“What are you doing?”
I lean over my best friend Alana’s shoulder and peer at her phone, trying to not become further blinded by the astounding amount of light that’s coming from the screen. “Turn your brightness down, woman.”
She ignores me and turns in her camp chair, nudging me with her shoulder. “I’m texting Kalyn.”
“Ohhhhh, Kalyn,” I slur in her ear. She huffs and continues typing.
I sit back down in my own chair and poke at the fire, listening to Alex and Dessi argue about where the North Star is.
“No, it’s in the Big Dipper!”
“But look at that one!” Alex desperately flings his arm out and points at a bright object in the sky, the opposite direction of the constellation in question.
“It’s not even a planet, and if it was it would be Jupiter!”
“How do you know?”
“IT’S THE BRIGHTEST!”
I laugh and continue watching them argue. Some people get upset at friendly confrontation or conflict, but I love our arguments. I interject, “But what if the North Star’s in the south?”
Alex and Dessi both blink at me, then Alex interjects, “That’s impossible.”
Dessi screams, “But the stars change positions,” and they’re at it again.
I chuckle to myself and fish a marshmallow out of the bag on the ground. The label on the front of the bag, made with a black sharpie and green construction paper, reads “Bonfire Buddies ONLY.”
“Hey, who brought the mallows this time?” I ask, squishing a white square. “Jackson? Thanks, Jack.” He nods and squirts some fire starter onto the wood. The orange flames flare up startlingly.
I lean back in my chair and look around the circle, grinning. This is by far my favorite part of summer. The tradition started a few years ago, when Alana, my best friend even back then, moved to a neighborhood next to mine, into a house with a ton of land. The previous owners had built a lot of stuff on it, including a treehouse, doghouse, chicken coop, pole barn, and this firepit. A few nights a week, I would bike ten minutes to her house, and her, me, and her little brother would have a bonfire. The next summer, I invited a kid from my neighborhood, and Alana asked people from school, and soon we had a solid group of over a half-dozen teens. During the school year, we meet every second and fourth Saturday (if it’s not raining) and in summer--when it’s August, like right now--we have a bonfire every other weeknight.
I love this little community to death. We’re each all part of our own friend groups, but this is the best, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
There’s Alana, of course, the one who started it all. She’s the closest to popular anyone in our group will ever get, probably just because she’s outgoing and pretty, or at least prettier than me. I look over at her, still texting. The bright screen illuminates her gray-blue eyes.
Then there’s Alex and Dessi, who everyone thought was into each other until Alex announced he was gay. (Honestly, I have a suspicion that part of that was just to get out of questions about Dessi, but that’s a discussion for another time.) They’re best friends, though; they bicker like siblings but, ultimately, love each other to no end.
They’re still arguing about the stars. Dessi’s voice is hoarse from screaming, and Alex is trying to pretend like he’s not laughing. He’s pointing vigorously above Alana’s house. “The North Star is the brightest!”
“But this big dipper is right there!”
“For the millionth time, I don’t see it! You’re making this up--”
“There’s no brightest star in it!”
“WHO SAID IT HAS TO BE--”
Amused, I look over at Jackson. We’re the only introverts of the group, although I’m much more talkative than he. Right now, he’s strategically placing bits of kindling onto the fire and smiling at Alex and Dessi. Even Jackson gets a kick out of them.
Kyra’s not here tonight; her family’s on vacation in Costa Rica. They’re uber rich and her parents are vegetarians. Ky wears mascara and leggings and has the latest iPhone, but, even though she can act snobbish or entitled at times, she’s actually pretty nice. She’s a friend of Dessi’s.
Lastly, there’s Dmitry. He’s sitting cross-legged in his camp chair, humming a few stanzas of who knows what to himself and munching on a graham cracker. Dmitry’s probably the most talented out of all of us, and it shows. Sometimes he brings his guitar and sings. He has an amazing voice. One especially delirious night he and I wrote a silly, sadistic children’s song, recorded it, and put it on YouTube. It currently has 17 views. We’re both okay with that.
Dessi and Alex have shut up for the moment. “Have y’all come to a consensus?” I ask jokingly.
“No, I’m pulling up the compass app.” Dessi looks at her phone a moment. “See? Ha! It’s Never Eat Soggy Wheat, not Eat Never Wheat Soggy!”
“You’re pointing it in the wrong direction! And who eats soggy wheat?”
“How would that--”
I shake my head and poke Alana. “The heck, Alana. Are you still texting Kalyn?”
“And what if I am?”
I sigh and roll my eyes. Kalyn is one of Alana’s neighbors; he and his family moved in at the beginning of February. They coincidentally were in the same driver’s ed class, and ever since everything is Kalyn, this and Kalyn, that. I still haven’t met him, but apparently his dad’s from Hawaii, so that’s cool. I’ve hardly ever even been outside of Oregon.
Unpopular opinion, but Oregon sucks, by the way. 0/10 do not recommend.
I nudge Alana’s bare foot with mine. “Come on, Lana. Put your phone down. Here, have some chocolate.” I throw a Hershey’s bar at her.
She bats it away. “I invited Kalyn. He’s heading over.”
I almost fall out of my chair. “What? Why?”
“Because I think he would enjoy it, and I want him here.” Alana looks at me. “Come on, Sienna. He’s nice, I swear.”
I frown at her. “What are you thinking? Did you ask everyone else?”
“They’ll be fi--”
I try not to jump. Kalyn appears from behind an empty chair and drops into it. “Thanks for inviting me.”
Conversation stops. Dessi, who is now for some reason sitting sideways, her neck resting on one arm of the chair and her legs over the other, stares at Kalyn, along with Alex, although Dessi looks more curious and Alex, more confused.
Dmitry doesn’t seem to care. He’s still quietly humming, his hands resting nonchalantly in his lap. He winks at Kalyn and grabs the bottle of fire starter from Jackson, who’s avoiding eye contact, staring at his shoes.
Alana’s grinning at Kalyn. “Did you sneak out?”
“Ah, it was easy.” Kalyn catches my eye and smiles. “I’m Kalyn, by the way.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m Sienna.”
After an uncomfortable pause, everyone else introduces themselves.
“Well, we’ve got sugar, if you want it.” Dessi motions to the marshmallows, chocolate, and graham cracker packages strewn around the circle. “Help yourself.”
“Thanks.” Kalyn sits back in his chair.
This is so. Freaking. Awkward.
I grab my phone out of the chair’s cupholder and text Alana. “What the heck??? Whyd you invite him”
Alana looks at the notification, sighs, and ignores it.
Ignoring my texts.
Yup, she’s definitely star-crossed.
“But where’s the Little Dipper?” Alex says.
No pun intended.
I think back, rather angrily. The last person to join our group was Jackson, and that was over a year ago. Who does she think she is, inviting new people willy-nilly?
They’re talking, now. I ignore what they’re saying and stare into the pine trees that separate the firepit from the house. I watch the shadows under the tree.
Shadows. Shadows. Why are there shadows?
A man emerges from the trees. I scream, topple out of my chair, and take off running.
I hear noises, muffled thumps and shouts behind me. I run for the fields behind Alana’s house. They’re filled with tall, dense, yellow grasses I can hide in. If only I make it.
I glance swiftly behind me. The reddish shape that is the fire gets smaller every second. Someone is following me, two people, I don’t know who, it’s too dark--
I looked forward again as I reach the edge of the fields. Without hesitating I plunge into them.
The rough grass tugs at the sleeves of my sweatshirt as I run past, the stalks whipping my bare legs and feet. Gasping for breath, I run farther, farther into the fields, ducking to avoid being seen, and eventually fall on my back in a tiny clearing when I can’t run anymore.
I lay there, panting, trying to be quiet as I listen to the sounds around me. I hear the brittle grass snap as fast footsteps approach.
Let it be Alana let it be Dmitry let it be Jackson let it be--
Kalyn runs into the clearing, trips over my legs, and promptly falls on his face.
“Ow,” we both whisper simultaneously.
Kalyn sits up and looks at me, quietly blowing who knows what out of his mouth. “You okay?”
“Not really,” I respond slowly. “What’s going on back there?”
“I don’t know, everyone just… scattered.” Kalyn wipes dirt off his face and sighs. “I should probably go back and see if everyone’s all right.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“You don’t have to--”
“Hey, safety in numbers, right?”
He nods and stands up but crouches so he remains hidden by the grass. I try to get up but wince--my leg hurts from Kalyn tripping over it.
He notices that I’m in pain and extends his hand to help me up. I take it gratefully. “Thanks.”
He nods again. “Let’s go.”
We make our way, quietly, back to the firepit. At the edge of the field, Kalyn stops. I step to the side and peer out. The fire, in the distance, burns low, and all the camp chairs are empty.
I bite my lip and look over at him. “Do you think it’s safe?”
“No, but then again, when is it?”
“I guess that’s true.” We emerge from the field, straighten up, and look around. There’s no one in sight.
“We should probably shoot for the house,” I whisper. “There’s a back door--”
“I know,” Kalyn says. I scowl. Of course he knows. We take off towards Alana’s house.
When we’re almost there, we hear someone whisper, “Psst!”
I almost have a heart attack. Dessi’s head pokes out of a bush, her face all but hidden in the dark. “What happened?”
“I don’t know, but I think we’re fine.” I hold back the branches so Dessi can crawl out. She’s clutching a pocket knife defensively. Does she just carry a knife around? Honestly, I’m not surprised. “You good?”
“Yeah, thanks.” Dessi pulls a twig out of her hair. “But we should find the others.”
We’re only twenty feet away from the house. We creep towards the back door leading into the basement.
“Please be unlocked please be unlocked please--”
“It’s unlocked,” Kalyn announces.
I sigh, relieved, and follow him into the basement. The house is dark; Alana’s family always goes to bed before she does. We run up the stairs, only to find Jackson, Dmitry, Alex, and Alana laughing in the kitchen.
Someone’s with them.
He turns, and he’s laughing, too. I see that it’s Alana’s dad. He spots us standing at the top of the stairs and motions with his hand for us to come near. Kalyn and Dessi walk forward, and I follow, uncertainly.
“Are you guys okay?” Alana asks. She’s laughing so hard she’s crying. “I can’t believe you ran--”
“Aw, shut up,” I mutter, grabbing a water bottle from the fridge.
I shove his arm and hop onto a barstool, taking a sip of water. “It’s almost twelve AM, for Pete’s sake. Give me a break.”
Kalyn moves, seamlessly, into the kitchen, next to Alana. He rests his elbows on the counter and tries to sound sad. “I could’ve died, you know.”
Alana snorts. “What a tragic loss.”
I smile, watching them. Then Kalyn leans over and whispers something in her ear, barely loud enough for me to hear.
“You’re brilliant, you know that?”
And just like that, I realize.
He’s a keeper.
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Love this! The characters were so interesting, the writing pulled me in, and the story was fun overall. Excellent work!