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Our Darkest Moments

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Three Weeks Ago

Sterling’s eyes shot open as she frantically scanned her surroundings. She tried to push herself up but a shooting pain that spread across her chest and abdomen caused her to cry out and sink back. She could feel the way her heart was hammering in her chest, the staccato of her shallow breaths sounding deafening to her own ears.

“Sterling?” She heard the voice moments before she felt someone touch her hand. She pulled her hand away and tried to recoil as far as possible but not managing to move far, the action bringing tears to her eyes with the new flashes of pain. “It’s me. It’s your dad.” She turned to the direction the voice came from and her eyes landed on her dad. He was standing at the edge of the bed, one hand partially extended towards her own. His face a mixture of concern and sadness.

“Dad?” Her voice was slightly muffled and when she reached up, she pulled at the mask that resided over her face. She could feel her lower lip quiver as fresh tears welled up at the sight of him.

“I’m here Sterl. You’re safe. You’re in hospital.” When he spoke, there was a certain gruffness to his voice that she hadn’t heard before. “Keep the mask on, it’ll help with your breathing.”

Sterling let the mask settle back on her face as she looked at her dad. As she continued to focus on his green eyes, she felt her heart rate start to slow as her breathing evened out. The images that had flooded her mind moments ago began to fade as the rest of the room came into focus. The grey concrete ceiling of the bunker had been replaced by white tiles and fluorescent lighting. The lingering odour of whiskey substituted for disinfectant.

“What happened?” Her dad looked away for a moment before returning to meet her eyes.

“Well, honey, you got hurt.”

“John Stevens.” She noticed the way her dad’s face darkened at the mention of the name before the image of a familiar face flashed into her mind. A face that she had been unsure she would see again in the flesh. A wave of nausea washed over her as the memory of the last moments before the police rushed in flooded her consciousness. “April!”

“April? April Stevens?” The confusion her dad felt at her uttering the name of John Steven’s daughter was written across his face and in his tone.

Sterling grabbed her dad’s hand. “Where is she? Is she here?” She turned her head to look at the various tubes and wires that were attached to her body, looking to see how to disconnect them. As she tried to drop her dad’s hand to start the process, he held firm.

“Whoa there, you are in no state to move.” He placed his free hand on her shoulder gently. “Sterl, listen to me. If you try to get up, you are going to hurt yourself more.”

She shook her head, still trying to identify how to get herself free of all the different connections. “I need to know she’s OK.”

“If you promise to not try getting out of this bed, then I’ll see what I can find out.” Sterling reluctantly nodded her agreement. “OK, good.” She watched as her dad sank back down into the chair beside her bed, keeping his grip on her hand. A small frown appeared on his face before he spoke. “The police need to talk to you…about what happened.”

Sterling knew that she would have to explain what had happened. She knew that there would be many questions that needed answering but the thought of having to recall the details of the past few days was something she couldn’t face in that moment. “I can’t.”

“That’s OK. I’ll tell them you’re not up to it right now.”

“I’m quite tired.” As soon as the words were spoken, she felt the truth of the statement settle into her body.

“Get some rest.” He leant in and placed a kiss on her forehead. Sterling returned her head away from him and looked out of the window. The darkness signalling that night had fallen at some point since April had opened that door. Sterling felt her eyelids grow heavier before she succumbed to sleep once more.

*****************************

Sterling’s eyes drifted open only to be met by a mostly dark room. She glanced towards the window and could see the red tinge to the sky that signalled a new day was dawning. The lamp beside her bed was still on, casting shadows across the room.

“Sorry for waking you.” A voice sounded quietly beside her causing the blonde to turn towards it. Beside her was a nurse, adjusting one of the bags attached to her canula. She looked over to the chair her dad had been sat in earlier and saw him asleep in the seat.

“There was another girl...April...Is she OK?”

The nurse checked the newly hung bag before moving closer to check the chest tube. “I’m sorry but I can’t share information on another patient.”

Sterling reached her hand out and gently grasped the nurse’s hand. “Please? The last time I saw her...” The blonde’s words trailed off as the image of April collapsing to the ground filled her thoughts. She could feel stinging at the back of her eyes and tried to swallow down the impending tears. “I need to know she is OK. I never told her.” She was aware of the change to her breathing, the way the pace had increased with each word.

The nurse met her gaze, placing her own hand over Sterling’s. “Sterling, I need you to slow your breathing down for me.” She glanced up at the monitors above the bed before meeting the blonde’s eyes. “She’s stable and I’m sure she would want you to stay stable too.” She raised her eyebrows at the blonde with a look that left no room for argument. “Try for slow, deep breaths.”

The word stable settled firmly in her mind. April was in the hospital and whatever injuries she had; she was stable. She would be OK. Sterling kept repeating the word over and over in her own mind, closing her eyes to focus on that one glimmer of hope.

“That’s better.” Sterling opened her eyes once more as her breathing came back to a more normal pace. “She means a lot to you huh?”

Sterling swallowed before glancing over at her dad who remained fast asleep. “Everything...She means everything to me." She could feel the truth in the words as she spoke them. She knew that what she felt for April was different to what she had felt for Luke. She had told Blair that once, what felt like a lifetime ago. Yet when it came down to actually saying those three words that she knew were true out loud, she had always shied away from it. That distant remnant of a memory of sitting on a bench alone after having pushed too far, too fast always acting as a tether holding the words back. “Can you take me to her?”

The nurse shook her head. “You’re in no fit state to be going anywhere yet."

Sterling knew it was the truth. Even small movements caused twinges of pain and that was despite the pain medication she was on. “Do you have a pen and paper?” The nurse reached into her pocket and pulled out a small notepad and a pen before handing it to Sterling. She tried to adjust herself to prop the pad against the side of the bed before being stopped as a clipboard was slipped under the pad and held firm. Sterling tried to smile a thank you to the nurse before turning her attention back to the pad and starting to write. Once she finished, she tore the sheet out of the pad, folded it in half and handed the items back to the nurse. “Could you give her this? Privately.”

“Sterl?” Her dad’s voice sounded from the chair. The nurse accepted the note and tucked it into her pocket, giving the blonde a nod of agreement before leaving the pair alone.

*****************************

April lay on the hospital bed, staring up at the ceiling. Her mom was on the other side of the room on the phone, as she had been for the past two hours. The sound of her voice was doing very little to provide comfort to her. Her head was pounding, whether that was due to her injuries or her mother’s insistence at holding all her verbal correspondence at full volume while standing in her hospital room, she wasn’t sure. Part of April wondered why her mom was even there. Aside from the initial questions to her doctor about how long April was going to be in the hospital, she had shown very little interest in listening to the answers to her questions about what happened.

The sound of the door to her hospital room opening seemed to break her mother’s train of thought as the voice that had been droning on fell silent. The respite was short lived however as her mom picked up the conversation again. “Sorry, a nurse just came in.” April sighed to herself as the conversation continued.

“Hi April. How are you feeling?”

“I’ve felt better.” She dropped her gaze to meet that of the nurse standing beside the bed, noting some readings on her chart. She opened her mouth to speak but then the sound of her mom’s voice registered once more, and she snapped her mouth shut. The nurse finished writing, placing the board back on the end of the bed. April saw the way her mother was watching the scene with limited interest while continuing her conversation. She let her gaze wander back to the ceiling as the nurse checked the various bandages and adhesive strips.

“OK, everything is looking good.” As she spoke, April felt something against the palm of her hand. Glancing at the nurse who had stepped back, she saw a small smile on her lips before she turned to leave. Running her thumb across the item in her hand, she realised it was a piece of paper. April felt her heart jump at the potential of what she now held in her hand. She looked over to where her mother was still on the phone, having turned her attention back to the window now they were alone once more. She nudged the piece of paper towards her thigh to give her enough purchase to unfold it one handed before raising it to where she could read it while not drawing attention to herself. As soon as she read the words, she felt a tear slip from the corner of her eye. She bit her lower lip in an attempt to keep from letting out any verbal response. Her eyes scanned the words once more.

You are the strongest person I know so I know you can do this but if you find that strength wavering...I’ve got you, always. R1:16

She ran her finger over the words as the meaning sank in. Not only was Sterling nearby, but she was also alive and alert enough to write her a note. The relief that flooded her body felt like the crushing weight that had been residing on her chest since she had seen the ambulance doors close was at last lifted away. She carefully folded the piece of paper and tucked it into her hand which she placed on her chest, holding it close as she allowed her eyes to close, finally able to block out the sound of her mother’s voice and rest.

*****************************

April sat up in her bed, shifting to drop her legs from the mattress to hang over the side. She paused as she adjusted to the new position, the throbbing across her nose and cheeks increasing in intensity for a moment. She carefully slid herself down to the floor and made her way over to the door. As she opened the door, she cast a look down the corridor in both directions. It was late so there were very few people about. All visitors had returned to their homes for the night, leaving just the staff and patients. Seeing nobody paying her any attention, she made her way out of her room and down the corridor, noting the room numbers as she went. Eventually, she reached the door she was looking for. She offered up a silent prayer that the guy who brought her dinner had provided her with accurate information and that she wasn’t about to walk into another blonde teenager's room. Pressing down the handle, she pushed the door open and stepped into the room. The lamp attached to the wall was on, casting light on the area by the bed while the rest of the room remained dark. The light from the lamp was enough to make out the figure on the bed. She glanced around the room to ensure it was empty before continuing forwards.

April’s feet carried her closer to the bed, only coming to a stop as she reached the edge. As she stood there, she looked down at the blonde’s face. She took in the butterfly stitches over the cut on her eyebrow, the bruises that had already been an array of blues, purples and blacks were now starting to gain a yellow tone. “Sterl?” She whispered out the name as her eyes darted across the face before her, searching for any response. The blonde remained motionless. April glanced up to the monitors watching the steady, repeating pattern of the lines. Visible proof that the girl before her was just sleeping. Dropping her gaze back to Sterling she took in the now darkened bruising across her throat. Travelling further down she took in the wires emerging from under the gown connected to the monitors before noticing the tube that ran from a device on the floor, along the edge of the bed before disappearing under the covers. She could see the way the blonde’s chest didn’t rise and fall with the familiar rhythm she had grown accustomed to feeling pressed against her back or side as they watched movies cuddled up together on the couch.

Glancing across the bed she saw the chair that was positioned near the bed. With one more look at the tubes, she stepped around the bed to the chair. Standing behind it, she was thankful it was on castors, enabling her to push the chair forwards with the one arm at her disposal before she took a seat. April raised her hand up and gently slipped her hand over the one closest to her, slipping her fingers between those of the blonde. The feeling of warmth from the contact spread across her skin. In that moment, all the turmoil that had existed within her mind was calmed. All her fears about the blonde quashed. For the first time since the whole ordeal began, she felt like she could breathe. She felt like she was home.

April stirred at the sound, a quiet whimpering. She almost discounted it as being a figment of her own imagination, letting her head settle back against the chair as her eyes drifted closed once more but then she heard it again. The sound was louder this time, more of a murmur although the actual word was still indecipherable. She looked over at the face of the blonde noticing the frown that creased her brow before her head twisted away with another muted cry. April rose from the chair, feeling a wave of nausea wash over her as the pain radiated from her arm. She drew in a couple of deep breaths to help abate the feeling. When Sterling tossed her head back to face the shorter girl, April could see the glistening tracks of tears trickling down the side of her face. She felt her own heart constrict in her chest at the sight of the other girl being in such anguish. She extended her arm towards the blonde, cautiously brushing the back of her finger against the blonde’s temple to wipe away the moisture that had accumulated there.

“You’re safe Sterl.” Gradually, the crease between Sterling’s eyebrows faded. Once she seemed to have settled once more, April leant closer and placed a kiss to her forehead, lips barely brushing the skin. She felt her own eyelids slip closed with the touch, permitting herself a few seconds of solace in the feeling before pulling back. What she hadn’t expected was to be greeted by the sight of Sterling’s eyes open and looking right at her.

“April?”

She opened her mouth to reply but instead of words, a choked sob escaped her lips. She brought her hand up to press against her eyes in an attempt to stop the tears from falling. That one word was like someone just took a sledgehammer to her carefully constructed walls. As the walls cracked and crumbled, every fear she had of never hearing the blonde utter her name, of never being able to look into her eyes and know she was being truly seen, were carried away amidst the tears. She felt the soft caress of a hand against the side of her neck and allowed her one hand to drift down to cover that of the blonde with her own. A small smile tugged at the corner of her lips with the action.

“I’ve missed that.” April looked at the other girl, the question clear in her expression. She saw the way Sterling shifted the mask off her face before responding to the unspoken query. “Your smile.”

“I thought I’d lost you.” The admission was quiet, almost lost against the background noises of the various medical devices in the room.

Sterling shook her head. “I couldn’t leave you. I hadn’t told you I loved you.”

April felt her breath catch at the words. “You love me?”

“I do.” The response left no room for doubt in its sincerity.

The feelings of elation she felt were overpowered by the doubt that crept in. “I don't know how you can look at me the same way after what he did.”

“April, listen to me. You are not your father. When I look at you, I don’t see him...I see you. I see the girl who kissed me back when I took a crazy chance. The girl who flirted with me in the middle of Spanish class. I see the girl who didn’t want to wait for a someday anymore. Above all that, I see the girl who stood up to an armed man twice her size, her own father, to protect me. I always knew you would change my life; I just didn’t realise you would save it too. So no, I don’t look at you the same way as I did...I still look at you as the girl I love and respect, but I also look at you as the bravest person I know.”

With each statement, April could feel fresh tears trickle down her cheeks. Her heart swelling with each admission. By the time the blonde finished, she was powerless to do anything but lean down and kiss her. As she drew closer, there was a moment where she hesitated, not wanting to unintentionally cause any harm to existing wounds. However, the gentle tug on her neck provided all the encouragement she needed to close the last few inches. As their lips met, she could taste the salt of her own tears, evidence of all the pain that had been a constant companion for what felt like days. Yet the softness of the lips beneath her own brought her more comfort than any words. The contact of their tongues, the moist flesh sliding against its counterpart served to eradicate any lingering doubts and fears. As flesh moved against flesh in a tender dance that radiated life, she felt as if she was finally able to wake from her nightmare.

As much as she wanted to continue to immerse herself in the kiss, she could feel the way Sterling’s breathing was changing. Reluctantly she pulled back, fighting down the smile at the groan of disappointment that emanated from the blonde. She reached up to replace Sterling’s mask, raising her eyebrows in challenge when the blonde reached up to stop her.

“As much as I’d like to continue kissing you, you need this more.”

April saw the grudging acceptance as Sterling dropped her hand to rest against her own, interlacing their fingers. “How are you? Really?”

She sighed. “Better than I was. My arm hurts like a bitch and my mother is labouring under the delusion that there is an explanation for all this that doesn’t involve him being a piece of shit.”

“Have you spoken to the police yet?” She shook her head, feeling the dread of having to recount every moment in detail amplify. “I’ll need to tell them what happened down there but what do you want me to say about why you were there?”

April was quiet as she contemplated the answer to that question. “The truth.”

“But that would mean...”

“I know. Sterl, I almost lost you and virtually nobody knew we were even together. I don’t want to keep hiding. I don’t want to waste another moment being scared of what others might think. I just want to be with you...in private, in public, every day and every way unless you tell me it’s too much.” She heard the way her voice broke on the last words.

“That could never be too much.” April could see the smile peeking out from under the mask and felt her own form in response. Knowing in that moment that all her fears of what may happen should people find out about her paled in comparison to what had happened, despite keeping the best thing to happen to her secret. The proposition that Sterling had made to her so long ago while standing on a dark corner of the Willingham campus echoed in her mind...”Let’s keep going...together.” Only this time, there was no hesitation about her decision.

*****************************

Sterling looked between the two detectives that had entered her room. The younger one of the pair approached her bed while the older detective walked over to the far side of the room and took a seat in the chair there. She noted the way the woman scanned over the various devices she was connected to before looking down to meet Sterling’s gaze.

“Hi Sterling. I’m detective Wilkins and that surly looking fella is my partner, detective Dawson.” She noticed the way the grey-haired man gave her a nod in recognition. “We need to ask you some questions about what happened and get your statement.” Sterling felt the colour drain from her face at the thought of having to recount everything that had transpired. She had known it was coming but to actually be faced with the reality of having to say it out loud was something she hadn’t been able to prepare for. “We’ll take it slow and if at any point you need a break, just let me know. Your dad will be here the whole time too.” As she looked across to the other side of the bed, she met her dad’s reassuring face and reached up to take his hand from where it rested on the edge of her bed. Needing to have that connection if she was going to do this.

The detective flipped the file in her hand open. “We know you went to school Thursday but weren’t in Friday morning. What happened after school on Thursday?”

“We had forensics practice.” Sterling was aware of the older detective making notes as she spoke.

“What time did you leave school after the practice?”

“I...” Sterling faltered in her answer. The memory of her conversation with April the night before rose to the forefront of her mind. “I didn’t leave after forensics. April and I spent time in the Fellowship room after everyone else had gone.”

“Is that April Stevens?”

“Yes.”

“Why did you stay late?”

Sterling picked at the edge of the sheet on her bed as she spoke. “It’s one of the few places we could be together.”

“Together?”

“We’ve been dating for six months.” She braced herself for the feeling of her dad pulling away, unable to look over towards him for fear of seeing a look of disappointment or disgust on his face. What she hadn’t expected was his grip on her hand to remain constant, unwavering.

“When did you leave?”

She swallowed down the lump that had formed in her throat at the realisation that her dad wasn’t going anywhere despite her revelation. “I can’t remember the exact time, maybe round 6.30. Blair called me to meet her.”

“So, you left together?”

“No. April stayed back to lock up while I left. Her car was on the other side of the school to mine.” Sterling felt like she had to justify the reason behind them not leaving together, not wanting there to be any doubts about April’s involvement in anything that night.

“Continue.”

“I walked out to my car, I opened the door and then someone grabbed me. I tried to fight back.” She reached her hand up to rub at her neck as the skin tingled with the memory of an arm being wrapped around her in a choke hold. Her heart rate increased as the fear she had felt in the car park came rushing back.

“What happened after that?”

“I...I don’t know.” Sterling frowned as she tried to recall what had happened but there was just a void where any memory of what happened next would be. She noticed the way the two detectives shared a look across the room before the older man rose from his seat and stepped out.

“You’re doing really well. What’s the next thing you remember?” Sterling continued to recount all she could recall from the moment she regained consciousness, answering the questions they asked as she went. When it came to describing the moments where she had been hurt, she felt her dad’s hand clench that bit tighter around her own. She could see the way he worked his jaw as he heard the details of what led her to be lying in the hospital bed.

“What happened after you heard the sirens?”

”You’re right.”

Sterling saw the gun raise; the barrel pointed at her head. In that instant, all she could see was the seemingly never ending black of the chamber as she stared down the muzzle. She knew there was no way for her to dodge a bullet, even if she was in perfect health, she wasn’t in a movie. She would see the flash and then that would be it.

Instead of a flash, she found herself staring at a blur of motion. The gun angled off to the side as April grappled with her father. Sterling could see the way his face had contorted into sheer rage at the intervention. Until that moment, Sterling had been able to convince herself that he wouldn’t cause serious physical harm to his own daughter. As they continued to struggle against each other, she saw the way April’s arms began to shake as he kept pressing back against her. Saw the way the weapon inched closer. Saw the way there was a flash of triumph on his face. In that instant, her belief faded. “No!”

Then the gunshot rang out.

There was a moment where everything seemed to be suspended in time. There was no movement, no shouting, no screams. Sterling felt her eyes widen as she pushed herself more upright, bringing her arm forward as she released it from underneath her. She saw the way April’s arm dropped to her side before her legs buckled and she fell to the ground heavily.

Tearing her eyes away from the prone figure on the ground, Sterling clenched her hand tighter as she brought her arm up. She barely registered the way John Steven’s eyes widened as he looked at her before pulling the trigger of the gun she held in her hand.

Once...

Twice...

Three times the shots rang out.

She saw the look of disbelief cross his face before he dropped to his knees. His own gun falling to the ground as his mouth fell open. His eyes met hers across the short expanse of floor that separated them. Finally, his body toppled over, ending with him on his back. There was a gasp and then a cough resulting in blood erupting from his lips, splattering the ground and his own face. The sound of his gasping for air filled the room.

Sterling turned to look over to the still motionless body of her girlfriend. She could see a pool of blood slowly spreading out from beneath her. Her own arm lowered, dropping the gun to the ground beside her. She could hear the sounds of people approaching but couldn’t wait. She bit down on her lip as she pushed herself off the wall, feeling her own vision begin to fade around the periphery as the pain became unbearable. She had one focus, one goal in that moment and continued to shuffle herself towards it. She could feel the sweat coating her skin with the effort. With one last push, she sank down, extending her own hand forward until her fingertips brushed against those of the shorter girl. Finally allowing her cheek to rest against the cold floor, registering the voices were much closer, as she let the darkness take her.

*****************************

Two Weeks Ago

April sat on the edge of the bed, her foot swinging gently while she was lost in her own thoughts. In some ways she couldn’t believe it had been a week since she had found Sterling, yet in others it felt like it was only yesterday. The image of the injuries inflicted on the blonde were seared into her memory and hadn’t faded in the slightest. She had spoken to the detectives and given them her statement, opting not to have her mother present at the time. The thought of having her mother hear every detail about a man she still couldn’t, or wouldn’t, believe was capable of such atrocities while she was trying to process everything that had transpired herself would have been too much.

“I’m not sure I want to go home.” Her voice was quiet as she made the admission, her thumb brushing against that of the blonde whose hand was laced with her own. “Everything there just reminds me of him.”

“What time are you going?”

“My mom has an appointment for him this morning so probably around midday.”

“Ok.” April turned to look at the blonde beside her. The bruising on her face had faded with the remaining traces various shades of yellow and green. The expression on her face held an air of sadness. “You’ll call me, right?”

“Every day.” In truth, April would rather remain in the hospital than return to her home but that wasn’t an option.

The door to the room opened and one of the nurses walked in. It had become common place for the shorter girl to be found in Sterling’s room. Aside from the single conversation one of the doctors had about potentially aggravating injuries, nobody seemed to mind. It was plain to see the positive effect the two girls had on each other. “April, the doctor is on his way up to sign you off so you can get out of here.”

“On my way.” April carefully leant over to press a gentle kiss to the blonde’s lips. “I’ll stop by before I have to go.” She slipped off the bed and made her way out of the room, not noticing as Sterling reached for her phone to type a message.

*****************************

The car ride had been uncomfortable to say the least. Every pot hole sent a new wave of pain diffusing out from her arm and it felt like her mom had developed a knack for getting the passenger side wheel to hit each and every one of them on the journey. The majority of the time they had been driving for had been spent in silence. Something April desperately missed when her mom would make a comment about her father and the latest developments where he was concerned. She had done her best to tune out her mother’s voice when such topics were mentioned but the odd word would slip through. By the time they pulled up the driveway to their house, April could have cried with relief. Once the car came to a stop, she reached over to unbuckle her seatbelt and swiftly exited the vehicle before making her way over to the front door while her mom collected her medications from the back. When she stepped up onto the front porch, she noticed a backpack sitting there, tucked into the top handle was a rolled up piece of paper. She bent down to retrieve the paper and unrolled it.

Stevens,
Sterl said to drop this off for you.

“What’s that?” Her mom’s voice sounded from beside her as she unlocked the door.

“A friend left it for me.”

April’s mom accepted the explanation and stepped into the house. “I’ll leave your medication in the kitchen with some money for you to order some dinner.” Her voice faded slightly as she walked further into the house. “I need to meet your father’s attorney and I have no idea how long that will take.” She watched as her mother breezed past her still muttering about everything she had to do until the click of the door closing cut off any further words.

April adjusted her grip on the backpack and looked around the entrance hall with a sigh. The feeling of disquiet that had been growing since the word discharge had been mentioned was amplified now she found herself standing back in this space. Wherever she looked there were pictures, memories that would forever be tarnished by the man her father had become. Not wanting to be surrounded by them, she retreated to her own room. She hoped that when she closed the door, the feeling would dissipate. However, even in her own space, there were reminders of him scattered across numerous walls. She walked over to her desk chair and sat down as she pulled her phone out to message Sterling.

April
Just got back. It’s worse than I imagined it would be.

As she placed the phone on her desk her eyes caught the pictures on her notice board above it. The picture of him smiling at the camera as he showed off the purity ring he gave her. Standing at the lake house with her friends. She reached up and ripped them off the board, screwing them up as she did so. She could feel the burning sensation behind her eyes as she was reminded of what she had almost lost at his hands. The vibration of her phone brought her out of her spiralling thoughts. She dropped the photos still clenched in her hand into the trash by the desk and picked her phone up.

Sterling
Have you opened it?

April glanced down to the backpack she had rested on the floor and lifted it to her lap. Opening the zipper took longer than she would like to admit but with one of her arms restrained in an elaborate sling, it wasn’t an easy task. The first thing she saw as she peered into the bag was blue fabric. She could feel the smile starting to form before she had even finished pulling the item out of the bag. Sterling’s hoodie. She ran her fingers over it as the scent that was a mixture of the Wesley family’s laundry detergent and Sterling’s perfume wafted to her nose. She pressed the clothing to her chest and let her eyes drift shut, just taking a moment to be surrounded by the aroma that was uniquely Sterling. Setting the hoodie to one side she peered into the backpack once more before pulling out an envelope. When she opened it, she discovered a selection of photographs, some new, some old. There was one from when they were in fifth grade where Sterling and April were on the swings, both laughing about something long since forgotten. The second photograph was of the pair of them showing off their second winning creation for Ellen’s bible studies class. The final image was one Sterling had taken on their date to the drive in with the pair of them cuddled up together in the back of the truck. April took each photo in turn and slipped it into place on her notice board. When she held the drive in photo, she paused. Rather than pinning it to her board she walked over to her bed and propped it up against the lamp on her nightstand.

April
How are you so perfect?

Sterling
I’m far from perfect, just ask Blair.

April
You’re perfect to me. Thank you Sterl.

As April glanced at her new pictures with the scent of Sterling still lingering from the nearby hoodie, she felt like maybe this could feel like home again.

*****************************

One Week Ago

April glanced down at the clock in the corner of the laptop screen. 8.50pm. A small smile tugged at her lips as she realised that in only 10 minutes Sterling would call. The past week had resulted in the pair of them developing a new night-time routine. Every night at 9pm they would call each other and would remain on the phone until one of them fell asleep. While it was no substitute for being able to hold each other’s hand or feel the heat radiating from the parts of their bodies that lay beside one another, it was a constant connection. A connection they both needed to remind themselves that everything that happened was in the past, that each day that passed was a step closer to healing.

Glancing down at the progress bar at the bottom of the screen, she knew she had time to finish the episode of the show she had been watching before her call. Shifting her laptop to the side, she clicked play and settled back to enjoy the last few minutes of the baked Alaska showstopper in the Great British Baking Show. It was something she hadn’t expected to enjoy and yet each episode found her enthralled and getting way more invested in who would win than she would care to admit.

April opened her eyes, squinting at the light that was streaming in through her window. She tapped the space bar on her laptop but was greeted with the same black screen. Twisting to the side she grabbed her phone from her nightstand. The clock on the screen told her what she already knew from the sunlight filling her room, it was morning. Unlocking her phone, she saw the three missed calls and voicemail notification. Dialling the voicemail, she brought her phone to her ear.

“Hey. I’m guessing you have fallen asleep. I was going to hang up but then your voicemail message played. Have I ever told you how much I love the sound of your voice? I may have called you a couple more times to just listen to your voicemail greeting so don’t panic about the number of calls. I just miss you and hearing your voice, even recorded, helps me sleep. Call me tomorrow. I love you.” There was the sound of a couple of kisses and then the message ended.

April shook her head to herself but was very aware of the half smile that had formed as she listened to the blonde’s message. She hit redial and waited as it rang. When the voicemail kicked in, April waited until the beep before speaking.

“Hey you. Sorry for missing our call. Though it seems we may be destined to communicate through voicemail. Give me a call back when you are free. I love you too Sterl.” April placed her phone down on the nightstand before setting about the slow process of getting ready for the day. The sling she would be wearing for the next couple of months certainly made the simplest of tasks more challenging.

When she returned from the bathroom, she saw her phone light up with a call. As she went to pick it up, she saw Blair’s name illuminated on the screen. Her hand paused mid-air as her mind raced with the possible reasons for the other girl calling her. None of the options she could come up with were positive. With a shaking hand she answered the call.

“Sterl’s been rushed back into surgery. They think her spleen is bleeding again.”

April heard the words and felt her chest constrict, the air leaving her lungs as every negative thought became amplified.

“April?”

“They got her in there in time, right?”

“I don’t know.”

That one phrase, three words, was all it took to send everything positive she had been rebuilding crashing down with the fear that the last time she would hear the blonde’s voice would be on a voicemail.

*****************************

Present Day

The click of the latch echoed around the room as she leant back against her bedroom door to close it. Despite the time spent at the wake, her clothing still retained a lingering dampness that seemed to draw the warmth out of her skin, leaving her feeling drained. She walked over to her bed and sank down onto the edge, letting her eyes focus on the photograph that sat there. Her eyes drifted to the piece of paper that sat next to it, carefully propped up against the base of the lamp. The words she had read so many times since receiving it that they were permanently entrenched in her mind.

You are the strongest person I know so I know you can do this but if you find that strength wavering...I’ve got you, always. R1:16

Reaching forward she picked up the photograph and brought it into her lap. Her eyes traced over their smiling faces, letting her finger gently trail down the curve of Sterling’s jaw. She wanted nothing more than to be able to have the blonde wrap her arms around her, to hold her close and tell her that she could get through this. That the hollow feeling in her chest was just temporary. That the day would come where she could sleep without being woken by nightmares of what had happened and what had been taken from her.

She pulled her phone out of her pocket before dialling her voicemail.

“Hey. I’m guessing you have fallen asleep. I was going to hang up but then your voicemail message played. Have I ever told you how much I love the sound of your voice? I may have called you a couple more times to just listen to your voicemail greeting so don’t panic about the number of calls. I just miss you and hearing your voice, even recorded, helps me sleep. Call me tomorrow. I love you.” *kiss kiss*

She looked back at the picture in her lap and replayed the message again. Just needing to hear Sterling’s voice one more time. Needing to quell the mix of emotions swirling through her, to focus on the only one that mattered. She let her eyes drift closed as she disconnected the call, letting herself sink into the memory of times spent with the blonde.

The vibration of her phone in her hand drew April back to the present. Opening her eyes, she pressed accept on the call notification on her screen. She stared at the screen for that second it took to connect.

“Hey.”

“Hey Sterl.” She could feel the small smile settle on her lips as she looked at the image of her girlfriend on the screen. As she saw a responding smile appear on the blonde’s face, the emptiness she had been feeling all day began to dispel as the feeling of warmth that came with the other girl’s presence spread through her chest. John was gone, relegated to her past. While Sterling was most definitely her future.