“Check it out,” Maya whispered excitedly. “There used to be one of these in my favorite caf? back in Cali!”
Emily and Maya stared at the old-school photo booth at the perimeter of Noel’s yard and the woods. A long, orange extension cord wound its way to the booth from Noel’s house across the lawn. As they admired it, Noel’s older brother, Eric, and a very-giddy Mona Vanderwaal fell out of the booth, grabbed their photos, and skipped away.
Maya glanced at Emily. “Wanna try it?”
Emily nodded. Before they ducked inside, she quickly glanced around the party. Some kids were gathered around the keg and a lot of other people held their red plastic cups in the air as they danced. Noel and a bunch of boys were swimming in the duck pond in their boxers. Ben was nowhere to be seen.
Emily sat beside Maya on the photo booth’s little orange seat and closed the curtain. They were so squeezed together, their shoulders and thighs touched.
“Here.” Maya handed her the Jack Daniel’s bottle and hit the green start button. Emily did a shot, then held it up triumphantly as the camera snapped the first picture. Then they squished their faces together and donned huge grins. Emily rolled her eyes back into her head, and Maya puffed her cheeks out like a monkey for the third picture. Then the camera caught them looking seminormal, if maybe a bit nervous.
“Let’s go see how they look,” Emily said.
But as she stood up, Maya grabbed her sleeve. “Can we stay in here a sec? This is such a great hiding spot.”
“Um, sure.” Emily sat back down. She swallowed loudly, without meaning to.
“So, how have you been?” Maya asked, pushing hair out of Emily’s eyes.
Emily sighed, trying to get comfy on the cramped seat.
“I’m all right,” she said finally.
Maya snorted and took a swig of whiskey. “I don’t believe that for one second.”
Emily paused. Maya seemed like the only person who actually understood her. “Yeah, I guess not,” she said.
“Well, what’s going on?”
But suddenly, Emily didn’t want to talk about swimming or Ben or her parents. She wanted to talk about…something else completely. Something that had been slowly dawning on her. Maybe seeing Aria had triggered it. Or maybe finally having a real friend again had brought the feeling back. Emily thought Maya would understand.
She took a deep breath. “So, you know that girl Alison, the one who used to live in your house?”
“We were really close and I, like, really loved her. Like, everything about her.”
She heard Maya breathe out and nervously took another sip of Jack Daniel’s from the bottle.
“We were best friends,” Emily said, rubbing her fingers between the ratty blue fabric of the photo booth curtain. “I cared about her so much. So this one day, sort of out of the blue, I did it.”
“Well, Ali and I were in this tree house in her backyard—we went there a lot to talk. We were sitting up there, talking about this guy that she liked, some older boy whose name she wouldn’t say, and I just felt like I couldn’t hold any of it in anymore. So I leaned over…and kissed her.”
Maya made a small sniffing noise.
“She wasn’t into it, though. She was even kind of distant and said, like, ‘Well, now I know why you get so quiet when we’re changing for gym!’”
“God,” Maya said.
Emily took another sip of whiskey and felt dizzy. She’d never had this much to drink. And here was one of her biggest secrets, hanging out like granny underwear on a clothesline. “Ali said she didn’t think best friends should kiss,” she went on. “So I tried to play it off as a joke. But when I went home, I realized how I really felt. So I wrote her this letter, telling her that I loved her. I don’t think she ever got it, though. If she did, she never said anything.”
A tear plopped on Emily’s bare knee. Maya noticed it, and smeared it with her finger.
“I still think about her a lot.” Emily sighed. “I’d sort of pushed that memory back, told myself it was just about her being my very best friend but not anything, you know…
They sat there for a few minutes. The party sounds filtered in. Every few seconds, Emily heard the rough flicker of someone’s Zippo lighting a cigarette. She wasn’t that surprised about what she’d just said about Ali. It was scary, of course—but it was also the truth. In a way, it felt good to have finally figured it out.
“Since we’re sharing,” Maya said quietly, “I have something to tell you, too.”
She turned her forearm over to show Emily the white, raised scar on her wrist. “You might have seen this.”
“Yeah,” Emily whispered, squinting at it in the pale, semidarkness of the booth.
“It’s from one of the times I cut myself with a razor blade. I didn’t know it was going to go so deep. There was so much blood. My parents took me to the emergency room.”
“You cut yourself on purpose?” Emily whispered.
“Um…yeah. I mean, I don’t really do it anymore. I try not to.”
“Why do you do that?”
“I don’t know,” Maya said. “Sometimes I just…feel like I need to. You can touch it, if you want.”
Emily did. It was puckered and smooth, not like real skin at all. Touching it felt like the most intimate thing Emily had ever done. She reached over to hug Maya.
Maya’s body shook. She buried her head in Emily’s neck. Like before, she smelled like artificial bananas. Emily pressed herself to Maya’s slight chest. What was it like to cut yourself, to watch yourself bleed like that? Emily had her fair share of baggage, but even in the wake of her absolute worst memories—like of when Ali rejected her, or of The Jenna Thing—she’d felt guilty and horrible and strange, but she’d
Maya raised her head and met Emily’s eyes. Then smiling a little sadly, she kissed Emily’s lips. Emily blinked at her, surprised.
“Sometimes best friends
They hung apart, nose practically touching nose. Outside, the crickets sawed away furiously.
Then Maya reached for her. Emily melted into her lips. Their mouths were open and she felt Maya’s soft tongue. Emily’s chest clenched up excitedly as she raked her hands through Maya’s rough hair, then down to her shoulders, then her back. Maya stuck her hands under Emily’s polo shirt and pressed her fingers flat against her belly. Emily self-consciously flinched but then relaxed. This felt a zillion times different than kissing Ben.
Maya’s hands traveled up her body and felt over her bra. Emily shut her eyes. Maya’s mouth tasted delicious, like Jack Daniel’s and licorice. Next, Maya kissed Emily’s chest and shoulders. Emily threw her head back. Someone had painted a moon and a bunch of stars on the photo booth’s ceiling.
Suddenly, the curtain started to open. Emily jumped, but it was too late—someone had torn the curtain back completely. Then Emily saw who it was. “Oh my God,” she sputtered.
“Shit,” Maya echoed. The Jack Daniel’s bottle swished onto the floor.
Ben held two cups of beer, one in each hand. “Well. This explains things.”
“Ben…I…” Emily scrambled out of the booth, bumping her head on the door.
“Don’t get up for me,” Ben said in a horrible, mocking, angry-yet-hurt voice Emily had never heard before.
“No…,” Emily squeaked. “You don’t understand.”
She climbed out of the booth completely. So did Maya. Out of the corner of her eye, Emily noticed Maya pick up their strip of photos and stuff it into her pocket.
“Don’t even talk,” Ben spat. Then he turned and threw one of the cups of beer at her. It splashed warmly all over Emily’s legs, her shoes, and her shorts. The cup bounced crazily into the bushes.
“Ben!” Emily cried.
Ben hesitated, then threw the other one more directly at Maya. It splashed her face and hair. Maya screamed.
“Stop it!” Emily gasped.
“You fucking dykes,” Ben said. She heard the crackly tears in his voice. Then he turned and ran crookedly into the darkness.