Age: 15, Grade: 10
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Kasumi Parker
Category: Short Story
When Priya arrived on my porch this morning, she was shaking like nothing I’d ever seen before, a leaf at the mercy of the wind. Now, her tears have dried as we lie in my backyard, the brittle grass scratching at our thighs. I can see the tracks where they were, the surrounding skin on her cheeks tightened like old scar tissue. Priya only has two scars, one leftover from surgery on her wrist, the other a spot at the back of her neck that I burned as I tried to straighten her curly hair on prom night. She looked better with it curly.
Priya’s breathing is shallow. Sometimes, I like to close my eyes and try to match the rising and falling of her chest. Up, down. Up, down. I can’t breathe that slowly. I don’t know why I sometimes think that I can. I think I’d suffocate. But Priya just sits there, twelve breaths per minute, ever since eighth grade biology class when we had to listen to each other’s chests and calculate how much oxygen each of us took in every minute. Twelve is a good number.
I know she’s waiting for me to say something. She knows that I’m waiting for her. Neither of us want to take the plunge. What is there to say? Every few minutes, I open my mouth, then choke on the words before they even leave my tongue.
The grass around us crackles like static as Priya turns over to face me. I look at her, brown hair, dark eyes, red eyeshadow even at a time like this. It’s a little absurd, a little lovely.
“It’s hot,” she says.
My lips twitch. Priya catches my eye, unsure if it’s okay. And then we’re laughing, laughing in the dying grass with the dried tears on her face and the stripped wood on the ground next to me. My stomach hurts, and I’m gasping for air but there’s Priya, still at twelve breaths per minute, and things might be okay.
Priya sits on top of the marble white countertop, tracing the gray veins in the stone with her index finger. She swings her legs back and forth, her heels smacking into the cabinet every so often with a dull thud. One of her Mickey Mouse flip-flops flies off and hits me in the back of the leg. I don’t mind.
I rummage around in the freezer, pulling out frozen spinach ravioli and corn and stacking it carefully onto the counter next to me. One misplaced microwave meal sends my tower crashing down. I groan and bend to the floor to pick everything up.
“Want some help?” Priya asks from her perch. I shake my head and just leave everything on the floor. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. If I ever do.
I finally see the ice dispenser in the back of the freezer and take out an ice cube. It burns my hand. I turn and give it to Priya, who slips it into her mouth. “Shit, that’s cold,” she mumbles.
I watch her follow the maze on the countertop. Maybe she’s mapping something out. When I was little, I used to think that the lines would lead me somewhere grand, if only my mom let me stay out long enough to reach it. I’m not sure where my mother is now, probably on some beach out on Long Island, hoping to soak up some rays so that she can look her best at the end. She hasn’t called. I haven’t, either.
Priya says something about her mouth feeling like the ninth circle of hell, but I can’t make out the exact wording. Her lips are pale, like she’s been out in the snow. It’s a stark comparison with the rest of her face, which is flushed and shiny from sweat. Her hairline is damp, strands escaping her ponytail due to the humidity. The air prickles along my skin, and I scratch at the base of my neck.
I begin to load the food back into the freezer. Microwave meals in the back, vegetables in the front because they do the best job of cooling you down. Priya’s heels hit the cabinets, steady as a heartbeat.
“Do you want something to eat?” Priya’s feeling guilty for not helping me with the freezer.
“I’m the host. Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” It’s a joke. Priya’s the only one who ever does the cooking, and I can’t say that either of us complain. I would burn the house down if I tried to make us anything, which is why I stick to the frozen burritos and takeout. But a frozen burrito doesn’t sound great, and I doubt anyone is working in any restaurant right now.
I shut the freezer door the same moment that Priya slips off of the counter and begins pulling pots and pans from the cabinets without me telling her that I want any food. She knows exactly where to go for the pasta, the crushed tomatoes, the garlic. I think she knows my kitchen better than I do. We’re having the same thought right now— won’t it get too hot? But some things are worth it.
Priya sets the water to boil.
Priya does the cooking, I do the cleaning. There isn’t really a point to me washing the dishes right now, but it feels normal, and normal is good. I scrub at the plates until they’re sparkling, enjoying the cool water that runs over my hands and forearms. I flick some bubbles at Priya and she giggles, an actual giggle, like we’re thirteen again and whispering about girls under the covers at midnight.
“Can I play some music?” she asks, already swiping through the albums on her phone. I watch her thin fingers flash across the keyboard, thinking of all of the times I’ve watched her play piano. Priya gave the lessons up a long time ago, but I can still convince her to play sometimes. I sing for her while her fingers dance over the keys, even though I can’t sing. She pretends that I’m not horrible.
I’m not sure what song this is. It’s obviously The Kinks— Priya’s going through a phase that I guess will never end. Priya mumbles the lyrics in the way she does when she’s memorized the words but doesn’t know the tune well enough yet. The band isn’t my thing, but Priya’s music is never bad. I sway along as I scrape at bits of pasta stuck to the bottom of the pot.
Priya says something behind me, but it’s lost in the guitars from the speaker and water running in the sink.
She turns off the music, I turn off the sink. I tend to forget how tall Priya is, since we’re sitting down most of the time, but I need to tilt my head ever so slightly to look at her now. I was the taller one in middle school, but Priya shot up in sophomore year. She’s never liked her height, but I do. I feel safe walking down the street with her. Like she’s a shield, and I’m a warrior strolling into the dangers of the crosswalk.
“Do you want to go somewhere?”
“It’s hot,” I reply. I think we both want to laugh, but it’s somehow not funny anymore.
Priya bites her lip and looks around the kitchen, like she wants to be anywhere but here. Anywhere but here sounds nice. “We could try the mall. I hear frozen yogurt’s back in style.”
“Will anyone even be there?”
“Does it matter?”
I shake my head. It doesn’t. And there’s nobody I really want to see today, other than Priya.
I hand her the pot and peel off the rubber kitchen gloves. They stick to my skin. My fingers are waterlogged. “Dry it, I’ll go put my shoes on. Okay?”
She nods and pulls the dishcloth from its hook by the sink. I go to the front hallway and unlace my sneakers, trying not to think about how hot it’s going to be outside.
By the time we reach the mall, we’re drenched. Driving would’ve been even worse, so we decided to walk. It was nice to stretch my legs, since I hadn’t really left my block in a few days. But everything looked like we’d stumbled into some sort of mirror dimension, where everything was just a little bit off. The roads were dustier, the plants yellower, the birds quieter. We passed by a dead deer in the middle of the road, flies hovering around the head and landing on the eyes. Priya looked away, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know whether it was worse to watch and grieve, or ignore.
We only passed by three other people on the way, one boy about our age, one middle-aged couple. Most of the others in the area are probably still inside, not interested in trying their luck in the heat.
The automatic doors aren’t working. Priya and I pull on the handle, our hands sliding off due to the sweat. We finally manage to open the door just enough for us to slip inside.
The mall is like a ghost town, an honest-to-God western ghost town. There are no lights on, so everything is dusky and a little gray. An abandoned janitor’s cart sits in the entrance to a Jamba Juice. Everything is dead silent, and Priya’s flip-flops sound harsh on the linoleum.
“You want to go to Claire’s?” Priya points ahead of us, to the purple sign that marked the land of our dreams in middle school. I used to beg my parents to let me go to Claire’s so that I could get my ears pierced like Priya’s, but they didn’t allow it until seventh grade. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life, and I gripped Priya’s hand so hard the whole time, it went white. I don’t wear earrings anymore, but Priya still does— gold suns and silver moons and tiny hammered copper leaves. Sometimes they get stuck in her hair, and I need to spend half an hour untangling them. I don’t mind.
“Yeah.” I don’t say anything else, and we walk across the lobby to the store, then realize it’s locked. Only the Jamba Juice is open, since it has no door, and we push the janitor’s cart aside and walk around to the back of the counter. It only takes a few seconds to realize that someone turned off the freezer, and the entire store smells like rotting fruit.
“We should leave,” says Priya.
So we do.
There isn’t anywhere else to go, so we’re back at my house. My mom still hasn’t called, but Priya’s in the living room talking to her brother right now. He lives in California, and I haven’t seen him in years. I heard California’s getting the brunt of the heat right now. I don’t even want to imagine.
I stand around in the kitchen, trying to listen in on their conversation as little as possible. I’m trying to figure out how to set the air conditioner to an even lower temperature, but I’ve never been much of a mechanic. I decide to just pull a bag of peas out of the freezer and press it to my temple, shutting my eyes and letting the cool spread across my forehead. Priya might be crying, but I’m not sure what to do. I’ve never needed to comfort her when she’s saying goodbye.
She comes back, wiping her eyes. I wordlessly hand her the bag of peas, and she hops back up on the counter. Her head almost reaches the cabinets above. The red eyeshadow has run below her eyes a little, so she looks like she’s crying even more. I don’t tell her that, I just stand in front of her as she breathes, shuddering and ragged, but still twelve per minute. I take her free hand. It’s cold, and wet from the condensation. Sweat drips down the back of my neck. The heat is making me slow, sluggish.
“How’s the cat?” It’s a dumb question. Priya knows it, I know it. I think she’s almost grateful.
“Still alive and kicking. I don’t know how Dev hasn’t accidentally starved her by now.”
“Maybe he did. Maybe she’s a ghost now.”
Priya’s dark eyes fix on mine. “A ghost cat.”
I press her hand to my cheek, knowing she won’t mind. Anything cold is worth everything now. “Yeah, a ghost cat. Wasn’t that a TV show when we were little, or something? Sounds like some kind of Nickelodeon trash we loved.”
The corner of her mouth goes up slightly. “You’re an idiot.”
“Believe me, I know.”
“Holy fuck, look outside.”
Priya and I closed the curtains when we got back, thinking that it would keep some of the heat out. But a transformation swept across the backyard sometime between when we shut the windows and now, and as I turn to see what Priya is talking about, I realize that it looks like a complete wasteland.
The dry grass is now completely shriveled up. It looks like it’s afraid of something, like it’s shrinking in on itself. The oak tree that we used to climb by the fence is now sallow and yellowed. Everything is sepia-tinged, like we’re in an old movie. Except the sky— the sky, the sky, the sky. The horizon is the same shade as Priya’s eyeshadow, but on the sky, the color looks angry. A few fire-engine-colored clouds swirl on the horizon. The sky is so red, I can’t remember what it looked like blue.
I look over at Priya. Her eyes are wide with horror. Our world is betraying us.
“Come on.” I gently place a hand on her shoulder and pull her away from the window and grass and the sky. “We can watch a movie.”
She shakes her head. “Just talk to me.”
“Anything. Just not that.”
We sit on my mother’s old faded suede couch, and Priya puts her head in my lap. Skin-to-skin contact is probably not a good idea right now, but her familiar weight is comforting. She’s so tall, she needs to drape her legs over the arm of the couch. I suddenly think of the bag of peas forgotten on the counter. But I don’t want to get up, and I don’t want to give Priya another chance to look out the window.
“You remember Akinitsu Walker? He had a crush on you.”
I can feel Priya shaking as she laughs. “No way.”
“Please, everyone had a crush on you.” I run my fingers through her hair. It’s somehow still soft. Even today.
“Don’t act like you didn’t have your fair share of suitors.”
The loose strands in her ponytail are starting to bother me. “Sit up,” I tell her. She sits with her back to me, and I gently pull the hairband from her hair, then gather it all up into a knot high on her head. She lays back down on my lap and breathes a sigh of relief.
“Better?” I ask.
I don’t need to look at her to know she’s smiling. “Better.”
“Do you want to go outside?” Priya’s voice sounds small and far away, like she’s talking through a tin can phone. She’s folded herself into a ball on one side of the couch, I’m cross-legged on the other.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
She nods, unsure of herself, then sure. “I want to know what it looks like.”
I don’t know what to tell her other than, “Okay.”
The blast of heat when we open the door is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. It envelops us like a mushroom cloud, floods the whole house until I know there’s no difference between being in or out now.
I pull a striped picnic blanket from the closet, hoping it’ll make things a little nicer. We walk outside, every step feeling like a million. It feels like when we used to go to the beach, and I would know the second I was getting a sunburn. Everything hurts.
But there’s something oddly calming about it. The world is slowed down, everything insignificant. I think we’re the only two people on earth outside right now.
We spread the blanket on the ground. The grass crackles beneath us as we lay down, bending to the slightest touch. The sky is somehow both hazy and bright.
And there it is, the sun. I’ve been avoiding it all day, making sure not to look at that one spot in the sky. There’s a gravity to it, though, and it commands my attention. It’s a hulking dark red mass at the edge of the horizon, and it looks like everything and nothing all at once.
My only choices are to look at it or Priya, so I choose her. Her face is tinged with red— the sun, the crying, the eyeshadow.
“All those times when we were little and said we would spend our last days at Disney World or kayaking…” she says suddenly. “God, we were such liars.”
And I know exactly what she means.
“There’s something I need to tell you.” I’m careful not to look anywhere but her face, not to look at the hell that’s growing closer and closer with every passing second. It’s getting brighter. The picnic blanket feels a little like fire. Heat blisters along my skin, slow and deadly. Inevitable.
Priya’s eyes hold mine, and I know she understands. “Maybe later,” she says slowly, and it’s the best thing I’ve heard all day. Because it means that there’s a later.
“Later sounds good.”
Her voice gets quiet again, like how it was on the couch. “I want to look at the sky.”
And we look—