Soft, billowy clouds rolled through the sky, washed all in pink and gold as the sun crawled its way up from the horizon. Bex sat on the roof of Nance’s van, legs crossed and hands resting on her lap, her palms turned up towards the sky. Her eyes were focusing on the tye-dyed clouds with a half lidded intensity. Not a single thought drifted across the landscape of her mind. She was too tired to think. Too tired to move. Too tired to feel anything but tired. The blood had been washed from the streets, but it still stank like death. Dark brown splotches were spattered across her cherry red jacket like a modern art piece, but she didn’t take it off. It felt hot and sweaty and stifling but she didn’t take it off. She wanted to shed it like a snake from its skin but she didn’t take it off.
She just couldn’t bring herself to do it. Removing it meant moving on from that night, and even though two days had passed since then, it still felt like just one long hellish evening. They were calling it “Salem’s Crucible” on the news. Not local stations, of course. The whole station had been slaughtered before 7pm that night, victims of a mob led by the chief of police. He was currently sitting in a holding cell, waiting for his trial after the FBI arrested everyone wearing a mask or bandana the morning after.
Bex closed her eyes and breathed in the stench of dried blood and viscera. She was ninety percent certain that a rioter’s small intestine was still resting in the front lawn of Em and Sarah’s house. She shuddered and wished that she didn’t feel so damn numb after it all. She had survived, but was she still alive? Was she just some ambling corpse, no longer able to feel after those bastard jocks tightened the noose around her neck? Had they killed her, and was this really just purgatory?
It couldn’t be heaven or hell. If it were heaven, Nance would be alive, and Diamond would be smiling up at her from between her legs and... Yeah. Not heaven.
If it was hell, then the chaos would never have ended. The FBI wouldn’t have swept through town the next morning and rounded up all the survivors. She and Em and Sarah and Lily would still be fighting for their lives against a horde of mouth breathing, slur spewing, mask wearing misogynists. And Reagan would be there.
By the time that Bex had opened her eyes again, Em and Sarah had come outside the house and had begun to put their bags in the back of the car. The sisters looked as tired as Bex felt, but there wasn’t anything she could say or do to help, really. They had just lost their mother. They had no family left, no home left, once the bank took the house. Just their belongings, which were now filling those matching duffel bags they held. Sarah held a pair of pillows under her arm and looked at the pavement of the driveway as Em put their things in the back. If Bex was wandering through a desert of numbness, then Em and Sarah were lost in a sea of emotion and turmoil.
Sarah put the pillows into the back seat as Em sat on the hood of the car, her bare legs dangling loosely over the front of it. She and her sister had changed into clean clothes and showered before packing up their things. Bex’s own belongings were still in the house, and she knew she ought to just get it over with and pack them up, but she couldn’t make herself do it. Not yet.
“I miss mom,” Sarah whispered as she sat down beside her adopted sister. Em wrapped an arm around her and pulled her into a hug. If they had any tears left to shed, they would have done so. Instead, Em just sighed, and whispered back a quick “me too.”
Bex uncrossed her legs, and pressed her foot gently against Sarah’s back, as if to say I’m here for you. She didn’t see the small twitch of a smile on her friend’s face, but it was there.
The sun had painted the sky blue again when Lily finally emerged from the house. She had showered and changed as well, and Bex began feeling self conscious about not having done the same. There was a pink duffel bag hanging from one of her arms, and a black one hanging from the other. Bex tilted her head as Lily approached, realizing what she had done.
“Did you pack my bag for me?” Bex asked, her voice weak and haggard.
Lily nodded. She tossed the bags into the back of the van and slammed the hatch shut, then circled around and leaned against the passenger side door.
“Did you grab my hormones?”
“Thanks,” Bex said, as a smile formed on her face for the first time in what felt like an entire lifetime. She slid off of the van’s roof and landed beside Lily, and wrapped her arms around the blonde and rested her head on the back of Lily’s neck, hugging her from behind. “Thank you,” she whispered again.
“Don’t mention it,” Lily told her. She was stiff, on edge, like she was still prepared for some masked maniac to run out from the garage with a knife. Bex couldn’t blame her, but she still missed the best friend who was always smirking or teasing or doling out compliments. But she was still there, beneath the shell that had been built up to protect her that night. The real Lily was still there, and she turned around to face Bex and hold her hand.
She felt warm, and she smelled like sunflowers. When Bex looked at her, it was like all the darkness and violence and bloodshed truly was in the past. Like things had actually gotten better. Or maybe like they had never gotten bad at all. But there was that cold fire in her eyes, the flame that said I’ll kill a motherfucker if he comes near us. Lily saw the same flicker in Bex’s deep brown eyes.
“How are you holding up?” Lily asked her, as Bex looked away.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that? It was your brother who-“
“Screw that little fuck,” Lily cut her off with a wry laugh. “You know my parents are asking me to move back in with them? After kicking me out? So fuck them too.”
Bex looked at Lily, a deep mixture of sorrow and regret written across her face. She wanted to say something. Something sympathetic or encouraging, something to show her support.
“Screw those fucks,” she agreed. Lily laughed again, this time for real, and she hugged Bex again.
“Are you okay?” Lily asked again, whispering the question into her best friend’s ear. Her lips were close enough to kiss the flesh, and Bex’s spine tingled as she wished that Lily would.
“I’ll live,” Bex said weakly. She kept flashing back, during the days but mostly at night, to the moment she nearly died. When the rope was tight around her neck and the truck’s engine was roaring, threatening to end her life in an instant as the jocks jeered at her. She’d live, yes, but she still felt dead.
Except when Lily held her. When Lily held her, she felt alive again. She felt like herself again. Like the girl who wasn’t afraid to go out in public in her own clothes, being called by her own name. The girl who felt normal, and who could laugh and smile and screw around and smoke and fuck and... And who could cry too. It occurred to her, as tears welled up in her eyes and she shook her head, that she hadn’t cried since that night. She hadn’t cried since she last felt.
Lily held her tight, and stroked Bex’s hair as she cried into her shoulder. She didn’t say anything, because nothing needed to be said. She just held her, for as long as she needed, until the tears had subsided and dried.
Bex pulled away, and she wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand, but then Lily gripped her chin with her thumb and forefinger and tilted Bex’s gaze so that she was looking Lily in the eyes. The cold flame faded, and she saw a glimmer of the old, mischievous Lily lurking in them. Her breath hitched, and Lily smiled that loose, crazy, devilish grin she always got when her heart was taking her in a direction that’d be sure to piss off moral guardians everywhere.
“Take your jacket off, girl.”
All it took was a shrug, and an emotional weight of several tons hit the pavement in a cherry red package. Bex smiled, genuinely smiled, for the first time since before the night it all went wrong. She felt open and young and free as the breeze caressed her bare shoulders.
She stripped off her shirt and pants, and Em tossed her a t-shirt and shorts from the back of the car. The change of clothes felt like a breath of fresh air, and when Bex was finished, she knew she was ready to leave. Sarah called shotgun with a fast fading somberness, while Em took the wheel. Lily pulled Bex into the back seat with her. Lily stretched out on the seats, and Bex sat on her lap as Sarah turned on the radio and tuned it to the local pop station.
“Any last words?” Lily asked as the engine roared to life and the sound of Ariana’s voice filled the air.
“Just two,” Bex said with a grin. “Fuck. Salem.”
And with the sun shining in the sky, with her friends surrounding her, with a sense of security and safety she had once lost now returning, Bex finally felt a new day begin. But that new day wasn’t in Salem. It never would be. That town, insane and violent and ugly, could never move forward. Nobody could move forward so long as they lived there. A new day came only when the four girls left, and headed for parts unknown. A new day, a new life, was waiting for them. And with Lily’s fingers laced with her own, Bex was ready to greet it head-on.