one time a princess

Moisturizer, then primer. Foundation: one coat then two, just in case. Eyeliner, coal black and sharp enough to hurt someone who dared look at her twice, then brows, dark enough to match both her hair and her expression. Zoë Reichel looked like the eye of a hurricane: perfect, on the surface, to the naked eye, but ready in a moment’s notice to tear you apart. That was exactly how she wanted it.

The makeup gave her power. She knew what she was doing, every stroke of the brush applied with a purpose. It had been years since she’d had to reference beauty videos on YouTube, although TEN BEST TIPS FOR CONTOUR!!! and BEST (!!!) WATERPROOF MAKEUP waited in her search history in case she ever needed a reminder.

The clock in the bathroom read 2:45. Zoë applied her powder and setting spray as quickly as she could. She was going to be late for work, and the morning manager Rosa would not be impressed if she cited eyeliner as the reason she was late. It wasn’t her fault. Too much caffeine had made her hands shaky and she’d had to attempt it four times before it was right.

Zoë checked her appearance one last time in the rearview before throwing her car into reverse and speeding to work, flipping between three different Top 40 stations. She rehearsed her speech to Rosa: My mom needed me to… walk the dog. Make tacos. I hit four miles of road construction.

As it turned out, Rosa didn’t even wait for an excuse. She jumped on Zoë as soon as she walked in the door, Rosa’s coffee-stained apron in one hand, half-empty mocha in the other. “Let me guess. A last-minute sale at Sephora that you just couldn’t pass up?”

“I’m sorry. Really. I promise it-”

“Won’t happen again, right. You be careful. The rest of the girls your age don’t get half the hours you do. I don’t want to write you up for coming in late again.” Rosa was halfway out the door; she paused and turned back to Zoë. “You do a good job here. Don’t mess that up.”

Zoë attempted to make herself look busy, wiping down the already-clean counter. “Thanks… I mean, I won’t.”

“We’re out of soy milk,” Rosa called as she exited the building.

Great. How was she supposed to explain to Marisa Harding-Laurel that her half-caf, iced skinny caramel latte would have to be made with almond milk? There’s dairy in the caramel anyway, she thought, ten minutes into her shift and already annoyed. Zoë had made the mistake of telling Marisa about the caramel the last time she was in here, and now she never missed a chance to bring it up. You’re like, always here, so couldn’t you talk to the manager about a vegan option? As much as she wanted to, throwing the latte in Marisa’s sustainably-sourced face was a bad idea. Marisa was popular, almost as popular as Zoë, and things like that mattered.

Fortunately, the coffee shop was quiet today; too quiet, as Rosa never played music, claiming it “distracted her from her job”. She turned on the shop’s playlist, filling the silence with a quiet mix of soft, acoustic songs about love and longing. She went about filling napkins, checking inventory, and switching out the old newspapers for the new Sunday edition, fresh off the presses today.

Accident kills one, injures teen driver, read the headline from last week. Zoë almost laughed at how desperate the town reporters were for news. Just because Ashley Olander bumped her head and killed her dog while texting and driving didn’t mean she needed a front-page special. That’s all it was; a funny accident. Something for Ashley to look back and laugh about when she grew older.

 

“It was just an accident. Harold. Stop.” Her mother had been brisk, setting plates onto the table with a determination Zoë had never seen before. Angelique Reichel had told her that tonight they would eat as a family, whatever that meant. “Zoë and I are doing just fine over here while you’re acting like a child. Sit up, dear. Girls who slouch are not pretty.”

“How are we going to fix this?” came her father’s reply. We meant the Reichel parents, the problem-solvers with money and connections, the ones with a plan.

“It was just an accident. We will not let it destroy us. I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical solution. Now come eat with us.”

Even at eleven years old, Zoë knew that her mother’s version of we did not include her, the girl who drew stars on all of her notebooks and slept under a pink unicorn comforter.

 

“Excuse me? Zoë?”

Zoë was pulled from her memories by an insistent drumming of fingertips on the counter.

“I am still able to order coffee here, right?”

She was still somewhere between six years ago and reality. “Sorry?”

“You were staring at the syrups so long I thought maybe they’d been turned into an art exhibit.”

It took her a minute, but she managed to place the oversized leather jacket and curly black hair. “Dylan?”

To Zoë’s annoyance, Dylan Lambert smiled.

“Hey, Zoë! I didn’t know you worked here. I’m just here to— ”

“What’s with the jacket? You look like Danny Zuko on a bad day.” The smile was gone now. Good. She didn’t want him trying to talk to her for the next hour and a half.

“Americano, please.” Two dollars into the tip jar.

She glanced at the jar, then back at Dylan. “I haven’t even made it yet.”

“One dollar because I have complete confidence in you, and the other for the compliment,” Dylan said.

She sighed, turning to the espresso machine. It might be a long night. “It was an insult,” she muttered. When she turned around again with the coffee finished, Dylan was standing there, smiling like an idiot.

You’re not special. I made it because it’s my job, Zoë thought, but she plastered on a fake smile instead.

“Here you go. Enjoy.” He’d taken off the jacket.

Dylan looked at her a second too long. Zoë knew from experience that it was best to kill it before it got too out of control. “I don’t tolerate flirting past 8PM. Go back to your corner and brood for awhile, okay?”

“Jeez, Zoë, not everyone’s in love with you, okay? I was just trying to be nice.” Dylan didn’t look her in the eye as he took his coffee, grabbed his bag from the corner table, and left the shop with a twinkling from the bell above the door.

 

“Haven’t you looked into plastic surgery?”

The accident had gotten so bad it was now a full-blown family affair. Gertrude Reichel talked about her granddaughter’s “situation”  as if assessing the damage on an expensive car and griping about insurance.

“Of course we have.” Angelique had paid eight different plastic surgeons to tell her the same thing: it’ll cost a lot, and it won’t drastically change the appearance.

Zoë was upstairs, lying on the floor with her ear against the vent. She bit hard on her hand to keep from crying, although it was her fault she was upset. She knew better than to listen in on her mother’s and grandmother’s monthly arguments.

“Certainly cost is not an issue?” came the curt reply. “If you need help paying for it, I hope you’re not too proud to ask me for money. She looks like one of those ads discouraging kids from doing meth.”

“Gertrude! She’s your granddaughter!”

Her grandmother replied sharply. “Of course I know that. I just want what’s best for her.”

Zoë knew better than to listen in, but it was like seeing an ambulance or an ugly girl’s face.

You just couldn’t turn away.

 

Zoë was working her fourth shift in a week at the coffee shop. Normally, she didn’t mind working so much, but the after-school rush today had been crazy. Now, the day was finally winding down, and Zoë went from table to table cleaning up spills, dusting off crumbs, and picking up garbage. It’s like our garbage can is invisible, she thought, wiping some melted whipped cream off of her hand and onto her stained apron.

She was too tired to even look up when the bell rang, announcing a new customer with a rush of the night air. “Hello,” she called wearily behind her shoulder as she lugged a bus tray full of dishes to the back.

When she returned to the front counter to help the customer, she found herself face-to-face with Dylan Lambert again.

“Dylan,” Zoë said coolly. She hadn’t expected him to show up again when she was working.

“Americano, please.” Two dollars in the tip jar.

Why are you tipping me when I was so rude to you last time? She was rude to flirty guys all the time, but a strange guilty feeling nagged at her as soon as she handed him his coffee. The feeling wouldn’t leave her alone, even a few hours later as she reached up and turned off the OPEN sign. Zoë walked over and stood hesitantly by his table for a minute.

He was writing intently in his notebook, and didn’t even look up at her. “I know, I know, closing time. I’m going.”

Zoë shifted her weight hesitantly and glanced at the door. “Yeah.”

Dylan began to pack up his stuff slowly. “Just one second, sorry.”

“No, I am.” Dumb, Zoë. “I mean, I’m sorry. For being rude the other day.” There, she’d apologized. It was done.

Dylan glanced up, surprised. He motioned to the chair across from him, and Zoë sat down slowly. “It’s not a big deal. Since you’re a barista, you probably get guys flirting with you in here a lot.”

She smiled, looking at the table rather than Dylan. “Yeah, kinda. Like, all the time. The first day I worked here, this guy came in and pointed at my name tag, then at his arm. He had this huge tattoo, Zoë, right there on his bicep. He winked at me and left a six-dollar tip.” Zoë shook her head. “I was fifteen and terrified to come to work for like, three months.” She hadn’t needed to tell Dylan all of that. She’d only come over to apologize.

“That does sound pretty scary,” Dylan said, smiling. “I’ve never met a biker with my name tattooed on their arm before, but when I worked at Burger Buddy— ”

Zoë couldn’t stop herself from interrupting what might have been a heartfelt story. “You, Mr. Leather Jacket and Poetry Book, worked at Burger Buddy? No way. My mom took me there all the time when I was like, six. Did you ever have to be the Burger Buddy?”

“If I tell you the truth, will you make me sing the song?”

Zoë snorted and began an off-key rendition of the birthday song, eventually joined by a slightly embarrassed Dylan. “Burger Bud-dy, you’re so fun-ny, please leave me some birthday mon-ey…

“Wow,” Dylan said, after their song dissolved into a chorus of laughter. “Singing the Burger Buddy song with Zoë Reichel in an empty coffee shop… I’d say a school night couldn’t get much better than that.”

Zoë smiled, standing up from her chair. “Sadly, I need to finish closing up the store, so our singalong stops here.” She picked up Dylan’s empty coffee cup and brushed a few scattered crumbs onto the floor, mentally calculating how long cleanup would take her while walking over to the trash can.

While she was cleaning, she kept catching glances of Dylan, who was taking much too long to pack up his stuff. She was slightly uncomfortable that he was still there. She had just sang a song out loud with him. She couldn’t remember if she’d even talked to Dylan Lambert before. Marisa Harding-Laurel would certainly have a few things to say about it if she knew about it. Not to mention her other friends, the ones that always teased her for being “frigid” when it came to guys. Whatever. She wasn’t sleeping with six guys, just talking to one.

Not that it mattered much. This would probably be the last time he even came into the shop. She picked up the coffee pot from behind the front counter and turned around to find Dylan standing there, playing with the packets of chocolate-covered espresso beans.

“Not flirting, just wanted to say goodbye,” he said, putting his hands up as if defending himself. “Have a good night, Zoë.”

She cursed herself for smiling as he walked out the door.

Marisa’s opinion had never mattered that much anyway.

 

It became routine for Dylan to come into the shop right around 8:30 as Zoë was finishing up her shift. Every night, he took his coffee with plenty of question, and Zoë was surprised, as the weeks went by, to find that she didn’t really mind. Dyl just… understood her. She found herself beginning to hope it could be that simple. She had been bracing herself for a text from him at two in the morning, something rude and sexual and insistent, but nothing came.  He didn’t try to contact her at all outside of the coffee shop. He was just there in those quiet moments while she was wiping up other people’s messes and carefully stepping around her own.

“Favorite color?” he asked one night as she passed by his table.

Zoë took her bottle of Windex and paper towel and cleaned the table adjacent to Dylan’s as if it were contaminated. “Black. If I could, I’d wear only black all the time.” She was still working. If Rosa walked in and started complaining that Dylan was here so late, at least Zoë could say she was getting things done.

“Why don’t you?”

She rolled her eyes at the window as she began to wipe it down. Dylan did not understand popularity, that was for sure. “I don’t want to be some sort of creepy emo kid.” She glanced at Dylan’s obscure band shirt and black skinny jeans. “No offense.”

Dylan ignored her, flipped to a new page in his notebook, and jotted a word or two down. After a brief pause, he asked his next question. “Favorite type of music?”

“Top 40,” came her reply without a moment’s hesitation.

“Your actual favorite,” Dylan said, mocking exasperation. “No one actually likes the trash on ZX95 that much.”

She turned around, cleaner in hand and paper towel tucked under her arm. “We’re not that good of friends, Dyl. Revealing music tastes is the first step to commitment.”

Dylan laughed and wrote another few words down in his notebook.

“Are you taking notes on me?” she asked, moving closer to Dylan and his notebook. “What’s with all the questions?”

Dylan didn’t answer, which made Zoë even more curious. She set down her bottle and stood over Dylan, attempting to peer into his notebook. “You are taking notes, aren’t you? What are you doing?”

“You’re going to think it’s stupid if I tell you,” Dylan said, sounding wounded and a little bit embarrassed.

Zoë wasn’t going to budge. “If you don’t tell me, I’m going to assume that you’re making plans to murder me next weekend or something.”

“Okay, well…” Dylan was stalling, turning red as he attempted to explain. “I guess… I don’t know, I write, and I was just kind of curious about you and I thought you would make a good character. That makes it sound… not great,” he said hesitantly. “That’s not the only reason I’ve been talking to you, though. I wasn’t going to come back after the first day. I was just going to give up on the whole thing, but…”

Zoë pushed away from the table. “Sorry, what? Talking to me was just research or something?”

“No, not exactly…” Dylan was stuttering through his words. “Just… I was just interested.”

“Interested, really. Like that makes it any less creepy,” Zoë said, turning away from Dylan. “I knew there had to be something wrong with you.”

“Why are you getting so defensive? It’s not that big of a deal, really. And I like talking— ”

“Burn your stupid notebook,” she said as she picked up her bottle and began cleaning more rigorously than before. She had been dumb enough to think that maybe Dylan had just wanted to be friends. Of course it was more than that. She’d had enough of guys who only wanted her for creepy reasons.

“You reminded me of my sister,” came Dylan’s voice from behind her.

“I don’t care.” Zoë moved onto another table, flinging crumbs off of it like they’d personally offended her.

Dylan acted as if he hadn’t heard her. “You know. Popular. Pretty. I never understood her. I never tried to understand her. What it’s like for people like her -”

Zoë whipped around. “People like her? You’re talking as if anyone who’s popular or pretty act exactly the same and have exactly the same problems. If you want to understand your sister, why don’t you try asking her instead of stalking me?”

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she remembered. It had been years ago. She had just moved to town, a seventh-grader way too wrapped up in her own problems to really care. She watched as Dylan, who had been his best to explain himself, went cold. He slowly slid his notebook back into his backpack and dropped his empty coffee cup into the garbage can next to Zoë.

“Have a good night,” he said flatly, halfway out of the coffee shop door.

She wished more than anything that she could take those careless words back. “Dyl, wait, no, I didn’t mean…”

It was too late. He and his stupid black leather jacket had disappeared into the night.

 

Angelique had done everything she could think of to help her soon-to-be seventh grade daughter feel better about herself. She had gotten another job, the family had moved to a new town, and she was determined that her daughter would not be miserable in middle school. She flipped through the town’s local newspaper, and one story in particular stuck out to her: Bethany Lambert’s death ruled suicide, it read. The eighteen-year-old volleyball captain was found dead in her home on the 8th of August…

Angelique couldn’t process how terrible something like that would be. She stole a glance at her little girl, who was sitting in the living room, looking online at bedding sets for her brand-new bedroom. Zoë was still here. She was okay, and Angelique was going to do everything in her power to ensure that Zoë lived through high school.

She walked over to her daughter slowly, almost nervously. “No matter what, I love you.” The words seemed awkward and unfamiliar coming from Angelique, and Zoë noticed, turning her head back from the computer with a confused expression.

Swallowing back her emotion, she brushed the side of her daughter’s face gently and smiled at her. “We can still fix this, my dearest girl. You can be anyone you want here. You can still be beautiful.”

 

Zoë entered the coffee shop the next day and could feel herself almost shaking. She hadn’t been able to sleep, as the vision of Dylan’s face had presented itself to her at every possible opportunity. She scanned the room quickly and easily found Dylan in his usual corner with his usual cup of coffee, a book in his hands. She went over to his table, for the second time, with the intent to apologize.

“Dylan -”

“You aren’t working today.” The words were firm and emotionless. He didn’t even look up from his book.

“I know. I came looking for you. Is it okay if we… I mean, do you mind…” Zoë took a breath and attempted to compose herself. “I’m sorry. Again.”

Dylan nodded, turning a page. He could just as easily have been nodding at an interesting passage as he could at Zoë’s apology.  

“We both kind of screwed up. I’m not mad about the character thing at all, and I know I say stupid things sometimes, I just… I’m really sorry and I don’t want to stop talking to you.” Zoë knew she was rambling, that she was saying more than she should. She couldn’t stop herself. “I like being around you, Dylan.”

He set his book down then and looked up at Zoë as if sizing up whether or not it was a good idea to stay around her.

“Love songs,” she said impulsively. “Any song where the artist just pours their heart out to you… I admire the guts it takes to be able to do that.”

Zoë’s anxiety about the whole situation was helped considerably when Dylan looked up and gave her a half smile. “You know, a wise girl once told me that revealing music tastes is the first step to commitment.” He motioned to the chair next to him. “Want to sit down?”

“Actually,” Zoë said, “do you want to like, walk out to the pond or something? I’ve basically been living at the coffee shop recently, and I’d rather not spend another minute more than I have to.”

Dylan stood up from his chair and picked up his bag. “After you, m’lady,” he said, motioning to the door.

 

“The pond” was actually an old watershed that the city had beautifully redone with rocks and grass and a nearby park. It was a nice day out, and they weren’t the only two walking around in the sunshine. The breeze ruffled through the leaves, and there was water rushing from a nearby fountain, but the silence between the two of them was the only thing Zoë could concentrate on.

“I wanted to write her as a strong and independent protagonist,” Dylan finally said. “I realized when I started plotting out the book that I didn’t know how to write her like that. I didn’t know how to write her at all. I wanted to remember her, but not in a stupid way like the tree that the school planted for her. I wanted to make her immortal, I guess. And then you… I don’t know. You reminded me of her. The way you hold yourself, the way you talk. Like how you’re feeling on the outside and the inside don’t really match up.”

Zoë felt panic flutter in her chest when she heard Dylan say that. All the hidden things inside of her were starting to come loose.

“I don’t know what your sister was like, but if she was similar to me, she was probably really concerned with appearances,” she found herself saying. “It’s important that you seem normal, even if that means wearing clothes you don’t really like or listening to music you don’t care about.” She stared out at the pond, avoiding eye contact with Dylan.  

“Why? Why does it matter so much?”  Dylan stopped walking and turned to face her.

“I don’t know why it mattered for your sister.” Zoë felt the panic rising again. You can be anyone you want here, she heard her mother say. You can still be beautiful…

Dylan didn’t press her, and that somehow made it worse. She took a deep breath.  

“People can be mean if… if you look or act different.” She had never told this story before and stumbled over the words, grasping at the right ones. “There was this accident when I was eleven. It was stupid, really. My dad had this old gas stove that we took every time we went camping. He knew it was time to replace it, but it had ‘sentimental value’ or whatever.”

 

“Zoë? Zoë, can you hear me?” She could see, at least out of her right eye. Her entire face felt hot. Or cold. She couldn’t really tell.

“My god, Harold, call 911! Zoë? An ambulance, Harold, my phone’s in the camper. Go!” Zoë couldn’t remember her mother ever sounding so panicked, and that made her worry more.

“Mom? Is it bad? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get so close.” She was shaking. It had all happened so fast. She’d been leaning down to pick up the fork she’d dropped behind the stove. The grass had been strikingly green against the silver fork— and then, without warning, everything went red. Everything hurt. She knew there had been fire…

“Mom?” The panic in Zoë’s voice was rising. “Mom, what’s wrong? What happened?”

Angelique grabbed onto Zoë’s hand. “Everything will be okay, Zoë. I promise.”

“How bad is it?” Zoë asked. When her mother didn’t answer her, she used her free hand to grab her mom’s phone and open the front camera before anyone could stop her.

Her scream was almost as loud as the siren of the ambulance that tore down the gravel road to rescue an eleven-year-old girl.

“Moderate to severe facial burns. Get ready,” the EMT in charge barked out as they flew into the campsite.

 

They now sat on a large rock, facing the pond. Zoë finally looked up at Dylan, finished with her story.

“Yeah. Anyway,” she continued when he still didn’t speak, “I was lucky that I didn’t go blind in my left eye, the doctors said. And we figured it out eventually. That’s why we moved here, I guess. People in my old town just… stared too much.” Zoë leaned her head to the right and pulled her hair back. “You can see it, if you look hard enough. High-coverage foundation can only do so much.”

Dylan only glanced briefly at the side of her face. “Wow,” he said quietly.

“My mom did everything she could to help me. The makeup was my twelfth birthday present, and I spent that summer watching makeup tutorials and refusing to go to the pool,” she said. “I went from an object of pity to an object of fear. Twelve-year-olds don’t know what to do when the new transfer girl can contour.”

“I remember… I was afraid of you in seventh grade,” Dylan admitted, laughing. “You were new. You were like this… princess, and I was definitely more of a frog.”

“You still are one,” she teased.

“Says the girl who was singing the Burger Buddy song with me a week ago!” Dylan said. “I don’t think there’s much left to be afraid of.”

“No, I guess not.” After she said it, Zoë realized how true it was. She  moved closer to Dylan and let him put his arm around her. The story was out, and he could tell whoever he wanted to. She wasn’t anxious about that. She looked out over the small, quiet pond and felt more peaceful than she had in years.

“This frog could use a princess,” said Dylan after a few minutes.

“Two frogs.” Zoë pointed at her cheek. “I’m tired of being royalty anyway.”

“To the amphibious lifestyle,” he said, raising his hand in a mock toast.

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