The television flashed to illuminate the dimly lit room, but could only faintly be heard over the sounds of dinner being prepared in the kitchen. Joel stood at one side of the living room in front of a wooden desk. On it sat a telephone and an answering machine, which blinked a tiny red light.
"You have one new message," the answering machine spoke loudly. Joel pressed the button.
"Joel. I'm sorry," the voice whispered hastily.
Chills ran up his spine. There was only one person in the world that voice could belong to, but it had been years since he had heard it. There was a lingering pause after the three spoken words before the answering machine beeped the end of the message. A slender blonde woman entered the doorway to the room. She wore tight pink pants, a white button down shirt with just a few too many buttons undone, and white heels.
"Someone call, babe?"
Joel was quiet for a moment. Then he turned to face Anna. "Uh, they didn't leave a message." He was not in the habit of lying to his fiancée, but this untruth slipped off of his tongue like butter.
Anna shook her head. "Probably another one of those damn sales calls. Dinner's ready!"
Joel nodded. But before following Anna into the kitchen, he replayed the message. It was definitely her. He picked the phone up quickly, checked the most recent calls. The call had come from a blocked number. Joel slammed the phone down. It was just like her not to leave a number.
Anna was pouring drinks at the dinner table. Joel sat in a wooden chair. Reaching out to grab himself a sandwich from the serving plate, he realized what they were. Egg salad.
Twenty-five years earlier.
A small girl with dark, curly hair stood at the top of a yellow, plastic slide. "I'm Christina, king of the playground!" She shouted, arms spread wide and palms held open and high above her head. Her head was tipped slightly backward and curls bounced behind it. She dropped to her bottom and slid down the slide. A young boy with straight, short brown hair greeted her at the bottom.
"I think you meant queen," he said.
The girl stared at him, her head cocked to the side in confusion.
"You said king of the playground," the boy said matter-of-factly, "but you're a girl. That means you have to be a queen."
At this, the girl tilted her chin upward and said with great confidence, "I can be whatever I want." And she walked past him.
The boy shrugged. "Okay. But I think you would make a great queen."
The girl stopped. She turned around and faced the boy. "Really?" She asked. The boy nodded, and she smiled. She pointed at an object he held in his hand, just noticing it. "What is that?"
"Oh, this is my shovel," He said, holding out the plastic tool for her to see. "I'm building a sand castle over there," He said, pointing at a nearby sandbox where he had left a few colored plastic buckets.
"Can I help?" The little girl asked.
The boy shrugged again. "Sure, but if I'm gonna share my toys with you, what are you gonna share with me?"
The little girl frowned for a moment. But then she brightened again. She held her index finger up to the boy, gesturing for him to hold on just a minute. She walked over to a bench a few yards away, grabbed a brown paper bag, and pulled from it a plastic bag with a sandwich in it, cut in half.
"What kind is it?" The boy asked.
"Egg salad," the girl replied. "But egg salad is only for royalty, so if I share this with you that means you have to be my king."
The boy grabbed the brown paper bag from her and placed it on his head like a crown. "All hail King Joel!" He shouted. The little girl giggled. They sat on the grass and stuffed sandwich halves into their mouths.
Anna cleared the table. Her fiancé still sat in his seat, motionless.
"Joel? You've hardly said a word to me since you got home."
He looked up at her, his trance broken. "What? Oh, I'm fine. Long day at work."
"I see. My day was alright," Anna said, pursing her lips.
Joel winced. "I'm sorry, I forgot to ask. What did you do today, sweetheart?"
Anna shrugged. "Got my hair done, met some of the girls for lunch and mani/pedis. Oh, and this came for you in the mail." She handed him a package.
Joel took the box from her hands, studied it. "Doesn't have a return address."
He used a kitchen knife to cut the box open. Inside was a tiny, brown bracelet. Three white beads hung from it with black letters engraved into them: "B, F, F" separated by little knots. Decades ago, he had dedicated a whole afternoon to this bracelet. After breaking into his older sister's room to steal the materials, he had braided and re-braided the fine strands of leather, using patience and precision. It had to be just right.
"Aw, she totally loves you!" Anna cooed.
Joel jumped, not realizing she had been standing behind him. "What? Who?"
Anna raised her eyebrows in confusion. "Your niece. I'm guessing she's the one who made that for you?"
"Oh. Uh, yeah," Joel said. "She must have made it at school or something."
Anna smiled, took the bracelet into her hand. "How adorable!"
It was all he could do to keep himself from snatching the bracelet right back. Joel swallowed. "Careful," He said, holding his palm out so she could place it safely back in his hand.
Anna gave him a quizzical look, but her cellphone rang and she became otherwise engaged. Joel slipped upstairs into his office with the box. Slipping his hand inside it again, he found a small, torn lined piece of paper. 'Guess forever doesn't always mean forever. -C' He read. There was one more object in the box. A red, metal pocketknife. He pressed a button and the blade flicked out. He held it in his hand and gently ran his thumb over the edge of the blade.
Twenty-three years earlier.
They were the only ones there when they met at the playground, the curly headed girl and the young boy. They sat in the sandbox, sharing shovels and buckets.
"Do you know what?" The little girl said after a few minutes. The boy looked up at her. "It's been two whole years since we've been friends."
The boy nodded. He looked down at the mound of sand before him, using his hands to pack it together. "I know. I have a present for you."
The girl's eyes widened. "You do?"
He stopped packing sand, dusted his hands off, and reached into his back pocket. He pulled out a small, braided leather bracelet.
The young girl traced her small thumb over the beads and looked up at the boy. "You really want to be my best friend forever?" She asked. "But won't the guys make fun of you for this?"
He shrugged. "You're more fun than they are."
She smiled. She reached into her back pocket, took out something shiny and red. "Here, hold out your hand."
"Why?" The boy asked.
"Just do it."
He held his palm out. She pressed a button and a knife blade popped out of the shiny red object. She took the little boy's palm in her hand. The boy was too mesmerized by its softness to let go. She took the blade, carefully, and sliced the middle of his palm so that blood oozed above the skin in a line about a half an inch long. At the sharp pain, the boy wrenched his arm back.
"What did you do that for!?" He exclaimed.
She took the knife, sliced a cut in her own palm. She held it up, pulled his hand to hers and rubbed them together.
"There," she said, smiling. She brought her arm down and wiped the blood from her hand on her jeans. "Blood brothers. Or something like that."
"I don't get it," the boy said, still alarmed.
"I saw it on TV," the girl explained. "It's supposed to make you friends for life."
Joel sat at his office desk, still fingering the blade in one hand, while the bracelet hung from the other. He re-read the note. 'Guess forever doesn't always mean forever. -C' His face went hot and red. She had been the one to walk out of his life, what the hell did she mean by that? She couldn't blame him. He slammed the note down on the desk and checked the box again for a return address. Nothing. He sighed. Come on. Where are you Christina?