“Where’d do you go, sweetheart?” Mom calls as I enter the house.

“Delaney’s,” I reply, untying my shoes and leaving them at the door.

Cheerful mint eyes peek out from behind her magazine. “It’s been awhile since you’ve gone there.”

“I had to drop something off. I accidentally took her notebook,” I lie.

Mom knows not to press. She gives me lots of space to work my own things out, knowing I would come to here if the situation became dire. I feel awful to defy her reasonable expectation of me.

“What do you want for dinner?” she asks as I head towards the staircase.

I shrug. “I’m not very hungry. I think I’ll skip dinner tonight and go to bed early.”

“Are you feeling alright?” she sets down the magazine and sits up on the couch. I study her for a moment, considering I could just as easily spill my heart out to her. But my walls have been re-erected permanently ever since David thwarted my plan.

Besides, best friends know your dark side and your faults. You’re supposed to shield your mother from your monstrosities, for her sake.

I shrug. “I had a big lunch, that’s all.”

“Well, goodnight sweetheart.”

I smile. “Goodnight, Mom.” I used to kiss my mother goodnight, like clockwork. But how can I kiss her now, when my lips have been horrible places?

I climb up the stairs leisurely, to not cause any suspicion from Mom. As soon as I get to my room, I flop lifelessly onto my bed. I close my eyes and wish for sleep, so I can forget my failure and pretend I had never attempted it. David’s smirk floats around in the darkness of my mind, as sinister as the Cheshire Cat’s grin. I lay on my side and gaze at my room, my eyes landing on a framed picture of Delaney and me, from when we were kids. I want to march across the room and slam the picture face down, but the fight has been drained from me and replaced with despair. I switch to my other side and stare at my lavender wall, trying to think of nothingness and dance around my feelings.

“I failed,” I whisper, knowing I can’t ignore the suffocating elephant in the room. I have no desire to try again. This is the furthest I’ve ever gotten to confiding in someone, and to be shot down so easily? I laugh sardonically. Luck has never been on my side.

I don’t know what I will do now. No. Deep down I do. I just don’t want to admit it.

***

“Honey? Delaney’s here,” my father calls up from downstairs. My groggy, lethargic brain does not compute the information until many moments later. It turns out sleep had found me, after all.

“Honey?” my father calls again. My eyes shoot open and I jump off of my bed, bolting to the top of the stairs.

My best friend, a sight for sore eyes, smiles softly and waves up at me from below. “Can I come up?”

I nod. She climbs the stairs two at a time, the way we used to do when we were kids. I don’t speak until we walk into my room and I shut the door behind me.

I stare at her, and want to reach out to touch her, to prove she’s really here and she isn’t some apparition, that this isn’t all a dream. “What are you doing here? It’s only ten at night? What happened to your date? Where’s–”

“I couldn’t stop thinking about you after David picked me up,” she interrupts. “It was the first time in weeks you came to me and you actually wanted to talk, and I just brushed you aside! I felt awful, like I was going to throw up. I must have looked pretty awful, because David believed me when I told him I thought I had a stomach bug. He dropped me off at home, and I walked over here.”

“He doesn’t know you’re here?” I ask, my body clenching.

She shakes her head no, eyes flashing with concern. I released a small, blissful sigh and sank onto my bed in relief.

Delaney sits on the bed leaving what seems like a chasm of space between us, and continues. “I’ve been such an awful friend, and this was just the cherry on the top. I should have put you first. You’re so much more important than some boy.”

“He isn’t some boy. He’s your first love.” I grab a fistful of my bed spread and try to keep myself together as images of his cruelty flicker past my eyes.

“I like him a lot, yeah, but it’s not like I’m having sex with him, or we’re going to elope,” she laughed. I grind my teeth. “But you’ve been my best friend since the fourth grade. You always come first, no matter what. I’ve been so wrapped up in him that I forgot that. Please forgive me for not being a good friend.”

“It’s me who isn’t the good friend,” I mumbled, looking down at my toes gripping the carpet.

“Don’t say that to make me feel better,” Delaney protests.

It’s true, I want to scream, but someone has switched off my vocal chords. I suspect my common sense.

“You shouldn’t blame yourself for how you’ve been acting. Don’t think I haven’t noticed you’ve been sitting on the sidelines, and not participating as much as you used to. I get it. And it’s my fault. I replaced you in that superficial hierarchy with my boyfriend. I let David consume all my attention instead of sharing it with you. I think what’s worse is I noticed this, and I didn’t do anything, because I figured, ‘Oh, she’ll come around, she’ll get used to the new dynamic.’ I should have helped you, instead of leaving you to sink or swim.”

“That’s not it.” I speak the words so quietly I’m not sure if they’ve truly been spoken.

“I’m sorry. Here I am trying to be a good friend, and I’m not even letting you talk. You had something to tell me, and I’m all ears. I’ll always be.” She puts a hand on my back, and it almost burns. But, yet, I want to melt into it.

This is too much, I think as my heart starts to race. I can’t do this. I can’t possibly do this. My stomach does backflips as my palms begin to itch with sweat. My eyes dart across the room, looking for some escape. But then they fall on Delaney, and I choke back a sob as I realize she is my only escape. I’ve come so far. I have her here, ready to listen, wanting to be my friend. If I ruin this, I’d never be able to live with myself. If I tell her, I at least have a chance.

My words have left me, though, and all that remains is raw emotion which spills out in sobs the size of tidal waves. I jump across the chasm between us and fall into my best friend. I feel her stiffen, but she then scooches closer to me in order for her to wrap me in her arms. She strokes my hair and kisses my head and lets me continue to get tears and snot all over her crop top.

This emotional purge of mine lasts for what seems like an eon, but she doesn’t question it. She just sits there, contempt with being the warm body I need to let it all out to.

As my breath steadies, I keep my face to her chest and start to mumble what I have been trying to tell her all this time. Sometimes I choke on my words, but I manage to spit them out. I try not to think about what I’m saying, or else I’ll clam up. I stumble and stutter and mispronounce, but I hope she understands, in more ways than one. I try to rush it all out, as if someone will come along and stop me before I can finish. She doesn’t try to force me to look at her, or ask me to speak up. She just lets me get it all out, and I know she is fine-tuning her ears so she catches every word.

Then, there is a resounding silence that settles upon us, besides a few sniffles on my part. It surprises me. Then I realize that I am the cause for the silence. It seems impossible, but I have finally finished telling her. I’ve told her. Her hands are idle, and I feel her heart beat pick up. I am scared of how she will break the silence, so I do it first.

“Do you hate me, Delaney?”

A gentle, white hand cups my chin and raises my face. I stare into her familiar, deep blue eyes, and I know the answer, but she says it out loud regardless.

“Ashlyn,” she starts, and a shiver runs down my spine. That’s me. That’s my name. It seems like eras have passed since I have been called that. Something inside of me stirs when it hears that name. “I will never be capable of hating you.”

Her voice cracks, and then she starts bawling. I wrap my arms around her and kiss her forehead, trying to soothe her as tears of blissful relief prickle my eyelashes. Just as I think I have run out of tears, I cry with her, and we break down together, drowning out the evil in the world and basking in the beauty of our friendship. We hug each other and rock back and forth, breathing shaky breaths in perfect synchronization, as if we are one. We share each other’s fears and worries and loves and hopes in this silent act. Our love for each other is boundless. Our future together is full of possibilities and void of any dangers.

And I realize, as we cling onto each other, that her touch burns because it cleanses me. The warmth from her touch, from her forgiveness and unconditional love, spreads through me like wildfire and evaporates the thin layer of slime I thought would stay with me until the day I died.

Slowly, I will reclaim my body.

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