Dahlia approaches the counter, every step conjuring another bruise, another strike, another pang of torture. All I can hear is the overhead music tinkling and my shallow breathing. I can’t bear her presence. “I’m not comfortable with you being here.”
Lines crease into her forehead, the dark circles beneath her eyes deepen. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
She has to be joking. “I find that hard to believe.” I fold my arms across my chest in a weak attempt to steady myself.
“After you moved, I felt ashamed of myself, for treating you that way. I don’t know what I was thinking. We were just kids. I still see you in my mind. The terror in your eyes. The fear that you were going to tell on me. And looking back, I find myself curious why you didn’t.”
“There was nothing I could do,” I say softly.
“You could’ve stood up to me.”
A memory resurfaces. “I did. And then you kissed me. And then you punched me. You had anger problems, Dahlia. And I knew you weren’t going to change.”
“People don’t change, Charlie. We become more ourselves as we get older.”
“That makes no sense. You still have anger problems?”
“No.” She sighs and rubs her lines. “I’m saying that that was a rest stop. I got over it and this is more like me. I’m shy and I always offer my last coin, because I realized, being mean won’t get you any friends. I got too lonely. So I stopped being so rude all the time and began living the way I should’ve.”
I shake my head. “It’s been eight years.”
“Eight years to get over it.” Dahlia picks at her stubby, bitten nails.
“You don’t understand! I felt like you were going to kill me!”
I take a second to organize my thoughts, the speech I had prepared if I ever saw her again. But everything spills out. “Every night I’d go to sleep, dreading the next day, feeling miserable I had to see you. I even thought of a new way to get out of class so you couldn’t catch me, push me around. But you caught me. And I fell into your torment and I couldn’t get out of the whirlpool. You know my grades went down to failing? I didn’t want to eat. I felt sick when I saw every bruise you gave me. I wanted to throw up when you kissed me, and I did. You disgusted me, Dahlia, and I was terrified of you. So I don’t see how anyone can get over that in eight years. It’d take a lifetime to.”
The music comes jingling back, filling our silence. I can see that shock settles on her face, a nice mask to her plain and indifferent expression. I’ve said the right things.
“You’re right. I never tried to fit in your shoes.”
I can’t talk about this any longer. “How’d you find me?” I ask without trying to show interest.
“Your website. I Googled your name and it came up.”
“That’s creepy,” I say without thinking.
“I know, but I really wanted to apologize. I’m heading to Fresno for a work thing, so I figured I’d drop by.”
“Can you leave? I can’t think straight anymore.”
Dahlia straightens the purse on her shoulder, much more sophisticated than the cheap pink one I first saw her in History. I can assume her job pays well. “I’m really sorry, Charlie. Really sorry.” She turns and disappears out of the room, my life. I don’t expect to see her ever again.
I drop my camera bag to the chair and drag myself to the dining table. Gabriella’s cooking orange chicken, teriyaki rice, and glazed carrots. The smell is very welcome, but I still can’t shake the perfume Dahlia wore.
“How was the studio, Charlie?” Gabriella stops stirring and gives me a kiss.
“You’ll never believe who came in.” As I relay the story, she reaches out to hold my hand, occasionally whispering, “Oh, no,” and tracing along my arm, the spots where the bruises used to be. She never saw them. I never want her to.
“She would take my pencils, snap them in half, and give them back to me with a smile. Shove me into lockers and the little air vents would cut my skin. I really felt like there was no way out.”
“I’m so sorry you had to go through that,” Gabriella whispers.
“Well, I’d rather it be me than you.”
She sighs. “Wanna hear lighter news?” I nod, eager to switch subject. Talking to Gabriella does help me, but I feel like I’ve had enough of the past for the day. “Some company called me and asked for an interview. To be an accountant.”
“Hey, that’s great! You’ll finally be able to get out like you wanted.” Gabriella always complained about not finishing college, how she’ll never get a real job because of it. It was practically killing her to not have an adult job.
“They read my transcript from high school, saw I was the valedictorian, and decided to give me a chance. Maybe we can move to an actual house!” She’s getting so excited, but I find it unnecessary.
But I don’t want to move. The apartment’s a lot cheaper, which means we can have better stuff. The rent is paid perfectly with my studio earnings and we still have some left over.
“Maybe.” I don’t want to start another fight. I just want to crash into bed and push all the thoughts about Dahlia away.
“So I’ll be gone for who knows how long tomorrow at three. You’ll be working, right?”
Don’t really want to,I think.Dahlia was there.“Yeah. A family of seven is coming in. Busy day.”
“I’ll bet.” A burning stench fills my nose. “The chicken!” Gabriella turns back to the pot and opens the lid. It’s black, all right.
“I’ll get the takeout menus.” She giggles and goes to dump the pot into the trash. Of course, I order orange chicken.
Gabriella got the job. She now rises at six every morning, wear office clothes, and comes home at precisely 5:30 pm. It’s almost as if she grew up too fast. She invited me to her cubicle for lunch a few weeks after her hiring.
“This is where I sit.” She plops down into a dull spinning chair and fixes the pencil cup. There’s a frame of us on the couch, one I took myself. The keyboard looks beat up, the number keys fading away. On her calendar of my top twelve pictures, there are x’s marked in the days, each square holding a number. Today held 117. It takes me a while to realize it’s the countdown to our wedding. I wonder how many of her co-workers know we’re engaged.
“Gabriella! Who’s this sexy stud?” a snobby voice floats through my ears. What? I don’t think I’m hot, at all. Perhaps she’s just being polite.
“Lorel. Please. This is my fiancé, Charlie.” Lorel gives me a look-over, her eyes raking every inch of me. I feel very exposed, even though I’m covered with layers. November can be cold in Clovis sometimes. Lorel has on a very short skirt, as if there was no dress code to the office, jet black stilettos, and something of a revealing blouse. The only thing I’m comforted in is that there are black tights covering her legs. Blonde, highlighted locks, with a mysterious dark layer underneath, a sparkling bracelet wrapped around her left wrist, and dangling crystal earrings. She looks revoltingly pretty. But her personality, even though she looks to be about 26, seems to match a wannabe clubbing teenager.
“Mm. You certainly know how to pick them.” Lorel holds out her French manicured hand, but I don’t take it. I grip my arm. “Hmp. Well. You’ll be attending the office Christmas party, right, Gabriella? It’s the hottest party of the year. All thanks to me.”
“I’m sure we’ll make some time just to see you, Lorel,” Gabriella sweetly says.
Lorel checks her blinged watch. “My break is over. See you later, Charlie.” She winks and goes to the opposite side of the room, down a hall, and through a clear door that I passed to get here.
“Who does she think she is?” I say lightly, propping an elbow on the divider.
“Don’t worry about her. I’m only trying to be nice because she’s got an eye out for promotions and raises. I really want a house.”
“She’s crazy. Can’t believe she called me ‘sexy’.” I put air quotes around that. Gabriella giggles.
“But you are. Just a different kind.” And now she winks, and I’m a lot more relieved at her’s than Lorel’s.
“She seems really… snobby,” I mutter.
“Oh, she is. She’s a complete stuckup. Everyone really doesn’t like her. But like I said, she could be a good thing to use.”
“I like the way you think.”
Just don’t like how she’s stuck on a house.
My janitor comes up to me by the counter, a bottle of mirror cleaner in one hand and a rag in the other, and a man trailing behind her. Rosita gestures that this man needs me. She goes off to finish a bathroom almost no one uses, since I spend most of my time outside and have no need to go anyway.
I finish checking the film of the day. Senior pictures done in the beginning of winter, because the client claims she’s more of a “cold and breezy” person. “How can I help you?”
The man glances around at the birds on the wall, which are shining in the rays slanting from outside the windows. “You’re Charlie Harris, correct?” I nod. Such an odd customer. “I’m an art curator at the California Museum in Sacramento. We’re interested in your work and we’d like to display them in an upcoming exhibit.”
“What?” It’s not settling in. My pictures have gained professional recognition?
The man chuckles. “We like to display new and fresh artists from time to time. We like to inspire people, too.”
“But why- How would you know me?” I’m growing more cautious at the minute. It doesn’t seem real enough.
“Oh, I’ve seen your name floating around on the websites we check for future nominees. And one of my co-workers keeps bragging about you. After we got through one list, you were the top of the next. And you’re impressive enough to display three canvasses, something of an incredible feat here for someone not as famous as someone, say, Ansel Adams.”
I don’t have any aspirations, anyone to match their status. I just take pictures. “Which ones do you want?”
“Those.” The man points to the wall, where I’ve hung up the top three most commented pictures, a half circle in laser beams of different colors, a field entirely in a sunset orange, and a lake at dawn, the sky rising pink and cherry. To the side of them is a silver plaque with Crystal’s name, and a photo of us above it.
I still can’t believe this is even happening. Someone wants to display those pictures, shots I literally took about two seconds to click a button, and two minutes to contrast the colors. “Sure. Yeah.”
“Here.” He hands me a memory card. “Put them on there and we’ll have it blown up to the canvas. The display is for three weeks. If we get enough visitors, we may extend the exhibit and add more. Sounds good?” I numbly nod. This is too good to be true. I’ve always hated that phrase, but this is the first time I can actually use it. Well, and being with Gabriella too.
I quickly scan them in and return them. “Call this number if you have anything questions.” He slides a business card across the counter. “Thank you so much, Charlie. Hopefully we’ll see you at the exhibit next month.” The man gives me another handshake and he’s gone.
I glance down at the card, see what the man’s name was. Instead, it’s a girl’s. Something spreads through me, curiosity and a vague familiar notion to what this name means. Then it pops up, rusty but with full acknowledgment.
It’s Bay Reynolds.