by: William Cass ((Header art by Gabriel Isak.))
A short story rife with passion, heartache, and the confusion that often comes with longing…
Meg walked down the sidewalk on an empty street vaguely aware of the sound of her footsteps on the pavement. It was cold, and bare tree branches nodded on the small breeze. Few windows were lit, as dawn approached. She pulled her coat more closely around her and wondered if her boyfriend, Brendan, was still asleep in bed where she’d left him. Meg wondered what he would think when he awoke and found her gone. She pictured him sitting up in bed, looking around, his brow furrowing in bewilderment. She shook her head; if she’d slept at all that night, she couldn’t remember it.
After twenty minutes, Meg came upon a diner and went inside. Its warmth fogged the edges of the room’s big window. She found an empty booth against the glass and ordered coffee. When it came, she held the mug under her nose with both hands and let its steam fill her nostrils. She closed her eyes, then opened them again. Outside to the east, a wash of wan light had emerged above the buildings. She took out her cell phone: nothing from Brendan. She left a voicemail for the secretary at the elementary school where she taught saying that she was sick and would need a sub. Before powering the phone down, she glanced at the phone’s screensaver in which Brendan was folding her into a hug and felt a shiver pass over her. She pinched the bridge of her nose until it hurt.
Meg glanced up when the bells on the door jingled. A man came through and looked directly at her. He walked over to Meg and set a wallet on the table in front of her.
“Saw this drop out of your coat pocket on the sidewalk back there.” The man gestured with his head. “But I was riding the city bus and had to wait until the next stop to get off and retrieve it.”
Meg looked from the wallet to the stranger. He was about the same age as Brendan, mid-twenties, but taller, with a crooked nose and short, disheveled brown hair. His eyes were downturned at the outside edges, gentle, kind and endearing.
“I didn’t know if I’d catch up to you, but I found your identification inside. Entered the info in my phone so I could contact you if I didn’t find you, to let you know I had it. But then I headed in the direction you’d been walking, and there you were, sitting here in this window.”
Meg nodded slowly and put her hand on the wallet while she spoke. “Thank you. Can I give you something for your trouble? Money, or maybe buy you a cup of coffee?”
The man shook his head. Their eyes held. Meg felt a flush rise up behind her ears. He wore no ring.
“Well,” he said. “I have to leave. I’m late for work.”
Meg reached out and touched his wrist. “Again, thank you.”
He nodded once and then was gone, the doors tinkling behind him. She watched the back of him until he’d disappeared up the sidewalk, the bottoms of his overcoat flapping in the breeze.
Brendan was sitting on the front step of Meg’s rented bungalow when she walked up to it later. She’d been concentrating on finding her house key in her pocket and hadn’t noticed him until she was almost upon him. If she’d had the chance, she would have avoided him, turned and gone the other way. Now it was too late. Brendan stared up at her with grim, red-rimmed eyes, his mouth a short mark, then said, “I’m sorry about last night.”
“Do you have any memory at all of what you did?”
“I was drunk.”
His eyebrows raised and he showed his palms.
“You forced yourself on me. Some people might use a worse name for it.”
Brendan looked to the side and blew out a long breath. “I don’t remember. I’m so sorry.”
He reached for her, but Meg pushed past him and unlocked her front door.
As she crossed into the hallway she heard him say, “Will I see you later?”
Meg closed the door, locked it again, and leaned with her back against it. When she heard Brendan say her name, she closed her eyes. He said it again more loudly, then climbed to his feet and rang her doorbell, keeping his finger on it. The door bounced against Meg’s back as he pounded on it. She squeezed her eyes shut tight until he finally stopped and she heard his footsteps go down the steps and up the sidewalk.
Meg stood in a hot shower for a long time once she was sure Brendan was gone. Afterwards, she made herself a cup of tea and toast and sat at the kitchen table. Her cell phone pinged next to the plate as she took her first bite of toast. Meg grimaced, glancing at the screen, expecting to see a text from Brendan, but instead she read: “Hi, Meg. Wallet-finder-guy here. That cup of coffee offer still stand?”
She felt the same flush as earlier start up her neck and put her fingertips to her lips, then tapped quickly: “Sure…when, where?”
His reply was immediate: “Same diner in an hour?”
She smiled and tapped: “Okay. Do you have a name?”
She hesitated, then tapped: “See you in an hour, Tom.”
When Meg came through the diner’s doors, Tom was already sitting at the same booth she’d been in earlier. He glanced up at the sound of the bells, and they exchanged smiles. There was a glass of ice water in front him, a tiny puddle beneath it. His overcoat was unbuttoned revealing a light-blue collared shirt.
Meg sat down across from him as the waitress came up to them and asked, “What can I get you?”
“Just decaf for me,” Tom told her.
“Same,” Meg said.
They watched the waitress leave, then looked back at each other until Tom said, “Thanks for coming.”
“Saw you park at the curb. Hope you didn’t have to drive far.”
Meg shook her head. “Just a few blocks. I could have walked.” She didn’t tell him that she’d started out walking, but had returned to the house to put on a little makeup, and then had to hurry to get there in time. “How about you?”
“I walked.” He gestured with his head again. “Just over from the university.”
“Are you a graduate student there?”
“No, I work in the library. Reference section.”
“You’re a librarian.”
He nodded. “In fact, I’m taking my morning break, so I’ll need to leave soon.”
The waitress set down their mugs and went away. Meg watched him take a small sip. Something about those eyes made the same flush spread up behind her ears. Tom looked at her again and said, “So, I should probably go ahead and tell you why I contacted you. I just wanted to be sure you’re okay.” He paused. “You looked pretty sad earlier, troubled.”
Meg felt herself blinking, a burning sensation behind her eyes. She said, “I was. I am.”
“What about, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Something happened last night.” Her voice fell. “Something awful. With my boyfriend.”
Tom nodded slowly, then said, “Can it be fixed?”
He watched her lips purse. Meg turned her head towards the window, but seemed to be looking at nothing. She said, “I don’t know.”
“I hope it can.”
He watched her continue to stare out the window. Several moments of silence passed before Meg replied, “So, what do you do when you have problems with your significant other, Tom?”
“I’m not really in a serious relationship right now.”
Meg nodded, but didn’t turn from whatever she was looking at. Tom waited for another minute, then put a hand over one of hers and said, “Look, I have to get back to work. But you can get ahold of me anytime if you want to talk, if you need anything.”
Meg finally looked back his way. There was gratefulness in her eyes. She nodded again. The waitress stopped at their table, set a check on it, then moved on. Tom lifted his hand away and took a money clip from his pocket.
“No,” Meg said. She slid the check towards her. “This is mine.”
“All right, but I’ll get the next one.” He stood up. “Listen, you take care.”
He gave her shoulder a small squeeze when he passed her and left the diner. On his way up the sidewalk, Tom glanced back and saw Meg staring vacantly out the window again.
By the time she left the diner, Meg’s untouched coffee had long turned cold. She wandered about without purpose for a couple more hours, then returned home where she found a bouquet of flowers leaning up against her front door. The card on top of it was from Brendan and read: “Please forgive me.” In spite of herself, Meg thought about the rush she’d felt when they first met at a party two years ago. She thought about the special way Brendan rubbed her back. She thought about how he brought breakfast to her in bed on Sunday mornings, an apron across his broad chest. She thought about his impish smile, how safe he’d always made her feel.
Meg shook her head, brought the flowers inside, and set them on the kitchen counter. She ate an apple at the window and watched two wrens pecking at the seeds left in the feeder that dangled outside from the eaves. Heavy-bellied clouds had gathered low in the sky. She threw the core away and looked at the flowers again, then filled a vase with water in the sink and stuck the flowers in it without unwrapping them. The minute hand on the clock above the sink ticked past noon.
Meg took off her coat and climbed into bed still in her clothes. She pulled the duvet up so that only her nose and mouth were left uncovered. She heard the first soft drum of rain hit the roof. In a few moments, she was asleep.
Meg awoke to a ping from her cell phone on the nightstand. The rain had stopped, but the dim light in the room told her the afternoon had already begun its descent towards gloaming. She sat up in bed and brought the phone onto her lap. The text from Brendan asked if he could come over.
She replied: “No.”
Meg tapped: “No.”
She powered down the phone, took another shower, dressed in flannel pajamas, and heated a pan of soup at the stove. When it was hot, she ate it from the pan standing at the counter and thought about Tom, the tenderness and care in his eyes and the feel of his hand on hers. She wondered why he wasn’t deeply involved with anyone. And she wondered what kind of person extends the sort of gestures he had to her that day.
“A special one,” Meg said aloud.
Brendan sent Meg three more unanswered texts before finally throwing the phone on his bed. He grabbed one of the pillows and screamed into it. He did it again several times, then changed quickly out of his office clothes into exercise gear and clambered down the stairs to his complex’s gym. He was relieved to find the place empty and began grunting his way through a workout twice as long and hard as his normal one. He spent time on the elliptical machine’s highest setting and with free weights, avoiding the reflection in the wall mirror he usually glanced at between lifts. He was drenched in sweat well before he finally finished.
When he was back upstairs, he checked his phone for returned texts from Meg before showering and did the same thing again immediately afterwards, finding no response. He went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He lifted the carton of leftover takeout Thai food he’d brought them the night before, then his hand hovered over the remaining bottles of beer. He shook his head, closed the refrigerator, and started the leftovers reheating in the microwave. While it whirred away, he looked at the photo of he and Meg attached to the refrigerator door with a magnet. It was the same one she used as her phone’s screensaver and had been taken after they’d been together almost a year. They’d been on a walk in the park on a perfect fall afternoon and asked a passerby to take it. Afterwards, he remembered, he’d told Meg she was the best thing that had ever happened to him and they’d held each other for a long time. He ran his fingertip across her face in the photo and felt the same ooze of nausea that had been invading all day, equal measures dread and shame, anger and fear, self-loathing and disbelief. He shook his head again, jerked open the refrigerator door, snatched a bottle of beer, and twisted off the top with such force that it spun across the linoleum. He took a long, gurgling swallow, then snarled, “Fuck it!”
A few hours later, Tom checked his phone before getting into bed. There were two new texts. The first was from Dawn, the woman he’d just been with for dinner; they’d been out together seven or eight times over the past couple of months. It said: “Sleep tight” followed by a heart emoji. He skipped past it quickly when he saw that the second was from Meg. It had been sent an hour earlier and read: “Thanks for today.”
He replied: “Sure.” He paused, then added: “You all right?”
Her answer swooped onto his screen right away: “I am.” Perhaps thirty seconds passed before another came from her that read: “You free for coffee again sometime tomorrow?”
Tom felt a little jolt before he tapped: “Okay.”
“I could meet after work.”
“What do you do?”
“Teach. Elementary school.”
He smiled and tapped: “Both my parents are teachers.”
A happy face emoji appeared, followed by: “Four o’clock, same place?”
Tom replied with a thumbs-up emoji, then sat down hard on the edge of his bed. He stared at the screen for several minutes even though no further text arrived. Finally, he turned out the lights, slipped under the covers, and set the phone next to him on the mattress. He left it powered on in case any other messages were sent. Then he clasped his hands behind his head and stared up at the ceiling in the darkness. He wondered if he would have responded the same way with the dropped wallet if he hadn’t found Meg so attractive and told himself he would have. He rolled over and was startled by Dawn’s faint scent from where they’d slept together for the first time the previous weekend. He thought of her last text and lifted the phone in front of his face. He tapped the screen until he came to her message, then replied: “You, too.”
Without being asked, the waitress brought them two mugs of coffee as soon as Meg and Tom were seated in the same booth the following afternoon.
“So,” Tom said. “How long have you been teaching?”
“First. How about your parents?”
“High school English. Both.”
Meg wrinkled her nose. “I could never grade all those essays.”
Tom nodded and gave a sheepish grin. “Yeah, it’s a lot of work.” He turned his cup slowly a full circle on the table in front of him, then said. “So, how are things with your boyfriend?”
Meg looked down at her mug. “I haven’t seen or spoken to him.”
“Did he hurt you?”
Meg’s gaze remained on her mug. The waitress came up to their table and asked, “You need menus?”
Meg made no movement, but Tom shook his head. After the waitress left, he watched her take a sip of coffee. She looked at him and said, “So, your parents are still together?”
“My dad left when I was eight. I’ve had no contact with him since then.” She shrugged again. “I guess I’ve never really gotten over that. At first, I thought his leaving was somehow my fault.”
“I know that now. It took a while, though.” Meg looked at him directly, breathing slowly. “And I don’t think my self-esteem, self-worth, whatever you want to call it, has ever completely recovered.”
Tom put his hand over hers again. “Stop that. You do good, meaningful work. I can tell you have a wonderful soul. You’re a beautiful woman.” He took his hand away, pointed at her, and said, “You are.”
A small smile creased Meg’s lips. That same flush spread over her body. She said, “Do you believe in fate, Tom?”
“In what way?”
“Us meeting, for example.”
He took a turn shrugging. “Whatever you want to call it, I’m glad it happened.”
“Me, too.” Meg took another sip of coffee. “So, tell me something about yourself. Where did you grow up?”
They spent the next two hours talking about everything except their love lives. When the waitress asked if they needed a third refill, Tom looked quickly at his watch and shook his head. He was supposed to meet Dawn for dinner in five minutes. He said, “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
The waitress walked away with her decanter. Tom slipped a five-dollar bill under his mug and stood up. Meg did, too. They walked outside together into the evening’s chill and faced each other.
“This has been nice,” Meg said.
Their embrace was brief, awkward yet nice. Then Tom hurried up the sidewalk in the gathering darkness. Meg watched him go until she could no longer make him out.
Since the previous night, Brendan had left at least twenty voicemails and texts that went unanswered by Meg. He’d also brought a sandwich from her favorite bakery to her school when he knew her lunch break was beginning that day, but when the secretary called her classroom to see if she could send him back, he heard Meg’s voice tell her, no, she was busy. Later, after work, he texted her that he was going to wait in front of her house until she would agree to see him; his message said he’d wait all night if he had to. Meg didn’t open it until she was getting ready for bed. She turned out the light in her bedroom and peeked out the slit in her curtains. Brendan’s car was parked at the curb in front of her house under a streetlamp; he was slumped over with his head laying on the back of his hands on the steering wheel. By the movements of his shoulders, it looked to Meg like he was crying.
Meg shook her head, got into bed, pulled the duvet up again so only her nose and mouth were left uncovered. As she lay there she allowed her thoughts to tumble over themselves. There had been a few other occasions when she’d allowed Brendan to have sex with her when she wasn’t really interested. And she could remember one night when she was in the mood herself and he was sitting on the couch in his underwear toggling back and forth between two basketball games on the television in front of him. She’d reached into his boxers, gotten him hard, then stripped and straddled him; as she moved on top of him, her forehead against his shoulder, she saw his hand mute the remote but continue to maneuver buttons on it. Although his negligible level of involvement was clear, she didn’t stop moving. She set her jaw tight when she thought about the other night. That had been different, she whispered to herself. She’d said no. She’d told him to stop. She’d tried to push him off of her. She’d even kicked at him. Meg squeezed her eyes shut tight and pinched her nose again until it began to throb.
The restaurant where Tom and Dawn dined was close to the memory care facility her father lived in. He was only sixty-six, but his dementia was already pretty advanced. She stopped to see him each day before and after work even though he rarely recognized her anymore; Dawn had told Tom that she was all the family her father had left.
Tom had met her after a chamber orchestra performance at the university. A mutual friend introduced them in the lobby and invited them both to join a group of people going for drinks. They’d gotten along well, discovered they both liked mountain biking, and made plans for a ride together that next Saturday. They were each coming off recent relationships where they’d been dumped, so things moved along with them slowly and tentatively from the outset. Dawn was a social worker at the university’s hospital, so they only worked a handful of blocks apart. Tom admired her steady, calm manner, as well as her devotion to her father. She was independent and confident, but warm and thoughtful. While appreciative of his consideration and affection, she had few expectations and made no demands. When Tom apologized for arriving late at the restaurant that evening, she just made a gesture like she was shooing away a fly and told him not to worry.
After their wine and appetizer were served, she seemed distracted and restrained. She’d just come from seeing her father where she told Tom she’d found him unusually agitated. Dawn admitted being concerned about how the rest of his night would go. She said she was going to visit him again after dinner to see if he’d sing with her, which often seemed to soothe him. The two of them had been in a community choir together through Dawn’s high school years, and in spite of his condition, her father still somehow remembered most of the words to several of their choir’s songs.
After watching her twirl her wine glass and pick at their appetizer for several more minutes, Tom touched Dawn’s arm. She made an attempt at returning his smile. “Listen,” he said. “Why don’t we just finish the appetizer, and then walk back over. I’ll go with you.”
Dawn’s eyes widened. “Yeah?”
“Sure. I’m not very hungry anyway. You?”
She shook her head, put her hand over his, and said, “Thanks.”
The walk there took less than five minutes. They found Dawn’s father sitting in his pajamas on the edge of his bed, fumbling with the bottom button of its top. There was no hole for it because he’d started with the top button a hole too low. He frowned up at her with rheumy eyes and said, “Can’t get this right.”
“Here, Daddy.” Dawn sat beside him. “Let me help you.”
Tom watched her rearrange his buttons. Her father was a big, round man with wisps of gray hair flat across his dome of a head. He studied Tom, his forehead wrinkling further, and said, “Who are you?”
“This is my friend, Tom, Daddy.” Dawn glanced between them. “Tom, this my father, Earl.”
Her buttoning prevented shaking hands, so Tom just raised a finger and said, “Hi, Earl.” When she finished getting the buttons correct, Dawn smoothed the front of Earl’s pajama top, and folded her hands in her lap.
“So, how are you doing, Daddy?”
Earl fixed her with a determined gaze and said, “I know you.”
“Yup, you do. I’m Dawn, your daughter.”
Dawn nodded sadly. “That’s right. And I came by to see if you’d sing with me. Can we sing one of our old songs for Tom?”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“Let’s try.” She took one of his hands in both of hers. “Let’s try “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. You remember that.”
Dawn began to sing. Her father seemed to concentrate on her mouth as she did, his eyes narrowing. After the first verse, he joined her, quietly at first, then more loudly. Something seemed to loosen and relax in him. They both had lovely voices. Watching them, Tom swallowed over a hardness in his throat. A little bubble opened inside of him that wasn’t quite love, but was more than affection. When Dawn looked his way with happy eyes, Tom smiled. He pointed to the door, then kissed his fingertips, and extended them her way. Without stopping her singing, she nodded and did the same. Tom left the room, but could hear their voices all the way down the hall to the front doors.
Meg peeked out her bedroom curtain again when she woke up the next morning and found Brendan’s car gone; she knew he had to be at his office early. She sighed with relief and got ready for work.
She waited for her morning break to power up her cell phone at her desk. She ignored the new texts and voicemails from Brendan. Instead she tapped out a new text to Tom: “Up for coffee again this afternoon?” She waited, smiling down at her phone as her message swooped up below their others and didn’t put it away until her students began filing back into the classroom after recess.
Tom saw her text in the library conference room waiting for a department meeting to begin. It popped up just as he was finishing reading one from Dawn thanking him for the evening before and telling him that her father had had a good night. He turned the phone over on the table as a slow chill crept up his spine. He found himself biting the inside of his cheek.
The department head was sitting next to him and tapped Tom’s shoulder. He asked, “What’s wrong?”
Tom looked at him blankly. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you’re sitting there shaking your head and staring off into space.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Tom cleared his throat. “Just considering some things.”
The department head frowned, nodded, then began passing out agendas for the meeting.
Brendan’s morning was jammed back to back with client appointments, so he couldn’t bring the papers he’d gathered from his apartment over to Meg’s house until noon. They were printouts from the Humane Society’s web site they’d been collecting from their research the past couple of weeks, photos and descriptions of dogs they were considering for adoption. They’d acknowledged to each other that doing so would be a big step for them to take together. Meg had been particularly excited about a black lab with soulful eyes. Brendan put that sheet on top and wrote, “I like this one, too” on it before sliding the stack under her back door. He knew she always entered the house that way after work.
There were new messages from Brendan, but no reply from Tom when Meg checked her texts during lunch, and none either when she looked again right after dismissal. Concerned, she immediately sent him another: “You there?”
Tom was alone in his office and saw the text as it pinged onto his cell phone’s screen. The same slow chill he’d felt earlier started up his back. He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. He heard a siren whine away from the university’s hospital. He waited for the sound of it to die away before calling Meg’s cell phone from his own.
Meg was surprised but pleased to see his incoming call. She answered on the first ring. “Hey, there,” she said. “A call instead of a text.”
“Yeah, I thought that would be a better way to tell you something.” He paused. “So, I guess things have become a little more serious with a woman I’ve been seeing than I realized. And because of that, I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to see you anymore right now. I don’t know, it doesn’t seem right somehow.”
Meg’s eyebrows knitted together and her heart began thudding away at her temples. There was only empty silence on the line between them for several moments until she said, “I see.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll let you know if things change.” He paused again. “And, Meg, I hope things work out however they’re supposed to with your boyfriend. I know they will.”
Tom ended the call without waiting for her reply.
Meg drove home in a numb fog. She didn’t notice the gathering, low clouds or the rising wind. She didn’t notice the sudden drop in temperature when she stepped out of the car and found her way to her bungalow’s back door. She almost slipped on the stack of papers when she stepped on them as she came inside. Meg bent down, picked them up, and read what Brendan had written on the top page. She felt her lips trembling as she looked at the dog’s photo and flipped through the rest of the stack.
The house was cold, but she didn’t notice. Meg set her book bag, cell phone, and the stack of papers on the kitchen table and sat down. She didn’t remove her coat and she didn’t notice the nearby rumble of thunder. When her cell phone pinged, she lifted it and saw a new text from Brendan at the bottom of the long string she’d left unanswered. It said: “Did you find what I left for you under your back door?”
Meg looked again at the photo of the black lab. She looked over at the flowers still unwrapped in their vase in the sink. The first drops of rain splattered down hard on the pavement outside. She didn’t notice them either as she tapped: “Yes.”
William Cass has had over 150 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and The Boiler. His children’s book, Sam, is scheduled for release by Upper Hand Press in April 2020. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a couple of Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.