My friend, Stacy, once asked why I feared the bad boy—the rebel without a cause who took a drag of a cigarette in the school parking lot. Why I feared the bruises and the burn scars. Why I feared a project. Stacy asked how I could ever fall in love with a beautiful boy if I couldn’t withstand tragedy. My friend wanted a beautiful boy, needed one so much she took AP Psychology just to understand the neurons of his brain. My friend asked when I’d fall for my beautiful tragedy.
“Why should I fall for anyone when I already have you?” I asked.
My friend giggled. “That’s just the thing! You won’t!”
My friend was the good girl—good plain nails, good straight-blond curls tied up in a ponytail, good grades. She could hum and a hummingbird would stop to listen. She could scream and the town would know a slasher was on the loose, because monsters always went for the good girls first. The demure girls who helped the injured men on the side of the road. The sweet girls who could mend a broken mind while breaking their own bones.
What was I? I waltzed around in black lipstick and too-short black hair and dark overcoats and stained-white tank tops stolen off clothes lines. Broken homes. Broken windows. Breaking into cars just to steal a knock-off iPod. I was the daughter of what rebels left behind. Broken ribs. Broken families. Broken, staring off into space when Stacy asked me to go study at her place.
I didn’t think there was anything else, thought I wouldn’t have anyone when Stacy was led astray by her pretty little tragedy. Then, one night, we snuck into a college party together through her beautiful tragedy’s beautifully tragic older brother. And I drank a bottle of brandy laced with sugar and NyQuil and nearly collapsed on the front steps of the college dorm. Stacy would then pipe in that if I’d found my bad boy, he’d take me home in the back of his car, put me to bed on his couch. But I was all alone, because my friend was nowhere to be seen. I felt eyes on me, all over me, crawling over my body, under my clothes. I stumbled outside, onto the cold pavement. Strange men—strange things crawled closer to me. I tried pulling myself across the lawn, determined to squirm all the way home if I had to.
Then I met it.
The Good It.
Shadow subsumed It—an inky black mass that was part cat, part child raised by wolves, and part veteran of a long-forgotten war. It didn’t have a name, didn’t know its own face, only felt the ridges and the boughs of its human form. It only truly knew the alleyways and back roads and broken boulevards it traveled under silent starlight and moon glow. But it saw me, knew me and didn’t know me, took my hand in its own and led me through darkness, like a child of the wilds leading an unsuspecting adult into the fray. And it took me home, its hand a light breeze against my frostbitten fingers.
“What are you?” I asked.
It didn’t respond, and for a second, I thought it couldn’t. Then, it sighed.
“You’re asking a dangerous question there,” It said.
The Good It disappeared into the ether. I felt bad naming it The Good It at all, because I doubted it wanted to be named. I wondered if it skittered off to pick up other drunk girls, other of the vulnerable, the good-but-damned girls for whom danger was a sin. Would It take them home too? Come out of hiding and lead them in darkness, from the watch of wicked ones? I couldn’t speculate for long, because after about a minute, I passed out on my front porch.
Stacy asked the next day if I’d met my tragedy yet. If I knew how I’d die, and who’d I’d die with for loving too hard and being loved too violently. And I told her about It. The Good It that led me home. But The Good It couldn’t be a beautiful tragedy or a forbidden romance if I couldn’t see its face, couldn’t feel its skin press against mine. Because how could its lips graze against mine? How could I feel its pulse in its beating chest? How could violence erupt out of something so soft? So ghost-like?
“What’s love if not a little danger? A little pain?” she asked.
“You never pain me. Are you saying I don’t love you?”
Stacy giggled and shook her head. “Of course I pain you! Just look at your face whenever I talk about my boyfriend!”
As we spoke, I saw it. The Good It stood in the shade, no less obscured by twisting light than in the night. It wasn’t watching me. In fact, it looked right through me, left and right, up and down. Only in cloud cover and only when all heads were turned did it dare leave the shade. At least, It thought it left unwatched, because my eyes were locked on it, a curious gaze following its path. My friend slapped me on the back of the head when she realized I’d zoned out.
“C’mon! At least try and pretend you don’t find my lecture boring!”
“I don’t find it boring,” I said. “I find it so terrifying that my brain has to zone out for its own protection.”
Stacy rolled her eyes. I refixed my gaze on The Good It.
That day, I followed It home. I didn’t intend to. I just wanted to talk to it, thank it, ask it questions like why it hangs out around college dormitories saving strange girls from being taken in the night by strange men. But it seemed to always speed up at my approach; thus, I ended up running after It, but it ran faster and escaped me. So I fell to the pavement and begged, begged to the heavens to just let me speak with it. Silence. Stillness. Breeze passed through strands of my hair. I gazed at where it once was, at the shade of tall trees that lined the lawns of the neighborhood. I saw nothing. I almost left.
But eventually, The Good It hesitantly emerged.
“One question,” It said.
My brain nulled. Finally, I took a breath and asked, “Why it?”
It sighed and shrugged. “An it is safer than a who or a what.”
A good girl was leading a man on for being nice but not going out with him. And a good girl wasn’t very good if she couldn’t pick his brain and rewire it with mechanical precision. And if a good girl went on the run, she might be watched and caught. And the good people of society—male or female—watched and said nothing. A good it, The Good It explained, was not just safer but more moral than a who or a what. It ascended above a mere who or what.
When I got home that evening, I called Stacy on the landline, asking how I’d know if I was in love. Her giggle was like a birdsong ringing across my bedroom walls. Love was fear. Love was grace. Love was passionate and all over the place. So then I asked what it meant to feel null, numb, nothing inside towards everything but two people—longing for one, longing for answers from the other? What did it mean that I wanted to fix someone, mend their bruises, blow away their pain while asking somebody else how to do all three of those things?
Stacy gasped. “You’re… you’re in love! And you want me to give you advice!”
I scratched my neck. “No… I feel like you’re close but… off the mark somehow…”
“Who are you in love with then?” Stacy asked.
I went to answer, when my cheeks suddenly reddened, and I hung up the phone in panic.
Later that week on a Friday night, I went to another party, though not one that Stacy’s beautiful tragedy got us into. He’d made her eyes black after he accused her of cheating on him. With me. She wanted to unwind with stolen moonshine on a beautiful lakefront property at some jock’s house whose parents were probably in the middle of divorce due to his dad’s affair with the too-young secretary. When she was good and drunk, I asked if she’d finally break up with her boyfriend. She giggled and said something about not being done with the interior yet. And not fixing the wall plaster or the chipping paint. I went to drink outside. Pretended to be tipsier than I was. Watched. Waited. The Good It appeared.
It didn’t leave when it realized I wasn’t as drunk as it thought it was. Instead it stayed, gave me room to truly hammer myself to oblivion with a watchful eye on my back. I thanked The Good It for the space and safety of inebriation. So I drank—downed more and more and more. And then I asked what lips tasted like. If they really tasted like cherries. If my friend’s lip gloss still tasted like cherries, because it did in middle school when I stole it from her purse and poured it on my tongue. Then I started coughing from all the alcohol and so The Good It patted me on the back, then answered my question, seemingly out of pity.
“Saliva and dirt and ash,” It said. “That’s what others taste like to me.”
I snorted. “Well… that doesn’t seem the nicest.”
“Oh. I forgot. It also feels like a punch in the gut.”
“Damn!” I hollered, spilling the last of my drink. “You want a beer?”
“No thanks,” It said. “I can’t keep another person safe by not staying sober.”
I asked The Good It about its home life. It was raised by rodents—rabbits, rats, and raccoons. It knew how to run, knew how to steal away in the night with a bite that could be its last for a week. It was once a pet in a bird cage until it ran off—couldn’t stand picking at the brain of its overseer until he finally decided to be nicer, couldn’t bear bearing sympathy when all its sympathy lied toward the other girls, the good girls, the ones like caged birds in dark rooms with small, covered windows. I asked The Good It if that made it a beautiful tragedy. It said it didn’t feel very tragic, just on edge. So I asked what made a beautiful tragedy then and what made love? Who needed sympathy, an angel-dove?
“Maybe you’re looking in the wrong places,” The Good It said.
“Well, what’s the right place?”
The Good It sighed. “Someone you feel safe with, and who you want to feel safe with you. Someone you love. Someone good—”
“That all sounds like Stacy!” I said chuckling.
But The Good It didn’t laugh. “Looks like you found your answer then.”
I shook my head. “She’s taken,” I said glumly. “With a monster, yes, but—”
“Well, sounds to me she perfectly fits the bill of ‘tragic’ then!”
The Good It led me inside, led me to the room Stacy was failing to cry herself asleep in. With its help, I lifted her up off the covers and dragged her home, though she clawed that she wanted to stay, despite the spiked punch and the loud noise and the fact that someone had dropped a Molly in her drink and we didn’t know who or where they were. I said if she really wanted to get away so badly she should just come home with me. So she did.
Before The Good It left, it took me aside while Stacy slept.
“Why do you love her?” It asked.
I shrugged. “I mean… who wouldn’t love their best friend?”
“Why is she your best friend?”
I paused. “Well… she makes me feel happy… and safe… and I want the same for her.”
“Good luck on the latter,” The Good It said. “Based on what you’ve said tonight, I doubt she even remembers what safety feels like, or that it’s something you can long for.”
The Good It left for the last time. For good. And I was left with only myself, with my sallow skin and torn jeans and messy, moppy hair. Stacy once asked why I feared a bad boy when I was such a rough and tumble bad girl, when I once broke a kid’s nose for feeling me up in Math class or once stole a bottle of gin from the principal’s office. If anyone could handle one, it was me.
But then again, she never saw the burn scars on my shoulder I covered up with my jacket, or the busted-through screen door that my father punched in a drunken rage. She was too much of a good girl to spar with those problems, a sweet girl, a pretty lovely smart girl, who tutored me in Spanish on the weekends and once even sold a lock of her hair to a creep who smelled like feet all to help me pay my home’s utility bill. Oh, what would a good girl know about a bad girl know about a bad boy know about a good it?
The next day, Stacy asked when I would fall in love with my beautiful tragedy, because clearly she was having so much fun. And I said I was looking right at her. Because what could be more tragic than a tragedy falling for tragedy? What could be more romantic or more grim? What could be better than the good girl falling for the bad girl on the advice of a mysterious it out skulking in the wilderness?
“What do you think?” I asked, laughing myself mad. “How about we fall in love, run away, start a new life together, and die smoking cigars in a moldy motel?”
Stacy blinked several times, wondering if somehow this was her fault, if her advice had finally made me snap, or if I’d taken a swig of whatever was in that spiked punch. A small smile seemed to almost escape her lips, but she smothered it. She lurched closer, but still said nothing. Her lips were so close that I could smell her cherry lip gloss. She curled a finger through my hair and stared into me. The silence was louder than the music outside.
“I… I think you’re crazy,” Stacy sputtered out eventually. I couldn’t tell if she said it with any measure of sincerity, longing, desperation, or concern. I felt it must have been all four at once, since she gave me the same look I gave her each time I saw her. I smirked and pressed my lips to hers. She didn’t pull away.