“I don’t know if we should do this.” Carlotta scratched out the last of her drawing, biting on her lower lip.
Oni reached down and swiped her up by her arm. The leather of Carlotta’s leather jacket crinkled.
“Don’t be such a wuss.”
Carlotta frowned, slipping her sketch pad and pencil into her gray backpack. “Ditching classes could get up suspended.”
“Naw, at worst, we’ll get detention. You can do your homework there in peace without all the racket of those bratty siblings of yours. Besides, you’re eighteen now. Make your own decisions.”
Carlotta’s shoulders came down as she sighed. “What do you have in mind?”
Oni glanced around the back of the school, at the red bricks of the building and the student parking lot, which at the moment only contained a handful of cars.
Oni grinned, making her brown eyes light up with a promise of entertaining trouble. “Just bumming around. Not much.”
“Sounds boring.” Carlotta yawned, standing in the long shadows of morning.
Up came Oni’s perfect eyebrows. “When has any day out with me ever been boring?”
Carlotta chuckled. “Point taken.”
Carlotta shivered. Oni jogged ahead, waving for Carlotta to keep up.
Through the corner of her eye, Carlotta noted her friend’s long black hair tumbling over her red short-sleeved shirt. Oni was tapping her steering wheel to the beat a soft blues song. Carlotta glanced out the window over her arm. A smidge of the shining orange paint of Oni’s small car reflected off the passenger-side mirror.
Oni pulled up in the parking lot of a $100 per plate restaurant. “I love this place.”
Carlotta spun in her seat to face her. “What are we doing here? You know I can’t afford restaurants like this let alone the dollar meal at the The Burger Place.”
Oni shook her head. “We don’t need money today.”
“Then what are we doing—”
“What is it? What were you going to say?”
“That guy…sitting at the bus stop across the street.” Carlotta pointed across a parking lot filled with gleaming cars to a grassy park lined with leafy trees. In front of the park, facing the street, a metal bench rested under a sign announcing bus ten. On that bench, sat a stunning man, leaned back with his arms propped up on the back of the bench. Dark bangs hovered over gorgeous eyes. His three-button T-shirt looked great on his frame. His jeans perfect.
“Oh,” Oni said, staring.
Carlotta whipped her sketch pad and a pencil out of her bag and got to work. “I want to remember him. His gaze comes across as carefree, but his aura says he has something heavy on his mind. An intriguing guy.” She squinted and scratched away on the paper, capturing his essence.
Oni scoffed. “Can’t blame you, though. He has a thick book spread out on his lap. A thinker.”
The young man closed the book and held it upright.
Oni squinted and leaned forward. “Biology. He’s a science major. Probably a freshman, sophomore tops.”
Carlotta pulled out a raggedy make-up bag and unzipped up. She withdrew her eyeshadow and dipped the old wand into the brown, using it to color the mystery man’s hair.
“You use makeup to color your drawings? How cheap.”
Carlotta shrugged. “It’s good makeup. My grandma didn’t want it anymore and gave it to me.”
“Ugh, your grandmother’s hand-me-down crap?”
“You’re such a snob. Have to have the best makeup, the best shampoo, and you criticize me for my inferior taste in toiletries, knowing I can’t afford the over-priced stuff you buy.”
Oni’s hands came up in surrender. “Easy there. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t live with the
stuff you use.”
“You know I can’t afford my own makeup, let alone colored pencils for my artwork. I found a solution.”
“Creative indeed. You win. Let me see.” Oni reached for the picture. “Wow. Almost like a photograph.”
“Thanks. So, why are we here at this restaurant I couldn’t afford, even if I saved up for year?”
“I was hoping to entice this really cute waiter into a date.”
Carlotta rolled her eyes. “You’re such a flirt.”
“Yeah, well, you’re too afraid of taking chances.”
“Hm.” Carlotta folded her arms across her chest. Her leather jacket made its sing-song crinkling sound.
“You know what, this can wait. I’ve got a better idea.” Oni started up the car and drove. “We’re going to the parade downtown.”
Driving around the block of businesses, they at last found a parking spot in an underground garage and stepped out into the bright sun.
“I want to be in a parade.” Oni twisted to the left and to the right and sucked in a deep breath of air.
Carlotta shook her head. “My advice then is to be creative.”
“I’ll think about what you would do, then, to make this happen. Wait here.” She dashed down the street and disappeared from view behind a small clothes’ shop.
Carlotta watched people strolling by and listened to the sounds of city life, cars rolling by, people talking, honking, the distant sound of tradesmen’s power tools…
Brassy horn music, dancy percussion, and scintillating woodwinds came to life down the block and grew louder as they made their way down the street. Floats reflecting the city’s history—caricatures of city founders in Victorian clothes, the bright blue city birds, a big plaster pasta dish—the dish native to that town—, a man dressed in the local red and white football jersey, several singers in long gowns with gold sashes sporting the name of the city, and various other cartoon-like floats and costumed people marched down the street. A figure on a platform passed by Carlotta, and she dropped her jaw. Oni was on the moving mini stage, dressed in a stort gray and purple dress, shaking to the band music and waving like a royal.
How did she…
Carlotta’s vision followed her surprising friend until it faded around the corner. She broke out laughing. Maybe Oni was onto something about taking chances.
Oni ran up to her, trying to catch her breath, smiling. “Like that?”
“At first I saw the cheap costume and turned my nose up to it. I’d never be seen in something so…inexpensive. But then I remembered your advice and saw how beautiful you made your picture of that hot guy using only thrift-shop worthy materials. So I decided to go for it, tricked my way up there, and it was worth it! I won’t knock your money workarounds and dime-store purchases ever again.”
Carlotta scoffed and put her arm around Oni’s shoulders. “Glad to hear it.”
“Before this day is over, my friend, you’re going to see the folly in being so afraid to try things. Now, let’s go see my psychic, Belinda.”
An hour later, Oni and Carlotta knocked on the door of a ranch house. Carlotta glanced at the parted lace curtains. A tuxedo cat slept in the window.
“Charming place. Cute cat,” Carlotta said.
The door came open, and a pretty blonde woman in her forties smiled. “Oni! Welcome! This must be Carlotta, the friend you mention often.”
“I hope in a good way,” Carlotta said. She followed Oni into the house.
Flowery incense gave a pleasant scent to the air. Carlotta shivered, charmed with how cozy the warm room was. Thick carpet cushioned their feet. Silver pillows rested on a plump purple couch. Wind chimes sprinkled their loveliness into the room from an open window with billowing lavender curtains. A rose quartz cluster sparkled its pink joy from the center of a polished wooden coffee table.
“Come sit.” Belinda straightened her emerald-green shawl.
Oni grabbed the wide silver pillows and dropped them on the floor near the coffee table across from the couch. Carlotta took her cue, and the girls sat on the floor. Belinda faced them, sitting on the vivid purple couch. They chatted for a few minutes.
“So, Carlotta, I sense something interesting coming from your bag. You created something…special. Oh my,” she fanned herself with her hand. “Extraordinary indeed, and important.”
Carlotta pulled out the sketch of the young man and handed it to Belinda. She stared at it, and a blonde tendril fell from her messy bun to the side of her face.
“What is it?” Carlotta tipped closer.
Belinda’s wise gaze locked with hers. “This man. He is…I mean, he will be…your husband.”
Carlotta’s mouth dropped open. “What!”
“And it will be a very happy, long-lasting marriage!” Belinda beamed.
Carlotta felt her lips crack into a smile. “What a nice thought.”
Belinda shook her head. “I’m serious. Find him!”
“How?” Carlotta took the picture and studied it.
“He’s a science student at the community college,” Oni offered. “He was waiting for the bus that went there.”
Carlotta turned to her in question. “What am I supposed to do? Hunt him down and ask him out?”
“Why not?” Oni asked.
“I can’t do that! Besides, I’m poverty-stricken. I won’t ever be able to go to college. He wouldn’t want me.”
“Don’t be stupid. You’re smart and clever and well read. It’s just a shame you’re a coward.”
Carlotta glared at her.
“Sorry. Okay, we have to go.”
They said their goodbyes to Belinda and left.
Twenty minutes later, Oni and Carlotta sat in her orange car in the student parking lot of the college, by the science building.
“This is stupid.” Carlotta rubbed her head. Tickles danced in her belly. “But I’m having fun.” She chuckled.
“There he is! Come on!”
They got out of the car. Carlotta followed Oni as she strode across the parking lot.
“Excuse me.” Oni stopped in front of the guy on the sidewalk edging the tar top.
He smiled, and Carlotta’s heart picked up its pace.
“I’m Oni, and this is my friend, Carlotta.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Misha. How can I help you?”
His welcoming, kind essence sent tingles through Carlotta’s body.
“Well you see,” Oni began, “you won a contest.”
He shifted his bag from his left to his right shoulder. “Is that so? What kind?”
“You get a date with my friend.”
His gorgeous eyes widened. “What?” He chuckled. “I mean, how could I be so lucky?”
Carlotta’s heart melted. She gazed at the ground bashfully then back up at him. “Pardon my friend. We don’t mean to harass you.”
He shook his head, and his smile lit Carlotta’s world. “Let’s have coffee first? Get to know each other?” He gestured to the café twenty feet ahead.
The three sat and chatted over coffee.
“Tell us about your studies,” Oni said.
He took a sip from his tall paper cup. “Biology major. I hope to someday work in a lab as a researcher.”
Carlotta smacked her friend’s arm then turned to Misha. “Sorry about my friend. I think that’s great.”
“How about you?” He was looking at Carlotta but tossed a quick glance at Oni.
Carlotta crossed her legs and rested her clasped hands over her knee. “I’m an artist and don’t think I’ll ever get to college.”
“No? Why not?” He leaned back and propped his arm up on his metal chair.
“What my friend means to say is that she may not come from wealth, but she is incredibly inventive and intelligent. She is the most well-read person I know,” Oni said.
Misha’s lips tipped into a beautiful smile. “What are your favorite subjects? I love reading myself.”
“Many things. I’m tackling a giant reading list to read books from authors from every country in the world,” Carlotta said.
His eyes widened slightly. “I like that. A lot. I think I’ll start a similar project.”
They continued talking. As Oni watched, grinning, she nodded, happy to see a mutual attraction between her best friend and this charming guy.
“So,” Misha asked Carlotta, “you’re not in college. Where do you work?”
“Odd jobs here and there. I graduate in a month.”
“I thought you said you weren’t in college,” Misha said.
Misha’s posture stiffened, and his face paled. “I…have to go. Nice meeting you.”
“Wait,” Oni said. “She’s eighteen. So am I.” Oni reached into Carlotta’s purse and pulled out her I.D. then Carlotta’s shoving them into Misha’s face.
“Oh.” He slowly lowered back down.
“How old are you?” Oni asked. “You sure freaked out when you heard Carlotta was still in high school.”
“Can you blame me?”
“When did you turn nineteen?” Oni asked.
Oni sipped her coffee. “So, you’re only a year older. Do you like my friend?”
He hesitated. “Yes.”
“Would you care to spend the day with us and get to know her better?”
“Come on, don’t be afraid,” Oni said.
Carlotta was playing with her fingernails.
Misha’s posture relaxed. “What did you ladies have in mind?”
Oni’s smirk traced over Carlotta, showing her the whimsical intent running around her playful mind. “Let’s go to the theme park.”
Okay, now that sounded fun but harmless. Carlotta nodded.
Misha smiled. “I’m game.”
After four hours of screaming in glee during tummy-tingling rides, Carlotta and Misha walked hand-in-hand as Oni’s chatty words escaped them. They found themselves in front of the park’s small theater and went inside.
“Let’s stay for the short show,” Misha said.
“That would be great!” Carlotta gave his hand a squeeze. “It’s cool you like the theater.” She gazed into his handsome eyes.
“Especially when accompanied by an exceptional friend.”
“I’m a…friend?” Carlotta said on a breath.
“I certainly hope so.”
Carlotta offered an open-mouthed smile. He leaned closer but stopped and turned his head toward Oni who was staring with a wide smile.
“The magic between you two,” Oni said.
“It’s strange,” Carlotta said. “Misha and I have so much in common. It’s uncanny.”
He ran the back of his fingers down Carlotta’s cheek. “Perhaps it’s fate.”
“Alright, that’s it, you two.” Oni grabbed Carlotta’s sleeve and dragged her over the wide paved ground out of the theater.
“Where are we going? What about the show?” Carlotta asked.
“I’ve got something more thrilling in mind.”
Carlotta and Misha stumbled after Oni.
Oni paused in front of a small white-stoned building. “This is the place.” She dragged Carlotta inside, and Misha followed.
“You guys really like each other, and it is likely to develop into something more quickly.”
Carlotta and Misha looked at each other and nodded.
“We’re going to do a run through and have fun. You like the theater. You’re going to play a scene,” Oni told them. “Be right back while I talk to the manager.” She left through an open door and returned grinning. “Okay, here’s the deal. Get up on that stage that’s set up with an altar. Play the part of a couple getting married. It’s improv. Say what’s in your hearts, and let it roll!”
“We can do that.” Carlotta laughed.
“Sounds fun to me!” Misha added.
They showed their I.D.’s to the manager and stepped onto the stage, holding each other’s hands.
“Carlotta,” Misha began, “I haven’t known you long, but I can feel your inner beauty. You inspire happiness in me. Be my love, now and forever.”
Carlotta wiped away a tear, and Oni, holding a bouquet of roses winked at her.
“I feel the same way,” Carlotta said. “Your goodness radiates off of you. Your heart… Yes, I will be yours.”
After the ceremony, standing in the sunlight, Oni took them each by the hands. “Congratulations! You’re married!” She chuckled.
Their own chuckles joined hers.
“That was a thrill!” Carlotta said.
“I enjoyed it too,” Misha said.
“No, I mean you’re really married. That was a real minister.”
“What?” Carlotta’s chuckle came out laced with concern.
Misha squinted with his own uneasiness.
Oni pointed the toe of one of her sparkly blue shoes and turned it side-to-side, gazing down. “You’re both so into each other. I just sped up the timeline.”
“We’re really married?” Misha said, hushed.
“Yes,” Oni said.
“We can’t be. We didn’t get licenses,” Carlotta said.
Oni shrugged. “A technicality. Get those later.”
“Oni!” Carlotta said.
Oni strode out of the park’s gates and toward her car. The others followed.
In the car, Carlotta sat in the back holding Misha’s hand. He gazed at her smitten, a smile of delight on his lips.
Oni spun around and rested her arm over the top of her seat. “You know what Belinda said, that you two were meant to be.”
“But…” Carlotta sighed. Her response remained in the shadows of her mind, not fully formed.
Misha lifted Carlotta’s hand to his lips for a kiss. “This has been a crazy day! But I love it.”
A smile wobbled onto Carlotta’s lips. “I have to admit, so do I. This early marriage will mean he and I will have more anniversaries than most people.”
“Yes,” he answered.
“But we should keep this a secret until I graduate,” Carlotta said.
Misha nodded. “And the marriage night should wait until then and if we are in love by then.”
Oni reached and tapped his arm in approval. “I knew you and Carlotta were perfect for each other.”
“What will I tell my family?” Carlotta said.
“Just that he’s your new boyfriend. Then graduate, then hold a formal wedding for them.”
“It seems like the best policy,” Misha said. “After that, move in with me, Carlotta?”
Carlotta smiled. “Yes. I like you so much.”
“I like you too…wife.”
“Oni, your crazy schemes…” Carlotta laughed and shook her head.
“Guys, I’ve just gotten started. Our day is about to get really wild!”