Sterling will be the first to admit that the thing that sets her off is deeply stupid.
Ellen’s late to Bible Study, and Franklin has somehow gotten the class engaged in a debate about the latest Marvel movie, and Blair whips around from her seat next to Sterling’s with her hot take on which action sequence was the best.
And Sterling doesn’t even like those dumb movies—in fact, it’s become kind of a tradition that on the weekends a new one opens, Blair and their dad go see it, while Sterling and their mom pick out a romantic comedy to watch at the same theater—but she’s still absorbed some knowledge of them through sheer osmosis, and having zero point of reference for the last year and a half of these films weirdly hurts. Not because of the movies themselves, obviously, but because it’s yet another thing she can’t join in on, yet another conversation that leaves her feeling stupid and out of the loop and with more questions than answers. Over something as silly as a superhero movie she doesn’t even care about.
Sterling’s still lightly stewing about the situation when she gets to April’s that afternoon.
(April volunteered to tutor Sterling on the math and English units that she doesn’t remember; Debbie had insisted that Sterling still be allowed to graduate with her peers, and apparently both she and Ellen were able to plead Sterling’s case to the administration. One afternoon at the Wesley house April had overhead Debbie and Anderson talking about tutoring options and announced that she could do it, which was a solution that seemed to make sense for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that Sterling knows April likes telling her what to do, and Sterling kind of gets the sense that the feeling is mutual.)
Now, as Sterling tries to formulate an opening paragraph on her essay about the influence of Emily Dickinson on twenty-first century poets, her fingers stab at the keys of her laptop, and her eyes start to burn.
“Hey,” April calls over from her desk.
She’d insisted that Sterling take the bed, since that’s where Sterling liked to do her work, before. April’s mom is due home at six, and April set an alarm for five-thirty as soon as they arrived. A buffer, she’d explained, to get Sterling home comfortably. The unspoken part being that run-ins between Sterling and Mrs. Stevens are to be avoided.
Sterling glances up from her laptop, seeing April’s face creased with concern.
“What’d that laptop do to you?” April asks.
Sterling bites her lip, really wanting to avoid crying again, since it feels like that’s all she does in front of April.
“Nothing,” she mutters.
April seems to consider her next move before closing her own laptop and standing from her desk. She stretches her arms overhead (and Sterling absolutely does not stare at the patch of skin that becomes visible when her shirt rides up, thank you very much) before sitting down on the edge of the bed.
“You’re a terrible liar,” April remarks, not unkindly.
“I lied to you about your dad, didn’t I?” Sterling bites back, the words coming out harsher than she intended.
April’s eyebrows fly up. “Yes,” she acknowledges. “And we worked through that.” She offers Sterling a small smile. “What’s on your mind?”
God, April is just so…so patient. So loyal. Sometimes it feels like more than Sterling deserves.
Sterling closes her eyes briefly, accepting that tears will be sliding down her cheeks when she opens them. She doesn’t quite know how to verbalize that her life still barely makes any sense, that every day that she wakes up without her memories makes the pit in her stomach grow bigger.
“What should we do about prom?” she hears herself asking. It’s definitely not the biggest question on her mind, but it’s easier to start with than something bigger.
April clears her throat. “I figured we wouldn’t go.”
April gives her an are you kidding me right now? face, which is fair.
“We could still come out,” Sterling says. “I mean, I don’t think we should be hiding.”
“What are we hiding?” April asks softly. “It’s not like we’re… I don’t think that a big public announcement would make anything easier, right now. But also, we have a month. A lot could change by then.”
“What if it doesn’t?”
April frowns. “What do you mean?”
Sterling rolls her lips together, preparing to voice the fear that’s been rattling inside her so loudly this last week. “What if my memory doesn’t come back?”
April’s expression falters for just a second before she sets her jaw, resolute. “It will. It has to.”
“It might not. Would you still want to be with me?”
It’s another question that Sterling doesn’t even know how to begin answering. April is still looking at her gently, but there’s a bit of a challenge behind her eyes, a steeliness, should Sterling say something that could hurt.
Sterling glances down at their hands, noticing the way that April’s pinky seems to stretch imperceptibly toward her own.
“When we got together this time,” April murmurs after a long silence, “I told myself I wouldn’t lose you again.”
What if you already have? Sterling thinks but doesn’t say. What if we’ve all lost me, and I never come back?
Sterling pushes her laptop off to the side, hugging her knees into her chest. She’s sort of just openly weeping at this point, but she’s past the point of caring. “I just feel so…useless.”
“You’re not useless.”
This time, it’s April who reaches out, one of her hands coming to cover Sterling’s foot. Sterling is wearing socks but she still feels a prickle against her skin at the contact. There’s been so little of it, she realizes, in all the time they’ve spent together lately.
“I don’t even know who I am,” Sterling points out. “Or…or what I want.”
April sighs. “Look, you may not understand everything that you don’t remember. But it’s not like you’re just a blank slate. You still have sixteen years' worth of memories. Plus, your feelings now aren’t inherently invalid just because you’re missing some connective tissue.”
Sterling stares up at her, a little in awe at the way April always seems to know what to say. “How are you…?”
April’s eyes widen, another reaction Sterling wishes she could read. She blinks at Sterling for a second and then reaches for her phone. The movement shifts her hand off of Sterling’s foot, which suddenly feels a lot colder.
“Can I show you something?” April asks.
Sterling nods, and April scrolls through her phone for a second before finding whatever she was looking for.
“If it’s too much, tell me, okay?”
She moves so she and Sterling are side by side and presses play on a video of Sterling; it looks to be something she filmed herself in her bedroom.
“You sent this to me the morning after we got together,” April says quietly.
Sterling swallows and focuses on the image of herself.
“Good morning!” Video Sterling trills, sporting the biggest grin Sterling has ever seen. “I just, um, I just woke up, and all I wanna do is see you again. Last night was the best. I can’t believe…” She bites her lip, seemingly overcome. “I feel so lucky, April. I’ve honestly been wanting this for so long, and, like, in case you couldn’t tell I’m very, very into you. So, um, I’m just really happy that we’re finally official. You make me feel…I don’t think I even have words.”
There's a shout off-camera that Sterling suspects is Blair, and Video Sterling blushes. “Okay, I’m gonna go before Blair totally kills the vibe. But I hope you have a great day, and I’ll talk to you later, ’kay?” Video Sterling blows a kiss before the footage cuts out.
Sterling stares at the phone in April’s hand for what feels like a small forever. Part of her wants to reach inside of it and pull that girl out, to ask her a million questions or demand she take Sterling’s place. Part of her wants to watch that video again a dozen times, to memorize the curve of her own smile, one that’s brighter than any she’s ever seen herself wear before.
And another part of her wishes she’d never seen this, because it’s somehow both way too close and way too far. It’s like when she was seven, and their mom took her and Blair to a butterfly exhibit at the zoo. The butterflies were all around them, fluttering and radiant, but Sterling couldn’t reach out and touch them because they were too delicate, and while her head understood that her heart pounded with confusion and want.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have shown you that,” April whispers, trying and failing to discreetly wipe a tear off her cheek.
“I seem really happy,” Sterling replies, unable to confirm or deny whether seeing the video was a good idea.
“You were.” April sets the phone down slowly. “But if you don’t remember, if you never remember, then I don’t want to hold you back. You shouldn’t be with someone you don’t love.”
“And I don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want me.”
“Who says I don’t want you?”
The question is out of Sterling’s mouth before she can stop herself. April’s head darts up sharply, her gaze locking onto Sterling’s, bright and intense as ever.
Sterling’s stomach has been doing all sorts of uncomfortable things since she woke up, but now the way it swirls is almost pleasant.
And definitely overwhelming.
“I’m sorry,” she hears herself saying. “I’m not trying to, like, lead you on.”
She goes to stand up when a hand clasps around her arm, just above the elbow.
Like a magnet, Sterling is pulled back down. Not by the force of April’s hand, but by something greater. April starts to pull away but Sterling covers her hand with her own.
“Do that again,” Sterling says.
Sterling tugs April’s hand up on her arm just a little higher and squeezes it. “Tighter,” she instructs.
“What are you…?”
Sterling closes her eyes. There’s a piece of something, a fragment. She can almost reach out and touch it.
Willingham. She can hear people around her. Cheering, maybe?
On the bed, April follows orders, gripping Sterling’s arm tighter, and—
“We were in the hallway,” Sterling murmurs, still keeping her eyes closed. “You were angry.”
April’s face, flushed red. April’s mouth, forming the word, “No!”
“You screwed me over then and you screwed me over now.”
The phrase comes to her in a flash, but it’s not the words, it’s—
“You grabbed my arm,” Sterling says aloud. “You grabbed my arm and it was like this—”
An electric current, running throughout Sterling’s entire body. More powerful than anything she’s ever felt.
“Sterling,” April breathes beside her. “Are you okay?”
It’s like her heartbeat is everywhere, her pulse is thrumming and her stomach is bottoming out and she’s hot between her legs.
“Just wanted to congratulate you,” this boy is saying, but Sterling can’t be here. She can’t be here because April is walking away and something is rising in her, something urgent and she has to—
“The supply closet,” Sterling says. “I went there and I—”
Her hand down her skirt. April’s smile. Her rage. Her fingers on her necklace. Sterling can feel it; she’s building toward something and she’s warm and wet and all she needs is—
In the room now, April’s hand is still on her arm.
In the memory, Sterling thinks of April’s hand, dreams of it touching her, and finally finally finally—
“Oh my god,” Sterling breathes as she opens her eyes. Her heart is pounding and she knows she’s flushed. “Oh my god.”
April stares at her. “Sterl, do you remember?”
“It’s—” Sterling tries. It’s almost too much to look at April right now, when all she can feel is the want of being in that room, the yearning to have April touch her everywhere. “It’s—it’s just a little piece. It cuts out, but…”
“The debate tournament,” April says quietly, her own blush growing rapidly. “You told me after.”
“Oh my god,” Sterling repeats.
She’s breathing hard, forcing herself to hold April’s gaze. There’s something new in April’s eyes now, or perhaps it’s something old but a thing Sterling now can recognize.
“April,” she exhales. Her eyes flick over April’s face, all the features she’s seen a million times, but now she sees them in a different way, sees them the way she saw them in that supply closet. Now she looks at April’s lips and doesn’t just wonder what they would be like to kiss; she wants it.
From beside April on the bed, the alarm sounds.
April swallows, and Sterling traces the movement with her eyes.
“I need to take you home,” April says softly, her hand retreating back into her own lap.
No, Sterling wants to say. Don’t take me home. Touch me again. Make me remember.
“Do you think if we…” Sterling starts to ask, but April shakes her head.
“Get your stuff together.”
The ride home is virtually silent. Sterling’s head is spinning, her whole body is throbbing. She wants relief, and she’s a little afraid that if she speaks to April, the only words that she’ll get out will be a proposition.
And she doesn’t know if she’s ready for that.
“Text me when you get home,” she says weakly when they reach her house.
April nods, looking like she wants to say something more before offering a tight smile and driving off.
Sterling almost trips over her own feet as she walks to the door. She doesn’t know what to do with this but she also knows it’s a memory—her first memory—and she’s desperate to tell Blair.
She flings open the door, wondering how quickly she can get Blair away from their parents before she accidentally blurts out that she remembers her first time masturbating in front of them.
But when she walks in, she hears raised voices. Bordering on shouting, honestly, which never happens in her family.
She can’t quite make the words out; she can hear Blair and both of their parents, but they’re all talking over one another.
Sterling stands near the stairs, both curious and a little frightened, as she picks out her mom’s voice, loud and panicked: “Blair, this isn’t so simple. We just got her back. I can’t lose her again. Not after—“
“And you can’t do that to her again, either. I won’t let you!” Blair nearly yells. “We can’t keep lying to her.”
At that, Sterling steps around the corner, and her mom, dad and sister all whip around to face her, the argument immediately dying. It would almost be comical if Sterling wasn’t so freaked out.
But Sterling knows this is about her, can feel it in the pit of her stomach. It’s the weird little looks they’ve all been exchanging, the shadows that cross her mom’s face, the fact that this isn’t the first conversation to come to an abrupt stop as soon as Sterling enters the room.
“Lying to me about what?”