The Prince of Crabbiness is actually... fun.
His and Anna’s exchange was a thing to behold. I bit my lip so hard, trying not to laugh. Hilarious.
Philip was super nice about me almost breaking his nose. Twice. He even took me home when the rain started, sheltered me from it as we ran to the parking lot, which he didn’t have to but was very sweet of him. But what stuck with me, what played on a loop in my head… his smile. I didn’t think he used those facial muscles much, but boy, when he did… I might have lost a few brain cells, or they just fainted like women at Elvis Presley concert.
His entire face transformed, lines of it softening, adorable crinkles forming in the corner of his green eyes. A whole different person. And that smile… a breath hitching perfection, which I now perceived as a most beautiful smile I ever bore witness to.
We connected, I thought. I really had fun talking to him.
The next day at school, I said hello. He grunted and left somewhere in a hurry. And that kept repeating over the course of two weeks.
Ok, so, I didn’t think we were best buds or that we’ll braid each-others hair, hold hands and skip into the sunset, while ‘You got a friend in me’ played in the background, but I figured at the very least we became more friendly, right? Apparently not. He regressed to his natural state, a grump.
He hasn’t stopped by at Anna’s either. Though, I swear I could feel his eyes on me in school, and caught a few glimpses of his form in the hallways.
Half an hour before closing time at the bookstore, I decided to clean the brewing station and do a bit of tidying up in Anna’s office. I closed the register, wiped down the countertop and reorganized it, took out the trash, proceeding to the office.
Hands on my hips, I looked around the small space, taking a deep breath. Yep, it needed to be aired out, the smell of tobacco in there was overwhelming.
Choosing a playlist on my phone, I started moving about, singing along to the song playing.
I opened the window, fluffed the pillows on an old green sofa, rearranged the magazines strewn atop the coffee table, covered in fine dust. So, I took a damp rag, wiping it, deciding it would be a good idea to clean the bookshelves too. Methodically, I wiped from bottom to top, removing small figurines on some shelves as I worked in that area. I came to a halt as I reached a framed photo.
I immediately recognized Anna, though younger, and the style she sported completely different. Her hair was black, in an up-do with a beige scarf over it. She wore a vintage leopard print dress and had a huge smile on her face as she squeezed a tall, lean man, to her side, who I presumed must have been her late husband. His features were gentle, blue eyes kind. Looking at the couple, I got an impression that they were like a breeze and fire. One mild and soothing and the other roaring and blazing. But they still meshed perfectly together. I smiled, looking at their blissful faces, and my eyes slid to the figure next to the man.
A young woman. Average height, slender, black hair cascading over her shoulders, piercing blue eyes framed by thick lashes. She was gorgeous. Her smile seemed familiar, and it wasn’t till I looked at the child standing in front of her, her hands resting on his shoulders, that I registered where I’ve seen it before.
Messy dark hair, wide toothless smile and adorable crinkles at the corner of his eyes.
Oh, my god! This was Philip! I grinned wide, looking at his tiny smiling face. He was so adorable. How old was he here, five? Six maybe? He was so small, scrawny, a complete contrast to the giant I met. And he looked… well, he looked happy. Carefree as a child should. Where did that go away? The guy usually brooded and scowled. So what happened?
I was so immersed in my thoughts, tracing my fingers over the photo, when a familiar voice spoke. “What are you doing?” I jolted, my heart leaping in my throat as I turned my head towards the source. And in my fright I smacked the photo, sending it and a small clay tray resting on the frame, tumbling down to the floor with a resounding crack.
Philip was standing in the door frame, his already thunderous expression turning even darker as he looked at the pieces of broken clay and glass on the floor. His eyes turned to me and I swear they flashed vibrant green for a moment, or maybe he was just that furious I fudged up.
“Sorry! You scared the shit out of me!” My hand flew to my chest, rubbing as if to soothe the rapid beating of my heart.
“Jeez, I’m a freaking disaster! I’m so sorry!” I proclaimed as I crouched to pick up the broken pieces. Sweet baby Jesus of Nazareth! Could a day pass that I don’t make a blunder? I’m a bull in a china shop incarnate.
I carefully assessed the damage I had made. The frame of the photo survived the fall, intact, but the glass wasn’t so lucky. It completely shattered. I looked at the cracked tiny clay tray. It was the size of my palm, completely unremarkable, except for some squiggly looking letters, its shape uneven, like unskilled hands made it. And now it lay cracked into five bigger pieces and a dozen small ones, courtesy of yours truly. How the hell was I supposed to compensate for breaking my bosses precious stuff? I took in a shuddering breath. Guilt bubbled in the pit of my stomach.
As I piled the broken pieces in my palm, a shadow fell over me. And in the next moment, my hand was yanked back with a little too much force. “Don’t touch it! You already did enough damage. Get out!” Philip gritted out, releasing my hand with an expression of both pain and fury, but the fury was more prominent.
I shivered at his tone, then flinched at a sharp, stabbing pain in my left hand. The small shard I held in it before he yanked it dug into my skin, cutting me. The piece of glass jutted out the base of my ring finger as a small trail of blood leaked down my palm. I pried it out with my fingernail, grimacing at the pain, and more blood gushed out of the wound.
“Fuck!” I heard Philip yell as he pulled a bleeding hand to his chest, dropping a big shard of glass. “Why is this shit so fucking sharp?!” he yelled. I wanted to point at the obvious, but held my tongue.
“Let me help clean it…” I started, voice trembling, but all I got was a death glare.
“Out.” his voice dropped lower. He practically growled the word, leaving no more room for argument. Strangely enough, his behavior hurt me, even though I was the one that broke someone’s property.
Stumbling to my feet, I gave him a wide berth as I walked to the door. I could still hear him grumbling and cussing as I shoved my homework in my backpack at the counter. Then I just stood there for a few moments, hesitant to leave. It was my mess to clean. The guilt was pressing hard on me, though I couldn’t muster enough courage to go back into the room. So I shuffled my feet in place before sighing in defeat.
Picking up my backpack, I started for the front door when a sudden searing pain in my hand stopped me in my tracks. I looked at my palm, but my vision blurred. All I saw was red, and more red, like a never ending river just flowing out. A glimpse of something golden flickered at the base of my ring finger and wrapped itself around it. My head swam, and I swayed on my feet. I tried to call out, but my mouth refused to work. So on wobbly feet I dragged myself back, bracing my forearms on the counter, squeezing my eyes shut to ward off the vertigo. But it only made it worse.
Ears ringing, the world shifted, and I was falling. A dull pain bloomed as my head hit a hard surface. Then everything turned dark.
I was annoyed.
Sure, nothing new. But the source of my annoyance wasn’t that my sperm donor almost blew up my phone, or that Vera was pressuring me for the next fight.
It came in a form of a pint-sized, brown-haired, hazel eyed human. I kept my distance, barely acknowledging her existence. So, that should have been it, right? WRONG.
I saw her everywhere. The only place I didn’t run into her was the bathroom. That freak radar I developed just worked the hell out of its juju. My legs carried me a few times towards the bookstore on the days she was working, but I caught myself and bee-lined it to the forest instead, taking a good long run. She was constantly on my mind; It was driving me crazy. What was a head case like me supposed to do?
Watch her, of course. Again. For a few days, I tried to look for any little thing that seemed to point out that something wasn’t right with her. She must have done something to me, for me to obsess, right? Ipso facto my investigation was absolutely warranted. I kept referring to it as investigation, not stalking, made me feel better about myself.
And what I learned…. was nothing. Well, not really. But it was a bunch of useless information. Like who cared if red was her favorite color?! Or that she liked to drink chocolate milk at lunch, like she was three years old?! Certainly not me and I most definitely didn’t find any of that charming! But nothing pointed me to a reason how was she bewitching me.
I concluded the problem was me, not her, and I didn’t like it one bit. It would be easier if she were the issue.
It was evening, close to closing time, when I found myself in front of Anna’s bookstore. The lights were still on, but no customers were in, and there was music playing. I saw her emerge from Anna’s office, taking a rag, dampening it. Her head bobbed up and down as she sang along to a song playing in the background, her shoulders and arms moving, missing the rhythm completely. She was so immersed in her task and whatever was playing out in her head.
A smile split my face. My whole body relaxed, the sound of her voice almost a caress. Strange. I wasn’t even aware that I was tense.
When she returned to the office, I was about to leave, but stopped myself. Why was I creeping on the girl instead of talking to her again? Because I was a dumb shit, that’s why. Suddenly sprouting balls, I went in.
I found her looking at the photo in Anna’s office, tracing fingers over it, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. Something flipped in my chest at that, and I hated it. “What are you doing?” My voice was harsher than I intended for it to be. She startled, and I watched in horror as the photo and the sahu fell and smashed on the floor.
She... she fucking broke it. She broke the ceremonial tray…. the last thing I….
My heart dropped, then sped up, and I balled my hands into fists. Holding on a thread of control, I was livid, devastated. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t on purpose, that it was an accident. That sahu was the last thing my mother and I made before she... passed. It was precious, invaluable. The only reason it wasn’t in my home… It hurt too much to look at it every day. Seeing it broken on the floor cracked something in me.
Tara crouched down to pick up the pieces, and I lost it. I yanked her hand away roughly, but she had no right to touch it. “Don’t touch it! You’ve done enough damage already! Get out!” I seethed. She shivered, her eyes wide as her pulse sped up, then she flinched. Blood. She hurt herself, but I couldn’t bring myself to care at that moment. I didn’t care that I was terrifying her or that her eyes and expression showed my harsh tone hurt her.
Picking a hefty piece of glass in my state, I fumbled with it, cutting the palm of my right hand. Blood gushed out, falling over the mess on the floor as I cursed the damn thing. I was only half aware that Tara got up and went out.
The wound being shallow, healed immediately, and I got back to picking things up. Looking at the broken sahu, my chest tightened. Taking one piece, I cradled it between my fingers. They were shaking, my thumb skimmed over the uneven surface.
My throat closed up. I couldn’t swallow a boulder lodged in it, and my eyes stung.
“We are finally going to be a family, honey. The three of us,” I remembered my mother say, her smile wide, radiant. That was her biggest desire. A family. This clay sahu, a promise of a bonding ceremony, she never got to complete. Instead, she got her heart broken, just like this thing. She always waited for him... and waited till she drew her last breath. I could never understand that. I don’t think I ever will, nor do I want to.
Pain flared in my chest, mingling with deep-seated rage. I took a deep breath to calm myself, but choked down on a sob.
A drop fell on the hand holding the broken piece. Why was I crying now? I haven’t ever since the funeral. So, why…?
I fucking missed her…
Pressing the heels of my palms to my eyes, I silently wept.
Moments passed, tears dried up as I took more calming breaths. I wrapped my grief back up and buried it as I always did, regaining my composure.
A loud thud snapped me back to present.
What the fuck was that?
Tara should be out by now. I got up, wiping my face with the back of my hands, stepping out of the office. At first glance, I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Tara’s scent lingered in the room, but no fresh scents were present. Then I saw a mass of wavy brown hair spread out on the ground.
I smelled blood.
Heart pounding, I rounded the counter in two steps.
She was lying on her side, face pale, a bloody palm lying next to it. Fuck, I forgot she got hurt. But that wasn’t a wound to make you lose consciousness. It was small. There wasn’t much blood there, either.
What was wrong with her?
Quickly, I lowered myself and checked her breathing and her pulse. It was alright. Thank fuck. I released the breath I didn’t even know I was holding, my heart buzzing like an angry wasp in my ears. Lightly tapping her on the cheek, I called for her, but she produced no sound and didn’t open her eyes. My palms were sweaty, panic brewing inside me.
I placed one hand under her head and the other behind her knees as I picked her up. Did this girl even eat properly? I took her back to the office, laying her down on the sofa, and propping her head on a pillow. Brushing her hair away from her face, she stirred, but did not wake, and I noticed a slight sheen of sweat on her brow. I checked for fever, placing a palm on her forehead. There was none.
Then I noticed a small gash hidden in her hairline.
Did she hit the counter on her way down?
Now, I was full on panicking. Head wounds could be bad. I should call Lola, someone... No, I should take her to the hospital. Just as I reached for her to get her in my car and to the hospital, she stirred again; her face contorting, a painful moan leaving her lips. Her hands raked the shirt at her chest, whimpering, body twisting as tremors racked her slight frame.
My blood ran cold, breath caught in my lungs.
No, no, no. You’re ok. You’re going to be ok. Please be ok.