Fiction

 

To the Place All Lovers Go

Jenna Hultgren

It has been over three months since the death of my grandmother. I remember the helplessness that filled me as she began to lose weight, her skin sagging off her body as she struggled to throw feed at the hens. She would cough and wheeze, blue eyes pink and watery with unshed tears. She never once complained about the sickness that ruined her body. I think she was just trying to be strong for me, to make sure my training was complete.

She didn’t last very long after her illness started. I remember kneeling beside her bed, her bony hand clutched in mine as I recited the fairy tales she would so often read to me throughout the years. I whispered those stories to her until one day her breathing stopped. I rested my head atop her stomach and wept until I thought I too might die from the pain of her loss, like I would run out of tears and wither away to dust beside her unmoving form. I knew I would have to bury her at some point, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Eventually, several days after the light in her eyes dimmed, the stench emanating from her room became too much to bear. I lifted her into my arms to bury her beside our deceased chickens. I had expected her to be heavy, but the illness had ravaged her until there was little left of the hard, witty woman I loved.

I am seventeen years old. Tomorrow, I will turn eighteen. I will reach adulthood alone. It has always been my grandmother and me, as my parents left me when I was young. My memories of them are limited. Sometimes, when I lay in the meadow, I think I can feel my mother’s slender fingers caressing my cheek. When I climb the apple trees, I think I’m on my father’s shoulders, wind stinging my eyes as he runs in circles, lips flapping like a motor. When thunder cracks in the distance, I think I can hear the swift strike of leather upon skin. My grandmother would tell me stories of their great and undying love. Someday, I’d like to have a love like that.

Grandmother’s favorite story to tell was of their departure. She said that she rescued them, that she helped them realize how much they loved one another. Cupid, the deity of love, guided her through the process of helping them ascend through this mortal life and into the place all lovers go.  I asked my grandmother why she wasn’t also in the place all lovers lived, like Cupid, or with her own lover, like my parents. She punished me for such a question by making me fix the wire fencing around the chicken coop. I was young then, certainly not old enough to handle such delicate work, but I still bear the scars of the sharp fencing on the palms of my hands. I knew after that to not ask such silly questions.

My grandmother raised me on an apple orchard surrounded by empty fields and rolling plains. I have no neighbors, no contact with anyone, save for Hunter and his son, Phineas. They often come by to buy our stock. Phineas loves the apples and herbs from my garden. I’m uncertain how many times I have watched his mouth close around a perfectly ripe apple, something of my own creation. I relish watching the juice dribble from the corners of his lips as he smiles at me around the apple. Last time they came by Phineas gave me a big bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates to express his sympathy for the death of my grandmother. Chocolates are a rare treat; I gorged myself on them after they left until I thought I was going to be sick.

Grandmother would buy me chocolates too, but only on my birthday. She would go into town once a month to stock up on food and clothing for us. She forbade me from ever leaving the house, reminding me every month of how valuable I was.

“Cupid entrusted me with your care,” she would say in her gruff, halting speech. “I can’t go squandering that responsibility, now, can I?”

My grandmother was always very protective of me. When I was younger, people passing through would approach our farm and ask if they could stay the night to rest from their travels. Grandmother would lift one of her prized rifles from the mantle, yelling and screaming until the traveler would flee. I can still remember the revving of engines racing away as Grandmother shouted obscenities behind the plumes of smoke. Eventually we stopped getting the occasional traveler, and the only people I would see aside from Grandmother were Hunter and Phineas.

This morning, I awoke to the sound of the roosters crowing at the rising sun. I sigh, shoving the covers off my legs as I struggle to get out of bed. I should be excited, I know, to begin preparations for my first day as a mature adult tomorrow, but I can’t. If anything, it’s just another reminder that my grandmother won’t be here on the most important day of my life.

I rub the clouds from my vision as I make my way into the kitchen. Juno, my ever-faithful furry companion, rushes toward me from the pile of rags in the corner of the kitchen where she sleeps. Tail wagging, she extends her head toward me. I smile and rub her ears. “Good morning, beautiful,” I say to her.

Juno huffs a greeting and goes to the back door, where my one and only pair of shoes sits. She takes one of them in her jaws and shakes it, tossing it to the side and jumping on it.

“Hey!” I shout, darting toward her. I swipe the slipper from her mouth and set it beside the door again. “That’s enough. I’ll have to get you your own pair of shoes if this keeps up!” I tease.

After making a small fire with kindling and flint, I cook three eggs. Juno whines until I relinquish one of the eggs. She swallows it whole and places her front paws atop the kitchen counter, gazing up at me with her warm brown eyes. Her tail wags in slow circles.

“You’re not expecting another egg, are you?” I question her. She throws her head back and lets out a quiet howl before staring at me again. “I need to eat too, baby.” But I can’t resist her eyes. “Fine. You win, but only if you fetch the water with me this morning” She hops off the counter only after I’ve slipped her another egg. She celebrates her victory by settling down in front of the fireplace, tail still wagging as she swipes her tongue around her jaws. She eyes my shoes again, but I give her a stern glare until she looks away.

I suppose I’ll only have one egg today, though I should probably eat more. Hunter and Phineas are visiting today, just as they do on the second Saturday of the month. I’m very excited to see them. Even Juno seems to understand that they will be visiting today, as her eyes are trained on the front door. My gaze rises from Juno’s position at the fireplace to the three rifles hanging above the mantle. They’re quite high; Grandmother was much taller than I. The lowest one - my personal favorite - is a Winchester rifle. Grandmother taught me how to shoot with that rifle. She said it was similar enough to the weapon Cupid blessed for her, so it would be the easiest to learn. I practiced on deer that would skirt the edges of the apple orchard. The other two - a 20-gauge single shotgun and a lever action .223 rifle - I’ve barely touched. Grandmother used the 20 gauge to ward off visitors. I’m not sure that she ever used the .223 for anything more than a decoration.

We have a fourth weapon: the divine rifle that Grandmother said Cupid gave her. She didn’t tell very many stories, but when she did, she spoke most fondly of Cupid. Her favorite story, the one I never got tired of hearing, was how she helped my mother and father enter Cupid’s arms. My mother and father used to fight often, she would tell me. She knew that their resentment was strong, but their love for each other was stronger. That’s when Cupid appeared before my grandmother. He gave her the divine mission of sending my parents to him, then training me to do the same, once I was old enough. He blessed the bullets in her Henry carbine rifle with his sacred power and instructed her on what to do. Armed with holy power, my grandmother entered my childhood home to see my parents fighting. She knew what she had to do. She said that all it took was one divine bullet to each of their hearts. Heavenly light poured from their chests, carrying them to the roots of the cherry tree in the backyard. They rested there as my grandmother carved their initials into the bark of the young tree. There was a flash of light, brighter than anything she had ever seen before, and they disappeared to the place all lovers go. I know they aren’t fighting anymore, for their love was enough to grant them homage with Cupid. I want to go there someday with my own lover. For now, I am simply an agent of Cupid. At least, I will be, starting tomorrow.

My parents’ departure isn’t the only story of Cupid’s blessing in my grandmother’s life. She would talk and talk about all she’s done for him, as well as all he had done for her. My parents were her first mission, but she carried out many others after them. That’s why we live so far away from everyone. It wouldn’t be safe if other people knew about our mission. Grandmother said that those who were jealous of Cupid would try to take our place, they would put us in an eternal sleep like Princess Zoza, the girl who fell into an endless slumber until her true love found her. My grandmother would remind me of Princess Zoza’s demise frequently, her nails long and gnarled as they clutched my upper arms. She would rattle me back and forth until I said that I understood what she was saying. I loved my grandmother, but the frenzy with which she would describe Cupid was, at times, frightening. Her eyes would cloud and her passion would form around the corners of her chapped lips like a bubbly white river. It’s like Cupid’s love was shining down on her when she spoke of him, and that raw, uncut power was too much for me as a young girl. I admire my grandmother for being able to shoulder Cupid’s message until it came to be my time.

While I eat, I read my favorite fairytale: Rhodopis. It’s the story of a girl my age stuck in servitude to a kind, but sleepy, old man. The other servants would taunt and tease her, so her only friends were animals. She would dance for the animals with the little energy she had left at the end of the day. The old man saw her dancing one day and gave her a pair of dancing slippers. The prince threw a royal ball the next day. She wanted to go, but the other servants made her stay behind to clean their clothes. While washing, a wave of water splashed out of the pond, soaking her new slippers. She left them on a warm stone to dry. When she came back to retrieve them, a falcon swooped from the heavens and took one of her slippers away. She rejoiced, knowing the god Horus took her slipper, which meant good fortune for her. The falcon carried the slipper to the prince, who then went on a quest to find the maiden whose slipper the falcon had brought him. He discovered Rhodopis amidst the sea of servants and knew it was her. He chose her to be her bride. Grandmother then told me that Cupid claimed the couple, taking them to the place all lovers go to solidify their love forever. It would be so wonderful to have a love like that.

I’m almost through brewing a cup of St. John’s wort tea with the water I had retrieved when I hear a knock at the front door. Juno barks at the sound, startling me so I jostle the tea kettle. I whimper as the side of the kettle brushes my forearm, leaving a kiss of a burn. I dip a rag in the bucket of water on the kitchen counter and wrap it around the burn, trailing after Juno to the door. My heart pounds with each step. I only get to see Phineas once a month. I’ve learned to savor those days, but as I grow older, my desire swells as well. There is hardly a waking moment that my heart doesn’t ache for him. I wish that I could be like the princesses in my fairy tales and that Phineas would be my prince. He is everything I have ever wanted - but I cannot have him. Not while I have my mission. Grandmother never explained what would happen if I found my true love; she got sick before she could ever divulge that information. I am convinced that Phineas is meant to be mine; just not yet.

I take a deep breath and fling the door open, hoping my expression doesn’t betray my eagerness. It’s just Phineas; I don’t see Hunter. Phineas smiles at me, his teeth the brightest shade of white I’ve ever seen, like the pearls my grandmother sometimes wore. “Good morning, Venus,” he greets, sweeping into a low bow. Juno mimics the bow, tail a blur with movement.

My cheeks already hurt from smiling so much. “Good morning, Phineas,” I reply.

His eyebrows knit and he grasps my arm, turning it over to examine the cloth I had wrapped around my burn. “What happened here?” he asks. His voice sounds like what I would imagine angels singing to be. In his presence, there is music and color like nothing else. I’m so enveloped by him that I forgot how to speak. His fingers brush my skin, sending sparks through me as he gently unwraps the rag from my forearm to bear the sensitive skin underneath. His eyes raise to meet mine. If I wasn’t breathless before, I certainly am now. There isn’t a green like the color of his eyes. Not even the herbs in my garden can rival the brightness I’m seeing now. My eyes snag on his lips as they start moving, forming words that I can’t hear over the pounding of my heart like a bird struggling against my ribcage.

“Venus?” I eventually hear him say. “What happened to your arm?”

I clear my throat and gently tug away from him. I’m afraid he’s caught onto his effect on me. “I, umm, I thought, I -”

“Just spit it out,” he says. His chest shakes, like he’s containing laughter. “Come on, Ven, did you set yourself on fire trying to dry out those herbs of yours? You know I like them better fresh.”

I shook my head. “No,” I blurt. I’m almost certain I’m blushing. “I accidently bumped the tea kettle.” My eyes widen. “The tea kettle!” I ignore his confused stare as I rush back into the kitchen to remove the kettle from the flame. The kettle is screaming, spouting bitter-smelling steam into the air. I fight back a cough as I set the kettle on the counter. I’m making a fool of myself. My hands tremble along with my lower lip.

Phineas and Juno enter behind me. “You good?” Phineas asks. “Was it the tea?”

I nod, turning my face away from him. “Where’s Hunter?”

“He’s out of town.” Phineas dampens the cloth again, rewrapping my arm. “It’s just me today.”

So it’s just me and Phineas. I know I should be thrilled, but if anything, I’m even more nervous. Tomorrow, I need to start my mission, and I need to have a clear head while I do it. Phineas is making this impossible. I know I want to be with him, but I must also fulfill my divine duties. It’s agony, but my mission must come first.

Phineas finishes wrapping my arm, but doesn’t move away from me. He’s still only inches from me. “Well, should we go ahead and load the truck?” he questions.

I’m barely listening. My eyes are fixed on his mouth again. For a moment, I consider leaving everything behind for him. I could abandon my obligation and be with him for the rest of my life. Cupid could even claim us to live with him and my parents in the place all lovers go. But would Cupid even want me if I didn’t do what I was born to do?

“Venus?” Phineas asks again.

I blink, banishing such sacrilegious thoughts from my head. I can’t abandon my duty to Cupid, what my grandmother spent the last years of her life training me to do. I can’t disparage her memory like that. “We should,” I say, pulling away from him to go to the shed where I store his order until he arrives to pick it up. He follows me.

It’s warm today. I take a moment to breathe in the summer air, hoping it will clear my head. It doesn’t. I’m not sure anything could clear away my fantasies of Phineas. I’ve never had such thoughts before.

An hour or so goes by. We load his truck with the eggs, goat butter, and apples he had ordered last time he was here. I added a leather pouch of lavender, free of charge, which he thanks me for. We spent the whole time joking and laughing. He even helped me clean the chicken coop. I enjoy his company, and he always has something nice to say to me. 

We finish the last of the loading and he stops, swiping a hand over his sweaty brow. He almost glistens in the weak morning sun. “I suppose I should get going,” Phineas says, offering me a wide smile. Will I ever grow old of seeing that smile?

“I’ve had a wonderful time,” I reply, inching closer to him. “I would appreciate it if you would come by again.” I’m not sure why I said that. Perhaps I’m just feeling reckless.

Phineas shakes his head, taking a step away from me. “I wish I could, honestly. I have too much to do, and I doubt Dad would let me. It took a lot for me to convince him I would be okay without him this weekend.”

I almost hear my heart whistling like a deflating balloon. “I understand.”

“Oh, I almost forgot.” He reaches into his pocket and hands me a bag of money. I peek inside, examining the crisp green bills. The coins jangle merrily against one another. “Thank you.”

“I’ll see you in a month,” Phineas says, waving at me before getting in his truck. The engine roars to life and he drives away. The gravel road crushes under the weight of the car. I listen for a little while, but he’s gone quickly.

I go around the side of the house toward the chicken coop, furious with myself. How could I have jeopardized my mission by tempting myself with Phineas? Being with him would ruin everything my grandmother ever stood for.

The hens cluck irritably at me as I approach. I think they’re mad I kicked them out of the coop earlier. I begin to search the perimeter of the wire fencing for my shoes - I had taken them off so I wouldn’t get them dirty while I was cleaning - but I only find one. I pick up the shoe and turn it over in my hand, frowning. Where was my other shoe?

I jump at the sound of a distinct cry, something like an eagle or vulture. For a moment I stand there, transfixed by the sound, but I almost drop the shoe when the connection clicks. Could that be the falcon from Rhodopis’s tale? My heart begins to race. Could what happened to Rhodopis happen to me as well? It makes sense. Fairy tales happen all the time; Grandmother always said so. I start rushing back into the farmhouse to talk things over with Juno, but my steps falter the more I think about it. Rhodopis’s god is Horus, but mine is Cupid. Which is it? My head hurts. I rub my face to clear away my discomfort.

My mission has changed. If I’m meant to be Rhodopis, that has to mean that Phineas is my prince. There’s no other option. Could Horus be taking my shoe to him now? I could wait for Phineas to return to me, but can I really wait that long? I would be squandering my mission, if I remained here after all my grandmother sacrificed to teach me.

Could I do both?

I can almost hear the spirit of my grandmother screaming at me as I reach into the fireplace. I remove the half-charred logs and scrape away the ashes to reveal the dull grey box my grandmother kept Cupid’s divine weapon in. I pull the box out, coughing at the soot that clouds after it. Eyes watering, I open the box. Inside sits the shiny black-and-gold Henry carbine rifle my grandmother so cherished. I remember sitting in the kitchen, watching her polish the rifle and sing songs of Cupid’s grace to it. I’d never seen her treat anything with as much care as she showed that rifle. I wasn’t allowed to touch it, not ever, not even when Grandmother trained me. She showed me how to load it, how to aim, but never more than that.

I take a deep breath and lift the rifle from its case. I expect to hear Cupid’s voice in my ear, guiding me forward, but I hear nothing. The house is empty, silent, aside from Juno chewing on something in the corner. Perhaps Cupid knows that I’m taking a detour from my mission. It isn’t until right now that I realize I’ve already made up my mind on how to proceed.

I will be my first mission. Phineas and I are meant to be together - my missing shoe proves that. If Cupid can dictate things from the place all lovers go, why can’t I do the same thing? Grandmother never got to the part about how I would someday end up in the place all lovers go, but perhaps I can figure this part out on my own. Everything my grandmother never got to teach me I will have to figure out on my own.

I spend the rest of the day preparing. I pack a bag with apples, cheese, and a few flasks of water along with a change of clothes. I also pack my only shoe, knowing Phineas will have the other. I try to sleep, but my excitement keeps me awake. Tomorrow, I will be eighteen, and I will be in the place all lovers go with Phineas. This is what is meant to be. Cupid has blessed me with my grandmother as my tutor, and I will make them both proud

The next morning, I return to the divine weapon. I had placed it on the kitchen counter earlier, wanting to be the last thing I packed. I open the bolt, my hands steady and assured. It’s a little different from the Winchester that I’m used to, but somehow this feels much more familiar. I locate the magazine and check to see how many bullets are there. I discover three. Hesitating, I remove one of the bullets, rolling it between my fingers. It looks just like any other bullet, but I know that these are special - Cupid himself blessed these bullets. I set the third bullet aside. After all, I will only need two to carry out my first mission. One bullet for Phineas, and one for me. It’s best to leave the third bullet here so I don’t lose it. I push the bolt in and snap it closed, clicking the safety on.

I shrug the backpack on and pull the shoulder strap of the rifle over my chest. I stagger under the combined weight, but straighten my spine. It’s time to go. Juno seems to realize this, for she abandons the thing she was chewing on and trots over to me, whining as she bumps her head against my hand. I smile and rub her ears.

“I have to go, baby,” I tell her. “I have to complete my mission, but I have to do it alone. You understand, right?” She wags her tail and pads back over to her pile of rags, peering up at me. I take a deep breath and exit the house.

For a moment, I hesitate. I don't know how to get into town, and my grandmother never gave me any directions. I could end up somewhere in the opposite direction of Phineas, and that wouldn’t do. I look down at my bare feet. I see I’m standing on an indent in the gravel road, left by years of Hunter’s truck using the same part of the road year after year of buying our stock. I follow the worn gravel with my eyes. It leads one way down the long gravel road, though I lose sight of it in the weak morning sunlight. I head off in that direction, leaving behind everything I’ve ever known.

 

I spend the entirety of my eighteenth birthday walking. It’s just one road, no turns, so I don’t have to guess where to go. The tire indents ran out a long time ago, but I don’t need them. I’ve gone through one of my water bottles completely by the time the sun begins to set. I begin to see hazy shapes against the setting sun, showing more buildings than I ever thought the world contained. I see pointed roofs like houses and more trucks like Phineas’s roaming paved streets. I think I see a castle, a skinny building with tall spires and a symbol like a lowercase ‘t’ at the top. Could Rhodopis live there with her prince?

I make it to the paved road and breathe a sigh of relief as my sore feet touch the stone, warmed by the day’s sunlight. Hopefully I wouldn’t see another piece of gravel ever again. I take a look around me, suddenly overwhelmed. How will I find Phineas?

A noise louder than anything I’ve ever heard blares behind me. I jump, seeing a truck only feet away from me. The noise repeats. I see a red-faced man behind the windshield. There’s white hair on his chin. He appears to be shouting at me. I look at him, confused, until he rolls down his window.

“Get out of the road, bitch,” he yells.

“I’m sorry,” I stammer, rushing to get out of his way. I don’t know what a ‘bitch’ is, but his tone suggests something vile. “I’m lost, and I -”

He cuts me off. “I don’t care.” The truck lurches forward, leaving me in a plume of smoke. I cough and wave my hand in front of my face, hoping to dispel the dark, smelly air.

“What are you looking for?” I hear someone say. It’s a friendlier voice, a feminine one like my own. I turn to see two girls standing in front of a doorway, their expressions perplexed. I suppose I must look like a mess. I’m sweaty and dirty, given that I’ve been walking almost all day. My dress is torn at the knees from tripping over loose pebbles.

“Where does Phineas live?” I ask, unsure if I can trust them. “He’s my lover, and I’m coming to visit him.”

The dark-haired girl giggles. “You’re his girlfriend? Oh man. I thought he had Brooke over tonight. Things are about to get nasty.” She trills the word ‘nasty’ like a songbird.  I frown, unable to make sense of the words she’s speaking to me.

“Come on, dude,” the other girl protests. “She deserves to know what he’s up to.”

The dark-haired girl rolls her eyes. “Whatever. He lives on Cherry Street, the white house at the end of the road.”

“Thank you,” I reply, dipping into a curtsy. They don’t return it. I can feel their stares on me as I begin to walk toward the sun.

The other girl clears her throat. “It’s that way. The north side of town.” She points to my right. My cheeks warm with embarrassment as I nod, adjusting my course.

I pass by several other houses, all squat and bland, nothing like the colorful farmhouse I was raised in. I don’t hear any chickens clucking or goats bleating. There are dogs, and other people. I avoid them. The sun is on my left now as I continue to walk. I eventually see the white house the girls told me about, though it’s getting harder to see now with the sun’s dying rays. 

Heart racing, I try the front door. It doesn’t budge. I knock at the door, waiting, but no one comes. I have to get inside somehow. I spot a window at the side of the house. I unwarp my rifle and strike at it. It takes a couple of tries, but soon the glass shatters. I swat away the remnants still clinging to the frame before hoisting myself inside the house. I whimper as my foot lands solidly on a small shard. I take a moment to pluck the glass from my skin, holding the rifle with one hand.

The sound of feet running startles me. I look up to see Phineas standing at the base of a set of stairs, bare chest heaving. He’s shirtless. I’ve lost my voice at the sight.

“Venus?” he asks, green eyes wide and round. “What - why - what are you doing here?”

I snap out of my awe. “I’m on a mission,” I say, forgetting about the pain in my feet as I step toward him. “You and I, we’re meant to be together. You have my shoe, Phineas, I know the falcon brought it to you - where is it?”

“Meant to - falcon?” he echoes. He scratches at his head. “Venus, what are -”

“Phineas?” a woman’s voice questions. I watch as a girl descends the stairs behind him, wrapped in nothing but a towel. Did she just get out of the bath? That can’t be; she looks just as disheveled as Phineas does. “Who is this?”

“Brooke, call the cops,” he tells her. I don’t understand what he’s saying. “Leave and call the cops.”

She nods, casting me a glance. Her expression mirrors those I’ve seen on deer before I shot them in the orchard. She darts away from Phineas, slamming the front door behind her.

The girl - Brooke - doesn’t concern me. “Phineas, where’s my shoe?” I repeat, advancing toward him again. He shies away. I’ve never seen him like this.

“Are you crazy?” he asks. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What shoe?”

This stops me in my tracks. I lower the rifle to my hip, confused. “You - I’m meant to be your Rhodopis. You’re my prince, Phineas, don’t you see? The falcon brought you my shoe, so we’re meant to be together forever. Cupid - I mean, I - have decreed it so.”

“What are you saying?” His voice raises. I flinch. He sounds like the red-faced man with the truck now. “Venus, you sound crazy. You’re actually insane. Put that rifle away, what are you planning on doing with that?”

“Let’s go outside,” I suggest. “There’s a tree out there. You and I will sit there, and we’ll go together to the place all lovers go. I’m an agent of Cupid.” I shouldn’t be telling him. Grandmother’s reminder of Princess Zoza rings in my ears. It’s dangerous, but I trust Phineas. He’s my true love, he would never hurt me.

He shakes his head at my offer. I raise the rifle, holding it tighter in my grasp. I click the safety off. As I do so, he whimpers like Juno and shuffles toward the back door, admitting us to the back of his house. There’s a single tree in the center of a well-manicured lawn. Its roots ripple below my feet as we approach the tree.

“You’re not going to, going to shoot me, right?” he stammers. He looks miserable, but I can’t imagine why he would be so sad. We’re meant to be together! He should be grateful that we don’t have to wait another minute to spend eternity in each other’s arms.

“This isn’t an ordinary rifle, Phineas,” I inform him as he sits at the base of the tree. He has his hands crossed in front of his chest. “This is a Cupid-blessed rifle. All I have to do is shoot you, then me, and we’ll be together forever in the place all lovers go. Cupid said so. My grandmother trained me for this.”

“Your grandmother was crazy, Venus. Do you really trust anything that woman ever said?” he replies, almost hissing. Now he sounds like one of the rattlesnakes that would circle the chicken coop, hungry for the fresh eggs inside.

I gasp, offended by his comment. “How dare you? Grandmother was nothing but kind to you and Hunter. How dare you speak ill of her, after all she’s done for you?”

He doesn’t reply. Instead, he lunges for me. I scream, falling backwards with his weight atop me. His fingers wrap around mine, trying to wrestle the rifle from me. “Phineas, stop!” I shout, but my words fall on deaf ears. I cry out, my fingers tightening around the rifle. One of my fingers catches on the trigger. I loosen a scream from my lungs, but the sound is drowned by a loud explosion that robs me instantly of hearing anything else. Something warm and wet splatters against my cheek. Phineas stops moving above me, becoming limp like a sack of apples.

I struggle to shove him off of me, my ears ringing. His breathing is labored and wet-sounding. There’s a red blossom on his otherwise bare chest, a gaping hole in his stomach oozing blood like bright red petals. I’m not worried; Grandmother said this would happen. This must be the light she was talking about, though it’s hard to see now that the sun has disappeared.

“Venus.” Phineas’s voice is ragged. “Why… did you shoot… me…?”

“I’m helping us,” I reply, confused. Why isn’t he getting this? “Come on, I have to take you to the tree. There’s more we need to do.”

I set the rifle on the grass, away from the blood. I don’t want to get it dirty, not after my grandmother took such gentle care of it. Phineas moans as I grasp his wrist, dragging him back to the tree. There’s a high-pitched whining in the distance. I ignore it.

“Phineas, where is my shoe? Where is the falcon?” I ask, taking a small knife out of my backpack. It’s a bit gummy, as I used it to cut apples on the way here. Phineas doesn’t answer me. I begin to carve our initials into the bark of the tree. I don’t have a last name, and I don’t know his, so I just use our first initials.

“There,” I tell him. “We’re almost done.” He still doesn’t answer. I lower myself onto the grass beside him, taking the rifle in my hands. I turn it over, the weight suddenly awkward. How will I turn this toward myself? It’s quite big.

The whining grows louder and louder as I figure it out. I become irritated with the sound. What could possibly be distracting me from the biggest moment of my life?

I receive my answer soon. Three tall men in strange suits burst out of the backdoor, leveling small guns at me. My eyes widen at the sight, confused why their movements were so urgent.

“Drop the rifle!” the one closest to me shouts. “Put your hands behind your head.”

“I can’t!” I yell back, turning the rifle so it rested beneath my chin. The butt rested my lap, one hand wrapped securely around the trigger.

“Drop the rifle!” he repeats, advancing closer to me.

“Stop it!” I cry out. My eyes sting with tears. “Why are you doing this? Phineas and I are meant to be together, we love each other. I must complete my mission.”

“We can't let you do that.” The men move closer. “You need to put the rifle down and move away from the body.”

Did he mean Phineas? Phineas is more than just a body; he’s a person, my one true love. Why couldn’t the man understand that? “I am Rhodopis, and Phineas is my prince. This is how it is meant to be, Cupid has decreed it so. He would be very displeased to hear that you are obstructing one of his agents.” I wish I didn’t need to call on Cupid for help, but I have to.

The man shakes his head. “Okay, Rhodopis. That’s your name, right? We can help you with that, but you need to let go of the rifle first.”

He called me Rhodopis. I smile, everything falling into place. I am truly Rhodopis, and Phineas is indeed my prince. I don’t need a slipper to confirm that anymore, not when this man says it is so. “Thank you,” I whisper. I look down at Phineas, hoping my eyes reveal my love for him. “We’ll be together, forever. You and me.” My finger tightens over the trigger. There’s a second explosion, a flash of pain.

And then nothing at all.

Last Time

Sequoia Crissman

A blonde-haired woman sat beneath the glow of a yellow-warm light overhanging her, illuminating the piles of notebooks and textbooks sitting on a rickety, yet polished table. The sound of others chatting filled the room, but this did not seem to bother the woman. In fact, she was accustomed to it. With a pen in hand, ink furiously flung itself across the pages of her notebook, her golden eyes fixated and focused. Even when the barista walked over to set a porcelain cup on the table, the woman did not stir. Seeing this, the barista smiled knowingly, and spoke a small ‘miss, your coffee’ and made the small woman jerk her head up in surprise.

 

“Errr, sorry…” the blonde-haired woman mumbled.

 

“You do it all the time, honey. Enjoy and let me know if there is anything else you need!” The barista smiled and took her cheery disposition to the next table over where a young man brooded over a large and dark textbook.

 

“Your drink, sir,” the barista placed another cup on his respective table.

 

“Thanks,” he grumbled pushing back a strand of black hair from his face as he gave one nod to the barista sliding the drink closer to himself.

 

The woman and man worked across the room from one another in the tiny cafe. The woman always worked on her studies at the cafe, at least ever since she started undergrad. The man, however, was a relatively new customer, although he had been coming at a set time for a few weeks now. Yet, they never took the chance to talk before. Sure, there were the occasional glances, but the two were too busy to make idle chatter. It would have to take a small coincidence for them to get to know one another, or perhaps the fates needed to get involved.

 

“Bleh! What...?” The woman blurted out after taking a sip of her drink. Her cheeks turned red with embarrassment of her sudden outburst. “Sorry,” she meekly whispered, sinking in her chair, afraid she might have potentially annoyed someone.

 

The blonde-haired woman stirred her drink and took another sip. To her dismay, it was a lavender chai tea latte, and not the golden honey-roasted latte she had ordered for herself. The young woman scowled at the bitter drink. She would only drink something this bitter if it was filled with a pound of sugar. Her golden eyes darted across the room, but all of the baristas were busy. She didn’t want to bother them, and instead slumped uncomfortably in her chair.

 

As she slid down she noticed the young man across the room. He just took a sip of his drink and immediately stared at it, his eyebrows furrowing and the corners of his mouth tilting downwards. The woman blinked. What were the chances their drinks were mixed up? Would it be awkward if she went up to him and asked? Anxiety overwhelmed her, but curiosity and the potential for a new friend made her recklessly brave. Slamming her hands on her round cheeks she stood up, grabbed her drink, and awkwardly shuffled over to the dark-haired man.

 

“Excuse me, sir,” The woman said, her voice gentle and airy.

 

The man only gave her a small glance. He figured she was a barista, ready to give him the right drink. Moving his left hand from the study pages of his textbook, he pointed at the table without looking at her. The blonde woman was confused. She thought he might have been telling her to sit down next to him. She hadn’t ever been asked to sit down by a stranger, so she became intrigued. Setting the small porcelain cup on his table, she pulled the wooden chair to the left of him out from the table and plopped down next to him.

 

The black-haired man instantly looked away from his textbook and stared the woman down. She started to look back at him confusedly, but then paused to stare at his eyes. They were a light and stormy blue, full of mysticism. There was also something heavy behind them, something sad and familiar. The man also found himself examining the woman’s eyes. They were golden, like honey, and if the light reflected in just the right spot, they looked like a wildfire. Untamable and yet comforting. The strange woman beside him was beautiful, but she had still rudely sat next to him, which he found frustrating.

 

“What are you doing?” He asked with a raised eyebrow.

   

“I, er, I thought you were inviting me to sit down?” The woman asked, her light voice rising in pitch at the end.

        

“Why would you think that?” his voice was calm and steady.

        

“You pointed at the chair!” The woman quickly retorted.

        

“Sorry? I thought you were a barista bringing me my drink, so I pointed at the table.” He pointed again at the table the same way he did before. “Who even sits down at a random stranger’s table anyways?”

        

“Well, I...” the woman huffed, she was at a loss for words. “Well. I think I did bring you the right drink. Our orders must have gotten mixed up.”

        

“So this sweet coma-inducing drink is yours?” The man chuckled in amusement.

        

“Well, I’m sorry someone like you doesn’t appreciate the wonderful flavors of honey and caramel.”

        

“Someone like me? I have a name you know.”

        

“I’m sure you do.”

        

“Are you going to ask?”

        

“What is it then?”

        

“Atlas.”

        

“Atlas?! That’s such a cool name!” The woman leaned closer to Atlas, her eyes wide in excitement.

        

“You have a name?” Atlas spoke, his voice softening and his cheeks turning a light pink. It had been a while since someone had paid this much attention to him.

        

“Oh, yes! My name is Thea. Well, Theabella, but I think that’s too long and too fancy, so just Thea is fine!” She chirped and without thinking she took a sip of the drink originally meant for her.

        

“You know I drank out of that, right?” Atlas said coyly.

        

“Oh… well… you don’t by chance, have any disease, do you?” Thea had wide eyes with concern.

        

Atlas laughed causing the baristas to turn and look at him. It was the first time they had heard him laugh. “Oh, I have TONS of diseases. But don’t worry, you’ll only die by tomorrow evening.” He put his hands up near her face and wiggled his thin pale fingers, imitating what he imagines a witch might do to hex someone.

        

Thea let out an exaggerated quiet yelp as she backed up from Atlas. When reason and logic returned to her brain, her cheeks huffed in anger. Her foot tapped quickly against the floorboards and her arms crossing at her chest. The sight of her made Atlas burst into a chorus of laughter. He couldn’t help himself, she just looked so darn pathetic and helpless.

        

For the rest of the day, the two shared conversations and showed each other their homework assignments. It was the first time for either of them, feeling like someone was truly interested in what they were saying. Sure, they were strangers, but friends always start as strangers first. So, it wasn’t unusual for two people to suddenly start talking to one another as if they’d always been close friends. They had felt lonely and appreciated each other’s company.

        

Thea and Atlas came back to the cafe time after time, except now, they sat together. Sometimes they talked, and sometimes they worked together in silence. The baristas would gossip behind the counter taking bets when the two would start dating. The one who had originally mixed up their drinks claimed she was Cupid, just with coffee instead of a bow. However one day something was different when Thea approached her friend, Atlas.

        

“Heyo! Guess what I brought?” Thea waited for Atlas to respond, but he stared at her blankly. “Cookies!!” She held out a plastic bag of scrumptious looking cookies, each containing at least six chocolate chunks.

        

Thea pulled out a chair and sat down. Pulling up her school bag she began taking out her homework. Atlas hadn’t moved. This alarmed Thea. He was breathing, and he looked fine, but when she stared deep into his cerulean eyes, she noticed there was no recognition in them. As if she was a stranger to him. Thea’s overthinking brain raced through all the possibilities of what could have happened. Did he not like her cookies? Did she do something to offend him?

        

“Err, what’s your name?” Atlas quietly muttered under his breath as he twiddled his thumbs under the table.

        

Thea laughed nervously. “You’re kidding, right, Atlas? It isn’t magically April Fools day is it?”

        

“No,” Atlas said bluntly, “I mean… you kind of look familiar, but I don’t know why you would be sitting at my table.”

        

“Did you hit your head? I’m Thea, Theabella. We come here to this cafe once a week, hang out, and do homework together.”

        

“Oh… Thea. Thea…” Atlas quickly flipped through the pages of his textbook, landing on a page with a small doodle of a cat and stars. Next to the doodle was the name ‘Thea’. “You’re her?”

        

“Yes… Atlas, what’s going on?” Thea began panicking.

        

“I’m so sorry. It must have happened again. Fuck!” He slammed his fists on the table, spilling his coffee over the rim of the cup, and gathering everyone’s attention.

        

“Atlas!” Thea jumped up and reached for a napkin to help clean up the mess. She would have been scared, but confusion and an urge to help pulled at her attention.

        

“God, I’m so sorry, Thea. I forgot… We need to stop being friends.”

        

“The fuck, Atlas? Why are you acting so weird and being all fatalistic?”

        

“Because.”

        

“Because why?” Thea’s voice started to rise in volume.

        

“Shh,” Atlas retreated into his collarbone like a turtle, “not too loud, please.”

        

“Then tell me what’s going on.”

        

“Okay, okay! I have memory loss problems. Sometimes I just wake up and I have forgotten things. It’s usually small things, but sometimes I forget bigger stuff. And, as I’ve been getting older, it’s been getting worse.”

        

“Oh…”

        

“Yeah. So, I’m sorry. I guess you were just lost to the void for me.”

        

“It’s okay. I forgive you. But, why do you say we can’t be friends anymore?”

        

“What if I completely forget about you? Wouldn’t that hurt?”

        

“Well… yes. But, we can work through it. Atlas, you’re the first person in a long while who has enjoyed talking with me.” Thea turned to her bag and began digging through it. “Usually, people just label me as weird or quirky and don’t like holding lengthy conversations with me.”

        

Atlas stared at Thea. “I don’t know what to say.”

        

“Then don’t say anything, just hold on…” she pulled out a brown leather-bound notebook. “Tadah!” She held it out to Atlas.

        

“I’m a little confused,” he took the notebook and flipped through it. It was empty.

        

“You can use that! Put everything you don’t want to forget about in that journal. I don’t have any memory issues, but I also keep one as well. It’s fun! Trust me.” Thea’s smile was so big it warmed Atlas’ heart. Her kindness and acceptance of him was overwhelming.

        

“Okay. I’ll try it out. On one condition.” Atlas smirked.

        

“Which is?”

        

“You’ll keep coming back for me. No matter how many times I forget.”

        

Thea’s cheeks reddened slightly, “Of course, silly. Who else am I going to sit with at this cafe?”

        

The two exchanged small and simple conversations for about two hours before going their separate ways. Usually, they would both turn without hesitation, but this time Atlas watched Thea’s golden hair sway in the breeze as she walked away. He wished she didn’t have to leave. Clutching onto the brown leather notebook Atlas flipped to the first page. Taking out his pen, he sat down at a nearby bench and began to write.

        

*  *      *

 

May 22nd XX12

        

I am Atlas. Atlas Sorokin. I just had the weirdest day ever. I met this person, Thea. She’s pretty cool and great to talk to. It’s nice to have a friend to talk to. She likes sweets and she is studying to be a therapist. Honestly, I usually avoid people. I just end up forgetting the people I meet, or important things about them. It makes having friends hard. But, this time, I want to fight for her. I want to try and do everything I can to not forget her. I just hope I don’t become a burden to her. Thea. Theabella. She has long golden blonde hair and amber eyes. She loves sweets and is studying to be a therapist. She’s horrifically awkward but very sweet and energetic. She listens to me, and I enjoy listening to her. Is this a true friendship? Thea.

 

*  *      *

 

Entry #32

        

Life is a little weird. Not bad weird though! I’ve made a new friend! He’s a bit aloof, but also very intelligent and fun to talk to. He has dark black hair that makes his cloudy blue eyes stand out. He likes to drink bitter tea, which is not at all what I like, but the way he praises the tea makes me want to try it. Ha! Wouldn’t that be absurd? Me. Trying to drink tea?! Bitter tea at that! I gave him a journal today after he mentioned he had memory loss problems. He mentioned he goes to therapy for it, but that they haven’t really been able to find anything that works for him. I don’t really know why I gave him a journal though. Maybe I was scared he really would want to stop being my friend. We’ve been talking and hanging out for about a few months now. How many people have I met that have randomly stuck around? I mean sure, I have my classmate friend, but we only ever talk about school and what happens during class. With Atlas, it’s different. We talk about things that actually intrigue me and hold my interest. I guess, I just don’t want to lose that connection.

                          ♡ Thea

 

*  *      *

 

June 1st XX12

        

Today, I made an egg sandwich by myself in my apartment. I like egg sandwiches. I think I remember when I was young my sister, Vanya, made egg sandwiches for me. I am about to meet up with Thea. In two hours. We are going to do something different. She has a friend who has an art showing today. Thea invited me to go with her. Naturally, I said yes. Hopefully everything will go smoothly.

 

*  *      *

 

Entry #42

        

EeEEEeeeee! Today was AMAZING!! I am so glad that I asked him to go with me! His take on art is so interesting! We stopped in front of this one painting. It was an all-blue background with yellow and white butterflies flying upwards, but their wings were falling off. I asked him what he thought about the painting. He said he thought it represented the fall of humanity. How people start off with innocence until that gets ripped away from them. Most people just say things like, ‘Oh it’s cool’ or ‘yeah I like it’. But he gave me a real answer! It makes me feel like he cares about holding a conversation with me.

                          ♡ Thea

 

*  *      *

 

June 18th XX12

        

Today I woke up late. Well, not late. Just not when I should have. I think I forgot last night that I was going to hang out with Thea today, and I forgot to set an alarm. I received sixteen text messages of ‘where are you’ and ‘are you okay’ this morning when I woke up. I feel bad, even if Thea said it was ‘perfectly’ fine. I’m not sure I believe her either. She always has this surprised sadness in her eyes when she acts like everything is okay. Fuck. I really am a burden aren’t I? Honestly, the thing I never told her was my memory loss has only been getting worse over the years. Coping with that idea has also been straining. However, I am thankful for the notebook. It has seemed to at least help me understand what I am supposed to remember. I usually go back and read my old entries. Even if I can’t remember doing some of those things, I can at least pretend I do. I had cereal today for breakfast.

 

*  *      *

 

Entry #59

        

Atlas’ condition sorta slipped my mind today. Which is kinda funny to say! I sorta freaked out on him. Well, I sent a lot of text messages. I mean I was concerned something bad had happened. He usually never forgets our planned hangouts. Maybe he forgot to write it down. Yeah, that must be it. Surely, he wouldn’t have gotten bored of me already right? I mean other people have done that. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if he would do the same thing. And I guess this sort of leads me to what I really wanted to write down. To vent off my chest. Sometimes, I’m honestly scared that he will use his memory loss issue as a way to not have to see me or be around me. It’d be so easy…

                          ♡ Thea

 

*  *      *

 

July 4th XX12

        

Today, I asked Thea to the fireworks display just outside of our city. Naturally, she said yes. I wore my usual black leather jacket, a plain t-shirt, and jeans combo. She wore white sandals that caused her to trip in the grass. A sparkly blue and red patterned short sleeve shirt with a jean jacket vest thingy and jean shorts. But what caught my eyes was her hair. She put it up in a ponytail. I’d never seen it up before tonight. She looked so regal and fierce, so youthful and full of life. I have a picture of us from tonight saved on my phone. I don’t want to forget how beautiful she looked tonight.

 

*  *      *

 

Entry #75

        

Tonight was magical! Watching all the pretty fireworks with him. AND! The best part? He was the one to initiate it all! Normally, I always ask him out to do things. But not tonight! SCORE one for Thea! I also felt like I was able to get closer to him tonight. We were watching in silence, and then a huge red firework went off. Without looking at me he told me his sister, Vanya, and him used to watch the fireworks together every year. He never mentioned his sister to me before. I guess… I guess I haven’t really mentioned my family either. I wonder if he’d care to know..?

                          ♡ Thea

 

*  *      *

 

August 17th XX12

        

Today is Thea’s first day of her last year at college. I wonder if Thea is excited or nervous. We got to spend a lot of time together this summer. Now, she’ll be busier. That’s okay, I start teaching in a week. It’ll be my first real career job. I’m excited, I think. I’ll have to take lots of notes. I wonder how my memory loss will affect me. I’m scared, actually. What if I fail? I should call Thea tonight.

 

*  *      *

 

Entry 119

        

I was surprised he called me tonight. He sounded lonely. Though, he never mentioned anything bothering him. It was odd. I’ve been thinking about him more recently… I think I like him. It’s been a really long time since I’ve dated anyone though. It kinda scares me. Besides, he and I are good friends. I wouldn’t want to mess that up… And I mean, how would his condition affect dating? I guess that’s a little silly to say, since we make it work when we’re just friends. I hate this feeling! But I wonder. Does he feel the same? Maybe I should figure that out first. Alright then, journal! Detective Thea is on the case!

                          ♡ Detective Thea

 

*  *      *

 

Over the next few months, Thea grew brave. She  began increasing the number of texts she sent to Atlas. He, of course, responded. Their ‘morning’s turned to ‘good morning’s, and ‘night’s had turned into ‘good night, sweet dreams’. One night, when it was very late after they had hung out during the day, Thea slyly sent a text mentioning how the dress she wore was one of her favorites. Atlas sleepily messaged back how she looked beautiful in it. And from there, their conversations began to become a bit more flirtatious.

For Thea and Atlas, December approached rather quickly. Around December 20th, Atlas sent Thea a message. He had plans. Big ones, and they all would take place on Christmas night.

 

The wind hollered angrily in the sky. It woke up the bitter cold, and in response, the cold blanketed the world. Atlas grabbed his large black coat and zipped it up tightly. Looking at his reflection, he licked the palm of his hand and smoothed back some of his messy black hair. He smiled reaching over to his desk grabbing a small box before gently placing it in his pocket.

Today is the day, he thought. A powerful wind blew through his room. Shivering, he went to close his window, but his foot got stuck on a lamp cord. Falling down, the light blinked out and tumbled with him. Atlas stared blankly at his mirror. Reflected was a young woman with long flowing black hair, and gentle eyes. Atlas blinked, and her figure began to morph contorting in ways a body shouldn’t. Atlas gasped and rubbed his eyes. He opened them and thought he saw a car in his mirror. He fell backwards onto his back.

Tears rushed from his eyes as he slammed his fists into their sockets. The car grew closer, running out of the mirror charging straight at him. He tried to swat it away. The black-haired woman crawled out of the mirror next to him and reached out for Atlas.

He yelled, or at least he thought he did. He couldn’t tell. Stop. He repeated it over and over in his head as he began to rock himself back and forth. Then he remembered his last resort. Atlas scrambled over to his dresser near the mirror. He flung open a drawer and grasped at a plastic tube. Biting off the tip and struggling with the packaging, he eventually inserted a sharp silver needle into his skin pushing a sloshing liquid into his body.

Atlas laid there just staring at his ceiling. Minutes passed. What was he doing? He was cold and it was dark. Was it morning? No. It was night, right? He was in his coat, but he didn’t know why. The only thing he knew was he felt like he was supposed to be doing something right now. Weird, where would he be going so late at night?

Long minutes passed as he closed his eyes and placed his hands on his stomach. There was a creeping sense of the void crawling towards him. His breaths became shallow. Maybe it was time to sleep. Sleep always helped to numb everything. Atlas turned to his side to stand up when he felt a buzz and looked over to see his phone light up with a text notification. Seizing the phone, quickly unlocking it, and swiping through it. Atlas’ eyes grew wide. Thea was waiting for him?

Shit. He dragged himself over to his nightstand and yanked open the top drawer pulling out a leather-bound notebook. He flipped through the pages until landing on Dec 24th. His eyes skimmed the page and his face grew pale. Atlas face-palmed himself with a low grunt. He finally pulled himself up and onto his feet. He wobbled for a second but found his balance. He grabbed his car keys and rushed out of his dainty apartment.

 

Soft golden yellow lights illuminated the cold stone cement lighting up the faces of many people who gathered beneath a great evergreen tree. A loud voice called from the top of a wooden stage announcing there were two minutes remaining until the main event. Laughter and cheers echoed around as loved ones gathered near.

Thea shifted uncomfortably as she shoved her fists into pockets. Her eyes gazed around, stopping on every single person. She bit her lip nervously, impatiently even, as she pulled her phone out. She turned on the screen with a hopeful smile, but it quickly dissolved when she saw there were no responses.

A hand clasped Thea’s shoulder causing her to jump and turn around. She stared at cloudy blue eyes, she was going to say something, when a loud boom rang out and a massive firework exploded into flowers in the night sky. The sight was magical. Thea glanced up at Atlas’ familiar figure and observed him as he watched the fireworks. All she could do was smile and stand closer to him.

“Sorry I was late,” Atlas spoke, his gaze never wandering from the sky.

“It’s okay. I’m just glad you didn’t miss the firework show,” Thea laughed gently, she felt like she had worried over nothing.

“You look beautiful tonight.”

“Thank you.”

The two watched the show and when it ended they walked over to a wooden bench and sat down. Silence hung over them briefly as Atlas pulled out a tiny black box from his pocket. Thea’s eyes grew wide, causing Atlas to become flustered and drop the box. Feeling bad, Thea leaned down and picked it up with a nervous laugh.

“Well, I was going to open it, but why don’t you?” Atlas said scratching the back of his head.

“Oh, Okay!” Thea smiled opening the box to reveal two small charms. One was a golden orange-yellow, the other was a misty blue. Thea instinctively picked the blue one and held it in her palm.

“I don’t want to forget you, Thea. They’re the color of our eyes. We can clip them on our journals…” he was going to continue, but Thea’s soft arms wrapped around his neck in a light embrace.

“Thank you,” Thea muttered in his ear and then backed up, “but why?”

“Have I ever told you why my memory loss exists?”

“No, I don’t think you have.”

“I witnessed my sister die in a hit and run when I was young.”

“Vanya?”

Atlas nodded.

“So, it’s trauma-related?”

“I believe so. Well, at least that’s what I have been told. Trauma can cause a deficit in memory. For me, I guess, it also altered my brain chemistry. Anything that reminds me of her sends me into this panic like state. Vanya, she was also kind of like my mother. Our mom was a single parent, so she worked a lot. Vanya was the one I became attached to. She meant a lot to me.” Tears started to well up in Atlas’ eyes. “Honestly, I don’t understand it all myself. I just sometimes get these horrible nightmares. I see her lying on the road. But, she’s bloody and her body is contorted. I get so scared…” Atlas tensed up and didn’t continue.

“Atlas…”

No response.

“It’s okay to cry. I’ve cried over my past too.”

“You have?”

“Sure I have. My father was an alcoholic. Things… Things got rough at home sometimes. But hey! I’m okay. I just, ya know, learned to stop running away from my problems.”

“You’re strong, you know that?”

“So are you.”

“Thea.”

“Yes?”

“I wanted to ask you out.”

“Wanted to?”

“I do. I want to ask you out, now.”

“Well?”

“Well, er… Theabella, will you go out with me?”

Turning to face Atlas she smiled. “Yes.”

Atlas and Thea enjoyed the rest of the evening with one another. They spoke about lighter topics and even went over to a bakery and got some sweets together. When everything began to close for the night they said their goodbyes and parted ways. They both left believing they might have found something special. They might have found love. And as Thea and Atlas attached their charms to their journals, they sat down to write about this love.

 

*  *      *

 

December 25th XX12

        

Today, several things happened. But, the one thing I want to remember is that I asked Thea out. Our anniversary is on December 25th. Christmas. Thea. Theabella. She looked beautiful tonight.

 

*  *      *

 

Entry #249

        

I wish I knew how to express my emotions on paper. I’m happy. December 25th marks the day that Atlas and I started dating. Guess Christmas miracles do exist!

                          ♡ Thea

 

*  *      *

 

February 15th XX13

        

Thea stayed over last night. When I woke up there was the delightful smell of eggs and bacon. She even made some tea. I remember the first thing I did was wrap my arms around her waist and give her a big squeeze from behind. Her hair smelled like my shampoo and I had this urge to turn her around to face me and kiss the top of her head. But I stopped and dropped my arms quickly, backing up. And I did the dumbest thing ever. I asked her who she was and why she was in my apartment. I’m sure I scared her at first. She told me I went to reach for a kitchen knife. She knew where my journal was and quickly brought it over. I was able to calm down and look through what I had written. I remembered doing this. And upon inspecting the yellow golden charm, I was able to remember her name. Thea. Thea. That’s my girlfriend.  Shit. I still don’t really remember her, it feels like I’m living a lie. And it confuses me, because my love for her is still there, and yet, I don’t remember why. And the scariest part? I know I’ll fall in love again. And I’ll have new reasons for why I love her.  And I’ll hurt her again.

 

*  *      *

 

Entry #301

        

Most days, everything is okay. I can handle his memory loss. Right? Sure, it gets rough sometimes, and today was especially bad, but I can handle it. Right? I love him. My Atlas is still himself no matter how much he forgets, right?

                          ♡ Thea

 

*  *      *

 

May 20th XX13

        

My nightmares have been getting worse. I don’t know if I should tell her.

 

*  *      *

 

Entry #130

        

He hugged me. He hugged me really tight. Like, he was afraid I might disappear forever. I hope he’s doing okay. I care about him a lot. I want to help him. But, I don’t know-how. I feel useless. All I can do is hug him back and hope he feels better. Honestly, I’m getting tired. I don’t know how much more of this I can handle. But, I’ll keep it up. We love each other. I love him.

                          ♡ Thea

 

*  *      *

 

September 10th XX13

Today, Thea and I celebrated her getting her first career job. We went out to this fancy restaurant that specializes in fancy meats. Everything was going smoothly. We ordered a steak and some lobster to share. We talked, drank wine, and just enjoyed ourselves. Though, when the food came out, I forgot how to eat. Which is absurd right? I mean eating is a biological function. I just stared at it. It probably wasn’t that I forgot how to eat, I just forgot why I was eating, I guess. Either way it made Thea laugh.

 

*  *      *

 

Entry #243

        

It was sooo funny when Atlas just stared at his steak like he had never seen food today! Maybe it was the giddiness of getting a job with a local mental health care organization, but I lost it. Normally, I worry a lot more. But all I had to do was eat some steak myself and then he seemed to understand what he was supposed to do.

                          ♡ Thea

 

*  *      *

 

December 26th XX13

        

I didn’t have time to journal yesterday. Yesterday, we celebrated our first anniversary. We saw the fireworks after cooking dinner at her apartment. We spent the whole day together. It was amazing. I love her. I told her that too. Fuck, I love her. I can’t wait for another year. Oh, I had an egg sandwich for breakfast. I think I like them.

 

*  *      *

 

Entry #350

        

I’m honestly sooo exhausted, but I had SO much fun today! We made lasagna together and I got him this cute little teapot. He’s stopped teaching, since his memory loss has gotten pretty bad, but he writes now, like research papers on history. I figured he could use the teapot to keep on his desk while he wrote. He seemed to like my gift. He got me a golden necklace. He claimed it matched my hair. It does. I’m glad he asked me out last year. It feels nice to have someone around constantly that I can love, and they love me back.

                          ♡ Thea

 

*  *      *

 

June 5th XX14

        

Fuck. Fuck. FUCK. Why does she still love me? Why does she put up with me? Does she just think I’m some wounded animal she can save with her fucking psychologist shit? Yeah. That must be it. There is just no way she can love a disgusting pig, no a monster like me. I… I keep forgetting her name. And keep forgetting nearly every plan we make. I forgot her favorite color. I forgot her birthday. And she has to tell me. Remind me. Every day. Why does she subject herself to that? The worst part? I forget that I feel this way. It’s like I fall in love again and again. But what happens when I forget the love we share? Will she walk away? Shit. I’m crying. I love her. I don’t want her to leave and yet, I wish she would. So that I wouldn't have to keep hurting her like this. Why won’t she walk away? I don’t want her to walk away.

 

*  *      *

 

Entry #146

        

Today was… interesting. No. It was exhausting. Really exhausting. We were just cuddling, watching a romance movie together. I was laying on top of him. Honestly, I thought at one point he had fallen asleep. But he threw me off. My head hit the table. I felt faint. He shouted, “Who are you? Why are you in my house?” My head hurt so bad that I didn’t respond right away. He shuffled backward searching for his phone. I cried. I was scared. I tried telling him I was Thea. He didn’t seem to remember. I tried to find his notebook, but I was panicking so bad. I did find it. It seemed to work at least. Well, maybe it did. I saw him begin to recognize something, but then he just went into one of his fits. I think he felt so terrible for forgetting me and hurting me that it affected him. He cried out, ‘Vanya. I’m so sorry Vanya. I won’t forget you.’ I was so scared. I’m still scared. I rushed to his room and grabbed his medication. He had told me to use it on him if he went into a fit. I didn’t understand any of it, but it worked. He calmed down. We talked. I hugged him. He didn’t hug me as tightly.

                     Thea

 

*  *      *

 

October 18th XX14

        

My psychologist told me they were unsure if my memory loss problem would ever get better. The brain is so mysterious and it works in mysterious ways. Trauma therapy is about the only thing I can do to help myself. I feel drained. She and I have been arguing a lot recently too. She has been working more and she’s been more distant. She looks really tired too. So, today, I surprised her. I cooked her favorite food, a sweet marinated chicken and pasta dish. I got her some brownies, and I poured her a glass of red wine. I set up a warm bubble bath for her and set the wine by the tub. I kissed her forehead and told her to rest, I’d take care of cleaning her house tonight. I love her. She deserves so much better than me though.

 

* *  *

 

Entry #281

        

I do love him. Honestly, I want a long-lasting future with him. But, I don’t know if that is what’s best for us. I feel like I'm changing as a person, and for the worse. I’m tired. I just don’t have the same energy anymore. I hate it when he feels like he needs to do something for me to apologize for something out of his control. However, we have been doing this for almost two years now. I sometimes wonder if he’ll forget me completely. Then he does what he does tonight. And then I’m the one who forgets the struggles, as I’m reminded why I love him.

                     Thea

 

*  *      *

 

December 25th XX14

        

Today is the day.

 

*  *      *

 

Atlas made sure everything was in order. He laid his journal out on his kitchen table. He would have a couple of hours to kill, and he had no intention of forgetting. Atlas paced around his living room, his foot tapping anxiously anytime he stopped moving, grinding his teeth together he pulled himself to the couch and sat down. He set his arms on his legs and took a deep breath. In out, in out. He counted to ten.

He checked the time; only five minutes had passed. He cursed at his clock and leaned back on the couch grabbing the remote from the coffee table next to him. The TV flashed on, he watched a news reporter tell him his plans. The Christmas light show was tonight. Downtown at the square. Everyone was to be there. Fireworks, food stands, and a great atmosphere. He continued watching the news, wondering if Thea was excited for tonight.

Thea was heading home from work about thirty minutes before she and Atlas were to meet up. She quickly walked into her apartment and ran to her closet, flinging the door open. She stripped out of what she was wearing, throwing her previous clothes behind her. Today, she would wear a dress that fell a little past her knees. It was gray with white silvery snowflakes. The ensemble to the dress was black leggings and black boots. She smiled at herself in the mirror and then rushed out of her apartment. She could only imagine Atlas was doing the same thing.

Which he was, but with less grace and style. Atlas stumbled off the couch. He had dozed off but set an alarm to wake him up in case he fell asleep. He felt a little groggy but shook himself out of it. He had more important things to do. Atlas slipped on his shoes and grabbed his car keys. Heading out the door he felt his pocket and smiled. He was sure he had everything. He stepped outside, locked his door, and faced the next step of his journey.

Thea arrived first as always. Even when Atlas didn’t forget he still was bad at getting to places on time. Meanwhile, Thea was always at least three minutes early. She stepped out of her car and started walking towards the giant evergreen tree. The usual shouts and laughter resounded around Thea as artificial lights hounded upon her delicate frame. She stared up at the tree as nostalgia hit her like a tidal wave.

She felt odd, staring at the tree. Two years ago Thea felt so full of life, she had felt small standing by the big old tree. However, she was older now, she had been through a lot. And the tree? It looked the same. Thea saw her reflection in a round golden ornament. Did she always look so stressed and tired? Her lips quivered as she turned her back towards the tree. She waited patiently, like every year prior.

After a while, the announcer yelled out two minutes until showtime. People started to push and shove, trying to gather closer to see the fireworks. It was loud, really loud. And Thea was pretty sure there were more people than normal. She sighed, would he end up missing it this year? Flipping her phone out she at least saw a message confirming he was on his way. Maybe she was being paranoid for nothing?

Off in the distance familiar black hair peeked out. Thea’s face lit up as she excitedly started pushing her way through the crowd to get to him. He was here! And yet, why did it feel like the crowd was almost tearing them apart? She called out his name and watched as he looked around and then locked eyes with Thea. He smiled, waved, and started walking towards her. Thea watched as a long black-haired woman shoved Atlas out of the way. He stumbled and Thea noticed him drop something and freeze up. Concerned, Thea pushed her way forward and went to grab the box for him. He had also leaned down, swiping it before she could get to it. When she looked up at him, she expected him to say something, but he just held out the tiny black box and stared at her with cold and confused eyes.

“You drop this, miss?” Atlas asked, offering the box to her.

Thea grabbed it without saying anything. She couldn’t say anything. Thea held the box close to her heart as Atlas turned away from her and began walking away, slowly melting into the crowd. Thea looked down at the box and lifted the lid. There was a beautiful sparkling diamond set against a silver band. Engraved in the band were the words ‘I’ll never forget’. Those words resonated inside of Thea’s chest as she closed the box abruptly and shoved it in her pocket. Tears welled up in her eyes and pushed their way out, rolling along her cheeks silently. A loud firework blasted in the sky and the crowd cheered. Thea used this moment to slip away.

 

Several years passed, but Atlas never came back. Thea was unsure of why this was, and yet, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know that answer either. One day, Thea came across this post on social media about an author meet-and-greet and book signing. She instantly recognized the address as her favorite old cafe, and the author was Atlas. Scrounging up the last bit of hope Thea had left in her, she went to the nearest bookstore, bought one of his books, and then she went to the cafe. After ordering a coffee, she nervously walked over to where Atlas was sitting. They locked eyes briefly, and for a moment Thea could swear Atlas recognized her, but he said nothing. He just held out his hand and Thea handed him the book with her left hand. He commented on the ring, saying it was beautiful, and she must be one lucky woman. Biting her lip, she muttered a polite thank you, quickly taking the book once he signed it. She didn’t say anything more. She felt it might be better this way. She gave up. Part of her felt bad because at that moment she had broken her promise to him. She waited until she got outside of the cafe. She sat at a nearby bench, pulled out her journal, and cried. 

 

Tessa

Erin Gray

I’m late. Again. For the third time this week. I’m so glad today is Friday. 

I’m used to my mom waking me and my sister up but recently, she hasn’t been. Or I’ve been sleeping through her shout of “Let’s go! The bus will be here soon!” I guess she’s decided that we’re both old enough to be responsible for getting up on our own. My sister may be. She’s 17, almost two years older than I am, and she’s apparently caught the bus, like every other day that I’ve overslept.  

I wish my mom would’ve woken me up like she used to. I know she’s busy, but we used to talk in the mornings, while I waited on the bus. While she was fixing her coffee and I was grabbing some fruit to eat on the way to school, she’d talk to me. About my drawings, about a history class I love so much, about who I thought was pretty. I decided years ago that guys weren’t for me and my mom was nothing but supportive. She jokes with me when we’re out having dinner with my sister.

 

“The blonde or the redhead…” she’d ask with a small smile.

 

“Oh goodness, Mom! The blonde, of course! The redhead is way too tall.” I’d brush it off with a wave of my hand.

 

And we’d laugh. It was stupid. Neither of us were serious but we’d laugh. She was so nonchalant about things that would bother most parents. I loved it.

 

After dashing through my morning routine, I ran the few blocks to my small high school. Small as in there’s barely a dozen people in each class and I’m pretty sure everyone knows everybody else’s business. It’s fine though. I’ve always kept to myself so it’s not uncommon for people to brush by me in the halls without saying a word. Especially since last Fall when Tessa died. 

 

Tessa and I rode our bikes everywhere back then. Mom told me she didn’t want me riding alone after it happened. We were taking our usual route past the grocery store when a car blasted through the light at the intersection. The driver didn’t see us, or at least that’s what he kept saying. Tessa was a ways in front of me, blonde curls flying behind her in the wind. She was always joking about how she was faster than I was. And she was. Only that day, I wish she’d been slower to zip out there once the light had turned red. But she had no idea that guy was trying to make it through the light. Now I take the bus. Or run, on stupid days like this when I can’t seem to get moving. 

 

***

 

School today sucked. I should have just gone to the park and worked on my sketches instead of even bothering. 

 

I got to school about ten minutes after third hour had started; not too bad if I do say so myself. Someone else was quickly turning into the parking lot right when I was running up. I guess they were having a slow day too. 

 

I pressed the buzzer and knocked on the front door but Mrs. Doyle in the office just kept digging in her filing cabinet. Ok, maybe the old bat just didn’t hear me. I figured I’d try again when I heard the car that had zipped into the lot come to a halt behind me. The passenger door bounced open and Cecelia jumped out. I didn’t bother to say hi as she ran up to the door. I never did care for her group of friends.

 

Instead, I stepped aside and let her do the knocking. Between her knocking and bouncing up and down to get someone’s attention, Mrs. Doyle turned around and beamed a smile at her. The door opened quickly for her. Mrs. Doyle was incredibly chipper to see one of the school’s favorite cheerleaders; I’m not sure they even noticed me as I slid past. 

***

The door was open to my third hour history class, so I held my breath and walked in. 

 

The row closest to the door, four seats back; that was my spot. No one even batted an eye as I took my seat. I guess they’ve gotten used to me walking in halfway through the lecture. Our teacher kept on writing on the board and talking as I dug in my bag for my book. 

 

I wished I didn’t keep missing this class; it’s the one I used to talk to my mom about. It’s one of my favorite classes this year. We’ve been discussing different pandemics that have had catastrophic consequences as they made their way through different areas of the world. We talked about the Spanish Flu of 1918, which left a huge chunk of the population dead before it quickly disappeared in 1919. Some say one in five died because of this disease. And Coronavirus; we saw that in the US in 2020. My mom likes to tell me how her high school years were just horrible because of it. Her junior and senior year just wasn’t the same with most of the time being spent in online classes. Sleeping through them is what I think she means. 

Then there’s the Black Plague, which is my favorite. I know. That sounds horrible to say it’s my favorite, but it is, just because of the artwork that came out of it. My sketches include a lot of the same things. People were too dumb to know how the disease was really being passed around, but that doesn’t matter. They thought that Death would pick and choose who it wanted. I don’t know. Maybe it does. 

 

The Grim Reaper made its appearance during this time. Dancing skeletons became a common thing in artwork and that turned into a skeleton holding a scythe, wearing a long hooded black robe, and that turned into…Death. It’s an interesting story. And it makes for great art. 

 

Class was over quick, so I took my usual path to the library for my study hall. The library was my favorite spot inside the school. It was a long rectangle room with super tall shelves on either side. Brand new, well-lit tables lined the middle aisle for reading and working on homework. 

 

Old reading chairs sat in front of the large windows at the very back of the library. Ever since the new tables went in a couple of years back, no one of any importance hung out in the back and that’s where I was headed. 

 

As I rounded the corner to the library, I noticed a small crowd had gathered right by the entrance. The poster hanging on the wall by the library doors had everyone’s attention.

 

“It’s so sad…” I heard someone say as I approached. I wondered what they were talking about. I wiggled my way through the crowd as best I could. And then I saw it. My Tessa. Or rather, Tessa and me.

***

Someone had created a shrine next to the library doors. Flowers sat on the floor, a poster above them was scribbled with the words “We miss you!” Right in the center of the poster a picture had been glued. A picture my older sister had taken over a year ago, just a few weeks before it all happened. 

 

It was us. Me and Tessa, squinting at the camera on a sunny day; halfway on, halfway off our beloved bikes; hers a bright red, mine a pale blue. 

 

“It’ll be hard, not seeing her around.”

 

“She was so quiet.” Not around her friends, she wasn’t.

 

“She was so smart.”

 

“I’m gonna miss her.” You didn’t even hang out with her.

 

I wanted to scream. None of them knew her. Not like I did. 

 

I loved her. She’d round the corner in the hallway, headed my direction, and my heart would leap. Oh, how I loved her.

 

And why? Why now, after a year? I didn’t understand. 

 

It was sickening. All these people, acting like they were so close, when they really didn’t have a clue. She was ignored just as much as I was. I began to feel nauseous. I had to get out. No one even noticed when I turned and ran.

***

I found myself running home. I knew what I wanted, and I knew just where it was. My bike had hardly moved since Tessa died. I think I got it out once or twice, but I could hardly make myself ride. Every intersection, my heart would beat faster. I just knew some random car would come flying through and take me out too. 

 

Today was different. After seeing our picture by the library, it all came rushing back. I had shoved it down for so long. I was sick to my stomach…and I was mad. She had been taken from me! It wasn’t fair. The only girl I had ever loved had been ripped away from me, just as she was starting to love me back. I just wanted to be with her again.

 

Our adventures always started from the same spot. We’d meet at the park so I could draw for a bit before we’d ride around town. She used to sit and chatter away while I drew. She’d lean over, set her hand on my arm, and instead of scrunching up her face at the darkness on the page, I’d hear “Tell me about this one.”

 

Some days, we’d ride down to the public library in the newer part of town. It was so much bigger than our school’s library and even had a whole section on the history of art. I found a book one day showing different renditions of the Danse Macabre. It was beautiful. Even Tessa thought so. 

 

Other days, we’d take a trip down to the oldest part of town that housed all the mom-and-pop shops. There was tiny art supply store there, ran by a couple whose daughter had left town to attend the closest art institute. They were sad she had chosen a college that was 300 miles away from home, but they were so proud of her. After she’d graduated, she helped them open the store so local kids could have a better selection of art supplies. They knew us by name by the time Tessa died. All my sketchbooks and pencils came from there.

 

Every now and then, we’d visit that grocery store. We’d grab a pop and a few candy bars before sitting on our bikes out in the sunshine. People would come and go; sometimes we’d see neighbors that would give us a wave. We never had any problems. It was just me and her. And I loved it.

 

Even my favorite spot in our school library was her spot too. In fact, that’s where we met. She had come to hide away from the noise of the parents chatting in the halls as they did the Spring walkthrough of the high school us kids would be going to in the Fall. She passed the busy tables and almost walked right into my books and pencils scattered on the floor at my feet. And that was it. We spent almost every day together after that, for almost a year, until…well, you know. 

I dug my bike out from its spot next to the toolbox in the garage and gave it a once over. The scratches were still there from when I threw my bike aside and tried to run towards Tessa. I couldn’t see her in the grass where she landed. There was a man leaving the grocery store that day when it all happened. He sprinted towards us and grabbed me, held me tight as I screamed and yelled for him to let me go. 

 

I rubbed the dust off the seat and pushed on the tires. Still good to go, I thought. 

 

Let’s see if I can do this.

 

***

 

The park was my first stop. I pulled up to the stone wall at the edge of the park and propped my bike against it. We used to sit in this same spot, bushes to the right, the playground further down to the left. I smiled at the families that were still enjoying the last few weeks of warm weather. No smiles back. But who would smile at a random teenager all in black, with a ripped backpack, riding a scratched-up bike? I probably looked like I was going to cause trouble. 

 

I pulled my sketchbook from my bag; I figured I’d draw for a bit today, if the wind didn’t push me around too much. It was enough to blow my hair in my face as I was searching for my favorite pencil. Then I heard it. A laugh. One so familiar that my breath caught in my chest. 

 

I jerked my head up, scanning the path around me to see where the sound had come from but there was no one nearby. The overgrown bushes blocked the view of most of the path in that direction and everyone on the playground was still enjoying the slides and tunnels. After a few deep breaths, I went back to digging in my backpack. Then I heard it again. 

 

That’s enough! Someone was messing with me! I just knew it. 

 

I threw my book back into my bag and angrily shoved the bag over my shoulders. I hopped on my bike, eager to get out of there, when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Someone in a black jacket had just jumped in between the bushes on the path. 

That’s who was laughing, I thought as I turned my bike around to confront them. They had already flipped their hood up and were riding away, on a brilliant red bike. 

 

I gave chase as they shot onto the sidewalk at the corner of the parking lot. They glanced back and I saw a few blonde curls bounce out of their hood. They were heading towards the grocery store down the road. I just knew it. Once there, there was a lot of side streets they could lose me on if they wanted to, but I knew some shortcuts.

 

I jerked my bike to the left, in between two houses and barreled through the yards. If I was fast enough, I’d beat them to the back of the store, right where they’d be turning in to lose me. I pedaled as hard as I could. Today, I bet I would even be faster than Tessa. 

 

***

 

I was breathing hard as I skidded my bike to a stop, just as the person in the black jacket rounded the corner and skidded to a halt. We both stood there, catching our breath. They looked down at their handlebars. They knew they’d been caught in their little game. 

 

“Look at me!” I shouted as tears started to form in my eyes. Tears of frustration, of anger; of both. They raised their head, just enough. 

 

“Tessa…” I just stared. It was her. But it couldn’t be. “Tessa?” 

 

“Hi…” She said quietly. 

 

“But…wait…how are you…” The anger had started to flash through my eyes.

 

“I can explain!” She raised her hands in defense as she shook her head free of her hood. Blonde curls swung back and forth as her hood fell.

 

“You had better!” I yelled as the tears flowed freely. 

 

I was furious! She left me! I thought she was dead. She was dead! I went to her funeral.

 

“Walk with me?” she said as she popped her kickstand down. It was a question I’d heard her say before. When we’d been riding for a while, when we’d pushed as hard as we could to try and see who was the fastest this time. She held out her hand like she had so many times before. I shook my head no and she sighed. 

 

I dropped my bike to the ground and followed her to the edge of the building.

 

“I have to show you something.”

 

She walked slowly; maybe she knew I was still catching my breath. I really never was as fast as her. She always beat me to places. 

 

We walked quietly across the lot. Cars and people drove through, not giving much mind to us crossing the spaces. We were headed towards the intersection. That intersection.

 

“Tessa, I…” I started as the tears began to flow freely down my cheeks.

 

“Trust me, Fia.” Oh, that old nickname. She said it just fit. Fia, instead of Sofia. No one else ever shortened my name. It felt like someone was squeezing my heart to hear her say it again.

As we stopped on the corner, I noticed balloons and a poster. Odd that they would still be here for her after so long. Someone got it wrong though. These balloons were blue. If they knew her at all, they would’ve been red, her favorite color. She grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the poster.

 

“I hope you’re ready to help me.”

 

“Help you?” I questioned the meaning of her comment as I rounded the pole to look at the picture on the poster. It was…me. Not her. Me, standing on my front porch with my arms wrapped around my sketchbook. I think my mom took the picture this summer.  

 

I didn’t understand. I opened my mouth to tell her this was all wrong when I saw a smile start to creep across her face. She did that when she figured something out quicker than me. It was rather annoying, but cute.

 

“I’ve been looking for you for days, Fia. Do you remember what happened?”

 

“I remember missing you and propping my bike up against this pole.” I sniffed.

 

“And then walking into traffic like you didn’t have a care in the world.”

 

“Yeah…” I looked down. I remembered all of it now. 

 

“My mom!” Oh, god, my mom! She must be devastated! 

 

“It’s ok,” she tilted my face up with her hand. “Your mom knows how much you loved her. You can still see her whenever you want. I’ll show you that too. And…you’re with me again.” She smiled, that beautiful beaming smile. “Although you were a pain to find.” 

 

“I’m sure I was nothing of the sort!” I acted shocked, throwing my hand over my heart, and then chuckled.

 

“You were though! I figured you’d ride back here as soon as you could, only you didn’t. You went to school…you even went when you were late, now that’s crazy!” Her blonde curls danced as she shook her head. Her smile was as contagious as ever.

 

“Most people are easy. They wander around, close to where they died, simply trying to figure out what to do next. That’s where I come in.”

 

“Do you…help them?” It was slowly catching up to me. She was…a reaper…

 

“I do!” She was all excited about her new job. “No one’s scared of a kid. It’s easier for someone like me to explain what happened and show them where to go next.” She shrugged like it was no big deal.

 

“And you need my help?”

 

“Of course, I do!” she beamed. “What’s better than the two of us, together again? It’ll be like it always was…” She grabbed my hand and hugged it. “Say you’ll help me, Fia.” 

 

I could never say no to her.

 

“Well, let’s see where this adventure takes us.” A slow smile crept across my face as I suddenly found myself fitted with a black hooded jacket, just like hers. 

 

Tessa tossed her head back and laughed, her blonde curls bouncing in the wind.