**I originally wrote this as a submission for an online competition, but since I didn't placed, I thought I'd share it here, I hope you like it :)**
I had a dream once, ten years ago, about a girl I knew in a place I lived. My first love. It started in my mother’s old flat in South Shields. A tiny two-bedroom for me, my brother, and our mother.
We’re sitting in the living room, watching Michael Jackson’s ‘Ghosts’, one of the scariest movies I have ever seen. My brother goes to the kitchen to make some popcorn. He’s four years older than me and is scared of nothing. I, on the other hand, hide behind the sofa, behind the safety of my mother as MJ says the worst words imaginable to my tiny mind: “Is this scary?” and digs his fingers into his eye sockets and the corners of his mouth and pulls them as wide as they’ll go.
I scream. My brother laughs. He isn’t scared, and neither is my mother. She tells me I need to grow up, I need to watch scary films in order to appreciate life as it is. But I don’t want to. My life is safe. Untroubled. And that's how I like it.
My mother suddenly gets up to leave, taking my favourite purple blanket with her.
“Where are you going?” I ask her.
“Out,” she says. She folds up my blanket and tucks it under her arm. “Blankets are for children.”
I look to my brother for help. He shrugs his shoulders and slumps down onto the sofa with a steaming bowl of popcorn in his hands. He offers me one as our mother walks out of the room.
“Come back!” I want to shout, but the words fall out clumsily and turn into wails instead.
I shove my little feet as quickly as I can into my favourite pair of trainers by the door. The ones my mother says she hates because they’re dirty and scruffy. Because girls like me should wear nice shoes. Clean shoes.
I follow her out to the car park, panting as my feet pound on the wet ground. A man who’s getting his car washed is blocking her in. So she stands there, screaming at him at the top of her lungs. Just my luck, she can’t go anywhere. And I want my blanket back.
She sees me, shouts something. I just want my blanket, she can go.
She yells, tells me I’m just like her mother.
Bitter. Angry. Dirty.
I wonder who it was that made me that way.
I take my blanket from her arms and leave, while she stays shouting at the man to move his car. The rain tumbles down once more. A thick, horrible kind of rain. The kind of rain you’d run inside for. The kind of rain you’d watch from the sofa, wrapped in your favourite purple blanket with a cup of hot chocolate in front of the fireplace.
And then I see her.
The girl from school. She’s a year or two older than me. I don’t know. I’ve never spoken to her. But I know her, and she knows me. Her hair is as soft and bright and red as it ever was, even on the dullest of days. She looks like a picture; one I could take and stare at for hours.
She’s soaked. I offer her my blanket. It’s big enough, and it’s thick enough. She blushes and turns me down, but I open it up for her and we walk to the end of the road. She thanks me, laughs, I don’t know what at, but I laugh with her because whatever is making her happy, is making me happy too. She gives me a hug goodbye and she smells like mangoes and coconuts. I tiptoe a little bit, push my chest closer to hers, just in case she wants to hug me in the same way I want to hug her, but she lets me go, stares deep into my eyes.
This is it, I think to myself, inching my mouth forward in hopes of reaching hers. Her eyes sparkle like the emeralds in my mother’s earrings. She smiles again, blushes again, bites her lip, and asks for my brother.
“He’s at home,” I say, my chest deflating.
She tells me to say hello to him, and leaves; she doesn’t need me to walk her the rest of the way home. So I turn and walk home alone too. Through the alley that leads to my house, wondering if I’ll ever have the courage to tell her how I feel.
Ten years have passed and I still dream that same dream. In our tiny Whitechapel flat, my boyfriend kisses me good-morning, asks me if I want him to come home with me.
“No,” I say to him.
For the first time in ten years, I am going home. One week after learning of the passing of my mother.
I walk up to the compound. The carpark, the flat, and then I see her again. Stella, that’s her name. Her crimson hair gleaming in the sunlight just like it always has. She’s holding a child in her arm, a little girl, no more than two.
“Hey, Stella,” I smile at her. I wonder if she remembers me.
Her smile is the same. Wide, but shy.
“Hey,” she says back. “I’m so sorry about your mum.” She moves the girl to her hip and places a hand on my shoulder. The girl stares at me with the same shimmering green eyes as Stella, too big for her face, just like Stella’s. “This is Annie, my niece, I’m babysitting while my sister’s at work.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. Annie smiles. The same smile as Stella, and I smile back, hold Annie’s hand.
“Are you here to sort out your mum’s things?” Stella asks.
I nod, Stella offers a hand, since my brother’s flight doesn’t arrive until tomorrow morning.
I hesitate. What about Annie? I want to ask. But I don’t care about Annie. I want Stella. I help her bring Annie’s playpen into my mother’s old living room. There is a noticeboard in the kitchen next door, the one where my mother put up all the pictures of me and my brother.
The house has the same tangy smell as it did ten years ago. Like extra sweet oranges left in the sun for a little too long.
Stella stands beside me in front of the notice board, tells me how cute I was as a pre-teen. We both laugh. I remind her that she had a crush on my brother, she must be excited to see him when he lands. She tucks a crimson strand of hair behind her ear and blushes, but says nothing. I tell her about that night, when it rained so hard I had to cover her with my blanket.
Stella’s eyes look into mine the same way they had that night. She remembers, she says, but she didn’t like my brother. In fact, she didn’t think she liked boys at all. But she was embarrassed, scared.
“I was just a teenager,” she says, her eyes fixed to mine. “I was new,” she says, “to everything.”
“Me too,” I tell her.
I felt my face redden. Perhaps Stella can’t see it over the bronze of my skin, but it did, because she was looking at me the way I’d always looked at her when I saw her at school, when we walked through the same alley that connected our streets together.
My heart quickens, her face draws closer to mine. I can hear Annie in the background, playing, laughing, entertaining herself. But I don’t care about Annie. I only care about Stella, whose face is only inches away from mine.
Stella makes the final move; a sharp inhale and we connect. Our lips pulse with electricity as we find each other in a kiss that lasts forever.
Ten years have passed. Ten years that I have spent running, hiding from this moment, pushing it to the very depths of my mind where only my subconscious can access it.
Stella’s hand travels up my back, my neck, my face, she holds me in the moment with her, breathing through me. Breathing for me, because my inhales and exhales intertwine and I can barely stand up without her support, and I’m scared that if we ever detach ourselves, I might just stop breathing altogether.
Stella places her forehead to mine, gently parts our lips, but I can still feel their lingering touch, a strong pulsating, throbbing in rhythm with my heart.
She doesn’t say anything. Her hands wander from my face to my shoulders, to my arms. She has to go, she says.
“Why?” I ask.
Our hands interlock, she doesn’t want to, I don’t either. But Annie is here, she says, we can’t go any further.
“I thought you came to help me with my mum’s things,” I smile to change the subject, keep her for longer.
Stella laughs. A sweet laugh. A shy laugh, like all her laughs. The type of laugh that makes me want to laugh with her.
“Okay,” Stella nods, checks on Annie, who is still playing in her playpen with her toy trucks and singing bunnies.
We spend hours together looking through old photos, sharing old stories of our school days. She tells me about the day she came out to her parents. They laughed, she says, because she never needed to come out in the first place.
And then I think back to the days my mother was alive, when I’d told her about a girl in our mosque who always wore the red bow in her hair.
“We don’t think of girls like that,” my mother told me.
And I never did.
Stella lowers her head, she apologises; she’d always wondered why my mother treated me the way she did. I had, too, until today.
It’s nighttime and I say goodbye to Stella and Annie. My brother will arrive tomorrow, we’ll go through the rest together.
“Will I see you after, once everything is sorted?” Stella asks, Annie squirms in her arms and screams so loud that I dare not speak. “It’s her bedtime,” Stella says.
I give her one final, awkward hug goodbye, but I can’t answer her question. Will I see her after, once everything is sorted?
“How was your mum’s?” My boyfriend asks over a homemade dinner back in Whitechapel. “Did you get everything sorted?”
“I saw her today,” I say to him. He tilts his head, his brows furrowed. He thinks I’m talking about my mother. Her ghost, perhaps.
“I saw her,” I repeat as tears form behind my eyes, the sweet scent of mangoes and coconut lingering on my skin, a bitter memory of the kiss I’m too ashamed to share.
Stella came home to an empty house. Her sister still wasn’t home, so she put Annie to bed and waited for her on the sofa, journal in hand, the memories of the afternoon circling her mind. She smiled, touched her lips. It was too short.
I saw her today; she began to write.
Stella’s sister came home, stinking of cheap alcohol and unsolved regret.
“It’s been a day,” she laughed to Stella.
“Annie’s asleep,” Stella said. Her sister kissed her on her forehead and thanked her before going to take a shower.
It had been a day.
Stella’s phone began to vibrate. A text message from a number she’d forgotten she knew.
I think I left my blanket.
Stella smiled as she saw it, her eyes welling up with a hand muffling her laughter.
I saw her today, Stella wrote in her diary, a shy smile poking through her fingers.