“Sarah!” Annabelle shouted, her face grinning playfully as she anxiously danced on the dock, her long legs smooth as waves in the moonlight. The cruise ship loomed behind her like a white whale, moaning quietly. “Come on!”

“Annabelle, do you ever stop talking?” Noah complained, glancing at her.

Jaxon pulled her into the shadow of the cruise ship from where he was crouched, his face cold. “Probably not.”

“The ship’s docked, not unwatched,” Christian said, looking at Annabelle.  “People could hear you.”

Annabelle looked at them. “She must be coming-”

Feet scuffed the cement, and Sarah stepped into sight, a saggy backpack folding her loose shirt around her armpits. Annabelle yelped with a greeting and waved her forward.

“Finally,” Noah grunted.

“Why aren’t we starting up there?” Sarah pointed above their heads to a boarding bridge, and their eyes followed her gaze.

“Looks like it goes straight into the ship,” Annabelle whispered.

Sarah raised a brow towards them. “Aren’t we trying to get in?”

Their faces twisted towards Christian, and his mouth tightened.

“So why are we down here, Christian?” Noah asked pointedly, his chin dark.

“My dad’s just the captain,” he responded with shrugged shoulders. “I don’t work here.”
 “Well, that’s why we’re here, Christian. Because you know your dad’s ship. Geez, what were we gonna do? Climb the windows?”

“It’s his company’s- nevermind.” Christian walked forward. “Let’s start up there.”

Noah grunted, judgment rumbling his jaw. “Yes. Let’s.”

They crowded together as they tailed Christian up the industrial stairs, whispers overwhelmed by creaking metal beneath their heels. Sarah glanced towards Noah as he loudly snorted dark jokes and shallow humor, moving with an ego great enough to swell his shirt.

He had served his gym time well; yes, like a prisoner to his pride.

Jaxon kept pace beside him, his coolness impossible to challenge and ultimately cold enough to conveniently avoid heated revelations of his hidden insecurity. The way his eyes rested at a downward incline on his face spoke of what he refused to admit: he was incredibly unsure of everything, especially his capacity to be wanted.

“What do you think this does?” Noah laughed and pulled on a hanging chain that ran the length from the ground and their distanced climb above. Something groaned and snapped, and the noticeable sound of crunching glass caused Noah to erupt with a deeper laugh.

Jaxon chuckled, shaking his head. “You’re so dumb.”

Insults, to Noah, were like reaping harvests from young seeds. It was attention, and that was powerful enough; what people look at is where they drift. It was a long-term investment to ensure people would always be distracted by his salted charm until eventually realizing he took a rooted place in their locked lives. They had wondered too long, mistaking his personality to be a mysterious gem to be deepened with reveal rather than a regular stone of no inner amazement.

Sarah, in bias of what she once learned to see, suspected that Noah believed his reach of control reflected the areas of himself that were loved.

Jaxon was harder to understand, only because few wanted to. Unfazement in general situations was personable enough to simply accept and not even wonder what was within. In fact, as he hummed songs that supposedly trended in the back of his mind, he didn’t even seem to glance for approval.

In reality, behind those murky eyes, Jaxon was attracted to Noah’s vain tendencies for approval. He perceived Noah’s behavior as indications of his own value; to him, Noah wanted his attention because he was important. He wanted to feel that. No wonder Jaxon found validation in poking fun at Noah’s ego.

Taunting the caged beast made him feel like a king, for once in his life.

Sarah looked down at her moving feet. There were terrifying possibilities to what those two, together, could produce in long exposure to each other’s addiction. This night would likely test to what extent their civil will covered.

“Imagine,” Jaxon breathed as he reached the top of the stairs with Christian and Noah, “giving the wrong directions. To your own ship.”

Noah laughed. “Yeah, imagine.”

Christian didn’t flinch or regard Jaxon. Indifference was easy to come by with unfamiliar people. His lifelong friendship--if that’s what it could be called--with Noah obligated him to glance towards him with low eyes of servitude. Their relationship was long enough to have created a rope looped around his neck, threaded of time and memories that should’ve been forgotten.

Knowing the wrong people for too long makes everything personal.

“What’s in the backpack?” Annabelle whispered, looking back at Sarah as they reached the last step and faced the thin bridge stretching over the water, where the ship deck stared back.

“Emergency supplies,” Sarah explained, breaking her thought away from their complicated group of friends.

They weren’t really friends, though; they were family. The distinction was not derived from their secret conflicts, hidden intents, and dynamic personalities, though that was a great deal of the matter. Ultimately, it was because friends implied happiness.

They were not.

“You’re such a mom,” Annabelle laughed.

Sarah laughed and looked at her.

Annabelle leaned over the bridge railing to smile at the reflection of the water below and Noah pushed her, just enough to scare her. She screamed, then quickly covered her mouth in realization and spun around. He ran across the bridge with laughter, and Jaxon cooly walked after him, chuckling.

That’s who Annabelle was; she was predictable and spirited, and that’s what made her one of the boys. It didn’t matter that she was feminine and sometimes dramatic; she was easiest to mess with because she wouldn’t hurt her own friends. Others, she could fight, but she didn’t want to lose anybody close to her. It didn’t matter how toxic or threatening they were; at least they were people to her.

She was the type of person to care more about how many coins she had in her pocket than how much they were worth.

Annabelle smiled and ran after them, waving Sarah to follow.

For a small moment, Sarah was alone on the other side, the last of them to crossover to the cruise ship. That was who she was. She was there, but she also wasn’t; she was different in the way she thought about everything deeper than it was, and her nerves. She was in control of basic emotions, and for that, she understood that times called for various parts of herself. Perhaps that was how she and Annabelle had grown close; Sarah didn’t need to compete with her, and Annabelle didn’t need to test her.

Today, she had chosen to risk a few fears for a chance to be with people. Somewhere in her head, she had gotten the idea that maybe it would be a chance to prove herself worthy of friendship. A foolish thought, as she now realized how unnecessarily complicated they were, and she certainly didn’t need more of that in her life. They all seemed to be still stuck in high school, despite their college years.

Meanwhile, Sarah was stuck beyond her years. Yet, she still tried to play the role she found herself in because her mother had once told her, “You only live once, you know. You can’t just sit around and wait to be the age that your mind is at. Be young and adventurous, at least for a little while.” She was a great actor, just for that. Even when it didn’t work out right sometimes, she continued to be great at pretending like it was.

Sarah walked across the bridge and stepped onto the deck of the cruise ship.

Surely, this was not what her mother had in mind. However, opportunities came in testing bouts, not gift baskets. Sarah knew that.

“Come on, Sarah,” Noah shouted before Annabelle smacked him to be quiet.

“We’re going to the top,” Noah whispered, just loud enough for her to hear.

Sarah hurried after them, her backpack slapping against her back. Christian pulled out his phone to turn on the flashlight, and Annabelle followed suit. They ran along the hallway until they found a lobby. The boys moved towards the stairs, but Annabelle frowned and moved towards the elevator.

“There’s an elevator right here.”

“Yeah, and your death wish,” Jaxon said without glancing.

Annabelle flashed her light at them. “What-”

“The ship’s on cold lay up,” Christian explained, eyes squinting. He pointed at the lights that were off. “All the energy has been turned off, except for emergency systems. No energy, no light. No energy,” he pointed at the elevator, “no up.”


Annabelle followed back after them towards the stairs.

“So much walking,” Noah complained.

“Noah, stop,” Jaxon said from behind him. “You literally are a gym god. I know, I have a good view of your figure from here.”

“Yeah?” Noah made an exaggerated smirk and looked back at Jaxon, the exchange highlighted by Annabelle’s light from her phone behind.

“Not again,” Annabelle groaned. “Jaxon, you literally have a girlfriend.”

“And Noah,” he said with a mocking, swooning tone. “She already knows about him.”

“We all know,” Sarah said.

It was a strange thing, how the boys could only seem to complement each other by going to queer extremes. They couldn’t be genuine, but they could pretend that they were something that they were not. Apparently, they were so deprived of attention that they had to act it to themselves for entertainment. Though it was amusing, it was also exhausting.

Finally, they emerged to the top deck where they could see far out across the sky and where a large, round pool was constructed in the center, covered by a white tarp. Noah immediately began pulling up the covering with Christian’s help.

They pulled up just enough to fit the five of them closely, then began ripping off their shirts. Noah jumped in, spraying chlorine-bleached water across their faces. Sarah turned away, blinking quickly to keep her eyes from stinging.

“You sprayed me!” Annabelle cried with a wide expression when his head popped back over the water.

As he rubbed his eyes clear, he lurched forward over the edge and grabbed her ankle. She shrieked and pulled away, but Jaxon grabbed her and pushed her in with him. The water boomed above them as their bodies submerged under the seemingly bottomless pool, with no lights to highlight them. Christian laughed and jumped in. The water wrapped around them like a haunted being, and Sarah couldn’t help but take a step back rather than near it.

“My phone!” Annabelle gasped as she came up to the surface, her mascara running like black tears staining her cheeks.

“I tossed it before I threw you in,” Jaxon said coolly.

“Wow, the first thing you care about is your phone,” Noah mocked her. “So basic.”

“Well, a phone isn’t exactly cheap.”

Sarah looked around to ensure that Annabelle’s phone was truly tossed to the side. She crouched down to pick it up and grimaced at the broken screen. At least it wasn’t submerged underwater.

“Is it okay?” Annabelle called after her, her elbows propped on the edge of the pool.

Sarah turned and showed her the phone, the moonlight illuminating the cracks across the screen like lightning.

“Jaxon, you cracked my phone screen!” Annabelle shouted, pulling Jaxon’s attention away from dogfighting with Noah and Christian.

“For real?” He followed her gaze to Sarah, where he saw the phone. He made a long face. “Oh. Dang, I didn’t mean to do that.”

Sarah stood and put the phone on a table, along with her own phone.

“Alright, alright, enough!” Annabelle shouted as she was submerged with waves of water from Noah. “If we were going to go for a swim, we could’ve just snuck into the city pool.” She reached the edge and pulled herself up, water pulling her clothes tight. Strands of wet hair clung to her neck like seaweed. “Let’s find some real fun on this cruise ship.”

Noah jumped out of the pool like a bear, and Christian and Jaxon followed more calmly. Sarah came behind them to fix their mess, grunting as she pulled the tarp over the water to cover their tracks.

Annabelle groaned as she looked at her broken phone screen. “What am I going to do?”

“Just look at the screen between the cracks,” Christian said as he passed her. “You won’t even notice.”

“I like that thinking,” Jaxon said. He turned and looked at Noah. “Let’s find the good stuff.”

Christian looked at them questioningly, the top of his eyebrows white with the moon.

“The alcohol,” Noah elaborated. “The booze. The beer.”

Noah pushed Annabelle aside with a hand in her face.

“Hey-” she started.

“You were in the way.”

By the time they found the casino, Noah had put his shirt back on and Christian had found the rhythm of talking about his last cross-country run.

“It was around midway of the second mile that I started feeling my legs, but I was still-”

“Christian,” Jaxon started. “No offense, but literally no one cares.”

“Yeah, I know.” He started to mutter something else, but it was lost in the rising commotion of the group’s enthusiasm.

Noah rolled over the bar counter and dropped behind sight. He came back up with glasses in his hand. “What’s your order?”

“What’s the menu?” Jaxon leaned over the counter and made a face. “Nevermind. Anything you want, it’s here.”

They all rounded around the corner and laughed over the rows of alcohol cases. Sarah eyed the white swirls above their head of architecture, inspired by the ocean waves that the ship was meant to cross for tourists. With the matching floor design, she could only imagine the headache added upon intoxication.

“I haven’t even heard of some of these.” Annabelle picked a yellow bottle and squinted. “Mezcal?”

“That’s similar to Tequila,” Christian said, pouring himself a glass of red liquid as he walked away. He took a sip and sighed.

They looked at him, and he paused, looking back. “What? I just know my liquor.”

Noah raised a bottle to call attention to himself. “Well, have any of you had a whole bottle of vodka? Straight?” He popped off the lid and took in several gulps. He coughed and took a stumbling step back, laughing.

Jaxon shook his head with a laugh.

“Which drink do you want?” Annabelle asked Sarah, taking a sip of her own glass.

“Oh, I’m good,” Sarah said.


“Somebody’s gotta be responsible and sober when we get out of here before sunrise.”

“Of course you wouldn’t drink,” Noah said between gasps of another round of gulped vodka.

Annabelle reached for his bottle. “Okay, Noah, that’s a lot of alcohol-”

He stepped away from her and threw her hand back. “Back off.”

“Leave the man be,” Jaxon told her. “He’s a man. He can handle himself.”
 “Oh, clearly.” Annabelle turned away. As her eyes settled looking further, she yelped and grabbed Sarah’s arm, pulling her in a direction. “They have a stage!”
 They pushed past Christian and Jaxon, and Annabelle stumbled onto a small black stage with sparkling silver curtains. The stereo and two cords attached to microphones explained its intended position: karaoke.

“Oh no,” Sarah said with a laugh.

Annabelle grinned like a child at an amusement park, still swinging her arm and holding the bottle of foreign substance. “Oh yes.” She took a drink, and as she lowered it away from her mouth, she breathed loudly and wobbled with a “woah”, then a laugh.

It wasn’t long before everyone was stumbling around as if the boat was amidst a storm at sea. So much for enjoying the entirety of the cruise ship's amenities; they were too drunk to go anywhere. Sarah still hadn’t drunk a drop of liquor. She watched Annabelle wail songs into the microphone, and Noah and Jaxon pole danced with low tables, bending like puppets without strings. Christian leaned back in a chair and a bottle rolled off the table, a glass bomb at his feet like a popped balloon.

Just like that, Sarah realized in a sudden instance that the party was over, and panic flushed her face. Chills pricked her neck like a brushing hand. Her breath caught in her throat, and she looked slowly at the four people in front of her. The danger of what was happening grew worse every second.

She was the only sober one; the only one that remembered that they were currently on trespassed territory, and they had to get out before dawn. Quietly and seriously. All of which were factors not available to the drunken bodies of hollowed consciences in front of her.

Sarah looked at her watch. Four o’clock in the morning.

“We need to leave,” she said out loud. It came out softer than she would have liked, but her voice was not capable of such a full tone.

Annabelle laughed and leaned back, nearly falling off the stage. She caught herself, landing on her knees. She groaned and rolled her head back, breathing heavily.

Sarah grabbed her shoulders. “Annabelle, we need to go.”

Annabelle eyed her. “Why?”

“Because we’re not supposed to be here, and we can’t get caught.” Sarah grabbed her arm. “Sunrise is about two hours. We need to be long gone by then.”

Annabelle let herself be helped up, but as Sarah turned to gather the others, she stumbled back down to the edge of the stage.

“No, no.” Sarah tried to pull her wrists upwards. “Two steps forward and one back isn’t going to be fast enough-”

“Shh.” Annabelle held a finger to her lip, then covered her own ears, scrunching her nose. “So loud.”

“Annabelle, you need to listen to me. We need to go-”

“Did you know I never even liked Todd?” Annabelle looked at her innocently, her lip puffed out like a child.


“I just thought he was cute. Had that beach hair, you know. And the tattoo that peeks out the back of his sweater.” She dry swallowed as if tasting something at the back of her throat. “I sat behind him for a whole semester.”

Sarah waited.

“I never should’ve done it, and I knew it.” Annabelle snorted and raised the alcohol to her lips with cocked teeth. Sarah yanked the bottle away from her before she could swallow.

Annabelle glared at her but sighed. “He tried flirting with me before, but I didn’t feel that way about him. But I thought at least, maybe, he would just make me matter.” Her eyes flickered. “Because he mattered.”

“Everyone makes mistakes.”

“Yeah, but I knew it.” Annabelle looked off somberly, her eyes hollow. “That’s not a mistake. I knew exactly what I was doing.”

Sarah took her hands and pulled her to lean forward. “That’s in the past. You’re different now.”

Annabelle paused, then wheezed with laughter, the smell of her breath hot against Sarah’s forehead. She patted Sarah’s cheek. “Like I don’t know that. Of course I’m different now; I wouldn’t be ashamed or guilty if I wasn’t.” She groaned and leaned back. “Geez, you always know how to cheer me up.”

Sarah tried to keep Annabelle from falling again, but she fought against her until she was limp on the stage again with a moan. Sarah let go of her and stood over her hesitantly.s

Once a person was drunk enough to lose track of time, there were no negotiating feelings; emotions and feelings thrive on the clock. Memories and regrets were in limbo now, sometimes not even considered as to be decided or already decided. Sarah would have to come back for Annabelle when she was more willing to walk through a troubled mind.

“Guys, we need to go,” Sarah shouted to the boys.

Noah and Jaxon glanced at her from the top of a table and laughed.

“Join us!” Noah shouted.

Jaxon dangerously leaned over the edge of the table, wheezing with both laughter and sickness. He pressed his fingers against his rumbling chest.

“I’m serious.” Sarah approached them. “It’s time to go.”

Christian groaned nearby, and Sarah noticed him sprawled beneath the table he had been sitting at earlier. His face was buried into the cold floor.

“Christian, are you awake?” She dropped to her knees and shook his shoulders.

He grunted and his eyelids twitched, but he didn’t make any intelligent response.

“Come on, you have to stay awake.”


Frustration peaking, Sarah crawled to her feet and grabbed Noah and Jaxon’s arms to pull them to the floor.

“Get off now,” she told them. When they shook her away, Sarah looked up. “Please, I can’t carry everyone out of here.”

“So wait,” Jaxon suggested. “Relax.”

“It’s four-”

“Blah, blah.” Noah groaned, and as he crouched down, he grabbed her arm.

“What are you doing- stop!”

He yanked her up on the table with Jaxon’s help grabbing her other arm. Her heart slammed in her lungs, and she yelped with panic and genuine fear.

Finally, she managed to gasp, “Let go of me!”

By now, Annabelle had found a way to start the music again on the stereo and was shouting along into the microphone. Even from her blurring vision, Sarah could see the mascara tears stained on the left side of her face and nose. The image spun in her mind with Christian’s body, Noah’s shallow laughter, and Jaxon’s grasp on her.

Noah and Jaxon released Sarah once she was laying flat on her stomach between the two of them. She crawled to her feet and glared at them.


“It’s a party.” Noah looked her in the face with the eyes of a madman. He waved his arms above his head. “Move!”

Jaxon joined him in jumping up and down on the table, pushing Sarah back and forth with the dance movement. The table groaned beneath them. She flinched with the movement and could hardly hear anything. She couldn’t breathe, and her eyes blinked rapidly as their arms continuously nearly slammed her face.

Her vision buzzed. She stumbled, struggling to keep her balance on the table that was already small enough for just the two boys before. She tried to lower to her knees and find her way off with the flashing eyesight of a rave before her.

Sarah reached out, and her hand fell through the air. She had been too confident in what she thought was the edge of the wood, and she dipped head first off the table, her weight plunged downwards. She yelped, and her skull banged on the floor with an echo.

Immediately, she slumped unconscious.

A.R. Hansen

Author of Battle of the Mind