"Are you coming tonight?"
Monday, she said yes. Tuesday, Wednesday, same deal. Chelsea had asked her every day, including Thursday, where she had given a less enthusiastic yes. Thursday her red tide had come to shore. It had also been the day of white pants, because she thought that she had a few more days until it showed up. She'd spent the afternoon with her cardigan wrapped around her waist.
Well, there went her self esteem.
"I'm not feeling too up to it..." she drew out, Friday morning, putting the cap back on her Midol. Truth was, as most times, her confidence had started to deflate the closer the big night came. This time she had a reason. Nobody can be confident while dripping blood. This isn't one of those tampon commercials.
"Nikita." She only used her full name when she scolds her. Which considering their peer relationship, was far greater than it should be in her eyes. "Going out would be just the confidence boost you need! You could find the one."
Right, because a girl can totally rock the Mount Zit-suvius look when meet guys at the club. It may be dark, but it wasn't that dark. Not if you're getting as close as they wanted.
"Next time," she promised, the words leaking out to hush her friend before she could process them. That's what she always said.
Luckily, their boss came to interrupt before Chelsea could point this out.
That night, Nikita had been bombarded by texts from the girls. Ones that were supposed to convince her that they were all having a good time, and that she could be a part of that good time if she just put on a pair of micro shorts and got her butt downtown.
Even if she could tell her hormones to bugger off, she wouldn't be caught dead flashing her cheeks to a room full of strangers. She was lonely, not desperate.
There was one picture in particular, the caption more so, that got to her.
'This could've been you.'
The guy was undeniably handsome, and from what Chelsea was saying, very charming. So charming that the texts started to fall off, and pretty soon ceased to interrupt her movie night.
She had her own charming guy. Literally, it was his name, even if Cinderella had already claimed dibs. It was fine. He was a bit too non-existent for her taste, and her mouth was too busy for kissing, wrapped around a spoon of pistachio ice cream.
Charming was all that her friend had talked about Monday, back at work. She'd been silent all weekend, having slept over at his apartment, and staying all day, and night again. The girl was smitten. Okay, and maybe a little bit, lot bit, horny. Coming from Chelsea, that was nothing new.
Her sticking around for more than the weekend, that was new.
"He asked if I want to stay in his cabin this weekend with him." She said it with the same rush of excitement as a marriage proposal, as if going into the woods with an almost stranger was the best idea.
"Isn't it a bit cold out?" It was only early April. Stripping down to booty shorts to dance in a hot, crowded club was a lot different than out in the wilderness, hiking in the cool chill of spring.
"We'll keep each other warm," she said, wiggling her eyebrows. It seemed that the only difference in weekends was going to be a lack of neighbors banging on the thin wall to keep things down.
Friday after work, she got one last text from her.
'Keets, don't think me being off grid for a few days means I forgot your promise. Go have fun with the girls!'
Without Chelsea around, it was a lot easier to linger at the bar and make small talk. She would order one martini. At the last drop, she would announce that she was leaving.
She should have downed the drink in one go.
"You're a new face."
"My friends dragged me here." She pointed to the dance floor, where the two were slinking against two guys she didn't recognize.
He set down another drink. "You're friends with Chelsea, I take it."
She shrugged. Friends was the polite term. In all honesty, if she were to quit, she knew the relationship would peter out. She was too promiscuous for her taste.
"We work together."
"Where is she anyhow? Hasn't offered to flash me once for a free drink yet." She had mentioned it a while back, how hard he had blushed when she first did it. Now she does it just to tease him.
"She's out camping this weekend with some guy she won't shut up about." The look on his face concerned her. It had fallen hard, fast. Did he actually like her? Was there actually some sort of hope that she'd flash him without the enticement of free booze?
His silence lingered for a moment as she fiddled with the olive in her drink. It lingered too long, and she almost considered drowning her glass just to remove herself from the bar and discomfort.
He turned away to serve another customer. She hopped off the stool, chugging back the rest of her drink. This place was getting too warm, her skinny jeans stuck to her thighs. She was ready to go home.
Rather than argue, she texted the girls goodbye. Their dance partners could probably feel the vibrations course through them. She was not going to try to untangle that mess.
The Uber driver dropped her off at the library like she had requested. It wasn't open, but she hadn't planned on going inside. It just happened to be on the border of town, and she needed the fresh air and pocket change.
There. That's where Nikita wanted to be on a Friday night, renting yet another classic princess movie. In the movies, there were girls in ballgowns, not glorified underwear trying to goad bartenders into free drinks.
She settled on watching cat videos on her phone. It was the only thing she had really used her phone for all weekend, after getting ghosted by the girls for not trying harder to party. They said that Chelsea would deal with her Monday.
Chelsea didn't deal with her Monday. She didn't show up to work, or call in. Nikita had texted her around ten to find where she was.
She could recognize the ringtone from her desk drawer. The phone had been left behind all weekend.
"Maybe one of us should go check on her," she suggested when they crossed paths in the bathroom. "She could have overslept if she got in late."
It was raining out, pouring.
Why did her hands have to be entangled in a wad of paper towels during a game of noses?
Armed with an umbrella, Nikita hurried down the few blocks to the pizza parlor that her friend lived above. When there was no answer at the door, she came back downstairs.
"What can I get for you?"
"Have you seen the girl that lives upstairs? Also, a slice of pepperoni, please."
She returned to work with only greasy hands and no further idea of where Chelsea was. It was possible that she had stayed the night with Charming, not that she knew where that would be. She had heard every last detail but an address.
"Okay, let's not panic. Maybe they just lost track of time and she will be back tomorrow." They sounded so sure of things that she nodded, excusing herself to wash her hands.
She took the time to splash her face with water too. She was way too worried over nothing.
When she didn't show up Tuesday, it certainly didn't feel like nothing.
By Wednesday, it was confirmed. This definitely was not nothing.
"Hi." She had been at the library, picking up a movie when she had decided to call. She wasn't even sure if anyone would pick up, as the club didn't open for another few hours.
"Hi. How can I help you?" The voice on the other end was not who she had hoped for. She wasn't sure what she expected even if she did get the bartender on the line. It wasn't like he would know who she left with two weeks ago, and where his cabin was, or where her friend was.
"Sorry, never mind." She hung up. Still clutching her copy of Beauty and the Beast, she took a step towards home. Her guilt stopped her.
Payday wasn't for another two days. An Uber was out of the question.
Well, if she left now, she'd make it there by opening, home by midnight.
The bouncer had eyed her strangely, movie still in her hand, decked out in sweatpants at five minutes until opening.
"I just need to ask the bartender a few questions, and then I'll be out," she said, as if she had to explain herself. Relief flooded her as she sat the movie on the counter, catching his eye.
"I wasn't expecting to see you here again. Doesn't seem like your scene." He pointedly glanced at the movie.
She thumbed through her wallet. "Do I need to buy a drink to talk to you? If so, cheapest thing you've got."
"You could always offer to flash me like your friend. I'd have to decline of course, but you could try." His grin faded when he realized she wasn't smiling back. "Wait, you are Chelsea's friend, right?"
"Your Meeko tattoo." He pointed to her forearm. She must've looked like a Disney fangirl to him. At any other given time, she'd be mildly embarrassed, being as that she's considered too old to obsess over such childish things. But she's talking to some guy who is paid to be nice to her for tips, someone who has taken an interest in her missing friend.
"Has Chelsea been around? She's been MIA at work, and we're all a bit worried." He didn't put a drink in front of her, so she tucked her wallet away.
Instead, he leaned all the way across the counter, elbows against the movie box, voice dropping to a whisper. "I didn't want to say this before, but that guy she left with, last I saw her, not a good vibe. He's always in here, with a new girl. I never see them come back. Always figured that they didn't want to run into him again, went to a different bar, but now you have my brain ticking."
It's a good thing he hadn't served her. Choking on drink would not have been pretty.
Neither was her sweats and chignon, but at least those didn't end up dousing the bartender. He was still just a movie box away.
"Are you implying what I think you are?"
"Princess, did she say where they were camping?" He didn't mean it maliciously. She hadn't given a name, and given all the context clues, looking down at her Disney sweats, she couldn't be mad.
Her phone was out in a flash, dialing the girls. The reception was bad, so she moved about until she found a good spot.
"I have to go. Now. Thank you!" Her hand was over the receiver, and she was out the door.
She was too far gone to care.
Some princesses leave glass slippers. Some leave library movies.
In the end, Chelsea was right. Nikita did find the one at the club. The one that still called her Princess after being told "call me Keets." The one that held her hand during the trial while she watched Charming get sentenced for more than anyone could have ever known in a dimly lit club.
That could have been her. Maybe not immediately, as it would have taken more than a week to agree to a cabin in the woods, but eventually, maybe, it would have been her.
Maybe ruining that pair of white pants wasn't misfortune after all. Maybe it saved her life, at the price of Chelsea.
But maybe he would have always picked her. Chelsea was a knockout.
'This could've been you.' It echoes back in her head.
"Princess, are you coming?"
'And this could've been you, Chelsea. This could've been you.'