Chapter One Hello, Paris
I lay in bed, my back propped against the wall as I mindlessly traced the rim of the empty beer bottle over and over again. I watched the clock. It was 11:59. I closed my eyes, counting the seconds until it would be midnight, then opened them, and saw the switch of that one minute.
A new day, the day I had dreaded every year for the past three years.
The hurt set in, and I grimaced at the pain.
“Happy Birthday, Evika!” I heard her voice in my head as I pictured her walking toward me with an armful of presents and three cards. Three cards because she could never choose the one she liked the best so she’d buy them all. At least one of them was always with a serious tone where she had underlined the most important words on the inside. The others always had little characters (mice, puppies, kittens, etc) on the front of them that she’d label “you” and “me” with small arrows pointing to the mom and the child. Every one of the cards would be filled with her perfect, cursive handwriting and, it never failed, she’d run out of space for the things she wanted to say, so she would fill out the backside too. It made me smile to think about those little things I still missed, but it hurt just as much when I felt a pierce through my heart every year this day came. The day I lost her.
I knew I would have to get up in another two hours, and I became so frustrated with myself for letting the pain claim me again, denying my body of the sleep it needed. I drank just enough to give myself the type of headache that wouldn’t subside for hours. I should have been used to it, I guess.
I tried closing my eyes, listening to the Celtic music I always had playing during the night. I hated the silence. It was a must that I had either a TV or music to listen to. I let some time pass, but the pain wouldn’t subside, and I only made it worse by getting out of bed to find the journal she’d given to me for my eighteenth birthday. I read the last entry I’d written:
Break me down and lead me
To a world I’ve not known
While my head rests in her lap
As I remember her scent and her warmth
Break me down and lead me
To a place I’ve never been
While I let go of her hand
And discover two of my own
As I walk across a threshold of fear
Break me down and lead me
To a dream I’ve not yet lived
While I distance myself from her body
And no longer get to hear the beat of her heart
Every moment I need to know she is present
As I release the fabric of her dress
And let it drape to the floor
Break me down and lead me
To a Strangeland I have yet to conquer
While I take my last breath of her
And lift my head from her lap
As I stand up on my own two feet
To realize I am just as tall
Break me down and lead me
To a world that’s unknown
While I remember all that I can of her
As I step back and turn to walk away
To a place beyond this haven
With only my own two hands
I hold hers no longer
Fear sets in. I look back to see the empty space
Break me down and lead me
I am alone
I cleared the streams of tears from my cheeks and laid my head into the pillow, curling up under my quilt with the journal and clutching it to me as if it were the last piece I had left of her. My eyes stung. My head ached. I just didn’t want to move, but I intended on keeping my promise to Joel. I smacked my obnoxious alarm clock. Time for the 2 A.M. call. Yawning excessively, I stumbled over to the computer. This whole ritual was wearing on my body, but necessary. I grabbed a blanket and wrapped myself inside of it while I adjusted the webcam and waited for the connection.
Joel and I had been best friends since elementary school and we had been living together for three years in the same apartment. Joel’s the neat and tidy gay guy who cooked and cleaned and kept me from drowning in my own messes. I mean that both literally and figuratively. I, however, was the slob of the duo. The artist, the writer, the dreamer, the one with no direction. But somehow, someway, we fit like yin and yang. We were there for each other for anything and everything. We even went to colleges in the same area, however, school was never my forte. I ran out of enthusiasm and eventually quit.
It was hard to let Joel go without it being bothersome, for he had just moved to Paris for a study-abroad program. Instead of doing the normal, and cheaper, version of going to school to be a chef in the local specialty colleges, he decided he wanted to go to France. It sucked not having him around, and he was probably the only person who could get me to agree to waking up in the middle of the night three times a week to talk with him before he went to class.
I remember the last day we had together before he trotted off across the world. I sat facing him in that booth, admiring his perfectly laid, dirty blond hair.
“Joel, I can’t believe this is our last time for coffee at our little cafe before you hightail it out of here tomorrow.”
“I know, Ev. It’s really gonna suck not having you around every, single day, but at least we have email. And you know our Skype deal. 2 A.M. I’d bring you with me if I could,” he said, making his famous pouty lips. “Wanna go as stow away in my luggage? You’re small enough.” He always had crazy ideas.
“Yeah, right. Jeez, why didn’t we think of that before?” I forced a laugh.
“I mean it though,” Joel was serious again. “I’d take you if you wanted to come. We’ve been best friends for, well, ever. We’ve done everything together up till now.”
I sighed. “I know, Jo Jo.” But that was just it; I didn’t want to go. Despite the fact that nothing definite was really holding me back from going and exploring the world with my best friend, something still made me want to stay behind. Maybe it was the fact that I never did change well. Me and change was always a bad combo. And Joel knew that. It was something he was always used to with me. I was just happy that he was brave enough not to let my issues stop him from chasing his own dream. I was proud of him.
“Now please, Evika, one thing I must ask of you is that you don’t rent that empty room out to some ho-bag. You need to swear to it.”
I burst out laughing and spat my coffee across the table. “Jeez, Jo. Tell me how you really feel.”
“You know what I mean, princess.” His sardonic tone sort of cut me a little. “I don’t want to find out that you felt bad for some hag that belongs in slut-zone, and you let her sign a lease. I also don’t want you putting off any of the good candidates I’d already set up for you, either. Got it?”
He knew me too well. Procrastination was my middle name; it should have been my first. “Got it. I promise. I won’t rent to any ho-bags, and I’ll be sure to meet with the other chicks you validated for me,” I assured him.
“Good.” Joel seemed satisfied. “Oh, and I almost forgot,” he said. I watched him get into his satchel (aka man-purse), pull out some small pieces of paper from a little pocket on the outside, and extend his arm across the table. “Here, Ev. Take these.” I looked down. They were cut-out coupons for cleaning products.
I laughed as I took the coupons. “Still thinking of me, even when you’re going off to another world.” I put them in my purse, hoping I wouldn’t lose them in the mess already in there. “I’m really gonna miss you, Joel.”
“I’m really gonna miss you, too, but I guarantee that kitchen is going to miss me way more than you will,” he teased. I was horrible at cleaning my messes in there. I would make macaroni and cheese and have the entire counter covered in God-knows-what. Janitor Joel would come in and do a full scrub-down, something on which he educated me for a full two weeks before his leaving. I was prepared for anything the kitchen would throw at me.
“This is going to be weird, but I know you’ll be fine, Evika. You’ve got a great head on your shoulders.” He looked down at his latte and then started smirking. “I mean, you may be a little confused up there sometimes, but it’s still a good head, nonetheless.”
“You are so blunt,” I said with a giggle.
“Would you have me any other way?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Not a chance, Jo Jo.”
Finally, a familiar face popped up on the screen, and I adjusted my eyes to see his happy - and very awake - expression on the monitor.
“Well, good morning, Ev-Bear!” Ah yes. The famous, off-the-wall nicknames from my best friend. They often changed, but that one stuck. “Happy, Happy twenty-first Birthday! Looks like it was a rough one this time, huh? I think your bags are growing bags,” Joel said, laughing at me. He was so close to the camera I could see up his nose.
“Yeah, yeah, French boy. You’re lucky I agreed to this little set-up. This is totally breaking up my sleeping pattern, and you’re not feeling the brunt of it at all,” I said to him, breaking into a yawn.
“Oh, pish-posh.” He waved his hand at me. “Keeping you on a strict schedule is the only way I can maintain any sanity being this far away from you. You know how nurturing I am.” He grinned widely at me. I felt jealous of how awake he was. Then suddenly, he sucked air and widened his eyes. “Evika Jade Stormer!” Joel’s scolding voice whipped me out of my next yawning fit.
“What?” My eyes focused to see his finger pointing into the camera.
“I’m gone for a measly few weeks, and you leave the poor kitchen that way?”
I’d forgotten how bad it looked as I spun around in my seat and almost gasped myself. I saw beer bottles scattered all over the counter, some on their sides and ready to roll off the edge.
“Ugh,” was all I could get out as I scooted my chair closer toward the wall and angled the entire webcam in a different direction. “Ignore that, Joel. Cut me some slack. It’s been a hard week.”
“Please tell me you didn’t binge since I last talked to you.” He sat back into his chair and folded his arms, eyebrows raised.
I was silent for a few seconds and just sighed deeply before saying anything. “Is that a question, Joel? Because I’m pretty sure you know the answer.” I wiped a few stray tears away. I knew he knew the reason for the binge, and I knew he was trying desperately not to have the conversation about it this time, but it was inevitable. Same day every year. Same thing every year. And this time, worse because he wasn’t there with me.
“Oh girl, please don’t make me cry. It’s bad enough that I feel like a jackass for leaving you like this. Babe, your mom wouldn’t want to see you still mourning. She’d want to see that you’ve moved on. It’s been three years. You need to see someone, a professional. I don’t like to say that, but it’s true. Something has got to give, Evika. I want you back to happy.”
“Jo Jo, I know, but I can’t help it. Every birthday is like a memory of a milestone,” I said as I remembered the conversations with my mother when I was younger about what we’d call our ‘milestone’ birthdays.”
Joel sighed. “Your twenty-first,” he said. “That was supposed to be the Vegas trip.”
I nodded and clenched my fists. “And on top of that, they still haven’t found him yet. How do you think that is supposed to make me any better?”
“I know, Ev. I know. I wish I could change things. I bet they will find him sooner or later, but as much as losing her hurts, and I’m taking the words from a true and wise friend of mine.” He pointed at me. “There is a reason for everything, and even good can come out of something terrible. You have to believe this, Ev-Bear. Sound familiar?”
“It just makes more sense when I tell everyone else that.” I sighed heavily, frustrated the subject had gotten as far as it did about my mother. I knew there were other things I wanted to talk about with Joel, and we didn’t have much time before he had to get to his first class. “Anyway, change of subject. How did that blind date go Friday?” I tried to sound chipper.
“Oh, girl!” Joel must have caught that I was done talking about my mom, so he took my bait. “Thank goodness you asked. I once was blind, but now I see!”
I giggled at his quote. “I take it went well?”
He bobbed his head with a chuckle. “His name is Evan. Kinda cool, his name and your name. Hard thing is I can’t call him ‘Ev’, so I have to find another nickname.”
“Well, I’m sure you won’t have a hard time picking him out a nickname. You are the master,” I complimented.
Joel gave me a smug look. “That I am, Ev-Bear. That I am.”
“Hmm,” I had a thought, “but just remember I’m not going to approve of him until I meet him...er...Skype him? You know my rule, Jo Jo.”
“Yes, Miss Stormer, I know, but if you recall, I’m not the one who dated a crazy, alcoholic whack-job in the past.” I gave him a salty look. “But I know. I’ll let you use your gift on him as soon as we can arrange some web time.” He sighed and smirked into the camera at me.
Even though he gave me a hard time about it, he loved the fact that I had a great intuition about others and could see people for who they really are. It didn’t always work so well for myself though. Mostly what I believed were even the worst kinds of people had some sort of good in them. I tried to find that and usually did. My mother always told me I had a gift. I guess, in a sense, it was.
“Oh, Joel, I totally forgot to tell you. They’re shutting me off in a few days. I just got the notice in the mail yesterday...and that’s not the only thing getting shut off,” I said under my breath as I thought of the utility bills.
“What?” he yelped, putting his hands to his hips. “Evika, this is exactly why I told you that you needed to get a roommate. I knew this was going to happen. Next thing you know, you’re going to get evicted!” He threw his hands in the air. I knew he felt that my irresponsibility was partly, if not all, his fault.
“I know, I know.” I gave him some pouty lips, but I was never good at it like he was. “But, Jo Jo, all the interviewees were ho-bags.”
“Oh, for cripe’s sake, Evika.” He shook his head at me. “You probably only held like one interview, didn’t you?”
He was right. I only held one official interview. She was in a band and insisted on using the room for their practices. Big. Hell. No. The other two interviews I had set up were non-existent since I forgot about the first one up until seven hours later; I’d ignored my phone all day. And the other one I actually showed up for and went to the cafe to meet up with her, but I noticed she was sitting in Joel’s and my booth, and I just couldn’t bring myself to going up and talking to her. She looked like a very nice person, but I found it odd that she had to sit in that booth, when all the others were perfectly clean and empty.
I sighed and just shook my head at him, giving him a little smile. “It’s just hard to fill that room, Joel.”
He looked at me incredulously through the webcam. “Hmm.” He folded his arms. “I think what you mean is that it’s too hard for you to fill that void, Evika. I have a feeling this is more than just who is the perfect candidate for the room.”
He was partly right. After he said that, I realized there was a void there; and not just Joel’s absence. It was bigger than that. Bringing in another person into my life and having them “leave” was not something I wanted to go through again. My doors were shut, and I didn’t really intend on letting anyone else in.
“Oh, speaking of my twenty-first and ho-bags---” I started.
Dissatisfied, he said, “Let me guess. Brittonia and her ho-bags are taking you out?”
It didn’t shock me that he already knew. They were all more his friends than my own, but Brittonia always rubbed him the wrong way. She started becoming Miss Popular back in high school and threw Joel and me to the curb, so-to-speak. Her father’s company “took off,” and the whole family got a complete makeover. New house, new cars, new schools, new clothes, new friends, and new personalities. Could money really do that to someone? Then her mother passed away from cancer when we were in eleventh grade, and Brittonia became something else: the worst snob in history. I really tried not to see her in that way though. I really believed she was still Brit; she just needed someone to stick around as a true friend until she bounced back.
After that, I was the only one to give her a chance, but she still pushed hard to keep Joel updated on her social life and events going on with her. I don’t know. It may have had something to do with her self-fulfillment, but she needed to show that she actually had a care for someone other than herself after her family’s windfall. I would have to spend my birthday bar-hopping with Brit and the other three, arrogant bean poles, but at least I’d get out.
“Hmm.What’d she do? Call you and gloat about her plans or just send you an email?” I half-laughed.
“Both, actually. Ugh, that girl irks me to no end. You’d better watch your back tomorrow night, Evika. She is not a safe person to go out and drink with. She’ll probably attract like sixteen diseases before she even gets home!”
“Oh my gosh, Joel!” I laughed. “Give me a little credit. I know how she is, and I know her games. Besides that, I’m not depending on her what-so-ever for getting home. I’ve already figured I’m on my own once she’s on her third drink.”
“Well, I don’t care what time it is. I know it’s the weekend, and I’ll be sleeping in, but I want you to call me as soon as you get in. Got it?”
I gave him a thumbs-up and let out a huge yawn that had just been waiting to escape me. Joel and I were both in agreement that I needed to get back to sleep.
“Hey, one more thing. Did you check your mail yesterday? I checked the tracking number, and it says Ms. Makerov signed for your package,” Joel said.
My eyes narrowed. “Oh, Joel, you didn’t.”
“Didn’t what? Didn’t send my best friend a birthday gift all the way from France? Of course I did, Ev-Bear. What kind of friend would I be?”
“Joel, you hardly have enough to get by through school as it is,” I said, concerned.
“Oh, yeah, and you’re doing so much better, Miss My-Internet-is-getting-shut-off,” he huffed at me. “Don’t worry about it. It’s special and fun, but I didn’t break the bank. Just accept it and move on, Evika. From the sound of it, you wouldn’t have enough to mail it back to me anyway.” He laughed at me.
I relented and gave him a smile. “Thanks, Joel. You’re the best. I’ll visit Ms. Makerov downstairs in the morning before I head into work. She’ll be up soon, I’m sure.” Ugh, I couldn’t even think about work. I was so tired.
“Good then. I know you will love it! Oh, and I’ll let this lack-of-a-roommate thing go for now only because it’s your birthday, but this conversation isn’t over. Deal?”
“Deal,” I said unenthusiastically.
He smiled at me. “Well, Ev-Bear, never goodbye...just see ya later. Have fun with the ho-bag clan tomorrow, er, tonight. Jeez, I still get our times mixed up.”
I laughed, my eyes half closed. “See ya later, Jo Jo.”
I signed off, looked at my bed, and wanted so badly to crawl back into it, but Joel’s comment about the kitchen was haunting me, so I took the the time to bring it back to normal. About thirty minutes and fifty-seven yawns later, my kitchen was spotless and ready for my next assault. When I finally leaped onto the mattress, I’d hardly felt my head hit the pillows before I was out cold again.
The best kinds of dreams are the ones you manage to realize you are in one. You can do whatever you want. This dream was one of those. I placed myself in the anatomy room in the art center of the college I used to attend. Originally, I had just planned on doing some painting. Alone. The way I liked it, but he appeared, quietly walking in with his black, leather jacket and worn blue jeans. His wet boots were squeaking along the tiles. It must have been raining. He sat directly across from me on the other side of the room. We were alone. I looked up from my easel and caught a glimpse of his beautiful eyes, hiding behind a few pieces of wet, straggling hairs. Our eyes locked, and the florescent lighting reflected in his, showing me a breathtaking emerald color.
“Hi,” I said with a half-smile. I didn’t want to seem too inviting.
“Hello,” he said back to me, smiling at about five hundred watts.
That was that. I went back to my painting. I was happy with the way the brush just led my hand. I’d often tried to create the image in my head and was determined to produce a concrete picture. I started with the outline of the body and the wings.
I tried to ignore the footsteps, but I realized he was walking over to me. I was slightly annoyed that he’d even entered my dream. It seemed his presence was really the only part of which I had no control. His cautious walk over to me made me anxious, and I finally had to look up at him again. We looked at each other for a few moments longer until he made his way beside me. His scent was calming, fresh, like after a light, summer rain. He slid out of his leather jacket and placed it on the back of an empty chair. The charcoal t-shirt fit against his skin and looked like it had been painted on him, exposing the contour of each of his finely-tuned abs. I felt my mouth open as I saw his forearm muscle twitching while he stood clutching the chair.
“Do you mind?” he asked, nodding his chin at the chair.
“Uh, well---” The scooting of the chair cut me off as he dragged it across the floor and placed it next to me. My mouth hung open. Why did I have to be disturbed when all I wanted to do was be alone?
“I’ve really been dying to see what you come here to paint,” he said to me as he made himself comfortable.
I contorted my face and gave him a confused look. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?”
He shrugged. “Not yet. No.” He gave me his five hundred watt smile again, showing the irresistible dimples in each cheek.
I sighed heavily. Yes, he was an alluring specimen, but I was really not in the mood for company. I rarely got these kinds of dreams when I could mostly control everything. It irked me that he’d just appeared like this and distracted me. In real life, he’d stay even longer if I humored him, so I treated the dream the same way. I just turned around, faced the easel again, and continued painting while trying desperately to ignore him.
“Hmm,” he said. “So you’re not even going to ask me then, are you?”
“Ask you who you are? No, I’m not. And I’m sorry if you consider it rude, but quite frankly, I don’t care since you are only a figment of my imagination. I am in rare form tonight, and I am going to take advantage of it. If, for some reason, my mind decides to keep you in this dream, then fine, but I’m not going to let you distract me.” I dabbled my brush into some black paint.
I heard him laugh lightly. “Okay, it’s a deal.”
I stopped painting for a moment and turned. “What’s a deal?”
“I can stay here as long as I don’t distract you. It’s a deal.”
I rolled my eyes. “It wasn’t exactly a suggestion.”
“No, but I’m sure since we are in a dream, and if I were really bothering you, your imagination would have already found some device to get rid of me. Right?”
I sighed. “You have a point.” I turned back to my painting again.
“I always do.” I heard the smug smile in his voice. I didn’t let him see the smirk on my face. He was kind of cute, but I still wasn’t going ask his name.
I was done with the outline and finally started mixing the colors to make the perfect shades of green. He had been quiet for a long time, keeping up his end of the deal. I could feel him behind me, watching me the entire time. It didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would, his hovering. The silence was broken once he started asking his question.
“So this was the objective tonight,” he said declaratively. “This is the butterfly you’ve been determined to paint.”
I ignored him at first, but he’d been so good for so long, it really didn’t bother me that much that he had spoken.
“Yes. This is the butterfly I’ve been trying to paint,” I said.
“It’s quite beautiful. Very rare. You wouldn’t see something like this in nature.”
I was rather stunned that he could be so perceptive of my artwork. I was actually starting to enjoy his presence. I felt at peace with him there, so I decided to give a little explanation. It was a dream, after all, so I considered it therapy to open up. There was really no safer place to do it.
“It’s supposed to be my mother. She was killed exactly three years ago. She always told me that, after she died, she’d come back as a butterfly.” I smiled at the thought. “She told me it wouldn’t be just any butterfly, but one that I would just know it was her, like a rare or new species.” I felt the prickling in my eyes. “We’re Irish, so I always imagined the wings would have a subtle pattern representing a four-leaf clover.”
“I’m so sorry that she’s gone. If she does return, I’m sure she’d be proud to manifest as something as beautiful as the creature in your painting.”
I laid the brush down on the tray and just stared at the canvas. “It was on my eighteenth birthday when he shot her.” I felt my throat tighten, and my chest ached as the anger inside me started brewing. Remembering that day caused my fists to clench as the pain grew. Just then, the sound of thunder started rolling in, and the lightning outside flickered. It distracted me from my thoughts as we both turned to look out the windows into the dark night outside. We were quiet for a while.
“Have you seen her yet? This butterfly?” he asked me with a whisper.
I cleared my throat and wiped the streams running down my cheeks. “No. I keep looking, but I’ve never seen her. It was probably just something she said to make me feel better.” I shrugged, stood, and started packing up my things. I have no idea why; it’s not like I’d be able to take the stuff with me when I woke up.
He just looked at me with a solemn expression. “Give it time. People never know their own capabilities until they discover them. Maybe she’ll be able to visit you soon.” He rose to his feet, set the chair back into its place, and then stood to where our faces were only about a foot apart. “Keep looking.” He smiled sweetly. “You’ll find her one day.”
I looked into those emerald green eyes of his and almost believed him. I wanted to believe him, whoever he was. “Hope so.”
He didn’t move, but stood there staring into my eyes, studying me. It felt strange to me that I didn’t feel awkward. I didn’t really know what the purpose of my dreaming of him was, but I was glad he’d been there with me. The rain slowed down and the thunder rolled outside, but it sounded further away. The light boom in the distance broke our trance.
“I better get going while I can.” He half-smiled. “Don’t want that storm you caused coming back again,” he teased.
It was true. It was my dream. I created anything and everything in it. Even him.
“See ya,” I said as I watched him slide into his jacket.
“See ya,” he said, and just before he crossed the threshold to leave, he perked up his head and stopped for a moment. “Oh, Evika.”
I looked at him and my heart skipped hearing him say my name. “Yeah?”
I stared into his green eyes again and then finally remembered to breath. “Thanks,” I said. My hand lifted to give him a slight wave goodbye, but he was gone. I sat back down to admire my artwork, but found myself wishing it hadn’t been a dream, wishing I didn’t have to wake up.