April used to hate weekends. Even when she was little, bringing an empty backpack home from elementary school, she hated them.
There was too much down time, most of which was spent in her house with her parents and not out with the other kids because the other kids didn’t really like her. They thought she was too much, too serious, too intense, too much of a know-it-all. None of which made for a very good playmate or a halfway decent friend.
So a young April would pretend not to notice when the other kids made plans at the lunch table of whose house they would go to, if they would sleep over, and wondering which PG-13 movie to sneakily watch once their parents went to sleep. And if she ever got a pitiful look or an insincere “you can come if you want,” April would scoff and insist that she had better things to do.
Which wasn’t actually true, but they didn’t need to know that.
She would plow through her homework on Friday night, spend Saturday tucked in her room with a book, overwhelmed with a need to be busy whenever her father so much as looked in her direction, and then Sunday was spent in a pew at church. Her little prepubescent body would physically be buzzing with energy by the time she reached school again on Monday morning, only to be referred to as a “teacher's pet” or a “try hard.”
The “pet” one bothered her a little bit, because April wasn’t an animal and she certainly didn’t require extra care, but “try hard?” Come on. They’re basically just admitting that they’re lazy.
The routine of homework, books, and church carried April all the way to high school, through weekends where she hated being at home with her father, barely able to stand breathing the same air as him. Then of course the divorce happened and she hated weekends even more because that meant spending one on one time with him and biting her tongue.
But then Sterling came along and changed all of that. Sterling made weekends busy and fun with her silly ideas of miniature golf and stargazing, her concerning diet of fast food and ice cream, and her persistence in spending time together. She gave April something to busy herself with, something to spend her energy on, something to look forward to.
It was new and invigorating and perfect. April never wants to let it go. But she also has no idea how to keep it, how to not be too much and suffocate it, how to not be too serious and be a bore, how to not be too intense and scare her off, and how to not be a know-it-all when her friend just wants a listening ear and a hand to hold.
“Are you almost ready for finals?”
April blinks, tuning back into the conversation. She finds Mary Beth staring at her, hands sudsy with dish soap and concern painted on her face.
“You alright, honey? You’ve been drying that bowl for a while.”
April looks at the bowl in her hand and the pile of wet dishes on the counter awaiting her attention. She didn’t even realize she was that zoned out.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” She puts the bowl in its proper cabinet and takes a new dish to dry. “I made a review sheet for chemistry and Spanish today. I’ll probably be at the library late every night this week.”
April hesitates, torn between telling the full truth or a version of it.
A few days ago she thought that they would definitely be studying together, had a review schedule planned and everything, but April hasn’t heard from Sterling since she forcibly dropped her back at her house last night. Now she’s not so sure.
“How’s that going by the way?”
“Mom,” April warns. Every once in a while Mary Beth tries to ask April about her “little crush” and April wants to crawl in a hole and die of embarrassment.
“What? I’m just asking.”
Mary Beth puts her hands up in surrender, sending soapy bubbles into the air and April tries not to smile. She only holds it back until she’s turned the other way, putting a pan in the drawer under the oven, and then April lets it go.
“You know, I was thinking,” her mom starts, causing that smile to fade as April braces for a theory about how she should make a move on Sterling, “maybe once school is out we can go visit your grandparents.”
Well, that’s different.
“Yeah, I thought it might be fun.”
April hasn’t seen her mother’s family in over two years, but she remembers hot summer nights spent at the ice cream parlor down the street and even hotter days spent at the beach from back when she was young, way before John decided it wasn’t worth the trip.
“I’d like that.”
Her phone buzzes against the granite countertop and April jumps at the sound, hoping the message is from a certain friend. She frowns when she sees the text is from a different friend, one April forgot she even asked to hang out tomorrow.
Ezekiel: i have to go to my nana’s in the afternoon but i can do brunch. you know i’m always down for some hash browns.
“Hey, mom?” April’s voice reflexively shifts into the same one she used to use whenever she wanted to get something from John — high in pitch, soft in tone and undeniably sweet. “Can I skip church tomorrow? Ezekiel invited me to brunch.”
Mary Beth turns off the water from the faucet and holds out one of her wet hands. April passes her the towel.
“His family doesn’t have a mass to attend?”
“They’re more of the Christmas and Easter type of Christian.”
She eyes April intently, clearly mulling it over. “Fine,” she relents, “but just this once. I don’t want you turning into a Christmas and Easter type of Christian.”
April grins. “Yes ma’am. Thank you.”
April: brunch works.
April has a plan. She spent the whole morning working it out.
When they’re seated at a booth in the back of the diner, away from the crowd of early morning church goers, the first step has already been cleared. While they peruse the menus (step two) April doesn’t have to worry about small talk because Ezekiel doesn’t like to be bothered until he’s on his second cup of coffee. She knows from experience that he drank one in preparation for just showing up, but this buys her a little extra time. Then once their food comes, he’ll order his next cup and she can dive into step three, bringing up the latest gossip. With that they should be set for at least half the meal before she gets into their reason for meeting: Sterling Wesley.
This approach gives her the opportunity to casually bring it up, so it doesn’t seem like she’s just seeking advice or validation or whatever desperate thing April thinks she needs from Ezekiel. It’ll be nonchalant, she’ll play it cool, and he’ll leave no wiser than he came.
But Ezekiel blows her plan right out of the water as soon as their food is placed on the table.
“Why are we here?”
So much for step three.
“For brunch? You wanted hash browns,” April reminds him, attempting to get back on track.
Ezekiel doesn’t take the bait. He rolls his eyes. “You haven’t asked me to hang out one on one since you somehow attached yourself to Sterling Wesley. What’s the deal?”
April figures that nonchalance has never really been her forte anyway. “Okay,” she says, sitting up straighter and giving into the potential chaos of a foiled plan, “I might have a Sterling related problem.”
“Of course you do.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Ezekiel puts his hands up. “No need to get all bitey. It means that she’s sensitive and you’re, well...you. It was bound to happen.”
“You don’t even know what happened. She could’ve hurt my feelings.”
“But did she?”
He looks at April like he already knows the answer.
She shakes her head and just barely mutters a tight-lipped, “No.”
Ezekiel doesn’t gloat. He never does. Which is probably why this friendship works so well. On the rare occasion that he calls her out and April actually puts her ego aside to admit to whatever accusation he’s thrown at her, he just lets it go.
“Tell me everything.”
She doesn’t tell him everything. She can’t. The kidnapping and adoption parts of the story are completely off limits even for context. But April does tell him enough.
Without getting into why, she tells him Sterling had a fight with her mom and left the house without saying anything, that she had been acting weird and her phone was blowing up all night, that Blair had texted April in search of answers and April didn’t even know she so much as had Blair’s phone number, that she had brought Sterling back home after learning the truth, and that she hasn’t heard from her since.
“She’s definitely mad at you,” Ezekiel says casually, once April is finished. He doesn’t even look up from buttering his toast.
“What makes you think that?” April asks in a calm tone, instead of yelling why would you say that when I’m clearly fragile like she really wants to.
“I know you’re the ultimate suck up when it comes to authority figures, but you’re her friend. Not her mom’s.”
April blinks for a moment, then she shakes her head. “I’m not following.”
From over his coffee mug, April can see Ezekiel roll his eyes again. He savors a long sip before he puts it back down.
“Okay,” he starts, clasping his hands at the edge of the table, readying for an explanation. “When things were bad with your dad how would you have felt if I didn’t let you stay for dinner or if Hannah B. didn’t let you sleepover?”
April makes a point to ponder for a few seconds even though the answer is already obvious. She sighs. “I probably wouldn’t have spoken to you either.”
She knows it’s true. She also knows that simply not speaking to him would’ve been the bare minimum.
April would’ve been furious. She would’ve hurled a sharp insult his way and then shunned him for at least a week, probably more, all because she felt rejected and alone. But April also knows that these two situations aren’t exactly comparable. She is way more reactive than Sterling. She misdirects her anger and goes for the kill, while Sterling is much softer and way more careful with her words.
She might have cut April off when they were in fifth grade, but Sterling wouldn’t do it now. They’re past that. They’re friends. They’ve talked about their problems, their past regrets, their —
“What’s going on with you two?” Ezekiel wonders before April can fully spiral down that rabbit hole. He’s eyeing her carefully, already brewing with some of his own ideas. She pretends not to notice.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you ever worry if I’m mad at you?”
April shrugs. “I’ve never had to.”
A laugh bubbles out of Ezekiel before he can stop it or maybe he isn’t even trying to stop it anymore. April can’t quite tell.
“Sure, sweetie,” he says, still chuckling to himself.
She glares at him from across the table, ready to declare that she has no idea what he might be insinuating and that he can always find other friends if he’s so often mad at her, but Ezekiel smirks like he sees right through it, right through her.
April sighs. “Just eat your fucking hash browns.”
On Monday morning April rides to school with a fully caffeinated Ezekiel and Hannah B. The difference between them is that caffeine makes Ezekiel a functioning human and it takes Hannah B. to another, unnecessary, level of pep.
“I can’t believe neither of you were at church this weekend,” Hannah B. pouts from the middle seat in the back.
“I only go a few times a year,” Ezekiel says. “You shouldn’t have even noticed.”
“I always notice.”
Ezekiel turns to April in the passenger seat with his eyebrows raised. “So extra,” he mouths.
She stifles a laugh.
As the three of them walk from the parking lot towards the school, April notices Sterling up ahead, sitting on a bench. Her brain somewhat distantly recognizes it as The Bench and her stomach churns in anticipation.
The closer they get, the more April tunes out Hannah B.’s story about how her weekend was “so crazy,” but once April meets Sterling’s gaze from across the street, Hannah’s voice doesn’t even register anymore.
Sterling stands, eyes still locked with April’s. Was she waiting for her? April thinks so.
Her heart races as she crosses the street, only breaking Sterling’s stare to check for oncoming traffic, and then April is on the other side with Sterling standing in front of her.
“Hey,” Sterling says, somewhat nervous and distanced. Yeah, she was definitely waiting for April.
“Can I talk to you for a second?”
“Of course.” April turns to Hannah B. and Ezekiel, who are waiting for her a few steps ahead. “I’ll meet you inside.”
She ignores the way Ezekiel raises his eyebrows before dragging Hannah B. into the school.
“Shall we.” April motions to the bench and Sterling takes a seat just like she did all those months ago. April follows suit, sitting stiffly about a foot away.
For a moment they’re quiet, just watching people pass, and April wonders if Sterling is thinking about the lock-in too.
She surprisingly gets her answer unprompted.
“Have you sat here since?”
April shakes her head. It hasn’t always been a conscious avoidance, lately she has just walked past the bench without even noticing, but April remembers the Monday after the lock-in when she and Hannah B. were waiting for Ezekiel to be ready to go. Hannah B. had taken a seat, motioning for April to join her and something had clenched in her chest so tightly that she almost cried. Instead April insisted that she wasn’t too lazy to be on her feet for a few extra minutes and rattled on about the health benefits of standing until Ezekiel came outside.
“After everything,” Sterling gestures with her hand for April to fill in that blank as if she couldn’t have guessed for herself, “Blair and I started sitting here in the morning before school.”
April knows that if this bench meant heartache and regret for her, it likely served as a mark for where all the good things went wrong for Sterling.
“I was nervous about coming back here and my parents were afraid of letting me go just about anywhere, so Blair finally dragged me over here one day and said that we needed to confront our fears — or to quote her, ‘take control of the narrative or whatever.’”
April snorts at Sterling’s shockingly accurate Blair impression.
“Did it work?”
Sterling looks off for a second to think, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips as she decides, “Yeah, it did.”
For another moment things get quiet between them. A silent tension sets in, one that April thought they had outgrown, one that they haven’t experienced since she drove Sterling to therapy months ago. She knows what they have to talk about. She can feel it settling thick and heavy in the air around them, but April can’t bring herself to start.
Sterling breaks the barrier.
“I’m sorry about Friday,” she says, scooting closer until her knee rests against April’s. “I shouldn’t have put you in the middle of all that. I just wanted to get out of the house and be distracted, you know?”
“But I didn’t really think it through. Obviously from their perspective they would freak out when I suddenly disappeared.”
“Wow,” April says, a little bit teasing but also impressed with Sterling’s clarity on the matter. “I thought therapy wasn't until Wednesday. You worked that out yourself?”
“It’s amazing what you can come up with when you don’t just blindly dive head first into something.”
They both laugh and any sign of a strain between them quickly gets whisked away. When the laughter stops the silence is comfortable like it usually is, even with one more roadblock hanging over April’s head.
“I hope you’re not mad at me for bringing you home.”
“Mad at you? I could never.”
“I wouldn’t say never.” April playfully reminds her, “You’ve been mad at me before.”
“Well, I could never stay mad at you,” Sterling amends. “How’s that?”
April smiles. “I guess that works.”
With the air cleared, she sits up a bit taller, feeling lighter and more at ease than she did all weekend.
“You did the right thing,” Sterling says, and objectively April knew that, but what she didn’t know until now was that Sterling agreed. “It might not have been what I wanted at the time, but it was still the right thing.”
“I’m just glad you see it that way.”
Something passes over Sterling’s face, a realization dawning on her. She smirks. “Wait a second.” Sterling nudges April’s shoulder with her own. “Were you worried?”
April scoffs. “Hardly.”
“Oh, you totally were.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You were worried about me — about us,” Sterling corrects. That smirk has now grown into a full blown smile. It almost makes April as soft and tingly as the use of the word us, which is ridiculous, really.
Nonetheless, April relents, “We don’t usually go a whole weekend without seeing each other, let alone without speaking.”
“Well, I got grounded and my phone was taken away,” she says with an easy shrug. “It had nothing to do with you.”
Sterling rests her hand on top of April’s, warm and solid as she holds April’s stare. Her eye contact is a little too intense, even for April. It’s too soft, too sweet, too public, and too tempting for something she’s not supposed to feel for her friend.
April looks away, bringing her gaze down to their hands, and that’s not much better. It’s one thing to feel Sterling’s hand on hers, but it’s an entirely different thing to see it, smooth and soft and perfect, like it were meant to be there.
April clears her throat. “So you spent a whole weekend stuck with your parents and had no contact with the outside world? How did you survive?”
“Surprisingly, it wasn’t terrible.”
April perks up. “Really?”
“I mean, it was definitely uncomfortable at first, but I had nowhere to run off to. I had to just sit with it and by Sunday dinner it didn’t feel so bad.”
Now April flips her hand over so she can hold and give little reassuring squeezes to Sterling’s. Her crush doesn’t even register after news like that. Instead her focus is on her friend and all April feels is pride.
“That’s great, Sterl.”
“I guess so. It wasn’t perfect. We still have a long way to go, but…”
“Small progress is still progress.”
Sterling grins, like that concept is just now sinking in. “Yeah, you’re right,” she says. Her eyes then flick down to their hands and before April can worry that she has held too long for a platonic moment, Sterling gently rubs her thumb over April’s skin. “I think I might have dinner with them more often.”
“You should. If you’re ready.”
Sterling looks up again. “That doesn’t mean — it doesn’t, um…”
“Nothing changes here. Just because I might stay home to eat with them sometimes instead of going out with you doesn’t mean that I don’t—”
“Sterling,” April says softly, letting her own thumb trace over Sterling’s. “It just means that you’ll drag me out for ice cream more than greasy burgers and fries. I’m thrilled, honestly.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I meant.” Sterling’s smile starts out small, but it quickly grows, wide and bright. “Glad you’re on board.”
As soon as she and Sterling set foot in the hallway, April notices Ezekiel waiting just up ahead by the water fountain. She completely forgot she promised to read over his paper before first period.
“Hey, are we still studying for chemistry after school?” Sterling wonders, directly at April’s side.
April nods. “I printed two copies of my review sheet last night.”
“God, I love you—”
April’s heart nearly stops, butterflies buzzing in a swarm around her stomach, and her whole body seems to light up like a goddamn Christmas tree.
She can only hope she’s not visibly as red and wide-eyed as she feels warm and stunned.
Sterling stammers into adding, “—you and your review sheets.” She smiles awkwardly, gaze shifting and cheeks flushing with pink. For a second April almost thinks —
No. She shakes it off. Sterling can be embarrassed about blurting “I love you” to someone she has a romantic past with and not necessarily have current feelings to cover up. It’s perfectly reasonable.
What isn’t perfectly reasonable is April’s reaction.
“Well, I’ll, uh...see you later,” she blurts.
“Wait.” Sterling grabs April by the arm and pulls her back before she can get away. Dear God. That does more for her than it probably should. April might just sink into the ground right here. “You never told me about your weekend.”
“I got brunch with Ezekiel. Nothing exciting.”
This time when April turns on her feet, she actually does get away, rushed and abrupt and clumsy as she charges down the hallway.
“Nothing exciting?” Ezekiel repeats, hurrying to keep up with her. He smiles like he’s trying not to laugh. “Is that what I am to you?”
April sighs. “I know.”
She doesn’t have the energy to argue or deny it. Her mind is too busy whirling over the moment, combing through every detail, to worry about blushing in front of Ezekiel over the word love.
Sterling might not have meant it in the way that April’s body had interpreted, but after repeatedly analyzing that reaction — the rush through her veins, the tingle from head to toe, and the hope that burst across her chest — April can only reach one conclusion.
She loves Sterling.