The knock came while Elena was playing video games on the couch.
“Elena, could you get the door?” Penelope called from the kitchen. “I’ve got my hands full in here.”
She heard the squeal with her back to the living room and smiled. Apparently the reunion was starting early, and the scene in the living room when she turned around was a heartwarming one.
“I thought your flight wasn’t until seven,” Elena said, hugging her best friend while shock turned to elation. “I was supposed to meet you at the airport. Schneider was going to take me,” she added, shooting him an accusing look over Carmen’s shoulder.
“My flight changed. Figured I’d surprise you,” Carmen replied with her familiar deadpan tone. “Surprise.”
“She swore me to secrecy,” Schneider added.
Elena emerged from their hug to beam at Carmen. “I’m so glad you’re back. Tomorrow you and I and Syd are all going to hang out and I cannot wait for you to finally officially meet them. I know you’ve seen them, like, a lot, but video chat is not the same. Oh my god, I’ve missed you so much!”
Elena’s excitement rushed her words together and made Penelope smile. When she realized Schneider remained near the couch, grinning fondly at the girls too, she headed over to him.
“Elena told me this was your idea,” Penelope said as her daughter pulled Carmen toward her bedroom, still talking non-stop.
“Well, I wouldn’t say it was my idea,” he hedged, looking like he might bolt for the door after all. “She was talking about how much she wished Carmen could visit over the summer but how Carmen’s family didn’t have the money for a flight. I just mentioned that I’d be willing to buy Carmen a ticket, if that was all it took. And if you were on board, obviously!”
“Calm down, Schneider. I’m not accusing you of anything. You knew I agreed to this weekend. I’m trying to thank you for helping make it happen.”
“Oh. You’re welcome.” His grin mellowed into something softer when peals of laughter floated their way and his eyes met Penelope’s. “Listen to those two.”
There was a hint of parental guilt in her nod of agreement. “Elena never exactly had an easy time making friends. I know how hard it was for her after Carmen moved. Tonight’s sleepover is just what the landlord ordered.”
“I didn’t order it,” Schneider insisted. “I couldn’t recommend it based on experience--I’ve never even been to a sleepover.”
She sat on the couch, frowning at him.“What do you mean you’ve never been to a sleepover? At some point, before you were the pampered man-child you are today, you were an actual child.”
“Your point being?”
“It’s a thing. A thing kids do. You’re telling me you never went to a single sleepover in your whole life.”
“I’ve had the adult kind,” Schneider argued.
“Doesn’t count. I’m talking pajamas and ghost stories and junk food, that stuff. Rite of passage, essential childhood experiences.”
“My childhood wasn’t like that,” he said with a shrug. “The thing about sleepovers is you need a place where your friends can come over, to sleep at. I went to boarding school.”
“So really, your whole childhood was one long sleepover.”
Schneider shrugged again, but this time it was more like a wince. “The other thing about sleepovers is you kind of need friends."
When he didn’t elaborate further, she decided not to push. “I'll see you later,” he ventured into the silence that followed.
Penelope listened to the faint sounds of Elena and Carmen catching up and watched as Schneider turned to leave. She took a leap.
He faced her expectantly. “Yeah.”
“What have you got planned for tonight?”
“Netflix, woodworking. Maybe some yoga. Why? You need something?”
“No. I was thinking that if you didn’t have big plans, you could come over. We could hang out.”
“You and me?”
“Yeah.” She smiled. “Mami’s out of town visiting my cousin, the girls are having a sleepover, you’ve never had one. We could watch movies, eat too much popcorn, stay up late playing games and gossiping and painting each others’ nails...”
Penelope raised her eyebrows at him to make him laugh. “Anyway, it could be fun.”
“Absolutely,” she declared with more conviction this time. “I used to love a good sleepover. And I didn’t have anything planned other than hanging around listening to those two. Why should they have all the fun?”
"Okay!” Schneider’s face lit up like a kid getting offered a gift--which wasn’t too far off, in a way, Penelope thought.
“I’d love to," he added. "I’ll bring snacks.”
When Schneider came back after dinner, her laughter was so loud it carried to Elena’s room.
“You said you would bring snacks, Schneider...not all the snacks.”
“I wanted us to have options!” He had toted up four recyclable grocery bags full of them and had been proud of himself for the effort--until now.
“We definitely will,” Penelope agreed. “For the next month. Even if the kids help, there’s no way can we eat all this stuff tonight.”
“Then I’ll leave the rest and you guys can have it later.” Shaking his head, Schneider moved the bags to the kitchen counter, waiting until she joined him to start unpacking.
Along with name brand chips and microwave popcorn and fancy soda, he had gotten her favorite snacks, which made her feel bad for making fun of him. How did he even remember the Ben and Jerrys flavor she liked when they only sold it at Target?
Did he shop at Target just so he could include it?
“You really went all out,” Penelope said once the drinks were in the fridge and the ice cream was in the freezer.
“I wanted to.”
“Yeah.” She paused as the thought occurred to her. “I know you got the Ben and Jerry's for me, and I recognize that frozen yogurt thing you like...but what’s the other ice cream for? You definitely got more than we need. It barely fits in the freezer.”
“It won’t need the space for long,” he predicted with a wink, lifting a can of whipped cream out of the last bag along with jars of chocolate and caramel sauce and fresh cherries.
She’d already let the girls order pizza for dinner. Carmen being there at all was a treat. Sundaes, on top of that?
“C’mon, Pen.” Ever so casually, he pulled the last item out of the bag he was holding and slid it her way.
“Cookie dough. Seriously?”
He knew her too well.
“Elena, Alex!” She rolled her eyes toward Schneider when the kids emerged from their rooms. “Guess who decided to splurge on do-it-yourself sundaes tonight?”
“Yes!” Alex was excited enough that Penelope couldn’t help thinking he didn’t need the sugar, but she watched Schneider pass the girls the ingredients to form an assembly line and was reminded of her own childhood.
This was exactly the sort of thing that Elena would hopefully remember one day, those bright, happy memories that were wonderful because they were small and random. Honestly, it was lucky her daughter was still interested in things like ice cream all-nighters with her best friend at this age.
“You guys get started,” Schneider said, resting a hand on Penelope’s arm and pulling her aside. “I’ll make mine next.”
In the relative privacy of the hall, with the kids’ conversations providing cover, he let his concern show. “Hey, you okay?”
Schneider shook his head. “Talk to me. I saw something on your face, and it was not fine.”
“No, it’s--I’m okay. I’m good. I just had a mom moment. You know, Elena’s got her first girlfriend, Alex is practically dating too. How much longer do I have with them before they’re too old for sundaes and sleepovers and...well, me?”
“Psh!” Letting go of her hand, Schneider squeezed her around the waist while Alex teased Elena a few feet away. “They’ll never be too old for you.”
He stayed hugging her as they watched Carmen bury her chocolate ice cream in chocolate sauce with severe focus. “And nobody is too old for sundaes,” he argued. “I’m forty and I’m about to fix a triple-layer one for myself.”
“Plus you and I are having a sleepover!” He grinned at her. “Age is just a number.”
“Mom, we’re gonna eat in my room,” Elena said, sliding past them with her bowl and spoon. Carmen and Alex followed, leaving the sundae supplies strewn across the counter.
“Besides,” Schneider said in the sudden quiet. “This is my first sleepover, Penelope. Now is not the time for melancholy. It’s party time!”
“Okay, okay.” She shook off the mood and pointed at the open cartons. “Make your sundae before the ice cream melts.”
“You’re not having one?”
“No way.” Penelope shot him a grin, plucking the yellow package off the counter. “I’m making cookies.”
Trying to be a good example for the kids and not get sick, she only had a couple of cookies at a time. And maybe she stole a few spoonfuls of his sundae, but they were just tastes--they didn’t count. Especially when Schneider ate four cookies out of her first batch.
“Honestly,” Penelope told him from where she was curled up on the couch. “I have no idea how you can have that much sugar at once and not die, when your usual diet is obsessively healthy.”
Sprawled out next to her, he filled more than his fair share of the available space. They were both too content with the sugar high to feel weird about it.
“Obsessively is the key word.” Schneider smiled at her a little. “I told you I have an addictive personality--sugar is addictive. Having a reasonable amount is the hard part for me."
Penelope frowned and reached for his hand. “Should we not have...I didn’t mean to encourage--”
He turned his palm over, cutting her off with the surprise move of lacing his fingers through hers. “It’s fine. Tonight won’t kill me. I came to have the classic sleepover experience, and so far it has been a blast.”
“All right. If you’re sure.”
“Yeah. But, tomorrow morning, if you catch me trying to get Lydia to add extra sugar to my coffee...cut me off.” He offered her a sheepish look that was also somehow charming. The softer side of Schneider--quieter, open about his flaws--never failed to tug at her.
She did her best to cover that with jokes, though. The last thing she needed was for him to realize that his vulnerability was even more attractive than seeing him suited up for a quinces.
“Anyway,” Schneider continued, oblivious to her thoughts as he released her hand. “What’s next on the classic sleepover agenda? Movies, games?”
“Movies are a must,” Penelope agreed. “But I think I’m too close to a sugar coma for one now--unless it’s a horror movie, and we can’t watch any of those until later.”
“Because of the kids?”
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s cute. I’m sure they’ve already seen all the ones I’ve banned in secret screenings with their friends. No, I meant we should definitely watch a horror film, but after dark--for maximum terror.”
“Oh. Great,” Schneider offered up after a slight hesitation. The wobble in his voice made her smile. She knew he was kind of a scaredy cat just like her, but fear was a time-honored part of sleepover tradition.
"So we should play a game,” she decided. “Unless you really do want to go for makeovers.”
“I...I don’t know how that would even work.” His brow furrowed. “Plus I kind of like my look the way it is.”
Penelope held up her hands reassuringly. “Kidding. Like I said then, game time.”
“Which means what? I used to play a great round of Monopoly.”
Laughing, she shifted closer. “Not board games--we can play those any day. Sleepovers have their own games, though I have to admit all the games I remember are for teenagers. Truth or dare, seven minutes in heaven, spin the bottle.”
“I may not be a sleepover whiz, but I know spin the bottle,” Schneider said. “We would need more than two people for that one. What’s seven minutes in heaven?”
“Also made for more than two people,” Penelope replied. “It’s the worst. You go into a closet with somebody else and then everybody assumes you kissed. Just hormones raging, and gossip.”
“So I guess truth or dare it is, then.”
She nodded. “We’ve got at least an hour to kill--pun intended--until we can pick a thriller to watch. But god, the idea of truth or dare flashes me back to junior high. Have you played before?”
“I have not. Surprisingly, my nannies wouldn’t take me up on the invitation when I was a preteen. Seen it in movies, though.”
“Okay...I should probably go first.” She waited, then nudged his foot with hers. “Ask me!”
Schneider blinked at her. “Oh. Right. Truth or dare?”
He hesitated. “Just to clarify...what are the rules? Off-limits stuff?”
With her feet practically resting on his, Penelope shrugged. “I can’t think of anything. We know each other. And we’re both sober--with my kids down the hall. Basically, we’re playing Truth or Dare: Grown Ups Edition.”
“You know, if we were really going to play the grown ups edition...” Schneider grinned at her, more than a little bit flirtatious, and she swatted him on the arm.
He kept smiling, until she started to feel a little self-conscious with him staring at her so freely. If she didn’t know better, she’d say he wasn’t kidding.
But he had to be kidding--Penelope had made it clear years ago that she didn’t think of him like that. It was her own fault that she went and became interested after all.
“Okay,” Schneider said, ending the charged moment between them. “Truth. What’s one thing you desperately want right now, but don’t have?”
Penelope thought it over for almost a full minute before she nodded. “A spa.”
“A spa.” He blinked. “Out of everything you could wish for in the entire universe, you just want to go to a spa?”
“What can I say, I like the simple pleasures.” She gave him a look. “And I didn’t say I wanted a spa day. I said a spa. As in, my own spa. That I can escape to whenever I want.”
“Oh, right, right, right. That makes much more sense.”
“Your turn, Schneider. Truth or dare?” Penelope relaxed back into the couch cushions a little further. She was enjoying their impromptu night more than she had expected to.
“My first turn! Exciting. Wow.” His eyes widened. “Which do you think I should pick?”
“It doesn’t work like that.”
“But this is important!”
“This is a game, Schneider.” She gentled her tone. “This is a party game for twelve-year-olds. It’s not the end of the world, no matter what you pick.”
“Whichever one you pick now, just pick the other on your next turn. Okay?”
“Alright.” He shook the tension out of his shoulders, jiggling the spot where she sat. “Truth.”
“Okay. My question for you is...who’s your favorite family member?”
She frowned. “I didn’t mean my family. I was talking about yours.”
“Lydia is my family. She saw me through a lot of rough patches over the last fifteen years, Pen. I love her like the mother I never had.”
“But what about the mothers you did have?” She felt like shaking him a little, though she knew she didn’t have any right to be frustrated. Now it was her turn to breathe out the stress.
“I was trying to find out more about the family you come from, Schneider. You talk about them only in really vague terms, and they never visit. You’ve met practically everybody related to me at this point, so...I’m curious.”
Schneider sighed and moved back so he wasn’t encroaching on her side of the couch anymore. “You’re right. That’s fair. What exactly do you want to know?”
Watching him carefully, Penelope wondered if stretching her own limbs out toward him would be weird. She missed the friendly warmth they’d been sharing.
“Anything. What’s your happiest memory from growing up? Did you have a favorite holiday? What did you do for fun?”
“Wow, okay. That’s more than one question,” he pointed out. “I feel like we’re breaking the rules of the game.”
“If you don’t want to do it,” she replied with raised eyebrows, “you can always choose Dare instead.”
He frowned. “That feels like a cop-out.”
“Totally valid loophole,” Penelope assured him. “Though if you’re going to do it on every Truth you’re better off just starting with Dare in the first place.”
“Dare,” he decided without further hesitation. She was left wondering what about his family and his childhood he was so desperate to keep secret as she moved on.
“Sure. I dare you to...sing your favorite song backwards.”
Schneider’s brow furrowed in the center but he complied. Though she gave him points for effort, his attempt was as loud as it was nonsensical, bringing the girls into the living room to stare.
They were harsh critics.
“Go back to your party,” Penelope said, raising her voice over the boos, “and leave us to ours. You’re not invited.”
Elena led the way out, laughing with Carmen until bedroom doors shut them in.
“They should be crashing soon from all the sugar,” she told Schneider reassuringly. “If you want, we can wait until they’re asleep.”
“No, I’m good. Your turn,” he reminded her. “Truth or Dare?”
This time, he thought about his question for a long time. She reached out and tapped his leg before he finally asked it.
“Earth to Schneider.”
“Yeah. Okay.” He nodded to himself. “If you could go back in time and change one decision you made, what would it be?”
Penelope had a painfully clear flashback to a bed behind a curtain, and the liar she married seducing her into trusting him again.
If she were being completely honest, she wasn’t sure if she would go back to stop herself from giving Victor another chance...or to stop herself from finding out the truth in such a vulnerable moment. That weakness in her, the not-knowing, was something she was too ashamed to admit, especially to Schneider.
“Dare,” she said instead.
Though he was visibly surprised, he didn’t press. “I dare you to...show me a hidden talent you have.”
“Hmm.” That was a pretty good dare, she had to admit. Creative. She pressed her lips together, trying to think of something Schneider wouldn’t already know about.
“Got it.” Penelope stood, leaving him on the couch while she disappeared into her room. When she returned, she was carrying--of all things--a hula hoop.
Schneider couldn’t stop grinning at her, but he did hold back the laugh that wanted to escape at the very idea of Penelope hula hooping.
“Was this some kind of trendy exercise thing?” He asked as she stood near the front door, planting her feet clear of the furniture.
“No, this was an ‘I have kids’ thing,” she countered. “I wasn’t big into it when I was little, but as a mom, it turns out I rock a hula hoop.”
Squashing his amusement as best he could, Schneider watched Penelope start to move...and instantly realized nothing about her secret talent was funny.
She didn’t just sway the hoop--she moved with it in a rhythmic circle, like she was dancing. He’d never thought about the mechanics of hula hooping before, but after watching Penelope, he was pretty sure it was all in the hips, because he couldn’t take his eyes off hers.
Hula hooping should not be sexy, he told himself firmly. Clearly he had a problem.
“Very nice.” Schneider clapped politely when she stopped.
“Hey, you asked for it.”
“Yeah. No. I did, you are correct.” She misunderstood his discomfort, but he was glad--he definitely preferred Penelope thinking he was experiencing anything other than a vivid fantasy right now.
“Okay, now it’s your turn,” she said, setting the hula hoop by the door and rejoining him on the couch.
“I dare you to...” Her smile was wicked. “Show me your hula hooping skills.”
“I--I don’t have any.” Schneider shook his head. “I’ve never hula hooped in my life, Pen. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“Want me to teach you?”
Somehow, he had a feeling that lessons with the hoop would involve closeness. Or touching. Or both. Hard and fast, he shoved back against his feelings until they were locked down where they belonged. Then he nodded.
“I mean, you can try. I can’t say I’ve ever thought of myself as a future hula hooping pro.”
“Yeah, but it could be fun.” Penelope stood and reached a hand out to him. “Come on, Schneider. Live a little.”
“Remember who you’re talking to,” he warned her cheerfully. “I live a lot!” As she passed him the hoop, he took her spot near the door. “Does this count as my turn, for the dare?”
“Not a chance,” she answered just as cheerfully.
“But I will be showing you my hulaing skills. They just happen to be a work in progress.”
“This isn’t part of the game. When we’re ready to go back to Truth or Dare, I’ll give you a new dare.”
Schneider sighed dramatically, but his good-natured shrug was the reaction she’d expected.
“And I’m going to tell you the secret to hula hooping,” Penelope told him, “so you can get the hang of it way quicker than I did. What you want is to focus on moving individual parts of your body.”
Schneider attempted to take her advice, but the hoop only swung around his stomach twice before it clattered down.
“Well, no.” She laughed as he gave it back, then nudged him aside. “Watch me.”
Penelope made it look easy, aiming a grin at him when she tossed her hair back. “See how my hips are moving and keeping the hoop going,” she asked, “but my legs and knees are barely moving at all?”
That was a serious understatement of what he noticed, of course. The way her hair bounced and caught the light of the living room; her eyes warm with amusement at the silliness of their night so far, even while she was also watching him intently to see if he was getting the hang of it.
Her fingers, flexing a little where she had them raised above the hoop like she was itching to dance and couldn’t fully hold back. The curve of her lips and how soft they always looked; the way her breathing barely changed as she casually kept the hoop in motion.
And above all else, the way her hips were moving, as she had so helpfully pointed out. He hated feeling like such a stereotypical guy around his best friend, but his reaction was less thoughtful than it was primal. He wanted to remove the hula hoop from the equation entirely and close the distance between them.
Swallowing audibly against that thought, Schneider nodded at her. “All right, time to see if I can do that.”
His second attempt was better, though compared to Penelope it still looked nothing like hula hooping. But after a few tries, he managed to keep it circling his waist for more than a full minute.
His proud grin was definitely a highlight of the evening, she decided. She snapped a couple of pictures of him holding the hoop when he wasn’t looking, just so she could hold on to it.
Schneider was grateful that he was done actually using the hoop before Alex came out of his room and spotted them, grabbing a cookie with one hand and a handful of chips with the other.
“Whoa,” Alex said, smirking a little as he put the pieces together. “What’s happening out here?”
“We’re having a sleepover and you’re still not invited,” his mom told him firmly. “And don’t get crumbs in your bed.”
He lifted his snack-filled hands. “I’m just saying, finding Schneider out here with a hula hoop is pretty weird.”
Alex left, and Schneider stared after him more solemnly than she thought was called for.
“Hey, come back to the party.”
“I’m here. Do you think I’m weird?”
Penelope blinked. “Yes.”
The furrow in his brow was back, and the downturn of his mouth made her sad along with him, so Penelope skipped past teasing him like she normally would. She cast aside her careful distance to try and fix whatever had just gone wrong so quickly.
“Do you think that’s a bad thing? Schneider, weird people become scientists and artists and change the way the rest of us see the world. My kids are weird, and I hope they find a way to hang on to that for as long as possible.”
She tilted her head, trying to figure out if he understood her. “You’re genuinely yourself, and that’s something to be proud of. If you weren’t weird, you wouldn’t be the guy who makes my Mami feel young, looks out for my kids when they need it, or who thinks a sleepover with me sounds like more fun than your normal plans on a Friday night.”
Taking the hoop from him, she smiled at Schneider and was relieved when he smiled back. “I for one am grateful you’re this weird, because I’ve been having a really great time.”
“Yeah. So let me put this away before one of us breaks something--hula hooping indoors eventually becomes an invitation to injury--and we’ll go back to the game.”
“I wasn’t going to hurt myself,” he protested as she left, raising his voice to follow her through the hall. “I know your apartment better than I know my own.”
“And that’s supposed to convince me?” Her words floated back to him. “Last week you nearly broke your toe in your own kitchen.”
“Well, there was a bee, and I was in a hurry.” He was still waiting by the door when she returned.
“Okay,” he asked. “What’s my dare?”
“Right.” She had almost forgotten about that after watching him try to imitate her at hula hooping. How was tonight more fun than she’d had in weeks?
Penelope looked at him thoughtfully, then around the apartment. “Since you brought it up, Schneider, I dare you to walk from that spot to the kitchen with your eyes shut, and make yourself a snack.”
Though she expected an argument, she didn’t get one.
“Alright.” He squared his shoulders and shut his eyes, lashes fluttering behind his glasses, before she stopped him.
“Wait. With your glasses on I won’t be able to see if you peek.”
“I’m not going to cheat!” The insult in his tone was, frankly, adorable, but she acted as though she didn’t hear it.
“Yeah, because I’m not going to give you the option.” Ducking her head into a closet, Penelope lifted out a handkerchief and quickly folded it in half, then again. “Bend down a little.”
“Lean towards me. Come on already.” Penelope reached up and tugged on his shirt until he was more at her level.
Schneider huffed out a breath, blinking hard when she carefully removed his glasses and set them on the couch behind her.
“I did not agree to this,” Schneider protested as she laid the cloth against his face, smoothing her thumbs over his skin. Both of them ignored the fact that he was twice her size and could stop her at any time if he really wanted to.
Once she was satisfied that the handkerchief was flat enough, she tied it behind his head and regarded the result.
He looked so shocked behind the blindfold, Penelope couldn’t help the pang of sympathy. She lifted her hands again and cupped his face. “Trust me, Schneider. You’ll be okay.”
Unable to see her, or expression as she watched him, Schneider leaned into her palm, everything about him softening.
Under different circumstances, Penelope might call the look on his face longing. She ran her thumb over his cheekbone for an indulgent moment of her own before stepping back and clearing her throat. “Ready?”
“Yeah.” He straightened and nodded. “You’re not gonna put anything in my path, or get in the way, right?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” she reassured him with a quirk of her lips that was lost on him. “Not after you let me blindfold you to make sure there was no cheating.”
“Good point. Okay. Then it’s just a straight shot to the kitchen,” Schneider declared, and she watched from behind the couch as he walked in the right direction.
If Penelope were the one in the dark, she would feel her way there slowly, even though she had her own home memorized. It was just practical, to keep from bumping into furniture and collecting unnecessary bruises. But Schneider didn’t.
He also didn’t slow down, walking at the same pace he would if he had stopped by for coffee in the morning. Once he neared the kitchen, then he reached out to feel for the doorway, but up until that moment, she had expected more fumbling.
“Wow, Schneider, I’m impressed,” she admitted as he stepped into the kitchen.
“By that?” He asked, still unable to see anything, but carefully feeling his way along the counter until he found the snacks he had brought with him earlier. “That was nothing.”
“Not from where I’m standing.”
“Well, you’re forgetting that I’m pretty blind,” Schneider said as he ran his fingers over the surface of a box of microwave popcorn.
Penelope was pretty sure that a blindfolded Schneider plus microwave anything was a recipe for disaster, but she couldn’t find her voice to protest--she was too fascinated. He opened the box, took out one bag, and set the rest aside with the box flap neatly closed again.
The protective plastic seemed trickier for him, but she held her tongue while he finally gripped it the right way and opened it with a satisfying pop. By the time he unfolded the bag and turned toward the microwave, she was starting to think maybe he just had secret x-ray vision.
“What does your terrible eyesight have to do with it?” she asked as he set the bag down, flaps up, measuring with his splayed fingers to find the center of the glass turntable.
He shut her microwave door and hit a button that had to be at random–he didn’t even feel for it–then turned toward the sound of her voice and smiled.
“I don’t sleep in my glasses. I don’t wear them every second of the day, and I hate contacts. So I’ve gotten pretty used to life in the dark.”
“Huh.” The dull popping coming from inside the microwave filled the silence between them, and she watched Schneider run his finger down the buttons while he waited for the cue to stop the process.
Settling on the correct button--seriously, how did he do that?--he listened to the slowing pops, and then tapped the button and turned around. “Penelope?”
He turned back toward her, leaving the popcorn in the microwave behind him. “Can I take off the blindfold now, or do you want to risk me dumping it in a bowl sight unseen? Because I’m happy to try, but if my aim is off, it won’t be a small mess.”
“Good point.” She crossed the kitchen and stepped behind him, reaching up to carefully untie the handkerchief instead of letting him do it himself. She had to stand on her toes, but it was worth it to enjoy the way he visibly tensed up once he knew she was there.
What used to be normal for them made her needy now, and though he wasn’t uncomfortable for the same reason, his reaction made her feel a little better anyway.
“Hey,” Schneider stage-whispered after Penelope had brought him his glasses and he could see again. She enjoyed the moment before that when she got to look at him without them, his wide, unfocused eyes as blue as the sky.
“What?” She whispered back.
“I don’t hear anything,” she told him with a frown.
“Exactly,” he said, letting his voice return to its usual volume. “Me neither. I think the kids hit their sugar wall earlier than I expected.”
“Maybe it was all the excitement.” Penelope smiled at him. “So, what do you want to do now?”
Schneider had the briefest thought that he acknowledged was stupid, where he wondered if maybe that was an invitation. Something about tonight made it hard to hold back the impulse to flirt, to push things a little too far, to test their dynamic.
She was just so relaxed with him like this, so open and beautiful and happy. He wanted to answer honestly, and tell her that the only real answer to that question was Kiss you, but luckily the logical part of his brain was still in charge of him and he could hold back those words.
“Movie time,” he offered instead, and Penelope looked down where he had shoved his hands into his pockets before she nodded.
“Okay. I got a new one that’s supposed to be really scary,” she told him, “and really good. Let me get my own snack ready? And I’ll join you on the couch.”
Schneider dumped his popcorn into a plastic bowl and went to wait, his nose crinkling as Penelope worked in the kitchen. “What are you doing in there?”
“Making my own movie snack, like I said.”
“You can try it if you want.” She shut the cabinet behind her and hit a button on the microwave, taking the next three minutes to clean up her kitchen from sundaes and snacks.
“How scary is the movie exactly?”
“A lot. Or so I’ve been told.”
She shot him a grin through the cutout, enjoying the way he almost looked like he might be blushing in response. “Don’t worry, Schneider. If you get too scared, you can hold my hand.”
She let him get away it with while the trailers and FBI warnings played, but eventually enough was enough.
“Stop,” Penelope hissed as the opening music began to sound.
Schneider didn’t reply, focusing on the movie as though he never heard her. His silence quickly turned into an “Ouch!” when she kicked his foot.
“Stop stealing my popcorn!! You have your own.” Penelope yanked her bowl out of reach.
“Mine was made blindfolded,” he argued. “Yours is delicious.”
“Well, I offered to share, and it’s not my fault you didn’t believe me and try it then.”
“You have to admit, Penelope, lime-sugar popcorn is a pretty hard sell.”
“I don’t have to admit anything.” Setting the food back in her lap, she lightly slapped his hand away when it snuck toward her again. “I’m the one with the bowl.”
“Oh God,” Schneider whispered a few minutes into the film. “Oh God!”
“Shh.” She ate another handful of popcorn and tried to drown him out.
“She’s just a kid, Schneider. Calm down.”
A half hour later it was Penelope reaching for his forearm without thinking about it. “Oh my god!”
“I know!” He whispered back, squeezing his eyes shut before opening them again.
“This is not what I expected the movie to be,” she admitted, letting go of the death grip she had on his arm and patting it in apology.
“Well, me neither!” Schneider opened his eyes a little and then shut them again with a shudder. “This is really scary.”
“That has to be the worst of it,” Penelope offered up hopefully. “It can’t get creepier than that, right?”
They grabbed each other at the same time when the movie hit its climax. “Their heads!!” Schneider said, squirming in his seat next to her. “I--”
“I know, me too,” Penelope admitted, shifting closer to him on the couch. “I am going to have that burned into my brain for a long time.”
“Oh god,” Schneider murmured, his eyes glued to the screen now. “Oh god oh god oh god...:”
Penelope moved over the rest of the way to shut him up, tucking herself under his arm so her hands could hold his. “It’s only a movie, calm down.”
“It’s my first sleepover!” he reminded her with a squeak in his voice. “And that was a lot of blood.”
“I think it’s almost over,” she reassured him.
By the time the closing credits rolled, Schneider’s arm was wrapped around her like he never wanted to let go, and she was still keeping a bracing hand on his knee.
“Well.” He blinked in the dark living room, and she suddenly realized how close they were...and how it would look if any of the kids had come out and seen them like this during the movie.
“Right.” She reached for the remote control to stop the movie, but didn’t get up.
“That was certainly an experience.”
“It was,” she agreed. “A…”
“Gruesome one?” He finished her thought.
“Yeah. I mean, it was a good horror movie,” Penelope admitted, “but for tonight, it was maybe a little much.”
Schneider chuckled and ran a hand over the back of his neck, where actual goosebumps refused to go away. “Maybe.”
She was about to reach for his hand again when he stood, and left the couch to turn the light on. They both heard the click of a door after that.
Elena went quietly into the bathroom, stopping by to see them on her way back to bed. “Goodnight, Mom,” she said through a yawn. “G’night, Schneider.”
“See you in the morning, Elena,” Schneider added with a smile, and Elena nodded.
Then she came back, looking slightly more awake, and whispered in Penelope’s ear before leaving again.
The grin that spread slowly across Penelope’s face in response was almost as terrifying as the movie they’d just finished watching.
“Pen?” He ventured. “What was that?”
“Oh, my daughter was just reminding me that there’s one more sleepover game we have to play. The night won’t be complete without it--and after that movie, it’s the perfect time.”
Schneider shifted on his feet. “What is it?”
“Uh.” He took a step back automatically, and Penelope smiled even wider. “Uh, that sounds kind of…”
“Scary? It’s supposed to be. But Elena was right, it’s a truly classic sleepover game. We should play it.”
Figuring nothing could be worse then what they’d already watched, Schneider offered her a small smile. “Okay. What do we do?”
“It’s pretty simple. I’ll grab what we need. Go wait for me in the bathroom, it’s got the biggest mirror,” Penelope declared.
Schneider was bewildered by that detail, but he followed her to the hall and then stood in the bathroom. When she followed him, she turned the light off and closed the door, plunging them into darkness. He froze, surrounded by black. “What’s happening?”
She was silent for a while, letting the tension build, just like the moment called for. She could sense Schneider growing more nervous as the darkness stretched between them with no sound.
“Penelope?” She felt his fingers brush her arm, seeking her out.
Penelope laid her hand on top of his so he would know she was close, before she began telling the story in a quiet voice that echoed against the tile in the bathroom.
“According to the legend, there was once a woman named Mary…”
She couldn’t remember at this point who had first told her the version of Bloody Mary that she knew, but like old commercial jingles, it was a remnant of childhood she had no reason to appreciate until now, with her hand resting on his in the small, dark space.
Listening to Schneider’s breathing hitch and speed up as she did her best to make the tragic tale of a murdered young woman as terrifying as possible, Penelope was glad it had lodged itself in the recesses of her brain.
If she played her cards right, she might even get a scream out of him, she thought with wicked satisfaction as her storytelling came to an end.
“So...is that it?” He asked hopefully when her silence filled the room again.
“Now,” she told him, moving close so that he would be able to hear her whisper, “we call for Mary to come to us.”
“What?” Slipping his fingers out from under hers, Schneider closed the distance between them, finding her with his hands.
“That’s the game.” She steadied her own breathing, hoping to avoid embarrassing herself once his hands were lightly holding onto her shoulders. Under different circumstances, this would be a perfect romantic moment. They were so close that all it would take was him leaning down, or her raising herself up on her toes...get it together, Penelope.
“We stand in front of the mirror using only this flashlight, and we say her name three times. According to the legend, saying Bloody Mary three times in front of a mirror in the dark will summon her spirit.”
“Cool, cool, cool,” Schneider said, trying to seem not at all concerned. “Sounds fun.”
Penelope flicked the switch on the flashlight, both of them blinking as it illuminated them standing face to face next to the shower. Schneider let go of her, they both turned toward the mirror and she tilted the flashlight up between them.
“A candle would’ve been better,” she told him as the steady beam of light moved in her hand. “The flickering creates atmosphere.”
“I think this is fine,” he replied, staring at her in the mirror.
He refused to look anywhere else. Not at the shadows surrounding them or the things in the bathroom that were now foreign and vaguely menacing--even his own face looked more villainous in this light. But Penelope was safe.
She was always a light in the darkness.
“Okay, so we just say her name three times?”
“Yes. We’ll take turns,” she decided, her eyes on his in the dimly lit mirror. After a slow, measured breath, she looked away to an empty part of the wall behind them, inside the mirror.
Of course nothing happened, Schneider corrected himself immediately after the thought hit his brain. What could happen? It wasn’t like he actually believed in vengeful ghosts.
But still, when it was his turn, he hesitated. Penelope nodded encouragingly, and he responded with a quiet “Bloody Mary” directed at the mirror between their heads.
“You’ve played this game before, right?” He asked before she could take her final turn. “When you used to have sleepovers, that’s how you know it?”
“Nothing--nothing ever happened, right? You never saw her.”
“Well, it was a long time ago, now.” Penelope grinned when her evasive reply resulted in an audible gulp from him. “No, I never saw her. That doesn’t mean some of us didn’t pretend we did. It’s a sleepover game, remember? Made for impressionable preteens--and apparently, sensitive 40-year olds,” she added.
“Okay. Okay. Sorry. It was just a really scary movie,” he said in a rush. “Let’s go.”
He stood a little taller beside her, pinning his gaze just above her head in the mirror. “Ready.”
“Good.” Penelope straightened up too, looking to the right of their reflections and letting a hush descend over them again.
Once things were so still she could hear Schneider’s breathing rise and fall like a distant ocean, she watched the mirror, unblinking, and said firmly, “Bloody Mary.”
As if on cue, the flashlight in her hand flickered and went out, dropping them back into darkness.
Schneider didn’t scream, but he did start to nearly hyperventilate next to her. “Penelope?” He sounded like a kid again, which was the exact point of this sleepover idea of hers. It felt like a success now.
“I’m here,” she replied, matching his whisper with her own.
“Oh, good.” He reached out, this time brushing her bare arm with his fingertips and letting them slide down until his hand found hers.
His fingers along her skin left warmth in their wake and she tried not to read too much into the fact that Schneider was holding her hand now. He must just have a fear of the dark she didn’t know about, to match his fear of spiders.
“Did you do that with the flashlight?”
“No! God, Schneider,” she replied, more harshly than she meant to. She could feel his pulse next to hers and her skin was tingling in the most ridiculous way.
“So it just...died.” Like Bloody Mary, she could imagine him mentally adding, and she held back a chuckle.
“I’m sure it was just a fluke,” she told him.
Schneider was frozen beside her, his hand hot in hers, and breathing a little shakily in the dark. She faced him without letting go. “Anyway, we played the game. No Bloody Mary. Just a flashlight malfunction.”
“Right.” He shifted toward her too, their bare feet nearly touching on the chilly bathroom floor. He made no move to leave.
Just for a second, she let herself pretend. Her kids weren’t asleep down the hall, and Schneider wasn’t somebody she had known for so long that she could never be more than a friend to him. Instead, he was a guy standing so close to her in the dark that she could practically feel him breathing, the rhythm of his heart matching hers where their palms met.
She couldn’t see him, not even in shadows. She could only feel him there, too close for her to pretend she didn’t have feelings that went way beyond being best friends.
In that moment, the one weak moment she allowed herself to have before she cleared her throat and let go, Penelope just wanted to jump him and see what happened next.
Schneider wasn’t sure exactly how they came to be holding hands in the dark bathroom, even though he was the one who had reached for her. It was a reflex, something he regretted as soon as he calmed down enough to realize he was crossing a line.
She didn’t get mad at him, though, and that was when his panic got even worse, because he and Penelope were holding hands. They were just standing there, holding hands. She wasn’t saying anything, and he couldn’t think of an explanation or an apology that wouldn’t sound super lame, and he somehow couldn’t manage to let go either...and she just kept standing there holding his hand.
He was too busy mentally freaking out to wonder why she didn’t say anything. When she let go, he breathed out his relief and was grateful that she moved away from him to turn the light back on.
Not that he was still terrified of the darkness surrounding them.
He was scared that if she hadn’t moved, he would have--and it would not have meant putting distance between them.
If not for Penelope snapping him out of the moment, he might have done something really stupid.
“I’m going to turn in,” Penelope said as they returned to the living room, her voice overly casual. “We managed to fit a lot of sleepover fun into one night.”
Tired was the last thing Schneider could claim to be, but he nodded. “Sounds good. I’ll see you in the morning?”
Penelope frowned at him, wondering why he said it like it was a question. The plan had always been for him to sleep on the couch; it’s not like it would be the first time. “Yeah,” she said after a long pause. “See you in the morning. We’ll make the kids breakfast.”
He settled on the couch and she went to her room, wondering how the night shifted so quickly from fun to awkward.
Schneider had been too close for too long, she decided as she drifted into sleep. Once he went home in the morning, everything would go back to normal.
Penelope woke up just after 2am, warm and thirsty. The last thing she wanted to do was disturb Schneider where he slept, but her dry throat was trying to turn into a coughing fit and she had no choice.
She made her way to the kitchen using the dim light from the window, and soundlessly retrieved a glass. There was nothing she could do about the noise of the water when she turned on the sink, though, and she almost dropped the glass when she heard Schneider’s quiet words float her way.
“Penelope, is that you?”
Sipping her water, she went to where he was sitting without his glasses on, looking flushed and sweaty. “Schneider? What are you doing up?”
“Had a nightmare. Well, several nightmares. Lots of headless children,” he said, squeezing his eyes shut like he could will the images away. “It wouldn’t stop, and I just…”
“You couldn’t get back to sleep?”
“No. I didn’t want to. Not after that.”
“Understandable,” she said, setting her glass down. “You want some water? Or a cookie?”
The corners of his mouth tipped up, but it wasn’t a real smile. His eyes remained haunted.
“You know,” he told her softly, “the hard part isn’t even the creepy nightmares. Everybody has nightmares, and once I’m awake I should be fine. Right?”
“I guess,” she said slowly, wondering where his train of thought was heading.
“Well, I’m not fine. I am so very far from fine.”
There was a bitter edge to his voice, one that worried her because it sounded nothing like Schneider. Not her Schneider, who was so easygoing and optimistic. Somehow she doubted this was really about a movie.
“Schneider, what’s wrong?”
“Waking up from a nightmare is like getting a phone call from Father, or finding out my ‘80s Aerobics instructor quit to move to Portland. Big or small, anything bad that happens, the first thing I think is always, ‘Wow, I really need a drink right now.’”
“Oh, Schneider.” She moved in to hug him, and he let her, but he was rigid and didn’t hug back.
“No matter what I do, Pen, for the rest of life, I will never not be an addict. And being reminded of that is worse than whatever made me remember. So no, I’m probably not going back to sleep. Not for a while, anyway.”
He ran a hand over his shadowed face and she shifted so that she was half-cuddling him, trying to offer whatever comfort she could. Schneider rested his forehead against hers and took a deep breath. Slowly in, count to seven, slowly out.
“Should you call your sponsor?” She pulled back to search his face. “Not that I’m not here for you, you know I am, but I want you to be okay.”
“I texted him. I’m okay,” he replied. “I’m just gonna...hang. Here, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t mind! You’re not going anywhere,” she declared, taking his hand and gripping it as though she could anchor him with it. “What do you want to do until you’re ready to go back to sleep?”
“Huh?” He blinked at her.
“Should we find a board game after all?” She smiled at his baffled expression. “Or maybe watch a movie, one with a happy ending?”
“Not that I don’t appreciate the gesture,” he said seriously, “but you should go back to bed. Both of us don’t need to be exhausted in the morning.”
“It is the morning,” she pointed out. “And I’m not going anywhere either, until you can look me in the eye and not be seeing your nightmares.” Or your personal demons, she added silently.
He looked like he wanted to argue, but it only took a few seconds of her staring him down for Schneider to relax back against the couch and nod. “Yeah, okay. A movie sounds good. Something funny.”
They kept the volume low so they wouldn’t wake the kids, and tried to do the same with their voices, but they talked their way through most of the first comedy that Penelope put on. Schneider picked the next movie, and she raised an eyebrow at him when his selection was Dirty Dancing.
“I don’t know,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve just always liked it. It’s fun.”
“Yeah, it is.” She grinned at him and settled in, wishing that she had the right to move over and tuck herself under his arm. If the moment they'd had in the bathroom was charged with an intense energy she didn’t want to think about too much, this one was somehow more intimate than that.
Watching a classic romance while the world slept around them, hyperaware of everything about him while he sat next to her on the couch--it felt a lot like a date.
Despite the fact that she actually liked Dirty Dancing, Penelope fell asleep halfway through it.
In her defense, it was 4:30 in the morning and she and Schneider had settled into a comfortable silence. She didn’t realize it had grown too comfortable until she woke up, her face pillowed on his shoulder while he watched the movie as though everything was normal.
“Hey,” he whispered when she turned her face to him, swimming back to consciousness. Schneider smiled, looking like himself again, and she couldn’t decide between smiling back and apologizing for sleeping on him.
When she started to sit up, he took her hand. “You don’t have to move,” he told her, his eyes returning to the screen.
“It’s nice,” Schneider said simply. There was such vulnerable sincerity in those two words that Penelope couldn’t make herself do what she knew she should.
Instead, she laid her head back down, watching the movie while his thumb began rubbing gentle circles into the back of her hand.
He still seemed alert, in that anxious way that had less to do with really being awake and everything to do with trying to avoid something. She understood that on a level so deep that it hurt, and wondered if he had trouble sleeping this way a lot--like she did. Little hints he dropped into conversation sometimes, underneath his cheerful demeanor, made her think so.
Maybe that was why it felt like the most natural thing in the world to tip her face up again, memorizing the laugh lines around his eyes and the way his lips curved in response to a joke onscreen.
With the flickering light beaming out from the television, Penelope studied Schneider like he was a map to some place she had yet to see but desperately wanted to find. When he looked back, his irises absorbed the darkness around them until they were almost violet.
“Pen?” He watched her watch him, waiting for an explanation. “You okay?”
“I don’t know,” she told him honestly, biting down on her bottom lip and seeing his gaze flick to it. “What about you?”
Schneider wasn’t sure why she was looking at him like that, but he answered her question as though it made perfect sense. “Can’t say I enjoyed the nightmares, but otherwise it’s been a pretty perfect night. I’m good.”
She smiled. “So you enjoyed your first sleepover?”
“Definitely.” Penelope was still resting against him, her big brown eyes on his, and the words just slipped out. “Especially this part.”
She let out the tiniest breath, almost like a gasp, and he couldn’t have explained why but it felt like the ground beneath them shifted. Just a little, just enough to make her hand in his more than the comforting gesture of a friend.
“You like Dirty Dancing that much, huh?” she asked, and he realized her face was even closer to his. Usually if she was only a few inches away from him, she was angry--from this distance, he had never gotten the chance before to appreciate the arch of her eyebrow or the way she had a hint of dimples even when she wasn’t smiling.
And she wasn’t smiling at all now, her eyes dropping to his mouth before she gripped his hand a little harder. He wondered if she even realized she was doing that.
“It’s-it’s a really good movie,” he managed, trying desperately to figure out what was happening. He knew what it felt like--what he would assume it was with any other woman looking at him that way, her body so close to his that he was starting to feel flushed again.
But this was Penelope.
How badly he wished it were true made him even more certain that it couldn’t be. He squeezed her hand and let go, hoping that distance would settle down the feelings that had risen up to nearly blind him.
Penelope removed her head from his shoulder, but she didn’t move back to her couch cushion. Instead she stayed pressed into his side, tilting her head as she looked at him.
“Truth or dare?”
He was about to laugh, but she wasn’t kidding. As a dance montage played in the background, he considered it. “Truth.”
“What are you thinking about in this exact moment?”
Things I can’t have.
“Dare,” he replied out loud, and Penelope nodded as though that was the answer she expected.
She took a deep breath before she gave him his dare, and then delivered it with a smile. “The last thing you wanted to do, and didn’t? Do it now.”
She couldn’t know, he thought, his heart speeding up. There was no way she knew what she was asking of him.
But it wasn’t just the last thing he wanted; it was still what he wanted. It had kind of been what he wanted for a long time now--and Penelope was still smiling at him, sharing his personal space, waiting.
If only he was better in a crisis, he would have already thought of an easy lie to tell. Anything else. A way out. Instead, his mind was completely blank, wiped clean by the scent of her, her smooth curls brushing his neck.
Penelope’s lips parted softly while she waited, and he couldn’t stop himself from staring. Her voice when she spoke again was warmer than he had ever heard it.
“Schneider...I dare you.”
He kissed her even though he knew it was a terrible idea, even though he couldn’t believe she was inviting him to.
She was softer than she looked, sweet in a way he thought he could get addicted to more easily than gambling or snow globes. Penelope kissed him back with her whole body, her hands in his hair and her chest pressed to his, moving against him like she’d been craving him for a lifetime.
It felt as though they went from tentatively exploring each others’ mouths to making out on the couch in record time, but somehow an hour passed and they were still kissing.
She was breathless when she finally pulled away, running her fingers down his neck to enjoy the ripple of muscles in his back. He arched into her hands and she grinned.
“We’re going to be so tired in the morning,” Penelope told him, biting down on a moan when his teeth found her neck. She would feel embarrassed about the intensity of her reaction to him, but honestly, she had been keeping her feelings bottled up for too long; what did she think was going to happen?
“It already is morning,” Schneider reminded her, tracing the mark he left with his tongue. Her hair would cover it as long as she wore it down, so he tried not to feel guilty, though he hadn’t intended to leave a mark at all.
Penelope almost lost her mind when he ran his hands up her stomach, his fingers on her ribcage, curving just below her breasts. God, it had been way too long since...and Schneider knew her so well it was like he had a sixth sense about what she wanted.
She only stopped herself from straddling him and upping the stakes because she never knew when a teenager might be opening a bedroom door...and because it didn’t matter how good he'd turned out be with his hands, and teeth, and tongue. It was too soon.
She sat back after a few more heated minutes, leaving his mouth pink and the sensitive skin below his right ear with a bruise of his own. “You’re right,” she said. “Look, the sun’s coming up.”
Schneider tangled his fingers with hers, watching them link and unlink. “Will the kids want breakfast soon?”
“Yeah, probably pretty soon. An hour, hour and a half.” She caught something cross his face and tugged on their joined hands. “Why?”
“Oh. I just wasn’t sure...if you still want me here. When they get up. For breakfast and all that.”
Penelope’s eyes flashed, and when she seemed like she might actually smack him, it was more comforting than her words, because it was evidence of just how much she cared. “Don’t be stupid, Schneider. Of course I want you to stay.”
The doubt in his eyes didn’t completely clear out, leaving them stormy and watchful.
“Come here,” she murmured, pulling him into a long, slow kiss. By the time they came up for air again, Schneider was too dazed to remember what he’d been worried about.
“Now, I figured pancakes,” Penelope told him. “Or maybe French toast. Something you can handle helping me with.”
“Hey,” he protested, “you make it sound like I can’t cook! I can cook. Especially breakfast.”
“Yeah, okay, Schneider. You’re a master in the kitchen. Sure.”
“I didn’t say I was amazing, but I can make some things. Breakfast’s kind of important if you want to impress overnight guests,” he pointed out.
“I guess you’re right.” She kissed him once more, this time teasing his tongue with hers until he was the one who needed to hold back from taking things too far. The sun was truly rising now, washing over them on the couch. Casting everything in a different light.
“After we tell the kids, and my mom,” Penelope said, resting her hand against his cheek, “we should go out to dinner or something.”
His whole face lit up, brighter than the golden glow spreading through the apartment. “Yeah?”
The brush of her lips over his was so light, it wasn't quite a kiss. It was more like a promise.
“Then maybe you can make me breakfast.”