by Alexandra M. Lucas
The main thing you have to understand is that I’ve always trusted Boston. Its smooth brownstones were so familiar, its river a friendly guide. Given the number of times that I prowled its cobblestone streets alone, in gleaming high heels and under moonless skies, maybe I should’ve encountered strangeness there sooner. There’s comfort in believing the city was my protector, but chaos has a way of seeping through time-worn cracks. And after almost four hundred years of revolutionaries, drunk college students, and those who consider themselves both, Boston has a lot of cracks.
My flight that day was late, because of course it was. Why would traveling cross-country ever be easy? As I liberally swabbed my seat on the T with a few Clorox wipes, I shook my head at how desperately I’d wanted to continue living in Boston after I graduated from a local liberal arts college there ten years ago. For better or worse, tech had taken me to the West Coast instead, and everything I’d once cherished about New England now felt as unfamiliar as a childhood finger painting.
Having already dropped my LV luggage at my mid-tier hotel on the east side, I felt drawn again to walk the winding Esplanade along the Charles River. Many times had I bused into the city to visit the river as an undergrad, toting only a few French assignments, a stylish planner, and my pencil case du jour. It had provided a nice respite from my varsity volleyball matches, and something about the sparkling water had made me feel like I could go anywhere, do anything, if only I kept walking and listening.
People tucked inside the scores of independent coffeeshops I passed unwittingly taught me about human behavior:
“How could she think ANYONE would be okay with beige?”
“Tokens are just better; I’m never switching to the Charlie Card!”
“Any houseplant I touch? It dies, pft.”
At every turn I had looked for guidance on where to go and who to be. A lawyer, an artist, a diplomat? As fortunate as I was to attend college, I hadn’t thought beyond graduation day, a major oversight I would especially regret upon graduating during a brutal recession.
As the Green Line train struggled along overused tracks, a small thrill alighted in me at being back in my college city, ready to attend my ten-year reunion armed with my moderate success as a supervising copywriter at a bloated e-commerce giant. Even if I wasn’t sublimely happy, I could at least say that I, Charlotte Scathan, had carved out a small place for myself in the Real World™.
I was in the midst of deciding whether I should do another smartwatch-guided breathing exercise when my gaze landed on a carefree-looking woman with blue streaks in her dark brown hair. A sequin-covered crossbody bag sat in her lap, boasting all of the colors of the rainbow. The sight of the boho purse design made the back of my brain itch. Although my only friends in the Boston area were now of the distanced Facebook variety, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she looked familiar.
The woman sat by the window across the sticky aisle from me, and her face was buried in what appeared to be a flashy real-time strategy mobile game. A smile crept onto my lips as she jerked to the left and right with genuine enthusiasm, as if doing so would affect the outcome of the game. At last she audibly cheered and pumped a fist in the air, then looked around the train with a satisfied grin splashed across her face. I tried to remember what it was like to feel so completely devoid of shame, but it had been at least a decade, so the memories were dim at best.
“I won!” she exclaimed in my direction, not so much talking to me as at me.
“I can tell,” I offered. It was the best I could do after half a day of air travel.
“Sorry, it’s just, I’ve been practicing so hard, and I finally beat my boyfriend at it for once!” The woman smiled a bit sheepishly then, as if she’d just remembered that she was talking to a complete stranger on public transportation.
When she allowed her teeth to show, I noticed that she was missing an upper left incisor. It only caught my eye because my smile used to have the same defect. A soft chuckle escaped from my lips. “It’s important to celebrate victories. I’m Charlotte.”
The woman shifted into the seat directly across from me and extended her hand. “Yeah, it is, huh? Lottie.”
“Nice nails,” I said, unable to focus on anything other than her dark blue polish. In order to maintain the ever-nebulous and discriminatory concept of ‘professionalism,’ it was my employer’s policy to limit polish shades to the lighter varieties. I bit my lip, simultaneously dissatisfied with the light pink polish I sported and the corporate drone I’d become.
“Hey, thanks!” Lottie beamed. I was surprised when she said it like she truly meant it. “I work at a little indie bookstore, Trident, and they encourage us to, ya know, express ourselves.”
My heart warmed at the mention of the quirky bookstore and diner on Newbury Street. It had been my go-to stop to sober up with some tasty carbs after a long night of dancing and drinking, before busing back to my dorm. It’s where I’d discovered Toni Morrison, where I’d watched parts of Back to the Future on their grainy TV on at least thirty discrete occasions, and where I’d met Austin V____, the man I’d once considered the love of my life. I smiled sadly to myself at how easy it had once been to throw such lofty labels on people who were very much still in haphazard development.
Out loud, all I said was, “Yes, I know it well.”
My travel companion’s face lit up. “No kiddin’! So you must be from around here, huh? I thought you looked familiar.”
I tucked a loose strand of my tight brown braid behind my ear and eyed the T map’s multicolored tendrils overhead. Just three more stops to go. “Not exactly. I’m back for a college reunion.”
Lottie nodded. “Me, too! Well, not back, since I didn’t go anywhere, but mine’s coming up, too. That’s funny, isn’t it?”
Something about her eagerness felt off, so I decided to steer the conversation to more superficial waters. “Sure is. You said something about a boyfriend?”
A starry veil fell over her emerald eyes as she retrieved some lip product from her sequined bag. I thought I recognized the brand, but I didn’t want to stare. While pulling up one of her social media profiles on her phone, Lottie sighed, “Fiery passion has a name, and that name is Austin V____!”
The mention of my old college flame’s name chilled my blood to such depths that I stopped trying to figure out the brand of the mauve lip stain she was reapplying.
“If we’re talking about the same Austin V____, I’m really sorry, but I have terrible news for you.” My breath caught in my throat, almost choking the terrible words out of me. “He died three years ago. Of an overdose.” Or so I thought I recalled seeing on social media. Unforgiving schedule that I maintained, I hadn’t been able to fly back here for the funeral. My mouth contorted as a twinge of guilt wound through me like swallowed dental floss.
Lottie’s face spoke of nothing but bewilderment at my confident assertion. “I dunno where you got your intel, but that’s not possible, sweetie. We’re dating! See?”
She held her smartphone up in front of my face, so close that I couldn’t possibly miss it. As soon as I saw the kind blue eyes, the stubble, the black muscle shirt, I knew. I had no idea how, but there he was, Austin fucking V____. Alive, I repeated to myself, attempting to mentally challenge a truth I had so firmly believed for years.
A blush colored her lean cheeks. “Living together, actually. On-again, off-again, like tons of couples do. It’s nbd.”
As soon as the shock of seeing a ghost wore off, questions flooded my brain. Only a few were even remotely appropriate, so I chose one of them. “Did he…so his sobriety’s going well?”
Lottie nodded vigorously, prompting her blue-tipped hair to bob up and down with her animated movement. “Aussie’s been clean for six years now, and I couldn’t be prouder!”
Bile built up in my throat at the sickening nickname she’d given him. I tried to remember if I’d ever called my ex something so insipid, but my memory of that time was too hazy to be sure. We used to party a little too hard at goth clubs in the city, which of course was part of what drew us to one another and made it imperative that we break up. I’d worked my way through the twelve steps, but last I’d heard, Austin had tripped on Step 3 and never gotten back up.
Or did he get back up? I wondered, unsure of what was real. Or would he have gotten up if I hadn’t left him alone?
After tucking her phone into a pocket in her sequined bag, Lottie gave me a sympathetic smile. “Oh Charlotte. You really should be more careful about where you get your info.” It took everything inside me to resist shaking her. I wanted to scream, at the top of my lungs, What makes you think I need an ounce of pity from someone like you?
I swallowed hard, squirming in my plastic seat with that unique discomfort that accompanies not wanting to get into an argument with a new acquaintance. But she doesn’t feel new, I insisted internally. There was no time for me to counter myself, for it was then that the Green Line arrived at my destination, the Government Center station.
“Mind if I join you?” Lottie’s grating voice chirped, lurking in my shadow as I disembarked. “Austin takes me to the best restaurants here, so I can guide you to one of the good ones.”
Having been socialized to be polite to the point of near-death, I reached deep inside my limited extrovert reserves and somehow retrieved a smile. “Sure. I’d appreciate the company.” A stab of loneliness inched toward my heart as I remembered that, although I’d had a thriving social circle a decade ago, I was a stranger to this city now.
An unflinching truth I’ve discovered about terrible days is that the weather is always beautiful. Just enough of a breeze floated off of the bay to provide relief from the scorching summer heat, and cheesy big band classics danced through the air, calling me back to the North End and its endless bounty of Italian delicacies I’d frequently enjoyed back when I had a more efficient metabolism. Regardless of the huffing and puffing I’d need to endure in my hotel’s shabby fitness center later, I was going to Mike’s Pastry that day, and I was going to eat a damn cannoli.
“Don’t you ever wonder what would’ve happened?” Lottie said out of the blue, waving her indigo fingernails at the stars clearing their throats above us in the burgeoning dusk. When I didn’t immediately reply, she added, “If you’d stayed, I mean.”
“No.” I shook my head. “It’s too painful to think that there was something you could’ve done. That it’s your fault.” My throat felt extremely dry all of a sudden. “That it’s my fault.”
To my chagrin, Lottie seemed to take this uncomfortably intimate admission as an invitation to slow our walking pace. I avoided her penetrating gaze and checked my smartwatch, anxious to reach the famous Italian pastry shop before closing time. Even if we made it with fifteen minutes to spare, we’d still have to contend with a line out the door.
“Well, one of us can undo it.” Her voice sounded tinny, as if I was hearing it through the metal cylinder of an antique music box. At first I wasn’t even sure that she had spoken the absurd thought out loud.
I stopped just as we reached the top of Hanover Street, my stomach suddenly starting to turn at the smell of the garlicky Italian delights I had been anticipating with such fervor. Lottie halted, too, and gave me an inquisitive look. I raised a matching dark eyebrow back at her. “I left, you stayed. Our paths are our own. We were doing fine before. We can forget this whole thing.”
Her large emerald eyes sparkled, reflecting my own. “That’s not how it works.”
“What do you know about ‘how it works’?” I spat back, growing annoyed.
“Don’t look at me, I don’t make the rules.” Lottie flashed a familiar wicked smile I’d seen many, many times before. Just as was once true of my smile before I got a dental implant, I saw again that her upper left incisor was missing. “But I figured it out.”
Even though it was a balmy evening in Massachusetts, I shivered. “What is it you think you’ve figured out?”
She stepped closer to me, carefully, pointedly, like a lioness circling some sickly antelope that it had separated from the herd. “It’s Highlander rules, Charlotte. Why else would we meet like this? Now?”
For an impossibly long moment, we stood still, eyes locked on one another. I could have sworn that the busy pedestrians and rideshare cars around us slowed, blurring into uniform background noise as we finally recognized our faces in each other. My face. Hers. Ours.
In that clashing of the spheres, I suddenly recalled that tonight marked ten years to the day since I had left Boston for good. Perhaps I should’ve known something like this was bound to happen.
Lottie disrupted the cosmic phenomenon by inhaling sharply and hurling her slouchy sequined crossbody at me. For someone so petite, as non-existent as I had once been, she somehow achieved incredible velocity. Damn all that volleyball practice, I cursed internally. The packed purse hit my stomach hard, knocking me off balance so that I stumbled in my sensible (but still designer) black boots.
Now that she’d shaken me up, Lottie clenched her fists and stalked toward me, readying herself for the killing blow. My heart beat hard and fast in my eardrums as I simply stood there, stupidly paralyzed like the prey that I was. She’s finally caught up with me, I thought. This is it. For a second, I looked down at her cheap bag in my white-knuckled grasp and considered letting it happen.
With unbound ferocity, I instinctively crouched low to harness the full force of my formidable weight and slammed into Lottie. She was strong, but I was stronger. It took only a graceless disruption of equilibrium and a fortuitous gust of wind for Lottie to topple over the flimsy handrail that separated drunk tourists from a dip in the Atlantic. Only a small, polite splash accompanied her fall, and when I peered into the dark water, I saw that it was still. Whatever Lottie had been plotting in order to claim my life as hers, the creatures of the deep possessed her now.
When I looked back down at my hand, searching for Lottie’s slouchy boho purse, I found only air. Gone were its garish sequins, the childish pastel rainbow stripes, and any trace of that mauve lip stain we had both worn so well. I searched the faces of passersby, but they kept their heads down, more attentive to whatever Bella Hadid was currently hawking on Instagram than to the act of murder that I was fairly certain I had just committed. Despite my bone-deep conviction, it was as if my traveling companion had never existed.
Most terrifying of all was the fact that I felt…what was it? Relief. Finally Lottie was gone. No longer did I have to hear her too-familiar voice in my head, her insistence that my memory was wrong, that I had chosen the wrong path. At last she’d stopped prattling on about Austin V____ and the sublime on-again, off-again Millennial melodrama we could’ve continued to put on together. The dark water below had silenced little Lottie, and I closed my older, wiser green eyes and sighed, grateful that it was now silent in my head one again.
Some days, in my twilight years, a memory of a French class or a volleyball match flickers through my mind. Just a glimpse, but it’s enough to serve as a reminder. Even in the midst of my personal fulfillment—spanning an acceptable career, a patient spouse, two precocious children—I sometimes flip through the kindest parts of Austin V____’s face. Every time, my heartbeat quickens and my smartwatch warns me to “find my calm,” but I fear those kind blue eyes of his will never leave me.
Some days, more often than I’m willing to admit, my mind still wanders to thoughts of Lottie, buried in the deep.
Alexandra M. Lucas is a narrative designer for Crazy Maple Studio and co-chair of the IGDA Serious Games special interest group. She won the GDC Game Narrative Review Platinum Award twice, and she has delivered gender studies presentations at GDC, PAX Dev, GeekGirlCon, and Wellesley College.
Alexandra wrote multiple entries for the Encyclopedia of Sexism in American Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, November 2019) and a chapter on the evolution of Dragon Age relationship mechanics for Love and Electronic Affection: A Design Primer (CRC Press, May 2020). Her short story, “Cherry,” was published in Whatcom WRITES: Reconciliation (Borderline Press, February 2021), and her poem, “Leftover,” received a Merit Award in the 2020 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Competition. Professionally, Alexandra has written for interactive novels, digital assistants, RTS mobile games, educational MMORPGs, and more.