“I think I’m going to do everything in my power for at least like the next three years to not fall in love.”
“What if you do?”
“Then intervene and fucking destroy it.”
Cassie starts thinking about new year’s resolutions when she’s sitting on the curb of a gas station in the middle of fucking nowhere, eating a pack of powdered donuts she bought with the 20-dollar bill she stuffed in her bra. It’s not the first time she’s played with the idea of self-improvement, first when she and Maddy took molly at the carnival and then at the Winter Formal when she officially swore off boys.
Neither has been very successful so far. As she runs her teeth under the edge of her acrylic nails in an attempt to dig out the leftover powdered sugar, she realizes just how pathetic she probably looks right now. She’s definitely getting dirt stains on the butt of her blue dress.
She’s probably not even at twenty-five percent of her potential, let alone one hundred.
She should really start making some New Year’s resolutions.
She’s forced out of her thoughts when a car pulls up right in front of her, tires skidding against the pavement as the driver stops a hair’s breadth away from the curb. She raises her arm up to her eyes in order to block out the headlight’s glare.
It barely surprises her that Nate Jacobs steps out of the car and breezes past her into the convenience store. It’s even less surprising when he emerges with a six-pack dangling from his hand.
“Sup, Cassie?” he says, that same drawl she’s heard numerous times around Maddy. She’s forced to look up at him, craning her head towards the sky. There aren’t any stars out, even this far away from the city, but she wishes there were. If only so she could have something to look at other than the easy grin on Nate’s face.
“Hi,” she returns, her usual smile finding its way onto her face without her permission. No matter how much she wishes she could glare at him instead, she’s trapped in her body and the mannerisms it's inherited from years of practice.
He holds out a beer to her. “Something to wash that down?”
She takes a swig from it, curling her lips around the head of the bottle just so, and curses the fact that he’s right. Her mouth feels much better now that the dryness of the powdered sugar is gone.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“I was supposed to go to this party with my sister but we got into this really big fight.”
Nate pauses, taking another sip of his beer. Cassie watches his Adam’s apple flex when he swallows, the tendons of his throat pulsating.
“Are you still with McKay?
Cassie’s skin itches. She wishes she was wearing something warmer than this skimpy dress.
There are no questions about her sister and their fight. Or even if she’s okay. Only about her relationship status and her shitty ex-boyfriend.
Is that really all she is? McKay’s ex?
She doesn’t want to tell Nate her relationship status. Especially knowing that he’s off again with Maddy. But she feels obligated to anyway.
“We broke up.”
“Because we were in different places.”
They broke up because he was too scared to be seen with her. Because he wanted to tell her how to dress in case his own ego was hurt. Because she wasn’t just his girlfriend but the girl he paraded in front of his entire college. Because when she got pregnant his first worry was how it would affect him, not whether she was alright. Because he tried to control her, her clothes, her body, her life.
She’s always been good at giving up control. But now she wants it back. Starting with sparing Nate the details of their breakup.
“Yeah, it’s the same shit with me and Maddy.”
For a second, she thinks he gets it. But then she remembers the purpling bruises on Maddy’s neck and how out of it she looked in a hoodie and sweatpants.
Nate takes another drink of his beer and then wipes his mouth absentmindedly. When he looks back down at her, it makes her skin crawl.
“But you’re like a relationship kinda girl.”
Cassie pauses, crinkling the empty donut wrapper between her fingernails. “I’m trying not to be.”
She refuses to give him more than that. He doesn’t deserve to know her.
He takes another long swig of his beer, lips curling around the bottle in a sneer. “Would you like a ride to this party?”
Cassie crumples the plastic wrapper between her fingers before she stands up, pulling down the hem of her dress. She smiles at Nate, toothy and demure, the kind of smile she’s learned that guys like. “Sure.”
Nate’s truck smells like laundry detergent and alcohol and Cassie has to stop herself from wrinkling her nose as she climbs in. She balances her open bottle between her knees as Nate sets the rest of the pack down in the backseat between them, opening up another one for himself. He pops the cap off with his teeth and spits it out the window. Then he grins at Cassie, teeth bared.
She smiles back hesitantly. Her hands tense as he peels out of the parking lot, drifting over the yellow lines. Her nails scratch lines along her thighs and the bottle between her legs rattles. She wraps her hands around the neck to steady it, sneaking glances over at Nate all the while. He’s almost drained his second bottle, the beer sloshing around as he drives with one hand on the steering wheel.
Nate swishes the alcohol in his mouth before swallowing it down and rolling down the rest of the windows. The heat in his truck is blaring, a stark contrast to the winter chill outside. He turns the music up louder, maintaining eye contact with Cassie as he does so.
Her lips curl up into a nervous smile but she braces herself against the car door anyway as the numbers on the speedometer tick up and up.
“Maybe we should slow down,” she says, palm pressed against the door while her other hand tries to keep her beer from spilling.
Nate takes another drain from his bottle. “Come on, Cass, lighten up. Live a little.”
“Don’t call me Cass,” she snaps. Her eyes widen along with Nate’s at the remark. He looks at her more intensely now, eyes trailing over her body. His gaze lingers where her dress ends, exposing smooth thighs.
Cassie pulls her eyes away from him and looks back at the twisting canyon road. There aren’t any guardrails.
The car reeks of beer. The scent of it is enough to make her sick, pressing her head back and into the headrest in an effort to ground herself.
There are headlights coming from the opposite direction. They’re drifting into the other lane. Cassie’s grip tightens on the leather seam of the seat below her.
Everything goes white.
Cassie floats, her hair drifting out around her in pale tendrils. Her arms move slowly through the air as if cutting through a body of water. The pressure in the air is enough to make her ears pop, causing her to grind her teeth down violently.
The world around her is washed out in a pale light, an overexposed polaroid. A flash image.
How many times has she watched a camera flash just like this while she was spread out on her knees or her back or her stomach?
The arc of it reflects in her waterline, tears beading along the corner of her retina.
A wave rises in front of her, threatening to consume her whole and spit her back out, washing her ashore. She takes a deep breath inwards, just like the beach trips her Dad took her on when she was younger. She would spend hours bouncing and ducking under the waves and letting them wash over her.
The wave crashes.
Cassie slams back down into her seat, gasping for breath. The seat belt tightens around her chest and she claws at it.
She can’t breathe.
Finally, she pulls the seat belt off her chest and reaches down to unlock it with shaking hands. The click echoes throughout the car.
There’s no response. Cassie’s scared to look, but she does it anyway.
Nate is slumped back against his seat, eyes closed and red streaks clustered in his hair. Cassie’s eyes widen.
The next few minutes pass by in a blur. She can remember snippets: her nails clicking against her phone screen as she dials 911, the first responders helping her out of the car, her eyes finally slipping closed as the ambulance pulls onto the highway.
When she wakes up again, it’s to the steady beeping of a hospital machine.
“Cassie,” a voice nearby breathes out, barely a whisper. She turns her head slowly, forcing herself to finish the motion even as it sends a burst of pain down the ridge of her spinal cord. Lexi is sitting in a plastic chair next to her bed. Her hair is slowly falling out of her updo, tendrils spilling over her forehead and along her cheeks. She hasn’t seen her sister since she climbed out of the car.
It feels like days ago.
Maybe it was.
“Is it still New Year’s?” she asks, blinking slowly as she takes in the luminescence of the room and the washed-out scent of disinfectant.
Lexi shakes her head. “It’s January 1st. You’ve been out practically all night.”
“Oh. Did you make it to that party?”
It might just be whatever drugs the hospital gave her while she was out, but Cassie swears she can see a blush spread across Lexi’s face. “Yeah. But I had to leave pretty quick once Mom called me.”
“Is she. . . ?”
“No. She had to leave this morning. It’s been pretty stressful trying to sort out stuff with the hospital and the police.”
“Two teenagers with alcohol in their system and an open pack in the backseat doesn’t really look too good. Nate is facing more charges because he was driving, but his Dad will probably just make them go away the same way they did with Maddy.”
Maddy. She’d nearly forgotten about Maddy. Was she at the New Year’s party? Had she heard about the accident? Was she upset that Cassie had accepted that ride from her ex?
“Is. . .” She hesitates. “Is Maddy. . .”
“She knows. She’d have visited you, but they’re only letting family members in.”
“Oh.” Cassie notices Lexi’s plaid dress, the same one she was wearing before Cassie flung herself out of the car. “Have you been waiting here all night?”
“I should have listened to you.”
“What?” Lexi’s voice turns up at the end of the word, disbelief hinging in her tone.
“On the way to the party. And before, when you didn’t want Dad to drive us home.”
“Oh, Cassie.” Lexi leans over, tucking her hair behind her ears. “I didn’t even think about that.”
“I don’t want to be like Dad.” Cassie’s voice breaks at her confession. “I was just so scared.”
She doesn’t know if she’s talking about her Dad or Nate. That thought scares her even more.
She thinks it’s finally time for her to stop flitting around about self-improvement and commit to it. Maybe if she sticks to her guns this time, she can fix this wreckage of her life.
Lexi’s eyes are watery and her hand is still resting on the pillow next to Cassie’s head. Cassie reaches up to hold it, drawing Lexi’s eyes back to her.
“When they let me out of here, do you want to go get ice cream?”
Lexi laughs through her tears, squeezing her hand back. “I’d love that.”
They release Cassie a week later and tell her that she’s lucky. She doesn’t ask about Nate but they tell her anyway, tell her that he’s still recovering and won’t be out for another month at least. She waits until she’s outside in the fresh air to laugh, the sound bubbling out of her chest and spilling into the sky.
“What’s so funny?” Lexi asks, sticking to her side while their Mom brings around the car.
Cassie keeps laughing, reveling in the cool January air and the crunch of concrete underneath her feet. When she finally stops, she turns back to Lexi and grins. “I’m alive.”
They go to get their ice cream that weekend despite the bitter cold and Lexi tells her about the guy she met at the party. Cassie can’t remember the last time she spent time with her sister like this. She tries her best to be supportive of what Lexi tells her over her cone of mint chocolate chip so that she never feels like she can’t tell her stuff again.
She does the same thing with Maddy, who corners her the second she steps through the school doors and pulls her into a tight hug. When she steps back, she calls her a bitch and catches her up on all the latest school drama. Cassie listens and makes sounds of disapproval in all of the appropriate places. This whole high school thing becomes more and more stupid the more she listens. Why should she waste her life caring about what other people are doing? Why did she let herself get sucked into what they all thought about her? The thoughts are a stark contrast to her previous ones and for once, she doesn’t care about seeking out the attention of the boys who are all tripping over themselves to ask if she’s alright. She has her best friend next to her and that’s all she needs.
It turns out that almost dying really does put things into perspective.
Because of that, she walks over to the ice rink after school one day with a resume in hand. She doesn’t have much actual work experience, but after Lexi comes up with a way to spin every activity she’s done since middle school and Cassie manages to talk about her passion for skating without breaking down at the thought of her father, she gets the job.
Each afternoon, once school is over, she walks over to the ice rink and teaches little kids how to skate. It takes her a few weeks to adjust to it, but eventually, she can’t suppress the aching feeling in her chest that feels a little bit like joy. Instead of spending time with skeezy guys who ogle her body and pressure her into videos and photos, she feels like she’s actually making a difference.
Seeing the excited expression on a kid’s face when they finally get a skill down or their happy waves at the start and end of class reminds her what she’s been missing. She looks at them and wishes that someone looked out for her like this when she was younger. So she vows to do the best she can to never make them feel so hopeless.
On top of that, she relishes the burn in her legs from all the walking and skating. It makes her feel alive and the feeling of getting stronger is like a breath of fresh air. She’s always been athletic, but she hadn’t realized just how much she missed skating. Her supervisors let her use the rink after her classes have finished for free and when she glides across the ice, none of her troubles can move fast enough to reach her. She feels free, she feels like flying.
And most of all, it feels a little bit like finally taking her life back. Her dad isn’t calling the shots anymore, McKay isn’t telling her what to do, and she isn’t going to let any man control her ever again. They don’t get to take this too.
Her promise to herself is tested when a couple of months after the accident and on one of her free weekends, Maddy drags her to a party. It feels the same as before, with Maddy talking shit and B.B. hitting her vape in the passenger seat while Kat scrolls on her phone next to her, but it feels startlingly different too.
But maybe that’s just because Cassie feels different. She dressed down tonight, declining Maddy’s offer to borrow a dress in favor of a loose-fitting pair of flared pants and a light blue top. She even wore a pair of her old sneakers in preparation for beer spills. Her hand snakes over her hair, short cut acrylic nails checking that the braids she asked Lexi to help her with aren’t falling out.
“Your hair looks fine,” Kat says, glancing up from her phone.
“Thanks.” Cassie pauses. “I like your makeup.”
Kat practically glows. “So, where have you been? I feel like I haven’t seen you for ages.”
“I got a job.”
“Wait, really? Where?”
“At the ice rink.”
“Hey, good for you. That’s awesome.”
Their conversation comes to a natural halt as they pull up outside the party. The block is already lined with cars and she can hear the bassline from here, thrumming in her veins. Cassie takes a deep breath, steels herself, and opens the car door.
They made sure to arrive fashionably late, so the place is already packed. Maddy immediately pushes her way through the crowd, making a beeline for the kitchen. Cassie trails behind her, helping her pour shots for them.
“Cheers!” Maddy shouts above the music. The four of them clink their glasses together before downing the shots.
B.B. and Kat separate from them after spotting people they know, leaving just Cassie and Maddy alone by the counter. Maddy pours two more shots for both of them.
“Alright, I’m feeling buzzed enough. Let’s go dance.” She grabs Cassie’s hand, tangling their fingers together, and pulls her out into the living room. Cassie lets herself get lost in the music, moving along with Maddy.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spots a familiar figure standing in the corner of the room. Towering over everyone else and nursing a red solo cup is none other than Nate Jacobs. And he’s staring right at them.
Cassie nudges Maddy with her shoulder, tilting her head towards him. Maddy’s movements falter for a moment.
“Why is he here?” Cassie hisses, whisper-shouting over whatever rap song is currently playing.
“Do I look like I know?”
“I don’t know, he’s your ex!”
“And you were the one in the car with him on New Year’s!” Maddy’s face is flushed, but Cassie doesn’t know if it’s from the drinking, the dancing, or the anger.
She grabs Maddy’s hand in her own and tugs her away from the center of the room, pulling her through a sliding glass door and out onto the patio. The second the door snaps shut behind them, she can breathe again. The music softens to a quiet lull in the background and the crisp night air chills her body.
“Why are we out here?” Maddy snaps, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring even while she sits down in one of the metal lawn chairs. Cassie sits across from her.
“Because I wanted to talk.”
“Okay. Why don’t you talk about how you were with Nate the night he crashed.” Even hunched over in a dirty lawn chair with her arms wrapped around her knees, Maddy still looks like a war general. With edged winged eyeliner and a steady gaze that almost betrays the hurt behind her eyes, the confrontation feels more serious than just an ex-boyfriend.
But maybe that’s just because they haven’t talked about it yet.
“Nothing happened between us, I swear.”
Cassie feels small and childish. Like pigtails and melted ice cream and leering gazes all over again.
“That’s not what I’m asking.”
Cassie sighs. Reminds herself of her promise. She’s not that girl anymore. “I got into a fight with Lexi on our way to the party and ended up at a gas station. He offered me a ride and I took it. He was drinking. He crashed. That’s all there is to it.”
“He was drinking?”
Cassie scoffs. “It’s Nate. Of course, he was. And of course, he faced absolutely zero consequences for it. Even though I could have died.”
Maddy pulls her gaze away from Cassie, staring into the spot where the light from the house fades and the darkness starts. “They were never going to put a Jacobs in prison for drunk driving. They’re the town’s golden family standard.”
“What about for assault?”
Maddy’s shoulders stiffen, just slightly. The crack in her armor appears. “He didn’t do it.”
“Is that what he told you to say?”
“That’s what happened!” Maddy pulls back and takes a deep breath, fanning her face with her fingers. “Why does everyone think I’m lying?”
“I don’t know about everyone else, but Nate almost killed me in that crash. I don’t want him to kill you too.” Cassie reaches across the table and squeezes Maddy’s hand. “He hurt us both, even if you’re not ready to admit it yet.”
Maddy swipes her cheeks with the flat of her hand, even though she hasn’t been crying. “We’re too good for him.”
“And he’s such an asshole.”
Cassie giggles. “Yeah. Fuck Nate Jacobs.”
Maddy stands back up, dusting off the back of her dress. “Come on, enough of this sad shit. Let’s get back to the party.”
Cassie follows her, getting lost in the throes of people and the tight hallways. Somewhere along the way she gets separated from Maddy, half-empty solo cup in hand while she pushes her way through the living room into a random hallway. It’s all suddenly too loud, too much.
She misses the cool of the ice, the silence of an empty arena interrupted only by her pick cutting lines and sending flakes scattering. It’s where she feels most herself.
She presses her head against the wall, taking a deep breath. She pictures herself back out on the rink, turning endless circles and flying. Flying far away from here.
A familiar voice causes her eyes to snap open.
“McKay?” There he is, standing at the end of the hallway like a ghost, holding an identical solo cup. He walks over next to her and leans up against the wall.
“How have you been?”
She falters. “Good. You?”
“I’ve been better. It’s weird now that the season’s over.”
“Is that why you’re here?”
“Yeah, I was back in town for the weekend.” He pauses and takes a sip of beer or jungle juice or whatever. “I haven’t seen you around.”
“I’ve been busy.”
He laughs, deep and bitter. “So you’ve already moved on, huh?”
“What? No, that’s not what I meant.” Her blood boils beneath her skin, blistering and festering until it threatens to spill over. She struggles to hold onto her cool when every part of her body burns hot.
“What did you mean?”
“I’ve got a job now. And school.”
“Is it?” Ice seeps through into her voice, leaving streaks of frostbite on her tongue.
“You know I didn’t mean it like that. You just never seemed like that kind of girl.”
“What kind of girl am I then?”
“Enough of this, Cassie. You know what I meant.”
“No, I don’t.” She does. She knows because it’s all any guy has ever said about her. She can’t believe she once thought he was any different. “I want you to say it.”
“This is exactly why we didn’t work out, Cassie! Because every time I try to talk to you, you act like a fucking child!”
They didn’t work out because he always wanted her to be something she’s not. Because he was embarrassed by her. Because he only wanted the perfect girl and not her.
“I’m acting like a child? You’re the college freshman who’s still going to high school parties! It’s fucking pathetic.”
“Cassie,” he steps closer to her, cornering her against the wall. She presses against his chest with a firm hand and steps away.
“Fuck you,” she hisses, vitriolic and firey. “Don’t talk to me again.”
She storms down the hallway, leaving him in the dust. She feels like she’s on fire. She understands why Maddy acts like this now, all bark and bite. She feels fucking powerful. Like no one can ever touch her again.
She could get used to this.
The end of the hallway is rapidly approaching, but Cassie refuses to turn around and walk past McKay again. So she pushes through the next unlocked door and finds herself standing in a bathroom. It’s atrociously decorated, with polka-dotted shower curtains and a pink fuzzy toilet seat cover.
Who’s house is she in again?
Cassie looks around to find the source of the voice, finally looking down to find Jules laying prone in the bathtub. Her cropped hair is splayed out around where the back of her head meets the tile, creating a dirty gold halo, and her long legs are sprawled over the side of the tub.
“Oh, sorry. I can go if you want me to.”
“No, you can stay.”
Unwilling to sit down on the tacky seat cover, Cassie lowers herself to the ground next to the toilet, leaning against the wall and stretching her feet out next to Jules’.
“I don’t think I’ve talked to you since the Winter Formal,” Cassie says, grasping at conversation.
“God, that feels like forever ago.”
“Tell me about it.” She pauses. “I like your hair.”
Jules tugs at a strand, fruitlessly twisting her neck to try and get a glimpse of it. “Thank you,” she coos back. “You should do something with yours.”
Cassie gestures at her braid. “I am doing something.”
Jules giggles, bubbly and bright. Cassie can see why Rue fell for her. “I don’t mean that, silly. You should cut it or dye it.”
“You really think so?”
Suddenly, Jules sits upright in the tub, practically folding herself in half. She stares intently at Cassie and raises her hands, thumbs and forefingers making an L shape, up to her eyes. She tilts them just so, seemingly inspecting Cassie’s head.
“You would look good with short hair. Like Marilyn Monroe.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Let me know if you ever want to change it.”
The silence seeps in again, slightly awkward and overbearing, clinging to the walls like mold.
“Why are you sitting in a bathtub?” Cassie asks, voice echoing in the quiet room and bouncing off all the tiles.
Jules folds in on herself, wrapping her arms around her knees. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she mutters, leaning her head against her kneecap. “Why are you here?”
“I got into a fight with McKay.” Jules looks confused so she clarifies, “My ex-boyfriend.”
“Ah. What happened?”
“He wants me to be something I’m not.”
Cassie looks up. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. What men want is fucking boring. And you’re not boring, Cassie Howard.” The words drip out of her throat like ambrosia, surer than anything Cassie has ever heard.
Cassie stands up. “Fuck him. Fuck Nate. Fuck everyone.”
Jules pulls herself out of the tub, hands pressed against the wall for support. “Fuck men.”
“Fuck them!” Cassie crows, shouting it to the ceiling, to the heavens. She doesn’t even care who else can hear her.
They shout back and forth to each other, cursing everyone in this world who ever made them feel this shitty. They’re still giggling and swearing in the bathroom when Maddy finds them ages later. They convince her to join in and she’s just drunk enough that she eagerly yells out, “Fuck Nate Jacobs!”
She links hands with Cassie and Cassie feels more at peace here, with these girls that understand just what she’s been through. She’s never felt this free with any guy she’s ever dated.
Jules was right.
The memories of that night at the party stick with her days after. It’s enough that one day while packing up her skates after work, she texts Jules: do you wanna get drunk and cut my hair?
Twenty minutes later, she’s sitting in Jules’ bathroom, fingers curling around the edge of the counter she’s perched on. Jules tears through her hair with a fine-toothed comb, separating each and every individual strand before splitting it down the middle.
“Have you ever done this before?” Cassie asks, avoiding her reflection in the mirror behind her.
“On myself, sure. And I’ve dyed my hair before.”
Cassie remembers the deep blue-ish purple streaks that painted her hair at the beginning of the year like a bruise. She wonders what they would look like on her.
“Do you think you could do that to mine?”
“What, dye it?”
Jules takes another sip from the open bottle that sits between them. “Sure, what color?”
“Blue.” Blue, like the color of the ice. Blue, like the color of the ocean. Blue, deep and unyielding. Stone cold fury and cool confidence.
One trip to the nearby convenience store on their bikes later, Jules brandishes their prize and slams down on the counter an unopened bottle of blue hair dye. Cassie breaks into the snacks they bought along with it, unwrapping a chocolate bar and taking a bite.
“How much do you want me to cut off?”
“As much as you want. I just want it gone.”
Jules runs her fingers through the blunt ends of her hair, a lost look in her eyes. “I know what you mean.”
Cassie looks up.
“That’s why I cut mine. Because it felt like I’d cultivated this perfect girl in my head but it wasn’t for me. It was all for them.”
“I’m so sick of only being pretty.”
“We’re so much more than that.”
Cassie takes another drink, then cheers with the bottle. “Hell yeah, we are.”
Jules giggles and holds up a pair of kitchen scissors. “You ready?”
Her hair falls down, pooling at the counter edge and on the rug. The movement of the scissors creates a breeze along her shoulders
It sets her free.
No one can pull at her hair, wrap it in their fists and yank anymore.
Her relatives will probably mourn the loss and will tell her that she looked prettier with long hair at their next family reunion. She thinks of her Dad and the flowery dresses her Mom forced her in as a kid, the ones that felt more and more revealing as she grew older.
She’s not just some doll for them anymore.
“Do you ever feel like half of the things you do aren’t, like, for you, but are for someone else?”
Jules pauses her cutting, the scissors stilling by the tendons in Cassie’s neck. “I did.”
“How did you change it?”
She thinks for a moment. “I just stopped caring about what they all thought of me. I figured people are always going to dislike me, so why try to change myself for them?”
“What if your problem isn’t people disliking you? What if it’s people liking you too much?”
“Is this about McKay?”
“It’s not just him! It seems like it’s every guy I ever talk to. They all want one thing and it’s fucking disgusting.”
Jules stiffens, shoulders growing tense beneath the fabric of her tank top. “So don’t give it to them. You don’t always have to look sexy for them.”
“Will the hair help?”
“The hair will definitely help. Now shush so I can finish cutting it.”
Jules doesn’t let her see her hair even once it’s cut. Instead, she gestures for her to hop off the counter and lean her head over the tub while Jules paints her hair blue. In the end, both of their fingers are stained cerulean.
“We look like smurfs,” Cassie says, holding her hands far away from her clothes.
“Incredibly gorgeous smurfs.”
Jules wraps her head in a plastic bag and sets a timer on her phone, leaning back against the counter.
“You’re a good friend, Jules.”
“I don’t think I am.”
Cassie stands up, joining her at the counter. “Why not?”
Jules opens up like a flood, telling her about Rue and the drugs and Eliot and the dares. By the time she’s finished, her cheeks are wet with tear tracks that she wipes away with the back of her palm.
Cassie tugs her into her arms, tucking Jules’ head under her own. The motion is almost instinctual from all the times she held Lexi like this when they were kids. When their parents fought and their Dad wasn’t sober and their Mom was drinking herself into a stupor.
They’re all still too young for this.
“That doesn’t make you a bad person. We all make mistakes.” Cassie thinks back to Nate and McKay and Daniel. “You remember the Winter Formal, don’t you?”
“What about it?”
“When we talked about potential and guys?” Slowly, Jules nods. “It’ll get better, it always does.”
“How can you know that?”
“Because it happened to me.” Cassie runs her dye-stained fingers through Jules’ hair, brushing out the tangles. “Things will be alright. Eventually.”
“What should I do about Rue?”
“Have you tried talking to her?”
“Just tell her what you told me.”
Jules gently separates herself from Cassie’s hold, backing up against the doorframe. Her cheeks are splotched red but she wipes them away, a sorry smile on her face. “Thank you.”
“Of course. Now can you get this thing off my head?”
Jules laughs again and takes the plastic bag off, then helps Cassie wash her hair out in the tub. She still doesn’t let her look at her reflection in the mirror until they finish blow-drying it.
When Cassie sees herself, she’s blown away.
Her hair falls loose around her shoulders and the vibrant blue pops out against the light gray of the walls behind her. It feels like her.
“Thank you,” she utters, soft enough that she isn’t quite sure Jules hears it. Jules just nods, smiling wide.
She bikes home, letting the cool afternoon air flow through her new hair. It feels so light, it feels like if she pedaled hard enough she could take off and fly.
For the first time in her life, she feels hope. She always thought she would live and die in East Highland, getting a nice house in the suburbs and raising kids with whatever lackluster guy from high schools she ended up marrying. Now she thinks that she might actually have a chance to get out of here.
To grow a pair of wings and fly away from this town.
She parks her bike in the garage, still breathless from all the possibilities. Lexi is sitting in their room when she arrives, fingers tapping away at her laptop keyboard from her perch in the corner. She looks up when Cassie raps her knuckles against the door frame.
“Holy shit, your hair!”
“What’d you think?”
“It looks good. Really good.”
“Hey, do you wanna go get ice cream?”
The two of them meander through their neighborhood. Cassie asks Lexi about what she’s been writing and Lexi tells her about the play. And Cassie listens.
She never realized how disconnected she was from her sister before these last few months. There are so many years she has to make up for.
They sit down on the curb with their ice cream. It drips down the cone and over Cassie’s fingers, where it pools at the joints. She catches the excess with her tongue.
Lexi’s phone buzzes and she holds her own cone up to the side while she digs it out of her pocket to check it. As she types something, Cassie tries to take a peek over her shoulder.
“Who are you texting?”
Lexi hunches it on herself, trying to cover the screen, but she still can’t hide the pink flush on her cheeks. “Just the guy from the party.”
“Does he make you happy?” Cassie doesn’t want her to go through the same shit she did, the videos and the vulgar words thrown at her.
“Yeah. He makes me really happy.”
“What about me?”
“Are you happy?”
Cassie looks out into the distance, towards the sun setting over their less than idyllic town. It washes over the houses and rooftops and casts shadows on the pavement. And Cassie swears she can see it reach the end of town and far beyond, an escape.
The whole world stretching out in front of her and her skating towards it.
“Yeah. I think I am.”