This story was selected as a finalist for the 2021 MAYDAY Fiction Prize and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
It wasn’t just me, no one liked Polly. Not saying she wasn’t our friend. I’m saying we didn’t like her.
She joined in Year 9, and there was something funny about her coming in the middle of term. Her parents didn’t move house, right, they just took her out of one school and put her in another. Didn’t take a genius to clock she’d been bullied. Guess they thought, school like ours, maybe she wouldn’t stick out. But she did stick out. She was just a bit of a good girl, you know?
See, a lot of us weren’t Catholic or nothing. Not properly. Mum reckoned I’d get better teaching at a faith school. Wayne said she had other ideas. If you get preggled in St Helens, he goes, at least the dad would be a teacher. Wayne’s bitter ‘cos he eats too much junk food and looks like he’s got bubonic plague. And who says preggled?
Anyway, there were a bunch of us in the park that day. Me, Saz, Rhianna, Tyrell, Mo, Jenkin, and Polly. I told you St Helens was all girls, didn’t I? Well, it was. And this was the year we turned fifteen. You get me? Yeah, so we met these boys the term before, and now we were seeing them, like, every day. Jenkin was the one I fancied. My god, he was a wanker. Red skinny jeans, nose piercing, dyed blonde hair. Everything screamed, “Hey, did I tell you I’m in a band yet?” but he wasn’t even in a band! Just had a few tracks he uploaded on whatever platform and nah, they weren’t even that good. But my days, did I fancy him.
It was May, proper hot at last, lots of people out. We had vodka cokes out of plastic cups. Mo had his guitar. Not that he was doing sing-alongs, just fiddling about. I didn’t like it, but the boys all said he was good. Polly was listening hard, with her eyes shut and everything. It was annoying she always came along, but what could you do? She was on all the threads, and her mum knew my mum. Not inviting her would be like, even more long.
“That was beautiful,” Polly said.
Mo had just clumped his hand against the strings to kill off the last chord of something.
“Cheers, yeah,” he said. “It’s nothing though, just messing about really.”
“You have a real gift.”
“Fuck sake, Lolly Pop,” Saz said, “it’s just a bit of guitar. Why do you have to take everything so seriously?”
“Please don’t call me that,” said Polly.
That’s what her mum used to say. “Come down, Lolly Pop, supper’s ready!” But we didn’t mean any harm. It was just funny. And anyway, isn’t a nickname supposed to be a sign of affection?
It was getting on, and Jenkin pulled out his phone and he said, “That’s it. I’m texting El Bandito.”
“Who?” I asked.
Jenkin smiled, like how dumb are you.
Tyrell said El B was their dealer.
“I’ll ask him if he wants to come chill with us. He’ll probs say no, but might get us a deal.”
Obviously he was chatting shit. There was no way some dealer wanted to hang out with us lot. If anything, Jenkin was getting ripped off.
“El Bandito?!” I said. “You can’t call him that just cos he sells drugs. It’s racist.”
Rhianna hates wokeness, and she gave me this look like, seriously? But I knew what I was doing. I was flirting.
“Nah man, it’s not racist,” Jenkin said. “He’s actually Mexican. It’s allowed.”
“That makes it, like, more racist.”
“But it’s his name! I’m just calling him what the man told me to call him.”
He got me there. I could see Polly was not happy. Girl never hid how she felt. She was stood up now with her arms folded, while the rest of us lay in the grass. I thought if she wanted to say something, she might raise her hand for permission.
“Excuse me,” she said. “What does your friend sell?”
It sounds mean, but you couldn’t help laughing. We were in hysterics. Eventually Tyrell said she shouldn’t worry, we were only getting MD, nothing heavy.
“I think I should go,” Polly said.
“At least stay till he gets here.” That was Mo speaking. For a split second I wondered if he fancied her. But no, no way, no.
Thing is, El Bandito took forever. With what happened next, that was probably a good thing. But at the time it was just long. Anyway, we got so bored waiting, we ended up playing stupid games. Kids’ games. We started with hide and seek, and when it was my turn, I only pretended to shut my eyes, so I could watch where everybody went. Not that I cared about the game. Just wanted to get Jenkin on his own.
“I always fucking lose,” he said. “Even when we were little. Why am I so bad at hiding?”
“If you keep quiet, I won’t let on that I found you.”
Jenkin looked suspicious.
“You don’t want to go looking for the others?”
“Not yet,” I said.
Later, we played It. By this point, all I wanted was for the sun to go down so I could make out with Jenkin some more. I wasn’t bothered when the drugs were coming, and too tired to run around. And if you don’t run away properly it’s not fun to try and chase you, so people gave up on me. I lay in the grass, chewing spearmint extra. Thinking about Jenkin’s tongue. A little determined, you know, but nice.
That’s when it happened.
I looked up and Saz made a sudden turn away from Mo, sprinting towards Polly instead. Polly spun on her heels and took off in the opposite direction. She was an awkward runner normally, and I’m sure she felt funny in front of the boys. For about twenty meters, she kept out of Saz’s reach, sort of cantering on like a dog. Then she went down, flat on her face. And it was the funniest thing. I mean the fall came out of nowhere, like she slipped on a cartoon banana. And it wasn’t only me. We were all laughing. Even Tyrell. You can’t blame us, though, you really can’t. How were we meant to know?
When we saw her writhing and twitching, we stopped laughing. The boys didn’t want to call an ambulance because of El Bandito.
“She’ll be fine,” Tyrell kept saying, “she’s only got a stitch.”
“That’s not a stitch,” Saz said.
“But I’m telling you. I coach football, I see this all the time.”
“She’s not fucking breathing!”
I didn’t know I was going to scream like that. It just came out. Then everyone shut up.
When Polly first arrived, Miss Stafford asked me to show her around, point out where the loos were and that. You could tell she was the sort of girl who had her name sewed into the back of her blazer. That first day she asked me, she actually said, “Will you be my friend?” and I said, “You what?” But she wasn’t offended. “I’m not very good at making friends,” she explained. “My mum told me when I moved school I should just ask people straight out, and if they didn’t want to be my friend, that was up to them.” I said we could see.
At lunch Miss Stafford found me chilling with Saz and asked me what I’d done with my mentee. “I dunno where she is Miss!” I said. She shot me this horrific look. “Then find her.”
Can’t tell you how I knew, but it was the first place I went. Polly was in the chapel, down on her knees, hands together, muttering. I didn’t think that was something I should interrupt.
A lot of girls from our year came to the funeral, but more because they felt like they had to than anything. Proper sad to see her mum. In the speech the dad said it was a comfort to know that she’d finished her time on earth surrounded by friends, enjoying the delights of a perfect spring day.
Turns out Polly had this rare genetic condition. No one knew. I read about it online. It meant her heart was weak so that under strain it could rupture, lacerating her ventricles and cutting off the oxygen to her brain. It was good to know it was always waiting to happen. Because it might have been twenty minutes before we called the ambulance, if I’m honest with you, and we did wonder if it was our fault. But no, nothing could have been done. I’m just glad El Bandito didn’t show up. If he had, and she’d . . . I mean, you can’t think like that.
Can you believe a few girls actually made jokes? In the assembly, when the announcement was made, I heard Chantelle Brown whisper, “It’s just like Lolly Pop to go and die like that. So extra!” Then there was some sniggering. I think it was only us who realized what had happened. I mean how huge that is, a human life coming to its end. We’d seen it, the moment she stopped living. The light goes out and you can’t get it back on. She was frothing at the mouth when the medics came. I don’t think I mentioned that before. I’m not slow, right, but it was only during the burial I realized that this was what we’ve been doing for thousands of years, dropping dead bodies into the ground and shoveling dirt on top. And in all that time, we’ve never come up with anything better.
“Saz,” I said later, “reckon this is going to fuck us up?”
“Jesus Christ,” she said. “Do you ever stop thinking about yourself?”
Rhianna lost her virginity when she was thirteen. Or says she did. She slept with one of the blokes who works in The Crown and Anchor, round the back where the bins are, which is pretty fucking disgusting if you ask me, so I don’t know why you’d lie. I asked if it hurt, but she just went “Rachel!” and made this grossed-out face. Whatever. Saz and Tyrell had fucked a few times too, but they weren’t official. It was just me left. Jenkin was one option. And he was messaging me.
jenkin: u busy at the weekend??
me: might be.
jenkin: ur so cool.
me: i know. thnx
Jenkin was nice to me. His mum passed away so, you know, he had more experience with stuff like that. For about a month he texted me every day, just to ask if I was alright. Some days I didn’t bother to answer him, but he kept texting. I thought that was sweet. My screen flashed.
jenkin: theres this secret rave in the woods on sat. coming?
me: what woods?
jenkin: SECRET rave. fuck sake
jenkin: u coming?
me: convince me.
I opened my chat with Saz and asked if she was going. She messaged right back saying she had to babysit for the Winchesters. I felt for her. Everyone agreed their twin boys, Sammy and Danny, were right little cunts.
jenkin: dont be like that. come or dont come
me (to saz): cancel
me (to jenkin): well if ur not bothered to see me
jenkin: course im bothered! thats why im asking!
Saz lived round the corner. Nights out, we got the bus home together. So if she wasn’t coming . . . A new speech bubble popped up.
polly: Don’t go.
It took a moment to catch on. I mean I could see it was from Polly, but there was a second when I didn’t realize what that meant. Like she was still . . . Three dots appeared in the bubble. She was typing.
polly: Rachel, are you listening to me? Please don’t go.
I like dark humor, but this was a long fucking way from funny.
me: who is this?
I waited but there was no response. Then the little red cross came up meaning Polly was offline. After it happened, her parents decided to keep her page going, as a tribute, like. People sometimes posted, saying how much they missed her. ‘Double geography without you this morning, bae, still feels so wrong.’ I never posted on the page. After the first week, I didn’t even go on it, muted the notifications. It was just too much, you know.
There was no way it was her mum or dad messaging me now. But anyone can guess a password, right? Another new message flashed up.
jenkin: hows about this. if u come, i will plan a surprise for u. something special, yeah??
me: alright, fine
me: but make it good
Couple days later, Saz found me at morning break and said she wanted to talk about something. She meant just us, so we walked round to the benches outside the ABC block. Rhianna was leaning against the wall, texting.
Now we were alone, Saz stopped hiding it. She was furious.
“Those fucking boys. Joke’s a joke, but I cannot believe this.”
“What? What you on about?”
Like me, Saz was getting messages from Polly’s account. Rhianna too. I was glad I wasn’t the only one. But how did she know it was Jenkin and Tyrell behind it?
“Come on Rach. She—I mean they—warned us, didn’t they, not to go to that stupid woods rave. Who else even knows we’re going?”
It was hard to believe that Jenkin would do that. Saz wanted us to go to a teacher. Miss Stafford, maybe. But what could she do about boys at another school? I said I could talk to Jenkin. Rhi had another idea, though.
“They think this is a game?” she said. “Let’s fuck ‘em up. Let’s really fuck ‘em up.”
After lunch, I had science. Dr. Clarke was explaining something called Redshift, how there’s actual proof the universe is expanding because when stars are further away, they look more red. Something about the wavelength stretching. I like physics, but this was a lot for a Wednesday afternoon. I checked my phone.
polly: Will you be my friend?
Dr. Clarke’s one of those fuckers who only calls on you when she knows you can’t answer.
“Rachel,” she said, “would you like to give us another example of the Doppler effect?”
I looked at the floor. I don’t like people staring at me, and I could feel my face burning. Miss tutted, and someone hissed out the word ambulances, which is just what I needed. I closed my eyes and was dazzled by a wall of blue light. All that noise.
Rhi’s plan was simple. We would reply to Polly’s messages and say we were listening to her advice, that we weren’t going to the rave after all. This would leave the boys thinking we changed our minds. So when they showed up and we were there, they’d get a shock. Maybe we’d all be making out with other guys. Or maybe we’d dress up as something scary and jump out from the trees. There was time to work it out.
I asked my mum if I could sleep over with Saz on Saturday, and she said only if I did all my homework for the week first. She wanted to see the evidence. I was more of a morning-of girl, but whatever.
That night, in bed, I got another message from Polly. But this time there was no writing, just a picture. It wouldn’t come up when I clicked, I had to download it. I couldn’t see what it was at first, just looked like a black screen with a little yellow square in the corner. But then I could see it was a house. My house. The picture was taken from the street. And that was my window with the light on, that yellow square. Before I put my phone down, I saw one more message.
polly: Why don’t you like me?
We got to the meeting place early. There was some guys with beards and tattoos lugging around speakers and shit, setting them up between trees. They tried to flirt with us, but I don’t like beards.
We agreed that if we staged our own deaths, fell over with our mouths frothing, just like— well then we’d be no better than them, would we? So this was where Rhianna took charge. She found this spot where all these stones had been arranged in a circle, and in the middle someone had built a sort of cave out of loose twigs. It would look dead creepy at night. And we’d bought all these weird cuts of meat from the butcher, organs and stuff, bits you don’t really cook with, stuff people feed their dogs. The idea was to set it up with a fire and everything, make it look like a proper witches’ coven, and then scatter the meat, as if some weird fucking shit had gone down. Saz had found a fake hand in some shop, and it looked real enough, especially in low light.
At about seven, we got texts from the boys, canceling. Mo’s dad caught them sharing a spliff in his back garden, and now they were banned from going out.
“Nah,” said Saz, “they’re tryna play us. Trust me, they’re still coming.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think that’s something they would do.”
But Rhianna sided with Saz. The night before, I got another message from Polly. It was a picture of my room, taken from just outside my window. You’d have to climb up on a ladder to get that angle.
By the time it was fully dark, the woods were crawling. And even with the electro beats and the glowsticks, it felt like something very ancient. God knows where these people kept showing up from, in twos and threes, or larger packs, seven or eight. All these bodies moving between trees, inhaling drinks, and dancing crazy. Now and then you’d see two people pull each other in. Was that kissing? It looked animal. Sometimes a group would go off, hand in hand, towards some tangle of shadows. And there was no moon that night, no moon at all.
We had our coven set up now, but we weren’t talking to anyone. The three of us just sat in our circle of stone, watching the swell of people.
I was the one to say it.
“They’re not coming. Those boys are not coming.”
“Fuck them,” Rhianna said. “Let’s have some fun.”
She got up. “Don’t go!” I said.
But she was already off, headed towards the spill of people. She’s confident, Rhi, and I was sure she’d find a group to chill with. But this wasn’t a normal night.
“Saz, you’ll stay here with me, won’t you?”
She nodded. We both wanted to go home, but there was no way of getting back out of these woods without going through the rave. Neither of us wanted to admit we were scared. As it got later, people got weirder. Men were falling over. I saw one woman squat in the bushes. I wanted Jenkin to come. I tried him, but it went straight to the machine. Yo, it’s your J-boy here, send me a text. Voicemail is for wienwads.
“Hey Rach,’ said Saz, ‘we never talk about it.”
But I knew. I wished she would shut up and leave it.
“Do you think we could have been different? Do you think we could have been nicer to her?”
“We were nice to her! Who was her friend but us?”
“We weren’t really her friend though, were we. Not actually. We didn’t have to keep calling her Lolly Pop for starters.”
I lied before. It wasn’t a name her mum used. There was this one time that we, just for a laugh, we got her to . . . It was in the toilets, at school. And she didn’t know what she was putting in her mouth, what we’d done with it. I thought she’d never stop retching.
“We didn’t have to treat her like—”
There was a buzzing. Our phones. We were hoping it was the boys, but no. It was from Polly. Video messages.
“Do you think we should watch them?” Saz asked. “We don’t have to. We could just delete them, you know. We could delete our whole accounts.” I said of course we had to watch them. There was no choice.
We started with the one on my phone. In a moment, we saw the back of a girl walking along Mildred’s Place. It was still light out, and she was carrying a plastic bag with some bottles rattling against each other. Took Saz a minute, then she realized.
“Oh my god, that’s you.”
“Yeah, I know it’s me. That’s me walking back from the shop. Today.”
“Shit. Did you know someone was following you?’”
“Saz,” I said, “no one followed me.”
The girl in the video reached my house and went through the front door. The video cut out. We got up the video on Saz’s phone. This one was different. It began in total darkness. Saz gripped my hand.
It was night, and people were staggering about in the woods. These woods, of course. The camera followed people through the rave, dancing, running, jumping around. And as we watched, more and more people slunk off. Lovers escaping to their beds. Friends going home arm in arm. But some people stayed. And the ones that hung around, they didn’t look quite right. Didn’t look like people you could chat to in the smoking area at the end of a night out if you know what I mean. A few men were gathered in a ring, arms linked together, looking down at something trapped in the middle. You could only see their backs, not what they were looking at. The ring tightened.
When the video finished, we noticed how still it was. The rave had ended, and the woods were mostly empty. The lights and the speakers were all dead. And it was just us, just me and Saz, huddled in that circle of stones, surrounded by odd cuts of meat. A few stars were out, and maybe it was my mind playing tricks, but I swear they looked red. And all around us, in the shadows, I could see human faces.
For the longest time, we didn’t move.
Then the boys showed up.
It was nearly two a.m, and I thought Mo and Tyrel would never stop laughing – even as Saz pounded them with her fists, they kept cracking up afresh. Maybe she was making them laugh even harder. Jenkin didn’t join in, though. He stood apart, shoulders hunched, hands in his pockets. And he looked miserable, for some reason.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I said. “What the actual fuck?”
He didn’t give me any answer, though. Just stood there, looking at the moonless sky, shivering.
When I asked him again, he took out a cigarette and struggled to get it lit with his hands cupped against the wind. All he said was, “Don’t be superior. We went through her inbox, you know. Some of the shit you lot sent her. Fucking hell.”
Jenkin still hadn’t got his cigarette started. Suddenly furious, he spat it out and tossed the lighter into the huddle of trees.
Later they were in the papers and everything.
Schoolboys hack dead girl’s account for a laugh.
Under the headline, they stuck a picture of the three of them with their heads thrown back, busting a gut laughing, as if that was the exact moment they first went into Polly’s messenger. They got the photo from Mo’s page, apparently—the idiot had no privacy settings at all.
All three got chucked out of school, of course. It was a shame about Jenkin, cos he was a smart boy, and he was doing well. But things gotta have consequences, don’t they. The last I heard, he was wiping down tables in the Crown and Anchor.
TOBY LLOYD has published stories and essays in Carve Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Prospect Magazine, and The Oxonian Review (where he was runner up for the annual short story contest). He got his MFA in Fiction Writing from New York University. Last year a play he wrote, MASKS, was produced in London with support from the Arts Council England.