It’s two in the morning when Emily’s mobile rings and wakes her up. It’s Ali and when Emily heads out front to find her, shivering in her hoody, she’s lounging in the driver’s seat of her car with a smirk on her face.
“Come on, I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“Where are we going?”
“Don’t you trust me?” she asks. It’s like a loaded question, it always with Ali.
Emily looks back, wide-eyed and without a word, she slides into the passenger seat. Twenty minutes later and they’re outside Rosewood High.
“What are we doing at school?” Emily whispers.
Ali just smiles mysteriously and unbuckles her seatbelt.
“Ali…” Emily hisses but Ali’s already gone, melting into the darkness, and she has no choice but to follow. When Emily finally finds her, Ali’s unlocking the door to the indoor pool. Emily hangs back, uncertain.
“Are you coming or not?” Ali asks.
By the time Emily walks into the gym, her footsteps on the shiny tiles echoing in the silence, Ali’s already flung her tank top onto the bleachers. She’s wearing that blue paisley bra she bought last week and she’s shimmying out of her jeans when she catches Emily staring.
“Come on, Em,” Ali grins flirtatiously. She saunters up to Emily in her underwear until she’s just a breath away. Emily’s taller than her by a good few inches but Ali always makes her feel smaller. She cocks an eyebrow, “Are you going to strip or do you need me to help you with that?”
Emily’s throat is dry and Ali decides for her. She tugs Emily’s t-shirt over her head, giggling when Emily gets stuck and Ali has to make a decisive yank before she’s free. When Ali unbuttons Emily’s shorts, though, fingers brushing against her stomach, the laughter catches in Emily’s throat. She lets Ali pull them down her legs so she can step out of them and when Ali looks up from where she’s crouched on the floor, Emily’s skin prickles with something she can’t quite name.
“There,” Ali says simply. Her gaze lingers on Emily’s torso and she nods approvingly, “Nice abs, Em.” Emily blushes. Ali’s lips twitch into a smile, “Wanna race?” Before Emily can say anything though, Ali runs to the edge of the pool and jack-knifes into the water. It takes Emily a good few seconds before she smiles, shakes her head in disbelief and dives in after her.
Alison almost always never swims properly. When it’s with the others, she’s usually the one lounging by the side of the pool in some skimpy two-piece, attracting glances from the hot seniors who work as lifeguards in the summer. Alison never gets into the water unless it’s just her and Emily and even then, she always stops halfway through her second lap like she’s already won the race.
Emily knows she shouldn’t but she gets a thrill out of showing off. On dry land, she’s awkward and ungainly. Ever since she shot up a foot over the summer, she’s been towering over all the other girls and she hates it, especially when she’s with Ali. Emily doesn’t need another reason to feel uncomfortable around her. When she’s in the water though, she’s sleek and powerful, graceful in a way she can never be on land. Her arms cleave the water in two with clean, powerful strokes and she can’t help but feel as if it’s the only time she gets to impress Ali, like the water’s the only place she has some leverage.
Ali lets out a whoop from where she’s already given up, wading in the deep end of the pool. The sound echoing in the vast emptiness of the building.
Emily swims over to where she’s sitting, half-submerged in the water, perched on the top rung of the pool ladder.
“You’re amazing,” Ali says with a smile and Emily flushes. Her cheeks are hot and she ducks her head. Whenever Ali says something like that (and only Ali can ever get away with saying something like that, so freely, so openly), Emily never knows what to do. Once she’d blurted out, “Thanks”, and Ali had rolled her eyes so dismissively, Emily had almost sworn an oath of silence for the rest of her life, terrified that it’d be the last compliment she’d ever get. But she hadn’t. Ali would continue to flippantly say the sort of things that Emily only ever thought and Emily learned to store them in her head and wait for the day that Ali actually meant what she said.
“Come here,” Ali says softly. Emily obeys, wading closer. The gym is silent except for the slosh of water and every move Emily makes as she treads water sends ripples of light dancing off the ceiling.
Ali isn’t wearing any makeup tonight. She looks younger, gentler even and Emily wants to tell her how much better she looks, how pretty she is like this, but the words catch in her throat. Instead, Emily stays silent, like she always does, and
Emily wonders if Ali knows, because in the silence of the gym, her heartbeat is deafening. Ali’s eyes sparkle when she reaches out to Emily, lifts her chin with a finger. She kisses her, slow and languid. Emily’s heart leaps and she has to brace herself against the ladder because she doesn’t know if she can stay afloat. The metal is cold against her feverish skin and all Emily wants to do is touch her. Emily knows better though, knows that touching Ali is an invitation-only sort of thing. She can still remember, the memory a distant sting, how Ali had pushed her back once when she gave her a hug, how she’d snapped at her touch, “God, Em, don’t be such a homo.”
This time though, she tries, tentatively resting her hand on Ali’s thigh. Even though it’s not the first time she’s touched her (zipping up dresses, fingers brushing against the downy skin of Ali’s back), it always feels like the first time because Ali’s soft and warm and it never fails to surprise her. Emily tastes peach gloss, the lingering bitterness of chlorine, dares to moan, the sound escaping, when Ali’s tongue finds hers.
Ali pulls away, eyes bright in the darkness, her lip-gloss smudged. Emily can hear her ragged breathing in the quiet. Ali’s fingers are still tangled in her hair, stroking idly at her scalp and Emily knows, from idle afternoons in class spent secretly cataloguing Ali’s every move, that she’s chewing her lip because she wants to say something but doesn’t know what. Emily wonders if she’ll hear what she wants to hear.
She doesn’t and she gets the uneasy feeling that she never will. (Later on, when she’s back in her bed, body tired from the swim but her mind wide awake, she’ll berate herself for ever being so naïve). Ali pushes Emily’s hand from her thigh and gets to her feet. The motion sends rivulets of water running down her legs. “I’m gonna go put the keys back before we get busted. Wait for you outside?”
Emily swallows hard and nods. Her legs feel like lead as she watches Ali disappear.
In the deep end of the pool, she tries to stay afloat.