You’re a quarter mile from the McDonald’s drive thru when Justine declares Sadie her french fry soulmate, like that’s even a thing. Justine likes the crispy fries best; Sadie prefers the soft ones. Tonight they share a single large order.
You complete me, Justine coos at Sadie, passing the fries up to the front seat. It sounds like a joke, but in your rear view mirror you see her lick the salt from her lips and know that it’s not.
You suck your pink milkshake through the straw hard enough to bring on brain freeze.
If Justine is a treasure, you uncovered her first: day one of second grade, both of you smeared head to toe with glue stick, held back from recess. Sadie didn’t come until ninth grade, a transfer from the high school one county over. She spent the next three years copying Justine’s math homework and teaching you how to stuff your bra to make your flat chest look half as good as her freckled double-D’s. Fun, if you like fun. You’re starting to think you might not.
The three of you spend another Saturday night in your Camry making slow laps of the downtown cruise line. Sadie’s burned a mix CD of the dirtiest rap tracks she knows, demands you crank the volume. Your speakers rattle in protest, more accustomed to Bruce Springsteen, your favorite. Until last month, Sadie had a dog named Bruce, a fat old German Shephard that got pummeled by an ATV in the woods behind her house. He’d come to you even when you called him “Boss,” which cracked you up even though Sadie never got the joke and Justine said it wasn’t even that funny. Now the whole car pulses with unfamiliar bass. It’s like being inside a heart. You feel it between your ears, where it stings, and between your legs, where it purrs. You tell yourself you don’t like that either. The other two girls scream along with Ludacris as he catalogs all the ways and places he’d like to fuck you. You chew the inside of your cheek, hands gripping 10 and 2, and pretend you don’t know every word.
At a stoplight, Sadie rolls down the window to make eyes at the red pickup in the next lane. Two boys from her old school, regulars on the cruise line, smile back at her. Travis, the driver, is a genuine farm boy, carries around a Gatorade bottle for his dip spit. Sadie waves past him to Jeremy, who once felt her up in a dugout. She’s told the story now so many times that you can feel him kneading your own breasts whenever you see his face.
Ain’t seen you in a minute, he shouts to Sadie. Wanna get in?
Justine coils herself around Sadie’s neck, as if arms so skinny could ever keep Sadie from exactly what she wants. Sadie favors you with the same pout you’ve seen her use on teachers, your parents, nearly every boy at school. You melt just as quickly as anyone else.
Meet us at the depot, you tell her. Eleven o’clock.
You don’t trust the too-slight nod of her head as she throws off Justine’s arms and leaps from the car, but the light’s turned green and the shrill horn of the Miata behind you urges you onward.
Because you know Justine, you know she’ll go quiet now. You measure her silence in blocks traveled, then in full laps of the cruise line. She picks at a strand of her bleached hair, eyes scanning every car that rolls past. It’s the truck she’s looking for, of course, but it’s vanished. You both know where it’s gone or, if not where, at least what for.
The Camry makes four and a half laps before Justine speaks again: Wanna smoke? She nestles two cigarettes between her lips, lights both, and passes one up to you. It tastes stale, probably left over from the pack her big sister bought for her at Christmas, and gives you an instant headache. You pretend to like smoking because Justine likes it, though maybe Justine’s pretending, too, for Sadie’s sake. Sadie does like it, honestly likes it, and she’s good at it. Before Sadie, you didn’t realize smoking was a thing to be good at, but Sadie does origami tricks with the cellophane wrappers, knows how to French inhale.
When Three 6 Mafia comes on, Justine asks to change the music. Her request drips with venom meant for Sadie. Of course, you say. Yes, please.
With the press of a button, the CD changer hums and clicks, until the first notes of “Born in the U.S.A.” blare from the speakers. Justine stretches forward and reaches for the controls. You expect her to turn down the volume. Instead, she surprises you by shuffling expertly through the album tracks, knowing just when to stop for the one she wants. You never realized she’d been paying attention, no matter how many times you’ve made her listen to Springsteen. But the moment the song starts up, you understand it’s got nothing to do with you. I’m On Fire: a song for the heartsick, the same song you cried to last summer, and the summer before, tears shed over boys who loved other girls, boys whose names are scarcely worth remembering. You don’t think about them much anymore, only when you hear this song, and even then only sometimes.
When the song ends, Justine plays it again. You let her play it on repeat for the next half hour, never once objecting or asking why.
Once the traffic thins, you notice the song’s runtime syncs up almost perfectly with each stretch of the cruise line. On the odd plays, the Camry’s coasting between rows of historic brick buildings. On the even ones, you’re sailing under a dim orange spray of streetlight, past empty train tracks. You don’t let Justine see you watching as she mouths, I got a bad desire.
When you pull into the depot at eleven, the truck is waiting right where it’s supposed to be. You park twenty yards away, force Sadie to come to you. She stumbles, laughs. Justine’s reprogrammed the music before Sadie ever reaches the door.
So tired, Sadie whines. She smells like beer and smoke and sex, though you’re partly to blame for the smoke and maybe you’re imagining the sex. Wishing for it. You tell yourself you only want Justine’s heart to break in a clean line, but the truth is you want to mend it once it does. You’d like Justine to love you more than she loves Sadie – not like she loves Sadie, of course, but then you think that if you could be loved at all, you wouldn’t much care about where it came from, what shape it took.
Sadie fumbles with the stereo but is too fucked up to navigate your system. She slaps the RADIO button and mashes the tuner with an open palm until a station comes in clear. A woman says words you know you ought to understand but don’t. Fallujah. Blackwater. This fucking war, proclaims Sadie through a yawn, and Justine agrees. You try to follow the story, but you can’t make the words mean anything at all.
The Camry bounces across the old creek bridge then veers left for the road that carries you to Sadie’s empty house. Her dad’s up in Dayton for work, only comes back to town two days of every month. Not even Sadie knows where her mother is. Inside the house, the air’s as frigid as outside, but Sadie doesn’t acknowledge it. Somehow everything still smells like Bruce, the dead dog. His food bowl still sits in the kitchen, a layer of kibble lining the bottom. His empty metal cage takes up half the living room wall. A thin layer of his shed fur overlays the sofa. You think of how, whenever the three of you sat there to watch TV, Bruce would stretch himself across your laps like a living blanket, and you’d all scooch closer to fit more snugly beneath his weight, the skin of six bare thighs slick and sticking together under the heat of his fur, bones nudging bones, softness pressing into softness. Nothing but cozy comfort, never a thought that it meant something more.
Now Bruce is dead, and Sadie is peeling away her clothes in the frame of her open bedroom door, swaying, the whole curving, freckled length of her body playing chicken with your eyes. Of course you look away, and even Justine darts into the bathroom pretending she hasn’t noticed.
But by two thirty, you’re huddled under a blanket in the corner of Sadie’s bedroom, watching Justine study Sadie’s right hand. The hand dangles from the edge of the bed where Sadie makes soft cooing noises in her sleep, sounds too pretty to call snores. Chipped red polish gleams on her fingers like five ragged tongues. You imagine Justine leaning forward to touch her own tongue to each finger, turning the hand over to scrape nails over the contours of Sadie’s fingerprints. There’s sweat on the back of your neck and another hand, your own, edging beneath the waistband of the too-tight sweats you borrowed from Sadie’s dresser.
Justine does nothing. Neither do you.
After a minute, Justine’s head falls back onto her pillow, and soon she’s asleep, too. You shed the blanket and crawl from the room, find your coat and your keys, and leave in a hurry, letting the screen door rattle shut behind you.
The Camry reeks of fast food and cigarettes, so you roll the windows down, despite the cold. You want to speed alone through the dark, something you’ve never done before. You’ll come back to the house only when you’re much too afraid to stay away, or else once you’ve outrun the fear. You don’t turn the stereo on.
Sutton Strother is a writer and teacher living in New York. Her work has appeared in Jellyfish Review, Longleaf Review, Atticus Review, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere.