Past and Present

By E. J. Robinette All Rights Reserved ©



She dreamed that she was flying.

But it wasn't like a regular flying dream – she wasn't flapping her arms or soaring along on her own power or anything: She was actually sitting in a cockpit and working the controls of a prop-driven airplane by herself. Her dream had started with her getting bored and taking flying lessons on a dare, and now here she found herself, working everything instinctively, even though the controls were so old-fashioned that they consisted of a stick and rudder bars – not even proper pedals. The cockpit only held one person, too – the instructor was sitting somewhere behind her, and for god-only-knew what reason he was dressed like a pilot from a vintage postcard, complete with goggles and leather helmet. She was still wearing her lanyard with her identification badge from work, too, although when she tried to read it it was in another language, and they had gotten her name wrong: It said Emil Werner.

Things were going swimmingly until she heard a distant chuk-chuk-chuk and the entire airplane shuddered under her hands. Bullet holes appeared in the aluminum siding around her, and then suddenly she wasn't in an enclosed airplane at all: She was in an old open-cockpit biplane, and she was alone, no more instructor or anyone. When she glanced over one shoulder there was a dark green airplane with circles painted on the sides coming back around for her, and in that way particular to dreams she slowly realized that she was being shot at. Instinctively she attempted to turn the aircraft on its side to peel away to the left – even while she vaguely wondered how she knew to do that – but it was moving at snail speed, whereas the other 'plane had already turned on a dime and was bearing down on her from behind. She could distantly see the gleam of sunlight on goggles from behind the twin machine-gun barrels pointing at her, and any minute now they would start spitting flames, and didn't they say that if you died in a dream you died in real life?

Somehow she managed to sideslip and shake him at the last minute, but he was already flipping nimbly to one side and trying to get on her tail again, so she decided to make it hard for him: Instead of waiting for him to come back around she kicked the left rudder as hard as she could and nosed forward, simultaneously yanking the control stick to the side. Her airplane was still moving like it was stuck in molasses, though, and when she glanced back over her shoulder he was already on her tail again –

Again, at the last possible minute, her own 'plane caught up with reality and suddenly whizzed into an impossibly tight left turn. Once she had built up enough speed she abruptly pulled the nose back and climbed into a great arcing turn that almost put her on her side – when she glanced over the side of the cockpit she could see a brown and cratered landscape thousands of feet below.

But before she had time to really contemplate the scenery she heard the distant teeth-rattling chatter of machine guns once more, and again the entire airplane shuddered under her hands as their bullets made contact. She tried yanking the controls to the right this time, then diving, then zigzagging back and forth, but damn, if the man wasn't tenacious – nothing she did seemed to shake him. Suddenly she felt the controls go sickeningly slack under her hands, and when she tried to kick the rudder as hard as she could, nothing happened. She began swearing loudly – she wasn't even sure if it was English; it sounded like she was dreaming in German again, which hadn't happened in a while – while she tried to fight the controls, but she could already feel herself diving, and the most she could do was try to control it by yanking the stick as hard as she could to one side or the other, doing her best to fight a spin.

While she was trying to make the best of her power glide she heard the guns rattling again, and suddenly blinding pain ripped up her left side and through her chest, and holy hell if it didn't feel real. Her arm went numb and fell off the controls, and when she tried to pick it up and force her hand back on the stick, it simply didn't respond. She gritted her teeth as a fresh wave of pain washed over her and she tried to remain conscious, but she could already feel the world blurring at the edges of her vision – and now she could hear the distant roar of machine guns again …

Amelia Werner bolted awake sweating to realize that her left arm really was burning with pain. She flailed around in half-conscious confusion for entirely too long before remembering that she actually had dislocated her shoulder in real life – at a roller derby bout – two nights before, and she had accidentally rolled over on it in her sleep just now. What a way to dream about it, though. Maybe she should stop watching history programs before she went to bed.

Wide awake now, she managed to roll over onto her other side and provide some relief to her injured shoulder, which continued to throb indignantly at her. She lay in bed trying to get her breathing under control for several more minutes before reaching over and grabbing her phone off the nightstand to check the time – four-fifteen a.m. Great. She only had about two more hours before she had to get up for work. Hopefully she could actually fall asleep again before then – and hopefully her dreams wouldn't be as terrifying this time around. She almost wouldn't mind if she dreamed about work at this point. Anything would be less terrifying than having some kind of aerial duel to the death.

Sleep didn't come right away, though, so she flopped onto her back – mindful of her injured side – and propped her head up on her good arm, staring at the ceiling. The ceiling fan that buzzed loudly overhead made some noise uncomfortably like her airplane's propeller in her dream; occasionally the motor caught and with a loud chuk-chuk-chuk before settling back into the same steady drone. After it did that for the second time she found herself sighing with something approaching relief even as she distantly realized that she would have to ask the landlord about fixing it at some point.

In the dim light from the street lamps peeking around her curtains she could just make out the four walls of her room – and now, with her heart just beginning to slow to its normal speed and sleep still eluding her, she found herself taking inventory of the strangely reassuring memorabilia that lined the walls. Across from her was the enormous Dropkick Murphys flag that she had hand-painted with one of her friends for a concert during high school; on the wall to her left was a large poster of the Clash's Combat Rock album cover. Next to that was an even larger one of Rancid that a different friend had gotten signed for her by Tim Armstrong. Her entire room was covered in band posters, actually, scattered between which were various set lists, ticket stubs, and other bits of ephemera that gradually gave way to roller derby bout posters and smaller hand fliers. Somewhere in there – there it was, she thought to herself: not that far from the Dropkick flag – she even had a picture of her crashing shoulder-first into an opposing jammer that her mother had (somewhat surprisingly, given her initial disapproval of derby) blown up and framed for her as a birthday present. Filling in the blank spaces were pictures from high school right up through college – although even in the dark she could still make out noticeable gaps that hinted at a deliberate removal of certain persons from her walls. At some point she might actually bother to fill those in.

Her scan of her bedroom complete, Amelia found herself rolling over onto her good side again and watching the blue light on her laptop blink for some indeterminate amount of time. She didn't even notice whenever she finally fell asleep again.

At six-fifteen on the dot her alarm went off, interrupting dreams that were forgotten as soon as her mind reemerged into consciousness and causing her to flail around for a good minute until she found the snooze, at which point she immediately went back to sleep. Exactly eight minutes later the alarm began shrieking again, and this time she stifled a groan and actually forced her eyes open as she rolled over and reached for it, shutting it off once and for all. After several minutes of talking herself out of bed, Amelia finally managed to force herself upright and swing her feet over the side and onto the floor. Time to face another Tuesday.

The first order of business was getting dressed and getting her arm back into its sling, which involved quite a bit of effort and several well-placed swears. Once that was accomplished she stumbled blearily down the hallway to the bathroom, and from there to the kitchen, where she stood in front of the pantry and debated breakfast with herself for entirely too long before finally settling on a bowl of cereal. While she was chowing down on that she put a kettle on to boil for her daily mug of hot tea.

After breakfast it was back to the bathroom to make herself look presentable, which luckily didn't take too much effort – since she showered at night all she had to do was wet her hair down to make it behave. Most of it had been cut off on a whim about a month before, anyway; what little was left in the back was buzzed down to about a three with a pair of hair clippers, and in the front all that remained were her front bangs, which reached down to about her eyebrows, and her side bangs, which stopped at her chin. As she brushed them into some semblance of order she couldn't help but remember how her mother had been suitably shocked whenever she dutifully sent her a picture via text. But even she had apparently warmed up to it, much as she had with derby – although not that Amelia had really consulted anyone or even bothered to ponder their possible opinions before doing it. It was her hair.

Once she had won the Battle of the Bangs she dragged herself back down to the living room and watched the news until seven-thirty; when the magic half-hour struck she laboriously slung her purse and lunch bag over her good shoulder, crammed a book and her music player into her bag, and shuffled outside to her car. Luckily driving one-handed wasn't too hard, she found herself musing as she backed out of her parking space, because her parents lived a state away and her roommate Kathleen never woke up before ten a.m. God only knew what time she would arrive if she had to wait for one of her derby friends to come pick her up; she would rather not think about it herself – so she cranked up the psychobilly on her radio while waiting for the apartment gate to all-too-slowly open before tearing out of the parking lot and onto the main road.

As she pulled onto the entrance ramp to the freeway she found herself performing the daily ritual of asking herself just how she had arrived at this place. She had been out of college for nearly a year now: the beginning of May, which was about two months away at the moment, would mark twelve months exactly – twelve long months of not putting her Bachelor of Arts in foreign language studies (specifically German), coupled with a double minor in philosophy/religious studies and earned summa cum laude, to any use whatsoever. She and Kathleen had graduated at the same time, actually, but where Kathleen had opted to work two part-time jobs so she would have the flexibility to spend time with her boyfriend, the responsible adult that lived somewhere deep within Amelia's brain had heard student loans beckoning. That was how she found herself becoming a full-time claims processor at the local branch of a national insurance company the following summer; and that was where she found herself now – with her life having slipped into some vague undefinable blur that didn't even have time for existential crises.

The worst part of it was that her job wasn't particularly terrible; if it were then she might have worked up the willpower to leave by now. It was just … unsatisfying. She knew that if she stuck around for long enough she could probably move up in the company, but if she were being honest with herself she knew that she didn't even want to do that. The larger problem seemed to be that she didn't even know exactly what she wanted to do anymore.

And other people were full of ideas for her. Her mother, for instance, had been pestering her to get her emergency teaching certification and teach German somewhere, but the town she lived in now was just too small to have any schools that taught German – it was Spanish or nothing – and she didn't particularly feel like moving back to Oklahoma to live with her parents and try to find a job there. Other people had suggested translating, and she had even kicked the idea around in her head a few times – but not only did she not even know where to begin with such a career, in the meantime her language skills grew rustier with each passing day. She wasn't even sure if she could put a coherent sentence together anymore. The only time that she really broke into German these days seemed to be when she was drinking, which provided a laugh at derby after-parties but probably didn't constitute real language practice.

She was still running through the same internal monologue when she turned into the office parking lot. After pulling into an empty parking space she heaved a particularly heavy sigh before throwing the lanyard with her identification badge around her neck, gathering up her things, and beginning the long walk to her desk.

Tuesday was the worst day of the week, she ruminated as she passed rows of empty cubicles and tried to avoid eye contact with her coworkers. On Tuesday she was more tired than she had been on Monday, but it wasn't even halfway through the week yet. Tuesday was always the day when she called some doctor's office with a simple question about a claim and had to speak to the one person there with a bug up their ass. Tuesday was the day when she had nothing more to look forward to than going home, cooking herself dinner, drinking her single nightly beer, watching some television, and going to bed early. The outlook was always bleaker on Tuesday.

Within a few minutes of awkward one-handed typing on number one in an endless stream of claims, an instant message window from her friend Amy – who worked on the customer service hotline and who skated on the derby team with her as “Anna Skarenina” – popped up and began blinking urgently in the upper left-hand corner of the page: Morning, Scarlotte. How's the shoulder today?

Hurts like hell, she typed back after a minute of contemplation, pecking out her answer right-handed, but I guess at least they managed to get it back into place.

She sometimes wondered if anyone bothered to read their chat transcripts. She knew they were saved, so she was careful what she wrote, but it would be entertaining to see the looks of confusion at her being called “Scarlotte”: It was part of her derby name, and since she and Amy had met at derby, Amy tended to call her that in real life as well – Scarlotte being short for Scarlotte Brawnte. She had wanted Apocalypse Frau at first, but someone else had already registered the name with another league, and nobody that she talked to seemed to get it anyway. Scarlotte, at least, was slightly more recognizable.

She went back to working on her claim, knocking out a couple before Amy/Anna managed to reply, presumably between calls: I imagine! They're letting you work like that? You're still in a sling right now, aren't you?

Yeah, it's in a sling. I'm stuck in it for another week or two. But somehow I talked them into letting me work one-handed since it's not some life-threatening condition or anything.

Several more minutes passed between replies, during which time she kept soldiering on, finishing a couple more claims until her chat window began flashing again.

You're more devoted than I am. I would take the opportunity to take some vacation time. But I guess that's just me. They don't keep you chained to the phones for eight hours a day, so I guess Claims is slightly more bearable. :p

Yeah, she finally wrote back, but she had to think about it for several minutes. I guess.

They chatted off and on throughout the morning – successfully bringing her to her mid-morning break as painlessly as possible – and afterward they continued the conversation until lunch. Luckily they both had the same lunch hour today, so they ate together, talking about derby and dislocated shoulders and after-parties full of loud music and louder women. After lunch the chat conversation resumed until her afternoon break, and after that came the increasingly-rapid downhill slide into the end of the day – until suddenly she found that it was five o'clock, at which point she clocked out and logged off as quickly as possible to make the dash over to Anna's desk.

They walked out to the parking lot together, chatting some more, until they began to run out of topics for small talk. Whenever they finally arrived at their respective cars they bid each other good-night, “see you later!,” and both went their separate ways.

The apartment was abandoned whenever she got home. Kathleen must be working late tonight – well, either that or she was out somewhere with The Boyfriend. Amelia realized vaguely that she should probably remember his name by now, but she could never seem to – it was something like Cody or Cory or Colby that was too similar to too many other names to be distinguishable. Kathleen had been dating him since before they graduated, making it a little over a year now, but she saw so little of the man that he was still just The Boyfriend in her mind. It probably didn't help that the two of them had started dating only a couple months after Amelia had broken off her last major relationship, when she was in no mood to hear anything about anyone's boyfriend, period. Maybe that was why she had blocked his name from her memory.

After throwing her things down on the kitchenette table she flopped down on the couch and surfed the Internet on her laptop for a while, grimacing to herself as she saw picture after picture of smiling brides and grainy ultrasounds from people she had once known. She didn't know why she even bothered to look anymore; most of the time it only served to remind her of her own hopeless drifting. And she had reminders enough of that, thank you very much.

There were pictures posted of the last derby after-party, too – unfortunately. They included one of her with her arm in a sling and a very large beer raised over her head. She thought about it for a minute before un-tagging her real name from it and just changing it to read “Scarlotte Brawnte.” Even being twenty-three years old and a state away, there were some things that she didn't want her parents to know about her weekend life.

Eventually she dragged herself off the couch and talked herself into making dinner, which consisted of a bowl of instant macaroni and cheese tonight, given that she could only use one hand – not that she was any kind of gourmet chef whenever she had both arms available, but she was a passable cook most of the time. On nights like tonight, though, she had to make concessions to derby injuries, or – sometimes – just sheer tiredness.

She plodded back over to the couch, bowl in hand, once her dinner was done cooking in the microwave and began watching television again. There was nothing on, of course, but she found herself staring fixedly at it all the same. At some point during the commercials she found herself repeating her litany from earlier that morning: Is this really what I've done with myself?

By the time she went to bed at around eleven she was still alone – Kathleen hadn't come home yet. Lucky woman. She could stay out as late as she wanted. If Amelia wasn't in bed by eleven-thirty at the latest she could barely drag herself out of bed at six-fifteen to get ready for work.

So by eleven-fifteen she had already changed into pajamas and was watching television from bed; and not too long after that she finally put out the lights and went to sleep for good, distantly hoping that she had slightly less unsettling dreams tonight.

The next day was completely uneventful. Normally she had derby practice on Wednesdays to break up the mid-week monotony, but there was no point in her going tonight – she couldn't skate after having just injured her shoulder. Practice would probably be rather light anyway, since they had just played a game about three days before. She probably wasn't missing much there.

Thursday went about the same as Wednesday, except that when she came home and got on the Internet she saw that one of the male referees from their league – a guy named James who was roughly her age – had sent her an entirely-too-public message: Hey, Scarlotte! How's the shoulder? Didn't see you at practice last night and wondered how you were feeling.

She stared at it for a long moment, torn between indifference and – well, she wasn't really sure what. She was definitely flattered by the extra attention, but she wasn't entirely sure that she liked him as much as he seemed to like her. Not that there was anything wrong with him; they just didn't – click. Their personalities were too different.

Then again, she mused bitterly to herself as she debated whether to write back right away, maybe she had an unrealistic view of dating. She had only had – oh, maybe two serious boyfriends between high school and college, with a handful of random dates with various people scattered in between. And she had been absolutely smitten with both boyfriends, at least while the relationships lasted. It was entirely possible that that had given her unrealistic expectations of how dating was supposed to work – how was she supposed find out if she liked someone if she never gave them a chance? – but here she found herself all the same. She felt that her life was too much of a mess right now to give even casual dating a try.

After several minutes of thought she finally reached some conclusion in her inner debate and wrote him back: Oh, it's fine. It hurts when I accidentally roll over on it in my sleep, but other than having to wear a sling for a couple weeks, it's survivable. Thanks for asking though!

She almost began to write And how are you doing? after that, but she stopped herself halfway through and deleted it, stopping the message after “though.” She was trying to strike a balance between polite friendliness – the man was still a friend, crush or no crush – but without inviting him to start a never-ending back-and-forth posting spree.

She was still debating how well she had handled that whenever her phone began to ring. After glancing down apprehensively to see who it was, she breathed an audible sigh of relief when she realized that it was her mother calling. She scrambled with the remote to put the television on mute before answering it.

“Hey, Mom,” she said, and from the distance of a couple hundred miles her mother answered: “Hey, Amelia. How was your day today?”

“Oh, same old, same old. Just another Thursday. How about you?”

“About the same. Thanks for asking.”

“No problem.”

“How's work going?”

“About as well as it can, given the circumstances,” she replied, and after a second she thought to clarify: “I don't know if you saw the pictures online, but I hurt my left arm at my last game on Saturday. Nothing serious, although my doctor wanted me to keep it in a sling for a bit until it healed a hundred percent. Makes processing claims a bit difficult, but I've managed.”

“Amelia. What did you do? Are you okay?” her mother asked, trying to hide the worry in her voice – and failing, Amelia mused somewhat grimly. She knew that tone entirely too well.

“Oh, it's not a big deal. I just got knocked out of bounds and fell weird and landed on my left shoulder. It's fine now. The doctor just put me in a sling for a couple weeks to make sure I don't re-injure it before it's completely healed.”

“And did they say anything about it at work?”

“No, not really. I mean, they told me I could take a week off if I wanted to, but I didn't really feel like it.” She almost shrugged one-shouldered for emphasis but caught herself at about the point that she remembered her mother couldn't actually see her.

“Well, I know you like roller derby and all, but you have some responsibilities to your job now, too. That's part of being an adult.”

“Yeah,” she finally replied, but it took her a second. “I know.”

“So aside from getting knocked around and having to process claims with one hand, how is everything else going?” her mom joked at the other end of the line, and she had to think for a minute before finally replying, “Okay, I guess.”

After another brief pause she added, “All the days kinda run together, honestly.”

“Welcome to adult life, daughter of mine. You can't say we didn't warn you about it.”

“Yeah, I remember,” she said. “It's just one of those things that you have to experience for yourself to fully understand, I guess.”

“Hmm, that sounds familiar. I think some wise old people who call themselves your parents might have said that before, too.”

“Alright, okay, I'll admit it. You two might have been right about that,” she said, feigning exasperation. When her mother laughed on the other end of the line it elicited a faint smile from her.

“I hope somebody's recording this conversation so that I can play that back for future generations. It's a great moment in a parent's life when their kid admits 'you might have been right about something.'”

“Hey, don't get too excited just yet,” she rejoined. “I said might.”

“'Might' is better than nothing. I'll take it.”

She really did laugh at that, making her realize that much as she liked her adult independence, she still missed her parents sometimes. Maybe it was about time she took a Friday off and drove up to Prague to visit them. It would be her mother's birthday soon, anyway – it was on April the fourth. She was about overdue for a trip to Oklahoma.

“Hey, Mom,” she asked abruptly, and her mother replied, “Hey, Amelia. What?”

“Are y'all going to be in town the weekend before your birthday? I might come visit you. It's been a while since I've been home.”

“Well, I imagine we can be,” her mom replied. “We don't have any plans that I'm aware of. That would be fine. You can come stay at home and say hello to all the cats.”

“And the dogs, too,” she scoffed playfully in response. Her mom made some thoughtful noise – Amelia could almost picture her waving one hand dismissively – before finally saying, “Eh, the dogs too, I suppose. Although you've always known that your dad is the dog person.”

“I guess I just got the best of both worlds, then.”

“Careful now, you don't want to get a big head,” her mother teased in response. And Amelia laughed at that, because she could just picture her mom's expression right now. All of a sudden visiting home seemed like the best idea she had had in a while.

“Well, I guess I'll get that Friday before off and drive up there,” she finished at last.

“I'll make a note to slaughter the fattened calf. The prodigal daughter, returning at last.”

“Oh, you and dad are just flatterers,” she returned easily, grinning the entire time. After a minute she asked: “Hey, have you heard about what's-her-name? Kaylee Springer's sister, I went to school with her …”

And then the conversation was galloping in a different direction once again. After that they talked about everything and nothing – the conversation pretty much followed their streams of consciousness, really – for another half an hour or so, until her mom said, “Oh, crap. I think I hear the cats fighting out on the front porch. I'm gonna have to let you go for now.”

“Alright, Mom. I'll talk to you in a bit, once I have that day off for sure.”

“Okay. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

She sat and stared at her phone for a minute after the call disconnected before finally putting it away. She would have to write a note to herself that she would see on her way to work tomorrow: Ask off on the Friday before Mom's birthday. Honestly, she should probably write it on a sticky note and attach it to the back of the door or something …

She settled for writing it on her hand after she took a shower and hoping it would still be there in the morning. That was probably her best bet.

At eleven-fifteen she crawled into bed, careful not to fall asleep with her face in her written-upon hand – wouldn't that just be great – and finally passed out sometime in the next twenty minutes or so.

It seemed like only a few minutes of a dream about getting lost in a foreign country (complete with a helpful, and maybe even cute, young man trying to offer directions in lightly-accented English) had passed before Amelia abruptly awoke to her alarm screeching in her ear. As always she somehow managed to find the snooze and fall asleep for another eight minutes exactly before being shaken from her sleep once again – although the second time around she remembered that it was Friday, at least, and all she had to do was make it through today to arrive at the weekend. That thought alone was enough to force her upright and out of bed and give her the energy to get dressed, work her injured arm back into its sling, and drag herself down the hallway to the bathroom.

Work, thankfully, passed quickly, and at least she had something to look forward to tonight: They had some derby appearance or another at a bar – always a good excuse to get out of the empty apartment. So on her way out of work she and Anna worked out a schedule whereby Anna would come pick her up at seven-ish and they would go together – and then one or the other could pretend that they needed to get back early if they needed to bail before the bar closed. It was a good arrangement all around.

When she got home she managed to change herself into something suitably derby-esque – well, really just her jersey with a pair of jeans, but it showed enough tattoos to make her look tough or something – and then sat around on the couch watching television until the doorbell rang. Kathleen was nowhere to be found. For a minute she wondered if that might be her returning, but then she remembered that she had actually been waiting for someone, and when she finally got up and answered the door she found Anna on the doorstep.

“Ready to go?” she asked, and Amelia shrugged one-shouldered in response.

“Reckon so. Let's do this thing.”

Anna waited for her to flip the porch light on and lock the door behind her before the two of them headed over to her car. Amelia flopped lazily into the passenger seat and attempted to arrange the seat belt so that it wasn't hitting her bad arm as Anna backed out of the parking space and began driving towards the exit. As they were sitting there, waiting for the gate to open, Anna asked, “So how's the shoulder now?”

“Eh. Still hurts, though not as much as it did at the beginning of the week. My problem is that I keep accidentally rolling over on it in my sleep.”

“Gotta love derby injuries,” she replied, putting her blinker on and turning right out of the parking lot. Amelia glanced sideways at her and asked, “Have you broken anything yet?”

“Nope. Knock on wood,” she replied, rapping on the completely-not-wood door panel of her car. “You be careful about jinxing me, though. Somebody rolled my ankle pretty well in that last game. Scared me when it happened.”

“Lots of injuries in that last game,” she mused in in reply, half to herself, as she turned to stare out the window. In addition to her shoulder – which had probably been the worst injury of the night – there had been several rolled ankles, two re-injured knees, and a mild concussion between both teams. Fun stuff. She never bothered to tell her parents about that because she already knew how much they worried, but to the players it was just a matter of course: One took time off to heal and then started skating again as soon as possible.

“Hey, so – different subject now. What's up with you and James? I always see him buzzing around you like a lovelorn fly. Is there something going on there?” Anna asked abruptly. That earned her something approaching a Look, but she just smiled back in response without taking her eyes from the road. Amelia made a face at her for a full half a minute before finally replying, “Well, I guess there could be, if I wanted there to. But I'm not really interested in him as more than a friend.”

“Pshh, interested. Who needs to be interested? You need to get some action while the gettin's good.”

That definitely did earn her a Look. When she glanced over and saw Amelia trying to bore a hole through her with her eyes, she protested, “What? It's true.”

“Really?” Amelia deadpanned. Anna shrugged.

“I'm just sayin'. You haven't seen anyone – that I know of, anyway – since you broke up with what's-his-face back before I met you.”

“Daniel. And let's not speak his name in my presence,” she grumbled in reply, abruptly looking back out the passenger window. It didn't matter that she didn't really have feelings for him anymore – even hearing the name brought back a whole host of still-painful memories. Never mind that they had broken up more than a year before. Who knew, maybe she needed another year before she stopped caring completely.

“Anyway, in my defense, I wasted three years of my life on that man. It's hard to just pick up and find somebody new again,” she added moodily, almost in afterthought. She was still staring fixedly at the city scenery sliding past whenever Anna replied, “No, it's not. Just get sloppy drunk and find somebody cute. You're on birth control, right?”

“Amy. Really?” she snapped, maybe a little more harshly than she intended, but her friend just laughed.

“Okay, okay, so maybe you're not into that. In that case, I probably have some single male friends that I could set you up with who would at least buy you dinner first.”

“Well then. I suppose that might be alright,” she replied sarcastically. Again Anna only grinned.

“Good grief, you need to lighten up. Maybe you should just let me set up you with somebody. You need to freakin' relax.”

“Yes, well, on that front I haven't gotten laid since before I broke up with that asshat, so that's probably overdue,” she shot back. “Except that I have this whole fear-of-strangers thing. Comes from getting stalked by countless strangers who apparently had a thing for the cashiers in my department store.”

“Oh, yeah. You told me about that.”

“Yeah,” she snorted in reply, half to herself. “I don't know why life never throws any halfway normal men my way.”

“And right when you think you get a normal one, you snatch them up as quick as possible – and then after two months of living together you find out that he pees in the bathroom sink and plays video games for over eight hours a day,” Anna shot back dryly. That was enough to make Amelia crack a grin.

“Hey, though – I had this dream last night that I met somebody when I was lost in another country. Might've been Germany, they were all speaking German. Anyway – hey, no, it wasn't that kind of a dream,” she protested as Anna shot her a sly sidelong glance. “I was just going to say, it was like my brain made up somebody for me to have a crush on. Kinda sad, because then I had to wake up. And it just made me realize that there's nobody right now that I feel that way toward.”

“Kinda bittersweet then, huh?”

“Yeah. Kinda.”

The conversation quietly died away; Amelia sighed and turned back around to glance out the passenger window again. Neither of them said anything.

“Hey, so, you gotta help me out if anyone super awkward is hitting on me,” she resumed as the scenery began to hint that they were arriving at their destination, turning back around to glance at Anna again. “Like, if I'm trying to friend-zone James and he isn't getting the hint, you need to come rescue me.”

“Same goes for you. Right?”

“Yeah, well, one of us in this car has a boyfriend. Usually mentioning that in casual conversation gets the point across.”

“Has, might be had soon, god only knows. You just promise that you'll rescue me from any creepy bros or dirty old men who won't leave me alone.”

“Done. I promise.”

“Alright then. I promise too.”

And she glanced over at Amelia, half laughing.

“We girls gotta stick together,” she finished.

A few seconds later they were pulling into the driveway of the bar. There was already a pretty sizable crowd in here tonight – maybe she would get lucky and score some free drinks without having to get hit on too much. Every now and then someone got epically drunk and started buying rounds for the entire team. She had her fingers crossed that tonight would be one of those nights.

As soon as they stepped inside they were greeted by a mixed chorus of “Scarlotte!” and “Anna!” They paused to order drinks at the bar – something suitably cocktail-y for Anna and a pitcher of beer for herself – before dragging themselves over to the corner where half the team was already sitting in various groups. No James for now, she noticed, somewhat satisfied. He might turn up later, but at this point she could have a bit of girl time before the menfolk started showing up.

As she and Anna settled onto stools and began working on their drinks, somebody piped up, “Holy hell, woman. Are you really going to drink that entire thing by yourself?”

“Hey. Easy now. I got a designated driver,” she shot back playfully, nodding towards Anna. “I can get as sloppy as I want. Maybe if you're lucky I'll give you a theology lecture in German later.”

The people who were around them half-listening cracked up at that, and someone else added, “Only you, Scarlotte.”

“Damn straight. And you better remember it too.”

And with that the night began. Mostly she sat around and talked to Anna about everything and nothing; having a regular face-to-face conversation with her was far different from the ones they usually had at work, and it was a welcome change. Other people came and went, some sticking around longer than others, and occasionally she even had complete strangers come up and introduce themselves because they were interested in meeting the derby team – which was really the point of the evening, she mused distantly after about beer number three. She tried to talk some of the women she met into joining derby, but most of them just laughed and made excuses about not being tough enough for the sport. She just shrugged one-shouldered – like always – and replied that she hadn't been either until she started playing, which usually earned more laughs. She was only half joking, but they wouldn't know that until (unless?) they actually started playing themselves. Oh, well.

Eventually more people showed up, until finally damn near the whole team – including referees, coaches, non-skating officials and other general hangers-on – were crowded back into their corner of the bar. At one point somebody even put the Clash on the jukebox, and she slammed her good down on the table and exclaimed something along the lines of “now that's what I'm talking about!”, before turning to the closest person and offering a lecture on the Clash tattoo on her left shoulder. That was about when she had killed off pitcher number one, as far as she could remember. The night began to blur together after that.

Sometime about halfway through pitcher number two – as she was treating a far-more-sober Anna to a lecture on Christian Universalism – she heard a voice break in with, “Hey, Scarlotte! How's the shoulder treating you?”

She glanced up entirely too slowly to see James's smiling face perched on a bar stool opposite her, apparently having just sat down. She worked up a smile in response – she didn't hate him; the man was still a friend, as long as he got the message – before answering, “Y'know, the rest of the time it kinda still hurts, but at this point I've rather stopped caring. How are you doing?”

“Oh, alright. Same old, same old. Just glad it's the weekend.”

“Too true,” she managed after a minute, followed closely by, “Und ist es nicht verdammt … wunderschön!”

At that she buried her face in her good arm and laughed hysterically for a full half a minute. When she looked back up Anna and James were shooting each other twin meaningful looks and smiling entirely too broadly at her.

“Something funny?” she challenged, feigning belligerence, before breaking into a fit of giggles again. Anna waited a minute before replying, “Maybe you should slow down, Scarlotte. You've started speaking German again.”

“First it was the theology lecture, und jetzt schalte ich Sprachen. Gonna be an interesting evening for you two. Maybe you'll learn something.”

“It's okay, I'm the sober one tonight,” Anna cracked, glancing over at James. “I've only had one drink, and that's probably all I'll have. Some of us don't like waking up hungover.”

That was directed toward her, Amelia was pretty sure, but it took her a second to catch up with it. She paused briefly to kill off her glass of beer and began pouring herself another one before thinking to continue, “Hey, in my defense, I put up with ten kinds of bullshit during the week. The weekend is my time to unwind.”

“Lucky for you I'm here to make sure you get home in one piece.”

“Much appreciated,” Amelia shot back as she laughed for emphasis.

The conversation died down for a minute or two afterward, long enough to give her time to work on her drink some more. Finally – after having some time to think, she reasoned distantly – James ventured, “So what else are you doing this weekend, aside from getting viking-drunk tonight?”

“Nothing. Probably just going to crawl around my apartment hungover as shit tomorrow, then spend Sunday trying to recover from that,” she scoffed, cradling her face in her good hand.

As soon as she said it, some panic switch flipped in her brain: She distantly recalled that every time she told James that she wasn't busy, he followed up with an offer to go on a date. For what felt like a full minute her mind raced in circles as she tried to think of some way to retract what she had said, but after entirely too long James just smiled and replied, “Sounds like a plan. If you get bored I'm always down to hang out, but I bet you'll probably be busy trying to recover all weekend.”

“Oh yeah. You're definitely right about that, good sir.”

She somehow managed to contain the relieved sigh that tried to force its way out of her mouth and settled on an inward one instead: Bullet successfully dodged.

“So how do you feel about the next game coming up?” James started after that, to both of them and neither in particular, and after that the conversation switched to derby. She could barely remember when the next game was – she had been too focused on the last one – but Anna did, and once she jogged Amelia's memory the three of them were going at lightning speed on stats and stories and conjecture, and it was not a bad conversation. Maybe she should give the man a chance at some point, she even mused distantly, while he and Anna were engrossed in conversation. He wasn't too bad.

Eventually she made it all the way through pitcher number two, and then things began to get really interesting – too bad she couldn't remember them. She played a bunch of old-school seventies punk on the jukebox, tried to talk to people in German, gave more lectures on more subjects than she could even try to remember … and she only knew that later because Anna told her. Apparently she was mightily entertaining to their corner of the room. And James wasn't even annoyingly clingy, as far as she could recall: He was fun to talk to and didn't even cling to her like a lovesick barnacle all night. All in all, it was a good night.

Sometime in the small hours of the morning – it might have been after last call; time was running together too much for her to tell – Anna glanced down at the clock on her cell phone and then back at her, then finally announced, “Well, I imagine it's about that time. You ready to split?”

“Yeah, sure. Lemme think. Ah …”

She stared contemplatively at her empty glass for a very long moment before finally finishing, “Yeah, I think I'm done. Have I paid my tab?”

“You didn't start a tab tonight. It's been cash the whole time.”

“Ah, great. Verdammt … wunderbar. Do I have everything?”
“Phone's on the table. As far as I know, everything else is in your purse.”

“You're a good friend, Anna,” she announced loudly as she grabbed her cell phone from the table and stuffed it into the hand-knit purse slung over one shoulder. She managed to push herself into an upright position from her stool before broadcasting to their corner of the room, “Hey! We're leaving. See you crazy bitches at practice on Sunday.”

“Are you two really leaving already?”

“Who you calling a crazy bitch? You looked in a mirror lately?”

“You two drive safe!”

“Sleep on your side!”

There were plenty more responses, but – drunk as she was – she could only pick out the ones closest to her. Everyone in their corner was treated to a series of ridiculous faces in reply, enough that she was treated to a chorus of laughs as she and Anna made the rounds and said their good-byes for the night. Somehow Anna finally managed to drag her outside and back to the car – successfully parrying her attempts to pester strangers for cigarettes that she couldn't give up a month's hard work of not smoking – and before she was really aware of it she found herself seated in the car, automatically buckling her seatbelt. About as soon as she realized it she also noticed that her head had immediately rolled back against the door post as her eyes tried their damnedest to close.

The drive home was a barely-recognized series of blurs streaming past her window. She was pretty sure she talked to Anna at least part of the way, but she couldn't recall exactly what was said – she was way too far gone for that. She barely recognized the apartment when they pulled up to the gate, and even then she only realized where they were because Anna had to ask her for the code (which she spit out in German before remembering to translate into English).

Before she knew it they were parked and Anna had walked over to her side of the car to retrieve her – at this point Amelia could barely walk on her own. After several minutes of awkward fumbling she finally had to give her keys to her friend to unlock the front door.

Anna waited around long enough for Amelia to lurch down to her bedroom before asking, “You think you got it from here?”

“Think so, madam. Thanks for the ride and all. I had a great night.”

“No problem. Now you get some rest and make sure you don't fall asleep on your back. I'll talk to you later.”

“'Night, lady.”

“Good night.”

She collapsed onto bed and closed her eyes for just a second – and when she opened them again Anna was gone. She barely managed to stumble down the hallway to the front door to make sure it was locked before dragging herself back into her room and flopping, full-length and fully-clothed, into bed once again Before she had time to further contemplate the events of the evening she was fast asleep.

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