"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?”
“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.
Contained within: many references to SVU (the show I watch when my brain can't do any work) and the works of Carmen Maria Machado (whose writing will make your brain work in the best way).
“I believe in a world where impossible things happen. Where love can outstrip brutality, can neutralize it, as though it never was, or transform it into something new and more beautiful. Where love can outdo nature.”
- Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties
Debbie insisted that April bring home the last slice of peach cobbler after their dinner, a decision that April suspects was motivated more by concern than generosity. Or perhaps it’s still generosity, but one that’s bigger than the sharing of food; a generosity of spirit, a desire to extend the arm of unconditional love until April can be wrapped in its embrace, too.
Because Debbie sent that piece of cobbler in a Pyrex dish, one with a glass lid and everything, meaning that April has a reason to return. She’s not about to cry into Debbie’s shoulder and then steal a Pyrex from her. She wasn’t raised in a barn.
So two days after the eventful dinner, April is sitting in her car outside the Wesley home with the empty dish balanced on her lap, trying to think of a way to say Thank you and I’m sorry and Part of me wants to stay in your home forever, but for a thousand reasons that will never happen.
All she could really manage to get out after her big announcement was a soggy plea for Anderson and Debbie to not tell her parents, which they swiftly agreed to, thank God.
For the second time this week, April approaches the Wesley front porch with a pounding heart and sweaty palms. April figures she could just leave the dish and retreat back to her car, but she respects the Wesleys too much for such a cowardly move, so she knocks.
Debbie’s a little out of breath when she answers the door, her hair thrown up in a bun, jeans streaked with dirt, and face scrubbed of makeup.
It’s the most casual April has ever seen her, by a long shot, and April’s first, sudden thought is that Debbie looks like Sterling, an observation that threatens to knock the wind right out of April.
Debbie smiles, a wide, genuine grin, which just makes the Sterling comparison even worse.
“April!” Debbie greets. “What a pleasant surprise!”
April shifts on her feet. She’s always been fairly comfortable around adults, but in this moment she feels young and awkward. “Sorry to just drop by, I wanted to return—”
Debbie waves her inside and takes the Pyrex from her hands. “No apologies necessary.” She gestures at her outfit. “I’m tempted to apologize to you for my appearance. I was out in the garden.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean to inter—”
“Nonsense. I could use a break. Sweet tea?”
April accepts the invitation, following Debbie through the house and out to the backyard, where the sun is shining over the porch and a portable speaker is playing Taylor Swift. April does a double take at the familiar voice, and Debbie nods toward the speaker.
“Can you tell that I’m missing my girls?” Debbie jokes. “Though no amount of missing Blair could convince me to listen to death metal.”
“Sterling’s always had better taste in music,” April replies before she can think better of it.
Taylor’s voice sings, “I’m reaching out and I just can’t tell you why,” as Debbie lifts an eyebrow.
“Not just in music.”
April sort of wants to unpack that remark, but then Debbie is pouring her a glass of tea from a pitcher sweating on the wood table. April glances out at the garden, which appears perfectly manicured, except for a small patch that Debbie’s clearly been working on where some plants and dirt have been uprooted.
“Are you planting something new?” April asks.
Debbie offers her a wry smile. “Trying to. We’ve always had gardeners deal with the lawn, but—well, I suppose I needed a project, and finally getting started on that vegetable garden I’ve been thinking about for years seemed as good as any.” She shades her eyes, staring out at the lawn before looking back towards April. “I like to have something to do with my hands. Keeps me from thinking too much.”
April nods, because that sounds very familiar.
“Anyway, we’ll see,” Debbie continues. “This ground has always been stubborn.”
“You might have better luck with raised beds,” April suggests, recalling the details of her fourth grade science project on growing vegetables. “Better drainage, and they’re less prone to soil compaction.”
Debbie raises both eyebrows, now, clearly impressed. “Well, alright then! Now I just have to convince my husband to stop making those dang wooden ducks long enough to build me some.”
“I, um, I could do it,” April hears herself offering. “I’m pretty good at building things.”
“I remember. That Solomon’s Temple you and Sterl built was a work of art.”
April flushes a little at the memory, and hopes that Debbie thinks it’s just from the sun.
“But you don’t have to do that for me, April,” Debbie adds. “You’re welcome around here any time, no work required.”
Debbie’s voice is soft and genuine, and April swallows hard.
“That’s so nice,” she says, “but I really don’t mind.” She twists her fingers together in front of her. “I like having something to do with my hands, too.”
“You sure? It’s a big job.”
If it was anyone else April might consider that statement a challenge, but she has a feeling that Debbie is offering her an out. One that reasonably, April should take, considering that she had plans this summer, plans that didn’t involve providing unpaid labor to her sort-of-ex’s mom.
But there’s something about the idea of working on a project together with Debbie—a parent who she’s sure won’t berate her for messing up a measurement by an eighth of an inch, like her dad did during the Great Diorama Debacle of 2015—that holds a certain amount of appeal.
April’s been here for less than ten minutes and she already feels more at ease than she does in her own home.
Because Debbie doesn’t want anything from her. She hasn't brought up April's dramatic coming out, hasn't made April feel like she needs to apologize for it. April isn’t being interrogated or put down. She’s being welcomed with sweet tea and a smile.
Which is how, several days later, April ends up combing through the aisles of the same hardware store that she and Sterling went to months ago, this time with a different Wesley woman. They check everything off their list, April beaming a little at how impressed Debbie is by her plans, and then Debbie drives them back to the house for the dinner she insisted on making for April.
“April, this isn’t really my business,” Debbie starts when they’re a few minutes from the Wesley house, “but do your folks know where you are?”
April could lie, but she finds that she doesn’t want to. Not to Debbie.
“No,” she answers, unsure of how to even begin explaining why. “It’s just, well—”
“Because of the bounty hunting?”
April is very grateful that Debbie is the one driving, because she thinks they would have swerved off the road otherwise.
“You—know about that?”
Debbie nods with a humorless laugh. “Oh, yes, I do. Not until well after the fact, but in a bizarre sort of way it came in handy.”
April blinks in confusion.
“My girls are full of surprises. Though I suppose they come by it naturally. Anyway, a few secrets came out recently, and one of them is that they brought your father in.”
A few secrets.
Could Debbie be referring to Sterling and April? Is that why she’s being so kind?
Or is it guilt because of what her girls did?
“When did you find out?” Debbie is asking.
April presses her lips together, tries to form a coherent answer. “He told me after he got out.”
“So my daughters kept that from you.” Debbie hums under her breath.
“Yeah,” April exhales simply, though a strange desire to defend Sterling (and sort of Blair) prickles under her skin. “It was an…unprecedented situation.”
“I’ll say. I’m sorry, though. That must’ve hurt. Someone you care about keeping something like that from you.”
April’s instinct is to brush the comment off, but instead she just inelegantly repeats, “Yeah.”
Debbie’s jaw clenches, something soft and sad at the corners of her eyes. “I wonder if—if maybe they were trying to protect you, in a way. If they thought that that information might change how you felt toward them, and they wanted to preserve what you had.”
“I don’t think Blair cares about protecting me.”
“You know I’m not talking about Blair.”
Debbie is still looking at the road but she might as well turn and stare at April then, considering just how exposed April feels in this moment.
And the thing is—the terrible, infuriating thing is—Debbie probably isn’t wrong. Sterling might have been trying to protect her, trying to preserve the thing growing between them.
But she still lied. And, April is suspecting with increasing certainty, she told her mom about them.
Which means that she outed April.
Which means that she betrayed April again.
April is mostly silent for the rest of the drive, not trusting any words that might come out of her mouth. Debbie takes it in stride, turning up the radio and half-singing along to Carrie Underwood. Anderson is still at work when they get back to the house, and Debbie, perhaps sensing that April needs more quiet time, asks if April would be willing to walk Chloe.
April is a proud cat person, but she’s always liked Chloe, can clearly remember coming over the week the Wesleys brought her home as a puppy, Sterling and Blair both bouncing off the walls with excitement while April read aloud from the dog training book she’d bought for them with her own money.
The walk does April good, and she feels a bit less shaken by the time she returns to the house. Anderson is home now, and completely exhausted, pressing a kiss to Debbie’s cheek as he reaches into the fridge for a beer.
Debbie looks between Anderson and April before throwing her hands up.
“Should we eat in front of the TV tonight?”
Anderson lets out an exaggerated gasp, and Debbie shakes her head. “I know, I know,” she murmurs. “But it’s been a day for us all.”
Apparently Anderson and Debbie are big fans of crime procedurals—in particular, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
“I fully acknowledge that it’s not high art,” Debbie announces, “but there’s something about all of those life-and-death problems that make real-life problems seem…not so bad.” She grins. “Plus, Chris Meloni is a very handsome man.”
“Hey, Mariska’s no slouch!” Anderson adds. “Don’t you think, April?”
“Um, I’ve never really watched it,” April admits.
Anderson’s eyes go wide. “Have you been living under a rock your entire life?”
Debbie swats Anderson’s arm and April laughs. “Pretty much.”
“Well, I think this calls for a best-of night.”
Debbie is right; SVU is hardly high art. But April finds herself getting engrossed quicker than she expected, more compelled than she’d like to admit by the mystery unfolding before them. They start with an older episode of the series, because according to Anderson, “the post-Stabler years just aren’t worth watching,” and April is charmed by the way that Debbie and Anderson lean forward in their seats, watching the screen with rapt attention.
Plus, okay, Mariska Hargitay is hot. Debbie mentions at one point that Mariska’s had many hairstyles over the course of the series, but in the era they’re currently watching her hair is short, and that combined with her style and swagger give off a definite queer vibe, something that only gets stronger when she shares a scene with the blonde prosecutor.
April pays enough attention to queer media to be certain that she would have heard by now if a show from this long ago featured a queer romance between two leads, so she’s not expecting their dynamic to go further than mild subtext. But her jaw fully drops when Debbie casually declares, “Those two would make a cute couple.”
“Benson and Stabler?” Anderson asks, sounding slightly scandalized. “That wouldn’t work, he’s a family man.”
“No, Benson and Cabot,” Debbie replies. “I don’t know, there’s an energy there. What do you think, April?”
April clears her throat, keeps staring determinedly at the TV. “I guess there…could be,” she answers mildly.
“They certainly have better chemistry than Olivia and that boyfriend of hers.”
“Yeah,” April agrees. “Can’t argue with that.”
It becomes an odd sort of routine over the next few days. April comes over to the Wesleys to work in Anderson’s workshop on the raised beds, Debbie cooks dinner, the three of them watch SVU on the couch together.
The show is less exciting once they get to the episodes where Blonde Lawyer leaves, and it becomes quite clear to April that the series is copaganda in its truest form—a concept that Ezequiel explained to her and April is trying to understand better—but none of that seems to matter so much as the way it feels to sit down to dinner with Debbie and Anderson, spinning theories about the killer or sharing a laugh over Ice-T’s line deliveries.
“Our girls won’t watch this with us,” Debbie remarks one evening.
“Well, they won’t watch much of anything with us, these days,” Anderson adds quietly, and then the peculiar silence that occasionally drifts in like a storm cloud settles over the living room.
Luckily, April’s had seventeen years of training in diffusing uncomfortable parent interactions, so she quickly redirects to talking about how SVU stacks up against the other Law & Orders, a topic which Debbie and Anderson have surprisingly strong opinions about.
The vegetable beds only take a few days to build, but Debbie decides that they’re hers and April’s, now, and that April should be involved in choosing what to plant. The two of them take a drive to a nearby nursery, coming home with big bags of soil and packets of seeds for cucumbers and carrots and bell peppers.
They spend a long afternoon planting, and April finds it sort of exhilarating to end the day with dirt under her nails and the knowledge that she’s helping something grow.
“Just imagine how satisfying it’ll be once we actually get to eat the fruits of our labor. Or, veggies, rather,” Debbie tells her, and April’s chest aches a little at the thought that she’ll still be welcome in this home when that day arrives.
They talk about a lot of things as they work in the garden—favorite books and music, dream vacations, the career that April envisions for herself.
“That’s mighty impressive, April,” Debbie says after April has detailed her law school ambitions. “Just make sure you carve out some space in your life for love.”
Love. That’s one of the topics that’s more or less off-limits, along with April’s parents and Sterling and Blair. Though the first time Debbie asks if there are any girls April is interested in, April recognizes that those three topics are actually pretty closely connected.
April bites the inside of her cheek when Debbie voices the question, knowing that for as honest as she’s tried to be with this woman, there’s no way in hell that she’s going to announce that the only person who she’s ever truly wanted—in a real, “maybe this could actually be something” way—is, in fact, Debbie’s own daughter.
Even if Debbie already knows. A possibility that April hasn't had the courage to fully confirm.
Debbie must interpret the silence as embarrassment, thank goodness, because she quickly murmurs, “We don’t have to talk about that if you don’t want to.”
That’s one of the many nice things about Debbie. She seems to have a sense of when not to pry.
Hannah B. is spending most of the summer in Europe with her mom—a post-rehab attempt by Hannah's mom to salvage their relationship, April suspects—leaving Ezequiel and April to hang out as a twosome.
“I’m going to ask this once, and then we never have to discuss it again,” Ezequiel says one afternoon when the topic turns to the Wesleys. “Are you fucking Debbie Wesley?”
“What?!” April demands.
“I mean, I honestly couldn’t blame you. She keeps it tight and is definitely less of a basket case than either of her daughters.” Ezequiel shrugs. “I wouldn’t kick her husband out of bed, if he offered.”
“I’ve yet to hear a denial.”
April rolls her eyes. “People can bond for reasons that have nothing to do with sex.”
“Obviously I know that. My best friend is a lesbian.”
Despite the bizarre nature of this conversation, April’s chest warms a little. “I’m your best friend?”
Ezequiel nods easily before stealing one of her French fries. “So, are you?”
“Hooking up with Debbie? Absolutely not.” April folds her hands together, an uncomfortable burst of vulnerability crawling its way up from her belly. “I just… she and Anderson are… they don’t…”
Ezequiel’s expression softens. “I get it. Being with them is better than being at home.”
The statement is simple but still says so much.
“Exactly,” April replies.
When April arrives at the Wesleys the next morning, there’s a small rectangular present sitting on the table.
“I got you something,” Debbie says with a smile.
April turns the present over slowly, feeling the weight of it in her hands until Debbie urges, “Open it!”
Inside is a book, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. April thinks she knows the name, is pretty sure she’s seen the author mentioned on lists of queer writers, but this isn’t a book that she and Debbie have ever talked about, so she raises a curious eyebrow.
“I was doing a bit of Googling the other night, and I came across this book,” Debbie explains.
April nods. They’ve bonded over their occasional insomnia.
“Anyway, it's a collection of short stories. Queer short stories. Sort of dark and maybe, sci-fi?” Debbie shakes her head. “Honestly, it isn’t my genre, but it’s supposed to be excellent, and one of them is about SVU.”
“Really. I just thought you might enjoy it.” Debbie puts a hand on April’s shoulder. “And you can keep it here, if…if that feels safer.”
April bites her lip as the golfball-sized lump makes a sudden reappearance in her throat.
She's been gifted many books throughout her life, but no one has ever given her a queer book before.
And not just a queer book, but a safe place to read it.
“Thank you,” April says quietly. “This is really thoughtful. I can’t wait to read it.”
“You're welcome. We can skip the garden for today if you’d prefer to do some reading.”
So they spend the afternoon reading on opposite ends of the Wesley back porch. April is immediately engrossed in the book, which is dark, like Debbie said, and definitely queer, and also angry and feminist and truthful. April has never read anything quite like it, the words haunting, the stories leaving her with a feeling of both anxiety and excitement.
“I love it,” she tells Debbie honestly at the end of the day.
Debbie beams. “I’m so glad.”
As July ticks along, their new routine starts to feel more and more like second nature. Holly and John are both pretty checked out at this point, too focused on fighting and drinking and trying to convince themselves that staying married is a good idea, and it becomes easy as anything for April to spin a quick lie about heading to the library or off to Ezequiel’s as she heads out the door to the Wesleys.
The afternoons with Debbie pass easily, as they read or garden or cook together, Chloe usually trailing along behind April, who she seems to have decided is her new favorite human.
April buys Debbie a summer baking book—a thank you for Her Body and Other Parties, which April absolutely devours—and they begin working their way through the recipes, and soon Anderson starts coming home from work with pints of ice cream to accompany their baking creations.
Sometimes they’ll eat dessert standing up in the kitchen, Debbie admonishing herself for the decadence while digging her spoon into a pie dish with a grin.
Occasionally Debbie will talk about her own upbringing, in short, halting stories that April has a feeling are gentle invitations for April to share some of her own.
“You know, I never laughed much with my mother,” Debbie murmurs one afternoon as they’re watering the veggie beds. “When you can’t laugh with someone, it feels like you’re speaking different languages. Know what I mean?”
April rarely takes the bait, but today she replies, “Yeah, I do.”
Debbie fixes her with a thoughtful smile. "I'm glad I can laugh with you, April."
A few days later she and Debbie are planning on trying a new cherry pie recipe when Debbie realizes that she’s low on butter. “I’ll just pop over to the store. You alright here?”
“I can come with?” April offers.
“No need. Chloe would prefer if you stayed. Maybe you can get some lunch started for us?”
Debbie is good at giving April tasks, which April always appreciates. When Debbie leaves April reaches for her phone and turns on the audiobook she’s been listening to of In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir. This one is equally dark, maybe even more so, as the author details her experience in an abusive relationship, but April finds herself captivated by it, by the way that the story puts words to ideas and experiences that have haunted April’s entire life.
April listens as she unloads salad greens and last night’s leftover chicken from the fridge, absently aware that she knows this kitchen intimately by now.
“I had a room to myself as a kid, but my mother was always quick to point out that it wasn't my room, it was her room and I was merely permitted to occupy it,” the voice reads, “Her point, of course, was that my parents had earned everything and I was merely borrowing the space, and while this is technically true I cannot help but marvel at the singular damage of this dark idea: That my existence as a child was a kind of debt and nothing, no matter how small, was mine. That no space was truly private; anything of mine could be forfeited at someone else's whim.”
April just has to sit with that passage for several moments, the concept familiar enough to make her skin crawl.
A key in the lock startles her, and she quickly pauses the book, hands resuming their task of shredding chicken.
“Hi Debbie!” she calls, expecting Debbie’s warm voice in response.
But instead, April hears the sound of two sets of feet, the murmur of voices that she instantly recognizes, but knows don’t belong to Debbie.
April’s heart drops to her stomach just as a familiar figure rounds the corner.
Sterling Wesley’s mouth drops open, her face painted with shock.
“April? What the hell are you doing here?"
Horny Sterling has entered the chat.
“The most terrible and beautiful and interesting things happen in life. For some of you, those things have already happened. Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.”
- Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things
April Stevens is in her kitchen.
April Stevens is in her kitchen.
April Stevens is in her kitchen, and she’s either gotten prettier in the month or so that Sterling hasn’t seen her, or Sterling’s memory hasn’t been doing her justice, because…wow. April’s hair is up and her cheeks are flushed and Sterling hasn’t even really taken in her outfit but she can tell that there’s smooth skin on display and—
“What the fuck?!” Blair demands, and Sterling shakes her head.
April Stevens is in their kitchen.
“You aren’t supposed to be back for two more weeks,” April says, voice laced with accusation, as though Sterling and Blair are doing something wrong by entering their own home.
“You aren’t supposed to be here at all,” Blair replies. “Are you spying on us now?”
“Believe it or not, Blair, not every decision I make revolves around you and your sister.”
Blair makes an affronted noise before turning to Sterling, who wishes she had something articulate to add but is finding language a little hard to access in this moment.
The drive home was long, and she’s tired and hungry and really needs a shower; really needs the person who she hasn’t been able to stop thinking about to not be here, and yet she can’t look away, isn't even capable of trying.
April’s eyes narrow in her direction. “Are you okay?” April asks, in a tone that suggests that she very much does not care either way.
“Um. Why are you here?” Sterling manages to get out.
“Your mom invited me.”
April’s explanation is firm, but a trace of vulnerability lurks underneath it. Sterling feels Blair’s eyes cut over to her at the use of the phrase your mom, and it’s as if the words have gained an extra surge of power, because suddenly there’s another jangle of keys in the door.
Sterling sees April’s eyes go wide with something close to panic, and she’s pretty sure her own do the same.
“Hey, hun!” comes the unmistakable voice of Sterling’s not-mom. “Alright, I know it’s cheating, but I picked up a couple of pie shells in case we don’t feel like—”
Debbie rounds the corner, and the bag of groceries in her hand hits the floor with a thud.
“In case we don’t feel like what?” Blair practically sneers as she whirls to face her mother.
“You aren’t supposed to be back for two weeks,” Debbie gasps.
“April informed us.”
Sterling clears her throat, the awkwardness in the room starting to make her stomach hurt. “There was a lice outbreak,” she murmurs, desperate to bring some semblance of sense into this room.
“They sent you home for a lice outbreak?” April asks.
“Well—” Sterling glances over at Blair, who stands up a little straighter.
“I have no shame,” Blair announces. “Someone—Becca Nolan, that jealous bitch—narced on me and one of the boys’ counselors."
“Doing what?” Debbie asks.
Blair fixes her with a glare, as though daring her to inquire further. “Do you really wanna know?"
Debbie closes her eyes, breathes in and out slowly. It’s a coping strategy that Sterling recognizes, one that she herself has had to employ more than a few times over the last several months.
“Why didn’t you call?” Debbie asks.
“Why, so you could hide another secret family member?” Blair replies.
“Blair,” Sterling mutters between gritted teeth, tilting her head in April’s direction.
“Or hide whatever the fuck is going on here?” Blair quickly adds, waggling a finger between Debbie and April.
“Language,” Debbie sighs. “And nothing that’s happening here is a secret.” She smiles at April, one of her soft mom smiles that used to make Sterling believe that everything was going to be okay, but now makes her want to cry. “April’s been helping with some house projects.”
“In exchange for what?” Blair asks.
Debbie’s smile draws tighter. “My company.”
April’s been oddly silent during this exchange, but while Sterling’s been rather focused on the volley between her sister and her not-mom, she can feel April’s presence in the periphery, the way one can feel the warmth of a fire even without directly looking at it.
Now, April walks around to the other side of the counter, giving Sterling the opportunity to see the rest of her outfit, and Jesus Christ her thighs in those shorts; it just really isn’t fair for April to look so good at such a confusing moment.
“I should go,” April says quietly.
Sterling’s first instinct is to say, “No, please don’t go,” because she’s thought about April being here so many times in the last few months, about what she’d tell her if April was finally willing to listen, but all Sterling can manage to squeak out is, “April.”
April looks up at her sharply before turning to Debbie, who seems to be at a bit of a loss.
Something that Sterling didn’t really know her not-mom was capable of until this last year.
“Thank you, Debbie,” April murmurs in a more relaxed version of her church voice. “I’ll—we can check in later.”
The casual use of Debbie’s first name might hit harder if Sterling hadn’t also taken to referring to Debbie as such.
“I’m sorry,” Debbie replies, and it almost sounds like an apology for Sterling and Blair being here, as though their return has screwed up whatever the hell has apparently been going on here this summer, and it makes Sterling want to cry all over again.
Sterling’s desire to avoid her not-mom outweighs her curiosity, so she and Blair retreat to their rooms not long after April leaves. They each shower, and then Blair lets herself into Sterling’s room, wet hair dripping all over Sterling’s bed as she flops down onto it.
“What are you thinking?” Blair asks.
“You can't tell?”
“Hey, I’m trying at this whole boundaries thing, gimme a break!”
“Nina would be so proud.”
Nina is their therapist, a warm, big-hearted woman about fifteen years their senior who’s become an integral part of the family routine ever since the whole Dana bombshell. Sterling’s actually found herself missing Nina this last month or so, and this latest April sighting has her almost excited to get back to Nina’s office.
“Sterl?” Blair prompts.
Sterling sighs and flops down beside Blair. She’s sure that her pillows will be soaked tonight, but that seems like the least of her problems, and at least they won’t be wet with tears.
“I don’t know,” Sterling admits. Her shower provided a peculiar mixture of confusion, anger and horniness, a combination that Sterling’s gotten oddly accustomed to recently.
Being at camp was simple. Sterling was a counselor, and there was always something to do, always a kid who needed comforting or an activity to set up or a knee to bandage. At camp, everyone knew her as Blair’s twin, with zero asterisks beside the title. They just got to be sisters working side-by-side, and for the first time since Dana was being hauled away in a police car, the family drama felt far away.
But still, there was a nagging feeling in the back of Sterling’s mind, one that grew stronger as the days ticked along. Camp couldn’t last forever, and as soon as she got home Sterling knew that she’d have to deal with reality.
She just never expected reality to include April and her mom being friends.
“You don’t think they’re, like, hooking up, do you?” Blair asks.
Sterling’s jaw unhinges, because that thought certainly hadn’t occurred to her until right now.
“They couldn’t be,” she declares.
“Maybe you and mom share a type.”
“Blair, I beg of you.”
“I’m just saying, the woman is full of surprises.”
“No,” Sterling says firmly, not just out of a need for it to not be true, but out of a knowingness that it isn’t.
Because that’s not why April would hang around here. And furthermore, she wouldn’t do that to Sterling.
Sterling might not be sure of much, but she’s sure of that.
“Aw, I thought April was gonna stay,” Anderson remarks at dinner, actually sounding a little disappointed. “Would be nice to have a family meal, all together.”
Sterling starts to cut her chicken so vigorously that she could probably saw through the plate.
“Family?” Blair echoes. “Jesus, did you guys, like, adopt her, or something?”
Sterling and Debbie’s forks clatter onto their plates in unison.
“Sorry,” Blair says softly, in a voice that Sterling knows is only meant for her.
“She’s a good kid,” Anderson says. “She isn’t as lucky as—” He cuts himself off when Sterling’s jaw clenches. “She’s just been through a lot at home. And it’s been nice to—we’ve enjoyed having her around.”
He’s using the tone that Sterling recognizes from their family therapy sessions, the thoughtful, careful one that usually proceeds yet another apology, and Sterling can feel Debbie’s gaze trained on her, as if Debbie is expecting Sterling to burst into tears or explode or something, and it’s all way too much.
“May I be excused?” Sterling asks quietly.
“Of course, honey,” Debbie says.
Turns out, Sterling’s pillow might end up soaked with tears tonight after all.
It’s just—dealing with the April stuff and the family stuff at the same time has been unbelievably hard, but at least it’s been separate. Sterling isn’t like April, she’s not good at compartmentalizing, and yet there’s been a strange comfort in being able to put her sadness and anger into different boxes, to think of them as unrelated heartbreaks.
Now, though, now the April stuff and the family stuff has suddenly become like a big pot of gumbo, all stirred together. April doesn't seem to want to be back in Sterling's life, but she wants to be in Sterling’s parents’ lives. Except that they aren’t her parents. Not April’s, certainly, but not Sterling’s, either.
And Sterling isn’t even sure what she wants from April, but it definitely isn’t this; it definitely isn’t Sterling once again feeling like an outsider in her own home, like her not-parents have been engaging in some kind of daughter affair with the girl who Sterling had, not that long ago, hoped to introduce to them as her girlfriend.
Lord, Nina’s gonna have a field day with this one.
“Sterl?” Debbie calls through the door. “Can I come in?”
Sterling has said no to that question so many times over the last year, but now she doesn’t have the energy to fight it, so she hears herself replying, “Okay.”
Sterling sits up in bed, wiping her eyes, though she knows it's clear that she’s been crying.
Debbie steps into her room and gingerly stands at the foot of the bed, the same bed that she used to crawl into without hesitation whenever Sterling had had a nightmare and needed a cuddle.
Ironic, Sterling thinks now, that so many of her recent nightmares have involved Debbie herself.
Debbie takes a deep breath, hands clasped tightly in front of her. “I’m sorry that the April situation was such a shock. I had planned—well, I wanted to tell you, instead of you finding out like that.”
“Sounds familiar,” Sterling can’t resist muttering.
Debbie takes the shot in stride. “I understand if you have feelings about it, and I want you to feel like you can share them. But you should know that it wasn’t planned. April needed a place away from home and your dad—Anderson—and I needed—”
“No. Having her around, though, it felt nice. Natural.”
Sterling doesn’t mention that she gets that, that being around April felt nice and natural to her, too.
“We weren’t using her to get information on you, or anything,” Debbie continues.
“Oh.” Sterling blinks and looks up at her not-mom for the first time since she walked in. That thought hadn’t even occurred to Sterling, but the suggestion of it makes her want to throw up. “I hadn’t even…”
“Of course you hadn’t,” Debbie says gently. “Your mind’s too sweet for that.”
In the before time, hearing that compliment might have made Sterling smile. Now, though, it makes her stomach drop even further. Because maybe if her mind wasn't so sweet, maybe if she was more cunning or pragmatic or observant, more like Blair in those weeks when she just knew something was off, maybe Sterling could have figured it all out sooner.
“Anyway,” Debbie adds, “We like having April here, and it feels important to me to provide her this sense of safety. But I also understand if it’s too much right now, and I’m sure April would, too.”
Sterling’s pulse jumps. “She doesn’t know—”
“About Dana? No. That didn’t feel like my secret to tell.” Debbie huffs out a humorless laugh. “This time, at least.”
Sterling looks down at her hands. A thousand thoughts are swirling around in her brain, truths she could share with Debbie about her relationship with April, questions she has about how and why all of this happened, but the thing that manages to fight its way out is, “Does April hate me?”
“Oh, hun.” Debbie steps a little closer, and when Sterling doesn’t flinch away she slowly sits down on the bed. “That’s not for me to say.”
“So she does?”
“It’s complicated, I think. She’s hurt. But that doesn’t mean she won’t come around.”
Debbie lets out a long exhale, and when she speaks again Sterling can tell that she’s fighting back tears. “When you hurt someone, you have to own up to it. And then you have to give them time. That’s the hardest part, I think. But when it’s someone who really matters, the waiting is worth it.”
Sterling’s chest feels tight, and she’s certain that any words she says now will be soggy with tears, yet she can’t help asking, “Do you think I’m worth it?”
“Oh, my darling,” Debbie replies, voice so tender that Sterling’s tears start to fall again in earnest. “You are worth everything.”
In April’s haste to exit the Wesley house, she left her sweatshirt behind. Sterling jumps at the opportunity to return it the next morning, despite the fact that she still has no idea what the hell to say to April.
She still doesn’t know by the time she pulls up to the Stevens’ property, but at least a quick survey of the cars determines that Mr. and Mrs. Stevens must be out, though Sterling still parks down the block, just to be safe.
The last twenty-four hours have been intense enough without a run-in with the man she cold-cocked less than a year ago.
April answering the door isn’t a surprise, but Sterling still goes a little breathless at the sight of her, especially since April is sporting another pair of thigh-hugging jean shorts that instantly make Sterling consider the potential implications of the two of them alone together in this big empty house.
“What’re you doing here?” April asks flatly, as though Sterling wasn’t asking her the very same question just yesterday.
Sterling extends the sweatshirt and April’s expression noticeably softens enough that Sterling feels like she can ask, “What?”
April shakes her head. “Just—me returning something to your mom was sort of…how all of that began.”
The vagueness makes the hairs on the back of Sterling’s neck stand at attention. “What, exactly, does all that entail?”
April narrows her eyes. “Nothing tawdry, if that’s where your mind was going. Mostly baking and gardening.”
“That’s a little weird.”
“Well, I think compared to you arresting my father, me baking with your mother is a fairly normal activity.”
Sterling lets out a nervous chuckle, almost relieved that April has broken the seal by mentioning John Stevens. “Can I come in?”
April sighs but acquiesces, stepping out of the doorway and allowing Sterling to pass through.
“My parents will be home soon,” she says, which is definitely not the context in which Sterling imagined her saying those words several months ago.
“I won't stay long,” Sterling promises. “I just—well—”
April’s arms are folded and her jaw is set, but it suddenly lands that she let Sterling in. Which must mean that she wants something—an apology or an opportunity to explain or maybe even Sterling herself.
“My parents liked having you around,” Sterling says before she can think too much. “And maybe…maybe that should continue.”
“You want that?”
It’s a yes or no question, but the answer feels impossible.
Does Sterling want to spend time with April? It’s complicated, but yes.
Does she want her not-parents to be happy? She’s still mad at them, but ultimately, yes.
Does she want April to feel safe? Absolutely.
Does the idea of watching April pal around with Debbie and Anderson make Sterling want to climb under the covers and never come out? At least a little bit.
“I think so,” Sterling answers honestly.
“Very convincing,” April quips. “I believe I’ll keep my distance, though. I enjoyed spending time with your parents as well, but I don’t—”
“Want to spend time with me?” Sterling guesses.
“You are so impatient.”
Sterling’s cheeks warm a little at the remark. It’s hardly the cruelest thing April’s said about her in recent memory—April's scorching words during their hallway confrontation still ring in Sterling’s ears—but Sterling knows that it’s loaded, knows that Sterling’s impatience is a sore spot for them both.
“I’m sorry,” Sterling whispers. “I get that things are weird between us, but having you around—”
“Things aren’t weird between us. You betrayed me.”
Sterling hangs her head. The statement hurts to hear, but Sterling can take it. She has to take it.
“I know. And I’m—I don’t regret bringing your dad in, but I absolutely regret keeping it from you. I just—I didn’t want to screw up what we had.”
Sterling’s words are shaky but clear. She’s been wanting to say some version of them to April for months, has even practiced a speech in therapy (one that she really wishes she had written down on a notecard right now). It’s not everything that April needs to hear from her, but it’s a start.
“That doesn’t make it okay, though," Sterling adds.
April’s jaw tightens even more. “That’s not all I’m talking about. This has become a pattern with you, it seems.”
Sterling’s brow furrows in confusion. “Fifth grade? I’m sorry about that, too. I never meant to—”
“I’m not talking about fifth grade.” April’s nostrils flare, and Sterling definitely shouldn’t find it so hot. “I’m talking about—”
But Sterling doesn’t get to hear what April is talking about, because there’s a key in the lock, and before Sterling can curse the way that that noise has started to become a harbinger of doom in her life, she’s being pushed flat against a wall and April’s palm is covering her mouth.
“Honey, you home?” a voice calls. Sterling thinks it’s Mrs. Stevens, but it’s pretty hard to think right now, with April pinning her to a wall; with April’s face so close to her, breath hard and erratic, hand tight over Sterling’s mouth; with Sterling having to fight like hell to keep a moan from bubbling out of her throat.
Don’t move, April mouths, and Sterling nods, so incapable of even considering moving in this moment.
“Yeah, Mom, just heading to the library!” April calls, and then her lips are right next to Sterling’s ear and Sterling has to bite back a legit whine.
“She’s going to go pour herself a drink and we’ll sneak out the front door,” April whispers. “Follow my lead.”
Sterling nods again, unable to suppress a shiver at the sensation of April’s hot breath in her ear giving her a command.
April, unsurprisingly, knows her mother’s routine down to a T, and within seconds Mrs. Stevens is replying, “Okay, honey, have fun,” over the sound of a drink being poured.
April releases Sterling, who wants to cry at the loss of contact, and darts her head around the corner. She whips back and offers a small thumbs up, and somehow the two of them make it out the front door and down the steps without being noticed.
The tiny sliver of Sterling’s brain that is in any way holding on to rationality wonders why April went to such great lengths to hide Sterling; if it’s for closeted reasons or out of a desire to protect Sterling from her mother’s wrath.
While the deeply irrational and horny part of Sterling’s brain longs for April to call her a good girl for covertly getting out of there unscathed.
“You need to go,” April says definitively once they’re out of sight of the front windows.
“We were in the middle of talking.”
Talking, yes, and also in the middle of a scenario that Sterling already knows will be making many appearances in her fantasy rotation.
April glances back at the house and shakes her head. “Not now.”
Sterling wants to fight back, but she figures that a not now is better than a never, and she’d better not push her luck.
Besides, her body has some rather urgent matters to attend to.
“Okay,” she agrees, still a bit breathless, and April offers one more sharp nod before power-walking to her Jeep.
Sterling briefly considers the potential ramifications of masturbating in the Volt on April’s street before deciding against it and starting the car.
The drive home is truly the longest of her entire life.
“You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”
- Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things
It’s not like Sterling’s April-centric fantasies have ever really stopped since the supply closet moment of truth, but over the next week or so, they most definitely ramp way up.
Two in particular are in heavy rotation:
In one, Sterling is watching April build those damn veggies beds with her own bare hands (she’s sort of heartbroken that no one thought to take pictures of that process), but when April notices Sterling’s staring, she wipes said hands on her overalls (April is always wearing overalls in this fantasy; Sterling isn’t exactly sure why but it just works for her), hoists Sterling onto a piece of deck furniture, and fucks her senseless.
In the other, April has somehow grown a third arm, which allows her to clutch Sterling’s bicep with one hand, cover Sterling’s mouth with another, and use her third to fuck Sterling senseless.
The endings share a decidedly common theme.
“I’m getting you a rechargeable vibrator,” Blair tells her one morning. “You’re going through batteries at a truly alarming rate. It’s bad for the planet.”
Sterling flushes pink but doesn’t say anything; Blair isn’t wrong. The trashcan beside Sterling’s bed has basically become a graveyard for small batteries.
It might be less intense if there suddenly weren’t reminders of April everywhere around the house. But in the weeks that Sterling and Blair were gone, it really does seem as though their residence became something of a second home for April.
Except not second, exactly, because if April’s actual home felt safe and comfortable, Sterling suspects that she probably wouldn’t have ended up at the Wesleys’ in the first place.
Somehow Sterling’s spent the better part of the last year desperate to escape her house, while April’s been desperate to get into it.
Though desperate might not be the right word, since Sterling learns through a few stilted, oddly emotional conversations with Debbie that she was the one who encouraged April to come over in the first place, and that convincing April to stay felt a little like coaxing a feral animal out from behind a dumpster.
“Not the most flattering comparison,” Debbie realizes. “A very poised feral animal, I assure you.”
“I know what you mean,” Sterling replies, thinking of the sense of triumph she’s felt any time she’s managed to claw some vulnerability out of April.
Now, it’s almost like April is haunting the house; not present but around every corner.
There’s a little card with a sunflower on the front of it sitting proudly on the mantle, with April’s unmistakably neat handwriting peeking out from inside it.
(When no one is around, Sterling takes the card off the mantle and traces her fingers over the hard lines of April’s words: Thank you for everything. April apparently gave Debbie the card after Debbie bought April a book, though Sterling suspects that the everything encompasses a whole lot more than just good literature.)
The vegetables are starting to bloom in the mid-summer heat, and Sterling spends several minutes each morning staring out at them, wishing April was here; not even just for fantasy reasons, but because she wants April to get to see what she’s made, to enjoy the literal fruits of her labor.
Debbie and Anderson’s conversations are peppered with casual mentions of April—a recipe she made, a podcast she recommended, a memory of something funny or brilliant that she did. Sterling suspects that they’re trying to keep the references to a minimum, if the guilty looks they tend to shoot her way are any indication, but Sterling can also tell that in a very short period of time, including April into the fold has become second nature.
When Sterling notices that her not-parents aren’t settling in for a night of dumb crime procedurals at the end of a busy week, she inquires as to why. Anderson and Debbie exchange a cautious glance before Anderson replies, “We sort of got into a groove of watching them with April. Feels strange not having her around.”
Even Chloe seems to miss April, her eyes darting excitedly to the front door whenever someone walks in, only for her to flop back down in dismay when said someone isn’t April.
Sterling loves Chloe with all her heart, but she wishes she didn’t relate so hard to the family dog.
“I think everyone would be happier if April came back,” Sterling tells Nina at her next therapy session.
“Everyone?” Nina echoes.
Sterling sighs. Nina is the only one, besides Blair, to know the entire sordid history of the April situation. Once Sterling dug through the first layer of family stuff in therapy, she discovered that her April heartbreak was still lingering close to the surface.
She’d felt sort of weird about it at first—almost guilty that her entire understanding of who she was had been completely shattered, and yet she still found herself hung up on the curve of April’s smile, the warm way she spoke Sterling’s name—but Nina quickly assured her that there was no “right” way to do therapy, no reason for Sterling to rank her tragedies.
“I mean, I’ve been wanting to spend more time with her for, like, ever.”
Nina nods. “Yes, you have. But you and April spending time together and April spending time with your family are two different things.”
“Yeah,” Sterling acknowledges. “It sort of feels like an opportunity, though. Like a way to solve two problems at once.”
“I understand that. But remember, Sterling, your life isn’t a puzzle that you need to race to put together. I fully support you reconnecting with April if she makes you happy, yet you get to be patient with yourself, here. You don’t have to rush to make it right for anyone else.”
This isn’t the first time that Sterling’s desire for a quick solution has come up. She never really understood the depths of her own impatience until the aftermath of the Dana thing, most likely because for the first time in a big way, that impatience has been directed toward herself. She’s angry at her not-parents, sure, but she’s also angry at herself for still not feeling back to normal.
Though she’s beginning to suspect that normal is a place which she no longer has access to.
“I’m just saying,” Nina continues, “being around April and your family at the same time might be a little challenging. It’s not your job to make it easy.”
Nina is, as always, annoying right.
“Well, she hasn’t even spoken to me since I gave back her sweatshirt, so I might be getting ahead of myself.”
Nina smiles. “I think it’s great that you can recognize that.”
Sterling knows that her not-parents are pretty much leaving the ball in her court, letting Sterling decide when and if April returns, though she can also tell that they’re eager for some resolution, that her and Blair’s unexpected homecoming threw their entire summer off its rhythm.
They aren’t the only ones needing some answers. After a little over a week of this weird limbo and near-constant overthinking, Sterling gets up the courage to text April:
Chloe misses you. Wanna go for a walk?
It’s a weak move, making Chloe responsible for Sterling’s own desires, but April, to Sterling’s surprise, says yes.
Which is how Sterling ends up at the park near her house at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, Chloe’s leash clutched in her hands so tightly that it could probably snap in half.
April arrives looking well-rested and perfect, of course, and Sterling is so busy studying her face that it takes her a good thirty seconds to notice that April is, in fact, wearing cut-off overalls.
Once she does realize that fact, however, Sterling chokes on her spit, feeling her face turn crimson as she loudly coughs.
April stares at her with a concerned expression.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Wow, Sterling is off to a great start.
“Sorry,” Sterling says once she can speak again. “Um, I like your outfit.”
April glances down at herself, then back up at Sterling.
“Thank you,” she replies mildly.
“Thank you for meeting me.”
“Well, I couldn’t let Chloe down.”
At that April crouches to the ground, hands coming up to pet the back of Chloe’s neck.
Sterling blinks at the sight. April was always sweet with Chloe when they were young, but in recent years Sterling can recall April talking disparagingly about dogs and specifically dog people, referring to them as “the human equivalent of an Ugg boot,” whatever that means. Sterling always sort of suspected that April might secretly have a fear of dogs, a thing that she used to feel a little smug about.
Now, though, April looks right at home petting Chloe’s soft fur and cooing gently to her. Chloe, in turn, licks a stripe up the side of April’s neck, and Sterling tries like heck not to think about the fact that last night’s dream featured her doing that very same thing to April, because Christ, there are children, like, twenty feet away from them.
But then April looks up at Sterling, a hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth, and it occurs to Sterling that April is kneeling down in front of her, which makes everything so much worse.
Not only, Sterling recognizes, for sex reasons, but because this is a side of April that she hasn't glimpsed in so long—this softness, this vulnerability—and the sight of it hits her squarely in the chest.
Sterling clears her throat and extends a hand to help April up, a hand which April defiantly does not take as she rises to her feet.
“How are your parents?” April asks, in a voice that Sterling knows is sincere.
Sterling breathes through the word parents and offers a noncommittal shrug. “They’re fine. I think they miss you.”
“Oh,” April says quietly. She nods at the path in front of them. “Shall we walk?”
Sterling nods, and Chloe chooses that moment to dart in the direction of a squirrel, nearly pulling Sterling’s arm out of its socket. Sterling lurches forward, barely avoiding face-planting directly into the grass before righting herself.
“Maybe I should hold the leash,” April suggests. “She’s more obedient for me.”
Yeah, I would be, too, Sterling thinks before wordlessly handing the leash over, figuring that April might be more receptive to this conversation if she’s literally holding the reins.
They walk in silence for a couple of minutes, the vibe between them not exactly awkward but definitely not comfortable. The echoes of children’s laughter around them seem almost too loud, though Sterling is also sort of grateful for the background noise.
Sterling had words prepared, scraps of smalltalk to share, anecdotes to lead them into this conversation. But instead she hears herself blurting out, “You said a thing the other day, about me betraying you. And I haven’t been able to stop wondering what you meant by that.”
April stops in the middle of the path, fixing Sterling with an incredulous stare.
“Sterling, come on. Don’t play dumb with me.”
“I’m not, I just—”
“Look, I understand that we have very different home lives,” April begins harshly, and Sterling’s stomach flips with the knowledge that April is gearing up to something big. “I understand why you brought my dad in, and I even sort of understand why you kept it from me."
That’s a shock, and Sterling almost considers it a win before April says, “What I don’t understand is why you seem to have a pathological need for honesty with literally everyone else but me.”
Sterling feels her heart thud in her chest.
“You mean when I wanted to tell people about us? I’m sorry about that, too, I shouldn’t have pushed you and I know you weren’t ready—”
“And yet that still didn’t stop you from outing me.”
The bitterness of the statement hangs between them, heavier than the humidity in the air.
It takes Sterling a second, but then she gets it.
“You think—you think I told Debbie and Anderson about us?”
One of April’s eyebrows flickers, likely at Sterling’s use of her not-parents’ first names, but then she shakes her head and resumes walking.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” April says in a tone that makes it clear that it very much does still matter. “We obviously aren’t together, and I came out to them anyway, so—”
“You came out to them?”
Sterling’s jaw unhinges. Of course. This is why Debbie has been so cautious, so intense, whenever the topic of April has come up. Sterling thought that it was just about the family stuff, chalked it up to the fact that every conversation between her and Debbie for the last few months has felt sad and loaded.
But if Debbie thought that Sterling and April were a couple—
“Oh,” Sterling exhales. "That—that makes sense.”
April frowns. She’s always hated being a few steps behind.
“What’re you talking about?”
“Debbie must have put two and two together,” Sterling explains. “I told her I’m bi, and you told her you’re gay, so she must’ve—”
“You didn’t tell them? About us?”
The particulars of the coming out conversation come to Sterling in a flash. She was still kind of a mess back then—not that she’s honestly in much better shape, now—and so angry, but she was unable to stomach any more lies. The words had come tumbling out in a soggy, unplanned mess after an especially intense session with Nina.
But even in her highly emotional state, Sterling made sure to never say April's name.
“No,” she answers. “I said that—that there was a girl who I liked so, so much, but the timing wasn’t right.”
Sterling bites her lip, chest squeezing at the fact that even then, post-lock-in and post-kidnapping, some part of her was holding onto hope that their story might end differently.
“That was before you found out about the stuff with your dad,” she adds softly. “Before you hated me. But I never mentioned you by name. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
April’s lips part slightly as she takes that in, the morning sun hitting her face just right, illuminating the warm glow of her cheeks.
“Wow, your mom is…perceptive,” April says after a long silence, her rage visibly draining away. “It really seemed like she knew for sure.”
“I mean, to be fair, she probably thinks we’re the only queer teenagers she’s ever met, so…”
Sterling scuffs her toe against a rock. Her own coming out definitely hadn’t been perfect on her end, but Debbie and Anderson had said the right things, making it clear that they supported her no matter what. She’s certain that they provided the same for April.
“I’m glad you came out to them,” Sterling murmurs, then hears how that could sound, given all that happened last year. “Not because… I mean I’m glad for you, that you have support.”
“Me too. They were great.” April smiles a little, though it doesn’t entirely reach her eyes. “You’re lucky.”
Sterling blinks rapidly, willing herself not to cry at that. Because yeah, she is lucky, but God, she wishes it wasn’t so complicated.
“Hm,” she offers vaguely.
April lifts her chin, her smile growing more lopsided.
“Is that all you told them?”
“You said you liked me so, so much,” April says, a teasing edge to her words that makes Sterling’s pulse speed up. “Is that all?”
Truthfully, it is all, but Sterling doesn’t think that’s what April’s actually asking. In fact, if she had to guess, she’d almost say that April is flirting with her.
Sterling takes a small step forward, grateful that they’ve found themselves in a more secluded part of the park, that she can look into April’s eyes without either of them wondering who might be watching.
“It wasn’t my most articulate moment,” Sterling admits, stepping even closer. Close enough that she can see the rapid rise and fall of April’s chest, the way that her eyes quickly dart down to Sterling’s lips, then back up again.
“But what I thought,” Sterling continues, "what I wanted to say, is that if I got a second chance, I wouldn’t mess it up. I would be more honest, more patient."
She lets out a small breath, then decides to go for broke: "And truthfully, some days getting that chance is all I can think about.”
Chloe is tugging at her leash but April doesn’t move, her gaze trained on Sterling’s face, and for a second Sterling thinks that April is either going to kiss her or turn around and march away.
“Sterling,” April sighs, and God, Sterling’s only heard April say her name like that a few blissful times, but she’s missed it so incredibly much.
“Yeah?” Sterling breathes.
“I don’t hate you.”
It’s not exactly a declaration of love, but it honestly might as well be, with the way Sterling’s entire chest blooms.
April tilts her head to the side, smirking. "Oh, believe me, I’ve tried. Multiple times. But I was never any good at it.” She shrugs, the gesture doing nothing to convince Sterling that this conversation is in any way casual. “Hating you turns out to be one of the few things I’ve ever failed at.”
“Wow." Sterling feels her face splitting into a grin. "I’m sort of honored to be one of your failures.”
“Don’t let it get to your head,” April says, but Sterling can tell that she’s fighting back a laugh.
“You’ve always been good at keeping me humble.”
“Damn right.” April pauses, as though considering something, before adding, “Guess I’ll need to stick around, then.”
And Sterling knows what that means, knows it’s as close to a concession as April’s going to give her right now. Knows that this is April saying, Okay, I’ll come back.
Maybe even, I forgive you.
Whatever it might be, Sterling will most definitely take it.
“Yeah, guess so.”
April keeps on walking down the path with Chloe, and Sterling follows behind them with a smile.
Content warning for a little bit of homophobic language from one Mr. John Stevens.
“You have to pick the places you don't walk away from.”
- Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer
“Wow, honey, don’t you look nice! Where’s you off to?”
April grimaces at the sound of her mom’s voice. She had hoped to sneak out of the house unnoticed, but clearly that’s no longer an option.
She plasters on her best church smile and spins around in the direction of the living room, where her mom is reading some Fifty Shades of Grey knock-off and her dad is watching Fox News. They couldn’t be further apart on the couch, but no one is screaming, so April supposes that this counts as quality time.
“Just Ezequiel’s,” April replies mildly, smoothing a hand over the front of her skirt.
It’s not like she’s that dressed up, though her wardrobe has mostly consisted of jean shorts and loose t-shirts this summer, clothing items that can get grass-stained without April hearing a lecture from Holly about it, which she guesses makes the presence of a skirt and button-up top a bit of an anomaly.
If the skirt she’s wearing happens to resemble the one she wears to school—the one that always seems to draw Sterling’s attention to April’s legs and ass—that’s neither here nor there.
Technically, Anderson has invited April over to share her ideas for the birdhouse he’s been wanting to build, but April is pretty sure that that’s an excuse, more than anything, for April to return to the Wesley home after her brief hiatus.
John glances up from Sean Hannity’s stupid smirking face to offer April a scoff. “Padawan, unless you’re looking for fashion tips, getting dolled up for that little sodomite is a waste of your beauty.”
“John!” Holly chastises unconvincingly.
April works to hide her grimace. Leave it to her dad to make an ostensible compliment as offensive and uncomfortable as possible.
“Just thought I’d change things up,” April offers. “Anyway, see you later!”
“Drive safe, honey!” Holly calls, already sounding disinterested.
April tries to shake the interaction off on the drive over to the Wesleys, which she figures should be an easy task, considering that it’s hardly the worst thing John has said to her even this week.
But loathe as April is to admit it, she’s finding her tried and true commitment to compartmentalization a little more challenging to access than usual.
Maybe it’s because every comment from her parents that even skirts the issue of queerness sends April into a panic, or maybe it’s because spending so much time with the Wesleys only to be away from them for the last week makes the contrast between the two families clearer than ever, or maybe it’s because the ticking clock that April assigned to her future self the second she realized that other girls didn’t have to remind themselves not to stare during gym class gets louder the older she gets.
Whatever the reason might be, April must not have successfully wiped her face clean of distress by the time she’s knocking on the Wesleys’ front door, because Sterling takes one look at her and asks, “What’s wrong?”
April startles a little, reflexively disappointed that Sterling is more focused on her expression than her skirt.
Though the disappointment quickly gives way to a peculiar mixture of annoyance and fondness. Annoyance that now she has to address said distress, and fondness that Sterling can read it—can read her—so accurately.
“I’m fine,” April insists, but Sterling, of course, doesn’t accept that, stepping out of the house and closing the door behind her rather than inviting April in.
“What’re you doing?” April asks.
“You looked like you might need a minute before dealing with everyone.”
“Is there a surprise party waiting for me inside?”
Sterling smiles, and April wishes that it didn’t affect her so much. “No, but I think my—I think it was definitely on the table.”
April frowns, Sterling’s words kicking her curiosity into high gear. She knew that something was up in the Wesley home even before the twins’ return, but having Blair and Sterling back has made the tension even more obvious. Honestly, a part of April has sort of been looking forward to the opportunity to play detective tonight, to carefully suss out just what went down in this household that’s always seemed pretty ideal, from the outside.
And, April supposes she can say with some certainty now, from the inside, as well.
But it would seem that Sterling’s playing a bit of detective on her own, because her eyes have narrowed in April’s direction.
“Seriously, you can tell me,” Sterling urges, taking a seat on the top step. “Your family okay?”
April sighs and uncrosses her arms before sitting down beside her.
“You don’t need to do this,” she tells Sterling.
“You don’t need to inquire about my home life because you feel guilty about the stuff with my dad.” April looks down at her fingers. “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t—if I was still mad.”
The thing is, she probably should still be mad. She’s sure she would be if literally any other person was involved. But she’s always been weak where Sterling’s concerned. And their recent conversations have forced April to reconcile with the fact that Sterling isn’t out to hurt her. She never has been.
“Really?” Sterling asks, the words so soft and hopeful, like April just announced that she gets to open her Christmas presents early.
April can’t help her mouth from turning up a bit, the satisfaction at being the one to make Sterling sound like that spreading through her whole body.
“But wait,” Sterling says, shaking her head. “That’s not why I’m asking. Not at all. I want to know. Genuinely.”
April has learned that normally when people use the word genuine, they’re being anything but; hell, that’s certainly the case whenever she uses that word. Yet she can tell that Sterling is telling the truth, that she actually want to know.
April takes a deep breath. She hasn’t ever really opened up to Debbie or Anderson about what happens at home, not about everything, but she’s shared with them as much as she’s shared with anyone.
Sterling is their daughter, in more ways than one; she’s kind and gentle and she listens, but she’s also persistent. April has no doubt that she could shut this conversation down if she really wanted to, but in this moment she just can’t muster the desire to do so.
“My dad,” she finally says. “He’s—he’s just an asshole, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry,” Sterling replies immediately. “Want me to knock him out again?”
Her eyes dart up to April’s in a panic. “Sorry, we’re probably not ready to joke about that yet, huh?”
April isn’t very successful at suppressing her small laugh. “It’s okay.”
“What’d he do? Or say?”
“A thing about Ezequiel. Nothing he hasn’t said before, but—”
“I get it. Some days stuff that’s normal-bad just hits you harder, even if you don’t know why.”
April nods, unsure of how and why Sterling would understand that, but grateful that she does.
“Sometimes I wonder if the only reason they even still let me hang out with Ezequiel is because banning me from seeing him would force us to actually have a conversation about sexuality,” April admits. It’s a thought that’s been rattling around in her head for the last few moments, though this is the first time she’s put words to it.
Sterling makes a sad sort of noise in the back of her throat. “Is it like a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ thing with them? I mean, when it comes to you?”
April studies her nails. She’d gotten used to the sight of dirt underneath them, and they look a little too clean right now. “Honestly?”
“I think I’m too scared to find out.”
Without warning Sterling reaches over and takes her hand, intertwining their fingers. April gasps a little, loud enough for Sterling to notice.
When April looks up, the panic is lingering in Sterling’s eyes, so she gives Sterling’s hand a small squeeze.
And Lord, April knows that it’s a friendly gesture, knows that Sterling is trying to comfort her, but Sterling’s skin is so soft and warm, and her fingers threaded through April’s just feel…
They just feel right.
“You’re really brave, April,” Sterling tells her, voice shaking a tiny bit.
There are a million things April could say to that, a million data points that she could cite in contradiction, but something about being here on the Wesley porch with Sterling’s hand in hers makes an impossibility feel suddenly true: it makes April feel brave.
“Thank you,” she manages to get out.
Sterling’s smile in response is absolutely radiant.
April spends the weekend helping Anderson build the birdhouse, accompanying him to the hardware store and working in his wood shop alongside him, and she’s almost embarrassed by how much she missed spending time with the Wesleys. Anderson actually values April’s ideas, is able to laugh at his own mistakes, and the ease of every interaction hits April squarely in the chest.
Because he’s not her father, he couldn’t be further from her father, but in these moments it almost feels like he is, like April is staring at a funhouse mirror version of her own life.
Sterling hangs around the two of them, popping in frequently to offer refreshments like a ’50’s housewife, her gaze completely unsubtle as she focuses on April’s arms. April wishes she didn’t like it so much, but God, having Sterling’s attention on her is such a rush. It makes April feel capable of just about anything.
They hang the birdhouse on Monday, and it coincides nicely with some of the vegetables being ready for harvest, so Debbie decides that they should make a nice dinner to celebrate. April comes over in the early evening, going about marinating ripe tomatoes in fresh basil and garlic for bruschetta, while Debbie caramelizes carrots for risotto.
Sterling and Blair sit on the other side of the counter, running commentary on the proceedings while snacking on the peaches Debbie picked up from the farmer’s market.
“I’m just saying,” Blair remarks, “this seems like a lot of effort for some vegetables.”
“I thought you wanted us all to become vegetarians,” Debbie replies.
“Yeah, but you can eat vegetarian without going full Little House on the Prairie.”
April throws a glare over at her. “I hardly see how being compared to hard-working pioneers is an insult, Blair.”
“Oh, they were all racists, anyway.”
Sterling snorts out a small laugh. She’s been oddly quiet today, watching April and Debbie working together with an expression that isn’t the reverent one April’s grown accustomed to. April wishes that she was able to focus solely on Sterling’s apparent sadness, both for the sake of solving this frustrating mystery and because it would make her a better person.
But now, when she glances up to see Sterling biting into a fat wedge of peach, April’s breath catches in her throat.
Sterling’s lips are shiny with peach juice, a little of it dribbling down her chin, and April resists the urge to lean across the counter and wipe her face. She thinks about what it would be like to press her mouth against Sterling’s and taste the sweetness there, and then her face flushes as her brain hop-skips to the mental image of seeing Sterling’s lips slick and shiny in a very different context; seeing her down on her knees in front of April, looking up at April with those wide, beautiful eyes, April’s hand clenched in her hair as she—
“You alright, April?” Debbie prompts, and April’s face goes even redder.
Jesus, she’s thinking about oral sex in the Wesley kitchen. She truly needs to get a grip.
And not in Sterling’s hair.
“Fine,” April squeaks out, but she doesn’t think any of them buy it.
Thankfully, Debbie swiftly moves on, calling out, “Sterl? Wanna come taste this for me?”
“I’m good,” Sterling replies, all evidence of her strangely erotic peach consumption thankfully wiped away.
“I could really use your opinion on this, darling.”
“I said I’m good,” Sterling says, an uncharacteristic hardness to her voice. “Why don’t you ask April? She’d know better than me.”
Normally April would preen under such a compliment, but the edge of anger in Sterling’s words makes her stomach drop.
Debbie clears her throat. “Well, maybe you could take Chloe for a spin around the block? She hasn’t been out in a while.”
“Chloe doesn’t want to go out with me,” Sterling mutters.
“Now, that’s just not true,” Debbie replies, sounding like she’s rapidly losing her hold on whatever this conversation has become.
April suddenly feels utterly lost, like she’s been plopped down in the middle of a tennis match but doesn’t know the rules. She's caught between wanting to know what the hell is going on, and wanting to be anywhere but here.
“Um, I could walk Chloe,” April offers.
“No, I will,” Blair announces grouchily, rising to her feet. “Sterl, join me?”
Sterling shakes her head, staring down at her fingers, so Blair sighs and goes off in search of the leash.
“Honey,” Debbie murmurs, stepping away from the carrots. “Maybe you’d like to—”
“I’m fine,” Sterling insists, clearly very much not fine. “Go back to—” She gestures vaguely in the direction of the stove, though her eyes have settled on April, the blue of them cloudy with hurt.
“I—” Debbie starts, but then her phone starts to buzz from the depths of her apron pocket. She reaches in to check it, letting out a labored exhale when she reads the name. “Shoot. It’s Anderson’s mother. I’ll never hear the end of it if I send her to voicemail.”
Debbie’s gaze volleys between Sterling and April, who suddenly feels like a porcelain doll in a display case. “Think you two can hold down the fort?”
April nods and Debbie power-walks away, her voice high and phony as she greets, “Oh, hi, Mother. How are you?”
“Sorry about that,” Sterling murmurs after a couple of painfully silent minutes.
April gives the carrots a stir and turns the heat down. “For what?”
“I didn’t mean to make things awkward.”
April chews her lip, debates letting that go. She probably should; whatever is happening between Debbie and Sterling is certainly none of her business.
But God, Debbie is trying. She is trying with Sterling the way no one has ever tried with April, giving Sterling a degree of latitude that would be absolutely unheard of in the Stevens house.
April thinks of standing outside of Willingham, of Sterling’s certainty that people loved her unconditionally.
Doesn’t she know how rare that is, how lucky she is to have won the parental lottery?
“You should cut your mom some slack,” April hears herself saying.
Sterling lets out an indignant snort. “You’re talking to me about cutting someone slack? When has that ever been your M.O?”
“School is different. At home… she’s your mom, Sterling. She loves you.”
“You really have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sterling says lowly. “She’s done some—she’s not so perfect.”
April doesn’t want to fight with Sterling, not again. They’ve already spent so much time fighting, and somehow, finally, they’ve gotten themselves back to a sort-of good place.
Yet hearing Sterling speak that way, like she knows anything about less-than-perfect parenting, like April is the naive one in this situation—well, it’s infuriating.
April turns toward Sterling and stares directly into her eyes as she says, “I know that she actually listens to you, that she actually cares. I know that she’ll be there for you, no matter what. I know that being under her roof feels safe.”
April lets out a breath that’s shakier than she’d like it to be. “That’s not just a given, you know. It’s a privilege to get to stay mad at your parents. So whatever she did, I think you should let it go.”
April is certain that if the tables were turned, if Sterling was the one doling out unsolicited advice about April's family, April would have marched out of here five minutes ago.
But April cares about Debbie, considers her a friend. And Sterling truly doesn’t know how good she has it.
To April’s surprise, though, there are tears building in Sterling’s eyes. “I can’t just let it go.”
“Why not? What could possibly be so bad?”
“I’d kill for a mom like yours.”
The statement is too vulnerable, too true, the words coming out raw and this side of anguished, but Sterling doesn’t react with pity. Rather, she shakes her head.
“No, you wouldn’t,” Sterling murmurs.
April lets out a sigh, crossing her arms. “Alright, ‘kill’ might be a tad hyperbolic, but—”
“You wouldn’t kill for a mom like mine. Because my mom isn’t Debbie Wesley.”
April blinks. Once. Twice. Surely Sterling’s speaking figuratively, being a touch dramatic, herself.
And then Sterling is crying in earnest as she launches into a story that makes April’s head spin, one that sounds like it was ripped right from the plot of Señora O’Reilly’s telenovela, one about fake twins and real twins and a kidnapping, one that suddenly changes everything April thought she knew about the Wesley family.
The story doesn’t take Sterling that long to tell, but April feels like she ages about ten years while listening to it, wouldn’t be surprised to find streaks of white in her hair as a reaction to the shock of it all. She’s virtually silent the entire time, peppering in just a few noises of surprise, but somewhere along the way she finds herself leaning across the counter to hold Sterling’s hand.
Sterling is just starting to talk about her therapist when Debbie rounds the corner, her face falling at the sight of her daughter in tears. Sterling might not be actively weeping anymore, but it’s clear that she has been.
But before Debbie can fully ask the question, April thinks fast, dropping Sterling’s hand to step around the counter, body instinctively landing between Debbie’s and Sterling’s as she says, “Sterling was just talking about a really sad book that she wants to loan me. Sterl, let’s go grab it before we forget, yeah?”
April turns back and reaches for Sterling’s hand again, almost like second nature, and Sterling grabs it seemingly without another thought, letting April pull her to her feet and lead her out of the room, both of them ignoring whatever worried question Debbie is voicing behind them.
Blair is just walking in with Chloe when they pass the front door, and she takes one look at Sterling and starts following them up the stairs with a fiercely muttered, “What did you do, Stevens?”
The three of them convene in Sterling’s room, and April pushes away her quick realization that she’s in Sterling’s room as Blair rounds on her.
“I swear to God, if you broke her heart again, I will—”
“Blair,” Sterling cuts in urgently, voice soggy. “I told her.”
Sterling looks deeply into Blair’s eyes, and somehow Blair just knows.
April shakes her head, very much still in the processing stage but also aware that there are two parents—Blair’s parents—downstairs who are going to need to be dealt with.
Blair’s arms are around Sterling’s, but Sterling’s hand is still in April’s. It’s like the three of them have formed a circuit, trying to spark some light back into Sterling, to power away her pain.
April looks at Sterling and Blair for just a moment, these two girls who she’s envied for as long as she’s known them; these sisters, except that they aren’t.
Except that they are.
“I can handle your—Debbie,” April suggests, clearing her throat. "If you two want to talk, or whatever.”
Sterling didn’t tell her this, but April knows by the way that the girls are staring at one another that very few people have heard this story, that April being told it ranks in the category of Big Deal.
Sterling is crying again, and Blair seems to be holding back tears as well, and April can’t believe that less than thirty minutes ago she was actually angry at Sterling for not being more grateful, when Sterling’s entire life has been falling apart all this time.
“Are you sure?” Sterling asks between halting breaths.
“Absolutely,” April says firmly. “We can just call the whole dinner off. Whatever you need.”
It doesn’t make up for the way she’s treated Sterling, or even begin to fill the parent-sized hole at the center of Sterling’s world, but it’s something that April can offer in this moment.
“Okay,” Sterling agrees.
“Um, you’re gonna have to let my hand go.”
“Right.” Sterling gives her hand one more squeeze before releasing it, and April immediately feels colder.
She heads toward the door without looking back, wanting to give Sterling and Blair their privacy.
But before she can open the door Blair is calling, “Wait,” so April turns.
“Thanks, Stevens,” Blair says with a watery half-smile.
“Don’t mention it.”
April takes a deep breath, then steps across the threshold and closes the door behind her.
In the "having so much fun writing this that the updates are coming fast and furious" stage of this fic.
“I’d cut my soul into a million different pieces just to form a constellation to light your way home. I’d write love poems to the parts of yourself you can’t stand. I’d stand in the shadows of your heart and tell you I’m not afraid of your dark.”
- Andrea Gibson
“You were right.”
Nina blinks, a small smile gracing her features.
“About?” she prompts.
Sterling shifts in her chair. She wishes Nina wasn’t right, wishes that one tiny thing in this life of hers didn’t have to be complicated, but she supposes that therapy is the place to work on un-complicating.
“Having April around,” Sterling replies. “It’s been hard but also…kind of good?”
“Can you say more about that?”
Sterling reflects back on the whirlwind of the other day, the sharp anger and jealousy that had arisen in her chest as she watched April and Debbie working side by side in the kitchen, looking like a mother and daughter straight out of a McCormick commercial, or something.
“Well, I saw her with Debbie, and it was like…everything was so easy and comfortable with them. And I thought about the fact that I haven’t felt that way around Debbie for so long, and how some days I can’t ever imagine feeling that way again.”
“That sounds pretty painful,” Nina acknowledges.
Sterling lets out a breath, a couple of tears slipping down her face. “It was. But then I ended up telling April about the Dana thing.”
Nina looks genuinely shocked at that, for good reason. Up until this point, she’s been the only non-family member to know the Big Secret.
“Yeah and she was… I mean, obviously she was surprised, but she was supportive.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” Nina leans forward a little. “Why do you think you told her?”
“I sort of blurted it out,” Sterling admits. “But…”
Sterling thinks of how she felt waking up the following morning with the understanding that April knew this information about her, information that has seemed so dark and insurmountable ever since Sterling herself learned it. Sterling sort of expected to feel regret or maybe even shame that she’d revealed this thing about herself, but she was actually filled with relief.
“Well, after the fact I realized that I want her to know me, all of me. Even the messy parts.” Sterling wipes at her cheek. “Sometimes I feel like only messy parts.”
“It sounds like she can handle your mess.”
Sterling takes that in, lets the words settle in her bones.
“Yeah,” she says quietly. “And I don’t want her to… I still want her to be around.”
Nina nods. “Sterling, do you feel like you can talk to Debbie about how you felt witnessing her with April?”
“I don’t know.”
She and Debbie have been talking so little about anything real that it’s hard to imagine broaching the topic.
But this is about April, and April matters.
As if reading Sterling’s thoughts, Nina says, “Well, far be it from me to give you an assignment, but if you’d like to keep having April around, you might benefit from addressing the situation at some point.”
Sterling knows that Nina is right. So the next day she gathers her courage and knocks on her not-parents’ door as Debbie is putting away laundry.
“Can we talk?” Sterling asks.
Debbie’s face blooms with warm surprise, and she quickly waves Sterling in, setting the laundry basket aside. “Of course, honey.”
Sterling settles down on the edge of the bed. When she was little she used to love hanging out in her parents’ bedroom. She and Blair would come in here to jump on the plush mattress, then starfish their bodies across the length of the bed, talking about what they wanted their grownup rooms to look like someday.
But in this moment it occurs to Sterling that she’s barely spent any time in this room since the night of the lock-in.
“Um, I told April about Dana,” Sterling says.
Debbie’s eyebrows fly up her forehead. “Oh!”
“Yeah, I wasn’t planning to, but it just sort of came out, and I thought you should know.”
If it was a few months ago, if Sterling was still feeling petty and freshly wounded, she might have made some remark about how she values honesty, even if Debbie doesn’t. Now, though, she finds herself wanting to be truthful not out of a desire for moral superiority but because it just feels better than lying.
“How’d she take it?” Debbie asks.
Sterling reflects on how quickly April had ushered her upstairs, on how steadfastly she’d covered for Sterling and Blair.
“She took it well. I mean, not well, exactly but…”
“There’s not exactly a right way to react to that information,” Debbie acknowledges, just this side of rueful.
Sterling plucks at a stray thread on the bedspread.
Debbie clears her throat. “But are you glad you told her?”
“I am,” Sterling replies without hesitation.
“That's good. You must really trust her.”
I do, Sterling recognizes.
Debbie opens and closes her mouth a couple of times before saying, "Look, Sterl, I haven’t wanted to push you to have a conversation you aren’t ready for, but I think we should talk about April.”
Sterling’s skin prickles. She knows that she isn’t exactly subtle about the way she feels toward April, and she’s pretty darn sure that Debbie has figured out that something happened between them in the past, but she’s definitely been hoping that Debbie would wait for her to broach the topic.
“Talk about her…how?” Sterling squeaks out.
“I relate to her.”
Well, that’s not what Sterling was expecting.
“I know what it’s like to grow up in a home that you’re itching to get out of,” Debbie continues, words firm and soft all at once. “I care about her, and I know that you care about her, too.”
Debbie moves her hand forward until it rests between them on the bed, a gentle peace offering. “But the way I feel toward April doesn’t in any way impact the way I feel toward you, okay? You’re my heart, you and Blair and your—and Anderson. I’m sorry if I ever made you doubt that.”
Sterling bites her lip, though it does nothing to keep her tears at bay. She knows that she could accept the apology and move on, but that wouldn’t be the truth, wouldn’t be giving voice to the fear that’s been rattling around inside of her ever since she returned home from camp to find April Stevens standing in her kitchen, a fear that has only gotten louder since seeing the comfortable way April and Debbie interact with one another.
“I guess I thought maybe,” Sterling starts, unsure of how even to articulate this. “I mean, she actually wants to spend time with you right now. Isn’t that…easier?”
“Oh, honey, love isn’t about what’s easy. You’re my girl. Always. Nothing and no one is gonna change that.”
And Debbie’s been saying that in various ways ever since Sterling found out about Dana, but for the first time Sterling really feels the words, hears the meaning behind them.
“I still want April here, if that’s okay,” Sterling says. “I sort of feel like she belongs here, y’know?”
Debbie fixes her with a curious look, but rather than prodding further she nods. “Yeah, I do know. I love you so much. You have got such a big, beautiful heart.”
Sterling’s mind suddenly scrapes together an image of Debbie meeting her as a baby and deciding that she needed to protect Sterling, of Debbie recognizing a familiar hurt in April and knowing that she could help.
Sterling slides her own hand on top of Debbie’s.
“Maybe I got it from you.”
They spend a couple of minutes just sitting there hand-in-hand, teary-eyed but smiling. Sterling’s missed this, she realizes; just sharing space with her mom rather than avoiding eye contact or rushing away.
“What’s going on in here?” Blair eventually asks from the doorway.
Sterling turns to look at Blair, but doesn’t move away from their mom.
“We’re talking about April.”
Blair’s confused smile slips into a smirk. “Oh?”
“Yes, about how we like having her here,” Debbie adds.
Blair lets out a snort of laughter. “Yeah, some of us like it very, very much.”
“Blair,” Sterling warns.
Blair puts her hands up as she walks into the room and flops down on the bed. “Hey, I’ve got no beef with Stevens, okay?”
“Yeah?” Sterling can’t help but confirm as she lies down beside Blair.
“Absolutely. She’s solid.”
“She is,” Debbie agrees, and Sterling grins, warmth radiating through her at the fact that two of her most important people have glimpsed what Sterling sees when she looks at April.
Though not all she sees, thank God.
“I should probably go make dinner, huh?” Debbie suggests.
“Five more minutes,” Sterling murmurs. “I just wanna hang here with you for a bit, if that’s okay?”
Debbie smiles softly before leaning back next to Sterling. “Sweetheart, I’d love nothing more.”
Sterling has a little trouble sleeping that night, chest tight with lingering emotions, brain churning with what she’ll say when she next sees April, so she ends up thumbing through Her Body and Other Parties, the book that Debbie apparently purchased for April earlier in the summer.
Sterling spends a good portion of the book in utter shock that Debbie Wesley actually bought it, because the stories are truly unlike anything Sterling has ever read, twisted and gay in ways that Sterling’s certainly never been exposed to before, so she really can’t imagine Debbie deciding to buy it.
The uneasiness of the writing takes a while to get used to, but in this past year Sterling’s gained an appreciation for murkier stories, for endings that make her stomach turn or phrases that make her heart hurt. This book demands that the reader look in the face of such darkness, and Sterling finds it sort of exhilarating.
She ends up reading much more of the book than she expects to, one passage in particular sticking out to her:
‘“It is my right to reside in my own mind. It is my right,’ I said. ‘It is my right to be unsociable and it is my right to be unpleasant to be around. Do you ever listen to yourself? This is crazy, that is crazy, everything is crazy to you. By whose measure? Well, it is my right to be crazy, as you love to say so much. I have no shame. I have felt many things in my life, but shame is not among them.’”
Sterling thinks of April reading those words, and it reminds her of April’s conviction at the arcade that God would not smite her for being a lesbian. Sterling hadn’t realized at the time how incredible it was for someone to live in their particular world and be so fiercely unashamed of who they are, but now the power of it takes her breath away.
She texts April the next morning and asks if they can meet at the park with Chloe again. Sterling feels like she has more to explain, wants to check in with April in the aftermath of their last rather dramatic interaction.
April arrives first this time, and it’s only been a few days since they’ve seen one another but Sterling sort of doesn’t know how she lasted that long without getting to study the brightness in April’s eyes, the smooth slope of her shoulders.
The temperature is especially warm today, which Sterling grumbled about on her walk over here but now is extremely grateful for, since it means that April’s hair is up and she’s wearing a tank top, exposing so much soft-looking skin that Sterling doesn’t know where to stare first.
Eventually Sterling gets a handle on her definitely-inappropriate leering and says, “I started reading that book my mom got you.”
The words my mom slip out before Sterling can think too much about it, and April reacts with a gentle smile that makes Sterling grin back.
“Really?” April asks as they start down one of the dirt paths, a different one from last time. “What do you think?”
“It’s pretty intense, and sometimes it kind of made my stomach hurt, but I like it.”
April cocks an eyebrow, so Sterling adds, “What, did you think I wouldn’t get it, or something?”
Her tone is joking, but April quickly shakes her head.
“No, not at all. I just figured it might be a little dark for you.”
“I can deal with dark.”
Sterling says nothing and April quietly adds, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Sterling promises. She appreciates April’s sensitivity, but she doesn’t want April to feel like she’s made of glass. She’s had enough of people treating her that way to last a lifetime.
“How are you…” Sterling starts, eyes trained on Chloe as she sniffs at a bush. “I mean, I dropped kind of a bomb on you. Are you alright?”
“I’m pretty sure I should be the one asking you that question.”
“Plenty of people have already, don’t worry.”
April is silent for a second, carefully gathering her thoughts.
“Yes, I am,” she says eventually. “It was obviously quite a shock, but I’m glad that you told me.”
Sterling lets out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. “Me too. It doesn’t, like, make you hate my parents, does it?”
“No,” April answers firmly. “It makes me see them as more…complex individuals, but I certainly don’t hate them. Not at all.”
She steps forward so she can level Sterling with a look, one that fully stops Sterling in her tracks. “And for the record, you and Blair will always be twins in my book. For better and most definitely for worse.”
“You’re welcome.” April tugs at her fingers, a gesture that instantly transports Sterling back to that day in Ellen’s office. “I’m sorry that I was… The things I said to you were so awful. I wish I—”
“Hey, you didn’t know.”
“I still shouldn’t have said them.” April stares down at Chloe, then back up at Sterling, her expression soft and a bit mournful. “There are a lot of things I shouldn’t have said to you. I’m sorry, Sterling.”
Sterling rocks forward a little on her toes, then, before she can overthink it, she darts a hand out to clasp one of April’s. They’ve held hands a few times recently, she knows, but for the first time it doesn’t feel like a gesture of comfort so much as an opportunity for connection; less You’re gonna be okay than I’m here, I’m here, and I never want to let you go.
She really doesn’t, Sterling recognizes in this moment.
“I know,” Sterling whispers. “I’m sorry, too.”
April looks at their hands, and for a second Sterling thinks that she’s going to let go before she shifts her fingers, holding onto Sterling’s with more intention, so that every part of their hands are touching, palms pressed together. It makes hot electricity spark up Sterling’s arm, the desire to feel April’s touch all over her body overwhelming.
“If it’s too difficult having me around with everything, I understand,” April tells her, in a voice that doesn’t succeed in hiding her sadness at the thought.
“It isn’t,” Sterling replies immediately, though her commitment to honesty inspires her to add, “I mean, it isn’t always easy, but it’s definitely worth it.” She swallows, takes a small step closer. “You’re worth it.”
April’s words are barely louder than a breath, her lips parted and her eyes wide with something close to hope, and Sterling is certain that she’s never wanted another person so much.
But it’s not just want, or at least not just sexual want. It’s something bigger; it’s intimacy and trust and…
Well. Of course. Of course she’s in love with April Stevens.
Sterling lets out a short burst of laughter, an exhale of realization, of delight.
She loves April.
April, who has always been here, in one way or another, as Sterling’s friend turned enemy turned a role that is huge and undefinable, but who has never drifted far from the center of Sterling’s world.
April, who has made Sterling feel more than she ever thought possible, upending Sterling’s life and cracking Sterling open, introducing Sterling to parts of herself that she didn’t even know existed.
April, who has beautifully, improbably become a part of Sterling’s new definition of what her family could look like.
April, who has witnessed Sterling’s mess and still wants to be here with her.
April, who Sterling thinks might, miraculously, actually love Sterling back.
“Sterling?” April prompts, and then Sterling remembers that April asked her a question.
“Right. Yes. Very extremely sure.”
“Very extremely?” April echoes with a teasing lilt to her voice, her smile utterly dazzling.
I love you, Sterling thinks.
“Very extremely,” Sterling repeats. "I stand by it.”
Their hands are still linked, and Sterling knows that logically, she should let go and keep walking, but right now Sterling sort of can’t fathom a universe where some part of her isn’t touching April.
So she does the only thing she can think to do. She pulls April closer.
April lets herself be pulled, the confusion on her face melting into a combination of warmth and fear, possibly even longing. Chloe’s leash is getting tangled around them but Sterling can’t begin to care, not when April’s face is inches from her own, close enough that Sterling can feel April’s breath against her skin. Sterling swipes her thumb over the inside of April’s wrist and feels April’s pulse racing under her touch, racing because of Sterling.
Sterling might be seconds away from imploding due to want, but she won’t be the first one to lean forward. She can’t be, not with her track record of pushing April before she was ready. Her eyes trace over April’s face; April’s soft lips that are begging to be kissed, her bright, fiery gaze.
“Sterling,” April sighs, both a plea and a warning.
Then, as though God is laughing down at this potentially perfect moment, April’s phone starts buzzing from the depths of her bag.
April jumps back, dropping Sterling’s hand, and Sterling feels like someone has thrown a bucket of ice water on her.
April’s eyes are still searching Sterling’s face as she answers the phone, Sterling scrambling (and likely failing) to hide her disappointment.
“Everything okay, Mom?” April asks into the phone, voice satisfyingly distracted. Sterling grins a little at that, at the pretty flush of April’s cheeks, the way that her breath is more than a bit labored.
But then April’s hand comes up to cover her mouth, muffling a gasp, and Sterling is pretty sure her heart stops beating for a second.
“Oh my god,” April breathes. “Oh my god.”
“What?” Sterling asks urgently.
April shakes her head before saying aloud—perhaps as much for her own sense of clarity as for Sterling’s—“My dad’s been arrested again.”
Sterling gets the story in little scraps as she steers April back toward the edge of the park, one hand on April’s elbow as April asks questions into the phone, the other gripping Chloe’s leash.
John was involved in a sting operation, caught soliciting an undercover cop posing as an underage sex worker.
He was hauled out of their home in handcuffs, and the police are still searching the house, convinced that this is one in a series of recent crimes that John has committed.
Mrs. Stevens is declaring that she’s done with that man, that this is the final straw of their long and sordid marriage.
She wants April home now, and April is not to tell anyone about what’s happening.
April is practically hyperventilating by the time she hangs up. Sterling has led them to April’s Jeep in the parking lot, her hand still tight on April’s elbow.
“Breathe,” Sterling advises as April’s keys rattle in her hands. “Do you want me to drive you home?”
“You walked here.”
Sterling shrugs. “Blair could pick me up.”
April seems to actually consider that before shaking her head. “No, no, we’d better not. It’ll just—”
“Make things more complicated?”
April looks like she might be on the verge of crying, and Sterling wants so much to take away her pain, to shepherd her away from that dreadful house that seems to provide nothing but chaos and sorrow. She wants to tell April that she loves her, that April deserves joy and acceptance and so much more than this.
But Sterling settles for wrapping her arms around April and hugging her tight. “I'm so sorry,” she murmurs into April’s shoulder.
April pulls back first, probably so that she doesn’t completely fall apart. “Thanks, Sterl. I’d better—”
Sterling nods. “You’ll be okay to drive?”
April squares her shoulders, like she’s preparing to step into battle. “I’ll be okay.”
“Call me later?”
Sterling leans in once more, pressing a kiss to April’s temple—not exactly the kiss she’d envisioned giving April a mere fifteen minutes ago, but one that will have to suffice for now.
Sterling takes a second to breathe her in, to revel in the feel of April’s skin beneath her lips. April closes her eyes briefly, body swaying into Sterling’s before she climbs into her Jeep.
Sterling stays and watches until April’s car drives out of sight.
“I mean…isn’t this kind of a good thing?”
“I’m just saying, the last time John got arrested you almost got fingered in the the Volt! Plus, we both know he belongs behind bars, as much as anyone does.”
Sterling sighs, hugging her pillow tighter. “Yeah, but this is still really awful for April. And I don’t want that for her.”
“But you do still want her to finger you, right? Things change so fast with you two, I can’t keep track.”
Sterling groans into the pillow. “If I say yes will you please stop using finger as a verb?”
Blair scoffs. “You should get comfortable with that word if you’re gonna be doing the deed, Sterl.”
“Nobody’s doing any deeds, oh my god.”
“Not with that attitude!”
Sterling can’t help but smile a little. The sky might be falling yet again, but at least Blair is here with her.
“I’m pretty sure we almost kissed today,” she reveals quietly.
Blair’s eyes go wide and delighted. “Now you tell me! I need deets!”
Sterling is halfway through setting the scene, deep into her description of the way April’s collarbones shined in the sunlight, when her phone starts to buzz.
“It’s April!” she yelps.
“Well, answer it, dummy!” Blair shrieks back, grabbing Sterling’s foot encouragingly.
“Are you okay?” Sterling asks April by way of greeting.
“I don’t know,” April answers in a voice barely above a whisper. “I—everything is really up in the air, but my mom…”
When April speaks again, it’s clear that she’s been crying.
“She’s freaking out. She says can’t handle having everyone staring at us again. She wants—she wants us to get out of town.”
Sterling’s heart drops. “What, like on vacation?”
“To her sister’s in Delaware. To stay for…for a while.”
“How long’s a while?”
April lets out a long exhale before saying, “She’s talking about pulling me out of school, Sterl.”
No, that simply can’t happen. April isn’t going away.
Not when she and Sterling are finally in a good place, not when she’s gotten to experience a home that feels safe for the first time in her life, not when Sterling has told her the thing that she couldn’t imagine ever telling anyone.
Not when Sterling loves her.
“Your mom can’t do that,” Sterling says hoarsely.
“Shit,” April lets out. “She needs… I’ll call you later, okay?”
But she’s already hung up.
Sterling doesn’t realize that she’s crying until Blair leans forward to wipe her cheek.
“Her mom wants them to leave,” Sterling says numbly.
“Maybe she’s just in shock?”
“Maybe.” Sterling sniffs, looks into Blair’s eyes. She’d debated keeping this afternoon’s realization just for herself, but now it feels important to state aloud, important for her sister to understand.
“I love her, Blair.”
Blair’s lips part, slowly taking that in, before she nods definitively.
“Okay. Then I think I have an idea.”
Lots of big family feels in this one, friends. Also, brief mention of physical abuse of a child, and general mentions of not good parenting.
“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”
- Mary Oliver
April has to step around three open and haphazardly-packed suitcases to get to her parents’ bedroom, only to find her mom throwing socks and underwear into a fourth suitcase balanced precariously on the bed.
“Mom,” April says firmly, trying to keep a potential panic attack at bay. “Can you just stop for a minute, please?”
Holly ignores the suggestion, just as she’s been ignoring similar requests from April all last night and this morning.
“Do you think we’ll need swimsuits?” Holly asks, holding up a black one-piece that April hasn’t seen her wear in years.
“For Delaware? No.”
“We might not stay in Delaware. I was thinking we could go somewhere warm.”
“We live somewhere warm.”
Holly shrugs, shoves the swimsuit in her suitcase anyway.
“Mom,” April tries again, “please. Dad just got arrested. Let’s take a breath and think before we run off somewhere.”
Holly huffs out a loud breath. “I won’t be the laughing stock of all those perfect Willingham moms again, April.”
“What about the house?”
“We’ll rent it or sell it or… I don’t know! I just know we can’t be here.”
“This isn’t on you,” April insists, even though a part of her wonders just how much Holly might have known and decided to keep to herself regarding John. “This is Dad’s shame, not yours.”
Holly fixes her with a sad half-smile. “I wish it worked that way, honey.” She shakes her head, glances down at the suitcase. “Why don’t you pack that blue cashmere sweater from Grandma? You love that sweater.”
April doesn’t mention that she outgrew that sweater two years ago, that she’s never loved it so much as Holly’s loved it on her. Logic and reason don’t seem to have a place in this conversation. All April can do is hope that her mom will tire herself out and eventually come to her senses.
April is about to go back to her own room and continue the charade of pretending to pack when her phone buzzes in her hand. It's from Sterling:
Can u come over?? Something important to talk about!!! ASAP!!
April looks up at her mom, who now appears to be contemplating which expensive “sorry-I-cheated-on-you” watch from John to bring along.
“I’m going out,” April announces.
Holly’s head whips up. “Where?”
April could lie. She’s lied every time she’s been asked that question all summer, and it hasn’t backfired on her yet.
But if she and Holly are really going to make a fresh start, one away from John, April feels like maybe they should enter into the arrangement with honesty, a thing there’s been so little of in this house up to this point.
And perhaps more importantly, a part of April needs her mom to know that there are other people who care about her, that April is known and possibly even loved outside of this poor excuse for a home.
“To the Wesleys.”
Holly drops the watch with a clatter. “The Wesleys?”
April nods as confidently as she can manage right now. “I’ve been spending time with them this summer. They’ve been—” Kind. Compassionate. Accepting. “—very generous.”
“Why would you possibly want to spend time there, after what those girls did to your father?”
April gestures at the open suitcase. “I thought you were done with him.”
“This is entirely different. This is family.”
“So are they,” April says with conviction.
Holly’s jaw clenches, a gesture that April recognizes from the mirror. “I don’t—”
“This isn’t up for debate,” April announces. She sounds a little like her dad, which is truly terrifying, so she softens her voice as she adds, “I’ll be back later tonight, okay?”
Holly is too stunned to say much else, just stammering out, “Be careful,” as April heads downstairs.
A hilarious suggestion, since April has felt so much safer in the Wesleys’ home than she’s ever felt in her own.
April’s head is swimming by the time she pulls up behind the crookedly-parked Volt. Her life has swiftly become a series of interlocking unknowns, with little order or sense to be found. She has no clue why Sterling needs to see her so urgently, though she won’t deny that she’s hoping, just a teeny bit, that Sterling might be planning to continue what they nearly started earlier in the park.
No, April acknowledges as she gets out of the car. Fuck it. She’s not hoping a teeny bit, she’s hoping a lot, hoping enough to fill the galaxy. If she’s leaving Sterling behind, she’s done trying to convince herself that she doesn’t want Sterling.
There’s something sort of thrilling about admitting it to herself, a strange sort of peace settling in April’s bones at the prospect of no longer fighting these feelings that she’s pretty certain have been building ever since she was nine years old.
But that flicker of peace is quickly snuffed out by sadness and a flare of anger. Because here she and Sterling find themselves, once more on the precipice of this big, beautiful possibility, and April’s parents have found a way to mess it up all over again.
Blair yanks the door open before April can raise her fist to knock. “Took you long enough!” Blair practically shouts, pulling April inside by the arm. “I nearly chewed all my fingernails off!”
Debbie pops her head around from the living room. “Is that April? Hi, honey, do you wanna stay for—”
“No time!” Blair declares, dragging April up the stairs.
“Blair,” April hisses, “you just forced me to be rude to your mother.”
“She’s been through worse. C’mon.”
Blair flings open Sterling’s door—April is getting the sense that Blair is rather enjoying the drama that their current situation is affording her—and any annoyance April was harboring instantly melts away at the look on Sterling’s face.
It’s been less than twenty-four hours since they’ve seen one another, but Sterling’s eyes grow bright and disbelieving when she looks at April, as though despite April’s confirmation that she was on her way over, Sterling is still in awe to see April in front of her.
“You’re here,” Sterling breathes with a small smile.
April’s life might be falling apart, but she can’t seem to stop herself from grinning back.
“Oh my God, we don’t have time for this dramatic-ass third-act-of-Carol bullshit,” Blair groans, flopping onto the bed next to Sterling.
April quirks an eyebrow. “You’ve seen Carol?”
“Duh. I’m an ally, Stevens.”
Sterling pats the empty spot on the other side of her, and April hesitates for just a second before sitting down. It’s been years since she's been in Sterling’s bed, and the combined rush of nostalgia for their childhood sleepovers and the current implication of them being on a bed together is almost too much.
Especially when Sterling reaches over and grabs her hand without a second thought.
April squeezes Sterling’s hand, runs her thumb over Sterling’s knuckles, trying to memorize every line and crease, the specific warmth and texture of Sterling’s skin. April’s been fortunate to get to hold Sterling’s hand a lot, recently, and the thought of that possibility going away makes her want to cry.
She clears her throat instead. “So, why am I here?” she asks. April knows that the twins lack boundaries, but she’s pretty sure that Blair sticking around means that April wasn’t just invited over for a goodbye make-out.
Sterling and Blair look at each other briefly, then focus their attention on April. It’s intense, all of that combined concentration directed at her, and April squirms a little.
Sterling takes a deep breath before saying, “We want you to move in with us.”
April blinks, repeating, “What?”
“It just makes sense,” Blair says with authority. “You can finish senior year at Willingham, plus our parents are, like, way chiller than your mom.”
“No offense,” Sterling adds quickly. “What do you think?”
April opens and closes her mouth, shakes her head. “Our parents would never go for that.”
“Our parents would,” Sterling replies. “I mean, Debbie and Anderson. They love you, April.”
“You haven’t asked them yet, have you?”
Sterling shakes her head. “No. We needed to check with you first.”
April thinks she might be crying but she isn’t totally sure. Her heart is pounding so loud that she wouldn’t be surprised if the twins could hear it.
It’s just—it’s all so much. Love and care and respect and being wanted, not because of what April can achieve or how she looks, but because of who she is, who she actually is, beneath every layer of armor that she’s spent a lifetime constructing around her.
“She’s the wild card,” Blair acknowledges. “But I think once Mom and Dad are in, they might be able to convince her. Especially if Mom uses her ‘I need to speak to the manager’ voice. That always gets results.”
“This isn’t about a refund for expired lunchmeat, Blair. This is my life.”
“Hey.” Sterling tilts April’s chin up and looks directly into her eyes, her expression shining with so much affection that April’s breath catches. “We know. This is a big deal. But I don’t want to lose you again. And…and you’d be happier here, right?”
April doesn’t even have to think about that one.
“Of course I would be.”
“If our parents say yes, do you want this?”
April considers that night outside of Willingham, debating Sterling on the merits of them giving their relationship a try, heart dropping with each rebuttal, with the bone-deep understanding that what they had was tenuous and fragile and no match for the larger forces working to keep them apart.
April had been too aware of those forces to really, truly let herself hope back then. After all, hope was for suckers, for people too stupid to read the writing on the wall.
But now it’s different, now April has legitimate support around her, people other than just Sterling who will fight for them, will fight for her; people who believe that April’s worth fighting for.
So perhaps April gets to hope a little bit. Perhaps hope is also there when you have something worth believing in.
“I want this,” April says softly.
Sterling shifts her hand so that she can caress April’s cheek, and April doesn’t fight the impulse to lean into it, letting her eyes close briefly.
When she opens them, Blair is back on her feet.
“Let’s go, then.”
Sterling keeps a hold on April’s hand as they descend the stairs, and April is struck with a memory of being ten years old and nervously rushing down these same stairs with Sterling and Blair in tow, the three of them bursting with the adrenaline of preparing to perform the Sunday school skit they’d spent all afternoon practicing.
“Do you think they’ll like it?” Sterling had asked, referring to her parents.
“Only if Blair remembers her lines, for once,” April had quipped, earning a light smack in the shoulder from Blair.
“You’re such a good actress, April,” Sterling had whispered in April’s ear just as they’d hopped off the last stair together, and April had felt the compliment all the way down to her toes, her face still flushed a deep red as they began the skit.
Now, April approaches the Wesley living room with a different sort of adrenaline coursing through her. Debbie and Anderson give their daughters a quizzical look when Sterling announces that they have something important to talk about, and absently April wonders if the Wesley parents think that this is Sterling and April’s dramatic way of revealing that they’re a couple.
Sterling nods at April to start when she’s ready, so April takes a deep breath and says, “Yesterday, my father was arrested again.”
Just saying the words aloud to parents other than her own feels monumental and dangerous. The Stevens family has always abided by a strict “keep it in the family” rule, as though presenting a semi-functional picture to the outside world might have some impact on the deeply dysfunctional inner workings of the household.
But God doesn’t strike April down. Instead Debbie says, “I’m so sorry to hear that, hun.”
"That's a damn shame,” Anderson adds.
Blair snorts. “Let’s not go overboard, here.”
“Blair,” Debbie scolds, but April shakes her head.
“No, Blair’s right. That’s not—that’s not the issue. My mom is…quite eager to get out of town. For an indefinite period of time.”
“Oh,” Debbie says quietly.
April blinks a couple of times, tries to keep from crying. She attempts to form the words, but nothing comes out. It’s as if her own hope and want have strangled her, her body still not believing that staying in this home could actually be a possibility.
Sterling must pick up on this, because she squeezes April’s hand and says clearly, “We would like April to move in with us until we finish school.”
The words are no less shocking to hear the second time around.
“Really?” Anderson exhales. “April, is that what you want?”
And the fact that that’s his first question, rather than a resounding no, is what makes the tears come.
April nods through them, voice a little creaky as she says, “Yes, but I—it’s an enormous ask, of course, and I completely understand if—I don’t expect that—”
“April,” Debbie cuts in gently. “Breathe.” She looks at her husband with a raised eyebrow, then back at the girls. “Blair, are you alright with this?”
“Okay with it?!” Blair scoffs. “It was my idea!”
Debbie smiles just a little. “And Sterling?”
“One million percent.”
There’s no stammering, no uncertainty behind Sterling’s answer. April wipes at her cheeks, holds Sterling’s hand tighter.
“Well, I for one think it’s a great idea,” Anderson says. “We sure enjoy having you around.” He squeezes his wife’s shoulder. “What do you say, honey?”
Debbie looks into April’s eyes and nods. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m in. Provided your mom is on board. This family’s dealt with enough kidnappings to last a lifetime.”
Blair snorts out a laugh of surprise, and before April knows it Sterling is leaning in to kiss her cheek.
“This isn’t,” April starts, too overwhelmed with emotion to be very articulate, “this isn’t something I planned, the girls literally just sprung it on me—”
“April,” Debbie says as she gets to her feet, “you’ll learn in this life that God rarely gives a damn about plans. So I’m taking it your mama doesn’t know a whiff about this?”
April shakes her head.
“Alrighty. I suppose we need to take a little field trip, in that case.”
“She’s wanting to leave soon?”
“Maybe even tomorrow,” April confirms.
Debbie straightens her cardigan. “Then yes, right now.”
Despite mild protesting, Sterling and Blair eventually agree to stay home when April points out that having the twins there will only weaken their case. Sterling sends April off with a hug that definitely lingers way too long to be in any way platonic, but Blair somehow resists the urge to comment on that fact.
April isn’t going to push her luck and assume that her mom will let her keep the Jeep, so Anderson offers to drive the Volt behind Debbie and April to provide a ride back home, the idea of having April journey back to her house alone not even seeming to enter their minds.
“Let me drive,” Debbie suggests, “you’ve been through enough today.”
So April hands over the keys to the Jeep and climbs into the passenger’s seat. Debbie takes a few minutes to adjust the car for her height, and then they start off, with Anderson behind them.
April knows that there are logistical reasons to take two cars, but being escorted back to her house by a mini-caravan makes the whole situation seem even more dramatic and intense. April glances over at Debbie, marveling at how calm this woman appears as she focuses on the road ahead.
April wants to say something but once again finds few words at her disposal. It occurs to her that this is the first time she’s been alone with Debbie since Sterling and Blair returned from camp. So much has changed in just a few short weeks, and yet the affection she feels toward Debbie has only grown stronger.
April wishes she could find a way to thank Debbie, to sum up how much all of this means to her, but not a single phrase in the English language seems remotely adequate.
“You know,” Debbie says after a few moments of silence, her voice soft and thoughtful, “when I was a kid, I had this friend at school, Mara Lewis. Tiny little thing with big glasses and an even bigger personality. Every day she’d open her lunchbox and there’d be a note inside. It always said something simple, like, I’m proud of you, Have a great day, that sort of thing.”
“That’s really sweet,” April remarks.
“Yeah, it was. One day I asked her how those notes got in there, and she looked at me like I’d grown a second head, then told me that her momma wrote them, of course. Now, what I didn’t tell her was that I couldn’t imagine my own momma ever doing something like that, going the extra step to be sweet and kind just to make me feel good.”
April nods, the familiarity of that thought process burning in her chest.
“The first time I went over to Mara’s house, I was just blown away,” Debbie continues.
“It was nice?”
“Not nicer than ours in the traditional sense. It was the same size, the same dated architecture. But you could just tell that this was a house where people loved each other. Her momma made us a snack and asked about our days, and I knew that she actually cared. Her daddy helped us build a fort, and he didn’t… he wasn’t anything like my daddy.
“When my momma came to pick me up, Mara said, ‘Let’s hide so you don’t ever have to go home!’ Y’know, typical kid stuff, but I actually wanted it to be true. I never wanted to leave that house.”
“But your mom found you?” April guesses, her mind unwittingly flitting to many a playdate at the Wesleys where she dreaded returning home.
“She sure did. Mara’s mom told her I could come back any time, but on the drive home Momma told me that I wasn’t going over there again.”
Debbie’s words get lower, taking on a slight bitterness that April isn’t accustomed to. “Said that the Lewises thought they were better than us. I cried and cried when we got home, until Daddy slapped me across the face and sent me to my room.”
April inhales sharply at the image. “Oh, that’s… I’m so sorry.”
Debbie glances over at her. “I didn’t tell you that story so you’d feel sorry. I told you it because I want you to know that no matter what happens, I see you, April. I really do. We can’t pick our parents, Lord knows the world would be a whole lot different if we could.”
Debbie removes one hand from the steering wheel and pats April’s knee. "But as far as I’m concerned, you’re always welcome under my roof, okay? I love and appreciate you. Exactly as God made ya.”
April shakily breathes through the lump in her throat.
“You don’t need to say it back. I just wanted you to know.”
“I love you, too,” April tells her honestly.
Debbie glances over at April, her own eyes shimmering. “Thanks, hun.”
“You used to leave little notes in Sterling and Blair’s lunches,” April remembers.
“Indeed I did. And if I could’ve, I would’ve left notes in yours as well.”
April is quiet for a second, slowly breathing through her tears. She should probably just leave it there, probably just let this be a wonderfully maternal moment that she’ll get to remember in the eventual likelihood that her mother forces her to leave town in the morning.
But all this talk of love makes another truth rise to the surface, a truth that April’s spent so many years outrunning, one that she’s never spoken aloud, but needs Debbie Wesley to hear in this moment.
“Um, I—I love your daughter, too.”
“Blair?” Debbie teases, sounding in no way surprised.
April huffs out a wet laugh, her head spinning as the weight of the words hit her.
Shit, she just told Sterling’s mom that she loves her before she’s even told Sterling herself.
“Sterling doesn’t—I mean, we’re not together,” April stammers. “I’m not really sure where we stand, and we definitely haven’t said those words, so I—I shouldn’t even be telling you.”
“Hey, it doesn’t leave this car, I promise.” Debbie raises an eyebrow in her direction. “But April, c’mon now, you’re a smart girl, you know that my daughter is head over heels for you, right? Or whatever you kids say these days?”
Of course April has known this, on a purely observation level; Sterling Wesley would certainly never win a medal in the art of subtly. But to hear Debbie say it like that, with both certainty and nonchalance, makes April’s heart start beating faster in her chest.
“Yeah, I guess so,” April murmurs, though she can’t resist asking, “It doesn’t bother you?”
“Well, we’ll certainly need to work out some ground rules at some point if you come to stay with us. But no, quite the opposite. I can’t imagine a better match for Sterling, and I’ve never seen her so—she comes alive around you.”
April doesn’t have much time to react to that statement, because they’ve arrived at her house. Anderson pulls up behind them, solid as ever as he hops out of the car and reaches for Debbie’s hand.
April is aware that what they’re doing to her mom would definitely qualify as an ambush, but she’s also supremely grateful for the twins pillars of unwavering support in the form of the Wesleys walking into her home beside her.
She calls Holly downstairs and hurries through the pleasantries—which her mom doesn’t seem to object to, her curiosity obviously piquing.
“What in God’s name is going on here, April?” Holly asks, cheeks flushed in the particular way that tends to signal she's embarrassed.
Now it’s on April. She actually has to say what she wants.
“The Wesleys have offered me a place to stay for the next year, and I’d like to take them up on that offer.”
Holly’s face is a mask of shock. “That’s—what? No, no, of course you’re sticking with me. We don’t need that. We need a fresh start.”
“Maybe you do,” April murmurs, fighting to keep the tremor out of her voice. “But I need—” She closes her eyes briefly. “I need a family.”
“You have a family.”
April feels the warm weight of Anderson’s hand on her shoulder as he says, “She certainly does, Holly, and we’d never want to discount that. But in terms of what’s best—”
“Don’t you tell me what’s best for my daughter!” Holly snaps, tone sickeningly similar to the one that’s typically reserved for fights with John.
“Have you asked her?” Debbie asks, cool as a cucumber. “April is an extremely self-assured young woman. She knows her own mind. Listen to what she’s saying.”
April takes just a second to revel in the compliment before refocusing on her mom, who is gaping at April, eyes dark with betrayal. “People will talk about you, April.”
April isn’t exactly sure how her mom means it. Honestly, she doesn’t particularly care to find out.
“I can handle that,” she murmurs.
At that remark some of Holly’s anger seems to melt away, replaced by a resigned sadness.“You’re stronger than me, then.”
April doesn’t deny it. That would feel too close to a lie.
Holly slumps a little in her chair, a posture that April can’t ever recall seeing her fall into when guests are over.
“Why, honey?” Holly asks in a small voice. “Why them?”
April wipes a tear off her cheek. “They love me.”
“We do,” Debbie confirms.
“I love you, too,” Holly says pleadingly.
“I know,” April whispers. “I know, I just—”
She isn’t quite certain how to articulate it, isn’t quite sure how to capture in a way that won’t utterly destroy her mother that the Wesleys love her in the right way, that they love her without post-conditions. That they make her a priority and show her respect. That she can actually get a full lungful of air in their presence.
“I’ve tried,” Holly murmurs. “I really have, but your father—” She rakes a hand through her hair. “I should’ve tried harder.”
“It’s not over yet,” April offers. “It’s not too late. But you can start here.”
“This is really what you want?”
“We’ll take care of her, Holly,” Anderson promises. “We’ll love her like our own.”
A distant part of April wonders if he spoke those same words aloud when he and Debbie acquired Sterling as an infant.
“This won’t be forever,” Debbie adds. “But Holly, this is your chance to give the girl some peace. Doesn’t she deserve that?”
Holly bites her lip, tears starting to stream down her face.
“You’ll go, and I’ll stay,” April says quietly. “It’s what’s best for both of us.”
And it feels like a small eternity passes, as Holly’s eyes flick between all three of them. April steels herself for a hard no while still letting herself hope, just a little bit, that this one thing might actually go her way.
“Okay,” Holly says eventually, and April fully stops breathing for a second.
“Okay?” she echoes.
Holly nods and wipes her eyes. “Accept it before I change my mind.”
April swallows hard and gets to her feet, immediately turning into Debbie’s embrace.
“Alright, let’s get you packed, kiddo,” Debbie whispers against the top of her head. “And then we can go home.”
Getting into M territory here friends...you've been warned...
Edit: can't believe I failed to mention this, but recommended listening for this chapter is State of Grace (acoustic) (Taylor's Version, obvi) - as if you weren't listening to it already!
"Love, they say, enslaves and passion is a demon and many have been lost for love. I know this is true, but I know too that without love we grope the tunnels of our lives and never see the sun. When I fell in love it was as though I looked into a mirror for the first time and saw myself. I lifted my hand in bewilderment and felt my cheeks, my neck. This was me. And when I had looked at myself and grown accustomed to who I was, I was not afraid to hate parts of me because I wanted to be worthy of the mirror bearer."
-Jeanette Winterson, The Passion
"In this space right here
that we have made for each other,
you can say anything
and I will not abandon you.
Unwrap the worst things you have done.
Watch me hold them up to the light
and not even flinch."
In the desperation and urgency of needing to figure out a way for April to stay, pleading their case to her parents, and waiting to find out what Mrs. Stevens’ answer would be, it takes longer than perhaps it should to sink in that April lives with them now.
In fact, it isn’t until Anderson has brought up the last but perhaps most significant of April’s possessions—Sgt. Bilko in a cat carrier; April still seems disbelieving that the Wesleys are letting her keep him—that Sterling fully gets it: the girl who she’s in love with is going to be here all the time.
Which means that unless Sterling wants to spend the next year in a purgatory of her own yearning, they probably need to figure out what they mean to one another.
Not that Sterling has any desire to rush April. The last thing she wants is to scare April off again, and good Lord, April has certainly been through a lot this week, she certainly doesn’t need to add defining a relationship to the mix if she isn’t ready. Although—
“You seem okay,” Sterling observes as April releases Bilko from his carrier.
“Should I not?”
April stands fully back up, and Sterling somehow manages the Herculean feat of keeping her gaze appropriately eye-level. April is wearing a tank top and another pair of those goddamn jean shorts today—an outfit that’s a practical choice for a summer afternoon spent carrying heavy boxes up and down stairs, though also one that puts Sterling at risk of passing out before they’ve even had the chance to talk.
“Well, you have had a pretty eventful twenty-four hours,” Sterling points out.
April’s mouth twitches. “A pretty eventful year might be more accurate.”
“You said goodbye to your mom today.”
It’s a statement, not a question, though April must interpret it as an invitation to open up because she sighs and sits down on the bed.
Her bed. Where she slept last night.
Sterling shakes the thought off, steps closer.
“I don’t think I would’ve been okay,” April says thoughtfully.
“If I’d had to say goodbye to you.”
An embarrassingly loud squeaky noise escapes Sterling’s throat, and she quickly clears it.
“Well, we would’ve missed you, too. Not, like, the royal ‘we,’ I mean, like, my family and I. All of us would have missed you.”
April smirks just a little. “Right, and I would’ve missed all of you, too, but that’s not what I said just now, is it?”
And Sterling would very much like to drop all of this coyness over semantics and get right down to saying—or better yet, doing—the things that she hasn’t been able to stop thinking about, but then her mom is in April’s doorway, swiftly followed by Blair, who breezes right past Sterling and plops down on the bed.
“Hey, roomie,” Blair drawls. “How’re you liking the new digs?”
“They’re great,” April replies, more to Debbie than to Blair. “Thank you so much, I can’t believe you were okay with me bringing so much stuff.”
Debbie waves a hand through the air. “Hey, we want this space to feel like your own.”
“And you’re sure Chloe will be okay with Bilko?”
“She’s a very accepting dog,” Sterling offers.
“Just like the rest of her family,” April says softly.
Blair makes a gagging noise, but Debbie ignores it, clapping her hands together. “Well, I feel like a celebration is in order! What do you say to going out, girls?”
Before Sterling knows it, Blair has zeroed in on her:
Dude, now’s your chance!
What do you mean?
Follow my lead. I’ll get Mom and Dad out of the house, you and April stay here and go to pound-town. Wait, are your pubes trimmed?
Oh my god, Blair!
It’s a valid question!
I really just want to talk to her.
Are you sure? Because—and I say this with all the love in my heart—you seem extra squirrelly. But, like, squirrelly with horniness. A squirrel who's looking for some nuts, heyooo!
So maybe it’s time to finally bang your girlfriend-in-everything-but-name-because-you’re-such-ridiculous-lesbians. Who you now live with. You’re welcome for that, by the way.
Right, right, sorry about the bi erasure, there.
No, it’s not that. Just… thank you for this. All of this. You’ve been so amazing, with Mom and Dad and April. I’d be totally lost without you.
Hey, we’ve already established that I’ll always find you, okay?
Twin swear. And anyway, April was dealt a shitty hand, but she’s actually pretty okay. Plus she makes you happy. So, y’know. We’re good.
You guys are totally gonna become best friends, aren’t you?
Uh, excuse me? I have one best friend and her name is Sterling Wesley, thank you very much.
“Girls?” Debbie prompts. “Care to clue us in?”
Blair stands up. “I think since I have been such an understanding sister this week, I should be treated to a dinner of my choosing. With just you and Dad.”
Debbie frowns. “You…want to spend time with just the two of us?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.”
“That doesn’t seem particularly fair to Sterling and April. Who, let me remind you, is our guest.”
“No, that’s totally fine!” Sterling adds quickly. “Like, so fine. April has a lot more setting up to do, and honestly I think that we should really work on…um…acclimating Bilko to his new surroundings.”
Debbie arches an eyebrow. “You speak for April now?”
Sterling whirls to face April, eyes wide in a way that she hopes makes it clear that April should go with this.
“No, I agree,” April says, easily the smoothest of the three of them. “Blair, you deserve to be celebrated tonight. On your own. We’ll do a group dinner another night, if that’s okay?”
Debbie glances between all three girls suspiciously. “Hmm. Well, I should have anticipated that having one more teenager around would make me feel even more out of the loop than ever.”
“Sorry, Debbie,” April murmurs, just this side of sheepish.
“I didn’t say it was a bad thing. You girls have fun acclimating.”
Blair throws a wicked grin over her shoulder as she follows Debbie out of the room, muttering, “Oh yeah, you’re gonna acclimate the shit out of each other.”
Then the door has been pulled closed, and Sterling and April are officially alone together.
“Sorry, that was weird,” Sterling murmurs.
“Oh, I’d say by the standards of you and your sister, that was a fairly normal interaction.” April pats the spot on the bed beside her. “Sit with me?"
Sterling’s heard those words from April before, and just like last time, Sterling is powerless to resist the request.
But unlike last time, Sterling’s heart isn’t crumbling to bits with hurt and confusion. She isn’t sitting down on a cold bench outside of Willingham, trying and failing to get April to look her in the eye.
Instead, the bed is soft and warm and April is smiling at her, and Sterling knows that whatever happens, this time will be different.
“Do you think you’ll miss it?” Sterling asks as she takes in the array of suitcases and boxes covering the carpet. “Your old room?”
April shrugs, the action making the strap of her tank top slip a little, and Sterling fights the urge to press a kiss to her shoulder.
"The familiarity of it, maybe,” April replies. “But actually living in that house, in that room? No. Not when I have such a good alternative.”
Sterling sets her hand on the bed beside April’s, stretching her pinkie out until it’s covering April’s own. She can't help but think about that day at the lock-in planning meeting, both of them being completely obvious, in retrospect, as their pinkies brushed, but also unable to quell the desire to touch in some way, the discovery of their connection so bright and new and exciting.
Now, the discovery isn’t so new; in fact, Sterling can barely fathom the thought that less than a year ago, she wasn’t even remotely aware of what April could do to her. And while the idea of being with April isn’t any less exciting this time around, it’s more than that, too; Sterling feels like she’s flying, but it’s no longer a free fall. Now, she thinks that they finally have a place to safely land, together.
April presses her lips together, and Sterling couldn’t say why, exactly, but she’s pretty sure that April is thinking something similar. That she, too, is considering everything that’s gotten them to the point and what it means to finally be here, so close to taking this next step, to catapulting them from the land of flirtation and misty almosts into a place that’s solid and real and undeniable.
And sure, it’s a little scary, but Sterling wants to go there with April.
She wants to go everywhere with April.
“I don’t want to screw this up,” April says eventually.
Sterling feels her pulse quicken.
“Screw what up?”
“This…” April gestures to the room around them. “Living here, having this with your family, it’s more than I…”
“It’s not gonna go away,” Sterling promises. “Nothing could make it go away.”
April lets out a shaky breath. She’s nervous. April’s never nervous.
“You say that now,” April says, almost rueful, “but I have something of a penchant for self-sabotage.”
“So don’t do that. Decide that you deserve to be happy. Because you do, April. You deserve it more than anyone.”
Sterling knows that she sounds naive, knows from hours of therapy that simply deciding to change a mental pattern is often close to an impossibility. But she also needs April to hear this, to understand that Sterling sees her and wants her exactly as she is, and that nothing could change that.
April slides her hand forward so that she’s fully holding onto Sterling’s, shifting so that she’s facing Sterling, and Sterling does the same, until their knees are pressed together like mirrored bookends.
April closes her eyes briefly, clearly gearing up for whatever it is that she’s about to say. Sterling nearly jumps in to tell April to stop, that Sterling doesn’t need to know, because Sterling really is trying to be patient, here.
But then April opens her eyes, and Sterling sees fear there but also resolve, that April Stevens determination that seems capable of just about anything, and Sterling thinks that April wants this just as much as she does.
She knows it when April says, “I’m in love with you.”
Sterling’s heart just about flies out of her chest.
“You heard me, Sterling,” April says, her words quiet but steady. “I love you. And I know that we’ve made a bit of a mess of things in the past, and that I’ve required a great deal of patience from you, but I—I would like for us to try again. Properly. If you’ll have me.”
Sterling is half convinced that she’s asleep, considering that these are the words that she’s literally dreamed of hearing April say to her so many times.
But April is squeezing her hand, and she isn’t disappearing; she’s real and here and looking at Sterling with so much unguarded affection that Sterling has to remind herself to breathe.
“Sterl?” April prompts with a slight edge of concern, and right, Sterling remembers with a strangled laugh, a love confession usually invites a response.
“April, god, I love you too,” she sighs, her own words less steady but equally certain. “So, so much, and I want to be with you more than anything.”
April’s mouth curls into the prettiest smile before her hands come up to cup Sterling’s face.
“Kiss me,” she demands, and Sterling certainly doesn’t have to be told twice.
The first kiss is messy, a clattering of lips and teeth and desperation. There’s nothing tentative about April’s fingers slipping into Sterling’s hair, no hesitation as her tongue quickly coaxes its way inside Sterling’s mouth, but Sterling wouldn’t have it any other way, her whole body exploding in every place they are touching.
Sterling’s hands cling to April’s waist, holding her as close as possible, and she isn’t sure if she’s pulling or being pushed but suddenly she finds herself flat on her back with April hovering over her, April letting out a low giggle against her face.
The weight and warmth of April on top of her is utterly addictive, and Sterling needs more. She tugs April’s lower lip into her mouth, wraps her legs around April’s hips and her arms around April’s neck, one hand slipping down the back of April’s tank top so that she can feel more of April’s soft skin beneath her palm.
April steadies herself with one hand and uses the other to grip Sterling’s thigh, fingers creeping toward Sterling’s ass, surely leaving imprints of her touch, and that thought alone makes Sterling let out a whine.
April must enjoy the sound, because Sterling feels her smirk a little before she runs her tongue along the ridge behind Sterling’s top teeth, and Sterling groans. She tightens her legs around April’s waist, shifting her hips a bit, and April shudders against her, hips rocking down against Sterling’s abdomen.
“Feels good?” Sterling breathes, unnecessarily, against April’s lips.
April nods into their next kiss before pulling back just enough that Sterling can look into her eyes. Sterling gently pushes some hair out of April’s face and grins up at her. April looks positively wrecked already, pupils blown and lips swollen, and god, they’ve barely even started.
“It would be a little disrespectful, wouldn’t it?” April pants, still so close that Sterling can feel the words more than she can hear them. “For us to… right after I’ve moved in.”
Sterling is pretty amazed that April is even remotely capable of critical thought at a moment like this, when Sterling’s entire world has basically narrowed to wondering how quickly she can touch as much of April’s body as possible. They could be on the moon right now, for all that Sterling cares, so long as April was still on top of her.
But before she can say that she hears the sound of car doors slamming in unison—a distant but unmistakable noise drifting in from the driveway. A sound that means that they have the entire house to themselves, which Sterling isn’t about to take for granted.
“No rules have actually been set,” she points out.
“That’s a technicality.”
“Do you want to stop?”
April licks her lips, her eyes never leaving Sterling’s own as breath moves, loud and labored, between them.
“Of course not.”
“Okay. Then don’t.”
It’s the second time in several minutes that Sterling’s given essentially this same advice, and thankfully, April takes it, capturing Sterling’s lips once more before sliding her mouth lower, down the column of Sterling’s throat.
“April,” Sterling gasps as April’s teeth nip along her neck, as April’s hands start to slowly push up the hem of Sterling’s shirt.
April looks up at her. “Yes? May I help you?”
Sterling rolls her eyes, though it sort of turns into her eyes rolling back into her head when April starts sucking on a spot at the juncture of her neck and her collarbone.
They did this before, Sterling remembers hazily. They did this in the back of the Volt, April’s teeth scraping Sterling’s neck, her hair wound through Sterling’s fingers.
But whereas back then it felt like something private and sacred—a small, perfect thing that Sterling knew was just for them—now Sterling has a strange urge to open the windows and let their joy spill out onto the sidewalk as something big and expansive. Not out of a newfound voyeurism fetish, but because she isn’t afraid; because what they have feels meant to be shared.
But then April’s hands drift higher under her top, which means that they’re officially entering territory they didn’t make it to last time, and Sterling can only focus on where April’s fingers might be headed.
“Can I?” April asks, and Sterling answers with her body, lifting her arms and then taking the liberty of unclasping her bra as well, which might’ve been a little smoother if she didn’t fumble with the clasp, but whatever, she can’t be blamed for not being her most coordinated right now.
April stares at her for a long moment, lips slightly parted, and if it were anyone else Sterling might feel self-conscious, but April’s gaze is so reverent, wanting but also tender, and it makes Sterling feel about a thousand feet tall.
Finally April sets a hand over Sterling’s breast and Sterling inhales sharply, her nipple pebbling beneath April’s touch.
April leans forward so her mouth is pressed to Sterling’s ear, whispering, “You’re extraordinary,” at the same time that her thumb starts to roll steadily over Sterling’s nipple, and the combined sensation makes Sterling sigh out a shaky exhale.
April lowers her head to Sterling’s other breast, flashing a dirty grin up at Sterling before wrapping her lips around Sterling’s nipple, sucking and then tugging on it, and Sterling’s arousal sparks to an almost alarming degree, her hips jerking violently.
April presses her palm against Sterling’s hip, flattening her against the bed and then sitting back up on her knees. Sterling is a mess, she knows, absolute putty in April’s hands; chest flushed and body squirming with how turned on she is, and April is clearly so pleased with herself.
“I think,” April begins thoughtfully, smile wicked, as her finger skims the waistline of Sterling’s shorts, “that perhaps you don’t want it enough.”
She’s teasing, obviously, which is wildly hot but also just annoying, because in this moment Sterling can’t even recall a time when she didn’t want this.
“I want it,” Sterling whimpers, certainly what April is fishing for.
“Hmm. Not sure I believe you.”
“That’s not exactly a counterargument.”
“You’re…” Sterling sucks in a breath through her teeth as April starts playing with the button on her shorts, her other hand still holding Sterling’s hip down when Sterling tries to arch upwards. “You’re being an asshole.”
“Do you really want to be insulting me right now?”
Sterling is soaked and aching and her brain is so foggy and in this moment she could kill April.
“Feel,” she begs.
Sterling nods down at the lower half of her body.
“Go ahead,” she manages to get out. “Feel how much I want it.”
At that a tiny bit of April’s composure crumbles, a high-pitched and deeply satisfying squeak emitting from her throat.
She hurriedly unbuttons Sterling’s shorts and tugs them down Sterling’s legs along with her underwear, leaving Sterling naked and spread out on the bed, thighs sticky and heart beating so fast that she could probably pass out.
April’s eyes flick over Sterling’s body, clearly caught between wanting to remain in some semblance of control and wanting to touch Sterling in all the places she’s looking. Sterling stares up at her and nods, bending her knees in what April thankfully takes as an invitation, fingers slowly skimming up Sterling’s thigh.
They both gasp when April’s fingers brush between Sterling’s legs for the first time. Sterling’s never been this turned on before, her body hotter and wetter than she even thought possible, and she knows that April's feeling that beneath her fingertips as they slide over her.
This is because of you, Sterling wants to say, but she can’t really speak right now, not with April’s hand between her legs and April’s eyes looking at her with something close to awe, so instead she tilts her hips against April’s hand, praying that April will understand that this is all for her, that Sterling would give April all of herself and anything left over, if she could.
At first April’s touch is exploratory, her fingers moving carefully, getting to know the contours of Sterling’s body. But she seems to catch on quickly to the way Sterling is responding, and soon she’s working in a steady rhythm, tracing tight circles that Sterling moves along to, then adding a finger pressed inside.
Sterling’s back arches at that, her body already starting to clench around April, so close within no time at all.
“Sterling, you feel—” April breathes. “God, you feel so—”
“April,” Sterling gasps, so near the edge but needing, God, needing— “Please, I—”
“What is it?”
The throaty concern in April’s voice combined with the steadiness of her fingers is almost enough, but still Sterling manages to whisper, “I—I need you to give me permission.”
April’s mouth drops open.
Sterling nods frantically, unable to muster any bit of shame at the request.
April’s fingers start working faster, two hooking inside her just right, as she leans her face down toward Sterling’s ear and murmurs, “Sterling, baby, I want you to come for me.”
And some version of this has played out in Sterling’s fantasies for months at this point, but hearing April say those words and feeling her inside of Sterling is truly unlike Sterling’s wildest dreams. Sterling is suddenly hurtling off the edge, her body feeling fully suspended in midair as she unravels beneath April’s touch.
For several long seconds nothing exists outside of them; outside of the sounds of breath and wet fucking, of heat and the smell of sex, the searing pleasure that quickly gives way to a full-body tremble and the way that April’s eyes never leave Sterling’s face, through it all.
April’s hand is softly stroking over Sterling’s hip when Sterling eventually comes down. Sterling rolls to face April and kisses her fiercely, mumbling, “I love you,” against her lips.
“I love you, too,” April whispers back, voice rough with want. She’s still in her shorts and tank top, Sterling realizes dazedly, and while part of Sterling wants to undress April slow and deliberate, to take her apart piece by piece like she just took Sterling apart, to stare at every inch of April’s body, a bigger part of Sterling knows that they’ll have time for that later, that right now April needs something else.
“Do you want me to—?” Sterling asks, fingers fumbling with April’s zipper.
April nods, top teeth sinking into her bottom lip. “But only if you want—”
“Of course I do.”
Sterling gets April’s shorts and underwear down her thighs, and she considers teasing April for all of two seconds before April honest-to-God whimpers, and how the fuck can Sterling resist that?
She slips her hand between April’s thighs, letting out a noise that’s embarrassingly close to a grunt when she feels just how warm and wet April is, drenching Sterling’s fingers in seconds.
“Oh my god,” April gasps as Sterling’s fingers slip over her. “Fuck, Sterling—”
April reaches blindly for a pillow, twisting to press her face against it, but Sterling grabs for her chin, gently turning it back toward her.
“No, no, let me see you,” Sterling insists, needing to watch as April falls apart.
April gulps, eyes trained on Sterling as Sterling carefully slides a finger inside of her, and the feeling is so intense—looking at April and being inside of April all at once—that Sterling doesn’t remember to move until April’s hips start to twitch.
It’s just so overwhelming; the degree of trust required for April to let her in in this way. Not just, like, literally, but showing this soft, holy part of herself to Sterling, letting Sterling cradle that part, to hold it up to the light.
“I love you,” Sterling says again, maintaining eye contact as she curls her fingers. “I love you so much.”
“Sterling,” April lets out, the only word she seems capable of right now, but Sterling hears it as, I love you too.
Sterling suspects that April was already close before Sterling even touched her—close just from making Sterling come, which is a marvel in and of itself—because soon April’s breath is getting faster and her body is starting to shake and her eyes are squeezing tight.
Sterling is unable to look away, unable to do anything but keep moving her hand right where April needs it, to keep whispering, “I love you,” until April finally stops trembling and curls herself into Sterling’s chest.
Sterling wraps her arms around April and kisses the top of her head, stroking her fingers through April’s hair as April’s breathing evens out.
It occurs to Sterling that other than Blair, who’s obviously in a completely different category, she’s never felt this connected to another person. Or, honestly, this content in her entire life.
Eventually April pulls back just enough to look up at her, her smile both sated and full of wonderment.
“Welcome home, by the way,” Sterling murmurs, feeling her own grin stretch across her face. “I was gonna go with a banner, but…”
“You thought deflowering me would require less effort?”
“Hey, we ran out of construction paper, I had to improvise.”
“Hat’s off to your improv skills, in that case.” April laughs, a warm, beautiful sound. “Talk about a homecoming.”
Then it’s Sterling’s turn to laugh, in spite of herself. “Okay, that was terrible. I regret deflowering you.”
“No, you don’t.”
April raises a hand to her cheek and kisses her on the mouth, soft and perfect.
“Fine, I don’t,” Sterling sighs when their mouths pull apart, her arms still holding April close. “You’ve got me.”
“Yeah,” April says with an enormous grin. "I really, really do.”