Sterling: gooooood morning
Sterling: best of luck with brunch today
Sterling: if my boy johnny steps out of line just remind him that you’ve got a pal with a gun
April doesn’t see the messages until she pulls up to the restaurant. With no sign of her father’s car in the parking lot, she grabs her phone and grins at the screen.
April: did you just suggest murdering a man for potentially hurting my feelings?
Sterling: not murder. just good old fashioned intimidation
April: still seems a little drastic but thank you.
Sterling: anything for you
April reads that last message a second time and then a third, getting an inkling of something, but before she can unpack it or even type a response there’s a tap at her passenger side window.
April startles, nearly dropping her phone.
“Come on. Our table is waiting”
Of course it’s her fucking father.
“Coming,” she says, unbuckling her seatbelt and following him into the restaurant.
April knew brunch was going to be rough when she left the house this morning, because lately time with John always is, but that is confirmed as soon as the waiter walks away after taking their drink order and John says, “He seems like a nice boy.”
He has a look on his face that April has seen at least a hundred times. His eyebrows are raised, he’s smiling, nodding in the boy’s direction as if they’re five second interaction was anything more than eye contact while April said, “I’ll have a water, please.” It’s John’s rare look of encouragement and it turns her stomach in two ways. One being that she has no interest in boys and no interest in sharing that with her father, and the other being that of all the things she’s done, accomplished, and dreamed of, this is the bullshit that he wants to smile about.
“A pretty girl like you should be hanging out with some nice boys.”
April squeezes her hand in a fist under the table, trying not to visibly react.
“I hang out with Ezekiel all the time.”
John scoffs. “That hardly counts.”
If she were braver, April would ask him why it doesn’t count, daring him to spell it out. Although she doubts he would have any problem doing exactly that. So maybe the issue isn’t her lack of bravery, maybe she just can’t handle his answer. Maybe that’s okay.
It doesn’t get any better when they’re food is brought to them by a young woman with a nose ring, a short haircut that’s dyed pink, and a half sleeve of tattoos spreading across both of her forearms.
John nearly loses his appetite. Or so he says. The clean plate he sends back after an hour and a half of bitching about the importance of “the right appearance” says otherwise.
“Should we come back here next week?” he wonders on their walk through the parking lot. April can see her car just up ahead. She’s almost made it. “Maybe Adam will be working again.”
Adam was the waiter. John had asked him for his name in between Bloody Mary’s.
“Maybe,” April says through gritted teeth that she’s hoping to play off as a smile.
“I might speak to the manager about that other girl. He and I play poker on Thursdays. He’ll understand.”
April doesn’t say anything. She just moves towards her car, trying to tune out John’s chatter.
“People are trying too hard to be different these days — altering their appearance, living strange lifestyles. I don’t want to look at it while I’m trying to eat with my kid, you know?”
Just keep walking, she thinks to herself. April pulls her keys from her purse and unlocks her door, prepping for a quick escape.
“It’s God’s way or the wrong way, right, sweetheart?”
She has the driver's side handle in her hand. April could just nod and get in. She could bat her eyes and say, “sure, daddy,” like she’s done for sixteen years. But she doesn’t.
She stops and she turns around and she lies about something entirely different.
“I can’t do next weekend. I have plans.”
April has nothing on her schedule but she would gladly fill it with literally anything else.
“With Hannah and that boy?”
He says it with such a grimace that April’s stomach turns and her jaw clenches. There’s no way she can just politely smile through this conversation.
An idea comes to mind, one that gives her a little thrill, and April shakes her head, finding some of the bravery she thought she was missing before. “No,” she says, standing up straighter and willing her voice to steady, “with Sterling.”
She nods again and John no longer looks baffled. His wide, shocked eyes narrow into what she recognizes as fury.
“Since when do you hang out with Sterling Wesley?” he sneers.
This time April doesn’t hesitate to say, “Sterling and I are friends.”
April: we have to hang out next weekend.
Sterling: totally down but why the urgency?
April: i wanted to get out of seeing my dad so i told him that we have plans.
Sterling: omg april
Sterling: call me asap!!
“Hi, Sterl,” April greets, grinning as she spins in her desk chair, twirling her ponytail around her finger. She eagerly texted Sterling as soon as she got home from brunch.
“Hi. Sorry.” Sterling is breathless for some reason. “Are you okay? What’s going on?”
“I’m fine,” April laughs. God, it’s not like she came out or anything. “It was actually kind of fun.”
“Yeah,” she breathes, heart still pounding, mind still racing, and body buzzing on this sweet little rush. “It felt like an underhanded way of standing up to him, you know? Like, yes, you threw my father in jail, but I really couldn’t care less.”
April doesn’t think she’s ever felt this powerful, this in control, in her entire life. And she’s literally the leader of every club she’s in.
April rolls her eyes. Why isn’t Sterling equally as excited about this? She’s the only other person who knows why April hates John, why John hates Sterling, and therefore, why their friendship was ever kept from him to begin with.
“I haven’t seen him that mad since my mom’s second cousin said she voted for Hilary — and that ruined Christmas. He was fuming, Sterl.”
The reaction that April craves still doesn’t come. This giddy, electrifying energy coursing through her veins falls flat, landing in silence on Sterling’s end of the call.
“He didn’t, like, do anything, right?”
April tilts her head, partially at the question and partially at Sterling’s tone change. She’s nervous.
“What do you mean?”
Sterling sighs. “April, he has a history of violence.”
Well, that explains the out of breath greeting.
April’s finger stills in her hair, chair slowly spinning to a stop, and smile falling from her lips.
She didn’t even think of that.
Of all the things going through her head in that parking lot her father’s violence never crossed her mind. She was just so annoyed and angry. For once she wanted to make him feel as bad as he had spent years making her feel. And she did.
His face twisted in a way that she had never caused before, not even when she embarrassingly lost the fifth grade regional spelling bee, or foolishly said that Michelle Obama’s dress was nice on TV, or when she was supposed to be watching Sergeant Bilko and he knocked over John’s scotch after a “long day.”
His cheeks turned a burning red and the veins in his neck looked ready to pop while he ranted at April about the importance of family and how she is going against him by forming this friendship — this alliance — with Sterling Wesley.
And she just stood there. With her arms crossed and practically smiling, April watched him realize that his once coveted Team Stevens had fallen apart and that he had finally lost.
“No, he didn’t do anything,” April mutters as her last bit of adrenaline runs its way out.
“Okay, good,” Sterling says, her tone soft and gentle and relieved.
April wants to roll her eyes and insist that Sterling is being wildly overdramatic, that yes, her father is a horrible person but no, he’s not that bad. But part of her hates the way her skin crawls when she looks at their confrontation in hindsight, wondering if maybe she was too reckless, if she had gotten too comfortable with him out of the house, and if it’ll ever come back to haunt her.
April swallows the uneasy feeling rising in her gut. “So, uh, next weekend?”
“Yeah,” Sterling says, “definitely.”
After their blunder of a phone call, Sterling plans their whole hang out rather excitedly and to April’s dismay, secretly. She spends the whole week without any idea as to what’s going on. All April knows is that she doesn’t have to see her father and for the most part that’s enough.
She asks her first question on Saturday night when Sterling pulls up to April’s house in the pickup that Mr. Wesley uses for hunting.
“I did not believe my mom when she said there was a truck outside. Why do you have this?”
“I borrowed it,” Sterling says with a shrug of her shoulders and a grin on her face that fills the large pickup with her energy just as easily as it would in the compact Volt.
“Does he know?”
“Sterling,” April warns.
Sterling sighs, rolling her eyes halfheartedly. “Yes, he knows.”
She shifts the truck into drive, pulling away from the curb, and April waits all of thirty seconds before asking her next question.
“Where are we going?”
“Well, what if I don’t like it?” she counters, thinking she has some leverage.
“Then I’ll drop you at the lake house.”
April gasps, turning to Sterling just in time to catch a mischievous little smirk on her face. “You wouldn’t dare.”
She quirks an eyebrow. “Try me.”
This is already far better than lunch with her father.
About ten minutes and five unanswered questions later they pull into an empty parking lot and April is just as confused as she was before. Only now as Sterling throws the truck in park, her heart also starts to race.
The last time they spent a night parked in a deserted area things got a little more than friendly with the Volt windows fogging up and April just barely holding back on her desire to have somewhere to go.
She looks around the area, desperate to find a reason, to solve it herself, and to know why they’re here, but not a single store in this strip mall is open.
They made a deal to just be friends. April never thought about Sterling potentially making a move or what she would do if said move was made. Does she push Sterling away? Does she lean into it? April has no idea because she hasn’t thought about her romantic feelings for Sterling since they shook hands in Ellen’s office.
“Why are we just in an empty parking lot?”
“Because there’s no trees,” Sterling says as if April is supposed to understand and make sense of that.
Sterling unbuckles her seatbelt and —
“Wait,” April blurts.
Sterling looks up slowly, a puzzled expression on her face. “What?”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m getting out,” she says, eyebrows furrowed as she stares quizzically at April. She laughs a little. “Did you think we were just going to sit in here all night? Come on.”
Sterling climbs out of the truck, leaving a baffled April to unbuckle and follow suit. She hops down to the ground, feet feeling unsteady beneath her as a slight quiver lingers in her knees. April watches Sterling casually walk to the back of the truck. It must be easy to be so calm when you know exactly what’s going on.
“I overheard Franklin saying that some big star is supposed to be visible tonight. Thought we could check it out.”
Well, now that she’s in the loop April feels a little foolish. She exhales and the tension leaves her body. She even starts to smile. “I didn’t know you were into stars,” April says, meeting Sterling by the back of the pickup.
Sterling folds down the tailgate. “Aesthetically, yes. Scientifically, no. I can point out the Little Dipper but that’s about it.”
“So we’re here because they look pretty?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” she says, climbing into the bed. Sterling turns around and holds out her hand for April. “Is that a problem?”
“No.” April shakes her head, laughing a little. She was almost impressed to find that Sterling had an academic interest, but this makes way more sense. “Just wanted to be clear.”
She takes Sterling’s hand.
The whole thing should be terrible. Laying in the back of a pickup truck and looking up at stars should feel exactly like a scene from a cheesy movie that April would despise. But with Sterling next to her, trying to make something out of the scattered dots in the sky, it shockingly isn’t so bad.
“Oh, is that it?”
Sterling points up at the sky for a third time. April does her best to follow the line of her finger.
“That’s a plane.”
“Damn it. Again?”
It’s easy. And fun. April mostly thinks that it’s because she and Sterling are not as dramatic as the dumb, oblivious characters in a romantic comedy. They have an agreement to just be friends, they actually communicate rather maturely, and they spend the night laughing way too much to be overly serious about anything.
“Okay, I’ve got one,” April says, noticing how Sterling’s eyes shine a bit as she eagerly leans closer. They’ve forgotten the stars, too lost in stories and secrets, and are now facing each other instead of the sky. “Ezekiel and I were supposed to watch Hannah B.’s fish over Thanksgiving break.”
“That’s him.” April pauses partially for dramatic effect and partially out of shame. “He’s now Bubbles 2.0 though.”
Sterling puts a hand over her mouth. “No way.”
“I don’t know what happened. She left us a very specific feeding schedule, but one day he was belly up.”
“What did you do?”
“We got her a new one, obviously. It took six different stores, but eventually we found a fish that was just the right color and size. Now it’s been four months and she still doesn’t know.”
Sterling’s laugh seems to take over her whole body. It rumbles through her torso, unable to be contained, spreading across her face in the form of a wide grin, and crinkling by her eyes as they glint in the moonlight. It’s amazing how so much happiness can spill out of one hurt person.
“I like this,” Sterling says once she can breathe again, a shy and yet unfairly dazzling smile gracing her lips. April has to tune back in to catch it.
“This. Hanging out,” she clarifies, gesturing in the small space between them. “I only ever really had Blair or Luke. I haven’t had a real friend since, well, you.”
“Hey!” Sterling shoves at April’s shoulder, grinning all the while. “I’m trying to be nice.”
April knows that. She knows it the same way that Sterling knows April wasn’t actually calling her pathetic. Her declaration was just so unnecessarily soft and genuine for what has been a night of dumb anecdotes and bellyaching giggles that April couldn’t help but tease a little.
“How is pointing out your lack of friends a nice thing to say? If anything it makes me rethink my choices here.”
Sterling gasps. “You’re not exactly rolling in options either.”
“More than you apparently.”
“You’re pretty confident for a girl who lost middle school most popular.”
“I’m starting to think Blair stuffed the ballot box,” she quips and Sterling’s eyes shine brighter than that stupid star they’re supposed to be looking for.
“I hate you.”
“I don’t,” Sterling agrees with no effort to attest. “I think you’re my best friend.”
April rolls her eyes at the earnestness of it all, which is just so perfectly Sterling that she doesn’t really mind, and also why she gives into it with a groaned realization of, “I think you’re mine too.”
But April doesn’t even get a second to sit with that confession because Sterling bursts out laughing again, bigger and louder than she’s been all night. So much so that it startles April.
“Why is that funny?”
“You just sounded so mad about it,” she says with a wheeze. Sterling just barely holds it together for an impression, “Like, ugh, you’re mine too.”
“I don’t sound like that!”
“I don’t,” April tries to argue, but now she’s laughing almost as hard and suddenly neither of them can stop.
Sterling tries to sit up, her foot stomping into the bed of the truck, but her stomach can't take it and she flops back down. Even when her vision starts to go a little blurry, April can still make out the way Sterling’s chest heaves, the way her head falls back, the way her whole body seems to set itself free, unburdened by the secrets and heartache that have recently been getting her down.
April wipes her eyes. She can’t remember the last time she laughed so hard that it turned to tears. It would probably have to be her and Ezekiel commentating on something Hannah B. did, but April even can’t pinpoint that.
As their laughter starts to slow and they both try to remember how to breathe, April rolls onto her back to look up at the stars again. She knows it’s not possible but they seem brighter now than they were before. Her eyes widen.
“Hey, that might be it,” April says, noticing a bigger, shinier looking star in the sky.
“What might be what?”
Sterling is still dazed and breathless.
“The star we came to see. Ring a bell?”
April points up at the midnight sky, into a sea of little bright white dots.
“Oh, yeah. That one does kinda stand out,” Sterling mutters, looking intently. “Wait. It just moved. I was looking at a plane again.”
“Maybe you’re into planes and not stars.”
From the corner of her eye April notices that Sterling shifts. She hears the ruffle of Sterling’s clothes as she scoots over and then April feels Sterling’s fingers wrapping around her wrist. She tugs on April’s arm, like it’s hers to move, and wraps it around her own shoulders, leaning closer and muttering a soft, “I’m cold,” as an explanation.
“I think I saw a blanket in the…” April swallows when Sterling’s head lands on her shoulder, “...truck.”
Sterling doesn’t budge or even address what April said about the blanket. She gets comfortable, tucking into April’s side as if this is just something that they do, something that friends do. April supposes that neither of them really know for sure. Sterling just said that she’s only ever been this close with Luke or Blair, two people she never had to think twice about cuddling up against; and April has been around Hannah B. and Ezekiel for a long time, but never quite like this.
April inhales shakier than she’d like and stares up at the stars, letting her fingers rest as comfortably as possible against Sterling’s skin and trying to breathe normally. She hopes that her heart isn’t beating too loud for a simple moment amongst friends, but something deep in April’s gut tells her that it is.