They head back to her place. It’s not really big enough, but it’s about the best they’ve got; there are still a bunch of builders in Mac and Dennis’s burnt-out apartment, getting it ready for them to move back in, and Charlie’s bedsit isn’t even under consideration. Dee plugs in the electric blankets, heads to the fridge out of habit for a beer. Obviously there isn’t one. She called Artemis from the hospital; the memory’s basically a great big smudge, nothing she can read or remember, but the end result seems to have been Artemis wholesale ransacking her refrigerator. There’s no beer, and also no food, and a little note on a crumpled receipt saying best of luck, bitches in familiar, loopy handwriting. Maybe she asked Artemis to take everything. Her appetite’s sucked this whole time; honestly, even now she’s pretty sure she’ll gag if she puts too much in her stomach.
“You don’t even have chips?” asks Charlie, wandering into the kitchen behind her. “Dee, why did you even let us come here if you don’t have chips? That’s, like… that’s bad hostessing.”
“Back off, Charlie,” she says, monotone, and it’s sort of incredible that he actually does.
She pours them all water, since there’s apparently nothing else to drink in the whole goddamn apartment. She checks the back of her cutlery drawer for any traces of her emergency crack stash: nothing. Past Dee is a bitch and a ruiner. Then again, Past Dee presumably just wanted to get out of hospital and not go back. She had her reasons. Present Dee rests her head against the cool plastic of the refrigerator door. Present Dee can’t think of a reason to do anything; maybe she’s just jealous. It would be so like her.
“You don’t even have Gatorade?” asks Mac, when she takes the water out to the couch. It’s been a while since she really had to look at him; he looks like he’s shrunk in the wash, like his colours have run. Good. He deserves it. Ungrateful piece of shit. “I can’t believe you didn’t plan ahead for this. Charlie, is there Gatorade at your place?”
“No, man.” Charlie shrugs, open-handed. “I don’t, like, keep emergency Gatorade in my apartment. Beer, sure, but--”
“Artemis went and picked it up,” Dee says, and slumps into the armchair, ragdoll limp. “I called her. She, uh, she probably broke your lock trying to pick it, though.”
Charlie shakes his head. “She had a key. Frank gave it to her back when they were--”
It’s a horrible silence. Probably the worst silence Dee’s ever had to sit in. Curled up on the far corner of the couch, electric blanket already wrapped around his shoulders, Dennis is shivering; it’s the only movement in the room, in the whole apartment, for way too goddamn long.
“Are we just not going to talk about this?” asks Mac. She can’t tell what he’s getting at, whether it’s a request or an observation, which direction it’s taking either way.
Dennis makes a weird, quiet hum of assent. “Yeah,” he says, hoarse; he sounds like he’s halfway to sleep, or halfway to dying. “Seems right to me.”
The problem -- the biggest problem of all their many and varied problems -- is that if being sober is horrible, getting sober is worse. Getting sober beats out getting mentally stable for worst hospital experience of Dee’s entire life. At least when she was on the psych ward it was all just kind of boring; sure, periodically some weird chick from out of town would start throwing herself at a wall over and over again, but those were just breaks in the weird and soothing monotony of being certifiably insane. You don’t take breaks from getting clean. Even after the worst was over, all the puking and the shaking and the feverish sweating, there was never a day off from wanting a goddamn drink. There hasn’t been one yet. Every bar and every liquor store in the whole of Philadelphia is a big blinking neon sign, Drink Me, like in the trippy Disney movie about the girl on drugs. Maybe Dee will just stay here forever.
“I don’t know about you guys,” says Charlie, and reaches for his mug of water, “but talking about it kind of makes me want to get wasted? So, uh, my vote is to definitely not talk about it, maybe ever.”
This gets a murmur of approval. Dee joins in, closing her eyes. It would be awesome just to snap all her bones at the joints and take herself apart, rearrange herself so she never has to feel like this again.
“We can move past it,” says Dennis. He makes a vague, half-assed attempt to lift his head; he hasn’t looked this shitty since he accidentally went into withdrawal in the men’s room at Paddy’s. Didn’t they promise themselves they’d never do that again? Not a single goddamn one of them has stamina worth shit. “Right? We moved past worse shit before.”
“With alcohol,” allows Mac. “Alcohol was… actually a pretty big part of the process of moving past it, if I remember correctly.”
“And crack,” Dee says, more wistfully than she means. Or maybe exactly as wistfully as she means. Probably for the best if she doesn’t overthink it. “And weed, and… gasoline? Oh shit, Charlie, do you have any--”
“I do not keep a flask of emergency gasoline in my pocket, Dee, we’ve been over this!”
“Guys,” says Dennis wearily, and waves his hand. He looks kind of like Batman, with the blanket over his shoulders, if Batman was an underweight forty-year-old with skin the colour of dead fish. “Guys, come on. We… we already moved past the worst of it. We aren’t actively vomiting anymore, is what I mean, and I for one do not want to start actively vomiting again. Can we just -- drink this goddamn trash water and get some sleep? For once?”
“It’s not trash water,” Dee mutters, more out of habit than anything else. She folds herself up in the armchair like her body’s made of paper. “It’s bottled. I probably paid money for that water.”
“Shut up, Dee,” mumbles Mac. The more things change. They drift to sleep by degrees; Dee dreams of a dark auditorium, no sound but the audience’s breathing as they watch her from the black.
She goes with Mac to the realtor. It’s really a process of elimination; she’s the most immediately functional Reynolds right now, so she’s got the bank account, and Mac’s the most immediately functional actual owner of the stupid goddamn bar, so he’s got the paperwork. Last time they teamed up they got wasted and stuck in a waterslide, in about that order. They spent most of that whole day in uncomfortable silence, while the sun blasted Dee straight in the face, and while Mac kept trying in vain to rip his dumb wristband loose, over and over like he seriously thought it’d help. They aren’t exactly talking now, either, and the sun’s still fucking horrible. Center City’s all mirrored glass and high windows; she has to shield her eyes from the glare of the office as they head up the steps and go inside. It saw them coming, maybe. It knows they’ve got no business being there.
“So this is it,” Mac says, in the waiting room. There’s a water cooler; his hand’s shaking way too visibly around his shitty plastic cup. Most functional owner of the bar, sure, but between Dennis and Charlie it’s not like he had a whole lot of competition. “No more Paddy’s.”
Dee shrugs. She doesn’t want to talk to him, not really, but he wouldn’t be talking to her if he didn’t need to fill the silence; she knows that, at least. She’s known that longer than any of these assholes. Too much to hope for a little credit, even now they’re catching on. “You do know they’re not going to let you blow it up, or whatever your stupid plan was?”
He doesn’t rise to it. It shouldn’t surprise her -- no-one knows how to rise to anything anymore, not a single goddamn one of them -- and yet it completely does, a little shock of relief down her spine. Definitely best not to overthink that. “Yeah, I know. I kind of… don’t want to do that anymore. What was it, like a hundred schemes back now?”
“And you were definitely drunk when you planned it,” she says. Agreement, sort of. He nods, bizarrely somber, smaller than she remembers ever seeing him look. And he was a skinny little bitch in high school. The bar is pretty goddamn low.
“Right -- but even if we weren’t, you know, it’s a whole different thing now. Like if we blow it up, then there really won’t be anything left.”
She frowns. “It would be really dumb to keep going back.”
“I don’t want that either!” He shakes his head, like he’s trying to shake the right words loose. It’s sort of pathetic. “I just want to know it’s there. Or the building’s there. You wouldn’t get it, Dee, you weren’t there in the beginning--”
“I was the only waitress you could get--”
“It was all we had, okay?” He’s still not mad. He’s just -- really unhappy, she realises, and it kind of gives her chills. Last time he looked like this, he was sitting neck-deep in rising water, and she was pretty sure Dennis had broken him forever; even thinking about it has her breathing more deeply, sucking in all the air she can get while the getting’s good. Maybe they’re all broken forever, all four of them, smashed up like their stupid game pieces over and over and over again until there’s no fixing any of what’s left. “Me and Dennis and Charlie, we were so proud of it. You and Dennis got to go to college and do all that shit, but me and Charlie -- it was the only thing we ever did with our lives. And maybe if they keep the building, it’s not…” A disconsolate shrug. “It’s not all the way gone.”
Goddamn it. Feeling sympathy for Mac may be the worst detox side-effect yet.
“We’re still a gang,” is what she says to him, and Jesus only knows how long that’s going to be true for, but it’s not hard to push Mac’s buttons; never has been. He’d lay down on train tracks for a few carefully-sourced crumbs of affection. “That’s something you did, right? You found your weird codependent life partners, or whatever. You don’t need Paddy’s for that.”
She tells the therapist about it later. A new therapist, obviously; she pretty much burned her bridges with the first one when she smashed a bunch of dishes on her gross old carpet. This therapist is older, and Asian, both qualities which Dee pointed out when they met the first time, though obviously she feels weird about that now and she’s pretty sure the therapist is to blame. Dr Kwan doesn’t do anything unsubtle, though; she’s not easy to catch out. She just sort of listens, and sometimes she asks a question, and then Dee goes home feeling weird and exposed like a shucked crab. Therapy was better when she could be an actress and invent fake actress problems to talk about and resolve. She’d say as much, except Dr Kwan would only get her to talk about it.
“And then he was like, I guess,” she concludes, doing her best and least unflattering impression of Mac, “and the corporate guy came out to get us, and that was kind of it.”
“And you went through with the sale?” asks Dr Kwan. She’s holding a glass of water, and her hands aren’t shaking at all. Dee can’t even remember what having steady hands was like. If you feel like shit for long enough then you forget what it felt like before. That’s just a thing that happens. No getting around it. The only reason she’s still here at all is that every asshole at AA has promised she’ll remember in the end.
“Yeah.” She leans back, carefully casual, on the couch. “I mean, we just poured a whole bunch of money into detoxing, you know, it would be dumb to think we could keep tending bar for a living…” She’s sort of laughing. She’s sort of on edge, more to the point, and she’s making weird on-edge sounds that would be laughter on anyone else. “We just sold it straight to the realtor. It’s… you know, it’s a shitty old building, I don’t even remember half the ways Charlie tried to hack the electrics or the plumbing or whatever. It’s not, like, millions. But we put it in the account with all the money from Frank, and it’ll pay all our rent for a while. All our rent, all our medical bills…”
Dr Kwan tilts her head. “Would you consider investing in insurance?”
She snorts, and she can hear Dennis in her head: don’t be gross, Dee, this is a medical establishment. Fuck him. He’s in bed sweating through the sheets and puking every half-hour; it’s his turn to be the gross one, or at least to be as gross as she is. “Yeah. Sure, doc, insurance. Like we aren’t all just walking, talking pre-existing conditions. It’s fine, okay? We’re fine. We’re not even spending money on beer anymore.”
The days bloat and sag without Paddy’s to fill them. When Mac and Dennis finally fuck off back to their old place Dee starts to rearrange her apartment, and ends up slumped on her bed in the middle of the day with a pile of furniture in the centre of the lounge. She and Charlie throw out a bunch of old beer bottles, pitching them overhand into a dumpster, cheering half-heartedly when they land with a smash. It’s the most fun she’s had in months. Frank owes her so many favours, she thinks; when she remembers it’s like a chain around her neck, jerking her back when she wanders too far.
This is why they never leave arbitration until later. Get the whole goddamn thing tied up and signed off or whatever the fuck before they all realise they’ve forgotten what actually happened. Dee can only barely remember what this particular case -- except it’s not a case, Dennis has been screaming to that effect for the past five minutes -- is about. Something to do with who gets credit for some swimwear designs, except the last fashion design scheme she can think of was way back when they were versus Fatty Magoo, and nobody came out of that one looking awesome. Still, she’s on Charlie’s side, mostly because Mac’s on Dennis’s side, and it’s more fun watching Dennis’s veins start to pop than it is watching Charlie get confused and start flailing. And who wants to team up with Mac, anyway.
“I was responsible for those goddamn designs,” Dennis concludes, with a punctuating blow to the surface of the bar, “and that is the beginning and the fucking end of it, and anyone who refuses to see reason is an idiot motherfucking savage in the highest contempt of this whole process.” Priceless. Never gets any less goddamn hilarious.
Charlie’s yelling and flailing anyway, obviously. Something about how Dennis is a son of a bitch who can’t even draw, and then Mac’s all up and pointing fingers because how dare Charlie criticise Dennis’s art, and yeah, this is why they don’t let things sit. She pitches in -- “What art?” -- and Dennis’s voice goes up at least an octave. Might as well make the best of it, right?
So they’re yelling, and then Mac throws a beer bottle at the wall only to have it smash on the floor, and then they’re pretty much all united again in mocking Mac for his shitty aim. Charlie’s doing a pretty awesome impression of Mac’s incompetent throw when she starts to hear it, through laughter and shouts and the rushing of blood in her ears: “Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me.”
She straightens up, rolls her shoulders back. “All right!” she yells, and gestures at the suit-wearing asshole in the doorway until the guys start to shut the fuck up. “All right. What.”
The suit looks like he’s smelled something gross. Given the current state of Charlie’s clothes, he probably has. “Are any of you… people Dennis or Deandra Reynolds?”
Dennis swans past her before she can open her mouth. Dick. “Right here, pal,” he says, like he thinks he’s so goddamn suave. He’s slurring a little bit. She hopes the suit can hear it. “What’s going on?”
“I’m the executor of Frank Reynolds’ estate,” says the suit, “such as it is. I gather you asked to be de-listed as his emergency contacts, so the police have been in touch with me, rather than contacting you directly--”
“Right,” agrees Dennis, too loudly. “Sure. Listen, we’re busy people, okay, we’ve got a business to run, we don’t need to be hauling ass across town every time Frank takes a fall or whatever it is he’s--”
“Mr Reynolds is dead,” the suit says, and the word lands heavy and flat like a cartoon anvil, straight through the floor and into the basement. Carbon monoxide spills up to choke them through the floor. “There was a traffic collision earlier this morning. It seems he lost control of the vehicle, and, ah, crashed. Into a car containing a married couple and their child. It’s my duty to inform you that none of the parties involved survived the incident.”
There’s water rising all around her and it’s lifted her feet from the floor. There’s a current running down below and it’s pulling her under, down where the world is strange and dark and quiet. She looks at Dennis. His eyes have gone lightless and flat, like a shark’s.
“Frank’s dead?” he asks, monotone. No way to tell if he means it, if he’s mad, if he doesn’t believe a word this guy is saying. Out of the corner of her eye she can see Charlie shaking, staring, knuckles white around a half-empty bottle he’s already forgotten. The suit just nods. His lips are thin. Maybe he’s sympathetic, or maybe he’s just sick of them all already. “Is there… can we see the body? I mean, do we need to?”
Gross, she says, except she doesn’t, because her lungs are full of water and there’s nothing to do but wait it out.
Dennis limps through the formalities and it’s fucking awful, watching him grasp for a language he only barely speaks on a good day. Mac’s quiet, hovering, waiting for something to give so there are pieces for him to pick up. Charlie is looking right past them all, seeing things on a frequency none of them are ever going to get, and there’s no one who can see Dee drowning, there’s no one to reach for her, no one to remind her body how to breathe.
She checks in on Charlie more often than maybe she should. If years of experience have taught her anything at all, it’s that leaning on anyone in the gang for emotional support ends variously in tears, costume, and prison. Still -- it’s a good walk to his place. Keeps her busy. Dr Kwan told her in one of their earliest sessions to try and be more attentive to her surroundings, to take the time to notice trees and clouds and birdsong, and Dee may or may not have laughed right in her face a little bit, but it does sort of help to be out and about. Even if all there is to pay attention to is shitty graffiti and the smell of cat piss.
His asshole landlord nearly bowls her over, one morning when the pavement is all autumn leaves mulched up with rain; she’s already nearly landed on her ass once, and she flips him off as he storms past her, muttering in whatever it is he actually speaks. Charlie hasn’t locked his door. She lets herself in, trying to stop noticing her surroundings before the reek of old cat food gets too overpowering. “You need to move out, Charlie,” she declares, tossing her bag into the corner. “This place is not getting any less gross, and your shitstain of a landlord is not getting any more -- Charlie?”
He’s in the goddamn crevice. Her stomach’s a lead weight, crashing through the floor.
“Charlie?” she asks again, and hates how guarded she sounds about it. It’s not like he’s been drinking paint, or planning some kind of play for the waitress. It’s probably fine. “Everything okay in there?”
Muffled, sharp: “Yes, Dee, obviously everything is great, which is why the crevice is my home now.” Motherfucker.
“Great,” she says, and attempts to sit on the couch. It’s gross, and covered in cheeto fingerprints, and Charlie makes a weird yelping noise when she leans back against the cushions. “That’s awesome, Charlie. Want to tell me exactly what’s so great that you went full crevice with it?”
“It was sarcasm, Dee,” he snaps, and does some sort of bizarre convulsion behind the cushions. “Oh my god, are you trying extra hard to be dumb today?”
“Wow,” she says, and gets to her feet, because she definitely did not trudge through an autumnal cat piss miasma just to be backsassed by a man in a crevice. “Okay. Real nice, Charlie.”
He makes this horrible wrenching groan, like an animal caught in a trap. “Wait, Dee, don’t just leave—”
The door’s right fucking there. Despite herself, she doesn’t go.
The problem emerges shortly after Charlie does, which is to say it only emerges after a lengthy and meandering conversation about what Charlie’s been getting up to in art therapy. Dee has never been this patient in her life, and frankly, a gross illiterate in worn-out thermal leggings writhing backwards out of a couch is not good enough as cosmic rewards tend to go. She’d settle for a medal. Charlie’s apartment is so full of animal drawings now — more than it ever was before, which is already horribly impressive — and frankly, Dee’s interest in animals ends where hoagies begin. It definitely doesn’t stretch to Charlie’s interpretation of a moon jellyfish, which seems to be living on the literal moon.
“Jellyfish could totally go to space if they wanted to,” Charlie says, as though he was never in the crevice at all. “They already live underwater, Dee, and you know water is like reverse space. They don’t even need to breathe.”
Reverse space. Jesus shitting Christ. She’d fuck a jellyfish herself for even a fraction of Mac’s patience with this bullshit.
“So you went in the crevice because some art bitch didn’t believe you about jellyfish?” she asks. Shit, he looks terrible. Even by typical Charlie standards, he’s filthy; more than that, he’s about as upset as she’s seen him since the day they got the news. His eyes are weird empty hollows in his face. “I mean, far be it from me to dictate your crevice schedule, but it’s kind of an overreaction, don’t you think?”
He scuffs his foot against the bottom of the couch, back and forth. It’s like sharing space with a goddamn cat, except he’d probably take that as a compliment. “Nah, I mean -- it wasn’t the art bitch. She’s not even a bitch, actually, she’s pretty nice, but -- Dee, what is this, are you interrogating me? In my own home? Because I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”
“Oh, so you’re banning me from giving a shit about you now?”
The pace of his scuffing picks up. Her pulse follows it without really understanding why. “It’s Hwang, okay? Coming in here, being a giant dick about shit all the time… like, am I supposed to care about his weird snakemeat sandwich choking stories? Or all his dumb fighting with people? I’m, like, my own person, you know, I don’t want to always be hearing him saying names about Frank all the time…”
And there it is. Took him fucking long enough.
“I’m paying rent on time and everything,” he continues, with one last decisive kick to the couch. “He’s such an asshole.”
“So leave.” She shrugs. “He’s not going to change, is he? It’s only going to stop if you get out.”
“Dee,” he says, with all the world-weariness of some elderly crank on his porch. “Sweet Dee. You don’t just get out of the only place you can afford, okay? That’s, like… not even how the economy works.”
It’s not even a thought in her head until she says it. Which is basically how serendipity happens; she’s seen enough chick flicks to know that much. “You should move in with me,” she tells him, and he stills, face twisted up in confusion. “I’m serious -- Mac and Dennis were fine with the couch, and it’ll be easier for both of us to split the rent. There’s no way it’d cost you more than this shithole, anyway. And you know,” and fucking fuck, here comes the nervous laughter, bubbling up like vomit from her gut, “I’m already over here all the time, it’s not like we’re bad at hanging out--”
“For real?” he asks, all suspicion. “Don’t mess with me, Dee, I need to be like ten times higher than this before you start messing with me like that--”
“It’s so boring,” she says, before she can stop herself. “Don’t you think it’s so goddamn boring? There’s no bar and no beer, I have literally nothing to do, and -- maybe Mac and Dennis are onto something. Maybe having someone around is -- is easier, in some way. I’m not peeling apples for you, though,” she adds. There’s precedent. It’s not paranoia if there’s precedent.
“Okay,” he says, “well, I’m not helping you if any more cats get in your wall, so I guess that’s a compromise?”
What’s surprising is that it is, and it works, and it gets bigger and more functional all the time. Dee vetoes cat food, but tries super hard not to get mad when Charlie gets back from a walk covered in cat hair and scratches. Charlie showers three times a week, even though he complains about how it’s a waste of perfectly good drinking water and he could just as well do without; Dee buys a proper duvet for the couch, and a decent set of pillows, now she’s sure he’s not just going to infuse them with pee smells and sweat. Dee helps him out with his reading practice, even though all the stories are about a bunch of dumb kids who don’t understand jack shit about anything; Charlie sits with her while she looks through job listings, and distracts her from her own frustration when all of them turn out to want a goddamn college degree. He’ll say some stupid thing like “I got change at the Wawa, let’s go throw it in the fountain,” or “there’s like ten cats that followed me back today, and I definitely don’t have enough hands to touch all of them,” and she’ll sigh, because she’s got to sigh, but she’ll go. She’ll always go. He papers the walls of her apartment with the shit he draws in art therapy. There’s a wax-crayon picture of the four of them stuck with a magnet to the refrigerator door, next to the note Artemis left, under the printout of the twelve steps she’s meant to keep on taking.
They don’t fuck. Which is sort of what Dee had expected; the surprise is that she doesn’t really care. He’s fallen into the habit of leaning on her shoulder when they watch TV. They don’t talk about it, they’re probably never going to, but it’s good. It’s good to coexist, just quietly, like they’re already moving past it even while they’re still there.
Mac stops by maybe a month into the new arrangement, picking up the last of Dennis’s shit. “Whoa,” he says, when Dee opens the door; he drifts past her without so much as a hi or how are you, surveying Charlie’s art with a look of total disbelief. “What the shit is this?”
“My apartment, dickhole,” says Dee, because even if Dr Kwan keeps telling her to minimise conflict, she feels like the rules definitely don’t apply to Mac. “Get your shit and go, okay? I’m not running a gallery.”
“How have you not killed her?” Mac asks Charlie, as he scoops up a bunch of books Dee’s pretty sure Dennis has never actually read. “Like, are you living out of the crevice or something?”
“I don’t know, man,” says Charlie, breezily. He’s sprawled on the couch like he’s been there all his life, and Dee doesn’t even give a shit; he looks better on her couch than the one he used to have. In the right light he almost looks like a person. “I feel like we do okay, you know?”
“Yeah,” says Dee, triumphant, and goddamn it, Mac and Dennis did get it right: it is so fucking great to be one of two, a united front. “We do just fine. Jerk.”
Her expression hardens as soon as she sees Dee, which is not at all surprising even if it’s still irritating as shit. Not even irritating in the way things used to be irritating, where they’d make her want to claw at the source with her fingernails until the irritation went away; that would at least have been interesting. Maybe exhausting is a better word. There’s literally no way in which AA meetings need to be made more unbearable. The goddamn coffee-shop waitress is totally unnecessary.
“I thought you moved away,” she says, when they inevitably end up next to each other at the snack table. The coffee here is fucking disgusting, like it’s actively trying to drive Dee back to drinking. “Even Charlie stopped following me around. What are you doing here?” She says here like it’s an insult: here, of all places. Here, where you aren’t good enough to be. Dee would’ve punched her, a month ago. Even now, she’s still got the itch.
“What the hell does it look like I’m doing here,” she says instead, low and sharp. “I quit. We all did.”
The waitress looks unconvinced. “You quit what? Drinking, or drugs, or--”
“All,” says Dee wearily, “yeah, all of that. Those… sure are a bunch of things we don’t do now.”
“You own a bar.”
“What, you sold it?”
Dee glares at her. “Oh my god. If I wanted to rehash the whole thing I would’ve stood up and done it for the group, okay? Can you back off?”
“All right,” says the waitress, and she actually does take a step back. Dee didn’t even ask twice. Is this how normal people deal with their shit? “You’re right, it’s not… cool of me to keep asking about it.” She hesitates, glancing at the door; Dee knows an exit strategy when she sees one. Perhaps she thinks Charlie’s hiding in a trash can, waiting for the right moment. “For what it’s worth, I’m… I guess I’m glad you’re trying to work things out? It’s not easy, realising you need to get help.”
“Okay.” Dee’s turn to withdraw; she feels brittle, suddenly, like she’ll smash to pieces if anything else picks today to hit home. “Good talk, waitress.”
“You know that’s not my name--”
“I’m gonna go and just… be in my seat,” she continues, “so you go ahead and keep drinking the garbage coffee, okay? We’ll definitely talk more later. Definitely. One hundred per cent.”
Obviously she doesn’t mean it, not at the time. But then Dennis laughs his creepy airless laugh when she says she saw the waitress; he asks if she’s still in a homeless shelter, rolls his eyes when he catches even the first sniff of discomfort. And then Mac joins in, god, yeah, she’s so gross, and if she were feeling better she’d step in, but she’s not. She feels like shit, the way she’s forgotten how not to fucking feel, and so Charlie’s knuckles stay bone-white as he grips the arm of the couch, even when Dennis and Mac have moved on. They’re like cats. They fuck with their prey, let it run around like it’s got a shot at escaping, but only ever until they get bored.
She blows off the next movie night. They’ve been trying to keep it alive, something like normal in the aftermath of everything, but she thinks about an evening spent itching with fury at her asshole of a twin and she realises with a too-familiar exhaustion that she absolutely cannot be fucked with it. She goes to the Starbucks where Charlie says the waitress was working last; it’s kind of reassuring to know she sold out, too, in her own boring way.
“Oh my god,” says the waitress, before Dee’s even closed the door. “We’re closing in literally two minutes. I’m about to shut off the machine.”
“I don’t need coffee,” says Dee. She’d sit down, but something’s stopping her; maybe she’s too tired to really get into making shit difficult, or maybe she’s second-hand guilty on behalf of Mac and Dennis. Which would suck, if it were true. Just one more way for them to ruin her life. Better hope they never find out. “I don’t even want -- look. Okay. I hope you’re seeing this, because I am really fucking trying here -- do you want help closing up?”
The waitress looks her up and down. Seeing, like Dee asked. Maybe that was a stupid thing to want. “My manager would kick my ass,” she says, at some length. She sounds almost like she’s sorry. “There are all kinds of… you know. There are rules, CCTV cameras, and I kind of need to keep this job, so…”
“Yeah,” says Dee. Her tongue feels heavy and tired; her words sink to the ground like they aren’t even trying to keep it light. “No, I get it. It’s… whatever.”
“You could sit here while I close?” She hasn’t stopped looking at Dee. Charlie would’ve looked away by now; any of them would. No one wants to see some ugly bird-looking bitch get sad. “I probably shouldn’t, but -- you know, maybe it’d be good to have company?”
Dee is fucking terrible company and she knows it. “Sure,” she says, regardless, because she’s got to take whatever she can get. “Okay. Uh… where’s a good place to sit? Like, did you already clean any tables, or…?”
The waitress gestures her to a table a safe distance from the window, where nobody can see her from the street. It seems basically fair. Probably not the greatest idea ever to put her out of two jobs, all things considered.
They don’t talk so much, which automatically puts it streets ahead of fucking movie night. Dee watches her power down the espresso machine, sweep the floor, wipe down tables until they’re shining. It looks pretty gross. The whole place smells like the astringent lemon gunk Charlie used to use in Paddy’s; he definitely used to sniff it, though he denied it every time they asked, every time they laughed. He’d come out of the men’s room unfocused and slurring, and Mac would seize the moment and insist on a chugging contest he knew for once he could win, and Dennis would dick around at the pool table like he even knew how to hold a goddamn cue, like he was too cool for any of their bullshit anyway. And where was Dee? Where was Dee. Half the time they spent at Paddy’s, she was barely even there, always halfway on a jet plane or a red-curtained stage, waiting for her moment to go all the way.
It never looked like this. It never felt quite this shitty, when she used to imagine it then.
The guys are still there when she drags herself back home. Mac’s head is on Dennis’s shoulder, his eyes fixed resolutely on a screen showing nothing. Dennis just looks bored. God help Mac, if this is what they’re doing; if Dennis was always unbearable with beer and crack to distract him, fuck knows what Mac’s living with now he’s got nothing to fill the void.
“Oh, there she is,” he says, not looking at her, as she tries to cross to the kitchen. “Sweet Dee, everybody. Too good for movie night all of a goddamn sudden.”
Charlie’s at the table, eating her cereal. It’s fine. It’s fine. She’ll berate him for it later.
“Where did you even go?” he demands, when she doesn’t give him anything to go on. You can starve Dennis out by not paying him any attention, which is all very well, except that he always makes at least a token attempt to get you to feed him. “Did you hit up a bar, or something? Are you off the wagon, Dee? Because if you’re the first one of us to go then it’s pretty much going to be hilarious forever--”
“I did not fall off the wagon, dick,” she snaps, and slams open the kitchen cupboard. There’s something cheap and microwaveable in there, there’s got to be, because there is no way she’s eating Mac and Dennis’s leftover popcorn. They don’t even get the salted kind, because they’re babies and they hate everything that’s good. “I went to a cafe. Sorry if, you know, I wasn’t super excited to watch you guys pop boners over Lethal Weapon for the thousandth time--”
“Do not cheapen Lethal Weapon with your gay apologism, Dee,” says Mac, without even turning his head.
Dr Kwan would be telling her to take deep breaths right about now. There’s a mirror image of herself under her skin, confined and furious about it, struggling to tear herself free and rip these bitches apart.
“I’m tired,” she says, because she’s trying. She’s trying. “Okay? I’m really tired, so if you could just, you know, get the hell out of my apartment now, that would be awesome, thank you, come back soon or whatever--”
“You’re kicking us out, now?” Dennis stands up; he’s not imposing, not even a little bit, but he’s all but shaking with a tension that’s infected the whole room, and it’s hard to look at him, somehow, when he’s like this. Hard to look at him, but dangerous to look away. “Jesus Christ, Dee. Clearly being sober has had a terrible effect on your personality. I mean, were you always this abrasive?”
“Pretty sure she was,” says Mac. He’s a fucking traitor who has clearly forgotten how nice she was to him at the realty, but it’s fine, it’s whatever, she always figured he would. “Come on, Den, we don’t need this bullshit.”
“Guys,” says Charlie, and she could slap him, she could kick him, they’re about to finally fucking go and he’s trying to mend fences and she could scratch his eyes out of his stupid face. “Guys, come on, we’re all having a weird time right now, okay--”
“Don’t you!” yells Dennis, rounding on Charlie like a tiger in a cage, and Dee feels her fingernails bite into her palms; her teeth are grinding together so hard it’s hurting her jaw. “You have no right at all to tell me how I’m feeling -- you barely even knew the man, for Christ’s sake, you only met him when you were twenty-eight years old--”
She hears herself shouting: “Get the hell out of my apartment, Dennis, I swear to god.”
“He probably wasn’t even your father,” Dennis snarls, “and if he was, he couldn’t stand to admit to it -- tell me, Charlie, what’s worse? Deluding yourself for the past ten years that you might have found your daddy, or sharing a bed with a man so ashamed of you he couldn’t stand the thought of sharing your genes--”
“Out,” she yells, and throws a plate at the spot where his head abruptly isn’t. It shatters hard against the wall, and just like that he and Mac are scrambling for the door like a couple of idiot kids, Dennis yelling insults until the door’s clicked shut behind him. After, too. His voice echoes with her heartbeat in her ears.
Dr Kwan would have told her to take deep breaths. Dr Kwan would have been right. She’s supposed to be getting better, and yet here she is, blasted apart by her own goddamn anger, standing in the same old wreckage she’s seen a thousand times before. “Dee,” says Charlie. He’s on his feet, cereal abandoned at the table. “Shit, Dee, that was -- kind of badass, actually? I wish you’d done that, like, all the time when we still had the bar…”
He doesn’t even sound upset. This was never even about him, she realises, and her heart sinks like a ship. Charlie was collateral damage -- this was all her and all Dennis, same as it ever fucking was, and she walked right into it, same as she always has.
“I’m going for a walk,” she says. She hasn’t even taken off her jacket; it’s easy, effortless, to lurch toward the door like a badly-handled puppet. “I’ll be back, okay, I just have to--”
“Okay,” says Charlie. She hears him flop down onto the couch, as though from very far away. “Enjoy that, or… or whatever.”
It’s freezing out; her breath rises in little puffs of smoke until it’s nothing but dead air. Every neon sign is a temptation, or a warning. It was never meant to be like this. Getting out was supposed to be clean, final; not this godawful retread of all the old familiar patterns, with no way left to take off the edge.
Charlie’s still on the couch when she gets back, doodling absently in a sketchbook Mac gave him. Sketchbook may be generous. It’s an old St Joe’s branded notebook, with lines, that Mac dug up when he was clearing out his closet and passed on to Charlie because the recycling plant was too far to walk. Still, Charlie’s filled more than half of it. “What’re you drawing?” she asks, and sinks down onto the couch beside him. It looks like a cantaloupe. Maybe an elephant, if elephants were shocking pink.
Charlie shrugs, and starts scribbling in the elephant’s messy semi-circle of bootblacked hair. Shit. “I dunno. I know Dennis said he’s probably not even, like, my dad or anything, but… he was my roommate, you know? He was my friend. Hey, did I tell you about the time we got married?”
Part of her wants to cry and cry and cry; part of her wants to laugh until she’s sick. She compromises, and raises her eyebrows, and keeps the rest of her face as still and calm as stone. “You did not. Uh… why?”
“Oh, you know.” He waves a hand. Nearly gets the black felt tip on the arm of the couch, but Mac and Dennis spent nearly a solid year sleeping here, all told; it’s seen worse, she can basically guarantee it. “Benefits, and… and assets, and all that tax stuff. Mostly I just wanted in on Frank’s health insurance. But then he had this whole freakout about it, like what if he had to be the woman, and then we got annulled, I guess.”
“You mean you annulled the marriage.”
Charlie sighs. “I heard what the lawyer said, Dee.”
“I’m going to stop speaking to Dennis,” she says, and there it is, no takebacks, nothing to do but follow through. Easy as that. Charlie looks at her like she’s a book and he’s trying to understand her, sounding out every syllable of her until he knows what to say.
“Because he yelled at me?” he asks, at last. “Because Dee, it’s sweet and all, but Dennis yells at me all the time -- you know, you don’t have to--”
“It’s not that,” she says, and immediately regrets it. “I mean -- not just that. He’s just…”
There aren’t even words. Or maybe there are, and they just won’t come to her, won’t fit right in her mouth or sound right on her tongue. She used to think they’d grow up normal, against all the odds, in spite of everything that made them. Dennis would calm down, level out, and she’d figure out how to be something other than a disappointment; she’d find some way to be happy, or at least feel something other than anger or exhaustion. They’d be successful, they’d be pillars of the goddamn community, and they’d go to fundraisers with spouses on their arms, a respectable distance between them all the way. But there were never any fundraisers; there was only briefly a spouse. They just got weirder, and sadder, and sicker, until Dennis was visiting Dee on the psych ward, or Dee was keeping Dennis’s pills in her sock drawer in case he ever gave in and decided to take them. She remembers walking around the arboretum at Penn, the day they kicked her out for real; trees do weird shit when the alternative is dying, it turns out. They lock themselves together and twist into one big gnarled monstrosity, and that’s what happened to the Reynolds twins when life caught up with them; it was a sign the whole time, an early warning she never understood until now.
“He’s just such a dick about everything all the time,” she concludes, weakly. “You know?”
And just like that, Charlie’s on board. “Oh, yeah,” he agrees, and the notebook slips from his lap to the floor. “He’s such an asshole, right? Like when we missed the boat party that time, and he was all, like, bluh bluh I’m a legend you’re all idiots bluh bluh bluh--”
She snorts with laughter. It’s the kind of sound her mother would have crucified her for; she claps a hand over her mouth, giggles spilling like puke between her fingers.
“And they were all, like, trying to storm off at the same time,” Charlie continues, “except it was weird, because they were all doing it? It’s definitely your turn, Dee. They all did their share of storming already, so I say you should storm all you want. All you want, Dee! All storm, and… and rain, and shit. Uh… wait. Wait, no, not like crying rain. That’s not the kind I meant.”
It wasn’t ever laughter. She could’ve guessed. It never has been before. Her fingers are wet; her shoulders are shaking like they’re trying to give out.
“What’s that?” asks Charlie, part concern, part confusion. “Dee, why are you doing that?” -- and she can’t answer, she can’t even try to explain.