My co-workers keep staring at me when I’m not looking. I’ll lift my head from ringing through some books for a customer and see their heads swing swiftly away. I don’t know, maybe I’m just paranoid.
“Selene, can you come in here for a second?” my manager calls from the office tucked away behind a crowded wooden shelf. I finish my transaction and switch off with another girl. I can feel her eyes burning into my back as I walk away.
“A woman came in looking for you yesterday,” Mike tells me, leaning against the wall as I look up from a hard metal chair, “Said she had some trouble with you a while back. That you were rude.”
I feel my brow tighten, trying to recall any difficult customers recently. “What did she look like?”
“Tall. Long blond hair.”
You’ve got to be kidding me. I fail to hide my surprise, and he continues, believing my recognition to be a sign of guilt. “She also said she ran into you at your other job. That she saw you doing drugs around the back.”
I fucking hate that woman. I open my mouth to protest but my manager raises a hand, shaking his head.
“You’ve been a reliable employee, until recently anyway,” he is stern, though not entirely without sympathy, “But if you’ve gotten yourself into anything… risky… I recommend you find your way out of it. Now.”
I almost laugh, it’s so absurd. Risky? You have no idea. Of course, there isn’t much I can actually say in my defence except to assure him that everything is fine. The lady must have a grudge against me for some reason, I tell him. He accepts my explanation, but I can tell he’s still sceptical when he tells me to take a break and leaves me amongst the stacks of books and cardboard boxes.
I return home later that afternoon to yet more tension. Wynn is on the couch reading a new book – The Fellowship of the Ring. Brie is sitting at the small kitchen table drinking a tea and flipping through her phone. They are very obviously ignoring each other’s existence.
“Well… this is… pleasant,” I say as I kick off my flats. Both turn and give me a threatening look. I’m dying to ask Wynn about her latest out-of-character literary decision, but Brie has already jumped to her feet. I can tell we’re gearing up for a conversation that requires privacy. At least from the eyes and ears of uncomfortable roommates. My room is a disaster, so coffee it is.
“We’ll be back in a bit, Wynn. We’re just going down the road for some coffee,” I haven’t even asked Brie, but already she’s at the door beside me, preparing to leave.
“Fine. But bring me back something chocolate,” she shouts as we walk into the hall.
We find a small table tucked away in the corner of the cafe. The sky outside is slate grey and little of it filters in this far. The darkness makes our space seem intimate and secretive, despite the crowded tables surrounding us.
“Grant said you stayed home from work yesterday. You feeling okay?” Obviously Grant still hasn’t told her about Hunter.
“Yeah, things have just been a bit… stressful lately. Mental health day,” I lie. I hate how easily lying comes now.
She nods, then starts biting her nails. I’ve never seen her bite her nails before. They’re always perfectly manicured, but today her nail polish is chipped and her nails are rough around the ends. She catches herself and puts her hands down before she begins speaking, “Fuck… Selene, I think I’m going to go crazy.”
“What’s wrong? Is it Grant?”
“Yes! No! He’s wonderful, and understanding, and charming as all hell… but… he’s also… busy,” she says. I bite my lip and raise an eyebrow in confusion so she continues, “He just works a lot and so he’s not home, you know.”
I’ve never seen Brie be clingy before, or concede to any sort of need or weakness for that matter. “You’re lonely?”
“Not really. It’s more that I’m just… bored,” she whispers the word like it’s some kind of shameful and contagious disease, “I don’t know what to do with myself all day. Grant’s too tidy so there’s almost nothing to clean, and I can’t stand the kind of thing my mom loves like baking and crafts and shit. I swear I’ve watched every single movie from the past decade…”
Of course she’d be bored. I’m ashamed I hadn’t realized it. “I work part time, but I’m home sometimes when Grant is working. You can come by and we can do… something.”
“I have been,” she points out, and I realize she has been stopping in more often, “But there’s still so much time in a day.”
“I’m so sorry Brie. Maybe you can volunteer or something? Does that count as work?” I wish I knew more about the restrictions of the spell. I wonder if Hunter would know.
“I don’t know, honestly. I’m scared to try anything like that in case it might count,” she lowers her voice again, “Selene, I’ve been looking at job postings. Sometimes I think about just taking one. It’s like murder, and still I can’t help thinking about it.”
“Brie, Brie it’s okay. Of course you’re going to think about it, it’s not the same as actually doing it. I mean, it’s hard to even conceptualize the fact that your getting a job could kill him. We’ll figure this out. You and Grant will figure it out. Have you talked to him?”
She shakes her head, and tries to nonchalantly wipe the tears from her eyes. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t want him to think it’s his fault, you know? And… what if… what if he feels obligated to stay with me now? Maybe that’s the only reason we’ve moved in together.”
“Brie… I’ve gotten to know Grant better since the party and I can say pretty confidently that’s not the case,” I see more tears welling up around the corners of her eyes and I feel a little helpless. I remember all the times Brie tried to talk me down whenever I would run away from my parents’ house; I appreciate now the sheer amount of patience she must have had with me, “I know it doesn’t mean much coming from me. I’m your friend, and you think I’m going to say what you want to hear, right? Well fuck that Brie, we’ve always been better than that. The fact is that you need to say this to Grant – all of it – and listen to what he has to say. Tell him what you’re afraid of. Tell him what you need.”
“Yeah but how do I know he’s telling the truth? How do I know he’s not just trying to make me feel better?” Her voice jumps an octave with panic and frustration.
I don’t know if there’s a good answer to her question, so I say the only thing I can think of, the only thing that’s gotten me through years of paralyzing self-doubt: “You don’t. I’m sorry but you don’t know. That’s what having a relationship is about. Vulnerability. It’s the risk you take whenever you rely on someone. In the end, you have to make a choice. Whether you trust him or not. It’s up to you, Brie. But you have to at least give him the chance to be honest.”
She nods quickly through the tears and I reach across the table and take her hand. She squeezes my hand tight in return and the sensation is bittersweet. I feel strong, knowing that I have helped her by listening today, but I also feel entirely useless. I know well that when she is faced with the biggest decisions, she must make them on her own. We are always alone within ourselves, trapped in our minds and skin, and nothing I can do will change that for her.
When I make it back to the apartment, I present my offering – a triple chocolate brownie – to Wynn and start press her about the book. She sets the white paper bag down on the couch beside her and looks at me. My gravity shifts, pulling my heart down into my stomach. I’ve seen this look before. Pity. What’s wrong? What could have changed while I wasn’t looking?
“Selene… I’ve met someone,” her voice sounds strained, and I can tell the words are difficult for her to say.
“Oh,” I say stupidly. It isn’t what I expected. Wynn’s always been very open about being disinterested in sex, and she’s never had much more than a passing interest in romantic relationships.
“She’s… she’s like me,” she says, and her shyness about it unsettles me. She’s never been timid about anything with me before. Then again, she’s never kept secrets from me before. She continues, gaining confidence as she speaks, “We… like spending time together. But it’s different than with my friends. There’s a closeness to it, but it’s a content sort of feeling. There’s no expectations from either of us. Just… just being near each other is enough. I’m not sure there’s a word for it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” I ask, trying not to sound hurt and failing epically.
“I… I’m not sure,” she answers, and I can tell she is hurting too. I know what it’s like to hurt someone you care about, the kind of guilt it brings, so I can imagine what she’s feeling right now, “I don’t really understand it myself I guess. And I felt… sort of… guilty. Like maybe I was betraying you somehow?”
Funny, I think, because that’s sort of what it feels like. A betrayal. I’m thoroughly aware of how stupid I’m being. How petty and selfish. What did I think was going to happen if I met someone for Christ’s sake? And even if this isn’t exactly a romantic relationship, it’s completely fair that she find someone who would want to share that exclusively.
“I understand, but you don’t have to worry about that,” I force a smile, “I’m happy for you Wynn.”
“Really?” she asks, and the desperation on her face makes me really mean it. This woman deserves every ounce of happiness she finds.
“This is really hard for me, Selene, and I don’t want to hurt you. It’s just an idea right now anyway, it doesn’t have to happen right away…”
“What?” I ask, as the feeling of dread grips my heart again.
“Well… we wanted to try moving in together.”
“Oh. How soon? I mean it’s fine and everything, I was just wondering…” I’m juggling my thoughts, trying not to let anything slip that might let her realize how difficult this is for me to accept right now.
“Well… we still have to find a place,” she says before quickly adding, “And I want to make sure you’re set up too, of course!”
“We can look for places together,” I suggest, and the idea is actually somewhat appealing. Or I hope it will be, once I’ve had time to actually come to terms with the fact that she’s leaving me.
Wynn loves the idea so much that she insists on pooling snacks onto the couch, along with our laptops, and searching right away. She leans against me as she scrolls through pages of apartments, her arm pressed tightly against mine. I’ve never really been conscious of her physically before, but now I can’t focus on anything but her skin against mine.
At first, I think maybe I feel some kind of attraction for her. Something that has gone unnoticed until now. I consider leaning over and kissing her, but I don’t feel any building excitement as I imagine touching my lips to hers. I focus more on the sensation of being close to her, the warmth of her body against mine, the familiar timbre of her voice as she tells me about this woman, apparently named Natalia, that I’ve yet to meet. An idea slowly coalesces into one word – comfort.
So much more than our apartment together, over the past few years Wynn has become my home. It shouldn’t surprise me really; I’ve hardly seen my family since moving away to university and aside from Brie and a few acquaintances, Wynn has been the only support I have.
“Selene, are you okay?” I hear her ask suddenly. I’ve apparently been staring at her this entire time while she was gushing about Natalia and pointing out apartments.
“I love you,” I blurt out dazedly.
Her eyes grow wide and I can tell I’ve just said something incredibly vague and uncomfortable. I’m so worked up and tense that I burst out laughing. As tears stream down my face I’m pretty sure she thinks I’ve lost it.
“I’m sorry,” I say, panting from exertion, “this has been a very emotional day for me. Your reaction put me over the edge. But I mean it, Wynn. Since my dad’s been out of my life and I hardly ever see my mom, you’re the only family I have. I really want you to be happy, but I’m going to miss the shit out of you.”
She pounces on my unexpectedly and hugs me tight, knocking me back onto the couch. “You’re my family too, you idiot, and if you think I’m not going to see you all the time then you’re dumber than I thought.”
I can feel her tears wet against my forehead that’s being simultaneously gouged by her sharp cheekbones. I’m still terrified of being left alone and guilty that I’ve been keeping my own secrets from her, but I’m happy I’ve at least told her the truth about how I feel.
A lump in my jeans pocket presses into my hip and I remember the protection stone from Yagher, left there from last night. I reach my hand into my pocket and feel its cool surface against my finger tips. I smile to myself, as Wynn returns to her computer screen, and I’m silently thankful for being surrounded by so many people who care about me.