Lauren had made spaghetti with tomato sauce, and they all sat at the table, eating and listening to their favourite station on Lauren’s dilapidated radio. It was as if nothing had happened at all, and they were just a normal family, having dinner together like families do. Ashley knew it wasn’t going to be that simple. She still needed to talk to Anneka, and she couldn’t see the conversation being very pleasant.
After dinner, she and Lauren went into the living room together. Anneka was on washing up duty, seeing as Lauren had cooked, so Ashley had to wait a little longer before they spoke. Glad of the time to gather her thoughts, she and Lauren sat in silence for a while, until she tucked her feet up and hugged a cushion, sighing. Lauren looked at her, head tilted to the side, and then spoke.
“You’re a brave girl, Tiger-Lily. You’ll be fine. And so will we.” Before Ashley could reply, she spoke again. “So what have you been up to?”
“Um, work, college… and I met Grace Pullman.” Ashley mumbled the last part.
“I said, um, I met Grace Pullman. She came to the cafe where I work.”
“What!? Really? Tell me you spoke to her!” Lauren sat up straight, grinning. Ashley laughed.
“Yeah, we’re actually friends now. She gave me loads of tips and stuff, and we might meet up… when I go travelling.”
“Oh, really? That’s fantastic! What was she like? You know, in person?”
“Just as lovely as she was in the documentary. Pretty. You’d love her.”
“Pretty, huh? Should I be worried?” Lauren winked, and Ashley shook her head, grinning back at her.
“No! God, no. She’s got a boyfriend…”
“That never stopped me when I was your age!”
“That’s because you are an irresistible temptress, you immoral one, you.” They started laughing, and didn’t stop until Anneka came in a few minutes later.
“What are you two children laughing about?” She put her hands on her hips, her eyes narrowed, with a smile on her face.
“Ahh, I’m just educating Ashley on being an irresistible temptress. I don’t think she’s got what it takes.” Lauren got up and wound her arms around Anneka’s neck, and gave her a kiss. Ashley smiled at them. Seeing them together, seeing the way they loved each other, gave her so much hope.
“Well, she’d be learning from the best.” Anneka gave Lauren’s hair a little tug, then pulled away, turning to face Ashley. “You and me need a little talk, I do believe.”
“Yes.” Ashley uncurled her legs and wrapped her arm around them, pushing her hair out of her eye.
“I owe you an apology. I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that, and I especially shouldn’t have forbidden you to follow your heart.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the job. I should have.” Ashley looked at her hands.
“You had no obligation to tell us about your job. And you were going to tell us once you got it, which is sensible. You have nothing to apologise for, Ashley.” Anneka’s eyes filled with tears. “It’s not your fault, any of it. And it won’t be the same as it was with Cherry. I’d like to say, Ashley, and this is no excuse, but the only reason I reacted the way I did is because I love you just as much as I loved her. I love you like my own blood.”
“I love you ten times more than I did my own blood.” Ashley started crying, and Anneka and Lauren smushed up either side of her on the sofa, giving her a tight group hug, all of them crying.
Ashley shut the door quietly behind her, and checked the homemade signs on the wall before sliding the bolt across. Penny had made up a system where she hung up signs on the wall, one for each person at the flat, with the word ‘In’ on one side and ‘Out’ on the other, and the name of the person on them. All the signs were turned to say ‘In’ except hers, and she flipped it round on her way to the kitchen. Opening the fridge, she took a juice box and went to the living room. After they had all finished crying, Lauren had produced chocolate ice cream, and Anneka had made Ashley tell her all about her travelling plans. She had told them a little about Santiago, and they had both encouraged her. They agreed that staying at Penny’s was a good idea, for her to have space and them to get used to the imminent separation, but she promised to have dinner with them a few nights per week. It was the ideal arrangement, and Ashley was happy. Sucking up the last dregs of the juice, she chucked the carton in the bin and made for the bathroom. After brushing her teeth, she looked at herself in the mirror. Really looked. She smiled, kissed her reflection, and switched off the light. Sliding into her bed, she pulled the blankets up to her chin, closed her eyes, still smiling, and fell asleep.
The waves crashed on the shore. Orange flames from the fire lit up the sand. Ashley was sitting on a log at the beach. Grace was sitting next to her, and Adele was next to Tracy on the other side of the fire. They kept kissing. Grace was playing a worn out guitar, singing some famous pop song, and there were about thirty or more other people around the fire singing along…
“Hey, you.” A voice whispered in her ear. She turned to see a boy of about her age. His hair was wavy and caramel, his eyes bluer than any blue she had ever seen before. He grinned and sat next to her.
“Hey.” She replied, and looked into his eyes. A smile spread across her face, and he looked at her lips, then into her eyes again. She felt her face. There was no eye patch there. She didn’t know why this surprised her, but she leaned in and kissed the boy anyway.
Pulling away, he looked at her, smiled, then kissed her again…