Maria moved around the room in a hurry. She had nowhere to go, not at the moment, but anxiety always made her antsy. Tonight she was dreading the conversation she’d have to have tomorrow.
She picked out her outfit and changed her bag, ensuring everything she needed would be ready to go. She felt the urge to tidy up except, being Maria, everything was already tidy. Sighing, she made her way to the bathroom to brush her teeth and get ready for bed.
Staring in the mirror, she tried to smile away the worry. Her lips cooperated but her eyes did not. As she went through her evening routine on auto-pilot, her mind wouldn’t leave her alone.
It wasn’t always this way. We used to have so much fun …
As if waiting for the dam to break, memories flooded her mind. She remembered being in grade school and meeting Carolina on the monkey bars. She was hanging upside down, not a care in the world. Maria wanted to be like her; carefree and giggly.
In middle school, Carolina was the confident one. Trying out for sports or band, not worried about being good enough—she just wanted to have fun and make friends. Maria struggled to keep up with her but enjoyed the popularity by association.
High school had been a turning point. As Maria had grown more popular, Carolina began to fade into the background. She spent her free time with her nose in the books, no matter how hard Maria tried to get her to hang out with anybody else. They were a pair, Carolina & Maria, but only when they were alone.
College had been disastrous to their friendship. Carolina had become a nervous wreck, constantly worrying over every little thing, nit-picking herself and everyone around her. Maria had just wanted to have a little fun while pursuing her degree, but Carolina constantly nagged her to stay home. Study. Make things perfect.
She had become the overbearing, exacting mother Maria never wanted—and completely unlike her real mother who was more or less hands off. Smiling at the memory of her very 1960s hippie-vibe mother whose motto had always been, “live and let live.” She’d been the exact opposite of a helicopter parent.
Sighing, Maria slipped on her nightshirt and crawled under the blankets. With the curtain slightly ajar, she could see the faintest sliver of moon hanging over the horizon.
Double checking her phone, she made sure her alarm was set and forced herself to set it down. She worked on calming her mind, avoiding the temptation to scroll endlessly on the various apps that distracted her throughout the day. Quieting that urge, her mind turn back to Carolina.
Shutting her eyes, she tried to shut out the dread that crawled up her spine to choke her. She forced her mind to picture the ocean—the waves crashing on the shore, the seagulls gliding overhead. It had been her favorite place for as long as she could remember.
The magic of an in-between place, especially at an in-between time like sunrise or sunset! She visualized so hard she almost felt the breeze, nearly smelled the salt. Letting herself be carried away by the vision, she drifted into a pleasant sleep and dreamt of the ocean.
Refusing to mind it, she ignored the gloomy cloud that drifted her way from the city. Her back to it, she kept her eyes focused on the water. It was sunset, and the dolphins were dancing on the waves as she clapped.
As the light streamed red over her eyelids, Maria recognized the incessant buzzing of her alarm and groaned. Knowing herself too well, she dragged herself from the warm and cozy nest she’d settled into over the course of the night. Stretching for a moment and yawning, she walked to the bathroom with her eyes half shut.
Within the hour, she was dressed and heading out the door. She didn’t have far to go, and the weather was nice at this hour—long before the blazing sun made the city unbearable. It was Sunday, and she was going to have brunch with Carolina.
Well, it wasn’t exactly most people’s idea of brunch. Carolina suffered from an anxiety disorder that had only gotten worse over the years. Heart clenching, Maria felt guilty for judging her so harshly. She had to focus on her sympathy—no! On compassion. It was the least she could do …
Buying a couple of cafes con leche and some tostadas from the little Cuban bakery on the corner, she headed to the park. It had been their special place for years now; somewhere they could go to talk and be away from the crowds. The only people they ever saw were joggers or other athletic folk, huffing and puffing as they passed swiftly by.
Pulling the lightweight blanket out of her beloved and battered tote bag, she laid it across the grass, near the lake, under their favorite tree. Pulling a book out, she leaned against the gnarled bark and began to read, waiting for Carolina with her pulse jumping.
She’d read only a few pages when she looked up to see Carolina grinning at her from across the blanket. She was always so quiet, so catlike, that she inevitably caught Maria by surprise, every time. Reaching out to grab a coffee, Maria toasted her friend as she looked her over.
Carolina looked good. You wouldn’t look at her and think she was troubled in anyway. That was the problem with most people—they expected a person struggling with their mental health to look some kind of way. Maria had learned better.
“How are you?” she asked, sipping her coffee.
Carolina shrugged, looking over at the lake. The ducks were gliding over the calm waters and the sky was a clear blue. Maria waited but the silence dragged on. Biting back a sigh, she nibbled on the buttery bread and organized her thoughts.
“Well, I have some good news,” she began, her voice full of timid hope as she watched Carolina anxiously. “Remember that promotion I had been prepping for the past few months? Well, I got it!”
Carolina looked over quickly, her eyes wide and eyebrows shooting up into her hair line. She smiled through pursed lips and raised her coffee at Maria, angling her body now to face her friend. Eyes squinted, she waited for Maria to continue. Stumbling at the judgment she could already see behind Carolina’s eyes, Maria plowed on.
“Oh, I know it’ll be a lot more work for not much more pay. At least for now. But, still! It’s a huge step and, without it, I’ll never advance—whether I stay with this firm or head to another. I … I hope you can be happy for me.”
She had blurted out the last part without thinking it through. She was just so desperate for some kind words from Carolina, her eyes pleading along with her words. Carolina took a deep breath and looked away again.
“Of course I’m happy for you, Mari,” she sighed. “I’m always happy. For you.”
“Oh, no. What’s going on, C?” asked Maria, her voice soft and tender. She didn’t have to sense something wrong—something was always wrong—but Carolina only shook her head.
Biting her lip, Maria ate more of her tostada. When she was about halfway done with her coffee, she began speaking again, almost to herself. Mentally chiding herself for not keeping quiet but, the truth was, she found the silence between them unbearable.
“So, I mean, you know … I’ve been putting in a lot of extra hours, right? I mean, leading up to the promotion, I felt like I should have been renting a room at the office to sleep in,” she giggled nervously, toying with a blade of grass as she spoke. “And, you know, being there for so long, well, you’re bound to run into people, right?”
She paused but Carolina said nothing, still staring at the ducks now splashing in the water as they made their way across the lake.
“So, um, our building, right? There’s a lot of offices there, not just ours, you know. And, it was … I mean, we were always on the elevator together,” she whispered, blushing to herself as she plucked a dandelion, its puffy, white tuft ready to propagate. Twirling it in her fingers, she sighed.
“His name’s Dominic, and he’s a new attorney at the firm a couple of floors above mine. He’s … I mean, he’s super sweet and dedicated to his career. But, he’s so handsome!” she sighed and rolled her eyes, smiling at Carolina with stars in her eyes.
Carolina was staring at her now, face as placid as the lake now that the ducks had trailed out of the water and across the green. Maria tried not to squirm under her gaze, but found herself reaching for the rest of her breakfast just to keep her hands busy.
“I’m so happy for you, Maria. You sound really excited,” said Carolina softly, offering up a rare smile.
Maria’s heart soared. Leaning forward, her hands clutching her coffee cup, she giggled. Face shining, she whispered loudly, “We have a date on Friday! This Friday! I am—I’m so excited!”
Carolina smiled again and sipped her coffee. Meeting Maria’s eyes, she said, “Well, I hope it works out, you know. Office romances and everything. I mean, you don’t technically work together but the last thing you want is someone gossiping in your building.”
“Oh, no, I know! We spoke about that, too. It took us the past few months of chatting and him walking me to my car and everything, you know. It was sweet but we were both being cautious because … you’re exactly right,” Maria said, rushing over her words to reassure Carolina that everything was alright.
“Oh, that’s great then. So long as you’re both on the same page,” said Carolina, taking a bite of her tostada at last. “I mean, of course, you’re both very busy. His career is only going to get more demanding and you, well. You’ve got your promotion to think about.”
She let her words hang in the air as Maria’s face fell. Pursing her lips, she tried to keep her mood light but she already knew where they were headed. If she stayed, she’d have to sit through a long list of awful what-if scenarios.
It’s not her fault. That’s how her brain works. She can’t help being anxious and afraid of everything. Look for the lessons. Look for the lessons!
Breathing deeply, Maria replied at last, “You’re right, C. We do have a lot on our plates right now. But, I mean, I can’t just spend my free time alone, can I? It’ll be nice to have someone to talk with who understands just how demanding my career is, I think.”
“Oh, I see. Is that why we hardly ever see each other anymore? I just don’t understand your demanding career life?” huffed Carolina, her now glaring eyes suddenly watering.
“I just don’t understand you, huh? And, god, anything to not live like me, right? Alone all the time … it’s better to stretch yourself thin—at work, in your social life—than to be alone.”
“No, Carolina,” whispered Maria as a low-grade tension headache blossomed from the base of her neck up to her forehead.
“We never hang out anymore!” shouted Carolina, her face suddenly a blotchy red as a few tears escaped the well of her eyes to slide down her cheeks. “Plus, what about everything else, huh? Your hobbies? Your fitness routine? We’ve been talking about going for jogs like we used to forever, but you can’t make time for that. Only work and, now, Dominic.”
Gritting her teeth at the mocking tone, Maria paused to breathe. She knew it was the anxiety talking. Her friend—her real friend trapped inside that mind—would be happy for her. And, she wasn’t entirely wrong; Maria had been avoiding her. Rolling her shoulders, she steeled herself to explain.
“Listen, I … you’re right, okay? We don’t spend a lot of time together anymore. That’s true. And, yes, I have had to put a lot of my energy into my work. No, I’m not writing or sketching like I used to. And I haven’t gone for a jog since last year! But, just because I have different responsibilities at work—and one date next week—doesn’t mean we’re never going to see each other again.”
“Ha. We rarely see each other now. You don’t even know what’s going on in my life!” shouted Carolina, her eyes full of accusations.
“I just asked you how you were but you didn’t say anything! You never say anything! I have to pry things out of you and it’s … damn it, C. It’s exhausting,” Maria said as she began to bundle up the trash. She felt as exhausted as she sounded, shaking her head at them both.
“I know. I’m exhausting to be around,” said Carolina coolly, turning her back on Maria to stare at the water again. Shifting, she crouched with her arms wrapped around her knees, clutching the coffee cup in one hand.
Maria stared at her for a moment, thinking that her balance and flexibility were remarkable. Then she noted that Carolina’s sneakers weren’t on the blanket anymore
“That’s not … forget it,” sighed Maria, picking everything up and stuffing it into her tote bag. Looking back at the lonely, crouching figure by the lake every now and then, Maria tossed the trash in one of the cans set up around the walking trail as she walked away.
The sky overhead was growing darker as the wind began to pick up. You could never tell which way the weather would turn in Miami, but this felt like a storm. Pausing at the entrance to the park, she looked back and saw Carolina, now a small dark shadow by the lake.
She’ll be alright. She’s always taken care of herself …
Her thoughts reassuring her over her guilt, Maria walked home with her heart weighing in her chest. Full of tears she couldn’t shed, full of anger she couldn’t express. She drew herself a bubble bath and soaked for too long in the tub as music streamed from her phone.
Deliberately, she avoided hits from her younger years and settled on the bubbly, energetic, and polished sounds of K pop. She had no idea what they were singing about but that didn’t matter. She just wanted to be carried away from reality for a while.
By the time the water cooled, she felt angry. Right and proper angry. She shouldn’t have to make herself smaller to make a friend feel bigger. She wasn’t a therapist, for heaven’s sake!
As she toweled off, she remembered her last relationship and grimaced. He’d been the same, expecting her to somehow understand him without him saying anything. She wasn’t a psychiatrist or a mind reader. People had to communicate—or, at least try to.
The best she could do, for a lover or a friend, was to be there for them while they sought help from a professional. The same way she would be if they needed to go to the hospital for surgery. She sure as hell couldn’t perform a surgery herself, no matter how desperately it was needed to save a life.
Dressing for the afternoon in her comfiest leggings and oversized sweater, she opened the window to let the storm in. The wind had picked up again and the air smelled delicious. The sky was dark, heavy with curvy, gray clouds even though it was barely 3pm.
When she saw the first flash of lightning in the distance, she let herself thrill to it. Grabbing her sketchbook, she set up her drawing tools on the little desk by the window. Ignoring her conscience, she wiped away the dust of disuse and brewed herself some tea.
She spent the afternoon sketching and writing by the window as the storm erupted across the city. By the time dinner rolled around, she was starving. Checking her phone, she saw a text from Dominic and smiled. Double checking her reply before hitting send, she decided it was sweet but not too friendly. Perfect.
Wanting a treat, she ordered Chinese food. By the time it got there, she had scrolled through all the streaming options and picked one she’d meant to watch forever. She ignored the fact that it was Carolina who had inspired her to spend her afternoon and evening as she had. She was still too angry … and still feeling too guilty about being angry.
She spent the next week struggling to keep up at work. The promotion was no joke—this was a career maker or breaker, and she had no intention of breaking. By the time Thursday rolled around, she popped in to the salon by her apartment just in time for their last appointment.
She hated being that client but she’d tip well. Plus, the stylist had had a cancellation and was glad of a walk-in. She let the nail technician talk her into the mani-pedi she’d wanted anyway and, by the time she left, they were beaming at her.
She walked home feeling light and free, eager for the next day. As she reviewed her work outfit—and then her date outfit—she could feel the guilt beginning to bubble in her gut again. Shaking her head, she refused to think about Carolina or anything else.
There’s nothing wrong with focusing on yourself. Nothing wrong with being present and happy or, at least, contented.
Refusing to let her mood crash, she decided to go to bed early. Wrapping her hair in a silk scarf, she sipped her favorite nighttime tea, infused with valerian root, as she journaled. Checking her phone as her eyelids drooped, she grinned at the late text from Dominic.
She replied with a blushing emoji and a, “Goodnight, Dominic,” and fell asleep squeezing her pillow tight.
The next week passed by in a blur. The date had been amazing—so amazing, in fact, that they’d spent the weekend going out to eat and taking walks around their neighborhoods. She lived by the bay, he lived on the beach. It was amazing!
They’d begun waiting for each other after work, too, instead of pretending they’d just bumped into each other. That was great because she’d been right; it was wonderful to have someone to talk to after a long and difficult day at the office.
They commiserated and griped, joked and plotted, as they rode the elevator to the parking garage. By Friday, he’d followed her home from work and made her dinner at her place. She’d wanted him to stay over but hadn’t been able to ask the question.
It hadn’t mattered. He’d asked her to be his girlfriend—officially. She’d accepted, happily, and then they’d talked about it. It wasn’t the way anymore, not amongst their generation. People just drifted together then drifted apart, not often establishing any sort of official ties.
They just weren’t the type to feel comfortable with that … and both were glad to have met someone who could relate. Then he’d surprised her by saying he didn’t want to spend the night yet. He wanted them to be friends as much as lovers, and would rather wait a little bit longer if that was alright with her.
She’d actually pinched him to make sure he was real but he’d only laughed. Opening up, he’d told her about his last serious—and seriously failed—relationship. She’d understood immediately and had shared hers in return. It was odd, almost surreal, how well they could relate to each other—how similar their histories and temperaments were.
They’d fooled around a bit then, overcome with a sense of shared understanding and comfort before she’d pulled away. He’d joked about how it was his fault when she said he should go, making her laugh and thanking him for it. When the door shut behind him, she rested against it with her eyes closed.
She felt as though her life had been reset. Or, as if she’d been reborn somehow. New things were starting, positive things were happening, and she felt better than she’d felt in years. The only uncomfortable tie to her challenging past was Carolina.
As if on cue, her phone buzzed. It was her. Reading the text, Maria felt a cannonball drop into the pit of her stomach.
They had to meet up tomorrow morning at the lake. It was Saturday, not their usual meeting day, but Carolina needed to talk. Maria had to be there to listen.
Closing her eyes as her hands gripped her phone tightly, Maria accepted, finally, that she had to cut off her oldest friend. She just couldn’t take it anymore. She loved her—that would never change! But she couldn’t live with the constant negativity and emotional draining.
Crying, she showered and got ready for bed, shooting Dominic a goodnight text earlier than usual. Sipping her tea, she read his sweet response but couldn’t think of a reply so sent him a kiss emoji instead. He sent a wicked smiling emoji, but the smile she felt at it didn’t reach her lips.
She was tired and anxious, dreading the next day worse than the last time she’d had to meet with Carolina. Pouring her thoughts out into her journal, she let it all out. All the sorrow and regret, all the rage and frustration. All the guilt.
As she sipped her tea and reread her words, she thought briefly about getting a new journal. She was almost out of pages and … it was a time for new beginnings, after all. Catching a glimpse of the moon outside again as she curled under the blankets, she saw it was almost full.
She fell asleep, dreaming of a house of mirrors. Each mirror flickered as if some mischievous sprite was dancing in front of it. When she approached, the light disappeared and reappeared further, down a hall or in a distant room. She made her way through the house, chasing the light, until she reached the back door.
The light disappeared into the mirror that hung on the door. Curious, she turned the handle and found the door opened into a lush garden, brilliant in many shades of green, and bursting with flowers. As she moved through the foliage, careful to keep to the pebbled path, she saw the light twinkling in the fountains and fish ponds.
She followed the light until she reached a lake. Looking back, she saw the garden had grown into a jungle. From the dense canopy, she could feel eyes staring at her but couldn’t make them out. Turning at the sound of fluttering wings, she saw the golden light she’d been chasing.
At once a fairy and a firefly, it glowed brightly as Maria gazed at it, her jaw wide open. It seemed to be speaking in a voice that sounded like a choir of brass bells and gongs, but she couldn’t understand the words. Leaning forward to hear better, the creature flew into her mouth without warning.
Startled, Maria clutched at her throat as she lost her balance. She felt a burning sensation moving into her, from her neck, down her chest, and into her belly. She realized she was falling through space but the burning was so strong that the fall didn’t matter.
She landed on her feet suddenly and realized she was standing in the garden again. Only, now the house was hers. Her family was inside—her own family, not the one she was born into. Looking around at the plants, she searched for the light but it wasn’t there.
As she made her way to the back door again, she saw the mirror was hung on the outside now. Curious, she peered into as her hand reached for the doorknob. Her fingers touched the brass knob as she met her own gaze in the mirror.
Feeling a blast in her core, she saw the light burning inside of her in the glass. Amazed and staring at herself, she thought it was odd that she was so beautiful now. At once herself, she also saw herself as a winged creature, emitting a golden glow.
Staring for an eternity, she felt her fear melt at last in the heat of her own fire. She wondered at herself as a silly thought crossed her mind. She blushed, thinking that she looked like a fire fairy, then heard a tinkling sort of giggle in her mind.
It’s me. I’m the twinkling light. I’m the fairy with the wings of fire …
The glow around her dimmed and dimmed until she could barely see it. The world was normal again, and she saw the mirror on the door had become a knocker. Inspecting the door more closely, she saw it now had a handle instead of a knob.
Feeling a warm weight suddenly in her hand, she opened her palm and saw she held a brooch. It was a brass firefly. Pinning it into her hair, she embraced the feeling of elation that was coursing through her as she turned the handle on the door to step inside.
Hearing the buzz of wings again, she began to twist and turn, trying to catch it. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t catch the firefly again. Her hands just couldn’t reach the buzzing sound.
Her eyes shot open and she realized she was in bed, tangled in her sheets, and sweaty. Sitting up to find the sound, she saw she’d knocked her phone to the ground and the alarm was buzzing annoyingly from the floor.
“What the hell?” she muttered as she flopped back onto the pillows. Remembering the day and the talk ahead, she growled and pulled the sheets over her head. Her momentary anger had scared off what was left of her sleep. Trying to readjust, she realized just how sweaty she was.
“Gross,” she muttered, yawning and swinging her legs off the bed. She showered and dressed, feeling her legs grow heavier with every step. Rolling her eyes at herself in the mirror after putting on sweatpants, she marched back to the closet and chose a simple dress.
The last thing she wanted was Carolina to complain that she hadn’t made an effort or something ridiculous like that. Deliberately, she picked out a cute pair of boots, an oversized, knit cardigan, and a scarf long enough to wrap around her head. The weather was still cool and mercurial this time of year, and layers were key.
Stuffing the old blanket into her tote bag, she headed out the door to the bakery. By the time she got to the lake, this time with pastelitos de queso added to the order, Carolina was already there. Forcing a smile onto her face and squaring her shoulders, Maria approached the huddled figure she’d have recognized anywhere.
Saying nothing, she spread the blanket on the grass and laid out the food and coffees. Then she waited. She was done having to initiate conversations, and with walking on pointe between the strewn eggshells of Carolina’s emotions.
As if she sensed a change, Carolina scooted backwards onto the blanket and sat, grabbing a coffee. Sipping slowly, she turned her head just enough to catch Maria in her periphery. Sighing, she began to speak.
“Listen, I know. I know how difficult I am. I get it. I know you’re frustrated because I am, too. It’s just … I’m all alone, Maria. Except for you. You’re the only one whose been there, the whole time! I don’t have to tell you things; you already know. Always understand.
The poverty. The alcoholism. The abuse. The childhood that was a nightmare I thought I’d never wake from and then,” she chuckled over a sardonic grin. “Then, when I did wake up, everything was worse. I don’t know how to live in this world, Mari. I just don’t.”
Maria’s eyes were welling. She felt guilty for having planned to walk away this very morning. Carolina never talked about the past and, if she was honest, Maria wanted to forget it all, too. They’d grown up together, alongside each other. Their home lives had been distressingly similar.
They’d gotten through it all by not talking about it. Wandering off alone, telling each other stories, and inventing adventures amongst the bare shrubs and concrete structures of their barrio. Whenever one of them needed somewhere to go, just to be and not be driven mad, they could always find each other and play pretend.
“I’m sorry for it, Mari,” sighed Carolina, wiping away the tears from her cheeks with the sleeve of her ratty old sweatshirt. Moved to a kind of warmth she hadn’t felt in decades, Maria crawled over to her friend and hugged her.
She was right—they didn’t need words. They could just be. So they sat for a couple of hours, eating and drinking, watching the sun climb overhead as the birds and squirrels came and went about their business. The ducks were remarkably calm and quiet. The wind hardly stirred at all.
“Thanks for coming,” Carolina whispered, blushing as she smiled while Maria’s head rested on her shoulder.
“Always,” replied Maria softly, hating herself for it having almost been a lie.
“I think I’ll be okay now. I mean, I think we’ll be okay,” said Carolina, staring at the water.
“I think you’re right, C. You and me, we’re one half of a whole sandwich,” giggled Maria, feeling like a kid again.
“You’re the peanut butter!”
“Only because you’re the jelly!”
They laughed and hugged tighter, then got ready to go their own ways. Resigned to always tossing the trash, Maria cleaned up and watched Carolina walk around the lake. Turning and waving, Carolina smiled—a real genuine smile—that was timed to the sun peeking out from behind a fluffy cloud.
Grinning back and waving, Maria let herself enjoy the moment before she left the park. It was such a rare thing, to feel this way. To see Carolina actually happy …
As she walked the streets back to her apartment, she took a little detour to the bookshop, hoping it was open. When she got to the storefront, she peeked into the window just to admire the displays and shelves of books before going inside. God, she loved books!
Catching a shadow in the reflection, Maria looked up to see Carolina staring back at her. Turning quickly to the street behind her, she didn’t see anyone there. Slowly, she turned again and caught her reflection in the mirror.
Only, it wasn’t just her she saw. Carolina was there, standing … in front of her? But that couldn’t be! It didn’t make any sense.
Mesmerized by the vision, Maria stared at Carolina in the glass until she saw something even stranger begin to happen. Carolina’s face seemed to change, morphing into a montage of her life in reverse. Her face became the face of a child and then … Maria was staring at herself.
Only, it was herself as a child. Blinking and shaking her head, the vision remained. She watched, entranced, as the child morphed again, as if she were a video of a time-lapse recording of Maria’s life. Suddenly, Carolina reappeared for a moment before her face became Maria’s and then … settled over Maria’s face in the glass.
Disoriented and fighting a gut-wrenching panic, Maria stared into the glass and breathed. Unaware of the passage of time, she just stood in front of the glass, immobile. Transfixed. The next thing she knew, someone was touching her arm.
“Excuse me, Miss. Are you okay?” asked the man whose name she couldn’t remember. It was the owner of the bookshop, and he was peering at her like a doctor over his thick, horn rimmed glasses.
“I, uh, I think so,” replied Maria, feeling very strange in her own skin all of a sudden. Her limbs felt like floaty, new appendages over which she had little control. She found her hands enchanting for some reason, moving them as if trying them out for the first time as she stared at them, bemused.
“It’s just, you know, you’ve been standing out here for over an hour!” laughed the man with a hint of nerves in his voice as he watched her watch herself.
‘I … oh!” Maria snapped back to reality and stared at the man. “Mr. Gomez! I’m so sorry!”
“No, no, don’t be silly. Nothing to be sorry about,” sighed Mr. Gomez, relieved to see her eyes focused and the color back in her cheeks.
“I just … I don’t know what happened. I walked over here to buy a journal and was staring into the shop and …” Maria trailed off, looking quickly back into the glass but saw nothing but books inside. Her reflection stood next to Mr. Gomez’ and there was nothing strange about it.
“A journal! I see, well, then, come in!” pounced Mr. Gomez, eager for a sale as usual. He opened the door and ushered her inside. Leading her to the section full of notebooks, journals, and stationary, he wandered off to answer the phone and check on the boy in the backroom who was supposed to be working on the new inventory.
Maria stared at the journals, feeling lost and unsure for a moment. Spotting a hardbound one with fireflies on the cover, she picked it up and leafed through it. The interior pages were bound but replaceable, and the cover was as sturdy as it was beautiful. The pages were thick, almost beige, and unlined. On the corners, instead of numbers, were little fireflies again.
Without thinking it through, she grabbed it—and a metal bookmark that matched. Feeling nervous and not wanting to think about anything, she let herself impulse buy a fancy new pen, too. Cradling her haul to the counter, she smiled and let Mr. Gomez chatter on about the latest releases while he rang her up.
Insisting that she looked weak, he had the girl at the tiny café brew her up a cappuccino to go. Without the energy to argue, she accepted the coffee and then paid for a frosted sugar cookie made to look like a giant pink tulip.
Wandering out of the shop, she looked up and saw a storm coming. Shaking her head, she wrapped her scarf around her and hurried home, her shopping bag clutched tightly in one hand and her coffee in the other. As if in a daze, she followed her feet where they took her, trusting them to know the way.
By the time she got to her apartment, the rain had started to fall, splattering loudly on the pavement in front of her building. Hurrying to her unit, Maria fought the sensation of being chased. Breathing deeply inside her cozy, familiar space with her hand braced on the doorframe, she let her forehead rest against the door for a moment, too.
She felt as though she should be dizzy but wasn’t. Dropping her bags and scarf on the bed and placing her coffee on the nightstand, she moved through the bedroom to the bathroom. Splashing water on her face, she took a moment to stare deeply into her own eyes. She felt as though there was something she needed to look for—something she needed to see in her reflection. She couldn’t name it.
Walking back into the room and looking around, she felt like a new person in an old place. Or an old person in a new place. She couldn’t tell. She was mixed up and frustrated about it. Impulsively, she moved to the window and wrenched it open, not minding the sill getting a bit wet from the rain.
Plopping onto the bed, she kicked her shoes off and shoved her legs under the covers. Grabbing the bag, she looked inside curiously, not remembering what she’d bought. She stared at the journal, the bookmark, and the fancy pen for a long while as the wind picked up outside.
Absently, she reached for the coffee and took a sip. Brows furrowed, she wondered at the fact that it was still warm. And delicious! Letting the warmth spread through her and breathing in the cool scent of rain, Maria unboxed the pen and began filling out the notebook’s first page.
This notebook belongs to: Maria
Smiling, she let the pages slip through her fingers, pleased with the purchase. It really was a nice journal—not the kind she’d usually splurge on. Well, not the old Maria. Giggling, she drew a fancy little firefly next to her name.
As vague ideas about getting a firefly tattooed on her wrist floated across her mind, she began to write. Dating the page on the top right, she began trying to remember her morning. Giving up, she let her hand write as her eyes followed. She realized at some point that she was writing a story about two friends. Two very best friends.
Soon, as she followed the words she set down, ones she hadn’t known she’d had in her, she was engrossed in the tale. Feeling a tug on her heart, she sighed, worried about how things would work out for them in the end. Needing reassurance as she reread the last paragraph, she told herself that those two little girls were sure to grow up to be the best of friends. They just had to! Didn’t they?