“But that’s ridiculous!” Martha scoffed, tossing her highlighter-pink hair over her shoulder. “How come she’s not allowed in?”
“I’m sorry, Martha. I’m just playing by the rules. It might be an all-school thing, but at the end of the day, it’s the Harpers who are hosting it. They can really let in who they want and keep out who they want.”
“And you’re okay with that? Neill, this is the last time we’re ever going to be together as a grade. You can’t just leave someone out like that – it’s not right. If they hate her, let them, they’ll never have to see her again after this. But refusing her entrance to the school graduation? C’mon, Neill. It’s just…heartless!”
I put my hand gently on the seething girl’s shoulder. I hated seeing the two of them argue, and more so, because of me. Yes, this was my fault…again.
“So what am I supposed to do, Martha? Ditch the party myself?”
“You would, if you cared about someone other than yourself!”
“Take your own advice!”
Neill’s eyes widened in disbelief as he stared after his girlfriend, who had sprinted in the other direction. It took me a second to register the red, palm-sized mark on his cheek from where the blow had landed to believe that it had actually happened. For all her eccentric, opinionated attitudes, never once had she been violent before. A moment later, I was racing after her.
“You didn’t have to do that.” My voice was subdued. At some point, Martha had decided she had put a sufficient distance between herself and Neill, and now we were walking along at a purposeless, ambling pace. “I did,” she whispered back, hands in the pockets of her jeans. “He’s a…you know what? It doesn’t matter what he is. It doesn’t matter what we were.”
“Aren’t you overreacting?”
“You think I’m the one who’s overreacting?” she turned to me, fiery green eyes seeing right through me like plate glass. In all these years, only she had managed to do that – to make me feel like my secret was stuck to the back of my chair on an offending red sticky note and yet…and yet also make me feel like I was understood.
I bit my lip and took an interest in my shoes. “It’s okay, you know,” she continued in a softer tone.
“I know it’s okay.”
“But they don’t, and they should.” I felt her squeeze my hand in reassurance, and swallowed when I realised that I had never noticed her take it in the first place. She knew I was affected by it. She knew that I stayed up at nights because of what they thought.
When Martha stopped, I did too. I realised that we were stood at the base of an old oak tree, the welcoming branches reaching out in all directions, embracing us and drawing us closer. My lips quirked upward despite the situation, and I reached out to touch the rough bark. I remembered the day we met here; two outcasts – one destined to find her place in the world, and the other doomed to an eternal marathon. Though what I was running away from, I wasn’t quite sure.
My friend smiled over at me. “It’s still here.”
“Yeah,” I smiled back, “I suppose it’s not getting in anyone’s way. There’s no need to cut it down, so why would they?”
“A bit like the two of us, I suppose.”
“A bit like the two of us, yes.” I followed her example and climbed up to perch on the lowest bough.
“Let’s make a bet,” Martha said after a while, breaking the comfortable silence that had settled between us. I looked up at her. She had always been a little taller than me, though whether that was because she wore heels or I had bad posture, I was never able to ascertain. When she did not continue, I prompted her, “What kind of bet?”
“That you and I will meet here again, and again, and again, until one day we’ll be looking out over this field from the highest branch.”
I laughed, not noticing the way her faced brightened upon hearing it. Perhaps that had been the motive for the strange proposal; Martha had always tried to make me happy, and to make me feel like I belonged somewhere. “What if in ten years’ time, or however long that takes, we’re too heavy?”
“Then we’ll go on a diet,” she answered matter-of-factly, “but only then.”
When it was getting dark, somewhere in the silence that reigned once more, we made a mutual agreement to descend from our branch. We completed the trek to the small, open-plan home which was sat stoutly among two double-storeys. It was so familiar that it brought a sense of deep comfort to my turbid mind. Martha unlocked the door, and when I hesitated for the first time, she grinned. “Oh, come on,” she threw a light punch at my arm, “my mum won’t say anything, I promise. If she does, I’ll tell her the truth: that I left that stupid party because I wanted to.”
With a nod, I stepped back so she could pull open the front door. This was home to me, it had always been. This was what I knew, and this was the girl that knew me not as who or what I was, but by my name.
“Come in, Sunshine.”