Persephone, Ester Tang
Trigger Warning: Depictions of a sexual nature, underage substance use, and animal death]
Mom gave me a lift to Thalia’s house, because she needed the car for work and didn’t want me biking on the main road after dark.
“Are you sure that’s the right address?” Mom asked when I told her where it was. “Lake Fox is a real nice neighborhood. Didn’t realize it was part of the school district.”
I shrugged. “Apparently her dad was some big-shot surgeon in Chicago.”
“Well, see if he can give you a ride home tomorrow morning, ok? Otherwise I’ll pick you up on the way back from work.”
‘Real nice’ turned out to be a huge underestimate. We turned into Thalia’s neighborhood and the houses were so big and spaced so far apart that each one looked like a castle ruling over a green lawn and border of hedges.
“Great place,” I said, when Thalia answered the door.
“I think it’s too big but Dad likes to throw parties for, like, his doctor friends. They’re all super boring though.”
“Oh, that sucks.” I said, although I didn’t really mean it. I’d take a huge house and boring parties any day over having to worry about whether or not I left the lights on when I went out of the house on account of the electric bill.
“Yeah, it’s like, whatever,” she said, leading me upstairs. “Anyway, here’s my room…” She opened a white door, with ‘KEEP OUT’ spray-painted in black. The walls inside were painted a purplish-grey color, like the sky just after twilight, and had gotten the same treatment as the door. A black pentagram was painted over her bed, and ‘hail satan’ was on the opposing wall. There were no actual lamps in her room, just white and gold fairylights draped around the walls and around the sheer silver canopy that hung over her bed.
“You can throw your stuff anywhere,” Thalia said. I put my backpack down next to hers, beside her desk. The desk, bed frame, dresser and bookshelf were all made of grey wood with wrought iron accents. She must have got them as a set. Was this is the furniture she had as a kid, or had they got it new for this new house?
“This is really pretty,” I said, brushing my fingertips over the smooth glass curves of an empty wine bottle on her dresser. The bottle held bundles of lavender and baby’s-breath, intermingled with the wild hydrangeas we had picked in the state park last week.
Thalia was standing by the open window, carefully placing lit candles in mason jars that stood along the windowsill.
“Thanks. I hate the rest of the house. It’s like, there’s all this energy left over from the people who built it and the guys my dad has over and it’s just gross. Plus the ceilings are really high so it’s really hard to keep it warm.”
I took a seat on her bed. “What was your old house like?”
“We had a penthouse apartment. My room faced the moon every night, and there was this sweet old French lady who lived in the apartment below us. She was always inviting me over for tea and macaroons, because her own granddaughters were in Paris.”
“Wow. That sounds amazing.”
“It was,” Thalia said, joining me on the bed. She leaned her head against my shoulder.
“Anyway, my dad’s gonna be home in like an hour so if you wanna pregame this party-”
Thalia reached around me and pulled a mostly-full bottle of pink champagne out from under the pile of lacey pillows. She twisted the top off and took a gulp, then passed it to me. It was sweeter than anything I’d ever had and went down easy. Thalia plugged her iPod into the speakers by her bed and put on M.I.A. and started dancing on the bed. I felt like I was in a movie about high school girls or the intro of a lesbian teen porno or something.
“Come on,” she said, laughing as she fell down beside me. “You’re not gonna make me dance alone, are you?” I had an image of me trying to dance with her, like a bear trying to dance with a ballerina. “Come on, come on!” She insisted, so I took another gulp of champagne and tried to copy what Thalia was doing. It wasn’t that hard, just sticking with the beat of the music, and when Thalia grabbed my hand, I went with it and twirled her around. I lost track of time and before I realized it, Thalia’s dad was knocking on the door and shouting at us to turn down the music and get ready to leave.
Thalia rolled her eyes and paused the music. “So, you’re not going to wear that, right?” She said, looking over my skinny jeans, converse shoes, and t-shirt.
“I was planning on it….”
“Ok. No, that’s cool. That’s… here,” she said, reaching into the back of her closet. “Borrow this, ok?” She handed me a thin silver ring with red gem set in it. “It’ll match your necklace. And this, too. Gotta have a leather jacket if you wanna look like a badass.”
“Hold up, I thought we didn’t care about this?”
“Well, yeah. But we still have to be the most beautiful people there. What’s the point of going if we’re not making someone jealous? I can’t decide between my grey chiffon dress or this pink one. What do you think? ” She held up a lacey dress with a soft white peter pan collar.
“I’d go with the grey one,” I said. “But maybe with like, converses or something. So it looks like it’s still kind of casual, you know?”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “That’s a good idea. You’ll have to lend me your shoes then. Here, you can borrow those boots.” She pointed to a pair of black ankle boots.
I changed my shoes, surprised that her shoes even fit me, and put on the jacket and looked in her full length mirror. Well, she was right. I did look pretty badass. Definitely not like the sort of girl who got her clothes stolen during gym class.
“Ready?” I asked her.
“Yeah – fuck, hang on a second.” Thalia knelt down by her bed and pulled out a box wrapped in pink paper and tied with silver ribbon. On the box, in silver sharpie, was written, “Happy Birthday! To Sam from Thalia & Amanda.”
“You got her a present? What it is it?”
“You’ll find out later,” Thalia said, smirking.
There were so many people there. I think, pretty much everyone from Equality High had shown up, but there had to be kids from the Catholic school and probably South High, too, because Samantha’s basement was fucking packed. I guess I had imagined that everyone would look at us when we arrived and an alarm would go off and Samantha and her friends would throw buckets of pig’s blood on me like in Carrie, but we just showed up at the door at the same time as a couple of other kids, and Thalia handed the present to a woman that was probably Samantha’s mom, and then we went in the basement. I didn’t even see Samantha.
In the basement, the only lights were from the Christmas lights hung up along the rafters. It smelled like sweat and Hollister cologne. Thalia looked bored as hell. I guess this was pretty trashy compared to what she was used to. Apparently, she had celebrated her sixteenth birthday at the rooftop lounge at the Ritz Carlton Chicago. Samantha had a table set up to the side with pizza and chips and pop and beer, and an actual DJ with speakers, which was more than half of us here had probably ever had for a birthday.
“You want a drink?” I asked Thalia. The bass was pounding so loud that you had to scream to hear yourself speak.
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “I’ll wait here.”
There was a guy at the table mixing vodka and pop in a red solo cup. He looked up at me as I walked over.
“Hey,” he said and smiled. I had never seen him before, but he was kind of cute, I guess. Big brown eyes and dyed black hair that fell across his face. “You wanna drink?” He handed me the cup.
“Yeah, um. I was just gonna get a drink for me and my friend.” I gestured to Thalia. As crowded as it was, there were like three feet of empty space around her in all directions. She leaned against the wall with her arms crossed, like she was daring anyone to talk to her, like she was a goddamn model for, I don’t know, Urban Outfitters.
“Wow, she’s cute,” he said. Then he leaned in close. “But you’re cuter.”
“You think?” I take a sip from the cup. It was sweet and strong.
“Hell yeah. She’s skinny, but you’ve got better tits.”
I wished I were more buzzed. I wished I hadn’t eaten dinner before going over Thalia’s. “Oh. Cool. I’m Amanda. Um. It’s really warm in here. You wanna go outside?”
“Sure. You smoke?”
“Yeah, sure.” I said, and laughed, even though nothing was funny.
There were a couple other kids milling around in the yard outside the backdoor. We walked off to the side; the bass was still thudding in the background. He took out a pack of Marlboro lights and offered me one. I took it and felt around in my pockets for a lighter, but before I could get it, he leaned in close and used the ember from his to light mine.
“So,” he said, after exhaling a plume of smoke. “How do you know Samantha?”
“Oh, I don’t really know her,” I lied. “I’m just here with a friend of hers. How about you?”
“Same, I just came with some guys from school. I go to St. Mark’s. I’m Eric, by the way.”
“Oh, cool.” I didn’t really know what else to say, so I took another drag. I think he was looking at me. I didn’t know what he wanted to see, what he wanted me to do. I had kind of expected him to do most of the talking or… whatever it was that we were gonna do.
I put my cigarette out in the dirt. “Well, I guess I better go back in and get my friend that drink,” I said, and that did the trick. He grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me against him. The night was getting cold and he was warm. I wrapped my arms around his waist. His tongue outlined my lips and scraped against my teeth as his hands slid down to my breasts. His hands were bony like Thalia’s hands, her ribcage, her hips. I turned my head away and broke the kiss. He tried to press his groin against my hips but I pushed him off.
“Yeah, I’m gonna head back in now. Thanks for the cigarette.” I straightened my tank top and walked away. I didn’t look at him or anyone as I went back into the basement. Thalia was still leaning against the wall. I grabbed two beers and went over to her. She was already drinking, but drained the rest of her beer in one go, put the empty on the ground, and took my offering.
“So what the hell was that about?” she asked, softly, staring straight ahead.
I didn’t even bother playing dumb. “It was just some guy from St. Mark’s. He seemed kind of cool.”
“Did you see the way he was looking at you? He only wanted to get in your pants.” She scoffed.
“Um, obviously? And maybe that would have been ok with me? But he’s a shitty kisser and didn’t have anything interesting to talk about so, it was just whatever. It was nothing. He’s nothing.”
“Well, he seems to disagree.” She nodded towards the basement door, where Eric stood, scanning the crowd. He saw us and started coming over. Thalia chugged half the beer I gave her and threw the bottle on the ground. It shattered on the concrete. She put her arm around my waist and pressed against me. Goddammit, I thought, she’s so small and she probably hasn’t eaten anything with any actual calories in it today, fuck, if I have to clean up her vomit later I’m gonna be so pissed.
“Hey,” Eric said.
“What do you want, fuckface?” Thalia said.
“Whoa, chill out, I just wanted to talk to Amanda for a sec.”
“Amanda doesn’t want to talk to you.” Thalia pulled me closer to her and I ended up grabbing onto her just to keep my balance.
Eric ignored her. “Listen, Amanda, we should hang out sometime. When it’s just the two of us,” he said pointedly. “Can I get your number?”
“Ok, kids!” Samantha’s mom shouted down the stair. “Come upstairs for cake and presents!”
Eric rolled his eyes like what the fuck, how lame is that? and I shrugged my shoulders like superlame, right?
Then, Thalia grabbed my arm and put a dozen people between me and him.
“I swear to god, if that woman says ‘Pinterest’ or ‘ombre’ one more time…” Thalia muttered. We were gathered in the living room and Samantha’s mom was passing around slices of the six-layered cake. It was covered with frosted flowers that started out teal and then faded to white. Samantha’s mom had made it herself and was making sure we all knew how it took her six hours to do the flowers.
I looked around their living room. There was a line of photos hanging above the sofa – Samantha as a baby, Samantha holding her baby brother, Samantha and her brother at a middle-school concert, the whole family together at Christmas, Samantha on the first day of high school…. Samantha herself was sitting on the sofa in front of a coffee table covered in presents. It was crazy to see how much everyone loved her. I wondered if her mom would have spent six hours on the cake if she had known how Samantha had stolen my former best friend and actively contributed to making my life hell.
Someone passed me a plate with cake.
“You want it?” I asked Thalia.
“Are you out of your mind?” She asked, looking actually horrified.
“We can’t eat here,” she whispered.
“Why?” For a moment, I was convinced that she had somehow put poison in.
“Persephone. If we eat it, we’ll be trapped here.”
“Oh. Ok.” I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about but I handed the plate back to the girl who had passed it to me. “There, it’s gone. We can leave now, if you want.”
“Nah,” Thalia said. She studied her nails, like she hadn’t been freaking out a second ago. “I want to wait ’til she opens our present.”
“Sure, whatever you want.”
We watched as Samantha and her friends oohed and ahhed over nail polish and matching make-up, a Jane Austen novel, a new dress, a set of bangles. Then she reached for the pink box with silver ribbon. Thalia dug her nails into my arm and shivered.
“Happy Birthday! To Sam from Thalia and Amanda,” Samantha read aloud. Her brow wrinkled, as if she was confused that I was here, or that Thalia, the cool new girl, had brought such a loser with her, or something.
“Such a pretty wrapping job!” Samantha’s mom said. Samantha held up the box and smiled while her dad took a photo. Then she peeled off the wrapping paper. Underneath was a shoebox. Samantha opened the box and screamed. She crawled backwards, scrambling against the back of the sofa. The box fell to the floor and everyone backed away. I elbowed the girl in front of me aside and saw what they were all staring at. Three dead, decaying pigeons.
“Thalia,” I whispered. “Those birds. Did you kill them?”
“Antifreeze in the birdbath. It’s fatal even in small doses,” she said, in between giggles. “I put the bodies in ziplock bags. Kept them under my bed for a month.” Her quiet laughter seemed to echo in the silent room. I looked at Samantha with vomit soaked down the front of her dress, and the whole fucking football team looking like they were gonna kill us.
“Do something!” Samantha’s mom yelled at her dad. “Call the police!”
“Here, you do it!” He handed her his cell phone. “Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he said to Samantha as he picked the box up. “I’m gonna take this outside. Don’t worry. Aw, jesus christ, it stinks! What the hell is wrong with you kids?”
And the strange spell of silence that had held everyone still was broken. I saw someone grab for Thalia and felt a hand clamp down on my shoulder. I shoved my elbow backwards, hit something soft, and heard a groan as the grip on my shoulder went soft. I whirled around, looking for Thalia.
“Fuck! She bit me!” A girl shouted and then I saw Thalia, ducking out of the reach of grasping hands.
I grabbed her arm and we jumped over an armchair, and ran down the hall and out of the house. The front door slammed as we raced across the lawn. I didn’t stop running until we were out onto the main road. Thalia was still doubled-over with laughter.
“Hang on,” she said, sitting down on the asphalt. “I gotta catch my breath.”
I stared at her. “What the hell were you thinking? We’re gonna get our asses kicked on Monday.”
“Oh, Amanda. Sweet, sweet, Amanda. We just showed them that we’re not afraid to kill. You think they’re really gonna mess with us now?”
“No, you showed them that you’re –” A freak, I almost said, but Thalia looked up at me and I hesitated.
“That I’m what?”
“That you’re — you’re not afraid. Me, I’m–”
“You’re mine. My best friend.”
My head was spinning. “Yeah, alright. We’re best friends. Cool.” I started to laugh. “Did you see that asshole who was hitting on me? He looked like he was gonna piss himself.” I kept laughing, I couldn’t catch my breath; I had to sit down next to her.
“Just – the look on her face…” Thalia said, before she burst into giggles again.
We sat there cracking each other up for I don’t know how long, until a pair of headlights lit up the street. The guy in the car honked at us as we stood up. Thalia made a big show of brushing the gravel off her dress.
“Hurry up!” the guy shouted. “What the hell are you kids doing sitting in the middle of the road? I coulda killed you!”
“Fuck you!” Thalia shouted, taking my hand. “We’re immortal!”
“Yeah, we’re immortal!” I echoed and flipped him off. I didn’t know what Thalia meant, but I liked how it sounded, the way she said it, the way she squeezed my hand. I didn’t ask her to explain and we held hands all the way back to Thalia’s house.
It was a five-mile walk, so we didn’t get back until midnight. Thalia let us in with her key. There was a note in the kitchen from her dad, telling us that he had gone out and wouldn’t be back until late.
“I thought he was supposed to pick us up from the party,” I said. Thalia just shrugged and led me up to her room.
“There’s fresh towels and stuff in the bathroom if you wanted to take a shower,” she said.
“OK,” I said. I stood in her shower and washed my hair with her green-tea shampoo and tried not to imagine running my fingers through her hair, tried not to look at my own body, my too-big breasts and thighs and calves.
When I got out of the shower, I pulled on one of my brother’s old Cannibal Corpse t-shirts and a pair of pajama pants. The door to Thalia’s room was half-open, so I went in. She was lying in bed, eyes closed, her dress pulled up around her waist and her hand in her panties.
“Shit, sorry-” I said, backing out of the room.
She sat up. “Nah, it’s cool. I’m just gonna go finish in the shower.”
“Yeah, ok, cool.” I said, feeling like I was gonna be sick.
We were laying side-by-side in the dark, in her bed. The sick feeling was still in my stomach and I knew I had to ask her.
“Do you think about it…” I asked, sitting up. “The dead animals, when you, you know…” I could feel Thalia looking at me. “When you get off.” I mumble.
“When I ‘get off’?” She said, sitting up. “Jesus fuck, Amanda, you’re sixteen. You’re a grown-ass woman. You can say ‘masturbate’ and ‘orgasm’. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“Yeah, says the girl changing the subject. Do you?”
“Why would I?”
“I don’t know. There’s a lot of weird fetishes…”
“Jesus, Amanda, it’s not a fetish.” She spit the word ‘fetish’ out of her mouth like it was rotten. “It’s spiritual. There’s evidence of animal sacrifice in all ancient cultures. It’s the most natural way for humans to – to go beyond this.” She threw her arms out, as if her toothpick-arms could encompass the earth. “This mundane, physical world.”
“Oh,” I said, not really sure what else to say. “Ok. That’s cool.”
“Totally cool.” She kissed me on the cheek and lay down and rolled over.
I lay down, too, but I couldn’t sleep. Her long hair was splayed out across her pillow, trailing onto mine. If I moved, it would brush against my neck. Her lips were soft and warm. I could only feel the damp outline left on my cheek. That’s a thing girls do, right? I thought. Kiss each other goodnight? I wasn’t sure.
Suddenly, I noticed red and blue lights flashing outside the window. The cops. My breath caught in my throat and I hid under the covers. There was a loud knock on the door. Thalia moaned in her sleep. I didn’t know if I should wake her up, if her dad was here, if we could get him to talk to them. They knocked again. They couldn’t come inside; it’d be illegal. Finally, I heard the patrol car drive away.
My heart slowly stopped pounding. I closed my eyes and listened to the gentle rhythm of Thalia’s breathe. The last thought I had before I joined her in sleep was, I hope we are immortal, because I want to be with her forever.