What I'm thinking is I don't know what I'm thinking.

But my body does exactly what it wants to.

Sitting up from the truck bed I'm lying hard and flat on, I swing the enormous mass of loose hair from my eyes and around my back--the hair I've allowed to fling down and bush out, just for tonight, because nobody here cares, and nothing here matters. I can hear Kirsten wheezing while she laughs, clinging to Lee's arm. Jonathan's about to jump all the way from the top of the truck to the ground, and everyone wants to see--Olivia, whose mouth is flapping away toward Trevor; and Samira, whose rambunctious, half-sadistic giggles are making her presence obvious, despite her physical obscurity in the dark. There are stars out--millions and trillions of them. It is the night of April 20th--maybe the morning of the 21st, by now--and they're here because of me, drawn together because of me. It's a nice thought.

But I'm too pensive to talk. To any of them. I think that maybe I will leave them and go back to the house, because I'm a little tired. I can slip away. They're being far too loud to notice.

Slide down the edge of the nearest gigantic tire, and pray they don't see you.

"Alys!" Olivia cries as she points me out to the others: an enshrouded figure stumbling away, back down the road. I laugh loudly in reply. I know she won't mind, and it'll tell her I'm okay. I came to this place armed with dramatic, drunk-on-life spurts of laughter and explosions into singing. I'll leave this place armed with dramatic, drunk-on-life silence.

And I do. As I tumble over the pavement I hardly think--am hardly aware of where I am--just the fact that there is glittering above me and darkness below, and all of it is beautiful. Just the increasingly distant clamor of voices that I love--voices that never leave, even if I leave them. Just the fact that my feet are firmly planted on this earth, and the stars are pretty, but no one's turning me upside down to fall into them, and I'm glad for that.

Trees. Houses. Dim porch lights--beacons for home. Slide me. Whirl me.

Seventeen years I've been alive--God, I'm getting up there, is what I joke to everyone.

You're so young, Honey, says everyone.

And I am. And I'm not. Seventeen short years--seventeen long years of living, the only thing I know, the only thing I will know for a long, long time. Life the stupid--life the bitch--life the chocolate box--the gift. Seventeen years of life. I stumble along on my wide, paved black road. Above me the stars are pretty.

All of a sudden, for no reason at all, I am struck with the urge to cry.

I feel my face crumple up before I have even turned the corner, and I hear tiny little sobs in the darkness that I know must be my own--though logically they can't be my own, because I am smiling, dim light bouncing off my braces. My gait has a twist and a slow, wondering limp to it. My face is metal-shiny from tears, but I don't cover my eyes. I keep walking and crying, gazing around and ingesting the setting and not seeing anything at all, nothing but faces in my head, and stories.

I think about Troy. I think about his face when he's laughing really hard, and his eyes are all squinted up and his mouth is open and you can see his white, white teeth. I think about how happy that face makes me--just to know that he's happy.

I think of Samira, of her crawling up to me in my bed when my feelings are hurt and no one else has noticed; I think of her ability to read me like the back of her hand. I can picture in my head Kirsten's face when she's laughing, and Kat's face when she's really honestly happy and you can tell it's real and she's not just doing it to put up a front. And then the ones I don't know as well--Trevor and Jon with their arms around girls, subconsciously flirting, smiles radiating. All their kindness. All their shortcomings and all their fatal flaws, and all their enriching, stabilizing love.

I think about my mother and my father. I think about how sad it must have been when they finalized that divorce, how many tears Ma must have shed, how failed she must have felt. I think about me inside my mother, her sobs racking both of our bodies throughout the pregnancy--it was her worst one, she said--bad timing. Bad timing. But she heard once that happy children are born of sorrow. I think about how true that is. I think about how there is no bad timing. I think about all the bitterness of that broken family, my family, and I picture my father crying because I wrote him a letter telling him that I wanted to talk to him again. I picture my mother crying in her car on our way home from the grocery store because she thinks that she hurts everyone she meets. I see her in the kitchen making a big breakfast for us, like I know she'll do tomorrow morning when we all wake up from our beds and the floor and even the trampoline--muffins and ham and eggs and fruit salad and coffee. I see her hair tossed up messily in an auburn bun, her maroon pajamas, her morning smile, her eyes without mascara.

I think about all the people I tried to call fathers, for want of one, before I realized that I didn't need one, and all I needed was her and the Father in heaven.

I remember Brian beating the shit out of Ariel at our old house, in the little upstairs bathroom. I remember the screaming and crying, the way she shrieked my name, and Brian told me not to listen to her, so I ran and hid in my room and covered my eyes and my ears with my pillow. I remember her begging for ice. Screaming my name, and I didn't come.

Yet there is forgiveness in all things.

In the darkness of my silent road, I cry because I know this. I look at the little road that is my life and see everything all built up, everything stacked up before my eyes, all the stories and all the people. I see the effect of each, the evil of each, the good in each. And I see that in everything there is nothing but beauty. Nothing you can call it but beautiful and cry. I can still hear the raucous laughter of all the people I left on the truck bed, my saviors--those who joined me on my road by choice, not obligation; the lovers of my soul, like Jesus. Pieces of Jesus.

I think about how my life has swerved around in change up until now, up until this moment, which stands still.

And then I think, This moment will never come again.

This moment will never come again.

As I walk, I can taste my tears on my tongue, their salt, like sweat or blood. My hands spread open, palms up, to the stars, and with one hand way out at each end of the universe I close my eyes and walk without knowing where I'm going, knowing that as long as I'm stretching out my arms I am safe, and I am loved, and I am seventeen.

It was a great birthday party, I think as my hands inch back down to my sides and I turn down the driveway with the white street lamps that mark my sanctuary. I was so happy that I cried.

Yet there's forgiveness in everything.