Chapter 1: Chapter 1
Zazzalil sat in the bathroom stall, flicking the lighter on and off. She watched the tiny flame flicker in and out of existence with growing frustration. This wasn’t doing it. She sighed and ran one hand through her long, curly, light brown hair. Her restlessness grew. She tied up her hair. I should really talk to somebody, Zazzalil thought, then shook her head. Today was not that day. The petite girl listened for a moment; making sure she was alone in the bathroom. All was quiet except for her own slightly uneven breathing. Zazzalil rolled up one sleeve of her over-sized red hoodie. Little brown marks in various stages of healing covered her arm. Burn scars. She really needed to stop doing this to herself. But today was not that day. She sighed again and flicked the lighter to life, staring at the flame for a little bit before touching it to her bare skin. A sharp intake of breath. She held it and then let the flame die. Her skin was red, but the fire hadn’t been there long enough to blister. Tears dripped silently onto her grey sweatpants. She flicked the lighter again just as the bathroom door opened. Zazzalil paused but kept it lit. The hot metal was starting to burn her thumb, but she was used to it and didn’t want to be caught. The other person in the bathroom flushed and went to the sink. The metal grew hotter. It was really starting to hurt.
“Ah!” she exclaimed, unable to keep from reacting to the pain. The lighter clattered to floor and slid out of the stall. Fuck. The sink stopped. She watched a pair of tan TOMS approach her stall door. The person stooped to retrieve her lighter. Zazzalil reacted before she could think, shooting up and wrenching open the door.
“Hey that’s mine!” She yelled defensively. She hadn’t meant to be that loud. Zazzalil glared down into the face of the crouching girl. Great. It was Jemilla. Student body president. Drama club president. She would probably be valedictorian. And to top it all off she was impeccably beautiful and fit. Man, it really pissed Zazz off. Today was not her day.
“Obviously,” Jemilla scoffed as she stood up. She was at least a head taller than Zazzalil. She scowled down at her, “You’re not allowed to smoke in here. I should really turn you in.”
“I wasn’t smoking,” Zazzalil retorted.
“Oh?” Jemilla’s expression was disbelieving, “Then what were y—” Her faced changed from mistrust to concern as she noticed Zazzalil’s tear streaked face. Zazzalil's eyes widened and her heart pounded. God damn it! “Zazzalil?”
Zazzalil didn’t go to the rest of her classes that day. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, and she definitely didn’t want to run into Jemilla again. So she went home. Zazz pushed open the gate of The Tribe Group Home. It was a large, older house that was welcoming enough in its own way. She lived here with 4 other girls and their foster parents (or "The Tribe Leaders" as everyone called them). Mercifully, no one would be home this early in the day. Zazzalil opened the door to the bedroom she shared with another girl, Keeri. The room was moderately sized with two twin beds on either side. Next to each bed was a bedside table with a lamp. There was also a large chest and the end of each bed for personal belongings. Each side of the room also had a desk and a small dresser. It was the nicest place she’d ever stayed, and she had been in A LOT of homes. She’d been in this particular home since eighth grade and would probably (hopefully) be there until she graduated at the end of the year. All her housemates were nice, as were the Tribe Leaders Clark and Claire. But Zazzalil mostly kept to herself. Keeri was her best friend and the only person she truly interacted with.
Zazzalil walked to left side of the room (her side), collapsed on the bed and curled up in a ball. She stayed there until Keeri came home.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Keeri had entered the room to the, sadly, familiar sight of Zazzalil curled in on herself. She waited for Zazz to respond. Sometimes it took a while. The tall blonde girl tossed her bags onto her own bed. One was for the school, the other held her dance clothes. Keeri took down the two loose buns she kept her dirty blonde hair up in everyday and let it fall over her shoulders. Still no response from Zazz. She sighed and crossed the room.
Keeri waited…then Zazz scooted over to make room for her. She laid down, spooning Zazz whilst making sure not to touch her arm, just in case. They stayed like that for another few minutes until Zazzalil spoke. Her voice was hoarse from crying, from yelling earlier, and from general disuse.
“Jemilla almost caught me in the bathroom today,” she croaked.
“What? How? What happened?”
Zazzalil recounted the story ending with, “And that bitch took my lighter.”
Keeri considered her response. She wasn’t as dumb as people thought she was. They always underestimated foster kids.
After a moment Keeri said, “Maybe that’s a good thing?”
Zazzalil shot up into a sitting position, scowling down at Keeri. “A good thing? Seriously?”
Keeri continued quickly, “Well yeah. I mean like now that Jemilla has your lighter. Maybe you can—”
“I have other lighters Keeri.”
There was another moment of silence as Keeri’s argument fizzled out. Then,
“I’m sorry. I’m just worried about you is all. Really worried. You haven’t been getting better. You need to talk to somebody.”
“I talk to you.”
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
“I know. I’m working on it. Just...please don’t say anything to Claire and Clark.”
Keeri looked into Zazzalil’s now tear-filled eyes.
“Thank you. I love you. I’m going to go take a shower.”
Keeri watched Zazzalil with concern as she disappeared out the door and down the hall.
The shower sprang on. Zazzalil undressed slowly as the water heated up. How did I get here? Steam rose from the shower. Zazz stepped into the warm spray and reflected on her life. She had a pretty happy early childhood. Her single father raised her after her mother died in childbirth. He was an anthropologist and they traveled all over the world, living among and researching different native peoples. Then, at age ten, her life changed forever.
She turned the water temperature up.
Her and her dad and his team had gone on a months long research trip to Africa. One day, as a local girl around her age was teaching her to build a spear, her father’s best friend and research partner had come backing out of the woods, dragging something. No, someBODY, as he screamed for help. The locals and the rest of the team went running. Zazzalil had stood to run too, but an elderly tribeswoman, Molag, grabbed her hand, pulling her away from the scene, into a hut. Later that night, she learned of her father’s tragic death. He had been trampled by a rampaging elephant. There was no way anybody could have survived his injuries.
She turned up the water again, wincing as it became slightly uncomfortable.
Her dad’s friend killed himself a short while after they returned to the States. Zazzalil had no living relatives, so into the system she went.
Another turn of the faucet. The heat of the water was definitely hurting her now. But she didn’t care.
She lived the stereotypical life of a foster child from that point on. Zazz was bounced from home to horrible home. She never formed any meaningful relationships. She retreated into herself. It wreaked havoc on her psyche. The burning started soon after.
One more turn. The hot water was all the way up now. It was scalding, the droplets turning to tiny pinpricks of pain. The bathroom filled with steam so thick she could barely see. Zazzalil wept silently.
A knock on the door pulled her out of her reverie.
“Zazz?” It was Keeri. Shit, how long have I been in here? “Zazz the Tribe Leaders say it’s time for dinner.”
Zazzalil took a few deep breaths before shouting, “K! Be right down!” in what she hoped was a lighthearted voice and turned off the shower. She dressed in red plaid pajama pants and a maroon sweatshirt, making sure the sleeves stayed down before exiting the bathroom.
Zazzalil was the last to the table. Keeri gave her a brief smile as she took her place next to her best friend. Clark and Claire were at either end of the large table. Keeri and Zazz sat on one side. Shwoopsie, Tiblyn, and Emberly sat on the other. Everyone was chatting excitedly about their day. Zazz stayed quiet, playing with her broccoli. She wanted to go upstairs but she knew if she left too early, the Tribe Leaders would question her. So she endured. The doorbell rang.
“Hmm, anyone expecting company?” asked Claire sweetly. Everyone shook their heads.
“I’ll get it then,” volunteered Clark, rising. The table stayed quiet to hear was going on down the hall. Clark unlocked and opened the door.
“Oh hello,” he said cheerily, “Are you one of our kid’s friends from school? We’re just having dinner now. Baked chicken and vegetables. You’re welcome to join us.”
“Oh no I couldn’t impose.” Zazzalil froze with her fork halfway to her mouth as the sound of Jemilla's voice assaulted her ears. What the FUCK was SHE doing here? Keeri was eyeing Zazz. The conversation at the door continued. “Actually, I would like to speak with Zazzalil for a second. If you don’t mind of course Mr--?
“Clark. All the kids just call me Clark.”
“Okay, Clark. I just need a few moments. I won’t keep her long.”
“No problem. I’ll get her. Hey Zazz?!,” Clark called over his shoulder, “There’s a someone at the door for you! Says her name’s Jemilla!”
All eyes fell on Zazzalil’s reddening face. She closed her eyes. FUCK. Zazzalil set her face in what she hoped was an off-putting expression and pushed of from the table. She mumbled a thanks to Clark as she stepped onto the porch with Jemilla, letting the door shut behind her.
It was a chilly late-October twilight. Zazzalil stood barefoot in her pajamas, arms crossed, staring at the chipping paint of the porch floorboards. Jemilla was wearing a pair of jeans, black boots, a black sweater, and a turquoise scarf. Her shoulder length curly auburn hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She was the epitome of perfect and put-togetherness, as always. It made Zazz sick.
“So what do you want?” asked Zazz pointedly.
Jemilla frowned, “Well hi to you too.”
“We’re not friends Jemilla.”
“I’m just being polite.”
“Fine. Hi. Now what do you want?”
Jemilla reached into her jeans pocket and held out her hand. Zazz looked up. Her lighter. She gazed into Jemilla’s face for a second. She had a stunning smile. Zazz dropped her eyes and took the lighter.
An awkward pause. Then Jemilla spoke.
“Look Zazzalil. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s none of my business, but if you need help...”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know you’re more than people give you credit for. I’m a teachers’ assistant. I’ve seen your grades in science. You’re brilliant at it. You could be an engineer. And I know you have an excellent singing voice. We were in choir together before you dropped out. I see how much you care about that girl, Keeri, even though you want people to think you don’t care about anything or anybody. I’m sure there’s much more about you I don’t know. Just as a fellow student, I want you to know that you have value, whether you realize it or not.”
Zazz hadn’t expected this. Just how long had Jemilla been watching her? The nerve of Jemilla. Trying to be her knight in shining armor. She didn’t need her help or want her pity. Zazz opened her mouth to spit back a retort, then closed it again, and murmured a quick “Yeah okay. Gotta go.”
“Zazzalil wait!” The door slammed shut.
Zazzalil sprinted down the hall, pass the kitchen, and up the stairs to her room. She threw herself on her bed hoping Jemilla hadn’t noticed the angry tears in her eyes and cried herself to sleep, lighter clutch in her fist.
Zazzalil woke around midnight. The room was dark. Light snores drifted over from Keeri’s bed. She rolled over onto her back, toying with her lighter. It was warm and familiar. Safe. The only constant in her life. As she flicked it on and off, she thought about her interaction with Jemilla. God that girl was such a nosy goodie-two-shoes. Why did she CARE so damn much? She should learn to mind her own business. And yet, Jemilla had said all that nice stuff about her. The most popular, successful girl at school had NOTICED her. Why was that? Zazzalil decided she wasn’t worth it and rolled over into a fitful sleep.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
At school the following day, a piece of paper flitted to the floor when Zazzalil opened her locker. She bent to pick it up. It was a neatly folded piece of notebook paper. Opening it revealed a message written in a pink, tidy scrawl:
Zazzalil. If you ever need anything. Anything at all. Feel free to call or text me. No judgement. -Jemilla P.
A phone number was written beneath it.
Pfft. Yeah right. Zazzalil crumpled the paper in her fist and threw it haphazardly into her bag. She didn't want JEMILLA's help of all people. She had Keeri and herself and that was all she needed. Still Zazz could have thrown the note away. But she didn't.
When Zazzalil returned to The Tribe after school, there was an official-looking envelope on her bed. Claire must have put it there. Zazz's stomach dropped as she read the return address. It was from MIT. This was it. She hadn't told anyone she applied. Not even Keeri. There was no way she could get in. Still, a little sliver of hope glowed deep inside. Zazz hit the envelope under her pillow to open later.
That night, after everyone had gone to bed, Zazz prepared to go out. Keeri had left that morning for a dance competition and would be gone for the next couple of days. There was no one to question her. Zazz grabbed her bag, slipped the envelope into it, shoved her lighter into her pocket and crept out of the house to her favorite place to be alone.
The park was not special. Just quiet and secluded this late on a weeknight. She liked to climb up on the playground equipment to sit in the night air. There wasn't a lot of privacy at home or at school. This was her sanctuary. Sitting cross-legged on the landing at the top of the largest slide, she pulled the envelope out of her bag, not noticing the crushed ball of paper that fell out with it. She took a deep breath before slitting the letter open and unfolding a thick, expensive piece of stationary. She held her phone up to read in the darkness:
Thank you for your interest in our establishment. We regret to inform you—
Her heart sank. Dammit. She knew she was stupid to try. How could someone like her ever get into a school like that? She admonished herself for feeding her false hope. Zazz dropped the rejection letter and pulled her knees up to her chest. Tears stung her eyes. When her breathing started to hitch, she pulled out her lighter and pushed up her sleeve.
It really hurt this time. A two-inch long patch of skin on her forearm was raised, red, and blistering. It kept burning long after she'd stopped. Maybe too long. Panic set in. Had she gone too far? She didn't know what to do. As she looked around wildly, she spotted the crumpled notebook paper. She hesitated, then grabbed it and punched Jemilla's number into her phone:
@Lake Park. Top of slide. Pls come.
She hit send and put down her phone. It was past midnight. Jemilla was a straight A student. No way she'd be up. Her phone vibrated suddenly.
Be there in 15.
Zazzalil felt a little better in spite of herself. She put her head down and waited for Jemilla to get there.
Exactly 15 minutes later, she heard someone climbing the playground equipment. She didn't move. If it was a serial killer, she'd be fine with that too. She had nothing to live for.
"Zazzalil?" Jemilla's voice called to her quietly. As if approaching a hurt wild animal. Zazz raised her head. The tall, beautiful girl was crouched in front of her wearing a sweater, sweatpants, and running shoes. Her short hair was pulled into a ponytail that was a lot messier than usual. Like it had been hastily put up.
Zazz didn't know how to respond. Part of her didn't think Jemilla would actually show up.
"Zazzalil are you alright?"
She shook her head and buried her face in her knees again, pointing to the discarded letter. She heard Jemilla pick it up. It was quiet as she read.
"I'm so sorry," Jemilla said when she'd finished. Zazzalil lifter her head again, fresh tears streaming down her face. She should feel embarrassed, but she didn't. Just lonely and helpless. Jemilla placed a comforting hand on Zazz's knee but eyed the lighter laying next to her. Zazzalil held her breath.
"Zazz did you?"
Zazzalil nodded slowly.
"May I see it?"
"Please. I just want to help. Otherwise I wouldn't be here. I won't tell anyone unless I absolutely have to. I promise."
Zazzalil's teary brown eyes shown into the darkness as she searched Jemilla's face for any sign of insincerity. Finding none, she took a shuddering breath and pulled up her sleeve. Jemilla shined her phone light on it.
"Oh Zazz," she murmured sympathetically when she saw what the petite girl had done to herself. Jemilla inspected the damage, apologizing when Zazzalil winced at her touch. Then she started to pull supplies out of a small bag Zazz hadn't noticed before.
"Well the good news is," Jemilla stated as she spread antiseptic gently on Zazzalil's burn, "I won't have to tell anybody. You're going to be fine. My dad's a paramedic, He taught me all about recognizing and treating minor injuries."
Zazzalil released the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding and watched Jemilla fix her up. After her arm was bandaged, Jemilla pulled her sleeve back down, put her supplies away, and sat down next to Zazz. She waited for Zazz to speak, watching her face expectedly.
"Thank you," Zazzalil said after a moment, "Keeri is out of town and I guess I just freaked out. I'm sorry it's so late."
"It's alright. I meant what I said when I gave you my number. Anything you need."
Zazzalil nodded, fiddling with her lighter. Jemilla took note of it but said nothing. Zazz spoke again.
"How did you—"
"Know that you were hurting yourself? Well after what happened in the bathroom at school yesterday and they way you reacted when I came to your house, it wasn't hard to figure out. But…I also come from a place of personal experience."
Zazzalil raised her eyebrows. She hadn't expected this. Not from Jemilla. The taller girl rolled up one leg of her loose sweatpants to mid-thigh and shined her light on it. Zazz leaned in. Her mouth dropped open in shock. Thin, white scars were barely visible on Jemilla's tanned skin. Zazzalil looked at Jemilla as she rolled her pants down, waiting for her to explain.
"I was thirteen. A perfectionist. A ball of anxiety and stress. This was how I dealt. One day, I went too far. My mom found me bleeding out on the bathroom floor. I spent a week in a psychiatric hospital and the next few years in therapy. Eventually, I was able to stop. It's been two years since the last time. I'm lucky to have such supportive parents. I've never told anybody else."
Zazzalil took a moment to take it all in. She was coming to the realization that maybe her and Jemilla had more in common than she originally thought.
"Well thank you for sharing that. Your secret's safe with me. I'm sorry you went through all that. Your…your parents sound great."
"They are. I'm really grateful they adopted me."
The word hit Zazzalil like a smack to the face. Adopted.
"You were adopted?'
"Yes. My birth parents died when I was around three. I spend a couple of years in the system and then got adopted. I was so grateful that when I started school, I swore to be the best that I could be. To work hard and be perfect so they would never regret it."
"That makes sense."
They really were like two sides of the same coin. Zazzalil told Jemilla about her father and her past. About her group home and The Tribe Leaders. Jemilla got a kick out of that. It was almost 3 A.M. when Jemilla said, "You know Zazz. I could help you apply to other schools. Local ones, maybe. And I'm sure we can convince your science teacher to write you a recommendation letter. That could help a lot."
Zazzalil hadn't expected that. Frankly, she had forgotten all about the school thing.
"I don't know…"
Jemilla stood up and offered Zazz a hand. She took it, allowing the taller girl to pull her up.
"Just promise me you'll think about it."
"Thank you. Let me walk you home."
Less than ten minutes later, they were standing in front of The Tribe's gate. Zazzalil fiddled with her bag strap.
"Thanks for coming Jemilla. Could you…uh…text me when you get home? I couldn't forgive myself if anything happened to you." The last sentence tumbled out of her mouth before she realized what she was saying.
Jemilla smiled and pulled Zazz into a hug. The smaller girl froze, then allowed herself to relax into Jemilla's warm embrace. The only other person she ever hugged like this was Keeri. Eventually, Jemilla pulled back with her hands on Zazz's shoulders.
"I promise," she said with another dazzling smile.
Then she turned on her heels and set off at a brisk walk up the street. Zazzalil watched until she turned the corner out of sight.
That night, as she was laying in bed, she wondered if this would all be a dream in the morning.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Two days later, Jemilla was banging on a bathroom stall door.
"Come on Zazz open up."
Zazzalil was sobbing loudly in the bathroom stall, lighter in hand. She had just learned that she might not graduate on time. If she didn't graduate this year, there was nothing the Tribe Leaders could do. She would have no place to go.
Jemilla had been running an errand for a teacher at the front desk when Zazzalil had come tearing out of the counselor's office in tears. She'd excused herself and sprinted after her. By the time she reached the bathroom, Zazzalil had already barricaded herself in a stall.
"Zazz please talk to me!"
"You wouldn't understand!"
"Do you really think that? After everything we've been through this week?"
"This is different."
"Then I can go see if I can pull Keeri out of class."
"No don't do that. Just please go away."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Suit yourself." The lighter clicked.
"Zazzalil please don't! You don't have to do this. You're not alone this time."
A pause, then a latch unlocking.
Jemilla pushed open the door and could immediately tell Zazz was in a bad place. Fat tears rolled down her splotchy cheeks. Her breathing was quick and uneven. She had her lighter in one hand and her opposite sleeve pulled up, Jemilla's was bandage still on there from the other night.
Jemilla steadied herself and spoke in a clear, careful voice not wanting to set Zazz off.
"Zazzalil give me the lighter."
The petite girl gripped it tighter and shook her head.
"Zazz please. If you light that bandage on fire, then I'll be forced to tell someone. We both know you don't want that."
Zazz hiccuped, flicked the lighter on…then let it go out and dropped it into Jemilla's open palm with renewed sobs. Jemilla pocketed it.
"Good. Thank you. I'm proud."
Zazz cried harder.
Jemilla pulled Zazzalil up to switch places with her, then pulled the small girl onto her lap, cradling her. The usually feisty Zazz just sobbed openly into Jemilla's shoulder, her arms wrapped around the taller girl's neck. Jemilla made soothing noises and rubbed her back. They stayed like that for a full ten minutes. Finally, Zazz began to calm down. She stopped crying but didn't let go of Jemilla. The bell rang. Lunch time.
"Come on Zazz. I'm going to take you home."
Zazzalil shook her head, tightening her grip.
"Come on," Jemilla repeated, "If you won't walk, I'll carry you out. In. Front. Of. Everyone."
Zazzalil's head popped up.
"You wouldn't dare," she said thickly.
"She speaks! And I so would. Don't test me."
Knowing Jemilla's stubbornness, Zazzalil peeled herself off of her and they headed to the front office together. Jemilla insisted on holding Zazz's hand so she couldn't run away. People stared. Zazz kept her head low and held onto Jemilla's arm.
Jemilla took care of everything in the office. She had quite a pull with the staff. They were in her car in no time.
"So? Are you going to tell me what happened?" Jemilla asked as she backed out of the parking lot.
Zazzalil took a deep breath and started to recount what the counselor had told her before dissolving into fresh tears. Jemilla comforted her the best she could whilst driving. They didn't speak again until they were parked in front of the group home. Jemilla started to get out.
"What are you doing?" Zazz questioned, looking puzzled. She had been under the impression that Jemilla was going to drop her off.
"Well I'm obviously not going to just leave you here alone. I cleared it with the school. I got all our assignments for the rest of the day. I'm going to stay here with you. At least until Keeri comes home."
Zazzalil opened her mouth to protest, then shut it again. She really didn't want to be alone. So she let Jemilla follow her inside and up to her room. She opened the door and tossed her bag onto the floor. Under any other circumstance, she would have been embarrassed for a girl like Jemilla to see the state of her and Keeri's living space. The Tribe Leaders only did inspections once a week and neither girl was tidy by nature. Zazz collapsed face down on her bed. Jemilla seated herself in Zazzalil's desk chair and whipped out her phone. The girl on the bed didn't move. Jemilla, ever studious, began on some homework. A while later, the doorbell rang. Zazzalil finally sat up, confused.
Jemilla grinned sheepishly, "I ordered us food. We skipped lunch remember?"
Zazz's stomach rumbled. Jemilla giggled and Zazz cracked her first smile of the day.
"I can get down with that."
They ate their takeout in Zazz's room. That normally wasn't allowed but as long as Zazz disposed of the evidence before the Tribe Leaders got home it wouldn't matter. Jemilla had gotten them Chinese: a box of chow mein and rice for herself and a bowl of orange chicken and fried rice for Zazzalil. When Zazz had questioned Jemilla's food choice for her, Jemilla told her that when she stopped by the other night, Clark had invited her in for chicken and vegetables. She figured it was a safe bet but had ordered an extra side of noodles in case Zazz was a vegetarian like herself. Zazzalil gaped in surprise. Jemilla really did think of everything.
After their lunch was finished and the evidence discarded, Jemilla decided it was time to try to talk to Zazz about what had upset her earlier. Zazzalil was able to tell her the whole story this time. She told her about how the counselor had said that whilst Zazz's science grades were excellent and her math grades decent, her other grades were sub-par. Especially in history. She would have to pass the class with an A to be able to walk with her other classmates at the end of the year. Jemilla listen attentively.
"…and I HATE history. Why should I care what some old dudes did a bajillion years ago? It's SO hard to pay attention. I just zone out. I don't know what to do." Her voiced hitched at the end.
Jemilla rose from her chair to sit on the bed next to Zazz and put a protective arm around her shoulder.
"Well I do," she said reassuringly, "I will tutor you personally."
Zazzalil searched Jemilla's face. She wasn't lying.
"You would do that? For me?"
"Of course. You've grown on me rather quickly Zazzalil." She smiled. Zazzalil blushed and dropped her eyes from the pure brilliance of it.
"Well…thank you, Jemilla. Can we start tomorrow? I don't think my brain can handle any more strenuous activity today."
Jemilla chuckled, "Whatever you want."
This time, it was Jemilla's turned to be surprised when Zazzalil hugged her tightly.
That was when Keeri walked in.
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
"Um, what the fuck?" Keeri stood, disbelieving in the doorway. Zazz and Jemilla sprang apart in embarrassment.
Jemilla spoke quickly, "Oh hey Keeri! I'm glad you're here. Well Zazz, I see you're in good hands, so I'll be going now. See you tomorrow!" Jemilla practically ran out of the room. Keeri stared after her then turned to Zazz.
"Care to explain?"
Zazzalil told her everything starting with the night in the park. She included the rejection letter but left out Jemilla's backstory because it wasn't hers to tell. She told her about earlier that day, about what the counselor said, and about Jemilla's offer. Keeri listened the whole time, quietly munching on the extra side of noodles Zazz had saved her. Zazz finished with, "I don't really understand why Jemilla wants to help ME of all people?'
Keeri snorted and choked on her noodles. Zazz wacked her on the back. When Keeri could breathe again she spoke, "Well isn't it obvious? Jemilla likes you. Like, she like-likes you."
It was Zazz's turn to snort, "'Like-likes?' Come on. We're not in first grade. Besides, I doubt Jemilla even likes girls."
"Oh she likes girls."
"And how could you possibly know that?"
"Well I like girls and my gaydar is impeccable," Keeri ignored Zazz's eye roll, "And you like girls but you just assume all of them are straight. Then there's Shwoopsie."
"Our super butch tribemate Shwoopsie? What does she have to do with Jemilla?"
Keeri hesitated, then seemed to make up her mind about something.
"Okay so listen. Last summer I was up at the school for dance rehearsals. As I was walking through the parking lot, I saw a car and it, like, drew my attention because it was summer and there weren't many cars and I didn't mean to look really but—"
"Oh my god Keeri get on with it!"
Zazz hopped up, "You WHAT? And this was LAST summer? And you never told me? What the fuck? I'm your best friend!"
"I know. I know. I wanted to tell you, like, immediately. Duh. But Shwoopsie beat me home and cornered me. She made me swear not to tell a soul. And I didn't…until today." Keeri looked mighty proud of herself. "You can NOT tell her I told you. She will literally eat me alive."
"I won't but…wow." Zazz was speechless. Her mind was racing.
She'd never had a girlfriend before. Well, except for Keeri if that counted. They had mutually decided that they were better off as friends, considering their living situation. Now they were more like sisters. Jemilla though, she was different. She was way out of Zazz's league in more ways than one. And yet…she thought back to the past couple of days. Keeri watched her deep in thought.
"I'm going to take a shower. It helps me think. I'll be fine though. I promise," she said, noticing Keeri's worried look.
After Zazzalil's (perfectly normal thank-you-very-much) shower and dinner, she flopped back down on her bed preparing to text Jemilla. Keeri's revelation made this situation way more complicated. She was good at reading people and Zazz trusted her sister's judgement. She thought of Jemilla. She was gorgeous, toned, smart, compassionate. Definitely girlfriend material. But was Zazz? What did she bring to the table? She gathered her courage and sent Jemilla a casual text.
Less than two minutes later:
J: Hey! Is everything alright?
Z: Ya im good.
J: Great! glad to hear you're feeling better.
Zazz smiled in spite of herself.
Z: Thx. Ur a saint Jemilla. How r u?
J: Don't flatter me ha ha. I'm not all that. I just care you know?
J: Also I'm good. It was sweet of you to ask.
Z: No prb. So tmmrw? Wanna tutor me after skool? Mayb ur place? It gets loud here.
J: Sure! That's a great idea! See you tomorrow! Goodnight!
Zazzalil sighed and fell asleep with a smile on her face for the first time in forever.
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
After school the next day, Zazzalil perched on the hood of Jemilla's car, waiting. She had taken more time than usual to get ready this morning. Her long, curly, light brown hair had been brushed back into a side ponytail and held with a crossbones-shaped clip. Instead of her usual sweatpants/t-shirt combo, she sported black skinny jeans, red converse, and a grey crop top with a long burgundy cardigan thrown over it. Keeri had taken one look at her and smiled so smugly that Zazz threw her hairbrush at her. It wasn't like she was trying to impress Jemilla. Nope. Not at all. She was simply feeling better lately.
She hadn't seen the girl all day though. That was typical. They didn't share any classes or extracurriculars so it was unlikely they would cross paths. She couldn't contain her smile as Jemilla appeared, rushing down the front steps of the school. Her short, auburn curls bounced around her face. Ever fashionable, she wore a blue plaid skirt, black tights and flats, and a blue form fitting top. She was truly stunning. As a friend.
Zazzalil hopped off the hood as Jemilla approached, arms weighed down with thick books.
"Hey Jmills! Let me help you with that."
Jemilla raised an eyebrow at the nickname, but transferred the textbooks to Zazz so she could get her keys.
"Cute outfit. Wow you're strong," she commented, noticing the smaller girl was having a much less difficult time with the load.
Zazz blushed. "Yeah well thanks I guess," she said, trying to play it cool. "What is all this stuff anyway?"
"Extra study material. For the tutoring."
Zazzalil groaned. She'd briefly forgotten the reason she was hanging out with Jemilla in the first place. She glanced down at the books.
"Are we even going to be able to get through all of this by the end of the year?"
"Of course! It's going to be a lot of effort. But lucky for you, I'm no stranger to hard work."
She groaned again mumbling, "Yeah, lucky me."
Jemilla lived in a big white house in a middle-upper class suburb about twenty minutes from the school. It didn't have as many rooms as The Tribe, but it was still quite spacious for a single family of three. The girls deposited their shoes on a rack by the door and headed up a flight of stairs to Jemilla's room. Zazz followed her in, looking around. It was definitely the room of an only child who had lived there a majority of her life. It was bigger than the one Zazz and Keeri shared. White shelves containing an assortment of trophies and awards lined the light blue walls. A queen-sized bed sat in one corner juxtaposed by a large black bean bag in the other. She had a large desk, on which sat a very expensive laptop. Another wall was home to a formidable bookcase, the shelves housing what looked like a couple hundred books. She had her own bathroom and a walk-in closet. Just as Zazz had expected, it was extremely clean and organized.
"Wow Jmills," she whistled, " Really living that 'Daddy Warbucks' life aren't cha?"
Jemilla chuckled, slightly embarrassed, "I'll take that as a compliment. Ready to get to work?"
"Uuuuuuuuugh! Do we have to?"
"Yes! Besides, I have a surprise for you!" She rummaged through her backpack and turned around squealing, "Flash cards!"
Zazz rolled her eyes.
Two hours later, someone knocked on Jemilla's door. Zazzalil slammed shut the book in her lap, thankful for the interruption. Her brain was exploding.
"Come in," Jemilla called out.
A tall, handsome black man with friendly face entered the room. He was wearing an emergency services uniform. He smiled at Zazz.
"Hello," he said in a deep yet hospitable voice. "I'm Jemilla's father, Mr. Pockmacker. You can call me Mr. P." He offered her a hand. She shook it.
"Hi. I'm Zazzalil…um…Zazz for short."
"What's up Dad? We're studying." The normally mild-mannered Jemilla did not like her study time interrupted.
"I can see that honeybuns." Jemilla flushed. "But your mother wanted me to tell you that dinner is ready. Zazzalil you're welcome to stay."
"Yeah. Okay. Thanks. Let me just text my foster parents."
"Wonderful!" He left, shutting the door behind him.
"'Honeybuns,'" Zazz mocked as she pulled out her phone.
Jemilla buried her face in her hands, "Shut up! Oh my god he is SO embarrassing!"
"I think he's great." Zazz stretched and followed Jemilla downstairs.
The food was amazing. Mrs. P. was an excellent cook, much like Claire. Zazzalil ate three helpings of vegetable stew. For dessert, they carried two bowls of vanilla ice cream back upstairs.
"I'm surprised such a neat-freak like you eats in her room." Zazz commented, shoveling ice cream into her mouth.
"Ha. Ha. I usually don't," said Jemilla, taking small, calculated spoonfuls of her own dessert, "But it's unlikely to stain and won't leave crumbs. Besides, I don't mind making an exception for you." She winked. Zazz swallowed hard then suddenly clutched her head, nursing a painful brain-freeze.
They tried to go get back to work, but Zazz could literally not handle anymore information, so she texted Clark to come get her. The girls were both relaxing on Jemilla's bed now, taking turns telling interesting stories about their past. The taller girl lay on her side. Zazz sat cross-legged at the end of the bed perpendicular to her. It had been a long day and she was finding it extremely hard to focus on the conversation. Her eyes wandered down Jemilla's face, taking in her bright, intelligent eyes, noticing the way her mouth formed around her words. She traced her curves, attention captured by the dip in her hips and her long, slender legs. The sound of her name pulled the petite girl out of her reverie. Oh, shit. Jemilla had asked her something.
"I said, 'What are you staring at?'"
Damn she was blunt. "Oh um… nothing." Shit. She dropped her gaze.
"Mhmm. Then what were you thinking about?"
Suddenly Jemilla was right next to Zazz. She placed a hand over hers. Her eyes bore straight into her soul like she knew exactly what the smaller girl had been staring at and what she had been thinking. Zazz's breathing faltered. Jemilla laughed.
"Come on. Get your stuff together. Clark will be here soon."
The girls were already outside when Clark pulled up.
"Hey there, Jemilla. Nice to see you again."
"The pleasure's all mine Clark." She waved to Claire who was riding passenger. "You must be Claire. Nice to meet you."
Zazz feigned gagging as she climbed into the backseat. Jemilla shut the door for her. She rolled down the window.
"Thanks for everything."
"No problem. I'm happy to help. Plus, the company's not too bad either." She unexpectedly pecked Zazzalil on the cheek. "Have a good night Zazz!" She turned and strode back into the house.
Zazzalil watched her go, stunned, holding her cheek as Clark pulled away.
"Oooooo what was that?" Claire gushed.
"Nothing!" she shouted defensively and then, more quietly, "She's just a friend."
"Yeah okay. Well your FRIEND is welcome over anytime. Just make sure to keep your door open."
When they got home, she raced up the stairs to tell Keeri.
Chapter 6: Chapter 6
They had only met up one other time in the three weeks since their first study (date?) session. Zazz thought it went well enough, but it didn't last as long. Midterms were approaching and Jemilla was on edge. She decided it was best to just leave her alone. They weren't texting much either.
She moped around The Tribe, pining. Keeri found it both cute and annoying as hell. Zazz was such a hopeless gay. She'd never admit it though. The Friday night before midterms, Keeri managed to convince her to come out of their room and join the rest of The Tribe for an intense game of Uno. About halfway through, Zazz's phone rang. Jemilla was calling her. That was unusual but didn't stop her from springing up and knocking over her chair as she answered it.
"Hey Jmills! Long time no—"
Zazz's heart plummeted into her gut. "I'm coming over."
She muttered a hasty excuse and apology to the Tribe Leaders before hurtling up the stairs. She slipped her bare feet into her Converse, threw a jacket over her pajamas, and raced out the door, promising to text Keeri as it slammed behind her.
It was 9 p.m., but she was numb to the cold as she sprinted towards Jemilla's house. I should have seen this coming. She had been so caught up in her own feelings that she hadn't thought about how Jemilla would be handling the stress of senior midterms. She had shared that night in the playground that academic stress, the desire to be perfect, was her trigger. Zazz hadn't once asked how she'd been handling it. Goddammit! Please be okay. Please be okay. Please be okay.
It was usually a half-hour walk to Jemilla's. Zazz made it in ten. Huffing and puffing, clutching a stitch in her side, she rang the doorbell. Nothing. She knocked. Her phone dinged.
J: Spare key under mat.
Zazz found the key and turned the lock. The house was dark and quiet. She removed her shoes and jacket, throwing them to the side haphazardly. She took the stairs two at a time. Jemilla's door was open just a crack. "Jmills?" she called softly, pushing the door open. Oh no.
Jemilla's normally neat room looked like the Tasmanian devil himself tore through it. Her whiteboard calendar was ripped off the wall. Her planner lay halfway off her bed with pages missing. A large surface of the floor was covered in balled up pieces off notebook paper, yellow flyers for the End of the Year bake sale, and books that looked like they had been thrown, laying in a way that would definitely damage their spines.
Zazzalil was just starting to wonder where Jemilla was when she heard crying from the bathroom. She picked her way through the mess and rapped on the door. "Jmills I'm here." No response. "I'm coming in." She turned the nob and stifled a gasp.
Jemilla was sitting in the empty bathtub, her knees pulled up to her chest, head buried between them, breath coming in hitching sobs. She couldn't see her face but her usually well-manicured hair stuck out wildly. However, what scared Zazz the most were the two thin streams of blood running from Jemilla's left thigh. A razor blade lay abandoned on the edge of the tub.
She approached cautiously and climbed into the tub, sitting opposite Jemilla. It would have been a tight fit if she wasn't so small. She put one hand on Jemilla's knee and the other on the back of her head, smoothing her hair and cooing quietly as Jemilla rocked back and forth.
"Shh. It's okay. I'm here now. You're gonna be okay. I'm here."
They stayed like this for what seemed to be hours. Zazz would sneak a peek at Jemilla's thigh occasionally, but it looked like the bleeding had stopped so she decided to deal with it after she calmed down. Eventually she stopped rocking. Her breathing slowed and her sobs turned into quiet tears. Zazz waited.
The girl lifted her auburn head and the most pitiful, tear-filled eyes Zazz had ever seen met hers. It broke her heart. Jemilla opened her mouth to speak before falling apart again. Zazz wrapped her arms around her.
"Shh J. It's okay. You don't have to say anything. I can put together what happened but…I really need to take care of your injuries now okay?"
Jemilla nodded and pointed towards the sink. Zazz climbed out of the tub and rummaged through the cabinet until she found a roll of gauze, a handful of cotton balls, and a bottle of peroxide. She turned around and kneeled beside the tub. Jemilla had retreated back into herself.
"May I see?"
She shook her head.
The taller girl didn't raise her head but stretched out her left leg. Zazz steadied herself and got to work. The two small cuts weren't deep and the bleeding had stopped a long time ago. That was a good sign. Zazzalil soaked a cotton ball with peroxide, warning Jemilla about the sting before she pressed it to her skin. Her leg twitched a little on contact, but otherwise she didn't move. Zazz wrapped the gauze around her thigh and Jemilla pulled it back up to her chest.
She cleaned up the supplies, deciding to toss the razor in the sink, rinse it, and leave it there to deal with later. Then she went into the bedroom and cleaned up the best she could, shoving most of the mess on the floor to the sides and clearing the bed. She returned to the bathroom and lifted Jemilla out of the tub, wedding style. Zazzalil was surprisingly strong for her size and Jemilla was surprisingly lightweight for her height. She crossed the room and laid the girl on the bed where she curled into a fetal position. Zazz looked down at her hesitantly before Jemilla nodded. She climbed into bed with her, cradling her from behind. Keeri had down this for her so many times it felt strange to be on the other side of the situation. They lay like that for a long time. Jemilla was so quiet Zazz thought she had fallen asleep. Then she spoke.
"I'm sorry," she croaked.
"No, it's okay. It happens."
"I'm a bad person."
Zazz chuckled lightly, "You are not a bad person. You are like, the least bad person I know. You just made a mistake. Mistakes happen."
"Not to me."
"Hey Jmills, where are your parents?"
"Out of town for the weekend."
"Oh…well…maybe I should take you to a hospi—"
Jemilla flipped around suddenly, almost smacking her in the face. Soon she was nose to nose with a red-eyed Jemilla.
"Zazzalil please no. I promise I don't need to go. I just forgot to take my meds today. You can check for yourself. Please don't take me there."
She searched her pleading face and decided she believed her.
"Okay. But on one condition. I'm not leaving you here alone."
Zazzalil had left Jemilla on the bed to go into the hall and text Clark. She ran a hand through her hair. She was trying to decide how to phrase this without raising alarm. Eventually she settled on:
Z: Hey Clark. Can I bring Jemilla over for the weekend? Her parents are out of town and she doesn't want to be alone."
a long five minutes passed.
C: That's fine.
She sighed with relief, smiling a bit to herself. When she returned to the room, Jemilla was sitting up. She cocked her head to the side like a puppy. It was damn adorable.
Zazz cleared her throat dramatically and tooted an imaginary trumpet. "Jemilla Pockmacker! Today is your lucky day! It seems you have become an honorary Tribe Member for the weekend."
"No buts! I cleared it with the Tribe Leaders. You have no choice. This is my condition."
Jemilla pouted but didn't protest. Zazzalil began packing her an overnight bag, holding up certain items of clothing for approval and throwing in her toiletries. She helped Jemilla into some sweats to cover the bandaged and tied her hair up for her. Then she slung the girl's duffel over her shoulder, grabbed her hand, and lead her to the front door. Jemilla grabbed her car keys from the hook. Zazz gave her a pointed look and the taller girl immediately placed them into the smaller one's open palm.
The drive back to The Tribe was short and quiet. Zazz had her license, but no car, so she needed to focus on the road. Jemilla rested her head against the cool glass of the passenger side window, closing her eyes. When they pulled up to the group home, Zazz gently shook her awake.
"Jmills we're here."
She stretched and nodded, but then froze, looking out towards the house.
"It's okay," said Zazz, sensing her growing unease. "No one will question you. Clark is good about reading situations. You'll be fine here. I promise." She took a page out of Jemilla's book and pecked HER on the check this time before getting out, grabbing the bag from the backseat, and leading them into the house.
It was very late. The house was pitch black. Everyone had gone to bed. Zazz eased opened the door to her room. Keeri was asleep facing the wall. There was a blow-up mattress covered with a blanket and pillow pushed up against Zazz's bed. Claire's doing.
It had been a long few hours for both of them. They were exhausted. The girls climbed into their respected beds. Zazz turned out the light.
"Goodnight Zazz. Thank you for everything."
Around 2 a.m., vibrations against Zazz's bed woke her up. Jemilla was shaking in her sleep. Still half unconscious, she climbed down onto the mattress to hold her and fell back asleep.
That was how Keeri found them in the morning.
Chapter 7: Chapter 7
Keeri stared down at Zazz cuddling Jemilla on the air mattress wondering what the fuck was going on. She didn't like to be out of the loop, but it must be serious for the Tribe Leaders to allow this. She watched Zazz sleeping peacefully, her nose buried in the taller girl's hair. She couldn't help being a little bit jealous, but she wasn't blind. Those two belonged together and she just wanted her best friend to be happy. She made as little noise as possible as she went downstairs to make coffee.
When she returned around 10 a.m. both girls were still fast asleep. She reached over Jemilla to lightly shake her sister awake.
"Zazz…psst…Zazz," she whispered.
The small girl yawned, "Yeah?"
"Look I know you're sleeping peacefully with your girlfriend and all but if Claire comes in here and sees…" she gestured vaguely, "this. She's gonna flip."
"She's NOT my girlfriend," argued Zazzalil as she untangled herself from Jemilla who rolled over but didn't wake.
Zazz and Keeri went outside to talk on the front porch. They sat on a bench, wrapped in blankets against the chilly morning wind. The smaller girl nursed a mug coffee in her numb fingers as she filled her sister in on what happened the night before, omitting the self-harm stuff.
"Wow," said Keeri when she had finished, "I never would have expected."
"Me neither. I just want her to have fun this weekend. She deserves it. Will you help me?"
"You're the best." They hugged.
When they returned to their room, Jemilla was sitting up on her phone. She looked up and smiled.
"Hey you," Zazz said, returning her smile.
"Hey yourself. Hi Keeri."
"Feeling better?" asked Zazz.
"Good. Let's go hunt up some breakfast. I'm starving."
A skinny girl with black hair and large glasses was bopping about the kitchen when the three of them entered. It was Emberly, another Tribemate. She was hard-of-hearing, but a master chef. Zazz tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention. The girl turned and moved her hands excitedly.
"Good morning!" she signed.
"Good morning," Zazz signed back more slowly. "Mind whipping up something for three more?"
Emberly looked over Zazzalil's shoulder at Jemilla who waved politely. She grinned.
"No problem. I'll just make enough for the whole Tribe. Everyone should be down eventually anyway."
"Great! Thanks! Jemilla is a vegetarian like Keeri."
The girls sat at the table as Emberly prepared breakfast.
"I'm amazed you know sign language," Jemilla praised looking quite impressed indeed.
Zazz turned pink. "Yeah well. There's a bunch of cool stuff you don't know about me," she said feigning confidence.
Keeri snorted into her orange juice.
"Actually, the whole Tribe learned the basics of ASL when Emberly came. She can read lips, but the Tribe Leaders thought it'd be good to make it as easy as possible for her in the house," Zazz explained.
"Aw. That's sweet," Jemilla placed a hand over hers. Zazz cleared her throat.
"So, what do you want to do today?" she said, eagerly changing the subject.
"Hmm. Well I usually go for a run on Saturdays."
"Ha! Not gonna happen. We could go on a WALK in the park though. There's the duck pond. Maybe we could feed them if they're still around this late in the year."
"That sounds lovely."
"Did somebody say ducks?" asked a voice said from the doorway. It was Tiblyn, another Tribemate. She was a cute black girl with long braided hair and an obsession with birds. She pulled up a chair next to Keeri. Zazz explained about their plans to go to the park later, inviting her along.
"Yeah I—ouch!" Tiblyn cried, reaching for her shin. Keeri had kicked her under the table.
"Sorry Zazz. Tiblyn and I have plans today. She said she'd help me come up with some new choreography inspired by birds. Remember Tib?" Keeri said, flashing her eyes quickly from Zazz to Jemilla. Tiblyn finally took the hint and apologized for not being able to accompany the two girls to the park.
Just then, Emberly swooped in with several plates of food. She placed a huge stack of fluffy pancakes in the middle off the table, along with a steaming pile of bacon and sausage. She put a wonderfully aromatic cheese and bell pepper omelet in front of Jemilla who smiled her appreciation. Emberly squeezed her shoulder and disappeared into the kitchen to fetch Keeri's omelet.
"She's such a sweetheart," Jemilla commented, watching Zazz pile three pancakes, four slices of bacon, and five sausages onto her plate before drowning the whole thing in syrup. Jeez Zazz have some self-control, Keeri thought. You're going to scare Jemilla away eating like a cavewoman. Jemilla finally took a bite out of her omelet once Zazz had her plate, "And such a good cook!" she exclaimed.
"Mhmm," was all Zazz could reply, cheeks bulging, a bit of syrup dripping down her chin.
"You have a little something there."
Zazz's eyes widened and Jemilla just laughed as she grabbed her napkin to wipe it for her. She just hoped the girl couldn't feel how hot her face was.
Chapter 8: Chapter 8
After breakfast Zazzalil and Jemilla returned upstairs to get ready for the park. Zazz let her guest shower first.
"You're gonna be okay in there right?" she asked as both girls stood in front of the bathroom door. Her eyes shifted to Jemilla's leg for a brief second.
"Yes. I promise that you don't have to watch me shower," Jemilla replied with a wink as she stepped into the bathroom. Zazz blushed a deep red all the way down to her collarbones. She waited for the shower to turn on before padding down the hall back to her room. Keeri was playing with Snarl, the ginger house cat. She smirked when the small girl entered.
"Wow, what's with the tomato face?"
"Shut up," said Zazz falling face-first into her pillow. Unfortunately for her, Keeri never shut up.
"So, are you excited for your daaaaaaate?" she teased.
She lifted her head, "It isn't a date. Besides, it's YOUR fault we're going alone. What was that shit you pulled with Tiblyn anyway?"
"Oh nothing." Her sister's voice dripped with mock innocence. Zazz flipped onto her back, covering her face with her hands.
"Ughhhhhhhhhhhhhh," she whined, "What am I gonna doooooooo?"
Keeri had never seen her like this before. "Oh my god. Pull yourself together. This is JEMILLA we're talking about. After all you guys have been through, you don't have to impress her. Just be yourself. You said you wanted her to have a good time this weekend. Show her that."
She pondered this for a moment. "Yeah, you're right. When did you get so smart?"
Keeri shrugged, picked up Snarl, and disappeared to Tiblyn's room. Jemilla returned a few minutes later looking much more put together than last night. She was wearing a pair of purple leggings and a black tunic. Her freshly combed, yet wet, hair hung in loosely around her face. God she's gorgeous. As a frien—aw who am I kidding?
"…now?" Shit. Jemilla had been talking and she had been staring. Again.
The taller girl put her hands on her hips. "Zazzalil did you hear anything I said?"
"Asked if you were going to shower now," she finished, smirking.
"Right! Yep. Yes. Gonna go shower. Mhmm. Just gonna…do…that," she said backing out of the room and shooting the girl finger guns. Jemilla shook her head and laughed.
In the bathroom, Zazz almost smacked herself for being so lame.
It was a surprisingly warm day for late November. The wind was chilly but required nothing more than a light jacket. Leaves crunched under the two girls' feet as they walked to the park. Zazz had dressed in dark red skinny jeans and a plain, white V-neck tee. She could have sworn she saw Jemilla's eyes scan her when she entered the room, but it was probably just her imagination. She also carried a backpack containing her hoodie (Jemilla had grabbed a brown leather jacket out of her car as they left), a blanket, some snacks, bread for the ducks, and two bottles of water.
They kept the conversation light as they started across the grass towards the pond. Since it was Saturday and the weather wasn't terrible, the park was more densely populated than the first night Zazz had texted Jemilla. That was almost a month ago. It was crazy how much things changed.
They arrived on the bank of the pond to find, to Zazz's dismay, no ducks. Jemilla assured her it was okay and suggested they just take a walk around the pond instead. Zazzalil agreed, continuing their conversation.
"So, let me get this straight," she said as she walked backwards next to Jemilla who had her hands clasped behind her back. "You're—"
"Right. And poly-poly—"
"Yeah that. Explain to me what that means again?"
Jemilla sighed and shot her a what-am-I-going-to-do-with-you look. They'd been over this at least twice.
"It means I can fall in love with more than one person. It's never happened, but I'm open to it."
"Oh. Well that's cool," Zazz replied, looking like she still didn't completely understand.
"What about you?" Jemilla asked, watching an old couple try to fish the far bank of the pond.
"I-whoa!" Zazz had tripped over a rock she couldn't have seen coming. She reached for Jemilla as she fell, made contact with her jacket, and accidentally caused the girl to fall on top her. There was a moment of stunned silence as they lay on the ground before Jemilla propped herself up.
"Are you okay?" she asked. She was holding her weight off Zazz but hadn't gotten up. Zazzalil stared up into her big, confident hazel eyes, trying to catch her breath for more reasons than one.
"Yeah. Fine," she breathed finally. "I'm sorry."
Jemilla assured her that it was okay and sat back on her knees so Zazz was free to prop herself up on her elbows. She suggested they just picnic there since they were already sitting down. Zazz agreed and turned to unpack her bag. Jemilla started howling with laughter.
"What?" Zazz said.
"Y-y-your hair!" she snorted.
"My hair?" She reached back into her ponytail and pulled something out of it. A leaf. She felt around. There were so many more. Jemilla regained control over herself.
"Let's get the blanket down and I can help you with that bird's nest of yours. Then again, if we leave it, the ducks might come back," she snickered. Zazz stuck her tongue out at her.
Zazz sat with her back to Jemilla, watching the ripples the wind made on the dark water as she pulled debris from her hair. The short haired girl seemed to be taking her sweet time, but she definitely didn't mind.
"There," Jemilla said after a while, "Last one." She ran her fingers through her hair one last time. Just to make sure of course.
Zazz thanked her but instead of moving just leaned back against the taller girl, resting her head on her shoulder. Jemilla was shocked for a second but didn't protest. She wrapped her arms around her and rested her chin on the top of her head. They stayed like that, quietly watching the sunset. Zazzalil traced lazy circles on Jemilla's knee.
"About our conversation earlier," Jemilla said eventually.
"Hmm?" Zazz replied contently. She had been falling asleep.
"About my sexuality."
"Before you fell," Zazz could hear the smile in her voice and knew she was trying not to laugh again, "I was asking about yours."
"Oh yeah," she repeated, shifting uncomfortably.
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."
"No, I want to. The truth is, I don't really know. I haven't actually put a label on it or anything but," she bit her lip, thankful Jemilla couldn't see her face, "I know I like girls."
"And," she took a deep, shaky breath, attempting to gather her courage. She hoped she was reading this moment right. "I know I like you."
A beat. Zazzalil's heart pounded in her chest. She couldn't believe she'd actually said it. She was just starting to regret it when,
"I like you too, Zazz."
She didn't have time to react before she felt Jemilla gently grab her chin, tilt her face up, and plant a light, but sure kiss on her lips. It was short and sweet. When she pulled away Zazz looked into her face to see her own feelings of love and admiration reflected back at her.
Chapter 9: Chapter 9
Hey readers! Sorry for disappearing for a couple months. School was kicking my butt. But I'm back now and I'm going to try to have this finished in the next two weeks before school starts again. In the meantime I will try to update regularly and here's a super short chapter to tide ya'll over. I appreciate everyone for reading!
The storm came out of nowhere. Or maybe it didn’t. Both Zazzalil and Jemilla had been so…preoccupied that they hadn’t noticed the clouds roll in and the dampness of the air. They were making out in that same spot on the bank when the clouds burst over them.
“Fuck!” They both exclaimed as rain poured down, drenching them immediately. Zazz grabbed her backpack and Jemilla snatched up the blanket as they took off for the group home, praising the fact that it wasn’t far.
The downpour, however, did nothing to stop Zazz from turning the run home into a race. Jemilla’s competitive spirit complied. They reached the front door at the same time, but since Zazz opened the door, she declared herself the winner. They argued playfully as they peeled off their wet shoes and jackets.
“I won fair and square,” Zazz said.
“Ha! If you did, which you didn’t, it’s only because I let you. I can’t strain myself before track season," Jemilla countered.
“Oh really?” challenged Zazz, taking a step forward.
“Really,” said Jemilla, mirroring her.
They were standing very close now, breathing heavily. Zazz, smaller but stronger, pushed Jemilla against the door, and pulled her down into a deep kiss. Jemilla relented, placing one hand at the small of her back, deepening the kiss. Suddenly she froze and pulled away, staring over Zazz’s head. Zazzalil was just starting to protest when she heard a throat clear behind her. She whipped around to find none other than Keeri standing in the hallway, arms folded, looking smug. Zazzalil wanted to die on the spot.
“Well well well…” her sister began.
“I just wanted to say I TOLD YOU SO!” she laughed and ran up the stairs. Halfway up she stopped and turned. “By the way, you might want to do something about how…wet…you two are before Claire flips out.”
“Keeri!” Zazzalil’s face was hot with embarrassment at her sister’s innuendo. But Jemilla, ever the peacemaker, just laughed and said, “Well she’s right you know?” before calling dibs on the first shower.
Zazzalil and Jemilla stayed up late that night just talking. They discussed when they started liking each other and told each other random facts about themselves. The conversation was constantly interrupted by bouts of laughter and occasional light kisses. Zazz was enjoying the new feeling in the air that came with being with Jemilla as her girlfriend. When they finally went to bed, she was content to fall asleep with one arm hanging off her bed, holding Jemilla’s hand.
Chapter 10: Chapter 10
Sunday was always family day at The Tribe. Everyone usually stayed home to enjoy each other’s company and recharge for the upcoming school and work week. Keeri, Jemilla, and Zazzalil were the last ones down to breakfast. The rest of the tribe was already seated and halfway through their morning meal when the girls entered the dining room. A chorus of “good mornings” rang out from the table along with a visual greeting from Emberly.
The change in the climate between Zazzalil and her guest did not go unnoticed by the rest of the tribe. The first curiosity was a shift in the seating arrangement. Zazz usually sat in the middle of one side of the table with Keeri on her right. Today however, Keeri plopped herself down in the seat on Zazz’s left while Zazz pulled Keeri’s usual chair out for Jemilla.
“How chivalrous of you,” Jemilla giggled at her.
“But of course, m’lady,” Zazz replied with a mock bow, laughing too.
Tiblyn and Shwoopsie exchanged glances as Emberly offered Jemilla a bowl of scrambled eggs and potatoes. Zazz, once again, shoveled a mountain of meat and pancakes onto her own plate.
“So Jemilla,” Clark said smiling from his place next to her at the head of the table. “Are you excited for family fun day here at The Tribe?” Collective groans issued from everyone except Claire.
“Definitely,” Jemilla replied politely, “I’m honored to be here.”
Clark clapped his hands together, “Excellent.”
God she’s cute. Zazz had stopped eating to listen to the conversation. She gave her girlfriend’s hand a squeeze before picking up her fork again, not noticing Claire watching her from the opposite end of the table.
When bellies were full and everyone began wandering out of the dining room, Claire addressed her.
“It’s your day to do the dishes remember?”
Shit. No, I didn’t. “Yes Claire.”
“I’ll help!” Jemilla chimed in.
“Jmills you don’t have t—”
“Oh Zazzy stop. It’s the least I could do to thank you for letting me stay here. Besides, it’ll go faster if I help.”
Zazz couldn’t argue with that. “Thanks babe,” she replied so naturally she didn’t realize what she’d said. Jemilla smiled to herself as she got up to take her plate to the sink. Zazzalil quickly cleared the table and followed her into the kitchen.
Claire and Clark remained seated to discuss what they were going to do about THAT situation.
Claire entered the kitchen to find the girls “washing dishes.” It looked more like Jemilla was washing and Zazz was throwing suds at her. Claire cleared her throat and Zazzalil whipped around.
“As soon as your done…cleaning,” she said. Zazz fought the urge to smirk as Jemilla stifled a laugh. “Clark and I would like to speak with you in the dining room. Together.” The girls exchanged looks as the she left. This couldn’t be good.
Ten minutes later, the girls were seated across from the Tribe Leaders in the dining room. Zazz held Jemilla’s hand under the table, bouncing her leg anxiously as she waited for Claire to speak.
“We’d just like to lay down some ground rules for the way you girls express your relationship inside the house.”
“’Express our relationship?’” Zazz questioned, confused, before turning beet-red and dropping Jemilla’s hand as the realization dawned on her. “Oh God Claire please not ‘The Talk!’ Anything but that!”
Clark raised a hand and she shut her mouth. “We aren’t stupid Zazzalil,” he said calmly, “And we aren’t unreasonable. We’d just like to set some boundaries. Okay?” Zazz nodded.
“First,” he began, “Keep the PDA to a reasonable level.”
“Second,” Claire continued for him, “If you two are in your room alone, the door stays open. If Keeri or anyone else is in there you may close it. Understood?”
“And finally,” Clark got up to put a fatherly arm around Jemilla while Claire reached across the table to take her hand, smiling. “Welcome to The Tribe, Jemilla.”
“Well I guess if you guys are that desperate to bang one out I can take one for the team and wear headphones or something,” Keeri joked when Zazz told her about the new rules up in their room.
“Calm down I’m just kidding.”
“Well I don’t think they’re being completely unreasonable. It’s nice that they care,” Jemilla offered as she packed her things so that she’d be ready to go when family fun day was over.
“Thank you Saint Jemilla,” Zazz spat sarcastically. She was internally pouting about her new girlfriend leaving. Now that they were an item, she wanted to spend every waking (and non-waking) moment with her. She was also slightly paranoid that she’d wake up tomorrow to find this whole weekend had been a dream.
Keeri headed down to the living room, leaving the door open. Zazz could hear the rest of the tribe chatting downstairs and seized this opportunity to spend some more waking moments mouth-to-mouth with her girlfriend.
Chapter 11: Chapter 11
Family fun day at The Tribe started with Clark’s favorite activity: karaoke. Everybody had gathered in the den. Zazzalil sat comfortably in the middle of one of the couches leaning against Jemilla, with her legs draped across Keeri’s lap. Shwoopsie, Tiblyn, and Emberly inhabited the other couch. Claire had settled herself into her usual armchair. Snarl had seized the opportunity to curl up in Clark’s recliner as the Tribe Leader set up the karaoke equipment.
“Alright, alright!” he said, rubbing his hands together mischievously after he got the tv and mics set up. “Who wants to be the first vict-um…I mean participant?” He winked. The tribe laughed but no one volunteered.
Clark put his hand on his hips, “Aw come on girls! Jemilla’s going to think we hate each other!”
“I mean…” Zazzalil started cheekily under her breath, prompting giggles from most of her tribemates. Clark ignored her and pointed enthusiastically at Tiblyn.
“Tibs! Give me a category!”
“Hm. How about…pop icons!”
“Good one! Alright Shwoops, solo or duet?”
“Oh ho you aren’t going to make this easy are you?”
“Clark ‘Easy’ is my middle name,” Shwoopsie replied with an evil grin.
Clark ruffled her hair he approached Emberly with an upturned hat. Inside were little pieces of paper with everyone’s names written on them. She pulled out two.
Thanks Embs, Clark signed. Then out loud, “Drumrollllllll pleaseeeeeee!”
The tribe drummed on their laps.
“Today’s lucky contestants are…Keeri and Zazzalil! Come on down!”
Zazz groaned dramatically but wore a grin as she swung her legs off Keeri’s lap and joined her in front of the tv. The two girls put their heads together for a moment before taking their places. Zazzalil winked at Jemilla before Clark started the music. “Telephone” by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé blasted from the speakers. Zazzalil took Beyoncé’s part while her Keeri sang Lady Gaga’s. They were both great singers. It was also surprisingly well-choreographed for what (at least Jemilla thought) was supposed to be a spur of the moment performance.
When the girls finished, breathing heavily and sweating a bit, everyone cheered. Shwoopsie wolf-whistled. Jemilla clapped hard, beaming at her girlfriend from the couch. She offered Zazz some of her water as she collapsed next to her.
“Brava,” Jemilla complimented, pecking her on the cheek. Zazz blushed.
Tiblyn, Claire, and Emberly went next, performing a rendition of “When I Grow Up” by The Pussycat Dolls. Emberly mostly danced. Everyone clapped along to help her keep beat. Then Shwoopsie and Clark did a hilariously bad reenactment of “Bye Bye Bye” by NYSYNC complete with mock puppetry dance moves from the infamous music video. They had the rest of the tribe in stitches.
“Well Jemilla?” Clark said as he fell back into his recliner, “Want to give it a try?”
Zazzalil turned to her, “It’s like tribe initiation unfortunately. You really don’t have a choice. But I can sing with you if you want.”
“No that’s alright, babe. I got this.” Jemilla said, squeezing Zazz’s knee as she made her way to the front of the room alone. Zazz really admired her unwavering confidence. The tribe waited patiently for Jemilla to select a song. Finally, she took a deep breath and bowed her head. Clark pressed play. It was “Countdown” by Beyoncé.
Zazzalil’s jaw dropped as Jemilla matched the notes of the opening riff perfectly. Her girlfriend shimmied her way through the hip hop/pop fusion love song, changing all the male pronouns to female and not breaking eye contact with Zazz except to dance around rather flirtatiously. When the song ended the living room erupted. Zazzalil’s mouth was still hanging open when Jemilla returned to her, only slightly winded.
“Zazzalil we are not a codfish,” Jemilla teased.
She snapped her mouth closed then stammered, “J-Jmills that was…you were…wow.” She kissed her squarely and passionately on the mouth. Claire cleared her throat. Zazz rolled her eyes as she pulled away.
Jemilla just smiled, “Thank you.”
Chapter 12: Chapter 12
After lunch, the tribe engaged in a rousing game of charades. It was Emberly’s favorite and she always won. Today was no different but it was fun, nonetheless. Then everyone moved into the dining room for several extremely competitive rounds of Uno. As Shwoopsie made a victory lap around the table, Jemilla squeezed Zazz’s knee.
“I should get going soon.”
Zazzalil deflated like a balloon. Jemilla gave her a sympathetic half-smile and they excused themselves from the table.
When they got up to Zazz’s room she sat herself cross-legged on her bed, head down, absentmindedly rubbing her arm as Jemilla got her stuff together. When she thought Jemilla wasn’t looking she slipped her lighter out from under pillow and into her hoodie pocket. She ran her thumb over the little metal wheel just lightly enough to not trigger it. Unfortunately for her, Jemilla noticed everything.
“Please put it back Zazz,” she said without turning to look at her.
“How did you…I’m not going to do anything,” she mumbled.
Jemilla slung her duffel over her shoulder and turned around. Zazzalil continued to stare at her lap. The taller girl sighed and plopped herself down next to her, putting an arm around her shoulders.
“I have to go. You know that. But you’re going to see me at school all week. I’m not moving across the country and it’s not like I’m dea—”
Zazz sniffed. Jemilla gently grabbed her chin and tilted her face up. She wiped a tear away with her thumb.
“Babe, what is this really about?”
She considered telling Jemilla what it was about. Really, she did. It was about her dad. It was about her foster homes. It was about how when things seemed to be going good for her, they always managed to get fucked up. It was about how her and Jemilla had only been officially dating for like two days and how it was already one of the most meaningful relationships she’d ever had. But mostly, it was about how afraid she was that this was all too good to be true. Of course, she couldn’t tell Jemilla any of this. They still had midterms starting tomorrow and she hadn’t forgotten why she had brought Jemilla to spend the weekend at The Tribe in the first place. She didn’t want to stress her out right before she went back home. So she wiped her eyes, shook her head, managed a weak smile and said, “It’s nothing. I’m just gonna miss you or whatever.”
Jemilla stared at her for a minute. Zazz could see the wheels in her head turning, contemplating whether or not she was going to push her on this. Finally, she placed a comforting hand on her cheek and smiled her dazzling smile. “Okay. I’ll let it go. I’m going to miss you too. But I’m really not going anywhere and everything will be fine. I promise. Now are you going to accompany me home or not?”
When Jemilla pulled into her driveway, she cut the engine but didn’t move. Now it was Zazz’s turn to be concerned.
“Jmills?” she ventured.
Jemilla released a shaky breath as she stared at her hands, “I just remembered…my room…it’s still…”
“Say no more!” Zazz exclaimed enthusiastically, quickly getting out of the passenger seat and jogging around the front of the car to open Jemilla’s door for her and offer her a hand. Jemilla laughed and allowed herself to be pulled out of the car. “Let’s do this together.”
“Together,” Jemilla repeated, leaning down to kiss her girlfriend.
Two hours later. Jemilla’s room was spotless again. The various papers that were spread across the floor took the longest to organize. Zazz took it upon herself to re-hang Jemilla’s whiteboard while Jemilla sat on her bed, separating the huge stack of papers into neat piles, and then into folders. They listened to music as they worked, singing along to pass the time, and occasionally arguing over the other’s choice of song. When Zazz excused herself to the bathroom, she found the razor blade still sitting in the sink. Her hand went absentmindedly to the lighter in her hoodie pocket as she stared at it. God I’m a hypocrite, she thought as she grabbed the razor, tossed it into the toilet and flushed. Jemilla grinned at her when she reentered the room.
“All done,” she said cheerfully, gesturing at the six rainbow colored folders now stacked neatly in one corner of her bed.
Zazz sat next to her, “Awesome. You’re a badass.”
“Please. It’s just organizing. Anyone can form that habit.”
“Pfft. Have you SEEN my room? Or my backpack? Or my locker for fuck's sake?”
Jemilla chuckled, “I’m just saying. I’m not all that.”
“Mmm, but you are,” Zazz replied flirtatiously, shifting onto her knees, and cupping Jemilla’s face in her hands as she pulled her girlfriend in for a kiss.
The auburn-haired girl kissed her back, wrapping her arms around her waist. As their kiss deepened, Zazz pushed Jemilla back against the pillows, straddling her. She leaned down and kissed her again, probing with her tongue. Jemilla opened her mouth to grant her access. They kissed intensely for a long while, barely coming up for air. When Zazz started to slip her hands up Jemilla’s shirt, however, the taller girl stopped her. “As much as I’d love too,” she said, “We should stop. It’s getting late, my parents will be home soon, and we still have midterms tomorrow.”
Zazz sat back on her heels, her lower lip jutted out. Jemilla was so responsible it was aggravating.
“Are you…pouting?” Jemilla asked, raising an eyebrow.
Zazz hurried to set her face into what she hoped was a convincing scowl. “No. I don’t pout. I’m not a little kid.”
“Obviously,” Jemilla said, taking a moment to scan her eyes up and down her body. “Anyways you should get home. I’m going to try to get some last-minute studying in and you should too. Or at least get a good night’s sleep.”
Zazz begrudgingly got off the bed. “I hate when you’re right.”
“You might as well get used to it,” she fired back, as they headed downstairs. “Seriously though, thank you for this weekend. I don’t know what I would have done if it weren’t for you," Jemilla said. Zazz noticed the shift in her tone as she watched her put on her shoes.
“Hey I was just returning the favor. You helped me. I helped you. No big deal.”
“Zazz you know it’s so much more than that,” she said leaning down to kiss her.
“Yeah. Well I better go.”
“Text me when you get home?”
Jemilla leaned against doorway watching her girlfriend disappear down the street.
Chapter 13: Chapter 13
Zazzalil’s midterm week went pretty well all things considered. By Thursday she was almost confident she’d aced both her math and science exams. But today was the day of her history exam and she was having mixed feelings about it as she dressed. She was more prepared than usual thanks to Jemilla, but she was no optimist. She had to get at least a B on this test to have even have a chance next semester. Zazz frowned as she pulled a gray sweatshirt over her head and pocketed her lighter. She’d had it on her all week (Jemilla had said something about it being her crutch) but she hadn’t used it and didn’t plan on it. Just having it made her feel better and Jemilla had accepted it when she told her as much. Her girlfriend had been dealing with the week significantly better than Zazz. After her meltdown and spending the weekend at The Tribe, she had become reinvigorated. She was back to her normal confident, positive self. Even though she was her girlfriend now it still made Zazz nauseous. Or at least that’s what I hope is making me feel like this, she thought rubbing her stomach on her way downstairs.
Keeri was already in the car when Zazz collapsed into the seat next to her. She shut the van door and leaned her head against the cool glass of the window as Clark pulled away.
“Hey,” Keeri said, her voice dripping with concern, “You doing okay? I thought you might feel like shit 'cause, you know, you look like shit.”
“Language Keeri!” Clark called back from the driver’s seat.
Zazzalil opened one eye to look at her sister. “You’re very observant this morning. My stomach just hurts. It’s whatever.” She closed her eyes again, trying to breathe deeply.
“Oh. Do you think it’s because of the test?”
“Look. I love you and thanks for looking out for me, but I really don’t want to talk about it okay? I’m trying to focus on not puking and considering you’re in range it’s going to benefit the both of us if I just do that.”
Keeri stared at her for a moment before grinning. “Yeah okay. I wore my favorite shoes today and I really want them to stay puke free.”
Zazz offered back a weak smile and continued the rest of the trip to school in silence.
Unfortunately for Zazz, her own morning did not stay puke-free. After Clark dropped them off, Keeri headed towards the dance room and Zazz went in search of Jemilla. The first period of exam days was a free study hall, so she wasn’t worried about being late. Just as she saw her auburn-haired girlfriend waving at her excitedly from her locker at the end of the hall though, her nerves got the better of her. She saw Jemilla’s face shift from delight to concern as Zazz covered her mouth and bolted into the nearest restroom.
She hadn’t bothered to lock the stall door and wasn’t surprised to feel soft hands gently pulling her hair back as heaved her breakfast into the toilet.
“Shh. It’s alright.” Jemilla cooed as she secured the smaller girl’s hair into a loose bun.
Zazzalil tried to catch her breath, “Jmills...you don’t...have to—” She was silenced by another round of vomiting. Jemilla rubbed her back.
Fifteen minutes later, after she had finally stopped puking, gotten cleaned up, and a shoved a piece of gum in her mouth, she exited the bathroom hand-in-hand with Jemilla.
“I just think it’s interesting,” Zazz was saying as they headed towards the library where they were going to spend the free period, “I feel like half of our relationship has been built in bathrooms.”
Jemilla laughed, “Well I think “half” is a little generous.”
“Oh really? The first time we majorly interacted was in the bathroom. Then you came over. Then bathroom again. Then the bathroom again at your house last Friday. Oh sorry babe,” she apologized as Jemilla winced slightly at the reminder. “I’m just saying. It’s at least half.”
Her girlfriend looked impressed. “I underestimate your competence sometimes,” she said, kissing her on the cheek.
Zazz blushed. She really wished her skin would get a grip on itself now that she wasn’t just crushing on the girl anymore. “Yeah, well don’t have too much faith in me. The history midterm’s today.”
“I know,” said Jemilla as they sat down at a table in the corner of the crowded library. “That’s why you threw up.”
“That’s what Keeri said when I told her my stomach was hurting in the van earlier. School was a lot easier when I didn’t care.”
“Yeah well now you have to work harder unfortunately so was it really worth it to be lazy in the first place?”
“Damn, Jmills. It is too early in the morning to be dropping truth bombs like that”
“Sorry. But we really should get some last-minute studying in. It’ll make you feel better.”
Zazzalil looked skeptical.
“Ugh, I promise it will help. Here I’ll quiz you.”
When the bell rang signaling the end of the study period, Zazz had to admit she WAS feeling better. She had known the answer to most of the questions Jemilla had quizzed her on and could probably guess at a couple of the others. Her and Jemilla met Keeri in the hallway and together they set off for the Mr. Walker’s history class. Zazz filled Keeri in on the morning’s events and Keeri expressed her gratitude to her for waiting until they were out of the car to puke. When they arrived at the classroom door, Keeri went inside as Zazz said goodbye to Jemilla.
“Jmills…what if…” she said quietly, biting her lip and looking at the floor.
Jemilla wrapped her arms around her and rested her chin on top of her head. Zazz breathed in Jemilla’s familiar scent, leaning into her embrace. “You’ll do great. You’re ready. I believe in you.” She stood back with her hands on each of Zazz’s shoulders, beaming down at her. Zazz smiled back.
“Thanks Jmills. You’re the best. Good luck on your test too. Not that you’ll need it.”
Jemilla chuckled lightly as she set off for the Honors history classroom. Zazzalil opened the door to her own class, took her seat next to Keeri, drew a deep breath and focused.
Three hours later, Zazzalil paced in front of Mr. Walker’s desk, biting her nails. She had stayed after the exam and asked him to grade her test now. He had kindly agreed after she explained her situation. She tried not to think about every mark he made with his red pen, tried to not calculate how many she had missed. Finally, he set his pen down and took off his glasses.
“Ms. Forebronger,” he said. She approached him, shaking. When she stood directly in front of him, he paused and then flipped her test over, a smile spreading across his thin lips.
“Congratulations, Ms. Forebronger. You did well.”
She looked down at the paper. A grade was circled in red. Her mouth dropped open: 81%. She did it. She got a B.
Zazzalil spun around, throwing a hasty “thank you” over her shoulder, as she flew into the hall and…straight into Jemilla.
“Whoa, whoa. Slow down,” her girlfriend said, steadying her as she almost fell. “What—”
“I DID IT!” Zazz shouted, unable to contain herself. “I really did it! I got a B, Jmills! I got a B!”
“That’s great!” she exclaimed, grabbing her face between her hands to kiss her. When she pulled away there were tears in her eyes. “I’m really proud of you.”
“Jeez are you seriously crying right now?” Zazz laughed.
Jemilla laughed too, wiping her eyes, “Your success just makes me happy. As your tutor, that is.”
Zazz raised an eyebrow. “Just as my tutor?”
“Yup. Because as your GIRLFRIEND, I’m going to take you out on a proper date tomorrow night to celebrate.”
Zazzalil smiled. “Okay, but I’m paying. To thank you for helping me.”
“Well then I’m not really taking you out, am I?”
“Sure you are. You can drive.”
They argued all the way to the cafeteria, laughing, and swinging their joined hands between them.
Chapter 14: Chapter 14
What is an upload schedule? I don't know her. Sorry y'all. Here's a rather long fluffy chapter to make up for it :)
The next day, Zazzalil was experiencing a bout of deja vu. She was sitting cross-legged on the hood of Jemilla’s car, waiting for her to come out of school. She had been in this same position nearly two months earlier, but the circumstances were completely different. Last time, she was just starting to realize she might have feelings for Jemilla. This time, she was waiting to spend the night at her now girlfriend’s house so they could leave on a surprise date early the next day. Zazz smiled to herself, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this happy.
“AH!” Zazz jumped and fell off her perch. She had been so spaced out thinking about Jemilla that she hadn’t seen the girl walk up to her. Jemilla giggled as she pulled her off the ground.
“I’m sorry. I came out of the side entrance today. I didn’t mean to scare you. Are you okay?”
“Yeah I’m good,” Zazz said, still slightly defensive out of habit. She picked up her overnight duffle and tossed it into the trunk after Jemilla unlocked the car, then slid into the passenger seat. Jemilla started the ignition.
“So,” Zazz said, grabbing the aux cord before her girlfriend could protest. “Where are we going tomorrow?”
Jemilla sighed as she drove, “I already told you, I’m not telling you. It’s a surprise.”
“Well I hate surprises. And besides, you owe me because YESTERDAY you said we were going on a date TONIGHT but we’re actually going TOMMOROW. That’s false advertising if you ask me.”
Jemilla snorted. “Good thing I didn’t ask you. But if it makes you feel any better, we can have a mini date tonight. Cuddle up, watch some movies, eat snacks.”
Zazzalil gasped dramatically. “Eat snacks? In your ROOM? Who are you and what have you done with Jmills?”
The auburn-haired girl laughed, “Maybe you’re just a bad influence.”
It was Zazz’s turn to snort. “Actually, I’m a GOOD influence. I’m teaching you the ancient art of lightening the fuck up.”
“I’m sure,” Jemilla retorted, smiling nonetheless.
“Wow,” Zazz breathed as she stared around at the media room Jemilla had led her into. The room was medium sized and dimly lit. One wall was comprised entirely of a huge black screen that curved inward slightly. Across from the screen were four large theater-style leather recliners with cupholders and an assortment of buttons on each arm rest. An old-fashioned popcorn machine stood in one corner. Another wall held floor-to-ceiling shelves of DVDs. In the back of the room, behind the chairs, was small booth containing the light and sound controls, several remotes, and a DVD player. Jemilla had to put her finger lightly under Zazz’s chin to snap her jaw back into place as she took it all in.
“I never said we’d have our date in my room. You just assumed that,” Jemilla said as she began setting up the theater system. Zazz made her way over to a recliner and sat on her knees facing backwards. Her arms rested on the back of the chair and her chin rested on her hands as she watched Jemilla mess with the controls. Occasionally her girlfriend would steal glances at her when she looked up to check something, then smile and put her head back down. God she’s cute.
“So, what do you want to watch?” Jemilla asked as she finished up.
Zazz shrugged, “Your house. You pick.”
“Wanna ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ for it?”
Zazz won and spent another 15 minutes browsing the shelves before Jemilla informed her that they also had access to several streaming services. Zazz really wanted to watch the new superhero movie that just came out, but she knew it wasn’t really Jemilla’s style. So she settled on a rather raunchy yet hilarious comedy about a group of girls who go on a trip to New Orleans together.
“I love this movie!” Jemilla exclaimed when Zazz picked it off the shelf and handed it to her.
“I do too. Keeri and I’ve watch it soooo many times.”
They sat side-by-side in the recliners. Jemilla took Zazz’s hand but let go shortly after because soon both girls were doubled over, clutching their sides and laughing hysterically. This lasted for most of the movie. As the credits rolled and Zazz was still wiping tears from her eyes, her stomach growled. She shot Jemilla a sheepish look. The girl grinned.
“I’ll order pizza.”
Jemilla pecked her on the cheek, grabbed her phone, and disappeared out the door. Zazz leaned the recliner all the way back and decided to text Keeri while she waited.
K: Hey hey
K: Not much. Clark wants every1 to play monopoly but idk.
Z: Yeah I get it. J and I just finished your fave movie.
K: Jk lol
K: But srsly did you guys even WATCH the movie? ;)
Z: BYE KEERI
K: lol k bye
At that moment Jemilla returned, arms loaded down with all kinds of junk food that Zazz never could have imagined her super healthy girlfriend choosing to consume. Chips, cookies, candy etc. Zazz leapt up to help her.
“Wow Jmills. I didn’t know you even ate this stuff,” she said, taking several bags of chips out of her arms.
“Thanks. I normally don’t, but this is a special occasion.”
“Yeah. I am pretty special,” Zazz joked.
“And so humble,” Jemilla teased.
“Yeah that too.”
Her girlfriend laughed. “The pizza should be here in about 45 minutes. I’ll pick out another movie. Why don’t you go change into your pjs?”
Zazz grabbed her duffle she’d dropped lazily by the door and padded down the hall to the nearest bathroom where she changed into her red, plaid flannel pajama pants and an oversized black sweatshirt with the word NOPE written across the front in big white lettering. She also let her hair out of her ponytail, allowing her long curly brown locks to cascade messily over her shoulders and down her back.
When she returned to the media room, Jemilla was gone. Zazz shrugged, opened a bag of chips, and sat down to wait.
“Sorry I took so long,” her girlfriend’s voice rang out from the doorway a few minutes later. Zazz looked up and her jaw dropped for the second time that day. Jemilla was wearing a pair of white silk sleeping shorts embroidered with lilacs, white knee-high socks, and a lavender tank top with a thin white kimono-style robe thrown over it but left untied. She had opted pull her short hair up into a ponytail with a large purple scrunchie.
“It’s okay.” Zazz said when she was capable of speech again, “Its’s only been a few minutes.”
“Oh good,” Jemilla smiled, plopping down next to the smaller girl and pressing “play” on the remote. Zazz was still staring at her but was snapped out of it when the loud opening notes of the movie blaring through the surround sound. It was the new superhero movie. This girl was full of surprises. Maybe not ALL surprises were bad.
“Since when are you into superheroes?” Zazz asked.
“I’m really not,” Jemilla explained, “I just watch them occasionally when something piques my interest. This one has a strong female protagonist. I’m into that.”
“I bet you are,” Zazz ventured, flirtatiously.
She could have sworn she saw Jemilla’s cheeks darken a bit in the dim light. The smaller girl’s breathing quickened as she locked eyes with her girlfriend. She leaned in to kiss her, slowly, deeply. She savored the feeling of Jemilla’s soft lips against hers. The taller girl placed a hand on the back of her neck, pulling her in closer. Zazzalil sat up onto her knees, wrapping her arms around Jemilla’s neck as her tongue slipped into her mouth. Zazz moaned quietly, pressing her body into her girlfriend, letting her hands run down her back.
Just then, the door swung open and the girls sprang apart.
“Look alive! Dad coming through with a steaming hot and ready piz—” He paused as his gaze fell on the two girls that lay, panting, in the recliners. Zazz watched with horror as his eyes shifted from her, to Jemilla, and back. She was beet red, her face plastered with a deer-caught-in-headlights look. Jemilla (although also breathing irregularly) calmly got up, took the pizza box from her father, and ushered him towards the door with her free hand.
“Okay, okay. I’m leaving,” he laughed good-naturedly as once he got over the initial shock. At the door, he turned around and lowered his voice to where he thought Zazz couldn’t hear. She pretended to play with her phone.
“I’m sorry Pookie. I’ll knock next time.”
“I’d appreciate it,” Jemilla responded.
“Nice to see you again Zazzalil!” he called brightly as Jemilla moved to shut the door.
“OKAY Dad! Thank you! Bye!” Jemilla said, closing the door on him as quickly as she could without being rude. She let out a deep breath and turned to face Zazz who was still looking a little terrified.
“You can relax now, babygirl. We’re okay.”
“But…but why wasn’t he mad?” Zazz sputtered, “The tribe leaders would have been furious.”
“My parents trust me,” Jemilla responded, bringing the pizza over and setting it between them. “I don’t think he fully understand my sexuality, but he respects it and me an adult. He’s always encouraged me to make my own decisions and trusts my judgement. But he usually knocks.”
Zazzalil opened the pizza box as she listened. Inside was a large steaming pizza: half meat lovers, half vegetarian. Of course. She grabbed a slice from what was obviously her half.
“Wow. Must be nice. Wait you said he ‘usually’ knocks. Does this happen a lot?”
Jemilla chuckled, selecting her own slice of pizza, “No I meant he usually knocks in general. Out of respect. Why? Are you jealous?’
“No!” Zazz responded, a little too hastily.
She stuck her tongue out as Jemilla restarted the movie
The movie was great but really long. After about an hour and a half, sleepy from a fully belly, Zazzalil crawled from her own recliner onto Jemilla’s. The taller girl smiled, wrapping her arms around her. Zazz curled up in her lap, allowing her head to fall onto Jemilla’s shoulder. Jemilla’s rested her cheek on top of it. Zazz heard her sigh contently right before she fell asleep.
An hour later, she was shaken gently awake by Jemilla. “Hey,” she said softly, “Come on. Let’s go to bed.”
Zazz stretched and looked around. The credits had already ended. Jemilla must have been letting her sleep as long as possible. She smiled sleepily at her girlfriend and peeled herself off her. They tided up the media room a bit, making sure to pick up their trash. Jemilla stopped in the kitchen to put the leftover pizza in the fridge on their way up to her room. Zazz swayed on the spot, still exhausted. Jemilla took her hand and practically dragged her up the stairs. The small girl looked around curiously when they got to her room and she switched on the light. She had expected an air mattress or sleeping bag of some sort. She turned to Jemilla.
“Well,” the auburn-haired girl said, reading her mind, “I know the tribe leaders aren’t cool with us sharing a bed. But my parents don’t mind. However, if you’re uncomfortable—”
Her alternative sleeping suggestion was cut off by Zazz taking a running leap and launching herself into the middle of her bed.
“Well I guess that’s settled then,” Jemilla chuckled as she disappeared into the bathroom to brush her teeth.
Zazz tried to get comfortable but Jemilla’s blankets were way too thick and she overheated easily. So she decided to ditch her sweatshirt, throwing it haphazardly to the floor and sleep in her sports bra. When Jemilla reentered the room, her gaze fell onto Zazz’s discarded shirt and she raised an eyebrow.
“What? I overheat. I can't help being hot as fuck."
“Hey I didn’t say I minded,” Jemilla laughed holding her hands up in mock surrender, “But you do need to scoot over. How can someone so tiny take up so much space?”
Zazz made room for Jemilla, yawning, “It’s a gift.”
The smaller girl lay on her back as her girlfriend sidled up next to her, laying on her side, letting one arm fall across Zazz's bare torso and burying her face in her hair.
They didn’t move until morning.
Chapter 15: Chapter 15
*beep beep* *beep beep*
The piercing sound of the alarm aggressively pulled Zazz out of a deep slumber. She groaned and, in one fluid motion, rolled onto her stomach, shoving a pillow over her head.
“Jmiiiiiiiiiiiillls turn it ooooooooooff,” she grumbled.
Zazz reached out an arm, blindly feeling around for her girlfriend’s sleeping form. When her fingers only grasped blankets, she bolted into sitting position and spotted Jemilla in her closet, obviously looking for something to wear. A wicked grin spread across Zazz’s face as she slipped silently out of bed and tip-toed across the room until she was right behind her.
“Boo!” she shouted, raising her arms up and waggling her fingers like a ghost.
Jemilla just turned around, smiling softly, “Good morning to you too,” she said calmly.
Zazz’s arms fell limply to her sides. “Dammit. I wanted to scare you.”
“Well maybe don’t complain so loudly about the alarm next time; and don’t turn it off before you come stalking up behind me.”
As Zazz considered this, Jemilla continued, “Anyway, I’m glad you’re up. We have to get going soon.”
“Ugh. Not yet. Let’s go back to bed for a couple hours,” Zazz tempted, tugging on Jemilla’s arm.
Jemilla stood her ground. “I’d love to, but we really need to leave soon if we want to get there when it opens.”
“When what opens?” Zazz said coyly.
“Nice try. Get dressed.”
An hour later, Zazzalil once again sat passenger in Jemilla’s car as they pulled out of the driveway. She had her feet propped up on the dash, singing along to the alternative rock song blasting through the speakers.
“What band is this?” Jemilla asked as she drove.
“Excuse me?!” she yelled in shock, eyes were wide with disbelief. “Um, it’s the one and only CHORN; aka the best alt rock band ever to exist!”
Her girlfriend laughed, “Okay, okay. If you say so. I don’t listen to a lot of rock, but they sound pretty good. And you’re a beautiful singer so that definitely adds appeal.” She winked.
Zazz blushed and quickly changed the song.
Forty-five minutes passed, and they still weren’t there. Zazzalil was growing antsy. She was trying not to be annoying, but then her stomach growled. She sighed loudly.
“Can I just ask one question and I won’t bother you about it the rest of the trip?”
“Will there be food there?”
Jemilla chuckled, “Yes, Zazz. There will be more food than even you can eat.”
“Ha! Doubt it,” she retorted, rubbing her stomach.
Jemilla shot her a quick, sympathetic look, “I’m sorry. Let’s talk about something else. What are your plans for winter break?”
Zazz shrugged, “I don’t really have any. I’ll probably do what I always do: hang out with Keeri.” She perked up a bit. “But this time I’ll have you too.”
“Well actually…” Jemilla began apologetically.
Zazzalil scowled, “Oh no. Please don’t tell me you have some ‘Future Presidents of America’ meetings or something?”
“No, nothing like that. I’m glad you think so highly of me though.” Zazz just rolled her eyes. “I’m going out of town with my parents. We visit my cousins in the mountains every year for snowboarding and stuff.”
“Wow, that sounds fun.” She tried to sound happy for her, but she was a little sad, Jemilla would be leaving. She was hoping she didn’t notice, but her girlfriend noticed everything and started reassuring her almost immediately.
“The good news is I’ll be right back after Christmas and I’m completely free until school starts. So we can hang out then. Maybe even do something for New Year’s?”
“Smelly’s party!” Zazz shouted excitedly. Her mood had improved immensely after being reminded of it.
“I’m sorry, who?” Jemilla said, extremely confused by the odd combination of words that had excited her girlfriend.
“Smelly Balls,” Zazzalil said as if this provided any clarity. “That’s Simon Ballinski’s nickname. He’s in our grade and every year he throws a sick ass New Year’s Eve party. Keeri and I always go. You should totally come too!”
Jemilla hesitated. “I don’t know, Zazz. Parties aren’t really my thing.”
“Have you ever been to a party?”
“Well technically no but-”
“No buts then! It’ll be fun. We will have fun together. I promise. Please?”
Her girlfriend mulled it over for a second. Zazzalil could see the gears turning in her head. Then she finally said, “Alright. We’ll go to Simon’s party. It’ll be…ahem…lit. But for now, look out the window. We’re here.
The “here” turned out to be the Winter Wonderland Fair. Zazzalil had squealed in spite of herself when she found out. She’d always wanted to go to a fair, but never been able to. Jemilla said she hadn’t been since she was really little, so this would be a fun experience for them both.
After getting through the front gates, Zazz found herself in the middle of a large clearing. Hay crunched under her feet as she spun in a slow circle, taking it all in. Rows of booths extended from the circle like spokes of a bike wheel. Some hosted carnival games, promising stuffed animal prizes. Others advertised fun activities like face painting and caricatures. Fair rides whizzed in an area beyond the booths. Zazz could see the red metal slopes of a Christmas coaster. A giant Ferris wheel towered over everything, its spokes draped with lights and holly. A gust of wind brought delicious scent of fried turkey, corn, funnel cake, and myriad of other enticing smells wafting past her nose. Her stomach growled again. She was just starting to drool when Jemilla appeared at her side, holding a guide map.
Zazz tilted her head to read the event listing on the back of the map. It was upside down, but she could just make out the letters “c-h-o-r-n.” She snatched the map out of Jemilla’s hands.
“CHORN?!” she shouted, “Chorn is playing here? Today?!”
“Yes. That’s why we came today instead of yesterday; which you bitched about if I remember correctly,” Jemilla said, pulling another guide map out of her backpack since Zazz was crushing the first in her fist. Of course she has another one.
“Oh. Right. Sorry,” Zazz said sheepishly. Sometimes her impatience got the better of her.
“No worries. We’re here now. But Chorn doesn’t play until later. We have all day. What do you want to do first?”
Jemilla giggled and allowed herself to be pulled across the fair towards the food stands.
Zazzalil sank her teeth into a fried turkey leg thicker than her shoulder. It was delicious. Crispy, skin braised a deep brown gave way to tender, juicy meat on the inside. Jemilla watched her devour it, nibbling on her own fried corn-on-the-cob. After they’d eaten, they decide to roam around to let their food settle before trying any rides. Hand-in-hand, they strolled through the aisles of booths, talking and laughing, occasionally pointing things out to each other. They attempted a few games, all of which Jemilla was surprisingly bad at. At one booth, she threw a ball at a pile of milk bottles and missed entirely. Zazzalil howled with laughter. Jemilla pursed her lips and crossed her arms.
“What exactly is so funny?” She spat as Zazz tried to get a grip on herself.
“I’m sorry,” Zazzalil said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I’ve just never seen you be bad at something. Honestly, I didn’t think anyone could be this bad at something.”
Jemilla scoffed, “Well you try it if it’s so easy.”
“Okay. Watch and learn.”
Zazzalil picked up a ball, tossed it up and down a couple of times, aimed, and hurled it towards the bottles. It hit right in the center, sending the pyramid crashing down. She turned to Jemilla, smirking triumphantly.
“Wow,” Jemilla breathed.
“I can be good at stuff. Why don’t you pick out the prize? The look on your face is enough for me,” she teased.
Jemilla smacked her playfully on the arm as she moved past her and selected a stuffed duck in a Santa hat.
They had decided to do rides next. They got on every one (a couple more than once). Jemilla kicked Zazz’s ass at bumper cars. She suspected it was payback for defeating her at the milk bottle game. She was about to tell Jemilla as such when she noticed that night had settled over the fairgrounds. The already chilly December air grew even colder, but Zazz barely noticed because the entire fair became illuminated by thousands of twinkling Christmas lights. The brightest of them shone from the Ferris wheel. Jemilla suggested they end the night by riding it.
They climbed into a green carriage, secured the lap bar, and began their slow ascension. The view from the top of the Ferris wheel was breathtaking. Not only could they see the whole fair, including the fully lit fifty-foot tree in the center, but also the skyline of the city far in the distance, little white pinpricks of light the only indication of life in the dark, distant buildings.
The cold was more noticeable this high up, so Zazz scooted in closer to Jemilla, wove an arm through hers, and rested her head on her shoulder as they looked out in silence.
“Hey Jmills?” Zazzalil said quietly after a while.
Jemilla kissed the top of her head, “You’re very welcome.”
Chapter 16: Chapter 16
Hey y'all. This is more of a scene than a chapter but it deserved its own spot so here you go. More (longer) chapters coming soon. Thank you for reading! :)
At 11:30 PM, Christmas Eve, Zazzalil lay motionless in bed, listening intently. Light snores drifted over to her from Keeri’s side of the room. She waited a few more minutes, just to make sure she was truly asleep, before swinging her legs off the bed and slipping her feet silently into her Converse. She used more caution than usual. While she tended to share everything with Keeri, she wanted to do this alone. She needed to do this alone.
Zazzalil crept around the room, stopping in various locations throughout it to grab small objects. She grabbed something from under her pillow, from bedside table, from her sock drawer. Then she made her way through the dark hallway to the bathroom and pulled something from the drawer there as well. Returning to her room, she dropped the collection of objects into her backpack, shouldered it, and ghosted out of the house, into the cold winter night.
She walked slowly, but with purpose, her gaze fixed intently on the sidewalk in front of her. She focused on just putting one foot in front of the other and tried to keep her breathing steady as she neared the park. When she got the, she walked straight past her usual hiding spot (the playground) and arrived at her final destination, the shore of the pond. She tossed her backpack to the ground and sat down in the damp grass, looking out over the dark water and thinking hard.
The comforting image of Jemilla’s face drifted into Zazzalil’s consciousness. Her gorgeous, smart, caring girlfriend was the reason she was even in the position to do what she was about to do tonight. Zazz glanced back towards the playground, remembering that first night she had texted Jemilla to come save her from herself. Jemilla radiated strength and compassion. Zazzalil used that thought as motivation to make her next move.
She took a deep breath, unzipped her backpack, and pulled out the first of her lighter collection. It was a small, red Bic. She weighed it in her palm. She didn’t know when exactly she decided to get rid of her lighters. The idea had planted itself in her mind after she passed her history midterm. Ultimately, she made the decision when Jemilla left on her trip to the mountains and she didn’t fall apart. As for doing it on Christmas Eve, well, she was just dramatic like that.
Suddenly, before she could change her mind, she stood up and hurled the lighter into the center of the lake. It was too dark to see it hit the water, but she heard the gentle plop and imagine it sinking to the bottom, lost forever. She stood there for a minute, arms hanging limp, breathing hard, and waited. She didn’t know exactly what she was waiting for. She expected some sort of negative feelings to bubble up inside her, causing her to panic and abandon her mission. But that didn’t happen. She felt okay. Not great, but okay. So she continued, throwing each lighter into the lake one-by-one, waiting, and checking in with herself after as each one disappeared beneath the surface of the water. She repeated the process until the backpack was empty. As the last lighter left her hand, she collapsed on the ground, sobbing openly. She didn’t know how long she cried, but she allowed herself to feel every emotion in that moment. When she was finally able to calm down, she looked at her phone: 12:01 AM.
Merry Christmas, Zazzalil, she thought to herself, you did it.
And without looking back, she grabbed her empty backpack and made her way home.
Chapter 17: Chapter 17
As promised, here's a nice long chapter of fluff for you guys. Thank you for continuing to read!
Five days later, Zazzalil bounced on her toes in Jemilla’s driveway. Her girlfriend would be returning from her trip any minute now and Zazz wanted to be there to surprise her. She was also hoping to catch Jemilla’s parents in a good enough mood to let her stay over for new years. Zazz kicked at a rock with the toe of her shoe. She was still debating telling Jemilla that she got rid of her lighters. She decided against it for now. She hadn’t told anyone yet and didn’t really feel the need to. She’d had a great Christmas even in her girlfriend’s absence. Clark and Claire always made sure the kids at The Tribe felt like any other kids on Christmas. She was grateful this a fierce winter wind blew and she was able to pull her new sparkly, black beanie further down over her ears. She was just beginning to regret waiting outside when she saw a car turn onto the street. She waved as the car pulled up and the back door was flung open.
“Zazzy!” Jemilla jumped out and pulled her into a tight hug.
Zazzalil nuzzled against her, glad to be back in her comforting arms again. “I missed you,” she mumbled quietly.
The taller girl leaned back, beaming down at her, “I missed you too.” She pecked her once on the lips. Then kissed her again, longer this time. Then again, more passionately. Zazzalil’s world melted around her. They broke apart only when Jemilla’s dad coughed behind them. Zazz had forgotten they were still out in the driveway.
“Nice to see you again Zazzalil,” Mr. Pockmacker said with a kind look but stern look. Zazzalil took this to mean that he was genuinely happy to see her, but wished she wouldn’t make out with his daughter in front of him.
“Ahem…yeah you too Mr. P.”
Jemilla giggled at her awkwardness. Zazz ignored her and said, “By the way. I was wondering if Jemilla could stay the night at my house tonight and tomorrow?”
Zazzalil watched him consider this for a moment. “Tonight is fine with me, but tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. What exactly are you girls getting up to that requires her to spend the night?
Zazz gulped. Shit. “Well…uh…we…um…”
“We’re going to a party,” Jemilla interjected.
Zazzalil’s eyes widened. Why would Jemilla just straight up tell him that? Did she not want to go? She was still staring at her girlfriend with disbelief when Jemilla’s mother came around the car.
“Oh, a little get together with your friends? How cute. Make sure to drink a glass of cider for me,” Mrs. Pockmacker gushed.
Cider? Cute? Zazzalil was even more confused now. She looked at Jemilla who, to her surprise, was scowling.
“Will do Mom,” her girlfriend said through gritted teeth then quickly started ushering Zazzalil inside.
As soon as Jemilla’s bedroom door shut behind them, she started to rant.
“Seriously?! Zazzalil did you even hear her? ‘Oh how cute!’ ‘Have a glass of cider!’ How old does she think I am?!”
Zazzalil was sat on Jemilla’s bed as she paced in front of her. She had never seen her like this. She didn’t know how to react. Fortunately for her, all she had to do was listen intently as Jemilla continued her tirade.
“They probably think I’m going to a hang out with footie pajamas and party poppers. That we’ll be in bed 5 minutes after midnight. I’ll show her,” she scoffed. She began angrily unpacking her suitcase while simultaneously packing an overnight duffle for The Tribe. Zazzalil put a tentative hand on her arm.
“Are you okay?”
Jemilla let out a frustrated sigh and sat next to Zazz, tossing the shirt she was holding back into suitcase. Zazzalil held her hand as she waited for her to speak.
“Zazzalil. Be honest with me. Am I…am I boring?’
Zazz laughed. She couldn’t help herself. The question was so unexpected.
“Babe I’m serious!”
“I know. That’s why I’m laughing. Jmills you are, like, the least boring girl I know. You’re good at a billion things. You do a million sports. You have choir, student government, probably other things I don’t even know about!”
Jemilla rubbed her thumb over the back of Zazz’s hand. She wasn’t looking at her. “Yeah but I’ve never done anything wild and crazy. Nothing that wasn’t academically related anyway. Life experience is just as important as education.”
“Trust me. Wild and crazy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Plus you’re barely 18. You have your whole life to backpack across Europe or whatever.”
Jemilla looked unconvinced.
“But, in the meantime, we’ll work on getting you through your first party. Sound good?”
Her girlfriend beamed at her with teary eyes, “Yes that sounds wonderful. When did you get so smart?”
Zazz kissed her on the cheek, “I have my moments.”
“Ew, I hate it,” Keeri said for the umpteenth time that day. Zazzalil flipped her off and marched back towards her dresser.
It was late afternoon on New Year’s Eve. Keeri, Zazzalil, and Jemilla were getting ready for Smelly’s party. Zazzalil had spent the last hour modeling off her meager collection of party outfits, with Keeri shutting down everything she had tried on so far.
Zazz rifled through her drawers. “Come ON,” she said in a huff, “I’m running out of options here.”
“Zazzalil. This is the LAST New Year’s Eve party of our high school careers! We have to go out with a bang!”
“Is this not banging?” she said, gesturing to the dress she was already wearing.
“Not in the slightest.”
Zazzalil lunged at her sister. Jemilla, who had been watching this exchange with a bemused expression until now, grabbed Zazz around the middle to hold her back.
“Whoa there. Cool it babe. I’ll help you find something,” Jemilla said. She started going through Zazzalil’s wardrobe.
Zazz sat down with her arms folded, “Thank you. I hope it’s good or I might just kill my sister.”
When they arrived at the party (Zazz finally dressed in a Keeri-approved outfit), it was already in full swing. Zazzalil didn’t even bother to knock; she knew know one would hear it over the loud bumping, bass shaking the walls.
“So,” she said dramatically as she turned the handle of the front door, “Ready for the best party of your life?!”
Jemilla smiled. “Ready as I’ll every be.”
“Well hurry up then,” chimed Keeri, pushing past the both of them and rushing inside.
The large house was crawling with classmates. It was extremely warm inside: a combination of body heat from dancing and alcohol. Red plastic cups littered every flat surface in sight. A large table against a wall held a cornucopia of snacks: pizza chips, candy, cookies; all junk. The kitchen island looked more like a bar. Various bottles of alcohol and mixers sat atop it, with coolers underneath Zazz assumed were filled with ice cold beer. She eyed Jemilla who was taking everything in. Zazz couldn’t read her expression.
“You good?” she asked, slightly concerned.
Jemilla let out a breath. “Yeah I’m good. This’ll be fun.”
“Definitely. Let’s get you something to drink.”
At the alcohol table, Zazz scanned its contents, looking for something suitable to start her girlfriend off with. Everything on the table was hard alcohol. She leaned down and opened a cooler; as expected, it was filled with beer. She opened another: more beer. She opened a third and uttered an “ah ha!” She pulled out a wine cooler and handed it to Jemilla.
“Start with this.”
“What is it?” Jemilla said, taking the bottle cautiously.
“A wine cooler. There’s barely any alcohol in it and it sorta tastes like juice. Trust me, it’s a good place to start,” Zazz reassured her, popping the cap off.
Jemilla took a sip and made a face, “Zazzalil, this only tastes like juice if you leave your juice sitting out on the counter all day.”
Zazz laughed. “Yeah well, lucky for you, the more you drink, the better it’ll taste.” She selected a beer for herself and, after “cheers”-ing Jemilla, downed it in one go.
Keeri, who had disappeared the minute they had stepped into the house, magically reappeared holding three shot glasses filled to the brim with a clear liquid. “Come on guys!” she shouted, “We gotta go hard. This is the last party remember?” She distributed the shots. Jemilla looked from the tiny cup to Zazz to Keeri back to Zazz who just shrugged.
“She’s right you know? Bottoms up!”
Zazzalil had meant to keep an eye on Jemilla. She really did. They had danced for a while. Ate food. Drank. Danced some more. Rinse and repeat. At some point Zazz turned around to whisper something into Jemilla’s ear and found she wasn’t there. She started to panic a little bit. She was already way more drunk than she got at these parties, so walking through house in a straight line in search of Jemilla required a lot of focus.
She walked by the den and peered in. People in various stages of drunkenness were either passed out or making out on the multiple couches and armchairs in the room. Next, Zazz checked the bathrooms. Putting her ear to the downstairs bathroom, she heard a male being violently sick. She silently hoped he would be alright as she headed to the upstairs bathroom. She heard multiple voices from inside this one so she didn’t even bother. She went into the garage where a raging game of beer pong was in full play at one table. To Zazz’s entertainment (but not her surprise), Keeri was laid out shirtless on another table, allowing a redheaded girl Zazz didn’t recognize to take body shots off her.
“Keeri, have you seen Jemilla?” Zazz asked, standing over her head.
“Noooooooooooooooooooo,” Keeri responded before dissolving into giggles. She was trashed. Zazz rolled her eyes, patted her shoulder, and left her to do her thing (which apparently now was making out the redhead girl).
From the garage, she wandered into the backyard. The smell of marijuana berated her already discombobulated senses. A rather strange (yet hilarious) kid nicknamed “Ducker” was standing on a table, holding a stuffed animal duck in one hand, a lit joint in the other, and shouting, “HE crEaTed the uNiVeeeeeeeeeeeerse.”
The crowd of stoners at his feet doubled over with laughter.
“And He is a jealous duck!” a female voice rang out. Zazzalil’s jaw dropped. It was Jemilla and she was attempting to climb clumsily onto the table with a cup in her hand. Ducker helped her up. She swayed on the spot. He offered her the joint. She inhaled, coughed, then held up her cup and shouted, “Let us offer him a clean and pleasing worship!”
The crowd cheered. Zazz made her was to the table, smiling. “Hey you,” she said from Jemilla’s feet.
“Zazzy!” Jemilla exclaimed so excitedly that she fell backwards off the table. Zazzalil rushed to her side.
“Are you okay?”
Jemilla giggled, propping herself up on her elbows “Zazzy I am amazing! This party is super litty. Just. Like. You Said.” She punctuated each word by touching the tip of Zazz’s nose.
“I’m impressed. You might be more faded than I am. Since when do you smoke weed?”
Jemilla scoffed playfully, “Oh please. Research shows that no one has every died from a marijuana overdose.”
Zazzalil rolled her eyes. Even cross-faded, nerds will be nerds.
Suddenly, the music inside stopped. Zazzalil checked her phone. It was five minutes to midnight which meant it was time for Smelly’s annual speech.
“Come on. You’re gonna love this,” she said, pulling her girlfriend off the ground and leading her into the house.
Everyone was squeezed into the living room/kitchen area. Smelly Balls was stood on a chair in front of the speakers where he had been DJ-ing. He was a skinny kid with hallow yet endearing face. He was also probably the only person who could pull off a dirty blond mullet in the 21st century. Once it was as quiet as it was going to get, he began his speech.
“Well. Welcome to the last New Year’s Eve party y’all!”
Booing from the crowd.
“Hey hey! I don’t control the passage of time. You guys can thank the Duck for that. Right Ducker my dude?”
Ducker toasted him politely as everyone else laughed. Smelly Balls was his best friend.
“Anyway y’all. I just want to thank every single one of you for making this the most lit party evaaaaaaaaaaaaaar! These parties mean a lot of thinks to classmates from all walks of life. But to me it means one thing, FAMILY! HAPPY NEW YEAR!”
Everyone cheered as Smelly’s speech ended exactly at midnight. Jemilla leaned down and kissed Zazz (rather sloppily but with good intentions) on the mouth.
“Happy New Year babygirl.”
“Happy New Year Jmills.”
That was when the sirens started.
Chapter 18: Chapter 18
Chaos erupted. The entire house was bathed in flashing red and blue lights as people started to panic. Smelly Balls grabbed the DJ mic, shouting variations of “Run! Just run! They can’t catch everyone! Run!” Jemilla, who was usually the one with the plan, looked to Zazz, her glassy eyes wide with terror. Zazzalil grabbed her wrist. “Come on. I know a way out.”
They made their way as quickly as they could through the throngs of fleeing teenagers. Both girls tripped multiple times but Zazz did her best to make sure they didn’t fall, knowing they’d be trampled or caught if they did. They escaped into the backyard where the police were already tackling runners.
“Stay close. Stay low. Move quickly,” Zazz instructed. Jemilla only nodded. Her low lip was trembling.
Zazz led them into the shrubbery of the garden where they crouched behind some bushed and waited for the police to be distracted. When the coast was clear, they scrambled over the back wall and into the neighbors’ garden. From there she led them home, keeping to fences, crouching behind bushes when necessary, only crossing the street out of the range of the streetlamps. Twice, Zazzalil had to put a hand over Jemilla’s mouth to keep her from screaming as she pulled them into the shadows to avoid a squad car driving by. Finally, after a very stressful hour, they made it back to The Tribe.
They were a mess: clearly still drunk (though the experience had sobered them up quite a bit) and covered in dirt and small scratches. Zazzalil knew they should probably shower but she was exhausted. So, she tugged Jemilla up the stairs and into her room where they crashed onto her bed. Both girls were asleep before their heads hit the pillow.
The next morning, Zazzalil was rudely awakened the sound of someone loudly clearing their throat. Although her head was pounding, she forced her eyes opened and, to her dismay, saw Claire, standing over her bed, arms crossed and looking furious. Oh shit. It was at this moment Zazzalil realized that she was still cuddled up with Jemilla who was fast asleep. Claire cleared her throat again and tapped her foot angrily. Zazz shook her girlfriend awake.
“Hmm?” Jemilla said groggily.
“Um…” was all Zazz could say. She flashed her eyes at Claire.
Jemilla looked confused for a second but quickly realized the extent of the situation. “I should probably go,” she said, moving to get up.
“Yes I think that would be best,” Claire replied through pursed lips. “Zazzalil, see your guest out. Then I want you to meet me in the den. Bring Keeri.” Claire swept out of the room. Zazz cursed under her breath.
“How much trouble are you in?” Jemilla asked as she hurriedly gathered her things.
“So much,” Zazz grumbled.
She crossed the room to attempt to wake Keeri. Her sister was sprawled out on her bed, snoring loudly and looking an absolute mess. Zazz shook her shoulder. She didn’t move. Zazz shook her again, shouting her name in her ear. Still nothing. As a last resort, she pulled her arm back and slapped her sister clear across the face, much to Jemilla’s horror.
“What? It worked!”
Indeed, it had worked. Keeri was sitting up, rubbing her cheek and staring daggers at her sister. “Um, what the fuck?”
“I know, but you gotta get up. Claire found out about the party. We’re in deep shit.”
Apparently, several people at Smelly’s party had snitched. The police had promised to let the kids who were caught go if they gave names, so they sang like canaries. So much for Smelly’s “We’re a family” speech.
Zazzalil and Keeri sat together on a couch in the den. Clark was sitting quietly in his armchair, looking disappointed while Claire stood in front of the girls, hands on her hips, so mad that she was spitting as she yelled. She shouted at them for over 20 minutes about how they “broke their trust,” how they “have rules for a reason,” how they’re “not always going to be there to bail them out,” and how “as foster kids they have to be more careful than other kids because they state could take them away.” Zazz, who had been listening stone-faced until this point, teared up at the last statement.
“You’d love that wouldn’t you?” she spat at Claire before she could think.
“No Zazzalil. I love YOU. But you don’t seem to entirely grasp that concept,” Claire fired back.
“Well lucky for you, after this school year, you won’t have to worry about it anymore!”
Zazz bolted out of the house. She could hear Claire shouting after her, but she ignored her, allowing her bare feet to carry her far away from The Tribe. She only slowed down when she turned onto Jemilla’s street. Hot tears poured endlessly down her face. She was extremely angry and didn’t completely know why. All she did know was that she needed to see her girlfriend. She wiped her face and knocked on the front door. Mr. Pockmacker answered.
“Oh. Hello Zazzalil,” he said with none of his usual friendliness.
“Is Jemilla here?”
“She is,” He said nothing more.
“Well…can I see her?”
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
“Please? I really need to see her,” she choked up at the end.
Mr. Pockmacker looked her up and down, noting her bare feet and blotchy face. He sighed irritably and moved to the side, inviting her into the house. She thanked him and made her way to Jemilla’s room. She knocked and poked her head in “Hey.”
Jemilla was sitting on her bed, staring at her hands. She looked surprised but not necessarily excited to see her. “Oh. Zazzalil. What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to see you because Claire and I fought…” Zazz said, sounding puzzled.
“Oh,” was all she said.
“ ‘Oh?’ That’s it? Are you okay? What’s going on?”
Jemilla tensed and patted the place next to her. Zazz slowly made her way over. She had a bad feeling. Jemilla took her hand in both of hers, but wouldn’t look at her.
“My parents found out too,” she said after a moment.
“About the party? That explains your dad.”
“Nothing. Anyway, how long are you grounded for?”
“I’m not exactly grounded…”
“That’s great! Wow Jmills I knew your parents were cool. You are so luck—”
Jemilla cut her off. “I wasn’t done. I’m not grounded…because my parents don’t blame me...” She finally looked up at Zazz. She was crying. Zazzalil’s heart plummeted into her stomach.
“They blame me,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“Yes,” Jemilla whispered. “And…and they don’t want me to see you anymore.”
Zazzalil jumped to her feet “Well you told them no right? You told them they were being ridiculous?” She was practically shouting.
Jemilla shook her head, crying harder now.
“So you’re breaking up with me?! I don’t believe this.”
“Well what am I supposed to do?! People expect things from me! I have a reputation to uphold! I don’t exactly disagree with them,” Jemilla said. Her suddenly bitter tone caused Zazz to recoil.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that while I’m glad we met and I loved the time we spent together, being with you has led to me making some questionable decisions. I started self-harming again for the first time in years. I went to a party. We almost got arrested for fuck’s sake. I’m not saying any of this is your fault but…my feelings for you clouded my judgement. I don’t know who I am anymore,” she finished quietly.
Zazz felt no sympathy for her. She was furious, furious and hurt. “Fine,” she said in a low voice, her rage barely contained, “Don’t let me be the stain on the perfect report that is your life.”
She headed towards the door.
She shut the door in Jemilla’s face.
Back at The Tribe, Zazzalil stood at the sink in her bathroom, watching the temperature gauge on her curling iron climb upwards. She looked rough. She hadn’t stopped crying since she left Jemilla’s. She thought about the smug look on her father’s face as she ran past him, silently hoping she’d imagined it. But why wouldn’t he be happy to see me go? I was never gonna be good enough for his precious daughter. She thought about Claire and her “because I love you” bullshit. What a joke. No one loved her, except maybe Keeri. She thought about her future. She had no hope of passing history without Jemilla’s help. She had no future. I’m such a fuck up, she thought. And when she could no longer bear the storm negative emotions rolling around inside her, she grabbed the hot metal of the curling iron with her bare hand.
Keeri entered their room to a scene she hadn’t witnessed for a long time. Zazzalil was curled up in bed, sobbing quietly, and clutching her hand (the palm of which was bright red). Keeri didn’t question her, she just climbed into the bed and held her sister for the rest of the night.
Chapter 19: Chapter 19
Zazz woke up in the middle of the night with Keeri snoring in her ear. She untangled herself from her sister, threw on her hoodie, grabbed her shoes, and snuck silently out of the house.
It was extremely cold, even with the lack of wind. Every atom of still air felt like a needle prick to her face. Zazz shoved her hands into her pockets and pulled her hood up. The burn on her palm smarted. Her emotions were everywhere. For now, she settled on anger. She broke out into a run, fueled by her hatred for the world (and her desire to be out of the bitter cold). She ran hard, full-out, until she reached the gas station. It was extremely late. Zazz slowed to a walk as she made her way past the empty pumps and pushed open the door to the convenience store. It, too, was empty apart from the man behind the counter. He wasn't much older than Zazz, maybe nineteen or twenty, though his grizzled appearance made him look closer to thirty. He had long, wild brown hair pulled back into a bun and a bushy brown beard. His crooked jaw would be quite handsome if he shaved and showered regularly. He looked up when Zazz walked in.
"Hey Grunt," she said with familiarity.
He grunted and went back to sketching something on a yellow notepad.
She wandered through the tiny store. She felt safe in here, probably for all the wrong reasons. Grunt ignored her. He was quiet, an artist. But what she liked most was that he didn't ask questions. She was particularly grateful for this tonight as she approached the counter with bandages, burn cream, and a package of honey-roasted nuts (for Keeri). While Grunt rang her up, her eyes fell on the little rack of lighters next to the register. She had tried to tell herself that this was not why she came here. Who am I fooling? Of course it is. She quickly picked out a red lighter and tossed it on the counter with the other stuff. Grunt never I.D.'d her either. She paid and thanked him. He grunted in response, already back to his drawing before the door had shut.
Once she was outside, Zazz immediately pulled the lighter out the bag and held it. Although it was new, the shape of it felt familiar in her hand. She was disgusted with herself.
"Whatcha got there?" a female voice said from the shadows. Zazz jumped, dropping the lighter in fear. It skidded away. Leaning against the wall to the right of her was one of the last people she expected to see.
"Fuck Schwoopsie! You scared the shit outta me!...It's not funny!" Zazzalil snapped.
"I think it is," Schwoopsie laughed. She spotted the lighter before Zazz and picked it up.
"Give it back."
"No," Schwoopsie teased, sticking out her tongue like she wasn't a 17-year-old girl. "What do you need it for anyway? You don't smoke."
"Just give it back," Zazz said as she lunged for it. Schwoopsie held it easily out of her reach. She was about a head taller than Zazz.
"No," she teased, "I think I'll just-" she stopped abruptly, eyes falling on Zazz's outstretched arm. Her sleeve had come up, exposing the fading burn marks and the blazing new one on her hand. Zazz used her sister’s momentary shock to swipe the lighter from her. She pocketed it and set off for The Tribe. Schwoopsie jogged after her.
"No. Leave me alone," but she slowed down anyway. "What are you even doing here?"
"Followed you," Schwoopsie said.
The tall blonde hesitated then said, "I know about Jemilla."
Zazz's breath caught in her throat. She considered lying, but why would it matter?
"How'd you find out?"
"Well, you woke me up when you left. Actually, I always hear you when you 'sneak' out. You're really loud," she laughed.
Zazz flipped her off.
"Anyway. Keeri came stumbling out of the room after you left. She was crazy worried. She was talking super fast and accidentally told me about the break-up and how you were really upset and how she didn't know where you'd gone. So, I said I'd go after you. I told her to stay there in case you came back."
Zazzalil sighed. She hated worrying Keeri. Then another thought occurred to her.
"Wait. No offense, but why did you come for me? We’re not exactly close"
Schwoopsie stared up at the sky. When she spoke her voice lacked its usual joviality, "You weren't the only she broke up with..."
"Oh...right..." Zazz said quietly, staring at her feet. They walked along in silence for a few minutes. Zazz was hoping Schwoopsie would talk more about Jemilla, but she was also afraid of she would.
"Let me see that light," Schwoopsie said randomly. Zazz subconsciously gripped the lighter tighter in her pocket, but when she looked over, she saw a joint hanging out of her sister’s mouth. Zazz handed over the lighter reluctantly.
"You have your vices," Schwoopsie said. She lit the joint, inhaled deeply, held it, then exhaled. "And I have mine."
She handed Zazz her lighter back and offered her the joint. She politely declined.
As they drew nearer to The Tribe, Schwoopsie spoke, albeit a little slower than usual. "You know, I really believed Jemilla and I had something good going for a while. I wanted to pretend I was more than something fun for her to do in the summer. I really cared about her. I honestly believe she cared about me. But not nearly as much as she cared about you. That was obvious.” She pulled on the joint again, allowing Zazz time to wipe her eyes.
“Look, Jemilla is...a lot," Schwoopsie continued.
Zazz snorted humorlessly.
"Hey. I'm not saying it's an excuse but...like...we all have things we gotta work on. And sometimes we gotta do that...like, separately ya'know?"
"Yeah I know," Zazz mumbled. I hate it when stoners make sense. It happens way too often.
It was almost three in the morning when they got back to the tribe. As soon as Zazz opened the front gate, Keeri came sprinting out of the house and flung herself at Zazz, sobbing. Zazzalil patted her back, assuring her she was okay. Schwoopsie stood a few feet away from them on the lawn, finishing her joint. “Thank you,” Zazz mouthed at her over Keeri’s shoulder. Schwoopsie nodded and disappeared into the house.
Zazzalil laid in bed, Keeri’s head resting on her chest, thinking hard about what Schwoopsie had said. Until tonight, she believed that Jemilla wouldn’t have broken up with her if she had actually loved her. Now, she wasn’t so sure. Okay, but even so, she broke up with me, she obviously doesn’t care. Then she remembered the last think Schwoopsie said, “…sometimes we gotta do that…like, separately.” Zazz looked at her burned palm in the darkness. She obviously had some things to work on. She still had her doubts about breaking up being a good thing. But maybe…
She fell asleep still considering making some changes in her life. There was no way she could know that an incident a week later would make that decision for her.