The air is damp and clean when she steps outside, balancing on the balls of her feet and making no sound at all. The sky is just changing from blue to black and it’s so dark and deep that it goes on forever, stars dangling so high they’re barely there at all. Ella closes the door slowly, inching it closer until the latch has clicked silently.
She doesn’t throw a second glance at her parents and brother, eating quietly in the dining room. Their heads are faintly visible through the curtain, bent over their food, not speaking. She tucks her chin down and dodges toward the street, where her friends are waiting.
They have big plans tonight. When she swings into the car and slams the door, Teddy pushes the gas so hard that the car screeches and zooms ahead. The car in the road – now behind them – jerks to a sudden stop, and they laugh. Ella nestles against Linnie, who puts an arm around her. The car is crowded, and they’re all pressed flesh to flesh, breathing like one big organism crammed into a car and panting for air. They’re all happy to see Ella, reaching to bump her shoulder or turning to smile at her. They asked earlier if she could come. If I can escape my parents, she said, my mom’s wicked strict lately. They all nodded, solemn, in sympathy. Now everyone is smiling.
When they get there the party’s already in full swing. The strobe light is flashing, the music thrumming deep in their throats, and a scattering of red plastic cups already abandoned on chairs and tables. Ella throws herself into the room, pulling her friends after her. They wave their arms, flail, spin, clasp hands and lean and fall in circles until they’re dizzy and breathless. Time stops existing.
The light catches the moments one at a time and fling them at her. Movements jerk through the air, dancers thrashing like they’re drowning. She has a twelve-o-clock curfew but she ignores it, until she thinks she might fall instead of dance more. Then she stays for only another half hour.
She walks home at four in the morning, creeping under the dull flat sky, slipping sideways through the front door and padding silently up the stairs to her room. The others were all splayed unconscious on chairs and carpets or too drunk for anything, jaws hanging open, staring at her stupidly, so nobody could drive her back. In her room she collapses, still in her heels and glittery top, sprawling on her bed with her hair spread across the mattress and dripping off the edge.
She’s so tired that she can feel each breath wheeze in and out of her, whooshing through her chest as though it’s trying to snuff out a flickering flame. She’s shriveled from the heat and left in the dying ashes now, burnt to a crisp.