As Bad As It Gets


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i. Bleach

I was the only person Felix trusted to dye his hair, which was strange, since I was downright awful at it. Ever since middle school, when he started bleaching his dark locks into submission, I was the sole person in charge of his head. It was an intense responsibility, especially for someone who couldn’t even cut her own bangs without needing her therapist on speed-dial. Still, though, it was one of those silly little things that brought us together.

No matter how bad I messed up, he never seemed upset.

So, eventually it became easy to agree when he called me up late at night and asked whether I was up for a trip to the local drug store to pick up some bleach.

It was half past midnight when I finally finished setting up everything I needed on Felix’s old desk, scarred in places by both coffee rings and small splatters of bleach from past dye jobs. He sat in front of the small handheld mirror we left on the desktop, squinting into the reflection as I emptied a bottle of bleach on his dark roots. Carefully, I began to massage it through his hair with my thick rubber gloves, acutely aware of every time I accidentally pulled a hair and he squirmed in discomfort. Music played from his old CD player by the window as the intense scent of bleach filled the room. Before long, I had to step out of the light of the single desk lamp, plodding quietly across the cool hardwood floor to open the window and let the fumes out.

Kicking Felix’s stray shoes under the bed as I headed back to the dresser, I squinted at the display on the stereo.

“Who’s this song by?” I asked as I reached him and struggled to get one of my gloves back on without bleaching my skin.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Griffin gave this mix to me.”

“Since when do you listen to Griffin’s mixes?” I asked, attempting to smooth his bleached hair up into a mohawk without him noticing.

“I’m bored of all my CDs,” he admitted, leaning back in his desk chair and bumping into me. I shoved him so the chair rocked back onto all four wheels, and he pouted.

“Maybe we should go to the city and get some new stuff, then,” I suggested, letting go of his hair and admiring the small horn I’d sculpting on top of his head. His face scrunched up as he peered in the mirror, acknowledging the new hair style with a simple nod of appreciation. After checking to make sure I hadn’t missed any spots, I glanced down at the dark face of my watch and pursed my lips as I checked the time. Just when I was about to direct him on how long to wait before washing the bleach out, the peaceful quiet was shattered by the sound of someone leaning on their car’s horn outside.

“Oh my god,” I muttered, peeling my gloves off as quickly as possible and tossing them into the small waste basket next to the desk. “Go get in the shower. And if Kathleen comes in, tell her I’m handling it.”

Noah nodded and headed toward the bathroom down the hall as I hurried to the window and spotted the pickup truck idling by the curb in front of the house. Before I could say anything, the driver’s window creakily rolled down, and a young woman poked her head out, grinning in the moonlight as she called, “Hey, you!”

“Hey yourself!” I said in an exaggerated stage whisper, leaning through the open window. “You’re gonna wake the entire neighborhood!”

“Good! Then they could have some fun with us,” Cora replied, grinning.

I scowled, searching for a response. Before I could find my words, the back window of the truck rolled down with a squeal that made me wince.

“The party bus is here. Let’s blow this place,” Griffin shouted.

“Can’t we blow this place more quietly?” I hissed.

“The party doesn’t have a curfew, Sage-y,” he replied.

Cora revved her old, beat-up truck. “Get your cute butts down here! We’re going on a road trip.”

“I don’t even have a tooth brush with me!” I snapped. “Come back in the morning!”

A voice from within the truck shouted, “We already stopped by your house! Your mom says to be safe and remember to use your ointment at least 2 times a day, more if the rash persists.”

My face burned. “You don’t even know what I needed!”

“Don’t worry, we packed you plenty of tampons,” Griffin sang.

“We have enough protection to clog an elephant. Let’s go! Where’s Flea?” Cora called.

“I’ll get him. We’ll be out in a minute. Just… be quiet, would ya?” I grumbled. Before my friends could wake any more of the neighborhood, I tugged the window closed and hurried to Felix’s closet to grab his only duffle bag. Quickly, I found a couple changes of clothes, some pajamas, and his laptop with a charger and headphones, cramming them all into the bag. With the duffle over my shoulder, I quietly left the room and nearly ran into him and his mother in the hall, hovering near the nightlight. Noah eyed me, a towel slung around his shoulders and a toothbrush hanging out of the corner of his mouth, as his mother peered at me in the darkness.

“Hey, Kath. Sorry about the noise,” I said quickly. “I’ll get them out of your hair quick.”

Mrs. Hirano sighed, trying not to smile. “You kids kill me. When I’m all shriveled and wrinkled at 50, I’ll be sending you the Botox bill.”

“Kath, please,” I said in exasperation. “You’re too stunning for wrinkles.”

Mrs. Hirano chuckled. “How am I supposed to stay mad at you, Sage?”

I grinned.

“So, what’s the commotion about out there?” she asked.

“I’m sure Felix has already told you about the little trip we’re taking this weekend,” I explained, nodding toward Felix. He stared dumbly at me as I continued. “Nothing too crazy. Just a quick little road trip up the coast to check out some beaches. We’ll be back by Monday morning.”

Mrs. Hirano tired eyes flicked between Felix and me, before finally settling on her son as she slowly said, “He must’ve forgotten to mention it.”

I rolled my eyes. “That’s just like him, huh?”

Felix glared at me.

“Well, I’m not excited about you getting such a late start,” she admitted. “And I’m not happy that I’m only hearing about this now.” She shot a sharp look at Felix, who sulked quietly. “But, I guess you all are adults now. As long as it’s only a couple days and you all promise to be safe, it should be fine.”

“Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll keep an eye on everyone and make sure Felix calls you every morning to keep you updated,” I said.

She sighed. “You kids…”

“Thanks for always being so understanding,” I said, smiling.

After a few seconds of consideration, she relented, pulling Felix and I in for a big hug, and then placing a quick kiss on both of our heads. “Be safe, you two. Call if you need anything.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I agreed. With a tired yawn, Mrs. Hirano turned and retreated back down the hall toward the master bedroom, and Felix looked toward me with an icy stare. I pulled the duffle off my shoulder and shoved it into his arms, the pulled the toothbrush out of his mouth. “Don’t give me that look. She said she could go, didn’t she?”

His expression didn’t change.

“Hurry up and finish. I wanna get going before those idiots down there get the police called on them,” I continued, nodding toward the front of the house, where our friends waiting. With only a bit more encouragement, Felix rinsed his toothbrush and added it into the outer pocket of his duffle as he left the bathroom. After stopping at the laundry room to discard his damp towel, we headed toward the front door.

“So, do we have a plan?” he asked, running slim fingers through his newly dyed hair.

I shook my head. “Definitely not. Let’s go.”

Together, we quietly slipped out the front door, careful not to disturb Felix’s family any further. I savored the silence of the warm summer night as we crossed the lawn toward our friend’s idling pickup, knowing well that it would be the last moment of peace we’d get for the next few days.

As we approached, the back window rolled down and a mop of dark hair popped out, barely concealing a smirk. “I don’t even wanna go anymore. I’m a changed man. Time has passed, and with age, I’ve realized that there’s more to life than road trips,” Griffin explained.

“There’s more to life than being a smart-ass, too, but that doesn’t stop you,” I grumbled, throwing the cab door open and tossing my purse in. Griffin let out a surprised oof as he caught it.

“Let’s go. Get in the front,” I said simply.

“No way. He’s banished back there,” Cora called from the driver’s seat. “I need my navigator, though, Sage-y. Let the boys sit in the back.”

“But it’s cramped,” Griffin whined as Felix shouldered his way into the truck.

“You’ll be fine,” I said, swinging the door shut and rounding the car toward the passenger’s seat. As I climbed in, Cora leaned across the center console and wrapped me in a warm hug, the same way she’d been greeting me for years.

As soon as she pulled away, she revved the engine and yelled at the top of her lungs, “Are ya’ll ready for an adventure?”

“Hell yeah! Let’s get this party started!” Griffin replied with equal enthusiasm. Before I could stop him, he lunged forward and hit the stereo button, turning on music that shook the car and filled the entire neighborhood.

“Oh my god,” I said, scrambling to turn it down.

“Nobody stops the party!” he hollered, battling for dominance over the volume dial.

“Damn straight!” Cora hooted.

With that, she aggressively shifted the truck into reverse and backed up about 20 feet in second, eliciting surprised cries from the cab of the truck. The protests went unabated as she shifted back into drive and whipped around in a wild U-turn that sent the truck bumping roughly over the curb on the opposite side of the road. Before any neighbors could reach their windows to check on the chaos, Cora hit the gas, and we were sent speeding off down the street, hurrying toward the thoroughfare that would take us to the freeway.

I held the door handle tight and pretended to hate the loud music.


I was the first one awake, as usual—of course, with the exception of Cass, who was driving. The sun was high in the sky when I opened my eyes, streaming in through the windshield and falling over my face as the pickup flew down a narrow stretch of highway. With the window rolled down, I was immediately greeted by the salty sea breeze, carrying over the short stretch of land that separated us from the shore. On the driver’s side, just past Cass and a hill of sandy reeds was the ocean, sprawling out for miles until it collided with the horizon. I squinted in the early morning light.

“What time is it?” I asked, sitting up properly and rubbing the sleep from my eyes. A blanket that I didn’t remember grabbing crumbled onto my lap as I sat up, warming my legs as the wind streamed in through the window.

“Eight, maybe?” Cass replied after a bit of consideration. Behind his sunglasses, his eyes flicked toward me, and he chuckled. “Lookin’ good, Cheng.”

I attempted to smooth down my surely horrendous hair, knowing well that nothing but a hairbrush could help it after a night’s sleep in the passenger seat of a pickup truck. As I rummaged through my purse for a brush, Cass turned down the music he’d been playing so he could hear me better.

“I saw a sign not too far back for a diner that should be coming up. Should we wake the crew and see if we can drag ‘em to some breakfast?” he asked.

I chuckled as I fished a brush out of the bag and began to attack my long, knotted hair. “Dude, you’re the best. How do you always have a plan?”

He grinned. “Cassidy Patel, 20-year-old genius, at your service.”

I rolled my eyes, tugging at my hair.

“So, should we go?”

“And expose people to the way I’m looking right now?” I countered, glancing at him. I let go of the brush for effect and it stuck in the snarls of my hair, suspended halfway down the dark locks. Cass’s eyes flicked toward me as he tried not to laugh. “Yeah, we probably should.”

After a few minutes of aggressively yanking the knots out of my hair, I finally tucked the brush back into my bag and got to work. With a long yawn, I turned in my seat and found Felix, hood drawn low over his head as it lulled against the window. I reached out and touched his knee, shaking it in an attempt to wake him up gently, despite knowing that he was far too heavy of a sleeper for that nonsense to work. Seeing my struggle in the rearview mirror, Cass smirked and suddenly swerved the truck sharply to the right, and then back to the left again. The movement made Felix’s head rock away from the window for a moment before slamming back into when Cass righted the wheel. A stream of profanity escaped Felix’s mouth as he roughly kicked the back of Cass’s seat, earning a fit of laughter.

I tried not to laugh as Felix blearily rubbed the sleep from his eyes, a scowl creasing his pale face.

Glancing at the two empty seats beside him, I thoughtlessly asked, “Hey, where are Griff and Cora?”

“They decided to hitchhike instead,” Felix muttered.

I glared at him.

“They’re in the back. Cora set up an air mattress so they could sleep there.”

Sure enough, when I climbed over my seat into the back and peered through the back window, there were Griffin and Cora, snuggled on an air mattress under a pile of blankets in the bed of the truck. Griffin had the drawstrings of his sweatshirt pulled tight to only reveal a small fraction of his sleeping face, while Cora had buried her own face in the crook of his arm. The blankets were pulled up to their chins, blocking out the cool morning air that streamed over the truck as we drove.

Before either of the other boys could cook up a plan for some horrible way to wake them, I slid the back window open and peered out.

“Hey, Griff. Wake up.”

Griffin raised his free hand that wasn’t under Cora to massage his eyes, then squinted at me. “Damn, girl, what time is it?”

“I don’t know. Eight?” I replied.

Hell no,” he muttered, rolling away from me to snuggle into Cora.

“Come on, get up. We’re stopping for breakfast soon,” I explained.

“I haven’t eaten breakfast since middle school. Think I’m starting now?” he mumbled, his voice slightly muffled by Cora’s hair.

“Griff,” I whined. “You know Cora’s gonna want to eat. Want us to leave you here?”

“Wow, your first good idea.”

I took a deep breath, then yelled as loudly as I could, “Cora! Wake up! Time for breakfast!”

Cora stirred slightly, and Griffin moaned, rolling over onto his back again. “Okay, okay, I’m getting up. Jesus.”

Relieved, I retreated back into the truck and climbed back into the passenger’s seat, reported to Cass that everyone was getting ready. As we approached our next stop, I fished a tube of mascara and some lip balm out of my purse—the only makeup I kept on me at all times—and began to touch myself up in the mirror. I could hope that my friends had thought to pack my makeup bag in whatever things they’d thrown in the back of the truck, but for now, it seemed simpler to work with what was readily available. By the time I’d tied by long hair back with a hair tie found in the glove box and applied the little makeup I had, we were already slowing down as a small roadside diner came into view.

Again, I straddled my seat as I headed to the back of the truck to see the bed. When I opened the window, I found Cora still lying under the pile of blankets as Griffin straddled her torso and leaned in toward her face. As carefully as he could with the bumpiness of the highway, he gently did her makeup for her, eliciting fits of laughter every time he got mascara on her eyelid. I’d been squinting into the sun all morning, but looking at the brightness of Cora’s smile was even harder; she outshined everything this morning just with the way she looked at Griffin. Thinking better of myself, I turned and headed back to my seat, leaving them on their own as we bumped off of the highway and pulled into a small gravel parking lot.

“I’ll have to remember to ask Griff what it’s like to be that whipped,” Felix said as the truck slowly pulled around the building and came to a stop in one of the faded parking spaces.

“Pretty nice, I assume,” I replied, throwing my sweater back at his head. “But don’t worry, you’ll get there someday, too.”

He crumbled my sweater and threw it back at me. “I can’t wait.

Cass twisted the keys and turned off the truck, slamming the door as he climbed out into the warm morning. Felix and I followed suit, ramming our shoulders against each other like children as we walked across the crumbling gravel. When we reached the bed of the truck, Cora stood up and threw her hands of in the air, yelling, “I could eat a moose!”

“That’s not usually the kind of thing you say without context,” Cass chimed in.

Griffin leaped up next to her, mimicking her pose. “I could eat two mooses!

Felix shook his head as he turned and started heading for the diner. “Those idiots are meant for each other.”

Rolling my eyes, I followed Felix as we made our way across the parking lot. Even here, the salty air was strong and the wind off the sea whipped at our hair and clothes as the sun beat down. My carefully brushed hair blew wildly around me as I rushed toward the door, eager to get inside.

I was the first one to entire the old-fashioned diner, and one of its only patrons at this time in the morning. It was a small place, with black and white checkered floors, red pleather booths and a jukebox hunched over in the corner, desperate for a good wash. The front of the place was lined with sloped windows, looking out on the highway and the hills that separated us from the ocean less than a quarter of a mile away.

On the dingy carpet of the welcome mat, I paused, feeling eyes on me. Only two groups occupied the diner—an old man with his grandchild at counter dining, and a group of young men at a booth near the door. Before I could take more than a step into the room, I felt the attention of the table turn to me, eyes lingering unabashedly.

The door behind me swung open fairly quickly, and my friends filed into the diner, led by Felix, who nodded for me to follow. I stayed close to his shoulder as we headed to the far side of the dining room and slid into one of the bigger booths. As we arranged ourselves, I ended up squished between Felix and Cass, and I felt the strangers’ eyes turn elsewhere.

“Guys!” Griffin suddenly said with excitement, gesturing to our right with a wild hand. “There’s an arcade!”

I peered past him at the cramped room in the back of the restaurant where a few old machines sat, collecting dust and blinking quietly.

“I’m so down. Let’s—,” Cora began.

“Let’s order first, at least,” I cut in. “Then you can play to your heart’s content.”

“And I can show both of you newbies what a true gamer looks like,” Cass added.

Cora slammed her hands loudly down on the table and stood up. “Do it!”

Felix reached up and grabbed her by her bicep, pulling her back into her seat. With a sigh, I passed menus around the table and urged everyone to at least choose what they wanted to eat before disappearing. My eyes scanned over the menu as Cora and Cass bickered and shot empty straw wrappers at each other, clogging up the diner with the sound of their chatter. I leaned my head on Felix’s shoulder, eyeing the jukebox as we waited for the waitress to make her way over to our table.

When she finally did, I kicked Cora’s and Cass’s legs under the table to quiet them down.

“Hi, welcome to Susie’s. My name is Regina, and I’ll be your server today. What can I get started for you kids?”

I smiled up at her. “Hi, can I get a Seaside Cheeseburger with ranch dressing on the side?” I asked as my friends scrambled to figure out their orders.

“You got it,” she replied, scribbling my order down on a tired notepad before turning to Felix. “What about you, hon?”

Felix stared blankly at his menu for a few moments. “Uh…”

“He’ll have the same as me,” I said simply.

Felix breathed a sigh of relief and the waitress moved on to Griffin. Just as he was about to order, the shrill ring of Cora’s phone broke the silence and she fished it out of her purse, sucking in a sudden breath of surprise.

“What?” Cass asked.

“It’s my mom!” she hissed.

“Exuse me?” the waitress said, leaning in to hear better.

“Get out of here!” Cora said, trying to shove Griffin out of the both. “Go, now! Get out!”

“I’m sorry—,” the waitress repeated, but the group had clearly forgotten she was there.

Cora spun on Felix and Cass. “Get out of here! Hurry! Go!”

As the booth shuffled to get all of the boys out (and Felix crawled under the table, cursing up a storm), I offered a nervous smile and sent the waitress away with the same order for the whole table. Just as the boys staggered away from the booth and ducked into the arcade, Cora answered the video call on her phone and plastered on a bright smile.

“Hi, maa!” she said, grinning forcefully. When I didn’t immediately speak, she grabbed my thigh under the table and pulled me closer, so I was in frame of the video.

“Hi, Mrs. Laghari. How are you?” I asked.

I peered at Cora’s mother in the small screen of her phone, squinting at us. “I’m well, Sage. How are you, love?”

“I’m great, thanks. Cora and I just stopped to get some breakfast and take a break from driving for a while,” I explained.

“Are you taking proper breaks from driving? Have you been safe? Drinking enough water?” she asked.

“Yes, maa, of course,” Cora said. “We’ve been super safe. We’re taking turns driving just like I promised.”

“I don’t like you driving through the night, you know. Where are you staying tonight? Do you have reservations?” Mrs. Laghari continued.

“We don’t have reservations since we don’t know where we’re going to end up tonight. But I promise we’ll be safe and make good choices,” Cora assured her.

Mrs. Laghari sighed. “I know you will. And I know you’re an adult. But you’re my little girl and I can’t not worry about you.”

“I promise, Mrs. Laghari, we are making good choices and traveling carefully. If it makes you feel any better, you have my word that I’ll make sure Cora is being safe,” I said, smiling.

Mrs. Laghari smiled. “I know you will. Thank you, Sage.” Turning back to the two of us, she continued. “What are your plans for today?”

“We just want to go to some beaches and explore,” Cora replied.

“Make sure you keep your phone and your pepper pray with you,” Mrs. Laghari said.

Cora looked down at her lap, red-faced. “I know, maa.

“Well, I’ll let you enjoy your breakfast, then,” Mrs. Laghari relented. “I love you, Cora. You girls have fun and be safe.”

“Okay,” Cora replied.

“Bye, love.”


The call ended and Cora sat stiffly, glaring at the table.

“I thought you were telling your mom about the boys this time,” I said.

Cora looked away. “Yeah… Oh, it looks like the boys need more quarter. I’m gonna go help.”

Before I could stop her, she leaped up from the table and hurried over to the arcade, where she tried to pretend that nothing had happened. I sunk into the cheap pleather seats with a sigh, closing my eyes and trying to put Cora’s situation out of my mind.

“I hate to see a pretty girl so sad. Anything I can do to help?”

I quickly opened my eyes to see one of the strangers from the group near the door, now hovering over my booth. Nonchalantly, he placed his hands on the table and leaned slightly toward me.

“No, I’ll be fine. Thank you,” I said quietly.

“Don’t tell me one of those guys was treating you rotten again. Men can be so pig-headed, huh?”

“I guess,” I mumbled.

“You know, there’s some extra room at our table, if you want to get away from that for a bit,” the man explained, smiling. “We’re a little loud, but great company.”

“Thanks, but I our food’s gonna be here soon, so…”

“We can have the waitress bring it over. No big deal.”

“Thanks,” I said flatly, finally looking him in the eyes. “But I’m not interested.”

He chuckled, running his fingers over the tabletop. I swallowed tightly.

“You won’t even give us a chance? Don’t be so cold, sweetheart. Let me buy you a drink.”

“I don’t drink,” I said stiffly.

“Come on, now,” he laughed.

“I don’t,” I said, forcing my voice to come out stronger. “And I’m here with my friends. I can’t just leave.”

“I don’t see any friends now,” he said, leaning on the table once more.

“They’ll be back.”

“Let me entertain you until then,” he sang.

“I think she’s plenty entertained without you.”

We both turned to see Griffin walking out of the arcade, hands in his pockets and eyes locked on the stranger. Without another word, he slid into the booth with me, wrapping his arm around my shoulders and staring challengingly at the man. Near the arcade, I spotted my friends slowly filing out. Griffin squeezed my shoulder. “Aren’t your own friends waiting on you?” he asked.

The man glanced between the two of us before his eyes settled on me. “Fine. I was just trying to flatter you, anyway. God knows an ugly bitch like you needs it.”

What did you just say about her?” Felix demanded, fiery eyes shooting toward the man.

“Felix, it’s fine,” I said quickly.

The man looked toward Felix, a self-indulged grin on his face, before laughing and turning on his heels. Felix made a move to follow, but Cass stopped him.

“Yeah, you better run!” Cora yelled, earning a sigh of exasperation from her boyfriend, who slowly released me from his grip.

“You’re trying to get us killed, girl,” he said, rolling his eyes. Cora and Cass came back to the table, leaving Felix standing near the arcade door, eyes still trailing the strange man as he caught up with his group.

“Felix,” I called, getting his attention. “Come on.”

With a deep breath, he came and joined us again, sitting a bit closer to me than he was before. There were a few moments of silence as the groups took in what had happened and shared discreet glances at me, before Cora finally spoke up.

“You should take self-defense classes with me. Then you can show guys like that who’s boss.”

“By breaking their nose?” I asked, earning a snort from Cass and a proud look from Griffin. “I think I’ll leave the bodily harm to you.”

Cora grinned. “Don’t give up. There’s still time to make you a badass yet.”

I gave a tired smile. “I’m counting on it.”

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ii. Blinding

“What would they do without us?” I asked, handing Cass a fresh paper bowl. He chuckled, scooping a heaping serving of casserole out of the crock pot and filling the bowl with it. I added a plastic fork and set the bowl aside before grabbing another empty one. When we both had healthy helpings, we set the lid back on the pot, hoping to keep it warm, and settled onto a blanket in front of the fire.

It had been almost an hour since Griffin and Cora dragged Felix out for a beach adventure with a bucket and a snorkel. The water was freezing and no one had brought swimsuits, but they seemed too happy to go out and see what was to be found. Meanwhile, Cass and I had stayed near the truck where it was parked on the beach, watching as dinner cooked in a crock pot over the fire. The waves lapped at the shore just a minute’s walk away, but Cass and I were content to hover around the fire, absorbing its warmth and filling ourselves with a hot meal. The sea breeze was getting cooler with the setting sun, but wrapped up in our sweatshirts and huddled near the flames, we were comfortable enough.

“Tastes great, Cass,” I said after trying my first bite. “What it is?”

“Just some cans and leftovers I found laying around the apartment,” he replied. “But I think I’ve thought of a name for it.”


“It’s a Cass-erole,” he explained proudly.

“Wow, you’ve really stepped it up with the dad jokes lately,” I said, pointing at him with my plastic fork. “That was positively revolting.”

“Someone’s gotta do it,” he claimed before filling his mouth again. The two of us sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the ocean breeze and warm meal, before the sound of voices began approaching. I glanced over my shoulder as Cora appeared and plopped down in front of the fire pit, holding her soaked jeans out toward the flames. My eyes widened slightly as I realized that she was in fact not wearing pants; all the covered her bare legs was Felix’s jacket tied around her waist. Before I had time to speak, Felix and Griffin joined us, Griffin raving about the food and serving himself a bowl as Felix went to the truck, grumbling around being cold.

“Don’t most kids stop chasing waves when they’re, I don’t know, kids?” I asked, raising an eyebrow in amusement at Cora. Even the two messy buns that she often wore on top of her head were damp with ocean mist, telling me that she hadn’t had only one run-in with the waves.

“Only if they’re boring,” she replied easily, cocking her head as she watching her jeans, dangling precariously over the fire.

“You’re lucky Felix is always cold. What would you have done if he didn’t bring his jacket?” Cass said.

“Gone naked, I guess.”

Griffin winced. “Whose girlfriend is that?”

“It’s a mystery,” I sang.

Even as he sat down, though, pretending to be embarrassed, I noticed the soaked edges of his pants rolled up to the knee and covered in sand.

Before long, Felix returned to the fire and plopped down in the sand next to me, tugging a blanket tighter around his shoulders as he grumbled, “Can I have my jacket back?”

Cora glanced at him. “My pants aren’t dry yet.”

“We packed for a few days! Go put on a dry pair. I only brought one jacket,” he whined.

“Go get some new pants, Cora. We can leave those to dry overnight,” I suggested.

“I don’t know. I’m kind of liking my new skirt,” she said slowly.

“Next time, I’m letting you go naked,” Felix snapped.

“Bet you’re real excited for that.”

Griffin sighed, setting his dinner to the side and dragging Cora to her feet. “Come on, C. Let’s go.”

As Griffin lead her over to the truck to dig through her bag for fresh clothes, Felix and I inched a bit closer to the fire, taking her place. I slung my arm around his shoulders, pulling him closer to me and sharing my warmth as I rested my head on his shoulder. Although it took a minute or two, he eventually stopped shivering, and we sat comfortably.

His scrawny body wasn’t meant for the cold, no matter how old he got and how much he ate trying to put on weight. The day he was born he was underweight, and he’d been that way all his life; no one expected it to change soon.

I didn’t mind, though.

The sun set fast, and we had to set up camp in a quick scramble to finish before all light was gone. Once we were ready for the night, though—Griffin and Cora on the mattress in the truck, and the other three of us in sleeping bags piled under blankets on the beach—we were finally able to return to our places around the fire and enjoy the warmth.

Slowly, the night wore on. The last bits of sunlight faded away, and the wind that once whipped across the shore died down to a gentle breeze as the temperature dropped. Behind the truck, the steady pulse of waves lapping at the sand continued steadily, only occasionally interrupted by the soft hum of Griffin’s sporadic snoring. The salty sea air combined with the scent of Cass’s dinner, the leftover still coating the bottom of the crock pot which sat a few feet away in the sand.

Griffin and Cora had settled on one side of the fire pit, their backs to the ocean. It had been a while since Griffin drifted off, his head resting on Cora’s lap and his body snuggled under a pile of blankets. As he slept, Cora sat relatively still, only moving occasionally when her head nodded forward and she woke herself up from another short nap. For a while, I counted how many times she fell asleep, trying to see how long it would take for her to wake Griffin and move somewhere more comfortable. Soon enough, I realized I was waiting for nothing.

Halfway between them and Felix and me on the other side of the fire was Cass, hood drawn low over his head as he watched the flames. From my position, I could easily see the wild colors of the fire reflecting on his face and casting sharp shadows across his features. The artist’s side of me ached to paint his silhouette in the dark landscape, but I calmed the urge, as I’d learned to do over many years of practice.

On the opposite side of the pit from Cora and Griffin were Felix and I, huddled under a mountain of blankets. Felix sat next to me, his head sometimes coming to rest on my shoulder as he alternated between watching the fire and closing his eyes. The blanket I’d wrapped around me extended around his shoulders, holding us together against the cool night beyond. I savored his warmth and the feeling of the sea breeze rustling my hair.

I could still picture in my mind’s eye the beach that we’d settled on—white sand on either side as far as the eye could see, murky gray waves stirred up from a recent summer storm, and our footprints leaving trails across the ever-changing terrain—but for now, I couldn’t see any of it. With the light the fire provided, I could only see the faces of my friends, framed in a cloud of darkness beyond.

I didn’t need to know what else was out there.

“Sage?” Cass asked, disturbing the silence that had settled with his quiet voice.

“Mm?” I hummed in reply. I noticed his eyes flick around at our friends as he paused; for the moment, they all appeared to be asleep.

“I know we don’t talk about it much,” he admitted, rooting his hands into his coat pockets. “But… What are you gonna do now?”

I hesitated, wishing I didn’t know what he was referring to. “You mean, in life?”

He nodded slowly. When I didn’t speak immediately, he continued. “I know you don’t like to talk about it. It’s just stressful and I know at least Griff and Cora like to live in the moment.” He considered his words for a few moments. “But we’ve been friends for too long to lose contact because of lack of communication. We don’t have to talk now, but—”

“Cass,” I stopped him. When his eyes shifted in my direction, I offered a tight smile. “It’s okay. You’re right. We’re almost done at the CC, and we need to talk about what comes next.”

He breathe out a gentle sigh of relief.

“I don’t quite know my plan yet. I submitted an application for an arts school in the city, but I shouldn’t hear back for a couple weeks still. If I don’t get in, I might move to the city for a while and pay my dues until the next time to apply comes up. Just work on my painting and stuff, I guess,” I explained. “I’m not sure. I know graduation is in a couple weeks, so I should have it figure out, but… I’m still working on it.”

“It’s okay. I think we’re all still working on it, at least a little,” he assured me. “But I didn’t know you applied anywhere.”

I shrugged, shrinking slightly. “I probably won’t get in. I didn’t want to embarrass myself telling everyone about it.”

Felix shifted slightly on my shoulder, but when I glanced down at him, he appeared to still be asleep.

“You’re a good painter, Sage,” Cass assured me. “You’ll get in. Maybe you could try believing in yourself for a change.”

I laughed quietly. “I could try.” Despite our conversation, as I looked around the conversation, our friends still appeared to be asleep, eyes closed to the bright glare of the fire. I turned back to Cass. “What about you? What’s your plan?”

“Well,” he said, taking a deep breath. “You know how I was always talking about that road trip I wanted to go on?”

A smile slowly slid across my face. “You’re going?”

He nodded slightly. “Yep. I leave in early August, heading toward my uncle’s house on the east coast. Of course, I wanna stop and see all the sights—you know, take pictures and stuff—so I’ll traveling for a few months. I think I’m gonna move to the city when I get back. Our apartment’s lease ends while I’m on the road, anyway.”

“That sounds great! I’m happy for you,” I said. “But… What’s Griffin gonna do once you leave?”

“Move in with me.”

We both turned to see Cora watching us intently, the flames reflecting in her deep hazel eyes.

“I thought your parents still wouldn’t let you live with him? What changed?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she replied. Her hand drifted down to her lap, gently brushing Griffin’s hair out of his face. “I just realized I was the only one living my life, not my mom. I love her, but I can’t live her life for her. I wanna be with Griffin, so I’m going to. She’ll understand eventually.”

Cass and I both stared at her in surprise. Finally, I collected my words enough to say, “Wow, that’s really mature, C. I’m proud of you.”

Cora shrugged. “It was coming eventually. I love my mom, but I’ll never be the perfect Indian daughter she wanted. I was never going to be. I think it’s time to stop pretending.”

I nodded, smiling. “It may take some time, but she’ll be proud of you. You know how much she loves you. She just needs to see how much you can do on your own.”

“I won’t be on my own, though,” she reminded us, glancing down at Griffin. “We’re gonna do it together.”

My eyes widened. “Oh my god, are you—”

“No, we’re not engaged,” she said quickly. “I know it’s been a few years, but we’re not getting married anytime soon. Trust me.”

Cass laughed. “Thank god.”

“So, you and Griff are moving in together?” I asked. “Where are you gonna live? And are you going to school somewhere, or working?”

“Well…,” she trailed off, biting her lip. “That’s the thing. We’re… moving away.”

“Moving where?” Cass asked slowly.

“The east coast?” she said as if it was a question. The next few words seemed a little harder to push out. “I got into a dance academy over there. Full-ride and everything. It’s a huge deal, and Griffin wants to move there with me.”

I sat up straighter. “Cora, that’s amazing!”

“That’s a really big deal!” Cass added.

“I know,” she said, notably less enthusiastic. “I just… didn’t know how to tell you guys.”

Cass and I exchanged confused glances. “Why?” I asked.

She sighed. “Because it seemed like you’re all staying here. I’m leaving and I’m taking Griff with me. I thought… you’d be mad.”

“Cora, this is your dream! How could we be mad?” I said. “We’re so happy for you and Griffin. This is a huge step. I’m sure Griffin will be happy with whatever job he gets over there. He can work on music no matter where he goes, right?”

She nodded.

“Then you’re worrying for nothing. It doesn’t matter how matter how far we get from each other. If it’s meant to be, we’ll make our way back to each other eventually.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Cass cut in. “We’ll be fine. It’s not like we’ll lose contact just because of distance. We’ve known each other for too long.”

I nodded. Cora let out a sigh of relief.

“Then that’s it, huh?” Cass asked. “We’re going in different direction for a while.”

Before I could speak, Felix suddenly moved away from me, discarding the blankets on the ground as he stood and headed soundlessly to the truck. I watched as he climbed in and laid down across the back seats without saying a word.

Cass glanced at me. “Think he’s okay?”

“Yeah,” I said slowly. “Probably just cold.”

“It’s warmer by the fire than in the truck,” Cora reminded us.

I shrugged. The crackling of the fire pit filled the air.


When I woke up the next morning, the sunlight was almost too blinding to open my eyes. I sat up slowly, blankets falling off of me as I squinted at the waves not too far off, crashing steadily against the shore. Beside me, Cass was still fast asleep, bundled in a sleeping bag and the other side of the blankets I’d been using, pulled up to his chin. In the bed of the truck, Cora and Griffin still hadn’t stirred, and as far as I knew, Felix hadn’t moved since he disappeared into the cab the previous night.

That was okay, though. I didn’t mind being the first awake.

The intense sun’s warmth cut straight through my sleeping bag, so I shimmied out of it and onto the sand, feeling the surface crumble under my hands as I moved. Without bothering with shoes, I quietly left our little camp behind, leaving shallow footprints in the sand as I headed toward the water. The reflection of the sunlight made it almost impossible for me to look, so I kept my eyes down, examining the sand as I walked. It took less than a minute before waves began to lap at my toes.

My hands settled in my pockets and I closed my eyes, focusing on the warmth of the sun and the chill of the water. Slowly, I sat down at the edge of the beach, where the waves only just barely reached my feet, and dug my fingertips into the sand. I tried to commit to memory the way the day felt, sitting there alone on a beach as the sun crept up into the sky.

There were things that felt significant even as they happened. I didn’t know why today was going to be important, but I savored it for fear of losing it to time.

Life changed so fast, and I had always feared that.

I wasn’t sure how much time passed before I heard the sound of someone near the truck behind me and Felix plopped down in the sand at my side. His dry, damaged white hair stuck up in tufts every which way as he roughly rubbed his eyes and squinted at the ocean lapping at our feet.

“Morning,” I said, bumping his shoulder with mine.

His eyes, narrowed into mere slits, flicked toward me before going back to the water. “Yeah.”

“Sleep okay?” I asked.

“I was in the back of a truck. How do you think I slept?” he replied.

“No one forced you to be there. You could’ve slept on the beach with Cass and I,” I reminded him.

“And get sand in every orifice? Thanks, but I’ll let you tell me how that went.”

I rolled my eyes. “It was fine. Listening to the waves was nice. If you’d’ve taken your headphones out, it would’ve probably been relaxing.”

“You know I can’t sleep without music,” he reminded me simply.

I sighed. “How long has it been since you tried?”

He turned toward me, squinting in the bright morning. “Should we go wake the others up?”

“Okay, okay. I’ll drop it,” I relented, leaning my chin on my knees.

“I’m serious. Shouldn’t we get going?”

I glanced his way. “What’s the hurry?”

He shrugged.

Taking a deep breath, I pushed myself to my feet and held out my hand to help him. “Alright, let’s get going. The peace isn’t going to disturb itself.”

Felix tried not to smiled as I pulled him off of the sand and we tromped back toward our makeshift camp. It took a while before we were able to coax all three of our friends out of their beds, but as the sun rose higher and heated up the beach, they became more agreeable. Slowly, we began the process of eating breakfast (leftover “Cass-erole” and dry cereal), packing all of our things, and cleaning out the fire pit. By the time we had removed our mark on the beach, it was nearing noon, and the heat, far more intense than the day before, was enough to make us sweat as we worked. We were each dripping with sweat and out of breath by the time we piled into the truck and headed toward the highway again.

Felix and I rode in the bed of the truck this time atop the mountain of blankets and sleeping bags that filled the space. As we reached the freeway and bumped onto pale, sun-bleached pavement again, I stood up on the mattress and grasped the handles on top of the cab, holding myself steady. In the blinding morning, I tried to ignore the whipping of the wind as we picked up speed and flew down the coast, letting our camp fade into the distance. Leaning against the cab, allowed myself to close my eyes and simply breathe that fresh ocean air, so different from our home.

Behind me, Felix watched me from the safety of the bed, sitting on the mattress in silence. Cora’s, Griffin’s, and Cass’s voices carried from within the cab, filling the air with gentle murmurs as we drove.

The landscape flew by.


It was so late that it was early, and the sound of the truck’s blinker was the only thing to break up the peace. The moon was high in the sky as I steered the pickup truck onto the shoulder of the road, passing over crumbling gravel as I pulled into a dilapidated gas station. The silent air in the car was replaced with the murmur of the radio playing over the speakers mounted between gas pumps, and each of my steps on the tired gray pavement as I exited the vehicle added to the night’s soundtrack. I exhaled into my cupped hands as I approached the pump, hoping to warm them against the sharp cold of the night.

After inserting my card into the machine and connecting the pump to the truck, I wandered slowly toward the bed, where Cora and Cass were huddled against the side of the truck. The two had drifted off to sleep many hours ago and now were slumped against each other, Cora with her head lulling against Cass’s shoulder. Chewing on the stale gum that I had stored in my cheek, I found a messily folded blanket and spread it over them, tugging it up toward their chins. I paused in the moonlight, watching them snore softly. The scent of gasoline and tobacco eventually chased me away from them, and I yanked the pump out of the truck before ducking back into the driver’s seat.

The truck produced a low groan as I started it up again, and Griffin sniffed, shifting slightly in his seat beside me. “She sounds like a winner.”

“Tell her to be quiet,” Felix mumbled from the backseat, where he was curled up on his side, hood drawn tight around his face.

“She’s a lady and should be treated with respect,” Griffin muttered sleepily.

“She’s old and too loud,” Felix snapped.

Griffin turned around in his sleep, lazily slapping and poking at Felix as he hissed, “Respect!” For a few seconds, Felix tiredly tried to fend off Griffin’s attacks, but eventually, with a few muttered curses, he rolled over to the face the back of the seat, crossing his arms over her chest and pouting.

When the job was done, Griffin turned back to me, blinking slowly as he asked, “Want me to drive?”

I shrugged. “It’s okay. I need some time to think, anyway.”

He stared at me for a few moments, then grabbed the handle and began to tilt his seat back as far as it would go. When it bumped into Felix and produced an agitated moan. “You said it, not me,” Griffin said,  yawning as leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. “Wake me if you get tired… or whatever.”

I nodded as if he could see me. “You got it."

After waiting a few seconds for Griffin to make himself comfortable, I pulled my hair back in a loose ponytail away from my face and slowly drove out toward the freeway. Only a few gentle moans sounded as the truck bumped back onto the road, and before long, we were flying back down the coast again.

      It was was late, but there were still a few hours until the sun rose. A few more hours before it started all over again.




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iii. Help

“I don’t want to go back,” Griffin whined as we walked slowly across the beach, our toes sinking deep in the damp sand and lapping water. It wasn’t even noon yet, but we all knew that if we didn’t want our asses handed to us by our respective mothers, it would be a good idea to get home before dark. After all, we’d only planned to be away for the weekend; now, it was Monday morning, and real life was closing in.

     “We have to go,” I sighed.

     “We don’t have to. We could get a boat and live the rest of our lives at sea,” Cora suggested, gesturing toward the expanse of ocean beside us.

     Felix shook his head. “No. I get seasick.”

     Cora shrugged. “Then you’re not invited.”

     Felix glared at her and Griffin patted his shoulder gently, saying, “I’ll miss you, man.”

     Cass checked his watch and sighed, kicking at the sand. “It’s past 11:30.”

     This time, no one spoke or made a joke; it was clear that we’d messed around for long enough, and now we had to start heading back toward the truck.

      “What if we just stay here for the rest of our lives?” I asked quietly, staring down at the sand. “We’re graduating soon anyway. We don’t have to go anywhere. We could just live our the rest of our lives on this beach.”

      “Come on,” Cass said, ushering the group toward the truck. “We can do fun stuff on the way home.”

      “What, like considering the impending responsibility of adulthood?” Felix asked flatly.

      I fell silent.

      “We can, like… listen to music,” Cass said.

      “Sounds like a blast,” Cora mumbled, kicking at the sand.

      “Come on, guys. It’s not that bad. We have an entire life waiting for us! This is such an important time in our lives. It’ll be great!” he reminded us. Although he clearly believed his words and wasn’t just trying to convince us, it still did nothing to change anyone’s minds. Those of us who had hope for the future held onto it, and those who were strangled by doubt had passed the point of no return.

      School or a job in the city. It sure seemed like I had it figured out, didn’t it?

      When I glanced up at Felix for reassurance, he didn’t meet my eyes.

      “If I’m getting in that truck, there better be some drinks on the way home,” Griffin said as he, Cora, and Cass started to head away from the sand and back toward where we’d parked.

“You know there’s a law against that,” Cass reminded them.

“What, having a good time?”

“Well, that too.”

Felix and I hung behind as they picked up the pace, bickering as they went. We skirted along the edge of the water, slowing down enough to watch the waves lap at our toes. Between pieces of long, dark hair, I watched him, trying to read his expressions the way I’d done for so many years.


      “I’m fine,” he interrupted.

      I stared at him. “Felix…”

      “Didn’t I say I’m fine?” he snapped.

      “You did. I just—,”

      Without letting me finish, Felix hurried ahead of me, joining the others as they began to pile into the truck. I listened his footsteps sinking in the sand as I followed quietly behind, lingering in his shadow where he wouldn’t notice me looking out for him.

Lingering where he wouldn’t notice me at all.


People always yelled at me for staring. I’d been hearing it since I was a child—“It’s not polite to stare”—every time a new person caught my eye. Perhaps it was the painter in me that longed to memorize every inch of the scenes that I loved the most, but humans couldn’t stand the idea of being watched. Even if they knew it was innocent, it unnerved them.

“Don’t stare, Sage.”

I’d heard it too many times before, but I couldn’t help it.

The lighting was perfect. With the sun slipping slowly toward the horizon, the sky was a mosaic of warm reds, oranges, and purples, intense but breathtaking. The way the light reflected on the landscape as we flew down the highway was equally as incredible, painting everything in varying shades of gold. Even the cool summer air seemed aware of the moment, carrying dust and pollen that sparkled vibrantly as they blew along.

My focus, however, was on the people around me. Griffin manned the driver’s seat, steering as we flew along the empty stretch of highway to the sound of quiet beats playing through the truck’s busted speakers. His profile was effortlessly silhouetted by the golden rays, highlighting the warmth in his dark eyes. Even the way his fingers slid across the wheel as he made small adjustments was something beautiful, with the shifting light following his movements.

In the back seat, Felix bathed in a similar scene, with shadows shrouding one half of his slight body as the sun brightened the rest. Even his platinum hair, which so often looked like straw, glowed beautifully, falling in his narrow eyes.

What really caught my attention, though, was in the bed of the truck. I climbed out of the passenger’s seat and into the back to get a closer look.

Cora and Cass sat on the air mattress, surrounded by crumbled piles of blankets and pillows. The two were situated facing each other, Cora’s hands gently laid, palms up, on top of Cass’s. Every so often, he would try to quickly pull his hands out and slap them on top of hers; when he succeeded, they would let a few minutes pass again. The game they were playing was more than familiar to my friends and I.

It was something my father taught me when we moved to our current house in the middle of the school year, and I was forced to shoe-horn myself into the already established friendships of my classmates.

The game was almost too simple, really. Whoever held their hands on top was allowed to ask whatever question they wanted, but if the person below could get their hands on top, the privilege would transfer. Truly, it was just a silly game to get to know people, but something about it stuck with us even as time passed. Although I assumed after all those years, the group would forget about the way that I forced us to get to know each other, way back in grade school when we met.`

As I watched, though, I knew they hadn’t.

Their silhouettes in the sunset, holding each other’s hands as we sped down the coast, were almost unreal. Cass, with his perfectly styled dark hair flying every which way and hazel eyes reflecting gold. Cora, with her warm skin glowing in the warm light and wild hair trying to spring free from the two buns perched atop her head.

I raised my phone to take a picture and hope that it would capture the moment for me to paint later. Just as I was about to snap the photo—

“Griff, pull over,” Felix said, unbuckling his seatbelt.

     Griffin hesitated for only a moment—glancing questioningly at me in the rearview miriror—before complying. The truck slowed as it bumped off of the pavement and onto the shoulder of the road, rolling to a stop.

     “What’s wrong?” I asked as Griffin put the truck in park.

     “I need to take a piss,” Felix muttered, climbing out of the truck without pause. As he slammed the door and began to slowly walk down the road, I looked again at Griffin before throwing the door open and following.

     “Felix? Are you okay?” I called after him.

“Can a guy take a piss?” he snapped, not looking back at me.

I followed silently, the sound of my footsteps crunching in the gravel telling of my pursuit. Without trying too hard, I matched his gait just a step behind him, the way I’d been doing since we were kids.

We kept moving for a while, leaving the truck behind until we were far enough away that we could no longer hear the low mumble of our friends’ voices. Since the land here was so ridiculously flat, we could still see the truck clearly, despite it being a quarter of a mile away.

     Once Felix was satisfied with the distance he’d put between them and him, he sat down slowly in the dirt on the side of the road, pulling his knees up toward his chest and staring out at the sun as it slid out of view. I crouched down beside him, mimicking his position silently.

     “You know what’s weird?” I asked after a few minutes passed by, and Felix didn’t speak.

     “Hmm?” he mumbled, not looking at me.

     “The sun and the stars. All of us are seeing them the exact same way, you know? No matter where you are, or what you’re going through in life, you see the same sky as everyone else.”

     Felix didn’t reply.

     “It’s like… Even if a person feels far away, they’re still close because if nothing else, you’re under the same sky.”

     “What are you trying to day?” He snapped, glancing toward me.

     I sighed, shrugging as I kicked a rock near my foots and leaned my chin on my knees. “I don’t know.” The wind carried the sound of our friends’ voices toward our ears, and Felix furrowed his brow, staring intensely at the gravel. After a few minutes, I finally reached out and laid my hand on top of his, giving it a gentle squeeze.

     “I don’t think we’re going to be home before dark,” Felix said finally, looking at the darkening sky.

I laughed. “Your mom is gonna kick your ass.”

     He nodded slowly. “Yeah.”

     “Your mom is gonna kick my ass.”

     He scoffed. “My mom worships the ground you walk on.”

     I smiled. “As should you.”

Although he tried not to crack a grin, I read him like a book, and once I saw his guard lower slightly, I rocked toward him, wrapping him in a warm hug. He relaxed into me despite himself. As the sun slipped down beneath the horizon, Felix rested his head on my shoulder, allowing himself to simply exist in silence with me.

When the world eventually grew dark, as it always did, we headed back to the truck, piling into the back seats together and heading back toward home, where the future waited.


No one was surprised when Cora announced that she was too tired to drive Felix and I home, so we would have to drive ourselves. It wasn’t the first time she’d let her friends take her truck so she could get to bed a few minutes sooner, and it likely wouldn’t be the last. She’d be by in the afternoon the next day, energized and ready to reclaim her ride.

So I took the wheel as I crossed town, headed toward the neighborhood Felix and I had lived in since we met. By the time we reached our street, it was closer to sunrise than sunset, and the neighborhood was blanketed in a darkness that the streetlights couldn’t quite reach. I parked under the shadow of a huge oak tree that hung over the pavement, idling in front of Felix’s front lawn.

The little lamps that lit the walkway from the street to his house barely illuminated the path and many were beginning to flicker. Up above, all of the lights were out in the house he had grown up in; whatever overprotective part of his parents that used to stay up late into the night waiting for him to get home had evidently thought better of it. I still remembered the days when we would get home late from my soccer games or his recording sessions, and our parents would be anxiously waiting on Felix’s front porch, watching for our return. They’d sit there in the darkness of the overhang, sipping merlot from my father’s wine cabinet and checking their phones for incoming messages about our whereabouts. Even as we got older, we would still get home some nights to find them in deck chairs on the front porch, rocking as the waited for us to return.

Today, though, both Felix’s house and mine across the street were dark. No one lingered on the porch. No one worried over our return.

We were adults.

I shifted the truck into park and peered at Felix in the dark. “Ready?”

“You know, I’d be perfectly happy to keep driving through the whole night,” he admitted.

I sighed. “Come on, Felix. I have work in the morning.”

He fell silent, turning to face the passenger’s side window, as if there was anything interesting at all to see out there.

He was clearly aware of the situation he was in and that he should let me sleep, but he couldn’t seem to pull the trigger. It had been at hour since we dropped off Cora at her house, and since then, Felix and I had been driving loops around the neighborhood like seriously slow-motion drag racers. The night was marching toward sunrise quickly, though, and he surely knew that it was past time for his antics to end. I wanted to be sympathetic, but I was tiring of spinning in circles.

Still, every time we came to our street again, passing slowly between our two houses, I’d ask if he was ready to go inside, and he’d stare out the window like he hadn’t heard me. Eventually, I would get moving again.

I sighed deeply, running a hand through my dirty hair. “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll drive you around for a while longer, but if I do, you have to tell me about whatever you’re thinking about.”

Felix stared at me.

“Well? Are we gonna talk or am I gonna have to make you walk?”

Felix looked away and quietly muttered, “Just drive.”

Nodding, I shifted the truck into drive and pulled away from the curb as the engine let out a long, low moan that filled the empty streets. As we passed under the neighbor’s tree, the branches reached over them, allowing fragments of light from the streetlight overhead to illuminate us and then toss us back into shadows again. Light and darkness fell onto the truck like a kaleidoscope, and for the few seconds that we passed under it, our world flashed rapidly from light to dark.

Eventually, we turned onto the next street.

“So, what is it?” I asked simply.

“What is what?”

“What is it that made you want to take a grand tour of your neighborhood with me in the middle of the night?”

Felix swallowed tightly. “I just wanted to spend some quality time with you.”

I rolled my eyes. “I wish I believed that.”

“No, really. I just really appreciate our friendship.”

“You’re so full of shit.”

He sighed.

“Felix, seriously. Start talking before I have to dump your sorry ass out here on the sidewalk.”

Felix focused hard on the landscape passing by on the other side of the window—the houses bathed in darkness and each meticulous yard that reminded of the monotony of the neighborhood. Somehow in the middle of the night, with only the eery glow of the streetlights to illuminate them, they didn’t seem so perfect. Finally, he spoke up. “I don’t know what you want me to tell you. I don’t want to go home. I don’t want to face my future. Nothing new there.”

I squinted at the road. “What’re you afraid of? You’re a crazy talented music producer with a successful career ahead and friends and family who care about you. You should be excited.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not,” He snapped.

“Why? What’s got you so worried?”

“Nothing. I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Shut up, Sage. You’re just making it worse.”

I pursed my lips, looking out the window. “I’m just trying to help.”

“Who said I wanted help?” Felix demanded, glancing at me.

“Everyone but you,” I replied.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Look, everyone can see something’s bothering you and you need to talk it out, but you still won’t share any of it. Why hide? We’re your friends. You should trust us,” I said.

“What if I don’t?”

“Don’t start that with me.”

“Start what? Maybe I don’t trust you. Maybe I just want to handle this on my own.”

I let out a slow breath. “I don’t know what to say to you when you do this.”

“Nothing. Just don’t say anything,” Felix said sharply, glaring at the dash. “There’s nothing you can do to help. You wouldn’t understand. You have a future. I have my parents’ couch. You have nothing to be afraid of, so what would you know?”

I was silent for a few seconds, deep in thought. We passed from dark to light and back again. “What are you talking about? Not having a future? Felix, you’re one of the most talented people I know. How could you seriously think that?”

He scowled at his feet. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Then help me understand.”

He shook his head sharply, looking away.

“Felix, you have nothing to be afraid of. You’re going to be fine. I can’t believe someone as smart and talented as you could seriously not see a place here for themselves. You’re gonna do so many amazing things. I know you’re scared, but we all get scared sometimes. You’re gonna make it.”

“You don’t get it.”

“You’re right. I don’t,” I admitted. “But I’m trying to.”

“Well, don’t try to. If you did get it, then you’d feel the same.” He lowered his voice as he leaned his forehead against the freezing glass of the window and let his eyes fall closed. “And I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

The truck bumped lazily over the pavement, filling the silence that we had left. In the distance, our houses were coming into view again.

“Felix, are you okay?” I asked, quieter this time.

Even I didn’t know whether I was asking if he was okay in this exact moment, or okay in general. I felt like the answers were the same.

Felix continued to stare out the window for a few more seconds, watching house after house fade into the darkness as our headlights moved on, and finally said, “Yeah. You can drop me off now.”

For a minute or so, I was silent, trying to decide whether or not to drop him off without getting to the bottom of things. Eventually, I pulled over on the side of the road and shifted the truck into park, swallowing tightly. “I need some sleep, but the these seats are pretty comfortable anyway. You drive.”

Felix stared at me for a few moments, then switched seats with me when I him prompted to. Once he was in the driver’s seat and I in the passenger’s, I leaned the seat back as far as it would go and closed my eyes. Even though I had no intention of actually sleeping made sure it seemed like I was exhausted enough to.

“Wake me if you need me. Drive safe. And don’t think too much,” I said quietly.

Felix nodded.

And slowly, he pulled the truck back out onto the road again.

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