Miranda was just starting to doze off when the song came over the radio.
Her brother didn’t sing along—he never did—but she could hear the dull tap-tap of his fingers against the steering wheel as he drummed them in time with the rhythm.
The ordinariness of the trigger seemed to mock her. It wasn’t a big event. It wasn’t a reunion. It was a damn song, of all things, just a few lyrics, enough to place a hook just behind her small intestine and yank. The memory rose up in her, a sickeningly warm wave that crested inside of her chest until all she had to do was close her eyes and she was there.
She was sixteen. She wore glasses instead of contacts, scared of putting her fingers anywhere near her eyes. She was obsessed with the band Train and Katy Perry.
Rin was singing again, her voice rough and sparse. Miranda leaned back on her palms and closed her eyes, listening. She didn’t know the song and she was pretty sure Rin wasn’t singing the tune properly, but she liked it. There was something in the way Rin sang, her chopped-short hair flopping on her head and her shoulders rocking from side to side, that made it seem like she was entering some other world.
Miranda tipped her head back, letting the sunlight catch her face. There was a strange dry heat to the air here. When Nana had suggested they visit the Grand Canyon for a week, Miranda had expected some things. She’d expected it to be hot. She’d expected to be a little terrified of how deep it went. But little things about it kept throwing her off balance. The way the canyon looked at night with the moon spilling into it, filling it up with silver light—so much more beautiful, at least to Miranda, than it was in the daytime. The taste and feel of the air, thinner and drier than she was used to, making her nose dry up inside.
Rin plunked herself down next to Miranda and laid her head on her shoulder. Her hair tickled Miranda’s nose but felt nice and soft against her neck. “My grandfather and I are going on an early morning hike tomorrow,” Rin said. “To take pictures of the sunrise. Would you—I mean, would you like to come?”
Miranda’s grandmother and Rin’s grandfather had been the talking point around which they’d met. She liked the old man—straight off the boat, Rin had told her—even if she was unsure if he liked her. Rin’s grandfather was very still and quiet, and he had this stern press to his mouth whenever he looked at Miranda. She didn’t know if it was because she was loud and boisterous, or because she wasn’t Japanese, or because of—other things.
Something nebulous, like the beginnings of a thought, a creature not quite born, pushed at the back of her mind. Her stomach tightened. Miranda tried to ignore it, focusing instead on how Rin’s eyes turned to slits when she gazed into bright light, or the soft saffron tint of her skin.
“I’d love to go,” she answered.
To say Miranda was not a morning person would have been a slight understatement. She hated mornings. She was barely human before she got some food into her system. But she dutifully set her alarm for about fifteen minutes before sunrise and laid out her clothes.
She didn’t tell her grandmother where she was going, or with whom. Nana slept late anyway. She’d just meet her at breakfast in the dining hall and let Nana assume she’d gotten there a few minutes ago.
That something was back in the recesses of her brain when she thought about telling Nana about Rin. She knew, intellectually, that she shouldn’t be worried. Nana loved meeting new people and she’d be pleased that Miranda had made a friend. But there was more to it—the more that she’d avoided speaking aloud even in her own head—and the thought of Nana finding out about that made her want to puke.
Rin was waiting with her grandfather over by the bluffs. She was wearing her usual getup of oversized cargo pants and a white sports tank top, her ever-present camera hanging from her neck. The sight of it made something warm and thick rise up through Miranda’s chest, into her mouth until she couldn’t deny her smile. The feeling tasted like honey.
As they walked along the rim of the canyon, taking pictures, they made sure to stay just a little behind Rin’s grandfather. So we’re out of earshot, the thought flew past Miranda’s mind before she could suppress it.
“So.” Rin’s voice was higher-pitched and rougher than usual, an odd combination that turned Miranda’s pulse into a skittish horse. “Um. You know that I—you know, find girls—” Rin blew a puff of air up at her bangs, which had fallen into her face again. She stamped her foot on the ground in frustration. “I like you.”
Miranda tried very, very hard to keep her face blank and open. The corners of her mouth were twitching like crazy.
Rin fidgeted with her camera, tweaking the settings. “Right. Yeah. So. I like you. A lot. And I—there’s no pressure, really, I don’t want you to—but if you do… I don’t know, like me back?”
The taste of honey was in her mouth again, and Miranda had to swallow hard to keep the thickness from clogging her throat and spilling out from her eyes. She felt so warm inside. She didn’t know that someone could feel so happily warm.
Rin’s grandfather looked back to make sure they were still coming, and Miranda’s stomach tightened again. She knew even without asking that Rin’s grandfather didn’t know about Rin’s sexuality—and that he wouldn’t welcome it if he did know. Miranda thought of what Nana would think. She’d tell Mom, she was certain to—Nana hadn’t met a piece of information she didn’t want to blab to everyone. What would Mom think?
Miranda remembered when she was little. She’d always been a good girl, but there was one time when she’d gotten in with this group of kids and started shoplifting. Mall security had caught her almost as fast as her guilt, and they’d called her parents. Miranda had expected some yelling, and definitely some punishment. But her mother had taken her aside and told her that she knew Miranda was better than this. “This isn’t you,” she’d said. “I want you to be the good girl that I know you are.”
When Miranda pictured trying to tell her mother about Rin, all she could hear was that phrase. She could see the disappointment in her mother’s voice, her eyes, etched into the crow’s feet around the corners.
Her stomach tightened even more and she almost threw up. She could feel that thought in the back of her mind again. It was like a dark red cloud, shifting and ominous, but nothing she could properly grasp. She couldn’t name it, couldn’t examine it properly. She could only feel it and react.
“I’m sorry.” They didn’t sound like her words, her voice. It was like she was a puppet, pulled by strings, her voice thrown from someone else’s throat. “You’re a great person, Rin, and I’m glad to be your friend. But that’s it.”
The words rang hollow, pennies thrown to a beggar, petty and pitying. She hated those words. She hated herself for saying them.
Rin’s face didn’t crumple, nor did she cry. It might have made Miranda feel less like a heel if she had. Instead it was as if someone had swiped over her face with an eraser, making it blank and unreadable. The light in her eyes grew cold and retreated.
“I have to go.” Miranda backed away, taking three steps before turning on her heel and booking it for her cabin.
Nana was still asleep when she snuck back in, tiptoeing across the creaking boards. Sinking back into bed had been like sinking into the depths of an ocean. It felt like letting herself drown. She slept, fitfully, and got up with Nana and laughed and talked and walked around the canyon and went home and—went on with life. Somehow. All while drowning.
In all those years, she never spoke of Rin to anyone. Not even her brother.
Miranda opened her eyes to banish the memory, Rin’s face burning into the back of her eyes. That damn song was still playing on the radio, and her brother was shimmying his shoulders by now, mouthing the lyrics.
Had Rin known she was lying? Did Rin still think about her at all? Did she hate her, or did she understand?
“Turn it off,” Miranda said.
“What?” Her brother asked, jolted out of his little drum solo.
“Turn off the damn song.”
Miranda relaxed back against the seat, and silence reigned in the car.
Madison Flannery is a writer living in Los Angeles, having graduated from Principia College with a double B.A. in Theatre and English. While there she served as a creator of and fiction editor for her college’s online literary magazine Mistake House. She has twice been selected to present her work at the National Undergraduate Literary Conference, and has had her short stories published in places such as Metaphor and Outrageous Fortune. Her hobbies include drinking copious amounts of hot chocolate and rewriting disappointing films.