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The Way through The Woods

Chapter Text

The bump in the road jostles Joni awake. She keeps her eyes half-lidded and, for a moment, she has no idea where the hell she is. Or how long she’s been asleep. She digs through the backpack at her feet for her watch. Early evening, she only dozed off for a few minutes. Out the window, she can see nothing but forest. So dense it’s desolate. Joni might as well be in outer space.

Dust and pebbles fly by, pelting the already dull windows. It’s been unpaved road for miles. The bus is so old, so rickety, that the rough road feels precarious. Dangerous even. It’s slowed them down.

The trip from the city was supposed to take five hours. They’re two hours late now and Joni hadn’t been able to find a payphone at their last stop. She knows a couple people are waiting for her in the Valley, knows they’ll be waiting a lot longer now.

An inauspicious start to running away. She looks at the road whizzing behind them. There’s nothing in the distance she recognizes. Which is good, she reminds herself. Necessary even.

When she’d first gotten her hands on her grandfather’s inheritance a year ago, she was almost rabid. She’d spent the money already in her head. New clothes and dinners out. She was going to blow through it, pad her life with stuff. Incensed doesn’t even begin to cover what she felt when she’d unfolded the deed to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. But that was before. And now she’s here, rumbling toward her destination, feeling paper thin and a little nauseous.

 

She almost calls her dad when she’s off the bus. Just to tell him she’s made it okay. The payphone by the stop looks ancient but like it probably works and she leaves her duffel on the grass and heads over. She’s already slid a quarter in when she remembers that she can’t call him. As far as he knows, she’s been in the Valley for a month already. Christ, what a stupid lie. But at the time it was easier to spin that lie than even attempt the truth. There’s no soft way to tell someone that you just tried to kill yourself with two bottles of Tylenol. That you’re checking yourself into a nut house so you don’t get it into your head that you might like to try again.

“Payphone doesn’t work.” Joni yelps in surprise. The woman who startled her laughs. She’s got deep set lines around her eyes that make Joni think she probably laughs a lot. She looks strong, hardy. Sort of motherly, actually. But maybe Joni just wants her to look that way. Her hair is a nest of cherry red piled on top of her head. A few wavy pieces have untangled themselves and hang around her face like ropes. The woman brushes some dirt off her jeans and extends a hand. “But the one at Pierre’s works just fine. I’m Robin.”

“Hi.” Joni sticks her hand out too quickly and misses. The only normal human contact she’s had since the hospital was the surly bus driver who brought her here. She’s out of practice.

Robin looks at her a little cockeyed but her handshake is warm and firm. “You must be Joni.” She winks. “God knows nobody else is coming into town today.” Joni’s laugh comes out like a wheeze. Her heart is pounding in her throat, so loud she can hear it, feel it in her teeth. She fingers the bottle of valium in her purse. “Mayor’s running late, but don’t worry, we’ll get you settled in no time.”

 

The mayor dresses like a Victorian clock repairman, but he has a nervous jocularity that makes Joni feel immediately comfortable. He insists she call him Lewis, gets flustered when she sticks to mayor.

Joni’s grandpa was all wiry muscle, even on his deathbed. She could easily imagine him out here, in the wilderness. Mayor Lewis, not so much. They have to stop twice on the half mile walk to the farm to let him catch his breath. He talks the opportunities to wheeze and puff through a short history of the Valley. Ancient redwoods this, tidal pool ecosystem that. Joni isn’t really listening. She’s looking off into the vast distance, squinting to try and find some trace of civilization. Lewis keeps saying that the town is only a mile in the other direction, but Joni sure as hell can’t see it.

Robin glances over and maybe Joni looks as shitty and lost as she feels, because she puts a reassuring hand on Joni’s shoulder and steers them a little off the path. They stop a few feet into the tall grass and Robin points out toward a meadow. It slopes down into a dense ticket of trees. “There’s a ranch down the way. Good friend of mine, Marnie, owns it.” Robin smiles. “You need anything, she’ll be up in a jiffy.”

It’s a chilly day. The early spring wind nips at their faces, but the sun is out and it feels so good on Joni’s skin. It feels different than in the city. Unfiltered almost, purer out here. The tall, honeyed grass in front of them ripples in the wind and little sprays of muted color flash when the breeze reveals them. Flower, Joni realizes, huge, bright swaths of wildflowers. “It’s amazing.” Her voice is quiet. That’s out of practice too.

Robin grins. “You can’t see it from here, but there’s a river that runs all along the meadow, right into the ocean. Do you fish?”

Joni bounces on the balls of her feet, arms tight around herself. “Ha, no.”

Robin shrugs, helping Lewis up from the tree stump where he’s waited out their little detour. “Well, it’s still worth a visit. Especially in the summer.” The summer seems impossibly far away. Joni’s whole life seems impossibly far away, fuzzy when she thinks too hard about it. “There’s an old artist’s colony down by the river too.”

“Oh yeah?” Joni imagines a group of skinny women in peasant skirts sunning themselves topless on the riverbank, eating sprouted lentils, and making little sculptures out of yarn and sticks. She makes a mental note to stay away.

“Doesn’t get much use these days. What with the war and all, but someone rented one of the cabins last summer. Think they’re still down there.”

“We should be about here.” Lewis huffs. Sweat is pooling down the fabric between his shoulders, falling in rivulets down his face.

Joni follows close behind. The trees are getting denser. “How long has this place been empty? Did my grandpa have renters or?”

Lewis chuckles. “Oh no, nothing like that. I’d say it’s been sitting empty for about, oh let’s see, fifteen years, give or take.”

Joni sputters. “Wait, seriously?”

Lewis looks over at Robin, a little panicked. “Oh come on now,” she chimes in, “it’s not all that bad.”

 

It is that bad, actually. It is really, actually all that bad.

Joni didn’t have a lot of expectations for farm life. And, yeah, maybe all of the ones she had she got by flipping through Town and Country magazine, so, okay, yes, maybe she was expecting something a little more Charlotte’s Web than Children of the Corn. She looks back at the path where they’d come from, overgrown with dandelions and a few solitary clumps of daffodil. They must be lost. There’s no way, no way, this is her inheritance.

“Whoo, Yoba.” Robin leans back, shielding her eyes from the setting sun. “Looks worse than I remember.”

Okay, not lost then.

“Oh my god.” The house is giving Joni vertigo. Birds have nested in the eaves. The porch is covered in their shit. Once upon a time, vines must have tried to make a home up the wood siding, but something killed them and their dry, gnarled corpses look like cracks against the chipping paint. The place looks like a scarecrow. The place looks fucking haunted.

Robin reaches over and squeezes Joni’s arm. She can tell by the way Robin’s looking at her, that she’s trying to be reassuring. “It’s not as bad as it looks.” Joni just gapes at her. “It’s got good bones. It’ll be home in no time.”

 

Robin immediately starts stalking around the place, examining the windows, the structural supports. Lewis is busy too, cleaning out a big, wooden box next to the porch. Joni kicks around the front of the house, muddying her shoes. She finds an old bike leaning up against the porch, choked with weeds. It’s missing its chain. “Fuck,” she mutters, kicking the spokes.

Robin emerges from around the back. “Might be able to get a phone line out here if you want.” She winks. “Discounted rate, just for you.”

“Yeah, okay.” Joni takes the porch steps two at the time, hauling her duffel up with her. The front door at least looks sturdy. She figures she probably won’t get eaten by wild animals in the night. The front windows are caked with grime and when Joni leans against one to peer through, the pane gives a little, sending dust flying. Scratch that, she thinks, there might be a whole zoo of wild animals already inside.

“Well, we’re gonna head out.” Lewis calls from the path. “Holler if you need anything.”

“Hey!” She calls after them. “Is there any place I can buy a six pack around here?” Her plan, right now, is to drink herself into a stupor, survey the ruins of her life by the light of day.

Robin looks back over her shoulder. “Pierre’s, but he closes at five.”

“Right. Okay.” Joni scuffs the toes of her sneaker on the porch. The wood creaks under her. “Thanks.” She watches them disappear down the path and a sudden, strong urge to call out to them rises in her chest. She doesn’t, just recedes back into the shadows on the porch.

The sky is a livid pink. Down by the tree-line, the coming darkness simmers and the stars blink on one by one above her. Joni looks out at the land. Her land. Jesus fucking Christ. It’s a vast swath of absolutely nothing. A palace of weeds. “Great,” she sighs, raking her fingers through her hair. “This is just great.”

Chapter Text

Joni fumbles on the wall for the light switch. She flips it when she finds it. Then again like she got it wrong the first time. Nothing. Just musty dark. Orange-y light skitters through dusty windows across the floorboards. “Great.” She feels her way into the house in the half light, determined to take an inventory of the place before it’s too dark to see.

The front room has a couch, a threadbare rug, a TV set that looks as old as the house. Joni kneels in front of it and tries the power button. Nothing. Right. Of course. No power. It would have been nice if she could get it going. She would have liked the company of other voices. She sighs and gets back to her feet, wiping her hands on her jeans. Some of her grandfather’s stuff is still on the walls. A few intricate maritime knots; a big, sort of ominous painting of a ship tossing in a storm. An enormous, mounted fish hangs above the TV. Its fins are feathered, translucent and shimmering like a jellyfish. Joni reaches out to touch it, then recoils, afraid that it might come to life if she gives it too much attention.

Shuddering at the thought, Joni backtracks toward the front door. She follows the fading light into the kitchen. It is, somehow, even worse than the outside of the house. She creeps over cracked checkered linoleum. The floor groans under her. She tries the stove and the gas roars to life, filling the room with a thick, noxious smell. She quickly turns it off, throwing open the window over the sink and waving her hands to try and clear the air. At least the gas works, she tries to console herself. The oven isn’t as generous. When she tries to open it, she finds the door rusted shut. “Great.” She sighs.

A dull thud from the front room sends her skittering up on the countertops. She freezes, listening for another sound. A footstep, a cough. Her mind conjures up all kinds of ideas. There have to be drifters in the area, right? A mostly abandoned house like this would be a lucky find. She wishes she’d asked Robin and Lewis to stay.
When she’s satisfied by the lack of noise, she tiptoes toward the front room, peering slowly into the doorway. The painting is laying on the ground. She sighs in relief, rubbing her eyes with her palms. It took a big chunk of wallpaper with it on the way down and the frame’s a little cracked on one side, but it’s all in one piece. “Oh good.” She props the painting up against the wall. “No drifters, just ghosts.” Then she waits, hands on her hips in the middle of the room. Joni half expects a ghost to come wriggling through the floor, goaded by her suggestion. None materialize. A lone cricket is making a racket from the front porch. “It’s fine,” she tries to assure herself. The cricket chirps his response. “It’s all cool.” She puffs up her chest and heads back into the kitchen.

The narrow stairs off the kitchen are a lost cause. Half the steps are missing and Joni’s pretty sure she can hear bats squeaking in the rafters. Not her problem. Not tonight. They can have the whole floor if they want it. She narrows her focus to just this room. Tries to keep things small, manageable.

The fridge is dusty and weirdly hot to the touch, but it looks like it might be the newest thing in the whole house. Joni figures that once she gets the power on, the thing might actually work. The sink works too. She scratches the bottom with her nails and, after a few tries, she reveals white enamel underneath. Potential. She tries to convince herself that she can work with this.

Joni makes a mental list of all the cleaning supplies she thinks she needs while she takes a piss. The exercise lets her take her mind off how many years it’s probably been since someone scrubbed the toilet she’s got her ass on. The tub beside her looks like it’s encrusted in salt and she imagines her grandfather keeping a big, toothy fish alive in it. Or maybe a mermaid. The toilet stutters when it flushes. She tries to figure out, for a minute, if she’s being fanciful or going crazy again. She decides she might just need some sleep.

The bedroom is closest to the path, facing toward the town. Joni stands in the doorway. The room has potential. She can feel it. It’s an odd feeling, the way it beckons to her. Maybe it’s the window, so big it takes up nearly the entirety of the wall. It’s glass has somehow escaped the rest of the house’s dusty fate. The bed pushed up against it looks rickety, but the pile of quilts piled atop the mattress look thick and warm. She toes off her sneakers and pads barefoot into the room. Hardwood floors like these would cost a fortune back in the city. The air here is thick with dust, but it glitters in the waning light. A couple of hanging plants and a stereo and it could be a real pad. She can almost picture it.

She’s halfway done unpacking her clothes when that first peal of thunder sounds through the valley. It starts so quiet that Joni thinks, at first, it’s a group of particularly vocal crickets perched outside her window. But it steadily rolls into a deep, full sound and Joni braces herself. The window panes shake against the force of the wind and, in seconds, rain is falling in sheets.

The mattress creaks when she crawls onto it to get a better look. She can barely see past the rain and the dark in the house is oppressive now. Feeling blindly through the room, she makes her way to the dresser in the corner, searching for the candles she saw in the top drawer when it was still light out. She arranges them around the bedroom like she’s holding a séance, cracks of lightning illuminating her way. Joni cusses her way through nearly a whole box of matches before she gets one to stay lit. It really does feel like a séance with all these candles bobbing around the room and she hopes her joke about the ghost doesn’t manifest. She pulls the quilts around her on the bed and presses her face against the window. The whole valley is transformed in the storm, a kaleidoscope of purples and blues. The trees and grasses undulate under the force of the rain. With some effort, Joni manages to open the window, just a crack. The air smells herbaceous, earthy. Rain never smelled like this in the city, zingy and full. She closes her eyes and lets the cool spray hit her face.

She wakes disoriented. The quilts have wrapped themselves around her body like a snake and she has to wriggle out of them to sit up. The side of the mattress closest to the window is a little damp. Her candles have burned down to their wicks. Each one a misshapen pool of honey-colored wax stuck hard to the floor. She rolls over and stretches, the sun warm on her bare body. The chorus of birds outside lull her back nearly to sleep, but she thinks better of it and crawls across the mattress to search for her watch on the bedside table. It’s two in the afternoon. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the next day or not, she realizes. She could have slept for a week and no one would know. It’s a fearful thought. No one in the world is coming to check on her. It’s a soothing thought too.

She wraps one of the quilts around her shoulders and heads out into the rest of the house. The roof’s leaked in a few places, leaving little puddles on the floor. But in the sunlight, even the dusty wood paneling seems new.

Joni makes her way out onto the porch, still wrapped in the quilt, and looks again at her overgrown plot of land. The rain has turned the soil black; the weeds are now a brilliant, verdant green. The tree hanging heavily over Mayor Lewis’ collection box has bloomed overnight. It smells sweeter than anything Joni’s ever imagined. She’s itching for some coffee and heads back into the house, determined to take stock again, to try to figure it out.

Chapter Text

She doesn’t find any coffee in the kitchen. Doesn’t find any real food either. Just a couple of cans of beans. Joni scrounges up a granola bar from her backpack. It tastes like nothing. Her mouth feels numb.

The weather’s changed by the time Joni sets out toward town. Thin fingers of fog drift over the tall grass as she makes her way down the dirt path. She walks carefully, wary of the deep puddles dotting the road.

Her shoes are caked in mud when she finally makes it to the bus stop. The air is chilled, the sun obscured by low, heavy clouds. Joni pulls her thin coat closer around her. She can see her breath and the tufts of reed grass along the road are bent over with frost. Joni digs in the pockets of her jeans for the slip of paper Robin left on the front porch the night before. She takes a deep breath and dials her number.

By the time Robin’s truck rumbles up to the farmhouse, the clouds have cleared. The tuft of daffodils beside the mailbox perk up under the sun and Joni feels a little perked up too. She sits cross-legged on the bottom porch step and watches Robin swing out of her truck. “Hey there, kiddo!” She calls across the field. “You doing alright?” She trudges through the mud toward the house, a backpack slung over her shoulder. “Must have been a hell of a shock last night.”

“Something like that. The storm didn’t help.”

“No kidding.” Robin helps Joni to her feet.

Joni hugs her arms around herself. “I think there’s some other stuff wrong with the house too. I mean, I guess I wouldn’t know. I don’t know a lot about,” she waves vaguely toward the house. “this.”

“Unless it’s plumbing, I’ve got you covered.” Joni nods, eyes wide. “Why don’t you hang out here for a bit. Let me take a look.”

“Well it’s certainly a little worse for wear.” Robin comes out grinning, but Joni can’t wipe the stricken look off her face. “Sorry, I shouldn’t joke.” She pats Joni on the shoulder. “It needs a lot of work.”

“I figured.” Joni chews her lip. “Look, I’m not exactly flush with cash here.”

Robin starts back toward her truck and, for a moment, Joni’s sure she’s just gonna leave. Her stomach drops. But by the time Joni can even react, Robin’s hauling a picnic basket from the bed of her truck. She plops it beside Joni on the step. “We’ll work something out. Are you hungry?” Joni just gapes up at her.

Joni finds some old towels in the bathroom and scrubs the long, wooden table in the corner of the kitchen. Robin scrounges for dishes. She manages to find a few plates with only one or two cracks in them and a couple cloudy glasses. She rinses them, careful not to let them sit on the sink’s rusted bottom.

They sit across from each other, the last candle flickering between them. Robin’s made sandwiches. Thick, seeded bread that Joni just knows didn’t come from a store. She’s piled dense, fatty bacon in between, tomatoes that taste unbelievably fresh, unlike any vegetable Joni’s ever had in her life. Even from the thermos, Robin’s pumpkin soup is a little cold, but Joni gulps it down. Joni pours all her attention into eating, afraid that if she starts talking, she’ll cry. She doesn’t really understand small towns, can’t figure out if this is a big gesture from Robin or just something normal and neighborly. It doesn’t really matter either way. Anything even resembling affection throws her for a loop these days and her hands are unsteady when she finishes off her soup. Robin breaks the silence with a few off-handed comments about the weather and Joni scrambles to pull herself together. She hurriedly wipes a few stray tears away with the heel of her hand. Robin stands and Joni almost screams. She imagines throwing herself at Robin’s feet, begging her to stay. But Robin’s not leaving, just up to dig through her picnic basket. She fishes out a pie dish and cuts them both a slice of whatever’s inside “My husband Demetrius made some salmonberry crumble. Thought you might like to try some.”

Joni pokes at it with her thumb. “I don’t think I’ve heard of salmonberries before.”

“Give it a try. They grow like crazy around here in the spring. You’ve got a couple bushes at the front of your property.”

Joni wrinkles her nose. “Those are edible?”

Robin laughs. “Yes! You’re too funny. Not very outdoorsy are you?”

Joni grins from behind her glass. “Is it that obvious?”

“You do look a little lost.” Robin demolishes her first slice and helps herself to another. “Your grandpa was a regular woodsman. Real jack of all trades.” She smiles to herself and the pause sits suddenly heavy between them. Joni doesn’t dare ask about it. She’s not here to dredge up old memories, even if they aren’t her old memories. Robin shakes her head. “Didn’t he ever bring you up here?”

“Sometimes.” Joni picks at the table with her nails. “My mom,” she clears her throat, “his daughter. She died when I was pretty young. I didn’t see him as much after that.” That is, more or less, the truth. Joni turns her attention back to the eating. The crumble’s wild good. Those sunset berries are a little sour, but the topping is heavy with butter, the sugar caramelized on top so it crackles a little in her teeth.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Joni shrugs. “It was a long time ago.”

Robin presses her mouth into a hard line. She reaches across the table and pats Joni’s hand. Joni tries not to flinch. “My son lost his father when he was young too. I know it can be hard.” Joni just smiles, a little weakly. Robin clears her throat and stands, brushing the crumbs from her lap onto the floor. “I brought some extra candles for you. Should tide you over ‘til I can get back over here and tinker with the power.”

Joni watches Robin’s truck pull away, kicking up mud as it rolls back onto the road. She leans against one of the porch’s heaving columns and fidgets with the hem of her sweater. There’s a threadbare spot, just a couple of inches long, on all her clothes. She can’t keep her hands to herself. She wonders, for just a moment, about Robin’s son. She can’t picture him but feels already like she maybe knows him. A boy without his father. She shakes her head. Kind of ridiculous to think they’d have anything in common. It couldn’t really be the same in a place like this. The community probably rose up to catch him, swarmed him with love. She wonders if he has the same red hair as his mom.

Chapter Text

If someone left a postcard out in the rain, this would be the town that would sprout up from it. Carefully trimmed trees, jaunty cobblestone paths. A fountain gurgles in the dark distance. Joni has to brush aside the long leaves from a hanging planter as she heads down the street, the air suddenly fragrant with flowers.

This late, pretty much everything is closed. The street lamps cast a faint glow along the town square, little puddles of light. Joni pauses in the shadow of one of the houses at the far corner. The flickering light from the window catches her eye. Someone inside’s watching tv and Joni stands just beyond, lets the light catch little parts of her. She gets up on her toes and tries to see a little better. She used to do this in the city, catch glimpses of people’s lives through their windows. Here, it feels a little more invasive. She imagines privacy has a whole different meaning in a town like this.

Through the window she can see three heads over the back of a couch. She can feel the joy radiating from them without even seeing their faces and she is profoundly lonely. Darkly lonely. The feeling has a sinister, familiar flavor. Joni wonders if she’s close to that precipice again, if she ever even backed away off that ledge.

There’s a couple people she could call from the city. Old friends. But what would she even say to them? She’d fled after the hospital, like a bird released from its cage. Gone. She might as well be calling them from the afterlife. A ghost to them now. A ghost here too she reminds herself, ducking out from the window’s light.

Robin told her the Saloon was her best bet until Joni can get her kitchen cleaned up enough to use it. As she wanders around town, Joni figures the Saloon is probably her only bet.

A wall of cigarette smoke hits her when she steps inside. She coughs, waving it away. But it seems to be a specter haunting only the doorway. The rest of the place is layered. Resin and hops; pine and a warm smell that reminds her of when she used to hide her face in the crook of her ex boyfriend’s shoulder. Musk, maybe. Maleness. As she ventures more inside, she can smell pasta cooking and realizes suddenly that she is ravenous.

The place is light mostly by candles and weak sconce lights on the wall, so it’s cozy but it’s dark. The lacquered wood walls shimmer. Joni feels enveloped by it. So much so that she barely notices the man behind the counter. She jumps like a rabbit in the road when he calls out to her. “You look like you could use a drink!” If it’s supposed to be an insult, he’s too jolly for it to have teeth. He’s got the kind of rosy, apple cheeks that Joni always figured were descriptions reserved for old-timey santas and a handlebar mustache that is similarly out of time. A sizeable gut strains against his sweater. A good sign, she thinks, if he’s the cook.

“You got me.” Jodi slides, a little unsteadily, onto one of the bar stools. “I could use several drinks.”

He winks. “Been a bartender a long time. I’m Gus.” He pulls the tap for her and Joni realizes that this is probably the kind of place that only serves beer. And probably only one kind. “You must be the new girl.”

Joni frowns. “How’d you know?”

He laughs, hands cradling his gut. “Because we don’t get a lot of new faces in town.” He sets a dark, frothy beer down in front of her. “And the mayor’s got loose lips when he’s had a couple. Mentioned someone moving into the old farm a few days ago. I’m guessing that’s you.”

Joni doesn’t mean for her sigh to come out as dejected as it does. “Yeah, that’s me.”

“So what brings you out here on a nippy night like this?”

Joni slumps into her beer. “None of my appliances work.” She realizes, a little too late, that it sounds like she doesn’t want to be here, but before she can try and explain, he’s laughing again.

“You’ll be thanking those appliances tonight. Best food in the whole Ferngill Republic comes out of this kitchen.” The door slams open before she can figure out what to say.

The cigarette smell wafts over in their direction and then dissipates. A woman spins inside, light on her feet, practically dancing. “Hey Gus, what’s shaking?”

Gus chuckles. “You’re late, Emily.”

“So-o-o-orry,” she sing songs. The woman flutters behind the counter, starts checking the taps. She has a sun-like quality, sucking all the energy in the room into her orbit.

Joni tries to remember the last time she saw a woman under fifty wear a pussy bow blouse. In aquamarine no less. The shirt’s conservative but, like she can’t decide if that’s the look she’s going for, she’s layered it with a red corduroy dress. It barely skims the top of her thighs, exposes the long, milky length of her legs. Her heavy, dark pilgrim buckle shoes clack loudly on the floor as she moves. It’s got the be the wildest outfit Joni’s ever seen, but it works, it absolutely works. She has a real Warhol factory girl energy and Joni feels dowdy in her jeans and sweater. The girl’s hair has that same mod energy. Joni can tell she dyes it herself. The dark waves at her temple blend into a swampy green where Joni can tell she let the bleach sit too long. Only at the ends is it the color Joni assumes she was going for: a brilliant blue the same color as her blouse.

The girl peeks over her shoulder and smiles. “I don’t mind if you stare.”

Joni jolts. “Oh, god. Sorry! I-“

“You’re the new girl aren’t you?” She grins, not waiting for Joni’s answer. “Dope.” She has a wide smile, big and toothy. The coral lipstick she’s wearing on her thick, pretty lips has smeared a little on her front teeth. “I can’t imagine what would bring someone like you to our town.” Joni can’t imagine what kind of “someone” she looks like right about now. She’s not sure she recognizes herself. The woman smiles even bigger. “It’s exciting.” A year ago, Joni might have managed a reply, might have flirted back. Now, she just blinks at her. Undeterred, the woman fishes a pen out from behind the bar and writes a phone number down on Joni’s napkin. “I’m Emily. Call me if you have some free time. I love new friends.” Joni gulps. Emily giggles, rolling out her shoulders. The air changes around them, all of that flirtatious energy turning into something lighter, almost professional. It gives Joni whiplash .“So, what can I get you to eat?”

Joni stays until closing. She commandeers a little table in the corner of the Saloon and tucks into a plate of spaghetti the size of her head. It rules. Like best thing she’s ever eaten, nothing she’s eaten before even comes close kind of rules. Gus seems pleased with her reaction. He keeps sending comped beer her way and by the time Gus is counting the register, Joni’s warm and buzzing and almost painfully full.

But when she stumbles home, lighting her way with the utility flashlight Robin left for her, all she can think about is Emily. Joni’s awash in that sea of blue. Unmooring comes easily to her.

Chapter Text

When Robin gets the power going, Jodi decide the best way to celebrate is to spend the

whole day in front of the TV. Easier said than done when there seem to be only two channels in the whole valley. Joni tries to settle in with a few episodes of the Queen of Sauce, but it’s making her hungry and all she has in the cabinets are a few cans of tuna and a canister of instant coffee.

The other show is so boring that it nearly puts her to sleep. It’s a PBS-style broadcast. Soft colors, twinkly intro music, a fiddle occasionally in the background. An old, suspendered man sits beside a rapidly cooling cup of coffee and talks, in varying states of animation, about farming.

Not just farming, Joni finds out when she wakes from dozing. It’s early evening now. She can tell by the soft orange light coming through the windows. Joni pulls her quilt back up around her shoulders and kneads her palms into her eyes to try and wake herself up.

Spring onion, the old man says. That draws her attention. Apparently they’re all over the place in the valley. Just ripe for the taking. It conjures up fantasies of steaming ramen with thick fronds of spring onion floating in fatty broth, spring onion brazed in yellow butter sprinkled with chives, creamy potato and spring onion soup. Joni’s ravenous. She makes a note of the spot he’s pointed to on the map. Figures it can’t be that hard to pull some weeds out of the ground.

 

It’s been two hours since she left her house. She’s been weaving,  hopelessly lost, through the meadow down past her property line.  She’s about to give up, call it a day, and head back to her television set, when it happens. The forest comes up on her all at once. At first there’s only a few trees, some ferns dotting the ground. Joni tiptoes across a precarious-looking plank bridge over the fragrant, slow moving river. It looks a little ominous when she’s this close to it. Once she’s safely on the opposite side, she’s surrounded. Behemoth trees, fallen logs, dense undergrowth. The forest looms over her before she even has a chance to see it coming. Joni tries not to let it spook her. Man versus wild and all that. She shores herself up and follows the river down, remembering that the TV mentioned that the onions grow at the spot where the river feeds into the ocean.

When she finds the clearing, she’s astounded both by her own navigational skills and by the mud, but the sharp smell of onion is unmistakable. She’s made it. Joni wades into the grove, hoping this part will be as easy as she planned.

She’s knee deep in mud when the voice startles her. “Need a hand?”

“Jesus.” Joni flinches, falling backward into the mud. She scrambles to her feet, hands held out defensively.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” The woman kneels down in the dirt beside Joni. “You must be the new girl. Gus told me he’d seen you around.” She’s got pale, gingery hair that she’s pulled into a loose braid over her shoulder. Her overalls are coated in splotches of paint. Joni thinks that maybe she’s seen this girl before, back in Zuzu, but she can’t be sure. She looks like a lot of people in Zuzu City and Yoba knows Joni’s last year there was too much of a blur for her to keep a good inventory of the people she hung out with.

“I’m Joni.” She wipes her hand on her jeans, but it just cakes them more in mud. “Sorry…”

The woman waves her off. “No worries. I’m Leah.” She trudges down into the mud with her. “Can I help?”

Joni laughs, a little embarrassed. “Do I look like I’m in a position to refuse some help?”

 

They works in silence for a while, slipping the onions from the soil, mud and all, and laying them in little piles on the undergrowth. The silence between them isn’t grating like maybe it should be. It’s comfortable and Joni can’t remember the last time she’d fallen into that kind of companionable quiet with another person. Joni peeks over at Leah. She looks serene.

When they finish, the sun is high and blazing in the sky. Feeling more like summer than early spring. They fall in step with each other as they head out of the forest. Leah’s clearly been this way before, kicking aside brush to reveal old, worn paths among the trees. Joni assumes she’s been here a while, but she doesn’t have the soft twang the rest of the villagers seem to have and she ventures a guess. “Do you live at the artist’s colony?”

Leah laughs. “How’d you know?”

Joni stuffs her hands into the pockets of her jeans. “Oh, uh, Robin told me someone was renting one of cabins and I know they’re around here, so…”

“Yep, that’s me.” She sounds a little sheepish. “Out here making art, you know.” They reach a clearing and Joni’s finally getting her bearings again. She can see the ranch she passed that morning in the distance. The cows behind the fence moo softly. Leah feigns a cough, trying to get Joni’s attention. It’s a stiff gesture, but it’s not like Joni’s all that good with social interaction these days either. “What do you have going on for the rest of the day?”

“Nothing really.” Joni pats the wicker basket at her side. “Wash these off, probably. I want to see if the shop in town’ll buy ‘em off me.”

“Cool, cool.” Leaks kicks at the ground, hands in her pockets now too. “Hey, I don’t know if this is weird or not, but do you want to come over for lunch?”

 

Leah’s place is shoebox tiny. But it’s sort of nice. It’s smallness has created a cozy little ecosystem. Her work is scattered all over. Canvas up against the wall, canvass all across the floor. The center of the room is dominated by an enormous slab of partially-worked wood. Her narrow bed is shoved in the corner of the room, an afterthought. She’s rigged up some sort of makeshift closet, but most of her clothes are on the floor, strewn in piles. Leah seems, suddenly, enormously self-conscious. . “I forgot I only have one chair. Shit.” She looks around like another might just materialize in the studio. “Um, okay, I can figure something out.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Joni plops her basket down by the front door. She’d found the thing in an old shed out behind her house. It looked more haunted that the house and double-checked the latch when she left. “Floor’s good with me.

“Are you sure?”

Joni smiles. “Totally.”

Leah rolls out her shoulders. “Okay cool. It’s been a minute since I’ve had anyone over.” She chews her lip, like she’s waiting for Joni to say something, then scurries to the fridge. “I’ve got some leftover quinoa in here. We could make a salad. Managed to forage some wild arugula out on the far side of the woods.” She peeks her head around the door. “Have you been out there yet?”

“Not that I know of.” Joni crouches to get a better look at the paintings Leah’s propped up against the far wall. They’re abstract explosions of bright color. Almost aggressive. Like they might bite.

“Well you’ve got to check it out. Lots of good stuff out there if you know where to look. Wild asparagus, morels, even horseradish this time of year.” Leah closes the fridge with her foot, arms full of ingredients. “Don’t tell anyone but I bought a carton of tomatoes from Joja last week.”

“My lips are sealed.”

“Ha. Appreciate it. Mind if we use some of your onion? I have some leftover tahini dressing and oh!” She lays the food out onto a plastic card table she’s got set up near the front door and waves her knife at the fridge. “I’ve got some strawberries too. We can put them over ice cream.”

“You’re really spoiling me.”

Leah looks up from chopping vegetables and grins. “Hey, like I said, I don’t have a lot of guests. Gotta go all out.” Joni hovers in the corner of the room, feeling suddenly a little out of place. She doesn’t mind Leah’s effusiveness, it’s just she wonders if that’s how she seems too. Touch-starved and jumpy. She reminds herself to stop projecting. Leah’s being nice. Just because Joni can’t untangle affection and desperation, doesn’t mean this girl can’t.  

With the salad prepared, Leah fishes a six pack of beer out of the fridge. She opens one bottle with a hard rap against her countertop and hands it to Joni. She raises her own and toasts. “To new friends.”

Joni’s chest constricts. She feels like she’s about to burst into tears. The psychologist at the hospital asked her once where she thought this overwhelming sense of foreboding came from. Her mother’s death? Something else? Shaken, Joni couldn’t manage to reply. She’d been living on the fumes of dread for so long that trying to pick them apart for answers seemed both useless and potentially dangerous. The other shoe isn’t going to drop, the woman told her, sometimes good things will happen to you too. Joni waits a beat, Leah’s glass hanging expectantly in the air. The other shoe doesn’t drop. She clinks glasses. “To new friends.”

 

They’re a six pack in when they take this little gathering outside. Neither of them say anything. They both just gravitate slowly toward the door. Leah’s got a garden on the side of the house that’s a tangled mess of climbing flowers. Joni thinks it looks cool, a little Dadaist, and tells her so. Leah just shrugs. “I can’t get anything to grow in a straight line and I can’t grow anything useful.”

Joni takes a tightly spiraled purple bud between her fingers. “Flowers are useful.”

Leah looks at her, eyes glittering. She smiles, laughing a little to herself, at some joke she doesn’t share. “I guess they are. In their own way.”

They sit side by side in the grass, backs against the garden fence, and watch fish skim the surface of the river. A big-chested, baritone toad regards them suspiciously from his spot on a rock.

Like it always does, the beer’s made Joni feel a little mopey, a little too introspective. She leans her head against Leah’s shoulder and waits for her to pull away. She doesn’t. Leah scoots a little closer and rests her chin on Joni’s head. “I’m a mess,” Joni whispers. She feels suddenly as fragile as the morning she was discharged from the hospital. Like a strong wind might blow her away.

“Nah. The mud’ll come out of your jeans with a good wash.”

“I meant my life.”

“I know what you meant.” Leah takes a long, slow breath. Joni watches her chest rise and fall. “I was a mess too when I moved here. I might still be.” Leah angles her head so they’re eye to eye. “Don’t worry about it. You’re in the right spot.”

Joni isn’t sure if Leah means in the valley or if she means right here, leaning on her shoulder out in the garden. Either way, Joni tries to soften her muscles, lean in to the wooden fence behind her. The evening smells like daffodils.

Chapter Text

Joni’s feeling a little like a try hard as she wrestles with the latch on the farm’s front gate. She’d gone to the Saloon in her shortest dress. It’d taken her almost an hour to make her hair just the right amount of tousled, to put even the lightest makeup on.

Now, with Emily hovering beside her, holding the flashlight mostly steady on the gate, Joni’s pretty sure she didn’t have to do any of that to get Emily to come hang out with her. She hadn’t even really needed to say anything before Emily was sidling up to her, flirtatious as she’d been a couple nights before.

Joni looks over at Emily. She’s swaying in the darkness, flashlight bobbing as she moves. It feels sort of crazy to be here, with her. A person she barely knows. Nuts, actually. It feels familiar too, but Joni doesn’t try to dwell on that. Emily puts the light under her chin and giggles. Her face looks like a skull.

 

Joni’s washing her hands when Emily slips into the bathroom, glass of water in her hand. She must have gotten bored out in the living room. “Quaint.”

Joni laughs. “Yeah, everything in here is so old”

Emily plops down on the edge of the tub. She reaches over and turns on the shower, letting the spray run over her fingers. Joni freezes. “Have you ever had your aura read?”

“Um, I don’t think so.”

They lock eyes. “You have a very erotic aura. Orange.” She stands, advancing on Joni. “I bet you like being taken care of.” Joni opens her mouth, but she can’t think of anything to say. “Doesn’t it feel like the universe wanted us to be here? Like destiny.” She pulls her sweater over her head. “Don’t you think?” Joni nods, a little numb. She’s out of practice, fumbles with Emily’s jeans, fingers trembling. Emily pulls Joni’s dress down her body then cocks her head, taking a hard look. Joni can’t remember if anyone’s ever taken the time to look at her like this. To really look. “You’re really cute, do you know that?” Joni’s hot from how hard she’s blushing. Emily runs a finger between Joni’s breasts, stopping at the base of her sternum. “You’re really, really pretty.”

The kiss is searing, all tongue and teeth. Joni holds onto Emily’s shoulders like they’re the only thing keeping her standing. Emily shrugs out of her bra. She takes Joni’s hands and smashes them against her breasts. They’re both pierced, Joni can feel the cold metal on her palms. She imagines them poking through her sweater, through that conservative top Emily wore the first night in the Saloon and groans. Her body is on fire.

Emily breaks away, kissing down Joni’s cheek, her neck. “You should get in the shower,” she whispers. Emily nudges her under the warm water, backing her up until Joni bumps against the cold tile. “There you go,” Emily croons in her ear. She presses an almost chaste kiss to Joni’s lips then trails her own lips down. She takes one nipple in her teeth, then the other, walking her fingers up Joni’s ribs until her hands join her mouth, squeezing and running her thumbs over the sensitive skin. Emily kisses a long line down the taut expanse of Joni’s stomach. Joni’s heart is pounding, it follows Emily’s lips down her body. When Emily grazes her teeth across her hip bone, Joni cries out. It’s the first sound she’s made and she realizes, touching her tender bottom lip, that she’s been biting it to keep herself quiet.

Emily kisses the neat patch of pubic hair between Joni’s hips and sits back on her haunches. Joni looks down at her, watches the water sluice down her naked body. The droplets shimmer on Emily’s skin. She looks like a mermaid, like something completely out of this world. Emily tenderly lifts Joni’s leg onto the lip of the tub. Joni’s trembling so hard that she reaches above her, holds onto the shower head to keep steady. The seconds slip by slowly. The bathroom suddenly dense, filling up with steam. When Emily finally leans up and runs her tongue along her clit, Joni shudders.

On the way to the farmhouse, Emily was trying to explain tantric sex. Joni was only half listening, too nervous to pay much attention. She went on and on about deep meditation, the sexual benefits of spontaneity. Whatever it is, whatever it’s taught her, its magic here in this shower.

Joni feels lost, blissfully, transcendently lost. The bathroom is gone, the house is gone, the whole valley is gone. It’s just this bathtub. It’s just Emily’s tongue. Joni unlatches her fingers from the showerhead, trailing them down the tile behind her. Emily hums against her clit, one hand keeping Joni’s raised leg steady, the other stroking her flank. Joni’s chest heaves, her breathing ragged. Emily slides a finger inside her and Joni pitches forward. “Jesus Christ, Emily. Jesus fucking Christ.” She weaves her fingers through Emily’s hair, greens and blues like water slipping softly over her knuckles.

Emily sucks hard on her clit then releases it with a pop. Joni whines at the loss of contact and Emily kisses her thigh in consolation. “You’re ethereal when you’re about to cum.” She adds another finger, then another. Crooks them upward, sets a brutal pace.

Joni’s orgasm takes her by surprise. It rolls over her. Mild at first, then it brings her nearly to her knees. She loses her balance, but Emily has her, lowers her down into the tub. The water is spraying all over the floor, but neither of them pay attention. Emily absently strokes Joni’s pussy, kissing lazily around her breast.s When the mood strikes her, she takes Joni’s nipple between her lips. Joni’s thighs won’t stop shaking and she needs to be close, needs to have another body against hers. She pulls Emily up to kiss her. The intimacy feels brutal, almost too much.

 

They kiss for a while, Emily still petting between Joni’s legs. The water’s gone cold, but Joni’s still radiating heat, her nipples still painfully hard, her body still pounding.

Emily reaches up and shuts the water off. She untangles herself from Joni’s arms and scoots to the other end of the tub. She spreads her legs, one dangling over the side. Joni watches her hand trail down her body, watches her spread her pussy open. Her other hand pulls at her bottom lip, expectant, watching. “I bet you’re good at this.” Her voice is dreamy, far away.

Joni shifts onto all fours. “I’ve never done this before.”

Emily laughs, but the sound isn’t malicious, just delighted. “Come here.” She holds her hand out. “Show me.”

 

Emily doesn’t bother getting dressed. She sits nude and cross-legged on the quilt in front of the TV. She’s rolling a joint when Joni emerges from the kitchen, cradling a bag of chips and a couple of Joja colas in her arms. “Queen of Sauce is on.” She runs the rolling paper between her lips to seal it. They’re still wet and Joni’s gut pulses.

“What’s she making?”

“Oh, I don’t know. That never matters to me. I just like the sound of her voice.”

“Huh.” Joni plops down beside her.

Emily runs her fingers absently over Joni’s calf, scooting closer. “This place could be killer if you hung a couple tapestries on the walls.”

Joni laughs. “I’m just trying to clean it up at this point.”

“It’s clean enough.” Emily sounds decisive. “This place has good energy.”

“You think?”

“Definitely.” It takes her a few tries with the old flip lighter they’d found in one of the kitchen drawers, but Emily finally manages to light the joint. She takes a long hit. “Do you have any incense? We could light some, really get a mood going.” She passes the joint.

“No, nothing like that. I didn’t bring that much from the city actually.”

“I can tell you don’t want to talk about it.”

Joni jolts. “What?”

“Why you left the city.”

“I…that’s not true. I just…don’t think this is like, I don’t know, the best time?” Joni chews her lip. “I mean, I don’t really know you.”  

“Oh, yeah. Of course. Rad. Our auras are intimate in other ways.” Joni can’t tell if that’s innuendo or something else so she says nothing. Emily rolls her shoulders. “I dyed my hair blue to match the ocean.”

Joni struggles to keep up. “Oh yeah?” Emily’s weed tastes spicy, like it’s either really good or really old. “Why?”

Emily blinks at her. “Why not?” She grabs blindly for the joint.

Joni relinquishes it. “Okay?”

“Do you understand what I mean?” Joni doesn’t understand it and honestly all this talk about chakras and feelings and earth communing whatever is getting a little grating. But Emily looks really hot like this, naked in front of the TV. The light casts long shadows down her body. The yoga she kept talking about on the way over has made her tight and nimble, lightly muscled. Joni leans in and plucks the joint out of Emily’s  mouth, puts her own mouth in its place. Emily sighs into the kiss. Her fingers skirt the hem of Joni’s t-shirt, feather light over her bare hips. She walks them up, up, up, and then Emily bites the bottom of Joni’s lip, pushing her backward, crawling on top.

Chapter Text

That morning it’s sticky hot. More summer than spring. It’s getting hot early this year, according to Leah, at least much earlier than the year before.  Neither of them have been in the valley very long, and sometimes it does feel like the blind leading the blind. But the company is good. Both of them seem happy not to question the sudden intimacy, the way they spend so many hours of their days with each other. She comes over to the farmhouse every day that week. Helps scrub the appliances, wash the windows. Joni promises her all the bulbs she planted out front as payment, but Leah waves her off. Friend stuff, she says, this is just friend stuff. Joni guesses they are friends now, if just through sheer force. And she is gonna give Leah the bulbs, at least a few of them, especially now that their thick green stems are sprouting from the earth. Joni can see them through the kitchen window from her spot on the counter, preening under the sun. She picks at a chip in the linoleum countertop, balancing a bowl of cereal on her knee. It’s windy these days, the air full of petals knocked form the flowering trees all throughout the valley. Joni can feel the wind as it slips through the cracks in the seals around the windows. The whole house has started to smell earthy, sweet.

The knock on the door startles Joni so badly that her bowl tumbles to the floor. It doesn’t break, but milk splashes all down the cabinets under the sink, flows into the cracks in the grout. Joni curses and slides off the countertop. She leaves the bowl where it lays, creeping quietly toward the window.

The farm has become its own little ecosystem. Her own little ecosystem. Most of the time it’s just Joni. The loneliness feels productive, necessary. The isolation in the hospital felt sort of the same way, but here she’s on her own time. The farm, just as she’d hoped, is an excellent place to hide. Leah seems to want to hide too and so, when they sit out drinking beer on the porch in the evenings, they mostly don’t talk. If they do it’s within their unspoken set of rules. They talk about now – the weather, the scenery, the gossip in town (though neither of them are entrenched enough to know anything really juicy). Sometimes, if they’ve had enough beer, they’ll talk about the summer. Things they’d like to do, what they think the weather will be like. They skim the pleasant surface of the valley. Anything outside of it is off-limits. The conversation never seems to drift in that direction anyway.

It’s all the more reason the knock on the door has Joni thrown for a loop. The phone line in the house is technically up and running, but only Leah and Robin have the number and neither use it much. Joni doesn’t even have a voicemailbox set up. Honestly, up until this very moment, it hadn’t occurred to her that someone just showing up was even a possibility, like the force of her own desire to be left alone would keep everyone away.. Someone knocks a second time. .

Joni peers out the window, but she can only see just a sliver of the person’s back. She doesn’t know who it is, but she can tell it isn’t Emily. Another layer of weird disappointment. The first night after their night together, Joni’d gone down to the Saloon. Trying to play it cool but wanting to see her. Emily had greeted her with the same bouncy, detached professionalism she had at the end of Joni’s very first night in the restaurant. They hadn’t talked about that night, about how Emily had slept over at the farmhouse, hands wrapped tightly around Joni’s waist. Things are still cool, she figures. Emily waves excitedly to her from across town when they cross paths, yells hellos when Joni heads down to the beach. Not exactly the behavior of someone ghosting you, but self-loathing has crawled its way back into Joni’s life. It still fits so well. She’s trying not to feel put out. Trying so hard that she forgets she’s been standing motionless in front of the front door for god knows how long. The person knocks again. “Anyone home!?”

“Christ,” Joni whispers. She opens the door, just a crack, and peeks out.

“Oh, hi! Good morning!” The voice is so cheery that Joni’s helpless in the face of it. She opens the door all the way and steps out onto the porch. The enormous t-shirt she’s wearing was her ex boyfriends. It’s covered in rust stains from her adventures with the kitchen appliances. Ill omens all around. The woman beams up at her. She’s a full foot shorter than Joni and twice as stout. Her face is almost completely obscured by the thick mess of frizzy brown hair.  

“Hi, hey.” Joni wipes at her mouth. She’s got cereal crumbs on her lips. “You caught me in the middle of breakfast.”

Joni notices the woman’s got a couple pieces of hay stuck in her hair, one in the collar of her shirt. “Oh, no! I didn’t mean to interrupt anything!” But the woman makes no motion to leave. They just stand there on the porch and Joni is about to excuse herself and shut the door, when the reason for the woman’s visit makes itself known. Joni has no idea how she didn’t notice the squirming  kitten tucked under the woman’s arm, but now the thing is yowling, pissed off at being held still for so long. The woman takes the kitten in both hands and nuzzles it against her nose. “Now, now, hush.” She smiles at Joni. “Are you in the market for a cat?”

At first, Joni doesn’t process the question. She looks at the cat, up at the woman, then back at the cat. Then she gulps. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

The woman doesn’t skip a beat. “Found this sweet little boy lurking around the chicken coop this morning. Looks like he might be about two or three months old, give or take. Couldn’t find a mama or any of his brothers and sisters. He’s a solo little prince.”

Joni’s brain is still stuck, her thoughts not processing right, now moving. “Wait are you trying to sell me this cat?”

“I’m trying to give you this cat.”

Joni sort of goes sideways. The cat yowls. “I’m sorry, could you just?  Give me a minute, yeah? Are you, um…” Joni wagers her best guess, flipping through all the things Robin told her about the village during their early mornings together making repairs to the house, “Marnie?”

The woman laughs. She has enormous breasts. The kind that move when she talks. They are barely contained in her button down shirt. Joni shakes herself out of it, trying not to stare. “Oh Yoba, sorry. I’ve been hearing so much about you it feels like we’ve already met.” She thrusts her free hand out toward Joni. “Yep, I’m Marnie. The ranch down the way is mine.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” Joni takes Marnie’s hand a little limply, she can’t take her eyes off the cat. He’s scrawny, little tufts of fur flying in all directions, but he’s got a sweet face, his tortoiseshell fur pretty even though he’s absolutely  covered in dirt. He has big round eyes the color of oranges and the way he’s looking at her makes her panic. “Listen, I’m sorry, I don’t know the first thing about cats. I think he’d probably be better off with someone else.”

Marnie frowns. “Oh, nonsense! Cats are so easy. Even kittens. You barely have to do anything for him. Especially on a big farm like this.”

Joni’s already backing away, her chest feels tight. “No, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I just don’t think…” She trails off, closing the door partway. “It was nice meeting you.” She shuts the door with a final click and rests her head on the wood. She can hear Marnie fussing on the porch  and she half expects her to knock again. She doesn’t and Joni’s eyes flutter closed, relieved. He’s there, this cat, vivid already in her imagination. He’s such a tiny little thing and she imagines him hungry and shivering in some bush, falling into the river down by he ranch and drowning. Awful things. She bangs her head softly on the door. “Jesus Christ, shit.” Joni flies out onto the porch and races down the steps toward Marnie. “Wait!” She stops and turns, still cradling the kitten. “What’ll happen to him if I don’t take him.” Marnie shrugs. “Not rightly sure. I can’t take him. My niece is allergic.”

“I’ll take him.” Marnie raises an eyebrow. Joni holds out both her hands. “I’ll take him. You can leave him with me.”

 

Leah answers on the final ring and Joni can tell the call has woken her up. “Leah?” She hums affirmative into the phone. “Are you awake?” Another hum. “Okay, I have an um,” Joni looks back at the cat. He’s batting his paws against the TV stand, fascinated by one of the cobwebs hanging from it. “I have a bit of an emergency.”

Joni hears Leah jolt up, her voice instantly more awake. “What’s going on?”

“It’s not a real emergency. It’s just…” The cat stalks over to her, rubbing his body against her calves. “Do you know anything about cats?”

 

“Looks like he’s already made himself at home.” Joni has the cat tucked in her arms, cradled like a baby. He’s snuggled up, purring loudly.

Joni probably looks more like a stray than he does, eyes wide and pale. “I’ve never had a pet in my whole life.”

Leah sets her bag down the by the couch. “I brought some stuff for him to eat, some yarn from one of my projects. He’ll probably like that.” She pauses, processing what she’s said. “Wait, you’ve never had a pet? Really?”

“Really.”

Leah reaches for him. “Can I see?” The cat meows loudly when Joni relinquishes her. “Aren’t you pretty, huh?” Leah holds him under his arms, twisting him a little so she can get a full look at him. “A little mangy, but he’s cute. Looks healthy.”

Joni smirks. “Is that your professional opinion, doctor?”

Leah rolls her eyes. “I grew up with cats, okay? I know what I’m talking about.” She hands him back to Joni. “Or at least enough to know that he looks normal.”

He settles back in Joni’s arms. The warmth is nice, the pressure too. He seems to like her which in and of itself is sort of a revelation. “Do you think I should keep him?”

Leah looks shocked. “If course! Are you kidding?”

“I mean…” Joni starts to bounce on the balls of her feet, rocking him like he’s a baby. It’s a minute before she realizes she’s doing it and then she abruptly stops. He rubs the top of his head against her arm, eyes drifting closed. “Stop it,” she whispers quietly to him. She looks up at Leah almost pleading. “I can barely take care of myself.” He reaches up, pawing at nothing. His little face is caked in mud, but he looks peaceful, at ease, like he trusts her to figure this out for him. “Fuck.”

 

They both freeze at the knock on the door. It has the same effect as the first time, that same eerie reminder that the solitude in this place is an illusion. Leah seems to feel it too, they lock eyes , and Joni again wonders how intimacy like this develops so fast without even touching. Their pause gives the righteously pissed off kitten the window he needs to scramble out of the tub and race off to hide somewhere in the house. He’s left a ring of dirt at the bottom of the bath.

Leah whispers when she talks, like the person at the door might hear them. “The door sounds so spooky in this house.”

“I know.” Joni gets up and tries to wring the water from her shirt. She just ends up soaking her shorts.

“Are you expecting someone?”

“No, never.” She leans down to drain the bath. “But oh god, what if Marnie’s back with the rest of the litter or something?” Leah smirks, skeptical. “I’m going completely insane. This close to losing it.”

Leah reaches for Joni’s hand for leverage to get up off the floor. “Hardly.”

 

Joni doesn’t really know who she was expecting to be at her front door, but it certainly wasn’t Emily. She’s wearing the same red corduroy dress and Joni yelps in surprise when she opens the door, like Emily’s arrival has burned her. Leah was fiddling around in the kitchen trying to make herself scarce, but she pads into the front room, drawn in by the commotion. Emily beams. “Hey-yo!”

“God, hi. What’s up?”

Emily’s eyes dart to Leah in the background . “Oh, wow! Are you having a party?”

Joni pauses. She hears Leah cough. “No, definitely not. Just hanging out.” Leah waves awkwardly from behind her.

“Oh, too bad.”  Emily thrusts a to go container into her hands. “I brought you some food.”

“Wait, you came all the way out here just to give me some food?” Emily grins. “Wow, I mean thank you. Are you going to come eat it with me?” Joni’s trying to process this development. She looks hard at Emily’s face, like it might tell her something.

Emily flips the ends of her hair. “Oh man, I wish, huh. I have to pick up some eggs from Marnie. Saloon business, you know. But I knew I’d be the neighborhood.” Her eyes go a little glassy, that faraway look she had when she asked Joni about her aura. “And I knew you’d be home.” She snaps out of it, smiling again. “Anyway, just wanted to pop in.”

“Well, I appreciate it.”

Emily pats her on the cheek. “It was meant to be so you shouldn’t worry about it..”

Joni doesn’t try to parse what the hell that’s supposed to mean and she definitely doesn’t ask. “I’ll hit you back.”

Emily smiles. “Well I hope I’ll see you soon.” She leans in for a peck, fingers ghosting over Joni’s hip. She’s gone as quickly as she came, like some kind of apparition.

 

When Joni shuts the door, Leah’s waiting, looking a little bewildered “So much for loneliest girl in the valley, huh?”

Joni wags her finger at her. “It’s not like that.”

She laughs. “So what’s it like?”

Joni shrugs. “We hooked up once. I have no idea what any of that mean in this town or, you know what, probably at all. Literally I have never had a normal relationship in my life.”

“Ha. What’s a normal relationship?” Leah sits curled up on the porch step.

Joni gets down beside her. “That sounds like an open wound.” She knows she’s treading a fine line here. That she’s breaking one of their unspoken rules.

Leah sighs and tucks her head between her knees. “It’s been a really fucked up couple of years for me.”

“Yeah,” Joni says, leaning back on her hands, stretching her legs out to touch the bottom step. “I can relate to that.” The door creaks and both of them freeze. The kitten slinks out onto the porch. Wherever he’s been, he’s found something to dry himself off on and he’s looking nearly twice as big as before, just a big puff of fur. Without a sound, he curls up between them, eyes trained on the big oak tree just beyond. Joni runs her fingers along his spine, stroking absently. She has the sudden urge to ask Leah if she thinks they’ll be okay. Like in general. But Leah is looking thoughtfully off in the distance and the question dies on her tongue. Joni’s chest is suddenly tight again and terror grips her when she tries to imagine herself still here in the summer, the fall, the winter. When she imagines another year. Her life stretches out like an eternity in front of her and she wants to scream when she sees it. She can’t bear to even think about trying to manage all of it, any of it. The cat meows to get her attention, bats his paw against her legs. Joni runs her fingers against the soft, fine hairs at the base of his ear. He’s so little, so sweet. She picks him up and sets him on her lap. He melts into her.

Chapter Text

Emily calls her the next afternoon. Joni doesn’t ask how she got ahold of her number, she honestly doesn’t even want to know. Each new interaction in the valley has made her hyper aware of how socially porous everything here is. Every time she heads into town, she half expects her phone number to be tacked up on the billboard next to the town’s calendar.It does feel a bit like a compliment, though, that Emily possibly went a little out of her way to find out her number.

Joni cradles the phone against her ear, taking a few bites of one of the apples she covertly picked up from Joja. The flesh is soft and flavorless. She grimaces as she eats. Leah’s nearby, of course. A few beers in and lamenting the lack of takeout in town. They’d tossed around the idea of renting a couple of movies or, hell, going to the theater to see one, but neither of them has enough cash to justify taking the bus to any of the bigger towns in the valley. The Queen of Sauce is going to have to do. Anyway it seems like she has about a million different episodes and they play back to back until the infomercials gear up around midnight. “Are you still there?”

Joni jumps and holds the phone closer to her face. “Yeah, sorry, what’s up.”

“I wish I could get a peek into that big world in your head.” Emily’s voice is soft, almost musical. Not likely, Joni thinks twisting the phone cord between her fingers.  “Whenever I see you around town you’re always so lost in thought.” Joni doesn’t know what to say to that, just waits and hopes that Emily will fill the silence. She does. “Come to the Saloon.”

“What, right now?”

“Please.”

Joni leans conspiratorially closer to the phone. “Has something happened?”

Emily laughs. “So grim! Who even are you? What a trip. No, of course not. Everything’s sublime. But you’ve got to come.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s Friday night, Joni. The vibe is so good here on Friday nights. Almost like the city.” Joni doubts that, but when she runs the idea by Leah, she jumps up, practically out the door before Joni can finish asking.

 

They meet Emily just past the bus stop. She’s wearing a dress that shimmers every time she moves and hiking boots with no laces. She hugs them both which seems to startle Leah. Emily doesn’t kiss Joni, but she slides her hands on her ass when they hug, squeezing hard before she lets go. She smells like weed, like she’s high. It occurs to Joni that they’ll probably fuck later, but her body is too numb to get a solid read on whether or not she’s excited by the idea. She took a valium before she and Leah left the farmhouse, suddenly wired out of her mind at the idea of, like, actually going out. It makes her feel like she’s walking in soup and, when Emily takes her hand, it feels severed from her body.

While Joni’s floating in the soft chemical cushion of her meds, Leah’s looking around nervously. Jumpy like she’s never been in this part of town before. Emily is their fearless leader, practically dancing down the path. She’s completely oblivious to the weird energy behind her, to the way the temperature seems to be steadily dropping around them. Joni hangs back and whispers to Leah, “are you okay?”

Leah nods, but pulls her coat closer around her. “Yeah, it’s fine. I’ll tell you about it later.”

Joni grimaces. “Did something happen?”

“Nothing important. We can talk tomorrow, okay?” Joni squeezes her on the arm, but lets it drop. She’s not sure she even trusts herself with complete sentences right now.  Emily’s noticed them lagging behind and bounces on her toes under one of the streetlamps, waiting.

This all feels too familiar and Joni suddenly wishes she hadn’t taken that valium. The scenery’s all different, but the quiet dread before going out is the same. All those moving pieces, all those different people. Joni has control of nothing. She can feel herself fumbling through her fog, trying to keep hold of herself. What if she wakes up in the morning and it’s that same feeling as before the hospital? It had been a night out before then too. That feeling like she’s falling, her stomach flipping over and over, just vertigo. That sudden, violent desire to throw herself through her window, to let the sidewalk below her apartment sort it all out. “Fuck.” Joni clutches her chest. The memories are so strong, so unyielding. The valium was supposed to help.

Emily pulls her close almost violently, tucks her under her arm. “There she is again, off in her own world!” Her voice seems to break the spell. Joni’s back, as if teleported. She can hear the fountain gurgling in the distance, a few lonesome crickets chirping in the grass as they walk. She rubs her hands together, making sure she’s all in one piece.  “Come on, my serious girl. Let’s go have some fun.”

 

Emily’s not wrong, Joni can at least give her that. The Saloon is a completely different beast when it’s this full of people. It’s buzzing. Joni doesn’t know if Gus has turned up the lights in the place or if there’s just something about all these people that makes it seem brighter. Soft, folksy music is playing from an old timey jukebox in the corner and a few people are swaying to the music. She thinks she might see Robin and ducks down to avoid her gaze. The last thing she needs is for her to see her strung out like this.

She’s pliable as a doll when Emily sits her down in a corner booth, orders her a beer. It tastes like nothing when she drinks it, the glass sweating down her fingers. She’s staring at nothing, just letting the conversation and the music roll over her. But then, out of the blue, she finds herself staring at him.

He’s bent over the pool table, cigarette hanging from his lip, brow furrowed in concentration. He’s got Wild West cowboy swagger, a little air of danger, but he’s dressed like a guy she might meet at a record store. Slim jeans and a dark pullover. He changes spots at the table, leans down to get another angle on the shot. He’s wearing sneakers, but nice ones. Possibly expensive ones. He slides back around the table, back to where he started. Someone out of view must have said something to him, because he laughs, a wicked grin. He seems completely at ease in that sort of absent way that Joni always finds so appealing, so dangerous, in men. She scoots her chair over so she can see him better. Emily and Leah are talking quietly about something, gesturing at the beer in front of them. Joni nods when it seems appropriate to, keeping her eyes on the guy at the pool table. She likes how sharp his features are, high cheekbones, aquiline nose. Maybe not in the most conventional way, but he’s handsome, nice to look at. His body isn’t bad either. He looks like he could be muscular if he wanted to be. He has the bones for it, broad and tall, but he’s thin like someone who sometimes forgets to eat.  His hair is so black it’s almost blue when it catches the right light. He keeps it short at the bottom, but long enough on top that a few thick curls fall onto his forehead when he bends down. He brushes them off with long, nimble fingers when he sets up his shot. Joni can’t hear it over the sounds of the music and people, but she guesses it was a good one by the way he leans back and smiles. This smile is almost shy and Joni notices that he has pretty, full lips. They fall when he steps away from the pool table. He blinks around like he’s seeing the Saloon for the first time. He doesn’t seem to like what he’s seeing. The frown makes him look older. He rolls his head to one side to crack his neck and then slumps a little. Joni nudges Emily. “Who’s that?”

“Who?” Joni nods toward the pool table. “Oh, that’s Sebastian.”

Joni waits for her to elaborate, but she doesn’t, just gets up to buy another pitcher of beer for the table. Joni leans over to wear Leah is nursing her pint. “Do you know anything about him?”

She shakes her head. “No, not really. He’s here every Friday though.”

“Huh.” Joni tucks that information away for later, though Yoba knows she doesn’t have the faintest idea what she plans to do with it. The valium’s mostly worn off and the beer’s making her feel full and cloudy. Her stomach gurgles.

Leah yawns. “I think I’m gonna call it a night.” She leans her head on Joni’s shoulder, rummaging through her purse for her house key. When she finds it, she sits up and nods toward Emily, still flitting around the bar. “Are you going to…?”

Joni shifts in her seat. “Probably?”

Leah squeezes her shoulder. “Have a good night, okay?”

Joni looks up at her, reluctant to let go of her hand. “Will we talk tomorrow?”

         “Of course, dude.” She untangles herself from Joni and heads toward the door, weaving just a little. With Leah gone, the bar becomes almost sinister. Joni feel adrift and gets up to find Emily, needing something to cling to.

 

         Emily’s put music on. It has a steady, rhythmic beat and no lyrics. The room feels dense, like a tent. All the lights are draped in tapestries. They cast kaleidoscope colors all over the walls. In the light their shadows are long and technicolored. Emily doesn’t say anything, just hums softly to herself. She pushes Joni onto the bed and crawls on top of her, kissing all up her body. It’s hard to focus on Emily’s face in the dim, rainbow light, but Joni can see that her pupils are enormous. She grins so wide it almost consumes her face and leans down to kiss her.

 

         Emily has glow in the dark starts on her ceiling, like the ones Joni had on the ceiling of her childhood bedroom. Their glow is a little weak. Nothing compared to the rest of the room, but she keeps staring at them while Emily tries to make her cum. It’s hard to when Joni feels so far away from her own body. The valium hasn’t quite worn off she figure,s or maybe it’s something else. She doesn’t even notice that Emily’s stopped eating her out, until she drums her fingers on Joni’s hip bone. “Let it go,” she says, resting her head dreamily on Joni’s stomach.

         Joni tenses. “Why did you stop?”

         “You’re so tense. You haven’t made a sound for five minutes.”

         Joni props herself up on her elbows . “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize…”

         Emily smiles, kissing right above Joni’s pubic hair. “Let me help.” She crawls off the bed, agile as a cat, and rummages through a set of drawers Joni hadn’t noticed before. The slim, metal vibrator glints in the light, looks slick between her fingers.

         Joni goes off like a shot when it touches her, pitching forward. The vibrator forces her back into her body. Emily’s comforter is a smooth silk that feels cold on Joni’s bare back. The air in the room is dense, almost humid. Incense is burning in one corner, but Joni can’t remember when Emily lit it.

Emily holds the vibrator in place between Joni’s legs and crawls up until they’re face to face again. She kisses all over her face, everywhere but her lips. “Just relax,” she whispers, barely audible over the music. “Just relax my serious girl, come on.” She presses the vibrator hard against Joni’s clit and when she cries out, Emily captures her mouth in a kiss. Her tongue tastes like pennies. Joni fumbles to try and hold onto her, fingers pressing into Emily’s arms. They are roiling over each other, slick with sweat. Their bodies are glistening and colorful. The room is pulsing, incendiary. Joni slides a hand down between Emily’s legs. She hisses when she finds her thighs wet and sticky. It feels like touching herself and she doesn’t know if that’s just because Emily is a woman or if there’s something else there, something essential between them. Something right. Joni’s felt that before, if in a different genre. That rightness that excuses all bad behavior, that smooths over things that should not be smoothed over. Emily presses the vibrator down with her palm and flips her hand so she can slip two fingers inside of her. Joni wants to ask her where she learned to fuck like this, who the hell taught her to do shit like this, but when she opens her mouth it’s just to moan against Emily’s lips.

When Joni cums, it’s in pieces. Like dominoes falling, like the valium can only turn one part of her body on at a time. She holds Emily’s head against her chest, hands fisted in her aquamarine hair, and tries to keep her body together. It feels buoyant, easy, like it’s slipping away from her and she can only watch it go. She holds Emily tighter, holds on for dear life.

 

         Joni’s up before the sun rises. Her head is throbbing and even the smallest light from under Emily’s door makes her whole body lurch. She fumbles in the darkness, trying not to trip over all the shit Emily has on the floor. Joni has to feed her cat. Which is a novel thought, actually. This little being she’s responsible for now. She has to feed herself too, can’t remember the last time she ate something substantial. Her stomach flips and she can’t tell if she’s hungry or about to be sick on Emily’s front lawn.

         It’s chilly in the half darkness. The grass crunches under her feet, heavy with early morning dew. She’s so in her own head that she nearly misses him, the only other person outside with her. It’s the smell that brings her out of her own head: tobacco. Strong stuff, actually. Headier than convenience store cigs. She’d bet they’re hand rolled. The glowing end of a cigarette across the street reveals him. Sebastian, she remembers. Kind of a funny name, really. Like a rogue prince’s name. Or a pirate’s. He’s even more imposing in the early twilight. That confidence she’d seen at the pool table is gone, but so is the strange meekness before he’d ducked out of view. Here he just looks contemplative, like he’s relishing being alone. The slim fit jeans he’s wearing makes his legs look impossibly long. He’s in all black again, though this time the pullover has a few buttons down the front. He’s rolled the sleeves up to his elbows even though Joni can see her breath. She watches him for a while, just looking out toward the river, before she slips into the darkness and back toward home.

Chapter Text

Maybe Robin did spot her at the bar last night, or maybe she’s just got some kind of superpowered mother’s instinct, because her truck rolls up mid-afternoon the next day. Joni’s out babying the strawberry plants she bought from Pierre’s the week before, still a bit nauseous, hiding behind her biggest pair of sunglasses.

“Hey kiddo!” She swings out of her trunk, plastic bag clutched in one arm. “How’s it going?”

Joni wipes soil on her jeans and stands. “It’s going.”

“Looks like it.” When she gets closer, Joni can see that Robin’s just come from a job. She’s a little winded, a little red in the cheeks. Her shirt is drenched in sweat. “This place is looking great!”

“You think?” Joni puts her hands on her hips,  a little self-conscious. She’s tried to clear a few of the logs out of the yard, but she isn’t strong enough and the axe she’d found in the dilapidated shed out back is barely hanging together. The farm still looks messy, even with her little field of tulips and the somewhat uniform greenery of her strawberry plants.

“Absolutely. You’re shaping up to be a real farmer.” Joni smiles at the praise. Robin stretches, the sun at her back. “Saw you out at the Saloon last night.” Oh Yoba. “It’s nice to see you out and about.” Joni laughs a little, almost a sigh of relief. “I know this town isn’t really the most interesting place to live for people your age, but I think you’ll find you can make your own fun.”

Yes, well she was certainly doing that last night blitzed out of her mind, getting fucked under a tented ceiling of paisley fabric. Not totally unlike what she might have been doing on a Friday night in Zuzu, actually, minus the crickets chirping outside.“It’s not so different really.” And she means it when she says it. And it scares her.

Robin laughs and then hands Joni the plastic bag. It’s heavy. “You were awful scrawny when you showed up.”

Joni flinches. “I’ve always been a little…” She trails off, even more self-conscious now.

“Well, you’re working so damn hard, I figured you might need a little extra sustenance huh?” She pats the bag. “My husband made a root vegetable hash last night. These are the leftovers. Good stuff. Brussels sprouts, squash, a few apples. Crack an egg over it and you’ve got dinner.”

“You’re really too nice to me, Robin.”

“Nonsense. We’re neighbors.”

Joni squints at her. “Wait, but are we actually though?” Robin cocks her head, not understanding. “I mean, like, physically.” Joni stumbles over her words. “I honestly have no idea where you live.”

“Oh!” Robin chuckles. “Of course, why would you? We’re neighbors in a sense, I guess. I live just at the base of the foothills back behind town. There’s a little path back by your shed that’ll take you pretty much right to our doorstep. Might be a little overgrown, but you can use if there’s ever an emergency.”

Joni balks. “Emergency? Like what?” She realizes that she really has no fucking idea what kind of things could happen out here in the sticks. A few birds screech from her roof, putting a fine point to it.

“Oh, I shouldn’t have said that, huh? I didn’t mean anything by it. Just know that we’re only about a mile away if you ever need us.”

Joni’s so close to crying, has been since Robin pulled up. Affection hits her like pain. It’s so unpleasant. Robin always does this to her, this motherly weirdness. She almost wants to yell at her, to tell her to stop doing this. Joni doesn’t deserve it. All this mother shit. It’s too much, really, but she just smiles, trying not to give herself away. “I really appreciate it.”

 

Joni stops halfway through Leah’s front door, mid-sentence. She nearly drops Robin’s gift of leftovers. Leah is sitting on the floor, phone cord wrapped tightly around her arm, eyes puffy from crying. “I know Kel, I know.” She whispers into the phone. “I’ve asked you nicely to stop calling, I-“ she hunches over. Joni can hear yelling on the other end. “Right, yes. I know. Okay.” Leah chews her lip. “Yeah. Bye. Okay.”

Joni’s first impulse is to bolt, to go right back to the farmhouse and just pretend she was never here. But she takes a deep breath and sets the food on Leah’s table. She crouches down until she’s level with her. She may not have bolted, but she hasn’t really thought any of her next steps through. “So, uh…”

Leah sniffles, wipes some snot from her nose. “I’m a fucking mess.”

Joni helps her to her feet. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“My ex-girlfriend.”

“What?”

Leah nods toward the telephone. “She’s the one who called. It’s always such a mindfuck when we talk.” Leah wipes her eyes. “Wait, did you bring food?”

“Yeah, Robin dropped some leftovers off. I figured you probably hadn’t eaten yet.”

Leah sniffles again. “That’s so nice of you, oh my god.”

It’s really not any different from what they’ve been doing for the past few weeks, but Joni smiles, herding Leah to the table. “Is this what last night was about?”

She nods. Leah has her knees pulled up, sitting in the chair like a child. “She left me a voicemail yesterday afternoon. I figured she’d call back today.”

Joni wants to ask why she took the call to begin with, why she didn’t just block the number, but she doesn’t. She knows better.  “I wish you’d told me. We didn’t have to go out last night.”

“I know that. I just thought it would be a good distraction.”

Joni sits cross-legged on the dining room chair. “You didn’t really seem like you were having a good time.”

Leah’s head snaps up. “Neither did you.” Joni flinches. “Sorry, I didn’t mean-“

“No, it’s cool. You’re right anyway.”

Leah shrugs, looking sheepish. “Did you go home with Emily?” Joni nods, taking the food out and spooning it onto the paper plates Robin put in the bag. “How was it?”

“I mean, if you’re asking about the sex then it was good.”

“What else would I be asking about?”

“I don’t know.” Then after a beat. “She overwhelms me.”

Leah snorts. “Yeah, I can see that.” They both slump a little, tucking silently into Robin’s food. “Kel didn’t abuse me,” Leah says suddenly. Joni chews her food, looking at her carefully. She isn’t sure what the hell to say to that. “I mean, it wasn’t like that.”

Leah is leaving an opening a mile wide, but Joni is hesitant to take it. Their quiet commiseration couldn’t have lasted forever, she knows that, not with how often they were spending time together, but it feels like diving off a cliff to go here wit hher. “What was it like then?”

Leah frowns into her food. “Intense. Right from the beginning. We moved in after two months.”

“Holy shit.”

“I know.” She pauses, staring at the table. “She wanted to get married. Like so quickly. I mean it was wild. She was looking at like sperm donation shit, adoption whatever, like six months in.” Leah scrapes her fingers through her hair, clearly agitated. “I got swept up in it. I didn’t want any of that but she was so convincing. She made me believe that this is what I wanted. I swear to god I was like two days from closing on a house with her.”

“I’m guessing that didn’t happen.”

Leah laughs bitterly. “No, I bolted. Left her completely in the lurch with all the paperwork and the realtor. I got a motel room for a week and just hid until I saw the ad in the paper for this place.”

“For what it’s worth,” Joni begins, taking Leah’s hand. “I’m glad you ended up here.” Joni recognizes the face Leah makes immediately. Seems like affection hurts her too.. Joni tones it down. “And your girlfriend sounds like a real asshole.”

         Leah snorts, but says nothing. They both eat for a while in silence. Joni gets up and turns the radio on, letting the news station run quietly in the background. The war dominates the stories, as usual. The death toll is rising, supplies are strained. A kid barely old enough to drive strapped two bombs strapped under the soles of his feet, determined to blow a plane to smithereens. They detained him at an airport on the Fern Islands big port city. It does nothing for the mood in the room.

         Leah nearly slams her fork down, eyes wide. “I need you to be honest.” She doesn’t even wait for Joni to reply. “Do you think I’m an asshole?”

         “For…what?”

         “For, I don’t know, shirking my duties.”

         Joni sputters. “Your duties? What does that even mean?”

         “Like, I’m supposed to get married and have kids. That’s what I’m supposed to do.”

         “Says who? What are you even talking about?”

         “My parents!” Leah starts crying again, big wet tears rolling down her face. Then she laughs, almost hysterically. “Oh my god, yeah, that’s what my shithole parents say.”

         Joni levels her fork at her. “Yeah, I’m not sure that’s the metric I’d try to measure my life by.”

         “God.” Leah puts her head in her hands. “My parents don’t talk to me anymore. Cause I fuck women. They kicked me out when I was sixteen.”

         “Holy shit.”

         “Yeah. And it gets worse. I went along with Kel’s shit because I guess I thought that maybe it would do right by them. That if I got married, had a couple kids, moved back to the shithole town where I was born that they’d want to talk to me again. Even if I did all of that with a woman it wouldn’t matter.” Joni chews her lip, trying to figure out what to say. “I know it sounds stupid.”

         “It doesn’t.”

         Leah narrows her eyes at her. “Really?”

         “Really.”

         Leah takes Joni’s hand, knits their fingers together. “I guess it doesn’t really matter if it would have worked or not. I burned that bridge. Lit it right up.”

         “Sounds like you needed to.”

         Leah nods absently. “Yeah, so, I guess I’m just out here slowly destroying my life out in the wilderness.”

         Joni snorts. “What’s our club name?”

         Leah can’t keep the smile off her face, even though Joni can tell she’s trying to. “I don’t know if that’s a fair comparison. You’ve got like a house. Land. Farms make money.”

         “Yeah, for farmers. You had to teach me how to forage, remember? And have you seen my place. I just got the oven working.” Leah laughs, shrugging playfully. “And besides you’ve got this place.”

         “Do you know that Lewis is letting me stay here for free?”

         Joni blinks at her. “For real?”

         “Yeah. I just have to make some public art for the town.”

         “Wow, awfully groovy of the ole mayor huh? The Stardew Valley commune.”
         “I think it used to be a little bit like that, actually. I was in the library last winter and I found all these old photo books. Big hippy shit.”
         “Really?”

         “Yeah, I mean, but I don’t know what’s gonna happen with Joja Mart moving in and everything.”

         “Oh, yeah.”

         “I refuse to shop there.”

         “That seems fair.” Joni can hum the store’s jingle by heart now. Sometimes she thinks they might be the only commercials on TV in the valley. The place is dirt cheap and doesn’t seem to give a shit about what is or isn’t in season. Pierre’s produce is a hundred times better, no question, but Joni’s got about two cents to her name and she usually can’t afford it.  Joni pretends like she has no skin in the game, but she only goes to Joja late at night when she’s sure no one will catch her there.

         “Yeah, Pierre’s a slick, little capitalist, but he’s our slick, little capitalist.”

         Joni giggles. “Yeah, I lowkey love him.”

         “Me too. Pretty sure he buys weed from Emily.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah, just what I heard.”  Leah drums her fingers on the table. “I want to tell you something.”

         Joni sits up a little straighter, voice dropping a couple worried octaves. “Okay.”

         “I’m going to start saving up for a home computer.”

         “Whoa, shit. Aren’t those like…”

         “Really, expensive, yeah. They are.” She rubs her arms, ignoring her half eaten food. “I get this monthly newsletter for like artists and stuff and they had an article this month about artists on the internet.”

         Joni shrugs. “I don’t know anything about the internet.”

         “Yeah, me either. But I guess people are posting pictures of their work on it and then, I don’t know how, but people can buy it.”

         “Wow, that’s great.”

         “Yeah,” Leah looks at the floor, “it could be a thing for me, putting myself out there.” She swallows hard. “Today really cinched it for me, you know? I left the city and I left Kel because I knew my art was important enough to take risks for. “ She looks up at Joni. “I figure I better start taking those risks.”

         Joni squeezes her hand tightly. Her chest feels full of warmth and it’s strange, strange to feel this close. “That’s amazing. I’m so happy for you.”

         Leah beams. “I thought you might be. I feel really lucky that we met each other.” She shies away. “Sorry, I know that’s weird. We haven’t been friends for all that long.”

         “No, it’s okay. I feel the same way,”

“You took risks to be here too, right?”

Joni swallows hard, chest tight. Her voice comes out distorted. “Sort of.”

“I mean I thought you said,” Leah frowns. “Maybe I’m just misremembering.”

Joni takes a deep breath. “No, what are you remembering?”

“You just got out of a bad relationship too right? I mean you didn’t say those exact words, but I thought you just kind of-“

“Implied it? Yeah I guess I did?” Joni rubs the goosebumps rising on her arms. She hasn’t told anyone about that, or about the hospital. But it slips out sometimes. It’s hard to run away.

Leah looks at her seriously. “Do you wanna talk about it?”

“What like you show me yours, I show you mine?” It comes out harsher than Joni meant it.

“Yoba, no sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“No, it’s cool. I just…it’s hard to talk about I guess.” It’s more honest than Joni’s been in a long time. “And besides,” she adds smiling. “I don’t want to harsh this good vibe. This good, home computer buying vibe we’ve got going here.”

“Alright, alright.” Leah leans back and stretches. “My bad. But you gotta promise me that if this fuck ever tries to call you, you’ll come cry at my place, okay? It can’t just be me ”

Joni smiles, but then she straightens, trying to imagine what it would be like if he called her, how quickly that would send her racing right back to hell. “He doesn’t have my number.” She says it like it’s a spell, like it’ll prevent him from finding her, from getting ahold of her number just like Emily had. She makes a mental note to see if she can get it unlisted.

Leah frowns. The sun’s still up, even though it’s nearly night. It shimmers through the trees, casting long shadows in the cabin. “That’s smart.”

Chapter Text

Despite its vaguely erotic name, the flower dance is shaping up to be a lot milder than Joni had hoped. Emily is busy ignoring her and Leah’s off wandering around, chatting with some of the older women in town. Before she’d gone off, she’d whispered conspiratorially to Joni that the blue-green punch swirling in the center of the buffet table has been like seriously spiked, but the idea of drinking this early in the morning makes Joni’s stomach turn. The enormous pink jello mold in front of her is promising though and she’s bent down, examining the fruit jiggling inside, when she spies him out of the corner of her eye. Sebastian. He’s tucked under one of the flowering trees, face mostly obscured by the shadow of its long branches. The collared dress shirt he’s wearing makes him look a little like a loping teenager and he keeps pulling at the collar like he knows it doesn’t fit quite right. His fingers keep twitching at his sides and Joni figures he’s itching for a cigarette.

Gus has cut some cherry tomatoes into the shape of tulips and stuffed them almost to popping with some sort of herb-flecked soft cheese. Joni pops a couple in her mouth and sidles up to Sebastian. He grunts in greeting which is, honestly, more than she thought she’d get. She looks up at him, shielding her face from the sun. He’s still just as pretty as the night in the Saloon. It’s  a relief. “Not much of a dancer?”

He scowls. “I don’t see you in there.”

“I’m new. What’s your excuse?”

He fights a smile, but Joni can see his cheeks rise just a little. “Maybe I’m new too.”

“Are you?”

He clears his throat, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “Unfortunately not.”

Joni grins up at him. It’s easy to flirt with men. So much easier than with women. Joni knows the rules. She can pretend to be someone else entirely. She slips into this carefree persona as seamlessly as she always has in the past. It’s been a while though, she’s a little sharper at the edges now.  “I feel like I’ve seen you before.” A crowd has started to gather around the open center of the meadow. Joni’s not sure what she’s trying to do here, talking to him. Recently her thoughts have been turning backward into darkness and the flirting lets her pretend she’s never been anywhere like that, never thought those things  Maybe he’s just the closest conduit for that.   

Sebastian ducks a little further under the tree. He’s hiding and Joni scans the meadow to try and figure out from who. No one sticks out. Maybe he’s hiding from everybody. “You probably have. Not that many people to see.” He’s got the same twang as the rest of the villagers, but Joni can tell he’s worked hard to make it less obvious.

“You really know how to sell a town.”

He smiles again, just a little, just with one side of his mouth. “So you’re the new girl, then?”

Joni adjusts the straps on her sundress, feeling weirdly exposed without her jeans on. Funny, she didn’t really wear them much in the city. “What gave me away?”

He has a warm, honeyed laugh. It doesn’t really match his persona. “The part where you told me you’re new.”

Joni laughs. “Ouch, okay you got me.”

His mouth twitches and then, he almost impulsively extends his hand. “I’m Sebastian.”

She takes it. His fingers are cold. “Joni.”

He frowns. “You don’t really look like a farmer.”

Joni cocks her head at him. “What do I look like?”

His shoulders go rigid. “I didn’t mean-“

“Don’t worry I get it.” She crosses her arms and looks out at the field. The dancing’s broken up and people are swarming the buffet table. A few bees, heavy with pollen, float lazily by. The smell of flowers is so strong it’s almost sickening. She leans a little closer to him, a little woozy with her own bold flirting. “You wanna know a secret?” He looks at her full on now and narrows his eyes. They’re glittering and Joni can tell she’s piqued his interest. “I’m not a very good farmer.”

He chuckles, tucking his hands into his pockets. He’s especially pretty like this, in this easy posture. She follows the long, smooth lines of his body until she reaches his face again, looking at her a little curiously. He has soft eyes, the sort of brown that looks almost golden in the sunlight. She wants to tell him that, ask him a little about himself. To be real. That impulse almost scares her more and she’s too busy wrestling with herself to figure out what she wants to say next. She doesn’t need to. Sebastian tenses, pulled taut like a prey animal. Joni follows his gaze. Mayor Lewis is scanning the field. He’s got a couple of flowers tucked in the brim of his hat, whimsical, but he looks red faced and serious. “Look, uh,” Sebastian shifts uncomfortably, “it was cool meeting you, but I’ve got to head out.” He lights a cigarette with his quick fingers and ducks off toward the beach. Joni watches him go. He’s surprisingly graceful. Sebastian looks back at her, shielding his eyes from the sun. Joni waves, just a little. He raises two fingers at her, almost a wave. Almost acknowledgment.  

Chapter Text

Summer in the valley is thick. The air is thick, the tall meadow grass grows thick. The villagers move slowly in town, like their heads are full of thoughts so thick they have to spend all their energy processing them. No one seems to be in a hurry. Not least the sunflowers and corn Joni planted the week before. They’re taking their time too.

         The nights are damp and the heat of the day hangs on until the earliest hours of the morning. Lazy swarms of fireflies float all night at the horizon line, bobbing up and down, careless and unbothered. The sky never seems to get fully dark. Maybe it’s the stars. Or the big, yellow moon that hangs low, scuffing the tops of trees. Joni spends her nights sweating on top of her covers, her cat curled up beside her, purring softly. She’s named him Goose because of the sound he makes when he wants her attention. He’s selective with it, he’s his own man, but they sleep together every night. Well, except the nights when Emily comes over. Goose doesn’t like her. Makes himself scarce when she’s around. Leah does too, fleeing when Emily shows, squeezing Joni’s arm before she goes. It’s a bad omen. One Joni ignores. She’s good at that. And Emily remains good at making Joni cum in a sloppy, unselfconscious way that she could never manage with her ex or any of the long line of men before and after him. But Joni can’t shake the dread she feels when it’s over, an afterglow that is almost like pain. It’s deep and unsettling, a feeling like being exposed, like someone’s hand inching up under her skin.

         The feeling coalesces on one particularly muggy evening when even the verdant leaves on the trees hang heavy under the moisture in the air. If Joni sticks her legs out from the porch’s awning and closes her eyes, it almost feels like it’s raining. Emily’s brought over a bottle of thick, sort of dusty wine that Joni’s sure she pilfered from Gus’ pantry. They fucked for a while in front of the tv. It was lazy and halting and felt almost like making love, like sweetness. Now they’re smoking weed on the porch, passing a joint back and forth while the katydids serenade them. Emily’s chattering on about a trip she’s planning to the desert. She’s debating whether shrooms or LSD would better put her in tune with the place’s vibrations when Joni interrupts her. “What would you think about heading into the city,” she turns to face Emily, “with me.” The plan is half-formed, barely anything really, but she’s been chewing on it for a week or so.

         Emily pauses, flicking the ash off the joint so slowly it barely looks like she’s moving. “Why would we do that?”

         “Oh” Joni’s suddenly freezing, even in the heat. The tips of her toes and her fingers feel a little tingly, like they’re going numb. “Um, I mean I guess I just thought it would be kind of fun.”

         Joni can’t read Emily right now. She’s never seen her this tight-lipped, this tense. When she finally speaks, her voice is devoid of that dreamy sweetness it usually has. “What’s wrong with what we’re doing now? Don’t you think this is fun?”

         Joni frowns. “I don’t know what that has to do with anything.”

         “I don’t think we need to change our relationship.” She turns to face Joni, tucking her legs up under her and shifting on her hips. “Our energy right now,” she gestures vaguely between them, “It’s perfect, Joni. The mojo is so good. Why risk it?”

         Joni’s taken aback. “Risk it? I’m not asking you to fucking marry me, Emily, holy shit. I just thought it would be fun to go do something together. To get out of town.” That’s only half true. Sometimes at night, when Emily’s dead to the world beside her, Joni imagines them together. Like actually together. Even as a fantasy it doesn’t make much sense – when they aren’t fucking it always becomes so painfully obvious that they don’t have anything to say to each other, that they have absolutely nothing in common – but it’s easy to imagine doing couple-y thing with Emily. Easy to imagine her making breakfast for them in the morning. Or, well, it’s nice to imagine it anyway. Emily never stays the whole night. She disappears sometime between when Joni finally drifts off to sleep and when Goose wakes her to be fed.

         “I need you to examine your tone with me, Joni. There’s no reason to speak with anger to each other.”

         Joni ashes the joint on the top step a little harder than she needs to. Her nails clack on the wood. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

         “I want you to speak with your heart, not with your fears. I hate hearing society’s harsh expectations come out of your mouth.”

         “Oh, shut up.” Emily recoils like Joni’s slapped her. “Enough of this spiritual, new age fucking bullshit. I want to talk to you. I want us to talk like two normal people. I don’t want to talk in fucking riddles anymore.” Joni’s so angry she’s shaking, lip trembling like a sullen child.  

         Emily stands. The sheer kimono she’s draped around her body shimmers in the porchlight. “My spirit is free, Joni. I am pulled in so many ethereal directions that I cannot possibly commit to a single person.” She looks pointedly down at her. “Especially with a person who has so much miasmic energy inside of them.”

         “Fuck you.” Joni doesn’t realize she’s crying until fat tears fall onto her bare knees. She wipes them away angrily. The crickets are loud like they were her first night in the farmhouse.

 

         Emily didn’t keep anything at Joni’s place, but even after she’s gone, Joni keeps catching her scent whenever she turns the corner, patchouli and that bitter smell that lingers when the incense has burned through. Joni lights all her candles to try and flush Emily’s ghost from her house. She shouldn’t feel as broken up as she does, she knows that, shouldn’t feel this crushed. Her body’s a traitor. Her brain too.

         Joni takes the half-finished bottle of wine and plops down in front of the TV. The wines’ so sweet it sticks to her teeth. All that’s on is reruns.

 

         It’s already late afternoon when she wakes the next day. Her mouth feels stuffed with cotton. Her hips pop when she stands. Her whole body feels brittle and when she stumbles outside, she shrinks in the sun. She lets the hose trickle on her anemic stalks of corn, hidden behind a pair of enormous sunglasses. Joni heads to the Saloon with only the seedlings of a plan. She’s on autopilot, barely thinking at all.

         What she does know, for sure, is that she wants Emily to feel bad. And she wants her to apologize. She’s put on the sundress that makes her look the most narrow and the makeup that makes her skin look dewy, but her eyes tired. She hopes she looks like a mermaid caught in a net. Beautiful and sad and sort of scary.

But none of it actually matters, she discovers when she walks into the Saloon. Emily’s always one step ahead of her. Today is her day off. Joni almost screams when Gus tells her that and she must look pretty fucking dejected because Gus gives her a beer on the house. She sinks into herself, slumping until her shoulder brush her ears.

 

         Shane’s an asshole, which is probably why Joni immediately wants his attention He comes in an hour or so after she does and gives her a long, hard look. The few times they’d talked he’d sneered dismissively at her, but tonight he apparently smells blood and sidles up to her. “Hard day?” His voice has a gravely quality she hadn’t noticed before. She doesn’t say anything, just rolls her shoulders out. “Your name’s Joni right?” She nods. “Cute name.” He buys her a beer. Then another.

         When it’s clear that he’s making a move, Joni takes a closer look at him over the lip of her beer. He’s cute in a sort of disheveled way, which is really working for her tonight. He has big, hazel eyes that gleam when he laughs. Which is often. His impish smile makes her want to be closer to him and she leans a little off her barstool, letting her hip knock into his thigh. She lets him curl a lock of her hair around his finger. Whatever he’s talking about is pretty much lost on her, but they keep pounding back beer and soon she’s softly cocooned and it doesn’t really matter.

Before she knows it, she’s tucked under his arm, letting him steer her through the town square toward the fountain. He props her up on a wall while he fumbles with the door. Joni runs the back of her hand down the ivy choked bricks. “Where are we?”

He looks at her. “Community center.” And then back to picking the lock. “You’ve never been here?” He whoops a little when the lock comes undone and the door swings open. It’s the charming affectation of someone who maybe used to be a little more important than a Joja mart clerk. She wonders if he used to play sports. His shoulders look pretty big under that supermarket pullover. That’s probably why she feels so comfortable here with him. They both seem like shells of their former selves. Besides, as far as she can tell, he hasn’t tattled on her for being a Joja regular.

“Why would I have been here?” He doesn’t answer, just picks her up, her thighs around his hips. She’s surprised by his strength, it seems effortless to haul her into the building. It’s a little scary. The building smells like freshly tilled soil and something darker, like rot. Shane pushes her roughly against a wall, dropping her legs. She can barely keep up with his kiss. He shoves his hands up her dress, manhandling her tits. This is familiar, fumbling around in the dark. Much more like what she used to do in the city than whatever tantric shit she’d been doing with Emily.

Shane breaks the kiss and holds her jaw tightly in his grip. He bites her earlobe, panting in her ear, whispering gruff, dirty things that she can barely make out. When he slips his fingers between her legs, he growls. “What a dirty little slut, so wet for me already.” Joni freezes. Her stomach lurches a little, but he doesn’t give her time to sort out how the statement makes her feel. Her knees give a little when he starts finger fucking her. He’s got thick fingers and impressive stamina and she can’t keep herself quiet. She holds onto him, digging her nails into the skin of his shoulder.

Joni searches for his mouth, pulling him back into a kiss. Mostly so he’ll stop growling all that shit in her ear. That seems to excite him and he snakes his hand up around her throat. He chokes her a little too tightly and it’s a thrill. Until it isn’t. She claws at him, pinching him hard on the wrist until he lets go. He pants against her collarbone and mutters a muffled sorry. She can feel hi, beating himself off with his other head. His thumb keeps hitting her bare thigh, leaving a slick trail of precum on her skin. Shane kisses her neck, a little apology. “I’m gonna fuck you,” he whispers in her ear. She tenses, trying to get herself ready. The dark is disorienting. But he doesn’t move and Joni realizes it’s a question.

She’s out of breath and all she can manage is a weak “okay.” He turns her around and pushes her along in the dark until her thighs bump into something. She collapses onto it, hands splayed in front of her. It’s some kind of table, she can feels the grooves of the wood under her fingertips. He presses his palm between her shoulder blades and pushes her until she’s face down on it, her ass in the air, toes barely skimming the floor. Shane holds onto one of her shoulders, steadying himself. She hears him suck in a deep breath and then he just pounds into her. Brutal, like an animal. The table rattles, threatening to give under them, and Joni’s hips are pinched on the wood. She likes it. At least she thinks she does. It feels good, a little overwhelming, but good.

Shane’s growling on top of her, letting out a stream of the most dirty, nasty shit she’s ever heard. She’s a slut bitch, a little cunt. She’s every fucked up thing he can think of, but when he cums, shuddering against her back, he tells her she’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. She’s trembling when she peels himself off her, but she doesn’t know if she’s overwhelmed or aroused or some combination of the two. Shane flips her around again, kisses all down her throat. He lifts her up, sets her a little roughly down on the table, her legs dangling over the side. His hair is stuck to his forehead, eyes wild. “Don’t move.” He leans down in front of her. “I’m gonna make you cum.”

 

Joni’s unsteady and numb when she finally finds her way back home. She feels almost sober, just a little nauseous from the beer. Her panties are missing. She doesn’t remember him taking them off, but she isn’t wearing them. It’s a neat little summation of how she feels about the whole thing actually. A little sick, a little confused. It was hot, she consoles herself, and fun. But. No, she doesn’t want to think about it too hard. She rummages around in her dresser drawers. Emily left some weed in the top one and Joni rolls herself a joint while she draws a bath. Goose paces at her feet, restless.

She slips under the water until just the tops of her knees and her nose are exposed. Goose jumps onto the edge of the tub, slipping his tail into the water, ear twitching in the steam. Despite all her scrubbing, the bathwater still tastes a little like salt. Joni tries to remember all the stories her grandpa used to tell her about mermaids, about magic. She can’t. They’re in pieces. Joni slips all the way under the water. She waits until her lungs start to hurt, until her body starts to twitch, then she waits a little more. Her ex put his hands on her one time and one time only. In the shower, water sluicing off his fingers. She can’t remember what made him do that, doesn’t even remember if they’d been fighting, but she’d almost been relieved. Finally, finally. She could stop waiting for it to happen.

He was the one who broke it off, not her. She loathes herself. Past, present, and future. Goose’s wet tail brushes against her curled fingers. She comes up gasping. Goose is waiting for her, staring. He swats her face with his tail, like he’s admonishing her. Joni reaches for him, scratches between his ears. “I’m sorry,” her voice is croaky. “I won’t do that again.”

Chapter Text

         “You need a normal sleep schedule.” Joni looks up from where she’s crouched over the tiny curling leaves of her watermelon plants. “No, I’m serious. It changed my life.”

“How do you know I don’t have a normal sleep schedule?” Leah gives her a pointed look and Joni grins.

Leah laughs. “Are we close enough friends for me to tell you that you kind of look like shit?”

Joni plops onto her ass, propping herself up with her palms in the soil. Leah crouches by a pepper plant, eyeing her carefully. “I guess we are since you just said that.”

“Are you going to let me get away with it?”

Joni shields her eyes from the sun. It’s a pretty day. Sky so big and blue and vast it almost looks fake. One of the trees by her front porch has burst into tiny, pink flowers. Joni keeps meaning to head to the library to try and look up what they might become. “Yeah, I think I am.”

“Did you go on some kind of bender or something?”

Joni sighs. “Emily broke up with me.” Leah pauses, runs her tongue over her lower lip that she’s trying to figure out how to react. “I mean, I guess I shouldn’t say that. Like we weren’t together.”

“I mean, I guess. You were together in a way. Like, I don’t know, you put a lot of emotional energy into what you guys were doing.” Joni nods absently, pulling a few weeds up with her fingers. That sounds almost like an insult and at first Joni wants to tell her that, no, she didn’t put any emotional energy into this flaming wreckage, but she still feels gutted, even in the light of day, and denying it is useless when it’s already so obvious. “What happened?”

Joni shrugs. “She just left.” Then, after a beat. “I don’t know. I think I pushed too hard.”

‘What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. I tried to do something with her that wasn’t fucking and I guess that wasn’t on the menu.”

“Can’t say I’m really surprised by that.” Leah frowns into the distance. She’s lost track of what she was doing with the pepper plant and just rests her hands on her thighs. “Sorry. I’m sorry. That sucks all around.”

“You never liked her did you?”

Leah sighs. “She’s not really my type, no, but you guys seemed to be having fun.” Joni scowls. “No, you’re right. I hated her. I’m glad you’re not fucking anymore. Happy?”

Joni laughs. “Yes, very happy. Tell me how horrible she is.”

“Horrible awful.” They both turn their attention back to the tasks in front of them, examining the leaves for pythium crown and the roots for rot just like the book in the library said they should. “Who does their hair like that? Like what did she dye it herself?” Joni leans closer to Leah, until their arms brush each other as they work. “You were too good for her. Way too good for her.”

 

They head down the river in the early afternoon, slick with sweat and caked in dirt. Leah’s supposed to be finishing up a painting. Her self-imposed deadline is looming and Joni knows it, but she doesn’t say anything when Leah fishes out the remains of a half-eaten Joja Mart birthday cake and two forks, intent on not touching her work. Joni frowns. “Did I miss your birthday?”

Leah laughs. “No, you missed me having a meltdown about Kel.”

“You should call me. I’m always up.”

Leah raises an eyebrow. “See what I mean about your sleep schedule?” Joni shrugs it off. “And thanks, but this one was a solo venture.” She wrestles the plastic top off the cake.

“Do you want to talk about it?”  

“No.” She says, decisively. They both go in for a bite. The cake is like nothing, the frosting like air. It zings against Joni’s teeth. “Besides, we’re celebrating.”

“Celebrating?”

“You’re back on the market.”

Joni snorts. “I was never off the market. And besides, it’s not like there’s a big dating pool in this Podunk town.”  

“Oh, come one. There’s at least,” Leah mimes counting on her fingers. “five people you could fuck in town.”

Joni hugs her knees in the chair, resting one cheek on them. She has some frosting on her lip. It tastes even sweeter than the rest of the cake. “Lucky me.” She doesn’t tell Leah about Shane. The whole thing feels like a fever dream. A sexy fever dream, but she’s worried that if she thinks too hard about it, it’ll take on a new, sinister character. It does feel like something’s brewing under the surface.

Leah chews her lip. “You seem…”

Joni looks lazily in her direction. “How do I seem?”

“I don’t know. Sometimes you’re impossible to read.”

 

Joni catches the phone on its final ring. She heard it from the front yard and raced up the stairs. Maybe some part of her is hoping that it’s Emily, calling to apologize. She answers it panting, out of breath. “Yoba, Joni, are you alright?” She nearly drops the phone.

“Dad?” She presses the receiver to her chest, takes a minute to compose herself, to rehearse some version of things are going great, thanks for calling.

“Of course. Who else would it be?” She grimaces and, like he can tell that’s what she’s doing, he goes all in. “Got a lot of men calling you at all hours?”

“Please stop.”

“Oh now, Jo, you’re always so sensitive.”

She gulps. Goose has perked up from his spot on top of the TV. He watches her, tail ticking like a metronome. “Why are you calling?”

He chortles. “Am I not allowed to call my daughter?” That’s pretty rich, actually, considering how she used to beg him to call her when she was in college. He’s forgetful, even with her. Maybe especially with her.  

She’s stiff, all the hair on her neck standing straight up. She looks like an angry cat leaning on the kitchen counter, everything at attention. “It’s ten-o-clock at night, dad. Has something happened?”

“We-e-ell.” He draws it out, says it in a way that’s supposed to make it funny, but Joni can tell he’s stalling for time. They’ve never been good at this, the two of them. They never got the father-daughter thing entirely down. “Your friend Sarah was home last week.” Joni gulps again. She and Sarah haven’t talked in months. The last time they saw each other, in the early morning hours at a party, Joni’d been vomiting over the side of a couch, dress practically falling off her shoulders. Sara wrote her a long, angry letter, delivered it in person with pursed lips. Joni’d invited her in for something to eat and Sarah turned, eyes blazing, and said, “I doubt you even have food in this dump.” Harsh, but it was true. The just of the letter was get your life together. Joni tried to kill herself two weeks later. “We got a drink.” Typical, Joni wants to say, typical that that’s how you’d try to relate to my friends. She can hear him gearing up for the punchline, watching his delivery. “Were you in some kind of hospital?”

Joni takes a deep breath, gripping the counter’s chipped linoleum for dear life. She hopes her voice sounds even when she speaks. “A hospital dad, really?”

“That’s what she said. That you’d gone to some kind of hospital in March.”

“I was in the valley then.”

“That’s what I told her.”

The statement is a question. His voice is wavering like he just wants to conversation to be over. “Come on, dad, don’t you think you would have known if I was in some kind of hospital?” She forces a laugh. “Kind of hard to hid something like that.”

That does the trick. Well, probably anything would have done the trick honestly. She knows he’s just trying to playact a dad, that he wants to be assured that he’s done his job and everything is, in fact, fine. That’s the whole purpose of this call. For him to slough off any unpleasantness. Sarah’s conversation with him must have really thrown him for a loop. He chuckles. “Well, when you put it that way.”

Joni feels a little chilled, a little clammy. She knows she should just let it lie, but the image of stern-faced Sarah sitting across from her father at the bar down the street from his house is putting all sorts of crazy ideas in her head. Like he can feel the rising tension in the room, Goose leaps from the tv and purrs anxiously around Joni’s ankles.  “Did, uh, did Sarah say what she meant? Like about the hospital?”

“Well,” she can feel him gearing up. He doesn’t want to have this conversation either. There’s probably a million other things he’d rather be doing on a Saturday night than talking to his daughter. “She did kind of allude to some stuff.” He sighs. “You know, I don’t mean to scare you Jo, but you’ve gotta be pretty vigilant. Your mom was about your age when…” She stops listening. She knows exactly where he is, in the kitchen where she spent her whole childhood. She can see the philodendra spilling over the sill, the wonder bread molding on the counter. He’s probably leaning on the double oven, fingering the phone cord. It’s so close she could reach out and touch it. And then what? Would she be able to sit at that narrow table across from her father like she did her whole life? Could she do it now? Her mother’s ghost, haunting the apartment’s halls for decades feels so much closer now like it’s coming through the phone. On doctor’s intake forms, Joni used to lie. Her mother died of cancer, she’d tell them. Stage four breast cancer. So young, so tragic. That part was true at least. Her grandpa had been visiting them when she died. He’d been the one who first saw her legs swinging aimlessly in circles, toes feet off the floor. Did he bring that energy back here with him? She looks furtively around the dark farmhouse. “Joni?” She nearly jumps out of her skin.

He’s been talking, she realizes, been talking this whole time and she hasn’t heard a word. “Wait, sorry, what did you say?”

He clears his throat. “What didn’t you hear?”

“Um, just the last part.” Joni pulls herself up onto the counter, hugging her knees. “Sorry, the service here isn’t always the best.”

“Oh, yeah, makes sense.” Joni suddenly wants to ask if he’s ever been out here. She imagines him with her mom, both of them so unbelievably, irresponsibly young, sitting out on the porch, looking out the same window. But she doesn’t, because he’s off talking again. “I was just saying that you need to be careful, alright? Your mom…” He trails off, his voice breaking on the last word. Her dad never dated after her mom died. It’s unbelievably to Joni now that she’s an adult. He was 28 when she died, Joni was seven. He was so young, so wildly young, and he never dated. Not even once. Sometimes, when Joni was still in elementary school, she’d hear him through the bathroom door, having whole conversations with her mother. She never lingered, afraid she might hear something that wasn’t meant for her.“You should just be on the lookout.” Be on the lookout, oh Yoba. Like Joni’s supposed to watch for cockroaches or rat and not the creeping melancholy that took her mother away in pieces, left only scraps for her to dispose of herself. Joni makes a noncommittal noise in her throat. When he speaks next he sounds like a dad, really like a dad. There’s softness in his voice that makes her want to crawl through the phone and curl up on his old couch. She wants to cry. She always wants to cry. “You just take care of yourself okay?”

         Joni imagines, for a moment, that she’d died. Not just like her mother had, but in that same genre. Similar enough that it would probably feel like fate or the culmination of a curse. She imagines that she hadn’t thrown up the pills and her roommate hadn’t found her sprawled in her own vomit at the base of the toilet. She imagines him getting that call, from who she isn’t really sure, she guesses it isn’t all that important, and she sees him crumbling. In that moment she feels almost bowled over with tenderness. Goose has climbed up onto the counter, purring like a lawn mower against her thigh. “I will dad,” she says in her strongest voice, “I promise.”

Chapter Text

The strawberries look unreal in the jar as Joni holds it up to the light. Like something out of a fairytale. Little seeds float in a mass of glimmering ruby-colored pulp. Joni can barely believe she’s the one who made these. She looks at her hands like they’ve suddenly become magic. Maybe they have.

         Joni’s cross-legged on the floor, spooning the strawberry preserves into mason jars. The tall pot she borrowed from Robin is spitting and sputtering on the stove, flames licking up the side of it. She’s made dozens already. They sit all along the countertops, on the floor. The soft morning light coming in through the windows refracts through the jars, bathing the room in a pinkish glow. The whole house smells sweet, fresh and the scent clings to her. The sun warms Joni’s bare legs and the nape of her neck. She stretches, laying back on the wood. The finished preserve jars ring her head like a halo. She’s going to try pickles, she decides, this was all so nice, so easy. She’s going to pickle everything she can get her hands on. The thought is so soft, so cheery. She barely recognizes it as her own.

 

         Joni assumed the walk would be doable. Hell, the town isn’t all that big and neither is the meadow and forest to the south of her place, but the walk around the foothills to Robin’s place is defeating her. Especially carrying Robin’s stock pot filled to the brim with preserves. When she finally gets to the house, she’s heaving. Red faced and completely out of breath.

         Even in the daylight, Robin’s place has a glow to it. When Robin called the night before, she’d told Joni to look for a log cabin nestled near a large pond. The place Joni finds a log cabin in only the sense that, as far as Joni can tell, it’s built entirely with logs. Beyond that, Joni wouldn’t call it a cabin. It’s enormous. Two stories of wide windows and intricate awnings. A sturdy porch wrapped all the way around the first floor. She’s suddenly self-conscious as she takes the front steps. Joni can’t remember if she’s ever even been to a house as nice as the this and, for a second, she wonders if she’s got the wrong place. Maybe this is the Joja manager’s house or something. Robin’s shabby truck is out front though and a neat wooden sign by the front door reads Kouris-Brown Carpentry. Joni raises her fist tentatively to knock when the door swings open.

         Robin has her hands on her hips and an eyebrow raised. “Were you seriously about to knock?”

         Joni’s fist is still hanging  in the air, mid-motion. “Uh, yes?”

“Come on now you don’t need to knock.” Robin opens the door wide. The smell of raw cedar wafts from inside. Joni catches a whiff of something cooking in the kitchen. “Mi casa es su casa.” Robin walks backward until they’re both inside and then rubs her hands together. “Whatcha got for me?”

“Strawberry preserves.” Joni jostles the pot, letting the jars clank together. “Hopefully.”

“They look good to me.” Robin narrows her eyes at Joni. “Yoba, child, did you walk all the way up here?”

Joni laughs, still trying to catch her breath. “Yeah, I did. It was a lot further than I thought it would be.”

“Oh kiddo, you’ll wear yourself out if you keep trekking around town on your feet like that.” She takes the pot from Joni. Robin’s so much stronger and the pot seems like almost nothing in her hands. “Isn't there a bike down there on your property?? I know your grandad used to ride one around.”

Joni shakes her head. “I think it’s broken or something. I haven’t taken a good look at it.”

“Why not?”

“Come on Robin, do you really think I would know the first thing about repairing a bike?”

Robin chuckles. “No, I suppose I don’t,” she raises her voice, glancing back behind Joni. “but I’m sure Sebby would be happy to help wouldn’t you hon?”

Joni spins to find Sebastian trying to duck down the hallway. He freezes like a deer in the road. Joni can practically see his heart pounding in his throat. He’s wearing a t-shirt with a neck that looks a little too big, but the way it’s falling on his frame Joni can see the defined muscles in his shoulder. They can’t seem to stop staring at each other. Neither moves, not an inch.

Robin doesn’t notice. She’s crouched down with the pot, examining the preserve jars. “What do you think, Seb? Think you can help Joni with her bike? It’s a nice day out.”

He straightens up, scratches his neck. “Um, yeah, sure thing.”

 

The sun is beating down on them when they make it to the worn, overgrown path back to the farm. The trees are sparser here than anywhere else in the valley, the pebbly path is overcome with prickly looking bushes that fill in the horizon but do nothing for the heat. Joni’s sure she’s drenched in sweat, her hair is stuck to the back of her neck and her clothes feel like part of her now. Sebastian’s managed to stay mostly unaffected, just a few beads of sweat rolling down the side of his face. She’s nervous like she hasn’t been since high school when even a passing glance from a boy would send her running to the bathroom to try and parse out what it meant, knuckles white from how hard she was gripping the sides of the sink. She doesn’t know which part of him is making her feel like this. The sun is glinting off his olive skin, making her feel pale beside him. And small. He takes long strides, has to slow down and wait for her more than once. They probably could have continued down the road in silence if Joni had led them, but her brain is buzzing almost unbearably and she just has to fill the silence with something. She clears her throat, like she wants to warn him that she’s about to speak. “So, how do you know Robin?”

He looks at her out of the side of his eyes. “She’s my mom.”

Joni stumbles on the path. “Wait, really?” She’s having to rearrange her image of both of them. Her fantasy of Sebastian was admittedly incomplete, but she’d sort of imagined him living in a shack down by the river or something, smoking cigarettes next to an open window, loud, angry music drifting out into the night. Now she’s trying to situate him in Robin’s warm house, eating her heavy, homey food. It’s a tough fit. She glances at him again, trying to guess his age. Mid-twenties, she decides, maybe a little older. It’s sort of obvious, now that she’s thinking about it. That he’s Robin’s kid. What else would he be doing in Robin’s house? The question probably made her look pretty stupid.

Sebastian catches her staring and shrugs. “My dad was Greek.”

“What?” It comes out of the blue and Joni worries that maybe she’s missed a whole conversation while she was lost in thought.

“My dad was Greek,” but then he looks unsure, glancing down at Joni. “Uh, people usually,” he gestures vaguely at his hair. “People usually see my mom and they wonder why,” he clears his throat, “I have dark hair like my dad. I look more like him.” He stuffs his hands in his pockets. “You get it. Do you mind if I smoke?”

Joni shrugs. “It’s nothing like that. I just…I don’t know, I’ve never lived in a town this small. It still sort of blows my mind how much everything is connected here.”

“Lucky you.”

 

They’re silent again until they reach the house. Sebastian looks around a little startled, but Joni can’t tell if he expected it to look worse or better. It looks okay, she thinks when she tries to imagine it as it is now for the first time. A little chaotic, a little overgrown, but it actually looks like a place that might actually grow food.

He runs his hand along the smooth stone of the retaining wall near the cave then pulls back like it’s stung him. He looks sheepishly back at her, like he’s overstepped his bounds by touching something of hers. Joni barely notices. She’s too busy trying to keep her own cool, wishing desperately she’d worn something other than her ratty shorts today.  

Joni shows him to the bike, still plastered to the side of the house with weeds. He crouches down beside it then looks back at her, smiling slyly. “How’d you manage this?”

Joni sputters. “I found it like that.”

He jangles the broken chain with his long fingers. “Uh huh.”

She crosses her arms over her chest. “I did, I swear.”

He grunts as he stands. “I’m just teasing. The chain is so rusted that it’s pretty much disintegrating in places.” Joni hugs herself. Yoba knows she doesn’t have the money for something like this. Hell, she doesn’t even need this bike, not really. All of this feels really dumb and she’s beating herself up for letting it happen. She could have just told Robin no, saved them both the trouble. Sebastian’s rooting around in the pack he brought with him. “The one I have should fit alright.”

Joni jolts back out of her thoughts. “Oh, you brought one?”

He chuckles, still digging around in his pack. “I did say I would help, didn’t I?” It sounds a little harsh and maybe he realizes that, because he looks furtively up at her after he says it. Drawn by the new voice, Goose jumps down from the open front window. He crosses the patio, eyeing Sebastian. Joni tries to scoop him up, but he wriggles out of her grasp. “Hey watch out, he’s-“ Goose leans up against Sebastian purring loudly, “not very friendly.” She finishes quietly.

Sebastian runs his hand down Goose’s back, up along his tail. Goose preens under his touch. “Hey baby,” he croons to the cat. His voice is a little twangier when he says it.

Joni takes a few steps toward them and leans against the railing on the front stairs. “He usually doesn’t like new people. He’s kind of an asshole most of the time, actually.”

Sebastian chuckles. He scratches Goose behind the ears. “Nah, you’re a sweet thing ain’t ya.” He flinches. The “ain’t” slipped out and it seems to embarrass him. He stiffens and when he talks again, his voice is lower, more businesslike, all traces of that smooth honeyed twang erased from his voice. “I can get the new chain on no problem. The frame’s a bit rusty, but you should be able to ride it well enough.”

“Nice, thanks.” Joni just watches him for a little while. He has such nimble fingers, seems so at home working with his hands. When he hauls the bike up over his shoulder, the lithe muscles in his arms tense. He catch her staring and she quickly looks away, blushing. “Can I get you some coffee or something?”

He has this back to her, a cone of sweat forming between his shoulder blades. In the sunlight, the golden undertones of his skin come through. He looks warm to the touch. And Joni does want to reach out and touch him. She wants to curl up under his chin, let his broad form shield her from the world. It’s a strange thought and Joni tries to shake it out of her head. She feels chilled even in the warm afternoon sun. Goosebumps race up her legs. “That would be great thanks.”

Joni’s suddenly self-conscious about her instant coffee, wishes she had something nicer. Goose has stationed himself beside Sebastian, overseeing the repairs with a critical eye. He glances back at Joni as if to tell her to get on with it. And Joni does, stumbling up the front steps, nearly crashing into the enormous glass jar resting on the top step. A few days ago, after she’d helped with the pepper plants, Leah made some sun tea. She’d left it out on the front porch to steep. Joni eyes it now . It looks like molten honey, shimmering and beautiful. “Wait, actually how does iced tea sound?”

He looks over his shoulder. “Um, yeah, whatever’s fine.”

Joni slips into the bathroom before she grabs them a couple of glasses. She lets her hair down, lets it fall in soft waves around her shoulders. She puts a little gloss on her finger and dabs it on her lips. Her reflection feels totally separate from herself. It’s just hard to look in the mirror, still strange to be anywhere at all. Joni shuts off the light. She lets the darkness just rest on her for a little, flutters her eyes closed and takes a long, deep breath. She can hear Sebastian outside, speaking sweet nonsense to her cat. The urge to cry rises up again in her, ferocious and painful. She swallows it and head back into the kitchen.

 

He lingers after the bike is fixed, nursing his glass of iced tea. It’s easy to sit together on the porch and that seems to unnerve them both. They make small talk in fits and starts, carefully skimming the surface. But when they’ve circled back to the weather for the third time, Joni ventures in. “So, uh, are you a carpenter too then?”

He laughs. “God, no. I’m a programmer.”

Joni nods. She has no fucking clue what that is. She doesn’t want to look stupid, but she’s wildly curious about him, wants to know as much as she can. “Is that also something with wood? Or construction or?”

He looks at her long and hard, like he’s trying to place her in his world, trying to figure her out. “No, it’s with computers.”

“Oh, whoa.” She peers up at him, trying not to be obvious. That makes him even more mysterious to her, even more interesting, like he’s got the keys to some sort of unknown kingdom.

“You don’t have to pretend to be impressed.” Joni flinches and then Sebastian does too. “Sorry, I mean, I just. People in town are usually, um, I don’t know. I’m just used to people pretending about that kind of stuff.”

Joni laughs softly. “I don’t really have the energy to pretend to be impressed by something.” She hugs her knees. The strap of Joni’s tank top slips down her shoulder. Sebastian nearly reaches over to slip it back up and they both freeze. He retracts his hand, running it through his hair instead. Joni keeps chattering on, trying to diffuse the weird tension between them. “I don’t really know anything about computers though. Like at all.” She laughs a little and he smiles that sort of half smile she saw at the flower dance. “I’ve seen a couple tv specials on them.” She shrugs, hyper aware now that she’s just rambling. “When I lived in the city I mean.”

Sebastian scoffs. “Let me guess. Spooky stuff about the internet right? How it’s gonna poison our children, destroy our society. All that bullshit?”

“Pretty much.” The one she remembers best was about a pair of teen boys driven rapidly mad by something they’d found there. They ended up killing a dozen people. Wrote a long, rambling manifesto about essentially nothing, with enough internet lingo to get the media all whipped up. She’d been enraptured, petrified. For days, whenever she’d gone out, she’d eye the men on the street, wondering what dark plans were forming in their heads. “That’s the exciting thing though right? That it’s a little dangerous.”

He turns to look at her, full on for the first time. “Do you think so?” She stutters, sure now that she’s said something stupid. His face softens. “I just mean, I don’t know, I’ve never heard anyone say anything like that.”

“Well, like I said I don’t know anything about the internet.”

“No, I mean…” He looks away, hair falling a little over his eyes. “You’re right. I’d never thought about it like that, but you’re right.” Joni gulps. The energy between them is electric, too intense. Sebastian must feel it too, because he quickly stands. “Thanks for the iced tea.” He nods toward the house. “I’ll wash off my glass.”

“No, that’s alright.” Joni reaches for it. He relinquishes it almost timidly. “Thanks for fixing my bike.”

 

She watches him go, pack slung over one shoulder. He rakes his fingers through his hair and lets out a long breath, slumping his shoulders. Joni knows all about that. She mirrors him, crumbling a little around herself. And then it dawns on her, all at once. Those first few days in the farmhouse, Robin across the long table from her. That little boy she’d imagined, fatherless, kept safe and warm by the community, buffering his loss: she’s watching him walk away. It hits her like a punch to the gut.

Chapter Text

Before the hospital, Joni might have thought a meeting like this was fate. Inevitable, destined. After the intensive therapy she’d had during her inpatient stay, she now knows it’s the result of her own bad decisions and low self-esteem. It’s happening either way.

She knows she doesn’t look quite at forlorn as the first night they hooked up, but she must still have some dregs of forlornness on her, because Shane buys her a beer as soon as she sets foot in the Saloon. Or maybe he’s just more comfortable now that he’s been inside her. Emily is working that night and, when she sees Shane lean close and whisper into Joni’s ear, she makes a face that she quickly tries to hide. That only spurs Joni on. Even though she’s pretty sure she doesn’t like Shane at all and she’s pretty sure she doesn’t want to fuck Shane again, she musses his hair, making sure Emily can see it all.

There’s a little voice, a better version of herself, that is just screaming at her. None of this is worth it, none of this is good for her. She should go home, get out of here. Joni stuffs it down and lets Shane run his teeth along the shell of her ear. Before she knows it, she’s back outside, back under his arm. The sky is a dark, churning green. It smells like it might rain. They head to the community center and Joni pokes Shane in the ribs. “What’s your fixation with this place huh? We can just go back to my house.” But she doesn’t really want him to take her up on that offer, doesn’t really want him in her space. He says nothing, just picks her up again, presses her against the wall. The kiss is so consuming, she has to wrench his head away to get some air.

It’s the same song and dance, pushed over the table in the dark. Until it isn’t. She hears him spit and then feels something cold and thick drip onto her asshole. The beer he plied her with all night has made her thoughts jumbled and slow. It doesn’t dawn on her until he’s slipped his pinky inside. “I’m not really into…”

He leans down and kisses the nape of her neck, still working his finger in her asshole. “Shhhh, shhh. I’ll be careful”

Joni does this thing that she hadn’t, until that very moment, realized that she did. She goes numb, completely numb from her tits to her toes. One of the doctors at the hospital told her that naming her behaviors was the key to understanding them, to give them less control over her life. Odd that this advice comes back to her now, half drunk and bent over a rickety table, pants down around her ankles, But she does it, with startling ease. “I’ve gone numb.” She mutters. The words are like a spell and, inch by inch, her body reveals itself to her again. He’s got three fingers inside of her and it hurts. Like really smarts and, oh Yoba, she can feel the tip of his cock nosing its way beside those fingers. Joni goes off like a racehorse, legs banging against the table. “Get off me!” Her voice ricochets off the walls and she realizes she doesn’t even know what the inside of this place looks like, she’s only ever been here in pitch darkness.

Shane sits back on his haunches, startled. He brought a flashlight this time and it’s casting all these spooky shadows from where he’s set it on the floor. Her eyes have adjusted well enough that Joni can almost make out the expression on his face. He looks terrified. His voice sounds impossibly small and weak. “Wait, were you not…” He looks around like someone might jump out of the shadows and vouch for him. Joni’s on her ass on the floor, jeans tangled around her legs, stuck down her ankles on her socks. “Are you not into this?”

“I said no!” Joni’s crying, but in the darkness, she just sounds incensed. She wipes angrily at her eyes, humiliated to be crying again, to be crying in front of someone she barely knows.

“I thought you were…” He’s gaping like a fish, jaw working like he’s chewing something big and tough. “Shit I thought we were roleplaying. Shit.”

Joni is shuddering, hands fisted at her chest. She’s not sure if she can stand, if she can keep her body still enough to even move. “Why the fuck would you think that?”

“I mean, we,” He’s shaking too now. “I just thought. I don’t know, I thought you liked to be roughed up. I thought…last time…” He trails off. Joni’s trying to get her breathing under control, but she can’t. The darkness is oppressive, consuming. Her hands are tingling, nearly numb. Snot’s running from her nose, onto her lips. Shane reaches toward her, but apparently thinks better of it and sits back on his legs. “Are you okay?”

Joni sniffles. “Not really.”

“Fuck, um, you don’t need to see Harvey do you?”

“Who?”

“The doctor. I mean the clinic’s closed, but I know if we knock on his window-“

“Stop it!” Her voice shocks him into silence. A few birds squawk in the eaves, disturbed by her shouting. “Yoba, I don’t need to go to a doctor, holy shit.”

“Okay.” He looks like a little boy in the light of the flashlight. “Shit, I’m so sorry. I didn’t…” He looks away, almost bashful. “Can I walk you home?”

“No.” Joni hoists herself up with the edge of the table. She holds her hands out in front of her like he’s some kind of animal, some kind of dangerous thing. He sits dejected on the floor, pants around his knees, his half-hard cock stuck to his thigh.

“Okay, yeah, that makes sense.” Joni quickly pulls her pants up, pulling her blouse down hard. “I’m so sorry, Joni, I didn’t mean-“

“I’m gonna go, okay?” Her voice is muffled by her crying. “It’s fine, okay, it’s fine.”

 

She calls Leah from the payphone, pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to make it to her place without collapsing. Her knees won’t stop knocking like in a cartoon, her hands shaking so badly she can barely dial the numbers. Joni isn’t sure even what she said to Leah, but it’s only a few minutes before Leah’s rickety station wagon comes rumbling down the road. Leah jumps out of the car, door dinging. The light from the console floods languidly into the dark, illuminating mud and tufts of grass. Joni collapses against her, crying hard into her shoulder. Leah holds her shoulders tightly, and Joni can feel that she’s trembling too. “What the hell is going on?” Behind them a thin streak of lightning juts across the horizon, passing through the trees in the distance. The air feels wet and electric and Leah starts to herd Joni toward the car. “Please, Joni, please, what is going on?”

Her voice is trembling with the effort she’s trying to hold back her tears with. “Can we please just go to your house?”

Leah says nothing on the ride to her place. Her knuckles are white on the steering wheel. She keeps switching the station on the radio.
She shepards Joni into the house. Leah takes a step back to look at her and all the color drains from her face. Her voice is tight. “Why are your pants undone?” Joni looks down. She hadn’t zipped them up, the button still open exposing the top of her panties. “Oh my god.” Leah backs away. “We’re calling the fucking police.”

Joni grabs her and pulls her away from the phone. “No, it’s not like that.”

Leah’s shaking so violently her teeth are rattling. She looks on the verge of tears. “What’s it like then?”

Joni sucks in a shaky breath. “Shane and I were fucking and-“

Leah holds up a hand to stop her. Her voice is steadier now, like she’s woken up from a dream. “Wait, Shane? Like Joja Shane? Shane lives in the corner of the Saloon Shane?” Joni nods, eyes on the floor. “How long have the two of you even been fucking?”

Joni shrugs. “This is just the second time.”

Leah reaches out, smoothing a lock of hair from Joni’s face. “And he did this to you?”

Joni’s crying again, little rivers of quiet tears streaming down her cheeks. “He just got a little rough with me this time.” She looks up at Leah, her eyes pleading. “But he stopped. When I asked him to, I mean. And he apologized so,” She wrings her hands. Her skin feels clammy. “I mean he wasn’t trying to hurt me or anything.” A light pattering of rain has started outside. The fine spray is coming in through Leah’s open front window, wetting the backs of Joni’s legs.

“I don’t think that makes it okay.” Leah mutters, eyes darting around the room. She sighs and they lock eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me about him?”

“Because clearly it’s a goddamn mess.”

“Do you even like him?”

Joni shrugs again. “I mean, I’m attracted to him.”

“That’s not what I asked.” Joni shakes her head, but she doesn’t really know what she’s saying no to. Her head is too jumbled for her to parse out what Leah’s asking her, to even begin to figure out if she feels anything about Shane at all.

“This is what I’m used to, honestly. I need to just chill. I just need a minute.”

Leah falls quiet. “What do you mean?”

“Like I get it. This is the type of guy I attract. This is my, shit I don’t know, this is my lot in life I guess. I overreacted. I’m sorry I called you.”

“Shut up.” Leah’s staring at her, holding herself tightly. “Shut the fuck up.” She closes the distance between them and pulls Joni into her arms. She’s so warm, so so warm, and Joni leans in, clinging desperately to the back of her sweater. “You deserve nice shit, Joni. You’re a good person, okay?” Joni starts to sob, her whole body curling in on itself. She’s wailing, desperate and numb. Leah lowers both of them slowly to the floor and tucks Joni under her chin, holding her close. “It’s gonna be okay.” The wind has picked up, blowing Leah’s curtains like little ghosts. A puddle of rainwater is forming beneath her window, but neither of them move. “It’s okay,” Leah whispers, rocking both of them back and forth. “It’s okay.” She says it so clearly, with such conviction, that Joni lets herself believe it.

Chapter Text

This is probably exactly what she should have expected to happen, but when Shane shows up at her doorstep, a case of beer tucked under his arm, she’s still shocked. It was a blisteringly hot day that’s transformed into a warm, soupy evening and Shane’s hair is stuck to his face. His shirt tight on his body with moisture. Joni notices, for the first time, that he has a little gut and it makes her feel strange. They’ve fucked twice and she still doesn’t  know the contours of his body. “I’d understand if you just slammed the door in my face.” She nearly does, but there’s something about the look on his face. Or maybe it’s just her own self-loathing. Goose pads by, head tossed back, as if to say “you did this to yourself and I offer no help” He leaves them behind, heading off somewhere out of view.

         Joni takes a deep breath. “What are you doing here?”

         “Um,” Shane shifts uncomfortably on the porch, “I wanted to come apologize, um, but I understand if maybe this is not something I can apologize for.” He sets the beer down on the porch and takes a few steps back like he’s leaving an offering.

         Joni swallows hard. She leans down and picks up the beer, heading back into the house. She turns back to him, door wide open.“Well, are you going to come in or what?”

         Shane follows her into the kitchen like a lost dog, eyeing the house with an exaggerated sense of wonder. She half expects him to come up with some bland compliments about the house, but he spares her that. “So this was your grandpa’s place then?”

“Yep.”

He clears his throat. “It just occurs to me that I don’t know very much about you.”

Joni turns sharply, clacking her nails on the kitchen counter. The case of beer makes a loud clanking noise when she drops it on the floor. “Why would you know anything about me?”

He flinches like she’s slapped him. “I…” He looks around like he had the night before, like someone might come out to help him. “I don’t know.” They stand in silence for a little while. Joni is ringed in light from the setting sun through the kitchen window. It obscures her features, makes her look like a column of light, fearful almost.

 Shane shields his eyes, tries to make himself smaller. “Should I go?” 

Joni crouches down and tears open the cardboard around the beer. She tosses him one. He barely catches it, scrambling to make sure it doesn’t smash all over the floor. “Why are you even here?”

The question seems to startle him. “To apologize.”

“You could have called me to do that.” The more she prods, the more at ease Joni starts to feel. She’s never really had a man do this, never had a man tremble in front of her.

“I didn’t have your phone number.”

“You could have asked around I’m sure.”

He gulps, looking at her desperately. “I wanted to see you again, um, I mean I wanted to apologize in person and –“

“Did you come here because you thought you could get me to fuck?” He freezes, beer raised halfway up to his lips. He doesn’t answer the question, can’t figure out maybe what he’s supposed to say. Joni cracks open one of the beers and takes a long drink. “You’re a pig.”

 

Shane’s nervous. That’s obvious. He keeps bouncing his legs on the dock, swinging them like a little kid. Joni figures she might be nervous too, if she were in his position. Joni’d dragged him wordlessly down to the rickety wooden dock that dips lazily into the pond at the forest’s mouth. It’s close enough to Leah’s house that she keeps glancing in that direction, half expecting her to come storming through the grass and drag her by the nape of the neck back to her house, scolding her all the way. Shane keeps looking in that direction too and Joni wonders who his Leah is. Probably Marnie. Leah told Joni a little about him that night. It makes her feel even weirder, though she isn’t sure exactly why.

They both seem to know this is a dumb thing they’re doing even if neither seems exactly sure what exactly it is that they’re doing either. He spent the whole walk down from the farmhouse apologizing, begging practically, until she’d told him to shut it. Since then, he’s just been sitting, sullenly drinking beer.

“You’re really going at it.” She says, nodding toward the little pile of empty beer cans that have accumulated at his side.

“I’m an alcoholic.” He tosses another empty one onto the pile. “Probably.”

He says it so flippantly that it skims over the surface of Joni’s brain, not really settling.
“Oh,” is all she can manage. “So, should we not be drinking then?”

He leans back on his hands, eyes a little closed. “Nah, it’s cool.” There’s something about that, about the wave of self-destruction he’s riding on that is so familiar she can’t stand it.

Joni crawls over onto his lap. Shane’s eyes fly open. He looks up at her, dazed. Her lips hover just above his. “Never fuck me like that again.”

Shane opens his mouth, just a little. His pupils are enormous, his voice strained. “Okay.”

She kisses him, hard, pulls the collar of his shirt up roughly in her fists. He scrambles to catch up, holding his hands timidly on her hips. Joni pushes him back, straddling him, fumbling with his jeans. He’s only half hard, but when she takes his cock between her fingers, it rushes to attention. It feels like fire when she slips it inside herself. Shane groans, raising himself up, grinding his hips in slow circles. His fingers are chilled from the beer and her skin pebbles under his touch as he slides his hands up, takes both nipples between his fingers. He’s gentle with her now, but sort of halting. Like he’s not sure how to do it, like he’s never done it like this before.

Joni closes her eyes and starts to ride him, slow and steady. He matches her pace, lifting his hips from the dock. She runs her hands over his chest, reaches up toward his neck, and then she leans down, lets her lips graze his lips. Shane wraps his arms around her waist and takes over, holding her against him and pounding into her. Joni digs her nails into his shoulders until it hurts, until he cries out, but he doesn’t stop her. She reaches down to touch the place where their bodies are slamming together and they both shudder. His skin is warm and Joni leans against his shoulder, he hair falling across his cheek, his neck. Her whole body tenses when she cums, bearing down hard on him, and he gasps, fingers digging into her hips. She doesn’t open her eyes, just lets the smell of the grass and the trees and the lapping water hang around her. Shane pulls out, pumping his cock in his hand until, with a shuddering groan, he cums. It’s cold on her ass, dripping a little down her thighs. Shane lays his head back and the flash of his dark hair catches Joni’s eye. Sebastian’s face runs fleeting through her mind and she bolts upright. Shane startles. “Are you okay?” He’s meek again, approaching terrified.

“Yeah.” Joni slides off him, fumbling in the dark for her shorts. She can’t remember the last time she felt this loose after sex, this chilled out. Not that it was especially great, but it cleared the air, cleared out something inside of her.

Shane props himself up on his elbows, spent cock laying against his stomach. “Are we okay?” Joni looks down at him. Sebastian’s face flickers by again, Emily’s too now. They are all spinning around her, a slush of people. The months have gone by so quickly. The cells in her body feel different, like maybe they’ve regenerated. Like maybe all the things she touched in the city, all the things that touched her, are gone, their residue swept away by the passage of time. “Joni, are we okay?”

“Yeah.” She reaches down and helps him to his feet. They’re almost the same height, he just a little taller. This close, and not lost in her own thoughts, she can smell how strong the beer is on his breath. “We’re okay.”

Chapter Text

There’s a moment, when she sees him standing out at the end of the pier, when Joni panics. This is it, she thinks, pulling her soaked sweater closer around herself, I’m hallucinating. The looming figure at the tip of the pier has to be something from her addled imagination.

It’s not really that far-fetched, all things considered. Joni’s roommate during in-patient hallucinated sometimes. Mostly at night, or very early in the morning. She’d sit bolt upright, jaw so tight Joni was sure that one day the tendons in her neck would just snap, and she’d scream at the top of her lungs. The most forlorn, cold sound that Joni had ever heard. Sometimes it was just that, just screaming. Other times she’d yell about a man. Sometimes he was in their narrow closet, sometimes waiting at the door, but he was always trying to get them. The nurses assured them both that there was no man, but Joni started checking the closet before bed. Once, Joni woke up to her crouched beside her bed, eyes unseeing just beneath Joni’s pillow. Joni was the one who screamed that night.

But the thing about all that though, the thing that keeps running through Joni’s head as the sand gets wetter around her rainboots, waves crashing violently against the shore, is how normal this woman had always seemed. She was around Joni’s age, but so much realer. So much more of a complete person than Joni could ever image herself becoming. She was a teacher, but Joni can’t remember what grade. Maybe fourth? Something with young kids. She always had this high, lilting voice. Sweet, but firm that made you just want to curl up beside her, trust her implicitly. If Joni hadn’t seen her at night, hadn’t heard her screaming, she would have mistaken her for the one of the nurses. Joni is, just objectively, a hundred times messier than this woman ever was so why shouldn’t she start hallucinating?

She’s so in her own head that she doesn’t notice her hallucination heading toward the beach, doesn’t notice that it’s striding on long legs up the sand toward her.

She blinks upward and the hallucination becomes Sebastian. Just like that. At first, it’s an overwhelming relief. She’s at least a little more sane than she thought. But then that familiar anxiety settles back in. Sebastian always manages to make her feel like a pizza faced teenager. He’s holding his coat over her head, though she doesn’t remember seeing him take it off, water sluicing down his face and back. He’s been talking, but she hasn’t been listening even a little bit, so when she finally comes back to her body completely, she interrupts him. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?”

“I said, what the hell are you doing out here?”

She glances around the beach. “Clamming.”

“What?”

Joni peers up at him. “The TV said this would be a good time to find clams.” It sounds foolish now that she’s said it out loud.

Sebastian gets this look, like it sounds foolish to him too, but he smiles. “Cute.”

“What?”

He jolts like maybe he didn’t mean to say it out loud. “I mean, I’m not sure if this is the best weather for anything really.”

Joni sniffles. Yesterday had been blistering, but the rain’s cleared out any remnant of the summer heat, and she shivers now, chilled to the bone. “Yeah, no kidding.” She looks up at him narrowing her eyes. “Wait, why are you out here?”

He frowns, obviously not expecting her question. “Oh, uh, I was just-“

“Down by the pier. I saw.” Joni wavers under his jacket. His arms must be killing him, holding it up like this, but he doesn’t move.

“I like the beach.”

“Okay, but why not come when it’s sunny out?” The ocean is churning beyond them, riled up by the downpour. A crack of thunder peels across the sky and Joni flinches. Sebastian drapes his coat over her and takes a few steps back. The coat smells like cigarettes.

He flinches a little, glancing around like he expects someone to overhear them. The whole town is deserted, though, the beach most of all. Not even Willy is out today. The light above the tackle shop the only sign that he’s still in the valley. “It’s better in the rain. Quieter. Not too many people out here on days like this.” He looks pointedly at her. “I mean, except you.”

Joni smiles, still embarrassed. “I think I prefer the rain too.” It’s funny, because even though she’s never put it into words, even though this is sort of her version of weak, rainy flirting: it’s true. Rain makes it so easy to hide, to hunker down under blankets, to cancel plans with impunity. It never really rained in the city. Not like this at least. And so Joni never cancelled, never hid. She ran herself so ragged, with people who didn’t care, with things she didn’t care about. Yeah, the rain is nice. The hiding is nice.

Sebastian cocks his head at her. She must looks crazy. Like she’s having a whole conversation with herself. He really is handsome. Maybe not in the most traditional way, but his features are so striking. Joni likes looking at them. He furrows his brow, dark eyes simmering. “Really?”

“Yeah, why. That surprise you?”

“You just seem…”

Joni gulps. “Seem what?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugs. “You’re sun-shiney.”

Joni laughs, relieved, but Sebastian misunderstands. He flinches again, shuffling on his feet. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. Just…no one thinks that about me.”

He frowns. “I don’t know about that.” Now it’s Joni’s turn to gulp. This feels a little intimate, a little too like a real conversation. Maybe he can sense that, because he stuffs his hands in his pockets and shrugs. “Well, you’ll catch your death out here dressed like that.”

She looks down at her shorts. Her legs are covered in goosebumps, splotchy from the wet cold. “Yeah, I should probably head home. I don’t even like clams, so…”

She sloughs off his jacket, but he refuses it. “You should warm up before you head back out.” Careful not to touch her, he arranges his jacket more securely around her shoulders. “Saloon’ll open soon.” He motions for her to follow and she does, heart slamming against her ribcage.

 

They get a table in the corner of the Saloon. Joni’s left a trail of puddles in her wake and, even in the glowing warmth of Gus’ place, her clothes are freezing, stuck to her wet skin. They order a plate of fried pickles and a plate of fries and when they come steaming to the table, they both look at them with a sort of childlike wonder that makes Gus chortle. “Shit, this was a great idea.” Sebastian smiles shyly, says nothing. In from the rain, he’s quieter, timid almost. Joni’s starting to worry that he’s regretting coming here with her. She raps her nails on the table, chewing nervously on her lower lip. He keeps twiddling his thumbs. They circle back to the small talk they’d made the day he fixed her bike, chatter blandly about how the bike is working for her, how the farmhouse is holding up. It’s making Joni a little crazy, so she focuses on the food. Eating so she doesn’t have to talk.  They don’t say a word to each other for a long time.

 

They’ve nearly finished with their food when Joni catches Gus staring from across the bar. She leans a little closer to Sebastian and lowers her voice. “Why does he keep looking at us?”

Sebastian bristles. “I hate small towns.”

“Did we do something?”

“No it’s just…” He scratches his neck. “I don’t usually come here with other people. I’m sure Gus is just trying to figure out what’s going on.” He digs in his pocket for his wallet and lays a few crumpled bills on the table. “Well, I should get home.”

“Oh.” Joni goes to take off his jacket and hand it back, but he stops her.

“Keep it.”

“What, really?”

He shrugs, looking down at the floor. “Yeah, whatever, just like bring it to the Saloon this Friday, I guess.”

“I mean, I can just give it to you now.”

Sebastian looks up at her. His face has so much harsh potential when he wants it to, eyes piercing. “No, keep it. You shouldn’t walk home in the rain without a jacket.” He’s gone before she can even thank him.

He heads out the front door, turning back to wave weakly at Gus. She’s feels a little lost now, alone at the table.  Their whole conversation flips through her mind, but she can’t pinpoint where she fucked up. Because she must have fucked up for him to flee like that, for him to barely say a word to her their whole meal Joni pops the last couple of fries into her mouth. They’re cold and they’ve picked up all the salt at the bottom of the basket. The taste makes her grimace. She feels hollow, like she’ll never stop shivering.

Chapter Text

Joni barely recognizes Emily when she shows up at her front door. She’s wearing jeans and even though her sweater is a sort of jaunty patchwork, it’s almost demur. Especially for her. Even her hair looks a little less vibrant. “Hey,” is all she says, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world that she’s here again.

Joni leans on the doorframe. “Hi.”

Emily looks off at the wood Joni’s stacked on the porch. Robin helped with that, Joni’s still too weak to make much use of the axe. “So, um, are you busy right now?”

It’s dark out and Joni’s been lazing for a few hours. She’s a couple beers in, the blanket she was wrapped in still hanging over her shoulders. The fireflies are long gone, the nights are too cold for them now. A few leaves have already started to turn, yellowing at the edges, a little louder when the wind passes through them. “No, but I don’t really-“

“I didn’t come here to fuck.” She rifles through her messenger bag and retrieves a glass Tupperware bowl. Joni can see kiwi and strawberry and little halves of grapes. Tiny sugar crystals cling to the fruit. “I made you something.”

“What is this like apology fruit salad?”

Emily laughs a little weakly. “Yeah, I guess.” They both just stand there for a minute, neither really looking at each other. The crickets sound lethargic now that it’s chilly, their songs come out slow and long. “Can I come in?”

 

In all the months that Joni has lived here, the farmhouse has begun to make itself known, almost like a person, like another member of the ragtag family Joni has been piecing together.  On mornings when she wakes up easily, Goose lingering somewhere nearby, the farmhouse has an almost airy quality. It feels enormous and full of light. Even the cobwebs in the eaves seem beautiful, refracting soft light through the house.

But on nights like tonight, when it’s cold and can sense that someone who does not belong has made their way inside, it feels suddenly cramped, the ceilings suddenly too low, and it groans like an old man. Joni’s only recently become aware of the house like this and tries to remember if it always did this when Emily was over. Goose has, predictably, made himself scarce. Not that she’s going to listen to any of these omens. Joni’s already let her inside for Yoba’s sake.

.

Joni sets the bowl down in the middle of the dining room table with a sort of firm finality that makes her feel about thirty years older than she is. Emily looks older too. Not just with what she’s wearing but how she’s holding herself. It’s like they’re two moms sitting down to discuss the bad behavior of their sons. Like all the bad energy isn’t about them, but something they’ve created and let out into the world. There’s nothing sexy about any of it. Joni tries to remind herself that’s probably a good thing.

Joni heads over to the sink. She rinses off a couple forks that are already clean just to buy herself time. A sort of nauseous vertigo has settled over her. She closes her eyes and hopes, for a moment, that when she turns back around Emily will be gone.

Emily is still there, sitting as prim as she’s ever seen her, hands folded politely on her lap. Joni has half a mind to tell her to get out. A phone call would have more than fucking sufficed if all she actually wanted to do was apologize. But Joni doesn’t. She just sits down, passing Emily a fork across the table.

 

Sitting at the table makes the whole thing even weirder. There’s something so detached about it, so different than what they had been doing before, naked on the living room floor. And frankly, Joni is sort of hoping Emily will lose her nerve and bolt after they finish eating. She doesn’t. Emily doesn’t even start eating before she’s stumbling right into her apology. “I want to explain myself.”  

 “You don’t need to explain yourself, Emily. It wasn’t working for you and that’s cool. Like I’m fine.”

“No, it isn’t like that and you deserve an explanation.” Joni swallows hard. She glances over to the microwave to check the time. Almost ten. Yoba. Joni wants to crawl out of her skin, but instead she just sits and takes it. It’s an old tactic, turning off part of herself, just letting everything happening run through her brain like a movie, like it isn’t real. Even if Emily stays here all night she can just let it all wash over her. “Have I ever told you about my parents?”

Well, so much for that. Joni immediately perks up. This is quickly heading into dangerous territory. “Um, no. You haven’t told me really anything.”

Emily makes a show of picking at the salad. “I guess I do that, yeah.” She pushes her plate away, giving up even pretending like she’s going to eat it. She crosses her arms and suddenly Joni wants to ask her how old she is. There’s something in her usual affect, in the clothes she normally wears, that makes her seem very young. Joni assumed that they were at least the same age. But here in the lowlight of Joni’s kitchen, wrapped in a too-big, sort of matronly sweater, Emily looks well into her thirties. “They’re gone.”

Joni blinks at her. “Your parents?”

“Yes.”

“Both of them?”

“Yes.”

“Oh my god,” Joni tries to imagine doubling her grief. Two funerals, two empty places at the table. Two ghosts. She can’t. It’s too painful.  She leans forward and takes Emily’s hand. “I am so, so sorry Emily.”

Emily just stares at her and then, after a few beats, “oh. Oh no. Oh shit, no that’s not what I meant at all.”

 “So your parents aren’t dead?”

“No, they’re on vacation.”

Joni pulls her hand away like she’s been burned. It shouldn’t feel like a sucker punch, but it does. All those dregs of grief she just pulled up to the surface are still floating in pieces right at the forefront of her brain. “Are you kidding me right now?”

Emily frowns. “What? No! It’s not just like that! It’s not like they’re just gone for a couple of months to the Fern Islands or something. They’ve been gone for three years.”

“Oh, whoa, okay.” Joni leans back in her chair. A few birds call from outside the open kitchen window. They sound almost menacing and a cold draught of air slips over the table. “Weird.”

“I get a letter from them once a year. Like a really long one. They tell me all the places they’ve been, the things they’ve been doing. Sometimes they send pictures, but, I mean they never call or anything.”

Joni just wants this whole conversation to end. She can’t believe Emily’s showed up here in the middle of the night to tell her some sob story about her parent’s goddamn vacation. Joni wants to scream at her. To scream about her ex, the way his hands felt around her neck, the way her stomach lurched when she’d taken all those pills. She wants Emily to feel that hollow emptiness she’d felt her first night in the hospital, the way she shook the whole bus ride to the valley. Instead, she pops a few pieces of fruit into her mouth. They taste like nothing. “Are they like retired or something?”

Emily shakes her head. “It’s been like this for as long as I can remember.”

Joni moves to stand, “Well, I’m really sorry to hear that but-“

Emily grabs her hand. “No, wait. I’m telling you this because it’s part of my apology.” Joni wavers, but when Emily squeezes her hand, she sits back down.  “Um, okay. Listen.”

“I’m listening.”

“Right, good. I’ve been meditating a lot about this.”

“Okay.”

“You know I do like you, right? You’re beautiful. Like wow, very pretty.” Joni closes her eyes, tries to stop her body from just slipping from her chair and onto the floor. “But you deserve better than me.”

Joni’s eyes fly open. “That’s such a fucking cop out.”

Emily looks insulted. “No! No, I mean it. I mean it. You deserve so much more than I can give you.” Joni just shakes her head, incredulous. She’s holding her arms to her chest so tightly she’s leaving marks. “No, stop. Don’t look like that. I mean. I’m a very bad partner.”

“Why did you come all the way out here to tell me a story about your fucking parents?” Joni snaps. “Like what was the point of that?”

‘Right. Right. I lost my train of thought. I have…” She moving her hands in the air like she’s trying to pull the right thing to say straight out of the ether. “commitment problems. I have commitment problems because of my parents.” Joni rolls her eyes. “Look, none of that matters okay? I came here to apologize and to ask if we could be friends. I would like us to be friends.”

“I don’t fuck my friends.” It’s a lie, but Joni has nothing else to say that isn’t vitriolic and she can’t trust herself not to start crying once she gets worked up. Besides, the idea of fucking Emily now makes her feel queasy. Actually, the idea of fucking at all makes her feel queasy like that last night with Shane got it permanently out of her system.

“Okay, that’s okay.”

“Look, do you actually want to be friends are you just apologizing because me being mad at you is bad for your image or your mojo or whatever?” She’s kind of hoping that’ll piss Emily off, that she’ll get upset and they can just start yelling. But Emily just looks at her serenely from across the table.

“I fucked up and that’s why I’m apologizing.”

The time on the oven seems to be passing infinitesimally slow, but it feels like they’ve been at this all night. Joni takes the easy way out. “Apology accepted.”

Emily’s eyes widen. “Wait, really?”

“Yeah, we’re good.”

“It doesn’t really feel like we’re good.”

Joni stands. “Listen, thanks for the salad and all. I just have to get up really early tomorrow for you know,” she shrugs, “farm stuff.” Joni expects Emily to argue, but she just slips the lid back onto her Tupperware and heads toward the door.

 

A heavy fog has fallen over the valley. They can barely see past the porchlight. Mostly obscured, the forest beyond develops a sinister potential and Joni just wants to be back inside, to lock her door and crawl under the blankets.

Emily looks young again, like the weight of this apology aged her and now that she’s, no matter how clumsily, gotten it off her chest, she can return to her old self. She turns to face Joni, balancing on the porch’s front step. With no warning, she takes Joni’s face in her hands and kisses her softly on the tip of her nose. There’s something magical about it, actually, something that stops Joni from pulling away. Emily has the sort of careless whimsy that Joni tried so hard to cultivate in the city. Emily is exactly the kind of person Joni would have killed to be. Joni wonders if the story Emily just told her about her parents is the worst thing that’s ever happened to her. It’s appealing, that kind of naivete. She closes her eyes and rests her forehead against Emily’s. Maybe it’s catching. Maybe if Joni lets her back in she can hold that innocence in her hands and rise into it, to forget everything. Emily still smells like patchouli and incense. Her hair still feels coarse against Joni’s cheeks where it’s been bleached. “We can be friends, Emily.”

Emily grabs Joni’s arms tightly. “I would never force you into something like that.” Her words come out in a rush of air. “I can feel how tense-“

“No, I want to be friends. I want to.”

Emily pulls away and grins. For the first time, Joni notices how pretty her smile is, how genuine. “Far out.” She smiles even wider. “Far out, Joni.”

Chapter Text

Joni lets the first call go to voicemail. She’s on her knees in the mud, trying to figure out how the hell nearly a dozen sunflowers sprang up almost overnight and whether or not they’re going to menace the pumpkins she’s been babying. The second call stops her. She sits back on her haunches and listens like the ring might give her some clue to who’s calling.

The only people who really call her now are Leah and, sometimes, Shane. He’ll call her mostly late at night after his shift at Joja, already sounding pretty sauced even though he’s just gotten off work. He’ll ask her what’s on and sometimes, cheekily, what she’s wearing. But they haven’t been fucking. That feeling of queasiness every time she even thinks about sex hasn’t dissipated. Speaking of that, Emily calls too. Rarely. Mostly on Sunday in the late morning to tell Joni her horoscope. It’s the closes thing she can stand to sex.

Today though, in the middle of the afternoon, Joni figures it’s probably Leah calling about lunch or whether or not they should have dinner together. She can call her back when she’s finished with the mystery of the sunflower seed caper.

The third call floods her blood with ice. It shouldn’t. Not really. It’s just the phone. She sprints back to the farmhouse and catches it just before it goes to voicemail. “Hey.” Leah’s voice is strained. She’s whispering but it sounds like she wants to be yelling.

“Hey, sorry I missed your two other calls.” Joni fidgets with the cord. “I’m assuming those were you, yeah?”

“Yeah, that was me, um, you need to come down here.”

“To your house?”

“Yeah.”

Joni pauses. “Why?”

Leah lowers her voice. “Something’s going on at Marnie’s.”

All the air in her lungs feels trapped. Her chest feels heavy and full. “What do you mean?”

“There’s an ambulance here.”

 

Jas is the first person Joni sees when she finally stops running. The kid’s off by the tree where sometimes Joni sees her skipping rope. She’s curled up at the base of it, eyes huge and unblinking. Joni’s frozen in the path, unsure what to do. The kid doesn’t seem to want to be comforted and Joni’s not sure she’s even capable of doing it, but she can’t tear her eyes away. It’s a minute before she notices the lights reflecting on the tree. She’s nearly forgotten what Leah told her over the phone and so, when she whirls around toward the ranch, the ambulance sitting out front is a shock. Her first thought is that maybe Marnie’s had a heart attack. She’s a little older, a little heavier. But Joni sees her standing just off to the side of the house, holding herself tightly.

Joni closes the distance and stands silently next to Marnie. Leah’s come out of her house now too, but she seems to be unsure whether or not she should come all the way over, bouncing from one foot to the other. “It’s Shane.” Marnie says. Her voice is heavy with tears.

“What happened?”

 “I just went in this morning to feed the chickens and he was,” she puts a hand over her mouth and shudders, “he was hanging in the barn.”

 “He was…” Joni tries to reach behind her for something to hold onto, “he was what?”

  Marnie’s voice is so far away it almost sounds like an echo. “He was hanging from the rafters in the barn.”

  Joni reaches again behind her. “Oh Yoba.” The ground rises to meet her. Leah isn’t fast enough to catch her.

 

                                                                                     *                                 *                               *

Joni’s only seen Harvey from across town before this, but he’s close enough now she can smell his cologne. “It sounds like he’ll make it. From what Marnie’s told me.” Joni doesn’t say anything, just sits limply on the examination table. “I have a friend at the hospital where they’re taking him and he said he’d call me with updates, so…” He clears his throat. “Are you still feeling light headed?”

“No, I’m feeling a lot better.” She says it like there’s lead in her mouth.

He looks down at her hands, still trembling, but just nods. There’s a crumb in his mustache. She wants to pluck it out and scream, but she sits quietly and dutifully in front of him. “You know this sort of thing can be stressful for anyone. Suicide affects whole communities.”

“Yeah.” She lets him lift her arm and slip a blood pressure cuff around it.

He takes it silently, checking his watch. Then he clears his throat again. “Are you feeling at all suicidal?”

Joni snaps to attention. “What?” Joni’s heart is pounding in her chest. Would the hospital in Zuzu have sent her medical records to him? No surely not. She’s have to consent to that, right? Sign something. Right?

“It can be very stressful for someone you know to attempt suicide. It’s not uncommon for people, even those without suicidal thoughts, to begin to” he frowns, trying to find the right words, “think about suicide maybe in ways they haven’t before after something like this happens.”

Joni wants to tell him to work on his fucking bedside manner, but instead she just shrugs. “I’m not suicidal.”

“Have you ever been suicidal?”

She stares at him, trying to figure out if this is a trap, trying to figure out what he already knows. “No, I’ve never been suicidal.”

“That’s good.”

After her mom’s suicide, Joni’s dad enrolled her in a class at a little church down the street from where they lived. It was supposed to be non-denominational, but Joni remembers how prominent Yoba’s trident always seemed at the front of the classroom. It was just her and a bunch of kids around her age. They all had the same hundred yard stare. A few of them would cry almost all the time, sniffling in their seats. The woman running the class would spend a few hours every afternoon giving presentations on grief, trauma. Joni can’t remember anything the woman said, but she still remembers all those kids’ faces. They looked like they’d been pulled in from the ocean and couldn’t believe they had to try and walk on land. Harvey taps her on the shoulder.

“Joni? You alright?”

Joni startles. “Yeah, sorry. What were you saying?”

“Um,” he looks down at his clipboard, “you’re dehydrated. I was just asking about your daily water intake.” He has sort of weepy eyes, Joni notices, behind those thickset glasses.

 

She almost slams into Sebastian on her way out of the clinic. Her catches her by the shoulders, but she wriggles out of his grasp. Joni’s never seen his eyes this big. His hands are still out like he’s prepared to catch her again. “Whoa, hey.” Joni can’t fucking believe she’s crying again, swiping away tears furiously with the palms of her hands. Sebastian glances around the square and then takes a few steps toward her. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Joni says, scrambling away from him, “yeah, I’m fine.” She nearly trips on her way down the path.

 

Joni doesn’t even take her shoes off before she gets into bed. She lays like a starfish on top of her covers, willing her heart to slow down, to stop beating violently at every pulse point in her body. Her limbs feel like they’re going to vibrate off. Goose wanders over and she clutches him suddenly, holding him hard to her chest. He lets out a single yelp of protest before settling indignantly where she has him.

It’s so funny the way Harvey said it. Like suicide is catching, like it’s got dark, miasmic roots that spread themselves through whole places, whole towns. The knowing look the doctor in the city gave her on intake when she’d told him that her mother committed suicide. Like, oh, of course. It runs in the family.  She’d wanted to scream at him. She has nothing to do with this!

And now, like Harvey’s words are a spell, Joni’s feeling that light feeling she had right before she took all those pills. Like she’s out of her own body, too weightless to control herself. Joni wants to bear down even though they told her in the hospital that this is the opposite of what she should be doing. She’s supposed to watch them, let them pass, but how is she supposed to do that when her thoughts are so thorny? When they whizz by, slamming hard into her brain. She’s bleeding out in her bathtub, she’s puking foam beside her toilet. Her body is hard and cold, fingers greying at the tips. The thoughts are cinematic, vivid. Joni scrambles to her knees and holds her head like she might be able to physically keep them at bay. No one would find her this time if she did it. There’s no roommate coming home early from work this time. Not out here. The idea is so terrifying that she starts to cry. Goose yowls like he can feel the thought too. He presses his body into her side like he’s trying to wake her up from a dream. Outside, a wind is picking up, rapping the thin branches of that beautiful flowering tree against her window. I’m going to miss that tree, she thinks vaguely. And then she shouts “no” as loud as she can. “I’m in control,” she says, but the shakiness in her voice betrays her. “I’m in control.” That one is only a little better.

She can’t take it. She’s up from the bed before she even realizes that’s what she’s doing. That terrifies her even more like maybe she might just come to, not even realizing that she’s tried to kill herself again. “No.” She says, this time with more force. She imagines Shane’s sneakers making loops in the air like she used to imagine her mother’s sandals. “That’s enough.” And it seems to work. She scolds the thoughts like a bad dog and they seem to bend a little to her will. Her skin feels tight from the way the tears are drying on her cheeks. A little more settled, she rummages through her dresser for the sleeping pills she bought from Joja’s her first week here. What an ill omen, that she’d bought them at all. But it doesn’t matter why, not now.  Now she needs to sleep, needs to give her racing brain a break.

Joni takes the bottle and walks to the mirror. She looks so fucking exhausted. She looks like a mess, but none of that matters. She’s trying not to let it matter. Holding a single pill between her fingers, she locks eyes with herself. “I am taking one pill to help myself sleep. I am taking one pill and one pill only.” She slides it into her mouth and holds it between her teeth until her tongue tastes bitter. Then, with an almost violent gulp, she swallows it.

 

                                                                                    *                          *                          *

The cobbler seemed like a good idea when she made it this morning. But now, standing outside Marnie’s place, it feels a little inappropriate. A little too cheery. Hell, Joni doesn’t even know if it’s any good. She’d photocopied the recipe from one of the books in the library in town and did her best approximation with the ingredients she had in her pantry. Looking down now at the sort of soggy crust, she decides it probably would have been better to buy one of Evelyn’s cakes at Pierre’s.

Joni’s finger keeps hovering over the doorbell. It’s too late to turn back, really. Marnie is probably watching through the big window at the front. But she can’t bring herself to ring it, not with this shitty lackluster cobbler in her hands. Fuck, Shane probably won't care about the cobbler. He probably doesn’t give a shit about anything right now.

She tries to imagine what she would have wanted after they released her from the hospital, when she was still trying to get rid of the metallic taste the stomach pump left in her mouth. To die, she thinks grimly. “Fuck.” She whispers. She’d slept like a rock the night before, woke up in a chemical fog, but it dissipated quickly when she started making herself breakfast. She’d felt normal and she’s not willing to relinquish the feeling now.

The cobbler had been Leah’s idea. She’d called that morning to suggest it, but couldn’t bring herself to participate, to bring it over. Joni decided not to ask her why, but now she’s wishing Leah was here with her. She would make a nice buffer for her own crazy thoughts.

“It’s not as bad as you think.” Joni nearly jumps out of her skin. She has no idea how long Marnie has been standing at that open door. She looks haggard. Like she hasn’t slept in at least a day. “He doesn’t look bad. He looks okay actually.”

Joni swallows hard. “Oh, okay. I mean, I can just drop this off and uh…” She trails off. It’s kind of a relief really that no one saw her after, that she didn’t have to see herself reflected in the shocked way people might have looked at her. Maybe she should try to give Shane that same luxury.

But Marnie has taken the cobbler in one hand and is ushering her inside with the other. “It would mean a lot if you popped in and said hello. I’m sure Shane will want to see you.” Joni flinches at that, wonders if Shane has told Marnie anything. Probably not, she decides, when Marnie wanders off aimlessly toward the kitchen. Joni follows at a distance. The kitchen table’s full of flowers, a few scattered cards. She spots a packet of incense and an intricately hand-painted note. So Emily’s been here. Joni isn’t sure if they’re actually friends or if this is just another of Emily’s inappropriately effusive gestures. But if they are friends, have they talked about Joni? She lets her fingers skim over the table’s wooden surface. It’s nothing like the one in the farmhouse,  glossy with a swirling pattern carved on the edges. She hopes they haven’t talked about her, that they haven’t compared notes. “He’s in the room just down the hall.”

Joni sucks in a ragged breath. “Right, okay.”

 

The hug is stiff, but Joni doesn’t know if that’s because he’s in pain or because there’s still something stiff between them. She can’t look at his neck. “I, um, brought you a cobbler.”

Shane tries to laugh but it comes out strained and Joni tries to hide the way it makes her flinch. “Did you make it yourself?”

“I did.” Joni laughs quietly. “Might want to pass on it.”

She hears him sigh. It sounds a little reedy, like a balloon slowly deflating. “I have an appointment with a therapist in two days.”

“That’s great.”

“And, um, I’m gonna start going to AA meetings. George runs the one in town. George Mullner.” Joni doesn’t know who that is, but she nods. “It’s small but, I think it’ll be good for me.”

“Yeah, that’s great.”

They sit in silence for what feels like forever before Shane clears his throat. It sounds so painful when he does it. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this.”

Joni clicks her tongue. “Oh Shane, don’t. You didn’t drag me into anything.”

“Yeah, I’m not so sure about that.” Joni rubs her hands on her jeans, chews hard on her lower lip. Anything to distract herself.

She straightens up a little and says what she might have liked to hear after.  “I’m glad you’re not dead.”

Shane makes a wheezing sort of sound. She sees him flex his fingers on top of the bed covers. “Seriously?”

She looks up at him for the first time. His neck is bandaged. She had nothing to worry about after all. But god he looks so tired, looks so sallow he’s barely recognizable. “Yes, of course.”

“I really appreciate you coming here, you know. You didn’t have to. I know that…I just know that it’s not like we’re…” He sniffles. “Well, you know.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know anyone who’s done something like this.” Joni goes rigid. Shane’s waiting for her to say something and she should say something. Any variety of somethings. Like my mom killed herself and it was horrible and I wish she was still here just like I’m sure Marnie would wish you were still here if you killed yourself too or I tried to kill myself and I’m glad I’m still here or okay sometimes I’m not glad to still be here but it’s okay, I promise it’ll be okay alright? But instead she just pats his hand. “I’m so sorry, Shane.”

 

When she gets home, her mailbox is hanging a little open. Joni approaches it like it’s some kind of wild animal, like it might bite. She opens it the rest of the way with just the tips of her fingers. There’s a book inside. A thick paperback sitting at the center with a hastily folded note on top. She unfolds it slowly. The handwriting is small and uniform, so neat it almost looks like it’s been typed.

I heard what happened. I hope you’re feeling better than yesterday. Thought you might like a distraction. – Sebastian

 

She holds the letter to her chest and exhales loudly. “Okay, shit, okay.” She reads it again. Twice. “Okay, cool. Right.” She takes the book and flips it over in her hands. It has a pleasant heft. “Parable of the Sower.” She reads the title softly to herself. The woman on the cover looks troubled, but there’s something peaceful about the way her eyes are half closed. Joni pockets the note. It feels hefty too.

 

Joni brews three pots of coffee and drinks them, one after another.  She reads the book until the sun comes up and then she finishes it out on the front porch, Goose on her lap. When she finishes it she feels electric. She hasn’t felt this excited since college when each new book was a little world, a little revelation. This one is good. It’s a whole world. The same as here, but different in all the right places, in all the most interesting ways. She tries to imagine Sebastian reading it and the idea makes her hot all over. It’s like a secret thing he’s given her. A window, but she’s not sure what she’s looking at, not sure how to piece it together. Joni feels in over her head, but also like she wants to return the favor. And it feels like an enormous favor.

 

She finds the book she’s looking for under her bed. The spine is nearly broken from all the times she’s read it, but here it’s gathered dust. When she opens it, the poems are the same familiar geography, take the same pleasant space up on the page. She sits with it on the porch and tries to figure out the best time to leave it in his mailbox without being seen. It feels like the best game in the world, like nothing she’s felt in a very long time.

Chapter Text

“Cooking is an expression of love,” Leah says bent over the pot where she’s sweating onions and few thai chilis.

“Are you trying to say that you love me?”

Leah looks up and grins. “I guess I at least like you.”

“Well, the feeling’s mutual.” Joni crawls across the counter and tilts her beer so Leah can take a couple sips. “For the chef.” Back at her spot next to the sink, Joni presses her shoulder against the kitchen window. It’s an unseasonably cold day. Little patterns of frost have congregated on the corners of her windows and Joni spent the better part of the afternoon on the phone with Robin trying to get the radiators working. They’re a little menacing now, clanking away against the hardwood. But at least the place is warm. Even warmer now that Leah’s showed up with a recipe she copied from of the books in town, determined to make Joni her taste tester.

“Kel used to say that to me. Cooking is the expression of love. She’d say that all the time.”

Joni pauses, beer almost to her lips. “That’s loaded.”

Leah turns her attention to the enormous butternut squash she’s brought, starts to manhandle it with her knife. Joni winches. The knife barely seems to be holding together and she imagines the thing just cracking off from the handle, taking a few of Leah’s fingers with it. But she seems to have a system, working through the skin a little at a time. Joni is always amazed by Leah’s patience, her systems. “Well, she was a terrible cook, so.”

“Funny how that works.”

The phone rings and they both freeze. Then Leah starts to laugh. “Look at us, spooked like a coupla kids.” Joni frowns in the direction of the sound.  “Yoba, you look like someone’s put a gun to your head.”

“Can you blame me?”

Leah sighs.. “No, guess not. He’s okay, right?”

“I mean he’s alive,” Joni says, sliding off to the counter. Leah makes a face but returns to chopping.

 

Joni answers the phone almost timidly, like she’s begging the universe to go easy on her. “Hey, Joni?” It’s Sebastian. At first she’s relieved, but then she’s on edge again. The idea that he’d read her book feels suddenly exposing and she feels like a teenager on a first date.

“Hey, yeah, sorry. What’s up?”

“I was just, um…” She can hear him fidgeting with the cord. “Did you like the book?”

“Yeah,” Joni say. She sounds winded. She is winded. “I liked it a lot. Thank you so much for letting me borrow it.”

“S’no problem.” Silence on the line. “You read quick.”

“Oh, um, I guess yeah. I was a lit major in college, actually. We had to read a lot, um, you know.”

“Oh, gotcha.” More silence. “You have really interesting taste.”

Joni gulps. Oh Yoba. “Oh uh yeah, thanks, I mean you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. I know it’s not everybody’s-“

“Do you have any more by her?”

Joni startles. “By Plath?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, sure, yeah I mean, I’d have to look through some of my old shit, but yeah I definitely have more, um, that you could borrow.”

“Cool. Secret Stardew Valley book club.”

Joni almost wheezes. She’s never been more desperate to sound cool in her life. “Right on. What’s our handshake?”

He laughs but then immediately clears his throat. Leah wanders out into the front room, wooden spoon in her hand. She raises an eyebrow. Joni waves her off, blushing furiously. “There’s actually a second one.”

“What?”

“Oh, uh, a sequel to the book I lent you. It’s called Parable of the Talents.

“Oh.” Joni clacks her nails on the table. “Can I borrow it?” It feels daring to ask. Like she’s asking for something really big, really intimate.  

“Um, well, it isn’t out yet actually.”

“Oh,” It deflates her a little, like the book’s existence is the only thing keeping Sebastian on the phone. She scolds herself. Why would she even want him on the phone? “That’s too bad.”

“But it will be soon.” He says, quickly. “ Out, I mean. Like in the next couple of months, actually.” He pauses. “They usually have like these release parties. At a bookstore in Zuzu City. They’re pretty sweet actually.”

“Oh, that’s cool. I didn’t know stuff like that existed.”

“Yeah.”

 Joni curses under her breath, trying to figure out why the fuck she can’t think of something cool to say. She should ask to go with him, she should make this movie. She wants to make this move even if she doesn’t know what direction it’s going in, what the fuck it would even mean. But what if he says no? The idea is simply too terrifying. “Yeah.”

Sebastian clears his throat again. “Well, anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for the book.”

“Yeah, yeah, of course. Thanks to you too.” She flinches. So lame.

“Well, okay then, uh, have a good day.”

“Yeah, you too.”

When she puts the receiver down, Leah’s hovering, her eyes glittering. “Who was that?”

Joni tries to slough it off. “Oh, that was just Sebastian.”

“Just Sebastian, huh?” Leah teases.

“Oh quit.” Joni heads back into the kitchen and hunts for a couple bowls for their curry. “He just, uh, he left me a book. In my mailbox.” Leah raises an eyebrow. “He saw me in town after, well you know, and he left the book I guess because, I don’t know, maybe he thought I might enjoy it.”

“Holy shit.” She’s grinning now.

“No, stop it.”

“No, come on, that’s like so-“

“No, no, nope.”

“It’s romantic, Joni, it’s a really romantic thing to do even if you want to pretend it’s not happening.”

“I’m not pretending it isn’t happening. I just don’t think it’s like that, okay? And besides,” She hugs herself. “I really don’t need to be torturing myself with, like, I don’t know.”

“Oh, hon.” Leah reaches out, but Joni shies away.

“No, don’t.”

Leah holds her hands up in surrender. “Okay, I won’t.” Leah turns back to the counter and starts chopping up some limes, a handful of cilantro. The whole farmhouse smells fresher now that she’s cooking in it.

Without thinking Joni opens her mouth again. “What do you know about him?”

“About Sebastian?’ Leah spoons a couple big portions of rice into their bowl. “Shit, nothing really. I don’t know if I’ve ever even talked to him. He kind of makes himself scarce.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed that.”

“But not with you.” Joni makes a face. “Okay, I’ll drop it.”

 

Leah sets the curries down at their usual spots. “I think Kel used to cook so much for me because it would make me feel like I had to do something back. Like I owed her something.”  

“That’s so shitty.”

“Yeah,” Leah starts to dig in, “it really is.”

“You know, my ex never cooked for me. Found it too emasculating, I guess.” Joni blows on her spoon, waiting for it to stop steaming. “But he had other ways of making me feel indebted to him.”

Leah knits her brow. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” She doesn’t mean to say it so final like that, doesn’t mean to end the conversation, but she slams that door shut. It’s a habit.

“Well, fuck him.”

“Yeah. Fuck him.”

“Seems like your ex did a lot of fucked up stuff.”

“Yeah, you could say that.” Joni says, eating spoonfuls of Leah’s curry. She likes the way it clears out her sinuses, makes her eyes water.

Leah looks at her from across the table. “You know if you ever want to talk about him or it or anything, I’m here.”

“I know.” And she does. Goose jumps onto the table and rubs up against Leah’s arms. She coos at him. Her hair looks incandescent in the fading light. Joni wonders briefly where he is,  her ex, what he’s doing right now. The more time she spends here, the more time she spends with Leah, the harder it is to imagine him doing anything at all. He’s a little fuzzy at the edges now in her memory. It doesn’t scare her as much as it used to, thinking of him.

Chapter Text

Leah’s got a full-length mirror that makes Joni look taller than she is. She does a couple slow turns in front of it. Joni’s gained a little weight the past few months. She doesn’t look so gaunt anymore. Looks more like the woman who moved to Zuzu City than the woman who left it. It’s an improvement.

The tights are her own, but every other part of her costume is borrowed. The black dress is Leah’s, pulled out from the back of her closet and dusted off. It’s still a little wrinkled on the bottom. The pilgrim buckle shoes are Emily’s, maybe from the very first night they met. They’re a little big, but Joni’s doubled up on socks so they don’t slide around. Leah made Joni a witch’s hat out of construction paper and when Joni puts it on, it looks impressively like the real thing.

Leah’s got the radio on. The regional station’s all over the Spirit’s Eve mood. They have the monster mash on a loop, and it’s fun. Joni feels a little like a kid, a little free. She shimmies in front of the mirror, let’s the dress swing around on her hips.

Leah’s place is festive as usual: orange lights around the windows, tissue paper ghosts hanging from the ceiling. She’s burning a couple pumpkin-scented candles and the wet, earthy smell of fallen leaves slips through the window Leah’s opened just a crack. Joni inhales deeply, releases her shoulders. It scares her, a little, how calm she feels. Like maybe it’s an affront to the universe, a dare. She tries to put those thoughts aside.

Leah peeks out from her closet “Aren’t you worried about someone calling you out?”

“For what?”

“For your cliché as hell costume.”

Joni adjusts the hat on her head again, tilting it just a little off-center. “Oh, hell. Don’t tell me it’s that kind of party.”

“Ha, no, definitely not.” Leah steps out from behind the closet door. She’s teased her hair up into a big mess on top of her head and painted a beard on her face with brown paint. She’s tucking a big, blue button down into a pair of shapeless jeans. “How do I look?”

Joni makes a show of taking a few steps back to get a better look at her. “Great, but what are you supposed to be?”

“Oh my god! I’m Bob Ross!”

Joni snorts. “Oh, right, of course.”

Leah huffs, but she can’t stifle a grin. “Stop laughing. I know I look like Bob Vila, okay?”

“Oh my god, you do look like Bob Vila.” Joni adjusts her hat again, pulling it a little more firmly on her head. “You know, my dad loves Home Improvement.”

Leah rolls her eyes. “Everybody’s dad loves Home Improvement.” She locks arms with Joni. “Let’s get out of here. The festival’s probably already started.”

 

The town square is completely transformed. String lights crisscross above the street. Glowy, orange lanterns bob seemingly in midair. Rows and rows of jack-o-lanterns flicker along the paths and porches in town. The way their mouths are blackened from their candles is almost sinister and a chilly wind sends a few fallen leaves tossing across the cobblestone path. June pulls her coat a little closer around her.

The air in the square smells like burning cedar and pinon, smoke rising from the bonfires burning by the community garden.. When she and Leah pass Pierre’s stand by the clinic, they're hit with a wave of warm caramel. Joni takes a few real deep breaths, savoring the sweetness. 

A couple of the town’s kids have gathered around a big trough. Water splashes over the sides when one of them bobs his head in. He emerges with a glistening, red apple in his toothy grin. Joni spots Jas among the crowd of kids. She’s got a pair of translucent fairy wings strapped to her back and even though there are big, dark circles under her eyes, she’s smiling big.

Leah nudges her softly. “Isn’t this great?”

“It’s incredible.” Joni gives the square another once over. Everyone’s in costume. Even the hound who lays out by the Saloon. Someone’s strapped a pair of fabric ladybug wings to his back. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Yeah, this town knows how to throw a party, I’ll give it that.” Leah fiddles with her oversized belt. “Weren’t we gonna,” she mimes smoking, “find Emily?”

 

It isn’t hard. She’s practically a centerpiece. Emily’s dripping in costume jewelry. She’s gathered a swirl of aquamarine fabrics around her legs like a mermaid’s tail. The pasties she has over her nipples shimmer when she passes lights. Dozens of strings of fake pearls are draped over her shoulders. They jingle when she moves. “That’s gotta be cold.” Leah whispers on approach.

“Yeah, but she looks great.”

“Oh, no doubt. Not my type, but I cannot fault you for falling into bed with that.” Joni rolls her eyes and waves Emily over. She beams and heads toward them, a sea of glittering jewels.

When she’s in earshot, she calls out, pointing at Leah. “Oh! Bob Ross! That’s dope.” Leah rocks back on her heels, grinning.

 

The three of them duck into the shadows up by the corn maze. Emily rolls a joint, trying to keep her big, fake rings from getting in the way. When she finishes, she lights it and passes it to Joni. “Don’t go into the maze after you hit this. It’ll make your head spin.”

Leah frowns. “Is this cut with something?” Joni freezes, the joint just touching her lips.

Emily laughs. “No way, man. The maze is just really that scary.”

“Really?” Joni takes a hit and passes it to Leah. “That bad?” Emily nods. Joni gets onto her tiptoes and peers into the maze. She can’t see much in the dark, just a few glowing lights in the distance. Across from where they’re standing, something gurgles then a horror movie scream cuts through the night. Joni spins around, her back to the maze. “Hell no, forget that.”

Leah snorts. “What are you chicken?”

“Yeah, extremely.”

Leah passes the joint to Emily. “I’m gonna do it.”

“No way.”

Emily nods solemnly. “Brave soul.”

Leah knocks Joni’s shoulder. “If I don’t come out in an hour, send in a search party okay?”

“You’re on your own.” Joni teases. Leah winks over her shoulder and disappears into the maze. “Yoba.”

“It’s a good experience.” Emily says. “Formative.”

“Oh god.” Joni laughs. She takes a long hit from the joint. The weed’s stating to make her feel cozy. The night smells so nice, so warm. Joni smiles. Everything has a glow. Joni lets Emily pluck the joint from her lips and the air is suddenly thick.

“You look cute.” Emily smiles. “I love witches.” Joni frowns. She doesn’t really want to fuck tonight, not out here, but she’s falling back into her orbit and doesn’t really have the energy to fight it. “Relax,” Emily says on a long exhale. “I’m all about the boundaries we’ve set.”

That surprises her. “Wait, really?”

Emily ashes the joint. Her laugh twinkles. “Sometimes the things that surprise you worry me.”

 

Joni wanders back out into the town square. Emily spotted Harvey leaving the maze and flitted over to him. Joni wasn’t about to open that can of worms and ducked away.

By the time Joni makes it to the buffet table, she is good and stoned. All of the lights shimmer a little brighter and when the wind blows through the leaves it’s like they’re exhaling, all at once. It feels so safe, cocooned, like she’s living between the tight lips of an oyster.

Marnie sidles up to her and Joni smiles lazily. The older woman’s dressed as a scarecrow, hay poking out from her quilted blouse. Marnie still looks a little rattled even if Joni can tell she’s trying to put her best face forward. “Aren’t you a cute little witch, Miss Joni.”

“Happy Spirit’s Eve, Marnie.”

“And to you.” Her smile’s a little sad, but she recovers quickly. “I got something for you.” She hands Joni a paper cup. The liquid inside is neon orange with a swirl of electric green down the middle.

“How did Gus manage this?”

“Midori.” Marnie winks.

“Ah.” The drink is so sweet it makes her teeth zing. It’s nice, really nice, and Joni tips the cup back to finish it.

Marnie bends down over the table, both hands around her cup. Her lips twitch down, but she sighs and pulls herself back up. She slides her half-finished drink across the table at Joni. “Help yourself. I’m gonna leave the late night stuff to you young’uns.” She works at a kink in her neck. “Besides, I gotta get Jas to bed. Just wanted to pop over and say hello to you.”

 Joni takes a few sips from Marnie’s cup. “Is Shane out tonight?”

“Not tonight.” Marnie grabs her coat from the back of one of the chairs. “He didn’t think it would be such a good idea. What with the drinking and all.”

“Yeah, I can see that.” Joni finishes Marnie’s drink. “Well, you have a good night, Marnie.”

 

Joni plops a deviled egg decorated like an eyeball into her mouth and hovers over the pumpkin shaped cheeseball, trying to figure out which angle she should dig into it from. She’s so fixated on the whimsical spread, insulated by the soft fog from Emily’s weed, that she doesn’t clock his approach. “The beacon light shines on the hill. The will-o-wisps the forests fill.”

Joni turns slowly, trying to make sure she’s hearing what she thinks she’s hearing. A man is leaning jauntily on the table beside her. She’s seen this dude before. Maybe. He’s got long, gingery hair that he’s pulled over his shoulder with a ribbon.

“Um,” she looks over her shoulder and then back, “are you talking to me?”

He grins. “With flashes filched from noon. And witches,” he winks, “on their broomsticks spry.”

Joni searches the square for anyone she knows, any out at all, but comes up empty.

“John Kendrick Bangs. Do you know him?” She does, vaguely, from a class on 18th century poetry in college, but he doesn’t wait for her answer. “Very famous American poet. That was, in brief, his poem entitled Halloween.” He takes a quick glance down her body. “I was inspired by your costume.” He extends a hand. “I’m Elliot.”       

Joni is that precarious sort of high where upsetting him might send her into a tailspin and she really does not need that in her life right now. She reluctantly shakes his hand. “Joni.”

Elliot smiles wider. He has the whitest, straightest teeth she’s ever seen and it’s freaking her out. “I’m dressed as John Keats tonight. Have you heard of him?”

Joni has to fight to stop herself from rolling her eyes. “I might know him, yeah.”

“Ah, a woman of good taste.” Elliot moves a little closer.

Joni plops another deviled egg into her mouth, trying to buy herself a little time. She’s fucked up enough that she might be able to just wander off and lose him and she’s about to try that out when Elliot looks behind her and startles.

Joni turns around slowly. Sebastian’s looming behind her, face half obscured in darkness, cigarette clenched in his teeth. His voice comes out low and muffled. “Can I talk to you?”

 

They head down past the buffet table, Sebastian holding Joni by the wrist. “Is everything okay?” She whispers when they’ve ducked down under one of the willows by the river. It’s even spookier down here. Heavy moss hangs from the branches, sinister and misshapen in the dark. The gurgling of the water reminds her of the maze.

“Just seemed like you needed an assist.” Sebastian nods toward Elliot.

Joni looks back in his direction. Elliot’s looking dejected by the punch bowl. “Yeah, thanks.” And then, before she can stop herself, “men are pigs.”

Sebastian chuckles. “Don’t I know it.” He glances over at her. “Want a cigarette?”

“Yeah, okay.” To her surprise, he hands her the one that he’s been smoking. She takes a few puffs and hands it back. “Seriously, thank you.”

“Don’t worry about it. I fucking hate that guy.”

“Can’t imagine why.” Sebastian snorts. Joni looks him up and down. He’s wearing a variation of what she’s already seen him in. “What are you supposed to be?”

“I’m a computer programmer.”

“Wow, very creative.”

He looks down at her and one side of his mouth quirks up. “Says the witch.”

“Oof, touché.”

Sebastian lights another cigarette as soon as he ashes the one before it. “What are you doing tonight?”

“Um, this.”

“I mean, after this.”

“Oh, gotcha. Uh, not sure. Probably gonna try and see what scary movie reruns are on tv tonight.”

“Sounds cool.” Sebastian lets his cigarette burn for a while, stands tapping his foot. He takes a deep breath. “There’s actually a party tonight. After this. At my place.” He looks at her from the corner of his eyes. “Wanna come?”

 

“Could have been a lot scarier.” Leah say, shrugging. They’re following Sebastian and a couple of his friends up the path towards Robin's place. The blonde one, Sam, is so shit-faced that he can barely stand. He’s belting out some song Joni’s never heard before, leaning hard on the purple-haired girl who introduced herself as Abigail.

“The maze?”

“Yeah, I mean I jumped a couple of times, but Emily made it sound like I was going to shit my pants.” She takes a few swigs of the beer she filched from the buffet table.

Sebastian looks over his shoulder. “The maze isn’t so bad as long as you don’t look too long at the tv.”

Joni’s eyes get wide. “What happens if you look at the tv?”

Sebastian wiggles his eyebrows. “Can’t tell you. It’s the Pelican Town secret.”

“Oh fuck off.” When he laughs, really lets himself laugh, it sounds full and throaty. It’s a good sound and Joni wishes she had something witty to say back. She feels chatty, but the weed has cut the connection between her mouth and her head and her thoughts just bang around in her skull.

“Yeah,” Abigail chimes in, “we can’t tell because then you’ll leave town before we get the chance to sacrifice you in the town square.”

Leah laughs now. Her words come out a little slow and Joni wonders if she took something after she got out of the maze. “A lot of the countryside around here does look really…”

“Creepy.” Sebastian offers.

“Yeah, creepy.” Joni thinks back to all the abandoned buildings she passed on the bus ride into the valley. They would appear suddenly outside the window. Miles and miles of corn or tall grasses, or, sometimes, forest and then – bam – the shell of a farmhouse or a windmill or a shed. Sometimes they looked just like any other house, the broken out windows the only clue that they were husks. Other times they looked almost charred. Joni could never understand that, how a house could just be left. Did the people inside just pack up and go one night, never to return? Did they die? Joni wonders how many of those abandoned buildings had corpses inside, mummified to their beds or just bones sticking out from the floorboards. She shakes her head, trying to dislodge the thought.

“I wish it was that interesting.” Sebastian sighs. The house is in view now and Sam lets out a weak little whoop. “But no, it’s just the malaise of people who never think to look up. Nothing creepy except the weight of small town expectations.”

Leah chuckles. “Look at you, you little philosopher. Do you, uh, not like living here or something?” He snorts a little bitterly,  but looks back in their direction with a shy smile.

“Did you guys all grow up here, then?”

“Unfortunately.” Sebastian and Abigail say in unison.

Sam just lets out a slurred, “yeah man.” 

“What’s that like?” Joni runs her hands along the tall grass as they walk, she plucks leaves from low-hanging branches, relishing the feeling against her fingertips.

Sebastian lights another cigarette. “Shitty.”

 Joni wants to ask him if he usually smokes this much or he’s just nervous, but Abigail beats him to it. “Yoba, Sebby, you’re really going through those.” He just shrugs, using his free hand to scratch nervously at his neck.

They crest up the hill to Robin’s front yard. Joni runs her fingers along the gnarled wood of an old fence post as she passes it. There’s a couple of cars parked outside, music blasting from their open doors. A few guys are smoking on one of the hoods and, when they see Sebastian, they erupt in a chorus of “sup,” “hey dude,” “ay, my man.” Leah and Joni exchange glances like they’re both just now realizing what they’ve signed up for. Abigail seems to notice and smiles nervously back at them. “I’m so glad you guys came. It’s gonna be so fun to chill.”

“Yeah, I haven’t been to a party in like…” Joni trails off, distracted by Sebastian crossing the distance to his house in a few, quick strides. He’s fussing with the lock on the garage door and when he braces himself to heave it up, Joni realizes she’s miscalculated how muscular he is, how strong. A bolt of heat passes settles between her hips.  

The garage is empty save for a few old boxes and some tools. Abigail deposits Sam, humming softly to himself, on the floor by the door. “Where’s the table,” she asks, hands on her hips. Sebastian flicks a hand toward the far wall and then gets back to rummaging around in one corner of the garage.

“We gonna play pong?” Leah asks, perking up.

“That’s the idea.” Sebastian hauls a stereo over one shoulder and heads to the front of the garage.

“I kill at pong.”

“Wait,” Joni glances up at the house’s dark windows, “is your mom home?”

“Nah,” Sebastian replies, crouching down to plug the stereo in. A few of the guys from the cars have wandered over, a couple are bent down talking animatedly with Sam. “She’s staying with Abigail’s mom tonight. Demetrius and my sister are at some botany conference in Zuzu this weekend.”

“We’re gonna trash the fucking house,” Sam slurs.

“That,” Sebastian says, pointing his cigarette at him, “is exactly what we’re not gonna do.”

“How many people did you even invite?” Abigail asks, struggling to open the table’s legs. Leah sets her beer down on the floor and heads over to help her.

Sebastian is flipping through a few cd’s, crouched by the stereo. He shrugs. “Couple dozen. We’ll see who shows up.”

 

As far as Joni can tell, everyone’s showed up. The party in the garage has spilled into the house and Joni loses sight of Sebastian when he bounds off to try and do some damage control. Joni’d taken a couple of hits from Abigail’s pipe, had a few drinks from a keg someone rolled into the garage, and now she’s feeling a little too fucked up. When someone hits the lights, she takes that as her sign. It’s too hot and too cramped and the room is starting to spin a little, so she feels her way out onto the front porch.

A few people are smoking on the steps. They don’t pay Joni any attention and she stumbles over to a dark corner off to the side. The cool air feels so good in her lungs. The stars are brilliant and glimmering in the dark sky above her, but if she looks too long they start to move so she leans against the wall until they’re out of sight. A guy dressed as Freddy Krueger  is passed out nearby. Someone’s done him a favor and left a little bucket ashtray by his head, but he’s got puke all down his shirt so it doesn’t look like it did much good. Joni swallows down the bile pooling in her throat. She reaches slowly for her hat and finds it missing. It must have been knocked off inside. The Monster Mash is playing from one of the car radios in the yard and Joni wonders if that’s the only song this shitty radio station has for tonight.

“Hey.” Joni jumps like a frightened cat. Sebastian holds his hands out in front of him in surrender. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“Shit. Yoba, no you’re good. I’m just jumpy.”

“I lost track of you in there.”

Joni laughs. “Were you keeping track of me?”

“Ha, no, I just didn’t know if you headed home or not.”

Joni leans a little more heavily against the wall. “Worried Elliot came and abducted me?”

“Yoba, what a creep.” Sebastian leans against the wall and exhales. His eyes flutter closed. “It’s a little much in there.”

“What inside?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s your party!” She tries to stand a little straighter and the whole world wobbles. She grasps for the wall. “Oh, shit.”

Sebastian opens one eye to look at her. “You okay?”

“I’m like really, really fucked up.”

He pushes off from the wall and holds out his hand. “Here, why don’t you come lay down for a little. I can get you some water.” Joni goes to take his hand but stumbles.

“Oh, Yoba.” She rushes to the porch railing, knuckles white from how hard she’s holding it. She breathes hard through her nose, but the world is spinning too fast for her to get her bearings. “Oh, shit, Fuck, shit.” She heaves over the side, retching a stream of rancid, bitter orange. Some of it comes up through her nose, burning the whole way. Sebastian’s saying something to her, but her ears are ringing too loudly for her to hear it. He lays a hand between her shoulder blades, rubs her back in small, soft circles. “I think,” she says, retching one final time. She stands and tries to wipe her face, but misses. She just looks at her hand like it’s a foreign body, then up at Sebastian. His eyes are in four places on his face. She can feel his fingers timidly on her shoulders. “I think I’m too fucked up.” Joni blinks a couple times, real slowly, and then she passes out.

Chapter Text

The beeping wakes her. It’s not loud, just sort of ambient in the background. At first, Joni thinks she’s in a hospital and her stomach drops. She tries to remember the night before but her head hurts too bad for her to focus. Her head hurt like this the morning after all those pills too and Joni feels like crying. Maybe she found some pills at the party, maybe she went crazy all over again. She imagines herself begging not to be taken to the treatment center, trembling as they lead her back inside. But no, she listens again. The beeping doesn’t sound like her heart. She must be back home in the farmhouse. Maybe it’s just her alarm. Joni tries to open her eyes but even the dim slivers of light coming through the blinds feel like hell. She closes them tightly shut.

Then she remembers that the farmhouse has curtains, not blinds. Joni slowly opens her eyes again, peering at the room through her fingers. She can see now that the beeping is coming from a machine in the corner of the room. It’s all metal and blinking lights like those big seventies IBM computers they have on the commercials. She’s definitely in someone else’s room. The thought takes a minute to settle in her brain, but when it does her whole body tenses. She snakes a timid hand down under her tights, feeling between her legs. She presses a little, trying to feel for any tenderness. There’s isn’t any, but, hell anything could have happened while she was passed out. Her brain starts spinning through every awful, horrible thing it can come up with and when it settles on some faceless man, rutting between her legs, she jolts up in bed. The movement makes her stomach lurch. Joni leans to one side of the bed, hair slipping over her face and off the side. Someone’s left a trashcan beside the bed and Joni scrambles to grab hold of it. She spits yellow-y bile into the can, the taste so awful she gags again. Defeated, Joni lays down off the side of the bed, fingers skimming the floor. The idea of someone fucking her, of someone touching her at all, is horrifying. She wants to seal herself up, never to be fucked again. She imagines herself as a smooth, glistening stone. No openings, so hard that no one can hurt her, not even if they throw her.

The thought is soothing and when her stomach has settled a little, she slowly sits up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. It’s a narrow twin with the kind of checkered bedspread a little boy might have. Honestly, the whole room looks like a child’s. Or a serial killer’s. Whoever lives here has tacked dozens of magazines and newspaper clippings onto the star-patterned wallpaper. Cross-sections of planets, blueprints for satellites, a big National Geographic map of the solar system. The shelves on the far wall are heavy with bits and pieces of machinery, half-dissected corpses of lamps and printers and fax machines. It’s the wildest thing she’s ever seen.

 

Joni takes a deep breath and stands. She has to close her eyes to stop the room from spinning, but it settles and she manages not to retch. Upright now, she takes a quick inventory of herself. All of her clothes are still on and seem to be in the same place she remembers them being. No mismatched buttons, no tears in her tights. Her shoes are sitting by the door, socks neatly folded on top. Her witch’s hat is perched just beside the dresser. That makes her feel a little better, that someone took the time to do that.  

A strong wind picks up outside. The house groans against it. The alarm clock blinks 9 am, but it’s grey like evening outside and soon big, heavy raindrops start falling against the glass. It’s then that Joni notices the intricate woodwork around the windows. She sighs heavily in relief, whole body unclenching. She’s at Robin’s place. Joni can vaguely remember Sebastian on the porch, the way he tried to hold her upright. She flinches at the memory. How fucking embarrassing. Joni just hopes she didn’t puke on him.

She spots a bottle of aspirin on the bedside table next to a glass of water. Just what she needs. Joni counts two pills in her palm, then counts them three more times before she pops them into her mouth.

The alarm clock on the table is sort of wild. The clock’s arms glow green against its swirling purple face. The room smells a little like motor oil. Unless she’s really read him wrong, Joni figures this probably isn’t Sebastian’s room. Which is sort of a relief too. That would have been even more embarrassing. Joni kneads her temples, still woozy. Her stomach is making the most animal noises and her mouth is so dry that her tongue feels huge and painful. She takes a few quick sips of water. It gurgles in her stomach.

Joni jumps at the noises coming in from outside. Kitchen noises: running water, clattering pans. Someone must be up. Joni’s stomach growls. Someone must be cooking. Joni wishes there was a mirror in the room. She must look like hell. She scrapes her fingers through her tangled hair and pads quietly into the hallway.

The hardwood is littered with beer cans. Someone clearly made an attempt to try and clean up, then aborted, leaving a half-full trash bag leaning up against the wall. Even though it’s pretty trashed, the house smells delicious. Sausage, garlic. Something starchy. Joni hopes it’s potatoes. When she imagines splitting a golden yolk over a plate of crisp potatoes, she nearly moans.

 

The kitchen is an airy room at the end of a long hallway. It’s all soft, quilted fabrics and wicker wood. Like a grandmother’s kitchen. Joni already feels a little better. Abigail’s the source of the sounds, hard at work in front of the stove. She’s got her bright hair pulled into two buns on either side of her head. She smiles over her shoulder when Joni walks in. “Oh man, she lives!”

“That bad, huh?”

“Ha hardly.” She flips a couple of pancakes onto a plate and then leaves it to keep warm in the oven. “Let me put it this way: you’re not even close to the only one who ralphed in the front yard.” She cracks a couple of eggs into a bowl and starts giving them a good whisk. “Sebastian came and got me when you passed out. We put you up in Maru’s room.”

Joni’s putting it all together now. “His sister?”

“Yeah, shame she wasn’t here. She’s a nurse. How are you feeling?”

“Like shit.”

“Ha! I believe it. Stay for breakfast?”

Joni tries to not let the kindness make her feel squirmy. “That’d be awesome.” She bounces from one foot to the other beside the dining room table, full of nervous energy. “Anything I can do to help?”

“Nah, sit tight. How do you take your coffee?”

Joni wants to tell her to drown it in sugar, so sweet she can barely stand it, but that feels weirdly like revealing something of herself. “Just black.”

“Hardcore,” Abigail passes Joni a mug. The steam billows over the top. It’s then that Joni notices Abigail’s wearing proper pajamas, not the Elvira costume she’d worn last night. Joni’s gut twists. She keeps clothes here. Joni, unsurprisingly, wants to cry. So Sebastian wasn’t flirting with her at all. She’d misread the whole situation. Oh , Yoba. She really should just keep her mouth shut, but she can’t help herself. “So, uh, how long have you two been together?”

Abigail turns away from the stove. “Huh?”

“Oh, um, you and Sebastian.”

Abigail just blinks at her. “Wait, what?” Then she throws her head back to laugh. “Oh Yoba, no, no. It’s not like that.”

Joni almost laughs she’s so flooded with relief. And then humiliation. She’s not even sure if she likes him. If she likes anyone like that anymore. “Oh Yoba, alright.”

She turns back to the stove. “Oh man, yeah. Definitely none of that between us. But you’re not the first to ask. Me, Sam, Sebastian. All through high school people thought we were like some kind of threesome or something, but we’ve always just been friends.” Joni takes a long drink of her coffee. It’s strong enough to make her wince. “So have at it.” Abigail says with a wink. Joni nearly chokes.

She’s about to open her mouth and protest when Sebastian appears in the doorway. “Sam’s gonna be out all day, I think.” He stretches, working out a few kinks in one shoulder. Joni tries not to stare. Seeing him in sweats and a t-shirt feels almost invasive. “Asshole threw up in his own shoes.” Abigail snorts. “Oh!” Sebastian jumps a little when he sees Joni at the table. “You’re awake.”

Joni stares at her coffee. “Uh, yeah, sure am.”

Sebastian skirts behind Abigail and reaches into the oven. He pulls out the plate of pancakes and sets it on the table, hands Abigail the bottle of olive oil before she’s halfway through asking for it. The two of them are a well-choreographed team and Joni wonders how often they do this together. “Are you feeling better?”

“Yeah,” Joni looks up at him. Sleep is still heavy in his eyes and he looks a little softer like this, hair wild around his head. “Sorry that I, uh…sorry that I was so much trouble.”

He shrugs, taking a few sips of coffee. “You weren’t. It was no problem.” Joni averts her eyes, heart pounding.

Abigail sets a couple plates down on the table. “Let’s fucking eat.”

 

 

Leah picks up on the first ring, voice tight. “Hello.”

“Hey, what’s up?”

Leah exhales loudly. “Oh god, I thought you were Kel.”

‘Wait, why? Has she been calling you?” Joni glances back over her shoulder. Sebastian and Abigail are still eating, facing away from the phone to give her a little privacy.

“No, but it’s past time.”

“Fuck that.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” Leah’s eating something, her voice muffled by the food. “Anyway, how are you?”

Joni snorts. “So so. Did you get home okay?”

“Yeah, sure did. Not that you’d probably remember,” She says, chuckling. “How drunk did you get?”

Joni’s stomach lurches just thinking about it. “Extremely.”

Leah hums into the phone. “So, did you fuck?”

“What?”

“You and Sebastian. He was eyeing you all night.”

Joni gulps. “He was?” That familiar, sinister feeling is back, curling at the base of her stomach. She wants to check between her legs again but fights the urge to do it in front of them. Sebastian’s voice is low and soft behind her and she tries to imagine him crawling over her limp body. Joni shudders.

“Oh definitely. He’s not my type,” she laughs, “I mean, obviously, but he’s pretty cute up close. Seems nice.” Joni can barely hear her over her heart pounding in her ears.

“Listen, can I call you later, Leah?”

“Oh uh sure. Bye, dude.”

Joni hears Sebastian get up from the table. “I’m heading out for a cigarette,” He says, heading out into the hall.

Joni puts the phone back into the receiver a little hard. “Mind if I come?” He shakes his head, nodding for her to follow.

 

The rain’s slowed a little by the time they head out onto the front porch, just a steady stream of mist. Joni shivers. She looks at Sebastian from the corner of her eye. “Can I ask you something?”

He’s struggling a little with the lighter, the chilly wind keeps putting it out. “Shoot.”

“Um, okay.” Joni holds herself tightly, rocking on the balls of her feet. Sebastian glances up at her. “we didn’t like fuck did we?”

He frowns at her, straightening up, unlit cigarette still between his lips. “No. You pretty much hit the floor right after I found you on the porch.”

“Yeah, I know I passed out. I got that, um, but you didn’t like…” She can’t look at him.

Sebastian slips the cigarette into his pocket, giving up trying to light it. “Didn’t what?”

Joni’s voice is barely above a whisper. “Didn’t…fuck me.”

“No,” he says firmly. They stand in silence for a moment before Sebastian clears his throat. “Is that like a thing that’s happened to you before?” Joni bristles and Sebastian backtracks. “Shit, sorry. I shouldn’t have asked that.”

“No, it’s cool. I’m sorry for even asking.”

“You don’t need to apologize.” Sebastian slides his hands into the back pockets of his sweats. “Are you okay?”

Joni swallows hard. “Yeah, of course. Why?”

He shakes his head. “No reason. Let’s get you inside, huh. It’s freezing out here.”

Chapter Text

Joni invites Emily over because Emily is good at getting out of her mind fucked up and that’s all that Joni wants to do. She hasn’t been able to shake the sharp sting of embarrassment that’s been rooted in her chest since Spirit’s Eve and she’s desperate.

          Joni figures that she’s fucked up any chance she had with Sebastian that morning after the party, so she tries to convince herself that she didn’t want him anyway. That any longing she’d felt at all was a weird half-infatuation born entirely of loneliness and the hole Shane and Emily left when their ill-fated hookups dried up. But when he’d returned her book of poems without a book of his own, she’d sobbed on the floor of her front room, Goose yowling beside her, trying to match her volume. Pathetic was too light a word, really. She’d talked to the guy what? Three times? Maybe four? So, yeah, she’s really into the idea of getting so high with Emily that she can’t think straight enough to feel sad about it.

         But Emily has her own ideas. She brings some weed, sure, but also a ratty old hiking backpack that looks like whatever’s inside is about to bust the thing at the seams. She plops the bag down in the middle of the room, breezing past Joni at the door without saying hello. “I’ve got something great for us.” She smiles up at Joni and it sort of clears all the bad things out, like a warm wind. Joni stands for a few beats, backlit by the sun. Emily pulls a vhs player out of the bag and gets to work hooking it up to her tv. “I think this movie will be good. It really gets the brain going.” When she looks back at Joni her smile is so big and bright that the whole room feels golden.

         The movie doesn’t have that same energy. It sets Joni on edge from the beginning. It’s not really like anything she’s ever seen before. Kaleidoscope colors and animation that flows and disports, never staying in one place, one form. Like all the characters are amoebas; the landscape an undulating ,twisting form that Joni can’t really follow. It’s about a woman, as far as Joni can tell, and sometimes she’s beautiful, but sometimes she looks barely human. The bare lines of her form twisting to the rhythm of the soft, lifting psychedelic rock playing in the background. Joni doesn’t recognize the language and the way the animation fills in the screen with bleeding watercolor movements obscures the subtitles almost all the time.

         Joni takes a few hits from the joint and tries to pretend that her hands aren’t shaking. Everything feels a little off, a little wrong, and when the next scene comes on screen, that feels like a premonition.

         At first, Joni doesn’t realize what’s happening. Her body does, though. Right away. It shifts so her legs are protectively under her, hands crossed defensively in front of her chest. She can only read half the subtitles, but her heart starts to race.. And when the jeering starts, Joni knows for sure that she’s seeing what she thinks she’s seeing. There’s a whole audience of men to this rape. Even animated, there’s something biting about them. Their faces cruel even as they are shapeless. The woman is beautiful again and then she is nude. But it isn’t erotic. Sometimes it looks like a body, sometimes just a plane of color, the linework vibrating on the edges.

          Joni glances over at Emily. She’s watching passively, joint burning between her fingers. The scream makes Joni flip back to the tv. The woman is a drawing, but when the seam at the center of her body rips from between her legs, Joni feels it, feels it up to her throat. The woman tears two, bleeding red onto the background swirling with pattern. It’s worse like that. The abstraction feels more real. Like a memory. Like Joni fighting her way out of her own sheets in the middle of the night, slick with sweat and trembling. The tangle of limbs, the strange sounds octaves too high or low. The way the camera moves quickly over everything, never stopping long enough for Joni to get hear bearings.

         The camera pans up until only the woman’s toes are on screen and that hits Joni square in the chest. It’s the way her toes are moving: flexing and twitching like she’s in terrible pain. That is too familiar. The woman isn’t speaking, isn’t making any noise at all. That’s familiar too. “You didn’t tell me there was rape in this.”

         Emily pops a few kernels of popcorn into her mouth. She’d topped it with hemp seeds and raw butter. It made the whole bowl sort of dense and gloopy and it turns Joni’s stomach to even look at it. “Should I have?”

         Joni’s throat feels dense and nausea creeps from her stomach into her temples until she’s woozy and unsteady. The ground feels like it’s rocking underneath her, like she’s on rough seas. No, she thinks, Yoba no. Not here, not with her. Joni breathes hard through her nose, balls her hands into fists. The motion doesn’t subside and, when the room goes a little sideways, Joni’s hands fly out in front of her, like she can force the world to right itself. Her thoughts are racing so quickly that they stop altogether. Her head is full of thick, thorny nothingness. “Stop.” She says, voice distorted by how badly her lips are trembling.

         Emily turns to look at her. “What? The movie?”

         “No, I’m…” Joni closes her eyes. Her face is pulsing, chest so heavy it feels like her ribcage is just going to fall out of her body.

         “Joni?” She can hear Emily moving closer. “Joni? You’re not breathing.”

         Joni’s eyes flutter open. “What?” The popcorn bowl is discarded by the tv, the tape half out of the player.

         “You’re like not breathing. Are you breathing?”

         Joni looks down at herself and is almost surprised to see that she’s still in one piece, still all there. Her body feels ten times bigger than it should and like it’s severed completely from her head. She sucks in a ragged breath and it feels like the hardest thing she’s ever done. “I think I’m having a panic attack.”

         Emily’s eyes get wide. “Oh! Shit!” She goes a little stiff. “Okay, shit, wow. Do you have something you can like take? For that?” Joni nods, hands flexing on the hardwood. “Where is it? I’ll get it for you.”

         “I can’t take it.” Joni can’t keep her eyes open, not with the way the world is still wobbling. “I can’t take it with weed. I’ll black out and…” She can’t think straight enough to come up with some lie about why she can’t mix medication anymore. Her fingers are numb and tingling and the sensation is moving up her hand. Her eyelids are twitching, just on the corners, and she can’t feel her lips anymore. “I just can’t.” Terror seizes her, hard in the chest, and Joni starts to cry. She wants, suddenly, to go home. Really home. To curl up on her dad’s threadbare couch while he fusses in the kitchen, talking excitedly about whatever new interesting thing he’d read in the paper, the light from the tv reflecting blue on their faces. But Joni can’t. The apartment’s still there, with her dad still in it, but home doesn’t exist, not like that, not anymore. So she asks for the next best thing. “Call Leah. Please.”

         “Sure, yeah, of course.” Emily is quick on her feet, but useless once she gets there, looking around the room. “Do, you, uh, what’s her number?’

         “Number’s on the pad by the phone.”

 

         Joni doesn’t hear Leah come in. She’s still on the floor, still holding herself tightly, breathing raggedly, shallowly. It’s only when Leah takes her by the shoulders that Joni snaps to attention. “Joni! Can you hear me?”

         “Yes, were you…” Her hands are numb and tight, fingers bent strangely toward her palm. “Were you saying something?” Leah squeezes her shoulders, running her thumb softly over Joni’s collarbone. Joni’s body responds in turn: forcing air into her lungs. She stretches her fingers out. Her lips feel like her own again. She’s still vibrating all over, but the terror is unwinding itself slowly from her chest.

         “Yeah, but it doesn’t matter. Can you take something? Your heart is just fucking pounding. I can like see it in your throat.”

         Emily’s standing sort of limply away from them, worrying her lips hard with her teeth. “She can’t take any pills. She’s stoned.”  

         Leah turns back to look at her. “What? What does that have to do with anything?”

         “I tried to kill myself.” It just slips out. All three of them tense. The house goes silent, a slight wind whistling through the gaps in the windows is the only sound for a very long time.  

         Leah takes her hands off Joni and leans back a little. She looks in her eyes, searching for something. “Like…tonight?”

         “What?”

         “Did you take something tonight? Do we need to call an ambulance?”

         “No, Yoba, no, fuck. Before I came here.”

         “Before you came where?”  

         “To the Valley.” Joni shivers, her skin clammy and slick. “I overdosed on pills when I was still living in Zuzu and…I can’t believe I’m telling you this.”

         “It’s okay.” Joni’s voice is tight from trying to stay even, but it breaks a little on the last syllable. “You can say whatever you need to say.”

         Emily nods so hard her hair flies around her head. “We’re here for you.”

         “I’m just supposed to be careful with pills, because…I don’t know why, I’m not a doctor.” Joni wipes under her eyes with the heel. She doesn’t know how long she’s been crying. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to tell you guys this. I can usually just handle this shit on my own.”

         Leah pulls her into a tight hug. “You’re not on your own.” That only makes Joni cry harder. She grabs hold of Leah’s arms and just sobs into her shoulder. The sheer force of her crying makes her gag and soon she’s back on all fours, coughing so hard bile starts to rise in her throat. Leah hushes her, dragging her fingers through Joni’s hair.

         Emily can’t seem to stand still, bouncing on the balls of her feet nearby. She keeps looking from Joni to the tv and then back like it might give her some clue as to how this all started. “Maybe a shower would help? Some hot water?”

         Leah’s knees pop when she stands. “Yeah, why don’t we do that.” She nods back at Emily. “Can you draw a bath?”

 

         The water does help. The steam rising from it clears out her lungs, makes her cheeks feel less tight with tears. Joni lays her head on her knees and takes a deep, long breath.  No one’s said anything. Emily has her hands clasped behind her back, leaning against the sink. Leah’s on the toilet, bouncing her legs rapidly, hands digging into the back of her own neck. Then, all at once, she goes completely still. “You can’t tell anyone about this, Emily.”

         Emily jumps, like she’s forgotten they’re all in the room. “What?”

         “Like you can’t just spread this around, okay?”

         Emily scowls. “What? You think I can’t keep a secret?”

         “Can you?”

         Joni shifts in the water. The sloshing sound makes her feel like she’s a big fish, like some monstrous catch that Leah and Emily now have to figure out what to do with. “Please don’t fight.”

         “We’re not fighting.” Leah crosses her arms, turning back to Emily. “But, listen to me, this isn’t something you can just tell someone or, I don’t know, use to make yourself seem more fucking interesting okay.”

         Emily’s whole face hardens. “I would never.”

 

         Emily leaves, promising to come back with some real food and some of the aromatherapy candles she bought in the desert on her last trip there. The farmhouse feels a little more settled when she goes, like she took all the energy out with her. Joni can hear the soft drip drip dripping of water from the tub’s faucet. Leah slides from the toilet to the ground and rests her head on the side of the tub. She reaches out to rub comforting circles on Joni’s back. “Do you want to talk about what happened?”

         “I don’t know.”

         “Maybe just about tonight then?”

         Joni turns her head to look at her. “What do you mean?”

         “I mean, like, what brought this on, you know. I don’t mean like the…” Leah pauses. “Did something happen tonight? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this.”

         Joni shrugs. “We were just watching a movie and there was just, I don’t know, some parts I couldn’t handle.”

         “What, like violent?”

         “No, I mean, yeah, I guess. Just like sex stuff. Like you know, rape stuff. I guess I just…”

         Leah’s voice is so thin, the way she’s rubbing Joni’s back is almost too hard. “Just what?”

         “It’s hard for me to see stuff like that. I think everyone feels that way.”

         “I don’t know about that.” A pause. “Listen, Joni, I know you like to keep a certain distance, okay? I get it, but I think maybe you should, you know? It can’t hurt to let it out a little.”

         “If you’re gonna ask me something just ask me something.” Leah takes her hand off Joni’s back and straightens up. The quiet seems to go on forever, the dripping faucet suddenly amplified. “Yeah, he raped me.” The confession comes out in a whoosh of air. The room wobbles, but then rights itself. The air feels a little heavy.

         Leah puts her hand on Joni’s shoulder. “Your ex?”

         “Yeah.”

         “Shit.”

         “And two of his friends.” Leah’s nails dig into Joni’s skin. She gasps or sighs or makes some other noise that Joni can’t really identify because she is boring holes into the bottom of the tub. She wants to laugh because saying it is so surreal. It’s strange to say because it’s even stranger to acknowledge at all. They hadn’t been together when it happened, her and her ex, just in some kind of hookup limbo, but he’d still had such a powerful hold on her. It was in a back bedroom of a party and he’d given Joni a doozy of a prescription, pills that made her so pliable it was easy to pretend it hadn’t really happened. Even if her body kept trying to remind her.

         She ruined a week’s worth of underwear after that night. Each time she pulled them down her legs, they would be a little pinker, just right in the center like her pussy was weeping blood. It hurt when she peed. For days. And then her piss started to turn orange, then red. By the time she headed to urgent care, it was so dark the nurse joked that it looked like Joja cola. “Hell of a UTI,” she said, Joni sitting dutifully on the exam table, hands folded in her lap like a school girl, “Make sure you pee after sex.”

         Joni drank on her antibiotics even though the warning not to was bright yellow on the bottle. It made her feel so dizzy, she puked over the side of Sarah’s couch and then the wheels were in motion. Or maybe they always had been.

         Leah’s hand has stopped moving. Her eyes look freezing. “You mean at the same time? Like, all three of them?”

         “I mean, it wasn’t like…” Joni trails off, not sure what the fuck she’s even trying to say. “It was like in the movies. It wasn’t…violent, really.”

         “I don’t know if that matters.”

         Joni lays her head back down on her knees. Her hair floats limply in the rapidly cooling water. “I guess not.”

         Leah starts in on one of her nails, worrying the skin around it with her teeth. “Is that why?”

         “Why what?”

         “Why you tried to…you know.”

         Joni wiggles her fingers under the water, watching as the ripples spread out and disappear when they meet the edges of the tub. One of the men that night worked at Joni’s favorite café. It’s how they’d met, actually. She’s introduced him to her ex. He’d brought him to that party.

         She’d kept going there. After. He would chat with her like nothing had happened, smiling, friendly, and so Joni tried also to pretend that nothing had happened. But each time she had to leave a little earlier than the last. The sound of the espresso machine would inevitably draw her eyes to him, his fingers. They’d been rough inside her, maybe from all the time he spent on this machine. He’d been behind her on the bed, her back pulled against his chest. “This is cool, right?” He’d whispered, already inside of her. His friend was inside her on top, huffing and grunting, pulling her hair so tightly against her scalp that she’d found a clump of it missing in the morning. “You like this, right?”

         Joni’d scurried out of the café for the last time only a few days before she’d taken all those pills and it had been that whispered question she’d heard before the ambulance arrived, echoing eerily in her tile bathroom. But Joni doesn’t know how to say that, how to distill all that down into something that won’t break her in two, so she just shrugs. “I guess it was maybe one of the reasons. I didn’t really make like an itemized list before I…you know.”

         “Yeah, no, of course not.”

         Joni can’t really read what Leah’s voice is telling her and she can’t bear to look up at her. “What do you think of me now?”

         “What?”

         “Now, that you know”

         Leah tsks. “Joni.”

         “No, don’t. I’m serious.”

         Leah grabs hold of her, pulling her into a tight hug. Water sloshes over the side of the tubJoni closes her eyes, trembling now in the cold water. Leah smells like resin and clay, like oil paint. “I’m so sorry this happened to you. All of it.”

         “Please don’t pity me.”

         “I don’t. I don’t pity you. Nothing’s changed, Joni, nothing.”

         They hear Emily wrestling with the front door and both sit up. When she finally gets it open, she calls to them. “I got a frozen pizza! From Joja, don’t kill me, but it’s the only place open right now. And some blueberries too. Antioxidants are supposed to help.” Joni doesn’t know with what, but she’s glad to have Emily back, funny as that is. “I’m gonna start the oven, okay?” She doesn’t wait for their reply, before they hear her banging around in the kitchen.

         Leah pats Joni on the cheek. “You're gonna be okay.”

         Joni nods and stands. She lets the water slip down her body before she wraps herself in a towel. The water has an almost glittering quality when she looks back at it. She looks down at her own skin and, for the first time in a long time, it looks like her own. Like her body is a place she’d like to live. The though tis overwhelming, filling her chest with warmth. She wants to hold Leah close, Emily too. She wants to wrap the whole town in her arms, the whole valley. The movie feels far away, Zuzu even farther. “We are,” she says, surprising herself with how sure she sounds. “All of us.” Leah looks back and smiles, her eyes melt a little, warmer and softer.

Chapter Text

Joni’s still raw from the night when Sebastian calls. But it’s a good raw, really. There’s something about coming through the other end of a breakdown that feels almost refreshing. At least for a little while. The light is brighter, but it doesn’t hurt, just falls softly across the floorboards. She can handle him on the other line.

         And she knows it’s him, pretty much immediately. He coughs a little when she answers the phone. The sort of half-forgotten sound that smokers just start making one day and never stop. She’s chill, chiller than she expects, but her heart still does a little leap when she knows it’s him. And that scares her more than maybe it should. “Hey, are you busy?” Joni smiles. He sounds flustered too at least. “I mean, yeah, of course you are. I just meant, uh-“

         “You’re good. What’s up?”

         “Yeah, nice, cool.” He stops to take a breath and the next thing he says comes out in one, quick jumble. “Listen, um, are you free today?”

         Joni glances out the window. A heavy frost settled two days ago, effectively killing the last of her crops. She’s been selling her preserves to Pierre’s and the money’s not much, but Joni guesses it’ll be enough to keep the lights on till spring. But the canning season is basically over now and aside from cleaning and starting to consider what the hell to do with the still (hopefully) empty second floor, Joni’s days have become ominously free. Her brain doing overtime with all that empty space. “Yeah, I’m wide open.” Joni hopes she sounds at least a little bit cool, at least a little less desperate than she feels.

         “Cool, that’s cool. So, um, remember the book we talked about? The sequel, I mean, to the one I left in your mailbox?”

         “Yeah, sure. Parable of the something.” Joni winds the cord around her fingers.

          “Yeah, that’s the one. Um, so it’s actually being released tonight.” A few beats of silence. “There’s a party at this bookstore in Zuzu.”  

         “Oh, that’s great.” It takes everything in her to keep her voice even. He’s dancing around something, but Joni tries not to let the fine pins of expectation sink into her skin.

         “Yeah, um, do you want to come. With me, I mean.”

         She’s practically electric. “Oh!”

         “I mean you don’t have to, I just-“

         “No that sounds fun. That sounds cool. Thanks for, uh, inviting me.”

         “Yeah, of course.” A pause. “Of course. Well, cool. Do you, uh, think you could be ready like maybe in an hour? I can pick you up from your place.”

         “Yeah, I’ll be there.”

         “Okay, cool. See you.”

         Joni is holding the phone painfully tight against her cheek. “Yeah, see you.” She waits for a while after the line goes dead, just holding the phone to her face with both hands. Her heart is going wild, just absolutely ramming against her ribcage. She dials Leah without putting the phone down. Nearly chucks it across the room when she doesn’t answer until the very last ring. When the phone finally clicks, she speaks quickly, urgency coursing through her body. “Hey, I need advice.”  

         “Why does it sound like you’ve been hyperventilating?’

         “Um,” Joni twists the phone cord even tighter around her fingers. “I haven’t…been?” Joni starts in on her bottom lip. “Listen, I need your perspective, okay?”

         Joni can tell she’s working by how muffled her voice sounds, probably has the phone cradled against her shoulder. The way she says okay makes it sound like she has a paintbrush between her teeth. She can hear the clanking of her cheap space heater, imagines her sitting dangerously close to it on the floor. The oil paint sizzling if she lets it get too close. “Okay.”

         “I need you to tell me if you think this is a date.”

         Leah laughs, sounding a little relieved. Joni hears her shift, the paintbrush gone from her mouth. “Whoa. Okay. Lay it on me.”

         “It’s Sebastian.”

         “Yeah, figured.”

         “Oh come on, just listen.”

         “Liiiistening.” Leah says a little sing-song.

         “Okay, so he asked me to go to this party in Zuzu. Like this, uh, book party. He’s picking me up in like,” Joni checks the clock on the wall, “45 minutes.”

         Joni hears Leah shift, imagines her sitting a little straighter on the floor. “Wow, all the way to Zuzu?”

         Joni drums her nails on the table. “Yeah.”

         “Sounds like a date.”

         “I literally have not told you a single other thing about it.”

         “You don’t need to. It sounds like a date.”

         Joni drums harder, tapping one foot so loudly that Goose shoots her a look and wanders off to the kitchen. “You really think so?”

         Leah sighs. “Yes, obviously.”

         “Should I call Emily?”

         Leah laughs. “What? To ask if this is a date? Holy Yoba.” Joni groans, kneading the bridge of her nose. She does want to call Emily. Wants to call everyone in her phonebook and run this all by them. It’s a bright impulse, almost manic. “Joni?”

         Joni snaps back to reality. “Huh?”

         “Do you like him?” She almost drops the phone. Joni glances behind her, sure that just the idea of wanting Sebastian, of wanting to spend any time with him at all will conjure her ex from the ether. She waits, expecting him to rise like a ghost from the floorboards. When he doesn’t, another tendril of dread uncoils in her chest. Joni doesn’t want to answer Leah’s question, doesn’t want to say it out loud. Like it’ll ruin everything is she does. Like Sebastian will immediately call her back to cancel, to scold her for goading the universe. “Joni?”

         Goose has returned, purring softly against her ankles. “Yeah,” she says, almost a whisper, “Yeah, I think I do.”

 

                                     *                                    *                                   *

         Neither of them really seem to have anticipated the amount of time they’d need to fill alone together in Robin’s truck. He glances over at her almost sheepishly once they get out onto the highway. Joni smiles brightly at him, trying to diffuse the obvious tension, but her own realization has sunk in, leaving her cold with dread. She cycles through all the things she can think to say to him, but all the paths she conjures up lead either somewhere weird or somewhere dark, so she keeps quiet. It feels just like those first days out of the hospital, like she’s forgotten how to carry on a conversation. But Sebastian seems equally cowed into silence and so they just sit, letting the rolling hills whiz past them. The trees look cold and gruesome without their leaves, shivering the fading, blue light. Winter evenings always look blue, even in the city, but here the sky is all shades of cold. Simmering navy at the tree-line fading into an almost translucent pale turquoise up where the moon hangs hazy around its edges. Joni shivers, cold just from looking and Sebastian reaches over without a word to turn the heat up.

         The truck’s old enough that it only has a tape deck. It rattles on the road. The sound makes Joni a little nervous. She imagines them stranded on the side of the road, their breath plumeing in front of them, yellow beast eyes blinking at them from the dark of the forest. But Sebastian has this sort of quiet confidence, an easy competence, that makes Joni settle a little more in her seat.

         The glove box is missing it’s front and Joni spots a plastic sandwich bag filled with tapes. She nods toward the bag and Sebastian shrugs. “Go for it.”

         She flips through a few of them. There’s a couple bands, mostly stuff she hasn’t heard of, but the rest of them have long titles. “Are most of these books?” Joni asks, turning them over to look at their backs.

         “Yeah, I know my mom likes to listen to books on tape when she’s gotta commute to jobs.” He shifts in his seat, rolling his shoulders. Joni flinches at the impressive pop when he works out a kink at the base of his neck. “What are they? Anything good?”

         “You don’t know?” He just shrugs. Joni reads a couple of the titles, squints at the covers made miniature on the tape cases. “They’re, um, animal mysteries?”

         “What?”

         “I don’t know. Like cat crime.”

         He looks over at her. “I have no idea what you mean.”

         Joni holds one of the tapes up in front of her. “The Case of the Calico Caper by M. P. Biscuit.” She flips it over and laughs to herself. “Awesome. I love suffering.”

         Sebastian snorts. “Mind if I smoke?” Joni shakes her head and Sebastian cracks the window. It’s a little chilly and the wind blows his hair off his face. He looks handsome in the fading light, dreamy when the pinkish glow above the tree-line reflects on his face. The way the smoke billows out the window is dreamy too.

         Joni goes back to flipping through the cassettes, sure she’s blushing at least a little. “Oh this is a good one.” She clears her throat, does her best serious literature voice. “Murder She Barked, a Paws and Claws Mystery.” Sebastian practically wheezes. “I can’t believe your mom likes stuff like this.”

         “No kidding.” He nods toward the tape deck. “Put it in.”

         “For real?”

         “Why not?”

         “Alright,” Joni says, laughing a little bit, “our literary appetizer.” The way he smiles does something to her, makes her feel like she’s slipped into a warm bath. She leans back and watches the road, trying not to look at the way his long fingers are curled over the gear shift, trying not to feel hot all over.

 

         Dread settles in her gut when they park at the station. It’s the furthest lightrail stop on the outskirts of the city, still practically the suburbs, the forest still looming in the distance. But it’s more than close enough. Joni didn’t really think this through, coming back here. The hospital isn’t that far from this station, actually. If she squints toward the clock tower in the distance, she can almost imagine the hospital’s big, sterile windows just beyond it. Can almost see herself standing behind one of them, wide-eyed, sure they’d never let her leave the place.

         The city doesn’t seem all that excited to see her either. The temperature’s dropped about ten degrees in the few hours since they’ve been on the road and an icy rain has started to fall, just misting. It’s slushy on the ground, crunching under her feet as the heads away from the truck. Sebastian tosses the keys into the air and catches them before turning to face her. “Ready to go?” She falls in step with him.

 

         They take the S train north. Sebastian says it’s only about a 15-minute ride to the bookstore, but parking is impossible on that side of town. Joni doesn’t tell him that she already knows that. That she grew up across town to the neighborhood where they’re headed. She hopes she won’t have a reason to tell him tonight. If the bookstore’s far enough north, it’ll be way away from her old place, all her old haunts. Her dad doesn’t usually pop into that part of town. None of her old friends would ever be caught dead there. She hopes she’s right, that they won’t appear like some hydra from a past life.

         The two of them duck into the station, careful to avoid the puddle forming in the cracked asphalt out front. One of the windows has been blown out and the glass is scattered all across the floor. The hole’s let the chill in, and the rain too, and they weave to avoid the glistening shallow puddles on the ground. The tile floor is slick, grimy. HOW MANY MORE is scrawled in red paint across one of the station’s concrete walls. Written shakily on the opposite wall in smeared chalk: END THE WAR BEFORE IT ENDS YOU. Sebastian doesn’t even spare them a passing glance. There’s been talk on the news about the military instituting a draft for all men under thirty and Joni wonder if Sebastian’s heard that, if it scares him to think about it.

         Sebastian jumps the turnstile and then holds out his hand, helping Joni over it. The sounds from the street are dulled here in the station, but there’s a leak in the roof somewhere and the dripping echoes loudly in the building.

          They stand quietly on the platform. The wind’s picked up. The sun blinks out over the horizon, and, before the streetlights blink on, there’s a moment of blackness so complete Joni nearly reaches out for Sebastian’s hand. The train comes in a rush, blowing their clothes and hair, filling the platform with metallic light.

         “Glad the train still smells like trash,” Joni says as they climb on board, “I need consistency in my life, you know?”

         One side of Sebastian’s mouth quirks quickly up. They commandeer two rows of seats facing each other and stretch their legs out, fitting like puzzle pieces. “Yeah,” he leans his head against the window, “some things never change, huh?”

 

                                     *                                    *                                    *

         Sebastian’s been gone for ten minutes. Joni knows because she keeps checking her watch, trying to look busy. She’s deflecting curious glances with the well-practiced grimace she learned from Sarah. Sarah always thought it was the perfect expression, both appealing and unapproachable. Right now, Joni just wants to look unapproachable. Yoba, she used to be good at this, at socializing. This used to be her shit, her lifeblood, but she feels a little like a husk now. A shell of herself. She doesn’t know if she could make small talk now if she tried.  

         It’s worse now that Sebastian isn’t here to serve as a buffer. He’d whispered that he’d be right back and slipped up the stairs to the mezzanine, leaving Joni alone by the cash register. The store’s put a few cases of beer on a table by the front door. The bowls of pretzel sticks beside them have long been decimated, just a fine brown down at the bottom of the bowl, so Joni grabs a beer and tries to ignore the way her stomach is rumbling.

         It’s the kind of old-timey bookstore her dad used to take her to in the summer so she could work out some energy. Dusty wood molding and high shelves stacked so thickly with books they look like they’re straining under the weight. It’s a dense sort of place, made all the more cocoon-like by the way ice is forming on the store’s big, front window, by the way steam billows out every time the door jingles open, the heat making a run for it. Joni settles into her corner, fingers skimming the spines of a few dusty cookbooks on the shelves beside her. Anything to look occupied. To hide. It doesn’t work long.

         The girl sidles up to Joni, book and beer in hand and, at first, Joni thinks she’s trying to hide too, but the way her voice carries reveals her as the kind of person who doesn’t mind eyes on her, the kind of person Joni used to be. “Hey,” she says grinning. She has a gap between her two front teeth that makes her look cool in a way Joni can barely even process. Like even her dna is hip. She holds up her copy of the book and taps it lightly against one of the shelves. “Exciting stuff, right? Five long years and it’s finally here. Can’t wait to crack it open. Feels so full of possibility.”

         “Oh, yeah, definitely.” Joni curls her fingers over the cover of her own copy, realizing suddenly that she can’t remember a thing from the first book, would fold like a lawn chair if this girl tries to talk to her about it.

         But she doesn’t. She picks a more dangerous topic. “So you came with Sebastian, yeah? Thought I saw the two of you come in.”

         “Oh, uh, yeah.” She extends a hand. “Joni.”

         She has a firm handshake. “Beth.” The name doesn’t really suit her. It’s softer than she is. She’s inches taller than Joni and finely muscled like a runner, or a gymnast. Her raven hair is cut short around her cheekbones, bangs inches above her eyebrows. A little gem glitters at the top of one cheekbone and another piercing through the center of her bottom lip, a fine gold ring.  She taps it with her finger like she’s thinking and Joni can see there’s a crescent moon tattooed on the second joint. She’s wearing a dress that looks like an oversized shirt and it’s grungy cool in a way that Joni’s old friends would have scoffed at. Joni’s immediately on edge. “It’s been a minute since Sebastian’s come out to one of these. He’s always so swamped with work.”

         Joni takes a few fortifying sips of beer. “Oh yeah?”

         “Yeah, well you know how those tech guys are.” She laughs and Joni laughs with her even though she doesn’t have the first fucking clue what she means by that. “Do you work in tech?”

         “Oh, uh, no. I…” Joni pauses. What the fuck does she do? In college, it was always so easy, so much potential without any of the pressure. She could mold her lit degree into whatever she needed it to be. To the skinny guy in horn-rimmed glasses at the rock show, she was an aspiring poet, desperate to have him pay her some attention. To her professor of 19th-century literature, it was the way she passed class, playing a tortured creative who couldn’t finish her reading because she was so lost in big, blooming thoughts. She’d have to suffer through hours in his office, hands skimming “accidentally” over her thighs, droning on and on about his own work, his own mind. But she never went to class and she always passed his courses. It was a versatile animal.

         Even after college, she’d used it like shorthand. A way to buff out the edges of her life, to slip into places where she wouldn’t otherwise belong. Sure, she’s a cashier at a museum gift shop right now, but she has a degree in literature did you know that and is hard at work getting her foot in the door in publishing or editing or whatever vaguely related thing she was thinking about that week.

Sarah’d trained her well in that regard. It’s what she told all her rich, carefree friends at parties when Joni couldn’t keep up. Never mind Joni’d never applied to a job that wasn’t retail. Never mind she couldn’t even imagine her life outside that dead-end job, couldn’t even see to the other side of that week. The psychologist at the hospital told her that sometimes suicidal thoughts are inert, benign. Something as simple as not seeing the end, not seeing anything in the future at all. Joni’d piled so much on that glass foundation even when she could feel it cracking under her feet. But now. Now. This girl is waiting expectantly for her answer what should be a simple, easy question. She does her best. Deflection has always been her strong suit. “We’re neighbors actually.”

         “Oh! That’s rad. Pelican Town is a real trip. I have a lot of fond memories.”

         “Oh, you’ve been there?” Joni looks a little closer, trying to size her up. She can’t imagine someone like this girl hanging out in Pelican Town. But then again, Joni has trouble imagining herself in Pelican Town. Or Emily. Or Leah. Or Sebastian now that she’s thinking about it.

         “Yeah, I’d come up every couple weekend when Sebastian and I were together.” Joni sputters into her beer, all the blood draining from her face. Maybe Beth can sense it or maybe it’s just reflex, because she chuckles. “Ancient history now. We’ve been friends for longer than we were ever together, don’t worry.”

         “Oh!” Joni nearly jumps. “No, I’m not really-“

         “Beth, hey, what’s up?” Sebastian materializes behind them. Joni doesn’t know how the fuck he always does that, moves so quietly like that.

         “Hey-o. Where’d you go off to?” Joni watches their hug closely, looking for signs of god knows what, feeling a little bit like she’s been treading water, a little but like she’s starting to sink.

         He nods back toward the stairs. “Just wanted to say hi to Jeff.” He turns back to Joni, wanting to clarify. “He owns the store, but he’s always hiding out at events like this. Sneaky little rat.” Joni can relate. She holds the book close, the beer even closer and wills herself to disappear.  

 

         Somewhere between all the small talk and the book talk and the extended, never ending goodbye, Beth convinces them to come to a party back at her place. Sebastian and Joni exchange tepid glances, but neither of them seem to be able to read the other well enough to back out. So onto the train they go.

         Her place turns out to be a pretty spacious two bedroom, but, by Joni’s estimation, about eight people live there. The wallpaper’s smoke-yellowed and peeling and they’ve covered it up with a fine papering of show posters and pages ripped from books and magazines torn and curling on the edges. The crowd is equally foreign, nothing like the people Joni ever would have hung out when she lived here. They seem relaxed, seem to be actually enjoying each other’s company. A man Beth introduces as her partner claps Sebastian on the back, pulling him into a hug. It’s all so foreign, the way they’re doing this. The easy way they seem to be able to talk to each other, with no artifice. It’s overwhelming.

         Joni detaches from the group and winds through the crowd of people, trying to outrun the music blasting from a stereo in the center of the room, looking for a place she can just take a minute and think. She stumbles into a hall bathroom and hoists herself up onto the counter. The sink is so rusted that Joni can’t tell its original color. She scrapes her fingers through her hair and cranes her head back, letting it skim across her shoulder blades. She closes her eyes and tries to take a deep breath. The whole place smells like sour alcohol and sweat and, faintly, like the way a fridge smells when you forget the greens you bought at the beginning of the week and they start to rot. Maybe this was a bad idea, going out so soon after a panic attack like the one she had. The world is going a little wobbly. She’s got a couple klonopan stuffed in her purse, but if she takes them after she’s been drinking who knows what the fuck will happen. The thought of Sebastian carrying her passed out back to the train is so humiliating that her grip on the lip of the counter tightens until she can feel her heartbeat in her knuckles. The whole building seems to be vibrating in time to the bass and every so often the front door slams open and another group pushes into the already packed apartment. She can’t stand it, overstimulated to the point of screaming.

         “It’s just me.” Sebastian’s voice startles her, but the way the bathroom door clicks closed once he’s inside makes her freeze. Cold fingers of dread crawl up her legs and settle in her gut. She doesn’t want to open her eyes, afraid to see the expression she imagines he has on his face now. There’s an inevitable thing with men, she thinks, all of them. Of course it would arrive here. It had to, right? She scolds herself for trusting him enough to put herself in this position and braces for his hands. Where will he put them first?

         Nowhere, it turns out. After a few moment, she opens a single eye to look at him. He’s leaned up against the wall opposite the sink, hands predictably in his pockets. It’s a small room, but it looks like he’s made a point to put some space between them. “You alright?”

         She exhales hard, eyes fluttering closed before she opens them to take another hard look in his direction. His face doesn’t really betray much, she’s noticed. He keeps his expressions minute, but his eyes are dark, swirling in the dim fluorescent light of the bathroom. “Yeah, all good. What’s up?”

         “I just saw you wander off. Figured I’d just, you know, make sure.” He gestures vaguely in front of him and she nods.

         “Yeah, thanks.”

         He nods, looking at the bathroom door like he can see through it. “I’m gonna head out to the balcony and,” he mimes smoking, “wanna come?”

 

         The balcony is so old and rickety that even two people seems like it might be pushing it. Sebastian closes the door behind them and pushes the bucket cum ashtray over with his foot so it doesn’t swing back open. Out beyond, the city simmers, the glittering lights like something about to boil. She knows it like the back of her hand, imagines she can see the rooftop bar where she and Sarah would buy overpriced cocktails and try to look appealing enough for the business types who frequented to pay the rest of their tabs. It’s a relief not to be there. To be here in the abyss of her new life.

         Joni can hear a party a few floors up and, every so often, a cigarette butt floats almost peacefully past them on its journey to the ground. Joni flips around, her back to the railing. She’s seen enough of the cityscape for her whole lifetime. She doesn’t need to pay it any more attention tonight. Beth comes whirling into view through the door’s little window. She’s dancing into the kitchen and there’s something magnetic about the way she moves. The whole room falls into her orbit, watching her as she passes. Sebastian glances up from trying to light his cigarette to look through the window at her and Joni can’t help herself. She wants to pry this open. If for nothing else, than just to look. “You and Beth seem cool.”

         Sebastian frowns. “What do you mean?”

         “She told me that you used to date.”

         “Oh.” He takes a long drag from his cigarette. “Yeah, we did. Ages ago.”

         Joni looks up at him, a little timid suddenly. “I just think that’s cool.  That you’re like…I don’t know…nice to each other.”

         He cocks his head. “That not your general experience?”

         “Ah, no.” Joni laughs, “that is not generally my experience.”

         “I’m sorry.” She shrugs. “I get why it can’t happen, you know? Being friends. I definitely get that. I’ve been lucky, I guess.” Joni can’t tell if he’s probing or if these are just the normal conversations people have. Yoba, she’s so out of practice. Even after all these months in the valley, being back in the city has stolen her voice again. Like it always does. Maybe Sebastian can sense that, because he leans back against the rickety railing, letting silence settle comfortably between them. Joni leans back too, letting the sounds of the party behind them fade into the rest of the droning noise of the city. Joni tries to imagine what her ex would think if he saw her now. He always thought the literature shit was so stupid. Didn’t understand the point of it, didn’t understand the point of anything he couldn’t boil down to a bottom line. He thought it was a waste of time and he was a man who, above all, never wasted time. Except with her. He told her that so often, what a colossal waste of time she’d always been to him. Yoba, he still could get here. All these months removed, all these miles away and he’s still right there inside her head. Joni shudders.

         Sebastian mistakes it for shivering and shrugs off his coat. “You know, for a farm girl you sure never are dressed for the weather.”

         The weight of the coat is tranquilizing on her shoulders. She smiles a little, relieved to be out of her own head, back here on solid ground. “I’m not a farm girl.”

         Sebastian gives her his half-smile. “Yeah, I can see that.” There’s a beat, like a pulse between them, where she’s sure he’s going to say something else. Something about what he can see. But he shakes his head, almost imperceptibly and  ashes his cigarette on the railing. “Listen, I’m about up to here with socializing. How are you feeling?”

         “I could go.”

         He nods, sparing one last glance over the railing. “Cool.”

 

        

Leaving the city feels startlingly like coming home. As soon as they cut out of the suburbs and into the dense forest just beyond, Joni feels herself settling a little more comfortably in her seat, the air blowing dry from the truck’s heater. There’s so many pieces of her back in Zuzu, so many former selves. All the people she’d known in high school, all the people she’d tried to fit in with after college. Her own father. She can feel her body now like it’s new. And she is new. A person that Zuzu Joni would have barely recognized. And that’s probably for the better. She imagines her old self chasing after the truck, hair wild behind her, eyes black with coke pupils. She’ll be screaming something probably, something about how being unseen, unnoticed in the Valley is a fate worse than actually dying on the floor of her dingy bathroom back in Zuzu. Joni pulls her legs onto the seat and rests her head on her knees, arms wrapped tight around herself.

         The dark outside the truck’s windows is so complete that Joni can only see where Sebastian’s weak headlines cut through, but it feels safer than in the 24 hour glow of Zuzu. Steadier, at the very least. The idea of coming home and flipping on the lights, of picking up Goose as he yowls in protest before settling her arms with a few begrudging purrs, of falling asleep on her old mattress and waking up to bird calls even in winter. It’s good. It’s all good.

         Something folksy comes on the radio, twangy. A little mournful. Sebastian taps his fingers on the wheel, nodding his head a little to the music. Soon, he starts to hum singing a little under his breath. Sebastian can’t really carry a tune, but that’s the nice part of it. It chills her out deep, deep in her bones and Joni lets her eyes close, just a little. The bumps on the road start to lull her to sleep. He keeps humming, singing a few words here and there. His voice gets a little louder, gravely as he tries to sing in tune.  There’s something nice about the way he rests his hand on the stick as they drive. 

 

         When Sebastian shakes her gently awake, the first light of dawn is peaking above the treetops, a pale yellow spreading out into the dwindling field of stars. Joni wipes the sleep from her eyes and sits up, legs dangling over the side of the pickup.

         Sebastian’s leaning against the open passenger door. He keeps his voice low, soft. “You fell asleep on the way home.”

         “Oh, I’m sorry.” She blinks a few times, trying to get her bearings and maybe it’s the residue of a dream but she’s sure she feels Sebastian run his thumb along her cheek, his eyes soft and molten when he looks at her.

         “You don’t need to be sorry.” He helps her out of the truck. 

Chapter Text

The first snow is a real event in Pelican Town. Leah tells her this over the phone. “And you really shouldn’t miss it.” Joni looks skeptically out the window. The snow’s barely started. Just a few big flakes falling against a sky already blueing with oncoming night. It looks bitterly cold out and, if the air coming in through the cracks in her windows is any indication, it is bitterly cold out. Besides, Joni’s already in sweats and a holy t-shirt. Not exactly keen to pull a pair of boots over her woolen socks and venture into the night.

         “I mean it’ll snow again, right?” She asks, cradling the phone between her cheek and her shoulder. “I watched the weather like an hour ago and they said it was supposed to snow all week.”

         “Yes, but the first snow is special.” Joni frowns into the phone. Leah’s starting to sound like Emily. When Joni tells her so, she gets flustered. “Okay, listen this isn’t my cup of tea either, but Abigail told me it was something we shouldn’t miss, okay?”

         Joni pauses. “Wait, Abigail? You talk to Abigail?”

         Leah’s quiet. The tension on the phone is palpable. Then, doing her best impression of casual distance: “Yeah, we talk some.” And that is intriguing enough to get Joni off her couch.

Goose seems a little pissed that his human heater is heading out the door, but Joni coos at him, telling him she doesn’t know why she’s heading out on this stupid misadventure either but she’ll be back in no time. At least she hopes she will. The snow’s gotten progressively heavier since she hung up the phone. She pushes her scarf up a little higher on her face when she starts down the path, vision a little obscured by the heavy flakes falling on her eyelids.

 

Even if she’d rather be anywhere but out in the elements tonight, Joni has to admit that the town looks a little magical. Someone’s wrapped lights all up the trees and lampposts and they shimmer in the dark, illuminating the pine boughs strung across the awnings and windows on all the buildings in the square. Pierre’s place is especially decked out. Multicolored lights blink from the windows and the balcony; an enormous blowup Santa sways in the wind in front of the shop’s sign. Leah’s waiting out front, hands stuffed in her pockets, looking like she’s reciting something under her breath. When Joni comes into view she waves excitedly, pulling her into a hug. “Yoba! It’s been what? Days since I’ve seen you? We gotta catch up.”

“Yeah, no kidding. Talking to Abigail? I’ve clearly missed something.”

She winks, a little conspiratorially. “And I need to hear about your date not date with Sebastian.” Joni seizes up. She wants to say that there’s nothing to tell, but that isn’t really true. They’d talked on the phone once after their night in the city, promised to meet up after they finished the book. She’d finished it two days ago, but every time she reached for the phone, intent on calling him, Beth’s face would flash in her mind and she’d recoil from the phone like it bit her.

Just objectively, Joni’s pretty sure she’s prettier than Beth. Certainly daintier. Joni feels gross for even thinking that, like Sarah’s crawled her way back into her head. Joni’d got so used to pitting herself against other women, using their bodies as metrics for how good or bad she should feel about herself. Joni remembers sitting on the floor of Sarah’s posh studio loft, surrounded by her walls of windows, watching her cut up Ritalin with a razor blade. She’d snort it, reciting everything she’d eaten that day between bumps like it was some kind of prayer, a ward against gaining weight. What’s your secret, she’d ask sometimes. Existential dread, Joni would say, trying to lighten the mood. Sarah would scowl at her. You neurotic types are always so lucky. Men love sullen girls. Yoba, no wonder Joni went fucking crazy.

But that’s it really. That’s the key. It’s not about how Beth looks at all. Which is, absolutely, about a hundred times cooler than Joni to begin with. But even that aside, ll the metrics that Joni adopted with Sarah for her own self-worth are suddenly out the window. Beth’s appeal is everything about her. Carefree and charismatic. A confidence that Joni can’t even begin to imagine in herself. Maybe all those years after college Joni let her personality wither, coasting entirely on her looks and the affected, moody attitude she’d adopted after meeting Sarah. Sarah’s sullen girl, her heroin chic art school dropout mess. It’s so clear now that Sarah was her foundation. Joni’s ex the supporting beams. Now she’s just rooms, open to the elements, the harsh wind of the rest of her life barreling through them. Her personality feels like a seedling, just barely anything at all, and Beth is an oak. Sebastian, she reasons, must want an oak, something stronger than Joni. He’s seen that now, surely. That she’s in pieces If he hadn’t caught her scent of dysfunction on Spirit’s Eve, her stunt in Beth’s bathroom certainly must have made him see.  .

Leah waves her hand in front of Joni’s face. “Hey-o. Earth to Joni?”

Joni startles back to reality. “Shit, sorry.”

“Wow, that dreamy of a time, huh?”

“Nothing happened.”

Leah rings the doorbell and mouths “sure.”

Abigail pops her head out the front door, hair even brighter than Joni remembers it. “Hi!” She pulls Joni into a hug, then holds her out at arm’s length. “Look at you, you must be freezing! Yoba, get inside.”

When she lets go of Joni, she hugs Leah too. “Hey.”

Leah smiles. “Hey yourself.” When Abigail lets go, Joni glances back at Leah. Her mouth is twitching downward, eyes tracking Abigail into the house.

 

Abigail leads the two of them up a set of stairs into a dusty attic, the ceiling so low they have to bend down to move through it. They’ve brought cups of hot chocolate so thick they’re practically syrup and Joni walks carefully, worried she’ll spill it. She takes a few sips and she can almost feel it echo in her empty stomach. She likes how sweet it is and finishes it after a couple big gulps. It burns the roof of her mouth They weave between stacks of boxes and a few old pieces of furniture until they reach a door. Abigail practically throws her weight into it to get it open and they step out onto a narrow balcony. The whole town looks different from this high up, like a little postcard village, all glittering lights and plumes of chimney smoke.. Sam is already outside, leaning a little too heavily on the ornate wooden railing. He waves a peace sign at them, eyes narrow like he’s stoned. “Wazzup!” Leah rolls her eyes a little and Joni is still trying to piece this whole dynamic together. Abigail’s hanging close to her, leaning in when Leah whispers something in her ear. Joni does a quick scan of the balcony looking for Sebastian. He isn’t there and she deflates a little.

“Sebastian’s not in town.” Abigail says, pulling the door closed with some force. Joni tries to school her face, determined not to look as transparent as she must have to Abigail. “He’s at some nerd conference.”

Joni pulls her scarf tighter around herself. “Nerd conference?”

“Computers or whatever. I don’t know what they do. It’s on the Fern Islands, that lucky bastard. Probably sitting out on the beach with a lime in his beer as we speak.”

Sam snorts. “Who Sebastian? He probably hasn’t left the hotel room.”

“So it’s like a programming thing?”

“Yeah, I think so. This is like the big deal conference, I guess. They’re rolling out some new machine and they’ve asked a bunch of people to like…shit, I don’t actually know. You’ll have to ask him when he gets back.”

Joni’s chest constricts. She can’t imagine that he’ll every want to talk to her again with the way she’s been blowing him off. Sam turns back to them, grinning. “Yeah Sebby got major beans to head out to this place.”

“Wait, you mean they paid him to go to this conference?”

“Oh yeah,” Abigail says, “Paid for his flight, his hotel, his food too I think. They’re really wining and dining him from what he told me.”

“So is he like a big deal in the industry or something?”

Abigail shrugs. “If he is, he’d be the last to tell you so.”

“Oh!” Sam shouts. “It’s starting! Come on!” They all hurry to the edge of the balcony, leaning on the railing to get a better look.

A technicolor glow rises from the direction of the ocean. It spread sout across the darkened sky like the tendrils of a jellyfish, pulsing green then blue, a single feathered stripe of pink cutting across it. It advances on them until the whole sky is full of color, brighter than the middle of the day. It dances across the sky ,undulating and shifting along the horizon. Down below, a few people begin to shuffle out of their houses, bundled, eyes to the sky. Joni sees Emily’s silhouette beside the Saloon, dwarfed by Gus’ enormous frame.

“What is that?” Joni can’t pull her eyes away, entranced by the colors

“Doesn’t have a name.” Abigail says, voice hushed. “Happens every first snow though. Like clockwork.”

“I’ve never seen this before in my life.”

“Only happens in the Valley. Don’t know why.”

“It’s amazing.” Joni says, breathless. The lights dance over her face. She watches them skitter across her fingers on the railing. When she looks back at the house, Abigail has her eyes to the sky, but Leah is watching Abigail.  

 

Joni and Leah leave a few hours later, when the sky is dark again and their fingers are nearly frozen. At first they walk in companionable silence, just listening to the cool quiet of the winter night. But soon, Joni’s thoughts are bubbling in her head and she turns to look at Leah. “So what’s all that about?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.” Leah frowns. “So, is that like a thing?”

Leah shrugs. “It’s not nothing. Maybe I have a little bit of a crush.”  

“Does she have a crush back?”  

Leah sighs. “I have no idea.” She sighs even heavier.  “She’s a junior in college, did you know that? Twenty fucking one years old.”

“Holy shit.” Abigail does have a chirpy quality about her, now that Joni’s thinking about it. The lilt of her voice, the way she dresses. It all does seem a little young.

“Yeah, five full years younger than us. I guess it’s not that much, but I can’t make heads or tails of what her social world is like. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to approach her on something like that.” She nods to Joni. “Maybe you could ask Sebastian? He’s a little older than we are and they seem to get along just fine.”

Joni’s gut twists. She thinks of Beth again, slipping effortlessly through life, dancing like she had through the porch window. Then Sebastian, shut in far away in some tropical hotel room. She wonders if they ever talk on the phone, wonders what kind of things they have in common. Hell, what do Leah and Abigail have in common? What does she see in her? Joni can feel something in the distance, like the current of the world, like the whole path of her life stretching out in front of her, braiding and splitting, disappearing into night. It’s alarming. The kind of melodramatic thing she would have thought in the back of a taxi after a long night out, nose raw from all the coke Sarah would push. But she’s stone cold sober here, walking along this forest path. “Yeah, maybe.”

Out in the distance a single frond of green light hangs along the tree line. There’s something lonely about it, there in the dark.

Chapter Text

The first hint that something is wrong is her breath. She has the kettle on, jonesing for something warm to drink and, at first, she thinks it’s steam from the spout. But when she pours the water over her instant coffee, the steam continues to billow and she realizes that the plumes of white are coming from her own mouth.  Joni pauses. She presses her palms into the countertop. The linoleum feels like metal it’s so cold. Confused, she pads barefoot into the front room and flips on the tv. Queen of Sauce should be on, but there’s only a long, loud buzzing sound. The white text on the black screen reads: NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE WIND CHILL WARNING. It takes longer than it should for her to process it. She looks up, hands trembling now, and sees that the frost is on the inside of her windows. How could she not have noticed this until now? How long had the house been like this? The realization dawns on her all at once, dread heavy in her chest.

She’d burned herself once, back at the hospital. She’d been resting her hand on a burner, hadn’t even noticed. Hadn’t noticed it was on. One of the kitchen staff had pulled her hand off, eyes wide with shock. Her palm had been glistening red. It took her days to convince the staff that she hadn’t done it on purpose, spent hours assuring them that she wasn’t trying to catch herself on fire with an electric stove coil. Trauma-induced situational depersonalization was the mouthful her psychologist finally landed on. It was probably the reason, her doctor suggested, she hadn’t felt any pain when she’d been fucked by those two guys at the party, why she’d let her uti get so bad. Just thinking about it makes her want to retch, but once she’s thinking about it again, here so far away in her kitchen in Pelican Town, sensation floods back into her body and she’s freezing.

She tries not to cry on the phone with Robin, her gloved hands rattling on the receiver. She’s wrapped Goose in a blanket, has him cradled like a baby in her arms. “Touch the radiator, Joni,” Robin says in her soft mom voice, “what does it feel like?” The fabric of the glove sticks a little to the metal it’s so cold and Joni tells her so, barely choking back sobs. “This is no night to be in a house without heat. You hang tight and I’ll be there in a minute.” When Robin hangs up, Joni holds the phone to her chest. This woman she barely knows is barreling through the snow for her, in the storm, in the dark. Joni wipes away a few stray tears. She doesn’t deserve that, not at all.

 

Goose is taking this pretty well all things considered. He’s sitting mostly still on Joni’s lap, only yowling when they hit a few bumps in the road. Robin glances over from behind the wheel. “Tell your boy we’re almost there.” Joni scratches his head, letting him snuggle up close to her. The truck is making a horrible noise. Robin says it’s from the cold.

They’re inching along the road. Sheets of ice and snow drifts slowing their progress. It’s nearly one in the morning.

One of the truck’s headlights flickers and Joni’s grip of Goose tightens. The radio, when they can pick it up, is all on high alert. The governor has issued a state of emergency and, instead of music, all the local stations are warning about frostbite, early signs of hypothermia. Joni imagines someone coming across their bodies in the light of day, frozen solid to the truck’s seats. Her mind drifts unhelpfully to Jack Torrance’s frozen grimace just before the credits roll in The Shining. She tries not to imagine how badly it would hurt to freeze to death, how terrified she’d probably be. With the way she’s crying, she’d be a goner, drowning in her own ice. The headlight steadies again and Joni lets out the breath she was holding. “The old girl’s been through worse than this.” Robin says, patting the truck’s dash. But the way she says it makes Joni think it’s more for her own benefit than Joni’s.

The heater is blasting, but Joni can’t stop shivering. Her mind is racing. “Are the pipes at the house going to burst?” It’s something she’d heard, maybe on the news, but doesn’t really understand. She imagines pulling up to her place tomorrow to find all the windows blow out, rivers of ice crisscrossing down the hall. “Like overnight?”

“The pipes have been through worse.” Robin is bent forward, squinting out at the road. The snow is coming down nearly sideways and the truck rocks with the wind. “And we’ll handle it.” There’s that swift dread again. The feeling that always follows Robin’s generosity. It’s equal parts suspicion and longing. But they’ve pulled in to the cabin’s front yard now and the sight is so comforting that it sweeps all her other feelings away. The cabin looks warm, smoke billowing softly out of the chimney, golden light pouring from the windows onto the heavy snow. Robin pats her thigh. “Come on now. Let’s get inside.” Joni’s chest constricts. She tries to stop herself from crying.  

 

The mattress of the camping cot is so thin the springs are digging hard into Joni’s back, but she’s just happy to be warm. Robin set her up in the cabin’s storefront room. It’s dense and cluttered, but cozy, smells like raw wood. Joni pulls the blanket over her shoulders and tries to coax herself to sleep. But her thoughts are going too fast. She tests each part of her body, prodding it with her fingers, spooked by the way she’d gone numb again, like she had after the party. Joni wonders, for the first time since she left the hospital, if she should try to get in touch with a therapist. Try to talk to someone again. But the idea of ripping open that wound is so unpleasant she quickly dismisses it. She’s so lost in her own head that, at first, she doesn’t hear the stairs creaking.  

The light from the open door spills into the room, falling over the camping cot. His voice is soft. “Oh.” Joni props herself up, shielding her eyes from the light. Goose hisses, angry to be woken, but when he sees Sebastian he trots over, rubbing himself against the leg of Sebastian’s sweatpants. “Well hey there, sweet boy.” He crouches down to scratch behind Goose’s ears. “Long time no see.” It’s scary intimate to see him like this, just down to his sweats and a thin t-shirt, golden in the low light. He looks up at her and Joni’s heart stutters. “How long have you been here?”

Joni wipes at her eyes. They’re swollen from crying. She must look like a mess. “Just a few hours. My heat conked out.”

“Oh shit.”

“Yeah. A disaster.”

“My mom come get you then?” Sebastian rolls his neck. Joni flinches at the sharp crack it makes. She shifts to sit on the side of the cot and nods. Goosebumps fly up her bare legs when she exposes them to the air. “Good. Record lows I heard.” He gives her a once over. “Do you want to borrow a pair of my sweats?”

“Oh…” Joni tries to stop herself from shivering, holds her muscles as tight and still as she can. “No that’s okay. Thanks though.”

Sebastian eyes her. “You’re sure?”

Joni nods then furrows her brow. “Wait, why are you up this late?”

He stands, knees popping a little. Goose lets himself be picked up which is, honestly, kind of a revelation. Usually, he only does that for Joni. Even Leah can’t get the squirmy cat to stay still in her grasp for long. But with Sebastian, Goose seems almost tranquilized, heavy in his arms. “I could ask you the same question.”

“Fair point.” Joni pulls her legs back into the cot, sitting cross-legged like it might make her warmer. The initial heat she’d felt in the house has mellowed and the cold, like a ghost, has worked its way into the house. “I’m a pretty inconsistent sleeper, like in general.”

Sebastian nods, chewing the bottom of his lip. “You wanna smoke?”

 

Sebastian has a pipe shaped like a peach. The curve of it, the pale pink color, it’s all somehow feminine and Joni wants to ask him where he got it. If he got it from an ex. Or, Yoba, from someone he’s seeing right now. She tries to imagine what his dating history looks like, what kind of guy he is. A string of hookups or just one or two longer relationships? She, honest to Yoba, cannot tell, cannot even speculate what kind of person he in his romantic life. But she wants to find out, maybe more desperately that she’s ever felt before. The intensity of the feeling makes her want to run from the house, take her chances with the subzero temperatures, but she’s rooted in place on the last step into the garage, space heater rumbling away in front of them.

Sebastian finishes packing the pipe and roots around in his sweatpants for a lighter. “You never called me.”       

Joni straightens. He’s said it so causally, so offhanded, that it startles her. “What do you mean?”

“About the book.”

She looks at him, trying to figure out what he’s trying to do. He takes a hit from the pipe and passes it to her. Joni doesn’t take it. “You didn’t call me either.”

His mouth twitches. “Fair.” She takes the pipe from his outstretched hand, but she lets it sit heavy in her palm. They’re so close their shoulders are almost touching. He smells clean like soap. “I guess I was trying to give you some space. You seemed a little spooked.”

“Spooked.” It isn’t a question, she’s just trying out his wording, seeing if it fits. She passes the pipe back without taking a hit. He looks at her but doesn’t say anything. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I just…” He sets the pipe down on the stair above him and straightens up.

She interrupts him, unable to keep her mouth shut anymore. “I figured you wouldn’t want to hear from me.”

He freezes, whipping his head to look at her. His brow is deeply furrowed. “Why?”

“I don’t know…”

“I thought I told you…I mean I asked you to call me, right? Did I say something that…made you feel like I didn’t want you to? I’m sorry if I did, I just-“

“No!” She pulls away from him, putting some space between them on the step. “No, it’s nothing like that. It’s just…”

“It’s just what?”

“Nothing.” She says firmly. “I’m sorry. I should have called you.”

“I mean you didn’t have to.”

“I wanted to. I…” She chews her lip, trying to figure out how to say this, how much it will reveal. “I got nervous.”

He blinks rapidly, like his brain can’t process it fast enough. “You got nervous calling me?”

Joni bristles. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’m just surprised, I guess. I don’t know. Don’t listen to me. I’m just rambling.” He reaches back for the pipe. “I’m glad you’re here. Sorry about your heat though.” Joni doesn’t know what to say to that and Sebastian apparently doesn’t need a response. He takes a long hit and offers the pipe to Joni. This time she takes it.

 

Sebastian’s got good weed. Great weed, actually. The kind of artisanal, lab-engineered shit that the guy down the hall in her building used to sell, talking about it like it was a fine wine. It hits Joni hard and fast. She feels soft and smooth and like she wants to be touched, like she needs to be touched. And Sebastian is so warm. She can feel it radiating off him. They’ve been scooting closer in inches, without saying a word, and, mustering up all the courage she has inside of herself, Joni leans her head on his shoulder. Sebastian tenses, but then he shifts over until their hips are touching. When he speaks, he sounds faraway, dreamy. “Joni?”

“Yeah?”

“Did you have fun at that party in Zuzu?” She frowns, feeling instantly sober.

“Yeah, of course. Why?”

“I just…” He flexes his fingers. “You just of ran off. I was worried that I’d done something to piss you off.” It’s hard to imagine Sebastian worried. Or upset. Or anything really. He keeps such a tight rein on his emotions that if Joni hadn’t seen little sparks of them the past few weeks, she’d assume he didn’t have any at all.

“What? At the party?”

“Yeah, you just seemed stressed.”

“Oh.” She hopes her gulp isn’t as loud as it sounds to her own ears. She sputters. “I mean, I wasn’t like stressed. I was just, I don’t know, sometimes I just have to you know.”

“It’s okay,” Sebastian cuts her off. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me. I just wanted to make sure I hadn’t done something to upset you.”

“No, nothing.”

She can feel him timing his breathing, careful and slow. “You’ve been through some shit, haven’t you?” All the hairs on Joni’s neck stand on end. “You don’t need to tell me about it or anything.” He shifts next to her. “And I didn’t like hear it from anyone or something, don’t worry. I can just, I don’t know, I can just tell.”

“Nice to know that I’m not fooling anyone.”

“That’s not what I mean at all.” He pauses. “It takes one to know one, you know.” Joni lets that sink in, totally at a loss for how to receive any of this. “Anyway, I want you to know that I see you. I know this town is all forced happiness and smiley wonderful, but I see you.” Joni turns to look up at him and maybe it’s just the way their heads are positioned, but their lips meet. For a beat, neither of them move. Then Sebastian kisses her. He tastes like wet smoke, almost bitter from the weed. His lips are soft and by the way he’s kissing he, she can tell he’s done this a lot. That he’s listened a lot, thought a lot about what kissing should be like, how it should feel. He’s gentle, soft, lays the tops of his fingers lightly on her jaw to pull her closer. It’s only then, with both hands on her face, that she realizes she isn’t kissing back. She starts to in earnest, throwing herself into it so hard that their teeth knock together. Sebastian laughs and pulls away. She’s about to apologize, to mutter something that’s it’s been a while, because honestly it has. Joni can’t remember the last time she was kissed like this, the last time she wanted someone to kiss her again so badly. Terror is coiling in her gut. Terror that she’s ruined this before it’s even started, that she’s going to send him running. An unnamed terror too. Something deeper and darker. Sebastian kisses her softly just on the corner of her lips and the terror uncoils, air and warmth rushing into her body. She sighs, her muscles unclenching. She meets his gaze, eyes wavering uncertainly. She’s got to be just beet red, feels like she might combust right there in the garage. He smiles with his whole mouth and stands, offering his hand to help her up.

 

         Sebastian stands on the tips of his toes to reach the tallest cabinet, roots around for a little until he finds what he’s looking for. He hands her the bag, heavy with whole coffee beans. “Give it a smell, tell me if you like it. I have a lighter roast too if that suits you better.”

         “I don’t know what I’m looking for.”

         “Just if you like it or not. If it smells good to you.” Joni shrugs and sniffs the open bag. It’s strong, full. Nothing like the shitty instant coffee she’s been drinking for a decade. The smell sticks in her throat, warms her up. She watches quietly as he takes the bag and pours a few fistfuls into the grinder. Sebastian reaches for Joni’s hands. Numb, she lets him take them. “Here,” he says, holding them against the bean grinder. “It’s a little quieter if we both hold it.” His hands are so warm, fingers soft against hers.

 

         Joni’s sitting on the counter, Sebastian’s leaning on the table opposite. They aren’t talking but the silence feels easy, full. She looks at him, half lit by the light of the oven clock, watching his lips as they sip from his mug. Astounding, really, that they were on hers just a few minutes ago. She’s giddy like a teenager, goosebumps rushing up her whole body. But the fear in her, the terror, it has hooks. And teeth. And it’s chewing up her insides, her joy. She looks away from him, down instead at the coffee steaming in her mug. She tries to remember what the psychologist told her about dread, about projection. About fear. Her mind is blank. Nothing helpful emerges.

         Sebastian sets his coffee down on the counter, his hand brushing against the bare skin of her thigh. The touch bring her out of her head in a rush. She peers up at him, eyes a little wide like she’s just been jolted awake. He smiles. With his whole mouth again. With a timid hand, he brushes some of her hair from her face. Joni leans against him, resting her head on his hip. They stay like that for a long time. Silent, just barely touching. They stay like that until the first rays of cold, blue light spill into the kitchen, until Robin pads slowly down the hallway. She barely sees them when she flicks the kitchen light on, sleep still clinging to her. Her terrycloth robe is a little frayed, a little disheveled. “Oh, good morning.” She wipes her eyes and yawns. “You two are up early.”

Chapter Text

Leah pulls her knit hat hard down on her head and frowns. It’s a mild evening, but the snow is coming down in heavy flakes and it’s making the journey up to the cabin a bit of a trudge. She’s made some sort of sweet potato casserole and the marshmallow topping keeps sticking to the plastic wrap Leah’s put on top. In her fight with it, the goo has gotten all over her gloves and the sleeves of her coat. She makes an annoyed noise in her throat, but they both fall silent when they reach the cabin. It’s decked out in Winter Star decorations, festive and bright. Just radiating joy. They both don’t really seem to fit. Leah turns to Joni. “Does this feel like a pity invite to you too?”

         It does. Big time. But Joni is completely, absolutely, 100% invested in keeping the mood light so she just shrugs. “No way, Robin’s just nice like that. Isn’t this how all small towns work?’

         “No,” Leah says, eyeing her, “this is not how all small towns work. Your boyfriend probably put a good word in for us.”

         “Sebastian’s not my boyfriend.” They take the porch steps two at a time.

         “Uh huh.” Leah kicks her boots against the wood to get the snow off. “Did you call your dad today?”

         She did actually. Twice. He didn’t answer either time and she didn’t bother to leave a voicemail. She’d listened to his voicemail message, to the warm tenor of his voice and felt bottomless. Bottomless and empty. “Yeah, it was nice.” Leah glances over a little skeptically. They’ve talk about this some, just the very tip of the iceberg. The shit with her dad and Yoba forbid, with her mom, is an even tougher nut to crack open than any of the stuff that happened after college in the city. But it’s easier to let it out when someone’s family situation is a big crater too. Joni doesn’t bother to ask if Leah called her parents. She knows the answer.

“Nice huh?”

Joni frowns. “Alright, you got me. He didn’t even pick up.”

“Any chance he’s out with someone.” Joni just shrugs. Leah squeezes her shoulder. “Well,” she says, puffing herself up like she’s about to square with some sort of wild animal. “Shall we?”

 

Robin is radiant. Still in her terrycloth robe, but hair pulled into a pretty updo. She is the epitome of Winter Star morning. “Girls! Welcome!” She pulls them both in a tight hug. “Happy Winter Star, my dears. I’m so happy you’re both here.” Leah glances over at Joni. Both of them seem a little surprised Joni hasn’t started crying.

She pulls them inside in a warm rush of air and Joni nearly moans at the smells coming from the kitchen. Sugared roast ham and greens simmering in fat and garlic. Buttery, crispy crusts trying to contain the tart cherry filling bubbling underneath. Something that smells suspiciously like homemade mac and cheese. Joni’s stomach makes an almost animal noise. She looks down at the pumpkin pie she brought and grimaces at how anemic the crust looks. She says a quick little prayer that no one will be able to tell she got it from Joja.

 

Sebastian’s in the front room like he’s been waiting for them which makes Joni’s heart start to pound out of her goddamn chest. He smiles when he sees her, but just with the one side of his mouth. It doesn’t help her figure out where they stand right now. Nothing in the way he’s standing or the expression on his face gives her any clue. He’s looking good though. Strong and lithe in a pair of slim jeans and a button down “Sebastian.” Robin calls, a little sing-songy. “Would you mind getting the company china from the attic? Why don’t you take M-“

“Me,” Joni interrupts. They all look back at her. “Um, I just mean, I’d be happy to…help him with…um whatever.” She’s quickly losing steam, but she has to get him alone, even for just a second. Maybe then she can try to piece together what the hell happened in the garage.

Robin pauses. She looks to Sebastian, then at Joni. Neither of them move. She grins, a little mischievous. “Alright then. Thank you, Joni.”

“It’s not a problem.” Leah is about to combust. Joni can see a vein in her neck protruding from the effort it’s taking her not to laugh. She can’t hide her grin though and, when their eyes meet, Leah lifts a playful eyebrow.

 

“Awfully excited about the plates and cups.” Sebastian says as they turn the corner and head down the hall.

“What can I say. I love fine china.” It is taking every ounce of energy for Joni to keep her cool, to joke. Everything feels totally overwhelming.

Sebastian snorts and reaches up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. When he hefts the ladder down, Joni is again reminded that he’s stronger than he looks. He nods toward the ladder and she springs to life, breezing past him to hold onto the rungs. “I don’t really get the concept of fine china. Sebastian’s got his hands just softly on Joni’s hips, helping her up the ladder.

“What’s not to get about dinnerware?” Joni teases.

“You know what I mean.”

Joni laughs. “You’re a regular communist.”

“They have some good ideas.” Joni shrugs. She hasn’t really thought about it. It wasn’t really something she had the time or space to think about in the city. She was busy just trying to keep her herself above the incoming tide.  To keep up with Sarah, with her ex. With the way they monopolized her time. They were winds shaping her, whittling her down into something they could try and approve of. So generous. She’d always believed that. Fuck them. Joni makes a note to check out a couple books on the subject, try to form her own opinion.

Joni reaches down to give Sebastian a hand up the last few rungs into the attic. The emerge in a swarm of dust, a densely packed labyrinth. The way all the furniture is covered in white sheets makes her feel like she’s in a movie and she sticks close to Sebastian, fighting the urge to reach out and grab him by the back of his shirt. Everything she planned to say, to ask, is lost somewhere in her head. She’s numb all over again. It’s so good to see him. Settles her to just be in his proximity. And he seems happy to see her too. Or at least not unhappy. Yoba, she feels way in over her head.

As they wind through the densely packed boxes and furniture, Joni rehearses a couple of things she wanted to say. So that kiss, she starts out, but then she imagines Sebastian frowning down at her. She changes tactics. Hey, so, I can be chill. Nothing to worry about on my end. It’s dismissive though. It’s old Joni. What would new Joni say? Who the fuck even is new Joni?

She doesn’t have time to pick apart the answer, because Sebastian’s stopped without warning, right in the middle of the room. She slams into his back. He jumps, spooked, like he’d forgotten she was there. Joni glances around, trying to figure out how long he’d been standing there, how long she’d been in her own head. He scratches his neck. “Sorry.”

“You’re good.” The air in the place has gotten heavier. Joni can sense the sudden change in mood and it’s making her want to turn heel and bolt. But she doesn’t because it’s just Sebastian. Which is honestly a revelation of its own. That she feels comfortable with him, even just a little. A little voice in the back of her brain warns her how dangerous that is, but the air is so thick, the dust simmering in it, and Joni reaches out to touch his back. He bristles at first and then settles back into her touch. “Everything okay?”

“These were my dad’s.” Joni goes cold. His hands ghost over a pair of wooden skis leaned up against the ghostly shape of a sheet-covered couch. They’re red with a single white strip down the middle of them both. Quintessentially 1970’s. She imagines a man racing down the slopes in a pair of snow coveralls and ray ban glasses. He’s got Sebastian’s roman nose, his thick, dark curls of hair. Joni’s tongue feels enormous in her mouth, totally useless. She’d forgotten, somehow, about this. Hadn’t been able to reconcile the little boy she imagined when Robin first told her, the quiet, stone-faced man who’d fixed her bike, with the Sebastian she knows now. The Sebastian who kissed her. Tossing in her own mess of worry, she’d forgotten completely about this awful thing they share. It’s funny, really. She of all people should know what to say, but she’s gone mute. “He’s dead.” He says, long fingers tracing the edges of the skis. “Demetrius isn’t…well, I guess that’s obvious.”

“I’m so sorry.” It comes out in a rush of air. Joni’s heart is beating wildly.

“It was last week actually.” He shakes his head. “I mean it was 22 years ago, but it was last week when it…you know.”

“Yeah.” She pulls her hand away, worried that touching him had gone too far. “I’m so sorry.”

He pulls away almost violently away from the skis and walks in quick strides to a few boxes in the corner of the attic. Joni follows him quietly, brain slowly sifting through what’s just happened. He turns to set a stack of plates in her waiting hands. His voice is a little curt. “Well, we should probably get back downstairs.”

 

Joni hasn’t gotten a word in edgewise since they sat down. No one has. Leah and Robin have turned the dinner into a roundtable on the merits and techniques of woodworking, waxing poetic about what type of resin sets best and what finishes produce the cleanest results.

The monopolization seems to be suiting everyone else just fine. Demetrius is an enormous man, dwarfing even his stepson, but has a gentle countenance, and seems almost relieved to not need to come up with small talk. He’s excited about the food though and, during lapses in the conversation, he patiently and quietly explains all the different kinds of foods he’s prepared. He has the warmest, softest smile Joni’s ever seen and she wonders if, even though they aren’t blood-related, Sebastian took after him in that way.  He even takes a few big bites of Joni’s shitty Joja pie, nodding his head and complimenting it so effusively she knows it must taste terrible.

 Sebastian’s sister, Maru, seems nice enough, but she looks completely exhausted, nearly falling asleep where she sits. She wonders if she knows Joni slept in her bed.

Sebastian stands, drawing Joni’s attention. He rolls his neck and she prepares for the sickening crack that’s sure to follow. “I’m gonna head out for a smoke.” He nods toward Joni. “Wanna come?” Joni pauses, forkful of food hanging midair. The conversation between Leah and Robin falls to a lull as they watch the two of them. She sets the fork back down and stands too. They head out into the hall without another word.

 

Sebastian’s contemplative out on the porch steps, almost gloomy. He lets Joni get settled, scarf wrapped tightly up to her chin, before he turns to look at her. “You know, I haven’t told a lot of people about my dad. I mean, it’s hard to keep secrets in town. Besides, a lot of them were there for it.” All the grim possibilities of his father’s demise flash in Joni’s mind. She digs her nails into her jeans to try and keep herself centered. “But no one online knows. None of my friends in the city.”

“I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”

He looks momentarily confused then furrows his brow. “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant…” He makes an aborted attempt to bite one of this nails, then flexes both his hands out in front of him. She wonders if that’s something he used to do as a child, bite his nails. “I like talking to you. I feel like I can talk to you.” Joni can’t think of anything to say. She’s feeling a little woozy, a little like the world is turning slowly, slowly on its side. “I hope you feel like you can talk to me too.”

Joni feels suddenly like she’s going to retch right off the front porch like it’s Spirit’s Eve all over again. She should say something normal, anything fucking normal. Return this gesture of vulnerability, of trust, in kind. But she can’t. Cannot. She is so full of terror that her muscles feel like they’re trying to contract themselves out of existence. “This must be a really hard time for you.”

Sebastian frowns, but his recovery is quick. He rolls his shoulders like he’s shaking her off. “I’m keeping busy. Mayor Lewis hired me to make a website for the town. Just a little touristy thing, but he’s pretty demanding.” Sebastian chuckles to himself. “Most people who don’t know much about coding usually are. They think you can build them a whole world.”

“Can’t you?” Sebastian does his little half smile. It puts her a little more at ease. “It sounds like a good thing though. Especially in the winter, yoba.” She shivers, the weight of her own memories settling back onto her. Joni’s mother died in the summer. The dog days when the glass on the window panes sweat and Joni sat outside on the stoop, watching some of the neighborhood kids break open the fire hydrant to try and cool down.

Her mother was so young when she died, a kid herself really. She wore flowers in her hair, long swingy dresses. Kept all the windows open and played her records loud. Summer was her season, it shone from inside her. Fitting then that she’d taken her last breath on a day so hot even the fruit flies couldn’t be bothered to get off the windowsills.

 But it was that first winter when Joni started seeing her. In the mirror, out of the corner of her eye. Just flashes of the woman whose face she shared. She’d lay awake in bed listening to the radiator clank away down the hall, expecting to hear footsteps shuffling toward her bedroom. I miss you mommy, she’d pray every night before her father turned out the lights, but please don’t visit me. I’m so afraid of ghosts.  “Dead people always take up more room when it’s cold.”

Sebastian’s whole body softens, the air suddenly a little lighter around them. The soft snowfall glitters in the fading light. “Sounds like you have experience.”

Joni pauses. She had implied that, hadn’t she? She hadn’t meant to, not really. But her mouth is apparently going its own way. And maybe it should. Maybe enough is enough with all these secrets. The words are forming on her lips, they’re already there, but saying them feels like walking off the edge of a cliff. She glances over at Sebastian. He's watching her, almost owlish. It’s no wonder he always has those thick curls hanging in his face. He has boyish eyes, the soft kind she used to imagine when she young, when she dreamed about love. “My mom died when I was a kid.”

Sebastian exhales. “Shit.”

She looks back out at the softly falling snow.  “I haven’t told anyone that either.”

There they are again, her tears. She tucks herself down into her scarf to try and hide that she’s started to cry. “You don’t get it unless you get it, huh?”

“Yeah,” Joni says, wiping her cheeks. “Worst club ever.”

He slides his arm around her and pulls her a little closer to him. His fingers resting just under her ribs, thumb rubbing comforting circles on her side. “I’m so sorry.”

“You too.” She leans her head on his shoulder and he holds her a little tighter. She wonders if they’re going to kiss again or if that was something that he could only do when he was stoned. Maybe she should be the one to try and make the move. But Sebastian pulls away before she gets the courage, groaning as he gets to his feet. “You’re shivering.” He leans down to help her up. “Let’s get you inside.”

 

         The festival seems like it’s winding down. Or at least Joni hopes it is. She hasn’t been able to feel her fingers for two hours. At first they’d all hung together, the group from the Spirit’s Eve party, but eventually, they break off one by one, called over to spend time with their families. Before he goes, Sebastian gives her a hug that lingers a little long, his fingers gentle on her back. She watches him head down the path to where Robin’s set up their table. “So,” Leah says, scuffing her boots on the cobblestones. Joni braces herself for the question she knows is coming. “You and Sebastian.”

         “Uh huh.”

         “Wanna tell me what that’s all about?”

         Joni glances up to make sure they’re out of earshot. “Wish I knew.”

         “Are you guys a thing now?” Leah laughs. “Oh man, you are red as a cherry, That blush tells me everything I need to know. You are fucking smitten.”

         “I am not.” Joni crosses her arms. “And I have no idea what we are. We haven’t fucked.” She says, like that’s supposed to clarify things.

         “Wow, really?”

         “What’s that supposed to mean?”

         “Nothing, honest.” Leah tugs down on her hat. “He’s just been shooting you heavy glances all night. I figured you guys had been doing the dirty for a while now.”

         Joni searches for him in the crowd, finds him talking quietly with Demetrius down by the Saloon. “Don’t you think I would have told you that?”

         Leah ignores her, stuffing her gloved hands into her coat pockets with a loud sigh. “What the hell is wrong with our generation anyway.” Joni glances over at her, eyebrow raised. “I mean do you know anyone our age who’s married?”

         “No, but…”

         “But nothing. None of us can commit anymore.”

“Where is this even coming from?”

Leah huffs. “I’m just frustrated.”

“With what? Not being married?”

She groans. “No! Yoba, I don’t give a shit about marriage. I’” Leah nods toward Abigail, seated almost primly next to her father at their table. “I’ve been trying to make a move all night.”

Joni eyes her. “Wait, really?”

“Oh come on! You didn’t notice?” Joni shakes her head. She hadn’t even seen them talking all night. “Fuck I am so out of practice. I don’t have a goddamn chance.” Joni opens her mouth to reply, but Leah shushes her. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m just embarrassing myself.” Joni lets her be, steering them both a little closer to one of the roaring fire pits in the square. Leah huffs again, kicking at the fire pit’s metal grate. “Why the fuck do they have something like this outside.”

“Because suffering is a Pelican Town pastime.” Joni nearly jumps out of her skin at the sound of Shane’s voice. Leah shrinks too, like she’s seeing a ghost. He has his hands in his pockets, mischievous smile on his face. His eyes are so much bigger and prettier without deep, dark circles under them. He looks a lot younger, skin brighter, posture straighter. Almost like a different man. “Yeah, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you. It’s me, back from the dead.”

“Hardly from the dead.” Joni teases. She glances across the square to where Sebastian is.

“Don’t worry. I’m not trying to make a move.”

“Oh, I wasn’t-“

“No new relationships in early sobriety.” He demurs. “I mean that you would want to…you know.” He nods toward Sebastian. “Are you and him, uh,” he frowns, “you know what, it really doesn’t matter. I’m just, um, I’m trying to apologize again and I can see this really isn’t the place for it.”

“You look really good Shane. I’m glad you’re doing okay.” It hurts a little, the way he’s looking at her. She recognizes the longing in him, can see it etched all over his face.

Maybe Leah does too because she nudges Joni. “It’s getting kind of late. Think you could walk me home?”

Joni nods. “I’ll catch you later, Shane.”

“I hope so.” He calls after her.

 

They’re halfway back to Leah’s place when she slows on the path. Joni stops, turning back to face her. “Wait, hold on.”

“What’s up?”

“I, uh, got you something.”

Joni’s chest constricts. “Oh Leah, you didn’t have to-“

“I know and don’t get your hopes up. It’s pretty low key.”

“I didn’t get you anything. If I had known I would have-“

Leah interrupts her again. “Stop, seriously. That’s not how I want this to be. Besides, you’ve been feeding me for months. You’re always bringing me different shit you find in the forest.”

“I mean, okay, but all the food is just stuff Robin brings me.”

Leah waves her off. “Don’t even consider it a Winter Star present if that makes you feel better. I just…I found this in the fall when I was out foraging. And it made me think of you but I was waiting for the right time to give it to you.”

She pulls a parcel wrapped in butcher paper out of her pocket and hands it to Joni. It has a good heft and Joni unwraps it carefully, heart pounding as she does. It’s a piece of petrified wood. The sides are a uniform, caramel colored bark and the top is cut, almost like a geode. It swirls with deep browns and blues. A beautiful swatch of color swirling like a rose. “This is incredible.”

“It’s enduring you know. It’s had the shit beaten out of it and it’s still here. And it’s still valuable.”

That hits Joni square in the chest, knocks the wind from her. It’s the most thoughtful gift, the most beautiful gift, she’s ever received. “This is so corny oh my god.”

Leah grins. “Like you!” Then she shouts, arms in the air, hamming it up. “It’s a metaphor for you!”

“I got it, I got it.” Leah laughs and closes her hand around Joni’s. Joni sniffles. “Are you trying to make me cry?”

“Like it takes all that much.”

“Oh, shut the fuck up.” She pulls Leah tightly against her. She smells like oil paints, like ash from the firepit. She smells like home and then Joni really does start to cry.

Chapter Text

Maybe she’s been reading too many of those true crime magazines they sell next to the checkout line at Joja. Or maybe it’s all the horror movies she’s been renting from the library lately, watching them huddled in the dark. Either way, when the thud under her bedroom window wakes her, she has more than enough ammunition to fill in the blanks about what kind of psycho killer has come to slit her throat. That’s the utility of being so well-versed in awful, she guesses, she can vividly imagine all the horrible ways she might die. She sits up slowly, keeping low so just her eyes are peeping over the windowsill. She doesn’t want to look, doesn’t want to focus her gaze. Terrified of what she might see.

Nothing, actually, is what she sees, but a second thump – this time a little back by the shed – sends her scrambling out of bed.

Goose is unbothered, face down and practically snoring into her pillow. But what does Goose know? Keeping to the shadows, Joni creeps into the kitchen, mind made up that she’ll grab one of the knives she has in the drawer by the sink and make her last stand, there on the linoleum floor.

 

Knife in hand, sitting in the dark, Joni starts to feel pretty stupid. There’s probably no one outside. It’s probably just some animal seeking heat or food. Besides, there really is only one person she could call who would definitely be up this late. She does the mental math of how pathetic and needy it will make her seem to call Sebastian this late at night and it doesn’t come back in her favor. She sighs and slides off the kitchen counter, leaving the knife in the sink. “Chill,” she tells her reflection in the kitchen window. And she almost does, until a loud thud sounds from the front porch and she’s scrambling for the phone.

He answers on the second ring. “Hello?” Joni sighs, relieved it isn’t Robin who answered. “Joni? Is that you?”

Joni glances up at the front window, half expecting to see someone lurking just beyond the glass. She spooks herself with her own reflection. “Yes, hi, um…are you busy?”  

“It’s like two in the morning. Are you okay?”

“Um, no?”

She hears him sit a little up in his seat. “What’s going on?”

“I, um, I heard a noise.”

He exhales, chuckling a little. “A noise, huh?”

“Come on!” Joni crouches down so she’s out of view of the window. Her whole body is shaking, the phone rattling against her face. But hearing his voice, his nonchalance, it’s making her feel a little better. “I’m bugging out over here! I just need someone to come over and and just take a look around. Make sure I’m not about to get horribly murdered.”

“You’re ferocious cat can’t scare them off?” She huffs. She can hear that he’s already moving around next to the phone, hears his keys jangling. “Okay, well, do your best to stay alive until I get there, okay?” He teases. “I don’t want to come all the way down there just to find your corpse.”

“Ass.”

His laugh is honeyed. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

 

He’s there in five. She hears the rumbling of his motorcycle coming up the path and heads out onto the porch to wait for him. Joni can’t bear to look further than the top step, much preferring to meet her horrible, cartoonish death without seeing it coming. The very first signs of spring are starting to fight their way through winter’s deep freeze. Some mornings Joni can hear the ice cracking down by the river. And the stolid snow drifts that stood all winter in her front yard have started to melt under the sun’s longer days, revealing the dark earth underneath. But she can still see her breath.  

Sebastian gets off his bike, armed with a flashlight. “Hey.” She nods at him, holding herself tightly. “So what did you hear?”

“I’m not sure. Like a big thump.” She looks over her shoulder back at the house. “It started at the window by my bed, but then later sounded like it was coming from back by the shed.”

“Right, okay.” He does a double take. “Do you have a knife in your hand?”

“I’m scared!”

He chuckles. “I’ll go take a look okay?”

“Be careful.” She calls after him. Sebastian waves a couple fingers in her direction as he heads into the shadows down by the house.

 

“Nothing,” he says, coming back around the side of the house. He’d been gone for almost fifteen minutes and she’d started to panic, clutching the knife so tightly that her knuckles have gone white.

“Did you look everywhere?” Her voice is thin, reedy.

“Joni, you’ve got acres of land out here. I can’t look everywhere.” She frowns. “But I checked all around the house. It’s all locked up tight, no footprints in the snow or the mud. And I found a few big icicles on the ground by your window. And by the shed.”

Joni’s relief nearly brings her to her knees. She exhales, laughing a little, and loosens her grip on the knife. “Oh god, yeah, that makes sense. Fuck, that was it then?”

“Probably so.”

When he steps into the porch light, Joni sees that Sebastian’s face and neck are caked in mud. “Oh my god, what happened?”

He looks up, a little sheepish. “I slipped on some ice.” She reaches out to touch his face, running her fingers gingerly over his cheek. He averts his eyes, boring holes into the porch boards. “You’ve got a hell of a mud pit out by that shed.”

“I can’t let you go home like this. You’re freezing.”

He shakes his head. “I don’t want to intrude.”

“On what? I’m the one who asked you out here. Come on, at least take a shower to get the mud off. I got the hot water back up and running a few days ago.”

Sebastian looks over at his motorcycle, then back at her. A conflicted look passes over his eyes like a shadow, but he steps through the farmhouse’s open door. “I appreciate it.”

 

He comes out into the front room with just his jeans on. Joni freezes, trying to figure out if this is a come on until she remembers his shirt was caked in mud too. Her face must be livid red, but she can’t stop looking, follows a trail of dark hair from his bellybutton to the top of his jeans, trying hard not to stare at the divots above his hips. She gulps and glances away. “Thanks for the shower.”

“Of course. Thanks for, um, coming down here.”

“Anytime.” She glances back up at him.  He has a tattoo, she realizes. Tattoos, she corrects herself as she looks across his chest. The biggest one is on his shoulder. A fox, rendered in black and white, scientific in its attention to detail. The fox is bearing its teeth, curled around a snake, fangs out. The two of them hang, suspended in a circle, chasing each other’s tails. The others are smaller, a little less cleanly done, like he’d gotten them in the back room at a party. But they all suit him, look good on his olive skin. “You don’t feel any better, do you?”

Joni startles, looking up at his face. “What?”

“You’re still afraid.”

“No, I’m just…” She slumps. “Yeah, maybe a little.”

Sebastian sits down beside her on the floor, glances briefly at the tv. Joni’s been watching it, but she’s put it on mute. The queen of sauce mouths wordlessly, a pot of cranberry candy bubbling on the stove in front of her. “You always seem so tense.”

“That’s not very nice.”

“Maybe not, but it’s true.” Joni frowns. “You ever tried meditating?” He sounds teasing.

“Oh fuck off.” But she quickly frowns again. There’s only one person in town who even talks about shit like that. “Wait, do you…know about Emily?”

He laughs a little nervously. “I mean, yeah. It’s a small town, of course I heard that, but that’s not what I meant.”

“We’re not together anymore.”

“Heard that too.” He narrows his eyes at her. “That doesn’t matter to me, that you were together.” Joni nods then pulls her knees a little closer to her chin. “I wasn’t kidding though. I’ve heard some good shit about meditation.”

“Can’t get my stupid brain to shut up for long enough.”

“Maybe you need to try something else.” There’s something about the way he says it, the heavy way he’s looking at her. They’re closer together than she remembers them being.

“What do you mean?”

“I just mean that,” He glances away, then back, eyes simmering, “I’m here now. For whatever.”

Joni gulps, but when he leans a little closer, she’s the one who closes the distance to kiss him. He cups her face, pulling her up onto his lap. His tongue is hot in her mouth, lips hungry and insistent. Joni leans into him, seeking his heat. Sebastian runs his fingers down her sides, curling them under the hem of her shirt. Joni jolts away from him, lips suddenly trembling. Confessing it to Leah has left her raw even all these weeks later and the idea of a cock inside of her makes her shudder with fear. This is new. Her body feels like it’s being touched for the first time, like every sensation, bad or good, is settling on her skin. She is too overstimulated to get fucked and Sebastian’s watching her closely, like he’s worried he misread the mood. “I don’t…I don’t really want to fuck tonight.”

“Then we don’t fuck.” He says it so matter-of-factly. She’s a little startled that he’s gone down without a fight, can’t remember the last time a dude did that. Maybe he just isn’t that into her. But, no. There’s no mistaking the look in his eye. He runs a hand gently over her thigh.

“But I want to…” She looks up at him. She isn’t sure what she wants, just knows that she want to keep him here, to keep him touching her. “Maybe we could…” She demurs, feeling like a teenager, like a virgin, like a girl who doesn’t know how to ask for what she wants.

“We could do something else.” He finishes for her.
         “Yeah.”

“Can I touch you?”

 

Joni feels cocooned like this, sitting between his legs, back to his chest. She’s still mostly dressed. Her jeans are laying in a heap beside them, panties hooked around one ankle. Her nightshirt is falling off her shoulder, skimming over the top of her tits. Her nipples are so hard they’re almost painful against the fabric.

Sebastian’s taking his time, hands stroking the inside of her thighs. “Relax your shoulders.” He whispers, kissing each side of her neck. “Just a little, huh?” She takes a deep breath and lowers her shoulders, stretching out her neck. “There you go.” He drags his fingers up the outer lips of her pussy like he’s rewarding her. Joni gasps, shuddering against him. Sebastian kisses up her neck, brushing some hair off her shoulders to kiss the skin there. He dips his fingers around her entrance, brushing wetness up until he finally, mercifully, reaches her clit. She goes off like a shot when he touches her there, bucking against him. He kisses up her neck, dragging his teeth on the edge of her jaw. “Does that feel good?”

“Yeah,” She says, breathless.

“Good.” He picks up the pace, rubbing hard circles down on her clit. Joni can’t stop moving, her hips and legs trembling. Sebastian slides his hand around her waist to keep her pressed against him. “I want you to feel good. I want you to feel so good.”

He takes two of his fingers and cages her clit, pulling hard at it. And that does it. She goes rigid, then limp in his arms.  The orgasm comes long and slow, crawling up her body. He holds her tightly, whispering soft things in her ear. He keeps his thumb on her clit, lightening up on the pressure, letting her come down. “Fuck. Fuck that was fast.” He says, sounding ragged, kissing the shell of her ear. “Can I finger you?”

She shudders against him. “Please.”

He kisses her shoulder, then shifts behind her. “Here, let me get you on all fours.” Pliable from her orgasm, she lets him position her. It’s exposing to be this open to him, to feel his eyes on her spread pussy, but soon he drapes himself over her, kissing up her spine. Sebastian slips a finger inside. The angle hits her just so.

“Oh shit.” She shivers.

“Yeah? That feel good?”

“So good.” She leans down onto her elbows, trying to keep herself upright, feeling a little like her body is about to just vibrate to pieces. He adds another finger, still taking his time, and twists them inside of her. Twisting and thrusting until she’s ragged again. “Fuck, god. Sebastian.”

“You’re so sensitive.” There’s a hint of awe in his voice when he says it like he can't believe her pussy is responding like this. She can hardly believe it either.  He kisses the back of her neck.

She starts rocking her hips, trying to match his pace. She’s erratic, pleasure ticking up her spine again, sitting heavy between her hips. “I’m gonna cum again. Oh shit, I’m gonna fucking cum again.”

“Already?” He teases, kissing below her shoulder blade.

He keeps his pace, fingers working her slow and steady, thumb bumping against her clit with each thrust. “Oh, Yoba. Hell.” Her thighs are really shaking now, muscles bearing down.

“You’re gonna cum just from this, huh? Just from a couple of my fingers?” He’s kept his voice even so far, but it cracks a little when she pushes back against his finger. He groans. “Fuck.”

“Oh god, yes, fuck.”

Sebastian gets up on his haunches, holds one of her hips steady in his free hand and, without warning, picks up the pace. He thrusts hard, her pussy making sloppy sounds around his fingers. “Cum then. Cum for me, cum all over my fucking fingers.” This time it hits her harder, sending her almost shouting over into oblivion. Her legs buckle, but he has an arm around her waist, keeping her upright.

Sebastian sets her slowly back down, her panties still tangled around her ankles, and sits back on his haunches. Her legs are still trembling. She sits dazed on the floor, watching him. One at a time, he licks her off his fingers. “Shit.”

He grins. “You like that?” He leans forward and kisses her.

 

Sebastian has a heavy cock. Joni could feel it when he was playing with her, pressed up against her back. But unleashed from his jeans, it’s a little intimidating. And uncut, which throws her for a little bit of a loop. She’s never seen an uncut cock in person and maybe he senses that because he peels his foreskin back with his fingers. “You’re not gonna hurt me.”

She grins and kisses his hip. “As far as you know.” He chuckles, carding his hands through her hair.

It’s pretty almost, she thinks as she licks up it. Thick and uniform, long enough that it covers the length of her face. It'll fuck her right up if he puts it inside her, she thinks, shuddering, almost delighted at the idea. Joni traces the thick vein down the center with his tongue and Sebastian’s hips stutter. She takes the head in her mouth, swirls her tongue around the tip, and releases it with a loud pop. Sebastian’s eyes are full dark, pupils overtaking his irises. She hollows out her cheeks and takes all of him in her mouth, opening her throat for him. He shudders against her, making an almost animal noise. “Holy fucking shit.” He reaches for her hair then aborts the attempt, but she pulls his hand down, letting him grab a fistful of it. “Where the fuck did you learn-“ She starts to suck, rocking on her knees to take him even deeper. “Motherfuck.” His fingers are tangled in her hair, but he doesn’t yank, doesn’t pull. Joni glances up at him and sees that the veins in his wrist are taut, like it’s an effort not to. It’s considerate, actually. Joni rewards him by snaking a hand up his leg and running her finger between the seam of his balls. He gasps, hips stuttering. “Damn, damn.”  

It doesn’t take him long once she’s got him in her throat. Most guys can’t handle much of that for too long. He sighs when he cums, like everything that’s been weighing on him is just released. His fingers untangle from her hair and cups the back of her head with his hand, looking down at her, mollified and soft. She pulls off him, a string of cum hanging from her lip. He gathers it with his thumb and slips it into her waiting lips.

 

Joni finds Sebastian out of the porch, nursing a cigarette. “I don’t have very nice coffee.” She says, handing him a steaming mug.

“I don’t mind.” They stand side by side on the porch, looking out into the darkness. Joni doesn’t touch her coffee, stomach too tied up in knots to keep anything down. What they just did together was too nice, too good, and she’s waiting for the punchline. For the other shoe to drop. She imagines him telling her they can’t do that again, that it was a mistake, that she was a mistake. Instead, he rolls his shoulders and looks over at her. “Do you want me to stay the night?” She looks up at him. “You know, in case whatever made the noises comes back.”

“The icicles?”

He smiles. “Alright, fair point.” He scratches his neck. "Well, I won't keep you any longer than I need to then." He pushes off the railing and heads toward the stairs.

“No, wait.” He pauses, profile framed in the porch light. “I’d like you to stay.” She stutters. “I mean if you want to.”

He moves toward her until they are nearly touching. He runs his nimble fingers through her hair, tucking it behind her ears. “Sounds good.”

Chapter Text

Sebastian’s hand brushes against her thigh with every bump along the road. She can’t look at him, stares instead out at the wet landscape whizzing by. It’s a mess of muddy color, shades of green and blue rising out from dark patches of soil, held hostage until recently by a thick layer of ice. The sky is a feather grey, dark clouds churning above them. Rain falls in fits and starts, sometimes so heavy that she can’t see past the wash on the bus’s windows, but Joni doesn’t stop staring.

Sebastian stayed over the night of their hookup. But on the couch. It wasn’t his idea. Or hers. Not really. She’d been a wreck. Feeling open and exposed, blushing from her cheeks to her chest. She’d stammered and stumbled through giving him a little tour of the house, buying time to try to feel out whether or not it would scare him off to ask him to come to bed with her. She’d made such an incredible fool of herself that finally Sebastian plopped down on her threadbare couch with a nonchalant couch is good for me. She’d crumbled, retreating quickly to her bedroom. For once, not crying, but lying awake all night, listening like the way he shifted under the thin blankets in his sleep like maybe it could tell her what he was thinking.

Not her best moment. So it had taken a little convincing a week or so later when Sebastian called out of the blue to invite her to a show in the city. For Sam’s band. Wait since when does Sam have a band, she’d asked, that familiar heavy feeling settling back into her chest. Sebastian made a sound into the phone like he was rolling his eyes. The band is only half real he explained. Something Sam had done with Abigail to kill time. The coffee shop where they’re gonna play is a friend’s place. Nothing serious, nothing big. But it’ll be fun, Sebastian said before getting off the phone. Joni’s stomach lurched.

She probably wouldn’t have gone, would have found some excuse not to, if she hadn’t let it slip to Leah who’s sudden desire to get out.- to anywhere, to do anything –  made even the slightest outing an absolute total social necessity. Leah’s on some kind of spring cleaning kick, convinced she can purge her whole life out her open windows. She wants to do everything, be everywhere. Community engagement, she told Joni over the phone, it’s a very good thing. Important. Leah only got slightly put out when Joni asked her if she’d read that in one of her art newsletters.

But it doesn’t really matter how the hell Joni ended up on this godforsaken bus, because she’s here now, trying to figure out if Sebastian is touching her on purpose or if the bus is just trying to ruin her life.

It’s sort of bizarre to be seeing him in the flesh though. Like it usually is when she’s been spending all her free time thinking about someone, trying to work them either in or out of her system, fingers sloppily inside herself. Yoba, she’d christened the whole damn house thinking about him. Masturbating in the tub, on the kitchen counter, in front of the tv. She did it once leaning against the railing of the porch which embarrassed her so thoroughly that she took a lukewarm bath to try and get her shit straight.

It’s the sort of mania Joni only reserves for men who really know how to fuck. Which they didn’t do, she reminds herself. But, shit, it sure felt like they had. His touch is still lingering on her, tingly on her skin. She can almost feel his fingers on her. And then she does. He’s shaking her lightly on the shoulder. “We’re here.” Joni blinks up at him then spins to look back out the window. She has no idea how long the bus has been sitting in the terminal, but it’s nearly empty. Just the two of them in their seats and Sam lugging an amp through the aisle toward the bus driver. Leah’s standing nervously out on the sidewalk, looking around like she’s just realized Joni didn’t get off the bus with her. “You good?”

“Yeah.” Joni’s sure she’s blushing. Her cheeks feel hot and her mind is racing. Had she said something while she was lost in thought? She glances up at him, searching for anything in his expression that would tell her anything at all. His face betrays nothing. Joni wants to scream at herself for agreeing to this. This had to be a pity invite. He had a taste of her and now he’s done. He wouldn’t have slept on the couch if he wanted to be with her, right? But, shit, he doesn’t even seem to want to hook up with her. He would have called right? Sooner, she means. He would have come back. It’s not like he doesn’t know where she lives for fuck’s sake. “Joni.” The sound of his voice makes her jump. “Are you okay?”

She shies away from him. “Yeah, yeah. I’m okay.”

 

            The coffee shop’s a little closer to her old spots so Joni does a quick sweep of the place when they head inside, holding her breath until she’s sure she doesn’t know anybody there. She may not know anyone, but she knows the type of people who are hanging around this café. The real grungy looking kids are the ones with money, she can tell by looking at their shoes. Sarah taught her that. Too expensive and too clean to belong to someone who would actually need to wear a t-shirt that bleached and torn up.  They’re desperate to pretend they don’t have money, that the trauma and angst they’re trying to make art about isn’t just artifice. Sarah had a few friends like that. Kids she’d gone to prep school with. They’d only hang out occasionally, and never in a public place. Sarah’s ostentatious and unselfconscious displays of wealth would destroy their whole persona. The others, Joni can tell, are hangers-on. Artists and writers desperate for the exposure the others can never drop their personas long enough to give them. Joni’s being bitter, can feel her whole body tensing with her mood, so she tries to roll her shoulders, tries to stand a little straighter.

Sebastian puts a hand on her shoulder. She twitches away from him like a nervous rabbit. He holds up both his hands where she can see them, like he’s surrendering. She’s trying not to read too much into how often he’s been touching her. “Want a coffee?”

“Oh, uh, sure. Thanks.”

He nods back at Leah. “You?”

“Oh!” Leah jogs a little to catch up with them in the shop. “Americano with room, please. Think they have soy milk here? I read this thing about soymilk…” Leah trails off, taking a closer look at some of the art they’ve tacked up haphazardly on the walls.

Sebastian tucks his hands into his pockets. “I’ll ask.” He turns to Joni. “Just black coffee right?” She nods, hands balled into tight fists at her side. She’s practically on fire.

             

            They both watch him head up the counter, watch him rifle around in his wallet. “What’s up?”

            “Huh?”

            “You’re so tense.” Leah reaches out to touch her, but Joni spins just out of her grasp.

            “God, everyone keeps saying that.”

            “Is it because we’re here?” Joni’s suddenly chilled. “Like back in the city, I mean.”

            “Yeah, I got what you mean.”

            Leah does a quick scan of the place. “Do you know anyone here?”

            “No, thank Yoba.”

            Leah squeezes her arm. “Even if someone shows up, we’ll be here alright?”

            “We?”

            Leah frowns, confused. “Sebastian and I.”

            “Oh yeah, you and Sebastian friends now?” She doesn’t mean to spit it out like that, but she’s pulled tight to fraying.

            Leah rocks back on her heels. “Whoa, a little harsh.”

            “Sorry.”

            Leah narrows her eyes. “It’s all good.” She lowers her voice. “Did something happen? With?” she nods towards Sebastian.

 “Nothing you don’t already know about.” Joni’s keeps her arms close to her body, hands gripping her elbows. “I’m just confused.”

“Why?” But Sebastian’s already heading back toward them, juggling their coffees. Leah bumps her lightly on the shoulder and Joni tries to smile, tries to relax.

They tuck into a table in the corner, sitting back away from the makeshift stage at the back. Joni empties four packets of sugar into her cup, stirring furiously. Sebastian watches her, chatting softly with Leah. About the art, Joni thinks. But it’s hard to pay much attention. She’s splitting her time between picking apart their last encounter in her head and watching the café’s front door.  

The music starts and Joni settles in her seat, mostly satisfied no one she knows is going to come through the door, that if Sebastian didn’t want to be around her he probably wouldn’t be here at all. It’s easier to convince herself of it in the dirge Sam is making on his guitar. She tries to let the music fill up all the space in her brain.  

 

It’s becoming something of a tradition, Joni figures, as the two of them slip outside, Sebastian fishing around in the pockets of his jacket for a cigarette. On the short walk from their table to the front, Joni’s been trying to work out what she wants to say, what she can say. It’s chilly out, wet. The rain has stopped, but its sluicing down the sides of buildings, dripping from awnings and street signs. Sebastian lights a cigarette, the flicker of the match illuminates his face and then it falls back into darkness. Once again, everything she’s thought to say is gone. Her mind nervously blank.

Across the street, a man has started singing. He’s clearly homeless, has the sort of deep-set grunginess that only a man who’s spent a lot of nights out in the elements can have, but he looks around their age. Joni frowns at that. He’s wrapped himself like a mummy in a patchwork of blankets, but even with the bulk, Joni can see that one of his legs is severed just below the knee. Joni averts her eyes like she’s just seen something she wasn’t supposed to. The tune he’s humming sounds familiar, like something she would have sung in grade school.

“It’s scary, isn’t it?”

She shivers. “What?”

“Everything.” She glances up at him. He looks young when he says it, like a little boy. He recovers quickly, pulling himself up, receding back into his nonchalant calm. He lights a second cigarette with the lit tip of the first. “Think he’s a veteran?” Sebastian nods toward the man, the man’s voice weaker now.

“Probably.” Joni remembers the words scrawled hastily on the train station’s wall. Wonder if that man feels like the war’s already ended him.

She’d missed most of the early reporting on the war. The hospital didn’t allow them to watch the news and by the time she was stable enough to even consider current events, she’d been in the valley with its two consistent tv channels and steady diet of infomercials. She can’t remember the last time she picked up a paper. But it feels closer now, like the graffiti was some sort of portend and this legless man is its harbinger. Maybe her dread is that, something tangible. Something rapidly approaching. She’s been so wrapped up in her own shit, that she’s missed it. It feels shameful almost, like she’s had her head in the sand while the world explodes around her. But what was she supposed to do? Her hands are trembling a little.

Sebastian seems moved too. His mouth twitches downward and he looks around, almost timid. He doesn’t say anything, but Joni knows exactly how he feels. Like the world that was so familiar has suddenly changed irrecoverably. It echoes in her own chest. Her trauma is rippling outward, joining a sea of others, spreading far and wide. The city feels at once familiar and unknown. Every version of herself is suddenly squirming inside of her, tight like a stacking doll. Joni wonders about Sebastian’s multitudes, what selves he’s discarded, been forced to give up. How many does he have? How many moments in his life have cut clean across it, defining it suddenly in befores and afters?

Joni squints out at the bleary city from under the awning. That guy from the party, the whisperer, probably still works at the same coffee shop. She knows it’s only a few stops south on the train. What would it be like if she went there now? With Sebastian? How would it feel? She imagines something triumphant, or tragic, but her stomach lurches when she realizes that he may not remember her. Because why would he? She is probably one of many. Just another body that he’d touched. She wants to retch.

He may not remember her, but she keeps him with her always. Her ex too. And right now she can see, maybe for the first time, that they are both here. That they’ve been here with her the whole time, hovering each night over her bed, haunting her every move. Right now they’re standing in between her and Sebastian. It’s enough. It’s been enough. The night air feels suddenly crisp and clear and almost sweet. It takes her two steps to close the distance. She counts them like it will help her stay the course. She’s on her tip toes before either of them can say a word and pulls Sebastian’s face down hard, kissing him almost violently. Sebastian melts into her, letting his cigarette fall hissing into a puddle at their feet. He pulls her tightly against his chest, slips one hand under her jaw to tilt her face upward. His heat radiates and his smell is so familiar now. It’s a revelation, that he’s let himself become familiar to her. That he’s still here. Sebastian tangles his fingers in her hair and, when they break the kiss, he rests his forehead on hers. They breathe each other in. The man across the street is still humming, but they can hear Sam’s guitar too, ambient chattering from inside the coffee shop. Joni grips his arms and lets him hold her up, lets him keep her standing. He does it so easily.

Chapter Text

“I asked for this,” Leah says, frowning at the blinking computer screen. “I opened myself up to this.”

“Move.” Joni pushes Leah away from her desk. She narrows her eyes at the screen, trying to make sense of it. “And quit it. Victims are never responsible for the actions of abusers.”

“Why does it sound like you heard that from a shrink?”

“Because I did.” Joni squints a little harder at the screen. “What even is this?”

“It’s email.”

“Okay, yes, I can see that, but what exactly am I looking at?”

“My inbox. All the emails are from her.” Leah hovers over Joni’s shoulder. “Well, not all of them. The first two were from actual interested buyers.”

“I mean that’s encouraging, right?.”

“Yeah, but,” She takes the mouse back and scrolls down the page, “all of these are from Kel. Every single one.”

“Did you read all of them?”

Leah shrugs. “Some of them are really short, but some are like…she used to take Ritalin sometimes. If she’d had a long shift at work. I think maybe…some of the emails seem…” She slumps, letting her head rest on Joni’s shoulder. Joni reaches up and smooths some of Leah’s hair back. “I guess I just assumed she couldn’t find me. Or wouldn’t. I don’t know.”

“How did she find you?”

Leah rubs her temples. “My art website. I put my email address on there. And my new phone number. I’m so stupid.”

“You’re not.”

“I don’t want to have to change my number again!”

“We’ll figure this out.”

“What does that mean?”

“That we’ll figure it out. Whatever this is.”

Leah sighs. “Read some of them.” She moves the mouse and clicks the first email. It pops up, an almost eerie blinking white. “This one. Start with this one.”

 

To: leah_omalley@communitysap.net

From: kelseysnyder67@communitysap.net

Subject: Something to think about

 Your art is looking beautiful, baby. I have always thought that. It’s a wonderful hobby and you’re very talented. I found a listing that I think you should take a look at. It’s in the northern suburbs outside of Zuzu. I forgive you for last year, you know. I understand that these adult things can be scary, especially when they’re important. I know why you knee-jerked and I know you regret it. But we can fix it. Just imagine: you could paint out back, watch our kids run around. I bet we could get a good garden going out there.

Think about it, Leah. We were really good together.

 I’m always thinking about you,

Kel

 

She’s linked a real estate, listing. Joni doesn’t bother to open it, she just leans back in the office chair, tucking her fingers away from the keyboard like she might conjure something with it. ‘This is…”

“What?”

Chilling is what Joni wants to say. The email is chilling. A creepy, uncanny feeling settles in her gut when she reads it a second time. “It’s weird. Also, big time fuck her for calling your art a hobby.”

Leah frowns. “She expects me to get back together with her. Just like that.”

“I can see that.” Joni crosses her legs on the chair, shifting so she’s a little more upright. “And she just sent this today?”

“A week ago.”

Joni flips around to look at Leah. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought that if I ignored her, she would go away.”

“But she obviously didn’t.”

“No, I just made her mad.” Leah clicks through to the next email. “Look at this.”

 

         To: leah_omalley@communitysap.net

         From: kelseysnyder67@communitysap.net

Subject: (no subject)

Pick up your goddamn phone

 

         That creepy feeling is coalescing into something much heavier. Joni glances over at Leah’s windows, half expecting to see a woman peering in through the glass. She wants to get up and make sure the front door is locked. Leah scrolls to another one. “This one is from last night. Really late.”

 

 

         To: leah_omalley@communitysap.net

         From: kelseysnyder67@communitysap.net

Subject: (no subject)

Listen you fucking crazy bitch get the fuck off your high horse. You’re not goddamn Picasso. No one in their right mind is going to drop actual fucking money on the driftwood you’ve been manhandling.

 

         The email continues for almost a full page. Joni skims it, but can’t keep reading. Kel’s anger is palpable and it’s almost a reflex for Joni to cower from it. “They just get worse from here on out.” Leah says. “But I think she’s been up all night. Like she sent me them just this morning.” The computer pings and they both fall silent. Leah takes a long, deep breath. “She used to do this with the phone. Like before we lived together. I’d come home and my voicemail would be full.”

         “She doesn’t know where you live does she?”

         “No.”

         “Are you sure?”

         Leah pauses. She takes the mouse again and clicks onto her website. “I don’t think I have my address on here. I can’t believe I put my phone number on here, yoba.”  

         “Wait, hold on.” Joni takes the mouse from her. Leah’s got a lot of pictures of her art up, some taken outside. She looks at each closely, trying to see if there’s anything identifying in any of the photos. They’re too close up to reveal the location of her cabin, but the fine hairs on the back of Joni’s neck stand straight up. “Let me stay here tonight.”

         All the color drains from Leah’s face. “Wait, you don’t think…”

         “No, of course not, but let’s just do it anyway.” She stands. “How do you turn this thing off?”

         “Why are you trying to turn it off?”
         “So we can forget about it.”

         “I’m not sure I can forget about it.”

         “Well, why don’t we try? Just for tonight?” Joni knows the look Leah’s got on her face. She can feel the way she’s holding herself in her bones. “Come on.” She takes Leah by the shoulders and wheels her toward the door. “We should both eat something.”

 

         It’s a warm enough evening that they decide to sit on the community garden’s worn wooden bench, balancing their takeout boxes on their knees. Tiny purple flowers have exploded amongst the tall grass, appearing almost overnight. A few clumps of daffodils have sprouted near the bench and a soft wind carries their scent through the whole garden.  

         Gus whipped them up some eggplant parmesan. It sits heavy in their laps, cheese brown and bubbling on top, parmesan glistening on the spaghetti underneath. It smells heavenly and they tuck in immediately, without another word to each other. They’re halfway through scarfing when Leah puts her fork down and clears her throat. “Was your ex ever like this?”

         Joni tries not to choke. “Like what?”

         “Obsessive.”

         Joni sets her fork down and turns to look at her. “No, not really. The only person I think he could be obsessed with was himself. But…he was controlling. Spent a lot of time trying to shake me into something he wanted.  He was big on the discard too. Dropped me whenever he felt like it.”

         “Really?”

         “Oh yeah, he’d go radio silent in an instant. The whole cold shoulder routine. Could keep it up for weeks.” Joni worries her lip with her teeth. “I think he could do it so well, because he knew I’d come running back. He could make me beg for it.”

         “And you did?”

         “I always did.”

         “But not the last time, obviously.”

         “No. He finally ended it.”

         Leah sputters. “Wait he broke up with you?” Joni knows Leah doesn’t mean it to sound as much like an accusation as it does, but Joni still flinches. She nods, twirling a few more strands of pasta around her fork. “What a fucking loser.” Leah shifts in her spot. “Why?” She slaps her hand over her mouth. “God, sorry, you don’t have to answer that.”

         “No, I mean. It’s not like a big secret, I don’t know.” Joni sighs. “The suicide I think.”

         “Really?”

         “Yeah. I think he liked me troubled, but manageable, you know? I don’t think he anticipated what I did and he was…the kind of man who needed to always know how things were going to go. Besides,” Joni sets her food down on the ground and squirms a little on the bench, the world a little wobbly again. “He was already seeing someone new.” It’s been months and months since then. The hospital gave her so much perspective, so many reasons to hate him, but her stomach still drops when she says it.

         Leah looks up at the sky, flecked now with stars. “I want to drink this away.”

         “No, you don’t.”

         “Except I kind of do though.” Joni picks at the skin around her thumb, stopping only when a wet line of blood trickles down toward her palm. The color disturbs her and she wipes her hand on her jeans. She wouldn’t mind drinking all of this away either if she’s being honest with herself. No matter how she does it, from what angle she approaches it, her heart is never on board when she talks about her ex. His name is locked away in her brain, never to be spoken again, but even discussing to outer contours of him makes his memory shake loose like a beast only barely confined. Sometimes Joni imagines he might burst from her body, out into the world, if she talks too much about him. Maybe Leah feels the same way. Maybe getting righteously fucked up is the salt circle they need tonight. They’re both hunched, heavy with ghosts.

 

         The chirping birds wake them up, like they’re a couple of hungover snow whites. Leah’s half-off her narrow cot, fingers skimming the floor, fiery hair limp over the side. Joni’s somehow rolled completely off her makeshift bed on the floor during the night. Her neck feels like she slept in a vice. “Breakfast.” Leah moans, dragging herself out of bed. Joni wraps herself in a blanket, holding it around her head and sits cross-legged on the floor. Dust hangs suspended in the morning light floating gently past Leah’s pieces like curious critics, taking them in from every angle.

         Joni rolls her neck and it cracks in a way that reminds her of Sebastian. There’s an odd little intimacy in that and, when she imagines Sebastian nestled in her mind alongside her ex, she feels almost cushioned by it. She doesn’t linger long on the thought. The birds outside sound too pretty and the morning dew has shaken loose the tall grass’s sweet, herbaceous smell. She wants to stay here forever, in the liminal space of Leah’s warm, sunny cabin. “What’s on the menu?”

         Leah’s already made her way to the kitchen, her body half-obscured by the fridge’s open door. “Well, all I have is eggs, so.”

         “Sounds great.” Leah sets the eggs on the counter and then Joni hears Leah boot up her computer. “Don’t do it.”

         There are a few beats of silence before Leah sighs. “You’re right.” The computer makes a sort of crunching beep when she forces it off.

 

         “I could call Sebastian.” The idea is barely formed when it comes out of Joni’s mouth.

         Leah looks up from her plate of eggs. They’re slick with butter, crusted with salt, like Leah wasn’t paying attention as she cooked. She eats them without flinching and Joni recognizes that numbness immediately. “What?”

         “He works on computers, remember. He could probably…I don’t know, he could probably do something about it. Like make it so she can’t email you right?”

         “I don’t want to put you in a weird position, though. I know you and Sebastian are complicated.”

         “We’re good.” Joni says it quietly, worried she might jinx it if she goes even a few octaves louder.

         Leah purses her lips, attacking the last of her eggs with her fork. “I would really appreciate it.”

 

         Sebastian rolls up to Leah’s house in Robin’s truck wearing a jean jacket over his usual hoodie. It gives him a rugged look she hasn’t seen before.

 He’s frowning. Joni was vague on the phone, but she must have sounded freaked enough to put him on edge too. He heads quickly into Leah’s cabin, briefly touching the side of Joni’s arm as he passes her, and immediately scans the place for the computer. He listens intently to Leah as he boots the machine up, his frown growing deeper with each word. “I need to see your website,” he says stonily. “What’s the url?”

         Leah blinks at him. “That what?”

         “Oh, uh, right. The name. Here.” He rolls back in Leah’s desk chair to give her room. “If you could just get the website up, that would be great.”

         “Don’t you want to see the emails?” Joni chirps from behind them.

         With the website up, Sebastian rolls his shoulders and starts in. “It’s not the emails I’m worried about.” Joni plops down on the floor beside the chair and Sebastian’s leg twitches a little toward her, the barest of invitations. Joni ghosts her fingers over the legs of his jeans, runs her thumb down the seam. He glances down at her. His eyes are soft, tender. He only lingers on her for a moment before he’s back to work, gutting Leah’s site. “You said she doesn’t have your physical address right?’

         Leah perks up from her spot behind him. “Right. I don’t think she even knows I’m not living in Zuzu anymore.”

         “That’s good.” The sound the keyboard makes when he’s at the helm is almost soothing.  A pleasant tempo of tapping. “If she’s not very tech savvy then this might be overkill, but better safe than sorry right?” He flinches like he’s just told an off-color joke, but Leah just nods seriously, arms tightly crossed.

         “What are you doing?” Joni asks.

         “I’m scrubbing the metadata from the pictures she has on the website. That way no one can pull her location from them?”

         “From the photos?” Sebastian nods. “What the hell…” Leah says under her breath.

         “I’m also getting rid of your email and phone number and putting a form in instead. That way anyone who wants to buy your pieces can get in contact without having your personal information. Your ex could technically use the form too, but it would be a lot harder for her to send you emails in rapid succession like she has been.” He glances over. “Don’t give your address to anyone over the internet, okay? Get a P.O. box.” Leah quickly nods, looking a little like a scolded child. Sebastian rolls his neck again. The pop makes Joni flinch. She can see now why he’s always so stiff, hunched over like this. When he stands his knees pop. “I can do a full scrub of your system, but I would need to bring my external hard drive from home.”

         “What are you, uh, scrubbing?”

         “Viruses, potentially.” Leah looks stricken and Sebastian quickly makes to soothe her. “I highly doubt there are any, but I might as well, you know?”

         “Yeah, yeah. Of course.”

         “Is it cool if I come back tomorrow then? Maybe in the afternoon?”

         “Yeah, afternoon is cool.” Leah is boring holes into the computer, regarding it like it’s some kind of wild animal. Then she looks up at him, eyes soft and pleading like a fawn. “Thank you so much for this, Sebastian. I don’t know how to even begin to repay you.”

         He shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it, for real. It was like no trouble.” He pauses. “And, um, I’m really sorry about the stuff with your ex.” Leah nods, turning back to the computer. Sebastian clears his throat and locks eyes with Joni. “Want a ride home?”

         “I should probably stay here.”

“No.” They both turn to look back at Leah “I appreciate it, but I think I want to be alone tonight. Just to like go over things in my head, you know?”

         Joni looks at her hard. “Are you sure.”

         “Yeah, I’m sure.”

         “Okay, but you’ll call me if-“

         “Kel shows up here, you’re the first person I call.”

 

         Sebastian slows the truck at the crossroad, his headlights casting the rickety bus stop in eerie light. A storm is coalescing in the distance, heavy clouds darkening the evening sky. It looks almost green with the approaching weather. A bolt of lightning cuts across the horizon, disappearing behind the dark shadows of trees beyond the road. The soft smell of rain wafts in through the truck’s open windows. The air is dense, humid. Condensation runs down the inside of the windshield, steaming when it hits the cool night air. “Do you want me to take you home?”

         Joni frowns at him. “Where else would you take me?”

         He lights a cigarette and blows the smoke out the window. His hands are shaking, just a little. “You could come home with me.”

 

         Sebastian’s mattress creaks like an old house. The frame slams against the wood-paneled wall it’s pushed up against. If Joni wasn’t otherwise occupied, she might worry that Robin can hear them, that the whole town can hear them, but Sebastian’s doing a good job of keeping her occupied. They’re spidered out. She’s straddling him, legs splayed beside his hips and, even though he’s sitting on the edge of the bed, he’s got a hell of a thrust. Sebastian’s hips rise to meet her with such force Joni’s worried he’ll lose his grip and she’ll topple backward onto the floor. But he’s got her, has one hand around her waist with the sort of well-practiced hold that makes her think he fucks like this a lot.
         His cock is thick inside her, brushing up against places in her pussy she didn’t even know she had. Joni rests her head on his shoulder, arms draping down his back. She was riding him before, but she’s boneless now, at the mercy of the way his thumb is working her clit. She moans against his skin, slick and hot with exertion. His breath is searing against the shell of her ear, hotter still as he trails his lips down her neck. He sucks hard on her collarbone, nipping at her skin with his teeth.

         She’s desperately close, riding hard up a white-hot path that Sebastian’s paving for her, but soon he falters, nails digging into the skin of her back. “Where do you want it?” He asks through gritted teeth. It takes her a second to figure out what he’s asking and when she does, she wants to tell him that she’s never been asked that before. “Joni.” He whines her name, hips stuttering, fingers descending to dig hard into her ass.

         He nips at her ear and that does it. She wants him to fucking take her. “Inside,” she answers breathlessly, suspended on top of him. He groans loudly when he cums, stomach muscles tensing against her hand. “Oh my god, Joni, shit.” There’s a moment where they just are. Their bodies heaving against each other; their shuddering breath the only sound in the room.

He holds her tightly against him until he catches his breath, then flips her onto her back. Her head crashes onto his pillow, body shimmering with sweat, laid out for him. He lifts her like she weighs nothing, arranges her just so on his sheets. Joni can feel the mess dripping out of her, pooling onto his sheets. It’s filthy in the purest, most delicious way and when he spreads her with his long fingers it is almost cinematically erotic. His hair is stuck to his forehead, curls loose from his effort, and his eyes are hungry.

         Sebastian kisses her stomach, rolls a thumb across one of her nipples. “Let me finish you off.”

         “You don’t have to.” But she’s already bucking her hips toward him.

         He chuckles, running the back of his finger down the seam of her pussy. “I really do.” She arches off the bed when she takes her clit between his lips. Her hands are limp beside her head, fingers grasping at nothing. Joni’s eyes flutter closed and she just lets him fuck her like that. Lets him eat her out until the heat between her hips uncoils and she shouts his name into the darkness of his room.

 

         Sebastian’s hoodie is too big for her. His shorts are too big for her too. They slip easily down her hips. Joni feels like a little kid standing there dressed like that, leaning against the kitchen table while Sebastian searches through the pantry. “You ever had pasta con ceci?” Joni shakes her head. She's been chewing at her lower lip for a while, only stops when she tastes the salt of her own blood. She still can’t quite ease into this, even now that they’ve actually fucked. She keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, for him to reveal some streak of cruelty that she hadn’t seen coming. He interrupts her thoughts with an easy smile. “It’s good stuff. I think you’ll like it. Simple stuff. Pasta and chickpeas and tomato paste. That’s it.” He sets the ingredients down on the counter and crouches down to root around for a pan. “Oh, and garlic.” He pokes his head out from behind the cabinet door. “Lots of garlic.”

 

         Joni’s full and warm and her mind is suspiciously peaceful. She stretches out her legs until her bare feet are suspended over the porch’s lowest step. Rain falls softly on her toes. It’s the sort that kicks up the soil and pollen and gives the whole valley a sweet, earthy smell. She can’t even guess at how long it’s been raining, but the lost time doesn’t feel disorienting. She has this feeling that if something were wrong Sebastian would know, would tell her. That’s probably something close to trust. She can barely believe it.

         He’s watching her as he smokes a cigarette, eyes dark and simmering. When he catches her watching him back, he grins, cigarette clenched in his teeth and she smiles back. This lightness is new but Joni thinks that maybe it suits her now. His fingers are so soft on her cheek and when she leans against him, her body fits easily with his, like it’s welcoming her at his side.

Chapter Text

This is, technically, their second date. Joni’s letting herself count the book release even though they barely touched and she, on more than one occasion, had tried to bolt. She’s not trying to bolt now. Part of her still wants to bolt, to run for the hills and rip her phone cord from the wall, but the feeling she gets when Sebastian tucks her under his arm as they walk is like slipping into a warm bath. His thumb rubs comforting circles on her shoulder.

Joni’s cheeks are still raw from the wind, hair windswept and wild. The motorcycle had been exciting in its danger, intriguing in the way he coaxed her onto it. And the way she leaned against him as he’d whizzed along the highway, weaving through buses and cars is just more proof that she trusted him. The revelation is both warm and thorny. Its implication, and the way it makes her life stretch out in front of her, is not something she could have even imagined that first day beside the bus stop, her skin clammy and pale from the hospital. She glances over at him. He’s so tall, takes up so much space in the world. There’s something stalwart about him, even though the word feels anachronistic, borrowed from a modernist novel. He lights a cigarette and the warm tobacco smell envelopes her.

 

         “You know I used to want to live here.” They’re heading down a darkened street, just a few signs blinking neon in the puddles left over from the storms that swept across the valley over the weekend.

         “You don’t anymore?” The night air is crisp. It’s nearly summer. The days are long and warm, but the chill of spring hangs on at night. Joni’s never been to this part of town. It’s on the outskirts of the city, a rougher area. A lot of the buildings are abandoned, windows blown out, the empty holes like gaping maws. She can see a few barrel fires roaring in the distance, see shapes huddled around them for warmth. The war feels closer here. Joni’d been in Pierre’s a few days ago when she heard the radio. It was possible, the announcer had said, that soon the Ferngill Republic would need to roll out a rationing plan. That startled her. It seemed so archaic, conjured up images of biplanes and women in long skirts waving goodbye to trains full of young, doomed soldiers. Pierre had murmured something about austerity economics as he checked her out, but she’d soon forgotten about it. Returning to her own world back on the farm. It feels alive again here. This part of the city feels like a canary in the mine, what could be. She tries not to let it spook her.

         “I’m on the fence.” Sebastian steers them into an alleyway. They wind around dumpsters and wet cardboard boxes, emerging on another, slightly better lit, street. “How long did you live here?”

         “I’m from here.” Joni tucks her hands in her jeans pockets. She isn’t sure when it started to become so easy to reveal this stuff, can’t remember why she felt like it was so important to keep it hidden.

         He looks down at her. “Really?”

         “Yep, born and raised.”

         “Wow, I’m a little jealous.”

         “Don’t be.” He raises an eyebrow. “Everyone goes crazy in the city. If you’re from here you just get a head start.” She swallows hard. “It’s in the blood.”

         Joni can almost feel his mind turning. He drops his cigarette in a nearby puddle and steers them down another street. She’s not paying attention to where they’re going, can’t really focus much anymore on what’s ahead of her. “Yeah?”

         “The city doesn’t hold you accountable.” She isn’t sure what she means by that, not really, but it feels like the most honest thing to say. She never had any rules, not growing up, and so she fled to people who’d make them for her, prayed at their feet. She’d been bent into all kinds of shapes, frothing like a mad dog for acceptance or structure or anything. Chasing sensation, desperate not to give her mind even a free inch, any room to sift through the things that were happening.

         “And the valley does?”

         “Yeah, honestly.” She doesn’t elaborate and he doesn’t ask her to. She likes that about him, maybe most of all. How tender he can be when he reads a room, a mood. Patient and stoic. Joni wants to ask him what happened in life to make him this way. What people and things bent him into this smooth shape. It couldn’t just have been the death of his father, right? Or maybe it could have been. Joni remembers what he said about his dad, how half the town had been there for his death. She shivers when she imagines again all the horrible things that could mean. How strange that this trauma probably wasn’t just his own. That maybe the whole town had been changed by what they’d witnessed.

Her mother’s death always felt like it belonged to Joni and Joni alone. Her grandfather had been the one to find her hanging body, sure, but he’d locked that deep inside himself. Fled the scene, the family, the memories. And her father reacted the only way he knew how, diving headfirst into the kind of new age-y shit he’d lived for so long. A coping mechanism that let him skim the surface of Joni’s deep well of grief. He would sit strumming his guitar in the evenings, singing softly like her mother was still in the room to sing back. He planted flowers with big, floppy petals in the window box and told Joni that her mother could smell them from the big, great, groovy beyond. She’d been so disturbed by the idea that she spent days trying to clean herself, hoping her mother couldn’t smell her from the big, great, groovy beyond.

         Joni’s father didn’t cry about her death, at least not in front of Joni, and so she took ownership of the death, of all the grief that the others around her were supposed to help her sop up. The suicide was like a rock inside of Joni. Heavy and hard, but hers alone. It had always been easier that way. Fewer narratives, fewer people to comfort.

         “What do you think about?” Joni jumps. They’re on an entirely different street now. She’s just been letting him lead her. “When you space out, what are you thinking about?”

         “Oh, you know,” Joni shrugs, “all kinds of things, I guess. Nothing that interesting. Did I drop out in the middle of our conversation?”

         “Fine then, keep your secrets.” Sebastian teases. “And no, I just said that we’re here.”

        

         The diner is tucked on a quiet street corner. It’s the size of a bodega, squat like a transistor radio. A line of dirty windows above metal sheet paneling. The red awning above the door is tattered, blowing partially untethered in the wind. Only two of the sign’s neon letters are still illuminated. The ‘d’ in ‘diner’ flickers.

         Sebastian waves at the woman behind the counter and the two of them slide into a booth at the back. The upholstery on the seats is worn and fraying. The blue table is a little cracked on one edge. Joni can smell freshly brewed coffee on the counter, the unmistakable smell of meat frying in grease. Several pies are turning in the glass stand, but Joni can smell that more are baking back in the kitchen. The waitress smiles warmly at Sebastian, swats him playfully on the shoulder. “Some coffee for you both?”

“Yeah, yeah, thanks. It’s good to see you.”

“Been a little while, Sebastian.”  

Joni watches the woman slip behind the counter and into the kitchen. “You come here a lot?”

“I used to,” Sebastian says, flipping absently through the menu. Its plastic covering is badly stained. “I know it looks like a real shit hole but the food is phenomenal. Pie is,” he kisses his fingers, “out of this world.”

Joni blushes, laughing a little. “I can dig pie.”

 

Joni thinks often about the day Leah cooked her that curry. The way how she chopped and diced and simmered felt so much like love, real love. This pie feels like love too. A slice so thick that the blueberries in the filling shimmer like a geode. The sugar on the crust is almost crackling, so fresh out of the oven that the scoop of ice cream on top drips over the sides, swirling violet with the filling onto the plate. Even the ice cream looks homemade, flecks of vanilla bean dotting the thick cream. She washes down each bite with hot coffee. Sebastian got a slice of coconut cream and he seems enraptured by it too, savoring the thick custard, wiping stray globs of meringue from the side of his mouth with his fingers. Things are so easy, so comfortable between them in that moment, that Joni loses control of her mouth. “So is this like …a date? Are we dating?” Sebastian stops mid-bite and Joni’s stomach clenches so tightly the pie nearly makes a return trip. “I mean, uh, I didn’t mean that. Forget I said anything, okay? Fucking is fine with me. It’s all I’m good at actually.”

“Joni.”

“I’ve never been that great at dating honestly.”

“Joni.”

“Like my track record is really bad, so I completely understand why you’d want to like keep things casual. That’s actually better, really. I’m a casual kind of girl and-“

“Joni!”

She blinks at him. “What?”

He blinks too, like he isn’t actually sure what he wants to say now that he’s got her attention. “I guess I just thought…” he pauses, “I mean, do you want this to be a date?”

“No, what did you think! You have to tell me what you thought!”

He swallows hard. “I kind of thought we already were dating? Or, I don’t know, I guess that’s…I guess maybe I thought were like pre-dating.”

“I have no idea what that means.”

“I want to date you.”

The room tilts. “Okay.”

He narrows his eyes at her. “Is that a…yes?”

“You did not ask me a question.”

“Okay.” Sebastian laughs nervously. “Joni, do you want to date me?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“You think so?”

“I’m really bad at this.”

“You’re doing fine.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, but, uh, any shade of enthusiasm would do me real good right about now.”

Tears are threatening, the idea that someone would want her, that he would want her, it’s too much. Her chest is so tight. “I want to date you.”

“Okay, so that’s a yes?”

“Right, yes.”

He smiles. “Okay.”

“Okay good.” She’s so tense, taut like she might break.

Sebastian reaches across the table and takes her hand. He kisses each finger at the middle knuckle. “I like you a lot.”

Chapter Text

It’s sort of hilarious that Joni has a routine now. That’s she’s become predictable, dependable even. She wonders if her old self would even recognize her if they ran into each other on the street. She’s not so thin anymore, not so pallid. Farm work has toned her legs, strengthened her arms. All that time in the sun has made her skin golden, freckles she’d never seen before have bloomed across her cheekbones, down her arms. Her hair has a shine she’s never seen before, it bounces around her shoulders with the kind of soft waves she’d spent hours trying to achieve back in the city. The Valley looks good on her.

A routine, Yoba, what a revelation that is. Back in the city, the only thing she had that even resembled a routine was her work schedule. But even that was inconsistent. Retail hours that had her working late at night to do stocking or smack in the middle of the day to work the register. She’d pick up courier shifts whenever money was too tight. Which was often. Being in Sarah’s orbit was expensive and there were more weeks than not when Joni tried to scrounge up food with an empty bank account, hungover and pumped full of whatever amphetamines Sarah was into that week.

Leah is the first link in her new armor. They eat dinner together almost every night, crack open a few beers either on Joni’s rickety porch, Goose surveying lazily from his perch on the window, or out by Leah’s messy garden. They get lunch a few times a week too, fixing up whatever fruits or herbs Leah scrounged up from the forest. Sometimes eating at the end of the pond’s dock, dipping their toes in the warm water.

Pretty much every Saturday these days, Joni finds her way over to Emily’s house. They smoke a few joints, watch whatever old movie Emily’s found in the library. Joni’ll listen to Emily go on and on about her metaphysical obsession of the week, zoning out pleasantly under her twinkling, paisley-printed tent of a ceiling. It’s warm enough for Emily to keep the windows open now, and, in the evenings, the cool air passes over them both. The leaves verdant and shimmering in the streetlamp light, their shadows passing over their bodies on the bed. The routine is sacred.

So when Sebastian shows up Friday morning, dressed in a plaid button-down and a pair of slim jeans, Joni has to call Leah to tell her they’ll need to skip lunch. “I hope I’m not intruding.” He says, standing a little nervously in the front room, hands in his pockets.

“No, of course not. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. Everything’s great. I just wanted to come see you.” Joni flushes. It’s been a few days since their conversation at the diner and Joni still doesn’t know what to make of it. What the contours of the thing between thing should look like. Sebastian’s voice has stirred Goose from his sunny spot on top of the tv. Sebastian picks him up, nuzzling him until Goose rolls onto his back, letting himself be cradled like a baby. “Wow, he’s gotten so big. How old is he now?”

Joni shrugs. “Not sure. Probably about a year.” He’s still kind of a runt, but the way he prowls around the farmhouse like a panther is almost convincing. The mangled corpse gifts he often presents Joni at the threshold of her bedroom a testament to his enthusiasm

Sebastian nods. “I brought some beer.” He nudges a six-pack she’d missed at the door with his foot. “Thought we could watch tv or something.”

“Yeah,” she says, breathy. Goosebumps race up her arms, but the way he’s smiling at her, the way the sun reflects on his thick, dark hair, she manages smiles back at him, let’s her shoulders relax.

 

Sebastian’s picked the first honest to yoba sweltering day of the summer. An afternoon so thick with moisture that even the box fan Joni set up by the tv isn’t cutting it. She turns it off so they can hear the tv better, and there’s something nice about the way the humidity settles on her skin. Sebastian is graceful when he sits cross-legged on the big, shag rug in front of the tv. He looks over his shoulder at her and smiles again. With his whole mouth.

 

They’re halfway through an episode of Queen of Sauce when Sebastian slips between her legs. “Don’t let me distract you,” his tone deadly serious, but when he slides his hands up under her dress, Joni can see the barest grin on his face. His slips her panties down her legs, letting them tangle around one ankle, before he spreads her legs firmly with his hands. He kisses her knee. Joni can’t breathe. The room feels suspended, the air even thicker. Sebastian kisses in inches down her thigh and, when he finally reaches her pussy, she sighs, leaning back onto her elbows, mouth just parted.

 

At first, Joni’s not sure he’s even really trying to get her off. He runs his tongue casually over her clit, and just when she’s starting to build something, he’ll let up, flattening his tongue over her outer lips. He takes frequent breaks, kissing up the insides of her thighs, running his thumbs over the bones of her hip. Sometimes he even glances back at the tv. Joni leans all the way back, giving in to the soft way he's playing with her, just riding out the mild sensations, when Sebastian starts to pick up the pace. She yelps when he takes her clit lightly between his teeth. He doesn’t bite, but the threat of it makes Joni feel wild. She looks down at him between her legs and he smiles up at her, then softens his lips and sucks hard on her clit. She groans, throwing her head back, grinding against his mouth.

She comes quickly. And hard. All that gentle teasing must have worked her into something fierce and Sebastian has to grip her thighs tightly to stop her from shuddering them closed. “Fuck, oh fuck. Sebastian.” Her hips twitch against his mouth, the muscles in her stomach clenching and unclenching as her orgasm washes down her body. He lightens up when she’s spent, but doesn’t stop, and it’s only when Joni starts to squirm away that he relents. He stalks up her body like a predator, lips slick and eyes hungry. “Have you ever squirted?” His voice is a few octaves lower than she’s ever heard it.

Joni can’t stop panting. She’s shivering even though the hot summer air hangs heavy in the front room. “What?”

Sebastian sits up, voice closer to normal. “Squirting, it’s like-“

“No, I know what it is.”

“Have you ever done it?” She shakes her head. He runs his thumb down the seam of her pussy. “Do you want to?”

 

Joni’s on her knees, ass high in the air, hair splayed out like a wreath around her head. Her hands, limp beside her face, tense every time Sebastian moves inside of her. He’s been at this for a while, determined, almost clinical. She imagines his arms must be aching with how hard he’s been fingering her.

Sebastian slides his fingers back inside her. She lets out a long moan and he chuckles, leaning down to kiss her tailbone. He crooks his fingers like he’d been doing before and gets back to those quick, hard movements. She preens like a cat. It feels good in a way she’s never felt before. Her pussy makes these sounds when he’s fucking her like this, like it’s full of water and there’s an erotic quality to the sound, but when the sensation starts to build again, Joni balks. She pulls a little away from his fingers. “I’m scared I’m gonna piss.”

“Then piss.”

“What?”

He kisses her tailbone. He’s uncrooked his fingers, fingering her slow and steady now. “You’re not gonna piss.”

“I can’t believe you just told me-“

He hitches his fingers down again, nips at her ass. “I want you to fucking cum.”

She arches her back, the sensation racing up between her hips. “Oh, OH.”

“I want you to fucking squirt.” Sebastian adds a third finger, grinding his palm into her clit with each downward stroke. “Make a mess for me, come on.”

She’s nearly over the edge, thighs trembling, hands fisting in the rug, but she pulls away from him, letting the sensation fade. “I seriously feel like I’m gonna piss. What if I piss?”

“Then we’ll clean it up, but you’re not going to.” She doesn’t respond. Her brain is spinning and she feels suddenly very exposed. Sebastian pulls his fingers out of her, stroking the back of two of them down her pussy lips. “Joni, do you trust me to do this?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” She says it with a confidence that surprises her. But it doesn’t feel scary like maybe she thinks it should. It feels honest and true and when he starts in with his fingers again, she lets her head fall limp on the rug, releases her shoulders.

 

The sloshing sounds her pussy is making are obscene. Fucking dirty. She’s gonna cum. Hard by the way it's feeling on the build up. But it feels different than any other time, more directed, like it’s all building at the very tip of her clit. Sebastian changes his angle, sits up a little higher, and that does it. Joni yelps, nails digging into the rug. Her toes curl and she arches her back so hard it almost hurts. It feels like he’s emptying her out. Like all the pressure in her body is sluicing down her legs. Sebastian almost growls. “Oh fuck, yes. Fuck! You are so fucking hot.” He kisses the back of each thigh, sounding a little winded. “Look at the mess you made. Shit.” He plants a sloppy kiss on her clit. “Holy shit.” His voice muffled. Joni’s laughing, because what else can she do? Her body is hot, searing, and she’s just produced a seriously impressive amount of cum on her rug. Sebastian slides his hand up her spine, running his thumb fondly at the nape of her neck. “Think you can do it again?”

She laughs. “I have no idea.”

“Can I try?”

 

Joni’s thighs are slick, wet all over. She can hear herself dripping onto the floor. Her pussy feels spent, overwhelmed with sensation, but she can’t remember the last time she felt this relaxed, like every muscle inside of her has let out a long, deep breath.

Sebastian’s wet too. The jean’s he still has on are dark where she’s squirted on him, not once, but three times. She might apologize if he didn’t look so wildly pleased with himself. He’s sitting back on his haunches, just grinning. “Come here,” he says, so softly she can barely hear him. He unzips his jeans, pushes them down just enough to reveal his cock.

She crawls over to him, legs a little unsteady. He guides her up onto his turgid cock, lifting her easily. Joni hisses at the sensation when he fills her. Sebastian kisses both of her cheeks, then starts down the long length of her neck. They just rock shallowly against each other, neither of them getting much friction, but it feels good to be close like this. “You did so good.” He says, breath hot on her neck. “Making you cum is my favorite pastime.”

She snorts. “That is really fucking corny.”

“Is it?”

“Yes definitely.”

She feels him smile against her neck. “Can I fuck you now?”

“You’re already fucking me,” she teases.

He nips at her ear. “Can I fuck you hard?”

“Yes.”

Her legs are up over his shoulders before she can even process that he’s got her on her back. His knuckles are white from how hard he’s holding onto her thighs. “I’m going to fuck you until you can’t see straight.”

 

He keeps his word. They’ve been done for a while and Joni is still shuddering against his bare chest. His cum is sticky between her thighs. He strums his fingers along her back, his other hand stroking her hair. She’s holding him tightly around his waist. A few crickets have started under the window. When Joni pokes her head up, she can see fireflies bobbing in the blue darkness outside. The Queen of Sauce has some big bowl in front of her on the counter. “Pancakes,” she says in that soft soothing lilt she has, “is there anything more comforting than that?” Sebastian shifts so that he can pull Joni closer and kisses the tip of her nose. He nudges down until he reaches her lips, pulling her into a sloppy kiss. Joni reaches up to pull him even closer, her palms flat against his back, the sweat cooling off their bodies.

Chapter Text

“You’re spilling cornmeal over the side.”

Joni blinks up at Leah. “What?” Leah grins at her. She’s sitting on the counter, scratching Goose between the ears. It’s late evening, but the sun is still hanging blearily at the horizon line. The cicadas are loud tonight. The sound blocks out all other sounds, but even their din feels peaceful, right. The air is alight with fireflies and Joni’s been looking dreamily out at them.

Leah nods toward the mixing bowl. “The cornmeal. You just spilled it.” Joni leans back and sighs. A fine line of yellow is trickling off the counter, the cornmeal pooling on the chipped linoleum floor. “Want me to take over?”

“No, no way. I’m learning to cook tonight. You promised.”

Leah grins. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

“Not trying to build Rome,” Joni takes her tongue between her teeth, focusing hard as she measures out the buttermilk, “just trying to make pancakes.”

Leah shrugs, leaving her to it. She hoists Goose into her lap. Her only resists a little. Out of the corner of her eye, Joni can see Leah cock her head, a mischievous smile spreading across her face. “I found a pair of briefs in your bathroom.” She takes a sip of her beer. “Hanging on the towel rack.”

“Oh yeah, mom? You gonna ground me?”

Leah snorts, drippling a little beer down her shirt. “Yes, you’re ground. So grounded.” She slides off the counter and grasps the wooden spoon just above Joni’s hand. “You gotta be a little more vigorous with this.” Joni relinquishes the spoon with a little laugh. She heads slowly toward the front room. The air feels warm and light in the house like the old eaves are stretching themselves out, waking up for spring. “Hey! I thought you were going to learn to cook!”

“I’m admitting defeat.” Joni looks over her shoulder with a grin. “I’ll roll a couple joints to keep us company.”

Leah laughs. “Look at you and your bohemian lifestyle. Breakfast for dinner, smoking hash, men’s underwear in your bathroom. You beatnik, you.”

 

The maple syrup is from Robin’s place. She’d tapped it herself this past winter from the big pines out in front of her house. It’s earthy, dark. Has a honeyed quality that makes Joni stops and roll it around on her tongue as she eats. Sebastian brought over the big jug of it a few days ago and Joni tells Leah so. Leah chews thoughtfully, wiping a stray bit of syrup from her lips. “So things are going well then?” She takes a few more bites of pancake before leaning back in her chair, hands resting on her stomach. “With you and Sebastian, I mean.”

“Yeah, I mean…we’re dating. I think. Like I said over the phone.” Leah raises an eyebrow. “What?”

“You sound…unsure.”

Joni sets her silverware down with a clang. “I’m scared to death.”

Leah nods, reaching for her unfinished beer. “I get that.”

“Yeah?”

“Are you kidding me? Of course.” Leah frowns. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to let another person touch me.” She glances up at the ceiling, lip quivering almost imperceptibly. “I can’t even imagine letting someone be in my space again like that.”

Joni clears her throat. She feels like she’s feeling blindly forward, unsure of where this is headed, of what nasty things she might find if she keeps going. But she wants to keep going. They’ve broken down so many walls together, treaded so much uncharted territory. Joni softens her voice. “But you and Abigail were-“

“It’s on the backburner.” Leah looks away when she says it. Joni knows better than to try and pry that one open, so she just nods, turning her attention back to her pancakes. A darkness simmers now in the room. The house feels full of ghosts. Not even the candles they've lit, their golden wax spilling over onto the wooden table, can banish them. Leah rolls her shoulders, sitting a little taller, but Joni can see that the joint is shaking between her fingers. Joni wants to say something, but she can’t. Her throat is so tight, so impossibly tight. “I’m really happy for you. I mean it. Sebastian seems like a good person.”

“I think he is, yeah. I mean, I know he is. He’s shown me that.”

“But?” Joni shakes her head, not understanding. “He’s shown you that, but. I can hear it in your voice. You’re not convinced.”

“I’m not sure I’ll ever be convinced.” Joni pushes the plate away from her and leans back too. The new weed Emily scored in the desert tastes almost floral, but everything on Joni’s tongue is like ash. “I keep expecting him to just…transform.

“I don’t think he will. I think he would have shown that part of himself by now, implied it maybe.”

Joni frowns. “I didn’t know what to look for last time.”

“You did.” Leah says firmly. “You just ignored it.” It would be an insult from anyone else, but Joni can see her own wounds on Leah’s body, the way her body is so tight, prime to defend itself. “Joni?”

“Hmm?”

Leah locks eyes with Joni. She has one arm wrapped around herself, like she’s nursing a stomachache. “Do you think I should be afraid.” Joni doesn’t have to ask what for, but she doesn’t know what to say either. That creepy feeling is back, the one from Leah’s cabin that night. It seems like ages ago, but the feeling is just as strong as it was then. Joni wants to tell her no, that there’s nothing to be afraid of, but she knows better than that. For the first time since the hospital discharged her, she can feel her ex’s hands around her throat. Not tight, just the barest touch. Like a warning. She shakes her head to dislodge the thought, but Leah misunderstands. She exhales. “You don’t think I should?”

“I’m not sure.” Leah goes pale. Her eyes slide to look at the kitchen window, like she can feel the presence too. “I mean, I just don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Joni takes a deep breath, hoping that what she says next will come out even. “But I do know that I’m here, okay? No matter what. The whole town is here. There’s no way, no way, she can get to you. Not here.” Leah smiles weakly. Joni understands how absolutely not comforting what she’s just said is. She recognizes that feeling of falling, of the whole world suddenly open and exposed. The silence between them is uneasy for the first time. Joni chews the skin around her thumb. “Let’s get out of here.”

“What?”

She grabs her beer and takes Leah by the hand. “There’s no reason to stay cooped up on a nice night like tonight.” Leah is pliable, so easy to move, and Joni recognizes that too. They break out into the night like two birds, the screen door banging as they head down the stairs. She doesn’t have a destination in mind but, propelled by fear, by the sudden urge to outrun it, she sets out down the worn path.

 

They end up at the top of the tunnel over the highway. It’s covered in a blanket of dense moss. The exposed concrete is cool on their bare legs, the air rushing past their dangling feet. There are fewer cicadas out here, leaving an almost dense quiet hanging around the spot. The sounds of the wind brushing through the leaves, of their bodies shifting in the grass, are suddenly amplified. Only a few cars pass under them, their taillights disappearing in the dark distance.

“Where do you think they’re going?” Leah asks, finishing off her beer.

“No clue.” Joni rests her head on her knees. She likes the way the night looks, how complete the darkness is, likes the way the headlights cut through it. “What’s even out that way?”

“Shoal Village.” Joni frowns and looks at Leah. She clears her throat. “My hometown.”

Joni turns back to the road. “How far away?”

“Only a few hours.” Then Leah scoffs. “And a whole fucking lifetime.”

Joni can hear Leah quietly sniffling, watches from the corner of her eye as she wipes silent tears away with her fingers. Joni wraps her arms around Leah, the movement so fluid and natural like they were always meant to be here, just like this. Leah collapses into Joni and soon she’s crying, the sound echoing off the concrete. “I’m through, Joni. I’m really fucking through.”

“No, you are not. Not even close.”

Leah gasps, trying to get air into her lungs so tight from crying. She goes quiet for a moment and then starts crying again, this time harder, sobs wracking her body. “I am. I am. I’ve fucked everything up. Like I always do. My family, my relationships. I’m fucking cursed, Joni. I’m so serious.” Joni just holds her tighter, as tight as she can, but Leah wrestles away, like the energy coursing through her is too much “And you know what? I haven’t made work in months. Months. The whole fucking reason I nuked my life was to come out here and make work.”

“That’s not why and you know it.” Leah falls silent. In the half-light, Joni can see her hang her head. A few lonesome crickets fill the silence between them. A solitary car exits the tunnel. It slows by the bus stop, but changes its mind, heading back on its way into the darkness. The way the night swells around it does something to Joni. “Can I tell you something?” Leah sniffles a quiet yes. “My mom killed herself.” The air goes still around them. The crickets fall quiet, like they can feel the change in the air. “A long time ago. When I was little.”

“Oh, Joni, I’m so sorry-“

“No, no this isn’t why I’m telling you this. This isn’t about that.” Joni leans against Leah, weaves her fingers through the hair falling free from Leah’s braid. Leah snakes an arm around Joni, pulling them tightly together. “I’m just trying to say that I know what it’s like when the bottom falls out. I know what it’s like when the bottom keeps falling out. Leah sits a little more up, wiping a few tears from her face. “Sometimes I feel like I’m fucking rotten at the roots, okay? I feel cursed too. A lot. But I’m not. It’s not real. It’s not real for you or for me.” Leah slides her hand over and takes Joni’s. Joni has no idea where this is coming from, this untapped well of strength that she’s drawing from now. It feels electric, like it could sustain her. She rides it out. “I have no idea what’s gonna happen with you and Kel. Or with me. Or with anything, but we’re here together and tonight, this minute, everything is okay. We’ll see about tomorrow in the morning."

Leah nods, still wiping away tears. “You’re not rotten at the roots, Joni. You’re one of the most special people I’ve ever met.”

Joni looks over at her. Sometimes it feels like looking in a mirror, seeing all her fears reflected back. She wonders if this is what real friendship is supposed to be like. If it always feels this closely knit, this vital. “I wouldn’t have survived this year without you, Leah.”

Chapter Text

The weatherman says the national heat index is off the charts. Hottest day in a hundred years. Heat stroke, severe dehydration, the sun blasting through the ozone with such intensity that two people had already been hospitalized in Zuzu for severe sunburns. Joni’s mind drifts to the homeless veteran she’d seen all those months before outside the coffee shop, wonders where he hides from the sun. The kettle whistling in the kitchen pulls her out of her own thoughts. She switches off the tv and heads into the kitchen, running her hand down the length of Goose as she passes. The kettle goes silent mid-howl as she whisks it off the stove, fumbling in the cabinets for a mug.

Joni’s been trying to drink the last of her instant coffee. A bag of fresh beans sitting tantalizingly on her kitchen counter. A gift from Sebastian, one of many.

 He’d left early that morning, before the sun was up. He’d been muttering something under his breath as he got dressed, about all the new assignments he had on the docket, how behind he was with work. But when Joni rolled over to tell him goodbye, doe-eyed and naked, he’d started to croon in her ear, hand trailing down her body. They’d fucked slowly that morning, Sebastian pressing her legs back so he could take her deeper, slower. All the sweet things he’d whispered in her ear echoing in her head when she woke up a few hours later, fumbling for him in the sheets.

She imagines him now, in the quiet dark of his basement room, fingers flying over his keyboard. He could do that here, Joni thinks suddenly, looking at the big empty space beside the tv. He could set his desk up right there, look at the farmhouse’s big windows for as long as he wanted. The thought startles her and she tries to shake it off, making a quick inventory of all the things she needs to do today.

Joni looks out at her land, at the heat already hanging thickly over the tall grass, and decides she’s not gonna try mother nature today. She flips the fan on in the front room and surveys the place. Robin’s been helpful. Shoring up the floorboards, sealing the windows. She even sealed up the top of the stairs after she found the second floor wasn’t up to code. But there’s a lot that hasn’t been done. Joni’s left several of her grandfather’s old heavy chests stacked unopened on the far end of the

 

The first chest had been paperwork. Tax documents, house deeds, paperwork after he’d finally sold his old boat. It only takes her about an hour to get through them. Joni sorts them dutifully into piles and sets them back into the chest. The second chest is full of his clothes and Joni recoils like they’ve burned her. The heavy silence in the room seems suddenly thick. Joni’d turned the radio off a while before, couldn’t handle all the bad news she was hearing. Death tolls skyrocketing at a front that was steadily moving closer to home. The Gotoro Empire advancing toward the outskirts of Ferngill. Mandatory evacuations to the city of villages and towns in the blast zone. And in the cities, mass arrests and clashes as the protests swelled, their numbers bolstered by the growing population of refugees left to rot in tent cities erected hastily like a moat outside the city. She couldn’t handle the dread that coiled inside of her as she listened, but now the dread has returned, closer to home.

 Joni scoots back to the lip of the chest, sits quietly on her calves like she’s expecting it to speak to her. For her grandfather’s wise old voice to come from the bottom of the chest and tell her it’s okay, she can look. Joni tells herself it’s okay and reaches for the first neatly folded sweater. It’s wool, but years of wear have softened it. Joni runs her fingers along the neat pattern at the chest. Now that she’s got her hands on one, she can smell him. He always smelled like salt, the turned over coals of a waning campfire, the faint plasticky scent of his fishing waders. She presses her face into the sweater and inhales. As she does, a few photographs tumble from the folds and scatter onto the floor. Joni freezes.

She picks up the one closest to her. It’s black and white, the image a little faded. Her grandfather is young, younger than she ever saw him. Barely older than thirty. He’s perched jauntily on top of a tall woodpile, fishing pile resting on his shoulder. He looks dashing, a little mischievous. His trousers rolled up high on his ankles, sinewy muscle clear through his damp shirt. The photograph is worn at the edges; deep creases down the middle like it’s been folded

In the corner of the photograph, Joni’s mother beams a crooked smile at the camera, leaning against the base of the wood pile. She’s holding up two fish that are almost as big as she is. Turn turns the picture over and finds a note written in her grandfather’s steady hand. Little Ruby-Anne with her big catch, 1955. Joni can barely breathe. Her heart hurts. She sets the photo gingerly on the ground and picks up the next.

This one is in color, but faded too. It’s her parents as teenagers. They’re barefoot, both grinning. Her dad’s got a pair of worn jeans on, his hair longer than she’s ever seen it, tangled around his shoulders. His chest is bare except for a leather fringed vest that looks badly handmade. Her mother is wearing a shapeless floral printed dress, so sheer Joni can make out the lines of the frayed shorts she’s wearing underneath. She’s got a sunflower tucked behind her ear, so big it obscures half her face. They’re standing, as far as Joni can tell, in a big field of mud. A veritable kingdom of ramshackle tents erected behind them, prayer flags strung between them. Joni can see a few topless women sunning themselves on the back of a pickup truck, a man strumming a guitar half-off camera, streaked in brightly colored paint. Joni turns the photo over. Thomas and Ruby-Anne at their “camp”, 1967. That’s right, Joni remembers, grandpa always called him Thomas, a little teasingly. The name never fit her father, too serious. Grandpa was the only person who ever called him that and she suddenly misses him with her whole body. She presses her knees hard into the wood floor like she can extract some piece of him from the floors he walked for so many years. This place that belonged to him and that he’d, inexplicably, left to her. To her. Why? The magnitude of it hits her hard and fast. Why on earth did he think she could handle this? That she could shepherd his legacy? Joni’s trembling now, freezing even though it’s so hot outside that the window panes are sweating.

Joni fumbles for the next photo, this one further afield than the others. It’s of her mother. She’s sitting cross-legged, still in one of the shapeless, floral dresses that hung so breezy on her small frame. She’s a kaleidoscope of color, hundreds of daisies sewn all down her long hair. Joni’s mother is beaming, that signature gap between her front teeth brightly revealed. Joni’s in her arms. Barely even a person. Just a little ball of pink, wrinkled fresh. Joni’s clearly crying, melancholy already hanging off her. Her eyes are scrunched tightly shut, mouth just a big loud hole, but her mother looks serenely forward, her confidence and ease apparent even through the lens of the camera. Joni flips the photo over. Ruby-Anne with her angel, 1968. Joni howls, grief washing over her as fresh and raw as that first day her mother died. Joni cries until her body is bent over, forehead pressed into the wood. She screams, every pent up thing inside of her made real outside of her body in that horrible sound. How could this have happened? How could she have been like this? So beautiful and stoic and still end up swinging from the rafters, cold and dead and gone. Joni remembers her being so wise, so at peace with the world and what could come to pass, shepherding her nervous, grim daughter through life with a warm, steady hand on her back. 

Joni cries until the feeling fades, those sharp barbs of sorrow dulling again. It’s been so long since she’d had a really good cry. A good cry. Her mother used to say that, comforting her when she ran, horrified and afraid, for her comfort. Sometimes you just need a good cry. Joni has always been so afraid of the world, thin-skinned to its blunt force. She glances up at the mantel, where she put Leah’s piece of petrified wood. It’s almost glowing, a slick brightness that she hadn’t noticed before. It settles her. Her suicide attempt has hung so heavy on her for so long. Proof that she’s as sullen and melancholy as she always feared she was. But her mother was so beautiful and so bright and so strong. And she still is, even just a memory now. Even after she did what she did. Maybe Joni can be those things too. Maybe she is those things.

Joni’s thoughts turn to Shane. She sees sometimes in Joja when she goes there late at night to buy a few sodas. He has a soft smile now, his whole body gentle. Sometimes she’ll watch him, the delicate way he arranges cans on the shelf, like each one is a little person, a little gift. The horrible bruising on his neck fading away, the body healing itself, resilient and endurant.

There’s another picture on the ground, one that she missed before. It’s of her as a child. She’s clearly been crying, eyes all puffy, but in the photo, she’s grinning. It was the first time she’d gone out fishing with him. She remembers it so clearly, all at once. It had been a horrible day. The way the boat rocked made her sick and she’d cried all morning for her mother, terrified of the way the fish looked when they were hooked, of the way the worms writhed in her grandfather’s tackle box. But then she’d caught her own fish, wrangled it out of the lake with all her strength and she’d felt such intense joy. She remembers how proud her grandfather looked, how proud she felt. Joni flips the photo over. Joni facing her fears, 1973.

She can feel her grandfather all around her now, all through the farmhouse. He’s in the air, the wood, the way the pipes sometimes rattle like his laughter when it’s cold. His hands are there, have been there since she stepped through that door the first time, gently guiding her, keeping her safe. Maybe her mother is here too. Not haunting the dark, cold halls of her childhood apartment, but here in the sturdy wooden walls and good soil. Maybe that’s why Joni’s flowers are doing so well. She imagines her mother’s ghost perched beside them, whispering softly to them as they grow, and the thought comforts her deeply. Joni wipes her cheeks with her palms and takes the longest, deepest breath she’s taken in a lifetime.

 

Joni sees the Saloon with new eyes. Even transformed by the Friday night crowd, it looks different than she remembers. She tries to imagine her grandfather here. Where would he have stood? Who would he have talked to? She imagines he might have liked Gus, liked his full, cheery cheeks and deep-bellied laugh. Tonight, his laugh is on full display. He’s talking animatedly with Pierre. The squirrely shopkeeper seems to be losing whatever argument they’re having, but he can’t keep the grin off his face.

“Hey-yo!” Emily waves at them, bouncing on her toes from behind the bar. Joni waves back, about to head over and chat, when Harvey distracts her. Emily leans on the counter, eyes wide, grinning. Whatever he’s telling her must be delightful. Joni smiles, a clean warmth settling in her chest.

“Come on,” Leah says, linking their arms, “let’s get to our spot.” Their spot. What a revelation.

Sebastian’s bent over the pool table, but when he sees Joni, he waves at the others playing to pause the game. He crosses the distance in a few quick strides, pats Leah’s affectionately on the shoulder, and scoops Joni into his arms. “Hey, you.” He sets her on the ground, holding her close. “Didn’t know you were gonna be out tonight.”

“Couldn’t stay away.” Joni teases. “Who’s winning?”

“Me.” His eyes glittering, “but I’ve got a tough shot lined up.” He taps his lips. “Kiss for luck?” Joni leans in for a peck, but Sebastian takes her face in his hands and kisses her hard and long.

When Sebastian releases her, Leah nudges her playfully on the shoulder. “Go save our spots. I’ll get some beer.”

 

When Leah returns, the pool game is in full swing. The boys around the table laughing and teasing each other. The soft music from the jukebox mixing with the sounds of cues hitting balls, of muffled conversation. Joni leans back on the couch and takes a few more of those deep breaths. Her lungs feel brand new. “Whatcha thinking about?” Leah passes her a beer and settles beside her on the couch.

Joni shifts in her seat, trying to find a way to tell her what she’s feeling. The lightness, the sudden strange sense of purpose simmering inside of her. But she can’t. And she doesn’t really want to. The mood in the bar is so easy, so simple. “Just life, I guess.”

“Wow, just that?” Leah teases.

Joni nudges her. “Yeah, you know.” She falls quiet, chewing her lip. Then she straightens up and turns to Leah. “Do you sometimes think that things are like meant to be?” Leah looks over at her. “Like sometimes you’re supposed to meet someone or be somewhere? Even if it’s bad? Like maybe it’s supposed to teach you something. To open a door you didn’t see before.”

“You sound like Emily.”

“I’m being serious.”

Leah softens her tone. “I know you are.”

“Well?”

Leah sighs, looking out at the pack Saloon. “Yeah, I really think I do believe that.”

Joni nods, turning back to the pool game. Then she notices, for the first time, a wreath of dried daisies hanging on the wall behind the pool table. They’re just like the ones she’d seen in her mother’s hair. The wreath is held together with fishing line.

Chapter Text

Joni should have guessed by the tone of his voice over the phone, but the way he told her how quiet the house was with everyone away for the weekend, exactly what they would be doing that day. She figured they might at least dance around the idea, maybe watch some tv, chat a little. But that’s not Sebastian, she knows that by now. When she shows up, shirt sticking to her slick skin, he’s already on the porch, watching her hungrily from the bottom step. She feels, as she crosses the unkempt lawn to him, the full power of his height, of his dark countenance. She wants him to devour her.  

They fuck first on the kitchen counter, the tile backsplash cool on the back of her neck as he pounds into her over the sink. She cums hard on his cock, shouting so loudly that it unsettles the birds perched on the branches outside the window. The second time is in the shower, on all fours. Sebastian takes a fistful of her hair in his hand, cums hard inside of her, his mess dripping debauched out of her pussy. So wet and messy that she feels, for a moment, like she might drown in her lust. She’s still feeling that way, hot, her nerves alight all up her body, when Sebastian looks at her pointedly over the lip of his coffee mug. They’ve moved back into the kitchen, the late afternoon sun spilling warmly over the hardwood floors. He’s got that hungry look again and goosebumps race up Joni’s skin. She might combust if he touches her. But she wants him to, hopes she’s broadcasting just how much. Sebastian takes a couple stalling sips of coffee and then asks if she’s ever done anal. Joni’s stomach pulses.  

 

Her back curls at the first intrusion, arching hard against the finger he’s pressed inside. “How does it feel?”

Joni takes a deep breath and presses her cheek a little harder into his mattress. “I’m not sure.” He hesitates. “It doesn’t feel bad. Just different.”

“Different’s okay.” He kisses both cheeks, one after the other. Sebastian starts to move his finger shallowly in and out. The sensation is a little wild. A pressure that brushes up against pleasure, stings just a little. The lube he’s using drips down her inner thigh. “Shit, you have a tight ass.” He leans down and kisses her clit. Just a peck. His other hand stroking reassuring along her thigh. Sebastian adds another finger, slowly working it inside, and Joni tenses. “Do you need me to stop?”

“What if I shit on you?”

Joni hears him chuckle, his breath warm on the inside of her thigh. “Then you do.”

She tries to pull away, but he holds her firm. “holy fucking yoba, Sebastian. I cannot believe you just said that.”

He sits back on his haunches, his fingers slipping easily out of her. She gasps at the loss of sensation. “You have a body. Sometimes bodies do that. It comes with the territory.”

She looks over her shoulder at him. “Have you done this before?”

Sebastian swirls his thumb over the tight bud of her ass. “Yes, lots. You’re gonna be fine, I promise.”

“Have you ever had someone shit on you?”

His laughter is warm. “Joni.”

“I’m serious!”

“I know,” he presses a kiss to her tailbone. “That’s why it’s funny.” He presses the same two fingers against her ass again. “Do you want me to keep going?”

Joni likes his voice, likes its low tenor. She likes how it feels to be spread for him, open and vulnerable. That’s wilder to her than what his fingers are threatening to do. “Please.” It comes out on a timid whisper.

Sebastian pulls her clit into his mouth and sucks. Her yelp dissolves quickly into a low moan when he slips his fingers back inside her. She starts to match his pass, rocking back onto his fingers. He’s made her so wet and it drips down her thighs, swirling with the lube until she’s slick and shiny all down her legs. “Relax.” He whispers into her skin. “I’m gonna take good care of you. Just relax.”

 

Joni has the full opportunity to admire how thick Sebastian’s cock is as it’s inching inside of her. He’s only a few inches in, but the sensation is pulsing down her spine. The sting isn’t unpleasant. She likes the way she feels full, debauched. The way it feels like he’s touching so many different parts of her at once. But as he pushes in a little more, the muscles in her back clench. Joni curls her toes and whimpers. Sebastian stops, slides his palm up her spine. “Are you still okay?”

“It hurts.”

“How much?”

“Does it matter?”

Sebastian sighs. “Yes, it matters. It’s gonna sting a little, but if it hurts more than that we need to sto-“

Joni groans. “Why don’t you just do it? Get it over with. Like ripping off a bandaid.”

Sebastian snorts. “Joni, I want this to feel good.” His fingers slip up her thighs, seeking her hot, wet center. He nips at her shoulder, a few thick curls brushing softly against her skin. “I want you to cum.” He glides his palm down her spine as he sits up. “So we’re gonna go slow, okay? Slow is good. It’ll feel so good this first time.” He takes a handful of her ass in one hand. “Breathe, Joni. Just relax.”

“This is relaxed.”

He chuckles. “Joni.”

“I’m serious. This is as relaxed as you’re going to get.”

He sets a warm hand on her flank. "Here, I’m gonna flip you over.” Sebastian pulls out of her and puts her on back, flipping her effortlessly. He presses her bent legs up to her shoulders, opening her fully to him. She feels so small and exposed like this, tucked under the shadow of his broad body. He plays absently with her clit, his lip tucked between his teeth. “We don’t have to do this. I can rinse off and we can just fuck like normal.”

“I want to.” Joni surprises herself with her own confidence. Because she does want to. She wants him to be somewhere no one else has ever been.

Sebastian leans down to kiss her. “Okay.” He reaches for the bottle of lube on his side table and smooths a little more on his cock, then works his lubed up fingers inside her.

 

When he’s all the way in, she lets out a long, slow breath. He’s being careful, hand just lightly on her stomach to steady himself as he thrusts, other hand stroking her thigh. The way he’s looking at her, she can’t describe it. Adoration maybe. Something a little wilder than that. It doesn’t take him long to work her up, but it’s so different than she’s ever felt. Joni’s orgasm simmers. Just a long, slow line of pleasure. “Fuck.” She groans. “I’m gonna cum.”

Sebastian’s face is tight from effort, one cheek caught between his teeth. “Yeah?”

“Oh shit. Fuck, Sebastian. Oh fuck, shit.”

Sebastian slides his hand down between her legs, playing hard with her clit. “Yeah, come on.” He turns his hand, slipping two fingers into her pussy. She is filthy full. “Come for me, baby, come on.”

When Joni cums, she brings Sebastian over with her. He shudders, cursing and moaning before he collapses onto her. His arms are trembling with effort as he holds himself just above her. Joni reaches up and cups his face, pulling him down in a sloppy kiss. He smiles into the kiss and pulls out slowly. She twitches when the head slips out with a wet pop. “You okay?”

Joni flexes her fingers, they've gone a little numb. “Yeah, yeah.”

Sebastian props himself up higher to look at her. “No, seriously, are you okay?”

She smiles blearily up at him. “Yeah, really good.” And she is. Her muscles are loose, body soft and warm. Her head clear.

“Good.” He tucks his head in the crook of her neck. “Shit that was…” He trails off, fingers absently stroking her pussy. “Fuck. I want to fuck you every day for the rest of my life.” Joni laughs. “I’m serious.” Sebastian kisses her belly button, kisses up between her tits. “I’m so serious, holy yoba. You are a fucking marvel.”

That cuts to the quick. She wants to correct him, to back away like a wounded animal. I’ll disappoint you, she wants to say. But he kisses her again, sweetly on the tip of her nose and his smile is incandescent. “Quit.” She teases.

Sebastian rolls a little to the left, so he can lay on the bed without crushing her. He strums his fingers across her bare stomach. “You are. A marvel, Joni, really.”

Chapter Text

“Do you even make money?” Emily says it in the kind of off-handed way she says everything. She has no bedside manner, Leah complained once after a night out all together at the Saloon, she could be telling you your cat is dead and she’d say it like she was taking your order. The three of them are spread out in a row on Joni’s hot, sun-scorched porch. “Like, do you make any money at all on the farm?” Leah bristles beside Joni, rolling her eyes as she passes the joint. Emily showed up unannounced early that afternoon and Leah nearly bolted until Emily produced a little baggy of bud.  The cease-fire between them is entirely chemically constructed, but it seems to be holding.

         Joni takes a long hit and leans back, watching the smoke dissipate into the heavy, humid air. A moth flutters past the open door, ducking into the shadowy depth of the front room. The question is fair, Joni admits, but not really one she knows the answer to. She’s never been good with money, never really kept track of what was coming in and going out. It was only when she was dangerously in the red, scrambling for rent, that she’d take a hard look at her checkbook.

Besides, if someone were to ask what she actually grew her farm, she wouldn’t really be able to answer that either.  She hasn’t had much luck with vegetables, hardly any better with fruit (aside from the strawberry bush that’s become its own sovereign nation over by the shed). Joni shrugs. “There’s a couple natural grocery stores up north that buy my preserves.”

“So, no.”

Joni can tell Leah is biting her tongue. She shoots Joni a look, but Joni ignores it. The weed Emily’s brought is making her feel floaty and the air outside smells like cut grass and sunscreen. Summer smells that take her way back, to places before anything dark at all touched her. “Ha, no guess not. But I don’t have to pay rent here, so…”

“You should sell them.” Emily ashes the joint and bounces her crossed legs. She looks like a hummingbird, all color and movement.

“Sell what?”

Emily flicks her wrist in front of her toward the sea of flowers in front of them. Some of them Joni planted from bulbs she’d babied all winter, but most of them sprouted up on their own. Little sprays of pastel wildflowers curving around a dense clump of sunflowers. Tulips battle for a spot in the sun with daffodils and thick, peachy dahlias. Bright pink globes of allium bob like little moons above a thick cover of pale phlox.

“That’s not a bad idea.” Leah says, sounding a little surprised that she’s actually agreeing with Emily on something.

“How would I even do that?” Joni sits a little more upright, rolling her neck, letting her shoulders get a little sun. “Like would I just send them to grocery stores or what?”

Emily yawns and passes the joint. “I don’t know, maybe. You could do like weddings or graduations or, I don’t know, anything, really.” She slips her sandals back on, a clear sign that she’s gearing to bolt. She does that pretty quickly when Leah’s around, told Joni once that their auras didn’t mesh. “You could set up a website.” Beside them, Leah flinches. A shadow passes over her and she looks out at the flowers, away from them. She takes a long, heavy drag from the joint. Joni slips her hand across the porch’s rough wood until she finds Leah’s. She squeezes her fingers and, after a few beats, Leah squeezes back. “What?” Emily asks, fussing with the hem of her floral skirt. “Not into the internet?”  

“Don’t know anything about it.” Joni takes a quick hit, then passes the joint back to Emily. Each of her fingernails are a different color today and she’s pinned her blue hair bag with a barrette she’s glued an enormous fabric store peony onto. It should look ridiculous, but Joni can’t stop looking at her. It works, somehow. Just like everything else about her.

“What about your boyfriend?”

Joni tenses. Of course she knows, she’s probably known since the beginning. Since before Joni even knew. But Joni wants to tell her to can it, worried suddenly that speaking it out loud will jinx it. “Sebastian?”

Emily giggles, playing with the fake petals in her hair. “No, your other boyfriend. What a trip” She ashes the joint then stretches out to stand. Her skirt rides up high on her thighs, “I bet he would run the website for you.” Would he? Joni leans back into the shade, chewing the skin around her thumb, lost in thought. The two of them had slipped so easily into this that it seems almost unreal. Like there was supposed to be resistance. She’s still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Her chest aches when she thinks about him.

 

Robin’s washing, Sebastian drying, and Robin has Joni on leftovers, spooning servings of casserole into narrow containers, stacking them neatly in the fridge. Demetrius has a pie in the oven. Strawberry, Joni thinks, if the sweet scent wafting around the kitchen is any indication. The night is warm, a gentle breeze coming in cool through the window. “You kids are all done here,” Robin says, working out a kink in her neck, “now go on.” She grins at them. “Out of my kitchen. Go do something fun.”

Sebastian’s hand skims Joni’s lower back as they head into the hall, just a ghost of a touch. He presses a soft kiss to the top of her head. “Think I’m gonna work on my bike tonight. That cool with you?”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course.”

When Sebastian wraps his arm around Joni’s shoulder, she settles. “Are you sure?”

Joni lays her hand on his chest as they walk. His heart beats strong and steady under her palm. “Yes, absolutely.”

 

Joni’s perched on a counter in the garage, tucked between a toolbox and the shell of an old computer modem, trying to find any words at all. Sebastian’s under his bike, the smooth, muscular expanse of his stomach just visible, soft and golden in the light. Joni clears her throat. “So, uh, you know how you fixed up Leah’s website?” He grunts affirmative from under the bike. “Do you, uh, think you could do one for me?”

Sebastian slides out from under the motorcycle. “Sure, what are you trying to do?”

“I, um. I want to sell my flowers.”

“The ones on your farm?” Joni nods. Sebastian seems to consider that for a moment then nods seriously. “Yeah, sounds good.”

“So wait, are you going to do it?”

“Oh, of course.” Sebastian groans as he stands, working out a kink in his neck. “Sorry, I thought that was obvious.”

Joni feels small and nervous again, like she had when they first met. “I would pay you.” Her voice comes out so softly, so timidly, that it seems to startle Sebastian.

“You don’t need to pay me.”

“I would though.”

“Well, you don’t need to. You’re my girlfriend.” He winks at her. “Pro bono, baby.” Joni goes rigid. The room suddenly feels too hot and too crowded. She doesn’t even know what’s wrong, doesn’t know why this offer feels so heavy to her. Sebastian wipes his hands on his jeans, leaving streaks of dark oil on the thighs. He stops just in front of her, careful to leave a little distance, but close enough that she can smell the warm musk of his sweat. She looks away. “Quit it.” Joni shakes her head, mouth tight. They’ve talked about this a little. Well, skirted around it at least. I’m sorry if I seem weird, she’d told him one night when he’d rolled on top to kiss her and the pressure of his body had become suddenly too much, my last relationship was… She’d trailed off and he let her, pulling her on top of him, kissing her. He kisses her now. “I’m crazy about you.” He kisses the corner of her lips, a soft trail along her jaw. “Really. An absolute lunatic.” Sebastian rests his forehead against hers, smooths her hair behind her ears. “You’re my dream girl.”

“Stop it.” She says, but the ghost of a smile is forming on her lips.

“Stop? I thought you liked it when I was corny.” Joni’s grinning now, the tightness in her chest unfurling. He runs a thumb along her lip and she’s on fire now, incendiary where he touches her. She parts her lips, flexes her fingers against the soft skin on his shoulders, and lets him nudge her legs apart. He shifts closer, one hand ghosting down to undo the button on his jeans. They’ve never fucked in here. There’s something erotic about its proximity to the living room, something risky. Joni wants him to take her ankles over his shoulders, wants him to fuck her until she’s boneless, until she can barely stand it. They freeze when the garage door creaks open, pulling quickly away from each other.

“Oh hell.” Robin’s changed into her house robe, laughing as she descends the few creaking steps into the garage. “I know what you kids are doing out here.”

“We weren’t…” But Joni can’t finish the sentence. She’s livid red, bent over with embarassment.

“Well good.” Robin nudges a few empty paint cans out of her way with the toe of her slipper. “Hardly sanitary in here.” She sets two plates down on the counter. “Brought you kids some dessert. “She tightens the belt on her robe, then nods to Joni. “You staying the night? Trying to make a plan for breakfast. Need to know how many plates to set out.”

Chapter Text

Joni’s somewhere else when he’s in front of her. Light skitters across the worn boards in Gus’s back hallway, the smell of red sauce bubbling in the back kitchen is warm as ever, but the Saloon has become suddenly unfamiliar. And too familiar. An echo. She’s someone else in front of him too. That smaller, more pliable person she used to be. The homecoming is unpleasant. She feels queasy, unsteady. It’s hard to breathe. Her chest is a heavy stone in her body.

She wonders vaguely if Elliot has always been this tall, always taken up this much space. It occurs to her that she doesn’t know him hardly at all. Sees him only sometimes when she ventures down to the beach. He’s been peripheral, always, but now he’s right here. Right in front of her. He smells salty, like he’d come just out of the sea, but he’s using too much cologne and all Joni wants is to not be close enough to smell him.

He was waiting for her outside the bathroom, right there in the path of the door, barely trying to play it off as something else. He’s got the same eerie grin he’d had the night of the Halloween party. She’s mostly sober tonight, only a few beers in, but it has the same destabilizing effect as it had then. Joni backs up the wall almost instinctually, her body pulling away from him, but he is quick too and saunters over, his body looming between her and the door.  “Hey.” His voice is soft, almost a whisper, and it puts her even more on edge. “Are you free?”

The question barely registers. Joni’s heart is loud in her ears and her feet refuse to cooperate. “Um, I mean I’m here with friends.”

His laugh is breathy. Beneath it, she can feel his irritation. He’s impatient. She can tell by the glint in his eye that he expected this to go down differently than it is. She’s fluent in men’s expectation, in the violence simmering just beneath. Elliot averts his eyes then sweeps them back up her body. His pupils are enormous. “Aren’t we friends?”

Joni’s heart stutters. She tries to remember if they’ve talked before. If there’s something between them that she missed. “I’m sorry?”

He chuckles. It’s vaguely menacing. “Hey now, I may be a writer, but I’m not a complicated man. I’d like to get to know you.”

Joni recoils, her back brushing up against the patterned wood of the wall. He’s boxed her in the way all men who do this do. Far enough away to look innocuous, hands casually in the pockets of his slacks, but close enough to her that she can’t not touch him if she tries to slip past. She’s within his grip. “I’ve got some records at my place. Better than the nonsense they play here.” He gestures vaguely in the air. “Why don’t we head back, listen to a few. You like music, right?”

Joni’s thoughts are winding slowly through her brain. She’s missing something, has to be. Why else would he talk to her like this? Like he knows her. “Thanks,” she says, hoping what she says next will fall a little easier on him, “but, um, like I said I’m here with some friends, so…”

“I like you, Joni. You know that.” Joni searches his eyes. She’s trying to remember each time they’ve talked, everything they’ve said to each other. Just small talk. Friendly banter in the aisles of Pierre’s store, weak waves from across the town square. Neighborly things. He showed her a shell once on the beach, a rare blue thing that cast an eerie light. She can count the times they’ve spoken on one hand and that only makes the fear in her chest grow. “I find you so interesting.” He pauses, like he’s trying to draw out the drama. “A muse, perhaps.” He winks. “Have I told you about my novel?” Had he? He doesn’t wait for her to reply. “I want to write something groundbreaking. Something new. A romance.” He smiles, but it fades quickly when he looks down on her face. Joni’s heart is just pounding in her chest. She glances past Elliot’s shoulder toward the bar, hoping that someone will come looking for her now that she’s been gone for a minute But why would they? The Saloon is safe. Familiar. Elliot leans closer, swaggering like trying to be suave. “Let’s get out of here.”

Her eyes flit up to his face. “Listen, Elliot. I’m flattered, but I’m actually with-“

“I’ve heard.” Elliot fingers the collar of her button down, eyes drifting up the length of her jeans. “You do seem to get around, don’t you?” Joni flinches. He’s calling her a slut. He’s calling her a fucking slut and she should be furious, but Joni just feels small. And then a sharp panic settles in her chest. All her months in the Valley have collapsed suddenly into a single sentence. Is this what Sebastian thinks of her? Or god, Robin? Is this how they all see her? “I don’t mind that.” He reaches up to tug at her hair, like he wants her to focus. She’s overwhelmed by the smell of him. Cologne and fabric softener and altoids. What a fraud, she thinks, what a child. “You live a bohemian lifestyle. I get it. I’m a writer. We live a certain way.”

“It’s not like that.”

He smiles again. That terrifying smile. Joni can’t believe she didn’t notice him before this. Really notice him. He’s a well of barely contained anger, tightly coiled entitlement. She expects him, suddenly, to hit her. Instead, he just laughs. A humorless sound. “I’m sure it’s not.” His fingers move from the collar of her shirt to her neck. He drags his thumb up the side of it, smiling all the way, like he can convince her she wants his touch just through the sheer force of his will. “Come back with me. We can listen to the ocean from my bed. Tell your friends you just want to come listen to some records. No one needs to know.” Joni opens her mouth to say something, anything, but nothing emerges. The tips of her fingers have gone a little numb and her body feels slippery, like she’s trying to climb out of it. The hallway wobbles. Elliot frowns. “Don’t insult me, Joni. I’ve seen the way you look at me.”

“I…don’t look at you.” Her voice is lost in the sounds filtering in from the bar. Elliot doesn’t even seem to hear her, to process what she’s said at all. His thumb edges up to her jaw, his other fingers resting on her cheek. She’s collapsing inside. The terror inside is icy and familiar. She lets him slip his other thumb through her belt loop. It feels inevitable, really, and Joni wonders if she’ll tell Sebastian about this when it’s all over, when Elliot does whatever he’s going to do to her, if he’ll be angry at her.

The sound of the bathroom door startles her but Elliot doesn’t seem to notice. He’s saying something that she can’t hear. Shane whistles as he tucks his shirt back into his pants. He heads down the hall, then stops, does a double take. He and Joni lock eyes. He glances at Elliot then back at her. He nods almost imperceptibly, then slips down the hall back into the bar.  Joni deflates. Elliot has his hand in the small of her back now, edging her a little closer to him. She’s furious with herself, absolutely incensed. She should be shouting, pushing him away, but she’s rigid under his touch. She’s an echo inside herself, shutting off inch by inch. She doesn’t hear their footsteps until they’re right beside her. Sebastian, with Shane at his heels. “Joni.” Elliot startles. He twitches away from her so quickly that Joni stumbles forward, his thumb still looped in her pants. “Everything alright?”  Sebastian’s not looking at Elliot, just Joni. But she averts her eyes. She wishes she could just disappear, just drop dead.

Elliot quickly regains his composure, puffing up like a peacock. “No need to be a brute. We’re just having a conversation.”

“Conversation over.” Shane says, his eyes narrow. Sebastian raises his hand gently in the air, a quiet plea for Shane to settle down.

Elliot turns back to Joni. She’s still up against the wall. Every cell in her body feels like it’s trembling. “Is this the kind of man you like?” Elliot doesn’t move, but Joni still flinches all the same. “Which one of them are you fucking tonight?”

Shane makes an outraged noise, but Sebastian is collected as ever. He puts a wide hand on Elliot’s shoulder. “Listen man, let’s not make this into something it doesn’t need to be.”

Elliot sloughs him off. “Don’t touch me, asshole.”

Sebastian’s eyes flash. His voice is still steady, but it’s lower than Joni’s ever heard it. “You need to fuck off, alright? You need to get the fuck out of here.”

Elliot is squirming in front of them. “Or what?” But as soon as the words come out of his mouth, he freezes, like he’s seeing the two men in front of him for the first time. He shakes his head. “I don’t need this.” He turns to give Joni one last, long look then heads down toward the bar. They fall into silence, the sound of Elliot’s shoes echoing loudly as he goes.

Shane’s the first to speak. “She okay?” He’s bouncing on the balls of his feet, suddenly all nerves, hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans.

“It's all good, man. Thanks for letting me know.” Sebastian nods toward the door and Shane nods back, giving Joni a weak smile before he heads out. Sebastian lowers his voice. “Hey.” Joni’s eyes flutter closed. Her hands balled in fists at her sides. Her fingers are so stiff, her shoulders tight, pain radiating up her neck. Just gently, Sebastian tilts her chin. She peers up at him. His eyes are so soft. “Hey. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Joni shrugs. “I don’t know what that was about.”

“Shit, no kidding. What the fuck did he think he was doing?" He clears his throat, voice a little softer. "It’s okay if you’re not fine too though.”

“I am.” Joni says firmly.

Sebastian nods, looking absently over her shoulder at the dark wood. He runs his teeth over his bottom lip. “Did he, um…”

“No.” Joni says it so quickly that Sebastian frowns, glancing over to where Elliot disappeared back into the bar.

He rests his hands on her shoulders, thumbs rubbing little circles along her collarbone. “That’s good. Um, do you um…”

“Let’s go back out.” Joni massages her jaw, trying to work out the tension. “Yeah? Let’s go drink some more.”

“We don’t have to.”

“I want to.”

Sebastian looks at her carefully. “Okay…” He takes his hands slowly off her. “Yeah, sounds good.

 

Sebastian's watching Joni like a hawk. Leah too. She can feel them both. Neither say a word. It’s a warm night, the hottest days of summer just around the corner. Condensation rolls down their glasses. But even in the Saloon’s thick warmth, Joni feels chilled. The feeling of Elliot’s fingers on her neck is stuck on a loop. She presses her own hand to the spot, trying to replace the feeling of his touch. Her skin feels hot under her fingers, feverish almost, and she slides up to try and surreptitiously take her own pulse. Her heart is fluttering like a frantic bird and when she closes her eyes, she imagines her heart stuttering, overtaxed, before it comes apart at the seams like a worn sweater, blood dripping down her ribcage, pooling in her gut. The thought gives her vertigo. She can feel the room spinning even with her eyes closed and she lays her palms flat on the table to try and steady herself without drawing everyone’s attention. Joni slowly opens her eyes. The table is unchanged. Their ragtag group all piled into the back booth. She’d come with Leah and Sebastian, ran into Abigail on the way through town. Emily and Shane had been at the booth already, waved them over warmly. Leah’d rolled her eyes, but smiled, slipping her arm over Joni as they crossed the bar. “Guess we’re doing this, huh?”

But now everything seems muted. Grey and hazy. Joni blinks a few times to clear her vision. Maybe she’s been crying and didn’t realize. The skin of her face is dry and tight when she touches it and she hopes that no one notices she’s trying to physically hold herself together.

Sebastian has eyes so dark his pupils disappear and they are watching her now, mouth tight. His fingers are wrapped around his beer but he doesn’t take a drink, doesn’t move an inch. Leah is the same, but her big green eyes are wracked with emotion. She’s pleading, trying not to draw attention from the others, but absolutely begging for Joni to say something. Joni glances away from both of them, looking instead at the old jukebox in the corner of the room. It looks like a yawning face and even that’s too much for her. When she glances back at the table, she has to blink its bright colors from her vision. She tries, dutifully almost, to sort her thoughts out. To calm herself down. It should be easier than it is. Nothing even happened. Not really. And she’s here, surrounded by friends. But her thoughts are too chaotic to know better. She can’t pin them down. They rush around her head like anxious children and the rest of her body bends toward their will. Elliot’s fingers are back, solid as if they’re real, and they quickly become another man’s fingers and their grip on her throat tightens. Her body refuses to forget, doesn’t know how. It’s livid, her body. An animal that refuses to be soothed.

Joni scans the Saloon, aware suddenly that Elliot could be anywhere, still waiting, that barely controlled anger simmering inside of him. “He’s not here.” Joni jumps, knocking her knees on the underside of the table. Shane’s nursing a sparkling water, looking darkly over the lip of his glass at her. She looks at him a little wide-eyed. Everyone at the table seems primed to reach over and grab her, stop her from bolting. “Stormed off like a psycho.”

“He always weirded me out.” Emily offers, tapping her brightly colored nails on the table.

“How long has he been in town?” Leah leans back in her chair, arms crossed. Her hair’s down today, a rarity, and the humidity in the air has made it frizzy on the ends. She’s thrown a paint-speckled smock over her jeans.

“Elliot?” Abigail asks mid-sip of beer. Everyone at the table nods. “Hmm, well,” She rests head on her hand, twining her fingers into her violet hair. “I think he got here right after my graduation, so, um, Yoba, three years? Maybe? Maybe two.”

“That seems right,” Emily agrees. She frowns, “The first time I met him I could tell he had a harsh energy.” She lowers her voice conspiratorially, “he was so rude to Gus the first time he came in here.” Everyone at the table starts talking at once.

“Gus is the nicest.” Shane says loudly, arms crossed over his chest, “like the nicest. What kind of asshole…” He trails off, shaking his head.

“You made him a painting right?” Emily gestures vaguely in Leah’s direction.

Leah bristles, frowning. “He paid me to make art for him, yes.” Her voice is tight, the energy between her and Emily still precarious.

Sebastian leans forward. “Really?”

Leah nods. “He commissioned one when I first got here. Like a couple of weeks after I moved into the residency actually.”

“What was is of?” Sebastian pops a few fries into his mouth, licking the salt and grease off his thumbs.

Leah shrugs. “It was abstract. He didn’t give me a lot of direction. Just wanted me to listen to my artistic intuition. I remember him saying that because, Yoba, what a complete asshole thing to say.” She takes a long sip of beer. “We discussed some basic shit before I drew up the invoice. Colors he liked. Style. I don’t know, looking back, he didn’t really seem to care about the piece. I guess it sort of seemed a little like a come on.”

“How much did he pay you for it?” Sebastian’s picking at the fries, still trying to catch Joni’s eye. She manages a weak smile, mouth still tight.

“Couple hundred. It was oil, so…”

Sebastian whistles, going back for more fries. “Expensive come on.”

Leah laughs. “Yeah, well, I think he figured out he was barking up the wrong tree pretty quickly and he didn’t make much effort to stay in touch after that.” Joni’s trying to listen. Or, at least, trying to look like she’s listening, but she’s quickly losing her grip. Her fingers have gone numb, her lips heading that way. The Saloon is suddenly tiny, closed in. The ceiling feels only inches from her head. All the air has gone out the windows and her lungs are burning for oxygen. She wants to run for the door, wants to start screaming just to get all of the energy that’s building up inside of her out. “Can we go for a smoke?” A hush falls over the table. Joni has no idea how loud her voice is, how she must sound. Sebastian’s already got a lit cigarette in his hand and he’s got this look on his face that Joni can’t even begin to try and figure out. She swallows hard. “I mean, um, could just…could we maybe just step out to get some fresh air.”

Sebastian stands, leaving his cigarette to burn in the booth’s ashtray. “Yeah, yeah, of course.”

Leah looks from Sebastian to Joni. She’s got her hands on the table like she might want to follow them, but Joni clears her throat. “I’m fine.” And then a little more firmly. “I’m good. I just…it’s sort of muggy in here, you know.”

“Yeah, totally.” Leah gives her a pointed look and Joni does her best to smile.

“Feel better,” Shane calls after them as they go.

 

“So, what’s up?” Joni leans against the Saloon’s outer brick and closes her eyes. The thick vines snaking up the wall envelop her, their leaves damp from the humid air. She’d hoped some fresh air would help, hoped the change of scenery would settle her down, but she’s started to shake even harder. Her fingers are so stiff she can barely straighten them. Joni knows, somewhere quiet in the back of her mind, that she needs to breathe. She inhales on ten counts, but only makes it to five on the hold before she quickly exhales, holding herself tightly. “Joni?” His voice sounds watery, far away. The dread in her chest is unbearable. She’s completely unmoored, bobbing in a thick darkness. There’s no air there. “Hey.” His voice is closer now. She can feel the heat of his breath. “What’s going on?”

“I think I need to go home.” The words come out in a rushed jumble.

Sebastian’s touch on her is an echo, her body numb and clammy. “Okay, sure. Yeah.”

“Okay…um…” Joni feels so helpless. Trapped. Even the wide, starry dark above them feels like it’s bearing down on her. She’s afraid like a child would be. Afraid and helpless and so overwhelmed that she feels like her body is breaking to pieces. Sebastian feels miles away. All her friends just as far away. Joni is alone in her terror and the weight of it nearly sends her collapsing onto the cobblestone path. She starts to cry. Quietly at first, then louder. It’s a pathetic sound, a gulping, whining, horrible sound.

At first, Sebastian seems stuck. His eyes dart, fingers flexing impotently. Then he takes his own ragged breath and rests his hands firmly on her shoulders. “Let’s get you home, okay?”

 

Joni only makes it just past the bus stop before the darkness and loud calls of the cicadas overwhelm her. “I’m really fucked up,” she says, leaning heavily on the rickety fence.

Sebastian ashes his cigarette in the dirt and takes a few steps in her direction. “You didn’t have that much to drink, I don’t think.”

“No, like in general.”

“You’re gonna be just fine.” His twang is back. She’s been noticing it more. Like honey. He tucks her hair behind her ears and she shudders, tears coming faster now. “You’re alright. Everything’s alright.”

“It’s isn’t.” Her voice is so shrill. Sebastian is pulling her gently down the path.” Stop, stop, please.” The world is spinning. Joni’s only taking shallow breaths, little, harsh gasps. “I’m gonna just…can we just…” She slumps slowly down onto the path. The rough stones along the path are sharp on her fingers. The air smells like sweet grass and the vague, pungent rot of freshly tilled earth. It should soothe her, but it only makes her cry harder, desperate for the peace she’d felt only hours earlier. That elusive, dangerous feeling.

Sebastian follows her down, crouching over her, hand firmly on her back. “Do I need to go wake Harvey up.” Joni shakes her head. “Are you sure?” His voice is always so steady. Always. “Joni, I’m gonna need you to tell what the fuck is going on, okay? Because you seem sick, alright, and if we need to call-”

“I’m having a panic attack.” Joni clutches her chest, like she’s in a movie. Her heart is pounding.

Sebastian exhales. “Oh.” Then a little more confidently, “okay, that’s alright. We can handle that.” He guides her slowly to her feet. “Do you, um, get these a lot?”

Joni’s throat is so tight that her voice comes out thin and quiet. “I guess.”

She tries to slump back onto the ground, but Sebastian keeps her upright. “I think we should try to get you inside. Here.” He slides an arm under her knees, the other slipping around her back. He grunts a little as he picks her up, jostling her gently to better distribute her weight. Joni leans her head weakly against his chest, arms resting on her stomach.

“I’m so sorry.” She speaks it into his chest, tears wet and hot on her cheeks. “I’m so sorry. I know you’ve had such a long day at work. I know you’ve been looking forward to going out all fucking week.”

“You don’t need to be sorry.” His chin brushes the top of her head, fingers soft and steady where he’s holding her. “You don’t ever need to be sorry about something like this,”

 

Sebastian sets her down on the couch, goes searching for one of the quilts she’s got in the front room. Goose is hiding under the tv, eyes the only part of him visible in the darkness. “Do you want the tv on?” Joni just shrugs, her tongue feels swollen in her mouth. Sebastian turns it on but mutes it, the way she sometimes keeps it in the evenings. “Let me get you something to drink.” Sebastian slips his sneakers off and heads into the kitchen. The world’s a little more settled. Joni feels more settled in her body too. But dread is still heavy inside of her. It peaks in her chest, the sharp claws of raw fear pricking her heart. She starts in on her nails. Tearing the skin beside them with her teeth like she can force the feeling out of her body if she distracts it with pain. She tastes the cool, metallic flavor of her own blood.

Joni doesn’t notice Sebastian until he's settled across from her on the couch. He sets the glass of water down on the floor and takes her fingers gently from her mouth. “Don’t do that.” Joni yanks them back. She’s smeared blood on her fingertips, on her palms. “Please. Don’t do that, okay? You’re hurting yourself.” Joni starts to cry again, folding in on herself. Her joints are stiff again. The world tilts a little and she swallows a gulp of air, coughing when it goes down wrong. “Is this about Elliot?” She shakes her head. “I’m serious. Did he do something back there?”

She practically howls, overwhelmed. She feels right on that precipice again. The same she did that morning, that horrible morning. And she wants him to hold onto her, to keep her from falling off it, but he doesn’t know how tightly he needs to hold her, doesn’t know what he’s keeping her from falling into. “My mom didn’t die in an accident or whatever.” She doesn’t know where this is coming from. Her mouth is running on its own track. “She wasn’t sick.” Sebastian’s face betrays nothing, but his adam’s apple bobs when he gulps. “She killed herself.” Joni coughs again, tears choking her. “And then I tried to. Right before I moved here. I tried to die.”

“Okay.” He has his hands on her arms, tighter now than they were before. “Okay, that’s okay. There’s no, um, there’s no shame in that.”

“Because I got fucked.”

His voice wavers. “What?”

“Because, because…” Snot is running from her nose and she wrenches herself away from him, wiping her nose on her hands. His hands return timidly to her, holding her like she’s brittle, like she might shatter.

“Joni, what are you talking about?”

“They just…they…” Was this it? The real reason? She’d denied it for so long, held it deeply inside her. But it’s the first thing out of her mouth, the only reason she can see anymore. “It was horrible. They were so horrible.”
         “They? Who’s they?”

         Joni winches. “I know, I know. It’s disgusting.”

         “No, no I’m just…I’m trying to listen. I’m trying to understand what you’re telling me.”

         She whimpers. “Please don’t hate me.”

         He tightens his grips on her arms. She can’t even see him past her own tears. Everything is a blur of muted colors. “What are you talking about?”

         “I just don’t want you to hate me.” She leans her head against his chest, eager for his warmth. Wanting to feel him against her, sure now that it might be the last time. “I don’t want this to be over.”

         “Nothing’s over, okay? Nobody hates you. I’m just, I’m sorry, I’m just trying to follow.”

         “It was so dumb,” She wants to stop, but she needs to remove it from her body, force it out, “we’d been broken up for weeks. I have no idea why the fuck I went with him…why I let him…” She looks up at him, blinking tears from her vision. “Like tonight.” Her chest heaves. “Like fucking tonight when I just stood there and took it.”

         “Joni.” She shakes her head, still crying hard. Sebastian holds her face in his hands. “Joni, hey. Why don’t you lie down, okay? We can talk about this all in the morning. Why don’t you just-“

         “I wish they’d killed me,” Sebastian freezes, “I don’t want to have to think about this anymore. I couldn’t take it before. I couldn’t take it. I don’t want to have to do this again.”

Sebastian pulls her tighter, resting his chin on the top of her head. “No one’s gonna hurt you, okay? I’m right here. I’m gonna be right here all night. And the whole town is up, the whole town is here and-“

“But I’m the one I need to be worried about.” He pushes her away, just enough for him to get a good look at her face. “I’m the one who can fuck everything up.”

He pulls her back against his chest. “I’m not gonna let anything bad happen to you. I’m gonna let you do anything bad either.” She exhales and maybe that’s all she needed. His promises, stolid and confident.

She leans heavily against him, clinging to the fabric of his shirt. “It was awful. I don’t even think I realized how awful it was until I came here.” He’s not saying anything, just stroking her hair, holding her tightly. “I bled for a week.” She feels the muscles in his stomach clench. His jaw is working like he’s trying to figure out what the fuck to say to that, and she is suddenly white hot with embarrassment. She pulls away. “Do you think I’m a slut?”

He frowns, still reaching for her. “What?”

Joni’s jaw is tight, teeth aching. “Just answer the question. Please.”

“Joni.” It’s not no. It’s not no and that is too much. All the terror roars back to life. She twists on the couch and retches onto the floor. “I’m gonna call Leah.” She feels him get off the couch. “Is that okay? Is it okay if I call her?” Joni heaves, vomiting bile onto the hardwood. He goes for the phone.  

 

The darkness is soft around them. The crickets a sweet chorus from the open window. The smell of grass and flowers and a more distant smell of burning wood wafts over the bed. Joni knows Sebastian is awake, can hear him shifting, hear his breathing. She can hear Leah too, out in the living room. She coos softly to Goose, flipping through the channels on the tv. Sebastian made her a bed on the couch after they’d eaten. He’d thrown together some things from the pantry, cracked a few eggs over it. They’d sat quietly at the kitchen table, both of them watching Joni carefully. It felt as humiliating as it felt safe. Gratitude and embarrassment warring inside of her.

Leah’d made her a hot cup of coffee, helped her into the shower. And now, in her own bed, Joni’s clean and full and, still trembling, but the nightmarish feeling inside of her has dissipated. Her voice is barely above a whisper, but Sebastian stops his shifting behind her when she speaks. “I would understand if you want this to be it.”

Silence, then the sound of him turning in bed. His breath is on the back of her neck, fingers just lightly on her arm. “What do you mean?”

Joni rolls onto her back to get a better look at him. “I get it. Like you didn’t sign up for all of this.”

“I…I don’t really know what you’re talking about.” The soft pressure of his hand on her hips is soothing, but Joni still feels thorny, anxious.

“I’m a disaster Sebastian. Worse than you think.”

The sheets swish as Sebastian sits a little up, resting his head on his hand. “You’re not a disaster.”

She reaches up to touch his face, runs her thumb along the outline of his lips. “You have no idea.”

He leans down, smelling like sleep and soap, and kisses the tip of her nose. He presses his palm against the smooth plane of her stomach. “I have some idea.”

Chapter Text

The hot air rolls down Joni’s bare legs, cooling as it comes in through the truck's window. The laces on one of her sneakers have come undone. They flap in the wind as the road whizzes past. She hasn’t sat like this, legs hanging out the window of a truck, in ages. Sebastian’s got one hand on the wheel, the other on her thigh. She leans into his touch.

He hasn’t told her where they’re going and she hasn’t asked. Last night is lighter, but it’s still hanging from her. Her cheeks are still tight from crying, a knot of fear still resting in her chest, threatening to bloom. But that knot doesn’t have the same teeth in the sunlight. Sebastian runs his thumb in soft circles on her skin. Her pats her thigh then relinquishes it, rooting around in his jeans for a cigarette. It’s a warm smell, when he lights it, a familiar smell. Joni closes her eyes for just a second, just to let the sun warm her face, to let the smell of him envelop her. Her eyelids flutter open and she glances over at him, like she wants to make sure he’s still there. Not just a dream. She turns her eyes back to the road. It’s simmering, Heat rising off it in waves.

“My dad used to take me here.” Sebastian says as they turn onto a gravel road.

“Oh yeah?” Joni watches him closely from the corner of her eye. Like with the skis on the Feast of the Winter Star, she isn’t sure how to react. It should be easier, she thinks, because she knows how this feels, but maybe that’s why it’s not, because she knows all the wrong turns she can take.

“Every summer around this time, actually.” The land has flattened some. Thick, dense forests rolling into wildflower speckled meadow. And now this. A few scraggy sycamores dot the road and beyond their twisting branches, miles and miles of dusky farmland stretch out before them. The truck bucks on the road, kicking up dust and small pebbles. Joni shields her eyes from the blaring sun. “My mom took me a few more times after he died, but, you know, we stopped eventually.” He clears his throat. “I guess it was mostly a me and my dad sort of thing.” He ashes the cigarette on the window frame. “I guess I’ve been thinking about it lately.”

“It’s hard to keep that stuff up.” Joni pulls her feet back inside and sits cross-legged on the seat. “I, uh, pretty much stopped coming to Pelican Town after my mom died.” Joni worries her lip. “I think it was too painful for my dad.”

“Do you ever wonder if we met?” Sebastian glances over at her. “Back then, I mean, as kids.”

It’d never occurred to her before. She’d met a lot of kids in the Valley those summers with her grandfather. A blur of muddy hands and track shorts with piped hems. She can’t remember any of their names. Their faces a single composite of a toothy, smiling kid. And besides, he's four, five years older than her. He would have been a tween by the time she stopped coming, when she was still just a little kid. But the idea expands in her head. It hadn’t occurred to her either that maybe some of the others in town remembered her like that, young and smiling. Was that why Robin had been so generous those first few months? She turns to him. “Do you think we did?”

“Maybe.” He pulls into a dirt driveway, “I doubt it though.” He smiles a little shyly at her, “I was kind of a sullen little kid. You probably wouldn’t have even noticed me.”

“I doubt that.” The faintest blush blooms on his cheek. They pass a narrow gate. Fruits and Vegetables is written in an unsteady hand on a wooden sign that looks like it’s seen its share of harvest seasons. Joni holds onto the handle on the truck’s door, trying to keep herself from jostling too hard as the truck rumbles down the dirt drive. The farmhouse at the end of it is squat, almost spooky – peeling paint and windows thick with grime – but a whole Eden of food is laid out on long tables beside it, shaded by worn, white tents. Big watermelons rest heavily on the tables. Joni can see pyramids of pale colored melons, baskets of dark plums. One table is full of tomatoes, squat and ridged like pumpkins. “Wouldn’t it be funny if we had? Met each other before, I mean.”

“Very.” He kills the engine. It makes the wet, sputtering sound that Joni’s become so familiar with. “Emily would say it was fate.” He smiles at her, warm and full. She smiles back, reaching over to brush a few curls from his forehead.

 

It’s still dusty when they get out of the truck. The air smells like pinon and Joni can see a few squat trees out behind the house. Her mother used to roast pine nuts, Joni remembers suddenly. She’d sprinkle them over salad, press them into the tops of almond-y cookies. The memory doesn’t hurt like she expects it to. She wonders if she could roast her own pine nuts, sprinkle them on top of those salads Leah’s always making.

“You’re too early for olives,” the woman sitting behind the front table calls out. She’s wider than she looks tall, well-muscled. Her skin is bronzed, wrinkled a little like leather. A lifetime out in the sun. “And we don’t got avocados this far north. Just lettin’ you know.”

“I gotcha.” Sebastian calls back. “We’re just here for the fruit.” He leans toward Joni, lowering his voice. “She must think we’re tourists.”

“Why?”

Sebastian cocks an eyebrow at her. “Everybody knows we don’t have tropical fruit this far north.”

“Everybody doesn’t know that.” Joni says, shielding her eyes from the sun as she looks up at him. “What kind of country boy shit is that?”

Sebastian’s laugh is so full, so nice. “Yoba, you really are the worst farmer I’ve ever heard of.”

“Hey!” But he’s already off walking, his long legs quickly closing the distance to the tables. She follows him and the air is suddenly heavy with sweetness, almost cloying.

 

“Do you know how to pick one of these?” Sebastian asks, holding a cantaloupe up to catch the light. He’s been making small talk with the woman running the place, the twang in his voice more pronounced than she’s ever heard it. Joni’s been examining the plums, letting them sparkle like jewels in the sunlight. His question catches her off-guard.

“Like from the ground?”

He chuckles. “No, like how to pick a good one. To eat.”

“Oh no, I don’t think so.” She tries to remember but comes up with nothing. “My grandfather mostly taught me about fishing.” Not that she can remember much of that either.

Sebastian gives her a questioning look. “Do you fish?”

Joni laughs. “Absolutely not.” She bumps him lightly with her hip. “So alright, know-it-all. Tell me how to pick a good one.” He grins.

 

         Joni clambers into the bed of the truck. Sebastian follows, a cantaloupe under his arm. They’ve driven a few miles down the gravel road; picked a spot under a few poplars where the grass is taller and dotted with the broad, red heads of poppies. It’s almost shady and definitely secluded. The truck bed bounces under Sebastian’s weight as he hefts himself up. Joni sits cross-legged against the side, sunning her bare legs and shoulders. Sebastian digs around in the tool box Robin’s got in the back until he finds a little drop point knife. He splits the cantaloupe down the middle and starts to make clean work of the orange flesh, cutting it into uniform cubes. “You’re good at that.”

         Sebastian flashes her a crooked grin. “Country boy shit.” He looses one of the cubes from the rind and offers it to Joni. “Here. First bite’s for you.”

         She gets on all fours and crawls toward him, taking his fingers in her mouth. Sebastian quietly gasps. She nips at his knuckles as she bites into the fruit. It’s densely sweet, almost candy. Some of the juice runs down her chin. Sebastian’s eyes simmer and he leans in to kiss her, their lips sticky. His fingers track juice up her thighs.

 

         They’re making love. The thought comes to her suddenly as they fuck, his moan hot on her cheek. She’s not sure she’s ever made love before, isn’t even sure how she’s identifying it as such. But it feels like it, feels easy. Their chests are pressed tight to each other, slick with exertion. The midday sun is bearing down on them, the paint chipped truck bed growing hotter and hotter as the sun rises in the sky. Joni’s sundress is hitched up around her hips. The straps have slipped own her arms, tits bouncing as Sebastian thrusts. He’s got her hard by the hips, giving her leverage to grind against him. He’s still got his clothes on, just the fly of his pants open to free his cock. His dark curls fall messily over his face and when he looks up at her with those dark eyes of his, her breath catches in her throat. His kisses the column of her throat and she melts against him. She wraps an arm around his neck and lets her head rest on his strong shoulder. He thrusts up into her, picking up the pace. “I’m gonna cum,” she whispers to him, fingers flexing over the taut muscles of his back. She flutters around him, her orgasm soft and bright, and he holds her, holds her until his own rushes over him.

His fingers dig hard into the skin of her hips. “Joni.” He breathes her name into her skin. She clings to him. Their limbs are sticky from the cantaloupe, from their sweat drying on their skin.

 

When it's all done, there’s a silence between them that begs to be filled. They’re sitting side by side, backs to the truck’s cab, watching the sun slip lower and lower in the sky. They pass the halves of the cantaloupe back and forth, working the pieces out with their fingers. “You want to ask me about it.”

Sebastian pauses, piece nearly to his lips. He sets it back on the rind and sighs. “Of course I do.” He looks over at her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you upset like that.”

“Are you going to?” Sebastian raises an eyebrow. “Ask me?”

“Can I?”

Joni leans back, arms crossed over her chest. “I don’t know if it’s worth rehashing.”

“Then it’s not, but…” he passes the half back, scoots a little closer to her, “but you don’t have to pretend with me.”

“What do you mean?”

“We can talk about this shit if you want to.” He looks at her from beneath his lashes, “but you don’t have to either.”

She tucks her legs up under her, sitting a little higher. “You, like, don’t have an opinion on it?”

Sebastian sighs and sets the near-empty rind down. “Of course I have an opinion on it. You tell me all this shit,  of course I want to know what the fuck happened, okay? Of course. But I’m not gonna drag it out of you. I’m not gonna make you tell me this stuff.”

“It was my ex.” Sebastian lights a cigarette, settles so he can look at her properly. “And two guys that I knew. Or well…” She winches. “I knew one of them, sort of. The other one was, um, I think he worked with my ex. Corporate guy, I guess.”

‘This is the ex you’ve mentioned, yeah? The most recent one?”

“Yeah, him.” Joni leans forward, arms wrapped around her legs. She rests her head on her knees and sighs. “He’d um…well, actually, we’d been uh broken up, but…” Joni sneers, mostly at herself, “I don’t know, if he said jump, I’d jump.”

“I can’t really imagine that.” Sebastian lights his second cigarette with the burning tip of the first. As the sun sinks down, it takes the warmth with it. It’s different out here, in this flatter country. The fields stretch on forever, the trees aflame in the waning light.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not a pushover.”

Joni laughs bitterly. “Oh no?”

“No.” He says firmly.

Joni shifts. “Well, that’s what happened. And, um, I guess it messed me up pretty bad. I mean, I guess I was kind of messed up before then too.” She glances over at him. “I was in a hospital for a few months, um, before I moved out here.”

“Because you, um…” He winces.

“Yeah.”

Sebastian nods. “That takes guts.”

“What?”

“To get help.” He ashes the cigarette. “That’s brave, I don’t know.” The setting sun has rimmed him in gold. “I’m…” He swallows hard, “I’m glad you…didn’t, um, go through with it. I’m glad you’re here.” Joni says nothing. She has nothing to say. She only reaches for his fingers, twining them tightly with her own.

 

On the way home, they stop at a gas station, lonely along the highway, backed up against the endless forest. Joni buys a joja cola and they split one of those cream cheese cakes wrapped in crinkly plastic that they sell at the register. It has a chemical tang, almost too moist. Sebastian turns the radio on. He likes the folk station, taps his foot as he drives.

It was winter last time they were together in the truck like this, barreling down the highway. So much is different. She drifts easily off, Sebastian’s hand resting on her thigh.  

Chapter Text

Leah's wearing nothing but a sports bra and underwear. They're both dark with sweat and even though she's sitting on the floor, her back to the front door, Joni can see they're flecked in wet paint. All the box fans in the cabin have been switched off, the windows tightly shut. The air is boiling and still. The fumes from the oil paint and Leah's canvas primer make it hard to even breathe. 

Joni isn't sure what she was expecting to find at Leah's place, not after the very cryptic voicemail she'd found after she finally checked her mailbox that morning, but nothing she imagines was quite as unnerving as this. She hadn't even noticed the flashing light that night before when she and Sebastian returned home. They were sticky and road worn and Joni had barely even remembered to feed Goose his dinner. They'd taken a shower together, piled on the couch in front of the tv like two heavy logs, and almost immediately dozed off. It was only in the morning when Sebastian noticed. "You've got a voicemail." He'd said between sips of coffee on his way out the door. Joni had poked her head over the back of the couch to see the little blinking red light. 

Joni takes a few experimental steps into the room, not sure yet if Leah's even noticed that she's there. "Listen, sorry I didn't get over here earlier. I was-"

"You have a life." Leah interrupts. 

"So they tell me, but...I would have come immediately if I'd been home." Joni forces the closest window open, trying to let in some fresh air. "I just-" 

"Kel's engaged." Joni stops, fingers still on the sill. "To a man." Joni flips her head to look at her. Leah's slumped in front of the canvas, hair hanging in limp, wet strands. It's dull in the face of the colors she's got on the canvas in front of her. All livid variations of red. The composition makes Joni's head hurt. 

"I'm sorry what?" 

"Yeah fucking what is right." 

 Joni forces open the other two windows and hauls one of the box fans over to them. The fan makes a sort of angry whirring when she switches it on, but soon air is moving through the cabin and Joni's feeling a little less light-headed. "You trying to suffocate in here or what?" Leah just shrugs, still looking blankly at the canvas in front of her. "How did you find out?"

Leah waves her hand limply toward the kitchen table. Joni treads lightly across Leah's floor, mindful not to disturb any of the paint cans on the floor. There's a newspaper clipping on the table. Joni picks it up and starts to read. It's a short piece, wedged between a birth announcement and an ad for a place called Joey's Fatboy Diner. Kelsey Snyder and Timothy Robinson to be wed August 25th, 1994. Yoba's Sacred World Temple, 455 LaLarona St. Zuzu. Joni flips the clipping over, like maybe it'll reveal something else to her, some reason for this to be happening."The wedding is in, like, two weeks." 

"Yeah, they're moving awfully fast." 

"Do you think she's..." 

"Pregnant?" Joni nods. Leah stands, straightening the elastic on her underwear. She wanders over to the fridge. She pulls out a joja cola and takes a few big gulps from it. For as long as Joni's known her, Leah's never touched the stuff. "Do you know what a gold star lesbian is?" Joni shakes her head. Leah sits down at the table and slides the half-empty cola can to Joni. Joni takes a few sips. It’s flat. "It's fucked up, actually. Like a womyn 4 womyn purity thing." 

"What the fuck is that?" 

         “You know for a woman who occasionally fucks women, you really don’t have a clue.” Joni shrugs. “Doesn’t matter anyway,” Leah says with a sigh. She looks older, the shadows in the cabin falling into new creases on her face. Joni wonders suddenly if she’s missed something, something big. She’s been so caught up in herself, in Sebastian, that maybe Leah’s been left in the lurch. It’s a terrifying thought. That she’s maybe fucked up the first real, good friendship she’s ever had. Joni opens her mouth to apologize, to really really apologize when Leah interrupts her, hardly noticing her change in mood. “You’re a gold star lesbian if you’ve never been fucked by a man and Kel was the loudest gold star lesbian I’ve ever met so forgive me being skeptical that she’d let a man fucking knock her up.”

         “So what the fuck happened?”

         Leah sighs. She leans hard into her hand, like the thoughts in her head are so heavy she can barely keep it upright. “I don’t have a fucking clue.”

         Joni turns the clipping over again, reads it a second time. She’d helped Leah clean a few boxes out of her crawl space in the spring and come across a couple photos of Kel. She had thick, cropped hair that only made her scrubbed face more stern and angular. She was handsome, but boorish looking. The kind of butch Joni would have admired from afar but skittered away from if she paid her any attention. In all the photos, she wore a muscle shirt to show off her toned arms. It’s almost impossible to imagine her in a wedding dress across from whoever this Timothy Robinson might be, Yoba’s trident looming expectantly between them. “Yoba.” Joni folds the clipping and puts it back on the table. “When did you even start reading the newspaper?
         “I don’t.”

         Joni’s eyes flit up to Leah’s face. “Then where did you get this?”

         Leah lifts the shell of a torn envelope, dangles it from her fingers. Her name is written in a looping script right in the center, almost like a child would. “She sent it to me.”

         A bolt of terror cuts clean through Joni. “She knows your address.”

         “My P.O. box.”

         “Yoba.” Joni sighs, her relief palpable.

         “But even if she does know where I live, like does it even matter? What’s she gonna do? Bring her husband over to meet me.”

         Joni leans back in the chair. They’re the kind of metal, soft plastic chairs Joni remembers from grade school and she wonders where Leah scrounged them up. The chair groans dangerously when she shifts her weight. “This is so…”

         “Fucked.”

         “Yeah.” Joni finishes off the joja cola and catches the slight burn of watered down whiskey at the bottom. “Have you been drinking?”

         Leah ignores her. “Why couldn’t she have just disappeared? I don’t understand why we couldn’t have just forgotten each other.”

         “Pieces of shit don’t tend to do that.”

         Leah glances up. “Yours did.”

         Joni tries not to flinch. “He doesn’t have Kel’s patience. Clearly.”

         Leah gets a sort of timid grin on her face. “Doesn’t have her stamina.” Joni snorts. That’s probably true. She remembers all the nights her ex finished only a few minutes after they’d begun, worn out by booze and work, rolling over to fall asleep without even undressing her fully. Leah’s grin is short-lived. She sinks back down into herself. “I guess it’s over then. That’s it.”

         “It doesn’t have to be.”

         “I should feel free.”

         “You should feel however you want to feel.”

         Leah bristles, all barely contained angry energy. She’s incendiary. “This is just so fucking anticlimactic. And fucking confusing! Fuck! I almost wish she was still stalking me. Isn’t that fucking insane?”

         “I mean I don’t think that’s exactly what you want, but I get it like-“

         “No, I know, I just…” She winces. “How much was a lie? I can’t get that out of my head. Like was our relationship even real? Like, Yoba, what if I had married her and then woke up five years later and she’s just gone with some man and I’m saddled with his house in the suburbs and a couple of fucking kids.”

         “But you didn’t marry her.”

         Leah’s eyes are unfocused, looking at the wall behind Joni. “But what if I did?”

         “But you didn’t,” Joni says firmly, “and I just think-“

         Leah holds up to her hand to interrupt her. “I know exactly what you’re going to say. You just think we should get out of here, right? Take a walk?”
         “I mean, it’s-“

         “A nice day, yeah.” Leah glances back over her shoulder out the window. The sun is so bright it bleaches the scenery from the window, leaves just a square of yellow light in its place. She looks back at Joni, her face falling into shadow. It’s the second time in two days someone’s been rimmed in gold like that and Joni thinks about the fish her grandmother mounted on the wall, its jelly-like tendrils, thinks of the dried daisy wreath hanging in the Saloon, pieces of her DNA almost definitely caught between the fishing wire. There’s a magic in the Valley that seems suddenly palpable, barely benign. “I know your M.O.”

         “It’s good to be out in fresh air. It’s good to walk things out.”

         “Is that what they told you in the hospital?”

         “No, my grandfather taught me that.”

         Leah looks almost startled. Like she’s uncovered something she wasn’t supposed to. It’s the expression they used to both have in the early months of their relationships, when nothing had been revealed. “Really?”

         “Yeah.” Joni crunches the joja can between her fingers. “Besides, I don’t think breathing all this in is gonna make you feel better.”

         “Or it’s gonna make me feel a lot better.”

         Joni scoffs. “If you wanna get high we can always call Emily.”

         Leah glares, but her lips curl up in just the slightest smirk. “Don’t you dare call Emily.”

 

         The path looks different than the first time Joni stumbled down it. It’s denser. The greenery thicker and harder to traverse. It looks almost alien now, shattering Joni’s memory of it. The air is dense with moisture and the smell of the verdant leaves that hang low on the path. Vines snake up the thick trunks of trees and skitter across the nearly hidden path. As they reach a clearing, Joni glances over at Leah. The spring onions are long gone, the mud where they grow empty and picked over. It’s strange to be here again, beside Leah, who now knows all her secrets. More than a full calendar year from the first time she’d ventured south from the farmhouse. Skin still clammy and pale from the hospital’s thick walls. Joni tries to remember something she’d heard once, about growing a new skin, about how long it takes until all the cells on the surface of the human body have recycled themselves. Until everything she’s ever touched, everything that’s ever touched her,

She doesn’t think it takes that long, thinks that maybe she has a completely new skin now than she did that day in this same clearing.

         “Wait is this…” Joni grins back at Leah. “This is where we met right?”

         “It might be.” Joni sits cross-legged on a patch of grass beside the length of mud. She pats the spot beside her and Leah plops heavily down.

         She smiles, despite herself. “Do you know why I stopped to talk to you that day?”

         “Because you could smell my desperation a mile off?”

         “Yeah, actually.”

         Joni rolls her eyes. “Oh, come on.”

         Leah laughs, scooting closer until their hips touch. Even in the brightest part of the day, the forest beyond the clearing is impossibly dark. “No, I mean it. This town is so…I don’t know. I’d only been here for a few months then and everything seemed so perfect. Like a little miniature village. Everything in its place.” She leans back, stretching her legs out. “Yeah, there’s a drunk or two at the Saloon and, yeah, there’s that bullshit with Joja Mart, but everything was so settled. It has such a steady rhythm. Everybody was so normal and put together.”

         “Except me.”

         “And me. Hell, when I saw you knee deep in that thick mud, looking like you were just on the verge of tears, I was, I guess, sort of thrilled.” She looks at Joni. “I mean not that you were upset, but it was like Yoba, someone real in this fucking Valley. It was so intense, like I’d found my person in this mess, I don’t know.”

         “Is that why you invited me back to your place?”

         Leah laughs. “Was that weird?”

         “A little weird, yeah.” Joni teases.

         Leah laughs. “Well, you went along with it, so what does that make you?”
         “Lucky.” Joni says, suddenly serious. “I’m lucky you found me out here.” And she is, Yoba, it feels like a razor's edge. What if they’d never met? Would she even still be in Pelican Town? Would she even still be alive. Joni glances over from under her lashes. She can’t tell Leah that, it’s too intense too much, even for this moment.

         “Yeah,” Leah says between giggles, “I might just now be finding you bones stuck out here in the mud.”

         “I’m serious.”

         “Is this that everything happens for a reason thing again?”

         Joni shrugs, rolling her neck to try and lessen the tension in her shoulders. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m not even sure I care if this is all happening for a reason or whatever. I’m just glad to be here.”

         “I’m glad you’re here.”

         “I’ve been hearing that a lot lately.”

         “It’s true.” Leah seems suddenly fidgety. “Hey, I…I didn’t even ask about…you.” Joni raises an eyebrow. “Are you doing okay? I mean after what happened at the Saloon, I just…”

         “I’m better now.”

         Leah nods. “Good, good. I’m sorry. You must be so stressed about it. I mean now that Kel is off the table….”

         “Is she?”

         “I’d like her to be. Besides,” she shifts where she’s sitting, “you’re the one with the weirdo problem now.”

         Joni stiffens. “What do you mean?”

         “Elliot.”

         Joni swallows hard. “What about him?”

         “He just gives me a bad feeling is all. It’s weird what he did. Sebastian told me that wasn’t the first time either.”

         Joni’s mouth is dry. “What did he tell you?”

         “Spirit’s Eve.” Leah eyes her. “Why didn’t you tell me about that?”

         Joni shakes her head. “It wasn’t…I don’t remember it being that big of a deal. Yoba, I can’t believe Sebastian even remembers that.”

         “Well, I just think we should be careful is all. Like, you know, keep your distance and all.”

         “Where is this coming from?”

         “I’ve just been thinking. People are shitty. People are scary.

         “You’re scaring me!”

         Leah sits up a little straighter. “No! Yoba, sorry, I didn’t mean to. Shit, look at me. It’s just been a couple of long days. I’m just rambling. I don’t know.” She exhales, looking up at the narrow patch of sky visible through the trees. “It’s fine. It’s fine,” she says a little more firmly when she sees how wide Joni’s eyes have gotten. “Nothing’s gonna happen. I’m just in a weird mood. So many weird things are happening.”

         “Yeah,” The forest is suddenly sinister, full of eyes. All the fine hairs on the back of her neck are at attention. Joni shivers. “Yeah, I get it.”

Chapter Text

"It's a funeral." 

Joni's pen hovers over her notepad, phone still cradled between her shoulder and her ear. When Goose yowls she realizes that she's stopped scratching him behind his ears. "Oh Yoba, seriously?" 

"Yeah.' Sebastian's voice is a little muffled. The phone line to his basement room has to traverse a solid rock foundation and sometimes it sounds like he's calling her from a cave. 

Joni sighs, leaning heavily on the table. "I mean I guess we should have expected that." 

"He's young too." 

"Fuck. How young?" Disgruntled, Goose wanders off, batting at the curtain with claws out to show his displeasure. "Like a kid?" 

"No, uh..." She hears the click of his mouse, "23. He was an army cadet. Killed in action." 

"Fuck." 

"Yeah, well the other order is for a wedding so..." 

"Nice, that's better," then Joni freezes, " Wait, do you have the names?" 

"Uh, yeah. Rita Sarkisian and, um, Joseph Rutt. Why?" 

Joni exhales. The image of her flowers in Kel's hands had flashed horribly in her mind. "No reason. Just curious." 

"Gotcha. Well, I don't know how to pronounce some of these names." 

"Of the flowers?" 

"Yeah." 

“That's fine," she says, clicking the pen in her hand. "Just spell them for me." 

"They both want the same thing." 

Joni pauses. "Wait, the wedding and the funeral?" 

"Yeah." 

"They want the same flowers?" 

"Yep." 

"Wow, that's..." 

"Kind of heavy?" 

"Yeah, holy Yoba." Her mind drifts suddenly back to her mother's funeral. The day is a blur, but she remembers that the temple had been filled with pale pink peonies. The flowers heavy with petals, dense and open like rows of teeth. Peonies were Joni's favorite flower then. It hurts to look at them now.

"Well try not to think too hard about it, I guess," Sebastian chuckles, "you got a pen on you?" Joni makes an affirmative noise in her throat. "Okay, first one is g l-" 

"Gladiola?" 

"Um, probably? How did you know?" 

"Lucky guess." Joni likes the structure of those flowers, the way they cling tightly to each other as their ambitious stems stretch toward the sky. She starts to think, as she sketches the bare shape of the flower, that maybe she is cut out for this after all. That maybe there is something in the blood that her grandfather passed down to her, something that belongs out here with all this damn nature. 

"Wait, how much do you know about flowers? I don't think we've ever talked about this." 

"Hold on, you agreed to help me with this and you didn't think I had any experience with flowers?"

"You know what they say about infatuation." She wants him to say love. Wants him to say it first, wants him to say it at all. Because she loves him, has finally been able to identify that warm, mildly horrifying feeling he invokes in her. But she'll never say it, at least not first. "Joni?" She startles. 

"Quit it." 

"Make me," he teases.

"I will not." Joni stabs the clicking end of her pen into the pad and checks her watch, nearly noon. She has some time before she needs to start thinking about feeding herself lunch. "And to answer your question: my mom was the one who knew a lot about flowers." 

"Oh, okay." Sebastian's voice is tight and Joni realizes that he's suddenly feeling the same way she did with the skis and the fruit market, like the conversation is full of mines. 

Joni fills the silence so he doesn't have to try. "She taught me a fair amount, I guess. And then when she was, um, gone I went through all her books. So, yeah, I guess I know more than...I don't know, more than you at least." It's something Joni had forgotten about herself. Strange actually, that she could have so minimized something in herself so much that it would nearly disappear altogether. "I haven't thought about that in a long time." She chews the skin around her thumbnail. "Are you working right now?" 

"Well, technically I'm talking to you." Joni groans. "Yes, I'm working." 

"On what?" 

"Building a website for a client, but I hate talking about work, what are you wearing?" 

Joni scoffs. "I'm naked." 

"Oh yeah?" 

Joni checks her watch again. Her stomach growls. All the food in her fridge sound about as appetizing as the pen in her hand, but she needs to start working on the arrangements. "Yeah, sure, why not?" 

Sebastian chuckles. "Thought I'd shoot my shot. Are you alright?" 

"Yeah, just distracted." 

"I can tell." He clears his throat. "What are you doing later anyway?" 

"Shane'll be over. He's helping me fix up the greenhouse out back." 

Sebastian whistles. "Yoba, well good luck to him. That thing is possibly the most haunted building on your property." 

"Oh yeah? You got a list going?" 

"Yes, absolutely. Which reminds me." She can hear him rummaging through something in one of his desk drawers. "One of my friends in Zuzu sent you a book. A novel about, um, ghosts I think. An erotic novel, excuse me." 

"Wait, they sent me a book? An erotic book?" 

"Well, I mean, they sent it to me, but what's mine is yours right?" 

Joni laughs, wrapping the phone cord around her finger. "You're in a mood today. Trying to get me all worked up over the phone." 

He chuckles. "I've had a good morning. Am I going to see you tonight?" 
"I hope so." She smiles into the receiver. "Can't have you leaving me all alone, can you?" 

His voice gets low, throaty. "No, can't have that." 

 

"How are you feeling?" The question jolts Joni back to reality. She was lost in thought, playing back word for word all the things Sebastian growled into the phone earlier that day. All the dirty, hot things he'd told her he wanted to do to her. Fucking her in both holes up against his desk, making her cum until she begged him to stop. Holy yoba. She's flushed now, red from her cheeks to her chest and hoping she wasn't making some sort of noise. Joni's just in a sports bra and a pair of shorts, the heat of the late afternoon too overwhelming for anything heavier. Shane has his shirt off too, his chest slick with exertion.

She'd almost forgotten he was there and that flusters her. "I could ask you the same question." They both stop hauling the debris from the greenhouse and look at each other, hands shielding their eyes from a sun that today feels like it could drown them. So big and heavy in the sky that even the clouds have a golden tint. It's easy sometimes to forget that the two of them fucked. It feels almost like the man who'd fucked her up against the wall of the community center really did die that day, swinging from the rafters and was replaced instead by the relaxed, limber boy in front of her now. 

"Well you're looking good," Shane says, crouching back down to keep at their work. 

Joni crouches down too. "That a come on, Shane?" She teases. 

He laughs. "Wouldn't dream of it. You're spoken for these days." 

"Ha! Oh, come on. 'Spoken for'? What is this, a period drama?" He grins, blushing a little. "Do you and Sebastian know each other very well?"

Shane shrugs. He hefts up some of the debris into the metal drums they're using to collect the glass and the splintered wood. "I guess so. We were in the same class in high school. Carpooled sometimes." 

"Do you still talk?" 

"Sure, sometimes. More now that the two of you are a thing, actually." 

Joni looks up questioningly at him. "Oh yeah?" 

"Yeah," Shane grunts, picking up a particularly heavy piece of broken wood, "look at you, bringing the town together." 

"Hardly." Joni scoffs. 

"Hey," Shane says, suddenly serious. He brushes away some dirt with his foot, "do you see this?" Joni's breath catches in her throat. They both step back, a little stunned. The uniform, rust-colored tile on the border has bled in to a swirling mosaic of tiles, every imaginable shade of blue. They'd been so focused on the cleaning that they hadn't noticed what they were uncovering. "Did your grandfather build this?" 

"I have no idea. I remember being inside here when I was young, but...I don't remember this at all." Joni takes a few steps even further back to try and take it all in. She remembers the glass walls, steaming with condensation, and the cool feeling of the tile on her bare feet, but the mural is lost to her. She squints at it, trying to make out what the tiles are supposed to be. It's a fish, she realizes. No, it's the fish. The one her grandfather mounted on the wall. The one that greeted her on her first night in the farmhouse. All swirling tendrils and shimmering scales.  When she stares long enough, she can see that there's a pattern in the guts of a fish, almost like an arrow. It points to the right of them, back toward a dense thicket of trees. She's never been that way on the property. She can see, when she squints, that there's a path, long overgrown, through the trees. When Joni looks at it for too long her heart starts to pound. She turns away, trying to break its hold on her. 

"Well, I think it's wild cool!" 

“Yeah," Joni says, holding her arms tight around herself. "Yeah, I guess so." She's covered in goosebumps, a little unsteady as she backs away. Shane doesn't seem to notice. 

"I remember the storm that blew this all over. Yoba, it was probably 5 years ago." He wipes his hands on his shorts. His legs are more well-muscled than she remembers them being. She'd heard from Emily that he'd let a few of his shifts at Joja go, was working more on the ranch with Marnie. "We heard the sound of all the glass breaking all the way from Marnie's place." Joni tries to imagine that, that sudden destruction. It's soothing, almost, something she definitely would have been into before the hospital. tangible destruction, not just something horrible inside of her that she could barely name. "I'm glad it'll be fixed up again. I remember being fascinated by it as a kid."

"Did you know my grandfather?" 

"Everybody knew your grandfather."  She doesn't ask him to elaborate, isn't sure she could handle the memories he'll have. She wants only to keep her own safe and quiet inside herself. He hauls himself up, peeling the heavy-duty gardening gloves they wore off his hands. "Hey for real though, are you okay?" 

"Do I not seem okay?" Even asking the question puts her on edge but she has to. His answer is everything to her in this moment. Like because he's tried to off himself too he has some insight into her own mind. She feels, at this moment, very precarious.

"You seem fine. I was just thinking about what happened at the Saloon." 

"Well don't." He flinches. "Sorry, sorry. I just...yoba everybody keeps talking about it." The silence between them is heavy." Thank you," she says, looking up at him, "for going to get Sebastian." 

"Of course." Shane slips his shirt back on. "Of course." Shane starts to pull one of the barrels out toward the front path. Alone now, Joni glances back at the faraway path. Her ears start to ring and a desperate feeling rises up in her. She needs to go there. Now. She shakes her head. That would be stupid. And unnecessary. It's probably just more weeds. Maybe another dilapidated shed. 

I’ll never go, she tells herself and the thought soothes her. It's just another place on the farm and I'll never go there. The air feels clearer. Her ears have stopped ringing. 

Chapter Text

“I want to apologize.” Joni’s insides are ice. She’s tucked in the corner booth of the Saloon, mostly empty on this Wednesday afternoon. She'd been picking at her food, some summer vegetable soup that Gus whipped up when she came in, slowly getting through the book Sebastian lent her. But now both are forgotten on the table. She can’t look Elliot in the face. She knows it's him immediately, can feel a tense wave of energy pulsing just outside her view. When she finally looks up, she makes steady eye contact with his chest. That is, apparently, not enough. He sits down across from her, forcing their eyes to meet. Hers waver. His never do. “I’m sorry if I seemed brusque or overbearing during our last interaction.” He looks thoughtfully off to one said. All of this feels so canned, so rehearsed. Joni wonders how many times he practiced this in the mirror, if he turned this way so the light would catch on his jaw. “I rarely act that way. I’m afraid I’d had too much to drink that night.” Joni is cycling through a hundred different excuses to leave, but none of them seem good enough, complete enough to keep him from just following her out of the building anyway. She glances over Elliot’s shoulder to find that Gus is gone. He'd probably headed back to the kitchen or out back for a smoke. It's between the lunch and dinner rush, her favorite time to grab a bite when she knows she'll be mostly alone. She knows Emily doesn’t start her shift for another two hours. Elliot tilts his head, like he's coaxing her attention back to him. “Are you waiting for someone?” Joni wants to lie, wants to tell him that Sebastian is on his way, that he’ll be there soon. But that might make him mad. Leah? Yes, good, she'll just say that Leah's on her way and that they're discussing something private and - his stare is withering, damning. Her mouth slams shut and she can only weakly manage the truth. “No. I’m um I was just having a quick lunch"

Elliot leans forward, fingers sliding across the table toward her. The sound they make is the loudest thing in the room, her brain laser focused. “can we talk? Clear the air?”

She can’t say no to him. Or won’t. She doesn't know which and she hates herself for it either way. “Um, sure, okay.”

Elliot settles in, smiling that cold goading smile again. “That’s great. Great.” Joni feels vaguely ill.

 

She hasn’t been listening for a while. Her food’s long cold and even though Gus is back behind the bar, he doesn’t seem to notice that Elliot is here. She watches his broad back as he polishes glasses over the sink. He's humming something upbeat. To her, he looks like a life raft just out of reach.  

Elliot's writing a novel. That's the gist of what he's telling her, but she knew that already. How? Her brain is so foggy.  It's a romance. Or a novel inspired by romanticism. Maybe bothElliot's using that word wrong. Confusingromanticism with aestheticism. He keeps saying postmodernism but it's obvious he doesn't have a clue what that actually means. Joni's brain is on fire. She feels vaguely like she's back with her ex. They used to meet at sterile bars just outside the financial district after he'd get off work. Places where the caliber of the clientele was still up to snuff but he didn't risk running into any of his coworkers. He was funny like that. Always wanted to show her off but only on his terms. She'd take the train downtown and try to figure out what his mood would be just based off the voicemail he'd left her that day at work. He'd buy her a strong drink and no food and go on and on about the stupid fucks at his work. The slutty receptionist and the higher-ups who didn't recognize his potential. Joni always felt bad for them for having to deal with him, never quite coming to the realization that she was doing it willingly and without pay.  After a while, Joni would just have to stop paying attention. Her brain only had so much bandwidth and even then, even when she was deeply in his thrall, she didn't want to fill it up with whatever finance bullshit he had to say. But he hated when it seemed like she wasn't paying attention, so Joni became an expert in feigning interest, in cutting her brain off at the root, letting it float easily away while her body did the work. It was, she remembers, also how they fucked. Her barely there, him hammering away without ceasing.  

 

"I was engaged you know, before I moved to Pelican Town." That catches Joni’s attention and she's suddenly whisked back into the Saloon. It's a beautiful day. The sun golden and warm as it spills through the windows, motes of dust shimmering in the air. He's looking at her intently and she wonders, frightened, if he's noticed that she wasn't really listening. But he doesn't seem to be paying her that kind of attention. "She didn't support me the way she should have. With my writing, I mean." He tilts his head so their eyes are locked again. "When you said just now that you believed in my work, well," he smiles, fingertips swirling on the surface of the table, "that's the kind of muse I need." Had she said that? She must have. That seems like the kind of thing her body on autopilot would have said to appease him. It must have been something she'd slipped in during one of his pregnant pauses. Joni has no idea how long they've been sitting there. Minutes or hours it all just feels like one slow line of dread. Joni feels like she might die. Or maybe that she's already dead. Elliot frowns and her attention snaps back to him, narrowed to a fine point on his face. A frown is always a warning. Yoba, it's been a minute since she's had to do this. Sebastian doesn't require the same attention to detail. There's nothing frightening simmering under his skin. Elliot glances up at her, trying to look sad maybe? Sheepish? "I know you and Sebastian are," he pauses, working his fingers like he's trying to find the right word, "spending time together, and I understand that." He grins. "We all need to have our fun, but when you find he isn't intellectually stimulating enough for you, I hope you know that my door is always open." 

Joni sucks in a loud breath. She has nothing to say to that, can't think of anything that isn't too pandering or too angry. She goes to stand, thinking that maybe she can just leave, just pretend that this hadn't happened. 

Elliot frowns. She half expects him to say he hasn't dismissed her yet, but instead, his eyes sweep the table, landing on her unfinished meal and her book. He picks the book up. “Anne Rice? Hardly literature. You enjoy this?”

She yanks the book back from him, suddenly furious that he’s touching it, passing judgment on it. Fuck you, she wants to say, you're such a fucking phony. Instead, she just gives him a weak, conciliatory smile. Elliot mistakes it for embarrassment. "I won't begrudge a woman her pulp, but I would be happy to recommend something better." 

"I'm late." Joni says vaguely, as if rising out of a trance, realizing suddenly that she really does need to get out of here before t turns into something more sinister. "Sorry. I'm late." She swings her backpack over her shoulder, stuffing the book back inside. "It was good to see you." She flinches. Why the fuck did she say that to him?

He smiles again, but his eyes are sharpened to points. "I enjoy talking with you, Joni." 

"Me too," she says stiffly, bounding down the few steps that separate the booths from the rest of the bar. She stops suddenly in the middle of the room. She shouldn't have said that. It was an invitation. She glances back over her shoulder at the booth. Another mistake. He smiles broadly, waving lazily at her. 

 

 Joni can tell he's in a mood as soon as he picks up the phone. Crumbly and distracted. Short with her. Terse. He gets like this sometimes, usually when work's been tough or when he can't think his way through a line of code. And usually she'd let him go, wishing him a teasing goodnight, but she needs him right now, the interaction at the Saloon still with her even though she's spent hours trying to work it out of her system. The story comes out in a nervous jumble and when she's finished, he's silent for a long time. 

"Hello?" 

"I'm here."

"Um, okay," she fidgets on her feet, glancing nervously over to the window overlooking the porch. The front door is locked up tight, but she's still edgy. Not even sure what she's edgy about. "Do you have, um, anything to say." 

 "Why the hell did you get lunch with him?" 

For a second she's stunned, then livid.“I didn’t ‘get lunch’ with him, Sebastian. He sat down at my table!” 

“Well, why didn’t you tell him to leave?”

“Are you serious?! What's gotten into you?"

She hears him take a few long breaths and when he speaks next, his voice is a little softer. "Listen, okay, it's been a long fucking day for me and-" 

"Fuck your bad day!" Goose yowls angrily, unhappy about the sudden noise, and stalks into the kitchen. Joni's quickly approaching the verge of tears. "I just had to spend hours with a fucking-" 

"Wow, okay, fuck my bad day huh?" 

"No." She is crying now, softly, angrily. "No, I didn't mean that." 

Sebastian sighs. "Just yoba Joni don't give him any ideas." 

She huffs. "He already has ideas!" 

"I'm just saying don’t put yourself in a position where you could make yourself vulnerable." 

“Wow fuck you.”        

“Don’t.” 

“No fuck you do you have any idea what that sounds like!?”

“Joni, just fucking listen to me.”

“No! Fuck off, Sebastian.”

“Oh, whatever.” She’s never heard him angry before. His voice is cold, distance. She feels like he’s a million miles away.

“None of this is my fault” It comes out almost timid. Her hands are shaking now, clutching the phone cord tightly. The night has become suddenly darker and emptier than she remembers it ever being.

“I literally did not fucking say it was, holy Yoba. If you would just list-”

“I don’t know what you want me to do!” She says, anger rising up in her again. He should understand this better. He should be better about this.

“I want you to stop talking to this freak.”

“I’m not talking to him! I’m not fucking talking to him!” 

“You spent your whole lunch talking to him!”

“That is not what happened.” She punctuates each word, furious.

“Oh whatever, Joni. I've had a fucking terrible day, alright? I'm not gonna sit here and listen to you yell at me. I'm done." The line clicks. The sound goes off like a bomb in Joni's head. She lays the phone back on the receiver with a trembling hand and backs away from it like it might combust. Maybe she wants it to. For shards of plastic and metal to rip through a chest that feels now like it’s breaking clean in two. Way to go, a long quiet voice tells her, it's got Sarah's lilt, her ex's vitriol, you've managed to fuck this up too

 

Joni sits out until the coffee she brewed goes cold. She's hollowed out completely. Numb but still crying, like it’s just a reflex. She's holding onto Goose like he's an old stuffed toy and, for once, he's letting her, purring softly against her chest. 

Joni tries not to think too hard about anything. All roads lead back to him. Amazing how in a few months he could become so entwined in her life that everything has pieces of him in it. The phone rings twice. She can hear it faintly from her spot on the porch's bottom step. The voice machine is blinking red when she passes it on the way to her bedroom.

         The sleeping pills in her drawer are nearly expired and covered in dust. She unscrews the lid and regards the little pills inside with a sort of dull curiosity. She doesn't want to die, which feels...good. And a little odd though she hasn't had thoughts like that for months. She does want to go to sleep though, desperately. Wants a deep, dreamless sleep. 

She wishes she had a bump of something stronger. Or maybe just a joint. But if she calls either Leah or Emily they'll know immediately something is off and she'd be crying all over again. Besides, talking about it will make it real. She’s always felt that way. She wonders vaguely if she could just take the bus the hell out of town, never look back, but the thought doesn't have legs. 

Would Shane still fuck her? The idea is physically painful. Were they actually done? Her and Sebastian. Is that what he meant? They must be. there'd be no reason that he'd tolerate her yelling like that. This is it, she knows, he's finally figured out she's more trouble than she's worth. Joni screws the lid back onto the bottle and tosses it into the drawer. It isn't worth the grief. Her bed smells like him, so she heads out into the front room to slum on the couch. She's barely halfway through an episode of Queen of Sauce before her body takes pity on her. Sleep washes over her like a wave. 

Chapter Text

At first, the sound is comforting, familiar. She’s heard it so many times pulling up the path. He’s here, a soft voice inside her sighs, he’s here. And then her chest tightens. It’s over. This is it.  The bike sputters as its engine dies and she walks as if in a trance to the window by the front door. He’s still on the seat, head down, shoulders tight. She can tell that he’s thinking hard, that he’s trying to figure out the right way to do whatever he’s here to do. Joni wonders if he’ll be as gentle when he lets her go as he’s been with her in his arms. She stifles a sudden sob. She’s cried herself out all morning, the feeling of his attention slipping from her fingers and all she can produce now is snot. She can’t delay it any longer. It’s going to happen. She might as well face it. Dread is a heavy rock in her gut as she walks out onto the porch, letting the shadows hide her face, hide all the tears she’s shed for him. He looks up at her, lip caught in his teeth and exhales, long and slow. She wants to flee.

         “I fucked up.” He calls across the yard. She frowns, holding herself tightly. He unties a box from the back of his bike and starts toward her. When he’s close enough that she can see his eyes, they look tired. Like he hasn’t slept all night. He nods toward the box. “And I, uh, I brought cake. One of Evelyn’s. From Pierre’s. Uh you probably could tell,” his eyes flit nervously toward the house, and he mumbles the next bit, “where else would I get a cake.” He looks up at her, trying to catch her eyes, but Joni avoids him. She knows she’s puffy, that it’s obvious that she’s been crying, but he doesn’t need to see how red her eyes are. “Um, the cake is for, reconciliation, I guess. It’s an apology cake.” He flinches like he’s embarrassing himself.

         All the air rushes out of Joni’s lungs. She snaps to look at him. Reconciliation? Her body lights up all at once, her nerves wild and tingling.  He rubs his neck nervously. “I wanted to give you some space, but I…I got worried. You weren’t answering your phone and I called Leah and she said she hadn’t heard from you, so…” He looks away sheepishly. “I’m sorry. For getting angry like that.” He looks up at her and she must look spooked because he takes a few steps back, “listen, I can get out of here if you don’t want to talk. I’ll leave the cake.” He looks down at it like it’s betrayed him. “I just hoped we could talk and, well mostly I just wanted to apologize. Needed to apologize. You deserve, um, an apology from me.” Joni can’t stop it. The tears return. She makes an anguished sound somewhere between relief and sorrow and clutches her chest. His eyes get big, the veins in his neck taut and prominent. “Joni?” She cries even hard at the sound of her name. “Shit Joni.” He sets the cake box down and takes the stairs two at a time until he’s just in front of her. “Fuck, I didn’t mean to say that shit. I didn’t mean to hurt you, hell. I was just having the worst fucking day at work. I shouldn’t have-“

         “I thought you were breaking up with me,” Joni says, gasping and gulping as the tears overwhelm her. Her voice is shrill, terrified.

         Sebastian looks stunned. “What? Because we fought?”

         Joni is sobbing like a child, holding nothing back now. She’s gripping her own arms tightly. . Sebastian wraps himself around her, one hand firmly on her back, the other cradling her head to his chest. His proximity only makes her cry harder. The smell of him, cigarettes and musk and soap She’d worked herself up into such a frenzy, was so sure she’d never feel his touch again, never be this close again “Baby,” His voice is like honey, all that twang. “Oh, baby.”

 

         It’s a white cake, pale and moist. Raspberry preserves between the layers that have softened the crumb so much it melts between Joni’s lips. The frosting is light as air and the sugared fruits on top have started to sink into it. She plucks a strawberry from the top and plops it into her mouth. The sugar crunches on her teeth. Sebastian’s in the kitchen, rooting around for a clean fork. The dishes have been piling up. Her nerves are frayed, have been since the first incident

Everything’s been sneaking up on her. She has a nasty cut from when Goose had to remind her to be fed. But with Sebastian here, back in the farmhouse, she feels like a newborn baby. Cool and clammy and calm even if she’s yowling. That relief that he’s not going anyway is a rush, an almost manic high. He settles on the couch across from her and she can tell that he’s raw too. She wants to ask him how he spent his night, what he thought about as he lay awake in bed, but it feels almost too private. And maybe she doesn’t want to know.

         At first, they say nothing to each other. The cake is a buffer, the two of them digging in with their forks, but after a few bites, Sebastian scrunches his face up. “Yoba,” he wipes the frosting off his lips, “I don’t know you eat all this sweet stuff all the time.”

         “I like extremes,” She tells him, a little dryly. The cake upsets her stomach.  She hasn’t eaten properly in days. Sebastian chuckles and leans back on the couch. His eyes are consumed by the dark circles beneath them and he looks almost gaunt in the face. It makes her feel guilty, and strange. You shouldn’t be worrying about me, she wants to tell him, it’s not worth the effort. But that sentiment feels, for the first time, untrue and now she wants, more than anything, to keep him right where he is, here with her. To have him, maybe forever. For the first time in years, her life stretches beyond what she can imagine. It feels long and boundless and already so full. It feels precarious too. “So…you’re not breaking up with me then.”

         Sebastian snorts. “Yoba, are you crazy?”

         “No, but you might be if you’re actually planning on staying with me.”

         He scoffs, shaking his head. “With you? A beautiful, interesting woman who I like spending time with?”

         Joni blushes, taken aback. “Quit.”

         “Yeah, that is crazy, lock me up.” His lips twitch downward, voice serious now.” I’m the one who fucked up. I’m the one who should be stunned that you even let me in the front door.”  “

“You didn’t fuck up. I should have listened to you..”

“Bull. You were freaked out and I should have been there and… “

“And what?”

“I don’t know, it scared me. The way he just came up to you like that.” He kneads one eye with his palm. “I don’t really…like being scared, I guess. It pisses me off. But that’s my own machismo bullshit and it’s not your problem.”

Joni frowns. Her own equilibrium is off with fear, but if Sebastian is afraid then maybe she should be too. She’s cold all over again.  She wants to ask him why he’s scared, what he imagines will happen, what he imagines Elliot is really like. But she can’t. Her terror is too complete. If he tells her that Elliot frightens him, she might just run screaming from the house. So instead she takes a long, deep breath, hoping that it will settle her down some.

When Joni opens her eyes again, Sebastian is watching her carefully. He moves his jaw like he’s chewing something tough. “Your ex really did a number on you?”

Joni goes rigid. “Damn, alright let me have it.”

He winces. “No, shit sorry, that’s not what I mean, it’s just…”

“Just what?”

He sits up, so much broader like that. “You don’t have to tiptoe around me.”

“No, I know that,” Joni says quietly.

“But do you?” Joni frowns. This conversation is making her head hurt. “We can fight. Like you’re allowed to be fucking pissed at me. You can tell me off if I need to be told off.”  

“Okay.” She pauses. “That was pretty fucking uncool over the phone yesterday.”

He shakes his head. “I know.”

“What happened? Like what made you so upset?”

“Nothing that matters now. Just, I don’t know, difficult clients.” He sighs. “Not even difficult, hell, just an old guy who’s out of his depth. It shouldn’t have put me on edge like that” He smiles softly, suddenly distracted,  and reaches for her face. “You have uh,” His finger swipes the skin by her mouth, “some frosting.” Joni opens her mouth and Sebastian’s eyes flash, his thumb slipping between her lips. Joni sucks down the length of it. She wants him, wants to forget the last few days. Wants him to be the one who helps her forget. He frowns suddenly, pulling his finger from her mouth. “You don’t have to…I would understand if you want to cool it. If you need a minute or like a few days to-“ She leans forward and captures his mouth roughly with hers. He smiles against her lips, hands returning to her.

 

They kiss like teenagers for a while. All tongue and teeth and heavy petting. They move seamlessly from the couch to the floor, Sebastian holding her close as they go down. He’s heavy on top of her, his dexterous fingers almost manic over her skin like he doesn’t know where he wants to go first. He pulls away, panting and flushed. “I wanna watch you”

Joni’s breathless too, worked up. “Watch me?”

“Yeah,” He backs away from her, brushing his hair from his face. “take your pants off.”

Joni smirks. This is easy. The simplest thing in her life. “Oh? You want a show?” He leans back, smiling expectantly. She stands, giggling as she toes off her sneakers. At first, she’s silly, sort of joke-y shimmying out of her shorts but then she looks over her shoulder and sees the hunger in his face. She slows down, rocks her hips back and forth. Here, with him, the fear and the pain and the sadness are slipping slowly away. It’s easy with him, to get caught up, to borrow some of that eternal calm that flows through him “Fuck.” His voice is like smoke, hot and gravely. “Yeah, just like that.” She bends down, pulling her panties down her legs. They stick before she manages to pull them free from her wet pussy. “Turn around.”

She glances over her shoulder. “Telling me what to do now?”

He blinks, like he’s waking up. “Can I?”

She smiles back at him. The trust is so easy now, so innate. Like she always had it in her to do it. She laughs. “Sure, why not.”  

He grins back at her, but his body is tightly coiled like a predator. His muscles taut. “Sit down and spread your legs.” Joni sinks to the rug, watching him for a few beats, watching his fingers twitch toward her. She starts to open legs but they waver. It’s like he’s looking at her for the first time, really looking at her here in her bright front room. His eyes flit up to meet hers and she sees the molten warmth of them, the gentleness that his words belie. She lets her knees fall open, the air cool on her bare pussy. One side of his mouth quirks up. “Let me see the rest of you.” He takes his lip between his teeth, leaning forward a little, like he wants to get a better vantage. Joni laughs. This is edging on ridiculous, but she feels lit up from the inside. She pulls her shirt up so it’s just below her collarbone, her nipples hard and pink in the sunshine filtering through the window. Sebastian runs his thumb over his lips, breathing a little ragged now. “Shit, you’re pretty.” Joni flushes, averting her eyes. “Play with yourself.”

Joni scoffs. “What?”

Sebastian doubles down. “Touch yourself. Make yourself cum.”

“Oh my god.” Joni blushes, her legs twitch closed. “Seriously?”

 “Yeah?”

         Joni averts her eyes again. There’s something thrilling about the request, but she feels torn apart by his eyes. Her legs fall open again as if by their own accord. She lays her fingers over her pussy, hiding it from him. “This is embarrassing.”

         “Why?” She shrugs, feeling tender and small. “You look so good like this.” He crawls closer to her. His jeans make a rough sound against the wood. His fingers fall lightly on her ankle, cool like rain. “Sometimes when we fuck,” his thumb slides up the length of her ankle, “I can feel you touching yourself. You’re so sensitive.” Joni’s fingers drift to her clit. She leans into her own touch. “You have the prettiest pussy I’ve ever seen in my life.” She groans. It’s almost ridiculous, but his voice is so low, his touch so steady. He could be reading her a menu and she’d still be this hot all over. Joni swirls her fingers, gyrating her hips as she moves them. “That’s it baby, there you go.” She opens her eyes to see him watching her intently. His eyes drift from her face to her pussy like he isn’t sure where he wants to look more. She slips a finger inside and that does something to him. He’s scaling her body, crawling over it until their lips meet. Sebastian kisses down to her ribs then, without warning, bites the skin, pulling it up in his teeth until she cries out. He soothes the spot with a kiss, then bites again, a little further down. She moans his name, hands flying up to hold tight to his shoulders. “No, don’t stop.” He whispers as he guides her hand back down between her legs. “Make yourself cum.”

         She shakes her head, “I…I can’t. You, I want you.”

         He kisses her again then breaks it to wet his fingers with his tongue, trailing his hand down her body. He rubs her clit almost violently at first. She yelps and arches into him. He hooks his fingers inside, searching until he finds the spot that makes her quake against him. He glances up at her. “Right there?”

         “Yes, fuck.” He leans down to kiss between her tits, grinning against her skin.

 

 

 

Her whole body pulses down toward his hand when she cums. Her orgasm splashes down his fingers, wets the whole insides of her thighs. “Fuck, god, look at you.” He kisses her ribs, nipping with his teeth. “It’s so easy to make you squirt now.” She twitches when his fingers slip out of her. He strokes her pussy until her hips cease their frantic rotations. Their kisses are sloppy, almost lazy. She misses his lips, kissing up his cheek. Sebastian slips a finger inside and she hisses. “Too sensitive?”

“Yeah.” She’s still pulsing, her chest heaving. “Fuck.” He strokes up her flank, kissing down her chest. Just soft pecks, little love bites.  She gropes for his cock, freeing it easily from his jeans. “Come here,” she says laying back against the end of the couch. She eases him up toward her, “let me.” He slips easily past her lips, salty and warm on her tongue.

His body curls over her, leaning heavily on the couch. “God, god. You make me feel so, oh fuck, Joni.”

 

 

 

Sebastian’s fast asleep. He looks young when he sleeps. Sweet. But Joni can’t manage it. She can’t shake a feeling that’s wedged her way inside of her the moment they turned out the light. She doesn’t have a name for it.

She pads out into the front room, scooping a sleepy Goose into her arms, and then she freezes, like a deer in the road. Those first months on the farm, she’d spook herself all the time with shadows, with noises. Now she knows it like the back of her hand. The way the ruined stairs creak in the wind, the way the glass in the windows groan when a storm is coming. But she has never seen this before. This shadow looming just beyond the front door. Tall and broad. A chill runs up her and before she can even think straight, she’s bounding out onto the porch, needing to see it, needing to prove to herself that it’s just a pillar, just a wayward deer. Once she’s there, the air a little cold for the first time all summer, the appropriate fear rises up in her. That could have been anything. Anyone. She’s frozen on the steps, arms wrapped around herself, holding Goose too tightly against her chest. The porch is empty. The land just beyond the same as it’s always been. She hears a creaking out by the farm box but she doesn’t turn. She doesn’t want to see whatever it is. A few twigs crack, the bushes rustling. An animal, she tells herself, just an animal.

Chapter Text

The nights are cooler now, almost chilly. The silver light from late summer’s enormous moon casts everything in a soft, temperate glow that feels different than the lunar twilight that hung in the air til morning all through the dog days of the season. Soon the moon will rise orange  But it’s still solidly summer and the days are still blistering. Especially in the greenhouse. Joni wipes the sweat from her brow, the gardening gloves she’s wearing tracking dirt across her cheek. She’d spent the better part of the morning sowing heirloom daisy seeds and pats the row of raised soil affectionately. The seller was an ancient woman in the Fern Islands who took orders by phone and told Joni, when she inquired about the crown daisies in her mailer, that the flowers were some of the most beautiful she'd ever seen. Joni likes the people she's meeting in the flower business, even if it's just over the phone. They all seem so relaxed, so wise, full of intricate, niche knowledge. Joni adjusts the grow light Robin helped her set up then heads to the other side of the greenhouse, careful not to step on the mosaic fish as she does. She has something approaching reverence for it now that it's stopped filling her with dread, thinks of it a little like a benevolent spirit protecting her flowers, watching them grow. It feels whimsical, like when her grandfather would tell her stories about forest sprites and wizards as they sat eating stone fruit on the front porch. 

The marigolds she bought as transplants are blooming nicely. Their tops like little suns, so warmly orange they nearly glow. Joni fluffs their stiff petals. She likes the pungent, musky, way marigolds smell.  It reminds her of walking at her mother's heels through dusty hardware stores, winding past hoses and tomato cages in search of the perfect seedling. Those places always smelled old in the best way, like only the nicest things had been sealed away just for them to find. She was barely tall enough to see over the raised beds out in the back of the store so the plants formed a canopy layer that made her feel like she was made of magic, wetting her sandals in the pools of water that formed on the concrete after the plants had been misted. The greenhouse feels similarly out of time. She and Robin had worked for two whole days putting together the raised beds and the wood feels good between her fingers. Solid and sturdy.  

 

The note fills her with dread the moment she lays eyes on it, but she tries to shake it off. She’d noticed the mailbox was hanging open on her back out to the greenhouse from lunch. The envelope isn't addressed, doesn’t has a stamp, but Joni reminds herself that's not all that unusual. Plenty of people from town drop things off in her mailbox. Hell, Pierre is always leaving those coupon books for the store on her front porch. But the fear doesn't dissipate. Her fingers are shaking when she finally wrenches the note from its envelope and dark tendrils of dread hold fast when she unfolds it. She doesn't even need to read it to know that the swirling script is his. She takes a deep breath and looks around. The air is suddenly very still. She listens carefully, half expecting to hear him approaching. But it’s only bird song and the faint buzzing of insects. He must have dropped this off while she was in the greenhouse. Had he knocked on the door? Did he expect her to answer? Was he angry that she hadn't? Her stomach twists. She tries to reason her way out of the panic that is building up inside of her, but each time she does, she imagines him walking from his little beach shack all the way to her farmhouse and her heart stammers. 

"You haven’t even read the note yet," she says out loud.  It makes her feel a little bit better. Her actual voice sounds more authoritative than the voice in her head. Maybe it's about something in town. A couple different villagers have left invitations from Mayor Lewis before. Or maybe the old fisherman who lives above the tackle shop asked him to run something to her. Yes, right. It could be as innocuous as that. She unfolds the letter.

 

Dearest Joni,

Please allow me to take you to dinner. My number is +1 89 42 3400. Call me when you are free. I look forward to our time together. 

– Elliot

 

What an asshole, she thinks vaguely, he must think contractions would make him seem less smart. She can’t take a deep breath. The world tilts. 

 

Joni’s sitting on the counter watching Leah chop. It’s a familiar scene. One they replicate at least a couple times a week. Leah'd seen some succotash recipe in one of the cookbooks at the library, came over with all the ingredients and a fuzzy black and white copy from the book clutched in her hand. Jon pretended she hadn’t taken two klonopin that afternoon and Leah seemed almost convinced, only shooting her a single stern glance as they break into some beers.

 Joni's never had succotash but it's making the whole house smell nice and she tries to lean into that pleasantness, wishes her hands would stop quivering. The klonopin and the beer is turning out to be a bad mix. It’s making her feel less steady, more out of control and she leans heavily on the window above the sink to try and keep herself upright. She closes her eyes and tries to take inventory of her surroundings. An old trick they taught her at the hospital. One she rarely has the patience to use. Joni can hear bacon sizzling in the pan. Leah’s glazed them with Robin’s thick maple syrup and the smell fills the house. It smells like harvest, like the first day cold enough to wear a coat. The cranberry beans she’s boiling on the stove smell faintly nutty. She can smell the metallic zing of blood too. Her own. She’d been slicing the kernels off an ear of corn when she sliced into her thumb, too distracted, too unsteady. Joni holds the towel she used to stop the bleeding a little tighter. The sting brings her back to her body. She opens her eyes and takes a deep breath. “Leah?” Leah hums to let her know she’s heard her. “I need you to look at something.”

“Sure,” Leah pauses, looking up slowly. “Everything okay?”

“I’m not sure.”

Leah flips the stove off and moves the bacon off the heat. “Okay.”

 

Leah’s been quiet for a long time, just looking up at the note. She licks her lips and looks up. “What are you gonna do.”

“I don’t know.”

Leah frowns. “Yeah.” She folds the note and sets it firmly on the table. “Shit. Have you told Sebastian about this?”

Joni shakes her head. “I just got it today. This afternoon actually.”

“Did you see him deliver it?”

“No.” Joni shivers, glancing around the house. The farm is so vast. He could still be out there, hiding somewhere.

“I mean I’m not gonna call him.” 
“Yes, obviously.’

“But I don’t think I can just avoid him, you know? Like we’ll cross paths eventually.”

Leah shakes her head. “This town is too fucking small.” She purses her lips. “Maybe you should just talk to him. In a public place." She adds quickly "Tell him you’re not into it.”

Joni takes the note from Leah and turns it around in her hands. "I'm pretty sure he already knows that." She frowns. "I'm not sure what talking to him would do.” She lays it down on the table. "maybe he doesn't know I'm with Sebastian though. Like maybe he just thinks I'm playing coy or something." 

“Everyone knows you’re with Sebastian. That’s what’s so fucking creepy about it, like lay off. Fuck playing coy and fuck men who like that shit. He's a scumbag creep”

"Yeah for sure,  but what the fuck do I do about it? He was here. Like fucking at my front door today.”  

Leah sighs. "Leave it alone I guess. Hopefully, he'll get bored and move on."  Joni frowns. She feels unmoored, like Leah is a thousand miles away. “And call me, okay?” Her voice sounds like an echo. “If you even think he’s out here you call me.” Joni nods, eyes fixed to the ground.

 

"What happened to you?" Sebastian asks as he swings off his bike, nodding toward Joni's newly bandaged finger. 

"What? Oh, this?" She waggles her hand at him. "Cut myself cooking.

"You? Cooking?" He teases with a grin. 

"I cook!" 

"I've never seen it." She hates how handsome he looks when he winks at her. He kisses the back of her hand. "Poor thing."  He pulls away from her, frowning. “You okay?" 

Joni's startled. Can he read her that well? For a split second, she wants to collapse into him, to cry. I'm so afraid she wants to tell him, of the future, of Elliot, of nothing. The terror inside of me is so heavy it might break me. She'd almost done that with Leah. She'd lingered a little long on the porch before she headed back to her studio like she could feel the desperation wafting off Joni. She’s numbed herself out some, the note too terrifying to even consider. So when she just shrugs, it’s not hard to keep the fear from her voice. "Yeah, why?" She wasn't want to think about Elliot or his note anymore, doesn’t want to see Sebastian’s face when she tells him about it.

"You just seemed spooked." 

"Huh." She holds the door open for him. Goose is waiting, purring excitedly before Sebastian scoops him up. "Nope. I'm good." 

"Yeah?" 

"Tired though. I, um, I think I might actually turn in." 

He frowns and checks his watch. "It's eight." 

"I know. it's just...long day." 

Sebastian brushes her hair behind he one ear with his free hand. He tries and fails to not look worried. "Okay." 

 

Joni pretends to be asleep when Sebastian comes to bed a few hours later. She watches as he strips down, the moonlight streaming through the window gliding along the hard lines of his body. She loves his body. She loves him and the feeling is so bright and terrifying that it nearly makes her gasp. She wants him close to her, wants him to hold every part of her. Sebastian stands beside the bed and brushes her hair off her face. He whispers something soft that she can’t make out then crawls over her, his hand snaking over her waist once he’s got his back to the window. His thigh muscles are so firm, so solid and sturdy. His flaccid cock brushes up against her thigh, it feels soft and delicate. It's familiar. Safe. He drifts off so easily. Barely in bed and she already hears his breath slow. 

Sebastian likes to sleep naked in the summer, his body a boiling furnace. But Joni can't do it. She wakes up disoriented anytime she tries, exposed and afraid. They are different in that way. In lots of ways, but in their single point of common experience, they have diverged too. Sebastian's grief has made him controlled, even-tempered. His trauma sits heavily on his shoulders. He told her once, as they lay tangled up in each other on a hot summer's night, that it weighed him down. Like an old, dead thing he's been carrying around. In high school, he could sleep for a week straight. His grief is a heavy stone inside of him, worn smooth and shiny from all the years it's been with him. 

Joni's grief runs like tributaries down her body. It's electric, buzzing all over. She can’t stay still. So maybe, she thinks as she pulls his arm tighter around her, they can reach an equilibrium. She nuzzles into his arms, wanting to feel secure, wanting to be held. ‘What’s this all about?” He says, half asleep.

“Just hold me.”

“Joni?” She can hear him trying to wake up, shifting in the sheets.

“Just hold me. Just hold me, okay?”

“What’s, um, shit, what’s going on?" His voice is muffled by sleep, but he's sitting up now, blinking to try and see her.  "Has something happened?”

“No,” Joni says, “I’m just…I want you to be close.”

He lays back down, pulling her tightly to his chest. “I can do that.” His hand snakes under her shirt and settles open palmed on her stomach. I like to feel you, he told her once, I like to wake up with you all over me. She closes her eyes and tries to sink in that sentiment, that warm feeling. She is safe here in his arms. But something in the air is off. It’s wrong. She can feel it in her blood, in the fine bones of her fingers. She listens for noises until her body is too tired to keep itself awake. It’s the darkest part of the night, not even the light of the moon cuts through its blackness. 

Chapter Text

Joni hesitates when the other line clicks. She keeps the phone to her ear, just listening now to the faint buzz of the line and her own breathing echoing through the machine. It's raining outside. A peel of distant thunder echoes around the farmhouse. Joni doesn't want to put the phone down. To hear that click in the receiver is to be clearly and utterly alone. She'd kept Sebastian on the phone as long as she could, would have kept him all night if he let her. But he'd sounded so weary and she could hear when he started to only half listen to her, could hear the click of his keys when he turned back to his work. She couldn't be upset. He'd put off his clients for days, staying in the farmhouse every night, every evening. He'd come over in the middle of the day if she asked him to. That's probably why the house feels so empty now. She'd been filling it every second of every day. Leah and Emily and even Shane sometimes. She even invited Marnie up to take a look at a patch of bare land down near the property line. See if it would be a good spot for a chicken coop she had no intentions of ever building. Joni just couldn't stand to be alone, not with the note looming over her. She hadn't told anyone about that either. Just Leah. And she'd begged her not to spread it around, not to say anything to Elliot if she saw him in passing. So, here, as night rolls over the property in a steady wave, the house feels quiet, empty. Until it doesn't. 

She isn't sure how long he's been standing in the doorway and the shock that he's there at all rolls over her body slowly. At first, she does nothing, because this has to be some kind of hallucination. He can't be here. He wouldn't come all the way up here in the middle of the night, wouldn't just let himself into her house like this. She's probably fallen asleep on the couch and this is all some vivid dream. The door closes with a soft click and then it's just the two of them. Then Joni knows she isn't dreaming. She should call Sebastian back, tell him to please, please hurry. She should call the police. But instead, she sets the phone gently down on the receiver and takes two shaky steps back. "Elliot." 

He smiles. His hair is damp from the rain. There's a little pool of water where his coat is dripping onto the floor. "Hello."

"What are you doing here?" 

He laughs. "I came to see you, of course." 

"Oh." Her brain is winding slowly back to life and, like a rabbit that realizes too late that it's in the road, she stumbles. "Sebastian's coming." It comes out in a nervous rush. She has her hands flat against her chest, one over the other, like they can protect her, keep him where he is. "He's going to be here in like five minutes." There's a pinprick in her brain as she says it, a faint, distant memory too far off to place. 

Elliot toes off his shoes, making himself at home. "No, he's not." Joni shrinks even further into herself, rounding her shoulders and taking a few more steps backward. Her thoughts are moving so quickly none of them stick. "I just heard you on the phone with him." His eyes darken and his voice is suddenly venomous. "Don't try to sick your idiot boyfriend on me."

"Okay." She's backed so far away from the phone that now he's the one beside it and her stomach twists. "I'm sorry." Joni lets her hands fall from their spot on her chest, tries to look a little more normal. "It's, um, good to see you." 

He smiles, his mood darting dangerously in all directions. "It's always nice to see you, Joni." His smile is short lived. He looks older when he frowns, shadows falling into hard creases around his lips. Inhuman. "I never heard back from you." He moves out of the shadows and his face changes again. Younger and softer. He cocks his head. Everything about him is exaggerated, artificial. He moves like a marionette. "My note?" 

"Note." Her heart is pounding so loudly in her ears that she can barely hear her own voice. "I didn't get a note from you." Elliot looks hard at her. He frowns, nose twitching, eyes narrowed. The quiet meow startles them both. 

Goose has wandered into the front room, undoubtedly expecting to see Sebastian, drawn by the deeper voice. He makes a shrieking sound when he sees Elliot, all the hair on his back standing on end. Elliot flinches away from the noise. He turns to Joni, a disgusted look on his face. "You have a cat." 

"Yes." Her body's seized up, frozen halfway between fear and shock. Elliot crouches down and extends his hand toward Goose. He yowls and bats it away, claws out. Elliot hisses, his injured finger flying to his mouth. Time seems to stop moving entirely. Joni watches and waits and wonders vaguely if Goose might be able to kill Elliot. She should dive between them. She should run. Her body stays stubbornly in one place. Elliot yanks Goose up from the floor and Joni gaps, hands flying to her mouth. "Please don't. Please!" A few tears run down her cheeks. 

"He's an outdoor cat right?" Elliot doesn't wait for her answer before he opens the door and tosses her shrieking cat out into the night. He shuts it quickly before Goose can rush back inside. She can hear him howling, almost like a dog, scratching violently at the door. "He'll be fine." 

Joni's terror is limitless, but it fits quietly back into a well-worn groove. Her thoughts snake blearily around in her head, never really landing. Her body has already done the work of numbing itself out. As she looks around her house, she realizes, with a dull ache, that she really did think she was safe here. That she really did, deep inside herself, think that things were going to be all okay. 

"Now that that's been taken care of." His smile is too broad. She can see his gums. He closes the distance between them and reaches out to touch her. His grip on her arms is tight but it barely registers. She feels nothing when he leans down to kiss her. He tastes chemical, unnatural. Vaguely like mint gum. Goose has given up with the door, the whole house quiet except for the gentle patter of rain on the windows. "Let me take you out." His hands are inching up her arms. "Let me show you how a man should treat a woman." 

He leans in to kiss her again and Joni's brain reconnects with her body with a jolt. She yanks herself away from him. "You need to leave." He stiffens. "Please, you need to go home. I don't...I don't..." She takes a deep, steadying breath and tries to make her voice as stern and clear as she can. "I want you to leave." Then she braces herself, closing her eyes, holding her body rigid. 

At first, there's nothing. Just the sound of him breathing. She's about to open her eyes and say something else when a loud crack startles her. Lightning, she thinks, until she finds herself on the ground. Her left eyes smarts, pain shooting up her skull, but her lip hurts worse.  She can taste blood. She brings a trembling finger to her lips. It comes back glistening with red. Her nose has started to bleed, a thick line of blood and snot snaking toward her chin. She looks up at him, bleary-eyed, and shaken. "You hit me." She says it like she wants to make sure, like she wants him to say that he didn't, that there's been a misunderstanding. 

"I know." She shivers. "And I'm sorry, but I need you to listen to me." He sighs like he's disappointed in her, like she's making this so hard on him. "I'm tired of you making these terrible decisions. Someone needs to step in before you do something you regret." 

She gapes at him, unsure what to even begin to say. Elliot sloughs off his coat, tossing it carelessly over the back of her couch. She checks her lip again. It feels mangled, like chopped meat. Her fingers make it sting. He's turned his back on her, surveying the rest of the room, and, without thinking, Joni makes for the phone, scrambling to her feet. "Joni!" He's quicker than her, grabbing her roughly and pulling her back toward him. "That's enough." He squeezes her arm, a warning, then releases her. She sniffles, her tears falling fast and wet down her cheeks. "Stop crying," he says as he glances back at her. She wipes at her face and tries not to crumble in front of him. He walks back to the phone and puts the handset gently off the hook. "I just want to talk," He says, turning back to face her, "okay? No interruptions." 

She looks at him and gulps. His rage is palpable, barely concealed. She can his potential for violence in every move he makes, every twitch, every soft step. Where did he come from? All these months and she barely noticed him. How long had he been thinking about this, how long had he been hanging at the periphery? Every memory she has is suddenly tainted. She rifles desperately through them, trying to find him somewhere in the background. Had he always been there? 

And then suddenly he's standing in front of her again, face expectant. He's waiting for her to say something. No. He's waiting for her to agree. "Yeah, of course, Elliot." She's slurring a little, her lip swelling up, mouth still full of blood. 

He smiles, closing the distance between them again. She can only smell the iron of her own blood. "I want you to know that I'm a nice guy, okay?" He chuckles. "A lot nicer than any of the men in this town, that's for sure." He looks down at her and shakes his head, frowning. He sounds almost thoughtful. "This isn't how I wanted this to go, I hope you know that. I never intended to hurt you, and I will never hurt you again." He chuckles to himself. "You're just so stubborn." He grins. "I do like that about you. One of the many things I like about you." She wants to spit at him, tell him he doesn't know the first fucking thing about her, but her body is numb again, still and rigid. He runs his hands along the collar of her nightshirt, his thumbs slipping under to caress her collarbone. It's one of Sebastian's actually. And old track and field shirt from high school. She aches when she thinks about him, wonders if he can sense that something is happening, that something is wrong. Probably not. He's probably on his second pot of coffee, probably just settling back down in front of his computer after a smoke break. She'd do anything to be there, laying in his soft bed, watching him work with half-lidded eyes. Joni starts to cry harder, her face stinging from the salt and the movement. Elliot frowns and she knows he's upset that she's interrupting him, that she's ruining the mood. He's so transparent.

"There, there. I know this is a lot." What a fucking prick, she thinks, but the danger is still simmering in his voice so she nods and sniffles. If she can pull herself together, she might be able to get him to leave, to end this. Elliot takes another step closer, their bodies nearly touching "I'm going to prove to you how nice I can be." He runs his hands down her sides, rolling up the shirt's hem, exposing her stomach to him. He’s going to undress her, she realizes. He’s going to undress her and fuck her here in her own goddamn home and he's going to tell himself that she wanted him to. You like this? Right? Suddenly she’s furious. She isn't going to take this. Not after everything she's done this year, all the things she's built inside of herself. She isn't going to be fucked like this again. Or at the very least she's gonna make him work for it. She slaps him hard across the face, the force of it surprises her. Him too apparently. He stumbles backward and Joni scrambles for the door, bounding barefoot across the porch. Elliot regroups quickly and she can hear him behind her, hear the screen door slam as he bursts through it.

The rain is coming down harder now and it is freezing. Her skin frigid and slick as she runs. Thick mist rises from the warm soil, obscuring the ground. Joni nearly trips over branches hidden under the thick layer of fog.  sharp stones cut the bottoms of her feet. She can hear him behind her, calling her name. Lightning cracks across the sky, close to the treeline, and its bright light is disorienting. She tries to blink it from her eyes. Joni can only hear him in fragments, the rolling thunder muffling his voice, but each time she hears it, he sounds angrier. Her lip throbs, a reminder of everything he’s capable of.

Joni wavers outside the greenhouse, but she can see his silhouette growing behind her. He’s not far behind her. She imagines him smashing through the fragile glass walls, dragging her across the tile floor. The forest beyond is thick and dark and she runs to it, hoping it will hide her.

The trees whip at her face and bare legs, vines twisting around her arms like hands. In the darkness, everything takes on a monstrous quality. Everything has a face. Joni catches her foot on a rock and goes tumbling to the ground. The mud is thick and cold and seems to almost climb up her body. Her ankle throbs, when she reaches down to touch it, she can feel the skin is broken, the angle feels wrong. She whimpers on the ground, crying harder now. When she tries to put weight on it, the pain nearly makes her cry out. She leans heavily on the closest tree, trying to let her eyes adjust to the darkness.

The air is suddenly still, quiet. The rain slows to a gentle patter. Joni just wants to sleep, to be warm. To be held. She wants to scream until Sebastian hears her. Until anyone hears her His voice breaks the quiet. She bites the side of her hand to stop herself from crying out.  She can hear him rattling the greenhouse’s door. His voice is different, reedier. It’s terrifying the way it’s transformed. Joni can’t even imagine what he’d do to her if he found her. Her skin feels paper thin. She feels breakable.

Joni crawls forward on her hands and knees until she reaches a clearing in the trees. The dark is so total under their cover that she can only feel her way forward and she does until her fingers find a cool, smooth stone. It’s tall, old, she guesses from the vines that have made their home in its cracks. She feels up the sides of it, eyes adjusting to find that she’s kneeling in front of an altar. Or a grave. She recoils from it, but there’s nowhere to retreat to

She leans her head against it, crying like a wounded animal. Like a child. She is emptied out, her body shivering so violently she’s sure Elliot will hear it.

She presses her hands against the stone, trying to keep herself upright and as she searches for purchase on its surface, she finds the fish, her fingers reading its pattern like brail. It’s the same as the one on the wall, on the floor of the greenhouse. It’s long tendrils graceful and strange. Above it, she can see their names and the sound that leaves her is both relief and sorrow, her chest tight from the force of her tears.

Alexander Seydoux

January 17th, 1896 – October 3rd, 1992

 

Ruby-Anne Seydoux

August 1st, 1949 – July 14th, 1976

 

Beneath the fish, she finds an etching older and more worn than the names. May the earth rise up to cradle us. May we return to the soft waves. Joni closes her eyes and exhales a shuddering breath. How long had they been out here? The whole time, she imagines. So close to her front door.

Her breath freezes in her chest when Elliot’s voice rises again over the rain. He’s moved on from the greenhouse, now edging dangerously close to the ticket of trees. She can’t run anymore. Her ankle is screaming at her, the bottoms of her feet cut up and bloody. She bends to the force of the rain, hand pressed hard into the grave.

Then, without warning, a warmth blooms inside of her.  She can feel just the slightest pressure on her back, the ghost of a hand. Elliot’s voice starts to fade, she can hear him heading down toward the river. Before long, the sound of him disappears completely and all that’s left is the soft sound of rain, the rustle of leaves as they bend under its weight.

Chapter Text

The birds wake her. Her eyes flutter slowly, painfully, open. She hasn't, as far as she can tell, been out very long. The pale blue of early morning is still speckled with stars, the soft golden light of the rising sun just barely outlining the tops of the trees. Joni tries, at first, to convince herself that this has all been a dream, some chaotic nightmare so intense she'd wandered in her sleep out into the forest. But her whole body is stiff when she tries to get up. She winces when she glances down at her ankle. It's twice the size it should be and dark with bruises. She slowly lays her hands on her face, trying to map its geography, terrified of what she might find. The left side is tender to the touch, her vision a little narrow in that eye. Her lips feel enormous. She swallows. Her mouth tastes coppery, like sucking on a penny. She tenses, listening intently now for any sound of him, any indication that he might still be here.  

Resting most of her weight on the grave, she pulls herself to her feet. In the receding darkness, Joni can see the fish in more detail. It's encrusted in shimmery stones, its fins glittering and when she takes a few limping steps backward, it almost seems to move. That too seems like something from a dream. The grave, the altar. Her family here with her. Maybe they'd saved her, kept her safe all these months Joni wipes her eyes with her muddied palms. She must be delirious. 

 

Elliot's footprints are deep in the mud, evidence that the night before was, indeed, real. They chart a violent path across the farm. A man on a rampage, skirting in half steps from the house to the greenhouse and then, menacingly, circling around the thicket of trees where she'd hidden. But the footprints lose their menace as they trail downward toward Marnie's place, become more uniform, like all the rage inside of him had simply bled out. Had he come to his senses? Realized how insane all of this was? And then what? She bets he'd just gone home. She can imagine him in that salt bleached shack beside the ocean, but can't really imagine what he'd be doing inside it. Could he sleep after something like this? Joni limps along the path, leaning on the greenhouse's door for support. Her flowers, she sees with relief, are untouched. 

 

She needs to see a doctor, she knows that, but all she wants to do is to fall into bed. To sleep this all away and forget about it, lock it deep down inside herself. Her thoughts slam to a halt when she sees a man standing on the porch. She's so frenzied, so petrified, that it takes her longer than it should to recognize who it is. 

 

It's just Shane, a rain jacket hanging loosely off his shoulders, like he'd put it on in a rush. She says his name on a sigh of relief and he turns but doesn't look at her, looks instead down at his own clothes. He pulls on his shirt, embarrassed that he's so unkempt. "Oh, there you are. Yoba. You must have been out looking for Goose. Well, don't worry. He's safe and sound back at the ranch. Hell, he woke up the whole house, yowling and scratching at the door like a mad cat." 

"Shane." Her voice is still muffled, lip stinging with each syllable. 

He looks up and every muscle in his face pulses. He blinks twice then takes a single, staggering step backward. "What the fuck happened to you?" He looks around, head swiveling violently. "Is something...? Did something...?" He fumbles over his words, stuttering. "Is someone here?" 

"Not anymore." He mouths her words back at her, his eyes darting back and forth. She can tell he isn't processing this. He probably just woke up. "Shane." He nods almost violently. "I need you to help me up the stairs, okay?" He manages a single, curt nod. "I need to call Leah. I need her to drive me to the clinic." 

"Okay." But Shane is frozen. He's trembling. 

Joni tries to keep her voice steady but her head is pounding. She's wet and freezing and the shivering hurts. The cut on her lips has reopened, weeping blood. "Shane," He nods, still frozen in place. "Please." That breaks him out of his trance. He takes the steps two at a time, slipping her arm over his shoulders, his other arm firmly around her waist. She leans heavily on him as they walk up the steps. 

 

Leah is speeding. Her worn tires kicking up dirt and pebbles, the deep puddles in the road splashing onto the windshield. Leah's wipers are too old to make much of a dent. Joni is too numb to feel much of anything at all, but she clings tightly to her seat belt, limp as the car moves her side to side. The tendons in Leah's neck bulge. Joni can almost hear her teeth grinding. She's got both hands so tightly on the wheel that her knuckles are white. 

"We have to call the cops," Shane says quietly from the backseat. He's white as a sheet, looking faintly like he might be sick on himself. 

"When we get to the clinic," Leah replies through clenched teeth. She nods toward Joni. "Her first." 

"But he could be anywhere," Shane pleads, "He's clearly a fucking psycho! He could be waiting outside the clinic!" 

She turns around the look at him, her voice like ice. "If I see him, I'll kill him." 

 

She's pounding on the clinic door before Joni's even unbuckled her seat belt. Her stiff fingers fumble with the buckle. Whatever peace the little clearing had given her is long gone now. The milky light of the rising sun has revealed all the narrow cuts on her, all the dark bruises. She is rigid with horror, a thick knot of anxiety has worked its way from her chest into her throat. And she aches like an old woman, every muscle worn out and weak. She wonders vaguely if she'll ever sleep again. 

Shane opens her door and leans in, unbuckling her seat belt and offering his hand. Joni takes it, letting him guide her onto the cobblestone path. When he releases her, he squeezes her hand, trying to look reassuring but mostly looking bewildered. When she tries to smile, the cut on her lip opens up a little more. Joni stubs her toe against one of the path’s raised stones and it’s only then that she remembers she’s barefoot. She’s still in Sebastian’s ratty high school shirt and the soffe shorts she’s had since middle school, damp now and caked in mud. Shane stands beside her, shell-shocked, bouncing in the balls of his feet. She glances up at him. “How bad is my face?” He swallows hard. She turns back to Leah, still banging on the clinic door. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.”

 

Harvey's hand are steady on her face, tender almost. But she can feel, if she closes her eyes, the slightest tremor in his fingers. The shock on his face when he saw her at the door to his clinic has not worn off. "I don't think you'll need stitches for the cut above your eye and," He turns her head back so he can look in her eyes, "you likely don't have a concussion, but I'd like to keep you for a few more hours just to be sure." 

Leah wanders into the exam room, the receiver dangling from her fingers, its cord taut around the door frame. She can’t keep still, eyes flitting from Harvey to Joni and back.  She taps her foot, fingers manhandling the phone cord. Harvey steps back "I'm going to wrap your ankle. Get some ice on it." He clears his throat, suddenly nervous. "Do I need to perform a pelvic exam?" Leah freezes, eyes on Joni. Joni shakes her head. Harvey straightens his tie, clearing his throat again. "The exam would be minimally invasive. There's nothing to be ashamed of if he-" 

"He didn't fuck me." Both Leah and Harvey flinch. 

"Right, well," Harvey swallows hard, "I'm going to get some ice then." 

Leah watches Harvey go then sets the receiver down on the side table with a huff. She dials the number again. It’s the third time she’s tried to call. "Does he normally not answer?"

Joni coughs a little before she speaks. Her voice is hoarse from crying. "He's probably just gone to bed. I know he was up work-"

"Oh, Sebastian, hi." She sets the receiver down and presses the phone closer to her ear. "This is Leah.” A pause. “Yeah, I know this isn't my number. I'm calling from the clinic and...yeah, okay um right yeah, you do sound like you just woke up. Yeah, I know it's early." She waits a few beats, Sebastian’s voice a buzz over the line " I get that, I get that. I wouldn't call if it wasn't important.” She takes a deep breath. “ It's about Joni.” The line is suddenly loud.  No, stop hold on. Calm down. Just listen to me. Right, yes. Harvey's clinic. yes. She's okay. She's just-" She holds the phone away from her, looking down at it. "He hung up on me." 

 

         The clinic’s front door slams so hard that the window panes rattle all the way back in the room where Harvey’s put her. She can hear voices, desperate and agitated. She can hear his voice and that last iota of tension inside of her uncoils. She slumps down on the cot, cross-legged on the narrow mattress. She feels so small, so impossibly breakable, but she also feels, as his heavy footsteps get closer, finally safe. “Where is she?” She’s never heard his voice like this, this thin, this afraid. “Where is she? Let me see her.”

         “She’s here,” Harvey says, breathless as he tries to keep up with Sebastian’s long stride. “She’s in the back room. Now please, she needs to rest and-“ Sebastian throws the door open and the room goes quiet.

         Sebastian stands suspended in the doorway, not moving, not speaking. His fly is undone, hair a thick tangled mess on his head. Joni can see lines on one side of his face from the creases in his pillow. His face is unreadable, stiff. And then he shatters like glass, pushing toward her and pulling her against him. He kneels beside the cot, arms tight around her. And it’s then, with the heat of his body so close, his touch on her again, that Joni starts to cry. He smells like soap, like cigarettes, and she can’t believe he’s here. That this is real. She fists her hands in his shirt, crying so hard that she starts to retch, coughing until her lungs burn. “What happened?” He smooths back her hair. “What happened? Was there some sort of accident?”

         “Elliot.” Leah’s leaning in the doorway, arms crossed, watching them. Sebastian goes rigid, loosening his grip on Joni. “Elliot did this.”

         He stands, whipping around to look at her. He balls them into fists, then flexes his fingers like he isn’t sure what to do with them. All the muscles in his back are clenched. “Where the fuck is he?” She’s never seen him like this, tightly coiled and furious.

         “We called the cops,” Leah tells him, somewhat blandly.

         “Where the fuck is he?”

         “If I knew that, you’d need to be calling the cops on me.” They lock eyes, neither moving until finally, Sebastian exhales. His shoulders fall, almost defeated, then he starts to pace. “What happened?”

         Leah’s voice is quiet, practically a whisper, like she doesn’t want Joni to hear. “I don’t know what happened.”

         He looks back at Joni, face unreadable. “What did he do to you?” He’s almost shaking, mouth tight. “What did he do?”

         Joni’s head feels heavy; she can barely keep it upright. “Just this.”

         “What does that mean?”
         She curls back around herself, freezing and aching and so tired that her eyes have started to sting. “That nothing else happened. It wasn’t like what you’re thinking. He just hit me.”

         “He just hit you.”

         “If it’s okay,” Joni holds her knees tightly to her chest, “I’d rather stop talking about this.”

         “Of course,” Leah says softly. Sebastian frowns, but nods, settling down on the bed beside her. He reaches out, waiting for her to let him take her hand. She does. The warmth of it is tranquilizing and she pulls him weakly toward her. He runs his thumb along hers, smoothing it up her hand,  pressing it softly into her pulse, running it across her knuckles.

         “Shane’s got Goose. Marnie’s gonna keep him until you’re out.” Leah propels off the wall, looking weary herself. “Why don’t I go pick up some clean clothes from your place?”

         “Call my mom.” Sebastian offers. “She’ll do it in a heartbeat. Stay here with us.” We need you, is what he doesn’t say, Joni needs you. And she does, the two poles of her universe. After a minute of consideration, Leah nods. “Maybe ask her for some better blankets, maybe something to eat?” When he turns back to Joni his eyes are soft and sad. He brushes some of her hair back. It’s stiff with mud. “Yoba, you’re filthy.”

         Harvey clears his throat. He’s been waiting quietly in the doorway, gauze in one hand. “There’s a shower upstairs in my apartment that she can use, but I’m worried about her putting weight on her ankle for that long.”

         “I can go with her.” Sebastian offers. “She can lean on me.”

 

         The steam fills the room quickly, hiding them from each other. Sebastian traces her body with his hands. He’s never touched her as carefully as he is now, as tenderly. Joni wraps her arms around his neck, resting her head against his chest. He radiates heat and she starts to quietly cry. Sebastian’s breath catches in his throat, he shudders on the exhale. “I’m so sorry. I should have been there.” He shakes his head. “I should have fucking been there.”

         Joni cups his cheek in her hand. “Stop it. It wouldn’t have made a difference.” But suddenly she’s back in the house, back with Elliot. She watches his long, dainty fingers as they take her phone off the hook and terror pulses through her body. Joni’s crying hard again, her naked body trembling against Sebastian’s. “All I could think about is you.” Her voice is shrill and thin. “I thought I was never going to see you again and all I wanted was you. All I wanted…” She trails off and Sebastian holds her tightly against him, his breath hot on her neck.

         “You’re safe now, you’re safe.” He cradles the back of her head with his wide hand. “It’s gonna be okay. I promise. I promise.”

“Where do you think he is.”

“I have no idea.” He shakes his head. “I could kill him.”

 

An easy quiet hangs in the bathroom as he dries her off. Just the soft calls of birds, the drip drip drip of the tub. Steam billows out of the bathroom’s window, golden light filtering through. Joni feels soft, calm and hollow like after a bad panic attack has subsided. Her skin is pink from the hot water, the cuts and bruises more prominent now that the mud has been washed away. Sebastian is slow and gentle with the towel, has her propped up on the toilet seat, fingers working slowly over her skin. He winces with each new scratch, each dark bruise even when she doesn’t. Her body is still numb, still faraway. When he reaches her face, his own face cracks like a broken heart. He dabs the wound on her lip with the towel then leans in and kisses the other side of her mouth.

“Do you know when I first laid eyes on you?” His voice is soft, almost sleepy.

“When?” Her voice is tired. Weary. Like an old woman.

“You were leaving the Saloon with Emily.” Yoba, that feels like a whole lifetime ago. Like ancient history. Joni closes her eyes to let his voice wash over her. “I think you’d just started hooking up maybe, I'm not sure.” He runs his thumbs along her collarbone. “I was leaving Sam’s place. Late at night.” His palms slide across her shoulders, down her arms. “You were in this slip of a dress. Your hair was all tousled, so pretty.” He laughs softly to himself. “I was half-drunk and exhausted. I had a whole night of work ahead of me.” He runs his fingers through her wet hair, their foreheads touching. “I imagined you so differently. We’d all heard someone new was gonna be moving in and, I don’t know. I don’t know what I thought you’d be, but…” He runs his thumb down her cheek. “Not like this.” Joni can’t speak. A quiet has settled inside of her, like numbness but softer, easier. “I thought you were so beautiful. Right away. I didn’t even really see you. Just your profile under the streetlamp. Just the line of your back when you turned away. Here.” He runs his other hand gently down her spine. “I…I…” He pulls away from her, taking her face in his hands, careful not to irritate her wounds. His eyelids flutter closed and Joni thinks, though she can’t be sure, that he’s crying. “I would do anything for you. Anything. I mean it.” Sebastian takes a steadying breath. “I love you.” It’s so quiet that Joni almost misses it. She leans into the sound and his voice gets louder. “Fuck I love you so much. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that before. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the moment I knew.”

“When was that?”

“Maybe all along”

Joni grasps at him, pulling him close, digging her nails into the skin of his back. His heart beats against her cheek, steady and strong. She whispers her love into his skin.

Chapter Text

“I got this one when I was fourteen,” he says, pointing at his left peck. It’s a black and white tooth just a few inches tall, sort of rough around the edges, scraggly. A molar with long, sort of menacing roots. She’d seen it a hundred times before, run her fingers over it, her lips, but he’s never talked about any of his tattoos, so she sits forward in the armchair where she’s landed so she can hear him better.

         Sebastian’s laying on a mostly bare mattress, his shirt in a heap on the floor. Every so often the muscles in his stomach clench and he grimaces. The gloved man sitting beside him, an old friend whose name Joni can't remember, mutters vague encouragement eat time the tattoo gun passes over his skin. Muted music and talking filter through the space under the closed door. Someone shouts, then a cacophony of voices drown them out, then someone turns the stereo up and it all rolls back into an ambient drone. The faint scent of weed wafts into the room. Joni's stoned as she's ever been, practically glued to the armchair across from the mattress, nursing a drink that's some murky combination of all the liquor whoever lives in this apartment has. It had come out of a punch bowl in the middle of the shabbiest kitchen she'd ever seen. "India ink and dental floss and one of my mom's sewing needles." Sebastian nods toward Joni. "Sam did it." 

Sebastian's friend shakes his head, clicking his tongue. He's got a big diamond stud through it. Tattoos like a brace around his neck. "Man, that is so dangerous. And right above your heart too." 

Sebastian grins. "I know, I know. But it doesn't much look like I've upgraded does it?" 

The man feigns offense. "Hey man, I work at a shop. I'm licensed. Couldn't even get you on my books if I wanted to I got so many clients lined up." 

"And yet here you are." 

"Careful, my man, I'm the one with the gun in my hand."

Sebastian grins then taps him on the arm. His friend leans back to stretch in the chair and Sebastian sits up to roll out his neck. "Sorry man, you're rolling over a rib and just," he winces, "whoo just give me a minute." 

"Does it hurt?" Joni asks, pulling her legs up so she's sitting cross-legged in the armchair. 

The leaves are done, scratchy black and white, the petals too. It's just a small piece, nearly finished. It's going to be a peony. Right down his side. And it's for her though neither of them have said as much.  

"Ribs are tricky," he says, "but I've honestly had worse." 

She takes a few more sips of her sweet, boozy drink. "Which one hurt the most?" 

"This one." He points to the hollow of his right collarbone. "Easily." It's the outline of an eye. Simple and graphic, with no fill. Joni likes that one, noticed it immediately when they started fucking regularly. Sometimes at night, when he's sound asleep beside her, she'll roll over and trace the outline of it. It's almost comforting, like part of him is still alert. Joni likes looking at him in general though. Always has. Remembers that first night she ever saw him, when he bent his broad body over the pool table at the Saloon and the light caught in his thick, black hair, so dark it looked nearly purple. She wants to reach out and touch him, wants to pull his body over hers, let him work out all the tension in her own. Sebastian lays back on the mattress and lets his friend get back to work. 

Joni settles too, leaning back into the armchair and letting the ambient buzzing of the tattoo gun roll over her. The room is warm, almost muggy, but a chilly breeze occasionally comes in through the bedroom’s open window. It carries the faint scent of cigarettes into the room, the wet, sort of rancid smell of the city at the precipice of winter, before everything freezes and the only smell is cold. They’re high up, on the top of one of those apartment buildings that looks like it might have been up to code fifty years ago, but wouldn’t pass muster now. Joni can see, through the narrow window, the city glittering beyond and it feels foreign now. Like if she wandered out into it, she might not be able to find her way. It’s an odd feeling. Like she’s sloughed off an old skin. "What are you thinking so hard about?" 

Joni startles. "Oh, uh, I don't know. I'm high as shit." 

His buddy laughs, but Sebastian frowns. He mouths are you okay? Joni nods, because she is really is, all things considered. The cut above her eye is healed, her lip no longer a mangled, blood messy. Her night with Elliot only left a single physical reminder: a narrow pink scar beside her eyebrow that Harvey insists will eventually fade. It still feels fresh sometimes, even months later. Sometimes she looks in the mirror expecting to see the mud-caked and bloody shell that had turned up at the clinic that morning. Sometimes she does see that woman looking back at her. But that darkness that bloomed inside of her after that night with her ex is still receding, fading softly into the background of her life. Elliot hasn't opened up any new wounds, hasn't sent her careening back toward her own darkness. She locks the door to the farmhouse now, checks it twice before she goes to sleep, but she does sleep. Soundly, usually. Joni blinks herself back to the room only to find Sebastian watching her intently. He's about to open to his mouth and say something when the door to the bedroom swings open.  Leah slips inside, looking a little flustered, toeing the line between excited and petrified. She's in an uncharacteristic dress and boots, her hair pulled into an updo held tightly with a camel colored claw clip. When she catches sight of them, she laughs in relief, shutting the door with her back. "Oh my god there you guys are, shit." 

"You okay?" Joni pulls her coat a little closer around her. It's Robin's actually. The kind of heavy, padded, patchwork coat that reminds her of harsh winters and outdoor laborers. It engulfs her, but it's warm and smells like raw pine and faintly of cinnamon. Under it, she's not really dressed for the chilly weather, wearing a satiny little slip of a blouse, caramel colored and tucked into a tweed skirt. 

"Shit, I guess." Leah smooths out the hem of her dress, clutching her beer tightly. "Everybody wants to talk to me. Holy Yoba am I overwhelmed. I'm not prepared at all, I have no idea how to talk about my art at all."

Sebastian's buddy glances up from his work. "oh shit it's the woman of the hour." 

Leah laughs, open-mouthed "Holy fucking yoba, not you too." 

"Nah," he says, "don't wanna hear about art theory or praxis or whatever. The show was great though. Love your shit." 

Leah blushes. "Damn, thank you." 

“You sell anything?”

“A couple pieces yeah."

"It's been a long time coming." Joni says and Leah flashes her brightest, biggest smile. She's been like that for a whole week, just buzzing with wild, nervous energy. It was the Saturday before, when the two of them had been drinking at her dining room table when the email came in. One of the owners at a local Zuzu gallery had stumbled upon her website, asked her if she'd be interested in showing some of her work. 

Joni pats the space beside her on the armchair and Leah crosses the room, perching on one arm of the chair, draping her arm over Joni's shoulders.

"How ya feeling?" Leah whispers, kneading at the base of Joni's neck

"Good." 

"Yeah?" 

Joni smiles up at her. "Yeah." 

 Leah takes a swig of her beer, surveying the scene on the mattress. "I had no idea you were so inked, Sebastian, shit." 

The tattooer chuckles. "He's got a lot of rookie work on here. Did a lot of favors for his friends breaking into the industry ." 

"What a nice backhanded compliment." Sebastian teases.  

“Nah man, got a lot of respect for you, you know that.” The guy groans as he stands from up his chair, then smiles at Joni. “Glad I finally got to meet you by the way. He talks about you all the time." Sebastian goes a little red, looking away with an embarrassed smile on his face. "Even over the phone when we’re supposed to be talking about my fucking website.” He smacks Sebastian playfully on the ass.

“Oh!" Joni sits up a little straighter. "All good things then?" 

He smiles, "this kid's crazy about you." Joni blushes now too, burying her face in her drink. He clears his throat. "Well, I’m gonna get something to wrap this up in. Make it a little less of a mattress tat. They've gotta have plastic wrap in this shithole right?”

"Somewhere I'm sure." Sebastian stands up and stretches, twists his body to get a better look at the tattoo. "Looks great dude, I love it.” Joni unfolds herself from the chair and gets up to examine it, her fingers ghosting over the edges. He's watching her carefully and she smiles up at him. It really is beautiful, rendered like a botanical drawing. 

“Yeah, well you always sit like a rock. Makes my job easy.” 

Sebastian claps him on the back. "I do my best." 

“It’s pretty,” Joni says quietly.

“You like it?”

“Yeah." He beams at her. Sebastian sits back down, cracking his neck, then nods toward Leah. “We missing anything good out there?”

Leah laughs. “Oh you know, party stuff. I thought you guys had come in here to fuck.”

"So you figured you'd just walk in?" Joni picks a little at the skin beside her thumbnail. Her nails are looking terrible lately, but in a different way. Less picked at, but dirtier. Her flowers are outpacing their greenhouse beds. 

“There are worse things to see." She takes a long swig of beer. “There were a couple industry guys at the show.”

Joni sits up bolt straight. "Oh shit!”

“Yeah they didn’t follow to the party, but yeah, a couple guys from another gallery, an art buyer.”

“Oh my god, Leah this is it.”

Leah flushes “I don’t even want to think about it. It feels unreal." 

"This is amazing." 

Leah shrugs her off, deflecting but still beaming. "In less surprising news, Emily's tripping."

Sebastian chuckles. "I didn't even know she had acid on her." 

"Hell me either. Just pulled it out of her fucking pocket. I don't think she can stand to be sober. All that peace and love needs a heavy dose of detachment." 

Joni shakes her head, smiling. "Come on now, I thought you guys had a truce." 

Leah points her beer at her. "I'm nice to her when you're around and that is as far as I go." Joni rolls her eyes. "Before I slipped in here she was reading some guys palm in the kitchen."

“Oh, Yoba.” 

“This crowd loves it. She’s in her element. Shane, not so much.”

“Fuck where is he?”

Leah snorts. "Offered to take the owner’s dog for a walk. Poor thing was spooked by all the people.” 

"My dude," Sebastian says, shaking his head. 

“Yeah, no kidding. Said he was gonna pick up some orange juice from the bodega down the street too. He's the group dad now. Speaking of which," she nods at Sebastian, "you still designated driver?" 

"Most definitely. Drink up. This is your party." 

"Cool." Leah finishes her beer and sets it down on the carpet. "Well, I'll leave you guys to it." She slips back out into the party, winking at Joni. She can hear someone calling Leah's name as soon as the door clicks shut. 

Joni's standing by the bed, Sebastian leaning against her legs, cross-legged in the mattress. She has her fingers tangled in Sebastian's thick hair, keeping him close to her, their arms touching. He reaches out and runs the back of his hand down her bare thigh. Joni flinches, her skin still raw even months later. She looks down apologetically at Sebastian, but he just smiles, tracing little circles with his thumb. "Why don't we get some air." He stands and slips his shirt back on. 

 

The night is clear and glittering. The air cold in their lungs. It's almost quiet out in front of the apartment building. A few crowds of people pass by, headed to. the bars just down the street, but once they're gone, it's just the whooshing of cars and ambient sound from the party's open windows so far above them. "You're always shivering." He says slipping his arm around her. 

"Yeah, well, I'm never prepared." 

He leans down to press a kiss on the top of her head. "It's cute." 

Joni looks up at him and for a moment their eyes meet, then he leans down and they're kissing. Kissing like they've never touched each other before, like they want to consume each other.

He couldn't kiss her like this for weeks while her lip healed, kissed every other inch of her to make up for it. Devotion. The only word she could think of. She is devoted to him too. She isn't cold when his hands are on her, she isn't afraid. What a revelation. What a world. 

"I wanna take you home." He growls, breaking the kiss. 

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah," he nips a little at the shell of her ear, "let me warm you up."

 

This familiar road. This long journey away from the city. The one she made first all by herself, just a shaking husk of the person she wanted to be. Only a few steps ahead of death, looking backward to figure out if she planned to let death catch up.

 Joni checks her watch. Nearly 3 am. It’s full dark, The forest engulfs them as they drive. So dense it’s desolate. But the car is warm. Leah's car smells like her cabin, like her clothes, resin and paint and faintly fruity, like one of those body sprays they sell in kiosks at malls. The car's headlights cut cleanly through the darkness, the radio hums quietly in the background. Sebastian has cracked the window, lit a cigarette. The smell of wood smoke in cold air mixes with the dark scent of tobacco.  He hums to the radio, sometimes breaking quietly into song. Shane's in the car behind them, Joni can see Emily's blue head bobbing in the passenger's set. 

Leah fell asleep on the first turnpike toward the Valley, drunk and overstimulated. She's snoring softly, face pressed up against the window, her breath fogging the glass. 

Sebastian takes Joni's hand and squeezes, lifts it to his lips and kisses each knuckle. Pelican town comes into view when they crest over a bluff. It looks so small from far away. Just a tiny glowing pearl in a shell of darkness. She recognizes the twinkling light of Pierre's winter tinsel, the warm hearth glow from the Mayor's house. She can't see Robin's place from the road, too hidden by trees. It's a little emptier there now. Short one person. Sebastian moved his stuff in a week ago. All of his stuff.