Cindy stood in front of her old childhood house.
Black dress, hair pulled back into a ponytail at the base of her neck, red lips, high heels, a silent Derek by her side. And dry eyes. Somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to shed a tear for her dead father, and even if she had been be able to, she wouldn’t have allowed herself to do so on principle.
Derek let her have her time and space and simply stood there, his hands stuffed in his pockets, until he noticed that her cheeks went pale and her lower lip was trembling slightly. He tentatively drew a finger over her knuckles and she didn’t hesitate before taking his hand.
“Are you okay?” he asked softly, although it was so clear she wasn’t.
She drew in a shaky breath. “No,” she admitted. “Not even remotely close. I want this to end so that I can put everything behind me. Let’s get this over with.”
Fingers intertwined, they walked inside the house. They had a funeral to plan.
Derek was there for her all the way through it, and Cindy couldn’t be more grateful for it. While she hadn’t had any type of feeling other than utter repulsion towards her father, this was a painful process. She wasn’t just burying Tom Bennett, hardly a human being, hardly worth calling a father or a husband. She was burying little Cinderella, too, like he used to call her back when she actually believed there was a part of him capable of loving.
If you want to rise from the ashes, you need to set yourself on fire first. Cindy just hoped she was ready. And if she wasn’t, she just hoped she could hand the matches to Derek.
“Hey,” he came behind her as if summoned by her thoughts, dropping a hand on her shoulder. “How are you holding up?”
Cindy rolled her eyes. He knew what it all meant to her and she found it in her to be honest and open enough with him to let him in on every bit of her soul, on every little feeling that suffocated her. But at some point, it had really gotten annoying.
“Derek, I’m,” she sighed, forcing a smile for his sake. “I’m seriously pissed off right now. Stop pampering me.”
“Right,” he shoved his hands in his pockets. “Are you, though?”
She turned to him and tried to glare, but it came off more as a scowl.
“No,” she replied for the hundredth of time. “Ask again in five minutes. Though to save you time, I bet the answer will still be no.”
Derek shot her a small smile and tucked a strand of hair beneath her ear. He felt so helpless, standing around and not being able to do anything to make her feel better. He understood she needed to work through all those feelings by herself and to feel cleansed of whatever residue of regret there was still left in her. It just bugged him to not be able to make it easier on her.
“Thank you, Derek,” she whispered, her voice breaking a little, and Derek blinked. “Thanks for everything. I couldn’t have done any of this without you; I would’ve been too much of a coward. But you were here every step of the way, and I think you made me a little braver.”
Derek shrugged sheepishly, trying to brush everything off, but it was clear by the beginning of a small smug smile on his lips that he was happy to have played any role whatsoever in the process.
“Told ya,” he replied. “I’m not leaving you. Whatever you need, I’m here for you.”
Cindy smiled sadly and took his hand. “I know. Quite the plot twist.”
Derek chuckled and put his arms around her, and Cindy sniffed. She hated that she was so weak. It was as if every tear she’d refused to shed over the years was now over-flooding and she just would not stop crying. She hated this so badly.
At the voice he heard behind him, Derek pulled away from Cindy turned around, and both of them looked shocked at Ray having made an appearance.
“Ray,” Cindy whispered, her eyebrows shooting up.
Ray tried a small smile. “It’s a nice change from the Ray-Ray.”
His joke didn’t catch, because neither of them spoke, before Cindy broke the silence.
“What—What are you doing here?”
“Derek told me about your dad. I thought I’d come pay my respects. I’m sorry for your loss.”
Cindy glared at Derek, who scratched the back of his neck with guilt glued to his expression, but she just sighed and turned to Ray.
“I’m not. And you wasted your time,” she spoke bitterly. “The man deserved no respect.”
Ray frowned for a moment, before her words registered into his head and he put two and two together.
“Oh,” he mumbled awkwardly. “My bad. Then I came to be here for you. In case you needed a friendly face. Not that… Not that my face is friendly or that we are particularly friends because I know we haven’t exactly been… I mean, but you—“
Cindy actually chuckled, and Derek paused his internal cringing at his best friend’s rambling to appreciate the sound of it. Well, at least Ray had accomplished the un-accomplishable.
“I get it, Ray,” she smiled at him. “No bad blood. Thank you for coming.”
Ray nodded once and pursed his lips. With all of that put behind them, Cindy turned to Derek with an exhausted look on her face, and Ray noticed dark circles under her eyes. Whatever had went on between her and her dad, whether she was sorry or not for his death, this was really taking its toll on her.
“Let’s go,” Cindy told Derek. “It’s time.”
Derek nodded and she went ahead, leaving the two friends behind. With Cindy gone, Derek put a hand on Ray’s shoulder and sighed.
“That was painful, mate,” he said, and Ray let out a small chuckle. “Glad to have you back, Raymond.”
Ray sighed and glared at Derek’s use of his full name. “Nice to know nothing’s changed in my absence.”
“You’ve been gone like half an hour,” Derek narrowed his eyes. “At the very most. And to be honest, I saw it coming. I had my money on how you’d never even make it out of Seattle.”
“Huh,” Ray clicked his tongue. “So that’s why you didn’t sound too surprised on the phone.”
Derek chuckled, but grew serious in a matter of seconds.
“How come you show up here, though?” he questioned, and Ray ran a hand through his hair.
“It seemed like a nice thing to do. I started feeling bad for the way we’ve treated Cindy for so many years. And losing a parent is something I relate to. It’s devastating no matter how you put it, and even though Cindy and her dad didn’t get along, I wouldn’t wish this to anybody.”
Derek pursed his lips and clenched his fists, and Ray was surprised to see a ferocity in his best friend he had never seen before, a protectiveness and fierceness he hadn’t thought him capable of. Derek was a puppy. Looking at him now, he looked like a wolf ready to rip apart whoever hurt Cindy.
“Yeah, well,” he spoke through his teeth. “This ain’t Cindy’s first rodeo. Her mom died when she was a teenager. And to say she and her dad didn’t get along is this year’s understatement.”
“Oh,” Ray’s eyes widened. “I didn’t---“
“Let’s go,” Derek cut him off. “Time to go bury world’s greatest douche.”
The funeral wasn’t much. Tom Bennett hadn’t had any friends. And those he had were probably passed out drunk somewhere. Cindy didn’t have any close family, so it was all down to some neighbors, distant relatives and old distant friends. And Ray.
Cindy constantly searched his hand like she needed to keep finding something to lean on, like she needed him to ground her. And she did. Derek’s hand around hers reminded her that she had to keep her chin up. It reminded her of the sick son of a bitch lying in a coffin having dirt thrown over his dead body and it reminded her that the world could do better than that. Not once would she have to grant him a single thought. With Derek by her side, she could now begin to show the universe who Cindy Bennett was and that she’d be back in black to claim what it owed her.
So Cindy closed her eyes. She breathed in and then out. She opened her eyes and, with one last look at her father’s grave, she let go.
Ray and Cindy turned to look at Derek. They were all sitting on the front porch of Cindy’s old childhood house, drinking beer. Cindy couldn’t wait to sell this house stinking of rotten memories. She was more than ready to get rid of everything related to her childhood. She was ready to move on. And she’d been waiting to do that for a long time.
“What do you mean?” she asked Derek.
“I mean, what now? I wasn’t unaware I said it in Klingon.”
“Nerd,” Ray mumbled under his breath and Cindy glared.
“Excuse you,” she punched his shoulder lightly. “This front porch is nerd-reserved only. Feel free to let yourself out.”
Ray chuckled and took a sip of his beer.
This felt right, Cindy thought. She felt clean. She felt free. And if she searched deep down, she’d find that she had even forgiven her parents. She let go of the blame now that there was no one left to point it at, and she learned that blame had been her shackles all this time.
“Now,” she started answering Derek’s question. “Now I can start being okay. I finally have a nice job, my dream job, really. There’s nothing holding me back anymore. The only direction is forward.”
She sighed, and the boys listened to her carefully, letting her have her moment. Eventually, she turned to Derek.
“And you?” she smiled up at him. “What now? Where to?”
He smiled sheepishly and brought his shoulders up, and Cindy was delighted to catch glimpse of flushed cheeks. If anything, one of her greatest accomplishments was having made Derek McCarter blush his ears off.
“I figured forward might be a good way to go,” he mumbled under his breath, then cleared his throat and looked Cindy square in the eyes. “With you. If you’ll have me, that is.”
He shrugged it like it was no big deal, but Cindy knew better. She saw through it. So she blinked away tears, happy tears, and squeezed his hand.
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” she replied, and they smiled at each other.
“Still here, fellas,” Ray called when he noticed that they were so absorbed in each other, and the two of them chuckled. “You guys are gross.”
Cindy rested her head on Derek’s shoulder, feeling as if bits and pieces were falling into place.
“What about you, Ray-Ray?” Cindy teased him with the old nickname. “What’s next for you?”
Ray sighed and she noticed his eyes growing a little darker.
“I’m not sure,” he replied, his voice grave. “I screwed up my career, mostly. I screwed up things with Sky. So perhaps fixing these two things might be a good start.”
Cindy pursed her lips. “You know, if it hadn’t been for your little rude girlfriend, Derek and I wouldn’t have found each other.”
Derek smiled. “That’s true. To think I could’ve gone my whole life not knowing you’re a genius hack girl and that all there is to you are pink cardigans and lip gloss.”
Cindy glared. “For the thousandth time, computer engineer and hacker are not the same thing.”
“Whatever,” Derek teased, and she ruffled his hair playfully.
She never would have seen this coming. Not four months ago, not ever. She never would’ve fathomed that Derek would end up playing such a vital role in her life and that she’d have beer with Ray like two friends without things being awkward.
“Cheer up, Ray-Ray,” she smiled at him.’
“I hate you guys and your stupid nickname addiction.”
Cindy chuckled. “Life’s short, cowboy. You’ll figure stuff out. You’ll get the girl and the job. Whatever girl, whatever job. There’s time.”
They all stayed silent, letting Cindy’s words sink in. It was quite a paradox. Life was short, too short to waste your time for things that aren’t worth it. And yet, there was more than enough time for those things to settle. Eventually, Cindy was the one who broke the silence.
“But what if there isn’t?” she spoke, and the boys watched her curiously. “What if there weren’t time? What if this were the last moment we’re granted? Last beer, last sunset, last conversation? What would be your greatest regret, greatest accomplishment, what would be the one thing you’d want to do before sinking into oblivion?”
Neither of them answered, looking at Cindy curiously.
“Wow,” Derek spoke eventually. “When did you get so morbid?”
Cindy rolled her eyes. “Just answer the damn question, McCarter.”
But it wasn’t Derek who spoke. Instead, Ray took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
“My greatest regret is not telling my mom I love her enough,” he confessed. “I don’t think she’ll ever be able to comprehend how grateful I am for raising us all by herself after losing the love of her life. I don’t think I’d ever have the strength. Best thing that happened to me?” He snorted. “Carpooling with Sky. Man, that girl can rap. And if I had five more minutes before I go,” he paused for a minute, biting his lip, before answering. “The last thing I’d wanna do is finish that goddamn book I haven’t been able to read a single sentence of ever since I met Sky.”
Cindy and Derek laughed, but it held more meaning than they’d know. He loved Sky. He loved her like crazy. But he loved her so much that he allowed her to take things from him, bits of himself that weren’t hers to take. Sky deprived him of being what made him Raymond Cartwright. Not her Ray of Sunshine. Like reading. The fact that he hadn’t been able to read since he’d met her only showed a weakness that was rooted in the fact that falling for her had him so far gone.
“Well, fuck this,” Derek swore. “Let’s see what I’ve got. My greatest regret is not acting on that crush I had on you, Cindy. Would’ve saved us lots of trouble.”
They both laughed. That was an understatement. They’d wasted ten years, give or take, and they’d gotten Ray involved as a means for Cindy to get to Derek. Really twisted story.
“Greatest accomplishment,” Derek continued pensively. “Hmm. Having the same girl in my bed three times in a row.”
Cindy slapped his shoulder and he winked at her, so she soon forgot what she mad about. She was developing a dangerously fast growing soft spot for this adorable dork.
“And if I had five more minutes, I’d spend them here with you,” he stated simply. “Your hair matches the sunset, so it seems like a nice picture to keep in mind before going.”
Cindy bit her lip against her smile. Definitely a soft spot. Next to them, Ray groaned.
“Derek McCarter making color analogies. Now I’ve seen it all. Who are you and what have you done with my best friend?”
Derek scoffed at him like a kindergarten toddler. “Shut up. It’s Cindy’s turn.”
Cindy thought about it. Regrets, accomplishments. It had been a rather spontaneous idea, but she hadn’t really put too much thought into it. In hindsight, it seemed silly to think about these things. Those little momentums were rather insignificant in the big picture.
“I don’t have regrets,” she stated. “I’m done living in the past. And I’ve worked so hard to get to where I am now that I like to see all I’ve done as a small accomplishment, each greatest than the previous one.” She kept the part about making Derek blush to herself, though. He’d have denied it anyway, and Ray would have never let them hear the end of it.
Derek and Ray looked at her surprised, her confession making perfect sense and sounding much too wise for a 20-something young woman. They had the feeling it had way too much to do with the fact that life had been rather cruel towards Cindy.
Eventually, Derek broke the silence.
“What about last thing you want to do?”
She smiled playfully, a dangerous smirk curving her lips before leaning in to his ear and whispering some things that made Derek reluctant to move a muscle, his face unreadable and livid. But by the way Cindy looked so proud afterwards and by the lack of a reaction from a constantly shifting person like Derek, Ray just knew.
“Ew,” he exclaimed, standing up. “Ew, ew, ew. Disgusting. That’s my cue. See you later. Oh God. I’ll never be able to unsee this.”
He left and made his way to the car, leaving Derek gulping and Cindy throwing her head back laughing behind him.
After a few minutes of Cindy still giggling occasionally, they sunk into a comforting silence. She rested her head on Derek’s shoulder and he had an arm around her, and words were no longer needed.
“Are you okay?” Derek asked eventually, and Cindy took her time seeking an answer within herself.
“No,” she raised her head, looking at him and smiling warmly. “But I will be.”
Derek returned her smile and glanced quickly at her lips. That was her cue. Her smile widening, she put her arms around his neck and closed the gap between them, crashing their lips together. And it was the most intense kiss she’d ever experienced, slow, chaste, breathless. They took their time discovering each other, finding a common pace, their hands learning each other’s lines of their bodies by heart and Cindy’s fingers ended up at the hair at the base of his neck while Derek buried his in her red curls.
And when they broke the kiss for air, gasping happily, Cindy realized this was their real first kiss. No hook up involved. And while they’d made the decision of giving it a shot and Derek had been anything but reserved when it came to touching her, he’d still given her space and hadn’t dared to kiss her. For some reason, Derek McCarter, former player, former ladies’ man, had done her the privilege of falling for her. And she was slowly falling for him in return.
Cindy leaned in for another kiss. Yes. She definitely had to thank Sky for this.