Originally inspired by Monday’s prompt on The Daily Post, I decided to let this short story do double duty and use it as part of this week’s writing challenge, also hosted by The Daily Post. I don’t always edit my short stories intensively before I post them because they’re a bit of brain candy for me, and I hope they entertain you as well. Also, my editing process often adds as many words as it subtracts (for the better, I hope).
So, without further ado, here is a story involving two characters from one of the two trunk novels I hope to someday rewrite the pants off of in hopes of publishing them to any acclaim I can get. 🙂
The lights in the Weathered Wheel were always dim, but today they seemed even dimmer than usual. Must be because it’s so bright outside, Catherine mused as she sat down at her customary table and pulled out a book.
A waitress wandered over a moment later and Catherine looked up long enough to place her customary order. She quickly returned her attention to her book, blocking out the drone of the TV, the tinkling bell on the front door, and the buzz of conversation. It was another satisfyingly ordinary day.
But as her eyes traveled down the page, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. Goosebumps popped up along her arms, even though it was 92° outside and the restaurant’s aging air conditioner struggled to keep up.
After reading the same sentence four times and still failing to comprehend it, she finally lowered her book. A man stood watching her. He reminded her vaguely of someone she’d once known, but that did little to put her at ease. “Can I help you, sir?”
“I’m sorry to bother you, miss,” he said, his blue eyes full of conflict, “but may I ask your name?”
He nodded. “Please. It’s important.”
“My name is Catherine,” she said before she could think better of it. “Catherine O’Halloran.”
The man’s eyes closed and he visibly relaxed as he sank into the booth opposite her. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“You’ve been…What?” She sat up a bit straighter as confusion wrinkled her brow. “Who are you?”
He stared at her for a moment. “You didn’t really think you’d never see me again…Did you?”
The waitress chose that moment to return with Catherine’s drink and eyed the newcomer. “What’ll it be, cutie?”
“Chef salad and water, hold the dressing,” he answered, his eyes locked on Catherine’s. “And whatever she’s having.”
“I don’t know who you think you are, but I am perfectly able to pay for my own lunch,” Catherine said, annoyed.
The man turned to the waitress. “Put hers on my ticket, please.”
“You got it, hot stuff,” she said, shaking her head at Catherine as she walked off.
The man returned his attention to her and smiled. “You still won’t let anyone do anything for you, huh?”
“I don’t know who you think I am, sir, but –”
“Sir? Now there’s something you haven’t called me in a long time.”
He studied her for a moment, his smile fading. “You…You really don’t recognize me, do you?”
“Recognize you? How could I recognize you? I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
His pained expression surprised her. She hadn’t seen him before…had she?
No. This is all a trick, some sort of elaborate hoax. So he looks vaguely familiar. So what? That doesn’t mean we’ve met before. Lots of people look vaguely familiar.
He reached for her hand. “Look, Catherine. I understand if you’re angry. But I want you to know that not a day’s gone by where I haven’t thought of you. And I want you to know that I’m back. For good.”
She looked down at his hand, then back up. There was something about him, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
The waitress returned then with their food. Catherine smiled her thanks as she pulled her hand free, and the waitress quickly departed. “So…I told you my name,” she said, focusing on her sandwich. “What’s yours?”
“Rian.” He hesitated. “It’s me, Catherine.”
Her head snapped up at the sound of his name. She studied him, examining every freckle, every pore. His glasses were new, and he’d grown a goatee; his hair had ceded a bit of territory to his forehead. But at last she recognized him.
For a moment, she wasn’t sure whether she should kiss him or slap him. “What are you doing here?”
“I told you – I’ve been looking for you.”
“What do you mean, why?”
“What do you mean, what do I mean? You left me! You left me with a crappy goodbye note and a broken heart.” Tears slipped unexpectedly from her eyes. “And after a decade without so much as a word from you, you show up and expect me to recognize you right off the bat? You weren’t even sure I was me!”
Rian dropped his fork onto his plate. “Look, I tried to get in touch with you, okay? But every time I tried, I hit a wall. I called your friends, I called your family – I even called Aunt Matilda. And every last one of them told me to stay away from you and to leave you alone.”
“Well, what did you expect? They were all here after you left. They were trying to protect me.” She paused, studying the napkin in her lap. “I died that day, Rian. I can’t go through that again.”
“Catherine, you won’t. I promise.”
She looked up slowly, unsure she really wanted to face him. There was anguish in his eyes, and he seemed sincere, but how could she be sure? Even if she were, would it make a difference? She’d been sure of him once before. Look how well that had turned out.
“What good is your word, Rian?” She let out a shaky breath. “You promised me all sorts of things once upon a time, and I believed every word. Your promises nearly destroyed me, and you want me to trust you now, after a decade without so much as a postcard saying Wish you were here?”
He squirmed in his seat. “Well, when you put it that way…”
“How can I trust you again?”
“Catherine…” He sighed. “Look, all I can give you is my word. I’m a different man now than I was then and, if you’ll let me, I’d like to prove it to you.”
“You’re asking an awful lot.”
“I know.” He reached for her hand again. “But don’t you ever wonder about what might have been?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Of course I wonder! How could I not?”
“We could be that happy again,” he murmured. “It’s not too late.”
She looked down at their hands, intertwined in the middle of the table, and slumped in her seat. “I’m so tired, Rian. I can’t…I just can’t…”
“I can’t stay angry anymore. I’m just too tired. Do you know how exhausting it is to be angry all the time?”
He thought of his aunt Matilda, who’d been responsible for separating them in the first place. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
“I don’t want to be angry anymore.”
“Catherine…I can’t promise that you’ll never be angry with me. No one can promise you that. But I can assure you that, if you give me a second chance, I will spend the rest of my life trying to make up for the pain I caused you.”
She looked up at him and wondered how it was possible that she hadn’t recognized him right away. Time had taken its toll, but it wasn’t much of one. Could he truly have changed as much as he’d said?
The door opened, briefly allowing the sound of church bells into the restaurant. “I have to go,” she said, her eyes widening. “I have to get back to work.”
“What about us?”
“I’ll think about it. I have to go!”
The ringing phone jolted her awake. “Dunstin Law Firm, this is Catherine,” she said, glancing down at the clock. Eleven o’clock. “May I help you?”
She jotted down a message for Mr. Dunstin and glanced down at the clock again as she hung up the phone. Eleven fifteen. I can’t believe I fell asleep. Thank God no one came in!
She yawned as she typed the phone message into Outlook. Maybe she shouldn’t have gone to Andi’s end-of-summer party last night, but it had felt nice to get out of the house for a little while.
Her email sent out into the wilds of cyberspace, Catherine closed the office for lunch. It was a brilliantly sunny day, but she’d forgotten her sunglasses at home. The brightness outside made it seem even darker than usual inside the Weathered Wheel as she sat down at her customary table.
As she reached into her purse to retrieve her book, though, she was overwhelmed by a feeling of having done this all before, and not just the previous day. Something told her that her ordinary day had come to an end.
Bits of a dream flickered before her eyes as a waitress approached. Catherine placed her customary order and waited, though for what, she wasn’t sure. Her sense of déjà vu grew stronger each second; her book lay forgotten in her purse.
The door opened. A man entered, pausing to scan the crowd. He saw her watching him and moved closer.
Is this how it began in the dream? she wondered, suddenly unable to remember how it all started. Before she knew it, he was standing next to her table, looking hopeful.
“It’s you,” she murmured before he had a chance to speak. “I can’t believe it’s really you.”
He smiled as he sat down across from her. “Well, believe it. I’ve been looking for you.”
(c) 2014. All rights reserved.