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Emma could tell something was off. It had started a month or two ago, but she was only now noticing. She had never been all that observant. Perhaps she only had eyes for Taylor (you weren’t jealous).

You were jealous. You can admit it, now. Not that you’d want her to treat you as she had her former friend. Not in a million years. But still.

You hadn’t realized it until Recluse. Recluse actually paid attention to you. Listened. Knew how you were feeling. Always knew what you needed to hear.

And now you knew why you hated Taylor. Had hated. And it wasn’t her fault. And now, you weren’t sure how you felt.

Your shell—what else could you call it?—had been steadily eroding away, and Emma had begun to notice. You’d had your shell precisely to allay the sorts of feelings that now possessed you. It was that shell that had made Emma think you, in her words, “strong.”

She’d looked up to you. How must she feel, to see her strong friend, her “hero”—

You wish you’d been a hero. That you’d been strong. You wish you knew how to help Emma, too.

But there were some things you couldn’t do. Not anymore. And which you hated yourself for ever having done. You grit your teeth at what you know Recluse’s response would be.

You can hear her calm voice. Can see the tilt of the head just right to project perfect confidence. That smile: almost condescending, but still somehow friendly. Caring. ‘The past only matters,’ she’d say, ‘in so much as it shapes the future.’

It should be a comforting notion: that what you’d done in the past was never truly important; that the only thing that ever was important was what you’d do about it.

What you’d do next.

“—cry yourself to sleep for a straight week?” you heard Emma’s voice from beside you.

Muscles in your face contract in an ugly way, as (angry) (not angry) (painful) painful thoughts, vague and not fully-formed, threaten to rise up.

You shove the thoughts aside. Later, perhaps, you’ll try to write about them. Convince them to take shape. Try to find the words to describe them. Fail. Try to acknowledge them anyway… For now, the thoughts are unimportant.

Taylor’s before you. You can see her almost say something; her words die as she processes what Emma had said. A tear trails down her cheek. Something about Emma’s comment had cut deep.

The thoughts threaten to rise up again. You inhale a bit too sharply. Emma’s eyes dart towards you, you think.

Emma thinks herself a predator, and Taylor her prey (your prey). Your prey. And in a way, Emma’s right. Taylor is prey, because there are predators hunting her. Because you were a predator. Because Emma is a predator.

But Emma is a predator because she chooses to be.

And now you make a choice, too.

“Emma,” you say, your voice almost resigned, tension leaving half your muscles with a small, involuntary sigh, the rest remaining taut as you try to keep it together. Your head shakes slightly side to side, whether at yourself or Emma you’re not sure.

“Shut up.”

And suddenly, as you turn, as you hide your face from Emma, as you bite down upon your lip a bit too hard, you find yourself making dozens of choices.

Taylor grabs her backpack and runs.