Fiction Friendship LGBTQ+

“Have you ever pulled an all-nighter?” Riley asked, turning over her shoulder to look at Emma. It was a strange question, Emma thought, considering they were sitting on a rocky outcrop watching the sun come up on the horizon. Riley sat on a precarious ledge, legs dangling into empty air, face tipped up to the rising sun, the sun Emma had woken up for at 5:30 AM, and she was already thinking about night?

A few feet behind Riley, Emma sat with her legs safely tucked underneath her. The view was just as good from her vantage, if not better, because she wasn't at risk of falling to her death. Emma rolled a loose pebble between her fingers and said, “No.”

Riley grinned, that cat-like smile of hers that Emma recognized as trouble. “Not even in college?”

“No,” Emma said, a little defensively. “Sleep is very important, you know.”

“Sure it is,” Riley said, swinging her legs back around to face Emma completely, “If you can fall asleep. If you can’t, it’s just another form of torture.”

“Do you even have insomnia?” Emma, asked, irritated. She was constantly finding Riley passed out on any horizontal space in their apartment, hand stuck in a bag of chips, a book splayed open over her eyes like the world’s worst sleep mask.

“Naps are different than sleeping at night,” Riley replied, as if she’d read Emma’s thoughts. “But no, technically speaking, I suppose I don’t.”

Emma put her hands behind her, pressing down on the cold rock. Riley could probably sleep up here, she thought. No pillow, no blanket. She’d nestle between two boulders, on top of a snake’s nest, and even the snake wouldn’t be able to rouse her. She’d wake up with the snake curled around her wrist, and she’d keep it as a pet. “Why are you asking, anyway?”

Riley stretched her arms high above her head, letting her long dark hair slip behind her shoulders, and the pine tree tattooed on the inside of her left arm appeared to grow taller. There was that smile again. For all her naps, Emma had never seen Riley yawn. Just the cat’s smile, always the cat’s smile, lazy and plotting. “You’re leaving tomorrow, right? Why not make your last day memorable?”

A million reasons, Emma thought. I need to finish packing. I need to get a good night sleep before my trip. I need to forget you, not let you give me a reason to stay. But she didn’t say any of those things. She said, “I’m listening.”

The sunrise hike had been Riley’s idea, of course. She’d originally suggested a sunset hike, but Emma said no. She would rather pick her way up a mountain in grey half-light than her way down. The hike was supposed to be Emma’s last hurrah, her last bit of giving into Riley’s recklessness before she moved back East to resume her studies. It was the sensible thing to do, and Emma had not done much of anything sensible since she’d met Riley. For one thing, she’d dropped out of college. For another, she’d moved across the country and into an apartment shared with five people she didn’t know, along with their various pets. Reptiles, mammals, amphibians. It nearly qualified as a zoo. It was the kind of place that had once been rent-controlled, but now cost far too much for an apartment with every room painted a different color, a single bathroom, and a permanent scent of garlic. Riley and the others didn’t seem to mind, and Emma had tried not to mind, but after a year she could no longer pretend. Besides, she’d originally gone to school to get away from her job as a barista, only to resume that line of work when she dropped out.

Emma supposed she could sleep on the plane. “Okay,” she said, “On one condition. You help me finish packing.”

Riley slid into a standing position. That was the only way Emma could describe the smooth, almost liquid way that Riley moved. Slide, slither. But that was just Riley: face of a cat, body of a snake. Dangerous, exactly the sort of person Emma needed to avoid.

Exactly the sort of person she shouldn’t fall in love with.

Riley extended a hand and helped Emma stand. Even with the help, Emma managed to scrape her palm on the rock, and stumbled into Riley, who moved her hands to steady Emma’s shoulders. “Deal,” she said. “We get you packed up, and then we keep you awake all night.”

Emma wasn't sure what that was supposed to mean.

They made their way back down the trail. It switched back every few hundred feet, and as she struggled with the sharp turns, Emma again had the peculiar feeling that she was being led astray. Though she’d been on her fair share of hikes as a camp counselor, this trail felt especially malicious.

Riley was sure-footed and moved nimbly over branches and logs and stones that Emma nearly tripped over. And like most of the things Emma feared, the trail ended, and nothing went wrong. Riley’s car sat exactly where’d they’d left it in a parking lot by the trailhead. Now that day had broken, more cars filled the lot. Emma watched a man and woman coax two large dogs out of their car and start up the trail she and Riley had just left. They chattered aimlessly in the way of two people who have been together longer than they can remember.

“Hey, space cadet,” Riley called through the window. “Get in. We’re burning daylight.”

Emma crouched by the open window and leaned her arms on the door. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“What I want,” she said, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel, a glint in her dark eyes, “Is to spend as much time with you as possible before you run away from me.”

Coming from anyone else, it would have been a sweet sentiment. From Riley, it sounded like a threat. Emma got in the car. Riley sped out of the lot and onto the open road. The first time Emma got into a car with Riley, she didn’t think she would ever get used to how recklessly Riley drove. For once, she’d been right. Riley’s bumpy, erratic driving still made her wish she was the kind of person who prayed. She gripped her seat and took a deep breath. Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow, I’ll be somewhere else, and I can make friends who don’t drive like they have a death wish.

Back at the apartment, they went into Emma’s bedroom, which she shared with Shirley. Shirley worked nights, and no one knew where she spent her days, so she was rarely home. That suited Emma just fine. The only downside was that Shirley had no investment in keeping her side of the room clean, so Emma and Riley had to wade through heaps of dirty clothes and shoes to reach Emma’s considerably neater side.

Riley sat on Emma’s bed, next to her suitcase, and picked up a photograph that had fallen out of a folder thrown on the bed. She examined it for a moment while Emma rummaged in the closet, trying to decide which shoes she could leave behind. “Do you miss them?” Startled, Emma bumped her head on the closet door.

Rubbing her head, she said, “Who?” Riley waved the photo at her. Although she knew what it was, Emma stepped closer and reached out for it. Riley didn’t hand it over, so Emma stood with her empty hand outstretched. Finally, she closed it into a fist and dropped her arm. “No,” she said, more definitively than she’d intended. “I don’t miss them.”

In the picture, a slightly younger Emma stood with a group of other college aged students in matching shirts, all of them a bit rugged and unkempt. Her bright red hair was longer then, dull and lifeless from too much chlorine. She toyed with a lock of it, now cut to her chin, and wondered who would cut her hair after she left. Since she’d moved here, their roommate Leila, who was in cosmetology school, had cut it for practice. Leila wasn’t very good, and occasionally Emma discovered pieces that were horribly uneven, but it was free.

“Why not?” Riley said, running her forefinger over the tiny faces in the picture. “You had fun there, didn’t you? Oh, is this Oliver?”

At the name, Emma stiffened and pressed her lips into a thin line. “Let’s just not talk about it, okay?”

“All right,” Riley said. She continued staring at the picture as Emma went back and forth from the closet to the suitcase to the common spaces and back again. Clothes, French press, books. What more did she need? She could buy new toiletries there. She would have left her clothes too, if it weren’t for the fact that she hardly had enough money for the plane ticket. Finally, she zipped the suitcase and pulled it to the floor with a loud thunk. Riley was passed out on her bed. So much for helping.

“Hey,” Emma said, hand on the suitcase. “Riley!” Riley didn’t respond. Emma made a sound of disgust and shook her shoulder. She roused with a start and stretched lazily again. “I’m done,” Emma said. “Where do you want to go?”

Riley blinked slowly. “Nowhere,” she said. “Wake me up at sunset.”

“Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of an all-nighter?” Emma started to ask, but Riley was already asleep again. Annoyed, Emma picked her way to Shirley’s side of the room, took a book from the stack on Shirley’s nightstand, and sat on her bed, leaning against Riley to read until she woke up. “So much for spending time together,” she muttered. She shouldn’t have been surprised. Riley was slippery, unaccountable. No one who made plans with her expected to keep them.

Emma and Riley had met two years earlier, when Emma was in her first year of college. Riley was not a student, but had found herself living in the college town for a few months in the thirteenth month of a gap year that didn’t seem to be ending any time soon, since Riley had yet to apply to any schools. They met in the public library. Emma preferred it to the noise of the campus library. Riley was there for a free martial arts class. Eternally clumsy, Emma had bumped into hundreds of people in her life, but Riley was the first one who looked at her with interest instead of annoyance.

She knew immediately that she would follow Riley to the ends of the earth.

She spent the rest of that semester skating by in her classes, meeting up with Riley whenever she could, not for any particular reason. Emma was perpetually attracted to dangerous people. She thought of it as her fatal flaw. When they were together, Emma would pretend to do homework while Riley spoke at length about her current interests, which were varied and far-reaching. The history of pasteurization, the fall of the Soviet Union, philosophies of life and death, the best chocolate chip cookie recipe. At first, Emma didn’t realize why Riley wasn’t in school, since she seemed like the perfect candidate for a liberal arts college, but she came to understand that Riley only learned for herself, and wasn’t interested in having other people tell her what to study or think. As soon as Emma expressed interest in one of her topics, Riley dropped it for something even more obscure.

And then one day, toward the end of the semester, Riley asked Emma what she knew about California. Emma shrugged, which usually prompted Riley to share her research findings, but this time was different. She pressed and prodded until Emma gave her a real answer. Instead of waxing poetic about how the state had been misrepresented in the history books, Riley said, “Do you want to move there?”

What Emma said was: “Uh, sure, I guess that could be cool.”

What Riley heard was: “Yes, let’s go as soon as we can.”

Now, as Emma looked around her room, and at Riley sleeping on her bed, she wasn’t sure if she wished that she never came or wished she could stay forever. She wondered if it is was possible to wish both.

When the sun began to set, Emma put the book aside and simply said, “Riley.”

Riley’s eyes flew open and she said, “Is it time?” Her voice wasn’t groggy with sleep. She didn’t need time to wake up. For Riley, there was sleeping and waking. No drowsy in-between state. Emma nodded and Riley stood, once again offering her hand. This time, Emma didn’t take it, and stood on her own. Riley nodded slowly. “Let’s go, then.”

They left the apartment without a word to their roommates, three of whom were recently home from work and in various states of undress. When they got to the car, Riley offered Emma the driver’s seat. Emma raised an eyebrow, but got in. “Where are we going?” she asked.

“Wherever you want to go,” Riley said, and the words sounded like they belonged to someone else.

The truth was, Emma had stayed up all night once before. With Oliver, who was somehow both nothing and exactly like Riley. That night, thousands of miles away from here, Emma had driven her own car to the base of a mountain not unlike the one she and Riley had climbed this morning. She and Oliver had stood at the end of one trail, where it branched off into three others, and Emma had asked the same question: Where are we going? And Oliver had said, Wherever you want to go. Sometimes Emma felt like her whole life was that moment, repeated ad infinitum, over and over again. Standing at a crossroads, next to someone she couldn’t really trust, but wanted to. Them telling her to go wherever she wanted. Somehow, wherever she wanted always ended up being exactly where they wanted.

Without a word, Emma turned the car on and began to drive. She drove for miles, the radio off, the windows open, listening to the rush of the wind and Riley’s breath. She drove until the road narrowed and tapered off, until the horizon turned to water and the ground to sand.

“The lake?” Riley asked. Emma did not answer; the answer lay in front of the parked car, an expanse of water so large it may as well have been the ocean. They climbed out of the car, and Emma led Riley to a dock. She put one foot on the wood, testing its strength, then stepped on. Riley followed, and together they walked to where the dock dropped off and became water. Emma sat cross-legged. Riley kicked off her shoes and let her feet dangle just above the water.

“Are we just going to stay here all night?” Riley asked.

Emma bristled. It was the kind of question she usually asked Riley. So, she gave Riley the answer she usually received: silence.

Above them, the moon rose, only half full, and cast the still water in dim white light. Emma didn’t believe in signs, so she thought nothing of it, but she wondered if Riley ascribed meaning to that half-moon.

Riley tossed a pebble into the water, and the moon’s reflection briefly shattered before forming again. She said, “You’re really going, then? Back to school, back to a regular, boring life?”

Away from you, Emma thought. “It doesn’t have to be boring.”

Riley shrugged. Her face glowed in the moonlight. “It might be.”

What Emma wanted to say was: I’m not as predictable as you think.

What Emma said was: “Come with me.”

November 17, 2020 22:20

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A.Dot Ram
06:58 Nov 30, 2020

I like the way you played with the tension between what Emma thinks and what she says.


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Kristin Neubauer
14:01 Nov 28, 2020

There was so much that intrigued me about this story. The contrasts between Emma and Riley, that sense Emma experiences of feeling torn between two selves, the whisper of the sinister, the unexpected ending. All of it. I especially loved this line: “ and at Riley sleeping on her bed, she wasn’t sure if she wished that she never came or wished she could stay forever. She wondered if it is was possible to wish both.” I can so identify with those feelings - I think many people can. And on top of all of that, your writing. I’m not sure wha...


01:33 Dec 01, 2020

Thank you so much Kristin! These two characters have been around in my head for a long time, and I write about them occasionally, so a lot of the backstory and relationship between them feels real to me. I'm glad I was able to convey some of that in this short piece. Who knows, maybe I'll get around to writing more about them for another prompt some day!


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I loved the story, great work!


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