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frowny x freckly // deeply troubled flannel x the sun's sweet sugar // wreo

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bottleneck
(@bottleneck)
Joined: 6 years ago
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“Sayed, you asked for it next week, not today. So you’ll get it next week. That's what Joe said on Monday, I'm just -- you go and change these deadlines on me and I just can't keep up. I can't do it.”

He leaned back in his chair, a huff of air pushed through his teeth in a poorly concealed demonstration of frustration. He was staring into his computer monitor, where a pixelated image of another man looked back at him.

“Well yeah, our plans changed. We lost the bid on the Venice Beach condo, so the Seaside property is getting priority. We needed those plans like, yesterday. Our clients are coming into the office tomorrow to take a look at what we have for them and we can’t screw around on this one. She’s a real … Real Housewives of Beverly Hills type. If you know what I mean. Joe said he emailed you about it. Did he not?” 

Hidden beneath his desk, his left hand was shaking. He felt it up to his elbow, deep slices of pain cutting through to the bone. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. His focus shifted behind the monitor, to the floor-to-ceiling windows of his home office. He could see the ocean, the reason he bought the place sight unseen. It made up for him not being able to get out to the beach as much as he would like. Kind of. 

He looked back at Sayed, his right hand gripping at his left forearm in his attempt to stop the tremors. 

“If Joe actually did email me, do you think we would be having this conversation now? Because I can tell you, as much as I love having your disembodied head magically appear on my computer screen like the Wizard of fucking Oz, it’s a bit of a pain in the —” 

“Theo. Jesus.” Exasperation. A quick, stuttered sigh of his own. Behind Sayed, the office was bustling. A bright, optimistic and distinctly Californian sun glared against the office tower’s windows. Despite the unpleasantness of the conversation, Theo couldn’t help but liking Sayed’s accent. He’d clearly gone to an English boarding school while growing up in India.

“I get that you have your issues, but work with me here, yeah? Joe and I are doing our best on our end, so can you show us some flexibility and be a team player?” 

Issues. He smiled.

“I’ll try for tomorrow.”

He hit the big red hang-up button on his desktop before Sayed could respond, and his the Skype window disappeared. His home was suddenly quiet, save for the whispering sound of the wind blowing through the dense thicket of black oaks and cedars surrounding his property. It was like living in a tree house, he used to think. Now he just felt isolated. The man up on the mountain, connected to the rest of the world only through Google Fiber. Theo shut his eyes, dug his palms into his eye sockets. He wanted to curse, he wanted to scream. But mostly, he just wanted to go back to sleep. 

He didn’t want to work. The thought of spending his evening staring at his drafting software while his hand had him twitching like a fucking junkie made him want to break something. Or drink something.

He wanted to go.

He stood up decisively, though rather slowly. His right hand gripped the arm of the desk chair a little too forcefully, a little too hard. It took him more effort to stand than one might expect for a 29 year old, but his shaking left hand, held close to his body, betrayed his somewhat more serious medical issues. Propped up against the desk was a cane, which he took in his right hand. He’d laughed when he’d first got it three years ago, impulsively ordered off Amazon and appearing at his door only a few days later. 

He still couldn’t feel his feet. It felt like he had blocks of ice tied to his ankles with shoelace. 

Huh.

He made his way to his bathroom, slowly, cane tapping jarringly against the whitewashed hardwood floors. Pulling a keychain from his jeans pocket, he unlocked the medicine cabinet. One anti-convulsant, dry swallowed. One muscle relaxant, dry swallowed, with only some difficulty. He stiffly unscrewed the top off the orange tube containing his Valium, and peered into the container skeptically. Either he was popping these like tic tacs or Michael was stealing from him again. He shook out two of the pills, cracked them between his molars and chewed, and shut the cabinet door. 

His face greeted him as soon as he closed the cabinet, the mirrored reflection showing him what he didn’t really want to see. He would have thought he looked like shit, with his messy, unshowered hair, the no-longer chic auburn scruff lining his jaw, and in particular, the suddenness in the way his angular shoulders seemed to droop. But, to be optimistic as Dr. Burnham told him to be, the shadows beneath his eyes really made the blue of his irises pop, and the gauntness of his face really did his cheekbones a favour or two. 

It wasn’t all bad. 

He tried calling Michael, but he didn’t pick up. The disadvantages of dating (fucking?) someone ten years your junior was that voicemail didn’t seem to be in vogue anymore. He had trouble texting, and the voice-to-text function on his iPhone always screwed up one word or another to the point where he felt like a grandmother trying to use Facebook. 

He checked on his cats, which were really just wild, feral things he liked to feed in his backyard. And eventually, Michael called him back. He was busy working on a school project, that he’d be staying in late with his school friends. So, that evening found him at the church down the street from his house. He wasn’t religious or anything close to it, he just had a fondness for the depression support group that met there. He didn’t think he was depressed, not really, but he liked listening to their stories, he liked people opening up and being vulnerable and exposing their raw fleshy insides. It was like poking at an open wound. And he liked not saying a word. It made him feel good that he wasn’t the only person suffering. The only person who looked fit and young, but was really broken on the inside. The only person who felt like shit all the time. 

The slow, twenty minute walk down the side of the unlit road into town was tiring, but his doctors told him exercise was good for him. It prevented relapses, and ultimately his inevitable and untimely demise. It made him think of his mother back home telling him exercise was a cure-all, like when he complained of a headache, or a lower backache. Or the entire left side of his body going numb. 

The church itself was a simple thing, plywood and donated pews. The basement was a gymnasium; tonight, set up with twenty or so chairs. The MS group was clearly less in demand, situated in a side room with no more than five chairs at a time. Here in the basement, the floors creaked and the coffee was stale and there were donuts. And Greg, the group leader, always made everyone introduce themselves. 

The Valium made everything good, as it always did. His hands were steady. He didn’t stumble, or worse, fall right the fuck over. He held a styrofoam cup of coffee and didn’t worry about dropping it, and smiled at the people he knew, the people he didn’t. He stuck his stick-on name tag to his pullover sweater, the navy one with the loose knit that pulled out thick woollen threads if he wasn’t careful. He had a grey collared button up underneath that only had the top two buttons done up. 

Greg came in. He was a big old man with a pony tail, whose chair creaked when he sat down in it.

“I’d like to start tonight’s meeting with asking, how are you all doing today? I’ll remind everyone present that you can decline to speak, but we invite everybody to.”

Theo sat back in his fold-out chair, totally buzzed and totally comfortable. 

 


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bigwig
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“You ready?” 

Robin's silhouette loomed in the doorway, one hand on hip, the other swinging her car keys. As she stepped into the room, her features coming in to focus, Wren tried to hide his panic. He could feel the sharp sting of her stare even through her reflective sunglasses. He still wasn't sure how she did that. Maybe it was some freaky twin thing. Or maybe he was just projecting because he didn't want to voice the real reason he suddenly felt so uncomfortable.

“No… yeah… I mean. I forgot. Give me a sec.”

He shut the lid of his laptop. Stood up. Tried to act like he believed in his boldfaced lie, like there was a chance that Robin had bought it. They both knew that the only time he holed up in the back room of his parents' convenience store was when he was trying to hide. He told them it was because it was quiet, and he needed quiet to get their work done, but the real reason was because it was the only place people seemed to leave him alone.

At home, his mom was always fussing over him, asking him if he was hungry, how he was feeling, whether he needed anything. His dad didn't hover, at least, but he was always trying to talk to him – always asking him his thoughts on the game, or the news, or what needed doing around the store. Even strangers, what felt like half the damn town, stopped him while he was working or on the street to ask him how he was. Their ulterior motive was obvious. He found their pity suffocating.

Robin didn't pity him.

Robin also refused to leave him alone. Instead, she kept trying to get him to do things. Run errands, go for a walk, get coffee with her and Olivia. Things he knew she knew he didn't want to do. And she was so persistent. After a while, he'd been drained of the energy to resist her demands. Only he couldn't let her know that, of course. 

So they played this game, this song-and-dance that happened multiple times almost every day. He could predict the conversation down to the letter, like he had the script open in front of him.

          • WREN

      Actually… can we skip today? I really have to finish this up and it could be a while.

          • ROBIN

      The books can wait. Come on, we're going to be late.

          • WREN

      But I'm only on February, and the accountant will be here in two weeks.

          • ROBIN

      Oh, in that case, sure.

        • WREN

    I really don't--

He stopped mid-sentence. “Wait, really?”

Robin rolled her eyes. “No. This is important. You know what Alison said, so get your ass up and into the car.”

She didn't even bother waiting for him to acknowledge her before stepping back out of the doorway and into the sun. Wren didn't know whether he was glad she'd given him some room to pick up the pieces of his dignity or whether the fact she'd just assumed she'd won the argument annoyed him, even though he'd clearly lost.

He took a few seconds to get ready, an exercise that involved switching off a lamp, shoving the store ledgers back into their ring-pull folder, and remembering to breathe, before following Robin out of the back room. She was already explaining their plans to their mom, who pulled him over and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“Have a fun time, honey,” she said brightly, letting him go as Robin waved goodbye. Like having fun was remotely in the realm of possibility when doing one of Alison's assignments.

Fucking Alison, Wren thought viciously, letting Robin drag him to the car.

He had never thought it possible to resent a single person so much. It wasn't like he thought fondly of anybody at the moment, but Alison was at the very top of his shit list.

He'd been seeing her for five excruciating weeks. (Six if you counted the initial consultation. He counted every second.)

The worst part was he'd tried to keep an open mind to begin with, even though she had come recommended by his parents' pastor. (Pastor Frank had once given Wren a lecture on how he should spend less time with his sister lest he lose sight of his masculinity after he had borrowed one of her t-shirts when they'd been thirteen.) Still, he'd tried to give her a chance, even though when he'd looked at her website he hadn't known whether to concentrate on the whale song midi file playing on every page, or the fact her professional photo had been of her sitting cross-legged in front of a dream-catcher with her eyes closed.

But (as Robin pointed out – several times), she had actual qualifications, and her website said she specialised in depression, and it was only for eight weeks, so who cared if she was a quack?

Wren soon found out that he cared if she was a quack. He cared very much. He spent the majority of the time in their sessions trying to find a comfortable position on her incredibly uncomfortable couch while she asked him questions he didn't know how to answer. They devoted the rest of the time to discussing the tasks she was going to give him for 'homework'.

He used the term loosely. When Alison had first explained that she planned to give him some extracurricular work, he'd actually been kind of excited. The thought of having some kind of concrete thing he could do had been appealing. It felt like a start of something, some ability to take back control. And then Alison had handed him a sheet of yellow paper with his first exercise on it, and his heart had sunk right into his stomach. 

Make a list of ten things you like about yourself!

In the end, Robin had had to help him. He'd turned in a list of ten things Robin liked about him, and Alison hadn't even noticed. She'd just read the list, handed it back to him, and told him to read it whenever he felt bad about himself, as though it was that simple. When he'd gotten home he'd ripped it into pieces.

The rest of the exercises had been in a similar simplistic vein: Make a timetable. Do some breathing exercises. Write down your negative thoughts and throw them away. All tiny acts of self-help bullshit that were supposed to heal him, but just reminded him of how fucked up he'd become. And now she was making him go to this thing, this support group meeting, because clearly wallowing in self-pity on his own wasn't good enough. Not only that, but she'd just had to mention it to Robin as well.

“You know this is going to be a waste of time,” he grumbled, buckling himself in. The seatbelt felt like a straitjacket. Robin's car was too small for him even with the seat pushed all the way back and the window rolled all the way down.

“Sure,” she said, twisting around to check her blind spot. “Maybe. But we're doing it anyway. You need some new friends.”

“I have friends.” They were hours away, and he hadn't spoken to anyone except Scotty in weeks, but he still got the blanket Facebook invites to events he couldn't (and honestly, no longer wanted to) attend.

Robin glanced at him. “New friends.”

He didn't have the energy or motivation to argue, so he looked out of the window instead, leaning his elbow on the armrest and avoiding his reflection in the side mirror. Christ. He was a mess, in desperate need of a shave, and a shower, and about a hundred years in bed. Before, he'd always been meticulous about his appearance, but now he was wearing the same t-shirt he'd been wearing for the past two days and a pair of jeans his mom had found in the back of a wardrobe somewhere. Fuck knew how old they were, but they were probably his dad's, a bit too short on the legs and too wide on the waist.

What was it like to feel human? He couldn't remember any more.

Evidently deciding to grant him a reprieve, Robin leaned over and switched on the radio, catching some cheerful, grating pop song halfway through its chorus. She switched it over to NPR, where a man with a monotone voice seemed to be telling some kind of story about buying a boat. Wren wasn't really listening, too busy watching the houses go past, the trees in the distance, the last of the summer tourists enjoying themselves before their return to their busy lives. He could sense Robin sneaking looks at him every now and then, as though she was waiting for him to say something, but he had nothing to say. (Finally, a fight where he had the advantage.)

She was the one to break the silence as they pulled into the church car park. “Here's our stop. Shout if you see a space.”

“You don't need to park,” he said, confused. “You can just drop me off at the front. I can walk myself in.”

“I don't doubt that,” she said. “But I'm coming with you.” And then, because she was a mind reader: “Don't argue.”

They had a quick argument anyway, which Robin won, of course, and ten minutes later she had her arm firmly looped through his as they entered the basement. The hall was already pretty full when they got there and he didn't know where to look. This was excruciating. He felt like a teenager again, fourteen or fifteen, old enough to want independence but young enough for Mom to insist on chaperoning him everywhere. But Robin either didn't notice or didn't care as she tugged him towards the table with the name tags to check them in. While she struck up conversation with the volunteer who checked them in, Wren grabbed a doughnut (not because he was hungry, but for something to do) and claimed a couple of seats as far away from the main chair that he could manage without actually sitting close enough to anyone else to be the target of a conversation. Robin joined him, her name tag now on. She sat to his left and handed him his own.

He'd just finished sticking it on when the guy running the meeting started talking, inviting people to start speaking, just like that, with minimal preamble. He glanced around the room, waiting for somebody to take up the invitation. He only noticed Robin had found his hand when she squeezed it.

The squeeze contained a suggestion.

He shook his head. Imperceptible to all but his twin.

A silent battle ensued.

You can't make me talk.

She didn't need to. She raised her hand, cleared her throat and talked instead.

“Hey, everyone. Thanks for letting us sit in today. I just wanted to introduce myself. I'm Robin, and this is my brother, Wren.” She flashed a quick, embarrassed smile. “Our parents are nature lovers.”

Wren wondered what the chances of a sudden sinkhole appearing right below his chair were, or what he'd have to sacrifice, and to whom, to get it to happen. Robin carried on.

“I think I'm doing okay, today, actually. Thank you for asking. The past few months have been a kind of hard, but I'm mostly here for support.” She nudged Wren with her elbow. “Wren's the one with the real insight.”

His mouth felt like it was full of molasses. After a few moments of painful, awkward silence, he managed to mumble, “I'm fine.”

Not for the first time that week, he wanted to die.

 

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bottleneck
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Joined: 6 years ago
Posts: 86
Topic starter  
He liked these meetings. The people were nice, and everybody spoke in monotones and always one at a time. He was pretty sure they were the only people who still liked him since he’d he’d moved here, besides Michael (sometimes) and his personal support worker, who he was tipping on fairly dubious grounds (he’d begun when she’d first started coming around, and found out too late it wasn’t something he was supposed to be doing, but he couldn’t really stop now, could he?). 

His plan had been to become an architect. And it would have been a good plan, if one could really have solid plans at fifteen. He’d gotten his diagnosis four years later while attending MIT. After spending his high school years studying, enduring intensive tutoring, and torturing himself with extra curriculars he hated (hello, cello!), he’d dropped out in his second year of undergrad with the sincere intention to re-attend in the winter. But that never happened, as these things often went. He got a community college diploma in architectural drafting instead, and that, along with some family money, paid the bills. 

Occasional double vision, numb extremities, and cognitive impairment really put a stop to any long term plans. 

His cane hung off the back of his folding chair. He’d bought it from an Amazon vendor called fashioncanes.com or something stupid, and it made him look like some kind of asshole hipster, which he sort of liked, in a completely I’m allowed to own this and you aren’tkind of way.

And in every other sense, he hated it. 

People were arriving in earnest at this point, their rubber-soled white leather sneakers squeaking as they pulled their feet across the waxed gymnasium floor. He felt like a rain cloud, warm and wet and airborne, pushed this way and that by the gentle caress of the wind. His body was humming and his left arm was loosening up to the point where he could move it around. He used used the added mobility to hold the coffee cup with both hands and raise it to his lips

Greg was going through his standard spiel. But this time, it was shorter, maybe because he’d done it so many times and everybody present were mostly regulars. It was mostly all older guys since there was a women’s only group that met the night before. He knew most of them by name: Allen, Dick, Roger, Chet, and, well … He knew the rest of them, but couldn’t pull the names. Except for Tom. Who wasn’t actually here today.

Oh. 

Tom always spoke first. He’d been medicated since the late 70s so he was a rambler. But he wasn’t here today. 

There was a silence, until the woman he'd never seen before began speaking with the confidence of somebody who was here for support. And she introduced herself in such a self-deprecating way that made it seem like a totally rehearsed joke, one they’d been telling their friends since grade school whenever introducing themselves. Our parents are nature lovers. Theo laughed, way too loudly, in a way where he had expected to harmonize with the sensible and polite chuckle that would bubble up from everyone else in the room. Robin and Wren???

But nobody else laughed. Greg stared at him, a warning on his lips. Safe space, safe space, safe space.

He rubbed a hand down the left side of his face. 

“Hi, Robin.” Came a chorus of voices, and the group moved past his outburst with practiced ease. 

They would have been sweet, the two of them. The girl and the guy, who was obviously her brother. The same dark hair, the same long, leggy limbs. One smiling, like she was the most popular girl in school who was thrilled to be recognized outside her natural habitat. The other trying to shrink away, painfully uncomfortable with the attention. She’d dragged him here, clearly. 

“Hi, Wren.”

“Thank you for sharing, and for coming. Truly.” Greg smiled his welcoming, pothead hippy kind of smile, even though Wren hadn't shared shit, and gestured widely to Theo to maintain the momentum, who was hunched over a bit, his left arm held close to his body out of habit. He tried to straighten up.

“Hello, I’m Theo. I’m not named after a bird but my mother had a thing for Teddy Roosevelt, maybe we’re related?” 

No laughter either. Maybe a cough from somewhere in the room. HIs voice was coming out the hoarse monotone that came with too many benzos. His jokes didn’t make any sense. Time to stop, Theo. Pull yourself together. Inhale, exhale.

“My day was okay, besides a coworker misunderstanding depression. Told me to go home and catch up on my sleep. Business as usual, right fellas?” A few nods, some smiles. It was a lie, but only kind of. Allen clapped him on the back.

And so on it went. He sat back in his chair, twisting a bit to get comfortable as they went around the circle. Allen was doing better, his wife was attending the families with depression support group. Good. Dick had spoken to his mother for the first time in five years. More good news. Chet was on a new medication and was doing well. Etcetera, etcetera. 

“It’s good to see you all back, and might I extend another warm welcome to the new faces. As I said, My name is Greg, and it’s so good to have you here. We’ll jump right into it and move on to our ice breaker activity next.” Greg stood, picking up the index cards from the foldout table and a handful of ballpoint pens. He walked around the circle, passing out a card and pen to everybody present. Theo caught a blast of patchouli as Greg walked by him. 

“I’ll remind everybody to stick to our five basic principles during the exercise. Be present, pay attention, speak your truth, practice openness, and most importantly, help us create a safe environment.” He jotted this down on the whiteboard at the top of the circle of chairs in cherry red dry erase marker. 

“The purpose of this exercise is to have your fears heard and understood by the group. I want to give you all a chance to feel what it’s like to open up about something personal, and I also want you to feel what it’s like to be heard and valued without judgment. I want everybody to complete this sentence.” 

In red, below the five principles, he wrote: 

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I worry about is …. 

Greg paused, looked around the room, and started his slow, pacing walk that made the floor boards creek, gesticulating emphatically with his big hands held out wide. Theo could imagine anybody else practicing this deliberate way of addressing a crowd in their room in front of a mirror, but he knew it was just the way Greg was. 

“Take one or two minutes, write down your fear, fold the card and place it in the hat. No names or any identifying comments, please.” Greg indicated at the baseball cap placed on the table. 

“We’ll each draw one out after we have all the contribution, and read them aloud to the group. When it's your turn, try to elaborate on what you think the person is feeling, or how it makes you feel, while keeping in mind our 5 basic principles.” 

Theo took his card, pursed his lips and thought. He had so many fears, none of which anybody here could relate to. He listed them in his head numbly, behind his thick, comfy Valium cushion, and went with the first thing that came to mind that the people here would be able to comment on. He was a people pleaser, sometimes. 

When I wake up in the morning, my first worry is getting out of bed.

It sounded like he was shitting on Greg’s process, but he really wasn’t. Theo frowned, paused and wondered if he sounded sincere, or just like an asshole, and then decided he didn't know what the difference was. He then folded the index card in half, held it deftly between two fingers and extended his hand. Greg caught his eye and came over, taking the index card and dropping it in the hat. Theo smiled appreciatively, a half quirk at the corner of his mouth.

“Thanks, Greg.”

 

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bigwig
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Wren didn't want to be here. He'd only come because of Robin. She hadn't said as much, but he knew she'd made him come because she thought he would have found it too challenging to go on his own. That had become her M.O. of late – making him do things he didn't want to even though she thought they would be good for him.

She didn't understand, though. It wasn't about hard work, or because he was scared to talk to people. Christ, a few months ago he'd had a demanding job, one he'd been good at, that had involved both of those things. Even in the context of his depression, he'd never shied away from difficult necessities. Talking to his doctor had been difficult, but he'd still done that. And quitting his job had been the hardest thing he'd ever had to do, but he'd been brave enough to admit defeat.

This was different. This was different even to the Alison situation, which he also had never wanted to happen, and definitely didn't think was helping. But at least he felt welcome in Alison's office. 

Here, it had been obvious the second the session had started that this had been a huge mistake. Even with his shoulders hunched up to his ears and his eyes fixed on his shoes, he could feel the circle's eyes on them. On him. Staring, judging. The laugh at Robin's introduction had said it all. They didn't belong.

He was grateful as the group moved on, even though the next guy to speak had to stick a jab at them in there as well. Robin smiled at him (Theo?), encouraging and oblivious, but Wren just sunk lower in his seat. He looked up, at least, tried to seem attentive as he listened to each member of the group give their introductions. He was never going to remember any of these names (though he guessed that was what the name tags were for). Each two-sentence summary drove his sense of isolation home. Nobody here let slip that they'd spent sixteen hours in bed because they didn't have any energy to get out, or that they'd lost all motivation to shower, or they'd deliberately decided not to brush their teeth that morning to take back some semblance of control.

Maybe nobody was saying any of this because it was some unspoken truth they knew they shared, but if that truth was going to remain unspoken then he didn't have much else to say. He didn't want to talk to these people. He didn't want their pity or commiserations. The fact that they shared this one thing in common did not mean they shared anything else. And frankly, whatever Robin said, this was the worst place to make friends.

Who would want to be friends with him?

As the last person finished up their introduction-slash-summary, Wren straightened up a little, still wary (God, what next?) but allowing himself a little optimism (maybe they could leave now?). The last time he did that, because the next words out of Greg's mouth filled his stomach with dread.

Ice breaker.

Like they were at some party. Fuck, he hated ice breakers even when they were supposed to be fun. Folding his arms across his chest, he slumped back into his chair. He knew he probably looked like an ungrateful child, but actually having to talk to people hadn't factored into even his worst-case plans for the afternoon. He'd been banking on being able to just listen to other people talk about their problems, not having to interact with anyone, however indirectly.

Still, he accepted his card mutely, letting Robin thank Greg for the both of them. He wondered if he could get Robin to participate for him too. He watched as their benevolent leader wrote his rules out on the whiteboard and tried hard not to frown, even though half of them didn't make much sense to him. Be present? How was that different to 'pay attention'? He glanced at Robin to see if she was as perplexed as he was, but she was nodding along. Asking further clarification would have involved accelerating the inevitability of having to talk to someone, so he remained quiet, struggling to remain impassive as Greg began to explain the exercise.

The further along he got, the less Wren liked the sound of this. It sounded like one of Alison's exercises, new-age hippie crap he couldn't see the point of. At least Alison's exercises were optional. Hadn't Greg realised opening up was the last thing he wanted to do?

And then out came the prompt, and with it came that familiar feeling of dread.

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I worry about is…

Robin was already scribbling away. He could guess what she was writing. That my family will never be the same again. That I'm wasting my life taking care of somebody who doesn't appreciate it. That my sad sack brother will never get better and I'll have to look after him forever.

His own card remained blank, a glaring white abyss threatening to suck him in. He wished he knew what to write for himself. He wasn't sure he had anything he could reasonably class as a concern when all his thoughts were contradictions. It was like he worried about everything and nothing at once. He worried about small things, like whether his subletter was taking care of his apartment, but at the same time he actively avoided checking in with him. Medium things too, such as agonising about whether he was going to have to live out of his childhood bedroom forever, while not caring if he stayed in bed all day. And then there were the big ones, like the fact his suicidal thoughts had steadily become more frequent, while simultaneously wishing he could just work up the guts to act on them. He wasn't sure he was ready to voice that particular one yet.

He closed his eyes, tried to think. His leg had started shaking at some point, and he forced himself to stop it, planting his foot down firmly on the floor.

After the incident, when he'd gone to see his doctor about this for the first time, he'd made a promise to himself to try everything that might help him with his recovery at least once, in good faith, just in case. At the time he hadn't realised how hard that would be, but he had tried his best to honour it. (Hence why he hadn't given up on Alison yet.) Part of it was pure logic – these things must work for somebody – but part of it was that sticking to his plan made him feel a little better about himself.

But at the same time he wasn't worried about getting better. If he was sticking to his plan, if he was doing everything he could, it meant he was in control and on the road to recovery.

It was the other stuff that really scared him.

He opened his eyes again and looked down at his card. And then he uncapped his pen and wrote: When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I worry about is they'll never see me the same way again.

Before he could lose his nerve he folded his card in half, pressing the crease down out of habit. Sitting up, he rolled his shoulders a couple of times before starting to stand up properly. He got halfway out of his seat before Greg spotted him and came over with the hat. Greg smiled at him, encouraging, and before he knew it, his card had joined the others.

It would have felt like a weight off his shoulders if he didn't have such an uneasy feeling about the whole thing.

He looked over at Robin, who must have dropped hers in while he'd still been thinking.

“What did you write?” he asked.

She just smiled at him. “You'll have to wait and see.”

He frowned, but the sound of somebody clearing their throat interrupted his train of thought. Greg. His card must have been the last one in. He guessed it was fitting that Greg turned to him and held the hat out with a smile.

“Would you like to start us off, Wren?”

Even though it had been phrased as a question, Wren had a feeling it would have been impolite to refuse. Maybe it was better to get it over with. 

“Sure,” he said, swallowing. Standing up the whole way this time, he leant over and reached into the hat, taking a couple of seconds to fish around before making his choice.

It felt disrespectful to sit back down, so he stayed on his feet as he unfolded it. For a moment he was worried he'd picked his own, or worse, Robin's, but the script was (thankfully) unfamiliar. 

He skimmed over the writing, once, and then once again. The words didn't make much sense to him. He thought he might have misread, but he didn't see what else it could say.

“Uh… okay,” he said. “'When I wake up in the morning, my first worry is getting out of bed'.”

He paused. Greg nodded at him, a silent go on, even though he didn't think he'd paused long enough to warrant encouragement. (It annoyed him.)

“I think… maybe the person who wrote this meant it metaphorically? Like maybe they're worried about what might happen if they get out of bed, because if they get out of bed something bad will happen. Almost like they're...” One of Alison's buzzwords popped into his head. “Catastrophizing,” he supplied. And then, thinking about his love/hate relationship with his own bed, he added, “Or maybe… maybe they're worried about the actual, physical process of getting out of bed. Worried they won't make it out at all. I guess I can relate to that.”

Looking up from the card, he glanced around the group, although he didn't know what he was looking for. An indication he'd been correct, he guessed, although he knew that, logically, this was one of those no-wrong-answers kind of thing. When his eyes landed on Greg, he just smiled at him again, only reassurance this time, so Wren figured he'd done enough.

As he sat back down again, Robin nudged him with her elbow and flashed him a quick thumbs up. He ignored her, almost hating the fact he hadn't found that as bad as he'd thought it would be.


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On paper, Theo’s decision to move to Oregon had been primarily to further his career. He’d been offered a better paying job on the West Coast, several steps up from what he’d had in Boston. He could work from home most of the time, besides the odd site visit when he was able. AI Architects was a company based in LA, but they worked on high end residences all the way up the Pacific Coast, so he’d moved to a more temperate and far less populated state than California. Oregon was idyllic and calm and easy going. It worked out for the most part. And most of the time he believed his story about his career ambitions, and it was what he’d told his parents when he’d decided to move away.

It was occasionally difficult being on his own, but in the long run, it was without a doubt better for everyone. 

In the basement of the church, he sat back in his chair, trying to get comfortable. His neck was bugging him. Greg was shuffling through the contributions, and when finally satisfied with the number of participants he called up one of the newcomers to start the group off. Theo watched Wren hesitate, before standing. His reluctance was palpable, clearly disinclined to participate but doing so anyway. Theo watched the way his sister didn’t take her eyes off him, carefully and practically on her toes, like he might trip on his way to the old hat on the table and shatter into a million pieces. Ready to jump in and pull him back up should he fall.

Then Wren was speaking, and Theo was listening. Because the words Wren was reading were the words he’d written. Somehow the man standing was able to decipher what Theo had thoughtlessly jotted down in his cramped, shaky handwriting. Not that it was a careless thought, just that his chosen fear was something forever in the back of his mind. It hadn’t taken much to come up with. A lingering presence that he wasn’t ever able to shake. And it was, he thought rather unpleasantly, for the reasons this guy who just walked in had outlined so easily. 

He wasn’t really depressed, he didn’t think. But he was sad some days, obviously. Who wouldn’t be? He used to be active. In school, he’d loved to sail, he loved lacrosse and rugby. Back in Boston he’d been a social kid. Smart, outgoing, driven. Cocky, well-connected, well-bred. He had friends, he had sex, he had money, and he had a bright, ridiculously fun future ahead of him.

Today, he had twenty-five different kinds of medication taking up rapidly shrinking real estate in his medicine cabinet. He had no energy. Walking to this rinky-dink church in the middle of nowhere had exhausted him more than he would ever admit. 

He had a bench in his shower. A wheelchair by the front door. 

And one day, he probably wasn’t going to be able to get out of bed. And suddenly, he regretted writing down this particular fear because it wasn’t something he liked to think about. 

He swallowed, watching Wren look to Greg for affirmation. He sat back down, his sister giving him a very peppy thumbs up. 

“Theo, how do you feel about going next?” 

He hadn’t realized he was grimacing. A tight, uneven expression screwed up his face. 

“Yeah, of course.” 

Greg came up to him, and Theo reached for the hat, taking the first tightly folded card he could feel brush against his fingertips. He placed it in his lap and unfolded it, holding it with two hands. He read the phrase to himself first, frowning in thought. He didn’t stand as he recited the words on the card, something personal some anonymous body in the room had scribbled out in a moment of weakness, or perhaps strength. 

“When I wake up in the morning,” He paused, again, chewing the rest of the sentence over. His words came out stuttered and unsure. 

“…The first thing I worry about is they'll never see me the same way again.”

Theo halted, biting his lip. Shit. He wished he’d gotten something else, like, the first thing I worry about is not crying in public today. Or shutting out those I love. Something easy. He looked up for help, but the people sitting around him just stared back. Somebody coughed. Greg had that look on his face. Talk through it.

He remembered his second relapse. He’d laid in bed for days before calling 911, as unwilling as he was to call his parents for help. Days later, after a few rounds of anti-biotics and steroids, he was discharged. He still hadn’t been able to walk and and his speech hadn’t come back quite right, his tongue twisting around the words and his lips not co-operating. He was in a wheelchair, one he’d bought for himself anticipation of something like this happening. And he’d been in such pain. 

His mother had come to pick him up from the hospital.

And this strong woman, this terrifying corporate litigator who made grown men shake in their Prada wing tips, began to cry as soon as she saw her son.

He moved to Cannon Beach a few months after that. 

He took a deep breath. Jesus. Pull yourself together.

“I think maybe this person was strong, independent … Determined, even, before their depression. Or something like that. And they wrapped these kind of high-functioning traits around themselves like an identity. And now that it’s been taken away from them they’re not really sure how to behave.”

Theo swallowed, his throat dry. 

“You can work on how you feel. That’s the whole point of recovery, right? But they won’t see you the same, ever. Family, for example. They’ll talk about how well you’re doing when friends and coworkers ask, if they ask. And that’s a big if, because nobody likes talking about depression. But if they do ask, they’ll answer with something about how strong you are, how you’re fighting the good fight. It’ll be a point of pride, when you do seem to be getting better. But every single time a curve ball is thrown at you, they’ll expect you to break down. Because you’re fragile now. You’ve fallen apart and the fault lines won’t ever heal, to them.”

He saw Greg staring at him. He looked back down at the card in his lap. He noticed he’d been twisting it, without realizing it. 

He remembered his ex dumping him. “I never signed on for this.” They’d been together for two and a half years. 

He glanced back up, looking at Greg. 

“I just mean that I can empathize. Doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Greg smiled. A true professional. “Thank you, Theo. For your contribution. Alan, would you like to go next?” 

And so on it went. He hunkered back down into his chair, arms crossed over his chest, legs splaying out indifferently. He wanted a Valium, he could feel himself coming down and he was suddenly uncomfortable. The pills were meant to treat his tremors but he double dosed himself regularly. He was pretty sure his doctor knew. 

Greg went around the circle and the fears drawn were fairly standard. He’d heard them before, or read them online. Some were pretty dark, and one or two were humorous. It was easy to remember why he liked coming to these things. 

Some time later, Greg wheeled out a mid-2000s era television. They were going to watch a Ted Talk on depression and pair up to discuss afterwards. He felt like he was back in elementary school, and the thought was rather comforting. Greg turned the lights out and the group watched in silence. 

And then it was over. 

“Chose a partner, discuss your initial thoughts. You’ll have a few minutes before I start giving you prompts.” 

Theo immediately looked over at Wren. He seemed to sink into himself, like he’d be content with being forgotten. Theo unhooked his cane from the back of his chair and hauled himself up, making his way over to him as the others started doubling up. 

Upon closer examination, Wren looked like shit. No wonder his sister had dragged him here. 

Theo then gave a small smile, a tug at the corner of his mouth. 

“Want to pair up? I got some questions.”

Like, what the hell did catastrophizing mean?


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Wren was kind of thankful that he'd gotten to go first, if only because it meant he didn't have to spend the next however long worrying about when he was going to get called up. Now he could just sit back and listen, fool himself into thinking he hadn't just made an ass of himself in front of everyone, and perhaps by the time they finished going around the circle everybody else would have forgotten too.(And then maybe they could go home?)

He was so preoccupied wondering whether he could afford to spend a little more hard-earned optimism that when the next person to take the stage started speaking he almost couldn't place why their words sounded so familiar. Of course – he'd written them. He stared at the speaker, shifting his attention from his words to his face. It was him, the guy who had made a jab at him and Robin earlier.

Wren didn't know what he had been expecting, exactly, but something in his chest tugged, constricted, almost like having half a panic attack, as the guy – Theo, his name tag said – carried on. He could almost hear Alison's voice in his head: so why do you think you had that response? It wasn't like he'd thought nobody here would understand him. He knew this was maybe the only place where people would almost certainly understand. But he guessed he hadn't been prepared for somebody else to express his thoughts so well.

Fault lines.

One of the first nights after he'd moved back, Robin had dragged him out to a bar to meet some of their old high school friends. He hadn't wanted to go because he hadn't wanted to do anything, but he also hadn't not wanted to go. He'd lost touch with most of his old friends over the years, but only because of distance and life getting in the way. Even before things had gone to shit, keeping in contact with people had been the last thing on his mind, between accelerating his undergrad degree, then law school, then Deloitte. (Besides, between the two of then, Robin had always been the organiser.) So while he hadn't spoken to most of them in years, he still considered them friends.

Sure enough, as Robin had predicted, once they got to the bar and sat down, he'd started to feel a lot more comfortable.

Cannon Beach had a population of less than two thousand. Everybody knew everybody and word travelled fast. So he hadn't been sure how much any of them knew about the circumstances of his return, but he figured they'd hear sooner or later, and these were people he'd known since they'd been toddlers. He hadn't been afraid to talk about it.

Only every time somebody asked him a direct question, Robin had jumped in there before him. Sometimes she'd changed the subject, and other times she'd outright lied. It had been awkward, and it had made the evening tense, and everybody had noticed. When he'd gone to help Suzy carry a round of drinks back to the table, she'd even asked him, point blank, What's up with your sister?

He'd shrugged, pretended he had no idea, but he'd had an idea.

Later, when they'd arrived back home, he'd asked her. “Are you ashamed of me?”

He had expected her to deflect, or worse, confess, but instead she just stared at him. He couldn't forget the look on her face. Betrayed, like he'd said something unforgivable, but also pitying.

“No, Wren,” she'd said. “I was trying to help you.”

Like he needed protection.

He sneaked a glance at his sister. She didn't seem to realise this one was his. As she sat watching Theo, attentive, he couldn't see any sign that she recognised his words, not even once Greg invited somebody else to talk. He hadn't exactly been expecting her to guess, but a part of him had just assumed that she would have known. Sitting back again, his hands clasped in his lap, fidgeting, he tried to concentrate on the next person speaking. As the circle moved on, he found he couldn't identify Robin's worry either. Nobody said anything about brothers, or families, or watching their life stagnate. When they'd been kids, they'd practically been able to finish each other's sentences. But now, he had a feeling like maybe they didn't know each other at all any more.

When Greg rolled the TV out and told them what was next, Wren was kind of relieved. No talking involved, although watching a TED talk did sound a little like Alison homework again. As the lights dimmed, he felt Robin lean over and place her hand on his arm, like a reminder she was still there. The guy in the video started talking, words that sounded like nonsense to begin with, some poem, talk about metaphors, anecdotes about tough times and high-flying friends.

But some of the words, some of the sentiments rang true. And by the time the video ended and the lights came back on, that same uncomfortable feeling he'd had when Theo had tried to dissect his worry had come back.

Robin must have taken her hand away at some point during the talk, because she put it back on his arm and squeezed gently. Something about his expression must have worried her. She asked, “Are you OK?”

“I… yeah,” he said. “I'm fine.” He gave her a small smile, and was about to thank her when Greg told them to get into pairs. Oh, great. But at least time he would only have to speak to Robin.

Except she was standing up. He stared at her. “Where are you going?”

“To find a partner,” she said. “Don't worry, you'll be fine.”

Wren was about to protest when somebody else chipped in. The guy from earlier—Theo, leaning on a cane. Asking if they could partner up.

“See?” said Robin, slapping his shoulder. And then, to Theo: “He'd love to.”

She was gone before Wren could even think about protesting. So he turned back to Theo, gestured to his sister's vacant chair.

“Sure. You may as well sit down,” he said. Not sure what else to say, he added, “I'm Wren. Uh… obviously. And you're... Theo?"

He swallowed. Decided to stop before he made an even bigger idiot of himself. "You said you had… questions? For me?”

He couldn't think what on earth anyone would want to ask him, but so long as it wasn't 'hey, did you write that thing I read out' he thought he might be able to handle it.


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bottleneck
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Theo watched the mostly verbal exchange between the two siblings, amused. It was more obvious now that they were related. They looked so alike, but so different. Kind of like his own siblings. He wondered if they’d been friends before this, if there ever was a ‘before’ when it came to one’s mental health crisis. He wondered if they were still friends. 

He sunk into her abandoned chair when Robin left, gripping the back of the seat a little too hard. He doubted very much Wren would love to to pair up with him, but didn’t voice this thought. Nor did he really care. A short nod as Wren confirmed his name, staring at his feet, tapping the sticker affixed over his heart with his index finger. “Yep, Theo.”

He would have added thanks for the warm invite, but he thought Wren may have bolted if he had. 

He rested his cane between his feet, handle propped up on his stomach. He somehow still managed to be a big snob when it came to his clothes. HIs job did pay him quite a bit (despite his obvious flippancy when it came to deadlines) and he still dressed like the east coaster prepschool dipshit his parents had raised him to be. He was all wool sweaters, collared button ups, leather shoes, and big faced watches. The summer was boat shoes and chinos and pretty terrible espadrilles. Nowadays his edges were a little worn, however. Messy hair with the slight curl, 3 day scruff carpeting his jaw. The collar of his sweater was askew and the toe of one of his expensive leather shoes was scuffed from one of his stumbles. 

Theo slouched a bit, sinking into the seat and stretching his legs. Loose and unhinged, compared to Wren’s clenched uptightness. 

“Sorry for laughing, before. I thought it was supposed to be funny. I didn’t mean to be mean.”

If he was just burrowing further into the hole he’d made for himself, he didn’t notice. Somewhere along the line since being diagnosed he’d lost the ability (or desire) to dance around other people’s insecurities. The nuances in behaviour had quickly turned into information overload and ever since he’d been better off not trying. But he hoped Greg heard his apology. Maybe it would delay what he felt was his inevitable ejection from the group. 

He located the big man in question, light blue irises following Greg as he walked around the room. The others were speaking softly, like they didn’t want the big lumbering hippy conspicuously tiptoeing about eavesdropping on their conversations. Theo didn’t want to talk about the clip they’d watched. It had been mostly in one ear out the other for him, the guy entertaining to listen to but pretty much impossible to derive further personal meaning from. His facial expressions had also been strangely distracting (and, totally mesmerizing, in a way). And with the lights shut off he’d nearly fallen asleep in his seat, and was now inappropriately drowsy. 

He rubbed at an eye socket with the heel of his palm. Time to wake up. 

This was why he liked keeping Michael around. He was young and uncomplicated. Healthy, smart enough, and didn’t like to delve too deeply into the way people felt and why they did the things they did. He liked having fun. He liked laughing. But there was a reason he came to these meetings. 

“You got my card, you know.” Theo said, finally. He looked down, and held in Wren’s hand was the index card, twisted and worried in a similar manner to his own. He spotted his handwriting in blue, all twisted up and worn out. 

So much for remaining anonymous. He looked away again, distracted, keeping an eye on Greg. He was safely on the other side of the room.

Theo looked back at his partner, staring until Wren made eye contact with him. 

“You said you could relate. Did you mean it?”

He tried to keep the edge out of his voice. A kind of raw openness he only really felt with strangers when he allowed himself this kind of vulnerability (the Valium working its way through his system certainly helped). 

It would make me feel better if you did. And that was the point of recovery, wasn’t it? To feel better.


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Wren felt -- well, not strangely nervous, because he seemed to live in a constant state of nerves, but definitely alarm-bells-ringing uneasy as he watched Theo sit down. It happened sometimes. He'd read somewhere that when he felt this way, he should try to examine the source of his feelings. This time he didn't have to think too hard. It was pretty obvious that this stranger had some kind of ulterior motive, but he couldn't figure out what it was. It was kind of like getting an unexpected visitor at the door. That was logical, right? That was normal?

His inner Alison sounded off again. Why do you think you're so quick to assume negative intent? Is this really a comparable situation? She was probably right. It was always annoying when she was right.

He chewed the inside of his cheek, taking a moment to size Theo up. The fact he looked so put together made it worse, almost. When he'd moved back from New York, Wren had had to box all of his stuff up to put into storage, which had included the vast majority of his wardrobe. He hadn't trusted himself to make the drive on his own, and had felt too much of a burden already to ask Robin or one of his parents to come collect him, so a flight had been the only option left. But it meant the only things he had been able to bring with him had needed to fit into a carry-on. 

He knew he should go shopping, that his mom or even Robin would love to take him, but it sort of seemed like that implied some sense of permanence. He was getting kind of sick of old band t-shirts that had never really fit well and clothes borrowed from his dad, though, and Theo's getup was making him miss his soft sweaters and linen shorts.

Again, he knew that, logically, a stranger he'd never met before hadn't decided to dress like he'd stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalogue just to spite him, but it certainly felt that way. It was harder than he thought, trying to ignore his instincts, the little alarm at the back of his head blaring like a foghorn. Run, run, run! He's coming to get you!

Trying to look less awkward than he felt, he shifted in his chair for about the thirtieth time in the past half hour (why were these seats so uncomfortable?), edging away from Theo in a compromise, painfully aware that his new partner must have sensed his discomfort. Maybe he was trying to be friendly. Or maybe he didn't care.

He wondered what the cane was for.

When Theo apologised, Wren just shrugged a shoulder, gaze flitting down to his hands in his lap. “It's fine. We're used to it.” It came out a little more dismissive than he'd meant. The thought of expanding a little for the sake of trying to make things less unpleasant crossed his mind, but he kind of just wanted Theo to get on with it and ask his questions.

It was so long before his partner said anything else that he had started to think maybe he hadn't heard him, or was waiting for him to continue. (Was he doing this deliberately? Was he on something?) When he did finally speak, it took a moment for Wren to process the words. The previous exercise had seemed so long ago he had nearly forgotten he had even participated. Especially after the gut punch that had been his own card being read out. By Theo. Whose first worry he apparently had crumpled up in his hands.

“I did?” he said, glancing up at Theo. Was that why he had come over? That helped, a kind of, even though his memory of what had actually been on the index card was a little fuzzy. “About the… the getting out of bed, right?”

He didn't really know what to say, or what Theo wanted from him, or if he could even provide it, but at least he could relax a little now in the knowledge that this wasn't about him.

“I mean… yeah,” he said, his eyes travelling to the cane again. (Shit, now it made sense.) “I couldn't get out of bed, some days. It felt like my limbs were too heavy. Like being paralysed.” It still happened, but it was easier to talk in past tense and he wasn't sure how much he wanted to share. He definitely didn't feel ready to confess that they'd somehow swapped cards. “I don't know if that's how you meant it. But that's what I thought of.”


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bottleneck
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We're used to it.

We. Wren and Robin. Two lovebirds, two halves of one unit. A singular entity that lived together, loved together, suffered together. He looked over at Wren’s sister, attentively listening to her partner as he explained away his demons, nodding her head vigorously and smiling with an inescapable intensity. He looked back at Wren and wondered if he'd been like that once, all smiles and over compensating enthusiasm, or if it was just an act Robin was putting on for Wren’s benefit. Making up for the love he wasn't able to show anymore, because she loved him.

Theo blinked hard, straightening a little in his hard backed chair. it was also entirely possible he was reading too much into this. It was a bad habit he was trying to break.

His relationships with his siblings were pretty simple. His sister hated him for moving away, and his half-brother, a product of his father’s first marriage and a full fifteen years older than Theo, dutifully mailed him a Christmas card every year, photo of his wife and two kids taped to the front. That was it, and both had been strained relationships even before he’d removed himself from the equation.

He supposed it was possible he was just jealous. 

Wren was loosening up a little, which was good. Theo made a mental note to avoid posing him any difficult questions, reminding himself to limit it to how was the drive? and it sure was sunny today, huh?. It was Wren’s first day, obviously. He didn’t want to be here. The whole thing was weird and just totally invasive, especially when the reason you were here was directly concerning something you learned not to talk about. But it was strangely liberating.

And he certainly appreciated the brevity of Wren’s answer. It was easier to process, something he was finding increasingly difficult. He was asleep more often than he was awake, but never seemed to feel any less exhausted. Maybe they would get along after all. 

Wren’s next words brought a slow smile to his face. He leaned forward, conspiratorially, unconcerned that he seemed to shrink away from him whenever Theo invaded his generously sized comfort zone. 

“I did mean it that way. It’s just easier to stay in bed, you know? You don’t fail if you don’t try.” 

It wasn’t only a reprieve from the physical symptoms, but also from the depressing reality that he wasn’t getting any better. That his tremor was moving further up his arm, and he felt hungover every time he woke up, despite having had nothing to drink. That he was only picking up every third time his mother called to ask him how he was doing, rather than every second. He wasn’t using his wheelchair much, but the word yet always seemed to spring up, totally unbidden, whenever he thought about it. 

So, yeah. It was easier. 

He leaned back in his chair, massaging the back of his neck as he caught Wren’s eyes briefly flicker to the cane. His policy on disclosing his MS to strangers was non-existent. It depended on how he was feeling that day. If he was feeling shitty, he left the unasked questions unanswered. When you had jumpy vision and tremors and spasms and your entire concentration was focused on telling your feet what to do, it was easy to ignore other people’s discomfort. But when he was feeling really shitty, that was when the curt fuck offs started.

Today though, he was feeling fine. And Wren was clearly uncomfortable and Theo was feeling charitable. 

“If you’re wondering about the cane, I have MS, right? So yeah, sometimes … getting out of bed, and shit like that, is physically difficult. But it’s like, I’d prefer to have my body screw around on me rather than those times when my mind just can’t … will itself to activate, I guess.”

He ran his fingers up the side of his face. His words were coming out wrong. That was enough out of him. 

“Anyway, I just wanted to talk to you some more. Thanks for indulging me. We can discuss the video, if you’d prefer. Or we can talk about the weather, or you know, life’s biggest mysteries.”

 

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Wren hadn't known what to expect when coming to this group (evidently, or else he probably wouldn't be here). Certainly not a—what to even call this?--moment of connection? He knew he hadn't been alone in his experiences, from a logical perspective. He even knew that Theo in particular got it, since he'd gotten his card. But there was something about having it affirmed—really, about knowing he'd gotten it right—that felt exceptionally validating.

Maybe he kind of understood Theo's motives now. Maybe he could start to relax.

He still tensed up when Theo leant forward, but his smile, however small, was genuine this time, even if it fell off his face at Theo's next words.

MS. Multiple sclerosis. Wren had an idea of what it was, even if the specifics were fuzzy. He'd known someone at college who'd been diagnosed. They hadn't ever really talked, and he couldn't remember her name now, but she'd stopped coming to class one day and he'd heard from someone who knew someone who knew her that it had been MS. A card had gone around their class and he hadn't known what to write. Kind of like he didn't know what to say now.

But if Theo was anything like him, he probably didn't want his sympathy. So after a moment, he looked down at the floor and said, “That's rough.”

Then he immediately felt incredibly stupid. Thank fuck for the subject change.

He didn't really want to talk about the video, or the weather, or life's mysteries, though. Wren had never been as outgoing as Robin, but he'd never been like… this, either. They'd both been popular, though he'd always felt Robin had had more friends, and she'd definitely found it easier to make them. He hadn't escaped Theo looking over at her earlier, but he didn't have to do the same to know she was being perfectly personable, attentive and charismatic. Wren liked talking to people too—or had, anyway—but he'd always had to work harder at it. But it hadn't been until college that he'd realised just how much he'd relied on Robin. (He also realised that she had always had that impression. They'd had lunch together a few weeks into the start of their first semester, and when he'd confessed he hadn't really made any friends, she'd said she had just known this would happen.)

He'd made friends eventually, and learnt how to talk to people, and for the most part enjoyed it, even though he found it tiring. When the depression had hit, it had become too much. It had been OK with strangers, who didn't know him so couldn't feel sorry for him, but anything more than a quick hello-how-are-you-here's-your-change-thanks-for-shopping-at-Walmart left him drained.

And it was worse at home. In their last session, Alison had asked him why he avoided people. “Humans are social creatures,” she'd said. “They don't do well on their own.” He hadn't known how to explain that growing up in a town this small, you knew everybody, and everybody knew you, and he couldn't handle their presumptions of what he was going through. He had ended up saying that people didn't understand, so she had suggested this support group, and here he was. And, OK, the people here probably had better presumptions than the general public, but it was the familiarity which made it so bad.

He hadn't really thought about it, but he recognised a few people in the room. Nobody he knew well, and all of them were older, his mom and dad's age. Of the ones he couldn't place, he wasn't sure how many he should have known. People moved to Cannon Beach all the time.

Like Theo. There weren't that many younger faces, but Theo seemed around his age. Wren's school had been small, and he was sure he would have remembered him if they'd been there at the same time.

The trick to talking to people was getting them to talk about themselves.

“You're not from here, are you?” he said. His tone was a little more accusatory than he'd intended. He winced. “Sorry, that came out wrong. I just meant that I don't think I've seen you before. Robin and I grew up here, so… I figure we'd have met before, if you were.”


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bottleneck
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Theo laughed, mostly because it was one of the better responses he’d had. 

“Yeah, it’s pretty shitty.” 

But he was making do. Another perk of moving to a small town like Cannon Beach was that there was plenty of undeveloped land, so he’d bought a small plot and had been able to design the house he planned to die in. At a single storey, he didn’t have any stairs to navigate, and he’d eliminated all design elements that he could (and would) trip over such as stairs, base board mouldings and even rugs. For other things he’d consulted an occupational therapist, and she’d helped him prepare for further limitations to his mobility. He had an office, a raised patio overlooking the hilly Oregon countryside, and a walk-in closet. But by far the best feature of his house was that the exterior western wall was floor to ceiling windows, facing the ocean and the beautiful pacific sunset. 

Before he was able to answer Wren’s question the other man was already backtracking, apologizing for some transgression that was beyond Theo’s ability to pick up on. He was pretty sure his poker face was still in place, though it was pretty easy to feel two dimensional through the haze of the valium. 

“No, I mean, you’re not wrong.” He began, speaking a little slowly as if he were trying to reassure a wild animal. “I moved here from Boston a year or so ago. Grew up in Connecticut, spent my formative years in boarding school in Vermont. So yeah, I couldn’t be less from here.” 

Which was why he liked it so much. 

“It’s certainly not what I’m used to.” 

He wanted to ask if Wren had ever left town, or if he’d lived here his entire life. He certainly dressed like he’d never moved away, sort of extra-casual with little regard for fit, but a depression support group wasn’t really the place to get all tarted up. He really shouldn’t judge.

And then Greg started up again. It would have to wait. 

He leaned back in his chair, eyes closed and face tilted upwards. He let a deep breath out, deflating his chest. Fuck, he was tired. The valium couldn’t have helped, but he’d been up all day and was paying for it now. 

“---It was nice to see all these new faces today." Greg's voice eased its way into his consciousness. "And to our regulars, it’s always a pleasure. In terms of announcements, our host St. Michael’s is throwing its annual bazaar next week, so if you have books or clothing to donate, or have the time to volunteer, get in touch with Sheila and she’ll get you sorted.” 

And that was that. People rose from their seats, one collective creak and shuffling of shoes. Their voices grew louder, less somber. 

Theo looked over at Wren. “Well, thanks again. It’s nice knowing other people are going through the same shit.” 

He straightened, setting the cane out beside him and hauled himself up. Left hand on his left knee, right hand gripping the cane. 

He made a face, looking at Wren again. “I’m not being flippant. I actually mean it." 

“See you next week?

 

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Wren's hands were in his lap, and his eyes were on his hands, but his gaze flicked back up at Theo as he mentioned moving from Boston – being from Connecticut. Something shifted in his chest. He thought he'd taken a step towards understanding Theo, but it felt like he'd just taken another two back. The only reason he'd moved back west was because of family. Why would anybody leave New England if they had the choice to stay?

He was almost glad for the interruption, because he had no idea how to react. Hey, I spent six years in Boston. I'd literally cut out both of my kidneys to be able to go back. He knew he should have been happy to discover that he and Theo had something in common (aside from poor health, anyway), but somehow this felt worse than if they'd totally misinterpreted each other's cards. Worse still, because he was so aware of how ridiculous his feelings were. It was the kind of thing he should talk to Alison about, but he could already hear her response: “Do you think that maybe you're finding arbitrary reasons to sabotage this new friendship?”

It would be so easy to make friends with Theo. He hadn't even had to do any work for it so far. Maybe that made it harder, like the concept that somebody may not find him completely repulsive ran totally counter to how he felt about himself his instincts were telling him to run away.

Fuck. He needed some air.

He fought the urge to leap to his feet as soon as Greg finished talking, only standing up once a couple of other people had gotten up too. Theo's voice startled him—while he'd been ruminating over how bad/good a hypothetical acquaintance with Theo would be, he'd sort of forgotten the real person still sitting there—and he gave him a guilty look.

“Yeah,” he said, watching him get up, wondering whether he should offer to help, or whether it would be too presumptuous, or nice, or if he'd just make it worse, or if it was too awkward or too late, and then it was all of those things. He swallowed, looked down, tried to ignore that inner voice telling him what a fuck-up he was. “I mean. Thanks to you too. For letting me know about the card.”

He shoved his hands into his pockets. Risked catching Theo's eye, and a smile he was sure looked forced. It melted off his face at Theo's next question. He hadn't even thought about next week. “I… maybe...”

“Better than no,” chirped a voice in his ear, making him jump again. Robin. She clapped him on the back again, apparently some new thing she'd decided she was doing now, but the rest of her attention had already switched to Theo.

“Hey,” she said, sticking a hand out for him to shake. “Nice to meet you properly. I'm sorry for running away earlier, but thanks for stepping in back there. I think Wren's getting a little sick of me.”

She grinned at him, nudged Wren in the ribs, like ha ha, look at him, he acts like this with everyone.

“We should probably get going,” said Wren. Anything to end this conversation. He was practically suffocating.

Robin glanced at her phone. “There's no rush. Mom's not expecting us for at least another half hour.” Avenue of escape neatly shut down, she focused her attention back on Theo, clearly unwilling to let him go so easily.

“If it's not rude,” she said, and Wren's insides made a very good attempt at shrivelling up in embarrassment, “could I ask how long you've been coming to these? We only heard about them this week and I was kind of surprised, to be honest. I'm pretty sure the last time we lived back here you'd be lucky if your doctor even knew mental health could be treated. Nobody was talking about it….” She trailed off, momentarily distracted by Greg saying something about the doors shutting in five minutes. (Wren silently blessed the man.)

“Hey,” she said, tilting her head at Theo. “How are you getting home? Because there's room in the car if you want a lift back. I'm sure we'd both appreciate the company.”


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bottleneck
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“Yeah, well. You’re welcome.” 

Wren’s expression got all twisted up when he asked if he’d be here next week. He watched him search for the words, watched him give him the kind of smile Theo received all the time. He watched it slide off his face. And Theo just shrugged a shoulder. He got it.

The group wasn’t for him. It was fine. 

And then his sister was there, appearing behind him like a fucking poltergeist.

He offered up his left and only free hand when prompted, twisted awkwardly in order to receive her handshake. It was only then that he noticed the tremor had started up again. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He weakly squeezed her hand in his, and quickly withdrew his arm back up against his body. 

“I just wanted to talk to him about something.” Theo replied, only a little confused, like he’d been left out of some conspiracy he and Robin were apparently in on together. He looked at Wren in a silent plea for help, but apparently a scratch on the gymnasium’s floor seemed to have fully captivated his interest. At a loss of what to do, he laughed nervously along with Robin. He really hadn’t been trying to help out with anything, and sweet baby Jesus, she was hard to keep up with. The background noise of many voices blended together with the footsteps and the floorboards creaking and Greg shouting out instructions to everybody resulted in her words getting mixed up in his head. 

He squeezed his eyes shut, took a breath, tried to relax. Tried to be nice. Nod to show you’re listening even if you aren’t, make eye contact, but not too much. He tilted his head and smiled, a small quirk at the corner of his mouth. At her question, he looked up as if he were deep in thought, pawing at the dark corners of his recollection. Tried to decide if it was rude or not. He wasn’t sure. 

He also had a short, private laugh when she said ‘we’. It was pretty clear if Wren had found this group on his own he would have torn up the newspaper he’d found the ad in, or neatly and quietly murdered the person who’d told him about it.

“About six months, I would say. I’m go to a few groups but Greg’s has been going the longest. Maybe that’s why you hadn’t heard of it? He had fifteen or so regular members well before I started showing up, so maybe he stopped advertising and relied more on word of mouth.”

And well, the difference between himself and Wren was that most people looked at him and assumed he had every reason to suffer from depression. He had support groups and therapists thrown at him like flyers passed out on downtown street corners. He’d never thought about how different it would be for someone who appeared able-bodied.

At her next words, Theo gave his first genuine smile. He was actually relieved. “I walked here, but to be honest I don’t think I have it in me to make the hike back. I’ll totally take you up on a ride. It’s not far.” 

And at Greg’s final prompting (a junior basketball team had the space booked for 8 o’clock), they left. The trek up the steps was a slow one, made worse by the fact that he could practically feel Wren’s eyes on the back of his head. Thunk of his cane, slide of his feet, creak of the steps. Burning in his thighs. Tingling in his calves. His hand rattled as he reached out for the railing, which he clung onto with a death grip. He could feel a line of people building up behind them, and was breathing heavily by the time he reached the top of stairs. 

He squeezed his eyes shut tight, felt a bead of sweat drip unpleasantly down the centre of his back. And then they were through a set of doors and he felt the cool air turn his clammy skin to ice. He plastered a smile to his face and turned to Robin, letting her lead the way. She was easier to talk to than Wren, kind of. She did most of the talking.

“Wren said you guys grew up here. Did you both just move back?”

 

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If Robin was startled by the strength or length of Theo's handshake, she didn't let it show, dropping her arm in time with him and looping it through Wren's instead. She breezed over the next awkward moment, pretending like it had never happened with such grace that Wren wished he'd been blessed with. He had always envied her skill at not just talking to people, but navigating them in general. While he had a suspicion that not everybody found it as hard as he did, he knew that Robin found it exceptionally easy, if only because anybody with even an ounce of empathy for him would have taken the hint instead of prolonging this hell.

As if to rub the fact she clearly did not care if he was uncomfortable, she ignored Wren completely, focusing on Theo's answer to her question—which Wren thought had definitely been rude—instead. “Maybe,” she said, nodding thoughtfully. “That would make sense. And I mean, it's not like we were thinking about attending support groups… or, uh, church... when we were kids, so even if it had been going back then we could have missed it. I guess it's all academic anyway...”

She trailed off, then grinned at Theo's acceptance of her offer, even as Wren glanced up, surprised. Not that Theo didn't feel up to walking back, or even that he'd walked in the first place, but that he'd volunteered to spend even more time with them instead of calling a cab or grabbing a ride with somebody else. As they started moving, Robin decoupling herself from her brother to fish her keys out of her purse, he thought that maybe he should have expected it. Nobody was immune to the Robin Effect, after all. She was charming and personable and everything he wasn't. Who wouldn't want to bask in her presence for as long as possible?

His feelings towards her were complicated, and always had been, some mix of admiration, envy and pride that fluctuated from one end of the spectrum to the other depending on his mood, but he'd never really felt annoyed by her before this whole situation. Part of it was probably just being generally irritable, but it seemed like ever since he'd gotten back she'd been doing everything possible to get on his nerves. The annoyance wasn't constant—most of the time he just felt numb and apathetic—but when it flared up, it was consuming. It was sort of like going on holiday with a friend. Too much time together in a confined space. Like he could feel her presence weighing on him even when he couldn't see her. He hated it. They used to be best friends, and now all he wanted was for her to leave him alone.

He let her and Theo ahead of him as they reached the stairs, gripping the railing as he climbed the first step. It felt cold to the touch. Solid. Grounding. He shut his eyes for a moment, tried to remember to breathe. When he opened them again, Theo was right in front of him, clearly struggling with the stairs. He wondered, again, if he should offer to help, but he didn't know how to ask, or what he could even do. Hold his cane? So instead he stared ahead blankly, trying to stay patient.

Still, when they reached the top of the stairs, Wren couldn't help but feel relieved. He hadn't realised how much he had needed to just get out in the open. As he trailed out after Theo, he crossed his arms across his chest, looking out across the parking lot. It was already getting colder, and the sun looked like it was threatening to set. Summer was definitely almost over. He couldn't say he was looking forward to it.

Robin didn't seem too concerned, or even cold, as she slowed down to match Theo's pace. “Wren moved back maybe two, three months ago? I came back around March. So yeah, I guess it hasn't been that long. We moved out east for college… eleven years ago? Shit, I feel old now. But yeah, we haven't lived here since then. A lot's changed.”

As they approached her Honda Civic, she hit the button to unlock it, and Wren stepped out in front of them to get the doors. While he was still annoyed about Robin making friends with people from his depression support group, he guessed that if it had to happen, he was kind of glad she was the one carrying the conversation now. It kept the pressure off. Made it a little easier for him.

Holding the front passenger door open for Theo, he leant his elbow on the door frame. “You said you moved from Boston, right? That's where Robin moved back from too.”

Robin had already climbed into the driver's seat and was in the process of buckling herself in, when she stopped. Turning to Theo with a look of concentration, she paused for a moment. Wren slid into the back seat and glanced between her and their guest.

“Hold up,” she said. “You weren't at MIT, were you? I think we had a class together… with Professor Grey? Environmental Systems Planning?” A slow smile had already started to spread across her face. “I thought I recognised you! I was friends with one of your roommates—oh, shit, what was his name? I think he got engaged a few weeks ago?”

Of-fucking-course Robin already knew Theo.

It was all Wren could do not to slam the car door behind him.


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Even after all these years, he still believed that his time at MIT, though far too brief, had been the best of his life. He’d been a cocky little nineteen-year-old, though one who’d been full of life and piss and vinegar. And one who’d people had wanted to be friends with. He lasted a little more than a semester before the numb extremities and double-vision began. It had been devastating, particularly to someone who, at the time (and at a mere nineteen years old) believed the world owed him everything. He’d been promised, and given, everything he’d ever asked for. And then he had it all crash down, all because of an overactive immune system? 

It wasn’t fair. 

The cool Pacific air was like a kiss, sweet and brief. He could smell the ocean, even from up here in the hills. He walked along gamely beside Robin, his heels dragging in the asphalt, balls of his feet feeling like they had been injected with novocaine while at the same time like he had several sharp pebbles shaking around in each shoe. As such, he was painfully aware of his slow pace, the way he always was when he was walking with someone able-bodied. He nodded his thanks to Wren, who had helpfully darted ahead of him to get the door. All he had to do was get into a car he was unfamiliar with without embarrassing himself or knocking himself unconscious.

He hadn’t been aware he’d been grimacing until Wren mentioned Boston, and he felt a slow sinking in his gut. Out here, and away from the buzzing fluorescent lights of the church basement, it felt like a private little anecdote he’d mentioned to Wren, a fellow broken human, in confidence. Bringing it up now felt like a very tiny act betrayal, but he couldn’t think of a good reason why.

Theo eased into the car, which went as gracefully as one might expect. He looked at Robin once he’d gotten comfortable, which wasn’t all that difficult since apparently Wren had been here last and there was enough legroom for two of him. 

“Boston, huh?”

He could see her mind working something out, her brain trying to work out a missing piece in her memory. It was all too likely that they had run in the same circles, as she seemed like a too-intelligent go-getter, just like he’d been a decade earlier. Robin’s brow furrowed, and he knew immediately that she’d found their connection. Oh, god. 

He smiled uneasily. 

He inwardly (and perhaps outwardly) cringed at her mention of MIT. Her sudden inflation in enthusiasm matched up with how quickly his own desire to continue talking about their shared past had plummeted. Thinking about MIT felt like someone bashing a brick into his forehead. It brought up all the feelings he tried to pretend weren’t there, with the help of pharmaceuticals and marijuana and therapy. And it was especially all the ways he did not like feeling in front of strangers. 

Well, maybe not strangers. He remembered her too, surprisingly, from a decade earlier. 8:00 AM classes with the civil engineering professor who had the most soothing voice on the planet, a deadly combination for sleep-deprived freshmen. Cement bricked lecture hall, a girl, thinner and more gangly than the woman who was about to drive him home, bringing him coffee after he’d attended a party at her place the night before. 

He broke out into a wide smile, a knee-jerk reaction to hers. It hurt his face. He hated this, and he felt a sudden resentment that he was forced to behave like everything was okay for the sake of politesse. He had after all just left a support group where he’d had his insecurities read aloud and dissected by her own brother, sitting just behind them and pretending like none of this was happening. 

Well, he was good at pretending like he was okay. And pretend he did, transforming from his languid, half-present self into … whatever this was.

“Oh, my god. Robin Ruskin? What are the odds? This is so funny.”

Not really. 

His pokey two-bedroom apartment by the river seemed like a lifetime ago, and Stephen, his roommate for a few short months, seemed like longer. “Uh, Stephen. Yeah, that’s so good to hear. Congrats to him.” The guy hadn’t liked him too much and frankly, Theo could say the same. He wondered if he was coming off as sarcastic. 

“I think the last time I saw you was at that party you and what’s-her-name held. What a rager, right?” He was using words he hadn’t used in years and it felt strange. He felt like an idiot. “I know it’s like ten years too late, but I think the guy I brought puked off your balcony? I heard you got in a ton of shit from your RA.” He laughed, and laughed. What memories they were. 

His recollection of that night was hazy – drinks before the party, drinks at the party, some pot, some guy with coke who was trying to keep it on the down low (but not really). Showing up with a guy who’d gotten totally fucked up and had embarrassed him. It all seemed like it had happened to a different person.

“Oh wait, Wren, that means you were the one at Harvard?” 

Theo glanced up into the rear view mirror.

Everyone had known Robin, so of course everyone had been aware of the existence of her twin brother. But for most people, including Theo, Wren hadn’t become more than ‘the twin brother at Harvard’, or just a quiet presence at a party. 

“Yeah, I remember now.”

And that was all he said. He needed to direct the conversation back towards Robin, because he didn’t want to talk about himself, or what he’d been doing since college. He didn’t want to pretend like his failures didn’t bug him every single second of every single day. 

So, he gave Robin his address (“it’s just up Mountain Road, big red mailbox out in front, you’ll know it when you see it”), and kept talking. 

“So, did civil engineering do well by you? I remember you hating all your classes.”


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Depression makes you selfish.

Pulling his seatbelt across his chest, knees awkwardly jammed against the seat in front of him, Wren's mouth set into a tight line. He knew that, logically, this situation wasn't Robin's fault. He knew that expecting her not to mention the fact she'd recognised Theo was unreasonable. He knew that he'd been the one to bring Boston up in the first place. And yet he blamed her anyway.

He had forgotten what living near her felt like. Time in law school, when he'd been too busy, and then New York, when he'd been too far away, had smoothed over the rough spots in their relationship. Being thrown back together had brought them all back to the surface. Exposed them for what they were. As it turned out, they were ugly.

For a moment, part of him wanted Theo to deny all knowledge of ever having met Robin, to give her a blank look, to tell her that she must have been mistaken. The rest of him hated him for even thinking it. And when Theo smiled, said their name, he didn't have to listen to the small nasty voice in the back of his head to understand what a terrible person he was being.

Robin laughed, doing that thing where Wren couldn't tell if she was oblivious to the tension in the car, or whether she was choosing to ignore it. “This is so weird,” she said, turning the key in the ignition, the little Honda springing to life. In the back, he leant his head against the window and shut his eyes. He knew her laughter wasn't directed at him, but knowing something wasn't the same as feeling something. At least the hum of the engine reverberating though the door was almost enough to drown out his sister. He wondered if opening the window would make it better, or if it would be too passive-aggressive given she had just turned on the heater.

Maybe she wouldn't even notice. He was in her element now, her sunglasses tucked into her collar, arm slung across the back of Theo's chair as she looked over her shoulder to reverse out of the space.

“Stephen—that's right! We kind of lost touch when we stopped being in the same classes. I think that party may have been the last time I saw him too… God, it was nuts, wasn't it? We did get into a ton of shit. I remember Emily tried to get out of it by faking food poisoning, and I was so mad at her for not coming up with a better excuse.” She grinned, changing gears to first. “And then our RA made us organise the soup can drive for our dorm as punishment. Oh—speaking of which—“ She reached back to tap Wren's knee. “—I volunteered us for that bazaar Greg was talking about. Figured it would be a good excuse to get out of the house. Were you planning on coming to that, Theo?”

Wren straightened up, tried to catch her eye in the rearview mirror, but caught Theo's instead. He looked away, fixing his gaze on the passing scenery. Safer territory. Especially now that another uncomfortable layer had been peeled back, narrowing the distance between now and his old life, when he'd actually been worth something.

He remembered that party too.

After that lunch at the start of their first semester, when he'd confessed that he hadn't been having much luck with making friends, Robin had made it her mission to change that. She had invited him—dragged him—to all of the parties she'd thrown, and most of the ones she'd attended. He'd made a good faith effort to go to them in the beginning, before discovering that he hated college parties. Then he'd ended up at the ones he couldn't find an excuse to miss, awkward and self-conscious about not being from MIT, overwhelmed by the noise and feeling slightly claustrophobic. 

She'd introduce him to her friends, then disappear somewhere with her new boyfriend, leaving him to have meaningless conversations that largely centred around her absence with people he knew wouldn't remember his name in the morning. Eventually he'd made his own friends and stopped having to make up excuses not to go, but that party had fallen right after he'd finished his midterms and with everybody else still studying for theirs, he'd figured it wouldn't have been so bad. Except it had been. If he remembered right he'd ended up watching the guy who'd thrown up after they'd convinced him to lie down, making sure he didn't start choking, by virtue of being the only one sober enough who hadn't already left. He'd been so angry, but after Robin and her room-mate had bought him breakfast the next morning it had kind of fizzled out.

He wondered if he had spoken to Theo that night. Maybe they had.

Robin had already pulled out onto Washington Street, started signalling for the left turn that would take them up towards Mountain Road. Wren knew that she must have been dying to interrogate Theo about the minutiae of his life since they'd last seen each other but she was doing a pretty good job of reining it in. “You remembered right,” she said. “I switched my minor to my major after like, two semesters. I think I'm the only person dumb enough to go to MIT to get a degree in German. But it was cool, I got to go study in Munich for a year. Huge culture shock, but I'd love to go live there again.”

She made the left, then the right onto the main road. “So what made you choose Cannon Beach, of all places? Wren and I couldn't wait to get out when we were growing up here, but I didn't realise how much I missed it until I got back.”

It only took ten minutes to arrive at Theo's, the gentle sand giving way to forest, but by the time Robin pulled up in front of his house, Wren couldn't help but wonder if Theo was as exhausted of his sister as he was. She ended up spiralling into an anecdote about how they'd used to sneak up around here as teenagers and had once nearly started a wildfire. He was so desperate to get out of the car that he only clocked the house after he'd jumped out and gotten the front passenger door halfway open.

Robin had gotten out too, and wasn't shy about voicing their thoughts. “Holy shit, dude. How did you score this place?”


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He laughed, and wasn’t sure if it was fake, or if he was just exhausted and didn’t know what else to do. Reality was difficult to hang on to sometimes. 

“Well, now I’m really sorry. I’m pretty sure I left him there to go somewhere else. My friends were going to a gallery opening or something after, and … You know how it is.”

How it was was that he’d found someone less catatonic to spend the night with and had woken up in his bed the next morning. And now that he’d said it out loud, it really did make him sound like a piece of shit. Whatever, kids were kids.

The setting sun was in his eyes as they drove, a slice of fire across his retinas. The ocean briefly came into view through the trees, a strip of blue against the bleeding sky. And then it was gone. 

The bazaar – what? “Oh, yeah. If I can.” Truthfully, He had zero intention on going. Maybe he’d donate some cash but the idea of hauling himself out of bed on a Saturday morning to wander around a parking lot strewn with tables piled with either homemade crap or stuff people no longer wanted didn’t really appeal to him. He looked up into the mirror towards Wren, golden sunlight shifting across his features as the car ambled along the uneven road. He seemed intent on ignoring them, and Theo thought maybe he and Wren were in agreement that it was a terrible idea. 

He looked ahead through the windshield to the familiar path before them. Robin kept talking and he was more than content to let her continue. It was nice to be sitting, and he really enjoyed car rides. It was only after a short silence did he realize she’d asked him a question. He yawned without meaning to, a swell in his chest, a click in his jaw. 

“Oh, well. My company opened an office in Portland last year. By then I’d had enough of living in the city, so I looked at these small towns all up and down the coast, like Seaside and Yachats. But I just kind of liked it here.” It sounded rehearsed, like an answer to a question he received all the time. 

But it was truthful. He’d liked how with all the tourists around and all the activity, it had seemed like a beach town out of a story book. He liked how the townies sort of knew who he was by now, and how the tourists ignored him, too engrossed in their holiday plans and which restaurants had the best review on trip advisor. He liked not having to wait until the middle aged woman sitting in the disabled section on the bus noticed his cane and reluctantly gave up her seat, or ignore the stares in the elevator up to his downtown office. He liked the fresh ocean air (which felt cleaner here than in Massachusetts) and he liked not having to worry about his family or friends dropping by to say hello.

“But I get it. I was the same way with my town, but the thought of moving back home just … Stresses me out.” 

The trees broke and his house rumbled slowly into view. He couldn’t be more relieved. His neck hurt and his body was familiarly tight. All he wanted was to smoke some pot and take a sleeping pill and pass out for a few hours. 

Wren was opening the door for him (someone had done a good job training him) and his eyes shot up, making for yet another awkward moment. The car was relatively high up so it wasn’t too difficult to stand, so he was spared the indignity of having to ask him for help. And only after a few hesitations, he was upright and walking. 

At Robin’s reaction, he looked at his home, and grinned. 

“I designed it. MIT was good for something, or so I tell my mother.” He paused, for a short moment. 

“You’re both welcome to come in for a drink, if you’d like.” Someone had trained him well, too, even it had taken him a moment to remember to invite them in. And even though he was stifling another yawn, he sort of wanted them to come in. He never really had people over besides Michael and his cleaning lady, since there was a very certain vulnerability that came with being alone with someone in his home. But he was pretty confident these two had nothing but neutral to good intentions. After a quick confirmation from Robin that yes, they would love to, he led the way. 

His front door was unlocked using an app on his phone, something he'd set up for himself once his keys had become a pain in the ass to manoeuvre. An astute observer would have noticed a small camera hooked up to the top right corner of the entry way. Inside, the sunset shining through old growth forest greeted them, the light bouncing against the polished concrete floors. The ocean could be seen just beyond that, an unmoving blue strip on the horizon. The exterior walls were almost entirely floor to ceiling windows, and he thanked God every day that he had no immediate neighbours. 

Theo hung his cane off a hook by the door. A wheelchair was positioned in the wide entry way, the sweater draped over it proof that it had gone unused for the past couple months. As he walked, his fingers either brushed against the wall, or touched furniture as he passed by, which helped with his shitty balance. He gave them the tour as he led the way to the kitchen. 

“Here’s the living room, bathroom’s over there, through the bedroom. There’s my office, then my kitchen. Etcetera, etcetera …” There were no rugs, and the space was entirely open concept (besides the bedroom and the bathroom). Nothing to trip over, almost no doors to open and close. Perfectly designed, in his opinion, for someone with increasingly worsening mobility issues. 

The whole house was clean and tidy, for the most part. The living room was dominated by a large sectional sofa, and at its centre lay an abandoned pile of wooden boards and torn up cardboard. He passed by it, opening up the glass door to the deck, letting some air in.

“Oh yeah. Excuse the mess. I got a little over-ambitious and tried to build a wardrobe. Last time that ever happens.”

The unassembled wardrobe had been sitting in his living room for the past week. It had been a rather ambitious morning; he’d woken up feeling great and relatively pain-free and oddly optimistic. But shortly after starting he’d attached the wrong thing to the wrong part and things took a turn from there. He was probably just going to throw it out and order one pre-assembled. 

He made his way to the kitchen, opening a rather prodigious liquor cabinet. People still gave him alcohol as gifts even though he rarely drank (the odds of it fucking with any of his medication was just too high). He pulled out few rock glasses and long-stemmed wine glasses and placed them on the counter. 

“What’ll it be? I have a Cabernet Sauvignon which I’m told is nice, a Pinot Grigio, scotch, bourbon, tequila for some reason … And a few beers in the fridge. Pretty much anything you could want, so help yourself.” He poured himself a finger of scotch, bottle grasped firmly in his right hand.


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bigwig
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The first thing that struck Wren about Theo's house was how different it was to his parents'. That wasn't unusual in itself—Cannon Beach wasn't exactly known for its consistent architecture—but it felt like an uncomfortable reminder that he was somewhere he didn't really belong. His childhood—and, he guessed, current—home was a world away from this.

130 West Adams Street was a compact, two-storey house that had been built right after their parents had gotten married. The lot had been a wedding present from their grandparents, who still a couple of streets across. Their father had helped with the construction, and often joked that there was literal blood, sweat and tears in the very foundation of the place.

Robin shutting her car door jerked him out of his thoughts. She leant her elbows on the Civic's roof, looking up at the house admiringly. Wren wasn't sure what she was impressed by, the clear expense or something about the engineering that had completely passed him by, but when Theo told them he'd designed it, she snapped her fingers and grinned at him. “Yes! You were doing architecture, right? Figures. Maybe I picked the wrong thing to change my major to… but we would love to come in.”

Of course they would.

Resigning himself to the fact that there was no getting out of this, he shut the front passenger door too, trailing after his sister and their host, his hands back in his pockets. The air smelt like pine needles, the sun hidden somewhere behind them. Being up here reminded him of the last summer they'd spent in Cannon Beach before college. He used to love this time of day. He and Robin would perch on their windowsills and watch the sun set over the ocean. Now it just left him numb.

Theo unlocked his door using his phone, which seemed to excite Robin, although not as much as when she stepped inside and saw the floor-to-ceiling windows.

“Oh, wow!” she said, making a beeline straight for them. “This is incredible. Now I get why you moved here. Sometimes I forget how beautiful this town actually is.”

Even Wren had to admit that he was impressed, even if he lacked Robin's enthusiasm. But he found himself less interested in the building than what was in it, which seemed to be pretty much nothing. He guessed it made sense—if there was nothing around, there was nothing to get in the way. Maybe if he knew more about architecture he'd have been able to see the character that had captured Robin. But to him, the minimalism was just another difference between here and home. It wasn't that home was messy, but it was definitely much more full than this. Big, soft furniture. Thick rugs in every room. Books piled all over the place. A huge oak dining table his grandfather had carved, where he and Robin had done all of their homework. But even aside from that, there were pictures of the family hung up on the walls, medals and awards they'd won proudly displayed wherever free space had presented itself, pictures they'd drawn as kids still stuck to the fridge. This house, in contrast, seemed like somebody had drained the life out of it.

When he'd been a teenager he had hated it the clutter at home, hated how small it made the house seem. He'd done his best to keep his own room as austere as possible, but when he'd gone to college he'd found that he'd missed it. And coming back, he'd found it hard at first, the fear that maybe he'd already peaked very present, but after a couple of weeks it had started to feel more comforting. Each memento was evidence that he existed, that he'd been happy, once, that he had people who loved him.

Maybe Theo didn't need reminders like that. Most people probably didn't.

Robin was still at the window, though she'd managed to rip her eyes away from the forest to look at the actual windows themselves. “I have a million and one questions for you,” she was saying, peering at the fittings. “Like, how do you heat this place? It must get freezing in winter. Are you using a biomass boiler? A heat pump?”

Wren picked his way around the room, ending up on one of the sofas next to the disassembled wardrobe. Unlike Robin, he wasn't so taken with the view. He knew that they were in the middle of nowhere, and that there wasn't anyone around to be looking in, but that many windows made him feel exposed. He focused on the pile of wood and cardboard in front of him instead, leaning forward to grab the instructions, more to give himself something to do than anything else.

At Theo's offer of a drink, Robin finally turned away from the windows. “Thanks! I'll just have a half of whatever's going. Don't open anything new on our behalf!”

She paused, and it took Wren a moment to realise she was waiting for him. “Oh. Uh, I'll just have some water, thanks.” He sounded hoarse even to himself, and he cleared his throat, self-conscious. “I'm not really supposed to be drinking, with, you know. The meds.”

He regretted it as soon as he said it, which seemed to be becoming a habit. Of course Theo knew. He was almost certainly on his own prescription drug cocktail, and now he probably thought he was passing a judgement on him or something. He could feel his ears turning hot, and glanced back down at the sheet of paper in his hands, hoping nobody had noticed.

Robin made her way over to their host to get their drinks, though she was clearly still distracted.

“Hey, Theo,” she said after a moment. “I was just thinking… and I'm sorry if this is totally presumptuous… but do you need help with anything around here? Like with the wardrobe?” She chewed on her lip. “Wren may not look like it, but he's not too shabby at stuff like that, and I know he's been getting bored at home.” Ignoring the daggers Wren was shooting her, she grinned and added, “Plus I'd kill for an excuse to nosy around your house a bit more.”


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bottleneck
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“It actually stays pretty warm. I got bilked into shelling out for a geothermal heat pump by my contractor, so for what I paid it had better be warmed by the fires of hell.” He replied with a laugh, followed by a weird and rather uncomfortable realization. He turned away, preoccupying himself with pouring Robin a fraction of what he’d poured himself. He’d just sounded so much like his dad, bringing up money and how much so and so had cost at any given opportunity to people who generally didn’t care. He cringed internally. “That, and the concrete does a stellar job at insulating. I like it cooler though so I may not be the best gauge, and the climate here is way more forgiving than Boston’s.” 

He looked over at Wren, sitting on the couch. Robin’s quiet ghost. 

“Oh, shit. I’m sorry. I totally forgot alcohol fucks with anti-depressants.” He took a tall glass out of the cupboard and pressed it up against a recess within the fridge, which triggered a slow trickle of water. “Alcohol screws with my meds too, but most of the time all that happens is that I get really drunk really fast.” 

“What’re you on? They had me on Zoloft for a while but it just made me super hungry all the time.” He handed the glass to Robin and eased himself onto the barstool. He didn’t stop to consider if it was a rude question, since everyone in all of his groups loved to talk about their grocery list of meds. “Ten pounds later I stopped taking it.” 

He was a little more relaxed than he had been in the church, or even in the car. Simply being at home seemed to have even eased the kink in his neck. Robin was mulling something over, peering over her shoulder, looking up and down and then back at Wren. She looked apprehensive, though thoughtful. Then she said what was on her mind. 

“Oh, well.” He started, once she’d asked, unsure of how to answer. He didn’t really need help. Or perhaps more accurately, he didn’t like receiving help from people he didn’t pay. A week ago Michael had laughed at him for it, calling him a maladjusted snob over dinner. He hadn’t thought it fair at the time. 

“It’s not presumptuous.” He added quickly, stalling for time to figure out how to answer such a question. 

Robin looked almost shy for asking, and not for the first time tonight he wondered about her intentions. She was so different from anyone in his family. His sister Emily had treated his diagnosis like a personal challenge, and had planned all sorts of rehabilitation-inspired vacations for him (to do alone) with a feverish intensity, and with a total disregard for what he was able, or even wanted, to do. She’d loved the idea of how people with MS often did extraordinary things like climb Mount Everest and researched ways to get Theo involved, ignoring the fact that it wasn’t even something he’d been interested in or capable of doing when he’d been healthy. The last straw had been when she’d brought him the catalogue for a ‘resort’ in the Mojave Desert where guests paid two thousand dollars to join what sounded like some sort of commune to farm dates and jojoba and oranges. As she put it, “it really put things into perspective for them”. 

And there were other things. When he’d dropped out of MIT, his mother had supported him, said it was good idea just until he got back on his feet. A year later, when he’d started at the community college, she’d said it would be a good way to get back into the swing of things, until he felt ready to go back to university. He was going to get better, he would no longer be ‘her son with MS’, and their lives would go back to normal. 

His father had a different tactic. 

He was an ENT surgeon, and took great pleasure in reminding Theo that all his patients eventually thanked him for breaking the bad news to them early, despite hating him for it initially. He went on about how husbands came back when their spouse was bedridden and cried in his office – You were the only one who ever told us the truth – . A mother who sent him a card she’d written by her daughter’s deathbed. He championed himself as the realist, whether it be cancer, or complications from MS. Which meant that when Theo dragged himself out of bed at noon, his father was quick to remind him that a lot of his patients with MS lost the ability to walk mainly because they’d stopped exercising. That they stopped being able to swallow or control their bladder soon after. Dementia followed, then a slow death by sepsis or pneumonia. But hey, he wasn’t the bad guy. He was just the guy with the facts.

His MS was a favourite topic of conversation among his family, and for the most part it was a discussion he wasn’t even a part of. 

So it took him a moment to respond to Robin. He rose the rock glass to his lips, glanced at Wren, and then looked back at Robin. It was probable she was right, Wren just needed an excuse to get out of the house. She seemed earnest, and raw, and … not hopeless, not yet. But tired, just like Wren was. She wasn’t giving up and it seemed to be grinding her down. And as little as he wanted to involve Robin or Wren in his own chronic illness, this didn’t seem like pity. 

In fact, he felt a little bad for her. 

“Oh, you know, I’d love the help. If you have the time, Wren.” He said finally. “That thing’s been sitting in my living room for a week and I was just going to throw it out. Honestly, even when I still had all the feeling in my hands I was still hopeless at these things.” (Was that too much of a blatant lie? He had just admitted to designing at least one house in his lifetime).

“If you can put that thing together I’ll make you lunch. Deal?”

 

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bigwig
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At Theo's question, Wren hesitated.

He wasn't offended, or ashamed. Just surprised. It just wasn't something that had ever come up in casual conversation before. He didn't even know if Robin knew. He didn't remember telling her, or anyone, really, apart from the family doctor when he'd gone to re-register. So he hadn't expected the question. Hadn't ever met anyone who had cared to ask. 

After a moment, he said, “Celexa.” Talking about it felt weird—taboo, but kind of good. (Maybe this was why people broke rules.)

He could have said more, could have joked about how it made him sleepy, maybe, but instead looked away, back down to the wardrobe's instruction booklet. He only realised he'd been smiling when the smile slid off his face. Robin had opened her mouth again.

He couldn't even protest—didn't have time to think, never mind come up with a way to politely decline—when Theo accepted the offer. He met his eyes, even as Robin broke into a relieved grin, handing him his glass of water. He wanted to say no, but he couldn't think of a good reason, couldn't even say he was busy. Everybody here knew he had nothing but time.

Chewing on the inside of his cheek, he thought about just flat out refusing. Instead, he found himself saying, “Sure.”

And it was settled.

Wren and Robin didn't argue in the car on the way home, but they didn't talk either. Robin turned the radio back on, switched from NPR to KBGE and turned the volume up, tapping a beat out on the steering wheel in time with the music. If Wren didn't know any better he'd have said she was waiting for him to say something. Shame, then, that he didn't have anything to say. She would just end up steamrolling him anyway; he may as well save them both time and hurt feelings.

Besides, despite what she may have been thinking, he wasn't angry with her. Kind of annoyed with her interfering, but not angry. He suspected she was under some kind of executive order from Alison. He was more mad at himself for lying down and taking it, and even more mad at himself for feeling that way.

Twenty minutes later they were home, crammed around their parents' dining table, their mom's casserole fresh out of the oven in front of them. In the Ruskin household, dinner time had traditionally been an opportunity for the family to catch up with each other, where everybody would go around the table and talk about their day. It had seemed normal, even been nice, when Wren had been at school. He'd at least had something to contribute.

But now he tended to keep quiet. Every day was the same, his parents telling him about people who had come into the store, names he vaguely recognised but couldn't put a face to, and Robin relaying the latest anecdote about the client she was working with at the moment. He had nothing to say any more, even though his parents did their best to include him. So when his mom asked him how the meeting had been, he felt kind of bad when he said, “I'm not really supposed to talk about it...”

He knew immediately that that wasn't strictly true, so long as he didn't identify anyone, and when Robin opened her mouth, he thought, for a moment, that she was going to chastise him. But instead she said, “We ran into a friend from college, though. He moved here from Boston. Small world, right?”

Small world indeed.

Wren let Robin tell the story, busying himself with gathering up everybody's plates instead. His parents sat attentive as Robin described how they had given Theo a lift back to his house, how he'd invited them in and how Wren was going to go back tomorrow help out around the house. When she started relaying the details about one particularly eventful lecture they'd had, he slipped away to go do the dishes. Listening to Robin talk about Theo like he was an old friend felt wrong, and he wasn't so sure Theo would appreciate it either. He hadn't known all of Robin's friends, but he'd known enough of them to guess that they hadn't had much more than a passing acquaintance.

When he finished putting away the dishes he popped back in to the dining room to find Robin saying her goodbyes.

“I'll pick you up at ten, okay?” she said as she gave him a hug.

“Okay.”

His parents waited at the door until she'd driven away, silence filling the hole her absence left behind. He took the opportunity to slip upstairs, a vague feeling of guilt that he couldn't quite live up to his sister tugging at the back of his mind.

Part of him wanted to go straight to bed, where he knew his parents wouldn't try to talk to him, where he wouldn't have to watch them try to hide their concern, but instead he took a twenty-minute shower, had a shave, and, feeling more human, went back downstairs.

Wren woke up at six, a couple of hours before his alarm. After fifteen long minutes of trying to get back to sleep, he decided to get up instead. It was still dark, and the house was quiet, but he liked it. While he could always hole up in his room, having the house to himself without having to worry about anyone else was nice. After throwing on some clothes, clean, this time, he made his way downstairs and put a pot of coffee on, then let himself into the back yard to watch the sunrise.

The patio doors led out to the deck, which overlooked the rest of the yard. A few of the chickens were out of the coop already, pecking around their run, and he could see they'd been fed, which probably meant his dad had already left for the store. At the back of the yard stood their Oregon White Oak, its leaves already starting to yellow. He closed his eyes, hands curled around his mug. When he'd been away, he'd always associated white oaks with home. The tree had allegedly been the reason his grandfather had bought the lot to begin with, and was like another member of the family. One whose feelings he didn't feel obligated to manage.

By the time he finished his coffee the chill had started to set in and he headed back inside. He could hear the radio on upstairs, and the sounds of somebody moving around—his mom, using the process of elimination—and he put on some more coffee and popped a couple of slices of toast into the toaster for her, before pouring some cereal into a bowl for himself. When she came downstairs, fresh-faced and looking so energised Wren thought he may keel over just from the force of it, she looked surprised for a moment before giving him a kiss on the cheek and reaching for the coffee.

“Are you looking forward to today?” she asked him around a mouth of toast.

He considered the question. “Yeah, actually. I think so.”

She smiled at him, and for a moment he was worried she was going to say something like I'm so proud of you, or You look like you feel a lot better, but instead she said, “I was going to spend the morning in my studio today. You want to help?”

He didn't have anything better to do, so after breakfast they trooped over to the studio, (which, if they ever sold the house, would be billed as the garage), threw open the windows and put on an 80's playlist. His mom was in the middle of another landscape, this one of Haystack Rock, and Wren watched her paint for a while before starting to organise a box full of paint tubes by colour. 

When Robin pulled up and poked her head around the door, he'd borrowed a loose sheet of paper and started doodling. His mom stopped her painting to wave them off, though not before magicking up a portion of leftover casserole and pushing it into his hands. As he climbed into the car, he spied her pinning his page of shitty drawings to the back of the studio door.

“Excited?” Robin asked as they pulled out of the drive. 

“Cautiously optimistic,” he answered, trying to keep in mind that she probably didn't mean to sound so patronising.

She grinned at him. “I'll take it.”

Cannon Beach had woken up, the last of the tourists clearly trying to make the most of their last few days before the weather turned. As they passed several people who had clearly decided that dressing like it was warm was going to be enough to trick it into being warm, Wren was glad he'd grabbed a sweater before they'd left. Even Robin had swapped her shorts out for a pair of leggings. There was a definite bite in the air today. He just hoped Theo's house was as warm as he said it was.

They gained some speed as they headed uphill, and arrived in front of Theo's at quarter past ten. Wren cracked the door, then paused, noticing Robin hadn't done the same.

“You're not coming?” he asked. 

She raised an eyebrow. “Am I supposed to be?”

“This was your idea,” he pointed out.

“My idea was to get you out of the house,” she said. “Anyway, I'd love to, but I can't. Full schedule. Text me when you need a lift back and I'll try to squeeze you in, okay?”

“Uh,” he said, trying to decide if she was kidding or not. “Okay. See you later?”

“See you,” she said, shooing him out of the car. As he shut the door, she rolled down the window and added, “Have fun!”

Before he could reply she'd begun to reverse out, attention already focused on whatever was next on her supposedly busy schedule. Clutching the casserole, he watched her drive away, then stood there for another few seconds.

Nothing for it, he guessed.

Crossing the drive, he raised his fist, and, after another moment's hesitation, knocked on the door.


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