Authors: Kimberly Karalius
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To those searching for love.
Love stopped at the town of Grimbaud, weary and limping upon a twisted ankle. “I've been trying to help people,” she said, struggling out of her dirty sneakers, “and no one is listening to me.”
A stray cat cocked its head, her only audience. She sat on the edge of the canal. Her right ankle was pink and swollen, but the pain eased as soon as she dipped her feet into the cool water. Boats bobbed on the canal, and windows flashed glimpses of families preparing dinner. Love came in many forms, but that day, she was a whiny thirteen-year-old with a sunburned nose. Her scalp itched under her baseball cap.
Every year, Love backpacked through the entire world to take inventory. She rode on the backs of motorcycles and slept on benches. Sometimes she even took private jets if the champagne was sweet enough. But not this year. This year the spreadsheet tucked inside her backpack proclaimed that there were too many broken hearts in the world.
“They make themselves miserable,” Love whispered, glaring at her reflection. “I wish I could just tell them how to love.”
At that moment, a woman wearing a tattered wedding dress walked up the street. A veil covered her face. Her clasped hands loosened when she saw Love. “You weren't at my wedding,” the woman said ruefully.
Love consulted her spreadsheet and shrugged. “Sorry, Zita. I was late for all my appointments today because of this useless ankle.”
“Is that so?” Zita smoothed her lace-trimmed bodice. “Looks like you have a bigger problem than that.”
“I was never good at accounting.”
“People are ignoring their instincts,” Love pressed her fist to her heart. “If they knew what their romantic futures held, they wouldn't suffer so much.”
Zita considered this. “What if you just talk to them like you're doing now with me?”
“Brides can see me on their wedding day. You won't recognize me tomorrow.” Love sighed. “Usually, no one sees me.”
“Why don't we use that to your advantage?” Her veil stirred. “Use me as your megaphone. Use Grimbaud as your testing ground.”
Love stared hard at her reflection in the water. The surface wavered and she thought she could see a universe of wrinkles on her face. She was tired of being subtle, of having people guess wrong. “Let's talk.”
Fallon Dupree was fascinated by people in love. She noticed how easily some couples fit together like puzzle pieces, fingers laced, matching smiles, and the same small, deliberate strides. But thinking of herself as a puzzle piece felt entirely unromantic, so she preferred to focus her excitement on the year ahead. She knew, with the same certainty that Duprees were born with, that she would meet The Boy in high school. He would feel familiar, and new, and their hearts would become beautifully tangled. She couldn't wait.
On the Friday before school started Fallon cracked open the window in her apartment and inhaled deeply. Grimbaud always smelled like rosesâthe red kind, she thought, purchased by lovers.
The peace shattered when a wail erupted from the first floor. “Open this door,” said a girl's voice, followed by banging. “We're not through, Bastion!”
, Fallon thought. She shut the window with a snap.
Moving into the student housing complex a month before school started had been, for the most part, a smart idea. Fallon had never been without her parents or brother before; she loved exploring Grimbaud each day on her own, with only herself to please. But as more students moved in over the past few weeks, the complex grew rowdy, and no one caused more ruckus than a boy called Bastionâor rather, his ex-girlfriends, who came and went like clockwork.
He never once opened the door to any of them; Fallon was disgusted, especially when she could hear those girls crying or shouting threats through her walls. She hoped that if the crying began, the girl would notice the tissue box Fallon had left underneath the staircase.
After smoothing any last wrinkles out of her coral shirt, Fallon locked the door behind her. She checked her watch, noting that it was still too early to meet Anais. However, on
, of all days, she refused to stay inside and listen to Bastion's ex. Grimbaud could amuse her this morning instead.
She walked through the cobblestone streets of Grimbaud with her face soft from moisturizer and her brown hair neatly parted in the middle in a bob ending at her jaw. Unusually polished for a fifteen-year-old, she earned a few respectful nods from policemen patrolling the street corners. Grimbaud was made up of webbed canals and buildings dating back to the medieval era. Stone cupids and storks, sometimes painted and generally gaudy, huddled in the spaces between windows. Smokers spilled ghostly hearts from their mouths. A caf
owner handed Fallon a coupon for couples seeking brunch. With a smile, she folded the coupon and tucked it in her skirt pocket; she'd add it to the list of activities she'd do with her future boyfriend, the top being taking a boat ride through Grimbaud's famous Tunnel of Love.
Her attention turned toward the spires piercing the sky, the belfry tolling, and the market squares holding hungry wanderers in search of pralines and hot, twice-baked fries.
Charm-makers sold their wares in shops that looked like gingerbread houses. Fallon's skin prickled as she stopped to stare at the charms on display. A man wearing key chains on his belt promised that buying one would improve her exam scores. A little boy poured green liquid into a bottle labeled
CREATIVITY: ONE TEASPOON WITH YOUR COFFEE
She purposely avoided Verbeke Square. The temptation to get her love fortune early, rather than wait for Anais and Nico, would be too much to bear if she got a look at Zita's charm shop now. Instead, Fallon turned around and walked all the way back toward the complex, stopping a block away to go inside a corner drugstore.
The door jingled when she stepped inside. Her feet made sucking noises on the sticky tile floor. Rows of plastic-wrapped chips and cookies gleamed in the fluorescent lighting. Fallon tucked her hair behind her ears and headed toward the produce section.
She inspected the pears, blueberries, and lemons. White fuzz grew on the fruit. She drew back, her breath coming in short gasps.
“Ah. I see you're admiring the fruit. We have trouble selling produce,” said a voice coming from the cash register, “since, you know, most of our customers are high schoolers.”
Fallon frowned. “That's still not a good excuse, Anais. Your dad shouldn't let this fruit rot.”
Anais stepped out from behind the register and wiped her knees. The girl was tiny, with fluffy blond hair and rosy cheeks. The mischievous curl of her lips dampened her adorability, as well as the peach-colored sweats and stained apron that was her work uniform. “Lucky Grimbaud's health inspectors aren't as dedicated as your parents,” she said. “We're not scheduled for inspection until December.”
Mr. and Mrs. Dupree were health inspectors, feared by all restaurants and eateries in Fallon's hometown. Her parents had seen enough disease-riddled restaurants and factories that they never let Fallon or her older brother, Robbie, touch anything mass produced in stores. Once a week, her parents had taken them out to eat, using the outings as a chance to conduct blind raids. She had a stockpile of memories of her and Robbie sitting at tables, neatly peeling crayons, while her parents searched kitchens for dead rats and solidified grease like pirates hunting treasure.
Robbie was six years older than Fallon and had gotten to taste freedom first by attending Grimaud High. It was then, when Fallon slept over in his apartment one weekend during his senior year, that she had met Anais Jacobs, the drugstore owner's daughter. With no fresh market within walking distance, twelve-year-old Fallon had braved the drugstore with her brother. When Fallon almost hyperventilated over the clumps of dust and decaying broccoli, Anais had raised her eyebrows and called her “snotty.”
They had become friends on the spot, staying in contact first through phone calls, then through letters when both girls were old enough to care to write them.
Anais took a rag and wiped the cigarette case down. “What are you doing here so soon? Are you nervous about your fortune?”
Fallon shrugged. Her toes twitched again. “I shouldn't be, but I am.”
“That's a normal reaction, especially the first time you get one.” Anais blew a speck of dust off the corner of the case. “But I'm not worried. My relationship with Bear is secure. Whatever Zita has to say about my boyfriend has to be good.”
Fallon smiled at that. “When are you going to introduce me to him?”
“When school starts. He'll be back from his judo tournament by then.” Anais balled up the rag. “You want to get going now? I told Nico to save us a spot in line.”
“Has he been worried?”
“Enough to lose some of his hair. Poor guy.”
“Then we'd better go.”
“The sooner I can take off this paper bag, the better,” Anais said, untying the apron.
While Anais dashed upstairs to change, Fallon tried to ignore the way her heartbeat crawled into her ears, setting off a steady alarm that no one but her could hear.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
A line snaked through Verbeke Square, curving through a maze of caf
tables and around vendor stalls. The line began in front of Zita's Lovely Love Charms shop, the only shop in a row of old brick buildings that sold something other than lace.
Zita's shop had been painted a shade of pink lemonade and featured bow windows with a second story used only as a backlit display of Zita's finest love charms that glittered with gemstones and gold. Sunlight made the shop gleam beside its drab companions. No one looked at the lace while they waited for their fortunes.
“Nico better be at the front of the line,” Anais said. “My sandals aren't made for standing.”