Everyone here was someone else before.
Her mother once told her, “Honey, you can go at life with a can of pepper spray and a gun, but all you really need is a tube of lipstick.” Then she watched as her mother set down her hand mirror and smiled with her glossy, bright red lips, dark eyes dancing. “Well, at least in the world of appearances.”
She set down her phone on the coffee table and opened a pocket mirror. She smiled. Hm. She did look every part the polished businesswoman with her long dark hair pulled back into a neat, tidy ballet bun. But her complexion was much too bleak, she decided, and she pulled out a tube of lipstick.
She applied one layer. And she applied another.
There. Two masks done.
Then she smiled again, her newly rouge lips standing out starkly against her pasty skin.
Her phone dinged. She let out a sigh, rolling her eyes as she swiped across on her phone. She could already predict the message waiting for her—something nagging about how stupid she was.
Where the hell are you? We’re waiting for you here already.
She stood up, making sure to place a tip on the coffee table, gathered her belongings, and walked out of the warm café into the cold winter air. There, she joined the moving crowd of bodies pushing toward the subway. It was raining yet again. As she hopped down the stairs to the subway station, she pulled her hand along the railing, which was drenched.
What a bother, she thought, and pulled her scarf more vehemently around her neck.
Next to one of the graffitied concrete columns near the subway platform itself was a street performer, plucking away steadily at a ukulele. She paused near his case. The song sounded a little like “Three Little Birds”. That was her brother’s favorite song. Thoughtfully, she reached into her purse and dropped a twenty into the case. She didn’t acknowledge the performer’s nod, but only stood in silence with him until the subway arrived.
It had become second nature for her to glance at the subway headings before entering the subway. She had gotten onto the wrong train and only realized at the stops one too many times. She was going to 125th Street. Good. She turned to follow her fellow passengers, who were all elegant figures fitted in designer-brand rain jackets. She fit right in.
She smiled widely. Perfect.
Today was a relatively quiet day, so there were plenty of seats open once she got into the subway. Nevertheless, she shuffled to the back of the brightly lit car, choosing to hang onto an overhead handle. No one joined her. Half a minute later, the subway doors closed smoothly with an electric whir, and the train lurched forward. She watched as the walls of the concrete tunnel sped past her and wondered idly, as the train began to slow down, how the graffiti artists had managed to spray-paint the walls so far away from the platform.
They must have had extraordinarily good timing or special equipment, she decided.
Her phone called again from inside her purse. Damn it, what was up his ass today? She chose to ignore it, instead staring at a cute dark-haired stranger she’d never see again in her life. Why the hell not?
She stepped out of the train with everyone else. As she headed up the staircase leading up to one of the bustling streets, she rifled through her purse for her phone. Once she reached the street, a blast of raindrops assaulted her. She pulled her scarf over her lips. Trust city weather to be about as reliable as a Wi-Fi signal—not at all.
She hurried past the street vendors, only pausing to drop a couple of coins in a Santa Claus bucket. She was already late; her brother would probably go after her with his wife’s butcher knife for that. Still, she smiled, pushing through the crowd more vehemently. He was such a freak, but she wouldn’t ever want him to change.
At a crosswalk, she stared across the street, where a man playing a saxophone danced around a miniature Christmas tree. It was a nice and cheery holiday season this winter, what with all the fall-like weather and pouring rain and gray skies. No wonder her nephew refused to go see the Christmas tree even though her brother had bribed him with three trips to the ice cream shop.
She speed-walked her way across the street when the sign changed. She had to stop in the middle of the road and check the street signs again; she was going in the wrong direction. To the irritation of several people, she turned back and pushed through the crowd. She was supposed to turn left at this block. Why must her brother’s directions be so obscure?
Even though she was steadily approaching ten minutes past the time she had been told, she couldn’t help stopping at a particular vending cart to buy herself a cup of roasted peanuts. Handing over a five-dollar bill, she nodded at the street vendor, who smiled, and she rushed on her way. Her brother was going to hate her so much. Maybe she should have bought him a cup to make him calm down a bit.
No, that wasn’t going to work. She hesitated before picking up a peanut. These things did atrocities to her teeth and especially her newly done lipstick…
She shrugged and popped a nut in her mouth. Even lipstick must be messed up at some point.
In a clean alleyway off Morningside Drive, he had said.
She turned the corner accordingly.
If graffitied yet relatively free of cigarette butts was her brother’s version of clean, this must be it. She delicately stepped over something that looked suspiciously like a used condom and rushed past the elderly old women, who looked at her stiletto high heels as if they were deadly contraptions. She had to give it to them—they were. She stumbled over a tuft of grass she had not seen growing out of a crack in the concrete and cursed, very loudly at that.
Her phone chimed. Her watch told her that she was now exactly twelve minutes late.
She cursed again.
Once she arrived next to a musty little sign that proclaimed “Used Books” as if they were commodities, she leaned on the brick wall and took out her pocket mirror. She fixed her lipstick, took an exasperated breath, and pushed the rusty shop door with as much strength as she could muster.
The bells above the door called out cheerily, and her brother, accompanied by his son, looked up from his phone. He took in her flushed cheeks, high heels, and drenched raincoat. “Looks like you went through hell and back to get here.”
“Could you not?” she said as she took off her scarf. “You’ve got a kid standing right next to you.”
“Right.” He looked down at his son, who was grinning up at him with wide doe eyes. “Right, Vincent. Don’t tell Mommy what Daddy just said.”
“Where’s baby Allison?” She bent down and picked up her nephew after placing a kiss on his cheek. “Are you going to be on the nice list this year, little guy?”
“Yeah, Aunt Hailey!” The little boy giggled as she spun him around, tottering on her high heels. She wouldn’t tell her brother, who was staring at them with a disparaging frown, but she was pretty damn close to crashing into one of the dusty little bookshelves, which would probably cause the bookshop keeper with the owl glasses in the corner to have a heart attack.
“Maddi’s babysitting the baby for once today,” her brother said. And then with a scowl, he added, “You spoil him rotten.”
“You just want to teach him curse words so you can sit down and smoke tobacco on the porch with him like old cowboys,” she retorted.
“I think this is why your wife doesn’t like having you babysit your own kids.”
“Aunt Hailey?” the little boy said, pouting now. “Daddy said you’d take me out to get ice cream.”
“Right.” She set Vincent down on the ground and looked at her brother. “You have places to go, don’t you?”
Her brother checked his watch. “And you,” he said sourly, “are making me fifteen minutes late. I made Vincent promise me that he would look at the books for ten minutes before going to eat ice cream, okay? Don’t spoil him too much.”
“You told me before,” she responded. “Rush off, will you?”
It took Mark another seven minutes to reassure himself that Hailey wouldn’t feed his child with too much sugar. Then he was finally gone with a whoosh of the cold winter air and a clang of the doorbell.
The owlish bookkeeper looked up from his newspaper. It looked ancient, like it was an artifact from the 80s. Hailey was surprised that it wasn’t already falling apart at the folds. They stared at each other for a couple moments. She was equally surprised that her nephew didn’t pull at her hands, begging her with those big brown eyes for sweets. She was about to look away when the store owner spoke. “He’s delightful, isn’t he?”
She had to pause for a second before realizing that he was referring to her nephew, not her brother. “Yes, he’s quite precious.” She cleared her throat. “I hope you won’t mind if we spend a couple moments in your store.”
“Of course not.”
Then her nephew tugged at her skirt, pointing at a bright but faded picture book toward the back of the shop. “Look, look!”
She followed him.
Even as she pored over the yellowed, dog-eared pages with Vincent, her mind couldn’t help wandering out of the quiet little shop nestled in the middle of grayness, out onto the chilly streets with their blank sidewalks. She traveled back again into a gray, polished building that represented her thoughts, where her office on the twelfth floor waited with its piles and piles of paperwork. She wondered why she agreed to help Mark. Again.
Maybe it was because she, as a twenty-something-year-old, had no social life besides her brother’s family.
Well, she might as well make the best of her non-existent social life while she still had one. Her brother wouldn’t have to know if she cut her nephew’s reading session short for a longer visit to the ice cream shop…
Vincent dropped the book with a thump and rushed over to another shelf. “Auntie Hailey, what’s this?”
She jumped, and, picking up the book slowly, traced her nephew’s steps across the store. He yanked a book off the shelf with his grubby little toddler hands, almost dropping it, and stared at it with wide-eyed fascination. “Can you read this?”
She absentmindedly ruffled his tuft of chestnut hair and read aloud in a soft voice, “The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss…”
Luckily for her, Vincent had a short attention span, so it was only five minutes later when she found herself at the checkout counter ruffling through her purse for a spare twenty dollar bill. Next to her, her nephew watched her closely, his eyes practically detailing all of his entreaties for ice cream and probably some cookies to go with it. She sighed, smiling fondly.
“Here you go,” she said to the storekeeper and placed a wrinkled bill on the counter.
Then the door opened, letting in a current of cold air. She looked up.
She met the greenest eyes that she had ever seen in her life.
Hey guys! For this Christmas/winter season, I will be posting parts of this new book I'm debuting called Headlights, as you can see. I'll post a part a day (excepting today, since I'm doing a double update) and I hope you guys follow along!
As you read, I have a challenge for you—what set of songs am I basing this on? Comment your thoughts below! If you get it right, I'll mention you in one of the parts that I post and check you out for sure. Happy holidays!