Authors Note: This is the short story I wrote for my final semester in undergrad. I figure I should put a warning on it for some violent content and language. It’s a realistic fiction story about two old friends attempting to reconnect after six years apart.
This is an original work. I reserve all rights to this story.
The bead curtain parted and Monica Tate stepped into my office. The last time we’d seen each other was six years before, on the day she became Mrs. Jack Whitaker and started packing for North Carolina. On that day, I would bitterly tell my family when they asked what happened, Monica made a choice: It was me – her best friend – or Jack.
She chose Jack.
I recognized her immediately as she pushed the curtain aside, although six years had changed her. But they changed me too, and I thought she might not recognize me anymore. The last time Monica saw me, I had a minimalist’s wardrobe and my hair was a rich shade of pure brown and cut to my chin.
Now my hair was well past my shoulders and at the young age of twenty six I already had a white streak in my hair. I piled on the eyeliner and the dark lipstick, traded in the plain-white-tees for what my mom called “witch clothing.” My sleeves flowed and every step I took was accompanied by the tinkling of bangles.
The look was part of the job, a uniform of sorts. In reality I still favored jeans and t-shirts. The clanking jewelry sliding up and down my forearms drove me nuts.
I applied to The Crystal Emporium when I was twenty three for a simple cashier job, something to help me pay off student loans until I found something I could do with a degree in Gender Studies. The shop-owner was a sixty-something Baby Boomer who never outgrew her hippie phase and insisted everyone call her Willow even though, when we went out for drinks once, I saw that her ID said her name was Linda. She thought I was perfect for a new feature she wanted to add to her shop: Fortune-telling.
Did I believe in psychic powers? If I did, I didn’t think that I had any. But I was offered my own office in the back of the shop and a tip jar on top of my salary. And I’d acted enough throughout school to know how to put on a show. So I took the job. As we shook hands, “Willow” unofficially changed my name from Amy to Morrigan, because it sounded more fey.
“Hello, Amy,” said Monica. “Surprised? Your mom told me you work here. She didn’t block me on Facebook.”
If I ever saw Monica again, it was supposed to be at a bar where I’d run into her, and she’d tell me as her drunken tears dripped into her glass of hard liquor that she was divorced and lonely and regretted ever leaving Buffalo in the first place, and could we please be friends again? Or she would show up on my doorstep in the pouring rain, suitcase in hand, fresh off the plane, and too ashamed to tell her parents yet that she was getting divorced, that she was throwing away all that hard-earned money they’d spent on her ludicrously expensive Vera Wang wedding gown, so could she please crash at my place until she mustered up the guts to call them? Or (and this was my favorite scenario) she’d call me over the safe distance of the telephone late one night, after she found an old photograph of us back in her parents’ house, where she would’ve moved in again as she went through the divorce process, and now she was all nostalgic and could I please come over so we could marathon Sex and the City like we used to? And by the way, I was right, Jack was an awful husband and she never should’ve married him.
And I would say “I told you so,” even though I never really did tell her so, I only thought so, to myself.
But instead Monica was at my place of work, with nothing but a bead curtain giving us any privacy. And she wasn’t crying; she was smiling. My boss was in the next room, and if she heard me speaking as Amy instead of Morrigan, she’d take it out of my paycheck – or worse. I wasn’t supposed to give readings to people I knew personally. No family, no friends, not even just for fun, at least not in the shop. If other customers saw me chatting with loved ones, it ruined Morrigan’s air of otherworldly mystery. I became a normal girl with a normal life; the illusion was shattered and customers would know I was not an all-powerful goddess-incarnate with the gift of foresight, but merely one of them.
Had my mother told Monica about the “no friends or family” rule, I wondered, when they spoke online?
“Please, call me Morrigan,” I said to Monica. Morrigan had an accent, a weird blend of Spanish and Italian and sometimes Russian. Accents just weren’t my strong suit. Then, more quietly so Willow wouldn’t hear, I added in my regular Buffalo accent, “This isn’t the best time, Monica. It’s good to see you and all, but I have to stay in character.”
“Uh-huh.” Monica sucked at the inside of her cheek, narrowed her eyes. “Sure.”
And then she dropped into the chair across the table.
“Oh” was all I said.
She glanced around the room, taking in the candles, the heavy maroon curtains, the thick Oriental rug, the stacks of “spell-books.” Her nose wrinkled as she noticed the incense burner. Monica had always been a proud agnostic and she clearly hadn’t grown any fonder of the occult or the metaphysical in our time apart. She made herself small on the edge of the chair, hands under her purse, knees close together. Once I’d been fine with her scorn for everything mystical and magical; it rarely ever came up, except when I tried to convince her to watch The Lord of the Rings with me from time to time. But now I found it insulting. This was my life, and she acted like being a part of it would give her leprosy.
“What can I do for you, madam?” I asked her, falling back into character. I felt suddenly self-conscious as I spoke, stupid, as if I actually still cared what Monica thought about me.
“Well, I guess I’ll have my fortune told,” she said.
I couldn’t help it: I laughed a single, disbelieving laugh. Then she reached into her purse for her wallet and withdrew forty dollars.
“You’re serious?” I was back to being Amy for a minute.
“Yeah, sure,” Monica said.
“Why?” This was not how I expected our reunion to go. At all. Why wasn’t Monica on her knees, begging for forgiveness? And why in God’s name was she smirking at me like that, like we were playing some game and she knew she was winning? I tried to sneak a peek at her left hand, to see whether or not she wore her wedding ring at least. But she kept her hands out of sight.
“It’s none of your business, Morrigan,” she said. “Besides, can’t you read my mind?”
I bristled. But Willow was in the other room, and it wasn’t like I could fight back without drawing her attention.
So I decided to play along.
“Jack and I just share something special.”
Monica and I were at the mall, seventeen years old, about to start at Buffalo State together, and she’d just informed me she was getting back together with her ex-boyfriend, Jack Whitaker, for the second time. “We’re each other’s first true loves.”
I doubted that. She hated him just the week before, but now that she was single again – recently cheated on – her feelings conveniently changed. It happened every time she got dumped.
“But he’s just gonna let you down again,” I said. “What makes you think he’ll be any different this time? He’s worse than a spoiled child. I mean, come on. He dumps you because you ‘spend too much time with your friends,’ and yet it was perfectly fine for him to blow you off to go smoke weed with his friends all the time?”
“That was a lie,” Monica said, frowning. “He told me his friends got jealous he was seeing me so they made up the whole weed thing to get me to dump him.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And you buy that?” I sure didn’t. Jack’s friends seemed to like Monica just fine, from what I’d seen.
“Of course,” she said. “I trust Jack. With my whole heart.” I tried not to gag. “Did you know he still went to all of my brother’s football games even after we broke up? And he brought my mom a dozen pink roses last month when she went into remission?” I did not, but I had my suspicions that Jack was only doing those things to get back into Monica’s good graces. And her pants.
“I just always thought he seemed a little possessive,” I said, shrugging.
“He is not,” Monica said. “He’s just easily jealous, because he loves me that much.” I shook my head, sniggering at her naivety. “Jesus, Amy, can’t you just be happy for me? Jack and I are meant to be. You’ll see.”
“Just shut up. Stop being so judgmental.”
I sipped at my milkshake to hide my smirk. Monica was quiet and broody for the rest of the afternoon, and she called her mom to pick us up as soon as we finished eating.
“Well then,” I said, slipping back into the character of Morrigan and gesturing to the sign on my left, “which of my services would you prefer? Aura reading? Tea leaves?”
Monica dropped her money onto the table, barely glanced at the list. “Whatever,” she said. “Palm reading, I guess.” She lifted her right hand and laid it palm-up on the table.
“I need both hands,” I said. “One only tells half of your story.”
Monica laughed, but it sounded strained. “Never mind that then,” she said. When I raised a curious eyebrow, she hesitated before lifting her left hand into the air and tugging down her sweater’s sleeve.
On her wrist was a cast that I hadn’t noticed when she walked in. It covered most of her palm. And, I duly noted, her wedding ring was missing.
Did she have to remove it because of her injury, I wondered. It looked pretty brutal; some of her fingers were green, swollen. Her nails were mangled, and one – the pinky nail – was even missing entirely. She’d tried to cover it up with a thick coat of dark nail polish painted over her skin in the shape of a nail, but it was easy to spot from the short distance between us.
Or had she finally come to her senses and divorced Jack?
I smiled for a moment. The odds were tilting in my favor; I felt I suddenly had the upper-hand in our little game.
“I slammed my hand in the car door,” Monica explained, mumbling.
Except she broke eye contact as she spoke, and I knew she was lying. A knot twisted in my stomach as a new thought occurred to me: Had Jack done this to her? I wanted to ask what really happened. But it was no longer my place – not Amy’s, and definitely not Morrigan’s – to play the listening friend.
“I’ll do the tarot cards instead,” Monica said. She pronounced tarot wrong so that it rhymed with carrot, but I didn’t correct her. In only a few short seconds, I’d lost my self-righteousness; I no longer felt like being witty, like playing this game of ours anymore. And I sensed Monica didn’t want to anymore either. She seemed to deflate after she spoke, slouching a little in her seat, the smirk on her lips faded.
There was a long silence.
Then Monica tried to sit up a little straighter and cleared her throat. “Amy – I mean, uh, Morrigan? The cards?”
I’d been staring. She frowned and tucked her hands back under her purse.
“I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head. I reached for the deck to my right. “Which spread would you like?” She stared blankly at me, not understanding the question. I sighed. “How many cards do you want to pick?”
“Oh. One, I guess.”
“All right,” I said, shuffling the cards. “We’ll read your future then.” The deck was beautiful, a hand-drawn set with Celtic designs that Willow bought at an art festival soon after she hired me. I placed it in front of Monica. “Make the cut.”
She reached up, split the deck in half, tucked her freed hand back under her purse. I combined the two halves of the deck back into one.
“Place all of your fingers on the cards, like this,” I said, demonstrating. She did so, her fingers brushing against mine. I didn’t pull away, although I wanted to. Fortune-telling was an intimate experience whether it was an act or not, and I was more comfortable sharing that intimacy with total strangers than I was sharing it with Monica.
But I had to stay in character, and this was all part of the show.
“Take a few deep breaths,” I said. “Focus, as we combine our energy into the cards’ magic. Close your eyes if you need to.” A meditation drone played softly over the shop’s speakers. “Think hard about the question you want answered, but don’t say it aloud.”
The corners of Monica’s lips tugged down. What question was she asking? She was right when she said earlier that it was none of my business. But I still wanted to know.
I took her hands and gently lifted them from the deck, then fanned the cards across the table face-down.
I found Jack outside the hotel, staring into the pool with an empty shot glass in his hand. Even two floors down, I could hear Monica and the others up in Room 202, yelling over the blasting music. The party, hosted at a hotel in Canada where we could all get legally wasted, was supposed to be for Jack.
He was joining the Marines.
Monica wanted to send him off properly, despite the fact that they’d broken up again half a year ago. She started seeing Kevin two months later, and soon they were moving in together.
When he heard the gate open behind him, Jack turned around.
“Hey, Aim,” he said, except he was very drunk and his words slurred together so that it sounded more like “heym.”
I’d spent the past four years refusing to give Jack a chance, refusing to see any good in him. He was a shitty boyfriend to Monica. He had a habit, whether they were dating or not, of showing up drunk at her place, reeking of weed and booze and sweat and just generally making an ass of himself. And he broke Monica’s heart more than once. I didn’t want to forgive him for that.
But she’d always insisted he was a good friend, a good listener, even after their nastiest breakups.
Now that he was cleaning up his act and joining the Marines, now that I was sure he was maturing, I was finally open to him. I wanted to see what all the hype was about, why Monica still loved Jack after all this time.
When I saw him duck out of the hotel room, mumbling something about needing some air, I decided to follow. I thought maybe he was scared about his future. I thought he needed someone to talk to, someone to play listener for once. It was my chance to see a side of him I otherwise resisted. It was what Monica would want.
“You okay?” I asked him, coming to a halt beside him at the pool’s edge.
He shrugged. “A little queasy,” he said. “Not sure why.”
“Could be the alcohol.” I smiled sideways at him and noticed he swayed a little where he stood. Even I was getting dizzy, and I’d only had two drinks and a few shots. I tried not to look down into the deep, disorienting water.
Jack laughed, hiccupped. “Nah, it’s more than that. There’s a lot going on in my head.”
“Are you scared about boot camp?”
“No! I mean, yeah. Shit. Yeah.” His eyes went blank for a moment. He shook his head. “I don’t want to think about it. But like… it’s not just that that’s bothering me. It’s Monica too.”
I snorted. “Don’t tell me you’re still not over her,” I said. It sounded a little crueler, more condescending than I intended. I noticed Jack’s knuckles turn white around the shot glass in his hand, but it didn’t register in my head that I was pissing him off. “Listen, Jack, she’s happy with Kevin. Yeah, they’re taking things a little fast, moving in after only four months together… But if you really love her, you’ll—”
Jack threw the shot glass down against the concrete. It shattered. Most of the shards flew into the pool, but one particularly sharp one whipped past my bare shin, slicing my skin open. I barely felt it, suddenly too hyped up on fear and alcohol.
“Do not,” Jack said, rounding on me and grabbing my wrist, “tell me how I can and cannot feel about Monica.” His finger pointed in my face, his nails dug into my skin, and he spit a little as he spoke. “Of course I still fucking love her. But I hate her too. I fucking hate her for being with someone else. She should be with me.”
I found myself growing angry then, the blood rising in my cheeks. “You don’t own her, Jack.”
I don’t know if it was the rush of adrenaline through his blood, or his need to have some sense of control, some power over something or someone, since he couldn’t have it over Monica. I’m sure his actions didn’t make much sense to him either, drunk as he was. But Jack, still clutching my wrist and his face burning red, pushed me into the wall of the building behind us, and smashed his lips against mine. I tried to pull away, but my skull hit the bricks. His free hand started to roam places I didn’t want it to go.
This was about to go one of two ways. I knew which outcome I wanted.
I was not going to give him control.
So I bit, hard, into his lower lip. Bit until I tasted his blood, until I was almost sure I could feel my teeth making a hole so deep they almost touched each other through his skin.
He pulled away then, swearing, and raised a hand as if about to slap me. I glared at him, daring him to do it. He wouldn’t.
My glare – or maybe it was the bite – seemed to sober him up. Instead, he dug his nails even harder into my wrist and growled, “Don’t you fucking dare tell Monica about this.”
She wouldn’t believe me anyway, I thought. But I didn’t want to tell him that, didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of winning.
I yanked my wrist free of his grip and shoved him away. He was drunk enough that he stumbled backwards and almost lost his balance. I was able to slip past him. It took me a panicky second to fumble with the latch of the gate, but once I got out of the pool area, I hurried around the front of the building, and back up to the second floor.
There were seven of us, so we’d gotten three rooms in the hotel: one for the guys, one for the girls, and one for Monica and Kevin, the only couple there. I had one of the extra keycards to the girls’ room in the back pocket of my shorts. I took the stairs two at a time – the elevator was too slow – ran past Room 202 where the party was still going strong, and opened the door to Room 203. It was late enough that, if anyone asked the next morning, I could tell the others that I’d gotten tired and went to bed.
Whether Jack was still outside, or whether he rejoined the party, I didn’t care. As long as he didn’t follow me. As long as he didn’t come anywhere near me.
I made sure the door locked tight before I fell into bed.
With her uninjured hand, Monica reached for a tarot card at the very edge of the fan. I watched her carefully. Were those scratches I saw on her cheek, under all that concealer? A scab under the lipstick? The knot in my stomach tightened.
Before she could draw a card, I stopped her. The goddamned jewelry on my wrists jingled as I reached for her hand. It was a happy sound, like little fairy bells. It didn’t belong. I slid the bangles off and let them drop onto the table.
“Are you okay, Monica?” I asked. No accent. No nonsense. Just Amy. I gazed levelly at her, clutching her good hand in both of mine.
But Monica remained icy and pulled her hand free. “No,” she said. “Where did you go? I could’ve used your help. I’m…”
She let her voice trail off, reached into her purse, withdrew a manila envelope, and pulled out the papers inside. I guessed what they might be before she even held them up for me to read.
“I have a meeting with my lawyer in an hour,” she said. “That’s why I’m back in Buffalo. I’m staying with my parents for now.”
Just like I’d imagined.
Well, not quite. I would never, could never say “I told you so.” Not now.
Could I have stopped it? Was this all my fault?
“You owe me an explanation,” Monica said, tucking the papers back into her purse and sliding the bag up onto her shoulder. “Where did you go?” Her eyes watered, her voice became husky. “Did you just… did you not like Jack? Because I remember you saying you thought he was possessive. I hated you for that, y’know. For a little while.” I knew. “But if something seemed off about him, if you thought I shouldn’t have married him… You were my best friend, Amy. You didn’t have to hide what you felt. I would have listened. I might have been angry with you at first, but I would have listened in the end.”
Maybe. Maybe if I’d had more time to come to terms with what Jack had done to me, what he’d almost done to me. Maybe if Monica waited until she was older to get married, until she matured. But twenty-year-old Monica would’ve just called me jealous or selfish and married Jack anyway.
I wasn’t sure how to answer her. So I said nothing. And I made no indication that I was going to say anything. I didn’t know if I could. I couldn’t then, and I wasn’t sure I could now. My eyes stung with pressure.
Over Monica’s shoulder, between the bead curtains, I noticed movement. Willow strolled behind the counter, just outside of my office. Eavesdropping, no doubt. She did that from time to time, making sure I stayed in character. Even if I wanted to speak now, I couldn’t. Not as Amy.
Monica twisted in her seat to see what held my attention. When she turned back around, she looked every shade of angry.
“Fine,” she muttered, getting to her feet. “Don’t tell me then. Coward.”
If she meant to spur me into action, that was enough. I was not going to let her leave like this. Damn Willow, damn Morrigan, damn the script. I stood too.
I wanted to give her my cell number. I wanted to be friends again. I wanted to fix this. But she shot a glare at me and I fell silent. Snatching up her money, she left before I could get in a word. Her heels clacked against the shop’s wooden floor, and then she was gone.
I already had dozens of excuses ready, reasons I wouldn’t bother telling Monica about the night at the hotel. Jack was drunk. I was drunk. I’m not even sure I remember it correctly. (Never mind that I woke up the next morning with all the proof I needed: a bruise on the back of my head, a streak of blood dried on my shin, little crescent-moon cuts on my wrist.) It was a one-time thing. He just snapped. People do stupid things when they’re drunk. Jack loves Monica, he wouldn’t hurt her, but he knew I never really liked him, so that’s probably why he snapped at me.
And Monica would never believe me. I could imagine her shaking her head at me, saying, “You were wasted, Amy. You probably threw yourself at him. Or you probably dreamed it. Jack isn’t like that. He’s not an ape. You just don’t want me to move away. Stop being selfish.”
I wouldn’t admit to myself that I was just scared. Too scared to speak up. Too scared of Jack and what he might do if I had a little more courage.
Six months passed, and then I was in Monica’s room, and she was showing me the glittering diamond on her finger. It was from Jack. Kevin was long gone. He was too caught up in an internship to take any of Monica’s hints to propose to her, so she left.
“Summer can’t come fast enough,” she sighed now, staring at her ring and beaming. She looked so happy. “Only a couple months before I’m his wife forever.” I thought she sounded brainwashed. “Long distance is so hard.”
I didn’t want her to marry him.
“What about school?” I asked her. “You’re not finished with your degree.”
She shrugged. “I’m dropping out. I’m still undeclared anyway. I have no idea what I want to do for a living. Well, besides be Jack’s wife, of course.” She sighed again, a dreamy sigh. “He makes me so happy, Amy. I always knew he was the one.” There was something in her tone – a warning to drop my protests and just be happy for her. “You’ll be a bridesmaid, right?” The question caught me off guard. “I’d ask you to be Maid of Honor, but my sister wants it, and she’s blood, so…”
“I – can I think about it?”
Finally, Monica’s smile faltered. “You don’t want me to get married. You think I’m too young. Or do you still think Jack’s a possessive jerk? Because if anything, this ring proves just how much he loves me. He’s always been there. He was the only man brave enough to commit. I told you he was the one.”
I looked around the room, stalling. On the wall behind Monica was a collage of photos – photos which used to be of us, in Halloween costumes, in school plays, at her family’s cottage, sledding in winter down by the creek. Now most were of her and Jack, kissing in parks, in bars, outside the B&B in Lewiston where he proposed that past weekend while he visited home for a few days. She smiled in all of them.
What I wanted to tell her was that I didn’t trust Jack, that he was more than possessive and he quite frankly scared me, and I didn’t think she should stay with him.
What I said instead, staring at her lips because I was unable to make eye contact, was, “Well, maybe I do think you’re a little young to get married. I don’t think it’s the best idea to drop out of school either.” Before she could get angry, I added, “But does it matter what I think?”
“No,” she said, laughing. “Of course not.”
She didn’t know the significance of her answer. I knew then it would be pointless to tell her.
I gave her a sad smile.
“I’m just… not sure I can afford to be a bridesmaid,” I said. “I’ve got tuition to pay, and I only make minimum.” I was working at McDonald’s then. But it was a pathetic lie. I had three grand stashed in the bank, saved up over the years, and nothing to spend it on since I still lived with my parents. But I didn’t want to be that close to Jack. I couldn’t be. Which meant I couldn’t be that close to Monica anymore either.
She looked disappointed, but she said it was fine, she understood. Her reaction was no surprise to me. Jack made her happy in so many ways, in ways that I never could. Maybe I was making a noble sacrifice, letting her go. She might lose a friend, but she would gain the life she always wanted. As long as she was happy, so was I.
The bachelorette party, which I only attended because Jack wasn’t invited, was our last hurrah. I went to the wedding ceremony but skipped the reception, claiming I couldn’t get the night off of work. But that night I really went home and tucked away eight years of memories into four shoeboxes under my bed: hand-drawn birthday cards, friendship bracelets, countless photographs, notes passed in class.
Monica tried to call. Hundreds of times. I ignored her voicemails and was relieved when she finally moved to North Carolina. For whatever reason, I directed my anger at her, although she hadn’t done anything wrong, not intentionally.
A year later, I deleted her from my list of friends on Facebook. I was tired of seeing her post about her happy new life, of reliving the night at the hotel every time I saw Jack’s face and worrying that he might snap again.
Once I was alone in my office, Willow stepped inside. “Who was that woman?” she asked. “She looked pissed.”
“Her… her reading just unsettled her, is all,” I lied, sitting back down and pressing my lips tight together to stop my chin trembling. I would get ahold of Monica. I would call her parents. I would call until she agreed to speak to me.
Willow frowned. “Well, that’s nothing you can control. You can read the stars, but you can’t move ’em.” Her gaze landed on the bracelets scattered across my table. Suspicion crossed her features. “Put those back on,” she said. “They’re part of the costume. Why are they even—?”
The tinkle of the shop’s bell interrupted her as someone walked through the front door.
I caught my breath. Monica? Had she returned already to give me another chance?
Thistime I was ready. I got to my feet once more, prepared to tell Willow thatMorrigan – no, Amy – needed a break,to throw my arms around Monica the second she walked through the curtain, totake her out for lunch, my treat. I would explain everything and apologize amillion times for being such a horrible friend all these years. And we wouldboth cry and she would forgive me, and I would sit in the lobby for moralsupport while she spoke with her lawyer, and then we would go back to herparents’ house and marathon Sex and theCity like we used to.