She knew it was crooked. The landscape of lavender at the height of blooming at sunset was perfectly level in the painting but it fell ever-the-slightest to the left, teetering on the precipice of a single screw, and it looked off and it felt off and—she would never say it in Josie’s face—but everything else Josie painted this year felt off too. Josie’s previous landscapes and still-lifes, like the Basket of Buttercups and Other Wildflowers, carried themselves with grace and ease in every gentle brushstroke.

They were quietly perfect.

She was proud of her small contribution to it, as she suggested painting buttercups for their energetic, sunny presence in an otherwise technique-heavy piece. Josie’s going to be someone, someday. It plagued her conscience, how close she was to perfection, but Josie insisted that it was fine. Josie saw it too, of course: she didn’t call her the best for nothing.

Josie was talking about how long it took to find the right reference picture for her piece, how she always felt something lacking from the boundless treasure trove of Google Images and . . .

“Oh my gosh, same, I struggled so hard trying to find the perfect reference for it, but I ended up settling for a super blurry picture.”

“Yeah . . . me too, but like, I’d never settle for a picture if it wasn’t like the right one, you know?” Josie answered, fingers gripping the cuffs of her too-thin jacket to cover as much of her skin as possible while texting someone named Lili on her phone. Josie never used to bother with emojis, but whoever it was, this ‘Lili’ had five or six heart emojis framing her name. She didn’t know Josie knew a Lili or a Lilian.

“Yeah,” She nods to Josie. “I totally get you, and, actually, I didn’t really settle for anything, I just found one that kinda, well, worked so I totally rushed everything in the end.”

“True, but at least you got them in the show right?” Josie clicked the home button on her phone twice and started up a game of digital Words With Friends with randomized internet strangers. She silently cheered for Josie in her game as she watched her pick up, consider, but ultimately put down the letters she didn’t need.

“Yeah, I’m just really jealous you had as much time to work on your final piece as your thumbnails, and it looks so awesome!”

“Thanks, I’m just glad that I found it so soon.” She felt something leak from her heart when Josie paused a fraction too long. “Yours look nice, too.”

They stood in the rather unremarkable white gallery, designed to be disregarded while housing much more interesting objects, waiting for the silence to end on the other’s behalf. Students flitted about, chatting, and some carried their best works to their designated places. They followed each other, both moving without a destination, admiring the works besides their own that basked in the LED lighting of the long white room. Realistic still-lifes, post-post-modern abstracts, and someone’s aunt’s smiling selfie in a hospital bed smeared on a canvas with sculptural heaps of dried glue resembling the Great Wave off Kanagawa. They followed each other to explore the other rooms where the underclassmen’s pieces were still being hung and rearranged and curated. Josie ended up losing her game, but from her apathetic face, she didn’t seem to care either way. They followed each other to the temporary auditorium, swept into the stream of all the other students who also heard the overhead speakers call all students to the auditorium.

Should I run back and fix it? No, that’s stupid, Josie would get mad at me.

When she refocused back to reality, Josie, sitting to her right, jumped into a conversation with someone to her left, trapping her in the middle of it. Josie and the other student was leaning forward, so she pressed herself as paper-thin as possible against the metal folding chairs out of common courtesy.

They were all called for a three hour assembly of motivational yet empty speeches, featuring current school faculty, board members no one had ever heard of, and small-celebrity alumni. When it began she thanked it internally for ending Josie’s conversation. In fact, Josie did not say a word until the assembly ended besides the polite goodbyes and see-yous.

She found this silence comfortable at first, that maybe Josie found an iota of substance in the speech, but as time went on, she reviewed her memories of when Josie had ever sat mute, tapping her foot, with a small thoughtful frown gracing her lips.

She could only find one.

At the playground, first grade, when they met, Josie was staring at some kid’s neglected shovel while on the swings next to her. Brandishing the shovel, Josie dragged her off the swingset to dig for buried chests of pirate’s gold. Soon after, they forged a friendship on secrets and promises and spilling every last drop of gossip from their lips. They shared the same tube of caramel lip gloss when Josie lost hers. Nothing kept them physically apart, not school, nor friends, nor art. Three years ago, when Josie’s parents were too busy finalizing their divorce, she made two servings of her own lunch for a week so Josie could save up on lunch money, so they could still take the bus to the Aquarium together. Now, she noticed that, more often than not, Josie would say she was too busy to check out that new bubble tea shop, sorry, maybe next time when I’m free; then a week after, Josie would tell her about a crazy coincidence of going home with her SAT study group and seeing friends from sleepaway camp there. At that shop. As Josie told her the story, she laughed when she should have laughed and gasped when she should have gasped. They’d all become some bigger social . . . amalgamation after that, thanks to her.

Quite a fat lot of studying they did on that day.

It wasn’t even nightfall when they passed through the main gallery and followed each other to the parking lot, when at last Josie addressed the secondary crookedness. Helplessly tethered, she too latched onto their newest and ugliest conversation. Her mouth was wired shut, eyes pricked with wetness, lips stretched into a gross, twitchy, aberration of a smile.

Perfectly quiet.

Christine Li is a freshman majoring in Cartooning at SVA. She likes to write stories when she’s too lazy to pick up a pencil and draw something with a plan.