1. S.S.D.D.

3:57. Rochelle sighed and turned away from the black and white clock. It always reminded her of high school—those boring, plain Jane timepieces hung on the boring, plain Jane white walls that cased the student body in like caged mice. She never had been one for confinement. The walls here—where she worked—were crooked, off-peach tiles that resembled mostly-processed barf. She had seen her share of that working here, too. For the most part, it had stopped turning her stomach, but damn if it wasn't still fucking disgusting.

"Rochelle!" the manager called, and she barely bit back a groan. The manager on-duty was this aging, squat lady—a mean old thing by the name of Jean that Rochelle was certain needed to be put down before she went rabid. "Get over here!" Obliging, Rochelle did as she bade, her nonskid shoes squeaking lightly against the tiles. She rounded the corner of the dish room to see Jean holding a blank white plate between her nicotine-yellowed fingers. "Does this look clean to you?"

Rochelle glanced at it, and then shrugged. "I guess?"

"You guess?" Jean responded, shifting her weight to one side.

"Uh, yeah?"

Jean pursed her lips, took the plate into one hand and pointed with one nail, bitten to the quick. Squinting, Rochelle spotted a piece of white cheese baked onto the plate. Damn, how was she even supposed to see that when the plates were flying twenty at a time through the line?

"My bad," Rochelle said, reaching for the plate, but Jean yanked it from her reach.

"Your 'bad?' Miss Adams," Jean began, and Rochelle knew she was in for it. This wasn't the first time a boss had called her by her last name before, or had repeated a word she had said, and it was never a good thing. She usually saw it coming, but this time—this time she had actually been trying! She hadn't been late to work all week, and she had even stayed late last night to finish scrubbing the lime deposits off the dishwasher. She had been trying to turn over a new leaf, to prove to Madison that she was worth all the trouble she put her through.

"Fine," Rochelle bit out, "Fine, I get it." She yanked her plastic apron off, tearing it into long strips and letting them fall to the floor. "You know what? I quit."

"Miss Adams—"

"I said I quit. Find someone else to peel stupid cheese off your stupid plates."

She pressed her hands firm against her thighs to quell the trembling, and she held her breath to quash the sobs that wanted to escape. This was her third job this year… Shaking her head, she turned and stormed out the back entrance, winding through the employee parking lot. Her car was all the way in the back, a good seven or nine spaces from the next farthest car. The paint had dulled, and chipped in places, but the beast still ran.

She wrenched open the door that hadn't locked in years and collapsed into the driver seat. "Fuck," she muttered, running her hand back through her short hair. Her fingers tapped angrily on the steering wheel. Fired again… "Fuck!" she screamed and slammed her hand against the dashboard. Her hand was still shaking. "Shit, didn't I bring…" She fumbled with the center console, pushing aside a half-empty bag of chips and a couple candy wrappers until she found it. "There you are," she breathed with relief. After a day like this—waking up late to a dirty uniform, skipping her usual noon-o-clock breakfast in favor of getting to work on time, only to end up fired (well, okay, technically she quit, but she must have been minutes from a good firing, anyway)—she needed a little pick-me-up.

Holding the sadder half of a joint between her chapped lips, she fished her Sagittarius lighter out of her pocket and flicked it. It gave an empty spark; one, two— "Third's the charm," Rochelle exhaled, her tremors finally calming as the first wave washed over her. She took another deep pull, holding the burn in her lungs until she didn't feel like coughing anymore before she exhaled again. "There we go."

Joint still in her mouth, she pulled her keys from her pocket and started her car. It sputtered to life, and she gave it no time to change its mind about running; she pushed it into reverse and headed the fuck home.

"Home" was the place she shared with her girlfriend of five years, Madison. It was a crap apartment overlooking a parking lot, complete with a consistently overflowing dumpster and a couple stray cats. Madison liked to feed them in the mornings when she didn't think Rochelle was up; Rochelle played along because she thought it was sweet. Her girlfriend had always been the caring type, almost nurturing in her insistence to put others first. It had grated on Rochelle when they first met. She had thought Madison was some kind of pushover at worst, a mother hen at best. But, well… Whenever she looked at her, Rochelle felt the world stop.

Rochelle climbed out of the car, a 1977 Volkswagen bus her folks bought off Craigslist three years ago for her graduation, and climbed the fire escape to her fourth floor studio. The door always stuck, so she had to wrench it open to get inside.

"Hey, Pookie," she greeted their beta in the aquarium that bubbled softly in the corner. Madison's little sister had named it, and Rochelle hadn't had the heart to rename it, even if it was a stupid name. Besides, it did make little "pook, pook," faces, after all.

Rochelle turned on the television and flipped through the channels until she found the cartoons. Retrieving her bong from the small shoebox in the closet, she set to work grinding enough trees to forget all about her shitty day.

Full bowl packed and enough green in the grinder to last her another or two, she settled down on the couch with a threadbare blanket to reruns of Tom and Jerry on the tube.

The hour and a half whizzed by in a flurry of hijinks and burning hard and fast. It wasn't until she heard the rattle of an engine outside that she remembered Madison was coming home at some point today. "Fuck," she muttered, waving fruitlessly at the vapor that hung white and heavy in the air. The stench would hang in the apartment no matter how much she flapped her arms.

She heard the key turn in the deadbolt and she gave up, flopping back down on the couch and throwing her feet up on the coffee table.

"Ro?" Madison said, making a face presumably at the smell. "Christ, did you burn a whole field of pot in here? What are you even doing ho—oh fuck, don't tell me you got fired again."

Rochelle scoffed, crossing her arms over her chest. Madison hadn't even set her purse down or taken her shoes off before she had started throwing around all these accusations. Sure, they were true, but it wasn't like she knew that yet.

"Well, for your information, yes, I did, and I don't really want to talk about it, okay? It fucking sucked."

Madison groaned and threw her purse onto the kitchen table. "Fuck, Ro, this is the—"

"Third time this year," they finished in unison, and Rochelle glared at Madison. "Yeah, I know, okay? It's not like I'm not trying."

Madison rolled her eyes. "You're never trying! All you do is—is lounge on my couch smoking weed I bought for you!"

Rochelle stood up, gesturing to the couch. "If you want it so badly, it's yours. It's a piece of fucking shit, just like everything else in this dump."

"No thanks to you."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I mean, you're not contributing, Ro. You take and take and take, and I don't have anything left to give you. You can't even hold a job long enough to help pay the rent. What money you do manage to bring home gets funneled into drugs!"

"Are you trying to say something, Madison?" Rochelle asked, quiet as death, her teeth clenched firmly together.

Madison sighed, turning around and shuffling across the carpet. "Yeah. Yeah, I am. I love you, Ro, you know I always have, but…" A long time passed, the silence between them so thick Rochelle didn't even breathe despite the tightness in her chest. "I think…" Madison took a sharp inhale. "I think I'd be better off without you," she said as quickly as she could, then took another breath. "There, I said it. I think I'd be better off without you."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, you can't be serious." Rochelle's hands were shaking again, and she pressed them into the insides of her elbows. "Madison…. Maddi, baby—"

"Don't call me baby," Madison said softly. "We're not… I can't… I'm not going to be with someone like you, Ro. I want you to move out." She picked her purse back up from the floor without even looking at Rochelle. "I'll be back in an hour. I don't want to see you again."

Just like that, Madison swept out, her long red hair billowing behind her.

Rochelle fell back onto the couch, but she barely felt the impact. Madison… Her lips trembled, a strangled noise escaping, and Rochelle pressed a shaky hand hard against her mouth. Her face felt red-hot, and her eyes were burning to shed some overdue tears. It had been a long time since she cried, but…

She felt a trail of fire down her cheek, and she clenched her wet eyes shut. How could she do any of this without Madison?

She couldn't lose her job and her home in the same day. What was she supposed to do? How could Madison leave her like this? She was condemning her to homelessness—starvation, maybe.

Her eyes snapped open, and she scrubbed the tears off her face, suddenly furious. She tore through the apartment like a twister, one plastic trash bag in hand at a time as she tossed all of her belongings into each one. She could play this game. She always had wanted to see the country, but Madison was such a homebody that it had never been feasible. Two weeks alone, and Rochelle knew that Madison would be begging her to come back. This wasn't the first time there had been turbulence in the waters, and Rochelle knew it wouldn't be the last—but that was just it, she told herself. It wouldn't be the last, and Madison would see how much she needed her around after she'd had some time to cool off and think about the consequences.

Rochelle dropped the first two bags out the window by the fire escape. The third and last bag, the one that might have something breakable in it, she slung over her shoulder. Climbing out her usual exit made everything feel less final. She hadn't used the front door since the first week she moved in, and she didn't plan on using it again until her final week there, when she helped Madison move the furniture down the concrete hallway.

Feet firmly on the old asphalt, she looped the handles of the other two bags around her hand and pulled them toward her car, ignoring the friction of the ground. Wrenching open the driver's door, she plopped the third bag next to the car and unlocked the other doors. Once everything was loaded up, she settled into the driver's seat, her mind racing.

She could always sleep in the car, but she wasn't sure how long Madison was going to hold this grudge. She had sworn when she moved out that she would never speak to her parents again, so they wouldn't exactly give her a place to crash even if she was willing to head back.

Pulling her phone from her pocket, she scrolled through her contacts until she found the one she was looking for and pressed to dial. The phone rang one, two, three, four…

"Hello?" her long-time friend and confidante, Casey, answered.

"Hey, Case, what's up?"

"Not a lot, what's going on? Desiree says Madison's having some kind a' capital B, capital F."

"Yeah, she like freaked on me when she got home. I got a little bit fired-slash-quit."

"Little bit?"

"Lot bit," Rochelle conceded.

"I guess that probably had something to do with it."

"Yeah," Rochelle sighed, "Yeah. I just—like—I was actually trying. I made one dumb mistake and they were going to throw me out. It coulda happened to anyone."

"Bummer. Hey listen, I'm a little busy, call you back?"

"Wait—I was calling for a favor."

There was a brief pause, a rustle. "What's that?"

"I need a place to crash."

"What, she's making you sleep in the doghouse?"

"Something like that. She broke up with me."

"She what?" Another pause, another rustle. "Why?"

"Said she'd be better off without me." Rochelle rubbed her aching chest.

"Fair enough," Casey muttered, "Well, you ca—"

"What do you mean, 'fair enough?'" Rochelle asked, sitting up straight in the seat. "Are you trying to say you're agreeing with her?"

"I mean, look, Ro,"

"Don't you, 'look, Ro,' me."

Casey groaned. "You really can't tell me you're making her life better, alright? You're crazy fun and all, but like… Grow up, okay?"

Rochelle didn't even respond, just hung up and tossed the phone into the passenger seat.

"Fuck," she muttered, "This is not happening." She drummed her fingers against the wheel. If no one wanted her around, maybe she should oblige them. If they missed her, they'd want her back, but she couldn't be missed if she never went away, right?

Rochelle pulled her keys out of her pocket and started the car. Her tires screeched out of the parking lot.