After countless sleepless nights, rewriting over...and over and over again, secluding myself from normal society, driving everyone who dared talk to me insane with my insecure-stressed-out-writer-babble...this is the very best I can do. *Cue Frodo's last scene, after Gollum falls into Mount Doom* "It's gone! It's done."
I have my Beta to thank for this, really. I call him my Beta, but he's...so much more. He's my inspiration, my best friend, the love of my life, and the whole reason I challenged myself to finish this. He made me want to create something meaningful. And then he edited the piece, read countless drafts, listened to my woes late into the night, comforted me, challenged my plot arc until it was tight, got invested and spent way too much time going over everything with me....and because of his help, this story is readable. It wouldn't be, without his help. It wouldn't even exist. I seriously could not have done this without Caturday, and can't think of a single way to thank him for his endless support, help, and friendship throughout this journey.
Caturday, you are my muse. I love you more than the sun in the sky. <3 This is for you.
Outside of my own struggles, this is Wendy's story. She insisted I tell it right, and I hope I have done her justice. Yes, I know, she's an unpopular character, and I've written an unpopular ship. But I thank anyone who does read this from the bottom of my heart. It represent a rather large amount of time and effort--and I've offered up the very best of my writing, not to mention Caturday's amazing editing, for you all to enjoy here.
So, please do. Get comfortable. Put on some music. I can't wait for you all to meet Wendy, and Bebe, and perhaps...take their story with you on your way...
Bebe has this favorite song. I never understood it, really. She's the type that falls madly in love with a single song for an entire week or so, playing it over and over and listening to nothing else. This particular song struck her once, and after she played it for me, I felt confused. It was a soft, simple song; it wasn't even sung particularly well, and it sounded like the kind of thing that plays in the background of coffee shops. But most of all: the lyrics made no sense. It was…this disjointed collaboration of references. Some Biblical, some literary, and some from pop culture…none of them cohesive. I couldn't fathom how it could be meaningful.
I listened to it a few more times, trying to uncover some sort of significance, some clue as to why she found this particular song to be so evocative.
What I found was this one lyric.
"Love, love is gonna lead us by the hand
Into a white and soundless place…"
After a few listens, I realized that though it was supposed to be about love…the song wasn't talking about love as the ultimate good, or even something good at all. Love isn't leading us to some peaceful meadow where we can lay our troubles down.
The singer, John Darnielle, said it best.
"I don't know that the Greeks weren't right, I think that they were, that love can beat a path through everything, that it will destroy a lot of things on the way to its objective…yet we talk about love as this benign comfortable force: it is wild."
The white and soundless place…is death. And not heaven, not hell…just, nothing. Ultimate destruction.
And so you'll understand, that when I say this is a love story, you probably shouldn't be expecting a romance.
I shouldn't be here, I think, twisting my sweaty hands into the material of my dress, wrinkling the satin. People mill about slowly, observing the gallery with detached interest as they cruise through the various exhibits. I feel so awkward, standing here in the midst of all these strangers.
I spent too much time getting ready for tonight, and I still don't feel any less self-conscious. I had settled on a blue dress, something dark and inoffensive, with a high waist and upturned petal skirt brushing around my knees. I wore it last when I went to dinner with Stan's parents. I didn't need any comforting that night; everything went exactly as it was supposed to. I don't think tonight will be like that.
Eric snorts as he appraises a large, naked statue of a woman. "Perverts," he says, only slightly under his breath. He isn't bothering to hide his derision for the whole affair. If art is lost on anyone, it's Eric Cartman. Even what he's wearing is a non-verbal statement of disrespect, directly in defiance of the formal dress code. His large belly stretches words written on his t-shirt. 'FUCK THE POLICE' is emblazoned lopsidedly across his chest. The bottom of his white, jiggling stomach is visible under the hem of cotton material, and there's a mustard stain over man-boob, right where his heart is supposed to be. He only came because I promised there would be free cocktail weenies. But in spite of Eric's embarrassing distain for anything to do with "those hippie freaks," it's a good thing that he's a sucker for cocktail weenies. Or else, I'd have to face her alone.
I cast my gaze around like a fugitive. My feet shuffle beneath me in their uncomfortable heels—I'm ruining my shoes, dragging the soles on the ground. It's ironic. I know she wouldn't like that. "Don't take it out on the shoes," she'd say, like they had feelings.
I should leave, I think for the thousandth time, digging my nails into my palms. Maybe if I go now she'll never know I was here. Maybe if I walk behind that crowd of people, I can escape, and she won't see me. What if she DOES see me? What if she looks straight at me, by accident or something, and sees that I'm trying to sneak out? What will she think? What will she—
"Wendy," Eric breaks my thoughts, "stop freaking out." Always weirdly perceptive, he isn't necessarily more sensitive for it. Eric just seems irritated as he observes my distress.
"I'm not freaking out." But he's right of course. I'm totally freaking out.
Eric just sighs. "Whatever."
I distract myself by pretending to study a painting in the corner. It is composed of vibrant red lines, all twisted together through a mass of wiry shapes. I attempt to follow the red with my eyes through the entire drawing but keep losing track of it. It makes me a little dizzy, so I shake my head and move on.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a flash of blonde. I stop dead in my tracks, an instinct. My pulse pounds. The air is itching, pricking at my awareness, making me feel anxious and uncomfortable in my own skin. But as soon as I really get a look at the woman, the feeling ends, and I am shaken back to earth.
It isn't her. Her hair would never sit so neatly around her shoulders, tamed and flat. The woman who is the wrong blonde laughs with an open pink mouth, and I turn away. She's a beautiful woman, but I dislike her. The laugh is wrong. Too high, like bells, or birds; the laugh I'm looking for sounds like gravel or rusty guitar strings. I resent this woman, who I don't even know, for who she isn't.
Eric, bored, moves off to find the waiter with the tray of weenies. I wander about aimlessly, skimming through the art pieces without really seeing them. I am restless, that uncomfortable itch still ghosting under my skin. It intensifies each time I catch a glimpse of blonde hair, or a whiff of air that hints of her scent, making me twitch my fingers.
I pause at a piece composed of pastel bands crisscrossed over each other, and I am interrupted.
"This one seems to be painted out of a dream," an articulate, drawling voice startles me. When I look up, Token, in his black turtleneck sweater and little wire-rim glasses, smiles. He has his hands clasped behind his back, and is examining the piece with a mild sort of interest.
"It's done with a loose style of line that suggests unconscious thought," he explains, "see how the colors blend together? The whole point is a lack of distinction."
"I didn't think of it that way," I keep the bored sigh out of my voice.
"I haven't seen you around here before," Token notes in a conversational tone, "did you come to see the famous artist from Cincinnati? He's causing quite a stir. They say he's using a visceral style that's quite impressive. I've been looking forward to his exhibit quite a lot."
"Yeah," I say. I had no idea they were featuring a new artist. Her name was the only name I noticed on the list, glaring from the page as if it were highlighted in red.
"Well, welcome," Token says, "it's always good to see new faces. I was surprised at the turnout this year. South Park doesn't seem to be the kind of town where things like this are appreciated."
"Isn't that the truth," I say, but he's already moved on, gone to chat with the other posh artenthusiasts gathered around an iron sculpture that seems to turn in on itself. They seem excited about it, chattering in low voices as they point and exclaim over the ingenuity of using illusion to make a statement about the unending artistic struggle.
I find nothing of interest for a while, and soon begin to wonder if she's even here.
Then I notice a piece at the center of the room.
It's a tree, from what I can tell. It has a knurled black trunk made of individual wires twisted together. The leaves are made of painted shards of mirror, hanging low from the branches. There are a million refracted faces, burnt orange in the reflective pieces of silverback glass. It is fragile and disconcerting, the fragments glistening under the studio lights—the moving reflections glitter as the bits of mirror sway. The movement makes the small tree appear to really be on fire. It is disconcerting, how the illusion of flame flickers as if alive.
And then I hear a sound that makes my heart stop, the beats halted before being violently forced back to life. The rhythm picks up, before becoming dangerously fast.
I could never mistake her voice. It's so specific; a memorized tenor that seems to echo when she calls my name.
"Wendy? Is that you? Wendy?"
I force myself to hold still, not to turn back just yet. Everything aches to see her again, but I deny myself for a few more moments. I must keep control, if only for a couple more seconds.
"Hey," I greet, facing her at last. It's so hard to hold my arms at my sides instead of curling them tight around her. I gave up the right to touch her, but my body hasn't received the message, or doesn't remember. I feel myself straining to be near her, and every clenched muscle burns with the effort of keeping them locked in place.
"Not that I'm not happy to see you," she hurries, like she's afraid she won't get a chance to say it, "I am," she continues a bit more quietly, "happy that you came, I mean."
Warmth spreads through my body as I hear this. I try to tamp down the reaction, to staunch the surge of joy at her admission, but find myself smiling instead.
She doesn't notice my internal struggle. She is ignorant of what she does to me, and it's not fair that I can't even blame her for it, can't even hate her for the utterly inappropriate way in which she affects me.
"Uhm, what exactly are you doing here?" she sounds curious, and a little hopeful. Her wide eyes are full of light, dancing like she's waiting for me to tell her a secret. I clench my teeth tight, to leash my traitorous mouth already filling with flowery words, outbursts of emotion I cannot afford. I wilt them with my sheer willpower.
She's wearing this fancy black dress that leaves her shoulders bare except for the bright gold curls hanging about them. She is elegant and feminine, the sweeping of her skirt tapering and cinching around her body like it was made to exactly fit the contour of her waist. She still has the same mischievous hazel-green eyes, set behind the handful of tiny scattered freckles over the bridge of her nose, the same untamable mass of yellow hair cascading around her, a river of gold. Her mouth still crooks the same way when she smiles, too, like she's tasted something sweet. And I still can't look at her too long. She burns too bright into my retinas, like the burst of a flashbulb that leaves a lavender ring in the darkness whenever I close my eyes.
I trace over the white slope of her shoulders with my eyes instead of tracing them with anxious fingers, climbing over the white inches, leaving red score marks there to indicate I've touched her, claimed her. My claims are all invisible, meaningless now.
"Oh, you know," I answer, "the art." I blush at the sound of my own pathetic lies.
She nods, buying it. Or maybe just letting me off the hook. She's a good actress, so I can't tell. She is close enough for me to inhale her perfume, mixing with her scent of cigarettes and rain. I indulge in her scent, one I'd recognize in a crowd of thousands. Now the essence of her is diluting the air so I can't help but breathe her, become intoxicated by breathing her.
"I missed you," she tells me, and then, "I'm glad you came."
A violent shudder in my chest nearly brings me to my knees; how does she undo me with such small, simple words? She brings no weapons but the ability to make me fall on my own sword.
"Yeah," I say through the instant guilt swimming in my throat, "me too."
"Did you see my piece?" Bebe asks. She sounds precious and shy, giving another vicious tug to my heart like she's yanking out pieces of it.
"Which one is yours?" I wonder at last, hoarsely.
"That one," she points it out, "there."
She indicates the tree with her finger. I glance over. It seems so much more powerful now, knowing that it's hers. I study it again carefully, trying to find her fingerprint on it, and somehow, I am disappointed with myself for not sensing it was hers.
"It's…really something," I tell her honestly, "you've gotten better since I last saw you."
She beams with my praise—so pleased and enthusiastic that I blush at her response. Her opinion of me shows in how she responds to my evaluation. I'm doing the complimenting, but she's doing the real flattery. How can she make me feel at once as if I owe her a compliment and gratitude in the same moment?
"I'm glad you like it," she says, voice warm and flushed with happiness, "I, sort of made it with you in mind. So it means a lot to me…that you…approve." She looks down at her shoes, patent black heels, shiny and sharp against the floor.
I am buzzing, glowing, with the idea that she was thinking of me. "You did?"
She nods. She is exquisite, black dress pulling close to her skin, close to her lovely naked collarbones—close enough to make my heartbeats stutter over themselves. A feeling—a warmth spreads through me that quickly becomes pure molten heat. It rises like a wave, and descends upon my poor, defenseless heart. The dam is broken, and my voice falters under the emotions crashing straight through my poorly constructed defenses.
"It's…it's perfect." I am rewarded with another of her grateful little smiles. It's dangerous, what a simple twist of her pretty red mouth can do to me just by moving a few millimeters. Fear makes me clench as I realize how easily I have come undone, already. I desperately try to rein myself in.
"Wanna get out of here?" she asks, twinkling, "I'm going to puke if I hear one more evaluation of my piece that involves the words 'powerfully self-reflective and innovative.' It's utter bullshit. Do they just go around jerking off to how intellectual they all sound to themselves?"
People around us glare at her, having overheard. Bebe never did bother with subtlety. She's careless that way…perhaps the better word is carefree.
I look at her, and I know I should walk away. In fact, I shouldn't have come in the first place.
But my constructs tear as easily as wet paper when she smiles at me, inviting me away with her. Matter is reduced to something beyond substance. It becomes energy, electricity, and I can't resist. I am swept away in this current.
I feel like a traitor to myself, because now I realize that I've been wishing for this feeling back from the moment I walked away.
"Sure," my mouth says without my permission. I float behind her into the night, and even though a frantic, out-crying part of me is still insisting this whole thing is a terrible, terrible idea, I ignore it and follow her into the rainy streets. It's too late to listen to sense when I've already stood close enough to her to become intoxicated. There is no reason that can't be outshone by her eyes, outspoken by her smile.
It only occurs to me later that I left Eric alone at the gallery. And shit, he's going to kill me when he realizes it. But Bebe's taken to touching my hand, sending quick glances my way like she can't believe I'm really there, and she has to keep checking to make sure I am—my heart skids to a stop at the contact, the volts flowing from her touch shocking me into ecstatic awareness, and I forget my worries again and grin back like the fool I am.
We're at Bennigans, facing each other from opposite sides of the corner booth in the back. We are close enough to touch, but we aren't touching, like two objects caught irresistibly in orbit. I wonder who is orbiting who, who has the greater pull. But as I look at her, and feel myself yanked away by the force of her eyes, I think I know.
"You look the same," she murmurs, reaching a butter-brown glove to stroke against my cheek. The scent of leather fills my nose as her smooth gloved fingers slide down the side of my neck. My heart skips a beat. Illusions can't touch you. She's real, but of course she is. I've dreamt in straight lines in years, but she wanders completely off the page. I could never have a dream like her.
"You, too," I croak, somehow finding my voice. And she does. She's the same, in all the important ways; her hair's a bit longer than the last time I saw her, her eyes a little sadder, but it doesn't matter because it's still her and nothing's changed.
"It's been awhile," she says, and it makes me shrink in my seat. She isn't accusatory or angry, but all the same, I feel the hurt buried in her words, barbed so it buries itself deep and stays hooked deep.
And I only have excuses for her. My reasons for leaving disappeared when I saw her walking towards me in the gallery, and the world melted down to our points of contact.
There is a long silence.
"I waited for you to call, for you to..." she shrugs, the hurt obvious in her face as she waits for me to speak.
I swallow back the flurry of apologies and explanations that flood through my head and say nothing. I can't apologize without explaining. Explaining would ruin everything (it's not real if you don't say it out loud).
"…So I had to come find you," she continues, biting her lip hard, "that's why I came back, you know. To see you. But…but I didn't know if you'd want to…"
She waits for me to speak for an interminable while, gazing up at me with round eyes and a brave, stiff little smile. And she's waiting for me to…to…I don't know. I don't know what she wants me to do. What she wants to say right now. What can I say? What is there to say? What do you have the right to say to someone who you've hurt?
(You say, 'I'll never leave you again.' But I can't say that. I won't. Can't.).
She winces at my silence, and if I were a truly good person, I'd come up with something to say, just so she doesn't look so scared. It's a terrible feeling, knowing what a good person would do or say, but not living up to it. It's worse that she allows me to wallow in self-pity, and forgives me for it with hardly a flicker in her eye. She makes me so small with her forgiveness. It's hard not to resent her. It's hard not to look up to her. And because I don't know which of the two is the more important, I still don't have anything to tell her now that would make her feel braver. So I don't say anything.
I'm a disgusting, spineless coward. Don't forgive me, Bebe.
"I heard you got a job," she speaks up after a while. There is no disappointment in her voice, no sign she sees me for who I really am, and has finally come to despise me for what I have done to her, to us.
"Yeah," I answer, glancing down. I still never know what to say when she's staring at me like that. Her eyes are too intense; they make me feel warm and self aware—and I forget simple things, like how to make normal conversation. It's unnerving. She's unnerving. I am robbed of everything but the desperate, scrambling heartbeat in my chest. It is as if I am running to keep up with her, trying not fall one step behind—like if I slowed down and let her slip away, my heart wouldn't beat at all.
"Token says you're working at Hell's Pass," she prods, gracefully attempting to maneuver around the silence, "how do you like working there?"
"My job," I repeat dumbly. The job I took to get away. From her. Right.
"I mean, is it interesting?" Bebe tilts her head, examining me carefully, "you always wanted to be a doctor. How is it?"
"It's good," I say (small words for a big lie). I force myself to stare at the yellow square napkin beside my plate, "yeah. I'm evaluating incoming and outgoing patients. We get some pretty interesting people passing through."
Bebe hums in acknowledgement. I have the sudden urge to wind my fingers through her hair, close my fist around the strands. Like a handful of gold clutched in a greedy palm.
"Sounds fascinating," she comments.
"I have an interesting new patient," I offer.
"Oh really?" she answers with polite interest.
So, I begin to tell her about Kenny McCormick.
He was a mute from Hell's Pass Ward, sent to me for evaluation, I tell her. He sort of gave me the creeps, to be honest. He wore a filthy orange sweatshirt when he shuffled in. He stared at the ground, refusing to look up at me. His background file said he spent most of his time drawing, so I requested a few examples to study before meeting the patient.
He drew leaves. Pages of them. They were drawn as if they were falling from a tree, a latticework of swirling maple leaves, overlapping each other as they descended from invisible branches. They were beautiful, vivid with a perverse amount of tiny details—down to the individual veins and imperfections—on each carefully rendered leaf. I wondered about how many hours he spent drawing these—it was obviously an extremely laborious task.
"Actually, he kind of reminds me of you," I tell her.
"Oh really?" she raises an eyebrow.
"Yeah," I tell her, "he draws leaves. It's kind of like your gallery piece." I don't tell her that every time I see him with his tousled blonde hair, the hint of defiance in his blue eyes, I think of her.
"Huh," she appears to be deep in thought.
In any case, I explain to her, Kenny was mostly uncommunicative. I was fairly certain he heard what was going on around him; he just didn't seem to care. But when I asked him about the leaves, he grinned—feral and wicked—showing all his teeth. He pointed to one of the leaves, finger leaving a black smudge in the charcoal, and then slowly raised the black-dusted finger to his throat. He met my eye, still smiling widely, and sliced the finger across his throat, leaving a line of dark pencil residue over the straining tendons in his pale neck.
I stared at him as he stabbed his finger against another of his renderings of a leaf on the page, before raising it to his throat again.
"Am I to understand," I asked him slowly, "that each of these leaves represents death?"
He nodded, still leering like a jack o' lantern from behind his orange hood.
"Anyone's death in particular?" I inquired, and he nodded, wild mass of blonde locks swaying with the veracity of his agreement.
His grin widened, splitting across his dirty face.
His finger pointed straight at his chest, leaving a smear against the orange of his hoodie.
My theory, I tell her, is that that for every time he believes he has died, he's drawn a leaf. And there were so many hundreds of leaves just on each individual page. I had no idea how many total he'd drawn. It was particularly perturbing to ponder how many hours he'd spent contemplating his many imagined deaths, and immortalizing them in his drawings.
When I finish relaying all this, Bebe looks impressed.
"It's like living poetry," she breathes.
"It's morbid," I tell her, "it's the product on an unstable emotional condition. I think I'm going to put him on a regimen of antidepressants and see if it helps."
Bebe looks offended by the suggestion.
"Kenny's my patient," I try to explain, "I can't just excuse him from treatment because his insane delusions render some kind of meaningful metaphor."
Bebe doesn't seem convinced.
"He needs help," I say, and the strange feeling that I am pleading with her, to understand, to agree with me, makes me close my mouth, swallow back everything I was going to say and give her something clipped instead.
"He wouldn't have ended up in my office if he didn't." I am oddly ashamed to offer her this statement. Maybe because in a way, I'm judging her. I'm telling her how to think, what is correct, and I know nothing hurts her more. She's spent so much of her life feeling the sting of being judged.
You can diagnose people like Kenny, people who are beyond the reach of those around them. You can regulate their mood with inhibitors and stimulants and suppressants and be called a healer. You can put them in a file and store them away in the dark. You can do your job and sleep guiltlessly. But Bebe…Bebe is like a marigold flower, roots growing deep and chaotic, hidden in the soil. If you tried to put her away, file her in a cabinet or hide her in a drawer, or feed her chemicals to make her grow a certain way, she'd simply wither, and die, the way wild things usually do when they are caged. You'd never know what made her so bright and lovely and vibrant—and you'd hate yourself, because it'd feel like putting out the sun.
"I need to meet this guy," Bebe insists, "I don't believe anyone who can come up with something as visceral as that could be a whack-job." She grins at me with the same smile she wore when I met her in the stairwell all those years ago. "I think he's just misunderstood."
"He needs help," I argue, "I'm trying to help him."
But our conversation is interrupted. The doors of the restaurant at once bang open to reveal Eric Cartman, who immediately singles me out and meets my gaze with a murderous stare.
I try to hide behind my menu as he stomps over.
"You…suck. Ditching me with all those art-humping-douches," he wheezes—the walk from the gallery to Bennigans obviously having been a bit out of the range of his physical capability.
"And guess what? Those assholes ran out of weenies."
I am walking down the halls of South Park High, ten minutes after the last bell has rung. I am headed to the locker pavilion to drop off a few textbooks—today I took the shortcut, down the emergency fire escape in the Physical Science building. I don't usually go this way, but I'm in a hurry. Stan is driving me to a movie at six o'clock, and I need to get my homework done before he arrives.
But when I get into the stairwell, I hear a horrible crashing sound—like plates at a Jewish wedding. It makes no sense of course—because as far as I know, there are no Jews getting married in the South Park High emergency stairwell in the Physical Science building.
I discover that the source of the sound is a girl in a paint-splattered poncho. She has so much hair—wild blonde curls tumbling everywhere, she looks like a dandelion, yellow petals twisting together in a bright mane.
She is dropping what appear to be home-made ceramic vases, pots, and jugs over the stair railing. They hit the ground and shatter, the sounds echoing loudly through the dimly lit stairwell. She has a pile of them at her feet. I don't know where she got them or why she feels the need to drop them to their crashing doom, but for some reason, I find it rather fascinating. I approach her, a bit cautiously. But my pulse pounds, anticipation a buzz in my head. I want this meeting to happen. I want to know this stranger; she already draws me in.
"Fuck you, you ugly excuse for a vase,"' the girl declares, releasing an oblong jug over the railing. It sails downward and hits the ground with sonorous clatter. The girl seems pleased with herself.
"And fuck you too, death of the artist's soul," she lets another go; this one is long and thin, painted with earth-tone reds. It joins the others in a heap of shards on the first floor.
"Uhm," I say at last, reflexively, "that's really dangerous. You could hit someone down there."
The girl whirls around, and it feels like being punched in the gut. She's pretty; so pretty it throws me for an instant. Her big eyes are an off color, not quite green, not quite brown. Her nose is sprinkled with a million freckles, and her pink lips are tilted in a playful slant. Her raucous curls refuse to conform to a single shape or direction— she's a lot to take in all at once. I stare, unable to help myself, because I've never seen anyone like her before.
"Nah," she says, shrugging, "everyone's gone home. Nobody wants to stay in this fucking prison longer than they have to." She plucks long-stemmed budvase from her pile and holds it for a moment between her fingertips, examining it. Then just like the others, she drops it down.
"Fuck you, shitty little clay pot," she sings as a farewell, waving. The crashing sound jars me, startles me; I had been caught up noticing the way her mouth looks when she smiles; something about it makes her look like she is enjoying a private joke, and I find myself caught in wanting to hear it. I quickly look away from her face, and notice her fingernails, painted black and chipped as she grips the edge of the railing to peer down at her work.
"What exactly are you doing?" I ask, feeling unexpectedly timid.
"Making a statement about the detriment of the artistic education," the girl replies, picking up another piece of pottery before perusing it carefully, "want to do one?"
"No," I say instinctively, "we shouldn't." But my heart hurtles itself against my ribcage, as if trying to burst its way through. The way it's beating, it feels more like excitement than fear.
"It's fun," she taunts me, tossing the piece over. It smashes into smithereens against the ground, and she smiles at the entropy as if it were the sweetest music.
"You could get in a lot of trouble for that," I say, leaning over to observe for myself the impressive mess she's made on the floor below. I try to avoid touching her, but when our shoulders accidentally brush, something curls tightly in my stomach. I jerk away from her, bewildered.
"What're they gonna do?" the girl looks amused, "throw me in jail for ruining a bunch of shitty pottery class projects? People didn't even bother to take these home with them. They just stuck 'em in their lockers." She lets several fly after each other in cacophonous succession.
"They were practically asking me to destroy them."
Something terrible occurs to me. "You broke into people's lockers to get these?"
"Yup." The girl says it casually, like she's talking about going out for a cup of coffee. I pull my jaw shut, not understanding how someone could be so utterly dismissive of normal protocol. It's as if I'm watching a gorilla use an Ipod…or something. It's not natural. Nothing about this girl, or the way I'm reacting to her, is natural.
I should be giving this girl a wide breach. She is someone who delves into the things you were keeping private, and smashes them for fun.
"Aren't you worried you'll get in trouble?" I ask, dumbfounded.
"Not really," she says.
"You'll get detention if a teacher finds you," I insist, trying vainly to argue with her blasé, "And besides, someone's going to have to clean this up. All the sharp bits on the floor aren't safe."
It's true that I often find myself reminding people of the rules. Sometimes I feel like the only person who cares about how things are supposed to be.
I've never had to work so hard to remember that—I—care, though. When the girl looks at me with those glinting eyes in the dim hallway, I find myself reacting to her before I can remember why I disagree with her.
"They'll have to catch me first," the girl grins, devious with her mouth pulling into an enigmatic smile. I swallow, thoughts scattered. My stomach does the same acrobatic trick from before at the sight of it, flopping awkwardly in my abdomen. I tell myself it's just the lunchmeat from the cafeteria, but even I don't believe me.
I should run far away from this person and report her to the school principal. She's clearly no new criminal, has done who-knows-what in the past, and I don't need to be associated with criminals. I want to get into medical school someday.
And when she looks at me, I feel odd. Queasy maybe, but not in a way I am used to. It doesn't seem like a good sign. My instincts all say run.
Her eyes just make it sort of impossible.
"You sure you don't wanna do one?" she holds out a lumpy blue bowl.
"No. That's okay." I back away from her, trying one last time to ward her off.
"C'mon. You only live once, right?
She shoves the bowl into my open hands. Before I can even react, a voice begins shouting from the top of the stairwell. My overstressed brain can't process anymore. I panic and drop the bowl immediately, wincing when it clatters against the ground.
"What is going on down there?" demands the voice, which I recognize with dread is my third period biology teacher. My gut drops like a rock, heavy and thudding. I am so busted. I send the girl a panicked look. In just a few moments, she's turned my afterschool plans into dust. And probably all my afterschool plans for the rest of the year, from the look on the teacher's face; we're going to be in eternal detention. I don't think I've ever encountered someone so singlehandedly destructive.
"Party's over." The girl grabs her canvas tote bag and starts thundering down the stairs, faster than I'd ever expect her to be capable of moving. It causes me to pick up my own pace, not wanting to be left alone.
"Hurry up," she calls, beckoning me impatiently with one waving hand, "run!" I stare at her helplessly, hesitating for a few seconds before I start after her again. The teacher above hurries to catch us, footsteps pounding against the metal stairs and echoing through the stairwell.
"Stop!" she yells, "Stop this instant! You young ladies are in big trouble! Stop!"
The girl reaches the bottom of the stairs first. She pulls her hood over her head, covering her eyes, and turns to face the teacher with a pointed finger.
"You don't know who I am," she declares. In a numbing bolt of shock, I realize that I don't either. I didn't even ask her name.
And I also realize that I regret not asking for her name, more than I regret being caught by the teacher.
The girl then turns tail, and sprints down the hallways. She's disappearing fast, and the teacher only follows after her for a few steps before realizing it is no use. She looks after the escaped girl, huffing and puffing, resigned. There's nothing she can do but watch the delinquent escape.
I begin to laugh. I can't help it. It's hysterical, and insane, and the perplexed look on Ms. Toby's face is priceless.
But then she turns to me.
"Wendy Testaburger? Is that you?"
We talk for awhile, and then Bebe stands to excuse herself. She says she has to get back to the gallery. Soon it will be the question and answer period, and they will miss her. But she hopes she'll see me again. Soon. I see her to the door, trailing after the tail of her coat. I can't hold onto her, can't grab onto her tight, tight so she won't leave. Instead I curl my hands into themselves till my knuckles ache.
"It was good to see you," I murmur when she leans in to hug me goodbye. My arms are stiff at my sides with the effort of holding them back from flinging around her neck and clinging for dear life.
She lets go too soon, her bow sliding along my heartstrings in a moment of contact—and I begin to tremble, just slightly. She plays the pulled tendons of my heart like music that makes me thrum as it quivers deep within the cavity of my chest—and the melody haunts me—a sleepless lullaby.
In my arms, I feel her shudder. The symphony undulates, an adagio, rending for its tones of slow breaking sadness. It swells through me, and a warm tear drops onto my shoulder. I realize she is crying.
"Don't you ever do that to me again," Bebe says as she clutches me all the closer, "God, Wendy don't you ever leave me again!"
And I, cruel, selfish vessel, feel resounding joy from her heartbroken words, because she is holding on to me like this, so I don't have to let her go just yet. And if she is clinging to me, I can pretend for a moment I don't need her to.
I wish I didn't feel the need to collect these moments like butterflies to a corkboard, preserved and revisited until I can practically feel them flutter beneath me, like her heartbeat pressed against my palm.
"Dude," Eric says, sliding his bulky weight into the booth across from me where she had been, "so, she's the real reason we had to go to that gay-ass art thing, right?"
"No," I retort, but you can't bullshit the guy who invented the word. Eric Cartman is extremely hard to out-maneuver in matters of deception. I don't know why I even bother.
"I don't blame you, by the way. She has a sweet rack."
"She's not the reason I wanted to go."
"Oh really?" he taunts me, voice mocking, "I suppose we were there to appreciate all the artistic value those lame fucking hipsters had to offer?" he rolls his eyes.
"Or maybe, we were there take in the sophisticated cultural scene," he continues, sarcasm dripping from his every word, "I personally enjoyed the entire wall dedicated to saran-wrapped toilet seat covers."
"You can stop any time now," I say through gritted teeth.
"Or maybe you're full of shit," Eric says, "and need to admit you went there just to see her."
"Wendy, do you know what your problem is?" Eric pops a piece of melon from my fruit salad into his mouth and chews it contemplatively.
"That I'm friends with a big, fat, racist jerk with an even bigger mouth?" I hope he'll be distracted with the insult and derail into less confusing territory.
"Fuck you, and no," he says, "your problem is, you're in denial."
I roll my eyes at the diagnosis. It's so cliché it almost makes me laugh. Eric's talking out of his ass, as usual.
"Thanks for the update," I deadpan.
"No, I'm for seriously," he says, "you're in denial. Let me explain." He steals another piece of melon, and I swat his meaty hand away.
"Get your own."
He ignores me.
"I can't understand why you don't see it. You're a psychiatrist," he insists, "you must deal with delusional people all the time. People who can't deal with reality, so they live in a fucked up fantasy world instead? Sound familiar?"
"Whatever you say, Eric."
"Well you're just like one of those fucked-up whackos, Doctor Lady," he looks at me disparagingly, "you have your little fantasy about how things are, and you stick to it even when it has nothing to do with reality. It's the very definition of mentally fucked-up."
"Uh huh," I dismiss him. Eric can talk all he wants. It doesn't make him right.
"The crazy thing is," Eric says, swiping another melon ball before I can bat his grabby fingers away, "you and I aren't really that different."
"What makes you say that?" I ask with a sigh, moving my fruit salad closer to me so he can't steal anymore, "I'd say the difference between us is around one-hundred to two-hundred pounds."
"Ignoring that," Eric glares, "but seriously. We aren't."
"Fine, Eric," I give in exasperatedly, "why are we not so different?"
"Because we're both ruthless, manipulative fuckers," he says, looking legitimately proud as he declares it, "only you try not to be."
"Gee, thanks," I say, "are you always this sweet?"
"The thing is," Cartman helps himself to my french-fries, now that my attention has gone to guarding the fruit salad. It was probably his plan all along, the bastard, "you have no idea what kind of person you really are, because you spend all your time trying to be this perfect little princess. But I know. It's why we're friends, and I don't try to fuck with you anymore. Because I realized that you're really just like me, and I'm awesome." He pats his wide-barreled chest.
"Of course you are," I sigh, and push my plate over to him, giving up the fight to try to keep him away. When it comes to food and money, Cartman is relentless. Again, I don't know why I bothered.
"And I bet," Cartman continues contemplatively, sticking a fry in his mouth as he does, "that this Bebe chick knows it, too."
"Don't talk with your mouth full."
"I do what I want, Mom!"
"You're in denial," Cartman swallows, finally, and I grimace. Ugh.
"I bet you're so scared of Bebe, because she doesn't buy your bullshit either," Cartman grins in an irritatingly smug way, "I bet she sees right through you, and you can't stand it, because you can't get away with lying to yourself anymore."
"Really, Cartman, you're just—"
"Except secretly, you like it," He finishes off my fries, and then looks regretfully at the empty plate before continuing with what he was saying. He starts talking again before I can make another fatass comment.
"You're friends with me, after all. For all your insults and insisting that you hate me, I'm still the person you spend the most time with, other than that pussy, Stan. Because you know who you are. And you know, deep down, that you'll never be happy until you let yourself be what's underneath all the PC bullshit you put on for everyone else."
"And I'll tell you something else: you're pretty fucking obvious. I'm sure you're delusional, because you already gave yourself away, " he says, mouth turning up into a cruel little smile—Eric is always happiest right before he goes too far.
"You hate art."
"I do not!"
It doesn't matter, because there's no convincing Eric once he believes he's right. I stop arguing, shut my mouth with a quiet 'pop' and eat the rest of my fruit salad in silence. Eric gloats, a smile etched into his pudgy face. He is taking my acquiescence as a victory—because Cartman doesn't have problems with winning by cheapshot. Or default. In fact he prefers it. The less work he has to do for his winnings, the better.
He scratches his belly and burps from across the table. I need some new friends.
Usually, I just try to ignore him when he's like this. But somehow, what he said bothers me, late into the night, like an itch that grows worse each time I scratch at it. I try to force myself not to bother it anymore, but it heckles at my awareness until I find myself reaching for the source again, trying to rid myself of its prickling presence.
When I get home, I lay in my bed, staring at the ceiling. The room is washed in pale white-blue, the moon a beacon beside my window. I am alone here in the stillness. I am not in my home, but in a strange room with all the familiarity erased by the long shadows of nightfall. Stan is snoring beside me, deep into dreaming already. But I am wide-awake; my eyes are glazed over as I peer ahead but see nothing.
"We're nothing alike," I mutter to myself. Eric's mean, and manipulative, and plain old stupid. But his main problem is, he doesn't have boundaries. Cartman doesn't bother with moral compasses—his true north points straight into his black heart. I'm nothing like him. No one is. He's barely human.
Stan shifts in his sleep, and I roll over, facing away from him. Cartman's wrong, I decide. He's just full of shit, as usual.
He doesn't know what he's talking about. I fall asleep repeating it to myself, but somehow, I still feel uneasy, my weight settling awkwardly into the mattress as I try to find a comfortable position. I close my eyes, try to think calming thoughts, but I keep seeing Cartman's smirking face, saying we're not really that different.
Please. He still lives with his mom. How can I be comparing myself to him?
This doesn't help; I can't stop doing it.
But it's that last thing he says that bothers me late into the night, churning deep in my thoughts so I cannot rest.
"If you can't admit that you want her, Wends," he said, looking almost sympathetic, "you know you have to let her go."
I imagine my thoughts, like piles of leaves, kicked up from their neatly raked piles and falling through the air like floating brown insects. No matter how I try to gather them, a gust of wind sends them scattering through the air again, littering the yard with the remains of my attempts to organize the clutter.
And when I finally do get to sleep, I dream of a burning tree. It is so beautiful, that I reach out to touch it with one outstretched hand. Then I look down and see that I've caught fire, and am being consumed by glittering flame.
I always wake up earlier than Stan does. I don't like to indulge in the last few moments of warmth before I rise, because the longer I linger, the harder it gets. I don't give myself the time to regret stepping into the cold morning.
Stan is a late sleeper. He rolls over when he feels me retreating and pulls the covers tighter beneath his chin. He sighs in a dream, and I touch his cheek before leaving, reveling in his deeply familiar warmth. It is the same warmth that reassures me when I wake from nightmares. I am soothed on those nights, calmed because Stan is still beside me I can come out of terrifying dreams to the certainty of his solid, steady shoulder.
I walk into the kitchen, turn on the coffee maker, and pop a piece of wheat toast into the toaster. I like mornings. I like that it is quiet, that I have space to prepare for the day in the few moments before the world is truly awake. In the cool, dew-gray light streaming in from the kitchen window, I bask in the stillness—it is a fuzzy, pearlescent peace I enjoy as I listen to the ticking of the toaster oven and the drip of the coffee machine.
This is my morning ritual. The tone of my entire day is set in these few moments—a fresh new day, without a single regret to put weight in it yet.
I pour the coffee into my travel mug, grab the toast in the other hand, and pull open the door. The sweep of fresh, cold air that comes rushing in makes me close my eyes, the sensation of the clean morning breeze fresh against my face. I don't think about anything except the feeling of my coffee cup, steam from it rising into the air.
But when I open my eyes again, I drop the mug. The top pops off, and coffee spills all over the doorstep. I don't have time to make another one, which makes me sigh in annoyance.
Guess I know how it's going to be today.
"Wendy." That voice.
"Bebe?" I forget about my coffee and nearly trip over the fallen mug when I notice her, standing just outside my door.
She's wearing lavender today. It's my favorite color, and I like it too much on her. Wearing my color, as if somehow it marks her as something of mine. The pale purple wraps her in gentle pastel warmth, and she looks like a flower peeking out of the snow. But of course she looks like that. Like she could smile and melt all the ice in the middle of the winter. She's an artist, isn't she? It's her job to make ordinary things beautiful. I wonder if I could pluck the way she looks now from the air, press it between pages and plastic. I'd keep her just like this, untouched by the rest of the world and glowing in soft purple.
"I see you're coffee-less," she says, black-gloved fingers rising delicately to her mouth to cover an amused smile, "so I was wondering…if you wanted to grab a cup with me down at Tweak Bros."
She'd wither if I tried to keep her that way. I force myself to shake my head.
"Oh," I answer weakly—it's nearly impossible to force myself to resist her; it makes me stutter and offer excuses instead, "I…I don't know. I have work today."
Bebe doesn't really look deterred.
We get our coffees and head into the cold air outside. It makes her cheeks rosy and pink, her breath coming out in little white puffs around her lips. She leaves a ring of red lipstick around the lip of her coffee cup, smudging it every time she takes a sip.
As I notice these small things about her, I note them carefully, pocketing my own pennies from a wishing fountain. I don't dare make the bid with fate, but I hold onto those small, precious desires they represent all the same.
Bebe and I walk around town for a while, just talking. A voice, quite possibly my conscience, reminds me that I am blowing off my patients, who may or may not have nervous breakdowns upon realizing I've abandoned them. It's irresponsible at best, and criminally negligent at worse. I didn't even call my secretary to tell her I'd be out for the day.
It's always the same when I'm with her. I free-fall for her every time. The most dangerous thing about Bebe is how she makes risk look like nothing, because it is only the fear of falling that makes taking the leap worthwhile. It's what gets my heart beating.
Bebe chatters on for a while, but soon, my silence gets to her, and she stares at me expectantly.
"So," I clear my throat, filling the uncomfortable space with hollow sounds. I am just a placeholder in this conversation. But she carries on anyway.
"Did I tell you that I just created my latest masterpiece as a Christmas gift to Kyle," Bebe says sunnily. She glistens in the cold like ice catching splinters of light.
"Really?" I answer with interest.
She winks, rascally and impish. She does this every year. Kyle's too afraid of hurting her feelings to ever turn down one of her gifts, no matter how heinous it is. He always puts it on display, and Bebe amuses herself by coming up with crazier and crazier creations, seeing how far she can go before he breaks down and tells her the truth. That he likes more docile things, normal things. God knows why he's so fixated on Bebe. Maybe just as a contrast, to all the normal Kyle stains himself with.
I smile, anticipating the joke. "And what, pray tell, are you going to unleash on that poor, lovelorn wretch this year?"
Bebe leans in, causing me to swallow a painfully dry lump in my throat as she draws close to me, her voice lowered for dramatic effect.
"I call it, 'Frosty the Murderman,'" she stifles a preemptive giggle, "and it's my most brilliant piece yet."
"Well," Bebe whispers, her breath skipping over my face, "it's a six-foot tall snow man made of barbed wire and Christmas lights."
My face must be priceless, because Bebe bursts into laughter.
"But that's not the best part," she raises one hand to cover the side of her mouth as she mock-whispers, "it's also rigged with a motion sensor and flamethrower," her lighted eyes leap excitedly, her voice breaking with laughter "whenever someone comes within four feet of the thing, it shoots a foot and a half long jet stream of flame into the air!"
"No!" I gasp, already imagining Kyle trying to explain to his flustered future guests why he has a snowman of death guarding his front lawn, "you evil, evil thing! You wouldn't!"
"Oh, but I would," Bebe assures me, snorting, "…like I said, it's my masterpiece. Kyle should be honored."
"Well, honestly, I'm sure that he'll love it. He loves ANYTHING from you." We are quiet for a few amicable moments, just enjoying the wintry air.
"You know, Kyle's the one who got me into Token's gallery. He talked Token into featuring me." I glance at Bebe through my peripherals. Sunlight is falling through her hair, tracing her features in gold. She is lit up against the sky, and lined with precious metal—I keep the snapshot—Bebe: the brightest thing in my sight.
She sniffs. "Why do you think I went to all the trouble to come up with such a masterpiece to give him for Christmas?" She says, pulling a cigarette from her coat pocket and dangling it between her full lips.
"You're such a tease," I say, "you know Kyle only puts up with you because he's been hot for you since freshman year."
"Poor baby," Bebe pouts playfully, always spring-loaded with a comeback or smart remark, "it's not like he doesn't know I'm not interested."
"Fair enough," I shrug, "but you have to give him points for persistence.
"Yup, he's hopeless," Bebe agrees.
"Token's pretty big in the whole art scene these days," Bebe muses, smoke curling around her words, caressing them with silky wisps, "the Williams family is one of the biggest art supporters in the area. I'm actually hoping the noise'll bring in some serious clientage. Maybe even a sponsor."
"Wouldn't that be like selling out?" I tease her, bumping her shoulder.
"Dude. I don't care. I'm going to be paying off my art school loans till I'm eighty at this rate."
She gazes off into the horizon, watching the shadows stretch out like a court of giants whose looming shadows hang shapelessly over the landscape.
I'm looking at her, though. Her hair, in loose ringlets circling lazily over her shoulders, the upward tilt of her smiling mouth—painted deep red against her puffing white breath—it's surreal, because even though I grew up watching that same mouth, those hazy green-brown eyes, I barely recognize her now because she looks so faraway. Like if tried to touch her, she'd just shimmer and melt into the air like a desert mirage, always just a few inches away from your outstretched palm. The thought makes my throat close up.
"Good luck," I say warmly, meaning it, "I'm sure you'll get your break. You're a fantastic artist."
"Thanks, Wends," Bebe sighs.
We end up by Starks Pond, walking along under the winter-bare arms of the trees. It's nostalgic—we used to do this all the time when we were girls. On that bench over there—that was where I told her all about my first kiss with Stan. Underneath that tree—that was where she met me when her mom kicked her out, and I had to hold her till she could stop crying.
It's got a serene sort of beauty here, the flat, still pond reflective and dark. It's always quiet at this hour, because the only other people that ever come here are the teenagers who sneak out to drink and make out at night. There are empty beer cans here and there, but no one comes around during the daytime.
We walk around the pond, gray and glazed over with a thin layer of ice. The looming trees overhead scratch the gloomy sky with black, naked branches.
I don't say anything, only watch my boots kick up clods on dirt and rocks as I skid along the faded-out trails. How long has it been since we've walked them? There are no footprints to mark our last visit—but maybe it doesn't matter anymore, once the prints are gone and all that is left are overgrown trails that lead around in circles. I'm lost in a sense of nostalgia, and as I watch her pretty face tilted up towards the sky, I wonder if she is too.
We are not usually quiet for this long. It's too sobering.
"I remember this place," she breaks the silence first.
"The last time I was here, Red and I…" Bebe trails off, eyes clouded.
Red. The first person I ever truly hated. Bebe spoke of the curvy redheaded girl with a smile always. It was a secret smile, small and fleeting, and it made my stomach fill with bile every time to see it. I didn't want Bebe to be happy that way. It was horrible of me, but I hated Red for putting that tiny, happy smile on my best friend's face.
And worse, Bebe kept smiling, even when her mother refused to accept her after coming out. Even when the woman who had given her life told Bebe she wished her daughter had never been born. Even when Bebe no longer had a home.
I hoped it would go away, that smile. But it didn't. There it was, flashing between conversations about school, and makeup, and life. It made me sick inside, like cold poison slithering through my veins, deadening my limbs, making them black. It ached in my gut when Bebe would say the girls name, lips cautiously, tenderly slipping around the sickening syllable.
I thought it would become unbearable, when Bebe confessed to me the first time they kissed. The stars seemed to settle in Bebe's eyes; they sparkled with joy. The reflections of her happiness stung me like alcohol in an open wound. But wasn't unbearable…not until Bebe whispered that she and Red had plans to run away together.
The acid churning in my stomach ignited, making my insides burn with fury to think she was leaving me, that I'd never see her. That she was leaving me for Red.
But then, Red got locked in a closet over winter vacation. There were ambulances surrounding the school when we returned from break. I remember it so clearly, the sounds of sirens, and Bebe dressed in her brightest crimson—red for Red—in anticipation of seeing the girl again. And I remember the look on Bebe face when they made the announcement, and she knew she never would again.
Bebe touches their initials now, carved in a snow-wet tree, remembering. Then she moves away, face closed off with the pain from old wounds. Eventually, however, she smiles for me. I wonder if she is happy now. A bird lands in the empty branches of a nearby tree, and we watch it together until it flies off again, probably to warmer places.
We've spent the entire day talking. The sun sets is beginning to set in the horizon, bright orange clouds streaked across the sky. It is almost time to go home; how did the time get away from us so quickly?
"I should probably get back," my voice is sad and reluctant as I gaze ahead, feet kicked out before me. We are sitting side by side, swinging down at the park. I drag my shoes in the wood shavings to slow down. When I look over to her, Bebe is hanging upside down, curls trailing in a flying yellow curtain behind her as she suspends herself backward. She always does this on the swings. According to her, disrupting her orientation causes her stomach to fill with fluttering— like she's swallowed butterflies. I imagine it sometimes, a confused and colorful cloud of wings tickling from the inside. When she laughs, half suspended in mid-air, I am half expecting a storm of butterflies to burst from her lips.
"All right. I'll drive you home." She sits up for a split second before hopping off the swing, still in flight. When she lands in a spray of woodchips, she turns to me with outstretched arms, as if to say, "tada." Her empty swing clatters behind her.
"I insist," she says, quirking her lips in a way that defeats all argument. I sigh.
"As you wish, Madame," I bow, giving into her, "and praytell, where is your car?" I rise from my swing, leaving dark furrows behind where my feet skidded through the woodchips and exposed the damp, mulchy layer under the surface.
"Follow me!" she declares victoriously, pointing a finger in the air, "your chariot awaits, Doctor Testaburger!"
I end up following her for a few blocks to a motel near the town's center, where she is staying. We enter the parking lot, and she drags me forward, (or 'forth') towards her beat up Nissan Ultima by the hand.
She lets go, and I wince. She let go of my hand, and immediately the spaces between my fingers seem empty. …Also her car is a piece of crap—no, seriously. The windows are taped along the cracks and the fender's dented almost beyond recognition. Bebe says she's named the piece of junk "Susan," and insists the road-hazard has "character." As I slide into the front seat, I say a quick prayer for my safety and buckle my belt. I have to slam the door twice to try to get it to shut properly. Meanwhile, Bebe jams the keys into the ignition and swears angrily when the thing fails to start up one, two, three times before finally groaning to life.
"You need a new car," I tell her, eyeing her lavender scented dice hanging over the dashboard, "God, Bebe. How old is this thing?"
"Susan's an antique!" Bebe defends her car, "trading her would be like selling my own grandmother!"
"Except your grandmother doesn't break like fifty safety codes every time she gets on the road."
"You've never met my grandmother," Bebe laughs, rolling down her window. Then, she turns up the volume on the shitty stereo system, and before I know it, begins singing along, her low, off-key voice sounding over the roaring of the highway outside.
She threatens to toss my purse out of the window, so eventually I join her. And we sing the rest of the way as we drive down the road, the orange sun sinking down behind the blue mountains ahead.
She turns to smile at me with lighted eyes like stars in the middle of the day, and my heart flips over and gives a pathetic little thud.
It would be so, so easy to ask her to keep driving. Not to stop until we reach the sea. To dare her to fling our lives onto the tire-ground road, and wade into the water together to sink in with the sun—it'd be simple; all I'd have to do is find the words. And then it would just be us—us, clear water, soft waves, and glowing colors dissolving into the horizon.
"Don't make that turn. We've got miles to go."
But I am still and silent, breathing in the recycled air between us. I watch her dim profile in my peripherals, and she stares straight ahead, through the windshield and into the falling night. We are so far away from the sea, and it is only getting darker.
I glance out the window, four stories over the city. I watch the mute world beyond the glass, the people like miniatures in the streets below. The office around me is spacious—all open air and crisp whites and browns. The dark, polished wood floor gleams, the light overhead rippling as it reflects over the textured surface. The black leather chaise-lounge sits like an island in the middle of the floor, across from my chair. The room is spotless, not a shred of dust on the floor or anywhere else.
Kenny stares at me with disconcertingly blue eyes, through the tassel of his hair obscuring them. His back is hunched as his elbows rest on his sharply jutting knees. His cheap, worn blue jeans are too short, riding up to reveal his pale, bony ankles when he bends his knees, and his mouth is a thin, hard line. Stubborn.
"So," I use a brisk tone, "your don't speak. Do you use sign language?"
Kenny grins, his shaggy hair is still covering half his face. He raises one finger as an answer.
I roll my eyes. Very stubborn.
"We'll stick to yes or no questions, then."
He shrugs one shoulder, tossing his head like he's shaking away a bothersome fly. As he does, a flash of his pale neck is visible. The tendons show, bars pulled tightly against his starchy skin.
"Do you want to talk about your family?"
Kenny shakes his head, looking past me, out the window.
I look over at the pile of drawings on the table beside us. He has covered every inch on each page with leaves, without a single empty white space left.
"How about your drawings? Would you like to talk about them?"
Kenny doesn't reply at all this time, acting as if he hasn't heard me.
"What do they mean?" I press on, "Do you remember what you told me last week?"
Kenny turns, slowly, and nods. I suppress a radiant, victorious grin at this small success.
"You said they represent your deaths. Isn't that right?" I ask, daring to press on, and he rewards me by nodding again. I am excited, hopeful that we'll actually make some progress today—so I tread carefully.
"Have you been to Heaven?"
"Have you been to Hell?"
Another nod, accompanied with an amused smile. So far, so good.
"And why do you think it is that you came back?" I ask, "if you'd like, you can have a piece of paper to write it down on." He shrugs, and I push a pad and pencil towards him, wondering if he will really use them. He looks at me for a moment, before surprising me by taking them up. He thinks for a moment before placing the pen's tip to the paper, scratching something into the surface.
He gives it back to me.
He's written: "It's a joke."
He watches as I read, staring hard with his with cold sapphire eyes. When I meet his gaze, he responds by pulling his drawstrings tighter around his dirt-streaked face.
"Do you mean that someone finds your death funny?" I ask. He reaches for the pad again.
"I'm just the punchline."
"I see," I say, goosebumps racing down my spine at the strange way he's smiling now. It's a sad smile, a contradiction as it splays over his features in a sloppy, lopsided way like it's been badly sewn onto his face. His letters are crooked and spindly, almost indecipherable. I have to squint at them for a moment before they arrange themselves into his meaning. He's pushed them deeply into the paper, so the imprints are left chiseled deep into the page behind the one he's written on.
I frown at him. And, seeing my reaction, he starts writing again.
"Who pays for your laughs, Dr.? Who's dying for your sake?"
"Did you know Lexus and Butters got married?" Bebe asks, passingly. We are sitting in the working studio Token has leased to his artists for storing supplies. It's a rather eclectic collection of items she's gathered there. She has half finished paintings stacked up in the corner, blocks of clay and broken pottery pieces cluttering her tables, and cloth canvassing draped over easels like tired, drooping ghosts. A wire and glass chandelier hangs from the ceiling, reflecting late sunlight onto the floor in an array of colors.
"Hmm?" I ask, half asleep already. I am resting, kicked back on a pile of folded smocks. The familiar smell of turpentine is heavy in the air, and it lulls me into drowsiness. I always associate this particular balance of scents—turpentine, incense, tobacco, and something else…like crushed pine needles, maybe—with my best friend.
"Uh huh." I close my eyes contentedly, finished watching the strange patterns thrown by the tiny gleaming surfaces of the chandelier on the hardwood.
"Wake up and listen to me gossip," Bebe commands obnoxiously, climbing onto my lap and sitting down. Today, she is wearing sweat pants and a "Save a Tree, Eat a Beaver" t-shirt decorated with many holes. She pokes a finger through one absently and wiggles it at me.
"Thanks for crushing me, Beebs. You weight like a million pounds," I comment, opening one eye. It isn't true. Bebe is built delicately, all long, lean limbs and soft lines. Except, of course, for her rather enormous chest, which she affectionately refers to as her "milkshake." Bebe thinks pretending to be black is hilarious. She is going to get herself stabbed if she keeps this up.
It's funny though; even with paint streaks in her hair and dirty sweatpants bunched up around her legs, Bebe is yards, acres prettier than any girl I know. You'd think that would make it hard to be around her, but it doesn't. Bebe would never have me sit around feeling inferior.
I secretly love that I am one of the few people who get to see her like this, un-made-up, messy, in her own home. Secret, safe, mine: this Bebe is someone I do not have to share with the world.
"Shut up," she tells me now, swatting my arm, "it's time for juicy girl talk. You can nap later."
"Fine, fine," I groan, sitting up. Bebe shifts as I move my legs under her, but does not remove herself from my lap.
"You were saying?" I sigh.
"Thank you," she smiles beatifically, "I was SAYING, Butters married Lexus. Two years ago. Did you know?"
"Huh. No, I didn't," I tilt my head pensively, "she never seemed very interested before."
Bebe lights up. Nothing delights her like getting to reveal a good piece of news.
"Butters bought her a car," Bebe whispers conspiratorially, voice excited as she bounces slightly on my lap, "says he saved up for months. He put the ring on the dashboard. A nice ring, too. Platinum, two carats. Poor guy is probably going to be paying it off for the rest of his life."
"And she accepted?" I say incredulously, "just like that?"
"Gold digger," Bebe says in a mock-sneeze. The she straightens, looking pleased with herself. Now that my attention has been successfully caught, she is smug and satisfied.
"Anyway," Bebe continues in a low, fast voice, "she took one look at that brand-new car — a Lexus, by the way, how cheesy is that? —; and agreed to marry him on the spot. They've been together since."
Bebe nods importantly, still preening.
"How do you know all this?" I ask her, "have you been talking to Lexus?"
"God no," Bebe laughs, "I ran into Butters the other day. You should have seen him, Wends! He was miserable!"
"I'm sure he was! Buying things you can't afford can make you pretty sad!"
"I felt so sorry for him," Bebe's voice becomes quieter by just a few decibels, "you could just see how unhappy he was."
"Sounds to me like he's trying to buy her," I say, "doesn't he realize she's using him?"
"Maybe," Bebe shrugs, climbing off my lap. She begins sifting through a jar of brushes stained the with greenish flaky layers of dried-on paint, "But even if he knows and is letting her anyway, I still feel sorry for Butters."
"He loves her," Bebe says, selecting a wide bristle brush with a white splatter of paint dotting the decrepit handle, "like, really loves her, and you know how that can be. It goes badly fast when one person's less in love than the other."
As she speaks, she sweeps her thumb through the stiff hairs of her paintbrush, cleaning the leftover paint from it. It floats in specks through the air before sinking to the floor, coating it with a veneer layer of dust around her feet. Having settled on a paintbrush, Bebe strides over to the other side of the room. I watch her curiously.
"What are you doing?" I interrupt as she begins to uncover a blank canvas.
"I'm going to paint you," she says, "I haven't done that before. It's kind of an intimidating idea. When I sit beneath her gaze, laid out under the oily slip of her brush—what will she see? It makes me oddly self-conscious, wondering about that.
"So why now?"
"I'm inspired," she says, a mysterious glint in her eyes.
"Okay," I decide, looking around, "where should I sit?"
She scans the room, curls dancing as she turns her head. Her brow furrows as she considers.
"Hmm. There," she decides, pointing to the lighted yellow square beneath the window. It is a bright, highlighted place—and the sun casts stretching shadows on the floor. When I pull up a chair to sit as she indicated, I feel the saturated warm streaming in through the glass.
"Like this?" I ask, a nervous breath softening the question.
"Just like that," Bebe smiles, tucking an unruly strand of hair behind her ear, "you're perfect."
I blush. "Thank-you."
For a few minutes we are silent. Bebe doesn't touch the brush to the pad, only moves her gaze between her canvas and me. The heat from the afternoon sun is relaxing, almost sleepy. The only sounds are Bebe's finger tapping against the edge of her seat, and the hum of the radiator rattling as it disrupts the dust settled into its grille.
I sit, trying to be still. I catch a glimpse of myself, an opaque reflection in the window. I am ghostly, faded out—in the small moment where I can see myself, it is difficult to tell me apart from the other shapes in the room. It is a fleeting portrait; soon it will be erased like ripples from the water's surface.
Bebe still doesn't start. Her tapping grows more distressed, fingers faster against the metal rim of her stool. She sighs, eyes narrowing.
"Something the matter?"
"No," Bebe says, pauses, "…yes."
"Is the lighting okay? Should I sit somewhere else?"
"No." Bebe's eyebrows dig deeper down, "you're fine."
"Well then, what's wrong?"
Bebe exhales, blowing out a deep breath before she answers, "nothing's wrong."
I don't say anything. Bebe's fingers increase the their tempo as they drum against the chair, her frustrated silence growing heavier by the minute.
"It's just, " Bebe speaks at last, frowning as she stares at the canvas, "you look so…sad."
"I'm not sad. Should I smile?" I try grinning, awkwardly forcing the smile.
"No," Bebe winces and shakes her head, "just…look at me."
So I do. When our eyes meet, there is a moment where everything seems to grind to a halt. She is staring at me, hard—the shock of meeting her intent gaze goes straight through me like the sensation of leaning back just an inch too far. In one merciless moment, her hazel eyes are bottomless, electric, and I am falling forward, straight into them, and I am going to drown.
I don't blink, don't move. I forget how to breathe. I forget there was ever anything in this world but those two big, round hazel eyes.
"There," she says at last, "that's what I was looking for."
I try to recover as she lifts her brush, finally looking away. My heartbeat is frantic and unsteady, but I use the rhythmic sound to stay calm.
She paints me like I'm not even there. Like she's seen everything, and is now simply scrambling to get it down. She looks up every once in a while, recalculating the distance between my eyes, or adjusting the slope of my nose—dissecting my features with her penetrative stare. It's uncomfortable, the way she pulls me apart with her eyes. I wonder doubtfully if I can put myself back together again later.
We stay like this for the better part of the afternoon. It is intense, and I begin to feel as if I am naked, though I stay fully clothed. I have the absurd notion that this is how it feels when the anesthesia doesn't work on the surgery table. A wide-awake patient watches the surgeon cut her open—I try to stay calm, and not look down at my own exposed and beating heart.
The light changes as the sun sets outside, and my box of light under the window is painted on the other side of the room before fading to blue. Bebe doesn't look at me so much after awhile, no longer needing to reference her work. By the time she looks up again, there are shadows on the floor, and no more light to draw by.
Then she pauses, looking at her painting in a cursory, evaluative way, and stands.
"That's it for today, I think," she says, softly, "it's not finished, but I have what I need."
"Any good?" I ask her, stiff limbs warming to life as I roll them around, trying to regain feeling.
She looks at it again. And smiles.
"You're perfect," she says, and my heart flutters like the quivering wings of a bird in my chest. I don't ask her to see what she has painted, because I don't really want to know if she's painted me into something beautiful, worth preserving…or as something shocking, and terrible. They seem equally likely.
We make conversation as she packs her brushes away, the smell of turpentine thick as she rinses them. The evening cools the studio, and the crickets begin outside. It makes me sigh, knowing that they'll play into the night, until everyone is asleep—and most songs don't last long enough. It's comforting to know the crickets go on.
"I was thinking about Butters," I say when she has finished packing her stuff, and I am stalling because I don't want to go just yet.
"Yeah?" She doesn't seem to want me to leave, either, lingering over her easel.
"Yeah, I was wondering," I turn over the words before saying them, wondering how to put it, "I mean, I can't figure out, why he'd do it. Why he'd marry her. Because…Lexus has never been…she was never even nice to Butters. So why would he…I mean…"
Bebe nods. "I know."
"Why would he go into something, knowing it wouldn't make him happy in the end? He had to have known, right? He had to have seen how this would go."
Bebe thinks about it before answering.
"Sometimes, there's this moment," she says slowly, "and it makes the rest of it…kind of not matter." She shakes her head. "I know that doesn't make sense. But it's like this," Bebe looks at me when she speaks, as if that's where she's finding what she wants to say,"…this moment. And you see in someone a flash.
"Of…of…something, I don't know, maybe it's just loneliness making up a big story and whispering it really fast in your ear so you believe there's more to it than there is."
"But the thing is," Bebe's eyes flit over me, unable to decide where to land, "when the moment happens, you see that person. And you realize you're lonely. But—but…then she's there, and it feels so good, and it's scary. Because you realize that if you could convince her to stay there with you, and let you make her happy…you'd feel better. And suddenly…" she says, voice quiet, uncertain of the words, "you'd do anything to have that feeling again."
Something in my chest gives a painful lunge as she speaks.
"Anyway," she shrugs, now looking at the ground with great intensity, "Butters is the kind of person who is happy because he believes the world's a good place, where people fall in love, and get their happily ever after and everything ends up the way it's supposed to," Bebe says after awhile, "If he still believes that now, I think he's happy."
"Do you believe that?" I ask, and she lifts her shoulders, her paint-smudged t-shirt moving up and down as she does.
"I believe you should be happy," she says, "I painted you smiling."
She has this soft and unreadable look in her eyes, and is holding out her hands at her sides like she wishes I'd hold them.
I swallow, and in a painful, sudden lurch, I want to touch her. I want to tell her something that makes no sense, because I don't paint.
But I want to say…that if I could, I'd paint her glowing, like the sun when it's lowest in the sky, casting colors everywhere.
And I want to tell her I was only sad because she never painted me smiling before.
But we don't say anymore after that, and I am cold when I slip back into the streets. I will smell like turpentine when I get home, but she will stay with me like stubborn paint between the bristles.
It's dangerous to spend too much time with Bebe. She's good at telling the most distracting stories. It's what she does; artists glorify their feelings, make them beautiful. Good art can almost make you forget how things really are. But I'm not Butters. I wouldn't promise my life to someone because we had a moment. Even if it made a really pretty story. Even if it made a really pretty painting.
One that you could keep forever.
"Someone put a bid up for my "Mirror Tree" piece," Bebe tells me. We are having dinner at Bennigans once again. It's quickly becoming our new ritual.
"Really?" I grin, "that's great. I—"
"Uhm…like, excuse me?" a voice drawls. Bebe and I simultaneously snap our attention to the waitress beside our table. Her bright red lipstick and dark purple eye shadow highlight her indifferent eyes and thin, humorless mouth. She looks tired, bored. I make a note to leave her a big tip.
"Lexus," Bebe is the first to recover, "sorry, didn't mean to keep you waiting."
"It's all right, sweetie," Lexus simpers, with all the artificial sweetness of Bebe's Sweet and Low. She drums her long, fake nails against the table, "Oh! You're Bebe, right? Hey, so Butters tells me you're like, an artist?" She asks, a hint of sarcasm in her voice. Lexus obviously does not like Bebe.
"No," Bebe deadpans.
"But you make art and stuff," Lexus argues, looking the tiniest bit flustered, "Right?"
"Right," Bebe replies, nodding, that mischievous glint in her eye.
"So…that makes you an artist."
"No," Bebe raises an eyebrow challengingly.
"She's just kidding. Sorry, Lexus," I interject, giving Bebe a look. I am trying desperately to hint that she should let it go, but Lord knows, that girl doesn't operate in subtleties.
"No I'm not. I'm trying to teach our friend Lexus here something," Bebe crosses her arms, ignoring me as she places one booted foot up on the table. Lexus eyes it warily, a puzzled and intimidated frown on her face. I sigh, giving up. It's like trying to stop Cartman from scarfing down a cookie—dangerous (you'll definitely lose a finger), and generally ineffective.
"Look," Bebe continues, "you breathe, right?"
"Uhm…" Lexus makes a face, her drawn on eyebrows crinkling.
"Does that make you a 'breather'?" Bebe makes air quotes.
"Here we go," I mutter under my breath.
"Well…" Lexus hedges, apprehension deepening the creases in her forehead.
"No, it doesn't," Bebe says triumphantly, "and you shit, right?"
Lexus curls her lips on disgust, but Bebe steamrolls right ahead.
"Well, that doesn't make you a shitter, does it?"
Lexus puts one hand on her hip, posture incredulous. When she looks to me, the expression she wears asks, "Is this chick crazy, or what?" I just shrug.
"So what are you saying?" Lexus asks, squinting at us.
"I make art. That doesn't make me an artist," Bebe flourishes this statement with a wide flying gesture, "You aren't what you do, Lex. You're not a waiter just because you wait tables. You're not a 'gold digger,' just because you married Butters for a car. And I'm not an artist just because I make art. We shouldn't label each other."
"Bebe…" I put my head in my hands and groan.
"Fuck you!" Lexus growls, "I married Butters because I LOVE him!"
"Hey," Bebe puts her hands up, "I'm not judging."
"You pathetic, penniless skank!" Lexus spits, "I bet the only people that ever buy your art are kindergartners trying to pass them off as school projects!"
"That's a bit of an assumption," Bebe seems amused, "I get first graders, too."
"Whatever!" Lexus whirls around and stomps off, slamming the kitchen door behind her. The plates on the nearby tables rattle with the impact.
"She didn't even take our order!" complains Bebe.
"She probably would have spit in our food," I comfort Bebe, rolling my eyes, "c'mon, lets go down to TGI Fridays and see who we can offend there."
I guess it's the end of our Bennigan's tradition.
Bebe laughs, uninhibited and full. And I breathe it in, because these moments feel as if they are slipping away even as they burst to life—fireworks that flash before disappearing as if they never even existed, reduced to smoke in the sky. Some part of me wants to cling to this, right now, how she's looking at me, how that feels—everything, because somewhere deep down, I know I don't have endless time with her.
Butters Stotch is the last person I expect to see when I pull into the post office that Sunday morning. I am filing an inquiry report about Kenny, and sending it into the county institution. I don't recognize the small, thin man as Butters at first, standing on the other side of the post office in a checkered blue and white shirt. But he seems to know me immediately, because the moment Butters turns and sees me going to drop the large envelope into the slot, he waves. Then I know who it is; no one else waves hello with two hands. Butters has always been friendly in an unsettling, over-enthused way that makes people (me) rather ironically uncomfortable. But I wave back anyway out of politeness.
"Well, hey there, Wendy!" Butters jogs over. His shirt is tucked into his pants, which sits just a bit too high on his waist. His hair is so pale it is almost white, and his blue eyes are like dinner plates, guileless and innocent. He has deep dimples when he grins like he's been smiling so much that it has left impressions in his round cheeks. I smile back only a little tightly.
"Hi, Butters," I reply, "what's up?"
"Oh nothin' much. How about you? Why, I haven't heard from you since…well, since high school graduation! How the heck have you been?"
I find myself surprising warm to his enthusiasm. He's a golden retriever wanting a pat on the head. "I've been well. I'm just filing a few reports on my latest patient. What are you doing here?"
"That's right! You're a doctor now, huh?" he says brightly, and then switches to looking bashful as he answers my question, sticking his hands deep in his pockets and scuffing one foot along the floor, "And I, uh, well. I was just, uh, mailin' a letter to my parents."
"That's sweet of you." I feel a little bad; I haven't contacted my parents in months.
"Not really," Butters shrugs, "I'm askin' them for money, so I think they'll be pretty sore at me."
"Are you having financial trouble?" I wonder, and then frown, "sorry. You shouldn't answer that. I didn't mean to pry."
"Aw, that's all right," Butters answers with a little laugh, "it ain't nothin.' I jus' did somethin' stupid, s'all." He rocks back and forth on his heels, gazing down. His cheeks are colored pink with shame; the psychologist-part of my brain decides that over-punishment has made him perpetually guilty.
"I'm sure it wasn't so bad," I try to be sympathetic. Butters chews his lip before explaining.
"Well, uh, my wife is pretty darn upset with me about it," he sighs.
Well, I guess it's too late to back out of this conversation now. Butters looks so miserable, and I've already engaged him. It would be heartless to deny him a chance to spill his guts.
"Why do you think she's angry?" I say, putting a compassionate hand on his shoulder (people respond to physical touch; it builds trust and empathy on a kinesthetic level).
"Well, I bought her that outdoor hot tub she was wantin' for our half- year anniversary," Butters says, wringing his hands, "She saw it on 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians.' It had jets and everything. It cost about ten thousand dollars to get, not to mention ship and install, but…but I thought it'd make her smile."
"Nah, I blew our credit gettin' it," he sounds distraught as he relays this to me, "she's pretty furious. She kicked me out till I fix things."
"That's terrible," I say, squeezing his upper arm and gazing up at him sympathetically, "really. I'm so sorry." For myself, his admission doesn't surprise me after hearing Bebe's story about the car he bought for her. It's difficult not to dismiss Butters as a poor, dumb knucklehead so desperate to be loved that he no longer thinks rationally. Pathetic. Why are people so powerless, so illogical when it comes to matters of the heart?
But I also remember Bebe saying how sorry she felt for him, and somehow it makes me feel more empathetic.
"You prob'ly think I'm a big dummy too," Butters flinches in preemptive remorse, "but I'm not sorry I did it. I…I jus' wanted to make her happy. She seems so sad and tired these days. I'd…why, I'd do anything to see her smile again."
"But…if you didn't have the money, why did you buy such an expensive gift?" the practical side of me chimes in, though in a gentle tone so as not to hurt his feelings.
"'Cause, I'll find a way to get the money," Butters sounds certain of this, though I raise my eyebrow at his logic, "it…it just seemed much harder to think of a way to make her happy again, than to come up with ten thousand measly dollars."
"Well, I think…you will find a way," I surprise myself by replying.
Butters looks deeply touched by this.
I have to go, so I reassure him once more that everything will work itself out, and Butters thanks me with a hug (I rarely hug anyone except the people I am closest to, but it seems like the natural thing to do with someone like Butters). He smells good—warm the way a child smells after playing outside in the sun. He has to go then, because he's working three jobs to try to pay of his debt, and doesn't want his boss to "get sore" and fire him.
"Take care, Wendy, it was sure good talking to you," he says, waving, "enjoy the weather. You know somethin'? On the way here, I stepped in a great, crinkling pile of dead leaves. It was the most fun I've had all week!"
When he exits, I stand there, not knowing how to feel. Pity, derision, empathy, compassion—all occur at once as I watch Butters make his way across the street, looking so small that the slightest gust of wind might knock him over.
To make up for all his troubles, all the universe has to offer Butters Stotch is a pile of dead leaves?
When I arrive at my office the next day, Kenny isn't there.
"Where's Mr. McCormick?" I ask my secretary, and she shrugs.
"Maybe he's dead," she answers; she's read his file, "he never came in."
"Then I guess we'll see him next week," I reply to the joke with half a laugh, a shiver running down my back nonetheless.
Bebe asked me to meet her. She'd said she had a surprise for me, and to be at the gallery by seven thirty this evening.
By six o'clock, I find that I am anxious. I pace about, and then take a shower to try to relax. But the hot water does nothing to soothe my nerves, and my heartbeat is still much faster than normal. So, having nothing better to do than sit and chew my nails, I decide to get dressed up.
I've never had a chance to wear the dress before tonight. I run my hands down the sides. It is made of the smooth, deep purple silk, like the inside of a lilac. My cheeks blush naturally, the way they always do when I'm excited.
By the time I arrive, my pulse is an indistinct hum, trilling out of sync with my quick breathing. At the gallery, the first thing I notice is that there is no one here. It seems eerily silent. But then I notice Bebe, who is standing at the center of the room. She's exactly where her tree had been.
I bite my lip at how she looks when she turns around, with curls flying about her shoulders. She is in pure white, and she seems to shimmer like an angel. Her dress is short and simple, her hair shiny, bouncing iridescent tresses like a circle of light about her head. I notice that she is barefoot. She smiles, and my heart throbs like it's been wounded.
"You look…" she steps close, and then slides her hands behind my waist to entwine me in a hug, "no words, Wends." Her hands are warm through the fabric of my dress, and I find myself so unsteady in her arms.
We pull apart, and she takes my hand, dragging me towards an exhibit covered with a cloth.
"I have something to show you," she tells me, voice sparkling. I stare at the covered piece, wondering what hides beneath the drapes.
"But first," Bebe claps her hands together, "good news! Token just purchased a piece of mine. He paid in cash for it. Twelve thousand dollars!"
"That's great!" I exclaim breathily, "Bebe, that's wonderful! Is that the surprise?"
"Nope," she replies, "the surprise is the first official uncovering of the piece he purchased."
And she finally pulls the sheet away from the covered piece.
Time stops. As I lock eyes with the girl Bebe has painted, I feel as if the entire world crumbles beneath me.
It's…it's the portrait of me. At least, I think it is. The girl doesn't…look like me at all.
Well, she does, in a way.
Bebe's gotten my features down perfectly. Brown eyes, sharp black brows, thin lips. My nose and jaw are just right: angular, small and severe. Bebe's skill shows in how she's gotten the shape of each of my characteristics so realistically, I would almost believe I was looking in the mirror.
But I know I'm not, because despite the fact that the girl in the painting is clearly me—I don't really recognize her. Bebe, true to her word, has painted me smiling. Though my mouth is not quite tilted all the way to upturning, it's clear what the emotion is. My eyes are full of obvious joy, of wonder…and maybe even a little bit of fear. The excitement is obvious. And it is a thrill to lock eyes with this portrait girl, to see the fire burning in her eyes—blazing so hot you can feel it straight through the canvas.
My first thought is that it seems miraculous, that such a thing could have come from a few lifeless blobs of paint and a brush.
But the realization that follows is what makes the room spin off its axis.
When Bebe and I locked eyes in the studio…this is how I must have looked.
And moreover, the way she has painted me makes it clear. The detail is so meticulous, each brushstroke like the remembered letters of a treasured secret love note…this is no one-way emotion. The painted girl is glowing, radiant, and the light around her isn't from the sun-streaked window behind her. It is absolutely straight from the artist's heart.
It's as unmistakable as my likeness on the canvas.
When I look down, my hands are trembling.
"I wouldn't have sold it," Bebe says, and her voice sounds so far away, like she's trying to be heard though a concrete wall. "But the money means I can stay in South Park…with you. That's the other part of the surprise."
She finally looks at me, and I am dumbfounded, unable to formulate a reply to the wordless question in her lighted eyes.
Bebe looks so nervous, and so hopeful. When she bites her lip, my actual, pounding heart squeezes itself against my chest, beating frantically against the bars of my ribcage. She is shorter than I am, even smaller since I am wearing shoes, and she isn't. She looks especially small now, face beginning to crumble as she observes my expression.
"Wendy," she says, "are you—"
And I choke, unable to bear the thought of actually hearing that question voiced aloud.
I don't give her a chance to finish. I take a step away from her, and then start running, as fast as I can. I nearly trip on my way out, so I kick off my heels, leaving them somewhere behind me.
All I can think is, I need to get away. I run till I can't breathe anymore, doubled over and panting on the sidewalk…but it takes me that long to realize it hasn't made any difference. I haven't escaped her. My lungs ache as I try to draw in air, and but my heart isn't going any faster than it was in the gallery.
Eric sighs when I finally show up at his house. He's wearing an enormous sleep shirt, more like a potato sack with sleeves than anything else. It hangs shapelessly over his massive body. His fingers are orange from the mega-sized bag of Doritos he is eating. He doesn't look very happy to see me. But then again, Eric almost never looks happy about anything.
"'Sup, Skank?" he asks, leaning against the doorframe.
"Snookums, who's at the door?" His mother's voice floats down from upstairs.
"The Grim Reaper finally coming to collect your fucking soul, Mom!" Eric shouts back at her.
"Oh, alright, sweetie-kins."
"Anyway," Eric hefts his weight as he turns his focus toward me again, "what do you want?"
"I just need a place to crash," I admit, "…I've been out all night. I'm not ready to go home yet."
"Jesus Christ," Eric groans, but steps aside for me to enter anyway. His house is much the same as it always has been, looking homey with its kitschy decorations and overstuffed couch. There's a permanent indent in the couch cushions from Eric's habitual place on it.
I choose the armchair, awkwardly trying to settle myself into its plushy depths. Eric plods over to his spot on the sofa and flops down. For a while, the only sounds are the ticking of the clock, and his mother shifting about upstairs.
"So…" Eric prods, "what's up, Doc?"
"I don't know how to begin," I close my eyes and lean my head back, feeling profoundly tired.
"Cool," he shrugs, turning on the TV. "How's the denial coming?" he asks after a beat.
I bury my face into the cushions and moan, not wanting to answer.
"So, good then."
I'm obviously in a dream. The world is hazy and shimmery, an ethereal quality to the images that lets me know they are from my subconscious.
But I recognize the bar. We were here roughly six years ago. It was my last year of medical school, and I was out drinking with Bebe to celebrate my birthday.
It is mostly fogged in my memory, but now I see her red lips clearly, parted behind a curl of lazy smoke as she laughs, blonde ringlets falling all over her bare shoulders. She holds a nearly emptied glass in one hand, the butt end of a smoldering cigarette in the other. She says something in a loud, slurred voice and slings an arm around my waist.
I feel a little off kilter, her presence sensitizing like sharp nails over tender skin. What was always a tingle, a flow of sparks that moved between us—is fire tonight. I'd never felt the heat of her before, but now…I am roasting in her flame. And I don't know if it is the liquor, far more than I usually drink, or the atmosphere in the rowdy bar.
The temperature rises even more when she leans, drunk and heavy against my side. All of the sudden I can't stop staring at her satin dressing clinging to her curves. She's simultaneously too close and not close enough. When she turns to speak to me in rounded syllables from her sloppy tongue, I can feel her warm breath flushing over my face. Her collarbones, pale and lovely, stand out in the grimy lights over the counter where we sir. It is too cramped in here, the ceiling too low— the reverberating voices of the other patrons around us are ringing my ears. All I can seem to focus on is the heady scent of her perfume, mixed with cigarette smoke filling my lungs. I can't breathe, only sit and burn as she runs a trailing fingertip along my mouth. Her eyes are slightly out of focus as she looks at me.
"You're my best friend, Wendy," she muses, head lolling to the side as she smiles widely. Her finger continues dipping into the curve of my cupid's bow, catching at the corners of my lips. It's a typical drunken speech, and I sigh, grabbing her hand and placing it in her lap as I try to ignore the molten churning in my belly at the contact with her skin.
"How many drinks have you had?" I ask her teasingly, shrugging a curtain of black hair between us as I draw shapes on the dirty countertop.
"Jus…jus a few," she says, seeming to find this statement this extremely funny. She snorts into her hand, giggling.
But then she grows solemn. She reaches out, and tucks my hair back behind my ear, igniting electricity where her fingers brush against my face. She is gazing at me with intensity until I am forced to look up and meet her eyes, wet and dark in the poor lighting.
She reaches for me, pulling me close enough to smell the tequila on her breath. When there is only an inch of space between us, she whispers, "I love you."
I can make out the tiny hairs plastered to her forehead, and the ring of gold around her constricted black pupils. It takes all the strength I have not to react to those words; I know they don't mean anything.
"I love you too, Beebs," I swallow, looking down, "now what do you say we get you home? It's getting kind of late."
She doesn't reply. She is studying me carefully, stroking my cheek with one hand as she gazes into my eyes.
"I love you," she repeats.
Something about the way she says it makes my heart jump in my chest.
It seems to happen in slow motion; Bebe leans forward, her eyes swallowing the room as she gets close. Her hand slides along the back of my neck—and I only realize she's going to kiss me when her lips are about a split second away.
Then her mouth is so soft. And her face is smooth—for a moment that throws me, because I'm so used to Stan's scratching stubble. I taste her lipstick and her drink a she kisses me. She's oddly hot to the touch—I worry for a moment that she'll burn me.
Part of my brain knows this is wrong; I shouldn't be kissing my best friend. It rings in my ears even as Bebe tangles her hands in my hair and sighs, kissing my mouth hard, her tongue flicking out and tracing along my bottom lip. I open my eyes for a moment, and feel dizzy at the sight of her so close. Her chin is tilted up, so I can count her individual eyelashes splayed out like gold feathers fluttering against her cheek.
She gasps against me, and I forget that I'm not supposed to be kissing her, lost in the sensations of her lips on mine.
In my dream, I can watch myself as I kiss her, watch the way my hands seem to reach out of their own accord to touch the exposed at the tops of her thighs.
Then Bebe smiles at me, and stands. I watch her confusedly, before she takes my hand, leading me away. I see the two of us stumbling over each other as we make our way to the streets outside, still trying to make out as we walk along. Our limited coordination makes this impossibly difficult, and we are giggling, bumping into things and tripping over each other as we go. Once we are out on the sidewalk, she calls for a cab. The driver rolls his eyes at us as she straddles my lap in the backseat, placing hot open mouth kisses down my neck. She laughs into my skin, uninhibited sloppy laughter that makes me laugh, too. We continue kissing through our snickers.
We fumble towards the door of our shared dorm room, someone makes a sound—this desperate, strangled animal sound; I don't know if it is me or her, but it is quickly lost between increasingly frenzied kisses. Our hands are scrabbling to pull each other closer, our mouths working frantically together. Our fronts brush. Her hand cups my backside, and her lips feel good, hot and wet from kissing. I feel dizzy. From the drinks or her, I don't know.
"I love you," Bebe says again, this time as she licks the rim of my ear. I giggle and kiss her again. We somehow make it to the bedroom, backing through the door before collapsing on top of each other onto my bed. In the darkness, Bebe looks pale. Her hair is almost silver, eyes shadowed and glistening in the dark. She shivers when my hand snakes up her front, ghosting over her chest. She clutches at me, and I meet her eyes. Her pupils are all dilated and wide as she gazes up, and suddenly it feels very hard to swallow.
"Bebe," I say, uncertain of the slow, bumbling words, "you…you…I don't…I've never…"
She nods, understanding. I can feel us both sobering up, awareness sharpened and intensified by the gravity of this moment.
"Don't worry," she says, soothing my worried brow with a kiss. And slowly, she sits up, unzips the back of her dress. She peels it down, pulling it off and kicking it to the floor. I stare at her white bra, the swell of her breast beneath it, and gulp air. For a while, I just look at her, this beautiful girl sitting before me in her underwear—and I don't know what to do. I want to touch her, want to know what she feels like, but somehow, seeing her now makes me realizes that this isn't just some girl. This is Bebe, and for some reason, the revelation makes me feel shy.
She must see how lost I am, because she takes my hand, and guides it until it presses it against her chest. Then I can feel her heartbeat thumping against my palm. It is fast, just like mine.
"It's okay," she soothes, "you can touch me." Her skin is so warm, so soft— I marvel at it under my hands. We lock eyes for a moment, the sheer weight of this moment, my disbelief at actually being able to touch her finally making my fingers clumsy as they stutter over the curve of her breast. I trace along the ridges of her ribcage, spreading over the flat of her stomach, exploring timidly as she arches into my touch. I lean in to kiss her, needing to taste her again.
Her hands go under my blouse. I gasp, and she scorches the underside of my jaw with kisses as she moves to hover over me, her body pressing down on mine. "Just tell me if it's too much." Bebe's voice is tender even though she is panting, "we don't have to—" I surge forward, and silence her with another kiss. After a moment, I raise my hands, and Bebe gently tugs my shirt over my head.
"You're beautiful," she whispers, fingertips trailing down to my belly button. I whimper as she kisses my neck, her hair tickling my chin. She slips her thigh between my legs, and pushes it up against me. The contact, the friction makes me moan, hips rocking as I seek more pressure. She seems to take this as a cue to progress.
"Can I?" she asks, reaching around my back to unclasp my bra. I nod jerkily, lifting my torso to give her better access. I should be self-conscious now, because the way Bebe is looking at me is so intense and powerful I can feel it in every nerve. But I simply don't, because her leg is still rubbing up against me, and I forget to feel anything else.
Still gazing down at me, she touches my cheek. Her other thumb brushes lightly over my nipple, which hardens, though she's barely touched it. I cry out, bucking beneath her, and she lowers her head to take it into her mouth and sucks.
I gasp, hands fisting the sheets, and make a strangled noise in the back of my throat. My eyes are screwed shut, stars bursting before my vision. "Don't stop," I beg her, "please." And she doesn't. She uses one hand to undo my jeans instead, and slips it beneath the band of my panties.
She looks at me again, giving me one last chance to turn back. But all I know right now is that I don't want to stop. I reach over and grab her free hand, giving it a little squeeze. No going back now.
Her hand inches forward, till she's nearly touching me. I whimper, and she peppers my neck and chest with kisses, her lips working in wet brushes over my skin. I cry out when she dips one finger into the throbbing wetness between my legs. She gently presses the digit against my entrance, not quite yet dipping inside.
"God, Wendy," she utters, voice full of awe, "you're so wet." She pauses a moment, asking for permission, and I nearly cry out with impatience, jerkily nodding my head and raising my hips. Her finger slides inside me, and my body convulses, the sensation almost too much to bear.
"You feel so good," a low moan issues from her mouth as she pushes in a bit deeper, "god, you feel so good, Wendy."
"Don't stop," I plead desperately, breathing sharp and labored. She answers by pulling out just slightly before thrusting back in, and I bite my lip, pleasuring surging through me like electricity. She grinds her palm against me, her hand working between my legs, and I jerk beneath her, calling out her name in a broken voice as she touches me. This isn't like anything I've ever felt before. This isn't how it's supposed to be. Bebe puts her mouth around the sensitive puckered bud of my breast again, and I nearly scream, body rocking with the delirious heat of it all.
My head is spinning, my body thrumming. She pulls her hand away, and I sit up, abruptly, body pounding in protest.
She smiles at me bewildered, frantic expression.
"Don't worry, Wendy," she says, "there's just…something I want to try."
And I watch with awe as she begins to move down my body, fingers tucking under my panties, pulling them away. Meeting my gaze one last time, that familiar, mischievous glint in her eye, she lowers her head….
I wake up, sweating and gasping as I sit up in bed. I am alone in Eric's den, the TV still on across the room. Eric must have gone upstairs.
And it doesn't surprise me, because I always wake up alone after this dream. I never did wake up with the girl.
Later Stan calls me at work. He never does this. It makes me think something is wrong.
My secretary puts the call through. She raises an eyebrow before handing me the phone.
"Trouble in paradise?" she mouths, with a knowing smile.
I take the phone from her, shaking my head. It's none of her business.
Stan's voice is agitated on the other line.
"Wendy, you haven't been home in two days! Where the hell have you been?"
"I'm sorry." I flinch, shutting my eyes at the sound of his fretting.
"I've been calling everyone, wondering where you are. I even asked Cartman! But do you know what he said? All he said was, 'if you don't know where your bitch is, it's your own fault for letting her out of the kitchen.' God, I hate that guy!"
I suppose that's Cartman's idea of covering for me.
Stan's rambling contains a note of panic, fear that something has truly happened to me. I think, not for the first time, that I might be a truly terrible, selfish person. Because it is only now that I realize, guiltily…so far, I haven't spared a single thought as to what Stan has been going through. What I've put him through.
I exhale, a slow hiss of air released between tight lips. "I didn't mean to worry you, Stan. I'm sorry. I really am. I've…I've just been…occupied."
Stan pauses, as if trying to decipher what I've said.
"Doing what?" he asks, voice gentle. Stan has lived with me for long enough to hear distress in even the most innocuous of statements. He's instantly comforting, and it makes me want to cry. He's so good to me.
"Don't make me answer that," I plead softly, "please, Stan. I can't answer that right now." It is his voice that breaks me, makes me want to cling to the comfort it offers, even though I don't deserve it.
"It's okay, Wends," he soothes, and I grip the phone closer, as if trying to draw his calming voice near.
"We'll talk later," he promises, "just come home. I don't like you being away. I can't sleep without you here."
"Thanks, Stan," I tell him, discomfort roiling in my gut. Stan has always been so accepting. He won't pry, he won't try to control me or interfere in my affairs. But he's always supportive. If there's anyone who deserves to live happily ever after, it's him. I can't fathom why a loving God would give him to me.
"Hey, Wendy?" he asks.
"I love you, you know," he sounds so sad, "and…I want to make sure we're okay. You haven't been home. And I wanted to make sure it wasn't because I…I mean, are we….did I…?"
"No," I stop his train of thought there. I can't bear to hear anymore of the unjust worries I've dealt him, "you didn't…It's not your fault. I'm sorry. I'll be home for dinner, okay?" My voice is straining with the effort of trying to reassure this man, when I'm not even sure I have anything assured left to offer.
"Okay," Stan replies, then after a beat, "I'll see you soon."
"All right." My voice is so tired.
"I love you."
The line goes dead.
My next patient (Tweek Tweak, muttering to himself about gnomes) walks in, and I am mercifully distracted from my guilt over having forgotten completely about the man I'm supposed to love.
Bebe stands in her shadowed doorway, looking surprised. She's in her pajamas, a long T-shirt hanging almost over her knees. It makes her look small. She wasn't expecting me, but of course she wasn't. I'm not supposed to be here after all. I'm supposed to be home, with Stan, at the dinner table like I promised. He'd ask how my day was, and I'd smile when I poured his coffee. The house would be warm; Stan always turns the heat up when I'm away. I'd complain about the cost, and he'd snuggle me close, telling me it's worth it, to be warm.
That's how it should be.
Instead I'm here, on Bebe's front porch. Room number 267; the seven hangs crooked on the door. The cement is cold, cold enough to bite at the soles of my feet; I still don't know where I lost my shoes. The wind whips through my hair, whistling in my ears. I shiver; Eric wouldn't lend me a jacket. But I'm not sure if the goosebumps on my arms are because of the cold, or the way she's looking at me. Expectant, nervous, and most unnerving of all…happy, like she's waited her whole life for me to show up on her doorstep.
"Bebe, why did you come back?" I don't mean for it to sound like an accusation, but the words are sharp when I speak them.
"I told you, Wendy," she answers, "I came back because I missed you." She stares at my face searchingly, blinking like she's trying to decide whether this is a dream, or it's real.
"You should have left me alone." I wish she had with all my soul, and yet I can't make myself mean those words.
"Wendy, you don't mean that."
We are quiet for a while, just listening to the night howl around us. She shudders, curling her toes into the floor as she draws her arms around herself.
"Come inside," she asks at last, "it's cold."
"I shouldn't be here," I say, more to myself than to her. She shrugs, opens the door a bit wider for me.
"But you are," she replies softly, "so maybe this is where you need to be."
So I follow her inside, and she shuts the door behind me.
The inside of her place is messy, clothes and sketchpads and wrappers strewn about the floor. We toe our way around the obstacles, making our way to sit down on her bed—the only real piece of furniture in the room. It creaks under our weight. The sheets are stained with god-only-knows, and the clock on the wall is broken; frozen at three minutes till midnight. It's no warmer here than it was outside.
"You can't actually be staying here," I recoil with horror, "it's disgusting."
"It's not so bad," she smiles; she barely glances at the putrid little room. She's looking at me. I watch the streetlights filter through the fogged glass window and illuminate her face. Her freckles are bleached by the harsh orange glow, her red lips pale and colorless. She leans her head on my shoulder; she is soft and warm against my side.
"Bebe," I utter her name so softly it is nearly a whisper, "oh, Bebe….you're ruining everything." I don't know if she hears me, because she doesn't reply for a while. We stay like that for a few moments, before she turns to me, rubbing her hands up and down the sides of my arms.
"You're still shivering," she speaks at last; I hadn't even noticed.
"C'mon. Let's get warm." She stands, and pulls the covers back. The she wriggles under them, beckoning me to join her. After a pause, I crawl in after her, wrinkling my nose at the faint mildew scent coming from the blanket. It is immediately warmer beneath it, however. And soon, I feel her hands snake around my waist, pulling me to her, scooting closer to me until we are face to face.
"Better?" she asks—she is so close that I can count the freckles dusting her cheeks.
"Yeah." I try to avoid looking into her eyes, but they are so near, it is impossible to escape them. We simply stare at each other for a few moments, bodies growing warm beneath the covers. She tilts her chin up to examine my face, eyes bright and unreadable in the darkness. I can see the thin ring of gold around her black pupils, and I feel my heartbeat speed at how achingly close she is to me.
"I need to tell you something," Bebe says suddenly, her voice loud in the silence.
"What is it?"
I wait for her to say something, but she doesn't. Instead, she leans in and presses her lips to mine. My eyes fly shut automatically when I feel her kiss me. Her lips are soft and wet, and she sighs into our kiss, her hands sliding down my back. She moves against me, and I gasp into her open mouth. An insistent heat slides through my body, and I find myself clutching at her, trying to bring her closer.
"Bebe," I murmur, before she swallows the sound, "oh." Her thumb reaches up and brushes over my cheek, cupping my face near. And it is so—. I never want her to stop. I'll burst if it lasts a moment more. I never want her to stop.
It is over in seconds. I can't open my eyes, can't move. I feel my body slump lifelessly against the mattress as her lips leave mine, all powers of movement sapped from me. She is breathless when she looks at me again, and her eyes are shining.
"I—" I try to speak, but a breathless, choked off noise comes out instead.
"That's why I came back, Wendy," she whispers, taking my hand and pressing it against her chest. Her heart is speeding so fast; racing beneath my palm, and I swallow at the knowledge that it's beating like that for me. I remember the first time she did this, and it makes the arousal flare sudden and hot in my belly.
"Bebe," my voice is ragged, "you know I can't—I can't—"
"I'd make you so happy," she buries her face in my collarbone, then begins kissing my neck to punctuate her sweet words, "I'd give you everything. Please, Wends, you know I would."
"I love you," she murmurs, her lips just barely grazing the sensitive shell of my ear. It is so different from the thousands of times I've heard those words. Hearing them in her voice, sober—certain, and, laced with meaning, is so utterly significant. It's devastating. It makes my heart swell so large it hurts in my ribcage.
"Let me take you away from here." She is talking faster now, fingers threaded through my hair as she murmurs, "let's get out of South Park."
And unbidden, I can see it in a flash, just like she had said in the studio that day.
I can see us laughing. There's a lot of laughter. Her body keeping me warm, just the way it is now. The world—beautiful, sunlit and bright as the spun gold of her hair. She paints me every which way, thousands of tiny brushstrokes immortalizing the expressions of love on my face. Love, like this, so shattering that we have to hold each other all through the nights to keep it from tearing us into little pieces. Love, in her smile, her eyes, in her sleeping face beside me. A lifetime of catching up on every moment we've missed. Waking up to her, every day.
And I realize I am lonely. But then she's there, and I realize that if I could convince her to stay with me…I'd feel better.
I begin to cry, gathering her closer to me, tears dripping into her hair.
"Oh, Wendy," she kisses my temple, the sweet concern in those eyes making me weep all the harder, "what's the matter."
For a while, I just hold her, savoring the way she feels here in my arms.
"If you can't admit that you want her, Wends," Eric had said, looking almost sympathetic, "you know you have to let her go."
He was wrong after all. I want her. I want to keep her like this forever. But I still have to let her go.
"I have to go home, Bebe," I tell her at last, though my arms are still locked around her waist, "I'm sorry."
Pain blooms across her face, and I will feel the guilt of hurting her for the rest of my life.
"But….why?" her voice is unsteady.
"I have a life here, Bebe," I inhale her scent; this could be the last time, "I can't just…leave it."
"Well, what am I supposed to do?" Bebe sounds like a child, voice high and agitated as she pulls away from me. Anger clouds her pained expression, "you're my best friend, Wendy. But I can't….if we can't…then I…I can't be around you." She pleads with me, eyes huge in the darkness.
"I don't want to lose you," her voice is so soft, "please, Wendy. Don't do this."
"I don't want to lose you either," I detangle myself from her arms, wincing at the cold air, "but I—"
"I never knew how Kyle felt," Bebe sits up, voice like a knife in the darkness, "how he could hang onto something so hopeless for so long. But now I know. I was just like him, all along. Tagging after you like a lovesick puppy." She sounds disgusted with herself, danger coiling in her words.
"Bebe, it isn't like that," I try to explain, "it's not—"
"Don't you PITY me," she stands, shouting now, "this is BULL shit! I don't want your fucking pity!"
"Bebe, don't—" I rise to my feet, expression incredulous as she continues to yell.
"DON'T tell me what to do!" her voice is ragged, hoarse, "you don't get to tell me ANYTHING anymore! I came back for you, Wendy. Even after you ran out on me all those years ago," she looks down at the floor
After a pause, she says quietly, "I wasted my time."
"No, you didn't," I reach for her hand, "I just—" she jerks away.
"I know you're angry," I try to reason with her, "but…how can you ask me to leave everything? Just like that? The world doesn't work that way, Bebe. I have responsibilities. What about Stan? I can't do that to him. Don't you see?"
"No, I don't," she replies, posture hunched and defensive.
"Guess it doesn't matter anyway. I may as well be with Kyle now," she hisses, and huffs with spiteful laughter, "someone may as well get what he wants.
"This has nothing to do with Kyle," I begin to seethe, not liking the implication.
It's ridiculous, impossible. Bebe doesn't want Kyle. But hearing her suggest there is something between them inexplicably infuriates me.
"Maybe I WILL go date Kyle…"
Her words are a shot in the dark, meant to wound the way I've just hurt her. But they hit their mark. Something flips a switch inside me, and I can feel that familiar burning it the pit of my stomach again, dangerous and corrosive.
"But…Kyle's a boy." It's the only thing I can think of, absurd as it sounds. I picture Kyle, standing in my kitchen. I can practically hear his shrill laughter in my head. It makes me sick. Makes that heat ignite in my stomach, and I want to scream.
Bebe knows me too well. She grins, sensing her edge.
"Why shouldn't I? I don't get to be with the person I want anyway. I can't have you," she smiles bitterly, "I might as well be with SOMEONE who wants me."
The image of him kissing her erupts in my mind, her soft petal lips crushed beneath his harsh, shrill mouth. My stomach heaves painfully, my chest tight. No.
Kyle getting to touch her. Kyle getting to kiss her. Kyle waking up every morning in those arms, and spending the rest of his life waking up to those eyes.
"Who knows?" she continues, smirking at my reaction, "maybe he'll be good for me. After all this time, I bet he's appreciative. Maybe I'll enjoy some appreciation. Maybe I can get over you, with a little help." Rage boils hotly in my veins, and she smiles suggestively.
I growl, a feral angry sound I didn't even know I was capable of making.
My hands curl tightly into tight fists, a pounding in my head. I can practically hear Kyle's high, infuriating laughter, sounding off like sirens in my head—blaring and insistent as the siren's that took Bebe's first girlfriend away that day in high school.
All I can see is Red, red like Kyle's hair. Red almost stole Bebe away once. It's some cosmic joke that Red has somehow escaped from that closet, and is still going to take her from me. I remember Red's pounding fists against the wooden door, how satisfying it felt to know those hands would never touch Bebe again.
I picture Bebe's hands now, tugging at a handful of Kyle's auburn curls. Then I see Kyle's his hand tucked possessively in the pocket of her red felt coat. I see the crimson smears of her lipstick on Kyle's pale neck. The red score marks on her smooth back from his fingernails, raking over her skin. Vibrant red hair with Bebe's fingers carting though it, red lips that meet red lips as two girls steal a first kiss under the bleachers at half-time….
No. Not Kyle. Not Red.
"I don't know. I never gave him a chance. Maybe Kyle can make me happy." Her voice sounds ugly around his name. It makes the hatred run hot in my veins.
I turn swiftly towards Bebe.
"Kyle doesn't deserve you," I tell her.
"What do you care?" she spits, and it would hurt less if she sent a spear through my heart. Why is she doing this to me?
"You can't be with him," I insist, angrily, desperately, "he isn't good enough to touch you. I won't let him."
Now Bebe looks confused, her mouth turning downward into a frown.
"You don't exactly get to decide that, Wendy," she backs away, as if finally sensing the conversation has taken a turn. But I stalk towards her, closing the space.
"Yes," I hiss, "he will never touch you, Bebe." She looks frightened as she gazes up at me, but Bebe is no coward. Her mouth forms a hard, stubborn line.
"It's not up to you, Wendy! Not anymore—"
"The hell it isn't," I grab her upper arm, and yank her close. She cringes away from me, trying to yank her arm out of my reach, but I won't let her get away. Not this time.
"He will never touch you, Bebe."
She squirms in my grasp, clawing at my wrist until blood dots the claw marks, oozes down my arm. I glance down. She's gotten my blood all over her hand as she tries to pull away from me. She begins to cry.
"Let me go!" she begs, terrified, sobbing and shouting as she tries to pull out of my grip. Thee blood she's drawn seeps between my fingers, making my hold slippery, and she manages to twist away. There is a red handprint on her wrist as she dives for the exit. But I'm standing in front of the door, so there's nowhere to run. Bebe tries to push past me.
"Wendy—please—" her hand touches the doorknob, for just a second, and then I lurch toward her.
"No!" She is NOT leaving me. Not now. Not to go to him.
She tries to struggle, shoving me, so I grab her throat with both hands and push her hard against the door. Her body collides with hard surface, thumping loudly against it. My hands tighten around her neck as she gasps for air, tears staining her face as she frantically tries to loosen them. Her breathing is ragged, her body struggling, and I want her to stop. I want her to stop fighting me. To stay. To forget about Kyle, about Red. But she won't stop staring at me with those sad, scared eyes, and so I squeeze harder, willing them to close.
"Wen-dy," she rasps, "p-please."
It is only then I notice the tears on my own cheeks. One hits the floor, dripping down my face until it falls to her feet, faintly scrambling and kicking out from under her. She jerks in my grasp, breathing becoming more faint.
"Don't leave me," I beg her, and her eyes begin to flutter shut, her struggling growing weaker. My voice sounds animal to me, harsh and broken. Her mouth is hanging open, an awful sound—a wet hiss, emanating from her throat. I squeeze harder to make it stop.
"I love you," I tell her. I begin to sob, my shoulders shaking. Her eyes stay shut, and I am glad she can't see me anymore, glad she can't hold me with her gaze, make me a prisoner with her penetrating looks. Her chest convulses, like her heart's giving out, and I let my head fall on her shoulder.
"I'm so sorry."
Eventually she goes still, and I know she won't fight me anymore.
When I pull my hands away, she slumps to the floor.
The prints she wears around her neck are not red.
They are purple.
Kenny is in session the next day. He smiles at me the moment I walk in, my shoes clacking against the shiny wood floors.
"Hello, Kenny," I say settling into my arm chair, "are we going to talk about the leaves again today?"
He reaches for the pad and writes,
"One for each death."
I nod, a bit uncomfortable because as he writes, he continues to stare at me with that same unsettling grin on his dirty face. At last, I snap at him, spitting the words harshly into his eerie, smiling face.
"Why are you staring at me?"
Kenny opens his mouth and laughs. It is a horrible sound, an empty, wet hiss like someone's throat being squeezed as she tries to breathe.
"I've been to heaven, and I've been to hell. And you know which one you're going to, Dr."
"Love, love is gonna lead us by the hand
Into a white and soundless place…"
-The Mountain Goats.