One year Sarah and Kiara had been best friends. It was a year of laughter, of late nights drunk on her dad’s beer, or sober in her bedroom because Sarah didn’t need to be drunk to feel comfortable with Kiara. Sarah couldn’t name a single other person she’d felt that way with, except maybe Wheezie, but sisters don’t really count, anyway. She only saw the rest of her friends at keg parties or kook parties, the ones she needed to dress up for and make polite conversation and hang onto Topper’s elbow at. At keg parties she was pretty and wasted and at kook parties she was Sarah Cameron, the daughter her father showed off to business partners and potential clients, not Sarah, the girl who could stay up all night sober with Kiara and not feel like she was wearing somebody else’s mask.
For one year Sarah could say casually, This is Kiara, my best friend, and not feel like she was standing on the edge of something dangerous—something wildly out of her control. It was easy when Kiara felt like solid ground, like the thing Sarah could stand on when everything else around her was teetering on its axis. It was less easy when Kiara began to feel like a minefield, like something Sarah had to step around with caution so as not to destroy them both.
For one year Kiara and Sarah would stay up late, sober or not, and talk about the bubble-wrap. Talk about how they wanted out of it. Maybe together.
If Sarah thinks about it—which she doesn’t, not really—and if she’s honest with herself, she can admit that year might have been the happiest of her life.
Then, well. Then it ended.
There was a year of both their lives that Kiara and Sarah had told each other everything, had lived their lives through the other. Sarah had seen Kiara at her lowest points, her ugliest, but never, in all that time, had she ever seen Kiara this angry.
It was a low move on John B’s part, and JJ and Pope’s, but they were co-conspirators at best. John B had locked Sarah in the floor of their boat, for Christ’s sake. Then they’d tricked Kiara on with her and ran with the keys, leaving the girls alone.
In the marsh. In a tiny boat. Overnight.
What had they expected to come of it, anyway? Sarah could hear Kiara’s words clear as day. I would rather drown than stay here with you. Muttered casually, flung out like they weren’t ugly, but they were. Ugly. The truth usually is.
And now what? Now the sun had gone down and Sarah’s hair hadn’t even dried. A jellyfish sting was still angry and red up her right torso and Kiara didn’t even care , except maybe she did, Sarah wouldn’t be able to tell either way. The consolation blunt that JJ had left behind was gone, split between the two of them, and the world seemed light and hazy in a way Sarah quite enjoyed. But high or not, Kiara was angry and John B’s plan was a bust.
Still, the weed wasn’t a bad touch, and Sarah couldn’t believe she’d never done this before. Of all the non-kook things she might have done to fight against the bubble-wrap, weed had managed not to be one of them.
A shame, really.
But Kiara was very annoyed. “Is this like, your first time smoking, or something?”
Sarah looked down, trying not to pout, but she might have possibly pouted anyway. She couldn’t help it—her face was just like that. So the sullen tone in her voice at her muttered, “No,” must not have been as clear as she heard it out loud.
Kiara rolled her eyes, looking like she’d rather be anywhere in the world but here, on a boat, in the marsh, with Sarah, all alone, and they fell into silence. So, fine, if Kiara wanted to be her stubborn self, Sarah could too. Let Kiara sulk, fine. Let her give Sarah the silent treatment. Sarah could handle silence, and she could handle the cold and her damp hair and the murky sounds of the marsh.
“ Oh, my god,” Kiara said exasperatedly. “ Enough of the ‘Hey, Kiara’ bullshit.” Sarah frowned at the way her voice went high at the Hey, Kiara. It was rude to mock. Then Kie turned toward Sarah and looked at her—really looked for the first time since the other pogues had left them on this damn boat—and Sarah froze. She wasn’t used to being looked at by her, not anymore. “Why’d you do it?”
Sarah hesitated. “Why did I do what?” she said finally, but they both knew what.
“We were best friends ,” Kie said, voice resentful. “We stole beers from your dad’s fridge, we watched movies together, we cried about boys.” (To be fair, there was really only one boy, and it was a dramatic reaction from Sarah’s part, if anything. She didn’t even like him, really, but she liked the murderous looks Kie shot him in school for the next month, and she liked how Kie would hold Sarah’s hand under the table if she saw him coming.)
Kie scoffed, tilting her head back against the side of the boat, her voice slightly bitter. “Then the next thing I know I’m watching your birthday party happen from Instagram.”
“It was one party,” Sarah said, irritated now.
Kiara looked at Sarah in disbelief, as if she was shocked that Sarah would even try to defend herself. “You invited everybody except me,” she said, and this time Sarah didn’t have a defense. Because she had. Kiara let her sit in the silence for a few seconds, Sarah not knowing where to look, or what to say. “And then you told everyone that I was the reason the party got busted?”
Sarah huffed shortly, losing patience. “Okay, well, who else would have called the cops?”
“You never asked! You just let the rumor go--that I was a rat. ” She sort of spit the last word like it tasted bad in her mouth. “You were my best friend and then you ghosted me,” she continued, “and I don’t even know why. I mean really, what did I do?”
Her voice came out so earnest, so searching, that Sarah flinched and looked away. How could she answer that question? Kiara had done nothing, and she had done everything. How could Sarah say, You started making me stumble. You glared at Ben Immel after he made me cry and you didn’t make me want to drink. You slept in my bed and kept me awake. You confused me and twisted me in knots so tight that I couldn’t untangle them, and the most awful part was that I knew you could. Only you. And I would never have been brave enough to ask you what they meant, if you were knotted too, if the key to all of this was each other.
What had Kie done? Kie had taken Sarah’s world apart, popped the bubble-wrap, and Sarah hadn’t been ready for that. She hadn’t been ready for Kie to make her step out of it.
But Kie was looking at Sarah in a boat on the marsh and Sarah’s hair was wet and her side was still burning and suddenly the high didn’t feel so high anymore. Sarah wasn’t used to being looked at by Kiara anymore. She had nearly forgotten how deep her eyes could go.
Sarah didn’t mean to say it, but the words tripped their way out of her mouth anyway. “You liked me.”
Kie froze. Stared. Looked. Sarah came apart quietly. “What?”
Sarah continued slowly, having to search for the words. “When people get close to me, I feel trapped.” She swallowed. “And… I bail. And then I blame them for it.”
When she looked back at Kie the girl looked deeply confused, maybe even distressed. “I liked you?” she repeated
Sarah knew what she did, the word choice, the vagueness there. Because they both knew that it was true in any context—Sarah got drunk at parties and dated Topper because he was safe and kept her world at arm’s length. Sarah pushed people away. Sarah self-sabotaged when anyone liked her enough to stay; it was the way she had always been.
But saying those words to Kie, You liked me … that held an entirely different meaning.
“And, what?” Kiara spluttered, breaking the long silence. “It creeped you out? Made you uncomfortable? What was it? I couldn’t help it, Sarah, and believe me when I say that I tried.”
“No!” Sarah rushed, and then stopped there because she wasn’t good with words. Kie was, she was articulate and well-spoken and never stumbled. She knew what she wanted to say and she said it—but Sarah couldn’t do that. Sarah’s words were stuck somewhere inside of her that always felt impossible to dig for, and when she managed to find them they never felt like the right ones.
“Okay, Sarah,” Kie scoffed bitterly. She pushed herself to standing, heading into the cabin and leaving Sarah there, side stinging and hair drier than it had been before, but not feeling warmer at all. In a boat in the marsh and all alone, without Kiara.
She stayed there for a long time, although she couldn’t have told you exactly how long, before she heard Kie’s voice again. She was standing at the front of the cabin looking at Sarah with something the girl couldn’t decipher. “It’s fucking cold, Sarah,” she muttered. “There are blankets in here.”
Which Sarah could argue sounded suspiciously like caring, but she didn’t bother bringing it up.
Sarah didn’t stand yet, just looked at Kie from where she was still curled up against the far side of the boat. The skies were completely clear and the light of the moon was enough to make Kie look like something otherworldly. Her mess of hair, her too-deep eyes, the slight downturn to her lips. She was frowning, waiting for Sarah to move.
“Kie,” Sarah said quietly, and this time the other girl didn’t mock her, “do you think there’s a chance that we could be okay again?”
The cicadas were almost loud enough to drown out the other girl’s response. “Honestly?” Sarah watched her apprehensively. A quiet falling. Kie looked like she shimmered beneath the stars of the marsh. “I don’t know.”
Sarah accepted that, because neither did she. When had they ever?
They laid out all of the pillows and blankets on the floor of the cabin to make a bed somewhat resembling a nest then settled in beside each other, a safe distance apart. Sarah lay on her side watching Ki, the cabin still cast in moonlight from the surrounding windows. Kiara was lying on her back with her eyes closed.
It was only after Sarah had let her eyes fall shut, Kiara’s profile the backdrop of her eyelids, that the other girl spoke, her voice slow with sleepiness. “Hey Sarah?”
Sarah shifted a little, not opening her eyes to respond. “Hey Kiara?”
“Did you even-” the girl stopped, cleared her throat. “Did you even miss me?”
Sarah felt her face scrunch up, because even the idea of not missing Kiara was absurd to the point of being unimaginable, and even though Sarah wasn’t good with words—they all stumbled over each other on their way out—she tried anyway. “I haven’t gone to a single keg party and not missed you making fun of other kooks next to me, or a single kook party without wishing you were there to drag me away from my father, or had a single shitty day that I didn’t wish you were there for.” She cleared her throat, then clarified. “By that I mean a little. I missed you a little,” because the rest seemed far too giving.
Sarah almost heard a smile in Kiara’s voice. “Did you miss me enough not to do it again?”
“God, yes,” Sarah tripped out immediately. She couldn’t say it fast enough. “I would never.”
“Promise me,” Kiara said softly, and Sarah finally opened her eyes.
God, Kiara was so beautiful. Like sea turtles. Like sand dollars. Like moonlight on a little marsh in the cut. Like everything that wasn’t bubble wrap. “I promise.”
Kiara turned onto her side to face Sarah, finally, and Sarah was already looking at her, looking at her, always. Sarah hadn’t stopped looking at her since the first day they met, for the year that she never had to look at her from across a crowded party and for every year after, sometimes without even knowing, and now. Now, Kiara was so close to her. So easy to touch.
“It was because you liked me,” Sarah said.
Kiara’s face melted from softness to frustration and she turned onto her back. “I know, okay? I get it, and it won’t be an issue this time.” She stumbled over the next bit. “John B kissed me in the woods a few weeks ago and I stopped him, but I can fix it. It’ll be someone else this time.” Something in Sarah twisted in a very ugly way. “Just friends.”
“Kiara, shut up for a second,” Sarah said shortly. The other girl clamped her mouth shut, eyes hard and cast toward the ceiling. “It was because you liked me-” she held her hand up when Kiara started to talk again, cutting her off, “-and it was because I liked you .”
Kiara froze. Sarah froze. The marsh and the tiny boat and the rest of the world came to a grinding halt, and it was so quiet.
Sarah spoke again, so quiet even the cicadas couldn’t hear. “I don’t want it to be someone else this time.”
The only sound was Kiara’s sharp inhale. The cicadas. Sarah’s own shallow breathing.
“You don’t mean it.”
“I mean it.” God, Sarah had never meant anything more.
“John B likes you.”
It was impossible not to know, with how he looked at her. She liked John B, she really did, but she didn’t want him. Not like she wanted Kiara, with her messy hair and socialist agenda and soft curves. She didn’t want John B like she’d always wanted Kiara, watching her running around the cut, breaking out of the bubble wrap like Sarah had always planned to, and they were supposed to do it together.
Sarah got scared and Sarah bailed and a few months later she was watching Kie run around with Pogues and make friends and pop, pop, pop the bubble wrap while Sarah was still wrapped so safely within it. All of the nights they had spent up talking about breaking out just for Kie to leave her behind.
She wanted to be angry. For a long, long time all Sarah wanted to be was angry, but anger was only the second strongest emotion.
John B liked Sarah, it was apparent to anyone, and maybe if she hadn’t spent so long watching Kie with John B as a supporting character things might have been different, but there was no room in Sarah’s eyes for anyone but Kie. She took up so much more than her fair share. So when Sarah said, I know, she meant, John B is a boy and you are a world within a world within a world, and what she really meant was, John B is a boy and you are my world.
She said, “John B will be okay without his kook princess.”
Kie snickered. “Kook princess?”
“Pretty much,” Sarah said, and when she laughed Kiara laughed. When they laughed the marsh and the cicadas and the outer banks laughed and laughed along with them. The entire world laughing for Sarah and Kiara on their tiny boat, in the marsh, all alone.
When they were quiet again Sarah’s eyes threatened to slip shut. It was late and she had come down from the consolation blunt hours ago. As electrified as Sarah found herself in Kiara’s presence, the boat’s gentle rocking was enough to lull a grown man to sleep and it had to be past midnight by now.
And anyway, Sarah had always slept best with Kie next to her.
Kie shifted again, turning her head away. “Also,” she said, “I’m sorry I called the cops.”
A slow smile spread across Sarah’s face. “I knew it,” she grinned. “You bitch.”
Then they were both laughing again, rolled onto their backs and looking at the ceiling and laughing, laughing. “I knew it,” Sarah said through her giggles.
“You should have invited me!”
Sarah laughed harder, dropping her head to the side to look at Kie. She was still facing the other direction slightly, but Sarah could see where her cheek was lifted with her smile and her shoulders were shaking. “So you called the cops?”
Kie nodded, turning her head finally, smile stretched wide across her face. Sarah remembered when that smile was full of braces. Kiara had looked so good in them that Sarah had begged her dad to let her get some too, but Sarah already had straight teeth. “Yeah,” Kiara said, shrugging and still laughing, laughing. Sarah loved Kiara’s laugh. Loved her smile and her straight teeth. Loved her flushed cheeks and the moonlight for making them glow and the tiny boat in the marsh that they laid in. Loved the boys for trapping them there, dammit.
The cicadas chirped and Kiara laughed and laughed and Sarah’s hair was dry now, she thought, and the stars were laughing with them, and the boat was swaying, dancing, and the marsh was so quiet. Sarah was looking at Kie, a quiet falling.
Loved the little marsh and the mess that brought them here.
Loved Kie, maybe. Probably.