Chapter 1: Lake Dock
Sterling sighed with her hands in her lap as she kept her eyes in front of her. The sunset over the lake peaked through the knotty pines that dotted the opposite shoreline, and she kicked her dangling legs off of the end of the dock as she took it all in.
Moving back home after college was the obvious choice. After a full four years of being three hours away from Blair in Texas, Sterling had been very ready to head back to Atlanta from Texas Christian University. She and Blair used to wreak absolute havoc on Austin whenever Sterling came to visit, but their days of frying in the Texan sun and getting the side-eye for saying ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ left them oddly nostalgic for that sweet Georgia humidity and southern charm. When Blair had landed her dream job with the Atlanta Police Department right out of school, the choice became even more obvious.
Through her volunteer work and involvement in community action programs in college, Sterling was fortunate enough to land a much-coveted job running afterschool programs for kids in the city as a part of the parks department. It had been a blessing to have that position and be able to impact the lives of young folks who had so much less than she did growing up.
College graduation was four years ago, and she’d realized that maybe those kids needed more than what her bachelor’s in social work could offer them. As much as she loved her work, she was starting to feel like she’d do better to have an impact beyond the eight doe-eyed kids she scooped up in the transport van every day.
Bounty hunting on the weekends only served to make her feel more stuck somehow, like if she were still doing the things she did in high school, she couldn’t be growing much at all, even if she did have her license to do it legally. She’d have to find a new therapist once she moved, because clearly this brain-stew was not a good look for her.
“What’s eatin’ you blondie?” Bowser’s gravelly voice asked as he grunted his way into sitting on the dock next to her.
“She’s sad about moving next week for grad school,” Blair chimed in from her other side, choosing to lay on the dock and look at the sky rather than sit like the others.
“Am not!” Sterling was affronted.
“You’re not? Well, shit. ‘Cause I am,” Blair admitted. The gentle lapping of the lake water against the pilings seemed to agree with her.
“Okay fine,” Sterling sighed, “I’m having… mildly melancholy vibes about it.” She leaned back on her hands at the admission.
“Athens ain’t far,” Bowser offered, “You could come back on weekends to work if you want.”
“Aww, thanks Bowsie,” Sterling reached up to squeeze his shoulder, “And thanks for dinner too, that was really sweet of you.” If she didn’t know any better, she’d say that Bowser looked the tiniest bit emotional in that moment.
Blair burped loudly to her left, “Oh yeah, thanks Bowser!”
He waved it off, “Company could be better, but the view is aight.”
“You should take a picture for the ‘gram,” Sterling was already pulling her phone out and smiling into the selfie, as Bowser looked grumpy, and Blair posed upside down, the fading sunlight tinting them all with a gentle pink color.
“You know my momma hates sunsets!”
Chapter 2: Gardening
We're feeling sad in this Chili's tonight.
I am growing a pimento, and it is exactly this dramatique.
Sterling was a woman possessed for some reason. She’d only hugged Blair goodbye a few days ago after unpacking everything and touring the Athens bar scene together, but this need had come over her so suddenly. The loneliness, though not entirely foreign to her, was crippling after so many years of cacophony in the Wesley house. She needed something other than herself to care for.
It couldn’t be a cat. Well, it could, but then she’d be responsible for a living thing, like a real one, a mammal. It was a twenty year commitment that she just wasn’t quite ready to make. She looked around her bright and tastefully modern studio apartment (thanks Mom and Dad) and decided that what she needed amongst the fashionable shades of gray, was green. Even better, what if it were a mutually beneficial relationship?
That’s how Sterling ended up eagerly bouncing on her toes, holding a small pimento pepper plant at the bus stop as she waited to get back to her apartment. She was too excited to be embarrassed about holding it as she stepped aboard, her complete attention focused on the small green thing, taking care not to jostle her new baby too much. Once the two of them were settled, she had the chance to take a look around.
It was midday on a Friday, so the bus was relatively empty. A young man with huge Bluetooth headphones was seated across from her who looked about ten times as cool as she could ever hope to be.
An entire seat in the back of the bus was taken up by a briefcase, some grocery bags, and a harried looking brunette woman in a linen suit who was rifling through papers with a ferocity that Sterling hadn’t seen since…
The name had left Sterling’s mouth before she’d even had time to think about the possible repercussions of calling out to someone she hadn’t seen since high school graduation. Finishing high school had been a tangle of confusing emotional trauma for Sterling, and after April had positively berated her about her father’s arrest, she’d been offered nothing but dirty looks until graduation.
Just thinking back to those last words between them had Sterling regretting calling her name out across a nearly empty bus.
You’re the worst kind of person, Sterling.
In the present, April’s head was snapping up and glancing around the bus until she homed in on the source. She pursed her lips.
Seemingly without any prior approval from Sterling, her legs were carrying her and her beloved pimento to the back of the bus, where she plopped into the seat across the aisle.
“Hey, April! Ohmygosh, can you believe we’re both here right now? This is so beyond weird.”
April was wearing a linen suit in a very flattering dusty rose color, and her hair looked to be slowly falling out of what was surely once a very tidy bun. Sterling had an intrusive thought as she took in the person in front of her, an intrusive desire, to mess the bun up further, to be able to learn the curves of April’s body that were hidden under the blazer, to be on the receiving end of a teasing smirk and not a forced grimace.
“Sterling,” April acknowledged, sounding resigned. She took a deep breath that moved her whole body, and then began packing all of her papers away without looking up, “It’s been a while.”
Sterling fidgeted in response, and the pimento plant followed suit as the bus kept making its way along.
“You’re not kidding. Not that you were ever much of, like, a kidder. It’s been a really long time,” she could swear she had a college degree and was on her way to another one, but you couldn’t tell from the word salad that left her lips right then. “So, what brings you to Athens?”
April looked up again at that, her things all carefully packed away as she set her shoulders to tackle this exchange, “I’m clerking for the county court.”
“O – Oh. You went to law school?”
April raised her chin, “Duke.”
“Wow. Congratulations. That’s, like, a really big deal.” Sterling swallowed and stared, almost overcome with a sudden illogical sadness at having missed watching April become this.
“Yes, it is,” a smile threatened to peak through April’s stoic façade.
A heavy silence sat between them for a moment.
“I’m here for grad school,” Sterling offered in an effort to break the awkwardness. Her eyes darted around, too scared to commit to the full force of April’s piercing gaze, the intensity of which only seemed to have grown since high school. “I need a master’s to get my clinical license.”
“A clinical license for...?”
April’s eyebrows rose, somewhere between surprised and impressed, before clearing her throat and settling her expression again. “Right, well,” April pointed to the front of the bus as she gathered her bags, “That’s my stop.”
“Oh, well, it was – I’m really glad we ran into each other April.”
The slightest furrow to her brow was the only response Sterling got to that sentiment, as though April was still on the fence about agreeing or not.
“Bye Sterl,” she called over her shoulder as she exited.
Sterling was shaken by the interaction for the rest of the day. As she re-potted her pimento, it took it upon itself to wilt dramatically, like the weight of the world had settled onto its leaves.
Maybe she’d been stupid to assume that bygones could be bygones. It was so bizarre how even all of these years later, Sterling was drawn to the shorter girl, acting on a whim as though their relationship hadn’t ended in heartbreak. Maybe leaving these bridges to burn for so long had only resulted in scorched earth.
You’re the worst kind of person, Sterling.
She watered the pimento and hoped for sun.
Chapter 3: Hiking
I love y'all.
Sterling quickly realized that starting over in a new city was a little more difficult as a full no-holds-barred twenty-six-year-old adult than it was at eighteen. She went to her classes every day, and was very friendly to those around her, becoming a “joiner” of graduate student clubs to try to expand her social circle, or like, even have one at all. A girl in one of her classes that she chatted with twice a week was right on the cusp of becoming a friend, maybe someone to study with after class, but she knew better than to push for too much too soon.
She’d learned that lesson the hard way before.
Athens wasn’t like Atlanta, it wasn’t as developed, and the culture felt more like a city built around a college than the other way around. Sterling thought that maybe the best way to get to know the area was to go out and actually see it.
Never much of a runner (that was very much Blair’s turf), Sterling decided to try hiking. After all, it was just walking through the woods, wasn’t it?
Sterling could handle a walk.
Which is how she found herself at Lake Chapman, doing what was allegedly a ‘moderate’ hike that didn’t feel so moderate after about three miles.
It was nice though. She’d brought enough water to enjoy it as she sweat out all of her sins in the late summer heat. The sun shone down through the tree canopies in small splotches, leaving the ground looking mottled as the leaves shifted with every light breeze. Occasional views of the lake only kept her motivated as she looped to the end of the path and started to wend her way back the car.
By the time she reached the trailhead again, she was fully keyed up on endorphins and decided to go check out something that the adjacent park referred to as an amphitheater.
The space was empty that day, no events or Shakespeare to recite in the park, Sterling guessed. She perched herself in the center of the amphitheater and took in the view, digging into her backpack for her water bottle to take a few gulps. The area was wide and open, with the tiered seating built in such a way that it appeared to be a part of the forest itself.
Sterling lay back onto the stone ledge to look up at the treetops. There was always a sense of haunting about places like this for her; places that were supposed to hold crowds of people. There was an energy to them when they were empty, as though they somehow held the whispers of all the people that had ever been there prior.
“Are you alright?” a concerned voice asked from a distance.
“Oh! Fine! I’m fine!” Sterling shot up into a seated position, quickly realizing that laying down while sweaty in a public park probably wasn’t the best look.
It was April. Again.
She wore a sleek ponytail, athletic apparel, and a thin sheen of sweat, clenching a water bottle with concern in her eyes. At least, there was concern in her eyes before the spark of recognition. She mumbled something to herself that Sterling couldn’t make out, before plastering a tight and polite smile on her face that would be the envy of any Atlanta housewife.
“Sterling, what a surprise,” her expression remained forced, leaving to Sterling to remember that not all surprises were pleasant.
“Likewise. What, uh, brings you to this fine amphitheater?” she gestured around them, before wiping the sweat off of her face with the hem of her shirt.
April’s disposable water bottle crinkled under her grip, “I’m just cooling down from my run.”
“Same, but I was hiking on the other side of the lake. Do you, like, do this here a lot?”
April rolled her eyes, letting the polite attention in her shoulders droop. “‘Come here often?’ Really?”
Sterling felt the embarrassment burn on her face before her mind could try to think around it. She averted her eyes. It stung again, having to field the barbs from April Stevens that she thought she’d left in the halls of Willingham.
“Look,” April offered, “We don’t have to do this whole thing. I thought someone had heatstroke, someone was you, and you clearly don’t.” Shrugging, she turned away, tossing, “See ya,” over her shoulder like someone would a pinch of salt.
Sterling sat frozen for all of two seconds before snatching up her bag and running after April’s retreating form.
The brunette’s head dropped forward in exasperation before she slowly turned around again. “For what?” she challenged.
“I just,” Sterling was still trying to catch her breath, “I’m so sorry - for everything, for back then. I know it’s, like, beyond late. You didn’t deserve to be lied to like that or pressured about anything.”
April’s expression softened the tiniest bit, but before she could open her mouth to respond, Sterling continued.
“This isn’t, like, to put you on the spot.” She raked her sweaty bangs back from her face, feeling too much of everything all at once. “You don’t have to feel obligated to pretend it’s okay. It’s not, and it wasn’t, and if - if I could do it all differently I would. I really would. I’m so sorry.”
There. She’d said it.
Never let anyone claim that she hadn’t owned her sins.
April sighed and crossed her arms, the little space between her eyebrows wrinkled in thought. After a few tense seconds she quietly answered, “Thank you,” before nodding slightly and turning away to leave again. There was a stiffness to her gait as she walked away, her refusal to uncross her arms inhibiting her speed.
Rather than push again, this time Sterling let her go.
She’d learned that lesson the hard way before.
Chapter 4: Faith
We love an existential crisis.
PSA: I live on the east coast and am beyond bummed that there's no way I'll make it to ClexaCon in Vegas with the budget I'm on. That said, someone better record a video of that hug, because I'm gonna need the serotonin.
Sterling’s lovely pimento seemed to be taking to the apartment balcony quickly, and with a transplant to a large pot and some fresh soil there were even some very tiny peppers beginning to form. The plant began desperately growing towards the sun, forcing Sterling to continually rotate it to ensure that it didn’t collapse under its own weight. It didn’t collapse, though, it continued to grow, continued to reach towards the light.
She started to think that maybe the pimento was on to something.
Sterling and Blair had grown apart as far as religion was concerned. Once in college, Blair had read one Kurt Vonnegut novel and decided that whatever what going on upstairs was really none of her business. Sterling had been slower to step away, gradually becoming disillusioned with organized worship when many groups in the South still refused to accept gay people. She prayed alone sometimes, when she wanted to feel closer to God, but didn’t feel connected enough to her community in college to bother seeking out a new church there.
She was a whole-ass adult in graduate school this time around though, and surely there was a church out there for her. If for nothing else, it would be nice to have some more familiar faces to see around town.
It’s not like cities in Georgia had any shortage of churches to choose from, but Sterling’s faith was very personal to her. Now that she found herself firmly in the ‘B’ part of LGBT, it was crucial to find a place that felt accepting. A place where she could feel God in its walls.
So, she began a quest to find one.
A quest that Blair began calling her, “personal pilgrimage.”
The first church she tried was warm and accepting, but fairly small. Not that she required a large congregation but growing up in a Baptist church in Atlanta had gotten her used to having an extended community that was connected through her church. A regular attendance of twelve (albeit very kind looking people) just didn’t resonate. Nope.
The church on the second Sunday of her search was very large, with beautiful facilities, good works, and beautiful services. It was only after staying for the light refreshments afterwards that she realized there were no young folks. Beyond that, there were almost certainly no progressive-type people at all. After some internet sleuthing, she realized that the second church was “okay” with LGBT people attending, but not actively supportive of the community. No way.
Which brought her to church number three: The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Though originally wary of the length of the name (everyone knows the longer names were more extreme) the service seemed lovely, the facilities were bright and open, and the congregation seemed actively involved in improving the lives of, well, everyone. (There were a lot of rainbows visible on the bulletin board.)
The pastor’s homily discussed Genesis 19:26, the story of Lot’s wife.
The city of Sodom had become a depraved place and the extremely violent Old Testament God had sought to strike it down for all of its sins. A band of angels agreed to spare Lot and his family for their continued piety, on the condition that no one look back as the city was destroyed. Lot’s wife looked back as they fled and was turned into a pillar of salt.
Sterling expected the usual ‘we should all turn from sin’ lecture, and there was some of that in the sermon, but then it took a turn. The pastor spoke about another lesson of the story; about how sometimes we don’t need to look back at where we’ve been to appreciate where we are, or to move forward from it.
Something about the message resonated with Sterling, as she sat in her very comfortable theater-style chair in the second row. Natural light poured down through the high windows, and she realized that maybe she wasn’t letting enough of it in. There was a fair share of darkness in her origin story, and there had been low points in her life for certain, but maybe she couldn’t fully reach for the light until she’d agreed to stop looking back at the darkness.
It was unreasonable to expect that she could be the protagonist of everyone’s story, that she could be forgiven for things that had long since been dead and buried.
Maybe the person she really needed to forgive for those things, was herself.
The past is the past.
The growth and the learning and the joy came as reflections of the light, not the absence of it. There were things she dwelled on constantly that she’d allowed to haunt her, and if she couldn’t let it go, then she couldn’t move forward.
This was her place. She could feel it.
A tear streamed down her cheek before she’d had the chance to fully register that she was crying. Hastily, she wiped it away and began to pray.
When the service came to an end, she made a snap decision to go straight home rather than mingle. Certain that her mascara was absolutely wrecked, she dabbed under her eyes with a tissue from her purse to make herself presentable enough to manage a clean getaway.
She could do this. She could leave the past behind and move forward with her life. She could fake her way through exit pleasantries until she could have a good existential cry in the privacy of her own apartment like a real adult. The sound of her own steadying breath calmed her as she got up from the seat.
Shaking the pastor’s hand and quickly thanking him for his words, Sterling all but fled the scene, keeping her head down on the flowy material of her dress as she made a beeline for the Volt. She dug through her little handbag for the key fob and jammed on the unlock button, hearing a distant, “Oh!” of surprise as the locks clicked.
Her eyes darted up towards the sound. It had been weeks. Weeks.
The past was behind her.
Wasn’t that just the conversation that she’d had with God?
Why then, was her past leaning against the Volt with a shy smile like it was 2020 all over again?
“I see you’ve found me again,” April said breezily, like they were friends or something, like she hadn’t speed-walked away from their last encounter a month ago after an apology that was impossibly late.
Sterling’s recent tears left her snort coming out more like a sniff, “One could argue that you were the one that found me this time.” She crossed her arms defensively, “And last time too, honestly.”
April’s expression shifted from a smirk to a knitted brow as she thought for a moment.
“Regardless, what kind of Christians would we be to ignore the number three here?”
Sterling didn’t have time for this. She had a pimento plant to greet, a good cry to have, and a past to leave behind.
Too bad her past was still blocking the driver’s side door in her Sunday best.
She let out an exasperated sigh, “What exactly are you saying?”
“I’m saying that maybe we should lean into this,” April suggested as she gestured between them, before crossing her arms afterwards as though that could protect her from whatever Sterling’s answer might be.
“Lean into…?” Sterling echoed quietly, her body relaxing. Something about it tugged at her, tugged at the parts of her past that weren’t quite so dark.
“Brunch. Are you interested?”
Chapter 5: Lemonade Stand
Folks, I'm doing this really dumb thing where the first half of the next chapter of all my fics are written and I am dragging on writing the latter halves. Thank you for your patience.
Plenty more to come on all fronts! Love to anyone reading this.
It was a little weird being back in the Chevy Volt with April Stevens after almost a decade, and Sterling couldn’t quite put her finger on why. Despite April’s cold demeanor during their last few encounters, going to brunch together was different.
April Stevens was actually trying.
April was asking her about her classes, listening with intent, and probing her with follow-up questions that she had to consider deeply before answering. Sterling could feel the intensity of April’s gaze practically burning a hole in the side of her face. As question after question was batted back like a very high-stakes game of ping pong, Sterling realized why this all felt strange.
April was trying, and she just… wasn’t.
It wasn’t that April wasn’t beautiful. Sterling didn’t think anyone had settled into their 20s as well as April appeared to. Her hair was down today, curled to frame her face perfectly, like it used to be when they attended church together in high school. She wore a short-sleeved button down that brought out her eyes, and there was a way about her, a settled sense of self, that caused her to practically glow. It almost hurt to look right at her.
Maybe Sterling had been burned one too many times, sniped with harsh retorts, snubbed by this specific person. After all, April herself had mentioned that this was their third time running into one another, and if Sterling were honest, the other two times went poorly… at best.
Sterling could fudge it though, safely, and carefully navigate this brunch and come to a friendly resolution with April. If they were going to keep seeing each other at church, being cordial would make a ton of sense. She just had to play it cool.
She had to be chill, so chill.
“Was this a mistake?” April’s tone change practically gave Sterling whiplash as her reverie was interrupted.
Sterling glanced sharply over to meet April’s critical eye.
“Why, uh, what do you mean?”
April sighed. “You seem,” she searched a moment for the word, “disengaged.”
Sterling’s knuckles whitened on the wheel.
“And you want me to engage you?”
She could see the flush on April’s face in her periphery.
“That’s not - I didn’t mean – “
“What did you mean then April?” Sterling realized that she was toeing a dangerous line and decided just then to jump over it entirely. “I feel like I’ve been nothing but pleasant to you every time we’ve run into each other, and you’ve been, like, the complete opposite of pleasant. Now we’re just supposed to be chummy?”
April began fidgeting with her ring. It was a new ring, Sterling’s brain unhelpfully noted, worn on her right hand rather than the left as her purity ring was.
“In the park, when you apologized, you said you would do it all differently,” she responded quietly.
“Yeah, I did.”
“So how about now?”
“What about now?”
“What if we did it differently right now?”
Sterling looked over then and saw it written right across April’s face. Reservation, but the tiniest bit of hope.
Hope for what? Sterling had to know all of a sudden. It was one thing to be dismissed by this woman, it was another to have a chance at something. She had to be sure though, sure that this wasn’t just a pity tour, a way to make up for the bitterness of the past.
“Everything with us was so – so complicated. You don’t owe me this April. You don’t have to - ”
“Pull over,” April interrupted abruptly.
“Okay, I didn’t think you’d take the exit option that quickly but - ”
“Sterling! Pull. Over.”
The Volt only slightly nicked the curb as she swerved onto a residential side street and put the car in park. April was out of the vehicle before Sterling had even taken a full breath.
Before she could take a second one, April’s teasing smile was right there, probably less than a foot away. It was on the other side of the driver’s side window, but Sterling could still hear her muffled voice, “Aren’t you coming?”
The unexpected proximity, even through the glass of a car window, tickled across Sterling’s skin like a warm sunbeam. She couldn’t seem to unbuckle herself fast enough to follow.
“I’d like to continue that conversation in a bit,” April offered as they walked side-by-side on a random sidewalk in the middle of suburbia, “but for now I’d like to assure you that I, April Stevens, being of sound mind and body - ”
“Is this a joke?” Sterling couldn’t help but interject.
“ - am here, with you, of my own free will. No duress, no coercion, no obligation,” she continued with a grin, “And yes, that was a joke.”
Sterling could feel the traitorous smile spread across her own face too, the bounce in her step too obvious to hide now.
“Okay, but what are we doing?”
April pointed ahead at a single yellow balloon tied to a mailbox, “Supporting a local small business.”
As they strolled up to the house in question a lemonade stand came into view. The two little girls running the table squealed with delight when they walked up.
“Customers!” the taller girl chirped.
“Well, we saw your sign at the end of the block and just had to stop, didn’t we Sterling?”
There was a levity to April’s tone and a brightness in her eyes that was playful, like when grandparents humor you during Christmas about Santa Claus as a kid. It wasn’t anything that Sterling had ever seen her manifest before. April Stevens was being a little silly and had been all morning.
It was endearing, it was adorable, it was not supposed to be hot.
Was she staring?
“Anyway,” April continued, realizing somehow that Sterling was incapacitated, “what are our options?”
Sterling couldn’t help but be charmed by the whole interaction, as April bought both a regular and a strawberry lemonade from the girls, praising them for their business acumen at having two flavors. The cups were even recyclable, as the taller girl was proud to announce.
“I can’t believe they accepted Venmo,” Sterling managed to whisper as they waved goodbye and walked back to the Volt.
“How great was that though?” April enthused. “We need to encourage entrepreneurship among young girls. There’s a tragic underrepresentation of women, both in business and in positions of power in general. When they take initiative at that age, we really have to support it.”
“You’re right. Plus, it teaches them how to positively interact with adults at a young age, even when they may not know them. These are the kinds of soft skills that new generations are losing to technology.”
“Exactly,” April fixed her with a gaze then, one that seemed to x-ray Sterling’s whole life and every decision she’d made in it.
With a swoop of her stomach, Sterling really hoped she liked what she saw.
“We were talking earlier…” April began as they paused next to the Volt.
“What I meant to say – what I wanted to say before – was that I wish I could do it all differently too. Us, I mean.” April fidgeted a little bit, but otherwise stood boldly behind her statement.
So maybe that was it, the new beginning Sterling had spent so many nights praying for after the lock-in, the chance she thought she’d never get again. It was years later than she’d asked for it, but maybe God worked in mysterious ways after all. This wasn’t high school though; this was something else. She was someone else now, not entirely, but enough. They’d need to start from scratch.
She extended a hand forward.
April took it with a furrowed brow.
“Sterling Wesley," she introduced herself, "How the heck are ya?”
The ringing of April’s answering laugh was better than church bells, better than brunch.
Better than lemonade.
Chapter 6: Stargazing
I'm so behind, but also still so happy to be here with y'all!
Sterling had been settled back on her blanket for a few minutes now. She was covered in bug spray and ready to see whatever the Athens sky had to offer her this evening. Like clockwork, her phone buzzed with a call.
“Can you see it?”
“Yeah, of course. You asked for ‘same moon’ protocol, so that’s what you get sis.”
It was a comforting thought, a mechanism left from their time apart in undergrad. When either of them was having a bad day, they would agree to talk it through that night and look at the moon. Somehow, knowing that her twin could look up and see the same moon she did made the miles between them seem much smaller.
“I’m in a park, where are you?”
“The roof of Zone 2 precinct,” Blair answered a little too casually.
“What? I’m in uniform, nobody’s gonna bug me. Also, this roof is shaped weird, so I don’t know how long my back is gonna last laying up here.”
“Oof. I’d be more offended if we weren’t the same age.”
“Fair point,” Sterling conceded. She couldn’t come up with anything better, not when she’d called ‘same moon’ for a reason.
Blair seemed to sit in the silence for a moment.
“You know you’re only like an hour away, Sterl. You could’ve just come home this weekend if you needed me.”
“Yeah, but that’s not the point, is it? I need to start building a life here.”
“I gotcha, I gotcha. So why the moon call?”
“… I ran into April again.”
“Jesus Christ,” Blair groaned.
“Literally. She goes to the church I really like.”
“Are you finding a different one then?”
“No… it’s, uh, a little more complicated than that.” Sterling winced trying to get this out without upsetting her twin.
“We, uh, she invited me to brunch?”
It wasn’t the angry Oh Sterling was expecting from Blair. It wasn’t particularly surprised either. It was an Oh that came out like maybe something Blair had been expecting had come to fruition after all.
“Interesting Oh there.”
“Yeah, call me interested, I guess. When do you go?”
“We already went.”
“Oooh… Did y’all fuck? You called ‘moon’ to tell me that you fucked the one that got away? Was it good? Were you on – “
“No! We didn’t sleep together! We went to a lemonade stand and agreed to start over. We had breakfast at a diner. It was nice!”
“Gay,” Blair countered plainly.
“More like platonic.”
“Yeah right, like you wouldn’t suck whatever she put near your mouth.”
“Tell me I’m wrong, and I’ll stop.”
A wind blew through the tops of the trees, sending wispy soundwaves in its wake.
Sterling grumbled to herself. “How do I even know that she’s interested?”
“She already asked you out. Don’t you think that’s enough?”
“I don’t know. It seemed like a fresh start. She didn’t make any moves.”
Blair seemed to stew on that for a moment. “Forget about Stevens for a minute. What do you want from this Sterl?”
“I don’t know. You, like, hate her, don’t you? It wouldn’t make sense to - ”
“I don’t hate her,” Blair interrupted simply.
“Wha – since when?”
“Since the decade we’ve been out of school? She was a little closeted ball of repression trying not to get beat up by her skeevy Dad. Nothing to hate.”
“Wow. Love this growth for you,” Sterling enthused.
“Thanks, I’m really trying. So did you feel, like, a vibe or something?”
“Uh, I mean, I did, but I don’t know if it was mutual or anything…”
“We hugged goodbye. It wasn’t like a half-hearted hug. It was like…”
The warm midday sun was beating on Sterling’s back, and they were out of excuses to draw this out any further. Sterling had driven April back to her car, and now they were just lingering by it, neither of them willing to break the moment. Sterling had finally announced that she should go, and gently, so so gently, April had pulled her into an embrace. A soft hug, but tight enough that it made Sterling hyperaware of every point where they touched. Tight enough that something began to stir in her body. Tight enough that she could feel the deep breath April took to slow her pounding heart.
“You better fingerblast that bitch into next year!”
Sterling slapped her hand over her face and groaned.
“Better get used to making sounds like that too!” Blair added, gleeful about Sterling’s discomfit.
“Anyway, that was my ‘moon’ call,” Sterling desperately tried to change the subject, “What’s going on with you?”
“Okay, okay. Hmm. This café owner keeps giving me free croissants?”
“Cops really do live the dream.”
“Nah, I don’t think it’s that. I’ve been doing some plainclothes work around the city. He and I had a nice conversation about some of the paintings around his place, and it turns out that he paints them.”
“Ooooh. Is he cute?”
“He has kind eyes.”
Blair never said things like that. Either she was watching too many rom-coms in Sterling’s absence, or this was serious. Or both, both was possible.
“You should ask him out!”
“I’ll ask April out if you ask… what’s his name?” Sterling teased.
“Sam,” Blair sighed. The half-moon shone with all the might it could muster despite a few clouds passing through the night. “Fine. I’ll do it if you do it.”
Chapter 7: Rivers & Lightning
Having a hard time moving to write, so I really appreciate everyone who takes the time to read and comment and kudos.
It’s only a day trip, Sterling convinced herself as her fingers drummed eagerly on the steering wheel of the Volt. She was parked outside of April’s apartment building, just waiting for their day together to begin.
It’s not that she was in the habit of daring Blair to do things, but maybe her most recent challenge had really been too big of a leap. Sure, asking April out didn’t seem that intimidating in the abstract, but when 14 hours later, Blair FaceTimed her laughing about how Sam had agreed to go out to dinner, the idea became much more real.
Sterling sweated through the arduous process of putting together a text message. Yes, a hike was normal, until it escalated.
A long hike that would take all day.
In a park that required driving together.
A park that was across state lines.
It was a great plan, with time to relax and less pressure to talk then when you have to stare at a person for two hours over dinner. Right? At least, that was the hope, until April came outside looking like she was ready to backpack across the Himalayas. The boots alone were enough for Sterling to realize that she was in over her head.
She could feel her heartbeat move her whole chest with its enthusiasm until April actually pulled the passenger side door open and settled in.
“Hey,” she greeted, shoving her backpack into the back seat, and leaning across the console to give Sterling a hug.
“Hey,” Sterling answered in a daze, vaguely aware that her whole body had relaxed. Vaguely aware that she’d never managed to calm her baseline nerves this well in her whole life. Vaguely aware that she’d like to feel this way for a very long time.
The day was overcast but cool, a welcome reprieve from the oppressive heat of the South.
April led the hike, of course, insisting upon it once she’d gotten a look at the trail map, which gave Sterling a really nice view that sent her stumbling over large roots more than once in distraction. From the smirk that would sneak on April’s face when she held back branches for her to pass, Sterling could guess that she knew why Sterling couldn’t walk a mile without tripping. It was surprisingly easy though, talking to April. They covered the tumultuous election, who some of their best friends were, and what had happened to some folks from Willingham.
Sterling didn’t want to get her hopes up, but it seemed like it was going pretty well. It wasn’t overtly flirty yet, and she wasn’t sure how to shift that, or if she really should. As their hike wove them around and across a small river, they ascended the mountain steadily. Sterling didn’t know if the slight tension she felt in her whole body was just her own thirst or a mutual vibe, but the vigorousness of the hike soon took up too much of her focus to dwell on it.
When they finally reached the peak of the mountain, sweating and breathing heavily in ways Sterling wished had another cause, she reached into her backpack and spread out a blanket and some snacks to relax for a bit. They laughed over snacks that Sterling had packed, sipping water, and enjoying the view as they hugged their knees side by side.
“He’s not in my life anymore, you know,” April announced after a long silence fell. She cleared her throat lightly, taking the pause to clarify, “John.”
Sterling knows she should have something more nuanced to say, being an aspiring social worker and all, but in that moment, it was like all of the oxygen had been pulled from the air. In the crossfire all she could manage was a stare with a breathy, “Oh?”
April didn’t turn though, keeping her eyes on the sweeping valley in front of them, on the clouds that obscured the farther views. “It’s… It was…”
Watching April struggle for words wasn’t something Sterling was accustomed to, it hurt to watch this person next to her grapple with a painful part of her life. It was so close; it was all so close. The warmth of April’s body radiated out, reaching her across the space.
“April, you – you don’t have to talk about this if you’re not ready.” When April’s eyes finally snapped to meet hers, Sterling continued, some semblance of her training kicking in, “To be clear, I want to hear what you have to say, everything you have to say. Just want you to know that there’s no pressure to disclose anything until you feel 100% comfortable and safe.”
April breathed slowly and glanced out at valley briefly before collecting herself to focus on Sterling once more.
“I’ve always felt safe with you.”
The slight gasp that crosses Sterling’s lips is involuntary and interrupted by a low distant rumbling, “Shoot! Was that thunder?”
A cool breeze started blowing past them, sending an unwelcome chill down Sterling’s body. April stared out across the valley, her expression hardening.
“There’s a stormfront rolling in. See it?” she pointed out at a mass of clouds that did look rather threatening, “We’ve got to get down. Fast.”
They packed up quickly and were soon cutting down the mountain trail with an unmatched determination. The fat cold raindrops started permeating the tree cover when they were about halfway down, but neither could be bothered to slow down for them.
Having descended in near silence, April broke it by calling over her shoulder, “Law school.”
“Law school what?” Sterling prodded when a moment’s pause made it clear that April wasn’t going to elaborate further on her own.
“As soon as the last payment cleared for law school, I came out to him, and that was it.”
“Were you planning that all along?”
“Coming out? Of course,” April took a few steadying breaths as they descended some technical terrain, “But I was still hoping that he’d be accepting.”
Sterling felt a pit in her stomach when she realized that cutting John Stevens off hadn’t really been the whole plan. “Oh, so he didn’t…”
“He said I’d always be welcome back if I changed my mind.”
Sterling considered apologizing, it seemed appropriate after all, but April Stevens wasn’t a person who disclosed things for pity’s sake. The thunder rumbled again, not as distant as before.
“You deserve better.”
April glanced back a Sterling with a soft smile on her face, “I know.”
By the time they made it back to the car, they were both damp from rain, hustling into the Volt again to stay out of the impending downpour as the lightning and thunderclaps became coincident above them. Sterling blasted the heat as April clenched her hands over the vents to warm them up.
“I can’t believe you didn’t check the weather before dragging me out here,” April accused lightly, though her displeasure was evident. She looked about as pleased as a cat at bath time.
“I had to drag you here?” Any hope Sterling had for the day quickly left her bones. “Some date…” she mumbled.
Sterling could see April’s head whip around to stare across the small space, “This was a date?”
The invasiveness of her gaze seemed to crack whatever casual energy Sterling had left. “Well yeah. Your, uh, your Instagram has a lot of hiking pictures, and I brought goldfish. They were your favorite when we were little. Thought that it would be nice, you know? A hike and a mini picnic.”
April appeared to be doing a lot of mental math as she stared at the dashboard in front of her, while Sterling backtracked through the day, reevaluating every moment through the lens of them just hanging out as friends.
Oh God and April had been disclosing parts of her familial trauma, and Sterling was trying to force the whole thing into a romantic context. She’d really screwed the pooch on this one.
This was perhaps the most mortifying moment of her life, and her face was burning bright red to show it in full force. She moved to start the car, quickly calculating how best to kill an hour of awkward silence, when her right hand was suddenly full.
April’s left hand was warm and dry from the heater vents, and just like her hug, it calmed every nerve in Sterling’s body. Their eyes met.
“It was a nice date,” April nearly whispered.
“It was?” Sterling blurted.
She nodded gently, before adorably scrunching her nose, “How about I plan the next one though?”