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Little Velvet Box

Jordan Rich

She found it in the back of their t-shirt drawer.

An hour earlier, Roland had left to go jogging. It was an activity he usually saved for the evening, but the high school’s homecoming game was happening that night and he’d promised his little brother that he--and, though it went unspoken, Deanna as well--would be attending. Left alone with plenty of time on her hands, Deanna had decided to try and find Roland’s old jersey to wear to the game. He wouldn’t mind. She’d been searching through their shirt drawer, digging as deep into the pool of fabrics as she could, and her fingers had bumped it.

It wasn’t uncommon for Deanna and Roland to share clothes. They had a similar build, both tall and lanky, and after a few months of living together, their respective sets of four drawers had blended into a collective eight. Truly, if he’d wanted to hide it, he shouldn’t have tucked it away in a space they shared. It was soft against her fingertips, and, curiosity piqued, she’d pulled it out of its hiding spot without a second thought.

A little velvet box.

Deanna had known, without having to open it, what was inside. It felt like the box scorched her palm, and she wanted to shove it back into the drawer, to pretend she’d never seen it, but there’d be no point. Roland would know, the moment he’d walked in, that something was different.

Was something different?

Well, of course it was. Prior to Roland, Deanna had never been in a relationship that lasted more than two months. She’d never had a steady job, or a consistent home, or a pet that relied on her. Hell, Deanna had even struggled to keep plants alive, and really, how much more simple could a task get? Just add water, right?

She supposed responsibility had never been her forte. A fear of commitment ran in Deanna’s veins as surely as blood, and she’d seen it in every family member who had, at some point, been tasked with raising her. It was in her father, who had brought a different woman home every night and flitted between apartments as rent prices fluctuated, and her aunt, who jumped between towns rather than just apartments and always seemed to have a new job. It was in her great uncle, who gave her up after only a year, and the cousin who couldn’t be bothered to care for her even that long. It was in her mother, too, if her lack of presence was anything to go by. Her father had said that she was a forest fire of a woman, beautiful as could be with her movie star sunglasses and deep brown curls, burning ferociously bright before she fizzled out, leaving a trail of destruction and second hand smoke in her wake. He said she’d burned him from the inside out.

Though she didn’t want to, Deanna had found herself mimicking them. She jumped between jobs, apartments, towns. She changed the color of her hair as often as she changed her nail polish, didn’t get involved in the communities she briefly inhabited, and certainly never entertained anyone’s affection long enough to get attached. Until Roland.

She’d met him four years ago, and they’d been involved for three and a half of those years, but Deanna still didn’t call him her boyfriend. The feeling of the word on her tongue made her palms sweat and heart beat wildly, like a panicked bird in a cage that was too small, beating its wings against the bars. Roland didn’t mind. That was one of the things Deanna liked about him: he never had to define what they had. He didn’t care to box them into a category, to state that they were partners, or friends with benefits, or whatever title was the most applicable. They were Roland and Deanna, and that was enough for him.

Being with Roland was easy, and maybe it was because nothing was treated like a milestone. She’d met his parents a year into the relationship, when he’d mentioned offhand that they were going to be in town and he was going to lunch with them, if she wanted to join. Deanna’s heart had immediately started to race, and when she’d stated, perhaps a little rudely, that she’d rather not, Roland had simply responded that he’d see her that night, then.

She’d gone in the end, even though the thought of it was a little bit suffocating. There was no talk of weddings or jokes about grandkids, just warm smiles and a friendly conversation. They seemed to like her, and Deanna worried that she was, perhaps, a little too relieved.

Six months after that, when Deanna stated that her rent went up and the bakery gig wasn’t covering it anymore, Roland had told her, simple as anything, that she could move in with him. He’d helped her move boxes and never once given her a giddy grin or rambled about how excited he was for them to finally share a home. He asked her if she wanted her own dresser or if she was fine splitting his, and that was the end of the conversation.

The issue of joint or split dressers didn’t matter in the end, anyway.

When he told her he loved her for the first time and she ran from the apartment without a word, he didn’t demand an explanation or apology. He’d accepted her back the next day without question, and when she’d struggled to get the words out, meaning them, wanting to say them, but still feeling them burn her throat, he’d just shaken his head and told her not to force it. She didn’t have to say it back yet. He just wanted her to know.

Such was the way it had always been with Roland. She didn’t call him her boyfriend, but she stayed in his apartment and paid half of the rent. She hadn’t yet told him that she loved him, but she still religiously watered his beloved plants when he was away for the weekend, and kissed his nose when he laughed hard enough to make it scrunch up. They may not have been boyfriend and girlfriend, but they were Roland and Deanna, and Roland and Deanna was good for her. Moving from Roland and Deanna to husband and wife seemed like a pretty big leap.

The thought of it made Deanna’s throat close up. She couldn’t breathe, and she was sure her hands were shaking. When had Roland started considering proposing? When had he bought the ring? When had Roland and Deanna stopped being enough? She couldn’t even choke out the word “boyfriend” when she was talking about a boy she’d been with for three and a half years now, how was she supposed to begin to fathom the thought of “fiancé?” She couldn’t. She was going to explode. She had to get out.

Deanna planted her feet, and struggled to breathe in deep. No. She was going to stay, right here. Roland deserved a conversation, not for her to up and leave, like she would have if he was just about anyone else.

Deanna screwed her face up into a grimace, and flipped the box open.

Oh. Oh.

It was certainly pretty, Deanna would give him that. The slender band was pale gold, set with a small, perfectly round pearl. Her birthstone. On either side of the pearl, there were three tiny, circular diamonds, forming minute triangles pointing outward. Deanna tilted the box, inspecting the ring it held, and the diamonds twinkled in the sunlight pouring in through the window, sparking like little embers, barely bright enough to draw her eye. Her stomach gave a funny jolt. He’d known she wouldn’t want anything too gaudy.

Tentatively, as if touching it would burn her, Deanna ran her thumb over the surface of the pearl. It was cool to the touch, and smooth beneath the pad of her finger. Then, she pulled it delicately from the padding, a little afraid that it would crumble beneath her fingers, and cradled it in her palm. Deanna had never held a baby bird, but she imagined it was a similar feeling. Like the thing she was holding was remarkably precious, fragile, and one wrong move would ruin it. She was almost scared to exhale, in case the infinitesimal force made it crack.

She held her breath as she slid it onto her finger, and for a moment, she couldn’t even look at it. She gazed straight ahead, air swelling in her stomach but not making it past her lips, and the bird in her chest flapped harder, making the cage rattle. There was no room. She couldn’t breathe. She looked down.

It was too big.

The thought immediately made her wince. Couldn’t she have thought something just a little more romantic? Her first time seeing her potential engagement ring and all she could think was that it was too big?

Oh, god, this was her potential engagement ring. Deanna swallowed the terror rising in her throat and raised her shaking hand to look at it again. It was loose around her finger, but...she supposed it suited her. She gazed at it a moment longer, drawing a deep breath through her nose, and then wrenched it off her finger.

She couldn’t do this. Not now, not as she was. But maybe she could in the future. The thought was still frightening, but it was manageable. They’d talk, and she’d survive. The world wouldn’t end. She wouldn’t explode, and she wouldn’t burn Roland from the inside out. She gently tucked the ring back into the box and turned to the drawer, then paused. After a moment of consideration, she placed it on top of the dresser. Maybe seeing it all the time would help her adjust to the idea. It wouldn’t hurt to try, right?

Hands still trembling, just slightly, Deanna continued to rummage, and sure enough, there was the jersey, sandwiched in a back corner. With a bit of maneuvering, it gave way, and Deanna pulled it over her head. It settled over her tank top easily, and she smoothed the fabric.

It fit perfectly.

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