The leaves are falling.
(Josie Saltzman is quick to follow.)
“Shit,” she lands on damp grass with a thud, a cringe.
Milton Greasley grins down at the brunette, eyebrows tugged upwards in amusement. “What a klutz.”
Josie huffs at him, wordlessly accepting a hand up. She brushes at the backside of her skirt, hoping the grass hasn’t stained its checkered pattern some heinous shade of green.
MG continues, despite Josie’s blatant disinterest for engaging in any sort of conversation at seven a.m. “No, for real, I ought to start calling you Josette Klutzman.” He laughs at his own attempt at a joke. “Get it? Because you’re a-”
“MG,” Josie picks up her pace, then slows down, remembering how her butt ended up greeting the dirt in the first place. She groans. “No offense, but, kindly, shut the fuck up.”
Josie doesn’t need to look back to know that the curly-haired boy is smirking when he responds. “Nervous?”
He coos. “Oh, you’re nervous! Don’t sweat it, aight, Jo? I’m sure every other freshman in this joint-”
Josie narrows her eyes, gestures around the barren campus, where she can only spot a couple dozen students wandering. Zombies, more like, the way their feet are dragging, eyes are drooping.
“Is what? Still sound asleep in bed because nobody in their right mind would let their friends convince them to enroll in a seven a.m. lecture in a department that they have no intentions of pursuing, and-”
“Oh, come on, Josie. You’re still hung up on that?”
Josie scrunches her nose, squeezes her eyes shut for a second, breathes in.
She isn’t, actually, still hung up on that. If anything, she’s glad that MG nudged her outside of her comfort zone to take this class with him. So no, maybe Josie didn’t snap at Milton for his meddling self. It’s just that-
His voice is gentle when it chimes up again. “It’s Lizzie, isn’t it? You’re not used to being this far from her for so long, are you?”
Josie breathes out. Bingo.
Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, Josie hates that Milton Greasely knows her so well.
Not because he knows what makes her tick, and often uses it to his advantage too, not really. It’s more so the wordless explanations, shared mannerisms, and all good things that come with years of friendship that Josie hates. Josie hates these things because they’re constant reminders that Milton Greasley knows her better than she knows herself.
It’s stupid and, anyway, Josie supposes the same could be said of her twin sister, the girl in question. And that’s not so scary, is it? Being known by someone you love.
But somehow, this is different. Somehow, Lizzie is a granted fixture in her life- always has been, and always will be. Milton, on the other hand, is chosen family. And she’s not sure how long he’ll choose to stick around.
Especially now that they’re in college, and he’s in a fraternity, surrounded by a plethora of potential best friends, and, okay, maybe this is why she agreed to attend early morning lectures with her best friend every other day. Because who knows if MG will still want her around next quarter, or the next, or-
Josie loses her breath, along with her mind. She fiddles with the straps of her backpack.
“Yeah,” Josie turns to him, eventually. “I guess I miss her. And Hope.” And you, even though you haven’t exactly gone anywhere. Not yet, anyway.
MG’s molten eyes pierce her own. He leans into her shoulder, and then away. He understands what she can’t quite find the words to say.
“Yeah? I miss them too. But, you wanna know what those love birds are missing out on in the boujee ass European university?”
Josie can hear the giddiness seep into his tone. “What?”
“This!” He takes off sprinting. Josie just stares for a second.
She watches MG’s chunky Nikes kiss fall leaves, tousle them in his wake. An enigma, that boy is.
Josie grins despite herself. She chases after him, falling in step with the September breeze.
The lecture hall is expansive. Josie turns to MG, whispers, “It’s so big.”
Milton snorts, whispers back, “That’s what she said.”
Josie rolls her eyes, digs her elbows into his side.
“Ouch! Right, sorry, fuck heteronormativity. That’s what she said, he said, they said.”
They make their way down the steps, searching for a pair of empty seats. Josie cringes when she realizes that there are none. “How is there nowhere to sit? I thought we were ten minutes early, not late.”
MG shrugs. “Just college things, baby girl. Guess we gotta split.”
Josie nods, knocks her shoulder against his. “Alright, catch you after class. Have fun chatting up all these pretty girls, Greasley.”
He grins. “Back at you, Saltz- Klutzman.”
She shoves him lightly, matching his smile. “Later, nerd.”
Milton throws her a peace sign before squeezing into the next aisle, making his way to a seat somewhere towards the middle.
Josie does the same, a few rows down. She spots an empty space at the end of the aisle, plops her book bag to the floor, and settles into the chair.
It’s funny, Josie thinks, looking back on that day. The way destiny is a game of dominoes. How every decision you make is a piece towards a new possibility.
And, in that moment, when Josie chooses to sit in that exact chair, on that exact day, she’s opening herself up to exactly that- a world of possibilities.
A world where the stranger to her left might become a friend or a lover or anything and everything in between. Maybe Josie’s being a bit dramatic, but she’s always enjoyed the potential in first greetings. And without her twin sister or her best friend at her side, Josie feels more inclined to act on her own will for a change.
So Josie turns to the girl sitting next to her, opens her mouth to introduce herself. She falters when she realizes that the other girl is already staring.
“Hi. I’m Penelope Park.”
Penelope has cropped hair and tan skin and green eyes and quirked lips.
Josie smiles, juts her hand out. “Josie Saltzman. Nice to meet you.”
They make small talk. Josie learns that Penelope is a second year, studying journalism and Women’s Studies. As if she doesn’t have enough going for her, Penelope Park exudes this kind of natural charisma. Something between cocky and confident.
Josie’s still deciding whether or not she likes it, when, before she knows it, the lecture has wrapped and their professor is dismissing them.
Penelope stands, shoulders her book bag. Josie mimics her, moving so she isn’t blocking the aisle. She looks at Penelope, who’s staring back at her with a dimpled smile. Josie considers asking for her number.
Except, the things is. Josie knows exactly what kind of girl Penelope Park is.
The type that speaks in prose, lures you in with half-smiles and hooded eyes. Tells you little white lies, anything you want to hear. Breaks your heart, has you apologizing on her behalf. A classic case of femme fatale.
Josie breaks eye contact, nods a goodbye, and goes to slip away. Because that’s the smart thing to do. The easy thing to do.
Of course, Penelope Park is anything but easy.
Penelope tugs gently on the strap of Josie’s backpack before she can escape into the stream of students desperate to get on with their days. “Hold on,” she says, “you forgot this.”
Josie raises an eyebrow. She’s certain she packed everything into her bag already.
Penelope lifts her hand up. Her fingers glint with thick, golden rings. The same color of gold that shines in Penelope’s green eyes. A slip of paper rests between her fingers.
“My number,” Penelope tells her with a grin, stepping forward. She smells like jasmine. “Call me sometime.”
And then she’s gone and Josie can’t help the way her heart is beating at the pace of an 8-bit song, the way her cheeks are flushed pink and red and every shade in between.
Because Josie Saltzman thinks she’s got this girl figure out to a tee. And maybe she’s right about it, too. Right that Penelope Park is the type of girl to break hearts, break people, just so she can immortalize their souls in a poem or two.
And maybe this is why Josie pockets the piece of paper with a soft smile. Because maybe, just maybe, she wouldn’t mind being somebody’s muse for once.
Wouldn’t mind being Penelope Park’s muse, at least.
The rest of the week is rather mundane. Josie hasn’t seen Penelope since Monday, which isn’t too jarring considering their class only meets twice a week and it’s near impossible to spot a single person in a hall of three hundred anyway.
Josie hasn’t texted her yet either because, frankly, she hasn’t had the time to. As soon as classes picked up, Josie was quick to realize how much of college actually revolves around the courses.
It’s an endless feat of self-studying and then some, and it’s only week one but Josie Saltzman is already fucking exhausted.
Which is why she hardly protests when MG drags her to lowkey frat party on Friday night.
Well, it’s supposed to be lowkey, anyway. Of course, it’s anything but, and Josie immediately loses the curly-haired boy in a sea of bodies.
Okay, so maybe her night isn’t off to a great start. Still, Josie has hope it can pull a one-eighty.
And then she walks into a room of people snorting coke off a textbook and immediately throws up the one shot of vodka that she thought she could stomach. And then her phone dies. All the while, she still can’t find MG and doesn’t remember the way back or anyone’s phone number and-
And then she finds a folded piece of paper in her coat pocket. And maybe, just maybe, there’s still hope for the night.
Penelope picks up after three rings. Her voice is raspy when she speaks. “Hello?”
Josie swallows. She considers hanging up. This is probably a bad idea.
Except, the stranger who lent her his phone is impatiently side eyeing her, and Josie convinces herself that this is absolutely, positively a last resort.
“Hey, Penelope? This is Josie Saltzman. From the other day.”
“Josie Saltzman? Shit, you’re gonna have to be more specific than that. I met three different Josie Saltzmans just yesterday, so-”
Josie would have laughed if her mouth didn’t taste of bile and cheap alcohol. “Listen, I’m so sorry, but I actually called to ask you a favor.”
It’s just past midnight when Penelope Park pulls up in a rusty black Volkswagen. Josie makes her way over to Penelope’s car, palms suddenly clamming, breath shallowing.
Penelope flutters her fingers at Josie. The window is down and her pink lips are turned up.
“Get in, loser, we’re going shopping!”
Josie’s shoulders relax at the reference and she lets out a laugh, obliges by reaching for the car door.
“Hi, hey, I’m so sorry, I-”
“Josie, it’s fine-”
“I just, my phone died, and I couldn’t find my friend, and then, I walked in on these people snorting cocaine and I threw up, and I found your number in my pocket, and-“
Penelope lets her finish before speaking again. Soft smile, soft eyes. “Done?”
Josie blinks. Remembers to catch her breath. “Yes. Sorry.”
Penelope is regarding her, something between amused and concerned. “Cool. Where to?”
Josie blinks. Penelope puts the car in drive.
“Josie Saltzman, say that word one more time and I’m kicking you out of my car.”
Josie grins slowly, deliberately repeats herself. “Sorry? ”
Penelope laughs. Josie thinks it sounds like the stars.
She considers this. Home, is probably the easiest answer. The most logical answer.
So Josie parts her lips to respond, end their night before it even starts.
And then Penelope tilts sideways and her eyes glisten under the streetlights and Josie holds her breath.
Maybe she doesn’t want easy.
“Wherever you want. I’ve got all night.”
Penelope smiles at this.
“Good. So do I.”
They end up at a diner.
Locally-owned. Dope vegan menu, too, Penelope had told her.
Say no more, Josie had grinned.
They slide into an empty booth, order when they’re ready.
The waiter eyes Penelope. Penelope’s too busy stealing glances at Josie to notice.
“So,” Josie says once their waiter retreats.
“So?” Penelope repeats.
There’s an awkward lull, a split second of silence. Just enough time for Josie to wonder what the fuck she’s doing.
She should probably charge her phone, text MG that she’s alive. She should probably call Lizzie, catch up with her sister.
She really shouldn’t be spending her Friday night with a girl she barely knows, in a diner thirty minutes off campus.
Penelope leans forward and Josie admires the way her smile reaches her eyes.
Maybe she shouldn’t be here. Maybe she wants to be, anyway.
“Tell me something.”
“What do you want to know?”
“What do you have to say?”
Josie isn’t used to being on this side of a conversation- isn’t used to being the one who answers the questions.
So much, she thinks.
The hours drag like a lifetime, and Josie decides that she could get used to this.
Wants to get used to this.
“Have you ever been in love.”
“I don’t really believe in that.”
“No, like, being in it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t like that we distinguish between romantic love and every other kind of love, you know? Being in love implies that it’s a state of mind, something that you can fluctuate in and out of. That’s weird, isn’t it? Makes it seem like love is not a constant. Right? What do you think?”
“Hm. I’ve never really thought of it that way. But I get what you’re saying. Like, you don’t have to be in love with someone to love them.”
“Nice. That was such an elaborate dodge.”
“Come on now, I wasn’t dodging.”
“Yeah? So, have you ever loved someone, then? Romantically?”
“No. Not really.”
“Why, you wanna change that?”
“Maybe I do.”
“Shut up, is not. It’s sweet! Tall tale of sisterly love and all.”
“Yeah? I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume you have a sister.”
“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t.”
“Younger? You seem like the older sister type.”
“I seem like the older sister type? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just protective, that’s all. Why, am I right?”
“Huh. We’re twins, actually.”
“Oh, shit. Identical? She must be hot, then.”
“Shut up. Fraternal.”
“Huh. She’s probably still hot, isn’t she?”
“Shut up. Dumbass. What about you? Tell me about your family.”
“Not much to tell. What do you want to know?”
Josie and Penelope trade looks and stories sometime into the a.m.
They toss fries at one another, play footsie under the table.
It’s exciting, mundane. Comfortable and uncomfortable all in one. Josie thinks getting to know someone is a lot like breaking in a pair of sneakers.
And just when she thinks the shoe fits, the diner has closed and all that’s left is them and the moon.
“It’s late,” Josie remarks.
“It is,” Penelope responds, unlocking the car. Planets in her eyes. “What’s the move?”
I should go home, she thinks.
“Let’s go to the beach,” she says.
Penelope grins. “Fuck yeah, baby! The beach - each, let’s go get away!”
Josie snorts. “Penelope.”
“They say, what they gonna say? Have a drink, clink, found the bud light!”
“Bad bitches like me is hard to come by!”
Josie looks up at the crescent moon. They share a smile.
“People are a lot like oceans, if you think about it.”
“Yeah? How so?”
“You only see what’s on the surface. The other 80 percent and some is unexplored.”
“Oh, wow, how poetic. Tell me more.”
“Hey, I’m serious!”
“Yeah, I’m sure! All kinds of monsters lurking in the deep end, what not.”
“Mmm. Tell me about yours.”
“I’m afraid of dying young.”
“I don’t know. That doesn’t freak you out? Like, dying before you graduate college, and get a job, and start your life, and-”
“Who said life has to start after college?”
“Why can’t we start living right now?”
“How do you suggest we do that?”
“Have you ever been skinny dipping?”
“You’re fucking crazy.”
“Maybe I am.”
“Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”
“Are you cold?”
“Considering we just took a dip in the ocean at ass’o’clock-”
“Want my sweatshirt?”
“No, dumbass, then you’ll be cold.”
“Shit, you’re right. Maybe we should hold hands instead.”
“Huh. Maybe we should.”
“Good. Sunrise is in thirty.”
Penelope dozes off just before the sun comes up. She falls asleep against Josie’s shoulder, dark locks tickling pale skin.
Josie doesn’t mind in the slightest, can’t find it in herself to shake Penelope awake.
When the sun kisses the sea, Josie watches the sky turn fifty shades of coral and lavender and baby blue. Of course, the only colors on her mind are honey brown and emerald green.
“Oh,” Penelope whispers, voice raspy.
Warm breath greets her neck. Josie’s stomach cartwheels.
She clears her throat. “Right?”
“Mmhm. A shame more people don’t go out of their way to watch the sunrise every now and then.”
“Yeah.” Josie hesitates. “I’m glad we did this. Maybe we could, you know, do it again sometime.”
It’s dumb, so dumb, but Josie isn’t the greatest at being direct, being honest with people.
Mostly because she has a hard time being honest with herself. Has a hard time understanding what she wants, what she needs.
Except, maybe she’s thinking too hard. Maybe she’s done thinking so hard.
Because, when a soft hand grazes her own, Josie realizes that this is it. This is what she wants.
Sunrises with Penelope Park, every now and then.
“I want to do this again,” Josie amends, a little firmer this time.
“Do you?” Penelope’s smiling. Cocky, of course.
Josie rolls her eyes. Knocks their shoulders together. “I do. Do you?”
“Is it okay if I kiss you right now?”
It wouldn’t be so hard to lean over and just answer with her lips. But Josie refrains, finds her words instead.
“Depends,” she echoes.
“Oh? On what?”
“Are you going to break my heart?”
Penelope’s eyes go wide, her lips part with a laugh. Her hand finds Josie’s, plays mindlessly with her fingers.
“I might,” she responds eventually. Lashes batting, dimples flashing. “Is that okay with you, Josie Saltzman?”
Maybe it is.
Josie rolls her eyes. “You’re so full of yourself.”
“No, don’t worry,” Penelope grins. “If I ever break your heart, I’ll publish a poetry book about you. The way your eyes would glint like brown sand under the golden sun. Something about the stars, too.”
She chuckles at the thought. “Bet. I’ll be expecting a check.”
“Absolutely, no question about it. Like I always say, no art without a muse.”
“Is that what I am, then? Your muse?”
“Mmhm. If that’s what you want.”
“Maybe I do.”
Penelope grins. “Great. So, does this mean I can kiss you then?”
Josie tilts her head back, lets out a laugh.
The September sun kisses her flushed skin.
(Penelope Park is quick to follow.)
The very first thing I noticed was her eyes.
How they glinted
like brown sand under a golden sun.
A quiet summer day.
That’s what loving her was like.
The end of summer.
Beginning of September.
Funny how seasons change.
Not her, though.
Mostly us —
There’s more, so much more, but Josie shakes her head.
She sets the book down, picks up her phone, dials the only number she knows by heart.
Penelope picks up on the second ring. “Josie. Hi-”
“Penelope,” the name is foreign on her lips. “I’m pretty sure you owe me a check.”
“Shit, do I?” Smug as ever. “Good thing I’m back in town, then."
Oh. Josie loses her breath. Her nerve, too. “Are you?”
“Mmhm. Meet me at the beach? In twenty?”
Josie's lips twitch. She shouldn’t.
She wants to, anyway.
“See you then, Pen.”
“Later, Jo. I lo-”