The Beacon Hills high school cafeteria is bustling with commotion as Melissa picks a spot to sit and wait for her friend. Just when she thinks a group of sophomores are going to take all the extra space at the table around her, Claudia finally appears with lunch, sliding onto the bench beside her.
“Hey!” Claudia greets. “Thanks for saving me a spot.”
“Got held up in class?” Melissa asks her, before taking a bite of her apple.
Claudia shakes her head, then seems to change her mind and nods. “Sort of. Wanted to ask the teacher about next week’s reading. I’m a bit ahead.”
“Of course you are,” Melissa replies with a laugh.
Before she can tease Claudia further for her inability to pace herself, even with schoolwork, they’re interrupted. Talia Hale walks up to the table, a friendly smile on her face. She’s a senior, and even more than that, she’s really popular. Even after their gazes meet, Melissa assumes she’s only passing through on her way to another table, but then Talia asks, “Do you mind if I sit and chat for a minute?”
Melissa still has half a mouthful of apple, but luckily Claudia responds. “Sure. Maybe we’ll even let you stay for a couple minutes.”
Talia smiles even wider, either genuinely amused or excessively polite. She squeezes into the last available bench space across from them and says, “I’m Talia,” as though the entire school doesn’t already know exactly who she is, even if they’re freshmen like Melissa and Claudia.
Claudia introduces them both in return and Melissa finally gets past her shock enough to swallow her bite of apple.
“I’m running for class president,” Talia tells them, “and I want to make sure I properly represent the student body when I come up with my campaign and agenda. How have you liked Beacon Hills High so far?”
Melissa exchanges a look with Claudia. They’ve both only been in high school for a month and it’s a big change from their small middle school, a change that has satisfied Melissa but has only acted as a stepping stone for Claudia. “It’s been really good,” Melissa says to start on a positive note.
“My parents have a better selection of books in the spare bedroom than this school has in the entire library,” Claudia says bluntly.
Talia looks taken aback but only for a moment. “You’re right. I don’t think the library has been properly updated at all since I started here and you’re the first to mention it. I’m guessing you have more ideas?” She doesn’t sound annoyed like Melissa expected, she actually looks thrilled.
Claudia nods. “Yep. This school needs more than basketball.”
“Definitely!” Talia replies immediately. “I was talking to some people earlier who suggested more sports. A wider variety of teams would create more opportunities for students.”
“Sure,” Claudia says with a shrug, “but I mean outside of sports, too. Not everyone is a jock.”
“Right again!” Talia agrees. “Claudia, have you considered going for student council?”
“Maybe you should. You have a lot to contribute.”
Melissa grins. “She would make the meetings run way overtime, I’m warning you now.” Claudia elbows her in the side but laughs all the same.
“Sounds good to me,” Talia says. “Why don’t you both drop by for the next meeting? It’s Tuesday’s after school, I’ll tell everyone I’ve invited you along.”
They both agree without hesitating even though neither of them had felt any desire to join school politics and Melissa had always thought of it as just a group of popular seniors. Talia welcomes them in as though it’s the simplest thing in the world and there’s a quality about her that makes anything seem possible. Before they know it, they’re both freshman representatives and Talia starts eating lunch with them a couple times a week.
They get new books for the school library, Melissa runs a series of fundraisers for charities, and the school purchases enough lacrosse equipment to start a new team.
Melissa and Claudia have already taken their coffee to a secluded table in front of the café windows when Talia strides in, exactly on time. She waves to her friends before approaching the counter to make her order and Melissa smiles as she turns her attention back to Claudia, who’s tracing her fingertip along the curve of her mug’s handle.
“She makes pregnancy look like a walk in the park, doesn’t she?” Claudia comments, eyes still on Talia. It’s been a month since the three of them had time to meet up and the change is far more noticeable than Claudia’s own baby bump, only a couple months old.
Melissa chuckles. “Doesn’t she make everything look like a walk in the park? Don’t know how she does it.” Talia is easily the busiest out of the three of them, with a demanding job and three other children already.
“Mm,” Claudia hums in agreement. “Pretty sure she has superpowers. Unfair, isn’t it?”
Talia joins them a moment later, taking the empty seat at the table. “It’s so good to see you both,” she says, beaming.
They catch up and drink their coffee, talking about their families and their jobs and the latest Beacon Hills news. The conversation is easy, as if no time has passed between them at all, and when Claudia starts suggesting the most bizarre names she can think of for Talia’s baby, they dissolve into a fit of giggles.
“Since you’ve been around the birthing block a couple times already, you’ll have to give me a few pointers,” Claudia tells Talia.
Melissa cuts in with news of her own, unable to keep a straight face, “In fact, you’ll have to give us both pointers.”
Claudia gasps, eyes wide and excited. “Really?”
“Really,” Melissa answers happily.
“Oh, Melissa, congratulations,” Talia says as both she and Claudia lean forward to envelope Melissa in a group hug. Melissa laughs and hugs them both back, glad that she’s able to share this experience with her two closest friends.
Claudia makes an excited noise by her ear as she squeezes her tight. “All our kids are going to grow up together and be in school together just like we were, we have the greatest timing ever!”
The schoolyard is already empty by the time Melissa finally pulls into the parking lot. Scott is sitting alone on the playground swing set swaying only a few inches back and forth while a teacher watches over to make sure he gets home safely. When he notices Melissa getting out of the car, he slides off the seat and picks up his backpack.
Melissa offers the teacher a grateful smile. “Thanks for waiting with Scott,” she says before they say goodbye and head back for the car. Scott trails behind, eyes on the ground, uncharacteristically quiet. The faraway look in his eyes makes Melissa clench with worry.
In the car, she asks, “No Stiles at school today?” to test the waters. The two boys have become so inseparable that Melissa almost never picks Scott up alone, just like the Stilinskis rarely pick up Stiles without Scott in tow. Melissa knows her friends’ work schedules just as well as her own and she always knows which of them will be picking up the boys from school.
“He was here this morning,” Scott offers, looking out the window.
“Oh no, he didn’t get sick and have to go home did he?”
Scott’s shoulders droop as soon as she says the word sick and Melissa knows she’s on the right track.
“Not Stiles,” Scott says quietly, “Mrs. Stilinski.”
The knots in Melissa’s chest only tighten at this clarification, mind beginning to come up with all the medical reasons severe enough that the Stilinskis would have to pull their son out of class. “I’m sure Stiles and his dad are taking good care of her.”
Scott doesn’t look reassured. “Stiles said they’re going to the hospital. Mrs. Stilinski hasn’t been feeling good.”
“It’ll be okay,” Melissa says automatically, needing desperately for her son to feel hopeful. “I have to go to work after dinner and I promise I’ll go check on Mrs. Stilinski, alright? She’ll be in good hands.”
“Okay,” Scott concedes, nodding somewhat reluctantly. Melissa reaches over and squeezes his shoulder gently before returning her hand to the steering wheel.
The rest of the drive home is quiet and Melissa resists the urge to go right to the hospital instead. Scott heads up the stairs to his room right after kicking off his shoes, which leaves Melissa alone with her thoughts and the phone calls she needs to make.
She thinks of calling the Sheriff first but can’t help but feel like now isn’t a good time to draw him away from his wife. He’ll be preoccupied and worried and Melissa doesn’t want to add anymore strain on him. Without truly considering what she’s doing, Melissa dials the number for the Hale residence instead.
It’s answered after only one ring. “Hello!” says a voice that Melissa recognizes as teenaged Laura Hale.
“Hi, Laura. It’s Melissa. May I speak to your mom?”
“She’s at a meeting until six, sorry,” Laura answers. “Is it something I can help with? Or should I just tell her you called?”
Melissa sighs softly, unsurprised by Talia’s full schedule but still wishing she were available. Talia has always been the most reassuring between the three of them, the one who always knows the right thing to say or do. “Yes, if you could ask her to call me back when she can, that’d be great. Thanks, Laura.”
“You’re welcome. Talk to you later.”
After hanging up the phone, Melissa leans back against the wall for a quiet minute. She tries not to think about how she and Claudia haven’t been in touch as much as usual lately, or how when she does see Claudia, she looks exhausted, with dark bags under her eyes. For now all she can do is start dinner and then get ready for her night shift.
It all happened so fast that it hardly feels real. Melissa curls her fingers around her coffee and slowly slides the hot mug closer, but instead of lifting it to take a drink, she just holds it there, and thinks of all the times she’s sat at this exact café table with not one friend, but two. The funeral is over and Melissa hardly knows what to do now.
She refocuses her eyes, lifting them to look at Talia seated beside her. She looks just as lost as Melissa feels, an unfamiliar expression on her. It’s just one more element to this situation that’s wrong and unsettling.
“I feel like there should have been more I could do,” Melissa says, startling even herself with the bleak, honest words. Talia looks up at her and there are unshed tears threatening to fall. “This shouldn’t have happened, not to Claudia…”
Talia stops her by placing a hand over her wrist, squeezing gently. Melissa lets go of her coffee and slips her hand into Talia’s instead.
“Don’t do that to yourself, Mel,” Talia tells her, voice soft but still firm. “Neither of us should think that way. Claudia wouldn’t have wanted that.”
She’s right, and Melissa knows it, but she also knows it’ll take time before she stops second guessing herself or wondering if more could have been done, to make it easier on Claudia if not cure her. It’ll be awhile before she stops feeling frustrated with how ineffective all the attempts were or heartbroken over the pain Claudia felt, the pain her husband and son are still feeling. She tightens her grip on Talia’s hand, not wanting to let go.
“Thanks for coming out with me,” she says gratefully. “I know you’ve been so busy lately…”
“I’m never too busy for a friend,” Talia answers. “Whenever you want to spend time together, you give me a call, okay?”
Melissa nods, swallowing the lump in her throat. “Okay.”