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the gods in their mercy

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do we simply stare at what's horrible
and forgive it?

–Richard Siken

 


 

 

She dumps him.

Paul. It’s a formality. He drums his fingers against the steering wheel and then they wilt.

“Okay,” he says.

Oddly, her first thought is that it’ll be a shame if this stops him from coming back to camp next year. The kids like him, and she knows it would make everything feel different. But then it’ll feel different either way, now - he’s not her boyfriend, and she doesn’t have to pretend anymore.

“Did you… still want to get coffee?” he asks, fingers moving again just a little.

He cheated on her. She keeps forgetting. She keeps forgetting it was Sarah, too, who emails her every couple of weeks and is easily funny in a way that Beth likes.

“Yeah,” she says. “Drive-thru. Then you can take me home.”

“Okay,” he repeats.

The car starts up and he doesn’t look at her, but it doesn’t feel spiteful. He offered to pick her up after class, anyway. They hadn’t talked in… god, eight days. She wonders if he was going to be the one to say it and then chickened out, sitting in the campus parking lot with someone he used to love, and then she took the words right from him.

We need to break up, Paul. We- it isn’t even a thing anymore.

I know. Jesus, Beth, I’m…

So, that’s it then. It’s done.

He orders her coffee without asking, like habit into the speaker. For a second she thinks she should be sad that she’s losing this: someone who knows her. But.

Hell, Sarah knows her coffee order.

She waits until he drops her off to take a sip, thanking him like she’d hitched a ride with a classmate again, like he doesn’t stare at her for one weird second while he backs out of the driveway and then smiles when she does.

He goes. She texts Alison. Her cheeks hurt and her coffee’s cold, but he’s gone.

She even tells her mother after heading inside.

“That’s… he was a really nice boy, Beth,” her mother says, folding a blouse.

“Yeah. And now he gets to be nice for someone else.”

Alison texts back a series of balloon and confetti emojis with one careful pink heart tucked in the middle.

In a moment of pure bravery, Beth copies the heart and sends it back alone.

 


 

So here’s the thing: she can’t figure out the next step.

She dumps Paul. She tells Alison. She finds Paul’s shirt in her room and considers getting a pet so she can use it to line a cage. But-

She goes to class, she chats with people who don’t quite get her jokes, she goes home, she likes a photo of Alison’s colour-coded notes on Instagram. As if filling the little heart could mean something today. Logically, Alison is only an hour and a half away. Beth has her mother’s car.

Logically, Alison has sent her enough emoji-filled openings for this to be easy. But it’s Beth. And her feelings. So it can’t be easy.

You and Rachel………… she types out in an email to Sarah, a reply to Sarah’s mention of some upcoming party and potentially making Rachel ride a public bus. She could send it - Sarah might even make sense of it, and give Beth the bullet point list of what she wants in response.

It sucked. I nearly fucked it up. I talked about my feelings. She talked about hers. We figured it out.

Truth is, Beth still doesn’t know how it all happened, considering she was gone (and Gone) for a big chunk of the summer. Even when she was there it wasn’t like she was watching their interactions for signs of… anything. They were all bitchy to each other and then they were holding hands.

Beth has the bitchy part down, at least.

She leaves a weird, pushy voicemail on Alison’s phone that night, after she knows Alison will be tucked into bed in her tiny dorm room, deciding the worst way to go about it would be doing nothing at all.

“Ali. We’re getting coffee on Thursday. I’m driving down and you’ll show me where you get your caffeine. Don’t make me talk to your friends.”

She spends twenty minutes after convinced she’s going to throw up, like she’s thirteen again and just kissed her first boy. Who even was it? Alison would remember. It was camp, so. It was something she thought she should rub in Alison’s face, but it only made her feel sick.

As she’s falling asleep, she lets herself, carefully, imagine an outcome that isn’t the end of the world.

Alison sleeps beside her. Their legs are touching. I love you, she says, and this time she knows Alison says it back.

It’s terrifying.

 


 

“I only have two hours until my next class,” Alison says in the parking lot, as she dumps her bags in the backseat of Beth’s mother’s car. “So we’ll stay on campus.”

Beth wishes she smoked, eyeing two guys who walk by with cigarettes. Her hands are desperate for something to cling to.

“As long as we don’t have to talk to anyone,” Beth says, and then she locks the car and comes around to where Ali’s standing.

She seems… nervous. The hand at her chin is curled, tight like it’s reminding her mouth not to let out anything stupid. Or maybe Beth’s projecting. Maybe Beth walks over and Alison’s smile is just that, a smile.

“No, of course,” Alison says. She starts walking. Beth follows. “You made that clear.”

Beth cringes. She wasn’t even drinking the other night, so there’s no excuse other than it being her first attempt at not taking the coward’s way out.

Alison gives her the play by play of her week’s classes as they make their way through campus, the trees thick with fire-coloured leaves and truly carpeting the grass underneath them. Everyone’s outside today; it’s warm for October, and people keep holding hands. The upshot is Alison is happy here: she has a good roommate, she feels fulfilled, she doesn’t miss her mother at all.

Yeah, but you’re in Hamilton, Beth stops herself from saying.

Because what she really means, anyway, is that she’s even farther away than before and she’s thriving. Without Beth.

The coffee shop is quaint. Beth expects as much, but it sticks to its image and students seem comfortable studying in the big armchairs, laptops and papers everywhere. It smells exactly like the coffee shop on Beth’s own campus; the chalkboard even looks the same, with little swirls coming up from the chalk-drawn mugs.

Alison orders for the both of them and then sends Beth to a table at the back to hold their spot, waiting at the counter for their number to be called. The barista chats with her while cleaning something - he’s plain, tattooed, and seems like someone who chats with everyone. Beth still wants to pull Alison away.

“Do you remember how grown up it used to feel when our mothers let us drink coffee?” Alison says as she comes over and sets the porcelain mugs down on the little table.

“Yeah, and it was like, fifty percent milk.” Beth smiles.

Alison sent her to the one free loveseat in this place, which Beth hadn’t considered until now, when Alison sits down so close beside her she can feel the warmth radiating off her leg.

“Remember when you drank your father’s coffee?” Alison asks, smiling too, looking more grown up and sure of herself since camp. It twists Beth’s stomach. “And it was fifty percent whiskey?”

They can laugh now, but they’d both been horrified when it happened. Beth remembers fleeing the kitchen to call Alison, and in their small eleven year-old worlds it hit them like a great tragedy. Beth’s dad was an alcoholic. There was trouble in the marriage. He was secretly having an affair. They considered it all, and for two weeks of recess it was all they’d discuss in sharp whispers.

He was just tired. He was trying to cure a hangover, from a dinner party with her mother the night before.

“You hated him,” Beth says, reaching forward to grab her mug.

She pulls it back carefully and holds it to her lips. It’s still too hot to drink.

“I did,” Alison replies.

Her eyes drop to the mug, where it nearly meets Beth’s mouth.

Alison hated a lot of people for Beth. Paul especially.

“I wanted to ask you something,” Beth starts.

It comes out easily, but a second later the panic claws at her throat, trying to yank it all back in. She forces down a sip that’s too hot to taste and then puts the mug on the table and wishes she hadn’t because now her hands are empty.

“Maybe… wait until we’re caffeinated,” Alison says. “Or-”

“No, yeah,” Beth agrees. Quickly.

Alison has choked her coffee in cream today and that’s probably why it’s easy for her to drink it now, because it’s cooled down, and not because she needs to get this over with in a weird way.

Beth considers her reasons for even asking, at this point.

They’ve gone ten years without ever discussing it, so why now? Because of this summer?

(Sometimes Beth forgets. She showers, and her scars are right there, a dulling pink. It takes her by surprise. Sometimes she thinks she dreamt up being brave enough to try it, and then she really hates herself.)

Because Paul’s gone. Because that was the reason for ignoring it, at least for the past two years. She wonders if she and Alison would have ever talked about it, if she’d never started seeing him; if she’d never moved, if she’d stayed in that parenting class, if she hadn’t stopped herself from kissing Alison that one night they were drunk enough for it to seem okay, if she’d-

been brave. If they’d been brave.

So if they were other people.

“I just wanted to know if you had Halloween plans,” Beth asks a minute later, easy.

“Oh,” Alison says. “Um, some of the girls were talking about a party.”

“Good,” Beth says, with a smile, and Alison nods but her face is still hesitant. “If you had nothing, my mom’s still doing that family thing at the community centre and they need volunteers. She wanted me to ask. So.”

“So it’s a good thing I have plans then,” Alison kids, but the smile isn’t real.

“Hah, yeah,” Beth says. “You know, Sarah’s going to a party too.”

With Rachel, she almost adds, but she doesn’t want to think about it.

“I didn’t know you were talking to her,” Alison comments, though she looks more surprised than anything now, the hesitance gone.

Beth picks up her mug again. “We email a bit.”

Because Sarah feels guilty, but Beth won’t say that either. Then they might have to talk about the summer. Then Alison might have to ask what’s changed, and Beth will have to say nothing, really. She has pills to take that make her feel fuzzy and sharp at the same time. But nothing’s actually different.

Sarah means well so Beth lets it continue. And she likes her. Weirdly. She gets along with the girl who slept with her boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend.

“Rachel emailed me once,” Alison tells her, amused.

It’s not far off from her saying Rudy emailed her, in terms of shock, but Beth tries to contain it and just nods with a tight-lipped smile.

“Wow,” she says. “That’s- hmm.”

Alison’s own smile is there for another second, and then she looks away. “To ask about you.”

Beth doesn’t know what to say at all, so she doesn’t.

An hour later, Alison is back in class and Beth drives home in silence.

 


 

Everything plays out the same in Beth’s life. Everyone says the same things, stilted and tentative. Every plan backfires. Every letter she writes has the ink smudged.

She kind of thought it’d be a little different after she lived, but. It isn’t like she came back another person.

In her closet she has a box full of old notebooks and papers and stuff, from when she was a kid, and there’s one notebook that’s just full of ciphers. Things she wrote out to guarantee that no one would ever be able to read them. But she wrote the code down on the back of each page, and going through them, it’s the same message every time.

M’i gniog ot worg pu dna leef tnereffid.

Pof ebz J’mm cf b ejggfsfou qfstpo. J xpo’u fwfo sfdphojaf nztfmg.

On eno lliw wonk ohw I ma.

God. She was a really sad, desperate kid. It’s unsettling, if she thinks about it, that no one ever stopped to see if she was okay. No one thought it was something they should look into.

Or maybe they did? She was sent to the office a few times, to talk to a short lady in a pantsuit. She remembers being given a lollipop once, but it was purple, and that was Alison’s favourite, so she just sat there and twirled the stick between her fingers and answered a bunch of questions.

She was nine, maybe ten. Her parents decided she was bored because she was too smart.

They had to have known, though.

Maybe if they’d bought her a dog or something. She wouldn’t have been so guarded. She would have figured out how to talk about her feelings and wouldn’t be eighteen and writing out another letter in code because it’s the only way she can admit it. Even though Alison can’t unscramble a cipher to save her life, even though Beth will never send it.

Bmj,

Zpv ibwf bmxbzt cffo uif nptu jnqpsubou qfstpo jo nz mjgf. Fwfo cfgpsf Qbvm, fwfo cfgpsf J lofx xibu ju nfbou up cf jo mpwf xjui tpnfpof. Sfnfncfs xifo xf xfsf 12 boe

It’s so stupid. She stops before she can let it go on any further, and then she has a text from Alison anyway that could only be sent on a Friday night when Alison has likely allowed herself a drink at some boring party.

How are you feeling? And a ladybug emoji because Slightly Inebriated Alison likes to pretend she has a text signature.

Beth’s going to get her a cross stitch for beginners kit or whatever so she can keep her hands busy on Fridays. But Alison probably already knows how to cross stitch. Beth can’t remember. So maybe a cross stitch kit for girls who won’t make the first move and Alison still won’t say a damn thing.

Beth shuts her eyes and wishes she could erase her thoughts. She always gets mean when people try to get close, even when it’s Alison. (Especially.)

She types out the easiest answer and then turns off the screen, tossing her phone onto her bed.

Like someone who needs to get this paper done.

She tears the unfinished letter out of her notebook and rips it into tiny squares, letting it all flutter down into her trash can. Alison’s mother would tape it all together and spend the night working on deciphering it, if she found it in Alison’s trash. Beth’s mother always hated all the spy stuff. She always pretended it didn’t exist.

Beth should’ve taken an interest in tea parties, or something. Etiquette.

Figure out exactly who her mother wanted to be, and who Beth could never quite emulate.

But it’s fine. They don’t talk about it.

She doesn’t talk about anything.

 


 

Sundays are always kind of shit. They don’t even go to church anymore, not since she was six and her uppity grandmother kicked the bucket, but the feeling of putting something off hangs over the house every Sunday anyway.

Her mother’s cleaning the grout in the kitchen tiles today; on her knees, and Beth bites back a comment. There’s one section of the house that’s now off limits. It’s fine. Her mother left some stuff on the breakfast bar in case Beth gets hungry, apparently, almonds and the fruit basket and whatever weird seaweed cracker shit she’s decided is the latest Thing, and it looks like they’ve both accepted that Beth will spend the day in her room.

One day she’s going to have plans and blow everyone out of the water.

Paul’s not an option anymore; she might be a little sad about that. Not because she was into the weird way they’d kind of grope each other and avoid eye contact, or wanted to actually spend time with him, but at least it got her out of the house. At least they could sit in an angry silence in his car, and she didn’t have to pretend to care.

Part of her has thought about calling Sarah, maybe, who isn’t even too far away, and asking to grab coffee or hit up the museum or… whatever kind of plans people who aren’t friends at all would make in the city.

But their email friendship works because they don’t have to look at each other. She can’t imagine making Sarah sit in the same room as her scars, no one brave enough to mention it.

Out of everyone, Rachel would probably be the best option for an afternoon of uninterested socialization. Beth thinks about walking through an art gallery with her and Rachel wearing heels (she has to be that kind of asshole) and Beth in, like, sneakers maybe, really not getting modern art but in a way that’s obviously different than Rachel being above modern art.

It sounds fantastic. For the three seconds where she lets herself imagine that’s her life.

And then she grabs a water bottle off the breakfast bar and decides she might as well go for a run if she’s going to do this to herself. She has a game in two weeks with her shitty new league, after all.

(She really hates being an adult. She was going to try out for her school’s soccer team but didn’t, and now she’s stuck in the 18+ division at the club. Her reasoning was… well. Clearly something to do with laziness. Or that she hadn’t actually planned on making it to university at all.)

She takes her usual route through the subdivision, cutting across the park where everyone’s out in light jackets and kids scream on the playground and she slows to a jog because it always takes her way too long to adjust to not being responsible for ten kids anymore.

She did the actual worst thing to her girls this summer. She left.

If she hadn’t… if that had just been it, and they found out later that she was dead…

She puts a hand over her mouth and jogs closer to trash cans just in case, but all that comes up is air. And then she keeps moving. Faster, so her legs burn. So the kids are all behind her and she can only hear the wind and her heartbeat.

Before she graduated she used to hang out with a lot of people; in finished basements, at McDonald’s, in the tree-thick parts of this park. People thought she was funny in a surprising way, like in between her jokes they somehow forgot she could make them at all. They liked her best when she was drunk and mean. Mostly because they thought she was kidding.

She runs far enough through the neighbourhood that she’s stopped thinking about anything immediately connected to her life, and then she heads home, sweating.

Normally her mother would have a snippy comment about her appearance but her mother’s just as sweaty, face pink and shining, little lines in her knees where she kneeled too long on the tile. So she lets it slide.

“Kitchen looks good,” Beth says, breath still heavy in her chest, deciding she might as well be nice if her mother is.

Her mother smiles, pleasantly surprised. “Doesn’t it? Who says we need a man around to take care of the dirty things.”

And then Beth’s kindness is gone, and without a word she turns sharp on her heel to disappear upstairs.

It isn’t even about the divorce. Really.

She just kind of hates that it made them human.

And made her seem even more like the broken one.

She heads straight to her bed and just falls on it, face-down, knowing she really should shower and strip off her sweaty running clothes but not wanting to move at all. Maybe she’ll nap like this. Slowly suffocate in the grey comforter.

Since she painted her room she actually likes being in here - it doesn’t feel like another cage her mother put her in, pink and stuffy and trying to remind her who she’s supposed to be.

A girl could kiss her best friend in this kind of room.

Beth rolls over because it’s hard to smile with her face smushed.

She gets it. That the only obstacle is herself. And Alison, but she’s pretty sure she put that obstacle in Alison years ago when she was really afraid, of what it meant to always feel like her body was full of misfiring circuitry around a girl who was supposed to be a friend.

She told her so much shit. God, she had so many lies.

She’s sure Alison was smart enough to never buy into them, but she remembers being fourteen and looking Alison in the eye as she explained what sort of things best friends were allowed to do without it being weird. You don’t want people to think you’re… not normal. Like that. Because you are normal. And you wouldn’t want to ruin your reputation.

They couldn’t hold hands. They couldn’t have sleepovers in the same bed anymore. They couldn’t share a drink, because Beth thought about it too hard and didn’t like that the straw would be in both of their mouths.

She spent so many years sectioning things off with yellow tape. All those parts of their friendship. All those parts of herself.

Just once she wishes Alison would’ve called her on it. But Alison let her pull away. And now Beth can’t figure out how to get close again.

If she ever knew at all.

 


 

I broke up with Paul, she emails Sarah.

It’s a Tuesday night and Beth has spent almost forty-eight hours thinking about Alison. She didn’t realize she’d have so much guilt, hanging heavier than she thought she could handle. So maybe the pills are working a little. Because she knows, on the surface, that she really hates herself, but for the first time it’s in her mouth without the overwhelming desperation.

Asshole never deserved you, Sarah emails back, not even twenty minutes later, like she too is sitting in her room putting off an assignment that stagnates in another window.

It’s a compliment. Beth finds herself smiling, cheeks warm.

She considers next summer, wherein everyone comes back without any drama and Beth sits near Sarah at the campfire without the lurch of reminding herself she should hate her and Alison is laughing, holding Beth’s hand.

Sarah would be holding Rachel’s hand, too. Rachel wouldn’t look like she’s two seconds away from crumbling because she’s in therapy. (Beth really does hope. Not in a mean way at all. Rachel deserves to… not be some bug under her dead mother’s shoe all the time, falling apart if anyone gets sad around her.)

She wants to tell Sarah she’s proud of her, all of a sudden. For being brave. For loving someone. But they still aren’t exactly friends, so she reigns it in.

He didn’t cry; I feel a little cheated. She sends it and feels wicked for a minute, but she knows Sarah will laugh, so it’s worth it. Besides: it’s the truth.

Five minutes later Sarah sends back an image of a chimpanzee that looks to be cackling, copied into the body of the email, and then underneath in tiny font:

So now that you’re single......

It’s probably the closest that Sarah will get to mentioning Alison, and Beth is grateful for this. Still, pins wash through her body. She twists in her desk chair and spins it around in a full circle, and then clicks on her word document and thinks she might actually work on this paper.

I’m flattered, but you already have a girlfriend, she ends up sending back, after twenty-five minutes, and then she exits her email completely and refuses to think about it.

At least her sleeping pills make it impossible for her to dream anything that ever makes sense. She always wakes up with just a handful of lingering feelings; restlessness, sincerity, like she’s forgotten something. When her alarm goes off in the morning she only feels cold.

 


 

The next time she sees Alison is Halloween, it turns out.

Her mother already left for the community centre, a few hours ago, and Beth’s sorting candy into nut-free and gluten-free bowls when the doorbell rings. A good three hours before Beth’s expecting any trick-or-treaters.

“Oh,” Beth says when she opens the door to Alison on her front stoop. And then, “No costume, no candy.”

A car pulls away from the curb and Alison laughs a little, weakly, lifting up the hot pink gym bag she’s holding by the long strap. “I have a costume, actually.”

It’s too weird. Beth remembers after a second that she should let her in, and then they’re standing on the freshly-cleaned tile of the foyer area, carefully smiling at each other before Beth finds it in herself to ask.

“No offense, but why are you here?”

Alison looks stricken. “The event at the community centre? You said your mother needed volunteers?”

Beth laughs, even though with each passing minute Alison grows more and more uncomfortable.

“Ali,” Beth finally says. “Like, I’m not even going to that.”

“Well nice of you to tell me,” Alison sighs, dropping the gym bag at her feet. “All week I’ve been consumed with guilt, your poor mother, doing all that work on her own-”

She stops and then raises her eyebrows at Beth, eyes wide in that exact pissed off face she makes at kids in the summer when they leave socks on the floor.

“Who drove you here anyway,” Beth asks, turning her face to hide a smile.

She moves out of the foyer and Alison follows, accepting the silent invitation to join Beth in the living room. Beth sits down on the couch and opens another box of chocolate bars. They’re only peanut-free, not all nuts, and she frowns at the two labelled bowls on the table.

“Oh, Ramone,” Alison says as she primly takes a seat in the armchair. “Beth, these are terrible labels.”

Beth looks at the labels in question: jagged rectangles cut from a cereal box, and her own sloppy half-cursive handwriting. She frowns.

“Who the hell’s Ramone,” she says, ignoring the dig.

She’s going to need another label, she realizes, taking inventory of the coffee table. As she reaches for one of the Halloween-themed bowls on the other side of the table Alison intercepts, passing it to her with a strange look. Something soft. But expectant, too.

“A friend,” Alison says, more tired than Beth expects.

It feels like camp again, the two of them perched on the picnic table while the girls built a fort out of branches and rope, Alison trying and failing to put more than two words together at a time. It’s fine. You’re back. Don’t worry. Neither of them believed it. Alison kept saying them anyway.

Beth dumps the full box of mini chocolate bars into the bowl, cackling cartoon witches dancing around the plastic sides, clutching little brooms but not flying at all.

“Why don’t you remake the labels,” Beth suggests, suddenly just as tired.

Alison gives her a smile, but it’s vacant.

 


 

Even though Alison tells Beth she could call Ramone whenever to have him pick her up she ends up staying, deciding it wouldn’t be terrible to spend her Halloween doing something so domestic as handing out candy.

She loves it, though, pretending to be some suburban housewife. It’s her actual dream: a cookie-cutter house in a subdivision, unnaturally green lawn, two to three kids in a good school district who each have exactly one special interest so she can balance the extracurriculars. She basically wants to be the nice version of her mom, but Beth will never tell her that. That’s a little too mean.

The labels look great, though. Scalloped edges, cutesy handwriting. The colours match the bowls and Alison has everything laid out perfectly on the card table by the door like someone’s going to score her on presentation.

Beth puts on some cheesy slasher flick in the background, just so they have something to do in between kids. And then drops back onto the couch.

“You’re getting dressed up, though, right?” Alison asks, coming over to stand above her.

She has her Suzy Homemaker face on. The one that made their kids do an outrageous amount of crafts when they wanted to run around in the forest, and Beth learned a while ago not to cross.

The extent of Beth’s Halloween cheer is the pair of black and orange striped socks she put on, as an afterthought this morning, which are comfortably stretchy in a way that she likes. She looks down at them.

“Um?” she says, pointing.

Alison actually rolls her eyes. “I brought face paint for my ladybug costume; you can be a cat, maybe. Go change into something black.”

She waits for Beth to get up, looming over her exactly like her mother. Maybe Beth will tell her someday. And then she pushes herself off the couch, heading upstairs with enough of a grumble for Alison to hear but smiling nonetheless.

Alison gives her an adorable pair of whiskers.

And an adorable little pink nose, and it’s everything Beth can do to keep her face still as Alison holds her chin in place to draw because Alison’s looking at her so intently, with so much affection, that Beth wants to ruin Alison’s ladybug lips.

She tugs on her antennae after, just to get it out of her. Smirking.

“Whatever you have to say, Elizabeth, just remember that the children will love it.” Alison maintains her stern expression for another second before smiling impishly in return, and then lets Beth run her fingers over the ladybug wings.

“You look good,” Beth says.

Alison flushes slightly and glances to the door. “Well. I’m sure they’ll be arriving any minute now. What time does trick-or-treating normally start in this neighbourhood?”

Beth quirks her eyebrows, hoping her face looks more ridiculous than pitiful.

“My dad normally took care of this. I don’t know. I was always…”

With Paul. But she doesn’t say it, because Alison is now looking at her like she’s some tragedy and Beth tugs down her sleeves a second too late, drawing Alison’s attention to it. To the scars. To the dirty bracelets she only recently started wearing again, after deciding her mother could hate them all she wanted.

Alison nods and busies herself with one of the candy bowls, and then the doorbell rings and her grin is TV-worthy as she coos at the kids on the stoop.

An Elsa and a firefighter, going together basically as well as Beth and Alison.

Beth hangs back and lets Alison have her moment. The last thing she wants to do is bring her dark cloud of misery to any more little kids.

The door shuts a minute later and Alison joins Beth on the couch, gingerly, as if the second she relaxes the doorbell will ring again. It’s just after six, Beth wants to tell her, but at the same time that means nothing. She didn’t grow up here; the three Halloweens she’s had since moving to Richmond Hill were spent at parties, with Paul, in whatever half-assed costume she could pull together before he picked her up.

(She went as a cheerleader, once. A girl on the squad lent Beth her uniform, and it was green and white, nowhere close to Alison’s colours, but she spent the whole night thinking of her anyway. Miserable.)

“Are you sad you didn’t go to the party?” Beth asks suddenly, interrupting Alison’s faraway thought.

Alison shifts on the couch, and on the TV someone releases a bloodcurdling scream.

“It would’ve been boring,” Alison says after a moment. She doesn’t turn her face, but there’s a smile there.

“And this isn’t?”

Beth asks already knowing the answer, but the hand that grazes hers surprises her. Everything feels hot for a minute. Then cold. Alison seems like she might say something and Beth’s breath hitches.

The doorbell picks then to ring, a trio of witches and a curly-haired Thor greeting them with an enthusiastic trick-or-treat! as Beth makes her way over a second after Alison. She grins back at the kids, too wide. Her heart racing. But they don’t mind.

“Happy Halloween, guys,” she says as Alison drops two nut-free chocolate bars in each of the bags.

Behind their backs, Beth lets her fingers brush Alison’s.

“Happy Halloween!” the kids cheer back.

They trot off down the driveway to their parents, and Alison lingers in the open door as if making sure they get there all right, all the while shifting her fingers until they’re holding onto Beth’s.

As if she’s done this a thousand times before and this is their cookie-cutter house in a subdivision Beth presses her body against Alison’s, painfully gentle.

Alison leans back. She’s smiling, and under the glitter her cheeks are pink.

“Ali,” Beth says softly.

The door shuts and they separate, but they’re still facing each other, tile cool through Beth’s striped socks, and Alison presses a hand to the skirt of her ladybug costume without taking her eyes off Beth.

Beth could say it. She really thinks it might be the moment, but then she remembers how hard she worked to convince Alison there was nothing between them and panic takes over.

“Wanna drink or something? I’m going to the kitchen,” she says, moving so quickly her sock slips as it hits hardwood.

“Um, alcoholic?” Alison asks.

She sounds a little alarmed, and Beth knows she should be thinking about Ali’s DUI and her mother’s rules and more importantly, how completely dismantling it is to be anything other than sober around Alison, but she offers anyway. There’s wine her mother won’t drink, from some lady she volunteers with.

Beth pours two glasses. Brings them back. The stupid movie keeps playing, but they sit on the stairs instead, so they can see through the frosted glass when someone’s on the steps.

The wine’s terrible but the warmth it brings to her body isn’t, even though three sips in Beth wonders how weirdly this will mix with her prescription.

She doesn’t say anything. One drink should be fine, and that’s all she’ll let Alison have anyway.

The doorbell rings a few more times and they both hand out chocolate bars, and some sad gluten-free gummies to the one kid who informs them she has Celiac, and maybe Alison deliberately doesn’t open the door wide enough so they have to lean into each other every time. Maybe she means it.

Beth comes back to sit with her on the stairs near the end of her glass and lets her hand drop to the cold wood of the step between them.

Alison’s follows, a second later.

Beth’s whole body buzzes as Alison takes her hand. Clutches it, like she’s afraid it will leave.

“Thanks,” Alison whispers, staring straight ahead.

“For what?” Beth’s just as quiet and she can’t find it in herself to glance over.

Alison’s warm. Her perfume is intoxicating, something soft and floral. “Dumping Paul,” she murmurs.

Beth waits for the doorbell to ring, or for some sign from God that she’s a terrible person. Nothing happens. Alison’s still holding her hand.

“I didn’t love him,” Beth says in return, looking down at her black pants. “Not like…”

She wants to tell Alison she’s sorry. For spending so long lying to her. For trying to kill herself, even though she knows she shouldn’t. Mostly for pretending as long as she did and for not being brave enough now to really say it out loud.

It’s okay, though.

Alison kisses her.

 


 

It turns out Beth is as chill at kissing her best friend as a bird is around breadcrumbs.

Which is a terrible comparison, but a kid comes to the door dressed as a pigeon right when Alison’s wiping a smudge of red lipstick off Beth’s lip and every molecule in Beth’s body hums.

“Cool costume, buddy,” Beth says with a hand half-covering her mouth. “Any allergies?”

The kid tilts his pigeon head and chirps out, “thank-you! Peanuts!”

“Tree nuts too?” Beth asks, eyeing the bowls on the table.

“Nope! Just peanuts!”

The kid does a little dance on the step, and Beth drops five peanut-free chocolate bars into his bag because she’s excited to use up this bowl and also she could basically give away her whole house with Alison smiling coyly at her from behind the door.

“Thank-you!” the kid repeats, head tilting down to look into his bag. “Happy Halloween!”

“Happy Halloween,” she echoes with a smile.

He waddles as he runs, and his parents wave to Beth from the sidewalk. She waves back.

Alison puts her body weight into the door and nearly slams it shut.

Her lipstick is pretty much only surrounding her lips now, and Beth grins, bringing up a hand to try and wipe at it. Alison pretends to be annoyed and twists away but lets Beth run a thumb over her lip anyway, gaze lingering on Beth’s face.

“Don’t worry,” Beth says. She takes in a breath. “You still look beautiful.”

Alison’s eyes are softer than Beth’s ever seen them before. She takes Beth’s hand from her mouth and then pulls her closer, until Beth thinks she might kiss her a second time. Her heart thuds frantically in her chest.

“Your whiskers are smudged,” Alison murmurs, tangling her fingers with Beth’s right at their hips.

And then their lips are pressed together in a lingering kiss Beth only ever dreamed of. It sends electricity thrumming through her entire body, down to her toes. She smiles into Alison’s mouth. Eyes shut.

“We have a lot to talk about,” Beth whispers after they separate, but Alison just rests her forehead against Beth’s.

“Later,” she says. “It’s okay.”

“Okay, but-” Beth’s chest aches, for the tingling feeling of Alison’s lips having been on hers and the way they’re still holding each other and everything that’s bubbling up inside her. “Can I say one thing?”

Alison retracts a little, so she can really see her, and her expression is gentle. “Of course, Beth.”

It’s startling, hearing her own name without the years of restraint behind it. She didn’t think it could ever sound that beautiful. That… wanted.

“I love you,” she says, toes curling against the tile.

She doesn’t look away. She doesn’t let herself.

Alison brings a hand to her chest and then her eyes are almost imperceptibly glassy, in a way that Beth pretends not to catch.

“I didn’t think I’d…” Alison buries the thought in a shake of her head, exhaling. And then she finally says it. Everything Beth wouldn’t let herself want. “I love you too.”

It’s like a knife, only Beth takes it through the heart eagerly.

She doesn’t deserve it. She’s done way too much to have it. But Alison still gave it to her, and now it’s filling her up with a burning helium, until she could float right into the ceiling fan.

The doorbell rings.

Beth answers with a smile, and two girls in glittery capes smile back.

 


 

So Alison spends the night.

Mostly, Beth tries to pretend, because Beth’s mother seems a little stricken to find Alison in her house, and it’s worth it to hold Alison’s hand in the kitchen as they pick apart the leftover candy while her mother looks like she’s swallowed a frog.

But Beth wants Alison to stay, too. And she’s really happy that Ramone doesn’t come back, even if he means nothing.

“I still can’t get over how different it looks,” Alison says once they’re up in Beth’s room, taking in  the navy blue walls. It isn’t the first time she’s seen them, but she knows it means something to Beth so she continues to be impressed at the change.

She drifts around to inspect everything while Beth rifles through her closet for something for Alison to wear as pyjamas, mostly trying to find an article of clothing that hasn’t seen Paul. There’s… a lot. A surprising amount of loungewear that she wore out of the house after she just stopped caring.

“I like this,” Alison says, and Beth pulls her head out of the closet to see Alison standing in front of the sad little card display tacked to Beth’s corkboard. There’s also a pile of glitter on the floor underneath it, but Alison’s examining the card in front, covered in sequins. The one from Sarah. “It’s a little twisted, but I appreciate the humour in it.”

Beth’s lips pull into a smirk. “I tried to kill myself and all I got were these stupid get-well cards?”

Alison laughs, then looks absolutely horrified with herself until she catches Beth’s expression.

“That’s horrible, Beth,” she chastises, but she’s still smiling a little.

“Here,” Beth says, and tosses her a pair of sweats from her first high school. The lettering’s hot pink, and she’s pretty sure Alison made her order them, at the start of grade nine, so she can guarantee she never wore them in front of Paul.

Alison catches them and then holds them out in front of her, the smile something else now.

“I thought you would have thrown these out for sure,” she says. “You hated them.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t,” Beth says with a shrug.

She feels cavalier for about two seconds, and then Alison’s bottom lip trembles a little and Beth launches herself onto the bed to crawl over in immediate concern. She perches on the edge of the mattress, and pulls Alison so she’s standing between her legs. Alison sniffs. There’s glitter on her socks but she doesn’t seem to have noticed.

For a while in her early teens, Beth had a lot of dreams where she and Alison were creepy grown-up versions of themselves and Beth was sometimes a guy and they could put their hands on each other and it wasn’t weird. She always woke up feeling disgusted with herself. But here they are, Beth running her hands over Alison’s hips and to the small of her back, Alison inching closer until Beth can wrap her legs around her.

Alison strokes Beth’s hair, pushing back the bits that hang in her face.

“I’m sorry,” Beth says, looking up at Alison until she has to shut her eyes. “For… all of it.”

She can feel the burn in her throat that threatens tears, hot and sharp. It takes a few swallows to convince herself she can speak again without actually crying but the words are too thick in her mouth for anything more to come out.

Alison touches her cheek. Her thumb comes down, tracing the curve of her jawbone. Beth doesn’t want to feel anything else. She doesn’t want to open her eyes to see the hurt in Alison’s.

“You were scared,” Alison finally says. “It’s okay; I was too.”

She shifts and her lips press against Beth’s forehead.

Beth opens her eyes. Alison’s just looking at her. Just taking her in.

Her hand cups Beth’s face; Beth locks her fingers against Alison’s back.

“There were so many times,” Beth says, and even though it isn’t what she tries to say, Alison gets it.

Beth can picture all of them: they’re ten, talking about crushes at a birthday party. Twelve and Beth confesses in the dark because she knows it won’t be heard. Thirteen. Beth kisses a boy instead. Fifteen and three quarters and she meets Paul, and she wants Alison to say something. Alison is too nice. Sixteen she lets him fuck her in the woods; Alison cries, but it doesn’t take it back. Seventeen. That party. Beth’s drunk enough, and she holds Alison’s face for far too long before chickening out.

She doesn’t even have a history outside of pretending it didn’t exist. That’s the worst of it. Her entire life has been looking the other way. Lying. Pushing herself so desperately to be something else.

It wasn’t even the girl part, it was-

Alison. It was how much it scared her. Scares her.

“I’m going to fuck it up,” she whispers, and then rests her head against Alison’s abdomen.

She can almost hear her heartbeat; it’s mostly the swooshing sounds of a body, like when she was little and put her ear to her mother’s belly even though it was never a place that held her.

Alison holds her. Runs her fingers through her hair, loving.

“I won’t allow it,” she says.

Beth laughs wetly into her ladybug skirt. Her whiskers are completely gone, but she feels bad anyway, like she’s somehow getting her dirt all over her. Mascara, maybe. But Beth can’t even remember if she put any on today.

“We should set some ground rules,” she mumbles, and then pulls back to see Alison looking at her, incredulous.

“It’s dating, not a business partnership,” Alison says as she shakes her head. “Unless this was all a ploy to take my spot at Bubbles. You’re more than welcome, by the way. Soap makes me sneeze.”

Beth just chuckles for a moment, unlocking her fingers so she can wipe some of the wetness from under her eyes, and then, “So- we’re for sure, like, dating?”

Alison’s face breaks out into the most amused smile, as if she can’t believe she has feelings for this idiot. Beth wants to roll her eyes at herself.

“This is me asking you out,” Alison says, thumb brushing away the last of the wetness under Beth’s eye. “Say yes.”

It’s impossible not to smile, so Beth lets it nearly tear her face in two. “Yes.”

“Good, now get changed so we can go to bed. You’re exhausting, Elizabeth Childs.” Alison grins right back.

For the first time in years, Beth crawls into bed next to her best friend. And for the first time in her life, Beth learns what it’s like to fall asleep in the arms of someone she loves. 

Her neck will ache for the next two days, but it’s worth it. So worth it.

“I love you,” she whispers into the dark.

(Just to hear it. Just to have it.)

Alison presses in closer, and says it right back.