It was rather like the classic “love at first sight” moment that so often occurs in the movies, when eyes meet for the first time and love is in the air. Except it was more like when the boy’s eyes meet the camera, so that to the audience it feels as if they are the ones with whom the boy is falling in love. In reality, the boy is in love with the other character, and the audience is on the outside, merely watching the moment. In this case, Ava found herself staring into the eyes of someone who had suddenly fallen in love, but instead of the other character, she felt like the audience.
Instead of instantaneous love, Ava felt a pang in her chest. She could not bring herself to look away from his eyes. He stared at her the way she had only ever stared at her fish, or possibly a chocolate cake. She heard him murmur, “you’re beautiful,” but no possible responses registered. She had a sudden longing for Eros.
Eros was a fish. To be more precise, Eros was Ava’s fish, and his species was an important specification. Eros was also the Greek god of love. If Ava wasn’t careful, she would forget to let people know that her Eros was a fish, and people might think she had to rush home to feed a Greek god.
Ava often wished Eros (the fish) was a more easily portable animal. Dogs could go just about anywhere with their owner, as long as they were on a leash, but most establishments frowned upon people bringing fish inside. Besides, Eros had a fairly large fish tank—the best one Ava could afford on her limited budget—and the small, portable one she had originally brought him home in was rather boring. Ava liked Eros to have constant opportunities for entertainment.
It occurred to Ava that “love at first sight” moments were probably not the best moments to be thinking about one’s fish. She forced herself to return to the moment, and the pang in her chest returned along with her surroundings. He was still standing in front of her, still staring into her eyes, still immersed in the “love at first sight” moment. She gave him a smile to be friendly, and he returned it. His eyes lit up so she quickly dropped her smile so as to not give him false hope. He didn’t seem to notice the change, and continued to grin goofily at her.
“Ava,” said Ava, sticking out her right hand.
“Will,” said Will, shaking her offered hand. He did not let go as one usually does after a formal handshake, but instead he brought her hand up to his lips and kissed her knuckles. This was the first time Ava’s knuckles had ever been kissed and she wasn’t sure she or they liked it very much.
She pulled her hand away as politely as possible. “How are you?” she asked him, desperate to fill the silence.
He smiled gently. “I’m excellent now that you’re here.”
He was a flatterer, Ava thought. It was awfully hard to walk away from charming flatterers, because flattery was a human magnet.
“I hope you can stay excellent when I’m gone.”
“I hope I won’t need to be. Must you leave?”
Ava stared at him for moment. “Yes.”
“Why so soon?”
“I have to feed my fish,” Ava said, and immediately wished she hadn’t. How many times had she been advised to not talk about her fish when she met someone for the first time?
“That’s a sexy name for a fish.” Will’s eyes sparkled and Ava realized he was making a joke. She was never incredibly amused by jokes about her fish, usually because they involved a cat and the end of Eros’s life.
“He’s a sexy fish,” she blurted out in response. Will raised his eyebrows and grinned. What an idiotic thing to say, Ava thought. “I really have to go,” she said out loud, and giving him one last, uncomfortable smile, she turned and walked as fast as possible without running.
The room was much longer than Ava remembered, and she had to force herself not to turn back to glance at Will. Not because she wanted to see him again, but because she kept picturing him longingly looking after her, and no one had ever looked at her like that. (Though, she thought, perhaps someone had previously looked at her like that and she had just never turned around to see.)
Finally when she reached the end of the room, she stopped speed walking and leaned against the archway leading into the entrance hallway, panting slightly. God she needed to exercise more. She took a moment to look around the room she was about to leave, and hopefully to never return. It was too big for her taste. The walls were covered with intricate paintings and gold edges, and while Ava could always appreciate art, it was too much. The room gave her the feeling of being trapped in one of those fancy music boxes.
“Ava!” Ava turned her head to see a boy slightly older than herself walking into the entrance hall. He grinned at her, and she couldn’t help but grin back. He shook his head in the doorway, letting snow fly off his dark hair in all directions. Ava smiled at how dog-like he looked.
She pushed herself off the wall and ran to meet him by the door. “Benji,” she said with affectionate annoyance, “Where did you go? I thought we were staying at the party until we were both ready to leave.”
Benji shrugged. “I took a walk. It was too much in here.”
“You should have taken me. I’ve been ready to go for hours.”
He laughed. “We’ve only been here for two hours.”
Benji laughed again. He moved farther into the building, leaning against the wall opposite the door, but still away from the music-box room, and Ava followed.
“So.” He raised his eyebrows at her questioningly. “How was it?” Ava tilted her head, considering for a moment. It was difficult to reflect on an event so soon after she had escaped it.
“I met a boy.” Benji’s eyebrows shot up even higher, if that was possible. He gestured for her to continue. “I think he thinks he fell in love with me. Not mutual.”
“Seems reasonable, if you just met. How did you get away?” Ava’s face flushed. Benji poked her in the side, his grin widening at her embarrassment. “Come on, what did you say?”
“I told him I had to feed Eros.” At this Benji began laughing, and he didn’t stop for a few minutes, leaving Ava standing there, bright red and glaring down at the boy cackling next to her. A few well-dressed people passed them, throwing confused and mildly judgmental looks as they passed. “Benji,” Ava hissed as another couple stared at them. “Shut up.”
Finally he straightened up and looked at her again. “Sorry, I just can’t believe you rejected a boy by talking about your fish. What else? I lost you almost right after we got to the party. You must have done something else besides meet a boy and talk about Eros.”
Ava shrugged. “I ate some cookies, stood around awkwardly for a while. Ate some more cookies. They were good cookies.”
“They better have been,” Benji agreed. “Everyone at this party can afford good quality cookies, especially the host.” Ava nodded and imagined herself as a professional party judge, traveling from party to party and tasting cookies. Benji tapped her on the shoulder to bring her back to the real world. For a moment she grieved for the loss of her cookie critic world, but she distracted herself by remembering that Benji probably had a more interesting time at the party, even if he snuck out.
“Your turn,” she said. “What did you do other than desert me?” Benji rolled his eyes.
“I met people. I talked to them. I made connections with important people.”
“There are important people here?”
“Everyone here is important, Ava. You only come to this sort of party if you’re important.”
“We’re here,” Ava refuted. “We’re not important.”
Benji’s eyes twinkled. “You might not be, but—” Ava pushed him, and he ended his sentence there. “Hey! OK, you’re right. We’re not very important. But we’re here because everyone else is important. We need to be able to influence people with influence. Hey, maybe you can get us in with your lovestruck friend.”
Ava glared and considered shoving him again. “Not a friend, and not important. Probably just the spoiled son of someone important.”
Benji shrugged, but his eyes were somewhere else, and Ava knew his mind was too. There was no use trying to talk to him when he was this deep in thought, and she knew he would soon snap out of it as quickly as it had begun. She leaned against the wall next to him and again gazed around at her surroundings.
Like the party room, the entrance hall was covered in golden art, as if it was trying to make anyone who entered believe that the building held important things. Ava thought it was trying too hard to show off, the same way she felt about every single person in the next room. Once in a while, people would pass in front of her, entering the party fashionably late or leaving embarrassingly early. She tried to study their glamorous fashion: the giant ball gowns, the cape-like coattails, and the hair with so much hairspray that it wouldn’t have budged in a tornado. She put a hand to her own hair, soft and loose around her shoulders, slightly curly without even a touch of hairspray. Benji had managed to convince her to trade her jeans for a dress, but neither of them had any idea how the rich women were able to make their dresses so big and round. Ava’s dress, borrowed from a slightly wealthier upstairs neighbor, hugged her figure and swished around her feet. Benji had managed to find a suit, but anything with coattails fell outside of their budget. If anyone cared enough to look, the two of them would easily be identified as the non-important guests.
“You ready to go?” Ava started at Benji’s voice in her thoughts. She glanced back to him and realized he had already put on his scarf. Benji was often like that; he would think for a while, ignoring the world, and then jump back in, ready to move on without a pause.
“Of course,” Ava replied, pulling on the thin sweater she’d been carrying around all evening. “Let’s get out of here.”
A horrible experience, as anyone who has experienced it will know, is getting so close to what you want, only to be pulled back at the last moment. For example, running to get the brownie only to trip and fall, allowing the person behind you to grab the brownie first. Or maybe reaching the door, being so close your hand brushes the handle, only to have the person you are with called back into the room you have just left. And for some reason, you decide you will be loyal and follow them back into that godforsaken room.
Ava walked as slowly as possible as she followed Benji back into the godforsaken room. Right near the archway was a small crowd of men. They were all on the older side, dressed impeccably, and calling for Benji. Benjamin, they called him, as if that’s what his name was. When Ava reached them, staying behind Benji to be as unnoticed as possible, Benji was already laughing at something someone had said. Despite her attempted subtleness, the men all looked at her as soon as she stopped behind Benji. Benji turned too, and grinned when he saw her.
“Gentlemen,” he said, grabbing her hand and pulling her next to him in the circle, utterly against her will. “This is my sister, Ava.”
“We’ve heard much about you!” cried one of the men.
“Yes,” said another. “According to your brother you’re even smarter—”
“And more responsible—” interrupted a third.
“And even more ambitious than Benjamin himself!” A fourth man finished the sentence with a pat on Benji’s back and the whole group broke into chuckles. Ava smiled weakly.
“It’s true,” Benji said, but his voice gave Ava the courage to join the conversation.
“He really is exaggerating. Benji’s a genius, he really is. He found a broken radio once and fixed it, without any previous knowledge of how radios work, and now we use it all the time.”
Silence greeted her words. Had she said something wrong? The men seemed confused at her anecdote. “That’s a lot of trouble to go to for a radio. I’m sure your parents would just buy one if you asked.” Now it was Ava’s turn to be stuck in bewildered silence. She opened her mouth to respond, but the man didn’t notice and found his own explanation. “I suppose it’s good for a young smart man to have a hobby.” The rest of the group relaxed and nodded with looks of understanding dawning in their eyes. Ava’s mouth dropped at how easily they formed such a false story in their minds.
“It was great talking to you all again, but we really should be going.” Ava noticed that Benji turned his feet as he spoke, so he was still mostly facing the group but his feet were pointed to the door. She did the same, hoping the men would get the hint.
They did not.
“So soon? Stay a little while, the party’s still going strong!”
Benji hesitated. “I’m very sorry,” he said slowly, and Ava could see through his eyes how frantic he was to think of a reason for escape.
“It’s my fish,” she said, louder than she’d meant. “I need to feed my fish.” With a last flicker of a smile, she grabbed her brother’s hand and pulled him away leaving the perplexed men to debate the possible meanings behind Ava needing to feed her fish.
This time Ava did not stop in the entrance hall. She took no chances and kept pulling Benji until they were outside on the sidewalk. When she finally did stop and look at Benji, he was staring at her with narrowed eyes.
“The fish. Again?”
“Hey, it worked. Don’t bully my fish. At least I got us out of there.”
“You need a better story. And speaking of stories, did you really have to tell them about the radio?”
“It’s a good story! It was a genius repair, and at least I didn’t mention where you found it.”
“Yeah, that group might not have looked fondly on dumpster diving.”
Ava laughed, partially at the idea of those stuffy old men realizing that brilliant Benjamin dove through the trash, and partially just at the joy of being outside again. Two hours in a music box really affected your brain.
There was light snow falling around them; Ava’s favorite weather. She liked how quiet the city was when it was covered in snow, and she liked how the world felt like a snowglobe. Better a snowglobe than a music box. Benji’s dark brown hair was already scattered with snowflakes so that it looked like he had dandruff. Ava’s hair was just too light for the snow to show up on, so she caught the flakes on her sleeve to study.
“Let’s go home, please. It’s freezing.” Benji didn’t mind the snow, but he hated how much Ava loved it. He firmly believed standing out in freezing weather was a ridiculous pastime, no matter how pretty the precipitation was. Ava took a deep breath, feeling the cold hit her lungs before following Benji home.
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