Punctuation Marks

By I. S. Belle

This year’s festival theme was Queerevolution; the stories submitted for the contest had to include the phrase “evolution”. Judges were Grace Shelley, editor of Overcomm, and writer Oscar Upperton. Belle’s story won the Runner Up prize.

It’s one minute to midnight and Clarissa isn’t here.
We picked a tree for me to wait under, like in the stories. The stories never mentioned bugs, who aren’t put off by the homemade repellant my mum got me for camp last year. I rub my itchy ankles against the bark. Pohutukawa falls on my face. Red catches on my cheek. I pick it off and pull it tight, close to breaking.
I met Clarissa on the first day of Year 7. I didn’t even know there was a new girl before she sent me to hospital. Later she told me she was throwing a piece of glass to see if it could be a ninja star and I walked into the crossfire. Mum arrived at the hospital to find Clarissa at my side, chin sticking out like she was daring mum to make her leave. When I came back to school I had a shiny pink comma around one collarbone and a new best friend.
Everyone expected me to be scared. She’s snarky to teachers and dresses dirty and even smokes. Also the hospital thing. I was afraid for the two seconds I was on the ground with her kneeling over me. Then I saw her eyes. Wide and green and wet, like a beautiful frog.
Oh shit, was the very first thing she ever said to me. Oh shit I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.
Mum worries Clarissa’s too grown up for me. Sometimes I worry too; when she’s stuck in detention or flipping off a guy on the bus or sneaking a smoke before lunch ends. Also she swears a lot. But she doesn’t make fun of me for not smoking or swearing or flipping people off. When we’re alone together, Clarissa likes being a kid. We watch movies and play board games. Sometimes we play dolls, though we don’t tell anybody about it.
Clarissa knows the best hairstyles. She taught me how to do a french plait and a bubble braid and she even cut my fringe when I asked her to. She stole nail polish from the Warehouse when I said I wanted to try it. I never liked girly stuff, but Clarissa makes it fun. She’s great at picking colours and she lets me wear her clothes. Whenever she gets something new from Salvation Army I make sure to say I like it so she’ll let me try it on. They never fit but it makes me feel like we’re teenagers in a movie montage, throwing shirts at each other and laughing. Sometimes I’ll get her to rub my nail polish off and put it back on. Or have her unpick my braid so she can do it again. Not because she’s bad at it but because I like it when she touches me. She’s so gentle. It gives me even more tingles than ASMR. She laughed when I told her but then she lay on my carpet for hours combing my hair with her hands. I tried to do it back but she said no I like it like this, and I said I should do something for you and she thought for a while. Next time she slept over she showed me how to put my arms around her.
Like this? 
I nodded into the back of her neck, hoping she wouldn’t notice I was shaking. Anything else?
Tell me a story.
I’m good at stories. I’m so good I used to get punished for it. That’s another thing mum worries about. She thinks Clarissa will encourage my bad parts. That Clarissa is all kinds of trouble. I’m still mad at her for saying that. Adults think that having trouble happen is the same thing as being trouble.
Sometimes Clarissa shows up late to school or not at all. Later she’ll be weird, sitting stiff and zoning out all the time. When she gets like this she doesn’t want to hang out. This is the only time we fight. I ask her what was wrong and she goes nothing, do we have to see each other every single minute of the day? I tell her that’s mean and she’s all yeah, I’m mean, where have you been? And we won’t talk for a few hours. But then we hear a good joke or watch a new episode of Witch Evolution and we start texting each other again. We even share phones. Hers has the best games, but mine has unlimited data. Sometimes her phone chimes with the special notification she programmed in for her dad’s messages and she grabs the phone back.
I only went to her house once. I begged for months before she gave in.
My family isn’t cool, she warned as we walked down the driveway. Except for Cousin Janice. She fixes cars down in Wellington. She’s so great. Last summer she showed me her new LED headlights, she modded them to flash red and blue so she doesn’t have to worry about traffic. She doesn’t use them much – she could get into really big trouble.
She sounds awesome.
She is! My family says she’s crazy but they only say it cause she got out.
Got out of what, I asked. She didn’t answer. I thought she was nervous about my reaction. Her house was pretty scody, all long grass and rust, rubbish bags open on the front steps, squirming with maggots. Then I heard the yelling. Something about military camp. I looked over at Clarissa. Her face was white.
Footsteps. Clarissa grabbed my hand and dragged me behind the rubbish bags, which were even grosser up close. The door burst open and a guy stormed out. That was the only time I saw her big brother Dennis, who downloaded the movies we wanted to watch and even some we didn’t, saying we needed to be educated on which action movies are good and which ones are trash. We’d just finished watching V for Vendetta. We were going to tell him how much we liked it.
Clarissa’s dad ran out of the house with no shirt on and started throwing plates after Dennis, one of them smashing on his shoulder.
Clarissa and me crawled around the back and hopped the fence. We kicked a rock back and forth on the way to the park and waited to stop sweating.
Is your brother okay?
Tell me a story.
Um. Once upon a time –
Sirens came on a few streets away.
Clarissa groaned. Great, dad’s gonna go full cop on his ass.
It took me a second to understand what she meant. Wait, your dad’s the new cop?
I kept silent. My mum whispered to ladies in the supermarket about the new guy on the force. I thought they were just stories.
The sirens got closer. I blocked my ears for them to go past but they shut off, the street going weirdly silent. Clarissa stopped, looking over our shoulders. I turned. A cop car was right in the middle of the road, lights off, engine going quietly. The afternoon light hit the windshield at a bad angle so we couldn’t see who was behind the wheel, but we knew.
No one spoke. Eventually I pulled on Clarissa’s hand and we walked away. I didn’t hear the car leave, but when we turned around at the end of the street he was gone.

That night she showed up at my window. It was raining. It felt like one of our stories, except in the stories one ever got hurt like this. There was a tiny hole in the back of Clarissa’s shoulder. Under the blood it was pink like supermarket pork.
I’m sorry, she said. I don’t know where else to go. Can you stitch it?
I said we need to call someone and she said no please, he’ll kill me. So we went to the bathroom with dettol and dental floss and a Youtube tutorial turned to .75 speed so I could copy. I gave her mum’s belt to bite, like the movies. She twitched every time I put the shaky needle in. It doesn’t hurt, she kept saying. It doesn’t hurt. Afterwards we lay in bed and she said tell me a story but I couldn’t think of anything, my collarbone comma against her bleeding dental floss. It’s still healing. It’s going to scar into a full stop.

I did try to tell mum but she just said that’s not a nice story. It’s like when I went to hospital for the glass ninja star. While I was lying on the ground waiting for the ambulance I called and said hello mum I’ve been stabbed. She said look I really am busy today. Then she hung up. Later she missed two calls from the school because she was in a very important meeting. Every time she apologizes for that she mentions how important the meeting was. Last time I brought it up she got up from dinner and wrote COLLARBONE CALL in big red letters on the Fridge List Of Things I’m Not Allowed To Annoy Her About, Part 4.
I didn’t bother mentioning the cop car following me around. I’d be alone at a stoplight and look over to see Clarissa’s dad watching me from that car, sometimes in his uniform, sometimes in normal clothes. One Sunday he drove by three times in one walk to the corner dairy. No lights, no sirens, just a slow crawl as he stared at me, unsmiling. Then he started blinking all wild and swearing, and I stood there and watched him pick a fly out of his eye and speed off.
The first night after school let out for Christmas holidays I snuck around to Clarissa’s house and knocked on her bedroom window. She jolted like a rabbit in hunting season.
What are you doing here? You need to go!
We need to go, I said, which is still the coolest thing I’ve ever said. I held out my phone. Tell her what you told me.
Cousin Janice’s voice was husky. I can be there in a few weeks.
And here we are. Packed bags. Synchronized watches from the 2-dollar shop. At 11pm we sent each other rose emojis because we really like the dead girls from V For Vendetta. I got my mum’s dusty hiking backpack out from under my bed and snuck out the back door. I’m six years younger than she was when she ran away with dad, but I think she’ll understand. I left a note. It used to end with Goodbye Forever but that sounded mean. Now it ends Look you haven’t been hiking since I was born, I’ll send you a replacement pack after I make enough money, love you bye.
I have fifty dollars of pocket money saved and I’ll get the rest of it after me and Clarrisa find jobs. Cousin Janice won’t let us work in her shop, blah blah child labour laws, but I’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out. We’ll make our own story.
The clock ticks over to midnight. The flower strand snaps in my fingers and a car screeches around the corner, too loud in the night. Is that Clarissa in the passenger’s seat? I can’t see. The light is too bright, blue and red and heading straight for me.