"To live a life of regret is to die a slow, painful death."
Day 0 – The Fateful Day
I am such a sucker for the melodramatic.
The rich, warm smell of caffeine hung palpably in the air. Under the low yellow lighting, the wooden interior of the café was cozy, almost homey. The muted atmosphere inside was the very essence of relaxation, and aside from the couple sitting on the opposite side of the hall, I was alone. It's like I rented the whole place for myself.
I smiled despite myself as I snuggled comfortably onto the red velvet couch. My new clothes, a cerulean silk dress that deeply complemented my skin, made me feel somehow beautiful. I straightened my back the way I've been taught, a posture of grace and elegance drilled into me since I was young. With a slow finger, I tucked my hair behind an ear. Perfect.
I sipped a little of my caramel brulee latte, letting the familiar and delicious flavor roll inside my mouth.
Mm-mmm. Can a day get any better than today?
The paper bag containing the presents – small tokens of gratitude that I managed to squeeze out from my tight budget – stood beside me. I was glad that it didn’t take me forever to find them. I’m pretty sure that my friends would be happy to receive them, a little memento to remind them of our high school days.
But then, as I recalled the reason why I’m here, my good mood drastically sunk.
Who was I fooling anyway? First, graduation is not a happy occasion. Not when you’re celebrating it alone. Second, I had no friends. Acquiantances? A lot. Enemies? More than a lot.
But friends? Oh damn.
Wait. I had Cassy. She's nice, perhaps the nicest girl in the neighborhood. I don't think that the feeling was mutual, but she's kind enough not to make me feel bad. But although I could consider her my friend, she already graduated last year, and I had no excuse to give her a gift.
Beth, well, lovely Bethany Evans is also my cousin. Although we belong in the same grade, we never shared more than a passing glance while we were at school. At home, we rarely engage in conversations. Hi, hello, good morning, good night, blah blah blah.
That’s hardly friendship, I think.
Maybe I should give one to my lab partner, Emily Tobias… and to my locker buddy, Lyle Conner… and perhaps even…
Ha ha. Pathetic. I shook my head. Maybe I should donate the gifts to charity instead.
Out of habit, my gaze lingered beyond the clear glass that separated the quiet place from the noise outside. A lot of people littered the sidewalks, some paced purposely while others ambled as if they were in a park. Figures, the day seemed so nice. The sky was clear and majestic, only a few wispy white sheets broke from time to time. Summer was just around the corner. The weather seemed to raise everyone’s spirits.
My attention returned to the matters at hand. I was having cold feet, in the literal sense of the word. Frustration was eating my mind. I just hope that there would be enough left for later – I doubt. But, I guess, that would be better than the zombie eating my brains. Ha ha. Drat that game. I never could get enough of it.
I checked my watch. It’s still too early for me to return. Negates the very reason why I escaped in the first place. Besides, if I go back now, I’m pretty sure Beth would bite my head off for leaving. She was probably fuming at this very moment. Looking at her enraged face would be priceless, but I would let the opportunity waste just this once.
Surely, she would ask one of her boylets to fetch her. Or she could take my car and leave. Or she could make Cassy, her older sister, to drive her.
I sighed. All this thinking drives me nuts! As if I'm not crazy enough!
With a huff, I immediately finished my coffee, grabbed the paper bag, stood up and silently left my favorite spot. My mood was ruined beyond repair, and I couldn’t change that anymore.
I started my self-imposed Death March. It would take me about thirty minutes if I walk home, and I think that was exactly what I need. Time.
As I reached the corner, I stopped by the pedestrian lane, waiting for the traffic lights to go red. A crowd had formed behind me. I watched them from the corners of my eyes. Feeling self-conscious because of my new dress, I felt disappointed that no one seemed to stare, even to give me an appreciative glance, only proving how plain and unattractive I am.
And here I thought I was somehow prettier than usual.
I sighed again. Wasn’t there a saying about how luck would leave you if you kept on sighing? Huh. Doesn’t apply to me. I had none.
I remembered when I had accompanied Beth and Cassy on one particular shopping trip. It was memorable because it had been the first and last. Everyone ogled at us, erm, at them. Both blondes, they were tall and naturally slender, with a kind of presence befitting royalty if not supermodels. As I stood awkwardly beside them, I couldn’t help but think how inferior I was.
My height is average. My dark hair is boring and straight. My eyes are dull, cloudy gray in color. And my nerves – ugh – I never had the ability to look at anyone straight in the eye. And I stutter… most of the time. If one was within a meter radius, he or she could probably hear my knees shaking. But others assume that I was arrogant or even aloof because I never talked with them.
See how unfair life is?
I sighed for the third time. Well, it couldn’t hurt. No luck left, I thought grimly.
I gritted my teeth when I realized that I missed my chance to cross. I had been standing like a pillar in between the sidewalk and the road. Others might've thought I dozed off, which was true actually. The traffic lights flashed green again, blinking as if to mock me and my idiocy. Ugh.
Then, as I swept the new crowd from the opposite side of the road, I saw an achingly familiar face, a face I knew shouldn't be there. It stood out like a black dot in a pure white background, like the full moon against the blackest night. My breathing hitched, my heart started to malfunction.
No way! I must be hallucinating. Is that Aethan West? As in, the great Aethan West?
As I took in his tall, muscular frame, his handsome angular face and his wind-swept blond hair, I knew I couldn’t be mistaken. He seemed to be alone, and his expression was unexpectedly dark and brooding. With his frown, I wouldn’t be surprised if he turned the bright day into a stormy one.
The question: What was he doing here?
Today IS our graduation day. He’s not supposed to be… right now, loitering at this hour… at this time… in this place.
Unlike me who was deliberately delaying, he was supposed to be in school, if not on the way to school. Unlike me who was just going to receive that stupid scroll of a diploma, he was also going to receive awards for his amazing athletic record. And unlike me who would be celebrating all by myself, he would have his family and hundreds of friends to congratulate him – not to mention all his ex-girlfriends and girlfriends-to-be.
So, what was Aethan West doing here?
As if hearing someone call his name, he lifted his head. His expression became casual and patient, erasing all evidence of his earlier mood. I knew this smooth face perfectly, a polite, amused mask that betrayed nothing inside – I had one as well, after all. And I've seen it on him for three long years. How could I not recognize that?
After the span of a heartbeat, I saw a beautiful Southern blonde squeezed her way among the people into his strong arms. My heart gave a not-so-gentle squeeze of its own when he leaned down to kiss the girl's head.
I didn't want to see this. I wanted to leave.
His soft gaze scanned the surroundings, impatient for the light to permit them to cross, only to zero on me and my ugly self. Intense heat instantly flooded my cheeks as my eyes stayed locked on my feet. My knees were shaking.
I didn't want him to see me. Not like this, not right now. I wish I could die.
I realized that I dropped my shopping bag when my nails dug painfully inside my palms. I released the deadly grip, allowing the pain to subside. As I bend to recover the bag, the little boy beside me accidentally got off balance. His bright red ball rolled away from him into the road. I recognized the look on his small, cherubic face as the missing toy registered in his young mind. I saw his blue eyes widened. I saw his feet stepped away from safety. I saw his hand reached for it.
I saw it all.
The shrieks and cries faded into the background as I unconsciously ran towards the boy. He was so far yet so near. It felt like I was caught inside a nightmare where everything seemed too slow, too unreal, too numbing. I could somehow hear a faint beeping sound from afar, an incessant noise I knew but could not lay a finger on. I could feel the rush of dread and determination in me, a tingling warmth and coldness that exponentially heightened my senses. I could see everything, but at the same time, see nothing.
There was only one thought in my mind.
Save the boy.
Save the child.
My arms tightened protectively around his small body. His warmth as our skin touched was reassuring. The feeling of exultation and victory paralyzed me with premature happiness. I reached him. I did reach him.
I was filled with a strong, indescribable emotion. The greatest feeling I've ever had.
Suddenly, a humongous shadow appeared beside us. The source of the noise, I realized.
It was close. Too close. And too late. Without thinking, I forcefully pushed the boy towards safety.
And then it hit.