Larissa was in a wide field of pale grass. The sun was glowing above in a sky of translucent clouds, or perhaps there was just a light fog. Delicate little flowers were growing here and there, trimming the green. Most were white, but a few were purple or blue. The grass was rather tall, though not too much to walk in, and made a nice cushion when Larissa sank down onto it. She put a finger alongside the stem of a blue flower and pulled it towards her just a bit, turning its face toward hers. The haze of the place made it so easy to lose oneself, so easy to be absorbed by the world. She thought idly of how the flower's little stem was like her own spine, and ran her finger along the smooth green line.
An unconcealed rustling sounded behind her, and a pair of shoulders nestled into her side, followed by a head on her back. The contact was warm, like a sunbeam against the morning dew. She looked over her shoulder and smiled. Nadine, using her as a pillow, turned to smile back. Larissa then laid her forearms out on the grass in front of her, framing the tiny flower with which she'd been playing. She rested her head on one arm and stared at that flower until her eyes felt like shutting. It was so close as to be blurred, so detailed that it couldn't be put in focus. She hummed. Nadine chuckled, her head shifting against Larissa's back.
There was a whole little world around them, silent and still and unnaturally bright, but the world didn't matter, normal or not. Nadine mattered. Nadine's black hair and green eyes and purple jacket and blue jeans mattered. Her perky nose and round cheeks and smile mattered. Her painted black nails and long eyelashes mattered. Her laugh mattered.
Her laugh mattered a lot, because when she laughed, Larissa could sleep like a normal person, without living in her dreams.
When Larissa woke up, there were damp spots on her blue pillow case. She was on her stomach with her arms out under her pillow. For a long moment, her body wouldn't move. She fought with it, starting with her fingertips, until everything loosened up. Once free, she crawled her way down until the covers were over her head. Her eyes were wide open, and she curled up on her side.
In all things, love, she thought. In all things, love. In all things, love.
Those words were an incantation of sorts. Repeated, they worked a slow magic. Through them, scraps could become a doll, and a doll could become a real girl. Such was the case with Larissa, who pulled together what little of herself was left and started remembering how to function. The blue world between the sheets became stifling. Face finally dry, she got up on her hands and knees and shook her head.
The dark green carpet was soft against her small feet when she slid down from her bed, and the edge of the blanket clung to the long gray shirt she was wearing. A squat gray clock on the dresser made green numbers out of light, forming 10:30. She stared at it for what felt like a long while, until it turned to 10:31 and she blinked, drawing in a deep breath and steadying herself. There was work to be done. Her would-be sweetheart was to arrive at three; she had until then to make her little world perfect for him.
First order of business was clothing. The dress she'd picked out days earlier was waiting at the front of her closet. She retrieved it and swung it a bit on its hanger, watching the handkerchief-style hem flutter. It was simple and just a bit gauzy; green, slightly paler than Larissa's green eyes. Once it had replaced her pajamas, she applied a brush to her hair. The plain brown was draped over her ears and her back, straight and shiny. Last, she had to handle makeup. From a tiny wooden cabinet on top of the dresser, she retrieved eyeliner, pale lip gloss, and a little compact of foundation, then nudged the thin doors shut with a hollow click.
There was a tall mirror on the door to the bathroom. She used it to smile at herself, but it wasn't real enough. Perfection eluded her. No matter later, later she'd make better faces. She opened the door and her reflection slid away, but it came back to her in the wider bathroom mirror. The cosmetics she'd brought went on the counter, and she leaned into the shower to her left to grab cleanser for her face. After a washing and a hand towel, she made careful strokes with the foundation powder. Then, she turned on the light to see better, and makeup went around her eyes and on her lips. It was only a tiny bit, though best to look natural. She couldn't let him see that she was trying.
Once she was satisfied with the look of her own thin face, she tried smiling again. It was better, that time; the less perceptive would believe it. But the boy liked her, so he'd look close. It wasn't enough. She shook her head, produced a modest laugh, and gave it a third try. The difference was slight, but it was finally the right shape, more believable. That was acceptable. Not perfect, but it would get there. She turned off the light and went to put the makeup away.
By the exit to the living room was a pair of silky, white, ballet-style slippers. She put them on and spun once, trying to balance herself on her toes. Then, she dropped back down and started to balance a small smile on her face instead, determined to leave all expressions of unhappiness in that room and that room only. Warmer air washed in as the door was opened, cinnamon-scented with vague wisps of other spice. It was lighter in the living room, since the curtains were translucent. Larissa closed the door behind her and went to tie them back.
There was a music box on the wooden window sill, which she wound up and opened. The box was raised on thin, curled-out legs, made to look like dark blue marble with a pattern of white swirls on its top. It played something sweet and sleepy, in D major if she remembered correctly. She stroked a finger along the top edge of the lid, then turned out to the rest of the room. All was sure to be orderly, but she went about cleaning up anyway. She'd costumed herself, and could rehearse her performance while she worked. It was time to perfect the scenery.
A square rug, pale blue and brown, took up most of the floor space over the knotty tan carpet. One of its corners was bunched up; Larissa pulled it flat. She then removed the ropy gray blanket from the couch, re-folded it, and draped it back over the leathery black cushions. The blanket's outermost tassels lay over the throw pillows, so she tucked them behind. The music box played on, and she began to hum along with it, soft and clear, while she circled the couch. Perhaps, she thought, she might make sure to be humming when he arrived it was a suitably gentle and comforting thing to do.
Nadine's photo was hanging on the wall next to the window, and Larissa tapped the simple black frame to be sure that it was level. She gave it a loving smile a good one that came easily, and that even she could almost believe. A few sheets and scraps of sturdy, smooth paper, mostly dark red, were still out on top the coffee table. She ducked down and put them with the book of card stock, the scissors, the glue, and the half-done bird body sitting in the compartment on the table's underside. There wouldn't be time to finish building the paper cardinal before her company showed up.
No matter. Elaborate little decorations like it were already hiding everywhere a dozen paper stars hanging in the living room window, a flat-bottomed bowl that was woven from tiny strips of paper and sitting on the kitchen table, a black cat and a white wolf built from card stock that were curled up together by the television, and so on. The front door was marked with interlocking lines of blue, as was the bathroom door. Larissa's bedroom door had purple swirls. Past the kitchen with its archway, the bedroom door nobody used any more was the only one unmarked. On her way into the kitchen, Larissa adjusted a little orange fox made of construction paper, touched at with a wiry brush to produce fuzz that was sitting on the counter, so that its eyes faced the table.
Satisfied that the apartment was properly arranged, she fetched a silvery metal tray from the cabinets under the counter. It had elegant, shaped handles and was etched with loops and points around the edges, textured with a panel of pinprick-like dents in the middle. She set it on the table, then went up to a shelf over the sink for a white teapot and two matching teacups, all made of long curves that looked like the back of a seashell. They joined the tray, and Larissa went to the little pantry for the wooden box of tea leaves and the tin case beside it.
Her movements slowed when her fingers touched the metal, and she became solemn. She'd never really liked to call it poison, the substance in that silvery case. It wasn't a cruel thing. Just something quiet, like sleep. The tin elicited a certain reverence, especially since it'd been months since she'd had reason to open it. Finally, though, another kind soul had come along and gotten her to love him. He was a sweet boy, and he deserved better than a broken world. She put the tin on top of the box in the crook of her arm and rested her fingers on it. At least she could make a perfect world for him to pass from. At least she could make him happy.
She nudged the pantry doors shut and set the two small boxes down with the rest of the things on the table. Having collected everything, she retired to the living room no use starting the tea until he arrived. The couch seemed particularly inviting, so she laid down on it and rested her head on one of the throw pillows, combing her hair down over one shoulder with her fingers. Nadine's picture was in her line of sight, and she ended up staring at it.
The photo showed Nadine from the hips up, wearing her purple jacket, the same way Larissa always remembered her. Her shoulders were set, and her right hand was in a fist, resting on her hip. She looked so strong wild, even, with those ever-so-slightly manic green eyes. She had always been a bright light; Larissa, like a shadow she'd cast. Together, they'd managed to survive grades two through twelve. They'd managed to graduate. They'd managed to find an apartment and split the rent. They'd managed to keep it comfortable, somewhere between cluttered and excruciatingly neat. Nadine had managed not to punch the landlord. Larissa had managed to negotiate with him to keep her paper cutouts on the doors. It was hard not to grow bold with Nadine around.
Nadine was beautiful always so beautiful, even with her throat sliced. There'd been nothing wild about her then, though, lying next to a bloody shovel in a back alley where she'd opposed an advancing stranger. It was simple misfortune, of course. The stranger could have picked anyone to rob. Maybe Nadine shouldn't have been out in the dark, even if she had been thirty years old and sure of herself. Maybe she shouldn't have tried to fight him off alone. But had the world looked after her a little, she wouldn't have had to. Surely, she'd deserved that much. But that incident made it obvious the world wasn't likely to grant people what they deserved.
Larissa remembered the police and the blood on Nadine's pale skin, and swallowed, turning her eyes away from the picture. No matter how much she loved, nobody could be entirely happy. Life was too cruel to allow it. So, if the world wouldn't be good to good people, she couldn't let it keep them. Returning to such thoughts always helped her to steel herself; they made more sense than a world where Nadine could die. Larissa's boyfriend of three days was one of that kindhearted, gentle-eyed sort that she adored. He couldn't be left to suffer. No one so good could be left to suffer. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair. Slowly, the warmth of the room lulled Larissa to drowsiness, then sleep, then dream.
Nadine was toying with her, dodging this way and that while she chased, darting in to shove her whenever she least expected it and running off before she could get any sort of hold. That was all right, though; even untamable Nadine would tire of running eventually. A wind blew through the field and pulled Larissa's hair back, and she laughed. It was a real laugh, too, not the careful, gentle girl-laugh she'd learned to feed the world.
They ran, collided, stumbled, ran faster; then Nadine turned and hooked an arm around Larissa's neck and they fell, entirely unrefined and perfectly real. It was impossible for Larissa to contain herself. Perhaps there was squealing in her laughter she didn't know or care. It didn't matter if it sounded pretty when Nadine was hearing it, laughing too. She stretched her back out across Larissa's stomach and gave a great sigh. A long moment's rest suited them both well.
While Larissa was still collecting herself, Nadine sat up. Had Larissa been watching, she might've seen the sun in Nadine's eyes and expected the shove that sent her rolling a couple of turns down the gentle slope they were on. She yelped, crawled back over, and punched at Nadine's shoulder with a wide smile and a weak fist.
In all things, love.
A knock at the door woke Larissa, who turned drowsily, then shook herself awake. She wiped quickly at her face and, fortunately, found no tears. The throw pillow was dry, too. She stood, set herself, and brushed her left fingertips over her heart. Then, she walked over to open the door and made sure to smile like a real girl. He deserved a real girl, not a broken doll.
"Hey." He smiled from the doorway, all wavy brown hair and big brown eyes.
"Hello." They kissed once, lightly. She'd forgotten, in her haste, to hum. She chuckled instead. "Come in. I'll start the tea."