i watch the work of my kin, bold and boyful
toying somewhere between love and abuse
calling to join them the wretched and joyful
shaking the wings of their terrible youths
- hozier, "angel of small death and the codeine scene"
The night of the drag race, Toni crawls into Sweet Pea’s bed, feeling pleasantly warm and hazy-minded thanks to three bottles of beer. She ties her hair up into a bun and lays her cheek down on a pillow just before he crashes in next to her, the force of his body causing the mattress to squeak in protest. She’s looking at the wall, not at him, but she can hear his sigh and feel it rumble through the mattress’ springs.
After a moment, she says, “Turn the light off, idiot.” These words have a different, softer meaning (thank you for letting me stay) but to translate them aloud would be to utter words in a language she doesn't often let herself speak.
He grumbles, but he does as she’s asked, fumbling for the light switch, and a moment later they’re plunged into semi-darkness. The blinds over Sweet Pea’s window are broken, and there is a hole through which the artificial glare of the street light outside seeps into the bedroom.
Toni reaches fingertips toward the wall. She feels, before she can see, the place where her nails have chipped away the paint over countless nights laying awake in this bed, struggling to fall asleep while Sweet Pea snored. She slips a nail beneath a fleck of paint that’s lifted, waiting its turn to be pulled from the wall, and the relief she feels is almost delicious in its magnitude, as though it's a tremor that runs up through her fingers, along her arm, and into the place in her chest that sometimes feels so empty.
“You know, T,” Sweet Pea says. “I saw.”
She stiffens. She’s wearing only one of his t-shirts - it’s basically the length of a dress on her, he’s so fucking tall - and her underwear, and goosebumps rise on her legs. “What’re you talking about?”
“C’mon, Teeny,” he says, his voice sleepy and amused. Teeny Tiny Toni, he used to call her, teasingly, on the run-down and rusty playground of their childhood. She had longed for a growth spurt that would allow her to outgrow the nickname, but it never arrived. “Give a guy some credit; I’m not blind. I saw that look.”
Toni frowns. The paint chip breaks off of the wall and falls to the floor.
A old fantasy, blurred at the edges like a dream, reared its head when she saw Forsythe Pendleton Jones the third shoving his beanie back onto his head in the hallway of South Side High, the frown on his face looking like it’d been etched there. A part of herself she’d almost completely forgotten made itself known once again; it seemed to take up residence in her stomach, causing flips and twists.
Jughead was the kind of boy she used to like most of all, way back before she even realized liking girls was an option. Lanky and dark-haired, he said so much in the movement of the corners of his mouth, whether they twitched upward or downward or pulled to the side. He was both thoughtful and a little bit brazen. His stubborn streak called to her own; his interest in the worser parts of humanity was attractive. The first time he ever smiled at her, all she could think of was getting him to do it again.
For a few days, for what will ultimately be a small and forgettable chunk of her life but which was, at the time, a period during which she felt impossibly light on her feet, like at any moment she could begin to float - for those few, featherlight days, Toni thought a lot about what could be. Jughead was F.P.’s son; he was the rightful heir to the Serpents, and if he cared a little less about English essays and school newspapers and a little more about territory and loyalty, the Serpents would hand themselves to him, Toni knew they would. He was young, but that didn’t matter, not when the light was just right or his expression descended into irritation and you could see his father, right there, in his face.
Jughead could take over, and wrangle all the dumbasses, and turn into a leader even better than his father had been, and Toni would be his right-hand woman. They’d pull themselves out of uncertainty, out of misery, out of poverty. She’d ride or die for Jughead Jones, she would, especially if he could do that for her, for all of them, but she’d rule certain things in her own right. He’d sit at the bar with her perched on his lap, his hand on her hip and her whisper in his ear. The prince would grow into a king, and Toni knew she had it in her to be queen.
And then she met Betty. Betty, whose ponytail was so blonde and bouncy that staring at it for too long could leave you hypnotized. Betty, who wore pastels but who didn’t seem to have any hesitations about pushing a boy against a desk in a dusty room and kissing him with an open mouth. Betty, whose smile was so sweet that at the sight of it Toni could very nearly taste melted butter. Betty, whose shoulder Jughead squeezed like the best thing in his world was just beneath his palm.
Toni met Betty and realized that she wasn’t the one being saved in this story.
Her Serpent tattoo is on her rib cage, beneath her left breast, dangerously close to her heart. In the summer, when she wears her bikini down on the banks of Sweetwater River, it turns her lethal - boys stare but they never whistle, and they avert their eyes at lightning speed if she catches their gazes. It guarantees that no one will ever love her without first learning who she truly is.
They’ve taken care of her, the Serpents. Sweet Pea, too. They were invited in on the same day. She’ll always remember how sweaty his palm was as they clutched one another’s hands beneath the cafeteria table and stared up at the senior speaking to them with blank faces, as though their hearts weren’t pounding. She’d held Sweet Pea’s hand so tightly that he hissed when she finally let go and whined that she must’ve broken something, but she’d been worried he was going to chicken out.
She’d never been afraid of joining. She had nothing to lose.
Her father overdosed when she was very young. The narrative of his addiction in her life was Daddy’s sick. Little Toni pitched an impressive fit in first grade when she asked her teacher where Sweet Pea was and received the response that he was out sick; sick, in her small heart, was a precursor to dead.
Her mother disowned her when it reached her ears, through the grapevine, that her daughter was kissing other girls down at the quarry. “It’s a sin, Antonia,” she’d said, and Toni had practically howled with laughter, the tears that quivered above her lower lashes never falling. Her mother had committed far worse sins, including the one she was committing at that very moment, regarding her daughter as though she no longer loved her.
(Toni had always liked F.P. Rather than frightening her, the gruffness of his voice had lead her back to her childhood and tucked her right into bed with a pink teddy bear at her side, had conjured the image of a man with red eyes whose mouth had said so much in the movement of its corners, his eyes mournful and brimming with something so warm and fond that she knew it was safe to let her own eyes fall shut.
Listen to her, he used to say to all the boys in her vicinity, jerking his chin in Toni’s direction. She’s got more sense than all of you put together. Handles her bike better, too.)
Her mother had only wanted an excuse to be rid of her.
Teeny Tiny Toni. Her body never seemed big enough to contain all the problems she presented.
She had her first boyfriend when she was twelve. Chest puffed out in intimation of a man he’d never become, he asked her to be his girl. Her reply was a shrug that he took as assent.
By the time she was thirteen, they were skipping classes and smoking weed together. Toni, who used to love to read, didn’t attend a single class on The Outsiders. She said, to the boy who was kissing her sloppily, using too much tongue, that they were living it instead.
She didn’t say no when he put his hands in her pants. She went when he invited her over while his mother was out for the evening, and she didn’t say no when he took off her clothes.
She had to remind herself that she was supposed to be doing the same thing - unbuttoning his jeans, hauling his shirt up over his head. He was so breathless and turned on by her, but she felt nothing except the pain when he pushed inside of her. She got nowhere close to coming.
The next day, behind the school, she told her friend Layla, who was older and therefore wiser, all about it. She scuffed the toe of her combat boot in the dirt, which was littered with cigarette butts.
“Oh, baby,” Layla laughed. “The first time is always the worst. He probably had no idea what he was doing. It’ll get better. Maybe with him; definitely with other people.”
I didn’t even want to take his shirt off, were the words in Toni’s throat, but what she said was: “Okay.”
“Don’t worry, T,” Layla said, and took her hand.
Toni leaned into Layla’s side. The other girl smelled of perfume and nicotine. Their fingers slid together, interlocking slowly, and Layla gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
There, in the cold, looking out onto the bleak expanse of the school’s snowy field, Toni felt a spark of the feeling she’d been missing.
Her dating pool has always been limited: she socializes within a specific crowd, and the ratio of dicks to vaginas runs in the former’s favour. She made out with boys occasionally, sometimes did a little more, and discovered that she didn’t dislike them, but that she was pretty sure she liked girls better. With the one girlfriend she almost had, everything felt so electric: sneaking into her bedroom at her uncle’s place, cupping soft cheeks in her palms, sliding her hand up under a tight skirt, someone else's sweet-smelling hair falling into her face. Toni probably could’ve fallen in love if the girl in question didn’t end up joining the Ghoulies.
“Juliet and… Romea?” Sweet Pea asked, and she punched him right in the gut.
Toni would never betray her family, not for love or money. It’s the only one she’s got.
She would never. This has always been true, ever since she ran the gauntlet, and it remains true at the drag race. It doesn’t matter how tempting that betrayal looks. It doesn’t matter how hips sway in bright red shorts. It doesn’t matter if there is white shirt that looks influenced by some other era drawing attention to a waistline upon which Toni could so easily fit her hands. It does not matter that the sight of alabaster skin makes her fingers itch, like she wants to touch it, to see if it is smooth as marble or if it will surprise her with warmth. The thousands of shades that the sun brings out in a mane of red hair do not matter. It doesn’t matter that the slow placement of sunglasses on a pretty face make her mouth go dry, or that the bend of a back looks like art for a moment, frozen in time. That Toni loves a good jab, a good verbal sparring, is completely irrelevant.
It doesn’t matter, because Toni is a Serpent from the South Side, she is loyal to her people, to her home, and that girl - isn’t that the girl whose brother died? Whose mother was burned in a fire? Whose father was responsible for bringing hard drugs into Riverdale? Who looks at South Siders like they’re dirt on the bottom of her Louboutins, or worse? That’s her, isn’t it?
Sweet Pea nudges her shoulder with his own. “Heard that girl used to bang her brother,” he says.
Toni finally manages to breathe. Yes, that’s her. Filthy rich and maybe incestuous; heart-stopping in her outward appearance, perhaps, but ugly on the inside.
Sweet Pea is still looking at her. She manages to snort a laugh.
(That Serpent tattoo, on her rib cage, so close to her most vital organ that if she lays a hand upon it she can feel every one of her heartbeats.
Sometimes she wishes she’d just gone for the tramp stamp.)
“I know you’re awake, Toni,” Sweet Pea says from the other side of the bed. He sounds so fucking proud of himself.
“You’re drunk,” she says. “Hallucinating.”
“I’m not, and I wasn’t drunk at the race. I saw it, and that look was - ”
Toni all but explodes up into a seated position, twisting around to face him. “So fucking what, Sweet Pea? Yeah, she’s a North Side bitch, maybe the worst of them, but that doesn’t mean she can’t be hot, and it doesn’t mean I can’t - ”
She stops when she sees the way he’s looking at her, his eyes a little wide with surprise but otherwise full of mirth.
“What?” she grits out.
He wraps his fingers gently around her wrist. “Teeny, I was talking about the look she gave you. North Side bitch checked you out.”
Toni blinks. Her brain doesn’t seem capable of processing this information. “No, she didn’t.”
She settles back into the bad, laying on her back this time, and twists her fingers in his threadbare sheet.
Silence settles between them for so long that she would think Sweet Pea had fallen asleep were it not for the fact that he hasn’t started snoring. Finally, he says, “Her name’s Cheryl. I bet Jughead has her numb - ”
Toni rolls over onto her side once again, rustling the sheets very loudly, as if that will drown out the thought that he’s having. She feels rather than hears the chuckle that he tries to stifle.
Toni stares at the wall for a long time after Sweet Pea finally starts snoring. He’s hogging the blankets, but she doesn’t bother to fight him.
When she closes her eyes, she sees red.