And I got ready for the future to arrive

by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色墨)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/210041.html)

She woke up.

The sun was out and the sky was bright, so she woke up. She lay there for a while, blinking at the ceiling, and thought about trying to go back to sleep. Then she got up. She put on her Army t-shirt and a pair of shorts and laced on her running shoes.

On her way to the door, she heard her mother yell behind her, “Helena! Aren’t you going to have any breakfast?”

“Later!” she yelled back and shut the door behind her, a little too hard.

The air was fresh and cool; her breath puffed out in front of her face in little white clouds. Early-morning traffic was just starting to crawl down the streets. She didn’t think about anything except the way her feet hit the ground, the shock traveling up through her bones and into her joints. She ran a little too fast, at first, and by the time she reached the first light her lungs were burning, and she leaned against the pole and caught her breath.

As soon as the light changed, she took off running again, pacing herself this time. This time, she ran for longer, watching the way the light fell through the trees. At some point in the last four years, the Andersons finally cut down that tree in their front yard; the Carrolls repainted their house dark green; the Chens sold their house, and the new owners tore down the modest one-story Craftsman and built a boxy two-story in its place.

She turned right, in order to make a circle, concentrating on her breathing, and the way she pumped her arms, the elastic motion of the muscles in her legs. Everyone’s front lawn looked so uniformly square and green and lush with grass. It seemed strange, all of a sudden.

By the time she returned home, thirty minutes later, she could feel the way her shirt stuck to her back with sweat. She could hear her mother in the kitchen, and she slipped up the stairs without a word to strip her clothes off, chuck them in the closet, and step into the shower. She went downstairs for breakfast with her hair still wet, dressed in one of her old high-school t-shirts. It was too big for her now.

“I made pancakes,” her mother sing-songed as she sat down at the table.

“Great,” Helena replied, with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. Her mother slid a plate in front of her, two pancakes and a pile of yellow scrambled egg curds. She pushed them around on her plate for a bit before taking a bite.

“Do you want some salt?” Her mother sat down at the table next to her; she had only one small pancake on her plate, and some scrambled egg whites.

“No, it’s fine.” They ate in silence. Helena drank all of her orange juice and ate all her eggs, but made it only through one of her pancakes. She took her dishes to the kitchen, slid the remaining pancake back onto the stack, and scraped the rest into the trash. She put her plate in the dishwasher and said to her mother, “I’m going to go work on the truck.”

“All right,” her mother murmured, and Helena stuffed her feet into her Doc Martens and left.

—–

“How was your ride today?” asked Dr. Greene.

Helena shrugged. “It was all right.”

“You took Xanax.”

Helena nodded.

“There’s no shame in that, you know. It’s something you’re taking to help you cope.”

“I’m not ashamed,” said Helena.

Dr. Greene waited.

“I’m not,” she said. “It’s just–like you said, it’s something I’m taking to help me cope. It’s, it’s not like I’m taking it every day, even. And eventually, I’ll be able to cope on my own, and then I won’t need it anymore.”

“That’s right.” Dr. Greene smiled. Her teeth were very white and even. “So, how’re you feeling right now?”

Like I don’t want to be here, thought Helena. Like I’m on fucking Xanax. But instead she just said, “Okay.”

—–

She was under the car, so she didn’t hear the crunch of footsteps; didn’t, in fact, hear her name being called until someone kicked her gently on the shoe. She rolled out, frowning, ready to chew out her mother for bothering her in the garage, but it was Megan. She blinked.

Megan looked…she looked good, but then, she had always looked good. Her hair was buzzed short on the sides and in the back, leaving a fashionable cap of dark hair on top; multiple piercings adorned her ears; a phoenix flowed up her arm, tail feathers fanning over and across her forearm. She was wearing skinny jeans and Vans and a low-cut top.

“Hi,” said Megan. She tucked her thumbs into her pockets.

Helena pushed herself up on her elbows. “Hi.”

“You look good,” Megan offered.

Helena wondered what she looked like, dressed as she was in yet another baggy old high-school t-shirt and her old Doc Martens. She doubted it was “good.” At least the jeans were new, even if they weren’t skinny. “You too.”

Megan crossed her arms, then uncrossed them again. “You didn’t, uh, you didn’t answer any of my messages. On Facebook.”

“Oh. Yeah. I, uh, I don’t really Facebook. Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Megan slid the bottom of her shoe across the concrete. The scraping sound made the hair on the back of Helena’s neck stand on end. “Um, do you not want me to be here? Because, because I can go–”

“No.” Helena pushed herself up into a proper sitting position, the creeper skidding forward half an inch as she did so. “It’s. You can stay. Did Mom, she let you in, right? Here, let’s go inside.”

“Do you girls want anything to drink?” Mrs. Patterson inquired brightly. She held up a pitcher of lemonade, the wooden spoon still in it that she’d been using to crush the cylinder of concentrate. She got down two glasses before even hearing their answers, and poured them both.

“Thanks, Mrs. P,” said Megan.

“Thanks, Mom.”

They took their glasses and went upstairs to Helena’s room.

“Your mom’s kind of freaking me out,” said Megan. “It’s like we’re still in high school or something.”

“Or actually, more like she’s June Cleaver and we just came back from playing outside,” said Helen.

They stood at the top of the stairs and sniggered, and for a second it felt like high school again. Helena smiled and it felt easy, and Megan smiled back and it felt right. Her chest hurt, a little, and that was like high school, too, and then Helena looked away and pushed open the door to her room. There was a corkboard on the door that used to hold song lyrics and pictures of Tegan and Sara, but those were gone now, and the corkboard lay empty and brown.

“Wow,” said Megan. “It looks…really the same, in here.”

“Yeah.” Helena flopped down backwards on the bed. It had the same plaid comforter and dark blue sheets as in high school. They probably hadn’t been touched since the day she moved out. “She wasn’t like this with Margaret’s room. But I guess because I’m her baby girl or something, I don’t know.”

Megan took the desk chair, turning it around so that she could sit with her arms on the back of the chair and rest her chin on them. “My parents didn’t really touch my room either. But they’re talking about selling the house.”

Helena sat up. “Really?”

Megan shrugged. “Yeah. I guess…I dunno, I guess while I’ve been at college they’ve really been feeling how big and empty the house is. And I’m gonna be graduating in December, and I told them I’m not gonna move back in, so…”

“Oh.” Helena swallowed. “Are you gonna stay in Chicago?”

“I dunno. I really like it there, but I mean, it’s Chicago. Also, the winters there totally suck.”

Helena pressed her lips together and managed to turn her giggle into a snort. “Yeah, I bet.”

“I’m serious! Hell is, like, having to wait half an hour for your car to defrost and then you still have to scrape all the ice off, and, it’s just, ugh.” Megan shook her head back and forth like a dog. “Yeah. It sucks. So, what’s wrong with Otto?”

“Huh?” It took Helena a second to remember. Otto had been Megan’s name for the truck. She thought it was cute, naming things, and insisted that all vehicles in particular had to have a name. Helena always just thought of it as the truck. “Oh, he, uh. Just a few things. Needs a new water pump. Nothing big. Gives me something to do.”

“Mmm.” Megan rested her head on top of her folded arms. “So what’re your plans?”

“I dunno. Find a job, I guess.”

“What do you want to do?”

Helena let her eyes roam across the walls, across the the black and white KISS poster. “No clue.”

“What did you do in the Army?”

“Nothing much.” Helena sat up. “What do you want to do?”

Megan chewed on her bottom lip for a second. “I just want to, like, do something meaningful. Maybe I’ll go work for a non-profit or something. There are lots of those in Chicago.”

“Here, too.”

“Yeah, here, too. But I don’t know if I want to, like, live in the same city my entire life, you know?”

Helena didn’t know. She’d been halfway around the world, but she didn’t know anything about living in new places. “Yeah, I guess.”

—–

“It sucks,” said Helena. “Like, I mean, in high school the truck meant I had independence. Now I’m just…stuck.”

Dr. Greene made a humming sound. “Any progress on fixing it?”

“Yeah, a little. It’s just really slow going. I don’t feel like working on it a lot.”

Dr. Greene didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. Helena thought about how she used to drive Megan to school. Megan got her license, eventually, but she kept riding with Helena because now it was tradition, and it was fun, and they bonded during their rides. She bought a used car their senior year and drove it to Chicago with all her stuff in the trunk and the backseat. It probably had a gajillion miles on it now. Helena wondered if she planned on buying a new car.

“I guess I feel like I’m kind of stuck,” said Helena. “In general.”

—–

Megan brought a plastic bag weighed down with frozen zongzi the next time she visited. “From my mom,” she said, sounding a little embarrassed. “I told her you’d lost weight, and now she’s worried that you’re not getting enough to eat, or something.”

Helena peered down into the bag. Half a dozen pyramidal shapes wrapped in bamboo leaves sat in the bottom of the bag, still crusted with ice around the twine. The bag smelled green and slightly of freezer.

“Microwave for three to five minutes on high, wrapped in a wet paper towel,” said Megan.

“I know. I remember.” Helena stepped aside so that Megan could come in. Megan toed off her shoes in the entryway. “Oh yeah, right, um, we take our shoes off now.”

Megan flashed a smile up at her as she bent over to pick them up and put them on the shoe rack, next to Megan’s Doc Martens. “Your mom told me last time I came over. It always really weirded me out to keep my shoes on, actually.”

“Yeah, I remember.” Megan used to leave her shoes all over the house, wherever she was when she’d finally gotten fed up with the strangeness of enclosed feet: at the bottom of the stairs, at the top of the stairs, in Helena’s bedroom, by the front door. Once, they couldn’t find one of her shoes, and it was because the dog, Obie, had taken one of them and put it under his bed.

Come to think of it, Megan hadn’t asked about Obie; he’d died a year after Helena shipped out. Had she already known? Or maybe she’d somehow forgotten about Obie. It seemed strange that Megan could find things out about Helena’s family, without Helena telling her.

They padded across the new hardwood floors in their socked feet. Helena put the zongzi in the freezer and then remembered her manners. Her mother would kill her if she were home right now. “Want anything to drink?”

“Nah, I’m good, thanks.”

Helena poured herself a glass of water, for lack of anything else to do. Megan leaned against the counter next to the sink. Helena took small sips. “So, what do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

They smiled at each other, but it wasn’t as right and easy as it’d been last time. Helena felt her cheeks stretch, this time.

“I have the car,” said Megan. “We could go somewhere, if you wanted. The beach.”

Helena pushed herself away from the counter and took another big gulp of water. “Nah. Don’t have a swimsuit.”

“We can go to the mall and buy one. If you want.”

Swimsuit shopping had been a torment for Helena in high school; she’d had to shop in the plus size section and all the swimsuits were for old women, with skirts and shelf bras and buckles on the front. That wasn’t a problem anymore, and that wasn’t the problem now. “I’d rather stay home, that’s all.”

“Okay,” and Helena hated the way Megan’s voice went all quiet and soft, like Helena was a bit of dandelion fluff that might break off and float away. She ground her teeth. Megan said, “Wanna just watch TV, then? Or we can go for a walk?”

“You don’t have to stay.” Helena jutted out her jaw. She sat down on the couch and looked into her glass of water so she didn’t have to look at Megan. “I know I’m boring. It’s your summer vacation. You should go to the beach.”

“What, by myself? That’s no fun.” Megan sat down on the edge of the cushion and put her elbows on her knees.

“You have other friends.”

Megan shrugged. “I’d rather hang out with you.”

They sat on the couch in silence for maybe thirty seconds. It felt uncomfortably like a session with Dr. Greene. Finally, Megan picked up one of the three remote controls on the coffee table. Helena’s mom had gotten DirecTV, and now there were like eight hundred channels or something. Eight hundred channels and still nothing to watch; that was always the way.

Megan put on Dog Whisperer, not because they were big fans of Cesar Millan but because Dog Whisperer meant there’d be cute dogs. Helena looked up. A pit bull bounded across the screen and barked ferociously at someone passing by on the other side of the fence. Helena sipped at her water, and then she put it down.

—–

“How’s the truck coming along?”

Helena ran her tongue around her teeth before answering. “I’m missing a part. I ordered it online; it’ll be here in a few days.”

Dr. Greene crossed her legs. “That’s good.”

“Yeah.” Dr. Greene hadn’t suggested that Helena could have asked her mom to go to Kragen or AutoZone, or gone herself. But Helena didn’t trust her mom to buy the right part herself, and she didn’t want to pop a Xanax just to go to the auto store to buy a part. Not when she could just buy one online. It was cheaper, anyway, even if she did have to pay shipping, so really it evened out.

“Is that the last thing you need to fix the truck?”

“I think so. But really, I won’t know until I get behind the wheel.”

Dr. Greene raised her eyebrows; the gesture made her eyes look large and surprised. “So you do plan on driving the truck?”

“Well…well, yeah. I mean, what’s the point in fixing it otherwise?” Helena shifted in her seat. She hadn’t really meant to say that; it was just what had come out of her mouth. But really, what was the point, if she didn’t mean to drive the truck? “I’ll have to drive it, at least, to make sure everything’s running okay.”

“And how do you plan to do this?”

“I dunno,” said Helena. “Take a lot of Xanax, I guess.”

—–

“I brought some movies,” said Megan.

Helena looked. “G.I. Jane? Really?”

Megan grinned. “Oh c’mon, you think Demi Moore is totally hot.”

“Anyone’s hot in uniform, with a shaved head.”

“Even Uma Thurman?”

Helena grimaced. “Maybe not Uma Thurman. She’d just look like…like a bald giraffe.”

They laughed, but they didn’t watch G.I. Jane. They watched Buffy instead and wondered if they were posers. Did it matter that they weren’t old enough to have watched Buffy when it was still airing? Then again, did anyone really care? Eliza Dushku was totally hot. They watched two episodes of Buffy, and then Helena made more popcorn, and they watched two more. They argued over whether Willow or Tara was more dateable.

Helena’s mother came home at one point. She stood in the entryway to the living room and smiled at them. Helena hit pause on the remote.

“Oh, look at you two,” she said. “It’s just like old times, isn’t it?”

It wasn’t, at all, because Megan was going to graduate and then she was going to stay in Chicago or move away somewhere else, forever, and Helena was going to stay in this house until she died. But all Helena said was, “Yeah, almost.”

—–

Megan stayed for dinner. She called her mother first, standing in the front hall where the reception was best, one hand tucked into her armpit and the other holding her phone up against her ear. “Yeah, I won’t be home too late. Yeah. I’ll drive carefully. She says thanks for the zongzi.”

“Mom’s making spaghetti,” said Helena.

Megan grinned. “I love your mom’s spaghetti.”

Helena’s mother made spaghetti a lot. Also meatloaf, and macaroni and cheese, and chicken noodle soup. Simple food, she called it. Comfort food. Megan loved it; at home she ate chicken and rice, she said, every other night. Chicken and rice with a side of steamed broccoli, or steamed green beans. Sometimes tofu. Sometimes pork bone soup. Sometimes fried rice. But usually, chicken and rice. Helena used to love going over to Megan’s house for dinner, where nothing was ever smothered in canned condensed cream of mushroom soup.

“What did you eat in the Army?” Megan asked.

“Ugh, the same thing every day. It was horrible. I knew a few people who stopped being vegetarian in the Army.” Helena bit into a meatball with relish. “I know I used to complain about your cooking a lot, Mom, but never again. All I wanted to do was come home and eat stuff in cream of mushroom soup.”

Helena saw her mother giggle, and realized that she hadn’t seen her mother really laugh, like this, since she got home. There’d been a little Welcome Home party, and she’d laughed there, but it wasn’t like this, a mouth-open, teeth-showing guffaw. Those little laughs at the Welcome Home party were for show, to disguise the fact that she had new gray hairs and new lines at the corners of her eyes. Helena resolved to be nicer to her mother.

“God, if I’d known that the Army would cure you of your picky eating, I would’ve signed you up ages ago,” her mother joked.

It was a bad joke to make, maybe, but nobody minded. They smiled at each other around the table, a little family, the three of them.

“Did the Army teach you to eat vegetables, too?” she asked.

Helena shuddered, remembering the brown, mushy broccoli and slimy spinach. “God, no.”

—–

“Megan was mad at me, when I first said I was going to sign up for the Army,” said Helena.

“Really.” Dr. Greene raised her eyebrows. They gave her that large-eyed surprised look, again. Helena wondered if therapists practiced those faces in front of the mirror. “And how did that make you feel?”

“Angry, at the time. Like, you don’t know me. Stuff like that.” Helena shifted. She tried crossing her legs. She hadn’t been able to do that, before the Army; her thighs had been too large. It felt strange, so she uncrossed them again.

“And now?”

Helena shrugged. “Now it was a really long time ago, it seems like. We’re different people now. We don’t get mad over stuff like that anymore.”

—–

“Hey, good timing.”

Megan came crunching over the grass and stood with her hands in her pockets as Helena scrubbed her hands with orange pumice, filling the air with artificial citrus scent. “Oh really?”

“Yeah, he’s all ready. I think. Just gotta take him for a test drive. You coming?”

Megan grinned in a way that Helena had seen on Facebook: Megan with Kelly Whittier, Jo-Ann Swenson, and Susan Patel, people that Helena knew only through Facebook tags. They were at some restaurant, the lights of Chicago blurry outside the window behind them, Megan laughing with her mouth open, not looking at the camera. The only photos of Helena on Facebook were the ones that someone else had tagged her in: Helena Patterson at boot camp. Helena Patterson in the background of a mess hall shot.

Helena rinsed the pumice off her hands with the hose and climbed into the truck. Megan got in on the other side. Helena inserted the key into the ignition and turned it. They held their breaths. The engine sputtered to life, made an ominous clanking sound, and then caught. Helena didn’t dare look at Megan. She tested the gas pedal, and the car rolled forward, just a little bit. Then she slammed on the brakes, jerking them both forward in their seats, though the truck hadn’t moved very much and hadn’t been going very fast. Helena leaned forward and rested her forehead against the steering wheel. She could feel her heartbeat in her skull, and she was aware that she was breathing too fast. Her palms were clammy against the steering wheel. Her chest hurt, and she thought there was a very real possibility that she was going to be sick all over the inside of the truck, and that would never come out.

“Helena?” Megan’s voice seemed to come from very far away.

“Hang on,” Helena gasped.

“Is there–is there something I should do? Should I get your mom?”

“No.” Helena squeezed her eyes shut. “Just–just talk to me. Tell me everything’s going to be okay.”

“Everything’s going to be okay.” And then, to Helena’s horror, she felt Megan’s hand against her back, rubbing soothing circles. Helena recoiled so sharply that she banged her elbow against the door of the truck. She thought about opening that door and tumbling out onto the concrete and scrambling away from Megan and this goddamn fucking truck and out of this town entirely.

“Don’t touch me,” she snapped.

“Sorry, sorry.” Megan held up her hands. She looked calm, but in that way that Helena knew she looked when she really didn’t know what to do. That was one thing about her that hadn’t changed, it seemed. One thing that Helena remembered.

“No, sorry.” Helena closed her eyes again. She was sweating all over. She felt like everything was rushing in towards her. Possibly she was dying. “You should probably go get my mom.”

She heard the passenger side door open and then close again. She couldn’t hear Megan crossing the grass, running into the house, calling for her mother. Helena felt as if she were alone on the planet and plummeting into a well that went on forever. A black hole, then. Yes, being sucked into a black hole, where it would be cold and fearful until she died. She put one hand on her abdomen and felt it rise and fall as she breathed. Remembered to breathe.

Her mother came. She said sensible and sweet nothings until Helena could get out of her head and out of the truck. She went back into the house and back into her room, where it was safe, where the Xanax was. She took one and curled up under the covers. She did not see Megan.

—–

“You did everything you were supposed to,” said Dr. Greene.

“Yeah, except for the part where I had a panic attack.”

“But you responded exactly the way you were supposed to,” said Dr. Greene. “You remembered to breathe, and you remembered to ask for help.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve had enough of them by now that I should know,” Helena muttered. She cupped her chin in her hand and stared out the window, at the parking lot and the trees.

“What are you thinking about?” asked Dr. Greene.

Helena bit her lip and decided to be truthful. “Megan.”

“What about her?”

Megan hadn’t come by the house since that day. Well, it’d only been two days, so that was hardly unusual; it wasn’t like Megan came over every day. Helena wasn’t sure if she wanted Megan to come over, ever again. Things would be awkward and stiff between them now. Every time Megan looked at Helena, she’d see the sweating, shivering wreck of a woman who had a panic attack when she tried to drive a truck she’d driven nearly every day since she’d been sixteen years old. And every time Helena saw Megan, she’d see pity.

“I dunno,” said Helena. “Just wondering what I’m going to say, the next time I see her.”

—–

Maybe coincidentally, Megan came by the next day with a jar of something. Its contents were a pale tan, with red and white and dark bits swirling in it.

“Soup,” she said. “From my mom.”

“Oh.” Helena held open the door. “Come in.”

Megan toed off her shoes at the door and bent over to put them on the shoe rack. Helena took the soup to the kitchen and put it in the refrigerator. She turned around to find Megan behind her, hands behind her back, looking trepidatious. Helena stopped where she was and leaned against the refrigerator.

“So, what do you want to do?” Helena asked.

“I dunno. Whatever you want to do.”

Helena looked off to the side, at the counters. Her mom had gotten the counters redone, too, replacing the crappy yellow tile with sophisticated granite. Every time she’d come home on leave, something about the house had been different. It’d felt less like home.

She thought longingly of the bottle of Xanax in her room.

“Look,” said Helena. “Maybe you should leave.”

She didn’t look at Megan, but she could feel Megan drawing herself up to her full height of five foot three.

“I will, if you really want me to,” said Megan. “But I don’t–”

Helena took a deep breath. “I think I want you to.”

“I just want to help you!” Megan exploded. “You, you had a panic attack trying to drive a car, Helena, you can’t just pretend everything’s okay–”

“I know it’s not okay!” Helena snapped. “I know I’m not okay! I have PTSD, okay, I’m not okay, but you can’t fix it! I don’t need you to fix it!”

She looked at Megan now, and watched as Megan’s face turned into something sad and hurt and crumpled. Helena’s chest opened up and caved in on itself. She bit her lip and almost said something, like sorry or I didn’t mean it. But Megan turned and left. Helena heard the door shut after her, and then the car started up and rolled away.

—–

NEW MESSAGE

To: Megan Wu

Sorry about the other day.

NEW MESSAGE

From: Megan Wu

It’s okay. I guess I understand why you were mad. I’m sorry if I triggered anything. I wasn’t trying to be pushy. You’re my friend and I care about you.

NEW MESSAGE

To: Megan Wu

Okay I took a Xanax so that I could write this. I hope it works.

I was driving one of the trucks in a supply convoy. I remember it was a day just like any other. I didn’t have any bad feelings or anything, but maybe I had a bad feeling about every drive. The truck in front of me was hit by an RPG. The blast made my truck swerve and I went into the ditch. I don’t really remember what happened after that. There was a lot of gunfire. I guess someone got me out of the truck and to safety. I wasn’t hurt much, had some glass in my skin and that was about it. But I couldn’t drive after that, so they had to send me home.

I joined the Army because I wanted to be stronger. You were always protecting me in high school and I wanted to be able to protect myself. But that didn’t really work because I feel like I’m the same person I was before. And I guess I was mad about that and I took it out on you instead. Sorry.

I still want us to be friends.

NEW MESSAGE

From: Megan Wu

Wow. I don’t really know how to respond to that. Other than…thanks, I guess. I’m really flattered.

But this isn’t about me! It’s about you. You don’t have to change anything about yourself. You’re great the way you are.

NEW MESSAGE

To: Megan Wu

That’s really nice of you to say, but you’re wrong. I’m fucked up and I have PTSD and I’m not fine at all.

NEW MESSAGE

From: Megan Wu

Besides that! I mean, you’re really buff now, and you’re not afraid to stand up to people. The old you wouldn’t have said the stuff you said the other day, about how I can’t fix you, and the old you wouldn’t have known how to deal with a panic attack. You were cute before, but now you’re strong.

And you’re right, by the way. I can’t fix you. I shouldn’t even try.

NEW MESSAGE

To: Megan Wu

Thanks, I guess.

You thought I was cute?

NEW MESSAGE

From: Megan Wu

You’re welcome. And I still think you’re cute.

—–

That night, Helena lay in bed and thought, she thinks I’m cute.

Sometimes she looked in the mirror and still expected to see that chunky girl with the bad hair and the nerdy round glasses. She wondered what Megan thought was so cute about that girl. It couldn’t have been the baggy t-shirts.

She stuck her hand down the waistband of her boxers. She hadn’t masturbated since coming home, and she hadn’t masturbated much in the Army; shared quarters made it awkward. Which wasn’t to say that people didn’t do it. People did it, all the time. But Helena had usually found it too anxious.

But she wasn’t in the Army anymore, and she wasn’t thirteen, either, feeling around the folds of her vulva and trying to figure out how to get off, afraid that her sister next door would hear her. She massaged her pubic mound first, feeling the crinkly hair with her fingers, before delving one finger between her lips. She tried to picture Megan naked. She was only able to catch a brief glimpse of small, pert breasts and a phoenix tattoo before her mind shut it down. She’d never been able to do that, not even in high school.

She massaged her clitoral hood; it was too dry, so she dipped her finger into her vaginal opening to collect some moisture and tried again. It went a little better, that time. She tried to picture kissing Megan. No, no good; fantasizing with real people never worked for her. She cast her mind back to a hurried, furtive encounter in the back of a truck, panting into the hot air, sand in her hair and in the crevices of her boots. She switched to light, rhythmic strokes with her finger and imagined that that was a woman’s tongue, lapping. She stopped to pick up more slick from her vaginal opening and rubbed it all over her clit. Her breath came faster; she could feel herself flushing, her lips becoming engorged.

She tried picturing Megan again, naked, in the bed with her, propped up on her elbows and smiling. This time she made it three seconds before her mind rebelled against the notion. She closed her eyes and pictured Megan penetrating her with something, avoiding her face and focusing instead on her small, lithe body. Megan was a college girl in a big city; she probably had a bunch of toys in her room. Probably it was something she and her friends did together, go to the sex store, discussing the virtues of this or that dildo or vibrator. Helena had never used a vibrator. She’d never even watched any porn where women used vibrators on each other. She knew a lot of the men watched porn, but she didn’t want to watch the kind of porn that men watched.

What did a vibrator feel like, anyway? Helena had never even tried penetrating herself with anything other than her fingers. She thought that vibration might feel good against her clit, but not inside. Penetrating herself with her fingers had never done much for her, and she didn’t know that a vibrator would be much better. But maybe Megan would show her.

Wasn’t she getting a little ahead of herself, here? Just because Megan said she was cute didn’t mean she was going to want to fuck her.

Oh, but Helena wanted her to. She really, really wanted her to.

She came a few minutes later, thinking sometimes about Megan, thinking sometimes about women in the Army, but most of the time just thinking about how much she wanted to come. She did with a little hitched breath–being in the Army had taught her how to be quiet–and sank back into the sheets. She felt a little silly afterwards, but she often did, after masturbating, at what had seemed so urgent and exciting at the time. She wiped her fingers off on the sheets, then turned over and went to sleep.

—–

The next morning, she went for a run. Afterwards, she ate omelettes with her mother. They talked about their plans for that day. Helena said she was going to read a book and maybe go for a walk, maybe watch some TV. Her mother asked if Megan was coming over. Helena said she didn’t know.

She waited for her mother to leave for work. Then she took a Xanax, found her keys, and walked down to the truck. She sat in the driver’s seat and sent Megan a text message: hey u home?

Yeah, why?

on my way over

Helena took a deep breath, put the key in the ignition, and turned it.

—end—

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