“It’s the beginning of the end,” she says.

Graduation lurks beyond, but tonight, we read our poetry, our stories aloud to a hushed audience, close and still in the dim-lit theater. As we speak, the brilliant lights obscure our vision. We can’t see the faces, but when we step down from the stage, their voices roar, their hands clap, and suddenly we’re in the midst of a youthful fervor.

Feverish in our literary success, in the applause of our peers, we fall into the car, knowing we are great. And because we are young, greatness demands celebration. The night calls to us, anyway—night is the dominion and the birthright of the young, and we believe her, wear her like a coat, sniff her perfume and become intoxicated.

It is a truth universally acknowledged: great artists smoke. So we pull into a liquor store.

“I’m not dressed to go into a liquor store,” I say, tugging at my ballooning sweats, frowning at my fur-lined, fuzzy boots. I feel like a fool. I go in anyway, and it’s crammed with dusty bottles dully gleaming. Now I know—I don’t belong.

Kate asks for a black box of cigarettes and we drive to the beach. At first, we sit, perched on a concrete ledge a few feet above the sand, close to the edge of the world.

The oil rigs burn on the horizon, the brightest pinpricks for miles around. Since my childhood, they’ve been sentinels for me, floating along the coast, watching and protecting.

The sky is wisped in wreaths of clouds, but patches of clear starlight flash through. The bellies of the waves are burnished in silver moonlight, like sweat glistening on a heaving flank.

Sharp flickers suddenly illuminate their faces, and they suck in, puffing to light the cigarettes. Hands cupped, hair falling across their cheeks. I can see the curve of their noses and lips as they pass the lighter back and forth. The musk, herby and sweet, seeps into the air around us.

The bright tips of their cigarettes look like red crayons, and I say so. Kate smiles, pretends to draw in the air, allows her hand to fall slack against her leg.

“How is James?

“I have no fucking idea.”

She stubs her crayon-red cigarette onto the concrete, punctuates her screams with streams of smoke. Ash sifts to the sand below our feet.

Waves roll. The cigarettes are gone. We say, “Humans are complicated.” We say, “That sucks.”

“It’s the beginning of the end,” Heather said, and she’s right. We graduate in two weeks.

The water stretches on forever, but the oil rigs are there to guide us, the stars too. Maybe even each other.

“I guess you just muddle through it the best you can,” I say.

Niki is a writer and staff editor for WHILST Magazine.