In the space of just a few pages, Solace’ takes us on the beautiful, hopeful journey of a young woman trying to find her way back to herself. Its a lovely story of new love, recovery, and a magical garden.
—Nicola Yoon, #1 New York Times bestseller


[Trigger warning: Eating disorder.]



The truth is, I am okay now. But it was easier when I wasn’t. 

Laila alone. Laila sleeping and Laila weeping in the graveyard, Laila who starved herself thin as a Ramadan moon. All of these were me, and in a way, they are still me. They are the Lailas of my marrow, the roots I have carried to the tail end of seventeen. Sometimes I forget their weight, but the reminders always resurface like ghosts: in Mama’s worried glances when I don’t finish a plate; in the somber way Baba still kisses me good night, on the crown of my head, like he’s afraid I’ll vanish; and in the garden I’ve kept for the past year, which begs me every harvest: 

Eat. 


* * *

 

“No tomatoes?” Gabe asks, peering over the register. I smile as he gestures to the three packets of seeds I’ve picked out: cucumbers, carrots, lettuce. There was once a time when this would’ve been a meal for me. A couple hundred calories, half a day’s worth of food. 

Now, with the seeds spread in front of me, I feel a strange sense of awareness. These seeds could feed a family, could give so much life and time. Food grows so people can grow, but they both take such painstaking care. Be it a girl or a garden, it sometimes gets far too difficult.

To grow. To be.

“No tomatoes,” I tell him with a laugh.

When I first began gardening, I started with tomatoes because I hated them. I thought I wouldn’t eat them, and I thought right. But Mama didn’t like that, so I decided to appease her and only picked out “the good stuff.” She also doesn’t like how I’m constantly hanging around “that no-good, bad-luck Briar boy.” But here I am. 

With Gabe Briar. Still smiling.

After I pay, Gabe disappears into the back. When he returns, his stare is full of something I’m still unused to. He doesn’t look at me like the rest of Reves does. Never did, not even when I was gaunt and ashen and bug-eyed. Laila Saab, spirited away, halfway to the grave along with her brother. Poor thing, all that’s left of her is bones. 

I wonder what they say about me these days. Nearly eighteen years old and living like she’s eighty. Gardening and stuck on that Gabriel Briar. Such an awful shame.

I had so many dreams. I have so many dreams. They shift and change and pass like the tide, but they always come back to haunt me no matter how deeply I bury them. I used to dream about the stage. Gleaming lights, songs and sweat. The lilt of music in my throat, clearer than water. 

But then everything went silent. 

I started to dream about Jad and his ever-sleeping face. I dreamt about his casket and how small it was. Moon after moon, I relived the nightmarish day I stopped using the word brother.

Then I dreamt of disappearing. Inward, like a crescent. I roamed through those years half-asleep, and I’m scared, you see, because even though I’ve started to wake up, it’s not like life waited for me. I’m terrified even when I’m Laila in the garden, away from the music I miss and the brother I still cry for. I’m Laila who can eat birthday cake even though it has tasted rotten to me ever since I realized Jad would never blow out nine candles. I am Laila without laughter or melodies, and once upon a time, that wasn’t Laila at all.

Yet when Gabe hands me a packet of rose seeds and gives me a crooked grin, I am none of those things and all of them. I’m me, and it’s enough.

“These came in yesterday,” he says. Our fingers brush when he places the packet on my palm, and my stomach flutters, warm as a candle. “Um. In case you have the time, you can…have them. Grow them.”

“Thank you,” I say, a touch too serious. He waves me off like always, tells me they’re only flowers. But the calm quiet between us says otherwise. 

Thank you. Even though I don’t repeat it, I think he understands.

 

* * *

 

Reves is a small town with large opinions. The number one being that it’s spelled “Reves, not “Rêves,” thank you very much. The good old folk living here don’t have time for fancy letters, for e’s with houses on top, or as I later learned from a quick Google search, e with circumflex. Bent e, like a crescent moon. A bent dream, an unbent dream. In ballads and poems, dreams are always pure, open. But what happens when your wishes get all warped and twisted? What happens when you want ugly things and they come true?

What does that say about you?

Reves is an odd name for an odd place in the sleepy Midwest. Really, it’s where dreams come to die. Where dreamers burrow and hide. There’s an old, buried hunger that permeates this town like a great poisoned vein. We feed on it as it feeds on us. 

Like a spell. Like magic. 

I honestly don’t know if it’s the bad or good kind. Bent or unbent. 

Jad, though. He only found beauty in Reves, when we moved here a lifetime ago. The birds didn’t get spooked when he came near. They lingered, brought him gifts. A cat’s eye marble, bright like a parachute. A pearl as pink as sunrise. Glass shards that never cut through skin, no matter how jagged their edges. 

The trees can talk here, Jad told me. They love when kids climb them, play hide-and-seek around them. They love when birds sit in their nests and sing. Did you know, Laila? You sing like a bird.

I love when you sing, Jad said. I love you.

If only I’d said it back more often: I love you too. Because I did—because I do—and if I can swear on anything, it’s that Jad had all the kindness in the world inside him. He drew out the good in me like water from a well. 

Together we used to skip stones along rivers, eat summer fruit until our bellies ached, laugh at stupid jokes and dance like fools on our kitchen floor. We fought, broke each other’s toys, made wishes on eyelashes, and snuck snacks upstairs when Mama and Baba were fast asleep, and I loved him, I love him soWe were happy—God, I was happy—just being his big sister, watching him grow.

But then the accident happened. And the thought that burst inside of me like a nova, like a wildfire, like a hundred thousand fallen loves and trees and stars was this:

It should’ve been me.

I feel the same even still. And maybe I’m not at the brink anymore—maybe I’m eating and breathing and living just fine—but my heart is starved. It remains barren, longing for happiness and for punishment in equal measure. So I plant this garden, sow these seeds, and I feed my neighbors, my parents. I feed myself, food and lies, and promise the unforgiving mirror, Someday I’ll be whole.

Someday I’ll be.

 

* * *

 

In school we talk about the future. Our futures, specifically, which is pretty unfortunate. There’s a class for history, but there’s no class for the Future, capital. In twenty years, we’ll have planes that run on solar power. In a hundred, you’ll be able to meet people in dreams. Before we grow old, they’ll make the moon into a common tourist attraction.

Miss Reed, our senior guidance counselor, brings this question to class instead: “Where do you want to be next year?”

Some students volunteer their answers, but I don’t know what to say. As a child, if you had asked me where I saw myself in the future, I would’ve told you, Grown. Grown up. Going places. Maybe singing somewhere, my family cheering me on. After all, the world is big, and what child dreams of being small? 

Not me. Not then.

But things are different now.

My grades aren’t terrible or anything. Some of them are kind of amazing. But can you build a life on a few high marks? Can you rebuild a dream that way? There are too many Lailas inside me, and those dreams of mine have gotten so tangled. I can’t tell you what I want anymore without opening a Pandora’s box of grief and yearning. A dream is most beautiful when you fight for it. But the only thing I ever fought in my life was hunger, until I found blind solace in it, like a girl bewitched, like a fool.

I can hardly stand to see myself in the mirror. How am I supposed to see myself in ten years? Five years?

One?

 

* * *

 

I visit Gabe’s shop after class, which has become something of a ritual for me. I’m kind of a loiterer, actually, considering I don’t buy things every time I stop by. I don’t think he minds too much. At least I hope not.

We drink tea by the door. Gabe always makes me a special cup, adding lavender and enough warm milk to sweeten it. I say “enough,” but I know from the taste and the color exactly how much he’s put in. 

I cannot forget the numbers. Forty calories, my brain supplies, like it has been so terribly programmed to. I want to smother the thought, stanch it like a wound. But scars don’t work that way. Sometimes they ache and feel like they’ll open, even when you know you have no blood left to give. As long as you keep going, there will always be more work to do.

Better. I have to do better. So I say, “This is delicious,” because it’s the truth. I’m okay, I remind myself, because if I say it enough, it won’t be a lie.

Gabe smiles, and it almost reaches his eyes. When he turns to pick up his own cup, I glimpse his profile. Sharp jaw, long lashes. That tiny, starry birthmark on his neck. With a flush, I drop my gaze to his hands, hands that handle plants and pots and flowers so gently that it’s hard to believe they ever knew a different shape of work.

A different fate.

Gabe Briar’s past is no secret. He’s a year older than me, and two summers ago he was being scouted. Baseball, pitcher, star: these were the words that followed Gabe like a beacon. Then someone from out of town chose to get drunk and drive through Reves on a Thursday night and trampled all over Gabe Briar and his dreams. He was walking home from practice. It was a regular day, and if I’ve learned anything, those are the days you have to watch out for. 

The doctors called him a miracle. Said he would make a full recovery. And he did. But healing takes time, and when you’re young, nobody tells you that. No one tells you how to trade out scholarships for surgeries, how to find solace in the little milestones along the way. But Gabe did all of this and more, has been strong where I’ve never been.

In the end, Gabe didn’t play again. He could’ve tried, could’ve trained and left Reves and all its fickleness behind. Yet he chose to stay, living with his grandmother above this shop until she passed away last winter. And that’s when the whispers set in. Runaway mother, deadbeat father, a grandmother in the grave. People say anything grown from this shop will bring sickness, bad omens. But I wonder what they would say if they knew the truth. 

This place isn’t cursed. It’s magic. Gabe and the garden he helped me make are magic. 

What I haven’t told anyone, not even Gabe, is that I don’t ever use all the seeds he gives me. Just one at a time. One seed is enough for an entire patch of cucumbers or cabbages. A whole root-work of carrots. I water a plot once, and rosebushes bloom.

I spend all my spare time in the garden, tending and working, so that I can have this. My own secret bit of magic. Prayer-filled food, wish-made flowers. Like I said, I’m selfish. Foolish. But I’m just a girl who has been many girls before, and is trying to figure out which one I am now.

By the time we finish our tea, the moon is rising, and Gabe says, “I’ll walk you home.”

He stands up, and I’m stricken with a new-old sense of longing. It’s a fragile, glassy feeling, but I am no good with fragile things, so I quell my heart and say, “Sure.” Say, “I’d like that.”

 

* * *

 

Mama doesn’t make tea like Gabe’s. She spoons in so much sugar and honey that my teeth ache before I even drink it. But I never say a word. This is a habit born of worry, of having a daughter who nearly disappeared on her. Mama used to look at me like she could see my gravestone, clear as day. And I will never unknow that. Never.

She hands me a mug. It’s eleven at night, but the curtains block out the moonglow. Mama paces, and I brace myself for the lecture about boys and staying out late. I close my eyes, and I see the walkway outside, hear the quiet song of streetcars and crickets. The crisp near-autumn air, the rumble of Gabe’s laughter. Our hands dangling between us like pendulums. 

“Laila Saab,” Mama starts, and I remember how much I loathe my name. Difficult night. Difficult girl. Difficult through and through. “What exactly do you want?”

She’s stopped near the kitchen, and I blink, taken aback. “Like, for dinner? Isn’t it sort of late for that?”

“No, no.” Mama gives me a hopeful smile. “Next year. After you graduate. Have you decided what you want?”

The room suddenly goes cold; my hands tremble around the teacup I’m holding. I don’t like this. I don’t like where this is going. But those words won’t come. “I…”

“You’re smart, habibti,” Mama says like a plea. “You’re a smart girl. You can be anything you want.”

But Jad can’t, I want to say. 

“Your father and I were talking,” she tells me. At the mention of Baba, I glance toward his empty study. He’s been on a business trip for days, somewhere up north. He always orbits to cold places at this time of year. Late summer in Reves is wrought with scars. 

Mama goes on, “We’ve been saving. And Laila, we think you should apply. Wherever you want. You loved music, remember? Singing? Or something else. It can be literature, medicine. Your choice. ” She takes a breath. “We just want you to pick someplace. Anyplace. And we’ll follow you.”

I stare at her, wide-eyed, mouth open. It doesn’t compute. “What?”

“We think,” Mama says, “it’s time to leave Reves.”

A great many thoughts cross my mind. There are a million ways for me to argue, to disagree. But the only thing I can manage is, “M-my garden.” 

It’s Mama’s turn to be surprised. “What?”

“What about my garden?” I ask. “I need— I need to watch over it. I need to take care of it. I need to do a good job.”

Mama’s eyes redden. “Laila. It’s fine. Someone else can watch it. I’m sure…that Briar boy would.”

I shake my head, not listening to her. “What’ll happen if I go? If I don’t pay attention? I need to watch it well. I need to, Mama. I do.”

She wraps her arms around me, touches my cheek like I’m glass, porcelain, bone—and I break. “I was supposed to look after him,” I say. “He couldn’t swim. But I left him all alone!”

Mama rocks me back and forth, saying Hush, hush, but I can’t. I can’t do anything but cry and let everything out. I’ve tried so hard to be small, to be nothing, hoping that all this anger and sadness and rue would vanish along with me. But it’s still here. Like a sickness, it grows and grows, even though my brother never will. He’ll always be that little boy who was afraid of water, just like I’ll always be the sister who lost him to Reves, where dreams are laid to die, and how can I leave him again?

How can I live with myself if I do that?

 

* * *

 

Days, weeks, months pass. I send applications out to colleges on Mama’s watch. I don’t know how I feel about any of them. Undecided, I check over and over. It’s perfect, fitting for a mess like me. Undecided. 

Eating has also become a chore. The garden keeps reminding me, Eat, eat, but I forget. Or I let myself forget. A glutton for punishment—that’s what they call difficult girls like me. Baba returns with sweet gifts, and Mama cooks me beautiful dishes: chicken with pine nuts, flatbreads dipped in spices and olive oil, steaming rice rolled in grape leaves. All my childhood favorites. But if you’re never hungry, you never long to be full, and that’s the trick to yearning, I think. If you don’t want something, if you don’t pine for it, it won’t help you, but it won’t hurt you, either. You won’t lose it.

You’ll remain whole.

 

* * *

 

Winter arrives along with letters. Frost clings to the air like a diamond cloak, lulling my garden to sleep.

There’s one letter I’ve been musing over for days. Congratulations, it says, and though it’s not the first to say so, it’s the first to stir something within me. The brochure is as glossy as the others, and the promises of success and ambition seem just as airy and thin. But I keep going back to it. And I don’t know why.

I turn eighteen on a Thursday in January. I eat cake. One bite, two.

Then an idea comes. I place an extra slice in a plastic container, leaving my own half-finished. I breathe in, out.

And I go.

 

* * *

 

Gabe smiles when I walk in. The shop is empty, and I feel my ears go red when I hold up the cake and say, “For you.”

He peeks inside and beams. “Strawberries and cream? Excellent taste.”

“I try,” I say, taking a seat. 

Rather than joining me, however, Gabe grins even wider and says, “I have something for you too.”

I anticipate the teacups he brings from behind the counter. What I don’t expect is the peony in his grip, pale as dawn. My blush deepens when he leans in close, so that the birthmark on his neck lines up with my lips. He tucks a strand of wavy hair behind my ear along with the flower and pulls back.

“There,” he says. His voice is a hum. “Happy birthday.”

The heat spreads over my skin, full force. “Thank you,” I murmur to my feet. Gabe lets out a bashful laugh before sitting down next to me. I train my eyes elsewhere, in search of a distraction, as Gabe stirs our drinks for us.

Laila Saab, I warn myself. Don’t be a fool.

While glancing around, I notice the lack of other flowers. Gabe has a bunch of succulents plotted around the register. A wall of seeds to choose from. I smell soil and earth, and the quiet hint of nectar.

My eyes linger on the sign by the entrance: Briar Rose. Gabe’s grandmother’s shop. When I first met him, she had just passed, and I could tell how much he loved her. Her name was Rose Briar. Like a fairytale. She was too good for this town.

The way he said it, full of rue, made me want to tell him, So are you.  

In Reves, everyone knows of everyone, but it doesn’t mean you know-know. I knew about Gabe Briar, but I didn’t know him until that morning in December when I saw him sniffling in the snowy graveyard, placing a single lily on a frozen plot.

I was going to visit Jad. But when I saw Gabe Briar, Reves’s resident fallen star, I went straight to him without a second thought.

And that was how we began. Gabe and Laila, two kids with dim pasts and futures. We became fast friends, though it wasn’t all sadness and graves. It was tea; it was pitching wrong-handed in the Briar Rose parking lot. It was me shyly singing him one of my favorite songs. It was the whispers about us in school, in the town churches, in my parents’ hushed study. 

It was the garden that reminded me, day in and day out:

Eat.

People have plenty to say about us, together or apart, and I think they think I’m worse. Gabe never could’ve chosen his fate. But me? I’m the reason Jad is gone, the reason my family is a mess. I let myself go hungry all those years. There’s no one to blame but me.

I wonder. I wonder if Jad blames me.

I wonder if someday Gabe will blame me too. I contemplate this as I unfold the acceptance letter I’ve been obsessing over like an itch, an infatuation. Hulm College of Liberal Arts. Where your efforts reward you and happiness grows.

I show it to him. He hands me my tea, then reads. Once, twice. He smiles. He’s always smiling at me. “Congratulations,” he says, and it sounds so sincere.

“I.” The words get caught in my throat, thick as honey. “Should I go?”

Something in his face changes, quick as a switch. “Why would you ask me that?”

“Because,” I say. “Because…it matters to me. What you think.”

Gabe shakes his head. “But this isn’t something for me to decide, Laila.”

I set down my cup next to the uneaten cake and the crinkled letter, and I place my trembling hands over his. He feels warm, solid. I’ve never done this, and I wish I had sooner. I really, really wish I had sooner.

“It’s in-state,” I tell him. “I mean…my grades aren’t wonderful. But they want me. You— Gabe. You’re so smart. You could go anywhere. It doesn’t have to be Hulm. It could be close by. Near Reves. It…it’s not too late. It doesn’t have to be just me.”

Silence. 

Between the two of us there have been many silences, but none like this. Gabe’s expression is one I’ve never seen on him. His eyes are glassy, his mouth downturned. He’s looking at me like he doesn’t know me. Like he’s seeing all the ugly Lailas inside of me for the very first time.

“Laila,” he says. “Please don’t.”

“Will you think about it?”

“There’s nothing,” he says, his voice strained, “to think about.” He moves his hands from under mine. “I just don’t…I didn’t know. You took me by surprise.”

“What?”

“I didn’t think,” he says quietly. “I didn’t…I thought, when you kept coming here, that you saw what I saw. A beautiful place. A good life. It’s not what I wanted. It’s not what I dreamt about. But it’s mine, you know? And I thought you felt the same.”

I look at him, and he looks at me, and it’s wrong. He’s got me all wrong. This isn’t pity or some cheap request. Because I’ve seen Gabe—really seen him—tracing baseball diamonds on countertops, staring outside whenever cars or buses pass, holding out his garden-dirty hands and imagining something else. I’ve seen him content within these four walls, and I’ve seen him caged, and I believed the truth was someplace in between. I believed it was…

With us.

“I just don’t want—” I don’t want this to end. “I thought. We could— be.

The together is unsaid, but I can tell Gabe understands. He clenches his jaw, his body taut. Around us, potted plants sway in the blare of the heater. The scent of spring, fresh and Eden-green, permeates the room. Outside there are trees and houses and roads, dipped in sugar-like snow, and there is a graveyard that holds my brother and Gabe’s grandmother, and another sunken space, deep beneath my ribs, where the happiness has struggled for so long to grow.

Here and now, Gabe says, “I like you, Laila,” and I freeze. He says, “I like you. But I don’t control you. I want you to choose whatever makes you happy. So please, do the same for me.”

He turns, and I realize that this is it. My cue to go. 

But I don’t want to. I want Gabe with me, and I want to move on, and I want to live, and I want to love, fiercely and deeply, like Jad did in his short span of time. I want so much, want to dream again, to unbend all my old yearnings and start anew. I want to figure out the right thing to say and the right thing to do, but sometimes there is no right thing. Sometimes you just have to choose and have faith in that decision.

But I’ve never been good at any of that.

“Good night,” I say.

Goodbye, I don’t say, even as I turn to leave.

 

* * *

 

I’m okay, and that’s what makes this so much worse. When you’re a mess, no one expects anything of you. But I’ve been so good. There’s beautiful, beautiful stuff I’d be throwing away if I screwed up now. Because I’m okay. 

And it’s so, so hard to be.

I haven’t seen Gabe in weeks; I don’t have an excuse to anymore. Winter eats away at both me and my garden. Outside there’s a single rose left. Mama points it out, and I pretend not to care. But it hurts me to look at it. A lone flower amidst all that death and rot. It just wants to live. It just wants to be. When I started that garden, I made a promise. I will help you live. I will protect you as you protect me. But I lied. 

What do I know about keeping things safe?

Maybe I was wrong about those magic seeds. Because no matter how many I plant, no matter what I do, nothing seems to grow anymore. Shouldn’t magic be able to tide everything through winter?

Shouldn’t this be enough?

But it’s not. It has never been enough. The hunger I clung to like penance, the hurt I carried like pride. Gabe and the garden and the acceptance I’ve stowed like a gem. I traded away my will and strength long ago, have leaned against one pillar after another. But nothing has changed. 

There is no spell for healing. No easy fix.

I want you to choose whatever makes you happy. Those words should’ve changed everything for the better. I should be delighted. Instead I trudge to and from school, quiet as a ghost, biding most of my days alone. Deadlines loom near, and Mama asks me over and over when I’ll send a response to any of the colleges.

I tell her I don’t know, because I don’t. 

I really, really don’t.

 

* * *

 

Miss Reed, my guidance counselor, corners me in the hallway on a Friday afternoon. Class is out, and there’s a long weekend ahead, but I don’t have any plans. Sleep, maybe. Whatever passes the time, I suppose.

“You,” she says, pointing—rather rudely, I might add. “Miss Laila Saab.”

I shrug. “That’s me.”

“I have a bone to pick with you,” she says, and I almost snort, because who talks like that? A bone to pick? Really?

It’s like an episode of true-crime TV. One second I’m in the hallway, and then I’m being spirited away to an empty classroom. I watch with no small amount of horror as Miss Reed shuts the door behind us.

My fears are dispelled, however, when she says, “I see you haven’t chosen a school yet, Laila.”

I’m a bit taken aback, though I don’t show it. She isn’t wrong; I haven’t picked. I’m undecided, and even if I do go somewhere—anywhere—I’ll remain the same. Everybody waxes poetic about these big choices, these moments and musings that can rule an entire life. But what about mistakes? They’re choices too, and they only take a second to make. I would know. I do know.

“Laila?”

The three-way discussion—Miss Reed vs. me vs. my brain—in this gym-sock-scented classroom has become too much. So I try to nod my way out of it. “Yeah. You’re right.”

“According to the school portal, you’ve been accepted to most of the places you’ve applied.” She bites her lip. “You mentioned Hulm during one of our meetings. Are you still interested?”

I shuffle my feet. This is, well, a lot, considering the fact that five minutes ago I was on my way home to nap. “I, uh. Maybe?”

Muted sunlight gleams through the window. It’s pale, watercolor, half-bright and half-asleep. It’s funny—in winter the sun is only part of itself, all light and no warmth. That heat goes elsewhere, across the world, unbottled and free. Emotions are the same, depending on how you work with them. Those unspent feelings, those parts of you that remain hidden and dormant—how do you let them out? A fight? A love? A dream?

How do you stop being half you? Half-asleep?

Miss Reed takes a hesitant step toward me and pulls two glossy stubs out of her sweater pocket. Gingerly, she holds them out.

“Bus tickets,” she says, and when I don’t move, she goes on, “Hulm is a few hours from here. There’s a tour this weekend for accepted students, transportation and housing included. They sent us a letter. I thought you might want to go.”

I blink at her. My face is probably blank as a slate, because she takes my hand in hers and opens it, pressing the tickets into my palm. “It’s your choice. I just wanted you to know.”

She lets go of me and ambles to the door. I thank her, or at least I think I do, because she winks on her way out.

“It’s your choice,” she repeats from the doorway. Then she’s gone.

 

* * *

 

Instead of going home, I go to see Jad. It’s been a while since I’ve visited, and the guilt gnaws at me. I should’ve come on my birthday. He would’ve liked the cake.

By the time I make it to his grave, it’s nearly dark. I use my phone-light to guide me and send a quick message to Mama about Hulm. I wonder what she’ll say.

Then I sink down in the dirt. I face Jad, and I apologize, like I have many times before in the four years he’s been gone. I don’t want his forgiveness, though. I want him to be here. But both are impossible now. Even if every other wish of mine in this life comes true, this will never, ever be granted to me.

“I miss you,” I say. “Every single day. And I’m scared, Jad. That I’ll miss you even more if I go.”

The wind blurs past, and I wait. For a sign, for guidance, for Jad’s laughter to comb through the air like music. Yet none of that happens. The stars above remain still, refusing to align. They glint down like eyes, neither cruel nor kindred, and a ruined emotion stirs within me, full of grief and shame and hunger. I choke on the shape of it, both barbed and beloved, before it escapes in a single name:

“Jad.”

I know he won’t hear me, but I can’t stop. “I don’t want to leave you.” I bring a hand to my heart, clutch at the fabric of my coat. “I don’t want to forget. If you asked me to, I’d be miserable for as long as I live. I’d be nothing.

“But, Jad, I—” The confession bursts out, along with a sob. “I want to be happy.” My gaze floats up to the stars, then down again. “I want that for both of us. Maybe not how we used to be. But I want us to be happy.” 

My entire body rattles as I heave in a deep, unsteady breath. “I can’t do it without you, so please, tell me. Is that okay?”

I don’t get a response, though I wasn’t fool enough to expect one. I could only hope. So when I finally look up again, my heart stammers when I see it, dimly in the moonlight.

A clipped dandelion, splayed in the grass. I pick it up with shaking hands. There’s a ribbon around its throat, a red Briar Rose tag hanging from the bow. I remember a cool spring morning outside of Gabe’s shop, when he told me, There’re two languages everyone in the world can understand: the language of music and the language of flowers. They’re magic.

The dandelion is golden, sun-colored in the night. It must be fresh; it hasn’t shriveled yet, despite the cold. Magic. Very gingerly, I hold it up and set it down in front of Jad’s headstone. I close my eyes, and I see my garden. I hear it. All along it’s been Gabe’s voice, soft and low, begging and reminding me: Eat. 

But this time, it says something different. The garden looks different too. I see dandelions, fields upon fields of them. Blooming from gaps in the asphalt, growing from nothing but will, pure will. People call them rotten, people call them weeds, but Gabe would call them beautiful. Jad would’ve picked them like jewels, worn them as a crown. Dandelions for wishes. Dandelions for joy.

I want you to choose what will make you happy.

I open my eyes, swipe them clear of tears. And I know what I have to do.

 

* * *

 

I call Mama from the cemetery. Then, staring at the dandelion, I send a message to Gabe, and I hope. But I do not wait.

Not anymore.

Some people are bad with money; I’m bad with time. Old habits are hard to shake. I often sleep in, let minutes and hours pass while I remain in a daze. I daydream; I muse about the past and the future while wading through the present like a murky lake. 

The last bus out of Reves leaves in a few hours, at midnight. It’s always midnight, I suppose—that magic, fairytale time when today melds into tomorrow. Perhaps it’s fitting. I watch the moon as it watches me, standing in limbo between one choice and another. I’ve spent many nights gazing at the moon, the beautiful, shapeshifting moon, which for all its faces remains unchanged at its core, year after year.

But I am no moon. I am a girl. Not a satellite, but a soul. I am of this world. For so long, I’ve orbited outside of it like a stranger, and it’s time to become a part of it fully. To be.

When I get home that night, I treasure the hours like gold, like Jad treasured his eight years on this Earth. I rush around my room, hurrying to find a bag. Baba kisses my forehead, amused, and Mama smiles as I pack, tells me I’m doing the right thing. I don’t know about that, don’t know about right or wrong or regrets, but I think this is what I want, so I fold my clothes into a duffel bag alongside face products and shampoo. I keep one ticket in my pocket and offer Mama the other, and she takes it delicately, like a gift.

I peer out the window, gazing intently at my garden. Even in the darkness, I can see what’s left of it—that tiny, fist-curled rose, red as a wound, blaring like a promise in the night.

I’ll be waiting, it tells me. And I nod. The garden says nothing more; perhaps it will never speak to me again. Unbeckoned, I grab an apple to eat on my way out. I take a bite, then another. Rather than scour the house for the seeds Gabe gave me, I pluck a few from the core. I hold them like gems, like stars, before dropping them into the dirt outside. I don’t expect magic, for ruby groves or trees to blossom overnight. But maybe someday these seeds will flourish into something wonderful, whether I’m here to see it or not.

I pat the earth gently. I don’t say goodbye.

And then I’m off.

 

* * *

 

In storybooks, everything is always romantic, dramatic. Confessions, goodbyes, loves-at-first-sight. Moments fall into place like snow, perfectly imperfect. But reality is something else entirely.

Reality is 11:48 p.m. on a Friday at Reves’s bus station, located on the outskirts of town. It was built by the lip of the river, which has been frozen over for weeks now. I hate that river, feel a lump in my throat whenever children ice-skate over it in winter, when wading ducks croak for food during the spring. I hate this river for what it has taken from me, but in this moment, I forgive it. Because this water might’ve stolen my brother, might’ve drowned what was dearest in my heart, but I’ve taken so much more from myself. Water isn’t cruel for cruelness’s sake. But people are, and I have been.

Mama stands alongside me, patient as a saint despite my sudden actions. She has always been a stern woman. Among her and Baba and me, she’s the anchor, steely and strong. But she was none of those things when we spoke earlier tonight. Wherever you go, I will follow. And I believed her, believe her, and I owe it to her and to Jad and to Baba and to myself to lead our family to someplace beautiful.

Twelve minutes to midnight becomes ten, and I grow nervous as the bus comes into view. I check my phone for the twentieth time to make sure my message sent. Thank you for the flower. I’m leaving town for a few days, but I want to talk to you. I’ll be at the station at midnight. No response has come, so I tell myself that he must be sleeping, he might be angry, and I might just be a fool. But it’s fine. I feel better for having reached out. I imagine the rose unfurling, the dandelion glowing, and my heart loosens, opens like a palm.

“We should get on,” Mama says, and I nod, my head bowed. She holds up her pass; the driver ushers her forward. I watch her slink into a seat in the back, and I’m about to follow when I feel a touch on my shoulder.

“Laila.” And I know that voice; I’ve heard it in dreams and in gardens and during long, winding afternoons, snow-touched and summery alike. I turn, as if in a trance, and it’s like every silly story I’ve ever read but better. Because it’s real—Gabe is real, and he’s standing before me, red-cheeked and out of breath, dressed in a thick jacket and hat, and he’s smiling, wide and true.

“I’m sorry,” he says, face faltering. “I shouldn’t— I overreacted. I was being a jerk. You were trying to help. I should’ve come sooner, but the shop, and I, and you—”

Maybe it’s the cold. Maybe it’s the heady feeling that has overtaken me since sundown. Maybe it’s because it’s nearly midnight and the moon is shining up above like a clock, doling out this time to me—time I’ve taken for granted, time I had been so willing to give up like it was already used, even though it wasn’t. I haven’t used my time in years, haven’t treasured or nurtured it right, and I want to. I want to be the Laila at the core of all the others. I want to be me, I want to be, so I lean up and kiss Gabe softly on the lips. I cradle the back of his head while his hand settles by my jaw, and the sensation lasts long after we part. He beams at me, and I don’t look away, even when he guides me up the bus staircase and whispers, “Bye for now.”

It’s only for a few days. And if I go for good, it’s only for a few years. I almost say this, but the look in Gabe’s eyes says he understands, as always. I don’t know where he’ll go, what he’ll be, or what I plan to do. I only know that I can’t stop staring, even as the automatic doors close and I trek, like a girl possessed, down the aisle of the bus. Gabe remains outside, stuck in place, waving in the frigid cold, and I brush past Mama, my gaze not straying from his as I make it to the back window and press my open hands to the glass. I say nothing, and Gabe says nothing, and the bus is silent save for the low radio-hum of music, the beginnings of an aria I might have once known. He stands there even as we drive away, and it’s both a promise and not, and I’m okay with that.

Eventually I take my seat next to Mama. Both of us remain silent. The intercom announces that we’ll make it to Hulm before morning. The full moon follows us as we move, and at last I close my eyes and lean back.

 It won’t be easy; it has never been easy. But for the first time in a long time, this truth doesn’t frighten me. Nothing is ever simple, but I am okay, and I’ll be okay.

I’ll be.



[Story edited by Deeba Zargarpur]