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It's a fine, sunny afternoon in early September when Phil Connors finally loses his goddamn mind.

It was only a matter of time, honestly.

"Are you kidding me?"

He crosses the room in a few short strides, stubs his toe on Larry's half unpacked trunk- his request for a single room had once again gone unheeded, and, honestly, fuck the Housing Committee for that one- and wrenches the window open. Phone still cradled between chin and shoulder, he fumbles for the pack of cigarettes in his back pocket.

"Yeah, no, I get that. What I'm saying is-" 

Phil's not sure that his mother knows she's still on the phone.

"Mom. Mom." His mother pauses, probably caught off guard by the very real irritation in his voice. "As, like, engaging as this conversation is, I'm about five seconds away from braining myself with a toaster- yes, I know, my generation is a mess, we're very unstable people. Just... just figure it out. I don't care."

He doesn't wait for her reply before hanging up.

Jesus.

"You know, I only disabled the smoke alarm so I could hotbox in the bathroom," Larry says, nose wrinkled as he pushes his way into the dorm. "Those things'll kill you."

Phil blows a spiteful cloud of smoke at his roommate. "Only if I'm lucky."

Larry is a tall, chubby brown kid from Hawley. He's majoring in Communications or Computer Science or some Lib-Arts bullshit that Phil resolutely does not give a fuck about. He's allergic to peanuts and snores like a motherfucker.

He's also probably the closest thing Phil has to a friend.

Not that he'd ever, like, admit that.

His phone starts to buzz again.

Larry gives him a look when he doesn't pick up.

Phil thinks he feels a migraine coming on.

"Hey, by the way, I need a favor-"

"Nope."

"You don't even know what I'm going to ask, how can you even-"

"Last time I did you a favor, I almost got arrested. I am well within my rights to-"

"You're going to like this, I swear."

Larry flips him the bird, which Phil personally thinks is a little harsh.

"No, seriously, look, you know Nancy Taylor? Blonde, part-times at the radio station, huge pair of-"

"Yeah, yeah. I know her," Larry cuts him off again, looking a little miffed. "Wait, you know I work there too, right? That I've been doing sound for them since freshman year? You're aware of this, aren't you?"

Phil was not aware of this.

He doesn't particularly care.

"Oh, really? Great. I have a date with her tonight, but she wants to bring her roommate too. Just come along and distract her friend."

Larry frowns at that, like he's so high and mighty, which makes Phil heave a long-suffering sigh.

"C'mon, man, when was the last time you actually spoke to a girl?"

A long pause.

"Fine, alright. What's her name?"

"Rhonda? Rebecca? Who cares?"

 

 

The date goes well enough, ending with a quick trip to second base up against her parked Toyota Civic and an invite to a Homecoming party next week. Nancy's the kind of girl that he'd usually be all over, but her friend- Ruby? Ramona?- had spent half the night glaring daggers into the side of his head and making snide comments about feminist theory when she thought he wasn't listening.

Fuck, Phil's a feminist.

He wrote the goddamn book on feminism.

But, like, whatever. It's the first day of the semester, he starts his internship with the studio next week, and his first class of the day is gonna be a goddamn breeze.

 

 

"So, you're taking French?" Regina asks, and Phil wants to shoot himself because oh my god.

She says you like it's a dirty word.

"Yes, Raquel, I am taking French," he hisses.

The professor is ten minutes late, and he's already spent the past fifteen staring at his phone in an attempt to ignore this girl. To her credit, she'd been ignoring him right back.

Phil feels like this has been a positive development in their relationship.

"It's Rita. Jesus." Silence. And then- "Wait, are you playing Angry Birds? You know no one's played that since, like, 2010, right?"

He really should've taken his meds this morning.

He feels like he's going to explode.

 

 

Have you ever had someone point out that there's no comfortable place in your mouth for your tongue, making you spend the next few hours painfully aware of the fact that there is, in fact, no comfortable place in your mouth for your tongue?

It's sort of like that, except worse.

Suddenly, Rita is everywhere.                          

She's behind him in line at Starbucks.

She's in the cafeteria, on the next treadmill over in the gym, sitting on the bleachers near the pool where Phil lifeguards.

She's even in the library, chewing on her pencil and pretending not to notice him.

She probably doesn't actually notice him, but like. Whatever.

 

 

That Starbucks was Phil's happy place.

 

 

"Oh my god, you look like you're about to off yourself," Rita says, appearing at his elbow out of absolutely nowhere and startling Phil into nearly dropping his cup.

Whatever's in his cup may or not be lighter fluid, but still.

This party sucks.

"Fuck, I am not going to off myself, that's really insensitive. God. Aren't you supposed to be nice? Nancy said you were nice."

"I am nice." She pauses, finishes her drink, then says, "But Nancy is also a terrible judge of character, which is why she's seeing you."

Rita's wearing cut-off denim shorts and a men's button down shirt, which Phil thinks could be hot in, like, an abstract sort of way.

"I had a shitty day," he says, surprising himself.

He'd been going for more of a 'fuck off' angle.

He blames the lighter fluid.

"Are you drunk? You don't seem drunk. Let's drink."

Rita fixes him with a long stare, eyes a little glossy, and okay, maybe she does seem drunk, but she is also, apparently, a woman of opportunity. Without blinking, she snatches Phil's cup out of his hand and downs half of it in a very impressive gulp.

"We're drinking. Now, do your very best to process more than one emotion at a time and tell me about your day."

 

 

He doesn't mean to, but for some reason, Phil ends up telling her all about his internship, about the research he's doing right now and the funding it's not going to get, about how much he hates lifeguarding. He tells her about his sister's engagement, about how the guy's an insufferable douche from Long Island.

He doesn't tell her about his parents.

In return, she tells him that she knows she's going to fail Physics and that she's regretting her choice of thesis material. She tells him that her dog is recovering from cancer, and that she hasn't seen him in two months because she spent the last three weeks of summer vacation in Barcelona.

They talk and drink, until Phil develops a tenuous relationship with coherency- he's a slim guy, okay, he's trim, it's not like he can't hold his liquor- and Rita announces that she's going throw up exactly five seconds before she barfs onto his loafers.

 

 

It's all, like, weirdly pleasant.

 

 

"So, I need you to do me a favor."

It's two in the morning on a Monday, about three weeks after Homecoming. Phil needs to be at the station at four thirty. He can hear Larry snoring in the next room.

"Is this a booty call? Is this about the French homework? I'm gonna be really upset if this is a booty call," he fake-whispers. "I'm not that kind of girl, Hanson, at least buy me dinner first-"

"Connors, you are absolutely that kind of girl. Nancy's not answering her phone. Is she with you?"

"Haven't seen her since Saturday," he says. "Can you, like, stop talking to me now?"

"How close are you to campus security?" Rita asks instead. Phil groans.

"What, by the pool? Off of Bigler? I live in Beam, that's halfway across campus-"

"Just pick me up, I'll explain when you get here. Please?"

She hangs up before he can reply.

And, fuck, okay, it's not like they're friends, not really, but Phil's already rolling out of bed to pull on a pair of pants.

Whatever.

 

 

"You broke someone's nose?"

They're finally out an hour later, after Phil had to sign, like, ten nondisclosure forms.

"I didn't mean to! Well, okay, I kind of did, but-"

"You broke someone's nose, oh my god, you're a criminal-"

"He was a creep, okay?"

"A creep who happens to be the son of the Dean? Man, I thought I had bad judgement."

Rita looks outraged.

"You do, you have the worst judgement," she says. "Larry told me you got arrested for public urination and disorderly conduct last year, so don't act all high and mighty-"

That traitor.

"-and besides, if you think for a second that I'm going to let some asshole get away with putting his hands on me without my express permission, you've got another goddamn thing coming-"

"Hold on, I wasn't going to-"

"And don't say that he was drunk and I need to cut him a break, he could be the fucking president of the United States and that still wouldn't give him the right-"

"I was just-"

"In fact, you don't get to say anything about this, either! I've had enough of privileged, white man-babies and their stupid, entitled bullshit-"

"Rita!" Phil says from several feet behind her. She pauses and looks back at him, mildly outraged. "Next time, just go for the balls first."

She almost smiles.

He counts that as a win.

 

                                                                                                             

"I can't believe you're going on a date with my weed guy."

"I can't believe you're still here," Rita says, like Phil hasn't had a toothbrush in the bathroom since the beginning of October. He's still seeing Nancy, sort of, except now all they do is talk about the latest season of The Bachelorette and fuck when the mood strikes.

She's trying to convince him to join a book club.

"You're way out of his league," he tries again, because it's true. Rita's, like, at least a seven. Ned's barely a four.

"Ned's nice. And funny. Most importantly, he's not a neurotic jerk that eats all of our cereal in the middle of the night like some weird, insomniac gremlin."

Phil likes Lucky Charms, okay?

Jesus.

"Rita, he's taking you out for tacos," he says. "Everyone knows that's second or third date food."

"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were jealous."

Rita's attention is turned towards the mirror while she draws one of those wingy lines on her eye, but Phil still flips her off.

It's the principle of the thing.

"He is jealous." Nancy announces as she steps into the bathroom and shoos Phil off of the toilet seat, nail file in one hand and bottle of Malibu in the other. "Aren't you late for work?"

"The swim team can drown," he grumbles from his new position on the floor. "And I am not."

Nancy just smiles indulgently, like oh you poor thing, offers him a swig of coconut-flavored pity and a pat on the head.

Phil feels attacked.

 

 

He also doesn't make it to work.

 

 

"It's okay if you like her," Nancy says, after Rita's left.

Phil thinks that this is an unfair sort of statement to make when his head is on her lap.

They're lying in her bed after a particularly vigorous round of sex, and he's fucking comfortable right now, sleepy and sated and not really in the mood for all of these post-coital accusations.

"I don't like her," he says reasonably, eyes closed. "I like you. Hence the reason why we're naked."

Nancy just huffs a laugh, cards a hand through his hair.

"Phil," she says, and her voice is soft and gentle and a little sad. He knows what's coming before she says it. "We don't make each other better."

Translation: I deserve better.

Translation: You are not better.

Phil opens his eyes.

 

 

As far as breakups go, he's had worse. 

 

 

It's Larry's birthday.

They're up on the roof of Ralph's apartment.

Phil's pretty sure he lost the ability to walk in a straight line about an hour ago, sometime between the tenth shot of tequila and the baggie of honest-to-god mushrooms.

He's gonna die tonight, and it's not even gonna be on purpose.

God.

"Hey," he says, and then again: "Hey. Larry."

Larry turns to him, comically slow. "Dude," he says, like he's just realizing Phil's sitting next to him. "We're on a roof."

Phil's, like, way too fucked up for this, okay?

"Right," he says slowly. "Listen, did you ever bang Nancy?"

Larry peers at him for what feels like a very long time.

"Nah, man. She's, y'know. Funny, smart, beautiful." He gestures in mid-air and nearly smacks Phil in the face. "Whole package. Way outta' my league. I'm like, boring."

Phil takes a drag of a cigarette he doesn't remember lighting.

"You're not boring," he says, then reconsiders. "Well, you are, but whatever. Some girls are into that. You should ask her out."

"Huh," Larry says, like maybe he's thinking about it.

Phil feels very generous.

He's such a good person.                         

 

 

"What I don't get," Ralph's saying sometime later. "Is why anyone would trust you to save them from drowning."

Phil feels like he should be offended, but the best he can manage is a mild annoyance.

He feels like he's falling through the floor every time he moves.

He's so fucking calm about it, though.

"Hey, fuck you, man," he says. "I'm the best at not drowning other people-"

"I drowned once," Gus interjects. "It was awful."

Ralph scoffs. "You didn't fuckin' drown, idiot-"

"I'm an awesome lifeguard, you guys have no idea. I save so many people, all the time. I'm basically a superhero-"

The last person that Phil had personally prevented from drowning had been a drunk sorority girl who had thrown up on him the second he pulled her from the water.

"Dude, you would be the worst superhero, don't even start-"

Larry's spent fifteen minutes staring intently at his fingernails.

He's finally like, "Wait, if you're a superhero, then what's your superpower?"

Phil thinks for a second.

"Aquaman."

The uproar is immediate.

"Aquaman isn't a superpower-"

"Aquaman has superpowers, so that definitely counts-"

"Have you guys ever really, like, looked at your hands?"

Phil isn't listening to any of them.

He's basically Aquaman.

Holy shit.

 

 

The rest of the night is kind of a blur.                        

 

 

Phil wakes up the next morning, rolls over, and throws up onto the floor.

"Dude," Larry groans.

Phil looks around. They're back in the dorm; Larry's sprawled out half naked on the other side of the couch, Gus is slumped against the coffee table, and Ralph is nowhere to be seen.

"Motherfucker," Phil says, fumbling for his phone.

His head is killing him.

He has one hundred and three notifications on Instagram, four missed calls, sixteen texts, and one voicemail from Rita.

The notifications are all from a picture Larry posted last night. In it, Phil's posed on top of a diving board in nothing but a pair of green spandex and aviators, triumphantly holding what looks like a rubber spatula.

 

 

Rita's voicemail is just two minutes of her straight up cackling into the phone.

  

                  

Phil's sister calls him one night, and the conversation goes something like this:

"I need you to come back to Cleveland."

"Absolutely fucking not."

It's a Friday night.

He's supposed to be finishing a lab report and studying for his Biology midterm. He has research to do for the station, an essay to write for French, a couple hours' worth of chapters to outline.

He should just hang up the phone.

"Phil." She says his name like it's supposed to mean something. "I can't deal with her, you don't know what it's like-"

"I don't know what it's like? You're joking, right?"

"I'm getting married in a few months, she's been a mess lately, the meds just make it worse. She lost her job last week, Phil, did you know that? Have you even spoken to her since September?"

Phil doesn't answer.

"Of course you haven't." He can hear the frustration in her voice. "That would involve you thinking of someone besides yourself for more than five seconds. No wonder she's so fucked up, with a selfish prick like you for a son."

The silence following seems endless.

"No, wait, Phil, I didn't mean that. It's just-"

"Yeah, actually. You did." His voice is flat. "Good luck with your wedding. Don't bother sending an invite."

 

 

Phil doesn't finish his report. He doesn't study.

He does take two Xanax and lie in bed for an embarrassing amount of time, watching shitty alien conspiracy theory documentaries and drinking peach schnapps until his hands stop shaking.

Larry finds him passed out slumped against the toilet the next morning, leaves a bottle of water and three Advil near his elbow.

 

 

He doesn't leave the dorm until Monday.

 

 

"Okay, what exactly is your problem?" Rita asks him in class. "You look, like, twitchy."

Phil is not twitchy.

The professor is late again.

He doesn't even like French.

Worse, Rita has that look on her face, the same one that Larry reserves for those special occasions when Phil's really fucked up, like she knows better or something.

This whole situation is incredibly aggravating.

Especially considering that Larry still cries like a bitch at the end of Princess Bride and is, therefore, in no position to be passing any kind of moral judgement on anyone.

Phil hates his friends.

"Problem? Who has a problem?"

"You have a problem. I didn't see you all weekend. You blew off bowling night." She peers at him. "When was the last time you slept, Phil?"

Phil knows for a fact that Rita usually doesn't sleep more than five hours a night. She sends him memes about the weather at 2AM.

They're not even that funny.           

"First off, bowling night sucks, so jot that one down-"

"You're just saying that because I won't let you cheat-"

"Secondly, you are a dirty hypocrite, and I am fine." He says fine like it's a medical diagnosis or something. Then, to change the subject: "Are you going back home for Thanksgiving?"

"I am," she says, not commenting on the abrupt switch of topics. She steals a sip of his coffee and pulls a face at the sugar content. "It's a whole thing with my family. My uncles come in from LA, and my brother might actually be able to make it this year. I'm pretty excited, you know?"

He doesn't know. Phil's family doesn't really... do Thanksgiving, in the same way that they don't do Christmas, or birthdays, or healthy communication.

Maybe it shows on his face, because Rita frowns a little. "Aren't you going back to Ohio?"

Phil doesn't want to have this conversation.

"Uh, no, probably not," he says.

And, then, before he can explain that holidays to his family are what head lice are to preschools, she goes: "You should come with me instead."

 

 

Fun fact: Rita Hanson drives like an absolute goddamn maniac.

Phil's not really sure how she passed her road test, let alone how she's managed to make it this far in life without a single charge of vehicular manslaughter.

He pops half a pill sometime in between the second illegal U-Turn and the fifth blown stop sign.

"You know, I always thought that if I died in a car, it'd be driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, a bottle of finely aged whiskey in hand and a half naked Victoria's Secret model giving me-"

"Nope, no, I do not need you to finish that thought," she says, merging onto the highway. "Are you always this much of a pig, or is it only when you're stressed?"

"Joke's on you," he says, kicking a foot onto the dashboard. "I'm stressed all the time."

 

 

It starts snowing when they're about an hour outside of State College.

Coincidentally, this is also when Phil starts getting a little fucking antsy, mostly because Rita has a strict 'no smoking' policy in the car.

The closer they get, the more he doesn't want to do this.

He has no interest in being part of the Hanson family circlejerk of warm, fuzzy feelings, has no desire to spend an evening fielding invasive personal questions or pretending to like pumpkin pie.

He doesn't need to be a part of Rita's perfect goddamn family.

Plus, this is the twentieth round of 'I Spy' that he's lost.

Like, in a row.

He's in a bad mood, okay?

"The weather didn't say anything about snow," Rita says.

"Well, the weather begged off work to drive to Springfield, so he can't really be held accountable for that, now can he?"

"The weather's being more of an ass than usual. Do you wanna talk about it?"

Phil grits his teeth and says nothing, just stares out the window. Up ahead, there's a sign advertising a closed down McDonalds, a unisex bathroom, and a place called 'Big Daddy's Convenience Store'.

This combination that seems vaguely foreboding to Phil.

Rita takes the next right anyways.

 

 

To absolutely no one's surprise, Big Daddy's Convenience Store is exactly what it sounds like.

They sell fishing permits and strawberry flavored condoms and Bud Light by the forty eight pack. Phil buys an extra large cup of Mountain Dew and a pack of Marlboro Golds. Rita gets a Snickers and a small cup of coffee, black, which is something that Phil finds personally offensive.

Big Daddy himself isn't there- they asked- but there is a framed picture of an enormous man with his arm wrapped around someone who bears a striking resemblance to Vanilla Ice.

Phil's never going on a road trip ever again.

They hang out underneath the awning while he chain smokes and she sips her terrible, bitter, no-good coffee. They watch the snow fall and talk about stupid shit, like celebrity crushes and favorite movies and what they would do in the case of a zombie apocalypse, until his nerves are ironed out and the Snickers bar has been appropriately demolished.

Phil is- well, not better, but at least in the realm of okay.

He's beginning to think that this constant sense of impending doom is more of an unfortunate personality trait than a symptom of whatever stupid disorder he's supposed to have.

 

 

He's never really been much of an optimist.

 

 

"Wait, what do you mean the car won't start?"

"What do you mean 'what do I mean'? I mean that the car isn't starting."

"Okay, yes, but why."

Rita gives him a flat look, like, "Oh, why don't you tell me? You're the man here, you're supposed to know all about this stuff."

"Do I look like I know anything about cars?" Phil hisses. "Jesus. Just call AAA."

Fuck, it's freezing out now.

The snow's gone from heavy wet flakes to a fine powder, buffered more by wind than by gravity. He shoves his hands deeper into his pockets as Rita dials.

After a minute, her face falls.

"There's no service. Of course there's no service, we're in the middle of nowhere, it's snowing, and I'm going to miss Thanksgiving-"

Phil doesn't think he's imagining the note of hysteria in her voice.

He wonders if this is what he's like all the time.

 

 

They end up holed up in the car after getting kicked out of Big Daddy's, which is closing early on account of Thanksgiving and the weather. On his way out, the cashier gives them two expired energy drinks and a pack of LifeSavers: a 'sorry I'm leaving you to die in the middle of a blizzard' consolation prize.

Phil hates his life, just a little.

"I can't believe he would just leave us like that!" Rita exclaims, ripping open the candy with more force than strictly necessary.

"I can. People suck, the world's screwed, we're all going to hell. Nothing new there."

"God, why are you like this? Why are you so miserable all the time? I've seen you be a decent person before, you're not fooling anyone. You could at least try to make the best of this situation."

"We could have sex," he suggests.

"We could," she replies. "Or I could kick you out into the snow and use the extra leg room."

"You're acting like this is my fault. If you hadn't pulled over in the first place, we never would have-"

"Oh, okay, hold on. I only stopped because you looked like you were five seconds away from throwing yourself out of my car-"

"You can't possibly be trying to pin this one on me, oh my god."

"If you weren't such an emotionally stunted asshole all the time, maybe I wouldn't have to."

"Sorry that I have, once again, failed to live up to your impossible fucking standards," he spits out. "No one's ever good enough for you, are they? Have you considered that maybe that's why you don't have any actual friends?"

Phil knows he's crossed a line the second the words are out of his mouth. Rita doesn't say anything for a long moment.

"I don't know who hurt you," she says finally, voice icy. "But that doesn't give you the right to take it out on me. I haven't done anything to you."

 

 

They sit in tense, stony silence after that.

Phil knows he fucked up, knows that he's fucked up, knows that if this were any other time, he'd have cut his losses a long time ago.

But here's the problem with Rita: she's so impossibly genuine.

He can't even give her shit about it, not really, because he doesn't know anyone else so completely devoid of pretense.

It's not even like she's a saint or anything; she still chews with her mouth open and sings to the radio in the most obnoxious voice possible. She drives like a crazy person and reads those crappy gas station romance novels for fun.

Fuck, she thinks that PF Chang's is the epitome of quality Chinese food, which is just wrong on so many levels.

Even now, Phil feels like he's known her for forever.

He's not sure how much longer he can keep running away from this.

"Um. Okay. My parents are getting divorced," he says finally, quietly, like the admission is some kind of defeat.

It feels like goddamn body blow.

"My dad's been having an affair since, I don't know, a while. I think I knew. You always kind of know, right?"

He takes Rita's silence as permission to continue.

"Anyway, my mom was pretty messed up about it. Went a little bananas when she found out, had this huge nervous breakdown." He sucks in a breath. "Accidentally OD'd on, like, Valium in the middle of a WalMart parking lot."

He doesn't miss Rita's quiet gasp.

"She's fine now. I mean, she got hospitalized for a few days back in September. It's not a big deal."

And it isn't. It's not even like he cares, or like it matters, but the words still burn coming up.

"Phil, I-" She starts, falters. "I'm so sorry."

"Don't be, now you know where I get all my crazy from," he says. His throat feels tight. "My dad's a loser, my mom's a nutjob, and my sister's a vapid bitch. None of them want anything to do with me."

The last part comes out before he can stop it, and fuck, damn it, he feels like he's suffocating.

"I need some air."

"Phil, wait, hold on-"

He's out of the car before she can finish. Outside, the storm's slowing down, but the sky's getting dark, and Phil can feel the chill down to his bones. He doesn't know how long he stands out there just breathing.

He thinks this is supposed to be, like, cathartic, or whatever, but all he feels is sick.

His therapist would be proud, probably.

"Next time, try not to forget your coat next time you go outside in the snow to brood."

He's startled out of his reverie by Rita, who's draping his jacket around his shoulders before he can tell her not to.

Phil lets out a hasty laugh. "Right. I'm, uh. I'm sorry. About that."      

"You know," she says. "I think that's the first time you've ever apologized to me."

"I'm sorry about that, too," he says. He drags a hand through his hair. "I'm, um. Not great with people. Or, y'know. Feelings. I've never really had a reason to try."

Before now. Before you.

The realization hits him like a goddamn truck.

"Well, thanks for trying," she says, small grin on her face. "And thanks for trusting me. Let's get back into the car before you freeze to death. I am not cuddling for warmth, I don't care how sad you are."

"Wait, I think I watched a porno that started like that-"

"You know what? I changed my mind, you can stay outside."

 

 

Phil's dozing against the window when a loud noise startles him awake. He bolts upright and accidentally elbows Rita, who had been slumped against his shoulder.

"Ow, what the hell're you-"   

"Ugh, Jesus, Hanson, were you drooling on me-"

"No, shut up, I think someone's here."

Sure enough, there's a pickup truck idling a ways from the car and a large figure making its way towards them.

Phil raises an eyebrow. "Is this how we get murdered?"

"We're not going to get murdered," Rita says, peering out the window. "Hold on, Phil, oh my god-"

"Is that-?"

"Big Daddy."

 

 

Big Daddy- whose real name is Wilbur- is about a foot taller than Phil and twice as wide. One of his hands is roughly the same size as Phil's entire head.

Phil is kind of in awe, and also kind of terrified.

It turns out that the cashier that ditched them was none other than Wilbur's son, and that Wilbur was thoroughly unimpressed by this act of disservice to his fellow man.

"Leavin' two kids out in the dead of a storm- it's downright uncharitable. Boy's got his head on backwards," he mutters, popping the hood of the car. "Hope y'all kept warm. Sorry I couldn't make it out here faster."

"We just really appreciate you coming in the first place," Rita says. "Is my car okay?"

"Jussa' dead battery," he says after a minute of peering at the engine. "Don't seem to be a problem with the fuel line- you kids give me a minnit."

He totters away, and Rita casts an amazed look at Phil.

"I feel like I just met a celebrity."

 

 

Phil adds him on Facebook.

 

 

Rita's mom all but body-checks him into a hug when they finally arrive.

"Um," Phil says eloquently. "It's nice to... meet you?"

Miranda Hanson is a short, stylish woman with kind eyes and a firm grip. She smells a little like sherry, and when she sizes Phil up, he feels like he's been put under a microscope.

"You must be Phil! Rita's told me so much about you. Most of it wasn't great, but that's fine, nobody's perfect. You are a little, hm, skinnier than we thought you'd be, aren't you, but we'll fix that in no time."

He casts an accusatory look at Rita over Mrs. Hanson's shoulder.

"You are hungry, right? We didn't start eating yet; Will- my husband- wanted to wait. We're just glad you could make it. Rita never brings anyone home, dear. It's so nice that she's making friends."

Phil needs a drink.

"Mom, okay, give him some room," Rita says, and she sounds a little harried. She snags him by the elbow and pulls him into the living room.

"Everyone, this is Phil. Phil, meet everyone."

By "everyone", she means, like, everyone.

Phil meets her three older brothers, two uncles, five aunts, grandfather, plus an assortment of pets and distant cousins. Not a single person seems unhappy that he's there.

He doesn't think he's been around this much family in his life.

 

By the time dinner's on the table, Phil's moving towards the far end of tipsy.

This isn't strictly his fault: Mrs. Hanson keeps refilling his glass when he's not looking, and even though he's not a Moscato guy, it seems rude to refuse.

He has a sneaking suspicion that this is on purpose.

He feels played.

"So, Phil's studying meteorology. He's an intern at WJCU out in Altoona and does research on pressure systems," Rita's saying.

"I need you to know that no one at this table cares about pressure systems," he says over the rim of his glass. "I don't even care about pressure systems, and I've done two years of research on them. Two."

"That seems like an unnecessarily harsh stance to take on pressure systems, but I'll take the change in topic," her oldest brother says with a grin. "Why don't we move on to the part of the evening where everyone takes turns embarrassing the crap out of my little sister?"

"Don't you dare-"

Phil leans forward, eyes bright with mischief. "No, no. Please, go ahead."

Her uncle chimes in: "Has anyone told you about the time when Rita was six and ate an entire roll of quarters just because some boys in her class said she wouldn't?"

Rita makes an indignant noise around a mouthful of mashed potatoes.

Phil's like, "Really."

"We had to take her to the hospital."

He takes it back: Thanksgiving is great.

 

 

"So," he says later, after everyone's asleep and the small mountain of dirty dishes is done. "Your family's pretty... not horrible."

They're sitting shoulder to shoulder on the couch watching a muted rerun of Seinfeld over mugs of watery hot cocoa, and Phil's, well.

Phil's fine.

For what feels like the first time in a really long time.

Rita laughs. "Thanks," she says with a yawn. "You were also pretty not horrible. It's a nice change."

"Excuse you, I'm not horrible all the time. I'm the least horrible person there is."

"That's a lie and you know it," she says. "You're, like, sixty percent horrible."

She sets down her mug and stretches out on the couch, sticking her feet on Phil's lap with absolutely no preamble. She burrows into the worn fabric of the cushion, so Phil almost misses what she says next.

"I'm a big fan of that forty percent, though. He's an alright guy."

Phil doesn't know what to say to that.

"Your feet smell," he informs her.

"You smell."

She's asleep in two minutes flat.

Coincidentally, that's the about same amount of time it takes Phil to put a name to the sinking feeling in his stomach.

Fuck.

 

 

It's New Year's, there's half an hour until midnight, and Rita still hasn't shown up to this stupid party.

Phil's not disappointed.

He's not.

"Yo, Connors!" Larry comes up behind him to sling an arm around Phil's shoulders. "Happy New Year!"

"Hey, man," he says, jostled forward a little. "How's your night going?"

"Great," Larry says emphatically. He's clutching a half empty bottle of champagne in a loose fist, which might explain the lack of regard for personal space.

Oddly, Phil's not as irritated as he'd usually be.

"Dude, did I ever thank you for telling me to go for Nancy? Because, like, thank you."

"You guys are good together," he says, though it comes out sounding more like a question. "She's-"

"Perfect? Brilliant? Shit. I know, man."

"Right," Phil says, because he's trying to be nice, but Larry isn't making it easy. "Hey, you haven't seen Rita, have you?"

Larry shakes his head. "Nah. But, hey, if you're looking for a lady, I know that Jasmine from my English class is totally interested."

Abruptly, Phil needs some goddamn air.

He's so over this.

He's not even that drunk.

 

 

"They told me I'd find you out here," someone says, stepping out onto the fire escape and scaring the absolute shit out of Phil.

"Rita! Fuck, I, uh. Thought you weren't coming," he says, trying and failing to not sound like a complete idiot.

"I wasn't going to, actually," she admits with a small smile, tilting her head up to the sky. "But watching fireworks is always a lot more fun with other people."                                                                  

The fire escape is narrow and really not meant to house two grown adults, but Rita doesn't seem to be moving any time soon.

Phil was here first, damn it.

"You know, I used to hate fireworks as a kid," he says after a few minutes of comfortable silence. "They were too loud, too bright. It feels like I've spent a lot of my life like that."

Rita gives him a curious look. "Like what?"

The next words come tumbling out before he can stop them.

"Scared. Like, not just of fireworks, obviously, but of people and places and things that I couldn't control." He pauses again, drags a hand through his hair. "It's weird, though. I don't think I feel like that. Not, um. Not right now, at least."

It's not an admission, but Rita's always been good at reading between the lines, and Phil feels like his heart is going to thud out of his chest.

She doesn't say anything, just reaches down to grab his hand. They stand together for the last few minutes of the year, fingers intertwined and the distant glow of a party behind them.

 

 

At midnight, when she does kiss him, it feels like coming home.