At seven in the morning, Eden had left her home, and the first thing she felt was relief. The eighteen-year-old carried nothing with her, casting a hopeful glance at an empty suitcase before shutting the door. She'd lived in a six-room house with five other inhabitants for the past year, six if you counted the cat.
It had been years since Eden was able to walk over her current home's lawn or driveway for reasons other than to get on the bus or inside the family car. School days had been a thing to look forward to, a reprieve from the demands of parents and siblings. But if things went well today, she wouldn't have to live with them for much longer.
Eden's escort was waiting by the crumbling curb. He had become taller after his nineteenth birthday, but she still had an inch over him. As usual the young man greeted her with a familiar smile, brushing a lock of dark hair off his forehead. "Morning, Eden."
"Nice to see you again, Isaiah. I see Alex isn't here?"
"No, I doubt he's even out of bed yet. We stayed up way too late last night."
There was an affection in Isaiah's eyes that was omnipresent when he spoke of Alex. The lock clicked on the faded blue door to the car and Eden got into the front seat. It wasn't Isaiah's car, it belonged to his mother, but she'd never stopped him from using it, so over time her son grew to regard it as his own. It would need to be so. If everything was right, in two more days Eden, Isaiah and Alex would be living together.
Or at least that was what the boys had often promised her once their friendship became solid. Eden had never taken these assurances too seriously and wasn't sure she should, since she had no way of paying rent. Still, why else would Isaiah be taking her to his house but to discuss plans?
In ten minutes they pulled into his driveway. His house felt welcoming- well-lit, quiet, and no cranky old tomcat patrolling the halls. Isaiah's parents had left some time ago and if his story was correct, he'd been living by himself. Eden didn't know all the details, but judging how Isaiah closed up and changed the subject every time she mentioned it, he didn't want her to.
To their surprise, Alex was waiting on the couch. He looked up as soon as the door opened and had Isaiah in a tight hug by the time Eden had removed her shoes .
"Never late for anything, are you?"
"Remind me who was three days away from getting perfect attendance last year."
Isaiah gave Alex's collar-length hair an affectionate rub, and Eden was more than happy to return the hug he gave her. All three of them made room for each other on the one available couch. Alex was no longer overweight, but still took up more space than his wiry boyfriend. On the upside, having a healthier frame added to his good looks.
"So, do we have a plan for what's going to happen, or are we just gonna go with my idea?"
Isaiah was looking at Eden, who withdrew her gaze from Alex's face and cleared her throat.
He nodded as if expecting something.
"You mean me living with you guys?"
His smile restored, Isaiah nodded again.
"Yes, exactly. Have you been able to find work yet?"
It was quite literally a dream come true and Eden was too thrilled to answer. Only when Alex encouraged her with a gentle "We won't know until you tell us" could she articulate herself.
"Er... To be honest, no. There aren't a lot of opportunities here, so I may as well wait until we've moved. If I know for sure when if I'm getting accepted to work, I'll tell you guys. For now I guess I'll just stay at home until then and keep in touch."
"Can you clean our apartment, though?" Alex asked.
"What do you mean?"
"It's not a hard question." he hid a giggle behind a hand. "I mean, do you know how to keep a house clean? If you can do the laundry and vacuum and stuff, it'd make our lives a lot easier. Even if you can't find a job right away I'm sure we'll be fine on our own."
"I guess it couldn't hurt to see what I could do."
Eden could feel her blush even though she knew how modest that was. She'd been keeping her home clean for so long that everything to be cleaned, rearrange or organize had been ingrained into her schedule. It was like she could no longer endure untidy environments. This morning she hadn't left until the dishwasher was emptied, the dryer and washer were running, the boot room was tidy and Tom's litter box was clean.
"Then why not come along tomorrow?" Isaiah said, and when she raised her eyebrows he added, "No, I'm completely serious, Eden. You remember what I told you? I've been wanting to see you away from your family since Alex told me about them."
Since he was sitting closest to her, Alex could see the shock in Eden's eyes before she took off her glasses to wipe them with a finger. He asked if she was feeling okay, suddenly fearful that Isaiah had upset her somehow.
"I've never felt better."
Her lips curved up so much both boys knew the sentiment was real. Isaiah chuckled at the awkward sight of a girl in the arms of someone she was half a foot taller than, but when Alex kissed her forehead he gave a quick warning.
"Alex, relax. I know she's pretty, but get a grip."
"Oh, fine. But I've seen your house before. I want a place like that to come home to every night."
He released her and Eden reciprocated the brief peck, this time on his cheek. Isaiah rolled his eyes. It was rare for Eden to be called pretty or attractive but there was something about her short hair, dark eyes and androgynous shape that Alex found lovely. At times, Isaiah could agree, although he was embarrassed at how often he used to teased her for looking like a boy before they became friends.
Alex draped an arm across her shoulders as Isaiah switched on the TV. The three of them stayed like that until Eden's mother called and asked her to come home a few hours later, but for once she wasn't sad to leave her only friends. For what felt like the first time in her life, she finally had a lucky break. -
The next day started at six in the morning. Rising an hour early and slipping on the nearest pair of jeans, Alex waited in the living room for a quarter of an hour. Thanks to doing physical work five days a week, Isaiah had always been a late riser. Many times before, he had lectured him about the vitality of sleep until Alex insisted he would fall asleep faster as long as Isaiah kept repeating himself.
"So, I know Eden's probably coming by later today." Alex told Isaiah once he was finally awake. "She called me last night, home phone of course. I don't know how she's getting here though, so I can't give a specific time."
Isaiah looked skeptical, but it might have been drowsiness making him squint.
"She knows where to go, right? Someone needs to get that girl a phone."
"I think so. If she's taking a taxi she can tell them where to go."
Isaiah's blue eyes had narrowed, and he waited to make sure he had Alex's attention. When he wasn't interested in something, Alex had the habit of staring into space or smiling at some amusing fantasy.
"I want to remind you, you're going to have to be firm with her. I'm not having anyone take advantage of us, it's not like we have the easiest life as is. And I know this is Eden, but still, she seems like she doesn't have the best judgement. You know what I mean?"
"Yeah, I know." Alex said, barely resisting the urge to laugh. "I mean, if we're going to have a roommate, it should be someone we know well, right? And I don't think Eden's the type to live badly. She's taken care of herself pretty much her whole life."
Isaiah's stern face softened to his familiar fond smile, the usual expression he wore when he was about to give praise.
"I'm sure, but it doesn't hurt to remind you. Remember how we got together? You weren't too open about liking me until I asked why you never looked at my face when we were talking."
"I'll never forget that."
It turned out that the apartment was better than they hoped for. There was a large bedroom the boys would share and a smaller one that would be for Eden, a kitchen, small dining room and bathroom with a shower. The renting costs had gone down weeks before they planned to move in, so Isaiah's hopes hadn't been higher than his own home.
Eden wasn't there yet, which was expected. Isaiah busied himself unpacking the clothes they'd brought and putting them into the wardrobe while Alex made the beds, opened windows, made a shopping list for the future and got in what little conversation he could.
"Not bad at all, isn't it?" Isaiah called from the hallway.
"Just wait until you see how clean Eden's going to keep it."
Alex grinned, then nearly toppled down from the stool he'd been standing on to rearrange the sheets on a high shelf. Once he'd forgotten his embarrassment, he remembered to check his phone in case Eden had one now and remembered his number. Back at home, she always said paying the monthly bill when there was no one to text or call but him was too much, and she needed money for food, more clothes or new shoes for one of her siblings. Being an only child, Alex had often wondered what her life was like.
Around noon there was a loud knock, and Eden entered the apartment with an overstuffed backpack and carrying a suitcase that looked ready for the trash any day. Alex helped heft the overstuffed weight off her shoulders, faintly worried she'd suffered an injury from the sheer weight.
To his relief Eden stood up straighter and rolled her shoulders, clearly relieved to have the weight off. Nothing was broken.
"No problem, glad you're here."
Alex invited a hug and Eden took it for a second with her free arm, stiffening when his hand brushed her back.
"Yeah, spending over an hour in a taxi with this on your back isn't fun. Where can I take these for now?"
"Just to the spare bedroom."
Having only a desk and dresser barely big enough for all her clothes before, Eden was relieved to see her new space and sat down on the unmade bed. It was bigger than her old one and about twice as thick and she wanted to fall asleep on it right now.
"Well, you look happy with it."
Alex's voice made her look up. Eden nodded, getting up to close the curtains before sitting back against the pillows.
"Thanks so much for this, Alex. It really means the world to me. I never thought I'd be living in a place like this two days ago."
Isaiah's voice floated down the hallway. "You just need to get a phone sometime."
"I'll try." Eden said, and the look on her face made it clear she didn't want to do any such thing when there were beds to sleep on. "You have anywhere to put my clothes for now?"
"The linen cupboard will do, it's in the laundry room." Alex said, hoping she'd know where that was. He was quite tired himself and was welcoming the thought of relaxing for the day.
Eden went and didn't actually sit back down for almost two hours. Not only she breeze through sorting all the laundry, she swept and vacuumed the floors, cleaned the bathtub and showed Alex how to arrange the dishes in the washer.
"You've just got it all covered, haven't you?"
Eden looked flattered, some color coming to her pale face.
"I'm not trying to be. I doubt you guys will feel like doing housework after a day of work."
"You've got that right, but for tonight, you get the first shower."
Just as grateful as Eden for relaxation time, the two boys settled on the couch in front of the television. Alex, only half-watching the news, found himself momentarily curious about something he couldn't define once he heard the bathroom door close. But his curiosity faded when he went to the kitchen to make lunch- she'd even polished the sink and organized the contents of the cupboards.
Fifteen minutes later Eden emerged from the bathroom in a robe and nightclothes, carrying the wet towels and clothes to the laundry room before joining the boys on the couch. Alex's eyes widened- she was going to sit next to him barely dressed? But Isaiah waved his hand, moving aside a bit to give her room.
Eden sat down next to Alex, asking before taking some of the salad and a sandwich and Alex felt a pang of sympathy. It had always worried him how thin Eden was. He expected her to start listing off what else she was going to do for the day for conversation, but she only asked if Alex rinsed dishes before putting them in the washer.
"Of course. You're just running yourself ragged worrying about this, aren't you? You sure do have a knack for worrying."
"Good thing I'm not disappointing someone for once."
"What? When have you ever been a disappointment?" Alex asked, genuinely puzzled. "You're one of the most capable people I know. Don't talk about yourself like that."
Eden didn't reply, although she still smiled and lowered her face as Isaiah added, "I agree. If you can keep the house half as clean as it is now, I'm fine with you staying here as long as you want."
"Yeah, I can do that. Your bathroom's nothing like mine, I can give you that much."
Eden shuddered inside as she remembered the times she'd cleaned off dirty bath water, dark sludge and the rare spot of blood from her bathtub. No one else seemed to know how to do it and she'd once spent a spare period in school printing off instructions to learn.
"We're not as bad as the kids, I hope. Just make sure you teach Alex at some point 'cause he didn't know how to do anything when I started taking him to my place."
Isaiah gave a friendly nudge with his elbow, and Alex returned it with twice the force.
"I can't help it if my parents were never around! That, and you were spending too much time all over me after a while."
Although Eden tried to laugh, her stomach sank all of a sudden. Alex and Isaiah were a couple, even though it had always been hard for her to see them as such. She didn't like to remind herself that they would be doing a lot more than friendly nudges and hair rubs together.
"... and I swear, if I'd ever come in there back when you had Mary over or something-" Alex was saying before Isaiah interrupted.
"Hey, you know I don't like talking about that. It was only for a few months. We didn't even do much more than kissing before I found out she was whoring herself out for some other guy she apparently loved more than me."
"Don't call her that."
Eden spoke so firmly they both stopped. Isaiah's eyes widened, then narrowed again.
"I know you two were friends, Eden. I get that. But Mary's not exactly good for committed relationships. I think she doesn't even understands what they mean."
"But you have to know, she had a really rough start. Her family hated her. Getting love from people somehow was the only thing that kept her going, she told me that so many times."
"Well, I guess that excuses everything."
Isaiah shrugged, clearly not wanting to hear anymore. Eden either didn't see it or didn't care, because she continued in an even more indignant tone.
"There's that, and no one ever taught her what a relationship really meant. Her mother was alone, she never met her dad. She said I'm the only real friend she's ever had."
There was a brief, tense silence and Isaiah might have shot Eden a glare. It was hard for her to see in the fading evening light. Eager to break the atmosphere, Alex offered his thoughts.
"Let's just not talk about this, guys. It's in the past. It's not going to make anyone happy. We have a clean, new apartment and why not celebrate that? And Eden, you can head to bed anytime you want."
"Thanks, I will."
The corners of her mouth lifted again, and Alex quite unexpectedly pulled Eden into a hug as a way of helping her realize it was okay. He was warm, gentle, something she had so little of recently. She would have fallen asleep in that pose if Alex didn't get up to change, or if Isaiah wasn't sitting two feet away the entire time.
For the first time, he was feeling a trace of doubt. Isaiah loved Eden as a friend, almost as much as Alex, but the last time he trusted a woman he'd learned about Mary's infidelity after the fact. That night would always be a stain in his memories. He was relieved when at nine, Eden rose from her spot and said she was going to sleep.
It was hard to return to her own bedroom even though it was clean and prepared. She fell asleep after an hour lying in the clean sheets and listening to the drone of the television, wondering what it would be like to sit with Alex like that all night long.
The boys did the same not long after. Isaiah stayed put for a few minutes while Alex changed and remade their beds, thinking about Eden. He wished he hadn't waited so long to think of discussing it again with Alex.
But it was too late to back out now. Eden had moved in, she was comfortable and there was nowhere else for her to live permanently. It was a fact that neither Alex nor Isaiah wanted her living in a crowded home where she wasn't given love- and it wasn't every day they'd have an unpaid housekeeper of her caliber.
Life settled into a predictable routine during the week. Alex and Isaiah worked for at least part of the day on weekdays, and expected days off on weekends. In the meantime Eden spent her hours attending to duties: keeping every surface spotless, the linen cupboard as full and organized as possible, preparing many lunches and dinners and, whenever she needed a break, searching for work with Alex's laptop.
The prospects were dim, but Eden's spirits were high in this new home. The boys would greet her every time they arrived after work, avoided pressing her when she didn't want to discuss difficult topics like her family, and always insisted that she was working too hard. Eden would shrug and accept the compliments with quiet modesty, never letting Alex see how wide she would smile.
Seven short days later the sun rose on the far side of the city, and Eden was dressed before the boys stirred in their beds. Making coffee, wiping the tables and dusting the TV were all done before they came into the dining room to tell her today's plan.
"Alex should be home at around one or two if he doesn't have another shift. I just need the laundry done." Isaiah was saying, looking in every drawer with increasing desperation for an unused comb.
"Consider it done, I won't need to go anywhere." Eden said, pleased at the thought of relaxing for most of the day. "Unless you guys need me to shop for anything."
"Not today, no. We'll do that together this weekend."
Alex strode in and handed Isaiah the comb he'd been pocketing all along with a smirk.
"Eden, if you could make sure he doesn't borrow my combs again-"
"My hair's getting longer, I can't help it. As long as it's off my collar I'm safe."
"That's no excuse to make me go broke keeping your hair smooth."
Laughing, Alex wrapped his arms around Isaiah's waist and bestowed a long kiss on his lips, which was reciprocated eagerly. At that Eden glanced out the window, not wanting them to know her face had turned as pink as the shirt she had on.
"Anyway, take care of the place, Eden. I'll see you in a few hours!"
Alex called from the doorway, and Eden answered with a wave. He probably couldn't see her face from there.
"For sure, and thanks again!"
That morning was a long one. Searching for something out of order, Eden got a better look at the boys' house in a few hours than she could remember of the last one she lived in. There were books on dusty shelves among graying directories, an array of soaps, lotions and shampoos in the bathroom and a clean- if somewhat bare- fridge.
As much as Eden wanted to leave the lonely place once everything was tidy, it would be too much trouble before anyone else was home. Feeling vaguely bored, she sorted the bookshelves in the living room until a dusty green book fell into her lap. Even though she knew what it was, Eden opened it up to a random page, curiosity overriding her guilt. Alex's favorite color was green.
On the lined page, his neat handwriting spelled out a few sentences. The entry was dated May 23rd, 2013, and Eden felt her heart stop. She remembered that day. It was when she'd heard from everyone in her third block that Alexander was gay and had shoved a girl onto an icy road when she tried to kiss him, blurting out that he "didn't like girls" before leaving her there.
Of course, that wasn't the truth. Thankfully, Alex had the presence of mind to tell Eden what really happened before school ended, rather than try to have a phone call with her after hours of confusion. In fact, he had lightly pushed away Mary when she threatened to out him to the class and put her hands on his waist.
Still, he wouldn't approve of Eden reading any other entries. Putting the diary back, she decided that if he noticed anything, she'd tell the truth to minimize any damage. Alone with her thoughts again, she sighed, gazing at the empty room and wondering what to do now. The silence was so complete Eden nearly cried out when the door opened with a slam.
"No, I'm that stranger you saw yesterday and I just happened to have the key."
Alex came in with a laugh and Eden's breathing resumed. That was close.
"It looks brand new in here. No one phoned us, right?"
"No, it's been so quiet."
Alex kissed the top of her forehead before he hung up his jacket. "First you call me every single night to talk for two years, now you're keeping my house looking great. Sometimes you're just the sweetest."
Eden tried to answer promptly, but her throat had been clogged with an invisible substance. She'd better stick to basic phrases.
"H-how was work?"
"It's work, I guess. Not busy today at least. Hope you don't mind making dinner for us?"
He was taking off his sweater and Eden caught a momentary glance of his bare stomach. It didn't help the situation in her throat.
She would have asked what he wanted, but he tossed her the dirtied shirt with a playful grin and she nearly missed it.
"Yeah, just put that in."
The shirt was the only piece of laundry that wasn't clean. There was little else to do until Isaiah arrived home and Eden's heart was shouting at her to join Alex. He was in his usual spot, supplied with a can of what was probably beer. As she took her seat, he stretched out his arms and brushed straying black fringes off his forehead.
"Did you do much while I was out?"
"No, nothing exciting."
Looking into his eyes would reveal her feelings in a second. Eden shrugged and looked down, waiting an uncomfortable moment before adding "I have a sweater in the wash and I didn't bring over any others. It's a little cold in here."
"Well, not anymore."
Alex pulled her under his arms and Eden became tense. He was closer than she could ever recall, including that time she'd suffered a fall in gym class on the ropes. Alex's face had been the first she saw once she came to- only this time, her back didn't feel like it was broken and no one was gawking at her like she was a zoo animal.
Even though the television was blaring, neither of them were watching it. Eden couldn't tell if Alex's hands were resting near her hips by accident or he was thinking about what she was. Willing him to kiss her again, this time on the mouth, she tried to talk in a casual tone.
"So, what was your first kiss like with Isaiah?"
"It was the day I told him I liked him."
Alex closed his eyes at the memory, leaning back. "We just kissed in front of my house for a while. Nothing too special, I guess. It was like my heart stopped for a whole minute when I realized he wanted to kiss me back."
"That sounds about as good as first kisses get. I wonder if I'll ever have mine."
"You've never been kissed before?"
Eden gave an exaggerated sigh, sitting back in Alex's arms. Once they tightened around her, she was sure that he was comfortable.
"No, I was kissed before. I don't want to talk about it."
She shouldn't reveal now that she'd willingly lost her virginity to an imposing boy she barely knew in the school's washrooms. After their first class together he had confessed a crush on her, and almost immediately couldn't keep his hands off. At least she had moved away before things got complicated between them, and Eden was no longer sure how she felt about those vivid memories.
"Fine by me. I never thought mine would be with a boy."
Alex said this half to himself, his voice dreamy. Until she opened her eyes, Eden didn't realize he was looking at her. She may as well say it when no one would hear her.
"I wanted mine to be with you, Alex. I always have. There's been no one else I loved like you, not to the point where I wanted to kiss them. No one but you."
It was a certainty that she'd regret this later, but the words were coming out faster than Eden's sense of judgement could restrain. Alex seemed to be processing them, his face flushed and the murmurs from his chest becoming faster.
"How come you never said so before?"
The words felt strange on his tongue. That was the exact same thing Isaiah had said after Alex admitted his own feelings.
"I didn't think you liked me back. Not in that way. Especially not after what Mary said, but before that I never really saw you be affectionate. Not with girls."
There was a weird and not entirely unpleasant feeling in Alex's gut, like the one time he'd been drunk during a post-graduation party. Closing her eyes, Eden sat up and touched her lips to Alex's chin. There was a twinge of fear in his eyes, a second of hesitation, but it faded before she pulled back. They both knew what the other wanted and would not give it, not yet. Not even though Alex had never felt a girl's lips against his own, Eden wanted him, and right now nothing else mattered.
Her hands were circling his waist, holding on to his hips. Something within Alex, perhaps a secret fear, said not to resist. He closed his eyes and let her kiss him deeply, half-wanting to push her off. The feeling faded more every time she broke the kiss and then made it deeper.
Before he knew what was happening, Eden had removed her glasses and was pulling at his shirt, wanting him to take it off. Sitting up for a moment to undo her own, she shuddered when his lips again touched hers. In a flurry of panicked lust, all Alex could think was how Isaiah had never kissed him with this much desperation, and how pleasant her smooth, bare skin felt under his hands.
They broke apart minutes later. Alex had been shaking uncontrollably, not used to the feeling of Eden's body, and instead of moaning in pleasure she had cried out in pain whenever he tried to move. The noises made Alex feel sick to his stomach. Eden had tried and failed to console him by immediately redressing and attempting a hug before she fell asleep on the couch.
Alex tried to rest as well, but couldn't. Not where he was. Hoping he wouldn't wake Eden, he draped a nearby blanket over her. At least for now, she looked peaceful.
Finding a towel and clean clothing, Alex stumbled into the shower and spent longer washing his body than ever before, including when he'd fallen into a muddy pond as a child. When the images of Eden's naked body came back to his mind at the sight of his own, a sob threatened to emerge from him. He felt heavy and almost bloated, even though the last thing he ate had been breakfast.
"I just have to stay calm." Alex whispered to himself once he stepped out of the water. "I just have to tell Isaiah as soon as possible. She may not have been in the right mind..."
He tried to comb his hair even though his hands were shaking. Calling Isaiah now would end the suspense, but he wouldn't be able to answer and there was too much to say anyway.
In twenty minutes Alex had sent a message: Please come home as soon as you can tonight. I need to talk about something important with Eden. He'd probably be able to guess what happened just from those words.
With a sleeve Alex dried his eyes and lay down on his bed, feeling internally dirty, as if he hadn't bathed in weeks and the dirt settled underneath his skin. It was like the filth would be there forever, no matter how hard he tried to wash it out.
It could have been hours later when he heard Eden stir. There were the noises of her getting out of the blankets, then nothing. Alex assumed she was going to shower as well, and once more the images came back. He'd never seen that side of her before and it was bizarre enough to make him shudder.
Sitting up, Alex glanced at the clock. Only two, Isaiah would be a while. Would Eden still be allowed to live with them? Would Alex be barred from talking to her? Could Isaiah possibly end their relationship then and there?
In his room, lit up with the afternoon sun, Alex fell asleep, his damp black hair all over the pillow. Once, Eden knocked and came in when there was no answer. She stared at her sleeping roommate for a few moments, her brown eyes unblinking, then left to wash the dirty laundry.
Alex had always been an easy sleeper because of his early bedtimes. Even today's event hadn't ruined that and he had no dreams, pleasant or otherwise. Isaiah hadn't answered his text when he woke up, so after steeling himself with a few deep breaths and calm repetitions of "I can handle this", Alex went to find Eden.
She was on the bed in her room, doing nothing but staring at the walls, her eyes tinged with red. It was the first time Alex could remember seeing Eden completely inactive. Without speaking, he sat next to her, wondering if he should touch her hand or shoulders as a silent sign of support without setting her off. The silence became stifling, and only an unintentional cough broke it after a few minutes.
"Are you okay?" Eden's voice was lifeless, as if she had no need for breath when she spoke.
"Yeah. How are you feeling?" One phrase from her, that was progress, Alex thought.
"I'll be fine."
If there was one thing Alex had learned about women, saying they were fine was almost always an indicator they weren't.
"Well, Isaiah will be home soon. I've told him we're going to talk about it."
Eden didn't answer, didn't even try to meet his eyes. The slump in her shoulders was obvious and alarming. Embarrassed, Alex retreated to the sofa, checking his phone once more to see if Isaiah had responded. Nothing, and he was due home any minute now. He must be busy tonight, or he already knew what was wrong and couldn't respond coherently.
To hide the trembling Alex pulled a blanket around himself. His stomach was roaring, but he had no desire to eat and what was a few pounds lost when weighed a hundred and sixty?
If his relationship really was going to end, maybe he could keep his job and find another place. Perhaps Eden could take him in, or he would live with her somewhere. Maybe as long as she still cared about him, he'd make it out of this okay.
But there was no more time to for his grim speculations to continue. The front door cracked open and Isaiah's voice rang out from the hall.
"Alex? You there?"
"Yes, I'm here." Alex's voice felt like it wasn't his own.
Eden had moved to the doorway, so stonefaced she might have fallen asleep standing up. She didn't look up as Isaiah gave a brief hug to Alex, even though he barely lifted his arms.
"Well, once again, awesome job, Eden." Isaiah said with a nod in her direction. "So, you said you needed to talk to me about something?"
Alex's heart stopped. This was it. His throat seemed to have frozen and he had to try several times to get the words out.
"Yeah, and I think it's best we do it right here, right now-"
"He just wanted to ask what you'd like for dinner tonight." Eden said, her voice as flat as before. The look she gave Alex was enough to tell him not to dare say otherwise. Isaiah raised his eyebrows, but looked too tired to protest.
"Oh, is that right? Anything's fine as long as you can make it as soon as possible. You're acting a bit strange today, both of you."
He left to shower, and the second the door closed Alex rounded on Eden.
"Why'd you do that? He has to know about this right now!"
"No, no he doesn't! Don't tell him. It won't happen again, I promise."
Eden was taking fast, shallow breaths as she spoke, her face drained of color. It had been months since he'd seen her this distressed and it was physically painful for Alex to say what he wanted.
"But... Eden, how am I supposed to trust that you will now?"
She didn't answer.
"I know it's hard, but we have to tell Isaiah what happened." Alex's voice got stronger. "I'll just... If it would help you, I'll say it was me who started it. H-he can't get that upset."
"Don't even think about lying like that! He wouldn't believe you anyway. "
"But how can I not-"
"Okay, fine! Just tell him! Let him kick me out of here, whatever. Doesn't matter what happens to me, does it?"
It was a miracle Isaiah hadn't heard them because Eden sounded like she would start sobbing if she said another word. Before he could try to calm her, Eden had retreated to her bedroom and wouldn't open the door, no matter how gently Alex knocked.
Eden had known she needed a phone for years, but this was the first time she was grateful for having one. With a shaky hand she dialed Mary's number, praying it would be her friend who picked up and not the boyfriend Eden hadn't met yet. Judging by what little she had heard about him, he wasn't the most patient sort.
"Eden? What's going on?"
It was Mary's voice, but she sounded like she'd expected not to be interrupted. Eden launched into her question without delay.
"I have to make this quick. You know how I've been living with Alex and Isaiah? I think I might have to leave now."
"What? First your parents, and now them? Are you serious?"
"No, not exactly. I can explain later. I have nowhere else to go."
"I guess it's fine if you stay here for a while." Mary sighed, her voice softening. "David's paying for me now, but I'm sure I can get him to make an exception."
"Thank you. Thank you so much."
"It's fine, but what's going on? You can tell me what's wrong, I can help. And I promise I won't make you feel any worse."
"I just don't have time and it's a lot to say."
Eden didn't realize she was crying until her voice cracked. She stifled a whimper with great difficulty, then let it come. When she thought she heard a knock on the door, reality returned.
"Sorry, I have to go. Leave your door unlocked if you go to sleep, please."
Mary didn't say anything more, and Eden hung up. There was a dinner to be made even though the only thing she wanted to do was let herself feel the guilt in full force. Other experiences at home taught Eden that crying always meant someone was going to interrupt and ask questions she never wanted to answer. After all, it wasn't like she could admit she'd tried to have sex with someone in a relationship to anyone in the world, let alone the person's partner.
In contrast to last night's easy chatter, tonight was quiet. Alex couldn't meet Eden's eyes and barely forced a smile when Isaiah asked him how he was doing, he looked a little out of sorts.
His eyes wandered to Eden for a moment. She gave him the hint of a glare.
"I'm fine. Just tired."
They said little else. Alex was half-sure that Isaiah knew what was going on and just wanted him to explain when Eden was away. She sat with her hands clenched firmly her lap and hoped Mary had the sense not to call again.
As soon as everyone was done eating and the dishes were put away in their correct spots, Isaiah stood with his arms folded in the kitchen doorway and said, in a low voice, that he knew something was wrong. A pang of nausea grew in Alex's stomach at the thought of lying to his boyfriend, and he tried to shake his head. "Nothing's wrong."
If Isaiah was impatient, he didn't show it as lifted Alex's chin and made him look into the eyes he knew so well.
"Alex, I'm not buying it. If nothing was wrong, then there's no reason why you've been so quiet all day. Eden, I could understand, but not you."
"I told you, he's just not feeling well." Eden had interrupted again. "But as always, he's acting like he's not so no one will worry. Seriously, Alexander. Swallow your pride for a moment."
Once more, Isaiah came to his rescue.
"You can sleep if you need, Eden. Probably a good idea to do it earlier."
He said this without once turning his head her way. Alex met Eden's gaze for a second, hoping she might stay.
"Thank you, I'm going to. Sleep well tonight, you two."
With only the quickest of regretful glances at Alex, Eden left. Isaiah kept his eyes on her as she went, shifting his concentration back to Alex after a few agonizing seconds.
"She's out of the way now. So are you going to tell me what's bothering you, or do I just have to guess?"
"Nothing." Alex mumbled, hardly able to believe what he'd seen. Wouldn't it look better if Eden told the truth instead of him, or at least admitted her wrong face to face?
"I know it's something. You don't need to act like I don't know you. Just tell me what's wrong in one sentence."
"Well..." Alex was aware that his hands were shaking again. "Well, for starters, Eden's lying. Sort of. I mean, yes, I do feel terrible, but not because I'm sick."
"Then what's up?" Isaiah said once Alex paused. He struggled not to stutter; asking Isaiah out years ago had not been half as difficult as this.
"While you were gone, a little while after I got back, I had a bit to drink and Eden said she was cold, so I hugged her, and held her for a bit. She was talking about how she'd always wanted to kiss me, and... and I kissed her back. Then she... then..."
He broke off when Isaiah let go of his hands, only the slightest change of expression in his face. It could have been because Alex's eyes were wet with tears. Again, Isaiah grasped his chin and made him look into his eyes, knowing no good person would lie in that posture.
"Alexander. Don't lie to me. Did you two do more than kiss?"
He nodded. It was rare to hear his full name from Isaiah's mouth.
"Do you mean you've had sex with her?"
Again, wordlessly, Alex nodded.
Isaiah didn't move, but when he opened his mouth nothing came out. Alex figured he might as well say the whole truth.
"She started it, but she didn't force me. All she did was ask."
"And you said yes?"
Isaiah's voice was so loud it brought Eden out of her hiding. She stood up straight and rigid a few feet away as if startled. Around her shoulder was a bag containing her wallet and buzzing phone.
"Yes, I did."
"So you're saying you cheated on me?"
"He didn't! " Eden's voice was shrill with panic. "I-Isaiah, I did it. Not him. I lead him on."
In an instant Isaiah was feet away from her.
"What made you think it was okay? Because he's with a boy and should try out a girl at some point? I don't need that and you know it. There's no excuse for either of you doing this, so you know what? I'm not hearing any!"
"But it wasn't his fault. Please, don't break up over this, for the love of God. I won't be a-able to live with myself."
Eden tried to sound firm, but Isaiah's glare stopped her. His next sentence was little more than a whisper.
"You know what, I think you're no better than Mary, not after she..."
Isaiah stopped because Eden began to cry, her normally stiff shoulders quaking.
"If... If you think we're breaking up, no. Not unless this happens again. So can you please just explain what happened, from start to finish? At least someone told me right away this time."
The shift in tone didn't console her. With a look that was half terror and half shame, eyes wide and mouth a pronounced, open-lipped frown, Eden turned and in a moment the front door slammed. Her jacket was done halfway down, unfastened buttons dangling. She didn't even remember to lock the door.
Sighing, Isaiah finally saw Alex's look of shock. Kneeling next to him, he spoke in the softest voice he could manage.
"Like I said, I am not breaking up with you, alright? You know I love you, Alex, and I don't want to give up on someone who means so much to me after one mistake. I just need to think and hear about it all."
Through his tears Alex managed a nod, and Isaiah smiled at the sight for a moment.
"Now, I'm going to go find Eden, I won't be long. Stay here and call me if she comes back, I know you can do that for me."
With that he left in greater haste than Eden, not wanting to waste any more time. Alex could see it in his boyfriend's eyes and face behind the anger. He was worried, and no one needed to say why.
Before Isaiah made it to the ground floor Eden was gone. She found a bus at the stop a minute away, paid the meager fare with the last of her change and rode to the poorer side of town. Her insides were twisting with guilt like a horrible illness, and she was so pale in the long car ride the driver offered to take her to a clinic.
"No thanks, I'm alright."
Eden spoke as slowly as she could manage. Finding an empty seat, she sat down and looked out the grimy window at the rolling buildings. No one sat next to her, but as the bus neared a stop, Eden sensed a pair of eyes on her neck.
Turning her head revealed the owner, and he wasn't familiar. Looking old enough to be in college, the stranger's hair- jet black like hers- was tidier than hers on a good day. Lean and slouched, his pale eyes were narrow and searching, as if he knew her better than she would expect. Eden was immensely relieved when the bus halted across the street from where Mary was living.
Her steps shaky and difficult, she trudged into the cramped lot, dimly aware of how she knew this neighborhood. It wasn't far from her home. Everything was the same here as when she was a child- the browning grass, the hum of cars, the sounds of children and the cool darkness of night. At any other time, the ambience would have brought her comfort, but getting to the front door was the longest five-minute walk Eden had ever taken.
Mary's apartment was on the second floor. There was only a moment to wait before its owner appeared behind the foyer door, wearing a robe. Eden's friend was an exceptionally small woman, a foot shorter than Eden herself. As she led Eden up two flights of steep, cement stairs, the exhausted woman's hope of not having to explain herself disappeared.
"Too much to say, I'm sorry."
Mary's house was better on the inside than the outside suggested. Not even in the mood to explain why her jacket was undone, Eden's relief at the soft couch was immense. Mary sat in silence while her friend removed her shoes, threw off the annoying coat and shut her eyes with a long sigh.
"Can you at least tell me why you're here?"
Mary switched on a nearby lamp so the room was softly lit. Wishing for a mirror and comb, Eden had to take several deep breaths before she could summarize her misdeed.
"Here's the short version. I was alone with Alex and I tried to have sex with him when we were alone."
"You're telling me they kicked you out for that? That's a bit excessive."
"No they didn't, but I'm not going back. They don't deserve me there. The one time it seems like I'm finally happy and look how fucking bad I've screwed myself over now."
A few warm drops hit Eden's clenched fists. It was impossible to get the images and sounds out of her head; Alex's body, the confusion in his voice, the physical pain.
"If they break up I am going to do it for real this time. I swear to god."
"Do what?" Mary lifted her head as Eden had shouted and not whispered.
"Nothing. Never mind. Just let me stay here, please. I don't know how long, I'll pay you back as soon as I can. All I want is sleep and I'll sort this all out tomorrow, I promise."
Mary's arms had touched her shoulders and Eden lightly pried them off. That was her way of saying that was no use trying to comfort her right now. Once she was sure she was alone Eden curled up, hugging her knees and pressing her face into the tattered fabric of her jeans. Shame twisted her stomach into a coil of nausea that would be there whenever she thought of Alex, and she broke down in suffocating sobs.
Isaiah didn't go back to the apartment until Alex texted him at eleven. He had drove many times down the nearest streets, surveyed the park before it closed and checked a few restaurants and bars to find Eden. With no sign of her, he prayed that she would reply to his messages and went back to the apartment, taking the staircase at a run.
"You heard anything from Eden?" he asked as soon as he saw Alex sitting on his bed. With closed eyes Alex shook his head, presumably feeling too guilty to speak.
"She better not have done anything stupid. I know she's tried before."
The was tangible panic fluttering inside Isaiah's stomach and knew he had to stifle it before it turned into an attack. He signified the promise not to discuss Alex's mistake with an arm across his shoulder, granting him the courage to speak again.
"I have an idea where she might be at. Mary's house. They're still friends, I think. Do you have her number?"
"Of course it has to be her... maybe."
Isaiah had to spend several minutes searching his contacts for Mary's number. He didn't want to be speaking to his ex after their breakup and it would be awkward to break months of silence in their messages. But Eden could be in danger, and Isaiah wouldn't forget his distress on the day she was hospitalized for a suicide attempt years ago. Speaking to Mary again couldn't be as bad as that day.
Miles away in her friend's bedroom, Eden was under blankets and wearing some of Mary's extra clothing, trying to ignore the pit in her stomach. She hadn't eaten since dinner, since there was no point if nothing would stay down.
Wide awake and maybe a tenth less sick than before, Eden wondered if Mary was asleep. If she wasn't they could try talking, or at least fall asleep to something on television. The silence here was as bad as her own house.
The phone ringing in the kitchen was as jarring as a passing ambulance. Letting her breath slow, Eden expected Mary to come running or yell, as her experience had been at home, and when nothing happened she threw off her blankets and answered on the fifth ring.
"G-good evening, may I ask who's calling?"
"Eden, is that you?"
Even in her haze Eden could recognize Isaiah's voice. It was comforting to hear him speak normally instead of struggling not to yell.
"What? How did you know Mary's-"
"Don't you remember that I dated her? I wish I could forget too. But I dug around for a while to find it, so don't even think about hanging up. If you're not planning on sleeping soon I want to talk."
"I'm not going to for a while, that's a promise."
With one hand Eden pulled out a chair and sat down, hearing Isaiah exhale a long hiss of breath over the phone.
"Thank god. You scared me for a while back there, I thought you'd done something stupid."
Eden said nothing, knowing he was referring to the time she missed a month of school. It wasn't as if the idea of repeating that hadn't come into her thoughts for a moment.
"Anyway, about what Alex told me. He said he didn't want to do it at first, is that true?"
"Yeah. We stopped after a few minutes."
"Good. That's what he said, too. You're okay, I hope."
"You won't think of any alternative is what you mean. Eden, honestly, I just want to know, why did you do that? You thought you could get away with it?"
"No. I knew I never could hide it. It was a heat of the moment thing, I really just wanted to kiss Alex at first."
Another sigh. Should Eden bring up the whirlwind sexual encounters with the only other boy she'd ever kissed?
"Isaiah, I'm telling you, it's not his fault. I couldn't control myself, so I'll leave you two alone. At least for a while."
"Hold on, I never said you had to do that." Isaiah's voice had lost its firmness. "I mean... if you want to spend time away from us, go ahead. But seriously, Eden, we... Alex and I kind of need you here. You've been such a huge help."
"I just made out with your boyfriend and you're saying all this to me?" Eden said in a flat voice, still not assured that all could be well.
"Eden, look. I'm not going to forget what you two did, but I'm willing to forgive if you won't do that again. Just let me know when you're coming back. That's all I want you to do for me."
For the first time in hours, Eden was no longer frowning. "Alright, I'll try."
"Then get a good sleep tonight, you need it. Goodnight."
Eden's chest was warm with relief when he hung up. Isaiah didn't hate her. It was doubtless she would have to redeem herself to earn back his trust, but now the only thing her mind had the energy to focus on was fall asleep. She did so in an unusually short time that night.
At six the next morning, Mary was awake. Her fingers trembled with worry as she scrubbed flecks of old nail polish away, promising herself she wouldn't paint them again in the forseeable future. David liked her to look "clean", as he put it, and she didn't want anything to possibly aggravate him when he arrived.
The knock on the door was sudden and loud, stimulating goosebumps on Mary's neck. She opened it with her head dutifully raised. At least her boyfriend's embrace was warm, but he only returned her hug for an instant.
"So what's going on?" His eyes were bleary and she noticed a tinge of red in them. Had he been out drinking?
"We have someone sharing the house. I don't know for how long. I tried to call you but I didn't get an answer, I'm so sorry."
By now Mary knew how to speak without betraying her fear. Unconvinced, David straightened the bow she was wearing without her permission and asked the dreaded question.
"Who is it? Do I know them?"
"Her name's Eden, she's a friend from school. She doesn't have anywhere else to go now."
"Why not? What's happened to her?"
Any feeling of ease Mary had in her faded. "She can't be at home, her parents kicked her out. She was living with friends but she left them too after... after she had sex with one of them."
"Wait, what? She's a cheater too?"
"Just let me explain... Okay, from the beginning, my friend Eden was living with Alex and Isaiah, they've been together for a while. Then when Alex and her were home alone one day, she kissed him and it... escalated."
Dave's eyes narrowed, and he spat the next words. "So you're sheltering a fucking slut is what you mean."
"No!" Mary realized she shouted when she thought she heard movement from Eden's room. "No, it's not like that at all."
"What am I missing, then? Girls who can control themselves don't make people cheat, Mary, and you know that. I'm not having you keep her here ."
"She has nowhere else to go!"
"She can go back to them, whoever it was, Alex and-?"
"Your ex? Have you been seeing him? Has he been talking to you? Show me your phone!"
David shouted a flurry of questions too quickly for Mary to answer. As the accusations of disloyalty began despite Mary's efforts to assuage them, Eden awoke. On any other morning she would have rose slowly, taking time to wake herself, but she recognized the familiar sounds of arguing.
Distinctly unnerved, she quickly dressed and managed her hair before venturing to the door. A second later it swung open. The man called David was the same stranger who'd leered at her on the bus ride to Mary's house, and now his face was twisted with fury.
There was no time for Eden to assess the situation. David's hand touched her shoulder and she shoved him away, stronger than her thin frame implied. She bolted down the hallway away from her attacker, yelling for Mary, blinded with fear.
A second away from opening the door to the hall, something knocked her to the hard floor. Semiconscious and powerless, she was lifted six inches by her collar.
"You want to be a slut, do you? Then I should make you one, here and now."
Eden didn't even wipe away the blood collecting above her lip. Her nose felt like it was damaged, and she waited in a paralysis of terror for what was next. What happened just before David could say anything else couldn't have been more welcome.
The unlocked door was pushed open and Mary entered with Alex beside her, having arrived moments ago to see Eden. He was exhausted from lack of sleep last night, but the sight of his friend, her face bloody and held at the neck by an enraged David, told Alex the worst had happened.
"Put her down. Right now."
It was a tone Eden had never heard before, even though David had released her and was glaring at Mary. Her hands shook as she lifted Eden to her knees, trying to wipe away the blood with a towel torn from the bathroom rack.
Alex didn't speak. He launched himself at David and struck him so hard across the face he stumbled. Momentarily surprised at his own strength, Alex recovered and tried to pin him, yelling loud enough to make heads lift in adjacent apartments.
"He's going to jail, I'm going to see to it! Mary, get Eden to the hospital right away, she's hurt!"
In a daze Mary obeyed, heading for the phone before she could hear David's demands to return. Eden tried to follow, and in a panic David shoved Alex aside with all his strength and tried to steer Eden away from the stairs. As if he were a venomous snake about to bite, she tried to push back, panic filling her veins. But David was many pounds heavier and far stronger than Eden, and instead of pulling her away, his shove sent her down the wide, cement staircase. All he saw was the fear in her eyes before there was a thud, a crack, and a silence.
Alex regained his feet, distangling himself from the stricken David. In the silence everyone was still, like startled rabbits in a field.
No one could see what happened unless they went down the stairs, so on unwilling legs Alex tried. He went down one step, then two, and three, and the sight made his heart stop.
"David. Look away."
Alex's voice was a croak, as if he'd exhausted it completely. Eden was lying feet away from him, sprawled on her back over the cement. She hadn't fallen very high, but the deadly impact had twisted her neck and her face was as white as the unmarked walls. One lens of her glasses had a spiderweb of cracks and the other was in shards.
"Eden, can you hear me? Open your eyes, please, please talk to me. Don't be dead. Don't you dare be dead."
Babbling in a kind of horrified stupor, Alex pressed his fingers to Eden's twisted neck for a pulse though he knew there would be none, then tried to feel her chest for breathing. Eden was completely still, eyes shut and beads of blood coming from her mouth and nose. A dark spot was growing underneath her hair and it made Alex feel like he would retch. A fall with that impact could have cracked her skull, or snapped her neck.
It was Mary. She was panting and trying to stem her bloody lip, trying to keep her voice audible. Alex couldn't say anything. Shock held him in a powerful trance, and all Mary had to do was look down to understand why.
The paramedics arrived in minutes. Alex and Mary had to leave the stairway as a crowd gathered where Eden had lay, strapping her limp form into a stretcher. She didn't so much as quiver when several pairs of hands forced her into an uncomfortable position, and Alex remembered how much Eden normally reacted when someone tapped her shoulder. He didn't want to believe that there was no way she could be alive, not without life-altering disabilities.
Once Alex reached the top of the stairs, David was walking defeated behind a police officer, head slumped and silent. Mary only let go of Alex's arm when another officer asked her if she could explain what had happened.
"A fight, sir. My boyfriend attacked Eden before Alex came, and they got into a fight. Then once she tried to break them up, he pushed her off the stairs by mistake. It was an accident."
"And how did this start, ma'am? Why was there a fight in the first place?"
"I told him why Eden was living here, sir."
In the emergency room, Eden had been moved to a gurney in the emergency room, deathly pale and lifeless. Her mechanically forced breaths barely had any effect when her heart had stopped long before. Since hitting the floor, her eyes had remained shut.
From the moment she had fallen, Eden's fate had been sealed. If she'd fallen forwards or landed on something other than her head, she might have lived, but nothing could be done. Her spinal cord had been snapped. After just thirty minutes she was pronounced dead.
Soon, the myriad of straps and ventilator were removed, leaving Eden's body lay uncovered. Her face looked strangely bare in the absence of her glasses. It was a morbid image and no one knew how to prepare the dead woman's closest friends for what they would inevitably see.
"David didn't do it on purpose. He's not an abuser."
Those ten words were all Mary had spoken. In another room, she and Alex were being examined. Her badly bleeding lip had already been bandaged. Alex sat mute, willing the moment to come when he could call Isaiah. He wasn't shaking anymore, but for the second time in less than a week he felt physically ill with dread. Just when he's started to get over the guilt of cheating, this had to happen.
"What's happened to my friend? Is Eden going to... is she going to be alright?"
Alex asked this once Mary had stepped away from the doctor. No verbal response, but to Alex's horror she had taken one of his hands, and answered after a moment of heart-stopping anxiety.
"Alexander, your friend didn't survive her injuries. We've done everything we can for her, but I assure you she did not suffer, not for any length of time. David may need to go to court, but he'll be in police custody until then. No one else will be hurt. I am so very sorry for your loss."
Neither Alex nor Mary heard anything after your friend didn't survive. The nurse tried to block his path but Alex had already gone halfway down the hall, face as white as the linoleum. Mary trailed behind with her hands below her chin, ready to cover her eyes the moment something upsetting appeared.
There was Eden's body, not yet covered by anything. The sight made Mary crumble. A rush of nausea erupted from her stomach and she shuddered violently, clutching Alex's outstretched arm for support. Turning away and half-leaning, half falling against a wall, as if his limbs refused to work anymore, Alex whispered "This isn't happening, this just isn't happening" over and over.
He shut his eyes, but Eden's face stayed there. Alex so badly wanted to do anything to soothe her- clear the blood from her face, comb her hair until it was tidy again. She couldn't be dead, not when she was alive and well a night ago. When a startled paramedic came in and Alex saw her broken glasses in a sealed case, Alex couldn't hold back his tears anymore.
Fifteen eternal minutes later, Isaiah arrived to bring them home. He deliberately avoided seeing Eden's body, telling the nurse he knew he couldn't handle it. It was only five minutes to the boy's apartment but was forever in the coming daylight, buildings and car passing by like an endless tape. Everything seemed duller now that Eden was dead.
Mary stumbled on the smooth carpet and Alex picked her up to her feet. Once they were inside their apartment, Isaiah helped her onto her bed, having rehearsed what he would say long before arriving at the hospital.
"Don't worry about what's going to happen yet, alright? I'll sort this all out. I just want to know what's happened between David and... and her."
Isaiah didn't sound confident, but at least he wasn't looking at Mary with disdain or hostility, which was a relief for her. Mary spoke with her head low and eyes unblinking.
"I told him why Eden was living there, and he snapped. He couldn't believe I was sheltering a cheater."
"This wasn't her fault-"
"I never said it was, that's just what he told me."
To the boys' surprise, Mary got up and stood in front of the much taller Isaiah, looking him in the eyes. She barely came up to his shoulders, but her voice was so firm it neared the tone of a violent threat.
"Isaiah, listen to me for one second. I know you're upset about this. I am too, and you're not as smart as I thought if you think I'm not. But there's no point in trying to find out whose fault it is. Eden's gone. David is going to prison. You two are going to be back like you were before, and as soon as I can leave this place, I will."
"That's not what I meant-"
Mary interrupted before he could finish, the floor now her object of sight.
"I want to go home, but I don't know what's going to happen to David. Even if he's not sent to prison I'm not staying with him, not after this."
"But why would you be with him in the first place?" Isaiah thew up his hands, trying not to shout at her.
"Because I missed you."
She expected Isaiah to groan, tell her that wasn't true, or roll his eyes. Instead, he sighed, and Mary noticed he was blinking a lot more than usual, sitting back down and not looking at her.
"At least you're safe. That's what matters."
Alex's already hoarse voice cracked like he was having a painfully sore throat, which was probably the truth. "At least you're s-safe, Mary. Y-you tried to protect Eden."
His chest was rising and falling without rhythm, making Isaiah look at him face with concern. Squinting hard and wiping his eyes, Alex mumbled like a child.
"I can't break down again. I have already."
"It's fine to cry." Mary was saying softly, back turned to the boys as if no one was in the room.
"I can't." Alex repeated. "Then I'll n-never stop..."
He trailed off when he felt Isaiah's tears on his shoulder. The nineteen-year-old was already sobbing noiselessly into his own arm. It was the first time Alex had seen him cry for longer than a moment.
"It was an accident. This could have happened to anyone. It's no one's fault."
Mary's voice wasn't human in its calmness. It was pointless for anyone to say that she was wrong, that it was because of her confession that Eden's life ended. It was likewise Alex's fault for letting her try to have sex with him, and it was Isaiah's fault for not stopping Eden from living with Mary. All of them had done something wrong, and when she had nowhere left to go, Mary let her friend die by exposing her mistake in front of her violent, unstable boyfriend.
With heavy, slow steps, she left the boys and went to the nearest vacant spot she could find- Eden's bedroom. It was clean and untouched, as if she were coming home today. Knowing it was the only way to acknowledge the tragedy, Mary began to remove the traces of her existence.
Soon, Eden's bed's blue sheets were in the hamper and replaced with white, and the decorations- a dried flower, old figurines and a very old plush bear- were stowed in a cupboard. This small operation took half an hour. Somehow Mary felt like this was invading on Eden's space, as if she was about to walk inside and ask what she was doing. It was almost an hour before Mary remembered that her friend wasn't going to come back ever again.
Only when the boys took several days to recover did they feel ready to attend Eden's funeral. As much as they were sorry for the loss her family suffered, they were hesitant to see her parents. Neither Alex nor Isaiah wanted to hear what they would say about Eden making the wrong decision again, as she had endured years ago after her suicide attempt.
Having been close to her during school, Alex knew that he had been the primary source of Eden's happiness. Every afternoon she could, she talked on the phone with him for hours, since that was their only contact. Her family couldn't afford wi-fi, much less a computer, and being an only child Alex was always glad for the company.
"Do you have any news about David?"
Waiting with Mary by the empty stairwell, Alex tried to make conversation. This morning he felt sick and everything was blurry, as if he'd awoken from anesthesia. Since Eden's death, police officers had been in and out of the house, asking Mary to recount what happened. Their predictions to David's fate got more and more grim with the more they were told.
"None. I know as much about him as you do."
Mary tried to pretend she cared with an exaggerated sigh. For the past few days, the thought of David falling to his death instead of Eden was a comfort, because deep within herself, Mary knew that part of her was thankful her relationship was over.
David had been someone Mary never knew beyond a face until he approached her one day, saying he had been admiring her from afar. He promised her a better relationship than her current one. Relieved, Mary accepted and much sooner than before, their lives had intertwined and David became her day and night.
However, this had all taken place without Mary's current partner's knowledge. She had been dating Isaiah at the time, and while he slept with her at his house one night, Mary left to David's house without any notice. That decision left Isaiah in such a state of worry, he had to be calmed down from a panic attack by a police officer, and the only words he said to Mary that night were etched in her memory.
"I swear on my life, I'll never speak to you again. You'll be lucky if anyone loves you after this."
His words had little effect, as Mary was already invested in David. It had been love at first sight. They spent the rest of the long night in each other's arms, David saying over and over how grateful he was that Mary had made the right choice. He wiped away her single tear of dismayed regret, then held her close as he took her virginity.
But after that moment of bliss, David wasn't someone Mary loved for long. Having little guidance or good examples in romantic relationships, he did whatever he felt was necessary to keep things stable. From the start, David saw no issue in controlling who his partner communicated with. "Who are you talking to?" he would ask every time Mary texted someone, and she would answer with their name and whether or not she knew them. At first that would satisfy David, but as time went on he prodded further, asking what it was that Mary was talking about, and if she was doing anything sexual if it happened to be a boy. David was so afraid of Mary cheating and leaving- like his former girlfriends had- that he made sure Mary never left their house without him during the month before his attack. With each new week, the couple's love dwindled.
Once, Mary couldn't hold back her anger. Yelling at David that he didn't trust her after he read through every text on her phone caused him to collapse in tears, saying he was worthless and that no one was ever going to love him. And Mary devoted her evening to comforting him, even though she had done no wrong. It was an unhealthy relationship and she knew it, although she never admitted it to herself.
Knowing all of this, David's attack was something Mary understood. Once she was accustomed to his needs, Mary had the impulse to confide in him everything that he could benefit from knowing. He wanted to know why she was letting a friend live with her all of a sudden, and when Mary answered why, it set off his delicate temper.
Although David had no vendetta against the boys, his fear was that Mary, being a friend of Eden, was aiming to get back with Isaiah. To David that was a threat, not a possibility, and already hating Eden for her sexual disloyalty, he attacked her in a spark of rage. There was no mystery in his motive, and once Mary had explained all this to the boys, they understood as well.
But nothing could have been sufficient comfort for the day of the funeral. Mary had told the boys during the morning about David's history, and throughout the ride to the cemetery, it bothered Alex most of all. It eased the guilt that had been slowly crushing him, but only enough so he hoped the constant "what ifs" would slow down. They were the simple, dark questions his mind generated whenever he was idle.
What if I didn't try to have sex with her?
What if I got to Mary's house a few minutes earlier?
What if instead of trying to fight David, I just tried to talk it out?
When tears threatened to fall from Alex's eyes, he cleared his throat to hide them. Eden's death was an accident. That was what Isaiah had said to him and to himself repeatedly. And yet if maybe one of them had acted differently, she would be alive now.
The church was a small one, far from the heart of the city. It was so cold for midsummer that Alex felt a shiver as he left the car. The only other people at the service were the pastor, Eden's parents and what he assumed were her three siblings. No one else was dressed as well as the three were. Mary was standing far to the side in a beautiful brown blouse and wearing a flowered headband, her eyes on the floor.
To the relief of the boys and Mary, the casket was closed. None of her friends wanted to see Eden's face again when she was no longer alive. As much as Alex was dreading the experience, he felt a certain curiosity when he saw his friend's family for the first time.
Neither of Eden's parents looked anything like her. Her father was barely Alex's height and her mother's face looked like it never saw a smile, her pale hair a stark contrast to Eden's. Their three children looked as forlorn as Mary, clothing untidy. They declined to speak about her passing, shaking their heads at the pastor's request. Her mother, looking away as if disinterested, offered only a few comments.
"We did our best for her. II don't understand why she's done this. Her siblings won't either, and now that she's gone they never will. I had thought you two boys would be taking proper care of my daughter when she decided to live with you."
Her voice told the three she had to be older than they imagined, perhaps sixty. A surprised Alex lifted his head just in time to see the sadness fade from Isaiah's face.
"And we've done everything we can for her, Alex and I. He probably knew her better than you ever did."
Both Mary and Alex expected angry retorts, so the silence was unsettling. The youngest sibling, a girl of about seven or eight, looked uncomfortable, but that was all. In a hoarse whisper Eden's mother replied, "You've never raised a child, let alone four, and you don't have to bear the pain of not getting to watch one grow up."
"Maybe you're right, but I don't want to hear any more from you. Not before me."
Isaiah lowered his voice and tried to picture himself speaking to Eden, so his voice would be calmer.
"I don't care how difficult it was. You made the choice to have a child, and I can only hope you'll raise the ones you have left better than Eden."
He expected anger, but Eden's father sighed, shaking his head without speaking audibly. Alex knew then that he'd had enough. Isaiah had his hand across one arm, and Alex took it for a moment, thankful he was there. With a shuddering breath, Alex gathered the courage to say what he needed after a long moment of silence.
"I don't know how I'm going to ever get past the pain, because for the past week, whenever I close my eyes, all I can see is her face. All I see is that look of fear in her eyes when she tried to stop her friend from being beaten up by an abuser. I would have given everything t-to see how far she would have gone in life. She wasn't just a daughter or a friend or an invaluable assistant, she was a precious and irreplaceable young woman."
Again to everyone's surprise, no one interrupted Alex at any point, even the children. In another moment Mary was speaking. The boys were shocked to see that she didn't sob or sniff, but tears fell from her eyes.
"She was the only person who was kind to me, who wasn't with me or wanted to be with me. I loved Eden like the sister I never had... The only reason why I'm not letting myself feel all of the blame and shame I-I've been holding in is because that's not what you wanted. That's what you wanted to keep me away from. And, b-because I love you, Eden, I'll honor that, even though I feel like the w-worst person to ever live."
Alex's stomach sank and he gripped Isaiah's hand tighter. What Mary was describing was a feeling he knew very well. It was impossible for a sane person to go through life without feeling self-hatred sometimes, but Alex couldn't fathom what Mary must be feeling. Unlike him, she hadn't had a supportive and loving boyfriend. He was glad when Isaiah let his hand go to accept the brief hug from his former girlfriend.
The service ended after Mary's speech. A copy of her favorite photo of Eden was lain by her grave. In it, she was looking out of a bright window, her hair shiny and combed, the smile on her lips genuine. It was as if she could still see the faces of the three people she had loved more than anything else in the world.
The way home was quiet. Alex seemed less gloomy than Isaiah had been expecting him to be; though never smiling, he did say that he was glad he still had his boyfriend and "someone he cared about". Mary had furrowed her narrow brows in disbelief at that, unsure if she was relieved or thought Alex was lying.
"I don't know how you can say that." she said with a monotony that implied boredom of the highest level.
"Because it's true. Don't start with us."
Isaiah's voice was sharp as he glanced back at his passengers. He lifted a hand from the steering wheel at the yellow stoplight and rested his forehead in it, issuing a long sigh. Alex noticed his eyes were squeezed shut and extended a hand to his shoulder, knowing there was nothing he could say that wouldn't irritate him further in this mood.
She said no more until they were back in the apartment. Even then, Isaiah had approached her and asked "I know you want to talk to me, so what is it?" since he knew Mary wouldn't say anything without being prompted.
"Is Alex going to be listening?"
Isaiah tried to hide his annoyance by leading her to his bedroom and opening the curtains, though he felt a twinge of pain at the sight of blue. Eden's favorite color.
"No, he's showering. You have my word that he won't hear anything you don't want him to."
Mary took a while to say anything. She took a few deep breaths, looked at Isaiah, then out the window, then back at him, one of her fingers tugging at her lip. It was a nervous habit that she hadn't grown out of even when spots of blood appeared on her sleeves from the damaged skin.
"I don't even know where to begin. I guess... Eden's dead, and I never thought she was going to die, not like that. I've still been waking up every morning and expecting for her to be in the living room."
She hesitated, then continued in a cracking whisper. "And then David gets taken to jail in the same week. What's next, your or Alex is going to lose your job or something? I thought my life was finally getting better and then this happens. I don't know how much more I can take."
Not knowing what to say, Isaiah offered Mary his arm, and when she took and stood next to him, he looked out into the city. During their brief relationship, he'd learned quickly that Mary was prone to expressing sentiments like this with an almost childish overreaction. Only now, there was nothing he could say to truly comfort her.
"We all have to go through hard times, but I know it won't be like this forever. I thought I could be stuck at home, living by myself day to day, until Alex told me he liked me. I was never expecting that. I guess life has a way of making things better in ways we don't always expect."
It was the nicest thing Isaiah could say with his mind still enveloped in the foggy grief of losing Eden. Mary's tight grip on him lessened a little, but she didn't speak.
"It's not so easy to say, but I never liked or trusted David very much, to be honest. I feel like I'm glad that at least you're still alive and okay. "
Mary nodded, the motion submissive. Isaiah knew she probably wanted to say something in return, but he wasn't yet ready to hear anything else about David, so he switched the topic.
"So, do you think you're going to stay with us?"
"Only because I have nowhere else to go."
Mary's posture was already bad, but she slumped as Isaiah released her. "Even when David gets out, I'm not a hundred percent sure I want him to be my boyfriend anymore."
"Not a hundred percent?" Isaiah echoed, eyebrow raised. "Mary, did you see what he did to Alex? He's violent. He's a danger to you."
"He was violent because he thought you and I already had sex, or were planning to. That was all."
She said it casually, as if it was nothing more serious than the weather. Isaiah had begun to raise his voice but grew quiet again when the noise of the shower stopped.
"But it's not him who I'm worried about. It's you, Mary. You said yourself you were having second thoughts about him for how long, the entire seven months? Does he really make you happy enough to make up for it or are you too just scared to find someone who will?"
At that Mary turned her head and glared at him, sitting up straight.
"He does. He really did, we were happy for a while. But you think I can't do anything, can't I? I'm still trying to wrap my head around why you want a girl in your house at all times."
Isaiah looked affronted. "That's not what I want and you know it. I loved Eden, alright? She was a good person, and it's tearing me up just as much as it is you that she's dead!"
It seemed to have taken Isaiah a lot of effort to say that. He closed his eyes for a moment, leaning against the seat and folding his hands in his lap.
"Hey, look at me. Into my eyes."
He waited until she did, a very uncomfortable half-minute.
"To be honest, Mary, I think that letting you stay here is the best thing for all three of us right now. We all know each other, we can all support each other. And I'm sorry if I wasn't being polite earlier. Don't take it personally, please. I've already lost Eden, I don't want anything to happen to you."
"Nothing will, now that my violent boyfriend's being taken care of. Oh, excuse me, my ex."
"Drop it. We're not going to talk about it any more. You have nothing to worry about,I'll do my best to take care of you, I can give you more than he ever did. That's a promise."
"Oh, for fuck's sake. Isaiah, I'm not Eden! You don't have to be trying to replace her!"
He'd said the wrong thing. Before he could take anything back, Mary had retreated to Eden's old room and shut the door. With a horrible twist in his stomach Isaiah remembered that was where he thought Eden had gone the day she'd left their house, unaware that would be the last time they would see her alive.
Never before had he felt so guilty. It didn't matter what anyone said, this was his fault, at least in part. For the first time since before meeting Alex, he felt the need to cry- really cry, but not one tear left his eyes that entire night.
Alex wanted to wake Isaiah to take him along the next morning, but thought better of it. He had been very distant last night, hardly speaking at all and sleeping several hours more than usual. So Alex wrote a note instead and left it on the kitchen table, leaving into the cold March air of the city alone. The only place he would go was Eden's grave.
It was almost an hour of walking. The feeling of wind on Alex's face was more welcome than the confinement of a car. It was a good thing no one else had come, because he enjoyed the silence. It seemed about as quiet as the city could get, only cars and the rumble of a bus blurring into a murmur. Maybe if he could feel a little happiness in a place like this, he could handle the grief and one day let it pass him, because all he could think of was Eden.
Alex knew the route he was taking well enough to become lost in it. He relieved memories like scenes from a movie- of coming to Eden's house for the first and only time, his graduation ceremony and the hug they'd shared, the one time they attempted sex. It was the first time he'd so much as kissed a woman, and he wondered if he liked it because of his changing sexuality or some repressed attraction to Eden.
Isaiah would probably be happier if he forgot about that afternoon, so Alex kept the moments to himself, recording them in his journal to keep the precious details alive. Sometimes he could still see the unexpected beauty of Eden's body and, for a moment, the look of pure bliss in her face when he kissed her back. Of course, there was guilt about that, but guilt was more bearable than trying to pretend Eden was never a part of his life.
In the foggy distance, he could see someone standing by a faraway grave. Relieved that they were far away from Eden's headstone, Alex slowly walked down the rows of stout grey and white monuments, thankful for the colorful flowers at some to break the eerie and sombre atmosphere.
At her grave, even though he already knew what the words on it read, Alex read them over and over, his lips moving to whisper the small poem in remembrance.
A young life ended too soon
Her name will be loved forever.
"It certainly did end too soon."
Isaiah's voice was barely heard above the noise of cars far away. Alex was confused at first, but Isaiah saw it and motioned to his car in the nearby lot. With that, Alex accepted his hands.
"I miss her. I miss her so much, and not just because she was our best friend."
Alex closed his eyes, wondering if he should say what he wanted. Surely Isaiah wouldn't fault him for it.
"I mean... I got one moment of... of affection, even though I feel so bad for remembering it."
"Alex, I know you're still feeling guilty for that. But you can't let it destroy you. Dwelling on her memories might take the pain go away for a while, and if it's what you need to do, I won't love you any less for it."
"You mean that?" Alex said so gently his voice was like vapor.
"I do. I'm sure that eventually, you'll be ready to let her go. But that day isn't now."
"I don't know... Eden was able to hold onto her feelings for me for years. I guess trying not to think of her anymore might be what I need to do."
Alex trailed off, feeling like all the happiness was being drained from his body. Even reliving the memories of Eden had not once made him smile or feel at peace, and Alex thought perhaps Isaiah felt the same. Memories weren't enough, but at least his boyfriend was still there, still alive.
Then his mind wandered to Mary. He couldn't imagine what she was feeling through all this, since she didn't have a loving, supportive partner to help her. As if reading his mind, Isaiah said one more thing before they left the cemetery.
"Alex, there's no use in feeling guilty. All it will do is take away your energy that you should spend on grieving for Eden. This isn't your fault, it isn't mine, and it isn't Mary's. It isn't even Eden's family's responsibility. It's just a terrible and tragic accident that could have happened to anyone."
With overflowing eyes, he released Isaiah's hand but kept his gaze into his eyes. To his shock Isaiah wrapped his arms around him. His breathing was calm and gentle, like his voice had been, and the couple embraced in the morning sun.
If she just had not told David about Eden, she might still be alive now. Maybe Isaiah would never have told her he still loved her after all. Maybe Alex's blue eyes wouldn't seem to get wide with pity whenever he saw her.
It wasn't that this would be a bad life, Mary thought, trying to sleep even though her head was aching. Here was a safe place, where she felt tolerated if not welcomed, and it would be a long time before she would get used to David not being there. She thought of him little. Eden was who her mind was always focused on, sometimes at the back and behind cheerful thoughts and memories. Other times her face, voice and presence were at the front, bringing a guilt so huge and impenetrable it said death was Mary's only way of making it all right.
This was all her fault. Mary knew she was the reason Eden had died so suddenly and horribly, and it was only right to her that she do the same. She leaned against the softness of her pillows and exhaled, feeling her consciousness dwindle, hands folded on her chest.