Polly’s face broke out into a smile so wide it hurt to try and contain her joy. She’d done it. She’d gotten a 1600 on the SATs. She’d finally done what they told her she would never be able to, not without meds and study aids and accommodations. She’d proven them all wrong through late night study sessions and trying tutoring.
Now she’d be able to go anywhere she wanted for school, away from this nowhere town and away from under her parents’ thumb. Away from her mother’s searing criticisms and her father’s smug condescensions.
Best of all? She’d finally get that old Plymouth her father promised her years ago.
Polly paced her bedroom as the old printer churned out her results. The Register’s hand-me-down printer let out a sigh as the paper slid out of it. The ink was mottled and faded, but there in the middle of the page was the same perfect number smiling back at her.
Unable to contain herself, Polly ran down the steps with the paper clutched in her hands. She couldn’t wait to prove to her mother that she didn’t need those pills to be as smart as Betty. To prove that she was just as worthy of her parents’ attention.
“I’m telling you, Alice,” her father’s voice rang through the house and Polly stopped on the landing. “This town has become nothing but a den of sin. Do you know what those Blossom kids did last weekend? How out of control they and their friends are?”
Polly stood there, her chest clenched. Those were her friends he was talking about. No matter what, they wouldn’t live up to his puritanical standards. Even this perfect score wouldn’t be enough to make him happy.
Then again, her father hadn’t been happy in a while. She couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t locked himself into his den downstairs to brew in his own hatred and bitterness; she’d long ago learned not to knock or else have his ire turned on her.
“There are vipers around every corner -” he continued, “-and I’m not going to allow -”
“Lower your voice,” her mother snapped. “The girls will be down soon and I don’t want them listening to this sort of thing.”
Her father muttered something too low for Polly to hear. As the kitchen door slammed shut the pictures along the stairwell rattled.
Polly screwed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. She wouldn’t let them ruin this for her. Not like they’d tried to ruin everything else.
She stepped into the kitchen to see her mother pop a white pill in her mouth followed by half a glass of orange juice. Her mother’s face turned from a dour expression to that of a 1950’s Stepford wife when she saw Polly, a caring mother who got up bright and early to ensure her family had a well-balanced feast of a breakfast. Years of conditioning forced a mirrored smile onto Polly’s face, a front to the world that covered up the deep cracks running under the Cooper household.
“Polly, dear, you’re up early. Is everything ok?”
Something in her tone warned Polly to hide this, to keep it from her mother so she couldn’t pick it apart. To sequester it away so this town couldn’t rip up her only ticket out.
But this was her mother. She’d be happy about it, right?
“I got my SAT scores back,” Polly said. She set the print out onto the granite counter.
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry.”
Alice’s tone was patronizing and sickeningly sorrowful. It wrenched Polly’s stomach into a fire that spoke years of being let down.
“No, Mother,” Polly scoffed. She hated how much she sounded like a teenager, but she was tired of feeling like she would never be enough. “I got a perfect score. All on my own, without those pills and accommodations you’re always telling me I need.”
Alice’s posture softened, but Polly didn’t know if that was because the Xanax had kicked in or if she’d finally gotten through to her mother.
Polly’s phone beeped with Cheryl’s perfect timing.
‘Sweet WR for some R&R?’
Alice raised an eyebrow, always watching and suspicious. “Something important?”
“Sorry, math club emergency,” she said as her fingers flew over the screen.
Polly fled before she was treated to another of her mother’s pity parties.
The sun was just peeking over the tree line when Polly arrived at Sweetwater River, its soft light creating a fairy tale land around them. The shadows hid the industrial waste and garbage that made its home in the river, the dark, illegal undercurrent that kept this town prosperous. It was easy to pretend everything hadn’t gone to rot when it lurked beneath the veneer of pristine waters.
Even though she knew of the fetid secrets that ran through her life, when she was here on the cliffs Polly could pretend she lived in the perfect world her mother always tried to force on them. That the Cooper family was just as happy as their pictures pretended to be. That Riverdale was still an idyllic small town kept secret from the outside world, where the only crime that happened was minor vandalism in the spirit of homecoming pride. Where people still married and cherished and loved their high school sweethearts twenty years later. Where there wasn’t a brooding darkness that lurked in the shadows, waiting for the sun to go down.
“I cannot believe Ginger decided to go with Moose to prom,” Cheryl said. She held out a coffee cup to Polly, the bottle of Kahlua half empty. Next to her Tina nodded. “Especially since he and Midge just went on a ‘break’.”
Polly wrapped her hands around the cup, grateful for something to keep her hands occupied. She smiled at Cheryl and leaned against the car next to her. Coffee didn’t agree with her and Polly hated how the alcohol made her head light enough to float away. But she sipped at it anyway knowing that this was what it meant to be popular. If she wanted to stay friends with Cheryl, if she wanted to be wanted, and desired and envied, this was what she had to do. Or rather, this was what she was supposed to want to do.
Always edging closer to the cliff’s edge, Jason and Reggie were wrestling while Moose yelled out corrections to their stance. It was so easy to imagine one of them tripping over the cliff’s edge only to tumble through the air to disappear into the deep waters below. Their body wouldn’t be found for weeks. Trawling would do no good against the rocky bottom below and might even bury a body further into the thick mud. It wouldn’t be until the river had taken what it wanted out of their youthful flesh that their body would return to the surface, only for one more family to grieve their lost soul.
Polly crossed her arms, hugging herself against the sudden loneliness. She missed those days when Cheryl would call her Polly-Wog and they’d search for water snails for a tea party, hands clasped together. Now they spent all their time waiting for the future. There was an uncertain darkness ahead of them, and no one knew if things would ever be as bright as this moment again.
“Polly -” Cheryl’s sharp voice cut through the morbid images that flitted across her mind. “Are you even listening?”
“Sorry Cheryl, still trying to wake up,” Polly said with the brightest Cooper smile she could muster.
“You still have those good pick-me-ups?” Reggie asked, his gum popping.
Polly set her biology book onto her locker shelf and looked up at him. Shameless, he winked at her.
“Again, the answer is no.” She shut her locker with finality and walked towards the cafeteria.
“C’mon, babe. I can get you twice what you got last time. Buyer over in Greenville’s willing to pay -“
Polly spun. “Do you ever get tired of this act?”
Reggie raised an eyebrow and cracked his gum. From the blank look on his face it was clear he didn’t understand what she meant. No one here seemed to. They were all caricatures out of a 90’s script, all flash and no substance. The whole world felt like a farce, a masquerade where everyone was content to were a mask and lose themselves in the revelry of parties and weed and booze.
Even she knew her lines. Her role. But lately, she found herself refusing to play the game.
Polly ignored Reggie’s calls on her way to the library, the only place in town that knew well enough to stay off the stage.
The bass from Reggie’s overblown sound system reverberated through her chest. Up here in a locked bedroom, away from the rest of the party, Polly was insulated from the high school machinations of her peers. Here she could pretend that she’d finally left everything behind.
Beneath her cheek, Jason’s chest rose and fell. They’d clung to each other, adrift in the stormy sea of looming expectations. Even if the rumors about him were true, this was what she needed right now. Quiet, loyal, fleeting. He’d been the only one willing to listen, even when she wasn’t willing to speak.
Her mother would -
No. Polly shut down that train of thought. This had nothing to do with her mother, not really.
This was about her. About him.
This was what she wanted, at least for the foreseeable future. She’d never been wanted before, she'd never wanted before; not like this. Jason had sought her out last month, asked her to dinner. And then, he’d asked her again. And again.
And tonight, she’d asked him to bed.
A cheer from the party startled Jason awake. The crowd below was boisterous and lively and everything Polly didn’t want to be. And, as it turned out, everything Jason didn’t want either.
His hand fluttered to her hair, a soft, gentle touch that drew a hum of contentment from her. He chuckled, the sound a rumble of comforting thunder that drew sleep across her eyes.
“Tell me about your farm again,” she said, closing her eyes to listen to the lullaby of his voice.
On the last day of school, Tina and Ginger almost ran Polly over as she walked into class. Both were bubbling over with excitement, dark glee flashing in their eyes. A dual image of cruel intentions.
“Did you hear about Doiley?” Tina asked. She looped her arm around Polly’s and guided her back out the door. “I can’t believe Cheryl let that loser kiss her in the fourth grade.”
Ginger grasped Polly’s other arm, and with a giggle, said, “Maybe that’s why he finally lost it. Now he’s claiming he found some old bunker in the woods. Moose said that’s where Dilton’s going to hide the bodies.”
Together the pair lead her out into the parking lot where Cheryl was waiting, neither realizing that Polly had stopped listening ages ago. The gut wrenching heartburn that had started last week was back, and if it weren’t for Tina and Ginger, Polly surely would have been writhing on the floor in pain. With a flip of her hair, Cheryl seemed not to notice as she revved the engine.
“Get in, Stooges, we have shopping to do.”
Polly half-listened as Cheryl droned on about the latest tragedy going on at the Blossom manse. There was nothing of interest - what did she care if Cheryl’s clothing budget had been limited to five-thousand a month - but Polly was quick enough to realize there would likely be a pop quiz in the dressing rooms. She flipped through another rack of clothes she’d never been able to afford, wincing at the sudden cramps.
It had been a month and a half, and she was still late. Nothing unusual; she’d missed periods before. But this was the first time it had been accompanied by heartburn and a terrible aversion to anything that smelled like old cheese.
With a lurch, Polly threw herself towards the bathroom. Tina called out after her, full of faux concern until she came across a self of faux-fur lined boots.
Just as the door closed behind her, everything Polly had managed to choke down at lunch came back. A sudden flush of heat came through her when it was followed by an inexplicable longing for fish tacos. At least, until the sharp tang of bathroom cleaner sent her stomach spiraling a second time.
“No. No, no. Nononono.”
Her frantic whispers filled the room, crowded her in with the ghosts of a future she’d never see. They’d been careful, each and every time. Polly did the math on her fingers, twice, three times, still unable to believe it. Even she wasn’t delusional enough to pretend that the timing didn’t line up.
A hysterical giggle burst out of her throat and tears streamed down her face.
Won’t mommy dearest be so proud?
Polly let herself wallow in her delirium a few moments more. Once more, Alice Cooper had been right. Polly had thrown her life away by hanging out with those kids.
That truth stung more than the bile that wrecked her throat. Than the sudden realization that her body was no longer entirely her own.
With one final, wrenching sob, she typed out a single text that would determine the rest of her life.
In the empty parking lot behind Pop’s, Polly waited. She glanced at her phone again. Early. She was always early. Except, she wasn’t. Not really. The only time it seemed to matter, and she was very, very late.
Polly chewed on her thumbnail, already down to the quick, and rolled up onto her toes.
He promised he’d come. He’d told her he loved her to the end of the world and back. In the bed, behind the gym. In the backseat of his car he’d said those words like a prayer.
No matter what fears she had, Polly believed him when he said it. He wouldn’t leave her like this.
Shoes scraped the asphalt, and Polly spun. There, coming around the corner, was Jason. There was worry in his brown eyes and the idea that it was for sent Polly into a fit of tears.
In a rush, Jason’s arms were around her.
Before he could speak, the words tumbled out of her: