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When Chaia dies, she wants a plaque on this park bench. One of those tacky ones, where you put a quote and the person's name, in memory of. She wants it to be an interesting quote, because she wants to be an interesting person. Key word being 'wants,' because she doesn't think she has achieved it yet. 

Perhaps she has. Maybe they don't tell her because they don't want to pale in comparison. Their voice boxes are polluted in envy, jealous of all the interesting things she has done.

Perhaps her imagination is getting the better of her again.

Chaia has an overactive one. Back in the day, way back, before puberty settled in, she was the Queen of Imagination. She would host tea parties with her stuffies, Ronnie Rhino and Mary Moose. She would pretend Ronnie had a crush on Mary. He'd always put an extra lump of sugar in her tea, because it had to be as sweet as her.

Smoothest rhino she had ever met. 

As much as she would love to pretend it was happily ever after, Ronnie got his head torn off by her dog while she was at camp for the week. Her parents replaced him with Roger Rhino. She wasn't supposed to notice. But Ronnie had a tattoo of a polka dot on his right butt cheek, and Roger didn't. She knew he was different. So did Mary. She was a very observant moose.

Unfortunately for herself, she was in a similar boat. Chaia had made friends with the neighbor boy the summer before kindergarten. His name was Sterling, and he was her best (albeit only) friend. 

She remembers the one weekend they had convinced her mom to take them to the zoo. There were supposed to be baby lions. Everybody was excitedly surrounding the enclosure, and she got to sit on her mother's shoulders to get a better view. Then Sterling had wanted to see too, and she had to get set down, because her mother said it was too dangerous to make a human totem pole and stack him on her shoulders. 

While he was up there, a bird had pooped on him. It thankfully had hit him in the hat. Some lady next to them had said that it was good luck, despite the fact that it was his favorite hat. Her mother had treated them to double scoop ice creams that afternoon, so maybe she was right.

Maybe she should start feeding the birds in the park fiber supplements. Bring on the good luck.

Sterling had to leave at the end of summer. Turned out his parents were splitting up, and his father had won custody, whisking him off to Nebraska. She had no idea what was out there, but he was. For the first few weeks, she pretended he was going to come back. Then his mother moved away too, and she realized he wasn't coming back.

The tea was a bit salty that week.

Then Matt moved in. Matt with the boring name, and bubblegum habit that left them too broke to spend pocket change at the arcade. They'd play hide and seek. Sometimes she'd been hidden for a while, and she had to wonder if he was really that bad at the game, or if he was bored of her and wandered off to play anything else.

Chaia was best friends with Matt by default. She had a Sterling sized hole, and he was convenient. There was nothing particularly interesting about him other than the fact that his parents paid for basic cable, and that he would agree to have her over every Saturday to watch cartoons over bowls of Honey Nut Cheerios. 

She remembers the last bowls of cereal they ever had together. No, he didn't move to Nebraska too. Rather she had gone off to her annual bible camp, and by the time she had gotten back, he had become best friends with another person who wasn't her. She's sure he had a name, not that she can remember it.

She tries to block out the painful details. 

At the start of second grade, she had made her first official female friend. Official, because they hung out outside of school, if you call getting invited to her birthday slumber party hanging out. Chaia did, because it made her feel wanted. Roger and Mary were fine company, but she wanted someone that didn't make her hold both sides of the conversation.

She had gotten her wish, sort of. It turned out Marigold was painfully shy. During the sleepover, when all the friends partnered off into their own huddles, she hung back. 

"Is this spot taken?" There was an open spot on the floor for Chaia's sleeping bag. She had taken it, and the following minutes to debate the plural of moose with her. 

Moose? Meese? Mooses? She'd gone on a bit of a rant, Marigold shrugging along. 

"My mom uses mousse in her hair. You don't think it's made out of moose, do you?" 

"You want to find out?" 

She'd left Mary behind when they snuck off to the bathroom. It felt odd knowing two Mary's, so she called Marigold Goldie. She liked that. 

Goldie stuck by her side through it all. That was until they hit fifth grade, when she fell into the popular crowd, because she had gotten her braces off, and had a visit from the puberty fairy. 

Chaia had come home to cry into her pillow. Her mother had rubbed her back, giving her what she thought to be words of wisdom.

"Oh sweetheart, don't worry. She'll come around. You know how the saying goes. Make new friends, keep the old. One is silver and the other gold."

Sterling silver? Mari-gold?

It was a low blow.

She made a habit of visiting the park after school. There was a bench by the tree where she would sit, reading from her book. If you paid close enough attention, you'd notice she was actually looking over her book, people watching, turning the pages on a counted beat. She'd watch to see what makes people interesting. There was clearly something wrong with her, seeing as how people kept abandoning her. 

Could you train yourself to be interesting?

There was a woman that would share the bench with her some days. She liked to toss peanuts to the squirrels. Sometimes she would let Chaia toss a few out, and she would watch them scamper to grab the treats. 

They were cute. But they weren't human.

It took a year, and three months, before the woman stopped showing up. Her obituary ended up in the paper shortly after. The squirrels still came, and she spent her allowance feeding the only friends she had. 

A few months later, she had been standing in line at the grocery store. Her basket was full of nuts.

"The honey roasted ones taste better, you know." 

She turned, lips quirking. "Of course. But the squirrels don't have such sophisticated palates."

He nodded. There was something familiar about him, standing there with his Honey Nut Cheerios, his curly blond hair falling into his eyes. She shook the feeling and paid the cashier.

Sitting on the park bench, she saw him. He was walking through the park. When he spotted her, he took a seat.

"Have you considered walnuts?" He took a baggie out of his pocket.

"I have not." 

He threw a handful to the ground. His eyes were set on it, but her eyes were studying him, trying to understand why he looked so familiar. 

He laughed at a squirrel. 

She knew that laugh.

"Sterling," she whispered to herself.

Was he back? Or was it all in her overactive imagination?

"What'd you say?" He turned away from the squirrels. 

"I regret buying all those peanuts now. They're very excited over your walnuts." 

"I'll have to bring some more tomorrow." He paused for a moment. "Will you be here tomorrow?"

She was there tomorrow. 

He came for a week before announcing that he was going back home to his dad's house. He had only been in town for spring break, visiting his mom. 

They'd made it through an entire week without exchanging names. She had been too afraid to ask him.

"Here's my email. Send me pictures of the squirrels some times, will you?" He handed her a paper. She pocketed it.

"Sure thing."

After he left, she unfolded it. 

His username.

It was him.

They emailed for years, the pretense of squirrels falling to the wayside as they talked about life. And even though he was miles away, he was the closest thing she had to a friend. 

Chaia leans back into her bench. She's supposed to meet with Sterling today. Marigold has passed, with Matt hooked onto her elbow. They look at her, a faint memory of someone they once knew. Now she's just that woman that feeds the squirrels on her twenty first birthday, because nobody wants to take her out for her first drink.

"Is this seat taken?" Someone slips into it. She realizes that it's her someone, because he's come all the way from Nebraska to hold her hand and feed the squirrels. And this time when he holds her hand, unlike that summer before kindergarten, he follows it with a kiss.

"It is now."

One day, Chaia will get that plaque. 

Here sat Chaia. The squirrels went nuts for her.

Sterling did too.

July 11, 2021 22:00

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1 comment

Tricia Shulist
14:08 Jul 17, 2021

That was lovely. And funny. And done through the eyes of a child to a teen to a young adult. Thank you.


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