Disclaimer: I don't own Daughters Of The Moon.
Graduation is meant to be a moment in time when you are suspended blissfully between the past and the future, the two polarizing energies greeting one another like old friends flooding you with cherished memories and a glimpse as to the path ahead of you.
Yet I feel the edges of my nightmarish past creeping against my soul, anchoring it into a heavy, turbulent sea of wasted potential, girlish laughter, a blurry glimpse of sun-kissed chestnut hair...
Jimena cranes her neck and shares an encouraging smile with me while Collin's father wraps his arm around her, pressing her closer. Beside her Collin is aglow. Closer inspection, however, reveals he is flushed a radiant pink, and it's easy to deduce he is about to spill over like a broken dam.
As I am.
I'm graduating without my best friends.
Minutes earlier as I sat restlessly on my designated seat, I had geared myself for the absence of their names, but my stomach had still knotted with a sickness I can never quench. Not with therapy, not with Jimena's helpful presence, and certainly not with the pitiful stares I received while our principal enacted a moment of silence for the three Lost Girls.
"May they be returned safely to us."
My body knows it. My soul knows it. They are gone into that dark and dismal abyss we've named "forever." I mourn for Catty, and for Serena, and for Tianna, and I don't know why. There are no bodies. There was no evidence suggesting foul play.
And now, as I graduate high school without them, it is clear to me they are dead and I have yet to remember what life is.
So I promise – for Catty's sake – to rediscover it.
Now that I'm 21, Planet Bang seems... Ugh.
The floor is sticky, teenagers with fake IDs have soared past their personal limits of inebriation - lazily slouched against walls, their expressions contorted as if they are about to vomit – and disgusting creeps with a plethora of piercings dotting their faces are hovering in the corners. Is that the "cool" trend now? To wallflower in shadows and cough up the fumes from the machines pumping fog and mist? I wonder about our youth, but then again, I was strange myself.
But it's spring break, finals are over, I'm in town, and Morgan was kind enough to extend an invitation to me as soon as she heard of my arrival in Los Angeles.
And, lo and behold, here she is.
"Vanessa!" The perky blonde hops over to me, her blonde hair in spiraling curls, and her slender arms coil tightly around me. "You look amazing!"
"You do too," I say, echoing her positivity with a beaming smile of my own. "So who else is here?" I scan the crowd, surveying a few familiar faces.
"There's Derek," she offers, pointing in the direction of Tianna's ex-boyfriend as he chats with Corrine, and I feel a terrible sense of doom overtake me. Morgan coughs once, seemingly stumbling over her mistake, and then points in the opposite direction, spinning me around in the process. "You remember Zahi, right? He was a transfer and he didn't stay long,but he was super hot."
I laugh despite my brief episode of anxiety. "Was?"
Zahi – who dated Serena briefly, if I'm not mistaken, and I feel my stomach tighten again – is handsomer than before, his jawline angular and straight, his hair tousled and dark. He is awkwardly positioned between a couple vigorously kissing and a teenage girl desperately seeking his attention, her eyes trained on him as she dances promiscuously – and entirely without rhythm, bless her poor soul – with her friend.
"Poor guy." Morgan, lips puckered into a mocking pout, smiles suggestively with me and asks, "Why don't you talk to him?"
I arch an eyebrow at her, and then raise my left hand.
"Engaged isn't married," she scoffs.
"Oh, Morgan," I drawl, wrapping my right around around her shoulder, and she sighs blissfully, "you haven't changed a bit."
"And neither have you, future Mrs. Saratoga."
Keep it together, Vanessa. Play it cool.
I inhale deeply, count to ten, and then exhale slowly – all the while attempting to quench the rage simmering beneath my skin. I may as well be made of fire judging by the scorching heat dwelling inside my veins.
"Be like Buddha," I declare aloud while massaging my forehead.
I hear the faucet in the shower squeak and the water stop flowing. My fingers tighten around his cell phone, and I resist the urge to unlock it again and read the messages for the umpteenth time.
"Last night was fun, babe," she had written, heart-eyed emojis and all. "Can't wait to spend the weekend with you."
The precise weekend I am due to fly out to Los Angeles and visit my grandmother in the hopsice.
"Vanessa," Michael calls from the bathroom, and I resist the urge to storm in there and smack him upside the head for daring to say my name so lovingly. "What do you want for dinner?"
Nope. Not answering.
I wait patiently – but not really, who am I kidding – and, lo and behold, he emerges from the bathroom, his hair wet and face clean-shaven. I once loved how amazing he looked dressed casually in ratty jeans and a thin white T-shirt. Now I'm thinking, "Wow, what a fucking indie hipster bastard."
"What's wrong?" He stops a few feet away from me, and I can't imagine how red-faced I am at the moment. "Vanessa, what is it?"
"Jennifer? Jennifer? Really, Michael? The same girl who said, and I quote, 'I don't like music that much.'"
His eyes widen, hilariously so, and then he folds his arm, a small smile on his face. "What are you talking about?"
"I unlocked you phone, idiot." The internet warned me he would either attempt to deny the accusations or...
"You looked through my phone?" His eyebrows pinch together in sudden anger. "Vanessa, what the hell?"
… Shift the anger and blame onto me.
"Don't do that," I plead, my voice croaking; the tears, angry and hot, brim against my eyes. "Don't pretend like you're innocent. Why did you do it?"
Michael, too, is a mess now, his cheeks pink and his eyes glistening. I'll punch him if he cries, I swear.
"It was an accident," he professes, falling down beside me and circling his arms around me. Disgusted, I pry myself away from him and scoot to the corner of the bed. "I swear I was going to end it and tell you, I just... I didn't know how."
I laugh hollowly. "You were going to bring her into our house and fuck while I was a state away visiting my dying grandmother. You're gross, you're so gross!"
"No, I – "
"No, not you," I snap, standing suddenly; my hands balled into tight fists, skin stretching over my bone-white knuckles. "This isn't about you, asshole! It's about me and what you did to me! You are selfish and evil and gross, and I don't need you in my life."
"Vanessa, please – "
I begin gathering myself, snatching my car keys off the dresser and then my purse, all the while as Michael trails helplessly after me, his face ugly with the weight guilt and sadness. Why is he crying? Why?
"I'm not going to bother fixing this," I say as I unlock the front door and violently jerk it open, the knob loudly smashing against the wall. "Because you know, Michael, you're a dick and I really don't need this."
I'm so happy the final – but not really, I have to come and get by belongings – image of him is that of a wounded boy whose ego had been shattered.
"It's midnight," he says, and I recognize the voice – and the accent – before even peering into his handsome face. "Why are you in a bar alone?"
I cock my head and offer the most genuine smile I can muster before saying, "Hello, Zahi."
He smiles warmly at me, and then gestures to my copper mug. "Mojito? Nice. Not a drink one orders to drown their sorrows, however."
"Fruity drinks are the best," I protest, gawking at him. "How dare you!"
"I'm not knocking it," he counters, throwing up his hands in mock protest, "and it makes sense. You're not exactly one to be a stereotype."
I chuckle. "I'm a blonde white girl drinking fruity alcohol. I think I am stereotyping myself right now."
"I assume you're troubled, and troubled people, regardless of their gender identity, order generic dark liquor from a tall glass. Have you seen a movie before, Vanessa?"
"Who said I was troubled?" I challenge.
His lips curve downward. "Your eyes."
"They are not sentient beings," I say, swallowing the lump in my throat. If I focus on humor I'm certain I won't collapse. "I asked who. Not what."
"That you did. Would you like another?"
I grin and perch my chin on my hands, eyelashes fluttering. "Yes, please."
His smile returns, although it doesn't quite reach his eyes, and he gestures to the server as she passes by. After a few minutes of banter and laughter, I eagerly delve into another Mojito while Zahi enjoys a bottle of beer.
"I thought you'd be more creative than that," I tease, staring critically at his beer.
"I am simple man with simple needs. I enjoy wine, actually, but tonight I'd rather have a beer while catching up with an old friend."
"We never really spoke," I disagree, twirling my straw around. "You just dated Serena for awhile and then left."
His face darkens for a split second, and then I remember I had mentioned her – and I laugh.
"What?" He tilts his head, a startled expression plastered to his face.
I thought about them and I didn't feel like dying. "It's nothing. But I'll tell you why I'm here."
"And why is that?"
"Boys are gross."
Zahi rolls his shoulder into a shrug and nods. "Accurate."
"Like, really gross."
"I'm not disagreeing."
"I can't even begin to tell you how gross they – you are."
"I – Wait." He frowns, albeit jokingly, and says, "I thought we were having a moment?"
My smile stretches further, I feel my body tingling. "What made you think that?"
"I made you smile. When I came in here – you didn't notice me yet, mind you – you were glaring at your drink as if it had hit on you like a sleazebag."
"Implying I am smiling now because a sleazebag named Zahi is hitting on me and I like it?"
"You said it, not me."
"Just do it," Jimena encourages, pressing the phone in my open palm. "Don't be a cobarde."
"I am not a coward," I snipe, pouting childishly at her, "I just... I don't know if I should."
She cocks an eyebrow at me. Her expressions clearly reads, "You're an idiot."
I glare at her in return. "We've went on a date and it was nice, but I don't think I'm ready for another one."
"You've been daydreaming this whole week. You walked into a parked car, Vanessa. A parked car."
"You're never going to let that go, are you?" I sigh heavily.
Jimena grins. "Nunca."
"But should I date when I just got out of a relationship two months ago? An engagement, actually."
"I don't know what you should do," she states, resting her hand on my knee and scooting closer on the bed, "but I do know you like him a lot and you should go with your gut, chica."
I gaze at her levelly. I do like him so much. "But isn't this the time to, I dunno, find myself and stuff? How can I do that if I'm in a long-term relationship?"
"No one said it's going be long-term!" Jimena lightly punches my shoulder. "Don't think that far ahead. It's not worth it."
"I'm 24. Mid-20s, Jimena."
"You ain't 30, girly. Don't act like you're not a kid still."
I narrow my eyes at her. "Oh, you think you're so wise 'cos you're a year older, huh?"
"I think I'm wise because I'm an old soul," she laughs, and it seems like an inside joke but I can't really tell much with her anymore. She tends to be mysterious. I don't know how Collin handles it.
"Oh right, you're ancient." I roll my eyes.
Jimena shoves me gently. "Don't change the subject. Are you calling him or not?"
"Yes!" I snatch the phone. "Stop suffocating me."
"I want what's best for you."
God, how could I have survived without her? "I know, I know. Now let me call him and make you happy, alright?"
We beam at each other before I shakily dial Zahi's phone number.
We are perched on the cafe's patio, an awkward silence between us. How do I do this? I take another sip of coffee, and Jimena rolls her eyes.
"You're gonna finish that coffee before you ask me, aren't you?"
I almost spit the steaming hot liquid all over the table. "Wha – ?"
"I can read you like an open book, Vanessa," she says, and then taps the side of her head thoughtfully before adding, "and I'm psychic."
I shake my head back and forth, trying to compose myself. "No, no, I'm an adult woman, I can do it!"
"Then ask." Jimena leans back against the chair, her hands folded on her lap and a smug smile ironed onto her beautiful face. How does one age so perfectly? She's the loveliest 26-year-old I have ever seen. Her darker eyes are more intense, her cheeks having shed any semblance of youth, and her hair is silkier (but stylishly cut short).
"Yes, I will."
"Let me finish!" Flustered, I gape at her.
She laughs loudly and nods. "Okay, okay. Go ahead."
"Jimena..." I eye her pointedly before asking, "Will you be my maid of honor?"
"Obviously!" She scoots from her chair and runs around table, her arms snaked around me, and it isn't until much later at night while I'm in bed – Zahi's arms lazily slung over me – that I realize long ago I had planned my wedding, and I had worried about a brown-haired girl with the most sunshiny smile pranking me on my own wedding day.
Such a trivial thing to worry about.
I stare up at Jimena, my smile big and joyous, as she speaks kindly about me, her glass raised. Around me are white roses – accompanied by their sweet scent – and loving faces, dozens of eyes shifting from Jimena to me, and underneath the table Zahi is tightly gripping my hand.
"... And I'm certain we can agree if Catty, Tianna, and Serena were here today..." She pauses, a quiver in her voice. "Well, they would agree Vanessa deserves nothing less than a happy ending. She is the most good-natured and purest person everybody should strive to mirror. Her beauty and strength could save the world."
Everybody cheers, and Jimena toasts, and everything feels far away yet so close, so close... Always so close, pressing into me; a phantom energy, like the presence of a ghost, trembling against me, wanting in, seeking shelter.
But it is my wedding day, and I can't be bothered by paranoia.
The room is still and quiet, aside from the steady beat of the heart monitor and my mother's ragged breath. Her hands are clasped with mine, her skin clammy and cold. My throat is heavy and raw, and a cowardly part of me wants to run, just keep running.
"I'm scared," I whisper, my voice croaking, breaking.
She does not respond; eyes closed, lips slightly parted. I stare at her chest, how slowly she breathes, the teal shade of her hospital robe. What a terrible color.
"Mom...?" I rub her hands, trying to warm them.
Her eyes flutter open, and a thin smile graces her face.
"Mom?" I lean closer, and the tears spill from my eyes, little droplets splattering the bed. "How are you?"
She continues smiling at me. "Peachy."
"Good," I say, smiling – for who's benefit, I don't know. "That's good."
"Vanessa, it's okay." She weakly squeezes my hand. "It'll be okay."
No, it won't. "Really?"
"You know," she says, and her eyes are glossy and wet, so filled with sorrow I am taken aback, "I wanted to see you and Catty reunited again."
"You will," I declare, sniffling.
But she's dead, and you're not dying. You can't.
"I tried to win," she says softly. "I tried to beat it."
It's not over. "It's a good thing pink is your favorite color."
"Pink is always in vogue," she agrees, and then coughs lightly. The sounds makes me tremble.
I am so fucking scared.
"Well, maybe I will see Catty again." She chuckles to herself, and I know – I know what she means, and I can't see, I can't hear, I can't, I can't, I can't.
But I can. I have to. "Yeah, maybe..." I sniffle again, and then nod firmly at her. She grins at me.
"You're so strong, sweetie," she whispers, her thumb caressing the back of my hand. "You've been through so much. You're a warrior goddess."
I can hear a ringing in my ears, and my heartbeat is a wild drum against my ribs. "A warrior goddess? You think so?"
"I know so. You're like Athena."
"I just need a bow and arrow," I laugh, although the tears fall harder.
Her eyes shift to the ceiling, and she's falling into her own mind. "At least I got to be there for your wedding."
I pick a white piece of fuzz off my black dress as it remains sprawled on top of the bed. It's immaculate. Simple and clean, really. It needs something extra, however.
I dig through my closet, my hands shaking, and after creating a mess I manage to retrieve the perfect accessory.
Zahi wanders into the room, trying to adjust his tie, and he stares gently at me while I place the long pink ribbon across the dress's stomach.
"It would look nicer with a makeshift belt," I state, although my words feel empty. The world feels empty. "My mom thought belts could save any outfit."
He nods, and his hand caresses my back while my eyes moisten.
"How many stitches?" Jimena, horrified, gazes at me while open-mouthed.
I can't help but laugh, although it's certainly not a laughing matter. "Twenty."
"I... I am so sorry, Vanessa."
"Don't be," I respond, "I'm just happy I have her now."
The infant, honey-skinned and weighing a hefty nine pounds, sleeps soundly in my arms. The nurses noted her uncanny silence, although knowing my luck it will be a short-lived miracle.
"She is beautiful," Jimena says, staring lovingly at the baby. "Why did you chose that name?"
"Catty said if she had a baby girl, she'd name her Zoe."
"After her mother," Jimena finishes, her eyes somber. "It's a lovely name."
"Mhm." I grin at Jimena and add, "And she would kill me if I named her Catty or Tianna or something."
Jimena quips an eyebrow, to which I explain, "Too cliché. Naming her Zoe isn't as cliché. And besides..." I peer closely at my baby girl, and then chuckle. "Stealing her hypothetical future daughter's name is funny. I'm sure she's pissed wherever she is."
"Such brats!" Jimena exclaims.
I want to know why Jimena refers to Catty as if she is still alive, and I know Jimena has her many secrets, but right now – and possibly forever – I feel at ease knowing Catty is somewhere, and regardless of this enigmatic place...
I can wait. It's okay.
Zoe squeals delightfully as she curves down the slide, and I applaud her courage while her friend, Sara, grabs her hand and pulls her toward the monkey bars. Beside me on the park bench a beautiful woman with thick brown hair and dark skin smiles, and then asks, "Which one is yours?"
"The little dark-haired girl with the pink sweater," I respond, my heart swelling with pride. Zoe is truly lovely, her cheeks rosy and her smile as white and radiant as pearls. It could be I'm biased, but I'm sure she's special in a way not many children are. Not biased. No.
"She's beautiful," the woman states, her hands folded neatly on her crossed legs. "Just like her mother."
I blush, although I've grown accustomed to compliments my entire life. It's always a sweet gesture, though. "Thank you. Do you have a child...?"
"I have daughters."
I scan the crowd, but find myself surveying park regulars. Perhaps her daughters are older? In school maybe. Before I can ask for clarification, she says, "Here." She opens her palms and I feel my insides start to melt.
It's a moon charm identical to my childhood one.
My best friends and I had shared these necklaces as a symbol of our sisterhood, our friendship. We were family created from something grander than blood. Or maybe we were foolish teenagers? I could never tell.
"Where did you get that?" I ask, although my voice feels far away, and I feel like the noise, the children, the park – it's all a distraction in the distance, a low murmur of sound. It is only me, this stranger, and the necklace.
The woman offers me a small smile, as if I am a child who does not understand. I really don't. "It's for Zoe."
I'm not taking an object from a woman I don't know. What if it's a valuable? What if she stole it?
"How did you come across your moon amulet?"
"I..." I can't remember. The world is spinning on its axis. "Why do you have this?"
"They're for my daughters," she answers simply, and a burst of rage and embarrassment seeps into my skin. She's a pervert preying on my daughter!
"Vanessa, you don't have to give it to her now," the woman explains, so simply and casually, I almost can't retain my anger. Everything feels distant yet too close to me. "Give her the moon amulet when she needs it most. You will know."
I want to flip over the bench, but a strange force irons me to the ground, my legs shaking and my eyes glittering with tears. "How will I know?" I ask, and I don't even think it's my own voice anymore.
"She's your daughter. You will know. Trust me."
And then she is gone, a figure retreating down the path, her arms hanging at her sides, skirt billowing behind her. Questions race through my head and I feel dizzy, but as I clutch the moon amulet tightly, I feel it pulse, a welcoming sensation vibrating through my fingers and down my arms. It's in an inanimate object. It possesses no secrets. It has no powers. How did that woman know my name? Had I given it to her?
A strange calm overtakes me. The earth seems light, as does my soul, and as I turn my eyes away from the path and gaze at my daughter, the amulet seems warmer and...
Alive. The necklace feels alive.