Chapter 16

"Kelsey, Julia, come in.," Jessie called out. Julia withdrew abruptly, feeling a sense of sadness and regret when she pulled away, but shoved the irrationality of it all back where it belonged.

Kelsey felt it too, and the distance suddenly put between them tore a piece of her soul. Oh goddess, what the hell am I thinking? She felt her lips tingle with anticipation, her body craving Julia's touch. What the fuck did you almost do? That's right, out yourself, dope. Brilliant!

They sauntered back into the building, in a daze. Julia felt disappointed; as to why, she couldn't figure that out. She felt Jesse's presence beside her; turning her head, she saw the tall brunette. Turning her head the other way, she watched Shana pout. What's her problem?

Shana chatted with Julia's ex, Luke. "So she dumped you?" she asked, pointing to Julia.

The blonde boy nodded. "Yeah. I don't know. She must be on the rag or something."

"Rag or not, one piece of advice I can give you is to not ask a woman that."

Luke nodded. Here I go again, being herded like a dumbfuck sheep by a bunch of women. He really didn't hear what she was saying; he could only hope for the youth meeting to end.

"I don't know why she took such a shine to Kelsey and Jessie," Shana muttered. "Here I was, thinking maybe I found another friend. Then my sister comes in and shazaam! I can forget that."

"It happens," Luke said, numb.

Cassie came over, turning Shana's head, and peered into her eyes. "Yep, they're green."

"What are you implying?" Shana asked Cassie.

"Oh, nothing," Cassie said, with an obnoxious white toothed grin.

"You're saying I'm jealous!" Shana fired. "I am not jealous of her new friend!!!"

"Whatever you say," Cassie said.

Kelsey walked ahead of Shana and Julia in the parking lot, to open up the truck and get the troublesome engine started and warming up. It had been rather cranky as of late, much to her annoyance. Julia watched Shana watch her sister, insistent, eyes twitching. What is she thinking?

She watched the tension shift in Shana's face. The little girl turned to face Julia. "You don't know she's gay, do you?"

Julia laughed, but Shana quieted her. "No, seriously, Julia. No boyfriend? Hello?"

Julia sobered quickly. "You're not kidding me, then."

Shana shook her head. "Nope. Best you know."

The tall girl furrowed her dark raven brows. "So you're not kidding me." Her eyes grew grave. She opened her mouth to speak, but could not form a thought. A mix of fear and anger overtook her disposition; all she could think of was how to snap back at Kelsey for such obvious betrayal. She thought the girl was handing her friendship; now, she wasn't so sure whether it was truly a platonic friendship or Kelsey was trying to seduce her to the dark side. Better safe than sorry. She turned about and stomped off towards Kelsey, her shoulders rigid and tensed with fury.

"What's this shit about you being gay?"

Kelsey turned around to see Julia in her face, her hot breath spewing upon her face like a flame-breathing dragon. Oh goddess, she found out. She wasn't prepared for anyone finding out, because she had done a good job concealing her inclinations, or so she thought. Her soul bared naked, she could only tremble in fear in the predatory gaze of her inquisitor.

"So, trying to seduce me or something unnatural like that? Just confess it, all you dykes have some kind of agenda on the mind," Julia said, grabbing the collar of Kelsey's shirt and jerking it roughly. She could feel the strength in Julia's arms, a raw brute force that could snap her neck if she so chose.

"No retort? I see you confess to it, then," Julia hissed, teeth bared, her fists clenching tighter on her collar.

Kelsey shook further, crying out painfully, "Let me go!" Her voice was extremely high pitched and panicked, resembling the hysterical fearful call of a rabbit caught in a trapper's snare. Julia hoisted her up higher in the air, above her head.

"You'll pay for this," Julia growled, then releasing her grip on the smaller girl and letting her drop to the ground. Kelsey struggled to get on her feet, not even bothering to stand up completely before running. It looked as if she was about to lose her balance again when she managed to right herself up and ran to her Datsun, jumped in, slammed the door and knocked the lock in the place. She fumbled with her keys, hands trembling violently; getting the key in the ignition was nearly impossible.

"Don't leave without me!" Shana cried out, running to the passenger's side and jumping in. Kelsey ground the gears several times trying to get in reverse, revving the engine when she failed to get it in. She finally got it in reverse, and laid rubber upon the ground in her haste to get out. She jerked the stick into first, then squealed out of the parking lot.

"Kelsey," Shana pled, "slow down!"

"Shut up," Kelsey growled. I've only told two people, Jessie and Shana. I don't think Julia figured it out on her own, judging from the words she said to me. Jessie is trustworthy. I thought Shana was trustworthy, but she's been acting jealous all evening. Plus Julia didn't get mad until after she was talking to Shana in the parking lot. GODS DAMN IT! SHANA! Kelsey roared inside her mind. YOU FUCKING BETRAYED ME!

She hit the accelerator, speeding through a stale yellow light on the verge of turning red. It mattered no more; it didn't matter that her little sister was in the car. It was her fault, anyways, and if she got them both killed, it was Shana's fault, not hers.

"Kelsey, slow down!" She ignored her little sister, taking the turn a little fast and the truck skidded a bit on the right turn. "Kelsey!!!" her sister cried out when she nearly rear ended a Camry. She swerved in the other lane, blazing past the Camry and cutting him off. Shana began to tear up, frightened.

She left turned against oncoming traffic, almost getting clipped on the rear. The hasty turn sent the pickup into a bit of skid; Kelsey corrected, then reacted with a turn to the other way when the kickback occurred. "Kelsey, you're scaring me."

"Shut the fuck up!" Kelsey screamed in her sister's ear, slamming on the brake in front of their house. "You told Julia! How could you, you little bitch!"

Shana cowered in her corner, further provoking Kelsey, who grabbed her ear and jerked her out of her refuge. "How could you betray me like that? What kind of excuse does it take to put my safety and sanity on the line like that? Huh? Huh? Huh! HUH!" Shana screamed as Kelsey pulled harder on her ear.

"KELSEY!" Shana screamed in terror.

The insistent banging on the window stopped both of them. "Kelsey, what do you think you're doing?" Mother cried out, yanking the door open. "Kelsey, let go of her, NOW!" Shana ran as soon as her captor released her death grip. "Kelsey, get out of the truck right now!"

She calmly got out her side. She seriously considered running at that moment, but Mother was there before she could act upon her hasty plan. "Kelsey Loretta Slevin! What has possessed you? You're turning into your father!"

Could anything hurt worse than being compared to the animal known as her father? She felt her heart constrict, her breathing labor, her eyes bug out and her face pale. She saw his angry face glare at her once again, a face she hadn't seen in ten years and probably accentuated by thick wrinkles now.

Lee Slevin had come home from another drunken night in the town with the boys. It was the moment of evening everyone feared; after a restless night both her and Shana had to pretend nothing happened. Cosmetics were a godsend to privacy; sometimes though they weren't enough and they'd have to invent stories about falling out of trees, nasty bike accidents and fights with schoolyard bullies.

However, one day they didn't believe Shana's excuse and sent her to the school counselor. She tried to lie her way out, but the counselor didn't believe her. Somehow the news got home, and after a long evening of drinking, Lee came home especially furious with Shana.

"You told them!" he screamed, at her, his empty coffee mug clenched in his hand. "I told you not to," he screamed, waving the coffee mug in the air, "but like the spoiled rotten brat you did!" He hurled the mug across the room; it splintered against the wall, some of the shards embedding themselves in Shana's back. "You dirty little fuck! You are fit for the orphanage!" he bellowed.

Mother couldn't bear to watch her children being hurt. "Lee," she pleaded, "leave her alone," she said, trying to detract his attention from Shana. It worked---too well.

Lee ran up the stairs after Mother, and caught her, and began pummeling her with his fists. Kelsey and Shana stood in the kitchen; they could only hear the horror. Glass shattered. "You fucking bitch!" he cried out, and a thunk, followed by rattles of the ceiling above.

Police cruisers pulled up to the house; officers rammed down the door, ran upstairs and caught Lee attempting to rape his wife with a broken, splintered broom handle. The man never stepped foot in the house again.

Drip, drip. The rain pitter-pattered on the roof, the leaks soaking through and plopping in the array of buckets on the living room floor. Kelsey laid on the couch, staring into the dark nothingness save the city lights filtering in through the drapes. They should have a class called 'Broken Heart 101.' The pitter-patter increased to an insistent but quiet wave of white noise buzzing upon the roof. I don't know what I was thinking tonight. I knew better than to think she could possibly be up to any good. Perhaps this is all a ploy on the part of the Fundamentalist Four. They'd love to see me screwed alongside Jessie. She rolled onto her back, the hard couch not permitting to rest in one position very long. Well, the bad news is that the cat is out of the bag.

She let her eyes stare at the blurred shadow of the tree upon the ceiling wave in the wind precariously. Wayward leaves flew away, from the memory known as summer and into the land known as autumn. I don't know what to do now. I'm not going to school tomorrow, that's a guarantee. I can't look into those magnificent blue eyes any more. They're just like the Hope Diamond---a curse upon those who dare to look inside.

Julia wrapped the sheets around her thin body, shivering. The storm was a cold one, the bugler who announced the arrival of Autumn and its cold daughter, Winter. The snow would come soon; Julia hated the snow because she could never get warm.

It never used to be that way until she decided food was evil and avoided it as if it possessed the antichrist. Subconsciously she knew she needed to eat to keep warm, but the guilt talked her out of eating much-needed nourishment.

She tucked the thick blanket under her chin, gazing out the window by her bed, the trees swaying in the merciless wind. She shut her eyes, hoping for sleep, but could not, for too much was on her mind. I'm supposed to hate Kelsey. She's clearly marked as one of the damned according to the Calvinist theory. But I can't seem to bring myself to hate her. I don't know why.

She readjusted the blankets on her bed and tucked the blanket closer to herself so it would cover her cold ears. Maybe I should give Luke another chance. Anything for a distraction. I never did give him a chance, and I was rude. Maybe I should have shut up and let him speak.

She anxiously awaited the arms of sleep, to be nestled upon its bosom. But Gentle Sleep continued to elude her, leaving her captive with her tormentors, Conscious and Reason.

I should wait that one out. Going back out the next day after a break-up is a little hasty, don't you think?

You should have never broken up in the first place.

He was asking for it. No mouth from you. Give it a week.

Sleep relieved Julia of her possession of Conscious and Reason, but its first name was not Gentle.

It was the dream again. The hand and pleading voice broke through the fine coppery red mist. She had her hand in the victim's hand, a firm grip exchanged. Perhaps she could save the dying victim now...

The wicked Frau laughed a callous laugh, scaring Julia into releasing her victim, who sailed into the depths, her screams fading and echoing into the abyss...

"NO!" Julia screamed. "NO!!!!!!" she shrieked.

Chapter 17

Kelsey was quite irritated when a knock at the door early in the morning roused her out of her sleep. Mother was in the kitchen drinking her morning coffee, strong and black, when the visitor announced his presence. Paranoid of all, Mother went to the cutlery rack, drew out her sharpest knife, and approached the door from the side, as if she might need it for a shield. She undid the deadbolt on the door, and slowly opened it, lest it be the beast.

It was only Jessie. "Good morning, Mrs. Slevin," she said, eyes bugging out when the blade caught the morning sun. The gnarled woman saw the fright and hid the knife behind her back.

"I haven't seen you in a while, Jessie," Mother said. "Come in."

Mother returned to the kitchen, and Jessie sat next to Kelsey on the couch, who sat up and rubbed her eyes. "How does the early bird feel this morning?" Jessie asked her.

"Bleh," Kelsey replied. "Go on to school, I feel sick today."

Little did Kelsey know that Jessie heard the whole commotion last night. She leaned over her friend's shoulder and whispered, "You have a broken heart. I'm not leaving you like this."

Kelsey shook her head. "No, go on. I'll survive."

Jessie turned her friend around by the shoulders to face her, and whispered, "I have an idea. Why don't we go shopping instead of going to school? It'll make you feel better."

"If you say so, Captain."

Jessie quirked a grin. "Get ready, but tell Mom your going to school."


The shopping area downtown was a fascinating mix of modern, ethnic, and a good sprinkling of country charm thrown together in one large stewing pot. This is going to be SO much better than school, Kelsey thought with an impish grin.

"Let's go in here," Jessie said, having taken a good look in the window. She pushed the door open, holding it open so Kelsey could follow her in. "Hmm. Now I can see why you wanted to go in here. Look at all the beads!"

Jessie grinned. "You know me and beads too well."

"Yeah. You guys are inseparable." Jessie peered in the small bins, fingering through the mostly mundane assortment of beads, but the occasional bin of specialty beads stopped her slow prowl around the store.

"Ah, seashells." She held each one up for more careful inspection, then put them back in their display, continuing her prowl.

"I think Natasha would like this one," Kelsey said, grinning.

"Which one?" Jessie asked, interrupting her casual prowl and walking over to where Kelsey was. Kelsey held up the medallion.

"Oh boy. That would piss of those four. Natasha would love it!" It had a picture of Baphomet enclosed in an inverted pentagram.

"I wouldn't buy it personally," Jessie said, sighing.

"Me either," Kelsey replied in kind. Although they believed in a religion alternate to Christianity, it didn't mean they worshipped dark deities such as Satan or Baphomet. Jessie and Kelsey were more partial to the ancient ones, like Artemis and Athena. She put the sigil of Baphomet down, and continued her perusal. Jessie walked over to where she left off, continuing her prowl.

After constructing yet another bead necklace for herself, Jessie left the shop with a grin on her face, Kelsey behind.

"Why didn't you get one?"

"I'm not much of a jewelry person, Jessie," Kelsey said. "It's just not me."

Jessie shrugged. "This morning---what's up with your mom and the kitchen knife?"

"He must be calling her while I'm at school. She's acting more and more neurotic."

"I'm scared to go to your house now."

"I'm wondering if it's a good idea to even go home," Kelsey despaired.

Jessie gave a heartfelt look to her friend. "If it gets too bad, don't be afraid to come over. There's always plenty of room for guests like you."

"Thanks, Jessie, you're the best," Kelsey said, practically in a whisper. Great. The last thing I need is to get emotional in the middle of public. Sheesh!

She flashed her cat-like blue eyes about the Student Council room, checking every nook and cranny, but there was no sign of Jessie nor Kelsey. Coincidence? She thought not. I really hit a nerve with Kelsey. I wouldn't like someone screaming at me that I was gay. Never mind I'm not.

What if she had a crush on me? She let the thought and its repercussions reverberate through her mind. God, what have I done to her? She felt a wave of guilt overwash her soul. Why should I care? She'll get over it, move on, no one the wiser, she countered. It didn't make the guilt go away. I guess I should care. The heart is fragile.

The babble in the background grew sharper in pitch. She flashed her eyes across the room, to where Natasha was fending off Cassie the hellcat once again. Shut up, both of you. Noticing that Luke wasn't joining Cassie in harassing Natasha, she let her eyes wander to see him sitting in the corner, despondent. Kelsey wasn't the only one I hurt last night, I see. Further her eyes wandered, to see Audrie chatting with the other two student council members. Things will never be the same, I can just smell it.

A third voice entered the ruckus; Mr. Eldon, who rarely raised his voice, had to resort to shouting before the screaming stopped. She was grateful for the quiet; the banshee wails were making her head pound. She rested her head on her right hand, shutting her eyes and trying to drown out the world in the netherland of shuteye, but someone rudely pulled her back to the land of the living. "You okay?" Audrie asked, concerned.

"Fine," Julia muttered, shutting her eyes again.

"You look pale."

"I'm fine. Leave me alone."

Audrie shrugged and walked off. Something is bothering you, Julia. You can lie to me but I know better.

It must have been a new store, Kelsey deduced, as they descended the three stairs into the bookstore. New books were meticulously lined up on the bookshelves; they were a little taller than usual, but not by much. A stepping stool was nearby, for assistance; in the corner sat the shopkeeper, a middle aged woman with flowing gray hair, wispy clothing, and a bead necklace with a pentagram on it.

"May I help you find anything?" she asked.

"Just browsing," answered Jessie, who saw a book that caught her fancy and pulled it out to look at. "Summoning the Fates," she read aloud. "Hmm." She opened to a random page, to read an excerpt of an ancient Hungarian folktale. Immediately entranced, for it brought back memories of when Grandpa and Grandma were still alive...

Grandpa and Grandma Vilmos had fled Hungary in the 1956 after the Soviets crushed the uprising. They knew it was no longer safe---Istvan, their older son, was at school at the time but their younger son, Ince, got in the crossfire and died a few hours after the Soviet tanks ran the protestors down. They resented the rule, and decided America afforded their family a better opportunity. At least the tanks wouldn't run them down there....

The trip had to be secret; they no longer trusted the regime. Grandpa landed a job at an automobile factory; working until his sixties, when bad health forced him to retire.

Jessie's father never spoke about what happened to his younger brother. He loved him dearly; she could tell it pained him greatly despite his tight-lipped response to the incident.

Kelsey came over, and read the title. "Interesting read?"

Jessie shrugged, turning to another page. "Actually, yeah."

"Going to buy it?"

"Dad would kill me."

"Why? He's never made a fuss about pagan books before."

"No, but it would remind him of some bad memories."

Kelsey had never heard about the 1956 uprising. "Bad memories?"

Jessie waved her hand. "Never mind that." She put the book back, albeit reluctantly, and perused further down the row.

"C'mon, Julia!" Luke pestered at lunch. "I promise I'll behave."

She turned around, ice blue daggers pinning him to where he stood. "You said that last time."

"Julia," he pled, following her like a puppy dog down the hall, "at least listen to me."

She turned around. "You'll have to give me time."

"Why did.." But the tall, raven hair beauty didn't even pay heed, walking down the hall without him. "JULIA!" He couldn't command her now.

"God damn it," he growled, walking back to the table in utter frustration.

"No luck?" asked Cassie.

Luke shook his head. "Nope."

"What's her problem?"

"She'll get over whatever bug is up her ass at the moment," Luke spat in disgust, trying to hide the ever forboding sense that this time, it was final.

Jessie laughed as Kelsey devoured the hamburger and fries. "I knew I could tempt you into eating," she grinned.

"Yeah, you know me a little too well," Kelsey replied, taking a sip of milkshake.

"And never gain a pound," Jessie teased, pinching her side.

"Watch those hands!" Kelsey joked, but an underlying tone of seriousness barely evident in her voice.

"Alright, alright, fair is fair," she said, keeping her hands to herself. She looked into the multiple bags of merchandise she had bought. "We made out like bandits," she said, taking out a cute beanbag lion and posing him. "Isn't he just adorable?" she cooed.

"You and Beanie Babies," she said, shaking her head.

Jessie giggled. "Now if only guys were this cute and cuddly!"

Kelsey rolled her eyes. It's a straight world, like it or not. She took another sip of milkshake, glancing at the books she bought at the bookstore. Being an avid bookworm, she couldn't help but be drawn to its insistent call at the bookstore.

The noisy, airy sound marked the end of the sweet milkshake. "Damn," Kelsey grumbled. "Well, you ready?"

"Let me go to the bathroom first," Jessie said, taking the trash, dumping it in the trashcan, then disappearing into the restroom.

Julia backhanded the ball into the corner of her opponent's court, which wasn't returned. She took the back of her hand and wiped it against her forehead, then walked over to the edge of the court and took a long sip of water. The rain last night was brief enough to not get the tennis courts too wet for today's practice, but the sky still looked plenty ominous, dark and angry.

The next opponent entered the court. Julia winced; Lindsay had a rather mercurial temper of her own that seemed to provoke her into dropping her nice girl facade and turn nasty. The whole tennis team was terrified of Julia---it was a joke to everyone else on campus how a nice, well mannered girl like Julia could be dubbed the Ice Queen of the Court. Simply put, competition brought out the best---and worst---in her.

Lindsay set up on the right side of the court, tennis ball in hand; she lifted her arm up, tossed the ball, arching her back and springing forward like a snapped bow, the ball catapulting into the opposite corner of Julia's court. She returned the serve on the corner of Lindsay's court, which the girl easily returned down the left alley near the line on Julia's side. Sensing that Lindsay's momentum was going left back to the middle of the court, she fired it back down the right alley in a straight line across the net.

Caught off balance, Lindsay hastily backpedaled and half turned, trying to lob the ball over the net. It fell out of bounds by two ball lengths, but Lindsay raised her hands in victory.

"It was out by two ball lengths," Julia snarled.


"I can see better on my side of the court than you can, Lindsay."

"Jesus H. Christ! Everything has to be a frigging argument!" Lindsay fired back, using the Lord's name in vain to provoke Julia. She walked to the left side of the court, ball clenched in hand. "Fifteen love."

The ball came screaming in her court, but Julia was more than ready to return it with revenge. She arched her arm back, then backhanded it ferociously across the court. Lindsay never stood a chance--the ball whacked her on the temple before she could defend herself. The ball deflected, rolling out of bounds, Lindsay taking a few halting steps back in shock. When she regained her balance, she looked up with Julia with savage snarl.

"Fuck you," she growled. "You really asked for it."

"Bring it on," Julia taunted. She knew she was pushing it, but it strangely soothed the ache in her heart and cured the headache that lingered all day.

Lindsay bared her teeth, walking up to the net. "Well? Are you too wuss to face the music?"

Julia walked up to the net, taking her racket and shoving Lindsay in the chest with it, shoving her a few steps back. Lindsay ran up, jabbing the racket in her left breast.

This is war! Julia raised her arm to hit Lindsay when the coach intervened, pulling Julia away before she could execute the dirty deed.


Chapter 18

It's now or never, Julia thought during the Friday brunch rally. She lurked towards the back, while Jessie announced the next contest. It used to be Todd's job, but now that he was exiled from Student Council, it was Jessie's responsibility.

She eyed Kelsey, who lurked in the back as well, eyes intent on Jessie. I've been a real jerk. She turned her head before anyone could catch her staring. Someone might construe it in the wrong way. Can't have that happen.

She felt quite nervous, her stomach in knots. I never really had to deal with this before. I used to be able to keep my mouth shut, or if I said something truly hurtful, I meant it with every once of my soul. Her eyes darted to Luke. Was that haste on my part? The thought rolled around in her mind. Any passion for him ran cold. Nah. She let her eyes flicker to Kelsey for a moment. I didn't mean to hurt Kelsey that way, though. Hitting someone where they are least capable of defending themselves... The rally came to a close. What's different? she pondered. I never befriended someone so much different than me. Someone who clung to a different set of morals. Someone who was immoral yet held the secret of friendship in their heart. She let her eyes flicker over to Luke again. Usually it's vice versa. Her eyes darted back to Kelsey. How can a person be moral if they can't love? And how can a person be immoral and yet love? Twin paradoxes.

She approached Kelsey as the crowd dispersed. "Kelsey, may I talk to you?"

"Fire away," she said, insistent on cleaning the floor with the push broom.

"I'm sorry about being such a jerk Wednesday night."

"No problem. You're forgiven."

I am not forgiven. Such a cold tone, as if she pretends to hear what I say but isn't really. "No, Kelsey, I mean it."

At least it made the shorter girl look up. "Funny you should apologize to me." Then she pushed the broom the other way back up the basketball court.

Julia loudly sighed. "Kelsey, stop so sarcastic with me, 'kay?" She shook her head. "I said some really stupid and hurtful things I shouldn't have. Don't shut me out yet, okay? Kelsey?"

Kelsey shrugged. "Okay."

Just do it. "What are you doing this evening?" asked Julia. She felt her palms sweat, her stomach churning in knots.


"Want to go to the movies?"

"Sure. Why not," Kelsey replied. "Any movie in particular?"

"I'll let you choose."

"Um...okay." What's playing?

" you after school?" Julia asked shyly. Kelsey grinned. Goddess she looks cute when she looks bashful...hard to be mad at her still. "Yeah."


I wish she'd eat more than that, Kelsey grumbled mentally. Julia had pushed her salad around her plate while she ate her cheeseburger and onion rings with zeal. Her unnaturally tiny appetite had Kelsey quite worried; she knew it was certainly a mistake to care for someone who she really didn't know, but she couldn't help worry about Julia. The faintest traces of her self-starvation were apparent on her cheeks; she shivered a lot in class, even when everyone else was uncomfortably hot; plus there was a fruity odor to her breath that had Kelsey especially alarmed.

"I'll be right back," Julia said, setting her plastic fork beside her salad bowl and walking to the bathroom. Smelling something suspicious, Kelsey counted to ten, then followed her to the bathroom quietly.

I have a bad feeling she's in here, Julia thought. Crap. She stared at the toilet bowl, which looked back at her, a clean reservoir of water against the backdrop of crisp white porcelain under bright white fluorescent lights. I can't, she realized. I can't make myself do it when she's in here.

She flushed the toilet, then unlocked the stall door and peered around, trying to catch traces of where Kelsey might have gone. Either she left when I flushed the toilet or I'm imagining things.

She decided she was just being chicken, so she went back into the stall. C'mon. She stared into the jaws of the toilet, steadying a breath. I can do it. But she couldn't shake the feeling that Kelsey was still in the bathroom. No one has come in. No one has left. No one was in here when I came in. Then why do I feel she's here?

Unable to shake her suspicions, she unlocked her stall door and looked around. No one stood at the sink. There was nowhere else to hide, right? She checked the other stall, the handicapped stall. She tugged on the door---locked.

I think I found you, scamp. She peered underneath---oxford shoes and telltale boy's jeans near the toilet bowl. Score.

"Okay, Kelsey, I know you followed me in here," she announced, a fearful paranoia coursing through her veins.

No answer. I could have sworn that was Kelsey. The toilet flushed, scaring Julia into a quick slink to the sink, where she washed her hands. She didn't hear the occupant of the stall but saw Kelsey behind her in the mirror.

"What?" Kelsey asked. "Those two cups of soda hit me."

Julia quirked an eyebrow but said nothing. She took a paper towel and dried her hands, letting Kelsey wash her hands. She felt an ache around her ribs, an ache to be held, but gritted her teeth and mocked herself mentally. What balderdash! What the hell was possessing her?

Kelsey felt a funny impulse to wrap her arms around Julia but chastised herself. First you try to kiss her. Remember? She ended up yelling at you for being gay. This is very tentative----don't fuck it up now. You don't even deserve another chance. She couldn't figure out what the hell was possessing her either.

They left, not a word uttered about the confusion.

The theater was dark; it was thirty minutes into the movie when Kelsey got a contagious case of the yawns and couldn't stop. Julia glanced over. "Sleepy already? It's only 8:15."

Kelsey raised her brows. "Not really," she yawned. "I'm going to strangle whoever gave these to me."

"It's not all that great of a movie," Julia sighed, yawning. "Oh great, you just passed it onto me."

"Sorry," Kelsey apologized. She had called her mother earlier saying she was going to Jessie's house after the movies because she wouldn't be home by 8:30.

Julia was rather startled when she felt a subtle weight upon her shoulder. She craned her head a bit to confirm her suspicions. "Night, sleepyhead," she softly whispered to a napping Kelsey.

"I just want to kiss her so badly," Kelsey whispered to Jessie. She was rather dismayed earlier to find out she fell asleep on Julia's shoulder and kept apologizing profusely until the taller girl had to shut her up. The grandfather clock in the living room struck twelve not too long ago, and they were in Jessie's room, whispering in the dark.

"I can see why you fell for her," Jessie said, concerned. "She's a real heartbreaker."

"Yeah. Luke looked totally dazed today."

"Natasha said he looked that way yesterday too."

"Sometimes there are this rather electric moments when I feel myself being drawn closer," Kelsey whispered. "It is so disconcerting! It takes everything I have not to throw myself into her arms."

Jessie quirked a brunette eyebrow. "You think she feels the same way?"

Kelsey snorted. "Yeah right! And if it did, it'd have to hit her between the eyes before she had even the slightest inkling of what it is," she mock laughed.

"You two would make a cute couple," Jessie said, persisting despite her protests.

"I'm sure we would but--"

"No buts, Kelsey."

Kelsey furrowed her brows. "Let me finish, dammit!"

"Don't get pissy on me," Jessie said.

Kelsey finished her train of thought. "If she is, she's deep in denial. And to her, denial is a river in Egypt." Her dark blonde eyelashes fluttered shut, then opening, sadness in their depths. "It's better for her to be in denial, Jessie."

"Why is that?" Jessie asked.

"I'm afraid what she might do if she figured it out."

Two pair of worried eyes, one green, one brown, dared not speak what the repercussions would be if tall, dark, and beautiful blue eyes did.

Jessie pulled up to Kelsey's driveway, with a big grin on her face. She had managed to talk Mr. Rhett Williams into letting Julia coming with her for a fun Saturday at the mall. She had made a very good previous first impression upon him despite some of the offhand comments Lucas Garner had spewed in his presence. Besides, he was rather encouraged to see someone take his lonesome daughter under their wing for once; she had a tendency to run around and do everything herself.

If I can get them at least a little closer, maybe they'll stop denying it to each other. She parked beside the curb, and turned to face Julia. "You can come with me, but I'm going to warn you to keep behind me, Mrs. Slevin gets a little scary sometimes," she warned her.

"Okay." They got out, and Jessie knocked on the door, a good distance should the gnarled woman open the door and lunge at her with the kitchen knife.

"Here's Jessie," Kelsey hollered to her mother. "See you later!"

"Don't you holler at me, young lady," Mrs. Slevin scolded her elder daughter, limping into the living room, cane at hand. "Call before you come home."

"Okay," Kelsey said. "Later." She was about to open the door when Mother cleared her throat.

"Check the door," she said, her hands near her waist. The background check, mandated by the Brady bill, finally passed clearance last night and she made a rare trip outside the house to get it. She had a rapid-firing Glock tucked in her holster, attached to her waist; she never knew when the monster would come in and threaten her babies.

Kelsey checked out the window. "It's Jessie." She opened the door, yelling, "Later," to her mother.

"About time," Jessie joked.

Kelsey hadn't noticed Julia until Jessie moved. "Oh."

"Good morning," she said, forcing a laugh to break the tension between them. "Wasn't expecting you here, but a pleasant surprise, nevertheless." They reached Jessie's car; Julia and Jessie up front, Kelsey in back. "I'm so glad you didn't see what my mother is armed with today," she sighed.

"Why?" asked Jessie. "Kitchen knife not enough?"

Julia looked; what were they talking about?

"No, she got that Glock last night."

Jessie paled, then glanced at Julia; noticing she was in the dark, she asked Kelsey, "May I explain what's going on?"

Oh, why not. Air the dirty laundry; it's coming out sooner or later anyways. "Sure. My dad went to prison ten years for abuse. He just got out on parole. He's been making threatening phone calls as of late to our house."

"Oh my," Julia said.

"The other night," Jessie said, "I walked up to the door and was greeted with the kitchen knife."

"Oh my," Julia said, more accentuated. "That's why you said to get behind me."

"Yeah," Jessie said. "I'm scared to walk up to the door anymore."

"I'm sorry about that," Kelsey said.

"No, your mother has every reason to feel that way," Jessie said.

Kelsey sighed, shaking her head. "I would have been very content to see the key thrown away," she added.

And I think I have problems, Julia thought. That's terrifying. To imagine my dad wanting to kill my mom---that's just unimaginable to think people can hate each other so. The car gently rolled to a stop at a red light. If he's so violent, then why is Kelsey such a nice girl? She must be a foundling or something. A lopsided grin came to her face, but she quickly extinguished it.

I am so frightened I will turn out to be just like him, Kelsey thought. After what Mother said, I just can't seem to shake those angry words from her mouth. Is this what I am doomed to, no matter how far I try to run from it? Is this my fate, no matter how hard I try? Goddess tell me it is not so.

Jessie pulled into the large mall parking lot and found a spot towards the very end. "Sorry, that's the best I could do."

"No problem," Julia said, getting out.

Kelsey couldn't help but feel her eyes being magnetically drawn to the tall, dark, beautiful girl. There was a way she walked--unsure, tentative yet confident and sure. How the girl could combine twin paradoxes and turn it into a reality was beyond her grasp; she was the yin yet the yang.

Jessie's voice rattled Kelsey's eyes away from Julia. "Which store do you think we should go to first?"

Julia looked at Kelsey. She looks so cute distracted.

"Earth to Kelsey?"

Kelsey blinked instinctively. "Sorry, what?"

Jessie grinned. "Which store?"

Her stomach growled on cue. "How about a bite to eat?"

No. Not food. You guys are turning out to be a bad influence! she panicked, remembering how Kelsey followed her into the restroom last night.

Kelsey opened the heavy glass door into the mall, letting Jessie and Julia through. They stopped by the map by the door, and stared for a moment, orientating themselves with the place.

"There's a pizza place to our left," said Jessie, "a bagel place to the right, and ice cream a little ways down the main aisle."

"Drats," Kelsey said. "It's a little too cold for ice cream now."

"That last storm was absolutely freezing," Jessie sighed. "Before you know it, the winter snow season will start."

Snow. Not snow. I hate snow. I hate winter, groaned Julia.

"Well? Bagels or pizza?"

"What the hell, bagels. I know they must have other stuff besides that."

They hooked a right down the row, and stopped at the bagel shop. Kelsey stared into the bagel display, Jessie right behind. "Hmm...blueberry bagels, cinnamon raisin, poppy seed..."

Jessie shook her head. "We better keep away from the poppy seed ones."

"Why?" asked Julia.

"Because it will score a false positive on a marijuana test," Jessie said.

"Really?" she said, bug-eyed.

Kelsey kept looking into the case. "There's muffins---blueberry, banana nut, chocolate chip, bran, orange, lemon, poppy seed, double chocolate, apple cinnamon---any preference, guys?"

Jessie licked her lips. "I like the idea of apple cinnamon muffin personally." She looked up above at the menu for a choice of beverage. They offered the customary coffee, soda, milk, and orange juice; in addition they offered specialty coffees such as cafe latte and cappuccino and fruit smoothies.

"May I help you?" the cashier, a pimple faced teen, asked.

"I'd like an apple cinnamon muffin with a cappuccino," Jessie ordered. "Kelsey?"

"Double chocolate chip muffin and strawberry banana smoothie. Julia?"

The tall girl cringed. Dang. "May I have a bran muffin, warmed, with coffee?"

The cashier punched in the totals. He handed Julia her beverage cup while Jessie paid him. It was agreed beforehand they'd all chip in on it. The cappuccino machine whined and carried on in one corner while the blender moaned in the other corner. Two delicious drinks and three muffins were set on the counter. "Where should we sit?" Kelsey asked, taking the tray of muffins while Jessie escorted the drinks.

"Um, how about that booth?" They sat down, Kelsey immediately starting to devour her muffin.

"Geez!" Jessie cried out.

"What?" Kelsey mumbled between mouthfuls.

"Close your mouth while you eat, you're grunting," Jessie complained. "Yow!" she exclaimed when Kelsey kicked her underneath the table.

"Serves you right," Kelsey said.

Jessie watched Julia pick around the muffin. Her coffee was drunk black as the moonless night; she had peeled it from the wrapper, divided it into four, and worked on each piece from the middle to the edge, a guilty look etched upon her face with each nibble. Something is up with this.

Julia was the last to finish her muffin. "I need to go to the bathroom, I'll be right back."

Jessie glanced at Kelsey after Julia left.

Whispered Kelsey: "Follow her and see if you can talk a little sense into her."

Jessie quirked a brown brow. "It's not just me, is it?" This fearful eating...

Kelsey gravely shook her head. "Go."

She trailed Julia into the bathroom. Where'd she go? She heard telltales signs. SHIT!!! She shook her head. You have all of us worried, Julia. This has to stop.

The toilet flushed; the deadbolt was released, and Julia opened the door, running right into Jessie. "Ah!"

Jessie, with her height advantage, looked down, brows furrowed. "Julia, you got to stop doing that to yourself."

"Doing what?" retorted the raven hair girl.

"Starving yourself."

"That's none of your business," Julia said, walking to the sink, but stopped by a strong hand wrapped around her wrist.

"Like hell," Jessie said. The door creaked as Kelsey came in. "You got both of us scared shitless."

Julia laughed. "You're joking me."

Jessie rubbed the thin covering of skin over her wrist. It was quite pathetic to see Jessie's large hands dwarf Julia's wrist. "No, we aren't," Jessie finally exhaled. "For starters, you are always cold."

"Your cheeks are starting to hollow out," added Kelsey.

"I caught you vomiting the muffin," added Jessie.

"And you've gone into ketosis."

They had her trapped, and all three knew it. But when a sleek, dark panther is cornered, it is much more dangerous, and Kelsey was quite aware that she was playing with fire.

She glanced at Jessie. She wasn't afraid of fire. Unlike her, Jessie actually had the guts to confront Julia about the suspicious behavior. (After all, Jessie was the only one of Natasha's childhood friends who stuck up for her when she decided to "go goth.") The glare Julia gave the taller girl in return wasn't too friendly either---she desperately wanted to intervene and call a truce, but Julia would end up being the loser.

"Go ahead, be pissed off at us. I don't blame you," Jessie said. The glare softened a little; she still was tense and ready to spring though.

"We're probably the first persons to confront you about this," Kelsey added. "In good conscious we can't let you do this to yourself."

The glare softened more--was that a tear? Not even Luke cared.

"Julia?" Jessie asked, unadulterated concern coloring her brown eyes. The raven hair girl lost it, a wayward tear streaming down her face. Jessie moved forward and engulfed her in a hug.

It was weird to cry on someone else's shoulder; she thought she was too tall for that. Too in control to admit she was out of control; too stoic to admit such a shame. Despite such conditions, her new found friends cared enough to love her for whom she was, not who she was expected to be.

I am loved, Julia realized. Today, I am complete. In her heart she felt a place filled by the concern and support by two friends she knew only as strangers not long ago. Strangers despised by the friends she had two weeks ago. Friends? They were a joke. She tried to catch her breath. Today I am loved.

Unfortunate for all, it was the calm before the storm...

[ Chapter 18b ]

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