Gemma Gilmore © 2018
All Rights Reserved
I am desperately trying not to attract attention.
My arms are folded across my chest. My chin is tucked into my neck. I am leaning against the brick wall as I watch her sing. It takes every ounce of strength I have to keep my face still, hiding any expression that bubbles to the surface. Any reaction I have to her lilting voice is shoved down, adding to the pit in my stomach.
The younger students are sitting respectfully in their seats. They are still too naive to question the teachers when they are told they must be present. I know better than to think that this school performance is anything special to Amber Freeman. She’s been singing since before she could walk, and although I am always the first viewer, her YouTube videos are gaining more and more popularity with every upload. This is just practice to her. A warm-up.
The spotlights are trained on her, and she throws her hands up whilst the climax of the song cascades from her talented lips. I let my eyes flicker shut and Amber’s voice surrounds me, caressing my ears as she sings deeply. Her voice is crashing through me, tingling across the skin on my arms and seeping through my body, calming me.
My head has fallen back against the wall, and I remain frozen there as I listen to her sing. In this moment, nothing else matters. With my eyes closed, she’s right next to me. Singing softly, untying the knot that’s sunken deep into that pit in the bottom of my stomach.
“Ingrid? What the hell are you doing?” The voice that hisses right next to my ear jerks me out of my daydream.
I jump with shock and wrench my eyes open, tearing myself away from the peaceful moment. In front of me, my best friend Summer stands, her arms folded across her chest and her eyes wide in that you are busted expression.
“Jesus,” I mutter. “I thought you had better things to do than sneak up on people. Way to give me a heart attack.”
“I thought you had better things to do than stand here creepily at the back of the gym listening to Amber sing,” Summer challenges me, an amused smile dancing across her full lips.
“You snuck up on me and you’re calling me the creep?” I snort. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
The quicker I can get Summer outside of this gym, the quicker I can shove away the fact that she caught me watching Amber’s performance. We duck behind the last row of seating and out of the door in the corner of the room, swiftly ignoring the Emergency Exit Only sign. We’ve done this so many times now that it’s like second nature.
Outside, the rain lashes against the building. The wind howls so loudly that I’m surprised no one noticed our little escape from the gymnasium—then again, they never do. For Summer, there’s more to life than just sitting in a desk at school. Any chance my best friend has to escape the mundane restrictions of life is an opportunity she must take. She’s never been the kind of girl to follow the traditional paths.
Then again, neither have I.
My thoughts still spin as we duck through the car park and head out to the tin shed at the back of the school. Summer knew exactly where to find me during Amber’s performance. She knows that I watch Amber. While everyone else in our grade snuck off to make out in abandoned classrooms or smoke cigarettes behind the main building, I followed the crowd into the gymnasium with one intention.
Why did I need to watch her?
“I had a headache and the gym was dark.” I shrug off Summer’s curious stare as we take shelter under the tin roof. The rain really lashes down now, bouncing off the pavement and whipping through the trees. “It was better than watching you make out with Jackson for an hour straight.”
My snide comment is low but, right now, I’ll do anything to take the attention away from me.
“You had a headache, so you decided to listen to Amber sing?” Summer rolls her eyes at me. “Makes sense.”
She fidgets with her oversized tartan scarf, staring out into the rain. Maybe I’m not the only one who is trying to avoid things today.
“You were in there too,” I argue half-heartedly. “What’s your obsession with her?”
This time, Summer does turn to me. “I’m obsessed?” She snorts. “Ingrid, honey, if I’m obsessed, then you’re deranged.”
“Then I’m deranged.”
Summer rolls her eyes, signalling the end of that particular conversation. “Whatever. Your deeply disturbing issues are the least of my problems right now. Look, Ingrid, I think I’m going to have to take a test.”
Red splotches gleam against Summer’s pale cheeks, and I watch her carefully. She tugs on that scarf like it’s strangling her.
“Like an STD test?”
“Are you stupid?” I know her voice is harsher than intended, and I brush it off with a blunt laugh. “A pregnancy test.”
“Oh, for god’s sake, here we go again. You and Jackson really need to invest in some efficient birth control because this I’m pregnant freak-out that you have every month is getting boring.”
“Trust me, I know.” Her tone is suddenly tense, and she blinks back emotion. “But right now, I’m pretty sure I have the devil’s spawn growing inside of me, so I’m allowed to freak out. I’m two weeks late.”
I raise my eyebrows. She’s never been this late before. “Jackson is not the devil’s spawn. You know he loves you. But I highly doubt you’re pregnant. It’s all the stress from thinking you’re pregnant every month starting to get to you.”
“Yeah, okay, whatever.” She says, throwing her hands up in defeat. “I knew I shouldn’t have said anything. I don’t know what you’re moping about—we got a free class and you got to watch Amber singing. It’s a damn good day for Ingrid Harper right now.”
“Listen, I really did just have a headache. I don’t care about Amber’s singing. And you and Jackson were quite obviously distracted. You didn’t seem to have pregnancy on your mind during that public make-out session. Or maybe you did. Either way, I think it’s a damn good day for both of us, don’t you think?”
I know what Summer is doing. She is the ultimate denier of reality. More than that, she is aware that I will follow along with every topic change she throws at me. I get distracted easily, apparently.
Summer laughs, but the smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes. Distraction is inevitable right now, for both of us. These are not issues we should be faced with at seventeen years old. Summer’s mother is getting married soon, so that’s just one more thing to top off what I’m coining Summer’s Distressing Summer.
We stand silently as the rain pours over the sides of the flimsy tin roof. Muddy water pools right to the edges of the door. It’s mid-December. While politicians are throwing around the term climate change like it’s currency, I stare at the pools of water near this emergency exit, wondering if our town has sufficient flood safety plans.
“Come over tonight,” she murmurs. “Please, Ingrid.”
“You’re buying me McDonald’s.” I sigh in return. The truth is, I have my own things to worry about, whether Summer is pregnant or not. She’s been with Jackson for three years—that’s three years they have successfully been together and prevented pregnancy. It’s not a possibility. It just isn’t.
Summer is wild, just like her name. Her light-brown hair is constantly tangled, but her dominating blue eyes seem to distract everyone.
But today, she stares out at the grey sky and nervously chews at her lip, clutching that damn scarf so tightly that I know she’s already certain about this pregnancy. More so than I’ve ever seen before. Her blue eyes don’t seem so bright today.
“I heard Jackson was thinking about transferring to the art school. I didn’t think that boy had an artistic bone in his body.” I smirk, desperately trying to relax Summer. I don’t know what to say when she’s so shut off like this. My lie is smooth, slipping off my lips easily.
“Yeah, he does comics. I don’t know, I guess they’re funny.”
“It’s our last year of high school. Surely he’s left it a bit late?” I frown in earnest now.
What Summer doesn’t know is that I’ve known Jackson a lot longer than she has. I know that he’s been wanting to do art since he started high school, but his military-driven father would never allow it—he’s all about physical education, mathematics, and science. He used to drill that into Jackson every time I was around; none of this fairy fluff nonsense, he would say pointedly.
“Look, Ingrid, I don’t really want to talk about Jackson right now,” Summer snaps, finally releasing the titan grip on her checked scarf and running a frustrated hand through her frizzy hair.
“Do you even want me to stay tonight then?” I throw back. “I can’t deal with you when you’re being like this. Either let me in or let me go. I’ve got shit to do.”
To my complete surprise, Summer snorts as she turns to face me. “Just shut up and come and sleep over at my house. I need your brutal honesty, but I also need you to do literally everything I say right now. You know I’d do the same for you.”
I don’t bother telling her that to be in her position, I’d actually have to get closer than two feet to a guy, but I think she already knows that.
“Look, I don’t like that you called Jackson the devil before. I don’t care if he’s annoying sometimes, if you are…pregnant…it’s definitely not the devil’s spawn that could be growing inside of you. And that’s all I’m going to say about that,” I huff.
“Okay, I didn’t know you were Jackson’s number-one cheerleader, but whatever.”
I stare at the computer screen. I read the caption as I wait for the video to load. Uploaded 3 minutes ago. I’m right on schedule, but it’s not intentional. I know Summer won’t be back from McDonald’s for at least another fifteen minutes—twenty if that hot guy is working on the counter again.
And then suddenly, Amber Freeman is in front of me, singing her heart out. Her eyes are scrunched up as her voice wavers. It’s a beautiful song, of sadness and hope and disappointment. It’s a song I know all too well, a song that is pulling at my heartstrings, making me clench my fists as the tears threaten to spill over. It fills my ears and captures my attention, leaving me frozen.
In Summer’s dark bedroom, the computer screen is the only thing I can see. As Amber’s voice crashes in my headphones, sending shivers through my body, I ignore the world. I ignore Summer’s chaotic household; I ignore the silence of my phone—shoving persistent concerns of her lack of contact out of my mind. All we needed was a Big Mac. She’ll be back soon.
My hands are stained pink as my knuckles tighten and Amber’s song reaches its climax. It’s beautiful. To put herself out there, showing the world her deepest, naked self… It’s courageous. It’s admirable. It’s amazing.
I’m crying as her lilting lyrics caress my ears. The beat slows; her strong voice softens as the final crescendo of music dances over her. I watch the intricate hand gestures, the way her brown eyes tighten as she forces out a note higher and bursting with more emotion than the last. The way she holds herself, briefly swaying with the music before falling into the final verse.
My body is taut as the screen fades to black, and I only let my breath come out in small bursts until the explosion of emotions crashing inside me subsides. With shaking fingers, I pull open the comment box.
It seems foreign now. It has been so long since I’ve provided any evidence that I even knew these videos existed. I’m not going to sit around and pretend that everything is okay. It’s not.
Have I ever even been just okay? Was there ever even a time when I actually felt content in my life? I don’t even know what happy feels like anymore. I’m just constantly broken.
It’s that thought that pounds all the way to my fingertips, causing them to rush across the keyboard. The tapping echoes across the room, mixing in with my shallow breathing.
My heart pounds as my fingers halt. My mouse hovers over the Submit button. I’ve long since changed my username, but my display picture is always the same. Amber would know straight away who this comment is from—especially considering it would be the only one there. There is no running now.
For a second, I’m frozen, and then quicker than I know is possible, I shut down all evidence of Amber Freeman ever being present on my computer screen, abandoning my comment. I’m not crying anymore. I’m just red. Red-faced is okay. I can deal with that.
“Well, that’s the last time I ever check my spam box,” I stammer. “I thought you said you had internet security.”
“Right, you needed headphones to check your spam box?” Summer asks sceptically, throwing her body down next to mine and shoving a bag of hot McDonald’s in front of my face. “I need to keep the lights off. If we eat in the dark, the calories don’t count. But don’t pretend I didn’t notice that your hair is pink. You stole my hair dye, bitch. I was saving that for the day that Jackson and I inevitably break up and I have the mental breakdown of the century.”
“I don’t care if the calories count or not.” I laugh, shoving a fry into my mouth to hide my shaking hands. “I have no one to impress. Hence, the pink hair.”
“I guess it looks better on you, anyway. And I’m gonna get really fat soon, so neither of us will be impressing anyone.”
“You took the test?” I breathe. My heart rate had just begun getting back to normal, and suddenly, it’s hammering in my chest again.
“Yeah, in a goddamn McDonald’s bathroom. It was one of the cheap ones, though, so I don’t really believe it. I’m going to buy another one tomorrow.”
“It said you were pregnant?”
“It wasn’t clear.” She sighs, seemingly annoyed at my question. “Just drop it.”
“You brought it up!” I argue.
“And I’m shutting it down! Just eat your Big Mac and tell me that I’m beautiful, no matter what, please. I’m not pestering you about whatever you were doing on your computer before, so can you please just do this for me?”
“You’re beautiful no matter what.” I grin, taking a bite out of my burger.
“Why are you being weird?”
I almost choke on my eggs benedict as Jackson throws the question at me accusingly. I’ve never been good at keeping secrets, but I was enjoying the quietness and there’s no one else I’d rather be eating eggs benedict with at four in the afternoon.
“I’m not being weird,” I retort. “You’re being weird.”
“No, I’m not. What’s going on, Ingrid? Why haven’t you mentioned Summer yet? You always have something to bitch about. I know she’s the one who forced you to dye your hair that ridiculous colour.”
“She didn’t force me.” I start, but there is no point arguing with him. Pink hair dye would be right on top of the list of Summer’s crazy ideas, so I don’t blame him for jumping to conclusions. “Look, I was watching something last night, and I think she caught me.”
Jackson’s face lights up. “Porn?” I don’t miss the hopeful tone that escapes his smirking lips.
“You’re disgusting. Not porn. Worse.”
“God, Ingrid. You need to quit her already. It’s messing up your life.”
“I can’t,” I groan. “Summer told me yesterday that I have deeply disturbing issues. She caught me watching Amber’s performance at school. I mean, to be fair, you two were eating each other’s faces and I had nothing better to do, but I’m starting to think that she’s right.”
“Ingrid, I’m going to ask you something and you can’t get mad at me, okay?” Jackson chews at his full lips in a way that immediately takes me back to the first year of high school.
Summer didn’t know either of us back then, but we knew each other. Those full lips would find themselves smashing against mine behind every building, inside every cleaning closet, under the overgrown willow tree at the bottom of the oval…
And every time, as his eager hands inched up my ridiculously short skirt, I would push them away and he would respectfully chuckle and continue kissing me. It never went further. It only lasted six months. Summer doesn’t ever need to know.
But he was my best friend during that time, and I know him well enough to know that he’s about to ask me about something that I’d rather not go into. He’s got that look of caution clouding behind his features—the caution that only comes when he’s about to hurt my feelings.
“Go ahead.” I sigh, staring at my half-finished eggs.
“Are you…like…” He groans and tries to start the sentence again. “When we were…messing around or whatever, back when we were fifteen…you never let it get any further. Sure, you were a good kisser, but…you never got into it.” He scrunches his eyes shut as if protecting himself as he launches into his question. “Are you a lesbian, Ingrid?”
I choke on my laugh, completely disarming my defensive stance. I don’t know what kind of question I was expecting from Jackson—maybe something about Summer, maybe something about our own history—but this was not it.
My heart is hammering, and my tongue is dry. Suddenly, my hands shake so violently that my fork falls onto my plate with a loud clatter.
Jackson stares at me, an amused smirk suddenly growing on his lips. All traces of nerves are taken away by my dramatic reaction. I cough loudly, attempting to gather my thoughts.
“You’re ridiculous,” I hiss. I’m furious, but he is still grinning at me.
“You’re obsessed with Amber Freeman,” he throws back casually.
“I’m not—” I cut myself off because I know I am fascinated by her. It’s those videos and the drama that seems to follow her everywhere… But it’s just to pass the time and ignore the rest of the vapid characters in our school. “I’m not a lesbian.”
The words sound so unconvincing, even to me, but they are the truth. The weakness in my voice and the pressure in my chest is because Jackson caught me off guard, not because I’m lying.
I’m not lying.
“Fine, fine. Whatever. But you are acting really weird today, so don’t kill me for thinking something was up.”
I’m about to use my only defence and tell him that something is most definitely up and that maybe he should be eating with his girlfriend, because she’s eating for two now, but I snap my mouth shut.
Instead, I roll my eyes, feeling satisfied as my wall of cool rolls down. I am calm. I am cool.
I am not a lesbian.
Of all the reactions to my bright pink hair, there is only one that shocks me to my very core. Summer pretended to be surprised and the rest of our friends followed suit, one of them announcing that my hair looks like a pink marshmallow.
Some of the boys appraise me with raised eyebrows and slight arousal in their features. Most don’t seem to care all that much.
It is Amber Freeman, however, that reacts most dramatically—which, in itself, isn’t at all surprising. I had been expecting a longwinded rant about the latest boy drama to happen in her life, but when Amber first sees me striding into the classroom, she squeaks. I turn to her with raised eyebrows, feeling amused as her brown eyes practically bulge out of her head.
“Ingrid, I…” She stumbles over her words as they die in her throat, before walking over to me. Without asking, or even hesitating, she runs her fingers through my hair. My breath catches in my throat, and I swear I catch Amber licking her lips. “It looks great.”
It takes me a moment to compose myself, but when I do, I roll my eyes. “Whatever.”
Summer stares at me, mouth open. Only I notice the redness in her eyes that has been there since Friday. I bite my lip, trying to suppress the giddy smile that wants to rise from brushing Amber off. I am happy to distract Summer for a little while. That’s what she needs right now.
Amber dismisses my flippant remark and marches straight back to her seat, seemingly oblivious to the chatters that surround us. I take my seat next to Summer and sigh loudly.
“Jackson wants to go to a party this weekend,” Summer murmurs. The chaos in the classroom drowns out our hushed conversation, and I turn to face Summer directly. We still have twenty minutes before class starts, and this is important.
“You need to tell him,” I say sharply.
Of course, she can’t go to a party. Summer is well known for her antics at Port Macquarie’s parties. She drinks way too much and ends up doing something completely crazy, becoming the highlight of the night for everyone.
The last party that she went to, she ran out of the boy’s house—I don’t even remember whose party it was because Summer completely stole the show—and jumped onto one of the boats that was docked on the wharf that night. Of course, she was far too drunk to do anything on the boat, but it ended with her throwing up all over the deck and sleeping in it. No one knew about it until we heard the screams of the owners the next morning. Thankfully for Summer, we were all there, somewhat reluctantly, to help her clean it.
“I took another one. It was, uh, it was definitely positive,” she says. I don’t know if Summer is confirming that she already told Jackson and he didn’t take it well, but my head snaps up and I am yanked out of my memories of drunken nights and drama. The blood has drained from my best friend’s face, and my sigh bubbles up inside of me before I can stop it.
“You weren’t being careful enough.” My chiding is not needed here, and I realise this when Summer’s face crumples. I snap my mouth shut as Summer attempts to compose herself, going unnoticed by our classmates. I don’t ask her anything else because right now she needs the silence.
Right now, she needs me.
“I assume you’ll be coming to Cloud Nine tonight, Pinkie?”
My head snaps up when a silence settles over the scattered group of art students milling around behind the gym. I come out here to think, and usually they just ignore me, but today, they seem fascinated by my pink hair.
I’m not used to the nickname, but of course, I’m not used to the bubble-gum pink locks that wrestle with my cheekbones.
“What’s Cloud Nine?” I ask hesitantly. Apparently, all I needed to finally fit in here was a little bit of hair dye.
I’ve been in the arts faculty for three years now and never received any attention from my fellow arts students. I guess my sandy-blonde hair and timid attitude were too tame for them.
“Oh, baby, you’ve got a lot to learn.” It’s a tall brunette with a tongue piercing that speaks.
I eye her carefully and can’t help but appreciate her courage in outfit choices. She wears a tight black tank top that shows a good portion of her well-developed abs, a bright-green belly-button piercing, and even tighter blue jeans. In her dark-brown hair, she wears bright-blue streaks.
“Meet me at the bus stop in town at eight if you want a taste of heaven.”
I blush furiously as the girl flashes me a confident smile, licking her red lips. Her gaze is a little more intense when she looks at me, compared to the looks she gives the other girls and boys standing around. If I didn’t know any better, I could almost say she’s coming on to me.
I swallow dryly when I realise that I don’t actually know any better.
“Cloud Nine… You’re kidding right?” Maybe it’s the fact that I just heard Summer throwing up over the phone, but her voice sounds…odd.
“Just tell me what I should wear,” I moan, staring blankly into my wardrobe. “You’re always good at this kind of stuff.”
“Ingrid, sweetie, do you know anything about Cloud Nine?” The sudden sympathetic lilt to Summer’s voice terrifies me.
I nervously utter, “No?”
“Oh god, okay, sit down for a second.”
“Why?” I frown, running my hands over a silver minidress.
“Just do it,” Summer snaps.
I can almost see her rolling her eyes on the other end of the phone. Feeling sceptical, I collapse onto my bed, kick off my shoes, and stare into the wardrobe.
“Okay, are you sitting down?”
“Yes. What are you going to tell me? What’s so—”
“Cloud Nine is a gay club.” Summer’s voice hitches with narcissistic glee. Pregnancy hasn’t taken away her inner mean girl, it seems. “Particularly catered for those of ah…feminine preferences.”
“You mean…?” My voice is robotic. I can’t even begin to comprehend the way my stomach jolts when Summer speaks next.
“Ingrid, honey, you’re going to a lesbian club.” Summer snorts.