When Eric came downstairs the following morning, he wasn't expecting to find Cassie already awake and sitting at the kitchen table. She was drinking tea and looking out over the snowy vista behind their house through the large window by the table. The sun wasn't fully up yet and so everything was lit in that soft, blue glow that you got when the snow is reflecting light from a sky that is only a little brighter than the world still in shadow below.
Cassie was startled out of her thoughts when she heard Eric walk into the kitchen and spilled a little tea on the table from her reaction. "Oh hey," she spoke softly as she got up to reach for a paper towel. "Good morning." She focused on making sure she had gotten up all of the spilled tea while Eric poured some juice and took a couple of Advil from the cabinet.
"Hey," he plopped down at the table across from Cassie and off to one side.
"You doing okay this morning?" Cassie hadn't looked up from where she was wiping at the table.
"Yeah," Eric rubbed his forehead. "I don't know what was in those drinks, but I think they were stronger than they tasted."
Ellie laughed nervously in agreement. "Yeah, we probably should have warned you. Guess we all got pretty wasted." She looked tentatively over at Eric for the first time.
Eric nodded with a half-hearted smile and took another drink of his juice. He was having a hard time reconciling his sister sitting in her pajamas and robe this morning with his memory of her standing topless in this same kitchen wearing only her high-cut black panties the night before. It didn't seem quite real.
"So did you enjoy your party?" Cassie took another sip of tea.
"I really kind of did," Eric admitted. "It was so much more than I thought it was...you know." He struggled to put it into words. "I guess I expected it was going to be kind of boring and sad with just the three of us kind of...pretending to have a party, you know?"
"Yeah, I was kind of expecting the same thing, honestly" Cassie smiled and rolled her eyes.
"Well, I really appreciate you being a good sport about it and all," Eric made eye contact with her and gave her a warm, subdued smile. "I know that kind of stuff is more Ellie's thing, but...it wouldn't have been the same without you there too." He felt like he didn't know what he wanted to say.
"Yeah, that was definitely outside my comfort zone," Cassie blushed at a memory. "I just don't want it to make things awkward between us I guess."
"No, no...," Eric became more animated in trying to reassure her. "I get it and I totally appreciated that you did so much to try and make it special." He looked at her earnestly. "It really meant a lot to me that you would do something that crazy just to make sure my wish came true. I know we're supposed to be acting more like roommates and all, but I think it's easier for Ellie to think like that than maybe for you...or me." He looked down at his glass and blushed a little. "If that like, makes any sense."
"No, it's makes total sense," Eric could hear the warmth and relief in Cassie's voice. "You did so much for Ellie and I. You made our miracles happen and you know I'd do anything I could to make your wishes come half as true as you made mine." Cassie reached across the table and put her hand on Eric's. "I was just sitting here when you walked in, thinking that somewhere off behind those buildings is a tropical oasis. I was remembering how good it felt to lay in the light and warmth as you were working out what felt like a full body cramp the other day. I'll never forget how magical that was." She pulled her hand away from his and waved it dismissively at the spot they had played their game the night before. "I felt like this was nothing in comparison to all that."
Eric smiled at the memory as he was pretty sure it wasn't 'nothing' to any of them. He took a sip of his juice and wondered how Casie would have reacted to find out how much crazier it had gotten upstairs between Ellie and he after she had gone to bed.
"I was thinking that you've already given each of us two of our wishes and we should be doing more than just a party for a couple of hours to make up for the fact that we will be enjoying the ski lift and the beach every day or so."
"Look, you guys have done plenty, Cass," he assured her. "I'm getting to enjoy the ski run and the beach as much as you two. Maybe even more." He smiled. "It's fine."
"I'd really like to, though," Cassie insisted. "I know you thought you'd be learning about interacting with college girls this year and I feel like Ellie and I can help with that." Eric did his best not to grin as he remembered the interaction he'd had with Ellie after the party. "I know I'm not as good as Ellie acting like a roommate instead of a sister, but I still think I can help."
"What do you mean?", Eric was getting curious.
"Well, you have to know more than how to get crazy at a party Eric, and I thought about your date idea." She became more animated and expressive as she continued. "I was thinking that you could practice going on 'dates' with Ellie and I to kind of get to know what to do around different types of girls."
"How would we practice having 'dates' though?" Eric looked around.
"Well," Cassie suggested, "I was thinking I could get Ellie to help me set up a dinner and we could pretend it's a restaurant, for example. You would get to practice ordering, picking up the check, making conversation, the whole thing." She nodded at Eric as she spoke, checking to see if he followed. "A guy has to be comfortable doing all of those things and knowing what to expect. I think it will make you feel more relaxed and confident when it happens for real if you've had a chance to try it a few times here first."
Eric had to admit that it didn't sound crazy as he'd only ever been to restaurants with his parents and that was usually if they were taking a trip. Up until this point, he'd only learned how to pick something out on the menu and really just relied on his dad to take care of everything else. He shrugged to signal that he didn't hate the idea.
"So if I set something up for tonight, will you be my dinner date, then?" Ellie looked at him hopefully.
"Sure," Eric smiled. "It sounds like fun."
After breakfast, Cassie and Eric stayed in their pajamas in the kitchen and set up their laptops again on the kitchen table. They made a little small talk now and then, but both were also taking long stretches to focus on what they were doing and get some work done for school. As the hours went by, Cassie began to feel like they had moved past any awkwardness and were more or less being who they had always been. Maybe Ellie was right.
When Ellie padded in closer to noon, she looked puffy eyed and didn't have her usual bounce. "Minivan," she announced as she started to open the coffee-maker.
"I'm sorry...what?" Cassie looked up.
"Minivan," Ellie groaned. "I'm pretty sure it was a minivan that hit me last. I didn't get the plate number." She let out a yawn, rubbed her eyes and then her temples. "How much did I drink last night?"
"I think we all had plenty," Eric chuckled. "I took some advil and it helped."
Eric looked over, but Ellie was adding some coffee to the machine and looking the other way. He saw her press the start button and pad over to one cupboard to get some advil and another to get a glass. She went to the sink to fill the glass and took the pain relievers before sitting next to Cassie and putting her face into her hands as her elbows rested on the table.
After her coffee was ready, Ellie sipped it slowly for a while as she waited for the pounding in her head to subside. A few times she had images of what had happened upstairs after the party and felt a twinge of shame and regret, along with a little nausea. She knew it wasn't just being wasted that had caused it to happen. She had been fantasizing about Eric, flirting with him and teasing him for days. Being drunk and high had simply allowed her to act out her desires. She snuck a quick look at Eric, but he was typing something. She didn't even want to look at Cassie.
She tried to imagine what the two of them thought of her after everything she'd done to encourage both of them to act inappropriately last night and her stomach felt fuzzy and wrong when she imagined how she must have looked and sounded. She drank some more coffee and hoped that she could keep it down as it seemed to be helping with her headache. She listened to the two of them typing and making a little small talk and she started to feel like maybe it was going to be okay after all. She really couldn't take it if Cassie started up again this morning, but with both of them, about how inappropriate last night was. She didn't even know the worst part of it. Ellie groaned as she relived the memories and slid her head down to rest on her arms folded on the table.
"You gonna be okay there?" Eric had a smile in his voice, mixed with a moderate amount of concern. He looked over at Cassie and hooked his thumb in Ellie's direction. "Looks like our social director is down for the count."
"Would somebody just hit me in the head with a brick or something?," Ellie groaned. "You just gotta promise me a quick death...or at least a coma...something..."
Cassie and Eric chuckled at her misery and Cassie reached over to rub her sister on the back to try and comfort her. Eric got up to make her some dry toast and refill her water glass. He brought them over to her when the toast was ready. "Here," he said rubbing her shoulder and back a little. "Try and see if you can get a little something in your stomach. It will help."
Ellie, turned her head to look up at Eric through the messy tangle of her tousled hair. He actually looked caring and concerned, instead of disgusted or like he knew a dirty secret that one of his friends had told him about her. He just seemed like...Eric. She sat up a little and started nibbling one corner of the toast and mixing in sips of coffee and water as her stomach started to settle down. Eric looked over at one point and gave her a small, sweet smile, glad to see her doing a little better. Otherwise, the two of them just kept working and talking like everything was fine. Ellie sighed and started to think she might have gotten away with acting like she had. Maybe they were just chalking it up to being drunk. It was really starting to look that way.
After she had gotten a couple of pieces of toast down Eric yawned and stretched his arms before shutting down his laptop, He looked over at Ellie. "Doing any better?" He gave her a hopeful smile.
"A little," she nodded. "It helped." She tried to give him a smile in return, but unexpectedly felt like her eyes were starting to water. She stood up and went to the counter to grab a paper napkin from the holder and pretended to blow her nose as she dabbed at her eyes. "I think I need a shower," she said, her slippers making scuffling noises as she left the kitchen and headed upstairs.
Ellie sat with her head in her hands while she peed and waited for the shower to warm up. She heard Eric turn the doorknob from his room and then knock softly when he found it was locked. "You okay in there, Ellie?" he asked.
"Yeah...I'm fine, Eric. Just need some time." It was all she could think of to say.
"Well, Cassie and I wanted to know if you felt like heading down to the beach. We thought it might help..." She could feel him waiting for an answer.
"I'm not feeling that well. I think I'll be good here, thanks."
"Okay, well....were leaving in about ten minutes if you change your mind. " He sounded disappointed.
Ellie saw the steam rising from the shower and peeled off her pajamas, flushed the toilet and stepped into the shower. She tried not to remember being in there with Eric the night before, but she couldn't completely shut of the images that kept popping back into her memory. She let the warm water run through her hair, down over her closed eyes and slide along her body for long minutes as she tried to figure out if Eric had simply come upstairs to check on her just now, or if he was expecting to walk in and pick up right where they'd left off the night before. Ellie turned her head slowly from side to side under the streaming water and tried not to think about how complicated everything in her world had suddenly become.
On the beach, the air still warming up from the lights, Eric pulled out his pipe, held the lighter to it and drew some smoke into his lungs.
"Why do you do that?" Cassie was sitting in the chair beside him. She sounded genuinely curious, rather than scolding.
"Well," he paused to let out the smoke from his lungs. "I like the feeling of not really worrying about anything when I do. It just kind of relaxes me and lets me just kind of appreciate everything that's right in front of me more." He shrugged. He wasn't sure if that made sense and he had never really tried to explain it before. People who liked to get high never asked about it. It was kind of obvious. It felt good.
"And it works?" Cassie asked after thinking for a long moment. "With having a drink the other day, I just felt kind of fuzzy and out of it."
"Here," he handed it to her. "Try some for yourself."
"Maybe I shouldn't." Cassie hesitated.
"Suit yourself," Eric shrugged, laid the pipe and lighter on their small table and leaned back in his chair making a contented sigh.
"Okay, maybe just a little." Cassie reached for the pipe.
Eric smiled and looked over to squint at his sister tentatively drawing smoke from the pipe. She held her breath for ten seconds before letting out a thin plume of smoke. Eric nodded when she looked over and took a drink of his own water as Cassie set down the pipe beside the lighter to reach for the other water bottle and take a drink of her own.
They sat there for a few minutes as the temperature in the enclosure began to rise. With each minute that passed, their bodies relaxed a little more as the effect of the smoke suffused their bodies and the rising temperature allowed their muscles to relax in the soothing heat.
"Do you ever wish you could be somebody else?" Cassie asked out of nowhere.
Eric opened his eyes to squint at her. "Well...I spent a long time wishing my life was different when I was stuck here," he mused. "But I guess I always wanted to be who I was, but doing the things that I wanted to do...somewhere else I guess."
"I guess I thought the same thing," Cassie nodded. "But even going away and doing what I wanted, I'm still the same. I can't let anybody else take control of stuff for me. It's like I get anxious and have to do it myself or...it's just not right." She thought for a moment. "If there's a group project, I always have to be in charge and then I even end up redoing a lot of other people's work if I think it will hurt our grade."
"Yep, that sounds like the Cassie I remember," Eric grinned with his eyes still closed.
"But I hate it and I don't know how to stop being that person," Cassie admitted.
"Well, if you were ever going to try, now's the time," Eric reminded her. "Remember how we were going to try and be roommates and let go of who we were as kids during this thing?"
"Yeah...but like last night, it was so hard for me...I don't know....to stop...being me, I guess." She was getting frustrated. The weed made her feel like she wanted to talk, but her mind was having trouble finding a way to say it. It felt like she was going in word circles instead of getting to the point she was trying to make.
"Look," Eric rolled onto his side and looked at her. "It seems like you've come a long way over the past couple of weeks. The old Cassie would never have shared the allowance, or let me take the lead on Ellie's project, or...." He suddenly flashed on an image of her topless from the night before. "Gone to a party," he ended lamely.
Ellie had tensed up when he paused, afraid he might say it out loud. "I guess so. It's just hard for me and the weird part is that I really don't want to be in control of anything. It just makes me anxious. I just don't know how to let go, I guess."
"Well, you're doing a pretty good job today," Eric suggested. "The old Cassie wouldn't have gotten high and started talking about fixing her own life instead of fixing everybody else'," he chuckled.
Ellie tilted her head from side to side, considering. "Yeah, I guess you're right." She sat back and looked out at the water. "I guess that's why I wanted to escape to somewhere tropical. I wanted to see if I could be somebody else there." Her voice got soft. "If I could just be somewhere that nobody knew me, if I could just be free."
Eric sat up as the change in her tone registered finally. "That's not hard," he suggested.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, this place," he waved his hands. "Is like, a controlled environment. It's like the tropics, but it's like it's own thing, if that makes sense." He struggled to remember his point. "It's like a lab or something...where you can practice and test things almost. It's like a bunny slope of the tropics."
Ellie thought that idea sounded very profound in the moment. "But it's not quite because I still know you guys so it's not like I went somewhere else," she was trying to find the objection that she knew was in there somewhere.
"But we're somebody else now too, remember?" he suggested. "All I'm saying is that if you were ever going to get a chance to try out being whoever you wanted, this is as good as it's going to get."
"And you guys would let me do that?" Cassie was almost hopeful.
"Honestly, I don't think Ellie cares what you do as long as you don't mess with her. And as long as you don't like start having a split personality disorder or using a fake British accent or something, I'm good." He laid back for a moment before sitting back up. "I'd probably be okay with the fake accent, even." He gave her a lopsided grin.
"Huh," Cassie sat back in her chair and drank some more water, processing what he'd proposed. "Would you help me?" she asked Eric at last.
Eric squinted over at her again. "Like how?"
"I guess by letting me try it out in here. Just us sometimes." She paused. "I feel like Ellie would make fun of me, and even if she didn't, I'd always feel like she was about to make fun of me...so I don't think I would do it." The words came tumbling out.
"So you want to have a tropical personality sometimes, when we're alone in here, and you don't want Ellie to know?" He was trying to understand.
"Exactly...," Cassie nodded absent-mindedly as she stared out at the lagoon backdrop. "Exactly!", she grew more animated. "I just need a name and...to figure out who she is." She settled back down and nodded.
Eric was feeling way too high to try and figure this out. He got up to go down to check the water and Cassie got up to follow him, almost mumbling to herself.
Eric sat down in the warm water and looked over at Cassie as she sat down beside him. "So what would tropical Cassie do different right now, for example."
"Well, for one she wouldn't be weird about asking you to give her another massage, I guess," she shrugged, before realizing what she'd just said. She looked over and saw Eric chuckling softly at her embarrassment. "I mean...she would just ask, you know...because she liked it and not worry about any other...stuff."
"What other stuff?" Eric realized a moment too late that he wasn't sure he wanted to go there, but it was already asked.
"You know..." she tried to find a good answer. "What you'd think, what Ellie would think, what the world would think...." She suddenly felt drained and put her hands on her face while resting her elbow on her knees. "Forget it. I'm not making any sense."
Eric put his hand on her shoulder affectionately. "No, I get it. Somebody like Ellie does things just because she likes it or thinks it's fun. She doesn't over-think it. You want to be more like that, right?"