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The Bottle Cap

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"Listen, it'll only be for maybe an hour or two," Olivia pleaded, clasping her hands together under her chin. "C'mon. I haven't seen any of them in so long. Please?"

She watched her father's face as it crumbled into dust at her feet. He rolled his eyes and nodded, refusing to look her in the eye as she squealed, as if it would only encourage her.

"Two hours. Maximum." He emphasized the word by jamming his finger down on the granite countertop. Olivia couldn't care less, jumping around and launching into a celebratory hug that her father only half returned.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you! I love you so much."

"I know." He sighed, rubbing his temples but smiling.

And that was all it took. Young and hopeful, Olivia raced back to her room like it was a ticking time bomb. After diving onto her bed, displacing the several stuffed animals that resided there, she hummed a little tune to herself. She took her time booting up her laptop, a light smile ghosting her lips. Young. Hopeful.

"Okay. Three o'clock. Start a meeting; share meeting link; wait to let people in," she sighed, leaning forward. "Waiting."

Time is a weird thing, right? I mean, when you need it to really move, it crawls. And, well, when you need it to stop...

"Three oh five. Check the group chat."

Olivia's smile never wavered, but there was an undeniable crack in it now. It almost looked like fool's gold-- pretending to be something it isn't. She bit her lip as her fingers traced the familiar lines of her phone case. She closed and reopened the chat, watched the blinking line in the chat box, typed and deleted messages. The feed stayed stagnant for several minutes more. Radio static from DMs, too. The silence was agonizing; it chewed through her bones like sickness.

"Three ten," she muttered to herself. Her arms found their way to her hips, rubbing up and down as if to comfort. It wasn't very convincing. "It's okay. They're... just running late."

Olivia nodded her head vehemently, blinking hard. She shouldn't panic. Ten minutes late is no big deal. Ten minutes late for five people? And none of them bothered to text? Something was wrong. She shook her head harder, as if the thoughts would fly out with them. She rationalized. Breathed. Everything was fine. She was late all the time! Why should she hold her friends to a different standard? 

Because it's my birthday.

Her eyes flickered somewhere they didn't want to go. Sucking in air felt like choking on sand.

"Three fifteen." 

She didn't know why she felt the need to say the time aloud. It wasn't some grounding technique or anything; it wasn't helping. She searched for something she would not find in the silence. Waiting felt like small eternities passing between now and the end. Olivia never liked endings.

"Did they forget?" she uttered. The words dragged out of her as if on their own accord. She rushed to stuff them back in. "How could they forget?" And she laughed, despite herself. It was a gut-wrenchingly pitiful sound-- the kind one makes when they know nothing is funny. The sound they make when they feel like an Atlas holding the world on their back, holding on by a shoestring just knotting itself over and over again until the edges fray and the string dissolves. But she sucked it up. She breathed. She did all she knew how to do; counted. Days and seconds passing aren't so different, after all. Neither is counting forwards or back.

"Three twenty. They must be having technical issues. Did I not set up the meeting right?" The words came out of her in a stream of excuses. Her hands danced over the keys, double, triple, quadruple checking the meeting, the chat, the link, the computer, the chat. But scrolling through the messages gave her no peace of mind, only more questions. Where are they? Why aren't they here? Why doesn't anybody remember?

Why doesn't anybody ever care?

"Three thirty. They forgot about me. They don't care." The sound of Olivia's voice fell into a pile on her lap. They were puzzle pieces that no one wanted to put together, least of all herself. She drew herself closer, like a sun caving in on itself. Her chin rested on her knee, legs curled up-- something to hug. Eyes that were glassy and unseeing stared past the Zoom meeting, beyond the pixels, beyond the walls, into nothing.

Even stars die, she thought, casually, briefly. The biggest, brightest things in the universe and they just up and die. They can't handle the weight of it all, and one day they just... implode and make new stuff and it doesn't even matter. Everything just goes on. Like they weren't even there. We probably wouldn't even see the light from here.

"Three forty-five." The ticking of the clock was off rhythm with her heart, she'd noticed. She'd noticed a lot in those forty-five minutes. Turns out spending your birthday alone does that to you. But oh! No, Olivia. Think positive. They haven't abandoned you yet, you still have an hour and fifteen minutes to go. Sorry, twenty days to go. Who'll show up in that time? It's a fun game she liked to play. Who actually cared? She tapped the side of the computer, cocking her head slightly as a notification appeared. A tiny frown. "Yes, I would like to stay in this meeting. I am the host! I am a host unto myself." The last part was whispered, and she laughed quietly at the absurdity of the statement.

God, Olivia. When did you become such a drama queen?

She didn't notice the hot trails of tears blazing down her cheeks. She didn't notice them when she curled into a ball beside her computer either, nor when her body started shaking with the intensity of her sobs. She didn't even notice when the tell-tale jingle of a new meeting member rang through the room.

"Um. Hey."

A brief pause, and then, the aftermath. Olivia shot up as if the words had been thundered through the house and not muttered, just for her to hear. She clutched her clothes to her skin, knuckles white with the pressure. Air came out of her in short, hiccuped bursts, and she gasped the oxygen back into her as if she was scared of losing it. A part of her wanted to cry more at how pathetic she surely looked.

And Daisy had never seen anyone with such sad eyes before.

"Hello," Olivia whispered. The sound of her voice was that of the ocean rushing forward to meet the shore-- heartbreakingly desperate. She wanted to clean herself. She wanted to sit pretty and smile and talk about eighteenth birthday things. And yet every word caught and every muscle stilled. She was so utterly and completely at a loss for: words, reasons, excuses. Her lips pressed together and she held everything in. Bottle cap, remember?

Daisy searched the girl she knew. She raked her gaze over every inch of Olivia, and despite not knowing what she was looking for, she still came up short. What was the story here? Daisy absently tore the loose skin off the inside of her cheek, chewing it in deep thought. What was going on?

"Hey," she repeated, then mentally kicked herself. "Already said that. Whatever. Um. Happy birthday! Are you... are you alright?"

Something flashed in those brown eyes. An emotion Daisy couldn't name, not that Daisy had ever been any good at naming emotions. She sat, trying to logic it all out, but felt so viciously out of her depth before that vulnerable friend of hers.

"I'm..." Olivia smiled, and it was so unconvincing that Daisy almost laughed. Almost. "Yeah! Just tired, y'know? Why... why were you late?" She asked it in such a light way, but that didn't erase the weight of the question.

Where were you?

Daisy blinked. Again. Once more. In another second of absent thought, the taste of blood filled her mouth and her eyes widened. Another nasty habit to break, she supposed.

"My mom was on the phone with my dad again. They were fighting," Daisy looked anywhere but Olivia's eyes. Her gaze eventually rested on the clock behind Olivia's head, where she felt quite comfy. "She's just really loud. And emotional. It gets... hard. To listen to. I'm sorry I'm late." Her eyes reached Olivia's, and once again that same chill filled her veins, seeping deep in the marrow of her bones. A shiver overtook her. "I didn't mean to be."

"It's okay!" But the response was quick, instinctual. Prepared. Daisy had noticed that before about Olivia. She was very genuine, but very 'what-you-want-to-hear'. It had never piqued her interest before, but it had a chokehold on Daisy's train of thought now. Had it always been like that? Where does Olivia start and the problem-solver end?

"It's not," Daisy answered bluntly. "I should have texted. That was my bad."

Olivia looked confused at that, but didn't say anything. Her hands found her hair, and she twisted and tugged until Daisy winced.

"Hey, stop that. It looks like it hurts."

Olivia's eyes widened ever so slightly and she looked down at her hands.

"Oh. Um. Yeah, sorry. I didn't even notice."

"You don't have to apologize, you know."

"I know."

The silence that followed was painfully long. Neither girl seemed to know what to say, avoiding the other's eyes. They didn't want to acknowledge anything real. Olivia ran her fingers up and down her thigh, feeling the skin there. It was warm, contrasting her cold hands. She felt real, and that unnerved her. She didn't want to. Her breathing was even now, flowing in and out of her lungs easily. She felt that too, felt every atom of it. Somehow that made it harder.

Look, you've made Daisy uncomfortable. You got what you wanted, but at what cost?

"Shut up," Olivia whispered. Daisy's head rose from her hands.

She was talking to her mom. It was probably an important conversation, and you interrupted it. You made it all about you.

"No, I didn't."

"What?"

Olivia looked like she'd seen a ghost when she and Daisy's eyes met. Her mouth opened and closed a couple of times before she found her words.

"Sorry! Didn't realize I was, y'know, saying that out loud." The pity in Daisy's eyes made her want to strangle her. "Don't look at me like that."

"Like what?"

"Like I'm a puppy on the side of the road. Really, it's not that big of a deal. I'm glad you're here." She shot Daisy a look, as if to emphasize her point. "Really. Thank you."

"Oh, uh," Daisy backtracked. "Yeah, no problem? I mean, what kind of friend would I be if I missed your birthday?"

The silence was back, this time with a vengeance. Daisy silently cursed her stupidity. What a fun thing to say when she was, in fact, the only one of their friends who actually showed up. Way to rub salt in the wound. She scratched the back of her neck exasperatedly and sighed heavily.

"You know what I meant."

"Sure."


Daisy left after fifteen more minutes of the most awkward interaction known to man. The second her face left the computer screen, Olivia collapsed backwards onto her bed. She didn't know what to make of the interaction. To be fair, she'd spent most of it trying not to spiral in front of Daisy. But then again, Daisy spent it trying to really talk to her-- even if it was the most horribly awkward conversation ever.

She probably just felt sorry for you. You're really easy to feel sorry for.

Olivia rolled her eyes and dragged her hands over her face, pulling her skin along her skull. When she pulled her fingers from her jaw, her eyes blinked open to be met with her ceiling, in all of its cosmic glory. The rubbery, off-yellow stars that her parents bought her when she was, like, seven were still plastered all over it. They didn't really shine that much anymore when the lights were out-- too old. They just kind of glowed this muted green, so dim you might think your eyes were tricking you. The kind of stars you'd only know for certain were there if you saw them in the light. There were a couple of planets and rocket ships thrown in the mix too, but seven-year-old Olivia had placed those on the edges of her ceiling. Gotta give the stars the most room; who cares about Saturn and some dumb rocket?

She traced the paths between them now, re-drawing the lines of constellations she constructed in the second grade. They were an artwork lost to time; something poetic to be said about childhood. The stardust must have gotten in her eyes as she traced. Tears mingled with the starstuff and fell off her cheeks like falling suns. So, so many falling suns.

Someone once said that salt must be holy. It's in the sea and our tears! What a cool thing to think about.

In the sea, in her tears, and now in her mouth.

Olivia gripped the edges of the sink as hard as she physically could, swishing the salt around in her mouth before spitting it down the drain. Her fingers clumsily tangled with items in her medicine cabinet, hunting for a cup to chase the taste from her mouth. She knocked aside a bottle in her frantic search, and the pills inside scattered on the shelf upon impact. Where was a bottle cap when you needed one?

She gargled several cupfuls of water until the salt was nothing but a faint memory. Her knuckles brushed the corner of her mouth as she made eye contact with herself in the mirror. 

"Wow, you look like a walking corpse." She laughed slightly, fixing her hair a little. Air entered her chest, then left. Olivia turned to go back to her bed, ready to count more stars, but gave her reflection one more glance. "Happy birthday.... I hope it was a good one."

They probably wouldn't even see the light from here.