“My name is Marley,” the young woman said. Leila finally looked her in the eyes, which were two different colors. Maybe Leila should have found that frightening, but instead she found it fascinating; one eye blue like the sky and one green like the trees in summertime. Marley’s hair was a deep black color and cut short. She had a ring on her nose and her eyes were heavily lined. Leila had seen girls that looked like Marley before; they hung out in the shadows dressed in all black, usually smoking something. Those were the people who dressed and acted out in a crisis or a rebellious streak because they were trying to find who they were. Marley didn’t seem that way to Leila. Marley’s smile was warm and inviting and her eyes were constantly lit up with some sort of… joy?
“This is Gaby and Aaron,” she said, gesturing to the other people. Gaby smiled and waved from the kitchenette. Large, dark glasses took up most of her face. Her eyes were so brown they almost seemed to melt right into her pupils and there was a smattering of freckles on her nose. Her wild red hair stuck up all around her; like she had licked her finger and stuck it in a light socket.
Aaron joined Marley on the loveseat, placing his arm around her shoulders. His brunette hair was sticking up all over the place, like he hadn’t even bothered to comb it after he had rolled out of bed. On his arms were a couple of tattoos but Leila couldn’t figure out what they said.
“What is this place?” Leila asked, suddenly very aware that she was alone in an unknown place, who knows how far from the apartment, with people she didn’t know.
“Neverland’s Treasure,” Aaron responded. “It’s a bookstore/coffee shop/whatever it needs to be that we founded.”
“A bookstore?” Leila asked, and she couldn’t hide the obvious excitement that had crept into her voice. “What kinds of books?”
Marley laughed. “Oh, all kinds.” She gestured around with her hands and it was then that Leila noticed the ceiling high bookshelves that replaced every available wall space. “History books, picture books, poetry, you name, and we’ve got it. And if we don’t have it, it probably doesn’t exist.”
“So… who are you?” Gaby asked, sitting on a chair between the loveseat and the couch. “What’s your name? Are you lost?”
“My name’s Leila,” she said. “And… I am lost. I was… I was out walking and lost my way.”
“How old are you, Leila?” Aaron asked. Marley punched him in the stomach. “Ow! What was that for?”
“You sound like a certified creeper,” Marley said.
“I’m seven,” Leila said. She knew that this probably wasn’t the smartest idea she had ever had, but Leila couldn’t help it. She had known these people for less than twenty minutes and she already trusted them more than… well, more than other people. “I live just a few blocks from here… I think.”
Marley’s face scrunched together as she thought. “Do you live in the apartments, hon?”
“That’s not too far,” Marley said. “Once you’ve finished your cocoa, I’ll make sure you get home alright, okay?”
“Can’t I stay a bit longer?”
“Leila,” Marley said in a slightly exasperated tone, “Don’t you have family that’ll be missing you? And like I said earlier, it’s Christmas.”
“No, I don’t have family that’ll miss me.”
There was a small silence in which every pair of eyes seemed to notice the bruises that laced Leila’s body. Leila tensed up immediately, she couldn’t let them know. But what lie could she tell them?
“Leila – “ Marley began.
“No,” Leila said. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.” She set the cup down and grabbed either side of her head. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
“Aaron, call 911 – “
“NO!” Leila sank even lower in the chair and began to cry. Apparently she hadn’t cried out all of her emotions because they were surging around inside of her now. Gaby, Marley, and Aaron froze, quite unsure of what to do. Leila took a deep breath to calm herself. “Please don’t. Don’t call 911 or anything. I’m fine. I’m fine.”
“Where’d those bruises come from, Leila?” Apparently Marley was a no-nonsense kind of girl.
Leila remained quiet.
“Okay,” Marley said softly. She clapped her hands: “Leila, you seemed very interested when you found out this was a bookstore. Do you like books?”
Leila nodded eagerly, so thankful for the change of conversation. “I read all the time. Well, when I can.”
“What are some of your favorites?” Marley asked, standing up and wandering over to a shelf.
“Um…” Leila thought hard. She couldn’t pick just one favorite, could she? “I really like Junie B. Jones.”
“Really?” Marley said, excitement making her voice rise in pitch. “I loved Junie B. Jones as a kid! So full of snark and sass.”
“So, she was your role model, eh, Marley?” Aaron asked with a smile.
“Shut your face,” Marley said, but she was smiling. “Ah, here you go.” She plucked a small paperback from off the shelf and handed it to Leila. “This was the first one I read.” When Leila did nothing, Marley tossed in on her lap and said, “Here, have it.”
“Um, thanks,” Leila said, examining the book. She was pretty sure she had already read that one, but the fact that Marley was giving it to her, free of charge, and the fact that Marley and Leila had met only a few moments ago was something that Leila would not ignore.
“It’s getting pretty dark out,” Gaby noticed. She looked at Leila. “You should probably get home. You have all those presents waiting to be opened tomorrow morning!”
Leila didn’t have the heart to tell them that there weren’t any presents waiting for Leila under a tree. There wasn’t even a tree. She finished her hot chocolate and stood up, clutching her new book tightly to her chest. Marley smiled and said, “Follow me.”
The two of them left the store and braved Christmas Eve’s bitter chill. Marley flawlessly navigated the backstreets until Leila stopped her a block down from her apartment. “Here’s fine,” she said. “I can find my way back now. Thank you.”
“Leila,” Marley said. She gently took Leila’s hands in her own and knelt down so that they were face to face. “I want to show you something.” She rolled up the sleeve of her jacket and Leila stared for a moment before she realized what she was seeing. Old scars criss crossed her wrist in a dizzying pattern. The scars were faded now, just slightly raised white lines on slightly darker skin.
“I want you to know,” Marley said, her voice low with intensity, “that you are never, ever, defined by your wounds. Whether self-inflicted,” she glanced down at her wrists, “or not. These cuts or bruises do not make us any less of a person. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Leila tried really hard to. She was only seven, after all. “I… I think so,” she said.
Marley smiled. “Good. Also, I want you to know, if you ever need to get away for a while, Neverland’s is always open.”