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if I woke up with you in the morning (i’d forget all the ways that we’re broken)

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august. we were arguing. you want love to be like this every day, don’t you? 92 degrees even in the shade.

– Jeanette Winterson

:::

winter (i)

:::

“You’re one of those girls from the island, right?”

Toni leans in, wants to kiss her, wants to override any thoughts of any island before they can pull her under. But the girl whose name she has forgotten since they left the party an hour ago, fists her hand into the collar of Toni’s jacket and holds her off. “I recognize you. Your face was all over the news three years ago.”

Maybe, if she were just a little less desperate, she could stop herself from doing this. Chasing any hint of a southern accent, any blonde who knows she’s pretty and has known it her whole damn privileged life. 

The girl stares at her. She’s an inch or so taller. Light-colored eyes that could be green as long as long Toni doesn’t really pay attention.

“I’m not,” Toni says, scoffs, forces out. “That story was a hoax.”

She is three years in the future and there is no island, no ocean, no hunger. No sharks or trauma or experiment. No Shelby Goodkind, who chose to put more than twenty-two hundred miles between them, dead to Toni, like everything else that happened there.

But if there never was an island, her drunk mind supplies as the girl who’s not Shelby moves in to kiss her, then why am I seeing ghosts?

:::

It happens more often than she thought it would.

Baristas who’ll glance at her just a second too long when she tells them her coffee order. Law professors on campus who pretend they don’t know her name from the Gretchen Klein trial their morning news updates covered for a full year. A disgusting amount of new followers on her social media accounts, all deactivated by now.

Everyone looking at her like they’ve seen her before but can’t remember where.

Did we go to school together? Did you grow up in my neighborhood?

A girl like last night, who’ll stare into Toni’s eyes without any sort of shame, and say, You’re one of those girls from the island, right? A woman at a grocery store with narrowed eyes: the one who got sick and almost died. A frat boy at a party: the one who hooked up with that hot blonde with daddy issues who—

She’d punched him before he could say her name.

Not Toni’s name.

Her name.

What’s worse, is that no amount of therapy can really take her anger away. Most of the time, she can barely breathe through the red smoke of it. The powerless fury at the fact that all these fucking strangers know details of her life that were supposed to stay private forever. The leaked footage. The courtroom transcripts.

Contrary to what her many head-shaking high school counselors had hoped for, she hasn’t actually chilled out now that she’s older.

The only thing that helped, for a while at least, was blocking it all out. To tap away whenever Fatin’s face showed up on her instagram feed. Rachel, on the double page spreads of every sports magazine, her shark attack survival story milked like tragedy porn.

Block it all out. Leave the group chats. Don’t call back.

But sometimes—

Sometimes, Toni will wake up in the middle of the night, strangled by her nightmares, t-shirt clinging to her skin with sweat, and she can’t catch a breath until she forces herself to imagine waves rolling onto the island.

The sound of Leah’s soft mumbling. The feeling of Martha shivering next to her in borrowed clothes.

It’s like a dormant memory inside of her, that island; seductive and dangerous all at once.

:::

Dot’s the first one to break the silence.

She’d expected it from someone like Fatin instead.

Fatin, who has been on her case about this since the beginning. Who doesn’t really give a fuck about unanswered texts or expensive plane tickets. Who used to call Toni every other day that whole first month after they were first separated — just to chat, girl — and would stay on the phone until Toni had finally fallen asleep.

If not Fatin, then Leah. Technically closest to her geographically and more sensitive to other people's emotions than all of them combined. New Haven is no more than a three hour drive away and Leah never hesitates to do something impulsive.

Fuck, she would have even been ready for Rachel, who hates people who quit, and who’s probably angry enough to physically come knock some sense into Toni with the one good hand she’s got left.

Dot’s the one who respects boundaries.

Dot doesn’t get involved in other people’s business.

Dot is friends with Shelby.

But Toni’s phone rings and for once she picks it up, only to hear the too familiar deadpan of Dot's voice, saying, “Dude, I’m at a Five Guys next to a building that looks like it’s owned by the Church of Scientology, so tell me how to get to your place before I lose my fucking mind.”

Toni’s too stunned to do anything besides grab a jacket and walk out into the snow to go get her.

:::

Boston doesn’t feel like it belongs to her.

It takes Toni a long while to get to Dot, and even longer to find the way back.

These last couple of months, she’s been trying so hard not to notice anything. To be as dead as she feels. Staying up late and turning her phone off for weeks at a time. Pumping her head full with music, playing any PlayStation 5 game she can get her hands on, taking Greyhounds to places where people can’t reach her. Just to walk around. Pay for things she doesn’t need. Drowning herself in college and alcohol, in kickboxing and girls at parties.

She’s been here for a little over a year. Any street looks like any other. She hasn’t made any friends, hasn’t seen much besides the walls of her apartment, the boxing ring, the two or so classes she actually shows up to.

In the first month, she’d felt so insanely, ridiculously nauseous with anxiety that she’d called Regan. Begged her ex-girlfriend to come over. Begged, with panic and grief at her throat, make me forget, make me forget the whole fucking thing, over and over, until Regan had finally given in and tried.

It didn’t work.

If she thinks too hard and clearly about anything that’s happened—

If she gets even a fraction too close to a feeling, she’s afraid she won’t ever stop screaming.

:::

“You realize this needs to stop, right?”

Toni keeps her back turned so she doesn’t have to look Dot in the eyes while she makes coffee on her stupid twelve hundred dollar Breville espresso machine.

The whole apartment is disgustingly expensive.

She would have been glad enough to live in student housing, would have loved some shitty roommates and a non-functioning stove. To disappear into a mass of students all too self-absorbed to pay her much attention.

But her therapist had recommended that she didn’t delve back into society right away, whatever the fuck that meant.

In hindsight, Toni’s therapist was probably right.

Not because she wouldn’t have been able to handle other people, but because between a student dorm and this, the media can’t enter a high-end apartment complex as easily.

Plus, she doesn’t have to move in and out every single summer.

This is where her stuff is, and for now, it’s here to stay.

Home or whatever.

(if it was Leah instead of Dot, or even Nora, Toni’s sure they’d make some vague comment about how Toni’s never had a real home before, and ask her whether any of this feels special to her, whether she thinks anything ever will now that the two most important people in her whole life have abandoned her and—)

Because it’s Dot, she gets something else.

“Everyone can see you’re at rock fucking bottom, dude.”

Toni scoffs. “Thanks for coming all this way to psychoanalyze me.”

“Someone’s gotta do it,” Dot says, straight with her as always. She glances out of Toni’s window. “Is that the flat iron building?”

“That’s in New York, you dick.”

Dot shrugs.

Toni takes the cup from the machine and turns around. She doesn’t walk over to give Dot her coffee yet, irritation simmering under her skin. And it’s a good thing, because just as she’s about to sigh and hand it over, Dot says, “So, are you ever going to call her back?”

Something blackens inside of Toni’s chest. Something painful and sharp and thunderous. She pretends she can’t feel it. “Don’t. I’m not in the mood.”

Toni.

“I could kick you out, you know,” Toni says. “I don’t give a fuck that you just got here.”

“Real nice.”

“Do you think I care?” She doesn’t. She’s stopped caring a long time ago. All it ever got her, was here, with her mess of a broken heart and her friends looking at her like this, like she’s going to break any second, and if Dot says another word to her about it, she actually might. “If you as much as say her name out loud right now, you can walk your ass right to the airport and disappear back to Texas.”

Dot is quiet for a second. She just studies Toni from where she’s taken a seat at the too-expensive table, and then she says, “I was talking about Martha.”

:::

There’s a short version of the story.

It goes: helicopters, evacuation, trial.

It goes: waking up in a hospital with cameras in your face and the news story of the year hanging over your head.

It goes: people think you can fix anything if you just smack a couple million dollars against it, and for the most part, in this goddamn system, you can.

That’s the story in its barest bones, the static, bureaucratic version of it that satisfies most people. The version they’ll remember.

But that one bit—that shadowy edge on the outside, the things that didn’t make it into the papers, the therapy and the phone calls and the fact that her best friend in the whole fucking world is not talking to her at the moment, no one knows about that.

It’s not about sides, she remembers saying to Martha once; Marty, it’s not about sides.

The island. The goat. Day 22.

It’s not about sides, but it is, it was—and Martha didn’t pick hers.

:::

After too long of a moment, Dot says, “Got a cig?” and doesn’t mention it anymore.

Things get a bit better after that.

Dot spends a few days.

They don’t talk much, but they watch movies and get take out from Toni’s favorite places and wander around the city a bit. It forces Toni to think about the few things she does know how to do here. Even so, Boston is fucking freezing and she wants to feel ice cold and indifferent about Dot’s presence, too.

But it doesn’t work that way.

It’s just too funny to watch Dot, who “packed lightly”, wrap herself up in one of Toni’s old coats, looking puffy and uncomfortable, swearing every time she steps onto the icy pavement and nearly crashes to the ground. It’s too relaxing to sit in silence and smoke cigarettes with her window open, and not talk about the island or the trials or anything.  

On the second day, she decides to take Dot kickboxing at the gym she’s started going to, and Dot proves a very worthy opponent. She gets a few good hits in and simultaneously manages to commentate their sparring sessions like she’s Chris Harrison on the old seasons of The Bachelor, which makes Toni crack up so much that she nearly falls out of the ring.

Fatin calls them on FaceTime one night and Toni wants to say something bitter about how Dot is being way too obvious about forcing Toni out of isolation, but it dies in her throat when the familiar sound of Dot and Fatin’s constant back and forth fills her apartment. She lies on the couch, sipping a beer and pretending not to care, but she falls asleep feeling calmer than she has in months.

They don’t speak about Martha or the island once, and Toni thinks Dot must have realized that she won’t even be able to mention

“Shelby asked about you,” Dot says.

She’s standing in the hallway, bag swung over her shoulder, ready to go again. But Dot has always been a planner, has always been strategic about when to do what, and this is deliberate. So much so that Toni is actually unprepared to fight back.

“She said you blocked her number,” Dot says, not given Toni a second. “She said she called you, Toni, so many times, and apologized, over and over again. She said she’ll do anything to get you to listen, but clearly you’re too fucking proud to—”

Toni pulls the door open. “Bye, Dot.”

“—give her a chance, and I know you don’t want to hear it. You can punch me for it if that makes you feel better,” Dot goes on, reading Toni’s exact thoughts. “But you’ve got to know she’s trying, Toni. She’s the one who’s trying. And from what I can tell, you’re—” Dot flinches slightly at the expression on Toni’s face. She swallows back the insult she was gonna spit out, and says, “You’re better than this, that’s all.”

The dark feeling in the center of Toni’s chest spreads everywhere.

I’m not, she thinks, and then: you should have fucking let me die on that island, all of you.

“Have a good flight,” she says.

Shelby should have never forced that pill down her throat.

Dot sighs. “See you.”

She should have killed Toni instead of this.

It would have hurt less.

:::

There’s a short version of the story.

It doesn’t mention the night about a year ago, when Toni had almost drunk herself into a blackout, and called Leah at 03.17 in the morning.

“How did you do it?” she’d said. “How did you do it, Leah?”

Leah had been sleepy and quiet, unsure. “Do what?”

“Get over it,” Toni had slurred. “When he broke your heart, Jeff, how did you—”

There are many things Toni dislikes about Leah. She can’t ever take anything without dissecting it to death, without reading into it, without blowing it completely out of proportion. She’s too self-centered, always making everything about her. She is dramatic, most of all.

But she is also honest.  

“I didn’t,” Leah had said.

She doesn’t sugarcoat anything to make you feel better.

“I didn’t get over it. I let it ruin me completely.”

:::

Dot leaves, and she doesn’t text after getting home to Texas, and just like that, it’s December, and just like that, it’s almost Christmas.

There’s a girl trying to go down on Toni in the bathroom at a post-exams sorority party.

“Blondes are the worst,” Toni says. “Don’t ever date a blonde.” 

Kristen or Kristina or whatever she’s called looks up at her. “Are you being serious right now?”

“I’m just saying, you would get it if you ever met her,” Toni says, and she’s drunk, again, she’s trying to tell the story again—not the short version, the real thing.  

The airport, Shelby on crutches, her head completely shaven. How she’d said, I’m not leaving you, don’t forget, I’m not leaving you, I promise, and subsequently cut off all contact.

She’s talking about it, to this girl with her mouth on the inside of Toni’s leg, and she’s been trying to push the memories down, but she can’t stop. “But if you ever do meet her, don’t date her. Because she’ll promise not to leave you and then she’ll stop answering all your calls and disappear into Texas and probably become a born-again virgin or some shit, and you’re never gonna be good enough for her, and—”

“Yeah, that’s it, I’m leaving,” the girl snaps, wiping her hand across her mouth. “What the actual fuck is wrong with you?”

Toni slumps back against the wall.

“Everything,” she says, to no one. “That’s my whole point.” 

:::

Winter break is awful.

Everyone leaves and it’s not like Toni had that many people in her life to begin with. But still, without classes and with campus pretty much deserted, she feels more cut off than she’d expected.

In a way, she likes how bad it makes her feel.

When Bernice calls on the morning of Christmas day, she almost doesn’t pick up. But just before the last ring, she reaches for it.

She can hear the dogs bark in the background, can hear the clutter of plates, can hear Martha’s sisters bickering about one thing or another, and for a moment, she feels like everything—this whole mess—is completely her own fault.

It embarrasses her to the point that she can’t speak for a couple of seconds.

But Bernice is gentle with her as always, says she misses Toni, always the one person who won’t hold anything against her.

They talk like things are normal, and for now, they are.

When Martha’s name eventually comes up, it lingers between them. Toni almost manages to do it, to ask if Martha can come to the phone.

Almost.

She feels unexpectedly ashamed, hates that she got herself into this fucked up mess where she pushes away even the people who love her most in the world—or should love her, anyway.  

It’s like Bernice can tell, because she says, too kindly for the moment, “Come visit us for your birthday, maybe?”

Toni nods, then forces herself to say yes out loud even though she has to claw the word from her own throat.

:::

She sleeps through New Year’s.

No parties.

Nothing.

:::

When it’s either January 4th or January 5th, Toni vaguely registers that she hasn’t left her apartment in days.

Her gym’s been closed so she’s been busying herself with circuits in her living space, working out until she gets dizzy. She hasn’t really eaten anything but crackers, because she can’t be bothered to order anything.

Her bed is too soft for how she feels, and so she lies down on her floor in the dark with her music on full blast until she passes out.

:::

There’s a short version of the story—but bits and pieces of the longer story are what haunt her dreams.

Toni losing her temper and Shelby crying on the phone.

The words time and therapy and conversion in the space between them, stretching all the way from Texas to Minnesota.

The first time they all saw each other again, when the eight of them were called in for testimonies, when the skin under Shelby’s eyes had looked bruised and Toni had wanted to hug her so bad, but Shelby’s dad had been right there.

She’d been ready to fight, then. To bare her teeth. Scream at anyone and anything.

But Shelby had given her this look—this panicked, pleading, desperate look—and all Toni could do was stay in the grip of Martha’s hand on her elbow, physically nauseous from how much space was kept between them. 

The longer version is a lot more complicated than simply being left, a lot more painful than just being broken up with.

But who cares about that?

::::

The buzzing sound is like a fever dream. 

Toni feels so lightheaded that it makes her laugh. It doesn’t make sense that anyone would be at her door. She doesn’t speak to anyone. Hasn’t touched her phone in days.

It’s not until the buzzer sounds for the second time, that she even realizes it’s real.

Her muscles are stiff when she gets up off the ground and walks to the door. She shivers in the half dark of the apartment, the dark red wine and lack of food making her unsteady on her feet.

The intercom has been broken for about three months already and Toni hasn’t bothered to fix it. Predictably, there’s static when she picks it up, and so she does the only thing she can think of, which is press the button that unlocks the front door.

It’s probably for one of her neighbors. Someone pressed the wrong doorbell and will now find their way through the hallways to the right apartment, and Toni can just stay in the dark with her headache and her broken heart and—

There’s a knock on the door.

:::

The longer version of the story has been written backwards and forwards across Toni’s memory every single day in the last three years.

:::

“Sorry, I think you’ve got the wrong—”

:::

It crashes into her like the ocean crashes into the shore; heartbreak so fucking dark and wet and salty.

She doesn’t look like Toni pictures her most days – not seventeen, with sunburn on her skin, lychee at the corner of her mouth.

She doesn’t look anything like Toni’s imagination either; feverish dreams that leave her gasping, tense between her legs, crying with how much she hates herself for letting it get to her. That Shelby is pretty as a model, flawless and flirty, hottest girl Toni’s ever been with. Will touch her how she likes to be touched. Tell her anything she needs to hear. Equal parts vixen and angel, ready to rip Toni’s heart out and do with it whatever she pleases.  

The girl in front of her looks like someone she’s never met. Her hair is short, her cheekbones sharp. She looks like she hasn’t slept in days.

Ghost come to life in Toni’s hallway.

“Hi,” Shelby says.  

:::

The longer version of the story runs on, and on, and on.