THE BEST STALL WAS AT THE VERY END of the bathroom, where she could rest her back on the tiled wall while she waited. This had been her usual place since the start of eleventh grade, when her old table told her that she cared too much about everything and was ruining their fun.
She made sure to keep her backpack in front of her feet so that she wouldn’t be spotted sitting on the floor of a bathroom stall, and she kept her eye on the yawning gap beneath the stall door. Sneakers and mismatched socks and sandals and painted toenails paced to and fro. Why was the gap so big? Surely this was a design flaw. She instinctively shrank away from the gap, closer to the toilet—too close. Ouch. The base of her skull had caught the metal corner of the “Dispose of Feminine Products Here” box, and she was wriggling around, trying to reposition her crouch, when she heard it—her voice. Floating in and around the sharp girl chatter that echoed off the tile. In one movement Naia stood up, swung her backpack onto her shoulder, and unlatched the door.
Life suddenly flowed all around her. Girls, girl-colors: pink, blue, white, black. Hair flicking and flashing, laughs and gasps and the glowing blue screen of phones in hands, but in the motion there was stillness. A pink backpack at the far mirror, and bright purple headphones, and a girl. A girl, but not like the others. What was she listening to? She was rummaging in her backpack for her makeup bag. Her feet twitched slightly to the beat. Naia let the water run at the sink, leaving her hands in the basin uselessly. First, she knew, came mascara—and there it was. She held still to concentrate. The tendons that ran upwards from her heels were narrow lines, standing in sharp relief as she leaned forward to the mirror, holding her balance. Legs—the legs! Golden—disappeared, but the gold returned, a sliver of skin where her backpack had shifted her shirt upwards. Her nostrils flared as she concentrated. Then came the patting and blotting of teenage cheeks, and then lip gloss, and then the final, ostentatious flourish of a powder brush––thousands of fine mica particles sent whirling into the air, glittering beneath the fluorescent light.
She stood up straight—the sliver of gold vanished—and shook her hair out, accidentally knocking out an earbud, and turned to say hello to a friend. Her golden legs wandered away, leaving Naia to stare at the place where Golden’s mirror self had been.
When Naia gave their screen door a regular-sized push, it flew open so violently that it slammed into the wall behind it. Aly jumped, nearly knocking her cereal bowl over. Naia was still forgetting that the hinges weren’t fixed. Probably on purpose. She stalked across the room, past Aly and her Cheerios, aiming for the mysteries of the kitchen cabinet. She was sweating so much that her curls were clinging to her neck.
“Did you not take the bus? You didn’t answer my text.” Aly had already looked in the kitchen cabinet at the pancake mix and stale pretzels and Cheez-Its and canned beans.
“Did you eat the peanut butter crackers?” Naia shut the cabinet door with a sigh but it bounced, nearly hitting her in the face.
“It’s broken. It’s all crooked. Why does nothing we own ever work?” She slammed a bowl and spoon onto the table across from Aly.
“Put it on The List,” said Aly, nodding towards the piece of paper on the refrigerator. She had started The List as a catalogue of all the things that needed fixing but also needed Mom to have more than two days off of work at a time. After Naia had added about fifteen exclamation points next to “water pressure,” it had become a kind of message board. “Get your hair out of the drain,” mom had replied.
“Has the AC been fixed? No. No it hasn’t. So what the hell’s the point. I can’t believe you ate all the peanut butter crackers. It was you and Charlie, wasn’t it? You all have to make this garbage house worse, don’t you. I can’t even exist in it anymore.”
Naia was still sweating. It was so hot. And Aly just sitting there, slurping her spoon, thinking about Charlie probably. Why didn’t she care? Didn’t she care? The door had been broken for weeks and the AC was fucked again, nothing ever worked, and Naia could feel hot sticky air creeping in, a thick wet blanket. Cicadas screamed outside. They weren’t due to die off for a few more weeks and their incessant shrieking followed Naia around, making the inside of her head vibrate, interrupting everything—she spilled the milk trying to get it in her bowl. Milk, then cereal. And a little bit of cereal at a time. Otherwise it would get soggy and mushy, and Naia hated when things tasted like nothing. She was still sweating. When she lifted her shirt to wipe her face she realized that it too was damp.
If she had ridden the bus home her shirt would not be disgusting. If she had ridden the bus home she would’ve sat where she always sat, about ten seats down on the right side with her body slouched and scrunched so that her knees pressed hard into the back of the seat in front of her. She was balanced that way. Besides, if she sat normally in shorts, her thighs would splay out. She hated that. Aly never cared, she sat “normally” next to her on the inside. The little sister side, the way it had always been, so Naia could watch over her—
“Just because I’m fifteen doesn’t mean I can’t be––be serious with Charlie. You always have to criticize everything.”
But Naia didn’t watch over her anymore. Because Charlie was in their lives now, and on the bus he took Aly away to the seat in front of Naia.
“You’re unbelievable,” Naia said. “You can’t even see what you’re doing. You’ve been dating for, what, four months?”
If she had taken the bus home today she would’ve watched the back of Aly and Charlie’s heads, watched them gently bump together as the school bus jostled and shook. If she had gotten off at her stop she would’ve seen two wet sweat marks on the gray plastic where her knees had been, mirroring the heads above them.
“If it’s really that bad, why doesn’t Mom have a problem with it? Huh?” Aly asked. Naia wanted to shout at her—Aly hadn’t even admitted what she had done! She hadn’t even admitted it, hadn’t forced them to sit through one of Mom’s “sermons” where they sat on the uncomfortable couch in the family room, instead of her bed, and mom didn’t let them break eye contact until she had finished talking. During the most recent sermon about grades, Mom talked for nine minutes straight. “I will not stand to have my girls end up like some of the other girls I’ve seen. The girls I grew up with. Hell, my own family.” And, “I don’t provide for you and buy you clothes and take care of you for kicks.” And so on. Naia would watch Mom’s eyebrows move up and down as she lectured, then they would go back to their room, and Naia would tell Aly how long the sermon had taken, and they would mark the time in tiny pencil print on the back of their closet door. They figured they would show it to Mom someday. She had a good sense of humor.
“Are you serious? Are you serious, Aly? You’re gonna sit here and tell me you haven’t fucked him yet?”
“Oh my god, Nai!”
“I know you’ve done it. You can’t keep a secret worth shit. You know you’re gonna have to admit to it eventually.”
“That’s not—why do you have to make everything so horrible?”
Aly reached the hallway in about five steps. She stood in the middle of it and spun around frantically, as if she were going to find some safe, quiet privacy for which she hadn’t already looked a million times before. There was her mom’s room. Aly couldn’t make it past the doorway, looking at the clothes and scrubs tangled up on the floor, the little jewelry tree and red ring box underneath the big mirror across the bed. In the drawer right below them were the panties and bras that Aly loved to feel, the silky patterns exotic beneath her fingertips. But it didn’t feel good anymore, being in that room without Mom. So Aly went to her usual place on the back steps, the concrete’s lingering warmth pressing gently against her, and swatted away the mosquitoes. The cicadas drowned everything out.
“Why are you staring at your sister?” Charlie asked.
“No reason,” Aly said.
“What’d she do now?”
“Nothing. It’s nothing, I’m just wondering what she’s doing now, is all.” Aly watched Naia stand still at the center of the crowded cafeteria.
“Can’t she see all the people around her? I mean, like, does she know what’s going on?” Charlie asked. Someone bumped Naia from behind and she jumped but managed to keep her balance. “She’s deep into her Naia world again. Watch out. There’s reality getting in the way.”
“Maybe she wants to stand there, Charlie.” Aly watched someone else swing their backpack onto their shoulder and smack Naia on the arm by accident. Naia didn’t notice. Naia scratched her arm distractedly and started to cut a determined path through the crowded tables.
“Well she’s moving now.”
“My point still stands,” retorted Aly, but Charlie had turned back to his phone, frantically swiping and swearing like everyone else at the table. A new trivia game had come out, and it had a real pot if you played at certain times—some senior had won sixty dollars so, of course, it was a huge hit. Charlie wasn’t very good at it. He cussed loudly. Aly turned to follow Naia’s baggy black sweatshirt. It made her stand out more than she probably wanted. Charlie shouted again. Phones weren’t that much better than the inside of Naia’s head, she could’ve told him.
One wall of the cafeteria was all windows, and the light from outside turned a funny bright white when it laid its window-patterns across the tables and over people’s skin. It was too hot out to sit in the courtyards; a million people had all crammed into this one room. Square pizza today. Its peculiar cardboard smell fuzzied Naia’s brain. Golden always packed her lunch. A banana or an apple, yogurt, and some nuts, maybe. Usually almonds.
Almonds were perfect, wrinkly teardrops. Naia had asked her mom to buy them at the grocery store once. Well. She had run off to fill a plastic bag at the “Self-Serve in Bulk” section, where the lentils and rice and granola were neatly packed in containers. She had dropped the bag of almonds in the cart while her mom looked for cottage cheese. Aly had started shrieking at Naia when the bag rang up eleven dollars at checkout, as if Naia had personally ripped that money from her hands—or, more likely, because mom didn’t bother being angry at Naia. It’s okay, nuts have lots of protein and healthy fats, she had said. Being a nurse meant that Mom was always spouting stuff like that.
There! Her. She was there. There was Golden, sitting at one of the blue tables in the far back: the silent study tables. Alone.
The tiled floor was slippery, all of a sudden, and the fluorescent lights hurt against the sunlight, and everything came to Naia so loud, why did people feel the need to shout all the time? It was deafening, the light and the loud trying to keep her rooted to the spot. But she pushed through it, her feet leading her, weaving through bodies to the other end of the cafeteria. Walking, walking, now. Stop.
“Charlie, look,” Aly nudged him. “What is Nai doing? She doesn’t know anyone there.” Naia had sat down across the room at one of the blue tables, the ones that were supposed to be silent study tables. “Oh my god, is she doing homework?” Aly asked, genuinely surprised, but Charlie grabbed her arm because he had ten seconds to figure out what kind of tree had white bark. She turned to laugh at him for wondering aloud if it could be a redwood.
Golden suddenly looked up. Quick! Naia put her head back down and opened her notebook to a random page. It had a bunch of her scribbles and drawings on it, of course. She didn’t even know if she had a notebook with actual notes in it. She flipped to another page, still staring at the table’s blue plastic. She felt green-brown eyes on her.
“Nice drawing.” She’d drawn a large Koi fish in the center of this page. Koi had been featured in a novel Naia had read in English class. She couldn’t remember the book, but she remembered the Koi fish because she had looked it up online and copied it into her notebook. This particular iteration stretched the whole page, its fins extravagantly curly, and all around it she had drawn tiny shingles, like fish scales. Inside each shingle was a different pattern––hatching or tiny dots, or stripes, or sometimes bits of ear or finger, whatever she had been staring at. Across the page on each line she had written as much of the Fibonacci Sequence as she could look up on her phone. Naia had even added shading to make the fish look three-dimensional.
“I mean seriously,” said Golden. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” She reached for Naia’s notebook and pulled it toward her to look at the picture more closely.
“I just doodled it during class.” Naia’s throat squeezed tighter and tighter together and she was sure she was going to pass out.
“It’s kinda scary. That you think all that. In your head, I mean, you just make it up. I like that the best,” she said, pointing to the tail. “How curvy it is.”
“You probably like that part because it’s sinuous,” Naia said. “In a special way, because the numbers, the ones on the background, they’re specific. They’re the Fibonacci Sequence. That’s nature’s rule, like, nature always makes the same patterns, especially in curves. It’s a specific ratio.” Golden was looking at her again, but Naia wasn’t thinking anymore, it was too late. “For example. Like your lips, the way they pout beneath your nose and above your chin, all the dimpling has specific number ratios. And the curve of your shoulders and waist.” She would’ve gone on but Golden pushed the notebook back toward her and, unless Naia was just imagining it, scooted further away from her in her chair. “I mean like anyone’s shoulders. I mean they’re all just ratios.”
“Yeah.” Golden reached down into her backpack and pulled out a yogurt. Strawberry, the label said. Her fingers peeled the plastic cover back and set it aside. One hand held the cup, the other stirred it with a plastic spoon. A drop of the pink stuff landed on her textbook: a spherical blob that shone slightly in the light. She reached down with her index finger and scooped it up, licking her finger before opening her mouth wide to receive the spoon and more yogurt. The contours of her neck moved slightly, bone and tendon shifting under her skin. She seemed to glow as she sat there, seemed to gleam like something illumined from the inside, like something Golden.
“You like strawberry? Strawberry yogurt?” Naia asked.
“It’s just yogurt,” said Golden, and Naia wanted to unzip herself and turn herself inside out and crawl inside.
Then the highlights and hollows shifted again. Golden was looking upwards, smiling at something. “Hey,” she said, and her voice was lower and special. A big, solid shape sat down right next to Naia, its elbow sliding her notebook away from Golden as it settled its weight at the table. The shape. Go away. Go away go away leave us alone.
“Hey Maeve,” it said.
“That’s not her name,” said Naia. Because it wasn’t. Not hers, not Golden’s.
But the shape’s had a loud and deep voice, unquestioning and unquestioned. “You’ve got yogurt in your hair.” And it reached across the table and brushed its fingers across her bright, sharp cheekbone, and ran them through her wavy hair, golden.
“She didn’t even tell me whether she liked it, the yogurt. It was strawberry,” Naia said.
“Yuck,” said mom. She was sitting on the edge of her bed in her pajamas, the girls kneeling below her. She had already brushed Aly’s hair, her fingers scratching her scalp gently as she pulled back sections of wet curls. Aly’s head had a pleasant tingling feeling from her tight braids. They both had their mother’s curly hair. Mom always wore her hair in braids––it’s just easier, she said—but she loved doing the girls’ hair, braids and buns and ponytails. They were way too old for it now. But they always let her braid their hair when she was home.
Aly watched Naia’s profile. Her hair was thicker and coarser than her own; Naia’s head jerked back a little with every brush stroke. Her eyes were closed. She was going on and on about the girl and the yogurt. They usually went over this stuff on the bus, but since those conversations were apparently over, Naia had been building it all up recently, sometimes for days at a time.
“What about you, Aly? How are things going with Charlie?” asked mom.
“What does she have to do with Charlie?” Naia had snapped her head backwards, jerking a half-finished braid out of Mom’s grip.
“I’m just making conversation.”
“How are you acting like they’re similar! I don’t—we’re not even—I don’t know why you’re lumping us together like Aly and Charlie always are.” Naia didn’t faze mom much; Mom just yawned and rubbed at her thighs, letting Naia reposition herself on the carpet. “Anyway, yeah,” Naia said. “Let’s talk about Charlie.” Aly glared at Naia until she looked at her, but Naia’s eyes were earnest, not provoking. She must’ve thought right now was a good time.
“We’re hanging out tomorrow. We’re gonna get food after school.” This was partially true. Charlie’s brother’s house was, incidentally, empty. They were going head straight there. Mom was on night shift—she could probably get away with spending the night there, if she wanted to.
Once Aly had been caught trying to sneak out. She’d been standing frozen in the kitchen, trying not to look suspicious; Mom had leaned on the front door, still partially in shadow, looking utterly terrifying. All of a sudden Naia had run in, trying to cover for her, shouting something completely nonsensical about group projects and food and reverse curfews. Mom had actually laughed at that one. But Mom hadn’t really done much about her nighttime wanderings—like punishing them wasn’t worth the effort—and eventually, it seemed, she’d stopped noticing them much at all.
“Are you sure everything is going totally well?” Naia asked. Aly wanted to drag Naia and her lack of tact out of the room. I’m waiting for a good moment, she had told Naia previously. When, Naia had scoffed, when you have children?
“Nai, let it go,” Mom said. She tied off Naia’s braid and stretched upward, groaning a bit. Aly stared at her bare legs, freckled and blotchy from too much sun, veins starting to become visible on the surface. “But you know that you—both of you—can always talk to me if you need anything.” She leaned forward to rub her calves. She needed new shoes.
Mom rubbed both of her eyes, stretching and pulling at her face as if it were going to make her less tired. “Are you sure?”
“It’s totally fine. Come on, Nai. We’ll let her go to bed.”
“Let me in, Nai! Oh my god will you freaking let me in?” The flimsy wood of their bathroom door had started to vibrate a bit from Aly’s repeated bangs. Naia stood at the sink on tiptoe, nose inches from the mirror. The bathroom light illuminated her shiny forehead and the tiny black specks all over her nose.
She was watching herself closely because yesterday had been an anomaly. The blue table and the talking. She learned that word in English, like the koi fish; it reminded her of “anemone.” A-no-ma-ly. A-ne-mo-ne. Weird sea creatures, a blue table––not her usual place. So she stared at herself to see if something had changed.
The purple swoop beneath her eyes, where her skin had fine, curved lines, reminded her of Mom, and she blurred her focus to try and see what she would look like when she was old. She turned her head this way and that, feeling her jaw, poking at her nose, stretching the skin across her cheekbones, widening her eyes, but that stupid overhead yellow light cast the worst shadows everywhere. There was a raised red bump to the right of the bridge of her nose. She instinctively placed her fingernails on either side of it and squeezed. Not enough. She repositined her nails, which had already made x’s in her skin, and tried again, hard enough to bring tears from her eyes, but she was almost there, the disgusting white part she just had to see it out. There must be enough tension, now, for it to explode, just push a bit harder—
“Nai, I am going to kill you! I swear, if mom were here—” But Naia couldn’t get it. She released her fingers, leaving an inflamed red patch behind, and smacked the door with her palm. “Oh my god! You psycho!” Aly called from outside. Naia didn’t look away from the mirror, the yellow on her skin, then couldn’t stand it anymore, flicked the light off. There. In the shadows she could be who she wanted to be, and it would be alright. She yanked the door open.
“What do you want?” Naia asked. She did not expect Aly to still be there. Naia couldn’t leave the bathroom without getting past her folded arms.
“Um. To get ready?” Aly stepped in front of Naia, trapping her against the shower, and began to do her hair and makeup. Naia watched for a long time, a funny feeling in her belly. Then Aly reached for the eyeliner.
“Oh hell no. Let me do that.” Aly was absolutely terrible at putting eyeliner on. She would make it crooked and bumpy and generally horrible no matter how hard she tried. Naia smiled just thinking about Aly trying to get ready for homecoming ten minutes before she had to leave. She had poked one eye and left it streaming tears––the other had looked raccoon-esque.
“So you’re getting ready for Charlie?” Naia asked.
“Oh, you know. I like to put a bit of makeup on before I see him. Even though we don’t do date-y stuff, it’s still a date.”
“Close your eyes. Stop moving!” Naia stretched out one of Aly’s eyelids to get the liner right up against her lashes. “There.” She did look nice. Her hair was finer and more reasonable than Naia’s. And her eyebrows were thinner.
“Nai?” Aly made eye contact with her sister in the mirror. “So about Charlie. There are some things… well, I wanted to talk to you about it.”
“You know, Nai, like what we did. You know.”
“Fuck’s sake, what even is ‘it?’ I don’t even know what you’re trying to say!” Why wouldn’t Aly just own up to it? Making it this weird secret from Naia that she couldn’t understand made her feel even worse. Not like she had the experience to give advice, anyway––a thought which tightened her chest a bit.
“You know!” Aly said. The word she needed was short and gross and Aly did not want it to hang in the air between them.
“Seriously, Aly? He just sticks it inside—” Naia recoiled at the thought, the shape. Looming.
“No! Naia! I already know how to do it!”
“What do you want, then?” Naia asked. Inside, everything was starting to shake but she was looking at Aly’s reflection calmly, the girl with makeup on.
“Does it hurt? You?” And Aly turned around to face Naia and for a moment Naia saw a big shape pull Aly away from her, reach around her shoulders to brush Aly’s cheekbone, run his fingers through her hair. And Aly was laughing.
“You’re you asking me this stuff? Oh my god.”
“I can’t do this, Aly. Not now.”
“So it does hurt?”
“Do you even know which hole it goes in?” Naia pushed past Aly without looking and slammed the bedroom door. She threw herself onto her bed, dark and safe, but the cicadas screamed at her through the window. She stuffed blankets and pillows around her head until she could barely breathe, holding them tightly over her ears, and waited to stop seeing the big horrible shape take Aly away from her. Everyone away from her.
Charlie rested his hand on Aly’s lower back to guide her out of the house, and her stomach squeezed a little. She had tried to talk to Naia but she had locked the door, and she hated not getting in a last word in fights like that. It felt like part of herself was stuck there, in the bathroom, until their spat was resolved. Charlie dropped his hand to unlock the car, brushing the back pockets of her jeans. Aly moved closer to him, wanting to feel his whole body instead of that disembodied hand, but he had already stepped forward, opening the door for her ostentatiously. The old car’s AC was useless and they had made the ten minute drive with all the windows open, Aly’s hair whipping out behind her, tangling with her necklaces. The air was still thick with moisture; when they arrived, her thighs stuck to the seat with sweat, and she wiped them quickly as Charlie retrieved the spare key for the back door.
His brother’s house only technically had air conditioning. Every time she came back to the house there seemed to be more floor fans, perched on cardboard boxes and stacks of magazines and couch arms and anywhere else near an outlet. They whirred together with the cicadas. She felt like she was speaking louder than usual.
“D isn’t here? I thought I was going to see him before he left,” Aly said. Charlie’s brother was twenty four and had a full time job and was able to drive to the beach on the weekends. Not everyone they knew got a job right out of high school like that—it was because D had learned a bit of programming and IT instead of going to class. The way Charlie talked about it, D had taught himself college and then talked his way into graduating from high school.
“Nah. Want a beer?” Charlie pulled two out of the fridge—bottles, not cans, for the girl—and they flopped onto the couch together. He moved so she could lean against him and her stomach fluttered.
Charlie was different. Charlie was a little slower. Gentler, too, and Aly liked that. They had first met in English class and he had said she was an annoying know-it-all. But I realized that you’re just smart, like my brother, he had later said. Can’t cross my woman, he would say.
She wanted to grab him and look him in the eyes, he had nice eyes, but her stomach knotted even tighter, fixing her arms to her sides. What was wrong with her? It was a perfectly normal day. They were listening to Charlie’s friends’ “mixtape.” It was called From N0thin to S0methin and apparently they were going to make it big. Aly and Charlie liked to laugh about it a lot. But really, they weren’t that bad.
“We better get some of their profit,” said Aly.
“Always. We’ve been supporting them from day one. If I were rich,” he said, “I would buy a nice ass apartment downtown, and some nice suits, so I would walk around importantly and people would think that I was always going to meetings and shit. Only really I wouldn’t do shit.” He took another drink. “I’d be making money by having money, you know. Investments.”
“I think I would buy a nicer hair straightener.”
“That’s it? That’s not even a real thing! Come on, that’s all you could think of?”
“What? It was on my mind. I need a new one.” A few months ago Naia had actually burned off a chunk of her own hair by mistake. She and Aly had laughed about it for a good hour. Every time one of them noticed the singed leftovers again they would fall into hysterics.
“I’ll buy you a new straightener right now, for Chrissakes. You gotta think big.”
“Buy me a new straightener? With what, your ‘investments?’”
Charlie finished his beer. “Maybe I will.”
Aly watched him get up from the couch and navigate the floor fans to get another, and looking at him felt comfortable and terrifying at the same time.
It was 1:43 a.m. in Naia and Aly’s room. Naia awoke to realize she had fallen asleep. The dark, and the sudden nap, was disorienting; everything she could remember felt fuzzy and distant, as if she had slept for days. Something in her stirred. She got up and went to the fridge, feeling like she had to take advantage of this aloneness, the specialness of the silence and dark. Mom hadn’t had time; still no groceries. The promising blue-white light revealed only milk and cheese and eggs and bread, and those old jars of salsa and mustard and jam that sat in the abandoned corners of all fridges. The only thing worth stealing was some orange juice. She took the carton back to their room and sucked on it greedily, burning her throat, not bothering to sit down, drinking until she finished it, feeling as if she had expanded, swelled up with the acrid orangey taste. She lay back down and closed her eyes.
A movie and five more beers had come and gone. Aly went to the bathroom to touch herself, before, so that she might be wet this time. That must’ve been what she was missing, how she could make it easier. The wetness would make it easier. Dried mascara had flaked onto her cheeks and she brushed it off before remembering the state of her fingers. She ran them under the water, sensing Charlie waiting for her.
Golden waited in the darkness behind Naia’s eyelids. She stood at the mirror again. Naia was so close that Golden’s breath rustled the baby hairs at the base of her skull.
Charlie was heavy and warm. Aly liked how his skin felt, emanating heat, but his hands wouldn’t stop moving up and down and around, unbuttoning and pulling. She wished he would stop for a second so she could catch her breath. Slow down. Everything was happening and she didn’t feel ready—but she needed it to work, she wanted to have it like it was supposed to be. She could feel the bumps of the bedsprings beneath the thin mattress digging into her back as he positioned himself above her, his eyes like slits. She grabbed his waist, determined that it would be better this time, concentrating with everything she had. Concentrating so hard that she couldn’t un-feel the hard bedsprings on un-hear Naia’s words.
Golden’s smell was pulling her in. Naia let the pads of her fingers run lightly across her bony shoulders, up her neck to graze the baby hairs and then back down, down her golden back, the sharpness of her spine, the impression of ribs.
Aly gasped, she couldn’t help it, and she couldn’t really see Charlie’s eyes. There was something in his face—he wasn’t seeing her—and she kept gasping as her head gently bumped the headboard over and over and all she could feel was her back sliding up and down the bedsprings, and he didn’t understand
and she pushed deeper into the darkness, aching to get closer, and then—it must’ve been the time of night, the aloneness, the orange juice—she toppled forward into the dark and fell into her. And now: Golden’s skin her skin, Golden’s eyes her eyes. When they lifted their neck and arm, the shadowy hollows of their collarbone shifted too. They moved their left hand to rest in a hollow, fingers cold on golden self. They looked down and they were there, the legs, the legs. And beneath their pants they were still there, just as Naia had imagined they would be, real, golden. And Naia looked in the mirror and saw the self reflected there: perfect. And Naia caressed herself, the golden, the perfection, and she feathered her fingers across lines and shapes and valleys and hollows, leaving goosebumps in their wake
because Aly’s gasps of pain sounded like another kind. She gripped his back. The warmth was suffocating, now, and she couldn’t catch her breath, but she had to hold on, had to do it, to prove it to herself. When he was done he was panting in satisfaction and she couldn’t breathe, fighting her way past his heavy body towards air
but Golden was slipping now, slipping away, something big and heavy pulling her away from Naia, separating them, and Naia watched Golden fade into the darkness. When she opened her eyes and looked down there were her own legs again
and everything was all over.
In the shower, back at home, Aly scrubbed herself until her skin prickled. She washed her hair twice. It dripped down her back, leaving tiny puddles behind her as she walked back down the hall, wincing a little with every step. She paused outside Mom’s room, but the space underneath the door was dark and only beneath the covers could she slow down, take a full breath. She wanted to look at her nakedness, to see if everything were alright, but how would she know, anyway? She didn’t know anything.
And its pinkness bothered her, how fragile and funny it looked, like a rare sea-creature, a fish-underbelly, something not to be seen, something that belonged in the darkness. So, despite the heat, she took a blanket from the foot of her bed and laid it on top of her quilt, across her pelvis, and added a pillow for good measure, pushing it down, smothering it. When she closed her eyes all she could hear were the cicadas’ screeches.
The cicadas’ song went like this: a few minutes of vibrating screams and then a rest, a pause that was sometimes long enough that her mind would soften and her eyes would close—and then they’d start right back up again and she’d be jolted into her thoughts of that ocean-deep wrongness. Not-working.
Their screams rattled around inside of Naia, too, not just in her head but everywhere, because she was empty, no Golden, just disgusting nothing. And when the cicadas went silent she felt that emptiness so acutely; she was shriveling up from not being enough.
“Nai? Are you awake?”
The cicadas resumed their screeches. Both girls lay on their backs, staring upward past the ceiling.
she, her, hers
College of Arts & Sciences
Class of 2019 English, Area Program in Literary Prose
I love writing about teenagers because everything that happens to them is so important and dramatic and emotionally felt. And any kind of relationship sisters have, which is always already so complicated, gets really tested during teenage years. I have two sisters and I was always trying to figure out if I wanted to rely on them and my mom to help me interpret the world, or if I only wanted to rely on myself. That’s probably where the inspiration for this story came from. Well, that and my very distinct memory of my high school’s bathrooms. So much always went down in the bathrooms.