A Stellar Flare of Young Adult Writing and Visual Art
by Shannon Sommers
Paige’s heart beats under the Hamptons sky like trembling hands against a wooden table. She remembers this feeling during the year, when something makes her chest seize up and she digs her nails into her palms. She thinks about how the sun wraps around her, enthralls her, warm over her ribcage like the unspooling of molasses. She tells herself that this is the only reason she stays best friends with Marley: for the summers, going out east from the city in the first week of August.
Paige remembers them there when they were little, how they giggled the entire way out, the trip feeling infinitely shorter than it was, like time was not consistent but slowed down when they wanted it to. They first started taking the yearly trips in the second grade. They sat poolside and talked in between splashes about life at home, everything seeming more transparent from a distance. If Marley hated someone, she spilled gossip over the smell of chlorine, and Paige swore that she felt the same way. The two of them were linked together, in summer and in feeling, swimming on years of history with the promise of more to come.
This year, the Long Island heat is newly sticky and the sunshine glints off the black rims of their Ray Bans. They pile in the back of Marley’s father’s car and stick their heads out the windows, the highway wind blowing their hair behind them until it is strewn over their faces.
Marley’s father drives the whole way. In the past, he put the radio on, old songs that the girls never knew but sung to anyway, shouting the lyrics a beat behind. As they got closer, the reception used to get worse, marking their distance from the city, where everything was clear. As the static slowly overtook the music, they strained to hear even the highest note, celebrating when they could make out a single chord, but this summer, the radio never gets turned on.
Marley plugs in her headphones but sets the music so loud that Paige can still hear it. It reminds Paige of the boys on the bus that blast their music from speakers, the ones she glares at. But Marley is too sickly sweet when Paige gets upset with her, makes her feel bad for hurting someone that dainty, that small, and so Paige tries to listen to her own breathing, already used to the sound.
Paige tries to reassure herself that she was right in coming; she feels free, small outside in all of the space. She unlocks her phone, scrolling down her contact list to try and pass the time, desperate, until she accepts that by now she’d already have texted Marley, more out of habit than desire. She looks out the window, thinking about how she’d see herself from the perspective of a stranger, and sighs when she fails to convince herself that she wouldn’t be seen as Marley’s best friend, that this is not her identity. She is Marley’s territory. Other friends will always be stealing her away.
When Paige looks up, she sees Marley smirking at her, knowingly, as Paige shuts down her phone without sending a single text.
“Are you going in the pool when we get there?” Paige asks Marley, trying to decide if she is going in herself. Marley unplugs one headphone and then, almost surprised by her own dedication, the other. She wraps the white cord around her fingers.
“Of course not,” she says slowly, like Paige is simple. “We’re in high school now, my love. You should be past things like that. No one goes to the Hamptons to swim.” The way she says ‘my love’ makes Paige roll her eyes, as though she’s several years older, as if they hadn’t gone through their milestones holding each other’s hands.
“Then what are your plans?” Paige asks, her chin in her hands and eyes open as wide as they’ll go, eyebrows arching. “I’m listening.”
“Well, I don’t know about you,” Marley laughs, “but I’m losing my virginity.”
She laughs again when Paige’s eyes bulge. Paige is most startled that Marley says it like this, unflinchingly, as if this plan is comparable to sampling other things while away, like a new food or method of backstroke. Her parents don’t respond, and she doesn’t know if it’s because they’re so engrossed in their almost audible conversation, or if they’re just as unsurprised as Paige should be. Of course Marley wants to lose her virginity. It’s the only thing she hasn’t done.
“Funny,” Paige whispers, mostly so Marley’s parents don’t hear, but they’re too busy in their own conversation to care. Her jaw tightens.
“Not joking,” she whispers back. “I’m doing it.”
“With whom?” Paige asks once the shock subdues, and laughs, too, so Marley doesn’t think she has control.
“I dunno,” she says flippantly. “There are plenty of boys out East. I’m sure I’ll find somebody.”
“You don’t want to go this far,” Paige says. “For God’s sake, Lee. You’re sixteen.”
“So? It doesn’t matter.” she scoffs. “I’m not the same seven-year-old girl that I was when we were little and first used to go out here. Stop treating me like it.”
“Okay,” Paige says, shutting her eyes lightly.
“What’s that face for?” she asks.
“No face,” Paige says, and Marley rolls her eyes. “You can do what you want. It’s your reputation.”
“What?” Marley pauses, waiting. Her exhale is sharp enough that it almost resembles a pant. Her eyebrows flatten and her shoulders stiffen as she straightens and bends closer to Paige.
“I said it’s nothing. Don’t worry about it. What would I know, anyway?”
“Oh my God. You always do this,” she says, slamming the back of her head into the seat. It’s the first time Paige has seen her lose composure in so long that the unpredictability is compelling in a way that keeping her cool isn’t. “Won’t you grow up already? Why the hell would anything happen to my reputation?”
“Jesus, I’m just trying to protect you. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Yes you did. Don’t lie.”
“I am, Paige. I can do that on my own.” She steadies herself for a moment. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing’s real out here, okay? Don’t you get that? I don’t know anybody, and you certainly don’t either. Everything disappears once we get home, and I’m making the most of it. Is that alright with you?”
“My God, Marley. I said it’s your choice.”
“Good. Fine. You’ll go swimming, and I’ll have sex. And then what? What’s gonna happen, Paige? We both won’t tell anybody any stories, because we never do, but the only difference is that I’ll actually have them.”
“You think it’s that easy?” Paige asks, trying to imitate her energy. “What if I told someone? You’d trust me like that?”
Marley smiles and takes a steady breath, and as soon as she looks up, it reaffirms who’s in charge.
“You’d tell? Who’d think I’d do it like this?” she asks like a dare, and leans in closer still. “Go ahead. Nobody will believe you. You lose me, and you’ll lose everyone.”
When they finally get to the house, it reminds Paige why she loves its hugeness so passionately; it dilutes the toxic in the air until it is no heavier than oxygen, floating and warm. Paige unpacks her stuff in the guest room. It smells like Marley’s vanilla perfume and mingles with the lavender curtains, its plastic package folded in squares on the desk.
She puts some more things on the table: three books, an antique perfume, a makeup set. She lies on the bed and stares at the fan spinning over her. She opens up the mini-fridge in the corner, the cool of it strong against her bare legs. It’s completely empty inside. She thinks that, if she contorts her body right, she can hide away in it. She can pretend like she doesn’t think she’ll be a virgin forever. She can act like she never knew Marley, what Marley wanted, that Marley would make her return home both completely shattered and overly intact, just like she always did.
Paige paces and she swears that the walls contract, the door closer to her bed than it ever has been before, so she walks through it, out until she reaches the patio.
“Paige!” Marley calls. Paige finds Marley with her hand resting on a teenage boy’s lap: a boy who looks just slightly older than them, with one lanky arm resting uneasily over Marley’s thin shoulder. “This is Sam. He lives next door.” Sam takes three short, nervous breaths, balancing a cigarette between his lips, unlit but burnt at the edges, like it has forgotten to darken all the way. “Want to hang out with us?”
“I don’t know. I’m a little tired.”
“What, do you have someone better to hang out with?”
“Forgive her, Sam,” Marley continues. “We’ve been friends for so long that we never really let strangers in. She’s not good with new people. Don’t take it personally.”
Sam rests his hand on the side of her neck, his tan skin under a thin layer of sweat, the beads like glimmer, like gold. He takes one more drag and unclenches, nicotine smudges stamped into every corner of the summer sky.
That night, the smell of Marley’s perfume still lingers in the guest room. Paige showers, suds bubbling over until they sting her nose senseless. She wipes the soap off her hand onto the transparent glass panels, thinking about how strange the lack of curtain is, how much is displayed: her chest, her body, her vulnerability. She takes her shower so late that, when she sits on the toilet seat, breathing in the scalding air of the room and letting the heat seep into her skin, she is sure that the air is hers alone.
Just past midnight, she curls into the guest bed, attempting to forget what the world outside of the guest room looks like. With her back against the lilac sheets, she counts her breaths. She goes for that foggy state between the gasp and clench, how she can see the black spots across her eyelids, so distant from herself. She tries to remember a life before Marley, thinking that it might be easier without full consciousness, but there are no memories and no words. She counts up in her head until the number of breaths turns to hours, always sleepy but never tired.
She sneaks out to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea. She is light. The steam billows up her cheekbones, the porcelain gentle warmth against her hands. She opens up the kitchen door and walks through to the porch, shutting it gently behind her. She rests on a rocking chair and runs over the smooth engravings in its arm with her thumb.
“Are you coming?” she hears. She looks up and sees Sam hiding behind a shrub a few yards down. Her nightgown is soft in the wind, the rosemary lace blown back by the nighttime wind. She’s so much smaller than he is, just standing there, her face only reaching his chest. “Don’t chicken out, will you? Wimps annoy me.”
He starts running outwards, farther from the house, and Paige runs after him, moss wet underneath her feet. He picks up, faster now, but she’s out of breath, the chill of the night air soft in her lungs. Standing on top of a hill in the middle of the grass, his arms are at his side, chest out, his body a silhouette.
“Are you coming?” he asks, Paige at the foot of the hill. “It’ll be sunrise by the time you get up here. Marley?”
She stops. Though she can’t see far in front of her, everything is clear as she stands. She laughs slightly at how easy it was for him to mistake her for Marley, how she could have done it herself. He still can’t see her under the fog and moonlight, and she wants to run back the same way she came, but doesn’t. Instead, she smiles and picks up once again.
“I’m here,” she says, sitting on the grass. She doesn’t look at him, only up at the stars, the moon brilliant yet small in the sky.
“Are you ready?” he asks.
“Mmm,” she says, only cloaked by the sheer lace of her nightgown. He touches her shoulders and she pulls away slightly. Her arms tingle, and he watches her sitting there, unsure if she is sensitive or just cold.
“Are you ready?” he asks. Paige wonders when he’ll look at her face.
“Sure,” she says, not because she’s prepared but because she doesn’t care. Because she’s already empty. Because she doesn’t think there’s anything else he can take.
As he goes to loosen her nightgown’s straps, Paige hears a faint hum in the distance. She stiffens; it continues, legato, more like a croon than a cry. Sam sighs and takes a cigarette out from his back pocket.
“Go, check on whatever you’re worried about,” he says, taking a drag. “I have a whole pack of these to wait with. I mean it. You can’t focus on something else the entire time. It won’t work.”
When Paige reaches the bottom of the hill again, the humming has stopped. She thinks that maybe it was never real, that it was a manifestation of her fears, a guilty conscience, but as she walks closer to the house, it begins again.
Marley sits on the porch and smacks a piece of bubblegum against the roof of her mouth. The red on her lips is fresh, so bright it looks as though she filled them in with a crayon, like the color is wax melting.
“I knew you couldn’t do it,” she says, beaming. “You’d never be able to hurt me like that.”
“Oh my God. That was you?” Paige asks, and then stops herself. “Of course that was you.”
“I love you, Paigey. You’re so good. You always come back.”
“What was with the humming?”
“It was our song. Listen.” She sits there, her legs crossed and shoulders back, humming the chorus to “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly. “Remember it? How we sang it in the forest, when we wanted to cross the lake? How I told you that you could go first because I loved you and you sang it and fell? How you nearly drowned? How I saved you?”
“You wanted to see me fall,” Paige says. “You’re sick.”
She thinks back to the car ride, how nonchalantly Marley had said that she wanted to lose her virginity, how Paige should have known that this was uncharacteristic of her, that she should have wanted grandeur. She glances at Marley, and realizes that they do not look alike at all, at least on the outside. She understands Marley better now, that this whole trip was a test, that their entire friendship was a series of tests, Marley seeing how much she could put Paige through before she broke.
Paige looks back at the top of the hill. She looks for Sam, the stitch of his tall frame against the night, but only sees a few cigarettes scattered in the grass, an almost faded moon still illuminating the highest empty space.
“No. I’m not letting this happen. You don’t get to see me fall again,” Paige says finally. “You lost me. I’m leaving.”
“No you’re not. We’ve been friends for too long. You won’t leave.”
“Yeah?” Marley says, and Paige notices the tiniest quiver in her voice. “How would that work? How are you getting home?”
Marley’s breath quickens, and for a moment, Paige feels a sting, but she stands still until it fades.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“You’ll see me in school. Everyone will know. You’ll be by yourself. We both know you can’t handle that.”
Paige chuckles under her breath.
“I can figure it out alone.”
When Marley wakes up the next morning, she’ll spoon through a bowl of cereal, tracing X’s into the bottom surface, wondering how she could have let herself fall asleep. When her mother will ask her where Paige went, she’ll try to come up with an answer but will stay silent, like forgotten lyrics to a song she had always known. Deep down, she’ll think Paige was crazy for not loving her, for not riding her disaster until the end. She’ll go to her room to get ready, but will stop before putting on the perfume.
It’s almost dawn and Paige watches the sunrise filter in from the glass etching of the subway station canopy, the tangerine light pouring in onto the vacant tracks. Something smells like vanilla. Stronger, though, is the smell of rusted metal, the fire of the engine as a car comes into the station. I’ve gone rotten, she thinks. She’s wearing Marley’s nightgown underneath her clothes, running her fingers over the lace trim. Paige checks her phone once more, her wallpaper still a picture of her with Marley. Looking at it burns, but it is still warm, and the familiar hurt is a sort of comfort. Paige knows she should change it, but doesn’t know when she will. Paige thinks of the empty pool, and how it no longer matters, but wonders if it shakes in the sunlight now, like the wax and wane of the moon.
Shannon Sommers is a high school junior from New York City. She is an editor at Parallel Ink, senior editorial intern at The Prospect, editorial intern at The Blueshift Journal, business development associate at The Adroit Journal, and guest edited the fall issue of Five [Quarterly]. She is also the editor and founder of her school newspaper, The Current, the captain of the competitive policy debate team, and a yearbook writing staff member. She was a prose mentee with The Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program under Oriana Tang, and has taken classes with the Gotham Writers Workshop. Her work has been recognized by The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and appears or is forthcoming in Teen Ink, Inside of Me Anthology: American High School Poets, New Voices Young Writers 2015, and Eloquence: The America Library of Poetry.
An excerpt and announcement of this story’s place in the contest was also published here, on Hypertext Mag, the site that hosts this contest and sister site of Hypernova Lit.