Still Breath

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

No one ever thought that I would become friends with the loosest Black girl in town, a girl whose cool confidence belied her tumultuous mind. Her name was Candice, and I met her the summer I turned sixteen, just a week after she turned eighteen. It was the summer my mother made me live with her childhood friend Yemisi (whom I actually enjoyed calling Auntie) after she came to the epiphany that the Devil was corrupting her weak daughter, turning her into a heathen who’d dare break into her own flesh. Yemisi was a recovering alcoholic, and I needed to submit myself to pardon and penance, so my mother thought I’d learn to love myself with a woman who was still learning to do the same. Even now, my mother’s peal of laughter, her moan of almighty thanks when she finalized her plans, echo through my dreams like the sound of a scream underwater.

Candice’s hair was the first thing I saw, and it is how I remember her still: the lingering scent of diluted rosemary oil, the sway of her back-length locs, which waved an invitation I didn’t know I wanted. Yemisi and my mother spoke outside in low tones, as I lugged my purple suitcase up the stairs. Candice was a few steps ahead of me, wearing black platform sneakers, ripped denim shorts, and a tank top that revealed more cleavage than what my mom would’ve thought tasteful. She bobbed her head to the ear-drumming bass coming from her headphones.

I later learned Candice didn’t even live in the building but was heading upstairs to see Brittany, who was leaving the next day to spend the summer in Memphis and wanted the two of them to paint their nails together. Candice forgot the polish and, upon that realization, came to find me, stunned and out of breath, with an indistinct flush. She looked at me the way she looked at anyone she first met—assessing if I fell into her three categories of humankind: boring, wild, or chill.

 “Hey, are you the lady’s daughter?” Candice asked, pulling out her earbuds. There was a cast on her left arm decorated with small drawings, and the bracelets on her right wrist obscured what looked like splotches of small boils. She was sweating.

“No,” I began. “She’s my aunt, my mom’s friend.”

“Oh, cool,” she said, turning over a piece of gum with her tongue. “What’s your name?”

“Amaka,” I said, taking note of her sharply drawn, winged eyeliner. A line of brown foundation slid down her neck.

“Amaka, do you have nail polish? I need it for a friend,” she said. “Will give it back tomorrow.”

“I think so,” I said, and rummaged through the small pocket of my suitcase. “Silver okay?”

“Thanks, girl.”

As I handed it to her, she tilted her head to the side, appraising my body. “So why are you wearing that?”

I looked down at my clothes like I wasn’t the one who’d dressed myself that morning: a red floral skirt draped the lower half of my body, paired with a rainbow-striped shirt. I would have worn my white sandals but didn’t have enough time to find them.

“Why are you wearing that?” I replied. She was tall, legs caked with small scars, tiger stripes on her thighs. There was a tattoo of a giraffe in her inner thigh, and I wondered if she’d had to take off her underwear to get it. By the smile on her face, she was pleased with my response, and I resisted smiling back. In retrospect, doing so probably would’ve made me boring. But I was cautious: there was something in her that I wanted to know.

“Because it’s ninety degrees outside, babe,” she replied with a lopsided smile, turning around to climb the steps.

“Maybe I’m religious,” I said to her back.

 “You wouldn’t say that if you were,” she said loudly, making her way up the next flight of stairs. “I’m Candice, by the way.”

The next day, while Yemisi was out running errands, Candice knocked on my door, waggling the bottle of silver polish, and asked if I had a black one for her toes. I didn’t. But I did have red. She pouted but eventually put the polish on in the stairwell. I blew at her toes as she wiggled them. And when I ran out of breath, we laughed. Something quietly shifted between us, like the way a whisper to the ear unlocks a shiver down the spine, and we began to spend most of our days together.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Candice and I were usually in Yemisi’s apartment while she was at work. We sat on the off-white sofa in the living room, watching films on my phone, eating plastic-looking microwave popcorn, drinking lemonade. We never used the small, flat-screen TV, and neither of us suggested it. I enjoyed the closeness that came with the phone. There was no awkwardness when we did this for the first time: it felt as routine as falling asleep. Candice leaned on my shoulder and watched the shows with knit eyebrows and upturned lips, and at the end, she would say they were chill. It reminded me of my father, just before he left, when he said he hated my mother the way he loved me—with endurance. When we grew bored with the films, Candice went to the bathroom for what felt like long stretches and I skimmed my summer reading books.

“High school is hell,” Candice said once, as she watched me by the doorway.

“College isn’t easy either,” I said. Candice spoke a few times about wanting to get her GED so she could get out of our small town, so small that a few of her former classmates still said she gave so much head that it split her bottom lip in half.

“That’s not true,” she said, folding her arms. “Why do they party so much, then?”

Sometimes Candice fell asleep, and I’d keep reading my books, occasionally pausing to watch her chest rise and fall. I didn’t know then that Candice had a hard time sleeping in her own home.

If we weren’t inside, we went for walks to Deerwood Elementary School. Even in summer, its playground was bare, except for the small boys who played soccer near the swing set. I’d run around for a bit, stirred by the fresh air and sun, while Candice watched me, which made me run even faster. We’d lie down beneath a tree, where I wondered if she, like me, listened to the rustle of leaves, feeling the itch of ants and grass on our legs. The sun flashed through waving branches, the moving clouds offering moments of cool respite. I closed my eyes after a while. Candice scrolled through her phone until she became restless. She didn’t like to sleep outside.

“So, do you know what you want to be when you grow up?” Candice asked, her arm perched on the ground.

“Not really,” I said, watching a moth flutter toward a flower. “Maybe a teacher.”

“Why?” she asked. “And for what grade?”

“Little kids, probably,” I said. “They’re thoughtful.”

“Older kids aren’t thoughtful?”

“You know what I mean, Candy.”

“I guess,” Candice said, turning to stare at the sky. “Kids are deep without knowing they’re deep.”

“What about you?” I asked, peeking at her.

“Sometimes I think I want to be an actress, but my nose is too big,” Candice said. “And I’m too dark,” she added.

“Nah,” I said. “That’s not true.”

Candice didn’t respond. The boys were making a lap around the park, and whipped past us, like a small storm.

“I don’t like my face either,” I said carefully. “But your face is fine.”

 “But I like your face,” she said, spreading her legs in the grass. “You have nice eyebrows.” Before I could say anything, she added, “But maybe I’ll go viral on Insta, become famous, and get plastic surgery like Lil Kim.”

I chuckled. Candice closed her eyes and took a deep breath; I pulled grass from the roots and spread it over the space between us. My throat was dry. I squinted at the sky, digging my fingers into the cool veins of the earth. At school, there were boys who took pictures of me and posted them on their social media, saying how ugly I was, that I looked like a male rapper from Atlanta.

Candice sighed. “Still need my GED.”

Not long after the end of summer, after Candice’s accident, and after I stopped speaking to her because my mother and Yemisi wouldn’t allow it, I discovered that she had dropped out of school after her father died of cancer and her mother wouldn’t get out of bed for weeks. Candice got a job as a cashier at Dollar General and became a delivery driver for Domino’s Pizza. She was six months shy of graduation.

“We can study together,” I offered then.

“Later,” Candice said. “Books are forever. The sun’s today.”

“And tomorrow,” I said. “Until Friday actually.”

“But today’s sun is only today.”

One time, we were walking back to the apartment when Candice asked me why I wore long-sleeve shirts in ninety-degree weather.

“My mom picks my clothes,” I said.

“I saw a tank top in your suitcase the other day, though,” Candice replied.

“Packed them by accident.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I get it. I know why.”

We made a turn onto our street, and Candice stopped walking, lifting her encased left arm. “After I got out of the hospital for burning myself too much and breaking my wrist when I passed out, I was at this place for a while and met a girl like you. Vaquel. And I get it. I do. Just wanted to say that. But anyway, I’m on a different wavelength now. Other things help, too, but that’s just me.”

Over the years, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I could have said something better, something that acknowledged that she once felt so buried, so weighted by the world, that she turned on herself for a pain that was also a relief. Candice wore anything without a care for anyone seeing the boils or small scratches on her arm. And deep down, I couldn’t believe she was that brave, so unchallenged by the second glances, the whispers, the rumors. I would’ve thanked her then, for just being her, but these things are known too late, forgotten too quickly.

“My mom doesn’t believe in that stuff,” I said quietly. “That’s why I’m with my aunt.” Candice went silent, and I suddenly yearned to touch her, her cheeks specifically. We passed Mr. Keith, who lived on the fifth floor and wore thick, high-prescription glasses that gave him froggy-looking eyes. He was walking toward the mailroom, and Candice made “ribbit” noises. I didn’t snicker like she expected me to.

“It’s jokes,” Candice said, when we reached my door. “Keith loves me. Gives me chocolate all the time.”

“Then be nice, Candy,” I said.

“Everyone loves calling me candy, but no one treats me like candy,” she said. “Ain’t even sweet.”

“You can be Dicey, then,” I said with a smile, as I opened the door. “Not with me, though.”

“Never!” she yelled.

Candice always left before Yemisi returned in the early evening from the bank, where she worked as a teller. As she cooked dinner, she talked about the people who tried to dupe her, how much her feet hurt—general frustrations, utter ennui. She went on and on, even when I was blatantly inattentive, texting Candice instead. Yemisi had pictures of different women on the walls of her bedroom, but she never mentioned friends besides my mom. And if she stayed out late, she worked her side gig as a Lyft driver or saw her AA sponsor (at least this is what she told me). The man I would’ve called Uncle left her after she went into rehab for the second time.

The kitchen simmered in the July heat. Yemisi was stirring her beef stew as she talked about a man who came to the bank claiming that he’d been scammed by his wife, only for her to find out that he was scamming himself. Yemisi turned her back to me every now and then, and that was how she found me with my chin pinned to my chest, my mouth spread into a smile so ridiculous, I looked cartoonish. It was a new thing that Candice and I had started—sending unflattering photos of ourselves to each other—but I didn’t know how it must have looked to Yemisi. I laughed.

“What’s so funny, eh?” she asked, as she put the ladle to her lips to taste the stew. “What are you doing?”

“Just on my phone,” I said. “Talking to a friend.”

“Okay-o,” Yemisi replied, still peering at me. “Mr. Keith was telling me that he saw you and that tall girl walking the other day.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sometimes we run into each other.”

“She seems nice,” Yemisi said, carrying the pot of stew to the dining room. “I heard she was in the hospital.”

“Oh, yeah, her accident.” I was relieved to find she knew none of the stories of the fights Candice had gotten into in high school, back when people said she’d meet boys in a small clearing by the football field for twenty dollars.

 “Poor thing,” Yemisi said. “Mr. Keith told me. Glad she’s better.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Me, too.”

There was an excitement in Yemisi’s posture—the frequent glances, murmured ramblings—that told me she’d get on the phone with my mother right after dinner and tell her that sweet Amaka was getting better from what turned me blue, or whatever it is the Americans say. She thought I was going through a gloomy American teenager phase (something she saw in a Lifetime movie when she first immigrated to the U.S.) and had no idea that my mother had found me in the bathroom the day before school let out for the summer, with a razor blade in one hand and crusted blood on the other.

I had been at Yemisi’s place for four weeks then, and besides my routine with Candice, nothing had changed. I found that the best time to cut myself was on Sundays after church, when I had the most conviction. And each time I realized how much I had missed the familiar throbbing, the stillness after I’d gotten past the epidermis—the head-emptying nothingness that was actually a small hum of grace. This I couldn’t get from anywhere else. And I only got better at hiding it, as I moved to my legs instead of my arms, which were healing slowly. And I wouldn’t make lines: I pressed. Made pricks. Pain was not something that just happened to me, but a thing I could control.

“Your birthday is coming up,” Yemisi said, while I stared at my plate of food. “In two weeks.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Almost forgot about that.”

“But how could you forget? You’ll be sixteen,” she said, through a mouthful of food. “We should do something, eh?”

“It’s on Sunday, so I’ll be with Mom,” I said. “But we could do something together after.” “Yes,” Yemisi said with a smile. “That would be nice. We could go to the place in the city you talk about sometimes—the poetry thing.”

“Yes, Auntie,” I said with a smile. “Thank you.”

 “Good,” she said. “Like another mother-daughter outing. Lucky you.”

When Yemisi smiled, the branching wrinkle at the corner of her eyes tightened, and I thought, maybe someday I could have those same wrinkles, too. That night, I dreamed of a life as Yemisi’s daughter, one where we didn’t degrade ourselves from the inside out.

It was the Friday before my birthday, when I followed Candice to her job at the Dollar General near my high school. I had been showing up to her shifts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays all summer, staying from the late morning until dusk. I told Yemisi that I got a job as a bagger at the discretion of the store manager, but I was really a volunteer. If the store manager was the Black woman, she gave me twenty dollars at the end of every shift or told me I could take five pieces of candy by the register for free (I often took more than five). Candice winked at me occasionally. We were the only ones who worked, even though there were two unoccupied cash registers.

That day had been unusually busy, and I was bagging the groceries for a short, burly man—who purchased string cheese, packets of Lactaid pills, and a box of tampons—when a group of six teenagers entered the store. They were a neat mix of Black boys and girls, laughing at something the tall boy who led them in said. I picked up a chocolate bar and nibbled at it. Candice was rigid. Her bent arm in the cast made her look like a suspended robot awaiting instructions from a computer game. I quietly waited for a smack of the lips or a tense cough that told me to ask her a question.

I had eaten four chocolate squares when the group of teenagers arrived at the register with their snacks. Candice offered her opening pleasantries to the customers with uncustomary coldness. And the tall boy responded with a few mumbled words. The veins in his arms looked on the verge of bursting when he handed Candice four dollars to pay for the can of Arizona soda and Cool Ranch Doritos. I bagged his snacks with practiced swiftness, and the other teenagers followed one after the other, until the last girl was at the register, and Candice didn’t say a thing to her.

 “Damn, Candy,” the girl said. “Not even gonna say hi like we not friends?”

“We’re not, Chantal,” Candice said ,with the jaunty timbre of a cheery employee who believed the customer was always right. “I haven’t seen or spoken to you since March. And it’s August.”

“Lies,” she said. She looked at her other friends as if expecting them to laugh, but they were looking at their phones. Candice glared at the girl as she tapped on the computer screen to ring up her chips and gum.

“C’mon, Candy,” the girl said. “You know that’s not true. Don’t act like you weren’t the one who cut me off. You know I come ’round here. I even tried to visit you when you were in the hospital, but they wouldn’t let me.”

I took a good look at the girl and realized that I had, in fact, seen her around. She always wore high platform combat boots draped with silver chains. She never came inside the store but stood on the curb, smoking a cigarette with a group.

“Look,” the girl said. “Are you still mad that we—”

“No,” Candice said, observing the old woman who was wheeling her cart to her aisle. “Some people have to work.”

“That’s cool or whatever,” the girl said. “You never texted me back about the party tomorrow. Come, though. We don’t have to talk. But I’ll have a surprise. Heard your guy’s not available anymore.”

She turned around and left without waiting for a response. I picked at the fabric of my shirt near my shoulders so I could peek through the windows behind me. The group was in the parking lot, and the girl who spoke to Candice blew a ring of smoke into the air. The setting sun reflected off the storefront windows. I longed to be outside, running in the park.

“Amaka,” Candice said quickly. “Bag the nice lady’s things, please.”

 “Oh, yes, sorry,” I said.

Candice gave me a strange look and was silent for the rest of the shift. I felt a prick on my arm that I couldn’t rub away. I didn’t want blood to stain through my white, sleeved shirt. I pocketed my chocolate bar and finished eating it during our walk home. The streetlamps hadn’t yet come on, though it was dim outside. I shuffled on the sidewalk, trying to guess what was going on in Candice’s mind. She took labored breaths, so she could have been tired. But she looked up at the cars passing on the road with an alertness that made me think she was anxious. When we neared the apartments, my mind wandered to Yemisi. We had decided to go to the spoken word café in the city, and she kept asking me to perform something.

“Tomorrow’s your birthday, right?” Candice asked, as we began to walk up the steps to my door.

“Close,” I said, looking at my unlaced shoes. “Sunday.”

“Want to do something fun tomorrow, then?” she asked. “Like a party? A pregame for your birthday? For real, this time?”

We had just reached Yemisi’s apartment, and I leaned my back on the door to face her. Candice had invited me to two college parties before, and both times I had said no, afraid Yemisi would catch me either way—going or returning—and I’d get in trouble with my mother. Candice never went to the parties if I didn’t want to go; she said she had no reason to be there. I was ready to decline again, when she quietly added, “We won’t be out long.” I’d never seen her so meek before.

“Only if you take the heat when I get in trouble,” I said.

“Not when—if,” Candice said, breaking into an easy grin. “But of course I would. Don’t worry about what to wear either.”

“You sure?” I asked.

“Yes,” Candice said. “If you want, you can borrow some of my clothes.”

 “Does that mean I’ll show up to the party naked?” I said, and she laughed.

“If you want,” Candice said, and she kissed me on the cheek.

There was a wetness on my face, and she wiped my cheek with two fingers before stomping away.

The next day, I went to church with my mother, which we did every Saturday morning. The church was a twenty-minute drive away from Yemisi’s place, giving my mother enough time to put on a blank mask, which would melt away by the end of Bible study, when she’d weep in the car as she drove me home. Every week was the same, and every week I was reminded of her utter disappointment. She couldn’t understand why I would want to hurt myself, and it seemed so hard to say I could bear the brunt of my enclosure if I confined myself. What else was there between the world and me but all the things I wanted to be and all the things the world tried to force me to be—ugly, stupid, loose? Still I tried to assure her that I was getting better, which I sometimes thought was true. She chose not to believe me on some days and, on others, she listened to my words like they were gospel. I wished I was brave enough to say we couldn’t pray away everything—if only it were that simple, that holy.

The weekend of my birthday was especially tiresome, since I saw my mother twice in one week. We sat in silence as she drove me back to Yemisi’s place. My phone buzzed while I waited for my mother’s second wave of tears. It was Candice, who sent me a selfie pouting in the grocery store. A breathy chuckle left my mouth, and I smiled as I texted back underneath the cardigan on my lap. I didn’t realize that my mother was watching me.

“Yemisi told me you made friends with a girl from around the place,” she said, her voice still shaky.

 “Sort of,” I said, as I put my phone in my pocket and settled on looking at the rearview mirror. “I see her when I get the mail for Auntie.”

“Are you doing anything for your birthday with her?” she asked.

“No, we’re not that close.”

“Well, you should ask her to come to church for your birthday tomorrow,” she said. “We could all get dinner. I’m sure she won’t say no.”

“I promised Auntie that we’d do something in the evening.”

“I see,” she said, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of the blue-and-white-patterned blouse she always wore the week of my birthday. “Yemisi told me she thinks you’re getting better.”

“I think so, too,” I said. The tree branches wrapped over the walls of the highway noise barrier like clawed hands.

“We thank God.”

“Amen,” I said, and my mother began to cry.

After Bible study, I drew the shades in my room and considered which healing wound I’d break first. Yemisi was at work and wouldn’t check up on me until dinnertime, and by then I’d have taken a shower, the redness of my eyes softened by the steam.

My sleeves were rolled up, the blade was at the edge of my bed, my arm a palimpsest of cuts. I could see it so clearly—see myself make a quick jab, without even looking. I took the blade and poked at the skin, but the familiar pleasure was no pleasure at all. My mother was still on my mind—her face, her ashen hands, her closed eyes. She had begun to hit herself in the car: she wanted me to see her as she saw me, what she thought I did to myself. And I couldn’t hear anything over the slapping, the head banging the steering wheel, her saying, I do what you do. I thought of Candice, and I thought of my mother and Yemisi, all of them melding into one. I tried to imagine their lives, what they had endured, and what made them stay—walks down the road, funny encounters with strangers, trips to the city, love. I put the blade away and sat on my bed, letting the tears slip from my face.

My eyes still felt puffy when I met Candice at the dumpsters of the apartment building. She was wearing a miniskirt and a blue tank top, holding a white tee shirt and a pair of green shorts. She gave me a curious stare, like the one when we first met.

“You can change into this if you want,” she said, looking at my long-sleeved, striped shirt and ankle-length skirt. “No pressure, though.”

“Thanks,” I said, taking the shorts. It was dark enough outside that I could put on the shorts at a distance without her seeing my scars. The shorts came to the middle of my thighs. I didn’t put on the shirt. Candice was still looking at me, and I wondered wildly if she had watched me change.

“Good call about the shirt,” she said. “Looks better. You have nice legs.” The chilly night met my bare legs, and I shivered.

“You feeling okay?”

“I feel great,” I said. “More like you.”

We were in a house in the city, crowded with more people than it could accommodate. The walls were covered with paintings of landscapes and pictures of the Lincoln Memorial. Music blared in the living room as people danced. The television was tuned in to a reality show no one could hear. The smell of hot sweat clung to my nose, and my skin absorbed the condensed wetness of the room. As I stood next to Candice, I realized that I never spent time with her at night, beyond the mediation of our cellphones. We didn’t have the light of day to tease out our warmer sides, but Candice, who was biting her bottom lip, seemed the same.

Chantal approached us, holding two plastic cups filled with blood-red liquid; she had a spliff at the corner of her mouth. Candice introduced us, like we hadn’t seen each other in the grocery store. And Chantal gave me her joint because she felt bad for not bringing another cup of sangria. She lit it, and I coughed roughly from my first inhale.

“Do you want it now?” Chantal asked.

“Yeah,” Candice said. “I’m bringing my friend. She’s not doing anything, though.”

“Yeah, that’s cool,” Chantal said, eyeing me before turning. “We’re in the basement.”

“Hold up,” Candice said. “Give me a sec. Be there real quick.”

“Everything okay?” I asked when Chantal left.

“Yeah,” she said. “Listen, everything is chill. Don’t feel you have to do anything you don’t want to.”

“Okay,” I managed to say, though the back of my throat burned. I wanted her to say more, but she only took my hand in hers and led me through the house. I only realized days later that she knew exactly where to go because she had been there before. I dropped the joint on the floor as I sifted through the crowd. We stopped at the door of the basement, where I saw the tall boy from the grocery store with a boy I didn’t recognize. The tall boy’s words were drunkenly sloppy, and his friend glared at me.

“Oh, hey,” the tall boy said, looking at Candice and passing a lazy glance in my direction. “Are you with Chantal? She said we could hang.”

Candice nodded, and we went down the basement. I was in front of the other boy, whose hand kept brushing against mine, and I shrugged him off, willing myself to believe it was just a mistake. Once we reached the bottom of the stairs, we found people leaving in groups of two. A girl gave me a nasty look when she saw me standing next to the boy. Her quiet anger made me dizzy.

“Don’t be like that, Vanessa!” the boy yelled after her.

 “Shut up, Charles,” she said.

The creaky wooden stairs echoed throughout the damp basement with its yellow, spray-foam walls. Except for the folding chairs littered around the boiler and the treadmill by the window well, there was nothing but boxes and suitcases. I stood with my hands clasped together, as Candice walked with the boys toward the chairs. Chantal was sitting in the chair closest to the boiler. Her hands were placing small packets of white powder and razor blades on a folding table. Candice and the boys arranged themselves in a semicircle near Chantal.

“All right,” Chantal said, cutting up the powder with a blade into neat lines.

Candice tapped on the chair next to her, and I sat down. The wounds on my leg throbbed as the shorts rubbed against my inner thighs. Across from me, the boys were looking at the table with a yearning.

“Oh,” Chantal said. “I don’t have enough for everyone.”

“Girl, I said she wasn’t using,” Candice said, her voice rising. “Why don’t you ever listen to me? I said she’s not using.”

“I could try a little bit,” I said. “I’ve never done it before.”

Candice looked at me for a moment, and I wanted her to see that I could be folded into whatever she was doing. There was probably desperation in my eyes, yes, but I’d done worse to myself.

“Not now,” Candice said. “There’s no rush.”

“If she wants to,” Chantal said. “Let her do it. It helps you, right? Or were you on some fake shit when you said that?”

The boys chimed in, chanting that I should go ’head and do my thing. “Nah,” Candice said. “She’s gonna wait. Or we’re leaving.”

Chantal put her hands up, laughing. “I was only playing,” she said. So I waited and wouldn’t know how to describe the feeling I had then as anything other than relief. But then again, wasn’t self-harm my own kind of drug? As the boys went, I looked at Candice and everything seemed to make sense—her jitters, lows, highs, bathroom breaks, restlessness, the boils. I wondered if she was high when she hugged or kissed me. I wondered if it mattered.

Candice was the last to go, and when she came up, her head was like a weight that made her slump back into her chair. Her eyes were closed, and drool dangled from the corner of her mouth.

“Candice,” I said, reaching for her hand.

“Don’t worry,” Chantal said. “Let her enjoy.”

Chantal leaned back on her chair, and the boys were laughing to themselves, licking their lips between giggles. Candice began to mumble.

“But it doesn’t look like she’s breathing,” I said.

“Listen,” Chantal said with a drawl, waving her hand languidly. “You don’t know her like I do. This is what happens. She’ll want to kiss me, then go home.”

I could hear the bass of the music from upstairs. And in the dark of the room, I was in a pit within a pit, far far away. I stood when foamy spit began to build in Candice’s mouth.

“Is she okay?” I said. “She’s still.”

“She’s fine,” Chantal said, though she stared at the ceiling as if she were looking at stars. The boys were laughing but began to yell “oh, oh, oh!” pointing their fingers in Candice’s direction.

She was out of the chair convulsing on the ground. I reached for Candice’s head, as the boys ran upstairs, and I screamed for help. Chantal was still looking up at the ceiling despite my cries. I wiped Candice’s hair from her hot face, tapping her cheeks. She vomited in my lap, all over her green shorts. I felt a sharp sting on my thighs as the liquid entered my wounds.

 “Candice,” I said. My voice was giving out. I turned to Chantal, who stumbled toward the door with her phone. “Please help!” I yelled again.

“Maka,” I thought I heard her whisper. She hummed and turned her head to the side, away from me.

“Just hold on a sec,” I said, trying to gently move her head back to me. “You’re okay.” “It’s so good,” she said, her eyes staring into the distance. “Feels good.”

“Yes, Candy,” I said. “Good here with me.”

“Candy,” she said with a sigh. “Sweet.”

The music upstairs was consumed by stomping and running. Police sirens gathered in the distance. Candice’s eyes were closed, her breath slow. I shook her, but she wouldn’t stir. And all I could think of was the first and only time I saw her fall asleep outside in the park. She was peaceful, still, in that bed of green. And I was warmed, thinking to myself: finally, she rests.