Burn

If there is anything left to say, it is this:
I would have found you anywhere.
I will find you anywhere.

—Venetta Octavia

Everything is too loud and too dark; the bass thunders so hard she feels as though it throbs inside her like a second heart, pulsing somewhere low in her underbelly.

Taylor can't remember why she had decided to come, only that Ashley Phillips—who had never spoken to her before this—had stopped her in the cafeteria and handed her a slip of college-ruled paper, something torn from somebody's notebook in a hurry. An address.

"You should come," she'd said, friendly and sweet. She had soft hair and pretty, straight teeth—one of the few lucky enough to forgo the necessity of braces. "This Friday, eight o'clock." Taylor couldn't think of any reason not to. She'd never been invited to a party before.

But as she wanders aimlessly through the dark, crowded home of some senior named Andrew, she quickly realizes how out of place she is, how much she stands out. Everyone is way older than her. She's probably the only freshman here. Why did Ashley even invite her?

She combs her way through the living room. Her throat clogs with cigarette smoke and sweat and something girlish and cloying, like strawberry peach perfume, that cheap kind that comes in the plastic spray bottles. She wonders if maybe this is all some elaborate joke. Maybe they just wanted to see if she was dumb enough to even bother showing up. Maybe this is a prank and she's too stupid to realize she's the punchline.

She sinks her teeth into her lower lip and squeezes between throngs of junior and seniors, feeling out of place and small as everyone laughs and chugs back red Solo cups. She rubs her slick hands against the thighs of her jeans, jeans that don't fit like the other girls' do. She'd had to punch an extra hole in her belt just to hold them up. But she'd borrowed a shirt from Meredith's dresser, something floral with puff sleeves, little buttons up the front. Her boobs don't fill it out like Meredith's do, but she supposes it doesn't matter anyway; she hasn't taken off her windbreaker yet.

She works her way into the kitchen where there's chips and cans of beer sprawled on sand-colored countertops, like windblown trash scattered on the beach. There's a happy, little man in an oversized chef's hat on the countertop next to the toaster oven, holding an empty cardboard roll of paper towels in his outstretched hands. In big fancy script on the breadbox, Let's Eat!, and a red and white striped dish towel hanging over the handle for the oven door. The kitchen screams of a woman's touch—Andrew's mom—and Taylor wonders suddenly how her own mother might have decorated, if their kitchen would've had a theme like this one. Wonders what it would have felt like to grow up with a pantry stocked full of food, all the time, or the privilege of satisfying those sweet-sleepy after-midnight cravings, slinking into the kitchen to spoon out some ice-cream, or a late-night bowl of cereal, something with a sugary crunch.

The dining room table has been shoved against the wall to accommodate the crowd gathered around some kid doing a keg-stand, spurred by the raucous shouts of encouragement from his friends. He isn't wearing a shirt. She thought that was only something people did in movies. She edges herself through the sliding glass doors and spills out onto the patio, where a few others have congregated as well. It's quieter out here. Peaceful. There's a group gathered around a small bonfire in the grass near the shed, lounging in plastic fold out chairs, like the ones you'd take camping, and others linger on the patio, smoking and drinking. There's a couple near the edge of the patio, some guy with his tongue down Amelia Baker's throat, his hands in the back pockets of her jeans. Taylor quickly looks away, embarrassed.

The air is chilly and cold, and she welcomes its sharp bite. The sky stretches out wide and black above her, blinking and alive with stars. She takes a moment to wonder at it, exhaling slowly, watching as her breath is carried away, into the night. She remembers in second grade in science class when she'd made her own starry night, a giant black piece of construction paper that she'd poked little tiny holes into with the tip of her pen, hundreds of them, and then holding the paper up to the ceiling, watching all the holes fill with artificial light.

"Hey, pretty girl, glad you could make it."

Taylor spins around and looks up at Ryan Henderson, a senior she's passed in the halls at school a couple of times. She thinks he runs track and might have a couple of classes with Nathan.

"Hi," she says, shyly. He's never talked to her before. She didn't even know he knew she existed. And he just called her pretty.

"Seen you around at school. Taylor, right?"

She nods twice, bites her lower lip as she watches him approach the railing. He leans his side against it, casual and easy, and looks at her. He smells like spearmint gum and Axe body spray.

"I wasn't sure if you were going to show." When she pushes her brows together in confusion, her lips parting in some unspoken question, he fills in the gaps. "I told Ashley to invite you. Thought you'd be more likely to come if she asked."

Taylor swallows. Ryan wanted her to come? She flushes under his gaze, averts her eyes to the red, tripod grill in the corner of the patio, like she meant to look there.

Ryan laughs a little, and she is drawn back to him as he fishes a cigarette and lighter from the pocket of his jeans. He's cute—tall—with wavy brown hair and pretty blue eyes. She knows a lot of girls who have crushes on him. He's wearing a pine green sweatshirt—the three buttons at the top undone—that looks cozy and soft. She bets it smells like him.

He secures the cigarette between pink, bow-shaped lips and cups his hand around the opposite end as he lights it. It glows orange for a moment as he inhales, and then all the smoke is billowing out, swirling into the night, and there's something strangely hypnotic about it, the rise and fall of his chest, the loose, easy way he holds the cigarette, and the glimmer in his eyes as he looks at her. He sees her eyeing his cigarette and holds it out to her after taking another drag.

"You want to try?"

"Oh, no." Taylor shakes her head. She licks her lips, dry all the sudden. "Evelyn will kill me if I come home smelling like smoke…."

Ryan cocks his head. "Evelyn?"

"My foster mom," she explains, regretting the words as soon as they leave her mouth. Stupid. She should have just said "my mom", now he'll think she's some loser foster kid without real parents.

"Right." Ryan exhales again, and she doesn't miss the way his eyes sweep over her, up, down, and then up again. He takes one last drag of his cigarette, and then crushes it on the railing. Taylor frowns at this, because he just lit it. He flicks it away, so that it lands somewhere in the dark sea of grass.

"You want something to drink?" he asks.

"Oh, I—"

"Come on, I'll get you something." He straightens and clambers down the porch steps, and Taylor hesitates only briefly before following after him.

He leads her to the group lounging around a makeshift fire pit, which is little more than a ring of misshapen rocks. One of the boys is feeding small branches into the fire to keep it going, sitting on the edge of his chair, prodding at the fire with a stick. A girl in a miniskirt and leather jacket is curled up in the lap of who Taylor assumes is her boyfriend, and her legs look smooth and tan in the glow from the fire. Taylor looks around at the rest of them, a hodgepodge of teenage boys and a few other girls. She recognizes only some of them.

Ryan introduces her to them and then tells her everyone's names even though she won't remember them. He explains that some of them are from Ridgepoint, in Old Town. She gives them all a little wave which makes one of the boys snort and shoot Ryan a look that Taylor doesn't know how to interpret. She folds her arms behind her back and doesn't know what to do.

Ryan gestures for one of the guys to move so Taylor can have his chair. She mumbles her thanks as she takes his proffered seat, and Ryan plops beside her chair onto the hard ground, surrounded by dead clumps of grass. He's almost the same height as her even though he's on the ground and she's in the chair.

The fire is warm and the smoke smells good, and she tries to allow herself to relax a little and not worry her bottom lip so much, even if there's something comforting about laving her tongue over the indents her teeth have left on her lower lip.

"Let's get you something to drink," Ryan says conspiratorially, leaning in, looking up into her eyes in a way that makes Taylor's cheeks turn hot. One of the guys tosses him a white can which Ryan catches with one hand. The top pops open with a wet hiss. Taylor watches the gold lettering on the side glimmer in the firelight, like something forbidden, something dangerous.

"You ever had beer before?" he asks, and she shakes her head. "Ah, an alcohol virgin," he says, knowingly, just a little too loudly for her comfort. Some of them chuckle, and Taylor sinks into her chair in a way she hopes isn't obvious, blushing so hard, trying to ignore the prickle of unease slithering up her spine. She hates the way he said virgin, like her lack of foray into alcohol isn't the only thing virgin about her.

"Here." He hands the can to her, and Taylor holds it with as few fingers as possible, as if it's something that suddenly might grow fangs and sink razor sharp teeth into her. "Come on, honey, take a little sip," he says, softly, so only she can hear.

She looks at him, his eyes dark in the firelight, and brings the can to her lips, tilting her head back to swallow. She grimaces as it slides down her throat, as the taste settles in her mouth, bitterness bleeding all over her tongue.

"Eugh," she gags. It tastes nasty. She spits out her tongue and grimaces. "I don't like that." She holds the can out to him, but he pushes it back into her lap.

"The first taste is always kind of gross," he says. "I have something that might make it go down a little easier."

She frowns at him. "What is it?" Ryan reaches into his jacket and retrieves two little white pills, nestled in the palm of his hand. She cocks her head. "What are those?"

"They make everything feel better." He reaches for her free hand and pushes them into her palm, and she instinctively closes her fingers over them so they don't fall on the ground.

"I—I don't know if I should," she says, hesitant, meeting his gaze.

"I take them all the time. They're really good."

The fire crackles and pops, sparks shooting up into the dark expanse of open sky as one of the boys tosses a fresh log onto the fire. There's the dimming of the flames as the existing fire crumbles beneath the new added weight, and then the burgeoning brightness as the flames lap at the wood, licking it up faster and faster, as if excited by the taste.

"How will they make the beer taste better?" she asks.

Ryan huffs, shifting closer to her. He seems a little agitated, having to explain. "They just do. They make everything taste good and everything else just feels… light." Taylor still looks unconvinced, so he goes on. "It'll help you loosen up a little. Make you happy." He looks down at the ground for a moment, and she catches him biting his tongue. He fixes her with a smile when he looks back up. "I bet you're real cute when you smile."

Taylor exhales, caught in the ocean of his eyes. The moment feels hypercharged and heady, like it's just the two of them here and no one else. She wants to know what it's like to feel light, what it might be like to breathe with four sets of lungs instead of two, how it might feel to suddenly grow wings, the foreign sensation of needing to anchor herself to the ground before she floats up and away. The fantasy of flight.

She takes both of them at once, and because she can't dry swallow, chases them down with a large gulp of beer.

She makes a face. "It still doesn't taste good."

Ryan laughs. Taylor likes the way his eyes crinkle at the corners when he does. "They don't work instantly. Give it some time."

So she does, or maybe she doesn't at all. The night becomes an intangible thing, something distant and kind of faraway, like being in a dream, but knowing that you're in one. Ryan was right—she does feel light, like cotton candy. She remembers laughing along with everyone about—about something, it doesn't seem to matter now—only that everyone is smiling, and she is smiling too, and it's nice, and the world takes on a warm, honeyed glaze. The edges of her vision are sticky sweet. It's difficult to focus her gaze on any one thing for more than a few seconds. There's the sagging pile of wood stacked against the side of the shed, the warm, dying frenzy of sparks from the fire, and when she tilts her head back to laugh, the starlight sky, a black, endless canopy. Ryan hands her more beer, and she drinks it. The letters on the side of the can swirl into golden spirals she can't read. She's lost track of how many she's had. And she hardly notices the taste, after a while; she kind of likes the way it makes the back of her throat tingle, how hot it makes her belly feel.

After a while, some of the group starts to thin out, people leaving in pairs of two. There's only a couple of guys left now. She feels Ryan playing with her shoelaces, where he kneels at her feet. He looks up at her intently, and Taylor's too dizzy to really meet his gaze head on.

"How are you feeling?"

She starts to reply but is interrupted by a hiccup. She giggles. "Really good." Is she slurring? It's hard to tell. She frowns a little and tries again. "Really—really good."

"Yeah," Ryan says. He licks his lips. "I thought you might."

She thinks he says something about going inside, that it's cold, and she doesn't resist when he pulls her up from her chair. His arm around her back feels good—big and warm. She nuzzles into his sweatshirt, hears the sliding glass door open. He smells like spearmint gum. At some point, there's stairs, but she doesn't remember walking up them. Then, something soft beneath her, a fluffy cloud, or maybe a bed.

Everything is dark and warm. The bass is still thumping from downstairs, the walls vibrating from it, but she doesn't mind it as much as before. Ryan slides up the bed alongside of her, and she feels his hands on her as he unzips her jacket, pulling her arms out of the sleeves. They flop lifelessly back onto the bed when he lets them go—that makes her giggle again.

"I feel like—a doll," she slurs. Something in her hindbrain tells her this should be concerning, her lack of control over her own body mechanics, but she ignores it. Ryan is so big and warm next to her. She feels like taking a nap.

Hands on her again, this time fumbling with her belt, and then unbuttoning her jeans. She tries to sit up.

"Hey, what are—what are you doing?" Hard to sit up, her brain sloshing around inside her skull, too heavy to hold up for some reason.

"Just wanna touch you a little," Ryan says, breathy, "Lay back. It'll feel good."

Taylor tries to do what he says, but she gasps when he slips his hand inside her jeans, cupping her through her underwear. She squirms beneath his touch, not sure if she likes it or not.

"Sh, sh, just relax," he says. She feels one of his fingers probing down there, and she whimpers and arches away. Only Nathan's ever touched her there.

"St—stop," she says. Now she can hear her own voice, all shaky and slurry. "I don't wanna… do that." Why is it so hard to talk?

Ryan withdraws his hand and shifts so he's straddling her, his weight settling over her hips. The pressure of him sets off a flicker of anxiety, a spark that catches, and for a moment it's Nathan on top of her, pinning her to the mattress with just his weight, his hands all over her, breath on her nape, shoving her face first into the mattress, suffocating, mothballs and dust in her nostrils, his scratchy jeans on the backs of her thighs, sheets soaked with drool, the embarrassed shiver of her bedsprings, her mouth open in a silent cry—but then his lips and tongue on her neck, warm and wet, and Nathan's never done that to her. She sighs a little without really meaning to, turns her face into the bedspread to give Ryan a broader canvas. It kind of feels like being licked by a dog or something. Kind of tickles. She giggles a little and squeezes her eyes shut, where Christmas-colored phosphenes fizzle behind her lids.

"So fucking hot."

She doesn't say anything, just lets him suck more bruises into her neck. No one's ever kissed her like this before. She doesn't know if she likes it or not. She feels his teeth skirt over her pulse and she jumps, hands blindly reaching for his shirt, balling the fabric into her fists. She feels him laugh, a puff of hot breath against her jaw.

She's seen this in movies. Boys kissing girls. Sex. The way two bodies move together, easy and fluid, like they'd both done it a million times, even if it was only the first. But nothing about this feels easy, and all her sensations feel far away, like he's touching her underwater. Her reactions are slowed—delayed—her mind and body operating at different speeds.

Ryan shifts, lifting himself off her to kneel on either side of her thighs. He shucks her jeans down to her knees, and this time, when his hand slithers inside her underwear, something primal inside her claws to the surface, and she finds the strength to slap his arm away.

"What the hell," he says.

"I—I don't—want that," she says again, trying to sit up. The room spins—there are three Ryans, and then two—and she puts a hand to her forehead as if to ease the pulsing there.

"What, you can put out for your big brother, but not for me?"

Taylor instantly recoils from him.

How does he—?

The repugnance in his voice wounds her, and she shrinks away, feebly pushing herself further up the bed. She feels so weak.

"Yeah, I know about that," he sneers, "the whole fucking—"

Suddenly, the door bangs open, startling them both. Two people stumble in, a girl and a boy, limbs wrapped around each other, mouths occupied. The girl breaks away to giggle into the boy's neck, and the boy steers them towards the bed.

Then, a sudden expletive of surprise at finding the room already occupied—"Oh, shit,"—and a half mumbled apology from the boy.

Ryan reaches above Taylor's head and violently yanks a pillow out from underneath her, sending it careening towards the boy's head.

"You fucking douchebag, do you knock?"

"Sorry, dude, didn't realize anyone was in here..."

Taylor is already scrambling off the bed, horrified, sliding her jeans up past her thighs. Her fingers tremble over the button, and then the zipper.

"Jesus fuck," the guys says suddenly, looking at Taylor, as if only just now seeing her for the first time. He looks at Ryan. "Dude, how old is she? Like, twelve?"

Ryan's face flames, his nostrils flaring, but Taylor doesn't notice. She doesn't have time to do her belt, or to grab her jacket from where Ryan had pushed it to the floor. She stumbles out of the room, past the couple in the doorway, ignoring Ryan's shouts. She almost falls down the stairwell, but somehow she makes it down in one piece, and then she is throwing open the front door, staggering down the wooden porch steps, the sidewalk. She breaks into a sprint, unsure of her destination, just needing to escape. Get away.

She doesn't realize she is crying until she feels the bite of the cold wind on her wet cheeks. She hears her belt clink where it dangles around her thighs as she slows to a jog. She bends over on the sidewalk and puts her hands on her knees, panting for breath, in some residential area she doesn't recognize, all the houses dimmed, stiff looking, the porch lights off. She wonders what time it is.

Her ears and throat burn from the cold. When she swallows, her saliva tastes coppery. She sniffles and tries to gather her bearings as she wanders along the sidewalk for a while, not sure what to do, or where to go. Her head is throbbing, and everything still feels dim and kind of faraway, like she is partway underwater or something.

It's freezing without her jacket, and her bus pass was in the pocket—not that she could locate the nearest bus stop now. She wraps her arms around herself and keeps her head down to block out the cold, curling in on herself.

Behind her, a sudden beam of light. She turns to face the blinding flash of headlights head-on in the dark, bringing a hand up to her eyes to shield some of the light. A van pulls up alongside of her. Taylor's heart lurches in her chest but she can't run away. The van stalls, and she hears a door opening, and then a man walking around the front of the vehicle, looking at her.

"Jesus, kid. You're just asking for it everywhere you go, aren't you?"

She doesn't recognize him at first, but after a long moment she heaves a sigh of relief at the familiar face. She knows he works for Mr. J. She's seen him outside the hangar before.

He slides open the back door. "Get in."

Taylor hesitates, not sure if she can trust him.

"Come on," he says again, trying to soften some, but it's only marginal. "He wants to see you."

She crawls into the back of the van. When the door slides closed, she is submerged in cool darkness. The seats have been gutted, so she lies down on the floor and curls into a ball. The van rolls along. The streets are soft, empty. She stares for a long time out the two back windows, the tender, golden blur of the city at night, oranges and yellows interspersed by patches of darkness. She closes her eyes, feels the golden streetlamps curling over the back of her lids, and she pretends she is underwater, that the flickering light is the warmth of the sun breaking through the ocean's surface.

It's hard to keep her eyes open. She lets the vibrations of the van lull her to sleep.


She wakes to the sound of voices. At first, she doesn't remember where she is, and she strains to listen, even as her head throbs when she tries to lift it from the floor.

"—drunk. She was wandering for a while."

"Hm."

"Took something, too. Think it was Ativan. She's pretty out of it—"

The voices draw closer, and then the door swings open, and it jars her as it slides all the way back, the loud bang it makes as it hits the bumper.

She looks up at the two figures through a drowsy haze. Her eyes widen.

"Mr. J," she slurs, "I feel—feel funny."

She tries to crawl out of the van, and somehow ends up on her hands and knees on the cold ground. She feels bile creeping up her throat, but she chases it back down with a shuddery exhale. Her palms and knees burn from the scrape of hard concrete.

She's too weak to stand. She tries to lift her head, but the world caves in on itself. She rolls onto her side. It's so dark outside. She stares at Mr. J's approaching shoes instead.

His hands slide under her back and his other beneath her legs, picking her up, suddenly, like she's weightless. She's too weak to wrap her arms around his neck, and they hang limp, one pressed between her side and his abdomen, the other dangling uselessly.

"Anything else?" she hears.

"No," Mr. J says. "Nothing else."

He carries her into the hangar. She is set down on something soft. The orange couch, she thinks. She nearly topples over, but she manages to right herself at the last second, giggling a little. Mr. J swims in front of her eyes, and she smiles at him, as if seeing him for the first time. She scoots to the edge of the couch and leans forward to sloppily throw her arms around his neck, where he's crouched in front of her.

"Mr. J!" she slurs. "I'm so, so—hiccup—happy to see you."

She feels him stiffen, but he does not push her away. "You're drunk."

"Beer is gross!" she tells him, emphatic all of the sudden. She makes a "yuck" sound, and then she digs her fingers into the collar of his jacket a little, nuzzles herself right up into the crook of his neck, and she feels it when he swallows, the way his throat bobs. "I don't like it," she says. She lays her head down on his shoulder and sighs, but it comes out as a hiccup instead. She frowns into his shoulder, very serious, now. Thinking. "I don't like parties."

Mr. J hums. She feels him rest his forearms on the edge of the couch to steady himself, on either side of her thighs. She huffs into his neck. "I'm so sleepy." As if only just now aware of this opportunity, she leans forward suddenly and blows a raspberry into his neck, where the side of his throat is just barely exposed behind the collar of his shirt.

He grunts and shoves her away. Stands. She lands on her side on the couch and giggles, hair tousled around her like a halo, looking up at him, her eyes glossy and bright.

"Oops," she giggles.

"Look at you," he says after a moment, when her laughter has dissolved. "Always getting yourself into trouble." He tsks, his voice heavy, laden with disappointment. "What am I going to do with you?"

She sits up suddenly, worried. Her vision swims, and her stomach feels hollow all of the sudden. "Are you mad at me?" There is the prickle of tears in her eyes. She swallows something bulbous that's formed in her throat, a fist of panic. "Please don't be mad at me."

Mr. J only stares at her, and she doesn't resist when he lays a hand on her shoulder, gently pushing her to lie back down on the couch as he hovers over her. Three fingers on her jaw then, pushing it to the side, so her cheek is pressed against the cushions, her neck exposed to him. It's all pale, thin skin. The blue whisper of a vulnerable, pulsing artery, all that stunning canvas of possibility. It awakens an old hunger in him—killing her. His original plan.

Funny, how far they've come since then.

"Who did that to you?"

He is tracing over the red-purple blotch on her neck, this indefinite shape. She instinctively reaches up to touch the skin too, and their fingers tangle on kiss-bruised skin. Her pulse jumps under their fingertips where they can both feel it.

"Ryan wanted to kiss me… but I didn't want him to."

"No?"

"I've never been kissed before," she says, studying the frayed threads of the couch with the sort of manic concentration that only someone truly inebriated could possess. "I bet you kiss girls all the time!" she exclaims.

She hears him snort. "It just so happens I am very picky," he deadpans.

"Oh," Taylor says. She is staring up at the ceiling now, blinking. Her eyelids feel so heavy. "I'm picky too. I hate broccoli."

"Mhm."

"Can you sit down?" Taylor squints up at him, as if looking up at him from a telescope, like he's a great distance away. "You're making me dizzy."

He humors her and does what she asks, mostly because she won't remember any of this in the morning. He settles himself on the opposite end of the couch, and Taylor immediately sits up and scoots towards him. She has no qualms about making herself comfortable, laying her head down in his lap. Snuggling close. She clumsily jams an elbow into his ribs on accident but doesn't seem to notice. She is as happy as a clam.

"I wish we could be like this all the time."

He almost doesn't hear her, how quietly she says it, the way the words are tethered to the back of a yawn. He takes it upon himself to touch a strand of her hair, and then several, slowly combing through it with his bare hands. It feels nice. Soft. Something about it feels stupidly indulgent.

"Mr. J?" she yawns. She takes his free arm and drapes it over her waist to use as a blanket. Her eyes are closed, the dark fan of her lashes pressed against her cheeks. "Do you love me?"

He hasn't stopped looking at her from the moment she laid herself in his lap. Even after all this time, he is still fascinated by her unwavering trust in him, how freely she gives herself to him. The hand on her waist curls a little tighter.

"No," he murmurs. He runs his fingers through her hair, carefully scrapes the smaller strands behind her ear, over and over again. "I don't love you." She yawns, a soft sound, and curls her legs closer to her chest for warmth. If his words have any effect on her, she does not let on. Her cheek is warm on his thigh. Her breathing evens out, the steady rise and fall of her chest. He curls a strand of her hair around his finger—which suddenly carries a heavy, metaphorical significance. He used to think he had her wrapped his finger, wound so tightly she could never get free. But now he thinks it might be the other way around.

"I don't love you at all."