It wasn't fair, Courtney thought. She had expressed her thought out loud several times throughout the course of the day, and she was sure her friends were sick of hearing it now.
Well, that and the other story going around the school of another painting on the side of the gymnasium that appeared over the weekend. Another vase of flowers, these ones beautiful but poisoned.
"I can't believe those two are still allowed in here," Courtney sneered, disgusted by the sight of Alejandro and Heather pressed up against a set of lockers she was sure wasn't their own. "If they were going to suspend anyone, it should have been them."
"Duncan started the fight," Bridgette pointed out, rearranging her books. "And it's only a week suspension, it could have been a lot worse."
"Still, it's not fair Gwen has to miss school too. Heather definitely started that fight."
Bridgette giggled. "Yeah, right."
"You think Gwen started the fight?" Courtney turned quickly to face her friend.
"Oh no, I believe Heather started the fight, but it's not like Gwen is missing much more school than usual."
Courtney furrowed her eyebrows, confused. "What do you mean?"
Bridgette cleared her throat, shutting her locker door. She started walking down the hallway towards their final class for the day and Courtney moved quickly to catch up to her stride.
"Haven't you noticed that Gwen's not in many classes?"
"I guessed she had different ones to me," Courtney shrugged, never having thought about it. The first time she had really seen Gwen since being home was at the coffee shop. They had never run into each other in the hallways or spied her across the room in any of her classes.
"Maybe that is true," Bridgette replied. "But it's also a well-known fact that Gwen cuts most of her classes so she can get more shifts at The Grind."
"Why would she do that?"
Bridgette halted, looking Courtney up and down.
"I thought you knew," she said, but Courtney's confusion had only grown. "Gwen's dad left when we were in ninth, just walked out on all of them, everyone knows. Her mom kind of had a mental breakdown and now she mostly takes care of her and her brother."
Courtney couldn't get Bridgette's words out of her head for the rest of the day. No one had stopped to tell her what had been going on with her childhood best friend and now she felt guilty for not doing something sooner.
Gwen had been right; she hadn't stopped to notice anyone but Bridgette in her short time home.
Courtney went to bed that night with her head full of thoughts. She tossed and turned for hours in her darkened room, unable to stop her worries. The overwhelming need to fix a situation she didn't know anything about ate away at her until it was past midnight and sleep was the last thing on her mind.
She resonated to sitting at her desk, her lamp casting an ominous glow across her homework. Courtney didn't get much more done than clutching a pen in one hand and her head in the other before a light tap came from the dark. She jumped, scared of any creepy noise, and then it came again, coming from her window.
Courtney moved slowly, crouching as glanced up through the window into the street below just in time for another pebble to bounce off the glass. She shot to her feet, sliding open the window and calling below, "What are you doing?"
"I was driving past and saw your light on." Gwen grinned up at her in the dark, lit only by the streetlight. "Do you want to go for a drive? With me?" She quickly added, pointing to her car parked in the middle of the street.
"It's the middle of the night," Courtney hissed back. "And it's a school night!"
"Not for me it isn't."
Courtney scrunched up her face in anger, torn between the two choices in front of her. She had never done anything like this before; sneaking out in the middle of the night? Unheard of in the Taylor household.
But on the other hand, this was Gwen. Gwen who used to hold her hand to cross the street and Gwen who always shared her chocolate bars on the playground. Nine years didn't change a person that much.
So, Courtney ended up in Gwen's car, the music low and their lack of words echoing into Courtney's mind like a siren. People did change in nine years and she needed to stop listening to the rush of adrenaline that told her otherwise. She didn't know the young woman sat beside her, didn't know where they were heading or if she was wearing the right clothes for the occasion after getting dressed mostly in the dark.
The drive wasn't long, and Courtney knew her way around enough to know they were almost out of the town completely. Fields surrounded them on every side and Courtney couldn't see the road they had come from or the road that would lead them on when Gwen pulled up on a shorter patch of grass.
There was a small brick building to the right, though the overgrown weeds and door falling off its hinges suggested no one had been around to see it in a long while.
"Is this the part where you murder me?" Courtney joked, her throat dry.
"Nah," Gwen replied, opening her door. "This is where we come to dump the body of the guy I killed on the way over."
Courtney didn't realise she'd stopped breathing until Gwen started laughing.
"I'm kidding! Lighten up, Court." Courtney did not lighten up as her heart was pounding against her chest. "I don't remember you being such a stick-in-the-mud when we were kids."
"I don't remember your jokes being so morbid when we were kids." Courtney got out of the car, but didn't shut the door, she braced her hand on the roof. "This is the setting for a zombie apocalypse, you know that, right?"
Gwen laughed again, hauling a duffle bag out of her back seat.
Courtney hesitated, wondering if Gwen really did have a dead body in that thing, but quickly shook her head free of the thought. This wasn't one of the midnight horror movies she often avoided on television, this was her and her former best friend out for a late-night stroll.
"I want to show you something," Gwen said over her shoulder, already walking towards the empty building.
Courtney bit her lip but couldn't resist following. She pushed her feet through the waist-high grass, some taller spikes hitting against her palms, but she kept going, trying to match Gwen's footpath.
Gwen rounded the back of the building but kept her distance from the wall. Courtney followed, unsure where she was leading but watched as Gwen dropped her duffle onto the ground a few feet away.
Courtney caught up, crossing her arms across her chest, grateful it wasn't the middle of winter yet and she hadn't needed a thicker hoodie.
"You wanted to show me a field?" Courtney asked, her face emotionless.
Gwen smirked, placing her hands on both of Courtney's shoulders, to which Courtney took a half-step away, but not far enough that Gwen couldn't turn her to face the building.
The edge was trimmed with white with sweeping swirls of blue and gold encasing the brick wall in its entirety. The beach was laid out perfectly before the two girls, the waves crashing and the sand baking, just the way Courtney remembered it when she was young.
Courtney gasped. "It's beautiful. How did you find it?"
Gwen crouched down, unzipping her bag and pulling out an unfamiliar object. She handed one to Courtney and kept one for herself.
"Find it? Court, I created it."
Courtney stared down at the can in her hand, at first wondering if this was alcohol and if she was really about to start regretting leaving her bedroom. Upon inspection, she found it not to be a beverage, but a paint canister.
"Wait, you…You're the one who's graffiti's everywhere?"
"Graffiti is a harsh word," Gwen replied, not quite looking Courtney in the eye. "I have been artistically upgrading our small towns ugly appearance."
"Holy shit." Courtney held back her excited squeal. "You're good, like really good!"
It was hard to see in the dark, but Gwen ducked her head away, colour flushing her cheeks.
Courtney looked at her and her heart swelled. She remembered the drawings that she had sent in the mail when Courtney had first moved to Montreal, they had been beautiful and intricate, and Gwen had clearly nourished that talent.
"It's not finished yet," she said, gesturing to the cans in both of their hands.
"Oh, oh no." Courtney shook her head. "I have no creative talent at all. I don't want to ruin your painting."
"You can't ruin a painting, Courtney. Whatever you create is yours to create." Gwen waved her hands wildly, gesturing to the wall and the mural that shone under the moonlight. "And if it truly sucks, we'll just paint over it."
So, they painted. Courtney was very slow at first, careful not to put too much pressure on the can until Gwen grabbed her hand and pushed her finger down, creating a deep yellow line across one the waves. Courtney squealed in horror, but Gwen laughed, adding some of her own paint beside it.
It didn't look worse when Courtney stepped away, admiring their work after an hour. She watched Gwen working on the beach, the paintbrush she had swapped her can for placed delicately between her fingers. Her eyes were focused and her mouth slightly open as she softly drew lines and curves, creating her masterpiece before them both.
"You're really good," Courtney whispered to the night.
"You already said that," Gwen replied, not turning around.
"I mean it."
Gwen sighed, pulling herself away from the wall. She looked at her work, twirling the paintbrush in her hand before moving to find her duffle bag.
"I like to draw and paint and be…" She trailed off. "I feel free when I get to create things, like this." She gestured to the wall and Courtney turned back to admire it again.
They had added more colour; added beach scenery and frothy waves. It was starting to shape together.
"When I paint, I don't have to be anyone else," Gwen admitted, her head turned away from Courtney. "I'm not a daughter or a sister or a student, I'm just me being me. And I feel free."
Courtney chewed her lip for a moment, unsure of what to say, buts eh figured it was better to bite the bullet. "I'm sorry about your dad."
Gwen snorted. "Don't be. We're better off without him."
"Was it…Was it bad?"
"No, not really. It was quiet. They didn't shout or fight, and he didn't hit us or anything, not like Duncan's dad."
"Duncan's dad hits him?" Courtney cried out, her eyes wide.
Gwen shrugged. "Not so much now, I don't think, but middle school was rough. I had to teach him how to do make-up to cover up the bruises." She let out a breath. "It's kind of how we ended up dating. He used to stay at mine for days at a time sometimes, but…yeah. There's that."
Gwen got to her feet, shouldering her duffle bag, while Courtney just stared opened mouthed. She really didn't know the people around her anymore.
"I'm sorry about your grandmother," Gwen whispered, taking a step closer to Courtney. "We all heard when she was taken into hospital, how's she doing?"
"Not great," Courtney mumbled, not able to look Gwen in the eye. Courtney's eyes glassed over as she shrugged, trying not to care. "She smoked for fifty years; lung cancer was very much expected by this point."
Gwen paused, her eyes staring straight at Courtney.
"I'm so sorry, I didn't know, I-" She cut herself off, fumbling for what to say. There wasn't anything she could say to make things better, there was nothing anyone could say or do.
Courtney was spending most nights in tears, but she didn't want to talk about that. She didn't want to talk about the good times or the bad times. She didn't want to talk about the woman who practically raised her was not going to be coming home because every day the doctors told them it wasn't getting any better. She didn't want to talk.
"I didn't mean to start smoking," Gwen said, her words shaky. "I…When he left, I found a packet tucked in between the sofa cushions and I wanted to move them, so Liam didn't find them. I don't know if you remember but my dad smoked pretty much every day of my life, and I was angry and I was sad, so I opened them and I lit one and the smell-" A tear ran down Gwen's cheek and she moved to brush it away with the back of her hand. "The smell just reminded me of him in a way that I wanted him to be back, to be home and I just wanted things to be normal again."
She let the tears run down her face, and she let Courtney pull her into a tight embrace as she sobbed into her neck, letting go of a pain Courtney didn't realise they both had.
A/N: I'm gonna end this here before I start waffling.
Yes, I cried while writing that, and also yes, I did make a zombie apocalypse reference. You know if you know ;)