Ms. Portola fanned out her arms to showcase the stunning mountain peaks high above the sweating teenage girls.
"Look, ladies!" Tall and thin, Ms. Portola played the role of Barclay graduation trip head chaperone with a high level of enthusiasm. She pointed to the jagged ridgeline that split the bright blue sky in half. “That rim leads to Balford Cliff, and on the other side is Crestwater Falls! Isn’t it beautiful?”
She clasped her long, withered fingers. “This weekend, you graduate, your hearts and bodies honed after four years at Barclay Academy. Only the purest models of strong womanhood reach the top of Mount Crestwater. Your future is bright!”
Ms. Achten, the chaperone sweeping the hike, narrowed her heavy-lidded eyes and sneered at the girls. “Only three hours until sundown. We need to reach Balford before dark. Walk faster.”
“You heard her, girls. Three hours left before the Sifting Ceremony! Let’s move!"
The volleyball girls sprinted ahead of the pack, followed by the soccer stars and broad-shouldered swimmers. A few stragglers remained at the rear, including Brenda, who stared at the clouds and rubbed her temples. Almost done. Three more days of motivational horseshit before cap and gown and life on her own terms.
“This is killing me,” Tally said. No matter how tightly Brenda’s best friend pulled the straps on her daypack, it still flopped to one side. Tally ran her jagged nails through her freshly-dyed, jet-black hair. “They told us it would be long, but they never said we had to sprint. How steep is this hike?”
"I don’t know.” Neither she nor Tally had paid attention during prep meetings, when they had bothered to show up at all. They hadn’t heard anything about the trip from last year’s seniors, either, since the graduates had been so busy with ceremonies after they returned. But she’d seen pics. Smiling seniors at sundown. Magical.
A cluster of crimson lines, crude as fresh scars, peeked beneath Tally’s shirt sleeve; they formed the bottom of the massive, three-color rooster she sported on her tawny-beige shoulder. Brenda hadn’t been with Tally when she got the tattoo; she’d been surprised the day Tally showed up in ninth grade with the creature memorialized in ink and smeared blood. Apparently, she’d had it done in some guy’s basement. The details, like the outline of the rooster, remained fuzzy.
“You know their catchphrase.” Brenda clutched her heart, her own nails bitten to the quick. “Strength heals!" Their snickers drowned out the shouts of the try-hards and the wheezes of the dawdlers. More than anything else, Brenda would miss these talks the most. Their plans for next year were loose at best; the only certainty, Brenda recalled sadly, was that they didn’t include each other. She would go to State. Tally was getting the fuck out, whatever that meant – DC or NYC or anyplace you could get lost in. Sometimes Brenda made Tally talk about her vision board all night long, hoping that if she could get her to change it enough times, Tally might accidentally stick around forever.
The sun’s rays bounced off silvery clouds, casting striped shadows across the mountain. The heavy scent of Brenda’s Peaches-N-Cream sunscreen, SPF 70 and applied in layers, just as the teachers had insisted, left a rancid taste in her throat.
Up ahead, the students with Ms. Portola were taking a break. They gulped water from decal-plastered bottles and slumped against the tilted trees. The chaperones huddled in a circle, backs bent, heads down, as if muttering a strange, secret prayer, until Portola raised her walkie talkie. “Hurry, girls! Four miles down! Only twelve to go!”
“She’s serious?” Tally asked.
“Tough women make history!” Brenda lifted a hardy fist to salute the school’s stock phrases. “Make something of yourself before graduation!”
“Because they couldn’t make anything of us the four years prior.”
“Hurry up, you two,” said a low, croaking voice, and they jumped, unaware that Ms. Achten had snuck up behind them. Brenda knew nothing about the woman – not if she taught or worked in the cafeteria or headmaster’s office. She only knew that Achten had scarlet hair and eyes like soap bubbles, and at prep meetings she always stood with her hands in her pockets. Even here on Mount Crestwater, her hands were jammed into the sides of her windbreaker. Why was she wearing a jacket, anyway? Didn’t she get hot?
“Christ,” Tally said through gritted teeth.
In her heart, Brenda knew Tally’s friendship had been the only reason she’d survived Barclay over the past four years. Brenda had finally passed her senior year classes, scraping by in math and French. But since every student had to complete this trip in order to graduate, it meant hiking again, no matter how horrifying her first trek had been. Brenda hated thinking about that August retreat. Had Tally even given an excuse for missing it? No, she just didn’t show up, forcing Brenda to survive that hike alone. A mile into the climb, the incident happened. She didn’t remember her fall, or the stings of the nettles when she tumbled into the ravine. She only recalled the prickles in her throat when she screamed for help. The icy fear when nobody responded.
That horrid, slow hissing.
Brenda shook away the memory. Dwelling on it now would only freak her out. This time, it was vital to stick with Tally. She just wished Tally felt the same way.
The wind whipped around them, flattening the hikers’ shirts against their backs and flinging sweat from their necks until their skin turned red and raw. A strong gust blew tumbleweeds of tangled brown curls around Brenda’s face and shot Tally’s slick, black layers up toward the sky. For a moment, the wind offered a glimpse at a much-discussed secret: the grasshopper-length scar at the nape of Tally’s neck. It looked like a narrow braid of pink leather and had become the talk of the school for years because Tally refused to talk about it. Some classmates asked Brenda instead and balked when she wouldn’t give up the goods. But Brenda’s silence wasn’t out of devotion. Truth was, Tally wouldn’t tell her the secret either.
It killed her how distant Tally could be. No matter how much Brenda nodded at her one-liners, she couldn’t get Tally to muster any loyalty. Sure, they snuck whiskey into thermoses and crashed at each other’s houses, but that wasn’t real support. And on a trip that triggered memories that made her stomach unspool, the thought of Tally abandoning her frightened Brenda more than anything else.
“I’m getting hungry,” Brenda said. “You packed the granola bars, right?”
Tally shrugged. “I forgot.”
“They provided sandwiches.”
“But we’re supposed to bring our own snacks.” Brenda fought to keep her voice from trembling.
“They warned us. They won’t give us extra.”
“Right. Improve our strength.”
“No! They said Prove our strength. Or else.”
“What can I say? Something came up.”
Brenda’s lips pursed. This stint was funny when Tally pulled it with adults, but they had barely started hiking. What if they ran out of food? The chaperones loathed them. Still, teachers had to help students, even ones they hated, right?
“Don’t worry.” Tally squeezed Brenda’s pink, freckled arm. “I’ll score us granola bars.”
Brenda sighed. “Thank you.”
Tally elbowed a buzzing mosquito. “What’s a Sifting Ceremony anyway?”
“No clue. I tuned out when they brought it up. I think it’s on the school website.”
“You read it?”
“Why the fuck would I read that?”
A gasp sounded behind them, and they turned to glare at the eavesdropper. Other than Achten, who was tending to a hobbling student twenty feet behind, there was only one other hiker this far back: Plink, the dumpiest girl in their grade. She had smashed cheeks and a smile so wide it practically dripped off the sides of her face.
“You’re in deep shit.” Plink’s eyes glinted with mischief, but then her expression changed and she wheezed four times into her hand.
“Christ, what’s wrong with you?” Tally asked.
Brenda knew what was wrong with her. Plink was an odd egg with long jowls who never got picked for group work. She always grabbed her midriff when agitated, and her puffy face seemed to burst open every time she unhinged her mouth.
Plink finished hacking into her hand and sneered. “You haven’t heard what they do if you don’t recite it all perfectly?”
“Recite what?” Brenda asked.
“Don’t listen to her. Quit fucking around, Plink, or –
“The words of the founders.” Plink stared, incredulous. “The chants.”
Brenda paled. Chants? She had no idea what Plink meant.
“If they GAVE US OUR PHONES, we could learn the chants,” Tally shouted, loud enough for Ms. Achten to hear.
Plink lowered her voice to a frantic whisper. “Better remember them before you get to the top. If you can’t explain the ceremony’s purpose,” – her voice wavered – “they leave you alone overnight until you can.”
Brenda shivered. She didn’t believe what Plink was saying, exactly, but she couldn’t get Plink’s weird smile out of her head. The phones comment troubled her, too. Nobody had phones, so where had last year’s pictures come from?
Tally rolled her eyes. “Lies.”
Plink’s voice went singsong. “Good luck in the cave with the wolves.” She took out a granola bar and bit into it, dropping crumbs on the ground.
Brenda felt sick watching those spittle-flecked lips. The more she thought about Plink’s warning, the more disturbed she became. Would she and Tally be punished if they messed up during the ceremony? She imagined them forced into a damp cave overnight, huddled in terror, the only light coming from voracious wolf eyes peering inside.
Plink turned and resumed walking. They followed her.
You’re just being dumb, Brenda assured herself. They weren’t going to die in a cave or get mauled by wolves. They were fine, and when they graduated, she and Tally would return to how things once were. Like three weeks ago, when they balled up in the front seat of Brenda’s car, curls of smoke wafting from the pipe in Tally’s palm. They squinted into the glittering darkness, the stars shining like the sequins on Brenda’s prom dress. That night, they recognized every star. But none could be seen now, in the blistering daylight.
“Hey, Plink?” Tally called. “Got a spare granola bar?”
It wasn’t just Brenda who felt jumpy. The critters darting across the trail had put everyone on edge. Squirrels scampered over shoes, and some even grew bold enough to chew on the laces, leaving them soggy and mangled. Several girls yelped and kicked the air, sending cornered squirrels hightailing it into the brush.
The group made a hard left onto a narrow, foot-wide trail, made even more dangerous by a steep bluff. When Brenda took in the view, she drew in her breath. She felt woozy remembering her fall down the hill last August, the crunch of shoulders and knees. Tally trotted in front of her, carefree.
Gripping the jagged rock, Brenda kept as close to the mountain as possible until she felt comfortable enough to straighten up. When she saw her toes practically curled over the precipice, she drew back with a gasp. She couldn’t help peeking over the edge, which offered a perfect view of the deep, cavernous bottom of the valley. A river had once run through the gorge, but it had dried up, leaving a crooked chute winding through the earth. They were only a quarter mile up, but her brain swirled to make sense of the distance between her feet and the desolate ground below.
Her heart twitched when she spotted something on the valley floor.
The back half of a large, rotting carcass stuck straight up from the riverbed, its white bones visible beneath the shredded patches of tan fur still clinging to its hind legs. The poor animal – coyote? – looked infernally creepy like that, as if stabbed into the earth by something sinister. Even odder were the lone, foot-tall bushes on each side of the body. They bloomed with lurid red flowers even though the riverbed was completely dry and there were no other plants in sight. How had they been able to grow without even a trace of water, in this June heat? She shuddered at how wrong it all seemed. Like the animal had been bloodlet or something.
Brenda kept moving, rounding each bend with caution. Eventually the path widened and steered away from the cliff, and the sun-scorched dirt became smoother. The visibility improved, too. When she saw Tally’s bouncing backpack, she rushed up to her. “Stop leaving me. There’s weird stuff here. I hate it.”
“You made it this far.”
The group amassed at the base of a new slope. After being counted off by the chaperones, they began their ascent. The higher the seniors climbed, the stickier and heavier the air grew. Sweat pooled in their backs. Mosquitos swarmed their necks and forearms; buzzing sounds clogged their ears. The hikers swatted and swatted. Tally whacked Brenda’s hand, leaving a dime-sized circle of blood. “There. You’re safe.”
Two miles from the summit, they arrived at the North Fork, which separated the gentle ridgeline from the Balford rock spires. Even Brenda, sweating profusely, found the skyline of ferocious spikes backlit against the afternoon sun mesmerizing. They paused for snacks, tearing into their knapsacks, wolfing down pretzels and lukewarm bologna sandwiches. Afterwards, most girls gossiped near the tree stumps, but Tally pulled Brenda to the sagebrush patch.
Something about the sagebrush unnerved Brenda. Not the bushes themselves, but the long strands of butterscotch-yellow grass draped over them. Grass this yellow was usually dead, but this stuff practically vibrated, and the way it lusciously wound over other shrubs made her skin crawl. It reminded her of a den of snakes, and she hated snakes. Last August, while crumpled at the bottom of the ravine, a rattlesnake had slithered within inches of her face. It took everything she had not to lose control. She still heard the rattle in her nightmares before shuddering awake, sweaty and frantic.
She was about to beg Tally to return to the trail when Achten materialized behind them. “You found the dodder,” Achten said, eyes half-closed, inhaling an imperceptible scent. “Isn’t it lovely? Perfect artistry in the natural world, all for us.”
Tally wrinkled her nose. “Dodder?”
A cold silence hung in the air. Achten stared at Tally. “You’ve forgotten?”
“She didn’t mean that,” Brenda said quickly, shooting Tally a what are you doing? look. “Yes, the dodder.”
“I’m watching you both,” Achten said. “Go collect strands for our ceremony. Four are all we need.”
Getting called out by Achten made Brenda’s pulse race. She dutifully inched toward the wild plant, the ground beneath her feet warming with each step. But when she reached out to gather some, Achten noticed the back of Brenda’s hand, still coated in blood from the splattered mosquito. Achten recoiled. “Don’t bleed on it! You know it can’t touch viscera! Are you trying to ruin everything?”
The air was so tense, Brenda bit her tongue; she forced herself to continue despite the rusty tang of blood in her mouth. She stepped closer to the shrub and plucked one piece at a time, clutching it tight and wrapping it gently around her forearm. Several tendrils on the vine came close to brushing her blood-spattered hand, but she delicately moved them away.
“That’s correct,” Achten said. “Now give them to me.”
Tightening her jaw, Brenda unwound the strands from her arm. She had to avoid making a wrong move, though not knowing what that meant made the stress ten times worse. “Here,” she said, offering the dodder to Achten. “It’s clean.”
“No blood to defile it,” Tally said, unable to contain her smirk. Shut up, Brenda silently begged her.
“Around my neck.” Achten leaned in, hitting Brenda with a gust of hot, stale breath. Brenda lifted the vines over Achten’s greasy scarlet hair. She dropped them onto her windbreaker collar and stepped back, unsure of what would happen next.
The hike chaperone glowed with joy. “You’ll sit in front with the others now,” Achten told Brenda. “We’ll finish our climb in just a few minutes.” She walked over to the others with the dodder bouncing around her neck and her hands happily buried in her pockets. “Enjoy the scent,” Achten shouted to everyone. “Sifts begin at sunset.”
Brenda yanked Tally behind a tree. “Quit asking for trouble. She’s targeting us, and I’m the one getting fucked over.”
Tally pretended to paw imaginary weeds around Brenda’s neck. “Ooooh, look, it’s so prehhhhhcious.”
“Stop sabotaging everything!” A concern occurred to Brenda, and she unzipped and rummaged through her satchel. “She said the ceremony begins at sunset. It will be pitch black when we get down.”
“We’ve got flashlights.”
Tally gazed straight ahead and said nothing.
“What happens when we get to the top? You know them. Light a candle while bending on the wrong knee, they force you to do it for an hour until it’s right. What if we can’t recite their hymns and its nighttime and they don’t let us finish this hike?”
Tally laughed. “Like I’ll even be there.”
Tally turned and silently wandered to a cluster of pine trees.
Brenda stormed over to her. “You’re joking, right?”
“Come with me. Why stay here with these assholes?”
“No.” Brenda kept glancing at the main trail to make sure nobody left without them. “We’re graduating, no matter what.”
“Look at me!” Tally shouted, and Brenda finally did. “Graduation means nothing. We need to be free.” Her eyes were wild, dark pools, the orange flecks in them burning with an intensity Brenda hadn’t seen in a while. For the first time on this trip, Tally looked alive, her expression vibrant and restless. All Tally had ever wanted to do was to take flight.
“I can’t.” Brenda’s face reddened in shame.
“Why trust them? This is all bullshit.”
“Because.” Because she needed it official. Because she wasn’t Tally. Because she was chickenshit, and Tally was going to realize it and leave forever.
“Because they have working flashlights.” At least she could face facts. “And night falls soon. And animals are wandering all over the place. We’ll die alone.”
“No, we won’t.”
“You don’t even have food!”
“We’ll eat coyote meat.”
Brenda remembered the corpse at the bottom of the riverbed and shivered. “I have a better plan,” she said, a last-ditch idea swirling in her brain. “We’ll suck up to them.”
“The chaperones.” She had seconds to piece her thoughts together before Tally bailed. “If we give them enough of a sob story, they’ll excuse us from the ceremony. We’ll use psychology. You’re better than I am at lying. I need you to work your magic.”
Tally gave Brenda a prove it stare.
“Be smart. We’ll get down the mountain much safer this way.”
Tally arched her eyebrow.
Brenda was going to lose her if she didn’t do something drastic. “Please. When we graduate, I’ll buy you a plane ticket anywhere in the world. Two places. Three.”
With a satisfied smile, Brenda dragged Tally to the trail, where the girls were retying their shoes and carefully reapplying sunscreen. Mrs. Portola stepped onto a boulder. Backlit by the sun, she faced the crowd of expectant students. “This is the last stretch,” she said, beaming. “They used to say that Balford Cliff is what makes a real man, but we at Barclay say it’s what makes a real woman.”
They traipsed up the steep incline until they reached Balford Cliff, a narrow passageway bordered by a tall, rugged gray spire and an alarmingly vertical drop-off. As soon as the path tapered, Brenda’s anxieties kicked in, and she fell to the rear with the rest of the castoffs – Tally, Plink and the other weirdos. And Achten, who wore dodder around her neck and a beatific look in those eyes. Together, they marched across the pathway, mosquitos sucking their blood, the wind chilling their ears, and a heavy anticipation settling into their bones.
Being in the back meant they’d have to start with Achten. Brenda wished she’d paid closer attention to her before the trip started. It seemed crazy. Why couldn’t she remember anything about her?
With a deep inhale, Brenda sidled up to her. “It’s too bad we won’t all get to chant together at the ceremony. Did you hear about Tally?”
A thought struck Brenda. Why couldn’t she remember details about Portola either? Come to think of it, she didn’t know much about any of the chaperones – were they teachers? Counselors? Librarians? She’d only ever seen the women at prep meetings, blathering about the beauty of nature and the trip. They clicked through outdated PowerPoint slides and issued exaggerated promises of doom if instructions weren’t followed. They even blocked the doorways, preventing any exits until they had finished speaking and every senior looked deadened. No wonder she and Tally had stopped going.
But that didn’t answer her nagging questions. If the chaperones didn’t work at Barclay, who the hell were they?
“Yeah, I’m not feeling well,” Tally piped up. “I need to sit out the ceremony.”
Achten would have none of it. “Sound bodies and minds are needed at the top. Keep walking.”
Tally folded her hands on her heart, which unfortunately lifted her shirt sleeve and exposed her tattoo. “Can’t. Heart condition. It acts up with frequent starts and stops.” She motioned to Plink. “Especially when nobody gives you food when you need it.”
Plink whirled around in disgust.
Achten, too, could barely conceal her rage. “You’re responsible for your own sustenance. If we can’t count on you, the entire team suffers. You want us to take away their provisions too, so you learn what a team means?”
“Nobody wants you,” Plink said, rubbing a reddened eye. She shouted to the seniors further up the trail. “Hey! Scarneck’s getting our food taken away.”
Brenda’s voice wavered. “Wait. We don’t want anyone to lose their food.” Why was Tally causing a scene? Several girls had dropped back and were gathering nearby. A few mumbled objections – “no”; “fuck that”; – while others just seethed. Even Mrs. Reed joined them, curious about the uproar.
Tally glared at Achten. “How dare you say we weren’t team members. She wouldn’t even give me a granola bar.”
Achten’s hands twitched in her pockets.
“Look, my back is killing me and we’re dying here,” Tally said. “I’m heading back now.”
“Me too,” said a voice. It was the hobbling girl Achten had urged up the hill, now tilting her chin in defiance. “I’m done, too,” chimed in another girl.
Fury flashed in Achten’s soap bubble eyes. “You are seniors. You will be sifted.”
Brenda couldn’t believe the disaster unfolding around her. Why would Tally open her big mouth?
“Come ohhhhnnn. This is practically abusi–”
A long shadow fell across Achten. “You don’t belong here,” she told Tally, her voice plummeting an octave. Yellow fluid erupted from her mouth, blasting Tally in the shoulder. Tally recoiled at the buttery backwash.
For the first time, Brenda noticed flies buzzing around Achten’s lips. Panic twisted her insides.
Achten’s voice was even lower now, almost mechanical. “You will not keep the optimal specimens from the summit. Their futures are bright.” From her windbreaker pocket she withdrew her right hand, sheathed in a glove covered in short, stiff metal barbs. With a perfect backhand slice, she rammed the spikes into Tally’s throat. Brenda screamed. Somebody retched.
Brenda tried to run to help her friend, but someone – Mrs. Reed – grabbed her arms and gently touched three fingers to her throat. Brenda’s limbs instantly snapped stiff. Her mind spun out of control watching Tally hit the ground, but her body locked in place.
“We’re wasting time.” Achten eyed the steep escarpment bordering the path. “We’ll take the shortcut.”
“How?” asked a small voice in the crowd. “There’s no trail –”
“Strength heals.” Achten spoke in a low rattle. “Find yours, or we’ll do it for you.” With her non-gloved hand, she grabbed Tally’s limp wrist and began the torturously steep climb, hauling Tally behind her like a leopard dragging home its stunned prey.
“It’s so you can return whole and healthy,” Mrs. Reed said, scanning their faces while they watched in horror. “Don’t you want to see?”
“Yes,” Plink whispered.
In shocked silence, the students trudged up the hillside. Brenda made the climb too, her mind in agony but her legs compliant, thanks to Mrs. Reed’s spell.
The graduates flung themselves over the final ridge; gasping for air amidst clouds of red dust. They shambled to a clearing, where Mrs. Portola and the remaining graduates waited in a semicircle, heads already bent low. The slower climbers joined them, dropping their gazes to the ground, looking up only when Achten heaved Tally’s body into the center.
“Now!” Portola commanded.
“What we seed with artifice, we water with blood,” the students droned. “We nourish with earth.”
Achten sprang into action, descending onto Tally while she writhed on the ground. The chaperone raked Tally’s throat with the glove, hacking until her neck was covered in cavernous, bleeding gashes as thick as Tally’s scar, the blood smeared up to her eyebrows. When the chant was complete, it was over. Achten stood, turned to the summit, and spouted gibberish. A low buzz sounded: an electrical current pulsing beneath the dirt. A loud crack followed.
Brenda watched, her face pinched in terror, while Achten knelt to work on Tally. With a hairy finger, she pulled the corners of Tally’s slackened mouth into a smile. After adjusting Tally’s eyelids and smoothing her brows, she used her thumb to lift Tally’s cheeks into an appealing grin. “Get a picture!” she commanded Mrs. Reed. The bloody slits across Tally’s throat and spatters along her face receded and disappeared.
The redheaded monster lifted Tally’s body and posed it cliffside, then stepped away. Tally was laughing, a lovely girl standing before an orange and pink sunset, overjoyed at her graduation adventure. Brenda had never felt more alone.
A camera snapped.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” asked Mrs. Reed.
“Shame she was weak.” Achten returned to Tally, now frozen in joy. She plunged her non-gloved arm into Tally’s chest, gripped something tight, and yanked it out. The bloodied mass quivered in her fist; the rest of Tally crumpled onto the dirt. Achten raised her boot and kicked the remainder of Tally’s inert body off the mountain. There were a few wet thumps, then nothing.
The spell on Brenda had begun to wear off. A slight feeling stirred in her limbs, and she hurtled shakily toward Tally’s upraised heart like a madwoman, clawing for the last pulsing memento of her friend. But before she could reach it, Mrs. Reed had her on the ground with her arm twisted behind her back.
A chorus of screeches pierced the air. A few girls fell to their knees. Brenda wrenched wildly against Mrs. Reed’s grasp.
Tally’s heart palpitated between Achten’s outstretched fingers; her rich blood dripped to the crook of Achten’s elbow. Achten shouted something strange, and the heart let loose an unholy sizzle and began to grow. Within moments a viscous skin bubbled around it like molasses, lengthening and smoothing like molten glass. As soon as Tally’s blood fell from Achten’s elbow and soaked into the earth, the heart elongated into a cylindrical, vase-like shape. It sprouted offshoots, fiery golden blobs that swelled and gradually pulled from the center like taffy into the recognizably gangly limbs of an awkward teenager – one with pristine, unmarked shoulders. A head sprouted next, then nubs of facial features, and out squeezed dribbles of liquid hair. The slick black tresses that always made Brenda jealous now congealed and cooled around a half-formed face. As the viscous mass hardened and faded in color, a thick paste settled onto the forehead; Achten rubbed it until it absorbed into the now-tawny skin.
Brenda wailed in despair at the grotesque husk of her friend. How was it possible to feel so sickened and so lost at the same time?
Plucking a flowering dodder strand from her neck, Achten fashioned an intubation tube and shoved it down the being’s throat. She rooted it around and yanked it back out, so the flowers broke off and the tube came up clean. The feeding was done. She draped the wet yellow vine around the creature’s gentle shoulders.
New Tally tilted her head and smiled. By now she looked heartbreakingly familiar, right down to the stripe of sunscreen along her ear, except for the missing tattoo and blood-red membrane in place of the whites of her eyes. “I’m excited for summer,” she said, her voice creaking when it shouldn’t.
Nobody dared to move.
“Don’t worry.” Tally ran to Brenda and flung a warm, slightly molten arm across her back. “I’m strong now. I won’t leave you.” She pulled a cringing Brenda from Mrs. Reed’s grip and clasped her twice as tightly.
“You see?” Achten asked the gathered crowd. Frozen in horror, Brenda’s eyes darted wildly from Achten to Plink.
“Th…Thank you,” Plink blurted. “She was horrible.” The other girls slowly nodded in agreement, a mixture of terror and desperation in their eyes. They backed away from Brenda and Tally and toward the chaperones.
Tally fingered the last remaining dodder flowers around her neck. “Want some?” she asked her friend.
Brenda blinked at the valley floor below. The sun was almost gone from view, the ground blackening with each passing minute. In the dark, the wolves had begun to growl. If Brenda bolted, she and her weak flashlight and rumbling stomach wouldn’t last an hour.
But Tally’s still-gooey skin was firmly pressed into hers. And somehow in her anguish it felt right, like that gesture of eternal loyalty she had needed for so long. Maybe they could make it out of here together. They were all each other had now, what with the stony glares of the other graduates. Just ignore the circle of girls forming around them, she told herself. Ignore Tally’s grotesquely slick skin and blood clots for eyes and the terrifyingly barren shoulder that hid everything that had once been real about her. Ignore Brenda’s own guilt for causing this mess and her loosening sanity, bubbling and lapping at the edges of her mind. Just make it through together. Finally take that plane trip to Bermuda, arm in arm. Tally was so strong she could probably fly that plane herself. Maybe with her new sleek and composite body, Tally could be that plane, and Brenda could cling to her as they sailed through the starry night sky.
“Why the hell not?” she said, reaching.
The last of the sunlight spilled over the seniors and vanished. A cool breeze blew, and with it wafted the scent of moss and milk thistle from the wildflower patches dotting the trail. High above them, Ms. Portola pointed to the lush, cotton candy clouds reddening in the distance above Balford Cliff. The majestic peak of Mount Crestwater swelled in the distance.
“Look at that,” Ms. Portola said, her voice
brimming with awe. “Time to go, everyone.” She hummed a
few bars of an unfamiliar chant. The tune matched the calls of the songbirds.
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