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you belong among the wildflowers (you belong somewhere close to me)

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The first time Riley sees her – short, blond and oddly charming – her stomach drops into the floor. She’s wearing a jacket (that in any other situation Riley would want to run her hands over) and a deer in the headlights look that feels all too familiar. The look could also be described as oh fuck is this what drowning feels like or kid whose mom forgot to pick them up after camp but either way Abby (the woman who she doesn’t officially know yet) looks like she wants to escape something and an especially rebellious part of Riley’s brain wants to whisper run while you still can.

But Riley does in fact have impulse control, and she is an adult, plus she really shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions like this. So instead she politely smiles as Abby babbles (tries not to let her face betray how cute it is), nods at Harper (tries to not revel in the way she can make Harper uncomfortable without lifting a finger), and heads into the bathroom at her first opportunity. It’s the mature thing to do, but she’ll regret it for the rest of the night.

Two important things.

One: She has to find a little bit of pleasure in the way Harper’s posture stiffens when she walks into the room because otherwise it would make her cry. Harper has no reason to be uncomfortable around her, she’s the one who ruined Riley’s entire high school existence. Not the other way around. Riley’s done enough therapy that she’s not angry anymore, but she’s definitely not fine with it (any way you cut it, outing your best friend freshman year is an awful thing to do).

And if she clings to the hot resentment roiling in her stomach more than would be strictly recommended it’s because the only alternative is to look at this woman who used to be her very best friend and it’s just too painful. Riley’s ok now, really truly, she got out of high school and went to college and then more college and now she’s just half a year from finishing her residency but surviving isn’t the same as never having been hurt in the first place. She comes home every year for Christmas and has to remind herself seven times a day that she is not a teenager anymore. She has an apartment with a couch she picked on a bright Sunday morning two years ago and paintings from one of her friends on the walls to go home to, and a family that loves her here.

So she smiles, looks at the injured knees and chronic coughs of her parent’s friends, and grits her teeth at every reminder of high school she sees. Mostly she does things that high schoolers are not allowed to do and it’s not like she has any friends to see when she comes back. But her family and the Caldwell’s are still dear friends (even if Tipper stopped making eye contact with her after Harper’s 9th grade bomb drop) so they go to the club without fail, go to the white elephant party, and Riley knows she’s not a child anymore, knows she could just stay home, but that feels a little too much like losing. Riley’s about to be a fucking doctor, she is not a disappointment. So she goes every year. And even if seeing Harper makes the walls close in around her lungs, if she’s yanked right back to freshman year, hot tears and a shattered feeling in her chest, well, she’s good at hiding it.

Two: She doesn’t know exactly what’s going on with Harper and the woman she’s eventually introduced to as Abby. But Riley is smart, and if anyone’s an expert on this situation it might be her. There’s something a little too familiar in Harper’s eyes when she and Abby step out of the bathroom, it’s more than her normal Riley-guilt/discomfort and Riley just knows. The sick feeling in her stomach hits first and her brain follows a minute later, oh no. Harper. Not again. Besides, she knows gay people and Abby definitely is.

(Professionally diagnosed as gay, Riley snickers to herself)

She’d give Harper the benefit of the doubt, she wants to believe that it’s happening the right way this time, but this is a disgustingly tight knit community and if sweet perfect little Harper Caldwell, her parent’s pride and joy told anyone she was a lesbian Riley would get ten phone calls within the hour. (Three from her own mother and the other seven from women she’s known all her life who send her “my dentist’s daughter’s new roommate dates women, want me to set you up” emails with astonishing frequency.) She knows with absolute confidence (and the way Harper’s eyes are darting around the room, how she shifts away as Abby gravitates toward her) that Harper has not decided to make waves for once in her life.

And that’s Harper’s choice, Riley understands better than anyone how coming out can hurt (she’s bitter but not bitter enough to wish Harper’s actions back onto her) but she’s here with a girl, a girl who seems lovely – adorable and pretty and funny – and maybe Riley hasn’t moved on as much as she thought because for a fleeting moment all she can feel is unadulterated terror for this woman coursing through her veins. (In a few days she will watch as Harper and Sloane scream at each other in front of the Christmas tree, see Abby’s face crumple as Harper drives the knife in harder than ever, and watch her leave, watch Harper realize what she’s done, and think yeah.)

(Abby won’t come back and Harper won’t follow her and Riley will offer up a thank you to whatever god might be listening, thank you for letting Abby leave.)

Here, even though staying out of things isn’t her strong suit, in front of the bathroom of a mid-level-fancy restaurant that Riley’s been taken to since she was five years old, she walks away.

But then she sees Abby at the club, shunted to the side with Jane (who, in Riley’s opinion is absolutely the best Caldwell and that’s only because her parents leave her alone) and she knows that getting involved might be the worst idea she’s made since agreeing to take a week of night shifts three months ago, but Riley (unlike a lot of other people at this godforsaken party) isn’t heartless. She cares too much maybe, which along with her dry/just-weird sense of humor and deadpan grin has always been an off putting combination for people, but she still does.

Abby looks so alone, painfully out of her element even though Riley bets she could network her ass off at any party where the people aren’t clinically insular (and she’s really trying, later Riley watches her try and have a conversation with Harper’s awful friends) and it’s just that Riley’s been her so many times before, alone in a room full of people. So she raises her glass and smiles, tries to convey a look along the lines of friendly camaraderie, and when Abby’s smile flickers back in return she ignores the way her stomach flips.

If they were somewhere else, maybe catching eye contact across a crowded bar or standing in line at a coffee shop or even both attending the weirdly sexual pulmonology conference she’d gone to last year, Riley might prod this feeling a little more, might pull to see how far it can stretch and go home thinking about the flash of Abby’s smile and the soft fabric of her jacket, the enduring way thoughts rush across her face. But this is not any of those places and Abby is happily (happily?) dating the first girl to break Riley’s heart. So instead she turns back to her conversation, weirdly newly invigorated to hear about her father and his new associate’s plans for their firm this year.

But then later, when Riley’s outside because none of this is comfortable, people keep looking at her sideways and the heavy scent of too many perfumes is starting to give her a headache (Riley herself is a consistent perfume user, one of the habits from her hometown that stuck, but there’s no ventilation in that giant room and it’s all just too much.) she hears a door open and there she is, Harper’s blonde friend. Riley’s not particularly smooth, doesn’t know what she’s trying to accomplish with this conversation but suddenly she’s ducking around a plant and waving and even if this is a little awkward it’s somehow still nice, a refreshing kind of normal conversation that Riley never gets when she comes back here.

Abby is sweet, sweet and so clearly out of her element that Riley wants to say hey none of this is your fault, it’s just that Harper’s doing a really shitty thing by abandoning you but she can’t say that. Instead she apologizes and this is when she should leave. But Abby looks kind of like she needs a hug and Riley’s plunged back into high school where even one person who would still sit with her at lunch would have made things better. I can relate. She says as much and the way Abby’s eyes lose their shine at her words tells her that this is plenty for one night. So, as a kindness because Riley is kind she waves her words away, nothing, don’t worry about it, if you want to be invisible who am I to judge, before heading inside.

The jacket compliment is for her own satisfaction, because it’s a great jacket and Riley makes a point to tell people when they look good. If this is where their conversations end that’s fine, a few sentences exchanged on a freezing night. Riley’s fine with that. So what if she feels a weird affinity for Abby, sense of duty to make sure this random woman knows none of this is her fault? It’s fine. She doesn’t need to get all wrapped up in Harper’s mess again. She can’t. It’s fine. Riley walks away and she’s pretty sure Abby can’t see the indecision on her face, hidden by a joke and the warm mug in her hand. She walks away.

But the next day Riley is leaving her favorite bookstore, coat wrapped tight against the cold, and there she is again. Abby whose last name Riley doesn’t know. And Riley could walk away, let Abby continue on what looks like might be a evening sadness escape walk (she’s all too familiar with the concept) and keep her hands clean. But she just can’t walk away. Not when Abby doesn’t have a hat and looks like she’s shivering in the wind like a kid who wandered away from her parents.

They make eye contact as Riley heads over and the way Abby immediately softens, grins and greets her makes Riley’s legs feel just a little weak. She knows even before she asks that Harper isn’t anywhere nearby. And like, abandoning someone when they’re in your hometown just for you is a gross thing to do to anyone, but it’s especially awful when that person is your girlfriend, Riley thinks. (Your almost criminally cute girlfriend, but that’s beside the point) Riley knows how it feels, how Harper can toss people aside like it’s nothing and yes she really, desperately hopes more about Harper has changed in the past fifteen years, but it doesn’t seem too likely.

So she indulges herself in one more conversation with Abby and it’s so unexpectedly nice that they’re sliding into a booth at Riley’s favorite bar before it even occurs to her that this might be a weird thing to do. (But Riley’s been called weird her whole life, especially by Harper, and all of a sudden, as Abby’s face is flushed in the glow from the Christmas lights hung around the Oxwood, Riley realizes she doesn’t really care if this is strange anymore. It’s fun, and nice, and Abby keeps making her laugh. They don’t have to talk about anything real anyway.) Except that Abby is apparently dead set on vaulting over every set of Riley’s expectations and suddenly they’re talking about the fact that they both know that they know about Harper and Abby and Abby-and-Harper.

Riley offers an out and Abby doesn’t take it, I think it’s probably an accurate assumption, but somehow after the we’ve-both-kissed-Harper-Caldwell thing is out in the open it doesn’t make things awkward. Turns out that Abby is a very good person to be honest with. So good in fact that before Riley has time to second guess herself they’re talking about high school. And Abby knows the sanitized version, the ex-blurb that Harper has likely agonized over (telling your new girlfriend about probably the worst thing you’ve ever done? Not easy, Riley can guess.) and for some reason Riley can’t just leave it at that. If she met Abby and Harper in another way, running into them on a Pittsburg street or if Harper actually came out before bringing Abby home, hell if Harper was even being nice to Abby right now, Riley would keep her mouth shut, would feel weird the way anyone does about an ex, remind herself that Harper is irrelevant, and move on with her life. But exactly here, in this specific timeline, when Harper is doing exactly the same thing she’s always done and fucking brilliant Abby is in the crosshairs, well.

9th grade Riley couldn’t make it out alive. Maybe turning-31-next-month Abby can.

So she focuses on Abby’s open face, the dim glow settling on everything near them, the music from the stage, and she starts talking. And fuck but this story never gets easy to tell. She can talk about it now, state the facts and even add a little bit of humor, can detach herself enough to get through her sentences without crying (thanks to her therapist of almost nine years) but her voice still breaks on awful and yeah, of course it does, because all she can think about is how her entire world changed overnight, how everything soft grew thorns, how the person she loved most threw her to the wolves without anything so much as a sorry.

Abby listens quietly, eyes fastened on Riley’s, nodding and wincing at all the right places. She gets some credit for this reaction, Riley knows some people would get up and leave if anyone leveled such damning accusations against their girlfriend, but Abby doesn’t seem like the type. No. Abby sits across from her and says I’m sorry. This was a good choice. Riley was right to trust her. But Abby’s face falls (yes this story is unfortunately relevant) and Riley’s lungs twinge at her unhappiness. She offers an out, the way she always does, but that was a long time ago. Abby doesn’t believe her dismissal, obviously. Riley wouldn’t really trust her if she did.

They sit like that for a long moment and it feels familiar, like the other conversations Riley has had again and again throughout her life, about how being gay can break you, just a little. The queens save them with their song, oddly enough exactly what they both need, and their somber mood dissipates as fast as it arrived. Riley shouldn’t be thinking like this, not about anyone else’s girlfriend because she knows herself, knows how quickly a friendly affinity can transform into a crush, but Abby’s the first person who’s felt easy to be around since getting here and as they momentarily make eye contact across the table, microphones in their faces and calls from other bargoers whipping around their heads, she thinks the comfort might be mutual.

Unrelatedly she realizes that Abby is gorgeous but it’s easy to set that realization aside for later.

(Later turns out to be sooner that expected.) Harper texts and Abby leaves which totally makes sense because they aren’t even friends, not really. but Riley is still left feeling less ok with the idea of never seeing her again.

Luckily the universe is looking out, or this town really just is extraordinarily tiny. The next day she gets a call from Abby, voice slightly shakier than normal, and Riley knows the best way to fall a little in love with someone is to spend a lot of time with them all at once. But Abby needs her, Riley does actually have some control over her own feelings, and so far her morning has consisted of her mom’s book club peppering her with questions every time she walks through the front room and attempting a third crossword with her dad so she’s out the door 0.3 seconds after Abby hangs up.

This time everything is easy. She takes Abby up and down Main Street, half for the gift search and half for the let-me-show-you-where-I-grew-up thing that really should be Harper’s job. (except that she doesn’t mind at all, not when Abby is so genuinely interested in everything she sees. Riley even sprinkles in a few Harper anecdotes because Abby makes her feel generous but surprisingly, unless they actively try and drop her into the conversation, she rarely comes up.)

The air is brisk but not frigid and hours pass quickly. Riley does her best to covey the insanity of the white elephant to Abby who snickers at all the right places and replies with stories of her childhood Christmases. She talks about them easily, her parents and their traditions, but Riley can feel the last parts of her holding back from enjoying the time with Abby melting at the unassuming trust she’s just been handed. The shopping ends the way their time always does, with a text from Harper, but Riley plays Britney Spears as she drives them both back to the Caldwells and as Abby sings along she can feel something stretching between them, something like actual friendship. It’s nice.

She does her best to not think about it too much, doesn’t want to snap something so new by looking at it head on, but her stomach feels warm and buzzy all night long.

When she and her parents get to the party Riley searches for Abby as soon as they escape the initial greeting mob, Tipper’s face stretched in a smile just a little too tight to feel genuine. She finds Harper first, in a very Harper-at-the-holidays dress, talking to Connor of all people. (Connor hadn’t been the worst of the bullies back in high school but he’d sure been there as his friends doled out their share of abuse. She’d tried to find the humor in it at the time, he and Harper were made for each other but there’d been a time when she thought Harper was made for her and now he still leaves her with a sick feeling in her stomach, not as much as Harper does but too much for any kind of pleasantness.)

(The truth is, Riley can’t really talk to most people her age at this party because a laundry list of slurs and 9th grade torture with their names attached is tattooed on the inside of her brain. Which is fine, they sure don’t want to talk to her either and one of Riley’s best special skills is being very, very good at spending time with herself – or making small talk with her mother’s favorite librarian – but she is still so grateful for Abby’s presence at this party.)

Abby is leaning on the couch looking a little lost and a little like she wouldn’t mind kicking Connor’s ankles but she softens when Riley gives her a “can you believe all this” kind of smile, offers her drink without a second thought. A small selfish part in the very back of Riley’s brain thinks that she could happily stand here all night trying to get a laugh out of Abby and stealing sips of her “festive” cocktail, like even Sloane’s withering glares don’t sting when Abby’s shoulder is brushing against hers.

Unfortunately, while Riley is a long way past being caught up in Harper’s pain whirlpool Abby is right in the center, tangled up in the hereditary Caldwell fear. Riley wants to shake her shoulders, wants to say none of this is your fault they’re all just so messed up, but it’s a little too late for that. All she can do is sit with Abby and try to help her through this.

Riley has felt all this before and realizes she really does care about Abby’s wellbeing, so she stays. She does her best to distract from the upper-upper middle class niceties swirling around them by telling Abby her freakiest stories and even though she sees Abby’s eyes slip back to Harper every thirty seconds she also gets a few thankyouthankyou looks so at least she’s doing something to ease the pain. (The thing is, as much as Riley wants to take all of this away, wants to protect Abby from pain she knows way too well, she can’t. She reminds herself, again and again, Abby is an adult. Riley was not, but she is now. They will both survive this.)

Once, Abby absentmindedly rests her hand on Riley’s leg and Riley almost pulls a muscle in her shoulder trying to pretend like the action didn’t send a hot pulse across her entire body. (But then Abby looks back to Harper, pain written clearly across her face, and buzz drains out of Riley’s spine. After all, none of this is about her.)

Abby seems more and more tortured as the night goes on, despite Riley’s best efforts and she decided they might actually need to talk about this. Ok so what is going on? Abby spills out words about her relationship, about how scared Harper seems, how everything flipped so suddenly, and it’s just making me wonder who the real Harper is.

Riley’s heart sinks and yes, she knows this feeling, yes Harper is hurting someone exactly the same way but fifteen years later. She gets Abby’s confusion, knows they both understand how terrified Harper is, how this situation is just messy and sucks but none of that makes it ok. Riley thought she knew Harper at fourteen, knew her best friend well enough to be comfortable, but she hadn’t come close to understanding the depths of Harper’s animal fear until she’d actually been thrown under the bus. She understands the impulse to stay, to stick it out with this person you love, but Riley’s so scared that Abby’s going to get ripped apart the way she was.

If Harper taught her one thing, one actual thing, it’s that you’re allowed to give up before something kills you. No need to stick around for the explosion. (And Riley knows, deep down, that what happened to her had to be traumatic for Harper too, even if it was all her own fault, because Riley’s life had been ruined. Probably not great incentive to come out. She feels bad and she doesn’t because Harper broke her and just because she understands why, just because she’s managed to pick up the pieces, it doesn’t mean that the breaking never happened.)

All of this runs through her head, edging close to something like a panic attack, so she offers the only advice she can. You know, maybe they both are. People contain multitudes. Teenage Harper can devastate Riley because she’s terrified. Riley doesn’t have to forgive her. Harper can be Abby’s caring girlfriend back in the city and her parents’ ideal daughter here. She’s allowed to be complex, and Abby’s allowed to leave because Harper (in really anyone’s opinion Riley thinks) is treating her girlfriend like shit.

But before she can really elaborate on this, Abby drops her newest bomb of the night. I was gonna ask her to marry me tomorrow. And oh that just makes all of this so much worse.

If Riley wasn’t mad at Harper already she really is now, she wants to shout traumatized ex-girlfriend card and drag Harper into the next room and get her to understand how much she’s hurting Abby, that she can’t fucking do this again, that none of it’s ok. But she can’t. She lost this fight a long time ago and she can’t do it for Abby. She’s out of cute, supportive things to say, all she can hear is the ringing in her ears and a cutting sense of loss for a reason she can’t find. She takes a breath and puts her hand on Abby’s shoulder, like she can make all of this better by giving Abby her strength or something, I’m going to get you a real drink. Abby nods, almost smiles, and at the very least Riley hopes she knows she’s not alone.

They’ll get through this party.

Except that they don’t because the party officially goes to hell.

Sloane – who Riley has never liked, who’s something like an actively malicious Harper – totally snaps, in the middle of what looks like the kind of knock-down drag-out fight that she and Harper had all the time in middle school. Everyone else in the room, mid settling down for the white elephant (or warming up in Harper’s third cousin’s case) looks shocked by the commotion and it’s another reminder of how much dysfunction lurks behind closed doors around here. (Riley’s particular life has let her see a lot more of the unraveling than most of her neighbors.)

She’s seen this kind of thing before, has sat in this very living room or on Harper’s bed upstairs while she and Sloane brawl, so it’s almost bittersweet except that this time Sloane has murder in her eyes and Harper’s are lined with a kind of fear that Riley’s only seen once before. Riley’s whole body goes ice cold. She wants to cover her eyes, to cover everyone’s eyes, to sing the ABCs as loudly possible until this nightmare ends.

And then she sees Abby by the doorway looking like someone just ripped her heart straight out of her chest. (Riley’s not a heart surgeon but she wants to run to her, wants to stop the bleeding.) Fuck. Sloane spits out the words that really shouldn’t be a condemnation but absolutely are and some part of Riley wonders if this outing-other-people-in-the-most-horrible-way-possible trend might be genetic.

There’s an awful moment where no one can say anything and Riley knows her feelings are written just as clearly across her face as Abby’s always are. She kind of can’t breathe actually, feels like her chest is cracking wide open. Because there’s this beat. Like, right after Sloane’s attack is over Harper has this chance. She can’t fix what happened to Riley, can’t erase how she’s treated Abby for the last few days, but god, Harper has a chance here to step into the light. It might burn, but it might save her relationship with Abby, might begin to heal the wound made by the knife she’s been helplessly twisting into Abby’s heart since coming home.

Riley can feel a knot in her stomach that she’s been carrying since the third day of her second semester of high school, can feel how hard it’s listening, almost like it could relax finally. But Riley knows Harper too well to hope for long.

Harper, in her nice green dress in front of her family’s picture perfect tree, vanishes into herself like a real life magic trick, but only after flinging her panicked plea into the air, I am not a lesbian! Sloane is the one with the-

Riley turns away because there’s no way for her to hide the nauseating flood of hurt and disappointment and resignation ripping through her body. It’s the least surprising thing she’s ever seen. That’s the Harper she knows, utterly terrified and trapped with no regard for who else gets hurt in her bid for freedom. Behind her, she hears the door slam and the noise reverberates through her bones. That, she supposes, is the difference between high school and thirty. At least Abby can drive herself home.

After the family showdown and Jane’s smashed painting (which is lovely, she’s way too good for the rest of her family) everyone trickles out.

Riley sees troupes of her mother’s friends leaving together, most likely to gossip about the party until they fall asleep. She’s about to go, needs to leave this place that only every feels like a trap, when she sees Harper. She’s standing there, a little off from everyone else, and space behind her eyes looks impossibly sad. Riley doesn’t really know Harper anymore, hasn’t known her in over a decade, so she won’t pretend to be able to read her expression. But if she had to guess, Riley would imagine that Harper is rethinking her decision, replaying it over and over and over again, trying to decide if keeping herself on the Caldwell pedestal was worth losing Abby. (Hint: Riley knows it isn’t)

Riley normally would never go over, she doesn’t ever just walk up to Harper and start talking at these kinds of things, not unless there’s someone watching them. Except that now in the aftermath of this mess that has been three days and fifteen years or maybe since the day the Caldwells decided to let their daughters fight for love in the making, Riley realizes something. She sees Harper and doesn’t want this for her.

She’s officially watched Harper get her karmic comeuppance, seen the exact brutality Harper had thrown at her in 9th grade be tossed back into her face. The darkest, most vengeful part of Riley’s hurt has seen the whole, bloody, previously unimaginable scenario play out in real life. It didn’t make her feel better, or vindicated, or like justice had been served. All it made her feel was awful. No part of Riley’s heart is occupied by Harper anymore, really truly none. So she leans into the part of her that cares the way anyone else would and she walks over.

Harper looks horrible, which makes sense. Riley hopes she can figure this out someday, sooner rather than later, with no one else thrown to the side as collateral damage. After all, she’s a doctor. She’s seen what keeping secrets too long can do to people. She doesn’t want Harper to die from this. Great party, she says it with a smile that feels a little like poking Harper’s side with her cold feet during a sleepover and because what is she even supposed to say right now, and Harper smiles back, thin and watery. Yeah.

There’s nothing more to say, not really, except that Riley can’t stop replaying the door slam in the back of her head (she imagines the same thing is happening to Harper) so she turns back. She’s a really good one. Riley kind of wants to cry now, because it might be the most honest thing she’s said to Harper in years, Abby is so, so, so unnecessarily good. Harper sounds like she might start crying too, or like she already is, and for some reason it humanizes her, just a little more.

Riley smiles one last time, hopes it says something like I hope things get better, and then she leaves. Abby’s friend’s car is long gone by now.

Riley drove her own car here tonight, fresh off of the Abby Holland/Britney Spears high, because this way, once her parents get in their own car, see you at home! she can take the long way back, park on a dark road a few blocks from her house, and cry in the front seat without anyone asking her why. (She couldn’t explain even if they did, something along the lines of old ache and new friend and why why why again)

She learns a few weeks later that Harper had gone after Abby, found her at a gas station, that Harper had asked her to come back, that they’d both cried, that Harper had gone home alone. Riley thinks it’s probably for the best, even if it hurts like hell for both of them. She saw them break, up close and personal and she doesn’t know if even the best surgeon could get everything back together the right way. Even later she hears that Harper is a lesbian, first from her mother and then from her mother’s dentist’s receptionist and then from her mother’s dentist’s receptionist’s insurance broker. She cries that night too, a mild sort of relief for Harper mixing with a long cold grief but the next morning she feels lighter, like there’s one less monster under her bed.

And somewhere in between she starts texting Abby, or Abby starts texting her (she texts first but Abby replied with equal speed so that’s basically the same) and Riley wonders if something new can’t grow from the ashes of their once-broken hearts.