The first time April Stevens comes over to her house, Debbie Wesley is overwhelmed in a way only somebody can be when they are trying to wrangle two nine-year-olds to and from school every single day, feed them, clothe them, and try not to have them inflict bodily damage on themselves or others.
It starts like any other Tuesday, Debbie pulling up to the designated pick up area, rolling down the window as the twins run over.
“Got your backpacks?” she calls, a routine she’s started ever since Blair “accidentally” left her backpack with all her homework in it at school five days straight.
“Got your homework?”
“Got all your fingers and toes?”
“Mom, that is so lame.”
“Mom, can April come over?”
Debbie blinks, caught off guard by the question, just then noticing a shorter girl standing behind Sterling with her hands folded in front of her, looking like she’s actively trying to not be hopeful.
So this must be the infamous April, who Sterling has brought up with increasing frequency over the last few weeks. It’s always, “April said something so funny in math,” “April’s science fair project was totally the best,” “April always has the prettiest headbands.”
And here is April herself, looking with wide eyes at Debbie through the open window of her car.
“I have my backpack and my homework and all of my fingers and toes, Mrs. Wesley, I promise.” April says, somehow with both the bravado of a child and effortless politeness of an adult.
Debbie can’t help but let out a laugh, somehow extremely charmed by this nine-year-old.
“Well alright then, Miss April, looks like you’re coming home with us.”
Debbie hopes, as the three girls clamor into the back seat, Sterling in the middle of course, that this April is somewhat of a calming presence in the chaos that is the twins, that she isn’t one of those friends who encourages the rowdy side of her children. (The Blair side, Debbie calls it, though she feels just a touch guilty about it.)
The Lord, thankfully, is looking out for her today. What April provides is beyond her wildest expectations, with her, “thank you so much for having me, Mrs. Wesley,” and her, “your house is so beautiful, Mrs. Wesley,” and Debbie’s absolute favorite, “well, Sterling, we should probably finish our homework before we do anything else.”
Blair rolls her eyes at that one, of course, but Sterling nods eagerly, clearly infatuated with this new friend. And thank God for that.
“Look at you, April,” Debbie says, grinning at her, “such a good influence on my girls already. You are welcome here anytime you want.”
“Mom, you’re embarrassing us,” Sterling whines, but Debbie notices how April looks down at her hands, smiling a shy little smile.
“Thank you, Mrs. Wesley.”
“And I mean it,” Debbie says with a grin.
And she does mean it. For the next few years, April Stevens becomes a regular guest in their house. Debbie doesn’t mean to choose favorites of her girls’ friends, she really doesn’t, but there’s simply no competition. April always goes out of her way to greet Debbie, always offers to help with anything Debbie is working on around the house, and most importantly, makes Sterling smile more than any of her other friends.
It’s clear that April’s closer with Sterling than Blair, and most afternoons, Blair leaves them to kick a soccer ball around the backyard while Sterling and April sit close together, giggling over a shared joke like no one else exists in the world. Debbie finds herself watching them sometimes, a little warmth growing in her at this person her daughter has found that seems to brighten up her days.
Debbie now recognizes the Stevens family at church, shoots April a little wave as they pass by their pew, and is endeared when April blushes a little before waving back.
“Your daughter is just a gem,” Debbie tells April’s dad after church one week, while the girls are off talking nonsense with each other, “as close to perfect as one child could be, I swear.”
“Could always be closer,” John says with a laugh, which strikes Debbie as an extremely unnerving thing to say about one’s own child, especially one as lovely as April. “You always gotta keep pushing ‘em.”
Debbie gives him a tight-lipped smile. She knows first impressions aren’t everything, but she does wonder how a man who exudes such unpleasantness created a sweet and caring daughter.
So maybe she prefers when April is over at her place than when Sterling and Blair go to the Stevens’. All she’s doing is follow her maternal instinct.
When the girls are eleven, Debbie starts to notice a shift in what has been essentially two years of constant play-dates and sleepovers. It’s only natural that things are changing, middle school is starting, puberty is happening, Sterling has a boyfriend now. (Which, Lord Almighty, makes Debbie just feel old.)
“April hasn’t come around here much recently,” Debbie notes casually in the car one day, after about a month has passed without April coming over, the longest since Debbie’s known her.
“April hates us now,” Blair informs Debbie matter-of-factly. “Hey, can we have mac and cheese for dinner tonight?”
“No, we had that on Monday. Why does April hate you now?”
“I dunno, she just does. What about spaghetti?”
Debbie looks in the rearview mirror at her daughter who is not currently more focused on pasta than the abrupt ending of a years-long friendship. Sterling just looks out the window, face downcast.
“Sterl, honey,” she says, when they get home and Blair has run off, “what happened with you and April?”
“I don’t know,” Sterling says softly, “like, we weren’t always in the same group anymore, but one day she just - stopped talking to me. And then she got mean.”
“Mean how?” Debbie asks, because, well, April may top the ranks of Sterling’s friends, but no one is mean to her daughter.
Sterling looks down at her feet.
“Just things she says in class sometimes. I don’t know. Maybe she’s just been in a bad mood. For weeks. I kind of don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
“Okay, sweetheart, that’s fine.” Debbie pulls her into a hug, feels Sterling squeeze back, hopes she’ll still get a couple more years out of Sterling being so sweet and affectionate like this. “I am going to miss her around here, though.”
“Yeah,” Sterling whispers into her chest, “me too.”
Debbie still sees April after that, at church, at various school events that only pile up the older the twins get.
April always goes out of her way to say hello, which Debbie is both confused and flattered by. It’s always an enthusiastic, “good morning, Mrs. Wesley, I hope you had a wonderful week,” followed by a cold, “Sterling. Blair.”
“Maybe,” Debbie says one night in bed, “April has a crush on Luke. And that’s why she doesn’t want to be friends with Sterl any more. ”
Anderson looks at her over his reading glasses.
“April doesn’t have a crush on Luke,” he says, like he is somehow the expert on who twelve-year-olds do or do not have crushes on.
“Now, how would you know that?”
“That girl made me, a full grown man, feel like an idiot for what I didn’t know about how the Georgia legislature works. Now, I think Luke is a fine young man, and I enjoy his company, but I don’t see him being quite at the level needed for April Stevens to pay him any mind.”
It’s a good point, Debbie has to admit, and something about that theory seemed a little off in the first place. April doesn’t seem like a kid who bothers with boys, too focused on everything else around her, on trying to outdo herself at every turn.
Still, Debbie wonders as the years pass, as she watches from a distance as April grows a little harder and sharper than the sweet kid who used to sit at her kitchen table and do homework.
She hears a piece of gossip at church one week, Lynn Creswell practically falling over herself to explain the whole sordid story, the way John Stevens had hit that woman, the way he had hired her, and Debbie feels a pit of nausea in her stomach.
“We shouldn’t rush to judgement,” she tells Lynn, not mentioning the fact that she herself rushed to judgement about John Stevens several years ago and was right on the money. Unfortunately.
Her heart aches for that poor girl, though. Debbie knows first hand that nothing hurts quite as much as ugly truths about your family coming to the surface, how it makes you feel all alone in this world, like you won’t be able to ever trust again.
“How’s April doing?” she asks Sterling a few days later, while Sterling is sitting at the kitchen island doing her homework.
“April?” Sterling asks sharply. “Why? Did she say something to you about me and Luke?”
Debbie tilts her head.
“Why would April say something to me about you and Luke?”
“Well, why are you asking me about April?”
Which Debbie supposes is a fair question. It’s not as if she asks after any of the other friends of the girls.
“I’m just worried about her. You know, with everything with her father.”
“Oh,” Sterling says, letting out a breath. “Right. That. She’s, um, she’s definitely finding a way to cope, that’s for sure.”
Debbie doesn’t press. Something about this situation is clearly stressing out Sterling, but Debbie figures - hopes - Sterling will tell her at some point.
And, well, if Debbie’s being honest, she has her own stress to deal with, the sharp fear that always rises in her when her sister makes contact.
It’s worse this time too, a dread living in her bones as weeks pass and Dana asks for more and more, as she won’t just leave, as Blair starts shooting her these looks as the weeks pass, like she’s trying to figure Debbie out.
In all of the chaos, she almost doesn’t notice one night at dinner when Sterling casually mentions that she's working on some project with April, until April herself shows up at Debbie’s doorstep that Saturday morning.
“April!” Debbie says. She looks down at her old sweatshirt and jeans, suddenly a little embarrassed to be caught so dressed down by this girl. She shakes it though. April is a teenager, just like her girls. “What a lovely surprise!”
“Sterling didn’t tell you I was coming over?”
“Oh! Yes! She did. I’m so sorry, hun, my brain is just all over the place today, come on in.”
Debbie notices the way something shifts in April’s face when Debbie says hun and Debbie feels a quick ache for her, for her family.
“We’ve missed having you around here,” Debbie says as she leads April inside.
April looks down a little, blushes a bit.
“I’ve missed it too,” she whispers.
“Mom, is that April?” Sterling calls from upstairs, and suddenly April straightens, her hint of vulnerability disappearing into thin air.
“Yes, honey, don’t shout,” Debbie shouts.
Then Sterling is essentially thundering down the stairs, before stopping short and grinning breathlessly at April.
“You came!” she breathes.
“Of course I came,” April says, “this is an assignment.”
“Yeah,” Sterling says, “duh. But still, um, good to have you here.”
Sterling seems nervous, almost. There’s an energy about her, more so than her regular bouncy self, something unnamed that seems desperate to burst from her.
“Should we get started?” April asks, all business, but Debbie senses a bit of the same energy in her.
If Debbie was a bit less frantic at the moment, she would sit with it, would try to parse out what the hell is going on with this one specific friend of her kid, why there is always this lingering intensity between them, even these years later.
But Debbie is frantic at the moment, so she lets the girls go do their biblical arts and crafts thing, then drives far away from her house so she can have a panic attack in her car before essentially begging her sister to leave her and her family the fuck alone.
“How was your project?” she asks Sterling when she gets home, trying to remember how to act like a normal parent.
Sterling looks down at her hands, smiling a secret little smile.
“It was good. You know April, she’s - she’s always very, um, thorough.”
“Right.” Debbie sighs, leans her elbow on the counter. “Are you two… hanging with each other again?”
“It’s just a school project,” Sterling says hastily. “I don’t even know if April would want to… hang with me again. It’s - I don’t know, it’s weird.”
Debbie laughs a little.
“Listen, I don’t know the nitty gritty of y’all’s history, but it seems like you two had fun today. And sometimes, when two people enjoy each other’s company, that’s all you need.”
“Sure,” Debbie says easily, “besides, that girl could probably use a friend right about now.”
“Right,” Sterling mutters. “A friend.”
April doesn’t come up for the next few days, but Sterling still has that energy about her, something new that Debbie can’t quite parse. It’s nice to see Sterling happy like this, even when Debbie spends every second afraid of what’s going to happen to her little girl if her worst fears come true.
Then her worst fears come true.
It’s hard to describe those hours, the way her heart lives in her throat, the way Anderson forces her to drink water, to eat something, though Debbie constantly feels like she’s about to throw up, knowing that that woman has her baby girl.
It’s almost worse, when they finally get to her, when Dana gets that look in her eyes, the satisfaction that she can drop this one bomb, that she can do this one thing to implode what Debbie has worked for years to build.
And the way Sterling looks at her after, the way Blair looks at her, her girls staring at her like she’s a monster - like she’s a stranger.
She cries into Anderson’s chest that night, and the next night and the next night, until the nights morph into weeks and Sterling continues to be distant and Blair continues to be angry and everything feels broken, no matter how hard she tries to fix it.
“These things take time,” Kathy, her new therapist (something Blair had insisted on) tells her.
“You think I don’t know that?” Debbe snaps. “You think I don’t know that it will take time for my daughter to look me in the eye again?”
Debbie sucks in a sharp breath, anger fading quickly into this new sort of grief that’s been haunting her these past several weeks. She’s tired of crying, tired of her throat feeling vulnerable and scratchy every damn day. Kathy hands her a kleenex.
“You two have this in common,” Kathy says gently.
“Me and Anderson?”
Kathy shakes her head.
“You and Sterling. You both love so hard, so much so that it’s hard to realize that other people need a little space to get to that point. But that doesn’t mean they won’t get there.”
“But what if…” Debbie takes a deep breath. “What if she never gets there?”
“She will,” Kathy insists, with such conviction that Debbie believes her, that Debbie needs to believe her. “It could take months, years even, but she will. In the meantime, though, you need to let her have some freedom. Let yourself have some freedom too.”
So Debbie lets Sterling take the car, lets her drive far away from her, even though she always waits up with worry, stomach clenching until the front door sounds with Sterling’s return.
She tries to focus on the second part of what Kathy says, and finds her opportunity one afternoon a couple months after That Night, when they’re due to have lunch with Anderson’s parents. Debbie looks at her closet for twenty minute straight, trying to think of something to wear that won’t be derided, that will make her seem like a daughter-in-law - like a mother - who has her life even remotely together.
“You alright, honey?” Anderson asks, sticking his head into the closet.
He’s wearing a tie. He looks nice. He always does, especially over the past few months, which she knows have been hard for him too, but he always stands beside her, tries to make her laugh, holds her tight on the nights she can’t sleep. There are things about herself she never really thought someone could love, and they’ve all come out now, open and raw and messy, and still, this man smiles at her like he’s the lucky one.
Debbie lets out a breath.
“What if I - I think I’m going to sit this one out.”
“Okey-dokey,” Anderson says easily, “why don’t you do something fun while I’m stuck with the old farts? You deserve it.”
Debbie doesn’t think that’s true, doesn’t think she deserves anything good right now, but she lets him wrap her up in a hug anyway, smelling his cologne and reminding herself that at least one person in this house still loves her.
She ends up going to the movies. She hasn’t gone to a movie alone since the girls were in middle school and Debbie just needed a moment to relax alone in the dark, watching something unrelated to the stress of her life play out on a big screen.
It’s different now, the tickets have gotten expensive, but Debbie buys one anyway, buys a too large popcorn just for good measure.
The theater is mostly empty, she supposes not many people are spending their afternoons at the one o’clock showing of the new West Side Story over a month after it came out, but it had appealed to Debbie more than any action movie or a brightly colored cartoon that would only remind her of the time Sterling cried so hard at Inside Out that they had to leave the theater.
Debbie settles herself in an aisle seat, an absurd need to be able to make her exit in case one of her daughters calls her, though she knows they won't. Still, she uses her aisle seat to watch people trail into the theater, an older couple first, then a mother and daughter whose presence makes Debbie feel a sharp longing, then two young men holding hands and laughing together.
Then, she sees a familiar figure head down the aisle by herself.
“April Stevens?” Debbie says before she can help herself.
April turns abruptly, looking stricken for a moment, like she’s been caught doing something far worse than going to see a musical on her own. Her face relaxes a bit when she sees who it is, but still, she looks tense, on edge. Debbie can relate.
“Mrs. Wesley,” April says, still so polite, “what an unexpected delight.”
Debbie smiles at her, somehow comforted by this girl who always sounds like a full grown adult.
“Likewise.” she says, “Oh, would you want to...” she gestures to the seat next to her.
April glances at the seat and Debbie suddenly remembers that teenage girls probably don’t want to sit at the movies with the mothers of their… friends? Frankly, between her own emotional turmoil and the fact that Sterling never tells her anything anymore, she has no earthly clue if April is friends with her daughter or not at the moment.
“Um,” April says, “are you not… here with your family?”
Debbie shakes her head with a tight smile.
“Just me today.”
Then, to Debbie’s shock, April scooches past Debbie and sits in the seat next to her. Debbie offers April popcorn and April takes it. It’s nice actually, though Debbie is aware that on paper, this is an odd duo.
“Are you a fan?” April asks, “of this show?”
“Oh,” Debbie asks, “if I’m being honest with you, this movie looked the best out of what was playing, but I mostly just needed to avoid my in-laws.”
April lets out a surprised little laugh.
“Are they that bad?”
It’s Debbie’s turn to laugh.
“You have no idea, honey. Every day I’m in awe of how two people so… unpleasant could have raised someone as lovely as my husband.”
“Well,” April says, clearing her throat, “I’ve found that… sometimes people just aren’t dealt the best hand when it comes to parents.”
April is staring straight ahead, eyes on the ads before the trailers, jaw tight. Debbie feels an urge to reach out to her, to hold her close, to tell her that families are hard, but she’s going to get to grow up and get to live her life to the fullest far away from them. But that would be an absolutely insane thing to do in a movie theater with a girl who may or may not be friends with her daughter. So instead, Debbie just nods.
“You always were a smart one,” she says and is gratified when April cracks a little smile at the praise. “So are you a fan?”
“Of West Side Story?”
“Oh,” April says. “Yes. I think it’s an excellent show. They showed it to us at a dance class a few years ago, and all the other kids thought it was boring, but I - I loved it. I think the way that it utilizes movement to tell a story is beautiful. And especially a story that’s been told a thousand times - Shakespeare obviously didn’t come up with Romeo and Juliet himself - but it still feels new, feels fresh. Or, perhaps I love it so much because I’ve always been drawn to a tragic love story.”
Debbie blinks for a second at the barrage of information, but chooses to focus on the last part.
“Hun, you’re sixteen, I’m not sure it’s best to limit yourself to tragic love stories.”
“That’s how old Tony and Maria were,” April argues, the way Debbie remembers seeing at debate competitions before Sterling told them to stop coming. “And Romeo and Juliet were even younger. There’s not an age limit on tragedy. Some could argue that youth and heartbreak are two sides of the same coin.”
“Fair point,” Debbie concedes, wondering who in the hell broke April Stevens' heart. It’s something that, in another life, she might have asked Sterling, the two of them delving into a shared love of light gossip. But, of course, she can’t do that anymore.
So Debbie doesn’t question April, lets herself relax into the movie, lets herself be distracted by the singing and the dancing and the teenagers who are unable to wait a week to declare their undying forbidden love.
She notices though, partway through, that April has started crying. It’s not what Debbie would have expected, especially not at the happy parts, the falling in love parts, but April sniffs a little, furtively wipes her eyes as Tony and Maria sing their love to each other. Debbie chooses to ignore it; April seems the type to be embarrassed to be caught out crying.
But then, a particular song hits as the movie delves its way to the tragedy that April claims she loves.
There's a time for us, someday there'll be a time for us, comes through the surround sound of the theater and April fully sobs.
And Debbie didn’t spend sixteen years of her life as the mother of a certified crier to not carry around tissues in her purse. So she silently grabs them, and hands them over to April, who accepts without a word.
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there.
Debbie watches April suck in several deep breaths as the song crescendos and then fades. Maybe it’s the sight of this poor sweet girl, having a small breakdown in a movie theater, or the song itself, a hope for something that the audience knows will end in tragedy, but Debbie finds herself tearing up too.
“Whew,” she lets out after the movie finishes. “It really gets you.”
“That’s Bernstein and Sondheim for you,” April says, wiping her eyes a little, “and I suppose Speilberg and Kushner on this one.”
“Hmm?” Debbie asks, completely at a loss.
April swallows, looks down at her lap a little.
“Kushner. Um, Tony Kushner wrote this screenplay.”
Debbie laughs a little.
“April, I’m so sorry, I don’t know who that is. Enlighten me.”
“He’s - actually he’s kind of why I had to wait to see this until -” she suddenly looks stricken. “Mrs. Wesley, I know this is an odd request, but can you please not tell my parents you saw me here?”
And maybe it’s the emotion still raw in her from the movie, from these last few months, or just the way that at least here is one teenage girl who needs a bit of protection that Debbie can actually provide. Or maybe it’s just because she doesn’t have much of a filter these days, but Debbie laughs a little.
“Oh, honey, I don’t talk to your parents, I respect myself far too much for that.”
April looks at her in shock before laughing too, seemingly surprising herself.
“Well, alright then.”
They just sit in the theater in silence for a minute, watching the credits roll, neither of them wanting to leave their bubble just yet, while the other patrons file out. As the two men holding hands pass their row, Debbie hears April breathe in a deep breath.
“Tony Kushner is a writer,” April says, not looking at Debbie, “who is Jewish, and - and gay, so not someone my father would - he wrote this play, this very long play called Angels in America that’s about a prophet and New York and politics and literal angels and it’s meant to be subversive, meant to make people question what they think about the Bible and prejudice and disease and people being, um, gay and - and I’d heard of it years ago when Atlanta staged a production because my dad was part of this group that protested it, that called it lewd and perverted and a disgrace to God - but - but - ”
April takes a shaky breath and Debbie thinks she’s crying again. Debbie wordlessly hands her a tissue, aware that if she says anything, it might break this spell that April has found herself in.
“But I read it recently,” April continues slowly, “Angels in America. And it was good and it was smart and it was this incredible combination of thought provoking and emotional and I just - it makes me so mad. There are so many wonderful things in the world that I have missed because this man just won’t - I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie for years but I had to sneak out to see it when they were gone just because gay men wrote it and half the characters are Puerto Rican and I’m - I just get so angry sometimes, at what I haven’t gotten to do because of him.”
“Oh, April,” Debbie says, and, unable to help herself, she pulls April toward her. It’s uncomfortable, the armrest of the chair is still down, but Debbie just needs to hold this girl close to her, to let her know that all the adults around here aren’t like that man. April leans into it, sighing a little, and Debbie wonders when was the last time April hugged her parents.
(Debbie doesn’t - can’t - think about the last time she hugged her own daughters.)
“I’m sorry,” April says when she straightens up, “I didn’t mean to just - unload all of that. I know I’m just some girl who goes to school with your daughters-”
“Hey now,” Debbie interrupts, the same way she used to scold Sterling when she was down on herself (which, several times was due to April, but Debbie doesn’t focus on that right now.) “You are so much more than that. You’re a very special person, April. And I know - I know what it’s like to grow up just itching to leave, itching to get out of there. And once you do, oh honey, you are just going to thrive, I know it. But in the meantime, you are always welcome at our house.”
Not to toot her own horn, but Debbie thought that was a relatively good pep talk, but April somehow looks even more panicked at the end of it.
“I - I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mrs. Wesley. Sterling and I… aren’t exactly friends.”
Debbie resists the urge to roll her eyes, or say something akin to, that’s probably because you two are some of the most dramatic teenage girls out of the whole demographic. But she doesn’t.
Instead, she gives April’s shoulder one last squeeze and says, “whatever y’all’s situation is, my offer still stands, if you ever need it. Direct from me to you, nothing to do with my kids.”
April swallows, nodding seriously.
“Thank you, Mrs. Wesley, I really appreciate it.”
“Oh please, we’ve cried to a musical together. Call me Debbie.”
Debbie’s still humming a little when she comes home, the songs unable to leave her mind. The power of Berstein and Sondheim, April Stevens’ voice says in her head. She’s unaware she’s doing it until dinner, a time that has now become inexplicably tense, the four of them gathered around the table, while Debbie and Anderson take turns asking the girls about their days to get one word responses. Today, Debbie forgoes the questioning, instead choosing to focus on the songs flitting through her head.
“Mom did you just say you feel gay?” Blair asks harshly. Blair’s doubled down spikiness is preferable to Sterling’s near silent treatment at this point, and this particular comment almost makes Debbie laugh a little.
“I was just singing a song,” she says. “Do you girls know West Side Story? There’s a song that goes, I feel pretty, and witty and gay.”
“Those are pretty dumb lyrics,” Blair states. “Do they mean like gay-gay or…?”
“Like, gay as in happy.”
“Oh. Boring.” Blair looks back to her food then up at Debbie again, eyes calculating. “Would you have been upset if the song was about gay people?”
“Blair,” Sterling scolds under her breath.
“What? I’m just curious. So? Mom?”
“Well,” Debbie says carefully, thinking about April in that movie theater, anger and exhaustion and something else in her tone, when she talked about her dad not letting her see something she loved, depriving her of that experience due to his own hate. “No, honey, I wouldn’t have been upset. It shouldn’t matter. In fact, I think people who get worked up about that kind of thing have nothing better going on in their sad little lives.”
There’s a bit of stunned silence around the table, until Blair finally says, “shit, Mom, go off.”
“Language,” Debbie says absently, her focus on Sterling, who is actually looking at her with something other than resentment for the first time since That Night.
Sterling opens her mouth, closes it quickly, glancing at Blair, before saying simply, “I agree.”
“Good,” Anderson says, “now that that’s settled, can someone hand me the green beans?”
Debbie doesn’t see April for months after that, except at church, where she always smiles at her and April gives a small smile back, like they are in on some sort of secret. The smile always disappears when she turns back to her parents, and Debbie has to fight the urge to steal this child away from those terrible people.
But she supposes she has her own children to deal with. Who hardly speak to her, even as months pass and spring fades away into summer and Sterling still barely looks at her.
Patience, Kathy tells her again and Debbie wants to scream. But she doesn’t. She waits. And she watches Sterling.
Something shifts right when school gets out. Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s summer, so Sterling has more time to do whatever the hell she does when she leaves the house, but Debbie thinks there’s something else. Sterling keeps coming home with a little spring in her step, a hint of her old energetic self back, that grin peeking through more than it has in all these months.
One day in June, Debbie walks into the living room to see both her girls laughing together at the point where they can barely breathe, something that used to be a regular occurrence but hasn’t happened in a long time.
Blair makes some gesture with her tongue and Sterling shoves her off the couch and then Blair says, “that means I’m right,” and then they’re both laughing again, and it feels so familiar, so reminiscent of a different time, that Debbie has to leave the room before the girls can see her, to stand in the kitchen with her hands on her knees, forcing herself not to have a full breakdown about her daughters looking so happy, so together.
When July starts to shift into August, an answer about Sterling’s mood boost begins to reveal itself.
One Saturday night, Sterling still has the car, and Debbie is up late, reading a book in the living room. Or, pretending to read a book but mostly just reassuring herself that Stering is safe, Sterling is fine, Sterling has texted an ETA, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.
Still, relief floods through her when she hears the key click in the front lock, when she hears the sound of Sterling’s voice at a whisper.
But it’s not just Sterling.
“Did you tell your parents I was coming over?”
Debbie knows that voice. She smiles to herself. She definitely knows that voice.
“Sterling,” April hisses, “you can’t ask me to your house and not tell them.”
“I was going to text them, but I was, like, driving.”
“Oh my god, you’re ridiculous.”
Debbie smiles to herself, gets off the couch. It’s nice to hear two voices like this, teasing and playful, in this house that has seen so much silence recently.
“It’s fine,” Sterling is saying, “Anderson and Debbie love you.”
Debbie feels the same pang she always does when Sterling refers to her by her first name, but it’s dulled by the sentiment, dulled by the joy in Sterling's tone.
And besides, Debbie can’t help herself from stepping into the foyer and saying, “guilty.”
Sterling jumps about a foot into the air.
“Jesus Christ, Mom!”
Debbie lets the Jesus Christ slide because of the thrill Mom sends up her spine.
“Fun day, girls?” She asks, taking in their windswept appearance, the way they have sun and sand shining all over them.
“Great day,” April says, with a small smile at Sterling, before turning to Debbie. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Wesley, I thought Sterling had cleared it with -”
“Debbie,” Debbie gently corrects, “and you know you’re always welcome here.”
“Great,” Sterling says quickly, already heading past her, “we’re gonna go upstairs.”
“Thank you so much, Debbie. It’s a pleasure to be here.”
April smiles at Debbie, the complete opposite of Sterling’s dismissal. Debbie knew she liked this girl for a reason.
“Good night, girls.”
And then they’re off up the stairs.
“Kiss ass,” Debbie hears Sterling whisper.
“It’s called being polite.”
“It’s called being a suck up.”
“Haven’t heard you complain.”
And then they’re both giggling as their whispers fade up the stairs, and Debbie smiles to herself before going to bed.
“April’s sleeping over,” she tells Anderson, as she curls into his side.
“Oh, they’re friends again?” Anderson murmurs, still half asleep, but holding an arm out for Debbie to lean on.
“Good. Nice girl.”
“She is,” Debbie breathes, “this is good for Sterling, I think. I can feel it.”
Debbie wakes up early most Sunday mornings, opting to make a big breakfast for the girls before church. Even this past year, when it’s been tense and awful, food can still sometimes get to them. Especially Blair, who always looks so angry that Debbie’s cooking is delicious, in a way that feels a little bit like a victory.
Today is no exception, Debbie rising with the sun even though she was up late last night. She’s humming as she brews coffee, sets up things for French Toast, enjoying the moments of stillness that come from the hour rather than her girls ignoring her.
She’s so lost in it that she doesn’t notice another presence in the kitchen until she hears a sound of a throat clearing and jumps a little.
“Sorry,” April says, “I don’t mean to interrupt, I just came down to get some water.”
Debbie turns to her with a smile.
“Oh darlin’, you’re not interrupting anything. I’m just not used to anyone else in this house being up before they have to.”
“I’ve never been one for sleeping in.”
April shrugs a shoulder, smiling a little awkwardly. Debbie takes her in, clad in one of Sterling’s old baggy t-shirts, hair tied back in a ponytail, feet bare. She looks younger than the seventeen years she has on her, too much like the kid that used to do her homework in here, but with the harrowing events of the past few years showing in the way she cautiously surveys the kitchen, the way she holds herself stiffly.
None of that. Not in Debbie’s house.
“So,” she asks, trying to let this girl know that it is okay just to be here, “seen any good musicals lately?”
It’s apparently the right thing to say, because April launches into a monologue about how In the Heights was one of the better stage to film adaptations she’s seen, how it’s really Miranda’s best, that people only put Hamilton on a pedestal because it makes them feel like they know American history, even though most of those people couldn’t even get into AP US History.
Most of it goes right over Debbie’s head, but she notices the tension fall from April’s shoulders, the way she looks comfortable in this kitchen, just like she did all those years ago. Like she belongs here. Debbie smiles to herself as whisks the eggs together.
“Can I do anything to help?” April asks after she’s apparently said all she needed to say about the modern musical canon.
Debbie is about to politely decline, the instinct of micromanaging herself for two decades rising, but she swallows the refusal. April has always been an active kid, needing something to do, to feel like she is contributing.
“If you could just grab me the milk, hun, that would be great.”
April eagerly does so, and spends the next few minutes as the perfect sous chef, much better than either of her daughters, though Debbie would never tell them that.
“I used to cook with my mom,” April says softly, handing Debbie a beautifully dipped piece of bread for the frying pan. “When I was little. But then I started doing more and more after school and, well, she stopped… we just don’t anymore.”
Debbie nods, one eye on the sizzle of the pan, the other on April’s gaze, focused on the food, like if she looks at anything else, she will realize she is having this conversation.
“Well,” Debbie says, “if you ever feel the urge to help out in my kitchen, you’re always welcome to.”
“Thank you. It’s - this is nice.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Debbie laughs, going for airy but ending up somewhere a bit sadder. “You wouldn’t catch my girls dead in here. Not… not recently.”
April looks at her then, face serious, searching.
“She’ll come around, Mrs. Wesley,” she whispers. “Some things just take some time.”
“Debbie,” Debbie automatically corrects, even as her mind settles on the inevitable conclusion.
April knows, which means Sterling told her. Which means two things. One, that the secret that Debbie has had close to her chest for seventeen years is something that other people can be privy to now, and there’s nothing she can do about it.
But it also means that Sterling, her Sterling, who has been so closed off for almost a year now, is talking about it, hasn’t felt the need to keep the same secrets Debbie had kept for years. That she feels open enough to tell this other person. To tell April.
“Sorry,” April says, “I may have overstepped - ”
“No, hun,” Debbie interrupts, feeling a scratch in her voice, “no overstepping in this kitchen.”
She takes in a deep breath, looks back to the toast, flipping it just in time.
Both Debbie and April turn around to see Sterling, standing in the kitchen.
“Morning, sweetie,” Debbie says.
“I thought you’d left,” Sterling says to April, as if Debbie’s not even there. Which is pretty standard at this point.
What’s not standard is the way that Sterling is looking at April, with almost a shy smile, hand nervously fiddling with the hem of her shirt.
“How could I leave?” April says, face blooming into a teasing grin. “You drove me here.”
Sterling laughs long and loud, like April is headlining a comedy festival or something.
“Besides, your mom is making French toast, so…”
“We’re making French toast,” Debbie corrects.
Sterling’s eyes turn to Debbie for the first time since she’s arrived in the kitchen.
“Cool,” Sterling says, neutral.
“April’s been such a help.”
April beams at the praise. Sterling rolls her eyes, but she’s still smiling, her eyes on April and only April. For once, Debbie doesn’t feel like she’s being ignored due to Sterling’s anger, she just feels like she’s being ignored, because, well, she’s not April.
She’s proven correct when Blair comes down the stairs with a cartoonish yawn.
“French toast? Hell yeah.”
“Heck yeah,” Blair says mockingly. She takes in the scene in the kitchen. “So April’s here.”
“April’s here.” Debbie echoes.
Sterling says nothing, just keeps looking at April. Debbie watches them, something she can’t quite put words to sparking up in the back of her brain.
“Oh, this is gonna be fun,” Blair says.
Breakfast is, in fact, fun. There’s something about having a fifth person around the table that eases some of the tension that has been lingering in this house. April answers all of Debbie and Anderson’s low ball questions about school with an eagerness that makes Blair roll her eyes and Sterling just grin. It’s comforting, more than Debbie thought it would be, to see Sterling’s smile out on display again, a pang going through Debbie at just how much she missed it.
“Sterling really likes that April, huh?” Anderson says after, when the girls are upstairs changing for church.
“She sure does,” Debbie says.
“I suppose she’s gonna be around here a lot more now.”
“Yes,” Debbie says, listening to the sound of laughter up the stairs, “I think she will be.”
And she is, for the rest of the summer, popping by to go up to Sterling’s room or to sit on the back porch with her, heads close together like they are sharing some secret. Debbie supposes they are, with what April knows about their family.
“You watching them like that is real creepy, Mom,” Blair tells her one August afternoon as Debbie is looking out the kitchen window at April and Sterling on the porch.
“How is this creepy?”
“It’s a lot of staring.”
“I’m just watching my daughter and her friend have a good time.”
Blair looks like she’s trying not to laugh.
Debbie turns to her.
“What are you not telling me, Blair Wesley?”
“Oh, that’s rich coming from you,” Blair counters, but there’s not much malice to it, more of a familiarity of having the same fight for months on end now.
Debbie just shrugs in concession, eyes back to the porch.
“Just nice to see her smile this much is all.”
“Yeah,” Blair agrees, somewhat reluctantly, “it really is.”
Debbie watches as Sterling throws her head back, laughing at something April has said, eyes shining with it, the way April blushes a little, both of them pink-cheeked in the late summer afternoon, eyes only for each other. It reminds Debbie of the first few times Sterling brought Luke over, the way that boy was so attuned to everything Sterling did, looking at her like she was the most perfect person in existence, and he was so lucky to be in her presence. It’s the way she finds herself looking at Anderson sometimes, when he has said a particularly awful joke or been just the right amount of comforting and she simply has to stop and stare.
It’s exactly the way her daughter is looking at April Stevens right now, and April is looking right back at her, except for the fact that they aren’t…
“Oh my god.”
It’s April’s voice stammering over the word “gay” in that movie theater, or Sterling running down the stairs to see April, alight with the energy of being in the same room with her, or the way, when they were kids, they would fall into this world that no one else was allowed in. And here they are in that world again now, only now they are older, only now, Sterling is smiling at April like she hasn’t smiled in months, like she never has really, not even with Luke, like she is…
Like she is in love with this girl.
“Holy shit,” Debbie breathes.
“Whoa, Mom, language,” Blair says, raising her eyebrows.
“Sorry,” Debbie mutters, eyes still on her other daughter.
“Uh, you okay?” Blair asks.
Debbie takes a moment to appreciate the fact that Blair actually seems concerned about her well being, before going back to her utter surprise, yet somehow lack of surprise that Sterling is… gay? Is something? Is…
“She’s in love with her, isn’t she?”
Blair’s eyes go comically wide.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says firmly and very unconvincingly.
Debbie can’t help but let out a laugh.
“Of course you don’t.”
“And your sister is going to major in subtlety in college, right?”
Blair looks like she’s trying to not laugh.
“Mom, I literally don’t know what’s going on.”
“Mm-hmm,” Debbie says, trying to keep her own amusement out of her voice.
Blair looks at her, calculating, then back out at where Sterling and April are still talking and laughing.
“But,” Blair says slowly, “if I hypothetically had any earthly clue what you were on about, it wouldn’t… it wouldn’t be a problem or anything right?”
She has her arms crossed against her chest, in a defensive stance, like she will body check Debbie if she so much as says an unsupportive syllable.
“Baby, of course it wouldn’t be a problem. You know I love her more than anything in the world. Well, actually, it’s a three-way tie between her and you and your Daddy.”
“God, Mom, that’s so lame,” Blair says, but Debbie sees her shoulders relax, sees a small smile rise on her face.
“If loving my daughters is lame, I don’t want to be cool.”
Blair’s grinning now though, and Debbie is too. It’s been so long since Blair really fully let herself smile at her mother, and Debbie absorbs it like a sponge.
They both turn to look as Sterling comes in through the back door, April in tow, both practically glowing. Debbie feels her throat close up, her eyes sting. Her baby girl just looks so happy. Her baby girl is in love.
“Hey, April and I are gonna go on a drive,” Sterling says.
“If that’s okay,” April adds.
Sterling rolls her eyes.
“That’s fine,” Debbie manages to get out, “just be home by dinner.”
“Yes ma’am,” April says seriously.
God, Sterling isn’t just in love - she’s in love with April Stevens, who is still this sweet kid underneath her sharp exterior, who probably needs this just as much as Sterling does, someone to talk with and laugh with and share secrets with and...
Well, and go on several long unsupervised drives with.
“Oh lord,” Debbie lets out once the door shuts behind Sterling and April.
Blair looks at her with thinly concealed amusement.
“Bet you didn’t think you were signing up for this when you stole that baby, huh?”
“I didn’t steal a baby, Blair.”
“You basically did,” Blair says with a shrug. “Anyway, I’m gonna go on a run. Good luck parenting!”
Debbie laughs, because she can’t do anything else. Because one of her girls is actually talking to her and the other is in love. And probably off having lesbian sex right now. Which Debbie really doesn’t want to think about.
By the time Sterling and April both come home, looking far too satisfied, Debbie has done copious amounts of Googling to no avail - sure, there are a plenty of articles about what to do if your kid comes out to you, but not so many about what happens if you know your kid is in love with another girl but she won’t tell you because you haven’t had a real conversation since your estranged sister dropped the bomb that you aren’t her biological mother. So much for the internet.
“April’s gonna sleep over again tonight,” Sterling informs them at dinner.
It’s the same conversation they’ve been having for the last few weeks and Debbie knows she can’t just say no all of a sudden. It’s not as if she even wants to say no, doesn’t want in any way to take away from this new and tenuous joy in Sterling’s life. But she also now has a pretty good idea of what’s been happening during these sleepovers.
“You know,” she says slowly, “April, since you’re staying here so much, we can always make up the guest room for you.”
“No, that’s fine,” April says, far too quickly, “I wouldn’t want to be a burden.”
“No burden at all!”
“I’m more than happy to stay in Sterling’s room, please don’t worry about it.”
Blair mutters something like, “I’m sure you are,” before letting out a noise like she’s been kicked under the table.
“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” Sterling says. “I can share my room as long as April wants to come over.”
“I’m sure you can,” Blair says, “ow!”
“Can we be excused?” Sterling asks.
And Debbie is helpless to do anything but nod as they disappear up the stairs.
Blair starts laughing as soon as they’re gone.
“Oh, this is fun for you?” Debbie asks.
“Extremely. And for the record, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you don’t.”
“I honestly have no idea what either are you talking about,” Anderson says cheerfully.
And then there’s that factor.
“How would you feel,” Debbie asks that night once they are in bed, “if one of the girls was - started - got involved with another girl?”
Anderson closes his book, looks her in the eye.
“Is this about Blair’s footwear choices again? Because I thought we agreed that as long as she keeps bringing boys around, it’s just a stereotype.”
Debbie laughs a little.
“No it’s not about that - it’s just - I’ve just been mulling over hypotheticals.”
And Debbie aches to tell her husband, her person, but she doesn’t want to break Sterling’s nonexistent trust in her. Already a worst case scenario is building in her head of Sterling crying and yelling and saying, you knew! And you told him? How could you?”
So she doesn’t say anything, just purses her lips.
“Baby, you know I don’t have a problem with whoever the girls date,” Anderson says, sensing there is something she’s not saying. “As long as they find good people.”
“I know,” Debbie says, because she does know, but it sure is nice to hear out loud.
“Any reason you brought this up tonight?”
Debbie shakes her head, grabbing the glass of water on the bedside table to avoid spilling her guts about the whole thing.
“Sooo,” Anderson continues as Debbie sips the water, “it’s not because of the way Sterl keeps staring at April like she’s the god damn Mona Lisa?”
Debbie chokes on the water. Anderson pats her back, giggling a little.
“You noticed too?” she asks when she gets her breath back.
“It’s hard not too.”
“Oh thank god. So what do we do?”
“Do we have to do anything about it?”
“I mean… well, what do you think they are doing during all these sleepovers?”
Anderson looks like he’s seriously considering it.
“See now, I don’t know what girls do on these sleepovers. Never have. Do y’all really braid each other’s hair?”
“Anderson, they’re having sex.”
Anderson looks like she just announced that Chloe died.
“Are you sure?”
Debbie recalls a conversation a year ago with Sterling, crying on a bed, recalls how she never even looked at Luke the way she’s been looking at April.
“Pretty damn sure.”
“So what do we do?”
“That’s what I was asking you!”
Their eventual game plan is weak, to say the least. They take turns coming up with excuses to check in on the girls when they are up in Sterling’s room, but the girls have gotten very good at sensing a footstep apparently.
Anderson insists on having regular TV time with the whole family, which includes April when she’s over. He also insists on choosing the show himself, not even telling Debbie what they’re watching, just, “it’s a good idea hun, trust me.”
Blair bursts out laughing when Anderson puts on the first episode of Queer Eye. Debbie tries her best not to laugh as well. At least he’s trying.
“Dad, this show is so three years ago,” Blair insists through her laughter, “I think we’re over it as a society.”
“Hey, I like this show,” Sterling counters, “it’s sweet. And Antoni is really cute.”
“Antoni is useless.”
“I’ve never seen it,” April says quietly.
And they all know why that is. So Queer Eye it is. And though her husband is about as subtle as a brick, it kind of works, Sterling crying within ten minutes of the first episode, of course, but also occasionally glancing over at Debbie and Anderson, as if to make sure that they are on board with what’s happening.
“Wow,” April says after the episode finishes, and every Wesley head turns to her, anticipating what her reaction will be. “Antoni really is useless.”
“Thank you!” Blair says.
“He’s sweet!” Sterling insists, “and very good looking!”
“That’s your type?” April asks with a smirk.
“You know what my type is,” Sterling tells her in a low voice.
Debbie can’t believe it took her this long to figure it out. She leans into her husband as he starts the next episode.
“Good job, honey,” she whispers to him.
He grins at her.
“I do my best.”
“So Bobby just does all the work and gets barely any credit?” April asks. “Fascinating.”
Debbie really is planning to do something slightly more than watching a TV show to address her daughter’s new “secret” relationship, but then the girls’ senior year sneaks up on all of them, and it becomes a haze of back to school shopping and course schedules and SAT prep, all of which is tenfold now that April’s always around.
Not that that’s a bad thing, not at all. April’s focus makes Sterling even more set on school, the two of them going over flash cards a week before the year even starts. Debbie catches them furtively discussing bus schedules between different colleges they're planning on applying to on the east coast and it makes Debbie well up a little, the idea that they’ve thought about this, the idea that they want to stay together beyond their high school years.
It also makes Debbie well up in a different way, the thought of her daughters leaving in a year, the thought of Sterling moving hundreds of miles away before she even starts talking to Debbie like she used to.
The Friday morning before school starts, Debbie has another solo morning in the kitchen before the day starts, writing up a grocery list and listening to old Faith Hill albums, when Sterling comes rushing down the stairs.
Debbie looks up at the noise, and then immediately stands when she sees the look on Sterling’s face. She’s clearly been crying, eyes red and hair messy, a frantic energy to her movements.
Debbie goes immediately to her side, hand coming up against her shoulders. She knows something must be really wrong because of the way Sterling leans into Debbie’s arms, like she hasn’t done for a year.
“Sterl, baby, what’s going on?”
Sterling sniffs a bit, before she finally gets out, “it’s April.”
Debbie feels her gut plummet, “oh no, did y’all-” She holds back the words break up just in time. “-have a fight?”
Sterling shakes her head. Well, thank god for that at least.
“No, it’s her dad.”
Any relief Debbie felt vanishes, a protective urge starting deep within her.
“What did that man do, sweetheart? Tell me.”
“He - he found out how much time April was spending over here and then they got into a big fight and he - he basically said she can’t come over here anymore or ever hang out with me again because - because - "
“Oh god,” Debbie says, stomach dropping through the floor. “Because he knows y’all two are together?”
Sterling looks up at her, tears momentarily stopped.
“What? No. Because of the whole arresting him thing.”
“The arresting him thing?”
“God, it would be way worse if he knew we were - wait, how do you know that April and I are-”
“Honey, did you arrest John Stevens?”
“Yeah, last year when Blair and I were doing the bounty hunting thing. Hold on - you know April and I are together?”
“And you didn’t think to tell me that you and Blair arrested the very very unpleasant and dangerous man who is the father of your girlfriend?”
“Like you can talk about keeping secrets, Mom.”
Debbie holds both her hands up in defense, mind catching up to the past 30 seconds.
“So, let me get this straight - Mr. Stevens doesn’t want you hanging out with April?”
“Because you arrested him.”
“But he does not know that you and April are more than friends?”
“He doesn’t. But you do?”
Debbie breathes in. No more lying. She breathes out.
“Yes, sweetheart, I know.”
Debbie sees Sterling's defensive anger that has been a staple this year rise on her face.
“No one told me, it's just - well, I couldn’t help noticing the way you two are around each other.”
“Oh.” Sterling’s anger falls off her face as quickly as it had come. She looks down at her feet for a second, then back up, a new sort of vulnerability painted on her features. Her eyes are still red-rimmed from crying as she takes in a deep breath. “And you’re - you’re okay with it?”
Debbie strokes some of Sterling’s hair out of her face.
“More than okay,” she says firmly. “I promise.”
Sterling nods, tears filling her eyes again.
“I love you, sweetheart. I know that you might not - I know that this year has been so hard for you, and I know that it’s my fault for so much of it, but I never - I never want anything but your complete happiness. And if April helps you get that, well then she’s pretty high up on the list of my favorite people.”
“Okay,” Sterling says again, voice breaking on the word as her tears start spilling. “I - I love you, Mom.”
“Oh,” Debbie says, tears coming to her own eyes at the impact of those words in their simplicity, at how it’s almost been a year since she’s heard them, their absence a wide void in her chest that she wasn’t even fully aware of until it was finally filled. “I love you too, sweetheart. Always have, always will.”
Sterling nods slightly and then suddenly the whole force of her body is in Debbie’s arms, and she’s sobbing, holding Debbie tight, just like she did when she was young. Debbie holds her back just as tight, breathing into her hair, letting herself embrace her daughter like she’s wanted to for so long.
They stand like that for a few minutes, Debbie unable to let go, even when Sterling starts to breathe normally again, sobs subsiding.
“Whoa,” she hears and turns around to see Blair walk into the kitchen, still blinking sleep from her eyes. “Everything good here?”
Sterling lifts her head up from Debbie’s shoulder, wipes her eyes, before turning to her sister.
“Yeah,” she says with a sniff, before her eyes widen, “wait, oh my god, April and her dad.”
“Oh my God, April and her dad,” Debbie echoes.
Blair looks back and forth between the two of them.
“Look I have no idea what’s going on here, but knowing April’s dad… oh shit, he didn’t find out about...”
“No,” Debbie says quickly, “he doesn’t know Sterling and April are together.”
“He just doesn’t want April over here because of that time you and Sterl arrested him.”
Blair raises her eyebrows. “Oh, so you know about that?”
“Wait,” Sterling says, “why are you more surprised Mom knows about us arresting Mr. Stevens than her knowing about me and April?”
“Uh,” Blair says. “Shouldn’t we be more focused on April not being allowed over here?”
“Blair’s right, sweetie,” Debbie tells Sterling, “what’s the situation?”
“It’s not just that - he’s been in and out of town a lot this summer, but there was a scare with the cops so now he’s back and asking April a lot of questions and wants to be hyper aware of where she is at all times. He’s even - he’s even looking over at her college applications, not wanting her to stray too far from ‘the right people’ and I couldn’t even ask her more because he caught her talking on the phone to me and took it away - Mom, where are you going?”
Debbie is listening, she swears, but her body is two steps ahead of her - already leaving the kitchen, running up to her bedroom to wake her husband.
“Be back in a sec,” she calls to her daughters, an adrenaline pulsing through her veins, an instinct she should have followed almost a decade ago resurfacing.
“Anderson, baby,” she says, shaking him awake as soon as she gets in the bedroom, “how fast can you be ready to go on a drive with me?”
He blinks a little, sleep falling away from his eyes. Then he catches the look on her face, and wakes up.
“Give me ten.”
Debbie kisses him, quick on the lips.
“Thank you,” she breathes.
She throws on a respectable outfit, enough make-up to look at least decently like the image she’s curated for herself, before running back down the stairs, where she’s met with the barricade of her daughters.
“Mom, what’s going on?” Blair asks, arms crossed.
“Well, girls,” Debbie says, “I’m going to get April back.”
Blair looks reluctantly impressed. Sterling looks like she’s going to start crying again.
“What do you mean, get April back?” Blair presses. Sterling glares at her. “Not that I’m against it, but like, aren’t there, you know, legalities involved in taking a minor away from her parents?”
If Debbie’s being fully honest, she hasn’t fully thought out the details; she’s acting on impulse more than anything, following her gut. But Blair doesn’t need to know that.
“Honey, I forged a birth certificate when I was 23, why don’t you let me worry about the legalities, okay?"
Thankfully, that seems to work, because Blair appears shocked for a second before saying, “damn, Mom, okay, who knew you were such a badass?”
“I did,” Anderson says from behind her, still buttoning his shirt. “You ready?”
“Whoa,” Sterling says, “no way you’re going to get April without me.”
Debbie wants to fight her on it, wants to protect Sterling from anything ugly that may surface at the Stevens house, but Sterling’s eyes are filled with conviction, and Debbie knows now that only hurt will come from shielding unpleasant truths from her daughter.
“Alright,” she says simply.
“If you think I’m staying here alone-”
“Blair, you too.”
“Oh.” Blair looks a bit shocked. “I was prepared to fight you on this one.”
“You always are, honey,” Anderson says fondly before grabbing the car keys off the hook. “Now, let's go get our girl, shall we?”
Sterling lets out a breathy sort of sob at that, before nodding.
“Let’s go get her.”
They come up with a game plan in the car. It might not be the best work of the collective Wesleys but it’s a hell of a lot better than 20 minute trips to Sterling’s room and an episode of Queer Eye.
“So, just to clarify,” Anderson says, right before they get to the Stevens’, “April’s parents do not know that she and Sterling are together.”
“Oh my god, does everyone know this?”
“Oh darn, was it still a secret? It’s been kind of a crazy morning. Oh hey, look, we’re here.”
Anderson parks a few houses down from the Stevens’ just to be sure. They all just sit there for a second before Debbie takes a deep breath.
“We good with the plan?” She asks Anderson, who nods seriously. “Girls?”
“I still don’t see why we need to stay in the car,” Blair grumbles.
“You two coming in will only make it worse.”
“She’s right,” Sterling says, which sends a light thrill up Debbie’s spine. “I want to go in, probably more than any of you, but - but it would make things worse.”
“Fine,” Blair reluctantly concedes.
“Alright.” Debbie reaches for the handle of the passenger’s seat door. “Wish us luck.”
“Good luck,” Blair says.
“Good luck,” Sterling echoes before jolting forward so her head is close to Debbie’s. “Please - please just make sure she’s okay.”
“I will, baby girl.” Debbie says over the lump in her throat. “I will.”
The Stevens have always had a beautiful house. Perfectly manicured lawn, a very intimidating gate, a couple angel statues framing the driveway. Debbie has been living in this very neighborhood for over a decade now, but sometimes it’s still a little shocking to be surrounded by such exorbitant wealth.
It causes a flutter in her stomach, an anxiety that’s been dormant for years now, that these people will look at her and see a white trash girl from Nandina, who spent her eighteenth year coaxing the hick out of her accent so no one would know where she came from.
Debbie shakes her head. She’s not that girl anymore. And this isn’t even about her. This is about another girl, who is just as scared as Debbie was at that age, if not more so. But unlike Debbie at that age, this girl has people who aren’t afraid to do something about it.
Anderson holds her hand as they walk up the driveway together, firm and solid as he always is, as he’s been since he was just a nice boy in a new town whose smile made her heart stutter, until he became someone who held baby Sterling in his arms, no questions asked, allowing her to become his despite who may or may not have conceived her.
“Thank you,” Debbie breathes right before they reach the door.
“Ain’t no thang,” he tells her with a grin, like he isn’t about to go into a house with a very dangerous man in it, and essentially remove a minor from it. “You ready, baby?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
Then she leans forward, takes a breath, and rings the doorbell.
Debbie is expecting to see the football player-build and smarmy smirk of John Stevens, but instead his wife comes to the door. Because of course that man would never do anything himself.
“Oh,” Caroline Stevens says, eyes widening a little when she sees them. “Anderson, Debbie, what a lovely surprise.”
“Caroline,” Anderson responds, probably more warmly than this woman deserves, “so nice to see you.”
It’s still jarring at times, the forced civility of this world, of pleasantries above all else, even when those involved feel nothing even remotely pleasant toward each other.
“To what do we owe the visit?” Caroline asks, before looking over her shoulder, and calling, voice somehow thin and loud at the same time. “John! The Wesleys are here.”
Which is just typical. In the years she’s tangentially known this family, Debbie has never known Caroline Stevens to make a decision without bringing in her husband. Something that is all the more baffling when Debbie thinks of the girl that this woman raised, who would never let anyone dictate her life in a million years.
Debbie squeezes Anderson’s hand a bit when John comes to the door, willing the anger that has been pulsating through her all morning not to unleash too early.
“Hi there,” John says cheerily, “haven’t seen y’all around in a while. Anderson, excited for hunting season to come up again?”
“Sure am,” Anderson responds easily. “Now, we’re sorry for disturbing y’all so early, but we just wanted to talk about our girls.”
John’s smile falters for a second, before coming back full force.
“What about them?”
“Well, we heard that you weren’t allowing April to come by our house anymore, and gosh, we just love having her around, so we hope it was just some big misunderstanding.”
John shifts. “I wouldn’t say misunderstanding. I just think, no offense of course, that April maybe should be setting her sights on less… rebellious friends.”
In any normal circumstance, Debbie would prickle at anyone using that tone of voice to insinuate harsh things about her daughters. But this isn’t a normal circumstance. So instead she does her best to put on a smile, directing her gaze to Caroline.
“I’m so sorry to ask this,” she interjects, “but could I maybe use your restroom? This seems like a conversation that should be happening between the men anyway.”
Even saying that aloud makes Debbie want to throw up, but it has the desired effect. A look of relief washes over Caroline as she says, “let me show you.”
“Thanks so much.”
Debbie allows herself to be led into the Stevens abode. She shoots one glance back at her husband who slyly sends her a wink, as he continues to politely debate the subject at hand.
Debbie remembers picking up Sterling from a few sleepovers when she was younger, remembers climbing the exorbitant stairs to find April’s bedroom, where Sterling would always be reluctant to leave, not wanting to miss one moment with her friend.
So, after she shoots Caroline a sweet smile, shuts herself in the bathroom for one full minute, and quietly leaves, she knows exactly where to go.
Caroline is puttering over something in the kitchen while Debbie silently heads for the stairs, grateful for the lush carpeting to soften her footsteps. Muscle memory takes her to April's room, and she doesn’t bother with knocking, gently easing the knob open, before quickly shutting it behind her.
April’s eyes snap up to her as soon as the door opens, a quick expression of panic on her face replaced by confusion, replaced by something softer, something Debbie would optimistically call hope.
“Debbie?” she asks, “what are - what are you doing here.”
“Well,” Debbie says, slowly approaching where April sits at her desk, eyes red like she’s been crying, pen clutched in her hand over a notebook she’s been scribbling in, “at the risk of sounding dramatic, we’re here to rescue you.”
“We?” April’s voice cracks on the word.
Debbie nods slowly.
“The whole family, hun.”
“Oh.” April’s eyes start to get a little watery. “I don’t - I don’t know if Sterling told you, but my Dad said some - he said I couldn’t - and he took my phone away and I - how did you get up here, anyway?”
“About that,” Debbie says, “I know there’s a lot to talk about, but right now - and only if you want to - let’s focus on packing a bag and getting you home, okay?”
“Our home. Yours if you want it.”
A couple tears spill over April’s eyes. Debbie wants to go to her, to hold her as long as this girl needs, but she really is on a time crunch at the moment.
“I -” April starts, voice so soft Debbie can barely hear it. “I - yes, I would like that very much.”
“All right then,” Debbie says with a grin, chest warming, “lets pack that bag up.”
April stands up quickly, still that serious and focused kid.
“Actually, I already have a bag packed.”
“I’ve had it for almost a year now, in case an opportunity came up to leave. At first it was just wishful thinking, a fantasy, but I - well, it’s clearly becoming a reality quite rapidly.”
“You always were a smart kid.”
April grins at her, something bright and joyous in her, before she goes to her closet and comes out with a fully packed suitcase. Debbie raises her eyebrows, impressed.
“It’s not everything - but it will do in a…” April trails off, looks back to her closet, swallowing a little. “I - before I come with you, not to - well, not be embarrassingly literal, but before you welcome me into your home, you should know that - she should really be the one telling you this - but Sterling and I are-”
“Honey, I appreciate the need for honesty, but I’ve been aware of you two for weeks now, and time isn’t exactly something we have a lot of.”
“Yes, I know.”
“And you’re… fine with it? With me coming home with you, even though...”
“Of course.” And Debbie realizes that - though her heart is pounding thinking about how long she’s been “in the bathroom” - this is something April needs. So she steps over to her, softly putting her hands on April’s shoulders, looking her dead in the eye. “You will always be welcome in my house. Always. Understand?”
April nods, eyes growing watery again. Debbie smiles at her.
“You being in love with my daughter just makes it that much better.”
April chokes out a sob, squeezing her eyes shut, before hurriedly swiping away her tears.
“God, we have to get out of here. I don’t have time to be so emotional .”
Debbie laughs a bit at that.
“Right you are, let's get you home.”
She begins to usher April out of her room, when April stops.
“Wait.” She grabs her notebook off of the desk.
“Oh I was just - before you came I was drafting a letter to leave my parents of all the legal actions I could take against them if they called the cops on me for running away. It’s hardly comprehensive, since they took my phone and my computer, and it’s not like my father has the best relationship with the law, but I figure it’s best to be prepared.”
“God, I love you,” Debbie exhales. “Now let’s get the fuck out of this house.”
April’s eyes widen a bit, Debbie isn’t sure if it's due to the profanity or the “I love you,” but either way, she quickly follows Debbie’s lead.
As soon as they’re out of April’s room, Debbie can hear voices rising from the living room.
“What the hell do you mean, she’s just gone, Caroline?”
“She’s just - not there anymore.”
“People don’t just disappear!”
“Well now, let’s just stay calm about this,” Anderson tries to interject.
“Ready?” Debbie asks April.
April nods. “Once more unto the breach.”
And then they descend the staircase, a tad awkwardly due to Debbie lifting April’s suitcase behind her. About halfway down, the voices stop and three heads turn to take in Debbie and April.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” John practically spits when he sees them.
“She’s coming home with us,” Anderson says gently, not skipping a beat.
“Oh, I don’t fucking think so.”
Anderson calmly walks to the bottom of the stairs, and hops up a few steps to relieve Debbie of the bag.
“Thanks, honey,” Debbie tells him.
“You,” John says to April as she reaches the bottom of the stairs, “are not going anywhere.”
Debbie places a hand on April’s back, half protection, half a question. April answers with a little shake of her head.
“Yes, I am,” she tells her father levelly. “Mr. and Mrs. Wesley have offered their house to stay in and I’m taking them up on it.”
Still so polite, these Stevenses.
“Like hell you are.”
Well, maybe not that polite.
“I am,” April says with conviction. “There are seven months, one week, and three days until I turn 18. And I am going to spend that time at the Wesley house. And you aren’t going to stop me.”
“What makes you think,” John growls, stepping closer to his daughter, “I won’t stop you.”
Debbie feels April flinch back under her palm and that’s all it takes, her body immediately stepping between father and daughter.
“Because,” Debbie says, using the same firm voice she used when she’d find Blair with both hands in the brownie batter, “we’re not going to let you.”
“That’s right,” Anderson echoes behind her.
“And what are you gonna do?” John sneers.
“If I recall,” Debbie says, “my girls knocked you out cold. And I do love them, but they’re just little things. Nothing compared to where they come from. Imagine that fearlessness combined with knowing everyone in this town. With being aware of child endangerment laws, with witnesses to what happens in this house. I know that when we leave - and yes, that’s when not if - you’ll want to call the authorities, but don’t you think that they’ll bring up some assault and battery charges? Especially since my husband has been doing consulting for a Meyers and Sons downtown, and I would hate for him to bother his lawyer colleagues with this, especially since April is so close to being 18 and all. But, I suppose if you want a legal fight, that’s another story. Today, John, today we are taking your daughter and we are leaving this house. And I would recommend not following us.”
John’s face has gotten red, hands clenched at his sides. Debbie knows she should maybe be afraid at the way he towers over her, at the rage of this man who has been known to become violent. But Debbie’s not afraid. Debbie feels the form of April behind her and knows that she will get this girl to safety no matter what.
“Bitch,” John spits. “If you ever talk to me that way-”
“John!” Debbie turns to the source of the voice, to Caroline Stevens, jaw set, face white, fists clenched. “Just let them go.”
Debbie’s not sure who looks more shocked, John or April.
“What are you talking about?” John hisses.
“You’re not going back to prison, John. You are not leaving me alone again.”
It’s so forward, so direct, from this woman that Debbie isn’t sure she’s ever seen confront anyone, let alone her husband.
“Alrighty then,” Anderson says, as if they’ve all just set a date for lunch, not agreed to remove this child from a dangerous household, “April, you ready?”
April nods, swallowing.
“Let’s go then.”
Debbie puts her hand on April’s back again, slowly guiding her toward the door. Part of her is expecting one of her parents to intervene, or even for April to turn around, to change her mind. But none of that happens. John stays frozen in place and April walks with purpose out of the house. The only interaction that occurs is a barely audible, “goodbye, April,” from Caroline.
It’s spoken so softly that Debbie feels a pang go through her at it, an unexpected surge of empathy for a woman having to part with her daughter. But then Debbie thinks of this past year, of how much it must have hurt April, and how this woman has done nothing to ease the pain. It doesn't erase the empathy, but it makes a sharp anger join it.
The door to the Stevens residence opens easily under Anderson’s hand, and then they’re out in the bright sunlight of an Atlanta August morning. Debbie blinks rapidly.
“Did that,” April asks breathlessly, glancing back at the house, “actually just happen?”
“Sure did,” Anderson says, pulling April’s suitcase down the driveway. “Now, let's get the heck outta dodge.”
April laughs a little, slightly hysterically.
“I - this - I - thank you. Thank you both so much. I don’t - thank you.”
“No need to thank us, darlin,’” Anderson says as they quickly walk toward the car. “This isn’t exactly our first rodeo.”
It’s Debbie’s turn to laugh a little hysterically.
“It sure isn’t.”
She’s cut off by the back door of the Volt being flung open as they approach, Sterling essentially stumbling out of the car in her eagerness. Her eyes take in the sight of the three of them and she stills for one brief moment.
“You did it,” she breathes, half a question, half an exhalation of joy.
“We did it,” Debbie confirms, feeling herself grin so wide her cheeks strain.
Then Sterling’s rushing over to them - well, to April specifically - not stopping until she’s holding April in her arms. Or maybe April’s holding Sterling in her arms, but either way they are clutching each other, standing together in the middle of April’s street, Sterling’s hand in April’s hair, whispering something in her ear, and Debbie suddenly feels like she is intruding on something deeply personal.
She joins her husband at the trunk of the car, putting April’s suitcase in the back. She leans her chin on his shoulder for a moment, breathes him in.
“Good job, honey,” she tells him.
“This one’s all you,” he says, before glancing over to where the girls are. “They’re really it for each other, aren’t they?”
Debbie looks back at them. Sterling now has her hands on either side of April’s face, whispering something to her before resting her forehead on hers.
“I believe they are.”
“Hey!” Blair calls from the car. “Not to break up this touching scene, but shouldn’t we get the fuck out of here?”
“Language,” Debbie and Anderson say intrinsically before sharing a little grin with each other.
“But yes,” Debbie concedes, “we really should get going.”
April and Sterling hold hands all the way back home, even as April animatedly describes the scene in the Stevens house almost like it’s a movie, not like it’s her escaping from probably a very traumatic situation.
Debbie recognizes the adrenaline as the same she had when she finally hopped a bus from Nandina to Atlanta, the vibrating excitement of getting out of there making her unable to sit completely still, chattering away to some old woman who indulged her. About an hour in, the woman had asked, just as a matter of small talk, if Debbie had any brothers or sisters, and suddenly, that excitement had transformed into an enormity of fear and regret, and she had cried herself all the way to a new city.
“And then,” April is saying excitedly to a rapt audience of Sterling and Blair, “your mom basically pulled out all these receipts on my Dad.”
Debbie wonders when that switch will flip in April.
“She was saying all this stuff about how your dad works with lawyers and could totally challenge him in court.”
“You work with lawyers, Dad?” Blair asks.
Anderson shoots her a grin in the rearview mirror.
“I’ve had this job for nine months, and you still don’t know what your old man does, huh?”
“Well it’s been a kind of intense nine months,” Blair says.
“I work - for the record - consulting on various patents.”
There are blank stares in the car, except for April, who nods understandingly before her eyes go wide.
“Wait, so when Debbie said you worked with lawyers she-”
“-wasn’t lying. I just happen to work with copyright lawyers.”
April laughs, a little giddy.
“So you tricked him?”
“I wouldn’t say tricked,” Debbie assures her quickly, “I do believe if he comes after us, we could make a solid case of child endangerment but - well, it would just be easier for everyone if he was too scared shitless to do such a thing.”
There’s a bit of stunned silence in the car before April says, with the same wonderment she had when she was nine years old, “you are so cool.”
Debbie lets out a chuckle.
“I’m cool,” she stage-whispers to Anderson.
“Sure are, honey.”
“It’ll last five minutes,” Blair says, rolling her eyes, but she’s grinning, shoulder pressed into Sterling’s in the backseat as they share a quick smile.
“Maybe ten,” Sterling says, hand squeezing April’s, shooting Debbie her own grin, one that Debbie hasn’t had directed to her in over a year.
“I’ll take it,” Debbie says softly.
They’re almost at the house when April looks up, a worried look on her face that has Debbie’s gut clenching.
“Wait,” she says, “I don’t have my phone, he took it.”
Debbie lets out a sigh of relief.
“Oh we can fix that easy,” Anderson says, pulling into the driveway. “We’ll just throw you on the family plan.”
And that’s when April starts crying.
The rest of the afternoon is remarkably calm. The twins have taken it upon themselves to redecorate the guest room so it’s fully April’s, going through their own rooms and finding random memorabilia from the garage that would make it more personal. Blair takes breaks sometimes, to talk Anderson through the logistics of how to buy a phone online, and even helping Debbie make lunch, a true rarity.
“You’re doing really good, honey,” Debbie tells her softly as she whisks together a salad dressing.
“With the salad?”
Debbie laughs a little.
“With April. With everything. It’s been a lot today, and you’re - you’re doing remarkable.”
Blair shrugs, but Debbie can see her blinking quickly.
“I mean, I’m not the one who - I just - she needs to be here. I think. April. At first I thought it was just for Sterl to get her rocks off -”
“Dear God, please don’t use that phrase ever again.”
“But I don’t know, I kind of - and don’t you dare tell her I said this - but it’s been kind of nice having her around this summer. Not just because Sterling’s happier, which, like, is obviously the most important thing in the whole world, but it just feels… she fits.”
“She fits,” Debbie repeats, before, suddenly overcome, she pulls Blair to her, kisses the top of her head, even if she has to lean up a bit to do it. “I’m so proud of you, sweetheart.”
“Ugh, I can’t believe April thinks you’re cool,” Blair says, laughing.
Debbie laughs too, which is how the rest of the family finds them in the kitchen.
Sterling doesn’t leave April’s side the whole day, because of course she doesn’t. Even after the sun goes down and April’s room now looks like it is actually hers, Sterling still sits in there, cross legged on the bed, while April takes out the one pair of pajamas she brought.
“We can go shopping tomorrow,” Debbie says from the doorway, “fill out your wardrobe again.”
“Okay,” April nods, “if it’s not too much-”
April smiles faintly. She looks so tired, this poor girl, this day, year, years, giving her more exhaustion than any seventeen year old deserves.
“Sterl, why don’t you go brush your teeth and get ready for bed, okay?” Debbie says.
Sterling immediately turns to April, who lets out a small laugh.
“I’m fine, Sterl, I think I can survive five minutes without you.”
“Well, maybe I can’t survive five minutes without you.”
“Go brush your teeth,” April says with such clear affection in her voice that she could basically be saying I want to spend the rest of my life with you.
Good lord, these girls. Debbie should have known that they would be one of those couples, with the way Sterling loves with her full self. But to see it on April’s face too, in the way she grins up at Sterling, makes something expand in Debbie’s chest.
Sterling presses a quick kiss to April’s cheek as she leaves for the bathroom, which makes April blush a little, a small smile forming on her lips.
April sits down on the bed after Sterling leaves, fidgeting with the blanket, hands unable to keep still.
“Do you mind if I join you?” Debbie asks.
April shakes her head. Debbie perches on the edge of the bed with her before giving into her own exhaustion and lying down, feet hanging over the edge. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees April take the same position, lying on her back, looking up at the ceiling. They stay like that for a minute in silence, just breathing.
“It seems a little ludicrous to ask you how you're holding up,” Debbie finally says, “but, well, how are you holding up?”
April laughs a little.
“I’m not sure. I’m not even sure any of this is real.”
She says it with amusement, but Debbie senses something under the surface, a real fear.
“I know the feeling,” she says.
April turns to look at her then.
Debbie meets her gaze. She wonders how much Sterling has told April about Debbie’s past, how much Sterling even knows at this point, having mostly avoided the conversation for these past months. And before that, Debbie had been the one avoiding it, going to extreme lengths to shield her daughters, to shield everyone from the truth. But this girl, right here next to her, might need to hear some of it.
“When I was a kid,” Debbie says, taking a deep breath in, “I dreamed about running away from home every single night. It was a fantasy, whispered to my sister under the blankets if our parents would fight or she got into a with the bullies at school. We made a list of places we would go. It was everywhere from Savannah to Los Angeles to Paris to Mars, just anywhere to get out of that house, that town. Then we got older, we started saving money, and that list seemed like it would maybe become more than a fantasy. That we could actually do it.
“I must have been about your age when my sister started dating this new fella. She always was bringing someone new around, but this one had friends. Friends with ideas that stuck on my sister’s brain in ways they shouldn’t have. Ideas of getting out of town that weren’t exactly Savannah or Los Angeles or Paris or Mars. Dana and I, we’d always been a team, always been united in that house, but that was falling apart. Then, just a few months before we turned 18, she was gone. And I was all alone in that house.
“My parents were… sometimes they meant well, but sometimes they just got mad. And sad. And that was doable when there were two of us there, but when it was just me… well, it didn’t go too well. I tried not to fight back when they yelled, but one day I just snapped - I told them they were sad and pathetic in this little town no one ever gets to leave, but I wasn’t like that. Then I found my Daddy’s shoebox of money under the bed and I ran. Got on a bus to Atlanta and didn’t talk to them ever again.”
“Never?” April whispers.
Debbie looks over to her. She knows she’s crying. The only people she’s told this story are Anderson and her therapist, but she knows neither of them understood the way April does.
“They died the next day. I didn’t find out until months later when I called home from a pay phone. I - I try not to live in a world of regret, but I so often think of how it could have gone different, how they could have - it’s just not a pretty story.
“But my point is, and I swear I have one, my point is that things with my parents and my sister ended badly. And I haven't even fully scratched the surface there. For a while, when I was just getting on my feet, I wondered if this was just how it would be - if some people just didn’t get family. But then - but then I met the sweetest boy in the world who looked at me like I was so much more than this poor girl with no parents. And then we had Blair and God gifted us with Sterling and before I even knew what was happening, I had it. Family. A better one than I ever could have dreamed of, people who love me and are there for me and make every second of every day better.”
Debbie turns to April now, whose own tears are falling onto the clean sheets Sterling had put on the bed mere hours ago.
“So. April. Just know that even if you never talk to your parents again, even if all your worst fears come true, you will still have family. My family. Right here in this house. I promise you that, darlin’.”
April doesn’t say anything, just lets out a shaky sob, eyes scrunching up, like she’s just a kid. And she is just a kid. And God, Debbie was basically this age when she was all alone and what she wouldn’t have given to have…
“Come here,” Debbie says gently, scooching on the bed so April is in her arms.
April leans into her and starts crying in earnest, big tears that fall on Debbie’s blouse, and Debbie holds her, just like she did when Blair was six and broke her ankle playing kickball, or when Sterling was seven and the goldfish she won at the fair died the next day. She holds April like she wanted to be held when she was scared and alone and unsure of how to make a new home after almost eighteen years of the same awful one.
“I’ve got you, sweetheart,” she says into April’s hair and hears a sob, not from April, but from the doorway.
Sterling stands there, hand wiping away her own tears, watching the scene before her with something akin to awe painted on her face.
“Mom,” she whispers, voice catching on the word. “I didn’t - I didn’t know all of that stuff.”
Debbie has no idea how long Sterling had been standing there, but apparently long enough. Debbie swallows over the lump in her throat.
“Well, maybe I should tell you more of it. Both of you. All three of you. Would you like that?”
Sterling nods tearfully.
“Yeah. Yeah, I really would.”
“Me too,” April mumbles from her chest, before slowly removing herself from Debbie’s arms, meticulously wiping her eyes.
“Well, that’s settled then,” Debbie says, smiling at her girls before slowly getting up off the bed.
As soon as she’s standing, Sterling is in her arms, holding her tight. Debbie sighs into it - it’s the second time in 24 hours Sterling has hugged her, and also the second time in ten months, and Debbie is sure as hell going to cherish it.
“Thank you,” Sterling whispers into her hair, “thank you so much for today, Mom. And thank you - thank you for everything.”
“Of course, baby girl.”
She holds Sterling close, presses one last kiss to the top of her head, before letting her go, wiping her eyes.
“Good lord, that’s enough crying for one day, don’t you think?”
Both Sterling and April laugh a little weakly, still pretty teary themselves.
“Now,” Debbie says, crossing her arms, “I know today was… unprecedented. And I understand y’all have a lot to discuss. So Sterl, feel free to stay down here tonight. But I’ll have you know that in the morning, we are setting some ground rules, y’all hear me?”
Sterling and April shoot each other an equally embarrassed but joyous look at this. Lord, these girls.
“Yes ma’am,” they say at the same time.
“Good. Now y’all sleep well. Lord knows you deserve it.”
When Debbie herself crawls into bed later that night, she sighs into Anderson’s chest just like she does every night, letting the exhaustion of the day hit her in its enormity.
“You okay, hun?” Anderson asks.
Debbie nods into him.
“I am. It’s just been a long day.”
“Have I told you yet how much of a rockstar you were today?”
“Not fully. April Stevens did tell me I’m cool, though.”
“Well, you are. The coolest girl in the world, just like the day I met you.”
Debbie laughs a little, leans up to kiss him, to feel the familiar warmth and comfort that this man has been able to provide for two decades.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” she whispers, forehead pressed to his.
“Agree to disagree on that, baby. But you know I’ve always got your back.”
“I know. And I’ve got yours.”
He kisses her again and she finds herself laughing into it, body loosening, letting herself finally relax, right here where she belongs.
“So,” Anderson says when he pulls away, pressing another kiss to her forehead, “I guess we got three of ‘em now?”
Debbie laughs, leaning into him, letting herself be held.
“We got three of ‘em now.”
The first day of the girls’ senior year starts the way every first day of school has started since kindergarten: absolute chaos. This time it’s specifically about transport. The girls are already discussing which of them is doing what after school, and when they’d need to go home, Anderson, of course, has an early meeting that morning, and Debbie is running dangerously low on both patience and produce, so she cannot be without a car while the girls are at school.
“Why don’t I drive the Volt and drop Dad at work?” Blair suggests, munching on a piece of toast.
“If you go downtown then to Willingham during rush hour that will add on approximately 40 minutes and we’ll be late to Fellowship,” April tells her.
“Bummer,” Blair deadpans.
“It’s the first day," Sterling gasps, “we cannot be late.”
“Why don’t I just drop y’all off,” Debbie cuts in. “And Anderson will get you on the way home from work.”
“Fine,” Blair says, like this is hard on her for some reason, “but I do think we should invest in a third car.”
“We?” Anderson says, tilting his head. “How much of that money would you be contributing, young lady?”
“Well, if you guys would let be get back to working with Bowser-”
“Not until you’re 18.”
“Okay, then we need a car.”
“I don’t quite see the connection.”
“We’re gonna be late,” Sterling whines.
“Is it always like this?” April asks Debbie.
“This is a calm year,” Debbie tells her.
Twenty minutes later, somehow, the girls are wrangled into the Volt, April in the front seat and Sterling and Blair in the back.
“You don’t want to sit with your giiirlfriend ?” Blair teases from the back.
“You’re just mad I called shotgun first,” April tells her.
Debbie catches Sterling’s eye in the rearview mirror, and Sterling just smiles at her, shaking her head a little bit.
“All right,” Debbie says when she finally pulls into the Willingham parking lot, old habits taking over. “You got your backpacks?”
“It’s the first day, Mom, there’s no homework.”
“Actually, Blair, if you were in as many Advanced Placement classes as we are, you would have a sizable amount of assignments already.”
“She is right, you know.”
“I’m taking that as a yes,” Debbie says, trying not to laugh. “Fingers and toes?”
“Mom, we are seventeen, and that is still lame.”
“It’s a classic!”
“Can you let us out of this car?”
“Fine,” Debbie says, “you girls have fun now, okay?”
Debbie watches the girls pile out of the car, a little pang going through her that this is their last first day of school. But she can’t feel too melancholy about it, not with the way the three of them look, not with Blair grinning and stretching as soon as she’s out of the car, practically daring senior year to take her on, not with April and Sterling’s hands finding each other, as they share a significant look, before stepping into school together.
Not when Debbie couldn’t be prouder of all three of her girls.