August night lay prone against the horizon, smothering the last dregs of sunlight from the skyline, which was full of squat, blue-black blocks that stuck up sparsely, like a monster’s teeth. A match hissed to life in the silence, illuminating Rachel Donning’s face in a dull orange glow. The sulfur smoke was welcome in her nostrils, a familiar scent which served to cement her in her body and stop the endless spiral of thoughts she’d been replaying in her head. She ran the lit match across the dewy grass beneath her until the flame gave up its light. She’d been doing this since Sunday–telling her parents she was going for a run, only to sit on the hill behind the Dairy Queen until it got dark. It wasn’t the most scenic place, teeming with bugs and discarded styrofoam cups, but it was always empty.
Occasionally cars would pass, bringing the brief sound of laughter and music before fading off into the dusk. She would stiffen every time, expecting it to be her. But every time, it wasn’t. Rachel was terrified to ever see her again. She’d never missed anyone so badly in her life. She wished she’d show up and scare her to death.
The blue-white light from her phone lit up the night as she unlocked it, typed something quickly, and locked it again.
Somewhere else, a little bubble appeared on a screen: I’m so sorry.
“Is anyone else we know coming?” Rachel had asked as she slid into the passenger seat of Elise’s Nissan.
“Pretty much everyone,” Elise replied, smiling at her. “It’s a last hurrah kind of thing, y’know?”
“So get as messy as possible?”
In a week, they’d all be leaving for college. They’d gotten into the same school, about three hours away. Rachel was grateful it worked out that way. She couldn’t imagine having to say goodbye.
“Oh, devastatingly messy. Leave a legacy, Donning. It’s the least we can do.” Elise laughed.
She was eternally gorgeous–the kind of girl you’d see at Kroger inspecting the ripeness of pears and think about for your entire drive home, and then maybe the rest of the night after. She was always getting told about parties. Rachel didn’t love them, really, but kept going in hopes that the reason why everyone else was having such a good time would hit her as she was floating through hoards of her drunken peers.
Alex, Elise’s short term boyfriend, was laying across the back seat, swiping so quickly through his songs that the car sounded like a European night club.
Rachel angled herself towards the back. “Hey Alex, what Death Grips song is this?”
Alex whined, “Elise, she’s bullying me again.”
“Rachel, be nice. His parents are having a rough patch right now.”
“They divorced when I was four!” She could hear his smile.
“And you’re handling it so well, babe,” Elise reached back to pat Alex’s knee and he playfully swatted her hand away.
The party was huge, the music unintelligible over its own volume; Rachel could feel the bass rippling through her chest and stomach like an overfull cup of water.
She leaned against the wall, halfheartedly inspecting the litany of family photos to see if she would even recognize the guy whose living room she was in. She didn’t. Elise had told her he was some alumni home for the summer. Her beer was already getting lukewarm in her hands. She knew she could say no to these parties, but that meant saying no to Elise, which she sort of never did. It was just one of those things. If it made her happy to have Rachel there, she’d be there. Even if that meant standing by the wall like a teenage lawn ornament while Elise socialized.
In the thicket of bodies, she was dancing–her head thrown back in a lost laugh that showed all of her teeth and crinkled the bridge of her nose. The purple LED light made her blue silk top look luminescent. Alex was holding her drink and talking to some guy that ran some school club and looked vaguely familiar–but everyone looked a little familiar in such a small town.
Out of the fray, Elise spun closer–her proximity breaking Rachel’s reverie as she reached out to grab her hand.
“Come on!” her lips said. Rachel couldn’t hear her over the music, but she felt the warmth of Elise’s right hand pulling her out to the floor, while the left one took her beer and pawned it off to Alex. The heat of alcohol and movement bloomed in Rachel’s chest, mixing with the hum of the persistent bass. She just couldn’t say no to her.
As they spun in circles, Elise’s short hair fanned out around her head like a halo, catching the soft light and throwing it like a disco ball. There was a small hickey at the base of her neck, and Rachel felt a twist of something–Disgust? Sadness?–in her gut, but it disappeared when she saw her smile. They were moving so fast that the room felt empty. She could hardly tell what song was on, but decided it was a perfect song–the best one ever written.
Rachel ran out of matches as the last grey suggestions of daylight diluted to blackness.
Her skin itched as though it was moments away from bursting into flames. What they don’t tell you about ruining your life is how fucking easy it is, and how complete. Like pushing a big red button labeled Do Not Push. She should have known the mushroom cloud would follow her home.
Rachel didn’t talk about Ava much, and only mentioned that she had an older sister if it came up. She couldn’t really even remember when things started to fray between them; perhaps the degrees of contempt had gathered imperceptibly slowly, like boiling a frog. Then again, maybe she was just stupid. That was seeming more and more likely every day.
Rachel remembered being close as kids, and that she used to cry when Ava had to go home on Sunday nights to stay with her dad for the week. That Ava used to let her borrow her perfume in middle school so the boys would think she was cool. That they used to stay up late talking about Ava’s latest crushes and feuds, making high school seem like an elite club to which Rachel had a secret backstage pass.
Used to. It felt like her childhood was a dream or a movie she’d seen a long time ago, fuzzy and inconsistent in recollection. She’d spent so long wondering what she had done, the question stuck between her teeth as she tried hopelessly to mend a bridge she couldn’t remember burning. When she’d told Ava what had happened with Elise, it was out of desperation for a friend, not from any real hope that she’d be accepted. She had just wanted the sister she used to have, but as it turned out, so did Ava.
Ava was sitting on the couch when Rachel came in, half-watching an episode of Friends and scrolling through Facebook.
“Hey,” Rachel mumbled, contemplating whether or not to take a seat.
Ava didn’t look up from her phone.
Rachel clung to the strap of her backpack like it was holding her up. She knew she could just leave the living room and shut herself in her bedroom to contemplate how she’d managed to fuck everything so utterly in so few steps. But she felt nailed to the floor, subjected to the quiet torture of her sister’s callous indifference.
Sure, they’d been distant for years, but it had only been like this since Rachel had confessed the events of last Saturday night to her in a half-drunken panic. She’d woken up Sunday morning, bleary-eyed and reeling, to complete silence from Ava. Rachel realized after that you never know whether love is conditional or not until after you’ve committed something unforgivable. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she should apologize–a thought which made her sick to her stomach.
“Why won’t you talk to me?” She felt like an inmate on the other side of the glass. Ava said nothing.
Eventually, the washing machine buzzed and Ava got up to swap her darks over to dry.
Rachel was leaning against the sticky countertop, half-listening to the guy in front of her–Sam, was it?–as he went on about the progress he’d made skateboarding over the summer.
Alex had introduced the two to each other, bowing like he’d done a fantastic trick and disappearing with Elise to play pool. He was the former captain of the speech team, which is why he’d looked a little familiar. They were always running assemblies and peddling tickets to their tournaments. She understood why he was the captain, though, seeing as she couldn’t remember the last time she’d gotten a word in herself.
She felt a bit out to sea, and the alcohol that made her exuberant with Elise just made her feel out of control in the crowded kitchen. She missed when summers meant sitting on Elise’s bedroom floor, watching the same terrible movies over and over and talking about what they wanted to be when they grew up. Rachel wasn’t even sure who she was now. Her guts were all mixed up. It wasn’t necessarily the growing up that Rachel didn’t like. It was the discomfort at the core of her, like she’d suffered a loss she could never pin down. She’d mentioned it to Elise before, this constant feeling like she’d left something at home. She hadn’t mentioned how much it scared her.
Sam was beaming at her, obviously waiting for her to respond to something he’d just said. She gave a weak chuckle that got swallowed up by the music and settled on, “Wow, no way.”
Sam kissed like he spoke: for too long and with too much tongue. His mouth tasted like Pabst and menthol.
Rachel had kissed a handful of boys, all of which ranged from unremarkable to downright uncomfortable.They weren’t all bad guys, nor was she particularly unlucky in love in any way she’d consider. She knew that she liked how she felt when they looked at her, like she was interesting. It made her feel enticing and important, and she’d be lying if she pretended she didn’t seek it out. But at the center of it, when it came down to the two of them alone together, down to the kissing and the touching and the quiet whispering, she wished she could crawl out of her skin. She figured maybe she was just a late bloomer or something, or maybe she hadn’t met the right person. All the nerves that the books and movies always talked about were certainly swirling in her brain, making her hands shake, but she didn’t know whether to attribute that to Sam or the fact that she was drunk and alone with some guy she’d met an hour ago.
A knock on the door interrupted them. Sam pulled back and winked, standing up as the door opened. He said something too low for her to make out, and the two men laughed. Rachel’s mounting anxiety was bordering on intolerable. As Sam leaned across the doorframe, she ducked under his arm and darted into the hallway, aiming to disappear into the crowd. She heard Sam shout her name, but he didn’t follow. The surprised laughter of the stranger who’d knocked faded into the music behind her.
Back in the heart of it, the noise was too much to handle. Her hands were still shaking, and her heart still pounded from what felt like a very narrow escape from something she didn’t have time to process in the middle of a stranger’s living room. No, Rachel decided. She definitely hated parties.
She ripped open the screen door and gulped down the humid night air. It was better to just forget everything. She didn’t want to get into it with Alex for calling one of his friends a creep. Hell, he might not even be a creep–it’s not like she’d really told him to stop, anyway. Whatever. She checked her phone and shot off a text to Elise: im outside. miss u.
She watched a moth ram itself into the floodlight above the garage over and over, never learning its lesson, perpetually confusing a fluorescent bulb for the moon. She felt sorry for it. Behind her, the storm door creaked, some wayward chaos spilling out as someone stepped onto the porch. Elise’s voice floated over to her side.
“Hi Rach, sorry I disappeared. Alex is fucked up. I’m playing babysitter again.”
Rachel tried to laugh, but it was strangled by the tightness in her chest as her best friend’s face came into view. A few brown baby hairs clung to a thin sheen of sweat on her temples.
Rachel’s relief in her presence mingled with a deepening of the hollow feeling she was desperately trying to ignore.
“ Hey,” Elise’s voice was soft and gentle, like the crickets. “Are you okay? What happened in there?”
She was so beautiful it hurt. The moth clinked against the porch light.
Finally, Rachel started to cry.
It had been three days.
Rachel was sprawled like a spilled drink on the grass, staring emptily up at the sky as it was slowly consumed, hiding the time of day with a thick grey blanket of clouds. Purgatory. She was a week away from packing up her things and moving away to school. Something she was supposed to be doing alongside her best friend. But instead she was here, terrified to contact Elise and functionally disowned by the only person she could possibly talk to about it. The electrified feeling of summer air before a storm made gooseflesh prickle its way across her arms like a reminder that she had them, a reminder to move them. She laid still out of spite.
Maybe if she laid there long enough, the roots and vines under her body would wrap their way around it, slowly masking and reclaiming her sorry form until she was nothing but a vaguely girl-shaped lump of foliage, visible from the Dairy Queen drive-through window.
When she closed her eyes, she saw Elise: her brow furrowed in concentration as she poked a sewing needle into Rachel’s arm the previous summer, the night they gave each other stick and poke tattoos. She could smell her room, incense and spearmint gum, and the tiny, faded out flower on her arm stung like it was fresh.
She’d given Elise one to match.
"You’re being so gentle," Elise had said.
"I just don’t want to hurt you." Rachel was laser-focused, her ink-smudged fingers were closed gingerly around Elise’s wrist. She could feel her pulse.
"You could never hurt me."
Rachel’s cheeks burned.
She felt a sharp pang of grief and guilt. Thunder rumbled slowly. She was positive the entire world knew about what she did; everything felt awash in the napalm glow of nuclear detonation, only slightly ahead of the annihilating blast.
The night was chokingly humid, and the sounds of the party were now more like the throb of a giant monster’s heart behind them, beating in the ground. She recognized the song, a slower one that the two of them liked. The stagnant air smelled like a far-off bonfire and Elise’s perfume.
“It’s always the same,” Rachel murmured.
“What do you mean?” Elise’s voice dropped to match hers, like Rachel was telling her a secret. Maybe she was.
You could let it all go, you could let it all go, the music in the house said.
“I mean it’s not just this thing with Sam. It was like this with Dylan. And Blake. And Chris,” Recalling every uncomfortable encounter was like trying to force together two positive ends of a magnet. She swallowed the building feeling of panic and repulsion.
Elise’s eyebrow ticked up, “Blake?”
“Well, they all sucked. That’s okay,” Elise said, squeezing Rachel’s hand. “But that doesn’t mean all of them are gonna suck.”
It’s called: freefall.
Rachel breathed out slowly. “But what if it’s not them.” Her whole body felt like television static. She’d never been more sober in her life.
“What are you talking about?” Her voice was so soft.
“I think I’m in love with you.”
The moth flew away from the light and headed for the moon.
She searched Elise’s eyes for a reaction. She could feel her quick breaths. Rachel felt like a creature outside of time, like she was only a witness to herself as she leaned forward, closing the gap between them. She expected Elise to pull away, to push her off, to run–but instead,
Rachel found her lips underneath hers.
The sound of the party evaporated into the hazy night air, buzzing with mosquitoes and anxious heat. Elise was all five of her senses–the world became neroli and fresh laundry; soft hands and sticky lipgloss; the slight, adorable gap in her teeth; the taste of spearmint and Blue Moon. Something inside Rachel swelled to fill the horrible empty space.
There was the comfortable repose of doing what she thought she was supposed to–she thought of all the boys she’d kissed, the pattern of giving and receiving, a clear and bulleted list provided by the media since she was a child–but this was nothing like that. This was familiar and alien, like an organ she’d been living without. She felt it rooting in her palms, her cells, swirling in her lungs; she knew she would never speak without it again. She could never utter a sentence that wasn’t steeped in the unloosed ocean of this.
As Rachel leaned closer, Elise pulled away.
The kiss was short, but it echoed. There was no way they were sitting on the same porch in the same neighborhood in the same world that they had been before, and yet it all looked the same. The night was still hot and the music still blared and it was still just past two. Elise’s eyes were wide in the porch light, her lips parted but silent. The lips Rachel had just kissed. Her face, the most familiar thing in the world, was unreadable underneath the shock.
The brief feeling of unspeakable freedom and joy dissolved into panic. She’d let out something she could never put back, ever, no matter how much it threatened to destroy.
“Rachel, I–How long?”
She couldn’t answer. It had been there forever, burning in her muscles, urging her to keep moving; fuzzy and distant, like a secret someone had whispered to her when she was a child. The song ended and lapsed into another. She wasn’t sure how much time passed before Elise said, “It’s okay,” Her voice breaking. “You’re drunk and you’re upset, it’s okay.”
She wanted to tell her that she wasn’t drunk, that it wasn’t okay, that she was so embarrassed and sorry that she wished she could disintegrate and sink into the cracked concrete.
But all she managed was, “Elise.”
Elise ran her thumb over the tattoo on her arm. “Let me take you home, okay? I’ll go get Alex.”
Rachel opened her mouth to respond, but was cut off by the sound of the screen door closing.
Rachel’s stupor was broken by the persistent buzz of her cell phone. Immediately, her stomach felt like she’d eaten gravel for breakfast. She couldn’t imagine talking to Elise, and she didn’t feel ready to talk to anyone else. A brief moment of relief flashed inside as she read the caller ID, but it was soon replaced with a different kind of anxiety.
“Hi, mom,” She hoped she sounded normal. “What’s up?”
“Hi sweetheart. Where are you?”
“Um, you know... out.”
“Oh. Do you think you could come home? I want to talk to you. It’s not... It’s nothing bad. I’m not upset.” Her mom was speaking with the same voice she used when grandpa died.
Rachel watched a thick, grey cloud as it roiled across the sky. “I’m kind of busy, I’m sorry.”
It was quiet on the other end for a bit. A few times, it seemed like her mom was going to say something, but decided against it.
Eventually: “Ava told me... about the other night.”
Rachel’s mouth went dry. Every inch of her body felt like it had vertigo. Oh my god, she was going to throw up.
“What fucking right did she have to do that?”
It really is remarkable how easy it is to ruin your life. How complete.
“None,” her mom was crying. “None at all.”
Rachel was going to kill Ava. Instead of going to college, she was going to go to jail.
“Rachel, I love you. So much. I’m sorry she took your choice away from you. I just wanted you to know that you don’t have to worry about me with this. Okay?”
“I...” Rachel’s voice was small and far away. “Okay. I love you too.”
“I know you want to be alone right now, and that’s okay. But please come home for dinner. I’m making your favorite.”
Her mind was still reeling when her mom hung up. Since Saturday, the world was becoming more alien, irrevocably so, with every individual moment. She worried that she wouldn’t recognize her own face soon. The relief she wanted to feel was overwhelmed by the reality of it: her secret self was exposed, and the girl she’d been before was gone forever.
Her two estranged halves fused as the rain began to fall, and Rachel was gripped by the agony and euphoria of her truth.
Rachel sat in the back seat on the drive home, catching brief glimpses of Elise’s tight-lipped smile in the rearview mirror as Alex rambled obliviously in the passenger seat. The porch felt a million miles away. She never managed to say anything other than a quick thank you before getting out of the back seat.
“Get some rest, Rach,” Elise said.
Rachel was coming home for dinner.
The street lights above her caught the raindrops as they passed, making the whole world look like a roll of 8 millimeter film, their collision with the earth fizzling like the slow turning of a projector wheel. She wondered how this movie ended.
She didn’t want to worry her mom by being late. She wrestled her phone out of the wet pocket of her jeans, running an equally wet sleeve over the screen to check the time. Her heart jumped into her throat. There, innocuous and entirely terrifying, was a text notification from Elise, received ten minutes before.
I’m coming over.
Rachel stared at the words, reading them over and over. Her porch light was visible just down the block, impossibly close and impossibly far. Adrenaline propelled her forward as she waded home.
Elise was there, standing next to her car, dwarfed in a navy blue raincoat that swallowed up her hands. All of Rachel’s limbs were buzzing with anxiety, and yet seeing her felt like being released from prison. The rain was starting to slow down, sending the scent of wet pavement swirling through the air. She didn’t have any makeup on, and Rachel could see her freckles even in the dim light. There were bags under her eyes. She’d spent the last few days trying to decide what she’d say to Elise if she ever wanted to see her again, and now, with her in the driveway, none of it felt right.
“You’re here,” Rachel said lamely.
Elise gestured to the porch. “Can we sit?”
Somehow, she managed to nod.
They sat next to each other for a bit, watching the rain tire itself out.
Rachel let her disbelief drive her to speak. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have–”
“Alex and I broke up,” Elise said, cutting her apology short.
Rachel’s heart fell into her shoes. “Because of me? Fuck, Elise, I should have never–”
“Because of me.” She looked Rachel in the eyes. “I didn’t tell him, Rach.”
Rachel searched her face for any trace of anger, some semblance of the disgust she’d been bracing herself for. But it just wasn’t there. “I don’t understand.”
“I broke up with him because I couldn’t lie to him anymore,” She was shaking inside the giant coat. “Or to me. Or to you.”
The rain stopped, letting a moment of filtered sunlight through the clouds. Crepuscular rays–that was the word for them–when rays of sun looked like they were stretching directly down to earth, like tendrils from heaven. She’d learned that in a story she read once.
“I love you, too. Like, I’m in love with you.”
“Oh?” Rachel’s mouth tasted like pennies. “Actually?”
And Rachel started laughing. Maybe it was the intense relief that she hadn’t destroyed everything, maybe it was the insane joy that bubbled up from the depths of her. Maybe she’d finally been driven insane.
Elise’s surprise melted into laughter, too, and she reached for Rachel’s hand. And Rachel took it.
They kissed each other for the second time. The world didn’t end.
In fact, Rachel could swear she felt it turning underneath her.