When Orla can’t sleep, she goes for walks.
It’s probably not smart to walk around Derry alone in the dark, but she does it anyway on her sleepless nights. She’s been walking every night this week. Her frizzy curls are down and loose and tickle her face in the breeze as she walks, paint-splattered trainers tapping the cool concrete with every step. She wanders about without much thought - she knows her way home, after all.
And it really isn’t on purpose that she ends up on Michelle’s street. All the lights are off in her house, even the little ones in her bedroom window. The shutters are drawn, too, and it marks the otherwise bright street like a towering shadow. Orla finds herself thinking it looks like a looming monster, tall and ferocious and swallowing up all the light inside. Maybe all the light in Michelle, too.
With a sad little sigh, she keeps walking forward, eager to find somewhere a little brighter. But she doesn’t get far, because there’s the distinctive sound of shattering glass drawing her back, tugging her as if by a thread around the waist back towards an alley she skipped right by before. She goes into it; maybe it’s stupid, but Orla trusts her gut, and her gut doesn’t say there’s any danger to be found, and stops dead in the narrow entryway because she’s almost certain that the feeling under her ribs is her heart tearing into two messy halves.
Because it’s Michelle standing alone in that dark and empty alleyway, hidden away from the light and warmth and everything that’s good, her feet ringed in a twisted halo of shattered glass. Her hand is bleeding, blood dripping down onto the broken shards. She’s leaning against the wall for support, her dark curls a limp and greasy mess of frizz around her head. She doesn’t even notice Orla’s presence, or if she did, she doesn’t acknowledge it. Her hand - not the bloody one - gropes on top of a row of tin trash cans and closes around another bottle, and she tips her head back and drinks deeply without so much as a flinch.
Orla almost floats forward, her feet tugging her onward of their own accord when her body feels like it should still be frozen in the entrance of the alleyway, hoping desperately that it isn’t actually Michelle who’s done this to herself, who’s driven herself out and into a dark and empty world. She’s not even wearing a jacket despite the early winter chill, and her shivering is clear before Orla so much as lays a hand on her.
When she does, though, it’s a gentle hand on her back, one that rests there lightly, a quiet introduction of her presence. Michelle looks up at her touch, bleary recognition fluttering across her face. There’s a red slap mark on her face, Orla notices, fingermarks still showing strong and vivid on her pale skin. Orla reaches out and touches that too, her fingers lightly tracing over the patch of reddened skin on her soft cheek. “What did you do…?” she whispers softly, her own hand laying against Michelle’s cheek to cover the slap mark, filling in the cruel red lines and hiding away the bruise. If she covers it, it’s almost like she can pretend that it isn’t there. That someone didn’t hit Michelle.
“I didn’ - I didn’ do anything- ” Michelle slurs quietly, still leaning against the wall to keep herself upright, and even then she lists dangerously to the side, dangerously enough that Orla rests a hand on her side in case she needs to make a sudden lunge to catch her. Michelle might be shorter, but she’s better-built too, and Orla’s scrawny enough she’s not sure if she could catch her.
“I didn’ do anything…” Michelle slurs out again, sounding confused more than anything else and maybe a little sad. She brings the bottle up to her lips again, but Orla stops her, gently taking it from her hand. She doesn’t fight too much.
“Had enough of that tonight,” Orla says quietly, setting the bottle back down on the tin lid of the trash can. “It’s okay, Shelly. I know you didn’t do anything.”
“I didn’ - I didn’ mean to, ” Michelle insists, and her hand closes tightly around the steadying arm Orla put around her, squeezing, squeezing so tight it hurts. “I didn’ mean to - to fuck it all up-”
“I know,” Orla says again, and she doesn’t try to pull her arm away despite the pain. “I know.”
“You came to find me - ‘n I don’t know if ‘s luck or the universe or fuckin’ God who made you come find me-” she’s rambling, and it’s worrying. Orla takes her hand from her cheek, using her other hand to steady her as well because of how much Michelle is starting to sway on her shaky legs. “But you’re just-”
Michelle’s face crumples up like a crushed soda can, screwed up and red and wet with tears. She’s ugly-crying, that’s definitely the word for it, but it’s hard to think of Michelle as ugly. Even like this, snotty and teary and covered in blood, Orla can’t help but think of her as the prettiest girl she’s ever seen.
“You’re just-” Michelle sobs again, both of her hands clutching Orla’s now, so hard her knuckles are going white, a kind of desperation in her clinging. “You’re just so - you’re so good, Orla - and I’m - I’m so bad- ”
“You’re not bad,” Orla whispers in vain. “You’re not bad.”
“I’m so - I’m just so fuckin’ bad - ‘n you came to find me ‘n I don’ know why - because I don’ deserve it- ”
She’s never seen Michelle cry like that. She’s never seen anyone cry like that. But Michelle crumbles like a sand castle under the tide and Orla finds the strength to catch her and hold her in her own arms, protecting her from the ring of shattered glass around their feet.
They stand right there in the dark and deserted alley with Michelle crumpled in Orla’s arms, crying into her denim jacket with her face all teary and red, surrounded by shattered glass. Finally she stops crying, just a little bit, just enough that she’s the slightest bit calmer, and Orla gently cups her face in her hands, using her thumbs to wipe away tears no matter how many more fall.
“You’re not bad,” she says softly, looking down from her few inches higher into Michelle’s teary, grief-stricken face. “You’ve never been bad. You’re really, really good, Shelly. You’ve always been good.”
Michelle opens her mouth and then shuts it again, fresh tears starting to trickle down her cheeks. Her arms wrap around Orla’s neck - tight, so tight it hurts a little but she still doesn’t complain - and she hugs her close, so close there’s not even an inch of space between them.
And Orla doesn’t know how it happens. She honestly doesn’t. But one second she’s just got her arms around Michelle and then the next suddenly their lips are brushing and her fingers are carding through Michelle’s hair and they’re somehow even closer together than they were before.
Michelle’s breath tastes like vodka and peppermint. Her hair is soft and a little greasy and smells like green apple shampoo and hairspray. She kisses her like Orla’s about to be snatched away any minute, even the softest brush of her fingers burning with the kind of passion that she’d bragged about before in her exploits but Orla had never really imagined could be true. But it is, it is true, every word, and now she understands how Michelle always had her choice of any boy she wanted, and she can have Orla too, she’ll fall right in line for her, because Michelle is like nothing she’s ever even imagined experiencing before. Michelle is magic. Her hands are magic and her hair is magic and her lips are magic, and Orla melts right into it, lets Michelle devour her and turn her into something new, something changed by every brush of her chapped and vodka-scented lips.
Her senses get washed away in the tidal wave that is Michelle. But then she staggers, and stumbles again and she’s back in Orla’s arms, even though the tears have slowed down, clinging to her for support with almost every bit of her weight. Orla pulls back, and her lips tingle where Michelle touched them, and her whole body buzzes with a kind of wonderful electricity she’s never known before.
“You’re not bad,” she says again, weakly, lamely. Just because Michelle doesn’t argue with her doesn’t mean she’s agreeing. But Orla lays off her, at least for now.
She gently wraps one of Michelle’s arms around her shoulders and the other around her front, her own arm going around Michelle’s waist to hold her steady. It’s hard to carry someone not much smaller than herself, and Michelle staggers like something learning to take its first steps, but Orla makes it work. She has to make it work. She can’t send Michelle back into that house tonight. Not after that mark on her face.
That mark still makes her heart hurt. But they step back out into the light together, Michelle clinging to Orla and Orla clinging to Michelle, both of them huddled up together under Orla’s denim vest to share what little warmth they can gain from it.
She walks Michelle all the way back to her own house and up the stairs and into her bedroom. The walk is hard and the stairs are harder with Michelle barely able to take a step on her own, but they make it because Orla refuses to not make it. She has to get Michelle somewhere safe. And the only safe place she can think of is home.
She sits Michelle down on the edge of her bed and comes back with a roll of gauze and some antibiotic ointment. She cleans out the cut on her hand where the bottle shattered and wipes away the worst of the blood and bandages it all up in clean, sterile gauze.
Her hand finds Michelle’s cheek again, resting just over the slap mark to hide the bruise. “You’re not bad,” Orla says again, weakly. She doesn’t know why she says it. All she knows is that she feels like it needs to be said, because confident, cocky Michelle shouldn’t be calling herself bad. It just isn’t right.
“I am,” Michelle manages to slur out, her cheek resting in Orla’s cool hand. “I’m bad, Or. I...I don’ think I can stop.”
“Stop being bad…?” Orla asks quietly, slowly letting herself sit on the edge of the bed next to Michelle.
“Stop with the drinkin’.” Michelle’s voice quivers on that and it’s more than just the slur in her voice from all the alcohol. “I don’ think I can stop it. I try and then she - she hurts me, and then I just - I just do it again- ”
“Shelly,” Orla says softly. “Michelle. That doesn’t make you bad. You’re just...you’re hurting, that’s all. You’re hurting and you need help...but you’re not bad. You’re really good. One of the really good things.”
Michelle sniffles, and reaches up to wipe at her eyes, but Orla gets there first and gently dabs away the tears with her own sleeve. “You drank a lot, Shell,” she continues quietly. “You need to rest now. We can talk some more tomorrow, okay…? About help.”
Michelle sniffles again and nods shakily, and then before Orla knows what she’s doing she’s holding out her arms for Michelle and she’s gone back into them, cuddled up to her like a child to a big stuffed animal. She hugs her - hugs her so tight she’s worried she might crack a rib - and that seems to ease Michelle off to sleep soon enough, and then her even breathing starts to soothe Orla too and she lets herself drift away silently into sleep. The last thought that crosses her mind is the thought of vodka and peppermint.