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Milestones

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Ellie glances up and over Simon’s shoulder, eyeing the people dancing behind him, their feet kick up a layer of dust that had probably been accumulating on the wooden floor of one of the barns’ attic for years before it was invaded by a legion – okay, probably no more than twenty – of teenagers and young adults. The upbeat music resonates in her ears, overwhelming, distracting.

“I got a pair of twos,” Jesse grumbles, throwing his cards on the overturned empty barrel they were using as a table. “What do you guys have?”

“Pair of tens,” Simon smiles, and Jesse groans. “Ellie?”

“I ain’t got shit,” she replies, throwing her cards face-down on top of Jesse’s.

Simon hoots and rakes all the chips in the middle toward his side of the barrel, humming another upbeat, albeit off-key, melody as he does. Her sad pile of chips is getting smaller with every turn, but it’s nothing compared to the massacre Jesse’s stack is suffering at the hands of Simon.

“You’re sure you’ve never played poker before?”

Simon looks up briefly as he stacks his chips into piles, dividing them up by colors. “Yeah, about that… I kind of started bluffing before the game started. I used to play Texas Hold ‘Em with my parents all the time.”

“Well that explains a lot,” Jesse grumbles. He scratches the stubble along his chin with a sigh as he leans back in his chair.

“Come on, don’t be a sore loser,” Ellie teases from across the barrel-table.

“I haven’t lost yet!”

He shuffles the deck of cards as Simon takes Ellie’s place teasing him, and she loses interest in their usual banter.

She has gotten quite close to Simon in the past weeks, once the awkwardness of their ‘date’ had faded a bit. He actually took the whole ‘you’re a great guy, but I don’t like you that way’ speech pretty well – she guesses dating Lily helped him get over the whole thing quicker. To her, Simon’s sarcasm and jokes are a welcomed addition to Jesse’s stoic behavior and Dina’s flirty one.

Ellie surveys the room. Simon, Jesse and her are huddled in one corner of the attic above one of the barns, while there are some people dancing in the middle to the music blaring from the old radio set-up on a table that also housed a pile of  dusty CDs, and some more teens and young adults were playing a game of spin the bottle in the opposite corner.

The lights hanging on the ceiling, tied to the wooden beams, give off a warm glow, just enough so they can see each other, without the illicit feel of the gathering being compromised. They’re usually stowed away in the community center, being saved for Christmas, New Year’s and other pre-approved parties, but Logan – it always seemed to be Logan that was sneaking stuff out of locked cabinets without anyone noticing – had brought them all to way to the outskirts of town without anyone noticing.

Except for the occasional moo, none of the cows under them were complaining about the temporary upstairs’ neighbours’ noisiness.

“Ellie? It’s your turn.”

She shifts her gaze back to the game and consequently to the two guys staring at her. Ellie glances at the cards in her hand for a second before making her decision. “I fold.”

She throws the cards on the flat surface of the barrel and turns back to observing the game happening all the way across the room. She counts nine young people sitting in a circle, with an empty beer bottle in the middle of the huddle that they spin. Ellie does try to keep track of who ends up kissing who but loses count when she sees Dina leaning over to give a quick peck on the lips to the guy in front of her. Good God, the girl to guy ratio is all out of whack. She sees only 3 girls sitting there, counting her friend.

“You know you can join them if you want,” Jesse calls out. “We can just call it even, play some other time.”

“Don’t try to get out of this just because I’m winning,” Simon chirps in. “She could just give you her chips and you could carry on getting your ass handed to you, you whiny loser.”

“Hey! I’m still here,” Ellie interrupts, taking a sip of whiskey from her glass. “Do I look like I enjoy people’s company enough to go over there?”

Jesse chuckles, takes the deck of cards away from Simon and shuffles it, over and over again. “I’m actually surprised you’re here at all.”

“I could say the same of you. Unless it’s at your own place, you never show up to those things.”

Jesse nods in the direction of the mess of people kissing each other in the distance. “I’m supervising party-girl over there,” he says, his eyes trained on the cards.

“You’re spending your evening getting your ass kicked at poker and watching your girlfriend kiss a shit-ton of people that are not you… yeah, you’re the weirdest boyfriend in the history of all boyfriends,” Simon teases.

Jesse turns around and punches him in the shoulder, never even looking up from the task he is busying himself with. “You’re one to talk, your girlfriend has been dancing with Logan for the better part of the night and you’re nowhere near that dance floor.”

Simon looks up, surveys the dance floor, spots his girlfriend and shrugs. “It’s Logan, can’t say I’m that worried about him. He’ll probably say something stupid and earn himself a slap in the face anytime now.”

“Alright, alright, we get it, you’re both very trusting and confident boyfriends, can we finish this game?” Ellie mockingly snaps at them, taking the cards away from Jesse to deal them.

They keep playing, until eventually Jesse runs out of chips and leaves, grumbling about running out of whiskey as well as fake currency, and it is only Simon and Ellie anymore.

Ellie has just won their last hand when he chuckles into his hand. “What?”

“Nothing.”

“Simon?”

He holds up his hands in pretend surrender. “Alright, I was just thinking we should try to set you up with someone.”

Ellie raises an eyebrow. “We in this case being…?”

“Jesse, Dina, me… the fucking whole town, if it comes down to it. We could hold like a contest and you could be the grand prize!”

“As lovely as the idea sounds,” Ellie snickers. “I’m really not interested in anyone, and besides, I like being by myself. You know, no one to supervise during undercover parties.”

Simon scrunches his eyebrows in confusion. “I don’t have to supervise any… Aw, goddammit,” he groans as he looks behind him. “Lily, at least aim for the trash can!”

Just like that, he disappears, leaving his chips and cards right there on the barrel to make sure his retching girlfriend doesn’t make too much of a mess.

“Just you and me now, Whiskey,” Ellie says, looking at her glass. “Although you’re almost gone too.”

She settles for playing with the chips, building little castles and fortifications, and resolving to leave as soon as her drink is finished. All the way across the room, the people playing spin the bottle are exclaiming sporadically while the people dancing obscure her view of the game, though she has no real desire to witness any of that.

She’s just fine with staying on the outside looking in, watching everyone from a distance. Drunk people, she found – especially drunk teenagers, in retrospect – were unpredictable, and she wasn’t a real fan of unexpected behaviour from anyone. Guess she had more than a lifetime’s worth of un-predictableness in the past eighteen months…

Ellie looks over to the people dancing, holding each other close and swaying to the rhythm of the slower song that just came on. It looks so natural for them, to be close like that, but she can’t imagine ever being okay with that kind of closeness, especially not with a bunch of people around watching her.

She’s just about to build the third watchtower in her mini version of Jackson when someone sits down in one of the empty stools beside her. “You do know that sitting by yourself building shit with poker chips is not the fastest way to make friends?”

“It isn’t? Oh my, that explains a lot.” She looks up to see Dina staring at her, leaning her elbows on the table for support. She’s obviously in a very inebriated state, barely holding herself upright. Her hair is half out of her bun, “I take it you’re done playing?”

Dina leans closer to her. Her breath smells heavily of beer, and whiskey? Maybe vodka. She isn’t quite sure. “Can I tell you a secret?” she slurs. “I’m still playing, right now.”

“How can you still be playing there when you’re sitting all the way here with…”

Dina’s lips are on hers, and Ellie is frozen in place, eyes wide open for a second before they shut of their own accord, the final word of her sentence forever lost.

Holy fucking shit.

Her mind is blank, she can’t hear anything anymore, but she feels Dina’s lips move against hers, soft and warm, and then her tongue just brushing lightly against her bottom lip. Dina is deepening the kiss, and it seems that her whole body is unable to move except for her mouth, just moving in sync with whatever Dina is doing, matching her move for move.

It takes a second for her brain to register that the alcohol she tastes is not the one she had been drinking before, but rather the lingering taste of vodka – definitely vodka, not whiskey – on Dina’s lips.

Ellie pushes her away, holding her at arms length, and only then does the sound of people hooting and cheering all the way from across the attic reach her ears. Her face burns, and she knows it must be matching Dina’s shirt by now.

“Bottle pointed at you,” Dina slurs in response to her unanswered question. She’s swaying, eyes unfocused, barely able to stand on her feet without holding on to the edge of the barrel. Ellie has seen firsthand Dina drink people under the table many, many times before, enough to know that she is absolutely hammered right now.

“Dina, just how much did you have to drink tonight?”

Dina grabs Ellie’s discarded whiskey glass and chugs it in one swift motion, not even making a face as she downs the alcohol. “Dunno. Too much, if I absolutely had to give you an answer. Hey! Wait for me before the next turn!”

Ellie steadies her as she turns around to head back to the circle of people playing Spin the Bottle. From the corner of her eye, she sees Jesse heading over and resolves to let him be the one to tell drunk-Dina that she’s had enough.

Ellie turns back to her now empty glass, stunned beyond words, as the sounds of Jesse and Dina arguing cover the music blaring from the radio. Her heart is trying to hammer its way out of her chest.

She’s painfully aware of people – from the drinking game side of the room and the dance-floor side alike – looking at her, and the arguing couple, and whispering among themselves like they weren’t in any way responsible for the events that had just transpired. Bunch of hypocrites.

She ends up leaving as soon as her legs decide to cooperate with her again.

She does her best to ignore the eyes burning holes in her back as she heads for the only exit.

On her way down the stairs, she almost trips over the box of lights Logan had brought over but ends up only knocking it over, the newspaper and flyers that were stuffed in there to prevent the bulbs from breaking spilling out. Almost broke my neck on the stupid thing.

She bends down to put them back in the box and put it away so no one trips on it like she did. Ellie is in no way as inebriated as some of the people she has just left upstairs, and she still almost tumbled her way down.

“Fucking Logan, leaving boxes lying in dark stairways,” she grumbles as she puts the crumpled up balls of paper back where they came from. She tucks the box neatly under a table where anyone coming down the stairs will surely see it if they look for it, but notices one runaway flyer that got stuck between one of the steps and the wall.

Better pick it up before one of the cows chews it tomorrow.

She does, and in the faint light seeping in from the space between the planks of wood from the attic floor, she spots the subject of the flyer.

“CBI Safety Pamphlet,” Ellie reads out, slower than she usually reads because of the shadows from people walking above her between the paper and her light source complicating the process, and her eye catches one of the subheadings. “Transmission. The two known ways to contract CBI are: breathing the spores emitted by the Cordyceps… Contact with bodily fluids of a person infected with CBI, usually by being bitten.”

Ellie’s blood runs cold. She glances down to the tattoo on her arm, to the bite concealed beneath it, and back to the pamphlet.

Contact with bodily fluids of a person infected.

Ellie’s brain plays back to scene from a few minutes before. Dina kissing her, her lips against hers… her tongue brushing against them, their kiss deepening, however brief it had been.

Usually by being bitten.

“No,” she whispers in the dark. “No…”

***

“Joel! Joel, you gotta get the fuck up, right now!”

Ellie bangs her fists on his door until he swings it open, hopping in place to pull his pants up while trying to rub the last remnants of sleep out of his eyes. “I swear to God, if this house isn’t on fire I will…”

“Can I infect other people?” Ellie interrupts him.

Joel is wide awake now. “What? Ellie, what’s going on?”

She has no idea where to begin.

I was at a secret party in the attic of one of the barns, drinking with some friends.

She’s out of breath, having sprinted all the way back to their house in the pitch-black darkness of the night. She feels dizzy too, and she highly suspects it isn’t only because of the makeshift marathon she just ran.

“Dina kissed me,” she blurts out, the words spilling out of her mouth faster than she ever thought she could speak. “We were at this party, and I was playing poker and she was over there playing Spin the Bottle and apparently it pointed at me, and she came over and she just kissed me.”

Joel stares at her, calm beyond belief compared to her uncontrollably agitated behaviour. “Okay?”

“Okay? This is all you have to say, ‘okay’?”

“Just give me a second,” he sighs and finally leaves his spot in the doorframe in favor of his rocking chair in the living room just one door down. She follows him ready to yell at him some more, though she has no idea what words would come out of her mouth.

He sits down and pinches his nose. “Okay, walk me through it. You guys kissed…”

She kissed me!

“She kissed you,” Joel corrects himself with a barely concealed sigh. “So, what?”

“This is how the infection spreads, doesn’t it? Contact with bodily fluids from an infected person. I was bitten, I scan positive for CBI even though I don’t have any symptoms… Do you think I can transmit it to other people with my saliva? Like, am I some sort of carrier or a non-batshit-crazy-non-violent future Runner?”

She’s rambling in her nervousness, rubbing the crescent shaped scar of her bite almost compulsively as she speaks. Joel sits her down on the coffee table, careful not to sit her in the middle where it bends dangerously. As a second thought, he forces her hand away from her bite, which is probably a good thing because there is a very strong chance she might scrape off her tattoo altogether if she keeps this up. “Kiddo… I recall you kissing that Dipshit Von Bucket guy, and he’s still walking around just fine.”

How he knows that is beyond her, and it is also dead last on her list of things she wants to ask Joel about. “That wasn’t the same!”

“How the hell isn’t that the same thing?” Joel groans, rubbing his temples. He lets go of her hand, and it automatically wraps around her bite again.

“Tongue!” Ellie exclaims out, ignoring the urge to hide under the cushions of the couch as she says it. “Quick peck on the lips with Simon, not the case with Dina… not the same!”

Joel leans back in his chair, shaking his head and huffing as he does. “If you had told me 30 years ago I’d be discussing kissing techniques with my 16 year-old kid, I’d have punched your face in.”

“Focus, Joel!”

“What do you expect me to tell you?” he snaps. “That you’ve Infected her? That you haven’t? I don’t know that.”

His voice softens as he finishes speaking, eyes trained on her waiting to see what her next move will be.

Elle breathes in, shakily. She’s feeling her throat start to close up, feeling the unshed tears blurring her vision and threatening to break the dam holding them in. “I want you to tell me it’s going to be fine,” she finally whispers.

Joel squeezes her knees in what she him to intend as a reassuring gesture, but it only manages to accentuate the feeling of dread filling her. “I don’t know that, Baby Girl. Whatever happens, there is nothing you can do to stop it now. We’ll just have to wait it out.”

He pulls her in, her face pressed so close against the bare skin of his shoulder that she can feel the ridges of one particularly nasty scar he has there brush her cheek. “I can’t lose someone else,” Ellie whispers again, to herself more than him. “I can’t be left behind again.”

If Joel hadn’t been listening already, he might’ve missed it.

***

She doesn’t sleep for one second that night. Instead, she tosses and turns, stares at her ceiling and the pictures and drawings that are glued there with only the soft red glow of her alarm clock’s digital display to break the absolute darkness surrounding her.

Ellie keeps seeing Dina kiss her, but when she pulls away, her mind starts playing tricks on her. She sees Dina’s eyes, bloodshot and she’s growling – delirious – her lips twisted in a snarl. At some point, she realises her brain is bringing her back to the carousel, when she had been bitten, and instead of losing one best friend to CBI she’s losing another one. It’s like watching Riley turn all over again. She hadn’t been plagued by those images in a long, long time. She could have done without them for a while longer still.

Before long, the sun has risen, its rays seeping under her curtains, and she hasn’t closed her eyes for even a second.

Joel says nothing to her as she passes him by to get to her watch shift, after a brief shower that doesn’t manage to wash away the disturbing images out of her head.

From the moment she sits down on her chair, riffle carefully placed on her knees as she surveys the surrounding area, she can swear time slows down to the point of almost standing still. Each hour that goes by feels like a day, and with every passing minute she grows more restless.

She has the evening shift on watchtower 8, so she’ll probably stop by the headquarter to check the schedule because she can never remember where she’s supposed to be at.

But an hour passes, and then two, three, four, and still no sign of Dina anywhere on the horizon. Ellie is sure she’s driving her partner nuts with how many times she glances away from the wooded area in front of them to observe the perfectly safe landscape of the settlement.

She probably switched shift with someone because she knew she was going to that party. It’s fine, there is nothing to worry about. She’s probably just sleeping in.

Still, the nervousness keeps uncontrollably growing within her.

Where the hell is she at?

Finally, she reaches the end of her shift and swaps places with Chuck, going down the ladder two steps at a time and heading home. Maybe she’ll do some axe throwing, maybe some other target practice – whatever works to keep her mind and body busy, and most importantly, away from the fact that she has seen no sign of Dina since last night.

“Hey Ellie!” She turns around, seeing Simon running toward her, still wearing the exact same clothes he had on the night before. The stupid smile on his face tells her he either spent the night at Lily’s place or found a magic lamp with a wish-granting genie trapped inside. Odds are, it is the latter. “What are you doing now?”

“Nothing much,” she answers.

“Can you take the evening shift on watchtower 7 tonight? Tommy asked me to do it, but I don’t really want to.”

“Whose watch is it?”

“Dina’s. Apparently, she was supposed to be on 8, but she traded with someone else or whatever. I wasn’t really paying attention when Jesse explained it to me. He said she came down with a fever, but that’s all I know.”

Ellie swears her heart physically skips a beat. She sees Simon’s lips keep moving – he’s still talking – but all she hears is a deafening ringing in her ears that’s drowning out everything else.

I need to see her.

She thinks she tells Simon she has something else to do tonight, but with the ringing in her ears she isn’t sure the words actually came out of her mouth at all. She doesn’t give a shit. She heads straight for Dina’s place, careful not to pick up her pace until she is out of view as to not arouse anymore suspicion.

Between the ringing in her ears and her heart trying to beat its way out of her chest, she feels there is a definite possibility that she might explode of stress before she reaches her destination.

I should have seen her coming, she never should have been able to reach me.

She picks up the pace once more, jogging now.

That’s what you get for letting people get close to you.

She’s running now. Only two street corners to go.

Riley, Tess, Sam, Henry… Now Dina too…

She’s running so fast she can’t even see the houses flying by beside her, only focused on the tiny one with the blue door, windows and fence.

She trips on the last step in front of Dina’s house and consequently crashes through the already shaky front door. She tumbles to the ground, unable to stop herself before the impact, rolling on herself upon crash-landing but still managing to smash her forehead against the wall.

“Good God, Ellie!”

She looks up – the way Dina’s house is configured, she landed smack in the middle of her living room, right at the feet of the pasty white – bordering on green, if she was honest – young woman sitting on her couch with a grey plastic bucket balanced on her lap. She’s wrapped in her warmest blanket, the one her grandmother had sewn her when she was a little kid, and her eyes are looking at her in tired, but overall unimpressed, surprise.

“Do I even want to know?” Dina asks, examining the remains of the door over the edge of her bucket. Looking back at it, Ellie sees that only one of the tree hinges holding the door up is still intact, the other having ripped off the wall when she burst through it.

Ellie scrambles to her feet as fast as she can while still seeing stars from her unexpected headfirst collision with the wall, looking at Dina, examining her, looking for any sign of her turning. She sees none.

“Ellie, what’s going on?”

She’s counting in her head. It had been around midnight when Dina had kissed her, it was now the end of the afternoon, roughly just before five if she had to guess.

17 hours. It had taken way less time than that for Riley to start showing signs being infected.

Doesn’t mean shit. Riley was bitten, Dina… well, I don’t know what’s going on there.  

“What’s going on with you?” Ellie asks her, disregarding her friend’s previous question.

Dina puts her bucket aside by her feet. “Clearly, I just came back from my mid-afternoon two-hour run in the mountains,” she retorts, her usual sarcastic self. “Was it not obvious?”

“I’m serious, Dina… how are you feeling?”

“Like shit. Ellie, you’re kind of scary me. Are you okay?”

I’ve spent the past 17 hours convincing myself I have just signed my friend’s death warrant, so yeah, I’m just… peachy.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” Dina looks at her, obviously not buying it. She lets it go nonetheless.

Ellie pushes the door back where it used to be – it closes okay, if you don’t mind the gap between the side of the door and the wall, but as soon as someone opens it again it will surely fall sideways. She’ll have to fix that, sometime.

“What are you doing here, Ellie?” Dina asks, pulling her blanket closer to her body. She’s shivering, Ellie notices, and whatever feeling of dread she had managed to ditch at the door comes rushing back to her.

“I, ehm, I, I wanted to… check up on you!” Ellie cringes at the way her voice gets squeakier over the last part. Lying is so not in your skill set.

Dina groans, leaning her head back against the back cushion of the couch. “I told Jesse not to tell people about this!” She opens one eye to stare at Ellie, still keeping her head in a horizontal position. “How many people did he tell?” 

“Just me.”

What is up with the lying today, Williams? And what the hell wasn’t Jesse supposed to tell?

Ellie sits on the armrest, keeping her eyes trained on Dina’s pale face. “Well, shit,” the older exhales. “Seeing as it’s out of the bag now… How bad was I really?”

“What?”

“At that party last night!” Dina clarifies. “You were there, weren’t you? On a scale of one to ten, how embarrassed should I be?”

Ellie’s eyes widen. “Did you just ask me if I was there? Dina, how much do you remember?”

She shrugs. “Drinking, dancing, drinking some more… I remember sitting down to play truth or dare, and then the rest of my night is either fuzzy or blurry, one or the other.”

No way she doesn’t remember kissing me. Can she?

“You weren’t playing truth or dare, you were playing spin the bottle!”

“What do you know, Jesse was right. Man, I’m such an asshole. He said I made fucking scene, and we actually had a fight about it right this morning.”

“I hate to side with him, but you also kissed like half the people there.”

“Great. Anyone important?”

Dina’s last two words echo in her head, like some kind of sick song, and she can almost picture them bouncing off the inside of her skull. The answer to her friend’s question, however, is nowhere to be found in that stupid brain of hers. What the hell am I supposed to say? ‘Anyone important’… did she mean someone in particular? Am I important?

“No, no one you’d care about,” is the response that escapes her lips.

Dina shivers and straightens up, untangling herself from the cocoon of blankets that she had wrapped around her body. “Pass me my bucket, I’m going to hurl.”

Ellie executes herself as fast as her body will allow. She tries her best to ignore the sounds of Dina vomiting in the container and sticks to rubbing circles on her back with shaking a shaking hand that her friend doesn’t notice and holding back the frizzy curls of her wild mane of unbrushed hair. No, no one you’d care about… Anyone important? No one you’d care about. She can’t decide if she’s happy the other girl doesn’t remember kissing her, or if she’s disappointed. Does she remember at all?

Dina finally leans back into the cushions, handing Ellie her bucket which she holds at a good arm length and puts on the ground with a wrinkled nose. “Gross.”

“Shut up, you’re gross,” Dina retorts, pulling the runaway strands of hair behind her ears. She’s an impressive shade of pale green, not quite green but still kind of white. Green-ish, if she had to say.

Other than that, Ellie sees no signs of infection in her. No incoherence, no feverish delusions, no confusion, no aggressivity, nothing.

17 hours. 17 hours after first being bitten, Riley was already starting to lose her fucking mind, but Dina is here, all here, albeit nursing one hell of a nasty hangover.

“Hey, did Jesse happen to mention who you kissed?”

Dina leans her head down on the armrest and stretches her legs over the rest of the couch, resting them over Ellie’s. In doing so, she sneaks them under Ellie’s right arm, and leaves the younger girl no choice but to set her forearm down on Dina’s thigh. She hopes her friend doesn’t notice the hesitant motion of her hand, or the slight tremor of her fingers as they rest against her leg.

She doesn’t want to be, but she’s afraid. Irrationally afraid, scared half-to-death that the mere act of being next to her for an extend period of time or breathing the same air will infect Dina.

If she had to turn, she would have started to show signs by now. You probably can’t infect anyone, you just test positive for CBI. She’ll be fine. She’s fine.

No amount of convincing on her part manages to put her panicking mind at rest.

“No,” Dina answers, interrupting Ellie’s interior debate with herself. “Do you know?”

Ellie carefully considers her answer. “Nah. Just curious, that’s all.”

Dina nods. After a moment of tense silence during which Ellie keeps a watchful eye on Dina’s every move, the older girl drapes part of her blanket over Ellie.

“Come over here and warm me up, I’m freezing.” Before she can object, Dina has crawled in the space between her arms, curling up against Ellie’s body like a cat in search of a warm shelter. “Quit squirming away, Freckles, if you hadn’t ruined my door I would be fine with just my blanket, but now I’m down one door and still frozen solid.”

With that, Dina grabs hold of Ellie’s wrist and wraps her arm around her own shoulders. Ellie hopes to whatever god there might be, if there even is one left in this batshit-crazy world, that she doesn’t feel her hand shake against her shoulder blade where it rests.

“I can fix your door,” Ellie stammers, very aware of Dina’s body pressed flush against her side and of her own heart beating alarmingly too fast for someone sitting down on a couch. She feels Dina’s breath against her neck, and her head is throbbing. Probably from her headfirst collision with the wall from earlier.

“You better fix my door,” she jokingly threatens as she playfully pokes Ellie’s ribs. “But not now. Right now, you’re my human heater.”

As much as Ellie is afraid of staying near her, she’s even more terrified to leave – petrified at the idea of Dina starting to turn, physically feeling the aching need deep within her to make sure she would continue to be okay – so she stays put, huddled on one side of the couch, frozen in place, with Dina occupying all the remaining space on the cushioned piece of furniture.

Outside, night is falling slowly – it is almost the middle of November now, and the bitter cold is making its presence known rather harshly. The wind is seeping in from the space between the side of the door and the wall where Ellie tore it off its hinges, and before soon, she uses her free arm to bring her side of the blanket up to her chin and sink deeper into the cushion where it is warmer.

“It’s cold as shit.”

“Well, it was warmer when there wasn’t a hole in my wall.”

Ellie looks over at Dina, who has her eyes closed. “Sorry, again.”

“Let’s move this to my room, okay, Freckles?”

She thinks her heart stutters as much as her voice does on her next words. “Wha… what?”

Dina finally opens one eye, playful despite obviously not feeling well. “It’s out of the air current, dummy.”

“Oh.”

Dina glances down ever so briefly, and Ellie feels her fingers press against her ribcage, on her side, “Your heart is beating awfully fast.”

I can’t help it.

“It’s always been a little on the faster side. Don’t worry about it.” 

It isn’t the most satisfying explanation, but Dina doesn’t push it further, mostly because she grabs her bucket in panic just in time to avoid throwing up all over them, the couch and the blanket.

Ellie is almost thankful.

***

Later that night, when Dina has gone back to bed and promptly fallen asleep right when her head hit the pillow, Ellie went to work on the broken door. Busying herself with a physical task also meant harnessing the wild string of horrible scenarios running loose in her head since the night before. She could almost pretend she didn’t notice the fever Dina was running, or the throwing up, or the dizziness.

She’s just hungover.

22 hours now, and other than the fever and the vomiting, nothing was different.

It might just be a regular old virus, like Jesse had last week.

23 hours, and now the door was fixed, she had no more reason to stay, but still, she couldn’t find it in her to go home.

Do pregnant women tend to run fevers a lot? I know they throw up a fair deal… Jesus, I’ve never wished that bad for anyone to be pregnant, ever.

24 hours.

I’m losing it. I’m losing it. I’m losing it.

Hours keep on going by, one after the other, like they always have. Her going stir-crazy doesn’t change any of that. Every few minutes, she pushes the door to Dina’s bedroom just enough so the light from the living room creates the tiniest ray of light, bright enough for Ellie to see that she’s still sleeping – soundly, peacefully, lightly snoring under the covers – but not bright enough to rouse her from her slumber.

Every time Ellie closes her own eyes, curled up on Dina’s couch, she sees her friend kissing her again, and downing her whiskey – which had also come in contact with her saliva, come to think of it – and it’s impossible to get to sleep when she’s that worried.

30 hours.

She makes eggs for breakfast, and Dina eats with an unprecedented appetite – “I haven’t eaten since the party, give your girl a break”. She’s still a little pale, except for her cheeks, which are a deep crimson color, and her forehead is clammy and hot to the touch. She’s still feverish.

36 hours.

If Dina wonders why she is sticking around for so long, she doesn’t say it. Instead she keeps chatting non-stop like they haven’t seen each other non-stop since the day before. At one point she asks Dina if she can take a shower, hoping it’ll calm her nerves. It doesn’t, and she just stands under the cold stream of water shivering until she can’t hide in there any longer before it becomes suspicious – she has no doubts Dina is going to pound on the door if she suspects her of using up all her hot water again. Do you want me to turn into an ice cube next time I shower?

Ellie doesn’t use any hot water. It certainly isn’t her first cold shower, or even her last, she assumes.

48 hours. It’s probably just the flu.

She goes home.

“You’re sure you’re okay, Freckles?”

She takes another look at Dina, back to her usual skin color and chirpy personality. “Yeah,” she mumbles. “I’m okay.”

72 hours. 96 hours. 120 hours. A week. Two weeks. A month.

She keeps a watchful eye on her the whole time, but still, Dina doesn’t turn, and Ellie can’t be thankful enough for this.