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Fresh Air

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School was over. Until Monday, at least.

For most kids, that meant freedom. A chance to escape the dull confines of class, to let their imaginations run wild. Precious memories forged with friends and family. Carefree moments of playfulness and beautifully silly nonsense. Violet, on the other hand, always felt conflicted when she heard that end of day bell. At school, she could pretend she was like everyone else.

A normal kid.


The familiar voice snapped her back to reality. Only one person would call out to her like that, with unwavering enthusiasm and genuine compassion. Feeling a premature wave of happiness, she turned around and spotted someone waving at her. A young girl, wearing an over-sized hoodie and a worn baseball cap.

Clementine Everett.

There was so much about her that Violet didn’t understand. Her number one question: Why did Clementine even bother talking to her? Most people stayed clear, warded off by her gloomy aura. Or attracted to it for all the wrong reasons. Not Clem, though. Dodging and weaving between the other kids, taking full advantage of her small stature, she darted through the crowded hallway. Violet watched her, smile widening with each step she took.

Eventually, Clementine skidded to a halt in front of her. Grinning like a dork, not caring who saw, she grabbed hold of Violet’s hands.

“Come on, let’s go!”

Glancing at their interlocked hands, Violet’s smile reached full potential. Today would be her first-time visiting Clem’s house. She was surprised by the invitation, accepting instantly – as much to her own surprise as Clementine’s. At the time, the younger girl’s face had lit up like a Christmas tree, so excited. It was pretty cute.

They left school, heading towards the Everett house. Walking along the street, hand in hand, made Violet feel nervous. Unlike anything she’d ever felt before. Not in a bad way. Clem gently swung their arms, humming to herself. When she caught Violet staring, she smiled.

On instinct, Vi smiled back. “You sure do smile a lot.”

“So do you.” Clementine’s confident statement made Violet frown. Nobody had ever told her that before. “You smile all the time when I’m with you. I like it when you do.”

That caught her completely off guard. Whenever Clementine said things like that, it made her feel ten times lighter. A hundred burdens lifted from her shoulders. Her family rarely smiled anymore. She didn’t realize how much she missed it until now.

“I… like it when you do, too.”

“Good,” Clementine squeezed her hand, “because I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to.”

They approached the front door to the Everett house. Once inside, Violet took a moment to scan the place, in awe of how big it was. For most people, this was normal. She knew that. Still… to her, it felt like a palace.

Clementine deserved a palace.

“Hey, sweet pea.”

A man she recognized from photos appeared from the lounge. Lee Everett. He crouched down, arms wide open. Clem flung her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly. Out of nowhere, Violet was hit with a pang of envy. She could vaguely remember a time when her father greeted her as warmly. Now, he either ignored her or waved her away like a nuisance. Sometimes, he’d shout at her for no reason other than him being drunk.

Pushing past the feeling of unease, Violet focused on how happy she was to know Clementine didn’t have to deal with shitty parents.

She didn’t deserve that.

“How was school?” he asked, sounding genuinely interested.

Clementine pulled back, shrugging. “It was okay, I guess. Better being home, though.”

When Lee stood up again, he noticed Violet and offered her a genuine smile. “Ah, this must be the famous Violet. Clementine talks about you all the time.”

Violet’s eyes widened, glancing at Clementine. Did she really?


He chuckled, holding up his hands – a sign of surrender. “Sorry, my dad instinct to embarrass you kicked in.”

A woman came through from a side room – what looked like an office from a brief glance – leaning against the door frame. “Are you giving our daughter a hard time, Lee?”

“Would I, my dear Carley?”

No hesitation, Carley nodded. “Yes.”

“Clem!” A young boy sprung out from nowhere, hugging Clementine’s leg tight.

“Hey, goofball.” Chuckling, she gently ruffled his hair. He grinned at her, then looked at Violet. Curious. “AJ, this is Violet. My friend.”

That made Violet’s heart swell with happiness. She didn’t have many friends. In fact, Louis had been her only real one in years. Not for lack of trying. Truth told, she found it hard connecting with people. In those rare moments she did, something always messed it up. After a while, she stopped trying.

“Friend,” AJ repeated, concentrating hard. After a few seconds, he nodded and hugged Violet’s leg too. He looked up at her, grinning like a fool. “Friend!”

Unsure what to do, Violet glanced over at Clementine. She smiled encouragingly. Clearing her throat, Vi gave him an awkward head pat. He shook his head, taking her hand and moving it through his curly locks then let go, looking at her expectantly. Following his lead, she copied what Clementine had done moments ago.

He clapped his hands. “Yes. Friend.”

“Friend,” Violet replied softly.

“Isn’t he just the cutest?” Carley asked as she rested her head against Lee’s arm.

“No competition,” he agreed.

“Hey!” Clementine crossed her arms, pouting.

“Cutest boy,” Lee backtracked. “You’re the cutest girl.”

Clem shook her head. “Nope. That’s Vi.”

“I… uh…” Violet stuttered, not knowing how to react to that.

Lee and Carley passed knowing glances at each other, silently confirmation.

“Well, I’m going to make dinner,” Carley announced. “AJ, want to help?”

“Help!” AJ exclaimed enthusiastically.

“And I’ll figure out dessert.” Lee turned to the girls. “You guys are free to do… whatever it is you two do. Try not to cause too much trouble.”

“No promises.”

Clementine shot him a mischievous smirk, then linked her arm around Vi’s and dragged her into the backyard. It was so green and bright. Not like the yellowing grass patch near her family’s trailer, overgrown weeds and broken glass. A place actually made for kids, not lost potential.

Why couldn’t she live somewhere like this too?

Wasting no time, Clementine climbed the ladder to her tree house in record time. When she reached the top, she called down. “Come on up!”

Taking a deep breath, Violet followed her up the ladder. This was her first time in a tree house. Sometimes, she snuck out to an abandoned bell tower near her home, climbing all the way to the top so she could stargaze. Somewhere quiet, away from everyone and everything. This seemed much safer, though.

The first thing she noticed when she entered the tree house were the drawings. A museum of Clementine’s childhood art pinned to wooden walls. A cardboard pirate chest sat in the corner, overflowing with dress up items. Pillows and blankets were scattered across the floor, paper and crayons stashed on a crate by the entrance.

Sinking into a mountain of comfort, Clementine patted the space beside her. Hesitant at first, Violet joined the blanket pile. After thirty seconds, she never wanted to leave. Her gaze fell on the outside world, namely Clem’s house. It was so much happier than the view from her own window. No need to feel scared or unsafe.

If only she could stay here forever…

Clementine lightly nudged her shoulder. “Hey, you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s just…” This would probably sound stupid. Violet knew it. “…your house.”

Confused, Clementine tilted her head to the side. “What about it?”

“It’s so… big. Well, sort of.” Violet shrugged. “Louis’ house is bigger, but… I dunno, his family isn’t really normal.”

“Where do you live?” Clementine’s question made Violet shift uncomfortably. “It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me.”

She would find out sooner or later, better to say it now.  

“No, it’s just… promise you won’t laugh?”

Clementine raised an eyebrow, equal parts curious and confused.

“Please?” Violet extended her pinkie, waiting for a promise. Her hand shook slightly.

Nodding, Clementine wrapped her finger around Violet’s. “Okay, I promise.”

Relaxing a fraction, Violet answered her question. “My family… lives in a trailer. Some of the kids at school made fun of me when they found out. Calling me names like trailer trash… and worse. They threw quarters at me, expecting me to crawl around on the floor to pick them up. Sometimes, they dumped my bag into a trash can, telling me that was where it belonged. Where I belonged.”

“That’s… awful.”

Telling this to anyone felt strange. She usually just suppressed it all, since nobody seemed to care. Even when she tried so hard to reach out for help. They were either too busy or too diplomatic and idealistic with their approach.

Talking never worked.

“Yeah. They did crazy stuff like that to Louis too. Just because his family’s rich. He joked along with them, but I could tell it kinda bothered him. He’s just good at hiding it behind humor. It made me angry. He was my best friend, but nobody was fighting in his corner.”

“They don’t still do it to you, do they?”

Violet shook her head. “Not anymore. One day I snapped at one of the kids who was hassling Louis and yeah, not good for the other kid. I guess they thought I was totally crazy and didn’t want to mess with that.”

She didn’t mean to hurt anyone, that was the very last thing she wanted. Everyone treated her like a bomb waiting to explode after she flipped out. She used to think that was a good thing, until the intense loneliness set it.

Expression shifting from concern to determination, Clementine took her hand. “If anyone does anything like that again, to you or Louis, tell me.”

“What’re you gonna do?”

No offense to Clementine, but she was small. Violet’s stomach dropped as she imagined Clem facing down bullies twice her size. She didn’t want her to get hurt. No way.

“I might be small, but I pack a punch.” Clementine punched her shoulder. It actually hurt a little. When Violet rubbed the spot, she smirked victoriously. “Told you.”

“So, you’re my bodyguard now, huh?”

“You bet!” Clementine made a gun with her fingers, shooting imaginary enemies. “Nobody gets near my friend.”

Violet laughed at her exaggerated movements. “You’re weird.”

“So are you.”


Perhaps she was just setting herself up for another fall, another failed friendship, but Violet wanted to take a chance on Clementine. She had been alone for way too long. Louis was a great friend, the best she could ever hope for, but she couldn’t keep relying on him for everything. It wasn’t fair.

“Wait, I have something for you.” Clementine shuffled over to the cardboard chest, digging around and muttering to herself until she found a walkie-talkie. “Here. For emergencies.”

Taking it, Violet examined the numerous peeling stickers haphazardly stuck on. It looked like Clementine had tried, and failed, to scratch something into the plastic. Squinting, she could just about make out ‘Vi’. Hers.

“I have one too.” She held up her own to demonstrate, equally sticker ridden. “Now, it doesn’t matter where we are. All you have to do is call and I’ll be there.”

Feeling her heart melt, Violet put the walkie down on the floor and hugged Clem. The moment she did, she felt dread pool in the pit of her stomach. Maybe that wasn’t the right thing to do. Maybe she should’ve asked first. Maybe- All her doubts were quelled when Clementine hugged her back.

Maybe, just maybe, she really had made a new friend.

Several Years Later

The front door to the Everett house slammed shut. Shoes were haphazardly kicked off, a jacket dumped on the floor. Finally, Clementine could relax. About time, too. Her mom said she’d take AJ down to the park after school. As much as she loved her little brother, he never let her have a moment to herself.

Before she could disappear upstairs for the day, Lee called out to her. “Clem.”


“You might want to check your tree house.”

“Why?” She walked into the kitchen to investigate, sighing deeply. “Did that raccoon get in again? I told AJ not to leave food up there…”

AJ spent a lot of time in that tree house, more than she did these days. It was his pirate ship, his super-fast sports car, his top-secret fort. He never kept it as clean, though.

“No, thank god, but you do have another visitor. One you’ll like.”

She already had a good idea who, solely based off Lee’s expression. After attaching her trusty walkie-talkie to the waistband of her pants, Clementine ventured outside. Fresh air felt so good after being stuck inside all day. Not much had changed in her backyard over the years. New flowers, a renovated stone path, a small vegetable patch. In the center stood her rickety tree house. A point of consistency. She spotted a leg dangling down from the entrance, lightly tapping against the trunk.

Coming to a stop at the bottom of the tree, Clementine looked up. “So, what brings me first mate aboard? Or maybe my fellow hunter? Perhaps my badass warrior queen?”

Violet let out a breathy laugh. “Oh my god. You're such a nerd.”

Just the sound of her voice made Clem’s heart race. She still remembered the first time she brought Violet here. A day she would never forget and always feel grateful for.

“Ah, you know me too well.” After breaking the ice, she put a hand on her hip. “Mind if I join you?”

“Clem, this is your tree house.”

“It's our tree house.” Grinning like a fool, Clementine took her walkie-talkie and held it up to her mouth. “Captain Clementine requesting access to Texas Two. Over.”

“You're not gonna let me forget that, are you?”

Once again, Clementine raised her walkie. “Please repeat, over.”

This was all an attempt to lighten the mood. Something was seriously wrong, she could tell instantly. Violet wasn’t at school today. Always a bad sign. She wondered if her girlfriend had waited here all day. That thought made her sad. Even if Vi had no intention of discussing what was wrong, Clem could help distract her from it.

Violet rolled her eyes, smiling as she grabbed her own and spoke into it. “You are just... ugh. Get your ass up here already.” When Clementine didn't respond, she sighed. “Over.”

“Copy that. Over.”

Stashing the walkie back where it belonged, she climbed up the tree house ladder. Violet didn't move, waiting for her to reach the top.


Chuckling, Clementine grabbed onto a nearby tree branch to steady herself. “Hmm, let me think... oh, I know.” She leaned in close, kissing Violet’s cheek. “How's that?”

“Nope, wrong.”

Violet pulled her up into the tree house without warning, both girls ending up in a tangled heap of limbs. They laid there, laughing as the rush of adrenaline ran its course. In between giggles, they snuck in a few kisses. When they first started dating, they were both so damn awkward. Clementine still remembered their first kiss. Violet’s priceless gay panic moment, a memory she would cherish forever.

“Aaaand now I have splinters in my ass.” Violet winced, muttering to herself. “Great.”

Clementine offered her a mischievous grin. “What ass?”

“Wow. Rude.”

Violet grabbed a nearby pillow, hitting Clem with it. She shrieked, blocking the second swing with her arm.

“Oh, come on. You know I didn’t really mean it.”

“You so did.” Violet narrowed her eyes as she threw the pillow into the corner, flopping back down on the wooden planks again. “You can’t lie for shit.”

When she was settled again, Clem laid across her. “Oh, can’t I?”

Ready with her ammo, Violet leaned back on her elbows so she could watch what happened next. “Have you ever licked a salt lick?”

Clementine hesitated, her expression perfectly capturing that of a guilt-ridden puppy. “I don’t know…”

Even now, that moment plagued her. Nobody would let it go. And it wasn’t even her fault. Duck dared her to do it. You couldn’t back down from a dare. Ever.

“I rest my case.”

Violet laid back down, staring up at the ceiling. Clementine joined her, hands resting on her stomach. Painted stars were scattered across a midnight blue sky. Faint lines joined them together, making vague shapes. A fish, knife, bird... the first few to join their mural. Unique astrological creations documented in the one place that meant the most. This tree house gave them so much, even after all these years.

“You gonna get off me anytime soon?” Violet asked.


Any excuse to be close to her, Clem would make last for as long as possible. It did them both good.

“As much as I love being crushed... I’d rather have a hug, Clem.”

Sensing there was more to this request, Clementine rolled off her, then snuggled up close and tangled their limbs. “Anything for a pretty girl.”

“Hmm, that’ll get you in trouble one day.”

“Who says it hasn’t already?” Clementine’s smile faded to something more serious. “Sooooo, wanna tell me what’s bothering you?”

If there was one thing she knew about her girlfriend, it was this: She found it almost impossible to open up without prompting. This way, she could give her the option to talk.

“I was waiting for you to ask that.” Guard dropping, Violet held onto her tighter. “I guess I do, wouldn’t be here otherwise, it’s just… difficult.”

Seeing her so dejected made Clementine’s heart ache. “Take all the time you need. I’m not going anywhere.”

“I know.” Violet smiled warmly, resting her head on Clem’s shoulder, sighing. “My dad.”

“What about him?”

“He’s, uh, leaving. My mom’s done with his shit. I don’t blame her." Her voice was soft, wavering. "You wanna know the best part? I should feel happy that he’s getting kicked out but… I guess I still remember a guy who gave a shit, you know. Before the drink.”

“That… sucks.”

Clementine didn’t know what else to say. It sounded lame as hell. She knew Violet’s home life was… unstable. That word didn't even begin to do it justice. It got to the point where she asked Lee and Carley if Violet could live with them for a while. They said yes, of course, but Vi declined the offer. Clem always wondered why and could never get a straight answer. Maybe she would feel guilty jumping ship, maybe she hoped that everything would somehow work out. Whatever the reason, Violet stayed with her family.

“Yeah, it does. I know my mom’s right, even if it hurts.”

“Being right isn’t always the best outcome.”

“No shit. She’s so damn tired all the time. Like a zombie, shuffling around aimlessly. No matter what she does, he ruins it.” Violet nuzzled into Clem’s shirt. “I’m tired of it, too. The arguing.”

All Clementine could do was be there for her now. As much as she wanted to protect her girlfriend, some things were out of her control. It made her feel helpless.

“Well, this is officially an argue free zone. Cuddles and kisses only.”

Violet shuffled closed, kissing her cheek. “God, I’m so damn lucky to have you, Clem. I thought I’d end up with some deadbeat, just like my mom. Continuing the toxic cycle, you know. You make me feel safe, loved. I mean, shit, you don’t even have to say or do anything. Just having you here is a breath of fresh air. Crazy, huh.”

"The best kind of crazy." In return, Clementine kissed her forehead. “I’d be totally lost without you.”

“No, you’d be fine. You’re smart, talented, brave… pretty. It would be impossible not to love you.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. I have plenty of enemies.”

That made Violet scoff. “Only because they’re jealous.”

“Jealous that I’ve got such a cute girlfriend, maybe.”

“Smooth, Clem.” Violet paused, vulnerability radiating from her presence. “Can we stay like this for a while?”

“Just try and stop me.”

It didn’t take long for Violet to fall asleep in her arms. With all the family drama in her life, it wasn’t surprising. Clementine stayed there, carefully wrapping them in one of the many tree house blankets. She did promise to be Vi’s bodyguard, after all. Getting comfortable, she watched over her girlfriend. It was in moments like this she was reminded of just how beautiful Violet was, both inside and out, and how damn lucky she was. One day, they could move in together. Maybe get a dog. No, a chinchilla. Violet liked them.

No more trailers, no more drunk people, no more ongoing daily arguments.

"Clem?" She wasn't sure if Vi was talking in her sleep, or barely awake. "I love you."

Either way, it didn't matter. Smiling, she affectionately rubbed their noses together. A gentle eskimo kiss. 

"And I love you back."