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The Natural Sequel

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BEGINNING OF PART ONE

 

*

 

It was simple enough, really. Volunteering at Orientation counted as service hours. Service hours were necessary for graduation. Graduation was only a year away. And then after graduation?

After. Well. God knew, and Annie didn’t, so what was the point in worrying about it? Annie pushed the thought away and doodled more leaves around the CLASS OF 2009 emblazoned on the front of her planner. 

Anyways, it wasn’t like volunteering was hard. Annie had been sitting at the registration table all morning, and after the initial influx of awed-looking freshmen and their harried parents, she hadn’t had to talk to anyone. It was almost 11am, and the new students would be done with the school tour soon. Orientation would end, and Annie would take her mom’s car to pick up Mary from the pool, and maybe they’d watch a movie or walk from their house across the flat top of Queen Anne hill to the library on 4th Ave. Annie could see blue sky through the office window. The morning clouds had burned off. Annie hummed to herself and decided definitively that a walk would be necessary. Summer in Seattle was too precious a thing to waste.

Annie was thinking about all this and diligently shading in another leaf when Mrs. Edwards, the third Assistant Principal, walked into the office, a girl wearing sunglasses trailing behind him.  

“Oh good, Annie, you’re still here,” Mrs. Edwards said.

“Here until noon!” Annie said cheerfully. The girl behind Mrs. Edwards looked a bit tall to be a freshman. 

“Wonderful. This is Freida; she’s just moved here from California. Freida, hold tight, I’m going to print off your schedule,” said Mrs. Edwards, distractedly, over her shoulder, going through the inner door to the hallway where all the admin offices were. 

“Hey,” said the girl, somewhat laconically. She took off her sunglasses, hooked them into the collar of her shirt, and shoved her hands into the pockets of her jean jacket.

“Hey. Uh, welcome!” 

“Thanks.” 

Annie could hear the noise of a printer echo down the hallway. 

“I’m Annie,” she offered. 

The girl grinned. “I’m Freida. Nice drawing.”

“Oh, gosh, thank you.” Annie suddenly felt self-conscious and put her pen down on the table. “I, uh, like your hair.” 

Freida’s grin turned into a wry grimace. She pushed a hand through her curly black hair. “It’s total bedhead, I forgot to set my alarm for this morning, I didn’t even have time to shower.” She shook her head. “I woke up like thirty minutes ago.” 

Mrs. Edwards came back into the office. She handed Freida a sheaf of papers, a school handbook, and a planner. 

“Here you are, Miss Wentworth. Welcome to SCS.” She turned to Annie. “Annie, would you be up to showing Freida where her classes are? I have a few more things to print off. You can just take off afterwards, it’ll be close enough to noon by then.” 

“Sure, I can do that,” said Annie. She grabbed her purse and her jacket. 

“Thank you so much, Annie. Did somebody sign off for your hours?”

Annie nodded. “Mr. Radcliffe did this morning.” 

“Good. Freida, if you have any questions after the tour, you can come back to the office. Ring the bell if no one is behind the desk.” 

“Copy that. Thanks,” said Freida. 

They left the office, strolled through the Student Activity Center, and their tour began in earnest in the 100’s hallway. 

By the time they got to the hallway with the 400’s classrooms, Annie was aware that Freida was looking at her and smiling faintly more than looking around at the hallowed halls of her new high school. She had a nice smile. It crinkled her eyes.

Annie paused for just a moment before asking, “Is there… something on my face?” 

Freida winced and said, “Sorry, I’m just spacing out. I stayed up super late last night watching a movie and I didn’t have time for coffee this morning.” 

“Oh!” said Annie. “We can go slower, sorry.”

“No, it’s cool, I swear.” 

“Okay. Um, let’s see, your English class is here at 412. Mrs. Bronson is supposed to be really nice, a bunch of my friends who just graduated had her last year.” 

They had walked into the 500’s, steering clear of one of the many groups of freshmen, before Annie ventured, “What did you stay up watching?” 

“This is so nerdy, but … this British miniseries about sailors in the 1800’s?” 

Annie stopped walking. “Oh my gosh, was it Hornblower? I love Hornblower!” 

“You’ve seen it? It’s so good, right? I read some of the books over the summer and now I’m trying to finish a rewatch of the whole thing before school starts next week.”

Annie’s eyes went wide. “That’s so cool! Do you have them on DVD? How many have you watched? Don’t you just feel so sad at the end of the sixth one, with what’s-his-name dying? Oh,” she said, as they passed a final row of lockers and slowed in front of a door at the end of the hall, “this is where your physics class is going to be. 523.” 

“Archie Kennedy breaks my heart. It’s like a Shakespearian tragedy, isn’t it? Duty and honor versus corruption! Sacrifice in the face of death! Your character becomes your fate!” 

Freida was flushed with enthusiasm.

“Yes! That’s exactly how it feels! Did you move here in time to see any Shakespeare In The Park this summer?” Annie asked. 

“Hey! You have that here? I saw an incredible staging of Hamlet in New York this summer in Central Park.” 

“Wait, is that where you’re from?” 

“No, my dad is in the Navy so, like, everywhere. That’s why we’re here. We were in Sacramento for the last couple of years. But my aunt and uncle live in New York and I spend a couple weeks with them every summer.”

“That’s so cool,” said Annie fervently. “My entire family just lives here. It’s, like, my dream to go see Wicked on Broadway someday.” 

“I saw that last year! It’s amazing.” A pause. “You were born here?”

“Yeah, I’ve never really been anywhere yet. Everyone I know is here. It’s boring, I know.”

“That’s cool though,” said Freida, leaning her shoulder against the row of lockers. “I’m kind of tired of moving around so much. Leaving all my friends every few years kind of sucks, you know?” 

Oh. Annie had a flash of empathy. “That sounds awful.” I’ll be your friend, Annie thought, looking up and meeting Freida’s eyes. If you want. Until you find someone cooler.

Another group of freshmen filed past them in the hallway, and Annie remembered why they were there. 

“Oh gosh,” she said, “Let’s keep going.”

Freida stuck her hands back in her jacket pockets as they walked. 

“So, Shakespeare. You have a favorite play?” Freida asked. 

“Oh, yes! Twelfth Night. I’m a sucker for, like, unrequited love. But I saw a cool version of Taming of The Shrew at Shakespeare In The Park two summers ago, so that’s my runner up. It was set in a trailer park, and it was hysterical.”

“Cool! Are the productions good here?”

“It’s always great. They did such a cool Macbeth this year, it made me think about the play in a whole different way. There was a whole thing at the beginning about Lady Macbeth losing a baby, and it threw her whole character into such a different light.” 

Annie glanced at Freida to make sure she wasn’t boring her, but Freida was looking at her, face open, nodding. Gosh, she was pretty. 

“You know,” Annie went on, “I’ve never seen them do Hamlet, but I know I’ll have to read it for English this year, and I just saw a DVD version of the Kenneth Branagh version at the library––”

“––oh my god, I’ve never seen that, do you want to watch it sometime?” Freida answered her unstated question. “Like, I mean, do you have any hot Friday night plans?” 

“Hotter than a four-hour Shakespeare adaptation? Heck no!” 

By the end of the hour, they’d exchanged phone numbers, email addresses, and had set a time to meet on Friday to watch the movie. 

En route to get Mary from the pool, Annie remembered belatedly that she hadn’t asked Freida about the all-important question of church. Well, they’d have time for that. Maybe she could bring Freida to youth group, if Freida didn’t have a church. Or whatever. Aleathia would like Freida, Annie thought. Everyone would like her, she thought. Freida was cool.

Annie found herself smiling without thinking about it. Someone honked at her for lingering too long at a green light, and she jumped in her seat, and kept driving.

Chapter Text

Ellen Russell cleared her throat. “Okay, ladies! I call this small group meeting to order! Let’s get started with POWs, WOWs, and HOWs! We haven’t done these in a while, so remember, a POW is something that was rough this week, a WOW is a high point, and HOW is God working in your life. Who wants to go first?” 

The six high school girls all shifted their eyes toward each other, away, at their hands, up to the ceiling. Aleathia elbowed Annie, and Annie nudged her back, stifling a giggle. 

“Annie?” asked Ellen, smiling. “How about you?”

Annie shrugged. “Um. My POW is that I’m super stressed about school right now. My English class is really kicking my butt.” She sighed, “It’s so much reading, and I don’t like any of the books. My WOW … I talked last week about my friend Freida? She and my other friends at SCS are like, the only thing making school bearable. I’m going to see if she wants to come to youth group sometime, so you all can meet her. And my HOW. How has God been working in my life … well, it’s been easier this week to wake up early and read my Bible and pray before school every morning.” 

Ellen asked, “What are you reading right now?” 

“Oh, I’m just going through Psalms again right now.”

“Nice!” said Ellen. 

As the other girls around the circle talked about their weeks, Annie doodled in her notebook, just to keep her hands moving. 

~ Passion and Purity, Chapter One ~ she embellished. 

Ellen remarked, after everyone had finished, “It’s really exciting to be starting a new book, isn’t it? This is one of my favorites. When I was younger, one of my mentors gave me this book, and it’s stuck with me ever since. What did you guys notice about the introduction & first chapter ?” 

“She’s a really good writer,” said Megan. “All of her sentences are so crisp and clear.” Megan wrote too, and was working on a fantasy novel. She’d shown Annie a draft of the first few chapters and it was good

Sometimes Annie thought about her talented, beautiful friends and her heart swelled. They were going to take over the world and make it so much better . Sometimes, too, she thought about all of them and then wondered what the heck she was going to do in the absence of any actual talent or creativity. She envied Megan, who was bone-deep-sure about writing. Or Aleathia, who was already signed up for Bible college next year, and talked excitedly about overseas missions work and joining the ministry. Annie mentally shook herself. She’d serve God, of course, and he’d show her what to do. She just had to wait on him. 

“I think it’s a really interesting idea at the end of the chapter when she says that life without purity is boring. That’s not something I’d thought about before,” said Willa. 

“I feel like literally every movie in the world shows sex as, like, literally the most exciting thing?” said Ashley L. 

Ashley S., next to her, nodded in agreement. “Also, like, virginity is totally made fun of,” she said, pulling a face. 

“Ugh, I saw that movie and it was totally gross, I hated it,” said Aleathia. 

“What movie?” asked Annie. 

“The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, it was so stupid,” said Aleathia. 

“Blech,” exhaled Megan. 

“So, Willa, did you agree with idea that life without purity is boring?” interjected Ellen. 

Willa nodded. “I can totally see her point. Why waste all the good stuff with your husband before marriage, and like, knowing that you are committed?” 

Danielle, the only one of them who actually had a boyfriend, spoke up. “Okay, just to play a little bit of a devil’s advocate here, I’m not pushing for, like, premarital sex, but it seems like she’s anti even kissing, and that seems a little harsh. Don’t you have to make sure you’re a little bit compatible before you get married?” 

Someone likes making out with Chris!” sang out Aleathia. 

Danielle rolled her eyes, blushing. “I’m just saying. I’d never want to be one of those people who didn’t even kiss their husband before getting married.” She lowered her voice to a hush. “What if you didn’t even like it?” 

“Elizabeth has talked about waiting to kiss someone,” offered Annie, remembering a conversation with her older sister. “But she’s also never officially gone out with anybody.” 

No, Annie's older sister Elizabeth had been “hanging out” with boys for years, but without dating any of them. Annie didn’t get it. Being the only girl in a circle of boys was, like, her nightmare. This was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the differences between her and Elizabeth, though. Annie sighed and wrested her attention back to the discussion around her.

“I don’t think the book is strictly against kissing,” said Ellen gently. “She talks about kissing Jim before marriage, later in the book. But that’s in the context of both of them being on the exact same page about purity and saving their virginity until marriage. What I’d like to know from you guys is what you think about the idea of bringing your love lives to God? What does that mean to you?” 

“Don’t you mean, like, the lack of a love life?” cracked Megan. 

The girls laughed. 

“Actually, yes!” said Ellen. “Bringing our longings, our desires, our dreams. Submitting that to Jesus. What does that look like to all of you?” 

There was a lull in the conversation as the girls each digested this question. 

Annie was at a loss. She would definitely get married someday and probably have some kids. She liked kids. And she liked going to weddings. The pomp of it all, the ceremony. Pledging your troth before God and the world. Getting to force your musical preferences on everyone you knew. Eating cake. Dancing. The groom didn’t really factor into her thoughts –– a shadowy dim figure that God would reveal, like the remainder of her life, as she moved into the future. 

After a minute, Ellen said, “For example, when I was single, my pastor told me to pray for my future husband, even though I didn’t know who he might be. So, I prayed that he would be growing in his faith, developing into a man of God, and resisting temptation from the world. That helped me, even when I was lonely, to remember that God had each of us in his Hand.” 

“When you met Brian, did you know he was the one?” Ashley L. asked, fascinated.

“No! I thought he was cute, but a little annoying, actually,” laughed Ellen. “It took some getting to know him before God started revealing to each of us that we were meant to be together.” 

“How did you know?” asked Aleathia. 

Ellen’s look turned fond. “We were in Bible College, down in California, and he preached a sermon in chapel for a class. It was a good sermon! It made me take him more seriously. And then … we started hanging out in the same group of friends, and became really close, and it just kind of happened.” 

“Oh my gosh, cute ,” said Ashley S. 

“Praying for your future husband. That’s a good idea,” said Ashley L. “I might start doing that.” 

“Yeah, me too,” said Willa, tilting her head to one side. “I do … get kind of lonely. Especially if I have a crush on somebody and I know they don’t like me back.” 

“Crushes are the worst ,” said Megan, fervently. 

“I haven’t really had a crush on anyone in a while,” said Annie. “It’s kind of nice.” 

“You are so lucky,” said Megan. “Crushes are literally torture. All these stupid feelings for stupid boys, who are so stupid, especially in high school.” 

“Bring it to Jesus,” said Ellen, smiling at Megan. 

Megan laughed. “You’re right, I should.” 

“What about when you like a guy who maybe isn’t a Christian?” said Ashley L., trying and failing to look like the question was casual. 

“Well, you know what the Bible says about being unequally yoked,” said Ellen. “That definitely applies to dating, too. I’ve seen some ‘missionary dating’ situations that turned out … very poorly. It’s hard to stay strong in your faith in a relationship that isn’t founded on Christ.” 

Ashley L. grimaced. 

“I think I read that Christian romance novel ,” said Megan. “Don’t worry, he converts at the end, after like ten years and three kids.” 

The group laughed, and Ellen said, “We’re almost out of time, gals. Let’s pray. Why don’t we go around the circle and each pray for the person on our left?” 

Annie happened to be on Ellen’s left, and she felt warmth spread through her as Ellen prayed for her. Ellen was the best. 

Afterwards, Annie texted her mom for a pickup. Her face fell. 

Most of the girls were gone by this time, except Aleathia and Megan.

“Annie? What’s up, do you need a ride?” asked Aleathia. 

“Yeah, sorry, can you, Ally?” said Annie. “My mom just said that she totally forgot and is way up in like, Edmonds, right now.” Annie said the name of the sleepy suburb thirty minutes north with a sigh. 

“What about your dad?” asked Megan. 

“No chance. He actually turns off his phone when he’s at men’s group,” Annie said, rolling her eyes. 

“Aleathia, you live in Bellevue, right? I’ll be much closer to Queen Anne, since I’m taking Megan to Ballard already.” said Ellen. 

“Oh, sure!” said Aleathia. “Yeah, I mean, I never mind giving you a ride, An, but it would save me like 30 minutes and I still have some homework to do tonight.”

They trooped out into the cold night. Aleathia hugged them all goodbye. In short order, Ellen had dropped Megan off at her parent’s house in Ballard, and they were crossing the Ballard bridge. It was misty, the street lights turning the fog pearly and silver. Annie could barely see the boats docked up in Salmon Bay. Magnolia hill rose over them to the right, Queen Anne hill to the left, rows of golden house lights shining through the night. She loved Seattle so much it hurt, sometimes. 

“Are you enjoying the book?” Ellen asked. 

“Oh yes, so far, so good!” said Annie, turning back from the window. “Megan was right, her writing is really good.”

“I thought you would like it. I know you love a good book.” 

“I honestly think I could live my life just reading books and playing piano,” confessed Annie. 

“Don’t we all?” laughed Ellen. “Have you thought about what you might do after you graduate?” 

Annie sighed. She kept putting it off. “Not really? I know Elizabeth is really liking Bible college, so I might give that a try. I’m praying about it, but I don’t really feel like I’m hearing from the Lord.” 

Ellen nodded. Off the bridge, she turned onto the street that wound its way up the back of Queen Anne Hill. 

“I’ll keep you in my prayers. Remember, you don’t have to have everything figured out all at once. Sometimes God only shows us a little of the path at a time.” 

“You’re right,” said Annie. “Thank you.” 

“Of course!” said Ellen. “Let me know if there’s ever anything else you need prayer for, too. That’s what I’m here for!” 

“Thanks,” Annie said again, feeling very warm and very tongue-tied. Why couldn’t she ever say what was in her head? She managed to stammer out, as they pulled up in front of her house, “That means a lot to me, Ellen.” 

“Of course,” said Ellen again, reaching over to give Annie a side hug. “I’ll see you on Sunday at youth group!” 

“See you!” said Annie brightly, as she got out of the car. It was cold. She shivered her way up the walk and got into the house. 

Mary called somewhere from the distant reaches of the house, “Mom?” 

“Nope, it’s me!” yelled Annie, hanging her coat and scarf and pulling her tennis shoes off. 

Mary appeared at the top of the stairs. 

“Annie! Where have you been all night?” 

“Small group. Ellen gave me a ride home.”

“Oh. Okay. Um … can you look at my essay? Mom said she’d do it when she got home, but I really wanted to watch a movie tonight and I can’t do it until I ‘finish’ my homework,” Mary said in a long suffering voice, using air quotes. 

“Sure.” said Annie. “Is it on the computer?” 

“Yeah.” Mary’s eyes squinted at her. “Could you do it … during the movie?” 

Annie laughed. “Yeah, I can do it during the movie.” 

They went into the family room together, and Mary opened her essay file on the family iMac. As soon as Annie sat down to read it, Mary raced to the DVD shelf and pulled out a movie. 

Why We Should Not Have School Uniforms
Mary Elliot
7th Grade English
Mrs. Hoover

“What movie?” asked Annie. 

“Ratatouille, duh,” said Mary. Their dad had just bought the Blu-Ray disc of the movie, and Mary had watched it almost every day. Personally, Annie didn’t see the point of Blu-Ray. Regular DVDs were fine, if you asked her (No one asked her, of course). And her dad was such a tech head. Couldn’t be held back from buying the latest and greatest.

School Uniforms would cause student’s to lose uniqueness and self-expression. Self-expression is very important for all people

Annie suppressed a sigh. 

In additionally, School uniforms are expensive, and some families are poor. I do not think it would be fiar to have school uniforms required for every student.  

“Mary,” Annie said. 

“What?” 

“Um, I’m going to print this out and mark it with a pen.” 

“Aw, you can’t just, like, fix things in the Word doc?”

“I don’t think so,” said Annie, hitting print. She quickly logged into her Hotmail account to see if she had any emails. She did. Freida had sent her a couple of YouTube links to some video clips of … something from The OC and then something from SNL ? Annie grinned. She’d watch them later, once Mary went to bed. 

Annie moved to the couch and half-watched the movie, half-edited the paper. 

Mary, lost in the movie, let out a surprised “Hey!” when Annie paused the movie, thirty minutes in. 

“I’m done,” said Annie, waving the paper at her. “You make your changes, and I’ll make us some popcorn.” 

She headed to the kitchen, Mary yelling after her, “Oh My lanta , did you use all the ink in this pen?”

“Lots to fix, sorry!” she yelled back. 

Her mom was sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of mail and her planner open in front of her. 

“Oh hey, Mom, we didn’t hear you come in!” said Annie. She yelled over her shoulder, “Mare! Mom’s home!” 

“Okay!” yelled Mary. 

“Hey sweetie,” said her mom warmly. “Sorry again about the mixup tonight, one of the ladies really needed some extra prayer and counsel.” 

“It’s fine,” Annie said as she crossed the kitchen to get the popcorn. “Ellen was already dropping Megan off.” 

“God bless Ellen. I’ll have to thank her at church on Wednesday,” said her mom. 

Annie put the popcorn into the microwave. 

“Hey Mom?” Annie asked. “This is, like, none of my business, but, uh, why don’t Ellen and Brian have any kids? They’re so great.”

“Hm,” her mom said, looking up from her planner. “I know they were trying pretty hard right around the time we had Mary. I think that was a couple of years after they got married.”  

The popcorn started to pop. 

“Oh,” said Annie. 

Trying. Annie would have died a thousand deaths before she admitted that she wasn’t exactly 100% sure about what trying entailed. She’d had sex ed in middle school, she had just … tried to erase it from her mind as soon as she could afterwards. 

“I think they found out that they couldn’t,” said her mom, tapping her pen against her chin. 

“That’s too bad,” Annie said, delicately lifting the hot popcorn bag out of the microwave by a corner and shaking it a little. 

“Yeah. It really is. I have to say, though, they have such servant hearts that God turned it into a huge blessing for LightWalk. Brian does such a great job with the junior high group, and Ellen’s probably the longest serving youth leader at The Spark now. ”

“What are you talking about? Hi Mom!” Mary skidded into the kitchen on her sock feet. 

“Hi sweetie, how is your essay coming along?” laughed their mom. 

“Ugh,” Mary flounced into a chair. “Annie gave me all these edits. I thought it was fine!” 

“That’s what you need proofreaders for,” said their mom gently, winking at Annie above Mary’s head. 

“Well, I’m done! Can we watch the rest of the movie now?” 

“Did you print it and put it in your folder?” asked their mom. 

Mary got up and ran out of the kitchen. “Doing it now!” 

Annie dumped the popcorn into a bowl. “When did you know God wanted you to marry Dad?” 

“Oh, goodness, you know this story. He’d started a Bible Study at UW, and my friend Janine dragged me there. I fell in love with Jesus and your dad around the same time that night.” 

“Yeah, but like, how did you know ? What did it feel like?”

“It just felt right, sweetie. Everything about it just clicked. I don’t advise young people to get married quite as soon as we did, but we were young.” Her mom smiled into the middle distance.

“I just don’t think I could be sure of anything in three weeks.”

“You know your dad doesn’t like to wait around once he feels God’s call for something.” 

Annie nodded. This, at least, she knew from experience. From buying the new church buildings to last-minute sermon changes, her father was not inclined to get second opinions before making decisions.

“What brought this on?” Her mom asked, a knowing look in her eyes. 

“Oh, we were talking about it in small group. You know we’re reading Passion and Purity .”

“I love that book,” smiled her mother. “I reread it a couple years ago when Elizabeth’s small group was reading it.”

“Yeah. I was just thinking that, like, I don’t really care about boys right now? I like hanging out with my friends way more.” 

“That’s not a bad thing, sweetie. You know, just because Elizabeth’s been a little boy crazy doesn’t mean you have to.”

Annie laughed. Elizabeth had just moved out to Bible College, and their house was refreshingly free of her lovesick swains for the first time in years

Mary raced through the kitchen and up the stairs to her room, waving her essay. 

“I’m almost ready!” she yelled back down. 

Their mom had started opening the mail. “Annie, would you give me a handful of that popcorn before you go down?” 

“Sure!” Annie said, pivoting and grabbing a small bowl from the cabinet. 

“Thank you, sweetheart. Thanks for helping Mary, too. Oh, and remember, you have your rescheduled piano lesson tomorrow, did you practice today?” 

“Yeah, I practiced before small group!” said Annie heading back to the family room. 

She could hear Mary jumping down the stairs after her, and her mom calling out, “Not so fast, dear!” 

Annie settled into the couch, munching some popcorn and wondering idly what actual ratatouille tasted like. Freida had been to France because of her dad; she might know. Annie would have to ask her at lunch tomorrow. 

“Start it, start it!” yelled Mary, vaulting over the couch. 

Annie pressed play.

Chapter Text

Annie pulled her backpack off her shoulders and hung it on the back of her chair. She greeted her desk neighbor, Gretta, with a smile. “Hey, how was your Christmas?” 

“Great,” said Gretta, smiling back. “How was yours?” 

The smell of pine indoors and out. The lifted-chest feeling when she contemplated Christ’s sacrifice in becoming human. The sound of carols at the candlelight service; the exalted, focused look that her dad got when he was preaching; the spicy sweet taste of the gingerbread that someone in the congregation made for them. 

“Really nice,” Annie said. She started getting her books out, arranging them on her desk with precision. 

Nick, the guy sitting at the desk in front of her, twisted around in his seat and said hi to both Annie and Gretta and then asked Gretta something about her holiday. Annie was digging her pencil case out of the bottom of her backpack when she registered that he was talking to her too. 

“Sorry, what?” she asked. 

Nick shrugged. “I just asked if you got anything cool for Christmas.”

“Oh, uh...” 

Opening gifts on Christmas morning, the three girls gasping in delight as they all unwrapped new MacBooks. Annie’s dad was saying something about being thankful for the prosperity that the Lord had blessed them with in 2008, and Annie’s mom was looking up at him sharply from her own new iPhone. Sharp enough that Annie had spent the rest of the morning covertly watching her parents, trying to catch whatever they were silently communicating.  

“Yeah, I actually did,” said Annie. “I got a MacBook. For school next year or whatever.”

“Whoa! Totally jealous!” said Nick. 

“What, like the MacBooks in the media lab?” asked Gretta curiously. 

“Yeah, the same kind,” said Annie. “It was crazy. Everything else was pretty normal, though.” 

That strange tension, lasting until the Musgroves from next door had tumbled over for Christmas dinner en masse. Neither the Elliots nor the Musgroves had extended family in the area and a big Christmas dinner had been their joint tradition for years. Diane and Ray Musgrove were bearing wine, Henry and Louisa and Charles were trailing behind them, brandishing pies and a salad. After dinner, Elizabeth had opted to sit at the “adult” table, sipping pretentiously at a glass of wine, Louisa and Henry laughing behind their hands at her airs before dragging Annie off to watch a Christmas movie. In the family room, Charles and Mary were battling furiously on a computer game. Eventually, as the movie kept playing, Elizabeth came down to watch and Mary and Charles stopped playing their game, and all the kids were curled up together with blankets on the couch. The laughter of her friends and sisters was all around her, and the gentle murmur of the adults wafted in from the dining room. Whatever had been off that morning was gone, and Annie was full and warm and content. 

Annie blinked out of her thoughts. Nick was saying something to Gretta, and Gretta was laughing. Other kids had been filing in, chattering, and the bell rang. Their teacher called them all to attention, and class began. 

An hour later, the bell for the end of class had just rung, and Annie was putting her books back into her backpack, when Gretta suddenly giggled next to her. Annie looked up, and that was all the warning she had before her eyes were suddenly covered by someone else’s hands. Annie yelped in surprise. 

“Guess who!” sang out Freida’s voice. 

“I know it’s you, Free,” said Annie, trying not to sound too delighted. “Unhand me, villain!” 

Freida dropped her hands, and Annie whipped around to give her a soft smack on the shoulder and then a proper hug. 

“Did you miss me?” asked Freida into Annie’s shoulder. 

“I saw you two days ago!” protested Annie. She had, after all! She’d gone over to Freida’s house to watch one of her new DVDs. Annie, to be honest, preferred hanging out with Freida at Freida’s house. It was quieter. Freida’s parents left them to their own devices, and Freida didn’t have an energetic thirteen year-old sister to bother her. And, of course, there were no church members dropping in at all hours at Freida’s to meet with her parents. 

“Hey Freida,” said Gretta, visibly amused. 

“Gretta! How was your Christmas?” 

“It was so nice! How was yours, Freida?” 

“Just lovely. Gorgeous, really. Fantastic. Phantasmal.” 

“You’re so energetic, what the heck,” said Annie, flat. 

“I’m so pumped to be back at school, obviously ,” said Freida, drawing the word out. “No, but really. It’s 2009! We’re the class of ‘09! We only have six more months of high school ever!” She shrugged, elaborately. “What’s not to be pumped about?” 

Gretta laughed and agreed, and then said goodbye and hurried off to her next class. Annie put her coat on, and she and Freida headed out the door of the classroom and into the halls swarming with teens. 

“So you didn’t miss me,” said Freida, faux-pouting, looping her arm through Annie’s. Freida was such a touchy person. Annie had never had a friend who was this tactile. She liked it. 

“I didn’t say that,” Annie protested. 

After the final carol of the Christmas Eve candlelight service. Annie’s family was split into different corners of the church – Elizabeth beelining over to her Bible College friends, Mary running off with Charles Musgrove and their little gaggle of friends. Annie’s mom was pulled into conversation with the worship team, and Annie’s dad was at the front in a prayer circle. Annie was slowly picking up her tote bag to stash her Bible inside of it, and looking around to see if Aleathia or Megan or Willa were anywhere to be seen. She couldn’t even see the Musgrove twins in the sea of congregants. Suddenly, her vision came into focus on a familiar, dear face. Oh! My friend is here, thought Annie. The thought was accompanied by a vast sense of uplift. Relief, almost. Joy, maybe. My friend is here! And then Annie was rushing over to greet Freida and her parents.

Before Freida could make another flippant comment, Annie said, “Thanks again for coming to the service on Christmas Eve. I know your family isn’t, like, religious or whatever, but it was really, really nice to see you there.” 

Freida grinned happily. “Thank you for inviting me. Inviting us, I mean. It was a nice service. My parents thought the music was really beautiful. And I didn’t know your dad was the pastor pastor.” 

“Oh, yeah. He and my mom started LightWalk like 20 years ago, before Elizabeth was even born. It was just a living room Bible study back then.” 

“Dang. I guess I didn’t know it was so big.” 

“Uh yeah, it’s, like, um, a lot of people. All the time.” Annie laughed nervously. 

“Don’t be embarrassed, it’s cool!” Freida elbowed her gently. 

“I just like youth group better. It’s smaller. You could come sometime. If you wanted,” Annie said. 

“Aw, my bestie does miss me on the weekends,” said Freida.

Bestie? Annie shrugged, feeling her cheeks heat up. “Maybe I do, I’m not telling! I just think it would be fun to have you there. You could meet my friend Ally, since she wasn’t around on Christmas Eve. I really think you’d like each other.” 

Freida laughed. “I’ll see if my mom will let me borrow her car this Sunday.” 

The second bell of passing period started to ring. 

“Crap! Gotta go!” Freida unlooped her arm from Annie’s and shot away, and Annie darted a few doors down into her next class, and sat down, breathing hard. From the running. Definitely from the running. Definitely not from being nervous to broach the subject of church again with her best friend (she could say that, now. Freida had said it, after all). Ugh. Annie hated anything that even remotely felt like witnessing. She knew she shouldn’t hate it, but she did. 

On New Year’s day, Elizabeth was talking about Bible College, and about how they went downtown to pass out tracts on Friday nights. Their dad was listening and commenting approvingly. He was proud of Elizabeth. Annie could see it in his face, that it was a shame that women couldn’t be preachers, because if Elizabeth had been born a boy, she would have inherited the keys to the kingdom. Elizabeth was bold, and beautiful. And Annie, knowing that she was neither of those things, was sitting in the corner, praying that Jesus would help her not be envious of her sister. 

Annie sighed a little as she took out her books for this next class. More prayer. More prayer, always.

I must increase and you must decrease.  

Annie opened her notebook and wrote the date at the top of a fresh page, with a flourish: January 5th, 2009. 

“Hi everyone,” said her teacher, standing up from his desk. “Happy New Year! How was your break?”

“Good,” said Annie in chorus with the rest of the class. 

“Great! Anybody care to share anything that they did?” 

Annie looked down at her desk. 

Nope, no thanks. She had nothing of interest to share, nothing whatsoever.

Chapter Text

Annie couldn’t remember a time when church hadn’t been an all-day affair. It started at eight in the morning, when the Elliots arrived en masse at the remodeled warehouse church building to join the volunteer ushers in folding bulletins, eating donuts, and downing coffee. Walter Elliot preached a 9 o’clock service to a sleepy-eyed crowd, took a coffee and prayer break, and then preached two more services back-to-back. Annie’s mom, meanwhile, was busy talking and praying through all three services, with any one who needed her. At the main campus in Ballard (there were three other satellite LightWalk campuses – Bothell, Beacon Hill, and Bellevue – that piped in video of Walter’s sermon, but had their own local worship bands and associate pastors available for prayer and counsel), the high school youth group, The Spark, took place during the 11 o’clock service at the opposite end of the building. 

Annie usually volunteered at one of the early Sunday School classes before heading to The Spark, but today the Children’s Ministry coordinator had double booked the volunteers for the kindergarten class. Annie wasn’t needed, so she grabbed a second donut before slipping into the back corner of the sanctuary to watch her dad preach. 

Walter Elliot, voice purposeful and confident, strode energetically around the stage, speaking into his headset mic. He was well-lit and the cameras trained on him projected his face onto multiple screens around the huge room. 

This was one of the first times Annie had really laid eyes on her dad in weeks, he’d been so busy formulating the LightWalk expansion plans with the elders. He hadn’t even been at family dinner most of the time. It was an odd feeling, to miss your own father even as he was standing right in front of you. 

“Biblical marriage is not just the marriage of two Christians. Biblical marriage is a god-ordained hierarchy. Jesus is at the top of this pyramid scheme, people!” 

The congregation chuckled. 

“We have Jesus, always Jesus, at the head of the family. Each member of the family, no matter their place, should be oriented to Jesus. Jesus must be our guiding star. In the words of the great hymn: thou my best thought, by day or by night / Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

“Now, we hear a lot of talk about equality these days. Equality is one of the big ‘PC’ buzzwords, that, I’m here to tell you, and pardon my French right now, doesn’t mean a damn in a Biblical marriage. Jesus himself purports a hierarchy. Paul says in Philippians 2:6, Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. No, he humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death.

“And LightWalk, if Jesus himself knows his place in the holy order of things, you can bet your britches that we need to know ours. Brothers and sisters, I can already see the emails in my inbox.”

Walter adopted a high-pitched, whiny tone. 

“Pastor, surely you can’t be speaking against equality? It’s 2009! We are Seattlites! We believe in equality for every single race, color, ethnicity, religion, gender. Cats and dogs. Meat-lovers and vegetarians. They’re all equal, pastor!” 

More chuckles.

He dropped back to his normal tone, suddenly deadly serious. 

“But when you really examine the messages of equality in this world, you find some real paradoxes. People should be allowed to kill babies, before they’re born. Where are the rights of that unborn child? Gays and lesbians should be allowed to take part in God’s holy sacrament of marriage. But anyone who disagrees with that? Well, they shouldn’t have equal rights to express their opinion, that’s hate speech.”

Murmurs of agreement. 

“I’m not saying men and women should be, for example, paid differently in the workplace. What I am saying, however, is that in a Biblical marriage, in a Biblical society, we should, like Jesus, put away our grasping for equality. Remember! Paul, in Ephesians 5, says: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” 

“God has given us a beautiful gift in these roles. Each is given the role suited to their needs. If you are listening to me and thinking ‘this guy is crazy,’ I want you to think about a couple–– and we all know one –– where the woman wears the pants. Doesn’t that seem off? We see it every day in the world, in the media, in the movies. What’s wrong there is that the man is not taking his God-ordained role as head of the household!” 

Annie was spell-bound, as was the rest of the congregation. Walter was standing back at the podium, and he pounded the surface of it with a closed fist for emphasis. 

“Men! Wake up! You are not called to be some namby-pampy metrosexual! God calls you to be men. Take charge! Be a leader! Model godly living for your family and the rest of the world.” 

Some enthusiastic man toward the front whooped out, “Amen!”

“And women,” Walter went on in a gentler tone. “I know it can be hard to see the men in your life struggling, but that is not God calling you to take the reins from them. That is God calling you to support and encourage them. To gently step back and give them space to lead. Jesus submitted to God, and it turned into the most revolutionary act that the world has ever seen. 

“Singles! I can hear you thinking, ‘I’m not married, this doesn’t apply to me.’ False! Young single men, I challenge you to step up. Join one of our Men’s groups. Start your leadership now. And women, if you are friends with a single guy, encourage him to take opportunities to lead and learn and grow! Build each other up! We have the chance to model godliness and purity in every relationship for this debauched world. 

“Men and women and children, all of us, we should dwell on the absolute marvels that God can work in your life when you submit to him. Let it be your meditation night and day, like David says in Psalm 119. Let’s pray.” 

Walter started to pray, and Annie let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding. Annie loved hearing her dad preach. She knew he loved it too, loved the rush of it, the adrenaline, the cosmic drama of leading people to the right side of the universal war. He had told her once that looking out at a congregation was like looking into a hall of mirrors. If he was reflecting Jesus, he wanted everyone in the crowd to reflect the same thing back to him. 

Annie shook herself out of her reverie and headed for the youth room after the offering was taken and the last prayer was uttered. She greeted and hugged her way through the church halls that were rapidly filling with people. Some were people she had known for years, some were people she only knew by sight, and some were unfamiliar faces who had clearly come to see what all the buzz was about. Her ears rang with praise for her dad’s sermon (“Pastor Walter was really on fire today!”), inquiries about whether she was going on the summer mission trip (“I know Elizabeth is helping lead it, are you?”), and messages for her mom (“Can you tell her I left that book at the office desk for her?"). It was nice that people wanted to talk to her. Of course it was. People were always nice. Annie slipped out a side door and quietly walked the long way around the building to the youth room.

The Spark youth group at the main LightWalk church campus was always one of her favorite weekly events, and it was even better now that she had convinced Freida to start coming occasionally, too. She ran in, yelling hello to the Musgrove twins and their gang who were playing hackysack outside. 

She scanned the room. Aleathia was sitting and talking to Megan and Willa, and Annie walked over and greeted them, making sure to face the doorway so that Freida would see her. This was only Freida’s third time coming to The Spark, after all, and Annie knew firsthand how overwhelming such a large group of strangers could be. Although, she reflected, Freida really didn’t seem to have a problem with crowds. She was so charming and funny all the time, so at ease in every situation. Ally and the other small group girls had taken to her as immediately as Annie had. Annie pinched the skin on the inside of her wrist. Time for another prayer against jealousy. 

Pastor Smith was waving the kids in, and the worship team started taking their place on the stage. At what seemed like the last moment possible, Freida walked in, grinning when she saw Annie’s wave. 

Twenty minutes later, worship was over, and they had all settled in for the message. Annie had a brief moment of absurd happiness, sitting between her two best friends. She hauled up her legs to cross them on her chair, her knees bumping into both of theirs. 

Aleathia knocked shoulders with her. “Do you see Justin?” she whispered. 

“No, I think he’s sitting on the floor on one of the beanbags,” Annie whispered back. 

“I’m going to try to talk to him afterwards, you have to come with me!” 

Aleathia had it bad for the youth pastor’s son, Justin Smith. Very bad. The status of his feelings for her were as yet unknown, but promising signs had been duly documented and noted by both Annie and Aleathia. 

“Fine, I will!” 

Ellen Russell was on stage, making announcements about upcoming events and Annie let her mind drift to the problem of boys. She never felt comfortable talking to them, for some reason. She always felt self-conscious, and she hated feeling that a boy was looking at her to size up her prettiness. Or whatever boys were supposedly evaluating, when they stole furtive glances at you. 

Annie'd harbored an intense, year-long secret crush on Marcus, a sweet, tall, dark-haired boy in her Honors English class in 8th grade, but … nothing since then. Was there something wrong with her? She found some boys abstractly cute. Aesthetically pleasing. Like paintings, or a lake. But she didn’t seem to have the all-consuming need to kiss one, not the way Aleathia talked about it. Annie felt some type of way when she watched movie kissing, but she didn’t know that she’d ever felt like that toward someone else in real life. Plus, she only really felt that way seeing movie couples interact, not just the guy. She supposed it was her inner romantic, wanting to see couples happy together. 

Annie filed away the subject in her mind for another day. Dating in high school was so stupid anyways. Everyone was an idiot, and there was so much needless drama. Annie Elliot liked her life calm and predictable, thank you very much. 

She whipped her attention back to the front. Pastor Smith was reading 2 Corinthians 10:1-11. Annie flipped her Bible open. 

By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you — I, Paul, who am “timid” when face to face with you, but “bold” toward you when away! 2 I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. 3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 6 And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.

7 You are judging by appearances. If anyone is confident that they belong to Christ, they should consider again that we belong to Christ just as much as they do. 8 So even if I boast somewhat freely about the authority the Lord gave us for building you up rather than tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it. 9 I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. 10 For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” 11 Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.

Pastor Smith finished reading the section, put his Bible down, and started talking. 

“Paul here is responding to some feedback that he got from the Corinthians. They are complaining about his bold and forceful letter, as opposed to him coming off as timid in person. Who here feels like they communicate best in writing?” 

Annie, with about a third of the other kids, raised her hand. 

“How about through talking?” 

Freida and Aleathia, with the rest of the majority, raised their hands. 

“Okay. Let’s see … Annie, why do you like writing best?”

Annie, put on the spot, involuntarily started trembling a little. Freida put a hand on her shoulder and called out, “Can she write it down for you instead?” 

After the laughter died down, Annie said, “I guess writing gives me time to figure out what I really mean. And to say it better than I could if I was talking.” 

Pastor Smith smiled and said, “Absolutely, I feel like that too! How about someone from the talking camp?” 

Crickets.

Finally, Freida spoke up again. Good grief, she was so brave. “I feel like when I’m talking, I can work my way into what I mean. It’s not set in stone, there’s a lot of wiggle room to figure it out.” 

Aleathia chimed in, “Plus, talking is collaborative!” 

Pastor Smith chuckled. “Thank you, ladies of row 4! That’s a great way to explore the differences between the two styles of communication. Does anybody know anyone who comes off as a radically different person in writing, versus when you talk to them?” 

General nodding. Some kid in the back yelled out “Yeah, my mom!” 

Laughter. Pastor Smith went on, “What you notice there is a lack of consistency. And that’s what the Corinthians are complaining about. They’re telling Paul that he was all nice in person, and then in the letter, he just skewered them. Rough, right? But what Paul is saying here is that he was speaking the same message both times. It’s just,” Smith nodded to Annie, “much more direct and concise when it’s written down. Put your finger in this section, and let’s flip over to Mark 5:37. Can someone read that out loud for me? Yes, Kelly.”

Kelly Bournes read, “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”

“Thank you, Kelly. This is tied to what Paul is saying in verses 10 & 11. He is saying ‘we have been consistent in our message the whole time. We have been reliable.’ And what Jesus is saying in Mark, is that this, this consistency, is a marker of godliness. A marker of sanctification. 

"Now, a lot of you have grown up in the church. You’ve asked Jesus into your heart, you’ve been walking with him for a few years, maybe. Sanctification is the next step. We want to become like Jesus, as much as it is possible to do on this earth. Being consistent in your words and actions — you have to walk the walk! It’s not enough to just come to church on Sundays. Do you read the Bible? Do you pray? Do you seek out God’s will for your life? Do you have an accountability partner? Do you go to a small group? 

“Last thing I want to point out here is verses 3-5. ‘For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

“The knowledge of God is not the knowledge of the world. The knowledge of God, in fact, is foolish to the world! It seems stupid! We know from Isaiah that the heart is deceitful — sin always seems easy and natural. The way is narrow. It’s not easy. To truly follow God, you must stick to the Truth in his Word and lean not upon your own understanding. 

“Taking every thought captive seems hard, right? But if you marinate yourself in God’s Word, in the uplifting company of your brothers and sisters in Christ, and try to pray without ceasing, it will eventually get easier and easier. 

“Alright. Let’s close with a prayer ... and then it’s time for doughnuts!” A titter of laughter swept the room.

As Pastor Smith prayed, Annie cracked an eye open and looked down at her notes. She circled the phrase MARINATE IN WORD and added a squiggly underline. 

Freida reached over and took her pen and started drawing little steaks. 

“Amen,” the room echoed. The buzz of chatter started back up, and Annie finally let out her burst of laughter. 

“They have to marinate, get it?” said Freida. 

“Oh, I get it. It’s terrible. You’re terrible,” said Annie.

Aleathia grabbed her arm and whispered, “He’s coming over! 10 o’clock!” 

“Ally, you know I don’t know the clock direction thing like that—” Annie started, but then Justin Smith and his friend Ryan were dropping casually into the seats in front of them. 

“Annie, I’ve never figured out how you keep up with these chatterboxes,” Justin teased. 

“Aw, you get used to it after a while. Like I did with you,” she said. She’d known Justin since they were practically babies. 

Justin clutched his heart, “You wound me! I’m a writer!” 

He actually was a decent writer, if it came to that. He’d written a song that they played in worship occasionally, and it was simple and nice. 

Ryan shook his head, “You’re an idiot, Smith. We came to ask you—“ 

Justin interrupted, “Annie, your dad has a camcorder, right?”

“Oh, I see where this is going!” said Aleathia archly. “You came here to exploit our resources!” 

“Well, we had this idea for the LightWalk film festival ... but we only have a VHS camera, and Ryan’s family’s camcorder broke,” said Justin.

Ryan added quickly, looking at Freida, “You guys should be in it! We need some girls.” 

“Oh, just any old girls, huh?” said Freida. 

Annie looked at Aleathia, who was trying to suppress her grin. 

“So.” Annie asked casually, “How long would you need to use it for?” 

“We could probably shoot it all over a day. Maybe two. And we could use some help editing and everything,” said Justin hopefully. 

“I’ll ask my mom,” said Annie. “She might insist on me being the one to film it though.” 

“Annie,” Justin said, suddenly serious. “Are you saying that you, Annie Elliot, don’t want to be in front of a camera?” 

Annie rolled her eyes. Aleathia said eagerly, “So what’s it about? What’s your idea?” 

“Well,” said Justin, “it’s basically an infomercial … for Jesus.” He laid out the script in great detail, looking at Aleathia for approval basically the whole time. 

It wasn’t, strictly speaking, a great idea, but anything that would get Aleathia a chance to hang out with Justin? Sure. 

Outside, the three girls found their way to a secluded bench. 

“Can we stretch it out?” asked Aleathia dreamily. “Like, a week of preproduction, a week of filming, a week of editing.” She trailed off. 

“I’m sure Justin would be very happy about that,” said Freida. “I don’t know how Ryan would feel.”

“Well!” said Aleathia. “ I happened to notice that Ryan couldn’t stop smiling at you, Freida! I think someone has a crush!”

Freida blushed, and for once, seemed short on words. 

“I noticed it too!” Annie said, elbowing her gently. Why did her stomach feel like it had dropped out of her body? 

“Pssh, stop, it doesn’t matter,” said Freida. 

Annie and Aleathia exchanged a quick glance. “Why not?” said Aleathia, “he’s really cute! Not as cute as Justin Smith, but….”

“Justin Smith, who dragged his friend and us into making up a stupid movie just to hang out with you?” said Freida. 

The corners of Aleathia’s mouth seemed to turn up by themselves, like she couldn’t help it. 

“Do you really think so?” 

“Yes,” said Annie fervently. “He definitely did.” 

“Okay,” Aleathia said quietly, grinning ear to ear. “Okay, good.” She laid her head down on Annie’s shoulder and whined, “I just like him so much.” 

“I know, I know.” Annie felt odder still, but couldn’t quite pinpoint why. “So, Freida, you wouldn’t, uh, want to hang out with Ryan?” 

“Nah,” Freida hedged. “I mean I guess he’s cute but not really my type.”

Aleathia lifted her head from Annie’s shoulder. “Do you like someone else?” she asked excitedly. 

What in the world was this pins and needles feeling? Annie pushed it aside and kept her tone light. “You like someone, don’t you?” 

Freida looked at their eager faces. She was blushing as hard as Annie had ever seen her. 

“Look at that face!” said Aleathia. “Who is it? Is it someone we know?”

Freida shook her head rapidly. “No, you don’t know them.”

“But there is someone?” Annie was doing a wonderful job of keeping her voice under control. Her whole body felt tense. Was she sick? What was going on? 

Freida wouldn’t meet their eyes. “Uh, yeah. Someone from my old school. I, uh, just can’t stop thinking about.” 

“Oh my god, you’ve liked him this whole freaking time?” said Aleathia. “And you haven’t told us about him?” 

“It just … it’s not going to happen— they … he … doesn’t know, and I know he doesn’t feel that way, I don’t think he would ever—”

Annie was angry, suddenly. Who was this wretched boy, to turn his nose up at her friend? Who could fail to like her? Lovely, funny, kind Freida, who had the greenest eyes, and the best face crinkling smile in the world? She suddenly wanted to punch every boy in the history of the world. 

“Well, he’s an idiot!” she said fiercely, putting her arm around Freida’s shoulder. “You’re amazing and literally anyone would be so fricking lucky if you liked them.” 

“Yeah!” said Aleathia, resting her head back on Annie’s other shoulder. “Forget about him! He’s not worth it!” 

Freida shrugged. She still wasn’t looking at them, but then she sighed and relaxed into Annie's side. “I’m trying,” she said. “Trust me, I’m trying.”

Chapter Text

March 2009

Annie had swung her backpack around to the side to make sure she had her Bio textbook for third period, and wasn’t looking up until a screech of brakes and a horn went off right in front of her. A man’s voice yelled, “Hey, watch where you’re fucking going, kid! I could have fucking killed you, you fucking dumbass.”

Annie stumbled backwards, her books spilling out onto the street. “Oh gosh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said, voice trembling. 

“Hey you jerk, stop speeding in a school zone, you could have killed her, jeez!” Freida’s voice rang out as she ran across the street and knelt next to Annie.

“No, it’s okay, it was my fault,” Annie said. 

“No, I saw what happened, he was totally speeding.” 

Freida grabbed the last book from the street, and they scrambled back as the man drove on, screaming one last, “Fucking kids! Watch it!”

“Oh my god, Annie, are you okay? Sorry about your DICK, you absolute SHITBAG!” yelled Freida as the oversized silver pickup truck rounded the corner and was lost to sight. 

Annie giggled a little shakily. “Freida! Oh my gosh, you shouldn’t say that!”

“What? You think he’s not compensating for something with that thing?” Freida stood up and yelled, “SORRY! ABOUT! YOUR! DICK!” even louder, Annie giggling a little more helplessly with each word. 

Freida grinned at her, and they started walking into school together. “How was English yesterday?”

“Um, it was … good, actually. We talked about the middle section of Jane Eyre, when she’s just arrived at Thornfield. All the crazy foreshadowing.” 

“Right, right. The madwoman in the attic. Grace Peel!”

“Exactly.”

“Ugh, all that French with Adele. I guess that’s not a problem for you, huh.”

Annie smirked. “Oui, mademoiselle! Je peux très bien lire le français, merci!”

“Stop, witch! Words I can’t understand are from the devil!” 

They stopped at Freida’s locker, an island of stillness in the river of students walking by. Annie was quiet as Freida chattered about the quiz she had next period. 

“Hey,” Freida said, her speech coming to a halt. “You okay?”

Annie shook her head to clear it.

“I—” she swallowed. “It’s so stupid.” Freida waited. “I — I just really hate being yelled at. I feel like my whole day is already ruined, and it just started.”

“Ah, my baby, give me a hug.” Freida said, already moving into Annie’s space. The backpacks and their puffy coats made hugging a little unwieldy, but they persisted. Freida’s chin cut into Annie’s neck and Annie could smell her shampoo just a little. It made her whole chest feel loose and warm. 

Freida said, quietly, muffled, “You are the best person, and it’s not your fault when people are being mean to you.”

“I know, I know. It just makes me feel so dumb.” 

Freida pulled back and kissed Annie on the cheek. “He was a super loser, and you are super amazing, okay?” The bell rang. “Shit — I gotta run to the 300’s, I’ll see you at lunch?” 

“Yeah.” Annie smiled, a real smile. “Go! Thanks, Free.” 

Freida jogged off, her wavy black hair bouncing as she went.

Annie’s cheek tingled for the whole next period. 

 

*

 

April 2009

Annie dropped the DVD into the Blockbuster return slot and then ran through the lightly sprinkling rain back to the car. 

“What a movie,” said Freida. “Meryl Streep is my new favorite actress.”

“Wait … what? She was literally the devil! The titular Devil!”

“Yes, but the hair! The voice! The command!” 

“I guess she was really pretty. So was Anne Hathaway, though. Her eyes are so crazy big, how did we all miss that in The Princess Diaries?” 

“She’s gorgeous, but she looks like a stick could knock her over.” Freida paused. “Both of them … Do you … don’t you think there was maybe some, like, crazy chemistry between them?”

Annie wrinkled her nose as she craned her head over her shoulder to back into the parking lot. “Chemistry, like what?” 

“I don’t know! Just … chemistry.” 

“But they’re both women! And they’re both in love with men!”

“Yeah, I just, I don’t know, I thought their relationship was the strongest in the movie, and they had the most interesting and well-rounded dynamic. Anne Hathaway’s boyfriend sucks! And so does Meryl Streep’s husband!” 

“Yeah, but the movie’s about work. It’s about them. They’re enemies. Of course their relationship is the focus, Free.” 

Freida shrugged, “Um, I don’t know, sometimes I have super random thoughts about movies.” She paused. “Stanley Tucci was really funny, though.” 

“He was! Jeez, it’s a good thing we didn’t watch this with my dad, he can’t stop going on about Hollywood’s gay agenda. He literally can’t stop talking about it when there’s a gay guy in a movie and it always just ruins the movie.”

Freida laughed. They pulled up to Freida’s house.

“What do you think about it, though?” Freida said, suddenly brisk. 

“About … the gay agenda?”

“Yeah, I mean, I have a friend who is gay, back home, and he’s cool.” 

Annie was at a loss for words. Did she even really know what it meant when a guy was gay? Beside being flamboyant in a movie? She said slowly, “I really haven’t thought about it. I mean, the Bible says it’s wrong? I don’t think I know anybody gay.”

Freida shook her head. “Danny in drama. He’s definitely gay.”

“Oh gosh, okay. Is he? I mean, he’s really nice though. I don’t know. Plenty of people are nice, but I guess niceness doesn’t really preclude, like, something being, uh, sin?” 

“Huh,” said Freida. “I don’t know, it seems kind of harsh. My friend said he tried to change how he feels, but he can’t.” 

“I don’t know. I’d have to do some reading or talk to my dad, I guess.” Annie felt very awkward, in a way that she never did with Freida. 

“Nah, don’t worry about it. See you tomorrow at school?” Freida said.

“Yeah, of course.”

Freida leaned over to hug her. “See ya,” she said, and then she was gone. What a weird conversation. Annie did not want to talk to her dad about it. Maybe Freida wouldn’t bring it up again.

 

*

 

May 2009

The DVD menu music was the first thing to intrude into Annie’s consciousness. Then it was the peculiar angle of her head, which was wedged sideways onto Freida’s slouched down shoulder. She slowly fluttered her eyes open. 

The same minute of music was playing over and over. It took a few cycles for her to remember that she could change this, if she wanted. Stirring unwillingly, she wrenched herself upright, found the remote, and turned off the TV. 

Freida’s eyes were closed, but she yawned and mumbled, “Come back, I’m cold.” 

Annie did. After a moment, she said quietly, “We should just go to bed, it’s one am.”

“Too much work.”

Freida lifted her arm, presumably to put it around Annie’s shoulders, but misjudged the angle that Annie was pitched into her, and Annie just went falling down sideways across Freida’s lap.  

“Too much work?” Annie giggled, shifting so that she faced up instead of sideways. 

“Baugh,” said Freida, laughing. “This is much warmer, much better.” She started carding through Annie’s hair with her left hand. Freida’s right hand was resting over the blanket over Annie’s stomach. 

Annie felt herself going boneless. She felt boundlessly safe. “Mm,” she yawned. “You can keep doing that.” 

“Oh, I can, can I?” Freida giggled.  

Annie was almost asleep again, when Freida stopped stroking her hair, and started smoothing out her forehead, fingers tracing Annie’s eyebrows, down the bridge of her nose, sweeping over her cheekbones, and then, lightly outlining her lips. 

Annie had stopped breathing, it felt so — so — Warm, but not soft, electric. Gathering to a greatness, she thought dazedly. 

Freida had paused for just a split second, her finger pressing Annie’s bottom lip, before going back to combing through her hair. Annie breathed again, shallowly, opening her mouth slightly. 

Freida heaved a sigh, and gently tugged a lock of Annie’s hair. “I guess we should go to bed,” she said at last, voice soft. 

“I guess,” Annie echoed, opening her eyes and hauling herself up after a minute, wobbly and unmoored.

They went down the hall to Freida’s bedroom, Annie watching the back of Freida’s head as she walked slightly ahead, the nimbus of her curly hair in the dim hall nightlight. They crawled into bed facing each other. Freida whispered goodnight. Annie wanted to ask Freida to play with her hair again but she didn’t. She thought, maybe, that her voice would betray that she wanted it too much. She shivered once, all over, and then curled up a little tighter and listened to Freida’s breath slow and even out until Annie, too, fell asleep.

Chapter Text

Freida was perched on the bathroom counter, Annie standing between her legs, trying to stay very still as Freida applied shadow to her eyelids. 

“You know,” said Freida softly, “I never noticed how many freckles you have.” Her left thumb was brushing Annie’s cheek for stability as her right hand wielded the makeup brush. 

Annie felt that incredibly soft feeling, like someone had reached into her chest and replaced her heart with a fuzzy blanket. 

“There’re always more in the summer,” she said inanely. 

“Me too. Okay, perfect.” Freida said. “Shadow’s done, time for liner.”

Annie opened her eyes and stared into Freida’s green ones. Freida’s makeup was already done, and Annie had helped her pin her curls up into something that vaguely resembled a very chic bird’s nest. A strange expression passed over Freida’s face for a moment, like a cloud over the sun. 

It passed, and Freida leaned back, studying her work. “I will give you wings so sharp, you could stab a man,” she said, smiling. Her smile hurt Annie, it was so beautiful. A very pleasant ache. She felt odd. Soft, and tender, but also a little drowsy in some way. Very peculiar, really. 

“You’re so good at this,” she said, quieter than she had intended. 

“Close your eyes!” Freida commanded, and Annie obeyed. 

 

*

 

Prom was deeply underwhelming. The music, predictably, was terrible. The punch was vaguely Kool-Aid-esque, and there was some highly inappropriate grinding taking place on the dance floor. The only good part was dancing and laughing with their little group of friends in the corner. Dancing with Freida beaming across from her, a pleasant little tingle of something whenever Freida’s hands brushed across Annie’s bare shoulders. 

It all felt different somehow, but Annie didn’t want to pay attention to that feeling, so she didn’t.

 

*

 

After the dance, and milkshakes with the girls, Annie and Freida were once again giggling in the bathroom of Freida’s house. 

“Which movie should we start with, that’s the question,” Freida said, carefully taking her makeup off with a wipe. Freida was wearing gym shorts and a white t-shirt, and somehow seemed more beautiful that she had in her prom dress. It defied all reason. 

“Have you watched Sabrina? I couldn’t remember.”

“I watched the original and I liked it, but I haven’t seen the remake.”

“The remake is so good, that’s got my vote.” Annie finished wiping off her own makeup and threw the wipe in the trash. She splashed water on her face, washed it, and then started rubbing lotion into her skin. Freida did the same, the cold water bringing a flush to her cheeks. 

Annie sighed. “I don’t get how you can just throw water on your face and looks like a model, when I....” she grimaced. Her face looked red and splotchy compared to Freida’s olive skin. 

Freida looked at her, puzzled. “What? You’re what?” 

Annie pulled another face, her nose wrinkling. “I just. I’m just so —” she gestured to her face in the mirror “— that. And you’re, like, the prettiest person I know, Freida.”

Freida looked at her in the mirror, shaking her head slowly. “Annie … you’re so gorgeous. Like, for real.”

Annie was blushing, she could feel it. “You’re just saying that because you’re my friend.”

“Um, not really,” Freida said. She seemed — strong, confident Freida — suddenly seemed unsure. Her throat moved as she swallowed. She turned away from the mirror, a little nearer to Annie. Annie turned to look at her. Their faces were very close. 

Freida lightly ran a finger down the bridge of Annie’s nose. 

“Nah, look at you. You’re so pretty. For real,” she repeated, low and intimate.

Annie shivered. Her hands and feet were going all pins and needles again but she liked it, she liked it so much. Freida was close and what if. What if.

What was happening —

Freida leaned just a tiny bit closer and pressed her lips to Annie’s. 

What.

Annie froze, shocked still. She had never been kissed before. It felt like an electric spark. 

Freida pulled back a little.

Annie stared at her. 

Freida’s expression shifted. Her eyes, her beautiful eyes suddenly looked so scared. Freida started to back away, opened her mouth to say something. 

Annie physically couldn’t keep her body from following Freida’s forward, and she couldn’t stand the look on Freida’s face, and Annie leaned in and kissed Freida back. 

Annie was wholly unprepared for how easy it was. How easy, after the first few fumbling moments, to find some natural, elemental grace. That first electric spark turned into a current that flowed over her whole body, pooling deep in the pit of her stomach. 

Something in her brain was worried, but Annie wasn’t going to pay attention. She’d heard whispers about practicing, before. It wasn’t like this was a boy. No, it was fine, wasn’t it? It was, it was wonderful – and it was Freida, and her entire body called her attention away from any other thoughts besides Freida. 

One of Freida’s hands had found its way to her hair, and the other was on her waist, pulling her closer. Annie reached up and put her arms around Freida’s neck. 

When they separated, Freida was smiling brilliantly, like the sun incarnate. 

“What?” Annie said, smiling too. 

“We’re still in the bathroom,” she said, laughing. 

And then Freida pulled Annie into the bedroom and shut the door, and put her hands on Annie’s waist, and suddenly, things were serious, very serious. Freida’s warm hands slid under Annie’s shirt, swept over bare skin, running up and down her back. Annie, made bold, did the same thing.

Freida broke away from kissing her to say, “Can I?” 

Annie, not knowing or caring what she was agreeing to, said, “Yes, yes.” She felt like a house on a winter night, blazing light from all the windows. 

They stumbled backwards until they were standing against the bed, their bodies closer, closer. Freida trailed kisses down her neck and Annie gasped at the shock of it, her head falling back. She wanted to — she wanted — 

“Annie, you’re so beautiful, how are you so beautiful,” Freida said against her skin. Annie was shaking. She felt like heat was radiating outwards from her, like she would combust. Freida pulled back a little and looked at her, mouth open, as if she never wanted to see anything else. Annie didn’t know what her face looked like, and she didn’t care, she just wanted Freida to keep looking at her like that forever. She couldn’t find a single word, so she reached up to cup Freida’s cheek, and leaned forward to kiss her again. 

It was so nice, it wasn’t fair. Freida gasped as Annie followed her lead and started kissing her neck. Her skin was so soft it was maddening. Annie felt like she was hypnotized, wave after wave of something undefinable washing over her. Nothing was more important than the sounds Freida was making, the way her knees buckled. One of her thighs pushed between Annie’s legs, accidentally at first, and then on purpose. 

Oh,” Annie said, resting her head against Freida’s collarbone. 

“Come on,” Freida whispered, and then they were on the bed, Annie lying back, and Freida kissing her, a hand in her hair, sweeping down over her neck, under her shirt, over her stomach. She didn’t know, but she wanted. 

“Please,” she breathed, “oh, please, please.”

Freida reached down with one hand, sliding it into Annie’s pajama pants, over her underwear. There — and Annie’s whole body seized up, alight.

Freida had stopped kissing her now, was just breathing with her and watching her face, as she slid her hand into Annie’s underwear. Annie had never really touched herself, didn’t really know why it felt so urgent, so good. Freida’s fingers dipping somewhere inside of her, Freida’s soft voice saying Is this okay? and Annie gasping Yes, yes as her hips jerked up, unbidden. And then Freida found something, a specific spot that made Annie shudder, and started circling it with her fingers, and then Freida pressed, and Annie was making some kind of sound, and her back was arching up off the bed, and she was all fire and white noise and joy — 

And when she opened her eyes, Freida was staring at her with huge eyes, like Annie was the only thing in the world that could possibly exist. 

“I’ve never — Annie —” 

Annie pulled her down and kissed her, open-mouthed, boneless and floating. She hadn’t known a human body could feel this way.

“You’re amazing,” said Freida. 

Annie shook her head. She was still trembling a little, but she finally trusted herself to speak coherently. “You are.”

“Oh, are we going to fight now, is that it?” smiled Freida. 

Annie smiled tremulously at her, shaking her head again. She couldn’t talk after all, so she just looked at Freida. She felt so soft inside, so warm. She hoped Freida could tell. Annie thought that maybe she could, by the way she pulled Annie closer still. 

They fell asleep that way, curved together and smiling. 

 

*

 

Annie woke up slowly, alone in bed. She felt sticky and gross. The sun shone through the window shades and striped the bed. She sat up and propped her head against her knees. She could hear Freida singing something in the kitchen, and she remembered the night before and felt herself get shivery all over just at the thought of it. 

And.

Then.

She realized exactly what they had done. 

A kind of delayed reaction set in, like a flash flood after a rainstorm, or a tsunami after an earthquake. 

The shaking started first, and then, as she hurried to put her clothes on and gather her things from the bathroom, the tears came. She had almost stuffed everything in her bag when Freida walked in with two mugs of coffee. “I have caffeine,” she said, smiling. Annie looked up at her and Freida stopped dead in her tracks. 

“Annie? What’s wrong?” she asked, immediately setting the mugs down and stepping over to her. Annie shook her head, her arms full of her discarded prom dress, and swallowed hard. 

“I can’t,” she said, her voice terribly wobbly. “I have to go, I can’t stay, I have to go, I have to go.” 

Freida reached out her hand and caught Annie’s elbow. “Are you okay? Tell me what’s wrong?” 

Annie just started crying again, and Freida wrapped her in her arms, prom dress and bag and all, and Annie sobbed against her chest for a long minute — why did it have to feel so good? — before pulling away. 

“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”

“What’s going on? Was it — did I hurt you last night?” 

“No, I just have to go.” 

“Annie, please, you’re scaring me,” Freida’s voice was near tears now too. 

Annie took a gulp of air. She ached all over. 

“It’s — what we did — it’s wrong. I can’t — it was wrong. I’m sorry.” She choked over the words. “It’s sin.” 

Freida’s face crumpled up tightly. “What if it wasn’t? What if it was okay?” 

“But it’s not! It never will be—” Annie’s lower lip was trembling violently. She hunched over her dress, her stupid dress, and fled past Freida down the hall toward the door. 

“Annie, wait, please wait,” Freida called out, following her. “We can talk about this.” 

The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak ran through Annie’s mind. She hadn’t known what it meant until now. 

Freida was still talking. Her hair was flying out every which way, and her t-shirt had a coffee stain on it already. She was so beautiful. Annie loved her so much, it rang through her, wildly, like a terrible bell. 

“— My aunt is part of a church in New York and they don’t think it’s wrong, they don’t think it’s a sin, I can show you, we can talk to her, just don’t go, please don’t go.“ 

The flesh, she thought, is weak. She wiped her wet, snotty face on her terrible dress, but tears kept coming out of her eyes. 

“I have to,” she whispered. “I can’t — it's in the Bible. And I can feel it. How wrong it was. How wrong it is. I know it is.” 

“Annie, please,” whispered Freida, stepping forward, wiping some of the tears off her face with her thumb. “Please Annie, I — I love you, please.”

Annie closed her eyes and pushed into Freida’s hand for a second. 

Then she remembered. She turned her face to the other side and said, “Stop. Stop.”

Freida dropped her hand as if it had been burned. 

“I’m going,” said Annie staring at the ground. “I can’t see you, I can’t talk to you. Please just don’t.” 

“Annie, don’t do this. Annie, please, will you look at me? We’ll figure this out.”

At that moment, as though something had broken clean in two inside of her, Annie felt calm. As if the Lord himself were saying to her Here Is The Path, Walk Ye In It. She stopped crying. She felt that she was rising above her body. She took it as a gift of grace. 

“No,” she said, quite clearly. “I can’t. I can’t. I don’t want to see you again. Stay away from me.” 

It would have hurt her to see Freida start to sob but she couldn’t feel a thing. 

She left Freida’s house and got into her car and drove down Greenwood, and then turned west and went down the long drive through the trees to the beach at Carkeek Park. She wiped her face clean. She sat in the car in the parking lot until she could leave it. She walked over the bridge that spanned the railroad tracks and down to the beach. It was a grey day, and only a few people were out. Annie sat on a log and stared blankly at the water, at the mountains, at the sand under her shoes. She couldn’t feel her body. She couldn’t feel anything. She sat there until she could pray. And then she prayed until she believed that someday she might be forgiven.

Chapter Text

The Spark didn’t always go to Idaho for church camp. Sometimes the youth group went to Whistler, B.C., or eastern Washington, or Oregon. 

Idaho, this year. Two hundred Christian high schoolers in tents in an Idahoan state park. 

The lake was lovely, Annie reflected on the fourth morning. She’d woken early and stolen out of the tent without waking the seven other girls crammed in there. Bible and journal clutched in hand, she went down the hillsides, through the evergreens, down to the lakefront. She found a log to sit on. 

The water was still, with the occasional water bug skating across the top. The early morning light was streaming in over the hill, warming the side of Annie’s face and turning everything golden. Birds were singing in the woods behind her, some of them flying overhead and landing on the water. 

It was beautiful and peaceful and she didn’t deserve any of it. 

Annie opened her journal and wrote the date down. 

I want to be done with this, Lord. She wrote as quickly as she could. I want to be obedient. I want to have a heart of flesh and not a heart of stone. Please take this burden away from me. She paused. Those words were too familiar to not follow up with the obligatory Not my will but yours be done. But oh, Lord, please please please. Please Lord, make me pure. 

Tears welled up in her eyes, and she put her head down on her knees, and wrapped her arms around it, letting her notebook and pen drop to the ground. She swallowed her sobs, knowing they would echo around the entire lake if she let them out. 

She hated crying, she’d held it back all summer, and for her control to break here? Now?

No. 

Annie’d just brought her breathing back to a more normal speed when she heard someone else coming down the trail from the campsite. Annie wiped her face off as best she could and grabbed her Bible, opening it at random to … Job.

Maybe God had a sense of humor after all. 

“Annie, I thought I might find you here,” said Ellen Russell, settling next to her. Annie wiped her face off again, but it was no use. Ellen caught sight of her red eyes and said, “Oh goodness, what’s wrong, dear?” in a tone of such warm, loving concern that Annie almost lost it again. 

“Me,” she choked out. “I’m wrong.” 

Ellen wrapped an arm around her, and Annie cried into her shoulder for a minute. 

“Ugh,” she said finally. “I’m sorry, I’m getting your sweatshirt all wet and—” 

“Don’t apologize,” Ellen said firmly. And then, gently: “Do you want to talk about it?” Annie shook her head and buried her face in her hands as Ellen went on. “You don’t have to, of course! I’ll pray for you either way, but you have seemed so weighted down lately, and if talking about whatever is going on will help, I’m right here.” 

Annie started trembling. No one, not even her mother had said they noticed anything wrong lately. Her father was hardly around, he was so involved in the LightWalk expansion plan (seven more campuses opening in the next six months). Her mom was helping him, as well as running the women’s ministry for the entire church, and Elizabeth was busy all the time with Bible college, and Mary was too young. Aleathia and Justin were dating now, and glued at the hip, and she couldn’t fathom telling anyone else. Annie had spent the summer volunteering with the youth group, planting trees in parks, and faking smile after smile, laugh after laugh. She was so tired

And so, after a few choked-up breaths, she finally said. “Freida—” which was enough to set her off again. 

“Did you two fight?” Ellen asked, gathering Annie back into a hug and stroking her hair. “I noticed she wasn’t coming around anymore.” 

“Yes. No. I — we —” Annie pulled back, accepted a tissue that Ellen gave her, and blew her nose. She stared at her hands. Ellen waited. 

“She kissed me,” Annie finally whispered. 

After a moment or two of silence, Annie risked a glance over at Ellen, whose eyes were wide. 

“Oh.” Ellen said faintly. “That is not what I thought you would say.” 

Annie nodded miserably. 

“What did you do?” Ellen finally asked. 

“I told her to never talk to me again,” Annie said flatly. 

“Okay,” Ellen said slowly. “That’s a good thing to do when someone makes you feel uncomfortable, Annie, that’s good.” 

“But — no, no, you don’t understand,” Annie said, and then forced herself to say the really damning thing. “I liked it.”

“Oh,” said Ellen, fainter still. Then, gathering herself: “Okay. So she … kissed … you, and you liked it, but then you told her to stop and never talk to you again.” 

Annie nodded again. 

“Do you — before this, have you ever thought about other girls that way?” 

This was a question Annie hadn’t thought of asking herself. Annie slowly shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

“So this might have been just a one-time thing?” 

“I guess so. Yes. I think so.” Annie’s chin started wobbling again. “I didn’t — I don’t think I ever felt like that about anyone.” She drew her knees up, folded her arms on top, and rested her head on them. “I just feel so dirty and so — so bad ,” she said, her words muffled into her arms. “I’ve prayed so much about this and I can’t stop thinking about it.”

“Oh Annie,” said Ellen. “I won’t lie, I’ve never really thought or read much about this — this issue. But I do know that God loves you, and that if you’ve prayed for forgiveness, Jesus hears you, and he gives it to you.” 

Annie started to cry again. Ellen put a comforting hand on her shoulder, and started to pray. 

“Lord, I’m here with Annie right now, and I just want to lift her up to you. You know her and you know her heart and how she longs to be right with you. Thank you for helping her to choose your path. Give Annie peace, Lord. Give her peace, and strengthen her love for you and her desire to do right in all areas of her life, including this one. Lord, we love you, and we know you love us. Thank you for being here with us.” 

After another minute or so of silence, Annie came up for air, and wiped her face off yet again. She would have to change her shirt before breakfast. 

“Thanks, Ellen,” she said, feeling stiff and awkward. What to say? 

“Have you told anyone else?” asked Ellen. 

“No.”

Ellen nodded and said, “Do you want to tell your parents about it?”

Annie made a face. “I don’t know.” Another thought struck her. “Don’t tell them, please, don’t tell them.”

“I won’t, don’t worry. This is yours to tell. But I know they’d be more than happy to pray with you and for you, and you might feel better if you did.” 

“Maybe. I’ll think about it,” Annie said, knowing even as she spoke that there was no chance that she would tell them. It would break her mom’s heart. And her dad? Walter Elliot, the pastor of LightWalk church? No.

Ellen pulled another tissue out of her pocket. “Here’s my last one. Are you going to be up to coming to breakfast?” 

Annie blew her nose again and nodded. “Yeah. I might be late though. I should take a shower and wash my face,” she said. 

Ellen nodded and said, “Thank you for trusting me with this, Annie. I’ll keep praying for you — can I check in with you later about this and how you’re feeling? Would that help?”

“Yeah, that would be nice,” said Annie. 

“We’ll do that. I have to go make sure the other girls are awake. But I want you to know that God loves you, Annie. I love you too. You can always talk to me.” 

“Thanks,” Annie sniffed. “I love you too. Thanks.”

Ellen went back up the hill to camp. 

Annie sat for a few more minutes before gathering her journal and Bible and starting up the hillside. She felt … lighter. Relieved. She’d done the right thing, hadn’t she? 

Hadn’t she?

 

*

 

END OF PART ONE

Chapter Text

BEGINNING OF PART TWO

 

*

 

Annie felt like she hadn’t slept in a month. Her right hand ached from scrolling through documents and insurance pictures on her phone. She had paper cuts, she had a tension headache, she had sore shoulders, and she had the feeling that her stomach had vacated her body, and not in a good way.

Annie also had a quad latte in her hands, even though it was 6 o’clock. It was all that was keeping her upright and coherent as she knocked on the door of her childhood home.

I am so sorry to bother you,” she began in a rush as the door opened. “I’m Annie Elliot, and I lived here before you — well, me and my family did. One of my sisters is living abroad right now and she just messaged me to say that she left a box hidden in the attic, and only remembered yesterday, so....” she trailed off, looking at the middle-aged couple standing in the doorway. They were smiling kindly at her. 

“Hi, Annie,” said the woman. She had a lovely smile that wrinkled up around her eyes. “I’m Sophia Croft, it’s lovely to meet you. This is the Admiral,” she added, giving her husband a playful jab.  

“I’m Peter,” said the man. “It’s no trouble at all. I don’t think we’ve been into the attic yet.”   

“Of course we have, don’t be silly, darling,” said Sophia. “I don’t remember anything, but let’s go have a look, shall we?”

One shoebox full of photos was hidden away inside the window seat at the back dormer window. 

“Oh, how neat!” said Mrs. Croft, “We didn’t know there was storage space in there! It’s sort of treasure chest-y, isn’t it?” 

“Yeah, we used to hide things up here when we played,” said Annie, smiling at the memory. “I must have forgotten to tell the movers,” she added, frowning and looking down at the floor. This was a lie. She had asked Mary to get everything out of the attic. Oh well. 

“Any other secret compartments in the house?” asked Admiral Croft genially. 

“Actually,” said Annie, thoughtfully. “How thoroughly have you explored the basement? I think there are some loose wall panels down there.”

Half an hour later, they were standing in the entryway again.

“Thank you, dear!” said Mrs. Croft, turning toward Annie.

“Oh, it’s been my pleasure,” Anne said, trying to muster as much enthusiasm as possible into her voice. How odd, to see this house full of someone else’s boxes, and someone else’s beds and, and, and — Annie cleared her throat. “Thank you both so much — I hope you like the house.” 

Mrs. Croft was pulling her jacket on as well. “We couldn’t be more thrilled about it. And the garden! I can’t wait to see it start blooming.” 

Annie nodded, blinking. “My mom worked so hard on it, I’m so glad you’ll enjoy it.” 

The Admiral said heartily, “We can’t wait!” He looked at Annie for a moment before saying, “Annie, why don’t you come with us to dinner?” 

“Oh yes,” Mrs. Croft interjected. “You’ve been wonderful. Tell us what’s good over on the main street there, and we’ll treat you.”

“Oh gosh, you don’t have to,” she protested.

They prevailed, and the three of them walked through the chill to the Thai restaurant three blocks away. Sitting down and talking with two interesting, cheerful people who had been around the world was actually nice, Annie thought. She found herself laughing, really laughing, multiple times. How often had that happened in the past few months?

Talk turned back to the house and the neighborhood. 

“Have you met the Musgroves yet?” Annie asked. 

“I believe so, just in passing,” said Mrs. Croft. “Across the street, in the blue house?” 

“Yes!” said Annie. “They own Musgrove Realty, the company that sold the house. We — I’ve known them for forever. Diane and Ray are the sweetest people you could ever meet. My younger sister Mary is married to their youngest son Charles, and they have two kids and live around the block. And the Musgrove twins, Henry and Louisa – they’re my age – drop in all the time.” 

“Wow!” said the Admiral. “You Seattleites really are as committed to your neighborhoods as everyone claims.”

Annie laughed. “Maybe just our block? It does seem a little incestuous, now that I say it all out loud.” 

“You know, I heard that there was a study once that said most people get married to people who grew up within 20 miles of them,” added Mrs. Croft, twinkling at her husband. 

“I somehow think the Navy took that away from us,” he said, twinkling back, before adding, “Annie, where are you living now?” 

“Well, actually, I’m crashing with my sister Mary for a little bit, so if you see me walking around the neighborhood, I’m not stalking you, I promise!” 

By the end of the meal, pleasant as it was, Annie could feel her headache coming back, and went to the bathroom. She popped two Advil and looked in the mirror. Dark under-eye circles. A frizzy, unwashed mess of hair pulled back into an unflattering ponytail. Stress acne flatteringly breaking out on her chin. Her sister Elizabeth would have made this look cute somehow. Well, she wasn’t Elizabeth, but Annie dabbed just a little more concealer onto her chin, stared into her own dead-looking eyes, and promised herself that sleep would be coming very soon. 

When she walked back to the table, a fourth person had joined them, next to Admiral Croft, kitty corner to Annie’s seat. She was digging around in her bag on the back of the chair, her head of short curly black hair twisted around out of sight. She started to turn around, just as Mrs. Croft said “Oh, Freida, meet Annie! Annie, this is my niece, Freida. She quite literally just got into town, so I told her to meet us here. I hope you don’t mind.” 

Freida. 

It was Freida

Freida Wentworth

Annie was looking at Freida fucking Wentworth for the first time since —

Since –

If Annie had been able to feel anything besides the drop in her stomach and the roaring in her ears, she would have felt the blood drain away from her face.

She tried to say something. Anything. “Holy shit,” she heard herself say. 

Annie ?” Freida’s mouth hung open. 

Mrs. Croft jumped in. “Oh, do you know each other?”

Freida recovered fastest. She had always been a little quicker, hadn’t she? “Um, yeah, from high school.” Her face was blank, shuttered. She looked the same. She looked different. 

“What a small world!” Mrs. Croft said. 

Annie sat down heavily. “What are — I mean, you guys are — you’re related?” She was gripping her legs under the tablecloth so tightly, she felt like she could feel the blood coursing through the veins, shit shit shit shit—

“Yes, indeed!” said the Admiral, beaming. “I’m her dad’s brother! They’re down in California again, but Freida is here, all the way from England! And she’ll be helping us settle in — to your beautiful house, Annie — for the next month or two.”

Freida shook her head a little, a clearing gesture. Her face had filled out a little. She had laugh lines. “Yeah, I’m doing a consulting assignment with a tech firm downtown,” she said slowly, looking at her aunt. “Wait, you guys bought the Elliots’ old house?” 

Mrs. Croft looked between them, bemused. “We did. It’s a beautiful place, it suits us down to the ground. I can’t wait for you to see it.” 

Annie felt a smile stretching her mouth, automatic and dull. “I’m so glad you like it.” It was really her. It was her. “Wait, England?” 

“I went to Oxford for uni, and ended up getting a job at a consulting firm right afterwards in London,” said Freida. 

This was altogether too much. 

Annie checked her phone blindly. “Oh my god, sorry, I’m staying with my sister and she just texted me. I think I have to go, I’m so sorry! Thank you so much for dinner. Please call me with any questions, or anything I can do.” She paused. What was a normal thing to say? What would a normal person do? “Freida, so good to see you.” 

Admiral Croft: “Of course! Don’t worry about it.” 

Mrs. Croft: “Thank you for everything, dear!” 

Freida: “Yeah, have a good night.”

Annie grabbed her purse, and in her effort to not run out of the building, she was slow enough in the next room to overhear Freida saying distantly: “Shit. She looks ... old. I don’t think I would have recognized her.”  

Annie walked as quickly as she could back to her sister’s house. She paused on the porch, took some deep breaths, scrubbed at her eyes. She remembered that she’d left the box of photographs, after all, and quietly swore. Well, the old house was just around the corner. She’d send Mary. 

Mary and Charles’ house was dark. She let herself in quietly, her hands shaking as she twisted the key in the lock. These weren’t new feelings. She got a glass of water. She’d survived them before. She washed her face. She was going to take care of herself this time. She’d sort everything out tomorrow. Oh god, oh god, Freida. Annie curled up on the bed without changing her clothes, her whole body trembling violently, and pushed her head into the pillow so that no one would hear her cry.

Chapter Text

*

 

June 2012

Heidi Anne Elliot

“Heidi Anne Elliot.” The Seattle Times, 23 June 2012, www.legacy.com/obituaries/seattletimes/obituary.aspx?n=heidi-anne-elliot/.

Heidi Anne Elliot, 46, entered into the loving arms of her beloved Savior on June 21st, 2012, after a courageous two year battle with breast cancer. She passed away at home, surrounded by her loving family. She is survived by her husband Pastor Walter Elliot, daughters Elizabeth (23), Anne (22), and Mary (17). Heidi was a shining example of faith, hope, humility and charity, and was beloved by all who knew her. A celebration of her life and service will take place on Saturday, June 25th, at the Ballard location of LightWalk Church, which Heidi and her husband started in 1994. Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

*

 

August 2013

Mary Elliot Wed To Charles Musgrove

"Mary Elliot Wed To Charles Musgrove." The Seattle Times, 12 August 2013, www.seattletimes.com/2013/08/12/announcements/mary-elliot-wed-to-charles-musgrove/.

Mary Janet Elliot, a daughter of Walter Elliot and Heidi Elliot (deceased) of Seattle, WA., was married yesterday to Charles Luke Musgrove, a son of Ray Musgrove and Diane Musgrove of Seattle, WA. Walter Elliot officiated at the LightWalk Church in Ballard, WA. The reception was held at the Rainer Club in downtown Seattle. 

The bride and groom both graduated from Seattle Columbia School, class of 2012. The bride's father is the head pastor of the LightWalk network of churches, which he founded in 1994. The groom's father is the owner and CEO of Musgrove Realty, which was founded by the groom's grandfather in 1947. 

The bride and groom will begin their life together in the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle, WA.  

 

*

 

February 2015 ( - February 2017) 

Therapy affirmations

Notes App: Pinned Note, started February 2015, last modified February 2017.

  • Okay to process grief for mom in many ways
  • Grief is cyclical & that’s okay (metaphor: ball bouncing around room, hitting you randomly)
  • If humans are not inherently evil, then I am not either
  • I can tolerate discomfort in order to grow
  • I can be excited about of the future
  • I can change my situation, my beliefs, and my environment
  • My body is my self 
  • My body, ergo, is good (or, at least not bad)
  • Sex is neither good nor bad - it just is something that our bodies can do
  • Sex can be very good
  • My queerness is good
  • Loving people is not wrong
  • I can’t change the past, I can only learn from it and move on
  • I was trying to protect myself
  • Detachment was a coping mechanism, and coping mechanisms can be abandoned after they no longer serve
  • Grief is cyclical AND IT IS OKAY ANNIE
  • I can draw boundaries between myself and Dad + Elizabeth
  • Boundaries are healthy and appropriate

 

*

 

September 2016 

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

SeattleFreezy. “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend.” DarkWalk: From The Desk Of A Former LightWalk-er, Blogspot, 27 September 2016, www.darkwalkin.com/09272016/hello-darkness-my-old-friend.

Hey guys, sorry for the long wait between updates. Also, I couldn’t help but use this title for this post after my wife suggested it (Thanks for your indulgence, honey). I’ve been at work cataloguing all we now know about what has been happening at LightWalk in the last six months. Here’s a full timeline with links in text to blog posts and news articles

March 2016: Walter Elliot purchases new house in Queen Anne

April 2016: Ray Musgrove requests first official meeting with Walter Elliot on the subject of finances. Meeting request accepted, and then postponed indefinitely. 

May 2016: Ray Musgrove writes email request for internal audit of LightWalk finances - sent to Board and Walter; request for second official meeting. 

June 2016: Walter convenes a meeting of elders without Ray Musgrove. Issues a rewrite of the bylaws, removing Ray Musgrove from the Board of Elders. Brian Russell, Lon Smith, and James Losset -- all three are at the meeting and object to the change in bylaws. Walter Elliot convenes a quorum of elders without Russell, Smith and Losset, and the new bylaws are passed, removing them as well. New bylaws posted (hidden) on website. Ray Musgrove is replaced by Micahel Clay. New bylaws also give Walter Elliot final say over the following: staffing decisions, who is on the Board of Elders, and all financial records.  

July 2016: Lon Smith is asked to step down from position as Youth Pastor, his wife Rachel Smith is asked to step down as Interim Women’s Ministry Director. Musgrove, Russell, Smith, and Losset families all cease attending church services. Ray Musgrove emails long-time members of the church, citing concerns & urging them to confront Pastor Elliot. 

August 2016: New head of Board of Elders Michael Clay emails long-time members and all ministry leaders that the Musgroves, Russells, Smiths, and Lossets are all to be shunned. All contact is to be cut off with each family member. Strongly hinted that this is a directive from Walter Elliot. This includes Elliot’s youngest daughter, and his son-in-law, Charles Musgrove. Anon source: a further exchange with Michael Clay includes the word “excommunication". After an unofficial meeting with Musgroves and Smiths, many longtime LightWalk families (including mine) stop attending services (see my post from September: Why We Left LightWalk)

September 2016: Penny Clay (daughter of Michael Clay) made new head of Women’s Ministry. Walter Elliot goes on a two-week vacation to Hawai’i. Eldest Elliot daughter and Clay family join him. 

That brings us up to date, folks. Please check out the links for more information. As you probably know, I’ve made my own commentary in other posts - this is merely meant to be a consolidation of the timeline of events. 

My wife and I are working jointly on formulating an email petition to Walter Elliot and the elders at LightWalk, demanding transparency and accountability. My next post will have details. 

If you have additions or more information, please drop a comment or send me an email at walkinthelight72 (at) email (dot) com. Standard disclaimer that everything is confidential and kept anonymous. 

Posted by: seattlefreezy on September 27, 2016

37 Comments

 

*

 

June 2017

Probably Should Have Clued Me Into The Gay™

Notes App: Note started June 6, 2017.

  1. Princess Jasmine/Lilo’s sister in Lilo & Stitch/Jessica Rabbit
  2. REALLY wanted to be Ravi’s friend in third grade
  3. Couldn’t stop staring at Abbey’s perfect hair in sixth grade orchestra
  4. Middle school - upset that friends were “wasting their time” dating boys
  5. (lol)
  6. My fashion choices from age 12 to age 24
  7. Utter lack of interest in boys after Marcus in 8th grade. Had his voice changed yet? I don’t think so? 
  8. FW
  9. :(((((

 

*

 

2018

When The Power Went Out at LightWalk Church

Ness, Patrick. "When The Power Went Out At LightWalk Church." Slog, The Stranger, 22 August 2018, www.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2018/08/22/when-the-power-went-out-at-lightwalk-church/. 

I’d like to add a personal addendum to my article published last week regarding the dissolution of LightWalk Church, Seattle’s very own homegrown mega-church that rose — and fell — over the last few years under Walter Elliot. 

It is easy, as an outsider, to look at a man known for his strident anti-feminist, anti-LGBT sermons, and scoff at the people who bought into his whole deal for so long. As someone raised Baptist in the South, however, I have survived fundamentalism, and I’m here to talk about it. Please note: I am not making a blanket statement about religion qua religion, but about systems that can be classified as religiously abusive or traumatic. More information here, if you’re curious. 

(Side note: I am now an atheist, which seemed to surprise everyone I interviewed for the article, since I was cordial, polite, and uninterested in theological debate. Shout out to Penelope Clay, on public record in support of Walter Elliot, who said, “But you’re so nice!” Sorry that I’m not a ravening demon from hell, darling.)

I understand that much of what seems to have triggered Walter Elliot’s dark turn began after the death of his wife from cancer, several years ago, but what may have started as some fudging of the records soon turned into full-blown embezzlement. You can read my article for all the grisly details of the legal settlement, of course.

It’s hard to look at the physical evidence — the $3000 sneakers and $800 pants, the ostentatious second home (the house, complete with tennis court, pool, and a Space Needle view, has been sold to Amazon Sr. Vice President Sean Blanchard), the remodel to his original Queen Anne residence (which, by the way, is currently up for sale), the private jet flights to Christian conferences around the world –– and not see that something doesn’t quite add up. Not to mention, the well-documented wholesale excommunication and shunning of any church member who dared to question his theology or accounting too closely (allegedly, this includes his own in-laws). 

To follow this man seems unhinged, right? Well, in my opinion, religious fundamentalism fosters this type of behavior in an unbalanced, powerful personality. In an environment in which the Bible is held as the ultimate authority, and the pastor’s interpretation is almost equal to it, even congregations that don’t have a flashy leader speaking eloquently to thousands of people each week can fall prey to the dangers and delusions of a cult of personality.

Children raised in an evangelical environment have been trained to accept authority unquestioningly and indoctrinated into disbelieving their own gut instincts (see: Isaiah 55:8-9, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.”). Meanwhile, adult converts find an instantly warm and welcoming community. If you believe in souls and eternity, then what could be more important than the fate of your eternal soul? People in this environment are vulnerable, and it is too easy for an unscrupulous leader to prey on that vulnerability with the promise of love, absolution, and redemption. This is why unknowing masses kept flocking to LightWalk... until an anonymous whistle-blower got the IRS involved this spring.

Elliot’s words and actions betray a narcissism almost unfathomably vast. He still refuses to comment or publicly apologize to thousands of wounded church members, after he sold everything out from under them to pay his own debts off. He is also, in an amazing turn, reportedly trying to start another church in Everett right now. 

As Jenny Holzer says, abuse of power comes as no surprise. My advice to ex-LightWalkers? Take a long, hard look at the next charismatic leader you entrust with your money — and your soul. 

Posted by: Patrick Ness on August 22, 2018

4 Comments

 

*

 

September 2018

202 W Boston St.

Musgrove Realty. “202 W Boston St.” The Seattle Times, 1 September 2018, H3. 

This beautifully updated craftsman is in an ideal location atop Queen Anne Hill. Fantastic schools, walk score, and transit score. Fully remodeled in 2014 w/ new kitchen, bathroom, electrical, plumbing, fixtures, furnace, electrical box, roof, tile, paint, garage door and opener, double pane windows, appliances, and more! Beautiful hardwoods, tall ceilings, and large bedrooms. More photos and information available at musgroverealty.com (offered with buying agent commission).

  • 1,510 sqft (3,500 sqft lot)
  • 4 Bedroom, 2 Bathroom
  • Fully Remodeled in 2013
  • Fully Updated Systems in 2013
  • Open Floor Plan
  • Detached Single Car Garage
  • Large Yard and Nearby Parks
  • Optimal In City Location and Schools

 

Chapter Text

November 9th, 2018

 

Mary:
heyyyyy Annie just wanted to let u know that we won’t be home tonight! 
Henry and Louisa are going out for their birthday
They would be so bummed if we can’t go
Oh, shit, Annie ur invited duh, Lou’s phone died she was just about to txt u
Diane and Ray are gonna take the boys 

Elizabeth:
oh my god, Mary it’s 3:30am over here. Why are you texting the group thread.

Mary:
do u not have do not disturb on lol

Elizabeth:
I thought I did 

Mary:
Well since ur up! I wanted to ask you about the Good colors right now in the UK 
Before I buy lou a purse

Elizabeth:
no

Elizabeth:
ugh, okay fine

Elizabeth:
animal prints. mixtures of matte and shiny textures. red and pink together. tweed and checkers.

Mary:
ooooh! Thanks babe! 
I’ll text you later tonight about the party and H&L’s super cool new friend Freida who is going to hop us around all the georgetown breweries 

Mary:
Actually Annie, Lou told me F knew you all in high school or something? 

Annie:
Yeah, she was at SCS for senior year. 

Mary:
lol I’ll have to ask her what you were like in hs haha

Annie:
You were at least 13 by that point, do you not... remember?

Mary:
U know my memory is terrible Annie
Child bearing does that to you
You know the thing where you PUSH a person out of your VAG
how old am I now? 
How old r u?
who can even say?

Annie:
One, love the babies, but please stop talking about the miracle of life.
Two, You’re 24, I’m 27, and Elizabeth’s 28. You’re welcome.
Three, I just realized I need to work late. 
Have fun & tell The Twins happy birthday for me! I’ll buy them a drink soon.

Elizabeth:
Guys! I need to sleep we have witness outreach in Bath tomorrow first thing

Mary:
BETS silence ur phone!!! If I can’t count years I def can’t count to England time!!!
Also lol what kind of a town name is bath the brits are so weird haha
Have fun elizaBATH

Mary
*three-way FaceTime call*

Mary:
 *call cancelled*

Mary:
Ayyyyy sorry guys hit the wrong button 

Elizabeth:
I hate you

 

*

 

December 7th, 2018

 

The kids were yelling. And running up and down the whole second floor hallway above her. It sounded like a herd of young elephants. Annie blearily checked her phone, saw the 6:11 on the screen, and groaned. 

She could hear Charles whisper-yelling at them to be quiet and go back to their room until their bunny clock lit up. 

“And then,” he promised, “you’ll see Auntie Anne again at breakfast.” 

“Auntie ANNE is still HERE?!” the children shrieked. Annie smiled. She'd been there for over a month now, and they were still thrilled to see her every morning. 

Charles shushed them and said, “She’s going to disappear if you don’t go back to your room now, boys. Go.” 

The trooping of their feet back up the stairs was like jungle drums. 

Annie sighed and propped herself up on the pillows, scrolling through Instagram. She liked a picture of flowers from a college friend. She saw Willa’s picture of four smiling kids and read the caption. “Trust in the LORD and he will make your paths straight … the Bible doesn’t say smooth! Trust me, it’s not all smiles and giggles over here, but I’m so grateful for His Mercy and Grace over our lives … I wouldn’t trade a minute of it!” It had 52 likes and 8 comments. 

Annie muted her.

She started flipping through Stories instead, gradually becoming more upright. Charles was clanking quietly in the kitchen. Annie flopped into child’s pose, her phone next to her on the bedspread, still automatically playing through Stories. She rolled over onto her side and was just dozing off again when she heard it. 

“Freida motherfucking Wentworth, everyone!” Silence. A clunk. A roar of laughter. Freida’s laugh and breathless, cut-off, “Oh my god!” 

Well, sleep wasn’t an option anymore. She scrambled upright and grabbed her phone, flipping backwards until she found it again.

Ah. It was Henry Musgrove’s story. They had all been at the game cafe down the street. 8 hours ago, from the time stamp. Freida had been tagged. Annie watched the story again. 

Questioning her own actions, character, and judgement, Annie tapped through the tag to Freida’s profile. No new pictures since last weekend’s trip to the farmer’s market. A new story, but Annie knew better than to watch it and give herself away. 

She’d seen Freida in person exactly five times now. Once, at Trader Joe’s (Annie hid in the wine aisle), twice just walking around the neighborhood, and twice with Louisa Musgrove, at the Musgrove’s parents house, while Annie was picking up the kids for Mary. After the second time and Frieda’s avoidance of eye contact, Annie started making excuses to avoid going over, but she worried that her protestations were so thin by now as to appear see-through. 

Diane Musgrove was originally from Georgia, and she had the open door policy to prove it. Growing up, all of the Musgrove kids and their friends were in the habit of running in and out of the Musgrove house at all hours, yelling cheerfully to each other in passing, like very energetic ships in the night. Even since all the kids moved out, they all still lived out of each other’s pockets. Annie was always rather more surprised if she went to the Musgroves’ house and didn’t see someone else in the family, or a neighbor. 

Really (Annie thought), the proximity should have made things far worse when Annie’s dad excommunicated the Musgroves, but by that point, no one was living in the house. Mary and Charles were settled, Elizabeth lived with church friends, and Annie was living with… huh, she must have been living in the Central District with her co-workers from the retail place at that point. And, of course, Walter had just moved to his extravagant second house. Annie had gone there as little as possible. She had hated it. It was offensively new. Shiny cherry colored wood and grey concrete, the back wall made of glass to show off the larger-than-life view of the Space Needle. 

By the time everything fell apart at LightWalk, the old Elliot house had lain fallow for years . Annie had gone in, on occasion, just to make sure everything was alright, thinking Mom would want me to. And her father had contracted gardeners out to maintain the yard. Heaven forfend that appearances change, after all. 

And then. Spring 2018. Walter and Elizabeth called Annie in tandem, spitting mad and yelling about the government and the IRS and audits, and how dare anyone question the wisdom of Walter Elliot ? Finally, Walter’s lawyer talked some sense into him. And then it was just a blur of tears, and a blur of Annie’s thinking Mom would have done it. Annie had driven straight to the Musgroves’ house and Diane had made tea and Ray had promised to handle selling the house if she, Annie, would interface between him and Walter. I’m doing it for Mom , as she lovingly packed the family Christmas ornaments, the photo albums, the decorative trinkets, the heirloom furniture. Her entire life would not fall into the black hole of her father’s ego. She paid for the storage unit herself and kept the key in her wallet. 

Annie blinked, realized that she had been frozen over her phone staring blankly at Freida’s profile for twenty minutes. 

Right. Well, she’d either have to come up with better excuses to avoid the Musgroves’ house, or she’d have to get used to seeing Freida. 

Annie shuddered, carefully closed the Instagram app and then threw her phone down. It bounced from the mattress to the floor and she swore. 

“Annie?” called Charles. “You okay? There’s coffee out here.” 

“Yeah, coming,” she called, shoving her feet into slippers and her arms into a thick sweater. 

“Morning,” she yawned, walking into the kitchen. “Mary up yet?” 

“Not yet,” said Charles, handing her a mug. 

Annie inhaled the steam. “Bless you,” she muttered fervently before sitting down and starting to drink it. 

Charles sat down opposite her with a bowl of cereal. “Boys are excited to see you,” he said around crunches. 

“I heard,” she said wryly. They sat in silence, Charles on his phone and Annie staring out the window. 

“You coming to dinner at my parents’ tonight? Henry told me he wants to see you, and he promised to be there this time,” said Charles, after a few minutes. 

“Aw, that’s nice! I miss him too. I haven’t really seen them all in a while, it feels like. Probably because I don’t live next door anymore,” said Annie. She would not commit to going. Not until she determined whether certain people were invited...

“It’s funny, but I feel like half a block really does make a difference,” Charles said thoughtfully.

The clock on the stove clicked to 7:00am, and a minute later, the boys tore downstairs. 

“Auntie Annie!” shrieked Charley, running forward.

“I am so lucky! Another morning with my best and only Charleybug!” she said, hugging him. She looked over his shoulder to Marshall, who had turned serious. “And how’s my most special and only Marshallmellow?” 

“Good,” he said shyly and adorably, before giving her a hug as well. 

Breakfast commenced. Marshall promptly lost his shyness and started speaking in voluble three-year-old speech about the family visit day at Charley’s preschool, with Charley loudly correcting him on every detail. Much cereal was consumed, much cereal ended up on the table. 

Mary found her way downstairs as Charles was wiping the boys’ mouths. She kissed her sons on the heads before they raced away from the table. Mary took the cup Charles had for her, sipped at it, and made a face. 

“Dear, could you warm this up for me? It’s like exactly lukewarm.”

Charles took it and went to the microwave. 

“Annie, I keep meaning to ask you, how are you sleeping? I’ve been thinking about replacing that mattress, we’ve had it for years,” Mary said. “Thanks babe,” she said as Charles handed her the cup. “Ahh this is hot, I almost burned my tongue!” 

“Sorry, dear,” said Charles mildly, clearing away the breakfast dishes. Mary immediately drank half the cup in one go and started peeling a banana. 

“I slept fine, thanks. I think the mattress is totally fine.”

“I don’t think so, I really want to get a new one for us and then bring our current one down here. Annie, what are you up to today? I think I told you Charles’ mom invited you for family dinner. The Twins will be there for sure, Louisa swore to me, and I actually think Diane invited the Crofts and Freida over as well.” 

“Oh! Actually, yeah, Diane had me on that text thread too.”

“God, I can’t believe she does so many group texts, I hate group texts! Such a mom thing, I’m honestly glad Dad doesn’t do it too much.” 

“Yeah, I—“

“So you’re coming to that, but what are you up to during the day?” 

“I have to start work at 8:30 and I was going to walk over to Caffe Ladro and camp out for a while.” 

“Mm, is there any little chance you happen to be off work by 3? It’s just, I have a haircut, and Charles has a repair job at the Magnolia building, and Bridgette just texted me last night that she couldn’t come today after all. It would only be an hour, and it’s supposed to be sunny, you guys could go to the park—”

“Bridgette can’t come babysit?” said Charles from the sink. “Can’t you move your appointment?” 

“Well, I would, honey, but Ana is going back to Norway tomorrow for some kind of Norwegian holiday and won’t be back for two weeks and my split ends are driving me crazy, I know you don’t notice, babe, but I notice, and every other woman in this neighborhood notices too, I promise you. I could hardly stand going to yoga yesterday, I could just feel their judgy, skinny little eyes on me.” 

This last sentence was delivered with half of a banana in Mary’s mouth as an articulatory aid. 

Charles started to say something, but Annie said, “An hour at 3? I think I can swing that, but I’ll have to get back to work afterwards. Can’t disappoint the yoga moms of Queen Anne!”

“Oh my god, you are a saint! Thank you, you angel!” Mary said, standing up, putting her banana peel in the trash and kissing Charles’ cheek. “You are the best, thanks much!” 

She started going upstairs, calling out, “Boys, are you dressed yet?” 

Charles took the banana peel from the trash and put it in the compost bin. “Are you sure?” he said quietly. “We can ask my mom.…”

“No, it’s fine, really. I could use a walk if it’s going to be sunny, and you know I always want more time with the boys. The park will be fun!”

“Well, thank you, Annie. You are actually the best.”

“It’s nothing, I promise. Thank you for letting me stay here.”

“Are you kidding?” Charles called back over his shoulder as he started to head upstairs. “You can stay as long as you want.”

 

*

 

Annie bundled up and walked to the coffeeshop, setting herself up in the back corner before going up to the counter.

“Good morning, darlin’!” beamed the tattooed barista behind the counter.

“Hey Alex, how’s the morning been so far?”

“Steady as she goes. The usual?”

“With an extra shot, please. The nephews were up early today.”

Alex grimaced as she rang Annie up. 

“That’s worse than me, I just stayed up going to my friend’s show in frickin’ Belltown. Like, I did this to myself, at least.” Alex grimaced as she named the clubbing district off of downtown. 

Annie laughed. “Yeah, I can’t decide if it’s better to make the choice, or worse to know you intentionally inflicted pain on your future self. How was the show?”

“It was good! Her band is rad. You should come to their next show, I think you’d like it.” 

Annie moved to the side and waited for Alex to finish pouring her latte. The other barista, Maggie, started ringing the next customer up. 

“Is she a sad singer-songwriter? Because you know I’m a true Seattleite,” Annie said, grinning. 

“Nah, she has this floaty high voice, and the band rocks out behind her. Sort of a Cranberries vibe.”

“I’d be into that! When are they playing next?” 

“Cool! I think in a couple weeks? If you’re hanging out here today, I’ll check with her and let you know later.”

“Oh yeah, that would be awesome. I’ll be here! Probably working here until lunch.” 

Pastry and coffee in hand, Annie sat down in the back corner and logged into the work Slack. 

“Good morning!” she typed to her far-flung colleagues. 

“Morning! Still jealous of your West Coast wake-up time :)” responded her co-worker Shawn, who was based in Montreal. 

“I mean, it doesn’t feel late to me *shrug*” she typed back.

“Annie, good morning,” messaged her manager. “I’m sending you an updated list of breakout sessions for the conference. Can you refresh the website calendar by noon my time?” 

“Can do!”

Two hours later, she was stretching and feeling pleasantly proud of the amount of work she had accomplished. With any luck, she wouldn’t have to stay up tonight finishing anything. Mary had said she’d only be an hour with the haircut, which was … well, it sure was cute that she thought that. Annie rolled her eyes to herself and cracked her knuckles. Someone came through the door and an icy draft blew in, so Annie put her hood up. She had just settled back in her seat, when she heard it. 

Freida’s voice had always been velvety and warm. Age had deepened it to a timbre that was like the surface of a burnished mahogany table. Or maybe one of those polished gemstone rocks that Annie had as a kid, a deep, rich brown with a golden sheen to it. Ridiculous similes, both of them, but the only ones Annie could come up with.

Regardless — the voice, and the person accompanying it, were here in this coffeeshop. This was too much.

Annie kept her hood up, hunched over her laptop, and listened intently. The words were somewhat indistinct, but the tone wasn’t. Politeness at first, warming up to friendly, flirtatious banter. Alex was very cute. Annie briefly considered jealousy, but she liked Alex too much. In fact, she and Freida would make a stupidly hot couple. And they were both so nice. She hated everything. 

Goodbyes were called out, and the wind came sweeping in as the door opened and closed.

Annie risked a glance over, and saw Freida striding down the street. She relaxed and put her hood down, getting up for a refill. 

“Sounds like you guys were getting along,” she said mildly, as Alex took her cup. 

“She’s great. Comes in a couple times a week. Super cute, right?”

“Oh, uh — yeah. I thought so.” 

“It is so fun to have a job that basically allows me to flirt with every cutie who walks in.” 

“Oh god, that sounds like my nightmare.” 

“Nah, you’d be good at it, you’re very charming.”

“What? No.” Annie was blushing, she could feel it.

And you’re cute!” Alex winked at her and handed over her refill. “It’s not so bad. Plus, it’s how I found my girlfriend, so,” she shrugs, smiling, “it works out sometimes.”

Annie laughed. A giddy flower of goodwill toward Alex — beautiful, lovely, boo’d up Alex — blossomed in her chest. 

“Well, maybe I should try it instead of sending endless emails! Oh hey, did your friend text you back with those show details?”

“I think so. Let me — yup! She did!” Alex looked up from her phone, considering. “Can I get your number and text this to you? Is that weird? I feel like we should probably be real life friends.” 

“Yes! I would love that! Let’s do it!”

A minute later her phone buzzed. Austere, Dec 18th @ Chop Suey, 9pm.  

 

*

 

Later that afternoon, Charley ran around the playground, while Annie pushed Marshall’s swing as high as she could. 

“Aunt Annie, look at me! Auntie, look at me on the monkey bars!” 

“Good job, Charley! Look at you and your strong arms!” 

“Auntie Annie, could you sing — Auntie Annie could you sing the swing song? Could you sing the swing song?” Marshall yelled out. 

“What do you say?” 

“Please!” 

Annie sang, to the tune of Home On The Range. “Marsh, Marshall is swinging! Up into the air he is winging! Oh give him a push and he will go woosh ! And everyone else will be singing!” 

This was repeated two more times to great acclaim. In the middle of the third time, Charley yelled out, “Miss Freida! Miss Freida!” 

Annie’s heart sank into her boots. She stopped singing abruptly. Freida was in running clothes, walking briskly at the edge of the playground, squinting at them and calling out, “Hey guys!” 

“Miss Freida, look what I can do!” Charley started running and pulling the merry-go-round. He jumped on. 

“Charley, that is amazing!” 

“I can do it really fast!”

“I see that, bud!” 

Marshall had slowed down because Annie was only half-heartedly pushing him. 

“Miss Freeya!” Marshall called. “Auntie Annie is pushing me high!”

Freida walked toward them. “I see that Marshall! That is SO cool!” A slight pause. “Sorry to bother you.” She ran her hand through her hair. “I, uh, thought for a second that you were Mary, and I had a stupid question — sorry, never mind.”

“Oh, um. No problem. What was the question?” Annie couldn’t make eye contact. She just. She couldn’t. 

“Uh, my aunt told me that Diane Musgrove invited all of us to dinner tonight, but she didn’t give me any other info. Do you know what time it starts, or what I could bring?” 

“Oh, yeah. Let me check the text. Marshall, I’m going to push you extra big in a minute, okay?” Annie pulled out her phone. “She said seven. And she’s making salmon, so maybe wine? But you don’t have to bring anything, she really doesn’t care about that.”

“Okay, cool, thanks—“ 

Freida was cut off by a wail. Charley had stumbled off the merry-go-round and was throwing up on the woodchips. 

“Oh, shit ,” Annie said sharply, running over to Charley, who was alternately retching and wailing. 

“Hey baby, take some deep breaths,” she said, squatting down and rubbing his back. “Shh, you’re okay, I’m here. You’re okay, sweetie, I’m right here.” 

Marshall jumped down from the swing and ran over to her, clinging onto her back. 

“Marshall, honey, can you go play on the horse? Let’s give Charley some space.” 

Marshall did not want to give Charley space, as it happened. Annie repeated herself and started to say it a third time, when she felt Marshall detach from her, like a limpet from a rock, and heard Freida’s voice saying, “Marsh, let’s go play over here while your auntie takes care of Charley.” 

Annie didn’t even have time to be surprised, just grateful. 

After another minute or so, Charley calmed down, hiccuping. He was still crying. 

Annie took her coat off and then her cardigan, and used the cardigan to wipe off Charley’s face and front. It wasn’t pretty. 

“Charleybug, I’m going to give you my water bottle so that you can swish some water around and get that bad taste out of your mouth, okay?” 

Freida was playing with Marshall on the playset, glancing over at them. She jogged over. 

“Hey, my car’s right there and I have some towels in the back, let me drive you guys back to Mary’s.” 

It was only a few blocks, but Annie was too overwrought to protest. “Are you sure?” 

“Yeah. I’ll get Marshall.” She jogged back to Marshall and started coaxing him down off the playset. 

They got home in one piece, and Annie was happy to have Charley to focus on, instead of thinking about Freida’s Subaru, the radio station preset to KEXP, the colorful beach towels thrown down in the back, and the long rainbow string of beads hung from the rearview mirror, Freida’s curly hair rising above the driver’s seat, her long fingers reaching toward the dash to adjust the heat. 

Annie got the boys inside, and sat them down on the entryway bench to get their shoes off. Freida had helped get Marshall in the door, and she lingered for a moment in the doorway before quietly turning away to go back to her car. 

“Hey, uh, thank you. So much. That was incredibly helpful,” Annie called. 

Freida turned around, walking backwards for a few steps. “No problem. I hope the little dude is feeling better soon!” 

After Annie settled Charley in his bed, in clean clothes, surrounded by towels, she went back downstairs to put a Disney movie on for Marshall. Chucking the soiled clothes in the laundry, Annie sat on the couch with Marshall and yawned until — 

“Annie? Where’s Charley?” It was Mary. Annie jerked awake. 

“Mary, hey. We had a little … incident at the park.” 

That night, Annie stayed in with the kids, while her sister and brother-in-law went around the block to Charles’ parent’s house for dinner. 

Mary and Charles had protested (the latter strongly, the former, who wanted to show off her flattering new haircut ... less strongly), but acquiesced when Annie said, hiding her jubilation at this perfect, airtight excuse, that she was so tired that she was just going to go to sleep when the boys did, anyways. 

She put on Gilmore Girls season three, because Jess was her favorite, and promptly fell asleep on the couch. Mary and Charles giggled tipsily in around midnight. Annie woke up and joined them in the kitchen. They praised the dinner, laughed again at a joke Henry had told, after retelling it very badly, and then Mary thrust a Tupperware container at her. 

“Freida insisted that we take you some leftovers. You didn’t tell me she was at the park with you!” 

“Oh god, I forgot all about it, it was such a blur,” Annie lied. “She drove us home and was super nice about it.” She thought her voice was very steady, very nonchalant. The trick, she thought, was to pretend she was talking about anyone else. It might have been a fictional character. It might have been any semi-stranger who had driven them home — someone familiar but unknown. It might have been a polite and indifferent acquaintance. 

“She made me and Diane promise to make you a plate before she had to leave. Do you want to eat it now or put it in the fridge?” 

Well. That was. Well. 

Annie crawled into the guest bed. The mattress was one of the best ones she’d ever slept on. Mary simply didn’t know what she was talking about.

Chapter Text

“Annie! Dude, it’s so nice to see you not at my job — hey, come outside with me, I’ll introduce you to my friends,” Alex said, smiling, her face lit up with the red lights in the bar. 

Annie grinned at her. “Thanks again for inviting me! I’m excited to see the band!” 

They went outside. Shivering against the back of the building were a collection of people talking animatedly and smoking. 

“Hey everyone! This is Annie, one of my favorite regulars! Annie, this is everyone!” 

A chorus of “Hi Annie” rang out, and Alex and Annie joined the fray. Alex accepting a cigarette from a woman with blue hair. “Annie, this is my girlfriend Sam,” said Alex. 

“Hi!” said Sam, sticking her cigarette into her mouth quickly to shake Annie’s hand. “We must always miss each other at the shop, I’m there all the time.”

“Not as much as you used to be,” said Alex, fondly. 

“I think I’d remember your hair,” said Annie. “It’s super cool!”

“Thanks!” said Sam, as another woman walked over, “Annie, this is Sarah. Sarah, Annie.” 

Sometime during the exchange of pleasantries, Annie revealed that she was only living temporarily in Queen Anne, and was looking for a sublet. Alex and Sarah looked at each other significantly, and then called over their friend Tae. Tae had a lazy smile and a firm handshake. 

After introductions were made, Alex said, “Tae, weren’t you talking about needing a new roommate in a month or two? Is that still a thing?” 

“Yeah, dude. My roommate’s moving to New York at the end of January,” Tae said, looking at Annie with a new interest. They then proceeded to spit out, rapid-fire: “You’re looking for a place? February move-in date okay? You’re queer-friendly? My pronouns are they/them, what are yours?”

Annie laughed. “Uh, yeah! Um, my pronouns are she/her, I’m good with a February move in, and I am, as the kids say, hella gay.”

There was a general laugh. Tae gave Annie their phone number, and said, “Cool. I have a good feeling about this. What do you do for work?” 

“I work remotely for a non-profit, actually! It’s kind of niche.” 

“How niche?” asked Sarah, grinning. 

“Well. We’re a nonprofit that does development for other nonprofits. It’s kind of meta.” Annie looked around, “What do you all do?” 

More small talk ensued, and after a few minutes, the smokers were done and the non-smokers were complaining enough about the cold that they all went inside. 

The first band sucked. 

“This band sucks!” yelled Alex to Annie during the second song, as the singer wailed about his lack of a love life. 

“I wasn’t going to say anything in case you knew them … but they really do!” Annie yelled back. 

Sam said from Alex’s other side, “We should have guessed from the name?”

The band was called Tragic Wand. They were from Idaho? Iowa? Maybe Indiana.

Tae walked up to them with a drink in hand, fully facing away from the band. “Hey, these guys suck, yeah?” they said. 

“Yeah,” all of them said in concert. 

“I’m going to finish this and then go smoke again, if anyone wants to come with me.” 

There was a general nod, and after a few minutes, a mass exodus back into the cold. 

A beautiful woman was outside, laughing, standing around with a group of men. 

“Alex!” she yelled, opening her arms.

“Lindy, baby!” Alex sang out as she hugged her. 

Lindy had short dark hair, and finger tattoos, and was wearing a leather jacket. Annie tried not to judge people based on their appearance, but this woman seemed very gay. 

“Lindy,” Alex was saying. “This is my buddy Annie — she’s my bud from the shop that I told you was coming to the show. Annie, this is Lindy, fearless leader of Austere!” 

Annie shook hands with Lindy, who really was very good-looking, and tried not to be flustered. 

Lindy introduced her bandmates all around, and they continued their conversation as if the interruption had never happened. 

“I’m just saying that the narrative of the ingenue is completely played out. Why couldn’t we get a movie where the older, wiser, fucked-up one is a woman?” said the tallest bandmate.

“We all just saw A Star Is Born ,” stage-whispered Lindy to the newcomers. 

Sam jumped into the fray, saying, “But the dynamic wouldn’t work with an older woman if the ingenue is a younger man. It wouldn’t resonate as much, because we don’t see that power dynamic in our society.” 

“The actual way that would work,” said Lindy, “is if it was gay. Right? If it was an older woman and a younger woman.” She paused. “Also … hot.”

A general consensus about the hotness of older women followed. 

“Like, if it was Naomi Watts or Viola Davis. Or, god, Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway just reprising their roles in The Devil Wears Prada ? Or, oh my god! Michelle Yeoh! Yum,” said Alex. 

“If you stay within six degrees of Bradley Cooper, how about Jennifer Garner?” asked Annie. “I had such a huge crush on her in the Alias years, even though I didn’t really realize it was a crush.” 

“Mm, yes. Like a fine wine, she has only gotten better with age,” said Lindy, smiling at Annie. 

“She was so beautiful in Love, Simon ,” said Annie to Lindy, aside. 

“Jesus, yes. Honestly, I’m so jealous of today’s teens! They get to see these kinds of narratives on screen!” said Lindy. “When I was a sad closeted teen, there was nothing. Like, nothing,” she said, drawing the last word out with a groan. 

Closeted teen! That meant–– Annie internally cheered. 

“Same! Although honestly, I think I was so repressed, I would have been really uncomfortable seeing that at the time, so.” Annie shrugged. 

Lindy said, “God, too true.” 

The first band’s noise stopped and the rest of the club poured out into the street so that people could smoke. 

“Hey, we gotta go do a sound check, I think that band is done,” said Lindy. 

Annie made a face. “What were they called? The Tragic Hat?” 

Lindy laughed. “The Tragic … Wand.” She rolled her eyes and made a jerk off motion, and Annie snorted laughing.

Austere played, and Annie couldn’t take her eyes off Lindy as she sang through their set of gorgeous, catchy, dark pop songs. She looked effortlessly cool. 

Annie said as much at the bar they all went to afterwards. 

“Oh lawd, well ain’t you a sweet li’l thing,” said Lindy in an affected Southern drawl. 

“I mean, there’s a reason you’re the frontwoman,” said the drummer. 

“Just trying to give a compliment!” grinned Annie. “You were great too,” she added, to the drummer. He winked at her. He knew what was up, it seemed. 

What was up was that Lindy was funny and charming, and she seemed to like Annie, and Annie started to think, well maybe this could happen . So they drank and laughed and bent their heads together to talk. The group dwindled and people left, saying their goodbyes one-by-one. Finally, it was just Annie and Lindy talking together.

Annie was pleasantly tipsy and thinking that the night was turning out very well indeed, when the door opened, and in walked Louisa Musgrove, followed by Freida Wentworth. She stiffened involuntarily. 

“Holy shit, Annie! What are you doing here?” yelled Louisa. “I can’t believe you’re out so late, oh my god!” 

“Oh, hey!” said Annie, determinedly cheerful. “Yup! I’m out! You guys too, huh?” 

Freida started to say something but Louisa leaned over their table, “I just wanted one more, you know? Just one more drink, and Freida said this bar has a great beer selection. Freida knows everything, don’t you?” 

Freida, Annie now saw, was essentially holding Louisa steady and upright. 

“I know everything, Lou, it’s true. And I know where we can sit down, right over there.” 

“No! We have to sit here!” Louisa’s voice rose higher still. “Annie never comes out with me, we gotta have a drink together!” 

“Oh, uh,” Freida looked at Annie and Lindy. She was wearing a vaguely naval-looking jacket, with rows of buttons down the front. How was it that she looked so good all the time? 

Annie repressed a sigh and scooted over in the booth. 

“There’s enough room for everyone,” she said. “Lindy, this is Freida and Louisa. Guys, this is Lindy.” 

Freida murmured a polite hello, and then went to the bar. Louisa grabbed Annie’s arm. “Freida is the best!” She said. “She’s so great! She’s so funny,” Louisa started giggling. “At the last bar she said” — more giggling — “she said that the bartender should” — giggling overtook the end of the sentence. 

Annie leaned over to Lindy and whispered, “I’m so sorry. I can’t reason with her when she’s like this.”

Lindy quirked an eyebrow and whispered back, “It’s fine! This is hilarious, but I might have to go soon.” 

“Me too! Promise to help me get away from Drunky McDrunkerson over here!” 

Louisa had stopped giggling and said, “What are you guys talking about?”

Annie turned to her, “About how great the bar is!” It was a pretty standard bar, actually. 

Louisa’s eyes went wide. “I can’t believe I’ve never been here, it’s so rad. Freida knows the coolest places.” 

Annie could see Freida approaching the table with two beers. 

“I have to go to the bathroom, be right back, okay?” Annie said, gently detangling herself from Louisa’s clutch and easing out of the booth on Lindy’s side. Lindy ran her hand down Annie’s arm gently as she edged past, which was very promising, but Annie felt too self-conscious to fully appreciate it. 

She stared at herself in the bathroom mirror. “You look good, Annie, you look fine,” she said firmly to her reflection as she re-upped her lipstick.

The drunk girl in the stall nearest the door crowed, “Hell yeah you do!” as Annie left. 

The booth they were sitting in had high sides. High enough that the other women couldn’t see Annie as she approached. She heard Louisa speaking loudly, in all of her drunken eloquence, and froze. 

“— yeah, honestly even Mary kinda sucks sometimes, but Annie is so great. You know, it’s crazy, Henry’s bi you know, and he totally asked her out after the wedding, and we thought for a second that maybe we’d end up having the best sister join the family after all. But she just wouldn’t go out with him and I was like ‘uh, what is wrong with you, you guys would be so cute together, and he’s totally into you’ and that’s when she told us she was gay! And then she was like, you have to keep it a secret, I can’t tell my dad, and secrets really stress me out, I don’t know how people do it! When I figured out I was bi, I couldn’t keep it in! I literally shouted it out in Discovery Park with my whole family right there —”

Louisa paused, presumably to breathe and suck down more beer. 

Freida’s voice, cutting in, had a real bitterness in it. “Not everyone is as brave as you, Lou. Jesus, I wish people would just come out to everyone! I hate this piecemeal shit. The more people who are visibly out, the better it is for the queer community overall. Plus, everyone I’ve ever known in the closet was fucking miserable. It’s just internalized homophobia and it’s not fair to the rest of us who have to take all the bullshit.” 

Lindy interrupted, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Not everyone can do that. Some people have a shitty family, or they’re living in a bad place. I definitely couldn’t come out until I had moved out of my parent’s house.”

Louisa, presumably having had enough of both beer and breathing, started to say, “Oh my god, well, speaking of shitty family, Annie and Mary’s dad is a real fucking nasty piece of work—” 

Yikes. 

Annie, kicked back into action by this statement, rounded the corner of the booth and said, brightly, “Hi guys, I’m back! You know, I really didn’t realize how late it was and I have to get some sleep before work tomorrow.” She fake-yawned, and it turned into a real yawn midway through. Jesus

Lindy immediately started putting her coat on, saying “Oh man, me too! Will you wait outside with me while I call a Lyft?” To Freida and Louisa, “It was so nice to meet you guys!” 

They made their goodbyes, Annie studiously avoiding Freida’s eyes. 

Outside, Lindy offered a cigarette to Annie, and, feeling extremely overwrought, Annie accepted. They smoked for a minute, and then Lindy said, “Family.” 

Annie let out a long exhale, cloudy in the night air. “Yep. Like she said, I usually don’t see her out. Lou’s always trying to get me to go out to clubs in, like, Belltown.” 

“Gross.” Lindy took another drag. “Hey, question.”

“Yeah?”

“Not to pry, but she said something about you not being out…?”

“Oh, uh…no. I mean, yes. I am out. It’s complicated with my dad and my sister. But I’m not, like, not out to everyone else. Uh. Does that make sense?” 

“Yeah.” Here, Lindy turned to her and cocked her head to the side, shrugging. “That makes sense. Cool. Well, I wanted to ask you on a date, but not if you felt weird about, like, being in public. You know?”

Annie laughed delightedly, feeling warm all over. “Oh! I would really like to go out with you. Thank you,” she said, feeling lamely formal. 

Lindy grinned widely and pulled out her phone. “Sweet. My Lyft’s coming in a minute. Can I get your number?” 

“Oh my god, yes!”

They exchanged numbers, and Lindy kissed Annie on the cheek before she was spirited away by her Lyft. It was nice. Not earth-shattering, but nice.

Warm and tingly, Annie slowly walked across the street and up a block to her car. The warmth faded somewhat as she realized en route that she was too tipsy to drive, and then got into her car to avoid freezing to death while waiting for her ride.

She was fiddling with her phone when a loud knock on her passenger window scared the hell out of her. 

It was Louisa, Freida right behind her. 

Annie rolled down her window. “Hey?” she said. 

“Annie!” said Louisa, sounding incredibly confused. “You’re still here. Why are you still here?” 

Annie was too startled to lie. “I, um, I actually don’t think I can drive, so I’m just calling a Lyft.” 

Freida looked sharply at her. “Come with us. I’m sober, and I’m driving back to Queen Anne anyways.” She tilted her head in the direction of her car. “Come on,” she said briskly. Annie got out of the car slowly, feeling a sudden expansion in her chest. She then remembered what Freida had said in the bar — what Freida must truly think of her — and the feeling died. 

They walked across the street, Louisa leaning on Annie for support.

“Who was that girl?” asked Louisa. “She was cute, Annie! Are you dating? You never tell me about who you’re dating! It’s not fair!”

Annie had to laugh. It was too, too awkward. She tried to keep her tone light, inconsequential. “She’s just a friend of a friend, Lou. Nothing to tell.”

“Okay,” Louisa drew out the word, whining a little. “You have to promise you’ll tell me when you start dating someone this time, I wanna know. You didn’t tell me about the last girl until six months after the fact!”

Freida was, very carefully, not looking over at them. 

Annie swallowed. “We weren’t dating. I told you it was just a casual thing.” 

Louisa hmmphed loudly. “That’s so dumb. Casual is dumb! I want to meet your people!” Her last word was split by an enormous yawn. 

Annie had to laugh again, out of a complete inability to do literally anything else. She wanted to die. They were approaching Freida’s car. “I promise I’ll tell you the next time I start seeing someone, Lou.”

Lou yawned again, getting into the front seat. “You’d better.”

The drive was quiet. Louisa had passed out against the window in the front seat. 

Midway home, Freida’s eyes caught Annie’s in the rearview. “Doing alright?” she asked, her voice neutral. 

“Yeah,” said Annie, looking away. “Thanks.”

Chapter Text

Ah, Christmas. Nostalgia, cheer, festivity, quality time with family and friends.

Annie hated it. 

It was a complicated hatred, born out of many, many feelings, but hatred it was. 

“These are beautiful socks, thank you, Elizabeth,” she said, laying the thick, knobby wool socks carefully to her side as she balled up the paper they had been wrapped in.

“They’re handmade, I got them in Scotland. I really had to keep my packing light, so I’m afraid that’s all I could squeeze in for you.”

“Well, thank you, these will be great for the rest of the winter.” 

It was Christmas morning. They were in the living room of her father’s small condo: her, Elizabeth, and her father, Walter Elliot himself. Elizabeth had flown in from her mission in England late last night, and Annie had dutifully picked her up. Elizabeth had at least seemed happy to see Annie, in her own way, and had insisted that Annie stay with her at their dad’s apartment and do Christmas morning with the two of them. Annie had reluctantly assented. Mary and Charles were doing their own Christmas morning with the boys, and Annie knew she was welcome there, but wanted to give them their own space to make some family traditions. And anyways, Elizabeth didn’t have her car back yet, and Annie would have had to drive back up to Lynwood to pick up Elizabeth for dinner at the Musgrove house. 

Walter, who was very much not invited to the Musgroves, was joining Penny Clay and a minuscule band of faithful ex-LightWalkers for dinner and a Christmas bible study. Annie didn’t even want to think about what that would be like.

Walter lifted a pair of bright neon sneakers from their wrapping, and Elizabeth said, “I couldn’t help it! I saw these and I knew I had to get them for you.” 

He also lifted out a mug emblazoned with The Eagle and Child logo. 

“I have been waiting for these to show up on Poshmark! Ah, and the hallowed home of the Inklings. Thank you, Elizabeth!”

Annie unwrapped the gift from her dad. It was a framed picture of her as a child, with her parents. A rare one without Elizabeth or Mary. Her dad smiling his 100k smile at the camera, her mom smiling indulgently down at child Annie, who was stretching out her arms like she wanted to embrace the entire world.

“I found that as I was unpacking,” said Walter. “And I happened to have this frame that fit it perfectly. Really a Christmas miracle.” 

Annie found that she had tears in her eyes. She had made Mary and Charles go through the photos as they had packed up the old house because she couldn’t bear to. “Thank you, Dad.” 

God, she hated Christmas. 

She had given them both gift cards, because the years of them returning things had eventually taught her something. They politely thanked her, and Elizabeth went off about something she had really wanted at Topshop in England, and how she was so happy the brand was at Nordstrom now. 

Annie got up to get more coffee, and her dad handed her his new mug, with a request for more as well. It was larger than a normal sized mug. Annie rinsed it out before filling it with coffee, handed it back, and then filled up her own mug. She stared into its inky depths, her mind spinning out ahead of itself. 

The Eagle & Child. Huh. Had any of the Inklings been gay? Tolkien had married a women, to be sure, but wasn’t homosexuality the spectre that hovered over all post-war British literature? Was Evelyn Waugh one of the Inklings? No. Annie made a mental note to look up Charles Williams’ marital history. Had T.S. Eliot been gay? Would T.S. Elliot, come to think of it, have liked the hit ‘80’s musical Cats , which had to be in the running for gayest thing on Broadway? Lewis, now. Hadn’t he married a woman? And yet Edmund Pevensie was undeniably gay. What had that book been, about the people who were in love and who were wildly obsessed with Lewis, and then the woman had died after converting the husband? A Severe Mercy. What an odd book. There had been a passage in that on homosexuality. What had it said? 

Walter and Elizabeth’s talk had turned to something church-related, and Annie snuck out to go to the bathroom, and then went into the second bedroom, where bookshelves lined all four of the walls. Annie found the book and took it back to the living room. She curled up in the corner and read, her mind blocking out the sound of her dad and sister talking heatedly about how terribly Walter had been treated by everyone (Annie had heard it before, she had heard it for years now, and she refused to hear it again) and the schlocky Christian Christmas music playing. 

There it was. C.S. Lewis himself, in a private letter to the book’s author, discussing homosexual celibacy as the recommended path for gay Christians. Yikes. Had she originally read this Before or After? The flyleaf read: “To dearest Annie, I think you’ll find this book instructive. Love, Ellen Russell.” Ah. It was her book, and it was After. 

Dear Ellen. Annie still saw her on Facebook sometimes. She and her husband had moved back to California after the first round of LightWalk excommunications and adopted two girls. Cute kids. They looked happy. Annie hoped they were. And, even though Annie charitably thought of Ellen’s advice as (in slang she felt a little too old and white to use verbally) extremely wack, it had been lovingly given. And oh, those last long conversations that she’d had with Ellen after her mom died and Annie’s belief in God had slowly wilted on the vine. 

“It’s a blank,” she remembered saying. “It’s like someone reached inside of me and just scooped out any … awareness of God or feeling of his presence. It’s — I hate it — I don’t understand.” 

Ellen had sighed. “It might just be a reaction to grief, Annie. You’ve had a lot to bear, these past few years.”

“But I know I’m sad! I know what that feels like. That hurts. This just feels like nothing.” 

“You know, Faith isn’t just a feeling. Sometimes you just have to trust in Jesus and keep serving and wait for the feelings to come back.”

Well, the feelings hadn’t come back. And meanwhile, other feelings — other, very gay feelings— had reared their head, and Annie didn’t have the energy or desire to repress them any longer. Her mom was dead. Her father was larger than life, more unswervingly rigid than ever, and completely uninterested in her or anyone else who stood in the way of his church empire. Annie didn’t believe in God and she finally, finally had to admit to herself what she had known on some level since her senior year of high school. She was absolutely 100% flamingly gay. 

It had been a rough time. 

It wasn’t that she wasn’t out, exactly, to Walter. It was more that, well, he never asked, and Annie certainly did not feel like telling him. She knew how he felt about homosexuality (...not great), and she knew how he felt about people raised in the church who had “turned their backs on God” (...really, really not great). Walter knew Annie didn’t go to church, and he knew she didn’t want to talk about LightWalk, and thus, she was of little importance. Beautiful, devout Elizabeth, always paying court to the greatness of Walter Elliot, was in the inner circle. Even Mary, who hadn’t spoken to Walter for three full years after the excommunication of her family-in-law, held more interest. Mary, after all, had done the thing. Mary had gotten married to Charles and had babies, and carried on the bloodline, and Annie wasn’t going to do that . No, oh no. It was far easier to just let the wave of Walter’s indifference wash over her, and quietly go about living her life.

Annie shook her head, willing her thoughts to scoot to the back of her mind. She flipped to the beginning of the book and started reading the actual interesting part about the couple’s “high paganism” pre-conversion, and their intense vow of love. A “shining barrier” to keep time and distance and other pursuits from crumbling their relationship. God, it was no wonder this couple had converted, they already had practice treating the world as an enemy. 

“Earth to Annie—” Elizabeth was waving her hand in front of Annie’s face. “Time to get ready to go, we have to leave. I have to make that salad, can you clean up the living room?” 

“Sure,” said Annie, pulling herself up. Elizabeth disappeared into the kitchen. 

“Christmas Shoes” intruded into her consciousness. Annie shuddered and crept over to Elizabeth’s phone laying on the counter to quickly change the song.

An hour and a half later, Annie and Elizabeth were ensconced in the Musgroves’ house, drinks in hand, waiting for dinner. The boys ran around, hopped up on sugar, Annie keeping a weather eye out whenever they got too close to the Christmas tree. Mary, Elizabeth, Louisa, and Diane were all in the kitchen finishing meal prep and gossiping. Henry and Charles were out looking at Henry’s new motorcycle in the front. Annie had settled into a well-worn routine of a cozy corner armchair next to Ray Musgrove, who placidly handed her the day’s newspaper sections as he finished them. He always saved the comic section for last. 

After Annie had read it, smiling, and folded it all back up, Ray Musgrove said, meditatively, “I might just be getting old, but I don’t know that the comics are funny anymore.” 

“Hard to be funny when you are seeing the death of print media everywhere,” Annie said.

He shook his head. “A sad world, Annie. A sad world indeed.”

They grinned at each other. 

Mary came in to call them to dinner, and as Mr. Musgrove passed ahead of them, Mary whispered to Annie, “Hey, how was this morning?” 

Annie shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Fine. Same as always.”

“I don’t know how you do it, I cannot be in a room with him for ten minutes without getting into it.” 

“I know, Mare. I think you guys made the right call to stay home this year.”

“I’d say so! Last year was a goddamn fiasco! This year was perfect. No drama, no raised eyebrows at gifts, no sighs, no criticism of our parenting. As if he has any right...”

“He at least has the boys’ school pictures up on his fridge?” Annie offered. 

Mary harrumphed. “We’ll call him tomorrow so the boys can talk to him,” she said. “You know he’ll never call us first.” 

“I know.” 

They looked at each other for a moment and Mary’s face softened. She sighed. “Whatever. You should eat some of my potatoes, I found a new recipe and they’re really good.” 

Dinner was eaten, and duly praised. Presents were rapturously opened by the boys and some little things by the adults, and as the evening mellowed out, Annie was persuaded to take the piano and play a few Christmas carols. 

Sometime during the rousing third chorus of Deck the Halls, the door opened and a large party of people burst in. It was the Crofts, Freida, and three strangers, a man and two women. 

“Merry Christmas!” beamed Sophia Croft and the Admiral. “My dear friends, thank you for inviting us over!” She hugged Mrs. Musgrove.

“Merry Christmas! Who are all these beautiful people?” asked Louisa, who had immediately attached herself to Freida’s side. 

“Everyone, these are my friends from England,” announced Freida, “Hayes, Ben, and Harv.” 

“Welcome! I’m so glad you all could make it! Time for dessert and coffee, then!” said Mrs. Musgrove. The newcomers settled in, and a few lively conversations sprouted up immediately. Annie stayed at the piano and played softly, just to have something to do. She stared determinedly at the music and the keys, pretending to be so lost in the music, she couldn’t break away. Her neck hurt from holding still. 

At first, the three British accents rose above the din, but a few songs on, Annie was heartily surprised when she looked over and saw one of the women had pulled a chair close to her and had been listening attentively. 

Annie jumped, her fingers splattering discordantly on the keys. “Oh Lord, you startled me.” 

“I’m so sorry,” said the woman, in a pleasant, low voice. “You play so beautifully.”

Annie thanked her and extended her hand. “I’m Annie.”

“Ben,” said the woman, with a firm handshake. 

“Is that a nickname … ?”

“Traditional family name of Benwick, which, as I was the only child my parents wished to have, they bestowed on me regardless of my gender.” 

Annie laughed, “Ben it is. And how long are you staying in town?” 

“We all three of us are here on the same job as Freida for the next six months or so.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful! I hope you’re enjoying it!” 

“Oh yes, it’s stunning scenery, isn’t it? And it’s such a pleasure to see where our little Freddy grew up.” 

The last was thrown across the room at Freida, who heard it and replied fondly, “I was only here for two years, idiot!” 

“Formative adolescent years, I’m sure!” Ben said back, and Annie, dying inside, put her hands back on the piano and started playing again, even more softly than before. 

“Well,” said Ben to Annie, “I’ll let you get back to it, I know how annoying it is to be interrupted.” 

Annie paused her playing again and actually considered Ben for the first time. She was pale, with short, dark hair that curled around a wide, serious face. Sort of a Ginnifer Goodwin vibe. 

“Do you play anything?” asked Annie.

“I used to play guitar, but no, not anymore,” said Ben. “My creative outlet is mostly my work right now. That, and a little odd poetry here and there.” 

“What is your work, exactly?” 

“We’re all at the same consulting firm in London, but I’m a graphic designer.” 

The other woman of the party came over to join them. “We all literally begged to get this particular client and run after Freida immediately.” She smiled at Annie, her smile bright against her dark skin. “Gwen Harville, everyone calls me Harv.” 

“Annie,” Annie smiled back. 

Harv nodded and said, “I see Ben has followed her customary route of immediately seeking out the fit musician in the group.”

Ben and Annie both blushed, Ben saying, “I’m just sat here, fuck off, Harv!” and Annie saying, “I’d hardly call myself fit.” 

“I’m joking,” laughed Harv. “Ben, you are too easy, calm down.” She turned to Annie and said, “I’m sorry we distracted you, your playing is lovely.”

“Oh, thank you, it’s nothing,” Annie demurred. 

Mary, who had seen them chatting from her vantage point across the room, walked toward them, saying loudly, “Annie’s the only one of us who didn’t quit piano lessons in middle school. Elizabeth and I are both tone deaf.”

Elizabeth heard that and called out, “That’s not true, Mary, I quit because I was doing those community college fashion classes!”

Suddenly finding their little group the focal point of the room’s attention was discomfiting, to say the least. Annie let the others talk over her head for another minute, before excusing herself to the restroom. She ran her hands under cold water and held them to her reddened cheeks. Breathing. She just had to get through another hour or two. 

Annie walked into the hall and noticed Henry and the third British stranger on the back porch, and she went out to greet them, grabbing the thick plaid blanket from the chair in the foyer and wrapping it around herself in lieu of a coat. 

“Hey Annie,” said Henry. “This is Hayes.” Hayes shook her hand warmly. 

“Happy Christmas. Care for a smoke?” he asked. 

Annie shook her head, and then reconsidered. “Well, actually, why not?” 

“Atta girl,” said Henry. 

Hayes gave her a cigarette and then lit it for her, his hands shielding the flame against the wind. He was really quite objectively handsome, tall, dark-skinned, and wearing a very fashionable-looking pea coat.

“It’s loud in there,” Annie said. 

Said Hayes: “You lot are an exciting bunch.” 

Henry smiled. “Only on holidays when we’re all drinking.” He touched Hayes’ arm. “Sorry, what were you saying about the church?” 

“Oh yes. I’ve been helping with the restoration of the tiny old church in my hometown — in Surrey,” he explained to Annie. “So we lift this absolutely massive stone, and we find….”

Annie heard the words but didn’t quite register them. She was looking at the way Henry and Hayes were standing, unmistakably oriented toward each other, full of laughter and coy glances. She had a sudden memory of the summer that Henry had had a crush on her, the summer after her mother died. The summer of Mary and Charles’ wedding, both of them nineteen, and hellbent (or had it been heaven-bent?) on getting married so that they could actually sleep together. Annie had been carrying around her secret for so long, and what a relief it had been to tell someone. They had been sitting at Gasworks, her and the Twins, and with Henry making eyes at her, she had just … blurted it out. Just like that. And then she had sworn them to secrecy until she could move out of her dad’s house. About a year later, Henry and Louisa both independently came out as bi (pan, now? — she would ask Henry later) in distinctly idiosyncratic ways (Louisa yelling at Discovery Park had been the least of it), and Henry had started dating mostly men. 

“Annie?” Henry was saying. She zoned back in. 

“Oh! Sorry, just lost in thought,” she said. 

“We’re just going back inside for a bit of coffee,” Henry said. 

“You guys go, I’m going to finish this and then come in,” said Annie. They went. 

She looked up at the stars for a few minutes. The night was clear and sharply cold. A few clouds drifting by, a hazy yellow nimbus around the waning moon. Annie missed her mother so desperately for a moment that she couldn’t breathe. After a rapid fit of blinking, and a few more hasty drags, she stubbed her cigarette out and went back in. Annie Elliot would carry out her usual holiday tradition of tears in the privacy of her own room, thank you very much. 

Inside, the groups had splintered. The older people were enjoying their coffee around the kitchen table (and the table was full, or Annie would have joined them), and the younger generation had commandeered the living room. Annie slipped in and sat on the floor next to Mary’s feet, orienting herself so that she couldn’t see Freida. It didn’t stop her from being intensely aware of every word Freida said, but at least Annie didn’t have to hold her face in a rictus of Christmas cheer. It was the little things. 

The talk of the group was a Leavenworth excursion over MLK Day weekend. 

“And what’s so special about this town, then?” Hayes asked. 

“Oh, it’s the cutest place!” gushed Mary. “Just darling. And in the snow!”

Henry said dryly, “It’s a fake Bavarian town in the Cascades that was literally engineered to be a tourist trap.”

“Well, I mean, clearly it works on me,” Mary said, holding her wine glass up in the air to toast the Leavenworth city planners. 

“Fake Bavaria? How does that even work?” asked Ben. 

“You have to see it to believe it,” commented Charles. “The mountains are great up there, though.” 

“I never got the chance to go up there before,” said Freida. “The snow would be fun! And you Brits could see some of the actual Northwest!”

Harv shrugged. “I’m in! If there’s a holiday so soon after Christmas, we might as well take advantage.” Her declaration was met by an excited murmur of assent. 

“Let’s do it! What is there to do up there though?” Freida asked. 

Louisa said, looking around from where she was leaning against Freida on the couch, “There’s restaurants and shops and things, and oh -- Annie, you’re coming, right? You’re the best at trip planning. Hen, remember when we went to Sacramento for Reya’s wedding and she made that whole spreadsheet?”

Henry laughed. “I remember. It was amazing. Wasn’t it color coded?”

Annie could feel herself blushing. “Spreadsheets are, like, fifty percent of my job,” she said.

“Annie, you’re the mom friend ,” said Mary, with the amazement of the wine-drunk. “And I’m the one who is literally a mom. You have to come!” 

“Let me look at my calendar.” Annie had no intention of going. A whole weekend with Freida? Worse, with Freida and Louisa being … couple-y? Their dynamic had seemed somewhat romantic lately. Were they dating? No one seemed to know, but Mary and Charles loved to speculate rabidly about it every time the topic arose. 

“Yes, do come!” said Harv kindly. 

Elizabeth, buried in her phone, yawned and said, “Well, I can’t go, I have a women’s retreat that weekend, sorry.” 

“I don’t know.…” said Annie slowly. “It might be a little too pricey for me, depending on where you stay. And anyways,” she said, craning her head up to Charles and Mary, “Won’t you need someone to watch the boys?” 

Charles whispered to Mary, who nodded rapidly, and then he spoke. “My parents can keep them for the weekend, they’ll love it. We’ll pay for your room as a belated birthday present! Let us treat you, Annie. You’ve watched the boys more over the past months than Bridgette has. Our nanny,” he added to Freida and the Brits as an afterthought.

Annie sputtered resistance. They were family, it was never a chore, etc., etc. But Charles and Mary were adamant, and Musgrove Twins were too. It was decided. They carried the day, and the plan was set. Annie’s stomach hurt. 

After driving half an hour north to Lynwood to drop Elizabeth off, and half an hour back south to Mary and Charles' house, Annie crawled into bed that night and curled up into herself. She couldn’t even cry, her throat ached so badly. Fucking hell, she hated Christmas.

Chapter Text

New Year’s Eve was quiet. Annie offered to let Mary and Charles go out with friends, and Ray and Diane Musgrove had her and the boys over for dinner. Sophia and Peter Croft were there too (no Freida, thank goodness), and Annie felt herself relaxing into that same camaraderie she had felt with them that first night, back in October. The boys were watching a movie on the couch, and the adults were all sat in the kitchen, laughing over after-dinner drinks. 

“I’d like to travel,” Annie said wistfully, after the Admiral told a story that involved an unfortunate currywurst incident in Berlin. “It’s just never been the right time, and I’ve never had quite enough money.” 

“And where would you like to go?” asked Sophia Croft, smiling. 

“Anywhere. Everywhere,” mused Annie. “England. Italy. Thailand. India. I mean, I haven’t been off the West Coast.”

“Maybe that should be your resolution this year,” said Ray. “Take some time for yourself, you deserve it.” 

“Oh, maybe,” said Annie. “We’ll see about the move into this sublet first.” 

“We’ll miss having you so close, sweetie,” said Diane fondly. “It’s been a little like old times, with you at the kiddos’ house.” 

“Where is the sublet?” asked the Admiral. 

“Capitol Hill,” said Annie. She’d been texting Tae about it, and was due to go see the place next week. 

“Now, spark my memory,” said Sophia. “Seattle still feels a bit brand new, where is that in relation to us?” 

“Oh, right!” said Annie. “Well, if you go down to lower Queen Anne, where the Seattle Center is, and then a bit further into downtown, and then go east up the hill there, that’s Cap Hill.”

“I believe Henry once called it a hipster’s paradise.” said Ray. 

“It’s trendy,” said Annie. “Lots of restaurants and bars.” 

“I’ve been loving those big rainbow crosswalks,” said Diane. “So cheerful!”

Annie smiled at her. When Lou and Henry had come out, Diane and Ray had immediately started reading books and articles and essays about queer theology. It had been extremely heartening to walk into their house, a year and change later, and see This Is A Book For Parents Of Gay Kids on the coffee table. 

“Yeah, it’s, like, the gay neighborhood,” she said to the Crofts.

 “I’m sure Freida can tell us all about it,” said the Admiral to Sophia.

“That might even be where they were all headed tonight,” Sophia said, nodding in assent. 

Annie looked away. She didn’t want to know–

“Louisa was so excited about their plans, but bless me if I can remember. She ran in to say hi before she picked Frieda up this afternoon, said they’d be out until at least two in the morning” said Diane. 

“The energy!” laughed Sophia. 

“Crazy kids,” grinned Ray. “Those were the days, huh? Out until two, and up to no good.” 

The older adults chuckled. Annie was silent. She didn’t want to be out there– okay, maybe she did, but. 

“Well now,” said the Admiral jovially. “We’re not dead yet! Let’s crack the champagne early and toast to reasonable bedtimes!”  

“Oh yes!” said Diane. “Annie, have a bit before you have to get the boys to bed.”

“Well,” said Annie, about to demur. Then she saw the label of the champagne the Crofts had brought. It was… very expensive. 

Flutes were filled. 

“To the comforts of home!” said Ray. 

“To not dancing until two!” said Diane.

They all looked expectantly at Annie, and she cleared her throat. “To old and new friends,” she said, trying to feel grateful and not extremely lame that she herself was not out dancing until two. 

“To young Annie and her future travels!” said Sophia, raising her glass.

“Hear, hear!” said the Admiral. “And to all our other resolutions. To 2019!” 

A very hearty “Cheers!” was said, and flutes tapped together. Annie drank, feeling the cool, dry, effervescent liquid sparkle in her mouth and travel warmly down her throat. 2019. 

Later, Annie shepherded Charley and Marshall down the block back home for bedtime, put on White Christmas (god, and hadn’t she been in love with Rosemary Clooney in this movie for her whole life?), drank another glass of wine and fell asleep on the couch while Bing Crosby was crooning about sheep. Annie woke up at midnight to the sound of neighborhood fireworks and yelling, checked on the boys (sleeping soundly, bless them), and went downstairs to bed. 

Fuck 2018, she thought hazily as she drifted back off to sleep. The year was dead, long live the year. Things could only improve from here. 



*

 

January 3, 2019
From: Louisa Musgrove
Subject: LEAVENWORTH

HELLO PARTY PEOPLE!!!

I’ve found a few options for places to stay. My favorite is this one. It’s called Lyme Cabin, and it looks so cozy and cute and it’s like four blocks from the main street with all the cute shops! Other options here and here, but pretty please we can do the first one? It would be $100 each for Saturday and Sunday night. So cheap!!! Let me know in two days so i can reserve it. 

xoLou

 

January 3, 2019
From: Freida Wentworth
Re: LEAVENWORTH

I think this place looks awesome, Lou! Nice work! I say book it. Brits are with me right now and agree.



January 4, 2019
From: Gwen Harville
Re: LEAVENWORTH

Indeed we do. For the record, would just like to again restate that I find all American holidays extremely puzzling (didn’t your government kill MLK?), but am pleased at the prospect of this mini-break. 

 

 

January 5, 2019
From: Charles Musgrove
Re: LEAVENWORTH

You know… a lip service holiday to distract the masses from gov’t plotting… a smokescreen to distract white people from understanding that the fight against racism is still raging on… It might be the most American holiday we have. 

-CM



January 5, 2019
From: Mary Elliot Musgrove
Re: LEAVENWORTH

Babe, have you been listening to You’re Wrong About without me??????? i want a divorce



January 6, 2019
From: Louisa Musgrove
Re: LEAVENWORTH

Charles and Mary, if you keep flirting on this email thread, I will TURN THIS CAR AROUND. 

Got our reservations at Lyme Cabin all set! Please venmo me $120 each for tax and some bullshit cleaning fee, ugh I hate Airbnb (my Venmo is @louisayes).

Annie started a google sheet with stuff to do, hikes, and places to eat check it out and add on plz

I’ll bring the costco whiskey, who’s bringing the mixers? Are we drinking hot toddies? Maybe we add a booze wishlist to the google sheet. 

Also, who is driving? My car is acting weird right now, soooooo probably not me. 

xoLou 



January 10, 2019
From: Henry Musgrove
Re: LEAVENWORTH

color coded… this is the spreadsheet of my heart. Annie my darling, we love to see it.

have added a tab for snacks + booze

h

 

January 11, 2019
From: Freida Wentworth
Re: LEAVENWORTH 

I’m happy to drive! I have room for four others. Louisa + Brits? 



January 11, 2019
From: Charles Musgrove
Re: LEAVENWORTH 

Perfect - we will drive the suburban with everyone’s stuff. Annie’ll ride with us, and we’d have space for more as needed. Henry, you with us?

-CM



January 13, 2019
From: Henry Musgrove
Re: LEAVENWORTH

just saw hayes and ben, and ben said she’d love to stretch out a bit in the suburban with you, cha-cha. and i’ll go with frieda. cool?

h



January 13, 2019 
From: Mary Elliot Musgrove
Re: LEAVENWORTH

BEN OF CORDE! Haha sorry guys typing in my phone. Did we figure out the drinks sitch? I can buy mixers, just somebody tell me what

Wait Annie aren’t we just going out to eat for everything, right? Do we need to buy food? So excited can’t wait!!! <3

 

 

January 13, 2019
From: Annie Elliot
Re: LEAVENWORTH

I think we should bring some breakfast foods. At least some bread and eggs and coffee – we might have some early risers who want to eat a snack before we go out for brunch in the morning. 

Plus, drinking (+ smoking, I’m assuming?) => we will want late-night snacks, right? 

I’ve put my name on the sheet next to what I’m going to bring.  

 

 

January 14, 2019
From: Hayes Chartres
Re: LEAVENWORTH

I like the cut of your jib, Annie. We’ll put our names down for things as well! 



January 17, 2019
From: Charles Musgrove
Re: LEAVENWORTH 

Hi everyone, 

I marked what Mary and I will be bringing on the sheet as well. 

Ben, meet us at our place at 9am, please. 

Freida, don’t forget your chains. And everyone should pack warm clothes and snacks in the car, in case there’s a long wait at the pass. Read this: https://www.reddit.com/r/SeattleWA/comments/7g1izv/going_to_leavenworth_for_a_week_in_middecember /

-CM



January 18, 2019
From: Louisa Musgrove
Re: LEAVENWORTH

Chains! Charles, you’re such a dad. I love it. 

Simply cannot WAIT for tomorrow! Work can’t be over quickly enough… 

xoLou

 

 

January 18, 2019
From: Aleathia Smith
Subject: Apology + 2019 Dreams

Dear Annie, 

It’s been a moment. I have to apologize for dropping off the face of the planet last year, especially when I know a lot of things happened with LW and your dad. I’m so, so sorry that I wasn’t there for you. 

I’m emailing you instead of calling, because I have a paralyzed vocal cord. Vocal fold, is the technical term. I can’t really talk. I’m currently semi-permanently at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota right now. For the voice thing, and for a lot of other stuff. You’ll remember some of it from a couple years ago… well, there are a whole lot more mystery symptoms. I’ll spare you the grisly details, but it hasn’t been fun. I’m a medical marvel, apparently. 

My two year divorce anniversary just happened and it made me think about you. Please tell me how you are and what you are up to these days? Texting is taxing on my thumbs, so I’ve been getting back into email lately. Lots of long hours in waiting rooms to fill. 

I miss you so much. I hope your Xmas and New Year were wonderful. Do you remember the year we went for a Greenlake walk in the cold and talked about our dreams for… gosh, it must have been 2007 or 2008(!). We must have talked about boys and Jesus and our families, whatever shit our precious little teenage selves were concerned with. I remember linking arms with you and thinking “I want to do this every year with Annie for the rest of our lives.” I still want to! Tell me your New Year’s dreams, and everything else. 

All my love, 

Ally

Chapter Text

The doorbell rang, and Charles got up to answer it. 

“It must be Ben,” said Mary. “Dude, I heard her divorce was terrible, apparently her ex-wife was cheating on her for ages.”

“Mary, she’s right there!” hissed Annie, as they heard Charles greeting Ben distantly from the front entryway. 

“They have to load her stuff in the car, it’s fine. Anyways, I guess they’d been together for like six years and this woman had been lying to her the whole time, and Ben didn’t know until—” Mary did actually lower her voice here “—they both got an STD from one of her wife’s sidepieces. Can you imagine?”

Jesus, that’s awful.” 

“I know. Hayes and Henry were at the Ray and Diane’s for dinner a couple days ago and Hayes told us all about it.” Mary shook her head with the gleeful gravity of someone who had never once worried about her partner looking at another woman. 

Ben and Charles walked into the kitchen. Charles, looking particularly staid and dad-like in his flannel shirt, said “Okay, the car’s loaded up, let’s hit the road!” 

Once they were actually on the freeway (Charles driving, Mary in the front seat playing a game on her phone), Annie plugged the aux cord into her phone. She held it out to Ben. “Want to help me put a playlist together?”

The lyrics of Annie’s first queued song wafted through the car (I can’t love you / how you want me to) , Ben turned to her and said, “I love this song!” And that’s how they found out all their musical commonalities. They took turns queuing songs up, Ben getting progressively more excited about the Seattle bands that Annie was showing her, and Annie absolutely loving the sad British singers that Ben wallowed in. 

About an hour into the drive, during a Vashti Bunyan song, Mary turned from her game and said very slowly, as if to her children, “Annie. Ben. I love you both but this music makes me want to rip my arms off. Please, for the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord, play something more cheerful.” 

Charles couldn’t stop laughing. Annie rolled her eyes and put on her Motown playlist, right at the moment that traffic began to slow down approaching the pass.

The roads were clear enough that no chains were required, but it still felt like an inch a minute. After some consultations, Annie and Ben compromised by mixing in their most upbeat sad songs into the Motown shuffle. The result was a Frankenstein of a mix, but it kept them all entertained, at least. 

They finally arrived at Lyme Cabin around 2:00pm. It was a large, cabin-like house with three bedrooms upstairs and a pull-out couch and a bunk bed in the family room downstairs. 

Freida’s car had arrived slightly earlier, and there was some confusion about who would sleep where. Louisa had claimed a bedroom for herself and Freida. Mary immediately claimed the master suite. Henry and Hayes, after offering it around, delicately claimed the third bedroom together. 

“I’m shorter, I don’t mind taking a bunk,” said Annie, as she, Harv, and Ben surveyed the family room. 

All the single ladies,” sang out Harv, setting her bag down on the pull out couch. 

“Harv, you’re married,” said Ben, swinging her bag up to the upper bunk.

“Ah, but Nadira's not here right now, is she? Therefore, I can be in your sad club, Benny.”

“Do we have to be sad—?” started Annie. Heavy footsteps clambered down the stairs and Louisa and Mary swept into the room. 

“Oh, it’s so cute in here! Look at this balcony!” said Mary, opening the door to the outside and poking her head out. A blast of cold air swept in.

“I found the hot tub!” Mary yelled as she slammed the door shut again. “Oh my god, it’s COLD!” 

“Yes. It’s winter,” said Annie sotto voce, to Ben.

Louisa rushed over and opened the door again. “Oh, it’s so little and cute!” She closed the door, more gently. “It is freezing.” 

“We’ve all been outside multiple times today,” said Annie to Ben. 

Ben cracked up. Annie grinned.

“What, what are you laughing at?” asked Mary. “Are you making fun of us?” 

“I would never,” whispered Annie to Ben, who was still laughing.

Footsteps down the stairs. “Freida, they’re making fun of us!” 

Annie shut her mouth abruptly. 

Freida took in the room and raised her eyebrows, 

“Just came down to say that Hayes and Henry are mixing drinks up in the kitchen and you should come tell them what to make for you.” 

The group trailed up the stairs, Annie hanging back to grab a thicker sweater from her bag. 

Harv was standing by the bottom of the staircase, waiting for her.

“I don’t think I’ve seen Ben laugh so hard since the divorce,” Harv said quietly. “Thank you.”

Annie blushed, “Oh gosh, it’s nothing. It’s nice to have someone laugh at my bad jokes.”

“Nonsense. You are just what she needs to take her mind off things.” 

They went up the stairs. The upstairs was bustling, glasses were clinking, voices were loud. Annie sat down at the table in the corner. Eventually, Henry put a drink in front of her. She cautiously sipped and her eyes went wide. Strong was an understatement. 

She eyed Louisa, who had tugged a laughing Freida down onto the couch with her. Mary was hovering around Charles, who was trying to figure out the TV. Henry and Hayes were standing hip to hip in the kitchen, occasionally making eyes at each other. Harv and Ben were huddled over a phone looking at restaurant options and announcing them to the group at large. Annie took a considerably larger swig of her drink. It was going to be a long night. 

Four hours later, they had returned from dinner at a terribly touristy Mexican restaurant, and were all reasonably drunk, except for Charles and Freida (the designated drivers), who immediately set to making themselves hot toddies so that they could catch up. 

“Guys, let’s play a game!” said Louisa. 

“What, a drinking game?” asked Henry.

A firm chorus of “NO!” filled the room.

“I’m too old for that! I am a matron,” said Harv emphatically. 

“For shame! You’re as young as a spring day, Harv,” said Freida, handing her a toddy and clapping her on the shoulder. 

Louisa was pouting slightly. “I didn’t say a drinking game, you guys.” 

Ben had perked up. “I saw a pack of cards in one of the kitchen drawers. Poker? Blackjack?” 

Mary was on the couch, draped over Charles. “Oh my god, guys, I just remembered the hot tub!” 

“Games later, Lou-lou. It’s hot tub time!” said Henry. 

It was like a movie montage of beautiful people emerging from bedrooms in fashionable yet idiosyncratic swimwear. Louisa was wearing a one piece with daring cutaways, Freida had a slightly old timey one piece suit, the boys all had svelte trunks, Mary had a floral bikini, Harv had a black suit with mesh panels. Ben, at least, just had athletic shorts and a sports bra. 

Annie pulled out her plain black bikini and sighed. “I don’t know if I want to do this—” she said half aloud to whoever was in the room. 

Mary, unfortunately, was in the room with her, drunk, loud, and persuasive. 

It was not an overly large tub, but there they all were, squeezed in next to each other. The hot water was lovely. Annie felt herself relaxing in spite of everything, in spite of the general hubbub of the conversations going on around her. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes for a moment.

Someone said her name and she cracked an eye open. “What?” she asked. 

“I was just telling Hayes that you never smoke,” said Henry, who was passing a blunt.

“I get paranoid,” she said laconically. 

“Fair enough,” said Hayes. He lazily took a long drag. “This is good stuff.” 

“Legality has drastically improved the weed here,” said Freida, taking the next hit. “My freshman term at UW was full of godawful weed and shit, shit alcohol.”

Annie kept her eyes down. That would have been the fall after —

“Wait, you went to UW?” said Charles. “I thought you did your undergrad at Oxford?” 

“Yes. No. Both. I did my freshman fall semester there and then really felt like getting out of the country.” Freida said distantly.  

“College students don’t know good weed from bad anyhow,” said Charles cheerfully. “I seriously doubt that legality would have helped much.”

Freida laughed. It sounded strained to Annie, whose whole body seemed to have turned into a pair of ears. 

“True,” she said. “The first time I got high, I was already a little drunk, and I couldn’t handle the cross-fade, like, at all. Eventually my roommate sat me down and gave me a bag of chips and I ate them very slowly for the next four hours. Apparently, I kept holding chips up, saying ‘too heavy,’ and then breaking them into little tiny pieces to eat. Very slowly.”

Everyone was laughing. 

“Oh, and the fact that I was washing it all down with Malibu? That was the real rookie move,” said Freida. “The morning after was one of the worst days of my life.

Annie was laughing too, she couldn’t help it. But she couldn’t look up at Freida. 

Mary shrieked, “Malibu is disgusting!” 

“Psssh, like you didn’t cut your teeth on Fireball, Mare,” laughed Henry. 

There was a general buzz of Fireball Disapproval, and then everyone started sharing first-time-drunk stories. Annie stayed quiet, until — 

“Annie, how about you?” asked Ben, who had just related an unfortunate night of youthful mixed spirits. 

“Uh...” said Annie. “Well. Sort of a weird story actually.” 

There was a general clamor of We-Want-To-Hear-It from everyone (except Freida, Annie’s stupid ears noticed).

“Um. I didn’t really drink until I was, like 23 (“Such a law abider,” said Henry), and it was Mary and Charles’ engagement party (“Oh shit, I remember this,” said Mary). Our friend just kept making me really good cocktails (“They were so good,” agreed Charles). I had no tolerance, and didn’t keep count of how many I’d had ... and then suddenly I was throwing up into my jacket (“Sweet baby Annie,” said Louisa). And this girl we all knew, Heather, was actually really kind to me and took me to the bathroom and held my hair up and everything.” 

“Backstory is that Annie hated this girl,” said Louisa. 

“We all hated her,” said Mary. “I literally don’t remember why we were friends.” 

“Yeahhhh,” said Annie. “We had been friends for a while, and then… well, I really didn’t … care ... for her opinions. On things. She thought we were friends, though, until that night. Which is when I told her.”

“You did what?” said Harv, in a highly amused tone. 

“I mean, I was laying on the bathroom floor, and I just remember saying to her ‘Why are you being so nice to me? I hate you.’ She was just … just shocked. And then I just spilled it all out.” 

“How?” asked Ben, fascinated.

“I literally told her things she’d said years ago that I thought were terrible.” Annie grimaced.

“But, like, what?” asked Harv. 

Annie just shrugged and shook her head. She finally looked up from the water she had been studying. Freida was looking at her. Annie met her eyes for a second, and then looked away. 

“Annie! You’re telling it wrong.” Louisa interjected. “This girl was completely self-obsessed. Such a narcissist! She walked all over anyone who would let her. Plus, she was super homophobic. I mean, god knows, there was a lot of that in the air, but Heather was straight up, like, a hateful person,”

Annie shrugged. “It doesn’t change the fact that she was really nice to me that night. I mean, she held my hair back for me and made sure I got home safe.”

“Remind me what happened after that,” said Charles. “Didn’t you take her to dinner or something?” 

“Dinner? Nah. We met for coffee and I said sorry. Not for telling her the truth, but for doing it in such a shitty way.”

Henry laughed. “Only you could burn a bridge so gracefully, Annie.”

Mary said, “She gave us such a hideous vase at the wedding. I lost track of her. Isn’t she in the midwest now?” 

Annie said mildly, “She’s in Michigan, I saw it on Facebook.” 

“Ah, the book of face,” said Hayes. “I stalked my primary school bully on it the other day, and I am happy to report, he looks like absolute shit.” 

Annie took a sip from her drink, and the warmth of the alcohol washed over her.

“Wait, Annie,” said Henry. “If that was the first time you got drunk, then why did I think you made out with someone the first time you got drunk?” 

Annie choked. Charles thumped her on the back. 

“Second time. That was the second time I got drunk.” She said, around coughs. Annie could feel all the blood in her body rush to her cheeks. Shit. 

“Oh, spill,” said Ben, smiling at her. 

Annie covered her eyes with her hands, laughing nervously. “It’s really not exciting, guys.” 

“Come on, it can’t be more embarrassing than me cutting my lip on Stuart Boyd’s braces when I was 15,” said Louisa. 

“Oh my god. Yeah, well. Same year. I got drunk at Pride and made out with a random girl at the Wildrose,” Annie said, blushing. She wished, devoutly, that she could leave her body behind and ascend to the astral plane. 

“Wait, your first kiss was at that lesbian bar in Capitol Hill? I love that.” asked Harv.

“Uh, yeah.” Annie lied. She closed her eyes. “Late bloomer, you know,” she said. 

“Legends only,” said Hayes, solemnly.

Annie opened her eyes and took another drink. She was going to crawl out of her skin. She took a second, longer sip. She could feel Freida’s eyes on her, and she would not look. 

“Well, you know, I lost it to my college girlfriend in the Gasworks parking lot,” said Henry immediately. 

“Yes! Legends only!” yelled Hayes. 

Annie took a deep breath as the conversation moved on from her, and sank a little farther down into the hot water. 

Freida’s voice broke into her reverie. “Oh, just a random girl from UW, I told you that, Harv. Very drunk, very sloppy. Fun, though.” 

“I thought there was something else about it that you told me,” said Harv in a puzzled tone. 

Annie froze. She closed her eyes again.

“Virginity is a really fucked-up social construct anyways,” said Freida, in an excellent mock-British accent. 

“Preaching to the choir, mate,” said Hayes. “Do I count what I’ve done with girls? With boys? With myself? Where is the fucking line ?”

Ben snorted. “Where is the ‘fucking’ line? Really, Hay?”

Charles nudged Annie, whose eyes were still closed. “Don’t fall asleep in the hot tub!” 

She squinted at him and faked a yawn. “It’s so relaxing though.” She yawned again, for real this time, and then finished her drink and got out of the tub, claiming overheated-ness, took a quick shower, got dressed in her pajamas, and then sprawled out on the couch with her book. 

One by one, the others trickled in and followed suit. 

“Don’t be so boring! Annie!” Mary whined, collapsing on top of her, and drunker than ever. “Come upstairs and play a game with us!” 

They were playing Never Have I Ever, which, screamed Annie’s half-drunk brain, was a Very! Bad! Idea! But, of course she did it anyway.

 

A List Of Things They Found Out About Each Other While Getting To Record Levels Of Inebriation:

  1. Mary had never had short hair, everyone else had. 
  2. The Brits had never been to Disneyland in California.
  3. The Americans (excepting Freida) had never been to Disneyland in France.
  4. No one except Louisa and Henry had been to Disney World in Florida. (There followed a general agreement to cease the Disneyland questions.).
  5. Ben had been up in a hot air balloon. On her honeymoon with her ex-wife. 
  6. Moving on quickly from that one: Louisa hadn’t obtained her driver’s license until the age of 24. (Petulantly: “Not fair, Henry!”)
  7. As stated in the hot tub, Henry had lost his virginity in the back of a car in the parking lot of Gasworks Park with his college girlfriend. (Cheerfully: “Fuck you, Lou.”)
  8. Only Mary and Charles had slept with one person each. (“We married young!” Mary protested. Charles winked at her and said, “Didn’t need nobody else.”)
  9. Everyone else had slept with … more. (“Keeping count is reductive and slut shame-y and I refuse,” said Louisa archly. “You also told me that you literally can’t remember,” said Freida, amused.)
  10. Neither Mary nor Hayes had ever slept with a woman.
  11. Neither Charles nor Annie had ever slept with a man. (“Wait, WHAT—” said Mary. “You knew this, Mare, you know who I’ve dated,” said Annie, turning very red and putting a hand over her eyes. “I have no memory!” wailed Mary.)
  12. Half of the Seattleites had never been up in the Space Needle. 
  13. No one except Mary and Harv had ever been pregnant. (“I was 19 and confused,” said Harv, shrugging. “I had an abortion and immediately started dating women.”)  
  14. Neither Harv nor Charles had ever had a Tumblr (“I had three!” said Louisa. Ben coughed, and whispered to Annie that in her heyday, she’d had five different fanblogs and a separate *goth* aesthetic blog.)
  15. Everyone except Ben had seen Carol. (“What? Carol is my everything!” said Louisa.) 
  16. No one except Ben had read The Price Of Salt. 
  17. Ben, Freida, Louisa and Harv had all read Fingersmith.
  18. Ben had not, however, seen The Handmaiden. (“What!?” said Louisa. “Time for a movie night!”) (There followed a general consensus to cease the book and movie questions. “This is not going to turn into a Ben-has-read-every-gay-book and Louisa-has-seen-every-gay-movie game!” ordered Hayes.)
  19. Everyone but Charles had blacked out from being drunk before. (“You definitely have,” said Henry to Charles. “Or do you actually remember your bachelor party?” “Oof. Good point,” said Charles, and swigged his drink back with the rest of them.)
  20. Everyone except Mary, Annie, Ben, and Charles had tried:
    1. Molly
    2. Mushrooms
    3. Acid (“I feel so boring!” said Mary.) 

 

It was around this point that the game more or less broke up.

“I don’t want to be old and boring! This is the first night in forever that we don’t have the kids, I’m getting two more drinks and then I want to go back in the hot tub!” proclaimed Mary, swaying as she stood up. She and Charles giggled down the stairs. 

Annie's vision was dancing, and her cheeks hurt from laughing. 

She hadn't laughed this hard in years, it felt like.

Louisa swung her legs over the newly empty portion of the couch, putting her head in Freida’s lap. She commanded Freida to play with her hair and then began remonstrating with Ben about all the gay movies Ben had never seen. 

Annie got up from her seat, very slowly, and made her way downstairs. Mary and Charles had left the door cracked and cold air was seeping into the room. She shut the door and made her way to her bunk. 

She hadn’t been drunk in a while, Annie thought fuzzily. How very interesting. 

She woke up with a start some time later as she heard people come downstairs. 

“Hello?” Annie asked, voice gravelly.

“Were you asleep?” asked Harv. 

“Mm,” said Annie, raising her head up, eyes still screwed shut. “I’m so drunk, Harv.” 

“You Americans can’t hold your liquor,” said Ben, giggling.

Annie opened her eyes. The room was spinning. Freida had come down with them, and was supporting Ben. 

‘What time is it?” Annie asked, yawning. 

“Two,” said Freida, keeping a weather eye out as Ben crawled up the ladder into the top bunk. 

“Fuck,” said Annie, emphatically. Harv climbed into her sofa bed and bade them goodnight. 

A thought struck Annie. “Jesus, the hot tub. Are Mary and Charles out…?”

“They’re in bed,” said Freida, who seemed a touch more sober than the rest of them. “We’re the last ones up and I’m locking all the doors.”

“Oh,” yawned Annie. “Thank you.” She laid back down. Spin spin spin.

“Harv?” asked Freida. She paused. “Oh lord, she’s out like a light.” 

Annie looked up through the rungs of the lower bunk at Freida, who seemed to be making sure Ben was tucked in. 

She started giggling. 

Freida looked down at her, smiling a little. “What?” 

“You’re still so tall, you’ve always been so tall ,” said Annie. 

Freida huffed a laugh out, and said "Well, I wasn't going to shrink."

Annie had made her laugh . Ben was saying something about her socks. Annie saw one sock fall to the ground, and then another. Annie giggled a little more. 

“Goodnight socks,” Annie said softly, her eyes closing. She thought she heard Ben say something muffled. 

She heard Freida go up and then come back down the stairs. Annie yawned again and opened her eyes. The light was still on and the room was still spinny. 

Freida came back down with three glasses of water and put two glasses next to the bunk bed and the other one next to Harv’s sofa bed. 

“You’re back,” Annie yawned even more violently.

“Mhm. Oh, Ben’s out too. Tell her to drink one of those in the morning. That one’s for you, and there’s some Advil next to it,” she said. Freida walked over to the switch by the stairs and turned the overhead light off.

Annie couldn’t see Freida in the dark, but the afterimage of the overhead light burned florescent in her eyes. The space where Freida had been standing was just a glowing darkness. 

“Freida,” Annie said, some part of her brain noticing how plaintive she sounded. Like a lost child.

Annie wasn’t going to say it, she really wasn’t. And then she did. 

“You’re being so nice,” she said unhappily. And then, quietly, her heart racing. “I never even— god, I’m so sorry— I— you should hate me — ”

She screwed her eyes shut and pushed her hands over her face to keep from crying or saying anything else too stupid or risky or true. Her own pulse sounded like a oceanic roar in her ears. The whole world was spinning, even with her eyes closed, spinning too fast, she was going to fall off—

“I used to,” Freida said finally. “Not anymore. I—” she sighed, “It’s late. Go to sleep, okay?”

“Okay,” Annie whispered, and listened to the sound of Freida going up the stairs.

 

*

 

Annie slept fitfully, waking up almost every other hour. Finally, at 8:30 am, she took the painkillers and drained the glass of water that Freida had left for her and tried to go back to sleep. It didn’t take. She rolled herself clumsily out of bed and dragged herself up to the kitchen.

It had snowed in the night, and Annie thanked her lucky stars that they had brought coffee and bread and eggs. 

Annie, feeling each movement individually and torturously, turned on the coffee maker, made some toast, and fried up an egg. 

She heard a door open, and Henry poked his head out. 

“Coffee…” he croaked. 

Annie nodded. “I made a pot,” she said. 

She sat at the table, ate her egg and toast, and then rested her head on her folded arms. 

Presently, Hayes emerged from their bedroom, made a beeline for Henry-and-the-coffee, and sat down across from Annie. 

“Alright?” he asked. 

Annie groaned. 

Hayes chuckled and then winced. “Cheers to that.” He clinked his coffee mug against hers and winced again.

Henry brought him an egg and toast. “My sweet darling!” said Hayes happily, pulling Henry down to kiss him briefly. 

Henry was blushing, Annie noted with interest. She put her head back down, grinning a little. Oh this would be fun

The rest of the group trickled in, in their own ways. 

Charles first, and then Mary, who complained, “There’s only half a cup left, I always get the dregs!” Charles made a second pot of coffee. Harv and Ben came upstairs singing something dirge-like about drooping wings. Harv said that it was Purcell and that they had learned it in college choir. Henry said that if they didn’t cease that infernal racket, he’d Purcell them . Last to emerge were Freida and Louisa. 

Freida’s hair was absolutely wild. Annie felt a queer twinge in her chest (pun very much intended, thank you). Their last exchange had been running through her brain non-stop. Had it even been real? She put her head back down, and tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. 

Louisa was looking through her pictures from the night before, started laughing, and then Annie’s phone buzzed. 

Oh joy, a new group chat. 

“Oi! Who is the 2266 number?” asked Hayes. 

“That’s me!” squealed Mary. “Are you the 1515?” 

“Nah, that’s me, love,” said Harv. “If Mary is 2266, who is 2265? Charles?” 

“Guilty,” said Charles. 

“And the 8943 number?” 

Annie raised her hand silently.

Over from the couch, Freida said, “Sorry, whose was that one?” 

“Mine.” Annie said, too quietly. And then “Mine!” A little louder. She winced, and started entering contact information dutifully, trying not to think too hard about whose number she now had. 

Eventually, everyone was caffeinated, had taken painkillers, eaten a greasy egg-and-toast, and felt human enough to venture out into the fresh snow. 

Annie and the others toddled into the bright, cold January sunshine and looked at the mountains, freshly white, stark against the blue sky. Annie breathed in the clean, cold air. She would make it through today. Yes. 

The party trudged toward the main street of town slowly, talking about what they should do, where they should eat, whether they should snowshoe or ski or snowboard, and what kind of souvenirs Mary and Charles should get for the boys. 

Louisa, who apparently wasn’t quite as hungover as the rest of them, was capering ahead in the middle of the street with Freida close behind. They rounded a corner a good deal ahead of the rest of the group. 

Everything was calm and normal. Until it wasn’t. 

An ear-piercing shriek rang through the quiet streets. A second later, they could hear Freida yelling desperately for help. 

“Oh shit,” said Charles, speeding up. Annie’s heart dropped into the pit of her stomach. They rounded the corner, moving as quickly as possible. 

Louisa was lying on the ground, unconscious. Freida was kneeling beside her, as white as ice.

“Oh my god, oh my god, help, she slipped and fell, I think she hit her head,” she yelled. 

Mary took one look and started hyperventilating. “Oh my god, is she alive?” 

Chaos ensued, multiple people started to rush over to Louisa, and Annie felt like she could see a minute into the future, could see them starting to slip on the same patch of black ice that had claimed Louisa. Through her shock, she had a moment of hungover clarity, and took what felt like the deepest breath of her life.

“EVERYONE, STOP!” she yelled. Everyone stilled immediately. Mary let out a large hiccuping sob into the silence.

“Don’t run! You’ll fall, too!” Annie continued loudly, voice quavering. She carefully crossed over and knelt down next to Freida. Louisa’s leg was twisted oddly, and her face was red and splotchy. Annie looked around for whoever seemed the most coherent. “We need to call 911. Harv, can you do that?” Harv nodded at her, wide-eyed, and started pulling out her phone. “Everyone keep back! No one should touch her!” Annie took a breath. “Freida. What happened?”

Freida locked eyes with Annie. She was shaking. “She started jumping off those rocks and told me to catch her. I warned her not to! She jumped and slipped on the ice and screamed and—” 

“Okay. Okay,” Annie looked around. Harv and Ben were on the phone, gesticulating. “If there’s a head injury we can’t move her.”

Louisa’s eyes fluttered open, and she let out a whimpering cry before passing out again. 

Charles’ face was completely white. “Annie, what should we do?” 

“Charles and Henry, come here and give me your jackets. It’s going to be okay, everyone. She’s going to be fine.” Annie said the last to herself as much as to anyone else. 

Mary was still crying, with hiccuping sobs. Henry was swearing under his breath as he shrugged off his jacket, and Freida was crying silently. 

“Okay,” Annie said. “We have to make sure her head and neck don’t move until the paramedics come.” 

They banked the limp Louisa with coats. People were starting to come into the streets, asking what had happened. She could hear sirens in the distance, and then closer, and closer. 

Everything was a muddle. The paramedics loaded Louisa gently onto the stretcher. Louisa was jostled awake and started sobbing in pain. There was only room for two to ride with her in the ambulance. Freida insisted that Annie and Henry go. 

Annie had one last clear thought before she climbed up into the ambulance. She turned to Harv and Freida. “Harv. You or Hayes need to drive everyone to the hospital. Everyone else is too upset to drive in this ice, got it? Make Charles give you the keys to the Suburban, everyone can fit in that. Do not let her or Charles drive, they are too upset. Freida, you are too.” 

Freida nodded, sniffing. Harv put her arm around Frieda’s shoulder.

“Got it, Annie.” Harv said. “Go.”

The ambulance ride was nightmarishly long, but in retrospect, it only lasted ten minutes. 

Ten minutes of Annie and Henry clutching each other’s hands and answering questions. And then. Cold hospital lights and pale tile floors. The emergency room, watching Louisa be wheeled away, filling out paperwork together, waiting. 

The rest of the group made it to the hospital in various states of distress. Charles was staying on the phone with a slightly hysterical Diane Musgrove. The Musgrove parents had had to be talked out of heading toward Leavenworth, Charley and Marshall in tow, within seconds of hearing the news. 

Annie, restlessly walking around, thought that she might always remember the sight of Freida in one of the waiting room chairs, hunched over, her head in her hands. 

An eternity later, Annie had curled up in a corner chair next to Henry and Charles. A doctor emerged. Finally, news. Louisa had a concussion, a shattered hip, and a sprained wrist. Emergency hip replacement was called for. Louisa would be held in the hospital overnight, but would likely be cleared to go home within a day or two, and care would be transferred over to Louisa’s doctors in Seattle. 

“Okay, team huddle,” said Charles to everyone, after the doctor had returned from whence he came. The group circled up. “First, there’s the possibility of some of us needing to stay an extra night here, if Louisa needs a second night in the hospital. Second, Lou needs to be driven back to Seattle in the Suburban, so that she can lie flat in the back seat. Which leaves two other seats. So, it’ll be me, Mary, and—”

Freida was already nodding. “And Annie, of course.” she said. Annie’s stomach swooped a little at Freida’s matter-of-fact tone.

Charles was nodding as well, but Henry shook his head.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “But it has to be me.” 

Freida looked at him. “Henry—” she started. 

Henry shook his head again. “I need to,” he said, quietly. Henry looked at Annie. “It’s Lou,” he said, and his voice had a quaver.  

Annie nodded. “Of course, Henry. She’ll want you.”

Freida sighed. “Yeah, you’re right.” 

Harv broke in, “The real question, my loves, is what we should bring you all for dinner from town, and how we can best clean up the cabin and pack up Lou’s things for check-out tomorrow.” 

The rest of the day passed in an interminable grey haze of logistics. Driving back and forth from the cabin, packing up, choking food down, calling motels in the area to find a room for Monday night, bringing phone chargers and fresh clothes to Charles and Henry and Mary, who all stayed at the hospital until the surgery was successfully over. 

Lou was brought out of anesthesia just long enough to say hello and then fall right back asleep, which set off a fresh wave of crying from Mary (“I’m just emotional!” she sobbed, running into the bathroom.). 

They all went back to the cabin and, very glumly, drank hot toddies and ate the takeout they’d ordered. Mary went to bed early with a headache. Charles turned the tv on and restlessly flipped through channels. Henry stayed on the phone with his parents, Hayes and Freida went to smoke outside. Annie lay awake in her bunk that night, Annie’s whole body felt sore, like she’d been running. She could hear Harv and Ben talking softly on the sofa across the room. Her skin was itchy. She wanted to be alone. She wanted to go join them. She wanted to check on Freida. She wanted to cry. Annie did nothing. She remained in her bed, closed her eyes firmly and pretended to be asleep until she was. 

The next morning dawned cold and clear. After a quiet breakfast and a last sweep through the cabin, Freida drove the Brits and Annie back to Seattle. 

Annie sat in the middle of the back seat, between Ben and Hayes, who were dozing off. Freida and Harv were talking quietly. Annie, lulled by the engine, was approaching sleep herself, when she heard Harv say her name. 

“Hm?” She asked, leaning forwards. 

“Here, Annie. Can you convince Freida this isn’t her fault?” 

Freida was staring straight ahead down the road. Her voice was flat. “It definitely is.”

“Nonsense,” said Harv. 

‘It isn’t, though,” Annie said slowly. 

“I—” Freida started, and then quickly pressed her mouth into a firm line, shaking her head. Harv put a hand on her shoulder. 

Annie thought for a minute. “You know Louisa is always going to do exactly what she’s going to do. Even if you had tried to stop her running around, you wouldn’t have been able to.”

“I did try,” Freida sounded heartbroken. “I told her to be careful. It happened so quickly!”

“There’s just nothing you could have done. There’s nothing anyone could have done. She’s going to be fine. It was just an accident, and accidents just fucking happen sometimes.” Annie said.

A pause. “You really think that?” 

“Yes,” said Annie and Harv in unison. 

Freida nodded, blinking. “Fuck. This is so stupid ,” she said forcefully. “I hate this.” 

“As the kids say,” said Harv, “big mood.” 

The three of them let out quietly shaky laughs. 

“Annie,” said Harv, turning toward her. “You were wonderful yesterday, darling. Well done. I don’t know what we would have done without you. Did you work in hospital or something?” 

Annie, confused for a second, realized what she was talking about and her heart sank. 

“Oh. Kind of. Not really. It’s kind of a weird story.” she said. 

“We’re a dour troop today, I don’t think it would hurt to hear about it,” said Harv. 

“Well, um. I guess it’s not that long of a story. I did about a year of the nursing track at Seattle Community College, and then I had to drop out.” 

“Drop out? But you’re so smart. What happened?” asked Harv, who seemed keenly interested. Freida was, again, keeping her eyes firmly on the road. 

“Um. My mom got cancer. Bad. So I dropped out to take care of her during her surgeries and chemo and all that. It came back before I could go back to school, and it was worse, and she, uh, died.” Annie sighed. “I didn’t really want to work in a hospital after that.”

“I am so, so sorry, Annie,” said Harv seriously. Freida echoed her. 

“Thank you. I mean, it was a long time ago.” Annie said. 

Freida asked, carefully, “When— when did it happen?” 

“I was 20 when she was diagnosed. I had just turned 22 when she died.” 

Annie hated everything that was happening. She could almost hear the wheels turning in Freida’s head. At least Harv seemed oblivious. 

“So. After— after high school— you took some gap years?” asked Freida, more carefully still. 

Annie tucked her feet up on the seat and hugged her knees to her chest. “I actually went to uh, Bible college for a year and then dropped out of that for community college.” She managed a nervous laugh. “See? I really am drop out material.” 

Harv sounded utterly flabbergasted. “Bible college? Are you religious?” 

“Oh, god no!” Annie said reflexively. “Or not anymore, sorry, no offense if you are, Harv. I was raised, um, super Christian. Pastor’s kid.” Annie was really trying to keep her voice light. Was she succeeding?

“Pastor’s— I had no idea. You and Mary never talk about that!” said Harv, still clearly shocked. 

If Annie has been looking, she would have seen Freida touch Harv’s leg quickly and shake her head. But Annie was staring fixedly out of the window to the left, over Hayes' slumped, sleeping head. 

“Oh well. I mean. When you stop believing in any of it.“ Annie stammered out.

Jesus Fucking Christ on a Fucking Cracker, she had to change the subject. She felt like someone was wringing her heart out like a washcloth. 

Harv jumped in, saying, “Darling, I know. I was raised C of E and as soon as I went to college, I immediately stopped attending services.” 

“Right.” Annie said quietly. She swallowed, and went on a little louder, in what she hoped was an unmistakable invitation to change the subject. “What college did you all go to, again?” 

Both Freida and Harv immediately and expansively began talking about Somerset College. Ben and Hayes presently woke up and started sleepily contributing their own accounts of university hijinks. Time passed, and eventually, the longest drive in the history of the world was over. 

Annie walked into the empty, echoing house. Through the living room that still had Charley and Marshall’s toys from Saturday morning strewn about. Annie went into her room, shut her door, tossed her bag on the floor, and collapsed on her bed.

Finally, finally alone. And so lonely. Oh, how she ached.

 

*

 

END OF PART TWO

Chapter Text

Beginning of Part Three

 

*

 

Somehow, everything in Annie’s life seemed to divide itself neatly up into pre-fall and post-fall (or, at least, that’s what she called it in her head later on, smiling to herself at this private blasphemy). 

Post-fall, week one: everything revolved around Louisa. People, including Annie, were in and out of the Musgrove home all day, bringing meals, running errands, sneaking up to take a look at Louisa, who was mostly tapped out on pain meds. Annie ran into Freida in passing a few times, and with every casual word, every clear-eyed look, she felt an ease in their interactions that hadn’t been there before.

Post-fall, week two: Freida, Harv, and Hayes were sent back to England for work. Henry got permission from his manager to work remotely and went with them. Annie wasn’t jealous, why would she be jealous? (Okay, so she was jealous, what of it?) Ben stayed in Seattle, and was morose about it, and Harv texted Annie please will you promise to look in on her? and Annie was happy to respond of course

Annie moved in with Tae during the first few days of February. Charles helped her load up the Suburban from her storage unit. She didn’t have many big pieces. Just a dresser, an armchair, a few lamps, and a 76-key keyboard that she propped against the wall of her new room for now. 

Annie had bought the bed in the room from Tae’s old roommate. Mary had snuck a T.J. Maxx bag into Annie’s car while she was packing, and it had two new sheet sets in it, a soft grey and a millennial pink. Annie made her new bed with the grey sheets, that first night, and brushed her teeth and said goodnight to Tae, who was watching some new Netflix show with Natasha Lyonne in the living room, and then closed her door and sat on her bed for thirty minutes looking at the new walls around her, and listening to the sounds of the neighborhood outside. Deep breaths. A slow stirring of peace. This was the right choice, she thought. 

Post-fall, week three: The group chat, once Louisa was less drugged and more coherent, was insane. Annie would routinely open her phone to 20+ messages, gifs, memes, and video links. Louisa was begging them for things to watch, and Harv was sending Graham Norton clips, and Ben was sending sad acoustic singer-songwriter live videos, and Mary was sending Real Housewives memes (“I can’t help what I love, and I refuse to feel guilty about my pleasures!” she said, after absolutely no one called her out on it), Freida was sending video essays about pop culture, and Charles was sending old Daily Show clips and John Mulaney bits, and and and.

It was a goddamn delight. Annie hated how much she smiled at it, hated how much she looked forward to seeing Freida’s name on her screen, hated how she wondered if Freida looked at her name, hovered her thumb over the message bubble on her contact screen. 

Annie privately sent Louisa a link to Sling & Arrows on YouTube. 

The next day, Louisa texted the entire chat. 

Louisa:
Guys, Annie sent me the best thing, jfc why are you all so bad at this except her? This is EXACTLY what my internship at SCCCT was like. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auKdvjFK35Y

Freida
Oh shit, you’ve never seen slings & arrows before? It’s iconic!!! Rachel McAdams is a dreamboat and a half

Hayes
What in blazes is sccct

Louisa
Seattle coastal central community theater. It shut down bc of money shit like two years ago lol

Henry:
aw lou i forgot you did that

Mary
lolololol I remember that
That was the summer I had Charley

Louisa
ON THE NIGHT OF THE SUMMERSTOCK SHOWCASE, AND NO ONE COULD COME

Mary
Lol ok I was just birthing your nephew

Louisa:
Aw, you know I love the babiezzzz Mare, I was just 23andme.com

Ben:
womanstaringatmathproblems.gif

Freida
Duuuude, you never told me that you interned there
I think I went to some shakespeare in the park that they did, they do great work
Actually! If we’re all back in the summertime, we should all go!

 

Annie, who up until this point had been smiling foolishly at the rapid-fire exchange populating her screen, threw her phone down on her bed. Fucking hell. Well, she remembered what high school Freida and high school Annie had bonded over, even if Freida didn’t, and she would rather die than talk about it in the group chat. 

 

 

Annie had moved into Tae’s sublet in Capitol Hill right before the massive winter storm that piled Seattle high with snow and marooned everyone indoors. She thus had a very intense period of getting to know Tae, who was clean, exuberant, generous with her streaming passwords and who liked to practice her Korean comprehension skills by watching K-dramas. Annie got just a little addicted to the historical zombie drama Kingdom on Netflix. Annie also suddenly had many HBO shows to catch up on, and started watching Sex And The City for the first time in her life. 

“Elliot. Deadass, how have you never watched this?” Tae was incredulous. It was their third snowed-in day. 

“I told you I grew up really Christian! Basically anything with sex, much less the word ‘sex’ in the title was off limits!” 

“Oh god. So, no Gossip Girl.”

“Ha! No.” 

Dawson’s Creek ? The O.C.?” 

“Nope.” 

Will and Grace? No,” Tae answered themselves. “Too gay.” 

“Way too gay,” Annie agreed solemnly. 

Friends?” 

“Sometimes, but I never really got into it.”  

“What did you watch?” 

“Uh, 7th Heaven. And PBS Kids. Historical dramas, like Dickens shit. When I got older, we snuck a little Seinfeld in here and there when my mom wasn’t home. Oh, and The Simpsons, we snuck some of that in. My dad really hatedThe Simpsons, but by then he wasn’t around that much.” 

“Who hates The Simpsons?”

“It was, and I quote, ‘too crude.’”

“What kind of cult-ass shit–?”

“Oh man,” Annie’s brain took a turn into weirdly nostalgic. “So much music I didn’t listen to, either, Tae. So much.” 

Tae gasped. “Did you… un-ironically… listen to Spirit 105.3?” 

“Yes!” Annie yelped. “Back in the day it was called KCMS! I didn’t listen to secular radio until I got my own boombox in high school!” 

“But… yesterday when we were making dinner, you seemed like you knew most of the songs on my playlist.” 

“Okay, no joke, I learned a bunch of ‘90’s hits because my friends from my retail job liked to go out to karaoke after our shift was done.”   

“Ooh, I love karaoke,” said Tae, staring into space. “Let’s go to karaoke when the snow is gone. I do a really good Toxic.” 

The doorbell rang. Tae and Annie jumped. 

“Who the fuck–?” Tae muttered as she went up to get the door. “Oh shit! Friends!” 

It was Alex, and her girlfriend Sam and their friend Sarah. They came in, pink-cheeked and red-nosed from the cold.

“Hey darlin’! We were out for a snowy walk and thought we’d say hi!” Alex said, as she hugged Annie. “You remember Sarah, right? You guys met at the Austere show.” 

“Yeah, hey Sarah! How are you?” 

“Better now. I was getting stir crazy. I think John was happy to get me out of the house.” 

“My apartment has literally never been cleaner,” said Sam. 

They settled down on the couch. Wine was poured. 

“I haven’t seen Sex And The City in ages,” said Alex, looking at the muted episode playing. 

“Annie has never seen it,” said Tae. 

A chorus of oohs filled the room. 

“It’s… not great? But it’s kind of also the best?” said Sarah. 

“I think I’m a Charlotte,” said Annie. 

A chorus of emphatic No’s filled the room. 

“Every rational modern woman is a Miranda. There is no other option,” said Sam earnestly. 

“Okay…?” said Annie. “This is just the first season, I guess.” 

“If anything, I might be Carrie-ish,” mused Tae. 

Sarah cocked her head to the side. “Okay, I could see that. But if you know you’re a Carrie, you’re too self-aware to be a Carrie.” 

“Dude, word.” 

“I think,” said Alex, “the biggest takeaway from the show is that everyone is – or should be–  really fucking gay.” 

A chorus of thoughtful mms

“Okay yeah, it doesn’t really seem like the show is about the men. Am I on track?” Annie ventured. 

“Absolutely, the women are all secretly gay for each other.” Sam took a long pull from her wine glass. 

“And yet, the show does such a bad job with any gay or bi or trans episodes.” Sarah said. 

“Viva la ‘90’s,” intoned Tae. “So, are we watching this? Sound on?” 

“Sound on!” 

 

*

 

It was the second snow storm (or, was it the third?) that really got to people. Well, that really got to Annie. It was day three. She paced around the kitchen, staring out the window, until Tae, watching a K-drama and cross stitching in the adjoining living room, called her out on it. 

“Just go for a walk!” Tae called over her shoulder. 

“All my snow stuff is still drying from yesterday,” said Annie, aware that her tone was distinctly whiny. 

“You’re great, Elliot, but please do anything besides walk around behind me,” Tae said. 

“Sorry, sorry!” Annie went upstairs to her room. 

She pulled out her phone and facetimed Mary, who immediately picked up. 

“I just exited a really difficult Candy Crush level that I was winning, that’s how much I love you,” Mary said. 

“Aw, you shouldn’t have,” said Annie dryly. 

“You want to say hi to the kids? Charles just brought them back in from outside.” 

“Sure.” 

Charley and Marshall’s sweet faces filled the screen. They had built a really cool superhero snowman, it seemed. Annie’s insides calmed down a bit. Everyone was fine. 

Charles got on the call and asked after her insulation, her car, and her job. Annie bit back a laugh. So dad

Mary got back on. “Hey.” 

“Hey. You guys seem okay.” 

“Oh yeah,” Mary rolled her eyes. “We’re fine. We’ve been walking to the Trader Joe’s and getting groceries for Diane and Ray and Louisa, so they don’t have to leave their house.” 

“Aw, that’s good. Say hi for me, please! How are they?” 

“Louisa’s fine, but you know that from the group chat.” 

“Yeah.” 

“I wish I was in England,” Mary scowled. “Lucky Henry.” 

“Honestly,” Annie agreed, fervent. 

“Have you called Dad?” 

“I checked in with Elizabeth yesterday morning, and she said he’s okay, but I was going to call him today after you.” 

“I called Elizabeth yesterday afternoon! She didn’t mention that you guys had talked!” 

Annie shrugged and rolled her eyes. 

“She’s the worst, hah!” said Mary. 

A pause. 

“I guess… Let me know when you talk to Dad,” Mary said.  

“You could call him too, Mare.” 

“I will. I might. Later.” 

“Okay. I’ll text you after I talk to him.”

Mary exhaled in relief. “Thank you. We miss you, An!” 

“Miss you too!” Annie was only lying a tiny bit. She did miss them, after all. But, lord, was she glad to not be snowed in with them right now. 

“Okay, gotta go eat lunch, love you! Kids!” Mary yelled, “Say bye to Auntie Annie!”

“Bye!”

“Bye!” 

Annie waved at her phone until Mary hung up. 

Annie put her phone down and shook her arm out. 

Well. In for a penny, in for a pound. She took a few calming, steadying breaths, and then called her dad, her gut clenching as she heard the rings. 

“Hello? Annie?” He answered. 

“Hey dad, just calling to check in. How are you holding up over there?” Annie said, trying to keep her voice cheerful. 

“Fine, of course.” Her dad sounded surprised. “Elizabeth is here, and Penny has been dropping off groceries.”

“Oh! Um, that’s nice.” 

“She is a true instrument of the Lord.”

Annie was glad, for the thousandth time, that she had a strict personal policy of only making audio-only calls to her dad. She put her free hand on her forehead and pulled her hair up by the roots. 

“Super nice of her. So you guys have food, that’s good! Are you good on everything else?”

“Well, yes, but this whole thing is really inconvenient, I had placed an order for a book by –” 

He started talking, and Annie muted her end, knowing from experience that he was going to ramble on about his books and his little church group, and maybe start going into how mistreated he had been by the media and by LightWalk. Truly astounding, she thought. 

Ten minutes in, she broke in as he was taking a breath. “Hey dad, I’m sorry, but I have to go. I’m glad you’re okay. Call me if you need anything.” 

“Oh, well. Okay. I’m sure we will be fine.” 

“Okay. Love you!” This was not a lie. In spite of everything. She almost wished it was. 

“Love you too. Bye.” 

He hung up before Annie could say goodbye. 

She sighed gustily and flopped down on her bed. 

It’s not your job to change him, she said to herself. Her old therapist had said this to her many times. It was not Annie’s job to even attempt to change her father. Not. Her. Job. 

Her gut slowly unclenched itself. “Not my job, not-my-job” she sang quietly to herself as she plugged her phone in and then, remembering, texted Mary. 

Annie
He’s fine. The same. I’m sure he’d love to say hi to the boys

(This was kind of a lie? She was not, actually, sure about this, but she knew the boys would want to say hi to him). 

Mary:
You’re an angel.
A SNOW ANGEL.

 

*

 

Once the snow was more-or-less gone, Annie started discovering some of the neighborhood spots. She lived around about two blocks away from Analog Coffee, and it became her new default working spot. More days than not, she started her working day off with a yellow jadeite mug of drip, a seat at the table in the back, and a few hours of focused work mingled with people watching. She learned the names of the baristas, got to know the faces of the other regulars. Annie missed Alex and Caffe Ladro but had to admit that the coffee was better at Analog. Alex was a proper friend now, anyways, Annie didn’t have to rely on a daily transaction to bolster their relationship. 

And. 

It helped to be out of Queen Anne, out of the neighborhood that held so many memories. Memories that cut close. Memories happy and lonely and dear and painful and she just wanted to get through her day without feeling like she was being stabbed in the gut, was that too much to ask?  

Annie knew in her brain that Freida was gone. Out of the country gone. Freida had followed her on Instagram, post-fall, and Annie had actually dared to follow her back. Annie saw her posts and her stories, now. Freida was gone. But her brain saw Freida’s car everywhere. The sight of a person with black curly hair made her breath catch in her throat. It was ridiculous. 

 

*

 

February 21, 2019
From: Annie Elliot
To: Aleathia Smith
Subject: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: Apology + 2019 Dreams

Dear Alethiometer, 

I know I already told you about the snow, but that’s honestly still all anyone talks about. It was INSANE. I feel like it’ll take months for people to recover. It’s finally gone, and yesterday I was finally able to get the last couple of things I needed for the new place. Tae is so cool, I hope you get to meet them sometime.

Would you mind being Reddit for me? I need to know if I’m the asshole here. 

So, a couple of weeks ago, between the storms, I met up with Louisa for a Lesbian Movie Night with our other friend, since Lou has been going on and on about having this friend “catch up” on queer movies. After we watched But I’m a Cheerleader, Louisa insisted on putting on The Handmaiden. I had to go because I had work the next morning and it was already midnight, but our other friend (her name is Ben) stayed. 

Since then, Louisa’s been texting both of us to come over and watch more gay-ass movies (her words) but for one reason or another, I can never go. I think that Ben has been able to go? 

Here’s the asshole part: For various reasons, I feel low-key responsible for both of these people and their entertainment? Or socialization? … Okay, now that I type it out, I understand that that’s sort of ridiculous and that we’re all adults here. Nevertheless, I feel so, SO, relieved that they seem to be occupying each other. Is that bad? I feel like it’s bad. Tell me, o wise one! 

I have to get back to work, but I’m thinking about what you said about Justin, and communication, and I promise that I’ll have processed thoughts to share in a day or two. 

Love you, 

Annie

Chapter Text

March was punctuated by three things. Annie got a haircut (“YASSSSS your gayest look yet!” commented Henry exultantly on her Instagram); she got a bicycle (it was time, she had decided, to really go all in with the Capitol Hill vibe), and she got laid. 

“Hmmmmm, you’re good at this,” Lindy said, afterwards, lazily brushing Annie’s newly shorn hair off of her face. 

Annie laughed. “Is that so? Because it’s been a minute.” 

Lindy smirked. “Oh really? Because I met you and thought: that girl? She fucks.” 

“God, right, my infamous feral sexuality strikes again.” Annie rolled her eyes, trying to contain her laughter. 

They were tangled up in Annie’s bed. Tae was gone for the weekend, and the pair of them had gone for their second official date that night. Three rounds of drinks, and one thing led to another. 

(“What if,” Annie had barely managed, while being thoroughly kissed against the front door of her apartment building, “instead of leaving, you came in with me?”) 

“I don’t know about feral, but you’re cute as hell,” said Lindy. 

“Ha! Thank you, thank you very much.” Annie got up to get them some water, and they settled in to sleep. 

That morning, Lindy woke her in the pre-dawn light, nosing against her hair. Annie yawned, giggled, and then rolled over a bit to give Lindy better access. Minutes later, she was breathing hard and swearing; Lindy was kissing her way down Annie’s neck, her collarbone, her breasts — Lindy’s fingers were pressing into her insistently —  

“Fuck!” Annie gasped out, shaking into Lindy’s soft skin as she came. 

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Annie said weakly after a minute, trying to catch her breath as her trembling subsided. 

“That was so hot,” Lindy said dreamily, tugging playfully at a bit of Annie’s hair.. 

“Shit. Fuck.” Annie laughed, and took hold of Lindy’s shoulders, and rolled them both over so that Lindy was beneath her. 

“Allow me,” Annie said, between kisses, “to return the favor.”

After they’d slept (again) and woken (again), Lindy took her leave, and Annie took a shower. She hummed absently as she washed her hair. That had been fun. Really fun. Not a bad way to break almost a year-long streak of unintentional celibacy. Her mind wandered back to the last person she’d slept with, prior to Lindy. Rose had been a Pride hookup, and … fine. Underwhelming. They had both been a little too drunk, really, and Rose hadn’t been a great kisser, so in spite of subsequent text exchanges, there hadn’t been a repeat. 

The real question was, would there be a repeat of last night? Did she even want that? Annie thought for a second about Lindy’s hands, and she shivered all over. So that was a resounding yes. But would Lindy want another go?

Annie turned the water off, and got out of the shower. As she wrapped herself in a towel, her eyes caught on her phone screen. (15) messages from the group chat, and… (1) message from Lindy. Jackpot. 

Lindy
Still thinking about this morning. And you. *kissy face emoji* 

Annie mentally thanked her past self for embracing a mildly slutty phase a few years ago, determined to push herself through the initial awkwardness of, like, having a body. A body in context, if you will (And, Annie thought, she would) with other bodies. Good grief, she hadn’t even really masturbated until she was 23, and it had taken even longer to get the phantom of Freida – with all its attendant, crushing shame and regret – out of her head anytime she so much as thought about sex. Therapy! It really works, folks! Annie said to the invisible audience in her head. 

Her fingers hovered over her phone. 

Annie:
Same ;)
Too soon to ask about hanging out later this week?

Lindy:
Not at all, babe! Thursday?

Annie:
Thursday!

 

*

 

March 15, 2019
From: Annie Elliot
To: Aleathia Smith
Subject: re: NEW THREAD OLD TRICKS

Well! My dear former-Mrs.-Smith, as you know, Jesus teaches us to be holy, not to communicate effectively with our spouses. 

(Also yes, of course I’ll file the name-change paperwork downtown for you, I can do it on Tuesday, send me your shit), 

For god’s sake, please change the channel the next time Twister is on the hotel tv, I don’t want you to end up in an I Am Legend Will Smith knowing every word of Shrek state of mind!! 

I am not trying to therapize you, Ally, but I want you to know that you’re allowed to be angry at anyone you please. Hell, I’m furious at Justin on your behalf, that asshat. 

I mean, I’m also still working at being mad at my dad. Which I am. I’m mostly just tired whenever I think about him. So, so tired. 

Miss you, darlin’ - can’t wait to actually talk to you on the phone after your vocal rest is done!

 

March 17, 2019
From: Aleathia Smith
To: Annie Elliot
Subject: re: re: NEW THREAD OLD TRICKS

Thanks Annie…. yeah, no, I know. Trust me, I can’t help but be so fucking angry at him for remarrying so quickly and then his Sunday School Teacher wife having the absolute gall to just pop out a baby nine months later! Like it’s nothing! If you want, I’ll be mad at your dad for you. He’s a narcissistic egomaniac who took advantage of everyone around him, and specifically YOU. 

Don’t think that I didn’t notice that you didn’t tell me about how your giiiiirlfriend is (shut up, I know she’s not your gf yet). I need details, Annie! Stat! Please allow me to live vicariously thru your sexcapades. And don’t keep saying it’s nice, I will astral project to your house and throttle you through your laptop. Tell me everything. How did you meet, what’s her IG handle, please let me stalk her, how are the non-sex parts? You’re a fucking treasure of a human and she’d better know that!

 

*

 

“Hey darlin’! What’s new with you?” Alex yelled over the music. 

“Not too much. Work and all.” Annie yelled back. 

They were pressed up against the bar getting beers for the table. An energetic bro was scream-singing Don’t Stop Me Now behind them. 

“Yeah? Not much, huh? You sure about that?” Alex prodded. 

Annie raised her eyebrows. “Do you know something I don’t?” She asked, honestly puzzled.

Alex punched her lightly on the shoulder. “Dude, last time I stopped by, Tae said you were out on a date! I didn’t know you were seeing someone!”

“Oh! That. Uh, yeah guess I am?” 

The bartender slid their beers over to them, and they made their way back to the table. 

“You don’t have to talk about it, but I hope it’s going well and we get to meet them sometime!” Alex said. To Tae and Sam’s quizzical looks, she mock-whispered, “Annie’s date!”

Tae nodded wisely. “Ah yes, the mystery girl.”

Annie could feel herself start to blush. “I just wanted to make sure it was really something before talking about it?” she offered.

Sam grinned at her. “And? Your verdict?” 

“Well, you all know her…” Annie said. 

Alex and Tae traded surprised looks, and Sam pumped her fist in the air. “I knew it! You guys were vibing after that show before Christmas!” 

Annie laughed. “Yeah. We were.” 

“Oh! Lindy! Shit, you can keep a secret. Dang, you like her?” said Tae.

Annie rolled her eyes, still blushing.  “I mean, I wouldn’t go out with her if I didn’t like her.” 

Sam nudged Alex. “I told you there was something there! Girlfriends,” she sang out. 

“Not my girlfriend. We’ve been on like… five dates.” Annie said. 

“Five dates sounds like girlfriend territory to me,” said Sam, grinning at her.

“Stop,” Annie said, but she was grinning back.  

“She should have come tonight! Oh, that reminds me, Sarah just texted me, she and John can’t make it tonight,” Tae said to both of them.

“Well, maybe next time,” said Alex philosophically. 

“This place is really cool, by the way! How’d you find it?” Annie said to Sam. 

“I know someone who knows someone who knows the owner, and he said they do karaoke every Sunday night! Isn’t it great?” Sam said, eating a peanut and throwing the shell on the floor, where it joined an eddy of other peanut shells.  

A woman started singing “Believe,” by Cher, in a wonderfully resonant and rich deep voice, and suddenly the entire bar was singing along. It was contagious. 

Annie felt it in her bones. “I can feel something inside me say: I really don’t think you’re strong enough, NO!” she yelled along. 

After that song was done, Tae stood up. “I’m going to sign up.” 

“Ooh, I’ll join you,” said Sam. 

Someone started singing Weezer in the background. 

“Lindy, huh,” said Alex, neutrally.  

“Yeah. Is that… is that weird for you? Friends dating friends can be weird, I know.” Annie said, mentally gearing up for some awkwardness. 

“No, no! It’s fine, I promise!” said Alex, grimacing a little. “It’s just… Lindy’s been off and on for forever with her ex, and I didn’t realize they were off right now, that’s all. Took me by surprise!” She paused, and smiled apologetically. “Sorry, I’m not trying to butt in. I just don’t want you to get hurt. I’ve seen some other people get caught up in their deal and it’s not pretty.” 

Annie smiled back. “No, I appreciate it. Lindy’s talked about her ex a little, and it does sound like they have some… complicated history there.” 

“Complicated isn’t the half of it.” Alex said, shaking her head. She shrugged. “But if it’s really over…” 

“Yeah,” said Annie. Her mind was whirling, trying to piece together anything she remembered Lindy saying about her ex. There wasn’t much. Hm. She’d have to ask her about it. 

“Anyway, it’d be fun to hang out all together, if that’s something you’re comfy with!” Alex said, as Sam and Tae approached the table. 

“We’re up in three songs, and you guys are coming to dance with us!” crowed Sam. 

“Deal!” laughed Annie. “What did you choose?” 

“You’ll see!” teased Tae. “What’s your karaoke song, Elliot? You gonna sign up?” 

“Well,” said Annie. “I do a mean Avril Lavigne…” 

Hours later, in the brisk night air outside The Slow Boat, Annie was hugging Alex and Sam goodbye. 

“So, next Sunday?” Sam asked teasingly. 

“Busy. But…. the Sunday after?” 

“Shit, really? Hell yeah!” 

“Maybe Lindy will want to come!” said Tae. 

Annie bit her lip, grinning. “I’ll ask her,” she said. 

Alex hugged her again. “No pressure, you know that, right?” She said into Annie’s ear. 

“I know. Thanks, Alex. See you soon, okay?”

“Okay, bye!”

Annie drove up Rainier toward Capitol Hill. Tae was curating a playlist next to her, chatting absently about the development of South Seattle and gentrification. Annie was listening, responding, and thinking about how to broach the delicate subject of Are You Over Your Ex? to Lindy. Freida crossed her mind, and she shook her head. They weren’t exes, that was ridiculous. And Frieda was gone, anyways. Gone, gone, gone.

Chapter Text

“Wait a minute, really?” Annie said, looking from Ben to Louisa. Back to Ben, who was grinning sheepishly and blushing a little. Lou probably didn’t know how to blush anymore, but she looked as pleased as a cat with cream. They were holding hands. 

“So,” said Annie slowly, “All those times I couldn’t make the movie night…?” 

“It’s basically a Modern Romance column, baby!” said Louisa. 

“Basically,” Ben said, her gaze turning absolutely besotted when she turned to look at Louisa. 

“I — of course, I’m so happy for both of you! Just give me a second to get over the surprise!”

“Aw, Annie, I knew you’d love it!” said Louisa. “Will you help us move next Saturday? We got a place in Montlake!”

“Oh god, uh, sure, of course!”

Ben lit up even more, if that was possible. Annie had never seen her look so happy. 

“Harv and Freida and the boys should be back by next week at the latest, and we’ll have a proper housewarming party!” Ben exulted. 

Annie felt something lodge in her chest. She wasn’t interested in examining it further.

“Have you told them all yet?” she asked, as mildly as she could. 

Louisa laughed and Ben rolled her eyes. “Trust me, I was keeping Harv abreast of all my inconvenient feelings,” Ben said. 

“And I tell Freida everything! Well,” Louisa’s look turned sly. “Almost everything.” 

She whispered something in Ben’s ear, and Ben's cheeks turned a violent shade of red. 

Annie cleared her throat and busied herself with opening the calendar app on her phone. “Right. What time on Saturday?” 

 

*

 

Lindy had stayed over on Friday night, and had to go to Queen Anne for band practice anyways, so she dropped Annie off at the Musgroves' after getting coffee. Annie kissed her quickly in the car, and said, “Thank you so much for the ride, Lindy.” 

Lindy smiled and then grimaced. “I’m eventually going to have to meet all these people, huh?” 

Annie smiled back and sighed. “Oh yeah. Not today though. I don’t want to inflict Lou in moving mode on you.”

Lindy winked at her and said, “Trust me, I remember her drunk mode, I’m assuming it’s just as intense.”

Annie laughed. “Always.”

The first thing Annie heard when she opened the door was Louisa yelling down the basement stairs to Ben.

“CAN YOU GRAB THE BLUE PAINTER’S TAPE AS WELL?”

“GOT IT, LOVE,” called Ben faintly.

Louisa noticed Annie, turned around and slowly engulfed her in an effusive hug, like a cheerful sloth with a single crutch.

“Annie! ANNIE’S HERE,” she hollered down. 

“What can I do?” Annie asked, setting her purse down. 

“Oh lord! There’s so much, I don't even know where to start and I have a fucking pounding headache,” Louisa said excitedly. 

Ben came bounding up the stairs. “Annie! Thank you for coming!” she said, wrapping her in a hug. 

“Oh yes, thank you,” said Louisa. 

Annie said, after eyeing her for a second. “Why don’t you take some ibuprofen and drink some coffee, Lou?” 

“I knew I forgot something this morning! Annie, would you mind terribly….”

“On it,” Annie laughed, heading to the kitchen. 

“USE THE LIGHTHOUSE ROASTERS,” yelled Louisa after her. “MY PARENTS INSIST ON DRINKING STARBUCKS AND IT IS A HATE CRIME AGAINST ME SPECIFICALLY!” 

“Okay!” Annie yelled back. 

She walked into the kitchen to find the aforementioned parents sitting at the kitchen table. 

“Good morning, dear,” said Mrs. Musgrove kindly. 

“Louisa’s coffee is behind ours in the cupboard there,” Mr. Musgrove added, a twinkle in his eye. 

As the coffee dripped through the filter, Annie sat down with them. Mr. Musgrove handed her a section of the paper, and Mrs. Musgrove said, placidly: “Won’t you have something to eat, Annie? We just got these nice Pink Lady apples from Costco.” 

Ten minutes later, Annie wandered back into the empty entryway, bearing three mugs of coffee and with most of an apple sticking out of her mouth.

The door opened.

It was Freida.

Because of course it was. 

Freida’s eyes went comically wide. She stared at Annie for a moment, and then started laughing as she pushed the door further open and Harv and Henry and Hayes came trooping through. The Crofts, who had presumably driven them all from the airport, were coming sedately up the walk behind them. 

“Annie, darling!” Harv laughed. “Did some evil witch turn you into the pig dinner in A Christmas Carol ?” 

Annie hastily set the mugs down on the console table and removed the apple from her mouth, exclaiming, “Oh my god! I didn't realize –– Welcome back!”

Louisa and Ben came down the hallway, Louisa shrieking in delight. There was a general free-for-all of hugging, which was joined midway through by the elder Musgroves emerging from the kitchen. 

No one seemed to notice that Annie and Freida did not hug, when they were shoved up against each other in the entryway. “How was the flight?” Annie asked, smiling nervously. 

“Good. I slept. We watched some dumb movies,” Freida said, smiling back at her. 

Harv crowded in to hug Annie. “The most abysmal romantic comedies ever created were all hand-curated by British Airlines for us, it’s true.” 

“I’d hardly classify Fifty Shades Freed a comedy, Harv,” said Hayes, over Ben’s shoulder. “Maybe a romantic tragedy.” 

“We went to see that last month for a belated Valentine's Day!” said Louisa, brightly. 

Henry guffawed loudly. Louisa punched him. Annie’s smile almost hurt, it was stretching so widely across her face. 

Somehow they all ended back up in the big kitchen, Annie brewing more coffee, and Mr. Musgrove making eggs and Mrs. Musgrove making toast. 

The prodigals were duly quizzed about their time in London. They related stories and shared pictures. a weekend in Oxford, punting on the Thames. Wet, grey London. Museums. Michelin-starred restaurants. Hole-in-the-wall Indian food. Freida was waving her arms around as she spoke, animated and happy, her face scrunching up into smile after smile. Annie found it hard to keep her gaze from landing on her and sticking. 

“Did you work at all?” asked Ben, eyebrow raised. 

“It was Henry’s first time in Jolly Olde! We had to show it properly, didn’t we?” said Hayes indignantly. 

Freida rolled her eyes. “We worked, alright.” She, Hayes, and Harv proceeded to list off their clients and projects, until Ben held up her hands. 

“Alright, alright, I’m convinced! Well, while you were gone, I slogged through redesigning the entire internal communications system here.”

“That’s not all you did,” said Louisa slyly, coming up behind her and resting her chin on Ben’s shoulder. 

Annie snuck another glance at Freida, who was smiling at the pair of them with what looked like genuine pleasure. 

The conversation turned, and Annie, who was feeling unaccountably restless, started gathering up all the empty coffee cups and plates. 

She had put the mugs into the dishwasher and was rinsing the plates off at the sink when she was flanked on either side by Freida and Harv. 

“Let us take it from here, you shouldn’t have to do all this,” said Harv, gently ignoring Annie’s protests and extricating the sponge from her hands. 

“My aunt and uncle want to talk to you about the garden or something in the living room,” said Freida, smiling at her, in a way that almost looked fond. Annie, somewhat in shock, made her way to the living room, where she was hailed genially by the Crofts and elder Musgroves and asked about spring garden care. 

After some minutes of garden talk, Mrs. Croft observed that Ben and Louisa getting together had been quite a surprise to her. Mrs. Musgrove added that Ben seemed to be having a steadying influence on Louisa. Admiral Croft said something about “kids these days moving in faster than ever,” and Mrs. Croft reminded him that they had been engaged after knowing each other in Basic Training for six weeks, and didn’t he think people in glass houses...? 

That was when the boys ran in, clamoring for a hug from Grandma and Grandpa. Aunt Annie was next in line for hugs, of course. She caught Marshall up, breathing in that sweet top-of-head smell, and then swooped him down dramatically, making him burst into delighted giggles. 

Charles and Mary appeared in the doorway and said hello all around, Charles adding that Louisa had asked him if she and Ben could use the Suburban to move. 

“With so many people here, I think we’ll be done moving them in two hours, tops,” he said genially. 

“And then, we were thinking about proposing ordering P-I-Z-Z-A for everyone, if you all would be interested?” Mary said. “We can do it in our house of course, even though it is a bit messy.…” 

“Here is fine, sweetie!” said Mrs. Musgrove. 

Mrs. Croft intercepted, “You just had everyone over for breakfast, Diane, let us have you all over next door for lunch! I insist.”

The sun was coming out of the clouds; the boys started pestering Annie to play with them. 

She said to Mary and Charles, “If you two can help Ben and Lou, maybe I can keep the boys busy at the park?” The boys cheered. 

Outside, Annie took their hands and looked both ways to cross the empty street. The milling group was slowly beginning to load boxes into all the cars. Freida was looking towards her and the kids, an unreadable expression on her face. 

Self-conscious, Annie said, “Let’s race!” and ran all the way to the park with Charley and Marshall. 

 

*

 

Later that day, wandering through the Croft’s house after eating what felt like her weight in pizza, Annie reflected that being at the old house would never not be weird. She loved all the art that the Crofts had on the walls, and she admired their furniture and their clean, uncluttered way of life, but she kept turning the corner and expecting to see a ghostly shadow of her younger self coming down the hallway. It was disconcerting, to say the least. 

She was walking slowly from the bathroom back to the living room when Louisa called to her from the stairs where she was perched with Freida. 

“Annie! You’ll never guess in a million years!” 

Annie cracked a smile. “I really never will,” she said. 

“Oh, my god. Do you remember Audrey Pruitt? From LightWalk?” 

Annie tensed. “Uh, yes. Why?”

“She just messaged me on Facebook to say that she’d sorry about not ‘being in touch’ and would like to invite me to a ‘gathering’ at her house next week to tell me about her ‘new business’ selling leggings!”

Freida was trying to hold back laughter. Some kind of information was missing here.…

“So…?” Annie asked. 

“So! So the last time we talked was literally years ago, when she basically said I was a godless heathen for not going to LightWalk anymore? And now she wants me to join her mid-level marketing scam?” Louisa’s voice rose to a shriek on the last words.

“Wait, she said that?” 

“Okay, not in those exact words. But she hinted!” 

“What did she actually say, though?” 

“Annie! It doesn’t matter! It matters that she just messaged me after four years of radio silence! Why would anyone do that?”

Annie bit her lip. “Sometimes people want to apologize for things they did a long time ago. You never know how people have changed, or what people— ” she drew a breath. Say it, Annie! “—what people really regret.”

Louisa, thank god, had turned her attention back to her phone and was paying no attention to Annie’s face. 

“Yes, but through Facebook? Ew, Annie.”  

Freida cleared her throat. “Sometimes,” she offered slightly hesitantly, looking at the floor, “people just use whatever tools they have at their disposal, right?” 

Annie nodded fervently, a flush of relief echoing through her whole body. “You never know how people will react,” she said. “Sometimes you want to do things … indirectly, just in case.” 

“This was not that indirect!” said Louisa. “And I really don’t think there’s an apology coming, I think she’s just trying to sell me leggings! Look at these!” 

Freida eyed Louisa’s screen, and started laughing again. “These leggings are hideous. I think you’re right.”

Annie craned her head to look through the bannisters, and laughed a little harder than the ugly design actually warranted. 

Ben came down the hall. “There you are, love. Your mum wants us to come for dessert.” 

Louisa beamed at her, and stood, leaving Freida still sitting on the stairs, at eye level with Annie, regarding her with a steady gaze. 

God, the ability to just look her in the eyes was such a gift. The moment felt elastic, weighted. 

“Guys,” Louisa called, already halfway down the hallway with Ben. “Come on!” 

Freida blinked. She crooked a small smile at Annie and called out, “Coming, Lou!”

“Terrible leggings,” said Annie inanely, daring to smile back. Oh, her heart was beating hard.

“Yeah.” Freida shook her head. “Terrible.” 

“I am. Sorry, I mean,” Annie said quietly, intensely. The smile wiped itself off Freida’s face. “So sorry. I've never regretted anything more in my life. If I could go back, I’d do everything differently. You don’t have to— We don’t have to ever talk about it,” said Annie, looking away and blinking rapidly against the tears in her eyes. “I just wanted you to know. I should have told you a long time ago.”  

“Thank you,” said Freida carefully, “for saying that.” She took a breath to perhaps say something else—

“Freida!” shrieked Louisa from down the hall. 

They both jumped. Freida got up from her seat on the stairs and hollered, “Hold your horses!” over Annie's head. She stepped down and was on the same level as Annie and then tentatively put a hand on Annie’s shoulder. It sent a physical shock through Annie’s whole body. She froze.

“We were so young, Annie.” Freida’s face was sad. Annie couldn't tear her eyes away from it. “It's... you shouldn't beat yourself up about it.” Freida's eyes were scanning Annie's face, and Annie must have made some tiny micro-expression, because Freida said "I know, easier said than done. But, it's... it's okay now. Really it is." 

Louisa yelled again, and Freida dropped her hand back to her side, gave Annie a bit of a smile, and ran down the hall. 

Annie went straight back to the bathroom and sat down on the toilet seat with her head in her hands. It would be a few minutes before she could even possibly consider rejoining society. 

 

*

 

The first time Freida came into Analog Coffee while Annie was working there, it was a real shock to both of them. 

It was mid-morning on the Friday after Ben and Lou's Moving Day, and Annie was working at the big table in the back of the shop, facing the door. She was tapping her fingers idly against her closed mouth and staring a bit blankly into the space in front of her when the door opened and Freida came in. 

Annie froze for a minute. This city was too small. Freida was looking around with interest, taking in the line in front of her, the shiny espresso machine, the orange cups, the pleasant brightness of the sun coming in through the front windows. Her eyes stuttered to a stop on Annie. 

Annie gave a little wave, tried out a half-smile. Freida waved back, her face relaxing into a smile as well. She ordered her coffee, and after it was handed to her, she stepped around the counter, towards the table. Annie moved her bag off the chair next to her. 

“Hey, what’s up? Want to sit down?” 

“Sure, I have a couple minutes to kill.”

Freida settled into the seat, and took in Annie’s work setup. “This your spot?”

Annie closed her laptop, fighting to keep a stupid grin off her face. “Kind of. I’m here a lot. I really like it here and it’s right around the corner from my apartment.”

“Nice. It’s super cute,” said Freida, looking around again and sipping at her coffee. 

“Yeah. And the coffee’s great.” Annie took a sip of her own coffee. “What are you doing on the Hill?”

Freida fidgeted a little, straightening her blazer. “I’m starting a volunteering gig. My work schedule is really flexible right now, so I thought I’d try it out.” 

“Oh, cool! Where are you volunteering?” 

“It’s this place called Lambert House? It’s actually closer to First Hill, but I’d heard about Analog and wanted to try it out. Figured it was on the way.”

“Cool, I’ve never heard of it, but I’ll look it up!” 

Freida took another sip, and pushed her chair back. “Actually, I should probably go. Parking, so much worse these days, all these tech bros. Amazon really fucked everything up, didn’t it?” she said, rushed, standing up and straightening her blazer again. 

Annie smiled up at her involuntarily, bemused. “Yeah. Well, I hope it goes well!” she offered. 

“Thanks, Annie,” Freida grinned back at her, and then she was striding out, out the door, down the block. 

Annie opened her laptop and googled Lambert House.  

Lambert House empowers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth through the development of leadership, social, and life skills.

Oh. 

An interminable week passed. Trying not to think about it, trying not to text Freida about it, trying not to wonder... And then the next Friday, Freida came into Analog again, looking extremely nonchalant. 

“So, I looked up Lambert House,” Annie said, “and it looks so cool. How is the volunteering going?” 

Freida’s face lit up. “Oh, it’s amazing! Everyone there is great!”

“Are you working with the kids?” 

“Not yet. I’m in training right now. When work loosens up even more, I’ll probably switch to an afternoon slot and start helping out with the after-school program, but right now I’m just doing some admin stuff on Friday mornings for them.” 

“So cool,” Annie said again, her smile again threatening to turn stupid. 

“Yeah.” Freida took a sip of her coffee, and said tentatively. “I wish I’d—we’d—had something like that. Back then.” 

Annie nodded, her heart rate speeding up. “I don’t think it would have done me any good at the time,” she said quietly. 

“Maybe not,” Freida’s lips twisted down. “So, if this isn’t too personal, what exactly happened with your dad’s church? I keep hearing these weird oblique references to LightWalk splitting up—” 

Annie grimaced, laughing uncomfortably. “Well. It’s a really long story, but, the short version is, uh. I was way out of the church by then, thank goodness, but my dad basically stole a bunch of money and kicked everyone who disagreed with him out of LightWalk. And then the IRS finally caught him on tax evasion last summer, and he had to sell everything to cover the debt.”

“Oh, Annie.” Freida said. “So, the house…” She trailed off. 

“Yeah.” There was a slight pause, before Annie continued. “It was, um. Super fucked up.” Freida laughed a little, like it had been punched out of her by Annie’s use of profanity. “The Stranger actually did some good reporting on it, if you want an, uh, impartial version of events.”

Freida checked her watch, because of course she wore a watch. It was big. Nautical. A diving watch, Annie thought nonsensically. 

“I’d rather hear about it from you, honestly. If you don’t mind talking about it. But, rain check? I have to get going. See you at Louisa and Ben’s thing next Wednesday, yeah?”

“What thing?” 

“Oh lord, Lou hasn’t sent invites out yet, has she? They're having a housewarming party. Apartment-warming. I’ll text her. She’ll text you. See you!” 

Annie nodded, watching Freida pull her phone out of her back pocket and text her way out the door. 

Ten minutes later, Louisa messaged the group chat. 

Louisa:
Hey babes! I can’t believe I forgot to put this on here but Ben and I are having a game night for our apartment warming on May Day!!! Wednesday at 7pm! 
Come one, come all! Friends, family & lovers all welcome ;)

Chapter Text

Annie:
What are you doing tonight?

Lindy:
Idk
I’m doing… you? [devil emoji]

Annie:
...ohhhhhh I walked into that one

Lindy:
You sure did ;)

Annie:
lollllll
My friends are having a game night/housewarming thing
Want to come? 
You don’t have to!!

Lindy:
You sure you want me to finally meet all your people lol

Annie:
They are kind of a lot 
It’s totally cool if you don’t want to!!

Lindy:
I was joking! I’d love to

Annie:
Cool cool cool
I can pick you up at 6:45ish?

Lindy:
It’s a date! 

 

 

*

 

 

Lindy was charming, because that’s who she was , and she charmed everyone at the party. Louisa was ecstatic that Annie had brought someone, and cornered her in the kitchen, mid-party, to get details out of her. How long had they been dating? How serious was it? Why hadn’t Annie mentioned Lindy before, the sly minx? Annie was basically a vault, wasn’t she, Ben? Freida, you didn’t know about this girl before, did you? No? Annie, where are you going? The bathroom is that way, I thought I gave you the tour?

After escaping the inquisition, Annie stared at herself in the bathroom mirror and mentally shook herself by the shoulders. What had she been worried about? She took a deep, calming breath. This was a really nice, fun, little party so far. They had already killed a couple of bottles of wine, collectively, and were about to start playing some kind of new game with really beautiful art. 

She came out of the apartment bathroom into the front hallway. Freida was putting on her boots. 

“Oh, are you leaving?” said Annie, surprised into immediate speech. 

“Yeah, I have to go,” said Freida blankly, kneeling down, concentrating on her boot laces. She didn’t look over at Annie, after the first quick glance. 

“Ah man, the party’s not over! You don’t want to stay and play the game?”

“I don’t think so.” Freida shrugged her jacket on. “I have an early call for work tomorrow anyways.” 

Annie was suddenly very sad. A wave of sadness. She must have had more wine than she thought. “You’re sure? You can’t stay even a little longer?” 

Freida shook her head decidedly, not meeting her eyes. “Not worth it.” 

“Bye,” she said as she swept out the door. 

Annie stared at the closed door. She heard Freida’s steps clattering down the concrete stairs. Through the long rectangular window by the side of the door, she could see Freida pulling her car door open, quickly, and slamming the door shut behind her with force. After a minute or so, Freida drove off. 

Annie realized that she had stretched her hand out, palm flat against the cold window. She hastily drew back, crossed her arms, ran her fingers through her hair, turned around. 

Lindy came down the hall toward her, poked her shoulder affectionately. “You ready? We’re about to start the new game.” 

Annie pulled back a little. She didn’t even mean to, it just happened. “Oh. Yeah. I was just saying goodbye to Freida.” 

“Oh yeah, she had to leave. You know, she’s actually really nice.”

Annie nodded. “I know.” 

Lindy took Annie’s hand and started pulling her along the hallway toward the living room and the others, saying, “She cornered me in the kitchen and apologized for something she said when we met at that bar months ago!” 

“She did? What was it?” 

“Something about people coming out — you know, it doesn’t matter,” Lindy waved her hand. “I didn’t even remember. But it was nice of her to say.” 

“Yeah, that’s. Huh.” They were greeted genially by the others in the living room, and sat down to play the game. 

“More wine, Annie?” Ben asked solicitously, obviously glorying in the ability to be hostess in her own place. 

“Hm, no thanks, I think I need to switch to water.” 

 

 

*

 

 

Annie shifted her car into park outside of Lindy’s apartment building after a mostly silent drive away from the party. She’d had enough water to drown a pothos, and plenty of food besides, but she still felt… not drunk… off-balance. She felt like she was standing at the edge of a cliff, waiting for a push from either direction. 

“Are you good?” Lindy asked. 

“Uh,” said Annie, staring straight ahead. 

“You don’t seem good.”

“Oh! Well, yeah. I feel a little weird.” 

“Do you… not want to stay the night?”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, Lin, I think I need to go home and sleep it off.”

“Okay, if you’re sure. Feel better! And text me tomorrow?” 

“Yeah, of course.”

Lindy leaned in and pressed a kiss to Annie’s cheek, and then she was out of the car and running up her steps. 

Annie drove home, parked, and then sat in her car for a few minutes. She gripped the steering wheel. Shit



*



On Friday, Freida didn’t show up at Analog. Annie jumped at every jingle of the door, even long after the time that Freida usually showed up. 

Annie took her lunch early and walked home slowly, tilting her face up to the spring sun. Knowing what she had to do didn’t make the thought any easier. 



*



On Saturday, they met at Gasworks Park, and sat on the side of the hill, looking out at Lake Union and all the boats. The panorama of the city stretched out in front of them, Queen Anne hill sloping down to the Space Needle on the right, the skyscrapers of downtown in the center, Capitol Hill stretching gently up to the left. The roof of St. Mark’s shining on the hill, above the freeway. 

Annie sighed. She’d brought them both coffee, and she took a sip of her cold brew, trying to calm her nerves before speaking. 

“Lindy. I’m sorry, but I have to talk to you about something...” 

Lindy twisted her entire body to look at Annie. She narrowed her eyes. 

“Well, that sentence only ever means one thing.” 

Annie grimaced, hung her head. 

“I really like you, I just... I am so fucking sorry.” 

“You want to break up.”

“Yeah.”

You’re breaking up with me.” 

Annie pulled her head up to look at her. Lindy’s cheeks were a little flushed. She had an incredulous expression, like someone was trying to explain to her that two plus two wasn’t equal to four, but was in fact equal to something non-numerical. Two plus two equals a pink giraffe. 

“I am so sorry,” Annie said again. 

“After I just met all your friends. What the hell? Was that some kind of fucked-up test, and I didn’t pass?”

“No! No, you’re great. They all loved you.” Annie took a breath. “This sounds like a cop out, but it isn’t you. It’s me, it isn’t you.”

“Well, Jesus, it must be! That doesn’t actually make me feel better, Annie!” 

Annie hated making people mad. 

Lindy continued. “Dude, I thought everything was going really well. You literally never said anything. Like, are you even going to tell me what’s up, or are you going to keep that to yourself, too?”

Annie turned out to look at the lake again. 

“I’m––” she started. She cleared her throat. “It’s–– I think I have feelings for someone else. I just. I just figured it out.” 

Annie snuck a glance. Lindy had closed her eyes, and was in the middle of taking a deep breath. 

“Have you,” she asked, far too calmly, “been sleeping with someone else? Because that’s... whatever... but I need to know so that I can get tested and shit.” 

“No!” said Annie, shocked into laughter. “Jesus, sorry. I shouldn’t laugh. But God, no. It's just been you since we... started.”

Lindy took another deep breath, turned to face Annie again, and fixed her with a piercing stare. 

“You’re not seeing this other person too?” 

“No! It’s not like that.” 

“Uh huh.”  

“I just. Lindy, you have to know that I really like you!” Annie said. “I’ve been having such a good time with you, I really have! It’s just. There’s been some other shit going on, and I don’t want to lead you on while I get my head straight.” 

“Look, it’s not like we really talked about exclusivity, so, like, it’s fine if you’ve been seeing someone else, like I said, we all need robust testing schedules for our health anyways. But you swear––?”

“No! God. I wish! Shit, sorry. I don’t mean that. Well, I kind of do. That’s kind of the issue here.”

Lindy took another long, thoughtful pull of her cold brew. She appeared to be less visibly angry. 

“So you just figured it out.” 

“Yeah, and it sucks . If I could ignore it, I would, trust me.”

“Uh huh,” Lindy said again. 

“I think you’re so cool! You’re gorgeous, you’re funny, you’re smart, and––” Annie trailed off.

“––And the heart wants what it wants,” Lindy finished for her. 

“Yeah.”

A silence stretched between them. 

“Okay. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t shitty, but I get it,” Lindy said. 

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I mean, feelings are fucking unpredictable, right? So yeah, I get it.” Lindy shrugged in a concentrated effort at nonchalance. 

 Another silence stretched between them. 

“You probably don’t want to be friends, do you?” asked Annie, after a minute.

Lindy laughed a bit unsteadily, “No, not really.”

“Okay.” said Annie. 

They talked for a little longer, about nothings, and then Lindy said goodbye and left. Annie flopped back against the grassy slope of the hill and groaned, very quietly. That had gone a little better than she’d thought it might. What now? 

Annie stayed at the park for a while, and then swung by the store for some food on the way home. She felt lighter. She found herself humming something jaunty as she walked up to her apartment door, some song she couldn’t remember the words to.

She opened the door to a burst of excited voices. 

“Annie!” It was Alex and Sam, sat on the living room floor with Tae, video game consoles in hand. 

Tae yelled and punched the air. “Take that! My round!” 

Alex and Sam both made identical sounds of distress. Annie laughed. They clambered up to hug her, and then Annie curled up on the couch next to Tae and ate her grocery store salad and watched them play. 

“So, how’s your day been?” asked Sam eventually, her eyes fixed on the screen. 

“Uh.” How much should she tell them? How much did she want to keep to herself? They were Lindy’s friends too. 

Annie decided... to hell with it. She was tired of being a vault. “I broke things off with Lindy this morning.” 

There was a moment of silence, and three heads turned toward her. Tae hit a button on her controller and GAME SAVED flashed across the screen. 

“Oh god, I’m so sorry!” said Sam. 

“Are you okay? Do you need anything?” asked Alex. 

“What happened?” asked Tae. 

Annie shook her head and held out her hands. “I’m fine! No, really! I just… I just wasn’t feeling it anymore.” 

Tae blinked. “This was just this morning? This happened today?” 

“Yeah. I’m fine, I promise.” 

“Did she finally tell you about Clara?” asked Alex, naming Lindy’s ex. 

Annie felt both of her eyebrows raise by themselves, like a puppetmaster was pulling them up by strings. “Tell me what about Clara?”

Alex’s mouth narrowed to an oh. Sam turned her head toward her girlfriend. “That’s who you saw at Montana?” 

“I thought I saw them, it’s always so dark in there!”

“Whoa now, Stop right there, I want the whole story,” said Tae. 

Annie shook her head and pointed at Alex. “You first.”

“I was just in there after a shift two nights ago to get a moscow mule, and I thought I maybe saw them in the corner. You know how dark it is in there! I wasn’t sure.” 

“What were they doing?” Annie asked. 

Alex paused. Grimaced. “Making out. In the corner. That’s why I couldn’t really tell if it was them. It might not have been them!” Alex looked at Sam and Tae, who were both staring at her, mouths agape. “What! I was hoping to see you today and ask you if you guys were still dating, Annie! I thought maybe it was you!” 

“Huh,” said Annie thoughtfully. Well. Well! 

“So Lindy didn’t tell you. But you broke up with her?” Sam asked. 

“Yeah, I like someone else,” Annie said absently, still running through the conversation with Lindy in her head. Should she go get tested? She should go get tested. Annie was about to pull out her phone and make a doctor’s appointment on her health app right then and there, but she noticed, suddenly, the absence of sound in the room. Annie looked up, once more, to find the three women staring at her. 

Tae threw up their hands. “It never rains but it fucking pours!” 

“Okay, Annie!” said Sam delightedly. 

“Who, who, who?!” asked Alex. 

“Shit. I said that out loud.” Annie could feel herself blushing. 

“Yeah you did!” said Tae. “Spill the beans!” 

“You guys don’t know her. It’s an old friend. I don’t know, it’s kind of complicated.” Annie thought fast. “She moved back into town recently. We keep running into each other. I always had, um, a thing for her.” A thing. Well, it wasn’t a lie. 

“Oho!” Sam squealed. “And do you know when you’ll run into her next?” 

“Yes. No. Maybe? She usually comes into Analog on Fridays and we chat for a bit.” 

“And now you’re single!” said Tae. 

“And now I’m single,” Annie said. Her smile faded. “I think I was kind of shitty to Lindy, but I didn’t feel like it was right to just keep seeing her…” 

Alex lifted a shoulder. “Look, I love that girl, but she is messy .”

“You did try to warn me,” Annie said lightly. She stood up. “Anybody want some sparkling water?” 

“Me please!” said Tae. Sam and Alex echoed them. 

Alex came to the kitchen with her. “You’re sure you’re okay? I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to let you know like that. And I might not have seen them, it could have just been people that looked like them.” 

Annie handed Alex two of the cans of water. 

“Thank you,” she said, looking Alex in the eye. “I’m not going to lie, I might need to process this a little and then maybe talk to you about it more, but. If it was them, I almost feel relieved.”

Alex was nodding. “That you didn’t––”

“––That I didn’t break her heart or some shit, yeah.”

They made their way back to the couch. 

Sam cracked open the water and said, “Not to be too nosy, but I do want a full report next Friday after you see this girl.” 

Annie bit her lip to stop from smiling. “We’ll see how it goes,” she said. 

The subsequent Friday, Freida came swinging through Analog on Friday like nothing had changed. 

Nothing had changed, Annie reminded herself, trying not to stare at Freida as she paid for her coffee at the register. 

And yet. 

With something like hope, Annie paid close attention to Freida’s tone of voice as they chatted (neutral). The way Freida angled her body (slightly away from Annie). How often she met Annie’s eyes (not often enough for Annie’s liking). The topic of conversation (the smallest of small talk).

Annie was just waiting for an opportune moment to drop the information that she was no longer seeing Lindy, but Freida, much like the first time she’d come into Analog, checked the time, jumped up and more or less ran out. 

Annie stared after her, bereft. Oh. Her stomach, which had been sinking steadily during the whole interaction, settled into her feet. Freida must not feel–– must not think–– must not . God, Annie was such a fucking idiot. Had she thought, had Annie really thought that maybe…? Well, whatever she had thought, it was clearly rooted in the purest fantasy. 

And yet. 

And yet, Annie had finally admitted to herself that she was maybe still a little in love with the person she’d been in love with ten years ago, and yes, it hurt.

Annie looked at the clock, blinking back tears in the corner of her eye. She pulled up her work to-do list. 

She messaged her boss. Hey, I’m not feeling well at all today. Can I take the day and make it up later?

Her boss, her kind and understanding boss, messaged back immediately. Of course. Feel better, and let’s check in tomorrow morning. 

Annie slowly closed her laptop. She drank the rest of her coffee. She went back to her apartment and cried a little, took a nap, and then she went for a walk around Greenlake. 

At the end of her walk, she texted Alex, Sam, and Tae. 

Annie:
So I saw that girl I like today, but I really don’t think she likes me like that

Sam
What happened? How do you know??

Annie:
Idk, sometimes you just know, right? 
Like, tone of voice. 
I'm kinda sad about it. 

Alex:
Oh honey, I’m sorry. Do you want to hang tonight? We can do something chill.

Tae:
Aw shit dude that sucks! I’m sorry. This girl is missing out!!

Annie:
Thanks guys <3 We could continue the Sex & The City watch-through, Alex, if you and Sam want to come over?

Sam:
Word, I’ll bring some wine <3 <3 <3

 

 

*

 

 

As May went on, Annie threw herself into work. She started looking at Project Management Certification courses, and talked to her boss about taking Adobe classes. Annie found a new yoga studio, one where the teachers weren't overly spiritual (once, early on in her deconstruction, she had run out of a class when the yogi started rhapsodizing about the divine light within). She added “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” to her Work, Bitch playlist on Spotify, and tried not to think.

One bored night, she downloaded Tinder, and spent some restless hours swiping through Seattle’s wlw scene. 

“Wine Aunt, Taurus rising. Looking for.…” Annie paused while writing her own profile. What was she looking for? 

Looking for my old best friend to love

Delete.

Looking for a version of my younger self to forgive

Delete.

Looking for chill hangs

Delete. What was she, Californian?

Looking for something casual that might turn into something more with someone cool who doesn’t mind emotional baggage

Delete, delete, delete.

In the end, she just went with her first sentence and a choice selection of emojis. She was just looking, she wasn't looking for anyone. 

She swiped through hikers (so many hikers), bikers, people who were looking for a third, people who had written a whole-ass book for their bio, people who were cute but not Freida, people who might have been cute in real life but didn’t know how to take a selfie in the year of our lord 2019. She swiped yes on a few people and matched with a girl who had dark hair, glasses, and some mildly funny puns in her bio. 

Annie stared at the blank, open message screen for a full minute. 

She went back to swiping. 

After a few more minutes, Annie threw her phone down. 

“Is it just me, or does Tinder feel like a meat market?” she asked Tae the next day during a Hulu commercial break 

“Baby’s got a Tinder?” yelped Tae. “Let me see your profile!”

Annie opened the app and tossed her phone to Tae, while protesting, “I feel very ambivalent about it. That’s my caveat”

Tae flopped through Annie’s photos. “Cute! I didn’t know you were a Taurus rising, what’s your sun and moon?” 

“Libra sun, Taurus rising, Cancer moon.”

“Ooh, I’m a Libra rising, that must be why we get along so well.”

Annie nodded solemnly. “Definitely.” She didn’t believe in astrology, but she didn’t not believe in astrology. After all, she read Madame Clairvoyant, Chani Nicholas, and Free Will Astrology every time she remembered to. Any kind of non-compulsory system that helped people understand themselves and others was fine by her. 

The show continued, but during the next commercial break, Tae said, “So, are you going to actually talk to any of your matches or what?” 

Annie groaned and slid down the couch. “I don’t know. I feel weird about it.” 

“Of course you do, you’re you,” said Tae dryly. “Is there anything you don’t feel a little weird about?” 

Annie made an inarticulate noise. Jesus, Tae really had her number. 

“Weird or not, you should chat with these girls and then maybe, oh, I don’t know, go on a date? Aren’t you looking for a rebound?” 

The question threw Annie. 

The show continued.

The next commercial break, Annie asked, “Am I rebounding? Is that what this is?” 

If Tae could have rolled their eyes and then by extension their entire body completely off the couch.... 

“Yes,” they said. 

“Is it, isn’t it?” Annie asked rhetorically and meditatively. She sat up and grabbed her phone from the couch between them. “I’ve never rebounded in my life and I won’t start now.” 

“What are you doing?” Tae shrieked. 

“Deleting Tinder. Deleting Tinder!” 

Annie deleted the app. 

“I’m free,” she said calmly. 

“What the hell.” 

“I don’t … I promise you, I don’t need to rebound.” 

Tae looked at her knowingly. “When you re-download that app, do not ask me for my opinion on your profile, Elliot!”

“Fine! I won’t!” said Annie, laughing.

Tae raised their eyebrows. 

“I meant, I won’t re-download!” 

“Uh huh.” 

“I mean it!” 

“I believe that you believe that,” Tae said with a straight face before cracking and laughing. 

The show came back on and they finished watching it and then watched the next episode as well. 

Annie lasted a week before re-downloading the app for another hour of listless swiping. She deleted again, this time for three days. And then she just kept it on her phone, looking at it whenever she was particularly bored. You can tell a lot about a person by how they choose to portray themselves on a dating app. It was just people watching, internet-style, she told herself. And if she instinctively swiped right on people with dark, curly hair, well. Nobody had to know. It’s not like she was going to talk to any of them. 

And every Friday, the reason that she wouldn’t talk to any of them was sitting next to her. Freida was coming to Analog a little earlier each week, and staying a little longer, and becoming a little less guarded with every conversation. 

It was fun, was the hell of it. They were real friends again. It was more than she could have ever hoped for in a million years, that Freida would talk to her voluntarily, that she would grin something like her old grin at her, that they could interact more or less openly without the past weighing so heavily on both of them. 

Freida, laughing with Annie about some Vine that Hayes had sent in the group text. Freida, methodically trying every pastry available at the shop and making absurd tasting notes commentary. Freida, complaining about work in the most thoughtful and analytical way that Annie had ever heard someone complain. Freida, pushing her hair back until the curls stood up on end. Freida’s eyes darting around as she talked, her hands waving in the air. It was a lot. It had always been a lot. 

And Annie, finally, just... accepted it. It still ached, it still buzzed under her skin when they were together, and clanked around in her brain when they were apart, but maybe it was better this way. No chance for her to hurt Freida again. And what better use of her time and her energy than to love someone, even if they didn’t feel the same way?