L is for the way you look at me

by Virgil Smith

 

Lily weaved through the dense crowd, keeping her mother’s red shawl in her sights. Downtown was swarming with people, and it was remarkably easy for a kid to get lost. Especially at night. There were lights everywhere–the neon signs of storefronts, the blinding car headlights, the glow of cell phone screens–and they disoriented her. She reminded herself to block it all out, to focus on the shawl until they made it back to the parking garage. Then she could breathe again.

She was crossing the road when a flash of blue caught her eye. She instinctively turned to look.

Another kid around her age, standing across the street from her. They had frizzy hair and oversized glasses with scuffed up frames. They were wearing a light blue hoodie jacket that fell down past their knees and flowed behind them like a cape. They stiffened, as if they sensed they were being watched, and locked eyes with Lily.

They stood there, staring at each other from opposite sides of the street. Lily couldn’t quite make out the color of the other kid’s eyes in the dark, but the look in their eyes captivated her. Strange and kind of calculating, but filled with an emotion she couldn’t quite identify. 

She was broken out of her trance by the sound of her mother’s voice, laced with concern and panic, drifting out over the crowd. Ah, right. She had been so distracted by the kid that she had fallen behind. Lily frantically scanned the mass of people around her until she saw the familiar red shawl. She turned around to look at the kid one more time… but they were gone. Disappeared completely into the haze of neon lights. She stared at where the kid had been, and her heart sank. [] 

Moments ago, the street had felt so empty, like it had been just her and the kid.

Lily ran through the crowd, eyes glued on her mother’s shawl. She would not lose her again. 

In the weeks that followed, Lily couldn’t stop thinking about that kid on the other side of the street. Something about that interaction had cemented itself in her mind.

No one had ever looked at her like that before. Other kids’ eyes showed all their feelings. That’s how grown ups are able to tell what they’re thinking so easily, her mother said to her once. And there was feeling in the kid’s eyes, definitely. But it wasn’t anything she could put a name to. 

At some point, Lily decided she should stop focusing on it. It’s a big city, and she’s probably never going to see that kid again anyway. 

She could not have been more wrong.

She had the day off from school because the teachers were doing training, and her mother wanted to take her to a cafe that had recently opened. A cat cafe, she said. Lily loved cats, so she agreed to go. 

The hostess sat them down at a table and left to bring glasses of water. Lily looked around the room, watching the cats roaming around. Her wandering gaze led her to a table across the room, which she stared at in surprise.

It was that kid from downtown. Their hair was tied up in a ponytail and they were wearing a different jacket, dark gray this time, but it was undoubtedly the same person. They were sitting with an adult woman who looked a little older than her mother- maybe the kid’s mother. 

“…Lily, honey? Are you okay?”

Lily looked back to her mother. “Yeah, Mom. I’m okay.”

“You were staring off into the distance for a long time,” her mother said. “Did you see an interesting cat?”

“No. Just someone I remember passing on the street.”

“It’s weird, you know? When you see someone on the street or in a store and suddenly they pop up again?”

Lily looked back over to the table. The kid had noticed her there and was giving her the same odd look as before. She wanted to go over there and ask the kid what it meant, but she knew it wouldn’t be very polite. 

She kept looking over at the kid for the rest of the outing. Which was weird because there were so many cats, and one of them even rubbed up against her leg. But somehow this kid was more interesting to her than cats

So much for not focusing on it.

The third time she saw the kid, a few weeks later, Lily decided that she was finally going to talk to them.

The city was hosting a job fair for middle schoolers so they can look at potential career paths and evaluate which ones they might want to pursue. Lily was reluctant to go, as she didn’t see why she needed to have everything figured out now. But her mother wanted her to go, so here she was, standing in the middle of a crowded high school gym. She was wandering around the gym in a bored haze, when she caught sight of them standing in front of a poster board advertising careers in Marine Biology. 

“Do you like Marine Biology?” Lily asked. The kid jumped, clearly startled by her sudden appearance. They looked at her and recognition flooded their gaze. 

“Not particularly,” the kid said. Their voice was lower than she expected. “But the pictures are interesting.”

Lily glanced at the pictures. They mostly showed people in wetsuits and goggles, Marine Biologists presumably, underwater interacting with various sea creatures.

“Yeah. The animals are cool,” Lily said.

“I guess they are,” the kid said. “But really, I was talking about the people.”

“The people?”

“Yeah.” The kid played with the strings of their hoodie. “Everyone in these photos is a real person with a life outside of what we can see. It makes me wonder about their lives and their personalities.”

“Is that why you’ve been looking at me like that?” Lily asked. The kid’s eyes widened.

“And how exactly have I been looking at you?” they asked

“Kind of like you’re judging me, but not exactly. I can’t explain it too well.”

“I’m sorry if I offended you,” the kid said. “I didn’t mean anything bad.”

“What? No. I’m not offended or anything,” Lily said. “I was more… what’s the word? Intrigued? I wanted to talk to you, and here I am. Talking to you.”

“Why would you want to talk to me?” the kid asked.

“Dunno. Just wanted to.”

Several emotions flickered across the kid’s face. More feelings Lily couldn’t name. She’d have to ask them about it, the next time they run into each other.,

Lily noticed her mother waving to her out of the corner of her eye, motioning towards a booth.

“I’ve got to go,” she said. “I’ll probably see you soon, probably.”

The kid gave her a small wave as she ran in the direction of her mother. Lily thought that if she turned around, she would see the kid’s trademark look. But this time if she had turned around, she would have seen an emotion she recognized. Happiness.