“If I could my shit together, I’m gonna run away and never see any of you again, never see any of you again. I hope the roof flies off and we get blown out into space.”
– Fall Out Boy, “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)
>> Content warning for a racial slur and transphobia. <<
Johnny Rotten is screaming from her back pocket. Every time she hears that song, Emery is pulled back to the memory of her ten-year-old self headbanging alone in the basement of her empty family home to an original, vintage “Anarchy in the UK” vinyl. It was her first taste of liberation, the first whispers of freedom, calm, and peace in the pit of her stomach. So, naturally, she set a snippet of it as her ringtone when she got her first cell phone and has not veered from that path since.
She juggles the box of Pink Moscato, the party-size bag of potato chips, and the card game box in her arms as she fumbles to retrieve her phone. The residential neighborhood that she walks through is quiet—was quiet until she entered—and the night sky is unusually clear, so much so that her eyes settle on Orion’s Belt as she tries to balance the card box and bag on top of the wine to free an arm. She curses under her breath and scurries to a parked car, where she sits everything on the hood as gently as possible not to trigger the alarm. Nice and slow. Then she grabs her phone rapidly, narrowly avoiding it forwarding to voicemail.
Her name comes out in a shriek so loud over the phone that she jerks her head away. “Emery!” It is Kat’s high voice, and Hanna’s chimes in soon after, and her heart skips a beat. She is on her way to Kat’s house where they decided to hang out like old times because Kat and Hanna were both away for most of the summer doing prestigious internships in cities normal people can’t afford to live in, and soon, they would be off again at their respective far away universities. She is the only of their trio to stay home in the middle of nowhere Ohio, going to a community college to save money. It is her first opportunity of fun all summer, her first time where she isn’t working at Kimmy’s Diner off of the freeway, teaching violin lessons to snotty pre-teens, studying in summer classes, or hiding in the corners of used bookstores and vintage record shops. She tries not to hold her breath, pushes it out and then draws more oxygen in, and tries not to tell them how much she needs them to not cancel. She needs this for her sanity.
Also, for fuck’s sake, I’m like four blocks away, she tells herself.
There is music in the background of the call and Hanna laughs. She sounds drunk. They started without her. She bites her lip.
“Where are you?” Kat asks, her voice a little calmer.
She is too far to read the street sign. “I’m close—”
“—Oh my god, Sam, use a coaster!” There is a pause, a rustling noise, and then Kat scoffs. “Sorry, Em, what did you say? Where are you?”
Sam? She forces air out of her lungs. “I’ll be there in like five—”
More laughter erupts from the other end of the call, several more voices than who are supposed to be there. It is not the “intimate” gathering that she thought it was. It is a house party. Her jaw clenches more and then she tastes blood from the inside of her cheeks.
“Okay, hurry up! You’re gonna miss all the fun,” Kat yells and the other end clicks without another word.
Emery pulls the phone from her ear, closes her eyes, and lets out a long sigh. She lets herself fall back to lean against the car, but it sets off a loud, honking alarm and she jerks away. Tonight is not her night. She can already feel it. She scrambles to grab her things and darts up the sidewalk towards the party just as a light flicks on in a house across the street.
The lights are on and the music is so loud that even if Emery had forgotten Kat’s address, even if she had forgotten the hundreds of trips there after high school, she would know that this is where the party is. Hanna had said “like old times” about a dozen times during their chat. Kat had called it an “intimate gathering to catch up like we used to” and “girls’ night.” Emery sat in a booth during her break at Kimmy’s, staring out the window, and smiling at their assurances like an idiot. A boy and girl, dressed for a real party, arms linked together with a plastic bag filled with bottles, bypass her and walk up to the house. And this is what makes her heart sink.
As if pulled by an imaginary string, she reluctantly climbs the stairs. Otherwise, she’d have to walk ten minutes back to the bus stop, wait for another bus which would be an hour considering the time, and ride all the way back to her side of town. They’re her friends. They know this. That had to mean something.
So she braces herself against the disappointment of another promise let down, opens the door, and steps inside.
The house is alive with laughter, the hum of conversation, and weird remixed pop songs from two decades ago. She worms her way into the living room, weaving through small groups of people, taking in the sight of acquaintances and strangers standing and sitting and gathering at what was supposed to be her intimate girls’ night. There are so many people that she forgets how under-dressed she is. Since when does ‘intimate’ mean fifty people? Someone hugs her from behind, a squeal presses in her back, and she sees tiny, pale hands squeeze her. Kat.
Emery sits her things down on an end table and turns around to see Kat, five-foot-two, rail thin, and blond like a fucking doll, grinning at her. She takes her drink from Hanna who steps in and pulls her into a side-hug. They are both dressed for a party, Kat in a small corseted black dress, and Hanna actually bothered to straighten her hair and show off her cleavage in a black sequined blouse. They swore to her that it would be casual, and she resists the urge to scream. Or cry. Or runaway. Or a combination of all three.
Kat takes her arm and guides her through the living room into the kitchen. “What took you so long?”
She lets loose a small, embarrassed laugh and shrugs. I contemplated not coming because I was worried about not measuring up to you both. “I was wrapping something up. What’s with all the people?”
Kat points to Hanna. “Talk to her. She was the one all, ‘Let’s just invite a few more people, it’ll be cool.’ So I called my cousins and some classmates that I kept in touch with,” she explains rapidly, picking at a bowl of pretzels. She grabs one, breaks it to pieces and eats the pieces in order of smallest to largest. At least it was a habit that Emery recognized.
Hanna turns from mixing a rum and coke and offers it in a red Solo cup. “I wasn’t even sure if you would come, and then it would just be us two.” She bats her hazel eyes at her and sips from her cup. “With more people, it’s more fun.”
Emery gestures to her clothes, her sweatpants and tee shirt and hair so frizzy that the only way to style it was to tie it in a bun. “And neither of you decided to tell me?”
“You look great!” Kat shrieks, and she grabs someone’s arm to pull into their circle. She has neat blond ringlets and wears a high collared, red-and-white polka dot dress inspired by the 50s. “Savannah, meet Emery. She’s been, like, my best friend since I was six. Doesn’t she look good?”
“Exactly! Like athletic cute,” she elaborates, and she eats another pretzel piece. “And, fuck, I’m so jetlagged from Paris, I slept in really late for this and had to take a nigger shower, so, of course, I threw on the first thing I could find. I didn’t even put on makeup. I look a mess.”
“Kat!” Hanna shouts through giggles, alternating her wide-eyed gaze from Kat to Emery and back again. Kat continues to eat her pretzel pieces and their frizzy-haired, brown-skinned trio member stares at her drink.
The small blond woman throws the remaining pretzel pieces back into the bowl and takes a sip of her drink. “What! Obviously I’m not racist. I didn’t come up with the name. That’s what my mom calls it. Jesus, get your panties out of a bunch. Em, would you tell her that’s, like, a thing?”
At the sound of her name, Emery’s head shoots up and locks onto Kat’s expectant gaze and Hanna’s drunk smile, and she suddenly feels very tired. However her heart pounds in her throat and she can feel the sweat pooling at her armpits. “What did you say? I wasn’t listening,” she lies. She had, in fact, heard, but it is easier, she found, to pretend it never happened than to express the hurt that furrows inside her.
Hanna squeezes Emery’s arm and bumps her in the hip. That was another thing, she hated hip bumps, arm grabs, and being touched in general. She tries her best not to cringe, but her body tightens up in response. “What’s going on in your world, space cadet?”
She shrugs out of Hanna’s grip. There is nothing going on in her life. This is exactly the point. “Gotta pee,” she shrieks, her voice higher than she hoped, shaking her head and she finishes the rest of her drink in one big gulp. They watch her weave through the crowd and she turns left for a brief moment until their eyes avert, at which point she darts out onto the back porch.
Emery did not realize that she was holding her breath, but the fresh air feels good in her lungs and her whole chest heaves. Kat lives at the top of a hill, and from the backyard, she can see much of downtown skyline and the sparing city lights. The river sits as a big, black mass behind the buildings, and the view offers so much silence that the noise of the party is more jarring than when she was inside. She contemplates spending the rest of the night here, in the backyard, gazing at the city-scape.
Will her friends notice if she does not come back?
She is trying to hide from the reality that she spent so much time hoping for the loving embrace of people who did not exist anymore. Maybe they never existed and they were just her imagination of who they could be. Does it matter?
“Are they holding you hostage?”
She jumps at the sound of the voice so close to her ear but accompanied by no warmth and whips around to see a woman standing in the doorway two meters away. Her skin glows a deep, earthy brown in the lighting from the house and she pauses inside the threshold, as if unsure if she should step outside or not. Her hair is long and straight, down to her waist, and so dark that it almost blends in with her black dress. Prominent cheekbones, heart-shaped face, and dazzling almond eyes, she is beautiful. Ethereal.
Emery tries not to stare and turns back to the city-scape. “Excuse me?”
The woman’s heels click as they walk out onto the concrete patio deeper in the backyard, and then the grass rustles. “You don’t really want to be here, do you?” Her accent is British and the way she carries herself makes Emery think of a businesswoman.
“What makes you say that?”
The woman holds two beers and holds one out for Emery to take. She does and takes a swig. “The fact that you’re here and not in there?” Her tone implies that it is obvious, and it takes Emery a moment to realize that it is. They meet eyes briefly and then the woman tosses her head back to drink.
Emery forces herself to look away again, not to stare at her elegant neck, and shrugs.
“So,” she inches closer and winks, “are they holding you hostage or are you a masochist?”
“They’re my friends,” Emery answers, dodging the question as skillfully as she can. This is as smooth as she will ever get, she is sure.
“But you hate them.”
“I don’t hate them,” she hears herself respond. “I just…”
She does not have an answer. Kat and Hanna are her friends. That’s it. End of story.
Together, they stand in the backyard and look forward. The wind blows and it gives Emery goosebumps, and she resists shivering in front of this beautiful and arrogant woman. The party behind them seems to go silent.
The silence is soothing and comforting. The stress and sweat slows to a stop and Emery starts to feel like herself again.
“My name is Lightbringer, by the way,” the woman says finally when Emery’s beer is almost empty.
“–You should leave. You know you want to. Trash the whole damn place, tell Kat to fuck off with her racist bullshit, call Hanna the coward she is, pack your bags and leave. There is nothing tying you here but fear of the unknown. You could be free, you know.” Her expression is earnest, and her body shifts to face Emery head on.
Emery’s mouth hangs open in a perfect O, astonished and afraid by what she knows, but Lightbringer merely gives her a coy smile and continues.
“Being around them makes you hate yourself. I’m just saying that there’s a way out,” she reasons, taking the empty beer bottle from Emery before sauntering towards the door. “Life is too short to waste time on people you hate.”
And with that, the woman disappears through the door and into the house, and Emery is left all alone again. She shivers again, stifles a yawn, and then, with optimistic resignation, she returns to the noise.
It does not take Emery long to secure a stronger drink, a cocktail of several hard liquors and a strong fruit punch to mask the taste, and in her red Solo cup she lets the tasty poison numb her senses. She breezes through the crowd like a ghost, relieved not to listen to her subconscious screaming at her to leave and disgusted at her need to self-medicate to tolerate her only friends.
A slender, pale white arm snakes around her waist and pulls her into a group, pressing her against Hanna. Other than Kat, she does not recommend any of the faces, which is better this way. She does not need people she hates seeing her off her rocker.
Hanna rubs her arm and smiles. “So, who was that, uh, person you were talking to outside?”
Emery shrugs lazily, her shoulders rolling with an impressive noncommittal flare. “Oh, her? She said her name was Light-something or another.”
Kat rolls her eyes. “‘Her’? I could see her Adam’s apple from the kitchen!”
“Kat!” Hanna’s voice gets shrill and she tries to hide her giggles behind her drink. The others in the group all break out in laughter, but Emery goes rigid. “If Emery wants to hook up with them, then she should go for it.”
Her stomach lurches.
The small blond leans against the arm of the couch behind her and shakes her head. “Oh, please. I saved you from that last perv.” She averts her attention to Emery. “Do you remember that creep who went by ‘Stephanie’? You’re lucky you didn’t end up…”
She feels like a ghost in her own body. Half-finished with her drink, she drifts away, towards the ceiling, drowning out whatever insensitive shit Kat follows up with. All around them, people gather in groups, smiling, drinking, laughing. Someone spills their drink on the end of someone’s dress. Near the kitchen, two femmes lock eyes with each other while a very inebriated guy in a football jersey drenched in sweat hovers between them talking animatedly.
Something inside her stirs.
“What do you mean, you ‘saved’ me?” Emery snaps, her voice sharp and pulling her back into her body, shocking her as much as everyone else in the group. They all grow still.
Her friend’s blue eyes go wide. “Hanna and I talked to her for you.” Like a deer caught in headlights, Hanna’s eyes widen, her jaw drops, and her cheeks flush a deep red at Kat’s statement. She shakes her head and is geared to object when Kat continues. “She was always bothering you, and it was weird so we told her to back off or we’d tell everyone that we knew what she really was.”
Emery’s head feels full and her heart pounds on the inside of her ears. She remembers Stephanie, a tall older girl with green-yellow hair who visited the record shop. She was into metal and covered her Converse sneakers in Sharpie doodles, and her nail polish was always bright, and she always wore a black, spiky leather vest over a band tee shirt with the sleeves cut off. She was shy. Sometimes they talked, other times they just sat and listened. Then Stephanie invited her out for tea and french fries, and Emery spent three hours worried about what to wear. Then the time came, and there she sat waiting, but Stephanie never showed up and never came to the record shop again.
Emery thought something bad had happened or maybe Stephanie changed her mind.
Her friends are what happened.
So Emery explodes. Fast and with remarkable calm, she hits Kat in the face, fist balled, careful to hit with her knuckle, thumb un-tucked, turning all the way into her hip, following through. She feels Kat’s nose crunch under her hand and her knuckles feel wet with blood. She hovers, shoulders heaving as her ‘friend’ hits the floor and languidly grips her face. She can feel everyone staring, but it doesn’t matter.
Like a dam bursting, a lightness washes over her and she turns on her heels. “You.”
Her eyes lock on Hanna, doe-eyed and frightful, and she thinks about every single time that Hanna has been able to weaponize her pale skin and long, fluttering eyelashes to get out of enabling and engaging in horrible things. Yet again, though Hanna bullied and threatened someone, she will cower behind blaming Kat and saying it’s “Not a big deal!” and plead in her high-pitched voice, “Why are you being like this?” as if Emery is the irrational one.
Hanna will let her eyes well up with tears and, though she is taller and bigger than Emery, she will somehow make herself shrink under threat of accountability at the hand of the angry, black girl. She will cry, “How can you throw away thirteen years of friendship?” as if she isn’t the one who held it in her hands and rung the life out of it. When it is all over, Emery will be the “psycho” bad person who just blew up and Hanna will go along on her merry, rich, white, infallible way.
With all the pent-up rage that she can muster, Emery shoves her hard and watches her topple over. The rest of the group inches away from her, the music stops, and everyone stares. She doesn’t want to stop. She wants destruction. She wants to burn it all.
Emery grabs the lamp from the nearest coffee table, rips the cord from the wall, and throws it to the floor. She tears down mounted portraits, family photos in frames, vases of flowers. She runs her arm across the mantle of the fireplace and watches as their pristine, untouchable family shatters on the floor. The lights go out, one-by-one, covering the floor in broken glass, and scaring away all of the people who watch on. She knocks over the wide-screen television perched on the entertainment stand and then stands on the suede couch.
Both middle fingers high, she lets out a loud, gutteral scream that leaves her hoarse. And when she’s done, when her heart is pounding and her shoulders rise and fall rapidly, when she feels lighter than air, she catches the woman, Lightbringer, with a bemused smile and twinkling gaze watching on from the entrance hall. Ever so slightly, Lightbringer nods her support, turns, and leaves. So, triumphant, Emery yells, “Fuck you all,” steps down from the sofa, and heads for the door–
Like that, the daydream is through. Emery is back in her body, in the well-kept house, the lamps still alight, picture frames still together. Kat stares nervously, waiting for Emery to say something. Hanna waves her hand in front of Emery’s face.
Taking a deep breath and then gulping, Emery alternates her gaze between Kat and Hanna, hangs her head, and shakes it. “You two are horrible people, and fuck everyone who associates with and enables them.” And with that, she turns on her heels and leaves, ignoring their calls of protest. “Drop dead,” she yells as she slips through the door. With momentum on her side, she goes home, fills her backpack with clothes, and buys the earliest Greyhound ticket out of town.
She won’t come back.