Chapter 17

Gabriella gazes at the silver band, topped with two birds nuzzling each other, a green gem engraved on one of the wings. It’s slender, symbolic, and hopefully perfect.

“I know it’s not traditional,” I start. “But I figured, why not have a unique ring for such a special girl?”

“It’s my favorite colors,” she whispers, her fingers running over the smooth metal. “Charlie, we’re still so young.”

So afraid she’d say that. “I know! But what better day to propose than today?”

Gabriella’s awfully silent.Too soon,I think. Maybe I should’ve waited for her twenty-second birthday. But I couldn’t wait.

She wipes away a tear, hands the box back to me. I stare at her, confused, hardly noticing there’s something in my grasp.

“Yes.” A smile spreads from ear to ear, and she holds out her left hand. “Go on,” she sings happily. I fix the ring to her finger, glistening, and her face is just glowing with joy. Our mouths join and she throws her arms over my neck.We’re engaged.

When we break, I announce I have one request, and the rest of the wedding is up to her. “We get married on March 6. When Crystal died. We can honor her in some way.”

“She would have liked that,” she agrees. “Next year. I don’t think I can plan a wedding in two months.”

“Of course.” The night grows chilly, a draft of wind crawling across her thinly covered shoulders. I pull off my tux and wrap it around her, and then gape at the ring, fitting so right, looking like it belonged there forever.

We don’t want to leave the tree house. We don’t want to leave behind our childhood, the pretty lights sparkling, this happiness settling in our veins. When the air has become too cold, we squeeze inside the entrance, tuck our feet in, and huddle together, whispering sweet things and discussing minor details of the wedding. There is no rush, seeing we have a little over a year to plan. But in a girl’s world, that’s about a week.

I watch the morning sun rise, watch the pure delight dance in her eyes as she opens them. I watch life slowly pour back in me, and I realize my purpose of being here.

To make her feel beautiful.

Our first few months of engagement are relaxed, simple, and kind of sluggish. Gabriella has taken up tennis again, just to pass time. One day she brings home a new friend, a rather pretty girl named Kyla. She randomly sings, which is beautiful, and likes to make quirky noises out of nowhere. I like her. And now Gabriella has a friend to hang with while I’m at my studio.

Since Whisper and Breathe has become a hit, and because people were begging me to open a studio, I bought a small space, hired some receptionists and people to teach me how to use elaborate equipment- which I end up hardly using, because my camera is much more valuable- and started doing more of what I love. The walls are painted a tangerine orange, like a soft sunset, with bursts of red and yellow to represent the sunrise. Paintings, photographs, metal sculptures of birds are everywhere. The shooting room has a simple white backdrop, ready to be changed at any time. But most of my clients prefer going outside, and so do I. It’s quite rare to use the backdrop after they discover I’m a huge nature person.

I’ve finally acquired a much better camera, the kind that photographers of modelers use, but I never look through the lens. Only the screen. Each shot takes about half a second because I always have an idea of what I want. A little girl on top of a hay bale in the middle of the day, the sun hanging over her. A couple looming behind a tree, flowers scattered in the grass. A family in a field of wheat and laughing, colors streaked behind them. No one leaves my place with a boring disk of unoriginal backgrounds.

They tell me where they want their pictures. Some people ask for suggestions. I know a lot of great scenes, awesome fields, even a little trail. But I never take them to the tree house. It’d be cute for the little kids, but that’s reserved for Gabriella and me. Our childhood. No one needs to ruin the drawings we made, sit in our tiny plastic chairs. It’s ours.

Gabriella and Kyla come home, giggling about something and immediately shushing when they see me on the couch. “What?” I say with a smile.

“Just talking about her dress,” Kyla answers. “How funny it would be if it ripped or something.”

“Don’t worry, I don’t even have a dress yet,” Gabriella says.

“It’s only June. We’ve got time,” I assure her. “Kyla, you staying for dinner?”

Kyla waves her hand dismissively. “No, my boyfriend and I are going out somewhere. But thanks for the offer.” She turns to Gabriella and giggles again. I’ve got no idea how girl language works.

After Kyla leaves, Gabriella crumples next to me, catching my hand. “You know what we should do tomorrow? Since we’ve both have nothing on our agenda?”

“What?” I can’t possibly imagine.

“Take a cooking class and mail a picture of the result to your mom! It’s been a while since we’ve talked to your parents.” We had announced our engagement a week after over paper with both of our writing, and the response was terribly enthusiastic. I figured my father would be against it, because they both finished college and had a paying job, but he’s surprisingly okay with it. He and Mom didn’t get married til they were like, thirty something.

“That’d be fun, really.” I pick up the newspaper from the coffee table and rummage through. There’s an opening. “Yeah, let’s do it!”

The cooking lady takes us to a station that looks very similar to the one I’ve used in Home Ec with Mark. Of course, this is just a rudimentary class, nothing super fancy. We’re not making caviar or flaming cakes or fish on a stick. Just a small dessert.

I notice a lot of couples surrounding us. A romantic idea, yes, but not very private. Secret kisses, cutesy noises, it’s like we’re a stone’s throw from a playground of teenagers. And then I realize that yes, these people are teenagers. Juniors and seniors from high school, at most, who has a free day of summer like us.

“Maybe we should’ve taken a higher level,” I whisper in her ear.

“Nah, they’ll have us to look up to,” she whispers back.

Adler instructs us to take out the ice cream mixer, which I assume we’re going to make ice cream from scratch. It’s a long process, but fun passing back flirty banters and feeling the glares we’re getting from the younger people. It’s clear they’re jealous. I even overheard one couple mumbling that they can’t wait to be our age, that they can be free like us.

Somehow Gabriella knew ahead of time what we were going to make, so she brought a bag of gummy bears and a bottle of caramel syrup. “We hate plain flavors.” She winks to me as she explains to everyone else. I dump the gummy bears in and she drizzles the syrup on top. We feed it to each other, cold spoons and interesting tastes. Everyone else is stuck with regular vanilla ice cream, and soon we hear murmurs of them wishing they brought toppings too.

“That’s what they get for not reading,” she mutters to me. I chuckle.

It’s nice doing these things with her. Being with her as more than a friend, like I’ve spent nineteen years holding back.

It’s a normal day in the studio, bustling and changing batteries and offering more money for their shoot, which I refuse. The set price is fine. In fact, I can hold our entire stack of bills and still have money left over. Gabriella and I have talked about finding a house, but we should save more and see how we do after the wedding, if we need the space.

With half an hour to closing and I finished my last appointment, a girl getting her senior pictures done sooner than later, I release my employees. The pattern is that no one really comes in that late. They know I’d just be busy editing shots and straightening up.

The bell chimes, a gust of hot air whooshes in. I look up from the camera to see who the incomer is, and instantly bruises come flooding back, puckering on my skin, bumps form on my skull, soreness spreads like a flower blooming in the spring. My knees turn to jelly, my arms lose momentum, the batteries dropping out of my fingers. Those eyes, the ones I have not seen in eight years, the ones that bore into my soul before inflicting pain, tortures me, shooting sparks in my brain, muddling with the tripping wires. Still, I stand up straighter even though I’m growing weaker by the second, ready to pass out. I see faint black stars on the door, and then they travel to the person itself.

I have to brace myself. I have to pretend I’m okay. My voice calmly speaks out.

“Hello, Dahlia.”

The End

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