The morning after the festival, Mr. McKinnon, who wrote and edited the Island Argus when he wasn’t teaching us, published an emergency edition of the paper. He must have started working on it the second he got home, then cycled around the Island in the dark to make sure everyone had a copy before breakfast. He went to so much effort.
The headline he used was “Daly’s Hero.”
I knew he meant Hero from “Hero to Leander,” because we’d just finished the double Heroides in his class. It must have been the first thing he thought of: how fucked up to teach a poem that ends in a double drowning to someone who’d actually drown before he handed our essays back. But everyone else read “Hero” and thought about film characters or stupid warrior men from epic poems. People who lived and died starting wars or fighting wars or ending wars; there was always a war involved somewhere. They’d forgotten about the actual Hero, who was just a girl.
So the headline did not go down well.
Cally Martin, who runs the Spar in Daly, went door to door with a wheelbarrow collecting every copy she could get her hands on; I didn’t let her have ours. She dumped them on Mr. McKinnon’s front step, where, allegedly, Thom Crofter pissed on them, but only on the back page, out of respect. He was careful to avoid the photo of the girl found dead in the lake at the Thesmophoria festival.
I’ll tell you something about Bree Dovemuir--she was no Hero.
Bree Dovemuir was my best friend for almost my whole life, until she became the person I hated most in the world. Sometimes second most, depending on the day.
Three months ago, it was still Bree-and-Corey, Corey-and-Bree, said as one word, treated as a single, double-headed entity; a mini Hydra. The photo Mr. McKinnon used in the paper was actually of the two of us, taken from the school website, except he’d cut me out so it was just Bree. The irony was not lost on me.
Despite Mr. McKinnon’s best cropping efforts, you could still see the seashell curl of my ear pressed against Bree’s, the matching double-helix piercings that got us both grounded two summers ago, me for a week and Bree for the whole holiday. We’d held each other’s hands as the needle went in once, then again, pulses syncing with the beat of the song the piercer tapped her foot to.
I hadn’t wanted my ears pierced, but Bree begged me not to make her do it on her own. And when mine got infected--of course--it was Bree who insisted I keep the earrings in and made me swear I wouldn’t take them out. And the sad thing is that when we walked into school the first day of autumn term, the rings hidden under our hair, it felt like it was worth it.
I should have known she was a snake then; she’d changed her hoops from the steel ones they were pierced with to tiny silver ones, so we didn’t quite match.
As if the headline wasn’t bad enough, Mr. McKinnon had changed the dimensions of the photo and he’d messed it up, stretching Bree’s jaw wide, making her forehead huge. If it hadn’t been her obituary, I would have been thrilled by her mutant Wanted-poster face. If it hadn’t been her obituary, I would have graffitied it--blacked out her teeth, added a monobrow, some hairy warts. Stabbed out her eyes with the compass from my math set. Glued it to a doll made from grass and hair, spit and blood, and asked the Furies to curse her for her crimes. But it was her obituary, so there was no point; the worst had already happened.
The photo had been taken at the end of term, just before the summer that was supposed to be the best summer of our lives, because we were seventeen and Bree swore the summer you were seventeen was the best summer you’d ever have. And it wasn’t quite the truth to say it was of the two of us, because Alistair Murray was in the original photo too.
I was in the middle, the bridge between them; Bree’s best friend and Ali’s girlfriend. Until Bree and Ali decided they didn’t need a bridge after all. They’d cut me out of the picture too.
When someone dies, there are certain things you have to do. The body has to be cleansed and oiled, a coin left on the lips for the Boatman so he’ll carry the soul away to the Underworld. There is the prothesis the night before the funeral, when the body lies in state and women sing the dirges over it. The next day is the ekphora procession to the graveside, where milk and honey and wine and water are poured into the grave as offerings to Hades. The chief mourners sometimes offer a lock of their hair too. Finally, the perideipnon feast to celebrate the dead.
Without the proper rituals the dead are left behind on the shores of Styx, unable to move on. It’s kind of the same when someone breaks up with you. There are rituals you have to do then too--not official ones, they don’t appear in any sacred text. But everyone knows them, the tried-and-true ways to get over heartbreak. And you have to do them, or you won’t move on either.
First, you call all your friends and they come for a sleepover--they come to you so you don’t have to get dressed, or risk bumping into your ex on the street. This is the relationship’s prothesis, but instead of singing dirges you sing your favorite songs, starting with the sad ones and then getting to the real angry shit, the fuck-you-forever songs. Once your blood is boiling, you delete your ex’s number, all the messages they ever sent and block them online. You do it to them before they do it to you--this is especially important if you’re the dumped, not the dumper.
Then, everyone lies and says they actually hated your ex, that they were never good enough for you. They promise better, brighter things, offer up rumors of who’s newly single, who always had a thing for you. These words and deeds become your bread. They feed and nourish you. They are your perideipnon. Really good friends will bring ice cream, too.
Slowly, you start to come back to life.
A week later, you ceremonially remove a lock, or several, of your own hair and get some new style, or you dye it rainbow colors, and a week after that, you kiss someone’s brother or sister or cousin behind the old abbey ruins in Fraser’s Field. After a month, when it’s obvious it’s really, truly over, you take everything they ever gave you and set it alight in your back garden, an offering to Aphrodite to send you a better lover next time. The fire makes your neighbors worry about sparks and wooden fences, and mutter darkly about the noise as you and your friends dance around a metal bin full of burning memories, but it has to be done.
These are the rites of the breakup, and if you do them properly, they fix you.
But when Ali and Bree left me for each other, there was no ritual, because Bree wasn’t there to be the chief mourner. I was left marooned, somewhere in between.
Now Bree is actually dead. And if you’re wondering if I’m sad about it because it means we’ll never get to mend our broken friendship, no. I’m not.
I wished for it.
Just before Bree was found, I was behind the south barn with Astrid Crane, who’d adopted me after the Ali-and-Bree betrayal, and some of the others from our year at school, far enough from the fire that the parents could pretend not to see us.
Astrid had passed me the bottle of wine she’d stolen from somewhere. I never used to drink, but that was the old, happy Corey, who’d had a boyfriend and a best friend. The new Corey had neither, so I’d let the sour liquid spill over my tongue, and scanned the crowd again for Bree and Ali.
I kept doing it: in the village, at school, everywhere. They’d become my north, my internal compass swinging straight for them any time they were around. I couldn’t decide if I was relieved or gutted when I realized they’d disappeared.
I also couldn’t decide how I felt about the boy I’d just kissed.
The Thesmophoria was good for that kind of thing. It’s an old festival; older than greeting the hamadryads when you drive through Green Wood, even though almost nobody has seen one in centuries; older than throwing pine dollies off Amphitrite Cliff to ask Poseidon to keep the fishermen safe. The Thesmophoria used to be a three-day celebration before the winter wheat was sown, to honor Demeter, and only women were allowed to go, but these days it’s a one-night-only bacchanal, where everyone on the Island gets absolutely blasted and behaves stupidly. Including me, this year. Kissing a random boy.
It’s not that I’d believed I’d be with Ali forever, more that I hadn’t really thought about life After Ali, until it happened. Kissing someone new wasn’t unexpected, but it’s not like I’d gone to the Thesmophoria planning to. On the one hand, I was satisfied I’d proved I’d moved on so everyone could stop pitying me. On the other, I worried I’d put a nail in a coffin I already knew was welded shut.
Most of all, I was afraid Ali and Bree would think I was doing fine without them, and that I didn’t need them anymore. I didn’t need Ali, but Bree . . .
I hated her. But I’d never, ever considered a life After Bree.
When the random boy had come to me, hand outstretched for mine, I was standing at the edge of the festival, trying to drum up the courage to either stay and find someone I could hang out with or just go home and listen to my playlist of sadness for the thousandth time.
And then he appeared, with wide shoulders, a smile full of promises and shadowed eyes, offering a place by his side. I slipped my fingers between his and followed him into the crowd, deliberately not looking for them, trying to act as though he was the only thing in the world on my mind as we started to dance.
I didn’t know for sure they were there, but it was the Thesmophoria and I couldn’t imagine them being anywhere else. And, honestly? In that moment I wanted them to be there. I wanted them to see someone else wanted me. I wanted the whole Island to see that I was fine, because some other boy with a beautiful mouth he’d painted gold, and a hammered copper mask that looked like scales in the red firelight, had picked me out of the crowd. Here was the proof that my world didn’t begin and end with Alistair Murray and Bree Dovemuir.
I needed to believe that. And the boy had, for one moment, kissed me with gilded lips and made it real.
His mouth was cold, he tasted like ice, or salt, or diamonds--something clear and sharp and glittering, something that would quench or call a thirst, or buy an army, start a war. His hands were cold too, cooling my burning skin where they touched me, and my fingers gripped the lapels of his coat so tightly that they cramped. I wanted more; his kiss made me hungry. I wanted to swallow him down, like honey. I wanted to be like the legendary mellified men we’d learned about in history, I wanted to consume this boy until he was my sweat and my tears, until it killed me, and then I wanted to be buried in him for a hundred years.
I’d only ever kissed Ali, so I didn’t know how different it could be. I’d thought it would just be a kiss, like a hundred kisses before. I thought I knew what to do, how it would go.
I didn’t know anything at all.
And this was a kiss without love, or liking, or even knowing. This was a kiss just for kissing’s sake. Imagine if I had cared. Imagine if it had actually meant something.
I could hear the sound of drums, my own heart thundering. I knew with certainty that the ground beneath us had opened and we were going down, down, down, until the earth would cover us and bury us alive, and I was fine with that. I wanted that. I wanted him.
I pressed my whole body against his, and shivered when his hands moved from my face to my waist, holding me to him, keeping me there. Somewhere close by I heard a wolf whistle, long and loud, piercing through everything. I remembered where we were and pulled back, embarrassed. But my fingers were still curled into his coat so he couldn’t get away because I wasn’t done--we weren’t done. And he was still holding me just as tightly. When I looked up into his eyes, they were dark and shining, like he knew exactly what I was thinking and he agreed, and I turned away because suddenly it was too much.
That’s when I saw Ali and Bree. It took me a second to realize it was them, partly because of their masks, but mostly because Bree didn’t look like Bree anymore. At school the day before her hair had been in the usual topknot, chestnut waves bound up and out of the way. Now it was short, cut to her chin, the curls bouncing without the length to hold them down.
We’d always had long hair. She’d wanted to cut hers for years, but her mom wouldn’t let her. Whenever they fought, Bree would threaten to chop it off, though she never did; even she wouldn’t go that far. Until now. I felt a starburst of hurt that she’d do something so huge without telling me first, without us doing it together, even though it was stupid and we hadn’t spoken for months. I felt like she should have told me, or warned me. Asked me if I thought it would suit her. It did suit her, and that hurt too.
And it never stopped hurting to see her in his arms. To see them without me.
Bree was in a long tartan coat, cinched tightly at her tiny waist, that flared as she spun, her wind-tanned skin glowing warm in the light from the bonfire. Next to her I’d always looked like a child: short, soft and round, milky skin, wheat-colored hair. And Ali, holding her, tall and broad-shouldered, like a warrior prince. They looked like equals. They looked like they belonged.
It killed the kiss. It soured the honey.
Copyright © 2023 by Melinda Salisbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.