By Jessie Atkin
I told her I was going over to Kate’s house to bake, so in a court of law, under every technicality in the book, I wasn’t lying.
I was being as honest as any teenager can be with her parents. Truth be told, if any of us told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, a whole generation would get locked up for its own safety.
So I caught a ride with Maria (though if anyone asks it was Maria’s mom doing the driving). We turned on music just angry enough for us to relate to and headed the three streets over to Kate’s house. It was already too dark to walk.
It always surprises me that Maria has a license, that anyone I know has a license. I can’t even believe we’re all tall enough to see out the front window.
We parked in Kate’s conveniently empty driveway before sloshing our way through half-hearted snow to her side door. We didn’t even knock. We just opened the thing and went right in.
Kate was already in the kitchen. “Late much, bitches?” she asked.
“Bitches?” I asked.
“I love you,” Kate said.
I jumped up on the counter, my parka still on. Kate and Maria were much more dignified standing there with their backs pressed up against the laminate, pea coats and gloves on.
I never understood how little wool nothings with big buttons could stand up to the cold in our neighborhood. I was told the coats were fashionable. I just thought my friends were crazy.
“It’s freezing,” I reminded them, eyeing their coats.
“We could try the paper towel roll,” Kate suggested, rolling her gloves together between her hands and ignoring me completely.
“We could try it,” Maria agreed. “Do you have one?”
Kate said she had a toilet paper roll upstairs.
Maria nodded again. “Close enough. We could try it.”
So I slipped off my shoes and left them in the middle of the floor. I followed them upstairs to the bathroom Kate didn’t have to share with anyone. I closed the door behind us.
“No one’s home,” Kate told me. “Except my sister.”
I kept the door closed and leaned against the sink.
Kate’s sister was a nice enough kid, but the poor thing was lonely, and nosy as hell. She wouldn’t ever say anything, but I wasn’t going to be the corruption factor. She wasn’t stupid, I just didn’t want to feel personally responsible. She’d learn what stuff was like eventually. Better to let the kid enjoy what was left of her innocent middle school existence before the world blew itself up in her face.
I started sweating there on Kate’s sink. Maria was fumbling with the cardboard and her baggy over near the toilet, behind which I could see the beers Kate had stashed.
It could be gross, I know, but the bottles were sealed and Kate’s house was pretty clean (even if it wasn’t tidied quite thoroughly enough to catch a bunch of beers hiding that way behind a toilet). But what could you expect from parents who left us to our own devices on a Saturday night?
It was one of those suburban bathrooms with two sinks in case you had enough kids. Otherwise it just proved you had enough money for more kids if you needed it. It made me laugh inside, the uses we were putting it to. If that left faucet could talk, I wonder what it’d say about where our money was going. Maria flicked a lighter, one of the cheap supermarket Bic kind. “They’re not beautiful, but they are best,” she liked to say.
“I can smell it,” I told her. Smoke was already rising from the paper towel roll.
“Shit,” Maria said, letting out a slow expert puff and glowering at the cardboard.
“Well, we did plan on a field trip” Kate smiled, pulling her gloves back out.
“It’s freezing,” I said again.
“It’ll be worth it.” Kate laughed. She’d do anything to numb out, even freeze. She slid past my knees and made it to the door.
So, with the tube thrown in the garbage where it belonged, we went back down the stairs, our steps muffled by Kate’s parents’ blue carpeting.
“Flashlight?” Maria asked.
Maria had to buy her own gas. It was a rule that when we used her Jeep for alternate purposes we were not to turn it on for light, heat, or otherwise.
“Shit,” Kate said. She had to run back up stairs to her own room. It was the only place in the whole house we could ever find anything other than booze.
Kate came back with a candle.
“Light and heat, excellent!” Maria told her.
I zipped my coat the rest of the way so it touched my chin.
Outside you couldn’t tell the slush from the sky. The sludge was everywhere, including on the car. The Jeep was camouflaged in cold gray fatigues.
Maria climbed behind the wheel and Kate beside her. I got in the back. I was always in the back. I pushed a bottle and a sweatshirt to the floor.
Maria’s car had the distinct smell of cigarettes and heartbreak. She basically lived out of the thing when she wasn’t living at Kate’s house.
I stayed away from cigarettes.
Kate flicked the Bic and lit the little soap store scented candle encased in its commercial suburban glass bubble. It sat right between the front seats, the only thing that took the time to look back at me. I never understood why people had candles just for kicks. They didn’t start moods, they started fires.
The last fire I’d started had been with a couple of college brochures. It had been an accident, in theory. My mom hadn’t been too pleased though. It wasn’t my fault, they were just leaning against a light bulb, the wrong sort of wattage too. It was a sign though, I swear. Where I should or shouldn’t go with my future. My mom didn’t like hearing that bit either.
Maria reached around the back of the driver’s seat and hit me in the face with her purse; the thing was as big as a normal person’s backpack.
“What the hell?” I laughed, reaching forward to smack her shoulder.
“Chill, I’m busy, I need my space.”
If she wanted space we shouldn’t have holed up in the car.
“Let the master work,” Kate called.
“It’s a skill.”
“Can you put it on a resume?”
“It’s not that kind o’ skill.” Maria laughed.
I knew it wasn’t, and I knew it wasn’t a skill I possessed anyhow. I wouldn’t have known shit from oregano.
It was an art form the way she packed, Maria. Everyone’s got to be good at something. Puzzling that stuff into a space that small was pure genius.
I wasn’t a genius. I was an idiot. I was stuck in the back seat.
Kate stared at the baggy, holding it up to the window. She was entranced by the naturality of it all. Mother Nature brand antidepressant. I didn’t like the way it looked, the ugly little buddies. I liked the piece.
It was a fancy little hand blown bit Maria’d traded some college art major for about a year ago. It was a hundred colors all at once with a little carb down on the left and everything. It changed every time we used it too, the glass just went all funky shades with the heat. But, besides looks, it was always just the same. We were shivering or sweating in the back seat or the back parking lot. What was the meaning in that?
“Let’s do this.” Kate grinned.
Maria picked her masterpiece up from the spot on the dash where she’d been hunched and flipped the lighter Australian style, the flame all down under. I burned myself every time I tried turning that stupid Bic upside down like that. Kate usually had to light the shit for me.
It always amazed me that Maria could suck faster and hold longer than anybody alive. Her lung capacity under normal circumstances was crap. She let the smoke out just as Kate started her hit. Maria coughed like a pro, as if each hack were deliberate and painless. The smoke mingled with my breath and it didn’t matter which was which.
Kate passed to me and I pulled my hands from my pockets. Gloves made me fear my fingers would catch fire.
“Help?” she asked. I didn’t need her to.
Glass to my lips. The Bic clicked and I inhaled. The ashes glowed as red as our eyes and my throat burned the way I feared Kate’s gloves would. I let it fall from my face and coughed sooner than I’d wanted to. You couldn’t see the smoke leave my mouth.
Kate and Maria did another pass before it was time for Maria to attempt a second jigsaw.
We should’ve been attempting the puzzle of SAT prep about then, but seriously, we were just sick of the preparation. We were always preparing for something else. This at least was just this.
Kate traced a heart on the fogged window. I pulled on my hood.
“Bakin’ now!” Kate called.
“Like cookies,” I said.
“Brownies,” Maria mumbled.
I got the glass back, twice, once, four shifts. I coughed up half a lifetime.
“Dude,” I said. “Candle.”
“Its aura’s a rainbow.”
Maria turned to look too, straight at that little bubble still sitting between the seats. No one spoke. It was too deep if it was there. It would have meant something if we could’ve thought what that was. It had to mean more because outside of the Jeep nothing meant anything, except beer.
“Man, I can’t hear, Eskimo.” I pointed at my hood.
“Polish Eskimo,” Marai replied. Both of them burst out laughing.
I wasn’t in on the joke. I didn’t expect to be.
It was cold. My coat to the cold was like my skin to the world. There was no helping it.
I scarcely needed them to pass me anymore, we were so fogged. I coughed all the time. I had asthma, influenza, the black plague.
They giggled about something.
I wondered if my blue was their green.
It started to snow.
I threw the purse back at them.
They checked the glove compartment.
I practiced with the lighter.
I blew out the candle.
Maria always said that the smoke wouldn’t stick like cigarettes, but I was sure I smelled like something. Even as the fresh frozen air beyond our oven assaulted my nostrils, there was no escaping my own stench. Despite the smell of another impending snow storm (they do have a distinct smell), I remained distinct as well. I had my own little shadow of a cloud right at my heels.
Kate tripped her way into the house. She rolled over to giggle up at us.
“We need some freaking pizza,” Maria told her.
So I guess we got pizza, because I remember washing it down with a beer that I had to fetch. I sat on every other step just to look at the paint on the walls. But I got to the bathroom and I grabbed the beers and I only dropped one on the way. It didn’t break, I just dropped it. Kate’s parents’ carpet was enough of a cushion for both of us.
We sat on the floor because the table was for squares. Parents sat at tables. Like Kate’s. I sat against the fridge while Maria and Kate stared back at me from the cabinets under the sink. They were still wearing their matching pea coats.
I wished my beer was cold. I wished the pizza had more than just cheese on it. I wished I was sitting against the cabinets. I wished I had taken off my coat. I wished I wasn’t in high school and that I wouldn’t have to go to college. I wished my high meant more than a rainbow and sourceless laughter. I wished I was back outside.
“Can you feel your fingers?” I asked.
Kate held her hands out in front of her.
Maria was holding a beer. “Dude, does it matter?” she asked, popping the bottle from her lips.
No, it didn’t really matter. Who cared how your fingers felt except you? It was probably better not to feel them. If you’re numb already, you don’t have to worry about it hitting you later. A bright side, you know?
“It’s so damn bright,” Kate said.
I stood obediently and turned the lights off. Fluorescence weren’t real lights anyway. I didn’t sit back down next to the fridge. I lay down across the floor. I stared at the ceiling.
“What are you looking at?” Kate asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“What do you see?” Maria asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
It was too dark. There was nothing before me, above me, anywhere. I wasn’t confused or disheartened; the beer seemed to calm that sort of thinking. I just thought maybe the dark was more honest than the rainbow. I mean, everything’s more honest than a rainbow. Chase them long enough and you reach high school (and then you’re really fucked). I thought maybe there was something truer there in the dark, some meaning in it. What sort of truth is that to tell? It could have been my high talking, but I don’t really know what it means to be high. What I do know is I’ll try it again.
I thought maybe Kate and Maria might come lie on either side of me. I thought maybe we’d miss each other in a year and a bit. I thought maybe we’d talk about something. I could have been in the middle that time.
“I wish I had another beer.”
“I wish we had a fridge for the beer.”
“We should just leave them outside.”
“That’s flippin’ brilliant.”
“Where are your parents?”
“At a table probably.”
“Is that a car?”
We were friends. We’d been friends. I thought maybe we laughed about it, about friendship, about something. But my eyes still stung from the smoke I guess.
I know Kate’s sister came in. I figure she saw us lying there and just shook her head. She stood over us and didn’t understand the giggles or the lights, but she knew why we were still in our coats. She knew, but she didn’t understand.
How can you understand something like being high? Like being people? It’s all too damn natural for us to pretend we know anything about it. Not Kate’s sister, not me, not our parents. It’s like trying to understand the earth, like the whole fuckin’ earth.
So she just shook her head because she thought she knew a little something and could pull off a condescending look. She didn’t really pull it off if I’m being honest. And she just left us lying there.
Or maybe it was just me.
Jessie Atkin learned to read later than most, but when the first Harry Potter book was released in 1998, an obsession was born. It’s no surprise her writing today focuses on young adults and children. In her non-existent spare time Jessie watches any movie starring Harrison Ford and follows the exploits of comic book superheroes. She published her debut YA novel, “We Are Savages,” in 2012. Visit her online at http://www.jessieatkin.com/.