Waking up the next morning, Penelope panics, bolting upright, unsure where she is. Gil, still sleeping, faces the opposite wall. Her breathing slows as she remembers the night before. A smile spreads across her face. She pokes him in the side.
“Gil. It’s time to wake up.” She whispers in his ear.
“No.” He mumbles, pulling the blanket up over his head.
“Yes. We have to go for a run.”
“Didn’t we get enough of a workout last night?” He shrugs her hand off his shoulder.
“It’s not the same thing.” Her lips brushing against the exposed skin on his back.
“P, seriously, get off.” He reaches behind him and pushes, causing her to fall to the other side of the bed. Her shoulder slams into the night table, knocking a glass down onto the carpet.
“Jesus, Gil.” She rolls her shoulder before reaching to find her discarded t-shirt.
“Oh my god. I am so sorry.” Sitting up now, Gil leans towards her, placing his hand against her back. “It was an accident. I just wanted to sleep a little longer.”
“You knew we were getting up for a run this morning. It’s not like this is a new plan. This was the entire plan.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie.” He pulls her towards him, pressing his lips against the pink mark forming on her back. “What can I do to make it better?” He whispers, distracting her as his lips trace her spine, blocking her from pulling her shirt over her head.
“Don’t even think about it!” She giggles. “We’re running.” Sliding out of his arms, she throws his shirt at him. “I’m going to get ready.”
Before long, their feet pound in rhythm against the hard ground. Their breathing settling into the comfortable pattern they’ve developed in one short week. Running through unfamiliar paths, Penelope finds an unexpected rush of motivation. She pushes up sudden inclines, steadies herself around sharp corners. Following Gil more than she normally would. They come to a stop at a long curve in the path. A wooden fence runs along the edge of the riverbank. The water level is always low, not meant for much more than sustaining the local wildlife. The water bubbling over the beaver damn below them creates an idyllic moment in the early morning. Leaning against the rough wood, Penelope looks at Gil, his eyes trained on a section of trees across from them. His expression distant, almost like he’s forgotten where he is.
“Earth to Gilbert.” She waves a hand in front of his face.
“Huh?” He shakes himself out of his daze.
“What’re you thinking about?” Penelope steps closer to him, running her fingers along his arms.
“Do you really need to ask?” His low voice almost lost under the gurgling of the brook. He lowers his face to hers, their lips about to meet when the sound of feet pounding against the dirt comes around the corner. Quickly, they break apart, Gil’s hands pushing her towards the opposite end of the fence. She stumbles away from him. Her feet catch one another and throw her into the rough wood. Gil bends over, pretending to tie his shoe. Penelope remains hidden from the trail by the deep shadows of overhanging trees. Leaning over, she picks up a button lying in the grass beside her foot. Turning it over in her hand, she recognizes the black surface with red writing. Her brother has the same one.
“Hey, Mr. S.” Two guys from the rugby team come running around the corner. Penelope pushes further behind the tree.
“Hey guys.” He waves nonchalantly, not once looking in Penelope’s direction. His students round the corner in seconds, neither of them aware of what they almost witnessed. “That was too close.”
“No kidding.” Penelope pulls herself out of the shadows. “We should head back.”
“And we’re more careful in public from now on. No more slip ups. Understand?” He stares down at her. She nods almost sheepishly.
They begin their return run, leaving some distance between them so they look like two people who just happen to be running on the same path. Once inside, they grab chairs in the kitchen and eat a quick breakfast.
“You should head home soon. I have to go to the school and do some marking.” Gil calls over his shoulder as he heads down the hall.
“Are you sure? Don’t we have some time before you have to leave?” Penelope follows him. Her fingers trace along the wall, gently dancing along the wainscoting. By the time she enters the room, Gil is stripping off his still sweaty workout clothes, dropping them into a pile near the end of the bed. The slinky fabric soundlessly falls against the thick carpet. Penelope steps up behind Gil, snaking her arms around his waist. “Just a few minutes?”
“Penelope. Come on.” Shrugging off her arms, he steps towards the doorway. “I have to shower.”
“It’s just marking. It’s not like it will get up and leave if you’re half an hour late.” Hopping up onto the bed, she pulls her shirt off. Leaning back, she waits for him to come to her.
“You can use the shower when I’m done.” He heads out of the room, barely glancing at her.
Sitting there, she stares at the door, trying to figure out what just happened. How had everything gone from being so perfect to feeling so wrong? She wraps her arms around herself, desperate to take back what she’s just offered him. Shame fills her as she pulls a clean shirt over her head. Quickly stuffing her other belongings back into her bag, making sure her cell phone is still tucked in the pocket of her jeans, she peeks into the hallway.
Penelope can hear the water running behind the closed door of the bathroom. She slips down the hallway, through the kitchen and out the front door. Glancing back to see if Gil is following her, she hesitates. Hoping he’ll appear at the doorway calling her back. Wanting to apologize and explain. But the white door remains firmly closed. Taking a deep breath, she heads towards her car, wondering if she’s made a giant mistake.
Soon, she’s pulling her car into the driveway. Checking her phone every few seconds to see if she’s missed a call or a text from Gilbert. Inside the house, she heads straight down the stairs. Passing Ash’s closed door, Penelope remembers when she used to be able to talk to her brother about anything. After tossing her bag into her room, Penelope heads back down the hall. Knocking lightly at the closed door, she waits for an answer. The low sound of music floats from behind the door. She knocks a little louder. Still not getting a response, she tries the knob. It turns easily in her hand. Poking her head through the door “Ash?” but the room is empty. The bedding in a rumpled pile about halfway down the bed. Ash’s school uniform in the middle of the floor where he stepped out of it the night before. A pile of cds on the desk leans precariously to the left. Sighing, Penelope steps out of the room and heads upstairs.
“Morning, darling.” Her mother’s voice greets her from the living room.
“Hi, Mom.” Penelope flops down onto the sofa across from where her mother is reading a book.
“Watch the floor.” Ms. Chisholm cringes as the legs of the furniture scrape across the hardwood. “You’re home early.”
Penelope glances towards the clock – 7:00. “Yeah. I came home right after my morning run. “Do you know where Ash is?”
“I’m not sure. He was with Emmette, so his place, I assume?”
“That’s probably where he is then.” Pushing herself up off the couch, Penelope heads down the stairs again.
“Did you have a good time last night? Do anything exciting?”
“Sorry?” Panic rushes through her for a moment, scared her mom suspect something.
“Oh, yeah, sure. We had a good time.”
“Are you alright? You seem… off. Were you drinking last night?”
“No, Mom! Definitely not. You know I don’t drink.”
“I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. And I had a bad run this morning.” Penelope starts down the stairs, “I’m going to go take a shower and maybe a nap.”
“Feel better, sweetheart.”
In her room, Penelope tosses her clothes into her hamper before stepping into the hot shower. Burying her head in the heavy stream, she tries to drown out her thoughts. “Why is Gil acting like such a jerk? What did I do? Is he really interested in me, or is this just a game to him? Did I give my virginity to a cute smile and heavenly smell? God, Im stupid.” Her hands against the wall, she tilts her face up towards the showerhead, allowing the force of the water to clear her mind.
She wraps a towel around herself before heading back into her bedroom. Reaching into her bag, she searches for her ipod. As her hand slides across the bottom of the pocket, a sharp stab of pain shoots through her finger. “What the…” Pulling out the offending object, she sees the button she absentmindedly stuck in her pocket that morning. “Stupid pin!” She tosses it into the trash beside her bed. Reaching in again, she finds her ipod, jams the earbuds into her ears and throws herself onto her bed. Her eyes close as she turns up the music, refusing to allow herself to think.
****** ****** ******
Ash wakes groggily, unsure where he is. The room is dark, too dark. Reaching a hand towards his face, he winces as pain shoots through his arm. His fingers touch gingerly at his throbbing forehead, finding a hard dry substance crusted along his hairline. Pushing himself into a sitting position, his fingers sink into the mattress below him. His arm screams in protest. He pushes through the pain. Closing his eyes for a second, he gains control over the urge to vomit. Opening his eyes, he notices that the room isn’t completely black, dim light outlines a square in the wall across from him. He pulls himself carefully to the end of the bed. Standing up, he immediately sits down again. His hands clamp over his mouth, breathing deeply through his nose. The door at the end of the bed opens, pale light from a hallway slinks through the doorframe, silhouetting a figure before it falls shut again.
Remaining on the bed, his hand still over his mouth, Ash listens to the sound of footsteps gliding across the floor. A small engine whirs to life and the dim square outline begins to disappear, replaced by an ever so slowly expanding rectangle of blinding light. Flopping onto his side, Ash buries his face in the fabric of the quilt on the bed. Moaning.
“You know you did this to yourself.” A female voice lilts across the room, poorly masking laughter.
“Sullie?” Ash peeks towards the window.
“Of course, dummy. Who did you think it was?” She flops down on the bed beside him. The bouncing of the mattress tests his gag reflex.
“How the hell did I get here?” He turns his head towards her, away from the light, “And how do you get your room so dark?”
“What the hell happened to me?” Feeling a little more settled, Ash pushes himself up into a seated position. Cradling the sore arm, he inspects the long gash across the skin.
“I have no idea, dude. You were like this when I found you last night.” Shifting towards Ash, her fingers brush carefully against the crusted blood on his hairline.
“I was heading to bed last night when you started texting me totally incoherent stuff. When I finally got you to tell me you were on the trails, I went and found you. I didn’t think you would make it home on your own.”
“I was texting you?” Ash tries to remember using his phone the previous night.
“When you check your messages, you’ll probably be embarrassed.” She gently pats his cheek. “You looked like you’d been attacked by a dog or something. I tried to take you home, but you were freaking about Brooke, and Penelope, and something about Mr. Staal. I brought you here to sleep it off. I figured there was no way you would make it quietly into your bedroom.”
“Right, Brooke.” Sliding onto his side, Ash puts his head in Sullivan’s lap. Sighing at the feel of her fingers sliding through his hair. “We were over at Frasier’s last night. The drinks they were a flowing. Then Brooke shows up with Jamie, apparently they’re all chummy-chummy again, and she’s acting like her typical bitchy self. All I wanted was a night away from everything, and then suddenly, she’s right there again. So I took off.” He pauses, “But, it’s not like I was that upset to see her,” Ash clarifies. “I just really didn’t want to be around her. And I certainly didn’t want to hang out with her and pretend like I was having a good time.”
Trying to remember what made him so upset, his fingers absentmindedly trace Sullie’s ankle. “I was going to walk home, but then something distracted me. I know that I was walking towards the trails. And then, what…?” Ash pushes through the hazy drunken memory. “Right, there was this house I wanted to check out. So I walk up and look through the window,” Seeing Sullie’s eyebrows raise, he laughs “Stop judging me. It was not my finest moment. And when I looked in the window and there on the couch is Penelope, totally getting it on with Mr. Staal.”
“What!” Sullie’s hand freezes on Ash’s head. She turns his face to look up at her. “Seriously. What?”
“Ouch,” He closes his eyes to settle the stabbing waves of pain, “You heard correctly.”
“She’s doing it with Staal?”
“Oh gross. Maybe. They were just making out when I saw them, but gross, maybe.”
“Did he do this to you?” Sullie looks at his bruises. “You have to report him.”
“No, no. I just threw a beer bottle at his house and ran away like a big sissy.”
Laughter bubbles over Sullie’s lips.
“What’s so funny?”
“You threw a beer bottle at his house? You are such a bad ass.” She prods him to sit up. “Come tell me the rest of the story while we clean you up.” Leading him into her bathroom, she wets a facecloth as he sits on the edge of the tub.
“Well, after my show of bad assery,” Ash smiles and closes his eyes as Sullivan brings a cool, damp cloth to his forehead. “I ran away so I wouldn’t get caught. I was running at a full drunken tilt. And there’s this long curved section of the path. Surprisingly, I misjudged the turn, and before I knew it, I was ass over tea kettle into this wooden fence. But have no fear” He takes her hands in his, looking at her with his most earnest expression, “the fence is fine.” She laughs before going back to cleaning his forehead. “Then I woke up here. I am never doing tequila shots again. Damn you, Frasier.” He shakes his fist at the air.
“Oh, Ashy.” Chuckling, Sullie tosses the face cloth into the sink. “How did you and Penelope come out of the same womb?”
“Mystery of nature I suppose.” Ash twists his arm to look at the gash below his elbow. The crust of blood is thick and disgusting looking. “Can I have that cloth?” He holds out a hand. “Oh yeah, and Ashy… we never call me that again, okay?” He smiles at her.
“There are band-aids in the drawer.” She heads into her room, “And I’ll call you whatever I want.” She calls over her shoulder.
Reaching forward, Ash takes her hand to stop her before she can disappear.
“Geeze. If it upsets you that much, I won’t do it.”
“No, it’s not that. I’m going to head home, and I just wanted to say thanks for everything.” His fingers wrap around hers.
“Oh, good. Cause I was still going to call you Ashy anyway.” She laughs “And how exactly are you going to explain that to your mother?”
“That you call me Ashy?”
Sighing, Sullivan pulls him to his feet and turns him towards the mirror above the sink. “No, dork! That.” She points towards the giant purple gash running along his forehead.
“God damn.” Leaning forward, Ash pushes against the wound. Wincing as pain shoots through his face. “Ouch!”
“Good job, dumb ass.” Sullie slaps him on the back and walks back into her bedroom.
“I guess I’ll just be honest with her. I fell and hit my head.”
“Because you were drunk off your ass?”
“I was not!” He feigns shock “The hem of my jeans was frayed because my pants are always too long and I stepped on the loose piece and fell.”
“Impressive. You’re a good liar.” Sullie shakes her head.
“No, I’m a journalist.” Ash chuckles, raising his eyebrows. Walking over to Sullie, he pulls her into a hug, kissing her absentmindedly on the forehead. “Thanks for everything, but I need to go shower. Make myself no longer gross and stuff. Maybe take a nap. Then I’ll come back over and we’ll work on the crim project?”
“You definitely need to degrossify.” She sniffs and wrinkles her nose. “You smell like spring break in Cancun.”
“Yeah, well you smell like…” He mimics her sniff “Well, I guess you smell like coconuts. Damn, I lose.”
“Get used to it.” She laughs, stepping back from him. “Now go home and I’ll see you in a couple hours.”