“The night sky plasters a layer of darkness above us like a ceiling. We lie stretched out on a blanket, our phones inside the house and turned off. The air is still, as the fireflies appear sporadically and then dip back shyly into the darkness. “
The night sky plasters a layer of darkness above us like a ceiling. We lie stretched out on a blanket, our phones inside the house and turned off. The air is still, as the fireflies appear sporadically and then dip back shyly into the darkness. I’m not thinking about my potential mosquito bites or how tired I’ll be tomorrow. Instead, I listen to the low hum of my sister’s voice as she describes the stars we’re lying under.
“Does it comfort you?” She hesitates with a tone of anticipation. “Does it comfort you to know that there is a whole unknown world out there?” It’s a pretty random question, even for her. But everything feels so uncomplicated that it seems like the right conversation to have.
“I don’t know,” I respond, still staring straight up at the sky. “I guess it’s both comforting and terrifying.”
“Terrifying?” She exclaims, shocked. “How can it be terrifying?”
“Well, it makes you realize that you don’t really matter. Like, none of this — not you, not me, not the people we know or the things we do. I mean, what are we compared to the stars that will still be here millions of years from now?”
She’s silent for a moment, slowly processing what I’d said. We’re only two years apart, but sometimes it feels like four. Difference in age creates one hole in our relationship, but our personality differences open many more. Although I was born only one minute after my twin brother, I am the first-born in spirit. I’m the classic type-A perfectionist. Don’t worry, I’m working on it.
Despite our holey swiss cheese relationship, we’re as close as the cars on the I-95. I always pack her bag when we go on trips because if she packs hers, she’ll forget underwear. Oh, and we share a room, so that definitely adds to the dynamic. I go from picking up the clothes she left strewn over the floor, to singing every lyric of Summer Nights with her at 11:00 pm, in our parallel twin beds.
Lily is like a sparkler. She’s the kind of light that you hesitate before igniting. Not because you don’t want to, but rather, because it’s so forceful, so full. She is so full. Not physically, she’s actually long and lanky. But her presence is all encompassing. And her light makes you want to trace your name into the darkness with it. She turns her face towards me, her freckly nose crinkling thoughtfully.
“I guess that makes a little sense,” she says, though I know she’s still skeptical.
“To me it’s exciting. It’s exciting to know that there is so much left to discover. So many corners of the earth to explore.”
“So couldn’t it be scary to think you might never see those corners?” I pose.
“Well,” she starts confidently, as if she had already thought of that, “that’s why you have to go seeking. You have to seek out the corners, not expect them to fall in your lap.”
“Lily, where is this coming from?” I ask, genuinely confused.
“In health today, we talked about cancer,” she says.
“Oh,” I say. Our grandfather had been diagnosed with bladder cancer four years ago. It was tragic, but there was a level of detachment between us and the issue, so it wasn’t something we talked about plainly.
“Let’s get out of here” I say, hoping to change the subject. It was only nearing 10:00 pm, so Brookville Supermarket was still open.
“We can get ice cream at Brookeville.”
“I hope they have bubblegum,” she says.
As we fold up the blanket and step into our flip flops, we take one more look at the stars. We walk inside quietly, and Lily sets the blanket back down on the couch. I grab my wallet from the counter, and we walk out the front door, closing it softly.
As we walk up the street, the sound of our flip flops create a casual rhythm. Lily sprints ahead for a moment and then slows down; she thinks she can run faster in the dark. I think she’s crazy, good crazy. When we reach the market, the renowned “7- Up” and “Brookeville Super” signs are illuminated on the side of the building.
The bell on the door jingles as we open it. We step into the coolness that occupies most grocery stores, and it wraps around us like an old friend. The florescent lighting takes a few seconds to adjust to, but once I do, I am overwhelmed with familiarity. I can almost feel the weight of my polka-dotted fifth grade backpack and the cool glass of the ice cream counter on my nose as I point to coffee, my favorite flavor. My eyes find their way to the dark curls of Ryan Gibson, standing at the cash register. His green eyes flicker to the corner of the store where we stand, and when he sees us, a smile spreads across his face.
“Hey, Harper,” he says eagerly. Ryan and I went to elementary school together. Although we parted ways for high school, we used to be good friends. We haven’t talked in awhile, and it’s surprising to see him here.
“Ryan! When did you start working here?” I ask, feeling a little like I too should have a job.
“Two weeks ago. My mom wanted me to have a job for the summer, so I thought I’d start now.” It was late May, and at school, you could tell everyone was checked out. Once the warm weather arrived in Chevy Chase, school felt wrong.
“I’m impressed,” I answer, examining his face, still shocked at how much older he looked.
“We came for ice cream,” says Lily, impatiently.
“Of course, Lily, what can I get you?” says Ryan, making his way over to the ice cream counter.
“Bubblegum in a small cone please,” she says.
“And for you?” He asks, looking towards me.
“Coffee in a small cup,” I answer, my eyes trained on the ice cream scooper. We pay for our ice cream, and I tell Ryan I’ll see him around. We sit at the table outside and eat our ice cream in comfortable silence. Lily has around an inch left of her cone so I eat it, then regret it when I realize coffee and bubblegum are not a good match. We walk home to the beat of our flip flops and the reassuring feeling that tomorrow is Saturday, and we can sleep in.
I wake up to the sound of pots and pans and the low drone of the espresso machine. I check my phone; it’s 8:42. When I come downstairs, everyone looks at me. Lily, my mom, and my twin brother, Nick, are all seated at the table. My dad is frothing the milk for my mom’s coffee, and there’s a stiffness in the room.
“Does anyone want to tell me what’s going on?” I ask, confused. I wanted to tell them that I was thinking about getting a job for the summer, maybe at Brookeville market. I could spend time with Ryan and serve ice cream to cute little kids. But it felt like the wrong time with this awkward vibe.
“We have some news,” my mom starts, “I want you to remember that this could be much worse and that you are very lucky kids.”
“What happened?” says Lily, concerned. “Did you lose your job? Are you guys getting divorced?”
“No, no, Lily, stop it.” My mom says.
“Then what? You’re freaking me out,” says Lily, abandoning her cereal, her eyes wide.
“We are moving to Santa Barbara, to be with my dad,” my mom says, slowly.
I focus on the ceiling fan, whipping around in endless circles. I try to follow one of the petals, but lose it after a few seconds. I feel like somehow I should have predicted this, or maybe it just seems that way when you get shocking news. I look out the small window above our kitchen sink. The glass makes the outside scenery look like a painting. My grandfather paints.
“For the summer?” I break in, my mind spinning in a million different directions. “Or for the school year too?”
“You guys will go to Santa Barbara High School starting September,” she says. “We leave June 16th.” I think about what a serious decision this is to make. To move our family of five from Chevy Chase, Maryland to Santa Barbara, California. This must mean that my grandfather’s situation has worsened.
I find a new petal to focus on and watch as it spins.
“How is he?” I ask, tentatively.
“The treatments are moving slower than we expected,” my dad says, handing my mom her coffee in her favorite Cafe De Flore mug. “We want to help your grandmother and spend as much time with them as we can.”
“Can I still play golf out there?” asks Nick, the school record-setting state champion. He crosses his arms, tanned and muscular from playing and caddying.
“Of course,” my mom says. “We want to make the switch as smooth as possible for you guys; we know it’s tough to switch high schools and move across the country.”
“Imagine moving from California to the Philippines as a sophomore,” my dad says. He moved around a lot growing up.
“It won’t be for too long either,” my mom says, “just until things get better.” My mom and dad are total opposites. My mom, raised on Park and 93rd on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, went to Spence. My dad, raised in Ohio, Sacramento, and the Philippines, went to UC Riverside, and then lived in Tonga with the Peace Corps.
“And the beach and school are just a short walk from the house,” my dad continues, “west coast, best coast.” Lily and I exchange glances. The beach did sound nice.
“Harper and I can pretend we’re Cali girls,” Lily says, her big blue eyes light up with the magical idea.
“Well, thanks for listening and cooperating,” my mom says, standing up from her chair and folding her robe around her floral pajamas. My sister and I climb the stairs to our shared room. I sit on my unmade bed and peer over at Lily. Grabbing her glasses from her nightside table, my sister sits down in the same position, and we face each other.
“Well, at least you’ll get to see a new corner,” I say, only half joking. The reality of starting over completely in a new school was starting to sink in.
“You’re right,” she says delighted, “Harper, we can go to the beach whenever we want — ”
“Lily,” I interrupt, “you know how hard this is going to be, right? Finding our people, our crowd at a new high school. I mean, I’m going to be a junior this fall. I’m zooming straight into the infamous tunnel that is junior year all by myself. You’ll be doing the same as a sophomore. Like, yes, we’re seeing a new corner, but we didn’t seek this one out. It fell into our laps.”
Lily keeps her eyes trained on the pink stringlets of our shag carpet as she starts to speak.
“Harper,” she starts, “you can’t be picky with the cards you’ve been dealt, or rather the corners. Some fall into your lap and some you seek and find. This one happened to fall into our lap. We get to live in California. Think of every cancer patient out there who can’t live to the full extent that they’d wish to. What would they tell you? Embrace the change and live it up in Santa Barbara, no matter how awkward the first day of school is. Or worry about the rocky start to your junior year?”
I look over at the vintage Vogue covers and New Yorker prints hanging on the wall above our desk and tell myself that I am not the only star in the sky. People everywhere, under the same stars, face incredibly tough hardship — I am up to a mere change of scenery. Especially if it involves brilliant blue Pacific waves.
“I guess it will be pretty cool to start over,” I say. “To meet people who know nothing about me.”
“That’s more like it,” Lily says, getting out of bed and unplugging her phone from the charger.
Later that night, I walk into the sunroom to find Lily lying down on the couch, clad in sweatpants and a quarter zip, a remote clutched in her hand as she scrolls through movie options on Netflix.
I set my stuff down on the table, and, without turning around, Lily asks “Blood in the Water or Stranger by the Lake?”
“Stranger by the Lake,” I respond, intrigued.
“Blood in the Water it is,” she says, flashing me a sneaky smile before turning back to the face the screen.
I’m lying in my bed almost asleep, in that half-awake state where only the slightest sound can draw you right back into wakefulness. My eyelashes flutter against my sleep mask. The door to our room opens with an unforgiving screech, and Lily steps into the darkness to get into her bed. I’m awake now, but I don’t feel like talking, so I pretend I was never broken out of my almost-sleeping state.
And just as I am about to drift off completely, Lily whispers, “Harper, I’m scared.”
“Me too,” I whisper.
Sunday came and went and so did the last week of school. Telling my friends that I was moving across the country felt wrong, like I was playing a part or reading a script. This didn’t feel real. It wasn’t so much that I would miss them terribly — I don’t rely on my friends as much as most people do. It was more about familiarity and comfort. I’m comfortable, but that is going to change when the plane takes off June 16th.
It’s Friday, June 9th, and I’ve just finished my sophomore year. I’m in the passenger seat of my mom’s silver Volkswagen bug, my hand stretched out the window, fingers curling to catch the 30 mph Connecticut Avenue breeze. It’s weird how we wish for summer and then once we get there, we’re stuck. Stuck in the feeling that we should be doing all the things we put off until now. The screen of my phone lights up with a notification that reads “This iPhone hasn’t been backed up in 97 weeks.” I make a mental note to back my photos up on my laptop later. My mom drops me off at the Silver Diner, where my friends and I order french toast and milkshakes from the all day brunch menu. Jade, Stella, and I sit in our usual booth by the window. Jade to my left and Stella across from me. Stella has shoulder length blonde hair, green eyes, and a slight, dancer’s frame. She is wild and fearlessly independent. Jade is more like me, cautious and mindful. Yet she’s also fierce and scrappy. Her eyes are light brown with specks of golden light that often emerge.
The milkshakes arrive, the extras in tall frosty silver cups.
“Cheers to junior year,” says Stella, raising her glass.
“And cheers to a west coast Harper,” says Jade.
“Guys, please don’t forget about me” I say, looking each of them in the eye.
“Girl, that’s impossible,” Stella says.
“Yeah, we’ll Facetime you a ton and keep you caught up on school gossip. You’ll meet surfer boys and come back all tan, looking like a Brandy Melville model,” Jade gushes.
“She’s right,” says Stella, “you’re gonna be so exotic when you return, I think we should be worried about you forgetting us.”
“Oh stop it,” I chuckle, glad that I came out tonight and quickly realizing that this may be one of the last times we’re all together before I leave.
“So I leave in a week,” I say, seriously.
“Let’s make it the best one yet,” Jade says, twirling her spoon.
And it did end up being one of the best. We spent our days at the pool, letting the sun seep into our skin and our tan lines stand out further. We would go for long drives at night with no destination in mind and with all the windows down. We would stay up ‘til 3:00 in the morning talking, and then sleep in ‘til 1:00 pm. We would talk about our futures: the near, the far, and every place in between.
The next thing I know, I’m walking down the narrow aisle of the plane, looking for 24C. I sit down in the middle seat, then trade with Lily for the aisle. I take my book, earbuds and phone out of my bag, then set it under the seat in front of me. I am about to fasten my seatbelt when something — someone catches my eye. I stare at the head of dark curls I am almost sure belongs to none other than… Ryan Gibson?
“Ryan,” I call out, hoping to get his attention. What was he doing on this flight?
“Ma’am, I’m gonna need you to be quiet,” the flight attendant says. Her red hair looks familiar. Is that… ? My ninth grade biology teacher? Since when is she a flight attendant?
“Ryan,” I say again, louder this time.
“I’m listening to a podcast, do you mind keeping it down?” says a blonde girl across the aisle that looks my age. Wait..
“Stella?” I ask, “what are you doing on this flight? Why are there so many people I know on this flight?”
“You don’t remember?” she asks. “We’re coming with you to Santa Barbara. We’re all coming with you.”
There is a beeping in my ear that won’t stop. Everything feels so hazy, so off. I turn around and see three of my classmates in the row behind me. I face the front of the plane and Ryan turns around; I think he sees me. The beeping noise won’t stop, and when I focus on it, I realize it’s my alarm. I roll over in bed and open my eyes. I sit up to grab my phone and press stop on the alarm. It’s 6:00 am, June 16th and our plane takes off, for real, in three hours.
Our carry-on bags inch across the belt and under the metal detector. We stack our plastic bins and put our shoes back on. My dad is sporting his usual worried travel face as we follow him to the gate. When the weight of the plane is lifted and the wheels take off, I am overwhelmed with a heartbreaking nostalgia. It feels as though it has been chasing me ever since I woke up this morning, and when we took off, it finally caught me. When the ground we walked on minutes ago becomes a speck in the distance, I try to focus on The Stranger by Albert Camus, instead. But every couple of pages, my mind drifts back to what I had just left behind.
The sprawling hills and immaculate landscapes create a scenic and smooth drive to my grandparents’ house in Montecito. We pull into the gravel driveway and when I see the weeping willow in the front yard, I instantly remember this place. After greeting my grandmother in the kitchen, I wander into my grandfather’s bedroom. I hang by the doorway, not wanting to disturb him as I watch the steady rising and falling of his chest.
Later, Lily and I decide to investigate the shed in the yard. We find two beach bikes and take them out for a spin. I had forgotten what it feels like to bike down a long windy road in Montecito, with the yellow light of the late evening sun shining down on us, leaving dappled patterns in the road.
I hear a crunching noise and keep biking, not thinking much of it. Lily slows to a stop at a crosswalk and pulls out her phone to see what time it is. I reach into my pocket to do the same, only there is nothing for my fingers to clasp onto. I get off my bike and walk back up the same way we came down as the harshness of the situation casts a shadow on my preceding happy mood. I find my phone face down on the ground and pick it up. The screen is shattered into tiny pieces of glass, and when I push the home button, there is no reaction. We walk our bikes home in shock. I think of that iCloud storage notification, and all the photos I had just lost.
That day, we had run away from our comfort zones and into the unknown. The seemingly magical, sparkly unknown, that involved beaches and surfer boys and yellow evening sunlight. We ran straight into new lives. New lives with cracked phones, lost memories, awkwardness, and unfamiliarity. The start to my junior year was rocky, but I found my crowd, and I found my way. It wasn’t easy, but I did. As for Lily, she got to experience a new corner; we all did. Lily and I unfold one of our grandparent’s big fluffy blankets, and set it onto the grass in their backyard. We each lay down, our feet hanging off the blanket, tickled by the grass. I take a deep breath and gaze up at the stars.
“I changed my mind about the unknown world out there,” says Lily, declaratively. “I think it’s good that we don’t know which corners will fall into our laps.”
“Why’d you change your mind?” I ask, softly.
“Because I realized, if we had been seeking a different corner, maybe we wouldn’t have been given this one. Maybe we are supposed to wait and see whatever random ones fall into our laps.”
“You’re right,” I say, shocked at how clear and simple her message was.
My eyes fixate on the stars, scattered throughout the dark sky. Some shine brighter than others, but each and every one is important.