and Sarah grimaces.
“I’m fine,” Helena whispers, the two of them refusing to look at the front seat.
Her mitten-clad hand finds Sarah’s and the squeeze is a promise.
“Think S has any of her birdwatcher friends keeping an eye on us tonight?” Sarah finally whispers back, just to feel something, anything, different.
Helena loves conspiracies (thanks, Felix) and games, and she grins in response. “Only one, but he will be a part of the line and will say exactly three words to you.”
“Ooh, what three?” Sarah indulges.
Helena’s mischievous smile is always Sarah’s favourite.
“Not telling. You’ll know.”
“Hmm. Definitely a he?”
Sarah accidentally catches Mrs. S’s eye in the rear-view mirror and her benignly amused expression gives Sarah absolutely nothing to go on. Really, S could be in the mafia and they’d never know for sure. She’s Irish. She has different truths for everyone.
“Unconfirmed,” Helena says, and rests her head on Sarah’s shoulder, where it stays until they rumble to a stop ten minutes later.
There are already a good dozen people in the line, enough to draw it out past the tattoo shop next door and halfway across a little vintage boutique, sleeping bags and cots and even a tent set up like they’re all planning on being here a while. Most of them have thermoses or coffee cups that send little curls of steam up into the dusky sky. The Starbucks across the street is the unofficial washroom of the night, open twenty-four hours, so the drinks are a viable means of keeping warm. Mrs. S packed them an extra large thermos of tea for this very reason.
“Here we are,” S says, a full minute after the engine cuts. As if none of them are really ready for this.
“It isn’t too cold,” Helena says, despite the tip of her nose already coloured a nice bright pink. “We will be fine.”
The assurance sets them all in motion, Mrs. S heading to the truck bed to start unloading, Helena joining her as soon as she untangles her bundled self from the seat.
It’s an endeavour to do anything with this many layers on, and Sarah tells herself this is why she hesitates to assist in the setup. Helena and S have the cot in place on the sidewalk, directly behind the tent (“A good wind-shield,” Sarah hears Helena say) and are carrying the blankets and bags over to their claimed spot.
Sarah hasn’t budged from the open car door. She has her backpack of snacks in one hand, held by the strap, but is mostly frozen in place – and she keeps telling herself it’s the cold, it’s the layers, it’s her own bullshit, but she can’t make up any more excuses when the truth walks over to S and Helena and introduces herself with a handshake.
Rachel. In a ski suit.
“Look who’s here!” Helena calls to Sarah, punctuating with a wave.
Sarah grimaces. Rachel turns to keep up her well-mannered façade in the face of someone’s parent and Sarah can see how impressed Mrs. S is with this delightfully polite behaviour. Yeah, whatever. Some people are too busy being kids.
“Hello, Sarah,” Rachel says, and Sarah finally shuts the car door and drags herself across the street to the line. Her backpack bumps against her leg the whole time, counting her steps.
Mrs. S rubs her ungloved hands together and places them on Sarah’s shoulders, the touch light years away through the layers. Helena has a grin directed towards the whole group, all of them bunched there with Sarah’s giant mess and Rachel’s tidy tote bag and camping chair folded in its carry case.
“Glad you’ll have some company after your sister leaves,” S says, her brisk smile more genuine than it lets on.
Rachel somehow returns the exact same smile and then busies herself with setting up her spot in line, carefully leaving just enough space to make it clear she’s waiting alone.
Once everything’s out of the truck and plopped somewhere around the cot in haphazard order, and Rachel’s zipped herself into a sleeping bag, leaning back in the camping chair with its fancy little footrest, Mrs. S gives Sarah and Helena one last hug and reluctantly departs with a final reminder of one o’clock, chickens.
Helena has a semi-constructed nest of blankets on the cot and opens a wing to invite Sarah in. Sarah, somehow still standing on the sidewalk like S’s truck might return at any moment, gives herself a shake and tucks herself in next to her sister.
On their left Rachel has the world’s biggest pair of headphones slipped over her hat, no doubt blasting her best mate Mozart. Her eyes are closed. Sarah can’t decide if it’s better this way.
“Cookies first?” Helena asks, so snuggled into Sarah they feel like one overstuffed person.
“Yeah, go for it.”
More people are joining the line now. A hipster couple has an air mattress inflating behind Rachel, matching each other with ambiguous haircuts and plaid scarves. They seem happy. Giddy.
It’s a stark contrast to Rachel’s blank face, eyes shut and directed to the darkening sky, only semi-lit by the amber glow of the streetlights. She doesn’t show a single emotion. All she is is a face poking out of a sleeping bag cocoon, so still she could be sleeping.
By ten o’clock it’s clear the show isn’t bombing without her. Sarah has her head on Helena’s shoulder as the outside speakers grace the line with the slightly altered voices of her best friends, her other family, laughing at Einstein’s answer to a particularly gruesome would you rather.
Beth values her fingers over her eyeballs. Sarah files the knowledge away for later, knowing it says something, but too stiff with the act of prolonged sitting in minus-eight degree weather to figure it out just yet.
They play a Nina Simone song Sarah doesn’t know the name of but will always associate with a particular record cover; a few more conversations in line become audible as if they too were listening to the radio hosts, and Helena lets out a contented hum. She has a lollipop in her mouth – one with gum in the middle, that will soon bump Sarah’s head up and down with every chew but for now just provides the soft click of hard candy against teeth.
Her fingers are fine, thanks to the hand warmers, and the two of them have Cosima’s hot water bottle held between them like a baby doll. Like a memory they never got to make, before.
Their cot is angled just enough to see both Rachel and the street, where cars continuously slow down as they pass as if trying to figure out the reason for this camped-out line of nutjobs; Rachel seems to be sleeping, but there’s a rhythmic tapping of her index fingers in their gloves that betrays the ruse.
Sarah wants to sleep.
But she wants to drink up as much of her time with Helena as she can, because she knows how quickly the seconds are snatched from them. Even if they’re only sitting in a mutual silence it’s far more than that and sleep would only disappear the moment.
“We are lucky,” Helena murmurs near the end of the song, as if to prove Sarah’s looping thoughts’ point.
Sarah gives Helena’s mittened hand a squeeze in response.
On the radio, Cosima opens a letter from Beth she first received in middle school, some ancient hate note, and Sarah’s chest tugs with two opposite feelings at once.
She can see the lined paper. She knows where the creases are, because she remembers Cosima finding it again a year ago, and the two of them reading it on Cosima’s bed, feet dangling over the edge of the mattress as they laughed their way through it. Beth’s face right now must be on fire.
You think everyone respects you for being some genius but it’s just pity. Also your name is embarrassing. Obviously your parents really hated you when you were born.
Beth wrote it in purple ink and signed it with a heart, which was probably the first clue that she was like them in more ways than she knew. Hate crushes. Sarah doesn’t miss those at all.
“Is this real?” Helena asks, over broadcasted snickers and an apologetic moan from the horrified guest host.
“Too real,” Sarah says.
She lifts her head from Helena’s shoulder to reach into the snack bag, ready for something crunchy, grabbing the peanut butter pretzels from Costco that came from one of Tony’s mom’s grocery runs. With the change in position she can also access a different view of Rachel in her camping chair, and this is how she spies her first clue.
(Rachel isn’t one of Mrs. S’s birdwatcher friends. But Sarah is on the lookout for those clues as well.)
It’s the smile – the humour of someone else’s misfortune, and this doesn’t come from uppity classical music.
“In my defence, I’d only ever made friends through spite before this,” Einstein’s saying, sounding positively mortified to the peals of laughter in the background.
Rachel’s smile remains more or less the same, but ebbs with the tone of the show just enough for Sarah to believe she isn’t imagining it.
Helena, she goes to say, right as someone stumbles by their spot and nearly trips over a cot leg.
“Ope,” he says, apologizes, as his hands go out. “Nearly caught me.”
And then he’s gone. Helena’s own eyes are on him like a wild cat in the grass, the only part of her to move, even the nub of the lollipop still against her teeth.
“Hm,” she breathes out.
Sarah cranes her neck to look after him, this mystery figure in a grey coat now too far down the line to have any other discernible features, and tries to recall any voice in her life that’s ever sounded familiar. But he just sounds like a man. Another voice Sarah blurs without thinking.
“Yeah?” she says, twisting back to catch Helena’s full face.
It’s a mix of contemplation and mirth, like this could easily be another one of her games. Sarah wants it to be real. She wants the conspiracy, because she wants Helena to be the one to put all the pieces together. Like a real-life game of Clue. Like Sarah’s the Wallace to her Veronica Mars. (That might be giving Sarah a little more credit than she deserves, actually.)
Leda’s already onto another song: an old Lady Gaga hit, which moves through the line with an appreciative ripple. Sarah missed the end of the letter. If they even put the best part on air.
Middle school should have been a nightmare, and easily could have been on paper, but she can only really look back with fond sympathy. They were children; Sarah had her best friends, she’d recently acquired a sister, and everything felt possible. It only took one terrible French teacher for Beth to go from a bitchy pain in their arse to part of their group. One offer to get him fired so they might actually stand a chance at learning something, and there they were: friends.
Sarah still remembers the awe of that, of having something that once felt so intangible.
Helena nudges her out of her thoughts in time to catch Newton and Einstein singing (something else she never thought she’d experience), either Scratch or MK accompanying them on what sounds like empty Tupperware, serenading the airwaves with an ode to the periodic table.
“Good lord,” Sarah mutters, and Helena lets out a soft snort of a laugh.
It’s vaguely familiar – but Sarah doesn’t place it until they’re giving a shoutout to ninth grade science for birthing the beast, and she tries to ignore the twinge of unnecessary jealousy it sparks.
Helena fits an entire cookie into her mouth in what’s probably an attempt to rid Sarah’s face of whatever emotion just betrayed her and then grins with her lips struggling to keep the cookie from shooting out.
“Gimme one,” Sarah replies, reaching a gloved hand over Helena’s lap, mostly a pile of blankets shrugged off their shoulders over the past couple hours. She really should thank Cosima for the handwarmers with how effective they’ve been. It does not feel like November under all their layers.
Not for Rachel either, it seems; the sleeping bag’s unzipped and halfway down her body, leaving her with the god-awful pink and white ski suit. Christ. Even without a helmet she still manages to look like a bootleg Power Ranger.
Helena pulls one of the last cookies out of the bag and sits it in the palm of Sarah’s glove. (An offering.) “Have you written songs lately?” she asks.
“Any kind,” Helena says, and Sarah thinks it over as she chomps on the cookie.
Not since the last scathing one about Rachel, which has enough verses to whip one out every so often on the show, to everyone’s delight. She tries to justify that it’s hard to write anything when her guitar stays at the warehouse, but that’s not it. Not all of it.
“I see,” Helena says when Sarah’s silence drags. “You should write one about me, maybe.”
One of her curls has slipped out from under her toque, a little golden spiral dancing in her eyes, and Sarah resists the urge to tuck it back for her. She couldn’t anyway with her thick useless gloved fingers, but mostly she doesn’t want to see this soft face of Helena’s flinch. And she always does when Sarah just reaches. And she always apologizes.
“I have, I’ve written a couple,” Sarah says. “About us, too.”
“And Felix?” Helena asks shyly, with a look in her eyes Sarah knows too well.
She smiles for it. “No.”
Helena does her best to hide her own smile, but Sarah can feel it as she leans into her. Feelings are complicated, she projects at her sister. It’s okay.
Sarah’s own feelings complicate the dreaded moment Helena has to go – a quarter of their stuff (empty packets, extra blankets, things meant for two) join Helena in the back of S’s truck and as Sarah turns to try to fill the massive cot on her own, she accidentally catches Rachel’s curious eye.
Her stomach flips; the truck rumbles off down the street, and Rachel’s hand hovers by her headphones for what feels like an entire minute until she caves and takes them off.
It’s all Sarah can do not to throw up and she tells herself it’s from the peanut butter pretzels.
“Are you on your own, then?” Rachel asks, carefully, her breath coming out in a tiny puff in the cold.
Sarah’s fingers curl around a handwarmer in one of her gloves, itching to text Helena, or Cosima, or even Tony to just get her out of this. Now. Before she has to figure out why Rachel cares.
She manages to give back a stiff nod, which causes Rachel to hit something on her phone and pull the headphones off her neck completely. Then they sit in her lap, ominously, like a villain’s hairless cat.
The radio bleats out the end to what must have been one of Tony’s songs for all Sarah was paying attention but then her friends’ sleep-giddy voices are back and laughing and it gives her the jolt she needed to power through this. In her heart is Helena, is the dog park, is Tony’s kitchen, is the unparalleled feeling of a hug from everyone at once.
She scoots down to Helena’s end of the cot, to the storefront of the vintage boutique and its dark, cultivated window. Rachel’s eyes follow her movement.
Sarah can’t acknowledge exactly what she’s doing. Later she’ll blame it on exhaustion, on the numbing cold, on the sudden absence of her twin sister and all those abandonment issues. Later she’ll do her best not to think about it, because it’s insane. Absolutely mad.
“She took most of the warmth, too,” Sarah says, ignoring the pooling heat inside her, from her core to her flushed cheeks. “Kind of hard to fill the cot by myself…”
Rachel glances down at what’s left of her sleeping bag, now bunched at her ankles, a pile over her boots, and when she looks up again it’s clear she’s following Sarah’s painful train of thought. But – she smiles. Catlike. Just enough to cover her uncertainty.
The shift is quick, easily missed by anyone half paying attention, and Sarah shivers at Rachel’s sudden presence beside her. It’s too hot and too cold and neither of them can look anywhere but in front of them and this is the first time Sarah’s actually felt someone’s nerves radiating through this many layers of fabric.
She doesn’t want to think about it. Why Rachel would be nervous.
Maybe it’s her own nerves bouncing off Rachel and coming back, like sound waves or airwaves or- her friends are still talking, teasing someone, one of them, maybe Sarah, and she brings a glove to her mouth in a terrifying wave of nausea.
“English class,” Rachel rushes out with, pulling Sarah back to the brink of sanity.
“Uh-” Sarah flounders. “What?”
Rachel tucks one of her gloved hands underneath her, then shifts her body, and Sarah has to follow to face her as well because basic human instinct has taken over and mimicry is the single remaining tool in her basket.
Rachel looks a little less bewildered than Sarah’s expecting, which is good. She thinks.
“Ah, the homework we have,” Rachel attempts, rocking forward to free her hand, then moving it into her lap. She cradles it with the other one and Sarah feels herself doing the same. “In English class. I was wondering if you’ve done it yet.”
Sarah drops her gaze to her gloves, silently ridiculing herself for their position yet unable to change it until Rachel does.
“Yeah, no,” she says, looking up just in time to catch Rachel’s shut eyes flicking open. “Uh, couldn’t even tell you what it was, honestly.”
It brings an unexpected laugh out of Rachel, whose shoulders drop just enough for Sarah to realize how tense they were.
“I can’t imagine living like that,” Rachel admits, and Sarah laughs too.
Her little puff of breath reaches the tail-end of Rachel’s, and Sarah’s grateful for the streetlights, for the forgiving tungsten glow, only providing enough light to make this all seem like a dream.
Dream-Sarah can say anything, because Dream-Sarah won’t be around for the consequences. Dream-Sarah is fearless. Almost.
“Right, you’re a Future Leader,” Sarah teases – and her heart twists at Rachel’s playful groan, hands covering her face.
Sarah’s hands flounder until Rachel drops hers back to her lap, a tiny pouf against her ski suit. It doesn’t look quite as ridiculous as it did earlier. Somehow. Sarah blames the dream light, her own delirium, and the odd, feverish electro-folk song that she’d bet her life is only playing because of Veera.
“Not my choice,” Rachel finally replies, in a voice Sarah hasn’t heard from her before.
It’s… tired. A kind of tired Sarah wouldn’t expect her to know.
But then she thinks back to the dog park, to the dog that isn’t even Rachel’s, forcing her out in the snow despite those thin nylons.
It certainly paints a picture.
(Not one any of her friends would see.)
“I get it,” Sarah says, even if she doesn’t. She gets that sort of tired. She was born into that sort of tired.
Before she has a chance to think it through, she puts one of her gloved hands on Rachel’s leg, only really feeling the thermal thickness of the ski suit but her whole body humming at the mere thought of her hand on Rachel’s leg. Pathetic. But-
“Thanks,” Rachel murmurs, and she moves her glove over Sarah’s, both of them unable to look at anything other than their point of connection.
Of course Leda picks this moment to blast an air horn and the whole bloody line jumps out of their skin as the speakers scream, “WAKEUP CALL!”
The air horn bleats a couple more times in case anyone missed the message and Sarah’s a whole foot away from Rachel again, rolling her eyes at herself and her friends, who are cackling at their own joke. Scratch was the first to fall asleep so they had to, they made a pact, it was his idea, even.
If Sarah ever speaks to them again it will be with great restraint, because Mrs. S would kill her if she got arrested for murder.
“Unbelievable,” Rachel mutters, dusting who knows what off her ski suit and repositioning herself like there really is a stick up there. “Just when they were starting to…”
“To what?” Sarah prompts, when Rachel seems to collect herself.
The hipster couple behind Rachel’s camp chair have gone back to spooning, and the rest of the line seems to be settling in again as a mellow cover of Clash City Rockers apologizes for the interruption.
Rachel shakes her head, but then she sighs. “It hasn’t been… terrible. What I’ve heard tonight. If you repeat this to anyone I’ll-”
“My lips are sealed,” Sarah promises, not forgetting Rachel’s own utterance of this phrase and what it did to her last time. If it has the same effect on Rachel, it doesn’t show. (Sarah swears she isn’t disappointed.)
“You understand, I can’t be caught paying a compliment to my nemesis station,” Rachel explains, her posture so stiff she might as well be graded on it.
Sarah raises an eyebrow. “A compliment? Since when is not terrible a compliment?”
“When it comes from me,” Rachel pushes back, and the way she suddenly leans in has Sarah biting back a grin, because it’s exactly like English class. The spark in Rachel’s eyes is mesmerizing; she’s exactly where she wants to be, and Sarah only wishes she had more to offer in rebuttal.
“Well, high compliment from Leekie’s little puppet,” Sarah retorts.
It feels cruel until Rachel’s face lights up in a smirk and she swings her legs over the side of the cot so she sits completely facing Sarah. “And I suppose you’re a Leda supporter, then? Can’t say I’m surprised with the amount of holes in your daily ensembles.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised you’ve been paying me that much attention,” Sarah says, mirroring the inflection. She shifts so she’s cross-legged on the cot, completely facing Rachel, and it’s just the shove Rachel needs.
“Only giving back what I’m getting,” Rachel purrs, and on Sarah’s reaction she launches forward, so much force Sarah feels her back hitting brick in tandem with Rachel’s mouth on hers.
It’s going to bruise – both the kiss and the storefront between her shoulder blades, but Sarah can’t help pressing up into it, prolonging it until they both come apart breathless.
Her lungs ache as she gulps in the cold air, then exhales an admiring, fuck… Rachel.
Rachel’s cheeks are flushed, likely pink in anything other than this cloudy amber light. There’s a shine to her lips as they release a coy smile and Sarah nearly kisses them again, but then reality sets in and she can feel the whole line around them and the car passing on the street and the voices on the radio who would not let this go.
“That was okay, right?” Rachel asks. It’s another voice that surprises Sarah; one she’s sure not many people ever get to hear.
Sarah bites her lip. “It was, just…”
She’s grateful for the tent on their one side, because it might’ve at least blocked part of that from view.
“Just not with this many people around,” Rachel finishes for her. “Got it. Not when it’s me.”
“No,” Sarah protests, but Rachel’s already moving, already heading back to her chair.
“Believe me, I understand,” Rachel says, and she seems genuine before her hands are on her headphones and something in her expression hardens. “I wouldn’t want people witnessing me kissing you, either, Sarah.”
It stings exactly as Rachel likely intended and any response Sarah could muster up is swallowed by Rachel’s headphones, back over her ears, Rachel back in her cocoon as if nothing ever even happened.
Sarah releases a record-breaking sigh as she lets her head hit the cold glass window behind her. Might as well add to the bruises.
“Two o’clock, line buddies,” Newton crows out on the radio, just as Sarah shuts her eyes. “Only five hours to go!”
They’d better effing appreciate the tickets, is all Sarah’s saying. In her hand they’re flimsier than expected, and she pins them in an envelope to the cork board above her and Helena’s bedroom desk with the little photo booth strips and flattened origami and general detritus the two of them have collected to prove they’re living this life.
It’s Helena’s desk, mostly. Helena’s trinkets and papers covering everything but Sarah’s small collection of drugstore makeup.
Sarah keeps her thumb on the pushpin long enough to ensure it sticks and then she counts herself free of the responsibility, now the corkboard’s painfully expensive stack of printed cardstock, safe and sound until Beth comes to pick them up.
“Good?” Helena asks, the first word since Sarah dragged her heavy corpse into their cramped, barely-lit room.
What’s left of the sunrise barely makes a dent through the curtains – black, Sarah’s idea, and she’s both grateful and annoyed as she stumbles over her mess on the floor to reach Helena’s bed. The blankets are lifted just enough for her to crawl in. She strips down to her last layer, the long underwear and a sports bra, and lets Helena’s bed swallow her whole.
“I listened the whole way through,” Helena whispers, breath hot on Sarah’s neck.
It’s almost too warm under the covers but Sarah’s body still feels cadaver-stiff from far too long sitting in one position, the skin on her face prickly as it refuses to adjust to indoor heating. She can give it a good few hours of this cozy little sauna; then one of them, usually Sarah, will kick herself free and wake up cold again.
“Did you,” she says.
Helena’s head moves: a nod.
They’ve gotten so good at sharing one pillow that Sarah wants it to be a struggle again, to not feel so calm with her sister curled around her. They’re two years from adulthood – at some point they’ll have to stop it completely, not even after a long night, and she tells herself they’ll be adjusted enough not to miss it.
But. Helena buries her face in Sarah’s hair, chasing out the last of the chill. Maybe it’s a normal thing. A sister thing. It’s not like they have enough experience to know for sure.
“I thought of you listening too,” Helena murmurs against Sarah’s neck. “Just like we were together.”
It’s sharp through Sarah’s chest, for both Helena being alone and what exactly Sarah was doing without her. She can’t tell. But Rachel sits inside her ribs like a teratoma: the teeth and the hair and the unwanted cells are suffocating, ready to burst.
“No more medical documentaries for a while, okay?” she mumbles, half her mind in the world of sleep.
She can see white coats. A scalpel and Rachel’s sleeping bag.
“Mm,” she gets in reply.
There’s a swan where Sarah’s lungs should be; she lets it curl up, for now, the long neck a suture over its feathered form. Somewhere in there it has teeth and she knows it but in a distant way, and she isn’t fully afraid. She’s felt those teeth on her lips before. They could be gentle if they wanted to.
Hours later, when Mrs. S forces them out of bed to pile formlessly on the couch (just as long as their eyes are open, S says), Sarah can still feel teeth on her lips, and she’s nearly gone through half a tube of chapstick trying to erase the sensation.
“Maybe a little frostbite?” Helena offers, after watching Sarah run the tube over her lips for the fifth time this episode. Some baking show. Another mind-numbing competition.
“Then her lips will turn black and fall off,” Felix supplies from the armchair.
He seems mildly put out at not being in their tangled pile on the couch, but he’s also semi doing his homework, a binder open in his lap, and that kind of productivity isn’t welcome right now in Sarah’s sphere. She’d give anything to be back in bed; six hours sleep was not enough, by any measure, but S didn’t want them to mess up their schedule any more than was necessary.
“You’ll turn black and fall off,” Sarah mumbles.
Felix sticks his tongue out and gets the same in response from Helena.
“Sarah was a hero last night,” Helena says. “Have respect.”
Sarah uncaps the chapstick again, just leaving it open in midair with the sharp tingle taunting her from under its many chapstick layers.
“Some hero, forcing you all to see a shitty band,” Felix says, and Mrs. S shouts an oy from the kitchen.
She’s meal prepping again – Tony’s mom has clearly been over recently, because there are recipes and a mountain of Tupperware on the table and S never gets this into anything unless someone (Tony’s mom, nine times out of ten) convinces her it’ll change her life.
Still, Sarah’s glad to have her home on a rare Saturday. The child inside her glows when the whole family’s home together: it’s a TV picture she could replicate in crayon from the amount of times she wished for it, and the novelty never quite goes away.
Mrs. S appears behind Felix with a ladle in her hand (so obviously they’ll be eating soup at some point this week) and gives him a smack up the head for his language.
“Heard you had a good time, Sarah,” she says as a way of silencing anything Felix might have in response, and he sighs and just rubs at his head as she perches on the arm of his chair.
Sarah frowns. “From who?”
Helena’s giving her a mighty strong eye – birdwatcher, she mouths, even as S waves her off.
“Well it was just nice to know you weren’t alone after your sister left,” is all S says in reply, and before anyone can question it she’s back in the kitchen, turning up the radio until they can barely hear the bakers on TV.
Sarah presses her lips together in a hard line. The tingle grows stronger.
“How,” she says, just loud enough for Helena to catch, because talking to herself almost always means talking to Helena.
“Three words, I told you,” Helena says with a shrug.
Sarah digs her teeth into her bottom lip and unintentionally consumes a thick mouthful of chapstick, coating her tongue in a waxy mint that does nothing to quash the tingles that travel through her full body. Little nervous needles. “He said four, though.”
Felix gets up to adjust the volume on the TV, the remote lost in its alternate dimension yet again. He’s the only one watching at this point, despite the open binder; Sarah catches sight of a few loose sketches on his worksheets as he settles back in the chair.
“Nearly caught me,” Helena repeats, fingers ticking off the words.
Sarah wriggles until she’s half under her sister again, trying to achieve maximum pressure to alleviate the discomfort. “Ope. Ope counts.”
The radio volume gets louder, despite none of them catching Mrs. S moving from her position at the stove. Felix scoffs. Helena yawns, inciting a yawn from Sarah, and shakes her head.
“Untrue, but thank-you for trying,” she says, and the patronizing tap to Sarah’s tingling head seals the discussion.
Sarah’s hands feel for a pillow behind her and she pulls it over her face, muffling her groan, and muffling the sounds of the room around her just enough to create a tiny break from reality. No more radio. Clink of utensils against metal in the kitchen. Bakers worried about their piping. Helena’s tuneless hum of contentment. It’s just Sarah and her needle nerves shooting off in every direction, holding her secret to the light of S’s comment, desperate for even ten more minutes of sleep to prolong having to process any of this.
Because she will have to, much sooner than eventually. Rachel will be at the concert. Hell, Rachel will be at school on Monday, and Sarah will return to Leda like nothing happened, and the whole world will shift under their feet.
Anyone could have seen. It’s the thought Sarah keeps avoiding.
If it’s a secret at all, it doesn’t have much time to incubate. At some point everyone will hear and she’ll have to go on living, and the worst part is how, at her very core, all she truly wants is to kiss Rachel again.
(And again, and again, and again.)
now how did rachel just magically appear the *exact* moment sarah showed up at the line?
whatever you do don't picture her waiting in a nearby alley for hours until mrs. s's iconic truck rolled up, then swooping in like maleficent to claim her territory. she will never admit to it as long as she lives.