“When are you coming back?”
“In four days,” I said, with an evil grin on my face.
“Four days! That’s forever!” Ariel groaned and promptly threw herself down on my bed. “But it feels like you just got here.”
I had. I’d moved in three months ago and we were finally getting into a routine. Granted that routine consisted of work, food, and TV on the couch. But it was a routine nonetheless.
“It’s only a long weekend, and I’ll be back before you know it.” I smiled, stuffing some jeans into my suitcase. “Do you think I should take one swimsuit or three?”
“I hate you,” she replied, throwing me a pair of socks that had escaped. “Why do you have to go away for so long?” She was sitting up on the bed now, looking at me with the sad puppy-dog eyes that she frequently did.
Ariel and I hadn’t been friends very long, but we had bonded quickly. There was something endearing about our relationship. We took care of each other. When she needed help building her deck, I was there for her. When I broke up with Reese, she comforted me in the best way possible—with food. She even let me move in with her and Marko, and that’s how I ended up here.
I finished zipping my suitcase. It was one of those with the hard outer shell. I was so excited when I got it for Christmas because it meant that whenever I traveled I could put new stickers on it—almost like badges. I looked up at her and pointed to my case. “You see these stickers? It’s been six months since I’ve added one. Six months, Ariel!” I put on my sad puppy-dog face too, hoping she’d understand.
“I know, I know. You like to travel. You need to travel.” She rolled her eyes, but I knew she understood. She liked the Aurora who sat on the couch with her every night, yelling at the screen. But she also enjoyed the Aurora who was me. And I was a traveler.
“What am I going to do the whole weekend?” she whined, emphasizing the word whole.
I looked around my room. “You can finish hanging my records.” My room was comforting. It definitely screamed Aurora, but it wasn’t finished. I had completely rearranged the room when I moved in. The bed was now against the wall. My desk—my glorious desk—was against another. On top of it sat my record player. The room was clean; I’ll give myself that. But it wasn’t finished. And hanging my three framed vinyl records, well, that would make it finished.
“Oh great. Thank you for the suggestion.” She rolled her eyes and picked up my suitcase. “Come on, you’ve gotta get moving.”
“You’re the best.” I smiled. I really loved Ariel. She was quickly becoming one of my closest friends.
“You better come back to me, Aurora,” was all she said as she walked out my bedroom door.
Neither of us was any good at goodbyes, and that was about as close to a send-off as I was going to get. I surveyed my room one more time to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. It always seemed that no matter how prepared I was for a trip, I’d always forget something. But to be fair, I had just started packing twenty minutes earlier, so my level of preparedness wasn’t very high. I shook my head before reaching down to feel the front pocket of my jeans. Yes, my coin was still there. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
I picked up my suitcase that Ariel had so graciously left for me at the front door, and threw it into the trunk of my black Volkswagen Golf. I had purchased the car a few months ago and it was my pride and joy. The payments on it sucked, but it was worth it. And, like my suitcase, my back window was home to a collection of stickers. It made the car more me, and I couldn’t help but smile when I’d look through my rearview mirror and see a zombie apocalypse sticker staring back at me.
I slowly pulled out of the driveway, careful to not hit the hidden mailbox. That was an unfortunate mistake I’d made the first week of living here. On the bright side, it wasn’t my car that I’d hit it with. It was Reese’s.
She was pretty mad about it, but I’d had it fixed before telling her. That softened the blow a little bit. God, I was glad that relationship was over. It wasn’t that we hadn’t had good times. We had. We went to festivals, we ate lots of exciting new foods, and we even traveled a bit. But, the truth was, we didn’t really click. I had goals, and she had goals, but we didn’t have goals as a couple. There was no talk of a future, of babies. And I wanted babies. Lots of them.
Now I understand why we didn’t work out. And it showed. All of our friends could tell you that we were the notorious couple who was always arguing. We put each other down on the daily, and it became our natural go-to. The love left the relationship before either of us had even realized.
There were days when I would be sad, days when I missed her. But the second I spoke to her on the phone, the arguing would start, and I would know that I’d made the right decision. I was too mellow for a relationship like that.
I rolled to a stop at the end of my road, patiently waiting for the light to turn green. I peeked at my empty passenger seat. “Ah sweet freedom.” I smiled, before popping the top on the energy drink that I’d brought with me. “No more thoughts about Reese,” I told myself. “Vacation has begun. Just seven more hours of driving to go.”
* * *
Halfway there, my love, I texted Halley. I’d been driving for almost four hours, and as I put gas in my car, I thought about how I was in desperate need of some snacks. Oreos sounded perfect. Though from experience, I knew that could end in me “accidentally” eating the whole package. Do it, my sweet tooth screamed.
My phone buzzed, bringing me out of my daydream. YAYYYYY! Halley had texted back. I smiled. Halley had been my best friend for over ten years. After we stopped living in the same state, we got to see each other in spurts of maybe two days at a time. This time wasn’t much longer, but four days was better than two, and I would take every second I could get.
I cannot wait to see your shining face, I texted back. And meet all of your new friends that you seem to have made without me. Passive-aggressive was always our go-to means of communicating. And meet this new boy.
Halley had just gotten out of relationship with a guy she had been dating for over a year. I thought they were going to get married, but one day she just accidently blurted out that they weren’t together and she was going on a date with someone else. Which was fine with me, because I’d never even met the first guy.
But I’d get to meet this one.
EEEEE, was her response. I’m so excited too. Have you stalked my friend Phoenix yet?
Phoenix? I racked my brain trying to decipher through all of the names she had given me in the past four months. I knew Stella. She was the girl in all of the pictures. I’d briefly looked at her Facebook account. And there was Spencer, the new boyfriend.
Yeah, get with it, Aurora.
I cocked my head to the side. Was I missing something? I quickly pulled up this girl’s Facebook page. She looked normal enough.
Should I know this girl? I texted back.
I’ll probably be drunk by the time you get here, was the response I received.
Avoidance, huh? And then it dawned on me.
Halley, is this your way of telling me that this girl is gay?
See you soon my love.
My brows furrowed together. What was she up to?
I let out a sigh as I pulled out of the gas station. Driving was one of my least favorite things. There was a bit of irony to it I suppose. I liked to travel and go places, but there was something about the actual act of driving that got under my skin.
I could feel a bad mood already tugging at me, willing me to give in to its madness. I narrowed my eyes. “Oh no you don’t,” I muttered to myself before unceremoniously popping an Oreo into my mouth. I reached over and turned the Coldplay song up a little louder. “There, that’s better.”
* * *
By the time I pulled up at three a.m., Halley was already drunk. And apparently so were all of her friends too. I opened the door to Waffle House and walked in.
“Hey best friend.” I beamed at Halley.
“Oh my gosh! You made it,” she slurred, jumping up to greet me. She wrapped her arms so tight around my neck that I almost couldn’t breathe. I was barely taller than her. In fact, we were nearly the same size. We’d been sharing clothes and, more importantly, shoes for as long as I could remember. When our hair was the same length, people would ask if we were related. But now, she kept her hair short.
“Hey.” I smiled back. “I’ve missed you.”
“Not as much as I’ve missed you!” she squealed, slowly letting go of my neck.
I backed away, surveying the various people in the booth that I’d never met. Three sets of eyes stared at me.
Halley slid back into her seat, next to someone I assumed was her boyfriend. She left enough room for me, so I slid in after her.
“Hey guys.” I smiled as I took them all in. They seemed normal enough. They also seemed pretty drunk.
“You’re prettier in person,” the boy across from me blurted out.
I took in his ruffled blond hair and polo shirt. He could be cute, I guess. “Ouch.” I responded, cocking an eyebrow. “I think I’m offended.”
“No! It’s a good thing.” He smiled back. “I like it, and your eyes. I like your eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with green eyes that shine as bright as yours.”
A blush crept up my cheeks. “You mean except for Halley’s?” That was another trait that we seemed to share. “But thank you.”
“He’s right, you’re super cute.” Halley smiled at me, her eyes threatening to droop down. “With your cute little smile, and your cute little tan.”
I glared at her.
“And your hair. I want it. How can I get hair that thick and that long? Like it’s nearly to your ass. May I borrow some pleaseeeee?”
I raised my eyebrows at her and ignored her compliments. “How did you guys end up here? Also PS, you chose to cut your hair shorter, I told you not to.”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “It was a mistake, I know that now. And we were hungry, and they had food.”
Yup, they’re pretty drunk. “Okay, that sounds fair enough.” I looked at the boy sitting in the middle, across from Halley. He was your average pretty boy. He was also wearing a standard issue polo shirt, and I quickly peered under the table to take in his khaki pants before introducing myself. “I’m Aurora by the way. We haven’t actually met yet.” I waited for him to take my outstretched hand.
“Hi Peter,” I said, giving him my warmest smile, before turning to the charmer across from me. “And you are?”
“Your soul mate.” He smiled, not missing a beat.
“Oh great.” I rolled my eyes.
“Matt.” He extended his hand. “It’s Matt.”
Just what I need, another guy in my life who thinks he can charm the pants off any girl he meets. But, he was a friend of Halley’s so he gained some credibility there. I decided I would give him another chance, just maybe not tonight though.
“And that makes you Spencer right?” I asked the boy on the other side of Halley. I was smirking at this point. I knew who he was.
“Yeah buddy, the one and only.” He smiled at me and then sheepishly turned toward Halley.
“I’m glad that I’m finally getting to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you. All bad of course.” The whole table laughed, and I felt better. The awkward tension had been broken. I looked around at the group of people before me. I pictured what it would look like to be on the outside staring in.
Here were five young adults sharing a run-down booth with holes in the cheap plastic and smiling awkwardly at one another. It would be presumed that we were drunk, and for the most part they would be right. On one side they would see Matt struggling to keep his eyes open while Peter played with the scrambled eggs that were left—ketchup smeared across the plate. Then they would take in Halley and Spencer, who were now staring into each other’s eyes, no doubt telling the other how much they loved them. Or maybe they’d just met? It would be hard to tell at first glance. Finally, their eyes would land on the last girl in the booth, staring off into space.
I wonder how they would perceive me. Would they know that I didn’t fit in here? Would they know that a piece of me was missing? Or would they take me as whole, assuming by default that this was the norm, that this was who I was, the girl in the booth with the green eyes?
I snapped out of my thoughts as two arms wrapped around me. “I love you,” Halley murmured. A smile crept up, until I gave in to the warmth. It was good to be with my best friend again. But something was still missing.
“Want to go to a party at someone’s beach house tonight?”
I rolled over and hugged my pillow to my face. “Why are you awake and texting this early?” I looked at my phone, silently noting that no one had texted me. “It’s seven forty-eight in the morning.” I lifted my head in an attempt to get up, but failed and let my face fall back to the pillow. “And yes to the party. Yes to anything that involves a beach.”
“Good,” she replied, texting with her phone held above her head.
“Want to go to breakfast with Stella? She’s texting me now.”
I groaned. “What is she doing up this early? You guys are crazy.” I tried to bury my face into the pillow even more. “But yes to breakfast. It’s always a yes to food.”
“I know,” she laughed, crawling out of bed. “Well get dressed. She’ll be here in five minutes.”
“What!” I screeched, jumping out of bed. “I’m not even awake yet.”
She threw a pillow at me. “How about now?”
I shot her a death stare. “Fine, but you’re buying me coffee.”
“Deal,” she laughed over her shoulder before walking away.
I looked around at all of my clothes, trying to decide between shirts. Did I want to wear my new hot pink tank top or did I want to wear my classic gray V-neck? The tank top was more summery, and it was my vacation. But the gray V-neck was my signature look. Without a word, Halley walked by and took the gray V-neck out of my hands and tossed it on my clothes pile, leaving me holding the bright pink tank top. Vacation it is.
I finished getting dressed and walked into the bathroom. I stood there staring at my reflection in the mirror. I was finally going to meet Stella, the girl in all of the pictures. By the looks of it, this girl was moving in on my territory, and she was moving in fast. I didn’t think that Halley would abandon me for her, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a sense of sadness at the thought. I had just lost Reese, and though that was a triumph, she was still the person I had hung out with every day. “Stop,” I told my reflection. “You’re being ridiculous. You guys are going to get along just great.” Satisfied with my own pep talk, I looked away. I just hope she likes the same music.
Six minutes later, I stumbled out into the sunlight. “Argh,” I groaned, shielding my eyes. “Why?”
Halley chuckled beside me, handing me her sunglasses. “Here princess.”
I glared, but took the sunglasses before sitting down on the curb to wait for Stella. I turned and took in my best friend. It was early, but she was cheerful. She was smiling down at her phone, and I knew that could only mean one thing. Spencer.
“So tell me about him.”
“Who?” Halley asked, trying her best to sound innocent.
I glared at her once more, not even bothering to give her a response. “Where are you guys headed? Like is it serious? You just broke up with that other guy.” I paused. “I just want to make sure this one isn’t a rebound that’s going to crash and burn.”
She crinkled up her nose. “I don’t really know where it’s going. I like him and he likes me, and we have fun. I don’t think we want it to be anything more serious than that.”
“You guys looked pretty lovey at Waffle House last night.”
She stood up. “Yeah, I don’t know, you know, feelings and all that.” She shrugged as a silver car pulled up. “Stella’s here. Saved by the bell,” she laughed as she opened the front door and got in.
I slid into the backseat, and the driver turned around to beam at me. “Hi, I’m Stella,” she sang, her cheery voice filling the car.
“I’ve heard so much about you!”
“Likewise,” I sang, trying to match her pitch. I don’t know why I did that; it’s just something girls seemed to do naturally around other girls. “Halley talks about you all of the time. She adores you.”
Stella playfully swatted Halley’s leg. “Yeah I kinda like her too.” She beamed.
I watched them from the backseat as they talked. Halley and Stella recounted the night before. They had started the evening together, but as the night went on, somehow their group of friends had split in half, with Halley and Spencer going one way and Stella and this mysterious Phoenix going another.
Stella described how she and Phoenix devised this plan to put on foreign accents and talk to strangers at the bar. According to Stella, Americans loved anyone with an accent, and putting one on would increase their chances of meeting someone. Apparently it had been going pretty well, and they were the hit of the bar, until one of their friends found them. Things got increasingly awkward when they had to decide—without talking—whether or not to keep the accents and continue on, or to give in.
Halley responded at all the right times with “Oh man!” and “No freaking way!”
I watched as her hands flew all over the place in response. She had a way of doing that when she got really into a story, and I found it adorable. They continued to talk the rest of the way there, and I caught small parts of each story as I stared out the window.
Inside of me, my emotions were out of order. I swayed back and forth between feeling happy that I was there with them, to waves of sadness. I had never felt so alone.
“Everybody ready for some breakfast?” Stella asked cheerfully as we pulled into the parking lot.
My stomach groaned in response. “I’m always ready for food.”
She laughed. “Good. Me too.”
I opened the car door, and squinted into the sun again before slowly tipping Halley’s sunglasses down over my eyes.
The building in front of me was a sea-foam green with baby blue doors. From the outside it didn’t look like the kind of place I would normally choose to eat at. The paint was chipped and it appeared to be anything but modern. A sign hung loosely from the awning announced it as The Hideaway. The tables outside were in about the same shape as the building—all made of wood and probably from the early 80s. But at those tables the customers smiled and talked as they ate their food. When I got closer I noted that every single table was taken. The food must make up for the appearance.
The inside gave off much of the same vibe. There were the same wooden tables and also a few wooden booths as well. A waitress rushed by us and yelled over the noise, “I’ll be with you in just a second.”
When we were finally seated at one of the booths ten minutes later, I was starving. I flipped through the menu. Everything looked inviting.
“I think I’ll just get one of everything,” I joked.
“You and me both,” Stella responded. “You and me both.”
I ended up ordering French toast, as always. The coffee, she assured me, would be right out. And a minute later I watched as she rushed toward me, the coffee sloshing over the sides of our mugs.
She gave me an apologetic smile as she set it on the table.
I didn’t mind. I picked up the warm mug in my hands and brought it to my lips, the heat instantly warming my face.
“Ahhh.” I breathed happily. “Finally.”
Stella smiled at me from across the table. “So what do you want to do with your life?”
My eyes grew wide in response. “Such a loaded question so early in the morning.” I took a sip of my coffee. She didn’t respond, she just watched, and waited. “Well,” I said, looking up at her. “Right now I work at a local record shop called Royal Records. I really like it there, and I love the people. I especially love the access to new vinyl. And I suppose I’ll keep working there for a while. I don’t really have any reason to leave.”
Stella nodded her head as I spoke. “But what do you really want to do? Like I’m sure it’s great there, but do you want to work there forever? Do you want to maybe own it, or something like it one day? Like what’s your passion?”
My pupils expanded a little wider.
“Dang, you really do ask the hard-hitting questions in the morning.” I took another sip of my coffee before continuing. “Well, I really want to be a photographer. Which I know sounds so cliché. But I mean it. I love taking pictures. I’m always that weirdo carrying her camera everywhere.” I blushed before looking up. “I kind of like taking a step back from the scene and catching people as they really are, not how they like to portray themselves with selfies, you know?”
Stella smiled back at me. “I do know. That sounds awesome.”
“But of course, it’s something that’s really hard to make a living at. So it probably won’t go much of anywhere. It’s probably just a hobby.”
“She takes really great photos,” Halley chimed in. “Don’t let her fool you with how modest she is.”
I scowled and took another sip of my coffee. “You’re just saying that because you have to. You know, best friend rules and all.”
“Not true!” she objected, throwing her hands in the air. She turned to Stella. “She’s really downplaying how good she is. In high school she was obsessed with our darkroom. Yes, our school had a darkroom. And everyone knew if they couldn’t find Aurora, she was probably cooped up in there working on one project or another.”
“I don’t think it was to that extreme,” I chuckled.
She raised her eyebrow at me. “Aurora. You’re the only kid who has ever spent the night at our high school. And it was because you were too busy working on your senior project to even realize it was three in the morning. And by the time you did realize it, you didn’t care, and you just slept in there until the janitor came by in the morning.”
“That place should have had better security!” I yelled. “It’s not my fault that they didn’t do their job and check all of the rooms before locking them that night. But, on another note”—I winked—“I rocked that project.”
Halley shook her head. “And don’t even get me started on how many cameras she owns.”
“Three,” I assured Stella. “It’s just three.”
“Just three?” she asked.
I knew then that I’d have to explain myself. “Yeah. I have a basic one for normal everyday photography and then I have two film-based cameras. There’s one for close-ups and one for broader pictures.” I wasn’t sure if I should go into more detail or if that was enough. I had to be careful sometimes. I could talk about photography all day.
Halley saved me from having to decide when she smacked her hands down on the table, causing both Stella and I to jump.
“Remember that time you caught Sarah and Casey making out at a party!”
I nearly sprayed my coffee all over the table. “Do I ever! That was probably the best picture I have ever taken.” I turned toward Stella so that I could explain more. “You see, what had happened was…” I paused, and then jumped into the story.
“We were sophomores in college, right? And we were at this party and everyone had been drinking. And for weeks I kept telling everyone that I thought the two of them were together.” I was waving my hands around like a maniac at this point. “Well everyone kept denying it. Sarah was too pretty to be gay. You know, the usual. To be fair we wouldn’t have cared if they were together.” I raised an eyebrow, and motioned to myself, as if to say ‘obviously.’ “We just wanted to know is all.”
I took a quick sip of my coffee before continuing. “Well, here we were at this party right. And I’m just doing what I do best, walking around and occasionally taking pictures. Fast forward to the end of the night. Everything had gone as it always does. We were drunk, so we were at our regular pizza place, just waiting on the pizza. And Halley here is begging me to show her the pictures I had taken because this boy she had a crush on was there and she wanted to see if I’d gotten any candid shots of him. Well, our pizza hadn’t arrived yet so we were scrolling through the pictures side by side when finally we came across a picture of Jake, the boy she liked. Well, I zoomed in on the photo, and that’s when I noticed it.” I looked up at Stella to make sure she was still following. She was hanging on my every word.
“There in the background were Sarah and Casey making out. Keep in mind I had been drinking too. I jumped up so fast and yelled ‘I KNEW IT!’ as loud as I could. I kept jumping up and down, up and down, all the while yelling ‘I knew it, I knew it.’ It took me a solid minute before I could calm down and actually show Halley the picture.”
“It’s true,” Halley chimed in. “She was jumping all over the place. Long story short, we got thrown out of the pizza shop.”
“No way,” Stella laughed.
“So what did you do with the photo? Did you show them?”
“Oh heck yeah she did,” Halley chimed in again.
“I got the picture printed out, and the next day when I saw them at lunch, I slid it facedown on the table, winked, and walked away.”
“Oh man, did they freak out?” Stella asked.
“Oh yeah they did.” I grinned at her. “They sent me like twenty text messages trying to explain themselves. I let this go on for about half an hour before finally texting them both that I loved them together, followed by a heart. It was great.”
“I wish I could have been there.”
“You would have loved it. Absolutely loved it.”
By now our food had come, but we were all too into the story to notice.
I whispered to Halley when Stella wasn’t looking. “She’s a keeper.”
“Yeah, I think so too,” she whispered back.
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