Peony Piper had grown up in idyllic Thousand Oaks, California. The only daughter of a stock-broker and successful realtor, she had wanted for nothing as a child. Her parents recognised the importance of hard work and self-improvement, however, and had instilled this in Peony from an early age; both had fruitful, self-made careers and both believed that nothing should be taken for granted. While they obviously loved their daughter, they wanted her to learn how to earn the things she wanted. They had paid for the best schools, and tutored Peony from home too, making sure that she achieved the best grades possible. The result had been a gifted, hard-working but grounded young girl who was the envy of most parents in Ventura County. A gifted student and capable athlete, Peony was also beautiful; she had smooth, shiny dark brown hair, perfect skin, and a petite frame. She had the kind of face that required no makeup; large blue eyes, full lips, a dainty nose and chin. It would have been immoral to stain her features with aesthetic enhancements. When she had graduated from high school, and the time had come for her to embark on her college career, her father had insisted she stay in California or choose a nearby state so that he could continue to monitor her progress and make sure she didn’t fall in with the wrong crowd, or worse, frat boys. His concern was misplaced however; Peony was incredibly mature for her years, she had no interest in boys to speak of, and she was a very accomplished independent learner. She enjoyed her father’s concern though, thinking it a sign of how much he loved her, and humoured him to some extent by moving to a neighbouring state to major in architecture at the University of Arizona. This seemed a fair compromise, allowing her parents to visit whilst also providing a major that she was passionate about, sustainable architecture. Peony had settled in perfectly to life at UA, her new-found freedom suited her well and she balanced an active sporting life with her studies as well as making several close friends in her freshman year. Now a sophomore, she had moved into a five bedroomed colonial home on the outskirts of Tucson with her girlfriends, she was an established member of the UA Lacrosse team, and still maintained a 4.0 GPA.
Tonight Peony sat at her desk in a flimsy pink strap-top and matching pyjama shorts, leaning back on her chair with her slender legs bent and her bare feet on the edge of the desk, her laptop was open on a video-call with her mother. The glow from its screen illuminated her face, casting shadows above her cheekbones and brow.
“And you’re sure that you’re ready for tomorrow?”
“Yeah mom, I’m always ready. Don’t worry, I’ll do a little more preparation tonight too.”
Peony smiled at the maternal concern she was receiving, it always made her feel loved when one of her parents enquired about her studies because she knew they cared so much that she succeeded, and with her exams starting tomorrow this comfort calmed her nerves, so she was happy to lose a little study time to Skype with her family. She waved her course textbook, Modernising Architectural Design, in front of her laptop webcam, daggling it playfully between thumb and index finger while flashing a sarcastic smile.
Her mother rolled her eyes in response,
“OK sweetie, I see. I won’t keep you long then if you’re studying. What are the girls up to tonight? Have their exams started yet?”
“Kind of, yeah. Rachel and Mia don’t really have written exams, so they’re heading to a house party on campus. Kim and Beth’s exams start next week so they’re going to the party too…SO AT LEAST I CAN STUDY IN PEACE!”
Peony light-heartedly yelled this last sentence towards her bedroom doorway with a smile, turning her head and craning her neck to project her voice in the direction of the other three bedrooms that shared the first floor corridor. She turned back to her screen and winked at her mum as the good-humoured replies rang back down the corridor,
“Yeah, you need all the help you can get dumbass”, Kim’s bedroom was furthest down the hall and closest to the stairs,
“Screw you bookworm, God forbid you get a ‘B’!” Rachel’s room was next to Kim’s, one closer to Peony’s.
Both responses were followed by high-pitched giggling, following which Beth stumbled into Peony’s doorway from her adjacent bedroom. It looked as though she’d begun to get a head start on the evenings drinking; although smartly dressed and made-up, her eyes were glossy and she staggered slightly as she approached her housemate,
“Yeah seriously Pe, you’re gonna be the first fucking woman president if you keep this up! Oh. Shit. Sorry Mrs Piper, didn’t realise you were there. How’s life?”
“Life’s very good thank you Bethany, and yours?”
“Oh, well, y’know. Can’t complain.” Beth was now sheepishly backing out of Peony’s room; all the girls respected the Pipers and knew that they wanted their daughter keeping good company. Peony was cool, she’d go to parties and have a good time but she and her friends had agreed to shelter her parents from the more depraved side of college life as much as possible. As Beth’s shoulder bumped into the doorframe she mouthed an apologetic ‘sorry’ in Peony’s direction, receiving a wink and a smile in return, before hastily rushing to the stairs, beckoning the other girls to join her as she did so.
Peony looked back at her screen to see her mother stifling a grin, and both women burst out laughing. When their chuckling subsided they said their goodbyes, Peony blowing her mother a kiss and asking her to pass one on to her dad as well. A blinking noise like the sound of a cartoonishly fat raindrop falling into a lake signalled that the conversation had been terminated and, as Peony closed her laptop, swept her textbook up from the desk and headed to her bed where a lamp cast a bright yellow den in the corner of her dark room. She could hear muffled giggles from downstairs, slowly getting quieter until the slamming of the front door and ensuing silence indicated that she was now alone. It had been a typically long, bright Arizona summers day and now the smell of burning asphalt and sounds of traffic passing by the house gave way to the odour of open wine bottles and the occasional chirping of a cricket outside her bedroom window. The light was fading fast now too, it was a little after nine in the evening and although the day was dimming, Peony’s west-facing bedroom was punctuated by the last faint beams of orange light stubbornly refusing to disappear beyond the horizon.
The girls’ house was fairly grand for a student dwelling; set over three storeys there were wooden steps leading to the front door from the lawn, and a decked porch that wrapped around the entire house. The porch was great for parties in the summer, as it could accommodate a large number of guests and meant people rarely ventured, drunk, into the house. It was also a beautiful place to sit and watch the sunset. The exterior of the house was cladded with wood, all of which was painted white to match the porch and reflect the Arizona heat. Inside, the ground floor consisted of a large kitchen facing the back yard, with more pine cabinets than anyone could possibly need set on all four walls surrounding an island containing a basin and an area for chopping and preparing vegetables. There was a large Aga oven against the wall opposite the island, and on the other side was a breakfast bar, facing the oven, which irritatingly only had space for three stools. The girls spent most of their time together in the kitchen, as it was so large, and often took turns cooking meals for the group while the others did the washing up, or perched on the stools gossiping. To get into the kitchen you had to walk to the back of the house along the ground floor corridor, with stairs to the first floor ascending on your right. There was an alcove under the stairs which mainly housed backpacks, books, and various styles of shoe. At the foot of the stairs were two rooms; a TV room to the left, only ever used by Beth and consequently the second messiest room in the house after her bedroom, and a lounge to the right. The lounge only ever saw use if the girls had a house party, particularly in winter, and as such its only contents were two large red leather couches which had been there when the girls had moved in, and which were severely worn and cracked with age. At the top of the dark wooden staircase was a bathroom, a simple white porcelain and lino affair. This was shared by Kim, Rachel, and Beth whose bedrooms ran sequentially up the corridor toward Peony’s, which was at the front of the house. Peony had her own en-suite bathroom, just next to her bedroom door which opened onto the hall so that she could see all the way to the end of the corridor and the top of the stairs. Her desk sat opposite the door, facing the wall and submerged beneath piles of books and sketches of buildings. Her modest single bed ran along the wall parallel to the doorway, Peony wasn’t a fan of stuffed animals but she did enjoy plush bed linen that smothered her petite body, even in the warm weather, and so her bed was swamped by plump pillows and a duvet almost as thick as her mattress. There was a large bay window looking out over the front of the house to the right of her desk, with lace curtains keeping out the insects that inevitably tried to gain access through the windows that she had to keep open for ventilation during the warm summer nights. Peony had a clothes rail in the bay in front of the glass as she loved the view of the street in the mornings and always dressed while looking out over her adopted neighbourhood. The third floor was accessed through a hatch in the ceiling of the second floor corridor, and housed Mia’s bedroom and en-suite. Mia very much kept to herself when she wasn’t out on a social expedition and, to Peony’s knowledge, none of the girls had ever been up to see her room.
Modernising Architectural Design was not the most stimulating of texts, besides which Peony had studied hard for this exam, as she always did, so she felt well prepared and, before long, her concentration waned and her mind began to wander. She thought about what Beth had said, the first woman president. That would be something. She smiled to herself, lay back on her bed with her textbook resting on her chest, and slowly drifted into a deep sleep.