Julia arrived the next morning with a big suitcase and a wide smile.
She wrapped her arms around my waist immediately, and held on for a long time. When she pulled back, there was a tear pooling in her left eye.
"What's wrong, Jules?" I asked, concerned.
She sniffed. "I'm just so happy to see you, Chelsea. I know we promised to keep in touch after high school, but we both knew we wouldn't. And now . . ."
She turned her head, probably so I wouldn't see the tear leak and slide down her cheek. She reached up quickly to brush it away before finishing her sentence.
"Now maybe it won't be like that."
I blinked, shocked. I knew that, after a year on Sunshine Islands, Julia and I loved each other like sisters. When I wasn't at the farm, or with Vaughn, you could have bet everything you owned that I was with Julia.
Whenever I went on a much-needed shopping spree in the city, she was always there. When I wanted to wander aimlessly around Meadow Island and admire the sea, she would be there to talk with me.
Before I married, I would sometimes spend the night in the Animal Shop, and we would spend hours talking about anything we wanted to.
I had never been closer to anybody. But the sincerity of her words now made me wonder if Julia had always felt that way. That our friendship in high school had been so strong that it killed a small part of her for us to part.
That, even now, she loved me.
Memories of high school flashed through my mind in a second; they were all with my best friend. Sure, I loved Julia then, too. But perhaps not as strongly.
In the juvenile and deceitful world of high school, most friendships were forged out of convenience than desire. They broke as often as they were made. I myself had dropped a few so-called 'friends' for stupid reasons.
Phoebe lost my favorite book, Diana kissed the boy I had a crush on, Valerie left a bright pink stain on my green sweater . . . I had a lot of friends in high school, and they all came and went.
Just like with my marriage, I never considered friendship to be of high importance in life. There was so much else to think about; getting high grades, getting a good job, finding a decent house.
But Julia was the one that stuck.
She was the only friend I ever had that I genuinely began to care for over time. I missed her when she wasn't there, and I valued her opinions and actually listened to what she had to say.
I didn't always listen.
I had no respect for my mother, who was either drunk or hardly around. I hadn't the slightest clue who my father was. And the people I hung out with always seemed so shallow to me; worried about their hair, who was dating whom, what color dress to wear to a dance . . .
Over time, I hardly listened to anyone but myself. I was the only person in the world who matted. I didn't need people telling me who to be or what to say. I didn't need anyone.
Until Julia came along.
And now, standing here in front of the only person who really got through to me, I wondered how I had ever let her go.
"Oh, Julia," I said, shaking my head a little, "It won't be. Come on, I'll show you your room."
She grinned, and then started following me down the hallway. As we walked, I made a silent vow in my head. Julia would always be my friend, no matter what.
I didn't even care if it irritated the old man in the Diner that this was a similarity. She followed me to the last door in the hall, just across from mine.
"That's my room," I said, pointing to it, "And that's Mark's room."
I gestured to his door. Julia nodded, and then went inside her room. It was fairly plain; a bed, a lamp, a closet and a window. My eyes wondered to Mark's door; either he was sleeping, or out to some foreign land with Witch Princess.
My question was answered, though, when my brother's door opened and he stepped out, rubbing his eyes and adjusting his blue cap.
When he saw me, he smiled. "Hey, Chelsea, whatcha doin'?"
I smiled back at him. "I'm showing our guest her room."
"Oh." Mark craned his neck to see into Julia's room.
I smacked his chest, and he stepped ruefully away. When Julia came back out into the hall, Mark appraised her openly. Then he stuck out his hand and gave her his best boyish grin.
"Hey, Mark." She smiled politely at him.
"Chelsea was right," he said, "You are hot."
My eyes widened at his blatancy – sometimes I wished my brother would keep his thoughts to himself. I looked at Julia with apologetic eyes, trying to read her reaction.
She looked like she couldn't decide whether to be flattered or irritated. The combination was so strange on her face; I couldn't help but laugh.
"Come on, Julia," I said, taking her hand. I led her into my room, and we sat on the bed.
"Hmm." Her brows pulled together. "I'm not sure what to make of your brother."
"He's a bit of a question mark," I agreed. That's probably why he's compatible with a witch, I added in my head.
"He's just really blunt," I explained, "And he didn't mean anything by his comment. He's actually with someone."
Julia nodded. "That's good. It'd be kind of weird if he liked me, don't you think?"
I shuddered a little. "More than weird. Creepy."
She laughed, and then clapped her hands together, like she was going to make an announcement. But she only said, "So. Tell me more about this CEO interview."
"CEO's assistant," I corrected.
She shrugged, and then waited. I drew in a deep breath and told her all about the interview, in detail. I talked about Mr. Jackson and how nice he was, and I talked about was an amazing opportunity this job was.
I purposely infused a large amount of enthusiasm in my voice, so Julia would see how happy I was with my decision.
I didn't want to admit it, even to myself, but a small part of me I rarely listened to was frightened that if Julia stared talking about Sunshine Islands, I would break down and go back there with her.
Because I did love those little Islands.
I had just made a few bad choices on them. And that similarity was sure to bring about the old man's 'consequences'. Shivering a little to myself, I concluded my little speech about yesterday.
"Sounds like you're doing so well for yourself, Chelsea," Julia praised happily.
"I am," I agreed.
"Are you going to get a big apartment and a fancy car and rich, snobby friends?"
I laughed. "I don't think so. I probably will move out of here someday, and leave Mark alone."
"Well, I think you should come visit my Islands someday, Chelsea. Even though you're into business and office work now, you might still like the animals, and the open space. You know you don't really like the city."
"I have mixed feelings about it," I sighed.
I looked away, out the window. Unexpected sorrow welled up in my heart, but I pushed it away. I had always been good at ignoring unwanted emotions.
"I will visit sometime, Julia," I promised, though I knew it was a lie. I cleared my throat, trying to find my previous light humor.
"What's going on with you?" I asked. "Have you met someone?"
Julia thought for a minute, and then she shook her head. "No, not really. I mean, I think this boy Elliot likes me, but he's really shy. We've only spoken a few times . . ."
"Do you like him?" I asked, though I already knew.
"Yes, I do. Natalie, my friend, teases me about it. But like I said, it might be nothing."
A memory of Elliot and Julia together outside Chen's Shop passed through my head. They weren't really doing anything at all; just staring at each other with lovesick eyes, like the other person was the only think in the world that kept them alive and happy.
Julia loved him so much.
And anyone could see that they belonged together. I smiled a little to myself, the knowledge of Julia's appealing future pleasing to me. Julia should be happy – she deserved it.
"I think you should get to know him," I said, "He might be more than he seems."
She giggled. "He's not very mysterious, Chelsea. He's actually rather clumsy."
I grinned, remembering all of Elliot's mix-ups, and all the times his sister teased him about it.
"Yeah. Natalie thinks it's stupid, but I find it rather endearing."
I never understood the attraction. I probably never would.
"And you?" Julia asked. "Are you seeing someone?"
My throat tightened, and it was difficult to ignore the powerful wave of guilt washing over me. Because I had been married to her cousin, and nothing had pleased her more. I had robbed her of that joy. I looked down at my hands, folded on my lap.
"Huh. I would have thought you'd have a boyfriend or something. You always did in high school. Not that you really cared about any of them."
I opened my mouth to reply, but I didn't really have a half-decent rebuttal. I hadn't cared about them. Looking back now, I hardly remembered their names. Mostly I just dated because the boy was cute, or popular, or he could help me in math, my most hated subject.
"I guess not. Maybe I'm waiting for the right one," I said honestly.
Suddenly, I saw a flash of purple in my mind. No, not purple.
He wasn't right, I reminded myself, you don't love him.
How could I? I hardly knew him. And he certainly wasn't eager to share information, even when we were married.
"That's good to do," Julia agreed, "If you're ready to get serious now."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
Julia shrugged. "I don't know, Chelsea. We're both still so young. I think I'd like to have a bit more fun before I get married."
I blinked at her, my mind going blank. And then I laughed, the sound ringing out through the room, and possibly the hall.
She looked offended. "What?"
I waited for the laughing fit to pass before I replied. "Julia, you were never one for 'fun' in high school."
I chuckled again. She really wasn't. I didn't remember Julia ever really dating anyone – she found the boys at our school to be immature and unattractive. Aside from a few kisses here and there, she was probably the biggest goody-goody in school.
Which made me wonder how we got to be best friends in the first place.
She grimaced at me. "That's because the boys at our school were merely that. Boys. I want someone more mature."
"What exactly did you have in mind?" I asked, "A rich guy twenty years older than you? Well, at least you'll have enough money to be in the same class as me."
Julia threw a pillow at me, but I quickly deflected it. "Shut it," she said. But she smiled.
She looked thoughtful for a long time before she finally answered.
"I'm not sure what I want, really. Someone I can be myself with, I guess. I was going back to my Islands before I ran into you, but as long as I'm staying the city, why not have fun?"
"Fun as in, looking for old guys," I said.
Julia came at me with the pillow this time, knocking me backwards and trying to hold it over my head. I giggled, pushing her away and accusing her of trying to suffocate me.
Julia sniffed, and sat back down. "It would serve you right," she retorted.
"I'm only kidding," I sighed, pretending to roll my eyes. "I'm sure you'll meet Mr. Right soon, Julia. And I'll bet he's amazing."
I meant what I said, too. Though Elliot was awkward and shy, he really was a decent person. Under her tough exterior, his sister was, too.
"We should go out tonight," she said suddenly.
I blinked. "Why?"
"Why not? You're going to start working soon, and you'll have to go to bed at a reasonable hour." She wrinkled her nose, like this was a horrifying prospect.
I hesitated, biting my lip. "I don't know I have the job for sure."
"By the way you talked about this Mr. Jackson, you'll get it for sure. Come on, Chelsea. We'll only be out for a while."
"Where do you want to go?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I've forgotten where everything is in this city. We should just wing it."
I still hesitated, though the idea did sound appealing. A night out with my best friend, acting silly and having fun.
An hour later, Julia and I were stepping into a bright yellow cab, ducking in quickly to get out of the light rain.
"This is going to be so fun," Julia gushed.
I smiled and nodded.
"Where to?" the driver asked.
I paused, debating. Eventually I gave him the name of an expensive restaurant, up in the nicer part of the city. It was a special occasion, after all. On the way, we both stared out the windows.
"This sure is a big place," Julia commented.
I shrugged. "Yeah. Always has been."
"You'd never run out of things to do."
"I guess not."
She leaned back in her seat, thoughtful again. "I suppose I could see why someone might want to live here. I still prefer the quiet of my Islands, though."
"Huh" was all I said.
We were silent for a while after that; Julia's eyes eagerly darted around, reading all the neon signs, taking in the massively tall buildings. By the time we reached our destination, she looked happy, but also somewhat awed.
I paid the driver, and we stepped out of the cab. Julia's head tilted to left, and her eyes became unfocused.
"Do you hear that, Chelsea?"
"Hear what?" I asked, wrinkling my eyebrows.
But after I was quiet and really listened, I heard the sound of music. It was distant, but definitely there.
"Let's go see where it's coming from."
Julia took a few steps towards the sound, away from the restaurant. A sense of nervousness I couldn't explain fell over me.
I stepped forward and took her hand, weary. "Let's not."
"Why not, Chelsea?"
"Because we already have plans."
Julia shook her head, like I'd just said the silliest thing in the world to her.
"Part of having fun is being spontaneous, Chelsea. Let's go see," she insisted.
She took my head, nodding her head in time with the beat of the music, getting close and closer with each step.
When we approached the tall brick building, my cautiousness still hadn't left me. The classier part of the city was behind us now, and the lights on this street were broken, cloaking our destination in darkness.
The only light came from a huge neon sign above the door, proclaiming its title – The Zone.
The music was blaring from the small, square windows. Blinking, I came to a sudden, firm halt. Julia – whose eyes had been trained on the lights – stopped, too, and looked at me, her eyebrow arching.
"Julia . . . that doesn't look like a place I would hang out. It's a club."
She pursed her lips, debating silently. Finally, she nodded once. "You're right. Those places can be dangerous."
There was a long line of people in front of the door, and at the head of the line was a big man dressed in black. His arms were crossed over his chest, and he was unhooking a long velvet rope so new people could pass and go in.
Occasionally he turned someone away with a sneer. The people in line looked very bored – a dark haired girl with a cigarette in her fingers was leaning against the wall, staring at the big man impatiently.
A tall guy with spiky hair and a nose ring was talking excitedly to an equally strange-looking man; he was shorter, his hair streaked with green and a tattoo of a dragon was wrapped around his arm in black and red ink.
Julia blinked, and her eyes lit up as if she was realizing something. "You used to go to those places in high school all the time, didn't you, Chelsea?"
I hesitated for a minute, and then I nodded. As a rebellious teen, I often sought hang outs like this. But the people here never had clean intentions, and it was mostly a bunch of drinking and dancing.
"I was always so worried went you went to clubs, but you never listened to me . . ." Julia trailed off, shaking her head.
I shrugged, guilty now.
"I should have," I admitted, "These places give me the creeps now."
Julia bit the inside of her cheek, taking on an expression of longing that made my stomach turn. I tugged on her arm.
"Let's go, Julia."
She sighed, and didn't budge. "I think I'd like to go in, Chelsea. Just once. You always came back alright – what could happen?"
And with that, she started walking. I groaned. Once Julia made up her mind, there was no changing it. When we got in line, people glanced at us, but didn't say anything.
"This is crazy." I whispered to her, so the girls behind us couldn't hear. They looked younger than me – maybe seventeen, if that.
"I know," she whispered back.
I was pleased to detect a bit of uneasiness in her tone, and I hoped it would knock some sense into her. An evening chill was starting to creep up on me, and I wished I'd brought my coat. I caught Snake Tattoo trying to look down my shirt, and when I met his eyes, he didn't even look away.
He just grinned, flashing a set of crooked teeth. When we reached the front of the line, the big man looked both of us over once, his eyes lingering on Julia's low-cut shirt.
He grinned, unhooked the rope and said, "Come on in, ladies."
Inside, the music was so loud I could have sworn the beat was bouncing around in my skull, shattering my eardrums and pulsing in my blood. People were all around us, dancing and laughing.
Bright red and blue lights flashed down on us, making Julia's blue eyes flash and her nervousness more pronounced. I could see she was starting to regret her impulsive decision. I looked around at the dancing people and grimaced.
They weren't dancing so much as grinding. In the corner, a young couple was kissing openly, his hands groping under her shirt. Disgusted, I continued scanning the place – my eyes zeroed in on the bar.
A drink was just the think I needed to calm down – I knew I could handle a few glasses of wine before I got tipsy. I would just hang around until Julia got over her craziness and wanted to leave. I took her hand and pulled her with me.
We both sat up in the stools. Julia continued looking around, still nervous, but also curious. This kind of thing was completely foreign to her.
I sighed to myself as I ordered my drink – I nearly had to scream for the bartender to hear me. Yes, I used to come to these places a lot. But this wasn't what I did anymore.
It wasn't who I was . . . which begged the question: Who am I?
My fingers dug into the wood counter when a small voice in the back of my mind answered.
You are an intelligent, animal-loving farm girl.
I took a swig of the drink, and tried then tried to talk to Julia.
"Can we leave now?" I had to repeat the question three times before she finally understood.
She nodded. "Yeah, this was a stupid idea," she screamed back.
As we were making our way to the door, though, a man suddenly stepped in front of Julia, out of the crowd of dancers. He staggered a little when he walked, and when he spoke, his words were a little slurred.
The smell of alcohol and smoke hung in the air around him. He was tall, with light blonde hair and sharp, handsome features. He reached out, his smile strikingly attractive, and placed both hands on Julia's hips.
"Wanna dance, gorgeous?"
Julia blushed. I wrinkled my nose, sure she would be repulsed by this guy if he wasn't good-looking. But he was, and, after a moment's contemplation, Julia nodded in agreement. She turned to me, and leaned close to speak in my ear so I could hear.
"Just for a minute, Chelsea. Wait at the bar, okay?"
I nodded slowly, and then took a reluctant step back. Julia smiled up at the man, he grinned back, and then they disappeared into the crowd. I didn't even attempt to look for them. I just sat on a stool, sucking back another drink.
After a while, I knew I was drinking too much. I knew a haze was settling over my mind and lightheadedness was beginning to overtake me.
And yet I didn't care. This new path of mine suddenly seemed like it was falling apart, and so I drank and drank, wishing my emotional pain would cease.
After quite a number of glasses filled with alcohol, The Zone didn't seem like such a bad place to be. I welcomed the music, loved the way it seemed to pulse in my body, rattling my bones. My fingers started snapping, and my foot tapped on the floor.
A man waltzed up from the crowd, his steps and speech equally as shaky as the blonde's. He sat on the stool next to me, and ordered a scotch. He turned to face me then, leaning in so close I could smell his smoky breath.
"What's your name, sweetheart?"
A small part of my brain knew that the drinks were making me stupid and giddy, but the larger part of it didn't care. A man was speaking to me, I was in a club, and flirting was almost essential.
I leaned close to him and whispered, "What do you want it to be?"
The man blinked, and grinned. His hair was greasy and black, his eyes a shiny blue. Attractive, just like the blonde, and probably my age.
He shrugged, and chuckled. "Just tell me."
My voice came out slow and weird. "C-Chelsea," I said.
The man looked me over, and he seemed to like what he saw. He stood up, and held out his hand.
"I'm Devon. Wanna dance, C-Chelsea?"
I shrugged, and then stood. "Sure."
He pulled me into the crowd, and then we started to move. He kept his hands to himself in the beginning, but after a while he pulled me close, sliding his hands into the back pockets of my jeans.
As we danced, all I could think about was how those hands felt differently than the ones who'd touched me before. They were too dark, too smooth. I frowned a little. His face was wrong, too. His eyes weren't amethyst, and his hair was far too slimy and black.
Why am I here? I suddenly wondered. Who is this touching me?
Devon suddenly let his lips slide to my ear, and he whispered in a low, husky voice.
"Wanna go find someplace quiet, C-Chelsea?"
I knew what he was really asking. Images of me and this man – Devon – kissing in some corner, like the couple I'd seen before, flashed through my mind. His hands unhooking my bra, unbuttoning my jeans, lust the only emotion in his eyes.
I swallowed, and forced myself to think clearly though the alcohol-induced haze. I didn't want that. I didn't want that to happen. He was too short, his limbs too long and gangly, his eyes too normal and boring.
I vaguely recognized that I shouldn't be looking for similarities between Devon and my former husband. Suddenly, I hated the fact that thinking clearly was difficult and the fog made reality strange and distorted.
I knew that I wanted this new path of my life to be different, but I didn't want it to be different like this.
I might meet someone while I worked in the city, and I might date him. I might even marry him. But that certainly wasn't going to happen here. Not under the gaze of this blue-eyed boy I knew nothing about.
Suddenly I hated myself for being so stupid. I abruptly pulled myself from the stranger's arms, and stumbled away. I didn't even bother to say goodbye. I knew he would soon lose me in this thick crowd of people, and I knew he'd soon find another girl who'd do exactly what he wished.
Tears formed in my eyes, and I blinked rapidly, trying to push them back. One escaped and rolled down my cheek. I looked around, trying desperately to locate my friend. The red and blue lights were suddenly much too bright – they hurt my eyes.
Finally, my gaze zeroed in on Julia.
She was still dancing with the blonde, laughing at something he said. Thankfully, I noticed that his hands stayed on her waist. I fought my way through the crowd, ignoring the annoyed glances several people shot me.
When I was close enough, my hand shot out, and my fingers curled around Julia's wrist.
I leaned close to her ear and whispered, "Let's go, Jules."
She turned, still laughing – and stopped abruptly when she saw the unshed tears in my eyes.
"Chelsea, what's wrong?" she asked loudly.
I shook my head, indicated that I didn't want to talk about it know. Knowing internally that I would never be able to talk to her about it. I just tugged on her arm, wishing she would hurry to the door with me.
Julia glanced at the blonde, yelled that she was leaving, and then started to follow me. I caught a glimpse of him frowning at me as I turned, but I couldn't care less. I couldn't get out of here fast enough.
Julia didn't question me again as he fought our way to the door. She remained quiet when she stepped out of the door. I turned my face away from her as we walked down the sidewalk, the light rain drizzling down on us. The tears had escaped, and were running full-force down my face.
Because I wasn't sure of anything anymore.
A/N: So. This Chelsea is a bit different than the others I've written. I don't think she's quite as...sweet? More sarcastic and down to earth. And Julia is, too. Hopefully I'm not getting OCC - I pride myself on staying in character. Oh, and Vaughn should be back in a little while. :)