The sound of her shoes skimming the pavement reverberated as Belle walked briskly along the gray concrete, her attitude brighter than most days. She didn’t know why, and she tried not to wonder either because she knew that might cast darkness on her mood. The sun’s ray stung through her glasses, and she could see the dust resting upon the lens. Stray hairs that dangled from her ponytail danced in her peripheral vision. She was noticing many small things today; details that most eyes overlook. Even Belle, the girl who had time to study everything, never had noticed such delicate specifics of her environment, like the dead veins within the crinkled brown leaves that glided across the ground with the wind.
She never typically visited Sunni’s, or not on a day that it was open. Nowadays her mother was almost always there, replacing family time with work time. Belle was growing seldom with the amount of days she arrived home to an empty apartment. But the air had always been still, as if resting from an uprising. She just wanted to know what had happened, because things at home weren’t the same.
She heard the soft ding as she entered the shop, her mother at the register drowned in paper documents. Somehow she knew her presence, or possibly she saw Belle’s blonde hair in her bordering eyesight, because she didn’t look up before greeting.
“Hey love,” she sighed, the breeze of switching papers moving her hair.
“Hi,” she responded, dropping her backpack on the counter. The shop was almost empty, now a very uncommon occurrence. Belle enjoyed the smell of the store, and she could never tell if it was the freshly designed clothes or something else.
Her eyes flicked to her mother, and she studied her for a while. Worry lines had found their way above her brow. She always had lines around her mouth from continuous smiling, but those were gone. “Have you seen dad?” she asked, hoping to spark a conversation. Her mother looked up, her eyes steady, as if attempting to read her daughters mind. She threw her pencil down and sighed, “Right,” she said, “I need to talk to you about that.”
Belle cocked an eyebrow, and she hoped she appeared nonchalant, because her insides were churning.
“Your father is leaving town for a while,” she said, pronouncing the words slowly, as if the news may cause Belle to erupt if not delivered with care.
“What?” she asked in response, but she had heard. Her voice was distraught, and she knew this would upset her mother, so she tried to keep the pitch even. “Why? … Where?”
“Maine,” she replied, expression worrisome, but clearly not for her husband, only for Belle’s sake. “We both need time to clear our heads. I’m sorry I didn’t-”
“Well where is he now?” she interrupted.
Her mother paused, eyes glassy as she processed Belle’s inquiry. Her fingers ticked; a habit Belle had taken to her own. She sighed again. She kept sighing, and Belle was growing frustrated. She braced her hands on the counter before telling her, “He already left.”
Her heart ached, and she felt tears running to meet the corners of her eye. She didn’t want her mother’s hugs or condolences, because that wouldn’t fix the fact that her father left her without saying goodbye. But she would see him again, right? He wasn’t moving.
Whatever happened next was quick, because Belle was already out the door with her backpack slung lazily over one shoulder. She knew her eyes were red, and she had never tried so hard to restrain her tears.
Heyy it’s Vic, Frannie gave me ur number
Belle’s phone chirped from across the room. She was lying face down, her pillow wet from crying. Her hair stuck to her damp cheeks as she dragged herself up and over to the desk. One wooden floorboard creaked underneath her foot.
The only person Belle texted besides her friends in California was Frannie, and now Victoria had gotten her number. She didn’t know what it was, but she felt intimidated by Victoria in a somewhat indirect way. Maybe it was the fierceness in the way she carried herself, or her stunning grey eyes that tended to dig deep through your soul until there was nothing left of you. Or maybe, it could have just been how pretty she was. As silly as it sounded, attractive people scared her sometimes. Because with attractiveness, came an ego, and in the worst of regards, an ego could be deadly.
Me and Dex are going shopping… Fran can’t come and Dex is in serious need of new clothes, can you join us? I need a fellow girl there!
Her automatic mental response was a rejection, but as Belle considered, she needed to leave her home. Not that anyone would miss her, because the place was always empty. She needn’t think about her father, though it was difficult. She wanted to call him, and yell at him. She wanted to demand an explanation for why he couldn’t tell his daughter goodbye. Why was he so desperate to leave? How long would he be gone? For his abandonment, she was resentful. He didn’t deserve her call.
Broad music thumped loudly, and her brain felt suffocated. Every few minutes she could feel her foot tap along with the beat before stopping it again, because Pop disgusted her, and she didn’t know exactly why. But one thing she could admit, the genre was catchy.
The neon lights of H&M were almost blinding, but in other areas of the store it was dark and enigmatic. Belle liked the clothes; too bad she only had ten dollars. She wondered momentarily how much money Victoria had brought, because judging by her wardrobe, she had cash. Victoria flipped through the racks, her eyes scanning and critiquing everything. When she landed on a piece she didn’t like, her eyebrow would twitch, or her lips would purse before placing the item back on the rack.
Whenever there was something she did like, she would hold the garment up to her body and ask Belle what she thought. It was moments like these that Belle wished she had a keen eye for fashion, or she was at least good at making things up. Francesca was definitely hands on with clothing, and Belle knew that was what Victoria was thinking. What if she was questioning why she even invited Belle in the first place?
“Alright Dex!” Victoria clasped her hands together with an excited smile. “We need to shop for you now. Hopefully we’ll find something you like so you’re not still wearing the same three outfits to school.”
Dex’s eyelids drooped before glancing at Belle. His expression read ‘Help me’. “Why do you think I care about what I wear?” he asked, his voice lazy as always. “You know I’m not one of those… fashionista’s or whatever.”
Victoria laughed. “Oh I know, but this is for your benefit. You need to learn to trust me. Have I ever stirred you wrong?”
“You tried to convince me I was adopted,” he retorted.
“Yeah,” Victoria said, her tone reminiscent, “well that was your fault for falling for it.”
“I was high.”
“Whatever,” she articulated.
The trio arrived at the men’s section; attractive male models expressed on posters adorned the walls, and the floors were black instead of white. Belle watched their reflections mirrored on the shiny tile as they strolled through the store.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and she retrieved it quickly to find a text from her mother. She’s left twelve since Belle had left Sunni’s. She put her phone back, anger towards her mother present. It was difficult to blame her, and Belle knew she couldn’t. However, she was angry. She could have worked it out with her husband, and have had the decency to not be stubborn. But she was, and now he’s gone.
Voices resonated from far away before Belle realized she had momentarily tuned out the world. When her focus returned, Victoria’s expression was wary as she held up a long sleeved shirt.
“Do you think this is the right fit for him?” She held up the shirt to align with Dex, and he offered a bored expression towards Belle.
“Um,” she struggled, sorting responses through her mind like files, “yes.” She sounded just as unsure as she felt.
“Hm.” Victoria squinted her eyes, looking from Dex to the shirt, and back to Dex. “Best to try them on, along with these checkered shorts.” Retrieving a pair of black and white checkered shorts from one of the displays, her and Dex creviced between other customers towards the fitting rooms with Belle following.
“But these are so ugly,” he whined as Victoria gave him the shorts.
“They’re better than what you’ve got.” With this she gave him a sarcastic smile before pushing him into the changing stall. There was a disturbed grunt before he slid the lock.
Victoria sighed and rolled her eyes, “Boys.”
“I know right,” Belle replied with a laugh, hoping this was a sufficient response.
For the next ten minutes in the wait of Dex, Victoria gossiped about people at school that annoyed her. Belle tuned in and out during her words, and she knew after a while that Victoria wouldn’t notice because she was so invested in her topic. Finally, Dex revealed himself in the long sleeved white t-shirt and checkered shorts. Belle knew the clothes didn’t fit him at first glance, because he usually wore darker clothes involving heavy hooded sweatshirts. However, Victoria felt differently.
“Oh my God they’re perfect,” she clapped, squealing slightly. “One outfit down, eight more to go.”
“Eight?” Belle and Dex spoke at the same time, their features holding disbelief. Victoria glanced between the two, her excited expression fading.
Her eyes and mouth became firm as she said, “Yes.” And with that, she turned swiftly, her long dark hair swaying as she re-entered the crowd of shoppers.
Dex and Belle glanced at each other with unease before following Victoria.
“How much do you think I could get for these clothes on eBay?” Dex whispered so Victoria wouldn’t hear, but it was clear she couldn’t anyway because the music was so loud.
Belle laughed in response, “At least a dollar,” she replied.
The two chuckled before Victoria cast a glance back at them with her eyes fixed, as if checking that they didn’t run away. For a second, Belle considered just doing that. She supposed this was the day she found out that she really hated shopping.
That night Belle had pretended to be asleep when her mother creaked the door open. She knew what conversation would have taken place; a topic she didn’t want to discuss. Belle had always silently blamed her mother for being stubborn, but in times like these, she realized just how much she resembled her parent. Sometimes she would do anything to avoid a particular conversation.
Her phone was placed under her pillow, the cushion softening the notification buzz. Another unknown number had texted her.
Belle’s eyes formed into slits as she read the text in the dark, trying to think of an accurate guess to who this could be. She placed a bet on Jordan.
Hello who is this?
The reply came within seconds.
Max. as in Maxus. Fran gave me your number
Belle shook her head in the dark, questioning whether it was such a good idea after all for Francesca to have knowledge of her number. But suddenly the realization that Maxus had her number sent a shiver through her. She didn’t know if it originated from anxiety, or another feeling that was most likely foreign to her. She hoped it was anxiety.
Wanna do something badass?
For a moment everything paused as she considered what he meant by ‘badass’. She couldn’t say no, because he would think of her as a loser. But the category ‘badass’ was galaxies away from what she fell under, and she didn’t really mind that. Except for now.
Idk. Go to a museum or something
Belle snorted, unable to control the soft laughter and the refreshment of relief as she processed his reply. She didn’t know what she expected him to say, but now it didn’t make sense for him to have said anything else.
It wasn’t a school night, so she could go out. But usually, she preferred having things planned at least two days in advance. When something occurred in a spur of the moment, like this, she felt it was wrong and shouldn’t do it. Plus, it was very late. She doubted any museums would even be open. She couldn’t go; it would make her a bad person. But if she didn’t go, she would be considered a loser. Why did he want to hang out with her anyway? There were probably tons of other girls he could take out this late. And he most likely already knew how frightened she was of practically everything. She felt an oncoming headache just thinking about it.
I’m not sure I should
She answered finally after a few long minutes of consideration. Waiting for his reply was making her palms sweat. Her teeth began chewing the inside of her lip.
Well that wasn’t a no so we’re going. ill pick you up in five :DDD
Belle flinched beneath the comforters of her bed, her eyes growing wide. Five minutes. She didn’t even say yes! Without thinking she bolted out of her divan and rummaged hastily through her wardrobe. There were always situations that happened when Belle thought there’s nothing worse than having to do this, until another situation came along and took its place. But he was already on his way, most likely. She couldn’t go back now. Trapped, again, in her usual impossible possibility of refusal. Her heart clamored, and she felt like she was about to cry as she shoved more pills into her mouth.
She performed the breathing exercises provided by her doctor in hopes to calm down. How would she even sneak past her mother? The thought of sneaking out again dragged her downward even more into the imaginary pit of guilt. Why did he have to do this? She hated him momentarily for doing this to her.
But even though she was so weak, she knew there must be a strong root from deep within her somewhere, because she always found a way to recollect herself. And after another two minutes of panic, she was doing just that as she snuck past her mother who lay on the couch, half dozing. Turning the door handle slowly, she was already out of her apartment.
“The tiger exhibit is my favorite,” Maxus told her excitedly while paying cab fare. He reminded Belle of a little boy on Christmas morning.
As the cab drove away, she felt alone with him, even though there were many other citizens living their lives from a distance. And though there were, none of them seemed to be interested in the Animal Museum her and Maxus were climbing up the marble steps towards. He took his two at a time.
There was a security guard manning one of the glass doors, and he just grunted as the teenagers passed him. When they stepped into the large and practically empty planetary, Belle marveled at the high ceilings and displays of dinosaur fossils that hung from them, positioned in a somewhat hunting stature. She wondered if they were found like that, or if they were even real fossils.
“Yeah, those are cool,” Maxus commented upon her awe at the fossils, clearly unimpressed, “but the tigers.”
When she first saw him in the cab not ten minutes ago, she noticed he was wearing jeans, converse, and a light grey hoodie. She didn’t know why, but she favored the way he dressed. He clearly didn’t care about fashion, unlike many guys from California, but he cared just enough to look good.
After his last syllable, a short and stubby woman with glasses half walked, half ran towards them with a clipboard tucked under her arm. Her expression was stern, and Belle expected a not so pleasant greeting. Maxus just smiled at her as she approached.
“We’re closing in half an hour,” she told them, pausing afterwards as if to let the words sink in. Her eyes shifted between them, tapping her foot impatiently.
“Yeah, I know,” Maxus replied nonchalantly, placing his hands in his pockets. “That’s plenty of time.” He smiled at her again, as if to piss her off even more. Belle felt the woman’s tolerance level breaking, and she was growing nervous.
The lady huffed, turning swiftly while bringing her clipboard to her chest. “Make sure you’re out in thirty.”
“Will do ma’am,” he said while waving pleasantly. As she disappeared, his sarcastic expression dropped. “I hate the employees here,” he muttered.
The trip to the tiger exhibit took approximately eight minutes, plus another five because they kept getting distracted by the abnormally expansive beaver display. The museum had a whole book about different kinds of beaver teeth. Belle wasn’t even aware that there were different kinds of beaver teeth.
“I didn’t even know there were different kinds…” Maxus spoke while flipping through the book. He looked like he was freaked out, and Belle chuckled.
“Yeah, me either,” she replied.
When they finally reached the exhibit, Maxus had to push open the wide oak doors that had already been closed because the museum was in the process of shutting down before they interrupted. The main color of the room was green; fake green trees with stumpy bark trunks, detailed drawings of plush green forest on the smooth walls, and replications of green grass that the stuffed tigers were displayed upon.
Maxus sighed, admiration occupying his features. His eyes were filled with wonder. “I’m just saying,” he said after a while, “if I were a tiger I’d kick ass.”
“Of course you would,” she replied, gazing at the art on the walls, “you’d be a tiger.”
“True,” he muttered.
Belle wanted to venture through the museum for the remaining minutes, because every second’s tick grew louder in her mind. But Maxus was completely invested in the tigers, and she knew there was no way of dragging him away from this particular display. She gazed at him from time to time, and found herself admiring his presence. He had a way of making everything around him appear more interesting, what with his eyes always full of curiosity, as if he could never attain enough knowledge for the thing he truly loved.
But she questioned what he was really like. Everyone had secrets, whether they were forbidden tales, traits, or insecurities. She wondered what his were, because she got the impression that he was a mixture of all kinds of things. She just didn’t know what those things were, and she would probably never find out. This realization disappointed her before she inquired herself why she was disappointed. It’s not like they were close. Why did she even care? It was probably just her curiosity.
Belle was studying the exhibition of tiger cubs when she felt him approach. She caught a little of his scent, and he smelled nice. Her eyebrows creased in response to her strange observation, and she felt thankful that she didn’t accidentally blurt that out loud.
“Do you think it’s legal to have a pet tiger?” he asked after standing next to her.
Belle didn’t know how to respond, because her social anxiety sometimes enjoyed plucking at her tongue until any interesting answer she could have come up with disappeared.
“Um… probably not here,” she answered finally.
He sighed, “You’re right. Plus the thing would probably eat me.”
She laughed at probably.
“Well we should go before that lady recovers from her Satan shrine,” he said before they both laughed at her expense.
The woman was waiting for them near the doors when they exited the elevator, tapping her foot once again. Belle wondered how long she could tap it before it fell off. As the pair left, the lady slammed the door behind them almost immediately, as if she had been waiting to do that for a while.
“Jesus,” Maxus responded, “someone needs to chill their shit.”
As they descended the steps, he raised his hand in the air for a cab. After a few minutes, he huffed, “You know,” he remarked impatiently, raising his other hand, “I think these taxi drivers seem to forget that their losing money every time they don’t pick someone up.”
He glanced back at her before lowering his hand. “Why don’t you try?” he proposed, “They’ll probably notice you.”
She stepped forward cautiously, and she didn’t know why she was cautious. Raising her hand in the air, a taxi appeared within the next thirty seconds. Maxus’s expression was appalled, then his eyes formed into slits before finally, he looked amused. “I see how it is,” he accused before opening the cab door, “I’m just not hot enough. People are so nice.”
Despite the late hour, Maxus remained energetic throughout the taxi ride as he left both Belle and the cab driver entertained. By the time the taxi approached her building, her face was red from laughter.
After recollecting herself, she said, “Thanks for the… um… thanks.” She smiled before exiting the cab, too embarrassed to look at him after her silly reply.
“Sure, sure,” he said, leaning his elbow out the window as he watched her leave. “See you again.”
Belle glanced at him before entering her apartment building, and he smiled. He then winked before returning his arm back into the cab as the car drove away, blending amongst the other bustled vehicles. Her heart fluttered, and she looked at the ground in response. Why did he wink? Even worse, why was it attractive?
The elevator ride up to her apartment was quiet, though her thoughts were loud. She bit her lip out of anxiousness. She didn’t want to have a crush on anyone, because crushes meant trouble. At least for her they did. They were an inconvenience to her boring life, so she tried to avoid them as much as possible by avoiding the male race as much as possible. But Maxus was difficult to avoid, because everywhere he went he stood out. He knew how to make himself present, and eyes always attracted towards him.
Belle’s jaw clenched.