The morning after a sleepover reveals the toxic friendship between two young women, in this compelling short story by Suzannah Ball.
“I dreamt that you killed someone.”
She turned over, scrunching her eyes up as she did so.
“Why?” she asked, groggily.
“I don’t know, you just did.”
“Ok.” She groaned and flung her arm over my torso. I was staring up at the ceiling, straight as a board, while she, ever the smaller creature, was curled up inside herself. She nuzzled toward me, growing closer to my heart, curling us together and forcing me to relax my limbs in submission to her touch.
“Tell me about it,” she whispered.
I couldn’t resist the grin that stretched wide across my face. I turned towards her, mirroring her coiled form. I liked telling her things she didn’t already know.
“I don’t know who they were, you were just standing over them watching.” She raised a perfectly arched eyebrow at me in silent command to continue. “There was blood all over you.”
“Well, maybe I didn’t kill them. I could have been about to help them, but you woke up before you saw me do it.” She sat upright, dislodging us from our synchronised state, and scoffed. “Don’t be so morbid.”
I squirmed away from her as she drew her arms into the air, the movement pulling at her shirt and revealing a bit of smooth belly. I watched. She let out a big sigh and rolled her shoulders.
“Let’s get up,” I said, standing, volunteering my hand. Finding these small moments, opportunities, bursts where I was first, was integral to not being swallowed whole.
She grumbled but moved out of the sleeping expanse on her own, rejecting my assistance. The ‘bed’ was just a pile of blankets made up into a cushioned nest on the floor. I followed her as she slunk out of the room. We’d been awake most of the night, and I felt exhausted.
My bare feet padded against the cold tiled floor which led into her kitchen. I blinked as I reached the doorway, the midday sun catching my eyes. It streamed through the framed wooden windows which, battered by age, had glass so scuffed that they were hard to see through, letting in only the colour of light. She reached over to one of them and opened the latch, letting cool air in to diffuse the otherwise stuffy room.
Her house was an isolated cottage on the edge of town. I remember thinking that I must have been the only person who was able to get there, since I drove and no one else from our school had managed to pass their test yet. Even if the others had been able to venture out this far, I doubted she would let them get this close to the house, to her. At school, she had perfected an impenetrable persona which was maintained until after she left the building. Even I still struggled to wade through the mystique.
After a few seconds of facing the stove with her back towards me, she swivelled around with spatula in hand.
“What do you want to eat? I’m going to have pancakes.”
Knowing it wasn’t a question, I watched her to start to whisk, watched her arms gradually lax. Gently budging her out of the way, hips colliding, I grabbed the bowl and walked over to the fridge to get the milk, continuing her inevitably cut-short process, and noted how little else there was on the shelves. It splashed, accidentally, as I added it to the mixture, and I saw her wrinkle her brow out of the corner of my eye.
A great start to the day.
“Are you mad at me?” Quiet.
She walked out of the room and left me to flip the pancakes. When they were cooked and the batter all used up, I stacked them, perfectly round, onto a plain white plate which I then carried into the dining room. She had set the table. I hovered.
“We’re going to dye my hair today.”
I looked up at her as I finally took my place opposite. Her long fingers brushed through perfectly blonde hair, apparently soon to be ruined by a mishmash of box dye. Perhaps to soon be like Ariel.
“Oh, sure. What colour?” No reply. “I think it could look really cool.”
She laughed. “You better not mess it up.”
I loosed a sigh and ran my fingers through my own, much shorter, strands.
Back in the nest, after the minor battle of wits had subsided and she’d decided on the winner, we, she, had retreated. She lay eagled out on the floor, ends of limbs touching corners, cushions. I sat on the edge of her actual bed, placed at the side of the room but hardly used, and waited. I tried to immerse myself into her, to find a slow day, this day, somewhat enjoyable, while she just relaxed, lids flickering, eyes closed in bliss and most likely staring into the emptiness.
Relenting to my darker self, I got down off the bed and sank into her arms in a horizontal hug. She pulled me close and my head nestled into her. Although anxious, in this moment my world slowed down for her. I was content to remain by her side if it could always be like this.
I don’t believe the concept of time ever occurred to her.
Now twisted, she hugged me even tighter, so that in my uncomfortable position I almost couldn’t breathe. I tried to untangle myself from her grasp, not unkindly, and unravelled into the same placement as I awoke from this morning. I felt her hand smooth over the blanket beneath and between us, darting toward my side. I let my own float out and linked my fingers into hers. Though shorter and stubbier, they fit together. We held each other in a mutual silence.
If I closed my eyes now, I could so easily have fallen asleep, started the day afresh.
Had I even eaten?
“What colour will look best?” she asked, quietly, unconsciously. I let a smile slip.
“That is a brilliant idea!” she squawked, kicking out her legs so that the moment exiled me. “Let’s get ready then, what should I wear?”
I turned my head to face her. Her eyes were shot up toward the ceiling, twitching, but our hands were still clasped.
“Mhmm, it’s hot outside,” was all I could think of.
“Duh, but I want to look good.”
“You always do.”
I breathed out.
Her face screwed itself into a sly smile with eyes still closed, she abandoned my hand and rolled over onto me, pinning back my wrists with the weight of her own slight body. Her smile was in my face now.
“And that’s why you’re my best friend.”
She clambered off, grabbing clothes from the floor, and began to get dressed, flinging her pyjamas into random corners of the already messy room. I reached under the pillows beside me, grappling for my phone.
Five texts from my mum telling me to come home.
“Shit.” I groaned, turning so that I was face down into the nest.
She peaked her head through the hole in her nearly-on t-shirt. “What?”
I muffled a reply.
“I can’t hear you.”
Now dressed, she reached a hand downward, threatening to pull me upright by the hair on the back of my head.
“I have to go. Mum needs me back.”
She crossed her arms and let a distorting sneer slither from behind the mask. “Why? You said you would spend the day with me.”
“Well she needs my help now so…”
“Ugh,” she interrupted. “Typical.”
“Sorry.” Her foot was tapping on the floor.
“Whatever, leave. I’ll do it myself.”
“Are you sure?”
She went quiet again and began frantically picking up the bedding from the floor. She pulled at a piece beneath my feet, the sharp tug putting me off balance.
“Careful” I muttered and stepped to the side.
She was demolishing the spread, carrying all the sheets in her arms at once and stuffing them in an already full cupboard. I couldn’t bring myself to speak. She forced the cupboard closed, linen sticking out the sides, and I watched as she walked into her en-suite and slammed the door shut.
I sat, dejected, cross-legged on the floor in the non-existence of our nest for five minutes, maybe more, but I heard no more noise from the bathroom, and I had to get dressed. My clothes were in a neat pile on the bed next to my overnight bag from which I fished out clean socks and underwear. I folded my pyjamas and placed them into the bag, feeling suspended in place when almost everything was put away. I had left my toothbrush in her bathroom.
I walked over to the door.
“Hey, can I get my toothbrush from in there?” I called.
No answer. I knocked.
I opened the bathroom door. It wasn’t locked. She was sitting on the lid of the toilet, scrolling through her phone. I grabbed my toothbrush from the sink, hesitated, thought better and backed away, leaving the door open.
“Bye then” she mumbled, not looking up.
I walked back to the bed, put the toothbrush in my washbag, and zipped away all of my things. I slung the bag over my shoulder and walked out of the room, going through the light kitchen. The sun had gone in. The house lay in quiet and felt uncomfortably empty.
I stopped by the front door to put my trainers on, lingering when I heard a ringing deeper inside the house with her voice chiming in answer. She cackled inexplicably down the phone to someone that was not me.
I opened and closed the heavy door behind me, walked toward my car and only looked back at the house when I was next to the windshield. I tried to catch a glimpse through her window. She was still on the phone but staring in my direction. Once my eyes met hers, she looked away.