Click the images to follow the story.
Taylor looked up to see her friends bounding across Cece’s lawn barefoot, flip flops in hand. They were waving and shouting her name, the slipping sun casting their outlines in gold, turning their hair to flames. Taylor laughed, warmth blooming in her chest, and rolled down her window to greet them. Seconds later, the girls were throwing open the car doors, scrambling inside and leaning over to throw their arms around her. Planting kisses on her cheek, tousling her hair.
“Happy fucking birthday, Dancing Queen!” Cece cried, slamming the passenger door behind her. “What’s the plan?”
“Well, what are you guys up for?” Taylor asked, grinning.
“There’s literally nothing to do for people our age after eight p.m. unless you want to go to the fucking movies,” Georgie said from the backseat, looking at her phone.
“Ahem,” Eliana interrupted, leaning across Kit and resting an elbow on each of the front seats. “Can we take a moment to acknowledge that tonight will be the very first time Taylor drives us all?”
“Because someone always has to be a law-abiding citizen,” Cece added, raising her eyebrows at Taylor. Taylor gave her a small smile, ignoring the twinge in her gut.
Taylor was used to these offhand remarks, but they still knocked the wind out of her. She knew Cece loved her, but her love had a way of digging in its claws. Of flashing its teeth, of making you remember. Making you remember that she knew best, she loved hardest. She was miles and miles ahead of you, and if you wanted to catch up, you’d better start shedding your softness. Growing your sharpness.
“Hey, how are you?” Kit asked Georgie as Eliana and Cece argued over who should get aux. “I feel like I never see you.”
“I’m fine,” Georgie said, turning to look out the window, signaling the conversation was over.
Kit sighed. Georgie had started dating Aaron a few months back, and ever since, she had been growing distant. Drifting. Now, Kit was painfully aware of the dead air which hung between them, and it ached. She thought of the last real conversation she’d had with Georgie, lying on her bedroom floor, the carpet digging into her elbows. The hours sliding by, time dizzying. The fatigue creeping through Kit’s body. Georgie’s eyes blazing with intensity, until her face crumpled.
Kit had gone over the night so many times in her head, trying to figure out what she’d said or done to make Georgie hate her. But she still had no idea. Tears stung behind her eyes, and her throat tightened. She stared up at the roof of the car, trying not to blink.
When Taylor started the engine, everyone but Kit and Georgie cheered.
Kit was so tired of this. The loneliness clinging to her like wet clothes. The anxiousness. The fear that if she let herself slip, smiling even for a second, Georgie’s quiet rage would shatter, and she would scream that Kit didn’t deserve a single ounce of happiness because… Well, Kit didn’t exactly know why.
Taylor drove slowly down her street, listening with a smile as the others debated where to go and Cece tried to decide on a playlist.
Outside, the sky was paling, the air cooling. Sprinklers trickled to a stop; street lights blinking awake. Crickets tuning their strings, cicadas beginning to hum.
“There’s always Sonic,” Kit suggested.
Cece skipped to a new song. “Or the Peak.”
Eliana’s eyes grew wide. “Ooh! Yes!”
“Don’t you think Taylor should pick?” Georgie said. “It’s her birthday.”
Everyone agreed, apologizing.
“It’s okay!” Taylor said. “I didn’t have anything particular in mind.”
Georgie shook her head, a lofty smile on her face. “I forgot that the word ‘pick’ isn’t in dear Taylor’s vocabulary.”
Taylor felt her skin grow hot, as if she were under a spotlight. She forced a laugh.
“I’m really just fine with whatever. I honestly don’t even mind just driving around and listening to music,” she admitted.
Then she glanced at Cece; Taylor had a feeling she wouldn’t approve of that plan. Cece frowned. “If that’s what you want to do, you could have said.”
Taylor shook her head quickly, caught off guard. She still felt as if she were before an audience, and she’d been much happier watching from the wings.
“It was just an option.”
“Right, but you seem excited about it.”
“And it’s your first night driving everyone,” Kit added.
But Taylor didn’t believe them; she’d felt the current of excitement that swept through the car at the mention of the Peak, the park where all the upperclassmen went to do God knows what. So when she saw the big green sign, she got into the right lane.
“It’s fine. I promise!” she said, speeding up the I40 on-ramp. “You guys were excited about the Peak, and I’ve never been, so that’s what we’re doing. Decision made.”
Cece raised her eyebrows. “You’re going to take the interstate?”
“Yup!” she said. “Can someone pull the Peak up on maps?" Her right leg shook as she held down the gas pedal, and she tried not to think of all her mother’s horror stories. Cece cheered, and Taylor grinned through her chattering teeth.
“Can you turn down the music?” Taylor asked as she merged into the right line. Cece nodded, lowering the volume on her phone. She felt a pang of guilt ringing in her chest.
“Are you sure you’re good with going to the Peak?”
Taylor glanced at her. “Yeah, I agreed.”
“And not just to make us happy?”
Taylor shook her head. “No, I’m excited. It’ll be fun.”
“Okay,” Cece said, but she noticed how tightly Taylor was gripping the wheel, how she flinched whenever a semi passed them. “I just want you to be able to prioritize your own needs. It’s not just about making any decision; it’s about being able to ask for what you want.”
“I know that.”
Taylor blinked, hurt registering on her face.
“What do you mean?”
Cece paused. She wanted to tell Taylor. She’d wanted to tell her since the night it happened. About how it had felt good until it hadn’t. How it had been electric, every part of her body on fire. And then it had begun to burn. She wanted to tell her about the ashes left in her mouth when he left, the bruises left on her spine. She’d wanted to cry with her, to tell her to never ever say yes just because she felt like she had to. Even if she thought it would probably be fine. Even if she thought she was strong enough to handle it.
But she couldn’t tell her any of that. Because of course it was the one boy, the only boy Taylor had ever talked about.
“I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
Taylor was still looking straight ahead.
“Then maybe you should stop saying things that are hurtful,” she said, quietly enough that no one else could hear.
Taylor’s voice was jagged around the edges in a way Cece had never heard before, and shame swarmed in the pit of her stomach like hornets. Like something that stung to the bone and kept stinging.
“Get off here,” Georgie said.
Taylor put on her turn signal and took the exit. Everything began to slow.
Kit looked out the window as they wound their way up the hill towards the Peak. Behind the slanting houses, the sky was a deep, simmering blue, orange embers collecting on the horizon.
“Aaron said there’s no parking lot,” Georgie said, her face awash in the amber-colored glint of the streetlights.
“She can just parallel park,” Cece said. “I mean if you want to, Taylor.”
Kit remembered the dings she’d left in her parents’ cars. “It’s pretty hard.”
“You’ve never even done it,” Georgie said.
“I’m kind of a parallel parking queen, actually,” Taylor said, looking over her shoulder and wedging her way between a pickup truck and a Jeep. “See?”
They then got out and began climbing the stairs towards the top of the hill. Kit trailed behind, watching the others’ silhouettes shrink like paper dolls before the silken sky. Taylor slowed, joining her.
Kit smiled. “What’s up?”
Taylor shrugged. “Sometimes I just need a break. You know?”
“Very much so.”
A moment later, Kit asked, “Do you feel like Georgie’s been different lately?”
“I don’t know,” Kit sighed. “Well, yes I do. She’s been mean, and it seems like she’d always rather be with Aaron.”
“I wouldn’t take it personally,” Taylor said. “How she explained it to me, they’re both going through a lot with mental health and their families, so he’s like her safe space.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize.”
“Maybe she’s waiting for you to reach out.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I know she’s worried about being a burden.”
Kit frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I think you should ask Georgie,” Taylor said. “It’s not my place.”
“Fair,” Kit said, her cheeks reddening. “Well, how does it feel being seventeen?”
“Honestly? It feels like I’m doing a terrible job at pretending to be old,” Taylor said quietly.
“Well, I think you’re doing great.”
Taylor took her hand and squeezed.
They climbed in silence, the kind that breaks in gentle waves. Overhead, the night unfurled, floating up and up.
“Have you ever noticed the sky seems farther away sometimes?” Kit asked.
“No, I haven’t,” Taylor said, gazing up.
Kit wouldn’t have said so aloud, but in that moment, Taylor looked so young. Like she was made of hope.
They sat in a circle on Taylor’s blanket, eyes adjusting to the darkness as it thickened around them. In the distance, they could see the city skyline: a muted glow, whispering. The wind whistled through the trees, and the lone streetlight stuck into the hill stuttered. The ground was patchy, muddy.
Kit glanced around, drawing her knees to her chest. “It’s kind of creepy, Cece.”
“Told y’all,” Georgie said.
“When?” Eliana narrowed her eyes.
“So weird,” Cece said. “There are usually tons of people here.”
Truthfully, she’d only been here once, and she'd spent the night smoking with a group of her public school friends, so her recollection was kind of hazy. In her memory, the cityscape had been dazzling, so close you could touch it. There had been a field, soft and damp, with fireflies rising from it like sea spray. Now, embarrassment prickled down her spine. Taylor still was avoiding her eyes.
Until she remembered what her plan had been the whole time.
“Well,” she said, rifling through her bag until she felt the bottle. “Since we don’t have any company, that means we can break out this bad boy!”
She pulled out a handle of raspberry Smirnoff.
Eliana’s jaw dropped. “Where did you get that?”
“Sid, from NHS!”
Even Georgie looked up, intrigued.
Kit bit her lip. “Have any of you been drunk?”
They all shook their heads.
“Not drunk drunk,” Cece said.
“We have to drive home, though,” Taylor said.
Cece nodded. “Right. It’s pretty early, so I was thinking if we drink now, we’ll be good in, what, like two hours?”
Kit furrowed her brow. “Are you sure?”
But in truth, dread had already begun to climb up Cece’s throat, to pool under her tongue. And her heart was kicking at her ribs, her chest threatening to buckle. But all eyes were on her, filled with trust and excitement. So she kept grinning, unscrewing the top and tipping her head back. Shuddering at the acrid taste, coughing and spitting vodka onto her shirt. Turning the coughs into laughs. Reinterpreting the fear as exhilaration, the way she always did.
Cece wiped her mouth, wincing. “Who’s next?”
Kit shook her head vehemently. “No way.”
“Can I smell it?” Taylor volunteered.
Cece handed it to her, laughing, and Taylor unscrewed the top gingerly. She held it to her nose and gagged.
“Oh my god! It smells like nail polish and Kool-aid!”
Cece made a face. “Tastes like it, too.”
“I now feel sufficiently celebratory and rebellious,” Taylor said, holding out the bottle. “Any takers?”
“Come on, it’s your birthday! You have to have at least a sip!” Eliana whined.
Taylor rolled her eyes. “Fine. One sip. Just to see your reactions.”
Cocking an eyebrow, she raised the bottle to her lips, and the group devolved into screams, chanting her name as Taylor tipped her head back. Kit felt a thrum of adrenaline, an awed smile stretching across her face. She clapped furiously.
“That wasn’t even bad,” Taylor said, lowering the bottle for a second, only to then take another sip, not even grimacing.
“What the fuck, Taylor?” Georgie asked incredulously. “You’re a champ!”
She was grinning for the first time that night
Kit’s heart slipped down through her chest. Then, just as quickly, it rose back up, her pulse picking up speed. She knew what she needed to do.
“Could I try--”
But before she could finish her question, Georgie interrupted.
“Let me see it,” she said to Taylor.
Taylor passed her the handle, and Kit felt her chest deflating once more.
Georgie started to waterfall but immediately spit it out, the vodka spraying from her mouth. Everyone laughed. Except Georgie. She looked frustrated. Determined.
“Here, you got it,” Cece said. “Just pour it right into the back of your throat, so you can’t taste it.”
“Okay,” Georgie said, steadying herself.
“Go George!” Eliana cried, and everyone clapped.
Georgie’s face remained set. She seemed to brace herself, and then began drinking, holding the bottle with both hands, eyes squeezed shut.
Everyone was whooping, ecstatic, but a wave of fear washed over Kit. Something wasn’t right.
Five, six, seven sips later, Georgie was still chugging.
“George?” Taylor asked.
The applause stopped.
“Hey, hey,” Cece cooed, scooting towards Georgie, prying the bottle from her hands. “I’ll take that.”
“You good, George?” Eliana asked.
Georgie blinked, the world coming into focus. “What? I’m fine.”
Everyone was watching her. Like she was dangerous. Or maybe like she was in danger, backing towards a cliff. But her thoughts were still too vivid.
“I want more.”
Cece shook her head. “Give it a minute to hit.”
“Fine,” she said. “What now?”
“We could just talk,” offered Taylor.
“Who was the guy on your story, Eliana?” Georgie asked. It was becoming hard to open her mouth.
Eliana gave a tight smile, shrugging. “He’s cool. We’ve hung out a few times. I met him at the lake.”
Georgie didn’t understand why Eliana’s emotions were always out of reach.
“Do you like him?” Kit asked.
Eliana scrunched up her face. “I don’t know! He’s nice. There’s nothing else to it right now.”
“Not everyone is all love-at-first-sight like you, Kit. This isn’t To All the Boys I’ve loved Before,” Georgie said, cracking herself up.
“Georgie,” Taylor said. “Come on.”
“You’re just as bad! You and-- and-- what’s his name? Miles Romero!”
“Whatever happened to him?” Kit asked.
“We haven’t talked in a bit,” Taylor said. “But I was thinking about asking if he wanted to hang out this week!”
“Can we change the subject?” Cece asked. “How’s Aaron, George?”
Georgie turned to her and the world buffered, everything tilting, the sky and the trees and her friends running together like watercolors. Her head pounded.
“He’s really good. He’s so warm, and he loves me so much.”
Suddenly, all she wanted to do was curl herself around Aaron, press her face into the hollow of his neck. For him to stroke her hair, his heartbeat jumping against her cheek, and whisper that nothing could hurt her. Her thoughts were lying, she was perfect. Beautiful. That he needed her. She mattered.
She checked her phone if he’d texted, but she couldn’t get her passcode right.
“None of you understand,” she said, her voice breaking. “He’s the only one who cares. I just want to go home.”
And then she was crying, sobs shattering. Everything growing fuzzy. Drowning in the overwhelm.
Cece rushed over as Georgie got to her feet, catching her just before she tripped.
“Hey, hey,” Cece said. “Let’s sit down.”
“Let me get up!” Georgie yelled, still in tears.
Taylor glanced at Eliana. She shrugged, looking uncomfortable.
“Fuck,” Kit whispered.
“I’ve got this,” Taylor said, going over and stroking Georgie’s back. “What’s wrong, love?”
Georgie tried to answer but only began bawling harder, her breaths coming in rugged bursts.
“Take your time,” Cece said. “You’re okay.”
Georgie wiped her eyes. “No I’m not!”
Cece glanced up. “Eliana, pass me your water.”
“She didn’t even have that much,” Taylor said quietly.
“First time. Low tolerance.”
Georgie had begun weeping again.
“Talk to us,” Taylor said, trying so hard to sound calm and kind and warm that she didn’t recognize her own voice. “We’re here.”
“No you’re not! Stop lying!”
And, with a growing sense of dread, she realized that she didn’t recognize Georgie’s voice either. Or Cece’s. She hated how far away they felt, even as her hand rested on Georgie’s back.
“What do you mean?”
Georgie’s sobs sputtered to a stop. She looked up, eyes wounded but piercing. The claws and the cuts. Taylor followed her gaze and saw that it had landed on Kit.
“You left me. I told you I was hurting, and you stopped being my friend. Just like everyone else.”
“What are you talking about?” Kit asked, and Taylor noticed her voice splintering. “You stopped calling and texting and talking to me!”
“Because I was depressed!”
“I’m sorry,” Kit said. “I thought you didn’t like me anymore.”
“You’re my best friend,” Georgie cried. “And I needed you.”
Taylor’s expression changed, understanding registering in her eyes.
“Are you okay?”
Cece shook her head. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you.”
Her vision began to marble, her lip quivering.
Taylor pulled her into a tight hug.
“I love you so much.”
“I love you too,” Cece said, then began to laugh through her tears. “Happy birthday.”
“Why thank you,” Taylor said, and Cece could feel her giggling against her ribs. “It was a little anticlimactic, though.”
They swayed back and forth from foot to foot.
“How the fuck are we going to get home,” Cece groaned.
“I’m driving bitches.”
Cece turned to see Kit walking towards them, holding Georgie’s hand.
For a heartbeat, there was silence. And then Georgie began vomiting, crouched on her hands and knees. Kit ran over and wound her hair into a ponytail.
Cece turned to Taylor. Taylor looked petrified.
“She needs food and water,” Cece said. “And a fucking toilet or something-- this is nasty. Let’s go.”
“I-- I can’t drive,” Taylor said, biting her lip.
Anxiety pulsed through Cece. “What? Why?”
“Because I drank.”
Her anxiety morphed into anger. “You had like two sips!”
“Still!” Taylor said. “I’m sure my tolerance is super low, and if we got pulled over or something--”
“No!” said Taylor. “I’m sorry, but no! I’d rather make Georgie throw up in the grass then get us all arrested or killed in a car crash.”
“You need to step the fuck up!” Cece yelled; she saw Taylor flinch. “We can get arrested here, too, you know!”
“Stop talking down to me!”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’ve been so condescending recently! About my ability to set boundaries and stuff, and you wouldn’t even let me talk about Miles!”
A jolt of fear sparked in Cece’s chest, sending waves through to her fingertips.
“Miles isn’t a good guy. Trust me. Or maybe he is and he just doesn’t--”
Taylor shook her head incredulously. “You’re still trying to make my decisions for me! You don’t even know him!”
“Yes I fucking do,” Cece said. “We hooked up.”
Taylor blinked. “Oh.”
“But he was really…” Cece paused, the right words escaping her grasp.
Maybe the right words didn’t even exist.
“Where are your keys, Taylor?” Kit asked.
Taylor unclipped her keys from her wristlet and handed them to her. “You have a restricted license, though.”
Kit shrugged. “It’ll be an adventure.”
Taylor, Eliana, and Cece ran down the hill towards the car hand in hand, practically flying. Kit and Georgie walked down the stairs slowly, Georgie’s arm around her shoulders.
“I’m sorry for being such a bitch,” Georgie said. “You didn’t deserve that.”
“Thank you,” Kit said. “That means a lot.”
But she couldn’t help but wonder what it meant when the people who you loved most told you that you deserved more than they could offer.
Georgie stopped walking, and for a second, Kit thought she was going to throw up again. But instead, she said, “And I’m not just saying that. I’m not letting myself off the hook. I’m going to treat you better.”
Kit smiled. “I’m going to treat you better too.”
As she drove back towards Cece’s house, Kit found that it felt incredible to sit in the driver’s seat. To know she was keeping her friends safe, to watch Georgie falling asleep in the backseat, laying across Cece and Taylor’s laps.
It was quiet; she hadn’t put on any music. The roads were mostly empty, and the streetlights blinked yellow. She drove slowly enough to keep the windows down, and the breeze billowed in. The night was warm and smooth. Electric. A low current.
Kit looked in the rearview mirror to see that Cece and Taylor were asleep now, too.
“Do you want to hear about the guy from the lake?” Eliana asked softly.
“I would love to.”
Ashley Zhu (@theashleyrz) is a junior at Washington University in St. Louis majoring in Communication Design and The Business of Arts. She strives to create empathetic, positive change in every day life as a digital designer and interdisciplinary creator. Her work has appeared in The Bluffton Literary Journal and The Power Thread campaign and is currently a creative marketing consultant for Vivi Design Studio. In her free time you may find her salsa dancing, cooking up a storm, or reading stacks of books about the hidden lives of trees! You can find more examples of her work at ashleyzhu.myportfolio.com or @ashley_rose_designs on insta!
Bianca Sass (@bianca.sass) is a writer from Nashville, TN, studying English at Amherst College. Her work has previously been published in Pfeiffer University's the Phoenix and the online literary journal, Chapter16. Besides writing, Bianca enjoys playing violin in the Amherst Symphony Orchestra and directing student theater productions.