And the further from my side you go, the longing grows.
And I will hate it, I still want you.
Cause I will hate it, but I still want you around
And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop // James Vincent McMorrow
Text Message, Tuesday, June 5, 4:46 pm
[Yo girl important invite: Nicky's lake house this weekend. You in?]
[Is that a joke?]
[Nah for real, come.]
[Alex isn't coming.]
[Wait why not?]
[Says she's gotta work.]
[Since when can she not take days off work?]
[I dunno, she got some new job waiting tables. On top of the bowling alley gig.]
[Says it's too soon to start taking days off]
[Even without Alex, I don't think Nicky wants me there.]
[You think I didn't check before asking you? She's cool with it.]
[Thanks, but I don't really wanna be a reluctant inclusion.]
[We want you to come.]
[It doesn't matter anyway, I actually can't go.]
[I'm grounded indefinitely.]
[No car or anything.]
[Oh shit cause of the weed in your room??]
[Alex told you?]
[Did she tell you she ratted me out for it?]
[You need me to say it was fucked up of her?]
[If you think it was.]
[So does Alex, for what it's worth.]
[Yeah right. She didn't even try to apologize.]
[K we're stopping that discussion right there.]
[Alex never shit talk you to us]
[Not even when we first broke up?]
[Nah she never wanted to talk about it.]
[Back to the point: you for real can't come?]
[I really can't.]
[Later in the summer then.]
[When you're done with imprisonment]
June crawls by, a slow stretch of sticky humidity. Alex buys an old bike from a pawn shop so she can get to and from the IHOP every morning, so she starts every shift already tired and probably smelling of sweat.
Over the last several weeks, Alex has gotten good at functioning on autopilot. She even starts to appreciate the low expectations of her summer routine. On the nights she works at the bowling alley, she only has time to grab food - sometimes with her mom, if she's between shifts or on a break - after her IHOP shift. On nights off, she watches shit on the Chapman family Netflix account for hours - she's taken to using Cal's profile. She goes to bed and wakes up earlier than she ever has to at school.
The last Thursday of the month, the final hour of her shift means the slow period between peak lunch and early dinner. The restaurant is fairly empty, but Alex still doesn't register the identity of her newest diners until she actually walks over to their table and looks up to take their order.
Alex barely halts her standard greeting, instead blurting out an utterly sincere, "Oh, shit."
Nicky is smirking mightily at her, while across the booth Poussey gives her a slightly sheepish wave.
Immediately, heat swarms Alex's face, her heartbeat going all weird and hectic at the sight of them where they aren't supposed to be. She has a sudden awareness of what she's wearing, the stiff blue apron over a collared shirt. As though reading her thoughts, Nicky's looking her up and down, eyes gleaming with good-natured mirth.
There is a scenario where this is all in good fun. Alex can imagine some high school movie, the whole gang showing up to rag on their friend's lame summer job. But she knows they'll never be able to pull that off. Just them being here, sitting in her fucking IHOP section, feels invasive.
"What are you doing here?" Alex can't keep it from sounding like an accusation.
Nicky doesn't seem to think anything of it. "We're bored," she informs her. "I bothered Washington until she agreed to hang out, and we made a mutual decision to inflict ourselves on you."
"Where's Janae, she didn't want to complete the ambush?" Alex asks dryly, relieved when her tone lands somewhere near 'mild annoyance' instead of 'humiliated panic'.
"Her family's still in Maine seeing her grandparents," Poussey explains.
"But no worries, she'll be back by the fourth. Throw down at the beach house, Vause, put it in your calendar."
"Sorry, but I have to work," Alex tells her without hesitation.
"Oh my God, c'mon, dude. You can take a few days off. It's fuckin' summer, you're a teenager, they expect it. And, anyway, we're doing it up big. Decided to widen circle for a lucky few."
"What does that mean?"
Nicky nods in Poussey's direction. "This one wanted to invite her girlfriend. And a few other juniors on the volleyball team. So J and I decided to extend the honor to a few other people who don't completely suck. Mainly track girls."
"Did you drive here just to tell me about a party?"
"Maybe we just missed the warmth and affection of your friendship. Think you might bust it out at some point?"
"We're not getting you in trouble, are we?" Poussey asks, seeming to scan the restaurant.
"You're off soon, aren't ya?" Nicky puts in before Alex can answer. "We should go bowling later, since Janae's not here to fuck it up. We'll just crash at your place tonight."
Poussey must read something in Alex's face, or maybe just puts it together that, in the half a dozen times Alex has gotten a ride with her on school breaks, she's never once let Poussey's mom drop her at her actual home. Quickly, Poussey says to Nicky, "Anybody ever teach you not to invite yourself to stay places? Damn. My house ain't that far, we can just drive back."
Out of the corner of her eye, Alex tracks new customers sitting down in one of her booths. "You guys ordering food or what?"
They both get big breakfast combos, and Alex doesn't say anything friendly before walking off to put the order in. She doesn't glance over at them when she comes back to greet her newest table and sweep by an old one to collect empty plates and confirm they're ready for a check.
When she finally returns with her friends' food, Nicky seems quiet and chastised, Poussey overly cheerful in her attempts to reframe the situation - "Nicky didn't give me any warning before showing up, either, I just needed somebody to share the burden." - and that makes Alex feel worse, because it means they probably talked about it.
Alex hates this. They're her best friends, they probably thought this would be a fun and amusing surprise, but they're making her feel like she's back in middle school, when everything about her - shoes, jacket, address, mother - was something wrong.
She never feels this way at school, even surrounded largely by kids much richer than the average hometown mean girl. At Litch, her status at a scholarship kid is just a vague fact that doesn't actually make her different in noticeable ways; her rule breaking business ventures meant she always had disposable income, so Alex was never left out of anything.
Here, though, she can't pretend. She is literally serving them, a nametag pinned crookedly over her chest that may as well say Really Fucking Poor.
It's weird, really, that she never once hesitated to bring Piper home. Sure, she got a little self conscious about Piper seeing the trailer, but never enough to reconsider the invitation. Hell, she told Piper she lived in a trailer park a month after meeting her, drunk on pink wine and thunder that night of the storm.
Alex had never been afraid to show or tell Piper anything about herself. Even before they were together, the way Piper looked at her seemed indestructible.
The thought of her stings in Alex's chest the way it always does. She shouldn't have gone there right now, getting all her emotions tangled tight around Piper before she has to go deal with Nicky and Poussey and whatever the fuck this Fourth of July trip is supposed to be.
Her friends finish their breakfast combos and pay the check about five minutes before Alex clocks out. They tell her they'll wait in the parking lot, and their exit from the restaurant is a relief big enough to be embarrassing. It's also a relief that deflates in under sixty seconds, when Alex finds a twenty dollar tip waiting for her at the table. It's more than the combined total of their meals.
She slams her palm over the bill, pissed off. Nicky and the others always gave Alex no end of shit for failing to sell them booze and weed at a discount, but suddenly she deserves twenty bucks for carrying over a plate of mediocre waffles.
This, really, is what she's most worried about. That her drug money was as much of an equalizer as Litchfield's identical uniforms and dorm rooms, and now she's lost it, leaving a conspicuous gap between Alex and her friends
She's got shorts to change into, luckily - biking to work in her standard issue khaki pants is miserable enough to be worth changing every morning in the employee bathroom. Alex sheds the shirt along with the ugly ass apron and meets her friends by Nicky's car, wearing denim shorts and a camisole that's barely acceptable as a tank top. She doesn't even glance at her bike, chained up near the entrance, not sure exactly how she'll get home tonight without Nicky specifically dropping her at the trailer park. She'll deal with that later.
"So, Vause," Nicky says conversationally. "You can get us free bowling, right?"
Alex tosses the twenty dollar bill at her. "Why don't you just use this?"
"That was your tip!"
"Don't be a dick," Alex bites out, ducking into the backseat of the car rather than wait to see the probable bafflement on Nicky's expression.
Poussey gets in the passenger seat a moment later, turning around to look at Alex. "Do you wanna go bowling? Or are you sick of the place by now?"
"It's fine," Alex answers as Nicky gets in and cranks the car. "Not much else to do around here." She doesn't work at Spare Room on Thursdays, though they seem to know that, have probably managed to figure out her schedule based on texts. "Turn left out of here."
It's strange the first few minutes of the ride, silent save for Alex's occasional directions. She can't stand the unfamiliarity creeping up between them, and Alex is aware that it's her fault, so eventually she leans forward and jostles Poussey's arm. "So how's it going with Brook?"
Poussey breaks into this automatic grin that morphs her face into dreamy happiness, and Alex feels a dull pain of recognition and loss. "Good. We FaceTime most nights...it's been a bitch trying to figure out a time to visit. She's not super close, and she's been doing all these volunteer trips....but I think I'm gonna go to her place for a few days after the beach house."
"Nice." Alex slides her gaze to Nicky. "So the beach house is in play again, huh? Full embargo last summer...that mean what I think it means?"
Nicky's eyes flare with delight, which makes Alex feel a little bad; it's her first attempt at friendliness to Nicky so far. "Maybe," Nicky replies with a coy smirk, while Poussey frowns in confusion.
"What's she talking about?"
"Just that there's only one reason Nick likes to go Montauk. And last year that reason had a boyfriend named Christopher."
Poussey's eyes light up. "Waaaait, that townie from forever ago? That's still a thing?"
"It was and then it wasn't and now it....might be. Again."
"Now I see why you're opening it up to plus ones. Not so much about you being all generous."
"You should invite Piper," Alex says suddenly, without really meaning to. "Oh, and left at this next light."
Nicky meets her eyes in the rearview mirror. "I'm not gonna invite her if it means she'll come and you won't."
"I can't come either way," Alex says firmly. "I'm already on the schedule for that weekend."
"So get someone to cover for you. You're looking at a sober senior year, Vause...you gotta at least party while we're still outside of Litchfield rule."
Alex leans back in the seat, her face twisting into an angry scowl. "It doesn't fucking work like that, Nicky. And anyway, I actually need the money. I know this is, like, impossible for you to fathom, but I think it should have sunk in by now that me not being able to sell anymore is a big fucking deal. That was the only way I could pay for a cell phone the whole school year, or to go to movies and the bakery with you guys, or go in on the fucking birthday baskets for everybody."
There's a tense silence, and then Nicky says, "You don't have to go in on the birthday stuff - "
"Right, cause that's what I want," Alex retorts. "To be a pity name on the card because I'm the only one who can't pay."
The air in the car feels tight and uncomfortable, and after a long pause Nicky says "Sorry." in such an uncharacteristically small voice that Alex feels shitty for going off on her.
Everything she's saying it technically true, but there's a contextual deception to Alex using it as an excuse to skip the vacation. A few days off won't make or break her summer wage fund, and she probably could switch shifts around if she wanted.
They invited Piper to the lake, barely a week into the summer. Alex knows because she told them to do it. Poussey texted and said Piper was grounded. That's Alex's fault.
Alex's mom didn't punish her; she never does. Alex has to do it herself.
"Invite Piper," she says again, tone conciliatory. "Especially if you're inviting your track friends. The whole freezing her out thing needs to be done."
"She might be still grounded," Poussey points out.
"She's not. She was at Polly's last weekend."
"How you know?"
"Polly tagged her on Instagram."
"Ah, social media stalking the ex," Nicky speaks up, sounding fully herself again. "I expected better of you, Vause."
"Don't know why you would," Alex tosses back.
Poussey huffs a laugh through her nose. "Ooh, self burn."
"Gotta give it up to your commitment to the bant," Nicky says with admiration.
Alex smirks, the air between them recognizable again.
Just before they reach the bowling alley, they drive by Friendly's. Alex's mom is inside waiting tables and her ancient car is visible in the lot, but Alex quickly looks away, working hard to pretend they're somewhere else.
At Spare Room Bowling Alley, Alex's colleagues let them have a lane free of charge so long as there's not a waiting list.
On Alex's suggestion, they each put their names down twice, essentially playing two games at once, so if things get busy they'll still get to play longer to finish before giving the lane up. She feels more relaxed here, and Alex starts to regret going so sharp edged when they first showed up. If she had just fucking acted normal, they probably could have come and gone without giving much thought to the ways Alex's non-Litchfield life differs from theirs.
As it is, Poussey comes to sit beside her when Nicky stands up to bowl for maybe the fourth time. "Hey, for real, I'm sorry we just showed up outta nowhere.
"Not a big deal," Alex replies, the sentiment a blatant contradiction to her earlier reaction.
Fortunately, Poussey seems to accept it. They're quiet as Nicky curses over coming two pins short of a strike. As she waits for her ball to come back, though, Alex can feel Poussey scrutinizing her. "You been doin' okay, though?"
"Yeah, sure." Alex feigns interest in Nicky's second attempt so she doesn't have to make eye contact.
"Feels like we don't hear from you that much."
"Just busy." Alex finally glances at her, slightly defensive. "I still text."
Nicky's walking back toward them. It's Alex's turn, so she's allowed to stand up and walk away from the conversation. Bowling's good for that.
She finishes and it's Poussey's turn, leaving her alone with Nicky, who's grinning up at her in gleaming self satisfaction. "I've had a flash of genius."
"Ah, shit." Alex sits down beside her. "Nothing good ever follows that."
"So ungrateful, Vause, you realize how lucky you are to have access to my wisdom?"
"Fine, fine, fucking enlighten me."
"You still have your fake ID, right? It survived the Red raid?"
"So I know you can't risk using it and getting a second strike. But that's only true when school actually starts. This summer, Litchfield doesn't give a shit what you do."
"Yeah, Nicky, I'm aware. You already said this, remember? That I have to rage while I can?"
"I'm not talking about you drinking, although you should. I'm talking about you selling."
"Everybody at the beach house! We can even expand the invite list in the name of a bigger customer base. You do your usual sketchy shit and show up with weed and booze...I'll put out the word that you're our official provider. C'mon, you'd make more than enough to make up for missing a few days of work." Nicky leans back, hands folded behind her head. "See? Fucking genius."
Alex crooks out a small, limp smile, appreciating the genuine effort behind the suggestion. "That is pretty smart. But there's no way I can get weed in time, my local guy is super hard to pin down - "
"So, fuck it, just bring booze. Whatever you have."
"I really am on the schedule for work."
"You can at least try to switch with somebody."
"It's like a week away, Nicky, it's just not gonna work - "
"Y'all didn't even see that shit?!" Poussey complains loudly as she approaches.
Alex gratefully switches her attention. "What'd you do?"
"Goddamn spun a pin into another pin for the spare. It was majestic."
"Sorry, Vause is just fucking determined to avoid our party weekend at all costs."
Frustration is evident in Nicky's voice now, and Alex scowls at her, impatient. "What do you even care, won't you be wrist deep in the locals the whole time anyway?"
"One of the locals!"
"Is it just so we'll invite Piper?" Poussey asks tentatively. "You think she won't go if you're there?"
Alex flinches at the absurd truth of that. Piper probably wouldn't go if she was there. God, Alex thought the months after the breakup were the worst of her life, but now she's actually missing the part where staying away from Piper was solely her choice.
Summer's only a month old, and it's the longest she's gone without seeing Piper since they met. She wouldn't think there was room between them anymore for a feeling this simple, but the truth is: Alex misses her.
"It's not her," Alex tells Poussey, and it's mostly true. "I just...I don't really feel like a vacation. Or a party."
They exchange a look, all furrowed mutual concern. Alex adds, "I'm trying to get my shit together, okay? I need to go to work. Not run an illegal student speakeasy. Even if we're not at school."
"I get that," Poussey assures her immediately. "For real."
Alex shifts her gaze to Nicky, who's slower and more reluctant to nod in agreement. "Yeah, fine."
Nodding toward the lane, Alex tells her, "Your go."
Nicky rolls her eyes and slinks to the lane as though bowling wasn't entirely her idea.
Alex waits until Poussey wins both simultaneous games and they've started another before she says to Nicky, "Listen, about Piper..."
"I heard you the first hundred times, weirdass. We're inviting her. We invited her last time."
"I was just gonna say you do it yourself."
"Cause it's your house. And she's not gonna go there if she thinks Poussey is just making you ask her."
"How about if you're making me ask her?"
Alex's voice sharpens. "Don't tell her that."
There's a pause, and then Nicky asks, "Why do you care so much?"
Even the slightest note of derision would have kept Alex from honesty, but there is none, only genuine curiosity. Alex rests her elbows on her knees and lowers her gaze, addressing the floor and her and Nicky's matching bowling shoes. "I just want her to be okay." It's a truth that comes out sounding so simple, although it can't be, the way it easily hid beside some bigger, meaner urge to make Piper suffer that day in their dorm room. "I don't know. I never felt good about leaving her without friends."
"Well, Harper's up her ass now, so at least there's that," Nicky says, the words more derisive than her tone, and Alex recognizes Nicky's version of acquiescence.
Piper hangs up her phone and, with the cell still clutched in her hand, stalks into the backyard to yell, without preamble, "You're such a fucking asshole, Danny."
In a rare moment of synchronization, both of Piper's brothers jerk their heads around to look at her, Danny from the deep end of the swimming pool and Cal from the steps of the diving board.
Not wanting to squint into the sun, Piper rounds the perimeter of the pool, picking an angle where she can properly glare at Danny in the face of his utterly unflappable expression.
"Mind your business, Pooh."
"What'd he do?" Cal asks eagerly.
She keeps her eyes narrowed on Danny even as she answers, "He broke up with Polly, coincidentally right before a vacation, for the second summer in a row."
Danny crawls on top of a pool float, lowering his sunglasses over his eyes and tossing out a lazy reply, "Would you rather I'd done it right before moving to school? We're gonna be in completely different states next year."
Piper grits her teeth. She's been outside all of two minutes and is already more pissed than she was when came outside, the ungodly June temperature fanning the flames. It's a thick, sticky heat, carrying the strong scent of summer, chlorine and freshly cut grass. She sits down on the edge of the pool, submerging her legs up to the knees before arguing, "If you knew you weren't gonna stay with her, you should have let the first break up stick. Not jerk her around for an extra semester just because you wanted someone to take to the fucking dances."
Danny snorts. "Kinda like you jerking Bloomer around? Least I didn't dump Polly in the middle of a restaurant on a major romantic holiday, damn. And you waited a year before sucking face at a party and then shutting shit down again."
"Are you fucking kidding me? Larry wasn't even my boyfriend. You dated Polly for two years. And we just kissed one night, you've been full on back together for like six months. Just to fuck with her."
She sees Danny's jaw tighten, anger slipping into his voice for the first time. "Back the hell off, Pipe, okay? I love Polly, and we got back together because I missed her and it sucked being in basically the same place and not being together. But that long distance shit doesn't work."
"It's a five hour drive. And there are plenty of breaks. You just want to be free to hook up with other girls."
"So fucking what! I'm not some horrible monster for wanting to be single in college."
Eyes flashing, Piper hurls back, "Fine. But if that's what's most important to you, you don't get to say you love her. That's not love."
Annoyingly, Danny's anger is gone as quickly as it came. He laughs once, unkindly. "What, Pooh, d'you hear that in some dumbass rom-com? Like you said, Larry wasn't even your boyfriend, and he's still the closest you've gotten to a relationship. So fuck off my shit when you don't know anything about it."
Cal's eyes dart to hers, the truth carried in his gaze. Piper's glad for it. There's something deeply unsettling about Danny's comment, proof how little her older brother knows her now. Not just him, either - her parents, her grandmother, even Polly.
She didn't think it mattered anymore. She and Alex are over. They are less than friends. There's nothing left for her to lie about.
But even when she's no longer someone with a girlfriend, she's still a person who's been in love. And been heart broken. And made a huge, unfixable mistake.
But most people in Piper's life don't know any of that. They still see a former, more simple version of her. They're missing so much that matters.
It makes her feel unrecognizable. And strangely lonely.
Her eyes are narrowed on Danny's floating form. He's not even looking at her, and Piper's anger is gathering breath - it's a few more beats of silence away from yelling the truth at him, but then her phone goes off.
Piper stands up, dripping water down her lower legs as she heads for the house. She assumes the call is from Polly, and Danny must, too: he shouts after, "Don't invite her over here until I leave for my trip, Pooh. I know you're all rah-rah-women, go sisterhood or whatever, but I'm still your - "
She closes the door behind her while he's still talking, and only back in the shade of the house can she actually see the name on her phone screen: NICKY.
Surprise skitters through her chest, but almost on autopilot, Piper follows through on answering. "Hello?"
"Heeey, Baby Duck! Good news. Camp Nichols is open for summer sesh soon. Doing a whole Fourth of July shindig at the beach house. You're coming."
"What?" Piper says, like an idiotic reflex.
"Beach house. July 4th. Alcohol induced shenanigans. Attendance mandatory."
"Mandatory?" Piper's parents aren't home, so there's no one in the house, but she still drifts into the laundry room and closes the door behind her before settling onto the floor for the phone call. "Since when are you even speaking to me?"
"Well, you know what they say about America's birthday. 'Tis the season for forgiveness."
"Are you fucking serious right now?" Piper's anger at her brother was still leaning against the walls of her throat, ready to throw itself into her voice that fast. "It's not on you to forgive me for anything, Nicky. I didn't do shit to you."
"I know," Nicky replies calmly. "But you know how it goes, Chapman. Shit like this blows up a group...sometimes you gotta take sides."
"Your side's kind of seemed a lot meaner than Poussey or Janae's side," Piper points out truthfully. While Piper and Janae hadn't really progressed past the awkwardness of Janae's inadvertent and reluctant role in Alex and Piper's breakup, she at least acknowledged her and exchanged small talk in class. All Piper's had from Nicky is a minimal reply to her emergency text when Piper still had hope of getting Alex's contraband out of the dorm.
"Fair enough," Nicky says. "Look, I know I was a bitch. I might have a smidge of a chip on my shoulder about girls who dump girls for boys because it's easier."
"I didn't - "
"But," Nicky swiftly cuts her off. "Poussey's pointed out to me several times that I could stand to be more sympathetic to what you were going through. So I'm sorry. And I want you to come gets shitfaced at my beach house. Good?"
Piper's quiet for a moment. Given everything she'd lost with Alex, she's never spared much thought about Nicky's apparent dismissal of her - save for the occasional conflicted swell of guilt and irritation when Nicky acknowledged her presence enough to shoot her a look of snark tinged judgement - but right now, Piper's surprisingly grateful for the apology. And for the sound of Nicky's voice, every note of it familiar and unchanged.
"Alex isn't coming by the way," Nicky says, maybe misreading Piper's silence. "Has to work. But it's not just us....Poussey's bringing Brook and some of her friends, and J and I invited track people. It's a serious business throwdown."
Piper feels her face get hot as she belatedly remembers Alex not being there is supposed to be a crucial detail. Her dad gave Piper back her car keys a few weeks ago. With her punishment lifted, Piper forgets to be actively angry at Alex - except when she misses her.
"Oh," she says after a beat, realizing how long it's been since she spoke. It's unusual, that other people are invited to Nicky's. They've never been like Danny or Jessica Wedge's groups that way, overlapping with multiple circles of close friends.
But maybe it'd be a good way to ease into hanging out with them again. It won't feel much like their lake trips last year. Alex's absence won't be so glaring.
"Can I invite Polly?"
"Harper?" Nicky asks, skeptical.
"Yeah....if it's already gonna be a big group? She and my brother just broke up again, and I kind of said we would do something fun over the fourth weekend."
"Eh, sure. Why not?" Nicky says, like she's making an exceedingly benevolent gesture. "Bring her."
"Only if you're sure you even want me to come."
"I do." Nicky's voice warms into sincerity. "I miss your gay face. Well, your bi face. Whatever, you get what I mean."
Piper feels herself smile. "I do."
"Calm down, Chapman, I didn't propose marriage. We're driving down this Thursday, okay? Stay through at least Sunday. You and Harper bring booze if you can."
"Okay. We'll figure something out. Thanks, Nicky."
"See ya soon, Baby Duck."
Polly's thrilled when Piper tells her about the fourth of July trip to the Nichols family beach house, to the point that it temporarily eclipses the angst from her and Danny's breakup. It almost makes Piper wonder if her former group of friends have some cool, exclusive reputation that somehow escaped her notice for the years she was part of it. But Polly mainly seems surprised at the invitation, and after a few nervous requests for reassurance - "You're sure you want me to come? It's not crashing?" - Piper realizes the excitement is mainly a response to Piper finally including her in something.
It's a shitty reminder of what an inadequate friend Piper was to Polly for so long. She doesn't like thinking about that now, when Polly's been the only bright spot in an otherwise friendless, funless summer.
Piper keeps catching herself really looking forward to the trip. She knows they aren't about to embark on a full fledged reversal of last semester's dynamics, where Alex is the one ousted for the shitty thing she did, but she'll take what she can get.
She's missed them. Even just the feeling of being among them - the coordinated rhythm of banter, the rise to crescendo of overlapping laughter, snark swapped with wordless eye contact.
Piper hopes they manage to snag a moment on the trip where it's just the four of them. Like old times - Piper thinks the phrase with a conscious, deliberate effort not to acknowledge Alex's absence.
"I don't actually know who all's going to be there." Piper says to Polly, sitting beside her in the passenger seat. They're thirty minutes away from Nicky's beach house, and Piper's covering up sudden, jangly nerves by talking too much. "Like track people, and some of the sophomore volleyball players - juniors now, I guess, that's still weird we're seniors, right? Or they might not actually be volleyball players, but Brook is, and they're her friends she's bringing."
"No Overbrook guys?"
"Oh. No. I don't think so, anyway."
"I didn't figure there would, since it's Nicky's place." Polly sighs. "I just know Danny's at Will's place on whatever the fuck island it's called with probably every Litchfield girl he ever secretly wanted to bang. Including Jessica, by the way. Could finally happen this weekend."
"So fuck them," Piper tells her. "Jessica chasing after your leftovers is just sad."
Polly shoots her a grateful grin. "I like that you're willing to refer to your own brother as my leftovers."
"It is truly how I see him now," Piper intones seriously. It makes Polly laugh. Piper's pleased with that; strangely, it makes her think maybe she'll do okay this weekend. She used to make Nicky and Janae and Poussey laugh, too.
And Alex. Alex more than anybody.
But Piper really doesn't want to spend this whole weekend thinking about her.
Piper deliberately timed it so they'd arrive at the beach house around dinner time, knowing most people were showing up in the afternoon. In some vague way, she thinks it will be easier to arrive to something that's already in motion.
There are at least four other cars visible in the garage and driveway when Piper pulls in. Predictably, the Nichols' house is huge - several stories, with a wraparound deck, and located right on the beach. Polly's eyes widen when she sees it. "Jesus. Didn't you say you spent New Years in another house of Nicky's."
"Yep, lake house almost as big as this."
"Fuck. I forget how many levels of rich there are at Litch."
There's no answer when they ring the doorbell, so Piper texts Nicky, who immediately instructs her to go to the open side door and drop their stuff before finding everyone out back. The kitchen island is crowded with alcohol, and they add a box of wine and two bottles of tequila Polly managed to procure through her cousin.
The deck steps take them down onto the sand, where Piper and Polly both kick off their flip flops to add to an already crowded pile. Piper can see a group of people, about halfway between the house and the surf, sitting in a cluster of beach chairs circling the beginnings of a bonfire. The only other houses in sight are barely visible down the long stretch of sand, and there are no other groups or even lone figures on the beach that Piper can see.
Like she'd figured, everyone is already several drinks into their day, a fact that eclipses any potential awkwardness to the quasi-reunion. Poussey spots her first and yells her name with drunken elation. The eight or nine people around her cheer in response, less out of genuine excitement - Piper knows most of them by name and face but not much else - than a sort of party mob mentality.
"Baby Duck is in the house!" This of course from Nicky, who gets up to tug Piper into the circle. She grins over her shoulder as Polly follows them, saying, "Harper, happy you could join us and prove Chapman here has other friends."
There's some general chaos while Piper hugs both Poussey and Janae while giving smile/wave greetings to the other girls over their shoulders. Within two minutes, she's got a beer in her hand and is settled onto a blanket spread in front of the beach chair Poussey and Brook are packed in tightly to share.
Alcohol fueled or not, it's a good feeling - being greeted like the missing ingredient to a party, and after months of having only one friend at a time, if that, Piper happily basks in it. She catches Polly's eye and smiles in what she hopes is a reassuring and inclusive manner. She wants Polly to fit better here than Piper ever did as a dining hall table guest of the Jessica Wedge brigade.
There's a loose game of Never Have I Ever going around the circle. It tenses Piper a little; a few times she catches Nicky subtly clocking her lies - like when she fails to put down a finger for having sex with a girl - and even moments she's truthful - like when she lowers a finger to having sex in a car - have Polly throwing her curious glances, obviously wondering the who.
Fortunately, they move on soon, calling out indiscriminate Fuck/Marry/Kills, mostly comprised of Litchfield and Overbrook student body or staff. Under the exclamations from the game, Piper manages to conduct brief, catch up conversations with both Poussey and Janae, swapping mostly boring details from summer break so far.
Pizza is ordered, and the sun firmly sets. They move closer to the house both to avoid high tide and in hearing distance of the speaker system playing music. Someone sets up a beer pong table. Polly brings out boxed wine and Nicky declares her a genius. A few cups in, pinot grigio manages to drown the last of Piper's nerves.
Around ten, a group of five people their age or maybe a few years older show up, two girls and three guys, none of whom Piper recognizes from school. One, a small girl with dark hair and bright red lipstick, runs to Nicky, kissing her with an immediate vigor.
Off Piper's confused look, Poussey drops her voice to explain, "Nicky's befriended some of the locals. Apparently her girl pushes a frozen lemonade cart in the more touristy areas of the beach....and this ain't their first summer fling."
It starts to feel more like a little party - the music turned up and small clusters of people dancing on the shifting sand. The few straight girls present seem invigorated by the arrival of guys, Polly included, and within an hour she's become the giggly and giddy beer pong partner of some beefcake dude who's almost definitely a lifeguard.
Piper's head fills uncomfortably with the memory of her and Larry, playing beer pong at that mountain house. She shifts away from the image, forcibly shrugging off more thoughts about that night trying to remind her that, no matter what Alex has done to her since, Piper's always going to be the one who ruined them.
After refilling her plastic cup almost to the brim with wine, Piper walks to a soft spot near the dunes and settles down.
The group has begun to break into pieces. Brook and Poussey have disappeared into the house, while Nicky and her summer fling girl - Piper has yet to be introduced - are making out in plain sight on the steps to the deck. The only one of the local guys who isn't playing beer pong has produced a joint and is partaking with Brook's friends.
It's been a good night, for the most part, and easier than Piper probably had any right to hope for. But sitting with only a drink for company at the end of it is a good way to get buried up to the neck in self pity.
Before she can get too comfortable in it, though, Janae sits down beside her. "Hey."
Janae's twisting the top off a cheap bottle of wine. She offers Piper some, but Piper shakes her head. "You drunk?"
"Gettin' there." Janae smirks a little and takes a swig straight from the bottle.
For a moment, they sit in companionable silence for a moment before Piper says, "Thanks for inviting me this weekend. I've missed you guys."
"Why you thanking me?"
"I kinda assume it was a group consensus."
Janae doesn't address that, just replies, "We missed you, too," with a brisk sort of warmth that makes Piper smile.
After a beat of silence, Piper asks, "So you still hanging out with Trevor?"
"Eh. Never really went anywhere serious. He's kinda too whiny."
"Yeah. Like he'd get all pouty when he wasn't winning enough in Mario Kart."
The thought of Janae sitting in a boy's dorm room playing Mario Kart makes Piper grin. "Ah, so he's one of those guys. Can't get beat by a girl."
Piper turns her voice teasing, almost remembering how to do it. "You don't wanna get in the game for one of the beefcakes over there?"
Janae rolls her eyes. "Nah, at the rate they're going Nicky's house is gonna turn into a brothel for the night. Don't wanna be complicit." She smirks. "What about you, why aren't you getting in there? You're single, too."
The words are a kill switch to Piper's smile, and she lowers her gaze to hide the flinch.
"I didn't mean anything," Janae says quietly after a few moments crawl silently by.
They're quiet for awhile, Piper's head lost in the woods by the lake between Litchfield and Overbrook, the realization that Janae saw Larry kissing her. A childish urge rises in her to ask Janae what she thinks about Alex ratting her out to Red, like she needs to make her friend think about something bad Alex did instead.
Then Janae surprises her. "Listen, Pipe....I'm sorry about how everything went down. I thought about it a lot, after...wondering whether I should've handled it different. I never would've wanted y'all to break up and...I still don't feel good about having any part of it."
Piper tightens her jaw, staring hard, straight out at the ocean. There hasn't been a single moment since she and Alex broke up when she's been angry at Janae - until this one.
"Piper?" Janae prods after too long without a response.
It's the kind of irritation that Piper would usually just swallow and digest, but she's just hit the point of drunkenness where every feeling seems to be worth sharing. "I wish you hadn't said that," she mumbles.
"Oh." Janae sounds taken aback. "Uh. Okay?"
"You were so sure then." Piper's voice wavers slightly. "Like there was no other way, so what good does it do me now to know that maybe....maybe I could've changed your mind - "
"Whoa, I never said - "
"- and Alex would never have to find out."
"Piper," Janae's voice is firm. "I never said I would've changed my mind. Or that I should've done anything different, I just, like...wanted to make sure you knew I didn't just brush it off like it wasn't anything big."
Piper closes her eyes, fully absorbing for the first time how unlikely that night was, how easily her life could have stayed unshattered. If she and Polly hadn't made plans. If Litchfield had been playing a better movie, if they hadn't gone to Overbrook. If Janae didn't have plans with a boy she never even really dated. If either of them had picked different rows to sit in. If Piper had made sure she didn't end up beside Larry.
But she could keep unraveling everything, all the way back to how easy it would have been to refuse Polly's invitation to the ski trip. Those are easy knots to undo, little inconsequential circumstances. The worst, gnarled mess, the tangle is the center of it, is always going to be a choice Piper made.
"I know you were right," she says in a low voice, drained of all fight. "Even if neither of us told Alex then...there was no way to be sure Polly or Danny would never mention it in front of her.
"Okay...." Janae says warily. "So...? You mad or not?"
"Not," Piper answers dully. "Not at you. Just myself." Piper's not really crying, not yet, but the threat of tears is pulling her voice tight. "Fuck, when am I allowed to stop that?"
"Stop...hating myself for what I did. I don't wanna feel guilty anymore. You'd th, think the fact that I'm fucking furious at Alex too would be enough, but it's not."
Janae lilts sideways, just for a second, so that her shoulder gently bumps Piper's, her only method of comfort until she says, after a lengthy silence, "You wanna hear what I think or is that just something you needed to say out loud?"
"Okay. I think you're gonna be mad at yourself as long as you're still wishing it hadn't happened."
Piper pauses, waiting for Janae to follow that up, or for the sentiment to reveal unexpected profundities. It doesn't. "Is that supposed to be insightful?"
"I didn't say it was that complex, damn. It's pretty standard advice. I'm sayin' you gotta move on. As long as you're still hung up on Al, of course you're gonna feel bad about the reason you aren't together. You gotta stop wanting that before you stop being mad at yourself for getting in the way of it."
The heavy, exhaustive truth of it sinks in. Piper's shoulder sag with it. There is a difference between using her anger at Alex to convince herself she wouldn't get back together now even if Alex offered - it's a much bigger challenge to stop wishing nothing had gone wrong between them in the first place.
"So how do I do that?" Piper asks, weary but almost sarcastic, like she can't imagine there being an answer.
But Janae turns to her and smiles, this time gentle and sincere when she says, "You could start with one of the beefcakes over there. Though, honestly, I think we can find you better options."
Piper forces a clumsy smile, because she can see Janae is trying to give her permission for something, but the thought of it makes her stomach bunch up.
It will be a daunting task, learning how to want someone else.
Piper's in bed in her designated guest room, scrolling through Instagram in a sort of dim, wine soaked haze when the door opens and Polly creeps in, awkwardly dragging her overnight bag.
"Well, hey." Piper tries to grin into the dark so it'll seep into her voice. "Didn't know if I should expect you here tonight."
"We just made out," Polly informs her, flopping stomach first onto the foot of the bed. "He left, I think - someone was calling an uber."
After a second, though, she hears Polly sniffle and draw a quivering, sideways breath, immediately followed by, "Sorry. I'm pretty drunk."
Piper's pretty drunk, too, but she crawls forward to splay out beside Polly, remembering that even if it's just Danny, Polly's still in the thick of a breakup. She touches Polly's shoulder.
"Do you think I'm an idiot?" Polly asks after she's pulled herself a little more together. "For getting back together with him?"
"No. Of course not."
"I think maybe I am. It's not like he even tried to hide why last time...basically a week after we broke up he gets tagged in all these photos with other girls."
Piper bites back a litany of insults against her brother, and instead says slowly, "I think...you have to be brave to forgive someone. To give them a second chance. It's not dumb."
Polly gives her this wide eyed look like she's said something unspeakably wise. Piper's just thinking about Alex, who she always thought was so fearless.
But no. She's decided now: forgiveness is brave, revenge is cowardly. And it was revenge, what Alex did to her. She'd admitted as much.
Maybe I did want to hurt you back.
Piper bites down on the inside of her lip. She's precariously close to joining Polly in drunk crying mode, and resolves to be done with that for the rest of the trip. She's here, and Alex isn't, and maybe that's what's fair.
The Fourth is on a Friday, and Alex works her usual shift at IHOP and voluntarily covers someone else's at the bowling alley. The place is almost completely empty around nine, everyone in town probably gathered around parking lots and the high school football stadium to watch the fireworks.
Alex gets a burger and fries and hoists herself up on the counter to eat, scrolling absently through her phone. Poussey's gotten way too into Snapchat lately - her story is over a minute long, a series of eight second videos panning through the action at Nicky's.
She can find Piper in most of them. It threw her off to see Polly there, led to an instinctive, childish hurt - that's not what I meant - but she knows it's a good thing. It just means Piper hasn't been been sitting around alone all summer, waiting for Nicky to finally make a gesture.
But in some embarrassing, silly way it makes Alex feel replaced. Not as Piper's girlfriend - clearly - but as her best friend, her designated person in any given group.
She went to Nicky's place at the beach once before, the summer after freshmen year, but she's picturing the lake house when she imagines their current trip. In her head, most of the extra guests aren't there, just Polly, sitting where Alex used to sit while they play games in the basement, Piper's partner in Taboo or Celebrity - they used to play three on two, as the others decided Piper and Alex had an unfair advantage. Alex always rolled her eyes at those claims while secretly glowing with pleasure. It was a good feeling, the two of them: seeing inside each other's heads, knowing and being known.
Alex knows it's not the same with Polly, but her chest is still simmering with jealousy at the imagined image. She goes back to Poussey's Snapchat story just to get rid of it, but seeing all her friends together - now with sparklers - just makes her feel lonely.
By Saturday evening, Piper's slightly sunburned and mostly comfortable with the somewhat randomly assembled group at the beach house. Polly's moved through any initial awkwardness and ingratiated herself pretty well, so Piper's gotten time to hang out with Janae and Poussey, and even Nicky on the rare occasions she has eyes for anyone but her summer girlfriend (the term she and the others have settled on for lack of more specific clarification).
They're inside after a long day at the beach, everyone sun-tired and hungry. The track girls are making a huge pot of spaghetti when Nicky declares they're running low on wine. There's a brief sobriety check to determine if anyone can drive to the store. Piper feels more worn out than buzzed, but she and Polly have been traipsing back and forth from the beach to the house all afternoon, blending lemonade slushies and adding vodka, so she doesn't volunteer. One of Brook's junior friends claims to be good to drive, and the other accompanies her.
"Hey," Nora Frost, one of Janae and Nicky's track friends, says suddenly. "Is it true Alex isn't selling next year?"
Piper's aware of four different people in the room glancing at her. Nicky looks away fastest to answer. "Yeah. She's starting off with a violation so has to play it safe. Fucking Jessica."
"That's so messed up, what she did," Mary Burke, the other track girl, puts in. "Isn't there some sort of no snitch code?"
Poussey snickers, "Yup, I think the formal law is 'snitches get stitches.'"
Nicky nods sagely. "I have heard that."
Polly surprises Piper by speaking up, "I hope literally everyone who ever bought from Alex hears exactly what Jessica did. That's like eighty percent of the school."
Nora arches an eyebrow. "Aren't you really good friends with her?"
"Not anymore," Polly says darkly. Then she frowns. "And even before I wouldn't say we were good friends. I just room with Madison."
Janae feigns surprise. "You mean Madison actually sleeps in y'alls room? She doesn't just curl up on the floor beside Jessica's bed?"
Everyone laughs at that, including Polly. And soon they're all off on one of those conversations that feels like competitive shit talking, everyone trying to throw out the funniest or most astute observation about Litchfield students who err toward mean or snobby.
Piper mostly stays quiet, even when the pasta is served and the wine is delivered and everyone sits around the living room. They used to do this, the five of them, when it felt like they somehow existed apart from everyone else at Litchfield.
Not for the first time, she's struck with the strangeness of this expanded group. Sitting on the couch beside Polly, Piper's gaze tracks from Janae to Nicky to Poussey. For a second, she entertains the idea of texting them all, planning to sneak away at some point in the evening and reconvene in the basement. Maybe there's a game closet like at the lake house, and they can play Twister or Jenga.
She wouldn't mind if Alex was there, too.
"Check it out," Polly lands on her knees on the bed when the evening's party has finally broken up. She's got her SnapChat story pulled up, displaying the people who have viewed it. Piper spots her brother's username among the list, but Polly's pointing at Jessica's. "Bet she can't stand that I'm here."
"She doesn't want you to make new friends?"
"Probably not. But especially not you guys. It's like an upgrade."
"Right," Piper mutters dismissively, drunk and sleepy and only half listening.
"Oh, come on. You know you guys are like the cool kids."
Piper pulls a face. "Oh, whatever."
"I'm serious. Why do you think Jessica hates Alex so much?"
"Because Jessica's a homophobe."
"Well, sure, the girl definitely has some lesbian issues - though she loves hanging out with gay boys. But it's more than that." Polly smiles slightly. "Fuck, I seriously forget sometimes you weren't here freshmen year."
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"Just how Alex was at the beginning. Everyone thought she was so fucking cool. I bet Jess couldn't stand it, being her roommate - the whole pretty rich girl thing didn't make her instantly special here. But Alex just like...didn't give a shit, ya know? She was down to share weed, but she never seemed desperate to make friends like most people. Probably made her seem even cooler."
Piper's quiet, thinking about that. She can picture it pretty well - Alex isn't the socially performative type, and she's independent enough that she'd probably be okay lone wolfing it around boarding school until she met people naturally. But Piper also knows what it was like for Alex before Litchfield, the kind of middle school experience she was coming from. Alex came to boarding school expecting more extreme versions of the kids in her hometown who made fun of her clothes. She was probably wary of them, not sure if she could fit in even if she wanted to.
It's useless knowledge, now. But it still belongs to Piper.
Voice turning wry, she asks, "So are we not actually cool anymore? Since Alex isn't here?"
"C'mon, that's not what I meant. It's your whole group." After a beat, she adds, voice slurring a little, "You included! I was just talking about when we were freshmen. And Alex kinda stood out the most since she became everyone's drug dealer like, immediately."
"Do you care if I turn this off?" Piper asks, already reaching for the lamp. She's doing it again, rearranging all these thoughts about Alex, getting caught between them - wondering about her working every time there's a trip this summer, and how losing the money from her massive rule breaking is probably an actual big deal - and she wants to just stop and go to sleep.
Even though she's nearly four hours away from it, Alex is glad when the beach trip ends. Her friends separate, going back to their individual social media accounts, and there's nothing for her to envy.
Except Polly and Piper, still, who keep hanging out over the last month of summer break. They clearly think their friendship doesn't really exist if they don't document it on Instagram for all of the Litchfield study body to see.
There are three weeks left in summer break when her mom takes a night off. It's one of Alex's off nights from the bowling alley, and Diane tells her they're going to their favorite Italian restaurant in the next town. It's nothing crazy fancy, but still a rare indulgence, one they usually save for one of the last nights before Alex goes back to school.
"Kinda early for Portofino, isn't it?" Alex comments when her mom suggests it. "Trying to rush me out?"
"We'll still go your last night. This is just a bonus." Alex sends her a questioning look, and Diana rolls her eyes at her. "What, I can't crave garlic bread? C'mon, put on some shoes, we gotta beat the rush."
It's a fun night, though it's up to her mom to drive most of the conversation. Alex has gotten out of the habit of storing up anecdotes from her monotonous weekdays, but Diane can always been counted on for amusing work stories.
When the check comes, Diane puts her card in and then smiles at Alex. "So."
"I knew it."
Diane rolls her eyes. "What did you know?"
"That you had an ulterior motive."
"Fine, smartass, you got me. Had to butter you up before giving you a present. How terrible."
Diane smirks and hands over an envelope. Rather than open it, Alex just frowns at her in confusion. "Present for what?"
"Half-birthday? End of summer? Start of your senior year? Pick your favorite." Alex rips open the flap and finds herself looking at a thin stack of bills. Before she can protest, Diane keeps talking, "I want you to take a weekend off before you go back to school. Spend some time with your friends. You don't gotta worry about missing work." Alex looks up at her, ready to protest, but there's a softness to Diane's expression that stops her. "You haven't done anything fun all summer, babe. You deserve a break."
Alex is already shaking her head. "They've done all their trips for the summer - "
"I doubt anybody'll complain about an extra one. You girls should go to the place on the lake for the weekend."
"I...I'm pretty sure Nicky and Poussey are all booked up with their girlfriends, and anyway I'm already on the schedule - "
"Al." Diane's voice is firmer now, brushing up against her take-no-bullshit edge. "What's going on with you? Why you being so hard on yourself about this?"
Alex's eyes flick instinctively away, a belated attempt to hide truth. But her mom clearly understands what Alex is doing, even if she lacks the details.
For a second, it's tempting to give the details, every sharp, ugly one. What she did to Piper. The extent of the rules she was breaking, how stupidly willing she was to risk her own future. The way it felt to have Red and Coach Mendoza look at her like there was nothing good there. The way she can't stop wondering if they're secretly convinced she never belonged at Litchfield Academy in the first place.
Her mom will never look at Alex like that, no matter what she confesses.
But there is something almost unbearable about the money stacked carefully in an envelope. This is something her mother had to plan for, probably setting aside tips from multiple nights.
Alex doesn't want have to tell her mom how much she doesn't deserve it.
"I don't know. I'm just still kind of embarrassed about everything."
"Your friends didn't make you feel bad about it, did they?"
"No, not at all. I don't know, I'm being stupid."
"You're not stupid, kiddo, just stubborn. Promise me you'll call 'em up and make some plans. You've been working real hard lately, and once you get back to school you'll have college application shit on top of all your classes - "
Alex groans ostentatiously. "Fuck, don't remind me."
"- this might be your last chance for some fun."
"Just being honest, babe." Diane grins. "I'm taking this as an agreement."
"Okay. I'll at least see if they're free...but you don't have to give me money, I can afford to take a weekend off."
"Don't insult me by refusing a half birthday gift, Al."
A week before school starts back, photos of Alex, Nicky, Janae and Poussey at Nicky's lake house crop up on SnapChat and Instagram. Piper's been texting with her friends steadily since the Fourth of July weekend, but none of them mentioned this latest trip. They definitely didn't invite her.
It's a timely reminder that things at school won't actually be that different this year. Nicky may be friendlier to Piper in passing, but Alex still has primary custody of their friends.
As a senior, Piper automatically gets a parking spot at school, so a week after Danny moves into UPenn, Piper's the one to drive herself and Cal back to school. She drops her younger brother off at Overbrook first, then drives around to Litch.
She checks in with Fisher, who confirms that so far Piper hasn't been assigned a replacement roommate, though she warns that any situations that arise within the first few weeks could mean someone gets shuffled into her room. She wonders fleetingly where Alex ended up - if she's even in the sam dorm building anymore - but then forcibly stifles her curiosity.
When she gets to their room - her room, she'll have to get used to thinking of it that way - Alex's minifridge is gone. So she's here already. She's already cleared out the last trace of herself, without waiting to run into Piper while she did it.
Piper draws a breath, trying not to hate how empty Alex's side of the room looks. This is a good thing; Piper's better at hating Alex at a distance than from across the room.
She has Danny's old fridge in the trunk of her car, and texts from Polly on her phone, making plans to meet up for dinner. This year is going to look different, but that doesn't have to mean bad. It should be a hell of a lot better than the last semester here, at least.
Piper's got this. She's ready.
She gets her first glimpse of Alex that night at the welcome assembly, passing by the center aisle of the auditorium. She's with Nicky and Janae, both of whom greet Piper and Polly cheerfully as they pass. Alex doesn't stop walking but her eyes seek out Piper's, the first time they've seen each other in over three months, and for just a second it feels like Piper's heart is being held under water.
But then Alex and the others keep going, sliding into a row on the opposite side of the auditorium, and Piper's gaze doesn't have to follow her.
Alex's new room is on the third floor of Kerman House. It's probably not directly above where their old one was, but it's pretty close. She's living with Violet Tate, a senior who's on the volleyball team with Poussey and always ordered Fireball whiskey from Alex. Violet's old roommate, Michaela Kowalski, had the bad luck of transferring her senior year when her family moved to the West Coast.
Alex could have done a lot worse in terms of random roommates - Violet's nerdy and smart and always nice. If anything she seems a little intimidated by Alex, which makes her quiet in a way that's sometimes awkward, but at least she isn't likely to ask Alex questions about her punishment and the room shuffling. Still, it's hard to fully relax in Violet's presence, like even the silence after they turn the lights off to go to bed is an awkward one.
There's something uncomfortable about it, an unearned intimacy in listening to someone you barely know fall asleep. Alex lies in the dark of their room, trying to convince herself the unfamiliarity is all in her head - this is the same dorm room layout, the same standard issue bed set at the same height. Even the side of the room Michaela vacated was the same one that had been Alex's, even though there was a good year or so when she and Piper switched back and forth indiscriminately.
Litchfield doesn't waste anytime establishing the high stakes of senior year. Every senior is assigned one of the three Litchfield teachers who doubles as an admissions advisor. There are long established rumors that the teachers are assigned kids based on their prospects - Ms.Rogers handles the top fifteen or so, the ones who should at least apply to Ivys and other elite schools, Ms. Figueroa the calculus teacher handles the more middling kids, and Mrs.Bell has the duds (although the duds at Litchfield are still probably better off than even the average public school valedictorian).
The faculty always dismiss this theory if any student is brave enough to ask about it, but the assignments sure as hell aren't alphabetical.
Piper and Poussey have Rogers; Piper kind of assumes Alex does, too, but she never asks anyone. Janae and Polly are with Figueroa, though for Janae those meetings are mostly a formality - she's already getting offers to run track at Division One schools. Nicky's with Bell, which doesn't surprise Piper - Nicky's never been much for studying.
"So, Piper." Ms.Rogers gives her a warm smile. It's their first meeting, squeezed in between Piper's last class of the day and tennis practice. "What are you thinking at this stage?"
"Um..." Piper blinks at her, taken aback at being asked such an open ended question right off the bat. "I don't really - I didn't know I was supposed to have anything prepared for today - "
"Oh, you don't," Rogers assures her. "It's just that a lot of girls come in, they already have one school as the end all and be all in their head."
"Oh. No, I'm not really set on anywhere."
"Okay." The drama teacher smiles encouragingly. "You being more open minded actually makes my job easier. So let's start with what you want to study, and we can talk through what schools might be a good fit."
"I'm not completely sure. Yet. Maybe English? I mean, literature, or...I don't know." Piper's face is starting to burn. She's suddenly envious of the people who come in here, stubborn but certain with their dream schools.
"Okay, so that gives you a lot of options. So do your grades, by the way, so you're looking great there. It seems like you're leaning liberal arts...how about this, any particular part of the country you're interested in?"
Unwilling to give another useless I don't know, Piper desperately wracks her brain for any sort of preference.
But all that comes to mind is the memory kissing Alex on a Dance Dance Revolution machine, swearing that all she wanted was to follow Alex wherever she goes after graduating.
Her eyes sting unexpectedly, and Ms.Rogers must misinterpret it, because she says in a calming voice, "You know what I think you should do? Take the next week to think about it, and come back to me next Monday with a list of anything you might want in a school. The size, the weather, the sort of town it's in, anything. And then you and I are gonna go over it and come up with a list of schools that fit. Sound good?" Piper nods mutely, and Rogers cranks her smile up a notch. "Piper. You've got a great record here...your grades, the SAT scores....you've obviously put in the work. This is the fun part, okay? You get to pick your dream school."
"I know this can seem overwhelming. But I'm here to walk you through it, every step. And believe me, I've been through this with a lot of kids."
"Okay. Thank you."
"Same time Monday?"
"Alright, Alex." Ms. Rogers smiles at her from across her desk. "Have you given much thought to where you'd want to apply?"
"Yeah, so, I've been talking to Coach Mendoza. She says a lot of smaller regional colleges have money for athletic scholarships. Like, Division II stuff, I'm obviously not good enough to play D1 but she thinks probably, for the smaller schools - she can invite recruiters to exhibition games this semester if I want. I looked into which ones gives the most money for soccer, here's this list..."
She passes the teacher a piece of notebook paper. Rogers frowns down at it. "I see....so, playing soccer in college is a top priority for you?"
"Not really," Alex tells her honestly. "But if it's the best way to get a scholarship..."
"Now I'm not sure that's true. I've worked with a lot of our scholarship students over the years, and most of them have gotten very generous financial aid to some of their top choice schools."
Alex stares her down, unimpressed. She knows Litchfield likes to send their alumni off to the top ranked, most highly respected schools. The ones with prestige and name recognition. They don't give a shit about the schools on Alex's list, schools people outside the general area where they're located would never have heard of.
"Look, I want my best chance at going to school, period," Alex tells her bluntly. "I'm not looking to get bogged down in years worth of debt."
Ms.Rogers pulls a sheet of paper out of the folder on her desk. "Did you know there are around sixty colleges in the country that claim to cover full financial need for all the students they admit?"
"This is the list of schools."
Alex scans the names on the list; most of the Ivys seem to be included, as well as the school names she's heard of in books and television, the ones used to indicate brains or privilege or both in a character that went there.
"Here's another question." There's a sly sort of smile in the drama teachers voice, the kind that makes Alex roll her eyes in class. "Did you know of all the senior SAT scores we have on file so far, yours is the highest?"
Alex's lips curl involuntarily, and she keeps her gaze lowered on Rogers' list so she doesn't react with full smugness. "Nope. I did not know that."
She tests well, she always has, so, arrogant as it sounds, Alex isn't really surprised. But there's an undeniable sweetness to knowing the Litchfield faculty probably all know that information, especially after the bad note she ended last year on.
And I did it all as the school drug dealer...
"I'm telling you you have a real shot at a lot of these schools, with very generous financial aid packages. I've seen it happen before...it's why you worked so hard to come here, am I right? And obviously, there's no harm in applying to these schools as well - " she taps her palm on Alex's much less impressive piece of paper. "-but for next week, I want you to have two things done: your completed FAFSA form, and a list of schools from this list that you might be interested in. How's that sound?"
"Good." Alex's voice is quiet, her eyes more intently taking in Rogers' list, names jumping out at her, schools in states she's never been to.
She wonders, fleetingly, which names are on Piper's list. Even after everything, it's still hard to imagine a future with even less of Piper in it.
When she's not at tennis practice, doing homework or hanging out with Polly, Piper spends the next few evenings obsessively researching schools. Picturing herself at college, Piper just conjures up images of brick buildings and grass quads lined with trees that turned orange in the fall.
Which is basically just Litchfield. Her dream college experience has pretty much been met at boarding school. It doesn't leave her much to want.
A few times, she pulls up Danny or Larry's Facebook pages and Instagrams. They're rooming together at UPenn, and though boys as a rule aren't as diligent about documenting their lives, they've clearly found female friends already, so they're tagged in plenty of photos. Other than the less subtle presence of solo cups, nothing about it looks very different than boarding school life.
Instead of a list of what she wants in a college, Piper starts thinking about what she likes about Litchfield. She likes the small campus and the small class sizes, and New England weather. She also kind of likes the no boys, but that's a pretty limiting criteria for college.
She doesn't want to be any closer to home than she is now, but the few hours it takes to drive have always felt far enough. Her parents don't push her to come home on random weekends, and it's not like they swing by Litch or Overbrook to visit.
Piper keeps a tab with top 100 college rankings permanently open on her laptop, and she looks into every name on the list. Some of them get copied into her Word document with notes and images. It was embarrassing, sitting in Rogers' office with nothing to say for herself, and she's determined to make up for that next time.
Alex goes through all the schools on Rogers' list, and the first thing she does is cross out any that are outside their general region on the East Coast. Even if it's true they'll give her enough financial aid for tuition, it won't help her get home to visit her mom on breaks. Anywhere she'd have to fly is out of the question, and Alex spends a good two hours looking up the distance from each school to a Greyhound station, and the price of a ticket to and from her hometown, before she decides the difference in bus fares shouldn't be the deciding factor here.
Ms. Rogers had told her most early applications are due in mid-November, so Alex starts looking into the specific dates and ends up finding a much more pressing issue.
She goes to bed that night intending to go by Rogers' classroom after the last period of the day, but then spends the whole hour of drama class hoping for an opportunity to approach the teacher on her own. They're doing a read through of the play they'll spend the whole semester putting on, so there's never a moment when Rogers sends them off into smaller groups. When the bell rings and the other students file out, Alex approaches her teacher and without preamble says, "Are college applications supposed to cost so much?"
"Alex - "
"Some of them are like a hundred dollars, and you might not even get in? How does that make sense?"
"I know, it's kind of a racket," Ms.Rogers says, surprising her. "Just so you know, Litchfield pays for three applications for each student."
Alex makes a scoffing sound. "Do they cover the most expensive ones?"
"I think it can work out like that, yeah. Also...there are steps you can take to get the school to cover more."
"Yes. Alex, nobody here wants you to close yourself off from an option because it's not worth the completely unreasonable cost of trying."
Alex is quiet, flinching from the eye contact, torn between relief and embarrassment. Rogers smirks slightly, arching an eyebrow. "We can talk about that more at our next scheduled meeting. Remember that? There's a whole time and place for it."
When the scheduled day of her next meeting does come, Alex shows up ten minutes early with a folder full of printouts and lists. She's too keyed up to sit on one of the chairs lining the small hallway of faculty offices, so she leans against the wall across the door with the "Berdie Rogers" nameplate.
She's been there two minutes when Piper walks out.
Piper visibly jolts at the sight of her, and Alex's heart hits the wall of her chest, hard.
They have three classes together this semester, and obviously still see each other multiple times a day across the dining hall or on the campus walkways, but this is the first time they've been any semblance of alone together since the previous semester.
"Hey." Alex blurts it out, fast, like an instinctive attempt to grab hold of something.
"Hi." Piper's better at this than her; she's already closed her voice off, her eyes fixed somewhere over Alex's shoulder.
"You got Rogers, too, huh? Go us."
Piper makes some noncommittal humming sound, and Alex's chest snarls with that maddening collision of affection and anger.
She is so goddamn frustrating, in such a fucking Piper way. Her face is all coolly impassive the way it is when she knows she's being watched, but Alex catches her sometimes, all lonely eyes in these spit seconds before she can pretend she wasn't looking at Alex.
"Cool, okay," Alex says, rolling her eyes. "So you're still doing this?"
Piper's eyes flare, but she manages to keep her tone surprisingly measured. "What do you think should have changed? You still haven't even said you're sorry."
"Jesus, Pipes, you don't want me to apologize. You need to cling to the fact that I haven't so you still have a reason to be all pissy."
"Why aren't you?" Piper retorts.
Piper glances back at Rogers' closed office door and lowers her voice to a hiss, like she suspects the teacher might be eavesdropping. "You made it pretty clear you still hate me enough to sell me out to Red. So if what I did is still worse, why aren't you acting all pissy? I'm just trying to stay out of your way."
Alex tightens her jaw. "You know what? That's a great point." With that, she walks up to Rogers door and knocks, not sparing Piper another glance even as she brushes past her. She unconsciously tightens her grip on the folder, needing to go into this meeting believing she wouldn't add a school to the top of her carefully constructed list just because Piper was interested in going to it. She's supposed to be past caring about that.
They need to end up at different places. This was the most Alex has spoken to Piper in months, but she still has to confront her for so many moments every day. Piper entering a classroom or the dining hall still feels like something that happens to Alex, every time, something she has to brace herself for and then recover from. Losing that shouldn't make her feel sick to her stomach, but it does.
She is forever discovering more endings waiting between them.
Stressful as it is, Alex kind of likes thinking about college. It makes it feel like the present doesn't even really matter, and the year's main purpose is just preparing for the next one.
The shine has gone off Litchfield Academy, every aspect it of it dulled and monotonous, made even moreso by the fact that she can't really smoke or drink. Maybe in a few months she'll relax a little, steal sips from Nicky or someone's cup while they watch terrible movies after dorm curfew, or even take a toke in the woods sometime as long as she isn't the one holding the joint for very long. The school doesn't actually drug test or breathalyze anybody, and she knows on the off chance anyone catches them her friends will all stick to a story that she wasn't partaking.
Still. For all of September, Alex is stone cold sober. She's also living with a stranger. And Piper starts getting tagged in photos with some guy from Overbrook Alex has never seen before, so also there's that.
Sam Denton has apparently been on the basketball for his entire tenure at Overbrook, but he mostly rides the bench, so Piper isn't surprised Danny was never friends with him. With the notable exception of Larry, Danny's friends were actual jocks, not the guys simply fulfilling the school's sports requirement.
Sam's cousin, Finn, is good enough to actually play, and was friendly enough with Danny to know Polly, but apparently not friendly enough to have any qualms about dating her now that Danny's graduated.
Well, not dating. Polly's very adamant that they're not dating - it makes Piper think about Larry, and his stupid theory about how seniors and freshmen never start relationships - but they're definitely making out a lot at Overbrook football games. Which leaves Piper sitting with Sam.
It isn't lost on her that he's yet another guy she's been de facto paired up with after Polly makes an actual choice. But Piper doesn't mind that much; she barely knows any Overbrook guys on her own, and it feels a little late to start trying.
And she likes Sam (just that, just likes him). He's tall and lanky and messy haired, with a sweet, quiet smile. The first time she met him, at a football game where Finn and Polly slowly boxed her out of their pre-kissing conversation, Piper realized he had headphones in. Alex used to do that, listen to music during Piper's tennis matches or Poussey's volleyball games or the rare Overbrook basketball game they attended. When Piper asked Sam what he was listening to, though, he grinned kind of sheepishly and told her it was some comedy podcast.
She asked him about it, and he offered her one of the earbuds. Piper and Polly have hung out with Sam and Finn like six times now - three football games, two random Saturday afternoons on the Overbrook campus, and one bus trip to the mall - and they always end up listening to a podcast for at least an hour or so. It gives them something to talk about, and it cuts into the time they have to find things to say.
He kisses her the fifth time, in an Overbrook dorm basement. They have a pool table instead of ping pong, but Piper and Sam both suck at it. It's pretty nice, the kissing. Afterwards, Piper makes sure to mention she isn't looking to start anything serious before graduating. She believes the relief in Sam's expression when he immediately agrees.
So it's good. It's easy and low pressure and they've only made out like three times so far, it's no wonder that isn't enough to make her stop thinking about Alex every single time he touches her.
October is usually Piper's favorite month at Litchfield, with the weather and the landscape making it the best time to be outside on campus, but this year the changing of the calendar just takes her closer to the due date of college applications. She's started to have stress dreams about it, nightmares where everyone starts getting acceptance letters and Piper somehow forgot to even apply.
Tennis has started to feel like a burden, extra stress she doesn't want, but it's not like they're allowed to quit. Piper's ranked fifth in singles - she could probably be higher, but she played shitty during the first round of ranking matches, and hasn't bothered to ask for a challenge.
It's Thursday, and they've got an away match at one of the furthest schools in their conference. They won't be back until late, so Piper leaves lunch early and settles into her first afternoon class with her laptop, working on one of her essays for Smith that, with a little tweaking, could also probably work for Middlebury.
The iMessage app pop up onscreen when Piper boots up on her laptop, reminding her that she has a text from Sam she still hasn't replied to. It was a good morning text, for the second day in a row, and she isn't sure she wants to encourage the habit. There's no need for it. They're just hanging out.
She thinks about texting him later about something unrelated.
She thinks about how Alex wasn't in third period, and she can't help but wonder why.
There's no reason that thought should follow the other. Her brain can't stop chasing Sam's name with Alex's.
She opens her essay and starts typing, focused enough that she's only dimly aware of other students moving into the classroom until her name rings above the noise, sharp and loud, "Piper."
Nicky, Poussey and Janae are all approaching Piper's desk. Nicky's leading, and her face is tense. "Have you talked to Alex?"
Piper's eyes go automatically to the iMessage window. Sam's still on top. "No. She wasn't in drama." Belatedly, she frowns, the strangeness catching up to her. Nicky isn't in this class. Neither is Janae. And Nicky used her first name. And she and Alex don't talk, so she isn't sure why they'd ask her. "Why? What is it?"
The three of them exchange looks. Everybody looks so serious. Finally, Poussey speaks, her voice low so no one else can hear. "Her mom died. They pulled her out of second period, Red came and told us what's up at lunch."
"What?" Piper stares at her, stupidly thinking she misheard. Poussey's voice is serious but even keeled, and other girls are still talking around them, chairs squeaking against the tile floor; it's all too ordinary to be what Piper thought she heard.
"Red said it was an aneurysm," Janae tells her quietly. "We all called Al but she isn't picking up - "
"Where is she?" Piper cuts her off, shrill enough that a few people turn around. Her heart feels stuck at the base of her throat, and her lunch slides sickeningly around her stomach when she thinks of Rogers' class earlier, a whole hour Alex wasn't there, when this was already happening to Alex and Piper didn't know.
"Fisher took her home."
"But, but who's gonna be there?" Her voice is all over the place, and Piper's muscles are shaking. "If her mom isn't there who's gonna be there?"
"Um, her aunt, I guess? Red said she's the one who - "
"Her aunt? Alex barely knows her, she hasn't seen her since she was like nine or something ..."
The two minute warning bell rings, and Piper's friends look momentarily confused at the reminder of the ordinary school day. Janae and Nicky look at each other. "I guess we gotta go?"
"Yeah, but listen, Chapman, after class, lemme know if you can get in touch - "
But Piper's on her feet, clumsily stuffing her laptop back into her bag. "No, I gotta go, there's not gonna be anybody home for her..." She has her car, her car is right in the parking lot. "Can you guys sign out for me, they'll stop me if I try - "
"Whoa, hey, Chapman, if you just wait a few hours they'll let you go."
"It's already been hours." All of drama class and lunch and who knows how much of second period since Alex has known, no one with her but Fisher and nobody waiting for her at home.
Dimly, Piper is aware she needs to get out of here before the teachers comes in, so she slings her bag over her shoulder and hurries into the hallway.
After a moment, Nicky and Janae emerge on her heels - Poussey obviously staying behind for class. "Piper, what're we supposed to tell Red?"
"Tell her I went with Alex. Tell her I freaked out and left, I don't care."
"You're seriously just gonna drive to her house?"
"Well...call your folks, yeah? You know Red'll call 'em for permission."
"And text us when you see her. We wanna know what's going on."
Without answering, Piper outpaces them as the late bell rings. She hears Nicky swear under her breath, and then two sets of footsteps hurry in the opposite direction, but Piper doesn't slow down until she gets to the dorm. She doesn't even put down her keys, just grabs her wallet and purse and heads to the student parking lot.
Piper's been driving for fifteen minutes when it occurs to her to wonder whether Alex even wants to see her.
The thought freaks her out enough that she pulls over to a gas station. She takes out her cell phone and stares at Alex's name on the top of her contact list, feeling frightened of it.
On the phone, all she'll have is words. She'll have to come up with something to say, and right now Piper can't think of anything big enough. Besides that, she doesn't want to hear Alex cry and then have to wait over two hours to see her.
And she really doesn't want Alex to tell her not to come.
Fisher's a really slow driver.
Alex watches the speedometer for a good hour of the drive. She never drifts more than a notch over the speed limit. Even once they get on the freeway. She has slightly better music taste than Alex would have guessed. The radio's turned down low, playing hushed, crooning indie. Alex's phone is off. It was the only way to make her hands stop thinking they can grab it and text her mom about how she's dead.
Every few minutes, Alex closes her eyes and searches herself for grief. Instead, she just keeps finding a quietly stirring panic that she isn't reacting right and maybe she never will. Maybe this is what it means to say I can't do this and actually mean it.
When they told her - it was Red and Coach Mendoza, Red must have figured she's the faculty member Alex is closest to because of soccer - there was this moment where Alex felt it all. She had understood, fast and instant as an electrocution, that her life has just been halved and she is stuck on the bad side of the rip. It screamed inside of her, what she has lost and the finality of the losing, turning noisy inside her bones and blood.
But then, just as quickly, it quieted down, muffled behind Red telling her that Fisher was going to take her home. And then by Red assuring her they'd make arrangements for however long she needed to be home. And then by Alex trying to figure out what to pack. And now by Fisher's endless shuffle of Bon Iver and The Shins.
It's not that Alex wants that scream of a feeling back. But it scares her that there's nothing there at all. Maybe she is just going to refuse to move forward in this new reality, and that's how people go crazy.
Text Message 2:05 pm
[Hey where are you???]
[Are you coming to the match??]
[Shit, sorry. Forgot.]
[Can you tell Coach I had an emergency? I had to leave.]
[Leave like leave school???]
[Is everything ok?]
[Alex's mom died.]
[Omg. Thats awful, I'm sorry.]
[I don't know everything yet. Don't say anything to anyone ok?]
[Of course not.]
[I mean you can tell Coach I bet all the teachers know.]
[Sorry to leave you hanging for the game.]
[Jesus don't apologize it doesn't matter.]
[Let me know what your plan is]
[I mean when you're heading back here]
[Yeah I will]
When Piper pulls up at the trailer park, she sees Alex right away. There's a wooden picnic table, halfway between her trailer and the one next door, in a shared yard type area of dead grass, and Alex is sitting on top of it with her feet on the bench.
It's not like Piper thought it would be. Alex is squinting into the sun, so by the time Piper's out of the car Alex doesn't even look surprised to see her anymore. She doesn't look like she's been crying or anything. Just kind of out of it, like she's just walked into a room and forgotten what she needed from it.
"Hi," Piper starts lamely, noticing, for some reason, that they're both still in their school uniforms.
"Hey." Alex stares at her for a long moment, and then she stands up. "I'm glad you're here."
Relief spills over warm in Piper's chest. "You are?"
"Yeah, I need a ride to the hospital. I thought the car would be here, but I, um...I guess it's still at Friendly's. I'll probably need a ride there, too, but I don't know about the keys."
That silence again. Alex is looking at her expectantly, and Piper just starts nodding. "Yeah, sure, okay, I can take you wherever."
"Is your - Nicky mentioned your aunt was the one who called the school?"
"The hospital called her but she didn't go there. I don't know if she's coming."
"Fisher just left you?"
"Took some convincing." Alex walks around the side of Piper's car and gets in the passenger side.
She's barely been out of the car a minute, but Piper climbs back in the driver's seat. As soon as the key's in the ignition, Alex tells her to turn left out of the trailer park.
It feels like they skipped an important step, missed the moment to acknowledge how huge and awful and crazy this is. It feels too late for a hug or an I'm so sorry. So they're just left with practicalities and the quiet of a car without music.
They park and walk into the front entrance of the hospital, Piper trailing uselessly after Alex. Alex pulls up short a few yards from the front desk. She runs a hand through her hair, and Piper can see how tightly she's holding herself still.
Then she shakes it off, the effort physical, and strides up to the desk. "Hi, I'm, um. I'm here about Diane Vause. I'm her daughter."
The cheerful woman smiles at her and says, "Sure, let me just get the room number..." She starts typing, and Alex frowns, looking like she's not sure how to intervene. The woman's smile falters a little. "Oh-kay, let me see if I can page her doctor - "
Alex's tone sharpens. "The hospital called my aunt, I already know what happened. She said I needed to sign papers and get in touch with the funeral home or something."
"Okay." The woman's face has gone soft. "Then let me call someone to help you with that."
A few minutes later, a different woman approaches Alex and Piper at one of the empty sections of the waiting room. Her nametag says "June" and she introduces herself as one of the hospital's social workers. She says Alex's name a lot.
"Alex, is there any other family we need to notify? Anyone who can help you with arrangements?"
"No, my aunt, she lives pretty far, I don't know when she'll even get here."
"What about your mom's friends? The ones who came in with her?"
"Who...who was it? That came?"
"Um..." June consults the papers in front of her. "That would be, Beth McGinnis and Tracy Garret."
"They just work with Mom, I don't really...know them, much."
"That's okay. So, Alex. Do you know if your mother had arrangements at any funeral ho - "
"No. No. Definitely not."
"Alright, then do you have a preference?"
"I don't..." Alex breathes out a heavy exhale, and her hand is in her hair again. "That one across from the library, I guess, it, it looks like...just a normal brick house..."
"Dayton & Sons," June provides easily. "We can make those calls for you, Alex." It's jarring, listening to the two of them talk. The social worker's words come so soothing and automatic, and Alex sounds like she's having to construct each sentence out of jagged dissonant pieces.
"She said - my aunt - it costs money? To move her?"
"Yes, but that's going to be the funeral home's fee...I will need someone to talk to our billing department, but if you want to take care of that when your aunt gets into town?"
"Yeah, that'd be good," Alex mutters, and Piper sees the panic stirring behind her eyes.
She's lied twice now: once about not knowing the women Diane came in with - Piper recognizes Beth's name, she's been Diane's best friend for years - and once about her aunt living far away. Her family lives two hours from Alex's town, closer even Litchfield. Piper feels her insides clench as she realizes Alex's aunt must have gotten the call, then called the school to let Alex know but didn't bother to show up and help her with all this.
"Do I have to see her? To identify or whatever?"
"No. You can see her if you'd like, but that's completely up to you, Alex."
"No." Alex says immediately.
"Alright. Then we'll call the funeral home and they'll take care of everything. You'll need to call and make an appointment with them to come in and discuss further arrangements. They might be able to see you today, or tomorrow if your aunt won't be back in time."
June is scrutinizing Alex now. "Alex, do you know when your aunt is getting here? Until she arrives, we can find somewhere for you to stay - "
"No," Alex says again, fast. For the first time since the trailer, she looks at Piper. "We go to boarding school...Litchfield Academy? My aunt called there....she sent my dorm counselor to bring me home and wait with me until she gets here. I just didn't want her to come in."
June smiles, close lipped, managing to stay solemn but still pleased about this information. "Okay, that's great. We just need you to sign for your mom's belongings, and then we can get you out of here."
"Okay." She looks at Piper again, kind of, her eyes skimming without settling. "I'll be right back."
Piper watches Alex walk away with the social worker. She thinks how good Alex is at lying, even when it's clearly hard for her to even talk. And then she thinks that if one of her parents died, no one would ask her to think about money or paperwork or funeral arrangements.
"We should go by the funeral home, see if we can just get it over with. Just turn out of here and take a right at the first light."
Piper doesn't say anything. She just does as she's told. It's weird that she's here, but it's probably too late for them to acknowledge that. She can't help feeling like she did this all wrong, stumbled onstage and skipped lines that needed to be said from the start.
Like I'm so sorry about your mom and I know we haven't talked lately but I was worried about you and I didn't want you to be alone is this okay? All the true sentences she'd run through in her head on the frantic drive here, but as soon as Piper saw Alex none of them felt right.
It's a relief to drive - it offers Piper a practical, active task, one that forces her to stop scrutinizing Alex.
They have to wait twenty minutes for the funeral directors to see them. They don't say a word in the tiny waiting area. Alex is looking at a binder of funeral plans, and Piper keeps glancing over against her will and seeing caskets. She checks her phone. If she was back at school, her tennis match would still be going on. It seems like more time should have passed. But it also seems like more should have happened.
A text pops up from Poussey.
[Hey Red says your parents have to call if you're staying off campus tonight]
[Was she mad?]
[Not really it was weird.]
[I don't know. She's not even really reacting to anything.]
[Just getting stuff done. We're at the fucking funeral home.]
[I feel really weird like I don't even know what I should be saying or if she wants me here.]
[She's probably in a weird kind of shock.]
[It's good you're there.]
[Let us know when the funeral is okay? I think we're gonna come tomorrow after class.]
[Figure it'll be this weekend right?]
Piper instinctively darkens her screen at Alex's voice, but she isn't looking at her phone. She nods toward the doorway, where one of the funeral directors is standing. "Are you coming or...?"
"Do you want me to?"
"Sure," Alex says, but there isn't much wanting in the word.
Piper immediately hates the middle age Dayton brothers who run the funeral home. It's so fake, the way they talk to Alex, saying they're sorry and calling this a tragedy.
Maybe she's just pissed because it's more than she's been able to say all afternoon.
But then they sit down, and there are all these questions that Piper can tell are meant to determine how much money Alex has to spend. When one of them asks if Alex has any other family who can help, it feels like he's only asking to make sure she can pay, not because Alex is seventeen fucking years old and shouldn't have to do this by herself.
Piper can tell Alex is starting to get stressed, trying to figure out what the cheapest options are: cremation, a basic service in the funeral home, no visitation, no obituary. She's hedging on flowers, and Piper finally nudges her elbow and says, "Al, you should your aunt about this..."
"She's not gonna pay for anything," Alex bites out, annoyed. The brothers look at each other and start pitching their best deals, reassuring her about payment plans versus upfront costs, and maybe they're just trying to help but Piper hates them for not taking one look at Alex and telling her to not even worry about it.
It feels rude, but no one's paying her much attention anyway so Piper takes out her phone to text Nicky.
[You have a credit card right?]
[I think we should help pay for the funeral.]
[Alex's aunt isn't going to at all.]
[I promise i'll split it but I only have a debit card and I need to talk to my parents.]
[Thank you thank you thank you]
[Don't thank me dumbass Vause is my friend too]
[And my dad pays my credit card bill. He's yelled at me for way dumber purchases.]
[Should I call the place or can I just go by when we get there tomorrow]
[Tomorrow should be fine. But have you asked Alex about coming here?]
[She hasn't answered anyone's texts.]
[Just text us all later and let us know what's happening.]
"Piper." Startled, she looks up to find Alex staring at her. She raises her eyebrows at the phone. "Seriously?"
Her face heating up, Piper guiltily drops her phone into her purse. "Sorry, my parents...I'm getting them to call the school and stuff about me being off campus."
"Oh, right." Alex frowns a little, looking like it's just occurring to her that Piper must have left school. Or like she's just remembering that school exists.
She shakes her head slightly, then turns back to the funeral directors. "So are we good?"
"Yes. We just need to get started with these initial costs..."
"Al," Piper says in an undertone, glancing at the total on the bill Dayton handed Alex. "I can cover that with my debit card if you - "
"Just until you have a chance to figure out, like...your mom's bank account - "
"I've got it."
"Alex, come on, you know my dad will just put money back in - "
"Fucking good for you, Piper, but I worked two jobs all summer and I've got this," Alex snaps, her eyes flaring with anger that, for the first time all day, seems to remember she doesn't officially like Piper much anymore.
"Okay," Piper agrees quietly, shrinking back on the floral couch. Fuck, they're going to have to figure out a way to pay for this thing without Alex knowing. Maybe they can say the money's from her aunt.
All traces of Alex's irritation are gone by the time they're in the car heading home. She's gone all quiet and blank again. It's dark out, now, and Piper realizes she doesn't need directions back to Alex's house.
"Do you want dinner or anything?" Alex asks suddenly, breaking a ten minute silence.
"Yeah. Me either, I guess."
Piper glances at her, trying to read anything in her expression. "Is it...I don't know, is it okay if I stay? Do you want me to go?"
"No, you're fine." She doesn't hesitate, but she doesn't say it like it matters much.
"Um, Nicky and everybody want to come tomorrow after class and stay for the funeral...I can tell them they need to stay at Poussey's place and drive in - "
"Whatever, just warn them they might have to sleep on the floor."
"Sure." Piper nods, feeling silly for thinking Alex would care about their friends seeing the trailer given everything else.
They ride in silence for a few more minutes, and then Alex suddenly hisses, "Shit."
Piper whips around to look at her, wondering if it's finally all hitting her, but Alex just exhales and says, "We need to get the car, at Friendly's. Can you drop me off?"
"Do you have the keys?"
"Yeah, they were the stuff the hospital gave me."
"Yeah, okay. Are we close, or...?"
"You're gonna need to turn around when you can. Sorry, I just remembered it..."
"Alex, c'mon. Don't apologize."
Soon, Piper pulls into the Friendly's parking lot, crowded with the dinner rush, and idles behind Diane's car. Alex is staring intently at the restaurant, and Piper just keeps her foot on the brake and waits. Diane must have been at work when she died. Piper's stomach feels small and tight thinking about it.
"Fuck." Alex swears, barely a breath.
Piper reaches over, kind of awkwardly grazing Alex's forearm with her fingers, feeling like she's never touched her before. Alex flinches, only a little, like she just wasn't expecting it, but Piper snatches her hand back like she's done something wrong.
Her throat narrows, eyes suddenly stinging. Piper grits her teeth and stares straight ahead without blinking. For some reason, it feels wrong to cry before Alex does. Like it would ruin her ability to comfort.
But Piper can't help thinking she would be better at this if they were still together. She'd know what to say, and she'd understand what Alex needed from her. They haven't really talked in months, and that must means she knows Alex a little bit less.
Maybe that little bit makes the difference.
The door opens, and Piper looks back to see Alex getting out. "Follow me back to the house?"
Piper nods at the closing door.
Guiltily, Piper feels the slightest tinge of relief when Alex is out of her sight. It makes her realize she's been waiting all day for Alex to lose it, and scared she won't know what to do when it happens.
Before Piper follows Alex out of the lot, she reaches for her cell phone and realizes Alex has left hers in the seat. She hesitates before reaching for it; the whole lock screen is covered in missed calls. Two or three each from Nicky, Janae and Poussey, and even one from Litchfield's Main office. There are also several from Beth and Tracey, Diane's friends.
None from Alex's aunt. Piper knows her passcode, though, and she quickly opens the phone up and scrolls to Alex's contacts, copying the aunts number into her own phone.
Then she puts Alex's phone down and calls her parents, putting them on speaker as she follows the tail lights of Diane's car.
Alex gets out of her mom's car as Piper pulls in beside her but doesn't get out right away. She turns the car off and then lifts her phone to her ear, shooting Alex an apologetic look through the windshield. Alex leans against her mom's car to wait. She only went inside early to make Fisher leave, then just kind of dropped her bag in the doorway and went outside. She'd been sitting on the picnic table for almost three hours, just waiting for sadness to show up, until Piper appeared instead.
Somehow, that got her moving.
Piper gets out of the car. "Sorry, was talking to my dad...here." She hands Alex her own phone. "You left that in the car."
"Thanks." Alex takes it without looking at it. She doesn't even really know what time it is.
For too long, they just stand kind of awkwardly in the yard. Alex gets the sense if she went and laid down on the gravel driveway right now, Piper would loyally lay down beside her.
Instead, she asks, "You cool to just watch TV and drink a bunch of wine?"
Of course, Piper answers with an immediate, "Sure."
They're half lying on the bed with Alex's laptop in front of them, playing endless episodes of Friends. They're into the second bottle of wine from the kitchen, and Alex knows Piper hasn't had that much of it. It's been awhile since she drank, period, and Alex hasn't eaten much today, so her head already feels heavy, like the wine is sloshing around inside it, washing up half drowned thoughts.
It's that episode where Rachel and Chandler are sort of stealing cheesecake, Alex likes this one, but she's starting to feel like she might throw up. She swallows and thinks about asking for water, but instead she starts saying stuff out loud.
Piper actually jumps a little. Alex sees it but doesn't feel it because they're not touching, she suspects Piper's been careful about that.
"I think something's wrong with me."
Piper straightens immediately, looking down at her with concern. "You feel sick?"
She does but it isn't what she meant. "No, like really wrong." She focuses hard and makes eye contact with Piper. "I don't feel it."
"That's okay." Piper's face shifts, getting soft and sad. "You will."
Alex shuffles closer to her, so their shoulders are touching. She can't believe Piper's here, that she just left class and drove two and a half hours.
"Tell me what happened."
Piper gives her a confused look. "What?"
"Why we're here. My mom." Maybe if she hears it from Piper she'll believe it, because Piper is the only thing today that's felt real.
Alex's mom was texting her this morning, between breakfast and first period, so Alex could not believe in a cliche fucking funeral home asking her to choose a vase to put her ashes in, or a social worker at the hospital treating Alex like an orphan who needed to secure a guardian. It was all too absurd.
But she could recognize the pissed off look Piper got when the funeral home guys started sounding too much like salesmen, like there was a whole angry rant screaming itself hoarse inside her head, or this moment in the hospital when Piper so clearly wanted to hold her hand but didn't know if she was allowed.
No matter what nightmare they're thrown into, Piper stays familiar. That pissed off Piper expression is a constellation, helping Alex find her bearings when she's lost miles and miles outside of what her life is supposed to look like.
Right now her expression is big eyed and worried, this look she gets when she's willing to say anything that might fix a shitty moment but isn't sure what that might be.
Maybe it's stupid, trying to nudge Piper into saying the words Your mom's dead like it will sink it deeper coming from her than from Red or Fisher or June the hospital social worker. It makes a tipsy sort of sense, though; Alex can never help but take anything Piper says to heart. Piper's words have always been the most important.
"Tell me she's gone," Alex clarifies in a small voice.
Piper's eyes are overbright, and for only the second time all day she touches Alex of her own accord, first on the wrist, pointlessly, before she lifts her fingers to gently grace the curve of Alex's cheek, the place where tears should be.
"I'm really, really sorry, Alex."
Alex isn't sure if she's apologizing because her mom is dead or because she doesn't want to say it. She sighs, giving up, and lets her head rest on Piper's shoulder. "You still mad at me?"
It's a childish, unfair move, and Piper knows it, huffing out a breath of laughter before replying, "You know I'm not."
Alex's lips twitch with the slightest inclination toward a smile. Piper still knows her, too. Even after everything. Piper still came here. Even after everything.
"This is really bad," Alex slurs out after a little more quiet.
"I know." Piper's voice is quivery, like she might be crying. Alex doesn't look up at her to see. She doesn't want to be jealous of that.
"I don't know what I'm supposed to do."
"That's okay," Piper says, even quieter now, not confident enough in the response to put much weight behind it.
Alex closes her eyes for a second, liking this position because she can smell Piper's shampoo more than the bedsheets, which smell like her mom because they always do, because her mom sleeps here when Alex is at school which is most of the time, she's spent the past three years living someplace else, that's something to feel shitty about later when she starts to understand those are the last three years she'll have with her mom, ever.
Knowing comes before understanding, and clearly understanding is the one directly tied to feeling. If this is denial that's a shitty name for it, because there wasn't even a second where she didn't believe what Red was telling her.
Her mom is dead, and that is a permanent thing, but Alex can't seem to absorb the enormity of it. The closest she can come is recalling that singular moment in Red's office, whispering a reminder of the loss waiting to ravage her. She worries the longer it waits, the angrier it's getting. She's not trying to hide from it; her mom deserves her to be feeling more than this.
Except instead she is drunk and playing pretend with Piper, acting like it's six months ago and things are good between them. Piper might be achingly familiar, but her being here, devoid of all anger or guilt, should feel as surreal as a funeral home.
Alex kills at least a bottle and a half of wine and falls asleep half on Piper's shoulder, but Piper stays up late doing research on her phone. She starts out googling how to help someone who's grieving, and there are some generic lists that mostly give the same tips, but soon she finds herself down a rabbit hole of really personal blogs, mostly by young widows, detailing the aftermath of tragedy.
Inevitably, there is a post about the do's and don'ts of how to approach people going through a loss. After the first few reads, Piper stops paying attention to the don'ts. She would never tell Alex this happened for a reason, or that Diane is in a better place.
It's the lists about things that were helpful that Piper obsessively scans, secretly hoping she might stumble upon a magic trick, a singular task or sentiment getting raves for how much pain it lessened.
Of course there's nothing like that. Piper copies certain bits onto her phone, anyway, wanting to be prepared. She really thought today would be the worst part, everything raw and fresh, but all it's done is settle heavy dread in Piper's gut for everything that comes next.
Alex had sounded so scared, saying there's something wrong with her for how she's reacting, but Piper can't help wishing she could just grab Alex's hand and hold her still, right where she is, before it gets any worse. She's never wanted to protect someone so badly; it makes Piper feel much older than she is.