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I was far from sad when our time in New York came to an end. Returning to SMA allowed me to feel more like myself again. In the back of my mind, I knew my lawsuit and petition were being handled. I shifted all of my focus to finding ways to remain calm. Aside from my New York drama, the biggest stressor was my birthday. My nightmares occurred more frequently the days leading up to it. My lack of sleep started impacting every aspect of my life. I could barely stay awake in class. It was hard for me to execute my dance steps to the best of my ability and I lacked the energy to pal around with my best friends in my free time. All I wanted to do was sleep, but couldn’t. I turned to my friends for distractions from all the clutter in my mind. I was very lucky attention-grabbing was their main adjective.
In home economics class, I was in a cooking group with Milo, Elle, and Ryan. Morgan, Nick, Sami and Finn are in a group together. It’s the one class we have together. To say things get pretty crazy would be so misleading it’s practically a lie. Between Milo’s ability to start a small kitchen fire every time we cooked, Finn’s fascination with the fire after it had been started, and Ryan’s tendency to sing sex-themed R&B songs as he stirred batter, it was hard not to get swept up in all the chaos and fall madly in love with it — at least that’s what I did.
“-Finished by the end of the class period. You may now report to your group kitchens. And Milo, please try not to catch yourself or your group’s food on fire.” Mrs. Swanderson looked at him with a pleading expression.
Finn, Sami, and Ryan started snickering. He glared in their direction, fighting off a smile.
We stood up from our seats and made our way to the kitchens in the back of the classroom.
“Why am I always the ONLY one who gets that warning?” He asked me.
“That’s what happens when you catch your apron on fire four times and cause ten small kitchen fires.” I smirked over at him. He rolled his eyes.
“Those were all accidents. No one, including myself, got hurt. There was also no major property damage. That could’ve easily happened to anyone.”
We pulled on our aprons and I pulled my hair up into a bun.
“Yes, but it won’t. No one else is as accident-prone as you are.” I smiled at him cheekily.
“I guess that means you’ll have to do all the cooking in our imaginary life together. Oh, wait! You can’t cook because you’re very impatient, don’t read instructions, and it turns out to be inedible. I’ll have to keep cooking to ensure we don’t starve to death.” He teased. I nudged him with my shoulder.
“I’ll be standing nearby with a fire extinguisher. Your haphazardly-made meals are oddly delicious.” I giggled.
“Good idea, Beautiful.” He replied back before he pecked me on the lips softly when the teacher wasn’t looking.
I was by far the worst cook in our group. We learned that early on. To ensure we didn’t fail, the only thing I was allowed to do was preheat the oven. After I was done, I leaned against the counter. Milo and Elle gathered the ingredients. They measured them out and poured it all into a bowl.
“Ryan, I’m going to say this one time. If you sing the word ‘naked’ or the phrase ‘screaming my name’, I won’t talk to you for three hours.” Elle threatened.
“Is that a promise?” He retorted with a mischievous smirk.
She crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes at him.
His song selection didn’t include the words Elle banned. Instead, it had featured the word ‘panties’ 13 times, ‘sexy’ 9 times, and the phrase ‘baby-making’ 7 times. In combination with his body rolling, gyrating dance moves, he had me laughing hysterically.
“Don’t encourage him, Iz!” Elle cried.
“Why does he do it?” I giggled as I kept my eyes on him.
“Attention is his oxygen.” She sighed.
I started laughing harder.
“I REALLY don’t want to eat those cupcakes anymore.” Milo frowned as he watched Ryan continue his task of mixing.
“If any cupcakes go uneaten, send them our way. At the rate Nick and Morgan are going, ours won’t be finished baking by the end of class.” Sami called over to us from her group’s kitchen.
I looked over to find Finn and Sami sitting on stools. He was doodling on their recipe sheet and she was playing a game on her phone.
“Actually, I’m with Miles. I don’t want any of Ryan’s sexcakes. I’ll take my chances with Nick and Morgan. If they fall through, I’ll be stealing from another group. Hopefully, one where air-humping was left out of the process of their creation.” Finn interjected.
“Whine and complain all you want. There’s a method to my madness. The rhythm I’m forced to keep makes the batter consistency just right. You’ll be begging for my baked goodies.” Ryan retorted, pausing his song and stirring for a moment.
Milo groaned. “Why did you have to make that last sentence so dirty?”
“I didn’t. Your mind just went there. And you say I’m bad.” He smirked.
“We’d be on schedule if you two were helping.” Morgan told Sami and Finn as she continued to collect ingredients with Nick.
“We’re supervising and managing worker productivity. Right now, you and Nicholas are seriously slacking. I suggest you pick up the pace. We need to do our other job of taste-testing.” Finn fired back, never taking his eyes off his drawing.
“Don’t make me call Angie.” Nick threatened.
They practically leapt up from their seats and started working.
“Who is Angie?” I turned to Elle.
“Finn’s Mom. Nicky’s really close with her. She is the only authority figure those two respond to appropriately.”
Both of our groups finished our cupcakes in time. We all taste-tested both batches. We unanimously agreed that Ryan’s were the best. We regretted it the moment the words “I told you so” left his lips. After class, we all headed to our department based classes. The acting and dance department buildings were right next to each other, so Milo and I were able to walk with Ry and Elle.
“I almost forgot to notify you of a change of plans. We’re having my annual back from spring break party tonight, instead of tomorrow. I’ve got a date.” She informed us.
“James Holloway. He’s a senior flutist.”
Ryan rolled his eyes.
“Do you have something to say?”
“Yes. Dude couldn’t be more pretentious. He carries his flute with him wherever he goes. Whenever people ask about it, he says ‘you never know when inspiration will strike’. When they continue to ask questions, he says and I quote, ‘you don’t understand my craft’.”
“He’s a true artist!”
“We all are. We wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t the case!” He argued.
“You get no say in my dating life. We’ve gone over this. Why do you even care?”
“I don’t. It’s just that you could do better. That’s all.” He removed his phone from his pocket and fiddled with it.
“Aww, you almost sound sincere.”
“I am and you know that.” He looked into her eyes.
She struggled not to smile. She played it off by playing with her hair. He smiled and returned to his phone.
We diverged from our friends when we passed their building. Milo walked me to the girls’ dressing room door when we reached ours.
“I love you.” He offered me a warm smile.
I giggled. “I love you too, but there’s no need for the drawn out goodbye. You’ll see me in less than five minutes.”
He placed his hands on my waist. I moved my arms to his neck.
“I think it is. You never know what could happen to me in that time. I’m insanely accident-prone. You should kiss me.” He poked out his bottom lip.
I leaned up and captured his lips with mine.
I pulled away smiling. “Happy?”
“Very.” He pecked me once more and removed his hands from me.
“Bye.” I wiggled my fingers in his direction.
Once inside, I made my way over to my locker. I yawned and rubbed my eyes, trying to get the burst of energy I need to make it through my final class of the week.
“Long night?” Paige asked me lightly as she pulled on her leotard.
“Something like that. Do you know what we’re doing today?” I started stripping out of my clothes.
“We’re startin’ Sleepin’ Beauty auditions.” Her southern accent was more audible in that sentence.
“I totally forgot about that.” I ran a hand through my hair, panicked.
“Why are you worried? You’re a sure-win for Aurora. Everybody’s sayin’ it.”
“I’ve been pretty distracted lately. I think G will keep that in mind when she makes her decisions.”
She waved her hand dismissively.”You have the talent to carry a show. She cares about that more.”
“Anna could. You could too. Any of us could, really. There’s a lot of talent here.”
“Well, you see, the girls nominated me to talk to you.”
“About….” I coaxed as I pulled on my tights.
“You’re our pick for the princess. Your dance chemistry with Milo is undeniable. Having it front and center brings up the quality of the show. A good show means more job offers for those of us graduatin’. We need ya on board with plan, little lady.”
“What does that entail exactly?” I worked up my leotard.
“Dance your heart out. We’ll handle the rest.”
“I’ll try my best.” I unfastened my charm bracelet and placed it inside the pocket of my jeans.
“That’s all we ask.” She offered me a warm smile.
I shut and locked my locker, leaving my pointe shoes out. I sat down on the wooden bench to put them on.
“Do you know what happened to Milo’s hand?”
My stomach tightened. “He bumped into a wall. He gets his splint off on Monday.”
“That boy is always gettin’ into somethin’”
“Yeah.” I forced a smile.
The two of us chatted light-heartedly as we put on our shoes. We went to the studio together.
“I see you survived.” I sat down near Milo to stretch.
“There was a close call. It was touch and go for a while. I truly believe kissing you is what helped me make it through.” He joked.
I nudged his shoulder with mine.
“Ready for tryouts?” He continued.
“They slipped my mind. Can you believe that? I should’ve been practicing.” I admitted quietly to ensure only he heard.
“You have a million things going on right now. It is not a big deal. You are going to be brilliant.”
“I’m exhausted.” I leaned forward in my middle split to stretch out my back.
“We can skip the party at your place tonight. We can go to bed early at mine.” He offered.
“I meant in general, but let’s do that. The idea of a party sounded fun earlier, but now I’m not really up for being sociable.”
“I can understand that.”
Our partner pairs meant nothing during the audition process. I had to perform the first combination with Alex. I was far from happy about it.
“Hey, Izzie, how’s it going?” He smiled at me.
“Don’t.” I stated sternly as I went to my starting position.
“Did your boyfriend tell you to stay away from me? Is that where this hostility is coming from? I heard your original message loud and clear.” He continued with a small smirk, getting a kick out of my reaction.
“I’m far from in the mood to deal with you. Do your job, keep your mouth shut and your hands where they are supposed to be.”
“You’re no fun.”
“Sorry to disappoint.” I retorted sarcastically.
I successfully completed my leap/lift combination with his assistance. He was smart enough to do it without breaking my rules. I was already at my limit. Pushing it would’ve ended horribly for him. My next audition partner was Milo. I was much less on edge. He’s gotten very good at predicting what I’m going to do next. He was a little stiffer because of his hand, but he made do. When I turn and leap, he was right there to catch me and make it a lift. I felt stable and safe, even when I was high above the ground. It was by far my best audition piece of the day. My last pairing was with Ollie. Milo had Anna. I wasn’t jealous or suspicious of it. I put all of my focus into my own audition. Unlike Alex, he respected my space and didn’t overstep his boundaries.
I did a pirouette, leapt and Ollie lifted me. He didn’t have a good grip and I felt his arms trembling. I tried to help him out by relying on my body strength to stay up. His hand slipped and I collided with the floor, creating a loud thud. It grabbed the whole class’s attention. I was quickly swarmed by my classmates and our teacher.
“Are you okay? I’m so sorry!” Ollie crouched down beside me.
I groaned and sat up. “I’m fine. The shock of impact scared me more than anything.”
“Are you sure? I can take you to Nurse Miller.” Milo offered me his unharmed hand.
“I’m okay. I promise.” I allowed him to hoist me up.
“Class dismissed. One fall is enough.” Ms. G announced.
Because I knew I’d be crashing at Milo’s for the night, I sluggishly shuffled to my suite after class to shower and change. We were dismissed from class a bit early so none of my roommates were home. I stripped out of my clothes and went into our shared bathroom. I set the water temperature to warm at first. Needing to feel something, I cranked it to the hottest temperature. I closed my eyes and allowed the steaming water droplets to pelt my skin. The twinge of pain reminded me that I was still alive. I returned it to a normal temperature to clean myself and wash my hair. I climbed out and heading back into my room. I put on comfortable sweatpants, a T-shirt, and a hoodie. I packed a small bag with things I might need for the night, like my retainer and toothbrush. I pulled my hood over my head and walked to his place.
I knocked on their front door. He opened it shortly after.
“Ready for sleep?” He ushered me inside.
“I hope. I feel myself crashing in slow motion.” I made my way to his bedroom.
“You’ve cleaned up.” I noted, putting my bag down on his desk.
“Barely.” He sat down on his bed.
I went into his connecting bathroom and brushed my teeth before popping my retainer in.
“Are you going to sleep too?” I climbed into bed beside him.
“No. I’m going to watch TV at a low volume.”
“Will you still cuddle with me?”
He smiled. “Of course.” He lifted his arm and allowed me to go beneath it. I rested my head on his chest and closed my eyes.
(*|Izzie’s Flashback Dream|*)
I woke up bright and early the morning of my 6th birthday. B as decorated for my party, I searched the house for something to do. I stumbled across my mom in the living room. She was lounging on the couch with a glass of golden liquid.
“Mommy, you like my dress?” I held the hem of my purple tea dress with one hand and clutched my ballerina bunny with the other.
“I’d like it more if you left me alone.” She flipped the channels as she sipped her drink.
“I have some of your juice?” I held my hands up.
“God, you are needy.” She huffed.
I used my upper body strength to climb up onto the couch. I kept scooting closer to her.
She looked at me with such distain. “Go Away!”
“But Mommy, I –“
“Stop following me around. I don’t want you! Go bug Audrey!” She yelled to the point of being red in the face.
I started to cry, unable to mask how hurt I was. She downed what was left of her drink and stumbled out of the room without so much as attempting to console me. I held my bunny and sobbed into her fur.
“Iz – Izzie – Beautiful, please wake up.” Milo murmured as he shook me out of my slumber lightly. I awoke with a start.
I looked at him, curious as to why he woke me up. It took a second for my mind to register the tears streaming down my cheeks. I pulled away from him and wiped them away quickly, embarrassed.
“Talk to me.” He requested, looking at me sympathetically.
“It was just a bad dream.” I sniffled, wiping my eyes on my sleeves.
He diverted his gaze and took a beat. “Was it your mom?” He asked as gently as possible.
“Yeah.” I croaked, trying to get rid of the new tears coming on.
“Do you want to talk about it?” He offered, looking down at me.
“This is supposed to be our honeymoon phase. You know, where we think the other one is perfect.” I said instead of answering.
“Then think of me as your best friend right now. I’m supposed to see this.”
“I haven’t been able to sleep.” I finally admitted.
“It’s been like this every night since New York?”
“It’s always like this near my birthday. I thought things would be different this year.”
“Would calling her help?”
I shook my head. “I’m scared. I don’t want her to be whom I just saw.”
“Come here.” He extended his arm to me.
I moved to lie back down on his chest. He wrapped his arms around me and kissed the top of my head. “I love you.”
I smiled softly. “I love you too.”
I ended up being able to fall into a dreamless slumber on my second try. There was something about both of his arms being around me that caused me to feel very safe and secure. I had my first full night of sleep in ages. It felt good to wake up well rested the next morning.
“What are you doing up so early?” I rubbed my eyes.
“You know that math test I completely failed? Mrs. Wyman’s letting me retake it. I still don’t know how you passed. You don’t get that stuff any more than I do.” He pulled on a random T-shirt from his drawer.
“Elle tutored me.”
“I had Ryan helping me. That is when his mom called. I am off to submit to hours of tortuous math testing. I should be back in an hour, if all goes well.” He sat down on the bed to put on his shoes.
“You didn’t study, did you?” I tried my best to refrain from giggling.
“That’s what the fifteen minute walk to her classroom is for.” He smiled at me playfully.
“You are such a procrastinator.” I shook my head at him.
“As are you.” He teased before pecking me on the lips.
“You can wait here until I get back, but knowing you, you probably can’t sit still for that long.”
I nodded. “You know me well. I’m going to head home to check in with the girls. You know, see how the party went and make sure no one got busy in my bed while I was away. I’ll probably head to the dance studio to practice after that.” I detailed my day for him.
I was ecstatic that he had yet to mention it was my birthday.
“That sounds like a fun day. I’ll meet you in the studio when I’m done pulling my hair out.” He rose to his feet.
I climbed out of bed and gave him a hug. “Good luck on your test.”
“I need more than luck. A miracle would be helpful, though.”
I giggled. “I’ll see if I can phone one in.”
“Bye, Beautiful.” He stole a quick kiss.
“See you later.” I waved as he walked out the door.
I brushed my teeth and hair before returning home to my suite. Elle found out about my fall during auditions. She made me a glitter-coated ‘get well soon’ card, which was waiting for me on my dresser. My room was exactly the way I left it, making it crystal clear that no unauthorized guests went in there. I was changing into my dance clothes when my phone started ringing. The ringtone clued me into the fact that it was an unknown number. The odds of it being a wrong number were very high, but I took a gamble anyway.
“Happy birthday, Izzie. Did you get the package I sent?” My mother’s voice was warm and upbeat, the opposite of the one I heard the previous night.
“No, but I haven’t been to the package room yet. I got an email to pick something up. You sent me something?” I smiled.
“First time for everything, right? Peanut butter and jelly cupcakes, seventeen candles, and something nice to wear. I only know that you like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was gamble to try this new recipe, so you will have to tell me if you like them.”
“I will. The effort means a lot.”
“I have a lot of making up to do. This is the first time in sixteen years that I have been sober on your birthday. I wanted to contribute in a positive way. What are you plans?”
“I don’t have any birthday related ones. I was going to go to the dance studio. I’ll definitely pick up your package first though.”
“Your friends aren’t doing anything?” She sounded disappointed.
“I asked them not to. I have been too high maintenance lately.”
“If you were here, we would eat a fabulous brunch, go to the spa, shop at the mall, and end the night at a nice restaurant.”
“None of that’s really – me. I’d be much happier sitting around in my pajamas, eating snacks, and watching movies with you.”
“Who’d you learn that from? It doesn’t sound like Stewart.”
“Audrey. She hasn’t always had a lot, but she’s always shared what she has with me. That’s what we did for my 9th-14th birthdays.”
“I need to go. –“Her voice was strained.
“You don’t need me. You never have. You have all of these happy memories with her, but the thought of me makes you hate yourself. I should’ve left you alone. They were right!”
“Don’t leave me again!” My voice cracked.
“You have –“
“I’m sick of people telling me who and what I have! Audrey is my sister. I need my mom. I could really use one right now. I can’t sleep and my appetite is gone.” I dried my eyes with my fingertips.
“What is going on, Baby?”
“Audrey tested her DNA against mine to see if we have the same dad. The results should be in any day now. My birthday’s always been rough. There’s a naked picture of me floating around in New York. It is getting difficult to focus on the good; there’s so much bad.” I curled up in my bed.
“I am sorry you are going through this. I wish I could fix it; make it all better and send you on your way like a real mom.”
“You’re trying. I’ve always wanted you like this.” Teardrops rolled down my face and pelted my sheets.
“Are you crying?”
“Yeah, I just – I’m really tired. I wish you were here to rub my back and play with my hair.”
“Does that make you feel better?”
“You liked warm apple juice when you were little.”
“What?” I breathed a laugh.
“You didn’t like milk, but Audrey did. It helped her go to sleep. You wanted to be just like her. You begged her to let you put your cup of juice in the microwave too. You drank it every night without complaint.”
“You remember that?”
“I remember thinking it was weird. For whatever reason, strange occurrences stick out in my mind more than ordinary ones post-blackout and sober.”
“You lucked out when you had me then. That’s pretty much all I do.”
“You’ll make it out of this, Baby. You are stronger than you think. You were always a relentless little thing.”
“Don’t you mean resilient?”
“No. You are able to endure a lot, but I am referring to your ability to hold on no matter what. You are too stubborn to surrender.”
“Are you sure you don’t know me very well? It sounds like you do.”
“Audrey has lunch with me every Tuesday. She brings Emilia. She tells me about your life and how you are doing, along with hers. Emmy could not be cuter. That hair gets me every time.”
“I figured. He’s still angry with me. Aud said they got into a bit of an argument when she told him she’d be visiting me weekly with Em.”
“He’s just looking out for them.”
“I know, but I don’t want to be all alone. You are my family too.”
“Ev’s a good guy. Just give him time to come around.”
“I wish I knew that first hand.”
“You don’t remember anything about him?”
“Just little things. She stopped letting me pack her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch after they met. He helped her keep up with her inhaler. She used to come home, all embarrassed because she lost it again. One day it just stopped. I asked why. She said it was because he made it a game — quickdraw is what they called it, I believe. She would reach for her inhaler and he would go for his Epipen, whomever got to their’s first was able to have half of the loser’s dessert at lunch.”
I grinned. “That small bit says a lot. His methods are unconventional, but he does take care of her and has their best interests at heart; he always has.”
“Is she happy?”
“What was their wedding like?”
“Small and Personal. It was in his parents’ backyard — fall, their favorite season. It was a strictly close friends and family affair. No public cameras were allowed. They said ‘promise’ and ‘pinky’ instead of ‘I do’. It was truly their day. They were beaming the entire time.”
“She didn’t let me get lost in the background. She had me serve as her maid of honor. It was one of the rare times where I was sucked into the innocence of the happy bits of my childhood and felt good. I crashed the following day because it was all over.”
“I’m glad that you had her.”
“I’m glad that I have both of you now.”
I felt better after speaking to her. It was like lifting the covers and peering beneath my bed to discover that monsters did not reside there. They once did. I was cautious, knowing I did have plenty to fear, but I felt as though I could keep going in spite of it.