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Secret Objectives

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Anyways, they’re at a party now and no one’s drowning or getting murdered and the music Ted must have picked is pounding, so she can just lose herself and this whole mess of a weekend in dancing like her life depends on it— because it kind of feels like it does. She’s getting there, a heat spreading through her that’s probably only helped by the wine she got from that weird exchange with Jimmy. Sam’s dancing too, grinding against Paul with a cup held safely over her head and the widest grin Sara’s ever seen.

Someone taps her shoulder. Sara spins to find Doug behind her, two cups in hand. He offers one to her, yelling, “I don’t know what’s in it, but Jimmy swears it’s good.”

“I don’t know if I trust him on that,” Sara laughs, and he’s smiling down at her as she takes the drink anyways.

“Hey, the chicken wasn’t that bad. I figured we’d just order pizza or something.”

She takes a sip, grimaces, takes another one. She has to stop thinking about how his smile just wants something, and Sam’s is so genuinely joyful. She has to stop thinking about how unfair it all is. “I was thinking about the thing with Trish.”

He winces, all sympathy. “Yeah, that wasn’t the best idea, huh. But he’s trying, y’know? He really wants to be part of our little group.”

Our group. That should thrill her. It kind of does, still, but it’s a weird sick thrill, closer to dread than relief. What’s wrong with her? Hot guy, right here, talking to her, acting like she’s in the club already, no question.

“Hey, you okay?” he asks. He’s right next to her ear, and suddenly her head is pounding and she’s unbearably dizzy and no longer feeling tipsy-warm but the wrong kind of drunk. He pulls the cup from her hand as it starts to tip to the side. “Whoa. Sara, come on, let’s go outside. You don’t look so good. Jimmy, man, I asked him what was in these…”

He’s guiding her out to the back deck, but as the cool air hits her suddenly all she can see is Paul’s face. Paul when he was telling her he didn’t think he could marry Sam. Paul looking pale and flushed all at once after telling Sam he loved her. Paul now, looking down at an oblivious Sam with an affection that seems tinged just a little sad.

She stops short, right on the threshold. “No. Hold on. I need to talk to Paul.”

She can hear Doug protesting as she pulls her shoulder from under his hand and slips back inside, but it’s like she’s underwater again, watching her air stream out in front of her in great torrents of bubbles and knowing she has a choice to make.

“Paul. Paul.”

She grabs his arm, shakes him, and he twists to face her with Sam still pressed against his chest. His eyebrows shoot up when he sees who it is. “Hey, Sara, what’s up?”

“Can I talk to you?”

Just like that, his expression darkens. He glances at Sam, who’s giggling softly into his shirt front with her eyes closed. “Now? Like… now now? Can it wait?”

She runs a hand through her hair. Now or never .

“No. It’s important.”

He’s not even swaying with Sam like he was a second ago. His gaze has locked with Sara’s, and it’s entirely inscrutable. Sam stirs and looks between them, brow furrowing. “What’s going on? Babe?”

And suddenly Paul is back in it, grinning fondly at his girlfriend. “Don’t worry about it, hon. Sara and I just need to talk for a second. Be right back.”

“About what?” Her eyes narrow, going a little cross-eyed. “Babe, come on, dance with me. You too, Sara! Cuddle me between your bodiesss…”

This turns into a long whine as Paul extricates himself from her arms— probably for the best, as Sara doesn’t know how she’d feel if she ended up spooning Sam with Paul on the other side right now. Paul’s trying his hardest to keep his grin going. “No, we’ll be right back, don’t even worry about it. Why don’t you go dance with Ted for a minute? Or Jimmy.”

“Ugh. Ted. I guess Jimmy could use a little attention.”

Paul chuckles halfheartedly, already looking back at Sara. “Yeah, he’s been a little weird since the vigil, huh. We’ll have a quick chat and be back before you know it.”

Sam slouches off, taking a long drink from her cup before yelling, “Jimmy! Hey, you wanna dance? C’mon, dance with me!”

Jimmy looks predictably startled when Sam calls his name and then actually grabs his hands.  She pulls him to his feet before wrapping an arm around his shoulder, dragging him away from his bar on the floor towards where Ted is doing something skeezy-looking by one of the twins. Sara thinks she’s probably the only one who could see the booze-addled flash of hurt on Sam’s face when Paul pushed her away. Well, that’s a concern for later.

She turns to face him. To her surprise, she can feel tears prickling behind her eyes, the corners of her mouth pulling down involuntarily. His wary expression shifts to genuine concern and he takes her elbow, gently leading her out of the living room and into the kitchen.

“Hey, are you okay? Is Doug pushing too hard? I can tell him to take it easy…”

Taking a heavy seat at the table, she drops her head into her hands. Her palms are blessedly cool against her burning forehead. “I— I don’t know. Give me a minute to figure out what I’m doing here.”

He laughs nervously. “That’s always the question, isn’t it. Take your time, I guess.”

Since he offered, she does, rubbing at her eyes with the heels of her palms while she tries to corral her racing thoughts. Finally, she sits up and looks at him.

He seems terrified . Of her .

“Jeez, are you okay?” she asks, and the tension snaps and he starts giggling and then she’s giggling and they’re both half-bent over the table, wheezing with misplaced laughter.

Managing to pull himself upright, Paul wipes his eyes. “Oh my God, honestly? I thought you’d decided you didn’t want to lie to Sam for me. Which I completely understand, no pressure there, I’d just prefer if you didn’t tell her right… now.”

The last of her panic bleeds away. It’s just been a weird day for everyone, that’s all. “No, no, I understand. I mean, I don’t, completely, and I don’t want you to hurt her, but I wouldn’t do that before you were ready. That’s not fair.”

Paul leans back in his chair with a groan of relief, then takes a long pull of his drink. “Okay. Thanks. I don’t want to hurt her either.”

Sara takes a sip of her drink too, then a deep breath when that doesn’t do much to steel her nerves. “Who’s the other person?”

Paul freezes.

“The one who makes you think maybe you don’t love Sam like that . The someone else.”

His drink clicks down on the table. He forms his words slowly, like he’s tasting them before speaking and they’re all a little bitter. “You know, I’m pretty sure I specifically said I didn’t have anyone else in mind.”

“Sociology major, remember? I can read between the lines.” Waving a hand at the door to the living room, she says lowly, “Look, I don’t— I really don’t care what’s up with you and Sam. I mean I do, you’re my friends, but you gotta do what’s best for you. I just have to know— how did you figure it out?”

“Figure what out?”

Sociology major or not, she cannot tell whether he’s being deliberately obtuse or if she’s completely misread the conversation. She has to step carefully. “I think… I think you like Doug.”

“Well obviously I like Doug, he’s a great guy, everybody likes him. He’s charming and athletic and, I mean, look at the man, he’s beautiful. All the girls like him, right? You like him? I’m just saying, he’s a cool—”


He looks at her and suddenly he seems so much younger than her. Just a scared kid who’s facing up to things he never thought he’d have to. Skeletons he thought would stay in his closet.

Quickly, she leans forward and covers his hand with hers. “I won’t tell. I swear, I won’t tell anyone. And I don’t care! I know that doesn’t mean much, but I really really don’t. It’s okay.”

His stare drops to the table and he lets out a shuddery breath.

“I guess you can’t give me much advice, then,” she mutters.

Slowly, his gaze comes back up to her. “Advice with what?” he says thickly.

Sara’s pulse pounds in her ears. It’s her turn to break eye contact. “I think.”

He waits for her to continue. When she doesn’t, he flips his hand over to squeeze hers. “You think?”

“I think I like Sam.”

Paul sucks in a long, slow breath. He's staring at his other hand on the table, tracing the wood grain over and over. “Based on the way this conversation has been going, I’m guessing you don’t mean just as a friend.”

Eyes burning, she also follows the path of his fingers. “No. I don’t.”

It’s silent for a painful moment— just the muffled music from the living room and the creaking of the house in the wind. Suddenly, he bursts into harsh, quiet laughter. Startled, Sara leans away, her hand slipping out of his. He raises his in a defeated gesture and lets it fall on the table with a thump, laughter fading away. “Jesus, Sara, what are we gonna do, huh? Look at the two of us. We’re a mess.”

Blinking quickly to keep the tears at bay, she turns to the kitchen window. It’s dark out, only a faint moon lighting the misty lake past the trees. Something hot and vile burns in her chest. “I don’t know,” she says quietly. “I was hoping you would. I’m the baby, I’m not supposed to have the answers.”

He shakes his head, a little desperately. “I’m twenty! I’m two years older than you. That’s nothing. I don’t know shit, except that I have no idea what I’m doing with my life. I told you, I have no interests, I don’t know what I want to do. I’ve got one more year, and then what? If I’m really— if I do break up with Sam, then what?”

“I don’t know! I’m telling you, I don’t have an answer. I haven’t even had sex with a boy, what am I gonna do about— this? And y’know, I’m thinking sociology, but what do you do with that? Tell other people about their problems? I’ve got plenty of my own! School is so crazy already, you and Sam are the only ones I know. What do I do when you leave?”

They’re talking over each other now, frantic at the opportunity to spill it all out to someone. Sara has to make a concentrated effort to slow down so she can actually hear Paul.

“I’m just saying, everyone thinks I’m at the top of my game, I have everything, I’m this perfect guy. And I try to be nice, I don’t go out of my way to be mean like some guys, like Ted— love the guy, but he’s an asshole. And I keep thinking— what if this is it? What if everyone’s right, this is my peak, this is as good as it gets and it’s all downhill from here? Because I’ll tell ya, kid, from where I’m standing, it’s not all that much.”

He collapses in his chair, rubbing his temples furiously. Reaching out to tentatively rub his back, Sara takes a quick look to make sure the door is still closed and no one heard their confessions. “Look. You’re a great guy, Paul. Life is confusing, especially in college when you’re supposed to be figuring everything out but life keeps happening and it doesn’t feel like you’re moving fast enough. But if you wanna just coast for a while, figure things out later, I think that’s okay, you know? It’s fine to take your time with it.”

“I just… it’s so public, y’know? I don’t mind being the center of attention or whatever, but it’s just constant. Me and Sam, always in full view. Everyone thinks we’re so perfect, and we get along really well so I don’t mind that much, but it feels off.” His face is twisted into something unbearably guilty. “And at the same time, what if I’m just expecting something that doesn’t exist? Some spark that’s not real. That wouldn’t be fair to her.”

After considering in silence for a moment, Sara realizes he’s looking at her anxiously, waiting for her verdict. She leans forward, a sad smile tugging at the corners of her lips. “Paul, can I give you a hug?”

He blinks, then nods. “That would be nice.”

For a long second, they just sit at the kitchen table, awkwardly holding each other but neither really wanting to be alone in their troubles again. Finally, he pats her back and pulls away. “I’m sorry, Sara, I just dumped all that on you. I should at least listen to your problems.”

She lets out a breathless laugh. “Oh, don’t worry about it. Just kind of realized I like Sam a lot more than Doug and it’s pretty much been wrecking my head since I almost drowned.”

Lifting his cap to scratch at his head, he gives her a sheepish smile. “Yeah, that’s a lot to deal with. Seeing as I’m kind of having the opposite realization re: Sam and Doug, maybe we could sort that out between ourselves, at least.”

“Well, what do you suggest?”

He opens his mouth, then closes it. Opens it, closes it again. “I don’t know.”

Snorting, she hooks her arm around the back of her chair and tips it up on two legs. “Yeah, me either.”

He gives her a frustrated wave. “No, no, hold on, let me think for a second. I don’t… I already said, I don’t want to hurt Sam. We just had a moment that I know she thinks is a big milestone— and it is, really! Or it would be, if this relationship were going where she thinks it’s going.”

“But it’s not,” she finishes. “So…”

“But what if it does?”

Groaning, Sara finds a cork on the table and tosses it at his head. “You’re not saying it, but I can tell you’re going in circles up in that skull, Paul. What’s gonna happen then? The further you get into this mess, the harder it’ll be to get out.”

“So I tell her now? And then you come in and say, it’s okay, you can date me instead?” She pulls back, eyes widening. Instantly, his face softens with regret. “Jeez. I’m sorry. That was unnecessary.”

“You’re not wrong,” she breathes. In the living room, something causes a loud cheer to go up. They both startle, her chair banging back to four legs. “Jesus. Okay. Well, maybe we don’t focus on hooking you up with Doug and me up with Sara right now.”

“Or ever.”

But what we can focus on is a way for you to let Sam down gently, when you feel like the time is right. Doesn’t have to be anytime soon, just… knowing how to keep her from feeling like it’s her fault somehow.”

He runs a hand over his face. “Okay. Okay. I can do that. I know she doesn’t look like it, but Sam’s tough and she’s smart. I think she’ll understand.”

“I know she will. But if you two can come out of this friends, all the better. You care for her even if you don’t want to marry her, right?”

“Of course! Of course I do, she’s lovely. I’ll always feel fondly towards her, whatever happens. That’s exactly why she deserves someone who can give her the kind of love she wants.”

"Right. So let's see how we can make this whole thing easier for all of us."

Outside, the wind rattles a tree branch against the window, but inside there is only the muffled lull of music and conversation, the warmth of the house, and the relief of secrets no longer being kept. The skeletons in the closet have been glimpsed, and while they are still scary, they are no longer unthinkable.

And after all, another horror lingers…