“Excuses” by Christine Taylor
I always noticed Anna’s stubborn, sickly smile. I saw it when she shoplifted items she could easily afford, and I saw it when her boyfriend stooped before her in an attempt to please her every queenly whim. I saw it when we slaved away, helping her move into her apartment, and I saw it when her sophomore year roommate abruptly moved out in deathly silence. I didn’t think much of anything at the time, but as you know, with enough small details, a stack of evidence can be compiled.
Anna wasn’t always cruel. Once, I got a concussion that left me unable to attend school for nearly a month. It was she who opened her home to me. She did ask me to do small chores for her, whether it was cutting up vegetables or cleaning the bathroom, but I saw it as a justifiable payment. Also, within our friend group, it was Anna who most often hosted dinners and cooked for us. She would always Venmo request us afterwards, but the expenses of group dinners naturally warranted some aid on our part.
Most importantly, it was she who introduced and united us. Our friend group sprung up solely from her initiative and nurturement. First, there were the girls: Crista, Joy, Anna, and me. Then, there were the boys: Gabe and Will. As could be expected, romantic interests spurted and sputtered as time went on. Crista and Gabe nearly matched, but after a small mistake on his part and high standards on hers, they were destined to forever remain friends. Will and I, however, were a different story.
We joked about her stubbornness at times, but it was rarely a serious issue. Although, in one instance, I was lounging around with Will and Crista, and Crista went to the kitchen to find the popcorn. Will turned to me immediately, his brown eyes gleaming with insight.
“Is your life better since you met Anna?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
I couldn’t say yes. All I could do was laugh.
“Be careful; she can be pretty manipulative sometimes,” he said absently. Then Crista came back, and his warning was cut short by the promise of warm snacks and Star Wars. I wish I had listened to him sooner.
I didn’t know I was in a war until I was already ablaze with wrath. It started small. I hadn’t even told Anna I was the least bit interested in Will. I knew he was her best friend–at least, besides me. I remember our first clash distinctly. I was at her beach house. It was spring break. Anna and I had taken a day trip there to recover from the stress of our courses. I had just emerged from the saltwater, my hair crazy with the sea, my soul free of all worldly concern. The bright gleam of the fierce green water always excited me. If anything inspired my dreamy ambitions, it was the unstoppable tide and rippling waves. But as I marveled at the contrast between water and sand, she turned and gave me the first bit of unwarranted advice, the first poke at my unlit hearth.
“Don’t date Will.” There was that uncanny smile again.
We had been speaking of him as friends do, but I had said nothing to encourage this turn of phrase. Anna’s demand caught me off-guard, and for the first time, I wondered if she knew.
“Why?” I asked, studying the gleam in her eyes. Her expression had become a puzzle I was hesitant to solve.
“He’s too controlling.” She turned back to the waves, and we continued our previous rambunctious celebration. But her warning stuck.
Anna gave other deterrents and excuses as the year progressed. Will was in love with someone else. He had just gotten over his first heartbreak. He had never been in an actual relationship. His dad wouldn’t even let him date. He just wasn’t ready. Still, there was never the outright question or outright concern. I assumed these were not threats, but rather, passing conversations, the harmless gossip of a girl about a friend she pities. No one else knew I liked Will. How could she?
Eventually, a time for confession was forced upon me. Though Crista and Gabe would never date, we often joked about the possibility. Seeing them on the couch, deep in conversation, I turned to her and said, “There they go again.”
It was a harmless phrase, and Anna knew the context. She smiled, laughed, and then, eyes gleaming, she slipped me the bait:
“Sometimes I think that about you and Will.”
I was caught off guard, and the error was made: “I mean, I wouldn’t be opposed…”
Nothing further was said about my admittance until we were alone, driving back in the autumn darkness from one of our sporadic trips. We passed a rundown gas station at forty miles an hour; then, we were submerged into a canopy of mangled, barren trees. All had been peaceful for the past ten minutes, but we were just tired enough to be fully honest with each other.
“It would be unfortunate for me if you started dating him.” This was Anna’s declaration of war, but she said it absently, keeping her eyes on the winding road ahead. At her comment, my heart contorted as if in a pitiful attempt to camouflage with the trees.
“Why?” I asked, hiding my clenched hands in my hoodie pocket. She had a boyfriend. And that boyfriend was certainly not Will.
“I want to kiss him, and I feel like if you dated, that would put a damper in my plans.”
I didn’t know what to say. Would you?
Anna saw my stunned expression and explained her desire for an open relationship.
“Is your boyfriend okay with that?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she said.
After thinking it over, I assumed she was pulling some sort of cruel joke on me. She probably just wanted us to be fully devoted to her. Anna never did like change; we could tell by her icy interactions with her new roommate. But she had an insatiable desire for attention and affection. And of course, long distance with her boyfriend was hard. If she was serious, it wasn’t just Will she wanted to kiss. But me liking him did not keep him off that list. Naturally, if the two of us paired off, distractions from our glorious mastermind would be inevitable. Anna’s inner circle of devotion would have a small chip in it.
But still, she would adapt. I was sure she could.
Anna dropped me off at my dorm, and I said goodbye amidst light-hearted jokes and upbeat music. All was still well. At least, until two days later.
Personally, I never drank. Everyone else did, and they seemed to have fun with it. But as the designated secret-keeper of the group, I felt an extra sense of caution. A drunk secret-keeper, I rationalized, wouldn’t have any secrets by the end of the night. I couldn’t give away Anna’s secret of wanting to kiss Will. I couldn’t give away Will’s secret of thinking she was manipulative. I couldn’t give away my secret of liking Will.
No one else experienced these worries, and on this particular occasion, all were in agreement. It was not only a day to drink. It was a day to get drunk. By the end, I wished I had joined them.
It started off harmlessly enough, but as the night went on, I caught a glimpse of that malicious smile of hers. Before I could blink, she was somehow in Will’s arms, mourning the various losses she was dealing with. She was utterly forlorn, lonely, and needy. Her animals were sick; her parents were fighting. She was in a fight with her boyfriend; long distance was too hard. Wasn’t her life absolutely awful? Wouldn’t he give her affection?
Perhaps if Will was not drunk, he would have resisted her charms better. As it was, I stared in disbelief as the two cuddled closer. He knew about her boyfriend. At least, he did when he was sober. I walked home.
In the morning, Anna had a bruise on her neck, and Will’s memory was blocked out by the intoxication. Apparently sixteen drinks are far too many for one man to consume. No one else had seen what I saw. Joy saw Anna unabashedly applying concealer in the living room mirror with a particular theatrical flourish the next morning; Anna ignored all questions posed to her and said she was leaving to visit her boyfriend and hopefully resolve their fight. As the door slammed behind her, Joy and Crista spammed my phone, asking me for answers. Did she cheat? Is that why I left early? Did she burn herself with a curling iron? Why did she suddenly flee town to talk to her boyfriend? Will and Gabe would never take advantage of her. Right? What had happened?
I promised all was well. The bitter taste of my lies filled my clenched jaws, and I sent her a text. I told her of my deflection of the others’ questions, expecting no praise and receiving none. Next, I requested a meeting. No one else would know her secret. But I required better repentance.
A week later, she picked me up from my dorm, and we drove off into the woods, just like we always did. She gripped the wheel as if it could support her and all her poor decisions. I sat to her right, trying to keep the war calm and inexplosive.
“We need to talk about it,” I began, my voice shaking with the effort of restraint.
“I already talked to my boyfriend about it. We’re fine,” she assured me, as if her comfort was forever the focus of my concern.
“I’m glad,” I replied, and I was. “But he wasn’t the only one you hurt.”
“I feel worse for him than you,” she shot back. “But I am sorry you feel hurt.”
My jaw remained cemented, locking the poisonous darts in, forcing me to swallow them. Part of me was inclined to wrench that wheel out of her hands and drive us into the nearest tree. Instead, I nodded bitterly, my stomach in flames. She felt no remorse for anyone but herself.
I went through grief as most do. There was angry pacing, wasteful tears, and plenty of substitute pillows to receive my unrestrained bashing torment. All the while, Anna and I maintained a façade of normalcy. No one suspected a thing. Then, she began her second scheme.
As the event planner, Anna had quite a bit of control over how often we saw each other, and as I came to find out, she was not above using this for her own desires. In fact, looking back on our interactions, it seems like she was solely focused on herself regardless of the situation. I began to get last minute invites to group activities, and those not even from her, but from Joy. Joy wondered aloud at the newfound lack of intentionality regarding my invitation. She was of the opinion that I should be invited to things early, just like I had always been. I agreed with her carefully, my hurt barely hidden with bared teeth and cheerful jokes. Joy often asked what had happened between Anna and I; it was she who most thought some form of cheating had occurred on that drunken night. Again, I responded with proper caution, and the subject was dropped as easily as it was taken up.
Later treacheries would soon surface; Anna subtly did her best to make plans with me when Will was unavailable and with Will when I was unavailable. The war began to gain heat; my bottled rage begged to reach its fullest mighty blaze.
I had all the weapons to destroy her, but though my heart burned with malice, I could not bring myself to destroy her socially. Anna’s greatest fear was to be alone. I knew this because, before the hurt and mistrust built a barricade between us, she had confided this apprehension exclusively to me and her therapist. I would not force her fear upon her. I could never live with myself. But, at the same time, I would not relent my own friendships for her continued reign. I say all this to reveal my limited options. I did my best with the life I was given. I couldn’t do anything more. I’m a good person first and foremost. Don’t you see?
There was only one way to solve our problems. Anna would live on in glory, and our friendships would not be affected. I set out to finish our war.
The sky was black; the air was hot. She picked me up; we drove to the woods. We picked a spot; she pulled out some whiskey. My heart twisted to match the trees, but this time, so did hers. But I would find release.
I saw her eyes widen and her breath quicken. I heard a shriek that was barely human. Then, she couldn’t breathe. She slumped towards the wheel. Two minutes later, her hands were sprawled over the wheel, and her foot was on the gas. Her shoelace was tangled around the pedal to help her along. She drove steadily down a steep hill. The distorted, shriveled trees beckoned her forward. Soon after, as I walked alone amongst the trees, I heard a crash behind me. I felt the explosion of heat, but I didn’t look back. I was busy retrieving my bike, which was securely lodged in a bush nearby. I returned to my dorm sweaty and shaky, but unspotted. The world was finally pure. She would never trouble or be troubled again.
They found her only twenty minutes away from campus, headed in the direction of her boyfriend’s college. After a short investigation, it was clear that this was a simple case of drunk driving. The bottle of whiskey and the traces in her system confirmed this theory as fact. What reason was there to doubt?
We all mourned. Yes, tears streamed down my face. This was my solution, but it pained me more than anything. Unlike her, my repentance was full. The heat in my soul was doused by the water of grief. If she had been less selfish, things would be different. If we were not such passionate beings, things would be different. If she had not fanned the war into a flaming hell, perhaps we would be smiling joyfully at each other’s weddings. As it was, each morning was peaceful, though melancholy. Her stubborn, sickly smile only tormented my dreams.
Biographical Note: Christine Taylor is currently enrolled at the University of Florida, and she will be graduating in 2022 with an English major and Theatre minor. She has been published in the Harn Museum of Art’s 2020 Words on Canvas writing competition, and she has self-published two books through Amazon direct publishing. When she’s not writing, Christine can be found playing electric or acoustic guitar, or stubbornly struggling to learn French and the violin.