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when we dance in the dark in the room where it all gets real (i know you know how it feels)

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Mommy doesn't hug you much. You don't know that that's different until you're much older, but, well.

 

Mommy doesn't hug you much. Jason, sure. But you--

 

Anyway.

 

You're not overly affectionate. Miss Krisanthimum, your first grade teacher, hugs you tightly every day when she walks you to Mommy's driver's car. You thought it was strange for a while.

 

Jason's teacher doesn't hug him quite so tight.

 

But Miss Krisanthimum has short, honey-brown hair and big green eyes and her smile makes you smile. She holds your chin and tells you how smart you are, how pretty your new pink-with-red-polka-dots dress is, how good your drawings are. She tells you she's impressed, what a great job, Cheryl, dear and she hugs you again, tighter still. Your cheeks still burn when she walks over to Kevin Keller and compliments his new ballet shoes. 

 

Miss Krisanthimum peels your clementines at lunch time and teaches you how to tie your shoes--you're proud, JJ doesn't know how to tie his shoes yet--and claps in excitement when you show her how your shoes light up when you jump up and down. She scoops you up in the tightest hug when you win the class spelling bee and plants a big kiss on your forehead, and Lottie Little giggles about your face being redder than your hair.

 

Miss Krisanthimum gives you a paper-plate award at the end of the year that says never dull your beautiful smile and you try to hide it in your bedroom when you get home from school, but Mommy sees it and the butler throws it away and it's the last Mommy wants to hear about Miss Krisanthimum.

 

When you return for second grade, Miss Krisanthimum is gone and she doesn't come back and Mommy's words about don't get attached, Cheryl, dear echo somewhere in the distant background of your mind.

 


  

You're a late-bloomer. All of the other girls are getting taller and comparing training bras and talking about cramps and you don't have any of these things yet and you're feeling sorely left out. 

 

You start carrying around a small baggy of tampons you found in the one of the guest bathrooms at Thornhill, desperate to fit in somewhere.

 

The whole class is given an aptitude test and you're separated from the group into an advanced math class at the beginning of seventh grade. You don't know most of the people sitting in your classroom, but a girl with long dark hair and rich tan skin plops into the chair immediately to your right, chomping on strawberry gum and blowing bubbles rather obnoxiously.

 

A particularly large bubble blows up in her face and piece of gum gets stuck on her lip, and you watch her try to chew it off with her teeth and you try to stifle your giggle behind your hand.

 

"Want some?" you hear, and when you turn, she's holding a Trident package with two sticks left in it towards you, watching you with innocent, happy eyes. Coffee brown, but light coffee, not like the dark, bitter-smelling stuff that Daddy drinks in those tiny mugs at the breakfast table.

 

You smile. "Sure," you say, taking a piece of gum. "Thanks."

 

She nods once, seemingly satisfied, and drops the gum into the wide open pouch of her backpack. You can see crumpled papers and loose pencils inside, too. You look at your perfectly neat Rebecca Minkoff knapsack and wonder what it would be like to take the perfectly-sharpened number 2 pencils out of the pristine pencil case that Mommy warned you not to lose and let them float around aimlessly, untidily, among loose papers and books. 

 

You shrug that off. Mommy would be furious. And, well, you like being neat. It makes you feel more calm.

 

"I'm Heather," the girl says too loudly. You wince and hope she doesn't notice. 

 

"Cheryl," you respond. Heather tugs on a loose string of her sweater and smiles when she hears your name.

 

"Well, Cheryl," Heather says, a glint in her eye, "it looks like it's you and me versus the nerds in here."

 

It makes you giggle.

 

You and Heather spend the rest of seventh grade attached at the hip. You eat lunch together; you sit in the library and pretend to do homework together; you try out for lacrosse together (Mommy's too busy that week to notice, but when she sees the stick you'd ordered with the coach delivered at the house, she sends it back immediately and forces you to quit the team.

 

Cheerleading will be fun. Maybe. You hope.)

 

Heather is your favorite subject, your biggest smile and your warmest feeling. She occupies your thoughts from the moment you wake up until the second you're asleep. And even still, she plays a starring role in your dreams. JJ pokes fun at you about Heather--ooo, Heather he mocks in a high pitch voice and a shit-eating grin--and Mommy rolls her eyes, waving you off. 

 

It takes a lot of begging and pleading, but Mommy lets you spend the night at Heather's house a few times in the summer between seventh and eighth grade. Heather's room is small and her bed is tiny and her brothers share a bedroom and there's only one TV in the whole house.

 

And it feels more like home than Thornhill ever has to you.

 

Heather's mom makes arepas and queso fundido with vegetales asados and you eat enough to be sleepy by the time all of the plates are cleared. (You offer to help clean, you always do, and Heather's mom always says Pare, mija and sends you upstairs to do homework and play.) You fall asleep on Heather's bed while Heather is braiding her hair and brushing her teeth and washing her face.

 

When you wake up, Heather's squeezed herself into the twin bed between you and the wall. Her leg is draped over yours and her hand is on your back. (You sleep face down, like you're free-falling, face buried in the pillow.) You glance at the clock--it's only 6:43am--and sigh, falling back to sleep. You wake up refreshed, relaxed--happy in ways you're not sure you've felt in a long while, maybe even ever.

 

Eighth grade starts up and Heather follows you onto the junior high cheerleading team. She makes the team, of course, when she shows off her roundoff-back-handspring-back-tuck combination, landing with a little jump and a flip of her long ponytail. Heather curtsies and throws a wink at you for good measure.

 

(Your cheeks flame.)

 

Meets are on Saturdays, so, for simplicity's sake, Heather sleeps over at Thornhill every Friday night for the fall season. Mommy's driver takes you to meets early in the morning, Heather's mom always cheering for you both loudly enough that you sometimes forget no one from your family bothered to show.

 

JJ always texts you congratulations, and you come home to a red rose on your bed at the end of the day.

 

One Friday, Mommy makes an uncharacteristic visit to your room late at night. Heather is bundled with you in your fluffy queen bed, blankets up to your chins, the air mattress on the floor of your bedroom still deflated. 

 

You don't notice her then, wrapped up in bed with Heather, warm and comfortable and safe. You don't know she's been there until you return from your cheerleading meet. She's waiting for you in your room instead of JJ's flower, sitting on your made bed. The air mattress rests on the floor of your room unfolded still. The air is still, quiet, unsettling. Nerves flutter in your belly and you feel your heart race.

 

Mommy looks down at her fingernails. "Cheryl, I will not have that kind of behavior in my house. I will not have you humiliating this family."

 

You frown, but you know better than to speak when she looks at you, glaring, piercing right down to your soul. 

 

"I saw you last night, Cheryl, dear." Dear. It sends a shudder down your spine. "Disgusting. I will not have a deviant for a daughter." She spits deviant at you, like simply saying the word offends her. "Heather is no longer welcome in this house."

 

With that, she leaves, sauntering out of the room. You don't move for a while, frozen in fear and humiliation and despair. Silent tears trickle down your cheeks. Some time goes by, and you're still standing in the middle of your room, cheerleading bag in hand, when Jason comes in holding a red rose.

 

"Cheryl?" he asks, frown lines deepening in his forehead. He carefully closes your bedroom door, walking to you slowly. He drops the flower on your bedspread--a white rose this time. A peculiar change. 

 

You don't comment on it, falling into Jason's body as he wraps his arms around you. You bury your face in his sweater vest, muffling your wail with the grey cashmere blend. He strokes your hair, but he doesn't speak, offer you false hope or empty words. He stands there for nearly two hours just holding you.

 

You find out on Wednesday that Heather's dad lost his job--he worked for a subsidiary of Blossom Maple Farms, and you're not shocked--and so they have to move away. Heather hugs you one last time, her big eyes wide and sad. Deviant echoes in the back of your mind.

 

You don't see her again.

 


 

Jason becomes your only friend. You were always close, but after Heather left, you'd turned in on yourself, angry and confused and oh so lonely. A little girl too smart and too unwise, jaded enough to want lash out at the world, but disciplined enough to know not to.

 

So Jason becomes the only constant. That is, until he hatches this ridiculous plan, falls in love and is young and idealistic and Mommy's-favorite enough to think it'll work out, and your whole world crumbles.

 

He wasn't supposed to actually die

 

Daddy was never supposed to hurt him.

 

You were never supposed to end up alone.

 

That's what twins are for.

 

Right?

 


 

There are so many secrets and lies that you don't know where to look or who to trust. You're living in a house with your brother's murderer, the one person who's always had your back, who defended you from the world and Riverdale and your family all in kind, with quiet intensity and a gentle heart.

 

A small, dark, terrifying whisper in the back of your mind keeps you awake at night. What if you're next?

 

You miss Jason with your whole heart and then some. You fear your parents with a kind of deep, primal fear that licks at your bones. 

 

Archie and Betty and Veronica and Jughead scream at you as you pound at the ice, huffing Jason's name under your breath and praying to whatever powers that'll listen that you two could be together again. As you fall into the water, you start to see him as your heart pounds in your ears and your skin prickles with the cold. 

 

But it's not Jason. It's Jason's corpse. You scream and flail and your head knocks against the ice and everything goes black.

 


 

You call it the incident in your mind. In reality, it's the amalgamation of several massive incidents leading you to both fire and ice. It was chaos and bedlam and the destruction of everything you thought you knew.

 

But that's all very heavy, so you just call it the incident, wrapped up and packaged neatly in the recesses of your mind and you don't talk about it beyond threatening Mommy. You're moving forward now. 

 

Sometimes, in your dreams, you see Jason. He tells you he loves you, he's happy where he is, he watches over Polly and you he's so proud of you. He tells you to leave room for love in your heart, even though it hurts. He tells you to keep an eye on Juniper and Dagwood, protect them as he protected you. Make sure they know their father but none of the rest.

 

You wake up in a cold sweat, those ridiculous names on your lips, the room dark and quiet but for your heavy breathing.

 


 

You're used to being alone, but Josie's kindness warms the gaping black maw of your heart so startlingly that it burns. Like fire, she consumes your every waking thought.

 

And, so, well--okay, you take it the slightest bit too far. It's been so long since someone besides Jason--since anyone, really--cared about you. And you were surrounded by so many people who taught you all the wrong ways to show how you feel about a person that you didn't stand a chance.

 

With the benefit of hindsight, the heart is a bit much.

 

None of it works, anyway. You always end up alone.

 


 

Toni is--well, Toni, she--

 

Toni Topaz is the single most confusing, frustrating, infuriating person. With her ridiculous pink hair and those big eyes and that aggravating half-smirk that she seems to have plastered to her face permanently.

 

She challenges you and she fights you tooth and nail and she seems to take pleasure in every second of it. She makes your heart race and your cheeks flame and your blood rush. She looks you up and down every time she sees you, her gaze thoughtful and contemplative and almost scheming, and she's the one person that you can't read like a book in this stupid town and that bothers you more than you'll ever admit.

 

You can't really help but think about her, constantly. She's so tiny, yet she seems to have everyone wrapped around her little finger. Jughead, Fangs--or whatever--and that big one with the ironic pet-name for a name. And she comes at you ridiculously defending the hobbits who excluded you from their creepy incestuous vacation and rolled her eyes and touched you. Her skin was warm and soft and her face was so open and honest--

 

She's just so damn annoying.

 

Until, well, one day--she's just not.

 

She's looking at you with her pretty brown eyes and you're so tired. And she looks like she understands, like she cares. Like she wants to know you more than just the prickly, damaged girl you've become.

 

And you cry silently in the movie because it's everything you know you'll never get to have with your mom and Toni calls you out on it. The truth is spilling from your lips before you even realize it.

 

You haven't talked about Heather in years. With anyone except for Jason.

 

Toni wraps her long, thin fingers around yours, steady pressure and soft, warm skin. She looks at you like she means what she says and she calls you sensational and your heart is fluttering in your chest in the most unfamiliar way.

 

You're suddenly alone in Pop's. The insignificant patrons fade away, and it's just you and Toni and the neon lights shining in her eyes and her hair. You think Toni Topaz is a beautiful person with a rare soul who sees in you a person you so desperately want to be.

 

She smiles softly, a quirk of  the corner of her mouth. She doesn't look away from you, doesn't hide her affection or offer it with conditions. She gazes at you like you're this beautiful, delicate thing, and it terrifies you. This feeling is familiar and unfamiliar in its entirety, potent and fierce and utterly disarming. 

 

You go home that night, alone just like you'd gone out, and you have this feeling in your chest that you need to see Toni again. A desperate sort of missing that you still feel for Jason--though it's dulled somewhat over time, in the context of terrible things, it never truly goes away--and it startles you. All you know is you need to be with her again, feel her presence and hear her voice and see her face.

 

So you do. And you don't stop.

 

You become attached at the hip. She's a Vixen and you're very nearly a Serpent, ABJ--all but jacket--and you're so invested in one another you're practically telepathic. She ventures into Thistlehouse with her head high and her shoulders squared and her gaze fiery and intense on you. You look at her and want so desperately, and then Mommy walks in and you startle back into your lonely, cold reality, forcing your walls up quickly to protect Toni, protect this thing you're sure you two have.

 

You think you're smart, hiding Toni in plain sight in a crowd of your friends. But you're desperate, and nothing if not honest, and Toni sleeps in your bed with you because you ask her too. Her skin is softer than the sateen sheets and her body is warm, and you think you're imagining it when she's inching closer to you. You think this is it and then there's a crash and ambulance lights and Uncle Claudius in Daddy's old clothes.

 

But suddenly, shrouded in tragedy like everything else in your life, Toni kisses you. In the midst of a terrifying ordeal involving conversion nuns and needles and physical labor and kidnapping, and it's beautiful and tender, like a balm to your soul, like finally coming home. 

 

You know you're falling in love with her, now; you can recognize the feeling for what it is. You're running through the forest, her hand in yours and wet leaves smacking against your legs in the wind. Kevin and Veronica are sprinting ahead of you and you can hear their huffing breaths. Toni squeezes your fingers once, twice, and when you're in Kevin's car driving away from that terrible place and she's cradling your body, she strokes your hair and kiss your temple and hugs you tight. It's cramped and awkward because she's so tiny, and you're leaning awkwardly, her hip bone digging into your leg. But you refuse to move.