HAUNTED BY TAYLOR SWIFT
This short story by Annabel White charts the devastating power of teenage friendship and rejection. Illustration by Rung Sheng Chou
Julie Findler was excited. If there was ever a night to dress herself up and get her hair looking all nice, this was it. She was fifteen years old, on the brink of adulthood, and she had woken up that Tuesday morning in the bed she’d always slept in, in the house she’d always lived in, knowing tonight was going to be the best night of her life. Tonight, on the twenty-second of March 2011 at roughly seven o’clock, Julie Findler was going to get her best friend back.
Julie and Michelle had bought the tickets six months ago. They’d used Michelle’s dad’s computer. He had one of those new Apple Macs and an unstable enough relationship with his daughter to let her use it whenever she pleased. Julie and Michelle had spent a lot of time on that computer. Michelle’s dad didn’t understand enough about the internet to bother with parental controls, or enough about teenage girls to check his browsing history.
Julie and Michelle used to have sleepovers every Friday. They’d take swigs of the own-brand vodka Michelle’s dad kept under his desk and then they’d login to online chat rooms and watch men they didn’t know masterbate to them over the internet.
Julie and Michelle were obsessed with penises. At school, they’d heard girls in the year above talking about the dicks they’d seen on ChatRoulette, and they thought they’d take a look. Neither of them knew what a penis looked like, and with their sixteenth birthdays on the horizon, they felt it was about time they did.
The first time they saw one they screamed. Their newfound chat room acquaintance had his face out of the frame. His camera was positioned somewhere between his legs, and his schlong filled the whole of the screen. It looked about a metre in length, maybe longer.
Julie said, “Get it off the screen, get it off the screen.”
Michelle was calmer. “Keep looking. The longer we look, the less afraid we’ll become.”
So they kept looking. They looked at seven penises that night. All framed in the same way. Ballsacks and shafts and no faces. “Are they really that big? All of them?”
Michelle shrugged. “I guess.”
That night Julie lay awake on Michelle’s bedroom floor.
“Do you think our dads’ ones look like that?” she asked.
Michelle rolled over. Pretended to be annoyed by Julie’s immature questions. Pretended she wasn’t wondering the exact same thing.
“Yeah,” she said. “They must do.”
“And do you think our mums, like, touch them and stuff?”
“Obviously,” she said. “They probably like touching them. They probably touch them and suck them and sit on them. That’s sex, Julie.”
Julie thought of her mother. Mrs Findler was mildly overweight and her favourite curse word was sugar. Julie was sure her mother had never touched or sucked or sat on one.
Over time, Julie and Michelle got better at ChatRoulette. They learned how to dirty talk, which words to type into the chat box, what to say to keep the men from disconnecting. They discovered what semen looked like and they learned all the different words for it. They talked about sperm and jizz and cum and spunk and they felt like real adults. Julie and Michelle never told anyone what they did on Friday nights. They understood it was wrong. They were nice cul-de-sac girls with unhappily married parents and vaguely good prospects. They knew they weren’t supposed to be up all night looking at dicks.
Before Julie and Michelle were obsessed with penises, they were obsessed with Taylor Swift. Two years before, Taylor Swift had come to London on her Fearless tour. Julie and Michelle’s parents said it was too far. They lived in the West Midlands.
“If she came to Birmingham it would be a different story,” Michelle’s dad had said to the tear-streaked thirteen year-olds. “But London’s too far, girls. London is too far.”
Taylor released Speak Now two years after Fearless and it was epic in all proportions. They queued outside HMV before it opened. Michelle didn’t get as much pocket money as Julie, so Julie bought the CD. She listened to it that night, then gave it to Michelle the next day. Michelle listened to it the next night, then gave it back to Julie, and they did this over and over until it was Friday. They didn’t look at any penises that Friday. They lay on Michelle’s bed, in silence, and listened from start to finish.
There were fourteen songs on the album, each one chronicling the hopes and dreams of boy-crazy, small-town everygirls. Julie liked to think of herself as a boy-crazy, small-town everygirl. She hardly knew any boys, but still, a girl could dream. When Julie listened to Mine, she pictured herself sitting on a beach, staring at the ocean, with a faceless boy beside her. When she listened to The Story of Us, she felt angry at a fictional ex who’d mistreated her. When she listened to Last Kiss, she imagined a soul-crushing break-up and dreamt of heartache. If there was one thing Julie wanted more than anything in the entire world, it was to feel the pain of a broken heart.
That night, Julie asked Michelle which song she liked most. Michelle was quiet for a moment, thinking. “Better Than Revenge,” she said. “Or Sparks Fly. You?”
“Haunted,” said Julie.
“Yeah,” said Michelle. “Haunted’s a good one.”
When the tour dates were announced, neither Julie nor Michelle asked their parents if they could go. Michelle’s dad had all but confirmed it two years before. Why run the risk of letting him change his mind? Taylor Swift was playing the Genting Arena, and without any traffic they could get there in thirty-five minutes. Michelle’s dad kept a credit card taped under the desk. Beneath the Apple Mac, above the own-brand vodka. They’d waited for half an hour, arguing over whether they should refresh the page, whether they’d lose their place in the queue, before they were thrown into the check-out. It was like someone had a gun to their heads. Julie read out the card details, Michelle typed, and neither girl took a breath.
They watched. They waited. A fly buzzed around the room. It tap-tap-tapped against the window, and then the two most beautiful words to ever exist in the English language stared out at them from the screen.
“Fuck,” Michelle shouted. “Fucking yes.”
Julie had never heard Michelle say the F-word before. But things had changed. They were going to see Taylor Swift and everything was different now.
“Fuck!” said Julie. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
If Julie could pinpoint the last time she knew for certain Michelle was her best friend in the whole world, it would have been then. It would have been that moment on Michelle’s dad’s computer, when they’d committed low-level credit card fraud and were seeing how the F-word felt as it came out of their mouths. That, Julie knew, was the last time.
On Monday Julie got her braces tightened. Her seat had been the only one empty in form that morning, so it was the seat Emma had sat in. It was the seat Emma sat in again at break, and when Julie walked into classroom Four B, she saw a girl she’d never seen before at her desk, next to her best friend, eating a chocolate bourbon. Michelle beckoned her over.
“This is Emma,” she said. “She’s new.”
Emma was pretty. She wasn’t as pretty as Michelle, but she was prettier than Julie, and when you’re fifteen in the Midlands and nothing ever happens to you or with you or because of you, the most important thing you can be is pretty. Emma’s blond hair was dip-dyed pink, she wore shiny colourful hi-tops with a hidden heel inside, and each of her ear lobes had two piercings in them.
Julie stood in front of the desks, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
“Emma’s just moved here,” said Michelle. “From Cornwall.”
“Oh cool,” said Julie. “How come?”
Emma turned to Michelle, and Michelle placed her hand on top of Emma’s.
“Julie, that’s a really personal question,” said Michelle.
Emma shook her head. The pink tips of her hair bounced on her shoulders. “It’s fine,” she said. “Honestly it’s fine.”
Then she looked at Julie like she was to blame and said, “My parents are getting a divorce.”
“I’m sorry,” said Julie, and she was.
Sorry she’d been at the orthodontist that morning, sorry her hair was mousy and brown, sorry her own parents weren’t getting a divorce, that her own life wasn’t exciting enough to fall apart. Emma sat with Michelle for the rest of the day, and Julie sat at the back next to Rebecca who had a hunchback and dandruff and breath that smelled of soup.
Michelle invited Emma to her house that Friday. She didn’t even check with Julie. Emma wanted to watch some horror film Julie had never heard of, so the three girls traipsed to Blockbuster after school in search of it. The movie sucked. Michelle pretended to be scared and when Julie looked over from her side of the sofa, the two girls were clinging to each other like they were afraid for their lives. When the film was over, Emma stood up and went to the bathroom. It was the first time Julie and Michelle had been alone all week.
“Let’s go upstairs soon,” said Julie.
Michelle chewed her fingernails and stared at the blank TV. “I’m kind of fine down here.”
“We haven’t even been on ChatRoulette tonight,” said Julie.
The toilet flushed. Julie heard the stomp of heeled hi-tops getting closer.
“I don’t know,” said Michelle. “I feel a bit over that stuff.”
“Over what?” asked Emma.
“Julie wants to go on ChatRoulette. She’s kind of obsessed with it.”
Emma snorted. “That’s fucking gross,” she said. “Does it turn you on or something, Julie? Old guys wanking over you?”
Julie felt heat crawl up her neck, across her cheeks. “No,” she said, though neither Emma nor Michelle heard her. They were laughing too loud.
The following Friday Emma invited Michelle for a sleepover at her house. Emma had a ping pong table and an older brother and Julie didn’t have a hope in hell. Emma and Michelle started a YouTube channel and Julie started staying in on Fridays. They posted videos of themselves, daring each other to eat things, like whole cloves of garlic and teaspoons of cinnamon. They filmed themselves making prank calls, giving each other makeovers.
Julie felt like it was the end of the world.
But still, she had the tickets. They had the tickets, and the twenty-second of March wasn’t far away. Autumn had turned into winter and now spring had almost sprung. Michelle had more piercings in her ears now, she wore fishnets under her school skirt, and she hardly spoke to Julie. But Julie had the trump card.
The songs on the album took on new meanings now Michelle had traded her in for Emma. She listened to Mean, the song Taylor wrote about Kanye, and she thought about Emma. She listened to Back to December, and imagined Michelle singing the words to her, begging for her friendship back. She listened to Haunted, the first song she’d loved on the album, the song Taylor woke up in the middle of the night to write, about the moment you realise the person you love is slowly falling out of love with you.
Come on, come on, don’t leave me like this / I thought I had you figured out / Can’t breathe whenever you’re gone / Can’t turn back now, I’m haunted.
When Julie had wished for a broken heart, she’d envisioned a greasy-haired, bogey-picking fifteen year-old at the centre of it. She’d wanted a youthful fixation on an idiot boy, and she’d wanted Michelle’s shoulder primed, polished and ready to cry on. She never thought Michelle would be the one to break her heart. She never saw this coming.
As the twenty-second of March crept closer and closer, Julie expected Michelle to reach out. She expected some kind of olive branch. Of course it never came, so the Friday before the Tuesday of the concert, Julie bit the bullet and walked over to Emma and Michelle, who were huddled at their usual table at the back of the canteen. They were watching something on Emma’s phone and they looked up as Julie walked over.
Emma said hi in a way that felt less like a greeting and more like a question. Michelle fiddled with the wax of her Babybel. “What are you guys up to this weekend?” asked Julie.
Michelle pushed her nail into the red wax, leaving a semi-circular indent.
“Nothing much,” said Emma. “My brother’s friend’s having this party. We might go to that. If we can be bothered.”
“Nice,” said Julie. She looked at Michelle.
“So,” she tried again. “My mum’s offered to drive us on Tuesday. I don’t know if you asked your parents or whatever. But she says she doesn’t mind.”
Emma’s eyes widened. She turned to Michelle. “What’s happening on Tuesday?”
Again, Michelle was silent.
“We’ve got tickets to Taylor Swift,” Julie told her.
Emma snorted. “I forgot you were into shit like that,” she said.
Julie looked from one girl to the other. Her heart was racing. Emma looked at Julie, smirking, and Michelle looked at her hands.
“Well, that’s all I came over to say,” she said. “Have fun at the party.”
In spite of everything, Julie didn’t think she’d lost Michelle. Not fully. She woke up that Tuesday morning with a spring in her step. She listened to Haunted on repeat as she brushed her teeth, as she put on her uniform, as she spooned heaps of cornflakes into her mouth. She practically skipped to school.
Michelle’s form seat was empty. It’s fine, Julie told herself. She’s probably sleeping in.
Michelle wasn’t in first period English, or second period French. She wasn’t at break and she wasn’t at lunch. Julie sent her a text. The last message she’d sent her was four months before. It was a picture of her neighbour’s kitten. She thought Michelle would find it cute, but she’d never replied.
R u coming in 2 skl 2day?? Julie asked.
Michelle replied ten minutes later: Not feelin well
Wot about Taylor Swift?
Sorry, wrote Michelle.
Julie’s phone felt cold and heavy in her hand. The ground underneath her wobbled. When she opened her eyes, she was lying on the scratchy carpet, a gaggle of students around her.
“Is she dead?” she heard someone say.
Please, she thought. Please, let me be dead.
Julie’s mum picked her up twenty minutes later. The Speak Now CD was in the car. Mrs Findler put it on and started to sing what she thought were the words. Julie turned it off. They drove the rest of the journey in silence.
“I always thought it was a good album,” said Mrs Findler, sitting at the end of her daughter’s bed. “Better than her others. You know, I was almost upset you didn’t buy three tickets.”
Julie knew what her mother was doing.
“What was that song you always played over and over? You know the one.”
Julie sighed. “Haunted.”
“Haunted by Taylor Swift. That was it. A bloody good song, if you ask me. If only there was somewhere we could go, tonight, to listen to it.”
Julie sat up in bed and looked at her mother.
“She’s an idiot,” said Mrs Findler. “You know I was fond of that girl, but I’ll be the first to tell you she’s a fool. Now put on that lippy and get yourself dressed. We’ve got a concert to go to.”
There are moments in life so full of feeling that your skin lights up, that your body feels like it’s floating, that time stops dead in its tracks. That’s how Julie Findler felt when Taylor Swift walked onto the stage of Birmingham’s Genting Arena on that Tuesday in March. Like nothing before that moment had ever mattered and nothing after ever would.
She could feel the blood in her veins. The breath in her lungs.
It was Taylor freaking Swift.
Mrs Findler bobbed along beside her. She didn’t scream the words like Julie, but she tried her best and Julie was grateful for it. She brought a digital camera with her and filmed the whole thing, just in case.
Later, Julie Findler would fall asleep on the drive home. Her mother would nudge her once they were parked outside the house, and when Julie walked inside, bleary-eyed, she would wonder if she was dreaming.
There’d be a girl waiting in the living room. The girl would be sitting on the sofa, chewing her nails, looking up at the door as Julie walked through it.
Julie’s dad would say to Julie’s mum, “It’s fine. They know she’s here.”
Julie would sit down, opposite the girl and they’d look at each other for a second, neither knowing what to say. Michelle would go first.
“How was it?” she’d ask.
Julie wouldn’t lie. She’d say it was the best night of her life. She’d mean it.
“I’m sorry,” Michelle would say. “I’m so sorry.”
Julie wouldn’t know what to say to that. Michelle’s eyes would be red around the edges and Julie would wonder if she’d been crying.
“My mum filmed the whole thing. We can watch it on Friday if you want.”
Michelle would blink away tears as they fell from her eyes.
“Yeah,” she would say. “That would be nice. That would be really, really nice.”
This short story appeared in The Haunting Issue of Popshot Quarterly
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