Don't Deny Me

By: Megan Hart

Part One

This is how it works, at the end of things. You stop finding reasons to talk. You make excuses to avoid each other, or worse, to fight. All the funny quirks and flaws you used to find endearing and charming, the bits and pieces that made you fall in love so hard and fast, they all start to curl your lip. In the beginning, you never want to leave, and in the end, all you do is struggle to stay.

And eventually, you stop struggling.

—Alice to Mick

* * *

Alice Clark hadn’t been to Bernie’s place in about ten years, but nothing outrageous had changed. The slim saplings planted in perfect formation in the backyard to be used as bases for the softball and kickball games had turned into thick-branched shade trees. The garden had been expanded. The furniture in the living room had been rearranged but contained the same comfy, overstuffed chairs and sofas with plenty of tables for the placing of drinks. The floor-to-ceiling shelves still overflowed with books. The kitchen had been updated with new appliances, but the center island around which they’d always all gathered was the same, as were the wine and spice racks and the scent of something delicious simmering on the huge six-burner stove.

“Hello, beautiful girl.” Bernie greeted her with a kiss on the cheek and a lingering hug. He handed her a glass of red wine and pointed to the platter of meats and cheeses on the island. “Help yourself.”

“What can I do?” As the first to arrive, Alice felt it was the question to ask even though it was well known that she didn’t know a paring knife from a potato peeler and could burn water if given the chance.

“You can sit and drink wine and stay out of my way,” Bernie told her. “Cookie’s getting changed. She’ll be out in a minute. Sit, Alice.”

Alice sat and sipped the wine with a grateful sigh. She closed her eyes for a moment, relishing the thick, rich flavor. Bernie had exemplary taste in wines. Well, in everything, really. Including his taste in women, she thought as Cookie floated into the kitchen with a warm grin and open arms.

“Alice! So good to see you! It’s been forever. I mean, literally, it feels like forever.” Cookie hugged Alice hard and ran a hand down the length of her hair. She stepped back to look her in the face. “Your hair is so long!”

“That’s what happens when you don’t cut it.” Alice laughed.

Cookie patted her own cropped cut. Her hair had gone completely silver in the past ten years, but it suited her. “I couldn’t stand the upkeep for mine anymore. I went pixie a few years ago. What do you think?”

“It looks great.” Alice looked to Bernie, who was busy chopping shallots at the counter. Though she’d been in regular contact with both of them, she hadn’t seen either of them in a few years, and she hadn’t been to their house in much longer than that. “You both look great. The house, everything. I can’t believe it’s been so long since I’ve been here.”

Bernie glanced over his shoulder. “You’re here now. That’s what counts. The others are coming along later. And on Sunday, the picnic is going to be epic. Cookie told me we didn’t have to invite every single person we ever knew, but I told her that of course we did.”

“But only the ones we love the best are invited to stay over! We’re so glad you decided to come share our celebration with us,” Cookie said. “It wouldn’t be the same without you here.”

“It’s like old times,” Bernie added.

Old times, Alice thought with another sip of wine. Some of them good. Most of them, actually. It was just that the bad times tended to overshadow all the other memories.

“I’m sorry,” she said abruptly.

Cookie, who’d been delicately loading a thin slice of crusty bread with a layer of shaved ham and brie, looked at her. “For what?”

“Alice means because it’s been so long since she came for the weekend.” Bernie flourished the knife and pushed the chopped shallots into a sizzling pan. The smell was immediate and glorious, and he added a splash of white wine.

The best part of having good friends was how easy it was to slip back into that friendship, no matter how long it had been since you’d seen each other. And how you forgave each other for that distance. Impulsively, Alice hugged Cookie again.

“Thank you for inviting me,” she said. “Over and over again, until finally I stopped being stupid and agreed to come.”

Cookie looked solemn. “We wanted our twenty-year anniversary to include everyone who’s been an important part of our lives. That’s you, Alice. And others, of course. But I’d have understood if you felt like you couldn’t come. … You’ll be all right. Won’t you? I mean, it’s been years. And we wouldn’t have invited both of you if we thought it was going to be … painful.”

Oh, it would be painful, Alice was sure of that. There was no way around the past, no forgetting how it had felt to love and lose and hate and grieve. But it would be the pain of memory, bittersweet and easily borne.

“It’s been a long time,” she said simply in way of response, and sipped wine.

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