I’m sitting on the porch steps, a glass of tepid lemonade at my side, as my father looks out at the looming dark clouds. The air runs so thick here that it curls the corners of my sketchbook.
When I first came home, my mother left steaming cups of herbal tea at my door. She would send me painting ideas she found online and tell me she was sorry, as if it were somehow her fault that her daughter was a failure. My father, the sort who typically did his best thinking alone, invited me to watch thunderstorms.
The three of us were never very good at talking. Most things in our strange little family unit rarely required verbal confirmation.
The whole of Savannah is silent. That is until Benjamin Davis breaks his cardinal rule.
“I’m happy you’re back, Margot.”
I don’t think he means for the comment to be complicated, but I carefully mull over the words anyway.
I close my sketchbook, push my glasses back up the bridge of my nose, and give him a faint smile.
In a way, this makes me happy too. I’m not glad I’m back, but I am grateful for these spare seconds when I can pretend that what occurred last year isn’t important: that the blow from giving up the gallery internship at the Met doesn’t hurt as much as it does.
It takes me a minute to decipher if the music I hear is in my head or my ears. Somehow I manage to drag my head up high enough to look.
Bria’s window is propped open across the street. “Back to the Old House” by The Smiths is blaring from her record player. Despite my disdain for her music mediums, and her as a person, my heart is pounding wildly inside my chest. I almost expect her to pop out of the open sill and flip me off like she did at our high school graduation, but she doesn’t. I wonder if she’s heard anything about me.
A part of me wishes she has; I like the idea of notoriety.
My father has gone inside, likely impatient with a storm that hasn’t turned up. I linger hesitantly on our splintered green porch, waiting for a certain strawberry blonde to show face.
She doesn’t. She never does.
Bria wins without even trying. She’s won because I thought of her even when I swore I wouldn’t.
When the rain finally comes down, it’s in obnoxiously vicious sheets.
I spend the rest of the day, into the early morning, working on an oil submission I can’t come up with a name for. It’s the front of the E. Shaver bookstore, with a black and gray tabby lounging by the ancient doors. Nothing I do seems to make it work. I’m left at an odd point where I want to cover the entire thing in pale acrylic.
Typically, this would be when I take my easel out on the porch to work, but the humidity’s been messing with my paints. Instead, I grab my keys off my desk in an executive decision to embark on the next best thing.
Tybee Island is almost empty this time of day, but I locate my usual hideaway next to a patch of beach grass and a misshapen sand dune and pull my thermos of coffee from my backpack. Everything reeks of saltwater. I try my best to breathe.
It’s been a difficult year. Burnout is only desirable when you want what others have. People won’t admit it, but there’s a strange sense of longing for reaching a point of working so hard it becomes physically and mentally impossible to do more. But then you reach a point when you can’t even pull out a sketchbook without wanting to cry and wonder what the hell you’re doing with your life.
I watch the tide come out, the morning runners, and the dog walkers. I stare out at the rowers on the coast. I watch Bria with her beautiful curls thrown up, shouting instructions to her teammates. She catches my eye. I think she waves. I pretend I don’t see her.
Soon, the sun is directly overhead and throwing daggers of heat on whatever’s below. I gather my things and stand to go, but not before my foot catches on something lodged in the sand and sends me crashing into the ground.
Every curse in the English language exists in my mouth at once, which is, for everyone’s knowledge, also full of sand.
God, I fucking hate sand.
No one’s seen me, which is a small mercy. I snatch up the offending object in frustration with the full intent to hurl it across the shore, but pause.
I’m holding an honest to god message in a bottle. And yet it’s completely void of the scratches and cracks something weathered by the sea should carry. If anything, it looks as if it’s never even seen the ocean.
Who the hell leaves a message in a bottle in the middle of a beach?
I reach up to pull at the cork, and immediately drop it at the sound of Bria’s voice.
She’s running towards me. I turn around in case there’s another Margot she’s screaming at, but Bria stops in front of me and rests her hands on her knees, gasping. She looks the same as she had a year ago. Just as stupidly charming too. I don’t even know why I like her.
I don’t like her.
“You’re back.” She states dryly.
“Do you need something?”
“Thought I’d just say hi. I haven’t seen you around.”
An intentional move on my part.
“So I can go now?”
Once she regains her breath, she looks up and her smile fades. I know why, with my baggy eyes and too-pale skin. My clothes aren’t much better— a peculiar combination of the cleanest selections of my bedroom floor. Sometimes I wish Bria would just insult me and get it over with.
“Are you still mad about the valedictorian thing?”
“What? I was never mad.”
I had been silently competing with Bria ever since the third grade when she’d moved to Georgia. I’d always thought it had been a natural reaction to the seeming carelessness she had for really anything. It was only until the end of my senior year that I realized what it actually was: an excuse to be in her universe.
She’d taken first. I’d taken salutatorian with the most pride I could muster. I hadn’t been angry, honestly, I’d been strangely happy for her. But we had a silent game going, and I couldn’t just not play.
With her pastel sundresses and laugh like shattering sea glass, Bria is intoxicatingly charismatic. She draws people in without even meaning to. I’d wanted to tell her. I almost had.
“How was your first year at Yale?”
“Yale,” Bria drawls for the second time, slightly amused, “how was it?”
I decide against the truth as a matter of principle.
“It was um… great. Everything I could have ever asked for. A great time, indeed”
My cheeks flush. Bria raises a brow.
“Are you okay?”
“Of course,” I lie. “How was Virginia?”
Bria looks out at the water and gives me a wry smile. Unspecified chaos from the boardwalk trickles down to where we stand. Seagulls, the insidious fuckers that they are, are busy chasing a young man at the end of the pier. My bare feet are burning. I think this is the end of our interaction until she turns back around and grabs the glass bottle from my hand.
A strange sense of desperation has me throwing myself at her, but, of course, Bria is faster. She lifts the bottle from my reach to inspect it before I have the opportunity to pull it back.
“Did you open it?”
“No. You stole it before I had the chance to look, asshole.”
“I watched you trip on it. That was kind of funny.”
I’m no longer flushed. I’m cherry tomato red.
“You know I don’t do well with depth perception,” I mutter weakly.
“You really should open it, Margot”
“Well, now I’m definitely not going to.”
Bria rolls her eyes and tosses it back to me.
“You aren’t even the least bit curious? It’s a mystery.”
“I don’t really care, Bria.”
The words seem to indescribably dim her, or maybe I’m just over-exaggerating the effect I have on her. I don’t say goodbye. In fact, I make it halfway back to my car before she calls out after me.
“If you listen to nothing else I say, listen to this: Initial that damn painting already. I’ve been watching you stare at it for three weeks.”
“Go away, Bria.”
“Three weeks, Margot!”
I think about those words the entire way home.
I open the stupid bottle.
So you’ve found this charming little trinket. Congratulations on your observational abilities. Feel free to write back. Or don’t. It’s your move.
I’ve submitted prints of my bookstore painting to three separate galleries in the span of one, excruciatingly long, hour.
What do you want?
– Margot Davis
The note slips back into the bottle and finds itself in the same hazardous position I found it in. I stay and watch Bria row. The week falls back on itself.
The bottle is back in my possession days later.
– A friend
I can’t exactly explain how long this charade goes on for.
June eases by from my bedroom window as I discuss with a stranger how my life has turned unrecognizable. We talk about college, about art, Wes Anderson films, vanilla cupcakes with almond buttercream, The Smiths.
I know my suspicions are right, but for some strange reason, that fact doesn’t bother me.
I tell her everything.
Meet me at our spot this evening. Nine o’clock if you can help it.
– No one in particular
I click my pen against my knee.
How do I know you’re not an ax murderer?
The response comes in the afternoon. I retrieve it in the ninety-degree heat as if this routine is completely normal.
You know who I am.
– Definitely not an ax murderer
Bria is sitting on a crocheted blanket facing the ocean. Her lime green dress spreads out around her perfectly. I quiet my footfalls and do everything in my power not to trip over myself as I make my way up the dune she’s perched herself on.
Everything feels dream-like.
“Why didn’t you give me the letter?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
She shrugs. I sit down next to her, legs crossed.
The sun glitters a burnt orange on the churning waves.
“The day I left. You walked halfway to my house with an envelope. Why didn’t you give it to me?”
“I guess I was afraid.”
There’s no sarcasm in Bria’s question. She sounds completely and utterly dumbfounded. Then again, in typical Bria fashion, she prattles on.
“You were going to tell me you liked me.”
Ten years. None of them feel like they matter in this moment.
I find myself unable to feign security. My shoulders drop as I fight the urge to curl into myself.
“Yeah. I guess I was.”
I don’t mean to cry. I don’t really mean to do anything, but the tears fall before I can stop them. Bria’s hand finds mine. I let her take it. She uses her other to brush the salty tears from my face. I let her do that too. Nothing is real. She won’t remember this a week from now.
She’ll move on with her fascinating, eventful life, and I’ll be stuck here.
“Do you know how I knew?”
I can’t find it in me to answer.
“Because I know you, Margot. I know the way you work. And I had been at my window that day about to do the same thing you were. I just… when you turned around. I thought you’d changed your mind about me.”
“I could never change my mind about you, Bria.”
“So it’s settled. We’re both hopeless.”
I lay my head on her shoulder and say nothing and I wonder if this is the universe’s idea of an apology. We watch in silence as the tide comes in. Eventually, my crisis will work itself out, but in truth, I don’t mind being hopeless. As long as it’s with her.
Georgia Hope is a novelist and published poet from Texas. She’s a lover of all things iced coffee, medieval weaponry, and fantasy. When she’s not trying to figure out how to use her year-old writing software, you can find her browsing swords on Pinterest or buying three of the same book because they’re “different editions.”