I walk over to the shop Monday morning with plans on quitting, but Sally isn’t there. Brandon greets me, knowing how I feel without even asking me, knowing that I feel someway towards him. I tell him that I’m leaving then he says that I’m not quitting. I take my seat up front and ignore him, though he doesn’t say much to me, really, nothing at all until his break. “I’m going on break,” he says.
He confuses me. It’s like what happened that night never did, like I am the only one who remembers it. He said many things. He said I was interesting and mysterious and beautiful and stubborn...beautiful. Was that Brandon or some identical twin?
After I come back from my break, I find Brandon talking with a girl by the press. It’s the same delicate red-head from the time before. Their voices are hushed, not wanting me to hear, and I can’t tell if I’m relieved or hurt that Brandon has already forgotten about me. I should be relieved—I told him to never talk to me again and he’s listening. So I take my seat up front and let him handle the two young boys who come in, forcing him to leave the conversation with the redhead. I hear him say “I’ll see you later, okay?” Later? Why would he say what he did to me if he’s clearly with someone else? I was right then. He’s no good. I dodged a bullet then.
I smile to myself. Ha!
Brandon can’t be on my mind anyway, I have Kaden to look out for. Maybe I shouldn’t be sitting in front of the shop. Maybe I should bury myself in the back...but what if he’s only talking to this girl to make me jealous. Oh, the things I could tell him to make him jealous. The things I could wear. Oh, the things I used to wear. No wonder why I got so much attention, I was half naked all the time, all of us were. Brandon doesn’t know that girl though. It’s not worth bringing her back.
I worried everyone with the broken chair. This morning I was welcomed by my mother scolding me and asking if I was into ‘bad things’ again. I said no. She would be heartbroken if I told her that the mistake was organic. I apologized to my Aunt and struggled to tell the truth. It was new to me—not lying. It wasn’t all terrible, though. I did attend the party after all, I didn’t completely mess up. This morning I was also greeted by a purple bruise on my side, nasty and sensitive which reminded me of the bruises Hunter left on my arms.
I see girls like this red-head and dream of being them sometimes. Like Hannah, the girl who sat here before me and who I named, anyone but myself really. Even Lauren, maybe. Maybe even Marissa. Maybe the ten year-old-girl walking by my post right now with ice cream dripping onto her fingers. She licks her hand and holds onto her mother.
I dream of being that young again, to never make the mistakes I did. To start over. Everyone would kill for the chance at least once in their life.
“Emma,” Brandon calls from further in, “unbox these transfers and sort them and I’ll bring out the new clothes.”
I clench my jaw, sliding off of my seat, watching as the girl disappears down the walkway. I slip past Brandon as he carries out boxes and sets them on the counter, cutting through the masking tape with the blade of a pair of scissors. The other presses into his palm. I head to the back and stare into the already opened box, taking the sealed packets and prying them open with my nails. The first are the Hawaiian flower transfers. When I’m done it’s closing time and I leave before Brandon as he always closes up when Sally isn’t here. I glance to the seawall as I make my way down the walkway, suddenly turning and crossing the street. I lean over and look back to the shop, seeing Brandon locking the doors. Hopping over, I steadily climb down the rocks and pick up a few shells, shoving them in my small bag.
I feel them carefully between my fingers, grains of sand pressing into my skin. Every piece is broken, but I take them anyway. When I get home, I wash them off and place them one by one on the windowsill beside my past finds. The sun is preparing to set and I change my clothes, wearing my pajamas early—specifically the only matching set I have. A purple top that has tiny white hearts covering it with identical bottoms. My mother got them for me without asking.
I pass my Aunt in the living room. “Your father’s leaving tomorrow. I hope you’re staying for dinner and not going out, but telling by your outfit—”
“I’m going outside,” I say lifelessly.
“I call you in when dinners ready then.”
I leave through the front door and make my way around to the back, not wearing shoes, wanting to sink into the sand. Sitting down close to the growing waterline, I bring my knees to my chest and wrap my arms around myself, staring out. The tears come quickly. They feel as if they have no purpose, but I can’t admit to myself that they’re falling because of Brandon. That would make me stupid and hopeless and weak.
I want to be lifeless and cold and unreachable, is that so much to ask for? Why make me feel things I don’t want to feel?
‘I know you like me’... How dare he. How dare he not give me a choice. It was my choice to say it or not, not his to yank out of me and dangle in front of my eyes.
The next day Sally is in and Brandon comes in late. I avoid him while grabbing transfers and sweeping the floor of sand. I catch him looking at me a few times and I think about hitting him with the broom, shouting to let me be. On his break I watch him play volleyball and sunbathe with friends. At one point he walks into the water and cups it to his face before he’s splashed by some other guy. A splashing fight breaks out and Brandon ends up in the water, soaking wet. His clothes cling to his body and I leave my seat.
“Everything’s been going well,” Sally says as I hang out behind the counter, “you and Brandon get along, the place looks great, customers seem pleased, everything is organized, good job, Emma.”
“Thanks,” I mumble, picking up keychains from the little bowl.
“I won’t be here tomorrow but I’ll be back in Saturday for the rush. Brandon won’t be in Monday next week, do you think you can handle things alone?”
I nod. “I’m sure I can manage. Monday’s the calmest day.”
“Good to hear,” she smiles and I smile back, not wanting to but smiling anyway. After two seconds of it, it feels somewhat genuine. Sally shakes her head and lets out a soft chuckle as Brandon nears with his soaked clothes. She nods to the back room when he walks in. “Go grab something to wear.”
She tends to the press, likely turning it off due to the slow business. It’s my turn to go on break, but my bag is in the back room, so I wait outside the door. Through the crack, I see him, his back. I wonder what it would feel like to run my hands down it.
I swallow and shift away.
The next day I come in to find Brandon on time. He’s sitting up on the counter, looking down at his phone. I think about how mine is still dead and how everyone back home probably thinks I am too by now. I wonder if they’re over my death by now, if I’m already old news. It’s been almost three weeks, that seems like enough time for fake friends to grieve.
I won’t have work tomorrow or Friday, and I’m looking forward to it I think. I don’t know what else I’ll do, but I won’t have to be around Brandon. His glances torment me.
After two hours of fetching transfers and checking people out a few times, I sit behind the counter and rest my head on the cool surface, my eyes closing. I wonder if Brandon is looking at me, if he’s watching like some—
I spring to life. Standing before me is the last person I want to see, well, almost. “Austin?”
Kaden’s brother smiles his memorable, awkward, lovable smile. “Hey. Uh, Lauren told me you’re working here, so I thought I would drop by and say hello. It’s been awhile.”
I find it difficult to form words. “Yeah, um, hi. It’s been,” I stand up, “a whole year. Lauren told you I’m here?” How does she even know?
“Yeah. I saw her yesterday and she told me that you’re back. I had to see for myself.”
Austin is tall and dark-haired and agreeable to many girls in town. He’s the more sensitive brother, the one who will take Kaden’s heartbroken leftovers into his arms. Not me though. That was a different, more complicated situation. “You know,” he starts, “what happened last year—”
“Please, don’t,” I say slowly. “I don’t really want to hear it.”
Austin sighs. “I hope you can forgive us eventually. I know Kaden is still torn up over how things ended.” Lie. “He knows you’re in town. He would love to see you, Emma.”
I step back, wanting to shrink away. My hands shake so I shove them in the pockets of my jeans, not knowing how to respond.
“Austin?” I look up to see Brandon joining. “What are you doing here?” Of course he knows who Austin is. Brandon must know everyone.
“Oh, hey. I just came to see Emma.” The two look at me. “Everyone is really happy that she’s back. You’re lucky to work with this one, she can make anything fun.”
Almost over the edge, I snap into defensive mode, needing to protect myself at all costs. “Look, Austin, please don’t tell Kaden to come down here. I’m not ready to see him again, not yet.”
“Alright,” he gives me an understanding look, but it’s not real. It never is. “Hopefully sometime soon. I hope to see you around. I heard you went to Micheals Friday, you should go again this Friday. Kaden and I will be there, it’ll give you time to think.”
“Okay, well, I’ll see you around.”
My eyes stalk him out the door, turning to Brandon once he’s gone. “So it was Kaden Lane,” he amuses himself. “You never told me how popular you were, Emma.”
I know he’s just playing with me, but I’m not in the mood, not after that. “I wasn’t popular, not for the right reasons anyway... I’m going to sweep.”
The silence between us tells me that he knows something is wrong. Brandon can figure out that Austin and Kaden do not sit well with me, that there is so much that he doesn’t know.
I met Kaden for the first time when I was with Milo. Milo wanted to take me to a party, and Kaden was there with his brother. Milo knew him, they were friends through friends. We only said hello to each other before Milo whisked me away, getting me a drink and telling me to try it. I sipped with his eyes boring into mine, his hand held mine as I did it, his fingers rubbing against the back of my hand. The taste was too much, it made my face scrunch up and my lips pucker. “I don’t like it,” I said, handing it to him. He drank the rest very quickly, not fazed.
We weren’t officially together, not to the public, we never were. No one said we were dating—they suspected we were together—but there was no label on our relationship. I knew it. Milo knew it. He didn’t call me his girlfriend, but I didn’t need to hear it when he was telling me many other, more oddly satisfying things. He would always lean down to my ear and tell me little nothings that made me squirm. I knew he was serious when he would call me Emma and not Juliet. When he whispered to me he always called me Emma. He knew it hit me harder.
We left the party early and he drove me home. We had been together the entire week but he made it feel like an entire year. My family wasn’t home. My Aunt had taken my parents to her friend’s house for drinks and they wouldn’t get back until midnight. I told Milo this, so he came inside.
It was weird to have a boy in my Aunt’s house as it had memories of my childhood about. Pictures and drawings for Milo to look at. She kept them around because she never had children, she couldn’t. He looked over a picture of me at a dance recital from seven years ago that was stuck to the fridge. The lights were off, all of them but a few lamps here and there, giving a warm glow to the rather cool room. I remember it all. His fingers dragged along the counter, he set his hands flat, he looked at me across as I stood behind a counter-stool. I was wearing a jean skirt. I reached up my skirt and slid off my underwear, holding the blue thong up for him to see before dropping it to the floor.
"Emma,” he almost sang, his voice hushed, giving me a warning.
I reached for the bottom of my shirt, he came around quick, stopping my ready hands from pulling it up. His eyes flashed up from my hands to my face, and I said, “I’m going into my bedroom. You can follow me or, well, you know where the door is.”
I was sixteen, drunk with control as he was, ready for something I knew nothing about, naive, and bleeding adolescence. He followed me. That’s when I lost my virginity. Every detail is burnt into my mind and I will never forget it. I acted as if I knew everything but Milo knew I knew nothing. He showed hesitation, that I’ll never forget either.
He left afterward and my parents came home ten minutes later. I laid in my bed and cried, naked. I was fine until he left. I was beaming until I heard his car start and drive off.