Squire’s Isle Created by Geonn Cannon

One Step Down, OFC/OFC

Summary: Two girls from opposite sides of the tracks bond over a shared love of comic books.

“If you were next to me tonight
It would be a step down for you
But I’d be high…”
– Josh Ritter

Erica Beth Welch was already half out of bed when the alarm went off. She was sitting up on the edge of the mattress with her eyes closed so she could reach out and disarm the blaring music as quickly as possible. When it was silent again she rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. She shucked her pajamas on the way to the bathroom, bearing its ice cold barrage for a full five minutes before she declared herself clean enough. She dressed in her standard uniform: an olive green uniform shirt with epaulets, black slacks, and a pair of sneakers. Her auburn hair was cut short at the back, and she used a bit of gel to push her bangs up out of her eyes. Her boss hated her hair, thought it was far too “unfeminine,” but he couldn’t afford to fire her and the damage had already been done, so he tolerated it.

Her trailer was parked at the curve in the road where a gap in the trees led down to the train tracks. She led her bike down the rocky path, ducking under long branches and sidestepping puddles until she was up and over the trellis. Once she was over the hazards she slung her leg over the bike and pedaled her way across the unofficial soccer field where kids practiced after school. It was still early enough for the streets to be deserted so she rode to the middle of the asphalt and weaved between the dashed white lines that marked the lanes.

The gas station sat thirty yards from the city limits. The train tracks cut across the road an equal distance away on the other side. Erica skidded her sneaker across the gravel as she came up behind the building and propped her bicycle against the back wall. She unlocked the back door and went inside, turned on the lights, and began setting up for the day. By the time she turned on the pumps and unlocked the door, the sun was shining through the windows to create a checkerboard pattern on the counter next to her cash register.

There was nothing left to do but wait for her first customer. She chose one of the comic books off the rack and took it behind the counter. The comic was one of her favorites, an adventure book called Fly by Nyte. The story and art were both fine, but she mainly enjoyed it for the female main character. Arwyn Apted was a warrior, but she was vulnerable and human and wickedly funny. She could question herself and doubt her decisions… she could have frailties without sacrificing her position as a strong character, and Erica loved that about her.

It helped that she also found Arwyn very, very hot.

She perched on her stool, opened the comic, and started to read. She read slowly because she took the time to examine each frame and appreciate the detail put into each character and the background. Every page had eight or nine works of art and she knew most people who read them would just skim right over it. Not her. She appreciated the effort. And it wasn’t like she didn’t have the time to linger.

She sold a few gallons of gas, a handful of candy bars, and some bottles of pop. A few people stopped to chat with her but for the most part the transactions were quick and professional. It was a small town but she wasn’t overly interested in gossip. She knew if she gave some people an inch they would take a mile. Once the line was crossed she would never be able to extricate herself from the rumor mill without crushing a few feelings on the way. It was easier to just keep the line strong and firm.

Her lunch was a sandwich and potato chips, which she ate without leaving her station. When she was finished she got a bottle of pop from the cooler and knocked the top off using the churchkey attached to the side. She went to the window as she took her first drink. She spotted movement on the road leading out of town and watched as the small moving object transformed into an actual person. At first she could only make out the barest of details, but slowly the pedestrian came into focus.

Black hair hanging loose on her shoulders. A purposeful stride, indicating she was either determined to get somewhere or eager to get away from something. She swung her arms, her hands balled into fists, like pendulums that swung with each step. It was almost a march except she didn’t lift her feet high enough. She was wearing a yellow dress under a black leather jacket. Erica thought it made her look like an upturned daffodil with some electrical tape wrapped tight around the stem.

Erica watched for almost five minutes until the girl reached the edge of the gas station’s parking lot. When it was obvious she intended to come inside Erica left the window and went back behind the counter. She was on her stool when the door swung open and the girl entered the store. The sweat on her forehead had captured a few strands of hair and stuck them to her skin. She grabbed a handful of the hair and pushed it up so that it fell sloppily over one side of her face.

“Payphone?”

“Back there.” Erica pointed at the back wall near the video rentals. The girl muttered a thanks and fished into her pocket as she crossed the store. She found a quarter and pushed it into the slot, leaning one shoulder against the wall as she angrily dialed a number. She turned, her free arm held across her chest. She looked out the window as she waited for an answer, her bottom lip pushed out as she tapped her foot against the floor. After a few minutes she rolled her eyes and turned to face the phone, but she didn’t speak for a few seconds. Erica assumed she’d reached an answering machine.

“Scott, your dumbass brother did it again. I’m at a gas station in…” She looked at the walls for some kind of sign, then turned and lowered the receiver to her shoulder. “What’s the name of this town?”

“Paisley.”

“Okay, Paisley. Come and get me. Oh, and Jeremy is probably halfway out of the state by now, so you should probably hurry.” She hung up and walked back toward the front of the store. She put her hands on her hips and looked out the window as if she expected her ride to already be there. Her eyes were as dark as her hair, and even in her anger there was a slight upward tilt to the corners of her mouth that made her look bemused. She had a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks, and Erica could see them continue on her chest before the dress got in the way.

“Run out of gas?”

The girl looked at her as if she’d forgotten she wasn’t alone. “Yeah. Jeremy swore he had enough to make it to the next town. Then he swore walking to the next town was closer than coming back here.”

“How far out were you?”

She looked at her watch. “I’ve been walking about forty minutes. Maybe two miles?”

Erica hissed. “That direction, the next town is ten miles away. So if you were two miles out, your friend Scott has an eight mile trek ahead of him.”

“Good. Serves him right.” She pushed her hand into her pocket again. She produced a handful of change and counted it carefully. “Damn it. How much is a bottle of pop?”

“Just take one. You could probably use something cold to drink after your walk.”

“Thanks.” She went to the cooler, chose a bottle, and held the glass against her forehead and throat before she popped off the top. She took a long drink before she walked back and placed the coins she’d found in her pocket on the counter. “Just so I’m not a total charity case.”

Erica nodded and swept the coins up, depositing them in the register. She was a few cents short, but she was willing to overlook the difference.

“So I guess it wasn’t exactly a friendly drive.”

The girl scoffed and shook her head. “You could say that again, sister.” She leaned against the counter and rested her hip against the counter. She put down the bottle and extended her hand. “I’m Evelyn, by the way.”

Erica held out her hand. Evelyn’s palm was moist and cold from the bottle. “I’m Erica Beth. Like Elizabeth, except Mama got her way when it came time to naming me.”

“Daddy wanted Elizabeth?”

“Yep. Mama comprised, except not really. Everyone just calls me Erica anyway.”

Evelyn smiled. “I probably should’ve asked before I told Scott I was here, but do you mind if I hang out a while?”

“Sure, no problem.”

“Thanks.” She sighed heavily and reached up to fuss with her hair. “I won’t get in your way if someone comes in.”

Erica said, “Thanks, but the odds on that are pretty slim. It’s usually slow in the middle of the day. People are usually at work or at school. It’ll be nice to have a little company. Usually I just have to read comic books to pass the time.”

Evelyn nodded and glanced down at the open comic on the counter. Her expression shifted suddenly and she lifted the front to look at the cover. Her irritation shifted to excitement.

Fly by Nyte. I haven’t seen this one yet.”

Erica’s eyebrows rose. “You like comics?”

“I mean… I’ve looked at them. My brother…” She looked at Erica, furrowed her brow, and shook her head. “What am I doing? You’re reading it, too. Hell yes, I like comic books. This is one of the best ones. Ever since Arwyn showed up…”

A spark lit in Erica’s eyes. “Arwyn is the whole reason I started reading it. I had to go to five different shops to find all the back issues so I could catch up. I got all of them except–”

“Number five,” Evelyn said at the same time as Erica. “Yeah. Good luck finding a copy of that. I actually had to mail away for it.”

Erica felt like she’d been punched in the chest. “You have a copy?”

Evelyn looked up and a shock of hair fell across her eye. She smiled like someone who had just gained the upper hand in a fight.

“Oh yeah. Mint condition.”

“I hate you.”

Evelyn laughed. “You helped me out with the pop, so I owe you one. Next time I come through here I’ll bring it by. I’ll have to stand guard while you read it, of course.”

“That would be awesome. Wow. Thank you.”

“Thank you for the drink. And for making me laugh after a truly awful morning. It’s the least I could do. Only problem is I’m not sure when I’ll be coming back.”

Erica shrugged. “I’m here almost every day, seven to six.”

“Long day.”

“Well, it only averages to about three hours of work per day.”

“And all the comics you want.”

Erica said, “Yeah, that’s a perk.” She paused. “How long do you think your friend will be?”

“Scott? He’ll be at least an hour. Maybe longer since he’ll probably go find his dumbass brother first. I may have to beg another bottle off of you.”

“That’s fine. While you’re waiting you can grab another copy and we can read it together.”

“Really?” Evelyn wiped her hand on her jacket and went to the comic rack. She took a copy off the shelf and brought it back to the counter. “How far are you?”

“Page thirteen. I’ll wait until you catch up.”

“Thanks.” She shrugged out of the jacket and draped it over the counter as she flipped the cover open. She rested her elbows on the counter and started reading. Erica watched her, the tips of elfin ears poking out from the curtains of her hair. All the anxiety and angry tension had faded from her. Gone was the fist-swinging dust devil who had swept down the road and in her place was a gleeful little girl who had already made it to page three.

Erica smiled and settled in to wait for Evelyn to catch up with her.

#

“You’re wrong.”

Erica raised her eyebrows. “Wow. Not even room for compromise?”

Evelyn shook her head. “It almost destroyed Arwyn’s character. I would have hated her if that storyline lasted more than five or six issues. She betrayed all of her friends by sleeping with the guy whose sole purpose is to destroy them.”

“She didn’t just hop into bed with an evil person. Look, he saved her life. At the time she thought her friends had been killed and she was alone in the world. She was scared and he gave her a safe place to go. I’m not saying it’s ideal, and I’m glad she eventually regrets what happened after she leaves him. But under the circumstances, I can sort of understand why she had feelings for him.”

Evelyn said, “So it was Stockholm syndrome.”

“Partially. But it was also… I mean…” She looked down at the comic. “I mean, sometimes you can’t choose who you fall in love with. Even if everyone around you says it’s the wrong person and you shouldn’t feel that way… it doesn’t stop how you feel.”

“I guess so. It was just bizarre to see her and Cascarino being all cuddly with each other.”

Erica nodded her agreement. She left unspoken the fact that she had really appreciated that storyline because Arwyn spent a great amount of time half-naked. The initial catastrophe that left her isolated had burned away most of her clothes, leaving her in a ragged shirt and trousers. When she began falling for Cascarino, though their love scenes were always tastefully left to the shadows, there were enough curves left exposed to fuel Erica’s imagination. And there were the post-coital panels, when a lean, muscular leg would extend from the blankets, or Arwyn would wander out of the bedroom wearing only one of Cascarino’s shirts.

“So if you didn’t like that, what was your favorite storyline?”

Evelyn thought for few seconds. “The training sequence.”

Erica said, “Oh, God. So boring.” She actually didn’t feel too strongly about the training sequence, but she felt obligated after Evelyn had reacted so antagonistically toward her choice. The training was from issues eight through thirteen. For the most part it was fine. Arwyn learned to control her powers while the rest of the team was given a chance to reveal their deeper selves to the reader. Erica liked it because the storyline gave a lot of time to Arwyn and a teammate named Rona. She doubted the writer would actually have a same-sex relationship between them, but it was fun to read between the lines. The training storyline had given her a lot of lines to read between.

“It’s not boring,” Evelyn was saying as Erica was remembering a certain panel where Rona had stood behind Arwyn, hands on her hips. “It sets up everything for the rest of the series. It introduces everyone so we’ll know who we’re dealing with in the future.”

“I didn’t say it was unnecessary. Just that it was a bit exposition-y for my tastes.” She remembered a scene where Arwyn was coming out of the shower with a towel wrapped around her, and Rona stopped her so they could talk. Oh, what she would have given to see Rona peel the towel away.

Evelyn started to say something in response, but a truck pulled into the parking lot and began blaring its horn as it pulled into a spot right in front of the door. Evelyn’s expression shifted again, twisting into an irritated scowl.

“I guess my ride’s here.” She lifted her hand and motioned him inside. She looked at Erica again. “This was a really shitty day, but you saved it. I would have said that was impossible, but you managed it. Thank you.”

“Thanks for keeping me company.”

As the owner of the truck came inside, Evelyn said, “I promise I’ll bring number five so you can check it out.”

“Cool. Thanks.”

Evelyn looked at the guy. He was their age, maybe a bit younger, and dressed like a typical high school boy desperate to look like he was hip. He flipped his hair out of his eyes and held up the bright red jerrycan. “Hey. I need five dollars on gas for my idiot brother’s truck.”

Evelyn said, “And you owe her for two bottles of pop.”

Scott frowned. “What? I didn’t buy anything. I just got here.”

Evelyn said, “Your idiot brother stranded me here, so it’s his fault. Two bottles of pop.” She picked up the comic. “And this comic book.”

Jeremy obviously knew her well enough to know fighting was a lost cause. He reluctantly took out his wallet and approached the counter. Erica added up Evelyn’s purchases, handed over Jeremy’s change, and smiled at her new friend when Jeremy’s back was turned.

“Come again.”

“I will.” Evelyn lifted the comic in a farewell gesture as she followed Jeremy outside. He went to the gas pumps and filled the can, then placed it in the bed of the truck. Evelyn got in and slid to the center of the seat, putting her next to a passenger Erica couldn’t see through the glare on the glass. The truck backed out of the lot and turned down the road where Erica had first spotted Evelyn what seemed like days earlier. The dust cloud hung in the air for a few minutes after they were gone, and when it finally dissipated it was as if the truck had simply vanished off the face of the world.

The store seemed utterly still and quiet with Evelyn gone. Erica came out from behind the counter with a weary sigh. She picked up the broom and started sweeping the floor to get her mind back on work.

#

Erica warmed up a frozen dinner when she got home and ate it in front of the TV. The further she got from the time she spent with Evelyn the more surreal it seemed. Why was she wearing such a fancy dress? Where had she and Jeremy been going down that long dusty road? At the time she had only noticed Evelyn looked amazing, but in retrospect she looked amazing because she was all made-up. Her hair was done, her makeup was on… she was on her way somewhere when the lack of gas sidetracked her. Whatever Evelyn’s plans had been, she didn’t seem too put out by missing them.

After her shows ended, Erica showered and dressed for bed. She pulled out her box of comics and thumbed through them until she found the first issue with Arwyn and Cascarino’s romance. Cascarino wasn’t necessarily a bad guy. Sure he was a villain, but he had righteous causes and a believable arc. That was one of the things Erica liked about the comic. Just because he was the antagonist didn’t mean he was a mustache-swirling Snidely Whiplash. The writers didn’t have to change his character to justify Arwyn’s feelings for him.

Erica reread the first issue of the story and then went back to appreciate the art. She focused on the first shot of Arwyn post-catastrophe. One cup of her bra and her lean abdomen were revealed by a wide cut in her shirt, and a few more spots of flesh were revealed by scorch marks and missing buttons. Her dark hair was uncharacteristically loose and wild around her face as she climbed to safety. Dark hair like Evelyn’s, Erica thought before she could stop herself.

She flipped through the book, to the point where Arwyn reluctantly allows Cascarino to take her somewhere safe. She found a later chapter and thumbed through until she found the first kiss. The lip lock took up a full third of the page, with Arwyn’s horrified reaction following. “You’re the last person I should want to kiss!”

“Why is that?” Cascarino said.

“What would everyone say?”

Cascarino put his hands on Arwyn’s shoulders. Erica could almost feel them on her own shoulders, could imagine the solid presence of him behind her.

“If your primary concern is what other people will think…”

Arwyn turned in his arms and looked up into his eyes. “Shit,” she whispered, the lettering so tiny it was hard to read. And then they were kissing again.

“It’s not that simple,” Erica whispered. “It’s easy to say you don’t care what people think. It’s a whole different thing in practice.”

Still, she flipped the page and examined the panel where Arwyn slipped off her clothes in front of a man who, a handful of issues back, had been her team’s sworn enemy. Things could change. Circumstances, the way you saw a person, the way you felt about people. Arwyn’s body was shaded heavily to prevent nudity in the comic – although they were pressed hard against the line of what the censors would allow. Erica dragged her finger down the character’s spine and imagined she was doing it to a real person.

A person like Evelyn.

Erica closed her eyes and moved her hand between her thighs. She rubbed gently through her sweatpants and imagined the possibilities. She had spent an entire afternoon with her alone in the gas station. In another world, a more cinematic world, they would have locked the door and gone into the back room instead of talking about comic books. Of course the odds of someone as gorgeous as Evelyn being interested in her – or even being gay – were slim to none. But in fantasies, anything went.

She imagined herself taking off Evelyn’s jacket, sliding down her body to lift her dress to kiss her thighs. No, not yet, she scolded herself. First kissing. She could imagine the taste perfectly: sweat and sun-kissed skin, the quick flicker of tongue against her lips. No. Not aggressive. Once things got underway, Evelyn would be timid and shy. Erica bit her lip and whimpered as she imagined herself in Cascarino’s place, her body pressed tightly against Evelyn’s, their breath mingling warmly between their faces. There would be sweat on their upper lips and Erica would softly kiss it away before she whispered, “It’s okay,” and stroked Evelyn’s hair.

Evelyn looked enough like Arywn that the fantasy tended to blur between the two. She pressed the heel of her palm against her mound, her other hand pushing the comics out of the way so the pages wouldn’t get crinkled. She rocked her hips forward and whimpered as she imagined her hands peeling away the yellow dress and kissing the freckle pattern on her chest.

She climaxed quickly, biting her bottom lip and furrowing her brow as her body contracted around her midsection. Her toes curled and she made small thrusting motions with her hips throughout her orgasm. When she could once again relax, she stretched out and draped her arm across her forehead. She had pleasured herself many times with thoughts of Arwyn, either ravishing or being ravished by the sultry superhero. But rarely had she ever been so completely superseded by a real person.

As Erica drifted off, she found herself almost hoping Evelyn reneged on her promise to return with the elusive issue number five. It would be better if their relationship began and ended with an unexpected afternoon spent talking about comic books. Anything beyond that was far too rife with potential heartbreak.

#

Erica was busy with customers during the afternoon rush, so she didn’t know Evelyn had returned until a well-worn envelope was dropped onto the counter in front of her. She looked at the faded address written on the front of the padded manila paper before she looked up to see who had delivered it. Her spirits soared when she saw Evelyn’s smile. It had been a week since they met, and Erica had almost given up hope on a second meeting. Evelyn’s hair was pulled back tight so it didn’t look quite as impressively wild as it had before, and she wore a green IZOD shirt tucked into tight jeans.

“What’s this?” Erica said.

“Number five,” Evelyn said. “And hi.”

“Hi!” She picked up the envelope and looked inside. The elusive comic was nestled within and safely enclosed in plastic with a rigid backing so it couldn’t be bent. “Wow, you keep it in the envelope it came in?”

“Keeps it from getting sun-damaged. I spent a lot on that thing. I want it to be as pristine as possible.”

Erica said, “Then maybe I shouldn’t read it.”

“Don’t be stupid. If it doesn’t get read, then it’s just a waste of money. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get back out here.”

Erica glanced at the address on the front of the envelope to see just how far away Evelyn lived. The first thing she noticed was Evelyn’s surname – Holland – before reading the name of her town.

“Pleasant Plains. That’s, uh. Far.”

“Yeah. Kind of.” She shrugged. “But I promised I’d bring you the comic, so…”

Pleasant Plains was also a college town, and extremely expensive. Erica had once gone there to see a movie, and she couldn’t even find a restaurant in her price range afterward. She looked at the little green alligator on Evelyn’s shirt. She thought about the last time she had tried to find a copy of issue number five and feeling dismayed the lowest price was a hundred and fifty dollars. All the pieces fell together and she realized that Evelyn Holland was, without a doubt, rich.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Uh… so how are we going to do this? I don’t want to borrow it and then never know when I’ll see you again. I could just read it here, but then you’d be waiting around…”

“I don’t mind waiting. We could talk about it when you’re done. If you don’t mind me hanging around.”

“No. It’s fine. Yeah. Okay.”

She took the comic out of the envelope and carefully removed it from the protective sleeve. On the cover, Arwyn was placed behind the actual lead character, Eamon Quinn. They were still wearing their civilian clothes – uniforms weren’t introduced until the next issue – and gazing in horror at something outside of the page. “THEY THOUGHT THEY WERE READY…,” was written across the top of the page. In large red letters across the bottom of the page it continued, “THEY’RE ABOUT TO SEE HOW WRONG THEY WERE!”

Erica looked up and realized Evelyn was still standing in front of her. “Oh. Um… if you’re going to be here, you should probably have someplace to sit. Come around here. You can have my stool.”

“Are you sure?”

“Sure. Come on around.”

She slid off the stool and Evelyn moved it a few inches away so she wouldn’t be blocking the cash register. After a moment to appreciate that she was finally about to experience the lost issue, she opened the cover and looked at the front page. She remembered the fourth issue began with the team aboard their ship blissfully unaware of the unknown vessel closing in on their position. The fifth issue began with a shot of Arwyn from behind, naked and reaching into the shower.

“Whoa.”

Evelyn chuckled. “Now you see why the issue is so hard to find.”

“I guess so.” She hoped she wasn’t blushing too much as she read the yellow boxes that revealed Arwyn’s thoughts as she stepped into the shower. Pages two and three continued her inner monologue, this time with her anatomy strategically covered by text boxes and steam. Erica stared at the page for almost a full minute before she realized she wasn’t actually reading anything. She skipped the text and moved on to the next page, where thankfully Arwyn’s shower was interrupted by an alarm klaxon. She wrapped herself in a towel and hurried to the common area to see what was happening.

When she arrived on page four, the team turned and stared at her state of undress. To Erica’s eye, Rona seemed to be shocked to the point of bashfulness. She wished she had the time to really examine the image, to pick up on all the nuances of Rona seeing her new friend and teammate half-naked and dripping on the floor, but she was far too aware of Evelyn watching her read.

A customer came in and interrupted her reading. Erica paused reading to ring the man up.

When he left, Evelyn said, “It’s really great watching you read the comic and knowing you get it. You know? None of my friends get it. They call them my funny books.” She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “Philistines. But you get it. It’s so great to watch you enjoy it.”

Erica smiled. “Yeah, I don’t have a lot of friends who are into it, either. Well, not a lot of friends period.”

“Really?”

“I spend most of the day here, and then I go home and I relax. I’m not exactly a social butterfly. I prefer to be alone, you know? So I can just… shut everything off and have quiet if I want.”

Evelyn blew air through her lips. “Wow, quiet. There’s a concept. Sometimes I wish people came with mute buttons, you know? But anyway, speaking of quiet, I’ll shut up so you can keep reading.”

Arwyn unfortunately found time to change into her clothes by page seven, and Eamon was talking to the captain of the ship that had caused the alarm to go off. She was torn between wanting to read as quickly as possible and savoring the experience. Issue five was her holy grail, and she was actually holding a copy of it. It had irked her before to not own a copy… now that she knew how much skin Arwyn showed, it would be painful to hand the comic back when she was done reading it.

“It’s weird to see them all so…”

“Inexperienced,” Evelyn said.

Erica nodded and turned to the next page. She had to stop again when another customer came in, and she turned on the pumps for him. He came in, bought a pop, and left.

“You know, you drove all the way out here just to share the comic with me. Do you want something to eat before you go back? We may be a tiny little town, but we’ve got a few good restaurants to choose from. You like homemade hamburgers? French fries as thick as your thumb?”

“You’re making my mouth water.”

“Well, as a thank-you, I’ll buy you dinner when I get off work.”

Evelyn smiled. “That would be great. Thank you.”

“My pleasure. Now let’s see if I can finish this before another customer shows up and interrupts me again.”

#

Evelyn shook her head. “You’re wrong.”

“Did we even read the same comic? How could you not see that Eamon and Patricia are meant to be together?”

“Because that’s not their dynamic. That is not their chemistry.” Evelyn leaned forward. “Look, issue twenty-one. He called her his family. Just like the rest of the team.”

“He went into a methane-filled room to save her life. He was home free and he risked his life because he couldn’t bear to be without her.”

“Eamon went into that room to save her because she was a member of his team. That’s it. If Conor had been in the same situation he would have done the same thing.”

Evelyn shook her head again. “No. Nope.”

Erica sighed. “Then who do you see Eamon with?”

“Arwyn.”

Erica was sure she would give something away with her face. “No. I don’t think… no, that doesn’t work for me at all.”

They were sitting at a two-top table under the window in a restaurant near the train tracks. It was a quiet, uncrowded place with enough empty tables between customers to give the illusion of privacy. The walls were lined with framed editions of the local paper and photographs of the owner and his family. Behind the bar, the raucous noise of the kitchen provided a bit of white noise to the dining experience.

Evelyn had driven them there in her truck with Erica’s bicycle tucked in the back. The comic book was nestled safely in its wrapping in the glove compartment. Erica felt self-conscious about being there in her work clothes, but Evelyn didn’t seem to mind, and her opinion was the only one that mattered. They had devoured their burgers and fries – which Evelyn agreed were almost worth the trip all by themselves – and were now nursing their fourth refills while discussing the characters that had brought them together.

With the lull in their conversation, Evelyn glanced at the window and suddenly straightened. “Shit. It’s dark outside.”

Erica looked and nodded. “Yeah.”

“You can’t ride your bike home in the dark. I’ll give you a lift.”

The thought of Evelyn seeing her trailer filled her with dread. She wasn’t ashamed of where she lived; she had bought that trailer herself and she was damn proud of it. But someone from Pleasant Plains would judge her for it no matter how nice she was on the outside. “I don’t…”

“Nope. We’re going back and forth and it’s my turn. I brought the comic, you bought dinner, I’m taking you home. Come on.”

Erica paid and walked outside with Evelyn. “It’s not really that dark. And you have a long drive ahead of you. It’s really no big deal. I ride my bike at night all the time.”

“Don’t be silly.”

Erica sighed and surrendered to the inevitable. She got into the truck and began directing Evelyn through the streets of town. When they reached the turn for the trailer park she fought the urge to tense and pointed.

“Left here.”

“Okay.”

She guided Evelyn through the narrow one-lane streets and into her driveway. Evelyn parked and said, “You know, there’s something you could do to lob the ball back in my court.”

“Oh?”

“I have to use the bathroom.”

Erica grinned. “Right. Uh, okay.” They got out of the truck and Erica led her up the stairs. She unlocked the door, turned on the light, and pointed. “Down the hall, on the left. You can’t miss it.”

Evelyn nodded. “Okay, thanks.”

As soon as she was out of sight, Erica began tidying up the couch and coffee table. She threw away a takeout container, stuffed a few glasses into a bag, and tossed it into the kitchen to be dealt with later. She heard the toilet flush and looked for anything incriminating as Evelyn came back into the main room. She smiled and Evelyn adjusted the bottom of her shirt.

“I love this place.”

“You do?”

Evelyn nodded as she looked around the trailer. “Yeah. It’s perfect. You have what you need without all the… waste.”

“And it’s easy to vacuum.”

“Yeah,” Evelyn laughed. “Well. I better go. Thanks for dinner.”

“Thanks for the comic.” She said what popped into her mind as soon as it formed, not giving herself a chance to back out. “You know, as late as it is, if you wanted to crash on the couch… I mean, you could use my phone to tell people where you are. But… it’s a long drive, and you’re probably…”

“Wow. Um.” She chewed her bottom lip and looked at the couch. “I think a night away from home is exactly what I need. Thank you, Erica Beth.”

For some reason, the use of her full name made her feel awkward and bashful. “Sure. I’m sure I have a shirt that will fit you if you want pajamas.”

“Thanks. You said I could use your phone…?”

“Yeah, it’s right in here.” She went to the kitchen and turned on the light, patting the wall next to the phone. “Call whoever you need. I’ll go find a shirt for you.”

“Cool. Oh, and bring your comics. If I’m staying the night, I want it to be a real slumber party.”

The idea almost made her giddy. “Okay. I’ll be right back.”

She went into her bedroom and leaned against the door. It was the first real moment she had been alone since Evelyn popped up with the comic, the first time she could really focus her thoughts, and she closed her eyes as she processed everything that had happened during the afternoon. It was so much like a date, so much like a perfect date, that acknowledging the truth almost hurt. She pushed away from the wall and quickly shed her work clothes, trading them for pajama pants and a lightweight top. She found a few shirts that could double as sleepwear and draped them over the milk crate that held her comics. The anxiety of what could never be faded as she thought about spending the night geeking out over her favorite comic with someone who wouldn’t think her childish for being so excited for the “funny papers.”

She could accept the fact Evelyn would never be her girlfriend. Just being her friend was enough for her. She smiled and carried the comics out into the living room.

Evelyn was on the phone with her back to the room. “No, I’m just staying with a friend. No, mama.” Her shoulders heaved with a sigh. “Mama, don’t start.”

Erica remained where she was, uncomfortable with announcing her presence and shamefully curious about the rest of the conversation.

Evelyn listened to the woman on the other end of the line and then said, “I can have friends, can’t I? Just one friend? Is that so bad?” She listened. When she spoke again her voice was slightly louder, angry. “Fine. I’ll just come home. Fine!” She hung up the phone and turned to see Erica watching her. “Sorry about that.”

“Sorry for eavesdropping. So, um.” She nervously patted the clothes she’d brought out. “I guess you have to go?”

“No.” Evelyn gestured at the clothes. “I’ll go in the bathroom to change.”

“Are… but you just said…”

Evelyn crossed the room and took the clothes. “I told her where I’d be. If she wants to worry when I don’t show up, that… it serves her right.”

Erica said, “I don’t know…”

“You don’t know anything about what’s going on, so maybe you shouldn’t try to get involved.” Evelyn’s kind tone took some of the sting out of her words. Some, not all. “I want to stay here tonight. I want to stay up way too late and talk about comic books. I want to have fun. I’ve had more fun with you today than I’ve had in a long time. I don’t care if my mother wants me to come home this instant. I’ll go back tomorrow.”

“Okay.”

“So I can change…”

“In the bathroom. Yeah.”

Evelyn took the clothes and smiled as she stepped around Erica to go into the bathroom.

#

They ended up talking for close to two hours, Erica’s comic books spread out between them on the coffee table like a hand of cards. They discussed favorite and least favorite storylines, shuffling through the stack to find evidence to support their claims or refute the other person’s. Even when they disagreed they did so in good humor. Soon their conversation broadened to other topics.

They were sitting on the floor, empty cans of pop standing on the coffee table like distance markers. Evelyn sagged against the couch, one elbow propped against the cushion and her hand buried in her hair. “If you could have a superpower, what would it be?”

“Invisibility,” Erica said. “That was the one I always hoped for when I was a kid. Just slip through the cracks, no worries about people making fun of me for my hair or because I was too chubby. Just moving through the world without worrying about all the eyes, you know.”

Evelyn nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah. Although I really like your hair.”

Erica reached up and rubbed the peach fuzz at the base of her skull. “This is relatively new.”

“My point stands.”

“Yes, it does. So how about you? What superpower would you want?”

Evelyn didn’t hesitate. “Flight. I want to fly.”

“Yeah. I can understand that. I’ve never even been in a plane.”

“No, not like that. Anyone can fly in a plane. I want to really fly, you know? Wind in my face, untethered. That’s what I want. I just want to go as fast as I can and see how far I get.” She got a faraway look on her face, and Erica let the moment linger until Evelyn returned from whatever mental expedition she’d been on. She looked at the comics and smiled. “I think you have the biggest collection I’ve ever seen outside of mine.”

“I’ve been collecting for a while.”

“Obviously.” She started to say something else, but her statement was hijacked by a yawn. She fanned her fingers across her lips and smiled sheepishly. “Heh. I guess we should call it a night at some point. Thank you for letting me crash on your couch.”

Erica stretched as she got to her feet. “Sure. I usually wake up around six. Is that too early?”

“No, it should be fine. I have to get an early start anyway.”

“Okay. Bathroom is through there if you want to take a shower. Towels under the counter. Kitchen, um. There’s soda and stuff in the fridge if you want a midnight snack or something. We can have breakfast before you go, if you want.”

“I do. Goodnight.”

“Night.”

Erica went into her bedroom and sagged against the door. She closed her eyes and sighed as if she had just escaped a near-fatal incident. She left the light off as she crawled under the blankets, flipped onto her back, and stared up at the ceiling. Evelyn was her friend. Against all odds, they had somehow become true friends. And there was no indication Evelyn was just being polite about the trailer; it didn’t seem to affect her one way or the other that Erica lived in a house on wheels. No judgment and no haughtiness, a beautiful girl who liked comic books. It would be pushing her luck to hope Evelyn also liked girls. She had gotten enormously lucky with her new friend. She wouldn’t risk ruining it all by making a move.

She had almost drifted off when she heard the bathroom door close. Seconds after that, the shower started running.

“Ah, fuck.” She rubbed her hand over her face, images of Arwyn in the comic blending with the reality happening just on the other side of her wall. Evelyn, undressing, pushing aside the curtain and ducking her head under the spray… She’s using my soap. Rubbing it over her hands and then soaping up her arms and her chest… She whimpered softly and covered her head with the pillow to muffle the sounds, hoping that the silence would help quell the fantasy.

Finally the water shut off. Erica tucked the pillow back under her head and closed her eyes. If she could just have a few minutes of silence, she could forget about her guest and fall asleep. She heard a quiet hiss, followed by the same sound a second later. She lifted her head and looked at the door. Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, but the bedroom door was still a blur of shadows against darker darkness.

“Evelyn? Is that you?”

“Yeah. I didn’t want to wake you up if you were asleep, but there’s something I wanted to say. Can I open the door?”

“Yeah.”

The door opened and provided a bit of light from the living room to wash inside. Apparently Evelyn had left the lamp by the couch on, and now it shone around her body like an angelic aura. She was, of course, dressed, but Erica couldn’t deny she was a little disappointed to see her in the nightshirt. Her fantasies had involved far less clothing between them.

“What’s up?” Erica said.

“My life sucks. A lot. You know Scott and Jeremy, the boners who caused me to get stranded here in the first place? Jeremy’s mom is my mom’s best friend. When we were tiny fucking babies, they decided it would be super-cute if we ended up getting together. So ever since I hit puberty they’ve been pushing us together. Everyone I was interested in at school, Mom would tell me how Jeremy was so much better than him in some way or another. It drives me insane because Jeremy’s super-fucking onboard with the idea because I’m hotter than anyone he could get on his own…”

Erica chuckled.

“Anyway. Sorry. I’ve never really had a chance to talk about this with anyone. And it’s a lot easier to talk when I can’t really see your face. I just needed to vent a little bit. Thank you for letting me cling to you all day.”

“You were doing me a favor,” Erica said. “You’re the coolest person I’ve ever met. Even if you do have some whacked ideas about Eamon.”

Evelyn laughed. “That’s another thing. Mama doesn’t think comics are ladylike. She keeps telling me she’s going to go into my room one day and just toss them all out so I can focus on better things. So I want to give you issue five.”

Erica’s eyes widened in the dark. “Hell no. No, you can’t do that.”

“I want you to have it. You obviously appreciate it. You need the complete set. And at least if it’s here I don’t have to worry about it being thrown away.”

Erica wanted the comic, but she could tell from Evelyn’s voice that it was tearing her apart to give it away. She sat up and rested her arms on her knees.

“How about this? I’ll keep it here, but it’s completely still yours. You can come visit it whenever you want. I’ll just be keeping it safe for you.”

Evelyn said, “I couldn’t impose.”

“Hey, impose? I’m just trying to force you to come visit me a lot. My life isn’t that great, either. I live in a trailer…”

“Don’t say it like that,” Evelyn said. “You live in a trailer. Do you have any idea how much I want this? Just hook up a truck and… go? I would kill for that kind of freedom. Even if I never went anywhere just knowing I could…” She rested her shoulder against the door. “I’ve spent my whole life locked in. Your house has wheels. I really fucking wish I had wheels.” Her voice broke on the last word and she turned her head to the wall.

Erica got out of bed and went to her. She nervously wrapped her arms around Evelyn’s shoulders, and Evelyn sagged against her. Erica closed her eyes and smelled Evelyn’s scent, her fresh and soapy post-shower smell wafting around her like a cloud. Evelyn put her arms around Erica and squeezed. a

“I’ll be your wheels,” Erica said, and immediately hated herself for it. So ridiculous and trite, but it was out there now and she couldn’t take it back. “Whenever you need to get away, you can come here. I’ll let you forget for a little while, if you want.”

Evelyn sniffled. “Thank you.”

“Sure.”

“I really do want you to have the comic.”

“Thank you.”

Their hug shifted slightly, changing from support to a simple embrace. Evelyn moved her hands up Erica’s back, and Erica rested her chin on Evelyn’s shoulder.

“I’m really glad we met,” Evelyn whispered. “You’re the best person I’ve met in a long time.”

Erica smiled and pulled back. She kissed Evelyn’s cheek, surprised to find tears there, and then brushed her hair to tuck it behind her ear. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

“Can I sleep in your bed?”

Everything in Erica’s mind shouted no, the angel on her shoulder warning her that the temptation would be too much to deny.

“Yeah,” she said. She took Evelyn’s hand, walked her to the bed, and waited for her to get under the covers before joining her. The angel, her first piece of advice discarded, tried to salvage the situation by suggesting full disclosure. If she told Evelyn she liked women, it would make things less awkward. It would at least give Evelyn enough information to decide if she was comfortable sleeping with her. But she kept mum as Evelyn squirmed into a more comfortable position against her. Evelyn’s knee bumped hard against Erica’s stomach.

“Sorry…”

“It’s okay. Didn’t hurt.”

“Erica…”

“Mm-hmm.”

Evelyn was silent for a long time, then she shook her head. “No. Nothing. I just wanted to say thank you again.”

“You’re welcome.”

Erica wasn’t sure when Evelyn fell asleep. After a few minutes she was just aware that her breathing had become steadier and there was a low growl in her throat that threatened to turn into a full-fledged snore. She smiled at the knowledge that Evelyn snored. Finally a chink in the armor, she thought. She kissed Evelyn’s cheek once more, her arm resting against the curve of Evelyn’s hip as she closed her eyes. It had been a long time since she’d shared a bed with someone, and she assumed that plus her conflicting feelings for Evelyn would make it almost impossible to fall asleep.

As it turned out she fell asleep faster and slept more deeply than she had in a very long time.

#

In the morning Erica woke with Evelyn’s weight against her back. She remained as still as possible, one hand tucked under her pillow, wanting to prolong the moment. Erica was facing the wall and she could tell that Evelyn was very loosely spooning her. It felt so incredibly nice that it made Erica oddly depressed. Maybe because she knew it couldn’t last and would likely never be repeated. She didn’t even want to risk reaching for the clock to see what time it was because she feared shifting her weight would jostle Evelyn enough to wake her up.

It all turned out to be moot, however. Not long after she woke, a very alert-sounding Evelyn whispered, “Are you awake?”

“Yeah…”

“I thought so. Your breathing changed.”

Erica rolled onto her back. Evelyn’s hair was an absolute horror show, and one cheek was still lined from where it had pressed against the pillow. Evelyn smiled.

“Morning.”

“Good morning.” She rubbed at her eyes with the heel of her hand. Evelyn didn’t seem in any hurry to get up, so Erica remained where she was. They lay on their backs, Erica’s right arm resting comfortably against Evelyn’s left, their heads turned to face each other on the pillows. Erica waited for Evelyn to say something, to start a conversation or say she had to go, but Evelyn didn’t oblige her. They just looked at each other for long enough that Erica started to get uncomfortable.

“Have you ever kissed another woman?” Evelyn asked extremely softly.

Erica blinked. “Yeah.”

“I thought so. Sorry. I didn’t mean… but I…” She swallowed and said, “You kind of look…”

“No offense taken. It’s the hair, right?”

Evelyn laughed nervously. “It was kind of a red flag. But it didn’t seal the deal.” She looked away, toward the foot of the bed. “There are a lot of things I’m not supposed to think about or talk about. I’m supposed to follow the blueprint Mommy and Daddy set for me when I was little. I’m supposed to take over when their generation is gone.”

Erica said, “They want every generation to be exactly the same as the last one? Sounds stagnant.”

Evelyn nodded. “Maybe I could talk them into letting me marry someone besides Jeremy, but if I said I sometimes… that I sometimes thought about…” She pressed her lips together. “There are things we just don’t talk about. There are roads we don’t even consider taking.”

“I got a trailer. You ever think about taking one of those roads, let me know and I’ll take it down off the blocks.”

Evelyn met her eye and smiled. “Thank you, Erica Beth.”

Erica said, “Have you ever kissed a woman?”

“I’ve never kissed anyone but Jeremy.”

“Well. If you ever want to–”

Evelyn closed the distance between them and pressed her lips to Erica’s. Erica had been caught mid-word and closed her mouth around Evelyn’s bottom lip. It wasn’t a passionate kiss, and therefore it wasn’t a very good one. It wouldn’t go down in the annals of the best kisses in Erica’s life for any other reason beyond who she shared it with. They held the kiss for only half a minute without pushing it further. Evelyn was the one who ended it by returning to her side of the mattress, her brow furrowed but her mouth definitely curled into a satisfied curve.

“Were you going to say ‘kiss someone’?” Evelyn asked.

“No, actually. I was going to say if you ever want to get away for a night or something, you can always come here.” She reached up and pushed Evelyn’s hair out of her face. “Kissing isn’t necessary, but the management does appreciate tips.”

Evelyn laughed. “And we can talk about comics.”

“Or whatever.”

“I like whatever.” She found Erica’s hand under the blankets and linked their fingers. “I wish I didn’t have to head back so soon. I want to spend more time with you.”

Erica said, “Well… do you have to? I was thinking there was something I could show you.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” She pushed the blankets away and sat up. “Get dressed.”

#

The road marked the town limits by cutting a line through a wheat field. The wheat was tall and formed undulating walls on either side of them. Erica’s bicycle was parked at the intersection and faced north, with almost three hundred yards of two-lane macadam in front of it. Erica had offered padding and a helmet after she explained what she wanted to do, but Evelyn refused. “The helmet would kind of defeat the purpose. If I fall, I fall. I can live with some scrapes and bruises. It’s about time I got scraped up in this life.” She sounded excited, and her eagerness rubbed off on Erica. They had reached the lonely stretch of road in Evelyn’s truck, which was now parked off the shoulder so it wouldn’t impede traffic.

Erica straddled the bike and held it steady as Evelyn perched on the handlebars. She scooted back, and Erica couldn’t help but notice the way her pantyline was revealed against the seat of her pants. She focused and gripped the handlebars.

“Here you go… put your hands on top of mine. Squeeze the right one to go faster, left one to slow down. All right?”

Evelyn nodded. “Yeah.”

“Ready?”

“Yeah. Let’s go. Make me fly.”

Erica pushed off with her foot and began pedaling. Flying was impossible, actually lifting off the ground and defying gravity was outside the realm of possibility. But someone had once said riding on her handlebars felt like flying, so she figured it was as close an approximation as they could get. Evelyn’s hands were warm on hers, her thick hair whipped and enveloped her head like a living spider web, obscuring her vision but giving her just enough sight to keep the bike steady. Evelyn squeezed to go faster, and Erica began pumping as fast as she could.

Another squeeze for faster. “You sure?” Erica said against Evelyn’s ear.

“Make me fly, Erica Beth!”

Erica grinned and stood on her pedals, pressing herself against Evelyn’s back for leverage as she turned her pedaling into a run. Evelyn whooped and leaned back against her, and Erica rested her head on Evelyn’s shoulder so she could see ahead of them. She didn’t know what their future held, didn’t know if the kiss in her bed had been their first and last or just the first of many. She didn’t know what would happen when or if she met Evelyn’s parents. The future was all forked roads and branches, tributaries and potential outcomes. She had no idea where they would end up or what hard decisions they would have to make in the course of their friendship.

The only thing that mattered was right now, and right now… they were flying.

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