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lately that's no kind of place to call home

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"Before I die, I want to be somebody's favorite hiding place, the place they can put everything they know they need to survive, every secret, every solitude, every nervous prayer and be absolutely certain I will keep it safe.  I will keep it safe."

- Andrea Gibson


April wakes up on Sunday morning not certain what sight she’ll be greeted by when she leaves her room.

Last night was bad. April knew in her bones that it would be, even by the mid-afternoon. Her dad had started drinking early, and her mom had chosen to make passive aggressive comments about the rapidly growing collection of beer bottles gathering beside the couch rather than opting to ignore it.

Eventually Holly started drinking, too, and April made a swift exit to her room right after dinner, sensing that the yelling would soon follow. April kept her phone right next to her as she tried to read some mindless queer novel that she’d secretly checked out from the library, telling herself that she’d call the police if she heard anything that sounded like a body slamming against a wall.

Thankfully, it never got worse than yelling—more accurately, her dad shouting and her mom wailing. April crept out of her room when the house abruptly grew silent to find her mom passed out on her parents’ bed, the door flung open, and her dad collapsed in his armchair downstairs. April quickly retreated back to her room and attempted to go to sleep, reciting the digits of pi in her head until her brain finally quieted.

Now, April slowly gets out of bed. She can’t hear anything, but that could just mean that her mom is trying not to wake her dad, or that he’s offering his version of an apology, using that low voice that for some reason passes Holly’s low bar for sincerity.

Instead, when April exits her room with a nervous inhale, her parents are exactly where she left them last night. April goes about making herself breakfast as quietly as possible, showers, and gets dressed for church, while John and Holly sleep through it all.

April has no desire to witness the aftermath of their fight, plus she figures that after all of last night’s bad behavior, someone should represent the family at church today. So April carefully sets out a glass of water and a couple of aspirin for her mom, pointedly does not do the same for her dad, and drives herself to church.

Ever since John was arrested, there’s been a distinct magnifying glass directed at the Stevens’ pew, but without even her mom by her side this morning, April feels more on display than ever. 

She tries to make up for it by projecting an impenetrable confidence, squaring her shoulders and singing loudly during the hymnals, but she betrays the act by sneaking a glance toward the Wesleys’ pew near the end of service.

It’s become a reflex, at this point; a terrible one, because she and Sterling haven’t spoken at all since junior year ended, and they were barely speaking in the months before that.

But today, Sterling isn’t in the pew. Neither is Blair. Instead Mr. and Mrs. Wesley stand together, looking oddly small in the absence of their daughters. Mrs. Wesley catches April’s eye, and before April can look away Mrs. Wesley smiles and waves.

April waves back, because she has manners, but she doesn’t let her gaze linger.

After service she uses the restroom, purposefully elongating the process of washing her hands because more time spent at church is less time spent at home.

Mrs. Wesley walks out of one of the stalls, her face brightening when she sees April.

“You flying solo today, hun?” Mrs. Wesley greets as she approaches the sink beside April’s.

April forces a small smile and nods. “Yeah. My parents weren’t feeling well.”

Mrs. Wesley fixes her with an unreadable expression in the mirror. “I’m sorry to hear that. Something must be going around. But aren’t you a fine young woman to still come to church! I don’t think you could pay my girls to show up here if their father and I were home sick.”

April wonders if Mrs. Wesley would still consider her a fine young woman if she knew that April had nearly defiled one of her precious girls in the backseat of the family car several months ago.

“We shouldn’t neglect the Lord, especially in times of hardship,” April replies, channeling her inner Fellowship Leader.

Mrs. Wesley arches an eyebrow. “You’re certainly right about that. Though I’d venture to guess He’s getting neglected over at Blair and Sterl’s summer camp.”

April tries not to react to that, though she’s privately grateful to have gained the knowledge of Sterling’s whereabouts without having to inquire directly about them.

Not that it matters. She and Sterling are—they aren’t anything. Not since the lock-in, and definitely not since John rather gleefully announced just exactly who turned him in to the police.

Something shifts in Mrs. Wesley’s expression, and she asks, “Would you care to join Anderson and I for dinner, April?”

“Oh, I—”

“The house is feeling awfully quiet. We’d love the company.”

April furrows her brow. She isn’t sure exactly where this invitation is coming from, but she has a feeling that pity is playing an important role. 

“I’m really fine,” she insists, even though the idea of sharing dinner with any two people who aren’t her parents sounds wonderful.

“It’s not an empty invite, I promise.”

Mrs. Wesley’s voice has taken on an uncharacteristic firmness, no longer carrying the familiar tone of light church chitchat. 

“Okay,” April hears herself agreeing. “Can I bring anything?”

“Just your sweet self.”

And April’s sure Mrs. Wesley is only being nice, but April can’t remember the last time someone referred to her as sweet, and she’s oddly touched.

“Thank you, Mrs. Wesley.”

Mrs. Wesley grins. “I think I can be Debbie to you from now on. See ya at seven.”

By the time April can think of something to say in response, Debbie Wesley has left her all alone in the bathroom.

--

I’m having dinner with the Wesleys tonight.

April stares at the message for a long moment before sending it. She’s not sure why she feels the need to share this information with Ezequiel, but it’s just so strange. Years ago the Wesley house was like a second home, one that April far preferred to her own. But the last time she actually stepped foot inside it was on the eve of her and Sterling’s first kiss.

Which currently feels as though it happened approximately a decade ago.

About thirty seconds after April presses send, her phone starts buzzing with a call from Ezequiel. He clearly registers this development as significant, too, considering that phone calls are exclusively reserved for emergency situations. (The last situation deemed worthy of a call was Lorna crediting a John F. Kennedy quote to Logan Paul on her Insta feed.)

“What the actual fuck?” Ezequiel says by way of greeting. “Has Hell frozen over?”

“That’s a touch dramatic, don’t you think?” April counters, his reaction already making her palms start to sweat.

I’m dramatic? Who was it who went all Kill Bill on the Wesley twins last year?”

April frowns to no one. Losing her cool on Sterling and Blair in the middle of the hallway three days before winter break wasn’t exactly April’s proudest moment, but God, finding out that Sterling of all people had kept such a huge secret from her—Sterling “lying is the worst” Wesley, after hearing April rail against dishonesty, no less—hurt like very little in April’s life ever had up to that point.

She had come to expect pain from her parents, but from Sterling, after what they’d shared…

Everything about it was bad. Sterling had made her feel too much, once again, and that was utterly unacceptable.

Thankfully, Ezequiel was there to drag April into an empty classroom before she risked suspension or, perhaps even worse, before her outburst could make its way to social media.

April was so fucking vulnerable in that moment, a raw nerve exposed to the elements, and suddenly the whole story was pouring out: how Sterling had kissed her, how April had kissed back, how for all of two seconds she’d stupidly let herself believe that maybe what they had was worth the risk—a hope that was quickly dashed the second her father appeared in her doorway. How she’d broken Sterling’s heart and been filled with an immediate fear that she’d made a mistake, then how that fear had calcified into pure rage the second her father announced that he had news to share about Sterling and Blair Wesley.

Ezequiel listened with wide eyes, stunned into silence well after April finished talking. Eventually he just opened his arms and let her fall into them, the tension in her body finally giving way to the tears that had been trying to work their way out of her all morning.

“I hate her,” April sobbed into his chest. “I fucking hate her for doing this to me.”

“I know, babe,” he replied in a voice so gentle that April started crying even harder.

And April would never say that she is in any way grateful that her life once again imploded so publicly, but there’s been a certain amount of relief in Ezequiel just knowing, now; in the way that their eyes will instinctively connect whenever Franklin makes some vaguely homophobic comment during Bible Study; in the soothing pressure of his hand against her shoulder every time they pass Sterling in the hallway; in the shared belief that someday their wants and fears won’t be so deeply intertwined, but for now the emotions are bound together like a knotted root inside their respective chests.

So maybe the reason that April called Ezequiel this afternoon is because he understands better than anyone that the Wesleys carry baggage, as far as April is concerned.

“They don’t know about you and Sterling, do they?” Ezequiel asks, as though reading April’s mind.

“I don’t think so,” April replies, though she really can’t be sure; Sterling was all gung-ho to tell her parents before, and she’s definitely full of surprises.

“Sterling won’t be there,” April adds.

She means it as a relatively neutral piece of information, but Ezequiel must hear something in her voice, because his smirk comes through loud and clear as he replies, “And you’re disappointed about that?”

Christ, how did this boy get so perceptive?

“Of course not. Why would I be disappointed?”

“Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

“I regret calling you,” April says flatly, mortified to realize that her cheeks are actually getting warm.

She’s not disappointed that Sterling won’t be there. She can’t be. Sterling is a traitor, and a liar, and also just a real fucking inconvenience.

After the lock-in, Sterling was in full puppy dog mode, and a variety of rumors circulated as to why. April tuned into the rumor mill just long enough to confirm that their names weren’t getting linked together, and then, when that coast was cleared, she made the uncharacteristic decision to tune out.

Whereas before she might have thrived on any little scrap of Sterling gossip—for reasons that have gotten harder to justify ever since Sterling kissed her and titled April’s whole damn world on its axis—now April found herself desperate to avoid news of Sterling.

Which was definitely easier said than done, when Sterling kept trying to apologize, and shooting April these pathetic little looks, and just generally looking like the physical manifestation of the sadness that had been clinging like a barnacle to April’s heart since the moment she left Sterling on a bench outside school all those months ago.

April rewrote the narrative in her own head. A survival strategy, to be sure, but one that had served her well in the past.

Every pained expression and whispered apology from Sterling was a manipulation.

Every kindness Sterling displayed to one of their classmates was insincere.

Every time Sterling knew the answer to a question she was showing off.

And every flicker that April felt when she looked at Sterling—be it a stab of heartbreak when Sterling was staring at her, or, more horrifyingly, a lick of want when she found herself to be the one staring—was nothing more than teenage hormones.

But now it’s the summer, which means that avoiding Sterling should be easy, especially with her away at camp. Easier, probably, if April hadn’t accepted an invitation to dinner at the place where Sterling lives, but Sterling won’t be there (an objectively good thing), and it’s one little dinner. An opportunity for April to get out of the house for a single night, and to appear as a polite Christian woman to the Wesley parents, who have always been nothing but kind to April, bounty hunting daughters aside.

“You don’t have to go,” Ezequiel is telling her. “I mean, unless you want to.”

“It’ll be fine,” April insists, but she sounds nervous even to her own ears.

--

April gets out of the house with a quick lie about where she’s headed—unsurprisingly, her parents aren’t the biggest fans of the Wesleys—making sure to allow plenty of time to pick up some flowers on the way over to the Wesleys.

“Oh, April,” Debbie says warmly when she opens the door, “aren’t you lovely! Sunflowers are my favorite.”

April doesn’t mention the fact that she knows that, that she remembers the vases of sunflowers that used to proudly sit in the Wesley living room. April always loved the tall, unapologetic nature of Debbie’s sunflowers, the way that they stretched toward the light, in such sharp contrast to the carefully arranged bouquets of various small, perfume-y white flowers that her own mother has always kept around the house.

“Is that April Stevens?” calls Mr. Wesley, emerging from the kitchen wearing a frilly half-apron that April’s dad wouldn’t be caught dead in.

“Good to see you, Mr. Wesley,” April says as she steps out of her shoes.

He shakes his head. “Oh, Anderson is perfectly fine. Glad to have you here! Deb and I haven’t known what to do with ourselves.”

“The house feels too big without our girls,” Debbie explains as she waves April into the living room. “It’s silly, probably, to miss them so much—”

“I think it’s sweet,” April says honestly, unable to imagine her own parents easily voicing that they missed her. “Though I’m sure Blair would give you a hard time if she knew.”

She means it as a joke, and is surprised by how easily a mention of Blair falls from her mouth. But a shadow crosses Debbie’s face, and she quietly replies, “Yes, I’m sure she would.”

“Have you heard from the girls at camp?” April asks, out of politeness and maybe just a smidge of curiosity.

“No,” Debbie says simply. “Why don’t I get you something to drink?”

Any home would probably feel comfortable in comparison to her own, but April is surprised by just how at ease she feels as Debbie and Anderson go about getting dinner on the table. Debbie finally gives in and lets April help, seeming genuinely impressed by the fluid way that April moves around the kitchen.

“I’ve practically had to ban the girls from using the stove,” Debbie says. “Sterling tried to bake cookies last Thanksgiving and nearly set the kitchen on fire.”

April falters for just a second at that first direct mention of Sterling’s name, but she recovers quickly, plastering on a smile and giving their salads a last twist of pepper.

Debbie insists on lighting candles, and Anderson goes to put on some music, and as April sits down her chest warms a little at the realization that they’re putting in effort for her.

“Thank you,” she says once they’re all seated. “This is really nice.”

“Thank you for joining us,” Debbie replies. She gazes at April softly. “We’ve missed having you around here.”

“Oh.” April rolls her lips together, unsure of exactly how to respond to that.

“You and Sterling—I’m not sure what happened there,” Debbie continues, and Lord, April really wasn’t expecting them to get into this so early in the evening. “But you were always such a good friend to her, such a sweet kid.”

There’s that word again. Sweet.

“We definitely preferred having you around over Luke,” Anderson adds.

April drops her fork with a clatter.

Of course they don’t mean it that way, of course they don’t, but still…

“Anderson!” Debbie scolds good-naturedly. “Luke’s a very nice kid. Just a little…” She waggles her hand back and forth.

"Nothing against him at all,” Anderson says. “But that boy could barely string two words together.”

“He was scared of you, honey,” Debbie murmurs.

“Who could be scared of you?” April blurts out before she can stop herself. When they both look at her with raised eyebrows, she adds, “I just mean…you’re not exactly scary. In a good way.”

Debbie presses her lips together. “I think it was less about Anderson than, well, what he represented.”

“Sterling’s father?” Anderson guesses.

“Any father. His own dad isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy.”

April looks up sharply at that, her stomach clenching involuntarily.

Perhaps she and Luke have more in common than just Sterling, after all.

“But anyway, enough with the gossip,” Debbie quickly redirects. “The point is, Sterling was ready to move on from Luke, and we’re glad to have you here.”

Debbie couldn’t possibly know what it means that she’s linked those two thoughts together, but April has to remind herself to breathe at the sound of it.

That process doesn’t get easier when Debbie’s next question is, “Are you dating anyone, April?”

“That’s not really any of our business, now, is it?” Anderson says pointedly.

“Of course not,” Debbie replies. “It’s just been a long time since we’ve had April at our table, and I want to know what’s happening in her life.”

Anderson leans in toward April conspiratorially. “She’s starved for teen drama, that’s what’s really going on.”

“Anderson Wesley, I swear!”

“No,” April says weakly. “I’m honestly too busy to date.”

The honestly tastes strange in her mouth. This is hardly the first time an adult has inquired about her love life, but something about being here with these two specific people, the parents of the only person who April’s ever actually had anything resembling a date with, makes the falsity hit harder.

Debbie, for her part, nods like she understands. “I’m sure. You’ve always been a go-getter. Plus teen boys really aren’t anything special.” She pauses, takes a sip of her wine, then adds, “Though I shouldn’t make that assumption.”

April nearly chokes on her spit.

“Assumption?” she echoes, suddenly breathless.

“That you’d be interested in teen boys.”

April blinks, pretty sure her body is incapable of any other functions at this point.

Did Sterling tell them? Or is it just obvious somehow?

“Because it would be absolutely fine if you weren’t,” Debbie says quickly. “If you were interested in girls—”

“Or—honey, what’s that word Blair taught us?” Anderson asks.

“Non-binary people,” Debbie supplies.

April is pretty sure that this is where she dies, sitting in the Wesley dining room with Debbie Wesley nonchalantly referring to non-binary people.

Anderson snaps his fingers. “Right! So long as it’s safe and consensual, alright by us.”

“Did Sterling—?” April starts, dimly aware that she might be blowing any last bit of her cover.

Debbie shakes her head firmly. “This has nothing to do with Sterling. Or, well, we’re just trying to be—we’ve been learning a lot this past year. Trying to be better.”

April feels a lump the size of a golfball forming in her throat. There are so many feelings swirling inside of her that it’s difficult to identify a single one of them, but the thought that comes to the forefront of her mind is that Sterling was right.

April didn’t know for sure how the Wesleys would feel about the two of them as a couple, but in this moment it couldn’t be more clear.

They love their daughter unconditionally. Whether or not Sterling’s come out to them yet, they will always welcome her with open arms.

But April was right, too. Because for her, there will always be post-conditions.

That’s why she can’t help but press, “You really don’t have a problem with it?”

“With gay people?” Anderson says easily. “No, not at all.”

And that’s it. Confirmation that this house couldn’t be further than her own.

April feels her eyes fill with tears, and Debbie immediately turns to her with concern. “April, honey, are you okay?”

And it’s truly the last thing she ever would have expected out of this dinner, but suddenly April hears herself saying, “I’m gay.”

All she registers is a soft inhale of breath before she’s being wrapped in Debbie Wesley’s arms.

“Oh sweetheart,” Debbie murmurs into her hair, and it’s only then that April realizes that she’s sobbing. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Thank you for telling us.”

Anderson must have gotten up at some point, because April can feel his hand on her shoulder, a steady weight.

She said the words. She actually said them, not to a girl who kissed her, but to adults. To parents. And the world didn’t collapse in on itself.

“I’m sorry,” April cries into Debbie's soft shoulder, not even sure what she’s apologizing for.

“Now, don’t you say that,” Debbie whispers fiercely. “You have absolutely nothing to be sorry for.”

“That’s right,” Anderson says, voice impossibly gentle. “You’re safe here, okay?”

And as April lets herself be held by the Wesleys, she knows in her bones that it's the truth.