Liz could hear them buzzing around her, their voices getting louder and louder, and farther away, as they all demanded she pay attention, listen to them, as they told her what to do, what was best for her. She couldn't hear a single word. She wrapped her arms around herself to keep their voices out, pushing against the pounding in her head, and sinking into herself, trying to find the heat that she hadn't felt in a week.
"She can't stay here alone," Max was adamant and they had begun to argue their views with each other, since she couldn't find the energy to engage them.
"Of course not. I'm going to stay here with her. She's not going to be alone. She's *my* best friend!" Maria shouted back, as if offended that anyone would imply that they knew better than her.
Isabel snorted. "Yeah, that'll last. Two days and your mom'll be freaking out about what you guys are getting up to, and will be dragging you home."
That set off another round of shouting, though Alex silently agreed from his seat behind them all on the stairs.
"I'll do it." Michael said in a normal voice, which seemed so quiet in all of the fighting, that everyone but Liz missed it the first time. She looked up, with a look of blank puzzlement on her face to meet his eyes. Everyone fell quiet for a moment as he repeated his statement. "I'll do it."
Maria and Max's objections tumbled over each other, competing in volume and stridency. Liz hugged herself tighter and Michael rubbed at his temple and clenched his jaw.
"Look. I live alone. I don't …" Michael started to lay out his thoughts, only to be interrupted by Liz's soft voice.
They all turned to look at her, looking stunned that she was contributing to the discussion of her future.
"The apartments paid for, so you'll just have to chip in for groceries and utilities, but I eat at the café most of the time," she shrugged blankly. "And congratulations, you can help me manage the restaurant, since you'll be living here. I'll give you a raise."
He gave her a saucy smile, that was kind of goofy, but didn't quite meet his eyes, or mask the concern there. "Cool."
"Great. Glad that's all settled. I'm tired. You can let yourselves out, when you're done arguing. I'm going to bed.
"You can bring your stuff over this weekend," she addressed Michael. "I'll need to clear out some stuff," her voice cracked, and Maria rushed to her side to embrace her, but he didn't make an issue of it, and she was glad. She held Maria off with a look, and turned to walk up the stairs. She met Alex's eyes and his sympathetic expression. He mouthed the word, "Later?" and she gave him a small weary nod.
Right now, she just wanted to be alone, but later, there'd be Alex and Maria and vanilla ice cream, and she would try to pretend for a little while that nothing had changed, that she wasn't all alone now.