Sixteen Seconds by N J Magas

Spontaneous_Combustion_(843849383)It was a day in March.

The sky was a flat, unimaginative northwest gray. Rain had been pouring for most of the afternoon while Charlotte ran her errands and then, just to be cheeky, wound down to a drizzle and finally stopped when she at last took shelter in the appointed cafe. Why couldn’t the month make up its damn mind whether it wanted to be spring or winter? It was hailing that morning for chrissake and it would be another two months before sunny weather became reliable. March was just a dismal reminder that pleasant weather was still a long way off. It should stop pretending to be spring, already.

The dark roast face in Charlotte’s coffee glowered sourly up at her as she stared into her cup. It was too expensive, too bitter and too hot to drink. She stirred in another packet of honey with nothing else to do. Aidan was late again, surprise surprise.

In her purse her phone buzzed. For a full minute she ignored it, blowing softly on the surface of her coffee, peeling away the heat one layer at a time in between each muffled vibration. Eventually, it gave up and stilled. She waited another minute before bringing her paper cup to her lips, scalding them again. She couldn’t have one victory — not one single victory today! Soaked to her skin by the rain, abandoned by Aidan, pestered by her phone, and burned by the one comfort she could usually count on. She clicked her tongue angrily and thrust her hand into her purse for her phone. Might as well just accept things as there were today.

She didn’t need to check it to know who had called. It was Suzie; the woman had been calling her all day. Her voicemail icon displayed a hopeful notification and disinterested, Charlotte tapped it and began counting.

It took sixteen seconds for her voicemail to get through all of the automated recordings telling her needless information: the date, the time, how many calls she had and how much space remained in her inbox. She didn’t care. She cared less about the message. At the end of sixteen seconds she flicked 7 on her screen, deleting it, and put it out of her mind.

Another honey packet went into her coffee and with her cheek pressed unflatteringly in her palm, she stared at the soggy world outside. Despite the weather, the streets were still busy with people just as soaked as she was. The rain seemed to have no effect on them. Like limp paper cutouts they carried on their business, expressionless and efficient. She envied them. She’d lived here her entire life and yet every year when the rains came and lingered for months like an unwanted relative she cursed the persistence of it, as though she’d never known a six month rainy season in her twenty-six years.

Her phone began to buzz again, edging threateningly closer to the edge of the table but she ignored it – spitefully now. The rain started again, coming down in full force and a black-capped mushroom grove of umbrellas popped up under it. Occasionally a brightly colored umbrella would bob by, on its own stubbornly rebellious against the gray of their world but Charlotte knew better; eventually, the rainy city bullied everything into monochromatics.

Fourteen… fifteen…sixteen. She turned her head without lifting it, mashing her cheek into her lips and she flicked the delete command again. Her phone sat reproachfully silent at the edge of the table. She slid it back into her purse and sighed, refusing to be guilted by a piece of technology.

Her stomach excused itself obnoxiously under her damp cardigan. There was no use in her starving while she waited; if Aidan had really wanted to eat lunch with her, he would have been on time. She stood and collected her purse. Her phone remained thankfully silent.

There were no other customers at the counter and the barista behind it looked for a moment as though she’d done her job in serving Charlotte once and wouldn’t do so again kindly. With aspartame sweetness she asked, “What can I get you?”

“The spring salad; low fat dressing. Do you have any more fruit cups?”

“No, sorry, we just sold the last one. Would you like a fruit tart instead?”

If Charlotte could eat a fruit tart, she wouldn’t have ordered wilted greens and a tasteless vinaigrette. She thrust her irritation into her purse in exchange for her wallet.

“No, that’s fine, just the salad.”

“Okay then— seven ninety-nine.”

A despairing sigh left Charlotte before she could check it, but she laid her last ten dutifully on the counter and watched it distill down into a handful of coins.

“Thanks.” She said, or thought she said— hoped she’d said as she took her change and her lunch and sat again. It wasn’t much of a meal, all things considered. A few brown edged leaves of romaine, cucumber sliced so thinly it could pass for a microscope slide and— was that dandelion?! Who the hell put weeds in a salad? Her head returned heavily to her hand and she mixed the deceptively sweet smelling vinaigrette into the over priced plastic bowl of yard trimmings. In her purse, her phone buzzed again. Why couldn’t Suzie take a hint? The woman couldn’t comprehend anything existing outside of her sphere of influence. It irritated Charlotte enough to be deliberately avoidant, just to throw a wrench in her plans. If she could, she’d tell Oliver outright that his mother’s micromanagement and constant badgering were suffocating, but then she’d have to deal with the hurt puppy looks and the passive aggressive silences.

She was halfway through her salad when the door banged open and shut and a new breeze of cold and wet spilled in. Moments later Aidan stood over her, shaking the rain from his coat onto the table and floor around him. Charlotte moved her purse and regretted for a brief, petulant moment that it also invited a seat for him. His childishness was starting to rub off on her and she lifted her head and straightened her back to hide it.

“You look like you’ve had better days.”

“Something like that.”

“Whatcha eating?”

“Weeds.”

“Sounds appetizing.”

“You’re late.” Her eyes turned up to him as he sat. She must have looked or sounded more accusatory than she’d intended. He frowned right back at her until she sighed and looked away. That look. That damnable, stony, chiding look that made her feel like a kid caught in the cookie jar again.

“Sorry.” She muttered without wanting to.

After a moment, the hardness of his expression cracked and broke away and his usual sunny features shone through. “Don’t worry about it. It’s the weather you know? Dark skies make people dark on the inside.”

“Except you?”

He grinned. “Except me. They serve anything here besides weeds?”

“Probably. Did you bring your bank account?”

“Even better.” He flashed her the gold surface of a MasterCard and then was gone again.

She took another sip of her coffee— too cold now, of course but at least the caffeine stood a chance at improving her mood. She stared spitefully into her half eaten salad.

Her phone went off again. She could almost feel Suzie’s impatience in every clipped buzz. They were even timed the same as the woman’s nervous lip smacks. She brought her phone out of exile just as the vibrations stopped. Three new messages. She was about to delete them all out of hand, when she noticed one was from Aidan. She tapped on the 1 key and brought the phone to her ear.

“Hey babe, it’s Aidan. I’ll be a bit late. Traffic around here is a nightmare. Don’t wait- go on and get something to eat. I’ll grab something later. See you soon.”

The message ended and she sighed. Only Aidan could make her feel so guilty with such friendly words. Well, Aidan and Oliver, if she thought about it. She didn’t want to think about it.

“Who was that?” Aidan dropped into the seat opposite her, surrounded by the smell of stracchino cheese and chives. Her mouth watered against her will and she quickly drowned it in another sip of coffee.

“No one. Just messages.”

“Yeah? Did you get mine?” He set a white paper package in front of her. It radiated warmth and was losing its opaqueness to grease.

“Just now.” She picked open the moist paper and stared at the cheese and chicken melted mess inside. “Aidan, you know I can’t-”

He held up a hand, his other cradling his own sandwich. “Come on, one meal off your diet isn’t going to hurt anything. Besides, everyone cheats, you know.”

There was something in the cheeky way that he said it that she didn’t appreciate. She almost sent the sandwich back across the table to him but another look down (it dolefully oozed a tendril of cheese to the paper) changed her mind. Of course, he was right – and God, it was good!

Her hone rang again.

“Fuck. I can’t even eat my lunch in peace.” Muttered of course; who knew where an overly sensitive parent might be lurking.

Aidan snatched her phone off the table while she was busy licking cheese off her lingers.

“Suzie, huh? You want me to answer for you?” He grinned an evil grin, his thumb hovering devilishly over the display.

“No!” She grabbed the phone before he could press the bright green button, careful not to nudge it herself. He lifted a shoulder.

“You’re still with Oliver, then?”

She dropped back into her purse. There was a grease smear on it that she’d have to clean up later.

“Yes, I’m still with Oliver.” She was so tired of this conversation. Life would be much simpler if Aidan would just live in the now.

“Are you ever going to tell him?”

“Maybe.”

“Do you still love him?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Do you love me?”

“Of course.”

There was silence between them. Her coffee grew colder, but she was determined to enjoy her calorie bomb of a sandwich while it was still warm, Aidan and Oliver and Suzie be damned —double damned for making her second guess her choices. She was an adult, damnit! in control of her own life. Whose business was it anyway whose bed she was in?

“So,” Aidan sighed at last. “What does mother hen want?”

It took everything in her not to send him the warning kick he deserved — he didn’t need to be so antagonistic, even if he had every right to be. She nibbled up a string of cheese sullenly.

“Nothing important. There’s a gallery opening she wants me to attend. I haven’t gotten back to her yet.”

“When’s the opening?”

“Tonight.”

“Oh.” He hid his expression behind his own paper coffee cup. Four sugar and a teaspoon of cream. She didn’t know how he could tell the difference, but she’d given him two teaspoons of cream on purpose one morning and he’d sent her back to the kitchen with a warning and a swat to her ass. Confident and casually in command —she supposed it was what drew her to him in the first place. It was so easy to give control over to him when he miraculously made it seem like she was still the one in charge.

“I guess dinner and a movie are out then, huh?”

“I told you noon. It’s not my fault you were late.”

“No, but you could have at least set out a whole day for me. We used to do that you know. Whole days.”

“I know.” She said, and set her mostly eaten sandwich back on the table. She’d never been fond of crusts.

He sighed again. “Look, no pressure, but think about it. You’re complicating your life needlessly and you’re going to end up hurting him, one way or another. You know that.”

She knew it, though it was somehow worse that he knew it.

In her purse, her phone began buzzing angrily again. They both stared at it and it seemed to Charlotte that this time that the vibrations had no intention of shutting off. Aidan stood, collected their trash and headed to the bin. When he returned, Charlotte and her phone were silent.

“You should probably call her.” He said quietly. Charlotte nodded. “Will you be free later? After the opening?”

“Maybe. You know how Suzie is with her family outings. It could be a while. It could be all night.”

“Well, give me a call if you want to come over. If you’re not held up overnight. I’ll probably be up.” He wouldn’t be, but he’d pretend that were the case, if she called him. She watched him leave without saying goodbye. He’d understand she had a lot of heavy thoughts on her mind, after all, he’d put them there.

The rain had stopped again, and here and there a few fingers of sunlight poked through the dark cloud cover. Umbrellas snapped closed and jackets unbuttoned. Charlotte watched Aidan’s head bob up and down in the crowd, turn the corner and then disappear.

She stood and slid into her coat. Her purse buzzed against her back. Outside, she finally obliged her phone and held it to her ear.

“Hello?—

“Suzie! Hey, how are you?—

“No, no, I’m all right—

“Yeah, sorry about that. I’ve been running errands all day. The rain has just made it impossible—

“Of course I’ll be there. Is Sophia coming?—

“Great! Tell Oliver I’ll be around at about six—

“Of course I’m staying for dinner. I wouldn’t miss it for the world—”

N J Magas

http://www.njmagas.wordpress.com/

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3 thoughts on “Sixteen Seconds by N J Magas

  1. Pingback: Sixteen Seconds | Diary of an Aspiring Writer

  2. Very nicely done. The story is great.
    But there are some punctuation errors that change the meaning of some of your sentences. Missing commas. And you left the “p” off of “hone” at one point.

  3. An interesting insight into Charlotte’s complicated life. I liked the way that you combined her gloomy mood with that of the everyday circumstances, such as the weather, her boyfriend being late, the ringing of her phone, and the burning of her lips. I enjoyed reading this.

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