This is a tale about a princess from the land of High School who possessed a kind spirit and hair the color of strawberries. The princess held many a subject in high regard, but only one, the handsome prince, had truly captured her heart.
I’d appraised my reflection for exactly three seconds before Bas pushed me aside so he could do his own makeup.
“My turn!” he said, dismissing me with a wave. “You already have a boyfriend, so it’s okay if you’re ugly. I, on the other hand, need to look fabulous tonight.”
I flopped onto the bed and bounced twice. “Macey said she caught you checking out Chad’s ass after the game. He’ll be there tonight if you want to ask him out.” My lips trembled with suppressed laughter as I waited for him to take the bait.
Bas’s glare cut across the mirror and locked on mine. “Girl, that boy’s ass is fine regardless of who’s looking at it. But I ain’t about to mess around with no closeted jock who’ll stick his penis in pretty much anything to convince himself he likes the vagina.”
“Gross! Why do you have to say it like that?”
“Like what? It’s called a vagina. How else am I supposed to say vagiiiiina?”
“Can you believe we are officially seniors in less than three hours?”
Bas pursed his lips and hummed with mock-annoyance. “Mmm-hmm.”
“Jessica-freaking-Ashcroft is going to pass me the Titan’s Senior Torch, which I will raise high above the heads of our junior classmates to proclaim victory in this game of high school. Then I’m going to let Justin eff my brains straight into senior year. Starting tonight.”
He whirled around with only one eye lined and aimed a long finger at my mouth. A wide, white-toothed smile spread across his face. “I knew there was a nasty bitch hiding under that middle-class white girl facade.”
My face burned with embarrassment. “Okay, that was supposed to sound sexy and way more badass.”
“Well, don’t sexy talk to me, perv. Save that shit for Justin.”
“Why have we waited so long? I mean, we’ve been together since the summer after grade nine. I know I’ve got it going on.” I stood and turned my butt to the mirror to check out my new jeans. “What’s the problem?”
Basilio’s eyebrows shot up. “Girl don’t pretend like you don’t know he digs your schoolgirl charm. Justin is one of the good guys. I’ll give you that. He is still a guy though. He wants to. Trust me.” He turned back to his reflection and used his middle finger to blot highlighter onto his lips.
“You think he’s waiting for me to make the first move?” “Hoping. Praying. Yanking and jerking when he’s alone at night.”
He made a vulgar pumping motion with his hips. I gaped in mock disgust then chucked a pillow at his head. “Oh my god, you’re so nasty!”
He waved his hand in the air. “No, Chica, you don’t need to open that wide. His penis can’t be that big.”
We crumpled into a fit of laughter, landing so hard my father called up the stairs to ask if we were okay. We burst into another fit of giggles.
“Sorry, Mr. Taylor. Pep is gonna suck—”
I cupped my hand over his mouth, and the rest of his sentence came out in a garbled mess. “Shut up! He could be standing outside the door by now.” Our laughter subsided, and we laid there grinning like morons. “How the hell do you get your teeth so white?”
“What?” he said with a fake frown. “You want the whitest skin and the whitest teeth now too? Nuh-uh. I ain’t giving up no more of my peoples’ secrets.”
“Please. Your peoples’ secrets,” I repeated. “Except for that Puerto Rican blood in your veins you’re as white as I am.” I let my tongue roll over the words like how his abuela would pronounce them.
His head shook as if he were pretending that he didn’t understand.
“Whatever. Come on,” he said and extended his hand. “Let’s go get this torch thing so you can fuck Justin’s brains out and we can unofficially become seniors.”
He hauled me into a standing position.
I squealed and wrapped my arms around his neck. “I’m so freaking excited.”
He held me at arm’s length as if my weird were going to rub off on him.
“Lend me some earrings?” I asked. “Yours are so much better than mine.”
A flashy pair of turquoise beads dangled from his ears and jingled when he walked. They matched the gold, glittery liner around his eyes.
“Not a chance,” he said and grabbed my hand. “I get to be the pretty one tonight, remember? Let’s go.”
He led the way down the stairs. My father was waiting for us at the front door. Macey’s horn honked twice.
“You two look nice,” my father said. He stepped in front of the door and flashed a warm smile.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said and kissed his cheek. “The party is at the Bluffs. I won’t be drinking. Promise. If I do, I will not go into the water. Oh, and no driving with anyone who has had anything other than Kool-Aid to drink. We won’t be out late, and we’re going back to Bas’s tonight.”
“Is Bas’s abuela home?”
“She’s not home, Mr. Taylor,” he said. “We promise to be on our best behavior. No boys allowed.”
My dad was, to put it in Bas’s words, also one of the good guys. My mother left us when I was little, so my dad was the only parent I’d ever known. He worked hard, was super cool, and I didn’t like lying to him which, of course, I rarely did. Something in his eyes made me wonder if he already knew I wasn’t planning to go home with Bas.
Macey’s car horn blared again, twice as long as when she’d first arrived.
“Okay, well, call if you need anything,” he said. “Both of you. No matter how late it is.”
We each gave him a quick hug and received a kiss on the cheek in return. I held on, a moment longer than usual. “Thanks, Dad. Love you.”
“Love you too, Pep.”
My dad waved through the living room window as we dashed down the front steps and climbed into Macey’s car. She honked again to get my dad’s attention and waved with the tips of her fingers.
“Damn, girl, your dad is so sexy,” Macey said, still waving. “Has he been working out?”
“Okay.” I smacked her hand. “I am going to pretend you did not just say that, and we are going to start over. Got it?”
She threw her head back and laughed. When she was finished, she turned to me with a wide smile. “Damn, girl, you are one sexy biatch.”
“Thank you.” I blew her a kiss.
“You think I’m pretty, too, right?” said Bas, framing his face with his hands as if trying to capture the perfect camera angle.
Macey raised her gaze to the rear-view mirror. S’up, Rico.”
“Bitch, you better quit calling me Rico already. It was an accident, okay.”
“Yeah?” she said. In one swift movement, she unbuckled her seatbelt and craned her neck, so she and Bas came face-to-face. “I had to throw away a Birkin bag and a pair of Jimmy Choo’s because I couldn’t get rid of the puke smell, so don’t you bitch me…bitch.”
“And on that note…” I said in my most annoyingly cheery voice. “…let’s go get my torch so we can be seniors and put this barfy nightmare to rest.” I bobbed my head wildly, first at Macey then at Bas, waiting for one of them to agree with me.
She cracked first with unrestrained laughter, then tucked into her seatbelt. “You are such a frigging weirdo.”
I beamed. “I agree with that assessment.”
We threw our arms into the air and squealed as the car pulled away. In less than an hour, we would be the rulers of Titan High.
~ * ~
The Bluffs was where everyone who was anyone went to party. A fire crackled, spitting red-hot embers into the sky. Small groups of twos and threes huddled together, scattered around the beach area. As long as things didn’t get too raucous, the cops usually didn’t bust it up.
Other kids splashed around in the thin waves at the shore. Macey refused to wear good shoes in front of Bas, so we all kicked off our shoes too. The warmth from the sun lingered in the shallow water, but the sand was cool on my bare feet.
She left us to go make out with Sean as soon as she found him. Sean and Justin were best friends. Macey and I were never close, but we’d traveled in the same circle. When she and Sean started dating, our friendship formed easily.
Justin snatched me up from behind, and I screamed. He twirled us in a circle and my feet kicked up a cloud of sand. Bas pretended to save me from a terrible monster, but in the end, he blew me a kiss and flashed me a knowing wink.
“See you later, Chica,” he said over his shoulder.
“Hey, babe,” Justin said. “You’re gorgeous as always.”
I kissed him then pressed our bodies so close together I could feel the heat rise between us.
“Thanks, baby,” I said between kisses.
He pulled away and adjusted his jeans at the crotch.
I laughed, in love with the expression on his face.
“I want to get the senior torch and get out of here, okay?” I said. “What are we even waiting for?”
He exhaled and a smile spread like thick honey across his face, slow and beautiful. “Yeah?”
My cheeks heated, but I forced myself not to turn away from his wide eyes. “Your parents still at the lodge?”
“Yesssss.” The sound lingered on his lips as if it were too good to be true.
I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him again. “Good. Now let’s get this show on the road.”
The passing of the senior torch was an unofficial Titan tradition. At least, it was an official student tradition. Bas and I watched from afar from across the bridge for the last three years, knowing it was going to be us. I was to be the class president and Bas my wingman.
Since the summer after grade nine, we’d been inseparable. We even knew which colleges we would apply to, where we would be roommates until Justin asked me to marry him. At which point we would rent a small apartment, and Bas would find a rich older man to shower him with love and gifts. It was the perfect plan, and after tonight, the first piece of our puzzle was about to fall into place.
Jessica, the current student body president climbed atop Presidential Point. The prez’s podium was a ginormous rock that stuck up out of the sand, elevating the speaker above the others. This elevation was the definition of popularity at Titan High, and from here, she commanded the attention of our classmates.
“Now,” she said, with my torch clutched against her chest. “This torch is part of a deep-rooted tradition. One does not simply carry the Titan torch.” The crowd cheered and lifted their solo cups, clinking them together and throwing their arms around one another. “They raise this torch above their heads, held high so everyone knows Titans rule!” The crowd cheered again, and she roared her final battle call. “Who are we?”
“What do we do?”
Jessica tugged me up onto the rock with her as the crowd clapped and cheered and raised their drinks. The music rose to such a deafening volume it drowned the sound of the waves crashing to shore. She plunged the torch into the fire, then together, we hoisted it above our heads.
“Titans forever,” I screamed over the crowd.
Bas was right there in the front. He pointed at me and mouth something inaudible. By the way he was gyrating his hips, it likely had to do with the rapidly approaching expiration date on my V-card.
Jessica leaned in close. “Congratulations, Peppermint Taylor. Now, don’t fuck up my legacy.”
I cringed at her casual use of my given name but couldn’t fight my rising smile. We were finally seniors.
Justin helped me from the rock and held me close to his chest. “Dance with me,” he said into my ear. He led us across the cool sand, away from the fire to the edge of the water. The waves rushed up around our ankles as we swayed back and forth. Music thumped from a loudspeaker, but it was the rhythm of the water that we danced to.
“This is going to be the most perfect night,” I said and lifted my lips to his for a kiss. “The most perfect year. Everything is…”
“Perfect?” he said.
Bas and Macey splashed by, kicking up water in their wake. She jumped on his back, and they stumbled and fell into the waves. Apparently, all was forgiven.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Perfect.”
“Do you want to get out of here?” he asked.
He laced our fingers together and led me across the beach, through the path to the parking lot. Away from the fire and the calming waves, my stomach fluttered.
As he unlocked the passenger side door, I planted a kiss on his neck. We’d fooled around before, but we’d never gone all the way. I couldn’t even say why. There had been so many times I thought, this is the night. His hands belonged on my body and mine on his, but I always shied away from actual sex. Now that it was out there in the open, I was nervous and needed to be near him.
He leaned against his car and drew me close to him. “You know, we don’t have to.” The alarm on my face was visible in the reflection of his eyes. “I mean, trust me.” He traced a finger along my neck and across my chest. “I want to, but I can wait.”
I brushed our lips together before he could talk himself out of it.
I was ready.
The bulge in his pants meant he was definitely ready.
I rested my head on his chest. His racing heart was my favorite sound. The visceral effect my body had over his was intoxicating, and I’d never been more certain in my life.
“Why do you do that?” he asked.
“When we’re together, your heart beats only for me. The sound speaks directly to my own heart.”
Heat flooded my cheeks. I’d never been so brazen with my admissions, and I was pleased to learn that bravery was sexy.
“I’m nervous, okay? But it’s a good nervous. I’m ready for us to take this next step. Promise. You’re nervous too, and that makes it a little easier.”
He kissed the top of my head and opened the door. “Shall we?” By the time he buckled into the seat beside me, I’d already found the songs I wanted to listen to on the drive. His house was ten minutes away. Three songs at approximately three and a half minutes per song was time enough to settle the butterflies in my stomach and set the mood.
He shifted the car into drive, and I pressed play. When “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morrissette played over the speakers, he burst into a fit of laughter. “I swear to god, I am going to delete your phone from my car.”
I feigned hurt as best I could. “What’s wrong with the ʼ90s? These songs defined an entire generation.”
“As did every other generation of music,” he teased. “It’s just so depressing. I can’t believe this is what you chose for mood music.” He extended an accusatory hand toward the speaker.
“Oh… oh, okay,” I said, and my thumbs found a Brittany Spears classic. I took a cue from Bas’s hip-thrusting and grinded against my seatbelt.
Justin hung his head and shielded his eyes with his hands.
The music cut out, and the car filled with the sound of his choking laughter. “I can’t,” he said. “Ohmygod, no. Make it stop.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I’d been silly to want to play music and wish this time away. The sound of his laughter chased the butterflies from my stomach, and I raked my fingers through his hair.
We’d come to a complete stop. A flashing red light hung over the intersection, casting a waxen glow over his face.
He checked the mirrors, put the car in park, then kissed me. The thump, thump, thump of his heart beat against my hand in time with the flashing light. Blink, thump, blink, thump. “Everything will be all right as long as I have this.”
He lifted my hand and brushed his lips across my knuckles.
When he laid my palm back over his heart, the familiar rhythm sent a shiver through my entire body.
“Justin…” I searched his big brown eyes. There was so much I wanted to say to him at that moment. My love for him boiled inside me. The mess of hormones that raced through my veins made coherent speech next to impossible. There was simply too much of it.
Before he could answer, a set of lights approached the intersection from behind us. They were moving fast.
A frantic screeching noise reverberated through the car. Not until my throat seared with pain did I realize the sound was me. “Justin!” The car exploded around us. The deafening crunch of metal drowned my screams as we tumbled through the air like children turning summersaults.
Still, the pulsing red light beat out its steady rhythm.
Everything went black.
Silent, and cold.