Finding North

By: Carmen Jenner

“You comin’?” North says, looking back at me from the edge of the cliff. Sweat glistens on his naked torso and his blond hair is lit up like a halo by the sun. I squeeze my eyes closed, burning the image into the back of my lids. I stand as far from the edge as the rail at my back will allow. Cold ocean spray hits my face even from this high up, and even with my eyes closed I feel woozy as the sun beats down on my back and shoulders.

North’s feet thud on the sunburnt grass towards me. His hand cradles mine. Springing my eyes open wide, I stare down as he pries my fingers from their tightly fisted position at my side. My best friend threads our hands together and his gaze meets mine, and with the madness of a hundred devils written all over his face in the form of his crooked grin, white teeth, and mischievous cool blue eyes, his message is clear without ever saying a thing: Don’t you dare let go.

I don’t wanna let go. I don’t wanna be chicken shit. The other kids watch us from the water below, and even though all I want to do is run in the other direction, when North jumps, I follow.

I always have.

“Ready?” he asks.

“No.” My heart squeezes and skips a beat.

North runs, pulling me along with him. My feet dig into the rocky edge of the bluff, and then there’s nothing but air beneath them. I’m freefalling, his hand laced with mine. His face is a mixture of panic and joy, and I know mine is the same because both emotions war within me.

I hope I always feel like this. I want to always be right where we are now, my hand in his, freefalling. Not into the water, but into one another.

But even twelve-year-old me knows that once North finds out my secret, this feeling, these butterflies torpedoing inside my gut, will all be ripped away, replaced with thorns, fear, hatred, and ugly words.

So I commit to memory his face, his tanned skin and golden hair, the bright blue eyes that appear haunted with sadness almost as much as they swarm with excitement, and the way I feel with his hand in mine.

I lock those things inside me, and I won’t ever let them go.

Not even if he does.

“Gimme another,” North demands, slamming the empty glass down on my bar. He reeks of Jack. The tight set to his jaw and his steely blue gaze tell me he’s looking for a fight. He won’t get one here, because apart from Phil—a harmless old drunk perched on the edge of his stool at the end of the bar—North and me are the only sorry bastards left. And I gave up fighting with him a long time ago.

“Another,” he slurs. I fold my arms over my chest and lean back against the counter opposite him.

“Time to go home, mate,” I say with a grin that I know will rub him in all the wrong ways. Or the right ones, depending on how you look at it. Maybe I lied about fighting with him.

I’ll admit, there’s a sick, twisted part of me that takes great delight in nights like this. They don’t happen often. It’s pretty rare for him to stay at the pub until closing, but once every six months—maybe more, if I’m lucky—North Underwood drinks himself into an angry stupor in my bar.

“I’m not your mate,” he sneers.

“Fine. Time to go, arsehole.” I tuck my septum piercing away, because if it comes down to punches being thrown, that shit’s gonna hurt like a motherfucker if it gets ripped out.

Once, North would have sat at the bar while I worked, and we’d have flung empty insults back and forth. I’d have poured him drinks and listened to him bitch about his dad, or his hard day scrubbing down decks and painting hulls while working in the boatyard, and he’d have complained about how his latest conquest was withholding pussy because she wanted more of a commitment from him. During all of this, I would have secretly pined and wished for a way to make my best friend forget pussy altogether.

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