Neda's blonde curls were bouncing behind her, a thousand miniature springs all set into action at once. She had a bounce to her walk, like any moment her next step would launch her into space and sometimes Esme was afraid she would.
That summer was sweet, vanilla ice cream dripped down their hands and fireworks lit up the sky in a small town that never bothered to enforce the law against them. They spent every moment together, since the first day of summer break, the day Neda moved in across the street from Esme's childhood home.
The house she moved into had been empty for so long, so often Esme would sit in the front yard and daydream about a tall boy with a kind smile who would move in and become her first love. They'd hold hands on the first day of high school together, and everyone would whisper about how mature and beautiful Esme had grown over the summer. They'd be the most loved couple in school, invincible.
So when Neda moved in instead, a short girl the same age as Esme, she was a little disappointed. Especially because Neda didn't come with an older brother for Esme to grow close to; she was an only child of a single father.
Esme's first impression of Neda was that she was far too loud and that living in such close proximity to her would be awful. She exited the moving truck that day and announced her arrival to the world, arms raised towards the sun, hair glowing under its light. Esme had been sitting in her front yard as usual, basking in the new warmth of summer and getting a head start on her summer reading assignment. Quite frankly, Neda's arrival was disruptive and annoying. Esme was sure they wouldn't have anything in common, and that they'd be stuck in that awful kind of friendship that is expected when you're neighbors.
But Neda also had a kind smile, and bright eyes that could tell a million stories, a contagious laugh and a passion for becoming a friend of everyone around her. Esme often wondered why she chose her as her best friend; Neda could get along with anyone. But it was Esme, she chose Esme.
So now it was six weeks later, the beginning of the new school year was creeping up on them and Esme couldn’t help but worry about what it held for them. It was in her nature to worry, but something about the thought of losing Neda to someone more funny, more interesting than her felt like the end of the world. Neda had sensed her tension and planned a “relaxing picnic getaway” to calm her nerves.
“Only a bit further,” Neda said, turning her head to look at Esme with piercing blue eyes that left imprints burned into her brain. Esme smiled feebly and nodded, trying to keep up with Neda’s bouncy, long strides.
Esme often felt out of place beside Neda who was petite, blonde, and what most would consider conventionally pretty. Expressive, blue eyes and pale skin with just the right amount of freckles, a crooked smile, a voice that sounded like she was oozing honey.
Esme was tall and broad from years of being on the swim team. She had thick, coarse hair that seemed to have a mind of its own and brown eyes that she swore must be the most boring set of eyes to ever exist. Neda said they sparkled in the sunlight. Esme was soft-spoken and shy, but Neda said she was mysterious and captivating. Neda said a lot of nice things about Esme, but Esme still couldn’t believe her.
“Here!” Neda yelled, stopping without warning in a small clearing. They were walking through the forest behind Esme’s house, Neda’s favorite place to adventure. She said there was magic in the air in that forest, that things were different there, as if the rules of science didn’t apply to them.
Esme set down their bags as Neda busied herself with laying out a huge quilt onto the grassy ground beneath them. Esme flinged off her flip flops, feeling the still dewy grass beneath her feet. It had rained lightly the night before, a surprise to everyone in town seeing as they rarely got rain, especially during the summer. Neda had said it was a sign of great things coming.
“Won’t the blanket get wet?” Esme asked, worried about the quilt that Neda treasured so much.
Neda shrugged. “If it does, it’s okay. I’ll just wash it when I get home,” she smiled softly over at Esme. “Don’t worry about the trivial stuff. Remember, today is about relaxing.”
Esme nodded, “yeah, sorry. Relaxation. Breathing. Being one with nature, all that hippy stuff you never stop talking about.”
Neda snorted. "Shut up. It’s good for you,” she said, shoving Esme lightly, her touch raising goosebumps up Esme’s bare arm.
Esme frowned to herself, turning away quickly but careful not to let Neda see how uncomfortable she was. This had been an issue lately, it seemed like everything Neda did made Esme melt. Her heart was constantly pounding in her chest, her breath held in anticipation waiting for the next time her soft hands accidentally brushed against hers. It was bad, and she knew it. She laid in bed up all night wondering if it was okay to love her the way she did.
They finally settled onto the blanket, both of them laying on their backs next to each other. It was quiet in the clearing, as if they really were in another world rather than in the backdrop of a California suburb. The only sound to be heard was their quiet, rhythmic breathing which seemed to match up perfectly, and the music playing softly from Neda’s iPhone. Esme already felt more at peace than she had in days, and she silently cursed Neda for being right once again. It seemed like Neda was always right.
“Esme,” Neda said quietly, breaking the comfortable silence they had fell into. Esme answered with a little hum, her eyes still closed.
“Do you think it will be like this forever?” Neda whispered. Esme heard her shift and when she opened her eyes the other girl was sitting up, looking down at her softly.
“What do you mean?” Esme asked, sitting up and stretching her arms above her head.
“The two of us,” Neda smiled. “Do you think we’ll be like this forever?”
Esme blushed, “well, I hope I’m not this awkward forever.”
Neda rolled her eyes and smiled impishly, “seriously, do you?”
Esme frowned. “I don’t think I know what you mean.”
Neda let out a frustrated sigh. “Forget it.”
Esme’s stomach dropped. Neda had never been so short before; she had often wondered if the girl had ever been angry a day in her life. She was always so positive and cheery, the only time Esme had seen her cry was when they watched Marley and Me.
“Neda… I’m sorry, I just don’t understand.”
“It’s okay, it’s stupid,” Neda said. “Let’s just, let’s just lay down again.”
Esme rubbed the back of her neck, staring at Neda as she closed her eyes once more. She had never been so confused in her life.
She was about to ask what was wrong again, anxiety ridden by the silence she once found so comfortable, but was interrupted by a soft whirring sound. Neda’s eyes flashed opened and her brows furrowed.
“Was that my phone?” She asked, sitting up again to glance at her screen. When she looked down, however, her music was still playing softly and the whirring continued to grow louder.
“Esme, what is that?” Neda asked, concern growing in her voice.
“I– I don’t know,” Esme whispered, “stay here, I’ll go look.”
Neda grabbed her hand. “No, I won’t let you go alone.”
Esme blushed, the feeling of Neda’s hand gripping her own making her head spin. She nearly forgot all about the strange sounds coming from the depth of the forest.
“Come on,” Neda said, not letting go of her hand as she ventured further into the trees.
“Look,” Esme whispered, pointing at a strangely shaped object in the distance. “What is that?”
“Let’s get closer,” Neda said, tugging at her hand.
“What if it’s dangerous? Like an alien or something?”
Neda smiled. “The forest would never put us in danger.”
They got closer until they were only a few feet away from the small object. It appeared to be a robot of some kind, only standing a few feet tall. It’s eyes made it look like it was smiling.
“What are you?” Neda said, her voice loud, clear and unwavering.
The whirring continued as well as a few high pitched beeps, and then the little machine was moving forward. Esme instinctively pushed herself in front of Neda, protecting her from any potential harm.
The robot stopped right in front of her, it’s eyes looking up at her expectedly. She had to admit, it looked cute.
“What are you…” Esme repeated, crouching down to get a closer look at the robot.
It inched even closer to Esme, revealing a tag attached with a ribbon tied around it’s neck delicately. Esme took the tag in her hands, reading it out loud.
“For your home, your family, your memories, and most importantly, for you to share with those you love. Kuri.”
Esme looked up at Neda. “I think he’s called Kuri.”
Kuri let out a melodic chirp, smiling at the two girls with his eyes again.
“What should we do with him?” Esme asked, staring down at Kuri with a puzzled expression.
“I think we should follow the instructions on the tag,” Neda said, crouching next to Esme, “I think he found us for a reason. I think he’s a gift from the forest to us.”
Esme smiled over at Neda, grasping her hand again. “Something tells me you’re right again.”
Neda smiled back. “Aren’t I always? Let’s get back into town. I want to see what this little guy can do.”
And just like that, just like magic, Esme felt like things were right again. Something inside of her changed and she realized that all she really wanted was to hold Neda's hand and to never let go. And maybe she was in love with her the way that she thought she'd always love the tall boy that she daydreamed about. And maybe that was going to be okay.
Because to her, the forest was never the source of the magic. It had always been inside of Neda. Pouring out of her like the sunshine poured out of the sun.
Esme and Neda walked hand in hand out of the forest, Kuri following close behind them, playing the music that was once coming out of Neda’s phone.
“You know, Neda, I don’t think it will always be the same.”
Neda frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I think… I think they’re going to get even better,”
Neda smiled back at her. “I think you’re right.”