Chapter 1: lost stars
about four years, two months and three hours after their last encounter.
"Babe, there’s something lonesome about you. Something so wholesome about you.” Hozier
Zoey Willow Hunter, recently turned 21
THERE had always been something magical about London in the beginning of the fall. Rain put its effort to fall harder, washing away the city’s remains of summer. The sun visited less and less, letting the dark grey clouds shine in their glory. Always a pluviophile, I preferred to walk in the rain than in the absence of it.
The woman standing in front of me, holding the Je Suis painting that took me 48 hours to complete. She offered a generous smile that reminded me why I opened this place. “That’ll be 20 pounds and 50p,” I said.
“Here you go,” she said, giving me the money. She patted my hand, “you’re doing great with this place, love. This won’t be the last time I come here.”
“Thank you,” I grinned. My heart felt a little lighter; comments like this made my day a little brighter than the weather outside was.
My eyes went through the shop another time, taking in the moment. It was clean and in order, but with a hint of messiness that attracted customers. The paintings belonging to me were on the right side of the shop, all hung up and fitting in. Rectangle, thin canvases that were less prone to success were hung on the ground, near that very wall. For every sold painting; I made another one.
On the left side were the antique vintage-like pieces. There were vases, cups, plates and boxes for the homely aspect. And in another corner were the bracelets, necklaces and general jewelry that my co-worker was a professional at. My favorite part was the hung up outfits, it took Jessie four days to convince me to put them up.
Speaking of, the woman herself was shuffling around in the back of the store. I rushed inside, afraid that she had broken anything. She smiled; “Zoey, I didn’t break anything. Quit getting your knickers in a twist.” A heavy painting hung from her arms.
I took the painting from her and set it on the lower shelves, “Yeah, well, my Paris painting says otherwise, Jess.”
There was one reason to why I never let her handle anything I’d ever made: Jessie Curtis was possibly the clumsiest person I’d ever known, aside for myself. She blew a strand of the plum colored curl out of her face and grumbled in annoyance. Swaying her round hips, she turned to me and blew me a kiss: “Your Paris painting can kiss my beautiful arse.”
“You know, if you talked less about your ass, maybe we’d have more customers,” I told her. She sat on a stool at the cash register, checking her Tumblr on the store laptop.
Jessie looked up for a moment, her bright, ever so smiling flowing with warmth, “babe, people come in here because of my arse.”
“Of course,” I laughed. I walked to the jewelry section and replaced the bracelets, putting them in place.
The store bell rung. A group of girls and an older boy went in. The girls didn’t seem older than fifteen, and the boy looked like he wanted to strangle each and every one of them. Their voices loaded the silence and I headed to the girls.
“Welcome to Elisa, are you looking for anything in particular?” I asked, smiling widely.
Elisa was the antique and art store that Jess and I owned. It took two years of art school, a year teaching kids how to draw in middle school and another year finishing up all the paperwork and dealing with the dilemmas that came along with it, mainly convincing my boyfriend that this was a good idea.
A short, blonde one nodded. She seemed like the boss in the group, “I’m looking for a cute necklace. I heard you make them really well. My friends might get some too, if I like them.”
“Jessie, over there, makes them. They’re in this side. If you have any questions, come ask me!” I said. The teenagers hobbled excitedly to said part of the store. I walked to the boy.
He was taller than I was, but my heels already gave me the advantage of not having to look up to him. A lip piercing caught my eye, but he rolled his eyes upon seeing me. His hair was tied up in a bun, from what I could see, it was pitch-black.
“Are you looking for anything?” I questioned him.
He shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck. “Do you know how to shut up fourteen year old girls?”
“Ice cream,” I said without hesitation. “And letting them loose in a mall.”
We stood before my paintings, his eyes analyzed them curiously. I looked over to Jessie, who made a motion of winking and swinging her tongue around. I gave her a glare that read cut-it-out-horny-pants and turned to the customer.
“These are cool,” he mumbled. “I like this one.”
He pointed to one of my personal favorites. It was a black hole, surrounded by stars and constellations. His eyes dropped to the price and he nodded, “I want this one. Me mum’s birthday’s comin’ up.” He lifted the painting and gave me a nod, “yours?”
I thought of the day I painted this; I drove to the park in Silvercrest, sat on the grass and drew the sky out of boredom. Soon, it evolved into this. And now this boy would give this as a present to his mom.
“Yeah. You can ask Jessie,” I ushered to my friend, “for her to wrap the painting up and give you a card. It’ll be ten extra pence.”
“Alright.” And that was that. The painting was gone.
Sometimes it was difficult, letting go of my paintings. Every one of them held a small piece of my heart. I worked on them and poured my heart to them. Each one of them had a story of their own, a baggage that only I knew about. The comfort came to me from the idea that people would have them in their homes or show them to others. The painting’s story got buried with the painter: me.
More people came in that day, taking home paintings and different objects. Jessie’s jewelry was a big success; they were simple and aesthetically breathtaking. She had a sailor’s mouth but a delicate human’s hands. Being my mom’s friend’s daughter, she was the one who encouraged me to move and open my store here. She soon became one of my best friends, our art being one of our biggest bonds.
Lunch hour rolled around and Jessie was the one to close the store. We went out to a subway shop close by. Jessie blabbed about how amazingly fantastic her sandwich was.
She wrapped her curls up and grimaced, “I feel like I’m wearing an animal on my head.”
“Your hair rocks,” I took a sip of my smoothie, “I wish mine was as cool.”
“Yeh, but it’s like a mess, ya know? It takes me five hundred hours to wash it,” she pondered. And her skin reminded me of the color of cappuccino, “I could be designing stuff, you feel?”
“I feel,” I chuckled. “You’ve been spending too much time on Tumblr.”
“There’s no such thing as too much time on Tumblr,” she said, dismissing my words with a wave of her hand. Her handmade thick sweater shielded her from the cold. It was oversized; reached her knees. But she refused to call it a dress.
“Are we still going out tonight?” Jessie pressed.
I shrugged, “still? When were we supposed to go out?”
“You’re 21. I’m 26. We’re not supposed to stay home on Fridays.”
“You go. I prefer taking a hot shower, staying in bed and watching Friends.”
She pressed her lips into a thin line, “if you don’t go out for drinks with me tonight, I’m kicking your little arse out of the flat.”
“Rent’s divided in two. I don’t owe you anything,” I winked. “But seriously, I just want to stay home.”
“Please? Next Friday we’ll stay in. Besides, my mates have been dying to meet you. I’ve spoken very highly of you to them.”
“I don’t drink and you know it.”
“You’ll have water, then. C’mon, please?”
“Fine,” I blurted, just because she was a persistent, hot headed woman who wouldn’t have let me stay home even if I wanted to.
I checked my phone for the fourth time, waiting for him to call. Jessie rolled her eyes, “just call him yourself instead of drooling all over your shit.”
“No. The fare’s too high. Plus, I don’t know if he’s back from classes yet.”
And as if the universe was agreeing with me for the first time in ages, my phone buzzed frantically; emitting his ringtone, the instrumental version of the ancient Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars. The amount of times we had danced together like crazy freaks to this song were uncountable.
“Answer!” pressed Jessie.
I did, clearing my voice. “Hey.”
“Hi,” his voice felt like the home I left behind. It warmed my stomach and made my hands tap on the table in agitation.
“Why’d you call? I thought your phone service got suspended ’cause you called me too many times and forgot to pay the bill.”
He laughed, “I got it back. You cannot believe how easy it is to convince a woman to give me a great deal. I can call you for free now.”
“Did you flirt?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Uh, a little? But that’s the only way I could hear your voice more and more, babe. You have no reason to be even a little jealous,” he assured. I could imagine him, lips pulled up in a small smile, playing with the tips of his curls. “You know how much I fucking love you. How’s the store?”
I smiled like a lovesick idiot, “Good. The sales are so good. Everything’s going so fast. I wish you could see this, James.”
“And I wish I could kiss you right now, but that’ll happen soon enough. Joel might beat me up if I keep talking like this in front of him. Skype tonight?”
“Course,” I said. “Jessie says hi.”
“Wait, Diana wants to say hi.” I heard moving around in the background and protests.
“DIANA!” I shouted, equally as loud.
People in the shop gave me dismayed looks, while Jessie told them to shoo. She cussed at them loudly, making the kids along give her wide-eyed looks.
“I miss your butt, man.”
“I do too. How’s Joel?”
“Same old, same old. Tell your boyfriend to stop talking about you all the time. It makes me wanna puke.”
“Then puke,” I laughed, “no one cares.”
“Once a bitch, always a bitch,” grumbled Diana. “Love you. I’ll text you later, okay? James wants to talk to you again.”
“Love you too.”
James was back on, “I forgot. I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“You’ve been in London for what, four months now, right?”
“And you’re working until eight today, right?”
“What’s going on, James?”
“Thank God you’re overseas,” he sighed dramatically, “I told Nico to go check out your store.”
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
The main subject of our first fight was his friendship with Nico. After the bastard came back here, he called James. He apologized to him and claimed that even if he and I didn’t exist anymore, he didn’t want to lose James.
This was two years after he left and even if James and I weren’t together back then, James forgave him. They were friends; having phone calls at least once a month for the past two years. I never talked to him ever since the unfortunate day at the airport, four years ago.
And it was best for me.
The change in my demeanor made me squeeze the plastic cup in my hands. Jessie grabbed it, scared that I might make a hole in the cup and let loose the smoothie. “Why in the world would you do that?”
“Because it’ll be good for you. He’ll just check out the store. And say hi. That’s all, those are the rules I made with him. He won’t kill you, I promise.”
It always astounded me how much James had faith in people. He made a deal with the devil himself to come see my store. In that moment, I regretted having the store here. But I had no other choice, it was the city I understood the language best in and where I had family. My aunt, cousins and Jessie all lived here. I couldn’t leave home to a complete stranger country, after all.
“James, come on. I don’t want to.”
“It’ll be good for you, Zoey. Trust me.”
“Can’t you call and cancel? I really don’t—”
“I love you, don’t forget that.”
I stayed silent, my heart opening up to the sound of him saying that. He added: “please don’t be mad.”
“I’m not. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
“Okay. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
Jessie pursed her lips and bobbed her head to the phone that was now on the table. I glared at her, forcing myself to keep the annoyance and anger that came along with the idea of ever knowing him off Jessie.
“What happened?” she asked.
I pushed the plate of chicken salad away; appetite long gone. “Remember the guy I told you about?”
“James?” she raised an eyebrow, “you got to be more precise. I’m confused.”
“Nico,” I gritted through my teeth.
Her dark red lips formed an ‘oh’ and she stabbed her food, “ah.”
“He’s paying the store a little visit,” I said. I was already thinking of ways to avoid this whole situation. “We’ll close early then.”
“No,” Jessie’s tone was firm. “Don’t be a coward. I’ve never known you to be a coward.”
“I am not going to see him. I refuse it.”
Jessie put a hand on the back of her head, resting her arm on the table. She wore her famous I’m-right-and-you’re-not look. “And you’ll lie to James? That’s your solution? You’ll avoid this guy and get James annoyed? James and Nico are friends, Zoey. You’ll have to get over it sooner or later.”
I successfully avoided him for the past four years of my life. He called twice and left messages, but I deleted them both. Erasing him from my life was the easiest thing I’d ever done.
“Get your shit together,” said Jessie, arched eyebrows pulling together. “Do you want to risk getting James upset? And what, a month before your anniversary?”
She hit the right spot and she knew it.
“No. Of course not.”
“That’s what I thought too,” Jessie smiled. Her pearly whites were blinding, but seeing her smile made my life better. She was the bee’s knees. “Let’s go back to our baby.”
I dropped three pounds on the table, “can you pay, please? I got to pee.”
“Thanks, Zoey, for that valuable information. In this moment, all I’ve ever wanted to know was the fact that precious urine will be coming out of your—”
I stuffed a piece of chicken in her mouth, shutting her up. She crinkled her nose and chewed. In the meantime, I took that as an opportunity to escape in the bathroom.
I’m going to see him again. Even if I don’t want to. I’m not doing this for anyone. I’m doing this because I love James. I can’t close the store. But, I can not be present when Nico arrives. Yes.I thought. Yes. Smart plan. When he comes in, I’ll hide, because the owner of the shop punching a potential customer will give the store a bad reputation. I think.
Done with my business, I mentally applauded the shop for having such a clean bathroom. Normally, small restaurants like this had hell holes as bathrooms. I washed my hands carefully, taking a second to look at myself in the mirror.
I am not who I used to be, I thought. I’m not a naïve sixteen year old. I’m a strong, independent and powerful twenty year old woman living in London, England and co-owning an antique and art store.
Tucking in a loose strand of the carmine colored short hair I now sported, I blinked in the mirror. I was different and I knew it. My jeans were looser. My hair was much shorter; I chopped off a few inches two years ago. James liked to braid it, no matter how long it was. I absently touched my hair, smiling at the memory of me waking up to have him make little braids out of my hair.
Nico’s visit wouldn’t ruin anything. I built up a life and happiness without him. He broke my heart and I fixed it. James helped. Everyone did, really. I was better off without him.
I was happy; for once.
“Thank you for shopping at Elisa, have a wonderful night,” I bid farewell to another customer. Business got slower after 6, everyone was at home by now.
I studied the glass windows; there was still no sign of the devil himself. There were ten minutes until the store would close, so I should start cleaning up the place.
“Jess? Would you handle the cash, please? I’ll start cleaning up,” I cried out to her. She hummed an old Little Mix song, one ear phone hanging from her shirt and obliged.
I walked in the back section of the store, where there was a small atelier for impromptu art; filling up half of the place. A part of it was Jessie’s station for designing dresses and jewelry. The other part was all mine, blank canvases piled up. The set of paintbrushes and paint was beside my stool.
I restrained myself from wasting any time painting, I would do that later. Grabbing the broom, I began sweeping up the store, careful to trap every dust bunny. I thought about how I had once read that dust bunnies were de facto the debris of the stars. And I thought about Nico.
If I hadn’t spoken to him in four years, I didn’t understand why he would be interested in seeing me. He was the one who didn’t love me, who broke my heart and left. Perhaps now I understood why he left, but I didn’t comprehend how easy it was for him to hurt me in the ways that he did.
But aside from when James mentioned him, he never crossed my mind. For two months after his departure; I was in a slump. I was angry and sad, all whirl winding into a big storm in my being. I was at my worst; distancing myself from my friends and family. I would get angry for the smallest things; I would get upset at Julia for waking me up for no reason. (She called me every weekend or vice-versa, I missed her too much to believe that I wouldn’t see her every morning.)
Jessie seemed to enjoy having the control over the music playing in the store, because I heard a recent All Time Low song blasting softly from the store speakers. The sound of the song brought back bad memories that I had buried long ago. Hearing All Time Low songs made my hands shake, which I never understood. I set the broom down and said: “Change the song, please.”
“Why?” Jessie moved her head along to the music.
“Because I don’t like it. Please,” I replied.
A customer walked in, ringing the automatic door bell. He had his hands stuffed in his pockets, gum being chewed in his mouth and a decent fashion sense. He walked to Jessie, who perked up.
“Cool store,” I heard him say.
I quickly headed to the back of the store and threw away all the dirt of the day. I grabbed a nearby piece of cloth to tidy up all the pieces of art. At the same time, I needed to be close by Jessie, because she flirted with customers way too often.
They were chatting quietly, her eyes widened at the mention of something. I tried not to over hear, I didn’t want to invade whatever conversation they were having. Instead, I stuck to the job of adjusting the necklaces and bracelets, so that they coordinate with the rings and hair ties.
Someone tapped my shoulder. I turned to another customer, this time a tall, middle aged woman. Her smile was sincere and genuine, plump red cheeks giving her the aura of a kind woman. The boy was still talking to Jessie, I’d have to talk to her again about ignoring customers for her favorites.
“Hi, welcome to Elisa. Did you have anything in mind?” I told her.
She nodded, “there’s a painting that reminds me of someone.” She guided me to the one that caught her eye.
My stomach dropped at the sight of it. This wasn’t supposed to be here. Jessie must have put it up by accident. This wasn’t meant to be sold, it never was.
FOREST was the name of the painting. It was a rather old one. A forest caught in fire, the leaves an branches crackling with flames and the heat. There was a boy touching the flames, finger barely even grazing them. Flowers wilted and fell progressively to the ground, nothing but burnt ashes.
“U—uh, this isn’t meant for sale. I’m so sorry, ma’am,” I removed the canvas from the wall, clutching it close to my chest.
The woman frowned, “alright then. Thanks for nothing.”
And she walked out, leaving me heart stricken with the painting. I laid it out back, leaving it there. I went to Jess, who was still chatting up the boy.
He was handsome indeed. Exotic looking features, bright green eyes that held a child’s tomfoolery. Full pink lips, that were pulled into a half smile. “Hello.”
“I’m sorry sir, we are closing up. If you’d like anything, please refer to Jessie or me. If not, well, as I said, we’re closing up.”
Jessie pinched my arm and I stepped on her foot. Grief took over her features and she forced a smile for the attractive stranger. “Right.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, offering his hand. “I’m Adrian. Your lovely friend Jessie was just telling me about how wonderful she finds working with you to be.”
I shook his hand, “pleasure. I’m—”
“Zoey Hunter,” he completed. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“O—kay?” freaked out, I turned to Jessie, who was still looking at the guy with big, adoring eyes. “From whom?”
“My mate, he’s supposed to meet me here. Or actually, the other way around,” his smile stretched, “he did say you were beautiful. But now I get that that’s a big understatement.”
Jessie glowered at him, “do you go around flirting with every bloody girl you meet?”
“Oh, no. I don’t flirt. I say the truth. And Jessie, honestly, compliments aren’t always flirting. But I would be lying if I said I knew what I was saying around you. You’re so beautiful, kind of make me mess up every word I’m saying.”
“Are you high on something?” She said.
“No,” answered Adrian. “I’m high on you.”
I wanted to laugh. She scoffed, “okay.”
“Okay. I’ll call you, alright?” he looked at Jessie. My eyes went to the store card in his hands. Said-girl flipped him the bird. I rolled my eyes, watching him stroll out.
Jessie was already in the storage room, moved on from the situation. She held up the FOREST painting, demanding an explanation. I shook my finger at her, “No. Not this one.”
“It’s beautiful, Zoey. Please.”
It was one of my favorites, but it brought back too many painful memories. But I had to think of the best for the store, I was struggling enough to pay all the bills. I grabbed the painting from Jessie unwillingly and put it up once more, watching it fit perfectly in the spot it was.
And I must’ve missed the sound of the store bell ringing, because a shadow peered over my shoulder. My heart palpitated uncomfortably in my chest and I closed my eyes, opened them once more. This felt like a nightmare.
I turned and saw the boy who once upon a time broke my heart.
He was still taller than I was. His hair was longer, falling into his eyes. But that didn’t stop me from seeing them. Evergreen, peering into me like I was a surprise. Hands in the pockets of a short coat, his mouth was open just a tad in shock.
All the anger and fury that had piled up against him for the past four years was pumping adrenaline in my entire body. My heart beat was a loud drum in my ears.
“Nico Forrest. Welcome to Elisa."