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Beautiful Crime

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Ten cities. Four months. Marika never wanted to settle down, traveling the world has been her dream for as long as she could remember. When she was young, her father was never home, always jumping from city to city. Paris, London, Taiwan, Sydney; he had been everywhere—or so he had said. By age 15, Marika discovered her father’s lies. She grew familiar of the scent of alcohol he always came home with, but she wasn’t like him; she was going to travel the world, for real.

She walked into the cafe closest to the crusty motel she had stayed at the night before. The smell of fresh bread and coffee beans instantly surrounded her. She took a seat at the small table in the back corner and picked up the menu. With the menu open in front of her, she scanned the coffee shop. The only other people in the shop were a couple of college students and an employee who looked like a college student himself. The college students seemed as if they stayed up all night trying to finish an assignment due the next day with their hair muffled and their blood-shot eyes.

Marika stared aimlessly through the window of the cafe, taking note of the morning joggers with their dogs and the cars carrying rich business men of corrupt companies and corporations.

“Can I get you anything?” Marika gasped at the man suddenly standing beside her, she hadn’t noticed him before, “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to scare you, miss.”

“You didn’t,” she glanced at the menu and ordered the first thing she saw, “Just coffee. Black.” The man wrote down her order on a small notepad; he looked tired like the other students in the shop.

“Okay, anything else?” he didn’t even glance at her.

“Just coffee,” she repeated herself, already irritated. He nodded, oblivious to her tone, and slipped behind the counter. She sighed and slipped out a slit of paper from her skinny jeans; there was an address scribbled on one side.

After one night, Marika was already anxious to leave this city. She dreamt of sleeping with soft silk sheets and a window view of the beach or the Eiffel Tower, not inside a motel that looks like it’s about to crumble at any moment.

It wasn’t her choice to come here, it was her mother’s. Her mother left her and her father when she was ten years old. She had grown tired of having to take care of him at 3am every morning, something Marika couldn’t understand ‘til five years later. Marika smoothed the crumpled paper against the table and let it lay there.

“Here’s your coffee, miss,” the man smiled as he carefully put the cup on the table in front of her, avoiding the slip of paper. She hadn’t noticed his short, brown hair gently combed to the left before or the way his collared work polo, with his name tag ‘Ben’, clung to his lean body.

“Thank you,” she murmured, looking back at the address.

“You new here?”

She looked up at him, alarmed, “Why?”

“It’s just nobody ever comes in here ever since the new pub opened next door,” he nodded to the right, where the pub was.

“I was looking for coffee, not beer.”

“They call themselves a pub, but they sell all sorts of drinks.”

“Are you trying to run out of business by selling all your customers to the new pub?” she asked, nodding towards the pub as he did.

He looked up at the ceiling and laughed, “I don’t know why I’m so bad at this.” Marika just nodded to the girl entering the cafe.

“Just one moment,” he said before leaving to wait on the girl.

Marika turned her attention back on the paper. It’s been eleven years since she last saw her mother; she didn’t even know if she was still alive. She didn’t know what she was going to do when she met her, or why she even wants to meet her. Marika hated her mother for leaving her with her father. Why didn’t she take me? Does she not like me? Am I the same as my father?

She took a sip of her coffee, burning her tongue. Ben had finished waiting on the girl and was behind the counter preparing her order. Marika looked back at the girl sitting two tables down and found her staring right back at her.

“Hello,” the girl had dirty blonde hair tied up in a bun. She offered a smile, but Marika didn’t return.

“Hi,” she said and stuffed the crumpled paper back into her pocket. She took another sip before slapping a couple bucks on the table and leaving the cafe.

Marika opened the door to her motel room. There wasn’t much inside, just a creaky bed, a wooden drawer, a television that only had one channel, and a bathroom with mold growing in the tub. She took her backpack from the drawer and pulled out her camera, a gift from Alex. He was her only friend; nobody wanted to know the girl whose mother left her and her abusive father. Alex was a good guy. Too good for me. He could’ve gone far if Marika didn’t keep him in their hometown. He could’ve been a journalist for the New York Times; it was Marika’s fault he’s barely holding a job in a broken town.

She shook her head. These thoughts were best left in the past, they have been since she decided to ditch the town and Alex.

It was barely 8am, but she needed a shower to get rid of the stench of the city and the thoughts of her father. She turned on the faucet and let the water fill up the tub before stepping inside.

———————————————————————————————————————

Alex called Marika again; he’s called at least a hundred times already, if not more. He stares at the ocean while listening to the phone ring once, twice. The blonde boy counts eight rings before the call is forwarded to voicemail. He walks back into the surf shop and sits behind the counter.

“Excuse me, do you work here?” a small guy with big ears asks from across the room. Alex walks out from behind the counter and nods.

“What do you want?” he reflects his anger onto the customer.

“Chill, man. I just wanted to know how much this boogie board is.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“Yeah, don’t sweat it.”

“Uhh, that board is $22.50.”

“Do you take card?” the man grabs the board from the shelf.

“Yeah, come on over to the register. I can ring it up for you,” Alex walks back to the counter, “My name is Alex, by the way, if you needed anything else.”

“Thanks, I’m Dumbo,” he hands Alex his card.

“Wait, like the elephant? Is that your birth name?” Alex asks with a smile.

“Yes, like the elephant with the big ears,” he shrugs to emphasize his huge ears, “and no, it’s not my birth name. It’s just my name.” Alex laughs and hands Dumbo back his card.

“Thanks, man,” Dumbo stuffs his card back in his pocket before heading out of the shop.

It’s nearly 11 PM when Alex walks into the bar. Every night has been the same since Marika left: he’ll stumble into a bar late at night, after working long shifts at James’ Surf Shop; he’ll drink until he can’t remember his own name; then he’ll wake up somewhere between the bar and his apartment with a pounding headache.

“Alex, no more tabs. I need my money now. If this bar doesn’t start making income, it’s gonna close down,” the bartender says, firmly.

“Claire, just one. Please, it’s been a long day.”

“It’s been a long day for months. Bar policy—can’t keep tabs for more than a month. I can’t hold out for you anymore.”

“Okay, okay. How much do I owe you?”

“$950.”

“No, that’s a mistake,” Alex says in disbelief, he couldn’t have drank that much, “I don’t have that kind of money.”

“Well, you better have it by the end of the week. ‘Til then, I can’t serve you anymore.”

Alex groans and puts his head in his hands, “Okay, I can just take a loan. I’ll be back, I promise.” He walked out of the bar looking more confident than he felt. This is bad. How am I going to pay off a loan?

“Alex?” the man with big ears comes up to his side.

“Oh, hey Dumbo.”

“What’s up? You don’t look too good. You didn’t at the shop earlier today either.”

“It’s nothing. It’s personal, actually,” Alex breathed out slowly, watching the heat of his breath mix with the cold air.

“Did you just have a drink? I’d advise against that, intoxicating yourself won’t solve your problems. It’s actually healthy to keep yourself busy in other ways. You know, focus on activities instead of your emotional problems. I would recommend surfing since we’re so close to the beach. Plus, it’ll keep you in shape for girls...or guys, if that’s what you like.”

“Listen, Dumbo, I don’t want to come off as mean or anything, but I’m just gonna go home. Now’s not a really good time for me,” Alex ran his hand through his hair, pulling it to the side.

“Of course, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to, you know.”

“Maybe we can go for drinks next time. And by the way, I’m already in shape. For girls,” Dumbo gives a deep laugh and waves him off.

Before stepping into his apartment, Alex gives Marika another call. She hadn’t given him any indication that she would leave this town—much less that she would leave over night without even saying goodbye. But she didn’t have to tell him. He knew she wanted to erase her past; he just didn’t know that he was part of that past.

The call is forwarded to voicemail and he sighs, unlocking the front door. I won’t call her anymore. I can’t keep clinging to the past. He swings the door wide open, accidentally sending boxes of articles and stories tumbling on the floor. The wood floor was already littered with thousands of past articles. He had won many writing contests and even been featured on the New York Times once, but that didn’t matter. Look where it got him: working at a surf shop.

He picked up some random pages on the floor and began reading. The first was a fluff article he wrote in 2012 about the world ending. It was back when he had a job with the local newspaper. He quit after Marika left; he just couldn’t write anymore. She was his anchor, keeping him from floating away from himself. Without her he doesn’t even know who he is.

Before he knows it, he’s sitting in front of his laptop, surrounded by piles of poems and articles from long ago. He hasn’t written anything in months, but tonight’s different. Tonight he’s sober and brave and everything he was when he was with Marika.

Laid out in front of him were some of his favorite articles from his ‘golden years’; he was hoping they would remind him how to write. He took a deep breath and began typing.

———————————————————————————————————————

“Where are you going?” Ben just walked out of the cafe wearing a different shirt than this morning. After her bath, Marika looked though the pictures on her camera. There were many photos of the scenery she had seen, when hopping from town to town, as well as photos of strangers walking down the street or eating. She loved watching people doing their daily activities and watching their reaction to others’ actions.

She took one foot off the pedal of her bike and steadied herself on the ground, “To the mountains,” she pointed towards the woods just a few miles away.

“Do you mind if I come with?”

“I’d like to be alone right now. Next time.”

Ben nods, “Okay, I’m holding you to that promise.”

“It wasn’t a promise.”

Marika rides to the woods and follows the trails for a couple meters before chaining her bike to a tree. Only one person in sight on the trail. Does nobody appreciate the view? She pulls her camera out of her backpack before setting the pack back on her shoulders. It’s quiet save for the leaves brushing against each other above her head and the birds chirping.

She begins hiking up the mountain—passing the other person who’s just hiding behind a tree smoking—occasionally stopping to take pictures. Just before reaching the top she finds an area on the edge over-looking the entire town. She drops her backpack on the floor and sits on the edge, hanging her feet over the cliff. My mother is down there somewhere. Finally, after all these years.

She takes a deep breath smelling the ferns and spring air. She loved the fresh air and smell of dirt and trees; it had always been her home. Many nights, after her father came home drunk, she would escape into the woods with cuts and bruises. She wouldn’t dare walk back into the house ‘till morning and even then she would creep in silently, praying her father wasn’t still drunk.

While flipping through the photos in her camera, she comes across dark trees lit up by the moon. She had took those the nights she slept in the woods. They were dark and mysterious, almost like an apparition.

Looking at these photos, she remembers every single detail of those nights with her father. The smell of spring suddenly turns into the smell of smokes and alcohol. The sunny sky morphs into the old shack her and her father had lived in. Her father standing right in front of her. “Bitch! Don’t leave me! Don’t you ever leave me, bitch!” His words never leave her mind.

She flinches subconsciously and waits for the attack with her eyes closed. Pinch, slap, punch, kick. When she opens her eyes, she’s back on the ledge, knuckles white from gripping the rock. She lets go of the ledge and wipes her sweaty palms against her pants. Bitch!

She grabs her phone from her backpack and scrolls through the contacts until it reaches Alex. He hasn’t called in two days.

She didn’t know why she left him without a word or never answered his calls. He was her best friend and she loved him with all her heart, or at least with as much of her heart she had. Her father and her mother and that town had poisoned her view of him. She knew him since she could remember and because of that she had to leave him. He was in her roots and she couldn’t tear herself away without tearing him apart.

It’s been four months, but she gives up and taps on Alex’s name before putting the phone to her ear.

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid I can’t give you a loan. You already owe the bank 100,000 dollars. You’ll need to pay back the bank before we can grant you any more loans,” the teller’s voice is snarky. She has her hair tied back in a tight bun and wears a strong perfume that Alex bets he could smell 50 feet away. Alex sits in the chair across from her with his hands in his lap.

“It’s just 950. I’m sure you can make a small arrangement. After I get that I promise you I will begin paying back my loans,” Alex gives the smile that had always charmed Marika when they were in high school.

The woman returns a stoic expression, “I can’t do that, sir. I can; however, advise you to begin paying your debt. If you can pay a decent amount, I’m sure the bank would be happy to loan you some money.”

“How much do you believe is a ‘decent amount’?”

“I would say about half of the amount owed,” the woman stares at Alex.

“Okay, thank you,” Alex gets out of the seat and begins walking out of the office, “I’ll see what I can come up with.”

-

Every single bank that Alex visited turned him down on a loan. There was no getting past money this time; Alex was in trouble. He couldn’t possibly come up with one grand in less than a week. Marika would’ve helped me; she always does.

Alex sits in his rusty, grey Honda and thinks. He could skip town. Maybe he can finally go out looking for where Marika left, following her footsteps. Maybe if he found her everything would be alright. His phone begins shaking violently in his pocket and he digs it out. “Marika” appears on the screen.

Alex gasps a little, surprised after all this time, and quickly slides the “accept” button.

“Hello? Marika?” Alex steps out of his car and into the dark, empty parking lot of the surf shop.

Silence.

“Marika, are you there?” he can hear the wind blowing and birds chirping on the other side.

“Alex,” he knew it was her; he could recognize her voice anywhere. Alex let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.

Silence.

“Why’d you call?” he asks cautiously.

There’s a long pause before Marika answers, “You haven’t called in two days,” she states in a certain mannerism, blunt yet soft.

“I figured you were sick of me,” he let out a small chuckle, as if they were having a normal conversation.

Silence. For a couple minutes neither of them spoke a word; after all this time, it felt as if there was nothing to say between the two of them.

“Remember when we pulled that all-nighter?” Alex began, “It was the night before your eighteenth birthday and I came over at midnight. I threw rocks at your window and we practically re-enacted the scene from Romeo and Juliet. I remember I threw one so hard, trying to wake you up, it left a scratch on your window.”

He let out a breath, “That’s when you came to your window surprised and I whispered ‘happy birthday’ as loud as I could. You couldn’t hear me, though. You changed and climbed out of your window, then we went to the convenience store and some guy in his mid-thirties bought us cheap-ass wine, remembering the days when he was as young as us. And we went to the tattoo parlor because we promised each other we would each get a tattoo when our birthdays came around, but you chickened out last minute. I got one that says ‘I have to make an end so we begin’. Ironic, now that I think about it.” He waited for a response, but the line was silent save for the wind blowing into the receiver and Marika’s heavy breathing. He wonders if she’s trying to stifle a sob.

“Anyway, we somehow ended up in the park near your place and talked for the longest time. In that moment, it didn’t matter that your dad was still drunk, or we were never going anywhere in that small town. We dealt with so much shit, but we didn’t have to worry about those things because we had each other. Because we promised we would never leave each other,” Alex lets out a loud sob and falls back onto his car, slowly sliding down to the ground as reality hit him. Hard.

“Because you promised that you would always be there to pick me up,” tears fall from his eyes as he remembers every excruciating detail of the days he lived without her.

“That night you promised,” he let the words linger in the air, finally accepting the truth of her decisions.

Silence.

———————————————————————————————————————

“I’m sorry,” her voice didn’t even waver, as if she couldn’t care less about him. She does care; she just doesn’t know how to show it. After all those years of hiding her emotions from her father, she forgot how to feel.

“Sorry for shit,” he mumbled into the phone, “Tell me why you’re really calling.”

She hesitated, wanting to back out last minute. Maybe making the call was a mistake; maybe some things are better left unfinished.

She settled for, “I just wanted to talk like we used to.”

The line was quiet and for a moment she thought he wouldn’t forgive her for what she had done. “Can we meet face to face and talk?” his words were almost inaudible.

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t know if we can meet again? Or don’t know if you want to meet again?”

“I don’t know.”

“Fucking hell, Marika, what do you know?! We’ve known each other for years! You can’t just up and leave like that!”

“I’m sorry, I never should’ve called.”

“No! What you never should’ve done was left!” Bitch!

Silence.

“Just tell me where you are, Marika. You owe me at least that,” he sounded desperate, as if four months were four years.

“I’m on a mountain. I was just hiking and it’s sunny and the view is—”

“Wait, sunny? It’s dark in the UK.”

“I never said I was in the UK.”

“You left the country?”

“Tell me another story. Remind me, again, of the past,” she wanted to feel nostalgic, remember the good things from the past.

“Marika—”

“Please,” she continued to look over the city, guessing in her head what her mother could be doing right now.

He sighed into the phone, “Okay, Bonfire Night. It was two years ago, when we were nineteen. We had that barbeque with just our friends on the beach. That night, a year after you chickened out on your birthday, you finally got a tattoo.”

Vincit Qui Patitur,” she whispered. She looked at her tattoo inside her upper, left arm. The black ink was drawn beautifully in cursive; the words themselves was a form of art.

“‘He who endures conquers.’ After you chickened out the night of your eighteenth birthday, I always wondered what you would get if you were to get a tattoo. I asked myself ‘What is something that Marika would know for sure she would want on her body for the rest of her life?’ And the only thing I could come up with—” he gives a little laugh, “was a chess piece. The knight because it was always your favorite piece.

“I never would’ve guessed what you actually got, but I understand. We all endure and suffer—I admit some more than others—but you know conquering doesn’t mean winning.”

“I never said I wanted to win,” she laid on her back and closed her eyes, her feet still hanging over the cliff.

“Of course not.”

“I found my mother. I mean I haven’t actually met her yet, but she’s here. Somewhere,” she sat up again and gathered her things back into her backpack.

“You went looking for her?”

“I didn’t mean to,” she heaves the bag onto her back and stands up, “I guess I just wanted to show her I’m not like my father.”

“So that’s why you called?”

Honestly, she didn’t know why she called. She ignored the question, “She’s in a small, crappy city filled with all those stuck-up business people. The kind of city that we would never dream of living in.

“I’m staying at the ‘Five-Star Motel’, but it’s not even two stars. And it’s next to a decent looking cafe with awful coffee.”

“You know, I’m coming, right? I’m going to find you.”

She nodded even though he couldn’t see her, “I know.”

“Why’d you tell me?”

“I got to go now,” Marika started walking back down the mountain, back to her bike.

She hung up the phone before Alex could say more and blew out a deep breath. After reaching her bike, chained to a thin tree, she placed her phone back into her bag and rode down the rest of the mountain.

“Hey, I don’t think we’ve properly met. I’m Ben,” the tall boy leans against the wall of the cafe sporting a dark blue t-shirt, tan shorts, and a black Jansport backpack.

“Were you waiting for me?” Marika eyed him suspiciously.

“I can’t say that I haven’t, but I can’t say that I have either,” he gives a beaming smile with perfect, straight, white teeth and the kind of confidence that could kill with just a single touch, “I didn’t get your name before.”

“That’s because I didn’t give it to you.”

“That’s not very fair, is it?” Ben gives a pouty face while shading his eyes from the sun setting in the distance.

“I’m not very fair. Now, do you mind?” she motions to her bike, then to the motel.

“Okay, get dressed up. I’m taking you out to dinner.”

Marika hesitates before she says, “I think I’ll pass.”

“You don’t know me well, so I’ll just tell you straight up for future references; I’m not taking no for an answer,” another smile escapes from his lips.

“Have fun waiting here then,” Ben watches her roll her bike through the threshold and down the hallway, then disappear into her room.

Marika leans the bike against the wall next to the door and strips off her clothes, which smell like dirt and sweat. She forages through her small suitcase for something decent to wear and decides to slip on a sleeveless, white tank with some graphic design on it and blue, skinny jeans.

After fixing her hair and makeup, she exits the room to find Ben still waiting at the doorway. He gives another big smile as she reaches him and grabs her hand to plant a kiss against the back of it. She pulls her hand away.

“Don’t do that,” she says, not meaning to come off as cold, but does anyway.

He nods and waits a moment before saying, “I know this great place for dinner not too far from here. You’ll never guess where. It’s the pub next to the cafe,” he gives a hopeful smile, waiting for her to laugh at the punch line, but she doesn’t crack smile.

It hasn’t been five minutes ‘til they’re seated in a cramped, two-person table. The pub, ironically named ‘The Pub’, is nearly empty save for a few employees and drunk customers.

“This place is a dump,” Marika scans the room and notices a bathroom in the back. The bartender’s eyes droop as he watches the American football game from the small tv in the corner. A buff, middle-aged waiter with a couple grey hairs straying out of his baseball cap saunders his way over to their table.

“What can I get for ya?” he speaks in a deep, southern accent and smells of gin.

“The usual. And bring us two glasses of Irish Ale,” he smiles at Marika, “You have to try them. They’re amazing.”

“I’ll just have the small burger with fries,” the man scribbles the order onto a small notepad and leaves their table.

“They only serve burgers here,” Marika noted.

“Yep, it’s my go-to fast food. Just a couple blocks down from campus.”

“So you go to the college here?” Marika leans forward, placing her elbows on the table.

He nods, “This is my last year. After school I plan to move to New York to kick-start my career.”

“What are you gonna do?”

“I’m gonna paint. I’m going to sell my art and hope that someone will love it,” he gives a nervous laugh.

“That’s going to be tough.”

“Yeah, how about you? Are you backpacking around the world?” his eyebrows furrowed together as if he really interested in her career.

“No, no. I’m just here for…someone,” she felt uncomfortable telling him about her mother. The entire reason why she left England was to get away from her past.

“I don’t really have a career, just go around taking pictures. Not that I make any income from it, more like a hobby.”

“Order’s up,” the waiter comes back with two plates and the Irish Ale.

“Thanks, Frank,” Ben immediately takes a sip of the beer and begins eating his burger, “Try the ale. It’s the best in town, I promise.”

Marika takes a gulp of the ale, bursting with a small sweet flavor.

“Wow, that’s really good,” she grabs her burger from the plate.

“So, can I finally know your name? Or should I just call you ‘mysterious-beautiful-photography-woman-who-actually-agreed-to-go-out-with-me’?” Ben is already halfway through his meal before he starts speaking again.

Marika almost smiled, but stopped herself, “I’m Marika.”

“Oh, nice to meet you Marika, I’m Ben,” he wiped his hand and held it out for her to shake. When she took his hand, he gave a comical smile. In that moment, she thought, for just a second, that maybe world isn’t so bad anymore. Maybe she’ll actually forget about the past. Maybe she won’t have to be alone anymore.

Chapter Text

“We fight every night for something” (Tamer, 2015).

I live in a small town in Europe near the coast and when I was young, I used to dream about moving to the states and become a journalist for some big company. The New York Times. Ever since I was young I knew exactly what I wanted to do, what I was born to do.

However, my best friend of twelve years had no idea what she wanted to do. Yes, she had many interests and talents, but she was never passionate for anything. I used to lay in my bed late at night, when all the lights were off, and think to myself ‘How can someone live like that?’.

I never knew what it felt like to not know where I belong.

But now I write to you, anonymous reader, about my confusion and my realization: I do not know who I am anymore. All this time I thought I knew what I wanted, but my best friend was the one who knew. She wanted to walk away from the small town that we had grew up together in. And when she left her past, including me, I was lost. She had guided me, blindly, my entire life.

For the past four months, ever since she left, I’ve been drinking more than usual; everyday, in fact. I hate the word, but I have become an alcoholic, something I’ve despised my entire life.

This isn’t some sob story, please do not pity me because I know it is my fault. I couldn’t hold myself together all on my own.

However, tonight I realized something very important about myself and my life: I control it. I realized nobody will ever care about me unless I make them.

So this is for the black teenager in the dark alley, bleeding out because ‘he just didn’t fit in’. This is for the girl, half-unconscious in her boyfriend’s car as he lays on top of her. This is for the boy with breasts and a vagina. This is to every single person out there who feels like nothing matters anymore. To every person out there who gave up on everything and everybody because they lost a special person or found out they have cancer or just feels depressed. This is to every person feeling like there is nothing left to fight for on this earth: “Control what you can, confront what you can’t” (The Maine, 2015).

Take control of everything you can and keep fighting, because I swear, somebody out there is waiting for you to come into their life and make everything special. Somebody out there is waiting for you to take a leap of faith and the chance of a lifetime. Somebody out there is waiting for you to find them.

Everybody deserves a place on this planet no matter what race you are or who you like or your gender. And if you ever feel like you aren’t worth living, get up and keep fighting.

I will not linger in my best friend’s scent any longer; I will continue with my life and put myself together, one step at a time. And for everyone else struggling with the same things I do or anything else at all, please continue.

As Tamer had said, “we fight every night for something”. I’m fighting for my best friend, hoping I will see her again one day. I’m fighting for The New York Times and the small things that give me joy like waking up every morning with a cup of coffee by my side. Or meeting that girl at the club a couple blocks from my apartment and having breakfast together the next morning. Or listening to my favorite band every morning as I drive around town, jumping from store to store. We just have to hold onto the little things, to fight for something.

———————————————————————————————————————

Ben laid out a couple dollars as tip for Frank and slips his backpack on. He escorts Marika out the pub, holding the door like a gentleman, and walks her back to her motel room.

“So what got you into photography?,” he asked with his hands swinging by his sides as they slowly walk down the sidewalk.

“My best friend from a long time ago gave me a camera for a birthday present when we were little. Ever since, I’ve been obsessed with capturing moments in life. I love going through pictures from years ago and reliving the moment; it’s almost as if I jumped to the past,” she sighs a little.

Ben gives a nod as if he understands and kicks a pebble across the sidewalk, onto the road, “From a long time ago meaning he or she is no longer your friend?”

“Long time ago meaning I met him a long time ago and I don’t really know if we are friends anymore.” They arrive at her door and just stand around for a second.

“Was it bad?”

Marika grabs the keys from her pocket and leans against the door, “Everything becomes bad if you think about it long enough.”

“I wish I had a best friend when I was growing up, you’re lucky. If that means anything to you at all.” Marika doesn’t respond and just stares back at Ben. The hallway is completely empty, except for the two of them standing in the middle.

Ben slowly leans down towards Marika and waits for her response. When she doesn’t move and continues to stare into his eye, he gently places his hand just under her jawline and kisses her. She leans into him and deepens the kiss, placing her hand against his chest.

After a minute she pulls away, gasping for air while leaning against the motel door. Without saying a word, she turns around and unlocks the door. Before she can slip through into her room, Ben grabs her waist and turns her back around for one last kiss. The kiss is slow and longing, as if the two wanted to stretch out the moment for as long as possible. Marika pulls away again and Ben takes a step back while taking his phone out of his pocket.

“Mind if I get your number?” They exchange cell phones and dial in their numbers.

“So. Breakfast?” Ben smiles, “After we can go to the lake across town; it’s beautiful down there.”

Marika bites her lip to stop from smiling, “Second date so soon?”

“Before we grow old.” If it’s possible, his smiles grows larger and brighter and he gives a deep laugh before walking backwards out of the hallway. Marika waves him goodbye and shuts the door, staring at the door where Ben was just standing. Then, when she’s alone, she lets out a small smile to herself. She hasn’t felt this way since leaving Alex and begins to remember what it feels like to not be alone.

Marika lays on the bed and dangles her legs off the edge, just barely touching the dirty, carpet floor. She grabs the crumbled paper off the bed and stares at the address. I’ll meet her after breakfast with Ben. No more holding it off.

Throwing the paper on the nightstand next to the bed, she slipped out of her t-shirt and jeans and got under the covers. She turned the lamp off and laid there, staring at the ceiling. What happens after I meet her? What if she doesn’t want to see me? What will I do then?

There’s a light tap on the door early in the morning, but it instantly wakes Marika up. She rolls out of bed and begins lazily walking toward the door until she realizes she’s undressed.

“Who is it?” she grabs a long sweater that just barely covers her undergarments and opens the door just a crack to stick her head out.

“Good morning, sleepy head,” Ben’s wearing a clean, white t-shirt and dark blue cargo shorts along with black Nike’s and a ‘Destroy The Future’ blue snapback.

As he scratches his jaw, Marika notices a small scruff of hair that hadn’t been there the day before.

“I thought we agreed to breakfast?” he gives a small smile, making his beard stand out more, and leans his shoulder against the door frame.

“Nobody eats breakfast this early,” Marika opens the door open a more so she no longer hides behind the door.

Ben stands up straight and looks at his wristwatch in an exaggerated motion, “Really? It’s nine o’clock,” he looks back at her and just glances at her bare legs before looking her in the eyes.

He gives a deep laugh as she realizes the time, “Well, let me get ready then.” She leaves the door open to let him in and begins searching through her stuffed backpack for something clean to wear.

“This is all you have?” Ben closes the motel door behind him and plops himself onto the bed while watching Marika sift through her bag.

“This is all I brought. Like I said, I wasn’t staying long.” Marika settles for a sleeveless, dark blue shirt with the Nirvana logo and booty shorts. She walks into the bathroom and begins changing.

“Last night you said you were here for someone. If you don’t mind me asking who?”

Marika hesitated before saying, “I came to visit my mother. I was hoping I could stay with her for a while, or at least until I got everything figured out.”

“So why are you here, in this motel?”

Marika steps out of the bathroom and tosses her sweater onto the bed, “Well, she doesn’t know I’m here. I haven’t seen her for a long time.”

“What do you mean?” Ben holds the camera, inside of its case, that he found on the nightstand.

“I don’t really want to talk about it right now,” Marika stands in front of Ben, looking down at her feet.

“Okay, let’s get breakfast then,” he gives her a reassuring smile and they head out.

“I invited Cassie and Evan to eat with us. You’ll love them, I promise.” They get seated in Ben’s white Jeep.

“I thought we were just heading down to the pub next to the cafe.”

Ben throws his head back and laughs as if he thought it was really funny, “I know more places than just the pub next door.”

“How long have you been living here?” Marika asks after a couple silent minutes of driving.

“I just came for college. I used to live in Northern California, but I have to admit, it’s a lot nicer here,” Ben glances at her for just a second before looking back at the road, “How about you? Where are you from? With that English accent.”

“You would never guess; I’m from England.”

Ben laughs loudly, “You’re right, I wouldn’t ever have guessed.”

“I lived in Ayr; it’s like an hour from Glasgow.”

“You know, I’ve never been to the UK and I wouldn’t mind if you would give me tour around there,” Ben smiles wide.

“Well, you can find yourself another tour guide. I’m never going back there,” Marika looks out the window, refusing to look at Ben when she speaks even though she can feel his eyes on her.

“Bad memories or just a horrible place in general?”

“Both.”

They arrive at the pancake house and meet Cassie and Evan inside.

“Marika, this is Cassie. And this is Evan,” Ben introduces the three and they formally shake hands.

“Nice to meet you, again,” Cassie smiles at Marika.

“Oh, yeah. You two actually met yesterday at the cafe,” Ben recalled.

“Well, we didn’t speak much,” Cassie replies.

“I’m sorry I had to leave,” Marika says to be polite.

“Oh, no worries.”

The waiter came up and took their order before disappearing to prepare their meal. The entire restaurant seemed pretty empty, except for a few elderly couples.

“So are you two together?” Marika is the first to speak after the waiter leaves.

“Yes, Evan and I have been together for about a year already,” Cassie says while Evan puts his arm around her.

“Do all three of you go to the same college?”

“No, I work down at the car shop on the other side of town,” Evan says, pointing his thumb behind him.

“But Ben and I go to the same school. We are actually both majoring in artistic categories,” Cassie adds, “What about you?”

“Oh, I didn’t go to college. It didn’t feel right.”

“I see, so what do you do?”

“Well, nothing right now. I’m just traveling and hoping to settle down somewhere, maybe.”

“Marika’s a photographer,” Ben adds with a smile, pleased with himself, “Also, Evan, my car has been having problems with the turning signals and some other things. Could you check it out later today?” The two of them go off about cars, leaving Marika and Cassie sitting awkwardly across from each other.

The food arrives and everyone digs into their separate plates of pancakes.

“So how long have you been in town?” Cassie begins.

“Just a couple days, I wasn’t planning on staying long,” Marika covers her mouth full of food as she speaks.

The two continue talking politely to each other, neither exactly comfortable with the other. When they finish their food, the couples go their separate ways, Cassie giving a quick hug to Marika and Evan managing a small ‘nice to meet you’ before they get back into the car.

“You seem a little tense,” Ben notes as they sit in the car. Bitch!

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—” Marika murmurs quickly and quietly.

“You don’t have to apologize,” Ben says gently, “I just wanted to know what’s on your mind.”

“I’m just nervous about meeting my mother,” Marika fiddles with her thumbs, still not looking at Ben whenever her mother comes up.

Ben grabs her hand and forces her to look him in the eye, “It’ll be fine, don’t worry about that right now. We’re going to go to the lake and it’s gonna be calm and peaceful, and you’re gonna forget about this for a couple hours.”

“You don’t understand, I never forget. I haven’t forgotten for the past eleven years,” Marika whispers.

Ben doesn’t say anything for a while, just holds her hand, “You’re right. I don’t understand, but that doesn’t mean you have to shut me out. Please, let me help you; I can’t fix your past and I can’t make it better, but I can make these moments better.”

Marika just nods and Ben takes it as a sign to give her some time. He clips his seatbelt on and begins driving to the lake, all while still holding her hand.

Chapter Text

The lake is surrounded by trees, so Ben parks the car and they both get off to walk the rest. Neither of them had said a word the rest of the car ride. The entire time, Marika was willing herself to tell Ben more about her mother, but she couldn’t get a word out.

“Can I see the pictures you took?” Ben nods at the camera in her hands. She hands it to him with a slight nod of her head.

Ben slowly begins flipping through the photos, studying every single one. First were the pictures taken just recently; the long, winding road from the car ride to the lake. Next were from the mountains yesterday, when she had that conversation with Alex while looking over the city and thinking of her mother. There were tons from the other nine cities she had visited before and they were all beautiful. Some were of the people, lazily walking down the sidewalk. Some were of skyscrapers and some were of old, raggy buildings that seemed to be built hundreds of years ago.

They continued zigzagging through trees as Ben flipped through the photos. They arrived at the end of the forest and looked across the large, empty lake, just barely seeing the other end, but Ben kept his attention on the photos. He looked through all the photos from the past four months before the camera began looping through the same photos again.

“These are all you took? They’re beautiful.” He finally looks at Marika with a crooked smile.

“There’s more, but they’re really bad. I took them when I was in high school.”

“Can I see them later?” Ben handed her back the camera and Marika walked along the edge of the lake, searching for a nice angle.

Marika almost said no, there were a lot of photos from the past; blurry photos of her father, taken at an angle where he wasn’t looking as if he didn’t know he was being photographed. Bitch! “Later,” she said.

She begins snapping a couple photos of the lake with the tall, dark trees in the background, half hidden by the fog lurking along the ground.

“So when do you plan on leaving?” Ben begins.

“I don’t know. Whenever I feel like it.” She stops taking pictures, satisfied with the results.

Ben puts a hand into the lake, feeling the water temperature, “Hey, let’s go for a swim.”

“No, it’s dirty,” Marika begins walking around the lake while looking down the length of it.

“It’s not, I’ve swam in it before. Trust me,” Ben says and throws a handful of water at her. Only a few drops actually hits her, but she stops walking and looks back at Ben with a surprised expression.

“Oh my god, you’re gonna get my camera wet!” Marika looks to see if there’s any water on the lens. Ben wipes his hand on his shirt and carefully places the camera back into its case before setting it at a safe distance away from the water.

“Ben, come on, I don’t want to get wet.” She watches him set the camera down.

“Marika, come on, live a little.” Ben walks toward her with a big smile on his face, willing her to respond with her own. He throws off his shirt and shorts, leaving them both in the dirt.

“Ben I’m serious,” Marika says with a hint of a smile on her face; he’s standing right in front of her now. He wraps his arms around her and leans in to give her a kiss. He smiles halfway through the kiss and releases her.

“You’re gonna take that off or I will,” he says while laughing.

Marika gives a slight smile, not showing her teeth, “So is this how you get a girl to take off her clothes?”

Ben laughs louder and Marika shimmies out of her shirt and shorts. “No, but this works as well,” he says. He leans down for another kiss and they stand there tangled around each other for a minute.

Then, Marika pushes Ben into the lake and almost laughs as his scream is muffled by the water. Ben surfaces to the top and yells, “Marika! Get in here!”

He gets out of the water and she begins running along the lake. Before she can get far, he throws his wet arms around her and she nearly shrieks from the cold water. He hugs her tightly so she can’t run away again.

“Revenge is sweet!” Ben yells before dragging Marika into the lake. When they both resurface, Marika lets out a loud laugh, something she hasn’t done in a long time.

They continue to splash around in the water until Marika gets out and lays on the grass near the trees. Ben follows her out and lays beside her in the sun.

They lie in silence for a while until Marika speaks up, “My mother left me and my father when I was ten years old, eleven years ago, and I haven’t seen her since.

She wasn’t one to just up and leave her family, but my father was an alcoholic, still is, and I guess I was just a disappointment.” Marika closes her eyes.

“I came here to meet her. I don’t know why, maybe just to show her I’m not like my father.” Ben lays on his side, watching Marika speak, and gently grabs her hand in his.

“When she left, it was just me and my father… I would do whatever I could to stay away from the house, too many bad memories. But, when I was sleeping, he would come home drunk and scream and throw things and…” she couldn’t say it out loud, fearing her father would hear her and come after her. Bitch! She rubs the scar on her thigh unconsciously, reliving the moment.

He had drank way too much and blacked out that night. It was almost three in the morning when he stumbled into the house, yelling at Marika to come downstairs. Marika knew he would hurt her, so she hid in her room, hoping he wouldn’t come up. Her heart froze when she heard the loud footsteps thundering up the stairs. One. Two. Three. There were sixteen steps and she counted each one every night as she hid in the corner. She would’ve ran into the bathroom and locked the door, but it had been shattered when her father first blacked out.

He burst through her bedroom door and grabbed her hair. “Bitch! You think you can hide from me?!” He threw her down the stairs and followed her down. By then, she was already bruised and crying for him to stop, but she knew he couldn’t hear her. It wasn’t her father she was screaming at.

“Stupid bitch! Stupid, stupid, stupid! You don’t do a single fucking thing for me!” he grabbed a broken beer bottle from the night before and began swinging it around. Marika screamed and tried to run out the front door, but her father slashed the broken glass across her thigh, leaving a huge gash, gushing with blood.

Her father dropped the bottle and began slapping her, yelling a curse word with each slap. Then Alex ran into the house, terrified after seeing blood cover the floor. He pushed her father off her and her father fell unconscious with a thud.

Marika was rushed to a hospital and spent the next year working to pay off the medical bills. Every morning, she went to school in jeans and a hoodie, hoping no one would notice the bruises on her face. But it didn’t matter if the kids saw it or not because everyone in town knew about her alcoholic father.

Ben took her other hand away from the scar. Marika looked at Ben, expecting a look of pity, but he looked as if he understood, or was trying to.

“It’s okay, you’re not there anymore.” He pulls Marika into a hug. After a minute, Marika pulls free.

“I’m fine.” She looks at Ben, but can’t tell what he’s thinking. She knew that he knew what her father had done to her: how he had damaged her and left her in broken pieces.

“You are, and nobody can hurt you anymore. I won’t let them,” Ben says firmly and reassuringly.

Marika suddenly leaned towards Ben and kissed him hard on the mouth. It was sloppy, unlike their other kisses. This one was filled with pain and longing and lust; Marika poured her heart out, hoping she could tell him everything here that she couldn’t say in words.

Ben climbs on top of her and kisses her with more longing. He trails hard kisses down to her neck, answering the unspoken plea that Marika had conveyed with the first kiss. Both wanting acceptance from the world and to forget the world at the same time.

The couple climbs into the Jeep cheerfully; Marika leans over with a big smile and gives Ben a peck on the cheek. Ben starts the car and begins driving back to town.

“So where to next, my lady?” Ben asks with one hand on the wheel and one hand intertwined with Marika’s.

“Can you drop me off at the motel? I think I’ll just stay in the rest of the day.”

“Stay in? It’s just past noon; the day hasn’t even started yet.” Ben looks at Marika with raised eyebrows.

“I’m just really tired.” The smile had dropped from Marika’s face as she remembered her mother. I have to see her today.

“Okay then.” Ben continues to drive.

“So tell me more about yourself.” Marika pulls out her camera and focuses it on Ben.

He laughs and asks, “Why are you taking pictures of me? My story’s not very interesting.”

“I want to capture the moment, I mean what else are pictures for? I want to see what you felt back then. Just tell me about yourself.”

“Okay, what do you want to know?” Ben glances at her, giving her a questioning look.

“Something deep and personal. I want to know the real you, not just what’s on the surface.” Marika looks at Ben through the eye hole on the camera.

“Okay, hard-hitting stuff. Um, well, as you know, I grew up in Northern California. And I was teased a lot about my weight throughout middle school. I was a fat kid back then, everyone made fun of me. And I thought it would go away once I entered high school, but it got even worse. I was called names every single day and sometimes beaten after school by the jocks. Physical education was required in my school and I would always go to the bathroom stalls to change because the guys would make fun of me. And even when I was alone at home, I couldn’t look at myself naked in front of the mirror; I hated my body so much.” Marika snapped a photo.

“I started eating less halfway through freshman year—ninth grade. I thought it would help me, but I didn’t lose any weight. So I stopped eating altogether, hoping that if I starved myself enough, I would get skinny. It didn’t work and before the school year ended, I was diagnosed with anorexia.” The camera went off again.

“I refused to eat more than an apple a day, no matter how many times I passed out or how weak I felt, I never ate. I was given meds to help me; it gave me an urge to eat, but I still resisted. It took me the entire summer to start eating again; I wasn’t losing any weight and it was becoming harder and harder to stay awake during the day. But every time I tried eating, my body just threw it back up. It took me until the end of sophomore year—tenth grade—to get back to a regular eating schedule.” Another picture.

“During those five years, from sixth to tenth grade, I couldn’t stand myself. I hated my body and I hated myself. I hated that I couldn’t fix how I looked.

“But then tenth grade ended, and I had a lot of free time in the summer. I started eating healthier and working out. All I did the entire summer was work out and eat. I didn’t eat a lot, just enough to give me strength to work out. And I actually lost a lot of weight; I didn’t feel as bad about my body as I did before. Eventually, I got skinnier and stronger and it wasn’t until senior year—twelfth grade—that I looked like one of the jocks.” The camera clicks again.

“But even after I started working out, I still changed in the stall. Even after I got slimmer, I couldn’t look at my body in the mirror. Even throughout junior year—eleventh grade—I was teased and beaten.” Marika lowers the camera from her eye and sets it on her lap.

“I couldn’t look at my body until senior year. And once I was buff and strong, people started treating me better, I wasn’t teased or hit. Everyone suddenly wanted to talk to me and be my friend. It wasn’t until then when I truly learned that appearances do matter and people will judge you no matter what.”

“I don’t know what to say.” Marika grabs Ben’s hand.

“Don’t pity me, I guess it was some important life lesson. People are assholes. I had to learn that the hard way, just as you did.”

Marika just nods and the car is silent for a while until she says, “I’m really glad I met you. I mean, you don’t understand what I went through and I don’t understand what you went through, but we still know how much it hurts. And we don’t have to talk about it and we know it’s always going to be there, but you make me forget about it and I like that.”

Ben parks the car in front of the motel and walks Marika to her door with their hands intertwined.

“Want me to stay with you?” Marika lets go of Ben and grabs the key from her pocket.

“I kind of just want to be alone right now.” She unlocks the door and steps inside.

“Alright, how about dinner tonight? I want to make you food.” Ben gives a soft smile.

“Sure.”

“Okay, I’ll pick you up at seven?” Marika just nods and waves him goodbye before closing the door.

She takes and deep breath and washes her face. Looking at herself in the mirror, she feels happy and as if she no longer carries the weight of her past. This is what she’s been searching for since she left England.

She places the camera on the nightstand and slips the small paper into her shorts. You have to see her today. After pacing back and forth for a while, she rolls her bike out of the motel room and onto the street. It takes fifteen minutes to bike into the neighborhood and Marika slows the bike so she can see the house number.

18956. 18958. 18960. 18962. She stops the bike in front of the small, tan house. From the front, she can hear a girl screaming inside along with another girl, probably chasing each other around. It’s 1:16 pm, six hours until Ben picks her up. She gets off the bike and lays it on the grass. There’s a small tricycle lying upside down on the grass, closer to the house. There are three pairs of old, dirty shoes scattered in front of the door.

Marika slowly walks up to the front door and takes a deep breath. She holds her fist up to the door, getting ready to knock, and takes another deep breath before pounding on the door three times. The playful screams and laughs from inside the house immediately go silent.

Before Marika has time to turn around, the door swings open. A black haired woman with dark circles under her eyes stares at her.

“Hello,” she says nonchalantly, not recognizing her. Marika notices a few grey streaks of hair just beginning to grow at her hairline. She catches a glimpse of two skinny girls hiding behind her mother before they shriek and run off deep into the house.

“Hi, I’m Marika.” She takes a deep breath, waiting for her mother’s response, but she doesn’t recall.

They stand in silence for a few seconds before the woman says, “Uh, hi. Is there anything you need? Did the girls break something again?”

Then Marika noticed the woman’s face; it was nothing like her mother’s. Her mother had a longer face and freckles on her nose. This woman was darker and her nose was crooked without a single freckle.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else. Uh, would you happen to know who lived here last?”

“Oh, no. I never met her. Unfortunately, she died a couple years ago. But I heard she was a nice woman. Did you know her?”

“Uh…” Marika didn’t know what to say, immediately thinking of how she had missed her mother.

“She’s buried in the cemetery a couple blocks down if you would like to visit. I can show you the way.” The woman offers and Marika just nods.

In just ten minutes, Marika was standing in front of her mother’s grave, her full name finely engraved in the stone.

“Do you know anything else about her?”

“I think she had a daughter. Poor child was sent to foster care. I’m sorry for your loss.” The woman’s voice sounds fake, as if she couldn’t wait to leave Marika there.

“She had a daughter?”

“Yes, I think she was seven or eight years old, too young to be an orphan.”

“What happened to the father?”

“I don’t know. Never heard about him.”

“You don’t have to stay with me. I would actually like to be alone right now.” Marika gives her the signal and she nods before quickly rushing out of the graveyard.

Marika squats down to eye-level with the gravestone, “Hello mother. I’m sorry I’m late, I was stuck in England. I wanted to see you again, I really did. I wanted to show you how nice I turned out. I’m not screwed up. I’m not like father.

“Dad is still in England. I don’t know how he’s doing, haven’t seen him in months. I came here for you and I’m sorry it took so long. I was scared that you wouldn’t like me. You know, I spent my whole life thinking you hated me because you left me with Dad. I guess I’ll never know the real reason why you left me.”

Marika takes a long, deep breath and stands back up. She walks out of the graveyard to her bike leaning against the gate. She had a daughter. Could she be my sister? Maybe I can get to know her. Maybe I’m here for her. Maybe she is my closure. Marika mounted the bike and rode down the street, determined to find her sister.

Chapter Text

The phone rang four times before Ben picked up. “Hi, Marika.”

She could feel his bright smile radiating through the phone. “Ben, where is the closest foster care center?”

“Woah, planning on adopting? I think you should wait until you find a place to stay, or at least a solid job.”

“No.” Marika paced around her motel room, eager to look for the adoption center herself.

“Look, I went to see my mother.” She held her breath, waiting for Ben’s response.

“Okay, what happened?”

“Ben, she’s dead. She passed two years ago.”

“I’m sorry—”

“Don’t be, she walked out on me. But I met this lady and she said my mother had a daughter. She’s an orphan now.”

“Okay, but you’re thinking of adopting her?” Ben asked skeptically.

“No, I just wanted to meet her. I mean, she could be my sister, or half-sister. I just need something more. I couldn’t have come all this way just to see a grave.”

“I’m coming to pick you up. I’ll drop you off at the center. The closest one is outside of town.” Marika hangs up the phone and gathers her things in her backpack: her camera, earbuds, money, and a jacket. She slips her phone into her back pocket and leaves the motel room.

In ten minutes, Ben arrives at the motel and Marika gets seated in the passenger seat.

“How far is it?” Marika asks.

“About an hour’s drive away. Get comfy,” he says with a smile.

“So you don’t actually know if she’s your sister.” Ben says a few minutes into the car ride.

“I don’t know if she’s my sister, but we share the same mother so she’s at least my half-sister.”

“So let’s say we meet her and you love her. She’s your sister, but she’s still in foster care. Will you adopt her?”

“I don’t know. I mean, I definitely wouldn’t want her to stay there, but I don’t know if I can take care of her myself.”

Ben just nods and the two don’t speak for the rest of the car ride. They arrive at the adoption center at half past three and walk inside. The building was tiny and there were only two rooms. A young-looking lady stood up from the reception desk and greeted the two with a smile.

“Good afternoon! Are you looking to adopt? Or do you have an appointment?” The woman asks in a cheerful tone, as if she was excited to talk after sitting in the empty room all day. All across the desk were pamphlets showing young, happy kids playing around.

“My mother died two years ago and her daughter was admitted into foster care. I just recently learned this and I’m here to claim my sister,” Marika said.

“Oh, of course. Come on back and I’ll see what I can do.” The lady rushed Ben and Marika into a smaller, white room with posters promoting foster care and a desk with four chairs and a desktop.

“So, your mother recently died and you’re looking to claim your sister who was accidentally placed in foster care?” The lady clarified as they sat down.

“Well, my mother died two years ago and before just recently I didn’t know I had a sister. But I would like to meet her, if that’s fine.”

“Of course. Do you know the birth name of your sister?” The lady begins typing annoyingly on the keyboard. Marika tells her no, but gives her mother’s name instead, hoping the the woman can find the girl.

After a couple seconds, the woman comes up with a name, “Allison. I can schedule a meeting with her if you would like. She’s currently in the foster care cycle; it’s basically a rotation of many parents who work as caregivers to foster children who have not been adopted yet.” The woman turns her computer screen towards Marika to show her a small profile picture of her sister.

“Yes, can you do that for me?” Marika stares at the picture of the little girl with a smile plastered on her face from ear to ear.

“Of course, so you’re looking to just meet Allison or adopt her?”

“For now, I just want to meet her. I mean, I don’t think I’m in any position to be taking care of a child… Would you, by any chance, happen to know the name of Allison’s father?”

“I’m sorry, that information’s classified. I’m not allowed to disclose that unless you are the legal guardian to Allison, which—if you adopt her—you will be.”

“Okay, when can I meet her?” Marika looked at Ben, who sat quietly listening to their conversation.

“I’ll give you her current foster caregiver’s phone number and you two should choose a time that suits the both of you.” The woman scribbles a ten digit number onto a pink post-it note and hands it to Marika.

“After you and Allison meet, if you would like to adopt her, you can always come back here so we can get the guardian and legal paperwork filled out. She’s a sweet little girl.” Marika thanks the woman and walks out of the adoption center with Ben.

Ben and Marika sit in the car as she holds the phone to her ear and stares at the post-it note with messy handwriting of Allison’s caretaker’s number. She counts the phone ring three times before the call is picked up.

“Hello?” A deep, accented voice that sounds as if it belongs to a French man comes through the phone.

“Hi, my name is Marika. I’m calling about one of your foster kids, Allison?” Marika looks at Ben with a hopeful expression as she speaks to the man. Ben returns with a cheerful smile, which makes her smile back in turn.

“Oh, yes. Would you like to adopt Allison? She’s a nice, strong kid; I’ll tell you that for sure.” The man’s accent grows thicker with each word.

“No, I was just wondering if I can meet her. Are you free anytime today?”

“No, I’m sorry. But I can do tomorrow if you are willing. How about lunch? And after we can go to the park; Allison loves playing on the playground.”

Marika smiles. “Yes, I would love to. Where should we meet?”

“The Suburban Deli. Allison loves their sandwiches.”

“Okay, so tomorrow noon at The Suburban Deli. I’ll see you and Allison then. Thank you.” Marika hangs up the phone and places it on her lap while taking a long, deep breath.

“Good?” Ben asks and Marika nods. He smiles and leans in to plant a soft kiss on her lips. She wraps her arms around him and smiles into the kiss.

“Okay, we should start heading back, by the time we get back it’ll be late,” Marika pushes Ben back to the driver’s side of the car and buckles her seatbelt.

Once they’re back on the road, Marika plugs her phone into the stereo and plays her favorite song. As the beginning of the song starts and the singing kicks in, Marika leans back against the seat and closes her eyes, listening to every part of the song—lyrics and instruments.

Marika whispers the words to herself as the artist sings them as Ben watches her. So long as the blood keeps flowing, I’ll set a sail and swim across. I’m not looking to be found, just want to feel unlost.

The song finishes off and Ben continues to watch Marika as she takes a second longer to hold on to the moment before opening her eyes.

“Beautiful song,” he says, as a more upbeat song starts to play through the speakers.

“It’s my favorite song. I listen to it every time I feel… well, lost.” Marika smiles sadly, thinking of the thousands of times she had turned up the song in her earbuds as she was falling apart.

Ben laughs a little and focuses back on the road. “They’re a really good band. I’ve only heard a few songs from them, but they’re amazing. I heard they’re playing around sometime next month. Wanna go see them?”

“I would love to see them; I love all their songs. But I really don’t think I’m going to stay here for long. I really only came here for my mother. I think once I meet Allison I’m leaving.”

Ben’s smile disappeared. “You’re leaving?”

“Yes, I told you when we first met, I don’t like to stay in one place too long.” Marika looks out the window.

“But what about me? What’s this then?” Ben motioned between the two of them with his finger.

“Well, I’m assuming you’re going to finish college and head to New York, like you had said before. And I don’t know what this is, Ben.” Marika still refused to look at him.

“Marika, look at me,” Ben said stiffly.

Marika slowly turned her head to face him and just stares at him with a blank expression.

“I like you, Ben. But I can’t stay here and you can’t leave.”

“Why? Why can’t you stay? You can live at my place and just find a small job. You can ride to the mountains everyday and take those beautiful pictures of yours. And you can see Allison everyday without being her legal guardian. I know you’re hurting and you just want to get away from everything good in your life, but what about me? What about Allison?”

“Ben, you don’t know me. I’m not trying to get away from happiness; I’m just trying to clear my head and my life before getting into anything that can hurt me even more. I’m just trying to figure myself out and I’m sorry if that led you to believe I would stay here with you,” Marika turns her body towards the door and looks out the window the rest of the car ride home.

The two sit in the car silently with a heavy ambience lingering in the air. Marika’s words repeat over and over in both of their minds, neither knowing what to say next.

When the ride is nearly over, Ben asks, “Would you still like dinner? It’s six so you might as well.”

Marika shakes her head. “No, just drop me off. I kind of just want to be alone tonight.”

Ben drops Marika off with a small wave and an awkward goodbye before driving away. Marika watches Ben drive away until his car disappears around the corner.

As she begins walking into the motel, she hears a familiar voice call out her name. She could recognize that voice anywhere. The voice that’s quiet and loud, low and high, familiar and unrecognizable all at the same time. She heard it when she was ten, as it soothed her cries when her mother left. She heard it when she was half unconscious in a hospital bed the morning after her father had cut her. She heard it over the phone for the first time in four months after leaving England.

Marika froze as Alex walked in front of her along with a small man with big ears on his heels.

“Marika,” the golden haired boy said again. It was the kind of golden that Marika saw every evening as the sun set in the sky. The kind of golden that made the boy look like a king, as if he owned the entire world.

Alex stared at her in disbelief, finally seeing her for the first time in four months. Without another word, the two embrace each other as if everything was alright. Alex is the first to let go and they stand at arm's distance within each other.

“Want to go for dinner? I was just going to drop this off.” Marika motioned to her backpack. The three walk into the motel room and Marika takes some cash before throwing the bag onto the bed. Alex and his friend left their bags in her room before heading out again.

“This is Dumbo.” Alex introduces Dumbo and Marika gives a polite ‘hello’ before introducing herself.

“Oh, I know. Alex couldn’t stop talking about you the whole way here.” Alex hits Dumbo on the arm telling him to stop. Marika gives a little laugh and Alex looks at her with a gleam in his eyes. He hasn’t seen her laugh in years.

The three of them just head to The Pub for a quick meal. Marika orders the same burger as the night before and the Irish Ale that Ben had recommended.

“So how long have you two known each other?” Marika asks as they wait for their food.

“Um, four days, I think, right?” Dumbo asks Alex and he just nods.

“Alex needed a plane ticket over to America and I’ve always wanted to visit.”

“So you just bought him a ticket? That’s really generous of you.”

“No, well, I mean, he’s going to pay me back once he gets the money. Like a loan except a plane ticket rather than money.”

“Why didn’t you just get a loan from the bank?” Marika asked Alex as their food came out. She murmured a quick thank you to Frank and began digging in.

“Oh, nothing important. We can talk about that later, but tell me about that guy whose car you had gotten out of,” Alex asked the question in a skeptical way, both suspicious and curious as to who he is.

“That was Ben. I met him at the cafe next door yesterday.”

“That’s it? Are you two dating or something?”

“I really don’t know what we’re doing. But why do you care so much?”

“It’s just, back outside, you had the brightest smile and I haven’t seen that in so long. I’m glad he’s making you happy.” Alex gives a small smile before taking a bite out of his burger.

After dinner, the three walk back to the motel and Alex and Dumbo rent a room to share for the night. Marika heads into her own room as the two get situated into theirs.

Before five minutes have passed, Marika hears a knock on the door and lets Alex into the room. She had changed back into her long sweater and sat on the bed, her lower half underneath the covers, as Alex closed the door behind him.

“Why couldn’t you pay for your own ticket?” She asked right away. Alex slipped off his shoes and slid under the sheets, opposite of Marika.

“Marika, that doesn’t matter right now. I want to know why you left,” Alex answers, suddenly angry. He poured all the anger and sadness he had felt for the last four months into the conversation.

“I told you, I was looking for my mother. And I wanted to get away from England; I just couldn’t stay there anymore. I wasn’t doing anything. All I did was take a beating from my father; I couldn’t even find a decent job. What did you want me to do?”

“At least let me know you were leaving. Don’t just disappear on me, you know how much I worried about you?”

“How’d you know I wasn’t dead? Why’d you keep calling me?”

“If it kept ringing, then your phone was on. Someone had to charge it. Someone had to pay the phone bills. I just knew you were avoiding me. I just want to know why. Why did you leave me?”

“I wasn’t trying to leave you, I was just trying to leave my past.”

“And that included me. You did exactly what your mother had done to you eleven years ago. You spend all this time saying you’re not like your mother, who just leaves everyone, or your father, who’s an alcoholic and can’t hold a job, but you’re exactly like them!” Alex raises his voice, but immediately regrets saying it to her.

Marika is silent; she just stares at the blanket with a hurt expression.

“Marika, I’m sorry I didn’t mean that. It just hurts that you left.” She doesn’t respond.

“I’ve been taking care of your father. I pay all his bills and try to get him out of the bar before he blacks out. I never knew how hard it was for you until then. He’s been crying everyday since you left. He cares about you, Marika.”

“He doesn’t care. If he did, he wouldn’t have drank that much. He wouldn’t have hit me. He would’ve taken care of me when I was young… Is he here?”

“No, he’s back in England. I got a friend taking care of him now. Marika, I came to bring you home.”

“I’m never going back there. I can’t stand the memories that lie there.”

“What are you going to do then? Stay here in this motel?”

“No, I came here for my mother, Alex. Her grave is here.”

“I’m sorry—”

“I found out she had a daughter—Allison—and I want to meet her. After, then I guess I’ll go wherever the wind takes me.”

“She had a daughter? Is she your sister?”

“I thought she was my sister, but she has to be my half-sister. Allison is only seven years old and my mother left England eleven years ago. She couldn’t have carried her for four years.”

“So where’s her father?”

“I don’t know. Dead?”

“She’s an orphan?’

“Yeah, I’m meeting her and her foster caretaker tomorrow.”

“Then what? You’re going to adopt her?” Alex asked the exact same way as Ben had.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just want to meet her first… So, now that everything has been said, what’s going on about the plane ticket?”

Alex takes a deep breath before saying, “I’m in debt. It’s bad. I started paying all the bills for your father: the electric, the phone, the water, and the alcohol. And I drank a pretty fair amount myself.”

“How much do you owe?”

“$100,000. Plus an extra $950 to the bar.”

“Oh my god, Alex. How could you let it get that bad? How are you going to pay it off?”

“I don’t know. It just kept on adding up and I wasn’t thinking straight. When you left it messed me up. I was drinking too much and skipping work. I was becoming your father and it scared me, but all I could do was drink more.”

“I’ll help you pay it off. I have about a couple thousand in the bank. We can take half of it first and I’ll find a job somewhere. We can work to pay it off.”

“Thank you, Marika. I don’t want to take your money, but I have no one else to turn to.” Alex leans in to hug her and she wraps her arms around him.

“I’m glad you came. I missed you,” she whispers. It was then that Alex completely forgave her for leaving for four months. He realized she needed to get out of town and she needed to be alone for a while. And now they were together as they were before—best friends. They release each other and Marika gets out of bed.

“We should get some sleep. Tomorrow’s gonna be a long day. You want to sleep here tonight?” She asks. Alex just nods and lies on the bed, under the covers.

Marika turns off the lights before slipping into bed next to Alex.

“Goodnight, Marika,” Alex whispers.

“Goodnight, Alex,” she whispers back and falls asleep to the hum of the air conditioning machine in the background.

Chapter Text

Marika stalks into the cafe wearing a blue crewneck and black skinny jeans. She takes a seat in the back corner again and waits for Ben come over. She counts each step he takes as he walks toward her until her reaches her table and watches as he takes a seat across from her without a word.

They are the only ones in the cafe. She notices his stubble from yesterday is gone and his hair is messier, as if he didn’t bother to brush it this morning.

“Are you here for coffee?” He finally speaks and Marika listens to the sound of his voice as if she hasn’t heard it in years.

“No… I’m sorry about yesterday. I didn’t mean to snap like that. I’m just not used to getting close to people and I just felt vulnerable that you knew so much about me.”

Ben doesn’t say anything, but leans over the table and kisses Marika on the lips. She closes her eyes and lets him in. She’s always been alone and needing someone to understand her, but she never knew how she had to let go and trust someone in order to feel whole.

She broke away from him and he sat back down. “Last night, when you dropped me off, I saw my best friend.”

“What? Like a hallucination?” Ben seemed confused having rarely ever hearing of Alex.

“No, I mean he’s here. He stayed the night and he wants me to go back to England.”

“What did you say was his name?”

“Alex.”

“Okay and are you going back to England with Alex?”

“I don’t plan to. And I don’t think he’s leaving without me.”

Ben leans into the table. “So where is he now?”

“He’s still sleeping, I wanted to talk alone.”

The two are silent for a couple seconds before Ben says, “Why don’t you have breakfast? What do you want? A croissant? Muffin?” Ben gets out of his seat and begins walking towards the counter filled with fresh bread.

“Can you get me a muffin and coffee? I’m going to wake Alex and bring him. I want you two to meet.”

“No, wait. Before I meet him, I want you to tell me more about him.” Ben came quickly with the blueberry muffin. He set the food in front of Marika and sat down before she spoke.

“Well, I’ve known him for a long time, like over a decade. Before my mother left. He actually helped me get through a lot of tough times. He’s a great writer and even had an article published in The New York Times.

“I remember, it was for school. Our teacher had each of us write an article to submit into a contest to be published. It was about anything we wanted and I wrote about nature and the world. Alex wrote about our small town in England. It doesn’t sound like much, but if you read it, it was like you were living there and everyone knew you. And the barista in the local cafe knew how you liked your coffee because you drank the same thing everyday. And every morning, as you walked to school, you saw the same old man, wearing the same old yellow sweater, walking a young, excited dog around the neighborhood. And you wore the same blue business suit as you drove to work on your leather-seated BMW.

“It didn’t matter who you were because everyone was the same in that town, even if you were rich or poor, popular or lame… And that’s what he wrote about. It’s not the same if I explain it to you; you have to read it to understand.”

Ben smiled slightly and said, “You described it perfectly.”

He walked around the table and leaned down toward Marika. He slide his hand behind her neck and kissed her again, slower this time. She leaned into this kiss and ran her hand through his hair, roughing it up more. Ben deepened the kiss and pushed her against the wall before trailing kisses down her neck.

“Ben, stop.” She lightly pushed him back and he looked into her eyes with a smile.

“I love you, Marika,” he whispers. Marika’s expression is blank for a minute, then she lets go and quickly stands up, heading for the door.

“I’ll be back with Alex.”

Marika opens the motel door with a loud creak. Alex is already dressed and looking through Marika’s camera.

“What are you doing?” Marika ask.

“I just wanted to see what you saw the past four months… You really like him don’t you? The way you take his picture; the way you capture him.”

Marika just nods and her eyes tear up, but she doesn’t cry. She had lost so much throughout her entire life and now, knowing that she has Ben and Alex and Allison and knowing she won’t ever lose them, she finally lets go. Alex walks to her and hugs her, hoping that just himself would be enough for her now.

“I love you, you know?” Marika says into his shirt.

“I know and I love you too.”

Marika takes a step back and composes herself. “Come on, I want you to meet Ben. He works at the cafe right next door; we can have breakfast there as well.”

“Okay, you go on first, I’ll get Dumbo up.”

“Is that really his name?”

“Nickname,” Alex says before heading out of the room.

Marika walks back into the empty cafe and finds Ben wiping down the counter. She takes a sip of the piping hot coffee Ben had set for her.

“I forgot to mention, Alex brought a friend. Don’t ask how long they’ve known each other or how good friends they are; he just used him to buy a plane ticket here.” Marika brings the cup of coffee and her muffin to the counter and sits down in front of Ben.

Ben laughs a little. “Okay, what’s his name?”

“Dumbo.” Ben gives her a questionable look as if she was joking.

“Don’t ask. I have no idea.” She smiles.

“What’s taking them so long?” she asked while looking through the windows in the front of the cafe.

Ben shrugs and makes his own drink as Marika asks, “What are you drinking?”

“Flat White.”

When Marika gives a puzzled look, he explains, “It’s another type of coffee. Here, try it.”

Marika smiles and takes a sip of the coffee. “It’s better than my coffee, that’s for sure.”

Ben laughs. “That’s because your’s is black.”

“Black is good, but your black is bad. At first I thought you were just a terrible barista.”

Ben runs around the counter and Marika screams with laughter, just barely getting off her seat. He grabs her from behind and gives her a cheeky kiss with a smile. The two are interrupted when Alex and Dumbo walk into the cafe; the bell on top of the door ringing as it swung open. Ben and Marika both look at the guys with his arms still wrapped around her. He quickly lets go of her and stands up straight.

“You must be Ben.” Alex is the first to speak.

“Yes, hi. You’re Alex?” Ben shakes hands with Alex and he just nods.

“And Dumbo.” Ben and Dumbo shake hands as well and Alex and Dumbo takes a seat. Alex next to Marika; Dumbo next to Alex. Ben walks back behind the counter.

“So what’ll it be?” Ben asks with a bright smile directed towards Alex.

“I’ll just have a chocolate muffin and decaf latte,” Alex said.

“And I’ll have your breakfast crepe and medium roast coffee with cream and sugar,” Dumbo added.

“Coming right up,” Ben turned away from the three of them to begin making the crepe while simultaneously brewing the coffee. Marika watched Ben work as she popped ripped pieces of her muffin into her mouth.

“So what’s the plan for today?” Marika asked Ben.

He turns his head to get a glance of her before saying, “Just work and then class. My lecture is over at 5:30 if you want to come over for dinner.”

“I would love that. I’m going to see Allison and her foster caretaker at noon. I’m so nervous.”

“Don’t be. I’m sure you’ll love her.”

“I know I’ll love her. I’m just scared about what she’ll think of me. I mean, she’s still young and she probably has no idea who my father is. She probably has no idea who her father is. And then I show up and try to make things better after two years of being an orphan? Just imagine how you’d feel if you were in her shoes.” Marika stared at her cup of coffee and zoned out, thinking of all the different possibilities that could happen. She almost jumped out of her chair when Ben placed Dumbo’s crepe onto the counter with a thump.

“That could happen, or you two will get along just fine and maybe you’ll see her on a regular basis,” Alex said. Dumbo began digging into his meal as Ben set down their coffee.

Ben heated up the muffin and added, “Maybe you can even adopt her. I think it’ll be good for her since she doesn’t have any family.”

“Except for the part where Marika’s living in a disgusting motel with barely any cash; she doesn’t even have a stable job, and she’s just hopping towns. That’s not good for a young girl. I mean, what about school?” Alex added his pessimistic opinion.

“Well, she can stay at my apartment; it’s big enough for the four of us,” Ben throws back, the two quickly getting into a heated debate.

“Wait, four? Me, you, Allison, and…?” Marika butt in.

“Cassie—I forgot to mention—we’re roommates.”

“Who’s Cassie?” Dumbo spoke for the first time since receiving his food.

“My friend,” Ben replied before turning back to Marika, “I think moving in would be a great idea. It gives Allison a chance to create a nice relationship with you as well as get an education. And you can just find a small job for a couple years.”

“But you can’t find a small job, remember our situation?” Alex added.

Marika took a sip of her coffee, ignoring the both of them. “I already know what I’m going to do. I’m gonna meet Allison and I’m going to move and find a good paying job.”

“Why can’t you stay here? The weather is great, and if you end up adopting Allison she’ll already know her way around,” Ben argues.

“Why not back home in Europe?” Alex adds, “Who’s going to take care of your father? You already have a house in Europe, all you need is to find a job.”

“I already told you guys, I just want to lay low for a while. I want sometime to figure myself out and I’m not gonna do it where I can smell the scent of my father’s cheap cologne and alcohol. Look, it’s no discussion. I’ve already planned this whole thing out. Maybe, I’ll go back and visit my father in a couple years, but I don’t plan on it anytime soon.” Marika finishes her muffin and slips out ten dollars and slaps it onto the table, next to her nearly-finished cup of coffee.

“I’m going to stay here for the rest of the time before I meet Allison if that’s alright.”

“No problem. I get off at eleven if you want to do something before meeting Allison,” Ben grabbed Marika’s plate with muffin crumbs and placed it in the sink.

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

“Okay, well you guys can have your time. I’m going out with Dumbo.” Alex hops off his seat and fishes through his pocket for money.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it.” Dumbo takes out his wallet and places a twenty on the table.

“Oh, Dumbo, you don’t need to pay for him. I have some extra cash.” Marika gives a stern look to Alex, who just shrugs.

“No, it’s fine. It’s already done. I’ll see you guys later.” He walks out with Alex, leaving just the two of them in the cafe.

“What’s up with that?” Ben asks her and begins cleaning up the dishes.

“Alex has a small money problem. No big deal. I’m sure it’ll blow over after a while.” Marika gives a soft smile, hoping Ben won’t ask anymore.

“Does he need money or something? I can loan him some if he’s in trouble or something.”

“No, don’t inconvenience yourself. I’m already giving him some and I’m gonna get a job to help him pay it off.”

“How much does he owe? Can’t he just get a loan?”

“He owes the bank. It’s not much really. Just forget I said anything about it.” Ben doesn’t say anything and continues to wash the dishes. When he’s put the dishes away, he grabs a seat next to Marika.

“So what are you working on in college?” Marika puts her elbow on the counter and rests the side of her head on the palm of her hand, facing Ben.

“It’s a drawn piece of something we think is beautiful, but it has to be in black and white. Something about how beauty is shown through color, like it’s deeper than it looks.” Ben takes Marika’s other hand in his own.

“So what are you drawing?”

“I want to say you? Because I feel like if I don’t, you’re gonna be out to get me,” Ben laughs and Marika punches his arm softly, “No, but I’m drawing trees. I think nature is beautiful, but I’m not sure it looks quite as good without color. It’s not coming out the way I wanted it to look though.”

Marika continues to ask him questions about Ben for the rest of the time. She wanted to know more about him; she wanted to know more than just his high school or college life. She asked him about his friends, his past girlfriends, his first time drinking. And he answered all the questions truthfully. Then, Marika told him about her friends, her past boyfriends, her first time drinking.

Marika’s palms were sweaty as she stepped out of the taxicab; she was nervous to meet Allison. She took a deep breath and walked into the deli. Once she walked in, she immediately saw Allison and the old, French man, who watched her dance to the pop song playing through the speakers. Allison had a beautiful, crooked smile and freckles all around her face. She had long, dirty, blonde hair that was tied back in a ponytail. She looked exactly like Marika’s mother and Marika teared up, remembering everything she could remember about her mother.

Time slowed as Marika walked around the table to Allison and the French man. She watched Allison and caught her eye. The old man turned around to see Marika standing behind him with a nervous smile. He immediately stood up and shook her hand.

“You must be Marika,” he said with a joyous smile and the same thick accent she had heard over the phone, “Allison, this is Marika, your sister.”

“Hi, Allison.” Marika waved to her and she just stared at Marika before running up to her with a hug. Allison broke the hug and Marika bent down to be eye level with her.

“You look just like my mom,” Allison says with a sad smile.

“You do too,” Marika replies and stands up straight. Allison takes a seat again and takes a bite out of her sandwich. Marika and the French man, who introduces himself as Abel, walk to order Marika’s food.

“So how long have you known Allison?” Marika asked as she watched Allison eat her sandwich. She caught her eye and waved to her with a bright smile and Marika waved back.

“I’ve been her foster caretaker since she came into the system. Almost two years now.”

“How was she when her mother died?” Marika said just before ordering her sandwich.

As the two moved toward the waiting area, Abel replied, “She was how everybody is when someone they love passes away. She cried a lot and she wasn’t into anything for a while. But after a while, she stopped, but she wasn’t the same after that. Especially since she was now alone. But I’m glad you’re here; she could really use a family.”

“I really don’t think I can take care of her. Maybe she’s better off with a full family, even if they’re not blood related.”

“Don’t jump to conclusions just yet; you’ve barely met her,” Abel said and Marika’s food was ready.

Marika sat across from Allison and the two just smiled at each other for a while.

“So, what grade are you in, Allison?” Marika began.

“First grade. Abel and his wife takes me to school everyday.” Allison continues to smile, her sandwich was all gone already.

“That’s nice. You like living with Abel?”

“Yes! He’s great because he lets me eat a lot of candy and he’s funny, too!” Abel laughs when Allison replies.

Marika and Allison both ask each other questions with the occasional laugh from Abel, but he mainly remains silent as the two get to know each other. After lunch, they walk to the park a couple blocks from the deli and Abel excuses himself to stop by the bathroom, leaving Marika and Allison at the park alone.

Allison runs onto the playground and jumps up the stairs to the top. The park is surrounded by tall trees and is deserted. Marika follows Allison up the playground and sits along the steps while Allison slides down the slide and screams on her way down.

Allison comes running up the stairs again and asks, “So do we have the same mom?”

Marika laughs and says, “Yes, we do.”

“How come we never saw each other then?”

“Because I lived in Europe with my dad and you lived here with our mom.”

“No, I mean why didn’t you come get me when Mom died?” Allison stopped at the top of the stairs and looked down at Marika, her smile disappeared.

“Well, I never knew I had a sister.”

“Why didn’t Mom tell you about me? Did she not want us to meet?”

“Come, sit,” Marika said and waved to her to come.

After Allison sat down, Marika put an arm around her and said, “I don’t think our mom didn’t want us to meet. I think she just didn’t want you to meet my dad because he’s a bad man. She wanted to keep you away from bad men and since I was living with my father, I couldn’t meet you.”

“Oh, but didn’t she want you to stay away from bad men, too?”

Marika seemed at a loss for words but then said, “Yes, but he was my father and I couldn’t leave him. I loved him.”

“Even if he was a bad man?”

“Sometimes bad things happen and you just have to move on.”

“Like when Mom left and I couldn’t see her anymore?”

“Yeah, but it’s okay because I got meet you and I won’t ever leave you.” Marika reassured her and brought a smile back on her face.

Marika said her goodbyes to Allison and promised to see her tomorrow and gave her a hug before entering the cab. She smiled the entire car ride back, thinking of the whole meeting with Allison. When she arrived at the motel, she paid and thanked the driver and got out of the car. As she opened the motel door, her phone rang from her back pocket and she picked it up after reading the caller id: Ben.

“Hey, Ben, what’s up?” She laid on the bed and just stared at the ceiling.

“Did you meet Allison? How was it?”

“Yes, it was great. I really like her and I’m pretty sure she likes me, too… I want to adopt her, Ben,” she says with a smile.

“Really? Are you sure, Marika? It’s a lot of responsibility and it’s there’s the whole adoption process.”

“I’m serious. I can spend a month or so here filling out all the paperwork and completing the training. Then, after Allison lives with me, we can go somewhere else. I’m really happy about this, Ben.” Marika’s smile grows bigger as she thinks of living with Allison and watching her grow up.

“I’m glad you are. You want to come over for dinner and talk about it?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“I’ll pick you up.” Marika hangs up the phone and sits up. She goes into the bathroom and fixes her hair and just stares at herself for a while. There’s a big smile on her face. It’s been a long time since she’s seen herself smile and the thought makes her smile even wider. Things are finally looking up for a change; she doesn’t have to worry about her father or her mother. She doesn’t have to think about being alone because she has Allison and Ben.

Marika thinks about Ben and the way he never asks much of her. And the way he doesn’t judge her for acting the way she does because he just knows. Her smile fades as she thinks about leaving him. She doesn’t want to, but she can’t stay here either, not for long at least. And she tears up at the thought of never seeing him again. And for the first time in her life, she understands what it feels like to love someone wholeheartedly.

Chapter Text

Ben parks his car along the curb in front of his apartment building and they both get out of the car. He walks around the car quickly and takes Marika’s hand, leading her to his flat.

“Cassie’s staying at Evan’s place tonight so we have the place to ourselves,” Ben mentions as he unlocks the front door. From the outside, the place looks small, but inside there’s a lot of space, maybe because there isn’t much furniture. The walls are white and there are only the necessary furniture: sofa, desk, dining table, and whatever’s in the bedroom. It’s still small, only four rooms total, but Marika still marvels at how nice the flat looks.

She takes a seat on one of the chairs at the dinner table, facing the kitchen. Ben busies himself washing his hands and begins taking food out of the refrigerator.

“Do you know how to cook?” he asks from across the kitchen.

“Yeah, I had to cook for my father and myself back then. Although, he never ate my food; he was passed out in the day and drinking at night. But I still made him dinner everyday; I don’t know why I even bothered.”

“Where’d you learn?” Ben tried to steer clear of her father.

“Online. I used to go to the library and look up videos of my favorite dishes. Then I would borrow a cookbook and bring it home.” Marika smiles a little. “I remember, when I was like 14, I would play ‘chef’ with Alex. I would make a new dish from the cookbook and Alex would taste test it and rate me on how well it tasted. He always gave me a high score even if I burnt it.”

“That sounds like fun.”

“I can help you if you want.” Marika gets out of her seat and walks to Ben.

“No, it’s fine. There’s not much to do anyway. I just need to fry these. You can grab a beer in the fridge, and get me one.” Marika pops the cap off two beer bottles and hands one to Ben before a taking a sip.

“Do you ever fear becoming an alcoholic?” Ben begins throwing all sorts of vegetables into a pan over the stove.

“No. I mean, yeah. But I never drink too much; I like to have someone around to keep me in check. I don’t think I could ever touch a bottle if I were alone; it’s scary.”

After Ben carefully slides the veggies onto a clean, white plate, he places two slices of beef onto the pan as Marika brings the plate of vegetables to the table. She sits at the dining table and watches Ben as he takes out two white plates identical to the first one and sets a slice of beef in each.

Once they begin eating Marika asks, “Are you okay with this? You know, with me leaving?”

Ben froze from cutting his beef and looked at Marika. “It’s not my choice to make, I understand.”

“No, but are you okay?” Marika stabs her broccoli and twirls the fork in her hand, not wanting to make eye contact with Ben.

“I guess I have to be okay. There’s no stopping you.”

“Ben, answer the question. I don’t want to know that you’ll ‘have to be okay.’ I want to know if you are okay right now.” She stuffed the vegetable into her mouth.

Ben stayed silent and continued cutting the beef. He took a swig of beer and said, “I think I am.”

“You think?”

“Like 99.9% sure.” He gives his signature smile which Marika returns with her own, “But you’re going to need to stay here for at least another couple of weeks. You’ll have to go through training if you want to adopt Allison. I was thinking maybe you could move in?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to be taking Cassie’s and your space. Plus, I have enough money to stay at the hotel for a couple months if I need to.”

“No, I already talked to Cassie about it; she doesn’t mind. And if it makes you feel guilty, you can chip in with the rent. It’s no big deal, really.”

“I don’t know. I have to ask Alex and Dumbo. We can’t all stay here; it would be too crowded.”

“Alright, well, if you change your mind, you are welcome to stay.”

Ben finishes his food and sits at the table, drinking his beer.

“What’s it like in England? I’ve never been out of the country.”

“I could only tell you bad things about the UK.”

“Not true, you told me about Alex. You told me how you learned how to cook all by yourself. And you’re telling me, right now, how much of a better person you became after all the shit in your life.”

Marika just smiles and continues eating her food. When she finishes, she sets the dishes in the sink and offers to clean up, but Ben grabs her another beer and sends her to the couch. He washes the dishes and puts them in the dishwasher rack before sitting next to her.

“Tell me about your parents.” Marika hands him the bottle and he takes a sip before setting it on the coffee table.

“There’s not much to know. Both my parents live in San Francisco and I visit them every time I have time off school and work. I really wish you could meet them; they would love you.”

“I would love to meet them, too.” Marika smiles and leans into Ben. She rests her head on his shoulder and lets out a deep breath.

“If, in another dimension, I wasn’t the way I am now, I would stay with you, you know?” Marika whispers.

“If we were in another dimension, we might not have met. I’m glad that we did.” He kisses her forehead and squeezes her arm. They remain silent for sometime, both listening to the sound of the clock as the second hand ticked around and around.

“What if I can’t take care of her?”

Ben looks at her in the eye. “You can. And if you ever have any money issues, I can loan you some. Don’t worry, I mean, you’ve been taking care of your father for years, right?”

“Yeah, but this isn’t the same. Allison’s a child and I have to teach her things. She doesn’t know how to take care of herself. If it was my father, I would just let him do whatever he wants and make sure he gets home every night.”

“Marika, you can do this. Just relax for now, okay?” She nodded and Ben went in for a kiss. Her lips felt soft and gentle against his. She deepened the kiss and he pushed her down to her back. He climbed on top of her and threw off his shirt before kissing her again. With Ben on top of her, her muscles relaxed and she wrapped her arms around him.

She let her guard down and let him inside her head, just as she had that morning at the lake.

———————————————————————————————————————

[Two Months Later]

“Marie! I can’t find my backpack!” Allison yelled from the kitchen. Marika woke with a jolt and rubbed her eyes. It was almost 8:00 am. She turned around and was disappointed when Ben wasn’t lying beside her. As she got up, she heard another scream from Allison followed by Ben telling her to settle down.

Marika sat up and put on a t-shirt and shorts before walking to the living room. She found Allison’s backpack stuffed in the corner, covered by the couch, and handed it to her.

“Good morning, Ally. Ben.” She smiled at him as he handed her a cup of coffee.

He gave her a kiss on her forehead before saying, “Come on, Allison, it’s time to go.”

“Have a fun time at school,” Marika managed before the two hurriedly shuffled out the door. Every morning was the same routine: wake up, work eight long hours at The Pub, come home to Ben and Cassie, sleep. But today was different; she had quit her job yesterday because she finally had full custody of Allison.

Marika planned out the entire week in her head. She was going to spend all day packing what little she and Allison owned. Tomorrow they would take a plane and move into their new apartment. Marika spent the last two months searching for a small apartment that she could afford. She officially rented a flat last week. It isn’t nearly as nice as Ben’s apartment, but she couldn’t afford anything fancier.

Her phone began to ring and Marika took a sip of coffee before looking for it somewhere in the bedroom.

“Morning.” Cassie walked out of her room sleepy-eyed. Marika waved hello before entering the room.

She frantically threw the bed sheets around until she heard a thump on the floor. The caller ID read: Alex.

“Alex! It’s been so long since you called.” Marika walked out to the living room and sat on the couch. She watched as Cassie began toasting bread and held up a slice for her.

Marika shook her head and mouthed ‘no’ before Cassie shrugged and took a bite out of the slice.

“Hi, I just was calling to see how you were doing. I’ve been really busy. I got another job at a bookstore—on top of the surf shop. So hopefully that’ll help with the bank situation.”

Marika smiled a little, “That’s good. I’m moving in with Allison tomorrow morning. I can’t wait. I already got us a flat and I’m going to look for some jobs there to help you.”

“Thank you so much, Marika. You have no idea how grateful I am for everything you’re doing, really. I’m so thankful.”

“It’s no problem. What are friends for, right?” Marika gives a soft laugh. “So how is my father? How are things over there?”

“Uh, your father’s fine. He’s been gone more than normal, but other than that nothing’s changed. Listen, I have to go. I’m starting my shift at the bookstore, now. Say hi to Ben and Allison for me.”

“Okay, call me again, soon!” Marika hung up the phone and dropped the phone onto the couch cushion.

“I thought you had class today.” Marika walked to her cup of coffee. Cassie took the toast out of the toaster oven and began spreading peanut butter on it.

“Not today. Need any help packing? I have some time to spare before Evan gets here.”

“I think I’m fine, thanks though.” Marika took a sip of her coffee. “Where are you and Evan going?”

“Just out for lunch.”

“Here, I wanted to give you this.” Marika handed her the two concert tickets sitting on the dining table.

“Wow, you didn’t have to do that. These are the tickets Ben gave you, right?”

“Yeah, but the concert’s not ‘til next week and I’m leaving tonight. I know Ben won’t take them back so I want you to go with Evan. Like a thank you gift for letting me crash here.”

“Well, I mean you paid rent. And Ben didn’t really give me a choice.”

“Then thank you for tolerating me.”

Cassie gives a nervous laugh. “Marika, I know we haven’t exactly been close these past two months. I’m sorry I didn’t try to get to know you better, but I see the way Ben looks at you and talks to you and talks about you. And I’m glad he was happy while it lasted.”

Marika smiled and just nodded, not knowing what to say.

“But thank you.” Cassie stuffed the tickets in her back pocket and turned on the tv.

Marika spent the rest of the day packing what she and Allison owned into boxes, only resting for lunch.

Ben picked Allison up from school and surprised Marika when they came home early. He wanted to take her out for dinner on their last day together. It’s been a crazy few days with Allison officially moving in. Although he was happy Marika and Allison were finally together, he wanted to spend one last night with Marika.

They both got dressed up for a fancy restaurant: Ben in a suit and tie and Marika in a pink dress borrowed from Cassie. It wasn’t her style, but she didn’t have much of a choice. Honestly, she didn’t want to waste Ben’s money on a dinner; she would much rather prefer staying home and just being with him, but he insisted. They left Allison with Cassie and Evan and drove to the restaurant.

The two ate dinner in silence, unsure of what to say. All Ben could think about was the empty space in his bed once Marika would leave. Marika was excited to move into her new apartment with Allison, but she had loved living with Ben. She almost didn’t want to leave anymore, especially since it meant leaving him. It had always been her plan to visit her mother and continue traveling, but plans change. Now, she has Allison and Ben and jumping from city to city wasn’t an option anymore. She thought she didn’t have an option in leaving Ben as well, but she’s not so sure anymore.

“So, are we going to talk about this?” Marika started once they got back into the car.

“I was hoping we would talk about it tomorrow morning.”

“You mean right before I leave? Or did you want to wait until I got on the plane?” Marika asked sarcastically.

“I mean spend this night as we would any other night. You know, just forget everything. As if it’s only the two of us.” Marika just stayed silent.

“Okay, fine, let’s talk about it. I don’t want you to leave. And I know there’s no way you’re staying, so whatever.”
Marika didn’t know what to say. They had gone over this a million times, but it still hurt. And now she was leaving and there wasn’t anything left to say; they just repeat what they had said months ago.

Ben opened his mouth to speak but Marika’s phone rang. “Hello?”

He watched as Marika’s expression went bleak; her face went pale and her hands started shaking and tears were forming in her eyes.

“I’ll fly over as soon as I can.” Her voice shook and cracked. She hung up the phone and just stared straight in front of her.

“What’s wrong? What happened?” Ben asked.

“My father. He, um, he died. Can, can you pick up Ally and drive us to the airport?”

“Yes, of course. I’ll book a flight.” He began speeding back to his apartment while calling the airport. Marika just looked up and took deep breathes to keep from falling apart. It was all happening again; she wasn’t there for her father when he passed, just like her mother. Bitch! No matter how hard he hit her, she couldn’t hate him. A tear almost escaped her eyes when Ben grabbed her hand and pulled it to his lips.

“It’s okay. You’re okay,” he said softly, but it didn’t help. She pulled her arm back and just sat still the entire ride back. The same thought ran through her mind on the ride: I can’t remember his last words to me.

“I’m so sorry, Marika.” Cassie was in tears. Marika didn’t speak as she changed her clothes and packed a bag full of clothes for her and Allison. Ben waited outside with the car engine on. His hand were gripping the steering wheel tightly, turning his knuckles white. In five minutes, Marika and Allison hopped into Ben’s car and they drove away.
Allison didn’t say a word the entire car ride. She didn’t even cry, but she never met Marika’s father either. Marika just stared out the window with her hand tangled in her hair.

They arrived at the airport with time to spare, so Ben bought Marika and Allison hot chocolate. The three sat at the airport gate silently.

“Marie, where are we going?” Allison was the first to speak.

“Europe, you get to finally meet my father.” Marika put her arm around Allison and pulled her closer. Ben was sat next to her and holding her hand in his. After ten minutes, Allison fell asleep in Marika’s arms.

“How long do you think you’ll stay there?” Ben asks.

Marika looks at him and sighs. “I don’t know. However long I need?”

“You want me to come with you?”

“No, you should stay and finish the semester as normal.”

“After this year, I’m coming to find you in Europe. I want to live with you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” He whispered the last part.

“Ben, stop. Don’t waste your time with me. Go to New York and live. I don’t want to hold anyone else down. I’ve already ruined so many lives and I need to know that I won’t ruin yours.”

“Marika, you’re not ruining anybody’s life. I love you and I want to be with you forever. Stop running away and just let yourself be happy for once. Please.” The gate door opened and passengers began entering the plane.

“I don’t think that this is the end for us. And I’m not running away from you or anybody. I just want to take a break. When I’m ready, I’ll find you.”

"I'm holding you to that promise." Ben gave a thin-lipped smile—not his signature smile—but still as charming as ever.

"It wasn't a promise," Marika tried rebutting, but ended with a smile back at him.

Ben gave her one last kiss, soft and sweet. It felt like a goodbye kiss and Marika never really said ‘goodbyes’ so she pulled away. She woke Allison up and they each gave Ben a hug. Those short five minutes seemed to last a lifetime. Before Marika could break down, she walked Allison away from Ben and into the plane.

On the plane, Marika couldn’t sleep. She watched Allison as she slept and thought of how she never met her father. She wondered if she would be a better person if she, too, had never met her father. She wondered if she would still be with Ben in that small town. Then she thought about Ben and worried that she would never see him again. She thought about the first time they met and wondered how different things would be if her mother hadn’t died. Would she fly to her father with her mother as well? Or would her mother deny that her father had ever existed, acting exactly like Marika had the past six months.

Half an hour into the flight Marika cried. She couldn’t stop thinking about all the memories of her father; the nice ones like when he taught her to play chess when she was seven. Every evening, they would sit down together and play several games. She would always lose, but it didn’t matter to her because she loved the game.

She remembers the first time she had won against her father. She jumped up in happiness and her father watched her as she ran around the house screaming with joy. Now that she looks back on it, she isn’t sure if she had really beat him or he let her win. She never won after that and they started playing less and less. She would rarely ever see her father, only late at night when she couldn’t sleep because he came home screaming and yelling with a bottle of booze. One night, he knocked over the dinner table and broke the chess board. She never played after that.

A flight attendant gave her a small pouch of tissues, the ones you buy at the travel section in the convenience store. Marika wiped her tears quietly as she sobbed and forced herself to stop. She thought about what Ben had said to her before she left; how she had to stop running and be happy. Then, she eventually fell asleep to the hum of the airplane engines pumping underneath her. Just before she fell asleep, she thought once more of Ben Parish and the way she felt whenever she saw him, how her heart wouldn’t slow down every time he smiled at her, and how, somehow, she knew he would smile at her again.

Chapter Text

“I’m sorry for your loss.” The bartender from the 24 hour bar walked up to Marika and looked at her with a pitiful gaze. Marika didn’t want to be here; she wanted to be anywhere but this cemetery. There were only eight people gathered around the coffin: Marika, Allison, Alex, Dumbo, the priest, the bartender, and two drunks who often went bar hopping with Marika’s father.

“Thank you, Edward.” Marika can’t manage a smile. The bartender walks away as Marika turns her attention to Dumbo who was placing a bouquet of flowers on top of the closed coffin. Alex stands next to Marika dressed in a full black suit.

“Are you okay?” he asks although he already knows the answer to the question.

“No.” Marika hasn’t cried since the plane ride. She felt like she was falling back into the same mindset as she had lived with years ago. Don’t let them see you cry. Don’t let him see you cry. She felt numb with pain and sadness and anger because she was almost happy knowing she wouldn’t have to take care of him anymore.

She could feel Alex was uncomfortable with her answer, as if he didn’t quite know what to say to her.

“I’ll be okay later. I just need some time,” she said quickly. She couldn’t find the courage to walk up to the coffin, so she stood there holding a single, yellow daffodil.

The service began and everyone turned their attention to the priest. Marika was hearing the priest, but couldn’t listen to the words he spoke. She gripped the flower tighter to distract herself from the long, black coffin in front of her. Allison and Alex were standing on each side of her and she wondered how Allison felt standing there without ever knowing the man in the coffin. While the priest spoke, Marika looked at the group of misfits; no one was crying, but they all looked at the ground pitifully.

“Would anyone like to give a few words?” the priest asked. It was subtle, but everyone looked at Marika; she could feel their eyes glued to her, but she didn’t move a muscle.

She stared at the ground and Alex stepped up, taking the priest’s place. “I first met Marika, her mother, and her father when I was seven years old. I remember I used to come over and run around the dirt field with her old man… If you asked most people in town who this man was, they would say ‘an alcoholic’ or ‘the town’s very own joke’. But they don’t know him like I do, like Marika does. A century ago, he was the greatest man I ever knew. He was inspiring and happy and awake and he treated me as if I was his own son. Today, I want everyone here to treat him like that man because he deserved more than what everyone in town gave him.” He stepped back into the crowd.

The priest waited for Marika to step up, but she continued to stare at the ground. Tears were forming in her eyes and a minute passed until the priest began speaking again.

Marika stood there as the coffin was lowered into the ground and covered with dirt. People began leaving and soon Marika and Allison were the only two people at the burial site.

After half an hour, Allison held Marika’s hand hoping to help her in some way. “Marie, are you okay?”

Marika let out a long breath and looked at Allison with blurry eyes, “I don’t know. Let’s go home.” They walked to the car and got seated. Marika stared at the steering wheel as Allison watched her. She wondered if Allison knew how she felt, if she was like this when their mother died.

As if Allison read her mind, she grabbed Marika’s shaking hands and said, “I understand. I used to cry a lot when Mom died. Uncle Abel told me it’s okay to cry sometimes.”

Marika gave her a weak smile and wiped her eyes before starting the car. They arrived at Marika’s old home; they have been staying there for the past few weeks. It was owned by her father and is now owned by Marika, though she wanted to sell it. Clothes and books were sprouted all across the living room floor and the kitchen and bedrooms were worse. Marika didn’t care to clean the house since she came back, but she recycled the beer bottles so Allison wouldn’t have to see them everyday.

She hated living in this house and the memories it came with, but she couldn’t move back in with Ben. There were still things left undone here, things she had left seven months ago. Ever since she arrived back home, she couldn’t stop thinking about what Ben told her. She hadn’t realized she was running away until then, and now she had to face what had been coming her way since she left: her father.

Marika changed out of her black dress and into sweats before laying onto her old mattress, the one she had slept on when she was a teenager. Allison was already lying on the bed waiting for her. They had been sleeping on the same bed since they arrived because the only other bed was her father’s and Marika wouldn’t dare go in there, yet.

Marika laid on the other side of the bed, facing the wall. She could feel Allison stare at her back and she knew she was about to break down in front of her, but she didn’t care anymore. Maybe letting loose was better than trying to hold it together.

Allison began singing softly.

I’m not looking for anything in particular, but I’m far more desperate than you think. I wonder what it’s like to be the universe; experiencing itself ironically…

Marika’s breathing became heavier and heavier and tears rolled down her cheek as she continued to stare at the wall and listen to Allison.

I need some space to run around. I’ll always have the underground. I’ll build my road despite the cost. I’m not looking to be found. No, no, not at all…

Allison’s voice grew softer and more delicate with each word. Marika loved listening to her sing; her voice was beautiful. But listening to Allison didn’t make her feel any better; she regretted leaving her father and there wasn’t anything that would ever fix her mistakes. She would never get to see him again. The thought made her entire body shake. She gasped for air in between silenced sobs and felt Allison’s hand against her back.

Unaware of where I’m going, or if I’m going anywhere at all, but I know I’ll take the leap if it is worth the fall.

Marika wiped her tears, but couldn’t stop crying. She turned around to Allison and tried to smile as she sang.

So long as the blood keeps flowing, I’ll set a sail and swim across. I’m not looking to be found, just want to feel (un)lost.

“It’s okay to cry,” Allison said after finishing the song and Marika nodded.

Marika jolted awake from the sound of her ringtone. It was Ben. She looked to see if she had woken Allison up, and let out a sigh when her little sister was still sound asleep next to her. After quietly leaving the room, she walked down to the kitchen and answered the phone.

“Hello?” she asked still dazed from her nap.

“Marika. How are you holding up?” Marika became angry; this was the third time she was asked this question and no matter how many times she was asked she didn’t know.

“Ben, do me a favor and throw out all my stuff. I don’t think I can come back anytime soon. Plus, I don’t really need any of it. I’m staying at my old house and it’s got everything I need.”

“Are you okay?” Ben asked again.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she answered so he wouldn’t worry.

“Can I visit?” The line remained silent for a couple seconds and Ben could tell she didn’t want him there.

“Look, I’m having a hard time dealing with everything that’s happening and I don’t want you to see me like this. I think it’s best if you don’t come.”

“Marika, I wanna help you. I know everything hurts right now with moving back and your father, but I don’t want you to push me away.”

“I’m not… I’ve been thinking about what you said the other day—about not running away—and I’m not running anymore. I need to sort things out here like with Alex and the whole money situation. I just need to stay at one place for a while and, right now, I need to stay with my father.”

“Okay. Listen, I got class now. I’ll call you later, okay?” They both said goodbye and hung up the phone. Marika set it on the kitchen counter and let out a deep breath. She opened the laptop in front of her and searched for photography websites. She thought that maybe she could sell some of her photos to help Alex out.

Just then, Alex came through the front door of her house. He was dressed in a plain t-shirt and blue jeans and he grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge behind her. Marika didn’t say a word as he took large gulps of water. She felt guilty for not speaking at the funeral and closed her laptop.

“I want to tell you about a man I used to know way back when I was a child. Back when I used to run outside in the rain and scream and laugh with a special friend,” she began.

“What are you doing?” Alex asked.

“Just listen,” she shushed him, “When I grew older, this man changed. He was no longer the man who would run out in the rain with me or the man who would play chess with me every evening. He was the man who was addicted to booze and the man who drove his wife away and gave his daughter scars and memories that will last a lifetime. He went in a different direction just as we all do. And I believe that a single thing does not define us as individuals. My father was many things; he was funny, charming, smart, and, yes, he was an alcoholic. And I know no one really cares about what happened in the past, but my father is still funny and charming and smart and an alcoholic. His behavior changed, but his heart was still the same.”

Marika waited for Alex to respond, but after he remained silent she said, “That’s been playing over and over in my head for the past few weeks. I can’t stop thinking about it. And I can’t believe that I left him here. I feel like such shit, Alex. What the fuck is wrong with me?”

“It’s not your fault. There was no way of knowing what was going to happen; it wouldn’t make any difference if you were here.”

“I just wish I came back with you. If I did, I would’ve had the chance to speak with him one last time. Things could’ve ended differently.”

Allison crept downstairs and Alex greeted her with a big smile. She rushed into his arms and he lifted her up into the air. The two laughed and Marika couldn’t help but smile at them. It’s been awhile since she’s smiled again and she almost forgot about everything while watching them.

Allison ran outside to play in the yard and Alex walked back to the kitchen. He took a gulp of water and watched Allison run around in the yard.

“So I found this website. And I think I can sell some of my photos for a pretty high price. It can help with your situation,” Marika opened and turned the laptop towards Alex.

He scrolled through looking at other photos on the blog.

“You mean sell your photos to this blog?”

“Or any photography blog. You know, some people want to buy the rights to my photos and post them on their blog or whatever. And I already have thousands of photos from years before. This could help pay for at least a big chunk of what you owe.” Alex nodded as he listened to her explain and agreed to the idea. He watched as Marika emailed some blogs samples of her photos.

After emailing a couple blogs, Alex dragged Marika out of the house to Allison. They ran around and threw a ball back and forth. Marika realized she hadn’t paid much attention to Allison since they’ve arrived back in Europe and she’s glad she finally has the energy to be with her. She could see how happy Allison was to spend time with her and Alex.

Marika knew things would be better from here with Alex and Allison. Somehow, she knew her father and her past wouldn’t haunt her anymore, as if it suddenly didn’t matter anymore because she was happy with her best friend and her little sister. All this time she was trying so hard to let go and force herself to be happy, but she didn’t have Allison and Alex. She didn’t have this moment to live and, now, she’s free.

———————————————————————————————————————

[Three Years Later]

“Marika, how are you?” Ben held the phone against his ear with one hand while closing the book on his lap with his other hand.

“Good, sorry I haven’t called for a while. It’s been a busy couple of days.” Marika and Allison sat in a taxicab and looked out the window at the skyscrapers that surrounded them. The chatter from the hundreds of tourists walking the streets filled the silence in the cab.

“Where are you? It sounds really loud over there.”

“Oh, I’m in the streets; it’s really crowded.”

“Tell him now!” Allison screamed eagerly, “No, wait! Let me tell him!”

Marika laughed and left Ben confused as she handed the phone to Allison. The cab was parked and Marika handed the driver some cash before stepping out of the car with Allison. The noise was even louder than she had expected when she stepped out. The cab sped away and she watched as Allison excitedly told Ben they had arrived in New York City.

Marika could hear Ben’s excited shouting over the buzz in the streets. Allison told him to meet them at the cafe next to the bookstore—the one that he had always told them about—and hung up.

Allison returned Marika’s phone and took her hand as she pulled her faster towards the cafe. Once they entered, Marika bought her a small muffin and they sat in the lounge as they waited for Ben. There weren’t many people inside and the entire cafe was lightened up by lamps set around the room, creating a dark and mysterious ambience. Allison sat in an armchair facing the front door and dropped crumbs on her shirt as she ate. Marika sat in the chair opposite her—so she wouldn’t see Ben immediately—and watched Allison with a hint of a smile.

It wasn’t long before Allison’s eyes lit up and she jumped out of her chair. “Ben!” she exclaimed as she bounded across the room and into his arms.

He let out a small groan as he held her and said, “Wow, you are getting so big! How are you? I missed you so much.” His voice sounded rougher than it had over the phone.

Marika slowly stood up from her seat and turned around to face Ben. It was as if time slowed in those three seconds: he was smiling wide at Allison and she caught his eye. He set Allison back on the ground and they just stood there for a second, staring, as if they couldn’t believe they were really there. Then, Ben walked to her with his arms open and Marika wrapped her arms around his neck.

They stood there for a minute and all three couldn’t stop smiling. Ben pulled back and kissed Marika on the lips, the kind of kiss that she could remember for well over a lifetime. Marika kissed him back and ran her hand through his hair. She almost forgot Allison standing there, watching them, and pulled away from Ben.

“I missed you,” Ben whispered.

“I missed you, too,” Marika replied with a smile.

Hand in hand, they walked back to Ben’s apartment. It was small and Ben apologized countless times, but Marika didn’t mind. He poured apple juice for Allison and opened two beer bottles for himself and Marika. As he prepared the drinks, he told Marika about everything that’s happened since she left. Although they’ve been keeping in touch and calling each other every once in a while, they never spoke about their lives specifically. Ben told her Evan and Cassie were still dating and never moved after Cassie graduated. He had sold a couple of his paintings and drawings, but his career hasn’t actually taken off, yet. He has a job at a bakery at the moment, but it barely pays for rent.

Marika told him how Alex has been doing. They paid off his debt together and he got a job at the local newspaper. Marika wanted him to come to New York and try to get a job at the New York Times, but he wanted to stay in Europe. He and Dumbo had become great friends and Alex eventually told him about the plane ticket, which he also paid back.

Allison slept in Ben’s bed, jetlagged from the long trip oversea, as Marika and Ben continued to catch up in each other’s lives. It was as if no time had passed at all; although they were miles apart for years, they still understood each other and loved each other. Even without saying it, they both knew they would always accept one another.

Once they’ve said all they needed to say, Marika kissed Ben. The kiss was exactly the same as every other kiss, yet not the same at all; it was everything and nothing at the same time; it was filled with promises and it was promise-less, as well. It was real and true. And Marika knew that she wouldn’t have to run from her past anymore.