A Storyby Cayla Bernstein
“Shoplifting?” Jessica asks, trailing Olivia while carefully avoiding the cracks in the pavement. Her contacts blur over her hazel eyes as she counts her steps. “That’s your ‘specialty’?”
“I just take stuff here and there,” Olivia says, brushing a hand through her golden hair. “Mostly from places where I shop. Everything is just so overpriced and . . . I don’t know. The way I see it, it’s only fair. It’s basically my way of flipping off these obnoxious companies.”
“Really?” Jessica swallows hard. “You just . . . take stuff?” She looks away from Olivia and tugs on her coat collar to hide her blushing cheeks.
“Yeah. That easy.”
Jessica stuffs her hands into her pockets, blanketing them from the cool air. “All right,” she concedes. “Teach me your ways.”
Anthropologie. Pine walls, vintage frames, earthy tones. Perfumed candles make Jessica’s nose tickle. She smiles politely at an employee. “Happy shopping!” Olivia sings and heads toward a room of mascaras and powders. Jessica walks toward the unmanned jewelry section.
She scans the necklaces and eyes a sapphire pendant. She approaches it, hands fiddling, tugs at her earlobe. Across the room, a middle-aged male shopper—gray hair fluffed casually, glasses resting perfectly on his nose—smiles like . . . her father. She hears his voice in her head. “High honors!” he said last week. “I’m so proud of you.” He embraced her. “You know that, right?” Jessica had shrugged. His eyes, still locked on her, waited for more. She gave him the smile he craved. “That’s the spirit. President of your class. Captain of your team. I wish I was as confident and ambitious when I was your age. My friends always check in to hear what new height you’ve achieved.”
Jessica stares at the man across the room and thinks of all the times her father, who stays up to help her study for tests, who listens to her drama after his long days at work, who once drove fifteen minutes to pay for a Snickers he’d taken without realizing. “Paid the full $2.30,” he said. Smiled. Shrugged, checking the rear-view mirror to make sure his daughter heard.
She feels warm breath on her neck. Olivia, at her shoulder, whispering. “Find anything?”
“Still searching,” she replies. “Looking for the perfect thing.”
The middle-aged man is smiling at her now. She smiles back. Unhooks the sapphire pendant from its stand. Pivots slightly and slips it into her pocket. “Nice choice,” Olivia whispers. Jessica laughs, waves at the kind-faced man, leaves him admiring the rings.
Exiting, she holds her breath all the way through the metal detectors, with Olivia strolling behind her. Jessica pushes the door open, the glass cool against her skin. Beyond the store, seagulls perch on the lonely bridge, the crystal river below purring. She breathes in the fresh air. Her heart rate begins to slow. Then she hears alarms blaring. Freezes. Looks to Olivia.
Impossibly, her friend is smiling. “Dang, girl, see a ghost?” Olivia cocks her head.
Jessica looks back to the bridge and watches the birds lift off, wings flapping. As they drift away, the alarms recede. Become the squawking that follows the birds. She can hear the river again. Her left foot is resting atop a crack in the pavement. She leaves it there. Reaches into her pocket for the necklace. Clasps it around her neck, the sapphire pendant heavier than expected. Catching her breath, she admires the graceful birds, smaller now, flying away, disappearing into the blue.