Contest #220 shortlist ⭐️

24 comments

Friendship Fiction Speculative

This story contains sensitive content

Water laps the shore, a slow symphony. In with applause for itself, out with sorrow. Over and over again as I stare, the past fresher in my mind than it’s ever been.

And when we’re dead, meet me at the river, Jade said. Promise.

I promise, I said back. I can’t remember if we were drunk or high—probably both—but I’ve recalled that moment with clarity for years, although never quite as pellucidly as I am now, with icy spring winds and gunmetal skies and a history so far gone it nearly brings me to my knees. Jade is dead. And I am at the river.

Then: Jade and I were young, tumultuous friends, platonic but with a neediness that lovers possess. Her eyes were electric blue and intoxicating, as beckoning as her giant coffee cups full of vodka and her cherry red lip gloss and the joint stuck in the front pocket of her overalls, the tip sticking out like a secret she wanted you to ask about. Her hair was wild and straw-colored. I want to picture how she was, not the internet pictures of a drug addict that my mother forwarded to me. I inch closer to the water, daring the edge to creep to my feet.

The river rushes by, but down here, on this muddy flat where dust once rose and everything earthy felt disgorged, released into the air in vapors, it always pooled up. It was like a little island sidebar, a place where the current pushed a tiny shallow sideways. It didn’t make sense, but neither did Jade or the love that I felt for her. Our friendship was feverish.

That girl is trouble, my mother said with a knowing look, as if she was the only baby boomer to remember the sixties. It was 1995, and drugs were Bad with a capital B. She was wrong though; Jade was troubled, not dangerous. Jade bounded around school like a figment of my imagination sometimes, charming and well-liked despite her reputation for “trouble”. She was an easily conquerable sex object for the boys, and an equally desirable subject of envy for the girls, those who wanted to be as free and magnetic as she was.

But Jade latched on to me when her family moved to our town for reasons she never disclosed beyond something nefarious that had to do with her father. I used to ask her, down by the river, how she knew we were destined to be friends with such utter conviction. How she simply walked into a new school and saw me, quiet and unannounced in the back row, diligently doing my homework. I looked up and our eyes connected and the attraction opened up like a blooming flower in a fast-motion video.

Because Brooke, she said, we’re soul mates. We were friends before and we’ll be friends after, when we’re long gone and only our ghosts remain. She held a joint to my lips, balanced slightly on her fingers with chipped blue nail polish, grinning devilishly. I have no idea why I said that, but its true, isn’t it?

I couldn’t explain my attraction to Jade to my mother, who was concerned it was an “obsession”. She said it was unhealthy, unnatural, and ever since Jade burst on the scene I had been neglecting my schoolwork. Frustrated by her words—because Jade felt like love, not obsession, I would taunt back that she was my soulmate and shrug my shoulders, just to get a rise out of her.

Oh God, my mother said. What kind of drugs are you two on? She was attempting a cool, I-was-once-a-hippie comment, but it fell flat, kicked over by the genuine worry in her eyes. But the thing was, even my mother liked Jade—you couldn’t not. She was like bubblegum, like glitter, a magic trick that truly stuns you. She was warm, like late afternoon sun.

The last two years of high school were all me and Jade, all the time. It’s true that she did corrupt me as my mother feared, turning me on to the lovely sink of a good buzz, to the raucous fun of just about any event when you snuck in travel mugs of vodka.

But the troubled side to her, the one that she saved just for me, was more than those things, those rites of passage that come along with teenage years of experimentation. It was more than the harder drugs she sometimes offered, with a hint of passiveness, as if she was secretly glad when I said no. It was more than the vague stories of her home life, the insinuations she would only mumble when our eyes were not met, about her dad’s drinking problem and his “problems with the law.” No matter how many times I cupped her chin and pulled her gaze back to mine, she wouldn’t elaborate.

The troubled side was the dark thing inside of Jade. That’s what she called it. The dark thing that consumed her, that made her feel as if she was on the outside of her body looking in, watching herself dance around bonfires and sweetly kiss cheeks and hold my hand the day we went sledding, flying down a hill on two formerly abandoned saucers, our unbroken link keeping us together as we revisited our childhood.

I’m a fraud, Brooke. I’m a lie. I’m not what I say I am. You think I’m happy?

That day, down by the river, it was summer. We were in between our junior and senior years, blowing off a shift at the coffee shop we worked at in favor of tanning on our flat by the river. The sun blistered and we were both pasty white, remnants of a long winter and a rainy spring. We’d arrived at work at the same time, but before we could go in, Jade had grabbed my arm.

Fuck work. It’s gorgeous out! Let’s go celebrate instead.

What are we celebrating, I asked, perking up. I’d had no plans of skipping work today, but if Jade wanted to, I was game.

Jade smiled, that delicious, cattish grin. The sun. We’re celebrating the sun, Brooke! And since her laughter was contagious, and since she offered to be the one to call for both of us, to say we had the same instant stomach bug that infected us both in the parking lot before we could go in, I agreed. Because after all…who didn’t want to celebrate the sun?

After we’d snuck back to her house, where her father was still passed out on the couch and her mother was nowhere to be found; after we’d grabbed bathing suits and snacks and paperback books and a half-full handle of Smirnoff Red Label, Jade turned maudlin. It was odd, I remember thinking, but I was baked, and the vodka was an exquisite treat for a Tuesday in June. When she asked if I thought she was happy, it caught my attention, languidly reeling me back into the world.

Of course you’re happy I told her, sitting up and shielding the glare from my eyes. We were going to fry; both of us pink already, having given exactly zero thought to sunscreen. Jade lay flat, her stomach concave and her white bikini fading into her skin, her hands clasped over her chest and her eyes closed. She looked dead, I remember thinking, poking her calf with my big toe.

No, I’m not, she said. Hoisting herself up on her elbows, she told me about the dark thing, which didn’t make any sense to me, and I attributed my confusion to being wasted. When I look back on that day, years older and full of life experiences and a degree in psychiatry, I can understand that she was trying to tell me she was depressed. That she didn’t have a word for it, that it was unnamable, and so it became the dark thing that lived in her soul. That it was something, she felt, that made her inherently unwhole.

Uncomfortable, I didn’t say much. I think, at one point, I pointed to the sky with a pout and said something like, I thought we were in celebration mode today?

Jade eyed me, as if considering whether to continue with her vague description of this dark thing inside of her, or to return to the land of sunshine and merriment. She chose option B, for the moment. And celebrating the sun became one of our things, our Jade-and-Brooke things.

She talked about the dark thing again, more and more frequently as we wrapped up our high school career. Our senior year was ripe with lasts, flush with moments we took pictures of and printed at the pharmacy, impatient even with the novel one-hour development. We applied to colleges, made scrapbooks of memories, got wasted most weekends, and gushed about how great being “grown-up” was going to be. It didn’t hit me until the summer after graduation—Jade and I were no longer going to be together every day. I mean, I knew that. But the reality of separation pierced me like a rogue arrow one day as we sat—where else?—on our spot by the river.

We were close to the edge, our bare feet with matching cotton-candy pink toenails just touching the brink of the water. We were “having a quickie” which was code for meeting at the river to smoke a bowl and chat. Jade was embarking on a five-day road trip with her new boyfriend Tony, and when she returned, I would be heading to the beach for a week with my mother. We wouldn’t see each other for days.

I guess this is what it’s going to be like when we go to school, I murmured, a sudden flash of melancholy rippling through me. The idea of Jade not being accessible, reachable, visible felt like a hollow void inside me.

I know, Jade said forlornly. But we can visit each other at school. And there’s holidays…and when we graduate college, we can move to the city and live in lavish apartments and be like ‘Sex and the City’.

You’ll probably be married to Tony by then. I was glum.

Nooo! Jade turned to me, took my shoulders and twisted my body so we were facing each other, inches apart. She carefully rested our half smoked joint on a sun-bleached rock and took my hands in hers. Her voice was rich and full of love.

You ARE my soulmate, she said. You’re the only one who knows about the dark thing inside of me. You’re the only one I celebrate the sun with, you’re the only one I want to come to the river with, and you’re the only one I’m moving to New York City with. Okay? There was a glistening shine in her bright eyes.

Okay, I said, even if it didn’t believe it all. People drifted apart after high school, that was a fact. Jade was in love with Tony. Our schools were in opposite directions, nearly four hours apart. It was a time when email was barely a thing, when no one had cell phones for constant, instant-gratification communication.

But, okay, I told her, just to see her beautiful face light up. We made plans for the rest of our lives…we’d travel Europe and get married in a double wedding to handsome Italians and we’d never, ever grow old. In the middle of our fantasy, Jade remembered the joint, relighting it. She took a long drag and held it to my lips.

And when we’re dead, meet me at the river. Promise.

It wasn’t ominous then, but now, hearing her crystal-clear soprano in my ear as if we hung out just yesterday, it feels portentous. Our dreams proved to be just that—dreams. Neither of us would lead lives touched by magic and whimsy, anchored by the love of a best friend, a soulmate.

I close my eyes and inch closer, and now the water comes over the tips of my boots. I wait to feel the inevitable coldness seep through, closing my eyes and thinking if I breathe deep enough, I’ll be able to smell her, to feel her. To inhale her smoky air, to visualize the exact crispness of her eyes, the purse of her lips before she burst into laughter.

But nothing comes, only the refrain of and when we’re dead, meet me at the river.

We went to college, and everything fell apart. Jade was indeed in love with Tony, but she also fell in love with harder drugs. We met up a few times, racing to the river in winter hats after stuffing ourselves with Thanksgiving turkey, our breath white mists as we squealed and hugged. But she was already different. A dead look in her eyes.

Sometime later, maybe another year or so, her father was arrested for sexual misconduct at his job. I wanted to talk to Jade, to ask if the things she hinted at were true, to wonder if she’d pieced together yet that the dark thing inside of her was not her fault. But she was unreachable, in that shadowy time when the internet was young but social media wasn’t a thing. She moved, I supposed, and I lost her number. Her mother left town, and there was no reason for me to expect that Jade would come back to town.

I moved on too: graduated, got married, got divorced. I was working as a therapist, starting my own practice, diving into work to heal from my broken marriage, and somehow that became my whole life. I looked up Jade on Facebook a few times, but never found much of anything. My mother, ever the detective, unearthed morsels for me. Jade had been in jail in Kentucky, arrested for possession and assault and battery. That didn’t sound right. Jade? Jade was a girl who celebrated sunshine, who wore cherry scented ChapStick and knew I was her soulmate.

But it was true, and after she died, my mother’s sleuthing became more insistent, her delivery of news to me gentler. Jade had died of an overdose. We found a blog about addiction written by her daughter—Rose. There were photographs of Jade, except it looked like an imposter. Underweight with ratty hair and a hard expression, and thus I concluded, from a few grainy pictures, that Jade had died long before she killed herself with drugs.

And when we’re dead, meet me at the river.

I snap my eyes open now. I know memories come in different forms, sometimes visual, sometimes auditory—I’m a therapist, after all. I have a fucking PhD in all things mental health, but this isn’t just an auditory recollection, a song from the past. I whip around and behind me, barefoot in the mud, stands Jade. She looks nothing like scabby, broken woman on Rose’s blog—she is again who I always knew her as, beautiful Jade, her captivating essence ensconced by wild blonde hair and piercing blue eyes.

I knew you’d remember, she says, and her arms open wide. There is love all around us, but I cannot go to her yet. Was this some type of fucked up hoax? Did she have to fake her death to start a new life, and her first stop was reconnecting with me? I had come to the river to say a prayer and sip from a travel mug with an Irish coffee, a farewell to my soulmate. And yet here is Jade, looking not a day older and certainly not dead.

She watches me carefully, as if waiting. I feel the gears in my head turning, and I know there are tears coursing down my face. Jade. I have missed her and craved her for so long. She was always missing, even if months went by when she didn’t cross my mind. Meanwhile, she was lying in gutters panhandling for her next fix, stealing money from family members, and living in tent cities (if Rose’s blog was to be believed.) My heart bursts with both sorrow and elation, like the tiny lapping waves of the river.

I look down and see that my boots are gone. My feet are bare and water caresses them, silky and warm. Tears drip, and the winter wind is gone. I feel sunshine coursing over my back, and when I lift my head, I understand.

And when we die, meet me at the river. Promise.

Jade exhales, gives a huge sigh of relief. I was hoping you’d understand right away. It took me a long time. I wandered for so long, so angry.

We’re dead, I say. Both of us?

Jade nods emphatically, smiling in a way that makes her whole being shine. I knew if we both came to the river, we’d find each other quicker.

I stare at her, mesmerized.

It’s funny how I said that, right? Like I knew we already made this plan before we were even born. Right? Her voice: it seems to come from inside both of us. It is everything. I realize I’ve known her for infinity.

I have questions. How did I die? How did we both die just weeks apart? Why were we so disconnected for most of our lives? Was this heaven? Jade shushes me, a finger to my lips, and points to the sky. Unblinking, we look at the sun, drawing in the radiance.

You’ll understand everything soon, she tells me. There’s time for that. I’ll help you. But I already feel it swirling, the mysteries of life and God and heaven and all the things I barely acknowledged while alive. The things that Jade, somehow, was attuned to—enough to know that indeed, we were soulmates, then and now and forever.

You’ll understand. But for now, she tells me, let’s celebrate the sun.

October 15, 2023 11:42

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

24 comments

M.A. Grace
20:18 Oct 22, 2023

Beautiful writing that captures the infatuation of teenage friendships so well.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Sharon Honeycutt
16:35 Oct 22, 2023

There are some beautiful phrases in this. And after reading it and enjoying it, I went back to the beginning ... "And when we’re dead, meet me at the river, Jade said. Promise." When "we're" dead, not when "one of us" is dead or when "I'm" dead. You hid the clue in plain sight and I missed it. Well done.

Reply

Kay Smith
17:20 Oct 23, 2023

Same! Great catch!

Reply

Sharon Honeycutt
13:58 Oct 25, 2023

:)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Story Time
16:51 Nov 01, 2023

That desire for connection and friendship is so palpable throughout the story. I love the way you structure sentences. It reminds me of a lot of great writing from the 70's when there wasn't as much detachment and there was a comfort in the stakes being higher. Well done.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Philip Ebuluofor
19:49 Oct 29, 2023

Congrats.

Reply

Show 0 replies
AnneMarie Miles
16:01 Oct 27, 2023

Congratulations 🎉🎉🎉 and happy Friday to you! Hope you're celebrating tonight, Lindsay!

Reply

Lindsay Flo
16:14 Oct 27, 2023

Thank you!!!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Rebecca Miles
15:54 Oct 27, 2023

I haven't read one of yours for a while I think Lindsay but I think this has classic Lindsay Flo written all over it: the headiness, the brokenness, the need...and the poetry too from gunmetal skies to the summons to the river. Like many of your other stories, one beautifully-flawed character has a sesmic effect on others and this one is Jade. I am sure this would do very well as a novel for all the tortured older teens out there looking for their soulmate, wondering if their best friend might just be that person. Well done on the short list...

Reply

Lindsay Flo
16:15 Oct 27, 2023

Thanks so much Rebecca!!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Miriam Esessien
01:41 Oct 26, 2023

An emotional and wonderful story. My favorite so far, bravo! 👏

Reply

Show 0 replies
Hazel Ide
20:17 Oct 24, 2023

This was such a beautiful story and so well written.

Reply

Show 0 replies
21:26 Oct 23, 2023

Beautifully written, I love the imagery!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Kay Smith
17:19 Oct 23, 2023

I am literally in tears. My best friend of 30 years is dying, of terminal lung cancer... and the girl you just described, the friendship you just described... perfect. I love this writing! I have no suggestions. It speaks so loudly and clearly about how friendship transcends - everything. We were introduced as a temptation at teenage experimentation but I never realized that from the moment I saw her, she would be the love of my life. I'm in love with my husband but she is my soulmate. Beautifully done! Bravo!

Reply

Lindsay Flo
10:22 Oct 27, 2023

Oh wow. Thank you for sharing that. I'm so sorry, but what a beautiful friend she sounds like.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Aditi Kumar
07:36 Oct 22, 2023

Lovely! This actually felt quite ominous to me, as though Jade planned for her soulmate to die with her (or close enough to her time of death). In many ways, the memories of those we grieve - especially those who sadly take their own lives - can push us into living two lives, one for ourselves and a half-life for those who have passed. I could be wrong of course (and like Brooke, I would love to know how she died as well), but I really enjoyed this regardless.

Reply

Lindsay Flo
10:23 Oct 27, 2023

Sometimes the 3000 word limit adds a challenge...I would like to know how Brooke died too lol

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
06:46 Oct 20, 2023

I had a friend like this once. I Hope everyone did. Such beautiful writing!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Mary Bendickson
18:40 Oct 18, 2023

Speculative, indeed. A soulmate tale of friendship before and beyond... This was so touching. Glad to see it on shortlist. Congrats! 🥳

Reply

Lindsay Flo
16:38 Oct 19, 2023

:)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
18:49 Oct 16, 2023

Oh gosh this is great Lindsay. Totally got carried away by it and didn't see the end coming so bravo on that.

Reply

Lindsay Flo
16:38 Oct 19, 2023

Thank you!!!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
AnneMarie Miles
15:00 Oct 15, 2023

Beautiful as always, Lindsay. Such intricate and rich details throughout, especially around the friendship. It felt very real. Every time I read your work I have to check for that nonfiction tag 😅 Glad the two were reunited. Seems to me they really were soulmates! This life may have separated, sent them on a different path, but I'm sure the next one, they'll stick together forever.

Reply

Lindsay Flo
22:35 Oct 15, 2023

Thanks annmarie! I haven't been submitting much lately but this contest has quite a few intriguing prompts! :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.