Short fiction from Alex, our Contributing Editor, exploring the stagnancy of mid-twenties life and the change that can be made in a single day by a single enigmatic stranger.
Ripples from raindrops spread over the surface of the ocean, and bounced off the umbrella in my hand. The air smelled of salt and seaweed. I shivered and adjusted my scarf. Checked my phone, but the buzz just told me I should have charged it hours ago. Long grass whipped around in the wind that buffeted my body as I stood still. My hands shook, and I closed my eyes.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Tears fell when I stopped holding back. I turned away from where the water met the horizon, and walked towards the town.
My feet ached from hours of being motionless behind a counter. It had rained heavily from nine o’clock that morning, and it was now three. There had been two customers in the café in that time.
“I need a job where they let me sit down. Or a job that is sitting down.”
A shuffle and a thump announced themselves from the office that adjoined the kitchen, and my boss, a tall woman of forty-two, fell out of the door.
“I was going to say something snide and/or sarcastic but I’ll settle for being helped up.”
Files were strewn around the crime scene, and her glasses were skewed.
Reaching out, I said, “People don’t say and/or, Anita.”
She smoothed out her hoodie and fixed her glasses. “Well, I do.” As I was handing her the dropped files, her expression changed – from miffed to ‘I’m a puppy-dog angel’. “This outfit says casual coffee and maybe drinks, right?”
“Sure. But can Cinderella also go to the ball?”
“If she does all the housework.”
“Ha. Go, have fun. But don’t keep her out too late.”
“You’re a gem, Riley.” She dropped the keys in my hand. “Unless the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stop by for cake, you can close at four.”
As she walked out the front, she was grinning, even as she battled against the wind with a tiny umbrella. It could always be worse, I supposed.
I cleaned everything I could clean, I counted the sugar packets, the ceiling tiles and the condiments several times. That took me to 3:34. Just as I contemplated whether existence would always be endless monotony, the bell rang and the front door opened. The most bedraggled and beautiful person I have ever seen walked in. Their short, curly blonde hair was dripping, as was their long black greatcoat. They were holding an umbrella that had been torn apart.
“Hello.” They were shivering. “Food, I could use food… Also, do you have a towel?”
Twenty minutes later, Morgan (as they had introduced themself) was dry and eating soup, just across the table. I had locked up. They smiled as they talked.
“Yeah, visiting until tomorrow morning. Was interviewing someone earlier, just looking for evening plans now. Know of anything exciting happening tonight?”
“You think exciting things happen here?”
They chuckled. “So the monsoon out there is the biggest event to hit the town in a while then?”
“Something like that.”
Morgan smiled, leaning back in the chair. The café felt smaller, the weather outside was like white noise. There was an ease to them, I could see tension dropping away from their body as they relaxed their muscles. Their grey eyes gazed into mine and I felt my cheeks colour.
“You know where I’m from and you know I’m a journalist. So…” With a grin, they leaned closer, “Tell me all your secrets, Riley.”
“There’s isn’t much to say.” My cheeks were a full blaze of crimson. “I’ve lived here since I was born. I’ve worked here for three years. I’m not so exciting.”
“Are your present circumstances your true measure?”
“Not trying anything probably is.” I looked at my hands.
“Classic twenties syndrome.”
“Something like that,” I muttered.
“You want to try new things, why don’t you?”
My nails suddenly became incredibly interesting, and I shrugged.
Morgan took one of my hands, and I looked up at them. They stared back with unusual intensity. “You remind me a lot of myself.” They paused, their smirk becoming devilish. “Why don’t we try some new things?”
Well, at least it wasn’t raining anymore. But I was outside and it was blowing a gale. To complicate matters, I was also on a beach and only wearing my underwear and a t-shirt. Morgan was similarly attired, as they ran down a dune – whooping and hollering. They’d asked me a couple of times whether I was feeling it yet, and my brain could only play Spongebob memes. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be feeling, but it was mostly cold. Also, I thought that I had been propositioned, and this wasn’t what I’d had in mind.
Morgan pointed and made a ‘follow me’ motion. I did not acquiesce, as their next move was to bound into the ocean with wild abandon. I shivered, and contemplated how I could have been at home, reading a book. But apparently, being half-naked on beach with a stranger was the more appealing end of things. Perhaps my brain glitched. A dripping wet Morgan ran at me out of the water.
“Come on!” they said, with such glee.
“You literally dried out after being in a rainstorm an hour ago.”
“I don’t… Necessarily follow the ideology we’re reaching for here.”
“It’s not about that, come here!”
They started walking towards me, arms outstretched. I tiptoed forward. Morgan hugged me. Salt water began seeping towards my skin.
“Now,” they whispered in my ear and a thrill ran through my body, “you’re already wet, and may as well join me.”
They grabbed my hand and ran for the water, pulling me with. The shock of the autumn sea hit my legs and seaweed wrapped around my toes. Morgan was strong, their hand was soft and they kept running. It was all so strange and stupid, that a normal day had turned into… This. Morgan stopped, turned on that winning smile and I couldn’t help but laugh.
“You realise this is absurd? I barely know you.” As I said it, Morgan shrugged. “You’re mad.”
They let go of my hand and dived into the deeper water. I followed a little further. Thoughts of hypothermia briefly crossed my mind, before I banished the sensible portion of my brain. That was relegated to watching. At least for today. I swam after Morgan and touched their shoulders. We tread water and I looked out across it. The sun was just starting to sink beneath the clouds, lighting them purple-pink. The mostly black water picked the shades up, as if paint dripping from the brush. I gasped softly, as the bright gradient spread – a pool of liquid colour. Like we were standing in a portal between worlds.
Morgan pointed to a rocky outcrop further ahead. We swam over to it, and there was just enough room to sit side by side, with minimal pointed limpets. An annoyed gull flapped away, a more obstinate one remained. As my dripping wet clothes started to feel heavy, I began to shiver. I breathed deeply, and saw Morgan glance my way. They placed a tentative hand on my neck. I leaned against their body, and taking this acceptance, they wrapped their arm around me. Our clothes stuck together, but we remained in silence. Our breaths seemed to sync, the waves on the sea were calm. As the world was bathed in orange light, I could feel the knot in my throat.
“I’m not happy anymore.” It was hard to say the words. “Not here.”
Morgan waited a moment before responding. “Yeah. I thought so.”
They held me closer, and the sun went down.
Morgan lay on my bed, I was on the floor. It was two in the morning.
“You have a teenager’s bedroom.” They paused. “But I’m not sure which teenager.”
They were right. My walls were a spread of band posters, and shelves with stuffed toys. I drew my legs towards my chest, curling into a ball.
“Why haven’t you left this town?” Their voice took on a deeper note, as they spoke.
I let the question rest in the air between us for a moment, I took some deep breaths. I’m not sure I knew the answer before I spoke. “I don’t how to. There’s nothing here for me, but I don’t know where to get what I want. I’m not even sure what I want, but it’s not here anymore. No one is here anymore. I’m alone all the time. My old friends don’t check in, the ones still in town don’t want me around. I don’t know what I what. God, I barely even feel like I know who I am.”
“Riley, you’re twenty-five. It’s not like you’re anywhere close to dead yet.”
I didn’t want to sound bitter, so I didn’t voice the fact that I knew that. That I’ve told myself that and it doesn’t really help.
“But I’ve bet you’ve told yourself that.” Morgan shuffled. “Can you come sit up here? It’s difficult to have a heart to heart when you’re not face to face.”
I stood, they were sitting cross-legged against the headboard, pulled me towards them and I sat. Our toes touched. My heart beat faster. They brushed a hair off my forehead.
“I can’t offer you answers. Not good ones.” They reached out, stroking my hand. “But take the spirit of what we did today and break your routine. In a big way.”
I smirked. “Now who’s being vague?”
“Yeah. That’s not really my style. In fact, I’ve been too vague all day.”
Within in a blink, Morgan had pressed their lips against mine. The kiss was an explosion. Their hand was on the back of my head, pushing me closer. I placed my hands against their chest and pushed them back, pressed myself onto their body until we were horizontal. Morgan caressed my thigh and bit my lip. As we separated, breathless, I looked down at them. They were grinning, and I started laughing. They pulled me towards them.
“I want to learn everything about you,” Morgan said in my ear.
They pulled me into a tight embrace and a deep kiss. Our clothes came off, and we fucked.