Snakes and Ladders

Submitted into Contest #194 in response to: Write a story inspired by the phrase “Back to square one.”... view prompt


Romance High School

Life’s a game, and love is the prize – or so they say. If that is the case, then why, of all things, is the first kiss the horrible, long snake that sends you tumbling right back to square one? Well, perhaps not the kiss itself, and more how the kiss ends: whether you’re interrupted, walked in on, broken apart fiercely by something. That’s always how it goes in novels. The character’s build up such a connection – oh, sparks are flying the size of deadly lava bombs – and they finally, after so agonizingly long, have that first kiss… but it’s ruined by something, not left to end when their hearts desire. The characters don’t get time to talk about their feelings after breathlessly breaking apart, and thus are left to worry, embarrassed, both thinking they disgusted the other, ruined their beautiful friendship. Both, of course, are wrong, but nonetheless they are right back to where they started. Awkward niceties. You could even dare to call them strangers.

Just like in novels, the first kiss was exactly the unlucky dice roll that sent Rufus and me sliding back down an unnecessary snake to square one.


“Emery, focus. We have to have this finished by tomorrow.”

“Sorry, sorry! I am focusing!” I blinked furiously, trying to concentrate on the screen. The dull set of paragraphs and default font seemed to stare mockingly back at me. “Are you sure this is going to be good enough?”

“I hate co-writing. I don’t know why any authors do it.”

I sighed. “Ruf, I’m sorry. I know how much this means to you. It’s just getting late, maybe we should leave it–” At Rufus’s stern glare, I corrected myself: “I mean, let’s get on with it and finish this. We can’t let all our effort go to waste.”

Rufus turned his gaze back to the computer. It really was getting late: the sky visible through Rufus’s small shuttered windows was a shadowy shade, but Rufus was using the light pollution as a way of claiming that there was “still light outside”; the sun hadn’t “gone down yet”. I’d already tried several times trying to kindly persuade him – us, really, but he was doing most the work, the typing of our short story – to give up, to try next time such a glorious opportunity springs out of the blue. Every time the shadows cast from the weak lamp on the desk beside him seemed to cast darker shadows across his eyes, enhancing the cold look I’d get. His patience was running thin, I could tell, but I knew he appreciated me in teaming up with him to enter, though I was hopeless at creative writing. I could happily supply him with various ideas inspired by the multitude of books I’d read, but it was up to him to put pen to paper. Or, at least, finger to keyboard.

I’d already given him the ideas and helped him plan the plot, so there wasn’t much else I could do but give moral support and the occasional thought on how a sentence turned out – thus why I spent the next however long blurrily gazing at the screen, pretending to read along.

Eventually the soft clicking of the keyboard ceased. “There,” Rufus breathed, his eyes shining, the dim, artificial light causing them to look ringed with luminous yellow. Dark hair tousled at the back where he’d unconsciously rubbed at it, he turned his head to look at me. “What do you think? Is that a good way to end it all?”

“Oh.” I hadn’t really been reading along. He did know that, right? “Yeah, that’s great, Rufus. Are you going to submit it now?”

“I would read it through and edit it, but…” He fisted his hair, agitated. “No time. I’ve got to submit it.”

I patted his head encouragingly, and in a silent wish of good luck, then set to heading off home. Rufus finally admitted, much to my exhausted relief, that it was perhaps a little late.


The awards were given out and the winners revealed at a ‘social’, exclusive to high schoolers. There had been several competitions – music, baking, art, dancing. I stood lost in the crowd of surging bodies, feeling drugged on lemonade like I’d had a fancy cocktail from a glorious novel. Next a beautiful man resembling Prince Charming would be parting the dancing teenagers like the Red Sea to come talk to me, to flirt with me. If books were ever true, of course. At one point I heard my name called out by nobody I knew - it was probably just the lemonade speaking, so I chose to ignore it.

Several names were read out and strangers I recognized would beam and accept their awards happily on stage, the music and dance winners giving special celebration performances. I waited quietly for the identity of the poor person I’d have to act like was worthless and underserving for the sake of Rufus. He had determination but fragile confidence when it came to something he cared so much about; he hardly ever put his heart on the line. I’d always known that, always had to be the one to hype him up and tell him to keep going, but it didn’t bother me. The heroes always had their best friends, the secondary characters who everyone adores.

Suddenly I noticed Rufus pushing through the crowd towards me, a grin curving his sharp, dark features. He was mouthing something, words I couldn’t catch on to until he was almost right up against me – “We won! Emmy, we won!”

I put my glass down on the bar. I was only ever ‘Emmy’ if something outstandingly good had happened. “What?”

He ignored my confusion. “Where were you? I had to collect the prize by myself – Em, we actually won!”

“That’s awesome, Ruf, I’m happy for you!”

“Us.” His eyes were shining again, brown turned a million colors by the disco lights. “I couldn’t have done it without you. Em–”

And then he was stumbling into me, from the mass of writhing bodies or from delirious glee, I don’t know which, but all I knew was that – that I was kissing him, frantically, happily, I didn’t have time to think if he was kissing me back, all I felt was my bones melting – it was a wonder I managed to keep standing – and it just felt right

But he had stumbled, and I had lost most my strength to support both of us - either of us - and so we tumbled back, and panic overtook everything. I felt my head smack - almost gently, it felt, but I must’ve been overwhelmed, high on adrenaline - on the bar… I slumped, shocked – shocked at the fall, but most of all at what we’d just done. I tilted my head up to see Rufus, and it was quite clear he hadn’t expected any of it any more than I had. I reached up to touch him lightly on the arm, to try explain, but he seemed to slip from underneath my fingertips, slipping like a shadow towards the crowd, and then allowing himself to be swallowed by their thrashing, dancing jaws. I stared after him wistfully.

“Ma’am?” I glanced up. The bartender, peering over. “Did you hit your head? Should I call someone?”

I reached blindly for my head, surprised to feel a stickiness. Blood? I tried to speak, but I just felt sweet and delirious, like the lemonade really had done something to me. If I absently moved my hand down, just to touch my lips, I could feel the phantom of Rufus’s. The bartender shook his head pityingly, muttering something about teenagers and underaged drinking, and then came to get my phone to call my parents.

What a first kiss.


The social had been on a Friday night. I’d spent the weekend inside, it slowly dawning on me the severity of what had happened.

Not my head. My head had been fine, but Rufus. Why did I have to have done that? Ruined his rare joy for my own impulsive pleasures? He had clearly been disgusted by my behavior, and rightfully so. Thinking back, I’d probably made him stumble – surely, I’d unconsciously pulled him against me, and far too roughly. God, I’d gone and got myself injured, even, and probably him too.

The heroes weren’t supposed to work out with their best friends. They were supposed to meet someone just as special as them, and their best friend supports them through any hardships that come with that romance. Not try to be a part of the romance.

His face before he turned and fled. It was all I could see, even when he kept his expression closed and his head turned away from me if we passed each other in the corridors, the only acknowledgement given, if at all, a nervous start and an increase in pace. Poor Rufus. He couldn’t even look at me: he was repulsed, perhaps convinced I’d attack him and kiss him again.

I tried so hard to get him alone. I had to address it, I had to make it right, for God’s sake, I had to, because it was all my fault it had ever happened. I couldn’t bare to let it be the thing that destroyed our friendship. I had thought in the months before that Friday, in brief flickers I’d tried to ignore, that perhaps our friendship was blossoming into something more, and couldn’t help but feel hurt and confused in why now he didn’t seem to feel as I had thought he did. But I had no right to feel hurt, and I couldn’t ever tell Rufus that I meant it, that really I was pleased I’d felt delirious enough to do such a thing, in case he never wished to be my friend again.

Eventually I managed to get him alone. Sickened by myself and the real world, I had taken to reading in the library whenever I had free time. It was the only way I could go away somewhere where even I wasn’t there. Usually, the library was scattered with at least a few other people, studying or reading, but this time there happened to be none. Rufus ducked in quietly – he knew me, knew I’d be in the library, yet had obviously hope there’d be enough others he could just ignore my presence – blinked once and then tried to make a hasty retreat before I noticed. Of course, I’d noticed, however. I couldn’t really commit to my book, only a fraction of my heart was in it; my eyes had only slid lazily over the same sentence, over and over again before I finally made some sense of it and managed to move on to the next. Most my focus was on my peripheral, any sign of Rufus, be it a flash of dark hair or the icy blue of his schoolbag, I was onto it like some sort of sniffer dog.

I was already right there, following him swiftly out then stepping in front, cornering him. It wasn’t kindly to do it that way: he looked like an injured bird, cupped in a human’s imperious hands, the sharp angle of his nose like a beak.

I took an unnecessary breath, for that’s what all book characters seem to do before diving into a long, thought-out apology. “Rufus, I’m so sorry – I kissed you, I ruined everything when you’d just wanted to share your happiness on winning–”

“I fell into you, Emery, it’s my fault, and I saw you got hurt but I didn’t check if you were okay–”

“No! I must’ve pulled you into me, and I kissed you, that was awful of me, I felt you weren’t kissing me back and yet I pushed on, in fact I pulled–”

“What do you mean I wasn’t kissing you back? I thought you weren’t kissing me back!”

His words seemed to be delayed in my brain. I paused, processing them. “I– you–?”

“Yes,” Rufus mumbled, his eyes wide and bewildered. “I think we both misinterpreted how the other felt.”

“You kissed me? Back? And you don’t regret it?”

“And I’d do it again.” He added hurriedly: “If, of course, you want–”

And once again, my lips were crashing against his, just as frantically as before. We stumbled back slightly with the force, but this time he managed to steady us against the library door with one hand, the other gentle on my back, propping me up. No panic gripped me, instead there was a bubbliness, a giddiness, and a looseness in my muscles and in my heart, lacking the tension I hadn’t even recognized had been there the past few days. Rufus was softly whispering things against my mouth, I don’t know what, all I heard was his gentle ‘Emmy, Emmy’, rare in itself, but even more so foreign to be heard so close. I smiled, pulling back to rest my forehead against his, my eyes still closed, sealed with bliss.

It’s a great long snake to bring two people tumbling right back to square one, but this was like the jackpot dice roll that landed on the square with that one, really long ladder, right up to square ninety-nine. The closest possible leap to happiness.

April 21, 2023 19:23

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Arielle Baines
15:58 Apr 26, 2023

Made me a little giddy myself! Lovely! Thank you for sharing this story!


Zoë Page
20:20 Apr 26, 2023

Pleased you liked it! Thank you :)


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