Flopping backwards onto the bed, Ash stares up at the lacy yellow canopy above him. He cringes, hating Brooke’s overly girly side. He pushes aside a number of stuffed animals as he scoots back to rest against the mountain of pillows. His sock feet knead the thick down comforter. Reaching for the remote, he mutes the always squawking television at the end of the bed, his eyes closing against the staring eyes of a row of ceramic dolls along the wall.
“Hey, Brooke.” He calls towards the closet.
“Yea-huh?” Her voice travels from inside the walk-in.
“Did you have the new guy today?”
“Nope. But I saw him.” Her voice now sounds much closer. “He’s pretty hot.”
“You think so, do ya?” Ash’s eyes open to find her standing beside the bed, wearing only her white school blouse hanging open and her underwear. Her long, red hair hangs in waves over her shoulders. “Hotter than me?” He smirks.
“What do you think?” She crawls onto his lap, her hands play with the buttons of his shirt, his tie already discarded on the floor by his coat. Sliding her arms around his neck, Brooke pulls him into a seated position. His hands slide up the tops of her thighs. Fingers playing against skin. Responding to his girlfriend’s very obvious wants. Her lips press against his neck. His breath catching as her teeth graze a sensitive spot at the nape.
“Do you think there’s something a little off about that guy?” Ash finds himself unexpected distracted.
“Hmmm?” Brooke mutters. Fingernails dance against the now exposed skin of his back.
“Mr. Staal. Do you think there’s something, I don’t know, weird about him?”
“He’s a teacher. They’re all weird.” Her lips begin tracing his collarbone. “Who chooses to spend their life in school?”
“No. I mean, I just get a weird vibe from him. He was asking me about Penelope.”
Brooke sits up, a heavy sigh escaping through her nose. The burst of air tickles the skin of Ash’s chest. “You’re thinking about your teacher and your sister right now?” She indicates her naked torso. “At this exact moment.”
“Hmmm?” He looks down. “Oh right, sorry.” He wraps his arms around her. His teeth nipping at the skin of her shoulder the way he knows she likes. He feels her hands travelling down towards his belt. Out of the corner of his eye, he notices the image on the television. His chin comes to rest on Brooke’s shoulder as he watches. “Hang on.”
“Ash, come on.” Brooke whines in her cutest, girliest voice. “Can’t you wait to watch tv?”
“Shhh.” His hands wrap around her waist, lifting her off his lap and placing her beside him on the bed. Reaching across her, he lifts the remote from the nightstand and hits the volume button. The voice of the newscaster sounds over the video of a man with shaggy blonde hair being led into the police station in handcuffs. Throwing herself back against the pile of pillows with a giant huff, Brooke crosses her arms over her chest, sulking.
“A suspect was arrested today for the murder of Shondra Bleeker, whose body was found last May in Stanley Park. 30 year old Regin…”
The tv goes mute as Brooke points the remote at it and continues to sulk.
Ash turns to his girlfriend “I was watching that.”
She crosses her arms over her chest and glares at him.
Ash pulls her back into his lap and begins running his fingers through her hair. Pulling her arms back around him. Feeling her creamy skin beneath his fingertips. Sex always distracts her. It’s her favourite thing for them to do together.
“Seriously?” She pulls away from him, reaching for her discarded shirt beside the bed. “This is what gets you off now?” Her voice is muffled as her hair falls in front of her face. Her fingers deftly buttoning the fabric together.
“What?” Ash’s forehead crinkles. He plucks his shirt out from the pillows.
“I throw myself at you, and you start thinking about you sister and some dude. Then you watch something about a murderer and suddenly you want to get it on. I don’t get you lately.” Her tone betrays an annoyance he hasn’t known she feels.
“I’m still lost.” Ash shakes his head. “I was distracted, and now I’m not. You’re reading way too much into this.”
“It’s not just today, Ash.” Brooke crosses her legs, her hands in her lap, twisting the tassel on one of her pillows. “You’ve been distracted for weeks.”
“No I haven’t.”
“Yes, you have. You keep acting like everything is normal, but you’ve totally pulled away from me.”
“I’m just busy with school and the newspaper and stuff. You knew it would be busier this year. Now that I’m editor.”
“You were the editor for half of last year, too.” Brooke pulls a teddy bear from the side of the bed and hugs it protectively. “You made time for me then. Now you want to watch every single thing you can about murder and death and crime.”
“It was different last year. I was co-editor. Now it’s just me.” Ash sits back onto his knees. “I want to be a journalist. I work for a newspaper.” He frowns at her “I want to be a crime reporter. You know all this. You know that all of this is preparation for my future. I need this for university applications.”
“God! Why are you always harping about the damn future?” Brooke jumps off the bed, spinning to face him. “We’re supposed to be enjoying ourselves, not worrying about careers that are a million years away or who murdered who or burgled what or whatever.” Her voice rises in frustration. “It’s our senior year. This is supposed to be the best year of our life. I love you. You love me. We should be having more fun than ever.”
“Just because we shouldn’t have to think about…”
“Blah, blah, blah,” Brooke waves her hand at him and heads back into her closet. “Can I please have my boyfriend back?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ash pushes himself off the bed, following her, anger rising in his chest. Leaning against the edge of the door, arms folded across his chest, he watches his girlfriend strip off her uniform. He feels a familiar tingling but pushes it down.
“I don’t want to be dating no fun guy.”
“I’m the same person I’ve always been, Brooke.”
“No, you’re not.” She turns to look at him. “Do you still love me, Ash?”
“Of course I do.” He responds automatically, not sure he’s telling the truth.
“Then why don’t you ever want to be with me?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Brooke.” Ash rubs his eyebrows in frustration.
“We used to go out all the time. Hang with our friends. Go to parties. Have sex whenever we wanted. And now, you’re always staying at school late, holed up in that stupid news room. With those nerds who get all hot and bothered over words. You’re obsessed. You never want to do anything fun.” Doing up her belt, she brushes past him, exiting the closet.
“Well forgive me for actually wanting to get in to a good school. Just because you’ve got a future as a trophy wife, doesn’t mean that I have to settle for less than the best.” His frustration making him poke at Brooke’s one real insecurity.
“Are you trying to say that I’m stupid?’ Brooke’s hands brace themselves against the bones of her hips. Her finger nails digging into the fabric of her jeans.
“Not trying so much as saying.” Ash shrugs.
“Get out of my room!” Brooke picks up a magazine from the table beside her bed, throwing it at him. “Get out! Get out! Get out!”
“So, I guess we’re breaking up ‘eh?” Ash scoops up his belongings, ducking the remote now flying towards him. He slips from the room, hurrying down the stairs towards the door. A loud thump sounds as something flies into the door from the bedroom side. Stopping momentarily at the front door, he slips on his shoes and hurries from the house.
Behind the wheel of his car, he slumps into the seat, absorbing everything. Within half an hour, he’s gone from making out with his girlfriend, to breaking up with her. Unsure how it even happened, he runs his fingers through his hair, feeling a prickling sensation behind his eyes. Blinking quickly, he turns the key in the ignition and throws the car into drive. Pulling away from the curb, he refuses to think about it until he gets home.
Before long, he’s pulling into the driveway, music blaring from the speakers. He turns the key to the off position. Leaving the stereo playing, he pushes his head back into the headrest, his eyes closing of their own volition. Trying to think about anything other than the fight with Brooke. But his mind keeps flitting back to her. Standing beside the bed. Open shirt. Smooth skin. Shining hair. The feel of her beneath his fingertips. The insipid conversations he’s been forced to endure over the last two years. Her inability to care about her schoolwork, or to understand why he does. Her lack of motivation. How much fun they used to have together. Laughing around the fire with their friends. Lying on the bed together watching a movie. The weight of her pressing reassuringly into his side. The smell of lilacs from her hair. The fluttery feeling in his stomach when he knew he loved her. The tension whenever Brooke and Penelope were in the same room. Brooke’s inability to recognize the tension. The frills and ruffles that she loves so much. The moment, about a month earlier, when he realized he didn’t love her anymore. The guilt he feels for having strung her along. Not able to remember the last time he felt happy with her that wasn’t related to sex.
Ash bolts upright at the sound of knuckles rapping against the car window. Opening his eyes, he sees a tight black t-shirt with a feather quill on the front. The jewellery on the hands hanging from the belt loops visible even in the settling dusk. Even without seeing her face, he knows who it is.
“Hey, Sullie.” He opens the door, stepping out of the car. “Aren’t you cold?”
“Nah, it’s freaking hot in our house.” She jerks her head towards the house beside the Chisholm’s. “My mom seems to think that if the temperature drops below ten we have to crank up the furnace. I thought women were supposed to go through hot spells, not cold spells.” She chuckles, the edges of her dark, almond shaped eyes crinkle with humour.
“Mom’s doing the hot thing right now. Our house is like an icebox. I have two comforters on my bed.” Ash grins, leaning back against the car.
“I was going to check the mail when I noticed you in the car. Were you sleeping?” The corner of her mouth hitches up on one side curiously.
“Not exactly.” Ash crosses his arms across his chest and leans back against the car.
“What’s up?” Sullivan places her hand on his arm. “You were in such a good mood when we wrapped the paper today.”
“Brooke and I broke up.” Looking at the ground, not wanting her to see how upset he is.
“Oh, Ash! I’m sorry.” Wrapping her arms around him, Sullivan pulls her friend into a hug. “Was it…?”
“Planned? Mutual? Expected?” He returns the hug. “No. It was sudden, angry and completely ridiculous.”
“Do you want to walk?”
This is their secret. Their friendship. No one knows that they go for walks together through the wooded areas behind their homes and confide in one another. Confide things they have never told anyone else. Not even Penelope knows that they do this.
It started a few years earlier when Sullivan had been upset about some girls at school bullying her for being Asian. She had gone for a walk along the trails after dusk. Trying to hide from the nasty things they were saying about the way she looked. The way her dad spoke. About her being smart. She’d rounded a turn in one of the paths, unable to see very far in front of her, and had literally walked right into Ash. He had been standing in the middle of the path. Not moving. Just standing there.
They had walked for over an hour. Talking about how she felt like an outcast at their new high school. Mean, nasty girls who didn’t want her wearing their school uniform. Ash was learning to deal with his parents separating. Unsure what drove them apart. Wondering how he was going to deal with not having his mother around. How much energy it took to comfort Penelope in her grief.
Since that day, Ash and Sullivan had been keeping each other’s confidences. Sullivan was the first person Ash told about Brooke’s cheating. He confided in her about how much trouble he had after his parents got back together. Just getting used to them being apart to find out that they were going to be living together again. Ash was the one Sullivan had gone to when her boyfriend had broken her heart the year before. Dumping her for one of the girls that had teased her so mercilessly. They were able to vent to each other when Penelope’s stubbornness got out of hand.
“Ash?” Cocking her head to the side, Sullivan pushes his face upward with a knuckle under the chin. His eyes are closed. Deep breaths drawn in through his nose.
“Maybe.” He opens his eyes after a long deep exhale. “I need to compose myself before Penelope finds out. You know she’s going to gloat.”
“She does really hate Brooke.” Sullivan’s hand cups his face. The metal of her rings cold against his skin.
“Because she cheated on me. That’s a weak ass excuse for holding a grudge for this long.” He touches her hand with his own. “Especially when it’s a grudge I haven’t kept.”
“She says there are other reasons, but I don’t know what they are.” Sullivan’s voice is quiet.
“Whatever.” His forehead crinkles.
“Come on.” She tilts her head, “Let’s walk.”
As they head towards the sidewalk leading to the trails, music erupts from Ash’s cell phone. Digging into the deep pockets of his jacket, he fumbles around pieces of paper, a pack of gum, and a pile of change, before his fingers grasp the smooth casing. He answers without looking at the display.
“Ash?” Brooke’s voice sounds soft and uncertain through the earpiece.
“What?” He tries to sound angry, but it comes out as exhaustion. He stops walking, placing a hand on Sullie’s arm.
“Can we talk? I think maybe I was… I don’t know. I just think…”
“Hang on a second.” He jabs the mute button on the phone. “It’s Brooke. Are you around later tonight?”
“Text me when you’re ready.” Sullivan squeezes his hand and heads back to her house, leaving him to sort out things with Brooke.
Hitting the button on the phone, Ash takes a deep breathe before lifting it back to his ear. “Okay, let’s talk.”