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The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most

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***

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
are of an imagination all compact
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V.i.7-8).

***

Amy didn’t think it possible to be a prisoner in her own home, but somehow, it’s happened. Since homecoming, she’s basically been under house arrest for fake outing herself on the local news. Her punishment has no logic whatsoever, but was she was just so tired of shouting herself hoarse and listening to her mom weeping and wailing like she’s killed someone, that she just let it happen. She didn’t even put up a fight when her phone got confiscated and she was she got frogmarched up the stairs.

Karma’s been banned from the house for the foreseeable future, which has leant everything credence and given it this weird Romeo and Juliet – Rosaline and Juliet, whatever – kind of air. Karma’s embracing it wholeheartedly, leaving her Shakespearian love notes in her locker from things they haven’t even read at school, and sneaking extra, longer kisses at any given opportunity, even when Liam isn’t in sight and there’s no real reason for them to be doing it – which is confusing enough on its own. She should be angry at her, and she was for about an hour after the dance when the reality of the situation sank in, but then she just couldn’t be, because it’s Karma and the amount of times she’s said sorry is kind of sickening. She’s weak where Karma’s concerned. She’s weaker still when she’s pounced on in the middle of a crowded hallway and all she can taste is cherry lip gloss.

At the time, all of these ‘calming measures’ as her mom calls them, didn’t feel like a bad idea, because she needed breathing space. Being without Karma right now is a lot to take, even more than usual – but now, it’s torture. Like being without oxygen or losing a limb and she’s not even being that dramatic. They can’t text each other incessantly; they can’t talk on the phone until one of them falls asleep (usually it’s Karma). Worse still, they can’t even do one of their famous simultaneous Netflix binges, because Bruce actually knows his way around a computer and blocked her internet access at her mom’s behest, and she can’t steal anyone else’s Wi-Fi either because they actually follow all that advice about password protection.

This is a totalitarian state, and if Karma had any idea how bad it really is, the whole Ashcroft clan would descend and liberate her. At the very least, they’d stage a sit-in that would force her mom’s hand because she couldn’t stand the shame or the spectacle.

Amy’s so used to Karma being by her side at all times, that it’s weird to look over to her bed now and not see her there, sprawled out flipping through a magazine or half-heartedly attempting homework, soundtracked by a playlist they’ve both been adding to since they hit middle school and music became something real and important. Without Karma, all she has is her thoughts for company, and that’s really dangerous. She gets into this depressive spiral that usually ends with her crying pathetically and giving very serious thought to how accurate Shane’s gaydar might actually be. She can’t listen to that playlist now, because every song reminds her of Karma, so she listens to the melancholy alt rock Zen sends her all the time instead, and that’s even worse.

(Sometimes, she thinks about telling Zen what’s going on, but she doesn’t even know where to start)

If she weren’t so miserable and confused, this would be funny. But it’s not, because she doesn’t want any of these feelings. She just wants them to stop and crawl back to wherever they came from (she knows where they came from, and that’s the problem). This is just a tiny taste of what her life would be like if Karma wasn’t in it and it’s horrible. She’s in no way prepared. This is what it would be like if she told Karma things hasn’t even dared to say out loud. If she’s honest – and she has to be truthful with someone, even if it’s herself – nothing has made sense since she and Karma kissed in the gym. Everything feels back to front and upside down, and any second she thinks she’s going to wake up it’ll all have been some really weird dream. On the day she wakes up like that, her first thought won’t be Karma, and her second thought won’t be how much she loathes Liam Booker with every fibre of her being for not being able to see how amazing Karma is.

Thankfully, her mom’s weeping phase has ended, but she’s not sure that stony silences around the dinner table are that much of an improvement. Silence is worse, but now she figures her mom has a valid reason to dislike her other than the fact she’s the image of her dad. Bruce is still awkward and weird around her because he’s never really been her stepfather in the real sense. They’ve never been overly affectionate, and he’s always been terrified of overstepping the mark when it comes to discipline, so he doesn’t really do anything except drive her places and give her money sometimes when she’s burned through her allowance. Lauren is currently Switzerland; not engaging in anything in front of their parents. Behind their backs, she’s been weirdly nice, letting her use the bathroom first, sharing ice cream, and not making a big deal out of the fact she’s cried herself to sleep pretty much every night for the past two weeks. On a lot of those nights, Lauren’s been the one to comfort her.

(They don’t talk about it afterwards. They don’t even talk about why she’s crying)

The way things have turned out; she thinks there would’ve been less drama if she’d got busted for shoplifting at Lakeline Mall. If she had been shoplifting, then at least she would’ve gotten something tangible out of this mess. The more she’s protested to everyone that she didn’t mean it and it was fake; the more hollow it rang. Everything’s getting lost in translation. It’s an empty, unholy alliance, and there are only two sides of this incredibly fucked up love triangle that this is working for. It can’t even be called a love triangle, because all the sides don’t meet – Karma might think the sun shines out of Liam Booker’s ass, but she certainly doesn’t – and one of those sides is hypothetical, so the line’s dotty instead of solid.

Their relationship might be fake, but the feelings she’s having are very real.

It’s too much. There are too many thoughts in her head, and it feels like she’s going to explode at any moment. It’s exhausting. If she’s not careful, the next drama will be the fallout from too many late essays or an abysmal report card because she can’t concentrate on anything at all that’s not related to Karma Tanvi Ashcroft.

She was determined to use this time for good, hoping that it would focus her mind because she can’t get distracted by Facebook or iMessage, and she’d actually write the English paper for Battleaxe Bradford that’s overdue instead of being four days into her extension on it, but she just doesn’t care about A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the existence of love right now. She’s been sitting at her desk for hours, surrounded by notes, but her copy of the play remains closed, her screen is blank and that blinking cursor thing is driving her fucking insane. Whatever, those Athenians are going to have to wait, because she has enough going on with her own love life – if it can even be called that – nevermind theirs. She can’t even blame her misfortune on mischievous fairies or a magic potion.

The only person she has to blame is herself.

When the hell did everything get so complicated? Why can’t they just call this off and go back to how they were? Why can’t it burn out like every other ridiculous scheme Karma’s ever had? Why did this one have to stick? Why did she have to grab Karma and kiss her like that in front of everyone? Why does she keep kissing Karma? Why does she want to keep doing it?

There are no easy answers and all the answers she thinks of are things she’d rather not think about.

She lets out a sigh, holding today’s note from Hamlet in her hand, written on a pink Post-It, tracing her fingertip over the shape of Karma’s rounded, neat handwriting. She has a lot in common with that melancholy Prince of Denmark, and lately, Ophelia’s descent into madness doesn’t feel nearly as foreign to her as it once did.

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

If she brings this up, or any of the other notes from The Tempest, As You Like It or Twelfth Night, Karma plays it down and pretends that she’s Googled it or stolen it from SparkNotes, but Amy knows better. Karma is smarter than a lot of people think. The books that line her bedroom walls aren’t just for show. The quotes were chosen because they mean something. They mean too much. The more she reads it, the harder it becomes to stomach, because she does doubt Karma. She’s doubting everything, because she doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not anymore. Even though Karma’s just as desperate as she is for things to stay the same, they can’t. They can’t at all.

The deeper they go into this, the more of themselves they’re losing, but it’s like Karma is trying to remind her what’s there underneath it all: the kind of bond that no one can break, not even Liam Booker.

She puffs out a breath, looking up the ceiling and blinking back the tears that she will not let fall, when there’s this horrendous crashing and banging behind her. Someone or something is getting tangled up in her window blinds, swearing as they do. Heart in her mouth, she’s terrified to move in case she’s about to unwittingly star in her very own slasher movie. Tommy is in the next room with Lauren, and OK so he’s hardly Vin Diesel, but at least he could fight someone off. That is, if she dared to get his attention, and she doesn’t, because there’s no sound coming out of her mouth. Turning around, she throws her copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream blindly in the direction of the noise, eyes screwed tight shut.

“Oww! Jesus Amy, what the fuck?!”

Her eyes snap open. It’s not what – or rather who – she was expecting at all.

Feet away, in a heap on the carpet, slightly out of breath and grasping a backpack isn’t Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees or Leatherface, it’s Karma: the least threatening and scary person on the planet. That is, unless you dare to cut in front of her in the line for anything or she happens to be holding your heart in her unsteady hands. Then, she can be just as fierce and twice as deadly as of those movie killers.

Amy’s never cut in line.

She lets out a huge breath she didn’t know she was holding. Immediately, everything feels better now that Karma’s here, but now that Karma’s here, everything is worse too. That’s it. That’s the paradox that’s swallowed her whole every day since they decided to fake it. She doesn’t mean to, but her first impulse is to laugh.

“For future reference, that is not how you respond to a romantic gesture, Raudenfeld!” Karma huffs, and that only makes it funnier. “I almost broke my neck climbing up here! It’s harder than it looks in movies.”

“Oh Karm,” she replies, shaking her head trying her best not to smile. “Take it down a notch!” she warns, because Karma only has two volumes; loud and louder, neither of which are good right now. “My mom will go nuts if she finds you here. Bruce has a gun you know,” she adds, hurriedly crossing the room to help her up.

“He’s an NRA nutjob and a Jesus freak? Why am I not surprised!” Karma scoffs, just as loud as before.

God, she’s missed her.

It’s only been a few hours since they dragged themselves through last period physics class, writing stupid notes to each other while Mr Henderson talked about atomic theory and the Coulomb barrier.

“You scared me half to death! I thought you were some psycho killer!”

“What would you have done if I was? Bore me to death?!” Karma continues, mockingly, gesturing toward the offending book and glaring at it before taking Amy’s hand.

“I’m sorry,” she says, genuinely, leading Karma to sit on her bed even though she doesn’t need the help.

She’s become so used to all the contact they share – needless kisses in lieu of hello and goodbye, holding hands and holding doors open wherever they go – that it’s become habitual enough for her to crave it. They settle, face-to-face on the bed, and her paper for Mrs Bradford is forgotten. Her world has shrunk to encompass nothing but Karma. Again.

In the dim light of her room, with Zen’s latest selections playing softly in the background – Dashboard Confessional and Jeff Buckley and R.E.M and definitely not Rihanna or Katy Perry – all she can think is that this does feel vaguely romantic, perhaps the most romantic moment of her life up until this point. She’s not sure if that’s cause for celebration or commiseration or if there’s some weird place between the two she doesn’t know about. That strange, suffocating panic settles in her chest, and suddenly she’s realises what a mess she looks in her sweats and band shirt. Karma won’t care, she’s never really cared about that stuff when it’s just the two of them, but she still feels strangely embarrassed. Karma is dressed differently to when they were at school; in a dress Amy knows to be her favourite.

She made an effort. She made an effort for her.

“You better be! Did you see Juliet smacking Romeo when he went into her bedroom?” Karma exclaims dramatically, frowning and rubbing at her temple where the book clipped it. “I don’t think so!”

“I thought you were meant to be on a date with Liam?”

She didn’t want to bring him up, but felt compelled to before Karma did. Even when he’s not here, he’s here, omnipresent, and she’s starting to hate the sound of his name, even when Karma’s not the one talking about him.

“I didn’t feel like it,” Karma shrugs. Amy swallows hard. The way Karma says it sounds a lot like ‘I missed you.’ They don’t do well with separation, enforced or otherwise, they never have. “I feel guilty. It’s my fault that you’re in this mess. I should’ve taken the rap for it, not you.”

Karma looks so sad, but that seems so small a word to convey what she sees in front of her. She’s seen that look on Karma’s face a lot lately. She’s seen it just as much when she looks at her own reflection in the mirror.

“It’s OK," she begins, looking down at her hands folded in her lap. “I mean, it’s not like she doesn’t need an excuse to hate me, is it?”

“Hey,” Karma reaches forward, tilting Amy’s head up. “She’s turned hating me into an art form! I don’t care how she treats me, but I do care how she treats you,” she continues, taking both of Amy’s hands in her own.

Now she really does feel like crying, and it almost kills her to smile instead.

“We’ll get through this OK? I know it sucks right now, and it’s like living in Guantanamo or something, but she’ll back down, Aims. She always does.”

She lets out a choked little sob, and Karma flinches at it. They’re closer now – too close, their knees are touching – and she can barely breathe.

“Until then, you have me. You’ll always have me,” Karma says, her voice suddenly low and soft as if she’s afraid Amy will break if she speaks as loud as she was before. “That offer my mom gave you doesn’t have an expiration date.”

“I know, it’s just …” she trails off, unsure how to end that sentence.

Karma ends it for her, pressing their lips together in the barest and briefest of kisses. When Karma pulls away again, neither of them knows what to say, so they say nothing and a silence opens up.

Just like always, Karma jumps in to fill it.

“You don’t deserve this. She’s such fucking bitch, I hate her!” there’s an edge to Karma’s voice now that she rarely hears. “I have no idea how she’s your mom.”

“I’m still kind of hoping they switched me at the hospital and my real one is out there somewhere looking for me,” she laughs, sniffing back tears.

Karma pulls her into a hug, squeezing tightly. “I had plans, you know,” she says, stroking Amy’s hair. “You were going to be wooed!”

“I was?” she asks, surprised, when she leans back to look at Karma again. Even before there’s an answer, her heart picks up.

“Of course you were, my sweet Rosaline!” Karma declares, smiling. “I baked,” she continues, reaching behind her for her backpack. “Or, my mom did, because you know I suck at it. I thought this jailbreak needed some contraband.”

“Oh thank God!” she exclaims, eyes wide. “I’m starving, I haven’t eaten since school and Tommy is with Lauren so she hasn’t brought me anything.”

“Gross, what a little bitch!” Karma makes a face. “And please don’t give me mental images about her and Tommy!”

“She’s not so bad,” she counters, swatting Karma playfully.

“Oh that’s it, you’re in desperate need of sugar. You saying nice things about Lauren is a sure sign of the apocalypse!”

After rifling through her bag, pulling out her pj’s and a stack of DVDs, out comes their favourite thing in the whole world: a freshly baked batch of Molly Ashcroft’s vegan chocolate brownies. By the time the box gets cracked open, Karma is grinning like an idiot and she pretty much wants to marry her. They’re totally peanut free, because Molly actually cares about keeping her alive, and she’s the only person apart from Karma or her own mom that Amy can trust to make her anything. Molly even uses separate pans and utensils so nothing can get contaminated.

“Love me!” Karma singsongs.

“Oh, I do, I do,” she overlaps, eating in a way that’s not remotely ladylike but she’s so fucking hungry she doesn’t even care. They taste amazing. Letting out a groan of appreciation that’s almost pornographic, the enormity of what she’s just said finally dawns on her and she almost chokes.

“Dork,” Karma says with a smile, before popping another piece of brownie into her mouth.

“I’m your dork though,” she corrects between mouthfuls of her own.

“You are,” Karma nods, tapping her on the nose.

Karma’s never looked at her like that before, and she doesn’t know how to feel, so they’re left just looking at each other, and it’s kind of awkward but kind of not. The fact that through everything, they can still be like this is what matters.

“Come on, lay down with me,” Karma says after a while, scooting backwards and patting the bed for her to follow. “Be my big spoon!”

She rolls her eyes, reluctant, bringing the almost half eaten box of brownies with her and setting it on the nightstand.

“Only for you,” she points, jabbing what’s left of her latest brownie in Karma’s direction for emphasis before it goes into her mouth.

As soon as she lies down, her eyes feel ridiculously heavy. She hasn’t been sleeping well since this whole faking it fiasco started, but it’s been even worse since homecoming.

“You look tired,” Karma comments when she turns to face her, brushing Amy’s cheek with the back of her hand for no real reason.

She just nods, trying to hide the shuddering breath she lets out at the contact.

It’s moments like this that truly throw her. When her grip on how she well she can read Karma and all the things she does starts to slide. With her, there’s this softness, this tenderness that she’s never seen Karma show anyone else. She doesn’t let herself contemplate what it all could mean, even if somewhere, in the back of her mind, there’s a part of her that knows exactly.

“Hey, did you see my surprise?” Karma asks suddenly.

“Huh?” she frowns, confused.

“This one,” Karma replies, turning to look up at the ceiling.

The lights go out when she claps twice and it takes a second for Amy to realise what Karma’s talking about. The ceiling looks different.

“You fucked up The Big Dipper!” Amy points.

“Fuck you!” Karma yells, shoving her. “Look again, idiot.”

So, she does, and suddenly, it all clicks into place. Karma hasn’t fucked up anything, she’s done the sweetest thing ever. Her hand flies up to her mouth, but it barely covers her gasp. Above her, wonky and disjointed is a new sky for her to marvel at, with a very particular message.

KARMA <3 AMY

“You like it?” Karma asks, nuzzling close and throwing an arm across Amy’s waist. “I did it before homecoming, I guess with all the drama, you didn’t have time to notice.”

“I, I,” she stutters, mind racing because she doesn’t know what to say and she doesn’t know what it means or whether Karma means it or it’s just a part of the ever-growing elaborate mess they’ve created for themselves.

“It’s true,” Karma says, quietly after a moment as if she can read her mind. “Fake girlfriends or not, it’ll always be true. I love you to death, you know that?”

She nods, barely able to do anything else. Karma said it. Karma said it and it sounds different to every other time they’ve said it to each other.

“When your mom’s being bitch or you want to kill Lauren and everyone in our school, look up at that and remember me.”

“Karma …” she chokes out, but Karma puts a finger to her lips to stop her talking.

“Remember that you’re special and amazing and I love you. Remember that one day we'll get the fuck out of Austin like Zen did and we’ll do whatever we want and be whoever we want.”

When Karma’s voice starts to falter and break, Amy closes her eyes, not quite believing what she’s hearing. Karma has to know something. She has to.

“And I’ll be right there with you. Always.” Karma finishes, resting her hand right over Amy’s heart.

That heart feels like it’s going to fly right out of her chest. Before she realises what she’s doing, she surges forward, pressing her lips roughly to Karma’s. It lingers longer than it should, and Karma’s kissing back, her hand resting on Amy’s cheek, thumb stroking against it absently. It takes all of Amy’s will to pull away.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Nothing about that was fake.

Her mouth opens and closes, gaping like a fish, because she’s imagined this moment, dreamt of it night after night for weeks now, and it’s never ever turned out like this. She has too many questions in her head and too few ways to say them, so she’s just reduced to a stuttering mess all over again.

Karma’s fingertips press lightly against her lips, and it makes her stop just as quickly as the last time.

“You kiss by th’ book,” Karma whispers, with a knowing smile.

Then, before she can even think of answering, Karma’s lips are on hers and they’re kissing again; slow, soft and careful, like Karma is terrified she’ll break.

Maybe she will. Maybe she already has. Maybe she’s in the process.

She doesn’t know what this means or why Karma’s doing it, but for now, in this moment, it doesn’t really matter. She just wants to kissed and held and not care about the why of it all. For once, she just lets go and gives in.

Long after they’ve stopped kissing – giddy and breathless but still hungry enough for more – and Karma’s fallen asleep, she’s still wide-awake, lying flat on her back and staring up at the ceiling.

KARMA <3 AMY

That, she can’t shake. That, she doesn’t dare doubt.

For now, it’s enough.