***Warning: Slight spoilers for Never Say Never ahead***
Val darted around the room like a pixie, which was silly, because she was absolutely not a pixie. She was a Greek goddess. My world hadn’t become pixie weird yet. Just goddess weird.
She was obsessing over the apartment Nina had scored for us. I was trying not to say anything cutting. Something about me working on being nicer in college. It wasn’t likely to work, especially not now that I’d moved to New York City--the home of the cynic.
“And right here, you could put a bookshelf for your books,” Val continued. “And that cute twin desk you ordered can go right here. Goodness, I’m excited!”
The apartment was small, but just cute enough to avoid being suffocating. It consisted of a common area, a kitchen and two small bedrooms. We had settled in the common area, where the sunshine streaming through the window lit the mostly empty space and reflected off the freshly polished floor. We were a short train ride from Hunter College, where Nina and I would begin attending classes in one short week.
We weren’t in Manhattan, like we’d planned--instead, we were in Brooklyn. But it was close enough. And Gabe and Adam had found something in the same area, so that helped a lot. Adam and Gabe had pooled together what they could from Adam’s savings from Scoopy Doo, and both of their scholarships. Nina and I would have done what we could, but Nina’s parents insisted on helping.
We all planned to get part-time jobs in the city anyway. That way we could all pretend we didn’t have to call our parents every time we needed groceries.
I glanced at my cell. Nina, Gabe, and Adam were half an hour behind schedule.
“No need to fret,” Val said, lowering herself to sit beside me. “Have you been to an IKEA? They’re like a little piece of the underworld on Earth. You humans have even crafted urban legends about it.”
“Is that a reason not to fret?” I asked, my eyes narrowed.
Val flashed me one of her sparkling smiles. “That’s to say nothing of the traffic.”
As if on cue, I heard the sound of metal rattling.
“There they are!” Val cheered, hopping to her feet and rushing to the window. “U-Haul truck is here. They’re unloading some lovely pieces!”
“We should probably be helping them, not staring at them while they unload.” I pushed myself up from the floor.
Val groaned, as she followed me out the door. “Boooooo. Manual labor.”
“I know!” I galloped down the stairs of the three story walk-up. “What good are magic powers if you can’t float furniture into place?”
“You keep saying things like that out loud and the neighbors will be very confused,” Val admonished.
Pushing through the glass door, I immediately spotted the U-Haul, which was miraculously parked in front of the building. No small feat in this city.
When Val spotted the bookcase, she bounced in place, clapping. “Are you seeing this Brynn?” she asked, nudging me with her elbow. “Your first set of furniture, for your very first apartment. This is big. No. This is HUGE.”
My stomach churned. She was acting like she had a stake in the place, like she was coming to live with Nina and me, instead of going back home to Mount Olympus in a few short days.
I smiled despite myself. “It is pretty cool.”
“Pffffffft. Pretty cool. Okay.” Val grumbled, then marched herself to where Nina, Gabe, and Adam waited on the street with the furniture they’d begun to unload.
Adam seemed to take that as time to trade places, pausing for a moment to say hi to Val before moving to where I stood, arms crossed on the apartment stoop.
“You look annoyed. I distinctly remember telling you Nina should stay behind with Val,” Adam sing-songed. “But you insisted.”
“Nina insisted on being the one to go.” I reached out, taking his elbow in my hand and pulling him towards me until I could loop my arms around his neck. “She didn’t want her whole apartment to be monochrome.”
He smiled down at me, looping his arms around my waist. His glasses had slipped down his nose. “Yes, but she seems to have insulted you, and she’s planning on spending the weekend.”
“She hasn’t insulted me.” I kissed the tip of his nose. “I’m just stressed out.”
“Okay, okay, enough,” Gabe grumbled. “Adam can’t carry furniture while he’s attached to you.”
I flipped him the finger, but released his cousin. Adam glanced back at me, even as he moved to help Gabe and Nina.
At least he dropped it.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in sweat and exhaustion as one by one, we moved in all the new furniture and worked to get the rest of the apartment organized. By the time we were done, we were all somewhat less enthusiastic, and a lot more zombified.
Lying in a circle surrounding empty pizza boxes and bottles of soda, we chatted in gentle voices, as if afraid to pull a muscle by speaking too loudly. All the while, I tried to ignore Adam’s scrutiny. I didn’t even know what was irritating me. I just sensed something wasn’t working out the way I’d expected. That something…
“What if I moved into the empty apartment across the hall?” Val asked.
And there it was.
“I’m sorry, what?” Adam asked.
“I knew you were way too happy.” Gabe said.
“But Val...we spoke about this.” Nina.
“I thought you wanted to go home?” I asked. I was going to miss Val, but she’d visit. And a goddess did not belong living among mortals. Things got...complicated. I should know.
Val laughed, loud and forced. “Obviously, I was just kidding. I don’t want to stay here. Like I want to spend the rest of my eternity with you losers!” Her delivery was brutal, and I may have even believed her if we hadn’t been through so much together.
“Val,” Nina said, obviously trying extra hard to be patient. “Did we do something to upset you?”
Another shrill giggle made Adam wince. “What makes you think I’m upset?”
“If you’re not upset, then what are you trying to achieve by acting like a jerk?” Adam asked. He rolled up into a seated position, pulling me up after him. “Come on,” he waggled his fingers in front of Val’s face. “Up you go. We need to talk.”
Nina and Gabe followed his lead, but Val stayed laid out on the floor, her hair fanned out around her.
“There’s nothing to talk about.” She shrugged.
“Oh, I think there is,” I said, because I finally understood. Everything I’d been worried about the entire day today, gelled together into one unmistakable explanation. “Why are you scared to go home?”
At first, she didn’t say anything. And then her eyes narrowed, just a little, and I knew I’d gotten her.
I was expecting a much more intense argument than that.
“You so totally are.” I rolled my eyes. “Let’s talk about it.”
She sighed and rolled herself forward until she was sitting like the rest of us. “I don’t really even know.”
“I think we should start by saying we definitely aren’t arguing because we want you to leave.” Nina, ever the diplomat. “We love you. But you told us you wanted to do this. So we’re trying to figure out what changed.”
Val glanced behind us, and for a minute, I thought she was going to make a break for it. I was tempted to guard the doors. I expected her to be livid. Not scared. Then she took a deep breath and folded her hands in her lap, like she needed to be prim to answer the question properly.
“I want to return to my beloved Mount Olympus. It’s my home. But… I’ve spent quite a long time away from it. And my father says it isn’t the same as it once was. What if I get there, and I don’t recognize it at all? What if I hate it there? What if Father said he wanted me home, but then he has to deal with me for a while, and decides he made a grave error and hates that I’m there?”
As she spoke, tears built in her eyes, until she sobbed. Nina didn’t miss a beat, rushing forward and pulling her into her arms. I shifted positions until I could drop my head onto her thigh, looking up at her. When she noticed me, she let out a teary laugh that eased some of the tension her admission had twisted up within me.
“Oh Val,” Adam sighed, and he scooted forward to rest a hand on her ankle. “Your fears are totally natural.”
His eyes shot my way, a sheepish half-smile on his face. Like he was asking for forgiveness. He always did that when he was extra nice to Val--like he was making sure I wouldn’t take it wrong.
I wouldn’t take it wrong. I got it. Adam loved Val. Not the way he loved me. But he loved her And that was okay. I loved Gabe. But not the way I loved Adam.
Sure, not exactly the same thing. But it was okay.
Val released another loud sob. It was hard to watch her fall apart like this. She was always so bright, so carefree… ethereal.
“Whoa, wait.” Gabe scooted closer. He still wasn’t quite at the same friendship level with Val as he was with the rest of us, but he cared. “Let’s take this step by step.”
Gabe was so good at that. Breaking down the problem and destroying it systematically. He was so Adam’s cousin.
“It’s totally normal to be scared of change,” he continued. “And it’s been a crazy long time since you’ve been home. You might not recognize it.”
“As a matter of fact, it may be better if you don’t. Things change,” Adam said. “They should change.” He squeezed her ankle. “You’ve changed. And you’re better for it.”
“You don’t always think so,” Val frowned, her eyes sliding to me before looking back at Adam.
“You’ve learned,” I said. “You’re still a pain in my ass, but you learned from the senior trip and all the stuff that came before that. And besides, one of the main lessons you learned was that even though you can control many things, you shouldn’t try.”
“And I don’t know about everyone else here,” Nina chimed in. “But you’ve grown on us.” She leaned forward and pinched Val’s cheek. “Like a fungus.”
“I am no mushroom, Nina.” Val rolled her eyes, a small smile on her face.
“You’ve been saying how much you’ve wanted to go home forever,” Nina said. “Here’s your chance.”
“Besides…” I said, half dragging the words out of myself. “If you don’t like it, can’t you always come back?”
“That’s right!” Nina said. “We’ll always have a couch available for you.”
“Will you?” Val asked. She shrugged out from under us, forcing me to flop off her lap. “Because you’re busy with Adam.” She jumped to her feet. “And you’re busy with Gabe.” She thrust a finger towards Nina and Gabe. “And once I’m gone you’re going to be so busy with each other and school that you won’t have any more time for me. You’re just gonna forget all about me.”
A tense silence filled the room, but even as I scrambled to my feet, I fought off a bit of perverse laughter. Finally, once I was standing between Adam and Nina, a giggle burst free from my lips. I clapped both hands over my mouth, and ignored the feeling of Adam’s eyes burning a hole in the side of my face.
“What’s so funny?” Val asked, and the tears had started up all over again.
I pulled my hands free from my mouth and shook my head at her. “How on Earth or on Mount Olympus are we supposed to forget about you? I don’t know about you, but my life has a distinct before and after and the line in the middle is meeting you.”
“I would think it was more your parents divorce,” Val muttered.
“Okay, okay,” Gabe said. “Maybe that’s true. But you definitely changed my life. Greek gods are real!”
“True,” Adam said. “We may not be together anymore, but that doesn’t mean knowing you didn’t change everything for me.”
Val smiled shyly. “Well, yeah. You wouldn’t have even started hanging out with them if it weren’t for me.” She perked up a little. “I set you up with your true love.”
Adam glanced at me. “That’s not exactly the way I remember it.”
I placed a hand on his arm and shook my head. I was beginning to understand that sometimes it was best not to say anything at all. That was totally Adam’s influence. I wasn’t sure I approved.
“And you are my sister,” Nina said. “And that’s never going to change.”
Val tackled her with a hug. “It isn’t! It won’t change. Ever.”
Nina reached out and tugged me into the hug, squishing Val between us. “We love you, dumbass.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s totally normal to feel anxious about all this, but you won’t know until you try.”
Val looked at me out of the corner of her eye. “I guess that means I should break the lease for the apartment across the hall?”
I tried not to react. I didn’t want to make her think I didn’t want her around. But I definitely didn’t want her living next door for eternity.
A grin cut across her face. She looked at the others. “I just gave Brynn an existential crisis.” She leaned toward me, mischief sparking in her eyes. “I’m only kidding. It’s two blocks away.”
Now, she was just being annoying. But the rest of the crew seemed to enjoy it, so I took it on the chin like a good sport.
“It’s actually a spare room in Gabe and Adam’s place.” She cackled.
“Okay, okay, enough.”
Val winked at me. “Let’s clean up this mess we made. I’m staying over at least today.” She nudged me with her elbow. “After all, Nina said your couch is always open!” She leaned over to collect our plates, napkins, and cups.
Gabe shrugged. “I’ll help you with all this.” He grabbed the pizza boxes, then glanced back at the rest of us when Val headed for the kitchen. He did some kind of eye gymnastics, and I was fairly certain he was telling Adam and Nina to check on me. Then he caught up with Val. “So have you spoken to your dad since graduation?”
“Of course,” Val said. “We had to make plans for my welcome home party. All of the best of the gods will be there…”
Her voice trailed off and the minute they were out of sight and out of earshot, I let out a sigh, my shoulders sagging. “Crisis averted.”
“I feel bad for her,” Adam said. “But yeah. Maybe goddesses shouldn’t permanently live in the human world. It hasn’t gone so well for her.”
“Yeah, she needs to be with people who get that side of her.” Nina shrugged.
“True,” I said. “But she can’t spend too much time with them. We’re good influences on her. We’ll have to schedule regular meetings.”
Adam and Nina stared at me for a moment. Nina’s eyebrows slowly inched upwards.
“There is the quandary of how we’ll get in touch with her once she’s gone,” Adam said, voice tinged with amusement.
“Well then, we’re just going to have to plan the next few before she goes.”
Nina squealed, then wrapped me up in a hug. “Yes! I’ll go talk to her right now!” She bounced out of the room and headed over to where Gabe and Val were chatting.
Adam threw an arm around me and pressed a kiss to my cheek. “You’re a good friend, Brynn.”
I smiled and pressed a return kiss to where his hand dangled over my shoulder.
I wasn’t always a good friend to anyone but Nina.
But I was getting better.
Enjoyed this slice of life adventure? Read more Brynn, Val, Adam & Nina in Justine Manzano's Never Say Never. Available where most books are sold.