by Jane Bradley
It’s not like you’ve never kissed before. You spend that much time together, it’s inevitable. It used to happen a lot, in the old days. But all of you were closer then, and you knew all each other’s secrets. As teens, there was a lot stitching you together. Now you’re almost out of those years, and that comes with a layer of real-world stuff that makes those bonds a bit looser, and frayed. Then you went off the grid. Left them behind in a cloud of dust and disappeared for days, weeks, months. They only knew the minimum: that you were okay, but caught up in something, that you’d let it transport you out of their world. That happened, sometimes. Until you reappeared at the quarry one summer night, in shredded jeans and a band T-shirt that’s soft and faded from being washed so many times. Big boots: the fuck-off kind that say no-one better get too close unless they want their head or heart stomped. A uniform, of sorts. Clothes chosen to make you seem tougher than you were. But not now you’re here; the same hangout place, the same faces. A lazy flow of insults, jokes and conversation, back and forth over beers and weed. Bonfires when it’s cold, skinny-dipping when it’s hot. Things you missed and want to make yours again. You want to slide back in where you belong; reclaim your place alongside the others like you’ve never been away.
You should have known they wouldn’t let it be that easy.
Even from a distance, you can hear them yelling your name, asking each other if it’s you.
‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Ricky bounds up like a labrador, grabbing your waist and swinging you round so fast you see stars. He hurtles back towards the group, drops you in the centre of the circle before you can answer.
‘Looking good, babe,’ Kel says, shading her eyes against the last of the sun. ‘Why didn’t you tell us you were coming?’
You think of your car, on the scrap of grass before the quarry path, piled with possessions, packed in a rush. The last few days driving, snatching sleep curled on the back seat when you couldn’t face more coffee, burning rubber towards the only place you’ve ever really been able to breathe.
‘Wasn’t planned,’ you mumble. ‘Spur of the moment thing. Missing you all too much to stay away.’
‘We missed you too, girl,’ Jordan says, and passes you a beer. You slap the dust from your jeans, sit beside him on the big boulder with the hole in the middle, let him hook an arm round your shoulders. Lean into his one-armed hug and let the warmth settle in you for a moment. He looks good; last smudges of a black eye fading and hair longer than when you left.
‘How long you here for?’ he asks, voice low. You can feel the others listening.
‘Not sure.’ You tilt the bottle to your lips and say the next words before you can swallow them with a mouthful of bubbles. ‘Maybe for good.’
‘Nice one,’ Kel says, leaning over for a high-five. ‘Welcome home.’
It’s not as simple as that, of course. But it almost feels like it could be.
The games start once it gets dark. That’s always been the tradition, and it’s not changed.
‘You’re still playing this?’ you ask. ‘Aren’t we too old?’
‘You said you missed us,’ Ricky grins. ‘Don’t let us down now.’
‘I didn’t miss this.’ But you’re lying, and laughing, and they’re laughing too.
‘Bullshit,’ he says, and passes round more drinks. ‘And as our guest of honour, tonight you’re going first. So what it’ll be, babe? Truth or dare?’
You always used to choose dare. Truth seemed boring then, in comparison to hot hard kisses or streaking or stealing or wrestling, or any of the other dumb shit you’d dare each other to do. You know it’s not out of character for you to say dare, but still. You know the truth. And the truth is that tonight you’ll choose dare every single time. Because you don’t want to be asked any questions you haven’t got the answer to.
Ricky smirks like he’s followed your entire train of thought. ‘I dare you to tell us what made you come back.’
You go cold. ‘You can’t do that.’
He leers. ‘That’s your next dare.’
You take a swallow from your bottle. ‘You know, this is making me remember why I left.’
‘Just answer it.’ That’s Kel, under her breath. Trying to help, but with an edge of something harder. Like she must want the answers as well.
‘Leave her,’ Jordan tells Ricky. ‘She doesn’t have to.’
Ricky turns on him, sharp. ‘You wanna know too.’
‘Not if she doesn’t wanna say.’
‘Okay,’ you snap, cutting through the arguing. Even this, you missed. ‘I’ll tell you, okay? I promise. Just not yet.’
‘Next round? You can ask whatever you want. Just let me finish my beer first.’
Ricky narrows his eyes. ‘You swear?’
It’s Jordan’s turn next. He cracks his knuckles and says dare like the word’s a dare in itself. Just try it. Come up with something he won’t do. No one ever has so far, but they keep trying. Down a full bottle of tequila, run headfirst into a wall. He was worse when he was younger. Now he fights most days without any dares so they keep their challenges softer, but still. This is where their knowledge of each other shows, when they use what they know like vicious ammunition.
Ricky licks his lips and says he wants to see you two kiss.
‘Come on, dude,’ Jordan groans. ‘You said you’d leave her alone.’ But he’s glancing at you inbetween.
‘I said she didn’t have to tell us what’s been going on ‘til next round. Come on, don’t be shy. Never used to take much for you two.’
Jordan shakes his head, chuckling. ‘So why do you wanna see it again, pervert?’
‘You can ask me that when it’s my turn. Come on, you gotta do it. Or I’m gonna come up with a forfeit, and you know you don’t want that.’
Kel sighs, shifting from where she’s been sitting on the same rock as Ricky to slouch cross-legged on the floor. ‘You really gotta push them like this?’
He turns to her. ‘Girl, you know they’re gonna be here making moo-eyes at each other until one of them gets up the guts to make something happen. Let’s just get it over with so we don’t all have to be waiting.’ Beer sloshes from his bottle as he motions towards you and Jordan. ‘Just pucker up, see if there’s any chemistry still. Then all your sexual tension won’t be hanging over us all, making everything all weird and loaded and shit.’
You close your eyes, count to ten. Open them again. ‘Why are you like this?’
‘I could give you a million reasons, but they’re not gonna get you out of this.’
‘You better do it, babe,’ mutters Kel. ‘You know how relentless he is.’
Ricky cackles. ‘You say that like it’s a bad thing.’
“You know it’s not out of character for you to say dare, but still. You know the truth. And the truth is that tonight you’ll choose dare every single time.”
Then the two of them are bickering: Ricky saying baby, you weren’t complaining about me being relentless on your birthday, and Kel thumping his arm, hissing that he’d promised to never tell. Then they’re wrestling, and you’re watching, but you can feel Jordan next to you; that familiar warmth and cedar scent coming through his flannel shirt. It’s been about six months since you two last kissed. Not that you’ve been keeping count. Life’s been too chaotic for that. You got obsessed with that brilliant-bad punk band from Seattle. They burnt through town two nights after your last time sitting in this circle, Jordan’s lips soft on yours when the bottle said it was your turn. After the show, you couldn’t sleep. You stayed awake for two nights straight, guitars howling as you played the CD on repeat, skin scampering with the memory of the drummer’s arms. When you couldn’t stand it any more, you scrambled your stuff into your rustbucket car and followed. Stayed with them for the rest of the tour and beyond: an un-romantic whirlwind romance of dirty sex, drugs, music. Pissing in lay-bys, fucking in bunks, ears always hissing from the soundsystem feedback. Blood always bounding from the adrenaline, the beats, the way the drummer looked at you, dark-eyed and beautiful, just before hurtling into the cymbal-smashing thunder-rumble that brought the band onstage. And then after, between tours, when the two of you got lazier and were never out of bed before dark. It got claustrophobic then: they were creatures that couldn’t function without constant movement and adoration, and the breakneck grim-glamour of it started to fade. Their constant sniping felt poisonous, not like the familiar old-jumper comfort of how it was at home. Not that you mentioned home much: the drummer got jealous and had strong hands. So you stored up your longing until it broke like a wave, slipped off one night while the drummer nodded out. Once you hit the motorway, the fear and poison ebbed away. They were too self-involved to follow, and they’d already told you how place names blurred together on the road. You doubted the drummer even knew where you were from. So much the better. It was something you’d both blank out, over time.
So now you’re here, sheepish and sorry and sore. Ricky and Kel totally distracted by their play-fight, smacking the shit out of each other and shrieking. And Jordan, who you’d missed the most, nudging his shoulder into yours.
‘What do you reckon?’ he asks. ‘Should we put them out their misery?’
You feather your fingers over the almost-gone bruise on his face. ‘What happened there?’
He gives a lopsided shrug. ‘Been a bit off the rails lately. You know how it is.’
You nod, but you’re looking at his mouth. You’re so tired that your memories have gone all hazy, but you two have kissed enough times before that the shape and taste of him is a permanent imprint by now.
‘I know,’ you tell him, leaning in. And there’s something about it that feels inevitable, a distant drum-roll of summer thunder rumbling as you kiss.
Jane Bradley | @jane_bradley | janeclairebradley.com Jane Bradley is a writer, performer, workshop facilitator and editor. She is the founder and director of For Books’ Sake, the non-profit dedicated to championing women and non-binary writers.