The Journey to Happiness // Justin Lo, 7285
“Lydia?” called Nina, who was on the other side of the yard, leaning on the rusting pickets of the fence.
I looked up at her and waved, but I didn’t want to open my mouth because my bubble gum might have fallen out. My legs swung like grandfather clock pendulums as they dangled off the edge of my perch on the old live oak tree.
Nina was frowning.
She was a person who was never satisfied. You could tell because her hairstyle changed every day, and so did her gait, her religion, and her hobbies. All she ever asked for was a sprinkle of significance on her life. I always told her the cupcake was sweet enough as it was. I suppose I was a rather boring person, at least certainly not as dynamic as Nina. And my cupcake wasn’t very sweet, either.
“Lydia, do you have time? I want to go down to the creek,” she said, still frowning, eyebrows knit in an impatient formation.
“Aw, not today,” I protested, and she kicked the fence.
“Bullshit,” she grunted, “You and your boring-ass tree; why do you even bother to be alive if you can’t spare a moment to go down to the creek?”
“It’s your problem,” I said dismissively, turning away from her. I wasn’t her new hair, so I had no obligation to go follow her wherever she went. I personally thought that her new shade of blond-and-red hair was particularly ill-fitting, but that was also her problem. “I don’t want to go down to the creek right now. It’s so soggy out, especially in the forest. Soggy and so freaking hot. I’m gonna go inside; you’re welcome to join me if you’d like.”
I knew Nina wouldn’t come. I could hear her footsteps softening as she left my house. Efficiently, I slid off the tree limb and landed on the muddy soil below. My sneakers would probably be caked with dirt for days to come, but I felt that the sickeningly pink designs had it coming.
The next day, I was fixing my hair before the sun had even muttered a peep. I had long brown hair with long bangs; right after I washed it, it gleamed brilliantly like Mom’s hair, something for which we’d always been admired.
My parents weren’t up yet. Both of them worked hard during the weekdays, and they slept through most of the weekend. Soundlessly, I slipped down the stairs and fixed three eggs, two sunny-side-up for Mom and Dad and one over-way-too-easy for me. My parents forbade me to eat such “raw” eggs, but they had very limited influence when they were preoccupied with snoring and drooling on their pillows.
Sighing, I turned off the stove and sat down at the table. All the while I nibbled at my egg, I couldn’t help but stare out the window. There was a little cardinal clinging firmly to one of the bud-laced branches of the live oak that caught my attention. By the time I snapped out of my idle staring, the yolk had run everywhere and it was impossible to consume it in any other way than to lick the plate.
I licked the plate, and the yolk tasted pretty damn good.
A small clump of my bangs brushed into the yolk, too, but I didn’t really care. I decided that I’d wash my hair again in the evening.
For the time being, I had nothing to do, so I spontaneously decided to pay a visit to the creek. It wasn’t so soggy anymore and the morning was crisp from the high pressure system that was passing by.
Putting on a light windbreaker, I exited from the back door and circled about the house to leave by the front gate – it was a peculiar habit of mine. The road was devoid of cars at this hour, so I walked directly in the middle of the narrow road, savoring my newfound stature. This asphalt path was made just for me.
The easiest entrance to the creek was about a half mile from my house, downhill a good ways. No one lived where the slope got rather steep, so that’s where a lot of the kids liked to hang out and play without risk of damaging someone’s house. I hadn’t been around the area on foot for about a year now, and it looked very different from the way I viewed it every day from the driver’s seat of the car. For one thing, I now saw that the roadside weeds were in full bloom, and the red oaks were just beginning to sprout new leaves.
Ducking into the forest, I saw the myriad of new growth under the ghastly twilight of dawn. Remembering how the forest was set up from my childhood expeditions, I raced through the forest, hurdling the root-traps, hopping across ditches, and balancing myself on fallen logs.
The creek was in sight, and I hurried over to the slow trickle of water, tripping on the last leg of my brief trip. I landed face-down onto the deep-colored soil, my arms feeling the moist richness. While I got up, brushing myself of, I unexpectedly caught a glimpse of something out of place.
On the ground across the creek from where I stood, Nina lay, curled up delicately. She had a neutral expression on her face, her eyes closed.
I leapt across the river to get a closer look at her. Upon closer inspection, I realized that her eyes were squeezed shut, obviously with full intent. Suddenly, she jumped onto her feet, screaming; she jabbed me viciously in the stomach with a sharp stick, causing me to reel backwards. I nearly lost my footing, and when I looked behind me to see how close I was to the creek, she lanced the branch at my face, connecting with my cheek, sending me toppling into the water.
“Lydia?” she said timidly.
Nina was frowning.
“What the fuck was that for?” I screeched. I sat up quickly, looking around to see how I would best climb out of the ditch. My clothes were soaked with water and their backsides were brown from the muddy creek bottom.
“Let me help you up,” she offered.
I reached out my hand and she grasped it, softly at first, then with more passion, and finally, she forcibly rejected my hand, causing me to flop back down into the water.
“Nina, quit it, will you?”
I climbed out of the creek and tried to dry myself out to no avail. The light breezes made me shiver as they brushed against my soaked clothes.
“Nina,” I began, but I realized that she was no longer around. She’d run away.
I was grounded the rest of that Saturday, so I spent most of my time reading. I was distracted every once in awhile by the creaking of the trees in the front yard when the wind blew.
That evening, I put on a lavender sleeveless dress and snuck out of the house through my window, which led to a part of the garden obscured by several conical ornamental trees. I guess I didn’t want to make my favorite jeans sad by trivializing their sacrifice and simply putting on another pair. I happened to like this dress, anyhow.
I ambled over to Nina’s house to let her know how much I hated her and her damn sprinkles.
The doorbell was wide open, so I pressed it with a deliberate poke of the left index finger. The button got jammed and the electronic doorbell made a horrid belching noise that blared on and on until I figured out how to pull the button back out.
I heard footsteps, then the jade-colored door opened. Nina was standing there, dressed in matching pajamas.
“L-Lydia,” she stammered, not opening the screen door.
“What do you think of my hair?” I asked, grabbing a handful to hold closer to her face.
“It’s pretty,” she replied gently. At that moment, I knew it was true.
“Nina,” I said, looking at the ground.
Nina didn’t say anything, but she opened the screen door to let me in. Gingerly, I removed my shoes and walked through the narrow doorway. Her front foyer was crowded with random furniture and artwork, most of which had gathered a considerable amount of dust.
Her younger sister was practicing the piano in the room to my left, tripping over a rapid passage in a cadenza that I’d never heard before. She didn’t stop practicing to look at me, which made me feel more comfortable; only strangers earn such silent gazes.
“Lydia, about today,” Nina started, sounding anxious. I could tell she was frowning again without even looking at her.
“You were being a jerk; just forget about it,” I said. “I was only grounded for a day.”
“I’m sorry,” she said with emphasis. “I’m sorry.”
“Quit apologizing already,” I ordered. I turned towards her, looking at the patterns on her pajamas. She glanced at herself self-consciously, straightening out her shirt. “We used to be such good friends. Do you remember your birthday sleepover party? The one when we had the flashlight tag game in the attic and the stack of boxes fell down?”
She thought for a moment, smiled briefly, then sunk into an even more distressed expression.
“Yeah,” she managed, her response cut short because her mouth hadn’t opened wide enough in the first place.
“Nina, I know what you want. I can’t tell you to change that, but I know one thing for sure: that you’re making yourself hurt by trying to hide it from me.”
“That’s all you know from our years together?”
I paused to consider, hands entangling with my hair, which I had just washed before I left home.
“Nina, you have to understand. I don’t love you, okay? Hell, I was thinking I even hated you right before I got here, but it’s impossible to hate someone like you. And it’s equally impossible for me to love you the way you want me to.”
Nina nodded, eyebrows turning so that they pointed to her forehead as she smiled weakly. In a relieving effort, she hugged me tightly. It took awhile but I eventually wrapped my arms around her, too. For a minute, we just stood there next to the painting of an iris in the cubist style.
Then I felt a tug on my hair.
“No fair!” I shouted. “Just ‘cause I have long hair doesn’t mean you can go pulling it like that!”
Nina giggled as I pouted indignantly. Sprinkles or no sprinkles, life was a cupcake.