Closed

Lee couldn’t open the box. It was small, the length of his index finger. The little strips of gleaming wood fit tightly together in neat stripes, and his hands looked round and awkward trying to pry open its smooth angles. Rachel was watching him, her pale eyes fixed on his face. They were icy blue in the sunlight, closed and blank. He never knew what she was thinking. The market around them was busy and loud, but his eyes were drawn to her amongst the chaos.

He handed the box to her. It fit into her small hands like it was the right size, as if they were made to go together. She put her fingers delicately on the corners and tugged, and the box slid right open. It was a little drawer with a dried flower inside, but Lee only got a glimpse of the sky-colored petals before she snapped it shut again.

When she handed the box back to him, her fingers brushed his palm. Rachel smiled into his face. He could feel the touch of her skin on his, even though her hand was no longer on his. Stop, he told himself. He was being very silly. This was the sort of thing that happened all the time. He was prone to closing his eyes when she nudged him, as if her movement shone on him like the sun on his face. He would let the warmth sink in, and then shake himself and keep on. And then tell himself he was being silly, probably, because when she touched him it didn’t look like she even noticed. Every graze or poke electrified him, but her face was always empty. Impassive.

There had been one time that he treasured, one moment of uncertainty. Lee folded his fingers around the edges of the box again and pulled, but nothing moved. Rachel was shifting now, impatient, and Lee glanced up at her and remembered that moment. They had been watching a movie, he thought, and he had looked over at her as she sat transfixed. The music onscreen was jumping and rising, and she’d turned to see him, the longing written on his face. For only a second, her expression had come undone and her eyes had opened wide, before she turned back to the screen and closed herself off to him again. For a breath, though, they had been looking clearly at one another.

Lee yanked on the box, frustrated. It wasn’t budging, and his enthusiasm was wavering. He passed the box over to Rachel again, hoping to watch how she opened it. She didn’t, though. She just placed it on the table again, between the Rubik’s cubes and the spinning tops. It looked small and innocuous there in the clutter of toys, but the light gleam of the wood still caught his eye. Rachel’s movement flashed in the corner of his vision, and he turned to follow her as she ducked back into the crowd.

He sighed at his own folly as he wove through the market, keeping his gaze on the blue of her sweater and started after her.

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The Price of Love

Ella showed up early to go to the flea market. I was still half-asleep, so it was much too early for me to think about shopping, much less true love and miracles. She was there loaded down with chunky gleaming jewelry and an irresistible smile when I opened the door, all bleary eyes and pajamas twisted into ropes around me. I waved her in, still rubbing my eyes, and motioned her to the grimy couch while I shuffled off to get clothes.

She’s always like that. Happy, bouncy, cheerful, unstoppable. I’m usually lagging behind, hanging my head and complaining that my feet hurt. It took me all of half an hour to drag on some clothes, swipe a toothbrush through my mouth, and cram a granola bar into my pocket. She practically pulled me out the door once I presented myself, an eager little cocker spaniel to my world-weary animal lover.

Sometimes – every once in a very great while – I wish that I could just stop hanging out with Ella. Quit, cold turkey. My life would be a lot quieter. A lot more boring, too, monotonous. Dull. A lot less painful, a sudden absence of the twisting feeling that made my lungs hurt when I took in a breath. Realistically I knew it wasn’t like that. Ella loved everybody the same, including me, and losing her would probably just be a new hurt. A knife pulled out doesn’t stop the bleeding; instead it gushes forth, rich and red and deadly with every second it spurts. Ella might be the knife twisting in a wound, but at least that’s stopping my insides from falling out.

It was lucky that the market was only a couple blocks from my place. I was half breathless by the time we got there even so. Ella dove right into the crowd of people exclaiming and reaching, among the old picture frames and smeary mirrors, between the cookie tins and gaudy jewelry. With a sigh, I started after her. It took me about two booths to get lost – I got distracted for one second by an old model airplane, and when I looked up again she was gone.

After another moment, I heard her voice. “Louie, where’d you go? You’ve got to see this, darling!”

I plunged in toward her calling, and found her huddled over a booth right in the middle of a row, a big sign inked in Sharpie that read, “Get your heart’s desire here!” It had a rough drawing of a blue glinting bottle with a label that read, “Heart’s DeSire!”

I raised my eyebrows and stepped closer. Ella was holding up a bottle, a purplish glass one that fit in her hand. She turned it toward me so that I could read the label: “Desire.”

“Not your heart’s, though,” I remarked. She rolled her eyes at me and shoved another at my face. “Revenge.” There was a whole clump of bottles scattered over the table. Most of them were clear crystal or glass. In the corner was a stack of boxes, folded cardboard things with masking tape labels. They read, “hatred,” “truth,” “fear.” Ella held up another bottle that had a label on it spelling out “True Love.”

I laughed. “I don’t need that one.” Ella looked at me curiously, and picked up another one without a word. It said, “forever.” I shrugged. “What do these even mean?” She shrugged back at me. We stood, side by side, reading the words on the bottles. There was Lust, FaVOr, honesty, Memory, stupidity, HUnger, Caffeine, Forgetfulnesss, adventure, quiet, Luck, Prosperity. The words were lettered in a quick, clumsy hand like a child’s. Some of them seemed a bit arbitrary, and all of them seemed very odd.

After a minute, Ella said, “What if they work?” Her voice was quiet, careful.

I scoffed. “Bottles at a flea market that can grant everlasting life? Come on.”

“I don’t see everlasting life.” She was scanning the labels again, eyes searching.

“Ella, I was kidding. Of course not. This is silly. If somebody were selling happiness at a flea market it would cost more than – ” I picked up the bottle with the amber inside like honey “twelve dollars. Happiness isn’t that sweet.”

She shrugged again. “Yeah, I guess. Even so – whatever. I guess we should leave, grab some lunch, yeah?” I nodded and she turned to leave, but not before I saw her palm a bottle and slip it into her pocket. I couldn’t see which bottle it was – I caught a flash of the sticker on the bottom, $17, and the milky green color of the liquid inside.

It settled to the bottom of the pocke t, denting the fuzzy wool of her coat just a little, and she ducked her head, hiding her face. I looked sidelong at the cluster of bottles and boxes as they grew farther away, contemplating – but only for a moment. I wouldn’t have taken one, and I didn’t even know which one I’d want. I couldn’t remember what had been there. The bottles all stood innocently, giving no hint toward the identity of the missing one. I turned, sucked in a breath, and followed Ella out.